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Father, writer, husband, publisher, gamer, geek

After posting The Thief, the fourth game I designed, I started thinking about the third, Storylike. I designed Storylike for my daughter, Lark, for New Game Day 2014, and we played it with my wife, Alysia, and our friend Jaben.

I came away thinking it probably needed some work, but a year later I haven’t done that work. So why not put it out there?

I’d probably design it differently now, but in cleaning it up to publish I realized that that’s not a bad thing — Storylike reflects what I wanted out if it in 2014. It’s a snapshot, and a playable one; we had fun playing it. I might tweak it someday, I might not.

My design goals for Storylike were:

  • Create an RPG for my daughter, age four, that plays quickly enough for her attention span but which includes some traditional RPG trappings. There are dice, you roll them to see what happens, you have “hit points” (sort of), and the game has a “strong GM” role. It plays in about 30 minutes.
  • Use as many of the standard polyhedrals as possible, as she’d just bought a set of her own. (Storylike uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12).
  • Make it easy to tell which dice are which on the character sheet, since she was still working on her numbers at the time.
  • No math, just compare results, because addition doesn’t come easily to her yet. Every roll is one die vs. one die, high die wins (players win ties).
  • Encourage creative thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Storylike does this through Talents, which require creativity to apply; dice odds, which incentivize helping; and Problems, which anyone can have and which need to be overcome.
  • Assume the GM can improvise a short game on the spot, and don’t provide advice for doing so. The GM was me, so for good or ill the game assumes I know what I want to do with it.
  • Fit the whole thing on one page. It’s two pages if you count the character sheet.

The odds of success also tell you quite a bit about the game:

These odds incentivize players to help each other (which increases your roll to the next die type) and to try to use their abilities (d4 is the “I don’t have that” default, and gives the worst odds), but the odds are always tilted in the players’ favor thanks to players winning ties. The possibility of failure exists, but it’s not rampant; that felt about right for my kiddo.

My favorite things about Storylike are Problems, Hidden Talents, and the visual character sheet. You can tell that the latter wasn’t designed by an artist, and that I created it in Word. Anyone with a drop of design talent could sexy it up in just a few minutes.

I like Problems because they’re so flexible. They can be injuries, sure, but they can also be conditions like Afraid, Embarrassed, or Dazed. Problems were inspired by stress and consequences in Fate, but they distill that combination of tracks and aspects down to a single mechanic for the sake of simplicity. Hidden Talents are similarly flexible, and they also signal that characters should develop during play.

If you try out Storylike, I’d love hear what you think of it. Enjoy!

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I hadn’t planned to enter the 200 Word RPG Challenge, but then an idea popped into my head, followed closely by another, and one spilled out of me.

The Thief is a solitaire RPG that takes a few minutes to play. You need a handful of coins and possibly something to write on.

The Thief was inspired by the TV series The Wire and the video game Papers, Please; the Prince Valiant RPG, which uses coin-tossing; and current events. It’s not what the title makes it sound like it might be, but it’s not subtle about what it actually is.

I love nanogames, roleplaying poems, whatever you want to call them — short-form games, as a form, are fascinating. To date, my favorite is Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in which you play the most boring people possible with the most boring lives possible and, over the course of (if memory serves) fifteen minutes, attempt to say absolutely nothing of interest. It’s hilarious.

200 words is a brutal constraint. I struggled to strike a balance between brevity, clarity, and the tone I was after. It required multiple drafts to get it down to 200 words, which was a surprisingly enjoyable process — I dig creativity with constraints. (And I played it conservative and counted the title, byline, and copyright language against my 200.)

The Thief took me about five hours to produce: one hour for the first draft, another to find the woodcut and header font, and three hours to rewrite, redesign, playtest, and proofread. the mechanics went through several iterations, three of which I playtested, until I found the mix I wanted. For about five minutes, the game took an abrupt dogleg and was about time travel, but it didn’t take me long to see that that wasn’t right for it.

I played the final version before submitting it to the challenge, and it did what I wanted it to. If you try it, I hope you get something out of it.

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I picked up 188 RPG products in 2014 (plus a few more than arent in RPGGeek’s database yet), 43 of which were published in 2014. Of those 43, I’ve spent enough time with enough of them to tease out a partial list of 12 favorites — partial because there are books I expect to love which aren’t included here simply because I haven’t had a chance to read them.

