Friday, November 22, 2013

Not All Games Are Created Equal

This is not an argument for or against any kind of game, style of play, but more of a note. I'm never playing any one game for long. Part of this is a way to support the community and all of the great work it produces. Part of it is just a general need to always be moving and trying new things. Part of it is to see the different approaches to exploring the unimagined world. Either way, in trying all of these games, one thing has become abundantly clear: not all games are created equal.

I don't mean this in the sense that one game is better than another, though I have my favorites. What I mean is that each game incentivizes certain behaviors through the rules they include. D&D, for example, has rules for killing monsters, and it excels at giving opportunity for doing so extremely well. However, if you want to play a game of high political intrigue in a noble court a la Game of Thrones, D&D is going to offer far less than a game of Fate Core or The Burning Wheel.

Another way to think about this is that there is no universal game system that covers all situations. Each time your group starts a new campaign, talk about the kind of game you want to play. Talk about the kinds of conflicts you want to resolve. Then look at game systems. And remember The Golden Rule, play anything, but only GM the systems you want.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fire in the Garden

This post is just to highlight the excellent podcast, Fire in the Garden. This series of videos takes you through the basics of the Burning Wheel system. I highly recommend these if you're curious about the system, have read or played the game but things didn't quite gel. Take a look at the first in the series below:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kickstarter: Ryuutama

Ryuutama is a tabletop pen-and-paper role-playing game, developed in Japan by designer Atsuhiro Okada. It is set in a world where the "NPCs" of the village--the bakers, minstrels, farmers, shopkeepers and healers--set off on a wonderful adventure exploring a fantasy world together. Some people colloquially call it "Hayao Miyazaki's Oregon Trail", because of its heartwarming (in Japanese "honobono") feel of family anime, and its focus on traveling and wonder over combat and treasure.

This game looks adorable. It's being translated by Andy Kitkowski, the same person behind Tenra Bansho Zero. It's already funded as of this writing, but you should get in for at least the PDF. Make the jump here

Monday, October 21, 2013

Best Stretch Goal Ever

Frog God Games is Kickstarting an adventure setting for either Pathfinder or Swords and Wizardry (you choose). However, among the usual stretch goals, there is this:
From SG:
When we get to 400 backers, we're going to post the Swords & Wizardry Complete rules pdf (only) for free. Forever. PDF download only.
Yeah, we're doing that!
 They're currently 329 backers with 25 days to go, which means that this will happen. Get in on the action here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kickstarter: Adventures in the East Mark - The Red Box

The Spanish game "Aventuras en La Marca del Este" began from the mind of Pedro Gil as a homebrew campaign for some friends in Spain playing the world's most famous game. Now, many years later, it is one of the most popular role-playing games in Spain. By enlisting incredible artists that are now rising stars in the RPG industry such as A.J. ManzanedoJorge Carrero and VĂ­ctor Guerra, the "La Marca" team produced an incredibly captivating "retroclone" role-playing game that is an old school experience wrapped in old world flare. The game is published in Spain by Holocubierta Ediciones.

Check out the full project here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Broken Faith: Why the Cleric is Flawed by Design

The optimal adventuring party is composed of a Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. You could also read that as the optimal adventuring party is composed of a Tank, Skill Monkey, Mage, and Healer, as plenty of classes fill those same roles without leading to a "sub-optimal" party with one exception. While you can easily swap a Barbarian for a Fighter, a Ranger for a Rogue, a Sorcerer for a Wizard, it's hard to find any other class that does what the Cleric does just as well, and that's a problem.

The first issue is that it means one among your group needs to play a Cleric if you are going to have any chance of surviving. Healing in D&D tends to come from magical sources (see: Cleric's spells) most of the time. RPGs should never force the players into a corner in terms of character options as the entire point of tabletops games is to offer player choice in ways that video games and board games cannot. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the Cleric's other abilities weren't competing for those same spell slots. They have access to some great buff spells and, at higher levels, some powerful offensive spells, but will find few opportunities to use them.

Beyond their spells, Clerics do not have much in the way of utility. Their martial skill is generally adequate, but, due to their role as party healer, they will not want to be on the front lines. Their ability to Turn or Rebuke is nice, but it only affects one type of enemy. Clerics are not generally known for having many skills, and the unique ones they possess are likely to be knowledge skills, which are of varying and situational use.

And then there's the business of keeping your god happy. This is the part of the character that appeals to me as a player, that you have a direct, if somewhat vague relationship to a deity of some sort. The problem with this is that it's tied to the terrible alignment system, and is almost always punitive in nature. If you deviate from your path, you may be stripped of powers. What happens if you're exceptionally devout? Usually nothing. I think the struggle to maintain one's faith would be a great campaign, but that is likely only to appeal to one of the four characters in the party.

I've moved away from more traditional games in the past few months, and this kind of bad design is why. The Cleric is essential to making the game function well, but no one wants to play it. Being your party's healer is a thankless job (which is great gristle for RP purposes), but, more importantly, it's not fun, which is really the point, isn't it?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Freebie Alert: Mini Six

Mini Six is a variant of the OpenD6 system. It's generic, though there are several starter campaign ideas presented including fantasy, science fiction, and a lighthearted take on a 1970's cop action show style game.

The mechanics of Mini Six revolve around rolling a dice pool made of a number of six side dice, resulting in a total that is compared to a target number set by the game master. You can download it by clicking here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part III

Calamity, Calumny, and Catastrophe

I've talked a lot about Torchbearer from the player's perspective, but the area that's most important to me as a full-time GM is how much work it takes to run an adventure. Thankfully, Torchbearer is comparable to other games in terms of time commitment to design adventures. The major difference is in how that time is spent.

