Settings, Systems and Stories

I have my own setting. Many GMs do, that’s hardly newsworthy. I’ve developed it over the course of several campaigns, starting with D&D 3.5, then 4e, and now a 13th Age being run by one of the past players (exciting, seeing it take on a life outside my own head). It’s a D&D setting, is what I’m getting at. But as I’m recovering from D&D’s influence and considering using other systems to tell different stories in that setting (or, hell, telling non-interactive stories in it), I’m realizing just how much it has been affected by D&D. It is heavily based in D&D mythos, and I’m fine with it. But the setting itself is post-apocalyptic, with one of its core ideas being the construction of a better world out of the ruins of the old one, and actively rejecting some of the old ways. It’s been distressing, to find just how much the new world resembled the old D&D world, in ways I didn’t even think about.

It goes beyond heroic violence being a social norm. There is a pantheon of gods, most of whom have not featured in any game we’ve played, and even I’ve started to forget their names; a confused and confusing afterlife semi-attached to these gods; all the races from all the rulebooks; huge differential of power level between individuals. None of these things are bad, per se. But they haven’t been put in with a purpose behind them. They are not there to serve a greater vision, but because that’s the way things are, or D&D is, to be more precise. So while I take a scalpel to my setting and carefully consider which parts to excise, I’m also pondering the role systems play in our stories (quadruple points for namedropping both blog and post names in the same sentence!). And yes, I’m aware of the fact that System Does Matter, that’s not quite what this post is about.


What is a setting? The context for adventures. What exists, what doesn’t, how people and cultures behave. Settings provide an inspiration for stories. You may never have thought of being double-crossed by a dragon running a corporation before you’ve heard of Shadowrun. In D&D, many stories feature eponymous dungeons and/or dragons, as that’s what heroes are supposed to be doing there. Setting suggests stories.

Ideally, a setting also provides space for your own stories told within its bounds. A good knowledge of the setting will help you find the home for a story you wish to tell, place it within the context of the larger world. Want to explore alien planets in Eclipse Phase? Go gatecrashing. Want to explore a clash of cultures and racial prejudices? Be a half-orc in a D&D world. However, not all stories fit a setting without being reshaped by it. If you want to explore alien planets in a D&D setting, perhaps you’ll be satisfied with exploring the outer planes instead. Setting shapes stories.

It is up to your group as to how much you’ll let these two roles of the setting come into play. In addition, settings themselves differ in how strongly they affect the stories told in them. Some mostly providing background elements, others are basically made for a specific activity. And, of course, people change settings. You may decide that alien planets are just what you want in your D&D (Spelljammer!). Or disregard the survivalist angle of Dark Sun and just be psionic dungeoncrawlers.


If the setting suggests what’s to be done in it, the system handles the how of it. What the characters are capable of, what obstacles the rules support and how they are to be overcome. This has a direct impact on the games you’ll be playing. If the setting features flying ships, but the system offers no rules for interacting with them, you’re less likely to do so. If the rules emphasize combat, you’ll likely be fighting a lot. It’s not that the rules or lack thereof will prevent you from flying ships or finding peaceful solutions. But mechanics encourage behaviors, and behaviors make up stories.

If you’d indulge my waxing metaphorical, imagine the potential narrative of the game as a forest, and the game itself as a traveler in the middle of it. You can take the game in any direction, climb any tree, explore any aspect of the world. Rules are the pathways running through the story-forest. They will take you to some destinations faster. They’ll focus your experience, help you overcome some hurdles along the way. It’s easy to feel like a kick-ass wizard, when the rules tell you you can shoot fire out of your fingers.

These rules-pathways will also limit the story by their very nature, as long as you adhere to them. There often are beautiful plot-lakes just off the trodden path: you may wish to see your villain escape, but that may not be an option on the battlemat. You can always depart from the rules-path, but the more well-developed the rules, the harder it is to then climb back onto it. Hopping off the D&D 4e tactical combat highway is perilous. All of this is to say: pick the rules that will take you where you want, to the stories and experiences that you desire. System encourages stories.

It does more than that, though. Built into many systems is an expectation of not just the stories that’ll be told using them, but the overall direction these stories take. Characters advance in power, wealth and influence. They go from fighting orcs to slaying dragons to vanquishing demons princes. There are story arcs implicit in the design. System affects dynamics of stories.

Coming back to flying ships, if they are a major part of the setting, it makes sense to pick a system that can support them, either on its own or with some extra setting-specific rules. It’s a standard practice, to provide rules for new ideas introduced by the setting – whether these rules are official or homebrew. However, this is only an issue if your story has been affected by the setting in such a way as to include these elements. System supports setting.


A more fitting name for this element would have been “experience”, but alas it doesn’t alliterate. Either way. Story arises out of setting and system (and players, obviously), so it can’t affect them directly. Instead you can base your choice of setting and system on what you want to see in your story. Story determines setting and system.

Except sometimes, the setting is created to fulfill a story. Rules are written to provide a specific experience. This is particularly true of indie mini-games. Don’t Rest Your Head’s Mad City and mechanics all serve a single goal: to let players experience the plunge into insanity and insomnia. At other times, the setting doesn’t really exist before the game, it is a map full of blank spots. That’s the way Dungeon World functions, filling out the blanks as the story progresses. Sometimes, story creates setting and/or system.

Unintended interactions

As you can see, these three elements are in constant interaction. Not all of these interactions are beneficial or intended.

A story event could utterly unbalance the system: it may be a fine plot for 1st level PCs to find Mjölnir (a +5 artifact hammer of awesome) on their first adventure, but D&D 4e would not handle it well. A setting may not anticipate the special breed of awful that are PCs, allowing them to demolish a significant chunk of it for fun or profit. Similarly, a setting may not actually match its rules implementation: once gods and kings have stats, sufficiently dedicated PCs can kill them, and not necessarily when you anticipated or wanted them to.

More insidious, perhaps, is the influence the system can have. There’s a reason D&D PCs are sometimes called murderhoboes. You may wish to play a game about gallant knights, but if the system provides incentives to kill and pillage, results may be mixed. Often only by looking back at your story can you see just how off-track it’s gotten. Which is restating the “system encourages stories” point – it’s that important.

And, finally, the system can warp the setting beyond recognition. Using D&D4e? You may expect high-magic heroic fantasy. In addition to that, you’ll get a high proportion of population capable of teleportation, resurrection, warlock pacts, primal spirits, etc. All explorations of high-magic heroic fantasy. Not necessarily a part of your fantasy. You can reflavor or make fit some of these, remove others. Still more will remain, embedded within the system, hidden. Those teleportation powers? Eventually, PCs will figure out they can drill holes everywhere to gain line of sight (and therefore teleport access). From that moment on, there will be holes and hole plugging in your setting.