  • The Chained Coffin – Michael Curtis (Stonehell + DCC RPG + a setting inspired by one of the least-known authors in Appendix N, Manly Wade Wellman + a fabulously run Kickstarter that turned out a beautiful product = win. There’s a ton of stuff in this boxed set, including a killer spinning prop.
  • The Clay That Woke – From the concept to the execution, this is a fabulous book. It oozes mood, and the system — which uses tokens, not dice, drawn from the krater of lots and compared to an oracle — is fascinating. This is one of my favorite things I backed on Kickstarter in 2014.
  • Cosmic Patrol – This oddball improv game marries a genre I don’t care about (Golden Age sci-fi, robots and rayguns) and a publisher I don’t associate with weird little games (Catalyst), and the marriage is groovy. I liked the core book so much that I bought the whole line.
  • Cthonic Codex – This hand-assembled, limited edition boxed set is a buffet of peculiar, evocative goodness for any fantasy game. It’s a setting unto itself, presented in incredibly appealing . . . fragments, I guess? It’s hard to describe, but superb.
  • Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins – Like other Sine Nomine books (e.g., Red Tide, which is awesome), while this is a Stars Without Number supplement it’s really a toolkit for generating weird places and species that works just as well for other games and genres, and a good one at that.
  • The Dungeon Dozen – This is in my top three for the year — it’s superb. I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Gnome Stew. If you’re a fan of old school games, old school art, and/or random tables, buy it.
  • Dwimmermount – After the most painful crowdfunding roller coaster I’ve ever been involved with as a backer, I crossed my fingers that Dwimmermount would be as good as 2012 Martin hoped it would be. And it is! It’s a weird, wonderful monster of a dungeon that begs to be explored.
  • Guide to Glorantha – Moon Design’s two-volume doorstop dominates any shelf it sits on, and both books are simply stellar. I have no idea if I’ll ever need or use this much information on Glorantha, but I’m glad I own them.
  • Mass Effect RPG – While I did minor design and proofreading work on this, that’s not why it’s here. It’s here because it’s the first game I own that was developed by someone in my group (Don Mappin) while we played it, and it’s a gorgeous book and a fun implementation of Fate by way of Bulldogs!.
  • Obscene Serpent Religion – Need a freaky serpent cult for your game? Of course you do! This is a toolkit for creating one, and for doing so cleverly with a minimum of effort and a lot of flavorful inspiration.
  • A Red & Pleasant Land – Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts out some of my favorite gaming books period, and they pulled out all the stops for this one. As a physical artifact, this foil-stamped gem of a book is brimming with Zak S.’ evocative artwork, and the presentation is top-notch. The same unflagging, gameable creativity that made Vornheim such a treat is on full display here.
  • Scenic Dunnsmouth – This understated little volume from LotFP features a brilliant system for dicing up your own sinister village of Dunnsmouth. It’s awesome.

Despite trying to be thorough I’ve probably forgotten something, and I’m confident more favorites will emerge as I make my way through my to-read pile mountain. Happy gaming!

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After making my support payment to BoardGameGeek/RPGGeek, my 1/1 (or sometimes 1/2) tradition, I decided to write the post I meant to write last night — I was too tired to do it last night. So here’s my 2014 in games, by the numbers, and with more personal reflection than I was planning when I started writing

RPGs

I logged 31 gaming sessions in 2014 with my two gaming groups, one face-to-face and one virtual (Hangouts), and probably played another 5-10 that I forgot to log. The number of distinct RPGs I’ve played climbed to 93, which I’m happy about.

2014 was mostly the year of Fate Mass Effect, but we also wrapped up a great Hunter: The Reckoning campaign and a mediocre-to-bad Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign (run by me), and I played one-shots and short campaigns across a handful of indie RPGs, including Primetime Adventures and Dungeon World. That feels about the same as 2013 to me. I used to play more sessions, but summer is now mostly taken up by camping and hiking, and everyone in my groups has more obligations than they used to, so the numbers are down compared to a few years ago.

In hindsight, I spent too much time not feeling engaged at the gaming table. That’s happened before, and it usually teaches me some good lessons about my taste in games and gaming. I homed in more closely on what I like (player-driven stories, lighter mechanics, player agency) and don’t like (railroaded stories, filler sessions, lack of player agency, close-mindedness about games) in my gaming.

I didn’t do much GMing in 2014, and the GMing I did was almost uniformly pretty bad. I’m not sure why that is, but my GMing confidence has taken a big hit as a result. I did figure out that I don’t want to run the kinds of game my face-to-face group usually plays at the moment, though, and taking myself out of the GMing rotation for a while has reduced my stress level.

I also got some feedback about my default play style that surprised me. The whole thing was handled badly, but after a few months I’m feeling positive about the situation overall. I’ve created two PCs for 2015 that are strongly against type for me, and I’m excited to play both of them. I wish this had gone down differently, but it gave me a richer perspective on gaming as a whole and my strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots as a player, both socially and RPG-wise.

One notable high point was Google+, which has offered up a steady stream of gaming goodness and been a great outlet for me to blather about gaming stuff. I checked in several times a day most days, and enjoyed virtually all of the time I spent there.

On balance, 2014 was a mixed bag of a year unlike any other year I can remember, with higher highs and deeper lows than usual. I’m hoping 2015 has a more even and more positive vibe.

My predictions for 2015

2015 will be a lot like 2014, numbers-wise. My face-to-face group has two campaigns going, Dragon Age and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and my Hangouts group is playing tremulus. My Hangouts group will likely cycle through another half-dozen or so indie RPGs in 2015, and my number of sessions overall will be about the same. I won’t GM much in 2015, but I’ll try to hit 100 RPGs played.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo

I backed 14 projects on Kickstarter (11 RPG products and 3 board games) and two on IndieGoGo (both RPG products). Compared to the combined 58 projects I backed from 2011-2013, that actually makes it a pretty average crowdfunding year for me. Which is a surprise, because I thought I’d cut way back; apparently there’s still room to trim!

Two of the board games have arrived, and I wish I hadn’t backed either of them. My track record in Kickstarted board games is 100% bad: I’ve never liked or held onto a board game I’ve backed on KS. I’m crossing my fingers that Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds will break that streak in 2015.

But man was it a good year for RPG stuff. The highlights were The Clay That Woke, Dwimmermount, The Chained Coffin, and a pile of fantastic stuff from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And there’s more stuff I think I’ll greatly enjoy on the horizon.

I spent zero time browsing on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for stuff to back, relying entirely on Google+ posts to point me to interesting projects. I backed less than half of the projects I looked at overall. I saw KS and IGG becoming a problem for me in 2013 and turned them into non-problems in 2014, which feels pretty good. (I also posted less about stuff on KS, which makes sense.)

My predictions for 2015

I’ll continue using Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in 2015, but I doubt I’ll back any board games and I suspect I’ll back fewer gaming products than I did in 2014. Crowdfunding won’t quite fall off my radar, but it will come close. Most things I might back on KS/IGG I’ll just order when they come out, or not order at all.

