Stonetop is live!

Whoa, I’ve been so caught up in getting our new game ready to launch that I’ve been totally remiss in posting here.

Stonetop is a standalone tabletop RPG about a fantasy Iron-Age village and the people who join together to protect it. Jeremy Strandberg has been working assiduously on this game for the past 5 years, and we’re super excited to finally be able to give it physical form, packed with lush illustrations by artist Lucie Arnoux.

Check out the Kickstarter page for more info!

From Funnel to Freebooters

Long time, no update. Busy busy busy, etc.

In the hours not consumed by my day job, I’ve been editing and laying out the main rulebook for Stonetop, Jeremy Strandberg’s bespoke Iron-Age fantasy RPG that ties adventuring to community-building. Currently, the main book clocks in at 250+ pages, and Jeremy is cranking away at the remaining few chapters. We’ll be kickstarting the whole thing once all of the content is in place and a substantial portion of the art has been commissioned.

Speaking of which, this past month Jeremy and I both got very excited because, after searching for an artist for over a year, we found the right person for the job. Her name is Lucie Arnoux, and here’s a spriggan-y taste of the work she’s starting to turn in:

I think my favorite part of the indie self-publishing thing is hiring artists, giving them fairly simple directions (“he’s a small mischievous humanoid of fae origin, I imagine him made of wicker”), and then being surprised and delighted by what they turn in. Lucie is doing a wonderful job, and Stonetop is going to look great thanks to her.

In other news, I’m sorry to report that Tales From the Sodden Reach, our online Freebooters campaign, has ended with a whimper. It didn’t really even end, it just dropped off into the ether, thanks to the (expected) challenges of coordinating the schedules of busy folks across different time zones. I’m actually quite sad, since I was  really looking forward to seeing if the PCs could safely escort a herd of crystal-encrusted cattle back to civilization, and there were a number of fun surprises waiting for them in the wings…

Farewell shaggy valuisa, we hardly knew ye. (drawing by Jan Burger)

The good news is that I just started a new campaign, which I’m calling From Funnel to Freebooters. We’re playtesting the new “funnel” rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, wherein a bunch of level-0 villagers get in over their heads, and the survivors (if any) go on to become full-fledged level-1 characters. Our first session was just villager and settlement generation, and you can see it here:

I’m super-excited to see how this turns out, and afraid for the villagers. I already care about them too much.

One thing we tried this first session was to draw a collaborative map using the Zoom whiteboard tools. They were a little wonky, but it worked out okay and got the job done. Here’s what we came up with in-game:

Of course that would not suffice for me in the long run, so during my prep time I translated our scribbles into this:

For those following along at home, I’m adapting the adventure Legends Are Made, Not Born, by Chris Doyle to give these villagers a run for their silver pieces. It’s got a classic feel, and like all Goodman Games adventures it has nice variety, good internal logic, and the potential to become very deadly. By asking a bunch of framing questions near the end of this first session, I was able to customize the content to suit these first steps of collaborative world-building. I had never done that before, and I think it worked quite well to make this pre-published adventure feel like a natural extension of our (vaguely Finnish) setting.

Finally, I won the Vermont Book Award this past weekend. Did not see that coming.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Sessions III and IV

As usual things got crazy at the Center for Cartoon Studies in the last weeks before commencement, and between my thesis committee duties, drawing a giant robot for a departing colleague, and leaving on a trip to Italy to promote the Italian edition of my graphic novel, I was unable to tend my RPG garden. But I’m back and things have finally settled down enough for me to get back to the important stuff. Namely, continuing our online campaign of Freebooters on the Frontier and forging ahead on the editing and layout of Stonetop, the next big Lampblack & Brimstone project.

As hoped, and as everyone we knew who had been before told us, our trip to Italy was amazing. All of the things were true: incredible food, kind people, beautiful landscapes, ancient ruins. As we wandered the medieval walled town of Finalborgo and the ramparts of the Roman Forum, I soaked up the real-world history and RPG-relevant details in equal measure: the Porta Testa, a town gate where the heads of enemies were hung as a warning to would-be offenders; hilltop fortifications with walls angled to deflect the attacks of siege engines; temples and palaces of almost inconceivable scale. Inspiring stuff. I also got a private tour of the Museum of the Resistance in Turin, which was inspiring for different reasons.

Walking the streets of Finalborgo and Rome in particular enriched my conception of Penascalto. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the feel of our campaign’s fictional city, but exploring these places suddenly throws a sepia-toned imagination into Technicolor. Back alleys, enormous doors, hidden shrines festooned with flowers—unexpected delights awaited us around every corner. I find fodder for wilderness adventure every time I take a walk in the woods behind our house, and here were real-world villages and towns and cities providing the same kind of inspiration.

I won’t be able to put that particular inspiration to use (if and) until our intrepid party finds its way back to Penascalto, but the morning we spent in the Pantheon in Rome was certainly on my mind when, last night, our party of intrepid freebooters discovered the Temple of Kivi-Äiti, Mother of Stone. But I’m getting ahead of the game. Two sessions have gone up since last time:

After something like 10 hours of play, actual battle is finally joined in session 4. This is one of the things I love about a pace-of-play determined by the vicissitudes of random world generation and player choice—combat is not the point. When it does break out, it has more dramatic weight. After running tightly-packed one-shots for students over several years at my weekly face-to-face game nights, letting a campaign unfold at its own pace is a true pleasure. In a culture of binge-watching, where most of our entertainment is subject to the tyranny of the three-act structure, I find old-school campaign a much-needed tonic.