It’s very important to recognize that most systems have been made to simulate the life of protagonists. They are focused on a specific set of activities the PCs might do. What’s more, they are designed to evoke the setting as seen by PCs. The further you go from these activities and this point of view, the less thought out and functional the rules will be. It follows, then, that it’s dangerous to apply system rules designed for protagonists to the larger reality that surrounds them – the setting. Results of taking this to the extreme (as well as attempting to rationalize the setting through the rules), while fascinating, are infinitely far from the setting you started with. And of course it didn’t help that for the longest time, game designers did their best to do just that.


So what’s the moral, after all these ruminations on things that seem obvious as soon as you state them? The moral is obvious too, and one that I’ve been pushing for some time on this blog. Know all the elements that go into your game, including, yes, setting, system and story. Know how they affect one another, know that they will, and consider how to limit the effects you don’t want. Choose these tools such that they work together in harmony, not struggle against one another and yourself.

Passages & Plunder 1 – Welcome to the Underworld

And now for something completely different. Not a roleplaying game at all. A board game. A board game that I’ve been working on for the last year and a bit, and that’s approaching the public playtesting stage. Slowly. Inexorably. There’s been a lot of private playtesting done with various groups of friends, and the game is in the late stage of its development, but it’s been stuck in that stage for a while. This post, and any follow-ups, are my attempts at self-motivation masquerading as a design diary. By making it public, I’m committing to seeing it through to the end.

Sales pitch

What is the game about? To borrow from the rules it took me a month to write: “Welcome to Passages & Plunder, a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”

Okay, but what does this actually mean? First of all, it means I’m easily amused. But it’s not a coincidence the name is evocative of D&D. I wanted to convey that old-school spirit of dungeon crawling. Each expedition your colonists go on is an adventure for them. The players act as quest givers, the movers and shakers of their little underground city. Which is not to say it is yet another emulator of D&D, I’ve tried to create a distinct, somewhat weird world.

More importantly, it means the game is a cooperative one, that gradually transitions into competitive. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too: one of the main issues any cooperative game faces is an experienced player taking over and telling everyone what to do. This doesn’t happen here, as everyone is in it for themselves, even if they’re forced to work together. And work together they do. Another common pitfall many games face is solitary gameplay, where players barely have any way to influence or interact with others, and therefore might as well be playing separately. While players in P&P have little ways to actively affect each other, short of exiling someone particularly uncooperative, they must rely on each other to survive. The rules and moves are kept purposefully simple and transparent, so that each action players take, they may have to justify to others. At its core, Passages & Plunder is about how much others will let you get away with, and how much you can rely on them to do their part.

This is what board games are best at, what distinguishes them from other forms of entertainment in my opinion: the social aspect. You play with your friends through the medium that the game provides. I’ve tried to maintain the balance between the fun of just solving the puzzle of the game and exploring the underworld, and letting players interact. Everything in the game serves one or both of those goals.

Does it succeed? In the very first playtest of the very first raw version, two of my good friends, somewhat drunk at the time, ended up yelling at each other about who should feed the colony. I knew I had something good right then. And yes, it is that kind of game, that tests friendships. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but that’s the way it ended up.

Major Elements

Now that you know what the game is about, here’s what the game is, what major elements it has, and why it has them.

The underworld

It is out to get you. Each turn, its menace grows, which makes it harder to defend the colony. It is a timer of sorts, an ever-increasing pressure. There is no set amount of turns the players get; rather, they evacuate when they feel like they won’t be able to hold out another turn. And if they’re doing well and really pushing into the depths, the underworld will push back, increasing menace. It is a self-adjusting difficulty. Eventually, it gets so high that the players have no choice but to evacuate, signalling the end of the game.

Each turn, a calamity strikes, presenting another challenge to overcome or survive. The severity of the calamity scales with menace. This makes the underworld less passive, not just waiting for players to come and plunder it, but fighting back.

The board itself is a map of passages, with expedition cards placed on them at the start. They are the places and locals you’ll plunder. At the edges of the board are deep expeditions, with greater challenges and greater rewards. I’ve tried to create a sense of place, of delving further and further into the hostile tunnels. This is one of the areas that needs some extra work, I feel, but I’ll get to that in a future post.

The colony

The game starts with players collectively coming up with a name for the colony. Again, a sense of place, of ownership. There are buildings to be constructed, spells to be cast, and colonists to be sent out on expeditions. The colony aspect of the game is entirely cooperative. Spells benefit the colony. Buildings benefit the colony. Colonists don’t belong to any one player, but are recruited by them each turn.

The main way players accomplish things is by assigning these colonists to various tasks. It’s not really a worker placement game, though: the colonists differ from one another in their skills. This is the main mechanic of the game: a given task may require 3 “points” of labor, and to accomplish it enough colonists must be sent that, together, have these 3 points. There are 4 skills, and each colonist has 1-3 in all of them. This means that even if a colonist is ill-suited to a task, they still can contribute. And so it becomes an uncomfortable choice, and another way to argue about not “wasting” your colonists on a crucial task, because they could do so much more elsewhere. It’s all about the temptation, and the justification.

Another important part of the design is the “chunkiness” of choices. You can’t make symbolic gestures, can’t donate 10% of your income to the colony. If you only have 3 colonists in a turn, what you do with each of them matters.

No Randomness

There are no dice rolls involved. There is hidden information represented by cards (oh, so many cards), but most of those cards can be revealed with a bit of effort. You can plot out your turn from the start, but can you trust others to do their part? You can scout out an expedition before embarking on it, but what if others beat you to the punch? Whatever happens, you only have yourself to blame.


The colony being cooperative means players don’t build up a power base. Instead, each turn they start on a sort-of equal footing. Again, it’s not about having the best strategy, it’s about manipulating your friends. Which is not to say you can’t have a strategy. You can scout ahead and learn which colonists to recruit this turn. You can make a show of being useful, and demand allowances for future transgressions.

This still felt like it wasn’t enough, like the game only really mattered in the second half, when the colony was decently established and competition could begin in earnest. To remedy that, I’ve recently added secret agendas, fulfillment of which grants bonus points at the end. These are long-term goals dependent on the overall state of the colony, such as how many colonists there were, or how high the menace has risen. They introduce something to strive for over the entire game. Agendas are yet to be tested, but I have high hopes.

