Back in 2015, I came across a Gary Gygax quote I hadn’t seen before — one that resonated deeply with me then, and which still resonates just as deeply 18 months later:
Role-playing isn’t storytelling. If the dungeon master is directing it, it’s not a game.
I love this quote. It’s a strong stance, and it’s one of the cornerstones of how I see Gary and his work.
I do see roleplaying as a form of storytelling, but a collaborative one; I guess I part ways with Gary on the definition. But the second half? That sums up my feelings perfectly.
I don’t have a stake in what anyone else considers a game, or how anyone else plays. But for me, if the GM is directing the game, I’m out. Video games do that style of play so much better than tabletop RPGs, and that’s where I go for that particular fix.
Back when my group in Utah was playing The Dresden Files RPG, I wanted to try something different than my usual beads or stones for Fate points. I initially considered the official Fate coins: They’re lovely, but also not cheap, and like beads/stones they’re all the same.
And then I thought, why not just use actual coins? But not the same coin; not a roll of pennies, economical as that solution would be.
A few eBay searches later, I figured out that I didn’t want any tokens and that I did want circulated currency (more character). For about $18 shipped, I bought a pound of “world coins,” about a hundred coins with just a couple duplicates.
I like coins, so there’s that, but they also seem perfect for Dresden. They’re often rich in symbolism, like many things in the Dresdenverse. They symbolize the diversity of a large city. And they’re actual currency, a handy reminder of the mechanical currency in Fate — and one that feels good to hold up when offering a Fate point.
They worked great in play. We always had more than enough of them at the table, and the purse I kept them any took up hardly any space at all. While that campaign has ended, my coin purse sits on my shelf of game aids, ready to serve in some other game.
 I also learned that “that coin smell” is actually the oil in your skin reacting to the coin, not the coin itself. Coins don’t generally smell like much until you’ve handled them a bit.)
I love getting reading recommendations, but my to-read shelves are such an embarrassment, particularly when it comes to comics, that I don’t always take them. But after a visit to Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique (which rocks!), I took one: Rat Queens.
I heard about RQ when it launched, but had too much on my plate to give it a look. I’m sorry I waited so long, because it’s excellent.
Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated, at least initially, by Roc Upchurch (he was kicked off the series after being arrested for domestic abuse, but apparently he’s coming back), Rat Queens is in many ways a raunchy love letter to D&D and fantasy tropes.
(Cover by Fiona Staples.)
It’s feminist and funny and inclusive and bloody and surprising, and I love it. The back-cover blurb from the first trade sums it up nicely:
They’re a pack of booze guzzling, death dealing battle maidens-for-hire and they’re in the business of killing all the gods’ creatures for profit.
I’m Team Hannah, the foul-mouthed elven mage:
. . . but I dig all of the main characters: Violet, the hipster dwarven fighter who was shaving off her beard before it was cool; Dee, the atheist cleric who was raised in what’s basically a Cthulhu cult; and Betty, the smidgen (think halfling) drug-cooking thief. They do a lot of the things an average old-school D&D party might do — start fights, cause trouble, and murder their way across the countryside — but they also right wrongs and try to help people. It’s a good mix.
Maybe the best recommendation I can give is this one: I’ve been on a manga tear for the past few months, to the point that I found myself accidentally reading Rat Queens right-to-left several times, and Rat Queens is the first American comic out of a stellar lineup of potential candidates to break that streak. It’s splendid, and I can’t wait for the second trade.
 It also broke my 3.5-month streak of not blogging. I figured something would — I’ve been busy doing other stuff, not avoiding blogging per se — but I didn’t expect it to be Rat Queens.
After making a string of phone calls where I needed to spell things for the person on the other end of the line, I decided it was finally time to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet so I could stop doing this:
Okay, it’s five, P as in pork chop [shit, now I’m hungry], six, three, H as in hors d’oeuvres [why the fuck did I choose something that sounds like it starts with an O?] . . .
I typed up the list, stuck it to my monitor, and started memorizing it.
Then, over on G+, Adam McConnaughey mentioned “U as in unicorn,” and I started thinking about a D&D phonetic alphabet using monster names.
