Freebooting on the Frontier [1]

Well, my intentions to post regularly here were derailed by the launch and management of my latest Kickstarter campaign. To my delight, it was a rousing success, and thanks to the money raised I’ll be able to produce and print The Perilous Wilds, an overland adventure supplement for Dungeon World, along with a whole bunch of other fun things.

Among those things is a Dungeon World hack called Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to map the feeling of playing old school D&D in the late 1970s and early 1980s onto the *World system. It’s a highly subjective reinterpretation, based on both my personal memories of that time and my more recent love affair with the DCC RPG. Much like Funnel World, a stretch goal from my previous Kickstarter campaign, Freebooters has taken on a life of its own.

About a month ago my game group wrapped up an epic campaign based on a different Dungeon World hack, so the timing was right to begin playtesting The Perilous Wilds and Freebooters in earnest, on a weekly basis. And since the game content is being generated mostly on the fly, I thought it might be of interest to record our experiences here.

Characters in Freebooters are generated almost entirely at random, with only a few decisions points. This is a game about making the most of what the dice give you, and trying to survive and get rich in a brutal world.

Here’s what the dice gave us in the first session:

Elorfindra, Evil female elf Cleric of Diador, God of Death.
Appearance: shaved head, shining eyes
Traits: self-pitying, mad, reckless
Strength 5 (-2); Dexterity 10 (0); Constitution 8 (-1); Intelligence 12 (0); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 4; Load 6
Gear: Holy symbol (polished black stone sphere), short bow, quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Cóldor, Evil male elf Fighter
Appearance: squint, large hands
Traits: egotistical, impatient, reckless
Strength 16 (+2); Dexterity 13 (+1); Constitution 7 (-1); Intelligence 10 (0); Wisdom 7 (-1); Charisma 10 (0); Luck 9 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 7; Load 11
Gear: Billhook (favored weapon), leather armor, shield, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Selina, Good female halfling Magic-User
Appearance: aged, hairless
Traits: benevolent, disciplined, courteous
Strength 8 (-1); Dexterity 14 (+1); Constitution 9 (0); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 13 (+1); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 16 (+2)
Armor: 0; HP 1; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, dagger, spell components (3), rations (5)
Spells: Blood of Omnipotent Perception, Ulana’s Delicate Knowledge

Rowe, Good male human Magic-User
Appearance: notable nose (piggy), strange marks
Traits: curious, loving, generous
Strength 11 (0); Dexterity 9 (0); Constitution 13 (+1); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 11 (0); Luck 3 (-3)
Armor: 0; HP 4; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, bag of books (5), healing potion, rations (5)
Spells: Zace’s Globe of Blood, Cynjobulon’s Venom Guide

Ogethas, Neutral female human Fighter
Appearance: dark skin, clear-eyed
Traits: dependable, boastful
Strength 10 (0); Dexterity 16 (+2); Constitution 12 (0); Intelligence 9 (0); Wisdom 9 (0); Charisma 9 (0); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 8; Load 10
Gear: Longbow (favored weapon), quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

After everyone rolled up their characters, I put a “terra incognita” island map in the middle of the table (from Mad Vandel’s Map Pack, another stretch goal that collects a bunch of unlabeled and blank maps by Josephe Vandel), told the players that they were new arrivals at a colonial port town on this unexplored island, and asked them what sort of climate the island might have. They agreed it was tropical, a generally hot and humid place.

Before getting into the game we needed to set the stage a bit, so I passed the map around the table and asked each player to add stuff to it, based on specific questions. First the port town, which they named “Threshport.” I asked them to roll some dice to determine the town’s tags, and we got Prosperity Moderate, Population Booming, Defenses Watch, then Lawless, and Blight (which reduced Booming to Growing). I added Trade (capital city), because that’s the whole reason the port exists, and I asked them what was up with the blight. They told me there’s a local disease called the Dimming that causes a certain segment of the population to lose their sight.

Then, players added regions and sites of interest to the map, the names of which they could choose themselves or roll up on the tables provided for that purpose in The Perilous Wilds. Everyone decided to roll instead of choose.

Twice around the table and we had this:

As they added stuff, I asked them what was notable about each addition, and took notes for future reference:

Devil’s Quagmire: no birds
The Dark Peaks: totally unexplored
God’s Sound: every 1,000 years this peninsula rises from the sea
Sands of Despair: a desert that drains all hope
The Shifting Forest: there’s an oasis at its center
Pit of the Giant: vaguely footprint-shaped, something’s down there
Sword Keep: first colonial outpost, overrun many years ago by thorakians (savage termite-folk)
The Circle: a barren circular patch delineated by ancient standing stones
The Gate: a ruin of mystical origin, from which someone recently retrieved an indecipherable book

Then I asked them what local creature the locals feared most, and they told me it was the “Three-Headed Horror,” a giant hawk monster with three heads, a single huge eye on each.

The last thing I asked them about was their base of operations in town. Where did they meet, and where do they gather to make plans? In the great open courtyard of the local temple to Dalia, the Goddess of Life, where free food is distributed to new arrivals and the needy.

We started play in the courtyard, discussing their first foray into the wilderness. Everyone agreed that the Pit of the Giant, being only a day’s march away through the jungle, was an ideal first venture.

Next time I’ll recap their journey to the Pit.

A One-Shot of Whiskey

For a while after our Spawn of Azathoth campaign came to an untimely end, our entertainment on game night consisted of a series of games that could be played in a single evening. At some point in my exploration of the indie RPG scene, I had put together a “one-shot survival kit,” a plastic tub containing a bunch of rules-light stuff that I can pull out at a moment’s notice.

This kit contained Fiasco, Carolina Death CrawlPowers for Good, In a Wicked Age, Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a binder of one-page dungeons, and a bunch of games from One Seven Design. One Seven is John Harper, a prolific designer of RPGs that crouch, ready to pounce, at the intersection of brevity and beauty.

Mr. Harper is so prolific, and his designs cover such a tantalizing gamut of genres, that I eventually gave them their own kit box. I have to say that a plastic storage tub fails to do them justice, though—what they really want is their own spinner rack or vending machine.

Usually on a one-shot night I pull a bunch of stuff out and ask everyone what they feel like playing, and usually no one has any strong opinion, so I’ve gotten in the habit of just running anything I feel excited about in order to sidestep the “I dunno, what do you guys want to play?” dilemma. Luckily, my players trust me not to be self-indulgent, and I try to live up to that trust by giving a lot of thought and consideration to what they might enjoy before I throw something new at them.

On that first Lovecraft-free game night, I was still in a 1930s sort of mood, and John Harper had just put out Bootleggers: Smuggling Run via his terrific Patreon. So I printed it out, brushed up on my Prohibition history, and prepped a quick-ref GM aid for myself (I only used a handful of the items on this thing, but it gave me a sense of security and helped ground my improvisation). That night there wouldn’t be a menu of games to choose from; we would sit down and play something I had pre-selected. But I wanted to get them into the mood, so at the last minute before I left the house I dug up an old steel flask, filled it with bourbon, and tossed that in my backpack too.

