Archive for the ‘House Rules’ Category

FFG Star Wars Mandalorian Stats

January 7, 2020 Comments off

It is difficult to find a bad review of the flagship Disney+ original The Mandalorian. Most fans were cautiously optimistic, and even some critics of the recent movies were swayed by this return to a gritty, compelling mix of eastern (samurai) and western (cowboy) influences in a live action, episodic show.

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the first season of The Mandalorian, just pony up for a month of Disney+ and devour all eight episodes. We’re going to be discussing characters and plot points, so again, you have been warned.

The first few episodes focus on the titular character, but by the end of the first season, there are several characters that could make excellent PCs for an Edge of the Empire game. This is the first post of a series that will eventually make a complete party of six characters: Din Djardin, Cara Dune, IG-11, Kuill, Greef Karga, and of course, The Child.

Let me walk you through my process for Mando. I looked at a lot of careers and specializations, but ultimately went the most obvious route of Bounty Hunter: Gadgeteer from the core Edge of the Empire book. This is actually a pretty tough talent tree due to diverse characteristics for core skills and not great for people looking for an optimized build, but I felt it fit the character to a T. I used the Mandalorian species from Friends Like These which provides all 2s for characteristics, 105 starting XP, and one rank in any combat skill or one rank in two knowledge skills. I chose Gunnery since that is missing from the core skill set of the Gadgeteer. For initial skills I chose Perception, Piloting (Space), Piloting (Planetary), Ranged (Heavy), Ranged (Light), and Brawl.

I choose to build him out with 200 earned XP to represent his experience as a hunter before we meet him in the show. I boosted Brawn, Agility and Willpower to 3 with the starting XP, leaving me 15, which I used to pick up a rank of Mechanics and Melee. Making a bee line down the talent tree (with a few detours) for 200 XP I chose two ranks of Toughened, Jury Rigged, Armor Master, Tinkerer, Dedication (Agility), Point Blank, Spare Clip, and Improved Armor Master. These talents are well represented on screen by the amount of abuse he can take, his versatile gear (more in on this in a moment), and how often his armor saves his bacon. This left 40 XP to buy up a few more ranks in Ranged skills, Piloting (Space), Vigilance, and Athletics.

Let’s talk gear. As one would expect, the Mandalorian has several tricks up (or on) his sleeve. Luckily, a few of these were already started up in Boba Fett’s gear in the Allies and Adversaries sourcebook. This provides the weapon stats for the wrist-mounted flame thrower and whipcord Mando uses in several of the episodes. There are also templates for novice and veteran Mandalorian armor (2 Soak, 1 Defense) in the excellent Gadgets and Gear sourcebook, which provided details for the integrated tracking system that mechanically provides another rank of Vigilance. We see this on screen when he is tracking the (warm?) footprints of Cara Dune outside the backwater tavern in which they first meet.

His rifle posed an interesting challenge. Astute fans will recognize both the rifle, pistol and even overall look is a nod to the Star Wars holiday special. There are no FFG stats for that crazy tuning-fork that I could find.

In episode 3, Cara refers to it as a Pulse rifle, which made me think of a Pulse Cannon which does have stats; stats that fit remarkably well. Apparently I wasn’t the only one confused, as the storyboards in the credits from that same episode make the rifle look like a pulse cannon, albeit with the shock fork at the end. To account for this, I provided the Pulse Cannon with a Shock Pulse Emitter that provides Stun 4, Disorient 1 in melee. The pulse cannon itself can be fired normally for a decent 9 damage shot, pierce two. It should be noted it is slow firing 1, which is not ideal, but pretty well represented on screen as he aims between shots at long range. The rifle can also be primed to use its entire energy cell to gain Breach 1, Vicious 3. While not exactly a disrupter, you have a much better chance of vaporizing some Jawas if you are adding 30% to crit rolls.

I just gave him a vanilla blaster pistol, mostly because I couldn’t find any pistols that really looked like his and he already has a ton of weapons. I also included the vibroknife we see on screen in the mudhorn fight.

The “whistling birds” threw me for a bit of a loop. While mini-rockets are detailed in No Disintegrations, none of those really fit what the armorer creates for him. I used the stat block for the armor-piercing rocket and made it limited ammo 6. It looks like the actual launcher from the show has 10, but that seems a bit overpowered to put in the hands of a PC. There also isn’t really a mechanic to take out 4 guys simultaneously like he did on the show, but I would house-rule an extra rocket could launch for every two advantage on the attack roll to try and simulate that.

So here is my build. I feel like it may not be mechanically optimized, but represents what I saw on the screen. What do you think? Suggestions?

I had this post planned before the tragic news of Fantasy Flight Games shutting down Fantasy Flight Interactive and gutting the RPG department. Those designers created one of my favorite RPGs of all time in the form of Edge/Age/FaD. I plan on playing this game for years to come, and hope all those excellent people land on their feet and keep creating great stuff.

Building Bad: Tips on Creating Memorable Villain NPC’s

January 6, 2020 Comments off


It’s easy, relatively speaking, to run a villain in most campaigns.  You’ve got technical application of the rules, some rudimentary tactics, and keeping track of stats, spells, and wounds, sure…. And sometimes that can be burdensome, but any GM worth their salt should be able to readily handle that aspect of the game, if not right away then early in their GMing career.

But how do you take a pile of stats and make it memorable?  Make it truly villainous?  here are a few tips to creating a bad guy that your players will love to hate.

Reputation / Infamy

You hear about a villain, or their actions, before you ever see them:  You come across the scene of the murder.  You hear the villagers talk about the tradgedy the villain has brought to bear (even if they don’t know that’s who is behind it).  People talk in hushed tones about the warlord  in the neighboring province.  Villagers tell tale of the creature that lives in the woods.

This is best delievered as background noise, tavern rumors, or news reports.  Better yet, it’s learned when the party is busy with another problem.  It builds a richer world, one fraught with problems where the party can only do so much.  The villain is a problem that the party has to work itself up to.  Haunting scenes of death and destruction or chilling tales from victims or survivors build the villain’s reputation.