Board games

I played 58 distinct games, with a total of 181 plays logged in 2014. The majority of games got played once or twice; the highest play count was 20. I started logging plays in 2008, and in 2014 I crossed the 1,000-play mark, making 2014 an average year in terms of plays.

My top five most-played games were Don Quixote (solo), Connect 4 (kids), Disney Dazzling Princess (kids), Ascension: Storm of Souls, and Blokus Duo. That’s a decent snapshot of my year in board gaming, which was a good one for games with my daughter, with visitors, and solo, but a light one for gaming with my wife and gaming group.

I purged 28 games from my collection in February, and another 23 yesterday, for a total of 51 sold off in 2014. I acquired about 17 games (my best guess; I don’t track this), which is light compared to the past few years — and intentionally so. That puts my core collection — the games I want to consider when I ask myself, “What do I want to play?” — at 144, which is still bigger than it needs to be.

My board gaming h-index climbed from 12 to 13, which is a bit of a bummer as I worked on that number throughout the year. But it’s only a few plays (of the “right” games) from hitting 14, and 15 isn’t terribly far off. More games saw repeat plays in 2014, though, which was my goal.

The highlight of the year for me was getting closer to my sweet spot board game-wise. I spent more of my time playing games that I deeply enjoy and rate highly, and less of my time playing new games just for the sake of it or games I wasn’t wild about, and my collection got leaner and better overall. My favorite games in 2014 included Kingdom Builder, Hanabi, K2, Ascension: Storm of Souls, Don Quixote (solo), FlowerFall, and Lords of Waterdeep.

My predictions for 2015

I think I’ll rack up fewer solo plays (that time has been taken up by bodybuilding and other stuff), more plays with my wife, and about the same number of plays with my daughter, my gaming group, and visitors. I’ll acquire fewer new games in 2015, and will do another purge. Past purges have culled everything rated 6 or lower, but dipped into 7s; now I’m eyeing the 7s. Why aren’t they 8s? More of those can probably go too. Finally, I might just make it to 500 distinct games played in 2015.

That went from a short exercise in stats to a long, reflective post. Before writing it, I’d have generically described 2014 as “good” for games, but looking at it all broken out like this I have a more nuanced picture of the year. If you made it this far, hopefully you got some mileage out of my navel-gazing.

Happy new year!

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Bleakstone is my old school fantasy hexcrawl setting, parts of which have been kicking around in my brain since 2012. This post presents an overview, including an elevator pitch and all the high notes.

In August of 2014 I finally realized that I do best when I design gaming stuff in chunks, rather than trying to eat the whole elephant, and decided that the easiest way to do that with Bleakstone was also to design the setting in public. It’s been through numerous iterations (not all of them named Bleakstone), it’s full of things I like in my D&D, and it’s a work in progress.

This post is focused on presenting concise, gameable content that sparks my imagination — the bare minimum that I need to sit down and referee a Bleakstone campaign. You can jump straight to specific sections if you like: regional map, dominant intelligent species, unique features, domains, and inspiration and tools.

Spoilers for players abound

If you’re a player in Bleakstone, or think you might one day like to play in this setting, stop reading here. There’s no segregation of player and GM content below, and Bleakstone’s secrets are laid bare below.

Bleakstone elevator pitch

Strange, chaotic, and dangerous, the region known as Bleakstone has nonetheless produced pockets of stability and civilization in the past few centuries. Towns and villages dot the land, often fortified, and petty fiefdoms and principalities claim territory throughout the region. But in between, on Bleakstone’s poorly maintained roads — and beyond them — are dark, dangerous places peopled by monsters, centuries-old ruins and dungeons, scheming null slimes, the hidden domains of spider-like skurliths, the spires of imprisoned gharrudaemons, and wandering uzbardim who answer to no one.

In its golden age, a civilized skurlith empire ruled this entire region. The skurliths pacified the land by imprisoning the gharrudaemons who came before them, entombing them in vast obsidian monoliths that still stand today. Bleakstone is best known for the areas of “bleak stone” that dot the landscape: places that have been petrified in their entirety, and which are peopled by denizens of hell — and worse. These stone expanses range from a few yards in size to several miles in diameter, and within them it’s as if everything present was transformed into stone in an instant: people, animals, plants, houses — anything in contact with the ground. The bleak stone expanses began appearing a few decades ago, and new ones have appeared ever since. They’re mysterious, unpredictable, and above all dangerous places, avoided by most residents of Bleakstone.

Declared an “unholy land” by the Holy Empire of the Eleventh Lord, to the west, a decade ago (and stricken from all maps produced by the Empire), Bleakstone is largely ignored by its neighbors. Bleakstone is a weird and troubled land, a place where adventurers have many opportunities to make their mark — and many more opportunities to die trying.


Regional map

The Bleakstone region is represented by a 30×20 map composed of 6-mile hexes numbered 0000 through 2919, 600 hexes in all, with a surface area of about 19,200 miles. It’s about the size of Costa Rica, although I didn’t plan that — I picked 30×20 because it fit nicely on my monitor, offered plenty of room, wasn’t so large as to seem impossible to flesh out, and made it easy to randomly place locations with a d30 (long axis) and a d20 (short axis).

Here’s a much larger version of the map — a full-size export straight from Hexographer.

Climate

All of Bleakstone is temperate and has four distinct seasons. It’s broadly similar to western Europe.


Dominant intelligent species

There are five dominant intelligent species in Bleakstone. In order of population, most to least, they are:

  1. Humans
  2. Skurliths (“skuhr-liths”)
  3. Uzbardim (“ooze-bahr-dimm”)
  4. Null slimes
  5. Gharrudaemons (“garr-oo-day-mons”)

Elves, dwarves, and halflings are also present in Bleakstone, but they’re relatively uncommon and aren’t dominant in the region.

