Impossible Landscapes

In the last few years, seemingly any time favorite RPG campaigns are brought up, someone mentions Impossible Landscapes. It’s a huge campaign book for Delta Green written by Dennis Detwiller, “of wonder, horror and conspiracy”, “a pursuit of the terrors of Carcosa and the King in Yellow”. I’ve just finished running it, and boy do I have opinions. I’ll spoil the entire thing, only read this if you’re definitely not going to play the campaign but are considering running it.

The story

First, an overview of the campaign itself. It consists of 4 major chapters and several “side” locations that could be visited at various points of the game. It all starts in 1995 with Night Floors, previously published as a stand-alone adventure. Abigail Wright is missing, and agents are called in to investigate a possible occult connection. Turns out, Abigail got her hands on a copy of the poisonous play, the King in Yellow, and passed it around the Macallister building she resided in, “infecting” everyone there and ultimately connecting the building to Carcosa.

The “Night Floors” are what’s nowadays called a liminal space, impossible extra floors of a 4-storey building, full of strange rooms, branching repeating passages, and people coming out of nowhere and disappearing in empty rooms. The agents stumble into these Night Floors and wander around experiencing the many inventive creepy scenes they have to offer, until they find their way back to reality. They do not find Abigail – she’s gone further than they could. The assignment ends in failure, all the agents can do is decide what to do with other residents of the Macallister building as well as the building itself.

20 years later, when the strangeness of Carcosa is safely out of their minds, the surviving agents are called on another mission: some friendlies committed to a mental hospital are missing. Thus begins A Volume of Secret Faces, the most sandbox-like part of the campaign. It’s a tough one to prepare for, as there’re so many things for the agents to investigate, so many threads to pull on. The friendlies never existed. The curator for this mission is compromised. Should they find out about this unsanctioned mission, Delta Green may try to eliminate the agents. The mental hospital is touched by the madness of the King in Yellow, and all of its staff have their own strangeness going on. Also, demons. It’s a lot.

Sooner or later, the agents spend the night in the hospital, getting drawn into the Night World yet again: they find themselves in a nightmarish reflection of the mental hospital, where they are the patients. The only way out is to trust a strangely helpful demon, attend a dance performance, and escape a murderous clown by drinking red goop called patzu. When in Carcosa, do as carcosans do.

Third chapter, Like a Map Made of Skin, is basically a chance to “clear” some of the locations from the previous chapter. The agents are back in the real world, only to find it’s no longer all that real. They’re hunted by the authorities, as well as spectres of an old Delta Green clean-up crew, STATIC. They’ve received an invitation from Abigail asking them to come to a hotel that definitely doesn’t exist, and may never have existed. Once the final pursuit of STATIC begins, they’ll end up there anyway.

Part four, The End of the World of the End, is the shortest and is mostly an adventure rather than an investigation. The agents find the way to the labyrinth underneath the hotel, find the spirit bottle of one Jaycy Lynz that Abigail asked them to find, then come to Carcosa proper. Through the war-torn city they go, arriving at a masquarade ball, where they deliver the bottle to Jaycy, enabling him to write the play that will cause all of this and thus fulfilling their part of the play. Their final fate depends on their corruption – how much their thinking has been warped by Carcosa, how close they are to it.

The madness of Carcosa

The core premise of the campaign is that everything and everyone touched by the King in Yellow is not only corrupted, but spreads this corruption further, all in service of the play. Delta Green’s STATIC protocol, mandating the extermination of anyone remotely connected to the play, is not only justified and correct but also hopelessly insufficient.

For player characters, this is reflected by a hidden attribute, their Corruption. It’s so hidden, the players are not supposed to know they have it. In many ways, it functions like a secondary Sanity attribute: it’s a horror game, everyone knows not to read cursed tomes (and reads them anyway). Read the play, and you’ll both lose Sanity and gain Corruption. However, Corruption also often grows when characters’ thinking simply aligns with that of Carcosa. Point out a name is an anagram from the play, be rewarded with a point of Corruption.

The higher their Corruption, the more they will see, understand, and even control in the Night World. But also, the more the forces of the King will single them out, and the more likely a bad end as they’re judged at the masquarade.

Madness in Carcosa

Sanity gets drained bit by bit throughout the campaign as the agents experience a myriad of impossible coincidences, doors that lead to wrong places, etc. There’s probably no other way to handle it in long-form play if you want to have a chance of a character surviving from the start till the very end. However, both me and my players ended up disliking the way it worked.

The players outright rebelled against the idea that their characters would keep being shocked at reality warping while they weren’t looking (or even when they were looking) in Night World. They felt that, after the first expedition into the Night Floors, they knew what to expect. The door they just walked through is now painted onto the wall? Just another day at the (night) office. One could argue that expecting corridors and rooms to appear and disappear at whim is not exactly sane behaviour, and the rules do explicitly forbid adapting to unnatural events, but you don’t really want to hear groans when asking for a sanity check.

As for me, any time such micro scare came up and the book suggested the agents could lose 1, or even 1d4 sanity, going through all the steps felt like a chore. That’s partially due to the DG ruleset, as not only do you roll to see if a character loses sanity, they then get an option to resist 1d4 of it by spending that much willpower (which we never ran out of, so this part was just an exercise in adjusting numbers) and reducing a bond by the same amount. In theory, that represents agents projecting trauma onto their loved ones, gradually alienating them all. In practice, bonds become unreachable and thus irrelevant by chapter 3, and the entire process was a couple of minutes of distraction any time something spooky happened, draining all tension from the scene.

Death in Carcosa

Every now and then, it felt like, the adventure remembers it is not only surreal horror but also a Delta Green campaign, and so should have a body count. The agents could be doing just fine, facing reasonable dangers and challenges, then BAM, deathly peril. This happens a number of times throughout the campaign. What’s worse (to me), is these moments are rarely telegraphed or even offer a chance to do anything but roll dice to overcome them.

The mall ambush, when DG may try to eliminate the agents it considered corrupted, can perhaps be seen coming, and can be approached in a dozen different ways. The mechanical lion in the apartment of Dr. Barbas can be avoided. But then the clown at the end of chapter 2 is just a roll-off with death. So is the conclusion of chapter 3, the race against STATIC. In the run up to chapter 4, in hotel Broadalbin, the agents stumble upon a thing that sends them into some kind of parallel reality, and they have to succeed on one of three sanity rolls to get out, with a huge penalty if they don’t reject it outright or fail the first one. Chapter 4 has several opportunities to die during, most likely, the final session of the campaign, including having to run across open courtyard under machinegun fire.

In a lot of these cases, the scare is greater than the actual danger. That hardly helps when dice do decide to kill you.

Despite what you might think, I’m not opposed to character death in principle. I do find it odd when a campaign where “look, see, the thing you last saw 20 years ago was just inexplicably created here before your eyes, don’t you feel trapped by the unseen forces of the King” is one of the major sources of horror, starts killing characters off for no reason other than to show it’s a DG campaign. The replacement agent is not going to have a visceral reaction to half of these revelations – that’s not theoretical, that’s how it played out for us.

Moreover, most of these deadly threats don’t feel earned. Not just because there’re sudden and unavoidable, but also because there’s no choice in facing them. The agents are in danger not because they’re trying to be brave or poking where they shouldn’t. They’re in danger because now there’s a clown chasing them and if it catches them they die.

Life in Carcosa

The Night World functions by a few very simple rules. If you want to achieve anything or go anywhere in the Night World, you have to a) fail a sanity roll; b) have high enough Corruption; and c) be at the appropriate part of the campaign/be allowed by the King. If you don’t satisfy these conditions, you’re going to have a bad time, likely reducing your Sanity and thus gradually improving your odds.

These rules are so simple, in fact, that my players kept overthinking it, coming up with much more involved and interesting explanations – partially because they didn’t know about Corruption. As one of the agents ended up with higher Corruption than the rest, he was more succesful at navigating the Night World while doing exactly the same things as his less Corrupt colleagues, and with more events targeting him directly, the party felt I was treating him as the main character.

The simplicity of these hidden rules, in turn, means that time and again the only meaningful thing the agents can do is to keep going forward. Everything that happens on the way is a distraction or an obstacle. Actually engaging with the scene is typically unnecessary, and often outright harmful.

Which is a shame, because by themselves these random encounters are good, creepy and strange. There are a whole lot of them offered in the Night Floors, and then some more in the Bookshop. But then at several more points in the adventure we’re told to use those encounters or come up with our own, so it would have been better if they had a separate dedicated chapter. And since the adventure relies on them so much, by the end the players realise they’re better off sprinting through – chapter 4 was a breeze for us.

This reaches its apogee in the Whisper Labyrinth near the end of the campaign. Not only do the agents have to phrase their “we go forward” action in a particular way, they have to get extra lucky even if they do. They also have no way of learning if they’re doing it wrong, or just need to roll better. And every time they don’t get extra lucky, they have a chance to have a (meaningless, draining) encounter. The place is meant to be a maddening slog unfortunate souls get stuck in, but actually running it that way just isn’t fun.

The actual story

The world exists to create the play that creates the world that will create the play.

IL is a very strange campaign. It’s full of great stuff. There’s almost too much: there’s no chance the players will see all of it, whole chapters of the book they simply won’t bother to uncover. It presents itself as an intricate puzzle. Any tiny bit of information can lead down a massive rabbit hole, and that rabbit hole will only leave you with more disparate pieces of info that may only become relevant in a future chapter. Some names, events, places, even faces, keep coming up. The players must feel like they’re trapped in a sprawling conspiracy.

They’re not. Here’s what’s actually happening: a dozen or so people, infected by the madness of Carcosa, are running around the atemporal backstage of reality, spreading the play. There’s no cause and effect, because linear passage of time doesn’t affect them. They don’t have a goal they could articulate either, they’re all too affected to have one.

For example, the agents could learn the Red Book edition of The King in Yellow play that damned Abigail Wright in 1995 and started their entire adventure is produced by Dr. Elias Barbas in the year 2015. He prints them and shoves them into the (atemporal, omnipresent, Pratchett-esque) Bookshop. That’s an “aha” moment, a piece of the puzzle sliding into place. But… so what? There’s nothing that they can do with this revelation.

Speaking of revelations, and this one is more subjective, but it didn’t feel like there was enough escalation in the campaign. For all the richness of the text, it feels like the main plot of the entire campaign is just repeating the Night Floors, louder and louder. Somewhere in the middle of the first chapter, my players came upon a marionette room in the Night Floors. Dozens of human-sized dolls, moving around in complex patterns, dressed like the agents and people they know. “Oh,” said one of the players, “That’s us, isn’t it. We’ve always been this.” And that was that, the entirety of the campaign, its mind-shattering revelation. The remaining campaign of 20 or so sessions was just going through the motions.

Our role in the story

The first chapter ends once the players decide to give up their search for Abigail. They probably do something with the Macallister building and its tenants, but that doesn’t affect much. The second chapter, for all its sprawling sandbox, ends with a predetermined scripted sequence that is entirely independent of what you’ve done to get there. So does the third one, except there the agents don’t even have to try and achieve anything, they’ll get herded into the last chapter when the GM decides its time. And the final chapter is about getting to the masquarade where the characters’ fate is entirely out of their hands.

Helplessness is a big part of horror. In a game where mere mortals come up against a reality-bending god-like force, it makes sense they wouldn’t be able to do much about it. It’s common for such adventures to focus on thwarting the equally mortal adepts of the eldritch gods, on delaying the inevitable apocalypse by another year.

In IL, the mortal adepts are actually immortal, the poisonous play can be dropped off from the future, and the entire world is marionettes on a stage anyway. At no point during this adventure can the PCs change the outcome. They only thing they can achieve is surviving to see the end. This quote from the campaign author’s twitter offers some insight:

If you think every Delta Green op should be resolvable by Agents, you should reread it. Most of the time, the Agents have no idea what they’re facing or whether they defeated it or not. In the end, it is a game about futility. In other words, what it means to be human.

Many people, it seems, are drawn to the game, but fail to grasp that this futility is not a problem to correct. It’s the game’s CORE. Play as you like, of course, but without this essential ingredient of ambiguity and lack of “victory” it’s something else, not Delta Green.

Impossible Landscapes takes the ultimate futility of human existence in the face of (pre-)cosmic horror of the King in Yellow and multiplies it by the fact that the play is already written and all anyone can do is take their part in it. In other words, it’s a very fancy rollercoaster of a railroad, and you’re welcome to contemplate your insignificance while you ride it.

The secret stories

While I ended up disappointed with the overall structure of the campaign, I still love its tangents and side-stories, the actual things the agents investigate and uncover along the way. They are well-written, imaginative, and unsettling.

It’s a shame many of these plotlines are almost impossible for the players to discover. The demon summoning ritual stands out here. By the start of chapter 3 at the latest, the agents get a functional copy of Hygromanteia (itself a precursor to Ars Goetia), a demon summoning book. There’s an appendix providing a description for each of the 72 demons that could be summoned, and what their powers are. It’s cool.

Too bad that as written, the summoning ritual is almost impossible to achieve: after an hour-long ritual, the caster must make a reverse-sanity roll, with a -20 penalty for every other character present (nothing in the text hints having others present is a bad idea). Meaning that at best it’s a coinflip if anything happens, and if the entire party is involved it’s all but guaranteed to fail. Failure means the caster can never successfully perform the ritual. Success means you’ll get a response within a day.

