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Gnome Stew by Angela Murray - 3d ago

Sometimes at cons I feel like the Templeton from Charlotte’s Web…

From the obligatory treats to share at game night to the nearly professional planning that some people put into convention supplies, we gamers really like our snacks. While I am not necessarily the best person to be giving advice on nutrition, I attend enough conventions to have some experience on the subject. After getting back from Queen City Conquest this past weekend, I thought it might be worth diving into the topic in relation to snacking (or eating in general) at conventions.

Most of us go into game conventions knowing our regular eating habits are going to be changed up for the duration, either a little or a lot. Maybe you’re not going to be eating as healthy as you do at home, maybe you’re going to be eating less frequently than you do at home, maybe there’s going to be a little more alcohol than normal. There are differences between large cons in big cities with many options or smaller cons with limited nearby choices for food or snacks, but your regular habits are still going to go off kilter.

It’s super easy to fall into unhealthy choices. The most convenient food to access or buy during conventions isn’t necessarily the best for you, leading to lots of fast food and few fresh, healthy options, and snacks are often just sweet or salty with little in between. Now, when you’re young and invincible, this might be just fine with a packed schedule of awesome gaming and not enough sleep, but as someone who is no longer young and absolutely not invincible, I can wreck myself during a convention if I’m not careful. I currently travel with an emergency supply of Tums, just in case. Not to mention, I know the crappier I eat, the larger the chance I’ll go home to develop a lovely case of Con Crud.

Here’s some thoughts on the subject:

  • Water, Water, Everywhere. All good convention guides or tips will remind you to stay hydrated, and this one is no different. I’m touching on this point first because it is really so crucial. You can get your caffeine in whatever manner suits you, and you do you when it comes to the bars in the evening, but absolutely keep a water bottle handy. Most hotels and convention centers will have water out for the attendees, so make sure you take advantage. Even smaller cons will often note where the water fountains are or have bottles of water on hand. I mentioned that whole not being young thing anymore, so let me tell you that getting dehydrated becomes harder and harder to deal with as you get older. So yeah, drink lots of water.
  • Healthy, Portable Snacks. While it seems easiest to load up on salty and sugary snacks, it is possible to bring some healthier snacks along with you. Celery sticks and carrot sticks are pretty easy to pack in small containers and actually keep quite well. Nuts are also quite portable and offer a relatively healthy boost. If you’ve got to mix in a bit of chocolate, make your own trail mix. It’s always nice to be able to choose what you want in the mix and not end up with a pile of what you don’t want left in the bag. I mean, raisins are fine but I don’t want THAT many in my trail mix.
  • Don’t Let Yourself Get Hangry. Regardless of what your plans are for meals, make sure you pack SOMETHING to snack on in times of need. No one wants a distracted or irritable player or GM that’s in need of a snack at their table. Having a granola bar or couple of pieces of candy to tide yourself over will go a long way to making sure you get through the con in one piece. Let’s say you’ve scheduled yourself two 4-hour games in a row and then plan on getting dinner after that. Well, 8ish hours can be too long for some folks to go without a snack. Be prepared to keep your energy and mood up so you can enjoy the games you’re there to play.
  • Go Easy on Yourself. I say this for two reasons. First, be kind to yourself. Maybe you intended to stick to your diet, but that goal went out the window on the first day of the con. Don’t beat yourself up over it. You can get back to your regular plans when you get home. Second, on the other side of the coin, don’t go completely hog wild with your choices. Just because you’ve decided to indulge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a little kind to your body. Maybe the next choice after that deliciously cheesy and greasy order of pizza logs is a salad or something a tiny bit healthier.
  • People Eat Together. Eating together is one a major bonding mechanism we use to grow closer to our friends. Take advantage of being at a con with all kinds of awesome people to plan meals together and enjoy each other’s company. Another option is to bring enough snacks to share at the gaming table. I have a handful of friends who will bring bags of candy to share with whoever even glances at the bag of goodies. Another friend always makes sure he has a couple extra water bottles on him to hand to folks who look like they’re in need.

Ultimately, the Sunday of the con comes around and you’ll see the over planner trying to hand off the leftover snacks they brought. Even if they have a ludicrous amount to get rid of, I can guarantee you they’re happy they brought enough to share and make it through the convention with some tasty snacks.

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For years, I’ve raved endlessly about Coriolis, a science fiction RPG by Fria Ligan (Free League) co-published with Modiphius Entertainment. It’s my favourite science-fiction tabletop roleplaying game of all time. Scratch that. It’s maybe one of my favourites irrespective of genre. There is something in the game for everyone. That’s why I rave about it at any given opportunity. Here’s why.

Choice. Character creation is one of my favourite parts of any tabletop RPG. PbtA playbooks read like branching stories – with your narrative changing directions as you select new moves and abilities. They differ from other styles of tabletop RPG in that playbooks come in different forms for a single game. In D&D, character sheets are not individualistic in structure. You’re led along a linear path of new abilities, with the narrative having little effect on how your character class changes. Meanwhile, Coriolis sits right in the middle. I very much enjoy the wide variety of character “concepts” – Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker, Soldier, and Trailblazer – presented to the reader. Now, unlike PbtA character sheets or D&D classes, your initial concept is more like a springboard into a unique creation of your choice. When you begin character creation, the loose concept you pick only has a mechanical bearing on certain skills you are particularly talented with and the strongest attribute you start with. But that’s really where it ends. You can pick any skill. Have any weapon. Be anyone. Like the idea of being a space archaeologist? Let the Scientist guide you in the beginning as you determine who you want your character to be through play. Want to be a corporate bodyguard? Pick the Operative if you want a more low-key background, or a Soldier if you want the military to figure heavily in your backstory.

Structured growth from freeform roleplaying. In many ways, tabletop roleplaying games are like real life. Like us, characters in tabletop RPGs encounter challenges, experience failure and triumph, and experience the world in a unique way. If we’re particularly lucky or insightful, we learn and grow from these experiences. In popular games like Dungeons & Dragons, player characters “grow” by obtaining “experience points” earned from overcoming challenges commonly taking the form of a combat encounter. See the antagonist. Kill said antagonist. Grow in ways unrelated to the mass murder you’ve just committed. In Coriolis, players improve their characters’ quantifiable skills and abilities in a much more self-reflective manner. The game system rewards players “experience points” by facilitating a structured debrief and discussion between players and the GM at the end of every gaming session This is based on the overall narrative actions of each character and not necessarily what they killed or how many challenges they overcame. Some of the questions asked include:

  • Did you participate?
  • Did you overcome a difficult challenge and help your group reach their goals?
  • Did you learn something new about yourself?
  • Did your personal problem(s) put your group at risk?
  • Did you sacrifice or risk something for a member of the group to which you share a close bond?

