Month: August 2019

revenant girl blank News & Updates

Revenant: A Game of Vengeance

UPDATE: The latest version of REVENANT is available here.

I recently posted a new RPG playtest demo on the Last Redoubt Games page called Revenant. The core concept for this game is that the player is a restless spirit drawn back into the world of the living to avenge its death. Drawing heavily upon the “revenge story” tradition of films like The Crow or the Kill Bill series, Revenant encourages players to avenge their deaths by slowly destroying the things that matter most to their killer before finally destroying them directly.

The concept is pretty dark and I deliberately avoided including any sort of redemption mechanics. Your hatred for your killer is what brought you back from the dead and you cannot rest until you’ve had your vengeance.

Like most of the other games I’ve designed, Revenant is very narrative heavy and light on rules. It’s also specifically designed as a two-player game (although there is a variant included for more players). The player and the GM work together to tell a collaborative story about how the Revenant pursues and carries out its revenge. Narrative control passes back and forth between the two throughout the game, but the rules (such as they are) don’t provide much in the way of restrictions. As long as both the player and the GM agree on how to resolve situations, pretty much anything goes.

The playtest pdf gives you pretty much everything you need to play other than six-sided dice and something to write with. There are no stats, but a character sheet is included near the end of the document. So take a look and let me know what you think. As always, I’m interested to hear thoughts and suggestions.

Oh, and if you’re looking for something to strike the right tone for the game, check out this Spotify playlist I put together to put me in the appropriate frame of mind for, you know, rising from the dead and seeking vengeance.

weirdwood man walking News & Updates

Venture Into the Weirdwood…

This year I’ve shared two prototype roleplaying games I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve written a bit about Crimson Seas, which has existed in various forms over the last five or six years, but haven’t shared a lot behind Hounds of the Tsar. I’ll probably save a detailed overview of the later until I get around to doing some playtesting and release an updated version of the game. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a new project that I’ve been working on the last week or so. The game is called Weirdwood, and it requires a little explanation.

Rules-Lite, Freedom-Heavy

Hounds of the Tsar is a pretty rules-lite game, but it feels like Rifts compared to Weirdwood. It’s a game with no stats whatsoever. There’s no combat system, no skill system, no real character creation system. Aside from a very simple resolution mechanic and a few tokens, the game has no “hard” rules at all.

That’s by design. Weirdwood borrows heavily from John Harper’s Ghost/Echo, which is one of the most interesting games I’ve played in recent years. To be honest, it completely changed the way I thought about RPGs. Ghost/Echo is a two-page game. That’s it. Aside from a simple resolution mechanic, all it gives you to work with are a couple of evocative images and several lists of people and places. To make the game playable, you have to fill in the details. It doesn’t even tell you how to do this, but when I ran the game, I asked the players questions about the setting and their characters, then built the game session around that. The couple of times I’ve played the game have been some of the most fun gaming sessions I’ve had in years. Ghost/Echo never fails to deliver exciting and memorable moments.

But back to Weirdwood. The concept for the game goes back to my 2017 trip to Helsinki, Finland. For some reason, the name got in my head and as I explored the city, every tree, park, and wooded area fit into a growing concept of a primordial forest that existed in a parallel dimension just beyond human perception. This is well-trod ground, obviously, and I’ve even taken to referencing the “Upside Down” from Stranger Things to explain the concept. But I still found it pretty evocative. Something about Helsinki really sparked my imagination, and I came away from it wanting to write a book about it.

Unfortunately, I already have a lengthy backlog of book ideas. While a graphic novel would probably be the medium best suited to the idea, going back through a lot of old White Wolf World of Darkness rulebooks (Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse, etc) made me think that it might make for a good roleplaying game.

So. Many. Rules.

As I’ve gotten older, I have more and more problems getting into roleplaying games. There are more cool game settings than every, but they all have so much setting material to absorb. Reading all of that information and then finding ways to convey it to the players just makes my head hurt at this point. These details seldom even matter all that much to players anyway. If they wanted all those people, places, and events they could just go read a book.

And then there are the rules. So many damn rules. I’ve gotten to a point where I just don’t care about rules anymore. I don’t want to keep track of hit points. I don’t want to remember every character ability and spell effect. I don’t want to figure out how many plusses players get for equipping “magic item X.” I just don’t give a shit. It’s boring and tedious. I love the thrilling moment when a combat encounter begins and the players wonder what they’re going to do next, but I’m ready to fall asleep within two rounds when it descends into battlefield positioning and endless rounds of dice rolling as enemies are mathematically whittled down to oblivion.

Running Ghost/Echo made me realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the reasons games have so many rules is to provide a consistent game experience no matter who is playing the game. Without rules, games would descend into chaotic sessions of cops and robbers in which no one can agree who can do what and when.

