Written by a team of veteran GMs, Gnome Stew is the most widely read game mastering blog on the planet. The Stew won a silver ENnie Award for Best Blog in 2011 and 2010. It is a multi-author blog about tabletop RPG game mastering, written by GMs, for GMs.
Most of the time, the tactile sensations players get during the game are limited to their pencil, character sheet, dice, and mini on the board. As GMs, we can take it to the next level by leveraging handouts, props, and auditory mood setting.
Handouts are a great, and usually straightforward, method of drawing the players deeper into the game. Don’t tell the players that they found a map of the old ruins that sit atop the hill several miles outside the village. Actually hand them a map. Don’t draw the handout on grid paper, either. Slap it down using charcoal sticks (or black Sharpie) on white or yellow-aged paper. A great touch is to splash some water droplets onto the paper to smear/smudge the drawing, but without making it incomprehensible (unless that’s the effect you’re going for).
Other handouts are printouts of NPC appearances. If you leverage technology (like a tablet) in the same way I do, you can save the printer ink and hold up the tablet with the image prominently displayed on the screen. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is true for visual cues. A “picture” they can touch and interact with (such as a map, contract, letter, or other physical product) is worth many more words than a mere thousand.
This leads into props. Instead of saying, “You find tufts of fur on the pathway,” you can give your dog or cat a good brushing and throw some fur bits into a baggie. Then remove the fur from the bag and toss it in the middle of the table. It’s evocative, surprising, and really lends a deeper immersion into the game than the words. Just be careful of possible allergic reactions from your players if they can’t handle animal remnants, especially the fur.
Another thing I’ve done many moons ago was to bring in a bag of dried leaves from the yard. Instead of telling the party that they hear footsteps on the dried leaves, I’ll jam my hand down into the gallon freezer bag and start crunching the leaves. Then I’ll tell the players that they hear that sound from behind them. It really draws them in a considerable amount.
A quick trip around a hobby supply store can provide many more ideas about props that can be used in the midst of a game.
I’ve already mentioned the dried leaves. I’ve also grabbed some stage swords off my wall near the gaming table and clashed them together to demonstrate what the players hear in the distance. One of my players told me that it was the biggest adrenaline rush he’s ever had at the gaming table. The steel-on-steel sounds immersed into the scene, and he knew that the person they needed to save was being attacked just ahead.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) drag a million props with you to the game table just for making sounds with, there are digital options. I personally use an application called “RPG Sounds: Fantasy” by SuperFly Games on my iPad. It’s also available for iPhone and Android devices. The key features I like within this app are that there are four tracks (Atmosphere, Sound Effects, Music, and Custom) where you can play four different sounds at once and give each of them a different volume level. Maybe the atmosphere (like a cheering crowd) is right up in the PCs’ faces, but the music is very distant while the sound effects are midway. The app comes with gobs of different sound effects as well. It’s quite cool.
Back in the day when I ran the various World of Darkness games, I’d always start off the session with a set of theme music. It was rarely longer than two minutes long, but it always tied to key events that were coming up soon. This helped put the players in the mood.
These days, I’m running and playing more fantasy-based games, so I fall back to various soundtracks that emote that feeling. I try to find ones without lyrics to avoid that mental distraction. Good ones on my list include Conan the Barbarian, and the whole slew of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit soundtracks. Just snagging the LotR/Hobbit soundtracks will keep your background music filled for many game sessions.
Before Google mapped out the world and Wikipedia made it possible to know just about anything with a couple taps of your thumb, even a small town could be full of adventure. There were all these places you weren’t supposed to go to, dangerous places like abandoned warehouses and old biker hangouts. There was always that one kid who’d heard a rumor about the place from their cousin’s friend’s sister, and they swore up and down that it was the truth. You didn’t know how much of it was true, but you knew you had until the streetlights came on to get to the bottom of it.
That experience is at the heart of Kids on Bikes, an RPG riding on the hype of the 80’s nostalgia popularized by Stranger Things. With the third season just around the corner, many of us want to know what it’d be like trying to outpace the Demogorgon or shady government agents in their black vans. But how does Kids on Bikes rate, not just as an RPG but as an experience?
I’ll be reviewing the print version of this game. The book has 74 pages of content, plus a couple extra pages in the back for a character sheet and Kickstarter acknowledgments. It’s not a big book, but it’ll only set you back $25, which for an RPG can either be a great deal or a trap.
The book’s formatting and design are simple and straightforward. This leaves plenty of room for the extensive examples the book uses to describe some of its mechanics. The book is divided into the following sections:
Playing the Game
Information for the GM
This is a quick, one-page section about making sure your players are safe during play. Disclaimers like this have been common in recent RPG’s (and re-releases of older games), and there’s not much here that a seasoned player hasn’t seen before. The book encourages players to talk about topics they want to avoid or to write lists they can give the GM if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue openly. The tone here is supportive, discouraging confrontational attitudes towards these boundaries. While this isn’t anything new, it’s appropriate in a game about dangerous things happening to kids.
The book offers rules and suggestions for collaborative world-building, taking the brunt of the work off of the GM’s shoulders. A list of incomplete statements guide this process, such as “Our town is famous for…” and “A notable local organization is…”. Players take turns completing a statement, each contributing their own ideas and helping bring a small town to life. After each player has provided an equal number of answers (usually 2 or 3), they each come up with a rumor about the town. The section closes with suggestions about what the ideal town for this game looks like, as well as how it should change over multiple sessions.
As a GM and writer, I’m used to stuffing my campaign worlds with all the unnecessary details a player might randomly ask for. I also know the traps and pitfalls of exposition and the challenges that come with trying to give just enough information so the players know what’s going on. The collaborative world-building offered by Kids on Bikes eliminates most of this problem. The players know this place because they helped build it. Together, they create a living, breathing place with at least a couple interesting spots that stand out as obvious places for adventure.
I’ve found that players have a lot of fun answering these questions, and it saves the GM a ton of work (which is always a plus). I recommend doing this world-building in a “session zero,” since the rumors your players come up with can make great adventure hooks. They’re telling you what interests them. Use them and they’ll stay interested. Overall, this is a great strength of the system and having it so early in the book really sets the tone for the kind of game Kids on Bikes wants to be.
The book’s first meaty section deals with character creation. Kids on Bikes cares more about who a character is than what they can do. Rather than character classes, Kids on Bikes uses tropes from the TV shows and movies that inspire the game’s theme, such as Popular Kid, Loner Weirdo, and Blue-Collar Worker. Kids on Bikes uses standard RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) which are attributed to each stat depending on the chosen trope. For example, a Popular Kid’s best ability is Charm, so whenever they make a Charm check, they’ll roll a d20. I’ll be going over the system in more detail in the next section of this review.