But not one designed for maximum clarity, like the NATO phonetic alphabet — one made with names that are funny, difficult to pronounce, fun to say, and, ideally, confusing for the person on the other end of the line.
One that’s full of terrible phonetic choices — like this little dude, who sounds like he was named by Mister Mxyzptlk:
I as in ixitxachitl
Need to liven up your next grinding, soul-crushing, red tape-filled phone call? This should do the trick.
“Wraith” has a silent W, making it sound like it should be an R-word . . . but it’s the W. “Ixitxachitl” is clearly an I-word, but I always stumble over it when I say it aloud. “Gnome” is another sounds-like-the-wrong-letter entry. And so on.
If the majority of my monster books weren’t in storage, I bet there are at least a few other letters that could be made more confusing. Suggestions welcome!
I backed John Mahoney’s Zentropa on Kickstarter because it looked gorgeous and it seemed like he had his shit together. When I saw the samples he posted, it felt very Heavy Metal to me, and apparently they agreed: The first 10 pages of Zentropa appear in issue #382.
I was also intrigued by the concept of a wordless graphic novel. Not new, but not something I’ve seen often, either. And holy shit, that artwork.
Choose your own adventure
By design, the story of Zentropa is open to interpretation — you decide what it’s about, and what’s happening in it. (I’ll still avoid anything I think might be a spoiler here, though.) Here are three examples of John’s artwork that should give you a good idea of what Zentropa is like.
Here’s the first panel in the book:
Most of the book is black and white, but some panels and pages are two-tone or color, like this gorgeous piece:
Lastly, here’s a page that highlights how well John mixes detailed elements with negative space:
Zentropa invites exploration — of what it might be about, what it could mean, what’s happening in each panel, and of the artwork itself. Looking at the rest of my comic collection, there’s nothing else in it quite like this book.
It’s weird. It’s sexy. It’s neat. And it’s fun to explore.
I’m not sure where best to pick up Zentropa post-Kickstarter, but this looks like one option.
This Adventure Time dice bag rides in my gaming bag every day, just in case. What’s inside?
Why, it’s a big ol’ pile of Rory’s Story Cubes!
I carry these to every game because they’re one of the most useful improv tools in my GMing toolkit.
Here’s my full assortment:
That spread includes the following Story Cubes sets (also noted is where they appear in the above photo):
- Original (top row)
- Voyages (second row)
- Prehistoria (third row, left)
- Intergalactic (third row, right)
- Enchanted (bottom row)
- Clues (bottom row)
I don’t find every Story Cubes set to be perfect for improv GMing — Actions, for example, doesn’t really meet my needs (but it might meet yours; YMMV, and all that). There are also newer sets I haven’t considered, but I worry that having too many dice in this bag would dilute some of its potency; this amount is a good fit for me.
What I love about Story Cubes
These dice are well-made: a nice size, tumbled, etched, and well-inked. They’re easy to read, even for my aging eyes.
The symbols are whimsical, but also tuned for what I find to be an interpretive sweet spot: It’s a dinosaur, but that can mean a literal dino, an old person, someone with antiquated habits, a museum, an archaeological dig site — and so on.
That interpretive sweet spot applies just as well when rolled together — better, even. The instant context provided by the rest of the roll, and my imagination, makes different meanings pop out at me.
The most common thing I do with my Story Cubes is reach into the bag, grab a handful (no specific amount) of dice, roll them, and just look at the results for a moment. I generally do this when I need a jolt — perhaps I’m feeling stuck, or I’m considering an element of the game that I hadn’t considered before, and some random inspiration seems like it would help.
That’s totally unscientific! But it works for me.
But I sometimes use them for more specific things — like coming up with NPCs (which I wrote about on Gnome Stew three years ago).
I usually use three dice for NPCs, drawn at random from my full mixed set. Here’s a sample throw:
That could be: a planar traveler who uses a magic gemstone to slip into other worlds, a globetrotting hypnotist, someone under the influence of a cursed jewel (ignoring the globe; I often do this if I can’t use every die in a throw), and so on.