So a party would try it once or twice, get no response, and conclude the ritual is a dud. At the point in the campaign they’re likely to gain access to it, they no longer have the luxury of messing about. It is, I’ll grant, a properly arcane ritual. But it’s meant to be a power the party gains, not an obscure easter egg (which takes up 13 pages of the book).

It’s even more of a shame that even seemingly important (and interesting!) plot lines lack meaningful resolution. Maybe it’s written that way to hint at the larger, unknowable picture, but as a GM I’d rather have the answers and watch the players fail to grasp at them, than feel like I’m not getting it myself and thus can only offer vague hints to the players.

The most egregious example of this is the patzu. It is introduced in chapter 2 as a big deal: patzu is condensed Corruption that can be extracted from individuals exposed to the play, it is what the King consumes, the entire point of the play and the world. Drinking it takes one back to the “real” world, which is instrumental in escaping the chapter.

Reading that part of the campaign I felt like this was it, we were getting somewhere, with this information the agents would gain some measure of agency in the campaign. And then we barely hear about it again. It’s not a major new tool in the agents’ arsenal, nor a part of a larger scheme to uncover, nothing. It might be a component in the creation of the spirit bottles which contain the answer to a person’s innermost question, but that connection is unclear, and not actionable.

Patzu is, apparently, a part of the DG/CoC mythos, originally mentioned in the Sense of the Slight-of-Hand Man campaign for CoC, also written by Detwiller. Which is meaningless within the context of IL, but revealing of a larger, perhaps more inisidious truth.

But before we get to it, another example: the inciting incident, the disappearance of Abigail Wright. We’re told she has moved in with an “encyclopedia salesman”, whose identity is strangely obscured, and not just from the players. We know virtually nothing about him, only a brief description of what he looks like if the agents catch a glimpse (but they can never chase him down), not even a name. And that’s in a book that goes on page-long detailed backstory tangents full of information players would never uncover for every other NPC they meet. Was this a hint at the King or the Author in the original adventure? It’s probably not anymore, just a dropped tangent, because the Author is definitively named as Jaycy Linz.

Who is Jaycy Linz? A character from a short story by John Tynes, itself a part of King in Yellow “mythos”. Why is he here? Why did Abigail ask us to fetch his spirit bottle to make him the Author? As a reference. Realising this actually made me a bit angry. This was the easiest, most obvious way to tie the entire Abigail sub-plot together, to have the would-be Author be the salesman from the Night Floors, explaining her role in the story. Offering one of the agents a chance to always have been the Author would have worked, too. Instead, we get a reference to an out-of-print book or a webarchive page.

How many other characters and places in this campaign are references, not just to the original stories but the expanded body of work? My guess is a lot of them. The ones who are not are references to the demons of Ars Goetia instead. Does it matter if something is a reference if you don’t recognize it? Maybe not, but what if the “supplemental material” helps make sense of some of these characters and plot lines? And why does a 363 page campaign book need supplemental material?

The roleplaying hobby is full of references to fanfics to homages to reimaginings, that’s the entirety of D&D and Call of Cthulhu (and by extension Delta Green). But the reference itself should not be the point. Impossible Landscapes, I feel, sometimes forgets this.

Reimagining the story

The campaign is so vast and detailed, you can only fully examine it in hindsight. Now that it has been played all the way through, the curtain has fallen only to rise again. Despite all my criticisms, I don’t regret running it. So what have I learned, what should I have done differently – and maybe you’d wish to consider?

While reading the book, some parts of it immediately stood out as troublesome: abrupt opportunities for character death, keep-rolling-till-you-get-it sections. I set the doubts aside, the campaign gets rave reviews, maybe I just don’t get it and should embrace the artistic vision of the author. “Plus,” a tiny voice in the back of my head said, “how can you write a review if you change it too much?”

None of the things I’ve outlined may cause any issues for you, but I knew they would for me, and plunged head on into them anyway. Lesson learned: I have enough experience to know what will and will not work for me and my group, and should rely on that experience over any adventure’s authority. So sanding off these rough edges to taste would be a start.

I’d also ease up on alternate realities, though that might be tricky to do. The entire point of chapter 3 is to drive home that there’s no “real” world, but I’m pretty sure my players concluded they were simply wandering around warped splinter realities since leaving chapter 2, with the real actual world safely behind all the madness.

A bigger change would be to adjust the entire premise of the campaign. Instead of the inevitability of the play being guaranteed by the atemporal backstage shenanigans, I would try and represent it as malignant destiny, arising incidentally but no less inevitably from the actions of those infected by the play.

Which would in turn mean the key NPCs actually need something to strive for. As is, they’re all stuck and insane. Many want to find their spirit bottle, but they’re not even doing that – they have a role in producing the play, after all. Even the demons Bael and Guison (Mr Wilde), who seem to be actively doing something, don’t actually have an objective, or even an implication of one. My players were certain the demons were another faction in the cosmic conflict – so let them be. Carcosa is perpetually beseiged by an unknown force, the Black Wind army – let it be the demonic army, with King Bael trying to take over the role of the King.

For that matter, and this is something I’ve actually done, replace the final judgement at the masquarade with the award of masks for the next performance. The masquarade is the afterparty, and once you make it there and take off the mask you didn’t know you wore, you learn that’s what it’s all about: who gets to play which part when the world is recreated to recreate the play. And of course one of those attending doesn’t wear a mask…

An even bigger change would be to ditch the campaign’s structure. Turn the game into an actual sandbox: the agents are caught in the periphery of the play, but they don’t have a role in it unless they take one up. Keep the actual content of the book, but don’t mandate the chapters and transitions between them. Instead, let the agents use the Night World to go to any other place and time touched by the King that they’re aware of. Macallister building, Dorchester house, the Bookshop, Broadalbin, etc. – all are fair game. Expand the list to include Chateau Castaigne in the 15th century, some place in Paris in 1895 when the play was first performed, and so on, let players explore the tangents they want to pursue.

Time travel is an issue, of course. The STATIC killer(s) would be repurposed from guarding the approaches to Carcosa (they aren’t very good at it anyway – everyone who’s anyone just wanders into Broadalbin through the Night Floors) to hunting down agents trying to change history, stay in the past, etc.. Plus the malignant destiny of Carcosa gets to play a part: change one thing, and watch it be the cause of the outcome you tried to prevent.

No mater which path they take, the agents would eventually find their way to Carcosa, arriving just in time, always, for the masquarade at the end of the world.

Terror Signal

Something haunts hyperspace. Interstellar travel, lifeblood of the sprawling human civilization, grows increasingly perilous as voyagers report bewildering and upsetting incidents associated with jump drive usage. The one common thread is a mysterious signal – the TERROR SIGNAL. Is it a natural phenomenon, an attack, or the first hints of a mystery far more dangerous?

Terror Signal is a mystery sandbox campaign for Mothership. I co-wrote it, so I think it’s cool. You can get it on and eventually drivethrurpg – the cause of the delay there is too embarassing to recount.

But why should you?

Spoilers ahead!

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The OSR Contradiction

For a while now, I have struggled with fully comprehending the OSR playstyle. It’s documented. I’ve run several campaigns in my approximation of it. I wrote about a couple of OSR games. I even wrote an adventure for one of them – out soon, shhh. And I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right. That is, until I had an epiphany: it’s not a coherent design philosophy, and I need to stop treating it as such. Which may well be obvious to you, but it’s my blog and my epiphany, so here we are.

And before we get going: what even is OSR? A featherless dice game, perhaps. At this point it is impossible to pin down. I have no interest in community turmoil, so by “OSR” I mean the playstyle and common mechanics supporting it. At the same time, I have no doubt there are examples of OSR/POSR/NSR/etc. games with totally different playstyle & mechanics, which I think only supports my argument, but just to be safe: don’t worry, your favourite game is entirely self-consistent.

But back to the topic at hand. A while back I wrote about the difficutly of mastering narrative games (is that a reoccuring theme here?), with the ultimate conclusion being that narrative games embed their desired playstyle into the rules (not always well communicated, and not always well implemented), and failure to follow this playstyle results in a “clunky” experience as you fight the rules to make them fit your playstyle.

OSR games, on the other hand, rely on maxims & manifestoes, often existing outside the game text. As someone who didn’t start off with this playstyle, and didn’t have other GMs that practiced it I could learn from, such posts were an obligatory reading, but may have left the wrong impression.

One such maxim is “Rulings Over Rules”. Here’s the description from Principia Apocrypha, a “new OSR primer”:

The primeval old school principle. Old school style games are often sparse in what situations their rules cover. There are often minimal, or no “skills” or “feats”. This is a feature, not a bug. The flexibility this openness allows is a big part of the appeal of old school style games. Let players take advantage of this openness and try crazy things (and apply logic to taste).

Intertwined with it is the emphasis on “Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability”. From the same source:

Old school PCs are very minimalistic because the character sheet is mostly there for when players make a mistake. Players are not meant to solve problems with die rolls, but with their own ingenuity. Therefore, present them with problems that don’t require obscure knowledge, have no simple solution, but have many difficult solutions.

So “Rulings Over Rules” is not just an attitude towards adjucating various game situations, but also the reason for having simplistic rules. Combat? It’s war, your own fault for not securing overwhelming advantage, now you toss dice like grenades. Character abilities? No need, describe what you do and the GM will adjucate.

Except OSR games do have plenty of strict rules & procedures with no space for player ingenuity. It’s such a blatant contradiction of principle and practice, it’s so deeply ingrained, it’s taken me years to notice it. These rules simply cover different areas, often neglected by other playstyles: random encounters, exploration, encumbrance, resource depletion. That’s where OSR games innovate and distinguish themselves from one another. Not just regular old encounter tables, but hex flowers, overloaded dice, usage dice.

It makes sense: these rules help create a sense of pressure, of player agency and strategic choice. Do you take the time to search the place and risk another random encounter roll, or do you push on and risk triggering a trap or missing out on treasure? That’s the essence of OSR, isn’t it.

Except. Except, except, except. If rules are good for informed player choice and agency in exploration, why are they a detriment in action resolution?

Why are tactical combat rules avoided like the plague, why is the character sheet “mostly there for when players make a mistake” unless you need to check how many rations are left? For that matter, why is ingenuity not welcome in, say, encumbrance management – innovative mule packing techniques not that interesting? Fair, but are detailed descriptions of searching for traps that much better?

Not only is the “rulings over rules” principle applied inconsistently, its pursuit has lead the playstyle, how shall I put it delicately, up its own butthole. Here, for instance, is some advice on getting the most out of “rulings over rules”, followed by a big list of “OSR-style challenges” that do so. It’s good, very imaginative.

A couple of examples from the list: “This glass sphere (3′ in diameter) is filled with gems and horrible undead snakes.” “There’s a tiny octopus inside your stomach and it’s biting you.” “The room is proofed against magic. The door only opens when a bowl is filled with water from a spring down the hall. The hall is long, vented to volcanic heat, so the water will evaporate before reaching the bowl.”

Dungeoncrawling is contrived as it is. There’s a hole in the ground, filled with monsters and traps and treasure? And an entire class of people dedicated to delving into these dungeons? Not a whole lot of examples in mythology or fiction – until D&D bled back into fiction through video games, and now half of anime is isekai filled with precisely that. But to take dungeoncrawling and fill it with glass spheres of snakes & gems, stomach octopuses, and water locks in volcanoes? It’s not just the classic excuse of “a wizard did it”, it’s “a wizard did it so that adventurers could experience OSR-style challenges.”

And if you’re willing to accept these contrivances in order to experience the playstyle to its fullest, the artificiality of balanced encounters of the combat-as-sport D&D playstyle really shouldn’t bother you – it may not be your preference, but it takes just as much suspension of disbelief.

The OSR playstyle works, there’s no doubt: people have fun with it. Just so we’re clear, I have fun with it too. It works not despite its inconsistencies and contrivances, but because of them. Though its manifestoes and principles may suggest otherwise, it is simply an amalgamation of parts and approaches that happened to work well together, not a unified, self-consistent design arising from deeper philosophical ideas. A local maxima of fun.

Once seen this way, it’s easy to imagine games that could have started with the OSR principles and diverged, where the line between Rulings and Rules is drawn differently. Such games may even exist, and I’m simply ignorant of them. A game where you have to describe in detail how you render first aid, with scores of blog posts and forum threads scoffing at the idea of the Heal skill or, worse yet, hit points. Or a game where you have to learn how to identify and use plants in cooking and alchemy, with herbalism tables for every occasion. Or a game where you create magic rituals from first principles, balancing various requirements and side effects. An OSR Ars Magica. Osr Magica. Or…

More practically, this means I can take from OSR what I like, and ditch the rest without worrying I’m doing it wrong somehow. Which may have been a weird mental block only I had, but, again, my blog, my mental blocks. In the grand tradition of the genre, if OSR is dead, we can loot its tomb for all its worth.


Wildsea is a roleplaying game written by Felix Isaacs about a crew of (wild)sailors cutting through the branches of impossibly tall trees on a chainsaw ship or something just as bizarre, in a world taken over by verdant greenery. Among the games that inspired it, it lists Belly of the Beast, Blades in the Dark, Heart: The City Beneath, and 13th Age, though I see a lot of Fate there too. Fiction-wise, Bastion, Bas-Lag trilogy and Sunless Sea are listed. The fact that I wrote about most of the inspirations for Wildsea would imply it is a game for me. And it is!