Humans

When the skurlith empire fell, humans moved in like rats, as they always do, and quickly became the most common species in the region. They found a strange landscape dotted with towering obsidian spires and peopled by mysterious uzbardim and the remnants of the skurlith race. Later, they learned of the null slimes and became embroiled in their intrigues (and vice versa). The more susceptible among them became cultists of the gharrudaemons. In this strange land, the strong tend to rule — those whose ambition and avarice dull their caution, and who could not rule in more civilized lands.

Most humans in Bleakstone were born in one of the three human domains that span the region: Skeldmar (feudal Germany with a Norse flavor), the Blackfang Barony (a dirtier version of medieval England), or the Theocracy of Umr (a blend of sword and sorcery, fantasy Arabia, and religious madness). People of Umr tend to be tall, with medium-brown skin and pinched features. Skeldmar folk tend to be shorter, and most often have pale skin, light-colored hair, and wide faces. The ancestors of the people of the Blackfang Barony were a mix of exiles and castoffs from other nations, and their descendants run the gamut from dark-skinned to light-skinned, with a wide variety of features. Over the centuries, wanderers from all over have found their way to Bleakstone, and people of all shapes and colors can be found in the region.

Skurliths

Once the dominant species in Bleakstone, Skurliths are now the bogeymen of the region — the savage, degenerate descendants of a once-proud species whose civilized empire spanned all of Bleakstone. About three feet tall when standing on two legs, their ungainly bodies appear to be made entirely of hairy sinews and chitinous plates. They have shiny black crab heads, two spider-like forearms tipped with pincers, and eight smaller pale, claw-tipped legs, the lower two of which are larger and thicker than the others, enabling them to walk upright. They prefer to scuttle on all of their legs, moving like a cross between a spider and a centipede.

Skurliths no longer have a formal culture or society, instead grouping along cult lines: All skurliths in a given area worship some aspect, often half-remembered, of their foul goddess, and perform dark rites in their subterranean lairs. Ruined cyclopean monuments to the Lady of a Thousand Pincers dot the wilderness, as do the towering obsidian monoliths erected by their distant ancestors, but the cults are the only aspect of old skurlith society that survive among the creatures themselves. They often make their homes near reminders of their former greatness, though they never go near the obsidian pillars.

Skurliths lair in dry warrens a few feet underground, and they hunt like trapdoor spiders. A typical skurlith lair has numerous concealed entrances, each covered by a camouflaged trapdoor, with skurliths waiting just below the trapdoors for prey to come close enough to grab. They’re also skilled trackers, capable of stalking prey across long distances.

Uzbardim

Uzbardim are expressions of chaos from another dimension, each a living cog in a great pattern designed to bring about the Third Transformation. They are bipedal, but in place of feet they have bundles of fibrous tentacles which can bunch together (when wearing shoes, for example) or separate to navigate uneven terrain. Their torso is shaped like a capital letter “T,” with two arms dangling from each end of the long ridge that forms their shoulders. Their heads are set level with their shoulders, on the front of the torso; they have one huge, red eye, but no other facial features. Uzbardim’s bodies are always stark white, and their flesh is unpleasantly spongy, but resilient.

Their actions appear unpredictable to others, but everything an uzbardim does is part of their shared grand plan. How they communicate with each other is unknown; though they can make hooting and moaning sounds, they generally communicate with non-uzbardim only through gestures. Uzbardim interact with other intelligent beings only when their agenda overlaps with the boundaries of society. In some places they live in villages, creating bizarre sculptures and crooning nonsense language; in others, they live alongside humans and work as thieves, spies, and scouts; and in still others they wander, apparently aimlessly, and attack anyone who comes near. They are birthed from giant seed-pods found near water.

Null slimes

Null slimes are greyish blobs about 8-12 feet in diameter and roughly a foot thick in their resting state. They live underground, and when in motion they “pool” against a surface and secrete a weak acid that eats through rock and dirt, enabling them to tunnel slowly but ceaselessly, honeycombing the earth. A null slime can form a vocal apparatus that enables it to make moaning noises, mimic animal speech, or — if intelligent — to speak.

Around 90% of null slimes are unintelligent — peaceful, cow-like creatures content to tunnel and follow the orders given to them by the other 10%. That 10% is composed of some of the most intelligent and devious creatures in Bleakstone: plotters, assassins, schemers, living siege-weapons, seekers of secrets, messengers, and carvers of underground byways used by even darker creatures. They’re as peaceful as their unintelligent cousins only in the sense that they rarely commit violence directly, instead manipulating others to act on their behalf.

Null slimes have no name for their own species; “null slime” is simply the moniker that stuck. The intelligent ones worship the Absence, and view voids of all kinds — the tunnels they leave behind, the absence of life caused by murder, the power vacuum created by an assassination — as sacred. Many of their sinister plans seek to bring about nothingness in some form. They’re justly feared throughout Bleakstone.

Gharrudaemons

Centuries ago, rifts in reality began to appear in what is now Bleakstone. Through these rifts came gharrudaemons, lords of hell with powerful magical abilities. The skurlith empire fought the gharrudaemons and eventually imprisoned them, and sealed the rifts, inside vast obsidian monoliths. These monoliths still stand today, towering high into the sky.

While the gharrudaemons cannot escape their monolith-prisons, nor return to hell through the rifts, they can communicate with the outside world through telepathy. Over several centuries they have preyed upon weak minds, building up cults of mortal worshipers around their monoliths. During dark rites enacted at the bases of their spires, the gharrudaemons direct their followers to do their bidding. Some gharrudaemon cults are small and relatively localized, while others are subtle and insidious; the latter have worked their way into Bleakstone society, extending their masters’ reach ever wider.

