Monthly Archives: June 2021

Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 1

Kicking-off a ttRPG campaign can be tough. You need a setup that gets all the player characters in the same place, working toward the same goal, and in most cases you want that setup to both not take a lot of time to explain, and have long-term impacts on the ongoing campaign so what time you take explaining the setup remains useful as the campaign moves along. Setup is connected to, but separate from, the plot, theme, and tone of a campaign. Some setups remain the backbone of the campaign for its duration, while others are mere starting points that are discarded once the PCs are comfortable working together and have their teeth in the meat of the game’s adventures.

Basically, anytime you think “That’d be a cool way to start a campaign!,” you’re considering a campaign setup.

Over the course of this week, we’re going to look at some common (and less-common) kickoff setups, including Tavern, School, Family Ties, Wanted Posters, Organization, Patron, Mysterious Patron, Event, Wrong Place/Wrong Time, Right Place/Right Time, and maybe a couple more.

The Tavern

It’s a well-known trope, and overused, but that doesn’t mean there’s no utility to it. The idea is that there’s a gathering place where you can go to get into an adventure. It may be the home of your Patron, a favored hangout of members of your Organization or the School, or the place where Wanted Posters get put up.

I actually think the most interesting idea for the Tavern as a campaign kickoff is to look at Lloyd’s Coffee House, which lead to the creation of Lloyd’s of London. What began as an effort to have reliable news for maritime patrons turned into a global insurance market. It’s not hard to see how a popular tavern (or meadhall, cafe, diner, or intergalactic truck stop, depending on genre) near areas that need adventurers might work to have news of potential adventures and people hiring same.

You can subvert this setup in a few ways. One is to lean hard on the Lloyd’s example, and have “taverns” have simply evolved over decades from primarily places to get drink and lodgings to primarily places to do adventuring-related business (or maybe the evolution of function means those places aren’t called taverns anymore, but Hire Houses or some other term you introduce to the campaign). Another is to make a tavern itself the primary site for early adventures–perhaps a famous and massive tavern was abandoned after some horrific tragedy, and now new owners need the stables cleared of dire rate, the stockroom cleaned of psychic fungus, and the zombies in the basement dealt with.

The School

Whether it’s Backrazor’s School of Berserking and Skulldudgery, the Starknight Academy, Eerie Indiana’s Stranger High School, or Miskatonic University, the idea behind the School setup is that all the PCs are students of the school, and that is what’s going to get them into the adventure.

If the school is training people to BE adventurers, or something similar (military academy, space knight squire class, witches and wizards community college, whatever), it’s easy to see how both minor adventures may be part of the standard class and exam methodology and lead to bigger adventures. For schools with less esoteric curriculum, adventure may come in the form of a locational threat (your school just happens to be at the center of the zombie apocalypse, or the hellmouth, or where the aliens land, or where the Queen of Love and Thorns sets up her fallback command post), or the secret headquarters of an Organization, or again as the home of a Patron.

School can also be easily blended with other setups. If the PCs are all AbHumans with superpowers, learning how to control those abilities at the Kenson Academy while participating as members of the Young Crystal Knights hero team, the academy is obviously also part of an Organization, and may even have a Patron in the form of Professor Kenson. If the school is ground zero for the Dragon Invasion, then being there put the PCs in the Wrong Place, Wrong Time.

One way to subvert this setup is to make the “school” something very different from a big building on a formal campus. Perhaps all young nobles of the realm must spend one full year with a touring knight-magistrate, learning about their lands and its problems. Maybe there is a specific starship for training cadets, and easing them into their final roles and duties. You could have a French Foreign Legion-like group that operated airships with sign-on-mercenaries (no experience needed) to patrol the Diesel Mountains, facing off against Sky Pirates, Wand-Runners, and Panzerdemons.

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Random Idea Generation Methods. 1. The Reverse and Twist

Sometimes, I just need an idea to play with. I may need a starting point for a new project, or some color and side-thoughts for a bigger ongoing work. Often I just generate new random ideas as a palate-cleanser when I need a break from something I am grinding on. Other times I want to throw ideas out to other people, either for fun or to jump-start their creative processes.

Now if I am lucky, a random idea just comes to me when I need it. Or, if one comes when I don’t need it, I can jot it down with just enough detail to come pick it back up later.

But more often than not, i have to generate an idea, and when i have to come up with dozens at a time, I have verious methods I use to do that. Here’s one”

Reverse/Twist The Starting Point

This is one of my favorites, and it’s a good way to use inspiration without turning everything into a pastiche (or rip-off). The basic idea is to take the core premise of an existing setting or story you like, and make a major change to it. Then, you follow the permutations of your new set-up.