Villains use others to do their dirty work.

While some villains may be solitary, many villains that wield enough power will draw followers that seek to benefit from the riches or influence their dastardly patron.  Others may see a chance for wanton violence in the company of someone who has mastered it.

This could be as minimal as a hobgoblin or bugbear that commands a small horde of semi-faithful goblins.  It could be a petty crime lord that pays a biker gang to ferry his contraband and protect his holdings for a cut of the take.  It could be an army.  In this agency, there is power over the innocent.  These perhaps not-so-powerful followers can affect change by virtue of their numbers.  They can destroy a village, derail a train, and in big enough numbers, crush a nation.

Use these minions to exact the will of the Villain, spy on their enemies, and create confrontations that remind the party the villain is active without putting the villain himself at risk.  Furthermore, these minions brag about their patron villain.  They want people to know that they are to be feared and respected because of their patron’s power.  Let your minions tell tales of their patron villain, threaten his wrath, and predict his retribution.  You’re building a relationship between the villain and the party without the villain saying a word themselves.

Villains attack heroes where they’re most vulnerable.

Only so much force can be brought to bear agains the heroes themselves.  They are, after all, the heroes!  They were built to overcome adversity.  When a villain cannot eliminate the heroes, they can make them pay.  Often, they have friends, family and loved ones that don’t have the same capability to fight back.  And there’s nothing to make a villain more hated than attacking or exploiting the innocent, especially if the heroes are close to the victims.

Villains live to fight another day.

There is no single thing that drives a party mad more readily than a villain slipping through their grasp.  Villains should plan ways of making their escape so that the heroes cannot follow until it’s time to stop telling their story.  Dedicated retreat can be difficult to counter, especially for a Villain applying a little forethought.  Take note, however, that if you do this, there are two rules you have to follow: One, the escape must make sense in some form or fashion or the party will see the escape as a cheat. Make sure evidence of their escape plan is clear and reasonable. Two, you must eventually let the heroes catch the villain.  The contract you have with the players as a GM is that you will give them the opportunity to be heroic. Give them that opportunity, if not right away.

Villains use their resources to make your misery their hobby.

Villiains have time and resources that allow them to do things that an average hero wouldn’t even consider.  It might be having their goons ransack the heroes’ base, burn down a town, or spread nasty rumors about them.  They can take their time or drop a little money into making the heroes miserable, including impersonating them while doing their worst.  Fire is cheap.  The watch and judges can be bribed. While the possibilities are endless, the goal is to anger the party, not to kill them.  They are owed a confrontation, and their anger is the spice that will make that fight all the more satsifying.

Villains aren’t just cruel to the heroes.

If a villain is cruel, there are plenty of ways to show it.  Sometimes, this involves slaying their own underlings for their own incompetence.  For the chaotic evil out there, it could be slaying bystanders for almost no reason at all.  In most cases, it’s going to be a villain taking the most direct route to solving a problem, even if that means a few people have to get hurt along the way.  Show these victims to the players in your story so that they get the depth of what a jerk your bad guy really is.  If possible, let your villain do this infront of them, but just out of their grasp.  Use the innocent as human shields to cover the villains escape or distract the heroes from seeking their vengeance.

Villians love to hear themselves talk.

There’s nothing more disappointing than fighting your way through multiple floors of a dungeon or secret base and finally cornering the villian you’ve been hunting for weeks to only have him or her wordlessly wade into combat with you without uttering a word.

This is the easiest, cheapest way to make a villain 100% more satisfying.  Call it a surprise round where the villain takes his whole action talking, or do what I do and say it’s a special “drama round” where you apply GM fiat to tell a cool story.  However you make it happen, have your villain at least say a few lines:

“Miserable stinking imbeciles!  You think you can defeat me?  I am Lord Castigar!  I have slain hundrends of so called heroes like yourselves.  Come at me, if you wish to die!”

It doen’t take much to improv some witty (or not-so-witty) dialogue.  But don’t stop there.  Each round, on the villains action, give them some more lines.  Goad the players, mock them, have them explain the cunning nature of their plan, or if things are turning agains tthe Villain, have them start to negotiate.  And when they negotiate, see if there is a way to be reasonable.  See if you can actually tempt the player into taking the deal.  Don’t be surprised if your villain tells the heroes, “Wait! Stop!” and they actually do it, and hear him out (with hesitation).  There’s something about our human natures that make us willing to hear reason, if its possible, and a villain can use that to his advantage.  A real villain will always welch on the deal anyway, so its nothing to make a few promises and then try to get back to their position down the road.  A good villain bides his time. And if they can’t, you have to remember the last thing…

Villains are people too.

Well, some of them are demons, or space monsters or whatever. But the best villain is a villain that can exist in reality.  Sure, there are murdering psyhopaths that cut a swath of death a destruction through the universe for no reason, but the best villains are ones that could exist, that do exist.  They’re usually greedy, money hungry or power hungry people who bend a few rules at first to get what they think they need or deserve.  Soon, when this becomes easier, or if the reward is just too good, they make bolder moves and more people get hurt.  Maybe life has taught them lessons that make empathy a sign of weakness, and they’ve moved beyond being concerned with how others are affected by their actions.  But a complex villain, one that might yet be turned away from their path, or might show vengence another evil for reasons all their own, that’s a truly well developed villain.  They have reasons for acting how they do, and don’t see themselves as evil so much as driven, regardless of the consequences.

In the end, every villain wants to live.  If the choice is obvious death or the possibility of surviving, 9 times out of 10 a villain will choose life unless losing everything is too great of an insult to their vanity. And then, its up the heroes to show mercy, or perhaps begin the road towards villany themselves. Every villain has to start somewhere, and its a fine line between vengence and wrath.