Wrapping Up

The game starts cooperative. But everyone knows that at some point, all pretense will fly out of the window. At some point, the temptation of profit will get too high. Will you be guilted into saving the colony while your friends stuff their coffers? Will you be stuck with an impossible choice between losing because you’re dead and losing because someone else won? There are quite a lot of interesting dynamics that crop up, but I’ll save them for another post, this one’s gotten too long as it is. Hopefully, it’s given you a good idea of the game, and, even more hopefully, some of you are now interested enough to give it a try when the public playtest is ready.

The Peculiar Case of the Owlbear in 13th Age

The owlbear is an iconic D&D monster. As such, it is present in 13th Age, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s sneaky, brutal, and can even tear limbs off:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered* enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

*Its attacks hamper enemies until the end of its next turn, and it does 2 attacks whenever the escalation die is even.

A mechanically simple yet thematic ability, something 13th Age excels at. Without it, the owlbear is a decent if a bit bland monster. With it, though, the owlbear deserves an entire post. Here, then, is a detailed look at all things owlbear.


The owlbear has its own victory condition, distilled into a single ability and distinct from dealing damage. It even departs as soon as this condition is achieved, leaving the maimed PC behind. The fight really is over at that point, the purpose of the encounter fulfilled, and it’s a lucky coincidence that the mangled PC couldn’t have put up much of a fight anymore. It doesn’t make sense from the in-game point of view, to leave the perfectly edible and weakened prey behind, but it plays out much better this way. The party now has to deal with their bleeding comrade – unless they decide they need the limb to ease reattachment, in which case the fight becomes a chase, a different scene with different goals.

Furthermore, should the owlbear achieve its victory condition, it will have a significant impact on the story. Importantly, you are not in control of this: you can’t choose to have it win by scoring a critical hit. This means you shouldn’t introduce an owlbear into the game unless you’re ready to face either outcome. Which says a lot about our expectations and the nature of D&D, when regular deathly conflict is not expected to change the course of the game.

There is a cop-out, though. The ability text is ambiguous, and it doesn’t have to mean the whole limb was lost. It could be just a flesh wound, a chunk torn off from an otherwise functioning extremity. Just a stun on a crit. How boring that suddenly seems.

Not a monster, a predator

The owlbear changes the typical dynamic between PCs and monsters. Facing an owlbear has consequences. It is not a foe to be thwarted, it is a fellow predator, dangerous beyond the abstractness of hit point loss. Hit points have always had a tenuous relation with actual bodily harm. It is easy to shrug them off. Sudden loss of an arm makes a PC vulnerable in a way having only 5 hp left (or even being killed!) can’t. As such, it can also be uncomfortable and disruptive to the fantasy that is D&D. While many groups wouldn’t care, it is still something to consider before you introduce the creature.

Sometimes the owlbear gets you

Crippling PCs is somewhat mean, one might argue. Fortunately, the dice provide the GM with plausible deniability, absolution through not just rules, but randomness as well. It’s not the GM’s fault the owlbear is so nasty, and it’s really not the GM’s fault it rolled a 20. This is, of course, a lie, but a very convenient lie.

There’s precious little PCs can do to avoid getting maimed, either. Limb loss coincides with damage being dealt, but the two are not directly connected. While PCs spend the whole game interacting with damage and can have various abilities to negate or overcome it, the owlbear really doesn’t care. They can try and disengage any time they get hit, as it’s only the repeat attack that has a chance to tear a limb off. This may even be appropriate, a wolf pack tactics of distraction and flanking. Yet it seems like it won’t necessarily be doable in a given situation, and it certainly won’t be reliable.

No, the only way to assuredly not get your limbs torn off is not to engage the owlbear at all. Therefore, if worst does come to worst, it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t the GM’s fault. It really was the owlbear that got you.

Perceived threat

After all of this talk of limbs torn being torn off, a question naturally arises: does this mean that an owlbear that failed to execute its signature move has failed as a monster, not a predator but a sad bag of hit points, a Chekov’s Gun that never fired? After all, the owlbear is not likely to actually tear a limb off. It needs to score a critical hit against a target it’s hit on the previous turn: even when fighting a couple of owlbears, that’s nowhere near a given. At a glance, this looks like a typical misapplication of goblin dice: a swingy roll with high impact on the game. Multiple rolls throughout the fight improve the situation, making it less of a freak accident if it does happen, but the crucial fact remains: the PCs are the “goblins” whose fate is being decided here.

It is fortunate, then, that the owlbear’s primary contribution to the game is not the loss of limbs. It’s the fear. The “holy shit” moment when the players learn of what the owlbear can do. The tension of every roll. This is what makes it an exceptional monster. The threat is more important than its unlikely fulfillment. The players will pay attention when you put the beast before them.

A mismatched hybrid

The owlbear is a ruse, a contradiction, a beak sewn onto a bear. It’s more akin to a Medusa than, Orcus help you, a random encounter. It is an awkward fit for a game about slaughtering monsters without thought or consequence. But just like its strength as a monster to be fought is not in what it does, but what it could do, its strength as a monster to be dissected is not in what it is, but what it represents. Namely, a meaningful, dramatic scene with multiple clear consequences – an owlbear of a scene, if you will.

It doesn’t really live up to its potential. It creates a new victory condition, but doesn’t allow players to affect it. It creates consequences, even if they’re not fitting for the game. And still. Even though all we found was just a bunch of feathers covered in glue, there had been something there, a pair of huge yellow eyes that blinked once and disappeared into the darkness, making us wonder why we’d fight anything else. Isn’t roleplaying, in a way, just chasing owlbears?

First Impressions: 13th Age

A lot has been said about 13th Age in the last  month or two. It’s the hot new thing (along with Numenera). If you want to find out about it, I recommend an excellent and highly detailed write-up by Rob Donoghue. Instead, I’ll provide just what the title promises: impressions.

It’s D&D

Very much so. Or at least one of its many aspects. More kick-the-door-in, less character optimization. This unmistakable D&D nature of 13th Age is what lead to our group being so excited to play it. We’re the exact target audience for this game: most of us have started with the 3rd edition, moved on to 4th, then branched out in search of narrative fulfillment and different experiences. After half a year of playing indie games, flipping through class descriptions of 13th Age is like coming back home. Remarkable, how imprinted D&D is in our gaming DNA.

We’re also the only target audience. It relies on the understanding of D&D, of its methods, cliches and even terminology, that other players simply won’t have. All the playful commentary designers have put in the book is based on the assumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about. I have no idea if a newbie player will be able to make heads or tails of it. Another fact that can be considered a drawback is that at times 13th Age is unnecessarily D&D-like, reproducing not just the core experience but some of the trappings as well. There is a fine line between nostalgia and repeatedly stepping on the same rakes.