For example, take Moby Dick. It’s a captain’s obsession with getting revenge on a whale. It’s compelling, but it’s also been done and redone hundreds of times. So, what if we reverse a number of elements.

Our Captain is still a whale hunter, but he has not a care in the world. The Red Demon, which may or may not be a whale but is certainly a sea creature, seeks to destroy the captain as revenge for the captain slaying the Demon’s mother. We still have stories of obsession and revenge, but now our focal human point is ignoring the risks, his arrogance convincing him that even if the Red Demon is real, it’s a brute animal, and he has all the advantages of human civilization and intellect to overcome it if it ever finds him.

Now, the inspiration for that idea are pretty clear. That’s fine–the starting place of a story, setting, or even writing prompt is only a small part of the work of making something. But once you have that nugget, you can twist and add/alter as you see fit. Instead of a whale-hunting captain hunting you could have a famous ivory poacher, clearly a villain and an up-and-coming local warlord–who does worry about human threats (and perhaps kidnaps a journalist to tell “his side” of his story, giving us our narrator), but ignores local legends of a Red Demon elephant out to get him, even when other poachers are slain by it.

The further we get from the trappings of the original idea, the more our end product will be clearly its own thing.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 3. Bad Words

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about doing research on words and terms you want to use in a game manuscript. I have sent variations on this same letter to numerous freelancers as part of their feedback, as it has come up surprisingly often.

(As an aside, it has come up so often I have considered making it part of a “packet” of advice I send to all freelancers I contract. The reasons I haven’t yet is twofold. First, while it comes up “often,” in the grand scheme of things that’s less than 1-in-10 assignments. Second, the more stuff I ask ALL freelancers to read, the more burden I am putting on then and the more likely it is they’ll skip some of it. Since 90% of the time freelancers don’t need this advice, it hasn’t ever actually made the cut for me to consider it crucial to ask everyone to read every time they work for me. So, instead, it goes here where people can check it out if they want to, and I can easily point to it if needed.)

Also, I want to say that when I refer to “bad words” in the title, I don’t mean morally repugnant words. I mean bad word choices, often for reasons we don’t realize, which is the entire point of this letter.

So, here’s the letter, taken from one specific example.

“On another matter, I want to recommend you get in the habit of doing an internet search every time you create a new word, or borrow a word from another language (even just archaic versions of existing languages) to use in your manuscript.

It turns out, a surprising percentage of the time “new” words are identical to existing words that have meanings and context very different from what we want be associated with the concept we are trying to name. Sometimes, we even run into trademarked terms that were created in various industries using the same sources of inspiration that lead to our “new” words.

Another risk is finding a term in a specific context and not checking to see if it has a broader or more common meaning that is very, very different. To wit, I see you used the term “Kanchō” as a classification of ninja spy. And, sure enough, if I go looking for “types of ninja” or similar online searches, the Kanchō-as-spy turns up fairly often.

However:

If I just do a search for the term “Kanchō,” by FAR the more common meaning is a highly inappropriate form of “goosing” common as an East Asian children’s ‘prank.’ And then, after that meaning, it’s used as the medical term for an enema in Japan. Neither of those conveys the implications we want for a ninja spy, and sources that use the word for a kind of ninja don’t generally warn of its more common meanings.

Also, I recommend you keep a “clean” browser for such searches, by which I mean one that hasn’t been tied to your search history and involves an algorithm trying to give you the results you most want to see. Sometimes Google is too good at guessing that I am doing research for game content, and skews its results towards those sources, rather than give me the most common meanings and context.

So in my experience, it’s best practices to carry out a search for any term or word you think up, or borrow from other languages or dialects. I have also come to consider this a form of due diligence when working outside my home dialect and experience, even if I think the terms I am using are new and fictional.”

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Otherworld: A Mode for Wayward

One of my Shower Projects recently (things I only spend time thinking about while showering, making lunch, and so on) has been what my Modes (pocket parallel worlds that overlap with the “normal” world of the Ecumene may look like in the  Wayward campaign setting I hope to eventually release (as a private individual) for Modern AGE through the AGE Creator’s Alliance.

I’ll want my Modes to be distinct, different, yet feel like they belong in the same sets of stories. Two have already suggested themselves to me.