A couple of randomly-generated NPCs came into play in session 3, and since they may be around for a while I couldn’t resist drawing them up:

Referring to visuals like this during play really helps me when I’m trying to switch hats and play different NPCs.

On the playtesting front, our sessions have encouraged me to continue to revise the cleric’s playbook. Instead of making it more costly, I plan to cut the option to make an invocation permanent; and I’m rewriting the cleric’s XP trigger (“Mark XP if you fulfilled the tenet of your deity”) to something that can be interpreted more broadly (e.g., “Mark XP if you acted on your faith or beliefs in a memorable way”). I thought the Lay on Hands move worked out very nicely in session 4. It’s been great having three clerics in the party to really put that class—the least played in my home games up until now—through its paces.

On a final note: unfortunately, the demands of life beyond the game table have made it impossible for our pal Reilly to continue playing Evaristo, so the good-hearted cleric of Caracol has fallen into my hands as an NPC. I will do my best, but Reilly’s sandals are impossible to fill.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session II

A belated posting of last week’s session. I’m very happy with the way things are going so far, in terms of how the world-generation tools work during prep and how the rules have been working in play. On the playbook front we discovered a significant problem in the wording of the cleric’s Invoke move:

When you call upon your deity to manifest their power, say what you want to have happen and how it falls within at least one of your deity’s domains. The Judge will assign your request hubris from 0 (insignificant) to 6 (miraculous). Then, roll -hubris, +1 if you bear your holy symbol, and +1 if you occupy a place sacred to your faith: on a 10+, your request is granted with duration 3, and may be made permanent if you perma-burn 1 ability point of your choice per point of hubris; on a 7-9, your request is granted with duration 1, but your deity demands proof of devotion—the Judge chooses 1 from the list below; on a 6-, mark XP, and the Judge makes a move.

Safira the Cleric led a ritual that called for the ingestion of psychoactive lichen, calling upon the snail-god Caracol to grant the participants the ability to safely climb a steep incline. Sophie, Safira’s player, rolled a 10+ to Invoke and took advantage of the clause that allowed her to make the invocation permanent by perma-burning ability points.

In the half-dozen campaigns of Freebooters that I’ve run to date, no one had ever done this! It was one of those rules bits to which zero attention had been paid since I first wrote it down. As we applied the effects, I saw immediately that it was overpowered — a level 1 Cleric had just granted herself and two companions the permanent ability to make difficult climbs without risk. Granted, creating this sort of game-changing effect is the kind of thing I hoped to see happen with the Invoke move, and the recipients have to climb slowly since it’s a blessing of the snail-god, but it felt like too much too soon, or at too little cost.

Part of the problem was that I went too easy on the Judge side, assigning the invocation hubris 0 when 2 or 3 would have been more appropriate. That’s just a matter of getting used to how hubris feels in play, and I’ll need to include more guidelines for that in the full rules. The bigger issue was that, as written, a 0-hubris invocation can be made permanent at no cost to the cleric. So I need to either rewrite that clause (to something like, “…and may be made permanent by perma-burning a number of ability points of your choice equal to hubris +3”), or extract it into an advanced move on its own. If I go the former route, I’m also considering adding a condition under which a permanent invocation can be cancelled or revoked.

Despite this snafu, I really enjoyed how Sophie made use of Invoke. It’s a perfect illustration of how I want the cleric’s powers to feel in the game — flexible, but constrained by the domains of their deity. I am looking forward to seeing if and how the other clerics of Caracol will follow Safira’s lead in asking for otherworldly aid.

We’re deep in the wilderness now. They’ve taken some minor hits to ability points and gear, but haven’t encountered anything too dangerous yet. We’ll see if their luck holds out as they try to locate the entrance to the Cave of Bright Crystal.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session I

Five brave (or perhaps foolhardy) souls ventured forth into the unknown last night. You can observe their exploits here:

After our session zero a couple of weeks back, my homework as Judge was to flesh out some of the details that the players created or rolled up. I really enjoy prepping a game setting, especially from a player-generated foundation, because filling in the gaps and finding connections to span the “fruitful void” circumscribed by a handful of details really sparks my creativity energy. Prep is exciting and fun for me, but life is short, so I try to focus on stuff that is directly relevant to the PCs and whatever course of action they might choose to take. Last session they made a plan to try to search for the Cave of Bright Crystal , so I focused my prep on the areas between the city of Penascolta (the party’s base of operations) and the Cave.

Since Freebooters is all about exploration, I like to have nice maps of the places that are likely to be most well-traveled. These of course don’t have to be fancy, but since one of the hats I wear is that of cartoonist, I tend to go all-in on this aspect. So my first priority was to take the rough map the players had put together in session zero (using a blank map from Mad Vandel’s Map Pack) and turn it into something that would provide a good basis for play. Here’s the draft they produced:

And here’s how I ended up interpreting it:

I was drawing this alongside making notes about the starting city. Through a combination of player input and rolls on the city generation tables in the current draft of the game rules, we had determined that the city was defensible due to its position atop some high cliffs, and that it was known for ancient ruins within its boundaries; its other tags were unsafe, chaotic, lawless, unrest, disease, and shortage (iron, salt). This was a lot to work with!

