Jul 202017
Picture of the cast of TV show "Cheers" as orcs

I have one week to design the movers and shakers of a whole new town. The characters don’t have to be fully-fleshed 3-dimensional works of art but they need to be believable, dynamic and interesting with the possibility of internal conflict within which the player characters can insert themselves. Also they all have to be orcs. It’s an orc town.

Actually, because my job got too busy for me to think about game problems, I now only have 3 days left – and one of those days is going to get eaten up by work again. But I’m not worried. I know a trick.

The trick is to leverage existing character design patterns, or without the fancy language: swipe from an existing source. In the past I’ve used presidents of the United States and members of famous bands as my templates but this time I’m just going to rip off an old TV show: Cheers.

It took 12 seconds to google a cast photo, 12 minutes to crudely photoshop them into orcs, and 2 more minutes to change their names around to sound more “orc”. I spend maybe 20 more minutes jotting down the following notes and, Pow! I’ve completed a task that would have otherwise taken whole days of development. The hardest part was figuring how each character would fit in with the town’s recent alliance with/annexation by the villainous mountain orcs – and by “hard” I mean uncomfortable-chair-cushion hard, not metal-hard or stone-hard.

Picture of the cast of TV show "Cheers" as orcs

Based on the title of this post, you should have seen this coming. You really should.

Starting with the back row:

Frasier Crane

Cranes are birds. Sandhill Crane. Shorten down to just Sandhill. Frasier is an over-educated psychiatrist so his orc equivalent would be an intellectual witch-doctor and advisor to the mayor. A physical lightweight, Sandhill is a master of mind games and manipulation, but lacks the charisma to attain true political power on his own. He will use whatever tool (be it intimidation, bribery, or outright witchcraft) is necessary to get the job done.

Sandhill is loyal to Samalo, but mistrusts Ekka and snobbishly disapproves of the others.

Sandhill disapproves of an alliance with the mountain orcs but since that die is already cast he’s determined to make the best of the situation.

Sam Malone

Concatenating and truncating (how’s that for some fancy 5-dollar words?) both names gives us “Samalo” for a name. As the owner of Cheers, his orc counterpart would be town mayor. A popular and populist leader, Samalo wants to do what’s best for his people, but is hampered by his baser urges. Currently his sights are set on Ekka who keeps him too infatuated to focus on the day-to-day tasks of leadership.

Samalo trusts all the other orcs implicitly, although he probably shouldn’t.

Samalo cares nothing for mountain orc ideology; he just thinks that allying with them will make his job easier.

Woody Boyd

Woody = trees = Leaf. But I wanted a more macho name than “leaf” so I changed the letters to make it “Leif” instead. Lief is a good-natured imbecile, but since Woody was the assistant bartender, that makes him the second-highest “ranked” bar employee. So I’m taking some liberties and saying Leif is Samalo’s younger brother. Knowing that Samalo will bear all the burdens of leadership Leif grew up a party boy with no real concerns or skills – other than wining and dining visitors. Still, he’ll have to leader-up and run the town when Samalo goes to war.

Leif is too genial to harbor any resentment towards any of the others, who in turn don’t consider him much of a threat, politically at least. In face-to-face combat he’s probably the most formidable.

Leif doesn’t care one way or the other about the mountain orcs, as long as enough attractive females remain available for carousing.

Cliff Clavin

Craig is a synonym of “Cliff” so I just orc-ed up the spelling to “Kragg”. A boisterous know-it-all Cliff’s day job was as a mailman, a job that doesn’t exist in orcish Freedonia so I’ll have to make Kragg a traveling merchant, albeit an extraordinarily successful one. I’ll shift Cliff’s wealth of misinformation to a general ignorance of how to behave at court and make Kragg actually know things about the outlands. This expertise (along with his wealth) earns him a place in town hall.

Kragg believes himself to be social equals with the others, although he knows in his heart of hearts that he doesn’t measure up and wastes a lot of talk trying to out-lecture Sandhill, outspend Ekka, and out-party Leif and Uncle Morn.

Kragg doesn’t really understand how the mountain orcs will change things, but he’ll tell you a thousand reasons why it’s a good idea to go along with them.

Carla Tortelli

Rearrange (and/or remove) the letters from “Carla” and you get Lara. The hard-working trash-talking head waitress of Cheers becomes the mayor’s Steward, in charge the administration of household servants and routine tasks such as making sure Samalo’s orders actually get carried out. Having worked her way up from scullery maid beginnings, Lara is smart enough to run the town all on her own – but scores an F- in diplomacy and negotiation. Laden with countless chips on her shoulder, Lara bullies everyone caustically. Mention the rumors that she’s got hobbit ancestry and see where it gets you. Go on. I dare you.