The Setting

The world of Wildsea has experienced an unusual apocalypse 300 years ago, the Verdancy. Its civilizations were crushed by the roots of trees rapidly growing to truly titanic sizes. Living within the tangle of the trees wasn’t really an option: not only is everything ever-growing, not only are many animals and insects also of immense size now, but the trees themselves are full of highly mutagenic and acidic sap likely to blame for all the growth. All that survived found themselves sheltering on broken bits of the old world carried upwards by the massive branches, or trapped atop of mountains or otherwise isolated from one another.

With trees as the sea and survivor settlements as islands, ships capable of traversing between them were inevitable. That’s what your characters will be: wildsailors with their own ship, sailing the wildsea in search of glory, adventure, or maybe new culinary experiences. Each character is defined by three major elements: their bloodline, origin, and post. And what character elements they are.

While humans (“ardents”) are present, the rest of the bloodlines get weird – the promised influence of Bas-Lag books. Cactus people, mushroom people, swarms of spiders in human-shaped hives (my favourite), animated detritus, mutated jellyfish people with replaceable bones, and moth people that pupate and get reborn every twenty years.

Most of the origins are simply kinds of settlements your character might come from, but they start off, in alphabetical order, with amberclad and anchored. The former were trapped in amber during the Verdancy, only now waking up to a world irrevocably changed. The latter are ghosts anchored to some object. This really sets the mood: you can get wild with character concepts.

Posts feature various crew positions one might expect to find, such as corsair, navigator, or hunter; several not-magic users (arconauts, who’ve learned to wield the weirdness of the world in some way); as well as many variaitons of crafters (oh yes, there’s crafting), and stranger professions still. Would you like to be a postman? I’ve never had to describe or imagine so many different ways food is cooked in different communites as I had to in this game due to having a char (cook) on board. Now the entire party gets excited about trying local food every time they visit a new place.

The rampant weirdness of the world doesn’t stop with characters. The things you encounter vary greatly, from amusing, like tinker-monkeys that just want to disassemble your engine out of curiosity, to terrifying, like the bone disease that makes its sufferers “skeletal golems still clothed in the unwilling flesh of their erstwhile owners” or a plant that blooms on people and induces religious fervor in its hosts. As can be expected of a game with gigantic flora and fauna, there are leviathans as well. While these include “merely” titanic creatures, there are also a bewildering variety of living storms and a mobile reality distortion vibe of the Spirit of Industry.

While I appreciate the many kinds of beasties found in the Hazards chapter, large and small animals, insects, plants, constructs, I love the single paragraph descriptions of stuff that didn’t warrant a full write-up. It’s a cacophony of ideas: hydreese (hydra-geese!), hermit-hull crabs, skyward roots reaching the clouds, punchcard thinking engines.

Although there is no canonical map of the Wildsea, and majority of the book is dedicated to the general Wildsea experience, the Reaches chapter describes several geographic regions with distinct personalities. You are free to include or ignore them in your game, arranging these reaches as you see fit – a great approach to worldbuildng. You could easily base the entire campaign in one reach, or visit it for a few sessions just to see the sights.

The Rules

When I originally backed the game on Kickstarter, it was the art that caught my eye. Just look at it! The setting sounded interesting and unique as well. I didn’t expect too much from the rules, to be honest. New designer, custom system to go along with the world? Hopefully it’s functional, I thought. Oh boy was I wrong to underestimate them. Mostly.

I really like the rules. They’re evocative and flexible. I think the second edition of the game can be truly special, and this isn’t meant to be a backhanded compliment. But for the one we got, you may have to do a little bit of trimming and a little bit of bending. It seems that the rules grew even as they were being written down, more ideas appeared up until the very appendix. While this may have resulted in a disaster for other systems, it’s barely a problem here. The core rules are solid, and everything else is flexible and up for interpretation by design, so you’ll naturally settle on your own version of the mechanics that makes sense to your group. As I explain the rules here, I’ll also mention some of the house rules and interpretations we’ve ended up with – which may not be for you.

Mechanically, each character element, bloodline, post, and origin, offers a pool of aspects to choose from, and it’s up to you to spread out your choices or focus on one element. It’s also perfectly acceptable to “steal” an aspect or two from a different bloodline/origin/post, or make up your own.

Aspects are a mix of Fate’s aspects and stunts. These represent character traits, gear, and companions. Each has a descriptive name, a “health” track 2 to 5 long, and often a special ability they grant. The shorter the track, the better the ability: a purely descriptive aspect like Towering is 5 long, while a Strong Stomach that reduces the impact of poisons, diseases, and sickness is 3 long. Some abilities granted by aspects are active: you mark the track to use them.

Characters don’t have health as a separate parameter. Instead, whenever they take damage they mark one of their aspects’ tracks, provided it makes sense. A fully marked aspect ceases to function. That’s where being Towering comes in handy: you’re large and tall, so you can endure more. Instead of marking an aspect, you can take an injury – add a temporary track that will take some effort to heal. The rules don’t actually define how long this track should be, but it made sense to us to set it equal to the damage you were about to take. We’ll revisit healing in a bit, take note.

In addition to aspects, characters get edges, skills, drives, and mires. Edges are binary, you either have them or you don’t, and each character gets 3 out of 6. They describe possible approaches to doing things, e.g. Iron is the edge of force, determination, and willpower, whereas Tides is the edge of exploration, learning, and lore. Edges encourage you to describe your character’s actions in a way that fits the edges you have.

Skills are straightforward: you have 0 to 3 points in all of them. In addition to regular skills, there also are languages, which cover not just the ability to speak and understand a given language, but also familiarity with the culture in which it is used. While there is a “common” language, Low Sour, this latter application makes language skills very handy in a game likely centered on travel between various communities.

Drives are used for character advancement: by working towards one of your drives, you can claim a milestone once per session. If you’ve completely satisfied a drive, you can replace it and claim a major milestone as a reward. You also get one “free” milestone once per session, and one “free” major milestone once per story arc. Each milestone is a brief phrase you write down at the end of each session to note the personally significant events that happened during it.

Later on, you can spend milestones during a montage/downtime action (hello Blades in the Dark) to gain a new skill point or an aspect, provided they somewhat fit. Maybe you’ve Survived a Pin-Wolf Ambush, Drank Pirates Under the Table, and Held Her Steady during a storm, and now you can use those experiences to gain another rank of the Brace skill. There’s also a whole system for modifying and combining aspects, as you only get 7 slots for them, but we won’t get into it here.

I love the way milestones work in this game. You create an ongoing record of important character moments, then find ways to channel them into character advancement. It feels like the next step in the evolution of the “mark xp if you’ve done something appropriate for your playbook” approach. I will seriously consider using it for any future games I run.

In addition to milestones, satisfying a drive can give you a whisper (a kind of a resource) or clear a mark of mire. Mires are your character’s insecurities, weird habits, phobias, all the things that drag them down. You get 3, each with a 2-long track. These are marked when you experience something terrible, with first mark resulting in only minor changes to a character’s behavior, and second causing the mire to dominate their scenes. They can be compared to ongoing negative compels in Fate, only without a reward for indulging in them, which I think is a missed opportunity. And given how sparse clearing marks can be, you run the risk of drowning in your mires for lengthy periods of time. So the house rule we’ve implemented was to treat twice marked mires as drives: once you act out based on them, you get a reward that will probably be clearing a mark of mire.

The core mechanic of Wildsea is very simple. Whenever you do something risky, assemble your die pool: 1 die if your action matches one of your edges, 0-3 dice from an appropriate skill, and up to 2 dice for advantage. Advantage comes from fictional positioning, having relevant aspects (the name and description of the aspect matter here, rather than the ability it provides), or risking resources – if the roll fails, the resource is likely to be lost or otherwise negatively affected. The highest die in the roll determines its outcome: 6 is a success, 4-5 is mixed, and 1-3 is a disaster.

Doubles add a Twist to the by now familiar formula: something unexpected happens during the action, not necessarily directly connected to it and often suggested by another player. Some kinds of action have default twists, like dealing extra damage in combat. While it sounds simple, it doesn’t quite work, as there are two competing mechanics hiding within the Twist: chaos and critical success. As characters’ dice pools grow with their experience, more twists suddenly occur around them. Which is fine if they signify a critical success, but gets exhausting quick when every other roll brings something unexpected. We’ve introduced the following house rule: for “regular” action rolls which don’t have critical successes, use one die of a different colour, with a twist occuring on a roll of 1 on this special die.

Another core mechanic are tracks – a lot of things get a track, not just aspects and mires. These are basically progress clocks of BitD, with a slight modificaiton: you can have multi-part tracks, with each completed part signifying some shift in circumstance. Working on a personal project during a downtime montage? That’s a track. Journeying across the waves? That’s a track for the trip, another if you’re making a map on the way, and perhaps a third if there’s some ongoing danger. With a proper setup, a few tracks can take care of an entire adventure for you.

Tracks are how the game handles combat, too. While it features a full-on bestiary in the Hazards chapter, none of the creatures there have stats in the usual sense. As Wildsea is a player-facing game where only players roll dice, all of its enemies simply get aspects and optional quirks, many of them purely descriptive. They also get a detailed description of their sensory presence, which often includes taste.

When setting up a dangerous encounter, the GM decides on the total length of its hazard tracks based on how deadly it’s supposed to be, and possibly on how good the crew’s strategy is. These tracks can be spread among the aspects the creatures have (in which case fully marking an aspect deprives the creature of it), represent the situation as a whole, or be a mixture of the two.

While this works well overall, I would have preferred to have some suggested track length for each creature to signify its danger level at a glance. Likewise, I’m a bit unsatisfied with the way monster damage is handled: the game simply suggests you deal low amounts of 1-2 with occasional larger hits of 3-4 and a rare 5+ in case of bad tacics and rolls. And, again, that works, but is a bit too loose for my tastes. Mostly because this approach lacks symmetry with player capabilities – they deal 1 damage by default, plus 1 in case of a twist, and can voluntarily cut (increasing the difficulty of the roll by removing the best die) for more.

Speaking of damage, there are simply too many types in this game: 12! Various elemental types make sense, but the fine distinction between keen, hewing, and serrated damage doesn’t seem that interesting to me. Many aspects grant resistance to several damage types, meaning you reduce damage taken by 2. A player being resistant means they can ignore random bad roll outcomes, but enemies will occasionally get through. A monster being resistant means you’d better bring a different weapon – you’d have to not only succeed at an attack (1 damage) but also roll a twist (+1) and cut for impact (+1) to leave a dent. That’s a bit much as it makes such attacks extremely unlikely to do anything while exposing the character to increased damage due to the cut. Leviathans are resistant to everything individual-scale by default.

A lot of action revolves around resources. Unlike Heart, another game featuring gaining and spending resources on the way from A to B, Wildsea’s resources don’t have a rating measuring their value, they simply are. Each resource has a name and possibly a tag giving it simple extra properties. A larger volume of a resource is called cargo, and is used for ship-scale operations, like trade and ship upgrades. Resources come in 4 types, and while Salvage and Specimen are what you’d expect them to be, Whispers and Charts deserve further explanation.

Whispers are words of power, lodging themselves in people’s minds. They can be traded, passed from one to another. They can also be said quietly, introducing a Twist-level change that fits the whisper and is under the character’s control, or shouted, changing the surroundings in a signficant but uncontrollable way. If you’re familiar with Fate, you’ll see some similiarities to boosts – if boosts had tangible in-universe presence.

Charts are conceptually complex – they are maps, but maps of something not yet found. When setting out from a port, you can utilise local knowledge (gained from, well, locals) and a chart you have to plot the course, matching the chart to the local area and making the journey significantly safer. A chart can also be used in conjunction with a whisper to make a discovery along the way, finding some landmark that thematically matches them by possibly conjuring it out of conjecture into reality. In theory I really like this, as it allows players to opt into creative agency during the game, but I’ve struggled to come up with interesting landmarks along the way, and doubly so have my players, so we have barely engaged with this chart mechanic. Both uses consume the chart – it goes from abstract to concrete, and no longer has value to you afterwards. It kinda makes sense, so long as you keep moving forward, but it’s probably best not to overthink this mechanic.

Journeys themselves are handled in a procedural way: everyone gets to do something, whether that’s being on watch and rolling to see if something happens on the way, deciding how fast you travel, or manning the engine just in case that becomes relevant. These decisions are typically made by the group, but it’s nice to have everyone engaged. The most important part of a journey are the random encounter rolls. The character on watch rolls a die to determine the type of the encounter: 1-3 is nature; 4-5 is order, that is, something to do with people – another ship passing by, an outpost, a wreck, etc.; and 6 is peace, that is, nothing significant happening, just some slice of life aboard the ship.

The rules are slightly self-contradictory here, as the GM also rolls a die in secret to determine how dangerous this encounter is, with 1-3 being an immediate danger, 4-5 a risky opportunity, and 6 a freebie. So you easily could get a “peace” result that’s also an immediate danger. To reconcile these, I’ve been interpreting “peace” as “on board the ship” and “order” as “outside the ship” – an internal danger could be a crew conflict or a sickness, for instance.

Speaking of ships, the party builds their ship together by spending “stakes” – you get 6 to share, and 3 per sailor. These individual stakes can be pooled together, but ultimately it’s up to each player how to spend theirs. There are many inventive options to choose from, not just chainsaws & sails. In addition to parts that each ship needs to have, such as a hull and an engine, you can add various fittings and undercrew. Fittings encompass all sorts of things: specialized rooms, armaments, devices, while undercrew include officers as well as gangs of less skilled sailros and even packs of trained animals. Our crew decided their ship had to be infested by scorpions in a collective fit of madness, and keep insisting it was a wise choice because they’re “used to the stings, and any invaders wouldn’t be”.

