Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

Backup Campaign

Getting the whole group together for a game night can be tricky. As we grow older, obligations and kids accumulate. I’m amazingly fortunate that my players are still committed to weekly gaming. Well, almost. We’ve agreed that we’ll still play if one out of our five players is missing, otherwise we’d never get anything done. And if four can’t make it, it’s an easy call to cancel the event. But what if only two or three are out? Hanging out or board games are decent options, but we’re united by our shared love for roleplaying games. Hence, a backup campaign.

The backup campaign has to have minimal character importance – we never know who will be present next time. Likewise, as a month or more can pass between these backup games, there can’t be any significant plot. These requirements lend themselves to a dungeoncrawling game, where ideally each floor of a dungeon is completed in a session. It also seemed like a good place to experiment with the OSR style of play.

On the night this idea came up, we set up a town to act as a hub, surrounded it by thematic locales players wanted to explore that would easily house dungeons and wilderness adventures, and placed a giant weird hole in a ground next to it to act as an excuse for any random dungeon I might find.

Finally, I had Shadow of the Demon Lord burning a hole in my electronic shelf, and all the pieces fell in place. We still had two characters who survived our first foray into the system, and it’s easy enough to roll up a new one. We wanted to see more of the system, so levelling up is very quick – each session survived (in which significant progress was accomplished) grants a level. At the same time, high lethality is part and parcel of OSR, so I’m not terribly worried all PCs will reach max level and get bored.

Darkest Dungeon served as an inspiration for the whole model. I briefly considered further emulating it with some sort of city upgrades, but that just seemed like too much work. Instead, I’m using an ad hoc achievement/unlock system. Everything in the core book is fair game for players to choose. Beating dungeons or getting treasure grants them access to specific extra material, of which SotDL has plenty. For instance, our party is about to befriend (or try to beat) the not-quite-lich at the end of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings. Either will open up the Death magic tradition from Demon Lord’s Companion for them.

This has worked really well for us. While this playstyle is not our usual cup of tea, its problem-oriented nature offers a nice break from our usual moral dilemmas and drama. There’s a certain sense of freedom I experience as a GM – all I gotta do is portray the current obstacle, without worrying how it ties into the established plot lines or how it’ll affect them. Maybe the dungeon gets the PCs, maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. There are more PCs if it does, and more dungeons if it doesn’t.

More than anything, having a backup campaign has removed the stress and frustration that comes with scheduling issues. Full group or not, we’re playing something fun, not scrambling to find a replacement activity.

Building up an Adventure

Last week, two of the players in our group couldn’t make it, so the regular game was cancelled. I seized upon the opportunity to try out something different, namely Shadow of the Demon Lord. It wasn’t enough to write a First Impressions post, however the experience of rewriting the adventure was perhaps noteworthy enough. Because the starting adventure I picked, A Year Without Rain, was just a tad disappointing.

Note, this isn’t really a review of the adventure, nor is it a rewrite you can easily use to run it yourself. Instead, I hope you’ll find the process itself useful. And if it wasn’t apparent, there will be detailed spoilers of the adventure.

The premise held promise: a village affected by a lenghty drought, then stricken by people suddenly drying up, their corpses all but turning to dust. Investigation leads the party into the well, where a demon to blame for it all resides. Cool. The lone review on DTRPG warns of the adventure’s deadliness, and it isn’t exagerrating.

However, the main issue I immediately had with it is it’s just a dungeoncrawl. And not a very engaging one, either. Once the PCs dive into the well, it’s just a series of rooms with monsters popping up to attack them. The demon herself simply wanders the halls, appearing at any moment. Kill it and you win, the end. This isn’t to say there aren’t any interesting elements scattered there. The Goblet of Tears, a magic item that produces 10 gallons of salt water each day, and has a 1-in-20 chance of not stopping for a year is quite cool. As a side note, the party immediately triggered this hidden drawback, and the survivors intend to build themselves a salt-selling business.