Alternate DCC XP system

February 12, 2018 Comments off

Recently I signed up to run my first Road Crew games of 2018 for MACE West (I’ll be running Blades Against Death and co-Judging Inferno Road), and it got me thinking of years past. Back in 2013 there were a lot fewer modules and it took some salesmanship to recruit players and get them in to DCC. Back then, I had a few players show up consistently every week while most would only be there for some weeks and not others. At the time, I would have the PCs level up when I ran out of adventures for that level. Keeping track of XP seemed a bit nebulous using the rules as written:

“Each encounter is worth from 0 to 4 XP, and those XP are not earned merely by killing monsters, disarming traps, looting treasure, or completing a quest. Rather, successfully surviving encounters earns the characters XP in DCC RPG. A typical encounter is worth 2 XP, and the system scales from 0 to 4 depending on difficulty.”

This system is certainly my preference over D&D or Pathfinder experience systems, but still seems a bit nebulous for my taste. I really enjoyed the Pathfinder Society (organized play) XP system, in which PCs gain a level every 3 adventures. For DCC I would suggest the following modifications, which are really just an extrapolation of the classic optional rule:

“…consider allowing any 0-level characters that survive their first adventure to automatically advance to 1st-level and 10 XP.”

Why not use this type of system for every level? Rather than leveling every session, I would suggest 1 earned XP for each adventure survived, with the next level being the number of new experience to achieve it. This table should make more sense:


New XP for next level

Total XP for next level



















This allows for a more traditional XP curve (rather than 3xp = 1 level like in PFS) while reducing book keeping to a minimum. This also allows PCs to “catch up” if they join the campaign late or have a PC die early on. I feel this provides a reasonable advancement table, without requiring much record keeping on the part of the Judge or the players. Next time I run a long-running drop-in/drop-out sort of DCC campaign this will certainly be the way I manage XP and advancement.

Formula Kart – Adding Mario Kart items to Formula D

May 30, 2016 Comments off

comboYesterday I watched the Monaco Grand Prix F1 race from start to finish. I had never really paid much attention to F1 racing before, and this was quite the dramatic race. Check out the highlights if you missed it.

Monaco is the track that comes with the board game Formula D. I’m such a big fan of the game I own all the expansions which include F1 tracks from around the world. The game is a lot of fun in its own right, but some games can turn to run away victories with a few fortunate rolls of the gear dice. This got me thinking about other racing games I love, like Super MarioKart.

If you are looking to add another layer of excitement, and to add some randomness and equalizers to the race, just add Mario Kart items! For the uninitiated, in MarioKart when your Kart runs over a question mark box, you get an item that can help you in the race. At this point there have been a lot of MarioKart games, and with them a lot of different items with different effects. Some would be more difficult to simulate in a board game than others. Here are my suggestions.

Use the red debris markers to simulate the the boxes, adding one per player. For a one lap game, I would suggest adding them half-way through the lap, for a two lap game, I would add them just before the finish line, or in both places if you want a lot of items! Once a car runs over the box, that player rolls the standard d20 “danger die” to determine what item is received. I’ve mixed and matched items from several different versions of MarioKart to make the mechanics easier to handle.

I’ve borrowed a few mechanics from 5th Edition D&D for the shells. While the game comes with one standard d20, I would recommend adding a few more to the box if you’ve got a few lying around (and if you’re nerdy enough to be reading this, you probably do!). For green shells its just a simple contested roll: both attacker and defender roll a d20, if the attacker has the higher result, the shell hits and the defender spins out. If the defender has the higher result, the shell misses! Red shells work the same, except the attacker rolls 2d20 (advantage in 5th ed. terms) while the defender still only rolls 1d20. Highest result wins, if its the defender, the red shell misses!

Download the full table here. I hope you guys enjoy this expansion to the rules. Watch out for blue shells!

Categories: 5e, Board, Games, House Rules, Mechanics, Tips

Fun with the Three Fates in DCCRPG

May 2, 2016 1 comment

A few months ago we ran some fourth level pregens through the awesome Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure “The 13th Skull” while taking a week off from our regularly scheduled D&D game. Someone had to be the cleric and so I pulled a Neutral priestess and using just the Core book as inspiration chose “The Three Fates” as her patron. Thus was born the legend of Sister Aramella…

Her background occupation was fortune-teller and she had a tarot deck as one of her pieces of equipment. We had a printed copy of the Deck of Many Things, so I grabbed that and whenever someone questioned Sister Aramella or wanted me to cast a spell, I pulled a card and wove that into my role-play.

We faced an enemy: I pulled a card – “Death” – and said “Well this does not look good…” It was a great hook and the spell Second Sight got the most use out of any previous DCC game because I’d pass the deck to the GM and he’d arrange for me to pull a card and let me interpret it as I saw fit. “Oh you’d like healing?” Pull out the Skull and “Sorry, the Fates decree that you might not survive the day. We’ll see.” Botched a spell? Pull out the Idiot card and cry that my actions have upset the Triplicate Goddess.


One of the things I would like to add more of to my own DCC games are additional patrons, and additional spells or effects like I described. The 2015 Gongfarmer’s Almanac (available at the Google+ DCC community for free and now in an omnibus addition) has a whole slew of new patrons and even a great chart for additional daily effects expanding upon the birth augur in the core rulebook.

What sort of props have you added in to your DCC games? What kind of patrons or additional effects would you like to see? Comments are open!

Resurrection Revisited

April 6, 2015 Comments off

Avalynethelifegiver1988The Easter season is a time that rebirth is on our minds, with the backdrop of the story of the Resurrection prominent for many, and the revitalization Spring brings.

It made me think about the role of resurrection and ‘raise dead‘ in fantasy role playing. Most systems have something of this sort at some level of play, and conquering death is one of the big fantasies we have in reality and fiction. That said, as an element of a gaming setting, it’s a complete game changer.  And here’s the thing: It is horrible.