Gharrudaemons have their claws in a great many pies across Bleakstone, manipulating mortals and seeking to shatter their prison spires. If successful, they would sweep across the land like a hell-scourge.

Dwarves, elves, and halflings

Dwarves, elves, and halflings are all relative newcomers to Bleakstone. Dwarves are most often found deep in Bleakstone’s mountains, expanding their slowly growing network of tunnels and keeping largely to themselves. Several clans from neighboring regions can be found here. Dark rumors persist that Bleakstone dwarves traffic regularly with null slimes.

Elves skulk in the region’s woodlands, spying on humans and developing detailed maps of Bleakstone for their masters in the northern nation of Seven Trees. They can’t be trusted, but they know more about some aspects of Bleakstone than anyone else in the region. Elves are always after more information about the region and its inhabitants, and will often trade their knowledge for new intelligence.

Halflings tend to be adventurers or traders, and are most common in coastal communities. Most Bleakstone halflings are part of the same sprawling crime family — a literal family of siblings, cousins thrice removed, and half-uncles, as well as a Mafia-style organized crime ring. Halflings boil their dead, extract the bones, and display the skeletons of venerated elders in their homes. What they do with the meat is anyone’s guess.


Unique features

Coupled with its unusual dominant species, three major features of the Bleakstone region set the place apart as weird and dangerous.

Bleak stone expanses

A bleak stone expanse is an area that has been “flash-petrified” in its entirety. They began appearing about 30 years ago, and new expanses are still appearing today. No one knows what causes them, but they terrify the average Bleakstone resident. They’re home to devils, demons, and worse, and are the source of countless local legends.

Some are pristine, with people turned to statues mid-conversation, cows petrified in their fields, and everything untouched save by weather. Others have been vandalized, turned into refuges by desperate bandits, or even broken up so that their peculiar stone can be sold to wizards in far-off lands. The only good news is that once an expanse appears, its borders are fixed — it will never grow any larger.

Obsidian monoliths

The landscape is dotted with massive spires of obsidian, apparently solid, all at least a hundred feet tall (and some much taller; the largest is over 400 feet high). Every one of them imprisons a gharrudaemon, making the regions around them dangerous: Cults worship the daemons, the beasts themselves reach out telepathically to exert their will on the surrounding area, and spending too long near a monolith causes mutations in people and animals. The existence of gharrudaemons (and the rifts through which they came), or indeed the monoliths’ status as prisons, is unknown to the overwhelming majority of Bleakstone’s inhabitants.

Ruined skurlith monuments

No one knows why the skurlith empire fell, nor why its descendants became savage, degenerate creatures, but the skurliths’ enormous, cyclopean monuments still stand today. All venerate their foul goddess, the Lady of a Thousand Pincers, in some way, but each is unique in its loathsomeness. The largest skurlith domains are located near these monuments.


Domains

Bleakstone is divided into four domains, with their borders indicated by dotted red lines. The Blackfang Barony, extending east from the center of the map, is the largest domain; Harrowmoor, an unclaimed region that’s home to many uzbardim, is the smallest. The Theocracy of Umr occupies the northeast quadrant of the map, while Skeldmar spans the western edge and extends into the center of region.

Blackfang Barony

Map location: center and lower right | Collective noun: “Blackfangs”

Ruled with an iron fist by the self-styled Baron Dragos Blackfang, a noble from a northern kingdom exiled for his depravity, the Blackfang Barony looks like feudal England, only dirtier—and with uzbardim. For unknown reasons, uzbardim are common here, and most of them work as slave laborers alongside the barony’s human serfs. Aristocrats and notables dye their teeth black to signal their loyalty to the baron, while its peasants are forced to wear black hoods as a sign of their fealty. Some of the most fertile land in the region lies within the barony’s borders, and the baron’s power owes much to the farms tilled by his serfs. Null slimes have a significant presence as well, manipulating events in the barony and in neighboring Umr.

Harrowmoor

Map location: upper left | Collective noun: “Moorfolk”

Harrowmoor is the closest thing to a uzbardim nation anywhere in the region, as more uzbardim live here than anywhere else, pursuing their own mysterious ends. As they have no organized social structure, Harrowmoor is officially unclaimed territory, poor in natural resources but rich in brigands, dungeons, and monsters. Skurliths can be found throughout Harrowmoor, and are a constant danger to travelers. Bands of scum and exiles make their home here, striking out into neighboring Skeldmar to raid and pillage before melting back into the desert and mountains of Harrowmoor. Nomadic uzbardim also roam Harrowmoor, camping in one spot for a few days while robbing travelers, and then moving on to a new camp. Scouts, spies, and smugglers use Harrowmoor like a highway to travel between kingdoms without being detected. Both Skeldmar and the Blackfang Barony would like to annex Harrowmoor, but none has yet been able to stake and defend a claim.

Skeldmar

(“skelld-mahr”) Map location: middle and lower left | Collective noun: “Skeldmarians”

Much like feudal Germany, but with a Norse flavor, Skeldmar is a patchwork nation composed of dozens of tiny fiefdoms, each ruled by a skeld who pays obeisance to the king but in practice is largely left alone. Every community in the region has its own skeld, and every skeld wants to rule a larger area than she already does. Justice is delivered through trial by combat, and duels are commonplace. In truth, nearly all of Skeldmar is ruled by null slimes, who manipulate the skelds through control of the kingdom’s many mines (its most important resource). To outsiders, it often seems like everyone in Skeldmar is out to make a name for themselves any way they can.