Especially when playing tabletop RPGs with strangers or family members, systems like D&D and Pathfinder causes players to become preoccupied with “doing things” to level up their characters. Games generally descend into, sessions of “if we kill this many _____, we’ll gain this much experience.” Experience and growth are reduced to the consequences of death. Learning becomes a task. A game like Coriolis can be used to encourage more self-reflective (yet, goal-oriented) roleplay. The structured end-of-session debrief and discussion is a great way to have players recognize the weaknesses and strengths of their characters, mediate their own problems, and identify how their actions and behaviours can positively and negatively affect others.

I do, however, have mixed feelings about the “Arabian Knights in space” description attached to this product. While on one end there are clear undertones of Orientalist themes. But on the other, it presents a fictional Islamic world in a way that doesn’t problematize religion or depicts Muslims unfairly. As someone who’s spent a lot of time living and working in a Muslim country, I can very much appreciate what this game does for fair and positive representation. Perhaps I’ll discuss this in a future post on its own. Needless to say, the freedom to which you are able to create characters, the emphasis on storytelling and complications, and an easy to learn, yet highly tactical combat system makes Coriolis a unique game. It lets you be what you want and do what you want, all while providing a scaling degree of structure. It’s accessible and highly reflexive, and that’s what’s really important when assessing the value of a tabletop RPG.

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Gnome Stew by Jared Rascher - 6d ago

I follow a predictable theme where I tend to be just a wee bit attracted to urban fantasy related games and media. When a friend of mine invited me to play in a game of Scion, it didn’t take too much for me to pick up the big bundle of PDFs and dive into the game. I made a character that was the scion of Hel, who I envisioned as a cross between House and Dexter. He was a forensic pathologist, with a magic scalpel and the ability to summon his dead father for advice.

As it turned out, making my character really good at his job and giving him a flavorful gift from his mother meant that he wasn’t particularly good at anything to do with combat, other than jabbing someone with the scalpel once in a while, and eventually, my poor character was eaten by one of Fenrir’s overgrown pups. I also found out that Vancouver, where I said my character was from (a joke based on where many television series are filmed) has very, very few actual murders, meaning my character was also probably very bored for most of his career.

Anyway, about the time my character was being digested, the Kickstarter for Scion 2nd Edition came along, and my curiosity got the best of me. I’ve been waiting to dig in for a while now. I have to admit, part of me is wondering if my character would have to make the same hard choices about skills versus combat ability in the new edition.

The Book of Origins

This review is based on both the physical and PDF version of Scion: Origins. The book is 180 pages long, with a one-page character sheet, no index, and a Table of Contents.

The book is very attractive. Some of the artwork has been reused from the previous edition, but what makes it a little harder to pinpoint is that many of the same iconic characters are depicted, with some of them appearing in new artwork.

If you have seen any other Onyx Path books, there is certainly a similar style to the formatting, with “typeset” style headers and double column layout.

Fiction, Introduction

The book opens, even before the Table of Contents, with a piece of fiction by Kieron Gillen, who may have written just a few pieces of fiction dealing with urban fantasy and modern gods in the past. To flash forward a bit, this piece of fiction is a stand-alone piece, but there is an ongoing narrative that appears between the chapters. This ongoing story follows a scion from their day to day life up to the moment of their visitation (meeting with their divine parent, after which the character would move up to the rules in the next volume, Scion Hero).

The introduction explains the concept behind Scion, that the player characters are mortal children of gods (or others touched by divine power), who eventually gain an increasing amount of supernatural power, and become embroiled in more and more supernatural conflicts as their powers grow. Origin, specifically, details characters that have learned they have supernatural powers, but haven’t yet been visited by their divine parent or an agent of the supernatural power that has touched them.

In addition to a primer on roleplaying games (or storytelling games), the introduction mentions the themes and moods that should be present in a game of Scion. The primary pantheons that will be detailed are summarized, and inspirational material, ranging from novels, comics, and television, are also cited. There are even a few recommendations for non-fiction books on mythology. The introduction ends with a lexicon defining various terms used later in the book.

I appreciate a game that lists the themes and moods that they hope to include in the game up front, as well as some example media that the game has drawn from, because this helps to set expectations. It gives you an idea of why something might have been added, as well as giving you a measure to use for comparing if the mechanics are doing what you want them to do, and what they are intended to do.

Chapter One: The World

Chapter One details the setting of the game, and it takes up the next 32 pages of the book, so it isn’t a light treatment. In broad strokes, the chapter covers a wide range of topics.

Primordials are beings that very much are the embodiment of a given primal force. They don’t have much of a personality. They just kind of exist. Titans are one step down from Primordials. They don’t have much of a personality either, but they are self-aware, and what personality traits they have are dictated by an obsessive devotion to their portfolio. Gods have broader portfolios than Titans, and are more fully realized personalities. Part of this is because they have interacted with mortal worshipers, and the more mortals interacted with them, the more the mortals believed that the gods had to have some similar traits to mortals. The downside to this is that, if the gods spend too much time with mortals, those mortals start to define other elements of the gods. So the gods need human belief just enough to keep them as more fully developed personalities, but not enough that mortals can radically redefine them with their faith.

The World looks much like our own, but the pantheons included in the book never stopped being worshipped, they just lost a little bit of ground as more modern religions came into being. The supernatural isn’t so much a hidden world, as an obscured one. Everyone might know one person who has genuinely seen the supernatural at play, and every once in a while, a rampaging monster from folklore may make the news, but the vast majority of people haven’t seen anything literally magical their whole lives. They make due with cars and computers and email just like we do now.

There are supernatural “otherworlds,” known as Terra Incognito, and there are various ways to access these places, including the Axis Mundi, transition points between worlds where one can travel between the two by performing a specific set of trials.

Several cities in The World are outlined, with sections detailing the Terra Incognito and Axis Mundi that exist near that city, as well as what pantheons are most influential there, and where they might be connected to other cities in the world.

While most of the details about gods deal with the pantheons mentioned in the introduction, there are a few references to “new” divinities that have arisen in the intervening years from antiquity to the present. Columbia, the goddess of America is an example, and she is mentioned as having multiple potentially conflicting manifestations, as she is still settling on a core identity because of the beliefs of mortals and their relationship to her and their culture.

This section gives a whole lot of flavor on what The World should feel like, but doesn’t nail down a lot of absolutes. It establishes a few different conflicts (pantheon versus pantheon, god versus god, new god versus young god, gods versus titans), but because of the time and effort put into it, the conflict with titans feels like the default narrative well to draw from. The references to Columbia are interesting, as I remember her mainly from a supplement to the original edition of Scion, along with various national pantheons that arose specifically around World War II, with these gods being an optional expansion in the original material. Neither Columbia nor any other “younger” deity appears in the summary of gods at the end of the book, so her only reference is in this section.

The Storypath System

On its surface, the resolution mechanic for Scion resembles other Onyx Path games, in that it uses d10 dice pools, counts numbers of successes, and derives the dice pool from adding the number of dots a character has in two different sections of the character sheet together.