We had settled on Portuguese as the linguistic foundation for the human culture that dominates the “cilvilized” areas, so armed with a Portuguese name generator, Google Translate, and the various Freebooters tables, I started to develop the city in broad strokes. The first step was to name it; given its position in the terrain I ran”high cliff” through Google Translate and got penhasco alto, which I shortened to Penascalto. The PCs would not be spending much time in Penascalto since they were planning to set out for the Cave of Bright Crystal right away, so I tried to avoid getting bogged down in the details. This process may be worth a post of it’s own, so I won’t go into it’s history and current situation here beyond saying that while Penascalto is ruled by various rival criminal factions, the Wardens of Rainhala (goddess of life and water) are well-respected by everyone due to their caring for the needy and work to assuage the suffering of those afflicted by the White Rot (a terrible plague that first appeared six years ago).

I wanted to players to feel excited about this lawless frontier city, so I put some time into drawing it. I Googled “cliff city,” found some great real-world images, settled on Ronda, Spain as the model, and used this Google Earth view as a starting point:

From that and my notes about different districts in the city, plus the fact that one of the players had suggested that it was accessible via land bridge, I came up with this:

Obviously, my particular skillset is helpful here, but it’s easy enough to find an online image that will give your players an idea of how a place might look.

After those two big items, I switched over to writing up encounter tables for each of the regions through which the PCs were likely to travel. In the current draft of the rules, five categories of encounter can occur: mishaps, creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles. Mishaps are minor occurrences within the party, such as failing equipment, minor injuries, or arguments between PCs—easy enough to improvise.

Creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles can certainly be rolled up on the fly, but in order to minimize time spent rolling and coming up with ideas, I decided to create a simple d6 table for each of these categories. To create entries, I used the same process I would use during play, but had the extra time to consider the context and drill down into areas that could use more up-front attention, such as creature generation.

Here’s what my regional encounter tables ended up looking like:

If you watch the session, you’ll notice that, all told, the party had 4 random incidents: the washed-out bridge, Evaristo twisting his ankle, the “death barrel” plants, and the final scene where weasel-monkeys show up at camp to steal the jeweled staff. The scene where the six-legged lizards chase a group of weasel-monkeys out of the woods was me making a Judge move in response to Teo’s failed Wisdom saving throw; I decided it was wandering monster time and had him roll on the Windshaws creature table to see what would show up.

Among the benefits of creating these encounter tables ahead of time is that, by generating a bunch of entries for each region, I start to get a sense of that region’s character—the kinds of creatures that live there, what discoveries await, and what sorts of rumors might be passed around about them in civilized settlements. For instance, one creature encounter I generated for the Broken Fells creature table is Lúcia Baretto, a halfling farmer from Cidario who set off into the wild on an adventure of her own. So when the PCs talk up the apothecary in Cidario, he mentions that Lúcia went off the same way they’re headed. Maybe they’ll run into her, maybe they won’t, but I know she’s out there, and that encourages the feeling that things are playing out in a living world.

Thanks to not being well-rested and having to fiddle too much with the image-sharing aspect of Hangouts, I felt wobbly going into this session, but thanks to the engagement of the players I found my groove about halfway through. At the end I was left with that delicious feeling that comes from the kind of open-world play toward which I’m designing: what’s going to happen next?

Useful playtesting takeaways:

  • In the course of generating lots of creatures and treasure for my custom encounter tables, I saw ways to reorganize and improve those procedures, so I’ll be making another pass on those soon.
  • In the interest of streamlining the creature, discovery, and booty generation process, I’m going to experiment with a one-roll table set along the lines of what Kevin Crawford does in his games (most recently Stars Without Number): roll a d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 all at once, then read them from largest die size to smallest. I tried this in the past and was unhappy with the results, but I’m going to give it another go. Booty generation in particular needs to be rewritten,and I love the idea and feel of rolling a handful of different polyhedrals.
  • Among the discoveries I generated for my custom tables were 4 different dungeons! This is great, because I want the PCs to stumble across things like that unexpectedly, but in the course of using my dungeon generation procedure I found some confusing spots. I also felt that not enough interesting stuff is baked in, so I will be making another pass on that procedure.
  • I thought Donna did a great job of roleplaying Claudio as a neutral-aligned character, but even so she did not hit his alignment goal as-written. I gave her the XP because it felt right,but It made me want to tweak the wording of alignment goals further. The killer is needing to make them as succinct as possible.

Tales from the Sodden Reach – Session Zero

On Thursday I ran “session zero” of a new Freebooters on the Frontier campaign. We’re creating the world from scratch and hoping to play every two weeks, for fun and for playtesting. I’ve run four or five Freebooters campaigns in the past, but this will be the first one using the 2nd edition rules.

Useful takeaways from a playtesting perspective:

