Play games. Tell stories. Have fun.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Random Encounters: Unexplored Sci-Fi World

Three tables! That's right, just three tables are all you need to generate a random sci-fi encounter on an unexplored world. Don't believe me? Roll on the tables yourself! Combine the results and you'll be ready for your PCs to beam down and start exploring.


1. Massive furry herbivore and her babies
2. A pack of agile predators hunting by stealth
3. Peaceful natives with superior intellect
4. Wild-eyed survivor of a previous expedition
5. Clusters of sentient plants that track movement
6. Friendly doglike creatures, apparently tame

Environment feature

1. Thick, heavy, indigo underbrush with barbed thorns
2. A constant geyser of boiling water
3. A pool of water that echoes with laughter
4. A river of molten rock churns through the area
5. Clouds of poisonous gas hang in the air, drifting at random
6. Gravity here is much heavier than standard


1. A giant predator arrives, looking for its next meal
2. An enormous boulder plummets to the ground from somewhere high above
3. Winged humanoids arrive, armed to the teeth
4. The area is actually the back of a titanic creature that is awakening
5. An unknown starship passes close overhead
6. The creature dissolves into a puddle of purplish goo

In doing these tables, it occurred to me that you could incorporate pretty much any creature, any natural environment feature, and any surprise into an unexplored sci-fi world.

Monday, March 30, 2015

One-Line Rewards: The Sentinel

Today's one-line rewards (those are magic item descriptions in around 140 characters) are themed around a sort of fantasy superhero NPC concept. They weren't intended that way, and I didn't even make these at the same time. But going through my lists, these stood out to me as though they were part of a set.

One-Line Rewards

1. The Red Necklace: A necklace made out of red glass beads. Anyone who wears it can use it to hear ten seconds into the future.
2. Owlkin Helm: A helm made of lightweight bones woven together with feathers. The wearer has nightvision and farsight.
3. Warrior’s Cloak: A heavy cloth cloak stitched with small steel plates. The wearer can command it to transform into banded armor.
4. Marble Buckler: A small, smooth shield, white with swirls of grey. When slammed down, it transforms into a thick marble wall.
5. The Golden Horn: A yellow horn banded with steel. Blowing the horn calms, reassures, and lightens the hearts of all who hear it.
6. Beryl Pike: A leather-bound pike with a translucent blue blade. The wielder does not age, but cannot cross running water.

The Sentinel

This fantasy superhero—the NPC who wields all of these items—would be like the official champion of some metropolis, and I almost instantly settled on the name Sentinel. He or she would patrol the streets, using the Red Necklace and the Owlkin Helm to see and hear trouble before it gets out of hand. And the Marble Buckler and the Warrior's Cloak can fit an agile warrior or a steadfast defender. While the Golden Horn would be useful to call and bolster other guards. What really drew it all together in my mind was the Beryl Pike. To me, its abilities bring to mind someone who must guard a specific area interminably, whether by choice or not.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

More GMing Advice from Clever People

Back on International GM's Day, I posted five pieces of GMing advice from some quite clever folks. I posted that advice because I don't think you should ever stop trying to make yourself a better GM.* And one of the ways that I improve is by reading about how other GMs run their games and trying to examine my games in the same way.

I'd strongly recommend seeking out some GMing advice blogs, forums, and/or podcasts, because—while I occasionally sprinkle in some tips among my tables—this is generally a content and ideas blog, not an advice blog. In fact, to the right of this post is a list of RPG sites that I recommend. Several of those are focused on delivering tips and advice to GMs with varying levels of experience.

(That said, I'd be happy to offer advice on specific situations, just ask.)

With all that out of the way, today I'd like to offer some additional advice from some additional clever folks.

"Don't prep plots, prep situations."

- Justin Alexander (AKA The Alexandrian)

Even if you have a story you want to tell through the game, set it up with interesting situations and dynamic NPCs. If you try to plot out your game like a book or movie, you're not going to get anywhere. That familiar adage comes to mind: "No plot survives contact with the players."

Think about the kind of story you want to tell, but be flexible, and don't forget that the players want to tell a story, too.

"Ask your players: what does that look like?"

- The RPG Academy

Especially with rules-heavy games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, players rarely get to describe actions beyond the initial intent: "I want to draw my sword and stab the goblin in the gut." Because those actions are limited by the roll of the dice and by information that the players don't know (like enemy armor and health), it usually falls to the GM to narrate the results. Next time your player succeeds at a task, especially if they really nail it, ask them to describe it instead of describing it yourself.

Even if the player goes a little farther than you anticipated, roll with it. Incorporate their details back into the game.

"Adventures should be very simple, to give the players freedom and agency."

- Jerry NeLeave and Micah (from Obsidian Portal)

Very similar to the "Don't prep plots, prep situations" advice, but with a broader scope. You should be able to pare your adventure concept down to a short sentence. (Say, maybe, six words?) This simplicity allows the players to steer the adventure without interfering with your overall plans, since your plans don't say how they get to the City of Towering Shadows, only that they need to arrive eventually.

Even players who like to follow a clear path still want to be able to make decisions that will change the outcome of the adventure.

"Don’t save your cool stuff for your next session."

- Newbie DM

This is very similar to advice I've heard from comedians about stand-up comedy. The idea is that if you save your best stuff, you fixate on that and it becomes hard for you to move past it and think of other ideas. But if you are constantly using and sharing your best ideas, you are forced to think up new and better ones, and your brain doesn't have to work around a pile of stuff you're "saving for later."

Always give everything your best, because if you don't, you might not get another chance.

And here's a final piece of advice from DMing with Charisma's personal laws of DMing. Just like the motto of The RPG Academy, I don't this one requires any explanation.

"The goal of the game is to have fun."

