D&D Tabletop RPGs

Gary Gygax on game prep, 1979

Thanks to Bryan Shipp over on G+, I just checked out this Gary Gygax interview from 1979 on Jon Peterson’s site — and it blew my mind.

Here’s Gary on game prep:

“Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There’s no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time.”

That’s right: “Two to three hours per hour of play.” This level of game prep is unfathomable to me. For a four-hour session, that’s 8-12 hours of prep, a 2:1 or 3:1 prep:play ratio!

Looking back at a recent tremulus (paid link) campaign I ran, I did a couple hours of campaign prep — not session prep! — and that lasted me for around a dozen two-hour sessions, for a ratio of 1:12 prep:play. For the Urban Shadows (paid link) game I’m running right now, I think I did about three hours of prep — including making my own reference sheets for the game — and we’ve had 12 sessions of about 2.5 hours each, a ratio of 1:10.

But in terms of session prep, my preferred ratio is 0:1 prep:play. I was in the 1:1 range for a long time, when I thought I had to do that; I eventually moved to 1:6, which was a big step for me — but still not enough. For the past several years, my preference has been to sit down and see where the game takes us, just like the other players.

The voice

There’s more gold in them that hills, too, like this excerpt:

The dungeon master’s voice usually gives out before everybody’s ready to quit. That’s the end of an adventure.

What a marvelous image — and a great example of the spirit and enthusiasm of play!


I like this quote as well:

This is a – people like take to tests. We’re trained to in school. So it’s a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete – but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, “Hey I won the game.” Because you all play and you win as a group.

The whole interview is a spicy meatball, and there’s even a transcript if (like me) you prefer to read than listen to audio.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Playtesting Elysium Flare: what drew me to this game

My online group just wrapped up our second playtesting session of Brad J. Murray‘s upcoming space-fantasy RPG Elysium Flare, and I wanted to talk a little bit about it. The current public playtest draft is v4, available for free on Brad’s Patreon.


For context: Our sessions are short, and we’re talkative; so far, we’ve made three characters, their ship, and the association (organization) to which they belong. I’m the GM.

System-wise, Elysium Flare is Fate-based (paid link), but lighter than both Fate Core and FAE (and much lighter than, say, Fate 3.0). It also adds new elements, and so far the ones we’ve had contact with look like subtle changes but are actually quite impactful. More on that in a moment.

What’s awesome about Elysium Flare?

The setting is what drew me to the game, and I think it’s what hooked the other two players in my group as well. Broadly, it’s space-fantasy: there are starships, alien species, mystical arts, and psychic powers, and no one worries too much about why things work the way they do. On the soft/hard SF spectrum, it’s extremely soft.

But it’s the little things that make it sing.

Delightful species

For starters, this is a game where the playable species are sentient gas, robot, bear-person, bug, starfish, “grey,” and plain ol’ human. I waged a fierce internal battle between playing a gas (Orpheani) or a bear (Aukami), and wound up playing a starfish (Aarun) because they’re amazing too.

Physics galore

Into that mix, add one of the game’s tweaks to Fate: three kinds of physics. In addition to the physics we’re used to, faith and arcana operate as a separate set of physics (mystical), and psychic powers under a third (psychic); these also map to stress tracks, so for example robots (fabs) are solidly grounded in the natural, and have no tracks for psychic and mystical — they’re vulnerable to those types of physics. That looks like a little thing at first, but it turns out to be a really fantastic piece of game tech.

That allows for tremendous variety in characters, skills, stunts, ships, and throughout the setting. For example, our trio (the GM makes a character too, as a handy NPC and to facilitate Fate’s interconnected PC backstories) flies around in The Shrine, a literal ship-temple that once belonged to a fallen species; its engines are some sort of mystical power source, but the guns we bolted on run on natural physics.

Working for the man

The same is true of associations, the larger organizations to which the PCs are assumed to belong. By the point when these enter into the character creation process, my group had already settled on being scruffy space scoundrels operating alone; it felt dissonant to map that to a broader association. But after we created our ship, we revisited the idea and neatly slotted ourselves into an association of greedy antiquarians who needed a plausibly deniable “black ops” arm for acquiring artifacts.

That was in no way what we expected we’d be doing when we first sat down to make characters, and Elysium Flare is brilliant at facilitating those kinds of surprises. The way associations work is part of that: From a list of terms like criminal, military, commercial, and ancient, you choose three — any three. One is your remit, which has a complication aspect associated with it, and is also a skill; the other two are skills.

We chose academic for our remit: the greedy antiquarians. For skills, we picked criminal (we’re the shady arm, after all) and administrative, because — another surprise — we wound up creating white-collar space criminals, the sort more likely to roll up with forged codes that claim we already own the thing we’re there to steal. (We’re not Indy, we’re Belloq.)