In Bootleggers, the players are the eponymous smugglers, small-timers at first, striving against the law and rival forces to hit the big time without ending up in the big house (or bleeding out on the curb). Character and gang advancement happens when the PCs rack up enough “scores,” which are rated according to the number of cases of booze they can smuggle or steal. It’s a concrete, perfectly thematic way to track experience that feels great in play, pushing the same buttons as the gold-as-XP approach in old-school D&D.

But the best thing about booze-as-XP, as we soon discovered, is that it’s fragile: a car crash or hail of bullets—not to mention a G-Man with a fire axe—can wipe out your precious cargo. So not only do you have to get the goods from point A to point B in order to level up, you need to make sure the maximum possible number of cases or barrels survive the trip. This ended up being my single favorite aspect of the game, because of the way it forced the PCs to behave in situations where their score-in-the-making was under physical threat.

After gang and character creation, which made for a nice transition into the milieu of the game, I set the scene: it’s a chilly November night and the four of them are split between a sedan and a flatbed pickup, pulling into the back lot of a distillery on the St. Lawrence, just outside of Montreal. They’re antsy after the 10-hour trip from Providence, and anxious about their first score. One of them has a cousin who works at the distillery, and arrangements have been made to cross his palm with U.S. currency in exchange for enough barrels of Canadian whiskey to fill the flatbed. They’re expected to knock shave-and-a-haircut on the loading dock door to announce their arrival, and that the coast is clear. They stop just inside the parking lot gate, and the two guys in the sedan get out to confer with those in the truck

At this point I pull out the flask, unscrew the lid, and hand it to player on my left, saying, “You pass around the flask one last time.” There’s a pause, and they all exchange glances, but none of them says anything. And then they pass it, taking swigs one after another, until it comes back around to me and I screw the lid back on. I had brought the flask on impulse, not sure what I was going to do with it, but it ended up being the perfect thing to set the mood and mark our crossing of the threshold of play. That none my friends batted an eye at this potentially awkward stunt reminds me how lucky I am to get to play with them on a weekly basis.

When the barrels were half-loaded, thugs dispatched by the Prohibition King of Providence showed up, and the ensuing shootout played out like the Victory Motel scene in L.A. Confidential, only with less SMG and more knife.

It was among the most intense and gratifying fights I’ve experienced in an RPG, with every die roll honored, the lives of the PCs very much a stake, and all of them surviving, miraculously, unscathed. When the smoke cleared, someone asked for the flask again and described his character trying to steady his hands before taking a swig. The flask went around the table one more time.

They made it across the border safely via back roads, but in the hours of driving between Quebec and southern Vermont the shootout had been reported and investigated, and American authorities notified. So they encountered a roadblock on Interstate 91, just a few miles from the real-world building where we were playing. From there things tipped into one long, intensifying downward spiral.

Half the gang met their end in a shootout with state police on a moving train, while the other half limped back to Providence with only 2 of their original 8 barrels still intact (they had crashed the flatbed, and managed to get only 2 barrels into another truck, hijacked from a dairy farm). I house-ruled that each barrel was worth 2 cases, which for a Level 1 gang gave them a total of 2 scores.

Realizing that they would need 4 more scores to reach Level 2 (and knowing this was a one-shot), they described mourning the loss of their friends, abandoning their life of crime, and drowning their sorrows in the fruits of their ill-advised efforts.

All in all, Bootleggers provided the best one-shot experience we’ve had to date. One side effect of that is that it made me want to run a full-fledged Bootleggers campaign some day; another is that I am super-excited for John Harper’s next big project, Blades in the Dark, which will be launching on Kickstarter in March.

Thanks for the good times, John! Looking forward to more.

Between Then and Now – Part 1

I hadn’t written anything here in over a year until yesterday, but my gaming life has been full in that time, and some of it worth sharing. So I want to take a few posts to quickly cover what my players and I have been up to.

The last games I recorded here were Pathfinder-to-Dungeon-World campaign I ran for a year and a half, and a play-by-post game of a Dungeon World hack. For the Pathfinder game, I used the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which I chose after reading many reviews of the various Paizo offerings. After about a year of getting increasingly annoyed with the extreme fiddliness and tedium of the Pathfinder rules, I managed to sidestep GM burnout by converting everything to Dungeon World. It worked great for a few months, but then some members of the group moved away and the campaign came to an ignominious end.

Those of us that remained then started the classic Spawn of Azathoth campaign for Call of Cthulhu, using the Trail of Cthulhu rules.

One of the many excellent props available from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Again, I had done my homework: read the reviews, read discussions of the system’s pros and cons on RPGGeek, listened to some actual play podcasts. But despite my due diligence, I became annoyed and disenchanted with ToC pretty quickly in play—to me at the time it seemed like a codification and commercialization of what could have just as easily been a single, solid essay of GM advice. More crucially, the rules felt neither intuitive nor immersive, which made it feel like they were getting in the way when I wanted them to be falling back.

Providence, Rhode Island circa 1937 

Now, it’s clear that thousands of people play and enjoy Trail of Cthulhu, and that Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws are super-smart, good guys with tons of experience who are not by any stretch trying to pull a Cthulhu cash-in (as one listen to their superlative podcast will prove). In retrospect, I see that my personal sensibility and encountering the system at the wrong time combined to thwart my enjoyment.

A small part of the old white-guy supporting cast.

Unfortunately, that “wrong time” appears to extend from the point I first played Dungeon World (or more accurately, Adventures on Dungeon Planet) into the foreseeable future. Because once Vincent Baker showed me that parallel *World, I didn’t want to go back. Or, to use a different and even less clear metaphor, when someone hands you a knife, you want to cut everything up into poetry.

A selection of unspeakable excerpts, still awaiting discovery.

In practical terms, this meant that after three sessions of our Cthulhu game I yanked it into that other *World, just like I had done with our Pathfinder campaign before. You can read my rough and overcooked version of the rules here. I’ve learned a lot since then, but it was a part of my learning process, and it did the job at the time; the campaign ran for another five highly entertaining sessions.

Visionary. Frightening. Kind of a mess.

Ultimately, real life reared up again and some of our group left town, so we abandoned the characters at an observatory in Montana. Which is just as well, because after reading and rereading the published campaign material, I ended up feeling that Spawn of Azathoth was kind of a mess in terms of its internal logic. Ahead of its time in many respects, but ultimately too dependent on coincidence and an incoherent plot to give me satisfaction without a lot of extra work on my part.

My day job is teaching how to write and draw comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the great side benefits of which is an annual influx of geeks who have either played RPGs before, or have always wanted to try. This means there is no shortage of players for my games, but turnover is high, so it’s proven hard to play a campaign to completion. However, without skipping a beat we had another full table the week after our leap into Lovecraft ended, and for a while we played a bunch of shorter stuff.

In Part 2 I’ll write about what we did after Cthulhu.

What do you do, after Cthulhu,
After Cthulhu, what do you do?
Stare into the Void for eons on end,
Hoping Shub-Niggurath will wgah’nagl fhtagn

Let’s make it official

When I started this blog as a way to share the excitement and fun I was experiencing with my weekly game group, I chose a name that was evocative of the kinds of adventures we were playing at the time. When I ended up writing and kickstarting one such adventure myself, it seemed only natural that I should use the same name for my publishing venture.