- DMing with Charisma

*This also applies to being a human being in general. Never stop trying to better yourself.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Random Encounters: Cyberpunk Bar

This post continues my new random encounters series in which I present three tables. By rolling on each of these tables, you can generate a random encounter for a specific genre in a specific environment. Today's tables are for a bar somewhere in a gritty cyberpunk city.


1. Corrupt peace officer
2. Corporate executive who is high/drunk/not in her right mind
3. Pusher with a brand new batch of product
4. Professional pickpocket
5. Down-on-her-luck hacker
6. Street tough with a chip on her shoulder

Environment feature

1. There was a fight minutes ago, and the floor is still covered in alcohol, blood, and broken glass
2. The bar is virtually empty of patrons
3. The bar is packed with rowdy sports fans drinking and singing at the tops of their lungs
4. The bar is brightly lit and spotless
5. The pool table is busted, but there's a whole row of pool cues lined up against the wall
6. There's a dance floor smack in the middle of the room and an old-fashioned jukebox in the corner


1. The bartender's arm transforms into a heavy-duty shotgun and he tells you to get out
2. There's a blackout, disabling the lights and the security grid in the bar
3. Corporate security goons burst in to capture/kill a specific target
4. The creature is revealed to be an android in disguise
5. The back wall flickers momentarily, revealing that it is just a projected hologram
6. An explosion from the kitchen rocks the whole bar

Thursday, March 26, 2015

More Adventure Sites

I thoroughly enjoyed whipping up a couple of adventure sites yesterday, so today I thought I'd share some more. These are distinctly science fiction sites, although there's a bit of fantasy mixed in for good measure.

Derelict Starship Atira

Location: About 2 days from the nearest merchant starport
Areas: The cargo bay, the bridge, the engine room, the living quarters
NPCs: Stewart (damaged AI program), 6-LT8 (possessed automaton)
Obstacles: The crane in the cargo bay "malfunctions" near intruders, the engine room is full of live wires and ready-to-burst steam pipes, 6-LT8 is hiding in the living quarters waiting to attack any creatures of flesh
Rewards: A crate of info crystals are hidden in Atira's cargo bay, a starchart in the bridge indicates a planet not found on standard starcharts, the keystone gear in 6-LT8 is flooded with demonic energy
Hook: Stewart's confused and scared voice echoes across the emergency frequency, asking for help in broken sentences

Smuggler's Hideout

Location: Behind an unmarked door down a dark corridor in the starport
Areas: The lounge, the storage room, the hangar
NPCs: Ton s'Kar (red-skinned gangster), Mora Hallon (corrupt customs officer), Jan Matson (rookie security guard)
Obstacles: The lounge is filled dangerous smugglers, Mora and Ton (both armed) are in the hangar, the storage room has an advanced locking mechanism
Rewards: The storage room contains illicit trade goods, the hangar has a Jump-class single-occupant rocket (assuming Ton doesn't escape in it)
Hook: Jan accidentally leads the PCs into the hideout while he's looking for a backup scanner to verify the PCs' credentials

Quarantined Restaurant

Location: Across the street from the PCs' accommodations
Areas: The bar, the kitchen, the basement
NPCs: Felk Whince (trapped chef)
Obstacles: Quick-growing fungus covers most surfaces in the bar, a fire is beginning to spread in the kitchen, Felk is trapped beneath a fungus-covered icebox, a spore-spreading mound with acidic tentacles lurks in the basement
Rewards: Felk Whince has important information to share if he can be rescued, a sample of the lurker from the basement would be worth a lot of money in the wrong hands
Hook: The restaurant was recommended to the PCs by a trusted friend or colleague recently (before it became quarantined)

Abandoned Mining Facility

Location: On a small asteroid a few days from the space station
Areas: The hangar, the barracks, the supervisor's office, the micro-refinery, the mineshafts
NPCs: ODM-7 (security AI)
Obstacles: ODM-7 will attempt to repel unauthorized ships that approach the asteroid, the supervisor's office is locked and barricaded, the superheated automatons wander around the micro-refinery, a predatory aura lurks in the shadows of the mineshafts
Rewards: The refined ore in the micro-refinery is valuable, a black metal box deep in the mineshaft defies all scanning techniques
Hook: An AI specialist at the space station is looking for someone to track down and bring back the personality matrix of ODM-7

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Adventure Sites

Sometimes the plot gets stuck, or the players just aren't interested in following up on their leads. They just want to go have an adventure, kill some bad guys, and get some treasure.

Here are a couple of bare-bones adventure sites for those times. Just drop them into your fantasy setting and use the hook to draw the players' attention.

Balen's Farm

Location: 5 miles from the nearest settlement
Areas: The house, the barn, and the cellar
NPCs: Widow Balen (determined mother), Erich (honest son), Marian (gifted daughter), Kurt (hired hand), Mart Balen (zombified father)
Obstacles: Two dozen zombies are besieging the house, Kurt is summoning a bone devil in the cellar, the corpse of Mart Balen is trapped in the barn
Rewards: Widow Balen has nothing to give, but Erich offers his father's sword and Marian can weave a long-lived blessing
Hook: A green flare sent up from the house can be seen from the road

Glittering Tomb

Location: Beneath a holy temple in the heart of the city
Areas: The hidden entrance, the chamber of tribute, the sarcophagus, the pit
NPCs: Malfé the Obsidian Sorcerer (dangerous spectre)
Obstacles: The entrance is sealed by magical glyphs, the chamber of tribute is guarded by living statues, Malfé guards his sarcophagus with ancient spells, the pit is home to a dormant slime beast
Rewards: Malfé's sarcophagus contains his Golden Wand and the tribute chamber has a hidden trapdoor where the tributes of past visitors are stored
Hook: A dropped coin rolls beneath a wall and can be heard echoing down the secret staircase that leads to the hidden entrance

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

NPC Vault: Goblins

Scene: The PCs are wandering through town/miles below the surface/in the middle of a fight, and they stop. Suddenly, they've become fixated on a single character in your world, one which you hadn't given a second thought to.