Three dice gives me enough to work with, but doesn’t overwhelm me with details to think about. (An especially important NPC might merit more than three dice.)
I also like to use them to think about what’s going on with [X], whatever X might be at the moment — a conspiracy, a faction’s agenda, a mystery, etc. For those throws, I generally use at least five dice, and occasionally more than five. Here’s a five-die throw:
The first thing I thought of was an adventure hook: giants are using enchanted bees to put people to sleep so they can steal their treasure. I read the dinosaur eggs as sleeping babies when I first saw that die, and interpreted the heart to mean that this was a charming, Disney-esque plot rather than a more serious one.
If you looked at those throws and started getting ideas for an NPC or other game element, then you’ll probably like Story Cubes.
A security blanket
Lastly, I like just having Story Cubes nearby when I’m GMing, because I know they’re there if I need them. Zero-prep GMing still makes me nervous sometimes (and I suspect it always will), so knowing I’ve got a proven, useful tool for getting back into the groove — or finding the groove, or unsticking my brain — in my gaming bag is comforting.
And that’s one of the coolest things about Rory’s Story Cubes: They have a million gaming applicatons. Throw in being inexpensive and well-made, and they’re incredibly easy to recommend.
I have a container fetish.
Not a problem, mind you, a fetish.
Browsing in office supply stores is dangerous for me. When we moved to Seattle, and everything I owned became, at some point, another fucking thing to haul across the country, I threw out a box full of smaller boxes. I own more dice bags than anyone could possibly need. Ditto tiny tins for storing gaming bits and bobs. I blog about bags.
So when I picked up a pair of Flytanium anodized titanium d6s, the next thing I went looking for was a tiny container to keep them in. Not my regular dice bag, because metal dice are heavy and not always kind to plastic dice in transit, but something specifically for these dice.
This little guy is the perfect size for these two dice. I love it.
The purse is lined fabric, and the outer layer is fairly thick. It provides plenty of padding for whatever the dice bump into, and it fits into my dice bag. And unlike a box, it keeps the dice from rattling.
The dice themselves haven’t yet been rolled at the table (at the moment, we’re not playing any games where 2d6 rolls come up often), but they’ve proven to be fantastic to fiddle with. I keep them on my desk, next to my high-tech worry stone, and they’re a perfect size and heft to keep my fingers busy.
They’ve also acquired a lot of character in the process, which you can hopefully make out in the photo. Anodization wears off with use, which I like, and on dice it makes sense that it’s going to wear off fastest on the edges. I can see some nice wear on the flats too, though; I love how that looks.
But when I get to bring them to a game, they’ll be riding in their cozy little dice purse.
 I can stop anytime I want.
 Some of which were, yes, full of even smaller boxes.
Designed by Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar, Love in the Time of Seið (the “ð” is pronounced like the “th” in “them,” as I understand it) is a GM-less story game for 3-5 players — though having played it with five, I highly recommend the full complement — requiring no prep and playable in a single session.
Seið is based on Matthijs’ Archipelago II. (Archipelago III, revised by Jason, is the newest version.) About half of this slender volume is stuff you’re supposed to copy and cut out for use in play — character sheets, resolution cards, and locations — so I recommend snagging the PDF, or both print and PDF.
The play aids print up just fine on regular paper, which is what I did for my go folder of zero-notice RPGs. The character sheets deserve special mention for their design, which includes a built-in table tent:
The game itself is a Norse-themed Shakespearean blood tragedy, a spiral of death, sex, and messy relationships, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Each character sheet has themes (e.g., sexuality and the gods for the seiðkona), a brief background, three questions to keep in mind (but not answer definitively until play begins), a background on the fictitious Scandinavian setting, and some thematically appropriate names on the front. On the back are a series of questions — things like “More details!” and “That might not be quite so easy!” — used to drive gameplay.
Seið plays out in a series of scenes, rotating around the table, which each scene spotlighting a single character (though often including several characters). When it’s your turn in the spotlight, you choose a location and, if it’s the first time that location has been used, also choose a version of the place to describe; each location card offers several options. You then frame the scene, rope in other players as needed, and you’re off.