The initial investigative stage is straightforward but serviceable. One moment that’s not very well thought-out: the Laughter in the Well, the demon to blame for all the deaths and the drought, has apparently been killing people for a year now. It’s also seemingly been dragging their dessicated corpses into its lair as it’s strewn with dust left from their bodies. How come it’s only been noticed a week ago for the first time? There is even a dedicated well-watcher in the village! The demon can scry on the surrounding area and teleport there, picking off lone travellers, and I guess teleporting back with their bodies. A week ago its modus operandi changes. Now it floats out of the well, asks lone passers-by for a kiss, and just lets them walk off and die.

Perhaps it has gradually recovered its strengths, growing bolder. The Shadow of the Demon Lord looming ever closer probably had an effect, too. This isn’t something PCs are likely to discover, but it helps to give the adventure urgency. As written, if the PCs do nothing the demon eats a villager each night until eventually the inquisition is called in and presumably deals with the threat. Not all that exciting. Instead, let’s say the demon goes out of its way to kill any messengers sent to alert the authorities, after which the villagers figure they should start sacrificing people to it, doing it with proper respect. Malery, one of the few NPCs players are likely to have a positive interaction with, makes for a good first victim. Outsider PCs work, too.

Overall plot sorted, lets move on to mechanics. Now, I’m new to SotDL. However, it seems like actual fighting is not it’s goal or source of fun. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’re meant to be doing for the majority of the session, unlike, say, in D&D 4e. The rulebook even warns new players to avoid conflict, calling it “last resort.” At the same time, the strength of the system seems to lie in the flexibility of its boons and banes, allowing for quick adjucation of novel approaches. A somewhat OSR attitude.

With that in mind, what opportunities for avoiding combat and novel approaches does the adventure offer? There’s a whole bunch of monsters in that dungeon. The tiny demon hiding in the sand pool and the golem masquarading as a magic circle are seemingly there to punish PCs for poking around too much – a strange lesson to teach as there aren’t any warning signs of their presence. In contrast to that, the large spider in a coffin, while seemingly doing the same, actually rewards confronting it – if not dealt with, it’ll pop up later when PCs are most vulnerable.

Inconsistent lessons aside, many of these monsters also don’t make sense. What is the spider eating in this dry-as-a-bone dungeon, how did it get there, why hasn’t it been destroyed by the traps or demons? Whose coffins are those? Why are animated corpses in the other room animated and not drained until they’re sand like everything else here? What’s with the magic circle/golem room: why are doors blown off its hinges, why is the golem even there? “Some great explosion had
occurred here long ago.” Great. Very interesting.

Too much of the adventure feels like it’s just filling up rooms with monsters, filling up the session with combat. Time to cut. I’ve kept the sand pool demon, to act as an intro to combat rules, and it dropped one of the PCs in two rounds. Deadly, indeed. The PCs had brought multiple waterskins into the dungeon, reasoning it’d come in handy against something that drains people dry, and I let them splash it on the demon (Agility vs Agility, 1d6 damage).

While I didn’t quite mean to, I literally forgot the spider room even being there. No big loss. The magic circle is just a magic circle. The ghoul musician is amusing enough, though this gag encounter being as tough as the actual demon is a bit ridiculous. Still, if the PCs fail to appease it, they can run back through the trap tunnel, softening it up. Which means the trap tunnel needs some more definition. Let’s go with standard raised bricks that trigger the blades popping up.

Secret doors to the “treasure room” also need an actual description. An idential carving of the demon in its beautiful guise will do, offering an obvious hint that something’s there. And seeing how it’s so focused on kissing people to death, lets say the doors are opened by touching the carving’s lips.

What to do with the demon itself? Beating it to death is hardly satisfying. Not to mention it’s very likely to one-shot a PC each round, and I only have 3. No, we need a “puzzle” element, a way to weaken it to a more manageable state. The scrying orb is a natural fit to give a hint. As it’s written, it gives non-essential and fairly bland backstory. Instead, lets say it shows how the demon was first defeated. It’s “portfolio” is lust and drought, a strange combination. Perhaps even its “priests” had a love/hate relationship with it. Kiss, draining all liquid, death, betrayal, sacrifice. Salt. Got it.

