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.
Last month I got on my soapbox about prep, specifically talking about how it does not matter how long your prep is, and I thought I would stay on the topic and talk about how I prep a game today. This article will be a snapshot of my prep process because this is a GM skill that constantly evolves. It is one that is both a product of the way I GM, and the games I play. What I want to show you is the thought process behind how I get a game ready for the table, what stays in my head, and what gets written down.
Two Page Prep
Today, my prep is basically two pages, or one-page front and back, if you are getting really technical. That is not a constraint, but rather where I wind up. That prep is good for 4-8 hours of play, depending on how hard I am driving the game. I don’t have a single format, allowing the prep to fit the structure of what I am playing, but I do have elements that are always present. When I run a game for the first time, I usually spend a bit of time figuring out the template for my prep, which involves incorporating the important elements I need with the overall structure of the game. For instance: In my prep for Blades in the Dark, the middle portion of my prep is sectioned into Freeplay, The Job, and Downtime, to reflect the three major phases of the game.
How I GM and What I Play
I mentioned in the intro that your GMing style and what you run has a major impact on how you prep. So that the rest of this makes sense, let me take a few sentences to explain both of those. My GMing style is about 70% improv and 30% planned, with my planning mostly up front. I like to come up with a general idea of what is going to happen in the session, set that up, and then let the players loose. I then improv as I play off of what the characters do, always using where I had originally intended the game to go as a guide to where play should lead, but never adhering to that too hard. I am very much a play to see what happens GM.
As for what I play, I mostly play Powered by the Apocalypse games, because they mesh well with how I want to GM. Aside from PbtA games, I have been enjoying the Mutant Year Zero mechanics, used in Tales of the Loop.
The Essential Elements … For Me
When it comes to what I put into my prep, here are my essential elements that are always in my prep:
What Is Going On
This section was inspired by Fear The Boot and has never left my prep, once I learned about it. It is a few paragraphs that describe what is going on in the adventure and can sometimes take up to 25% of my 2-page prep. It is nearly always written in the absence of the player characters and does two things. One, it gives me a background of what has been going on, before the characters get involved. Two, it tells me what the forces in play will do if the characters do not succeed in intervening.
I cannot emphasize enough how important for me this piece is. If I had to reduce or eliminate most of my prep, I would not cut into this section one bit. I can do more with just this section than anything else I prep.
This piece is crucial for me because this gives me the logical construct for the game. What I mean is that as a background, it gives me some understanding of why things are going on and what has happened before. That is important for understanding motivations, clues, and for answering questions about what is going on. As a direction of what is going to happen, it gives me a direction in which to improv the actions/reactions of the NPCs, which then makes their actions drive towards a logical goal.
I cannot emphasize enough how important for me this piece is. If I had to reduce or eliminate most of my prep, I would not cut into this section one bit. I can do more with just this section than anything else I prep.
Building off the information in What Is Going On, I then come up with 4-6 scenes that I think are most likely to happen in the session. The earliest scenes are the most probable to happen while the latter ones are less possible, as the game unfolds through play. These scenes are typically based on the story beats that would need to be achieved to accomplish the players’ goal, which is nearly always to interfere with the NPCs goal that I outlined above.
As I do for the overall story, I prep these scenes to set up a problem but not how to solve it (something learned from Vincent Baker in Dogs in the Vineyard). They are always based on a logical path to how the problem would be solved.
Example: In a dungeon exploration game (not a dungeon crawl) where the players are to recover a holy artifact, my major scenes would be something like this:
Entering The Dungeon – encounter with some monsters to set the tone.
Finding Clues of The Big Monster – a scene where I reveal something much worse is in the dungeon, that the players did not know about.
Navigating Ancient Traps – a scene about getting past an elaborate trap.
Dangerous Battle – combat scene in a location with difficult/dangerous terrain.
The Big Monster and the Artifact – A confrontation with the big monster who is also trying to use the artifact.
In each of those cases, there is a clear set-up for what the scene will be about, and then I leave it up to the players’ ideas, the mechanics of the game, the genre we are playing in, and my improv skills to do the rest.
Essential Dialog or Clues
At all costs, I never want to retcon my game to give the players some important piece of information or clue that I was supposed to give them earlier, that I forgot in a past scene. So all of those essential pieces of information get written into my prep so that they can be referenced in play.
I always include the stat blocks for anything that the players may encounter. Even if the block is listed in the main book, I copy it into my notes. I do not want to stop and look things up, mid game. I want that information right at my fingertips.
If my game has a lot of different stat blocks, then I may make this its own page (sometimes expanding past my 2-page prep, if needed) and then I have them all in one place. In most cases, I will just put the block or two I need inline with my text.
If the scene has any esoteric rules that are not part of my normal play, then they get copied into this section so that, once again, I am not flipping through the book during the game.
As a way to wrap up the session, I have a section where I have notes about how to bring the session to a conclusion. These are often in the form of, “If the players do this, then that happens”. It also includes reminders for any end of session mechanics that need to be engaged.
Putting That All Together
In the absence of the elements or structures needed for a specific game, this is what my prep looks like, at it’s core:
What is going on
I Showed You Mine…Show Me Yours
Your prep is a constantly evolving structure. It changes as you grow as a GM and as you play different games. It is something that both naturally evolves as well as something you can hone.
I showed you what goes into my prep, now show me yours. What elements are essential to you? What structures do you use? What element could you never give up?
To create a game is to learn that the act of gaming is more important than your creation. The same can be said for preparing a game.
The activity is bigger than the product or plan. The product is a tool of the activity, not the other way around. The same could be said about any creative endeavor.
An Augmented Reality
We live in an interesting world full of more things to do and more places to see than we can ever hope to accomplish.
Marketing teams remind me every time I check my email.