What makes it tick so beautifully in play is that everyone has some common ground, and everyone is involved in every scene. The common ground is in the setting, which is collaboratively created using thematically appropriate locations, and the goal: the game ends when two characters have been removed from play (in our game, they were both dead).
The involvement comes from several sources. Folks in the scene are obviously involved, of course. But the player to the spotlight player’s left is also the Location Guide, inserting an event during the scene, and the player to her right is the Theme Guide, watching for ways the spotlight character’s themes can be incorporated into the scene. And on top of that, everyone at the table can interject with the game’s questions, working to make the scene even more amazing and driving the story towards a tragic finale.
The net result is that every character, and every player, is deeply and intricately dovetailed with every other character and player at the table. It’s a powerful and surprisingly intimate experience, one that depends on trust and a mutual willingness to hold one’s own ideas lightly and react to the fiction as it plays out.
The rush is intense
I found Love in the Time of Seið electrifying and deeply engaging. It took a lot of focus energy to play, in large part because you’re almost always “on” — which I love. In our session, everyone at the table brought their A game, the story and characters surprised us all, and afterwards I had that great combination GMing high/completely drained feeling that only comes from the best gaming sessions.
Love in the Time of Seið is a masterpiece of refined, effective game design, and a glorious blast to play, and I highly recommend it.
Lesserton and Mor, written by Joel and Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games, is a product that I don’t think has received its due. It’s a fantastic, unique, flavorful, and versatile sourcebook for a premade city and its neighboring open-air megadungeon, and it’s incredibly cool.
For starters, just look at this glorious Peter Mullen cover:
The late, great Steve Zieser did all of the interior art, and his style — like Mullen’s — matches up beautifully with L&M’s “dirty British fantasy” aesthetic.
L&M has an awesome premise: The ancient city of Mor, “mankind’s proudest achievement,” was sacked by barbarians, and then destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The refugees of Mor made their new home next door, and grew that ragged settlement into the city of Lesserton — “the adventurer’s paradise,” a home base for those brave and foolhardy enough to venture into Mor to claim its riches.
Lesserton is fully described in L&M, from districts to buildings to personalities to laws. But Mor is not — Mor, you make yourself. It’s even possible to roll it up as you play, creating new hexes and populating them as the PCs venture into unexplored territory (along the lines of my own Hexmancer).
L&M is a shrinkwrapped bundle, old-school style: a wraparound cardstock cover, unattached to the three booklets inside. The loose cover doubles as a map of Mor, intended to be filled in as you go. Inside are three books: a ref’s guide to Lesserton, a thinner players’ guide to Lesserton, and a guide to rolling up your own Mor.
Lesserton reminds me of WFRP’s Middenheim and Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork — two of my favorite fantasy cities — but it’s also its own animal. It’s populated by a ragtag mix of people, including many part-ork (“orkin”) folk descended from the original invaders of Mor, and home to all manner of gambling houses, pubs, and brothels. (“Fantasy Mos Eisley” would also be decent shorthand.)
The Referee’s Guide to Lesserton plumbs its depths rather well, and packs a lot of stuff into 68 pages. It’s not chaff, either — it’s stuff you’ll actually use at the table (like another of my favorite city books, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, which I’ve written about on Yore).
There are regular pit fights, places to rob, weird shops where you can buy weird shit, normal shops that will sell you adventuring gear, and on and on. There’s a whole section on carousing, which I now realize I missed in my look at carousing in D&D from 1977 to present, and it’s great.
I loathe homework in RPGs, but I love players’ guides to settings; for me to be happy, players’ guides need to be extremely well done, or they’re just homework. The Player’s Guide to Lesserton is extremely well done. For starters, it’s 16 pages long.
What’s the city like? One page, boom. Where is X? There’s a map on the back cover. “I want to get shitfaced.” Covered. “I got too shitfaced, where do they take drunks here?” Covered. “Where do I gamble/drink/fuck?” Covered.
