Into the Shadows


Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.

Fate Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal ((Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it.)), so you’ve got no excuse for not having them ((Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here.)).

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.

Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man ((Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!”)) is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.

Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club ((Now disbanded and outlawed.)) – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.

Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…

This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.

Gonzo and Spirit

Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable in Miami Vice versus, say, Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.

Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.

That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered” ((Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different.)) by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.

This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes ((Though this is the default assumption.)) or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.


Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game ((They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested.)). The Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.

The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).

After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills ((There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns.)).


This is a Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard ((Or almost standard, any way.)) phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.

Other Cool Stuff

There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.

  • Montages. As the song from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous ((And alliterative!)) aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
  • Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. The Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
  • Organizations. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal ((The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here.)) to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
  • Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black ((Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat.)) cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah ((At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations.)), has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
  • The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed since Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.

What’s the Plan?

Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.

I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.

I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such. Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at the DFRPG playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.


I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.

It’ll be rad!

Kicking Butt, Saving Christmas

All set up, waiting for the players.

All set up, waiting for the players.

Yesterday was Winnipeg Harvest Game Day at Imagine Games and Hobbies, here in Winnipeg. It’s the time of year that the good folks at Imagine host a bunch of games and contests, lay out a bunch of nice holiday treats, and ask people to donate to Winnipeg Harvest. As I have the past several years, I put together a Christmas-themed RPG one-shot to run.

This year, I chose Feng Shui 2, from Atlas Games. I chose FS2 because it’s fast, easy to teach, and can be run in a goofy, light-hearted style that suits these kinds of games ((In the past, I have run Gamma World, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and Firefly.)). This was my first chance to try creating an adventure in FS2, so it took me a little longer than I had expected, and I found a couple of problems with it in play that I manage to correct on the fly.

But I got the adventure created, and here’s the pitch I used:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but not everyone is happy. Someone hates Christmas, hates happiness, hates Santa! And this year, when Santa’s workshop (and powerful Feng Shui site) is attacked, only Hong Kong’s premiere team of hard-luck heroes – the Dragons – has a chance of kicking butt and getting Santa back on schedule!

Silent night, chi warrior? Not likely!

Now, I tied the adventure into the cosmology and backstory of the Chi Wars, but it’s pretty loose. That’s mainly because I didn’t think there’d be anyone there who would care too much about how this adventure fit in, and I was right about that. Still, there’s a rationale for what’s going on, and some touches in the description that can clue players familiar with the FS2 universe that this is taking place in the middle of the Chi Wars.

I had three players ((Almost had zero – only one person signed up, but he canceled. But I had one person show that hadn’t signed up, and another who was in the store and decided to play, and a friend I texted when I saw the sorry state of the sign-up sheet came down to join us.)), only one of which was at all familiar with the game. I’ve gotten a lot better at teaching the basics of the game quickly, and had them pick archetypes, name them, add the melodramatic hook, and give them a run-down of the basic mechanics in less than 15 minutes. And then we got going.

Butts are being kicked.

Butts are being kicked.

Play ran a little longer than I had planned – three-and-a-half hours instead of three – but not too bad. Everyone had fun, and Santa was saved, so yay!

Thanks to Sandy, Chris, and Maya for coming to Santa’s rescue.

The donation bin was pretty full when I left the store, but I don’t know the final total going to Winnipeg Harvest. Still, we did not too badly ((This is pretty high praise in Canada, just so you know.)). So, that’s good, too.

And, with the kind permission of Atlas Games, I am giving a gift to all the Feng Shui 2 fans out there: here’s the adventure I ran, Blood on the Snow. Use it wisely, Chi Warriors!

Winnipeg Harvest Game Day 2015



Once again, we’re coming up on Imagine Games & Hobbies’ Winnipeg Harvest Game Day. It’s next Saturday, December 12, at the Imagine Games store at 246 McDermot in the Exchange in Winnipeg. There are games running all day, including a number of tournaments, and the good folks at the store always have a lavish spread of Christmas goodies for everyone.

If you want in on the gaming, you just have to bring a donation for Winnipeg Harvest. Food items and money are gratefully accepted. Any donation lets you get in on all  the games, and you get a Cheat Coupon for every $5.00 worth of donation you give. These coupons can be used during the games to sway the odds in your favour.

As I have the past few years, I will be running a Christmas-themed RPG one-shot at 1:00. Here’s the pitch for the game:


Blood on the Snow

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but not everyone is happy. Someone hates Christmas, hates happiness, hates Santa! And this year, when Santa’s workshop (and powerful Feng Shui site) is attacked, only Hong Kong’s premiere team of hard-luck heroes – the Dragons – has a chance of kicking butt and getting Santa back on schedule!

Silent night, chi warrior? Not likely!

This is a Feng Shui 2 scenario, capturing the craziness of Hong Kong action movies of the 90s. It’s fast, easy, and lots of stuff blows up. I’ll have everything you need to play, and I’ll also be teaching the game, so no previous experience is required. There’s even a prize for one lucky action hero!

Player slots are limited to 10, though. I don’t expect them all to fill up, but if you want to guarantee yourself a seat at the table, sign up at Imagine in advance – they’ve got a sign-up sheet at the counter. If you can’t make it down yourself before Saturday, if you give them a call at 204-452-8711, they’ll be happy to put you on the list.

So, come kick butt, blow things up and save the world! Also, help out a very worthy charity here in the city.

‘Tis the season, as the man says.

Playing With Strangers

A friend told me, a long time ago ((So long ago that I don’t really remember being told this, and it’s just a truism that I’ve always known. But it must have come from somewhere.)), that you shouldn’t game with anyone you wouldn’t invite over for dinner. There’s wisdom in that – gaming is an hours-long social situation that forces you to interact with everyone at the game. Why would you want to spend that time with someone you don’t know you get along with?

I run a lot of games in public – at game days, at conventions, at parties, whatever. That means that I don’t always get to choose who sits down at my table ((Though I can choose who gets up and leaves, sometimes.)). Sometimes, I can be pretty confident that I know who’s going to come to a game, and sometimes it’s really a crap shoot. And playing with a player you don’t know can be challenging. Playing with a whole group of them, even more so.

I’ve learned some things by running these games about how to make things go smooth ((Even Firefly games.)). They’re not foolproof, and they require some effort on the part of the person running the game ((Why do I talk about the person running the game, rather than the GM? Because these things are just as applicable when you’re demoing a board game as when you’re GMing an RPG.)), but they can help the experience be fun for everyone at the table.

First, some assumptions:

  • I assume you want to create a welcoming, fun experience for everyone who might sit down at the table. If not, you may want to ask yourself why you’re running a game.
  • I’m not going to talk about “problem players.” I don’t like the term, because it’s behaviour at the table that’s the problem, not the player. Also, any problematic behaviour might just be a cultural mismatch between your gaming ideal and the player’s ((This last idea may be worth it’s own blog post in the future.)).
  • I assume you’re not deliberately trying to piss off someone at the table. If you are, you’re on your own with that ((And again, why? Why bother?)).