Theocracy of Umr

(“oom-urr”) Map location: upper right | Collective noun: “Umrians”

The oldest human nation in the region, the theocracy is governed in the name of Umr-Khall, the One God, the Lord of Magic. For the average Umrian, that means paying at least lip service to Umr-Khall’s cult—and being constantly paranoid that you’re not doing enough, and that the Pale Wardens (Umr’s secret police) will make you disappear in the night. Few Umrians know that the theocracy is actually ruled by the gharrudaemon Nuzzurkalioth. Many of the acolytes of Umr-Khall’s cult are really worshipers of the gharrudaemon, and their ranks are always increasing. Umr is like a cross between fantasy Arabia and feudal Russia, a hard land of dark secrets, cruel nobles, and strange magic.


Background, credit, and tools

My approach to creating Bleakstone was based on three things:

  1. A randomly generated Hexographer map, with a few tweaks. I generated maps until I hit one that felt right, and that became the basis for the region.
  2. Randomly placed towns, dungeons, and other features, with some non-random additions. I didn’t use How to Make a Drop Map for this iteration of the setting, but that approach informed the simpler one that I did use: I rolled a d30 for the long axis and a d20 for the short axis, juggling the results as needed. I then added things by hand until it felt right.
  3. Random selection of dominant intelligent species based on Random Campaign Setting Major Races, mashed up with Proscriptive Campaign Creation. I used the Fiend Folio (my favorite monster book) when I rolled for dominant intelligent species, and I got denzelians, meenlocks, nycadaemons, and tiraphegs. They were the inspiration for the null slimes, skurliths, gharrudaemons, and uzbardim that are the foundation of Bleakstone.

The central idea that gave the region its name was inspired by the Lamentations of the Flame Princess module Death Frost Doom, which features an unexplained petrified area. Bleakstone’s other inspirations are harder to catalog because they span dozens of books, blogs, G+ posts, and a host of stuff I’ve read or bumped into over the years. A few sources stand out clearly, though:

  • Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and its associated books. Jack Shear writes some of the tightest, most immediately gameable setting material in the business.
  • Appendix N, and my own Reading Appendix N project, most notably Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, and H.P. Lovecraft’s yog-sothothery.
  • Jeff’s Gameblog, which is full of Jeff Rients’ crazy and fantastic ideas.
  • James Maliszewki’s Grognardia, which introduced me to so much old school awesomeness.
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess, particularly James Raggi’s many insanely good (and just plain insane) adventures.
  • Patrick Wetmore’s Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which jams a huge amount of gonzo goodness into a cruft-free package.
  • Early Dark, from Anthropos Games, which introduced me to the idea of mashing up Earth cultures to create fantasy nations
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition, which got me into old school British fantasy
  • Abulafia‘s fantastic random generators

Lastly, the Bleakstone logo font is CAT Hohenzollern, designed by Peter Wiegel.

Legal stuff

Bleakstone and the Bleakstone logo are trademarks of Martin Ralya. The Bleakstone campaign setting is copyright 2014 by Martin Ralya. All rights reserved.

If you dig Bleakstone, I encourage you to use it in your home game, in whole or in part, provided it’s not published or distributed in any form. Happy gaming!

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Want to read a whole lot of awesome Green Lantern comics? This is the list I used to do just that, plus some context to explain the order I chose and some gushing about Green Lantern in general.

Just want the reading list without the context?
Skip straight to the list, and happy reading!

In 2013 I got back into superhero comics (after reading mostly indie stuff for many years) when I read a comic that surprised the hell out of me: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, which took a character I’d more or less dismissed and made him fascinating. That started a slow burn that led — by way of Morrison’s New X-Men, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder, and a couple of other titles — to a desire to explore a superhero who was new to me. A bit of Googling led me to Green Lantern, and specifically to Geoff Johns’ run on the title, which was widely regarded as being excellent.

I decided if I was going to jump in, I’d do a cannonball: read Green Lantern and all concurrent lantern-focused titles for all of Johns’ 2004-2013 run, 10 years worth of comics in 40 trades (plus a 41st for good measure). It was one of the best reading decisions I’ve ever made.

I came to love Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, Mogo, Despotellis, Kilowog, Sinestro, Soranik Natu, B’dg, and so many other great characters. I love the Green Lantern Corps, the mythology of the corps and the universe the lanterns inhabit, and the fact that lantern titles — especially Corps — are more sci-fi with superheroes than straight-up superhero tales. Taken as a whole, Green Lantern and its companion titles are over the top, pulpy in the best ways, often pretty crazy, larger than life, and a whole lot of fun. They’ve become some of my favorite comics.

But this venture wasn’t without its challenges. It’d been a long time since I’d read a DC or Marvel title on an ongoing basis, and I was unfamiliar with the mechanics of crossover events, dovetailing and intertwining stories that span multiple books, and the like. It was confusing.

More confusing still, while it seemed like there should be one correct reading order, I saw lots of disagreement online about the order in which these titles should be read. I wound up using two lists as the basis for my own (and many thanks to the folks who created them!): this post by SmashBrawler on ComicVine, and The Superheroes List part 1 and part 2.

My reading order isn’t definitive — this is just how I chose to read these titles. I had a blast doing it, and I hope I can simplify this process for others who are in a similar situation.

The goal of this list

For context, here’s what I wanted to do:

  1. Read Green Lantern and every other book starring lanterns (not necessarily every book in which lanterns appear) for the entirety of Geoff Johns’ run
  2. Keep it simple by, whenever possible, reading whole trades at once
  3. Introduce myself to Hal Jordan, who I knew next to nothing about
  4. Avoid spoiling anything in the process of figuring out my reading order
  5. Strike a balance between simplicity (reading trade by trade) and maximum fidelity to the story (reading issue by issue and roping in lots of non-lantern books)

This is the list I used to accomplish those goals. It’s presented as simply as possible because that’s what I found I wanted when I was reading these trades: a simple list. “Do this and you’ll have fun.” I did this, and I had fun.