RE: your next trip—Just For You
NEW Weekend Deals
Social media knows what I look at and who I care about, targeting me with content.
Flashy pictures of who, what, and where I search
Click bait headlines of what I read about
The ever-evolving drama of friends, family, and associates
Overwhelming amounts of advertisements lead the lists of our search engines and surround our shows, it is almost inescapable! Our constant connection to the internet can distract us with something new or something noteworthy at nearly every moment. Trying to reduce the number of notifications by unsubscribing, changing settings (in each app), and unfollowing people is a constant battle as software updates and mailing lists grow.
When was the last time you were bored? When was the last time you didn’t have something you needed to do?
I didn’t ask the last time you had to replace your cell phone.
I mean truly bored. Bored enough to try something new.
A War Is Being Fought For Your Attention
Your attention, your time, is precious and you only have so much of it. Just think about it.
When do you have a valuable attention span?
First thing in the morning?
Just before noon?
After the kiddos are asleep?
What do you do with it and when do you spend time doing what you love? Do they align?
Make time for what you love to do. In the battle for your attention, you must make it a point to spend time doing what you love. Because when you are not, you are allowing all the distractions, all the advertising, all the junk—to occupy your valuable time.
If you don’t choose how to spend your time, someone else will choose for you.
What activity will make your heart sing? What do you create to share with others, enrich others?
Look around, if you have even one person nearby, you’ll see it. It isn’t just you or me. The clutter is robbing us of time with our loved ones too. Why do you think it is so hard to get people to show up to game? Everyone is short on time. Everyone is a victim.
If you are not standing up for what you love, you are letting it wither. Letting it just fade into the background—the void. So many things are vying for your time and the time of others, don’t lose the things you love in the process. Maybe you draw dungeons, maybe you write worlds, maybe you write for Gnome Stew. When people no longer pay attention to tabletop role-playing games, what is left of your creations?
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Don’t let your thing go quietly.
I love role playing games. We have been through thick and thin together. Like a constant companion, we have visited dangerous places, faced great challenges, and even managed to save the day on occasion. I have so many great friends and shared memories thanks to this hobby. I have been able to explore new worlds and creatively express myself without the repercussions of a society that is too quick to judge. I’ve been so many different characters and lived so many different lives. Who else can say that?
Profess your love, don’t hide from it. Don’t hide it from other people.
Take the time to stand up for what you are passionate about. Make a point to pursue the things you love, before they fade behind the noise of notifications or the next new iphone game.
Make time for what you love.
What do you need to make more time for? How do you remind players to make time for gaming? How do you find more time for gaming?
You’ll sometimes run across the phrase “springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm” to describe something that makes an appearance too quickly to be pure coincidence. Mushrooms are able to do that because the mushroom, which is only the visible part of a larger fungus, is often fully-formed and ready to go, just waiting for the correct conditions to inflate like a water balloon and pop up out of the ground, ready to absolutely wreak havoc on people with mold allergies. This is a great metaphor for a lot of things—lawyer phone calls after a car accident, complaints after a Star Wars movie, or those moments when you realize you’re overdue for your next tongue-in-cheek listicle. Luckily, like a mushroom, this article was already mostly-formed because of part 1 of this series.
Just a quick reminder and warning: mushrooms can and will kill you if you eat the wrong ones.
Warning: mushrooms can and will kill you if you eat the wrong ones.
I genuinely could not find authoritatively whether this mushroom was actually edible, but WAS able to find out that a bunch of mushrooms that look like it are super poisonous. So don’t Definitely, definitely don’t eat these based on this article. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
Nearly 2,500 acres and 2,000 years old, the single largest organism on Earth is not, contrary to what you may have heard, a slumbering elder god or tarrasque. The “humongous fungus” as it’s called, makes an occasional appearance in the form of honey-colored mushrooms scattered throughout its body that scientists have recently discovered are clones of one another, meaning that this single organism has been spreading for centuries, sapping life and resources from the place it calls home, which reminds me that I have some old roommates I should probably call and apologize to.
Potential Game Use:
Okay, so first of all, if you can’t think of something to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, I guess, my idea of what to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself:
The adventuring party has been hired at a ridiculously high rate of pay by a frustrated but distant noble in order to investigate why an area’s crops and/or forest is inexplicably dying, threatening the livelihood of both the locals and the noble in question.
As the characters visit, they are enthusiastically fed a nonstop diet of delicious and filling mushroom steaks, pastas, soups, and breads; they should quickly realize the situation actually isn’t all that inexplicable: the populace realizes there’s a fungal infection in the area, but it’s providing them a seemingly-endless supply of tasty, healthy food that requires no work whatsoever to produce. Further, because the noble doesn’t know or especially care about what the people gather if it’s not crops or other easily-inventoried resources, they get to keep all of it. Upon learning how heavily the people are being taxed, the characters should better understand their position. A new era of art and leisure has dawned for the locals, as much of the time they would have spent tilling fields or hunting for sustenance is both unnecessary (because of the mushrooms) and useless (also because of the mushrooms).
Investigating further, the characters discover the underground lair of the sapient mushroom presence that has been preying (?) on the region and its people by draining vital energy. The characters are left with a conundrum: should they do thing adventurers do and delve into the subterranean (and almost-certainly mushroom-themed) lair of the creature that is simultaneously feeding the people and destroying their land? Or should they leave the locals to their entertainments and free time, knowing that, someday soon, their resources will run out? If they do decide to slay the mushroom beast, will the people help or hinder them in their efforts to restore them to their old lives of thankless and exploited labor?
I’d be lying if I pretended the number one reason for this mushroom making the list was anything except how incredibly metal its name and appearance are. Seriously. Look at that thing. It’s like Pennywise the Clown got ahold of some cauliflower and decided to really up the ante on the “caul” part.