And now, some tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Set expectations at the start of the session. If you want to keep the language and content PG-13 because you’re playing in a public space, for example, say that up front. Tell the folks what kind of time investment they’re looking at. Talk about when breaks will be, if there are going to be any. If you don’t want people writing on the character sheets, tell them so.
  • Remember that, if you’re playing in public, you’re likely representing someone else. At a game day at a local store, for example, you may be a volunteer, but your actions reflect on the store. At a convention, how you behave affects how people talk about the event and the organizer. Do your best to make sure the impressions you make reflect well on the host. Even if you’ve just added a person or two to your regular gaming group, how you act will colour how the newbies view the entire group. So, y’know, Wheaton’s Law applies.
  • Read the diversity of your group. In a random group, you may have kids, older people ((Like me. I’m old, now. I’m not telling you which of the other categories I also belong to.)), young people, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, people of a different gender than you, people of different religions, folks for whom your language is their second language, people on the autism spectrum, neurotypical people, Klingons, Whovians, Trekkers, Trekkies, Stormtroopers, Jedi, Ricks, Morties, furries, vampires, LARPers, grognards, n00bs, bronies, Marvel fans, DC fans, and trivia-stuffed blowhards ((Okay. I lied. I belong in that category, too.)). You don’t have to take a survey or anything, just be aware of any obvious diversity, and realize that there might be more that you don’t see ((And is none of your business.)). Keep the diversity in mind when you think about my first assumption up above.
  • In keeping with the previous point, and the assumption about making your game both welcoming and fun for everyone, I learned about a neat little tool when I ran some games for Games on Demand at GenCon. It’s called the X-card, and is the brilliant idea of John Stavropoulos. The link explains it in wonderful detail, but the idea is that you have an index card on the table with an X on it. You explain at the start of the session ((While you’re setting expectations, right?)) that you want everyone to help you make a fun game for everyone. So, if someone is uncomfortable with something that happens in the game, all they have to do is tap or lift the X-card, and that bit gets edited out, no explanation necessary, no judgment attached. I’ve been using this at all my public games since I learned about it, and it has rarely been used, but it provides a really useful safety valve if someone is facing something that’s going to ruin the game for them.
  • Remember that this is your game. Don’t let the players push you around or bully you. Just be firm in your decisions. I’m talking about your game decisions, here, but I’m also talking about your out-of-game interactions. If someone is ruining someone else’s fun – saying rude or inappropriate things, trying to quarterback, ignoring the X-carding of a subject, whatever – , ask them to stop. If gentle admonishments like, “Come on. Let’s not have any name-calling,” or, “We X-carded baby-eating, so how about we come up with something else?” then you may want to call a short break and speak to the person one-on-one.
  • If you have to speak to someone about their behaviour, speak to them about their behaviour. Don’t talk about the person. “I don’t like some of the language you’re using. I think it’s making some others uncomfortable, too. Can I ask you to rein it in, please?” This is all conflict management stuff – “I” statements, addressing the behaviour, clear language, polite and respectful but firm, etc. You’ve probably learned at least some of it just by running games with your friends, even if you don’t realize it. You can also find a whole lot more of it online by searching for conflict management.
  • If behaviour escalates to the point that it’s ruining the game for everyone, call a break and ask the person to leave the game. This is supposed to be fun for everyone at the table, including you; if one person’s fun is causing everyone else to not have fun, it’s time to cut that person loose.
  • BE FAIR. Running a game makes it easy to play favourites, to fudge things, to reward or punish the players individually or as a group. Don’t do that. Play fair. And applaud good play by the players.
  • If, however, you are demoing a game with a winner and loser, especially if you’re demoing it for the manufacturer at a convention, try not to win. Yes, this contradicts the previous point, but winners get excited and are more likely to buy the game. You must serve your corporate master in this regard.

So, that’s a pretty long list. I’m now going to answer a few questions that I think it might raise:

What, I’m supposed to think about that huge list of different kinds of people who might be at my table and remember them all? No, of course not. Some of the things on the list are serious things to consider, and some are me just trying to be funny. If you can’t tell which is which, you may want to rethink running games in public ((Though, to be fair, some of the funny ones can be serious concerns, too.)). It is important, though, to recognize that you can’t always know all the various intersections of diversity that will show up at a table, and treating everyone like a human being, worthy of respect and courtesy, and a welcome addition to the group, helps get you in the mindset to accept any diversity that does come up. Again, my assumption is that you want to welcome everyone and for everyone to have fun.

Why do I have to be the one who calls out bad behaviour at the table? If it’s bothering someone, why don’t they say something? Well, they might. And if they do it calmly and reasonably, that’s great. But some people aren’t comfortable with that kind of confrontation, or get too angry, or are dealing with other issues, and just won’t. They’ll suffer silently, and then talk to their friends about how much your game sucked. Like it or not, this is your game. You’re the boss of your table. Maintaining courteous behaviour amongst the players is part of your job.

What happens if someone seems likely to become violent if I ask them to leave? Well. This can happen. It’s not good, but it can happen. My recommendation is, if you think you might get hurt, get back-up. Store staff or convention staff, or a buddy from nearby, or even a police officer if you can get one in time. Remember: this is a game. It’s not worth you – or anyone else, for that matter – getting hurt because of a game. If you have no back-up, but the situation has become untenable, call the game. “Sorry, folks, I’m out of time. Thanks for coming out, and I hope you had fun.” If you think there’s a chance of violence, you can be sure that some of the others have also picked up on it, and will be willing to wrap up before things get ugly. It’s sub-optimal, but better than an actual violent confrontation.

This sounds like it takes practice. How do I get practice? It’s like any skill. You get better with practice. If you’ve got a local game store, talk to them about running a game at the store. There are regular D&D games supported by WotC at local stores, or Pathfinder, if you prefer that flavour. Other game companies are usually really supportive of anyone demoing their games at a store, and my even be able to provide support – scenarios, prizes, stuff like that. Look them up and e-mail them.

If you really want to go full-bore, though, nothing beats volunteering for Indie Games on Demand at a convention. They have a presence at most gaming conventions these days, they’re always happy to have more GMs running stuff, and they have a top-notch support system to help new GMs find their feet and not feel abandoned. This is also where you’re likely to run into the widest variety of gamers, and will get the most practice making strangers feel comfortable and getting them to have fun.

I’ve got one last tip for you: relax. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying this, why bother doing it?

Gaming is for fun. Remember that.

We Did It: Playing UA 3rd Edition


I’m going to be talking about the UA scenario Garden Full of Weeds, by James Palmer. It’s an awesome scenario, and is available with five others in the book Weep. It’s also a decade-and-a-half old, so I think the statute of limitations is expired. Still, you’ve been warned.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is what UA should feel like.