Resurrection ruins games.  It ruins good story-telling. It cheapens heroism, belittles triumphs, and obliterates drama. It destroys the impact and gravity of the greatest story telling device there is: Death.  Without death, there is no finality, no consequences to any event that can’t be unmade or recycled.  Heroes need not live up to a higher standard where they might just prevail by way of a Holy Mulligan. It’s a softening of the game world that detracts from the story, and thereby detracts from the game itself.

We finished up Paizo’s Reign of Winter adventure path this past year. After we hit the midway point of the series,  it became apparent that the presence of raise dead and resurrection was quickly arrived at as the easy remedy for character death. A shoulder shrug followed by a quick calculation of how many diamonds it would deplete from the party stores was all the drama that such an event as character death added.  It was a failure of the system if not myself, the storyteller.  Death had lost its finality, and the threat of death was greatly offset by the players calling my bluff of a TPK, which I theoretically wouldn’t let happen (though I would, with some caveats that I went into last year in my article “The Art of Fail“) . That is a problem.

Outside of a softening of the consequences, it is problematic from a general story telling perspective.  How can the loss of life of villagers in a goblin raid remain poignant when someone can walk up and raise the victims?  Why stop there?  Why not raise random people of historical note?  The King murdered?  Bring ’em back?  It only takes 10 minutes in some of these systems, so he might not even be missed!   It cheapens the value of life and the story telling dynamic, and creates numerous plot holes that are hard to work around without clumsy artifice on the part of the GM.

And you shouldn’t do that!  Resurrection and Raise Dead should be rare, almost wish-like events that are costly.  Costly, painful rituals for a loved friend and companion, like we see in Conan the Barbarian.  Some of these costs are built in, but if it’s just money, it’s a pittance (get a character to sacrifice their most powerful magic item and you’ll see them weep openly).  Promises should be required to raise the dead.  Oaths. Blood sacrifice.

Some of you might have played under old rules in OD&D that indicated that an elf could not be resurrected.  We did, back in 1997, and when a elven ranger died at the hands of a certain Troll  in the Temple of Elemental Evil, we all realized that he was DEAD DEAD, and it sobered the players that evening.  When not long after, a paladin of St. Cuthbert was mostly devoured by rats, the drama of her resurrection was a story in itself; an epic race to the nearest city that had a priest of sufficient level to raise her, a debt undertaken, oaths sworn, and a battle with a cult of Iuzian priests fighting to interrupt the ritual.  The resurrection became a story in itself, and carried weight.

It’s a hard choice to ditch resurrection or deny its availability to players.  They will hate you for it, so you had better telegraph those decisions early on before it becomes a resource they anticipate. When the playing field is clear before hand, few have reason to complain (especially where the challenges are freely taken and understood).  Games that let you know that they plan on killing you can be strangely refreshing, like Paranoia (giving you six clones is a good indicator of the cheapness of human life) or Dungeon Crawl Classics, where the 0-level funnel has you generate 3 to 4 peasants who try to try to survive a normal first level adventure (protip: your most unworthy character will always be the sole survivor).  While seemingly depressing, the result is a certain lack of attachment for more lighthearted games, which is surprisingly welcome.  Alternately, for more serious games, a grim determination and earnest concern for other characters becomes more pressing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to this approach is when it takes effect, and a favorite character is gone without the realistic possibility of a remedy.  Sometimes, this can be a game-ending or campaign-ending event, especially if more than one character bites the bullet.  My advice is to play through it and see if you can’t come out on the other side.  That said, you know your players.  The point, is to have fun (Commandment #10) so as long as folks are having a good time, it’s worth it, but remember you may have missed an opportunity for players and characters to grow a little, which could lead to even better results.

Try it on, or say you’re going to, and see how it changes your player’s play-style.  You might just be surprised what the fear of death will do for your next game.

The Need for Speed: The Advantages of Fast-Paced Play in Your Favorite RPG

October 5, 2014 2 comments

combatThe best kind of compliment you can get is one that you hear by way of a third party.  Our FLGS owner from the Wyvern’s Tale advised a player from my Asheville Comic Expo D&D 5th Edition Demo of the beginner’s box came in and said, “Scott runs the fastest game of D&D I’ve ever seen!”  Granted, that might not always be a compliment, but I’ll take what I can get.

A few years ago, however, the Skyland gang was at SCARAB and got to play the Pathfinder Society Special Blood Under Absalom.  It was an 8 hour game they were going to squeeze into 4 hours (which we finished in 6), at least that’s what I heard and that’s what it felt like.  It was the fastest game of D&D I ever played, and it was EXHILARATING.  When your turn came around, you had damn well be ready to take your action with dice in hand, and as soon as your turn was over, you’d better figure out what you were doing next.  Players who couldn’t keep up with that pace got passed over until they could, and a few turns were missed as people ‘assessed the situation’.  I’ve never before seen such frenetic action, but have aspired to bring that to many games since.


Too many times have I played D&D/Pathfinder/whatever and it goes something like this:

GM: Your character is bull-rushed into the water by the troll.  Make a Fortitude save.

Player 1: (rolls) Does a 6 save?  I have the Iron Constitution feat, does that apply?

Player 2: Yes, it does.

Player 3: No that’s just for poison.

GM: (flips pages for 5 minutes) No, it doesn’t in this case.  Make an upside down underwater grapple check to break the hold.

Player 1: How do I do that?

GM: (flips pages for 12 minutes) uh… Roll a strength check

Player 1: (Looks up from smartphone) What were we doing?

TO HELL WITH THAT.  THIS IS AWFUL. That sort of game play is just the sort of thing that kills off fans of RPG gaming.

Now, I should point out that I’m walking dangerously close to being a hypocrite here.  I enjoy the technical aspects of the game when they create interesting nuance to game play.  When the rules can be applied in a way that makes the game more interesting, I enjoy seeing them unfold.  However, many times this is not the case.  It’s rules-mongering for its own sake.  It slows play, makes everyone lose interest and a feel for the action, and creates migraines.