The vision shows five priests do a simple ritual over the Goblet of Tears, drinking the cursed salt water from it, then kissing the demon one after another. As they die, so does the demon. Oh, and look at that, there are five animated corpses for some reason entombed with the demon, how convenient. So there we have it. Get the vision, the goblet, the unholy symbol from the priests, do the ritual, fool the demon into drinking one of you. Don’t want to sacrifice yourself? Perhaps there’s another way. The first victim of the demon was a real jerk named Braidon. Let’s not kill him, skipping straight to the second victim and making up more if we have to. Want to save yourself? Sacrifice Braidon instead. Get a point of corruption, welcome to dark fantasy.

Once the demon drinks the cursed salt water from someone, it starts falling apart, clump by clump turning to dust itself. Here’s where boons and banes come in handy: for each “sip” it takes, it gains one bane to everything, and those attacking it gain one boon. You still have to fight it, but at least now the PCs stand a chance.

And finally, how do they meet it? Lets say it reconstitutes itself out of dust in the dungeon each night, assembling its body on the burial slab. As PCs spend time in the tomb, they notice dust streaming towards that room of its own accord. Functionally like a vampire waking up at night, but with a different flavor of growing tension.

With all these changes, why even use a pre-written adventure? It offered a starting point. Especially for a system you’re not familiar with, seeing how you’re “meant” to run it is useful. And it wasn’t all bad: the antagonist, the goblet of tears, the human dust-strewn dungeon, those are all evocative elements. It offered a foundation, upon which I could build a satisfying game. It would have been nice not to have to do that, to just run it as is, but hopefully with this post as an example, you’ll be able to do something similar yourself.

Running an RPG for kids

I ran a “Dungeons and Dragons” event at a public library last week, with six 10-or-so year old kids showing up to my table. It went well, but boy was it a challenge.

How do you prepare to run a game for kids you’ve never met? The system obviously needs to be both simple and quick to teach. And while “D&D” in the event name was used as a generic term for roleplaying games, having PCs be heroes fighting some evil threat seemed like a good idea. I picked Dungeon World, but even that turned out to be too much. Bonds, weight, deities, high level spells, it was all a bit overwhelming and either was ignored during the game, or distracted from it. The “legacy” aspects of DW, such as stats being two numbers only one of which actually mattered for most of the game, provided unnecessary confusion as well.

Next time I’d choose something even simpler. Maybe Roll For Shoes. FAE is another contender, though I’m not certain I could explain aspects well enough. Time is a big constraint: 3 hours for everything! And as it’s a one-off event, you can’t even build system mastery over several sessions. I’m aware of RPGs made specifically for kids, that’s obviously worth investigating as well.

But back to game preparation. Unambiguity of opposition’s evil seemed important. Leave challenging morality questions like “is it ok to kill goblins” to teenagers. Stick with robots, zombies and dinosaurs. Turns out, undead are cooler than robots. Who knew. I prepared a basic adventure: start at the entrance to the dungeon with a task to retrieve a macguffin from within. Inside await a fight or two, depending on how fast the game goes, a couple of opportunities to be smart and avoid traps, a guardian spirit to interact with and a choice at the end.

I was particularly fond of the first room, a dining hall of a mansion whose owner has seemingly perished, still staffed by robot butlers. They do their best to maintain it, while everything including themselves succumbs to rot. Very “There Will Come Soft Rains”. And if the adventurers decide to break things, or steal the silver cutlery, they get their first fight. That was the plan. Here’s how it went in practice: the fighter (named Darth Vader, naturally) went in first, saw creaking figures in the darkness, and attacked the closest one.