So, last post I talked about the playtest my group did for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition. After I posted it, Cam Banks pointed out to me ((Very politely.)) that I hadn’t really talked about what it was like to run and/or play the game. All I’d talked about was the rules, which is something anyone could have got from reading the playtest document. Faced with this very correct observation, I resolved to do another post, talking about how the rules worked in our campaign.

If actual play reports with GM commentary aren’t your thing, here’s the gist: so far, the playtest rules do a great job of capturing, supporting, and reinforcing the overall mood and themes of Unknown Armies. They are also ((Mostly.)) easy to learn and use to run the game.

If actual play reports with GM commentary are your thing, read on.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

As mentioned in the last post, we converted an ongoing UA2 campaign to UA3. We did it in the middle of a scenario, as well – I was running Garden Full of Weeds, on of the darkest and most disturbing UA scenarios ever written. There are dead babies, racial violence, the hopelessness of poverty, a paranormal MIB, and a man so twisted with bitterness and hate that he’s killing his neighbourhood.

Converting the characters over to UA3 took the better part of an evening. That was mainly due to the fact I was paging back and forth through the playtest document to guide the process and answer questions, and because the concepts embodied in the new Shock Gauge mechanic and the paired abilities took some explaining.

Because of the difference between how skills work in UA2 and the way abilities and identities work in UA3, we couldn’t do a straight conversion, where the players just adjust some numbers or skill names. We essentially had to rebuild the characters using the new guidelines and rules. This is not a bad thing; the new character mechanics are both very flavourful and pretty easy to get your head around ((I also took this opportunity to encourage the players to tweak their characters, changing things that weren’t working for them. I think this is a good practice in most games – let the players tweak their characters to optimize their fun and minimize their pain.)).

The resulting characters were pretty simple on paper: Name, Obsession, the three Stimuli, the Shock Gauge, and 1-3 Identities with their features. The hardened notches in the Shock Gauge set the levels for the ten abilities, so the only math and point-spending the players had to do was for the Identities. I gave them a fairly generous batch of points for this ((Though, being players, there were some complaints that they wanted more points. Gamers, eh?)), to reflect the fact that they were experienced characters.

Everyone liked the fact that the character sheets were simple ((Especially me. I love me a simple character sheet.)) and you didn’t have to hunt through it to find whether or not you had a specific skill.

Okay. The love for the character sheet faded a bit for one or two of the players during the playtest, and there’s a very simple reason ((Though I seem to be spending a lot of words on explaining that reason.)) why. In games today, there are two ((Well, there are more than two, but for our purposes here, we’re gonna focus on those two.)) types of character sheets. One defines what a character can do, and one defines who a character is. Obviously, every character sheet contains elements of both, but individual games tend to focus more on one approach than the other. D&D, RuneQuest, Apocalypse World, Feng Shui, all of these focus strongly on what a character can do. On the other end of the continuum, you have games like Fate and Over the Edge focus on who the character is.

This fosters two different approaches to using the sheet. One approach is to look through the list of stuff on your sheet to find something interesting to do, and the other is to think of something you want to do and then look at your sheet to find something that will let you do it. The “what you do” type of game encourages the first approach, and the “who you are” type of game encourages the second. Neither is empirically better than the other, but some folks prefer one approach to the other.

Thus, for one or two of my players, the sparse character sheet became a bit of a disappointment, as they looked for prompts and didn’t find the help they wanted. I think this will ebb over time ((In some ways, our four-session playtest was an interesting amount of time – it was enough time for some issues to crop up, but not long enough to work our solutions.)), as they get more familiar with the abilities tied to the Shock Gauge and the way Identities work.

Anyway, that was the characters done.

As GM, I was faced with the challenge of converting a scenario ((And a UA1 scenario, at that.)) to UA3 format. This was starting to look like a real challenge - UA3 has a very player-driven structure of Goal and Antagonist Phase, whereas older UA scenarios are collections of scenes that the characters encounter and maneuver through. I was struggling with how to handle the disconnect between the two styles until I had a bit of an epiphany: all I had to do was reframe things a bit.

So, I did a quick and dirty conversion of the main GMCs into UA3 by copying over their hardened notches from the Madness Meter to the Shock Gauge, and noted what level of the two abilities that indicated. And I added a couple of Identities based on the character write-up and noted a trick or two that the GMC could pull out to be exciting and interesting. Each character wound up fitting on one side of an index card.

I then did up a quick mind-map showing what scenes connected to which thread of the scenario, so I could pull something interesting in when they interacted with that thread. This is basically just converting the scene structure of the scenario into Antagonist Phase notes, and it took me under an hour when I finally figured out what to do.

As for the Goal, I got the characters to choose the Goal based on what they had been doing the previous session. The campaign structure was pretty simple: our heroes are a troubleshooter team ((But not a volunteer one. TNI is making them work for it – if they balk or fail, they’ll be turned over to the various groups that want them dead.)) for TNI, sent to investigate weird stuff and fix it. Given that TNI had assigned them to investigate the super-high infant mortality rate ((I almost typed “infant morality.” That would be a different kind of investigation, but might still work in a UA game.)) and had uncovered more nasty and weird stuff going on, they chose a fairly high-level goal: Stop the horrible things happening in this neighbourhood. To reflect the work and investigation from the previous session, I got them to enumerate the things that they had done to advance the Goal, and gave them a die roll for each of those to add to the Goal rating.

The actual play of the session was interesting to me. The players generally had no trouble deciding what to do, and I had very little trouble deciding if they should roll, what they should roll, and what happened. So, they watched some children playing hopscotch and writing sigils on the sidewalk in blood, tracked the baby-soul-stealing witch to the park, drove through her hovel with a car (incidentally killing her), shot the weird mirror-shade wearing MIB shadow until it died, and managed to direct an angry mob to tear apart the evil ((Also pathetic. But that’s how things go in UA.)) old man who was twisting the psychic landscape of the neighbourhood.

How did the Goal work into this? Well, they were sitting around 90% when they found where the witch was holed up. They already had a good idea about the old man behind things, so they decided to pull the trigger, and successfully rolled under the Goal percentage when they decided to go take out the witch, find the mirror-shade man and then sort out the old guy. So, their advance knowledge let them catch the witch at home and vulnerable, track down the mirror-shade man, and make the key decisions of what happened to the old man.

That’s not to say the Goal roll was the only roll that mattered. They had to make rolls to deal with the witch, to kill the mirror-shade man, to get the mob together, etc. Basically, the roll was to see the overall shape of the final scenes, and then the players got to shape it further through character actions and skills.

Oh, and letting the old guy die caused some major psychic fallout, loosing dark, twisted power to reshape reality to such an extent that one of the Cruel Ones ((They’re essentially angels. They care only about the survival of reality, and are horribly brutal in their tactics. No one wants them to ever show up.)) came in and set things right.