Green Lantern reading order, 2004-2013

For 1-19 and 23-37, you can read each trade on its own, one after the other. (I call out a couple of cases below where I took the lazy route and you might prefer to go issue by issue.) Three big cross-title events — Blackest Night (20-22) and Rise of the Third Army through Wrath of the First Lantern (38-41) — however, need to be read issue by issue, jumping between concurrent trades as you go, in order for them to make sense.

You can also download this list, including my notes, as a simple text file.

Do any of these books suck?

Red Lanterns is terrible. The first trade is basically just an excuse to put Bleez in lots of boobs/butt poses, the writing in all three trades is godawful, and the story is generally wretched to mediocre. There are a couple of cool moments, but I was glad every time I could put a Red Lanterns trade behind me.

New Guardians wasn’t great for the first two trades (though still much better than Red Lanterns), but it picked up in the third one and finished strong. I wound up liking it.

The two Ion trades were just okay, but important for Kyle Rayner’s story. Not bad, just not great; well worth reading.

Everything else on this list — over 30 TPBs — I loved reading and would be thrilled to read again. This is a fantastic set of comics.

Look, a rabbit hole

In the course of reading these trades, I came to dig the lanterns so much that I bought a replica lantern:

…and jumped at the chance to pick up a piece of original artwork (Green Lantern Corps #15, page 11 — one of my favorite storylines in the whole arc, featuring one of my favorite parts of that story), which my wife framed up for my birthday:

…as well as a copy of Green Lantern #1 signed by Geoff Johns and Ethan van Sciver, which I sent off to CGC for grading:

So be warned: Your wallet won’t thank you for getting into Green Lantern — but apart from that you’re in for a real treat.

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A little while back game designer Jason Morningstar said this about his solitaire RPG METAL SHOWCASE 11PM: “Half solo RPG, half choose-your-path novel, half nobody has ever bought or played this and I think it is really good!”

Gauntlet thrown, challenge accepted. I ordered a copy, played it, and now I’m going to talk about it. Only briefly, though, because this is an RPG with potential spoilers.

It took me about 30 minutes to play, and I had a great time. I’d happily play it again. But part of the fun was knowing almost nothing about it going in, and while it’s a tricky line to walk in a review I want to preserve that experience for you.

Pictured above are the book, the two dice I grabbed (black because \m/), and the back of my character sheet. The latter shows all the notes I made during the game, hopefully tantalizing you without spoiling anything. I named my band Suppurating Maelstrom. My favorite note from the session was “Enabled [character’s] morbid obesity.”

Here are my impressions after one play, which I jotted down immediately after playing.

What a fantastic little game

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, only better written and more fun. You have a character and stats; you make choices and compete in contests.

But you’re also asked to get inside your guy’s head at different points, and those choices — and the notes you made about them — matter later on. My first session was 30 enjoyable minutes long, told a story (a rather depressing one; my guy was kind of a dick), and made me want to play again.

That might sound like a subtle tweak on the formula, but in combination with the tight presentation and writing, an alchemy occurs: There’s roleplaying here that I’ve never experienced when playing a gamebook. I felt involved in a way that was much more like how I’d get into a non-solitaire RPG session, or a solo board game session when playing a board game that tells a story, like Arkham Horror or Astra Titanus. It’s hard to explain, but: good stuff.

There are plenty of choices involved, and the stuff you make up on the fringes of the game space will be different every time, so I can see this having good replayability. It’s also difficult to win; that’s a good thing.

I’ve never played a game quite like it. I’m enamored of it, and I recommend it.

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I often see posts asking for Lulu RPG recommendations, and Lulu’s search functionality is pretty lacking, so rather than type mine up every time I wrote this post for easy reference. It’s up to 60+ recommendations, mostly OSR products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases.

If you just want one recommendation, you should buy ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I liked so much that I bought Brian Thomas’ original art for the sasquatron (seen above, as yet unframed). The sasquatron, a robo-yeti with a crab claw, is just the tip of ASE’s iceberg of gonzo awesomeness.

Lulu runs coupons so regularly that I never order without Googling “Lulu coupon code” first; all coupon discounts come out of Lulu’s end, not the publisher’s end.

Notes about the list

Some of the links below are to specific versions (like softcover or standard paper), so you might want to check for other versions.

If I loved something and want to have little OSR/story game babies with it, I *ed it. (To be clear, I like everything on this list.) If you’re curious what I think about a book in more detail, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own: Here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Looking for tabletop RPG products on Lulu? Try these

Here are a whole mess of gaming books I’ve bought on Lulu that I would recommend, in alphabetical order with links:

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion
  2. * Adventures on Dungeon Planet
  3. Adventures on Gothic Earth
  4. Agon
  5. * ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  6. * ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  7. * Bad Myrmidon
  8. The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor
  9. Blood & Treasure Complete Game
  10. The Chamber
  11. Dark Dungeons
  12. DemonSpore
  13. diaspora
  14. A Dirty World
  15. d30 DM Companion
  16. * d30 Sandbox Companion
  17. Drowning & Falling
  18. * The Dungeon Dozen
  19. Dyson’s Delves
  20. A False Machine
  21. * Fight On! Compiled Compilation +4
  22. * Fight On! Foliated Folio +8
  23. * Fire on the Velvet Horizon
  24. 43 AD
  25. * 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  26. Grey Ranks
  27. Hollowpoint
  28. Knives in the Dark
  29. Knockspell 1-3
  30. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  31. Lair of the Unknown
  32. Last Train Out of Warsaw
  33. * The Lazy Dungeon Master
  34. Love in the Time of Seið
  35. * METAL SHOWCASE 11PM
  36. * The Metamorphica
  37. * Monster of the Week
  38. NOD Magazine (link is to issue 1, but there are over 22 issues as of this writing)
  39. * Norwegian Style
  40. * Obscene Serpent Religion
  41. OSRIC
  42. * Petty Gods: Revised & Expanded Edition
  43. Planet Motherfucker
  44. * Play Unsafe
  45. Realms of Crawling Chaos
  46. REIGN
  47. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume One
  48. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Two
  49. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Three
  50. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Four
  51. * Shadowbrook Manor
  52. * The Shadow of Yesterday
  53. SlaughterGrid
  54. * Stalker RPG
  55. * Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
  56. Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules
  57. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque
  58. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
  59. Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III
  60. Teratic Tome
  61. * Tomb of the Iron God
  62. * Transylvanian Adventures
  63. Ulverland
  64. ViewScream
  65. * Voyage to Plague Island
  66. * Whitehack
  67. The World Between for Fictive Hack
  68. * Yoon-Suin
  69. ZeFRS