Whereas other games might require you to plan a dozen or more rooms/encounter areas for a single session, a game of Torchbearer only needs a handful to thrive as players tend to spend more time engaging with each challenge. My group consistently made it through four rooms during our three-hour sessions. This means that larger dungeons will take several sessions to complete and it's plausible that an entire campaign could unfold within a single locale.

Despite this, you will still spend just as much time on those few rooms as you incorporate ways to challenge the player's beliefs, introduce interesting twists, and keep the story moving. That's the real challenge of GMing Torchbearer, turning ordinary traps and monsters into something the players care about. Some may argue that this has always been the case (and they would be right), but because Beliefs are what drive advancement, it's doubly important to learn how to present opportunities to call on those Beliefs without forcing them to do so. A simple way to encourage your players to do so is to read their Beliefs prior to making any important decision.

The other challenge is going to be rules mastery. In a previous article, I encouraged GMs to read the rules a minimum of three times. Torchbearer was the game I had in mind while giving that advice. I don't want to give the impression that this game is overly complex because it's not, but there are enough moving parts and situational rules that it does require more than one look. My general guideline for rules competency is this: you should be able to explain what every item on the character sheet is, as well as how to incorporate it into play.


While most games that emulate the world's most popular roleplaying game take a back-to-basics approach to rules design thanks to the OGL, Torchbearer relies on the ingenuity of more modern game design to add a fresh twist to the tried and true dungeon crawler experience. It is, admittedly, not for everyone. The sheer number of rules means there is a pretty steep learning curve, and some players may find the design philosophy jarring compared to more traditional games.

I'll close by answering the same question I asked in the first part of this review. So, what exactly is Torchbearer?

Torcbearer is a game for people who want purposeful dungeon crawling with hard rules for resource management. It is not a game about killing all the monsters and getting the treasure; rather, it is a game about what you'll risk just for the chance to rise above the squalor of the masses. Will you risk hunger, exhaustion, and your health for nothing but a rumor of gold? Are you willing to profit and suffer from the best and worst parts of your personality? Can you stand for your beliefs to be challenged, and, if they change, will you go home demoralized or embrace them just as fervently?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, this is the game for you. Now count your torches, ration your food, and swing by the Burning Wheel store for any supplies you may need.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part II

Adventure, Camp, and Town

Campaigns in Torchbearer progress in three phases: adventure, camp, and town. The adventure phase is going to compose the bulk of your game. This is the part where your group of intrepid adventurers trek through the wilderness, slay Kobolds, disarm traps, and hopefully manage to snag enough loot to tip the bartender and salt their wounds. Play in this phase advances in turns. Each time you roll the dice, the turn clock advances by one. Every four turns, the party earns a condition, such as Hungry & Thirsty or Exhausted. Each condition makes your character's life harder, such as reducing the number of dice you roll or barring you from using certain abilities. Light is also tracked meticulously, be it torches, candles, or lanterns.

That might seem a bit extreme, but you don't roll dice as often in this game. Dice are only rolled when there is considerable risk of failure or someone or something is actively standing in your way. When it comes time to call upon a skill, ability, or nature, players assemble a pool of D6s and roll, counting success on a 4+. Without getting too far into probability, you generally want to roll a number of dice equal to twice the target obstacle (ie, for obstacle 3, you want to roll 6 dice). This is where the game requires system mastery.

When players create their characters, none of their skills will have a rating higher than 4. While advancement of skills and abilities happens in real time based on tracking successes and failures as they occur, players will have to rely on several tools rather than any single one. They can accept help from their teammates, the can call upon their traits or wises, or spend fate or persona to add to or manipulate these dice pools. Each of these avenues comes with its own risks and benefits.

My players found themselves overwhelmed by this part of the game. It takes a patient group to learn the various subsystems and how to manipulate them, and people may find that the number of moving parts is too much for their taste. However, groups who are willing to rise to the challenge will find themselves an intricate game of resource management and risk assessment with a huge pay off.

Risk management is one of the central themes of this game. Every time you roll the dice, you're opening yourself up to one of two things should you fail. The GM can grant success, but apply a condition, or can introduce a "twist", such as a monster, a trap, or some sort of unforeseen environmental hazard. Thankfully, the book has an extensive list to cover many occasions should you need examples or simply find yourself needing one on the fly. These dynamic failure rules ensure that you never hit a dead end. Failure is never a dead end.

For more complex challenges, Torchbearer uses a rock-paper-scissors conflict system to cover chases, arguments, kill conflicts, and a whole slew of others. Two teams square off, scripting either Attack, Defend, Feint, or Maneuver, and reveal their actions one at a time. Each of these actions interacts in a unique way against the other actions, and its up to the group to put these into the context of the situation. For example, an attack in a pursuit conflict is likely going to be the group closing distance on their prey whereas an attack in an argument is going to flavored as a point. It took my group a few tries to get the hang of things, but once they did we found this more dynamic combat system immensely satisfying.

Eventually, players are going to be too bogged down by conditions to continue any longer and forced to break for camp. However, in order to do so, they have to have at least one "check" amongst the group. A check is earned whenever a player calls on a trait to make their life harder. During camp phase, these checks can be spent to attempt to roll for recovery, make skill tests, or engage in a conflict with a player. Once all of the checks have been spent, the adventure phase resumes.

This was the thing my group struggled with the most. Asking players to increase their risk of failure is already hard enough, and tying it to the recovery system may only breed animosity towards the rules. I can see both sides. From a design perspective, I think it's brilliant. I would love to be a player in this game (which is, sadly, unlikely), but I also understand the people who do not enjoy this.

An adventurer is likely to alternate between several adventure and camp phases before a single town phase. Once you have run out of resources, filled every nook and cranny possible with loot, or completed your quest, it's time to head back to town. Town is essentially a maintenance phase. You sell your loot, buy new equipment, fish for rumors, and rest up (hopefully refreshed for the next adventure).

