Roleplaying Games


I have to thank one of my Facebook acquaintances and fellow game design/small publisher for this one: Lex Arcana. It looked interesting, and out Dungeons & Dragons campaign has been set in an alternate late antiquity Roman Empire, so i was interested in it for material to crib. After hearing it was a good system, but picked up the PDF and read through it. Then bought the Encyclopedia Arcana, their “sourcebook” on the setting in PDF. Then found a print version of both, plus the “Demiurge” (GM) screen at Miniature Market and picked them up. (I was really impressed with their selection, prices, and the speed of delivery — check ’em out.)

Back to Lex Arcana… Apparently, this had been a popular game in Europe in the 1990s, but recently was re-released through Kickstarter. First off: these books are gorgeous! The artwork is as good, and in some ways better than the stuff Wizards is doing for D&D and even the superb Odyssey of the Dragonlords. This holds through all of the products I’ve gotten, thus far, including a module in PDF on Constantinople. Production values are high — the paper quality, binding, layouts — it’s all just top shelf. This was easily one of the best buys for an RPG I’ve dropped money on in recent years.

So it’s pretty. How’s the system? Character creation can be a bit confusing at first, but I followed the flow they’d laid out in the book and had a version on one of my player’s characters from the D&D campaign banged out in under 15 minutes. Not bad — I do judge a game system based off of how long and how difficult character creation is. If I can knock out a character in 15 minutes or so and get playing, I’m not usually impressed. There’s a bit of weirdness where your attributes — strength, etc. don’t directly apply to things you do; they combine into….fields, I guess would be a good way to put it, like War or Nature or Society. This gives you a number from 2 to 18 being the top starting number, if i recall correctly. You pick skill, which give you a modifier to rolls in a certain field — bows in War, for instance. You pick your weapons and armor, and you’re ready to go.

The conceit here is you are part of a special force of the Praetorian Guard that hunts down mystic weirdness and threats to the Empire. There are rules for rising through the ranks, but also for magic and more importantly, for gaining favor from your patron deities. The piety score can be used to gain a bump in a test up to getting a bit of Olympian back-up. Magic here is not the “shoot fireballs from your fingers” stuff of D&D (thank the gods!) and focuses on pre and postcognition, interpreting omens and dreams, scrying, and manipulating the gods for favors. This is low magic that requires rituals, time, and effort to get something out of it.

The basic mechanics is a hit a target number system. How you do this is different…you get all the normal polyhedral dice for the game, but which ones you roll — that’s the difference. For instance, if I have a de Bello (War) of 16, I can chose dice that add to 16 (up to three dice, no more) — so I could do a d12+d4, or 2d8, or 2d6+d4. What’s the point of this? You ask. It does look like it could be confusing and slow play for new players, but for experienced folks, i think they could game the hell out of this for mathematical benefit. In the above example, you’re not rolling below a 2 (or 3 with the last option) which can be good for easier tasks. If you roll max on all dice, you roll them again and add to the original roll. What about odd-numbered die — d5, d7? Yes, that could be a thing. Combat is pretty straightforward, with damage based on the quality of your hit. For every three over, you gain a multiplier to the weapon damage. You’re not just getting up, either, if you get munched; damage here can be pretty deadly.

The downsides: there’s a lot of Latin used to give flavor. The character sheet and the used of terms like custodes, the agents of this group you’re supposed to be part of, might throw some folks but i suspect if you’re interested in this, that’s flavoring you might like.

The core book cost me $46. Is it worth it? Hell, yes. This is the first game one of my players — a Romanophile — is truly, actively interested in playing; another is a late antiquity historian turned acupuncturist — he’s in, as well. It’s pretty, well-designed, and there’s a lot you could crib for a setting or another game system. I fused the Piety system here with the one from the Odyssey of Theros book for Dungeons & Dragons 5e for our current game.

Instead of doing a different review, i figured I’d merge this with the other Lex Arcana products I picked up. Easily, the best sourcebook I’ve read in some time is the Encyclopedia Arcana.

This book is a genuine book of scholarship tweaked to be a setting guide for ancient Rome. There’s stuff on the road systems, the post service, the military (army and navy), shipping and trade, the ranks of government and society, as well as food, clothing, disease, and lastly magic. Written by Francesca Garello, it’s well worth picking up even if you don’t get the game; I’ve already be cribbing stuff for our D&D game. This was about $40 and yes, it’s worth every penny. The art, writing, research, and production values are sine que non.

Lastly, the Demiurge Screen.

Pretty much everything you need to quickly adjudicate social interactions, investigations, fights, experience — it’s there. The cardboard is thick and top-quality, the art is good and evocative of the setting, and it’s surprisingly cheap at $18 over on Miniature Market.