After a trope is selected, players will choose strengths and flaws for their characters. Strengths are trope-specific and give a character mechanical advantages. For example, the Tough strength allows a character to reduce the negative consequences of losing a combat roll. Strengths give additional depth to characters, helping differentiate even those with the same tropes from each other. Sure, two people at the table may be playing a Loner Weirdo, but one might be Tough while another is Intuitive. Do you think those characters would solve their problems the same way? Just like strengths, flaws are tied to specific Tropes. However, they don’t have any effect on the mechanical aspect of the game. They’re there mostly to fuel roleplay and help players build well-rounded characters.
Next, players will introduce their characters to the table. Rather than simply going around the table and listing their character’s traits, Kids on Bikes players are encouraged to figure out relationships between each of their characters. Are there siblings at the table? Parents and children? Rivals? Players will then answer questions about the other characters. Kids on Bikes offers three ways of doing this (Quick Start Questions, One-Sided Questions, and Complete Questions) but the basic premise is the same; players are answering questions about characters that aren’t theirs. Questions like “What volunteer work have you heard that this character does?” and “How did this character betray you the last time you confided in them?” These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.
These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.
All in all, character creation goes rather smoothly. Even with a single book for the table, the process takes much less time than other games with deeper mechanics, such as D&D. While Kids on Bikes’ mechanics don’t have the same depth, a character in Kids on Bikes is just as deep, if not deeper than the ones found in other games. Because players are encouraged to think about where their character comes from and how they relate to others, they end up with an intimate understanding of their character and their place in the world. Character introductions can eat up a good chunk of time (the Complete Questions method alone can take 8 minutes per player), but if you’ve got the extra time, going through them is a lot of fun.
Playing the Game
The “game” part of this roleplaying game is simple and straightforward. This is a game about characters and story, not about rolling dice. That said, we do need the dice to figure out the things that we can’t just decide. As mentioned earlier, Kids on Bikes uses a dice chain to determine a character’s stats, from a d4 to a d20. That means each character is fantastic at one thing and terrible at another, with the rest of their stats falling somewhere in the middle.
Using those stats is fairly straightforward. You pick the one you want to use and roll to beat a target number, set by the GM. Because each stat uses a different die, a straightforward challenge for one character can be near-impossible for another. By itself, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Kids on Bikes adds other mechanics to make things interesting:
Exploding Dice: If you roll the highest value on your die (eg. a 6 on a d6), you roll it again and add the values together. With a bit of luck, a character rolling a d4 could end up doing something truly amazing.
Adversity Tokens: Whenever a character fails a check, they receive an adversity token, which they can use to get a +1 bonus on their check. A player can spend more than one at a time, and can even use them to improve another player’s check. Some strengths also use adversity tokens as a resource, allowing characters to spend them for other benefits. For instance, a character with the Treasure Hunter strength can use an Adversity Token to find a useful item in their surroundings.
Planned Actions vs. Snap Decisions: Every check is either a planned action or a snap decision. For the former, characters can take half the value of their die (eg. 10 on a d20) to succeed on their check, as long as this matches or beats the difficulty of the check. You can’t do this on a snap decision check, and other players can’t use their adversity tokens to help you.
Combat uses this system as well, except the GM doesn’t set a numerical difficulty for the check. Instead, the attacker and defender each roll their own die, usually Fight for the attacker and Flight or Brawn for the defender. The difference between the rolls determines the outcome of the fight. If the defender’s roll is equal to or greater than the attacker’s, the attack is ineffective. However, if the attacker’s roll is higher, they’ll deal some damage, the severity depending on the difference between the rolls, from a grazing hit to a death blow. If the defender is still up and wants to fight back, the roles swap and the dice are rolled again. Because there are no hit points, everything is handled narratively, and a single roll could end a fight.
Overall, the Kids on Bikes system is incredibly simple. The book encourages failing forward, not only through the use of adversity tokens but in the language it uses to describe failure. The system is meant to guide the narrative decisions your characters make, not bind them. This makes for smooth play with fewer dice rolls than other systems, although the game is not without its clunky bits. The difference between planned actions and snap decisions can be arbitrary, and combat can be a bit of a slog, especially when an enemy just won’t go down. For the most part, the system knows how to stay out of its own way, leading to a better game as a result.
From E.T. to Eleven, characters with strange abilities have often been part of 80’s adventures. Kids on Bikes refers to these as powered characters. This isn’t an option the players can play, but a character that they control collectively. This is done with aspects, bite-sized parts of the powered character that are written on cards and passed out to the players. When an aspect becomes relevant, the player with that aspect turns the card sideways to indicate that they are taking narrative control of the powered character. Any player can activate any aspect, but narrative control remains in the hands of the player who controls that aspect. These aspects can vary wildly, from “sarcastic” to “able to control the weather.” In theory, this helps to make the powered character feel like a part of the group rather than just another NPC. In practice, however, spreading out the aspects and narrative control of the powered character can be confusing, and because some aspects are more pertinent than others (like the actual psychic powers) some players may end up controlling the powered character more than others. While making the powered character a collective character is an interesting idea, it falls kind of flat and can lead to the powered character fading into the background.
Besides aspects, powered characters have their own specific system for psychic abilities, which use Psychic Energy Tokens (PE Tokens). Using the powered character’s abilities starts the same way as any other check, with the GM setting a numerical value for the difficulty. Then, the player making the check will spend one PE Token and roll 2d4, subtracting the roll from the target number. If the result is zero or negative the attempt succeeds. If the result is one or greater, the player can either spend PE Tokens to increase their roll (thus decreasing the overall result towards zero) or the attempt fails.
Confused? You’re not the only one. The powered character system is the major drawback of Kids on Bikes. The “roll 2d4 and subtract it from the difficulty” system feels somewhat arbitrary, with no precedent in the rules. Combine this with the fact that the book doesn’t have rules for setting the difficulty of a powered character’s check, and this system feels like an afterthought. Supernatural abilities are an inherent component of the strange 80’s adventures this RPG tries to emulate, and it’s a shame that this aspect of the game isn’t as robust as it could be.
Information for the GM
I’ll be honest here. When I was preparing to run this game, I completely skipped this section, and no situation has come up in my games that had me rushing to it for help. The first few pages are about player safety, expanding on the Setting Boundaries section found earlier in the book. It encourages GM’s to create a gaming environment that is supportive and safe for all players, as well as giving players ways to stop the action if they’re feeling uncomfortable, relying on pre-existing systems such as Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool. While this is not something that has been needed in my games (we’ve all been playing together for years), it’s a welcome addition, especially for groups who might not know each other as well.
Beyond safety precautions, this section has advice for GM’s on crafting stories and adventures for their games. This advice goes from the general (discuss the desired tone of the game with your players) to the specific (use the rumors from the World-Building phase to craft your story). The book also stresses the importance of shared narrative control here, making sure the players have more of a say in what’s going on than in a typical game of D&D. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. For instance, there is zero information on creating NPC’s and no examples of NPC’s to throw in your games. The book forces you to figure out how to handle the NPC’s your players will run into on your own which is disappointing. Overall, this is not the most useful section, unless you’re absolutely new to running an RPG.