Now what?

Your best bet is to improvise, assuming you know enough about the area and the kind of creature to do so. You could always roll on a handful random tables (I love those) to come up with names, traits, and flaws, but that also requires a lot of brainwork (e.g., take 10 seconds and try to come up with a character who is "skittish" "short-tempered" and a "pacifist at heart").

Or you could turn to your very own handy-dandy NPC vault! That's right, a list of NPCs organized by race that includes at least enough information for you to hit the ground running.

That human? He's a peasant farmer named Dale who aspires to be the town smith.
The half-orc mercenary you just captured? Her name is Scarlet and her mother vanished two weeks ago.
The dwarf whose house you were just caught breaking into? She's Marta Ironblood, and she's a member of a secret cult looking for two things: new recruits and sacrifices.

Today I'm going to add to the NPC vault the oft-trod-upon humanoids of the fantasy realm, the cannon fodder of antagonists, those whose ears are prized above all else.

Goblins? Goblins.


1. Gabble is a male goblin. He is a conscripted soldier and a pacifist at heart. Gabble wants revenge on his brother for stealing his bronze amulet.
2. Gank is a female goblin. She is a bandit chief and has recently contracted mummy rot. Gank is desperately looking for a cure to her mummy rot.
3. Gronge is a female half-goblin. She is a tunnelmage and an arachnophobe. Gronge is always seeking her non-goblin parent.
4. Giselle is a male goblin. He is an expert saboteur and a very polite speaker. Giselle wants to be chief some day.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Villains: Backstory, Motivation, and Backup Plan

Villains! Everyone loves to hate them. Not every game has them, and not every game that does have them, needs them. But most games I run have some sort of villain or another. They might be evil for evil's sake, they might be spurned lovers out for revenge, or they might be misguided heroes who believe that the ends justify the means.

But if you're using a villain, there are some basic things you might want to consider.


Surely your villain didn't just pop into being as a fully formed adult antagonist! Where did your villain come from?

1. Apprentice: Apprenticed to a brilliant master who favored another apprentice over you
2. Urchin: Alone since childhood, you raised yourself, taking what you needed and giving nothing back
3. Slave: Grew up as a slave to cruel masters until you finally escaped
4. Orphan: Raised in a loving, caring home, but had it all taken or destroyed before your eyes


World domination is so clichéd, but even if you do use that, it's not motivation by itself. What is the reason your villain wants to dominate the world?

1. Greed: A life of feeling unfulfilled drives your villain to want more and more.
2. Lust: Your villain is fixated on a person or thing and won't stop until it is safe in their clutches.
3. Revenge: A crime (real or imagined) against your villain drives them to punish all those involved.
4. Greater Good: Your villain is convinced that this is the way to make the world a better place, at least for those who deserve it.
5. Bound: Your villain is upholding an oath or is otherwise being forced into this course of action.
6. Power: Your villain is chronically insecure, and the only way they can feel safe is if they have the power to put down anyone else.

Backup Plan

Your villain's plans are foiled, but the PCs were merciful or foolish, and the villain has escaped destruction. What now?

1. Turn over a New Leaf: Repent and join a group that does good
2. Reset: Try to undo the actions of the PCs via magic, prayer, or time travel
3. Vengeance!: Forget your other plans and plot a horrible revenge against the PCs
4. Try Again: Come at the same plan from the opposite direction (e.g., use trickery instead of violence or a small organization instead of a large one)
5. Villainous Merger: Join forces with another villain and work towards their plan
6. Go into Hiding: Slip into the shadows and work your villainy far from the eyes of the PCs
7. Back to the Drawing Board: Start on a new plan with a new goal, but which furthers your existing motivation
8. Phase 2: Your plans are far from foiled, the foolish PCs have played right into your hands...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Campaign Sparks IV

Here's another campaign spark, 100-150 words that describe a setting, a conflict, a handful of NPCs, the stakes, and a twist. You can use these details to generate an entire campaign. This particular one is set in the Star Wars universe, but it's not attached to any system and you could easily sub out the Star Wars elements for your own space opera fluff.

Rebellion: Shadow War

Early in the Rebel Alliance, the hyperspace Datanet in the core of Coruscant reaches across the galaxy. The Datanet is policed by Imperial Intelligence, communications are monitored, and the Rebellion is being smothered, unable to recruit online.

Commander Surk (Human) is in charge of policing the Datanet for Rebels and sympathizers. Sekai Tanel (Mon Calamari) is a hacker crime lord. Engas Darv (Bith) is a weapons engineer on the run from the Empire. Bans ni Mikar (Human) is an officer of the Coruscant Planetary Police.

Soon, the Datanet will be so restricted that the Rebellion will fall apart. But the Datanet is old—very old—and if Imperials, Rebels, or criminals change it too much, it will activate its ancient defense systems: an enormous robot army hidden in a hyperspace pocket.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Random Encounters: Weird West Trails

Another installment of my random encounters series. Here are three tables that you can mix and match to create a random encounter for a specific genre in a specific environment, in this case an encounter along the trails in a weird west game.


