Author Archives: okcstephens

Two More Off-The-Cuff Campaign Ideas

I didn’t expect to write more of these… but I guess that’s what makes them off-the-cuff. I envision both of these as likely Starfinder campaigns, but you could mold them to work however you like.

Armageddon Helix: While there are numerous theories about its creation, no one is sure what caused the Armageddon Helix, a 525-mile wide strip of alternate reality running in a spiral from pole to pole of the Earth. Within the Helix, technology became unpredictable, magic and psychic powers bloomed, monsters arose, aline ruins and mythic buildings burst up from the land itself, and destruction was wrought. Magic does not function outside the Helix, but many strange technologies do. However, those technologies require materials that only exist within the Helix.
Those within the Helix changed as well, becoming unable to survive outside of it, and becoming ill if the come within a few miles of its edge. Similarly, those from outside the Helix cannot live near or survive within the Helix. Of course, this makes travel much more difficult–going from Seattle to Boise is simple enough, as they are within the same Safeland strip, but the center of the country is within the Helix, and travel to the East coast requires travel up to the north pole, around the end of the Helix, and back down toward North America.
The exception to this are extremely rare Apocalypse Riders, 0.01% of the population who can move freely between the Safeland and the Apocalypse Helix. Apocalypse Riders are heavily recruited, to take emergency supplies and news into the Helix, to bring valuable HelixTech materials out, to hunt down criminal riders who operate on the borer where few can seek them out, and to explore ever-changing Helix Ruins in the hopes of understanding what brought about the Helix, and if it can be reversed or controlled. Between missions, Apocalypse Riders can live in relative comfort in the Safelands, going to restaurants, seeing movies, and sleeping in soft beds. But within the Helix, danger lurks around every corner.

Gjallarbrú Guard: There are many names for the river that separates the lands of the living from the lands of the dead. Regardless of its name, that river is crossed by an infinite number of massive bridges, each bridge a city wherein the work of the afterlife is carried out. One of these is Gjallarbrú, the Golden Hall.
Souls dwell here. Mostly those who expect to reach a Norse afterlife, but others two. Some know how they got here. Many don’t. A few don’t even believe they are dead.
In most cases, those souls eventually move on. Once they pay their obolgild, or finish their limbo-punishment, or clear up some paperwork. Some don’t ever go on to the afterlife. Others can’t. And a lot just need to work to earn the obolgild to do so… or steal it.
There are rules, too. Cosmic, immutable laws. And fiends and elder alien reality-warpers and astrally projected living necromancers and sleepwalking psychics and Miskatonic university professors keep stirring up trouble. And sometimes, a dead soul even gets killed.
You are one of the souls that can’t, or won’t, move on. And you are part of the city Guard. It’s your job to keep the peace. The Peace of the Already Dead.
Sometimes Guards come from Chinvat, the bridge-city upstream from Gjallarbrú, chasing escapees who floated down the Infinite River. Less often someone must go downriver to Hardos, the broken bridge city, for similar reasons. Rumors claim that Guards are sometimes sent more than one bridge away up or down the river, but if that’s true, you’ve never spoken to such people.

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Genre Conventions as Game Rules

Years ago when I ran an RPG campaign called “the Masked Alliance,” (an alternate-history pulp masked-men campaign set in the 1930s on the cusp of the arrival of true powered superheroes), I borrowed from a lot of different game systems to create Detective! as a feat. (The core system was a no-Jedi Star Wars Saga kludge).

With Detective!, if you made an investigation check the worst result you could be stuck with was to figure out a location of another encounter that would give you more clues. No matter how badly you rolled, you got that at minimum.

So, if you rolled well, you might figure the whole thing out, and know where the main encounter was that would end that part of the plot. “This isn’t a typical stain. This is a splatter of Falernian wine, also known as “Cult Wine.” No one makes this anymore, except members of the Pantheon crime family. The pottery shards are new, made from clay available to the north of the city. A movie producer with suspected mob ties built a huge Greek temple out there he claimed was for an upcoming movie, but clearly it’s a Pantheon front. That’s where we’ll find the hostages.”

If you rolled badly, you at least figured out enough to get to another encounter (possibly just with thugs – masked pulp heroes do well with thugs).

“This is ‘Old Meadow” tobacco, which isn’t sold here. There’s only one importer in 200 miles that handles it, and they went out of business last month. They DO have a warehouse in receivership down on the docks… “

Only one player took that feat, for the Great Detective Vigilante character, but all the players loved it. The plot always moved forward, and no one complained if I had to come up with another colorful pulp-era encounter on the fly.