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We’ve barely gotten The Marvellous City out the door before we turned our attention to a sourcebook for 1930s Cairo for use with Ubiquity and Fate. The turn around time was brutal, especially with a rough semester for the high school and community college I work at, plus an ongoing illness…but it’s on it’s way.

This one will be the first Black Campbell product not written by (or mostly written by) Scott Rhymer (yours truly). The author on this one is Adam Scott Glancy, who approached us through the Ubiquity RPG group on Facebook and asked if we would be interested in publishing him. After having a look at his initial notes and work, I was thrilled to welcome him aboard. I will be penning the adventure or two that will go with the city guide, but most of this is his baby. I am handling layout, editing, and the like, so right now the PDF is probably about a month away, and another for print — depending on if i can get DriveThruRPG to work with us.

That said, The Marvelous City and most of our back catalogue is hitting Amazon.com, as well as DriveThru. This book will most likely follow that route.

For those of you waiting for the FATE version of The Marvelous City, it’s on the way, and will get some love after this one drops for Ubiquity.

The Marvelous City, our pulp guide to 1930s Rio de Janeiro for the Ubiquity system that powers Hollow Earth Expedition and Space:1889 (among others) is now live on DriveThruRPG.com.

The PDF version and now the print version is available at Amazon.

The Marvelous City is a 90-page book covering the neighborhoods and major sights of Rio, the culture of the city including music and dance, capoeira, and the more mystical aspects of macumba (or mandinga, if you’re not throwing aspersions), with an adventure written by Anthony “Runeslinger” Boyd. Cost is $9.99.

After a few trying day of attempting to teach well online while our district and governor keeping moving the kung flu goalposts, I’ve finally gotten a moment to sit down and bang out a post. Today’s prompt Investigate is a good one.

Everyone’s got that first RPG that really grabbed you. I started, like most, with Dungeons & Dragons (the original boxed set), but the first game to really grab me was James Bond: 007 by Victory Games. The movies were a staple of my teen years, along with other action fare, and this game helped me hone the storytelling art: how to rig together the classic three act adventure, having a good set pieces for action that were tied by character building/exposition scenes to move the action along. Central to the espionage genre, and really for a good dungeon crawl, is the idea of investigation — whether it is uncovering what’s in the next room, tracking down a conspiracy that leads to the big bad or some kind of eldritch horror, finding out who double crossed you on that deal gone bad, to wandering the setting looking for trouble to get into — discovery is ultimately at the heart of most role playing games.

There should always be something kept just outside of the characters circle during a campaign — that big bad you’ve been building up for the final confrontation (don’t bring him in early ’cause they’re going to get insanely lucky on rolls that night and slag him like a bar of lead), some aspect of the bad guy organization (For the first few Bond films, we never saw the head of SPECTRE…he was only “Number 1”.), don’t explain everything, leave some mystery there. Even when the campaign ends, there’s a certain joy in not quite knowing everthing that was going on. Think how much people enjoy throwing ideas around about what that scene meant or what was really going on behind the scenes. The internet is full of movie and TV conspiracy theories. Never reveal all your secrets.

Well, day 14 fell on a day that was supposed to be an easy day that turned into a heavy workload. That was fine by me, since the prompt for that day wasn’t inspiring anything in me.

Today’s prompt, however, is a good one. One of the parts of learning how to GM well is the same as any media of storytelling — framing a scene. Even for sandboxers that simply let players wander about their world looking for something to happen, framing is important. Scene framing involves spotlighting important events in a narrative, or character moments that aid the player in moving toward character growth.

For instance, players might be walking interminably to a mountain where their nemesis rules to destroy a magical McGuffin. The walking, let’s face it, is boring. The day to day mundanity of taking breaks, eating, foraging to find food, can be important for the story — say the characters are traveling through the Valley of Bones on their way to the mountain and after an attack by the adversaries they need to find food and water; that’s now an important, unusual event in their journey. They do it and survive; they don’t and fail. One of the way that RPGs have traditionally gotten around the boring travel bits is with random encounters. That’s certainly a way to go if you’ve had nothing planned for the session, but a better idea might be to do the equivalent of a fade or wipe to the next scene that had impact on the characters. This doesn’t have to be combat. It can be meeting an old friend or adventuring companion of a character that allows the player to build on their alter ego. t can be a short side quest — a traveling party was raided and their children/women/money to stake their new life was stolen forcing the characters to make the choice of staying on mission, or breaking to “do the right thing.” It can be some form of moral quandry — do they help the [your enemy here] who has been injured, is trapped in quicksand (or the equivalent trap), or something that ties tightly to a character’s flaws/goals/or moral structure.

All of the players should ideally get their own “beat”; their moment in the spotlight, but sometimes, you’ll find an event is so interesting or emotionally engaging that the players not involved are interested in the story, even if they aren’t the focus. That makes for a great session. A good example of this might be many of the ensemble Marvel movies — every character gets their moment to do their schtick or experience some milestone in their journey, even if it’s a short moment. In a game, this allows the players to be the star for a while.