1. A talking coyote
2. A group of three skull-faced gunslingers
3. An old preacher carrying a cross made of a strange black metal that hurts your eyes to look at
4. A snake-oil salesman with a cartful of tonics, elixirs, and cure-alls
5. A Native American trader beset by bandits
6. A crying child sitting beside the trail, covering its face

Environment feature

1. A wagon is tipped over in the middle of the trail
2. In the midst of a dust storm
3. The trail passes through a high, narrow, curving canyon
4. A stone pillar casts an ominous shadow across the trail
5. The trail curves along a cliff, hundreds of feet from the hard ground below
6. The trail passes through a small ghost town


1. A stampede of longhorns appears from around the bend
2. A mob of spectral soldiers rises from the earth to drive off those who disturb their rest
3. U.S. Marshals ride up on horseback, tracking a band of outlaws
4. A cacophony of howling voices arrives on a cold, biting wind
5. The area temporarily melts into a horrifying dreamscape
6. Hidden outlaws spring an ambush

Thursday, March 19, 2015

One-Line Rewards: Magic Rings

One-line rewards are unique and interesting magic item summaries. The goal is for them to be usable in any system. More mechanically complex systems will require additional details and clarifications, but the basic idea is outlines in a single line (usually around 140 characters).

Today I'm throwing out some ideas for one of the hallmarks of fantasy settings: the magic ring.

One-Line Rewards

1. Amber Ring: A small ring made entirely of amber. It glows faintly, and the wearer can conjure a small, floating orb of light.
2. Steel Ring: A thin, metal ring covered in intricate runes. The wearer can call any weapon in sight to his/her hand with a word.
3. Emerald Band: A gold ring set with seven tiny emeralds. Each emerald holds the oath and bond of a powerful fae.
4. Mammoth Ring: A ring of fur and leather. The wearer can double in size and strength for 1 minute, but the ring never shrinks back.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Six-Word Sparks VI: Banditry

If fetch quests aren't cliché enough for your fantasy game, might I recommend adding some bandits?

Bandits are common in fantasy RPGs because they're an easy target of "bad people making bad choices who need to be punished." They also fit equally well in low- or high-fantasy games, and they can be a plausible threat and almost any level.

Six-Word Sparks

1. Merchant puts bounty on bandit archers.
2. Hobgoblins on wyverns kidnap royal magister.
3. Elf noblewoman accused: infamous Mithral Bandit.
4. Known bandit selling magic shield. Whose?
5. New airship draws crowds (and bandits).
6. Retiring bandit sells poisons and maps.
7. Bandit queen claims region as queendom.
8. Dwarves raid human communities for slaves.
9. Prisoner facing execution disappears, reunites bandits.
10. Temple burns; new gang claims responsibility.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Adventure Pitch: Monstrous Piracy

So, way back in the distant past (January, 2015), I posted the first of the six-word sparks. These sparks were designed to be short and sweet in order to distill an idea to its core (and to make them easy to look through in large batches). The goal was to have a huge compilation of ideas to pull at random in order to inspire an adventure outline.

I'm convinced that this is a great idea, especially since I came up with it myself (as far as I know). Unfortunately, it leaves GMs with a weird middle ground. Say a GM finds a six-word spark that she likes, and she wants to run an adventure based on that. But what if her players aren't interested? She is left with (seemingly) two options: either offer the players the six-word spark as a concept or write out a full adventure outline in order to run it. One option is too short to be of much use to most players, and the other option involves a whole bunch of up-front work on the part of the GM without any guarantee that the players will even be interested.

But wait, there's a better way!

An adventure pitch fills the middle ground between a six-word spark and an adventure outline. It's very similar to my campaign sparks, except that it is shorter and doesn't include content like the setting or the twist. Since it is an adventure, not a whole campaign, the setting is presumably already established. And since it is player-facing, the twists can be left out. You can choose to include the stakes, or not, based on whether it helps the pitch. If the stakes are more likely to draw in players, use 'em; if they aren't particularly interesting, leave 'em out (or better yet, make them interesting).

So, these adventure pitches generally include just two things: the conflict and the up-front NPCs. Generally, the "conflict" is actually something like an event, an interesting location, or an antagonist. The NPCs included (if there is even more than one) will usually be those related to the conflict and/or the initiators of the adventure—and that might even be the same character. NPCs might include the antagonist, the quest-giver, or even the target of the adventure (someone to be found and/or rescued).

Obviously, there needs to be enough information to draw in players without giving away too much. My suggestion would be to limit the word count (or even the character count). As with the six-word sparks, I am a firm believer that limitation is the mother of creativity. I'd suggest something as simple as using Twitter's 140-character limit or the SMS 160-character limit. That also makes it easy to communicate with the players between sessions: just type it up and send it out. Hopefully they'll get back to you and let you know whether they're interested in playing it or not.

Anyway, abstraction is all well and good, but let's get down to an example, shall we? Way back in that original six-word sparks post, I mentioned a swashbuckling bugbear that was seeking a crew in order to start up some piracy. I'm going to transform this six-word spark into, not one, not two, but three different adventure pitches. (It sounds impressive, but it's fairly simple since they're so short.)

Pitch 1: The PCs vs. the Bugbear

A rogue bugbear pirate is harassing the coastal town. Someone must stop his piratical actions before the duchess shuts down the harbor.

Pitch 2: The PCs Join the Bugbear (Heroics)

A bugbear pirate and her motley crew of monsters are looking for allies in their nautical war against a genocidal elven despot and his navy.

Pitch 3: The PCs Join the Bugbear (Villainy)

A dastardly bugbear captain needs a new crew to sail into dangerous waters to plunder wealthy dwarven mining towns along the coast.

And there you have it. Take your own fledgling adventure ideas and flesh them out a little. If your players are interested, you've already got the major players lined up, and you're ready to begin preparation.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fetch Quests

The fetch quest is a staple of RPGs. It's a bit tired, but I think it can still be done well, especially if used sparingly.

Of course, your fetch quest should be interesting and should relate to the story you and the players are trying to tell. A quest in which PCs wander into a random forest, fight mindless owlbears, and wander out with some ingredient or other is probably not as interesting as one that involves the PCs' backgrounds or established elements of the campaign.