Instead of that, we should strive as GM’s and as gamers alike is for a fast paced game that reflects that action of the scene and keeps the dynamic tempo of the action consistent with the game itself.  The faster the action, the less likely the players are to get distracted, the more you’ll get accomplished, and the more fun everyone will have.


Fast play can be tough.  Some games are just too rooted in the tactical to be hastened to a point where you might call them ‘fast’ but here are a few tips to make things jump:

1) KNOW YOUR RULES: Even complex rules usually come down to a dice roll or two under the best of circumstances.  If you know a creature uses energy drain and grapple attacks, print out the flowchart or rule you need and be ready to apply it.  SRD links or bookmarks on various apps or programs can make this incredibly easy.

2) HAVE YOUR RULES TEAM ON STANDBY: I have been fortunate to play most of my life with great rules guys.  If someone asks a question that isn’t known, one presents his belief while the other looks it up.  Meanwhile, the GM does what he can while that conclusion is reached or quickly makes a judgment call and moves on.  Complete indecision is resolved with tip #3.

3) THE TALISMAN RULE:  The old Talisman Board Game used to have a fantastic rule when you couldn’t figure out what the answer to a rules question was:

Phrase your rules question for a yes or no answer.

Roll 1d6

1-3 Yes

4-6 No

  You can always default to this, figuring out things on the backend if need be.  Usually, these rules calls aren’t life or death situations.  If they turn out to be, maybe make it one of the few exceptions to the fast play rule and do the research, or better yet, let the GM err on the side of Player success.  Who is going to be upset that the player prevailed?  If it’s the GM, then you are definitely doing it wrong.

4) ROLL TOGETHER: Players and GM’s alike are superstitious and don’t like to do this, but both player and GM should always be rolling their damage dice with their to hit dice whenever possible.  It seems like it wouldn’t save much time, but frankly, you’d be amazed how much time it seems to save, if only because it guarantees that those dice are out and in hand with the first toss, instead of having to fish around for a few extra d4’s because your magic missile just got an extra die because of that last level.  Multiple attacks can be resolved together with sets of colored dice, but colors need to be consistent. Don’t forget to throw in dice for miss-chance, hit location, or whatever other special modifier you need to account for.

5) PLAYER READINESS: This encompasses several things.  When I was younger, I used to make a player with a casting class look up the spell description and have it ready every time they cast a spell, or deemed them to be ‘fumbling with spell components’ until it was ready and they came ‘off delay’. (I am so old, it was actually just added to the casting time for the spell; grognards you know what I’m talking about).  Frankly, I wish I still did this, even though it guarantees I’m remembered as a complete bastard.

A faster game should push players to do this more anyway, and apps like ufisk and Lone Wolf’s Hero Lab can allow you to look up or print out spell descriptions, respectively, with great ease.  I prefer paper to electronics, as a smart phone or tablet can easily become a quick check of an email which turns into watching a five minute video of a cat playing the piano.  Nothing bugs me more than trying to move the action along or having a good RP moment, only to find out that the player involved or that was close to the action was mentally checked out for something unrelated to the game. Paper doesn’t do that.

In the end, a player should know how their abilities work as much as a GM should. Losing a turn or a forced delay allows a GM to keep the action flowing, often without major player detriment, and nudges lazy players into line at the same time.

6) SHAME POINT!:   Players who can’t seem to get their act together (playing on phone, don’t have dice ready, don’t know how their abilities function, etc) are deserving of retribution for ruining everyone’s good time.  Dungeon Bastard uses Shame Points in his World’s Worst Dungeon Crawl (which is amazing and plays fast and is incredibly fun) and even with no actual penalty for a shame point, it’s enough of a poke to get people on task.  Technically, if you roll under the number of shame points you have, you have to leave the game (I keep a broken office chair about 20 feet from the table in the unventilated garage for just such an occasion.  They can shout their actions into the room if need be….)

We also enjoy use of the “Eshleman Hat’ as a shaming device for someone who takes too long of a turn (relating to a friend who once took a turn that lasted one hour… I shit you not).

These things are fun, but also bring attention to a player’s lollygagging in a playful and generally inoffensive way.  Another tool for your toolbox.

7) JUST ROLL THE DAMN DICE!: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone fret about a rule that might arise before they have determined whether or not the action succeeded.  Get your players to throw those dice as soon as the action has been declared (and you do the same).  Half the time, you’re going to see that the tough rules call was irrelevant because the attack didn’t connect in the first place.

8) HAVE AN INITIATIVE MONKEY:  Sometimes running the combat can be tough while also tracking initiative.  If you have someone you can rely on (and that’s a big if) have them keep the pace going.  When they call out initiative, have them also call out the next player “On Deck” which will help to focus the player coming up.  Having a good initiative monkey is key, as a bad one will actually hurt you more than doing it yourself.  Another alternative is to use a board that everyone can see, or clothespins on your game screen with each player’s or characters name written on it, along with monster pins of a different color.  Names actually work better here, because people always respond to their name, whereas character names get ignored sometimes.  This is doubly true at conventions.

9) LIMIT RETCONS:  Players will worry you to death and stop the continuous flow of action by saying, “oh, I wanted to move here after I attacked” etc. etc.  A good house rule is that any action can continue to be modified or changed until someone rolls a die.  Then, an irreversible determination of luck has occurred and all actions are locked in. Apply this to yourself as well, if possible.  Sometimes, as a GM, you’ll have a lot more to keep track of, and so it is (mildly) forgivable.

10) KEEP UP THE RHYTHM:  As GM, all these other things are useless unless you can keep the action flying fast and furious.  You need to push to make each turn seem dynamic, and that includes non-combat rounds if at all possible.  Have a way to move around your table if not in initiative.  If someone takes an action, jump on that, but then move to the next person, tell them what they’re seeing and ask them what they do in response to that. Even if it’s nothing, ask them if they have a sword/blaster/torch out, where they are positioned, or maybe even make them roll a die and when they give you the number, laugh manically and move on to the next person.  Keep them reacting to what you’re doing.