Unlike most other games, Torchbearer does not track your wealth to the exact copper piece. Instead, you have a stat called Resources, and it is rolled like any other skill. All loot is represented as one-time use cash dice for the Resource roll. As you leave town, you total how much you spent and attempt to pay your bills. Failure means you're taxed. Repeated failure means the authorities are after you, or they start leaning on your friends and family to pay your debts.

Some may not enjoy this method of tracking material wealth (my group did not), but I think there's an argument to be made in favor of it. In other games, it's overwhelmingly been my experience that the loot economy is either broken or irrelevant. Allowing players to purchase magic items is one the quickest ways to unbalance a game (not to mention, it saps the motivation to adventure for them when all it takes is a trip to the market) or players have nothing to spend their hard-earned lucre on. By having hard rules for lifestyle maintenance that directly impact on your ability to succeed, every piece of loot becomes a lot more valuable.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part I

Torchbearer made a pretty big splash a few months ago when it was announced. It got coverage in Forbes and the Kickstarter funded in less than a day (this doesn't sound that impressive, but consider that it offered nothing in the way of stretch goals). Those who backed the Kickstarter have had the PDF for a few months, and the physical books should be arriving soon (mine just came in). For everyone else who is considering throwing down for the PDF or the physical book, this is for you.

So, what exactly is Torchbearer?

From the website:
Torchbearer is a riff on the early model of fantasy roleplaying games. In it, you take on the role of a fortune-seeking adventurer. To earn that fortune, you must delve into forlorn ruins, brave terrible monsters and retrieve forgotten treasures. However, make no mistake, this game is not about being a hero or about fighting for what you believe. This game is about exploration and survival. You may become a hero. You might have to fight for your ideals. But to do either of those things, you must prove yourself in the wilds. Because there are no jobs, no inheritance, no other opportunities for your deadbeat adventurers. This life is your only hope to prosper in this world.
This description is similar to any number of games being put out by the OSR community right now. However, for whatever intentions it shares with the likes of Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords and Wizardry, DCC RPG, and countless others, Torchbearer is far more different than similar to any of those other games. It meticulously tracks turns. There are strict inventory rules. Campaigns progress through highly structured phases. You'll never roll a D20. I could go on, but let's start with the easy part: the physical book itself.


Peter Mullen, who has contributed to many of the high profile releases of the OSR community, illustrated the cover for Torchbearer. It depicts your group of typical adventurers plumbing the depth of some cavern: their weapons are drawn, their torches lit, and they stand feet away from a grinning dragon. Anyone familiar with Mullen's work can tell you that it's about as far away from the sleek stylings of Pathfinder or more recent editions of D&D. On the artwork alone, this book will fit in well next to your tattered copies of the AD&D core books.

Torchbearer takes that aesthetic one step further. Not only do the books look like they're straight out of 1978, they also feel like it. This is hard to explain, but anyone who has laid their hands on the original core books will know exactly what I'm talking about. Luke and Co. have always been about producing "books-as-artifacts", and this is no different. It's a nice touch, a subtle nod to the game's biggest source of inspiration.

The interior of the book is all black-and-white and printed on similar paper to The Burning Wheel rulebook. Torchbearer doesn't feature as much art, or as varied a style as some other OSR releases, but this is not a bad thing. Every section header has a distinct piece, and the illustrations that are placed throughout the book are all top-notch. Quality, not quantity, is the name of the game here.

The only issue, I think, is the price. Torchbearer retails for $35 and clocks in at just under 200 pages. The Burning Wheel rulebook, while printed in the smaller A6 format, is three times larger at 600 pages and only comes to $25. Personally, this isn't an issue for me, as getting a complete game for under $40 in hardcover is a steal (doubly so considering I got the PDF for that price), but I can see some gamers balking at the price of admission. Luckily, Luke and Co. have decided to offer PDFs of this game. If you're curious (or just prefer your books electronically), you can get in on the action for $15.

Character Generation

The Burning family of games has one of the best character creation systems ever designed. While not quite as robust as Burning Wheel, players build their character to be far more than a collection of stats. You answer questions about your past. Your answers determine who your friends are, who your enemies are, whether or not you have any surviving family, in addition to what skills you have picked up in your life. At the core of these games are Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. Beliefs articulate perhaps the greatest relevant moral guideline your character lives by. Instincts are the more knee-jerk reaction part of your character. Traits play a vital role and will affect your character both negatively and positively.

Torchbearer deviates from the other games in the Burning family and includes classes. In keeping with its nod to the old days of D&D, these are race-class hybrids. Players may choose to play the Dwarf Adventurer, Elf Ranger, Halfling Burglar, or, if they choose to play a human, Cleric, Warrior, and Magician. Each class offers a standard package of skills, ability scores, traits, and weapon and armor proficiencies. Each race also offers a specific Nature. Nature is defined as three descriptors, such as Hiding, Boasting, and Remembering, and is used in place of skill or to bolster your odds of success. Players differentiate themselves through deciding their Homeland, Social Graces, Wises, and Specialties. This process is very smooth and lends itself especially well to group character creation.

The one part that I find players struggle with is writing Beliefs and Instincts. It is, admittedly, difficult to define your moral code and automatic reactions in a single neat sentence or two. In general, I've found players grasp this within a few sessions as they try to incorporate them into play and revise them as necessary. Some may find this frustrating, as advancement is linked to working these into the story, but levels in these game matter far less than in others. If a player is struggling to incorporate these into the story, they either need to be reevaluated or the GM needs to do a better job of offering situations where they might be applicable.

Torchbearer also deviates from pretty much every other game in how starting gear is purchased. To put it simply, it's not. Whereas other games allow you to equip your character according to resource points or starting gold, the only limiting factor here is what you can carry. This is brilliant. Since each item takes up an exact amount of space in your inventory and said inventory is fairly limited, players learn to make the tough decisions betweens wants and needs before even stepping foot in a dungeon. This is a useful skill to have as resource management is one of the central parts of the game.