Last last bit it the rub, of course. Since I was kitbashing a game and I am comfortable with extemporaneous creation of new ttRPG scenes for my players, I was okay creating a system that depended on me being able to do that at the drop of a hat. But it does put a lot more work on the GM, and in a polished, professional release of the same idea I would feel the need to have a lot more guidance on how to do that (likely with tons of examples).

But it worked well in the game I used it, and it continues to be a thing I keep in the back of my mind.

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Five Off-the-Cuff ttRPG Campaign Ideas

So, when I am making off-the-cuff descriptions of ttRPG ideas or campaigns to make a point, if I don’t just go with halfling battle-bakers, I usually throw together random elements as they come into my head, and just run with them without giving them any serious consideration.
And, to be honest, those ideas (from royal families of were-rats who now rule their empire from gilded sewers to campaigns set in the dying husk of the World Tree) tend to be pretty popular. Once my self-censor is off, sometimes good stuff comes.
So, here are five off-the-cuff campaign ideas I have done no prep or pre=-planning for. They may all suck… or one or two might spark a good idea for other people. 🙂

Recruits of Heroes’ Hall: Valgard is the Heroes’ Hall, the ultimate interdimensional base of operations for the Valorous Guard, the mythic and legendary champions of all reality.
Sadly, they are all dead. The Heroes’ Beacon, which lights up when societies throughout the multiverse need help, now goes unanswered.
But Valgard ITSELF is a living, thinking thing. And it wants new heroes. It does not care about their power level, or plane of origin. It’s going to select those it believes have the potential to be legendary, and bring them into itself.
Participation is not optional.
And after all, if you die, Valgard just brings you back to life… sometimes during the same fight.

Celestial Racers: The lights in the sky actually are the shining wheels of celestial chariots. They also control the destiny of mortals. So teams of worshipers are selected to compete in Celestial Races, with winners forming constellations that benefit their patron deity.

Sigils: Sigils are ancient marks of conceptual power which select those psychologically aligned to them. Being of a compatible sigils is more important than family, or ancestry, or culture. Most sigilkin have a minor, cantriplike power to call upon. But the great Sigil Scions can change the world, and those champions are empowered with energies far beyond their class or training.

Inkbound: New spells aren’t researched. Magic is not some academic pursuit you can master through study. No, new spells only occur when written ideas are exposed to enough danger, destiny, disease, and damnation that it becomes infused with eldritch meaning, and forms into a new, unique spell. Powerful wizards thus employ the poor, desperate, and criminally sentenced to become Inkbound, people with bodies covered in mystic symbol tattoos who are sent through the most horrific and dangerous quests imaginable, some specifically created to push Inkbound to the point where spells begin to manifest on their skin.

Boldly: The Crescent is a fragment of an ancient, galaxy-spanning civilization. Hundreds of miles long, it is a surviving part of a Dyson sphere that once held billions of civilizations. But now no one can control it. It has food, water, can sustain life at differing gravities and atmospheres effortlessly, and no one knows how. It also heals those on it so instantly injury or death are impossible, and teleports at random from civilized world to civilized world, with a huge digital hourglass telling all on it how long until it transits again… anywhere from an hour to a month.
Once you get on the Crescent you may live forever and see the galaxy… but chances are you can’t even find your way home.

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Ablative for Pathfinder 1st edition

Ablative is a creature ability you can add to monsters to make them shrink as they take damage. It’s designed for use with elementals, constructs, and slimes, but could apply to other creatures as well. If applies to creatures that primarily do weapons or natural weapon damage, it’s reduced damage output heavily counters its increased AC and accuracy. For creatures that use offenses not modified by the reduced size, it generally becomes more dangerous as it’s injured.

When an ablative creature has lost 1/3 or more of its HP, it becomes one size smaller until its HP total is healed to be over that threshold. This otherwise functions as reduce person.

When an ablative creature has lost 2/3 or more of its HP, it becomes one size smaller until its HP total is healed to be over that threshold. This also otherwise functions as reduce person, with the modifiers stacking with the first application.

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A White Cis Hetero Male’s Current Comprehension

This is a post about racism, a topic on which I am absolutely not an expert. I present my comprehension of one element of it not to educate others, or moralize, or defend. I present it because it’s where I am, and I know my current position is fallible, incomplete, and in need of constant work on my part to evolve.