Lesson learned: don’t bother with subtlety. It’s not that kids can’t appreciate it, I’m sure some could. It’s just that one of them will inevitably smash it with a flail. For that matter, having a logical and consistent dungeon didn’t seem to matter to them much, either. Again, not surprising: they’re experiencing a sensory overload as it is.

Another lesson learned: placing a puzzle-like scene near the end of the adventure was a mistake. Kids get tired, their attention wanders, and placing them into a situation with no immediately obvious solution leads to them drifting away. An extra consideration for structuring the adventure.

The toughest part about running the game was managing the group. Six players was definitely too many. Rotating the spotlight and making sure loud players don’t dominate the session is tricky even with adults. With kids it’s an order of magnitude harder. Loud players literally jump up and down demanding attention, while quiet players are content to sit and not say a word unless directly drawn into the action. I had expected the flexible nature of DW to help out in this, but I suspect a rigid initiative system may have worked better. In part because it makes sure everyone has to participate, and knows roughly when it’ll be their turn. But also because putting a kid on the spot, one of the GM moves of DW and a great tool otherwise, has a risk of simply not working if the kid quietly says “I dunno”.

Another element of DW that didn’t always work was the fact that often enough PCs simply don’t trigger a move with their actions, leaving the GM to decide what happens. Normally, that’s fine. But when a kid tries to use a dagger to jimmy open a blast door that just slammed shut, saying “no, that just doesn’t work” leaves them stumped. The remedy to both of these problems, I think, would be to replace the traditional “what do you do?” with “do you do this, that, or something else?”

Something that surprised me a bit: most of the kids had simply shown up because it was a summer holiday activity, not because they were already interested in fantasy gaming. They hadn’t previously played anything remotely similar, digital or otherwise, and none of them had read or seen Lord of the Rings. Establishing common cultural tropes was tricky at times.

Despite these difficulties, I had fun, and so did the kids. A special shout out goes to the girl who played the cleric, and came up with an ingenious use for the light spell: cast it on the eyes of enemies to blind them.

Sunless Fate 3

Welcome to the final (at least for now) installment in the series converting Atomic Robo rules to run a Sunless Sea-inspired game. Previously, we covered character and ship generation, as well as ship combat, trading and zeafaring. This post will have little to do with rules, instead focusing on exploration and mystery of SS, and how to run such a game.


FL and SS are games of mystery, of being submerged in a weird world and gradually piecing together how it works, what all those strange names mean, hint by hint. This approach is fascinating, but not quite replicable in a TRPG. Where written fiction can offer a tantalizing hint and leave you wanting more, an RPG character can always choose to push further, dig deeper, roll the dice. Indeed, given the overall ethos of “proactive, competent and dramatic” characters of Fate, you can expect them to do just that, often successfully.

And that’s not a bad thing! What might have taken you years to figure out in FL (no, seriously, years), they’ll discover in weeks. Or, perhaps, they already know all this as well. In fact, how well the GM and the players know the world of Fallen London will fundamentally alter the way your game plays out. There are three rough categories your group may fall under.

Scholar of Correspondence

The GM is the titular scholar, the one person who’s played the games and studied the lore. Everyone else just thought weird steampunk naval game with talking rats sounded neat. This is the situation in my gaming group. Rejoice, for you are about to introduce your players to the deep, dark, and marvelous world of Neath. It is a delight, watching comprehension slowly dawn on them, seeing theories form and be discarded, and finally observing them explain to one another how things work.

In this case, the Secrets skills are a major way by which you can feed information to your players. The Brainstorm mechanic of AR will likely be of limited use, only applicable when the mystery is “local”, not related to the lore.

This is the least Fate-like situation, with players constrained by their lack of knowledge from making declarations about the world. There are definitive answers you have that PCs can gradually uncover. In fact, you can have entire games revolving around learning a particular secret of Neath.