But by happy accident,that gory-looking fluid on the mushroom is both an antibacterial agent and an anticoagulant. “Magical plant that saves the heroes” is a staple of genre fiction, and for good reason. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, local plants, fungi, and animals were basically the closest thing humans had to a medicine cabinet. Only the oldest and most daring of those who lived in the woods knew the secrets of which plants save lives and which killed, which is honestly as perfect an example of survivor bias as you’re ever likely to get.
Potential Game Use:
A dangerous affliction has struck an important NPC; maybe he foolishly tried to use a cursed magical item to escape some bad guys and was stuck by some sort of ghost-sword, therefore slowly becoming one of the undead while his companions look on helplessly. Obviously, the best solution would be to stick with his friends and count on them to protect him, ESPECIALLY WHEN SAM WAS ALREADY TRYING TO FIGHT THEM LIKE A HOBBIT ON FIRE BECAUSE HE IS THE BEST PART OF THOSE MOVIES.
But hindsight is 20/20 and the characters find themselves in a situation where time is of the essence. An adventure involving a bleeding tooth fungus takes place in three phases:
Phase I is identifying the problem (and the solution). In this phase, PCs must make medicine/arcana/lore rolls to identify the malady and its solution. Particularly good results or clever roleplay can be rewarded by providing the characters temporary options that slow the spread of the poison (elevate the wound, use magic to apply ice to the injured limb, have Sam tearfully confess his true feelings to Frodo so they can be together forever). Poor rolls result in lost time, but still lead to the same conclusion. The ultimate cure, of course, is a heaping helping of hydnellum peckii and/or slash fan fiction.
Phase 2 is finding the fungus. Because this is presumably an adventure, this phase can take the form of whatever best suits your group’s style. Options include anything from an extended scavenger hunt (“the Devil’s Tooth only grows near the trees that spring up where a wizard dies”), to a combat encounter (“the mushroom springs from the mummified remains of the giant spider Himmthrow’s victims”), to a tense negotiation (“the local Fair Folk control the whole supply, and demand unspeakable booms from those who seek it”). Be sure to offer players ways to make rolls in this phase easier or more successful by taking longer.
Phase 3 is where the clock set up in Phase 1 really becomes important. If your players have been wise stewards of their time (or especially lucky), they will have enough time to get back to the NPC and save them. This is a great opportunity to use chase rules and mechanics in an unusual way, as the characters scramble against time to save their friend. Remember failure should always be an option in order to give the situation stakes. However, in this case failure doesn’t necessarily mean death. If the PCs don’t make it in time, the NPC might lose a limb, go into an extended coma (which could provide the impetus for a whole other adventure) or, if deus ex machina is more your speed, the NPC could be rescued by a nearby elf who takes them to safety and treatment, but then proceeds to lord it over the PCs for the rest of the game.
In case it needs to be said: everything I’ve said about not eating mushrooms based on this article apply 10,0000 times as much to trying to use them as medicine. Just don’t. Also: #Frodo/Sam4Ever.
This was almost a picture of tiny fungi on a pile of cow dung, but I decided against using that. You’re welcome. Picture from the Annual report of the Hatch Experiment Station of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (1864)
A previous article on medieval European/Classical jobs included references to a real-life fecal fireball. How could I possibly one-up that? With a poop rifle based on actual fungal biology, of course. Right now, you might be asking yourself “is he setting up a whole scatological armory?” And the answer is that I am definitely not not doing that, because my sense of humor hasn’t evolved since I was eleven years old.
Anyway, the hat-thrower fungus, as it’s sometimes called, is tiny (nearly-microscopic, in fact) and exclusively grows on herbivore dung. Its particular take on reproduction involves building up pockets of highly-pressurized fluid that, when ready, eject its spores with twice the acceleration of a modern rifle; [joke removed because this is a family-friendly website].
Potential Game Use:
Elves. They live in the forest and defend it against interlopers using techniques ranging from magic to animated trees to really hurtful comments about someone’s appearance. One of the great things about forests is that “real thing, except gigantic” fits their theme perfectly. Because this fungus only grows on the dung of herbivores, it stands to reason that giant versions of the fungus would only grow on the dung of giant herbivores. Shhhhh. Don’t think too hard about it.
So, imagine an elven village, defended by citizens armed with arm-length pilobolus stalks. Basically replace any given infantry charge from any given war movie with elves shooting single-use, bulb-headed mushroom cannons, and you’ve pretty much got the right idea.
Much like how actual firearms changed the face of war, our pointy-eared friends are nigh-unto unassailable in their forest. Except that their latest enemy, an unscrupulous lord seeking to turn the forest into timber, has discovered the secret to their defense, and sent his spies to the manure field/armory that the elves depend on and burned it to the stinking ground. The player characters have been charged with gathering additional weapons and refreshing the fields the elves depend on for their defense.
Remember how I mentioned that the imaginary pilobolus only grows on the dung of giant mammals? Here’s where that becomes relevant. The characters must find the territory of a wild giant deer (any other herbivore will work, but I like deer), identify its spoor, and figure out how to bring back enough of it to revitalize the martial strength of their elven allies, all without getting caught by the opposition forces who are also looking for the same deer. When those opposition forces find and try to slay the source of the elves’ strength, how will the characters save it? Assuming the characters survive, they might be granted a few “loaded” pilobolus stalks as a reward. Since these are single-use and extremely valuable, making them extremely damaging won’t overly impact the direction of the game, since once the characters use up the three to five they were given, that’s pretty much it.
This idea works best woven into an already-existing conflict. The defenders don’t necessarily have to be elves—they might instead be a group of druids defending a sacred grove, or even a clan of barbarians resisting the encroachment of their more “civilized” neighbors.