  • The incorporation of “campaign features” into the world-building procedure worked well. Last week I solicited a bunch of ideas from the Lampblack & Brimstone community on G+ and got lots of great suggestions, which I edited down to a list of 50 different features. Big-picture things like, “magical portals connect the great cities of the world,” or—in our case for this session—”a terrible plague sweeps the land, decimating centers of population” and “a dominant religion persecutes sages and philosophers as enemies of the church.” I wanted some background ideas that would influence thinking about the setting in a bigger, broader way than most of the prompts in the rules, which mostly relate to the proximate situation. This is a keeper.
  • I ended up going off-procedure during the creation of the starting settlement and surroundings, because I was adapting to the flow of the conversation. I want campaign setup to follow some clear steps that will deliver the goods, but me sidestepping reminded me that a Judge/GM sometimes needs to adapt. I can just make sure to include a general guideline to that effect, but I will probably take another pass at the order of the steps to see if I can improve them.
  • We ended up with a party of two fighters and three clerics. Which is awesome! The clerics decided they all follow the same deity, but are from different sects. The deity is neutral, but the cleric alignments are good, neutral, and chaotic. The cleric playbook right now states, “Your deity has the same alignment as you,” and this experience is tempting me to change that. I don’t want every little bit of Judge fiat to result in a rules tweak, but I really like the idea that varying alignments of different characters within a faith might distinguish their relationship to and interpretation of religious doctrine. I’ll need to think a bit more about this one.
  • The starting settlement ended up being a city, which I did not expect. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, but the process of rolling it up led me to reduce the base number of features and problems listed in the rules for both cities and towns. It’s all part of finding that sweet spot where you generate just enough information to get the juices flowing. A city is a complex, rich place with lots of stuff going on, but the key to building a strong mental image is choosing the right number of details; too many and the image breaks down before it has a chance to form.

When we finished this episode I was super-excited to start fleshing out all of the stuff we came up with, and stayed up another hour to scribble down a bunch of notes. That excitement reminded me that the #1 thing that gives me the greatest creative pleasure these days is taking these sorts of prompts—generated or invented mostly by other people—and expanding upon them to create a coherent fictional world. One of my favorite parts of playing an RPG is that back-and-forth where the players improvise material during play, and then it’s my job to build upon and integrate that material, on the spot and between sessions. Playing is a blast, and the “lonely fun” of prep between sessions is satisfying, but the collaborative interplay between those things is compelling feedback loop.

I’m eager to see what awaits these green adventurers.

Freebooters on the Frontier 2e playtest update

This past week I completed another edit of the basic rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to recreate my personal experience of playing OD&D in 1978 with new-school mechanics. Along with this revision, I made a pass at the culture and settlement generation process which I’ve been envisioning for a while, which I will discuss at greater length below. The page design on these parts feels close to final, and over the next few weeks I’ll be updating the other playtest files (Beasts & Booty, Plumb the Depths, playbooks, etc.) to match. If you want to check any of this stuff out, feel free to download and take the game for a spin yourself. Here are the current playtest files. Be warned that these are just the essential rules, with no explanation;  you’ll need to know how Dungeon World or other PbtA games work in order to make sense of it all. I’d love to hear what you think.

Placeholder cover

Even as I recognize that the culture and settlement generation stuff takes Freebooters a big step away from its previous, minimalist iteration, I’m excited by the possibilities, both for creating interesting content on the fly and for facilitating prep between sessions.

Applying the “nested” approach to regional notation and organization that I introduced in The Perilous Wilds to cultures, settlements, factions, and NPCs may seem like an obvious move, but it took me a while to get there. The big shift in this case is how the alignment and values of a prevailing culture may affect its subordinate parts, and the way in which those parts interact to generate hooks and dramatic possibilities all on their own. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to create a culture, settlement, faction, and NPCs here from scratch. You can follow along using the current draft.

First, I choose Albanian as the linguistic basis for naming things in this incipient culture, and because I want it to be one of the main human cultures in my campaign I don’t roll for a random originating species.

A roll of 6 on the Cultural Alignment table gives me neutral—this means that any settlement, faction, or individual who represents the culture’s ruling authority will also be neutral, and skews the alignment of non-authority entities toward neutral. While reducing a vast spectrum of worldviews to the 5 alignments seems simplistic, the interaction between those various entities creates a lot of nuance and unexpected texture. Alignment serves as a quick and broad summary of a worldview, but a given entity (culture, settlement, faction, or individual NPC) becomes complex and interesting thanks to its context and constituent parts. Coupled with the fact that in the latest update to the basic rules a PC can shift alignment at the end of a game session, the 5-alignment system has become much more flexible than it would at first appear.

Two rolls on the neutral column of the Values table give me a 3“balance” and a 12“roll 1d10 on chaotic.” Rolling 1d10 on the chaotic column gives me “celebration.” Noting balance and celebration as the culture’s core values, I move on to Cultural Profile and roll 8, 6, 5, 7: its sizable (possessing 3 features), enjoys a comfortable economy, has a capable military, and a resigned overall populace. For the 3 Cultural Features I get “renowned terrain (woodland/jungle),” “renowned faction (revolutionary/subversive),” and “signature tradition (public space).”

Time to take a moment to step back and look for connections. The picture comes together pretty quickly: this culture developed in a jungle environment, and although it may cover several regions of varying terrain, the primary terrain is jungle. What is it about the jungle that makes it such a well-known aspect of the place? I’m going to say that its incredibly lush, often shrouded in mist due to the humidity, and in possession of some truly gigantic trees.

Considering “balance” and “celebration” in relation to the signature tradition involving “public space,” I decide that every settlement of size is built in a ring around a central greenspace or commons where jungle flora is allowed to thrive. These common areas are considered vital to the balance between civilization and the wilderness, and serve as sites for ritual celebrations of this balance. I want a name for these spaces, and look up how “green heart” translates into Albanian: zemra jeshile. Let’s shorten that to “heart:” zemër.

The last thing to consider is that this land is also renowned for a revolutionary or subversive faction. Perhaps the society-wide emphasis on balance has created an economic system where material wealth is redistributed according to the individual needs of the citizens, but a revolutionary faction has arisen with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of the most “worthy.” Although their long-term goal might be to overthrow the government, in the near term they are simply seizing wealth by force; a growing army of bandits with political aspirations. Let’s call them the Golden Hands.