Masters of the Bazaar

The majority of the players are already familiar with the setting, perhaps they even know it better than the GM. Players and GM are co-conspirators, together delving into the familiar damp darkness. The players know where mirrors lead and how red honey is made. You won’t get a gripping plot out of simply revealing the deep truths of the Neath. On the other hand, you don’t need to lay out the groundwork for things to make sense. All it takes is a subtle implications for the wheels to start spinning.

The Secrets skills are mainly there to justify characters knowing what players already do. Brainstorms are more fitting, with players unlikely to propose something contradictory.

A Sea More Sunless

None of you know what’s going on. You just got out of New Newgate, or said goodbye to your first captain. It’s all so exciting and a little bit intimidating. Worry not, for you are about to embark on an adventure. You are in the same position as your characters in the computer games. Much like in the Masters of the Bazaar case, you are co-conspirators. But instead of treading familiar waters, you are staring at a blank map. What you discover will be largely up to you. This game will be inspired by FL and SS, rather than based on them.

For you, the Secrets skills are there to make declarations. What is a lorne-fluke, why do devils even want souls, are blemmigans a hive-mind? You decide. Similarly, Brainstorms become a way to establish potentially far-reaching truths about the world.

The lore

Whatever your situation, you will want to check the existing lore every now and then. The best way to obtain it, unsurprisingly, is to play FL and SS. It may be a good idea to revisit a location the party is about to enter to refresh your memory before the game. In addition, both games have fan-made wikis, though the text in them is quite limited. There’s also Saint Arthur and Saint Beau blogs, extensively covering both lore and gameplay of FL and SS respectively. The blogs are incredibly spoiler-heavy, so peruse at your own peril.

It’s easy to be trapped in the official lore, there’s so much of it. It’s tempting to simply replicate the characters and mysteries you so enjoyed, and that’s fine. But don’t feel constrained by them. You may not always know the answers. Some of the questions are yet unanswered. You may get things wrong. And that’s fine, too. This is your game, your own Neath – that’s very important to establish from the outset.

Preserving the mystery

Running a mystery game in Fate is not exactly a new problem. Here are a couple of ideas you may wish to adopt for running Sunless Fate, mostly applicable to a Scholar of Correspondence group. If your group falls under Masters of the Bazaar or A Sea More Sunless, there aren’t many grand lore-related secrets that players don’t already know (or don’t know along with you). Unless, of course, the GM adds more.

If you don’t want to reveal the true nature of something, don’t make the adventure about it. This may seem obvious, but is still worth discussing. The mystery of the adventure will be solved, one way or another. The mysteries of the Neath don’t have to be. You can have an adventure set in Parabola, with adventure-specific secrets to uncover and problems to overcome, without the adventure being about Parabola. Let the players draw their own conclusions, hazard their own guesses, feel their way through the shadows.

The openness of Fate may seem like a problem. How can you keep something hidden, if players are supposed to know or be able to discover the aspects of everything and everyone? Here, we can learn from FL. In it, you are informed when your situation changes, when you have gained or changed a quality… but not necessarily what that means. You become a Scholar of Correspondence long before you know what Correspondence is. So throw weird names and concepts at your players. They may use Empathy to find out the Weary-Eyed Captain they’ve met is a Pawn of Dawn, but what that actually means will have to be revealed in-game as the aspect is invoked.


The map of the Zee is a mystery in its own right, with much of SS revolving around uncovering it, island by island. Here are a few options on how to handle it.

The known Zee

The simplest option is to use an existing map, be it an official print, a screenshot from your favorite SS run, or the one you can find on the SS wiki. You trade some of the exploration aspect of the game for the convenience and prettiness. Unless your group are Masters of the Bazaar, though, there’s still exploration to be had. Just because the party knows names and locations of every island, doesn’t mean they know what goes on there. Isle of Cats sounds delightful, does it not?

Geographical drift

To imitate the ever-shifting Zee and allow for discovery of the map, you can prepare a deck of square index cards, with one island, reef, whirlpool or just empty water per card. It would make sense to have cards’ size be equal to a unit of distance on your map (see Zeafaring in the previous post). Whether you use the existing islands and names or make up your own is up to you. If you wish to be more faithful to SS, you may want to make individual decks for different regions of the Zee – the SS wiki explains how it is broken down.