One surprise after another

Elysium Flare is freewheeling in its approach (and charmingly conversational in its tone), and that carries through to every step of character creation. We made three wildly different nutjob characters, and somehow wedded them to one another, then to a ship, then to a purpose, then to an organization — and nowhere along the way could we have predicted where they’d wind up. I love that!

Before the next session I’ll use the system creation rules to gin up a star system, and for in-character play I’ll just poke their association’s complication and start in media res, with the crew of The Shrine rolling up on a world where there’s something they want to steal. I can’t wait.

There are some rough edges in the rules, as I expect from a game currently undergoing playtesting — but I’ve watched Brad iterate through several drafts now, and every time things get smoother.

If Elysium Flare piques your interest, check out the v4 playtest draft and see what you think of the game.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Tabletop RPGs

Free and PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG that I enjoy

As of this writing, there are 7,597 free and pay-what-you-want (PWYW) PDFs on DriveThruRPG, and depending on when you’re reading this there are probably many more than that. That’s a daunting number, and there’s a lot of free stuff that frankly looks like pretty weak sauce. It’s hard to know where to start.[1]

I thought it would be useful to create a curated list of the free DTRPG products there that I like (which I also do for RPG books on Lulu, where the problem is searchability rather than volume), so I started one. I spent several hours going through the entire category — all 7,500+ products — and then several more hours going back for more organic searches, as well as checking out suggestions from folks online (thank you!).

This turned out to be a fun project, and what shook out was two lists, one for RPGs and one for supplements. Together, these two lists represent roughly 3% of the free/PWYW products available on DTRPG.[2]

What’s on the lists?

I like and recommend everything that appears below, and I extra-super-duper-like the starred entries. If you’re curious why I like something, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own; here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Both lists are in alphabetical order. In general, neither includes previews, quickstarts, micro-supplements (d100 Fantasy Roofing Tile Materials, et al), character sheets, or the like.[3] If you have a suggestion for either list, let me know in the comments (and thank you!). (Lists updated: June 29, 2018.)

Free and PWYW RPGs

These are all affiliate (paid) links. Using them helps support Yore, at no cost to you.

  1. Atomic Highway
  2. * Babes in the Wood
  3. Basic Fantasy RPG 3rd Edition
  4. Blood & Treasure Complete
  5. BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules
  6. * Cepheus Engine System Reference Document
  7. Dark Dungeons
  8. * Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy
  9. Delving Deeper: The Adventurer’s Handbook, The Referee’s Guide, and The Monster & Treasure Reference
  10. * Dog Eat Dog
  11. Dragon Warriors
  12. Encounter Critical
  13. English Eerie
  14. * ESCAPE Short-Play RPG
  15. * Exemplars & Eidolons
  16. Fate Accelerated Edition
  17. * Fate Core
  18. Fleshscape
  19. Forthright Open Roleplay
  20. * Galatea’s Mirror
  21. 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  22. Godbound
  23. High Moon: The Great Werewolf Robbery
  24. Ironsworn
  25. The House Always Wins
  26. King Arthur Pendragon, 1st Edition
  27. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  28. Maze Rats
  29. Mini Six, Bare Bones Edition
  30. Mutant Future, Revised Edition
  31. The Nightmares Underneath
  32. * Old School hack
  33. OSRIC Pocket SRD
  34. * The Petal Hack
  35. * Pokéthulhu Adventure Game (3rd Edition)
  36. The Pool
  37. Queer Messes
  38. * Risus: The Anything RPG
  39. The Role With It System
  40. * Seppuku: Fury of the Samurai
  41. Shamblington
  42. Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells
  43. Sixtacular SRD
  44. Songbirds
  45. Spirit of the Century
  46. * Stars Without Number: Revised Edition
  47. * Swords & Wizardry Complete
  48. Swords & Wizardry Core
  49. * Talislanta Campaign handbook, 2nd Edition and The Chronicles of Talislanta, 5th Edition, plus all the other free Talislanta products[4]
  50. * Tenocha: Heroic Adventures
  51. 13th Age System Reference Document
  52. * Tequendria: Fantastical Roleplaying
  53. * Troika!
  54. ViewScream
  55. The Void
  56. White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game
  57. White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying
  58. Worlds Apart

Free and PWYW supplements

On this list, the system (or broad “mechanics umbrella,” like OSR) appears in parentheses after each supplement.

These are all affiliate (paid) links. Using them helps support Yore, at no cost to you.

