Finding Inspiration in the Real World

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Absolutely everything can provide inspiration for a creative endeavor—whether it’s writing, painting, or even game design.

I recently took a month and drove the entirety of Route 66—backwards, from Santa Monica to Chicago—and there is so much just here in the states that can ignite new ways of seeing or thinking about things. [Editor’s Note: Backwards, but not literally in reverse gear…] I visited three different cave systems over the course of the trip: the Grand Canyon Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Meramec Caverns. Getting into the cool features and differences of each—state owned versus privately owned, dry versus wet, and so on—would take a blog post of its very own (comment if you’d like to see such a post!), but suffice to say that I learned quite a bit about what made each one unique. It gave me a new way of thinking about caves in

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

adventures—what they could hold, and what it might really be like trying to navigate through them with just a few torches. I took many photos—some for beauty, but some just for reference. I want to be able to look at them and imagine an elf, a gnome, and a couple humans crawling through the stalagmites, stalactites, and low ceilings. What else might they find?

I saw cliff dwellings—abandoned for centuries, but still up there. I saw the Grand Canyon and hiked around the Rim Trail, thinking about how strange and wonderful it was that I could get so close to the edge of the canyon (parts of the trail are inches from the 7,000-foot drop). Now, fighting through encounters along a ledge or in a cave are by no means novel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new or interesting way to approach these things—especially when

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns: Sleep in a cave!

you have a physical place to work from, a physical cliff to study, a physical cave to get down on your hands and knees in. It’s one thing to imagine your players in a hypothetical cave—it’s another to imagine them right here, in exactly this spot, their hands as cold and wet as yours as you crouch down to see the path through the columns.

Natural wonders are, of course, not the only thing from which to draw inspiration. There are plenty of strange and wonderful museums out there that focus on everything from mechanical dolls to westerns to vacuums (really). The thing to remember is that if you’re willing to look hard enough, everything has something to offer you. Learning the history of the most mundane item can spark something you didn’t even realize was inside you.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns

I doubt very much I’m espousing any new information at all, but every now and then, we can all use a reminder. Travelling absolutely anywhere—even just hiking near your home or going to see a nearby art exhibit—can be just the thing you need to get exactly the right setting or the right encounter or the right NPC for the adventure you’re working on. Keep your creative glasses on, and everything becomes fodder. The chipper, totally-with-it person who checked you into your hotel room or the cousin you’d never met who welcomed you into his home like an old friend—these are real people in the world, and they can be real people in your adventure. They may even be the emotional hook that brings your players into the game.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns: Light show!

The more you can use the real world to influence your game world, the more fleshed out it becomes. Pulling from the physical world gives players something to connect with, something to feel more invested in. Even if they themselves have never been inside a cave or walked along a canyon’s edge, adding real-world details often feels more authentic.

The thing to remember when creating a game world is that everything in the real world has something to offer you. Everything has a piece you can take home. You just have to keep an eye out for it.

Editorial Comments: Monster Mausoleum

Dave and Stacey collaborate using Google Drive and make liberal use of the commenting feature. This blog series pulls out some of those comment threads, either because they amused us or because we think they’re interesting from a game design back-and-forth perspective.


“Any attacks made against creatures hostile to the huecuva within the aura have advantage, while attacks made by creatures hostile to the huecuva within the aura have advantage.”
Stacey: I adjusted this language to be clearer. Is it okay?
David: Yes, but you could also be simpler: “The huecuva and all creatures within 30 feet of it, whether friendly or not, gain advantage on all attack rolls.”
Stacey: Okay, see but you’re reading it wrong. That’s not what it says.
Stacey: OH, NOPE I WROTE IT WRONG.

“stunned for 1d4 rounds”
Dave: This is so much better than the axe attack that the draugr should do nothing but slam attacks, then use the axe to carve up a stunned party into filets for dinner. Something like the knockback that the chieftain has would be better.
Stacey: What if I beef up the other attack and make the stun only one round?
Stacey: I meant for greataxe to be 10 anyway. Also, everything in parentheses I’m going to recheck.
Stacey: Oh, or what if they just have disadvantage for 1d4 rounds?
David: That would work.