Lara hates everybody, but tolerates Samalo the best because he’s the rightful king. She has some respect for Kragg as a working-fellow and respects (even as she derides) Uncle Morn’s ability to game the system. Everyone else better watch out.

Mountain orcs too.

Rebecca Chambers

By this time I’m getting  lazy with the names and just started knocking off letters until I got to “Ekka”, which sounds suitably orcish to me. An ambitious social climber, Ekka dreams of becoming mayor some day, ideally through some means other than by marrying Samalo (ugh!) but if she absolutely has to…  Let’s just keep that at plan D for now.

Ekka is the principle architect of the alliance with mountain orcs. Her entire future is insolubly linked to them so this whole thing had better work out, or else. Also, since her only form of stress release is buying fancy clothes, perfumes, and beauty treatments, she’s almost out of money.

Ekka is romancing Samalo while simultaneously keeping him at arms length, a tough act to balance, but she’s managing. She mistrusts Sandhill and Lara, considering them to be her only true opponents. The others, she overlooks completely.

Norm Peters

“Norm” spelled backwards doesn’t quite work as a name but sideways, it comes out “Morn”. Everyone’s favorite reprobate, Norm was beloved by all while managing to accomplish exactly nothing. Uncle Morn is exactly the same way. Samalo and Leif’s uncle, he could have laid claim to leadership but let it pass to his nephew instead. Morn is completely enslaved by his vices and spends most of his time in various states of inebriation, which causes most to overlook him – when they notice him at all. This is a mistake because, as one of the oldest orcs in the region, he has decades more experience in politicking than the other orcs. During the few hours of semi-sobriety Morn has each week he gives Samalo sage council and advice.

Morn mistrusts Ekka completely but has a certain fondness for all the others.

Morn opposed the mountain orc alliance – but not forcefully enough for anyone to take notice. If forced to sober up, he could become a valuable ally or spy.

 July 20, 2017  Posted by at 8:08 pm Anecdotes No Responses »
May 182017
Cover to Harrow County Issue one

Cover to issue #1. It can’t contain the goodness inside any more than that box can contain that… thing.

About 2 years ago I started picking up Harrow County at World’s Greatest Comics. I expected to buy a few issues (because you can’t get enough story in a single issue to make an accurate decision on a comic book these days, a condition I’ll undoubtedly rant about at a later time) and drop it when it turned out to be lame. Instead it’s one of my favorite comics. Not of all time, but definitely of the stuff currently coming out.

The protagonist is a girl named Emmy who lives on a farm with her father in the American South — in the eponymous Harrow county. I can’t remember if they ever definitively stated her age but Emmy seems to be in her mid-teens; she has a strong independent streak coupled with a lack of experience with social interaction (due to the isolation of living in the middle of nowhere) that makes it hard to pin down her exact age. I’m no expert but judging from the clothing and level of available technology, the story’s set in the 1930s? It’s hard to tell, because however advanced the world at large may be, you get the sense that Harrow county is always a decade or two behind the times.

The first few story arcs center around Emmy exploring her world which, despite being small geographically, is rich with monsters, haunts (or “haints” as they’re colloquially called in the book), and various other supernatural entities that defy categorization. Seriously. What do you call the still “living” skin of a dead boy? It’s physical skin so it’s not a ghost. It’s not interested in eating people, so it’s not a monster. It crawls around (sort-of) and can talk so… not a zombie. So WTF is that thing?

Just one of a lot of the gross and cool creatures populating the shadows of Harrow County.

As the story goes on, it starts to delve into Emmy’s origins, a plot line which I found less interesting the more time they spent on it, as I’m one of those guys who likes a little bit of mystery in characters; I’d rather know what a character does next than how they spent the last ten summer vacations. So that may just be my personal bias.

The one thing that never disappoints is the art. It’s just plain pretty. Every page seems to be a real live watercolor painting (as opposed to a Photoshop paint-job) and each is a masterpiece. The colors are vibrant and highly saturated without seeming garish or crayola-unnatural. They also never turn muddy, which is what happens every time I pick up a brush; I’m a terrible painter. And an envious one. I’d probably keep buying the book if the story was nothing more than Emmy doing chores around the farm. It’s that good.

Just look at the pictures. That’ll save us all a few thousand words.

Interior art from the Harrow County Comic book

This is just trees and birds and rocks. Imagine how awesome the monsters must be?

Harrow County Interior Panel

This image is more typical of the use of color. Just enough modeling to give a sense of form but not so much that it loses any sense of spontaneity.