This is not my original idea. This is an idea that has come from my efforts to understand, through listening and study, to the voices and experiences of others. Any failure to understand the words and teaching lies with me, not them. I want to specifically credit the writing of by Ibram X. Kendi (Author), especially his book How to Be an Antiracist and the ongoing efforts of Tonya DePass and I Need Diverse Games. I recommend reading their words and listening to their voices (as a starting point, not as a one-stop center to learn all you need to know and be forgiven any other work educating yourself).

Here’s my current comprehension of this one idea:

Simply not being racist is not good enough.

We must choose to be antiracist.

As a result, things which go from being antiracist to just status quo are subject to criticism for doing do, even if they didn’t become actively racist.

Actions that nonmarginalized groups or systems take against other nonmarginalized people or groups can have a different impact when taken against marginalized people and groups. Claiming otherwise is naïve at best, often disingenuous, and sometimes actively racist.

The problems are systemic. Just not making them significantly worse cannot be the acceptable bar.

I’m going to screw this up sometimes. When I learn I have done so, I will try to take steps to be better, and do better.

The Public Does Not Owe You Private Criticism

We live in an age where it is extremely easy for critics, commentators, pundits, customers, and fans to express their analyses and opinions on game products and announcements/ads for game products that have been presented to the public (and anything ever presented in public, really, but here I am sticking to one topic to make a specific point) very, very publicly.

And, for good or ill, if those analyses and opinions pick up interest from others with likes, comments, and shares, they can go viral. Often, by the time a game professional is aware of some statement about a project they worked on or are tied to, it’s already been seen by hundreds or thousands of other people.

When those statements are critical, perhaps especially when those criticisms are valid and strongly negative, boosters of the project will often complain that there was “no need” to make “such a big deal,” out of the criticisms. One common refrain is that any complaints could be initially handled in private communications to the publisher or creator in question.

And of course, such things could start that way, that’s obvious. By even mentioning it, boosters are pushing the narrative that such criticism should start that way, and not doing so is somehow inappropriate.

And that’s B.S.

Such suggestions of different ways a thing could be handled also often claim the “only reason” criticisms are done in public is to “drive views,” or gain attention.

And even when true, that’s completely irrelevant.

Once a product, or an ad/announcement for a product, has been released to the public, the public has no responsibility to restrict their negative reactions to private communications, even as a first response. Nor should their be any expectation or suggestion that the public will do so. A game or announcement for a game is put out into the public eye specifically to garner a reaction. If a company is at a stage where positive reviews and critiques of an item are appropriate in a broad forum, then so are negative ones.

It is, of course, possible for there to specific specific people who WANT to begin criticisms privately, and that’s fine. If I have a relationship with a publisher or creator and I think they have, or are about to, make a big mistake I will often contact them privately and say why. Coming from another direction, someone who does not want fans of a game line to harass them may well seek less-public ways to send feedback to a publisher just so they aren’t the target for harassment. Further, if I was involved with a project, I may have some ethical desire to initially express my concerns about it in private even once the material in question is public.

And, yes, there ARE ways to respond to publicly released material that are themselves open to criticism. I’m not talking about the content of critiques, but the venue for them. Though it’s worth noting that even accusations of a response being made in bad faith — vicious ad hominem attacks, intentional falsehoods, and similar things — even that needs to be considered with an analytical eye. While there absolutely are bad actors who will make up objections to try to take down game creators and game projects they dislike, there are at least as many bad actors who will claim legitimate criticisms are actually vile attacks because they dislike the criticism.

My key point here is, the public doesn’t owe any game or game creator the privilege of a private preview of their critique of a public release. Once a creator releases an ad, statement, or game into the public eye, they are inviting response to that release.

Even the responses they don’t like.

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Rosie’s Rifles, Part II

“When you are the storyteller, you get to decide what the story is.”

I’ve been working on miniatures for Rosie’s Rebels, a super-powered military team for my Diesel Pulp ’40 hobby setting, for a long time. I rarely have much time for it currently, but my roommate built a Bren universal carrier model of mine, which let me wrap up a long-stalled project, the automatons Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale to accompany Bolt Buster.

Below are Eight-Ball and Gibson (who you can read about here), along with Medusa, Stheno, Euryale, and Bolt Buster (who have write-ups below).

Still need to be painted, obviously.