Ghost/Echo implicitly looks at this problem and says “So what? You’re adults, figure it out.” While it never comes out and says as much, the game’s lack of rules structure is built on the assumption that the people playing it are engaged in a collective experience that they are creating together. If someone pushes things too far, breaking the internal logic of the game they’re creating, then the game trusts them to rein that person in. Sure, there’s no rule saying you can’t magically produce a super weapon during a combat encounter, but the rest of the players will look at them like they’re an idiot and tell them they can’t just do whatever they want. In the times I’ve run that game, I never had a player push back when they were told that what they wanted to do wasn’t in keeping with the internal logic of the game we were playing.

Collaborative Gaming

Which brings us back to Weirdwood. The game provides a basic premise for a setting, describing the concept of the Weirdwood and how it generally works, but it leaves it to the group to decide how it all works in practice. Essentially, every group that plays this game should have a totally unique experience. The Weirdwood and its denizens may appear and behave one way in one game, but in a totally different way in another. It’s a game that puts a lot of pressure on the players and the GM to collaborate and create the details they need to run the setting effectively. It’s a challenge, but in my experience, players are far more engaged in a game when they feel like they’ve had a hand in creating it.

This initial playtest version of Weirdwood gives groups just enough to create their version of the Weirdwood and generate their own characters. There are no character sheets. A simple sheet of paper is more than enough to keep track of everything players need to know. At some point in the near future, I will provide setting sheets groups can use to record all the important information about the world they’re creating. This isn’t just for their benefit. At some point, I’d love to make it possible for groups to share their different setting locations with other players. In a later playtest version, I’m going to include a “sample setting” using Helsinki, which will always be my own canonical version of the Weirdwood. However, I’d love to know what a group in Missouri could tell me about the Weirdwood in St. Louis, or discover the many forms it might take in different neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Weirdwood Rules Update

I made some updates to the initial playtest demo of Weirdwood to overhaul the core resolution mechanics. After giving the system some thought, I decided that the game needed something a bit more complex than the very simple mechanic I had in place before.

The new version of the game has been updated to incorporate these changes. It’s still a very rules-lite system that requires quite a bit of judgment calls on the part of players and GMs, but actions no longer hinge entirely upon the outcome of a single die roll. Borrowing a bit from multiple games I’ve encountered over the years (with a big nod to OneSevenDesign’s Lady Blackbird, the Ubiquity system from Hollow Earth Expedition, and Evil Hat’s FATE Accelerated) the new resolution mechanic involves building and managing dice pools that change over the course of play.

I’ve also designed some play sheets to help keep track of character and setting details. They’re pretty simplistic at this point, but they get the job done.

If you want to have some music to put you in the right frame of mind as you’re waiting for the final game, check out the Weirdwood playlist I put together on Spotify.

Gaming Advice

Tips for Being a Better Gamemaster: Part 1

Okay, so here’s the deal…

I wanted to do a quick post about how to be a better gamemaster for roleplaying games. It’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years and I enjoy talking about it. After more than 20 years of playing RPGs, I suppose I’ve put in enough time to talk about gaming with some degree of authority. The original intention was to make a list of five gamemastering tips, get in, get out, and move on to the next thing.

Then I started writing and the first two points ended up being long enough for a single post. As anyone who’s ever texted me could tell you, this happens to me a lot.

So I decided to expand the list to ten points and sort of parcel them out over the next few weeks. I probably won’t do one every week, but I’ll keep them coming fairly regularly.

Tip #1: Listen To The Players

This one is first on the list of gamemastering tips for a reason. The players are almost always the best resource you have at your disposal. They will almost always tell you exactly what they want to do and what kind of game they play. All you have to do is listen to them, absorb what they say, and give it back to them with a bit of a twist. Honestly, it’s really amazing the things you’ll hear players say and do at the table. Oftentimes, they’ll come up with ideas or theories that are way better than anything you thought of. That’s fine. Don’t be precious about whatever plans you had in mind. Trust me, everyone will remember the game where you scrapped your entire adventure plot because something a player said much more fondly than the game where they dutifully chased down the threads of your plot thread for the 500th time.

Look, nobody is playing your game because they want to experience the storyline you’ve crafted for them. I’m sorry, they just aren’t. Any GM who tells you that their players love their games because of their great stories is either lying or has a group that spends most of the game on autopilot waiting for the next combat encounter because that’s the only time they get to make actual decisions. If you want to tell an epic story, go write a novel.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have plans for a story or campaign. I’m kind of infamous for more or less winging games off the top of my head, but if I’m being serious about a session or campaign, I’ll at least sketch out a broad outline of what could happen and come up with a somewhat detailed list of characters to meet, places to go, and problems to be solved. But part of being a good GM means that sometimes you have to throw out your plans because the players are interested in doing something else.

And that’s fine. It’s a roleplaying game, not open-heart surgery. Players will forgive you some rough patches here and there if the overall experience is enjoyable in the end. And if they get to do things they’re interested in doing, they’ll probably have a good time.