The difference in this case is that successes are used to purchase effects. Simple success is one thing you can purchase, but there may be other elements present on a given test that are worth purchasing as well. For example, there might be complications that are present, so that if you simply succeed, you have to deal with the complications if you don’t spend successes to mitigate the complications. There may be benefits that you may be able to gain, in addition to a simple success. Any given test might have enough extra elements going on to make deciding on what complications you want to buy down or what additional benefits you want to purchase an important decision.

Additionally, scale might be at play. Scale adds an enhancement for each level difference between the parties involved in a test, and enhancements are successes that are only added to your total if the initial roll is already a success. So a giant may have a hard time striking your human scion, but if they connect, they will have an easier time applying extra damage.

Whenever a character fails, they may gain momentum, a group resource that can be spent to activate special abilities, add dice to a die pool, or to add an interval to the round. Failing on something where you have a specialty grants you extra momentum. Failing and botching a roll (rolling a 1 on one of the dice in addition to gaining no successes) grants an additional momentum, and allows the Storyguide to add a new complication to the scene.

All of this sounds very simple, but the explanations for this get a little convoluted, to the point that I felt like I was missing something. For example, when explaining a test, the Storyguide is instructed to choose an arena for the test, from Physical, Mental, or Social. Since a roll is based on Skill plus Attribute, my assumption is that stating the arena limits the attribute to those under the given header (for example, Intellect, Cunning, and Resolve are under Mental). But the way the actual section is written, it almost sounds like the arena itself has a number of dots, rather than the attributes under them. Further confusing this is that the player chooses an approach, from Force, Finesse, or Resilience, which corresponds to which row a given attribute appears on the character sheet.

All of the test examples cut straight to the chase–the test is X, the character is doing Y to resolve it, so they add this skill to this attribute to get their pool. I can understand stating the Arena to narrow attributes, but the approach seems to be something that only really comes in to play when picking a favored approach for the number of available dots in character creation. It’s a matter of a fairly simple resolution mechanic that feels a little over explained and gives the impression of more complexity that is actually in evidence. That said, there is the option of attempting to spend successes to achieve unrelated goals on the same action (like entering a code with one hand and firing a gun with another), which requires you to roll with the least advantageous pool, and approach may be a useful tool for adjudicating just what the difference between those approaches may be.

The book also details three modes of play, Action-Adventure, Procedural, and Intrigue. This is important for two reasons–not only does it establish the expected cycles of play, but with the addition of stunts and complications, these frameworks give examples of how to use those rules in the context of these narrative frameworks. One particular aspect of the Intrigue section that I liked involved Bonds. Characters can create bonds with characters when they spend a scene creating or reinforcing a bond, which allows them to roll a pool of dice that creates a reserve of successes that can be used whenever the character’s bond is relevant to what is going on.

Creating a pool of successes to spend helps to address situations where a player wants to know how much they can do on their turn, and adding complications and enhancements are nice, built in ways to make tests more interesting by reinforcing them with narrative weight. I really like the idea of awarding the players a resource that they can utilize that builds from failed rolls, because it gives them more of a choice to lean on that resource when the resolution of a test is particularly pivotal. I just feel like some of the more straightforward details got lost in the explanations.

Chapter Three: Character Creation

The character creation chapter starts with five example characters, from multiple pantheons, as well as multiple real-world backgrounds. There are three male characters, and two female characters, and with that number of characters, I wish we had maybe seen a non-binary character in the mix as well. The character sheets don’t include a section for gender or pronouns, so their genders are all expressed by reading their backstories and finding the pronouns used there.

Characters pick a concept, an origin, role, and pantheon path, a favored approach, and a calling. The process of making these choices gives the character the number of dots they have available in skills and attributes, and will also let them know where they can pick their Knacks from (special abilities that are often subtle or overt supernatural powers). There is also a derived pool from Defense, and the number of boxes a character can check at each level of harm is determined by attributes.

There isn’t a bullet-pointed summary of character creation in the chapter, and I would have really appreciated that. In order to make sure I understood the instructions, I defaulted to checking the sample characters. In addition to the lack of summary, the character sheets can be a little confusing.

Characters have three Storypaths, which influence their starting skills, and can also be invoked, not unlike aspects in Fate. A Storypath can be invoked once per session without much trouble, but invoking it more than that may cause the character to generate ill-will or be forced to complete a long-term goal dedicated to repairing the good will of their contacts.

An element of advancement that I like is that XP is earned by setting, then achieving, short- or long-term goals. In addition to short- or long-term goals, the group as a whole can also set up group goals for them to work towards. While the rules mention that you can have up to five goals active at any given time, the character sheets only show short, long, and group goals as options.

The advancement section mentions Birthrights and Legend, neither of which are available to Origin characters, since they have not yet been visited by their divine parent. While these rules are mentioned briefly (but not defined), it is clear that this is a section of the rules that will be addressed in supplements.

Going back to my introduction, the ability to assign dots to skills and attributes feels less fiddly than in the previous incarnation of Scion, and it feels easier to make someone competent in their “mortal pursuits” without shorting them too much in survivability, I just wish there had been a better summary of character creation and a little clearer organization of the character sheet. I am glad they provided the sample characters, but I’m not sure sample characters should be doing the heavy lifting for clarification.

Chapter Four: Combat

The previous edition of Scion had a “shot clock” style initiative, where the action you choose to take would add a number to your score, moving you up on the clock, and meaning that taking some actions meant that some opponents might act more than once before you, if you took a particularly time-intensive action, and they took relatively quick actions.

In second edition, characters roll initiative, and then create slots for themselves and their allies, that can be used by anyone they are allied with. This method is very similar to the initiative system used by Fantasy Flight’s Genesys games.

When making combat rolls, characters spend their successes to buy stunts in combat. The simplest stunt is the inflict damage stunt, which costs a number of successes equal to a character’s armor. Inflicting a second instance of damage costs more successes to inflict a critical. Characters can spend defensive successes to dive out of range or to make themselves harder to hit.

Weapons and armor have special tags to define them. Weapons don’t specifically have damage ratings, but they may have tags that give the weapon enhancements or allow them to ignore cover. Armor tags can make the armor soft or hard. Soft armor increases the number of successes needed to successfully attack an opponent, while hard armor gives them more injury boxes to check.

In a trend I’m starting to see in more games, characters have the option to concede a fight, getting taken out without taking all of the various steps of injury in between, and keeping the character from potentially getting killed. This will take the character out of the scene, and may leave them in a bad position at the end of the scene, but it also adds momentum to the pool.

There are also rules to handle recovering injuries, first aid, disease, and poison. There aren’t rules for starting gear, just a note that most mundane gear only has three points worth of tags. This isn’t a change from 1st edition Scion, where only supernatural gear required a character to spend character options.