But I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. There’s usually a single-page “Tales of Harrow County” story at the back of most issues that packs as much creepiness as the rest of the book does. They have the feel of ghost stories told around the campfire, except actually creepy and not told by doddering old relatives who meander through digression after digression like a ball-bearing in one of those mazes you have to tilt. They feel like real folklore and bring a richer sense of the “Harrow County world” to the main stories.

I also really enjoy (and recommend) the letters column. People send in their own creepy stories about local legends they’ve heard or brushes with the supernatural they think they might’ve had. Normally, I just skip the letters because 95% fall into one of three categories:

  1. This book is awesome. Please have my babies.
  2. This book is terrible. I buy it only to burn it.
  3. Will you tell me the secret of X? I lack the patience to find out by reading future issues.

But not the Harrow County fans. They actually have something to say. Each letters page will save you a trip to the folklore section of your local library.

…which is why I’m writing about a horror comic book on an RPG website. Harrow County is a great source of inspiration for coming up with horror and fantasy adventures. I’m just itching to run a campaign where I can use some of the single-pagers or letter column stories as background material. It’d be cool to photocopy (or scan) one of the letters and reformat it as an ancillary character’s journal entry. Or if one character solos for a while I can pass out prints of the single-pagers and say: While Nik is exploring the abandoned factory, the rest of you can interact with the townsfolk. Here’s what they have to tell you.

I’m a big fan of multi-media in role playing. Also player hand-outs. They give your game world more context, make it feel more immersive for the players (even if they’re not big roleplayers themselves). I find that if you make it obvious that you put in a little prep work, not only will your players enjoy the game more but most will think more about their characters and how those characters  interact with the world in ways other than battling monsters. The more you develop your part of the campaign, the more they’ll tend to develop theirs (i.e. their character). Mostly. There’s one guy who shows up every week who only seems interested in moving his guy around the map and occasionally rolling some dice. But then there’s always one at every table, isn’t there.

Anyway, If you can, try to track down the back issues of Harrow County rather than buying the trade paperback. For one, it supports local retailers by helping them unload inventory. For two, I don’t think the trades reprint the single-page stories that are so great. I know they won’t reprint the letters columns.

 May 18, 2017  Posted by at 8:56 am Fun Stuff, Not Game Reviews No Responses »
Apr 292017

There’s a youtube podcast I listen to pretty often that deals with (among other things) cryptids, monsters, and ghosts. The guy’s not the most polished of presenters but his sincere enthusiasm for these topics shows through and that counts for a lot. This particular cast, dealt with a cryptid that seems completely ridiculous – and yet there’s something compelling about the idea that I can’t quite let it go. Check it out.

Cryptids and Monsters: Coonigator

It occurs to me that the rules from Mutant Manual lend themselves pretty readily to creating such a creature. So just for a goof, here are the mutant traits necessary to create a Coonigator. Because the description doesn’t specify the size of the creature, you could start with either an alligator or raccoon sized one. In either case, they both work out to +4 points meaning that either base creature would have to give up (or acquire a new) feat/edge/quality/advantage to afford them.


Alligator Base

  • Claws: Climbing +2
  • Cognition: Enhanced +4 (It’s safe to assume that a raccoon-like head means greater-than-reptile level intelligence)
  • Feature: Distinctive (raccoon mask) -1
  • Limb:  Specialized (climbing) +1
  • Metabolism: Rapid -2 (Compared to a reptilian metabolism, all mammals have this flaw; the constant search for food would drive it into places where humans might see it).




Raccoon Base

  • Dexterity: Impaired -2 (Accounts don’t specify if Cooinigators have the semi-prehensile thumbs that raccoons do, but let’s assume they don’t.)
  • Jaw: Razor +2 (Raccoons already have a bite attack; this just upgrades it to an alligator-level bite attack.)
  • Skin: Leathery: +4



 April 29, 2017  Posted by at 11:50 am Products No Responses »
Apr 132017

It recently came to my attention that this year is the 35th anniversary of Star Frontiers, a fairly forgettable sci-fi roleplaying game by TSR, the then publisher of gaming powerhouse Dungeons & Dragons. After doing some research it seems that there are still people playing the game, or at least I’d infer so from sites like http://starfrontiersman.com/ and http://www.starfrontiers.com/.