Start with a sheet of paper large enough to fit your cards arrayed as a complete map. Putting a grid on it may help. Normally, the edges of the map remain static: Venderbight is always to the north of London, Irem is in the north-west corner, etc., so you may wish to put them down first. When the party begins their journeys and reaches a blank spot on the map, simply draw a card and glue it into place. Or copy the image of the island on the map, or use a digital tool and avoid the messy paper business entirely, whatever is the most convenient and produces the desired result. Ideally, you’ll have another artifact at the end of the game, a map of your journeys. Trace the path you take over it, too. Note where be dragons. Own it.

The blank canvas

An approach even more random than the previous one, best suited for A Sea More Sunless group. Again, start with a blank gridded sheet of paper, with the size of a cell equal to the unit of distance you chose. When the party reaches a blank square, roll fate dice. Each ‘+’ is a potentially inhabited island, a single landmass if the dice are close, individual islands if they’re far or separated by other dice. Each blank face is simply water. Each ‘-‘ is an uninhabited rock, a reef, a whirlpool or something else not terribly useful and potentially dangerous. The actual position of dice relative to one another matters – the features they represent are arrayed in the same way. Let the players draw and name the resulting island(s) on the map.

The sheer weirdness of the Neath can’t really be inferred from a random roll a three, but perhaps a randomly determined faction that runs the place will start you thinking. Again, roll fate dice. Start in the top left corner, “Seekers of the Name”. For each ‘+’ on the dice, move right one column. For each ‘-‘, move down one row.

Seekers of the NameAdmiraltyTomb ColonistsRubbery MenSpider cultists
Clay MenPiratesLondoners
Fingerkings’ puppets

Running Sunless Fate

This is still Fate, naturally. All the advice on running Fate games applies here. At the same time, the world of FL is so unique, the games set in it can’t help but be different, too.

In the deepest matters of the Bazaar, always look to love

This is what many FL stories come down to: love. A great motivation, but one often overlooked in games. We’re used to greed, hate, madness, lust for power at the center of our conflicts. No one cares why a necromancer raises a zombie horde, or a mad scientist builds giant robots, or a cult leader summons eldritch horrors. That’s what they *do*. Their purpose in the story is to be villains. This game often doesn’t have a villain.

What it has is classic story fuel: people who want something, but can’t get it. People lived on the islands of the Zee before the PCs ever set their foot there, and they may still live there even after the PCs leave. Likely as not, there’s no catastrophe for PCs to prevent, everything is in a state of equilibrium. Unhappy, perhaps, tense, definitely, but equilibrium. PCs abhor equilibrium. They are a new element, proactive, competent and dramatic. Maybe they are just what a local desperately needs to change things. Or maybe they just blunder into it like all PCs do.

And at the center of it all, the cause of desperate needs and tensions, the one thing left in the ruins of the equilibrium, is love. In the broadest sense of the word.

A reckoning is not to be postponed indefinitely

Neath is a grim place, if you look past all the quirkiness and humor. Which is why it’s crucial not to look past them. Still. While death may not be final here (and that’s very important to remember!) there are many ways one can lose oneself. The stories of the Neath are stories of love, yes, but they’re also stories of what people give up and how they change in the name of their love.

It’s this change that Fate conveys better than most systems: changing a character’s aspects is a powerful statement. Since we got rid of collateral consequences of AR, it would make sense to re-introduce the extreme consequence of Fate Core. The usual aspect adjustment that comes with milestones fits the less traumatic occurrences.

And speaking of consequences, being haunted by strange dreams works great as one. If a character struggles to overcome their nightmares, suggest a success at major cost: a trip into the Mirror-Marshes.

It is possible for your characters to become monsters. Cannibalism is always on the table. Whether or not that’s something you want to explore, is for your group to decide. No, a reckoning will not be postponed indefinitely. The longer you postpone it, the more you deserve one.