After the initial creation, ships can be upgraded at a dock at a rate of 1 cargo per 1 stake (this is quite hard to find in the rules). Ship creation rules specifically say they place no limit on how much cargo can fit into a ship, or how many fittings can fit onto a ship, leaving it up for the group. And while that’s fine, it would probably have been easy to have these rules mirror the aspect limit characters get – something I may do next time we create a ship. It’s fun to deal within limitations sometimes!

The weakest area of the rules, I find, is healing. Damage is easy to dish out: marking an aspect on a mixed success doesn’t take too much brain power. Healing, however, requires a montage (downtime) action and a resource. Where do you get resources? Other just stumbling on one along the way, you can go hunting/foraging/salvaging/introspecting for one – another montage action. Both require a roll. So now you have 2 PCs spending their montage actions for a chance to clear 1 or 2 segments of a track.

It gets better with higher skills, not only because you’re much more likely to succeed, but also because a twist on the healing roll means the resource is not expended – an extremely important rule only present in the rule summary appendix! Some aspects also let the healer treat more characters at once or make their healing more powerful, but most of them come from the Surgeon’s post, and not everyone’s going to have one aboard the ship.

One the one hand, you’re not typically limited by the number of montages you take. On the other, you don’t actually want to just sit there and do personal stuff the entire session either. And there are so many more interesting things you could do during montages, like spend milestones for character advancement or work on a project. What ended up happening at my table was players adding more aspects to their characters in part to get more tracks instead of spending time on healing old wounds, as it was a more efficient and more fun way to keep the character going. Funnily enough, aspect marks are meant to be transient damage, bruises and the like, while the more serious injuries get their own temporary tracks that (explicity by the rules) can be marked as time passes. Not so regular damage! Which had made me wary to actually dish it out once I realised what was happening.

Conceptually similar stress in Fate gets cleared every session, but that would seriously impact the resource economy of the game and make some aspects worthless, so I don’t have a good solution here. Healing a track at the end of each journey would be a good start. When I’ve tried asking about other GMs’ experience on the game’s discord, I found out with some surprise this wasn’t a problem those present there at the time had encountered, but mostly because they’ve been running shorter adventures where damage just doesn’t have the time to accumulate. Which makes me think our group is one of the few in the world to have a lengthy Wildsea campaign, currently 28 sessions and going.

The Game

At its core, Wildsea is a travelogue game, which is probably my favourite style of campaign. The party moves from place to place, seeing how the people there live and getting into all kinds of trouble along the way. I love localised worldbuilding of figuring out how people would adjust to live in various fantastic circumstances. While the overall premise of Wildsea, that of overwhelming vegetation, has a very strong influence, the book offers plenty of variations on it. Couple that with really different people that inhabit the world, and you’ll have a vast space to exercise your imagination as you explore it together with your players.

Our Wildsea campaign follows on the heels of Mothership, which followed Trail of Cthulhu. After 2 horror campaigns, everyone wanted something a bit more lighthearted, so that’s how we’ve been playing it. Very few people are outright villainous (I think the party has killed 2 so far), we focus on adventure, sight-seeing, non-hostile encounters with nature & rampant weirdness, and leave plenty of space for slice of life scenes aboard the ship. Which isn’t to say you can’t run a more action-oriented, or even horror-tinged version of Wildsea. But after (uhhhhh) a couple of decades of running games, I’ve come to really value the different experiences they can offer, and Wildsea has been a breath of fresh air.

Wildly imaginative, evocative, with flexible mechanics (which, to be fair, may require some adjustment for your table), Wildsea has been a joy. Whether you’re looking to move away from dungeons and dragons, or simply long to dive into a new world, I heartily recommend it. Embark on a voyage over the endless treetops, who knows what wonders you may discover.

P.S.: I’d like to give an honourary mention to “unsetting questions”. There are many games nowadays where players are invited to participate in creatings parts of the world, and Wildsea is no exception. Unsetting questions are a slightly different technique introduced in the book, where the GM asks players for rumours and tall tales they’ve heard on a particular topic at the start of each session to set the mood. There is no obligation for them to be factual, which removes all pressure from players and frees the GM to modify or ignore their answers as fits the game. While it may be tricky to do so all the time, it’s a fun way to start a session in any game.

Heart, the City Beneath

Heart is a roleplaying game of weird dungeondelving about doomed people getting exactly what they desire, no matter how badly it turns out for them. It is published by Rowan, Rook and Decard and is set in the same world as (and directly beneath) another of their games, Spire.

Full page illustration. Spire, a kilometer-tall structure, is dwarfed by the sprawling underground caverns.

Everything in the book drips with flavor, and, often, blood. The Heart is a tear in reality deep under the city of Spire. Above ground, dark elves struggle to free themselves from the colonialist oppression of aelfir, gnolls fight for their independence, and humans are just doing their own archeotech thing. None of this matters below, in the City Beneath.

Near the surface, it’s still somewhat sensible, caverns and tunnels and cursed train networks. Things get increasingly surreal as you delve deeper, closer to the irreality of the Heart itself. Absolutely anything can be found here: predatory libraries, assorted heavens and hells, mythic beasts, wild forests, the True Moon. It used to be a slightly more sensible place, before an overambitious engineering project of the aelfir ruptured the Heart 150 years ago, causing it to spew its weirdness far and wide. Now, populated havens and landmarks are scattered throughout the underworld, each place living by its own logic.

No one knows what the Heart actually is. Many people think they do. The very nature of the Heart means any of them could be correct at any given time, no matter how contradictory their theories. Alien terraforming mechanism, a nascent god, a benevolent slow-rolling apocalypse. The only things most agree on: it changes reality, it doesn’t understand us, it will give you what you want.

The player characters are the ones desperate, driven, or deranged enough to take the Heart up on this promise. They want the impossible, and they will go through the phantasmagoric hell to get it. The character classes can be thought of as D&D analogues thoroughly infected by the Heart. Instead of a ranger you get Cleaver, a possibly cannibalistic hunter that derives memoreis from the things they eat and becomes a progressively more fucked up were-beast. Instead of a rogue you get Deadwalker, stalked by their own death, and Incarnadine, a priest of the god of debt. Deep Apiarist, Heart’s druid, has a beehive in their ribcage and strives to maintain order in the ever-changing chaos. Junk Mage is a fairly straightforward warlock, if you discount the “junkie” part of it, borrowing power from a patron or three. Hound is a fighter that’s joined a loosely associated citizen militia of the Heart, while Vermissian Knight is a fighter that likes trains so much they wear one. Finally, Heretic is, unsurprisingly, a cleric that worships an underground, “true” moon; and Witch is a spellcaster infected by heartsblood itself, with barely any side effects at all, so long as they don’t ever experience any kind of strain.

Aside from classes, characters get an ancestry and a calling. Ancestry has no mechanical bearing, but offers characterisation ideas and asks how you got into the Heart. Calling is the reason you’re there, and is the basis of character advancement. To me, it is the standout feature of the system. Each calling comes with an ability and a big list of minor, major, and zenith story beats. The beats are various accomplishments, and range from “charm someone with tales of your exploits” to “find the final secret you have so desperately sought and use it to solve your impossible task”. Players pick two of these beats, typically at the end of a session, and inform the GM of their choice. Should they accomplish a beat during the next session, they gain an ability of corresponding power.

A genius bit happens here, a ludonarrative assonance: players tell the GM what they want their characters to experience, the GM, as the Heart, does their best to match these desires, warping the reality of the game in the process. Do you want to kick someone off a high place? There will be a high place where you’re going. That’s why Heart doesn’t have a stable map, only a list of landmarks.

Zenith beats, like the final secret one I mentioned, are very hard to achieve, and not everyone will manage to do so before their untimely but likely deserved death. The reward for doing so, a zenith ability, is incredibly powerful but typically lethal as well, or at least transformative enough to remove the character from play. It gives you a chance to completely steal the scene, overcome impossible odds, and end your character’s (adventuring) life on your terms.

Zenith abilities are cool and flavourful (though a few too many of them are essentially “you utterly destroy a place and yourself in the process”), but come a scene too late. You get them as a reward for accomplishing your utlimate task, but they would have been so much more useful while you were trying to accomplish your ultimate task. Even if the character still wants something after their main goal is met, do they want it enough to destroy themselves to get it?

It’s obviously possible for the GM/Heart to pull out some greater calamity to threaten their success or someone they came to care about, but to do so without it feeling cheap takes more skill than I had mustered for our campaign. It took quite a bit of effort to bring even two of the PCs’ stories to culmination simultaneously. The one that “ascended” first did use their zenith ability to help out the other, but it was mostly to show off. This meant the game had run its course, even though the third character still had goals to attain: with 2 of 3 characters retiring, we saw no reason to continue for another session or three with substitutes.

The core mechanics of Heart are very similar to Spire. You still assemble a die pool of d10s, one for free, one more if you have an appropriate skill (what you do), one more if you have an appropriate domain (where/to whom you do it), and another one for mastery (circumstance or abilities). Highest die determines whether the action ends in success, success at a cost, or failure. Difficulty works slightly differently: instead of reducing the die pool by one or two dice in Risky or Dangerous situations, Heart takes away one or two of the best dice after the roll. It is, as you can imagine, quite punishing, but countered by having high-quality equipment.

Much like in Spire, failure and success at a cost give the character stress in one of five tracks: Blood, Echo, Mind, Fortune, and Supplies. After a character gains stress, the GM rolls a d12. If the roll is less or equal to the total stress the character has, they suffer a Fallout, minor on a roll of 6 or less, major otherwise. This means even a character overflowing with stress has even odds of only suffering a minor fallout, making Heart characters quite resilient. Furthermore, the only way to suffer a severe fallout that likely ends the character is for a player to choose to upgrade a major fallout after suffering another major fallout. In Spire, the fallout die is d10, and the severity of the fallout depends on total stress at the time, not the roll, with 9+ stress guaranteeing a severe, character-ending fallout.

There’s a list of fallouts for each category, some are immediate and others last until dealt with, likely at a haven, in exchange for resources – useful stuff you scavenge, loot, or butcher along the way. Each resource has a die rating measuring its potency, from d4 to d12, a domain it belongs to, and sometimes a tag. For instance, you might have a Harpy’s Heart (d6, Wild, Deteriorating). A lot of character abilities interact with resources in some manner, e.g. a Cleaver can eat any resource to gain corresponding domain for a scene.

Finally, stress recovers differently. In Spire, you cleared an amount of stress depending on the severity of fallout you suffered, and could engage in character-specific activities to relieve stress or even hide away and let time pass, clearing it all. In Heart, you clear all stress from the track you just took a hit to on a minor fallout, and all stress from all tracks on a major fallout. You can also use equipment and abilities to clear stress, but that usually involves a check, which means the risk of further stress.

The main reason for all the changes is the larger amount of checks players are likely to make in Heart. Spire is typically a game of intrigue and investigation. Any misstep could spell your doom, so you tread carefully. Characters slowly accumulate stress until everything goes wrong for them at once.

In contrast, Heart is often a game of reckless violence. You’re already doomed, you’re already in Hell looking for your own personal Heaven, what’s one more gunshot wound. Stress comes and goes frequently, it’s the fallouts that stick around, and you have to make it to the next haven to fix them.

Combat is frequent, and it is quite swingy. You can overcome even a dangerous foe with only a couple of good rolls, or you might flail at them ineffectually for a while, suffering multiple fallouts. It’s a bit of an issue, as every fallout suffered pauses the game as the GM flips through the book looking for one that fits the situation. This didn’t feel quite so disruptive in Spire, because there weren’t as many rolls.

Combat is also, unfortunately, not quite deep enough. No matter what cool abilities you might have, how imaginative the monsters are, or how impactful the fallouts, at the end of the day you’ll be rolling Kill checks until the enemy is dispatched – and, again, the combat is quite swingy, so sometimes it takes a while. In addition, not all classes have good access to the skill. Usually, advances that grant you a skill come loaded with some kind of flavourful side benefit, like the ability to see in the dark or harmlessly fall from significant heights. Then they have a more generic advance that simply grants one of a few skills or domains that are not as fitting for your class – and for some classes that includes Kill. Spending an advance on it just doesn’t feel as satisfying. You can get away with playing the supporting role in a fight occasionally, or have an objective other than killing whatever’s trying to kill you, but most of the time it’s Kill or be Killed, and characters that are bad at it feel like they’re not pulling their weight.

While other fallout categories are fairly straightforward – your Blood is spilled, Supplies run low, etc., Fortune is the odd one out. It mostly deals with the consequences of poor decisions made (or just plain bad luck). You might take the wrong turn and extend your journey, piss off the locals, or become their unwilling messiah. In addition, some places and creatures have their own custom fallouts associated with them, like a mind-controlling location seeping deeper into your brain, or a ghost possessing your body. These don’t always work seamlessly, and sometimes mean the signature threat of a scene is never realized simply because the dice didn’t cooperate, but it’s a very interesting idea nonetheless, and something I’d like to see more of in future supplements, should they happen.