Although you can download the entire product line in pdf format from either of those sites, it motivated me to dig out my boxed set and to run the introductory adventure for my group. (These days it’d be called a one-sheet, but I think the fact that it fit on one page was largely coincidental). Most had never played before and a reasonably good time was had by all. So how does it hold up against modern games? Let’s see:

⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ Star Frontiers only uses d10s and virtually every roll is percentile based. You can roll up a new character in minutes and (as is common with most old-school games) most of your character building time is spent shopping for starting gear. My group was able to start playing immediately after building characters.
⬤⬤⬤◯◯ All the different “classes” give you a set number of skills at a set percentage value. When you advance, you can increase your existing skills or take a level in a new “class” and acquire new skills. There’s no penalty for multi-classing and it’s actually encouraged since the only way to improve fighting skills is to take a level in one of the martial classes so you can mix and match to any combination of skills. The downside is that starting characters only have 2 levels (one of which is almost always combat-related) — so players tend to start out somewhat monotonous.
⬤⬤⬤◯◯ It’s hard to guess how actual laser-weapon combat would play out… but SF does a fair job of what I’d imagine it’d be like. Unskilled combatants have a decent chance of surviving most combats and while skilled fighters have a clear advantage that’s no guarantee of victory. The only downside is that it’s still reliant on (the equivalent of) hit points for tracking damage and there’s no game effect for having 1 hit point or 100 hit points (again, common in older games).
⬤⬤◯◯◯ The Star Fronteirs universe is pretty squarely locked into a sci-fi space opera setting. Many skills are linked to specific pieces of equipment so you can’t easily just re-skin the gear and be in a different universe. That said, you can always move to a different planet with all-new environmental dangers and monsters. And you can run exploration, noir-style detective stories, corporate intrigue, piracy, and other types of stories — so it gets a second dot.
⬤⬤◯◯◯ The main reason I never actually played Star Frontiers back in the day is that it never gave a strong sense of setting. Sure, the aliens were cool but… it never really seemed to “click” with me. We explored a few planets, foiled some Sathar spies, and then… couldn’t think of anything else to do but explore some more planets. This might just have been a failure of my teenage imagination but… flipping through the books again, everything still seems kind-of flat. A good GM can still make a compelling SF campaign, but I don’t think it ever inspired average game masters.
⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ I’m torn here. Back in the day, the original boxed set cost about as much as the main rulebook of any other game — but had slightly better value since it came with dice, fold-out maps, and cardboard tokens that would blow away at the slightest wind, so would be slightly-above average for cost value. But since everyone lacks a time machine, I’m going to go with five stars since you can’t beat free.
 April 13, 2017  Posted by at 11:28 am Game Reviews No Responses »
Apr 112017

There’s a million role playing games out there and you have a limited budget. How do you know which is the best one? Not necessarily the best one overall, but the best one for you, your budget, and your gaming group?

I can help you out with the first two, but you alone know what your group likes (and if you don’t you’ve got communications issues far beyond the scope of what can be sorted out in a few blog articles).

Knowing the internet as I do, I’m not going to try to make a case for this game to be number one and that game to be number two and so on. That sort of thing is just flame bait. Instead I’m going to try to set up a system for comparing games based on their attributes, much like the Consumer Reports magazines my Dad used to get when I was a kid. (O.K. so pretty much exactly like Consumer Reports). Each game system will be ranked on the following qualities:

Is the game easy to learn, easy to play, and easy to make up characters?
Not quite the opposite of Simplicity: is there enough granularity and complexity to ensure replayability and sustain your interest?
Does the game accurately simulate realistic combat, skills… or at least does it feel real? The litmus test for this is whether you can accurately simulate a wolfpack attacking a single target or not.
Are the rules locked to a specific universe or do they lend themselves to multiple genres?
Is the system particularly good for particular genres or types of stories?
What’s the financial barrier to entry?

Just for fun, lets’ take a look at Tic-Tac-Toe:

Simplicity: You can’t get much simpler than Tic-Tac-Toe. Five out of Five stars.

Crunch: One Star. It’s hard not to lose interest after 3 games.

Verisimilitude: Also one star. No my knowledge, Tic Tac Toe doesn’t represent anything realistically. (To be fair, it’s not even a role playing game so, I’m a jerk for trashing it in this manner.

Thematic: Also one star. I have no idea what the theme is supposed to be. Placing one of two letters in a grid is nearly the acme of abstraction.

Cost: Four stars. It’s cheap to play, given that all you need is paper and writing implement — but not free so I’m savagely knocking down a point.

Tic Tac Toe: ⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤◯◯◯◯⬤◯◯◯◯⬤◯◯◯◯⬤⬤⬤⬤◯

In other words, not a great game. But you knew that already.

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle an actual game.

 April 11, 2017  Posted by at 2:07 pm Game Reviews No Responses »
Mar 152017

Click to download a 21-page preview for Pathfinder-compatible Modern Adventures.

Anyone could be a mutant.

Your neighbor, sibling, co-worker. Anyone. They might not even know themselves until they start sprouting extra eyes, tentacles, or fangs.

Sometimes they look just like everybody else.

Sometimes only the brain mutates, resulting in strange cravings, urges, and behaviors. Human on the outside, they might feel compelled to kill, drink blood, or build coccoons. Is that guy down the block really going out at night to bowl? Or is he on a quest to devour fresh brains?