Seven is the number

Sunless Fate lends itself well to an episodic game. The islands are isolated, individual. In a typical scenario, the party arrives on one; gets into all sorts of trouble as they try to replenish their dwindling supplies, repair their ship or simply gawk at the locals; discover the weirdness of the place and maybe even solve it; then move on to the next island. The journeys between them are a connective tissue, but rarely the focus of the adventure.

Such structure presents a unique challenge: most NPCs your party encounters will only be present for a session or two. While that’s true for most campaigns, the dark waters of the zee separating the islands make departing more final. It may be hard to care all that much about the strange locals and their troubles if you’re not going to be seeing them ever again. Therefore it becomes even more important to tie the NPCs and their stories to the PCs via their aspects.

And if the players like (or like to hate) a particular NPC, consider having them come along as a zailor or a passenger, or finding other ways for them to travel. The PCs aren’t the only ones with a ship, after all.

Searing enigma

If you do adopt the episodic structure, consider naming each episode with a Correspondence word, one you’ve seen mentioned or made up on the spot. As long as it’s cryptic, strangely specific and vaguely inhuman, you can’t go wrong. So far we’ve had Hurtling Forever Towards the Earth, The Disgrace of Dying at the Place of Birth and Tracks in the Illimitable Void, to name a few.

As an optional rule, you can award a Searing Enigma to the PC who went out of their way to uncover a secret in a session, and reveal the name of the episode as you do. Yes, this mixes up Correspondence with Searing Enigmas a bit, but the thematic similarities make it work. Only reckless pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge should result in a Searing Enigma.

What is a Searing Enigma in this context? An aspect with a free invoke, much like any other trade good. Being as they are flashes of insight into the deeper workings of the universe, it can be used in any context. Their baseline price would depend entirely on how frequent they are. Seven is the number, but perhaps four will do if they “drop” every game. Regardless, not many merchants would be willing to trade in them. Instead, perhaps a few of enigmas can be used to buy or construct an exotic ship part.

It’s worth pointing out that my players have unanimously decided the only acceptable use for Searing Enigmas is on the last roll of the campaign.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Despite all the madness and fates worse than death, there is an undercurrent of hope in FL, a veneer of levity. The balance between the two, the horror and the flimsy, is what makes this world so special. It is Lovecraftian, yes, but the rats talk. You can lose your soul, but you can wear a sentient mushroom as a hat, too. Whatever else you do, keep this tone.

And do let me know how your game goes.

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.

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


In this post you’ll find several separate ideas smashed together to make a unique (far as I know) add-on system, which transplants directorial narrativism based on informed choice and stated unknowns onto a system of your choice. Don’t worry, all these scary words will be explained. Ideally, it will provide players with a structured way to step out of their actor role and into director’s seat for a moment at a time, while also providing the GM with a structured way of soliciting player input. It steals liberally from games mentioned below, and others besides them. It is simple and untested. Use at your own risk, report back. I call it “Directed”, making resulting games Directed D&D, Directed Dark Heresy, or Directed Whathaveyou.

What is it about? Imagine. It is the start of a typical adventure. The party has arrived into a new town, located the local tavern, and found a mysterious hooded stranger there, about to dispense a quest. If your players are anything like mine, they get ready to interrogate the stranger, and pick up dice to roll Sense Motive or its equivalent. Then the GM raises her hand and announces: “The stranger will, in fact, betray you; but trust him anyway, it’ll be fun!” …What? Lets back up, all the way to theory. Or, if you’re impatient, skip to the rules.

Continue reading

Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 1

Having completed my 140-session D&D 4e campaign (I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this last time; I’m still proud, shut up), what have I learned? While I’m done with the system, perhaps you aren’t. So let me be your guide. We’ll take a look at 4e itself in this post, and then at the ideas in this blog pertaining to it in the followup. In no particular order… Continue reading