Once characters have been made, you're ready to set out on your first adventure.

Friday, October 4, 2013

DM Tools: Dwarven Forge Mapmaker

A few months ago, Dwarven Forge, the company that makes the best terrain for fantasy roleplaying games, launched a successful Kickstarter. As part of that campaign, they released a mapmaking tool. This will be a great asset for anyone who backed the Kickstarter or buys the tiles, but it's also a great map maker in its own right.

Take a look here!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Freebie Alert: Fate Core

Grab your plasma rifles, spell components, and jetpacks! Name your game; Fate Core is the foundation that can make it happen. Fate Core is a flexible system that can support whatever worlds you dream up. Have you always wanted to play a post-apocalyptic spaghetti western with tentacle monsters? Swords and sorcery in space? Wish there was a game based on your favorite series of books, film, or television, but it never happened? Fate Core is your answer.
Fate Core is a tabletop roleplaying game about proactive, capable people who lead dramatic lives. The type of drama they experience is up to you. But wherever they go, you can expect a fun storytelling experience full of twists…of fate.
Grab the accelerated version here

Monday, September 30, 2013

Introducing a New Game to Your Group: A 10-step Guide

1) Volunteer to GM. There's nothing worse than suggesting a game to a group and then asking someone else do the heavy lifting. If you're interested in a system buy the book/PDF, pitch it to the group, and run the game.

2) Read the rules. Take notes. Write questions that arise and cross them off as they get answered. At the end of your read through, read the relevant sections necessary to answer any remaining questions.

3) Do not make your players read the rules. This may seem counterintuitive, but it's not. Most people learned how to play at the table and requiring players to consume a tome of information is a quick way to turn the players off from the game. This bring me to my next point.

4) Read the rules. Cover to cover again, repeating the same process in step 2.

5) Make a sample character. Character creation is the first interaction most players have with the system and one of the first opportunities to establish buy-in. You want this to go as smoothly as possible. If the game you're suggesting uses multiple sub-systems, make a character that covers each major archetype. You need to be able to answer any questions players have, preferably without opening the rulebook.

6) Read the rules. Third time's a charm, right? Seriously, I can't repeat this enough. Reading the rules once or twice is probably not enough to impart the kind of mastery necessary to facilitate a game. Three complete readings is a minimum, in my opinion.

7) Use a module for the first game. Too many GMs arrogantly assume that because they have rules mastery in another system or have been GMing for X years, that they are equipped to run a new system. It doesn't work like that. While some skills will transfer (creating memorable NPCs, pacing, description), you cannot adequately prepare an adventure until you see how a game runs.

8) Provide cheat sheets for the players as well as yourself. No matter how many times you read the rules, you are going to have to reference them at some point. Cheat sheets tend to cut the fat from the book and present only the relevant information. If official cheat sheets don't exist, make them yourself.

9) Show players how to game the system. Every game has special rules and tricks for tipping the odds in the favor of the players. If an opportunity arises where you can do some rules teaching and affect the dramatic action happening, show them exactly how to do it. While some may frown on this kind of hand-holding, players are likely to feel helpless without it. Remember: building player agency creates player buy-in.

10) Don't be insulted if it doesn't work out. If you follow the above advice, all you can do is encourage your players to give it an honest shot. Play a few sessions, see the cycle of risk and reward from start to finish, and (hopefully) develop some rules mastery. However, no matter how much you may want to like a game system, it may just not be right for your group.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

It's That Time of the Season

The summer tends to be a slow time for gaming. People take vacations, and routinely gathering to sweat around dimly lit tables with dice isn't really how we like to pass the warmer months. At the time of my last post I was running or playing three different games that all ran on different schedules. One was weekly, another bi-weekly, and the final, monthly. All except the monthly have since been dropped, but as the summer begins to wind down and the groups get re-organized, I've been thinking about how the schedule affects the game.

Weekly is too much, in my opinion. First, if you're the GM (as I usually am), its a lot of work to keep the game running at that pace. As a player, it's still demanding. Making that weekly commitment requires investment both in the story and your character, and unless you love it, you will burn out hard. But the benefit of playing weekly is (obviously) the speed at which your game progresses. Longer campaign ideas can be worked through in a matter of months as opposed to years.

Bi-weekly is what I'm used to running and remains my preference. It's regular enough that a longer campaign is still feasible, but allows enough time for GM and payer alike to recoup and also schedule other non-gaming events.

I've never run a monthly game, but I'm playing in one. I always thought that a time gap that large would be problematic. Longer campaigns are impossible on this schedule, and the first part of every session is working out the details of the previous session and picking up the thread again. However, because it is so seldom, the energy is different. Everyone shows up ready to game and every session seems more significant. The drawback is (again, obviously) that a 12-session campaign unfolds over the course of a year.

I'll be back on Wednesday to talk about Torchbearer or Shadowrun.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Torchbearer Burns Brighter

Luke announced, due to hitting 300% of his funding goal, that he will be making all the cover gold foil stamped, adding some fancy end papers, and making the overall production values better. So, kudos to everyone who is backing this. 
If you aren't backing this, you really should. Not only is this is a different kind of game, it's a different kind of Kickstarter. There are no stretch goals, which is usually one of the biggest drivers of support. So when Luke announced the above, it was because he wanted show his support for the massive response this game has received. 
The funding levels are completely reasonable. You're paying what this will cost if you wait to buy it in a retail store. What's particularly exciting is that PDFs will be available (Luke is not the biggest fan of these). Even if you don't want to spring for the full $35, you can still get in own the action for $15.
Do it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Free RPG Day Burning Wheel Giveaway Update

The submissions are starting to roll in, but I want more. We're a month out from Free RPG day, so there's plenty of time to trim those ideas into 140 characters.