Tip #2: Keep Things Moving

Roleplaying games are all about momentum. There’s an ebb and flow to them that’s difficult to manage when you’re just starting out. Games can accommodate some bumps in the road and some detours, but let things meander on for too long and you’ll wind up losing everybody. There are generally two versions of this. In the first, the players are just straight-up bored or stumped. They don’t know what to do next and they’re becoming disengaged. People start checking their phones, they draw pictures in the margins of their character sheet, or they engage in totally irrelevant side conversations.

When this happens, you need to make something, ANYTHING, happen to get them back on the move. The famed noir writer Raymond Chandler once said that the basic rule of writing fast-paced pulp detective stories was: “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This is especially true of RPGs. When in doubt, somebody in the tavern picks a fight with the characters. Why? Who knows? You can figure it out after the brawl.

In the second case, players get too wrapped up in their own planning to actually do anything. This is the situation where they spend an hour planning every last detail of a heist, right down the point of having a backup plan for their backup plan. There are two problems with this. First of all, it just becomes a big waste of time after the initial concept of the plan is laid out. They’ll never feel like they’re fully ready to actually get started. Second, they get so invested in the plan that if you do anything to throw a wrench into it, they’ll very likely get upset and feel like you’re pulling the rug out from under them. When they seem like they have a firm idea of what they want to do, start trying to push them out the door. They’ll be glad you did afterward because it means they’ll be able to get back to the game.

These are probably the two most important things I think every GM should keep in mind. But I’ve got plenty more gamemastering tips where they came from, so keep an eye on this blog for more tips that will make you a better GM.

Gaming Advice

Building Excitement for Your RPG Campaign

When I’m planning to start up a new roleplaying game group, I typically go through a gamut of emotions and thoughts.

  • What should we play?
  • What kind of game will the players like?
  • What kind of game will I like?

That last one is particularly important for me because I tend to have a short attention span when it comes to roleplaying games. I’m not the guy who runs marathon twelve-hour long game sessions or the guy who’s been running the same campaign for five to ten years. That level of intensity is way too much for me, and I start to lose interest in a game right around the time it starts to feel like work.

Get Hyped

When I do get excited about a game concept, I’ll wind up putting a lot of work into preparation, much more so than I usually do. The danger I encounter here is that the reality of the game sometimes doesn’t match my expectations or my hopes. Much like writing a book, the game is never as good at the table as it is in your head.

The truth is that the players are probably never going to be excited about the game in the same way you are. That doesn’t mean they won’t like it, of course, or that they’re not enjoying it if it doesn’t match the vision you had for the game. You have to allow players the space to find the game they want to play. If you’re doing your job as a gamemaster, you should end up in a place where both of you are having a good time.

But that’s when you’re sitting down at the table. Before that happens, you need to get everyone to buy into the experience and pull up a chair. And if you’re not excited about running the game, no one is going to be excited about playing it. Part of your job as a gamemaster takes place before the game even starts. You have to find ways to sell the game to your players, to get them amped up for the experience they’re about to have.

Fun For Everyone

This is equally important for new and old players. Newer players don’t have a lot of expectations; they’re counting on you to guide them through the preliminary process of preparing for the game. They want to know what to expect, but everything sounds new and exciting for them. The biggest challenge with them is giving them plenty of tastes of what’s coming, but not overwhelm them.

More experienced players, on the other hand, like to know what they’re getting into. They’ve played a lot of sessions with a lot of people and it takes a lot to surprise them. While new players are wondering if they’ll know what to do when the game begins, older players are wondering if it will be worth their time and energy. They’ll want to have a much clearer picture of what the game’s going to be about, asking for information that would be far too much for a newer player to take into account.

But the experienced player also wants to be excited for the game. They want to have that same sense of wonder a newer player has, so anything you share with them beforehand has to scratch both itches at the same time.

It’s Not A Homework Assignment

When I run a game set in an original world (something I’ve created), I like to put together a player handbook for easy reference. Now, you have to be careful about this. Players are looking for a game, not homework. I used to run games in a vaguely Nordic setting I called “The Northlands” (this was before Skyrim came out, I swear), and I wrote up an extensive treatment of the setting that I provided to each player. The booklet was an eleven page Word document that detailed the major races, regions, and cities. I thought it was a great resource that answered every question about the setting players might have.

Naturally, most of them didn’t read a word of the damn thing and I don’t blame them a bit. Well, now I don’t, but I felt differently at the time!

As I go about preparing a game for a new group, I’m faced with a similar problem: How do I convey vital information about the setting to the players without making it seem like homework?

The Value of a Player Primer

The answer I’ve hit upon is to make the primer I put together pretty to look at and engaging to read. By filling the booklet with evocative images that set the tone for the game’s setting, players will hopefully get swept up in the aesthetics. After all, you could pick up a Star Wars picture book and get a pretty good idea of what the movies are like just by looking at the images. Secondly, I’m trying to integrate the artwork with descriptive text that provides more specific detail if players want it. Newer players will probably focus mostly on the art since it sets a tone for the game they’re going to be playing, but older players will want the details that tie in with that aesthetic.

