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.

Kickstarters We Like: Air Deck

If you travel a lot and like to play cards, you’ve probably gone through your share of decks. Paper cards wear out pretty easily, and with all the jostling that comes along with travel, it’s only a matter of time before you spill something on them. And even if you can avoid that, it takes up a lot of room in your pocket.

What I like about the Air Deck is particularly the way it’s compact. Usually, if you can find a smaller deck of cards, they’re made for people with tiny hands and perfect eyes—they hold a regular card shape, but at a fraction of the size, making them harder to hold. These, on the other hand, are of normal length, making them just as easy to hold as an average-sized card; it balances in your hand just as well, but is narrower for ease of transportation. In fact, the narrow design might in fact make it even easier to hold onto than wider cards—and easier for solitaire on an airplane tray table. The typeface is also nice and bold, so you don’t have to bring along a magnifying glass just to ready your compact cards.

Waterproofing and durability also make great design choices. Losing a beverage is annoying enough, but when you spill it onto your card game, it’s twice as disappointing. As someone who can manage to drop the most important of items into the most toxic of shit, I always appreciate durability—and in this case, the ability to wash the cards as well.

The Air Deck seems like it’d solve a lot of the most common travel deck problems, so if you frequently travel with cards, consider supporting this Kickstarter! You can grab a black or white deck for 10 euros (roughly $11), and it runs until July 2.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate

This week Wizards of the Coast announced Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a D&D-themed version of their acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill board game. My first thought: “Great ideas win out—even if it takes a while.”

“A while” being “fifteen years, give or take” in this case.

When I first saw the game that would become Betrayal at House on the Hill, it was one of the last Milwaukee Gencons, 2001 or 2002. I was a D&D designer for WotC, so I spent most of my Gencon time speaking on panels or running the Delve (a continuous four-day pickup game) inside the WotC castle in the exhibit hall. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

I was hanging around the castle after a shift DMing the Delve when the head of RPG R&D at the time, Bill Slavicsek, grabbed me. “Follow me—we need a fourth player for a game we’re trying.” With me in tow, Bill scurried over to the open board game area, where we met two designers in Hasbro’s board game operation: Rob Daviau (who later went on to pretty much invent legacy board games) and Mike Gray (who’s been key to more Hasbro games than I can list).

“It’s a haunted house game,” Rob explained. “Here, pick a character.”

What I played over the course of the next hour or so was a 80% complete version of what later became Betrayal at House on the Hill. The characters were horror-movie archetypes (cheerleader, professor, and so on), the stats were tracked with paperclips on cardstock, and the room tiles even had decent graphics. The traitor mechanic was there, though the supply of plots was much thinner.

After a brief explainer from Mike and Rob, we were able to hit the ground running—and it was fun! When it was all over, Mike explained that while Hasbro’s board game group liked the design, they weren’t going to be able to do anything with it. (I can only imagine the business and logistical concerns for an operation of Hasbro’s scale.) WotC had a separate line of board games, though, and they weren’t beholden to the same set of concerns.

“I think you guys could take the game if you want it,” Mike said. Then Rob piped up. “It doesn’t have to be a haunted house, you know. Look at the tiles and the monster tokens and the items. This could be a dungeon…”

One thing led to another, and the game did wind up on the WotC side of the fence, where Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Bill McQuillan and a bunch of other people whose names I’m cruelly forgetting turned it into Betrayal at House on the Hill a couple years later.

Rob’s “it doesn’t have to be a haunted house” observation sat latent for years, but now that game’s structure will support a new theme, some 15 years after that Gencon afternoon in the board game hall. Rob gets his wish, and the haunted house becomes a dungeon.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Board game production requires a surplus of patience, whether you’re a huge corporation or an adorable indie. For all my fellow designers who’ve touched the various incarnations of this game over the years, I think 15 years of patience will pay off this October.

GM Improv: Coming Up with Names on the Fly

The great secret about improvisation is that it isn’t just an in-the-moment burst of creativity. Improvisation often has its roots in preparation and practice. Just as an improvising musician knows the proper key and chord structure, an improvising GM should have a sense of the narrative and setting. That’s where our GM Improv series comes in.


Fantasy Name Generators

A list of elf names from Fantasy Name Generators.

There you are, running a game for your friends, and they go off-script (according to your genius plans). Now they’re wandering around the tavern, talking to every nameless NPC—except they can’t be nameless anymore! What do you do?

While someone working in a science fiction or modern setting could just keep a standard baby book handy (or a baby-naming database, for that matter), that’s harder when you’re running a fantasy game—whether D&D or another system—where even the humans have names you’re unlikely to hear out on the street. One way to work around this is to simply keep a list of fantasy names near you, but you’ll still have to spend time creating that before one of your sessions—don’t you already have enough to do?