Chapter Five: Storyguiding

There is a lot of material in this chapter on researching myths, following the hero’s journey, alternating between multiple heroes in the spotlight, and how to reinforce the tone specifically for an Origin level game, where gods don’t show up directly, and there are more omens and signs than overt communication and miracles.

This section also contains what the text refers to as the Plot Engine, a series of steps to work through to generate appropriately themed campaign ideas.

At the very beginning of the chapter there is what has become a standard in facilitator advice, the tacit permission to ignore or modify rules, and in this section, there is also the advice to make sure that everyone at the table is comfortable and happy with the content of the game. While I appreciate this inclusion, it is a pretty light treatment on the broader topic of safety.

In various other chapters, the text spells out that the old gods don’t want to change their ideas as they move into the modern era, so they often hold antiquated and problematic opinions about acceptable actions, forms of worship, and the worth of human life, and that this can serve as a point of conflict for scions. Given that this is spelled out as a potential theme of campaigns, I think a better discussion of how much of this content to include, and how to do so would have been a good idea. In addition to the light touch on general safety, there isn’t really any discussion of active ongoing table safety, such as using safety tools during play.

Chapter Six: Antagonists

Antagonists in the game are assembled by giving them ranks in a primary pool, a secondary pool, a desperation pool, a health, defense, and initiative rating, then adding in qualities (modifiers to the above ratings), and flairs (special abilities that activate under certain circumstances).

In addition to outlining how antagonists are built, this section also details Tension, the resource that the Storyguide has which is similar to Momentum for players. Tension can be used to boost defenses, have an opponent take an extra turn, or to trigger certain types of flairs.

While I don’t want to spend too much time on the various pre-built antagonists that are included in the chapter, for some reason, I really appreciate that in The World, Men in Black aren’t aliens or government agents–they work for the Titans, probing for information on the gods and how to weaken the prisons where various Titans are held.

I have definitely become a fan of opponents in games that don’t require the same amount of rigor to create as player characters, and I like the a + b and maybe c approach to this creation. I’m also a fan of facilitator resources that can be spent, so I appreciate the Tension mechanics as well.

Appendix I, II, and III

The three appendices to the book deal with Supernatural Paths, Pantheons, and changes to the game between 1st edition Scion to 2nd edition Scion.

The Supernatural Paths are beings that might eventually end up ascending in power, but aren’t the literal children of the gods. The examples given include:

  • Saints (strong believers in a given pantheon or religion)
  • Kitsune (long lived shape changing foxes)
  • Satyr (the exact mythological creature you would assume)
  • Therianthrope (were creatures)
  • Wolf-Warrior (berserkers)
  • Cu Sith (self-aware fey canines)

There are also rules for modifying these paths to make them fit a variety of supernatural archetypes, such as using Wolf-Warriors to model Amazons.

The pantheons summarized in the book include the following:

  • Aesir
  • Manitou
  • Theoi
  • Netjer
  • Kami
  • Tuatha De Danan
  • Orisha
  • Deva
  • Shen
  • Teotl

There isn’t a lot of information given on each of them, but there is a list of skills, gods, callings, and purviews to facilitate character creation for scions of each of the pantheons.

The section on explaining the changes from 1st to 2nd edition is very brief and there are lots of fine details not addressed, but reading through it actually makes a few of the 2nd edition rules clearer even if you don’t have a frame of reference from 1st edition.

Heaven Sent
 The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. 

I enjoy that the setting isn’t so much a hidden world as it is an obscured world. I really enjoy the idea of being able to spend successes to achieve multiple goals when you take action. I am a big fan of spendable resources in game, and I really enjoy the flow of Momentum to the players. Making adversarial characters a modular building process is something I am on board with, and I am a huge fan of advancement being tied in part to story elements written by the player..

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Gnome Stew by Dustin Depenning - 1w ago

Homebrew setting creation is an important facet of the RPG experience. For many of us, world creation is what got us interested in RPGs in the first place. But whether you’re designing a setting for the first time or the hundredth time, there are some simple tips that can make the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Getting Started

The first step is don’t be intimidated. Playing published RPGs can give you the impression that hundreds of genius ideas must be put to paper before the game even starts. This is not the case. Many RPG settings are developed organically through play and experimentation, and yours should be too. So focus on having fun, don’t be over-worried about originality, and let the creative process take its course. While there is preliminary work to do before playing, it’s probably not as much as you think.

Think of the Aesthetics

A great place to start is thinking in big, broad terms. Be inspired by your favorite media, and look for themes and ideas that get your creative energy flowing. Love Ghost In The Shell? Definitely lift some cyberpunk aesthetic. Get pumped about Avatar: The Last Airbender? Some elemental magic and spiritual themes could be good. Genre mash your heart out, and don’t shy away from cliches. Instead, embrace a cliche and put a spin on it. So if your cyberpunk world is full of neon tubes, corrupt corporations, and elemental masters, maybe the strongest elemental masters are the most powerful CEOs! And the more powerful your magic, the more neon tube cybernetics you have to contain all your power flowing through your veins. Maybe elemental magic isn’t just for fighting; it powers all sorts of technology and daily life, and has become so important, it’s used as currency.

Think of the Core Conflict

Every great piece of media, while having a rich world, has a core conflict to explore. This makes the world feel alive, like it’s in motion and taking the players along for a ride. So what’s the big problem in your setting? Connect it to the aesthetics to make things feel cohesive. Maybe in this corrupt magical CEO world, a huge economic crisis has happened and companies are calling in all their debts. They’re forcibly reclaiming magic from the lower castes, and sometimes over pumping so much power out of people, it kills them. A classic haves and havenots story tailored to your world design. But don’t forget to connect this conflict to the players! In order to make it seem real, this problem needs to affect the players’ lives, their allies’ lives, and day to day struggles. Perhaps the players are all debtors trying to escape possibly lethal debt collection, and trying to train, focus, and gather enough elemental magic to pay off the creditors. Or maybe the players are actually a paid team of debt collectors, and have to journey to dangerous places and reclaim what “belongs” to the corporation, dealing with the moral struggles that entails.

Think of Factions

This is my favorite part of setting creation. The world really starts to feel fleshed out when you think about the social factors at play. The important thing to remember when creating factions is that dynamics matter much more than detail. It’s not so important to think about what a faction wears or eats or what language they speak, unless that somehow directly relates to the conflict and how that faction interacts with others. We already have the idea of two groups: haves and havenots. And we know one is oppressing the other. So what are some more interesting dynamic ideas to come out of this? Perhaps the havenots use extensive smuggler networks to move magic around and keep it hidden from the collectors. Maybe the havenots aren’t as educated or well trained, making it hard for them to produce useable elemental magic on their own. Or better yet, maybe the magically gifted among the havenots are forcibly recruited into wealthy society and removed from the people, keeping the economic disparity strong. This means gifted people hide their talents to try and support their communities from the sidelines.