The first of those is Otherworld, a mode where creatures from various afterlife mythologies (Valkyries, angels, devils, ghosts, and so on) live and interact in a version of the modern world where every town, or every neighborhood in big cities, has a single distinct character. Svanrcroft is tall stone buildings, broad, tree-filled lanes, and massive rock municipal buildings and concert halls; Latssvin is another neighborhood in the same city across the river from Svanrcroft, and is entirely rusting steel, cracked concrete towers, and brutalist sprawls with homes and businesses and offices crammed in with little rhyme or reason.

Each of these distinct neighborhoods is controlled by one afterlife group that serve much like some combination of street gangs, neighborhood watches, local beat cops, organized crime, and community centers. Major otherworld creatures mostly believe they are agents of divine beings, getting their “orders” from what appear to be entirely random sources — the Valkyries of Svanrcroft believe they receive orders from Freyja in the form of messages written on Brísingamen-brand food and drink packages, but to anyone else they just seem to be random, common commercial quotes.

Common citizens of the Otherworld are shades of Ecumene folk who have died, living agelessly in very much the condition they were in shortly before they died (though obviously ways to get better if sick, or younger if old, will be major potential plot drivers for Otherworld adventures featuring shades). The status of shades within Otherworld influences how they are remembered in Ecumene — a great writer whose shade has suffered misfortune and poverty within the Otherworld slowly loses their place of relevance and fame in Ecumene.

When major forces from Otherworld influence Ecumene, they tend to be voices heard by Ecumene commoners, who are driven into zealotry. A single Otherworld creature may be occasionally whispering to dozens of Ecumeners , or be spending vast amounts of time influencing a single person. Those affected are encouraged to perform acts, rituals, or influence world events in Ecumene that grant an Otherworld faction more prestige, power, and territory within Otherworld. Left unchecked, Ecumeners under Otherworld influence become Zealots, and begin to actually be able to bring tiny bits of Otherworld (and its Mode rules) into corners of Ecumene.

Within Otherworld, heroics are commonplace and easy, spellcasting is hard. This will be handled with some combination of special rules for stunt points — something like, whenever you reference the value of the stunt die (including when you roll doubles and need to determine the number of stunt points you get) you use the highest value die of your roll, rather than the stunt die–and special hindrances for spellcasting.

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Hero’s Call

Twelve robed figures stood in circle facing each other, in the center of a large room. A plastic trash can sat in the middle of them, though there was no sign it had ever been dirty. Twelve sword hilts jutted from its open top. The room’s décor was that of an ancient temple, with altars, columns, and long tapestries, with no hint that it lay on the third floor of a building in Tacoma.

Though if one was to examine that old brick building, you would see it’s three floors were marked, in order, “Discount Jeans” at the bottom, “Air Force Surplus” on the second, and “Knights of Damon” on the top, each in peeling white paint.

One of robed figures stepped forward, toward the center of the circle.

“It is exposed. Its work is now threatened. Forces will move to destroy it, and break the Seal it keeps.” The figure’s voice was deep but quiet, as though all the wind had long since left it.

A second pf the twelve stepped back, away from the circle.

“The Purpose is old. Our reach has shortened, and no long includes the heights of rulership. The Seal may never have truly existed.” This one’s voice is strong, sharp, and full of barely-constrained energy.

A third figure stepped forward, to stand near the trash can of swords.

“One call for action. One call for restraint. A question for the blades. Now, we draw.”

One by one, each of the other 11 robed figures walked past the trash can, each handed a sheathed sword from within. The handles and sheaths were identical, simple in form with dark red leather and gold-stamped sigils into dark steel. As the gloved hands took the hilts, each sought a small notch found in every hilt. Some grasped the handle notch up, and others with the notch down.

When 11 figures had all walked past, the last one by the trash can took the last sword and returned to his original position in the circle. A heartbeat later, all twelve pulled their swords halfway out of their sheathes. Each revealed a bright, single-edged steel blade. Seven of the blades were held edge up, and five edge down.

The first voice spoke.

“We have accepted a call to action. Who, among us, shall leave FortressHall and undertake this quest?”

All twelve drew their swords completely. Eleven of the blades were identical, but one had a single golden mark of an eye just short of the blade’s tip.

The figure holding the eye-marked blade held it up slowly, turning it so all could see. The blade wielder took a deep breath, and spoke with a clear voice of high timbre.

“Welllll, shit.”

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On Sticking To Word Counts

So, here is one of the very few things I ever told a room full of freelancers, that made one of them cry. (I felt terrible, btw).

“A note to freelancers, writing for print books. If I contract you for 10,150 words, and you give me 11,800, you are *not* doing me a favor. You are instead forcing me to figure out which 1,650 words to cut. Print books only have so much room, and while going over by 1%-3% isn’t a major issue (though I’ll love you more if you don’t), exceeding your word-count by 10% or more is creating a lot more work for me.