Framing a scene involves creating the atmosphere you want. Perhaps you’ve beamed down to a distant outpost on a mostly barren world to find the facility empty. There’s no sign of a fight, there’s food half-eaten on the tables in the canteen — as if people had been mid meal when whatever happened happened. Eery quiet save for the ever-present sound of the air circulation system is all you here. However, there’s more than that.

Important scene will have a few factors to them. There will be an action of somesort that has to be reacted to. This can be physical, like an attack; it can be mental, the setting inspires an emotional reaction; it can be philosophical — you present them with a hard choice; it can be social — they have to convince an enemy to turn to their side. The action should have something to do with achieving their goal, whether for the party or a character. It should present them with a dilemma (it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking) that requires a response that could advance their cause, or creat a set-back but require them to “do the right thing”, or which requires some kind of change in the character.

When creating a story for your players, you can best do this by setting up what the outcome that is desired — the characters find the bad guy’s hideout and can rescue the hostages. You have several scenes that push the plot — 1) a discovery of a certain piece of evidence that 2) leads to an initial confrontation with the henchmen of the big bad, and 3) if they succeed pushes them toward the goal or should they fail requires them to regroup, perhaps do another scene requiring them to find evidence or clues, and eventually leads to the denouement. You can let the players wander and investigate the world all you want, but at some point, you drop one of these moments into the narrative, allowing them to move closer to the goal. This dispels the notion they are being railroaded, while still pushing them in the right direction.

So, simoply put, to frame a scene you 1) create the right atmosphere, 2) present a problem that requires 3) the characters to make a decision, and their reaction 4) leads to an outcome or corresponding reaction that moves the story along, or helps the character grow in some fashion.

While I despise the rest rules in Dungeons & Dragons that allow characters to power through a major, life-threatening fight and slough off the damage with a wee nap, the concept of giving the players a break in the action is a well-advised one. Much like in a movie, keeping the tension and action ramped up often doesn’t have the effect you might think. When the action doesn’t break for a moment of levity, character development, or to give the audience a rest from the sturm und drang of noise and fancy visual effects people aren’t pumped up…they tend to get tired or bored. A classic example is Quantum of Solace, in which the action scenes were not punctuated with moments of quiet and character development…the movie wound up being dreadfully dull despite a fusillade of action.

Similarly, when running a game, there’s something to be said for amping up the danger and action; sending them from one threat to the next. However, that can leave the characters unable to regroup, heal, or get their bearings. A good example was a recent Alien game a ran where the characters had reached the denouement, finding a secret lab working on the Engineers’ black goo. Things went predictably wrong as the big bad released some of the results of their work to prevent word of the lab from getting out. In the ensuing fight anf flight that took two sessions, the characters didn’t get a chance to stop or heal — bad guys and critters were everywhere, and there was the threat of the lab’s experiements reaching a nearby mining settlement. Their ship was lining up one of the company transports with an eye to blowing it’s reactor and destroying everything in nuclear fire.

Great set-up. But the characters were failing stress tests left and right and were no longer in control of their characters — they lost agency because I didn’t give them that necessary breather in the action. They couldn’t heal up, they couldn’t relieve stress, and what should have been exciting became a bit of a slog.

Rest — even a break from the action to “talk about their feelings” or get their wits about them is important.

The prompt message left me scratching my head. I don’t want to talk about having a message to your game; we get enough of that through every other media, right now. Play by Message or Email? Never done it, so I don’t really have anything to say there. Using message apps to contact the players in secret…?

I like that idea. In some games, you may want to keep player specific information compartmentalized. Maybe your players have a hard time with out-of-character knowledge and would use it whether their characters would know it or not. Maybe you have a character with a secret agenda or identity that even the players shouldn’t know; for example, a player character who is a Cylon in a Battlestar Galactica campaign, or a mole in the group in an espionage game, or a undercover synthetic trying to manipulate the crew in Alien — the surprise revelation that a trusted PC is actually a bad guy can be a lot of fun. Passing messages on scraps of paper was a time-honored tradition, but when everyone has a smartphone (minus one of my players…damned Luddite!), you can up the game and send not just messages, but pictures (this is what you saw…) or maps snippets (you explored this area alone, look at all the treasure!)

I’m a fan.

Well, that’s another day I missed trying to push out RPGaDay posts. Which brings me to the prompt: Stack.

One thing you can count on is life not stopping. Sometimes, it doesn’t even slow down. Occasionally, it accelerates. August is usually a bad month for me. School and college start up and I’m prepping classes and teaching. Often, Black Campbell Entertainment is in the final stretch of prepping a book for publication (in this case, The Marvelous City — our guide to 1930s Rio de Janeiro), and there’s the attendant kid raising issues. Fun, or even some side project like knocking out a few hundred words on the blog, can get lost.