By combining the two approaches, I’m hoping to end up with a (brief) primer that sets the stage for the game and gets all types of players excited to take part in it. More importantly, the process of making it has made me more excited for the game and forced me to consider a lot of ideas I’d have simply discarded under other circumstances.

The Drowned Lands

hastur the king in yellow

So what will all of this look like? Well, here are a few examples. The game I’m running is an old-fashioned D&D game using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules and incorporating extensive elements from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve put together custom builds of the game’s classes, dressing them out with equipment and magic items that reflect the nature of the setting. This first image is a write up for a “Drowned Priest”, which is a cleric who worships Cthulhu. The second image is a work-in-progress page from a section devoted to the Great Old Ones, who function as the gods of the setting. I went all out for this, with a full-color image, a distinctive quote pulled from the Mythos source material, and a block of text at the bottom providing a helpful description (which I haven’t written yet). Even if the player knows nothing about Hastur the Unspeakable, they’ll remember this page and draw conclusions based on the image.

Lastly, because I like to package things like this as if they were actual products, I’ve made a cover for the primer that will (hopefully) encourage players to open it up and have a look inside. The whole idea is to stir the player’s interest. Even if they read next to nothing, the layout and imagery will give them a sense of what kind of game they’re getting into.

Obviously, this approach won’t work for every gamemaster, but I hope it gives you a sense of how you can get excited for your game while building it up in your players’ minds as well.

Gaming Advice

Delegate or Die: Holding Your Gaming Group Together

As some regular readers might recall, last year I got a roleplaying group together with the ambitious goal of playing twelve different games over the course of twelve months. I’d gotten the idea from a podcast I used to listen to called Dice of Doom, but the real driving force was the fact that I have so many games I’ve never played. I post daily to an Instagram hashtag (#bensshelf) that features a different rpg book that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years (along with my usually dour face) and I’m into the 40s at this point with a ton of my collection left to go. Getting the group together wasn’t the hard part, though. As different as the idea was, I found enough people who were into it to give the concept a try. We actually did pretty well for a few months, getting through three games featuring multiple sessions with the odd one shot or two along the way.

About four months in, however, life intervened. Due to unforeseen financial circumstances, I ended up having to take a second job and that pretty much killed my schedule flexibility. To be honest, I could have kept it alive, but I had to choose between my gaming group and my writing group. In retrospect, I’m not sure I made the right choice, but at the time, it seemed like a no brainer to focus on the writing group. The worst part was I had big ambitions for the gaming group, even going so far as to develop a podcast to accompany it. While the production values weren’t the best, I thought the podcast was pretty good for what it was trying to accomplish and I really enjoyed producing the series.

The moral of this story is that it’s really hard for a group of adults to keep a gaming group together. There’s just so much happening in everyone’s lives that unless a few people are committed enough to keep everybody else on board, the whole thing will fly apart. In some respects, it’s like trying to get a band together. The concept always sounds great in your head, but it’s a massive logistical pain in the ass once you try to make it happen. Most of the time, the burden of organizing a group falls upon the gamemaster’s shoulders, which sucks because this is also the person who has to do the most work during the game. I suppose it would be easy enough to offload that responsibility onto someone else, but it never quite works out this way. If I were planning to organize another gaming group in the future, I think one of the first things I’d try to do differently is delegate some responsibilities. Who’s making the head count to be sure who’s coming and who’s not? Who’s making sure food and drinks are available? Who’s keeping track of what happened in each game? This is all minor stuff, but little logistical things tend to add up and make life more difficult than it needs to be.

Managing a gaming group is real challenge that most gamers completely overlook. Poor communication is usually the biggest culprit for groups falling apart. Sometimes it’s just the uncertainty that causes everyone to drift apart over time, but in other cases it can lead to genuinely bad feelings. For most people, a gaming group is, at best, the fourth or fifth most important thing on their agenda. It’s a luxury hobby that can soak up a lot of time without much obvious benefit beyond simply enjoying yourself. Is it any worse than playing 18 holes of golf on a Sunday morning? Probably not, but there aren’t many gaming groups getting their session out of the way before noon on a weekend either. For most of us, the prime time for gaming interferes with social obligations for younger people and family obligations for older people. I’ve always thought that a weeknight is an ideal time for a gaming group to meet for three to four hours, but I’ve never found anyone who agrees with me on that count.

If there’s some advice I can impart here (both for myself and others), it’s to be realistic about what everyone wants out of your group and how you’re going to manage it. Don’t be afraid to be honest about setting expectations and assigning responsibilities. For gamemasters, you have to be willing to let go of some control if you don’t want to wind up managing absolutely everything about the group. Just because you’re in charge of the game once play begins doesn’t mean you also have to coordinate when and where to meet or sort out the menu. In addition to communication and flexibility, you also have to be honest with each other. If you don’t see yourself being able to stick it out for more than a few weeks, say that up front rather than slowly fading from the scene. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this, mostly because I want to be involved even though I have very real conflicts in my schedule that prevent me from fitting in a gaming group.