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion (Labyrinth Lord)
  2. * Augmented Reality, The Holistic City Kit For Cyberpunk Games (universal)
  3. Bad Myrmidon (OSR)
  4. Big List of RPG Plots (universal)
  5. Blackmarsh (OSR)
  6. Black Pudding zine (OSR)
  7. BLUEHOLME The Necropolis of Nuromen (OSR)
  8. Book of Knights (Pendragon)
  9. Book 0: Introduction to Traveller (Mongoose Traveller)
  10. Broken System zine (OSR)
  11. B/X Essentials Core Rules and the other entries in the B/X Essentials line (OSR)
  12. Cities: Shadepoint (universal/OSR)
  13. Codex fanzine (various)
  14. * Convicts & Cthulhu (Call of Cthulhu)
  15. Convicts & Cthulhu: Ticket of Leave zine (Call of Cthulhu)
  16. Creature Compendium (OSR)
  17. Deluge (universal)
  18. * Escape from the Astral Spellhold
  19. * Fate Adventures & Worlds line — there are over 30 of these, all with excellent production values, but my favorites are Aether Sea, Behind the Walls, Blood on the Trail, Ghost Planets, and Straw Boss (Fate)
  20. Fate System Toolkit (Fate)
  21. * Fiasco playsets — there are over 25 playsets, but my favorite is Touring Rock Band (Fiasco)
  22. From the Vats (OSR)
  23. Frontier Explorer magazine (Star Frontiers/universal)
  24. Fundamentals of Tabletop Roleplaying (universal)
  25. The Game Master (universal)
  26. The Grey Knight (Pendragon)
  27. * The Gyre (Mutant Future)
  28. Hill Cantons Compendium II (OSR)
  29. Home by Dark playsets — try Them as a starting point (Home by Dark)
  30. How to Hexcrawl (OSR)
  31. * In the Shadow of Mount Rotten (OSR)
  32. Irradiated Freaks (Atomic Highway)
  33. * Kaldor Kingdom Sampler (Harn)
  34. * Lesserton & Mor and the Player’s Guide (OSR)
  35. A Magical Medieval Society: City Guide (universal)
  36. The Marriage of Count Roderick (Pendragon)
  37. Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine (OSR)
  38. The Metamorphica (OSR)
  39. * Murcanto’s Lair (OSR)
  40. My Life as the GM (My Life with Master)
  41. Narcosa (OSR)
  42. The One Page Dungeon Codex 2009, Deluxe Edition (OSR)
  43. * Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded Edition (OSR)
  44. * Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer (Dungeon World)
  45. * Proteus Sinking (OSR)
  46. * Ptolus: A Player’s Guide (Ptolus)
  47. Realm of the Technomancer (Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future)
  48. Risus: Ring of Thieves and Toast of the Town (Risus)
  49. Roll XX and Roll XX: Double Damage (OSR)
  50. The Sandbox zine (OSR)
  51. Situations for Tabletop Roleplaying (universal)
  52. Skull Mountain (Labyrinth Lord)
  53. SlaughterGrid (OSR)
  54. Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine (OSR)
  55. Star Frontiersman magazine (Star Frontiers)
  56. Sword Breaker zine (Dungeon World)
  57. Tales of Gothic Earth (OSR)
  58. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque I, plus volume II and volume III (OSR)
  59. * Tenocha: Setting Guide (Tenocha)
  60. Theorems & Thaumaturgy Revised Edition (OSR)
  61. * 2017 Gongfarmer’s Almanac, Vol. 1-8 and older single issues (DCC RPG)
  62. * Two OSR Dungeon Crawls (OSR)
  63. Uresia: Lore and Curiosities (universal)
  64. Welcome to Dolmenwood (OSR)
  65. Wheel of Evil (Labyrinth Lord)
  66. White Box Omnibus (Swords & Wizardry)
  67. White Star Companion (White Star)
  68. * The World Wide Wrestling Roleplaying Game: Expanded Universe (World Wide Wrestling)
  69. Wrack & Rune (Labyrinth Lord)
  70. Yngarr zine (OSR)

Happy gaming!

[1] Fun fact: When you sort the free/PWYW category by Highest Rated, which sounds like a useful filter, the first product rated less than five stars doesn’t appear until entry 2,462 of 7,597 (as of this writing).

[2] This percentage takes into account not only the raw number of entries on the list, but those that include multiple products (issues of a zine, Fiasco playsets, etc.).

[3] I like all of those things, but if someone is looking for recommendations for cool stuff to check out, I’m not going to recommend a character sheet. This kind of support material is great, and I love that so much of it is on DTRPG.

[4] Talislanta creator Stephan Michael Sechi generously makes virtually the entire Talislanta line available for free, but not all of it is on DTRPG. (I hope he’ll eventually migrate it all there.)

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.