Fallouts are tricky in general. There’s an art to picking them so as not to overwhelm the characters. At one point, the entire party in our game was suffering so much it became comical, with multiple broken limbs, ragged nerves, blinded eyes, weird growths, etc.. This isn’t an issue with the rules, there are many once-and-done fallouts I could have given them instead, just something to keep in mind. The maleable nature of the Heart offers a fix for this as well, you just have to be flexible enough to take it. Does the party desperately need a break? The Heart can provide a haven that wasn’t there a moment ago, perhaps an all-too-convenient pub with absolutley no dark secrets hidden in its cellar.

In a certain way, Heart is the polar opposite of OSR in this regard. OSR, generally speaking, wants to establish the dungeon, draw the map, provide random encounter tables, then watch the characters deal with the problems as they come, in a “fair” fashion. Heart makes everything up as it goes. Do you need healing? Here’s a haven. You picked a beat to punish someone? Meet an absolute bastard of a person. Low on resources? Well go get them, that cursed plesudodeer isn’t using its bones for anything significant.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of campaigns you can run in Heart, both centered around travel. The first, and the kind we played, is a one-way descent. Somewhere deep within, the characters will find what they’re looking for, even if they don’t know what it is yet. The other focuses on a hub, probably a haven, that you try to protect by venturing back and forth. Should you be interested in it, you’ll probably want to pick up Sanctum, a small supplement written just for this. Either way, journeys play a significant role. The book is filled with unique locations and it is a delight to explore them. In fact, our campaign went for longer than it probably should have simply because I wanted to fit more landmarks into it. Even then, we haven’t even seen a third it.

It’s a shame, then, that my biggest issue with the game is the way it handles the actual journeys between the landmarks, the delves. When the GM prepares a delve, they determine the length of its resistance track, which functions much like a health pool, tracking the overall progress of the trip. As the party overcomes challenges on the way, they inflict stress on the delve, filling the track. Once the track is filled, the delve is over. Just like combat, this is very swingy: normally you inflict 1d4 stress, with a typical delve having 8-12 resistance. But while a combat taking an extra roll or three to finish is not a big deal, a delve requiring more obstacles than you have prepared means you need to rapidly improvise. And there’s no random encounter tables or even a roll to suggest the nature of the next obstacle – which is fine so long as the GM/Heart knows what should happen next, but leaves them floundering otherwise.

One of the reasons for this rule was giving meaning to delve items: grappling hooks, compasses, air-tanks, etc.. When you use a Delve item in overcoming an obstacle, you use this item’s die rating instead of the default d4 – they’re a direct analogue of Kill items i.e. weapons. Except thematically this doesn’t actually work. Having a grappling hook doesn’t make the check for climbing up a wall any easier. Instead, it means you’re likely to face fewer obstacles after you’ve climbed the wall.

Every time our party overcame an obstacle, inflicting stress on the delve was an afterthought, the least interesting part of the situation that was also the most mechanically significant one. By the second half of the campaign I had given up on tracking delve resistance, instead simply declaring the party had arrived at their destination as soon as I had used up the ideas I had for travel encounters. Thankfully, none of the characters had taken any abilities interacting with this part of the rules, so this wasn’t a problem. Still, completely cutting out the mechanic for the main activity of the game is not great.

Despite the game’s flaws – and to be clear, most of them are quite minor – I loved my time running it. In a hobby drowning in dungeoncrawling games, in grimdark and despair and lovecraftian horror, Heart offers a unique experience. Wonder and horror, grime and grandeur, hope and tragedy, alien and personal. Every monster is utterly sad, but it will still try to eat your face. Everything has gone wrong, yet people still live there. Not just live, they make art, they aspire. The characters are doomed, but they’re powerful. It’s their humanity that drives them towards becoming inhuman. Drives them deeper into the Heart.

Perhaps you’ll find what you’re looking for in Heart, too.

Mothership (p)review

Mothership, a sci-fi horror OSR game by Sean McCoy & Tuesday Knight Games, is quite popular. Seemingly any time someone asks for a game that has anything remotely to do with sci-fi or horror, Mothership will be among the recommendations. What’s interesting is that Mothership isn’t even properly out yet: what we have is effectively an Early Access player guide, 0e as the author calls it. At the time this post is published, the kickstarter campaign for the full version of Mothership is well past the million dollar mark with almost a week left to go.

This unfinished nature of the game hasn’t prevented numerous Mothership adventures from being published, both first- and third-party. What is the allure of this game that has attracted so many creators, what does it look like right now, and what can we expect from the full rules? I’ve been running a weekly game for the last few months, so naturally I have opinions to share.

Mothership has firmly occupied a niche that is surprisingly underserved: the grimy and gritty future of space exploration that movies and video games have promised us. Somewhat paradoxically, its distinguishing feature is the lack of a setting attached to the game. There’s just the general vibe of getting killed by horrible things out in the darkness of space.

There are very few established facts to contend with: space travel is common, including hyperdrives; there are human-like androids; you probably owe a lot of money to a corporation. The rest is up to you. Sentient aliens? If you want them. The Alien-like aliens? Inevitably. Mind-warping artifacts, cybernetic viruses, megalomaniacal AIs, evils of (space) hypercapitalism? All this and more. The possibilites are as vast as the space itself.

Sci-fi horror tabula rasa is well and good, but what about the game itself? That’s the unfortunate part: 0e is functional at best. The core mechanic is a fairly standard d100 engine: roll under attribute + skill (if you have one) to succeed. In case of an opposed check, both characters roll. If both succeed, the highest roll wins. Doubles on a success are a critical success and doubles on a failure are a critical failure. Items and circumstance can also grant advantage or disadvantage, enabling the player to roll twice and pick the better or worse outcome, respectively.

In addition to the attributes you roll when a character acts (Strength, Speed, Intellect, Combat), characteres have saves (Sanity, Fear, Body, Armor) that are typically rolled in response to something happening to the character. Failure on a save inflicts Stress as well as whatever other consequences you might suffer. A critical failure on a save leads to a Panic Check: if you roll 2d10 over your Stress the character panics, and you roll 2d10 again, this time adding your Stress, and look up the result on a panic table. These range from an adrenaline rush to a heart attack, and indeed Stress can be deadlier than physical damage. In addition, most classes have special clauses around Stress and Panic. For instance, when a Marine panics everyone else makes a Fear save.

The Stress rules avoid a common pitfall with such sub-systems: they don’t grind the action to a halt all the time. Fail the save, mark stress, move on. Panic rules, on the other hand, plunge right into this pit. First, there’s no good reason to have two distinct rolls during a panic check that use the exact same numbers, character’s Stress. Second, it’s a different mechanic to the rest of the system, and it requires a table lookup to boot. Moreover, it often causes a cascade of saves and panic checks, roll upon roll, completely destroying the momentum of the scene.

As is traditional for OSR games, combat is deadly and fairly straightforward. Characters get two significant actions each round (great if you’re doing something tricky, kinda boring if you just want to shoot). Attacks are an opposed check with defenders rolling a save (and thus gaining stress on a failure) or perhaps Combat to counter-attack in close quarters – the rules are frustratingly vague on this. As written, it is the strictly superior option most of the time: not only do you get a chance of damaging the enemy, you won’t gain stress if you fail. But if the enemies follow the same rules, close quarters combat devolves into a frenzy of stabbing and counter-stabbing that the PCs are unlikely to win.

Monsters have a built-in defense against lucky one-shot: Hits. A typical monster’s stats look something like Hits 2(30), meaning once it takes 30 or more damage, it looses a Hit, with no carry-over damage. Narratively the monster sustains a significant injury and may change its behavior as the result. Unfortunately, these rules are not a part of the only official rules text, Player Survival Guide (0e), despite Hits being used in the published adventures. A curious gamemaster has to look for supplemental sources such as the game’s discord server to figure them out.

On paper, combat rules are fine. In practice, problems crop up almost immediately. It may take everyone a couple of sessions to get comfortable with opposed checks, which is not ideal for a system often used for high mortality one-shots. More importantly, combat is drowning in these opposed checks, which often have minimal impact: percentile systems are already prone to high failure rate, and both sides rolling and counter-rolling twice each round just gets cumbersome. A back-of-an-envelope calculation shows it takes well over a hundred rolls to get through an equally matched firefight. Now, granted, standing and fighting is not a good idea in an OSR game, but sometimes the characters don’t have much of a choice.

Probably the best part of the game is the character sheet. It is basically a flowchart for character creation, slick and stylish, just hand them out to players and they’ll be ready to go in a couple of minutes. There is, however, a nuance. Not all skills are created equal: some offer additional benefits that could be crucial, like Firearms training allowing you to reload quickly, or Tactics giving a bonus to your initiative check. This is not reflected on the otherwise perfect character sheet – even an asterisk next to the skill name would have helped.

This is becoming a major pet peeve of mine, minor caveat rules that you read and nod along because they make sense (sure, if you know how to handle firearms you know how to reload them quickly), but that slip so easily out of mind during the actual game. At worst you remember there was something important, something that could potentially tilt the odds in the PCs’ favor, and flip or scroll desperately through the rules: was it under Skills or Combat? Nope, Weapons.

To a certain extent this applies to equipment, too. A party that found pain pills and stimpaks in the equipment list will be at a significant advantage compared to the party that blinked and missed them. On the other hand, monsters are not balanced with drug use in mind – in the grand tradition of OSR they’re not balanced at all.

While character creation is a straightforward process, the same cannot be said for ships. The game features fairly involved rules for modelling your space ship, with various modules taking up hull points, which in turn require greater amount of thrusters and engines to power them. It’s not rocket science, but a fragment of the ship creation flowchart on the right should give you some idea of how complex it gets. It’s a good flowchart, I like it.

Ship creation does take a while, going over the components, figuring out the invisible thresholds crossing which means you need extra support components which in turn mean you need extra hull which means your ship gets much bulkier. It’s an interesting minigame, ruined only slightly by being ultimately meaningless.

The reason you should care about ship size is its cost: a single hull point costs 10 million credits. A Courier ship, capable of delivering a few people and a tiny payload from point A to point B and little else, has a minimum hull of 30 points, or 300m credits. A ship actually capable of combat starts at 55 hull points. That’s half a billion credits, with credits very roughly equivalent to dollars.

The rules suggest the ship the group owns is of a minimum viable size, with 6d10 percent paid off. They further suggest 10% of all credits earned in-game go towards repaying the debt, “for simplicity’s sake”. While certainly simple, it doesn’t feel right. I’m not advocating for modeling a mortgage calculator, but the whole “you’re half a billion credits in debt, so just pay 10% of your income whenever you’re able, no worries” thing just doesn’t ring true.

Economic woes go further: it costs a lot to operate a space ship. A unit of fuel goes for 10k credits, and you burn one of those per day, more when landing on a planet, more still when using a hyperdrive. The game sets up this enormous economic pressure on the party that would, ideally, push them into accepting dangerous missions we the players want them to engage in. The problem is that at the same time the rules don’t offer any guidelines for actually relieving this pressure.

This part of the game is obviously directly inspired by Traveller, the classic debit-driven sci-fi game which I’ve only read about. However, my understanding is that Traveller does in fact offer a robust economic system where the party can conceivably keep themselves afloat by undertaking various jobs, and an entire campaign can spin out of them trying to make ends meet.

Mothership, in contrast, just indicates that money are important but leaves the GM to figure out how the players are going to get them. Running a spreadsheet of fuel expenses and ship mortgage payments and trying to match it with similar payouts for deadly tasks is presumably not why you chose to run Mothership, however, which means you’re probably just going to handwave this, which in turn means money is basically meaningless. Except getting paid was supposed to be the motivation for going out into the unknown in the first place!

This is where a system should come in and offer some guidelines, but alas, alack. I understand we’re talking about a 40-page early access players’ guide, but it has four pages dedicated to mercenaries (which our group has never touched, but I guess they’re a staple of OSR), I feel it could have spared a couple pages to develop its economy.

Some of the adventures take a non-systemic approach to rectifying this: Gradient Descent lists the going rate of various [REDACTED], while A Pound of Flesh has tasks and their payouts scattered throughout. Maybe it’s just how my mind works, but I find this entirely unhelpful. I’d much rather have a simple table of task difficulty ranges and corresponding rewards than feeling like I need to collate all the sample data and extract this information.

This economic mess is further compounded by there being essentially two economic scales: macro ship costs that measure in hundreds of thousands to millions of credits, and micro personal costs that rarely go above thousands. In a campaign where the party operates their own ship, personal expenses are a rounding error. The relatable issues like choosing between a nicer hotel or a bigger gun fade into insignificance. Making both macro- and micro-prices relevant in the same game is a tough nut to crack, and I just might have to try my hand at it if Mothership doesn’t.

If you got this far, you can see I’m quite critical of Mothership 0e. Yet despite having these issues with the game, I’m still running it weekly, and having a great time with it. The rules are not fantastic, but they do work. It’s the adventures that shine. We’ve started the campaign with Haunting of Ypsilon-14, followed it up with Dead Planet, and are currently wading through Gradient Descent interleaved with A Pound of Flesh – all official adventures. Perhaps the PCs will elect to take a vacation on the Desert Moon of Karth next, or discover What We Give to Alien Gods. Or any other of the third-party adventure, there are so many and they all look so good.

And it’s very important to underscore that all of my criticisms are for the 0e version of the rules. In fact, the reason I listed all the issues I have with the rules that are about to become obsolete is because the 1e rules promise to address most if not all of them. Opposed rolls in combat? Gone. Panic checks? A single roll. Auxiliary skill benefits? Gone. General promises of smoothing out edge cases and simplifying the rules aplenty.