Perhaps the antagonist is after the same ingredient. Maybe some potential allies with knowledge about the greater events of the campaign live near the ingredient. Or it could be that the location itself is one the PCs have visited before or will have to visit again in dealing with the primary story of the campaign.

So, with that in mind, here are some fantasy ingredients and some interesting-sounding locations.

Missing Ingredient

1. Blue moon lotus
2. Necrotic cave moss
3. Mountain slug slime (1d4+1 slugs' worth)
4. Blackwater swamp gas
5. Eye of flying newt
6. 3d6 silver acorns
7. Unicorn tail hair
8. Basilisk egg

Interesting Location

1. Smiling Peaks
2. Jagged Sea
3. Fletcher's Keep
4. Sea of Fallen Leaves
5. Tomb of Knives
6. Great Green Wall
7. Stygian Depths
8. Darkened City
9. Melted Spire
10. Pit of Fiery Stars

Note: The fun part of using tables like these is trying to make sense of the results. Say you roll a 7 for the missing ingredient and a 10 for the interesting location. Now you not only have to decide what the Pit of Fiery Stars is, but also why there might be unicorn tail hairs there. Do unicorns live there? Were unicorns trapped there in the past? Is it the home of a legendary warrior with a unicorn-hair plume on her helmet or of an infamous sorcerer who collects unicorn hair to weave into his magical tapestries?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Mook Box IV: Modern Henchman

From within the depths of the mook box, we uncover another common enemy: the modern henchman. This encompasses everyone from 1920s gangsters to 1980s corporate goons to near-future dystopic mall security guards.

Modern henchman

D20 System

HP: 20 | Ref: +0 | Fort: +2 | Will: +0
AC: 13 (Flatfooted: 13 | Touch: 10)
Speed: 30 ft.
Submachine gun +1 atk | 2d6 dmg | 30 ft.
- Bullet blast (Ref DC 13 or 3d6 dmg; must reload after use)
Punch +3 atk | 1d6+2 dmg
Powers: call for backup (25% success, summons 1d4+1 modern henchmen)
Skills: listen -2, spot +2
Treasure: wallet containing money (1d4-1 x 100 units of currency), security ID badge, and radio earpiece


Individual Clichés
Amateur bird-watcher (1), Pupil of the “spray ‘n’ pray” firing methodology (2), Bouncer-turned-henchman (3)

Grunt Squad Cliché
Armed, angry crowd with really bad aim (4)


Threat Rating: 12
Hits per Round: 1

Chi: 3
Traits: Call for Backup (5), Tough Guy (4), Hail of Bullets (3)

The Window

The modern henchman has…
… average Strength (d12)
… average Agility (d12)
… above average Endurance (d10)
… simple Knowledge (d20)
… experienced Perception (d10)
The modern henchman is…
… not a good shot (d20)
… reliable in a brawl (d10)
… loyal to the big boss (d8)
The modern henchman carries…
… submachine gun and ammo
… security ID badge
… radio earpiece
… cash

Friday, March 13, 2015

System Ideas: The Challenge System

There's a saying in the RPG community that "all GMs are amateur game designers." That's not a slight at either GMs or game designers (amateur or professional); it's just a comment on the prevalence of house rules and the duties of GMing.

And in my case, it's 100% accurate. I am an amateur game designer, and I thought it might genuinely be of interest to folks if I posted some of that content here. You might even find it useful (let me know if you do).

Note: Almost all of my game designs are unrefined and untested, so please use at your own peril.

The Challenge System

This game is ludicrously simple, and my main goal was to see how little I could use in terms of mechanics and still have a game that was distinct from a freeform collaborative storytelling experience. I'm not sure whether I succeeded in distinguishing this as a game or not.

The game begins with the GM and the players choosing a genre and a setting, and maybe even agreeing on some scenes that they want to see played out. Then, the players create characters. In addition to any other narrative descriptions, each PC has four abilities—usually just a noun phrase. If the GM ever challenges a player on her character's action in the game, the player simply uses an ability to overcome the challenge. The player should then cross out or otherwise indicate that the ability has been used.

The GM's responsibility is to set up the scenes and issue challenges to the players during each scene. I would advise the GM to give each scene a Challenge Number, which represents the number of challenges that she should issue to her players during the scene.

Once all of the characters' abilities have been used at least once, the GM initiates the End Game. In the End Game, the GM sets one last scene to be the dramatic conclusion of the story. In this scene, each player may only use one of her character's abilities, and the GM should issue one challenge to each player during the course of the scene. Once the End Game scene is resolved, the game is over, and the group and GM describe the aftermath of the conclusion and leave any potential threads ready to be picked up in future games.

Example of Play: A challenge

This scene has involved Alice dealing with Carver, the class bully, over the course of the morning.

Gina-Marie (the GM): Carver slams the locker in Alice's face, nearly hitting her with the door. The hall goes deathly silent and the other students back away, forming a circle around Alice and Carver.

Beth (Alice's player): Alice looks to her friends in the crowd and catches Delly's eye. Delly quickly rushes off to fetch Mr. Hanson, who is just down the hall.

Gina-Marie: Challenge. Mr. Hanson is usually down the hall in his room at this time of day, but today he isn't. He's all the way across the building in the gymnasium talking to Coach Ash.

Beth: One of Alice's abilities is Talented Actress, since she's in all of the school plays. She glances over Carver's shoulder as though she sees someone and says, "Oh, hello, Mr. Hanson." As Carver turns to look, Alice spins around and walks through the crowd, disappearing among the other students.


The Challenge System is now available to download!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Random Encounters V: Urban Fantasy Slums

This is part of my new random encounters series in which I create three tables that you mix and match to create a random encounter for a specific genre in a specific environment. This one is for urban fantasy games, and specifically for the slums of a large city.