To date, as “Lampblack & Brimstone,” I have put out two small books, currently available on DriveThruRPG:


And I’m planning more. The next one will be called Perilous Journeys, and it’ll be a rules supplement for Dungeon Worldmy current game of choice, and the one that inspired me to make my own stuff in the first place.

When the kickstarter for Servants of the Cinder Queen closed, I sent out a survey to all of the project’s backers, asking them to vote on what sort of thing they’d like me to write next, and “wilderness adventure” won out by a large margin. So I asked the Dungeon World Google+ community what they would like to see in such a book, combined a bunch of suggestions with my own ideas, and dug in. A couple of months later, what I initially envisioned as a humble 32-page saddle-stitched booklet has turned into a 72-page book that will need to be squarebound. At least it’ll still be digest-size…

If you’re curious about the form this project is taking, I’ve been posting previews of the various sections here.

This is all just to give some background to my reviving of this blog. On top of all the other things I have going on, producing Servants and Funnel World took me away from maintaining this space, but this is where I want to consolidate all of my RPG interests. My hope is to continue using this blog as a place to record thoughts about my experiences as a GM, which are swiftly becoming inseparable from my publishing efforts. I have to playtest everything, after all!

So: here’s hoping I can post something interesting at least once a week, and make the visit worth your time!

Dungeon World Under the Microscope

Our weekly Pathfinder-to-Dungeon World game continues apace, but that is not enough! I must have more Dungeon World! That feeling started back in July, when I was just starting to get into DW and was looking for ways to cram more play into my life. In my constant daydreaming about DW, it occurred to me that it might be cool to play a game of Ben Robbins’ Microscopewhich I had been wanting to try after backing the kickstarter campaign for his next game, Kingdomand use the resulting world as a setting for a Dungeon World campaign. I came up with the idea independently, but of course it turned out I was by no means the first person to do so.

So I knew that I wanted to experiment with combining the two games, but I don’t have enough free time each week to fold a second multi-hour rpg session into my life, so I decided to run it as a “play-by-forum” game at brokenforum, one of the handful of gaming boards I frequent. In a play-by-forum game, you don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule (we’ve averaged a post roughly once a day per participant since we began), and players can check in when they have a spare moment here or there. It was open invite, and I capped it at four players. Once we had our group, I started a thread for the Microscope game, and about two months later we had our setting. You can read the original thread here, or just skip to the summary via the Google doc I set up to record our history. As we went along, I started to pull together a Pinterest board of visual reference so we would have a foundation upon which to build our common understanding of the world.

After we had a rough outline of our world’s history, we chose a period in which our game would be set. I threw together a list of potential classes, and each player chose one to play. The idea was to have the race and class options evolve out of our setting, and then adapt them to Dungeon World, customizing as we went. DW is eminently flexible, as the profusion of hacks and mods for the system can attest, so with a little tinkering we were up and ready to run. We ended up with four characters who ran the gamut of customization levels, from a Telani Preserver who hews pretty close to the stock DW Druid, to a Wik Deadspeaker, a class we created pretty much from scratch. All of the resulting character sheets are viewable here.

I had it in my head when I started the game that I would make character portraits for the players as a way to get them further invested in the game, and as a little reward for taking the time to indulge in the experiment. So before we could start play I needed to whip those up. I’ve enjoyed drawing rpg character portraits since the 80s, when I would often spend more time developing a campaign than my high school buddies and I would spend playing, so it was fun for me to do, especially as a way to take a break from the sort of drawing I do for the comic book that comprises one of my day jobs.

So here are the four characters, as developed from scratch to final colored portraits:

Kalil Ru’Hana, Wik Deadspeaker

Tek’Utl, Telani Preserver

Saul Odelo, Archivist Finder

Amulus, Searcher Scout

We started playing the game proper last week, and it’s been a lot of fun so far. Two great things I’ve discovered about GMing a PbF game are that I can post images to supplement the story if I feel like it; and I have more time to consider how the story is going to unfold. What a PbF game lacks in terms of excitement and off-the-cuff improvisation, it makes up for by allowing you the time to think things through. And that leads to a different kind of story, less theatrical and more like a book being read one page at a time.

If you’re curious about how the adventures of these four intrepid souls will play out, you can follow the thread here.

Pathfinding in a Dungeon World

Apologies to the three of you who read the first two installments of my session reports of Adventure on a Dungeon Planet — the scant few free minutes I have to do things like write blog entries about RPGs are easily eclipsed by any number of other things that can suddenly seem more important. To wit, most of my spare time over the past month has been spent adapting my 1.5-year-old Pathfinder campaign to Dungeon World. Since we had our first DW session of the adapted campaign last night, I thought it would be a good time to post about the whole process.

For several years I ran a weekly boardgame night at the school where I teach, introducing the youth of today to tabletop fare like Cosmic Encounter,  Battlestar Galactica and Fiasco, among many, many others (including a prototype of my own design). This was a great way for me to both get to know some of my students outside of class, and to play games on a regular basis. Twice in the past we took detours into RPGs, once to run through G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief using AD&D rules, and once to start Masks of Nyarlathotep using Call of Cthulhu rules. Although everyone had a great time in both cases, neither lasted more than six sessions due to the usual reasons: people moving away, persistent scheduling difficulty, etc.

Several years after the Call of Cthulhu game ended, some time in early 2012, a group of five students expressed interest in playing an RPG (specifically, they said they wanted to “play D&D”). Three of them had played computer RPGs but had never played a “real” one, and there are few things I love more than introducing new folks to tabletop roleplaying, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity. And because I have difficulty doing things in half-measures, I couldn’t just run a one-off adventure using rules I already knew. I decided to look into recent versions of D&D, and ended up going with D&D 3.5 as embodied by the Pathfinder system. I did a fair amount of research before I took the plunge, reading about how Pathfinder rules had been extensively playtested, and I was impressed by the sheer quantity of polished product that was available. Due to time constraints and a desire to minimize prep work, I decided to go with a published “Adventure Path,” which is essentially an entire campaign that plays out over six 96-page modules/chapters, taking characters from level 1 to level 15. The best-reviewed of the many available Adventure Paths was Kingmaker, which is designed more as a “sandbox” than a linear narrative, and includes rules for the PCs to found and develop their own kingdom in a wilderness.

The initial group consisted of a Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Monk, Gnome Sorceror, Half-Orc Rogue, and Human Fighter. Everyone fell hook, line, and sinker into the game, and for about the first year of roughly weekly meetings we had a great time. Eventually, though, rules fatigue started to plague me. The Pathfinder rules are so detailed, filled with so many specifics and exceptions, that even though we were constantly looking stuff up online or in hardcopy, we were always discovering new little wrinkles that called into question things we had done in a previous session. Now, I have no problem just moving on from the fact that, for instance, the “color spray” spell that stunned a shambling mound the last time we played actually would not have affected it at allbecause, of course, shambling mounds have plant traits, which make them immune to charms, compulsions, morale effects, patterns, phantasms, paralysis, poison, polymorph, sleep, and stunbut the regularity with which we missed this or that tiny but important twist on an existing rule led me to feel like we were constantly in danger of getting things wrong. And the Pathfinder rules create a kind of feedback loop with that feeling, because they try to encompass every eventuality and possibility. For every unexpected situation that arises, for every in-game action the PCs want to take, there is likely a rule that describes it. So you have to hunt it down, and make sure you’re getting it right, because sometimes the life of a PC might hang in the balance. On top of this, the kingdom-building rules included in the second Kingmaker chapter are dry to the point of being boring, overly-complicated, and don’t appear to have been playtested much, if at all. Over time, although everyone continued to enjoy themselves, my job as GM began to feel oppressive and exhausting.