Embrace the Unknown

You’re not going to answer every question about your setting while you brainstorm it. A lot of it is going to work itself out naturally as you play. What does it look like when the wealthy extract a magically gifted person from their neighborhood? Maybe you can brainstorm a whole session around it, and play it out to fill in the details. Or better yet, maybe a player has that sort of event in their backstory, and they can contribute their own ideas on how and when that happens. Don’t be afraid to let the players contribute! In fact, you can invite the players to contribute to this whole process, because great ideas can come from many minds when everyone respects and builds on each other’s contributions. My game Heroic Dark makes use of this fact, and makes setting creation into a structured, collaborative process for everyone at the table. The players become invested in the game world, because their ideas are a piece of it, and it makes the dangerous adventures in that world so much more compelling. Everyone is more willing to take risks, face challenges, and do heroic things because they want to see how their and others’ ideas play out in the high intensity story everyone is crafting together.

So after setting creation, it’s important to remember that worlds evolve. As you play the game, the players experience a mix of wins, losses, narrow survival, and tragic deaths. But as the consequences play out, you might find a setting detail is starting to feel vestigial or incongruent based on what has happened. Let the gameworld change! In our sample setting idea, if magic extractions always went unchallenged before, but now the havenots have been pushed to the edge, maybe they don’t take things lying down and extractions become dangerous and violent. This change could lead to another; as the wealthy see their authority challenged, they invent new, more brutal methods of extraction that are harder to resist.


Setting creation can be a much more fluid, relaxed, and flexible exercise than you may be used to. Following a stripped down process like this produces surprising results, because when you don’t weigh yourself down with figuring out every little detail and trying to be a genius, your creative juices can really flow. Between aesthetics, conflict, and faction dynamics, you should have a rich and living world ready for a fantastic adventure. By diving in before everything is nailed down, you let the details fill out organically and naturally, instead of arbitrarily making decisions just to put words on a page. But the most important thing to remember is to have fun. This is ultimately a game, not a writing competition, so the best measure of the success of your setting is having a good time.

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Head Gnome John Arcadian here with some GS news! The 2019 ENnies voting is live and ready for your eager vote. We’ve got some personal selections and GS affiliated projects we want to encourage you to vote for.

Wait, where’s Gnome Stew? Aren’t you usually in the running?

Yes, Gnome Stew has submitted to the ENnies and won silver or gold for MANY years. We decided not to submit for consideration this year. This year the ENnies changed a few things and merged a few categories. There is no longer a Blog specific category. We could have submitted for Best Online Content, but we’ve had more than a few years to build up an audience and a name. This, alongside the great content and great voices we try to give a platform to, has helped us do very well in the ENnies. Every year  we always consider whether we should step into the field or not since we’ve had a few wins under our belt. With the removal of a blog specific category, we decided this was the year we were going to leave it to others and not nominate ourselves. That being said, we’ve got a few Gnome Affiliated projects and some very good projects out there that we would encourage you to look at. Remember, the ENnies are one person one vote and has a tiered voting system so mark your favorite with 1, second favorite with 2, etc.

Gnome Affiliated Projects

Podcasts – There are two great podcasts with Gnomes on them.

  • She’s A Super Geek with Senda is a podcast featuring female GMs and something you should definitely vote for.
  • Asians Represent! has newer gnome Daniel Kwan and is also something you should vote for.
Other Things We’d Encourage You To Look at
  • Best Online Content – Molten Sulfur Blog by Tristan Zimmerman is a great RPG blog with a focus on bringing in historical emphasis to your games.
  • Best Monster/Adversary – While there is a part of us that loathes suggesting something attached to Kobolds, the Creature Codex is a great supplement for 5e games.
  • Best Layout and Design – Bluebeard’s Bride: Book of Rooms has a fantastic layout and is IGDN affiliated, and many gnomes are IGDN members.
  • Best Electronic Book – Uncaged Volume 1 is a phenomenal resource in every way and well deserving of a vote.
    Best Free Game – Die Laughing, Sliced up is another IGDN product and a very funny one that is fun to play.
  • Best Game – There are many incredible contenders in Best Game. Companions’ Tale and Dialect are two I’ve (John) had wonderful experiences with and are both worthy of your vote.

There are a ton of great entries in the ENnies this year and we applaud the ENnies for the changes they have made to make the event and competition better. Go vote in the ENnies and give your support to some incredible gaming.

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Join Ang for the first installment of our new series where we give the “Meet a New Gnome” treatment to some of our old gnomes. We start things off with Co-head Gnome John Arcadian. Catch John’s various origin stories and plans for the future of Gnome Stew. Will both these head gnomes grant each other immunity from the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #70 – Meet an Old Gnome: John Arcadian

Follow John at @johnarcadian on Twitter, check out his work at johnarcardian.com or find him wherever fine John Arcadians are bartered or sold.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Bone, Stone, and Obsidian!

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Gnome Stew by Rob Abrazado - 1w ago

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!


Eden by Marc Hobbs and Less Than Three Games is a no-prep, GMless story game designed for 3-5 players to explore the development of new human beings as influenced by their talking animal companions. It is a roleplaying game in the sense that each player creates a single character and is responsible for narrative control of that character throughout the game, but it is a story game in the sense that the mechanics focus on the structure, procedure, and outcome of a narrative. The game does not use dice, cards, or any randomizers, instead depending on narration and consensus to resolve conflicts.

The Story

The stories explored by Eden describe the emergence of the first generation of humans, who have arisen from the Garden, a setting collaboratively constructed at the beginning of play. All that is known prior to the game’s story is that the Garden is a land contained by a Wall and a Gate and is populated by these new humans and some intelligent, talking animals. Each player’s primary character is one of these humans, though as the narrative focus changes throughout the game, players may also roleplay talking animal characters or secondary human characters that are not the focus of the overall story.

Two primary themes that drive the game’s fiction are personal development and social dynamics. Personal development primarily motivates the main human characters. They begin play understanding and interacting with the world the way their favorite animals do. Over the course of play, the humans learn through interacting with more animals and other humans how they can come to understand the world for themselves and find their own place in it and a sense of their own selves. Social dynamics influence the world around these humans and generally take the form of how various animals regard the humans and their activities. Of particular interest is that the animals don’t have a moral sense; they operate on instinct. Though intelligent, they do not act like animal-shaped humans would act. Instead, they act as animals would act; they are just given the tools to communicate as humans would.

The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change.
As a “no-prep” game, Eden encourages the “play to find out” ethos of story creation and does not depend on predetermined scenarios or any particular narrative goal. How (and when) the story ends is up to the players, and the game does not call for any particular advancement or resolution for characters. The setting is explicitly changed as the story progresses, but the narrative is decidedly focused on the main characters and not on the world around them. The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change.