This allowed me to move the campaign into the next phase of play. See, the idea that the players had come up with at the start of play was that their characters were reluctant TNI operatives, and would at some point go rogue. I told them that the discontinuity caused by the Cruel One was a good bit of cover to use to slip away. They took the option.

That put things more comfortably in the hands of the players to set the Goals. They decided the next Goal was to set up a safe-house for them so that they were out of TNI’s reach. I worked up some things in the Antagonist Phase to challenge them on that – they decided they wanted to set up in Salem, MA, so I fleshed out a bit of the Occult Underground of Salem, and I dug out a TNI hit squad to be after them, and stuff like that.

So, of course, the first thing they decided to do when we sat down to play was try and find someone to make them new IDs. A perfectly reasonable step, but I was unprepared for it. But they were driving from Baltimore to Salem, and a previous scenario had the King of New York City telling them to never come back, so I gave them a fake-ID contact in Harlem. This is a textbook example of an obstacle from the UA3 rules – giving them what they want, but making it risky. It also shows how blowback from previous escapades feeds into the Antagonist Phase, and helps deepen and enrich the story.

That led to a session full of creeping around Manhattan, dealing with criminals, trying to avoid Max, the King’s right hand, bargaining with their blood, and a tense stand-off in a veterinary office. For a completely improvised session, it worked fairly well. The structure of the UA3 mechanics made it fairly easy to improvise characters and challenges, so I didn’t need to stop in order to stat up an entropomancer or a bunch of gun-toting thugs, for example.

So, they made it out of NYC and into Salem by the end of the session. We picked up in Salem the next session, with our heroes trying to scope out the paranormal aspects of the town. They visited a couple of witch shops, found that they were pretty much just for tourists, and got frustrated. The flailing around they did for a bit wound up with them having an introduction to a historical guide and a bit of a warning by a local gang ((The Dead Witches. And there’s something up with them. Go figure.)). Also, one of them knowingly drank a roofied drink and almost wound up abducted from a club. I ran into a bit of trouble here because I couldn’t recall how the taser rules worked, and didn’t want to slow things down while I looked them up, so I did most of this encounter narratively ((Though I think one character learned a valuable lesson – if you’re gonna get the most out of Struggle, do it before two huge bouncers have your arms pinned.)), and that worked. That all ended with police and ambulances and the roofied character rushing back to the hotel so as not to miss her TV program ((Videomancer.)) while the rest of the group went off to meet the historic guide after her last ghost tour.

And that’s how I separated the group so I could end the evening with the videomancer getting a phone call saying, “If you ever want to see your friends alive…” The other players were cool with me doing that to them for dramatic effect, though I promised them that there was a reason and I’d explain ((

The historic guide is a cliomancer who doesn’t want other weird folks coming and messing up the good thing she has going here with her staff of proxied guides. So, lots of mojo, and the good guys didn’t suspect anything.

This is also what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

In summary, the new Goal/Antagonist Phase focus of the new edition required some changes from previous editions, but nothing overwhelming, and I really like the way it puts the power of choice and direction into the players’ hands. It led to some surprises for me as a GM during play, which I’m always a fan of. The mechanics were simple enough that I could ((Mostly. See my comment about the taser rules.)) easily wing it without extensive prep of stats and such.

The central focus of the Shock Gauge for the characters also produced some interesting changes and decisions during play. The way it can cause your abilities to shift and change in the midst of play gives the Shock Checks some real weight – succeed in this Violence check, and you become less able to interact with normal folks ((Your Connect skill drops. It makes sense in context.)), while if you fail, you get better at punching people, which is good, because you might have to be doing that right now.

Identities are a good way to define not just what your character can do, but who your character is. It’s also really useful for the GM in statting up quick GMCs.

And throughout the whole thing, the game keeps driving towards hard choices and personal horror.

It’s a wonderful version of the game I love, and I know it’ll just get better as it nears completion.

You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

Those who know me know that I have a special love for Unknown Armies ((In fact, I just acame across this short story a couple of weeks ago. I wrote it for UA way back in the day. I thought it was lost in the void of the ‘net, but nothing online is ever really gone, I guess.)). At GenCon this past summer, Cam Banks offered me the chance to jump in on the UA3 playtest, and I, of course, eagerly agreed ((Without even consulting my players. But they were cool with it. Thanks, Melly, Matt, Tom, and Fera!)). So, now I’m going to talk about it.

Before we get started, a couple of points: this is a playtest. I’m not going to get into the minutia of the rules, and everything is subject to change as the product approaches completion. What I am going to talk about is how UA3 compares to UA2, and what cool new stuff has been added.

First off, as things stand, UA3 is split into three books. Book 1 is focused on the basic rules, player and setting creation, combat, Avatars, and ritual magick. Book 2 is mainly for the GM, but it also includes the rules for Adepts. Book 3 is an alphabetical listing of a whole bunch of stuff that you can use in your game – GMCs, monsters, schools of magick, Archetypes, places, and whatnot. I have to say, I bounced up and down in my seat, clapping my hands, when I started looking through Book 3; one of my all-time favourite RPG supplements is the Spherewalker Sourcebook ((Also by Greg Stolze, as is at least the bulk of UA3.)), which is set up the same way. And, like Spherewalker, the entries in Book 3 have stories hidden in them, giving some history of the UAverse and how it’s changed from the days of UA2 ((There’s some awesome stuff about St. Germaine and the Freak, but I’m not going to spoil it.)).

Of course, things could get changed and shuffled between now and release. But I like the three-book structure.

Anyway, once my players were on board, we set up a session to convert the characters from UA2 to UA3. As I read through the rules, it became obvious that a simple conversion wasn’t going to work – characters are too different between the versions – but that we should be able to rebuild the characters without too much trouble. So, we basically ran through the character creation rules, creating 3rd-edition versions of the characters.

That wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, though. UA3 blends character creation with setting creation, so that you and the players collaboratively build the game, including locations, important GMCs, goals, magick, etc. Basically, whenever a player makes a decision about his or her character, he or she also adds an element to the game world that’s important to the character. That way, when the characters are complete, there’s also an entire framework of setting around them that they care about, and want to interact with.

We were converting an ongoing campaign to UA3, so we didn’t do the setting creation part. Still, we walked through the steps and phases of the process, omitting the setting elements, and just doing the character elements. And we wound up with characters that everyone was happy with. Indeed, more than one player commented that he or she was happier with the UA3 version of the character than the previous one.