Still, 13th Age offers a number of “fixes” to long-standing D&D issues. They are elegant and, like many other elements of the game, can be stolen. In fact, many feel like someone’s house rules. For instance, PCs only get the benefits of full rest after they’ve had 4 fights (even though spells and the like are still called “daily” abilities, which causes some confusion). Or take resurrection: a cleric can only bring a soul back from the dead a few times over his or her life, with the process getting harder and harder. Similarly, a soul can only be brought back a few times. Suddenly, death matters without removing the option of  coming back to life.

Vigorous handwaving

13th Age puts a lot of trust in its GMs. After 4e, it can come off a bit jarring at times, as there are plenty of abilities with only the barest of guidelines followed by “the GM will make up something appropriate”. These work more often than not. I particularly loved Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations, a wizard talent that lets the player make up long-winded names for their spells in order to gain a thematically fitting benefit. That’s the sort of vancian casting I can get behind. In the very first game we’ve had, hold portal was worded as Empress’s solid rejection. It not only closed the door, but filled whoever tired to open it with feelings of inadequacy and sudden sexual frustration.

Another example would be the game’s approach to monsters. Monsters are balanced in terms of numbers such as defenses and attacks appropriate for their level, but their abilities are left up to the GM: many monsters come with “nastier specials”. Feel like monsters die too quickly? Use them. Or not, up to you.

That’s the strength of the game: it recognizes when the flavor is more important than the rules, or when the rules cannot actually support the flavor and it’s better to vigorously handwave the issue away. It is also a cheap way out.

For the love of d20

13th Age goes out of its way to use the d20, more so than any other d20 system. Many classes have so-called flexible attacks, which trigger if they’ve rolled specific values on the d20. Similarly, many monsters have abilities that trigger on specific rolls. This results in a lot of information being compressed in a single d20 roll, removing some of the analysis paralysis so prevalent in 4e.

The drawback, of course, is that players may feel like they don’t have a choice at all at times, just rolling the die and seeing what happens. While monsters function almost on an auto-pilot, players are somewhat better off. They do get intersecting triggers, as well as the choice of which abilities to take during character creation. The trade-off of choice in-play for speed of play seems to be working out so far for us.

When 4e just came out, the very idea of encounter powers caused some players to do a double-take: “if I know how to do this maneuver, why can’t I just keep doing it?” The correct answer to this particular dilemma was “that’s the way the game works, don’t think too hard about it”. But if you must, imagine the circumstances for the maneuver only occur occasionally in the chaos of battle. It just so happens to be right at the time when you decide to use the encounter power, a retroactive justification. Flexible attacks of 13th Age remove this discrepancy: you do know how to do whatever it is you do, but the flux state of the fight represented by the d20 roll may or may not enable you to use your skills.

Which makes me think of a system taking this idea, d20 as chaotic state of battle, to its logical conclusion. You roll the d20 at the start of your turn, and it dictates what you can do. High rolls are attacks (probably automatically hitting), low rolls are defensive, middle ground is utility. You never waste your turn because you never fail a roll. But you may not be able to do what you really wanted to do, or at least to do it well. Something to ponder later.

Escalation to victory

Another innovative element, the escalation die is fantastic. It is a d6 that at the start of the second round of combat is set to 1, and incremented each round thereafter. It is added to attack rolls of PCs, making sure fights don’t drag on while at the same time providing a disincentive for alpha-striking. But it does more than that. It unlocks some abilities of characters, or makes them more powerful or reusable. Similarly, it can also be used as a pacing mechanism not just for the violence characters inflict, but the state of the encounter. The idea is awesome, but I’m not yet sure just how flexible the single constantly incrementing d6 is, especially considering some abilities can affect it.

There is a more subtle element to it. The escalation die provides a dramatic swing in PCs’ favour as the fight progresses. They may start on the back foot, but, armed with the escalating attack bonus, will bring the fight back around, again and again. A simple yet efficient mechanic.


Yet another new element, Icons are a different way of interacting with the setting. They give players control over which major NPCs will get involved in the story, thus shaping it with their interests. While the idea is great, the mechanic itself is a bit simplistic: you roll a d6 for each Icon relationship at the start of a sessions, and get a benefit on a 6 or a complicated along with a benefit on a 5, at some point during play. It takes getting used to. So far, we’re just managing to get the Icons (or their organizations) involved, not necessarily deriving benefits from them. It’s certainly a different way of running games. Its purposeful simplicity makes it feel like an add-on, tacked on top of the system.

At the same time, while at a glance this seems like the idea that’s easiest to steal, that may not be the case. It’s set up for a world with 13 major NPCs. Depending on your setting and the scale of your game, you’ll probably want different numbers and, in fact, different definitions of just what an Icon is.

Icons are also prone to the syndrome of goblin dice: the rolls are extremely infrequent, and their influence is potentially massive. If you don’t roll 5+ for a few sessions, your Icons do absolutely nothing – especially unpleasant in a one-shot. And on the other end of the spectrum, if players have rolled too many “successes” at the start of a game, it’s almost impossible to meaningfully incorporate them all. There’s a simple fix I’ll have to try: instead of rolling a die for each relationship, roll a single die, with values on it corresponding to your Icons. Typically, a d8: 1 means no relationships trigger; 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 correspond to your three Icons, even numbers being complicated benefits and odd numbers being just benefits; and 8 lets you roll twice (duplicates rerolled, if you care). For a one off, or if you don’t care to reproduce the full spectrum of possible results, don’t bother with 1 and 8, and instead roll a straightforward d6 with 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 corresponding to Icons. You could further refine this, and perhaps use a d12 once PCs get 4 relationships (10+ being a roll twice result).

Try it!

Overall I’m rather enjoying my foray into the 13th Age. It feels somewhat raw at times, and overly nostalgic at others. But it’s full of charm and quirkiness and energy. It makes you want to roll up a character just to see how a class would play – an almost forgotten feeling. If you liked D&D, any D&D, check it out.

First Impressions: Mythender

Mythender is a silly game, let’s just get that out of the way.  It’s also free, that’s important. In it, characters wield utterly ridiculous power to End gods. Individual rationale may vary, but basically “fuck gods” is sufficient. The main conflict, however, is not with the gods, but with the Mythic world itself. Mythenders can draw on as much power as they want, accomplishing the impossible and even refusing to die. But each time they do, they risk losing another bit of their mortal soul, and slide ever closer towards godhood. Gods have been Ended many times before, only to be replaced by their erstwhile enemies, and all the while the Mythic world thrives.