Great, I have a loose overall idea of how this culture operates. I can embellish and expand upon it as I wish as the campaign progresses, but right now the idea of a jungle civilization with ring-shaped settlements and a revolutionary army of gold-hungry guerillas is a good visual to work with. Time to give this kingdom a name. How does “Land of Balance” translate? Tokë e bilancit. Too long. I shorten it to Bilancit.

Next, just for fun, I’ll create a settlement within this culture. On the Settlement Size table I roll a hamlet, and using the column for Bilancit’s prevailing alignment of neutral on the Settlement Alignment table, I roll a 3: lawful. So this small community differs from the overall culture by placing more emphasis on law and order. Rolling 1 feature and 1 problem on the Hamlet tables, I get “noted landmark (statue/shrine/menhir)” and “shortage (water).” I don’t even have a map on which to place Bilancit yet, but these rolls make me decide that some part of the kingdom is desert, and this community resides there. Perhaps it grew up next to an oasis, the water supply of which has diminished in recent times and limited the settlement’s growth. The landmark is a shrine to a lawful god in the Bilancit pantheon, to whom the locals pay homage in hopes that the water will flow freely once again. This place needs a name, maybe “Law-Water,” or “Oasis,” or “Dry Spring.” Ligji i Ujit, Oazë, or Pranverë të Thatë. I like the first one, but choose to compress it to “Ligujit.”

I want to know more about the people of Ligujit. Who are they? What is their relation to the Bilancit values of balance and celebration? A hamlet is comprised of just a handful of dwellings, so I decide that all of its residents together comprise a faction, and they look to a single leader. The rules state that the lead authority of a settlement shares the settlement’s alignment, so I know this person is lawful. Starting with this leader, I roll up the four most prominent inhabitants of Ligujit. Rolling NPCs is straightforward except when it comes to alignmentin this case, I’ll roll everyone’s alignment (except the leader) on the lawful column of the NPC Alignment table. I generate all of their names using the Albanian name generator at the amazing Fantasy Name Generators site, and interpret occupation rolls according to the context (e.g., the result “innkeeper/tavernkeeper becomes “cantina proprietor”).

FACTION: Hamlet of Ligujit (lawful)

Miror Ciftja (cantina proprietor; lawful (loyalty); leader; disciplined, courteous, reckless; notable chin, ponderous, charismatic, paranoid)

Tonja Hamiti (desert guide; evil (fear); aggressive, antagonistic, wrathful; squints, notable clothing, traumatized, rebel)

Nanda Mujushi (religious zealot; chaotic (disruption); fair, antagonistic, obsessive; doughy, imposing, taciturn, cultist)

Enid Aliu (cartographer; neutral (luck); bold, wasteful; missing teeth, tall, reclusive, fugitive).

And from these four I can spin the drama of the desert hamlet of Ligujit. Poor Miror must be barely holding the place together, given that two of the three next most prominent residents are an evil rebel and a chaotic cultist. No wonder he’s paranoid! Tonja is fed up with having to share the money she earns for her guide work with the rest of Ligujit and yearns to join the Golden Hands, but she’s going to try to scare the locals out of their valuables before cutting out. The sleepy-looking, apparently harmless Nanda secretly worships one of the Bilancit gods of chaos, and is plotting to destroy the shrine that stands at the edge of the oasis pool. Enid the mapmaker is the only person of note Miror might be able to call upon if the situation worsens, and even then he might take some convincing.

Out of a series of random rolls,  I’ve easily worked up a portrait of Ligujit. When the PCs pass through, they might just camp out for a night before moving on. But if they need the services of a guide and/or mapmaker as they search for ruins in the sands, they may end up learning more about this place. And if they wake up one day to find the shrine toppled and the freshwater spring reduced to a trickle, they’ll have a special kind of problem on their hands.

So that’s an example of how generating the various nested components of a culture can result in a matrix rich with possibility. I’m pretty happy with the basic procedure and the way the various parts relate; I just need to add a few sections (pantheon generation!) and refine the contents of some of these tables.

Sense of Place

I’ve always loved dramatic narratives that unfold in a mundane context, because of the way the believable little details of a familiar place make it all seem so much more possible. The suburban development still under construction in E.T.; the motels, diners, and gas stations that populate the second season of Fargo; the Pacific Northwest as depicted in My Own Private Idaho. Many of the more memorable one-shots I’ve run were set in real-world locales, where specific aspects of an actual place and time give everything a certain verisimilitude. Among those were a session of Bootleggers that played out over the smuggling corridor between Quebec and Providence, RI during Prohibition, and a game of Spirit of ’77 set in Atlantic City during the age of disco.

In early December of 2018 I ran a session of PSI*RUN, Meguey Baker’s excellent game about renegade psychics, and—hoping to conjure that sense of drama juxtaposed against the mundane—employed a method I’ve used a couple of times now. PSI*RUN always starts with a crash, where the vehicle transporting the imprisoned, amnesiac PCs takes a spill from which the PCs can escape, thus beginning their adventure.