Reading the kickstarter campaign page and various previews and discussions surrounding it has been a very pleasant surprise. It would have been so easy for the creators to declare the game was already popular and therefore good enough. Instead, it is clear they’ve listened to player feedback, played their own game, and iterated upon the rules. In short, they’ve actually used the 0e as an Early Access game.

Of course we don’t yet know how well any of this is implemented, that’s the nature of many kickstarted projects. But I very much look forward to digging into the fully released game. It has the potential to be easy to run, evocative, flexible, brutal. A steadfast companion in exploring the horrors of the universe.

Welcome to Great Arkham

Great Arkham is a thief. One day you get out of bed, and you’re in a city you’ve never seen yet know intimately. You have a job, a favourite pub. You go about your day, and there’s something nagging at you, but you can’t place it, so you do your best to put it out of your mind. Most people live their entire lives in Arkham in this state of unease. What were you doing before coming here? Why did you come here? How did you come here? Isn’t there a life waiting for you outside?

This isn’t quite a review of Cthulhu City the campaign book written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and published by Pelgrane Press, though I’ll be gushing about it. Neither is this a review of Trail of Cthulhu, for which this campaign book is written, though it did its job remarkably well. Rather, this is an eulogy for a campaign that was meant to last a few months and instead grew in the telling to well over a year, drawing in other campaigns I’ve run and, no doubt, spilling into ones I’m yet to run. Just like Great Arkham, the “Cthulhu City” itself, it spread. There’ll be some spoilers, naturally.

Great Arkham is a prison. Take a train, it will be stopped by the Transport Police. Typhoid quarantine, they say. Take a bus, it’ll blow a tyre. Take a boat, waves will threaten to overturn it. Go into the woods, you’ll wander for days before coming back to Great Arkham.

Let’s start with a confession: I’ve barely read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read about them, seen them implemented in games, but every game of lovecraftian horror I run is a tribute to a tribute. This hasn’t stopped me: I’ve previously run a series of very loosely connected brief campaigns of tremulus, which I named in my self-indulgent manner “The Nyarlathotep Trilogy”. Most of my players haven’t read Lovecraft, either. This was the first hurdle: Cthulhu City is a love letter to the mythos universe. Its most basic premise is “what if all of these stories and characters weren’t just in a shared universe, but in the same city?” Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport – these are all districts of Great Arkham. Colour out of space and re-animators, Charles Dexter Ward and professor Armitage, they’re all here. But I barely recognize these people and monstrosities, they’d mean nothing to my players. The solution was obvious: just like Arkham had somehow absorbed all its source material, it had absorbed the characters from our previous horror campaigns, PC and NPC alike, living and dead. Only one of my players had an “oh shit” moment when they heard the name Charles Ward, but they sure all had one when they recognized the impossibly alive professor Mastodon Jones, followed by an “ohh shiiiiiit” moment when they linked William Robinson the owner of Chemical Works processing plants with Will the one-armed teenage veteran of the Great War and a priest of Nyarlathotep, the villain of the game in which Mastodon Jones was a PC.

Great Arkham is a time-space aberration. It is impossible. It doesn’t make sense. It has drawn not just people but entire places from different time periods into itself, and trapped them all in its maddeningly vague history.

Cthulhu City is an unusual setting book. It has strong themes, but leaves putting details together to the GM. It asks questions and offers suggestions for what the answers might be. What is Great Arkham, why does it exist, what do the black monoliths dominating its skies do? Up to you. Each NPC write up, and there are a lot, from named individuals to stock characters, offers three variants: Victim, Sinister, and Stalwart. Each location description comes with Masked and Unmasked options. Each district description starts with several brief scenes that might happen there. Everyone’s hiding something. Every place has a horrible secret. These are all bits of story one can plug into their game. They wouldn’t all fit into a single campaign, or a single city for that matter, but that works for Arkham. There is no canonical Great Arkham, they’re all real, as real as Arkham gets. In practice I rarely used these stories, beyond the key NPCs and locations, but I still greatly appreciated them. Not only were they fun to read, they offered examples of what could be, sketched out the space in which I could imagine my own weirdness.

Great Arkhaim is the embodiment of the American Dream. The city is rife with opportunities, all you gotta do is have your eyes and your mind open to spot them. All truly succesful men are geniuses, and all geniuses are mad. Embrace your madness and prosper.

While the city is drowning in mythos, the games set in it are still fundamentally about people. Many of the plotlines suggested in the book center on the people who were exposed to some aspect of the impossible and immediately tried to use their newfound knowledge to turn a profit, or otherwise benefit themselves. In other lovecraftian settings, mythos is often the end goal: mad cultists are summoning a vile god to end humanity, or a monstrosity is rampaging unimpeded. There’re plenty of mad cultists and monstrosities in Arkham, of course, but by and large the city is made up of regular folk who, while vaguelly aware of the wrongness of it all, go about their regular lives. To them, mythos is the means to their mundane goals. This was a refreshing shift in perspective, providing the “villains” with motivations other than “mad and wants to end the world”. Perhaps one had to drown the setting in mythos to allow for human elements to rise to the top.

Great Arkham is the best city in the world. It has its warts, sure, but what place doesn’t. Keep your head down, work hard, and you will have a decent life, what else could anyone ask for. And even if you do everything right and things still go wrong for you, well, life ain’t fair, is it. Not like the city’s to blame for your misfortune. Is it? Besides, where would you go, some big city where no one knows you? No, there’s no way I’d leave Arkham.

In an investigative campaign, it’s very important to track who knows what. In Ctulhu City, where no one knows the truth but everyone has their own perspective, that gets especially tricky. I decided early on to summarise this by having each significant NPC discuss the nature of the city with the PCs the first chance they get. This helped me keep in mind not just their knowledge, but their attitude as well, and demonstrate it to the players. The snippets interspersed through this text are such musings.

Perhaps even more importantly, the players needed to keep track of what they already knew. At my insistence, they started a session log, which, just like the campaign it documented, grew to monstrous proportions: in the end it stands at 135 pages. I also wanted to both demonstrate that the city didn’t revolve around the PCs and show how it reacted to their actions, as well as sow the seeds for potential future investigations. Arkham Advertiser was the answer to all of these: a newspaper front page I’d produce whenever felt right – you can find an example below. It also was fun to write, especially the ads. Next time I produce such newspapers, I would propably reduce the actual articles to only a couple of paragraphs of key information. And maybe put the saved effort into layout and proofreading.

Great Arkham is a city occupied. All of us close our eyes to this simple truth. We pretend everything is alright even as we sacrifice ourselves in service to its inhuman captor. We bear the chains willingly, because to question the nature of our unnatural society is to become an outcast. None of us are strong enough to resist this oppression on our own. We must rise up together and overthrow the ancient evil that is capitalism.

Another technique I used was inserting snippets of daily life in a city occupied by mythos into the game. Small scenes of weird menace that don’t lead anywhere. It worked great, in the sense that players immediately would latch on to them and spend entire sessions chasing down clues as fast as I could improvise them. They saw a teenager being chased by transport police toss his bag over the fence before he was grabbed. Not only did they recover the bag to find a map of Massachusetts where Arkham is a small town and Dunwhich is a separate village hundreds of miles away, they broke into the Arkham Sanitarium to save the kid. The kid, Alex, was looking for his sister, Carmen. And so it went.

Another time, a PC heard faint voices coming from her shower head, followed by the stench of rotting meat and finally maggots pouring out. Creepy but ultimately meaningless. Of course the PC looked for the meaning. This lead to people infested and possessed by maggots digging new groves in their brains, to metamorphosis, to a mothman trying to make more mothpeople. Along the way there was a high school football team called Mighty Mothmen, complete with a mascot, and a bit of emergency magic surgery involving an eye and a key after a PC donned said mascot costume and couldn’t take it off. Also Native American rock art depicting something very much like a mothman god found in the caves in Dunwhich woods. The mystery kept revealing new layers.

Great Arkham is wasted potential, just waiting for someone with a vision. It is in a unique position, sprawled across histories: there are many timelines, but only one Great Arkham. With it as our beachhead, we could make history itself bow before the Yellow King.

Turned out, the mothman behind it all was a mothwoman calling herself Camilla, and all the infested people were gathering for a performance at a graveyard. Which either tells you nothing, or makes you go “oh shit” yet again. I want to run Yellow King RPG some day, also by Pelgrane Press, and this seemed like a natural tie-in, Carcosa’s attempt to take over Arkham. Naturally, PCs got into the performance and became art students in end-of-19th-century Paris, the setting of the first part of YKRPG. They attended a masked graduation ceremony lead by Camilla, followed by a sea voyage to Great Arkham to spread the word of the Yellow King via art. While on board, PCs took part in writing the King in Yellow play (which they were already performing or possibly living), adding antagonists to the plot, and, with minimal prodding, styled these antagonists after themselves. So when they disembarked into the graveyard and the play was over, they were the characters they wrote, still opposing Carcosa. Were they investigators dreaming they were moths, or moths dreaming they were investigators?

To tie all this together, I had Alex reveal the “real world” he comes from, the one outside Great Arkham, was not the United States they assumed, but the United Empire of America ruled by Emperor Castaigne. That is to say, the world of Yellow King RPG. Up until then, the PCs thought they’d escape Great Arkham, now they weren’t sure there was anywhere worth escaping. To make matters worse, Alex and Carmen, on their way into Arkham, bought wormy peaches from a roadside salesman. Alex bit into one and spat it out, while his sister was hungry and ate a whole bunch. Did I say wormy? I meant maggoty. PCs immediately and correctly realized Carmen was the patient zero of the maggot-mothman infestation, making her the mothwoman Camilla they had just killed and buried with the help of Alex. Which would of course come back to bite them.

I describe all this is not just because I’m damn proud of the plot we ended up with, but because it grew from throw-away scenes into a monumental story arc that tied mothmen to Carcosa and its convoluted plot to invade Great Arkham by violating quarantine restrictions on fruit import, and that’s without even mentioning the pre-Arkham village of Nuveau Carcasson, a.k.a. New Carcosa, a.k.a. Newcastle district which has always been in Great Arkham after this story arc was resolved – can’t invade a city if you’re a part of it. Aaand I’m rambling again. In retrospect it is amusing I’ve felt the need to invent a whole new faction vying for control of Arkham in a setting already full of them, but this freedom to add to a setting is integral for it to be not just a fun read, but actually fun to use in a game.

Do you think people of the Dreamlands have their own Dreamlands? They dream, after all, just like we do. And if they do, do you think our reality is the Dreamlands to someone else? That would explain a lot about Great Arkham.

Once we’ve dragged past and potential future campaigns into the current campaign, it was hard to stop. We have a long-running Shadow of the Demon Lord back-up game, which we discovered was actually in the Dreamlands – one of the PCs picked up the Dreaming skill and ended up in the middle of a SotDL adventure. As a side note, this meant the Demon Lord is Nyarlathothep, a fact that changed nothing yet amused me greatly. When we inadvertently opened a portal to Unknown Kaddath underneath the Arkham city hall, I looked at my bookshelf and pulled out Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, a psychodelic heavy metal road trip game. Given that my understanding of Kaddath is limited to “weirder Dreamlands”, it was a great fit. Both even have mind-controlling cats!

Coup de grâce, however, came when I managed to tie Arkham Horror the board game into the campaign. As we delved deeper into the mystery of the nature of Great Arkham, this became a major piece of the puzzle, another perspective to which the PCs gained access. Locations on the board game map, we determined, were the black monoliths dominating the skyline of Arkham. PCs could enter through any of them and have a friendly chat with the entity they dubbed “the Gatekeeper” before exiting through any other monolith. All they had to do was draw a card corresponding to their new location and deal with whatever it said. This was an interesting improv exercise, translating board game cards with their wacky single paragraph events into a roleplaying environment. Some of them just say “a terrible monster appears,” and I did reserve the right to draw another event if the first one just didn’t work. Overall, they worked great as prompts, leading to some cool scenes we would never have had otherwise, including a spontaneous trip to the founding of Great Arkham.

Great Arkham is a dam. For centuries, it has stood betwen the mythos and the mundane. And just like any dam, it has a power all its own. Some would drain it, deny the divine, reduce Great Arkham to another forgettable city, perhaps to nothing. Others would open the floodgates and let the mythos through. Then there are those who quite like the way things are. Those who can draw upon this accumulated power.

The book suggests the following campaign concept: you start with street-level, individual mysteries, move on to investigating cults and other powers that run the city, then finally confront one or more of the big mysteries of the city itself. The Ritual of Opening/Closing is a convenient plot device that forces confrontation and ties the latter parts of the campaign together. Half of the various factions in Arkham would love to, given the opportunity, perform this incredibly dangerous ritual, ending the city and possibly the world one way or another. This works, but was the only part of the book that was a bit generic for my tastes. As the campaign progressed and factions and their motivations became more defined, their versions of the ritual and what it would achieve shifted. I still used the tried and true threat of cultists-ritual-apocalypse, but the individual apocalypses varied significantly. Church of Conciliator still wanted to invite Azathoth to Earth, with immediate and obvious consequences, but Yellow King wanted to use Arkham as a beachhead in reality conquest, and Necromantic Cabal wanted to incarnate a “human” god.