What’s so different? Well, some things are the same. There’s still the requirement for an Obsession, and for Rage, Fear, and Noble Stimuli. But the Madness Meters are now called the Shock Gauge, and this becomes a far more central element of the character. Each Gauge has a pair of skills tied to it, and the value of them changes depending on your hardened notches in the Gauge. For example, the more hardened you are to Violence, the easier it is to beat someone up (high Struggle skill), but the harder it is to form meaningful and useful emotional contact with someone (low Connect skill). This means that the hardened notches in the five Gauges – Violence, Self, Isolation, Unnatural, and Helplessness, just like always – determine your values in ten core skills.

In addition to these, you can pick one or more Identities, which are sort of broad headings that cover most of whatever else you’ll be wanting your character to do. So, taking an Identity of Ex-Special Forces Soldier might let you shoot guns with some accuracy, rig improvised explosives, move around stealthily, stab someone quietly with a K-Bar, and stare down a drunk in a bar fight. Some of these things are skills that you want to be able to count on, so you lock them down by calling them Features. The rest you can still have, but you need to be able to convincingly say to the GM, “I’m an Ex-Special Forces Soldier. Of course I can…” whatever. The GM then rules if you’re right, or if you’ve just overreached yourself.

Identities are how you get magick. If you want your character to be an Adept or an Avatar, you need that as one of your identities. Most Archetypes and schools of magick are build-your-own: there are a couple of fleshed out examples in the books, but not a lot, and none of the ones from UA2 ((Or UA1, for that matter.)) are statted up in this playtest package. That said, most are pretty easy to port over; changing mechanics may cause you to reword some effects, and you may need to revisit the charge cost of some spells, but that’s about it ((Though, there are some schools from previous versions that are really dated. Videomancy, for instance, has been pretty much gutted in the new era of streaming video services.)). There are good, solid guidelines for building schools of magick and Avatar channels, so creating special stuff for the players should be pretty easy ((And honestly, there’s something about the idiosyncratic nature of UA mysticism that really seems to call for one-off weirdness.)).

What about the system? Well, it’s pretty unchanged over all. Percentile rolls, occasional flip-flops, just like always. There’s a lengthy ((And eminently helpful.)) discussion at the start of the rules about when you should be rolling, depending on your skill level and the kind of situation you’re in. As has always been the case, skill levels are mostly pretty low ((The exception to this being skills tied to the Shock Gauge, where it’s likely that you’ll have one or two high ones, depending on the hardened notches you added during character creation.)) – a good skill is around 30-50%, and if you’ve got something up around 70%, you’re very, very good at that.

There are a couple of new tricks in here, like coercion based on applying pressure to your target’s Shock Gauge ((So, you can torture someone by coercing their Violence Gauge, for example. Or by threatening to never speak to them again, coercing their Isolation Gauge.)). This didn’t really come up during our playtest, so I can’t speak to the efficacy or ease of the mechanics, but they look solid, and provide some interesting options, both for good guys and bad guys.

There are also rules for what the game calls gutter magick. Gutter magick is little magick rituals that you can do with a basic understanding of how magick works in the UAverse. It encompasses tilts and proxy rituals from UA2 and turns them into an improvised, build-it-yourself-as-needed way for the magickally aware characters to work a little mojo. Nothing you do with this system is going to outclass what an adept with an appropriate spell can do, but it’s very flexible, and the gathering of ritual symbolic elements and performance of the ritual makes for a fun roleplaying moment for the character.

The last things I want to talk about, the system for goals and the Antagonist Phase, are going to talk a little meandering for it to make sense. Bear with me.

UA has always been a game of very personal stakes and issues. The central question seems to always have been “Is this really worth it to you?” Adepts have to twist their lives and their minds and their souls to get the magick they need and crave. Avatars have to follow strange codes of conduct, playing dress-up with deadly earnest in order to keep channeling the power flowing from the Statosphere. Even the “normal,” non-magickal characters risk their sanity and bodies just knowing that the Occult Underground exists.

Every time a character wants to make some waves, push towards something he or she wants, the question, “Is this really worth it to you?” comes up. Because there’s always a price. And the price is always just high enough to make you hesitate, but not quite so high as to make it completely unthinkable. It’s always a decision for the character ((And the player, of course.)).

So, I mentioned above that the players are instrumental in building the setting. This means that they decide what is important to the game, the things that their characters are interested in, the things that are interested in their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. They put in things that they have decided are big enough to get their characters to take those risks, pay those prices, make those sacrifices.

And the game has a mechanic to push that along. The characters, as a group, set their goal – which must meet certain criteria, such as being measurable so that they know whether or not they achieve it – and then work towards accomplishing it. When they do something in-game that would advance their goal, they get to roll some dice, and add to the goal rating. This rating is the percentile chance that they can accomplish the goal. The more things they do to advance their goal, the higher that rating grows.

To actually accomplish the goal, the characters have to actually take an action that could accomplish the goal, and then they can roll percentile dice to see if they succeed, and narrate the whole thing in tandem with the GM to create the story of how things happen.

What this means is that it’s the players that set the goals, pushing their characters into situations that matter to them, without the GM having to guess. The players choose what’s important, rather than the GM just throwing things at them to see what sticks.

But doesn’t that mean the GM has to improvise the adventures? Well, yes and no. The rules give guidelines for the players to delineate a path to their goal – a series of things they’re going to try to advance the goal. So, the GM knows that. And the rules also have detailed instructions on how to use that information. Part of the game prep for the GM is called the Antagonist Phase, and involves the GM looking at the players’ path, and the constructed setting, and his or her own fiendish imagination, to come up with opposition, obstacles, and distractions that make the characters face those hard choices – that make them ask if it’s really worth it.

This isn’t necessarily anything new for GMs. But it is structured nicely, and has a lot of advice that’s tuned towards making the characters make troublesome decisions. Paired with the goal mechanics, the Antagonist Phase ratchets up the stakes for the characters, and gives them something to overcome. It also gives the GM the pieces to use as needed in improvising the game session – obstacles and opponents to throw in the characters’ way.

These two elements work nicely in concert to promote the personal aspects of the game, both the costs and the pay-off when the goal is successful.

Verdict? Well, I’ve always loved Unknown Armies ((One of my friends, upon reading the first edition of the game, looked at me and said, “It’s like they wrote this game just for you, Rick.” He’s not wrong. It pushes all my buttons.)). The third edition seems to focus more tightly on what the game was trying to do all along, building a game of mystical power and personal consequence. It’s got me really looking forward to the actual release. It pulls in some neat story-game elements ((Broad skills in the form of Identities, the goal mechanic, and some other stuff.)) to make the game do more of what it always wanted to do. Let’s face it, RPG technologies in the form of new mechanical ideas and approaches, has advanced since those long-ago days, and Greg Stolze has been one of the folks pushing the form forward.

If you like UA, you really want to keep your eyes open for it, too. If you don’t know UA, this will be a great place to jump on.

Greg, you did it ((For those who don’t get this, “You did it,” was the tagline of the game in 1st edition.)).