Because the bulk of the game mechanics relate to narrative procedure and because there are so few prescribed characteristics of the setting, Eden is an easy game to reskin for other stories. The core book itself contains some exciting variations on setting and play. For example, “The Playground” involves children learning how to act, and instead of talking animals, they might be guided by their toys or imaginary friends. Another variation is “Starship Eden,” which could follow newly-awakened clones being instructed by computerized artificial intelligence systems. The core components of any Eden story remain a group of protagonists looking to develop codes of belief, some established (if narrow) behaviors to draw from for inspiration, and an insulated social environment for them all to play around in. There are many stories that can be derived from that set of ingredients and themes, and all could be examined in a game of Eden.

The Game

The rules of Eden outline a structured procedure to generate stories. Much attention is paid to setting up both the overall game setting and individual scenes, but once the narrative portion of the game takes over, there are few to no mechanics that guide the story. Gameplay is divided into three main stages. The game begins with two setup phases and then proceeds to a roleplaying phase that is broken up into repeatable rounds of play.

The first setup phase concerns the setting of the story, the Garden. The Garden is assembled from different animals, lands, and other features, all determined by the players. The choices are recorded on a collaboratively drawn map, and this map will later be updated throughout gameplay as the world (and the characters in it) are changed by the fiction.

The second setup phase is dedicated to the humans in the Garden, the main characters controlled by the players as well as secondary characters that are not exclusively controlled by any specific player but who can appear in main characters’ stories and be roleplayed by any available player. This human setup stage is what would be thought of as character creation in a more traditional RPG structure, and it is a this point that characters gain a favorite animal, a Skill learned from that animal, and a Lesson imparted by learning that Skill. Skills are not mechanically significant in the sense that might be expected in other games; they are more useful as narrative prompts. Lessons form the record of the character’s development as a person; they make up what might be thought of as a moral code or some other means by which the human makes decisions or determines values.

The roleplaying stage of the game is divided into “scenes.” Each scene is framed according to a specific procedure, but once the scene framing is complete and the narrative play begins, gameplay switches to a more freeform process and ends only when the players decide it is time to end. Each player controls one scene in a “round.” The game consists of at least three rounds, but again, it is up to the players how many rounds that particular session will consist of.

Throughout play, there are two major ways that game progress is recorded. Focusing on personal development of the main characters, players can add or change (or remove!) Lessons on their character sheet, in this way showing how their main human character is growing and changing as they encounter various situations, challenges, and people. In addition, changes to the world at large are recorded on the shared map of the Garden. These changes are mostly driven by what has happened in each scene, but also they are not required to be; in some cases, changes to the Garden may take place that are unrelated to what it happening in scenes.

Finally, once the final round has ended, each player contributes an Epilogue, either about their character or about how the world was affected by their character, depending on what has happened to the character during the story.

The Shelf

Eden is available for purchase in print and PDF from Less Than Three Games and Indie Press Revolution. As previously established in this series, I do love games involving collaborative map-building. Eden specifically calls out The Quiet Year (Avery Alder/Buried without Ceremony), which I highly recommend. Some of my other favorite map-building games include Companions’ Tale (Laura Simpson/Sweet Potato Press) and The Skeletons (Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games). For a game with a similar theme of humans and their animal companions, I heartily recommend Familiars of Terra (Liz Chaipraditkul/Angry Hamster Publishing).

If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!

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The oubliette, it turns out, really tightens your core. Image Courtesy of Pixabay.com.

I am currently writing this post with my nose, as my arms are hanging uselessly from my sides like two of those sticky hands from grocery store vending machines; please forgive any typos. You see, being in the midst of what looks suspiciously like a full-fledged midlife crisis, I recently signed up for a personal trainer. My reasoning was, that while expensive, a personal trainer is still cheaper than a new Mustang and less destructive than an affair. Most of the time I think I made the right decision. Most of the time.

Growing buff enough to turn heads (or to do even a single push-up without my life flashing before my eyes) sounds great on paper, but the grim reality is that in doing this, I have opened myself up to a whole new world of pain. And so, being the kind of nerd I am, while gasping for breath on a sweat-slicked gym mat and trying to find my happy place, I found myself wondering: “what can I do to make this completely unrelated thing all about RPGs in ways that will alienate absolutely everyone at my gym?” And that, dear readers, is where this post came from.

Content warning: this article will contain lavish descriptions of the horrors that sadistic, merciless* human beings are willing to visit upon the bodies of other people, all while believing it is for the victim’s own good. It will also contain descriptions of torture (also jokes whose construction is so old, they might themselves predate the Spanish Inquisition**).

In seriousness, actual torture is terrible, and in some cases, still going on today. While I make a lot of jokes about the ways that medieval folks performed atrocities on each other, many of the things still happening today all over the world are just as traumatizing and terrible, just with different actors and different tools. If you’re able, consider a donation to Amnesty International to help them fight it.

As gamers and GMs, we may occasionally find ourselves trying to put ourselves more fully in the mindset of those experiencing the horrors of torture. It turns out that the Tower of London doesn’t offer hands-on demonstrations anymore, no matter how loudly you shout heresies, and your tour guide gets really uncomfortable when you try.

It turns out that the Tower of London doesn’t offer hands-on demonstrations anymore, no matter how loudly you shout heresies, and your tour guide gets really uncomfortable when you try.
So our best option is also among the most intimidating for many of us: going to the gym. Even on the surface, the similarities between exercise and torture are obvious: they both use elaborately-engineered devices designed to extract suffering from the bodies of their subjects, frequently under the watchful gaze of a theoretically blameless authority. Sure, instead of being without grave sin, authorities in the modern era have never had more than 15% body fat, and Reddit progress pictures have replaced the auto-da-fe as the preferred method of public penance and humiliation, but beyond that and the fact that relatively few people actually die at gyms (no matter how much they want to), not a lot has changed.

Should you find yourself wanting to more fully put yourself in the place of a PC being put to what they euphemistically used to call “the Question,” or if you just need to think of something else while you actually do one of these exercises, I offer to you the following four examples of Medieval European tortures and the common exercises they most resemble. Again, some of these descriptions are pretty graphic, so if you’re bothered by reading that kind of thing, stop reading now and click here. You’ll be happier for it.

Torture 1: The Oubliette/Planks

This place would still rent for $2,000 a month plus utilities in some DC neighborhoods.

The Torture:

An oubliette, is by its purest definition, just a dungeon cell with an opening only at the top. However, some designs of the oubliette (and most of the famous ones) are cells too small for the victim to sit or lie down in. In some cases, they cannot even fully stand up. In such a painful predicament, a victim experiences no rest and must remain standing (or crouching awkwardly) until they are finally released. There is no rest or comfort in an oubliette, only the snail’s pace march of time until your captor or death releases you.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

The Exercise:

If you really need to work on your core, and you don’t care about how miserable doing so makes you, planks are pretty great. You “rest” on your forearms and tiptoes (or do jazz hands like the showoff in the illustration to the right here) while keeping the rest of your body ramrod-straight. That’s it. You don’t move, so it doesn’t feel like exercise. But you also can’t be comfortable, or anything like comfortable. The first five minutes or so, it’s fine. It’s just a weird position. Then you look at the clock and realize it hasn’t been five minutes. It’s been exactly two-and-a-half seconds. Another hour passes, and you look again. Seven seconds. If you’re lucky, you can make it to a minute or two absolute time. In relative time, you have experienced several small eternities. Theoretically, you could have solved the most intractable problems of human nature in that time. Of course, you haven’t actually solved anything because a) that’s not really how problems get solved, and b) well over 100% of your available brain capacity has been devoted to screaming at you how horrible this experience is. There is no rest or comfort in a plank, only the snail’s pace march of time until your trainer or death releases you.