While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s.
This section holds much of the game’s important information, such as the aspects used by powered characters and the tropes used for character creation. There’s not a wasted page in the appendices, and you’ll be referring to them often.
While I would definitely recommend this game for certain play groups, I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. If you want a light system and the theme interests you, you’ll have a lot of fun with Kids on Bikes. However, the lack of pertinent GM information and lackluster powered character system makes it difficult to recommend this to new GM’s. A game like this is best for groups who have played together before. But considering this is a $25 RPG, you don’t have much to lose in giving it a try.
This week’s episode is a convention panel recorded at Breakout 2019 in Toronto, Ontario. Senda moderates for panelists Ang, Camdon, and the self-described gnome-adjacent Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios for a discussion about running good con games. Will this good advice be enough to keep these gnomes (and their gnome-adjacent friend) out of the stew this week?
A few years ago, I saw a lot of chatter about a science fiction book series. I had never heard of it before, but I decided that it had been a while since I picked up a good sci-fi book, so I gave it a try. Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series, is now one of my favorite novels.
To call The Expanse hard science fiction misses out on a lot of nuance, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Expanse is. There is action, political maneuvering, mercenary adventures, and noir detective action going on, and that’s before you get to the really weird stuff. If you were to make an RPG of the setting, you would have to cover a lot of ground to capture the feel.
On that note, let’s look at Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game. Based on their AGE System, the same underlying rules that are used for the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game, this one is tackling a completely different genre.
This review is based on the PDF of the RPG, which is 260 pages in length. The book is full color and features a copious amount of artwork. All of the artwork is impressive, but of special note is that the artwork is based on the novel series. My personal preference when it comes to adaptations is to see a wide range of interpretations, so I’m all for this.
There are plenty of half-page images introducing chapters, with many headers and sidebars to break up text into more readable pieces of data. There are also full-page images introducing some of the larger sections, as well as a two-page spread of the solar system. There is a two-page index, two pages for a character sheet, and the Churn Tracker, in addition to the regular material. This is a very attractive book.
Foreword, The Last Flight of the Cassandra, Introduction
The book is introduced by the authors of the novel series, giving a brief summary of the history of the setting, including the fact that it was once the framework of a tabletop RPG campaign. In addition to the foreword, the authors also wrote a short story that is included at the beginning of the book, detailing a day in the life of a freighter crew. Finally, we get a quick primer on the rules used in the system, mainly the 3d6 resolution method used.
Anyone familiar with other AGE System games may pick up on the fact that the third die used to roll checks in the game is called the Drama Die in this iteration, although there is more on that later. While this section has the standard quick pitch explanation of roleplaying that many games have, I was surprised at how much time the introduction spent on explaining group dynamics and making sure that everyone at the table respects one another and gels as a group.
The next section of the book is dubbed the Player’s Section, and this is subdivided into the following chapters:
Technology and Equipment
In this section, we get more information on why the Stunt Die from previous AGE games gets a new name this time around. The Drama Die is used to determine several ancillary story elements whenever a check is made. It can break ties, determine the degree of success, and also determine if other random elements happen when making a check.
Characters in the setting have a resource called Fortune. You can spend Fortune to reduce damage done to your characters (not entirely unlike hit points), but Fortune is also a resource you can spend to change your dice results, although you can only change one die of the three you roll, and changing the Drama Die costs extra.
Ability Tests function in a manner similar to many RPGs. Roll 3d6, add a modifier, see if you match the difficulty number. The Expanse also includes Advanced Tests and Challenge Tests. Advanced Tests have a Success Threshold. Just rolling the target number doesn’t finish the task, but instead, you check the Drama Die against the Threshold. Once the total of the Drama Dice from each successful check match the Threshold, the task is accomplished. This can be used for tasks that might take a while, where the GM only allows a check once in a while, or in a situation where there is a time crunch, to see how long the check takes.
Challenge Tests are similar to Advanced Tests, except each time a character fails an Ability Test, a complication happens in the narrative. This might be a separate situation that has to be mitigated with an unrelated Ability Test, an opponent appearing, or the difficulty of the core task increasing.
There are a number of conditions that can be applied to a character, and a character that takes damage that they can’t mitigate with Fortune can take some of these conditions to further mitigate damage.
In addition to what players may be familiar with regarding terms like narrative time and action time (being out or in initiative order), there are also Interludes. Interludes are essentially downtime, where the GM can let the PCs know how much they can accomplish before they get back to the main action of the campaign.
I really like how the Advanced and Challenge Tests work, because they feel like a more mechanically structured Skill Challenge mechanic that is explained in a logical manner and doesn’t feel too far removed from the narrative. I also like the idea that Fortune does serve a similar function to hit points, but allowing it to be spent for something else reinforces that it’s not equivalent to health or stamina.
Next up is actual character creation. Characters can roll randomly for their stats on a chart, which yields results from -2 to 4, or they can use a standard array or a point buy system, but in this case, the range allowed is only 0 to 3. As you may surmise, these abilities are similar to abilities in other games, but rather than having a score that provides a bonus, the score and the bonus are the same. The abilities in the game are:
Anyone familiar with d20 games may note that the wider array of abilities means that there aren’t as many definitive “must have” combat stats. Accuracy is used to shoot, but perception adds to ranged damage. Fighting makes it easier to hit in melee, but strength adds to damage.
The three origins in the game are Belter, Earther, and Martian. These origins have different charts to use when deriving social class, but the main difference between them depends on whether the characters are operating at higher gravity (which is normal for Earthers) or very low gravity (where Belters excel).
Once a character determines their social class, there are charts that determine their Backgrounds. Backgrounds are what provides ability bonuses, focuses, and talents. After determining your Background, you can generate your Profession, which provides more focuses or talents. While each of these items can be randomly generated, you can also pick from the lists if you have a specific character in mind.
The next step is to determine a Drive. There are twelve predetermined drives given in the book, and they provide a Quality and a Downfall, which are mainly roleplaying guides, and also a choice of talents to add to the others you have gained.
The following steps will also generate an income score. Rather than tracking individual currencies, characters have a wealth score. Succeed on a test, and you buy something, but then your score goes down. Get a temporary bonus on a job, and you get a bonus that you can apply to a single roll. Over time, Income can go up, if that is one of the rewards the GM provides for the adventures the PCs are on.
In this section, we don’t get much of a preview of talents or specializations, but an Ability Focus is essentially a skill, and some of the Focuses indicate that you can’t make an Ability Test to do work related to that Focus without the Focus. There is also a chart that shows what advancements the PCs get when they gain a level. Levels are gained whenever the GM deems that it makes sense to do so.
It feels a little odd that there isn’t a big level by level table summarizing what characters get at each level, just a description of what your choices are when you level up. I’m a big fan of bonuses and focuses coming from Backgrounds and Professions, and I like that the Drive has a little bit of mechanical reinforcement in addition to the roleplaying guides.