“261 (18d20 + 72)”
Stacey: Isn’t 18 x the con bonus 108?
Dave: Yeah, good catch. I must have changed the Con later, probably to make the poison DC more appropriate.
Stacey: We should change the 72 to 108, though, right?
Dave: It already is.
Dave: …because I changed it after I saw that.

“1d10 x 100 ft.”
Dave: I multiplied all these by 100 rather than 10, because you don’t want a 10 ft. teleport—anticlimactic.
Dave: If that’s too much, consider 1d4 x 100.
Stacey: I was just gonna say that. Okay.
Stacey: I originally thought the point was just to fuck with them by moving them around the room, not to effectively remove a player from the fight.

Designing Magic Items for 13th Age

13th Age Roleplaying GameWhen DASTOW does the design work on a book in the Escalation Series, we generally start with the talents and powers—the core of the book, both literally and conceptually—then work forward (toward the backgrounds and One Unique Things) and backward (toward the magic items and NPCs). The NPCs are by necessity done last; we need to know what all the options are before we build those characters.

That order of operations means we save one of the most fun parts of the design for the end: the magic items. Each Escalated book has roughly a dozen magic items, generally one for each “chakra” body slot, some utility items, and an extra weapon or two. They’re basically like dessert for the designer. [Editor’s Note: They’re really more like cilantro, where Dave loves it and Stacey hates it. Your mileage may vary.]

Here’s what’s on our minds as we do the initial design:

Know what each chakra does. Because 13th Age shares a lot of DNA with 4th edition D&D, the key chakras are those that add to attack rolls or increase your defensive stats. That means armor, weapon/staff, cloak, and helmet. Those magic items don’t need to do a lot, because the inherent bonuses are so good. They’re a good place for simple, situational, or otherwise minor-league effects.

Go broader, not deeper. Magic items can show up in a campaign at any given moment. Other forms of character advancement happen only at the moment a character levels up. That means magic items are a great way for characters to cover a gap in their arsenal based on the more permanent changes they’ve made. For example, you might have a champion-tier fighter who hasn’t picked a maneuver that can be used with ranged attacks. A simple magic spear or throwing axe is perfect, because it broadens the fighter’s repertoire. Conversely, keep a close eye on items that deepen an existing specialty. The number-one place where characters go off the rails is when similar benefits stack to game-breaking levels.

Word the quirks carefully. The vast majority of quirks are mental/behavioral, and theoretically they evoke something of the item’s nature. But phrases like “always picks fights” or “cannot say no to a drink” are recipes for disaster when given to a literal-minded player. Trust the player to do the roleplaying and provide a direction, not a straitjacket. The idea behind a quirk is that it’s a constraint, and it’s occasionally annoying. They did bring this on themselves by wearing too many magic items, after all. If quirks seem like they’ll continuously frustrate other people at the table, though, dial them back.

Make sure you’ve got the GM’s back. Magic items are more freeform than talents, spells, and other class-based abilities. Unlike other games with a d20 heritage, there aren’t economic guidelines or level-based benchmarks to fence you in. That freedom is great, but it means that you have to be extra careful to specify frequency of use and duration of effect because there’s no default answer elsewhere in the system. Whenever you make a magic item, imagine your likely user triggering it as often as possible. How often is that? How long does it last? Is there a cost? Questions like that are best answered in the design process, not in the fourth round of a battle against the Headless Cyclops King.

Finally, break the rules once in a while. Magic items are the least constrained game element in the 13th Age Roleplaying Game. (One Unique Things are unconstrained in method, sure, but their scope is constrained and you get exactly one, period, at the beginning of the character’s life.) The GM has total control of when (and if) a magic item shows up in a game—and a big say in how long it sticks around. If you want to experiment with a game mechanic or cool effect, a magic item is the place to do it.

After all, any GM worth her dice can think of a dozen ways to separate PCs from their loot.