These things may be some of the most valuable natural resources in existence, but I’d still be squicked out if I saw my dog digging one up in the woods. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
Truffles are well known for being expensive and requiring a well-trained pig to find, since they grow underground. Slightly less-famously, they give off a fragrance that strongly imitates mammalian pheromones, which is why pigs (and to a lesser degree, dogs) are so attracted to them in the first place. So, basically, at some point in time, some rich people decided that lumpy, underground balls of fungus that smell like an excited pig’s crotch are worth approximately $100 an ounce, which is probably an even better refutation of the “rich people are rich because they’re smart argument” than the rise and fall of the Juicero.
Potential Game Use:
A small farm has had its crops routinely destroyed by an endless, rotating cast of wild animals (mammals, specifically). No one is entirely certain where these creatures are coming from, or why they’re so obsessed with this particular farmer’s fields. Neighboring farmers’ fields are entirely untouched, and the animals that have been destroying the wheat, barley, beans, and similar staples have been leaving the plants themselves alone.
Investigating the fields, the characters should be able to see that the animals were extremely agitated as they hunted through the dirt. Particularly good rolls might reveal that the animals were obviously looking for something, and they took that something away with them. Characters who stalk these animals to their lairs will find nothing out of the ordinary, though those that kill the animals (or catch them in the act) may realize that whatever they’re hunting for, these animals eat. If players get stuck at this phase, feel free to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of spots where the animals have stopped to eat the truffles that they find, or even catching one of these creatures in the midst of chowing down on some disturbing nuggets of what looks like dirt.
Successful nature-type rolls will enable the characters to realize that the things that these animals are eating are, indeed, truffles, and the reason why the crops are being destroyed is that these (extremely valuable) truffles are growing in the farmer’s field. If the characters fail their nature rolls, have the character who is most closely associated with high culture recognize what the tiny dirt balls actually are. While the players or locals could attempt to just keep killing animals that try to dig up the fungi, or wait for the animals to exhaust the supply of spores in the ground (which will happen if some part of the truffles are not placed back underground) players will probably want to work with the farmer to capitalize on the much more valuable crop they just discovered. This is a great jumping-off point for a low-stakes game of intrigue as the farmer fights with their local lord about the proper ownership of these truffles, neighbors begin sneaking into the fields with their own dogs or pigs to try to dig up the fungi to sell themselves, and traders from the nearest Big City (TM) attempt to negotiate the lowest possible price for these truffles, possibly using shady maneuvers that only the characters will recognize. This kind of intrigue/setup probably won’t work as well at higher levels, but it does create an immediate investment in an NPC (the farmer and their family) an area (the farm and the village), and rivals who, despite being various flavors of jerk and/or unethical, probably shouldn’t just be executed with a fireball for how they deal with the sudden presence of a valuable resource.
Fungi can be just about anything you need them to be in your game: environment, medicine, food, weapon, ally, or antagonist. Now you have, in total, eight different ways to use fungi in your own game, and I hope you enjoy incorporating them into your world as much as I’ve enjoyed including them. So do you think you’ll be using more fungi in your games? If so, how? Sound off in the comments and let us know!
Join Ang, Matt, and special guest gnome Crystal Neagley for a behind-the-scenes discussion about the production of Gnome Stew‘s April 1st project this year, The April Foolio of Fiends. Will these gnomes’ writing and art be enough to keep them out of the stew?
Don’t miss The April Foolio of Fiends available for pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG. All proceeds from the sale of this PDF go to the Child’s Play charity, dedicated to helping children in a network of over 100 hospitals worldwide.
So to recap from last time: I was excited about a system for creating urbancrawls outlined at The Alexandrian and was also inspired by the feeling of the Steve Jackson Sorcery! gamebooks and decided to give the urbancrawl system a shot to design a “strange magic” city.
neighborhood breakdowns for the Temple, Palace, Ruins, and Crafting districts
Since there are plenty of neighborhoods, I’m tackling the Bazaar district this time. I’m also finalizing what I’m doing with the docks. I’ll cover the two slum districts next time.
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.
Note, I finally made a decision on the Docks district. I’m just having a single dock neighborhood. Boats enter the city via the rivers, and dock at the central lake.
B – Bazaar District: Since the city is a trading hub, this is the main district. It encompasses three of the five water entrances to the city, three land entrances, and much of the lakeshore. Though it comprises two non-contiguous pieces of land, it is considered a single district because the palace (P1) and temple (T2) neighborhoods that separate the two parts are also mainly economic, and the two parts can be easily bridged by the smaller roads that circle the lake shore and by ferry and skiff across the lake.
The neighborhoods in this district contain many densely packed shops of all descriptions around their exterior. Inside are mostly middle class dwellings and a fair amount of local services, amenities, and green areas.
B1 – Animal Pens: This fairly large neighborhood has its own docks, and shops and residences are fairly spacious. This is because most of the shops deal with livestock of some sort. Prices are generally high since the city has very little dedicated agriculture and imports most animals, feed, bedding and other needs. Shops all have pens and cages and are mostly open air. Residences often have their own pens and are unassuming. The animal handlers, farriers, and other caretakers that live here sell to citizens, shops, and the temple trade district. Public spaces are often simple and are sometimes used for grazing areas when not otherwise in use. Landmark: The dung heap – Excess animal excrement is piled high and sold as fertilizer and fuel. While this shop isn’t that impressive, it is easy to find by scent alone.
B2 – The Heights: At some point in the history of this neighborhood, one of the residents decided to get more real estate by building up as opposed to out. It quickly caught on and now the whole neighborhood boasts three to four story shops and residences that widen each story, crouching over the streets below, sometimes even meeting their neighbors — creating claustrophobic tunnels beneath. Inside, narrow staircases lead to cramped floors above and dizzying balconies. Within the neighborhood, navigation can be difficult without the sun as a compass. Residences are usually shorter, but still multiple stories. Public areas are often gardens in the few areas that receive a little direct sunlight. Landmark: The Heights Theatre – The theatre is a semicircle of buildings on the dockside road. Performances are held almost all day, with the best seats on streetside risers.