11) ERR BOLDLY:  Key to this whole process is making sure your players are not watching you read.  Nothing is more action chilling than watching someone read a book. Do your best with the guidelines listed above, but as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going to err, err boldly.”  Try to err on the side of the players, and they will love you for it.  But keep the action moving, toss the dice, and get the action back into the player’s hands.

Fast play isn’t always what the doctor ordered for every game, but most games benefit from the application of dynamic action.  Others that don’t (Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, etc) will still have their moments where you’ll want to apply these techniques, and even then you’ll want to bring intensity of a different sort to those games.  But that’s another article for another time.

To Grid or Not to Grid

September 2, 2014 3 comments


‘Tactics’ has meant different things over the years in the context of fantasy RPG’s.  In first and second edition Dungeons and Dragons, tactics meant techniques and abilities, and were fairly rudimentary, getting a few bumps from various splatbooks and later with the Skills & Powers books.  In versions 3.0 to Pathfinder, however, tactics became more closely associated with tactical movement, movement on a grid, and it became fairly critical: flanking, five-foot-steps, attacks of opportunity, and templated spell effect areas could all mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

I remember starting to play 3.0 many years ago now and thinking, “Man, this combat is almost like playing an additional game or mini-game” which shows what a break it was from older editions.  It was thrilling at the time, but as time has gone on, the pros and cons of the grid weigh on me as a player, but even more so as a GM.

This came into sharper focus recently with our trial run of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  We played with very vague illustrations of the rooms we were in, didn’t count squares, and approximated distances.  The game flowed well, played quickly, and we didn’t run into any problems. Players continuously improvised and thought outside of the box, trying to obtain ‘advantage’, where two dice are rolled taking the higher result (a primary 5E mechanic).

By contrast, the following week we returned to our Reign of Winter game where we encountered creatures that could create a cage of bones over the players with a touch attack.  The grid lead to accurate depictions of positioning, but as a result, a horrible slog ensued where players couldn’t act effectively due to the specificity with which we were able to chart their positions, many of them being out of reach of their opponents and of other players.

Some of my players hate the grid.  Kevin, for instance, and increasingly, Michael, find it frustrating.  We’ve played a fair amount of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and reversion to the grid has always been a mistake in that. DCC plays fast and loose, with crazy things happening all the time, and counting squares runs afoul of it’s old school roots and free wheeling ‘sure, try it’ attitude. Accordingly, they don’t recommend it.

Really, any time you’re counting squares (especially Pathfinder’s diagonal movement rules) you’ve stopped the creative flow of the game and the action, and have approached minutia that is probably  not enhancing the actual play of the game.

That said, sometimes you want something technical.  Sometimes being a few inches outside of that explosive radius is a high-five inducing event.  The grid keeps things fair, for both GM and player, and that can be important with the right group (and even more important with the WRONG group).


So I decided to try 5th edition with various gridded and non-gridded play areas to see how the party responded.  At the table, we had old and new players, and players that were both for and against gridded combat.  The results were interesting.


First, I ran a session with no map.  Just words.  This is commonly called “Theater of the Mind” and worked well enough.  Play was quick, but in the end fairly featureless.  For whatever reason, players didn’t seem to put much into the attacks or the environment that brought anything new to the game.  I think, in some games, like DCC, you might see Deed Dice rolled that create critical hit scenarios that add flavor, but for the vast majority of games, TOTM combats really reflect the skill and energy of both GM and player.  The more player’s or Game Masters drop the ball, the less engaging that combat is going to be.


I wanted to use maps or illustrations in my games to supplement game play, and avoid a lot of repeated questions about positioning. So, for the next encounter, I used a grid in form of Dwarven Forge game tiles.

If you haven’t been fortunately enough to get in on Dwarven Forge’s Kickstarters , you can still pick them up at their company store.  They are beautiful.  Perhaps their biggest shortcoming in my mind is they have partial squares against the walls, which make spacing a little vague, upon occasion, but that worked for the experiment.

Players were pleased to see the high-detail mapping, but quickly became constrained by the nature of the gridding.  Bottlenecks occurred frequently, and play slowed down significantly.  Further, players stopped jockeying for advantage and improvising, and fell back into the rather stolid roles of ‘move and attack’. It drained something out of it, despite the verisimilitude of the map dungeon dressing.

Ironically, I should note, that the bottlenecking served to help the party tactically.  Tactics sometimes help the character but detract from the player’s experience, which arguably is a lot more important.


Third, I used a printed map, but not to scale:

I found a few interesting things in this scenario.  My map had a grid, but I told the players it was not to scale (being 10 foot squares) and to disregard it.  Despite that, players still tried to force themselves to the grid.  Combats began to feel tight, despite there being plenty of room, and other distances got confused as players tried to leap over 20 foot chasms before remembering the distances involved.

Perhaps the worst part of this was a final confrontation with a dragon.  Players became lazy with positioning their miniatures.  When the dragon turned to use its breath weapon, revisionist history began to play a role:

“I wasn’t standing there, I was behind it”

“I would have been around the corner”

“I’m too far away”

I had to play evil GM (the “Dog” as we call it) and explain that based on their descriptions of their actions, these players were within the deadly area of this blast.  Some players took it in stride, others grumbled a bit.  I appreciated their frustration, as things got murky on this particular battlefield.


Lastly, combat took place on set of Tact-tiles, with crappy hand drawn maps by me:

These expensive little guys have been in my collection for about a decade, and despite the upfront costs, they’re the best thing going.  You’ve just missed the kickstarter, but hopefully they will have fixed their supply issues and be back on the market soon.

Strangely, this hand drawn map did the trick. Noting that everything was only approximately to scale, we quickly worked to move miniatures without counting squares but being fair and mindful of the speed limitations of the character.  As GM, I attempted to err on the side that permitted the character to make the most of their turn, within reason, and sometimes adding complications along the way.