Don’t Turn Your Back


Don't Turn Your Back

Don’t Turn Your Back

Quick disclosure: I am a friend of the Hat. I like the company, I like their games, I back their Kickstarters, and I even did a little writing for them once upon a time. I try not to let that influence what I write about their games, but it’s fair to say that I am predisposed to like them. And I only write about games I like. So, take that for what it’s worth.

I backed the Kickstarter for this game, and I got it a few weeks ago ((Almost completely off topic – Evil Hat Productions is really very good about Kickstarter fulfillment. Usually, you look at the expected delivery on the Kickstarter site as a laughable pipe dream, but the folks at the Hat treat them as actual deliverable milestones. Kudos for that.)). Last night, I finally had time to get a couple of friends together ((Thanks, Chris and Elliot!)) to play through it.

It’s a combination of deckbuilding and worker placement, set in the Mad City of Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head RPG. The Mad City is the city you might wander into if you go long enough without sleep, populated by nightmares and lost souls. In the board game, you’re one of a group of folks in the Mad City, trying to win the favour of the Wax King. You do that by calling in favours of your own and doing little jobs for him throughout the City – this is represented by playing your cards, which represent folks who owe you favours, in the various Mad City locations for different scoring possibilities. Candles are victory points, and the goal is to end the game with more candles than your opponents.

I’m not going to go into details about the rules and play, because Evil Hat has the rules available online, as well as a video tutorial of play. You can check those out for a better job than I could do explaining the rules.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It's a pretty game.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It’s a pretty game.

We had a lot of fun with the game and, strangely, I actually wound up winning by a single candle. Some specific observations:

  • The game is for two to four players. We played with three.
  • There is an interesting timing mechanism for the game: you have a number of Law cards, which change each turn. When the last Law card is played, it’s the last round of the game. You play with eight cards for two or four players, nine cards for three players. This confused me a bit until I figured out it’s a balance thing – the number of Law cards is set to allow each player to be First Player the same number of times.
  • Play happens in a couple of phases: first, everyone plays their hand of cards into the Mad City, one card at a time. Then, when all the cards have been played, you evaluate each section of the Mad City to see who scores what or who can acquire new cards. Then, you clean the cards off the board, draw a new hand, and pass the first player card. Repeat.
  • This game rewards mastery. Having a solid idea of what the advantage/disadvantage of each Mad City section, and a good idea of what the cards do is the first step. Repeated play will let you figure out the different values of the various sections, when it’s worth committing a card and when it isn’t, and when it’s okay to send a card to be encased in wax as tribute to the Wax King.
  • There are many ways to earn candles in the game – the Laws in District 13, the High School payout, various Bizarre Bazaar abilities, acquiring new cards in the City Slumbering, and sending cards to be encased in the Wax Kingdom. I’m not sure yet if it’s viable to focus on one or more advantageous to try and get a little bit of everything ((I won, and I had a little bit of everything, but I only won by a single point over a player who had focused on acquiring cards.)).
  • The end-game scoring bonus from the encased cards in the Wax Kingdom can be surprising. It cased a fairly substantial swing in our final scoring.
  • Play time is listed as 45-60 minutes. I generally find my groups doubling the listed play time on board games, as we tend to be very social and not entirely focused on the game all the time. Also, I’m usually teaching games to one or two people who don’t know them and answering questions. This game ran about 100 minutes, which is easily in the ballpark for my adjusted expectations for a first play of a new game with that listed time frame.

The verdict? This is a fun game. It’s beautiful and well-designed. The components are top-notch. Price-wise, it’s about average – $40 is not unreasonable, but it’s not super-cheap, either. Which is fine.

I wouldn’t call it a gateway game. The play and strategy are somewhat convoluted and arcane – it smooths out after a couple of rounds, when everyone’s got the idea, but it can be a stumbling block for newbies. Also, the heavy reliance on the background of the Mad City can be confusing to those who don’t know it. If that encourages more people to  check out Don’t Rest Your Head, that’s all to the good, but it may be a hurdle for people really getting into the game.

More technically, I think the combination of deckbuilding and worker placement mechanics is interesting and well-executed. It’s something I haven’t seen before, and I ((So far, anyway.)) like the depth of strategy and variety it gives to the game.

So, yeah. This is not a game for someone who’s new to the hobby game community. But for someone who likes Don’t Rest Your Head, or who is well-versed in modern hobby games, it’s a great, flavourful addition to the library.

The Paranet Papers

The Paranet Papers

The Paranet Papers

It’s been some time coming, but the new Dresden Files Roleplaying Game volume, The Paranet Papers, is more than worth the wait. I have to say that I am greatly in favour of publishers taking the time needed to put out such high-quality, meaty books as this. As with the first two volumes, the book is thick and colourful, 370-odd pages of full-colour illustrations and annotations. Not to mention the dense information.

The book takes the conceit of being a collection of information gathered by the Paranet ((An organization of minor practitioners in the Dresdenverse.)), and edited into RPG format by Will Borden ((Alpha of the Alphas, a crime-fighting werewolf band.)). As with the original books, the in-game rationale  is to get important information about the spooky bits of the universe out to the public under cover of a deniable RPG book.

This approach makes for a lot of flavourful fun in the book – there are notes from Will Borden, Waldo Butters, and Karrin Murphy discussing the information, illuminating and clarifying it. The authors have got the voices of these characters down to a tee, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

But what’s in the book?


There are five settings in the book, taking up about two-thirds of the page-count, and they do a lot to show the wide variety of settings you can use for the RPG. The range of different locations, time periods, and dimensions give you a ripe field of choices, but it also should serve to spark some ideas for your own settings.

Each of the entries is written up in about as much detail as Baltimore in Your Story – enough detail to hook in lots of story ideas for lots of different characters. There is also plenty of room for a gaming group to fill in, adding their own hooks and ideas. So, each is rich with ideas, while still allowing groups to customize it to fit their own tastes and preferences.

Las Vegas: The first setting is Las Vegas. The city is a precariously balanced place, where a network of competing interests are wrapped tight in a supernatural tangle. Unfortunately, the central bit of this tangle, the element that kept everything in balance, has recently gone away ((Yeah, I’m doing me best to not give too many spoilers.)), and the various factions are starting to spread their wings, expand their influence, and settle scores.

Las Vegas, as written, is all about hard moral choices. What sins will you commit in order to for good to triumph? When you understand the purpose that the corruption of Sin City serves, will you become complicit in the misery that is required to stave off destruction? I think it would be a fairly dark campaign, but as long as everyone’s on board with that, I also think it could be a very dramatic, intense game.

Russia: Specifically, Novgorod, in October 1918, just after the revolutions of 1917. There’s rich history ((And mythology.)) surrounding the revolutions and the aftermath, in addition to the folklore of Russia itself. The entry makes good use of both history and folklore, drawing in both Red and White Russian factions, along with Baba Yaga and Koschei ((I would point out actual historical figures, but honestly, I am not up on this era of history, and I can’t really identify which ones are real and which are made up.)).