The character traits section goes into what Focuses fall under what Ability. It also explains what the various Talents do, and how Specializations work. Talents have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier. They may or may not also have a prerequisite, such as a specific Ability Score. These usually provide special situational bonuses, re-rolls, or exemptions from other existing rules.
Specializations are very similar to Talents, and also have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier, but usually have a broader application.
Technology and Equipment
Technology and Equipment come next. I was a bit surprised to notice that most weapons are very broadly defined (i.e. a pistol style weapon does X damage, etc.). What denotes a big flashy pistol versus a smaller, more concealable one is Item Qualities and Item Flaws. These might provide a bonus to hit, bonuses to intimidation, or it may require the user to spend an action to ready the item, or it may quit working if an Ability Test is failed and a certain number is rolled on the Drama Die.
Given its special and very restricted role in the setting, Power Armor gets a little more detail than regular armors, but it is still basically comprised of various qualities. That said, never, ever make Bobbie Draper mad.
The next section is Game Play, which fleshes out some of the rules touched upon earlier. If you roll doubles on your tests, you can spend the Drama Die on stunts, and there are charts for the following special groups of stunts:
Membership & Reputation
This seems like a lot, but for the most part, it’s just a matter of reading something that seems applicable to the situation and spending the stunt points on that effect. The worst aspect of this is reading through the entries to see what all of them do. Until you start to remember some of your options, the tables might lead to a bit of option paralysis.
In combat, if you take any damage that you can’t mitigate, your character is taken out of the scene, and given a condition dictated by the character that took them out. If someone is trying to kill you, if you are taken out, you can end up with the dying condition. If you decide you are taken out of the fight early, you can “roll over,” and assign yourself a condition that would be appropriate, and you are no longer part of the encounter. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see a mechanic that reminded me of Fate in this book, and I like the idea that the real damage isn’t represented by numbers, but by conditions.
This chapter also has a good deal of information on running investigations in the system. In essence, the point is to create a number of clues that lead to a final location. Clues should be found, but Ability Tests can be used to gain additional information, or to skip clues in the chain that leads to the final location of the investigation.
The specific Interlude Activities are also defined in this section. These include requirements and resolutions. For example, in some cases, you just need to spend time in an interlude doing something to do it, and that’s what you “spent” your Interlude on. But in some cases, like building something new, you make a check for each instance you can take the time in your Interlude to work on that item.
I appreciate that the book spends the amount of time that it does on investigations. Not only has that been important to several of the novels, but investigations, in general, are adventure elements that come up a lot in RPGs, and having a guide to what checks should accomplish is welcome. I also like that the chase rules give you a reason to know why one character is slightly faster than another, but I’m a little sad that the game uses standard movement instead of range bands (especially since the next chapter expressly does use range bands for starships).
There are actually several pages in this section dedicated to actual science and the scientific speculations that make the space travel in The Expanse possible. It’s written in an interesting and engaging manner, but strictly speaking, the chapter doesn’t really start in with any game rules until about five pages in.
Since this is more of a hard science fiction setting, there are charts showing the average travel time between planets and the time it takes to send transmissions from various points in the solar system. Ships have qualities just like the equipment in other sections. The hull size of a ship allows it to roll dice to reduce incoming damage, and if any damage gets through, there are conditions that the ship can suffer. Ships can also “roll over” like characters, leaving a fight but voluntarily taking on a condition.
One interesting aspect of combat is that the game simulates how weapons work in the setting. That means that the person targeting the weapons is pointing the computer guidance at someone, but doesn’t roll. There is a difficulty to dodge or shoot down the incoming attack that is rolled by the defender. It makes sense, but it feels odd, and I would like to see this system in action.
Future History, Earth, Mars, The Belt, The Outers
The next chapters detail the history of the setting, laying out how Earth unified under the UN, colonized Mars, stagnated, and how the Belt and the outer planets were reached. It explains the tension between all of these locations, recent events, and the corporate shenanigans that led to a dangerous alien contagion spreading across various locations.
In addition to historical and geographical information on the locations and the various power groups like the OPA, these chapters also have stats for a few of the more famous characters from the novels, detailed in the relevant sections (Avisarila in the general history section, Holden in the section on Earth, Bobbie in the section on Mars, etc.).
Game Master’s Section
This section is comprised of the following chapters:
The Expanse Series
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The Game Mastering section has solid advice on how to run the game, as well as some specific tips on how to use this particular system. There are guides to structuring adventures and combat, and how to determine proper opposition.
This section also has what is called The Churn, a mechanic for tracking ongoing unforeseen complications. The Churn Pool has a list of triggers that cause it to grow, and at various points the GM is advised to add new effects to the ongoing narrative. There are suggestions for different types of encounters, such as challenges, hazards, investigation, or social encounters.
There is also a pretty exhaustive list of GMing styles and player styles detailed in the GM section of the book. The most important aspect of the chapter is probably the Unspoken Rules, a section that details important things like being inclusive, checking in with players to make sure they are comfortable at the game, and making sure that players are feeling accepted.
This is a very extensive chapter, and its good material, but I really wish the Churn was less a set of “mile markers” for introducing things, and more of an active pool that a GM could spend at various times for defined effects. It also feels like the very detailed discussion of GM and Player types is more of a “200 level” game mastery discussion, and might make someone newer to running games feel like they aren’t doing it right if they can’t identify and act on all of those defined types. I think the final section does a good job stressing the importance of everyone’s comfort at the table, but I wish there had been some discussion of active safety tools during the game session.
Threats include not just adversaries like thugs or corporate experiments gone wrong, but also hazards like radiation, and how they might play out in an encounter. Rewards include when to increase Income bonuses and when to give temporary boosts, but also honorifics, memberships, and relationship bonds.
Honorifics might provide different bonuses depending on what the character is known for—they might help boost an ally, or give them an edge if their opponent knows who they are and what they are good at. Memberships are ranked, and provide bonuses when dealing with other members of that organization. Relationship bonds are also ranked, and provide bonus stunt points any time the object of the Relationship Bond is affected by a check.
I would have to see how often it comes up in a regular game, but I do like the idea of the relationship bond making it easier to do something extra when your good friend/significant other is part of the situation.
The Expanse Series
The final section before the sample adventure details different styles of campaigns that you might play. The steps presented include finding a theme for the game, determining where and when the series is set, then finding what the actual series will be. Examples include Freelancers, Military, Political, and Rebellion, and also discusses how much you may want to include canon information in the game.
I like the sample campaign series that are presented. Sometimes in a licensed game, it can be easy to be stuck in a rut, trying to determine how to do the same thing the main protagonists are doing, but in a different way. In this case, there is a wide range of ideas inspired by, but not identical to, the paths taken by the main characters of the novels. It probably helps that the novels have a main crew as well as ancillary characters to weave criminal investigations, politics, diplomacy, and military action in around the main plot.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Starting adventures in games are a great way to see how the developers intended the game to work. Obviously these should feel appropriate for the setting, but in this case, I am really impressed with how much this feels like something I would expect from The Expanse, without touching too much on the main storyline from the books.