(Members of Rosie’s Rebels, L to R: Eight Ball, Gibson, Stheno, Medusa, Bolt Buster, and Euryale)

Bolt Buster: Prior to volunteering for the Homestead Observation Program Executive, Bolt Buster was a moonshiner, tractor-repair woman, and torch singer who worked the Appalachian Mountain resort circuit. Her exposure to mateirals as part of H.O.P.E.’s experimentation resulted in gaining the ability to comprehend mechanical and electronic functions (but not, for example, chemical) by hearing sounds echo off such devices. This allowed her to become a genius-level inventor and engineer. When in a hurry, she often began fixing things by hitting them with a wrench to hear what was wrong with them.

Early in deployment, Rosie’s Rifles picked up three 1st-generation R.U.R. automatons, MDA, 13O, UR-AIL, and worked with them for some months. When the automatons were destroyed, Bolt Buster was determined to rebuild them, despite the fact no one had ever successfully restarting a failed R.U.R. cognition core. She succeeded… but the automatons were incapable of speech, and could no longer achieve the coordination needed for bipedal locomotion or coordinate hands (though MDA could operate a single “off” hand). Bolt Buster built them new, smaller, bodies, and they became a core part of the Rosies’ section until the end of the war. In their new forms the automatons selected new names — Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale.

It was often debated whether Cast-Iron or Bolt Buster was a greater genius and inventor, and Cast-Iron’s inventions where clearly more advanced (but no one but her could ever make them work), while the vast majority of Bolt Buster’s much more mundane, but replicable. The two women felt no need to participate in such debates, and were good friends who often collaborated.

Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale: The only R.U.R. cognition cores to ever be restarted from total failure and remain stable, the automatons originally designated MDA, 13O, UR-AIL nonetheless underwent significant personality changes. Medusa was the only one of the 3 still able to operate even 1 hand, and was the most aggressive of the 3, generally taking charge when they made decisions without one of the Rebels present. Medusa was also able to easily adapt to different weapons in her Dexter gun mount, though she generally carried a M1919 Browning 30 cal. Stheno was built into a gun carrier to serve as its driver and gunner, and often served as the Rebel’s primary portage unit and fall back position. She had a Browning M2 .50 cal mounted forward, and a M25a 105mm recoilless rifle that could be fired by her, or swung down on it’s mounting arm to be fired by adjacent infantry (which tended to be significantly more accurate, but required Stheno to be stationary). Euryale was fixed in a single form, unable to adjust to new weapons (equipped with two custom .45 Thompson submachine guns), but was by far the fastest of the three, able to move up to 45 mph, even in rough terrain.

(Stheno’s Dexter side, with close up on her external lockbox where many Rebels kept extra gear)
(Stheno’s Sinister side, showing detail of the recoilless rifle’s swing-mount. Also closer views of Medusa, Bolt Buster (about to snack something or someone with a wrench), and Euryale.

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TTRPG Events in the News

So, full disclosure, I like most of the people who run and work for Legendary games. I have worked for them myself, and still make money on some of that work.

And this is not an editorial. This is news, and some context that has come to my attention. My opinion on the core of this matter really isn’t relevant.

Legendary recently announced the Asian Spell Companion. Again, my opinion of that book does not matter. So, let me direct you to someone else’s voice on the subject — Daniel Kwan, an accomplished and skilled game industry professional. I happen to agree with him, but my agreement isn’t the important thing here.

Today, Legendary posted their response to the entirely-reasonable reaction to this product. You can read it here. But even beyond that statement, there’s something Legendary’s Jason Eric Nelson noted in a comment on my own Facebook page when someone asked him “Are the products culturally insensitive or were they designed to be a positive portrayal of Asian cultures?”

His response is worth highlighting and, with his permission, I now add here.

“Intent matters less than impact. They weren’t designed with any ill intent. But that doesn’t mean they can’t create negative impact, especially for Asian gamers.”

I agree with Jason on that.

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Of course Daniel H. Kwan also has a Patreon, and I strongly encourage you to support him as well.

Two Specific Options for Data Flow in Tabletop RPGs

In a tabletop RPG, it can be important to find good ways to keep information flowing between GM and players. No one set of best practices is going to work for every game and every group, but there are two data management ideas that have worked well in ttRPGs I play, in numerous different game systems and with lots of different groups.

“On Deck”
For games with an initiative system that puts character and NPC actions in an order, in addition to telling players it is their turn, it can be useful to tell them that their turn is the next one AFTER the current turn. My friend Carl began telling people they were “On Deck,” meaning next-to-launch, after saying who goes right now. That means when he says “John it’s your turn; Owen, you’re on deck” I know my turn is coming up, and I should be ready to take it. It also tells me that the situation is only going to change by one player’s actions, so I can make some educated guesses about what it’ll be like when my turn comes.