Anyway, now that my work and financial situations are stabilizing a bit, I’m beginning to have thoughts about organizing another group. The 12/12 Project fizzled out around this time last year, so maybe nobody will notice if it picks back up after a year-long hiatus…

General Gaming

The Best RPG Book Ever

Earlier this year, I started running an Instagram hashtag featuring the covers of roleplaying game books sitting on my shelves (#bensshelf). Some of these books aren’t much more than glorified décor because I’ve never played or sometimes even read them. But there are a select few I’m not only quite familiar with, but have a meaningful emotional connection to my life.

This week, I featured a game that I have rather strong feelings about: Vampire: The Masquerade.

Now, I have to be very precise here. When I talk about this game, I’m referring specifically to the Second Edition hardcover released by White Wolf Publishing in 1992. This is an important distinction because the Revised Edition released in 1998 is a very different beast for reasons I’ll go into later. The Second Edition is, in my opinion, the best roleplaying game rulebook ever published. No other game combined a great concept, compelling writing, evocative artwork, and top tier production values as well as this book.

From the very beginning, Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM) is a game that sucks you in and doesn’t let go. I remember seeing the book on the shelf at a Waldenbooks (that’s an old mall-based bookstore chain for you younger folks out there) in the late 1990s and being immediately drawn in by the striking cover art. I knew it was a game because it was in the roleplaying game section, but the cover made it clear that VtM was somehow different from the other games on the shelf. When I opened the book and flipped through a few pages, I started to get a sense of just how different it was from its contemporaries. I’d been drawn into fictional game worlds before, but VtM presented a world that felt more real, more dangerous. It’s a bit of a cliché now, but at the time, VtM really did feel like a roleplaying game for mature gamers. This wasn’t a game about exploring dungeons or fighting hordes of orcs; it was a game about fighting the monsters of our inner nature. The world was dark, scary, and exciting in a way that even the gritty cyberpunk games of the 1990s (Cyberpunk 2020 or early Shadowrun) simply couldn’t match. After reading VtM, other games felt silly by comparison.

Presentation was a big part of the game’s appeal. The rulebook had an austere black and white format that put artist Tim Bradstreet’s work front and center. Bradstreet’s art forever cemented the look and feel of the World of Darkness for me. The images in that book are burned into my mind, and the rest of the book’s artwork felt like it was of a piece with Bradstreet’s style. This was a common trend in games back in this era. In the same way that Brom helped define the aesthetic of Dark Sun and Tony DiTerlizzi established the look of Planescape, Tim Bradstreet created a memorable vision of VtM that the series would never quite be able to recapture in later years.

The game’s setting was also unlike anything I’d seen in a roleplaying game. Vampire society was complex and shot through with political intrigue and bizarre traditions. It was a game about relationships and internal conflict rather than kicking down the door and taking all the treasure. For a teenager struggling with identity and social pressure, VtM was a dramatization of a world you already understood to some extent. The way the game incorporated various forms of vampires from fiction guaranteed that you’d find a vampire clan that appealed to you on some level. Each clan also loosely embodied a philosophy, which helped to make VtM a game about bigger ideas as much as personal identity.

Of course, in retrospect, the rules for VtM were a hot mess. The game used a success system with d10 dice pool, so you wound up rolling fistfuls of dice and tallying up successes against your opponent. It was simple, but clunky. And the way the game handled vampire powers was both inspired and terrible. On the one hand, it did a great job of explaining how the powers worked and what they could do. The actual implementation of those powers, however, was kind of a disaster. If you knew what you were doing, it was quite easy to create overpowered characters that took advantage of the rules to basically do whatever they wanted.

Now, this isn’t an entirely fair criticism of the game. The real problem was that VtM was never supposed to be a rules heavy game where you relied upon your character’s stats to accomplish your goals. Unfortunately, that’s basically how every roleplaying game of that era worked. Players accustomed to years of adversarial gaming in Dungeons & Dragons understood that optimizing your character to take maximum advantage of the rules wasn’t just a good idea, it was how you were “supposed” to play the game. That worked fine in a game like D&D, where you were locked in a physical battle for survival at almost every turn. But VtM was supposed to be a different type of game. Sure, you could game the rules to create a super character, but doing so would rob you of the core experience the game was trying to provide. It wasn’t a game about surviving against all odds and vanquishing your foes, it was a game about personal horror and social interaction. Creating super characters that could circumvent any challenge by leaning on the rules kind of defeated the entire purpose of the game. In order for that system to work effectively, you needed a certain type of player who wasn’t interested in the traditional form of character building and a gamemaster (or Storyteller, in VtM terms) who wasn’t afraid to crack down on players for exploiting obviously unintended loopholes in the rules.