You have the chance to interact with an important character from the books, but only in a more peripheral manner. Beyond that, the characters get hired to investigate something that leads them to corporate impropriety and a dangerously overindulgent personal goal, and its probably one of the better starting adventures I can remember in a core rulebook.
Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
This rulebook adds some amazingly versatile tools to the overall AGE System framework. The versatility of Ability Tests gives the game the mechanical impact to make action scenes other than combat meaningful, and the investigation rules do a great job of giving purpose to Ability Tests without letting the PCs hit a dead end. The way Fortune works, and the interaction with the combat system conditions, feels like a great trade-off between the grittier feel of the setting and the needs of the game’s ongoing shared narrative.
I wish The Churn had been a little bit more of a dynamic tool for the GM. I’m not sure that the time spent on the various GM and Player types was the most practical for newer GMs. I wish the book had spent a little more time on active table safety as well as discussing safety in the broader context of the campaign.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is my favorite iteration of the AGE System rules. There are so many useful tools, and enough bits to make a game interesting without adding in bells and whistles like powers or magic. If you like the setting, and you don’t mind your narrative elements having some mechanical impact, you should enjoy this game. Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
What are your favorite sci-fi RPGs? If you like hard science fiction, what can a game do to express that successfully at the table? We want to hear from you, so please comment below!
Obligatory recap: I’ve read about a system for creating urbancrawls (similar to hexcrawls but set in a city) from The Alexandrian. I had also been enjoying the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson and their strange magic setting. Enter this series of articles, where I use The Alexandrian’s urbancrawl system to design my own urbancrawl with a strange magic theme.
neighborhood breakdowns for the Temple, Palace, Ruins, Crafting, and Bazaar districts
This is the last installment where I outline neighborhoods. This time I’m tackling the final districts: the slums. Next time I’ll start working with layers (multiple encounter keys).
Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls and bordered by the wall, the five major rivers, the major roadways, and the shores of the central lake. Note that none of those have names at this point. This is just one step up from a sketch, and then only because I figured using software would result in a slightly more readable result than hand drawing it. Districts are color coded, Neighborhoods are labeled with a key. We’re also not going to name them at this point either. That’s something we can handle later and something that takes up an awful lot of brain space and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.
S – Slums: This is actually two districts, the northern and southern slums, noted as NS and SS. Like all other districts, the outer areas of slum neighborhoods also host shops, but the goods to be found here are usually inferior or of a questionable nature. Residential areas are overcrowded and dirty. Public areas are all but nonexistent. Buildings are mostly made of wood and are in poor condition. In many places, structures are crowded close together or touching. Unless otherwise noted, homes in slum neighborhoods are simple and usually one room. Shops are mostly one or two rooms, and contain an attached bedroom for the proprietor. Public areas are small, poorly kept and often inhabited by those with nowhere else to go.
NS1 – Chokestreet: This slum is downwind and downstream from the crafting district. Though the crafting district is supposed to shunt the worst of its pollution outside the city, a fair amount of it ends up here. The air in this slum is foul and on poor days difficult to see through. Water is contaminated with runoff, mostly undrinkable and is occasionally flammable. Residents will often travel to the edges of the neighborhood to procure potable water. Landmark: The Pit – At the lowest point of the neighborhood, the accumulated pollution creates a permanent eye burning fog. Lower still is a pool of polluted water and runoff. Occasional gouts of brightly colored flame light up the smog.
NS2 – The Itch: Much like the animal pens that this neighborhood borders, residents here deal in animals and animal products. However, they deal more with small animals, offal and the like. In addition, because of the close quarters, stores of feed, offal, bedding and waste, the neighborhood crawls with all sorts of vermin. Rats are plentiful, but more common are bugs of all description, some as large as a man’s hand. Vermin traps and few very small windows (sometimes covered with firm cloth or rarely slices of horn to keep vermin out) are common features. Public areas have a notable lack of water features, as they tend to breed flying insects. Landmark: The Hive – a cluster of small buildings in this neighborhood has been taken over by a hive of giant bees. These bugs are rarely dangerous if left alone, but they emit a loud noise and can be seen flying about the city. A few residents take precautions and harvest as much honey as they dare.
NS3 – The Bloom: This neighborhood was unremarkable if poor, before the accident that destroyed the ruined district. The accident caused a number of issues here. Most immediately, a number of buildings were destroyed and many have yet to be repaired. In addition, many refugees from the now ruined magic school have taken up residence. The population of the neighborhood is swollen with low level mages and alchemists. Finally, one of the fragments of the college that rained down on the streets contained spores for dozens of strains of fungus. In a wet city like Juntial, these spores spread rapidly. Structures in this neighborhood often sprout many varied types of fungus and residents regularly scrape their homes clean to avoid damage. Landmark: The lost house – Perhaps the first structure to be hit with the fungal debris, this building stands completely covered in several feet of fungus of unusual size and colors.
NS4 – Catwalks: This neighborhood is densely packed and has the occasional taller building similar to The Heights. It also features a number of hastily assembled catwalks over the narrow streets. Braver residents will often travel via catwalk as a shortcut. Residences here are simple, and densely clustered. Thought not all of them have ladders, stairs, and ropes to the roof, many do. Only a few have second stories. Public areas are often on the roofs of other buildings. Landmark: Candletower – Towards the center of the neighborhood is a stone tower and short attending building . This is Candletower, ostensibly the home of a local noble. However, it receives few visitors, so little is known about what goes on inside.
SS1 – The Warrens: More an extension of The Maze than a neighborhood in its own right, the warrens are made up of densely packed shifting lean-tos and tents clogging the streets of an already tight neighborhood. Paths within change from day to day and there is no room for mounts or vehicles of any sort. Buildings are small, simple and sometimes divided into multiple tight rooms. Public areas are nonexistent. Landmark: Garbage Fortunes – roaming the outskirts of the warrens with the rest of the trash vendors is a bent old crone who tells fortunes. Her price is simply a handful of garbage, which is thrown into her trash fire. Strange, but she is a regular fixture of the neighborhood and her fortunes are of good quality.
SS2 – Old City: This neighborhood was one of the earliest in the city. Originally typical if snug buildings with stone foundations, most of the buildings were lost in an attack by the native inhabitants of the swamp. Rebuilt later, most are now only enough wooden construction over the old foundation to permit entrance and exit. A few of the original buildings survive, towering over their now diminutive neighbors. Because the houses and shops are so short, streets are lined with local fast-growing woody plants to form a privacy screen. Landmark: The Dust Pit – Most places in Juntial are constantly damp, especially the lower class districts and lower elevations. Thus the sunken foundations in Old City are perpetually in danger of flooding and seeping moisture. A few of them, however, hold enchantments from before their ruin that keep them dry. The Dust pit is one of these enchanted foundations. Filled with dry sand and silt, it is in use as a fighting pit. Seating is arranged outside the foundation. Barkers and pennants advertise the fights.