On off nights, when we were short players, we sidestepped into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I had heard about through a friend. DCC RPG was a tonic to merefreshing, exciting, and even relaxing, thanks to rules that rely heavily on GM fiat. The experience took me back to that sense of possibility I felt playing D&D when I first discovered it in 1979, and the desire to document those super-fun sessions (which you can read starting here) led me to create this blog.

Now, of course, I am totally free to employ GM fiat in a Pathfinder game, and throughout our campaign I have done so. But the rules themselves, in their attempt to mechanically model every narrative detail, hamper and discourage it. When situations are “hard-coded” and searchable online, my players can look them up on their iphones and point out that any given ruling I make might be “wrong” according to the official rules. They do it to be helpful, not because they’re jerks, and they willingly go along with whatever my final ruling is, but the mere existence of those rules out there creates the niggling feeling in all of us that, again, even if we move on, we did something wrong.

Playing the DCC RPG coincided with investigating the “story game” community, which I had been doing already thanks to my interest in Jason Morningstar’s terrific game Fiasco, and a kickstarted comic book project that grew out of that interest. Within that community I quickly learned of a little game called Dungeon World, which in short order replaced the DCC RPG as the off-night game for my group. I was only able to write up two sessions of our initial experience, but not for lack of joy. Dungeon World proved just as thrilling and fun as the DCC RPG, but whereas adapting our Pathfinder campaign to the latter was inconceivable, DW is so eminently flexible that the possibility of adaptation immediately occupied all of my gaming brain cells. After more than a year, my players were fully invested in Kingmaker, but I was at the end of my rope with the system, so I was looking for a way to make all of us happy. Adapt to survive!

So that’s what I did. I consulted the Dungeon World Tavern Google+ community, and read as many hacks of the DW rules as I could find to see how other people had altered the rules to suit their needs. I built a custom playbook for each of my six players (the Halfling Monk had moved on, replaced by a Dwarf Rogue, and we had gained a Catfolk Ranger), translating the Druid and Sorceror’s Pathfinder spells into DW parlance, then doing the same for their gear and magic items. I experimented with adapting Pathfinder’s equipment pricing to DW, but realized it would be too much of a chore since I was working with a published campaign, and would have to convert too much stuff, so I decided to stick with the equipment costs of Pathfinder.

Without exception, the characters ended up feeling like cooler characters, instead of the aggregations of stats and abilities that makes Pathfinder feel closer to a computer RPG than a tabletop RPG. The alignment moves and bonds in particularbecause of the way they allow you to earn XPreally help the characters feel tied to their world and companions. You can see a sample converted character sheet, the Druid’s, here.

Next, I had to adapt the kingdom building rules. It was a bit daunting, but I was so unhappy with the kingdom building as it was that I needed to get my hands dirty and see if I could make it more enjoyable. Here’s what I ended up with. It’s far more involved than anything in DW, and is still too dry, but it’s a start. We need to see it in action before making more tweaks, and ultimately I want to make it mesh with DW’s steading rules. Right now it’s still somewhere in between.

The final step of conversion, and the part that will be ongoing, is converting Kingmaker’s NPCs, monsters, and magic items. This part is relatively easy on a case-by-case basis, thanks to DW‘s elegant and open approach to the “stat block” problem, but all told it’s still a lot of stuff. Based on what I’ve converted so far, I expect that I will probably need to devote an hour or so a week on this stuff, although it is fairly easy to do on the fly.

So I did the conversion work, but I wanted to kick off the first DW session in styleboth to sell my players on it and to get them re-energized about playingso I took the opportunity to make the campaign more my own.

The first thing I did was remake the campaign map in a style that I liked. Pathfinder’s maps are fine examples of digital cartography, but they resemble satellite photos more than maps of fantastic lands. Really, they do nothing to spark the imagination. So I looked back to some of my favorite RPG maps, those that Pete Fenlon drew for Middle Earth Role Playing back in the 80s, such as this:

Here’s what the map for the fist two chapters in the Kingmaker Adventure Path looks like:

And here, after far too much fiddling with Illustrator and Photoshop, is what our revised campaign map looks like:

Next, I reworked the map of the home settlement that the PCs had founded and built up over the course of two years of in-game time. The previous map I had made looked like this:

And here it is after I added the stuff they built in recent months:

My last “marketing” move was to put together some portraits for the major NPCs the players had come to know. I usually like my NPCs to live in the collective imagination, but the cast of secondary and tertiary characters has grown so large that attaching visuals to them helps me keep them organized, and gives me a concrete starting point when I find myself having to roleplay one of them unexpectedly. And because I’ve done so much similar work for my boardgame over the years, I can throw together these portraits pretty quickly.

Now, I feel compelled to point out at this point that all of this prep work is somewhat antithetical to the Dungeon World philosophy as presented in the core rules. DW is a game designed to be played with little to no prep; it fosters the idea of world creation on the fly, as an ongoing collaboration between the players and the GM, something to be brought to life in the moment at the table, not bought off the shelf. This is one of its greatest strengths, and unfortunately our greatest loss in the translation of Kingmaker. If it were my choice to make alone, I might throw Pathfinder completely out the window and start a new campaign from scratch, hewing to the DW philosophy. At this point I’ve run several shorter adventures that way, and they rank among the most fun I have ever had running an RPG. But I have my players to consider, and if this transition works, the DW rules stand a chance of breathing new life into the world of Kingmaker.

As I mentioned at the start of this long post, I ran the first session last night. I handed out the custom playbooks and explained what was different, the main point I emphasized being, “Don’t worry about the mechanics, just put yourself in the story and think about what your character would do. Leave the mechanics to me.” Then, we picked up where we had left off at the previous session.

A cursed, ravening owlbear assaulted their settlement, and they fought it off with much derring-do. They tried to track it to its lair, but got drawn in a different direction when they caught wind of possible bandit activity on their frontier. They searched for a rabble-rousing bard who had been stirring up unrest among their subjects, following a lead on his whereabouts to a dead-and, and then fought off a shambling mound that assaulted their camp at night. The session ended with their return to Freagol, their home steading.

The whole time I was anxious, not least of all because I had done so much prep work. It was ultimately fine with me if they decided they didn’t like it and wanted to go back to Pathfinder, but I hoped that my work would help them see what I saw in Dungeon World. The fights went about three times faster than the same fights would have taken in Pathfinder, but I worried that people were feeling shorted on the opportunity to act; I discovered that juggling six players in DW can be a challenge. By the end of the session, I was so insecure about the way things had gone that I was convinced that they had not had a good time. So to give them the easy out, I said, “So, if you guys want, we can totally go back to Pathfinder next week. I would be totally fine with that.”