Unfortunately, things kind of went downhill after Second Edition. By the time the Revised Edition came out in 1998, the game was already losing much of its original character. The artwork was more of a mixed bag and the game fell into the fatal trap of explaining too much of its lore, robbing it of the sense of mystery that made it so compelling in the first place. Where the early World of Darkness was a grim and scary place with deep shadows, it evolved into something resembling a conventional fantasy setting weighed down by a ponderous amount of backstory and detail that every player was expected to know. As player options expanded with each release, the core experience became diluted. By the early 2000s, VtM felt less like a game of gothic horror than a comic book superhero game featuring vampires. Instead of embracing the roleplaying concepts the original game emphasized so strongly, players built superpowered characters who bashed each other over the head with the rules in an effort to be the star of the show.

To its credit, White Wolf realized how far the game had strayed from its original concept and did a hard reset in 2004, discontinuing VtM and replacing it with Vampire: The Requiem (VtR), which tried to return the game to its gothic horror roots. While many longtime fans were angered, I always kind of liked VtR because I appreciated what it tried to do. As good as VtR was, though, it didn’t quite have the same magic as the original incarnation. In some ways, the game’s moment had passed. Vampire: The Masquerade was a game that came along at just the right time and tapped into something about 1990s culture that resonated with its audience in a way that VtR didn’t. It’s a good game, but it feels more calculated and self-aware than early VtM. There’s an honesty and integrity to the original VtM that is simply impossible to replicate.

While various versions of VtM have been published over the last decade by Onyx Path Publishing, none of them have the same resonance for me as the Second Edition rulebook. If I ever make good on my repeated threats to run an old school Vampire game, I’ll almost certainly be dusting off my twenty year old copy of Second Edition and tell the players that anything outside that book is strictly off limits.

Sometimes it’s good to stick to the simplicity of a classic.

News & Updates

To Sail the Crimson Seas…

In a recent post, I talked a bit about the somewhat rocky road I’ve taken to working on publishing my own roleplaying games. One of the chapters in that story was the development of a pirate RPG called Crimson Seas. Yesterday I cobbled together my various design notes and draft text into a single document that can serve as a basis for playtesting. I can’t really say what prompted this effort (and it was an effort, believe me), but I thought it might be worth reviewing how I ended up getting to this point.

Crimson Seas grew out of a short story I wrote called “La Tierra de la Sangre” back in 2006 or so. I can’t remember what prompted me to write a pirate story, exactly. Maybe I was inspired by the pending release of the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Anyway, the story is an alternate history pulp adventure in which the Aztecs have resisted Spanish conquest and have fought back by constructing massive stone pyramid ships that keep afloat by way of blood sacrifice. I enjoyed the concept so much that I planned to write a series of such stories and use the setting as the basis for a roleplaying game. That didn’t work out so well initially. I started a second story, but never finished it (an exceedingly rare situation for me, by the way). After sketching out some initial ideas for the RPG, I started graduate school and didn’t have the time to devote to it any longer.

I came back to the game shortly after The Walls of Dalgorod was completed. My initial design work got pretty far. I had the basic rules system in place and worked on a prototype game book detailing character options, spells, and an entire miniatures-based ship combat system. But the game only existed in my head. I couldn’t really playtest it in any way. The first big moment came when I tried to run a session at a local gaming convention. After playing around with some pregenerated characters, I realized that the rules system had some crippling flaws that rendered the game almost unplayable. Panicked, I literally rewrote the game overnight, completely overhauling the basic dice mechanics and how characters worked.

In retrospect, I got lucky. The convention wasn’t heavily attended that day and I didn’t have enough people sign up for the game to merit running the session. Thankful for the reprieve, I started working on fleshing the game mechanics out more thoroughly, adding situational rule after situational rule to address every problem that came up.

It was at some point while writing a section of rules to determine the “pull” strength of various sized whirlpools that I realized I’d gone very far afield from the type of game I wanted to make. By that point, I was playing and reading more games than when I started the design process. Crimson Seas was supposed to have been a “simple” or “rules lite” game, but somewhere along the line it had transformed into a crunch-heavy monster, with rule after rule after rule for every possible scenario players might encounter. After all that work, I’d created exactly the sort of game I hated to run as a gamemaster.

In a flurry of frustration and minimalist inspiration, I scrapped everything and threw the few aspects of the game I thought were worth saving into a series of redesigned character sheets. While I’m not particularly fond of the Apocalypse World rules system, I love that game’s approach to character sheets. “Powered by the Apocalypse” games put all of your character creation decisions on the sheet. When you start a game, you look at a series of options for your character, make a few choices, and you’re ready to play. The new Crimson Seas sheets followed this design mandate, discarding the game’s original “classless” character creation system for a more rigid, but still flexible Role system that slotted characters into a series of specific archetypes that made sense for an open seas piracy game. I was really happy with the way they turned out and I felt like I’d solved a huge conceptual problem with the game.