This post is also to add a twist to the contest. I will be running the best hook on Saturday as a one-shot at my FLGS. I'll either post audio or a play transcript of the session.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Magic Item Monday: The Balance Blades

Scholars of Empyrealia and Demonology may tell the tale of two brothers who could never quite see eye to eye. One day, when their disagreement snowballed, as they often did, the two brothers decided to duel to settle their differences. For every advantage gained, each brother exposed a weakness. As the final years of their age came to a close, neither would put aside the sword and fought to their last breath. How these swords found their way to the realm of men remains a mystery. 

Angelking Sword

The steel of this sword has a blue tint. For a neutral character, it functions as a +1 Longsword. For a Lawful character, it functions as +2 Weapon and has an increased threat range against chaotic opponents. Chaotic wielders still receive the +1 bonus as a neutral character, but should be treated as having the lowest luck score for the purposes of assigning hits.

Demonking Sword

The steel of this sword has a red tint. For a neutral character, it functions as a +1 Longsword. For a Chaotic characters who wield it still receive the +1 bonus, but it also heals the wielded 1d8 hit points each time a living creature is slain. Lawful wielders still receive the +1 bonus as a neutral character, but should be treated as having the lowest luck score for the purposes of assigning hits.

Those who dual-wield these weapons may get a glimpse of the true nature of these weapons. A natural roll of 1 or 20 applies to both weapons. Should both a 1 and 20 be rolled, count both swings as a miss. The luck penalty, regardless of alignment, is ignored.  Other Alignment-specific abilities still function as normal. There is rumor among bards that a way exists to forge these blades anew as a single hilted, dual-bladed weapon. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Burning Wheel Sells Out

Today Luke Crane, via Twitter, announced that Burning Wheel Gold is sold out. I asked if we would see a reprint, but didn't hear back. Either way, with the future availability of BWG uncertain, you should pause a moment and submit a plot hook to get your mitts on a free copy. Do it!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

One Year, One Hundred Posts, Time to Give Stuff Away

This is the 100th post on this blog. The 29th of April was also the one year anniversary. To celebrate this aligning of events, I'm going to give away a free copy of the Burning Wheel Gold book to one lucky internet stranger. How does one get lucky? Simple. Submit to me your best fantasy plot hook in 140 characters or less. Multiple entries are acceptable. Entries outside the US are permissible.

The winner will be announced on June 15th, 2013 (Free RPG Day!). All entries will be posted to serve as a GM resource.

You can submit one of two ways: email me your submissions at gazrax at gmail dot com or send me a tweet @earthlightacdmy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Torch Has Been Lit

Last week I posted about Torchbearer, which is the Burning Crew's take on old school dungeon crawl games. Things were so hectic in the unimagined world, I failed to notice the Kickstarter launch for that game. Not only has it already hit its funding goal, but it did so within the first few hours of launch. As of this writing, Torchbearer has just over $37,000 in funding.

If you're not sold on at least shelling out for the PDF, let me try and sway you. The Burning Wheel family of games is about tough decisions. The biggest drivers of play are your BITs (Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits). Those three things paint a target on your character's chest that tell the GM and the players, "This is who I am, this is what I want." Honestly, it can be a little intimidating, especially if you cut your teeth on the world's most popular roleplaying game.

The shallower end of the pool is Mouse Guard, which I jokingly refer to as Burning Training Wheels. This game cuts a lot of what might be perceived as "bloat" from the full BW game. Rather than 50+ pages of skills, there are 22-all encompassing (for the purposes of the game). Characters are made with only one belief and one instinct, as opposed to the three standard. The role of introducing complications is much clearer. And of course, you are a painfully adorable mouse on a mission: ensure that all of the Territories survive another season.

Torchbearer, based on the information available, seems to fall between the two. It retains the simplified skill systems of Mouse Guard, but introduces a resource management mechanic that will be central to your survival in the dark parts of the world. Every torch burns for an exact amount of turns, every item you add to your pack takes up precious space. And, for the first time in the Burning family of games, there is a class system.

Get the full scoop here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Cultural Place of RPGs

One thing I've been thinking about recently is the cultural place of RPGs. Now, being one of the new broods, I can't speak to what it was like to play these games in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. I can, based on my experience, extrapolate that these were considered kind of weird, nerdy things to do. However, even from the beginning, it was clear that RPGs had carved out some permanent location within our culture.

In spite of my age, I do feel that the's games have shifted their cultural location. In the early years it was this totally new phenomenon. Following that, it was the preferred scapegoat of those individuals who seek to explain their problems on external forces. And after that, it became one of the primary points of inspiration for computer and video RPGs, bringing a whole new group of gamers into the fold.

Even now, I feel this shifting. Shows like Futurama and The Big Bang Theory (which is terrible, and really only about "nerd" culture in this peripheral, "on the outside looking in" at a stereotype kind of way) point to reference RPGs. I hesitate to use the word acceptance, but there is at least a general, (hopefully) non-hostile way that this is a thing that people do in some form, whether it be gathering friends around a table, arranging games through message boards, Google, or Roll d20, or playing the computer interpretations of the genre.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Doors of the Iron Tavern Are Open

If you're not reading the Iron Tavern, you're doing it wrong. If you love talking about RPGs and you're not maintaining your own blog, you're doing it wrong. Here's your chance to correct things: The Iron Tavern is seeking a guest blogger to make a post once a week. Check the full details here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Tenra Bansho Zero Pre-Orders Have Gone Live

I have had amazing luck discovering Kickstarters for games long after they ended. The latest in this series is Tenra Bansho Zero. Now, you probably noticed all of the images in this post long before and can easily guess this is an ROG in an Asian setting. And you would be right. So what separates this from Legend of the Five Rings or anime inspired games like Big Eyes Small Mouth? A lot of things.