Other games play – Mythender kill

It’s a metal game. It’s metal to such an extent that my players, not into metal at all, specifically requested a metal soundtrack. Mythender drips with flavor. The rulebook even has occasional swearwords in it, something I’m not used to seeing in one. Just reading it will have you grinning at how absurdly over the top the game gets. For instance, there are three tiers of action PCs can freely choose between in combat, with escalating power and risk associated with them. Take Legendary action: the suggested example is kicking over a tree and tossing it at high-flying Valkyries. That’s the lowest tier of actions. See? Grinning.

As a highest-tier action, titanic, one of my players had split the mountain on which the battle transpired all the way down to the Underworld, sending all combatants plummeting down. Another soon followed it up by picking up what remained and slamming it into the god of war, pinning him down, and then had lightning strike an ore vein and travel all the way down to electrocute said god. By that point the first player was inside the god, tearing out his heart to make a new page in the Book of Life and Death. Mostly Death.

Rules terminology is utilized fully to convey this over-the-top flavor. Terrorizing Mortals for Power; Epic, Badass Feat; Gathering Rage. Those are all actual game terms. Even the lately popular bonds between characters are called “I hesitate to slaughter … because…”

To End a Myth

The game knows what it wants, and it doesn’t waste any time telling you. It’s there in the name. The proposed structure of a session is to fight a lesser myth, optionally interact with mortals (usually to their detriment) and then kill a god. All that build-up and justification you might have used in other games, just getting to the point where PCs might challenge the Divine? “Fuck gods”.

Ten thousand fists

Anything is a Weapon as long as you can figure out a way to be awesome with it. And as you’re fighting gods, it doesn’t have to be a stabbing implement – you could be assaulting their divine essence with sheer symbolism. Each mythender has three Weapons to rely on, intrinsic and inseparable, even if the Weapon is an unholy spear or an army of orphans.

Weapons are character defining, to the point where they are the character: each round you will be using one. Weapons also necessarily determine the scale of conflict. You could have the usual band of “heroes” rampaging through the world, or armies clashing: all it takes is one army as a Weapon.

Mythic Heart

Another character defining element is the god you’re fated to become. As part of character creation, you come up with 3 stages of your progression, 3 ways you look: mortal (yet awesome!), supernatural, and god-like. Each time PCs decide to draw on their Mythic Heart to do something particularly badass, they suffer the risk of corruption and taking another step towards their fate. The choice here is crucial: if you only do Legendary actions, you will remain mortal. On the other hand, there is power to be grasped, and Gifts to be abused, and the gods you face look particularly punchable. Which is, of course, just what the Mythic Heart wants.

Even interactions with mortals are forever tainted. That’s another theme of the game: Mythenders are so powerful, they warp the reality around them, burning out fragile mortal psyche even if they don’t want to. Even if the PCs choose to seek sympathy and healing from a mortal in-between deicide to regain some measure of their own mortality (and lose some power!), there is a very real chance said mortal won’t survive the experience.


All this talk of fluff and awesomeness of characters, but how does it actually work? Mythender is a tactile and visual game. Describing a vengeful god pick up a mountain and bring it down on the PCs is one thing, but seeing the GM gather 30-odd dice to do so is another thing entirely. You’ll need a lot of d6s. A LOT. 100+. Everything is resolved with handfuls of dice, but there are several steps and thresholds to get to any effect, making sure you won’t be fatally screwed by one terrible roll.

First, there are Lightning dice, of which Mythenders normally have 3. Each success (4+) on them grants a Thunder die. Thunder dice are a direct measure of power: successes on them generate Lightning tokens, used to create effects such as wounding enemies or creating Blights (in a moment), and they are rolled when you’re in turn wounded, with failures discarded. Out of Thunder? Out of luck. Unless you really don’t want to die like a mere mortal, then you can take on some permanent corruption and come back.

Repeatedly getting wounded increases the difficulty of that check, until only 6s are good enough. Getting corrupted through use of Mythic power increases corruption score, which increases the likelihood of getting further corrupted and advances Fate, which eventually introduces and increases the chance of turning into a god after the fight. Speaking of which…

Stone Dead Forever

If you suspect your comrade might be getting too close to becoming a god, it might be the time to End them first. For their own good. PvP is handled in a remarkably brutal fashion. Everything is suspended until the challenge is resolved. Each side gets 3 dice, or 5 if they tear their bond (which is odd – why wouldn’t you?). Whoever rolled the least successes (5+), dies. If both rolled an equal amount, both die. And unlike regular death in combat which only inconveniences Mythenders, this one is permanent. Explaining this rule to your players may get some nervous laughs.

Rise and Fall

But coming back to the regular gameplay. There is a flow to it, a certain rhythm, with build-up and release. Each time you use a Weapon, you either charge it or drain in. Same with Blights – effects inflicted upon the world, like “earthquake” or “hail of burning spears” or even “vengeful cries of the wicked dead”. They are charged for a couple of turns, and then drained for extra power (read: dice). Even the Legendary-Mythic-Titanic actions you will undertake follow this pattern: Mythic actions get you extra Thunder, while Titanic actions get you extra Lightning (and could kill you). So you will spend a couple of turns building up power, then unleash it spectacularly with a bucketful of accumulated dice.

Lost and Damned

And then there are Gifts, powered by Might. The closer you are to godhood, the more Gifts you have. To get Might you either charge your Weapons or do Titanic actions, which brings you closer to godhood. It’s a nice cycle. Gifts themselves are probably the element I like the least: they allow you to cheat a bit by succeeding on 3+ this round, or rerolling failures, or gaining Lightning for each Thunder die lost to wounds. They are decent in and of themselves, but require constantly looking up, as a Mythender can have up to 9, and gods even more. Even though some of those slots can be filled with upgrades to other Gifts, it’s still a sizeable number to keep in one’s head. Sure, there aren’t that many Gifts altogether, and after a few games everyone will memorize them… Except the game is supposed to be good for one-shots, and it certainly can’t sustain a long campaign.

Another thing to dislike about the Gifts is that they don’t have any physical representation on the board. Unlike the pile of dice in front of you, they’re just a line on the character sheet.

The character sheet itself deserves a mention, though. It’s good. Really good. Other than the aforementioned gifts, there isn’t much you’d need that’s not on it. As you become wounded or corrupted, you check off boxes that tell you the relevant numbers. As your corruption grows and you fill out a row of those boxes, you change to the next form described on that row. As your fate progresses and you check off those boxes, you not only get Gift slots on one side, but Apotheosis number on another. Apotheosis number is what you need to roll to become a god after the fight. Single die. There’s that nervous laughter again.