Torture 2: The Wheel/Combo Exercise Machine

No, I will not put up an illustration of what any of these options look like. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

The Torture:

We often hear (or read) power-hungry rulers of some variety requesting that a victim be “broken on the wheel.” What this actually meant, it turns out, depended heavily on the ruler in question and their available equipment. The actual torture could be as simple as just strapping someone to what looked like a wagon wheel and hitting them with all the usual methods. Like moving to a new area and getting your driver’s license renewed, it’s the same painful experience—just different seating. More sadistic torturers would have two wheels, arranged like cogs in a clock, and run a victim through the intersection, or over fire or spikes, or just leave them exposed to the elements. Finally, in some cases, the occupant of the wheel might have their limbs broken, and then braided through the spokes of the wheel like Satan’s own friendship bracelet. What I’m saying is that “the wheel” is kind of like another great British innovation, “puddings” in that they both can mean lots of completely unrelated things that make no sense whatsoever.

The Exercise:

Home gym machines are great. They can theoretically do anything (even if what they mostly do is gather dust in a garage until being passed off on Craigslist to the next sucker in the world’s slowest game of Hot Potato). You can do awkward bench presses, or awkward lat pull-downs, or awkward leg presses, or whatever that exercise is called where you try but fail to assemble something with instructions that look like they’ve been run through a version of Google Translate that has somehow gotten very, very drunk. No matter what you choose to do, you will look ridiculous, and since you’re doing it at home, you’re guaranteed to call it the wrong thing. Also, you’ll almost certainly smash body parts and end up in excruciating pain. Just like on the wheel!

Torture 4: The Brazen Bull/Literally Anything In July

The best part is how over it the bull looks in this.

The Torture:

In ancient Sicily, the tyrant Phalaris (in this case, “tyrant” was an official title, as well as apt descriptor), found himself terribly entertained with a life-sized, hollow bull made of brass. The inside of the bull was hollow, with a door on the side that a human could be forced into. Beneath, a fire could be stoked, such that the victim was slowly roasted alive inside. Inside the head of the bull was a complex of pipes that reportedly transformed the agonized screaming of the victim into the snorts and bellows of an enraged bull. In a suspiciously-pat piece of turnaround justice, reportedly both Phalaris and its inventor, Perillos, were eventually placed in the bull in order to suffer through it. Thankfully, as with many spectacularly gruesome exercises in human suffering (like the Viking “blood eagle“), there is some controversy over whether this “Brazen Bull” ever actually existed, or was just a political fable.

The Exercise: 

The most obvious analog to the Brazen Bull presents itself to anyone who has ever had to get into their car to go to the gym (or anywhere, really), in most of the U.S. in July. Every surface burns like red-hot brass, and even attempting to turn on the air conditioning just feels like you’ve opened a gateway directly into the center of the sun and had it blast into your face.

Every surface burns like red-hot brass, and even attempting to turn on the air conditioning just feels like you’ve opened a gateway directly into the center of the sun and had it blast into your face.
If you have leather seats, enraged/pained bellowing is virtually guaranteed. Of course, that’s not actually associated with exercise or gyms (unless you count trying to somehow position yourself so that you’re hovering several inches in the air as some sort of isometric workout). Realistically though, if you’re doing any kind of workout in a gym in July, you are already intimately familiar with the feeling of being roasted alive, since there is no gym in the world that is capable of maintaining adequate climate control for both normal people doing normal things and the grunting, pained masses of people trying to force their bodies into some kind of shape. Conclusion

All joking aside, exercise is really good for you (and, again, torture is really bad). Not everyone has the ability or motivation to exercise in the same way, and that’s fine. But subject to your own limitations, and knowing your own limits, it’s almost never a bad idea to get a little bit of movement in. The benefits to physical and mental health are clear, and while we all look ridiculous working out, let’s be honest with ourselves—if looking a little silly bothered us all that much, we’d probably have picked a hobby other than consulting tables and screaming at strangers about how well our imaginary elves are doing at fighting imaginary goblins. I personally find that framing real things in imaginary ways helps motivate me to persist through difficult tasks, and I sincerely hope that this gives your imagination just the little push it takes to join me. So with all that in mind, what exercises do you do? Do you find yourself imagining gaming-related stuff while you do so? If so, tell us in the comments.

For real. I’m genuinely curious how big of a weirdo I am with this.

*I am of course mostly kidding. My trainer is amazing and I’m making a ton of progress. Haha. Please don’t make me do any more mountain climbers. **Completely unrelated: I learned while “researching” this article that the Inquisition technically continued until 1808. So, uh. Thank you, Napoleon?
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Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be obtaining my 46th level as a human being. I also received my very first RPG product (the Mentzer D&D red box set) a week or so after my 10th birthday. This means that this month, I’ll be bumping up to a level 36 RPG slinger with the archetype of Game Master.

This got me to thinking about aging in characters since I’m clearly getting older while on this world (which is better than the alternative, right?)

There are a scant few games that I’ve come across that allow a character to start out older.

Most folks don’t think much about their character’s starting age unless they have a character archetype in mind (wizened old mage, high muckity-muck of some religion, battle-scarred veteran of three war campaigns, etc.). To be honest, most games assume that the characters are just starting out in life, so they’re somewhere in their human-equivalent of “late teens” when session zero concludes.

Some games allow for more freedom of choice in starting age with proper mechanics to support the aging of a character. Even the games that I’ve encountered that support the “starting with an older character” concept only scantly touch upon the aging process. It usually comes in the form of boosted mental capabilities and lowered physical prowess. Pretty simple. Pretty accurate for most folks. It works, but just scratches the surface.

There are a scant few games that I’ve come across that allow a character to start out older and fully represent the hardships, successes, failures, and toils that go into achieving those “higher levels” as a person. Traveller is one of the classic examples (but who really likes to die during character creation?). Cyberpunk 2020 does a decent job of this, but the upper limit of the starting age is somewhere in the early twenties. Your classic point-buy systems (GURPS and Hero) have a good grasp on the older characters at the start of the adventure. With the right aspects, so does Fate Core.

However, I’m still in search of a game (please leave a comment on this post if you know of one!) that gives small, incremental boosts to skills/abilities/powers as you age up, but also combines it with random events that can happen to the character as they make their life choices. These life events can be beneficial or detrimental to the character, and can provide a more in-depth background story for the character.