All at once, they said something to the effect of , “No way, this was awesome!”

And I heaved a sigh of relief.

Earlier, when the cursed owlbear attacked their town, the PCs confronted it atop a watchtower. Wounded and near death, the creature wanted to flee. An idea popped into my head, and I said, “The owlbear turns and leaps from the parapet, back toward the forest from which it first emerged.”

Everyone was shocked. “It’s jumping off the thirty-foot-high tower?!”

“Right as it jumps, it spreads its feathery arms and you see the vestigal owl wings reaching from either side of its ribcage to its elbows. Miraculously, the wings catch enough air to allow it to glide, slowing the hurtling descent of its massive weight toward the ground.”

“What? Owlbears can’t fly!”

There was a pause as I considered the relative truth of this assertion.

“Fuck that. We’re in Dungeon World now.”


Addendum: I’ve had a few requests for the rest of the custom playbooks. You can see pdfs of them here: Mitharrna the Half-Elf Woodswarden (Druid/Ranger), Kervantes the Human Loremaster (Fighter/Wizard), Mawgrah the Half-Orc Poisoner (Thief), Bilabous the Demonborn Gnome Sorceror, Professor Bismuth the Dwarf Rogue Alchemist (Thief), and Nadara the Catfolk Ranger.

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 2

When last we left the Danger Patrol, they were trapped on a narrow promontory, on the verge of being forced into a vast pit by the silver spears of the Saturnine Guard. Mylock, the Mutant, had stumbled over the edge, and was plummeting toward certain doom!

Gorebot 5000 makes immediate use of his “extendable limbs,” one of the options he chose under his Automatic Systems starting move, to telescope all three of his remaining three arms into the void of the pit to grab Mylock. The description of extendable limbs says only, “add reach and near to your melee attacks,” but it makes sense that he can also just grab things at range, so I ask him to defy danger with Dexterity. His total is 11: Mylock is snatched from certain doom and returned speedily to the promontory, accompanied by the hiss of retracting hydraulics.

I tell Doctor Morrow that, from his position at the very edge of the promontory, he can look straight down into the rumbling abyss, and that he would feel dizzy with vertigo were it not for his cold, calculating intellect. He perceives a churning in the darkness, and a sudden flash from the electrical storm illuminates the depths, revealing a great ring of sharp teeth as wide as the chasm itself, rotating like a gear; and within that, a second ring of teeth rotating in the opposite direction; and within that a third, etc. — concentric rings of death rising slowly toward our heroes: the God of the Pit!

Doctor Morrow chooses this moment to spout lore, saying “It’s funny, but here at the brink of doom I recall something useful about the rare gems that brought me to Saturn in the first place — you know, the ones I have hidden in the secret pocket of my coveralls…” and I allow it because, cool! He rolls 2D6 + 2 (his INT modifier) for 8, within the 7-9 result that reads, “the GM will only tell you something interesting—it’s on you to make it useful.”

“Yeah, those gems, they are indeed very rare, and you know that they’re ingestible, too. You don’t know what they do, but they’re sort of like oversized, multicolored sugar crystals. Called, um, ‘sucron.'”

“Quick, everyone! Swallow these rocks!” shouts Doctor Morrow, pulling the gems out of his secret pocket and, because his wrists are still bound, scattering them accidentally at his feet. Gorebot 5000, being the doctor’s creation (one of his bonds reads “I was programmed to help Doctor Morrow”), follows the order immediately, sweeping up three of the crystals with one extendable grabber, and dropping them into the grinding chute installed where a mouth would be. After a moment’s hesitation, Curry Cashews and Mylock scoop up one gem each and choke them down.

There’s no time to wait for the sucron to take effect (whatever that effect may be). The Captain of the Saturnine Guard barks orders to his spearmen, and they advance in a double rank, forcing the Danger Patrol to the very verge of the Pit. Now it’s either push back or be forced over the edge!

Mylock acts first, using his kangaroo legs to leap over the heads of the spearmen, but he fails his defy danger roll, gets caught up in the bristling spears, and suffers 1D6 damage as he falls right into the midst of the enemy ranks.

Curry Cashews says, “How many guards are in the front rank? Six? I use my shield to protect me as step between two the spears in the middle, putting myslef in the midst of the first rank with three guards on either side, then use my shield to shove the guards on the right off the edge and into the Pit!”

Defy danger using DEX to maneuver between those spears: his roll total is 8. His choice: take damage from a spear tip and complete that step of the move, or recoil from the pointy sticks and abort the move. The heroic Earthling completes the move, and his arm is pierced by a spear for 5 points of damage. Letting out a bellow of fury and pain, he throws his full weight behind the shield at the three guards now lined up between him and the precipice, and rolls an 11 (defy danger using STR).

The Saturnine Guardsman that receives the blow staggers back into his comrades, neither of whom were prepared for this sudden and unexpected blow from the side. They lose their footing and topple, screaming, into the void. Doctor Morrow watches them disappear into the darkness at the center of the whirling rings of teeth. He notes with scientific interest that the teeth do not pause in their churning.

“I pick up my fallen arm,” says Gorebot 5000, seizing the moment, “and manually activate the retractable blade that comes out of the hand.” Wait, what?

“Yeah, so remember I have this starting move called Automatic Systems? I get to pick three systems at the beginning, off of a long list. I chose ‘extendable limbs,’ which I used already to save Mylock’s ass, and I chose ‘force field,’ which gives me 2 points of armor when it’s turned on, and the last one is ‘weaponized,’ which says, ‘with metal fists and implanted blades, you do +2 damage in melee.'”

“Okay, you pick up your arm and press a button at the wrist, which causes a crescent-shaped blade the size of a dinner plate to pop out between your ring and index fingers…”

“… and I hurl the arm with all my mechanized might past the spearmen at their leader, the Captain guy. I’m trying to hit him in the head with the blade.”

“Okay, that’s a volley. Roll and add your DEX modifier.”

“Volley? Okay, wait, I picked Seek and Destroy Unit as my starting specialization, which says, ‘when you use your built-in weapons, you can roll with STR to volley instead of DEX.'”

“Okay, cool! Roll and add your STR, then.”

Double 6s. +2 for STR is 14. Much laughter and clapping of hands.

“The detached arm flies liked a missile over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, pulling with it the adamant chain still attached to it, which in turn yanks Doctor Morrow after it, since you forgot he was still attached to the chain. So the surprised Doctor is hurled along with your arm over the guards.”

More laughter and clapping of hands (despite the lack of believable physics).

“So the crescent blade, with Doctor Morrow in tow, strikes the Captain of the Guard. Deal your damage.”

“My base damage is a d10. But being weaponized gives me +2 damage, right?”

“To melee. Since this was a volley attack, I’m going to say a melee damage bonus does not apply.”

He rolls a 10. Much more laughter and clapping of hands. I tell him that’s more than enough to kill the Captain, and ask him to describe the end result of his move.

“Okay, he’s in the middle of shouting an order, and the blade hits him right in the open mouth, and, like, shears off the top half of his head, which spins end over end through the air with his helmet still attached while his body stays standing. But then Doctor Morrow catches up to my arm and hits the guy’s body square in the chest, knocking it over backwards and cushioning the Doctor’s fall. And there’s lots of blood, because they don’t call me Gorebot 5000 for nothing.”