So naturally, I set the sheets aside and didn’t work on the game in any serious way for two years.

Even as recently as a week ago, the idea of dragging Crimson Seas out of mothballs and working on it again seemed unlikely. I can’t really explain why I started looking at the files again yesterday other than I hate to let hard work go to waste. Looking through the prototype game text, I’d forgotten just how much I’d actually finished. I started sifting through files and thinking about how they would mesh with the most recent rendition of the rules. At some point over the last year or so, I wrote up some very basic outlines of a new dice mechanic that I felt had some promise. While the old rules went in a very simulationist direction, the core ideas behind them were always very simple, so a lot of what I’d written could be brought into line with the new system. A lot of what I wrote back then had to be scrapped, of course. At one point, I caught myself trying to adapt some old mechanics to the new system and had to ruthlessly delete things to avoid going down that road to needless complexity again.

The game still has a long way to go. It’s in a very liminal state now, with some aspects that are very well developed and other core mechanics existing in very abstract, untested form. As a far more ambitious game than Hounds of the Tsar, Crimson Seas will require a lot of playtesting and refinement to get it closer to a polished, publication-worthy state. I think it can get there, and I’m still intrigued enough by the setting and the spirit of the rules system to want to guide it through that development process.

In any case, it will be fun to see where the game ends up after its already lengthy voyage.

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The Long Road to the Last Redoubt

So, Last Redoubt Games…

Maybe it’s best to start at the beginning. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for over twenty years, going back to the time I somehow convinced my mother to buy me a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons “Red Box” starter set (the Mentzer version with the sweet Larry Elmore cover) at a yard sale. I must have been eleven or twelve at the time. That box set included a single-player starter adventure that introduced you to some of the basic elements of the game and then provided a basic starting adventure for a multiplayer game run by a game master (or, in D&D lingo, a Dungeon Master). Since I was an only child living outside of town, I didn’t have a group of friends at the ready to play, so the game kind of collected dust on my shelf after I played through the initial adventure.

My real introduction into roleplaying came when a guy in my marching band squad in the ninth grade turned to me and asked me if I’d heard of a game called Shadowrun. I was, in fact, familiar with the game because I knew about the recently released Super Nintendo game that was based upon it. He and a friend of his had recently ordered a copy of the Shadowrun rulebook and suggested that I join them for a game session when it arrived. We got together with yet another friend to play a game called Underground, which was kind of a bonkers sci-fi dystopia where the players are down on their luck mutant war veterans making a living on the mean streets of a cynical post-capitalist society (think First Blood crossed with Taxi Driver crossed with Blade Runner crossed with Total Recall). It was a weird game session that saw my character literally blown to bits in the first ten minutes (and carried to the hospital in a beer mug and a used condom), but I had a blast and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since. In addition to playing Shadowrun, I ordered Earthdawn, the recently released fantasy game from the same publisher (FASA Corporation). My high school gaming group changed composition a bit throughout the years, but we played a lot of Earthdawn. Even when I moved to another state while I was in college, a few of us would still play every time we got together (Sadly, we took a hiatus from Earthdawn a few years ago, but that’s a rather sensitive subject for another post).

That’s all a long way of saying that I’ve always been drawn to roleplaying games. Almost from the very beginning, I was the person in my group running games and coming up with adventures. In high school, my dream job was to be a writer and game developer for FASA or White Wolf Publishing (who at that time published the World of Darkness game line). By my first year of college, I was devoting a lot of thought to creating roleplaying game settings, fleshing out entire worlds that could be used as the basis for entire game lines. Much of this was a byproduct of the era. Roleplaying games in the 1990s focused HEAVILY upon setting and story. Even D&D was featuring game lines like Dark Sun and Planescape, which established evocative new worlds with intricate storylines that were advanced little by little with the release of each adventure module. I played a lot of FASA games in those days, so I got a hefty helping of this style of game development from Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Battletech. I had more setting material for Shadowrun and Earthdawn than I could ever hope to use in a single campaign, but I couldn’t get enough of those worlds.

My first game I tried to develop was…um…bad. Known at various points by the awful title “SoulQuest” and name of the setting, “Ranchess,” this game was…well…an attempt at something. All kidding aside, the setting was important for my development as a writer because it was the first thing I actually tried to use as the basis for a novel. I still have a crate of notebooks somewhere in my house with the first thirty or forty thousand handwritten words of this first attempt (Bits and pieces of it have actually survived to live again in other projects, some of which might yet see the light of day). As a game, though, it sucked. I don’t remember how much of a rules system I had sketched out, but I quickly abandoned the idea for another game that I started working on in the early 2000s. That game, Dark Earth, actually got quite far along. I had a prototype rules document, complete with various races, classes, and abilities written out in rather exacting detail. Since I didn’t have a gaming group at the time, playtesting never got off the ground and I eventually decided that the rules were too similar to other things I’d seen anyway (there was an attempt to convert it to a d20 system at one point as well).