Editorial Comments: Pristine City 5E D&D Conversion

Dave and Stacey collaborate using Google Drive and make liberal use of the commenting feature. This blog series pulls out some of those comment threads, either because they amused us or because we think they’re interesting from a game design back-and-forth perspective.


“A mohrg is using Marar’s body.”
Dave: This implies that Marar was a serial killer in life. Just so we’re aware…
Stacey: She was a war hero. Is that close enough? Surely killed lots of things. Or we could use something else.
Stacey: I feel like that’s information I maybe should have had a conversion ago.
David: Pathfinder said that “warmongering soldiers” can become mohrgs. D&D, not so much. I say let her be a serial killer; the proverbial “bad officer.”
Stacey: But she talks to the PCs and gives them cool info. How can she do that and be a huge dick?
David: “Let me tell you about the Thunderaxes, Clarice…”

“The walls in the great cavern that contains the city are smooth granite, difficult to climb (DC 20 Athletics check), and almost featureless.”
Dave: “Strength (Athletics)” and a possible parentheses nest.
Stacey: You said that you DIDN’T want to nest parentheses.
Dave: I don’t. For some reason I thought adding parentheses here would create a nesting situation. It doesn’t, though. I guess I have no idea what I was thinking.
Stacey: Well, it would have, but I reworded it because I assumed you were being crazy.

“Identifying the smoke as coming from a fire requires a DC @@ Wisdom (Perception) check.”
Dave: “Make a Wisdom (Perception) check.”
[Rolls.] “I get a 22.”
“The smoke is definitely coming from a fire.”
[Throws pizza at DM.]
Stacey: I learned it from watching Pathfinder.

“scorching ray”
Stacey: I didn’t see an equivalent for searing light (searing smite didn’t look quite right), so I changed it to also be scorching ray. Feel free to change it.
Dave: I want it to be typed damage, though, so there’s some way the PCs can mitigate it. Or a save. Or something. I’ll loop back on this.
Stacey: Isn’t it fire damage? I can just put it in there. The spell says fire damage.
Dave: Perfect.

“1 gp per laborer per day”
Dave: Another cost thing we’ll want to reality-check against the equipment chapter of the Player’s Handbook. I mean, not reality, but…

On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics

(This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games.)

Last month, I talked about a lot of the concepting that went into the design of the gaslight, our new monster for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I want to continue the design talk this month, getting further into the mechanical aspects of the monster design.

I knew right away that I wanted the gaslight to be an undead skull, and I wanted to incorporate the components of the name into the monster itself. Gas was easy enough—gaseous monsters certainly aren’t anything new to roleplaying games—but lighting took a bit to get right. My first thought was that they could use light to misdirect—and the standard gaslight can, which gives the attacker disadvantage. I think there would be several different kinds of gaslights, though. Let’s take a quick look at their description in Monster Mausoleum:

Traveling through swamplands is difficult for the most savvy of explorers, but many of those who venture into the bogs unprepared never venture back out. A body that decomposes in these swampy areas often putrefies faster than one in another setting, and when the body starts to emit gas, the life of the person inside leaks out with it, and they meld into one being. The gaslight takes the form of a gaseous skull. Mostly transparent, it glows a very faint green color as the gas flows around its shape.

So these travelers, by their very nature, will have died under different circumstances. Aside from dying in the swamp, they’ll have died at different ages, in different moods, with different numbers of people—there are so many variables, and all of those variables can affect the kind of gaslight you get. That being the case, I figured that with so much opportunity for different types, maybe they’d each be able to affect lights differently. There’s plenty of room for that, too, and I’ve already got some ideas on what other types of gaslights can do. I’m looking forward to our next monster book release, because you can bet it will have a few more gaslights.

Figuring out stats for a monster often seems like it should be simpler than it turns out to be, but the gaslight was actually fairly straightforward. I knew I wanted it to have some strong abilities, so its overall stats landed a bit lower than a simpler monster’s might have. Those abilities vary from gaslight to gaslight, but they all revolve around confusing the target. Both the gaslight and the greater gaslight can cast a fog as a free action, which disorients and causes the confused condition. They also have spells that follow the same theme, such as dissonant whispers and suggestion.