For that matter, what’s up with those headaches you’ve been having? Those achey muscles? And is that a “normal” rash or an indicator of something more sinister?

Anyone could be a mutant.

Even you.

On Sale Now

Mutant Manual is a suppliment for creating mutant characters (including player characters with GM approval). Appropriate for any modern-era campaign, Mutant Manual contains:

  • Over 120 mutant traits, both advantageous and detrimental.
  • Statistics for 56 mutant archetypes and mutant animals.
  • Statistics and history of 12 qnique mutants.
  • 20+ New, mutant-specific Edges, Feats, Stunts, Qualities, and power modifiers.

Digital files are compatible with 5 different systems:
…but only Savage Worlds and Pathfinder-compatible versions are available for print.


 March 15, 2017  Posted by at 4:34 am Products No Responses »
Feb 232017

I had a problem.

My players were unfocused, distracted, and prone to side conversations. Getting through a round of combat was like wrestling a rose bush. The bush kept growing however the hell it felt like and all I managed to do was get torn up over it. Also, the bush never seemed to learn anything, regardless of what I said from week to week.

With so much resistance to actually playing the game which they weekly came to my house to play, I figured everyone was just bored and looking for a new game. But they’d be damned if they’d admit it. “No, no. We like this game. We want to keep playing” they’d say. They apparently just happened to enjoy talking about games on Steam more.

Maybe they were just being polite, but I doubt it. I tend to run with a fairly frank, if prone to self-delusional, crowd.

The solution?

Give them more to do.

This may seem counter-intuitive given that we’re talking about a crew that couldn’t maintain focus for more than 45 seconds at a time, but it helped break the cycle of constant distraction from distraction. A good part of the problem was that distractions are a self-reinforcing cycle. Player A takes twice as long to decide on a course of action so player B gets bored and starts a side-conversation with player C, which I then have to interrupt to get them to take their turn. It takes them a few seconds to re-familiarize themselves with the map, plus snap at me for interrupting them so… their turns each take 50% longer. Then it’s the bad guys’ turn and as much as I try to speed things up it still takes a while given that there’s 5 bad guys. Player D, having had to wait through the equivalent of 7-8 player’s turns is up getting a soda-pop when their turn comes. And by the time a new turn comes around Player A has started checking something on their phone.

And so on.

And so on.

I was sick of constantly being the bad guy, constantly having to remind everyone that it’s their turn. So I made the players do it. Not only did it free me from a unpleasant task but it made the players more aware of how disruptive they had all become.

Here’s how it works:

I use roll20.net for maps. It also has a bunch of neat-o features like built-in character sheets, automated dice rolling, an initiative tracker, and programmable macros (for stuff that’s not already built into the character sheet). Nobody uses the built-in character sheets so I had to set one up for each character, but I only filled in the sections related to initiative. This let me roll initiative by selecting a character on the map and then clicking the INIT macro button I’d also set up. Clickity clickity click click click and with a mere 2 clicks per character, I’d have a whole turn’s worth of initiative determined. I thought there might be some blow-back from the players over not rolling their own dice but they were so checked out I don’t think they even noticed.

Once the turn order is established, I hand over responsibility to one of the players. It then becomes their job to determine who goes next — and to call on them to declare their action. Instant improvement.

This didn’t completely solve the problem, although it did double the number of people paying attention (myself plus whomever got tapped to be the initiative-keeper) so I found it necessary to switch up who the initiative keeper was from round to round. At first, I just rolled a die to decide whom it would be, but it seems to work better just going clockwise around the table. (This also has the unexpected benefit of last turn’s keeper being able to prompt the new keeper of their duties — one less task for the game master.)

But what if you don’t have access to roll20.net? Use a dry erase board. Or movable magnets. Or just jot names down on a piece of paper really quickly. Heck, you don’t even really have to come up with a system. Just tell each player it’s their problem now; figure something out. The worst case scenario is that it takes forever and the players know what it’s like to be the GM for a while.

 February 23, 2017  Posted by at 2:13 pm Anecdotes No Responses »
Feb 102017

I set out to write something insightful yesterday but I feel like all I did was gripe about my poor project-backing decision.

So, in today’s post I’m going to try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. In Pathfinder, Necromancy is irrevocably connected to the Negative Energy Plane so casting necromantic spells involves channeling some degree of negative energy– which is an evil act. So good necromancers quickly become neutral and neutral necromancers have to work pretty hard to avoid sliding into evil. Therefore, the assumption is that necromancy is evil. This gets bolstered by the general icky-ness of corpses themselves. They spread disease and, as a result, countless social taboos have sprung up around handling corpses. So necromancy not only violates morality but also social mores — truly the action(s) of a villain.