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

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My high school girlfriend introduced me to the Amber series back in the early 1990s, and shortly thereafter to Amber Diceless Role-Playing, the RPG based on the books.

Zelazny, like a lot of Appendix N authors, writes with economy and punch. Nine Princes in Amber grabbed me with its opening sentence, “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me,” which hooked me on the whole 10-book series. From there, Zelazny goes on to sketch one of the series’ best characters, Corwin, in just a few pages, establishing him as tough, dirty, quick to heal (very quick, you discover later on), and missing his memory. It’s a great opening chapter, and it sets the tone for a series that’s full of surprises.

My Amber books are a mix of different printings, the sort of mass market paperbacks I devoured growing up:

The core concept of the Amber books is fantastic: Amber is the one true world, and it’s surrounded by an infinity of other worlds whose laws of physics vary from Amber’s. Earth is one such world. The Amberites, the family chronicled in the series, can walk between those worlds in Shadow, and by pursuing specific ends they’ve each become the best at what they do.

If an Amberite wants to learn to play the guitar, she travels to a world where time passes much more slowly than it does back in Amber, where years pass for every minute, and spends a century learning to play. Then she returns to Amber, less time having passed than it takes for a cup of coffee to cool, as the best guitarist in the universe.

Life as an Amberite is a constant political game of one-upsmanship and underhanded scheming. The series is full of backstabbing, skullduggery, politicking, magic, and memorable, larger-than-life characters. My three favorites have always been Corwin, the voice of the whole first series; Benedict, the master of warfare, who is such a skilled warrior that he constantly anticipates every possible threat to his person; and Random, Corwin’s younger brother, an upstart in a family of squabbling gods.

I’ve read the first five books at least twice, but it’s been years since I last read them — probably close to 15 years, I’d guess. Long enough, in any case, that the specifics I recall vividly are spoilers of the first order, and things I don’t want to spoil for you. But it would be a shame to write this post without sharing some of Zelazny’s prose, so here’s a passage from late in Nine Princes of Amber that doesn’t give anything away:

The climate was warm and the colors bewildering, and everyone thought we were gods.

Bleys had found a place where the religion involved brother-gods who looked like us and had their troubles. Invariably, in the terms of this mythos, an evil brother would seize power and seek to oppress the good brothers. And of course there was the legend of an Apocalypse where they themselves would be called upon to stand on the side of the surviving good brothers.

I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.

I thoroughly enjoy Zelazny’s writing, and his talent is on full display in the Amber books.

Post-Appendix N

The second series, five books that comprise the back half of the Chronicles of Amber, begins with 1985’s Trumps of Doom. It’s post-Appendix N, and not quite as good as the original series, but still excellent and enjoyable. It introduces all sorts of cool things to the Amber universe, and it’s worth reading.

The Chronicles of Amber and AD&D

The strongest connection I see between the Amber books and AD&D is the similarity of Shadow, with its infinite panoply of “shadows” of the one true world, Amber, and AD&D’s planar cosmology, with its Material Plane, Limbo, and many other planes of existence. The planes are described, briefly, and diagrammed in Appendix IV of the Monster Manual.

Nearly a decade later, the Manual of the Planes covered the planes in much greater detail.

More generally, there’s plenty of stuff in the Amber Chronicles that D&D characters engage in all the time: fights, magic, backstabbing, politics, artifacts, wars, schemes, and much more. Parts of the Amber books feel like D&D in a way that’s hard to pin down, and I can see how AD&D drew inspiration from them in fuzzy-yet-signficant ways.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

Worth a quick sidebar is a game much more closely tied to the Amber books, Eric Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Role-Playing, and its lone supplement, Shadow Knight (which covers the second five books).

Amber Diceless is brilliant both as a game and as a translation of the novels into game form. I’d never played a diceless game before trying Amber, and its mechanics are both sound and perfectly suited to the feel of the series. I’ve also never played a game quite like it since.

You start the game by bidding for attributes against the other players. Whoever bids highest in, say, Warfare, is the best in the group at fighting. If you challenge him at warfare, you simply lose; the trick is to shift the terms of the contest to bring your strengths into play.

That notion — that the best cannot be challenged at what she’s best at — is pure Amber. The same goes for the attribute auction, which pits the players against each other in a way that mirrors how they’ll wind up pitting their characters against one another as the game progresses.

Which edition?

I recommend The Great Book of Amber, an inexpensive paperback volume that collects all 10 books — Appendix N and post-Appendix N — of the Chronicles of Amber.

If I didn’t already own the whole series in individual paperbacks, this is the version I’d buy. At $25 or less, it’s cheap enough that you could decide not to read the second series and still get more than your money’s worth out of it.

Whatever edition you choose, the Amber books are ripping yarns, fast-paced, consistently inventive and surprising, and highly engaging. You should read them, and I envy you the pleasure of reading them for the first time.

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I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover:

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