Monday, 29 April 2019

Half the Story

Your job as GM/DM/Referee is to write half the story. The player characters are the other half. If you find yourself writing their bit then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG*. The GM presents the problems, the players provide the solutions. If their solutions don’t match your expectations you are honour bound by the Great GM Code Article 1 to play them out regardless. 

Now, I realise that this may seem elementary to my three or so regular readers but from my consumption of RPG related social media (here read Twitter in particular) it seems to have been lost somewhere along the way in certain GMing circles. What I’m saying is no matter how much you think it will make the game better, do not railroad the players. Even in secret. They’ll work it out and fun will cease. 

Old School GMs be like...


I like fantasy fiction as much as the next nerd but stories and games are two separate things. A game is played, that’s how you find out what happens, then you have a story. Not the other way round. The player characters must be able to make meaningful choices, even if the choices they make are rubbish ones. Even if it means the game gets a bit shit for a while, even if they all die, even if it short circuits the Really Cool Encounter you had planned. If the players choices don’t matter then you aren’t really playing a game with them, you are subjecting them to your fantasy fiction and trust me, despite what your mum told you, it’s probably not even good.

Now, obviously it’s your game and you can run it however you want. If your players are cool with being railroaded all the time, or even some of the time, then also that’s fine I guess. It’s not my sort of fun but each to their own. The so called agency of the players is important to me, they must be able to make their own choices and for those choices to have meaning.



What that means if you’re a player in my game is that sometimes you might face problems, dilemmas or obstacles that I have no idea how you’re going to surmount. That’s good. Especially as every time I think “The players will probably do X at this point...” they almost universally do not. That element of uncertainty is good for a GM, it is the thing that allows you to actually play the game. When the player characters do something unexpected, play it out. Improvising around PC actions is some of the best fun you can have as the referee. You can make it easier for yourself by having a decent understanding of NPC motivations, so that they react realistically to PC behaviour. Also by having at least a vague idea of what will happen if the PCs do not interact with your hook. The world should carry on. It can often be worked out later (between sessions) what the consequences of the PCs action/inaction and this will be fuelling your prep for the next session. 

One of the great things about RPGs is that they can go anywhere. There is no board. No boundaries. Don’t shackle the game to your preconceived story. Do not limit the possibilities, embrace them.



*This is just my opinion, there is no objective “right way” to play RPGs.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dark Sun, part two: The Bad Different

Continuing where we left off here...

What’s not quite as good is traditional fantasy game races, given the “our elves are different” treatment. Yes, you get the half giant with it’s bizarre alignment rules (although surely everyone just chucked those out,) and everyone seems to like idea of cannibal halflings but seriously this does my head in. If you’re changing the nature of elves so much that they’re now ultramarathoning, desert tribes who are renowned for stealing shit, why bother calling them elves? It’s retarded. I have heard that the original plan was to get rid of the traditional D&D races but pressure from above forced their inclusion and quite frankly it does feel a bit forced.


Bow down before the awesome power of my novel infused railroad

Then after the first boxed set you get the immediate release of not one but a five novel set, The Prism Pentad, which are immediately deemed canon for the game products. So instead of the great set up we had, now every scenario, setting book and supplement is affected by the events depicted in unrelated game based fiction. This is now the reverse of cool. Pray to your non existent gods, denizens of Athas, for you are now beholden to the greatest evil in RPGs: The Meta Plot. Insidiously they were setting you up for this right out of the box, that ziggurat that one dude was building? Buy five novels to find out what happens next. Spoilers: It spoils everything.

We start to get 2e splat book bloat. Hugely verbose over written treatises with an emphasis on development of the canon of the setting. We know now that paying your writer by the word is not going to produce useful at the table content for your RPG supplements. Drown in useless fluff, oh dear reader, the cool random tables you wanted are either stuffed in an appendix at the back or conspicuously absent. They even mention in the foreword to the Dragon Kings supplement that one of the reasons the material contained within was not included in the original boxed set was because they didn’t want to include spoilers for the novels!
Our Fellowship is Different
The adventures are bad. Instead of an awesome sword & sorcery sandbox (a literal one) we are given a series of railroads tied to the published fiction of the setting. Now I realise that this was the nineties and that was the fashion at the time but also the fashion seemed to be for TSR to go out of business too so I’m not placing too much store in that.

We still have clerics, yes even of Athas we can’t escape them, but instead of gods they worship elemental beings of great power. So, gods then. Just elemental ones. They still grant spells and the power to turn undead like gods in other settings. It’s like with this setting every time they make something cool they snatch it away from you in spite and make you have your same-D&D-setting-but-slightly-different-regardless.