SS3 – Artisan’s Alley: During the upgrade of the Raised Market, each founder hired various types of workers. Just before completion of the work, one of the founders mysteriously disappeared. It was discovered that he had nowhere near enough money to pay the workers and artists that had been working on the project on his behalf. Many of them were not from Juntial, and now with no pay for their labor couldn’t afford to return home. Of these, a good number moved into the nearby slums, opened up shop and took on apprentices. Several generations later, the neighborhood is festive, bohemian, and adorned with artistry of all types. Homes and shops are simple but well decorated in eclectic styles. Public areas showcase artworks of both permanent and temporary nature. Landmark: Founders Square – One of the pieces of art that was commissioned and never paid for was a larger than life statue of the founder responsible for stiffing an entire neighborhood. Several of the artists stole it in a drunken midnight horse cart raid and erected it in the middle of their new neighborhood. Since, it and the square in which it rests has been routinely defaced with mocking artwork depicting the subject in an endless panoply of unflattering and rude representations.
That’s all our neighborhoods, a description and a landmark for each. Though these may be fleshed out more or tweaked as I go, for the purposes of this article series, I’m going to move on. Next time we’re going to look at layers of encounters.
Here in a few weeks, I’ll be firing up a new campaign based on The Expanse (books/TV/RPG), so this has gotten me thinking about “using someone else’s setting” quite a bit. This is an especially potent concept for The Expanse. There are (as of this writing) eight books with a 9th coming in 2020. There are also 4 seasons of TV available to stream on Amazon Prime. In addition to all this, the deep origins of the setting come from an RPG that Ty Franck ran for Daniel Abraham and some other friends. The reason I mention Ty and Daniel specifically is that Ty created the setting we now know as The Expanse and Daniel was one of his players. They’ve teamed up to create the pen name “James S.A. Corey” to write the novels.
Green Ronin Kickstarted their version of The Expanse RPG, and as I type this, the books are in transit to my house. To say that I’m “excited” for the arrival of this material is a weakness of the English language. To say that I’m “nervous” about doing the setting justice is also a weakness of the English language.
How am I going to handle these nerves and excitement? I’m going to work with my group to make it “Our Expanse” while we’re at the table together.
Make It Your Own
Any experienced author will tell you that their words are no longer theirs once the book is published. The words belong to the reader. They get to make of the words what they will. There is no wrong interpretation, but there are many right interpretations, including the author’s.
This means the author (or in this case, the team of game designers) has their intents and purposes for the game, but when the game hits each table out there in the world, the gaming group gets to turn those intents and purposes to their own game. This means they are making it their own. This is part of releasing a game into the world. Again, there is no wrong interpretation of the setting, but there are as many right viewpoints on the setting as there are gaming groups playing the game.
How do we interpret an existing setting? That’s a hard question to answer because we all bring numerous perspectives, backgrounds, traumas, loves, dislikes, and angles to the table. This means there are many ways to interpret the setting that’s published in the game (or on TV or in a series of novels).
The first step is to understand (as best you can) what currently exists in the existing canon. This is fairly easy with a “small” body of work like The Expanse. If you take on Star Trek, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, or another large property, then things get more difficult. Don’t try to absorb it all. That pathway leads to insanity and a huge waste of time. The best thing to do is to focus on what’s in the game book(s). This is what the creators of the game wanted you to focus on, so it’s probably a good idea to follow their lead.
The second step is to find a place to drop your personal story and characters. This is the sweet spot because you’ll make this area your own for you and your players. This is where you’ll make your changes to the setting to fit your needs.
Once you’ve identified your target, dive deep into that area. Absorb even more than you already have, but avoid rabbit holes of research that can lead you astray from your target. (To quote a famous space battle scene, “Stay on target.”)
At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article because of their “low or zero prep” philosophies. I agree with their approach to some extent, but this is more research than prep work. Yes, this can be time consuming, so don’t go overboard. Make sure you have index cards or some other note taking method handy. You’ll want to call out page numbers, references, and brief snippets of brilliance that you find. You’ll also want to note what you intend to change or use in the setting.
At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article.
Once you have this knowledge at hand, note the changes or shifts you want to make. You’ll want to create a brief list of bullet notes for the players to let those “in the know” what’s going to be changed. Also, during your session zero, you’ll want to explicitly call out that there will be changes and that if some “misinformation” about the setting is used, then it will become “canon at the table” for this particular game.
Here’s where a problem arises. If you’re using a setting that has deep lore (see my list above) or has been around a long while, then there is a risk that a player at the table will know more about it than you. This happened to me in a Dresden Files game I ran. I’ve read the books, the short stories, and seen the TV show (no comment on that last one). However, my brain doesn’t hold the massive amounts of knowledge and information contained within that lore. There were many things I got wrong or didn’t have answers to.
The first is the least desirable. This approach is to shutdown the player and let them know that their intense depth of knowledge isn’t helpful in the game. This allows you to run the setting as your own, but it will also alienate your player(s) who have this knowledge. It does allow for more freedom, but it’s making use of something valuable within your game.
This leads to the second option. Lean on the player. Make it known that your knowledge is lacking. Admit to the group that you’ll welcome input and advice on how to handle the setting. Also let them know that you get the final call on how things will go in the game at the table. Once these two “ground rules” are in place, don’t be embarrassed about turning to the player for help with getting the little details correct. This will empower the “know-it-alls” and bring them deeper into your game.
Relax. Someone else may have created the setting, but this version belongs entirely to your group. Own it. Make it your own and interpret the setting as you see fit.
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 a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (Second Edition)
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins from UFO Press and Modiphius Entertainment is a Powered by the Apocalypse game designed for one Game Master (GM) and 2-5 players to tell the epic, era-spanning tale of rebuilding society after a cataclysmic fall. Apocalypse World, the progenitor of the Powered by the Apocalypse movement, is a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland. In its wake arose an army of games based on similar design principles but exploring different settings and themes from classic fantasy like Dungeon World to imaginative futurism like Headspace. When Legacy first emerged in 2015, a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland, I mused that we’d come full circle with a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was once again about…well, the apocalypse.
Legacy is a different game from Apocalypse World, though, with a different focus and a very different style. In this edition of The Indie Game Shelf, I’ll be focusing on the second edition of Legacy, published in 2018. The second edition is an update of the first, as opposed to it being a different set of rules. The core of the game remains, but gameplay is improved and material expanded by the second edition, so I recommend the second edition over the first.