The publication of this game will mark the first time an RPG that originated in Japan will be translated into English. That's right: this is not a game created by Westerners who have built their conception of the Far East on Anime, Samurai movies, and Manga. This is a game created by the Japanese for the Japanese.

The game is a collage of elements that will be familiar to anyone who has consumed some Asian media. The world of Tenra is a kind of Samurai-Steampunk setting. There are Mecha, demons, angels, samurai, magic. What makes this not seem like it's going to be a hot mess is the care that was taken with the translation. Andy Kitkowski spent several years living in Japan, during which time he discovered this game. For the last four years he has been painstakingly translating the text. He mentions the care taken in regards to the Buddhist concepts, which often had him pouring over religious texts to make sure he got it right. Having studied Buddhism in a formal setting and done translation work myself, it is exactly this kind of care necessary to not bastardized the text.

I did, it appears, happen to discover this game at precisely the right moment. Pre-orders for Tenra Bansho Zerp have just gone live. If nothing else, you should grab the PDF. This could be the start of a massive import of RPGs from Asia.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Luke Crane Announces Torchbearer

If you've spent any time over on the Burning Wheel Forums you may have seem mention that Luke and Co. were working on a few projects. Last week, Forbes ran a piece with the rundown on the first of these projects to see the light of day. In Luke's words, "you’re a bunch of murder hobos exploring improbable ruins because you can’t get real jobs."

Based on the article, this game is fairly close to Mouse Guard in terms of its complexity. The game borrows that system's use of conditions, and, in characteristic Burning Fashion, the game is about making hard decisions. The focus appears to be resource management, one of the biggest focuses of the older editions of dungeons and dragons.

So when can we expect it? It's slated for a release at GenCon, which is really not that far away. However, those who won't be able to attend (like me, most likely), there is plans to launch a Kickstarter. Given how much I have enjoyed his games thus far, I'll be a backer on day one.

You should give the whole article a read, which can be found here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

More DCC Modules

I meant to fit this into Monday's post, but live in the unimagined world has been faster these past few weeks. Anyway, along with the unveiling of another limited edition cover, Goodman Games announced a few new modules slated to hit the shelves this summer. This is exciting because levels 1-2 are lacking in options, and these will certainly fill those gaps.

Awash in a sea of phlogiston, three wizards battle for mastery of reality! But with each new day all gains are lost and the game begins anew. It is up to the adventurers to upset this ancient balance, winning free of the shrinking demi-plane before all is reduced to the roiling stuff of raw Chaos!
Will you strike a bargain, swearing fealty to one of the fell masters? Or will you attempt to master your own fate, pitting your luck and skill against arcane foes? Whatever you decide, you must act quickly, for gray worms press in from all sides and time grows short!

An exploration-based adventure for 2nd level PCs, Fate's Fell Hand challenges new and old players alike. Only the most cunning of PCs can hope to thwart the machinations of three dire wizards and escape Fate's Fell Hand!

The second module looks interesting because it shows the clear influence of Appendix N, the weird fiction that predates the recognition of the fantasy and sci-fi (or speculative fiction, if you will) genres. Read the blurb:

Eons-old secrets slumber beneath the forbidden Ghost Ice. Since the time of the Elders, the local tribes have shunned the crawling glacier, knowing it as taboo land that slays all who tread its frigid expanse. Now, the Ghost Ice has shattered, revealing hints at deeper mysteries entombed within its icy grasp. Strange machines and wonderful horrors stir beneath the ice…

Frozen in Time is a level 1 adventure for any DCC RPG campaign. It also includes new material for judges who want to send their adventurers in a Stone Age setting!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: Limited Edition Cover #3

The good folks over at Goodman Games unveiled another limited edition cover for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. For those keeping count, this makes the 4th cover in about a year. Their website says it should ship in June, and those who pre-order will get an exclusive art folio featuring Stefan Poag's work. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Roll Some Dice, Build A Dungeon

A non-gamer friend saw these on Think Geek and thought of me. They're a little pricy, but super neat. Get a set for those times when you want to play, but don't have much in the way of plans. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Free: Burning Wheel

For a game I've talked about so much, I'm surprised I haven't linked this before. You can get the basic rules for free here. You can find some of the more advanced stuff on the Burning Wiki. Grab some friends and fight for what you believe!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Microscope Review

I was very surprised when my one of the players/GMs in my weekly group invited me to play Microscope this past weekend. This game, which bills itself as a "a fractal roleplaying game of epic histories" is an entirely diceless game without a game master. Which, given that we've been playing DCC RPG for the better part of a year now, is quite the change of pace.

You begin the game by making a statement about the situation at hand. This is going to be the focus of the entire game. This is statement should be larger than a singular event but more of a paradigm shift. Things like, "aliens contact humanity" or "humanity mutates into demi-humans." We went with, "magic enters the world." From there, you make a list of things that are in the setting and things that are banned from the setting. One of things we made mandatory is what we dubbed "arcane pollution", which is that every use of magic saps the land of life. Things we banned included native fantasy creatures and wizard schools.

From there, you pick a starting period and ending period and decide if it is "light" or "dark". These two periods bookend the entirety of the game. Nothing that happens can pre-date the starting period and there is no conceivable future beyond the ending period. During each round, one player takes the role of the lens. That person writes a statement of focus, which all actions have to engage with in some way. The lens may make two actions and add either a new period and event or add a new event and a scene and everyone else may make one action. Periods account for decades or hundreds of years, events happen within periods and may represent stretches of time, and scenes attempt to answer questions through roleplaying.