Arkham is an oppressive setting with a tangled web of conspiracies and otherworldly forces, it is inescapable and overwhelming. Scratch the surface of any mystery and you’ll find two more underneath, vanquish a cult and you’ll free up their opponents to advance their schemes. I tried to convey this by drowning my players in clues to pursue. At any time there’d be not just multiple avenues of research, but multiple distinct investigations they’d have to deal with, in addition to the aforementioned daily life occurrences. This combined well with time pressure as the central campaign structure: the PCs knew the time window in which the ritual was possible was rapidly approaching, even if they didn’t initially know when exactly it would happen, and we tracked every day in a 1937 calendar. For every subplot, I figured out the likely timeline of its development if the PCs did nothing, then put key dates into the shared calendar, coded after Mythos deities. The players didn’t know what “Byatis” stood for, but they knew it was coming.

As the result, the PCs ran themselves ragged, trying to battle a city’s worth of mystery and horror all by themselves. They were forced to triage. A friend left a cryptic message and hadn’t been seen since? Better hope he’s alright, the party’s putting out bigger fires. He wasn’t. Trail of Cthulhu/GUMSHOE, the system for which Cthulhu City was written, worked wonderfully here. In it, characters spend points they’ve assinged to skills to improve their rolls or get bonus effects. Some of these points replenish with a good night’s rest, but most only do between investigations. Critically, Stability (which helps one to not go insane, a useful skill in a lovecraftian horror game) only refreshed when spending quality time with loved ones. Which meant carving out crucial time to do so and making sure there were un-broken loved ones left who they could still face. This list grew quite slim by the end of the campaign.

I have to commend ToC for forcing us to come up with the list of NPCs that PCs rely on. Cthulhu City goes further and mandates we also list ‘entanglements’, who rely on PCs. This excercise was somewhat overwhelming during character creation, and would perhaps be better stretched out through the first investigation, but by the end of the campaign all these characters were involved and suffering for it. Likewise, multiple Pillars of Sanity were shattered and one PC even talked his way into destroying his own Drive, so all the prep was worth it in the end.

A direct consequence of the time pressure approach was how desperate the players were to use every hour of every day at their disposal. That’s largely the reason the campaign went on for so long: as we approached the ritual week, we went from covering a couple of days in a session to a day, to half a day. And the more attention to detail we paid, the more space I had to introduce more horrible twists. We nearly Zeno’s paradoxed the campaign into infinity.

Great Arkham is a mirage. A lie. A dream. It’s not real, is my point. Nothing here is real. No one. It is not real because it can’t be real. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done. I don’t feel guilty. Why should I? Nothing we do here matters.

Just like (our version of) Arkham spreads through worlds and histories, so did the real world reach into it. We began the campaign near the end of 2019. In it, a fake pandemic is used to control the populace, authorities commit ritual sacrifices, newspapers lie to keep everyone docile, and masks are a major signifier of one’s allegiance to a sinister force. As 2020 went on, this fun romp through conspiracy theories became decidedly weird and at times even uncomfortable. The heroic investigators opposing these conspiracies sounded like real life raving lunatics in the daily news (and fortunately not many of our close relatives or friends). Even gaming gets complicated when living in interesting times.

Near the end I was worried it got to be too much. Too oppressive, too gruelling, too close to home. My players assured me they were fine. Having the backup game with much lower stakes, dark fantasy with constant threat of PC death though it may be, certainly helped. However, we all agreed we wanted to do something much more lighthearted afterwards. Still, at the end of the campaign Great Arkham remains. Which means it will undoubtedly spread into future campaigns we play. There’s now a permanent portal and a small Arkham outpost in the Ultraviolet Grasslands – we’ll pay them a visit when we get around to UVG. Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign is in the Dreamlands, so an arkhamite cameo is always possible. Yellow King RPG is already tied in. Maybe we’ll do Fate of Cthulhu with its time-travel shenanigans and actually “solve” Great Arkham. One thing is certain: all I need to do to terrorize my players is mention Arkham’s black monoliths appearing on the horizon.

Clearly such mad sprawling sandbox campaign is not the only way you could enjoy Cthulhu City. You don’t need to drag past and future campaigns into it, you don’t have to write fictional newspapers, or pull out the board game. But… you could.

Great Arkham is the answer to your prayers. Ever since you’ve learned of it, you sought more: books, movies, art, games, anything to sate your growing longing. It was just a game, merely a fantasy. A mythos. You called for it, with every unpronounceable name you learned you called for it, with every maddening detail you so eagerly absorbed you weakened your ties to what is, with every frightening daydream you reached out to what shouldn’t be. And it heard you. I heard you. You are home now, and you will never leave me. Welcome to Great Arkham.

When is a gold piece not a gold piece?

There’s a common assumption of interchangeability of OSR adventures and systems. Pick your favourite system, then draw from the vast array of adventures written for the vast array of systems (or just labeled as “OSR“). This works, for the most part, due to the unique features of the playstyle such as de-empasizing the rules and a core of shared assumptions. The GM can easily figure out how to represent the monsters and traps of a given adventure in their system of choice. What can just as easily go overlooked is treasure. A gp is a gp, is it not?

Turns out it’s really, really not.

Equipment lists vary greatly between game systems, and there’s never any thought put into actual economics of the fantasy worlds we inhabit – which is fine, that’s not what the games are about, and any attempt to extrapolate how those worlds actually function is futile yet hilarious (see the Dungeonomics articles). For my part, I’ve previously looked at what money are used for in games, and why they so often don’t “work”.

What we actually care about right now is the buying power of a gold piece, and how it differs from system to system. Real world has “Big Mac index“, so I’ve compiled a Ration index, the relative price of a week’s worth of rations, as it is a baseline item every adventurer needs, and therefore every system specifies. I’ve tied the computed value to OD&D, but it’s trivial to calculate a different conversion.

Without further ado, here’s a table of a bunch of OSR and fantasy systems I had or got my hands on. There may be errors (please correct them in comments!), as some of this was compiled from SRD documents and other information available online. Feel free to suggest other systems and their values, too.

SystemRation (GP/ week)Ration Index
AD&D 2e30.6
D&D 3 & Pathfinder3.50.7
D&D 43.50.7
D&D 53.50.7
Pathfinder 2e0.40.08
13th Age3.50.7
Shadow of the Demon Lord0.010.002
Dungeon Crawl Classics0.350.07
Swords & Wizardry3.50.7
Electric Bastionland35*7
Ultraviolet Grasslands102
Best Left Buried2**0.4
Basic Fantasy102
B/X, OSE51
Labyrinth Lord1.4.28

*Electric Bastionland doesn’t have a price for rations, but it does have a “canned eel” for 2 new pounds, so I’ve extrapolated to 5/day or 35/week.

**Best Left Buried doesn’t have ration prices either, at least not in the core book. In the Beneath the Missing Sea adventure, which is how I’ve learned about this system, there’s a price of 2 affluence points/week for food (and 3/week for water, but the whole adventure is about a disaster zone, so we’ll ignore that component).

Two square meals a day is not all an adventurer aspires to, however. Full plate armor is a common high-end equipment. In some games, that’s the pinnacle an adventurer can achieve, in others you can start with a full set of armor, so it’s tricky to use for direct comparison between systems. Also included is the Ration-Plate index, a within-system comparison of prices, or how many weeks of rations a full plate suit costs.

SystemFull PlateFull Plate IndexRation-Plate Index
AD&D 2e4008133
D&D 3 & Pathfinder150030429
D&D 450114
D&D 5150030429
Pathfinder 2e300.675
13th Age50114
Shadow of the Demon Lord250.52500
Dungeon Crawl Classics1200243429
Swords & Wizardry100229
Electric Bastionland10002029
Ultraviolet Grasslands150030150
Best Left Buried50.12.5
Basic Fantasy300630
B/X, OSE601.212
Labyrinth Lord4509321

With Ration index, three outliers stand out: Shadow of the Demon Lord and Dungeon Crawl Classics on the low side, and Electric Bastionland on the high. All prices are a game design decision, and the likeliest explanation for low prices of SotDL and DCC is that players in these systems aren’t meant to sweat the “small stuff”, they have demons to fight. On the other hand, the relatively high price of food in EBL serves to push PCs into adventuring, as debt is the primary motivation for starting PCs in that game. Or it would, if that system wasn’t so focused on minimising the rules it actually included living costs.

However, if starvation is an actual threat in a game, it’s usually because the party didn’t bring enough rations with them, not because they’re too poor to afford food. Unless you’re playing Red Markets, that is. The one exception here is Best Left Buried, which, despite having the Ration index of 0.4 (seemingly making rations more affordable than in D&D), has the lowest Plate-Ration index of 2.5, meaning a BLB character can get a fancy suit of armor for the prices of 2.5 sacks of potatoes. I suspect this is the combination of the relatively unexceptional nature of full plate in that system (that is, it isn’t something you aspire to, it’s just something you wear if it fits your character) and actual possibility of starvation in the adventure that provided ration prices.

Overall, the relative Ration index is only useful when converting starting level adventures. Full Plate index is perhaps more indicative once you move past that stage. As for the Ration-Plate index, it is mostly a curiosity. The lower the value, the easier it is to afford full plate armour in that system, likely indicating, as with the BLB example above, that it is a character build item as opposed to a luxury item.

What can we conclude based on this little collection of data? Only that one game’s GP has nothing to do with another.

Electric Bastionland

The electric hub of mankind
The only city that matters

Deep Country
It stretches forever
The long shadow of our past

In the Underground
Machines undermine reality

Aliens are here
From beneath the Living Stars

You have a Failed Career
You have a colossal debt

Treasure is your only hope

Electric Bastionland is a self-described “particularly fast” roleplaying game by Chris McDowall, a sequel/refinement of the author’s Into the Odd system. The book doesn’t discuss this in any way other than the “Deeper Into the Odd” subtitle on the cover, and I haven’t read ItO, so the exact relationship between the titles shall remain a mystery.

The system is minimalist to the extreme, but rarely to its detriment. The rules take up 3 whole pages, including very optional stuff like detachments and structure damage. The quote from the start of the book summarises the game’s approach well: “Electric Bastionland’s rules are written to be as fast and simple as possible. The true joy of play often exists in situations that arise outside of the rules,” which is a nice way to describe the entire OSR approach.

The rules themselves are a mix of old(school) familiar with some interesting twists. Characters have 3 attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma. Whenever they do something dangerous, they roll a save with a relevant attribute – a simple d20 roll, if they get less or equal to the attribute, they succeed, no difficulty modifiers. Armour acts as damage reduction, which is quite handy because there’re no attack rolls, either. If you get attacked, you’re taking damage. There’s a nuance here: targets are declared at the start of a round, and out of all the damage dice rolled against a single target, be it from multiple attackers or a circumstantial bonus, only the highest value is used. So when a bunch of attackers gang up against you, you’ll suffer for it, but won’t be instantly killed. The same is true for monsters, too: if a monster has 7 hp, the party all doing 1d6 damage can’t get lucky and bring it down in a single round.

Once your hitpoints are reduced to zero, the rest of the damage is taken out of your Strength. After each such hit you make a Strength save to avoid critical damage. Critically damaged character can only crawl until they receive care and rest up, and will die in an hour if left unattended. Characters also die if their Strength is reduced to zero. While the rules don’t explicitly state this, the gameplay example provided shows NPCs acting under the exact same rules. Which worked fine when the party faced an enemy or two at a time, but became a major pain to track when dealing with a bunch of weaker enemies at once.

Hit points come back with a simple 5 minute rest (which is a cause for a random encounter check), while ability loss requires an overnight stay in a hospital – and that’s for free, for a resonable fee you can get a near-instantaneous fix.

Overall, this sounds like a nasty death spiral: get into a fight, take damage (and enemies aren’t going to miss!), lose Strength, fail a save, drop. In practice, however, combat is suprisingly forgiving. Unless the enemy is dealing craptons of damage or your Strength is particularly low, a PC won’t be killed outright, merely knocked out. “A dying comrade presents a more interesting tactical choice than a dead one,” explains the book. It’ll take the entire party losing a fight for them to die.

Should you take damage that puts you on exactly zero hp, you suffer a permanent scar, the only mechanical way of changing up your character. The amount of damage that brought you down acts as the index value for the scars table, with a total of 12 entries. Out of these, 6 can change the maximum hp (if you roll over your current maximum hp), 3 cause some other permanent change, and 3 are purely short-term, like being hobbled until a fix. Only one scar causes a rerol of an attribute, likely reducing it.

The scars PCs get will almost always be from the start of the table. A character starts with 1d6 hp, meaning they’ll see the first few scars over and over, and have to live long enough to even get to 7+ scars. And even once they do have 7+ hp, they still have a good chance of getting a 1-6 scar from consecutive hits. It is perpexing, then, that while scars 1 and 2 force a hp reroll on 1d6, and 5 and 6 do the same on 2d6, 3 and 4 result in aforementioned hobbling and a smashed mouth, both of which entirely go away after a visit to a medic. I’d have expected a relatively rare event (we’ve had one or two scars per session at most) to be more impactful.

Character generation is extremely simple, and this is where the game shines. To make a character, roll 3d6 three times to get your attributes. Consult a table with your highest and lowest attribute to find out your class, or, rather, your failed career. Each failed career consists of a sentence or two describing it, an illustration, some sample names, starting equipment, and two 1d6 tables on which you roll. These tables tell you a bit more about the character: typically one of them will be a unique possession while another will be some further clarification of your function within the career at which you failed so disastrously. The roll on the first table also determines how much money you have, while the second roll determines your hp. Minimalism!