1. A ravenous wolfman (not a werewolf) digging through a trash bin
2. Mischievous fairies disguised as street urchins
3. A hoodoo shaman selling talismans and charms from the shadows
4. A glowing will-o'-the-wisp
5. Three vampire mind slaves armed with baseball bats
6. A djinn bound to a plastic Coke bottle

Environment feature

1. The street lights here flicker on and off during the encounter
2. The pavement is slick with rain and rotting garbage
3. Two ley lines cross here, boosting magical powers
4. Unfinished construction work has left an open pit into the sewers
5. The ground is littered with shattered glass
6. Abandoned cars provide cover


1. A car of lizard-skinned gang members does a drive-by
2. A mortal beat cop arrives and demands to know what's going on
3. The creature draws a knife that glows with deadly runes
4. An anti-magic task force descends with spotlights and riot gear
5. A winged devil appears to sell its services to the highest bidder
6. A shadow darkens the area as a dragon begins to circle overhead

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Elf Weapons

Elves, they're everywhere. Love 'em or hate 'em, if you are involved in the RPG hobby, you can't avoid 'em. Personally, I think elves have their place in some settings. The Tolkienian elves can be interesting with the right backdrop, and less aloof elves can have a significant impact on a settings politics.

But if you've got elves, chances are they're fair handy with a bow and arrow, and probably with a blade, too. And it's usually safe to assume that your elves are masters of the arcane (or perhaps a more natural magic). So, elf + (swords, bows) + magic = treasure!

Magical Elf Bows

1. Whispershaft – Creatures hit by arrows from the bow are magically muted
2. Longdraw – The bow is useless against targets closer than 600 feet, but excellent beyond that
3. Eagle's Talon – Arrows fired from the bow pierce armor
4. Melody's Chorus – When fired, the bow emits a haunting note
5. Featherstrike – Arrows bury themselves in the target up to the fletching
6. Eternal Is the Pain – Arrows splinter as they enter the target

Magical Elf Swords

1. Whiteedge – Formed from a dragon's talon, it drips milky acid
2. Orcrender – A serrated sword with a thirst for orcish blood
3. Starglint – In starlight, the steel glows with inner power
4. Bite of the North Wind – A steel blade always coated with deadly frost
5. Sound of the Tiger's Roar – A short black sword that disorients its targets
6. Fang of the Forest – A curved sword whose wielder can command plants
7. Illiana's Vengeance – A fiery sword that burns hotter as it nears its goal
8. Lightning-on-earth – Blinding sparks crackle along a thin silver blade

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Location: The Mossy Caverns

Here's another thus-far-mapless location. It relies as much on the characters within it as the last one, but it's a fair site for a fantasy adventure.

The Mossy Caverns

The Mossy Caverns are a small complex of caves and tunnels through which the Burbling Stream flows.  These caverns are known to be a reliable place to find the uncommon Moonspore Mold.

It has been many years since Moonspore Mold grew at the mouth of the cavern, and many months since it was easy to harvest.  The last trip into the Mossy Caverns was by a local wilderness guide, Rebecka Ross.  She was brought back to town in the middle of the night covered in a charcoal-grey fungus that had paralyzed her.  Now, strange rock people have been seen entering and leaving the caves.  They are seen wandering around the woods, gathering herbs and roots, and few have even ventured into town, taking supplies from the medicine man's home and leaving unknown silver coins in their place.

Deep among the twisting caves and tunnels of the Mossy Caverns lives Doo'luhrig, a galeb duhr who has dwelt there for many years, undisturbed and not disturbing others.  Doo'luhrig was content to rest in his caves, occasionally rising to eat the fungus that grew within them.  Several months ago, Doo'luhrig stumbled upon a part of his caves he hadn't seen before.  A minor earthquake had opened up a new chamber.  He entered and examined the fungus within it.

The squashy, pink-purple fungus was Brain Moss, and as Doo'luhrig grew close, the compulsion to touch it grew strong.  As soon as he did, it moved; it grew outward onto his body, leaving behind only burst, grey bubbles on the wall.  Doo'luhrig tried to fight the fungus, but it was too late.

Trapped within the brain moss was the mind of the last creature who had died near it: a Drow priestess caught in a cave-in caused by the earthquake.  Her body had been broken by falling rocks, but as she fell, her mind had been pulled, tugged into a patch of fungus.  The priestess, Nakhazofel, grasped the nature of the Brain Moss quickly, as she found herself trapped within it.  And when the fungus grew onto Doo'luhrig, she found his mind simple and weak, allowing her to take almost full command of his body.  Her own body was broken and had begun to rot, so she had Doo'luhrig carry it to his cave and she preserved it using her knowledge of the various cave fungi.

Now, Nakhazofel waits in Doo'luhrig's old spot in the Mossy Caverns.  She has retained her priestess knowledge, though Lolth stripped her of her powers as soon as she left her body.  She is using her knowledge to collect the ingredients necessary to restore her Drow body so that she may return to being a priestess.  Using Doo'luhrig, she has animated several other galeb duhr and sends them on errands.  Not wishing to draw more attention than necessary in her clumsy, magickless form, she has been forced to have the galen duhr purchase some ingredients from the nearby settlement—rather than stealing them—spending from the small coin purse she had with her.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Random Encounters IV: Underground High Fantasy

Random encounters have their place in tabletop RPGs, as long as you can keep them fresh. Two easy ways to do that are to 1) make the environment interesting, and 2) add a surprise during the encounter.