While that may sound fairly simple, it took our group a little time to get into the rhythm of the game. Writing those statements, creating the milieu, as well as the starting and ending periods is fairly difficult. At the beginning, it felt very much not like a game and more akin to the process of sketching out the basic architecture for your game world with a few friends. Once we got into the actual game of creating periods, placing events, and playing out scenes, the game came alive.
This is what a finished game looks like, whiskey not included.
Where the game really shines is in the scenes. The player writing the scene asks a question, chooses a location, and makes a list of required characters as well as banned characters. Everyone claims a role and you play the action out until that question is answered. The rules for this are very loose. If you want to affect another character, you state what you attempt to do and the character being affected chooses how that plays out. During one of our scenes during the War of the Magi, after the nation of Merkavia successfully eradicated the people of Baguul for expelling all magic users, the king pondered the question, "should we cleanse our own population of the ungifted?" Despite pleas from the vizier and his leading general, I decided this was our course of action. 

Our game ended with a sinkhole swallowing the capitol city of Merkavia and leaving a portal between worlds in its wake. The final events were the emergence of deities smiting both demons and humans alike while a precious few escaped to the next plane of existence. 

I highly, highly recommend you snag this game. The rulebook is a scant 81 pages but there is some serious fun to be had as you and your friends create a world, its Armageddon  and throw the whole thing into the waste basket at the end of the night. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Role of the GM or How I Learned to Stop Telling the Story and Love the Challenge Part II

The answers to these questions bring your world to life, but all of those details are wasted if you can't answer the most important question in any game: why do the players care? What is at stake if they fail? Succeed? It's not enough to threaten the city, the kingdom, or the world with a tough monster. Stacking loot for the sake of stacking loot feels incredibly purposeless. Deciding the fate of a cursed child won't have any gravity if there isn't some tangible connection that player's feel.

When players care about the in-game situation, they make decisions. They drive the narrative. The opposite is also true: players who don't care about the in-game situation still make decisions. They ignore the GMs bait and keep fishing for something else. They take off in a totally unexpected direction. Whatever their decision, they are steering the ship.

Having read entirely too many forums and blogs related to gaming, one of the biggest fears that GMs seem to have is the players choosing to go off in a direction that was unanticipated. This is the problem of having a story that you want to tell. A bad GM reacts to this situation by railroading; a good one, rolling with the punches and improvising.

A whole other style of game, the sandbox, seeks to remedy this problem by presenting several hooks and letting the players bite the juiciest one. Not only is this style of game a lot of work (you're preparing multiple plots), I don't know that it fundamentally solves the problem of the GM having a story he or she wants to tell. While it certainly engenders more player choice, I'm not sure the amount of work it requires pays is worth it.

However, as I said, these actions and decisions cannot exist in a vacuum. They have to take place somewhere, populated by the illusions of living, breathing people (or demi-people). Rather than labor over one or several stories for your players, why not step back before any characters have been made and talk about the kind of game you all want to play?

At the beginning of this post I posited that the single most important question you need to answer is why the players care. This is by far the easiest way to answer that question. Give them a say in building the setting, the major conflicts, the immediate situation at hand. Let them incorporate relationships to the people they are saving or protecting. Let them make their own purpose, and then challenge them to fulfill it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kickstarting the Dwarven Forge

While I may have missed out on the Blade of the Iron Throne Kickstarter, there is no way I'm passing this one up. Dwarven Forge, the company that makes all those ridiculously awesome game times you see in the Penny Arcade D&D sessions and many other table tops is trying to bring the cost of their products down. For $65, you get the above, which is enough to setup a single really cool encounter area. The real bang for your buck comes in at the $120 level, where you get two sets, plus any of the other stretch goals they hit. At this moment, that's an extra 16 wall-floored pieces, 12 more floor tiles, 4 angled wall-and-floor pieces, 4 additional corner-wall-and-floor pieces, two extra doors, and four half-floor tiles. You should definitely grab a friend and split this, as you'll finally have a proper dungeon setup for all those Reaper miniatures you bought. Help stoke the flames here.

On the Horizon: Blade of the Iron Throne

It appears I just missed a Kickstarter I would definitely have backed. Blade of the Iron Throne appears to be a love letter to The Riddle of Steel RPG which was created by Jake Norwood. Norwood runs with the Burning Wheel crowd, and I've always been curious to try this RPG, particularly for its combat system. However, sometimes fate doesn't go your way and I learned about this game a day after the Kickstarter closed. To further salt the wound, the full PDF was available for download earlier this year, but has since been taken down.

There are, however two consolations here. You can still grab the beta PDF here, which I recommend you do immediately. The other thing is there is a ton of art over at the Blade of the Iron Throne website. I'm going to end this post with a small sampling of some of my favorites. Do yourself a favor and take a trek over to their site to bask in its glory.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Role of the GM or How I Learned to Stop Telling the Story and Love the Challenge Part I

As I said in my previous post, there is a great exchange about what an RPG is, what the role of the GM is, and who controls the story over at Raven Crowking's Blog. While it seems to have turned a little ugly, this is a topic worth discussing.

Let me start by saying that I couldn't care less about the definitional aspect of this discussion. I don't need a fine delineation of what defines an RPG. Those arguments are seldom interesting and never productive (ever had the "What is Art?" discussion?). What I am interested in is what the function of the GM is and who drives the story forward. Several years ago, if you had asked me why I played these kinds of games I would have answered these questions with the same answer: the role of the GM is to tell a story and it is that person who drives the narrative. I don't believe that anymore.

My friend who rotates GM duties in our weekly DCC group and I were actually having this discussion pretty recently. He likes GMing because he likes to tell a story. He was curious why I enjoyed the role. A big part of that is simply because I've been a GM since day one of my gaming career. Immediately after finishing running my first adventure in which I, an Elven Rogue, broke into a tower to steal a precious gem for the local thieves guild, my friend handed me the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual and said, "Your turn." Now, I enjoy GMing because I enjoy challenging players.