But does it have to be?

When you’re building your own fantasy world, you can discard all that. Maybe corpses don’t decompose (or they don’t decompose as rapidly) for a few days, so there doesn’t need to be social taboos surrounding dead bodies. In such a world, necromancers might be the holiest sort of magic-user; their ability to speak with honored ancestors (and charge for the service) would give them access to  secret information (and money) which they could then parlay into becoming the toast of the city. That’s a far cry from the stereotypical black-robed, pallid, carrion-vulture that most necromancers are depicted as.

Maybe the local Necromancers Guild has an incredibly strict code of conduct, designed to prevent moral corruption (or at least keep necromancers from acting on evil inclinations. (Which then becomes a possible campaign model; the players get hired to investigate a necromancer suspected of breaking the code). In this type of world, necromancers would still be feared but they’d also be admired for their dignity, sense of honor, strength of will — all of which are necessary to follow the code.

Or, going a step further, break the connection between Necromancy and negative energy/evil. As detailed in plenty of other places, an army of undead soldiers has numerous advantages that I’m not going to go into here but the most important of which is: fewer living soldiers have to die in a war. This means that a country with necromancers has a larger post-war population than one without, which translates into a larger labor pool and a stronger economy. Instead of being terrible, rotting monsters, undead soldiers would be regarded as valuable, loyal defenders. If that seems too weird, consider this: if your grandparents could rise from the grave to keep you safe, wouldn’t they? Furthermore if that sort of thing happened every day, most people would get used to it pretty quickly, overcoming any innate fear and replacing it with respect. Some would even want to keep their undead ancestors as “healthy” and presentable as possible (regardless of whether it’s due to image-consciousness or actual affection). This might motivate alchemists and morticians to develop preservative treatments that would slow or halt decomposition and prevent the spread of corpse-borne disease.

Taking that idea a step further, countless stories tell of ghosts and revenants who rise from the grave to avenge some wrong or complete unfinished business. If undead aren’t intrinsically evil, then these ghosts and revenants become agents of justice — and so would necromancers. Able to draw information from beyond, necromancers make great investigators. They might be the head of local police forces or religious inquisitions.

Here are some of alternate necromantic groups I’ve used in past games:

Drawing of a man wearing an ancient doctor's maskThe Collegium Nox

The Collegium Nox was a group of arcane necromancers searching for ways to eliminate death. Basically they were all doctors, trying to discover immortality. Not for selfish reasons, but for the good of all mankind. In a campaign world without divine magic their healing skills made them welcome everywhere they went, which more than offset any intrinsic creepiness they might have had. (This was a campaign world where divine healing magic was pretty rare). Furthermore, they had a version of the Hippocratic Oath that compelled them to treat any wounded or diseased characters they encountered, good deeds which typically offset the innate slide into evil Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 to which necromancers were prone.

I used the standard D&D wizard class (with necromancy specialization) but made up a few new spells that let them transfer health/hit points to somewhat compensate for the lack of healing magic.

Air Elves

While not strictly necromancers, this is still an example of the type of  alternate-world I’m advocating. I ran a game where all the non-human races were affiliated with one of the classic elements. Elves, being flighty and whimsical as well as being associated with the outdoors, were linked to elemental Air. I gave them some non-standard racial abilities which I won’t go into here, but the one most germane to this discussion is: Air Elves never “died” due to old age. As they aged, they became weaker and frailer, not because they were growing weaker but because their connection to Air kept getting stronger — and they became less solid with every year. Eventually, when they reached the point when another species would expire, they instead transitioned to a completely immaterial existence. I used the standard stats for ghosts to represent these ancient elves; the only thing I changed was the requirement that they be evil.

Neither required a massive change of rules — or a lot of development. I just had to think up how they’d fit into (or change) the culture.

 February 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:41 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 092017