Now, the issue with adding an environment feature is that it significantly restricts the versatility of your random encounter table. For example, a collapsing wall wouldn't generally make sense in a forest or along a river. So, I'm going to be posting a number of these random encounter tables, for various environments and genres. Today's will stick to the basics: underground high fantasy.*


1. A floating brain with psychic whips
2. A band of vampiric goblins
3. An injured troll outcast
4. A zealot of the god of chaos
5. An dwarf who has been magically muted
6. An imp disguised as a stalagmite

Environment feature

1. Loud noises cause stalactites to fall
2. Spore pods burst into noxious clouds if stepped on
3. A deep, fast river cuts through the area
4. A stone bridge that crosses a chasm into the fiery abyss
5. A pool of black water does not return that which falls in
6. A blasphemous, many-eyed statue emanates dread


1. A swarm of shadow-bats are disturbed and descend from the ceiling to attack everyone
2. An overzealous tomb raider arrives to steal the kill and loot the area
3. A pair of orc bruisers with a grudge against the creature arrive
4. The area is flooded with green light from an unknown source
5. The bones scattered in the area animate and attack
6. A more dangerous creature arrives and the original creature flees

* Otherwise known as Dungeons & Dragons.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


Back in 2014, there was a St. Valentine's Day contest going on at Tabletop Adventures. The goal was to create an NPC designed to be a romantic interest for one or more PCs. There were quite a few entries, as I understand it, and I did not win. But, two of my entries (one sci-fi, one fantasy) were included in the PDF that was released, and A.L.E.X. is my favorite of those two.

Name: A.L.E.X. (Artificial Life-Emulating Xenoform)

Physical Description: A.L.E.X. is a cloud of quantum-linked energy which can inhabit any suitable electro-crystalloid matrix. In other words, A.L.E.X.’s physical description matches whatever ship, supercomputer, or crystal network it currently inhabits. Given the opportunity to generate a hologram or design a physical body, A.L.E.X. would not know where to start. It would probably request a question and answer series from the being that prompted it to describe itself in the first place.

How Did You Meet?: A.L.E.X. is likely to be found aboard any type of starship, but particularly those bound for unknown space. Of course, A.L.E.X. might be found working for any organization requiring its unique intelligence, at least temporarily.

Personality and Motivations: A.L.E.X. is motivated primarily by curiosity. It does not know its own origin, nor does it know much about life. Since it is not a traditional computerized intelligence, it cannot simply upload or download information in the traditional method. The price for its services as a quantum analysis specialist is often that someone read a textbook or feed images into a specially designed processor one at a time. A.L.E.X. is also interested in the emotions of other life forms. It doesn’t understand the concepts loneliness or desire, though A.L.E.X. feels them as sharply as any sapient being.

Quote: “I am A.L.E.X., a quantum nonphysical intelligence. What do they call you?”

Friday, March 6, 2015

Six-Word Sparks V: Science Fiction

This blog is fairly heavily dominated by fantasy content. There are lots of orcs, wizards, and dragons floating among the numerous tables. But I like to take a break from that, occasionally, and when I am in the mood for a good space opera or dying Earth game, I may not have time to come up with a whole adventure to play out.

Luckily, I have my handy-dandy six-word sparks at hand. And today's are sci-fi themed for all your robot/laser/starship needs.

Six-Word Sparks

1. New intergalactic starship's secret fuel: blood.
2. Interstellar merchants sell energy cheaply. Why?
3. Bounty hunter seeks spurned alien lover.
4. Android scientist uncovers new spatial dimension.
5. Solar winds vex disoriented refugee caravans.
6. Inhabited aquatic planet's oceans evaporating rapidly.
7. Star vanishes; worlds begin freezing, drifting.
8. Enormous ship tows away entire planet.
9. Laser weapons malfunctioning throughout star system.
10. Sub-ether information network gains sentience.

(And if you need encounter ideas for any of these sci-fi adventures, check out this old post with random spaceport encounters.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

One-Line Rewards: Modern Magic II

I've discussed modern magical items before, and in that post I said that one option was to turn ordinary objects magical.  But I also mentioned a second option (which I called the Warehouse 13 method, though it fits the bill for "Beethoven was an alien spy") in which you take famous early-modern people and make the items around them magical.  The examples I gave were Jesse James's gun, Houdini's wand, and John Lennon's glasses.

Today, those are exactly the kind of magic items I'm going to present.  Roll on the table below, add an arcane historian NPC or a neo-templar secret society, have your players create some men and women in black sunglasses, and you're ready to play!

One-Line Rewards

1. Calamity: A battered Winchester rifle that belonged to Calamity Jane. Bullets fired from this gun can kill skinwalkers.
2. Irreversible Watch: A brass pocketwatch worn by Winston Churchill. The owner can go forward in time (but not back) by up to 12 hours.
3. Inkling Pen: A black fountain pen used by Tolkien and Lewis. Spells written with this pen can be invoked by anyone.
4. Scarface Coin: The coin used by actor George Raft in Scarface (1932). Flipping this coin can reverse any just-made decision.
5. Blackstone Wand: A black, white-tipped wand made and used by Harry Blackstone, Sr. The wand can move objects by levitation.
6. The Blessed Bat: A signed baseball bat used by Jackie Robinson. The bat is imbued with runes of banishment and destruction.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Happy International GM's Day

If you're a GM, thank you!

Today is International GM's Day, a day to celebrate and appreciate game masters everywhere. As a GM myself, I sort of internalize the idea and use it as an opportunity to look at the way I run games and think about what I get out of it and why I do it.

For all of you reading this—whether today is International GM's Day or not—I've decided to take the opportunity to share a list of GMing advice I've acquired online.

"Always move the story forward."

- Chris Perkins

No matter what system you play, the goal is to tell a story of some kind, even if it's just the story of violent adventurers who kill monsters and take their loot. If the game starts grinding to a halt, it is generally the GM's responsibility to get it going again. That might mean ending a combat early if it is no longer interesting, or it might mean interrupting an uninteresting exploration scene with a surprise combat.

Whatever you do, it should progress the general story concept that you and the players are enjoying.