Thrown in the stack, as it were.

None of us like to comb through the stack — being it the overflowing Inbox of email (or actual mail), the to do list at the house, shopping, errands, kicking out a plan for the week’s adventure(s) with your game group. Currently, I have two groups: the “nerd night” crew of 6 overgrown adolescents; and the mom & daughter group. That’s two D&D games to plan for, not to mention the not as regularly played Star Wars game for the girls and a guy from the nerd night crew.

But fun is necessary. It’s not just gaming — it’s relaxing, it’s fun, it’s social, and especially with the the plethora of kung flu madness circling the globe in news-fueled fear and idiocy, it’s a needed distraction from the adult world.

Make time for it.

Cult Leader Gleh’n, “What does Jeff Goldblum want?”

Jeff Goldblum, “I want…my money back. Oh, oh! And I want angels to give it to me. And pixies to count it out, and a gnome or a hobbit or an elf to sleep at the foot of my bed, and have – I just want them all over my backyard. But no matter what happens with any of that, I DO want my money back.”

“Run, Ronnie, Run”, 2002

Why that quote..? It’s just a funny toss-off line from one of those guilty pleasures movies. If you haven’t seen it; do. It’s got one of the funniest middles of a movie. The rest? Meh. But it was the first thing that came to mind.

What do we want out of gaming? Is it to have fun? Escape the mundanities of everyday life? Be creative? Make some kind of political statement no one else at the table cares about? Get together with friends? All of the above? I suspect it’s the latter for many, but with differing weights to the various elements.

For me the main thing is socializing, I realized recently. i’d always thought the main point of interest in gaming was the creative aspect and having fun, but the recent Zoom-powered gaming made me realize that it’s the act of getting together with people to have that fun. I could game with anyone around the world with Google Meets, Skype, or Zoom…but I want to be with folks, breaking bread, drinking cocktails or beer or wine, and forgetting all of the adult shit we have to do everyday. For a few of the players, it’s their only release from family and jobs. We could just as easily just hang or watch movies, but gaming allows us to really escape reality for a while.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve said that the gaming groups that best hold together are the ones that do other things with each other; who are friends, not just gaming buddies.

I guess that’s what I want. But no matter what happens with any of that, I DO want my money back.

I was trying to think of how I was going to approach the current prompt Shade…then I just spent the rest of the day — my birthday, actually — just enjoying myself before finally sitting down to jot this daily thought on RPGs. Instead of using the traditional definition of the word, the obstruction or partial obscuring of light by an object, i was goin to try ” Shade — a subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone—sometimes verbal, and sometimes not. It appears in the phrase to throw shade…” (Merriam-Wester, of all places), but realized this might hove too close to the political. So no…what else?

Shade as shadow. A thing we see but which is not, in fact, the thing. This takes us back to ol’ Plato’s allegory of the cave: Prisoners have been chained up in the cave, facing away from a bright source of light, and have only seen objects as shadows on the wall. To them, this is reality. One day, a prisoner breaks free and escapes the cave and once his eyes adjust to the light, he sees the things that threw the shade; see the world as it really is. The cave signifies ignorance or agnosis — a lack of knowledge — since ignorance has come to be a pejorative. (I guess you could tie this into the throwing shade definition…)

There’s few things scarier than a lack of knowledge, especially when you are in a situation that is unfamiliar. Many of the games your players will find themselves in have some aspect of the unknown. What is the thing that’s been stealing people’s children? There are rumors of a [pick your monster] living in that cave/under that bridge/inside the mountain — why is it there? What does it want? How do we appease it or get it to go away?

The previous could be used in almost any setting. Is it a monster in D&D? A serial killer playing on a local superstition in the 1980s (when we were told serial killers and pedophiles lurked in every bush and rad van)? Is the colony on LV-691 not responding? Why is that starship drifting through space? Your job is to go find out and maybe resuce people/bring the bad guy to justice/kill the monster and get its treasure/not get face f$%#ed and have an alien burst out of your chest.

Don’t reveal everything. Even when they roll well and should get clues, hold stuff back. Keep the big bad off screen until it’s time to scare the crap out of or enlighten the characters. Make what they see the shade on the cave wall, and only reveal what threw the shadow until the time is right.

This can be equally useful for players. You built that fully-realized mysterious characters that so intrigues you and you want the players to eventually discover for themselves. It’s so tempting to start dropping hints, or outright blurt your secrets into the air…don’t. Have them hold back. Have them lie, or at the very least obfuscate. Shade isn’t an absence of light, and a bit of information or misinformation might be enough to make the others take an interest in the character and want to engage with it. Don’t give it away for free; make ’em work for it.

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