This entry is a wonderful study of how to set a DFRPG campaign in a different time period. It shows how to pick the interesting bits of history to add to the game, how to leave things open-ended enough to fit in the PCs, and how to weave in the supernatural.

The setting is dark and paranoid, though it’s the sort of stoic, noble darkness of Russian literature ((Of course.)). It does have a range of options for play, from the noble revolutionaries to loyalists trying to undo – or just survive – the turning tide. And, of course, the supernatural set, who are not supposed to take sides, but still wind up at the mercy of mortal politics.

The Neverglades: A little, out of the way tourist town in Florida, Okeeokalee Bay has the mixed blessing of being near the Fountain of Youth. There’s an explanation for the fountain that fits very well into the Dresdenverse ((

It’s a fountain that acts as a conduit to a world of vital energy, probably Summer.
)). There’s also a wonderful assortment of quirky characters, notes on the manners and mores of rural Florida, and a couple of pretty nasty monsters.

The default assumption in DFRPG is that the campaign is set in a city. The Neverglades shows what setting a campaign in a rural area looks like. There’s even a note in the write-up about The Neverglades Twist: focusing on the Faces rather than the locations, and tracking how the PCs’ actions change relationships. Having grown up in a small town, I can vouch for the fact that the terrain of interpersonal relationships – friendships, feuds, grudges, debt, alliances – shape the community at least as much as the physical terrain.

A campaign set in the Neverglades can be lighter than the previous two entries, drawing on the quirky nature of the locale and NPCs. That’s not to say it needs to be a comedy game – the TV shows American Gothic and Twin Peaks shows the kind of more serious, intense story that can take place in small, quirky towns.

Oh, and also the Fomor are involved.

Las Tierras Rojas: The Red Lands, the parts of South and Central America (and parts of Mexico) that were formerly controlled by the Red Court Vampires ((Up until the events of Changes, of course.)). It’s written from the point of view of the surviving Order of St. Giles. In many ways, the area is sort-of post-apocalyptic, with the aftermath of the sudden and complete removal of the Red Court leaving the area in turmoil.

Again, the scope of the setting is larger than the usual assumption of a city. We’re talking an entire continent and part of another. That means the details the write-up focuses on a sort-of high-level look at the various factions, with less emphasis on individual places.

Aside from a post-apocalyptic feel, this setting also allows for high-intrigue kind of gaming, traveling the continent trying to deal with the things the Red Court left behind and those powers trying to move into the power vacuum.

The Ways Between: The Nevernever is the subject here. This is kind of a setting, and kind of a write-up on using the Nevernever for travel. It gives a framework for how to build a setting where the assumption is NOT that the PCs are set in one locale. There are suggestions on how to build a road-trip campaign, along with discussions of the kinds of themes and problems that might be central to the campaign and, of course, details on how to get around the Nevernever, and what you might find there.

The bulk of this chapter is made up of what are essentially building block encounters that you can string together to provide interesting things that happen in the Ways. Most have some crunchy stat blocks, along with some suggestion as to theme and threat for that particular item. Running through this is a set of sidebars that show how these elements can be strung together into The Faerie’s Bargain, a sample frame for the aforementioned road-trip campaign.

Of all the settings, this one offers the most opportunities to run a very classical-fantasy style of game, with questing and monsters and elves in a magical setting. Ties to the mundane ((Okay, more mundane.)) world let you set the dials on this where you like but, as they say, this dial goes up to 11.


Okay. DFRPG is, in general, a fairly rules-light game. The big exception to this is the magic system ((Hence, my series of blog posts about how magic works in the game.)), and the two biggest problem areas in magic are Sponsored Magic and Thaumaturgy. The issue with Sponsored Magic is that the rules in Your Story don’t really have the precision and guidance that the other types of magic do. The issue with Thaumaturgy is that it’s complicated.

This section, running to a little more than 30 pages, do a lot to address these issues ((The chapter actually has TWO avenues for addressing the Thaumaturgy issue: a clarified explanation of the process, and a streamlined Thaumaturgy system that they call Cheer-Saving Thaumaturgy. It’s pretty awesome.)), as well as throwing in  bunch of neat Evocation tricks, some details on Soulfire, how to effectively use summoning, and the answer to the much-asked question of what sort of resistance do you face casting magic on yourself ((Official answer to this one is that you don’t resist the spell the same way an external target does, but there may be factors that increase your resistance above zero.)).

It’s a really crunchy chapter that makes running spellcasting characters a lot easier ((And more fun.)) for both the player and the GM.

Goes Bump

Goes Bump is a big section in Our World, and this is chapter updates and expands the material from that book. This brings things current with the short story Aftermath, which takes place almost immediately after the end of the pivotal novel Changes. So, that means more details where we have learned them in the novels and short stories, and brand new stat blocks for new creatures and whatnot introduced.

One of the nice bits I found here is a write-up on the Fomor, who we haven’t seen a lot of even up to the current stories. It doesn’t have a lot of solid information beyond what’s in the stories, but it does have some interesting speculation that may or may not be borne out in future case files.

Who’s Who

This expands the Who’s Who section of Our World in the same way the Goes Bump section does. Updates to a number of main characters, as well as stat blocks and write-ups for characters introduced in the newer stories.

Now, in my campaigns, I never used the characters from the books, but I still got a lot of use from this section, just changing names and sometimes tweaking a few stats. So, even if you’re not running a campaign where the canon characters appear, the Who’s Who section has a lot to offer you. Even just swiping the various stunts for the PCs to use makes things easier.


Couple of disclaimers. First of all, I seem to have a credit in the book, in the Beta Review Squad. I honestly don’t remember what I might have done for this book to rate that, but I’ll take the ego boost. Second, the fine folks at Evil Hat Productions offered me a free copy of the book. I didn’t accept, but only because I had already preordered it. I love these books, I love Evil Hat, and I don’t mind giving them my money to make more of these books.

That may mean to some that I’m biased, and I’ll admit that I am predisposed to look fondly on this book. But I honestly try not to let that sway me. Still, better to be up front about this.

You don’t need this book. The two main books give you everything you need for all the DFRPG gaming you could ever want. That said, you want this book.  It provides a whole lot of new ideas for your game, more options, clarification, and raw materials to dismantle and reassemble for your own game.

And it’s a beautiful book, full of great art and fun design. It’s fun to read, and fun to look at, and just looks great on your shelf or coffee table.

So, yeah. You don’t need this book but, if you’re a fan of the game, you really, really want it. It’ll make everything better.

Sundog Millionaires: Lofwyk


Here’s the latest session’s adventure log.