Don’t under-write by more than 1%-3% either!

Now for pdfs and blog entries, things are significantly more lax. But print products have finite space, and your writing has to fit in that space and look good.”

Apparently, one freelancer in the room had been told by a different developer, working for a different company, that overwriting by 10-20% was “always” good.

And there ARE things I contract extra words for. Mostly, crunchy, rules-heavy things with lots of chances to get it wrong. If I know I want 3,000 words of new spells of feats or specializations in a book, I often contract (and pay for) 4,250-or-so words, so I can cut needless extra verbiage and entire bad ideas (or badly executed ideas), and still have what I need.

But mostly? This is yet another way it’s important for freelancers to ask their contractors what is preferred, and have a high level of communication.

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Putting the Use of Critical Hit/Fumble Decks in Player’s Hands

Lots of game systems have Critical Hit and Critical Fumble decks. Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder are two well-known examples (and, full disclosure, I wrote the ones for Starfinder).

Many groups find them hysterical, chaotic fun, Others find them hateful, swingy, and absolutely no fun at all.

But what if the PLAYERS got to decide when they came into play? That introduces the rules and their funny, unexpected effects into a game, but doesn’t force them on anyone who doesn’t want to deal with them.

Here’s a simple set of example rules for doing that.

When an attack against a PC is a success, the player can earn one Crit Point by deciding the attack draws from the Critical Hit Deck.

When an attack by a PC is a failure , the player can earn one Crit Point by deciding the attack draws from the Critical Failure Deck.

When an attack by PC is a success, the player can spend two Crit Points to cause the attack to draw from the Critical Hit Deck. If the player has 3 or more Crit Points, they can spend additional Crit Points before any cards are drawn to increase the number of cards they draw on a 1-1 basis (spending 4 extra Crit Points means you draw 4 extra Critical Hit cards). You select one Critical hit effect from one drawn card to apply to the attack.

(As an alternate rule, you can also allow a player to earn Crit Points when they use these rules, by having GM draw 3 critical hit cards for an attack against the PC, or by drawing 3 Critical Failure cards for an attack made by the PC).

All Crit Points are reset to 0 at the end of each game session.

The reason a PC has to suffer more card effects than they get to inflict is that players can be quite cunning about timing and resources, accepting critical hits and critical failures that go against them when they can afford the hit and saving up the Crit Points to turn the tides when they need it. However, by making it a 2-1 ratio, and not letting players save points between games, this tactical use of the rules is balanced out.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Publisher. 1. New RPG Marketing Consultation

This post is part of the “Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer” line of articles, but in this case it’s taken from a consultation I was asked for from an RPG creator/publisher. The publisher kindly gave permission for me to use their question and my advice for this blog post (though a few details have been redacted). Since I did have to edit some of the info the publisher gave me that lead to the response posted below, keep in mind that this advice is for a specific publisher in a specific situation. I think it’s still fair advice, but it’s just one example of many ways you can try to build and market a new ttRPG line, and assumes you want to have multiple games using the same core mechanic, which is certainly not the case for every publisher and every game.

Here’s a paraphrased version of what I was asked:

I have created a new ttRPG system I am going to market and publish. It has a single, simple game mechanic that can be easily adapted to multiple genres and game themes. I figure a zine-sized book would be the best way to do it, since it’s VERY rules-light.

My question is, is it better these days to release it as a little book that has all the rules and tips for running various multiple genres with this system, or is it better to break it up into “the pastoral zine” “the horror zine” “the superhero zine”?

Here’s a cleaned-up version of my answer.

First, name the system. I specifically mean name the game engine itself, separate from any genre or setting-plus- rules-modifications for a specific theme. The “Chat RPG System,” or something like that. (I’m making names up as I go here, both for the specific game and various potential releases, but feel free to come up with better titles.)

Have the base, core rules written up so you can adapt and build off that core as needed.

Then for your first release, make it a super-tight setting Zine. “Pastoral Adventures, an RPG about Quiet Little Emergencies.” But mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.” It’s important here to pick a genre, theme, and style of game the Chat RPG system handles really well. Preferably something that plays off your rules-light system, and that is a good tonal math for how your core mechanic works.

Then see what feedback you get, what additional genres people ask for, and so on. If you find the Chat RPG system needs some core improvements, make those in your core rules documentation.