Life Choices

 Life choices presented to the player for their character would be wide and varied. 

Each life choice ages the character a certain number of years, but they’re not all equal. An “entry level soldier” may only age a year as they learn the basics of how to be a soldier and go off on their first deployment. Meanwhile, an apprentice wizard would age 5 (or so) years as they master the basics of mystical powers. During these time periods, the soldier would learn quite a few different skills, but all at small increments. The apprentice wizard would probably be the opposite because of their focused learning. The wizard would only learn a handful of skills, but the increments would be larger for the wizard because of the focus (and time) spent on those skills.

In my mind, the life choices presented to the player for their character would be wide and varied. It would also allow a progression tree to be followed, so the apprentice wizard could eventually qualify to be a wizard, then an archmage, then a battle mage, and so on. Someone could even “change careers” in a way where they start out as a soldier, become a veteran, and then drop into apprentice wizard because of a life event.

Life Events

Life events are great for collaborative world building between the GM and the players.

During the course of the life event, random things would happen to the character. This is life. It likes to throw random things in our paths to see what we do with them. Each life choice made by the player for their character would result in rolling on a few tables to see what happens to them. It could be romance, friendship, enmity, finding a mentor, imprisonment (which could last for a certain number of additional years to age the character more), a financial windfall, and so on. There are lots of options here, and each one should be played out a bit between the GM and player to determine the exact facts of the results and people involved in the life event that occurs to the character.

These life events are great for collaborative world building between the GM and the players. It can be done in a manner which gives the players come control of the names, status, professions, etc. of the NPCs in the setting as well as some narrative control over the setting itself. This will invest the players more deeply into their characters and the world as a whole.


I recommend setting an age cap on the characters during session zero.

Of course, the more life choices someone makes, the more potent their skills are going to be. For game balance, there does need to be some sort of artificial limit put in place by the GM to ensure the characters are as balanced as possible. I’m not talking the “perfectly equal in power” type of balance, but we don’t want a party of Rifts characters where someone has a rusted knife and another character in the same party has high-powered psychic abilities and yet another character has the Most Deadly Power Armor In The Universe.

If older characters are more potent in the game system because of additional skill levels, then I recommend setting an age cap on the characters during session zero. If someone is dead set on playing the wet-behind-the-ears character that takes just a few life choices, then maybe balance some things out by giving them a boost elsewhere in the game, such as a few contacts, some extra income, or something similar.


Of course, if someone really pushes their luck with life choices and events, they may (intentionally or otherwise) find themselves playing the older character with some physical infirmities and about to go do battle against the invading horde of undead monstrosities. That’s where some good role playing opportunities come into play for everyone. While the young whipper-snappers are preparing for a rousing charge into the midst of the leading edge of the invasion, the limping gray-beard can stand back and use his razor-sharp wits to observe the goings on of the enemy and give guidance before the battle ensues. Quite honestly, the larger scope of age ranges in a party allows for a more broad approach at role playing than if everyone is freshly minted off the RPG PC assembly line.

Happy Birthday!

 There are loads of questions and approaches that can be used around birthdays. 

To bring the concepts full circle, when are birthdays celebrated? Is it an annual thing (usually springtime) where “everyone gets older by a year” or are the “you’re older now” celebrations done individually? What if being the center of attention just because it’s the character’s birthday drives them nuts or elicits a rage-filled response? What if a PC decides that their birthday is an official day of rest for them and they refuse to work, march forward, or go adventuring on that day?

There are loads of questions and approaches that can be used around birthdays. Some are cultural. Many are personal. I know that this is just one day out of the hundreds that most calendar years have, but making a day special for a PC can really help create some fun adventures… especially if that special day gets interrupted by a dark nemesis.


As I asked for above, if you know of a game (outside the ones I’ve mentioned) that handles something similar to my concepts of life choices and life events, please let me know. I’d love to snag it and explore it. Also, if you have any special traditions (be it cultural, familial, or personal) that have to do with birthdays, and you’re willing to share them, please drop a line.

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I LOVE drama. Well, only when it comes to my tabletop RPGs.

So what happens when your fellow players (and GM) enjoy having narrative drama at the table, but might not be practiced at introducing it? Here are a couple of my favourite tools from D&D and beyond!

1) DRAMATIC POLES. Introduced in Hillfolk (the first DramaSystem game), dramatic poles are an integral part of character creation that represent internal oppositional forces – an inner struggle between two impulses, aspirations, or identities – that result in characters with built-in dramatic depth. The differences between these poles might be very obvious; maybe in a contradictory way or in one that results in an ambiguous duality. An example can be found in screenwriting, where there is often a dichotomy between the concepts of identity and essence. Identity refers to who our characters are at the beginning of the story, a false self-designed to protect them from aspects of the world they fear. Essence, on the other hand, represents who our characters need to become in order to achieve their goal. Perhaps one of these poles is a false self your character presents to those around them? Maybe the other is a truth they want to live? What lies between them is the journey of facing their fears.

For instance, my gnome monk Fizz has these poles: 1) his commitment to his martial arts tradition and 2) his curious nature and desire to “improve” his art with pieces from other cultures. He wants to honour those who trained him and honour the complete nature of their martial art. However, his experiences outside the walls of his temple have taught him about the world beyond – one he was not prepared to face.

I personally prefer the use of dramatic poles as a replacement for alignment in games like D&D because they provide far more depth from which players can inform their role play. Alignment can come off as singularly focused on particular characterizations. At the surface, they don’t add depth.

Examples of dramatic poles can be found on design Robin D. Laws’ blog! Check them out at

2) HERO & PLOT POINTS. Contrasting my use of dramatic poles in D&D are Hero and Plot Points. These optional, variant rules in the 5th edition D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (pages 264 and 269 respectively), provide players with structured, mechanical means for dynamic and dramatic role playing. Hero Points are a great tool for role playing as characters more akin to super heroes than common adventurers. Starting at 1st level, each character has a pool of 5 Hero Points that do not replenish (to a total of 5 + 1/2 character level) until they level up. Hero Points can be spent to allow for a d6 to be added to any roll or turn a death save into a success. This gives players an incentive to take heroic risks!

Plot Points are a tool that allows players to introduce plot complications into the game. At the start of a session, each player gets a single Plot Point. These can be spent to introduce a narrative point that the group must accept as truth. An example could be that a monster currently in play is actually a long lost ally polymorphed into a bestial form. However, when a Plot Point is spent, the player to the right of the one who spent the point must introduce a complication to the scene. For instance, that monster who’s actually an ally in disguise? Well, now they don’t remember you and are slowly being consumed by their new monstrous nature. Plot Points can even be used to “tag in” as GM!

Based on the needs and desires of your group, dramatic poles, hero points, and plot points all present powerful tools that will help draw that drama out of character creation and narrative interaction. Give them a try, and let us know what you think!

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