Crossing the magic blasted desert in search of agency

Did I mention that writing is outlawed in most city states? This is good because then the PCs never have to find out about the the god awful back story they shoe horned into this at a later date. You see, you can’t just have ancient history that has been forgotten about or is unexplained. No way, are you crazy?  Every fully realised game setting must have a Silmarilion like prehistory dating all the way back to its very creation. So for Dark Sun we get all this bollocks about the Green Age and the Blue Age, and ancient wizards, and so and so the hobgoblin slayer. Because you can’t just not have hobgoblins. That would be stupid. You have to come up with some ridiculous, contrived scenario about how they were all slain by this super powerful wizard guy. Same for the orcs, and probably the bugbears. It’s insane. If you don’t want bugbears in your setting, you don’t have to have them. It’s ok. The ghost of Gygax will not strike you down. What’s even more certain is you don’t fucking need a half baked mythological construct to explain why they’re not present. They’re just not. Fucking deal with it. There’s loads of cool stuff included in Dark Sun; you really should be emphasising this, rather than the lame stuff you didn’t include. Much less coming up with progressively lamer reasons for why that is the case.

This is all getting a bit negative. And really, Dominic doesn’t like something is not news for anyone. This is a game setting that was railroading you even when you weren’t playing and if there’s one thing we know about RPGs, it’s railroads are bad. Such a shame really because all this annoying stuff about the setting? You can just ignore it. Well, perhaps you can, it’s still driving me mental now.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Dark Sun, part one: Our D&D is Different

Of all the TSR published settings, the one that seems to get the most love is Dark Sun. I find this both interesting and disappointing, a bit like Dark Sun itself. I have previously described it as the biggest false alarm in gaming and used other fairly derogatory terms in reference to it. Whilst I don’t care why the Forgotten Realms is shit or that Greyhawk is so boring, the fact that I consider Dark Sun to ultimately be a failure actually causes me physical pain because of its potential.

Dark Sun could’ve been good. It isn’t though. That makes me sad.


This is how they draw you in
Sword, sandals and sorcery in a post apocalyptic world dominated by near immortal sorcerer-kings just sounds like it’s going to be the best thing in fantasy gaming. We get the scarcity of not just water but metal; all the weapons are of bone, stone or obsidian. It just sounds cool. There’s the additional focus on psionics. D&D has never had good psionics rules but at least they fit thematically here as opposed to feeling tacked on like they do everywhere else. There’s loads of original monsters, specific to the setting and they’re all pretty horrific. This is good stuff.


Magic is bad, it drains the life from the planet with every use. So this scorched, nightmarish landscape? The wizards did it. I love this. The cost of magic is something I constantly bang on about (see just about every post on this blog) and here we are with it literally costing the earth.
Sword, sandals and whatever that weird two pronged thing is

There are no gods. This is a massive departure from D&D settings previously published. It would be hard to get anything done in Dragonlance for instance without one of the pantheon sticking their nose in, banging on about the balance or some shit. True gods means there’s some hope of a higher power intervening to sort all this out. No such luck. Do not trust to hope, it has forsaken these lands...


It is all extremely grim. Slavery is an ever present evil. Most people live in city states, ruled tyrannically by the aforementioned near immortal sorcerer-kings. Their agents enforce that rule in the harshest, most self serving way possible. Injustice and inequality are ordinary facets of daily life but the wilderness is super deadly, so take your pick.




There are ancient ruins all over the place and tribes of escaped slaves and merchant trading houses, and political intrigue galore. This has great adventuring potential for a bunch of rag tag, rebellious individuals on the make in a world gone badly wrong.

There’s tons of cool art by Gerald Brom, so everything looks great too.

However, here endeth The Good Stuff. If you just took these elements and ran with them you have the set up for a great game. This was not to be though. Next time I shall discuss where, in my eyes, it all goes a bit wrong.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Things That Have Worked: Rumour Posts

My Grim North game was run via Google Hangouts and had its own G+ community by which it was managed. This was good for organising the actual sessions as well as posting up the after action reports; who gained what XP and what the share of the loot was etc. 


Yeah, I can meme shit

Also at one point, probably after reading someone else’s blog on the subject (it might have been the Hill Cantons, I don’t really remember,) I started to post a weekly pre game selection of rumours. I have mentioned previously that the game nearly always started in the House of Mercenaries, Sellspears and Blades for Hire with the various paid work available posted to the board marked “Jobs.” In addition to this was the PCs always had the option of doing whatever the fuck they wanted, after all there are no railroads here. 