B3 – Floating Market: This neighborhood is still mostly underwater. The buildings are on stilts and small merchant boats and larger water striders weighed down with packs crowd into the remaining spaces. Though a pedestrian can make their way around by jumping or walking on planks between ships, it’s more common to hire a small skiff or a water strider to move around. Further in, the neighborhood has fewer boats, floating board walkways are strung between raised buildings. Public areas are often little more than bits of open water where residents can sit, fish or bathe. Landmark: Strider Market – Dockside is a stall with a pen of stakes driven into the muck that sells the local water strider steeds that can traverse both water and land with ease. They can even climb walls with the right tack and enough skill.
B4 – Junktown: The city currents eventually drag the floating detritus from all corners of the city to the edge of this neighborhood. The buildings here are made up of scrap wood, sailcloth and other bits. Residents scour the incoming debris for anything of value and sell it at cobbled together stalls. Residences are often lean-tos and tents of scrap cloth. Public areas are often little swap meets in their own right where scavengers consolidate the day’s findings for later sale. Landmark: The Wrack – Dockside hosts the slowly growing pile that washes up from the rest of the city. Scavengers of all types can be found night and day sifting through the debris and carting off anything of value.
B5 – The Landing: Earlier in the history of the city, there was very little solid land and much of the population lived in small boats. Many of these boats became landlocked and stranded in this area as the Palace and Temple district were built. Though this neighborhood houses many traditional buildings, it also is home to these beached boats which have been converted to shops and dwellings. Inns in this neighborhood are popular tourist spots. Within the neighborhood, the remaining water is found in public park areas. Landmark: The Ghost Ship – In the early days of the city, an untended ship drifted downriver and was declared cursed. It drifted about for years, considered an ill omen, before getting beached along with the other ships in this area. Eventually it was taken over by a visitor to the city and now is a popular pub.
B6 – The Maze: One of the original districts of the city, the Maze was constructed before there was much dry land. As such, streets are very narrow. The neighborhood also grew haphazardly over time, so the layout is confusing for non-residents. Shops on the outside are small, densely packed, old and somewhat run down. Inside the neighborhood the maze-like streets have a reputation for confounding visitors. Because of its maze-like construction, rogues and thieves often make The Maze and its boltholes their home or base of operations. Public areas are often small sitting areas with just enough room for a few people. Landmark: The map shop – A small booth that sells maps of the city, this shop originally started as a place to buy maps of the neighborhood itself. As that task became more impossible, they branched out to the rest of the city and surrounding areas.
B7 – Raised Market: During the construction of the raised crushed stone foundation of the Palace and Temple districts, the wealthier merchants of the city funded the same renovation for one of the neighborhoods of the Bazaar district. The shops ringing this neighborhood are large, sturdily constructed, and well decorated, and sell expensive high quality goods. The residential areas are a range of mid-large sized apartments and smaller villas similar to what is found in the nobles district. Public areas are fairly large with statuary, gardens and water features. Landmark: Statue of the Founders – A larger than life construction of the merchants who paid for the upgrades to the neighborhoods, this statue is placed along the road facing the noble district as if a challenge to those dwelling there. In the time since, several of the founders have in fact entered the upper ranks of the government.
D – Docks District: This single neighborhood district sits in the heart of the city and is where most of traffic enters and leaves. Raising the land in the city for building has created a central lake which is ringed with docks and wharfs and populated with small crafts of all types. Most of the shops and buildings that ring the central lake are built similarly to the neighborhoods they front. Though most trading happens off the docks, bulk goods are traded from ship to ship right here. Though few people actually claim residency, there is a large transient population: sailors, traders, and travelers all fill the inns that ring the lake. There are few public spaces, but that doesn’t stop anyone from fishing or swimming off the docks. Landmark: The obelisk – half buried in the muck on the shore near the northern slums, a rune-scribed standing stone lists to the side drunkenly.
Next time: I finish the northern and southern slums. After that, it’s time to start filling layers.
Tailor the event to the games you want to play and the people you want to play with…
Last year I was chatting with a co-worker who asked about my plans for the weekend since I was taking an extra day off to make it a long weekend. When I described the gaming weekend my friends were hosting at their house, he replied, “Oh, it’s another one of your bespoke, artisanal conventions then.”
Anyone who has read my articles know I love conventions. I’ve got several scattered throughout the year, with Origins being a highlight in June. GenCon used to be part of my regular rotation each year, but I eventually had to back off due to expense and size of the con. As much as I love the big cons with throngs of people, there is also something wonderful and amazing about getting together with a smaller group still focused on enjoying each other’s company while playing as many games as possible. My co-worker may have been joking by describing my upcoming weekend as bespoke, but it does ring true. Bespoke essentially means custom tailored for the specific needs of a person, or in this case, a group. It’s a funny, but true way to describe a private mini-convention.
What qualifies as a ‘bespoke’ mini convention? By my definition, it’s any time you get together with a group of select people and play multiple games over the course of a day or several days. Here are some of the ones I have attended:
This year will be the 10th anniversary of a ‘House Con’ that friends have been holding for the last decade. They average about twenty-ish players a year with four slots of games between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. They often have three to four games running during each slot.
When a GM running an ongoing, annual invitational game at Origins decided to end a session in a cliffhanger, we were ‘forced’ to gather a couple months later to find out what happened next. The group of us crossed several states to hang out and play the sequel to that game as well as a couple of other games that weekend.