A little over ten years ago, I wrote a short story called “La Tierra de la Sangre,” which features a magical, swords & sorcery alternate history of the Caribbean in the Age of Piracy. Partially inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I envisioned a setting that drew heavily upon both actual history and a madcap mashup of historical “could have beens” such as the Chinese continuing to establish naval dominance in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Vikings gaining a firm foothold in northeastern Canada, the Aztecs repelling the Spanish with massive stone warships powered by blood sacrifice, and so on. I thought the setting was a natural fit for a roleplaying game, so I set about developing a rule system I thought was pretty unique. The resulting game, Crimson Seas, felt like it fit a niche I hadn’t really seen filled and I had high hopes for publishing it in some form as digital publishing for rpgs had become so much easier by the early 2010s.

Last Redoubt Games was the name I came up with for this publishing venture that never got off the ground. The name itself is a reference to “The Last Redoubt,” the foreboding pyramid fortress featured prominently in William Hope Hodgson’s brilliant but obtuse 1912 novel The Night Land. Unfortunately, Crimson Seas didn’t withstand the rigors of my own close scrutiny, much less playtesting. By the time the game got to a playable state around 2014 or 2015, I’d started gaming more frequently and I came to see that Crimson Seas wasn’t quite as groundbreaking or as interesting as I’d thought. Even worse, the more I worked on it, the more it started to resemble the types of games I didn’t particularly like in the first place. I eventually scrapped everything and laid out a plan to totally redesign the game.

But I never got around to it.

Sometimes you work on something for so long that you just can’t go back to it again. Maybe I got burned out or maybe I came around to the idea that the concept itself wasn’t all that great. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I never went back to rework the game into something usable. In the meantime, though, I started developing a few new ideas into fully-fledged game concepts. One of them was inspired by the video game Helldivers, which my son and I became obsessed with about two years ago. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s essentially Starship Troopers, with the players in the role of elite soldiers being dropped down to a planet to perform some super dangerous mission deep in enemy territory. For my son’s birthday party, I thought it would be fun to make a tabletop miniatures game version of Helldivers for him and his friends to play. We didn’t get around to playing it, so the idea sat in a notebook until last year when I started tinkering with it again. This time, however, I actually got a group of people to sit down and play it. This kicked off a playtesting process that saw the game, now called Archangels, change dramatically. The first major change was the elimination of a gamemaster player. Originally, Archangels required one player to control enemy units. In the latest version, enemy actions are totally automated by way of a card system, so every player can concentrate on strategy and coordination with their teammates rather than bookkeeping enemy stats. While it still needs a bit more refining, Archangels is feeling more and more like a finished game and I’m starting to let myself think about things like researching how to produce game components, how to organize a Kickstarter, how to commission artwork, and how to do graphic design. It’s a daunting but exciting prospect.

Since Archangels is a bit of a complicated project, I thought it would be a good idea to put together something simpler that would help me establish an identity for Last Redoubt Games. My taste in roleplaying games has changed dramatically from when I was younger and had more time on my hands. While I used to enjoy books that gave you page after page after page of rules, character options, and setting detail, today I appreciate games that are simple, flexible, and to the point. A book like Dragon Age from Green Ronin Publishing is fantastic and I love it, but sometimes I want the simplicity of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which provides no specific setting material and a very simple set of rules. The two games that have had the biggest influence on me in this regard are Into the Odd by Chris McDowall and Ghost/Echo by John Harper, which focus heavily on getting into the game as quickly as possible and not getting bogged down by requiring players to master extensive rules mechanics to get the most out of a game.

The result of all this brainstorming is a game called Hounds of the Tsar. Based on an idea for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I never got around to running, the game sees the players take on the role of Oprichniks, who were ostensibly the secret police force for the Ivan the Terrible in late 1560s Russia. While I intend to run a number of playtests myself, I decided to make the prototype version of the game available for anyone who wants to give it a try. The draft document is only about fifteen pages long and provides enough information to get a basic campaign off the ground, but gamemasters and players will have to fill in some gaps if they want to stretch things beyond a few adventures. Some of those omissions are intentional. I want the game to be open-ended enough for groups to create their own unique material. Too often roleplaying games condition players to do everything strictly “by the book” and they become hesitant to make up their own rules when the situation might demand it. While Hounds of the Tsar will almost certainly add more material to provide players with a toolbox for incorporating their own ideas into the game, I don’t anticipate adding much in the way of specific rules or content. For the time being, the game is what it is, and I’d need to have some pretty compelling and overwhelming feedback to make me want to change that.

You can view and download a PDF copy of Hounds of the Tsar here. Read it, play it, and let me know what you think. I’ll have a little more to say about it in the coming weeks, so keep checking in here or the Last Redoubt Facebook page for updates if you’re interested in how this little project pans out.