I like Kickstarter. Even though the paNik campaign didn’t get funded, I still think it’s truly great and one of the things that makes modern life worth living. If you have a dream but no money, Kickstarter can help make that dream come true (assuming said dream is practical and you’re sufficiently convincing and/or popular… not that I’m bitter). 20 years ago, your only option for most Kickstarter projects was to go begging to banks, getting a second job and saving, or mortgaging your house (assuming you have one — and that’s really just a different way of saying going back to the banks).
But just as important are the benefits to the sponsors. You don’t just get the book or artwork or whatever tangible product is being manufactured. You also get the satisfaction of knowing that you get to help someone else realize their dream — at least a little. It’s incredibly empowering. Personally every time I browse through projects, I feel like a di Medici, patronizing the next da Vinci or Caravaggio. It’s a feeling that was formerly only experienced by bankers and the very wealthy, now made affordable by modern technology. Most of the time I don’t even want the stuff I’m sponsoring, I just either think it’s a good idea or the creator seems especially passionate or with increasing frequency: when it’s someone’s first project and it looks like they won’t get funded (not that I’m bitter). Usually I’ll only pledge a handful of dollars; I try to strike a balance between giving enough to actually matter but not so much that I get saddled with a ton of crap I can’t use. Sometimes, I get caught up in the excitement and actually end up pledging a significant amount of money (usually with gaming stuff) and since I’m (in all honesty) motivated by the idea of Kickstarter than I am the actual products of Kickstarter, within a few days I usually forget all about the things to which I’ve pledged. So, I’m surprised and delighted when a package comes in the mail. It’s always nice to get something besides bills and coupons for local businesses.
Except when the product is not… good.
Now, I don’t want to disparage Kickstarter as a whole (which is why I spent the first two paragraphs championing it). I know Kickstarter folks aren’t necessarily professionals and don’t have pro-grade skills so I cut them a lot of slack. I overlook amateur design decisions like too-large a typeface with too-small a leading, tiny margins, etc. etc. I also don’t expect high-quality prose (although… is it too much to ask that somebody check for proper homonym use before going to press?).

Still, you need to have a new idea.

I’m not going to name names, but I recently received a book that was basically a Pathfinder adventure ported over to Savage Worlds. As far as I know, it was an original adventure; I’m not trying to imply that they just re-skinned someone else’s published work or anything like that. But it was clearly set in a Pathfinder-esque world, complete with Pathfinder-type treasure such as bags of holding and swords that give “to hit” bonuses. Those are all old ideas and ones I’d prefer to do without (for reasons which I’ll get around to explaining in later posts). Why re-invent the wheel? It’s not like you’re going to improve on the concept of “roundness”.

There are millions of possible fantasy worlds. I want to see something different than just another Pathfinder clone. After all, Pathfinder is just a clone of Dungeons and Dragons, which itself borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings. Any differences between them are largely the result of lost resolution (such as when you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy of a picture). I’m sick to death of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds with stock elves, stock dwarves, stock wizards, et cetera. But. I understand the appeal. I get why people still like that stuff. Pathfinder is (or was) the most popular tabletop RPG for a reason. But let Pathfinder be Pathfinder.

The super cool thing about Savage Worlds is that it lets you create your own world with your own system of magic and magic items. Back in the day the only way to do that was to create a bunch of house rules that were likely to just make your players grumble. After all, if they’re expecting to play game X, they’re not going to be happy with game X2. Yeah, GURPS came out pretty early, but… GURPS had problems of its own (for instance: firearms had more attributes than player characters. It’s true).

I’ve been writing, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs for a while now… only to find myself griping in circles. As cathartic as that may be for me, it’s less than amusing for you so I’m just going to come sum everything up right now.

Open source games (or easily license-able games like Savage Worlds) give you a framework with which you can innovate without needing to create a whole new ruleset (which is both cumbersome and, in most cases, needless). Through the magic of Kickstarter, other people can enjoy your innovation with the convenience of not needing to learn new rules. These technologies (and open source rulesets are a form of technology) make it easier than ever to be creative.

Just actually be creative.

 February 9, 2017  Posted by at 9:20 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 072017

In my last post, I advocated limiting player character racial options to foster character development, reduce stereotypical character behavior, and generally foster creativity. Those weren’t idle words, I practice what I preach. The last fantasy game I ran was in Savage Worlds in a world I called Byelloterrania (as a riff on “Mediterranean”. Plus I just like “Byello” as a prefix). Giving your world a name is important because it shows that you’ve put at least some thought into things and it immediately sets that world apart from any “default” world your players might assume they’re going to be playing in. Byelloterrania had only 3 player character races.

In ancient times Byelloterrania was ruled by one sprawling empire, which was a paradise for humans. Unfortunately it was a paradise built on orc slave labor. When the orcs inevitably rebelled a multi-generation long war shredded the Empire. From the ashes, 3 kingdoms emerged.

Picture of effete author Ashley Wilkes

I’d like to strengthen the Empire but all this ennui is just too crushing.


What’s left of the old Empire reorganized into a country called Effetroix (a name I derived from “effete”). Effetroixan orcs are still enslaved there and the humans have become decadent and lazy. They’re more interested in recapturing the glory days (and preventing further rebellions) and have lost the drive to innovate.


The other human-run kingdom, Pellucid (a name I found up by looking up synonyms for “clear”) is a monotheistic theocracy comprised largely of fiefs who supported the orc rebellion. Despite being the smallest kingdom it has a rapidly growing economy and is the leading source of technological innovation having recently domesticated horzes and dolgs. (Changing the spelling is an attempt to make ordinary animals seem strange and foreign.)