One mini-con was born out of a desire to thank a group of GMs for running consistently awesome games at Origins and some other cons. For the last three years, about 25 folks have gathered at a hotel in Ohio that was chosen for being somewhat central to people in multiple states. We get downright serious about games and squeeze in five games between Friday evening and Sunday morning.
Beyond the fact that you’re getting to play games with people you know you like, there are a few different benefits to having a small gathering like this:
The cost can be significantly lower, opening up the opportunity for people to attend who may not be able to afford the not insignificant cost of a larger convention.
Many people don’t enjoy big conventions because they don’t like large crowds, or find no joy in playing games with strangers. Coming to a smaller mini-con gives them a safer space to still enjoy multiple games.
Events held close to home allow those with family or work responsibilities a chance to attend. While they may not be able to get to a big con in another town, getting to a friend’s house for a day is more doable.
A more intimate event can provide newer GMs a chance to run a con-style game in a safer space. Running for friends, but in an organized setting is really good experience for new GMs.
Group shot from one of these events.
A potential downside to be mindful of is the perception (or reality) of exclusionary gatekeeping. Any time a group gets together with a closed invite list, it can be purposefully exclusionary in all the wrong ways. Now, with each of the mini-cons I have mentioned above, they were essentially extensions that grew out of the larger cons we all attended. A goal of most public conventions should be to open doors and create welcoming, inclusive environments for gaming. This is my goal and the goal of many of my friends, but we all still want an opportunity to focus our gaming time with each other.
So, let’s get into some of the specifics for organizing a “bespoke, artisanal convention”:
Understand the space you’re working with. If you’re going to hold this at your home, be realistic about the number of people you can fit in the space. An apartment will work fine if you’re only having a handful of people, but isn’t a good idea if you’re inviting enough people for multiple games at a time. You also need to consider crash space if you’re inviting folks from out of town. Do they need to get a hotel room or do you have a guest room? When you’re organizing and hosting, it’s your job to at least consider the options available to your guests.
Have a plan, but be flexible. You’re holding a con, so you need to have a general itinerary of what’s happening when. Regardless of whether you have multiple games happening at the same time or just one table with different games throughout the weekend, your GMs need to know what they’re running and when so they can prep. You also want to tell the players what they’re playing when. Respect your attendees time and make sure you have a plan in place. At the same time, maintain enough flexibility to adjust on the fly when people can’t make it or other issues pop up.
Food is a thing. People need to eat. Whether you’re hosting this at your home or some external location, you need to account for how and when your attendees are going to be eating. Believe me, you don’t want to leave it up to the last minute and end up with a dozen or more people all going, “What do you want to eat? I don’t know, what do you want to eat?” Decide ahead of time if you’re ordering in, caravanning the group to a particular restaurant, or ambitious enough to try and cook for the crowd you’ve invited.
Keep in mind your costs. Organizing one of these isn’t necessarily cheap. If you need to rent a room or cover the cost of food and snacks, make sure you recognize when you need to spread the cost out to your attendees. No one is going to begrudge you asking for $20 if you’re feeding them for the whole weekend.
As I said, I love conventions. The people, the games, the concentrated gaming. It’s one of my joys in life. But, my friendships with my fellow gamers always end up stronger after these smaller, more intimate gatherings. There’s still a ton of gaming, but the chance to hang out with a smaller group makes my gaming even stronger.
Have you ever hosted or attended a ‘house con’ or a small mini-con like this? I’d love to hear about your experiences with them.
It’s International Tabletop Game Day and I am lucky enough to be at a friend’s house to run a rousing game of Pasión de las Pasiones. I walk in to the smell of something delicious and the sizzle of a hot pan on the stove. Fellow gnome Camdon is standing in the kitchen and he’s got piles of chopped onions, carrots, and celery while the chicken cutlets in front of him brown with a touch of salt and pepper, and he’s got capers and dijon set aside to add in once everything is combined. We chat, and then we sit down to game and eat some wonderful food.
Running the game, I lay out my thoughts — there’s a pile of relationships, all tangled together. There’s the glitz and glitter and riches of the telenovela, shining for our theoretical audience. There’s the evil twin, working at cross purposes. I’m throwing all of these into the sizzling pan of El Jefe’s illicit alcohol smuggling operation, with a little extra seasoning from the helicopter that is about to explode. We chat, and we laugh, and we jump in to play a wonderful game.
In the same way that the practiced cook will trust themselves to create a meal, the practiced GM can drop a game. And in both cases it comes down to the same ideas — experience, practice, and trusting yourself. If I am going to toss together a meal, I need to have an idea of what ingredients I have on hand and what will work together to create a harmonious meal. When I’m running a game, I need to have an idea of what genres and tones of games I am comfortable running and what kind of tropes I can use or subvert to create a shared story experience that matches the expected tone. It’s fun adding that one flavor that makes the dish pop in the same way it brings me joy to throw in the twist that makes all my players gasp. And sometimes, when you’re tired, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sandwich instead of doing anything fancy — just like it’s totally fine to run that game that is exactly and precisely in your comfort zone, that you don’t have to think about. (Except, maybe sometimes, grill it and put an egg on it. The sandwich, not the game.)
So what is the point of thinking of GMing the way we think about cooking? The thing about cooking is that anyone can learn how to cook if they don’t already know. Your taste buds will guide you as you learn, and there are so many recipes out there to help you get started. Some you’ll love and you’ll make again and again and get so comfortable with you’ll be willing to start tweaking. Some you’ll make and not see a need to make again — they just don’t hit the right flavor profile, or they were far more work than they were worth.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time.