There are a bunch of gods in the book, with some explanation of how they differ in play (great!), and advice on reskinning them from their Nordic origins by replacing their Weapons and keeping the rest the same (makes sense). In addition to their gifts selection, they differ in their Wound Number progressions, how much Lightning, Thunder and Might they start with, how much Might they gain each turn, and what they do at the end of each round. Oh, yeah, gods cheat like that, creating Blights, wounding Mythenders or killing them outright at the end of 5th round. Cue nervous laughter.

Here’s what’s troubling me about these mechanics. There is no explanation as to the value of these small differences. Is it better to have higher Might recharge rate or slower Wound Number progression? How does an extra hit at the end of each round measure up against those? Thought and experimentation has probably been put into this, but we are not privy to it. And I can’t help but feel many of these differences should have been modeled by Gifts, so we could estimate the difficulty of gods.

It also doesn’t scale very well. The book is adamant against having 5 players, with 4 being the target number. We had 2, and followed the scaling guidelines to the letter. Granted, the party had made a mistake of underutilizing Blights, and was somewhat corrupted by the time they got to fight their god. They won in the end, on the last possible action, with one player killing himself off through dodgy reading of the rules, and another ascending. Not exactly a victory. It’s not at all bad that they’ve lost, but it didn’t feel like the dice were against them. No, they just were outclassed. Hopefully, the 4-player game behaves better.

And Then There Was Silence

Strong interesting flavor, workable mechanics, does that mean I like the game? Weeeell… Its biggest problem is that these two parts don’t actually connect all that much. And when they do, it’s not always for the best. Take Weapons. 3 cool things your character does, 3 ways they can answer to any narrative threat. Except you’re best off charging a single Weapon fully in the first 3 rounds and draining it on the 4th (given there’s no Gift shenanigans or other effects). The combat lasts at most 5. So the mechanics strongly suggest you spend 4 of them using only one of your 3 Weapons.

But even so. On your turn you will describe being awesome with a chosen Weapon and a chosen Blight if there is one. In our game Blights ended up always being incidental to the main description: “I leap through the air, tearing into the god’s flesh with my claws. Oh, also, that river of lava totally flows somewhere below and burns him some more”. Then you will take all of your dice and roll them. If you’re using Gifts, you’re supposed to add extra flavor to your descriptions, for instance making them particularly gruesome if its Grievous Harm. But when wouldn’t you describe it in the most gruesome way possible? No sense in stabbing gods in the face halfheartedly. Then, if you have enough Lightning, you can actually wound them. You always succeed at what you do, it just doesn’t achieve much unless you pay Lightning.  Everything else is fluff and busywork. Whatever you describe, you’ll roll your dice. As long as you’ve made use of a Weapon you’ll charge or drain it, same with Blight. Gifts are a purely metagame mechanic.

In other games the build-up of tension and tactics that allows to strike the deciding blow is handled through narrative and/or mechanical positioning. In Dungeon World, you may need to get on top of the enemy (proving you can do so with dice), and only then you can actually try and kill it. In D&D 4e you might try and get Combat Advantage as well as any other bonuses before unleashing your daily attack; which sounds mechanical, but also involves running around the battlefield and cooperating with actions of other PCs. In Mythender you will do your massive attack on turn 3 or 4, no matter what’s happening in the narrative. As long as you can use your charged Weapon (and given the freedom a Titanic action grants, you always can), you’ll be fine.

This is not to say there aren’t tactical choices in the game. When to use which Gifts, which Weapon bonus to charge first (in case you decide to drain it before it’s fully charged), whether to risk a Titanic action or if a Mythic one will be enough. But that’s exactly the thing: you use a dangerous, corrupting, desperate Titanic action not because narratively you’re down and beaten and a vile god is about to incinerate your loved ones. You use it because your Fate is not too far gone and you’d like some more Lightning tokens. It doesn’t click together. As much as the game encourages you to be inventive and awesome, there’s no traction between the description and the mechanics. You’re playing two separate games: in one you talk of leaping over the raised spears of the legions of undead to gut their goddess, in another you roll a bunch of dice and consider which of the abilities will maximize your output. Corruption is the only proper link between the two.

Still, those games aren’t bad, and we’ve had two fun evenings telling ridiculous stories. We may get together again once we’ve recruited 2 more players to End the ascended goddess of Fate who used to be a Mythender. She has it coming.

Dancing in the Flames

This is the second, a bit less fluffy part of my thoughts on collaborative storytelling in RPGs, I suggest you read the first part for context.

Bad ideas

I’ll start with acknowledging that there is such a thing as bad ideas. Of course there is! Torching the tavern in a typical D&D game (no, seriously, read that first post) is a bad idea for the game, as it negates already established or worked-on ideas. GM has an existing plot planned out that involves the tavern being there and characters not being known as tavern-torchers. The idea of making them tavern-torchers is not bad on its own, just in the context of that game. In contrast, in a game without preconceptions that PCs will work for the mysterious figure awaiting for them in the tavern, torching the tavern is not destructive. No existing ideas or effort is invalidated.

So why do players do this? My theory is that they don’t know any better. Creativity is a skill, as is collaborative creativity. GMs learn the craft, and our early games have probably been full of poor ideas as well. We gradually improve this skill and get better. So can players, given a chance. In one of the earliest posts on this blog I discussed the differences in the way players and GMs consider the game, and it applies here as well. Players simply aren’t trained to consider the ramifications of their actions beyond the immediate impact on their characters. It obviously helps if they try their hand at GMing. If that sounds too intimidating, perhaps something like Fiasco won’t.


Communication is crucial if you are to tell a story together. Talk it out! Before, during and after. What do you want from the game? What’s the tone and theme and topic? Why should or shouldn’t something happen? Always be mindful that the conception of the game is different for everyone, and reconciling these differing visions to the point where ideas originating from them are compatible is by far the trickiest part.

Start with something like Same Page Tool (noting that it doesn’t actually support this collaborative nonsense – still, a good starting point). Get everyone’s expectations in line. Discuss it until a coherent concept for the game emerges. If half the players want to torch every tavern they see, the other half expects to kill goblins in designated goblin-killing areas for at least two hours each session, and all the while the GM prepares for intrigue and mystery investigations, someone is going to be disappointed. The need for communication exists in all roleplaying games, we neglect it at our peril.

Letting Players Contribute

But how does this actually work? How can we get players to participate as partners in the creation of the game, not consumers of GM’s creativity? Let us examine some of the methods used in existing games. Obviously, this won’t be an exhaustive list of either methods or games, just ones I’m familiar with.