That is the role of the GM: to challenge the players. Be it a tough monster, a dungeon littered with traps, an overgrown forest, or a moral dilemma, it is the GM's job to place obstacles in the player's path. However, these things cannot exist in a vacuum. That tough monster, was he the final baddie of the campaign or something smaller? Who set all these traps and what were they trying to hide? Why would anyone choose to go through the overgrown forest? If you choose to kill this child you are murderers, but if you let him live the great evil that he has been cursed with will awaken. What do you do?

The second part of this will go up Friday, addressing who drives the story.

Friday, April 5, 2013

What Is an RPG?

I don't have time to dig into this today, but there is great discussion unfolding on Raven Crowking's Blog. Stop by and spend your two copper. More to say next week.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tales of the Fallen Empire: Update

For those lucky enough to get in on the Tales of the Fallen Empire Kickstarter, your patience has been rewarded. Backers received a link to the DM screen last week. All you other layabouts can still get in on the action for $5, and you should.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Building Your Own Mythology

Every game exists in a world, however well defined. When I was younger, I took great care and spent far too much time meticulously mapping the entirety of These realms. Most of the locales were never explored beyond this initial world-building process. Now that I'm older, I have far less time and patience for this kind of work. I also don't need to know most of these details.

But every game has to have a world in which it exists. Over the years I've slowly cobbled together my own mythology. The same major guilds, religions, kingdoms, exist all the time, but the permutations which I've arranged them in change from campaign to campaign. There is, of course, always room for expansion. If the kind of story I tell necessitates some kind of entity that doesn't exist, the mythology changes. It grows.

Perhaps someday I'll write a lot of this stuff down to set the record straight but For now I enjoy the way the story of my world changes every time I tell it, like a folk tale or a comic book.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Freebie Alert: Old School Hack

A table-top roleplaying system that's a hack of a hack of the original Red Box version of a certain popular hack-and-slash fantasy game. That's a lot of hacking.

Check out the full game here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thwarted by Technology

I recorded the first session of the Burning Wheel campaign I launched on Saturday. It appears that track has disappeared from my phone, so, unfortunately, a detailed record from which to build a transcript does not exist. That was going to be today's post, but you get this instead. It's almost as good.

Actually, it's not. Instead, I will write a summary to act in place of it, unless I can somehow recover the recording.

Edit: Apparently there is a limit to the number of hours you can have up on SoundCloud. Since I didn't plan on using the raw audio, I could have just listened to it in the editor and taken notes. I could upgrade to paid plan for $3/month, but that only allows me to have up to four hours of audio maximum.

I will be exploring other options before deciding how to proceed.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Cover Art for Transylvanian Adventures Unveiled

Doug Kovacs, the talent responsible for the iconography of DCC RPG, is confirmed for the cover of Transylvanian Adventures, a gothic supplement for the most talked about game on this blog. This is one book of three and the rumor is that Kovacs may do the cover work for all three. I look forward to seeing it with a splash of color.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Freebie Alert: Everyone is John

A competitive roleplaying game for three or more people.

Everyone is John is a humorous, competitive roleplaying game about playing the various personalities of John, an insane man from Minneapolis. One participant is the GM, or, in Everyone is John lingo, "Everyone Else." All of the other players are Voices in John's head.

Everyone is John uses six-sided dice (you really only need one, but it might be easiest if every participant carries one) for play.

This is a good one to break out as a break from a serious campaign or at parties. Check out the full scenario here!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Wizard School, or Harry Potter and the Burner's Wheel

This is an idea I've had for a long time now, exploring the story of how a Wizard happens. On a whim last week, I began thumbing through my Burning Wheel books. I don't know why I didn't look to this system for this kind of story sooner, but it's a perfect fit.

A week later, and we have three freshly burned characters ready to begin their journey down the path of arcane mastery.

I plan on posting something from our sessions, either audio files or transcripts. I still haven't decided. I will likely collect material for a few sessions before taking this anywhere, but I haven't been this excited for a game in years.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Are We Gonna Do With All This Gold?

The smell of sulfur is heavy in the air and a loud, deep snore rumbles through the walls of the cavern. The Thief scouts ahead, silent as the breeze. Atop piles of gleaming coins sleeps a dragon, its onyx scales reflecting the swamp water. Several chests dot the room, each overflowing with gold, jewels, wealth unimaginable. . .

Assuming these adventurers don't become dragon chow, what would they do with all of this gold? If your games are anything like mine, you can't just roll down to the corner store and pick up a Wand of Magic Missile, a belt of Healing Potions, and that Vorpal Longsword your Warrior has been eyeing. That kind of availability disrupts the balance of the game and, more importantly, it contradicts the nature of magicrare, feared, misunderstood, inspiringSo what value does gold have as a player reward? 

While most adventurers begin the game poor, by the time they gain their first level they have already made more money than the average fantasy day laborer makes in their entire life. Not long after they should be able to afford the top tier of craftsmanship for their gear. And after that? I don't know, but gold is by far the most common reward and all of those loot stacks the party drags back to their hideout seem pretty redundant. 

To answer my own question: material wealth as a player reward stops being rewarding once a character's basic needs are met. While all games should be trading in the currency of what we'll call "story rewards", this should be the most common payout your adventurers receive once their basic needs are met. Give them influence, power, the opportunity to accomplish their personal goals. 

Of course, this is a generalization. Some people are perfectly content to plumb the depths of an endless underground maze, slaying rooms full of monsters for no other reason than they stand between the adventurers and their next pile of gold. Even in that type of game, which I do enjoy, the loot handed out can be more interesting by tying it to the narrative. It doesn't solve the essential problem of what to do with the accumulated wealth, but it does at least make feel more purposeful, which I suppose is what any reward aspires to, story or otherwise.