GMing is the same thing. Anyone can learn the skills to do it. The games that you enjoy will guide you to what you will enjoy running. There are many pre-written adventures out there that you can run, or analyze the construction of so that you can start creating your own. Some adventures may work better for you than others, and you can learn from both what works and what doesn’t work for you. Or you may be more comfortable starting with something you know — like a sandwich — and building on it, adding things that seem like they’ll work and learning from experience what works well and what doesn’t. You don’t need to be an expert to GM a game — just like cooking, you can ask other people what might go well in that dish, or what the best way to cook something is (or how does this mechanic work). If you try to make a dish and it doesn’t work, you might eat it anyway and shrug, or you might throw it out and go out that night and try again later…but we don’t tend to put the same amount of pressure on successful cooking that we do on successful GMing. Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time. Every time you run a game, no matter how successful or not it feels to you, you are learning more about how to run a good one next time — just like how every almost successful meal teaches you to add more salt or to lower the heat a little. So go out there, pick up some plots at your FLGS on your way home, and cook up a good story tonight.
It’s really no surprise that we call this blog the stew.
Gamemasters looking to pull themselves out of their gaming rut might consider running a scenario with a “Groundhog Day” time loop.
I have an affinity for such storylines, and will eagerly watch a TV show or read novels that employs the time loop trope, should they cross my path.
(Strangely, though, I have never actually seen the trope’s namesake, the 1993 film comedy “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray — I prefer to meander into these experiences through happenstance rather than intentionally seek them out, I suppose).
I unexpectedly encountered another such example when I recently watched Star Trek: Discovery for the first time. One episode in the new CBS Series features the rascal Harry Mudd using a time loop to exact vengeance upon the Discovery’s captain and crew.
My favorite comes, of course, from Xena: Warrior Princess. In “Been There Done That,” Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer keep reliving the same day until she finds a way to prevent a town’s young lovers from rival families from using the Romeo and Juliet “solution” to consummating their affair. In one iteration, Joxer buys it with a chakram to the chest — perhaps the most therapeutic moment of the entire run of the series.
There are others, of course. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” Doctor Who and Romana taking on Meglos and the classic X-Files episode “Monday.” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Roland’s entire quest from The Dark Tower series or the repetitive Seven Ages that serves as the introduction of each novel in the Wheel of Time series. (“The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”)
With that out of the way, how can you structure a scenario so that it presents a Groundhog Day scenario for your players?
Part 1: Construct a Decision Line.
This is the first, and most important part. Establish a sequence of decisions that serves as the spine of the scenario. Between five and seven decision points should prove sufficient. These are the “turn left, turn right” moments the PCs must correctly determine to correctly “fix” the timeline. Basically, these are knobs that must be turned to a correct setting so that time resumes correctly. To think of it another way: it’s like setting a combination lock or making sure a sequence of switches is open to complete an electrical current circuit.
Part 2: The first time
The PCs will go through the decision tree. There is no right or wrong at this point — yet. But the GM should note the decisions. Once the PCs complete the “day,” begin the reset. Pick about half the decision points, and flick them “off.” That means those points in the narrative are the ones the PCs have the change. Keep these changes to yourself. It’s up to the PCs to discover the correct combination on subsequent loops.
Part 3: Every day in the loop starts the same
This is the cue to the PCs that their efforts in each loop were not successful and that time is, indeed, repeating.
Part 4: Establish an Objective
At this point, the GM must decide who or what is causing this time ripple and forcing events to repeat? A powerful entity, a god, quantum mechanics, a leaf on the wind — one is as good as another. The more important question is to answer “Why?” Before the sequence can be established, “something significant” must be corrected. Usually, this means that one of the PCs must fall in love / discover something about themselves / treat someone special with an appropriate amount of “love and/or respect. It is a McGuffin of sorts — and instead of digging into one of the characters’ psyche, obtaining an object is also a good substitute. Nothing can happen until someone has that proverbial Golden Apple.
Part 5. Interloper
The person or persons that are key to obtaining/understanding the object needs to be introduced on the second loop. This NPC must have characteristics that encourage one of the players to have a change in their personality or outlook — or if you are playing D&D fifth edition, causes them to reevaluate their bonds, flaws or ideals.
Part 6: Hand wave the rinse and repeat
Once the PCs establish points of the sequence that are correct, the PCs should be able to handwave over any sequences they know are correct. Essentially, they are fast forwarding past known decision points — just like they do on TV. This keeps the game moving along and prevents any miscues and keeps the session manageable.
Part 7: A magical thing
The final solution should an extraordinary demonstration of one PC’s ability — or, even better, group collaboration. The PCs must somehow manage to do one magical thing correctly to carry the day. It must be a stretch of their abilities — and carry an element of risk. (For example, Xena making that most difficult chakram toss of her career).
Part 8: That day is done — at last!
How does one know the solution was effective? The next day starts differently for the first time. The sun rises, the birds sing and all is right with the world …
… until the next adventure comes around the corner.
Join Ang and get to know one of the newest Gnomes, Chuck, in this “Meet a New Gnome” episode of Gnomecast! Learn about Chuck’s gaming origin story, his future plans for Gnome Stew articles, and some of his anticipated upcoming games! Will new gnome Chuck be able to avoid the stew this week?
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!
Prism: An Aquatic World of Relationships and Intimacy
Prism by Whitney Marie Delaglio/Little Wish Productions is a diceless RPG designed for one GM and 1-4 players to explore character interactions, relationships, and conflict resolution in a mystical aquatic world. The setting of the Prism RPG is introduced in the free online comic Prism the Miracle (also from Little Wish Productions) and involves a variety of aquatic humanoid species, elemental magic, and a collection of deities responsible for the creation and oversight of the world. Both the game and the comic promote a sex-positive environment of exploration of emotional and physical intimacy, so that’s something to keep in mind when picking up and sharing this game; it is recommended for players of age 18 and older.