Also covered are lots of things that feel very Lesserton to me. For example, Brinkley’s Assurity Trust will, for 100gp, sell you a bumblebee pin that signals to the orkin tribes who live in Mor that there’s a ransom for your safe return. That’s brilliant! L&M is full of touches like that; it’s designed for play, not just reading (or worse, endless, droning setting-wankery), and it shows.
Finally, there’s the Referee’s Guide to Mor, plus its companion map. This booklet (28 pages, also a great length for what it needs to do) opens with useful background on Mor — what was where, what sort of city it was, and the like. That gives you a good foundation for improvisation during play.
The balance of the book is a framework for generating your own version of Mor, hex by hex, either in advance or on the spot. Random terrain, random buildings, random encounters, special areas (caches, dead magic zones, excavations, etc.) — pure hexcrawl goodness. It even covers generating the orkin clans who call Mor home.
Put it all together, and L&M is a hell of a toolbox. To stretch the toolbox analogy a bit, it’s like a toolbox that contains some top-notch tools you’re likely to need, as well as the parts to make the ones it’d be more fun to create yourself, and an owner’s manual to help you make the most of both.
I rarely hear anyone talk about Lesserton and Mor, which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.
Tags: campaign settings, carousing, dungeons, fantasy, Faster Monkey Games, hexcrawl, Jeff Sparks, Joel Sparks, Lesserton and More, megadungeons, old school, OSR, Peter Mullen, roleplaying games, RPGs, sandbox, Steve Zieser
I love Judges Guild’s Campaign Hexagon Sub-System for its flavor, random generators, and sandbox utility, and although I’ve finished rolling up sample Campaign Hexagon entries for every book in the series, I saved an “honorary member” for last: Frontier Forts of Kelnore.
The conceit behind these frontier forts is, basically, Rome.
In the Elder Days once stretched the Kingdom of Kelnore for many leagues across the land. To guard its far-flung frontiers, the Kings of Kelnore built a series of forts surrounding the borders. The King’s Master Mason of the time had a great fear of the “irregular.” And so with his supervision, the serfs and peasants labored to make each fort exactly like every other.
Except, that being a long time ago, they’re not always exactly alike. Some have fallen into ruin, others were modified by their garrison commanders, and still others were altered by post-fall of Kelnore owners.
So when the PCs roll up on a Kelnore fort, they’ll have an idea of what it looks like inside, but they won’t know the specifics. This is the first time I’ve come across this concept in fantasy gaming, and I absolutely love it.
It’s fantastic from a flavor standpoint, as well as for minimizing prep. I can also see a campaign-specific “manual of engagement” arising during play, with the PCs using what they’ve learned from raiding these forts in the past to determine their approach when they encounter one.
While not actually part of the Campaign Hexagon series, Frontier Forts feels like it should be. The book is a bit different from those volumes, as it includes some complete dungeons built using the fort sections, but the random generators have that Campaign Hexagon feel to them.
Okay, dice time!
Hark, a frontier fort!
- Table 2: Table 1, which comes second in the book, is for the site of the fort; the book opens with this table because it guides future rolls, and you might already know the site. (I’ll be rolling for it.) Anyhoo, my d6 roll begets a 2: abandoned. The other three columns tell me that I’ll be making 3 rolls for ruins, 1 for alterations, and 1 for additions. I like this approach. (On a 6, I’d have gotten an active stronghold: zero ruins rolls, 3 alterations, 3 additions.)
- Site and Surroundings: Forward-backtracking to see where the fort is, I get a 17: desert. If the hex containing the fort isn’t desert, that’s an interesting result; I’ll keep it in mind for now.
- Ruins: My three d20 rolls are a 20 (wall section collapsed), a 14 (gate/wall walk collapsed), and a 6 (barracks floor collapsed). This place is a shithole.
- Alterations: Before it became a shithole, though, someone made a change to it. I rolled a 19, “Wall built across Courtyard.” What for? I have an idea based on the desert-in-a-non-desert hex thing, but I’ll just keep it in mind for now.
- Additions: I’m not sure why this is only a d12 table, not d20, but I rolled a 6: “Wooden stockade built around walls.” So this fort saw some serious action at some point — serious enough that they added a stockade wall to make it more defensible. I’m picturing a bitter last stand in this fort’s past.