Legacy is a game squarely set in the post-apocalypse genre, but where the game differs from most others is in the scope of the narrative. The stories told in this game span generations, truly living up to the game’s premise of world-building. Players in this game do control characters as in other RPGs, but the main interface between players and the game world are the Family playbooks, which represent whole groups of people across the duration of the world’s development. The framing of the game’s fiction zooms in and out between the two perspectives, with some stories being personal to Characters and others taking a wider, more epic view of the activities and relationships of Families. In this context, a Family is not necessarily a group of people related biologically; they can be united by ideology, culture, circumstance, or anything that forges a bond of loyalty between people. Families grow and change, are driven by various purposes, have relationships with each other, face threats, and can pursue grand, world-changing events in the game called Wonders.
Like in many Powered by the Apocalypse games, the rules present a style of play more than a detailed setting. There is assumed to have previously occurred some great disaster that tore civilization down, and the game’s story is meant to take place in the aftermath, but the details of the world and its history are left to each game group to decide. However, Legacy provides rules for determining these details through playbook choice and configuration. The selection of a playbook can describe aspects of the game’s world, but the choices made within that playbook refine the setting’s history.
The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign.
For example, choosing the Family playbook “The Order of the Titan,” which describes a group dedicated to hunting, fighting, or scavenging gigantic alien beasts called Behemoths, means that you now know that Behemoths are a part of your game world. Once a playbook is chosen, however, then a stat line must be selected, and the choice of stat line might dictate “your studies woke the Behemoths and set them loose” or “the Behemoths brought the Fall to the world.” In this way, Family and Character setup also result in setting up the world, not only historically but also geographically with the building of a collaborative world map. (I love games that use collaborative map-building!)
In addition to a Family playbook, players also begin by selecting a Character playbook to represent an exceptional member of the Family who will serve as one of the protagonists of the story. These playbooks start with an archetype (the Elder, the Scavenger, the Firebrand, etc.) and are customized from there. A campaign of Legacy spans generations, so Characters come and go as the game progresses. While players control one Family to usher through the rebuilding of the world, they’ll get the chance to play many different Characters over the course of the campaign.
The focus of the stories of Legacy lie in the building of the world. This is only partially due to the pre-game or start-of-game “worldbuilding” as I use the term in discussing other games. The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign.
As a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, Legacy sports core mechanics familiar to anyone who plays Apocalypse World or any other games of that design family. Playbooks have stats which modify 2d6 rolls triggered by the fiction and resulting in different outcomes defined by rule packets called moves. Legacy also adds an advantage/disadvantage mechanic to die rolls (replacing the usual +1 or -1 forward or ongoing), but the biggest structural difference from other PbtA games is the concurrent use of multiple playbooks by each player.
Players in Legacy control two different playbooks at any given time: a Family and a Character. The Family is the focus of the “zoomed out” epic view of the world’s story, and a player will generally control and evolve a single Family over the course of a campaign. Characters, however, both advance and retire at a faster pace, starring in the “zoomed in” views of the fiction, telling their stories and then moving on to be replaced. Families have one set of basic moves for their fictions, and Characters draw from a separate set.
Family playbooks have stats and playbook moves. They also have Traditions, which is basically like the Looks section of other PbtA playbooks, the relationship mechanic is a currency called “Treaty” (as opposed to things like “Hx,” “Bonds,” or “Strings” in other games), Doctrine and Lifestyle provide mechanical tweaks based on a Family’s ideology or attitude and their population’s geographical arrangement, and Resources and Assets decide what a Family needs to survive, what they have to offer, and what special equipment they can offer their Characters. Each Family playbook also comes with an Alliance Move governing how they gain Treaty, and Inheritance, which confers benefits to that Family’s Characters and also contributes to quick character creation, a valuable tool for adding side characters to many stories.
Character playbooks similarly have stats and playbook moves. They have Looks and Backstory as well, but it bears mentioning that there is no Character relationship mechanic as there is for Families. Characters also have a Role which broadly describes their place in their Family’s society. A Character’s Role changes during the game and serves as both a character advancement marker (in place of XP) as well as a source of additional mechanics. The Harm track contains descriptors and mechanical effects unique to each Character playbook, and finally the Death Move describes how the Character leaving play affects the world after they’re gone.
The overall story of the campaign is divided into Ages. At the end of each Age, a time-passing move is triggered which describes affects to each Family, the world map gets updated, and Family playbooks are updated to suit the new fiction. During play, Families also have the option of devoting their surplus Resources toward Wonders, world-changing events on a massive scale. When a Family completes a Wonder, it is a special kind of advancing an Age, and it guarantees at the very least a change in the world map and mechanical effects felt by every Family in the game. A variable amount of fictional time passing between Ages means that the world can have changed very little or quite a lot before the next Age begins. The game allows tremendous opportunity for the complete exploration of the rise (and perhaps fall) of an entire world.
The second edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is available for purchase in print and PDF. You can also check out Titanomachy (free PDF download or purchasable print-on-demand softcover), the quickstart for Legacy which contains core rules, pregenerated characters, and a setting starter so you can jump right into playing. If you’re looking for expansions, the Worlds of Legacy collection offers a variety of alternate settings and new playbooks and moves you can bring to the game, like the political sci-fi of a new planet colony in Worldfall or the evolution of sentient species at the dawn of time in Primal Pathways.
If you’re looking for similar games, there’s certainly no shortage of post-apocalyptic RPGs to be found, from classics like Gamma World (all 30+ years and seven editions of it) to more recent offerings like INDE’s dark fantasy-style Shattered or Hebanon Games’ intersection of zombies and economics, Red Markets. The big noise is, of course, Apocalypse World, and Legacy is solidly rooted in the Apocalypse World Engine, so if you’re looking for games with similar rules, you can have your pick of the Powered by the Apocalypse catalog. If you’re more interested in the zooming-in and zooming-out style of play, definitely check out the story game Microscope from Lame Mage Productions. If you’re particularly interested in the society-building aspect, Lame Mage also offers the game Kingdom, and you could also take a look at Ziapelta Games’ Wrath of the Autarch.
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!
I was at a meetup game the other week and was watching a new GM struggle to remember the initiative order of the players and the NPCs. After the game ended, I asked if they wanted to hear a cool trick I came up with to remember initiative and track HP at the table with little prep. They said sure, and I outlined the trick that has saved my life in running D&D or action / initiative heavy games over the last few years. I call it DRAWING YOUR INITIATIVE and I can’t believe I haven’t yet written an article on it.
Drawing Your Initiative
This system is super simple, and requires a small paradigm shift in thinking, but helps out incredibly if you are the type of game master who forgets the order or names of characters / npcs often. Here’s the process.
Take your sheet of scrap paper (any size will do, but a bigger one leaves room for more info) and draw the shape of the table somewhere near the top.
Point from left to right and ask for players initiatives, then mark them down based on their approximate positions at the table. Bonus: Write their character names next to the initiative number.
Draw a small table (or just mark it in a space at the bottom) and put in the enemies initiative and any reminders (A, B, Fighter 1, Mage Red Cloak, etc.) to denote the NPC.