5E’s greatest strength will likely prove to be the advantage/disadvantage mechanic replacing a lot of detailed hand-wringing rules that discourage improvisation in the interest of fairness.  If the halfling wants to dash over the slick cobblestones to dive into range to throw his dagger, 5E lets that dramatic scene happen, and as GM all I have to do to comb in the complexity of that is to have them roll with disadvantage.  It’s a signficant penalty, but not insurmountable, and a hell of a lot better than saying, “No.  You double move and that’s it”.

There was enough accountability with my crappy hand drawn map that if there was an area of effect ability in play, the square counting got a lot more precise, with ties going to the player where a close call was concerned.  No one had difficulty with the rulings, and the game continued quickly.


Your mileage may vary, but I saw merit in both systems at their appointed times.  A lot of this depends on your group: A Good or fair GM might be trusted by his players to do everything in the theater of the mind, with not even so much as a map or sketch to give players an idea of what was going on.  This can be excellent in more routine or featureless situations where players don’t need to know ranges, tactics are simple, and game play more fast and loose, but falls short where terrain features a large role in combat, or where positioning and visualization of the flow of combat is highly relevant to the outcome.

Off-scale maps seemed to create more of a problem than they solved.  Unless the map is to such a scale that players can’t try to position themselves on it with any relevance, I think it’s to be avoided.  Best to show a small scale map and then ‘explode’ the scene into something tactical when necessary.

My vague map seemed to work the best for this group, but I think probably with other groups or more technical situations, this could be problematic as well.  If it really comes down to a game of inches, GM and player alike are going to feel either guilty or cheated if a fireball catches the character and roasts them to ashes based on a flimsy or hypothetical map or position.

My solution is this: Map as little as necessary, but with precision for critical combats. Positions where combats are melee only and non spell effects or powers that relate to range are good for loose maps where position isn’t key.  You may still run into problems now and again, but the time you save and flexibility you pick up from that fast and dirty map is going to be worth it 9 times out of 10.

If instead you’ve got a boss-fight, a fight where terrain plays an interesting role, or where flanking and areas of effect are going to be repeatedly relevant, draw it to scale and play it to scale.  This requires a little foresight, but speed of play is key to keeping people entertained, and precision and tactics become highly relevant and add to the game where the single combat or combatant are the focus and potential endgame.

Future expansions of 5E have been rumored to contain additional tactical combat rules.  If so, you’ll be able to choose how that game, at least, gets played. We’d love to hear your thoughts about whether you prefer the grid or not, and why.   Let us know, and maybe I’ll try that out with my poor poison-cloud-choked adventuring group in a few weeks.





A Game of Game of Thrones

March 31, 2014 Comments off

GRR2707_450Winter is… actually over, but almost here. Again.

This Sunday, the newest season of Game of Thrones returns on HBO. To celebrate this, our gaming group has decided to give Green Ronin Publishing’s “A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying” a try. SIFRP, as it is called, has been out for a while now and there’s several sourcebooks out to help both players and GMs play on the continent of Westeros (and beyond).

We’re going to play through the adventure included at the end of the book, which presupposes the players all being of the same house who set out to increase their fortunes at a tourney held by King Robert Baratheon. While character generation is pretty standard and straightforward, the game really shines (for me) during the House creation, which is unique in my experience.

I’ve created a House for the game to be used as needed. It could be an ally, it could be an enemy. The generation system is both simple and complex, and allows for quite a bit of leeway for the Narrator (GM) to adjust as they see fit. I followed the system as is, without making any changes and came up with the following:

Step One: Realm

You roll 3d6 and that determines which part of Westeros the house is from. The North, Dorne, King’s Landing? All are possible, but with my roll of 11, the house is located in the Mountains of the Moon.

Step Two: Resources

Defense, Influence, Land, Law, Population, Power and Wealth. You roll 7d6 for each resource and adjust it based on location. For example, The West (Casterly Rock) has all those Lannister gold mines and get a bonus to Wealth. The North is vast and gets a bonus to Land. The Mountains of the Moon is a sparse (minus to land) location, but very hard to assail in battle (bonus to Defense) and all those clans in the mountains continually cause problems (minus to Law and Population). The rolls were above average in both Influence and Power, so this tells me that the House is well known and influential… about the size of House Florent or House Frey in the books. But we’re not done yet… as all of the Resources can be influenced by the next step, History, or by a monthly Fortune roll (to increase one Resource).

Step Three: History

Rolling a d6, I got the highest result, meaning the House is very old and was founded during the Andal Invasion. That certainly explains it’s Power and Influence! A number of “Events” are generated. The six I got were: Victory, Ascent, Victory, Scandal, Decline, Scandal. Each “event” adds or subtracts a random amount to the resources. I can see why maybe nobody has heard of this House tucked away in the Mountains of the Moon. In the past, they were well known and even on their way to a powerhouse, but their more recent history is plagued with a couple scandals with perhaps a death of an heir? That could cause all manner of problems. The last step with resources is for each player to roll and add to their choice of Resource where they think it would do the most good.

Adding It Up

I rolled expecting four players and, after all was said and done, came up with the following:

Defense 48 – This is a house with excellent defenses. A castle? Soldiers? Plenty of resources to spend there. We’ll spend 40 points to have a Castle. Because: castles are cool.

Influence 43 – Again, an excellent score and still commands respect, and is perhaps well known outside of it’s Realm for one reason or another. This score they like to (as I said above) either House Frey (Red Wedding, anyone?) or House Florent in the South. With that much Influence to spend, we can have an Heir for 20 points, a second son for 10 and a first daughter for another 10. Don’t fret, if we had been in Dorne the Heir could be a daughter.

Land 13 – Small holdings. Not much room in the valley or the mountains, so this makes perfect sense. Not much to spend here, but let’s spend it all. We can have a stream for 1 point, a road for 5 and hills for 7.

Law 18 – Banditry is common and lawlessness outside of the main environs. Rampaging clans of Black Ears maybe? This has no effect except later during our monthly “Fortune” roll, and gives us a -5.