Here’s how these sorts of changes to the fort plans (which are included in the book, of course) look in the sample dungeons:
- Principal Creature/Leader: This table is a d20 roll cross-referenced with the type of fort — abandoned, in this case. My 17 gets me a hydra.
- Random Location: Where’s its lair? A 6, the courtyard. Sweet.
- Alignment: I’m not going to worry about whether a hydra might have a preset alignment in some editions, I’m just going to roll because it’s more interesting that way. I get a 46, lawful good. Now we’re cooking with gas! This ruined fort just went from a monster lair to . . . something else (but also a monster lair).
- Leader Level: Maybe a bit fuzzy when applied to a hydra, but I’ll roll and see what it suggests. My 73 makes the hydra level 9, with 5-d4 henchmen (net 3) and 6-d6 hirelings (net 5). It makes sense to me that a lawful good hydra might have some buds; I’ll worry about the level thing later.
- Leader Vocation: Yeah, this one’s probably also only for use with “Man” results on the leader table, but in for a penny. I get a 5, magic user.
- Attendants: This is the first of four tables which correspond to a note under the Leader Level table: “Henchmen – roll on Attendants, Retainers, & Warriors Tables.” (A second note applies to hirelings.) No instructions, so I randomize which table to roll on for each henchman, then each hireling. Only one henchman turned out to be an attendant, and a 15 tells me she’s an “Acquintence.”
- Warriors: I got two warrior henchmen, so I roll 2d20: two 11s, “Light Cavalry Bowman.” I also had two hirelings turn out to be warriors: an 8, “Heavy Foot Bowman,” and an 11, “Light Cavalry Bowman.” I’m digging the archer theme.
- Servants: My d2 rolls to randomize hirelings produced three servants. Follow-on d20 rolls: 3, 8, 13, for waiter, groom, and chambermaid. This shithole is now a bit posh. Maybe they’ve just moved in?
The rest of the tables cover random room contents, associated monster denizens, and what you might find inside. Those all feel out of place for a fort with a leader and its posse (it seems like they’d have cleaned it out already), so I’m going to skip them. If instead I’d rolled a ruin, or skipped the leader/hirelings portion of the generator, I’d use these tables.
Here’s how I’d pull all that together into a fort.
The hydra is a transformed magic user, Lord Pennigrave Hockney, who’s been tasked with cleaning up these filthy borderlands. He’s accompanied by an elite squad of archers, three mounted and one afoot; the latter is also a scout. An aide appointed by the queen also accompanies Hockney, ostensibly to provide advice but really to make sure he doesn’t eat anyone important. Naturally, a lord — even a hydra lord — can’t be expected to travel without certain creature comforts, so Hockney brought along his groom, chambermaid, and waiter.
Coming across a dilapidated fort surrounded by a couple acres of desert — a surprise, given that they’re not in a desert — Hockney and company decided to make it work. They cleared it out, disappointed to find much of it in ruin, but the underground crypts would do to house the troops and servants for the time being. Hockney himself will have to live in the courtyard.
They weren’t sure what to make of the wall that had been constructed in that courtyard, dividing it in two. But the remnants of thick shackles made it clear that at some point in the past, the garrison had imprisoned a creature — or unusual person — in one-half of the courtyard, retaining the rest for their use.
Scorch marks, melted stone, and other signs of magic also pointed to the desertification of the surrounding area not being natural. More disturbing, after a few days in the fort, they’ve noticed that the desert seems to be slowly expanding . . .
If the unit is out conducting a raid, only the servants will be home. If they’re scouting the area, Hockney himself (itself?) will be present. Either way, the PCs aren’t likely to expect a lawful good wizard-hydra on a mission from the queen.
Like the other random-generator books JG has produced, I really dig Frontier Forts of Kelnore.
 I don’t envy anyone who has to empty a hydra’s chamberpot.
 Which, yes, come standard in Kelnore forts. I love Judges Guild!
 Or, to be fair, the waiter.