With stats, abilities, and spells out of the way, we just needed to figure out the gaslight’s basic attack—except the longer I thought about it, the less it made sense for them to have a melee attack. The thing is made of gas. So I handed it over to Dave for him to look at without any attack line at all.

Now, it’s worth noting that I don’t have the 20 or more years of tabletop RPG experience that Dave does. I’ve played video games since I was a kid and got into the video game industry about seven years ago. I played my first tabletop roleplaying game five or six years ago and have been working on them myself for about three years. I’ve played in several by this point (two of my games just ended, in fact), and I’ve written and edited adventures for major publishers. I know what I’m doing, but I’m coming to the process from a different perspective than Dave is, which means sometimes I think about things differently. So when Dave expressed a concern that the gaslight didn’t have an attack line, I asked, “Does it have to have one?”

We talked a bit more about it and then decided that no, it actually didn’t have to have one. In fact, maybe it made more sense that it didn’t try to gas-bonk you in the face. It was a bit of a weird choice from a monster design perspective, but we liked it for this monster, so this tiny-sized gas creature just sticks to psychic damage via spellcasting.

My first draft of this critter did have a couple blatant flaws, though. For one, I was way too fast and loose with the stun effects. I thought they’d turn out to be really cool because I wasn’t thinking through how they would play out at the table. (If you’re not sure why making a player skip their entire combat turn is not ideal, play the game with a seven-year-old and watch what happens when she has to skip a turn. Then realize that’s how the adults feel, too. They just hide it better.)

Having really cool ideas for monsters is one thing, but you always have to keep the table in mind. The way it plays out there is always more important than how it reads on the page. Designing something really complicated for your own campaign is one thing, but you can’t assume that every GM wants to juggle a lot of complicated monsters around, because most really don’t. Designing for publication is hugely different from designing for your own table, and that’s something else that’s vital to keep in mind.

The other big flaw was that I forgot to look at spell durations for that first draft, so the gaslight had a few spells that were all duration: concentration. That’s ridiculous because it can only ever use one at a time, so having more is often just a waste. Most monsters don’t live long enough to use an entire laundry list of spells (coming back around to how it reads vs. how it plays).

A few back-and-forths later, and we had a well-rounded monster that we both really liked and that left us room to grow. Just because the two gaslights that exist now don’t have attacks doesn’t mean that none of them could possibly have attacks. That falls in line with the concept, too, honestly. There’s a lot we can still do with it, and I’m really looking forward to what we might come up with.

On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games

When I started writing this post, is was quite short. It highlighted the mechanics of my thought process then segued into the mechanics of monster creation. After discussing it with Dave, however, I realized there were really two aspects of creation I wanted to talk about. One was the crunchier aspect of monster design (which you can read about in Part 2 soon), but the first was more personal than I’d originally given credence.

DASTOW Games Gaslight

Artwork by Liz Green

A few months ago, DASTOW Games published Monster Mausoleum, our first non-adventure and our first release for 5th edition D&D. Alongside the undead monster classics like the pennangalan and the huecuva, this book also featured our new monster, the gaslight.

The gaslight began with me wanting to create a physical manifestation of gaslighting, the phenomenon of making someone think that their valid ideas or concerns are crazy or unfounded. Gaslighting is an all-too-common way of controlling someone else, and I know many people—myself included—who have experienced it. At first, I just thought the concept would make for a really interesting breed of monster (and I think it’s turned out to be so), but as I thought about it more, I considered some of the more interesting aspects.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the power of games.  Some, certainly, offer nothing more than entertainment. They’re fluff if they’re anything, and they’re intended to be that way. That’s totally fine, and there’s nothing wrong with playing a game for that very reason. Other games, however, aim to dig at your subconscious, whether it be with conflicting moral choices or very significant parallels to certain horrors of reality. Some games aim to make you think about the world or the people in it differently.