Two things stand out about this session in my mind. First, the crew decided that they would employ what was essentially a heist strategy to free the wookiee slave. They set up a plan, created a bunch of advantages for use, and ((Mostly.)) stuck to it, accomplishing their objective without actually killing anyone. Or even hurting anyone. Even the bit with HK-86 going off-book was non-fatal, and actually wound up helping sell the image of the ruthless, arrogant Imperials.

Second, we ran this session using the Deck of Fate. This is a deck of cards that has the same distribution of rolls as 4dF, so you can draw a card instead of rolling the dice. Why bother, then? Because the cards have some little extras to them. The one that mainly concerned me was that each card has two different phrases on it, relating to how good the “roll” that card represents is.

See, Fate Core is a very narrative system, and it puts a lot of narrative control in the hands of the players. My group is mostly casual gamers that have generally just played D&D. That means that they don’t have the mindset for taking narrative control in games, yet. I thought that the prompts on the cards would be helpful to them, giving them some ideas about how to narrate their success and failure ((Especially failure. That’s the bit that D&D and other such games really puts in the GM’s bailiwick. Not so much with Fate.)).

“But why,” asked one of my players, “would I want to narrate failure by bringing in a problem, like the prompts on the cards say?”

“Because,” I replied, “if you don’t choose what the negative outcome is, I will choose.” And then I grinned.

“Ah. I understand.”

For this session, I asked that everyone use the cards instead of dice, to make sure everyone got a good chance to try them out. I promised them that, after this first session, I’d let them go back to their dice or their apps if they preferred. By the end of the session, I think they were all big fans of the cards.

There are other little tricks you can implement with the cards that I may explore as we go along. The cards can be used as fate points, as well, and I have an idea about letting the players hold a hand of them based on their refresh, and allowing them to spend them either for the normal fate point function or for the “roll” value on the card. Their are also other graphical elements on the cards – moons and suns and eclipses – that could be tied to effects in game. And their are two smaller decks included, one with the various Fate Accelerated approaches, and one with the Core Arcana, a set of archetypes to help out with character creation.

All in all, the Deck of Fate is a really flexible, useful product, and I think it’s going to be the standard in Sundog Millionaires.

Firefly: Bucking the Tiger, Part One


I’m running the adventure Bucking the Tiger to wrap up our Firefly RPG campaign. It’s a fun scenario, written by Rob Wieland, that I highly recommend. But if you’re looking at playing through it, you may want to stop reading. I’ve taken some ((Actually, quite a few.)) liberties with the adventure-as-written to customize it for my crew, but there will be some spoilers.


We’re wrapping up our campaign next session ((Which is tonight.)), and I wanted to end with a big, splashy affair. Because Su Jin, our ship’s mechanic, is also a gambler who is always looking for a high-stakes card game, Bucking the Tiger looked perfect. Not only does it giver her her card game, it’s set in a wild-west-themed casino resort, with lots of opportunity to hook the rest of the crew into interesting stuff. I figured that I could easily make it last two sessions.

And it’s going to last two sessions, so that’s good.

We got off to a bit of a rocky start. I don’t know if the energy was low in the room, or if interest is waning because we’re reaching the end of the campaign, or if I just effective in what I was doing, but none of the players were biting at any of the hooks I was dropping. Now, they’d engage when I pushed things into the “unable to ignore this” realm, but they didn’t show the same sort self-motivation that they usually do. It kind of turned the game from a conversation into monologue, as I’d describe something and they’d say, “Cool!” and then wait for the next bit instead of grabbing the description and doing something with it.

That kind of sounds like me complaining about my players, doesn’t it? That’s not my intention. Firstly, anyone can have an off game. Second, if it was just one of the players doing it, I’d say that he or she was having an off game, but when it’s ALL the players, it’s more likely that it was the common element (i.e., ME) that was the problem. Part of it may have been the fact that I was trying to set the scene in a little too much detail, and part may have been that I hadn’t put in enough prep time, but I wasn’t able to snare the interest of the crew as much as I wanted. At least, not in the early part of the game.

Now, the adventure starts with an invitation to the casino resort by an old friend of the crew who winds up murdered. In the adventure, the friend is a singer who used to travel with the crew and has finally made it big. She invites them to come stay for free at the casino to repay them for their help. I changed that to Annie Pan, the marshal that the crew helped out back on Heaven in the first adventure in the campaign ((I like callbacks like that.)). Instead of being hired as a singer, she’s the second-in-command for casino security ((Why would someone go from being a marshal to being a security guard? Same reasons cops in the real world go from being cops to being security guards – better money, less danger.)).

Speaking of call-backs, I also brought in Ada Wilson, the mercenary from the last session. After Walter and Price knocked her out back on Rubicon, Price made off with her Alliance officer’s sword as a trophy. She really wants it back, and tracked Price down to ask for it. Unfortunately, Price already gave the sword to Grandfather, the head of the Jiang Triad, and Price’s actual grandfather, as a gift. So, now he’s talking with Uncle Fung about what to do.

Anyway, I wanted to establish a normality for the casino so that, when the murder occurs, it’s shocking. That meant letting the characters drift a little bit ((Not what I was actually trying to do; in my mind, I was giving them the opportunity to pursue what interested them. But really, it just let them drift.)), seeing what the casino was like on a normal day. In retrospect, I have the feeling I should have started with a teaser – the crew standing over the body of their friend ((Maybe just a body – don’t give away the identity ofthe victim right away.)), as security bursts into the room and orders them to put their hands up. Roll opening credits, then “24 hours earlier,” and cut to the crew arriving. That might have given things a little more focus and energy in the early part of the game.

But I didn’t do that.

When I did introduce the murder, I made the crew work for it, and that started to get them doing stuff again. When Annie didn’t show up for breakfast with them, Price and Jin went to check on her. Price scammed their way into her quarters and found her with her throat slit and almost dead. She was able to mouth the word, “Faro,” before dying. I brought in the whole feeling of dealing with the police then: the slow, methodical questioning, the lack of two-way information exchange, the professional blankness of the security head, balanced by his obvious competence and his request that the crew not mess with his investigation.

Everyone took that real well, of course ((Note: they did not take it well.)).

After that, everyone got on the trolley of trying figure out who killed their friend. Jin bought her way into the high-stakes, private Faro tournament currently running, and Domino partnered with her to keep an eye out for the murderer up there. Price decided to have a chat with the Triad folks who were running this casino. Walter sent a wave back to Heaven to let Annie’s old crew know what happened, which indirectly meant he was telling the Alliance Marshal Service that one of their own had just been murdered.

We wrapped up the session with three quick scenes: Price being surrounded by Triad thugs, because they’re a rival to the Jiang Triad; Walter sitting at the bar when someone slams a marshal’s badge down on the bartop beside him; and Domino and Jin stepping off the elevator into the Faro penthouse and being greeted by Cousin Ori.

That should get things rolling quickly at this, our final session.