There’re over a hundred of these failed careers, and they take up most of the book. These unique and colourful characters you create in 2 minutes are the reason to play this game. A few examples:

Lone Stargazer. Pocket telescope, cuff-pistol (d4). What’s the best thing you’ve seen? A rift into an undersea nightmare: all sea creatures hate you. What has all that time alone done to you? The eye you close when peering into your telescope has completely fused shut.

Amateur Amputator. Bonesaw (d6), ether. What unsettled your patients? Your sense of humour: take a book of anatomy jokes. What else did you bring to work? A hook in place of your off-hand.

And my favorite, Avant Guardsman. Flashy uniform, knife (d6). What made your unit different? You have a somewhat trained Attack Bear (7hp, d8 bite). What else? You were stitched into your uniform. It can only be removed by destroying it.

Again, there’s over a hundred of these, and they’re all a delight. They’re also the main source of information about the setting, the faces of people you will meet within Bastion and what they do there. This is the approach to worldbuilding the book takes: extremely broad strokes and a scattering of wild ideas. You won’t find any maps or timelines here.

Instead, the book offers general guidelines by which you should create your own Bastion an adventure at a time, and then actually run it. These are only a few pages, but they do their job remarkably well: versions of Bastionland created by different GMs will no doubt drastically differ from one another, while still remaining recognizably Bastionland.

This is where the game, surprisingly, is related to Apocalypse World. Just like AW it has strong opinions on how it’s supposed to be run and it communicates these ideas through concise principles, but it extends these principles to worldbuilding as well, intertwining the two. For instance, here’s one of these principles:

○ Give them a second, unrelated speciality.
○ Give them a characteristic counter to their job.
○ Put them in a complicated situation involving another character.

It is similar to AW “Name everyone, make everyone human” principle mixed with “Put someone in a spot” GM move, with additional emphasis on the self-contradictory nature of Bastion.

One day I’ll write my “OSR games are just story games telling a specific story” magnum opus, and you’ll all be sorry.

The entire Conductor’s Guide chapter is fantastic. Not only does it contain solid guidance on running EBL (or any OSR-style game), but also a procedure for mapping out routes in a place resulting in an adventure at the end of the process.

It does rely on a few stated assumptions. As written, the party will be going on expeditions somewhere dangerous looking for treasure they heard about – dungeoncrawling is the default activity. They will be chased by a rival after the same treasure. They need the treasure to pay off their debts. Collectively they owe 10,000, while a single session’s take will be 1,000 plus odds and ends. A character death will set them back same 1,000 in administrative fees. It’s a good hook to get the party into the game, offering a basic structure to the entire campaign.

However, this is where the minimalistic approach lets the game down a bit. Since debt as motivation is mandated, I’d have liked to see a bit more on it: how much you’re expected to repay each adventure (better yet, a discussion on how to choose this value), a few tables for debt holder’s reactions if you fail. Unnecessary? Maybe, but so are the values already given. Everything in any book is to be used or discarded in service of the actual game, and it’s always easier to discard or modify such extraneous subsystem than to come up with one from scratch.

Another area that is lacking are oddities. These are not-quite-magic items of Bastionland, quirky and occasionally useful. And that’s basically all we’re told. There isn’t even a random table for inspiration to help come up with them. Maybe there was more on this in Into the Odd, but that’s of no use to me with only EBL in my hands. I’ve struggled with this area of the game, which had an unfortuante knock-on effect that soured my overall impression of the game.

Other than scars, oddities are what changes your character, outside of pure roleplaying. There are no levels or any other kind of mechanical progression, instead the PCs are meant to get changed by the weirdness of the world around them. Well, scars are not that impactful (even though the book itself repeatedly calls for everything to be made as impactful as possible), while oddities are handwaved away and as a result were fairly rare in my game – and to be frank, a weird one-use item is hardly character defining. Which meant the characters didn’t change all that much: in ten or so games, one increased her hp to 12 with a lucky roll, another befriended a gas alien creature that was largely forgotten about, while the third just broke his legs over and over.

The novelty of a weird character with funny posessions wears thin after a couple of sessions. Which would be fine if they kept dying and being replaced by differently weird characters with different funny possessions – that’s the main selling point of the game, after all. But they just didn’t die! Because characters dropped but didn’t outright die, even risky choices the party made didn’t result in getting a new character join them. That is, until they ALL dropped in the same fight, but then the campaign was over with a TPK and we moved on.

Bottom line is I wouldn’t use EBL for another campaign, even a brief one, because characters, for all their wonderful oddness, grow stale. Maybe I’m just bad at running OSR games, but I’ve been using the approach in some of my games for a while now, and at some point one has to give up on the imposter syndrome. Or maybe I’m bad at running EBL in particular, and not inflicting enough weirdness on the characters. That’s where more rules, tables, guidance, anything, would have come in handy. But of course that would go against the main guiding principle of the book: minimalism.

If not campaigns, then what about one-shots? Yes, I can certainly see myself pulling out the book when the regular game falls through but we still want to do something that night. But there’s a catch: the otherwise great advice on preparing an adventure EBL offers still takes a couple of hours to implement. You need to come up with an encounter table or two, a bunch of locations and what to do there, tie it all up in some semblance of context. Players can roll their characters in two minutes, GM still needs to prepare quite a bit. Meaning I’m much more likely to pick up something like Don’t Rest Your Head or (I’m hoping, haven’t read it yet) Agon instead and run them with a few initial ideas and zero prep.

I would love a companion book to EBL that took the core concept of a 100+ strange classes and applied it to adventures. An illustration, a core idea, a couple of tables for random encounters and complications, rinse and repeat until pages run out. Something more concrete to draw upon, to sketch out an adventure with a few rolls in a few minutes then build it up as time allows.

That’s what this game does, over and over: it makes you imagine a lot more than it gives you, for good and ill. EBL is a smart game, well worth the price of admission for GMing advice alone. It’ll give you a unique party in minimal time. Its rules are simple and quick. There’s a lot to love here. But for all the good things about Electric Bastionland, I don’t know when I’d actually use it.

Finishing a campaign

Roleplaying campaigns end all the time. Too bad they rarely finish. It took me years of GMing to actually complete a campaign, not merely see it dissolve. And I’m not the only one:

Twitter poll showing only 37.5 responders have had their latest campaign wrap up successfully

Far from a representative poll, certainly, but it lines up with my experience. Almost 2/3rds of campaigns don’t reach a satisfying ending. Why do campaigns fail, and how can we improve our chances?

A roleplaying campaign, traditionally, is a sequence of games with same players controlling same characters, with some sort of overarching plot. Anything that goes beyond a one-shot, basically. Finishing a campaign, therefore, typically means resolving this plotline (save the kingdom), personal plot threads PCs might have created or started with (avenge parents’ murder), as well as the majority of plot threads that came up along the way (whatever will happen to the goblin gardener the party had befriended against all odds and seems to care about much more than saving the kingdom or discovering the parents’ murderer).

There’s a plethora of ways to play roleplaying games, none of them wrong. It’s certainly possible to have a sequence of sessions with the same characters going on adventures that don’t have an overarching plot outside the adventures themselves. Perhaps you’re just playing through published adventures one after another, or running a hexcrawl. In that context, finishing a campaign could be as easy as deciding the characters have retired and opened a tavern together – or, more likely, have all perished due to a sereis of bad rolls and worse decisions.

I’m currently running such a campagin as a backup. However, most of the games I’ve ever run have been more, for lack of a better word, ambitious, even when I could not possibly fulfill these ambitions. Like many others, I began my GMing “career” with D&D. It took me a bit to be comfortable enough with the rules to make up my own adventures, but it turned out that campaigns were harder. A large part of that are basic storytelling skills, which take time and effort to develop along with other GMing skills and system mastery.

I often had the start and the end in mind, but no idea how to get from A to Z. And it was always “Z”, not “B” or “C” – a distant, pie-in-the-sky goal. Before we’d get anywhere near an ending, the campaign would fall apart. Ancient prophecies would go on unfulfilled, worlds unsaved, great wrongs unavenged, evil gods unslain. I kept imagining awesome, epic events, and never actually playing through them. I don’t think those were bad games, but they weren’t going anywhere, and I suspect it made it easier for everyone, myself included, to give up on them. It took playing in another GM’s game that actually wrapped up nicely for something to click. I ran a complete campaign that resolved to everyone’s satisfaction soon after. It wasn’t D&D, and it wasn’t a many-year epic, either.

That game was Dark Heresy, and we played through the entire campaign in about 6 months. Why does it matter? Well. I believe the basic structure of character advancement in D&D inadvertently sets its GMs up for failure, and breaking away from its paradigm helped me run a campaign with an actual ending. Paradoxically enough, after a few of these shorter finishable and finished campaigns, I was actually able to run a complete D&D 4e campaign that went all the way from 1 to 30 over 3 years, and had served as the basis for this blog for quite a while.

What’s the first thing you learn about D&D characters? They start at level 1 and go to level 20. First you fight goblins and skeletons, then demons and beholders, then dragons and… larger demons, I guess. You top it all off with a fight against some evil deity or maybe the tarrasque or some other world-ending monstrosity. That’s the implied campaign structure right there.

At a reasonable pace of 5 sessions per level up, that puts us at 100 sessions, or 2 years of weekly games. From purely pratcical point of view, that’s a huge commitment. And then there’s burn out and maintaining a semblance of a coherent narrative throughout. Still, over and over, I’d take aim at a grand finale, seed hints and prophecies, all the while throwing giant rats at the 1st level party.

Now, D&D doesn’t say you’re supposed to only play 1-20 campaigns. It just scatters the character progression charts and all the cool monsters, spells, and magic items before you, a field of very shiny rakes to step on. One solution would be to figure out the level range in which you want to set your game – the actual game, not the goblin-hunting build-up, unless that’s what the game’s about – and play there. Of course, that runs into the other issue: D&D is Not Very Good at high level play. It just gets more and more complicated and unwieldy, and the only way to mitigate that is system mastery by both GM and players. Which, in turn, requires lots of experience. But any group starting a campaign is likely to have players who’re new to the system or roleplaying games in general. So you start at level 1, and by the time the players are comfortable with their characters and the rules, the campaign has fallen apart. Catch-20, if you will.

I’m so fond of this joke, here it is restated in a punchier way:

D&D is complex at high levels, meaning one has to start at low levels and gradually increase system mastery of the entire party. But campaigns often end before you go all the way from 1 to 20, so you never get to play at high levels. That’s Catch-20.

Maybe you do want to start at level 1, to watch the characters grow from nobodies into mighty heroes, to bond with their fellow adventurers over a campfire, a found family that slays together and stays together. Some D&D spin-offs, such as 13th Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, condense the levelling experience to only 10 levels, much more manageable. They also both suggest a campaign mode where players level up after every session. Back in my D&D days I rejected such ideas as “unearned”, whatever that meant, but the whole point of this article is to help you avoid my mistakes.

And then, of course, there are entirely un-D&D-like systems without character progression charts or implied campaign arcs to hold you hostage. Many, like Fate, Apocalypse World or Spire (and a whole host of others, I don’t mean to imply this is a modern phenomenon) are open-ended: you can keep earning advancements for your character for as long as you play. By removing the prescribed order in which you gain abilities these games also removed the unspoken campaign structure. The campaign doesn’t get needlessly stretched out to fit the implied arc. I’m particularly fond of the approach Heart took, a Spire spin-off I’m yet to play properly. In it, the most powerful abilities characters can get also end them, one way or another. An entirely different kind of implied campaign arc.

So, what are the actual practical take-aways here? I’m glad I asked. First and foremost: don’t start a lengthy campaign with people you’ve just met. Looking back to the poll for the reason campaigns end prematurely, group dissolution is far ahead. This is largely outside of GM’s control. Players may not get along with one another. They may want different things out of RPGs. Their priorities may shift, or life circumstances may change. Most of these are exacerbated by inviting new people you’ve never played with before. Which is not at all to say you shouldn’t do so, how else would you build a gaming group. Still, some or all of these players may drop out sooner or later. Since this is something you can’t control, you have to take it into account. So, when faced with building a new group, come up with a campaign that take weeks or months, not years to resolve. Use this as an excuse to try different games, there are so many good ones out there.

For that matter start with shorter campaigns yourself before you attempt something massive. Grow those storytelling and GMing skills. A few finished short stories are much better than half of a fantasy epic that gets abandoned – take it from someone with half a novel languishing out there on the Internet.

It’s hard to give generic advice given how many different kinds of campaigns and playstyles there are, but here are a few ideas. Figure out a manageable end and major steps on the way there, then hit them relentlessly. This doesn’t mean you should have a prescribed ending you steer your group towards. A common approach is figuring out what would happen if PCs do nothing, then seeing where they take the situation. The key here is maintaining momentum. Even if there is no “global” plot, there likely are individual stories PCs bring to the table.

If you do want to run a lengthy campaign, structure it like a tv series made up of several seasons, each its own arc and a satisfying hopping off point. They don’t know if they’ll be picked up for the next season, and neither do you.

And finally, and this is something I’ve constantly struggled with, use cool ideas as soon as you can, don’t hold them back for the climax that may never come. You will have more cool ideas later, you’re a GM, that’s what you do. But unless you bring your ideas to life at the table, all you’re doing is daydreaming.