While everyone was thinking about their characters during setup, I opened Google Earth on my laptop and zoomed in to a random spot in Montana. I chose Montana because I grew up there, and I wanted some of that wide-open highway feel you get in the eastern part of the state. I quickly found a stretch of US-12 that fit the bill, and used that as a starting point. Sometimes, if I find a specific image or detail that captures the vibe of a place, I’ll show it to the players, but usually I describe what I see and let them build the scene in their minds. In this case, I had decided it was the middle of winter, so I kept the image to myself and described the snowy landscape and blizzard conditions as they climbed out of the burning wreckage of the prison van.

The first scene ended with one of the PCs taking over the consciousness of a passerby and driving everyone to the nearest small town in her commandeered Honda Civic. I followed US-12 south to Interstate 94, then east until I hit the next small town: Rosebud, Montana. I zoomed in for a closer look:

Rosebud, Montana.

The PC who had possessed the 19-year-old driver had all of her memories and knowledge, and decided that she lived in Rosebud, so the group sought shelter at her parents’ house. In Google Earth, I dropped the little orange person onto the map and spent a few seconds looking around from the street-level view until I found a likely home:

From there, the middle and final acts of the game played out, with me using the Google Earth street view to describe details and aspects of the physical environment that either added color to the proceedings or directly impacted their tactical decision-making as their pursuers closed in. It was a fun game, made all the more memorable by using real-world reference points.

During the Steam Winter Sale last week I picked up Far Cry 5, because I enjoy open-world exploration in video games and have become increasingly impressed by the ability of developers like Ubisoft to create rich environments. For triple-A titles like Far Cry, dozens of people work together to craft the assets and design the maps, refining every corner of vast virtual spaces down to the placement of an oil can on a workbench. Most impressive from this perspective to me so far have been the worlds of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. which attempt to recreate the worlds of ancient Egypt and Greece, respectively. There’s a lot for tabletop GMs to learn from the way those two games depict landscape and human settlements in particular, but that’s a subject for another post.

After playing Far Cry 5 for a while, I noticed the “arcade” option that allows you to play on maps created by other users, and spent a few hours dabbling with those, appreciating the enormous range of contributions from seasoned level designers to what I can only presume to be 11-year-old psychopaths (or average American boys, take your pick) who cover their maps with impaled corpses and lakes of blood. And then I made the mistake of opening the map editor myself.

I’m a die-hard worldbuilder. Since I first played D&D in 1978, I’ve left a wake of fantasy geographies, half-baked fictional pantheons, and unfinished treatises on imaginary cultures. I can’t resist the pull of a blank map. So when I opened up the Fary Cry 5 editor, I fell right into it. The game happens to be set in Montana, where I lived until the age of 10, so without even thinking I started to recreate Rosebud.

For someone who spent 22 years of his life trying to imagine what Weimar Berlin was like, it’s been a fascinating exercise. I’m always telling my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies that drawing from life is a way of understanding the world, and in this virtual space I’m engaged in the same activity—paying attention to the way a utility pole leans to one side, how many derelict automobiles a person can cram into a side yard, the shape of a mud puddle. I find these mundane details, juxtaposed by design and happenstance, endlessly fascinating.

In my experience, if you—as a writer, artist, or GM—can create a believable environment, any moment of incidental action or high drama that unfolds in that space has a greater resonance. Details arranged properly can make an imaginary place feel right in the experience of the reader, observer, or player, helping them to inhabit and remember that place, however briefly. In a 3D virtual space like Far Cry, a a lot of time and effort needs to go into creating those details, but in a tabletop RPG you can create the effect with a few well-chosen words. I’ll post more about how I try to do that in the future.

FREE STUFF: Here are some play sheets I made for the session of PSI*RUN described above. The pdf may look messed up if you open it in a web browser, but should look fine if you download it and open it manually.

Freebooting on the Frontier [3]

The first entry in this series can be found here.

“The Three-Headed Horror,” I think to myself, “Just how bad is that, exactly?”

To the inhabitants of Threshport, it’s the worst thing around, but according to my players, it’s known for snatching children, not attacking full-grown adults. So I decide that it’s Solitary, Large, and Cautious, and then I refer to the “Monster Maker” sidebar in The Perilous Wilds—just a compressed rewrite of the monster-making rules in the core Dungeon World rules—to guide me:

I quickly jot down the essentials, but I don’t give it any moves, since with improvised monsters I like to just let moves emerge through play.

Three-Headed Horror
Solitary, Large, Cautious
Damage Three beaks b[3d10+1] (reach)
HP 16   Armor 2
Special Quality Winged

I tell them that some time in the mid-afternoon, still pushing through the jungle, they hear the beating of mighty wings behind them. “What do you do?”

Everyone describes taking cover except one player, who asks, “How much of a forest canopy is there?” and since I have no ready answer, I ask in return, “How much would you like there to be?”

“A lot.”

“Okay, let’s see if you Get Lucky.”

Get Lucky
When you hope things will go your way, roll +LUC: on a 10+, they do, this time; on a 7-9, they do, but there’s a tradeoff—ask the Judge what; on a 6-, DO NOT mark XP, and you get the opposite of what you hoped for.

I love this move because I can go to it whenever I find myself hesitating to answer a player’s question about a situation. If I have a clear mental image, or I’ve already made a decision about the object of the question, I run with that; but if it’s totally up in the air, I’ll ask them to Get Lucky and riff on the result. In this case, the player rolled a 10+, so yes: plenty of tree cover, “You look behind and see the upper limbs of the tallest trees waving as something really big swoops over them, in your direction.”

So everybody tries to hide. And I ask Rowe, the character with the lowest Dexterity, to Make a Saving Throw with Dexterity.