So Doctor Morrow finds himself on the far side of the Saturnine Guard, who are visibly shaken by the sudden and unceremonious execution of their commander at the hands hand of a killing machine. Mylock is still crouched in the midst of the 10 remaining guardsmen, with whom Curry Cashews is now thoroughly engaged, while Gorebot still stands, three-armed, at the end of the promontory.

“Where’s the Duke guy? Where’s the Princess?” asks Curry Cashews. I don’t know. Um…

“There’s a wide, sweeping balcony along the second story of the Palace, overlooking the promontory. You can see Princess Anu up there, her eyes still glowing blue, and Duke Damadu still lurking behind her, sternly observing the fracas. He maybe looks a a little worried.”

“PRINCESS!” shouts Doctor Morrow (and he actually shouts, we all kind of flinch in surprise), “You must not allow Curry Cashews to die! CURRY CASHEWS IS YOUR BROTHER!”

How exactly a Saturnian princess and an Earthling transported only recently to the far reaches of the solar system are related by blood is not immediately clear, but whether it’s a bluff or some as-yet-unrealized truth, it’s shocking enough to have some potential effect. I ask the Doctor to make a parley roll, which uses his Charisma modifier of -1 (the Doctor is… not a people person). He rolls an 11, -1 is 10.

The official result for a success with parley is “they do what you ask if you first promise what they ask of you.” In this context, I just decide that the Princess snaps out of her trance for a moment, befuddled, and says, “What? How can this be true? Prove it to me!”
“Er…” Doctor Morrow says, and before he can cobble together a believable story, Curry Cashews interrupts:
“I have this move called Stick to the Mission on my character sheet. Can I use that now?” Sure! “Okay, it says, ‘when you commit to completing a mission, state what you set out to accomplish,’ and I’m going to state that my mission is to ‘thwart the plans of Duke Damadu to kill the Danger Patrol,’ because he’s clearly trying to do that. Each time I declare a mission I need to pick an ‘ideal that drives me,’ and I’m going to pick ‘courage,’ because it’s life or death here — and that comes with the restriction that I can’t ‘shrink from a fight or challenge’ during the course of the mission. And then it says you have to pick the boon I am granted for the mission.”
This is so cool! I look over the possible boons, and choose, “None who witness your dedication can fail to be impressed, and they react accordingly.”
“Okay, resolving that as my mission, I hurl my magic shield like a deadly discus up at the Duke.”
He makes a volley roll using his Dexterity and gets an 8. On a 7-9 volley result, the character deals damage, but then has to choose:

1) You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger as described by the GM.
2) You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage.
3) You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one.

I tell him that if he chooses #3, the shield won’t return to him, but he’ll still be able to recall it later. He doesn’t want to lose his shield, and he doesn’t want to do less than his base 1d8 damage, so he chooses #1 and looks to me for a response.

“You leap back from the ranks of spearmen in order to get a clear shot over their heads at the balcony, stepping back to the utmost edge of the tongue of rock to hurl your shield. The Duke ducks and the shield zips past his head, which elicits an evil, self-satisfied grin. The shield smashes through a window behind him, ricochets off a couple of things inside the Palace, and flies back out, catching him unawares from behind. Deal your damage.”
Curry Cashews rolls 1d8 for 4 points.
“The Duke lets out a loud hiss as the shield cleaves through his right arm on its return trajectory. As he grasps at the stump of his arm, his outward appearance flickers and suddenly fades, revealing a lizardlike humanoid whose scales ripple prismatically. An instant after you glimpse this, the creature disappears completely from view.
“Your shield returns to your uplifted arm, and you see a look of sheer terror cross the faces of the remaining members of Saturnine Guard as they see something over your shoulder. A shadow falls across the promontory and a hot, otherworldy wind blows past you in a vile gust, whipping your golden hair about your face.
“Curry Cashews and Gorebot 5000 turn to see what has already struck fear into the hearts of Mylock and Doctor Morrow: the vast, lamprey-like maws of the God of the Pit, poised to engulf the promontory and all upon it like a child’s mouth on a lollipop!”

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 1

Once all four players were present, I handed them each a character folder. Each folder contained the playbook for one of the replacement classes in Adventures on a Dungeon Planet: the Earthling, who replaces the Paladin and is set up to play like John Carter, Warlord of Mars; the Technician, who replaces the Cleric and fills the role of the classic mad scientist; the Mutant, who replaces the Druid thanks to his transformative nature; and the Engine of Destruction, who replaces the Fighter and plays exactly like his name says. Within 20 minutes everyone had chosen stats, alignments, bonds, and whatever optional moves were available to them at the outset. Our party was Curry Cashews the Earthling, Dr. Morrow the Technician, Mylock the Mutant, and Gorebot 5000, the four-armed Engine of Destruction.

Adventures on Dungeon Planet is designed to accomodate a pulp sci-fi setting of your choice. I opted for the one loosely outlined in John Harper’s Danger Patrol: in the far future (as imagined circa 1930), all of the planets in the solar system are habitable and home to indigenous races, except Earth, which has been reduced to an asteroid belt by some unnamed cataclysm. With that as a starting point, and following the Dungeon World directive of running an adventure with as little prep as possible in order to let the story unfold through the playing of the game, I sketched out a Front that was a little under two pages of 10-point type. The Reptilord Empire is poised to strike at the Free Planets, waiting for the signal from its Skinshifter Agents, who have infiltrated the major planetary governments, in order to sabotage defenses and sow dissent.
Once character creation was complete, I read the following intro (cribbed in part, again, from Danger Patrol):
In the Jeweled Courts of Saturn
The four members of the Danger Patrol, bound together by chains of adamant, stand before the Sapphire Throne of Saturn. The beautiful Princess Anu sits on the Throne for the first time, eyes ablaze with a strange blue light. Behind her, lurking in the shadows, the evil Duke Damadu mutters under his breath. His lips seem to mimic the words spoken by the Princess, who stands and shouts to the assembled throng.
 “You have been found guilty of espionage against the Crown of Saturn! And the sentence… IS DEATH!”
The courtiers lining the majestic hall gasp in horror as the wall behind the Throne dissolves, opening the Palace to the rocky landscape outside. A tongue of rock extends away from the Palace out over the Great Pit, a void of dizzy breadth and impossible depth.
The silver-armored Saturnine Guard, a dozen strong, forces our heroes onto the promontory at spearpoint. The rings of Saturn curve across the sky directly overhead in an overwhelming arc. Electrical storms crackle and across the gray, rocky landscape that encircles the Pit. A hot wind suddenly gusts up from below, whipping clothes and hair about with abandon. Within moments, the Danger Patrol finds itself at the precipice, with nowhere to go but down.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” shouts the Captain of the Saturnine Guard over the howling wind, “but we are bound by blood oath to obey the Princess! May the God of the Sky bless your passage…”
A great roar, like that of a thousand starving beasts, rumbles up from below, causing the rock to shudder underfoot.
“And may the God of the Pit devour you swiftly!”