Do not play here: Stay off the railroad kids


That’s great and everything but information is crucial here. Rumours are a double defo, carved in stone, baby’s eyes, must have for sandbox gaming. Without that information the player characters either have to interrogate the GM or just go along with the adventure du jour, which is fine every once in a while. However, self motivated PCs are gold for a gamesmaster, therefore throwing out as many hooks and tit bits of setting info as possible for them to bite on is elementary to enabling them to be so.

Crucially it adds depth to the environment. If ten foot poles are suddenly banned in the city then that has implications for the average group of dungeon crawling fools. And in Nox Aeterna, poles over six feet in length are indeed banned, player speculation indicated it was Big Carpentry throwing their political weight around.

By posting these rumours to the G+ community a couple of days before the game a few things were achieved that worked in my favour as GM. Discussion via the Internet prior to the week’s session; as a result sometimes the players chatted online about the game before we played, this saved valuable “air time” given we were generally operating over mixed time zones and had roughly three hours to play. It allowed me to drip feed some random bits of setting info in; this was a game with a semi rotating cast of players so not everyone was in every game. By having everyone get the rumours if they read the rumour post it kept them connected to the setting and for those who were interested it was an additional source of setting info. 

Great gaming environment: Not literally


I think this is my favourite: It provides the player characters with a sense that the game world has depth. When the game is on then the player characters are the stars. We were playing Swords & Wizardry White Box so they’re not the X-men but the game is about them. There’s no fucking Elminster of the Grim North. This said, the world still turns. So if the PCs don’t bite on a hook then perhaps they hear about how that turns out on the rumour mill. Or it’s inconsequential fluff that I just came up with on the spot and can’t think of any way to usefully incorporate it at the table so I’m just sticking it out there and maybe you read it, maybe you don’t, maybe it adds to your immersion or maybe it doesn’t. Because let’s face it, not everyone is going to read that stuff or even care, and that’s fine too. Just showing up in the hangout on time, fully clothed, with your dice and character sheet handy is good enough for me.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse

This was an idea I had for a drop in or Flailsnails style of online game. The idea being a tavern that exists in every reality, or travels between them at random, and conveniently sits atop a mythic underworld of campaign spanning proportions. A megadungeon that exists simultaneously in every campaign world and none.

So we combine the well used tropes, or dare I say clichés, of starting in a tavern and it having a fucking massive dungeon beneath it to go and adventure in. Also by starting and finishing each session in the tap room we can accommodate a drop in style of play. The cross-reality nature of the place means it is flailsnails compatible.

I didn’t really get that far with developing this but what I did have follows..

It’s called the Purple Sloth Tavern. This is an unsubtle tip of the hat to an old T&T gamebook that partially serves as inspiration for the place.


Josh Kirby, ladies and gentlemen...

The barman is Stanley, an anthropomorphic sloth, he’s a lot quicker than you might imagine and also the source of rumours the party might gather before heading down into the depths.

There’s a market in the courtyard outside that will allow does a fine trade in adventuring equipment and the fencing of looted treasure.

The are stables and everything else you might expect to find in a regular tavern, after all you can spend the night, eat, drink and gamble there if you wish. Carousing is optional but encouraged.

The entrance to the mythic underworld is via the cellar. Because Cool, and also cliché. At least this is the one that everyone knows about and the one that Stanley will give you for free. There are rumours of entrances originating elsewhere in the tavern that lead to various different parts of the dungeon below. However this knowledge is not freely available to starting characters.

The dungeon follows standard old school conventions and has factions and “themed” areas and all that jazz. Or at least in theory it does as I only got as far as drawing a bit of the level one map and adding two or three potential factions for those areas. For although I like this idea as a set up, and while it is more realistic in terms of what sort of game I can actually play given time constraints and availability, drawing a huge, fuck off map and/or keying it is not an exciting prospect for me. 


Huge fuck off map by Dyson Logos


There are tricks and so forth available for faster megadungeon creation than the labour intensive “just get on with it” method but in a spectacular display of nose cutting to spite face, my sense of stubborn I-will-create-my-own-material-for-my-games-whether-it’s-achievable-or-not fails to permit such short cuts.

A seed for a style of play that I should probably do more with but in all likelihood will not.