"Obstacles should have agendas."

- Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws

Obstacles, whether they're stubborn NPCs, violent monsters, or mystical puzzles, should have agendas, some reason that they refuse to give in to the will of the PCs without a struggle. In the case of inanimate obstacles (like the aforementioned mystical puzzles), the creator of the obstacles should have had an agenda for creating the obstacle.

An agenda can be as simple as a monstrous spider's "Drive these adventures out of my lair" or as complex as the chancellor of the exchequer's "Prevent anyone from discovering that I'm cooking the books, but also keep suspicion from falling on my allies in the royal treasury guard."

"The more your bad guy gets away with, the more your players will love him."

- Newbie DM

In my experience, nothing gets people riled up more than someone who's getting away with something they shouldn't be doing. That counts double if the thing they're getting away with is something you want. In a game, this could be as simple as a bad guy who steals the queen's flaming sword of power, especially if the queen had promised it as a reward to the players for a quest they've just completed.

Some of the best love-to-hate-them villains are those whose actions are both highly visible and highly lucrative.

"Avoid talking too much."

- Chris Perkins

This is a hard one for me especially, and I suspect it's difficult for many GMs. The idea is that if you say only a few things, it will prompt your players to react and to ask questions, and players who ask questions are players who are invested in the game. It also negates one of the pitfalls of GMing: being too descriptive. Despite what we may think, most players are not interested in a five-minute description of the ominous castle or the Fangbeast of Venus.

In fact, saying "You crest the hill and see an ominous-looking castle" or "From within the green mists emerges the horrific Fangbeast of Venus" is an almost surefire way to get your players to ask questions.

And finally, a wonderful piece of advice from the folks at The RPG Academy. I don't think this one requires any explanation.

"If you're having fun, you're doing it right."

- The RPG Academy

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mook Box III: Killer Robots

Out of my mook box, I pull out another common enemy: the killer robot.

The killer robot is the perfect minion of the alien overlords, the mad scientists, and (if you give it an arcane or steampunk flair) the diabolical sorcerer.

Killer robot

D20 System

HP: 34 | Ref: -3 | Fort: n/a | Will: +6
AC: 16 (Flatfooted: 16 | Touch: 7)
Speed: 20 ft.
Fist of steel +8 atk | 2d8+4 
Raygun +1 atk | 4d6 fire dmg | 60 ft. | x3
- Limb disintegration (Fort DC 14)
Powers: DR 5/adamantium
Skills: knowledge (logic) +10
Vulnerabilities: illogical thought (as confusion for 1 round), magnetization (Will DC 16 or 4d6 dmg)
Treasure: high-frequency energy core


Individual Clichés
Logical precision (2), Strength of steel (4)

Grunt Squad Cliché
Merciless automaton death squad who think and act as one (11)


Threat Rating: 24
Hits per Round: 2

Chi: 3
Traits: Retro-Future Plasti-Steel Body (5), Nuclear-Powered Raygun (4), Vacuum-Tube Brain (3)

The Window

The killer robot has…
… inexorable Strength (d6)
… stiff, clunky Agility (d20)
… steel-reinforced Endurance (d10)
… instant and infallible Cunning (d8)
… electronic Perception (d10)
The killer robot is…
… a deathless automaton (d12)
… precise with a raygun (d8)
… susceptible to magnets (d30)
The killer robot carries…
… a partly charged heat-ray emitter
… a high-frequency energy core

Monday, March 2, 2015

Campaign Sparks III

A campaign spark, as I've said before, consists of a few short paragraphs that describe a setting, a conflict, 2-3 NPCs, the stakes, and a twist. These details are designed allow a GM to generate and entire campaign from a single spark.

The Interior Bureaucracy

The Earth is hollow and contains a magical bureaucracy. The inhabitants, crats, are responsible for maintaining “nature” on the surface, including earthquakes, storms, seasons, hibernation, etc. To do this, crats have magical abilities.
Sving, Minister of Geological Transition, wants to cast down the surface world and raise up the Interior. Morrat, Administrator of Stratospheric Turbulences, wants everyone to simply abandon duty and live for themselves. N’setti, Subsecretary of Committee Formation, forms a “committee” of trained mages to oppose Sving and Morrat.
If Sving is successful, Earth will be razed. If Morrat is successful, Earth will tear itself asunder as the “natural” order breaks down. If N’setti is successful, the crats will renew the Great Bylaw and bind themselves to duty eternally.
Sving, Morrat, and N’setti are all aspects of the Prime Minister, giving the crats the chance to decide their own destiny after millions of years of thankless service.

Usually, that's all there is to a campaign spark. But I became particularly intrigued as this one developed, and so I've created a bit of additional material for it.


Magic in the Interior is highly regulated and refined. Crats tend to have very specific magical skillsets related to summoning dust devils, changing the color of leaves, applying frost overnight, or other similar job-related tasks. Aside from these inherent magical abilities, there are a few other types of magic that can be practiced by crats regardless of their positions.

Tea-Cup Sorcery

A powerful, but infrequently practiced, form of magic, tea-cup sorcery involves the creation and casting of spells via the preparation and serving of tea. The rituals are extremely complex and encompass dozens of variables including the size and material of the cups and saucers, the density of the biscuits, the temperature of the tea, and even the arrangement of the platter.

Pencil-Shaving Augury

Generally referred to as "reading the shavings," pencil-shaving augury is a method of divining information based on the formation of shavings allowed to fall from the sharpening of a wooden pencil. These auguries are very accurate, but also quite difficult to read.

Ice Writing

The quickest and most transient kind of magic available to crats is ice writing. In ice writing, the user invokes a magical effect by carving the spell onto a piece of ice and shattering that ice underfoot. The spell is temporary, lasting only until the last fragment of the ice on which it was written melts.