Picking narrative elements to play with

Many games use character generation or advancement as a major step in establishing common setting and as means for players to signal the kind of stories they’re interested in. I suspect this trend started somewhat inadvertently, and players may not even realize they’re doing it. Have you ever taken a story flaw that granted you a nemesis? Played an elf in a human-centric and prejudiced setting? Took levels in the assassin prestige class and joined an assassins’ guild to do so? Congratulations, you either caused the existence of that nemesis or guild, or at the very least brought game’s focus upon them. While prejudice against elves would probably have existed in the world regardless, you chose to interact with it. You’ve introduced these things as narrative elements, demonstrating to the GM that you want to explore them.

Of course, likely as not, you took the nemesis flaw because you thought story flaws are essentially free and really wanted the extra build points, played an elf because elves are awesome, and summarily avoided the assassins’ guild as the game’s plot was about something else entirely. It takes a mental shift on the part of both player and GM to see these elements for all they can be – which is what these posts are for.

Fate deserves special mention here. First, there is explicit cooperative setting generation in it, something to admire and steal. More universally, aspects are a prime example of a character’s build affecting the game. They are elements of the character’s story you’d like to examine from all possible angles, and the very act of using them will cause this exploration.

Limiting selection

Limiting the choices that have impact on the game is an important tool in GM’s arsenal. Perhaps they won’t let you play an elf at all, as they don’t want to handle the issue of prejudice as one of the central themes of their game. Of particular interest in this context are Icons of 13th Age. They allow players to declare their character’s relationship with iconic NPCs and their organisations. More importantly, these relationships have a chance to crop up each game, and so by choosing one Icon over another players demonstrate their interest in exploring them. As Rob Donoghue notes in his blog, by picking Icons for the game, the GM can provide a strong theme for players to further refine. Indeed, while the default 13th Age Icons are epic NPCs that make sense if the PCs will one day be their equals, in a more localized game Icons could be factions, cults, tribes, politicians or a mix thereof. Icons can be lifted from 13th Age wholesale, and I expect many interesting things will be made of them.

Modifying reality

Methods listed so far have one significant advantage: they occur outside of game proper, allowing players to immerse in their characters. Certain genres (and players!) work better within the confines of a character’s point of view. It’s hard to be afraid of a monster if you’re the one who’s put it there, just like it’s hard to feel smart about discovering a clue you just came up with. It’s still possible to play out a story of characters being afraid or smart, though, but that’s a different topic.

For more adventurous groups, there are games that take this further, letting players dictate their will upon the game reality. The aforementioned aspects from Fate can also be created on the fly. With a successful skill check a character may realize something that has always been true. While players undoubtedly use this ability for their benefit, sometimes that actually means creating a complication to earn fate points. The whole cycle of earning fate points through complications to spend fate points on overcoming further complications is brilliant, as a story is created almost incidentally in the process. A very smart game, Fate.

Then there is Apocalypse World (and others) with its “Ask questions, build upon answers”, simplest method to steal as it involves no mechanics at all. Whenever the GM feels like, they ask one or all players a question as to what they see or why something is happening. While I’ve usually seen it used to expand upon the backstory of characters (“Who gave you this shiny sword?” “Why did your affair with X end?”), there is no reason it can’t be used for contemporary events. This can range from offloading some of the background descriptions (“What does the tavern look like?”), to full-scale narrative control (“The door of your prison cell opens. Who is standing there?”). These questions work best if they (or at least events leading up to them) contain something unusual in them to spark imagination. Compare “What did your employer promise you?” and “What did your employer, the blue dragon, promise you?”

My own previous attempt at exploring this method sought to impose some structure on it while staying true to the spirit of collaboration, and resulted in a mini add-on system that can be put over any other game.

And of course there are games that are weirder still. Take Mystic Empyrean, in which players take turns asking and answering questions about each scene, and the only special role the main GM has is to answer questions about the lore.

…And Living With It

So now you have players introducing their ideas into the game. How do you (together!) keep the story from dissipating into a chaotic tangle of disparate threads?

Chekhov’s Gunpile

There is a dramatic writing principle stated by Anton Chekhov, called “Chekhov’s Gun“: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Of course, a game is not a product of writing and re-writing. No benefit of hindsight, no way to go back and add or remove a gun. What to do? You can’t ensure all guns will fire. Instead, toss in more guns! As many as you can think of. This results in what I’ve taken to calling a Chekhov’s Gunpile.

The elements players may choose when they make characters; the questions you may ask and answers you may receive; any and all ideas introduced: these are your guns. Your aim is to have enough of these idea-guns, so that no matter what happens, some of them will fire. Ideally, “ricochet” will hit other guns, resulting in a chain reaction of cause and effect, linking ideas together in ways only possible at that exact moment of play.

Incorporate, not invalidate

These unexpected links of ideas introduced by all the participants form the plot of the game. Seeing the way ideas can connect becomes not just a goal, but a source of fun. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s always been one of the main sources of fun for me as a GM, it just took trying to connect my ideas to those of other people to realize it. Improv theater is obviously a relative of this style of play: participants make offers of ideas to each other, then try to build on them with ideas of their own, not block them.

Once something is stated, it becomes reality in-game. As more and more facts are added, the game grows more complex. And with that complexity grows the risk of stating something else that clashes with an already established fact, either inadvertently or, worse, purposefully. Complicating things even further, some of the established reality of the game is only established in the assumptions of players, and those, as we know, can wildly differ. That is what happens in the tavern-torching example from the previous post: the GM assumes it’s obvious that the PCs will peacefully enter the tavern, as that is what PCs do in her head. Players, knowing of no such thing, happily proceed to burn the place to the ground, invalidating the unstated offer of the GM.

Communicate your assumptions. Respect ideas of others, even if they’re not to your liking. Instead of invalidating these ideas, either by outright denying or ignoring them, find ways to channel them into something agreeable to all. Be mindful that it’s not your own story anymore, even if you’re still the GM. It’s everyone’s story. Get used to it.

Method to the chaos

Naturally, most games won’t be as free or intimidating as pure improv, with setting, theme and prior discussion providing plenty of context upon which to base your creativity (potential topic for a future post and/or PhD: maximizing creative utility of a campaign setting). Established context is your friend! Use it to vet any ideas you may have to see if they’ll fit in at all, or if some taverns are better left un-torched after all.

The frameworks of tremulus (and fronts of Apocalypse World, on which they’re based) are another useful tool for providing a structure in such a game. Of particular interest is the advice found therein of picking a theme for each potential plot line, and filling events relating to that plot line with symbolism of this theme. Thus, foreshadowing occurs seemingly of its own accord.