Sunday, 17 March 2019

Clerical Errors

I don’t hate clerics, I just think they’re limited as an archetype. Fighter, Magic User and Thief are much broader in their application, Rogue even more so (to use the new parlance,) but the existence of the D&D cleric in your setting implies quite a lot about it that the other classes do not. So, in the right setting the cleric is great. However; if we accept that I like to run games that generally follow either a low fantasy or sword & sorcery theme then clerics, with their magic powers direct from the gods, do not appear thematically appropriate.
Aleea, refusing to accept she is not thematically appropriate 

However the clerics access to healing magic and the ability to turn undead is baked into the game. A low level D&D party’s chances of survival are greatly increased by the presence of the cleric to hold off the dreaded level draining wights and produce cure light wounds spells, especially as those “light wounds” are often near fatal. Even if we examine TSR’s ultimate our D&D is different world, Dark Sun, they’re still plugging away with the cleric even though “there are no True Gods of Athas” is one of the stated tenets of the setting. I could digress about how Dark Sun is the biggest false alarm in gaming but staying on the cleric they are now the worshippers of elemental beings (these are not GODS though, no freaking way) who provide them with spells and the power to turn the undead.

The slightly maligned AD&D 2edition rules allowed for a fair bit of variance in the class with the Priests of Specific Mythos. This could end up being a lot of work though as you tailored the class to fit each God from your setting but also doesn’t solve the problem if your approach is one where direct godly involvement in the PCs’ lives is limited.
Basically, my sister’s first D&D character 

And so what do I do with this big chunk of the rules, if the religious nature of the class does not fit my gaming aesthetic? Be less pretentious is certainly a valid answer. 

However if you are aware of Crypts and Things, Newt Newport has a tasty little answer for sword & sorcery games. In those rules, based on Swords & Wizardry with tweaks from Akratic Wizardry, the cleric and magic user are combined into a Magician class. The Magician has access to spells from a combined magic user and cleric list divided into white, grey and black magic. White magic contains your healing spells and so forth, grey has illusion and similar, Black is destructive or morally dubious. This is nice and I really like it. In fact I really Crypts and Things in its entirety and I recommend you check it out if you have not done so.



My solution to clerical issues in my Grim North setting was to reskin them. I didn’t want any sort of organised spellcasters existing outside of small cults and cabals. A powerful series of Churches with magic at their disposal didn’t suit the ideas I had for religion. I declared clerics were now “mystics.” Their powers were virtually the same but were psychic in origin rather than bestowed by the gods. We were playing S&W White Box and the only real mechanical difference I made was to remove the ability to turn undead and instead advance the spell progression so that they had a spell at 1st level. I also reskinned the spell names so they seemed more like psychic powers than clerical spells. I mean I’m not sure what the overall effect on the game this tinkering had but it certainly made me feel better about the whole thing. 


Also Paul C, better known these days as The Wizard of Macke Town, wrote this up into a tidy little pdf for Mystic players to refer to, available here.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

On The Isle of Dread

The Isle of Dread is my favourite old D&D module. This isn’t a review, it’s a self indulgent nostalgia post. My copy of the Isle of Dread arrived one Christmas along with the D&D Expert set. You see I was getting quite good at D&D by this point and Basic no longer applied. I was definitely more of an expert. If you weere a child of Mentzer Basic like me then there was no module included in your Red Box, just an intro adventure in the DM’s book. However once I had the Expert Set I owned an honest to god real module, and it was good too.

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure... and dinosaurs


If you’re not familiar with the Ise of Dread it’s a hex crawl set on what amounts to Skull Island from the King Kong films complete with pirates, lost civilisations and dinosaurs. This type of pulpy, sword and sorcery adventure is exactly what I want from my D&D games. The only thing really missing from this is a gargantuan ape of some kind.

I ran this in 2017 in the bar at Dragonmeet for about six hours. I could’ve gone way longer but people had trains to catch. I did tease the presence of a huge albino ape but the PCs never actually met one. Instead they befriended the cat people, fought with the spider possessed locals (in a slight change from the original text I made the Aranea fist sized, mind controlling spiders that rode their human slaves as mounts), were on the receiving end of a triceratops rampage and loads more.




What this module delivers is encounter tables and adventure locations. Some are simple lairs but there’s a proper dungeon on Taboo Island too. Exploring the Isle is enough fun on its own but it’s possible to add whatever you like to this framework, develop the various factions, go pulp adventure crazy. I mean the cover to my copy (the orange one) has a Viking, a mongol warrior and a wizard fighting a T-Rex. That’s some good D&D right there. Throw a few five room dungeons in there and you’ve got the makings of a short campaign.

This is, for me, where D&D games shine. Play styles are exactly that and you can do anything with almost any game and it still be a good time. Pulp sword and sorcery is retro D&D all day for me though.