Keeping a name generator at your fingertips is a great way to quickly and easily solve this dilemma. My favorite online name generator is probably Fantasy Name Generators, because it’s pretty robust. You can find almost anything you’re looking for—not only can you generate fantasy names for just about any fantasy race you can think of, but you can also generate real names from nearly any place around the globe. Not looking for a character name at all? You can generate potion names, continent names, river names, and even company names. You’ll get a list to choose from, and if you don’t like any of them, just ask for a new list. It’s really easy.

If you’re looking for a specific cultural slant, Dave often recommends Kate Monk’s Onomastikon. While Fantasy Name Generators uses a concatenation style to generate names, Kate Monk’s Onomastikon pulls authentic (if perhaps obscure) names. It all comes down to what you’re looking for in a generator—and, frankly, in a name.

When I use a name generator, what I really prefer to do is use the generator itself as inspiration. I go through a few different generated lists, and eventually sort of mix and match words, switch up letters, and generally create a kind of word stew until I come up with something I like. That’s fun if you have a little extra time, but if you’re sitting there at the table under pressure of the clock, there’s nothing at all wrong with just picking a name straight off the generator. That’s really what it’s there for.

How do you like to deal with the sudden need for names? Do you prefer to keep a pre-developed list on hand or use a name generator? Do you have a favorite name generator that you depend on? Let us know in the comments!

Why the Hell Do We Roleplay?

Polyhedral DiceBy almost any measure, it’s a golden age for gaming. We’ve got access to more games, more places to talk about them, more people to play them with, and greater cultural appreciation for them than ever before.

On any given evening, you could play a tabletop RPG…or the latest great video game. Or a fantastic board game. Or a minis game. Or a card game. And I suppose you could, theoretically speaking, engage in some sort of non-game activity like books, movies, TV, or making nachos.

Those choices all offer the possibility of a sublime experience (especially the nachos). So why do we pick RPGs? The reasons are as varied as the players, I suppose.

Some of us play for the game itself. We think that an RPG is “winnable” at least on some level. We’re the powergamers and the min-maxers, but those terms have a lot of baggage attached to them. At a lot of tables, min-maxing is no crime…or at least it’s a victimless crime. Still, if that’s the motivation, why not delve into a video game RPG, where there’s generally a more complex system to master and you never have to worry about finding other players?

Some of us play for the camaraderie/fellowship. We play because people we really dig play, and a great RPG session is really a rollicking, hours-long conversation among friends. But if that’s the motivation, who not delve into a really great board game, where you have just as much camaraderie, but less rules cruft and fewer scheduling difficulties?

Some of us play to immerse ourselves in a role—an idealized version of ourselves, very much the opposite, or someone else entirely. We can attempt anything we can conceive of, and the fictional game situation lets us tap some very real emotions. Sure, the drama kings and queens are among us are in this category, but so are the intentional shit-stirrers who are always picking pockets and starting tavern brawls. There’s a certain sort of glee in vicarious bad behavior that I wouldn’t want to deny anybody.

Here’s the thing about this third group: Tabletop RPGs serve them in a way that other games don’t. They can’t switch over to Mass Witcher Creed and scratch the same itch, and they can’t become the meeple in the same way that they become their PC.

I’m not saying that this sort of role-immersion player is the best sort of RPGer, or that they’re playing games the “right way” while others are having wrongbadfun. But I will say this: For that sort of player, the tabletop RPG experience is more precious—and probably more fragile. They’re getting something out of Thursday night D&D that they can’t get anywhere else. (Well, nowhere short of actual theater, anyway.)

So take care of those folks at your table! Even if you’re playing with friends, you might not realize how much Darryl needs to just evaporate into his role. Darryl might be going through a lot under the surface. Darryl might find a bit of himself while he’s pretending to be “Chala of the Trackless Wastes.” And that’s something Darryl can do only at the RPG table.

Take care of Darryl, or he’ll be forced to seek out community theater. You’ll never see him again.

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.

Kickstarters We Like: Inspiration

Inspiration Card GameI was wandering around Kickstarter’s game section the other day (like ya do), and I found a game called Inspiration. It’s quite a simple game, but I think that’s one of the draws—it’s a sweet little game that you don’t have to sit around and explain for 20 minutes before you can get started. All you have to do is tell a story.

You take three art cards and a subject card that contains a single word, and you have thirty seconds to connect all of these elements into something cohesive and compelling. The player who tells the best story (making the best use of their respective cards) gets a point, and the first player to three points wins.

This is great not only if you just love making up great, quick stories, but also if you’re playing with kids (though you may want to consider easing up the time constraint with significantly younger players). Many young kids love telling stories anyway.

As a writer, I see another advantage as well—even if you’re not playing the game, you can lay out three art cards and a subject card and just use that as a writing prompt.

If this sounds like the kind of thing you’re into, go check out Inspiration! The campaign runs until June 13, and for $25 you get the base game and some exclusive-to-Kickstarter art cards, so don’t miss out!