Picture of Groucho Marx looking wistful

Guess where I stole the name “Freedonia” from?


The kingdom of orcs, for orcs, and by orcs. Since most orcs are poorly educated and they eschew anything Empire-related, the government is a hot mess. Still, it beats slavery and things are gradually getting more organized.

Effetroixan Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.
  • Uneducated: Efetroxian Orcs may not begin play with any Knowledge (skill) although they may buy the skill(s) through normal character advancement. They are illiterate unless they acquire the Knowledge (Language: Reading) skill.

Free Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Cursed: Although Efetroxian wizards were unable to destroy the rebelling Fredonians with magic, various lingering curses cling to the nation nonetheless. Fredonian Orcs receive one less Benny per game session.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.

Effetroixan Humans

Effetroixan humans have the following traits:

  • Racial Enemy: Efetroxian humans suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with free orcs.
  • Refined: Efextroxians have exceptionally refined hearing and receive a +2 bonus to any Notice skill rolls relying on hearing.

As with any other human, they also receive a free advance during character creation.

Non-Effetroixan Humans

Humans from Pellucidia or Freedonia have no special traits other than the usual free advance during character creation.

Astute readers will notice that I mentioned there were three races… not four. That’s because the differences between Effetroixan and non-Effetroixan characters are cultural, not racial. There’s still only orcs and humans. The third race, I added as a joke.


The most universally hated race in Byelloterrania, hobbits are small, nimble humanoids with large, bare feet. During the Great War, a group of hobbits somehow acquired powerful magics which could have turned the tide conclusively to one side or the other. Refusing to choose sides, the hobbits destroyed these magical artifacts rather than let either side get them.

Hobbits live in remote small villages where they avoid contact with outsiders. Any hobbits encountered traveling outside of their home village are usually exiled, making them doubly-reviled. Not even other hobbits can trust the shifty little creeps.

  • Devil’s Luck: Luck may be the only think keeping the wretched race alive. Hobbits draw one additional Benny per game session. This may be combined with the Luck and Great Luck Edges.
  • Low-Light Vision: Hobbits ignore penalties for Dim and Dark lighting, allowing them to see in all but pitch black conditions.
  • Mockers: Accustomed to abuse, Hobbits have learned to give as good as they get. They begin play with a d6 Taunt skill.
  • Reviled: Hobbits suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with either humans or orcs.
  • Short: Hobbits average only 4’ tall, giving them a Size of -1 and reduces Toughness by 1.
  • Spirited: Hobbits are generally optimistic. They start with a d6 Spirit instead of a d4.

Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play a hobbit. Ever.

Now, when I was putting this together I expected everyone to create characters from all over the place — just like they do in every Pathfinder game. To my surprise, everyone played an orc — except for one player who went human. Moreover they all chose to live in (and be from) Freedonia.

Yehani was the token human from a formerly noble family, willing to do anything to reclaim her ancestral lands from the orcs — even earning the orcs trust and building infrastructure like roads.

Thorn was a former orc mercenary hoping to make up for a troubled past by seeking justice for others, kicking butt, and writing wrongs.

Elmer was an orc witch with a hatred of slavery so intense he was willing to back Yehani’s power grab if it means someday there will be an army strong enough to invade Effetroix.

Jonan was basically an orc jester who originally was solely motivated by profit but after an expedition to Pellucid, became obsessed with horzes and importing to Freedonia so no Orc would ever have to pull a plow or wagon again.

Had I opened up the floodgates to the standard array of races, Thorn would probably have been a dwarf, Elmer an elf, and Jonan either a hobbit or half-elf… but don’t they just seem more interesting as orcs? Furthermore, if they were all different races their only reason together would have been for the money and the campaign would have just been another series of dungeon crawls (which, to be honest, was all I was going for… at first). I know it would have been just ‘crawls, having played with that particular group before and that’s how they roll.

Instead, their mutual orc-ness gave them a reason to band together and a motivation to try to improve the lives of the orc peasants they lived among. Over time, the campaign became about empire-building and political alliances — and not because of anything I did as the GM. It was the players who took things in a completely different direction because their characters were more fleshed out than mere racial stereotypes. They only had to stretch a little at first… but they kept on stretching. And had fun in the process.

As one player said, “If you’d told me when we started this campaign that I’d be mediating disputes between the Bricklayers Guild and the Livery Coalition… and having fun doing it, I’d have said you were crazy and refused to play.”

Luckily for all of us, they did play and it was a blast.

 February 7, 2017  Posted by at 8:14 pm Anecdotes, Fun Stuff, Rants No Responses »