In *World games, there’s no initiative or other way of formalizing turn order. Players can speak up and act whenever they want, and scenes unfold organically according to what happens as the result of character actions. After setting the stage I inform my players of this fact, and Gorebot 5000 steps up immediately with, “I break the adamant chains with my great strength.”

The hulking machine-man makes his bend bars, lift gates roll, which, like all non-damage rolls in Dungeon World, is 2d6 plus the relevant stat’s modifier (in this case, Strength). All such rolls use the same scale of results: on a 10 or higher, you succeed as desired; on a 7-9, you succeed with a cost; and on a 6 or lower, you fail, but “mark XP” (gain 1 experience point). I love two things about this approach to rolling: you only ask for a roll in a situation that really demands it (i.e., if something is not truly demanding or dramatic, you just do it without rolling); and the result spread never changes.

Gorebot rolls a 7, plus his STR modifier of +2 = 9, so he succeeds with a cost. Most “moves” (DW parlance for character actions governed by game mechanics) call for the GM and/or players to interpret a 7-9 result, but a 7-9 result for bend bars, lift gates specifically allows the player to choose 2 effects from the following list:

1) It doesn’t take a very long time
2) Nothing of value is damaged
3) It doesn’t make an inordinate amount of noise
4) You can fix the thing again without a lot of effort

Gorebot chooses #1, because he wants to rip the chains off immediately, and #4, because he thinks he might need to make the chain whole again for some reason (?). He did not pick #2, so I take that as my cue to tell him that in his Herculean effort to break the adamant chains, he actually rips off one of his four arms at the shoulder joint.

Mylock the Mutant pipes up, saying that he’s going to slip the end of his monkey tail into one of Curry Cashews’ boots, grab the Earthling’s concealed dagger (a detail created on the spot), and use it to pick the lock on Cashews’ adamant cuffs. Mylock is acting on one of the bonds he established during character creation: “Curry Cashews has been a friend to me when others were prejudiced.”

I rule this is a single defy danger move. Defy danger is a kind of catch-call for performing actions under threat, which uses a different one of the six stats depending on the action taken. In this case, it’s Dexterity. Mylock gets an 6, +2 for his DEX modifier, = 8. The 7-9 result for defy danger reads, “you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.”

This is the first time I have to deal with one of the more challenging (but also more fun) aspects of GMing a *World game: the hard bargain or ugly choice. The GM comes up with options for the player relevant to the action at hand, and the player decides which option to take. So I tell Mylock, “you slip the dagger out of Cashews’ boot, but as you start picking the lock, you feel the blade giving. You can either pry it open and break the dagger, or stop prying and leave the dagger intact.”

Not the strongest hard bargain, but I’m just learning how this all works. Mylock wants to be free immediately, so he apologizes to Curry Cashews and pops off the adamant cuff, which falls to the ground along with the two pieces of the dagger. The Earthling is free!

So the focus naturally shifts to him. The Earthling’s sole piece of starting gear, besides the clothes on his back, is a “magic shield.” The Adventures on a Dungeon Planet rules do not define the properties of a magic shield, but the Earthling’s player doesn’t hesitate. “I hold up my free arm,” he says, “and call my shield back to me.”

Everyone’s taken it as a given at this point that they had been relieved of their starting gear before the intro, and that it’s being held somewhere in the Palace. Wherever Cashews’ magic shield lies within, it thrums in response to his wish, and I ask for a defy danger roll using Wisdom (“mental fortitude”) to call the shield. His total is 11: “A stained glass window on the second floor of the Palace shatters as the shield punches through it and hurtles over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, then slips back into its rightful place on your left arm.”

“I bring the energized edge of the shield down with enough force to break the chains holding Mylock.” That’s defy danger using Strength, and he rolls less well: a 7. Instead of offering him a choice, I just go with “a worse outcome,” and say, “Miraculously, the magical energy of the shield cuts through the adamant, but Mylock’s weight was pulling against it, so when the chain breaks he lurches suddenly away and over the edge of the precipice. Mylock, what do you do?”

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Discovering Dungeon World

Since discovering DCC RPG, I’ve been wandering from one modern rpg system to another, buying pdfs here and there, sampling the field to see what looks good. I’ve been running a Pathfinder campaign for over a year now, and in that time I’ve grown… disenchanted with D&D 3.5. Too many rules, too many exceptions, to much need to look stuff up when you just want to be playing. So I’ve been wanting to see what else is out there, and how current rpg design might address my issues with Pathfinder.

I got excited about FATE Core, since it streamlines the overly-detailed system used in Spirit of the Century, and ordered the hardback. It’s a tight little package that does a great job of boiling the FATE system down to its, well, core, but even in its currently concise form there’s too much jargon for my taste (“aspects,” “compels,” “boosts,” etc.). What I love most about FATE is how much say the players have in the game world, but the language is off-putting. I don’t think the designers of FATE could have done anything differently — when you create a new system, you need new terms to define it — but I was looking for something that I could grasp quickly, and, more importantly, a system I could communicate to my players in 5 minutes.

Enter Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel; a “hack” of D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World that reframes those rules in a classic D&D context. Here appeared to be what I was looking for: super simple rules that put story before mechanics, instead of the other way around. I read the pdf, session reports, and some great tipsheets about how to run the game. I also bought the pdf of Apocalypse World and read that, in order to understand the origins of the system, and laid my hands on Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a pulp sci-fi hack of DW by Johnstone Metzger. In my worm’s-eye view investigation of what turned out to be one of the hottest indie titles of 2012/2013, I was delighted to discover that the creation of DW was inspired in part by Tony Dowler, an old Seattle acquaintance. Tony is an incredibly creative guy and a total mensch, who helped me playtest early versions of my pulp adventure boardgame, Thrilling Tales of Adventure! His involvement in DW was the synchronistic straw that broke the rpg camel’s back — I had to try the game.
And so, on an off week when two of our Pathfinder players were AWOL, we did. An account of that session will follow, hopefully within the next few days.  

Campaign Setting: The Village of Hovick

I’ve been fleshing out some of the world for my current DCC RPG campaign using the methods outlined here. This has been happening concurrent with our weekly play sessions, and since the PC’s would be heading back to civilization after the first adventure wrapped up, I had been wanting to get a handle on Hovick, the PCs’ “village of origin.” I had some notes about the heroes’ welcome they would receive upon their return, and the family and friends with whom they will be reunited, but I really wanted a clear idea of the village itself. I enjoy winging things, but I am also a stickler for immersion and verisimilitude, and I didn’t want Hovick to feel like a generic D&D village (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m a cartoonist and illustrator by profession, but I hadn’t drawn a map of a pseudo-medieval village since my days in high school, so I was a little rusty. But after thinking about it a lot and sketching a little, the old instincts came back. I realize now, in retrospect, that big two things affected my imagining of Hovick: the settlement maps from the Hârn rpg, over which I pored endlessly back in my high school days; and a class on city development that I took during my junior year at art school. Hârnmaster, as the rpg system was called, was nearly unprecedented at the time in its detail and realism, and the maps, such as this one, reflected those qualities. The class on city development was great because it gave me a basic understanding of how human settlements were founded, and how specifics like geography and access to resources influenced their development over time.