In the same way that different games aim to fulfill different roles, so too do people come at different games for different reasons. Sometimes I’m looking for a game to make me feel something, and sometimes I just want to hit pixelated monsters with pixelated sticks or beat some internet rando at a card game. I think Gone Home is one of the most beautifully honest games I’ve ever played, but I also just got my fourth golden hero in Hearthstone (#humblebrag). Often, we come to games to feel powerful, whether it’s as a gun-toting soldier or a fiery mage. Some studies have even shown that a short stint of playing a powerful character can make a person feel more confident and decisive for over a day. Games are actually good for us.

I’ve referenced video games here, but this is arguably even more true with roleplaying games. Video games have the limits of financing and time and hardware, but in a roleplaying game, the only limit on what you can do is your imagination and the GM’s approval. Facing things in real life is often difficult. Facing things in a fantasy world where you wear magical armor while shooting arrows or swinging swords or blasting out a few fireballs is way easier by comparison. When you imagine yourself as a powerful character, a lot of things become easier to face.

So let’s bring this back around to the physical manifestation of gaslighting. One of the real hells of being on the receiving end is that you can never be sure it’s happening. By the very nature of gaslighting, it casts doubt on your interpretation of the situation, and breaking free can be extremely difficult. But now let’s say you think you’re struggling with this very issue. If pretending to be a powerful character for an hour can make you feel powerful in real life for a day, maybe facing a gaslight head-on can do something similar. Maybe it can wipe away some of the cobwebs and give someone a chance to really figure out the truth of their situation. And then maybe it can’t. But if the cost of finding out is creating what Dave and I think turned out to be a pretty cool monster anyway, then there’s no reason not to try.

Games are a powerful medium. Many still see them as infantile, and that’s a damn shame because I have had games deliver more deliberate, honest, heart-wrenching stories than half of whatever’s on TV. Many are truly immersive art, and well-done art can change you. Games can make us stronger in our day-to-day lives. I want to add to that. I want to be part of that—part of using games as a way to not just entertain, but make people stronger. I want to be part of what pushes the industry forward and gives it more freedom to examine that side of itself.

That’s one of the reasons the gaslight exists. That, and because you simply can’t have enough creepy floating skulls in D&D.

(The second part of this two-part article, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics, is now live.)

Spell and Ability Design in 13th Age

We’re designing some spells and other character abilities for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game, and I’m delighted—and maybe a little surprised—at what fertile ground d20 games continue to be for game designers.

The various branches that form the d20 tree (13th Age, Pathfinder, and oh yeah D&D) have a 15-year history, not counting the design time within WotC prior to 2000. Hundreds of game designers have been making new feats, spells, and other game elements for a decade and a half. Yet we’re still finding new mechanics—new ways to provide some game-structure interest to match the flavor and theme of the spell.

That speaks to how robust the third edition ruleset is. All of us—from indie game designers to the big crew at Paizo—are still happily making stuff up that’s genuinely new, not just retreads of previously explored game-design space. And for indie developers like us, 13th Age is a particularly good environment to explore the d20 tree…for two reasons.

First, there isn’t an overwhelming supply of content out there (as there is with Pathfinder and 3e/4e D&D). To put it in economic terms, the marginal utility of the 12th fireball variant or the 26th Two-Weapon Fighting feat is pretty lousy. 13th Age is still lean enough that you can make up new stuff and not feel like you’re just designing for corner cases.

Second, 13th Age does a good job of managing how often PCs change their game elements—how often they get new spells and feats and whatnot. That’s a hidden virtue of a 10-level game. With a few exceptions (wizard comes to mind), you’re only changing your “abilities loadout” when you milestone or level up. Back in my D&D days, I saw a lot of 3e spellcasters practically buried beneath a dozen different books, trying to figure out which spells to prepare for a given day. The rest of the table impatiently waits (no fun), and the spellcaster essentially plays “lightning-round rules referencing” (no fun). In the abstract, of course everyone says, “I like the flexibility of picking new spells/abilities/whatever each game day.” But in practice, it’s not always fun. And we often forget that what fun there is comes at the expense of bored or impatient friends.

I’m a firm believer in “playtest, then preview,” but soon we’ll have some examples to share.