Stories in Prism will focus on the characters’ values, their relationships, and the obstacles they must overcome, often by working together. The game provides a setting backdrop and mechanics that support these story elements. Each player character (PC) in Prism hails from one of the six Realms of the setting, each being associated with a different color and one of the world’s deities. For example, the Gold Realm is headed by a descendant of the God of Life. A PC’s Realm gives them a cultural and ethical background, describing things that the Realm “values” and “resents,” which have both mechanical and narrative significance. Similarly, players also track mechanics for their characters’ Relationships, providing both mechanical and narrative fuel for the game’s stories. Relationships can be of any kind (platonic, sexual, familial, etc.), and they track on a negative-positive spectrum (from the character’s viewpoint) and are asymmetrical, meaning that one character can have a Negative Relationship to another character while the second character might have a Positive Relationship to the first.
The world described by Prism, besides being aquatically themed, includes many mystical elements that can be used to contribute to an interesting and emotional story. The six deities who created the world each have different personality traits and hold a strong influence over the inhabitants of this world. They have representatives who speak on their behalf, and the gods themselves still wander the world and are at least watching, and may even be moved from time to time to interfere. The people whose bodies die in the world of Prism leave behind Silhouettes, shadows of their souls, that remain active until they can find peace. The setting also features elemental magic and a dark contagion known as the Punishment, a magical infection that awakens destructive emotions in people and often causes them to be shunned by their communities.
The game explores themes of deep emotional involvement and intimacy, and the consent and safety of everyone at the table is of great import. The game begins with the “Tea Party,” a kind of pre-game session zero that includes not only character creation, but also group worldbuilding and game topic discussion. The GM and players are reminded of the importance of enthusiastic consent during this pre-game process, and the X-Card is explicitly mentioned as an important tool to use. While the game itself focuses on particular story elements, the overall plots of the stories are left to the group to decide, and much of that discussion takes place during the Tea Party.
Characters in Prism are created as a combination of several different types of background. The Realm, mentioned previously, ties the character to a culture and value system. The Template offers some insight into the role or nature of the character, including if they’ve been infected with the Punishment! Characters are rounded out by Family (species), Vocation, and a starting Relationship to another PC, and they are completed by rating the characters Skills, which have already been affected by the earlier choices made. For example, a PC may favor the Insight Skill for being from the Violet Realm and also favor the Etiquette Skill for choosing a Vocation of Diplomat; all other Skill ratings would be filled out at the end of character creation. The background choices made also assemble a collection of Traits and Talents for the PC, such as a PC from the Barbed Fish Family gaining a special Fish Form Trait or a PC using the Nocturnal Template receiving a Trait that grants them initiative in certain circumstances.
The game explores themes of deep emotional involvement and intimacy, and the consent and safety of everyone at the table is of great import.
Prism is a diceless game. The core mechanism of task resolution is simply comparing a PC’s rating in a Skill against a static difficulty number with the difference between the two dictating success and whether the resolution includes a bonus or complication. This core, however, is surrounded by additional mechanics and modifiers that can tie the characters’ values and relationships to the resolution of every problem. Acting in accordance with the values outlined by a PC’s Realm can bestow Blessings or Curses which alter the rating of the PC’s Skills. In addition, the Relationship mechanics, due to their asymmetry, confer a variety of mechanical modifiers in different narrative situations. For example, in a two-way negative relationship, one PC could get a bonus while taking an action to show up the other, while a PC with a positive relationship to someone with a negative relationship to them could get a bonus to get the other character to notice them.
A spellcaster sings an Inferno spell of “Simple” difficulty — a torch-sized flame — and “Typical” difficulty — a flying fireball.
Besides tracking Relationship mechanics, players also track Physical Endurance and Emotional Endurance, giving physical combat and social strain equal mechanical footing. The magic system is also streamlined; magic “spells” simply describe an element or group of elements that can be controlled, and the actual effect of magic is just another type of action to take, governed by a specific Skill. The game is geared toward multi-session play, as Relationship ratings are changed between sessions based on what has transpired in the fiction.
It’s also worth pointing out that the artwork communicates much about the game, even mechanically. In most games, even the best artwork goes far enough to illustrate the setting and perhaps even convey a sense of the atmosphere of the fiction or even the tone of gameplay. All of this is accomplished in Prism, but it also takes the extra step of using artwork to communicate mechanical significance, as well, such as how to set the difficulty ratings for task resolution.
Character creation is neatly procedural, and the core mechanics of the game are quick and easy to learn. The complications for new players or GMs may be the specific situational triggers for individual PCs’ special Traits or the conditions dictated by Relationships, but players keeping their own characters’ Traits in mind will help keep things flowing. The pre-game Tea Party procedure definitely makes this game easy to pick up and play, since everyone can learn all they need to know during the character creation process, and everyone at the table gets to contribute to the setting of the game and goals of the stories. With immediate player buy-in and long-term play encouraged by Relationship mechanics, this game wants you and your group to take your time to explore these characters and their world.
Prism is currently available for purchase in print and PDF formats from DriveThruRPG, and don’t forget you can read the Prism the Miracle comic online for free. If you’re looking for other games with similar themes, you can check out Deep Love by Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games, a four-player game of deep-sea exploration and, in the words of the publisher, “a feel-good game about the complexity of love and sea monsters.” Although not published yet, if you’re looking for underwater settings and emotional exploration, keep an eye out for the upcoming Descent Into Midnight, a Powered by the Apocalypse game of underwater community, teamwork, and corruption. The game is still in development, but public playtest materials are available now from their website. I can’t mention RPGs with underwater settings without also mentioning Blue Planet from Biohazard Games, a detailed look at a whole underwater world for gaming and exploration. Finally, if your interests lean far into exploring character intimacy, I cannot recommend enough Star Crossed by Alex Roberts (also from Bully Pulpit Games), a two-player game of complicated love.
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!