Make a Saving Throw
When you act or react in the face of danger, roll…

…+STR to use sheer muscle
…+DEX to use speed and agility
…+CON to resist or endure
…+INT to think fast or focus
…+WIS to perceive or intuit
…+CHA to charm your way out
…+LUC to close your eyes and pray

On a 10+, you do it, as well as one could hope; on a 7-9, you do it, but there’s a catch—the Judge will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

(Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty much just Defy Danger, I know. Forgive a guy his nostalgia for nomenclature)

I only ask Rowe to make the roll because in this kind of situation—a bunch of characters doing the same thing and hoping for a positive result—I think it’s most efficient and satisfying to have the responsibility fall to the least competent character. It might be different if people were describing ways in which they were helping one another, but in this case it’s five green adventurers abjectly diving and hiding. Every person for themself.

Rowe rolls a 7, and I tell him that as the Horror sweeps across the treetops directly overhead, and everyone is showered in loose branches and leaves, there’s a moment when the beating of its massive wings parts the canopy and one if its three great eyes stares right down at him. The three heads together let out a tripartite screech that makes the characters’ blood run cold  (I try to imitate a sort of a Godzilla chorus), but the thing continues on its way. I’ve decided what the creature’s going to do, but from their perspective it’s not stopping, and soon the sound of its beating wings fades.

Everyone gets up and moves cautiously ahead, until the tree cover ends in an open expanse of tall grass, rolling down and away from them to the east. Selina and Cóldor break right, skirting the treeline, while Elorfindra, Rowe, and Ogethas decide to head left. A moment later, the Horror drops down from the sky into the open area, facing them. All three heads let out a deafening shriek, each twisting on a long neck to scan the jungle with a great golden eye.

Once again, everyone takes cover, and once again I ask Rowe to Make a Saving Throw with DEX in order to avoid being seen. He gets another partial success, and I tell him that as he presses his sweaty, large body into a bed of ferns, a red snake about the length of his arm slides out of the foliage and onto his back. Ogethas, in cover behind a wide-boled tree nearby with bow in hand, puts two fingers on an arrow in her quiver.

“What do you do?”

“In a whisper I say, ‘welcome, friend in nature, make yourself at home,’ and put off as many good vibes as I can manage in my panicked state.”

“Make a Saving Throw with Charisma.”

He rolls a 12. The snake slips off his back and into his shoulder bag, and Ogethas shakes her head in a combination of consternation and disbelief. The Horror lets out another shriek in three-part disharmony. Everybody hold position, stock-still.

I had decided for myself that if they didn’t do anything stupid at this point, the monster would take off and continue on its way, But then Elorfindra, thinking either that it would be good to draw the Horror’s attention away from the rest of the group, or just trying to save her own ass, makes a break for it, running directly back into the jungle the way they had come. The Horror notices, all three eyes locking onto the movement, and launches itself heavily into the air to give chase above the treetops. Inexplicably, Cóldor gets up and runs after the elf Cleric.

I say inexplicably, because at the time I could see no logical reason why either of the elves would do what they did in this situation, but a moment later I realized they were both acting directly on the “Reckless” character trait. And boy does Cóldor follow through: he runs to the largest nearby tree and begins scaling it as fast as he can, with the intent of attacking the monster in hand-to-hand combat. Ogethas, Rowe, and Selina look on in disbelief, certain that he’s going to die. Elorfindra peels back around in a wide circle toward the tree—not running away after all.

The Horror sees Cóldor climbing the tree and slows to a hover, beating its massive wings above the canopy and sending all manner of fruit, dead branches, and foliage showering to the ground. It rises and dips, eyeing him through the branches, looking for an opportunity to lunge. He describes his intent to get as high as he can and then jump onto the monster.

At that moment, Elorfindra arrives at the base of the tree, draws her shortbow, takes aim at one of the great eyes as it peers through a break in the branches, and lets fly.

Shoot or Throw
When you attack a target with a ranged weapon, roll +DEX: on a 10+, you inflict damage; on a 7-9, you inflict damage after resolving 1 of your choice:

* Mark off 1 ammo
* You have to move to get the shot, worsening your position
* Just winged ’em—roll damage twice and use the lower roll
* You attract unwanted attention

She rolls a 10, then 1d6 for damage and gets a 6. I don’t subtract the Horror’s Armor value because its eye was the target, and a large one at that. The arrow disappears into it and the thing recoils in deafening agony, pulling back from the treetops. I glance at the tags I had hurriedly assigned and note Cautious. I describe the Three-Headed Horror reeling away and flapping ponderously into the distance, its cries echoing through the jungle. I make a mental note that the creature will return one day.

Everyone regroups, and words are had with Cóldor regarding his stupidity. He ignores them and dismisses the monster as a coward. This would be the first of many occasions when Coldor’s recklessness would invite danger, to often hilarious effect.

Freebooting on the Frontier [2]

My last entry recounted the first hour of a three-hour session, and this one covers only about the next half-hour of actual play time.

After everyone equips themselves to satisfaction, they assemble at Threshport’s gate and set off into the Red Jungle, in the direction of the Pit of the Giant. The island is largely unexplored, with no other settlements besides Threshport, so there are no established roads pretty much any way you head will take you into the wilderness.