Then make your second ttRPG release. If people really seemed to want to add more grit and horror to “Pastoral Adventures,” and it’s a good fit, perhaps you put out “Shrieks in the Night, an RPG about Stories with Bloody Endings.” And also mark IT as “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

Keep track, for your own use, how these use the Chat system differently.

Again, look to feedback and make any adjustments to the Core Chat you need to. See if support products for “Patroal Adventures” and “Shrieks in the Night” are popular.

Then you go with a third new “Powered by Chat” game. Perhaps “Patrols and Brooding, an RPG about Street level Heroes,” and, yep, mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

At that point, you can see if “Core Chat” has any fans asking for it, or it there is a community interested in other genres, themes, and ways to modify the Chat system. If so, you can release a “Chat CORE” book that brings all the rules together, and maybe expands on them and offers new genre tweaks. This is a particularly good place to support less popular, more esoteric genres, presenting them as examples of how you can use Chat CORE to make homebrew setting games. There may not be a general appetite for “TERMITE, Eat the Stats Quo,” a game about equality-minded insect colonies attacking the rotting elements of a tyrannical society’s buildings, but if you use it as a way to show how organization rules, toxic environment rules, and big project rules work with Chat CORE, you can both present a new, quirky setting and have a useful example of how to use Chat CORE to build settings that no publisher is likely to produce.

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Appendix O: The Ladies’ Sewing Circle

This is a group I have put in a few ttRPG homebrewed worlds, brought forth from the old files of my hardrive.

The Ladies’ Sewing Circle is, on the surface, simply a regular gathering for women of different backgrounds and social classes to get together and sew. Officially, the purpose is to trade sewing tips and tricks, and perhaps combine efforts on larger projects, and the cross-class nature of the circle is promoted as a way to ensure the important skill of sewing is not allowed to degrade within a culture, and to act as a back-channel for issues to be shared from member to member. Usually any woman of good standing may attend, picking up sewing skills if she doesn’t already have them, and gatherings are hosted by senior members. Where those members have space under their control, such as a dressmaker with a shop or a lady with a manor she can use, the meetings are private. In other cases, they occur in public meadows, or the town square, or a barn borrowed from a farmer in return for one new quilt a year.

But beyond that official and public purpose, the Ladies’ Sewing Circle is actually a powerful equalizing force with society. The senior and full members can communicate through stitch-speech and sewing patterns kept secret for generations, allowing them to talk secretly while in full view. And when the Sewing Circle comes to a consensus that an issue would be solved by someone dying, that person is assassinated.

Most Sewing Circles have a few different assassins working for them. Often these are members of he Circle itself, with a few women usually trained in slitting throats and choking foes, as well as stealthcraft. Less commonly, the Sewing Circle may outsource their killing, generally to a trusted ally (sons, daughters, brothers, aunts, and uncles of members are all common choices) who may have had their assassin training and gear paid for my the Circle. In cultures where some specific method is seen as a woman’s way to kill (such as poison, summoning magic, or archery), that method is least-used by the Circle just to ensure suspicion doesn’t fall on other women inappropriately.

Most Sewing Circles keep their assassination rate quite low, less than one per year, though in more dangerous or higher-population areas they may well feel comfortable doing more. When extrajudicial killing is not needed, their resources turn toward spying, exposing secrets detrimental to the public good, and information gathering. Since each ladies’ Sewing Circle is self-government, their methods can vary wildly. Some never resort to assassination, depending on rational discourse and gentle cultural pressure to achieve their ends. Others prefer to used late-night warning visits to push public figures towards more desirable behavior. Others ruthlessly kill, and main and steal, as needed to carry out their goals.

In all cases, the Sewing Circle is publicly well-insolated from all its actions. It’s commonly known that the members talk among themselves, and thus their opinions are spread to multiple households. Wise local authority figures see a Circle as a place to make announcements and receive feedback, even without any inkling that the members may be actively engaged in shadow actions. But any hint that a Sewing Circle is some kind of politically active group that has resources beyond needle and thread is considered laughable.

It’s important to note that this concept can be applied to any group that isn’t normally already gathering to make law and enforce their will, and have some excuse to do so that the powerful members of the culture approve of. In an absolute monarchy, you could have the Noble’s Hunting Lodge, where nobles gather to arrange hunts and other entertainments for the Royal’s amusement. In a rigidly hierarchal church you could have the Incensor’s Affiliation, where the lowest-ranked acolytes discuss incense-management and cleaning. In a totalitarian nation you might have the Rulekeepers, common folk who specifically get together to go over how the government wants them to behave. In High School you might have the Extra Study Club, where students gather to tutor one another in a display of self-motivation.

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