Your Turn

There you have it, my thoughts on collaborative storytelling in roleplaying games, why and how it can be attempted. While far from being an expert on it, I’m still fascinated by the topic, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to give it a shot. It’s long been the domain of indie rpgs, so try some of the ones mentioned here, or others – there are so many. Experiment, and steal what works for you. Not to sound like a motivational poster, but be creative, and encourage your fellow players to do the same. Make stories together.

Torching the Tavern

Tonight’s post is going to be somewhat rambly. Yes, even more so than usual. I have a topic in mind, and I’m going to try and figure out what my thoughts on it are. Stick around. The topic in question: cooperative storytelling in rpgs (buzzwords!).

Imagine a stereotypical game in broad strokes. The party arrives into town, looks around, and immediately proceeds to torch a tavern, fight the town guard, and somehow ends up in the mayor’s mansion hiding his bloody body under the bed. Sound familiar? Be honest, you probably ran something like that. Or perhaps caused it. Imagine this was the start of a D&D campaign. Worst session ever, all the carefully constructed plot ruined, time to get new players. Now, imagine the exact same session: tavern-torching, mayor-killing and all, but as the start of a Dungeon World campaign. Awesome, so many threads, so many places this can go. What’s different? We’ll get back to this. Continue reading

First Impressions: tremulus

Continuing my tour of roleplaying systems that started with the previous post, today I look at tremulus. You may have heard of it’s progenitor, Apocalypse World, or of its sibling, Dungeon World. tremulus is a “storytelling game of lovecraftian horror”, and is, from what I understand, a fairly straightforward hack of AW, with some bits screwed on top. The result is called “haiku”, and is said to also draw from FATE and Fiasco.

Still, much of what I’ll be saying here likely applies to AW as well. Perhaps I’ll get around to playing it on its own one day. As for my experiences with tremulus, we’ve played a 5-session game, that was initially meant to finish in 3. And it was amazing, one of the best games I’ve been a part of. But how much of that was due to the game itself? I am, as ever, dubious. Lets dig in.

Quick note first: I don’t think you can currently buy the game, as it was a result of successful kickstarter. But as the finalized pdf was recently made available, it’ll probably be up for sale soon enough.

Continue reading

First Impressions: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

As long-time readers may remember (and new readers would not care), I’ve recently finished a massive D&D campaign that lasted several years. Having done that, I’ve set out on an odyssey, to try out some of the other systems out there. My attempt at combining Don’t Rest Your Head with Portal is an example of what I’ve been up to. But I’ve been neglectful of this blog lately, and the reason is simple enough. As I only spend a few sessions on each system I’m trying out, I don’t build up enough system mastery to write the in-depths posts I tend to. But staying quiet for so long is bad for my writing skills, and defeats the point of the whole exercise: to learn and analyse new games.

Hence, a different approach: I’ll document my first impressions. Immediately, a very important caveat, and one that I want to avoid typing every other sentence. With experience, a gaming group would learn to mitigate many of the issues I’ll be raising, whether through tricks, rules interpretations or not thinking about them too much. And of course, some of them may not even be issues, but rather demonstrations of my limited understanding. With that in mind, I’ll call ‘em as I see ‘em. I can criticize other games, not just D&D! So. Not an essay, not a review, just my thoughts.

And what game best to start with, but the one that’s no longer in production. Perfect timing. Yes, sadly, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not being published anymore, and all the announced supplements won’t be released. They don’t even appear to be selling the pdfs anymore, which confuses me to no end. It’s not like the ones out there will magically disappear; only the ability to actually pay for them has done so. But hopefully this is a temporary snag while the licensing details are being worked out, and the books will be sold again soon. Continue reading

Don’t Rest Your Head (If You Want Cake)

Following post requires knowledge of Don’t Rest Your Head and Portal 2. If you aren’t familiar with them – fix it! This is a how-to on running a crossover game.

Cave Johnson here. Boys at the lab have been busy. Built a time machine. Fetched some books from the future. Or from an alternate reality ruled by sentient hats, they’re not too sure. Good news is, those hats sure can write. The first book was boring. Gave it to Caroline. If I wanted  to distinguish between gray colours, I’d ask my dog. Speaking of which, make note: get my dog to talk. That bastard looks like he’s hiding something. Where was I? Ah, yes. The second book was excellent. A guide on employee ethics. Don’t Rest Your Head. Told the boys to forward-reverse-engineer it. Make it ours before they make it theirs. We’ll paradox those future hat lawyers out of existence.

Throw a coat of paint on it

Revise, repurpose, rename. There’s no place for madness in Aperture Science, diced or otherwise. No. What we do here is science. So Science Dice it is. And Science Talents. We have many talented scientists here, they would give their left arm for science. Some grew a new left arm just so that they could do it twice. These scientists all have important projects, and they all require testing. The Portal Gun was exciting, can’t wait to see what else they’ve cooked up.

Having Science Dice means that sometimes Science Dominates. I like the sound of that! When Science Dominates, things go badly. Badly for the tester, but good for the science. No Fight or Flight, we’re a serious company. Either Equipment Malfunctions, or Tester Malfunctions. And we learn from those mistakes.  So that next time there’s a smoking crater, we can point at it and go “only 98 more until representative sample, send in the next tester”.

Next on the list is Despair. Why despair when you can research. A Petri Dish of Research replaces the Bowl of Despair.

Randomized testing chamber generation

The average human spends 33% of their time on sleep. Unacceptable. If employees no longer sleep, they can spend all that extra time on testing instead. More testing means more testing chambers, means more science getting done. Beancounters told me we’d run out of testing chambers that way. Not to worry, I say, we’ll just make more on the fly. Need inspiration? What am I, an inspiration-generating machine? No, that’s on floor 7, they had to build it next to the generators because of all those cranium-implanted electrodes. Just take some of those testing icons, pick whatever you like, print them out, shuffle, draw 2-4, and there you go. Instant testing chamber, just add a gullible cephalopod to build it. Still need a creative spark? Go to floor 7, they’ll hook you right up.


We have many great products here at Aperture Science. Turrets and party escort bots and military androids. But reading that book gave me some ideas. Mount a personality core on a volunteer. Call it Core Personnel.  See what different cores do. If you’d like to volunteer, seek out a lab assistant. As an added bonus, you’ll help advance the head storage project. Double the science!


Some of the lab boys have raised their concerns. They said this “Mad City” was all about “encountering the world so mad, you had to go mad to make sense of it”. About “inexorable downward slide into insanity in desperate pursuit of the things you care most about”. About “self-destruction as salvation”. To all of them, I say: “you’re fired”. Also, “have you ever written a grant application?”