From the regional-level worldbuilding I had done, I knew that Hovick was a fishing village on the eastern shore of Blacksalt Lake, that it was near Wildthorn Wood (where my group’s first adventure, Harley Stroh’s Halls of the Minotaur, was set), and that it was roughly 60 miles from the provincial seat of Assalom’s Rest, to the east.

Starting with this basic info, my next step was to use Chaotic Shiny’s city generator to create some flavor hooks. By “hooks” in this case, I mean generator output that strikes me as interesting or applicable for one reason or another. When using generators like this, I keep the subject (“a fishing village”) in mind while glancing through the results, writing down anything that my brain catches on — anything that I respond to at an intuitive level — and discarding the rest. In this case, I’ve since misplaced my original notes, but one thing I remember from the output was the line “Buildings: resemble insects.”

How can the buildings of a pseudo-medieval human village resemble insects? I don’t know why I latched onto that one, but I did, and the first thing I thought of was that the huts of the fisherfolk could be clustered along the shore of the lake like grubs or larvae. Modest, rounded daub-and-wattle huts. Not very insect-like in the end, but a nice visual that helped me start to see the village.

Next, I thought a little bit about why the village exists. It’s a fishing village, so fishing is the primary form of industry. Is it just subsistence fishing, or do Hovick’s fisherfolk play some part in the larger economy? I feel like it would be good to have some connection to Assalom’s Rest for story purposes, so let’s have a trade relationship between Hovick and The Rest (as I now decide the locals call it). But Assalom’s Rest is a port town, in all likelihood with its own fishing industry, so why would they want more fish? I decide that it’s not the fish per se, but the particular flavor of the salt in Blacksalt lake that sets the fish of Hovick apart. In fact, at some point an enterprising trader from The Rest came to Hovick and established a facility for salting and smoking fish to sell at market; and, more lucratively, to process and package “blacksalt” itself as a luxury spice.

So that’s the anchor: Hovick started as a subsistence fishing village, but now it exports smoked fish and blacksalt, via a weekly trade mission to the Market Quarter in Assalom’s Rest. You can smell the smoked fish from within a mile of the place. And this sensory detail calls back another line from the city generator’s output: “Famous for: an abundance of cats.” Indeed. Another great setting detail to give the village some character.

So with a pretty basic idea, it’s time to start sketching. Unless a more important geographic feature is demanding attention, I almost always start with the bodies of water, so the shoreline goes in first. Next, I think about fresh water sources. The lake is salt water, so there has to be a different source of fresh water, or no settlement would exist here. Looking at my regional map, I see there are no major rivers in the vicinity, so the water source is going to be smaller, let’s say a big stream coming out of the Thornwood to the southeast. That gets sketched in next.

Most settlements grow up right on the fresh water source that they depend upon, so working with that idea I choose an area on the stream but close to the shore, where the fishing needs to happen. Draw in where the grub-like fishing huts will be arrayed, at a point where the shore comes in a little, and then rough in where the town center will be, closer to the fresh water. Then I draw a road from the town center off the map to the northeast, toward the biggest regional settlement, Assalom’s Rest, and dub this thoroughfare Asslaom’s Road; then a secondary road to the fishing center (“Fisher Beach”), and from the fishing center to Assalom’s Road. Those would be the main routes, the ones most heavily traveled: provincial capitol to village center, village center to industrial center, industrial center to provincial capitol. Other roads will build off of that main triangle.

Is Hovick fortified? My mental image is of a pretty small place, and there are no military threats in the area, but I remember that in the introduction to the first adventure, I told the players that the minotaur had smashed in the village gates. So I guess it is fortified. We’ll say against potential monster attacks, since Hovick lies on the outer edge of Bramic civilization. Everybody loves a palisade. Sketch that in. It’s too big, tries to encompass too much. A palisade that big is beyond the means of a small village to maintain. So I scale it back, leave some stuff outside the walls. Put a gate where the main road comes in, obviously, but that means adjusting my underlying road triangle so the road from Fisher Beach passes through the gate instead of going straight to the village center; but that’s great, that’s the kind of shift that starts to make a place feel organic. Another gate leading to the saltery and smokehouse, which have been left outside the walls. And a third gate to the south, to allow more direct access for woodsmen and trappers heading into Wildthorn Wood. What happens to people who live outside the walls if there’s an attack? They run inside. Make sure there are direct paths to the gates from any populated area.

Because a couple of the PCs started the game with holy symbols and some degree of religious belief, I had already come up with Arimar, God of Peace and Truth, and had decided that he was the primary deity of Hovick. A temple is obviously a big focus, so I put it right at the head of the main road, where it ends in the market square. Arimar’s symbol is an oak leaf, so I guess his adherents like oak trees. Let’s put a nice semicircle of oaks around the back of the church. Hovick is too small to support any other temples of size, but I place a shrine to Assalom (God of Travel, Trade, and Good Fortune) at the main gate, and decide that all Bramic cities have shrines to Assalom at their most well-traveled gates. The only other deity actively represented in Hovick is Jeneva, Goddess of Strife, Sorrow, and the Sea, but she is worshiped in private by the fisherfolk.

I also put the town hall on the market square, and some other buildings I’ll sort out later. In fact, I pepper the streets with buildings of varying shapes and sizes, planning to assign some of them functions later on.

When horses are a the main form of transport after foot travel, there need to be sufficient facilities for the horses, and they need to be conveniently located for people coming and going. So I put an ostler right inside the main gate (now called Assalom’s Gate, in a stunningly creative move) and another one outside, on Assalom’s Road. Boarding horses there will obviously be a little cheaper, since it’s not protected by the palisade.

At some point I decide that a mill was built on the stream, and the building of the mill led to upper and lower millponds, so I add those in. The lower pond is where the villagers do their laundry (on flat stone slabs brought in for that prupose), and the upper pond is tapped for the main well, located in the adjoining square.

By now I have a refined sketch of the village and immediate surroundings:

At this point I switch over to my notes and start to write down some stuff about the village’s history, riffing on ideas that have bubbled up over the course of sketching the map. After I do that for a while, and I feel like tackling the map again, I scan it it into Adobe Illustrator and start to play around with drawing stuff. I own Campaign Cartographer 3, but the learning curve is too steep for me, and I have gotten too frustrated too many times to want to try to use these days, when my time is at a premium. I’m somewhat familiar with Illustrator, though (mostly by using it professionally, and in the creation of a pulp adventure board game), and although I’d never used it to do much drawing, I wanted to see if it would work.

After a little experimenting, I had he water and roads drawn in, and had created a tree “brush” that I could use to start laying in the forested areas.

Some more experimenting with the pencil tool, and outlines and fill, and I had a pretty good system down. Here’s what the final product looks like:

I am continually finding things that need fixing (for instance, the residents of Fisher Beach probably need a more accessible source of fresh water), but overall I’m happy with the current state of things. The PCs have a clearly defined home base, at least until they pull up stakes and move on from their humble origins, and I now have a firm grasp on why the place exists, who lives there, and the basic socio-economic situation.

If you’re curious about any of the details, you can read the Google doc I’ve created to develop Hovick in detail. It’s still very much a work in progress, but feel free to use the village in your own game, if you’re so inclined.