“Bloodied”
Borrowing a concept from a game I’m not playing anymore, Bloodied is a condition where a character is halfway to dead or unconscious (depending on the game system we apply it to). Especially in games where tactical play can be crucial and healing during a fight is an option, players often want to know who is injured, and who isn’t. For nearly all the games I currently play, a simple system has been established where you can tell if a given character is uninjured (no damage on them), injured (some damage, but not bloodied), or bloodied (halfway to defeated). Generally players can learn which of those states a target is in without needing to make a skill check of some kind, and when using miniatures we can mark creatures that are bloodied with a magnet or plastic ring. This prevents the game from bogging down as players ask about everyone in an encounter, and allows for quick estimations of who is in one condition.

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Tabletop Reality Show Pitches

Shows that focus on watching other people play games are a growing category of popular entertainment. Reality shows are already a huge hit. Surely it’s only a matter of time before we start getting tabletop game reality shows! Here are my top ten pitches, in no particular order. (I am available to exchange ideas and expertise for producer credits. 😛 )

10. Game Night Takeover: A home group with a game night that isn’t as fun as it used to be has a group of game experts come in and change how they play. The experts look at ergonomics, home rules, lighting, scheduling, personal interactions, and even run a game night for the group themselves, to show how their proposed changes make things better.

9. Sideboard: Follows professional trading card gameplayers during one season of competition. Discusses tactics, buying expensive cards, highlights rivalries among them, touches on various controversies, and includes sextions explaining gameplay.

8. Dungeon Survivor: Contestants make ttRPG characters before the show, picking the genre, concept, and game system of their preference but with no input on what kinds of games they’ll be playing. They then live together in austere conditions, playing their characters in a series of adventures run by professional GMs, with each player’s character interacting with the game within their own ruleset. Success within the game earns all contestants quality of life improvements in their living conditions. One player is voted out of the show every week by all the players. In case of a tie, some item gained within the week’s session is revealed to grant tiebreaker powers. When there are just 3 players left, all removed contestants gather to vote for one of them a the winner, who gains a financial prize.

7. Pawns Shop
People bring in old games they think are collectable and valuable, and experts from the industry and game shops break their hearts while teaching a little about the history of each game.

6. The Dice
Four professional game designers hear elevator pitches for new games from newbie designers, without getting to know anything about the new designers. Each pro then selects a team of newbies to assist throughout the season in completing their games, which are playtested by other teams.

5. Iron GM
GMs are given a series of mystery theme elements, and they have an hour to craft them into an adventure for experienced players. I mean, come on. It’s right there, ready for TV.

4. All Alone
Ten constants are put in apartments with no access to streaming services, internet, phones, television or Zoom. They get food and necessity deliveries, but can never leave or talk to anyone. Each can bring 10 game projects they mean to get done into the apartment when they start — campaigns to plan, miniature armies to paint, and so on. Their lives are broadcast to anyone who wants to watch. otherwise it’s just 2020 pandemic quarantine, as entertainment.

3. The Gamemaster
A Gamemaster with a reliable schedule, mastery of the game system everyone wants to play, complete but flexible campaign notes, great place to run games, and a game room with plenty of seating, tablespace, and light, begins with a pool of prospective players. Each week, the GM and players engage in group and single activities, such as watching movies, playing video- and boardgames, and discussing house-rules. The GM then asks all but one of the prospective players to stay by giving them a d20 in a Die Giving Ceremony. When there are just 4 players left, they then get to play a tabletop rpg.

2. The UnReal World
A group of game players with different backgrounds, experiences, and playstyles all move into the same ginormous apartment suite above a game store. Each day, they play a different tabletop game, drawn from a wide variety of genres, rulesets, eras, and types. If all the players ask one of the members to leave, that member goes. If all the players ask a type of game not be played anymore, it isn’t. The whole thing is filmed 24/7.

1. The Great British Play-Off
Twelve players are brought t the Big Dungeon, where they compete to be named Britain’s Best Role-Player. In a series of challenges, they are given elements that must be worked into ttRPG characters they design. These may include things like making paladins that aren’t annoying, designing back-stories that include a happy childhood and all parents still being alive and beloved, or characters built around unusual specific weapons (such as harmonica guns).

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