Population 19 – Small. One small town, probably in the shadow of whatever keep or tower we decide upon. Again, no effect here, but just barely enough so we do not suffer a penalty to our Fortune.

Power 31 – 20 points spent means least 1 “Banner” house sworn to the main house (maybe the player house?), and some soldiers; as well as being generally respected by other houses militarily. We can buy Household Guards for 6, Archers for 3 and Scouts for 2. We’re not concerned so much with chivalry (and horses are expensive) so we’ll stick to our scouts and archers for now.

Wealth 36 – A surprising good roll means that there is something on the land or in the past that makes the house prosperous. 10 points buys us the presence of a Maester. Another 10 buys us a mine, which gives +5 to our Fortune roll for a net of 0. Another 10 and we can have a Marketplace. Makes sense… with our road and stream, trade is brisk in our little town.

My Kingdom for a Shield

The final step is heraldry. I rolled randomly for house colors (blue and silver) and followed the directions and got something completely unworkable. Therefore, I took some of the books other advice, which is to come up with something on my own. Swirling those around with all of the information rolled previously, I’d ended up with the followng:



House Durant of Silverstream

Formed shortly after a decisive victory during the Andal Invasion of Westeros, House Durant has been a fixture in the Mountains of the Moon. Sworn to House Arryn, they comported themselves with great honor in their antiquity, being granted lands north of the Eyrie and a silver mine as well. However, when the Targaryens conquered Westeros, they attempted (perhaps unwisely) to stay out of the fight and were called to task for their cowardice. That led to a long period of decline. In what could have been a fatal blow to the House, twenty years ago the last Lord contracted greyscale and the only children left were a bastard and several distant cousins. Jon Arryn took pity on the ancient house and raised the bastard to Lordship, married him to one of the cousins, and let him keep his father’s mines and titles. The current Lord Durant hopes that the tourney he and his household are attending will be a turning point for the family.


So there we have it: an interesting House generated almost entirely via the rules of Green Ronin’s SIFRP to use in our latest game. We’ll have to wait and see if the players have what it takes to win the Game of Thrones, and which house will Fortune favor?

Bending the Game: Shadowrun 4th Edition House Rules

August 26, 2013 Comments off


Please welcome our guest blogger, Brian Braddock:

No game is made perfect. Everyone hits a bump in the road in their gaming lives where the rules are getting in the way of the action. Maybe you’ve been in the middle of a major combat, have come up with a great improvised move that would be brilliant, but has no mechanical effect. Maybe you and your troupe find a great game with an amazing world, but the rules are just for the dogs. Maybe you’re happy playing your wizard, except for that one rule about conjuring that just doesn’t make sense. We’ve all been there.

When the rules get in the way of the fun, it’s time to reach in the GM toolkit and break out house rules. House rules are powerful tools that, if used correctly, can improve the flow of any game and tailor a system to meet your needs. For example, if your player has put in the time, energy, and engagement to come up with an inventive combat move, and there are no rules to back it up, make something up. Give them a penalty to do the amazing thing, but a bonus to damage if they pull it off. In some cases, it’s just that simple. Your player feels like their work is rewarded, and other players feed off the example and become more invested. When that happens, everyone has fun.

When creating house rules, however, you have to be careful. Most popular game systems are playtested rigorously and refined to maintain balance. When you create a rule that fundamentally changes the game, the balance can be changed as well. Let’s take the wizard as an example. Your player is running a Pathfinder Conjurer. Based on the style of play within the troupe, the Conjurer can’t summon anything without being interrupted. You could shorten the casting time from a full round action to a standard action. This fixes the first problem (interrupted casting), but opens a whole new can of worms, with the player able to exploit a host of loopholes. As a general rule, I’m conservative with the number of house rules I make, especially if I’m in a system I’m not familiar with. You pay people good money to refine the rules–change only what you need.

When you use house rules you learn more about the rules in general, which becomes a self-perpetuating process. Eventually you get a deep enough understanding of rules systems that you know what you can tinker with and what is best left alone. When you do this with multiple games, you start to recognize rules trends that can apply across systems. You may have a house rule for rewarding inventive combat, and then you see a better version of it in the Exalted system–which happens to be close to your system. This kind of house rule understanding ranges from intermediate to advanced, and prepares you for the biggest challenges.

Sometimes you find games that have great stories, great worlds, and rules that are tougher than a UFC fighter. This may be fun for troupes of rules lawyers, but not for the general group, and especially not for new players. This is when house rules take another step. If you like the world but not the rules, and you really want to play, then change the rules.

One of the most iconic examples of this is the Shadowrun system. Shadowrun has a detailed setting that is imaginative, inventive, and unique. It also has a rules system that is massive, ponderous, and daunting to new players. Even GMs with strong rules understanding have difficulty with Shadowrun. I’ve played every iteration of the game, and while it’s gotten easier, it is by no means user friendly. However, I love the game, and I want my troupe, a mix of drama gamers and old school dungeon crawlers, to play with me. So, in an effort to make things easy on them, I streamlined a rule here and there, over and over, just to keep the action running. One player even went so far as to talk about the ease of Matrix rules online, not realizing that the smooth rules weren’t the game makers, but mine. Eventually I created an entire set of house rules that presented different degrees of play for Shadowrun. One set works for newbies, one for intermediate players, and the advanced level is the core game as written. Since creating these rules we’ve told some great stories and had some great combats, all within the Sixth World.

All of this, however, came about for one reason alone: we wanted to have fun. Rules are there to give us structure and to keep fights from breaking out. Dice add that flavor of fate that keeps things interesting. But in the end, they’re all tools for you to tell stories and have fun with your friends. If the rules aren’t working towards this goal, then it’s up to you to make them work. Once you do, you’ll be working within a game system tailored to you—and frankly, there’s nothing quite like it.

Here are some House Rule suggestions for the Matrix 4.0 and more! ShadowRunHouseRules