Draw a line under the NPC initiative and then write the current HP, marking it off and scratching it off as the NPC gets hit.
This simple visual trick merges the physical space of the table and gives you an easy reminder for the quick information you need. You can expand it by making notes next to the players and NPC names (a C for charmed, a D for disadvantage, etc.) and scratching it off is easy. If you keep the concept to a Top for PCS, Bottom for NPCS and use an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper, you’ll have plenty of expansion or note space.
Hopefully this helps some of the GMs out there who struggle with keeping track of initiative order and HP for the crunchier games. If you’ve got a clever initiative trick, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always up for new ideas to incorporate into my games.
The cover art for Star Crossed. A great game and innovative use of a block tower.
As tabletop RPGs continue to spread like butter on hot toast, scores of people from all sorts of backgrounds find themselves gathered around tables to meet equally estranged strangers. This is especially true for gaming leagues, as well as the summer convention circuits, where many players will join together for a single adventure, only to never meet again.
If you’ve played around in convention games you’ve likely heard of the infamous X-Card, an index card with an X drawn on one side. Whenever a player feels uncomfortable with the subject matter, be it something being said or an in-game event, they can then either tap or raise the card to indicate their discomfort. They do not need to indicate why the subject makes them uncomfortable. The GM, as well as the other players, should then find a way to change or skip through the parts that make them uncomfortable.
As a player-safety tool, you’ll find it the most in pick-up games. However, it’s a fantastic mechanism many Gamemasters old and new can import into their own games. As it’s also part of the creative commons, creators are even able to incorporate it in their tabletop games freely.
Such was the case when I picked up my copy of Star Crossed, a two-person romantic tabletop RPG. I was pleasantly surprised to find high quality and glossy X-Card included in the game. While I’ve used one in the past, it was a delight to see a commercial game actually include one in their box. Very recently I was even able to sit down with Alex Roberts, the creator of Star Crossed and the upcoming For The Queen, and talk about her thoughts on X-Cards.
When the doc around x-cards popped up in 2012 there was a lot of buzz around it. How and when did you first hear about it?
Alex: It would have been a while later than that – 2014, maybe? I wasn’t very plugged into the broader RPG scene; I was just playing with my local group.
What were your first thoughts when you heard about it?
Alex: I was pretty dismissive! It was explained to me as a convenient way to avoid talking about serious topics at the table. I thought, hey, shouldn’t we be using our words? Let’s all be grownups about this! Let’s care for each other a little more proactively than that! It’s easy to dismiss something when you don’t do all your research on it (I hadn’t even seen the X Card document at this point) and when you haven’t been in the contexts where it becomes necessary. I hadn’t yet been in a situation where an X Card would really have helped me. I’ve been there since.
One of the main topics around x-cards is around editing content and censorship. Do you feel X-Cards limit creative freedom?
Alex: When we’re playing an RPG, we’re creating something with and for each other. All the players are creators and audience in one. It’s pure folk art; that’s what I love about roleplaying. In that context, you work within the needs and desires of your co-creators. Or you deliberately push their limits and ignore their desires I guess? I don’t know why you would want to do that. But yeah I guess the X Card would make that harder.
You have a new game, For The Queen, that deliberately lists x-cards as a game feature. I think that’s really cool, personally, especially since it’s the first I’ve seen to include it as a headlining element. Could I ask your thoughts on listing it there?
Alex: Star Crossed comes with an X Card as well, but in For The Queen it’s integral to how the game is played. Players draw question cards and then answer them, pass them to the next player, or X them out of the game. It actually helps make each playthrough unique. I was in one game with someone who kept X-ing out every question that implied cruelty or violence from the Queen, and it made for a much softer, gentler story that was no less interesting than some of the more brutal ones that can come out of the same game. I honestly believe that tools that help us articulate our desires and limits help us tell more interesting and unique stories. People are more creative when they can let their guard down, I’ve noticed.
Last question: What is your personal, or perhaps preferred, vision for the future landscape of tabletop gaming? Where do you see it going?
Alex: Honestly, for all the pain and frustration I see and experience from this weird little world, I think we’re headed in a good direction. When I see the discussions we’re finally having around labor, profit, power, care, conflict, colonialism, I feel optimistic. And I think it’s crucial to note that most of these conversations have arisen in spaces where BIPOC’s voices are being uplifted and respected more. So I think we should keep at that.
Was there anything else you wanted to say concerning X-Cards?
“I just wanted to have fun. I’m really grateful we had a simple tool that made it easy for me and my friends”
Alex: Can I share a little story? I honestly think it’s more important than anything else I’ve written here.
I was once in a game very shortly after my grandfather passed away. It helped take my mind off of things, I got to connect with friends, and we told a cute and uplifting story together. But during character creation, someone said they were going to be another character’s grandpa. I immediately tapped the X Card and I think everyone was confused, but then another player who knew I was grieving – well you could see the light bulb go off above his head and he suggested an Uncle instead and we moved on!
That first player was completely within the tone and content of the game and offered his character idea with no intention of doing harm. But wow I was not up for talking about a grandfatherly relationship for the next few hours! And I would have explained why but I really didn’t want to do that either. I just wanted to have fun. I’m really grateful we had a simple tool that made it easy for me and my friends to look out for each other.
Thanks for your time, Alex. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on what I see to be a step towards an overall positive and safe gaming environment.
Alex: Thank you for reaching out!
Despite its positive intent and implications, when talk of X-Cards first popped up in 2012 there was initially a large amount of negative buzz around it. Both players and Gamemasters alike were critical of X-Cards giving players too much power to edit content, even going as far to call using it akin to censorship. Since then, there have been major shifts in the community as a whole. It is long since past the age where tabletop gamers were stereotyped to simply be single, male, and heteronormative hermits that played their games in basements. Now we’re complex, gender- & sexuality-diverse hermits that only sometimes play in basements.
Now we’re complex, gender- & sexuality-diverse hermits that only sometimes play in basements.
As we move forward in the community we not only need to be able to look at current trends, but we need to plan for the future. We need to shape the community of tabletop RPGs and board games alike with positive checks and balances. This is especially true with settings set in older, less hospitable times. Especially since the highly popular high-fantasy is particularly rampant with uncomfortable topics.
X-Cards, in the end, are a powerful tool allowing safer navigation around complex and often upsetting topics even in unkind settings. Despite this, it’s also important to understand that X-Cards do not absolve responsibility from the GM or the players to be respectful of others; it’s simply a means for the players to healthily assert their own levels of comfort. As we continue to grow as a community of players and content creators, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to enable our own checks and balances over the content of the game.
We’re only at the start of a long climb to the top and I’m excited to see where we go.
You can find the official documentation for X-Cards by John Stavropoulos here: [LINK]
You can also find Alex Roberts’ upcoming game, For the Queen, here: [LINK]