Time to put the Perilous Wilds rules into play. We had already established that the Pit was about a day’s journey on foot, and they were clearly headed into untamed wilderness, so their actions trigger the Undertake a Perilous Journey move, which has been altered from the Dungeon World original to read:

Undertake a Perilous Journey
When you travel through dangerous lands, indicate the course you want to take on the map, and ask the GM how far you should be able to get before needing to Make Camp. If you’re exploring with no set destination, indicate which direction you go. Then, choose one member of the party to Scout Ahead, and one to Navigate, resolving those moves in that order.

I ask them who’s going to Scout Ahead and Elorfindra the elf Cleric nominates herself. No one objects, so we go to the move:
Scout Ahead
When you take point and look for anything out of the ordinary, roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 2 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

* You get the drop on whatever lies ahead
* You discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain—shortcut, shelter, or tactical advantage (describe it)
* You make a Discovery (ask the GM)
* You see sign of a nearby Danger —ask the GM what it is, and what it signifies
She rolls a 7, +0 for her WIS for a 7, and chooses 1 from the list: “You make a Discovery (ask the GM).” If they were traveling through a prepared region I might look through my notes for a pre-planned Discovery, but the point of this session is to make most stuff up as we play, so I go to the Discovery tables in The Perilous Wilds.
These tables are designed to generate prompts for the GM to build on, not to spell out things in detail. The Discovery tables fit onto one 8.5″ x 11″ page spread:
These days I ask my players to do all the rolling, and the Discovery and Danger tables use 12-sided dice, so when we sit down to play I make sure everyone has a d12 on hand. I’ve found the quickest way to generate numbers for these tables in play is to ask them each to roll a d12, then tell me the numbers one at a time until I get a result. This can feel weird at first, as there is a pause while the results are determined and interpreted, but it gets faster and smoother with practice.
The first three d12 rolls in this instance are 9, 3, and 6, which gives me Structure > Infrastructure > “road.” Under “Infrastructure,” it says I can roll to see whoever built the road it using 1d4+4 on the Creature table, and the result in that case gives me “human.”
As an aside, I should note that all of this die-rolling goes relatively quickly; asking for rolls, referencing the tables, interpreting the result, and describing what they see takes about 20-30 seconds.

The job of the GM is to interpret the prompt in context, which in this case is a humid jungle on an unexplored island. So, I’m thinking, if there’s a road on an unexplored island, it must be an ancient road built by some past human inhabitants. I tell Elorfindra that while everyone is taking a midday break in a clearing, she notices an unnatural shape in the undergrowth. She pulls away the ferns and grass to reveal a weathered stone pylon, about waist-high, and encased in fine green moss. She scrapes away some of the moss to find that the pylon is completely covered in runic symbols, worn down to the point of being barely perceptible.

Selina the Magic-User comes over to see what the elf has discovered. She examines the runes to see if any of them look familiar, which triggers the Recall move (Freebooters on the Frontier‘s rejiggered version of Spout Lore):

When you seek the answer to a question by drawing upon your accumulated knowledge, say why you might know the answer to that particular question. If the Judge buys it, roll +INT: on a 10+, the Judge will give you a complete and truthful answer; on a 7-9, the Judge will give you an answer, but you won’t know it’s true until you put it to the test. If the Judge doesn’t buy how you might know the answer, it turns out you don’t know much about the subject.

I ask her why she might know the answer, and she cites her years of studying both history and magical texts. I buy it. She rolls: 9, +2 for her INT modifier = 11. I tell her that most of the runes have been obliterated by the passage of time, but she can make out one that repeats—a stylized sheaf of grain that represents the deity Dalia.

In the course of making stuff up on the spot, I’m always looking for ways to connect things. At the beginning of this session, we established that Dalia is the Goddess of Life, and that there was an earlier and ill-fated colonial presence on the island. As they investigate the pylon and what it might signify, I’m pulling things together in my head: an ancient road, marked by the sign of the Goddess of Life. What does it mean?

Elorfindra starts looking for further archaeological evidence, describing how she stands at the pylon and scans the surrounding area, looking for more. So she triggers Perceive:

When you pay close attention to a person, place or thing, roll +WIS: on a 10+, hold 3; on a 7-9, hold 1. Spend your hold 1-for-1 to ask the Judge questions about the object of your attention, either now or later. But ask carefully; if there’s no way you could reasonably know the answer, the Judge will just tell you you don’t notice anything unusual.

She gets a 7 and for her question asks me of there’s anything else of obvious human construction in the vicinity. I decide there is and tell her that she finds another pylon, just like the first, about 50 yards away to the southwest. She and Selina scrape off some of the moss together and find the same markings, the only recognizable one being the mark of Dalia.

This puts me in an interesting spot. At first I had been thinking the pylon was a milestone on an ancient highway, but now I’ve said there’s another one only 50 yards way. So something else is going on here, but what? I’ll have some time to think about it, because before the halfling and elf can start searching the undergrowth in earnest, the others insist on setting out, in the interest of reaching the Pit before nightfall.

Since the initial Scout Ahead move resulted in a Discovery that led to a brief break in the journey, I say they need to Undertake a Perilous Journey again for the next leg. It’s been noticed at this point that Selina has the best WIS modifier (+1), so she is urged to take point. Unfortunately, she rolls a 5, +1, for a 6. She marks XP, but I get to make a GM move (or Judge move, in FotF parlance). After a moment’s hesitation, I decide to go ahead and throw a Danger at them. I could roll one up, but I’m going to go with one we’ve already established—the Three-Headed Horror.

Will they survive contact with the creature the locals fear above all others?