Category Archives: Game Design
My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
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The Icosantheon is a host of twenty deities bound not by a common origin, but by a united conservatorship of the immaterium that forms the sides and edges of the material plane.
Garuuhl is also known as the First Lich, the Bringer of Bottled Sorrow, and (especially where his veneration is allowed in major cities) the Preserver and the Fermented One. He is always depicted as a roughly 4-foot tall, lean, humanoid desiccated corpse, with a long, curved nose, bright white points of light for eyes, and durable clothing of resin-impregnated leather. His gauntlets are light gray leather and fingerless, with twisted mithral and adamantine thread at every seam and cuff. Though his throat, chest, and abdomen are normally covered with a leather work-coat, when opened it is revealed that fungus and mushrooms grow in his flesh at these places.
It is believed that this depiction of Garuuhl is so clear and consistent because, unlike most deities, he still visits his temples and shrines from time to time. All these places remain working distilleries, dairies, apothecaries, canneries, and herbalist shops, and the Preserver has been known to come to have some new discovery or process explained to him, or to loan out his gauntlets to a worthy student, or to set a cask or vat to ferment in a cave beneath a dread monastery for a few centuries, or to pluck a fungus from his flesh, and set it to grow in a corpse laying in the yard, and command it be left to grow. None of these events are frequent, but every few decades Garuuhl appears at some place that reveres him.
The First Lich is just that, the first mortal to achieve lichhood. What his species was prior to this is unknown, and it has been suggested he is anything from a shrunken human or elf to the frame or a thin dwarf, to a gnome, goblin or, or halfling. When asked, the god himself just notes he is a lich, and it’s hard to argue with that. While seeking a way to preserve his body forever, Garuuhl invented beer, ale, yogurt, wine, spirits, jam, and cheese.
It has been suggested that in his mad dash to exist forever, Garuuhl invented the things needed for civilization. He has shown uses for the caves beneath the earth, the things that grow in it, fire for cooking and tanning and fermenting, cold for freezing and drying. He is a god of dread and terrible knowledge, but also the wonders it can create.
There is no question that Garuuhl is evil. He cares only for his own researches and discoveries-and safety-and happily sacrifices anyone and anything that slows his desires. But there is also no question that his temples and monasteries are sources of great teaching, knowledge, and, and medicine. While most other gods oppose him (though Karrackar continues to simply try to convince the Fermented One to stop being a deific ass, and Tazoteot doesn’t much care what Garuuhl does as long as he keeps them and their worshipers well-supplied with narcotics as desired), they also accept that his contributions are more beneficial than harmful. But he also demands he be credited as the primary source of any discovery made by him or his followers, and rains horrors down on those who don’t acknowledge him.
From great evil can come knowledge that can be used for good. This neither changes that it was created through evil, nor that it’s main uses may be benevolent.
Even in lands where it is illegal to openly worship Garuuhl, as he is an evil deity, it is sometimes allowed to venerate him. His monasteries and temples sometimes operate openly, staffed not by “priests” but by “cantors” and “curates.” And, in truth, as long as they do his bidding, Garuuhl does not care if those he empowers and protects worship him, or not, though mostly to gain his divine power one must be willing to sacrifice all other entities at his command, which requires at least a non-good alignment.
*Garuuhl is Neutral Evil. He accepts the worship of entities of any alignment, but only non-good creatures can truly worship him. Some alchemists and wizards do venerate him as the source of much knowledge, while at the same time opposign his followers excessive experiments.
*Garuuhl’s colors are red, black, and white.
*His favorite weapon is alchemist’s fire.
*His favored animal is the bee.
*His servitors are alchemical inevitables and fiendish undead.
*His holy symbol is a knot of red fire, black ice, and white hide.
*His areas of concern are preservation, invention, discover, experimentation, and self-important.
*His domains are Death (undead), Earth (caves), Fire (smoke), Magic (alchemy), Plant (decay), and Water (ice).
His priests can take the bombs sect ion of the alchemy feature of alchemists in place of channel energy, and gain appropriate discoveries as feats. Spellcasters and alchemists who venerate, but do not worship him, can learn formulas to duplicate any spell from his granted domains as spells or extracts, but must never destroy or suppress knowledge of his church’s work, regardless of whether they try to stop it.
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Welcome StarBarians! You are the heroic defenders of the world of Barbarth, the most important Science-Fantasy world in the universe! You must oppose Lichlor, the undead technomancer tyrant, and his hoard of villainous themed villains.
StarBarians is a silly, high-action campaign hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.
(All art by the spectacular Jacob Blackmon!)
You are 2nd level. You’re never going to gain any levels until the very last adventure (whenever the GM says that is), when you pop up to 4th and get a new costume! This is a fast and silly game, there’s no need to worry about things like experience points. Or continuity. Or whether your feet are in sync with the rate the ground is going by.
Before racial modifiers, your ability scores are one 18, one 16, one 14, one 12, one 10, and one 8. Alternatively you can have one 20, four 10s, and one 8, or three 14s and three 12s. Assign as desired, but if you have an 18 or 20 in any ability score, no one else should. Be adults, work it out.
You get all the benefits of any one suit of armor of your choice that is 3rd level or less. You aren’t WEARING that armor, of course. You’re a StarBarian! You run around in a fur loincloth or (for some reason) skintight Victorian suit. But you get the benefits. If you want an armor upgrade, pick it as an item below, and just strap it on. It’s fine. Jump jets over fur boots is perfect for StarBarians.
You get ONE item of your choice of 5th level or less. this is your THEMED ITEM. You can never lose it for longer than the duration of 1 fight. It should have a name. Lichlor and his minions will try to steal it periodically, They never succeed. This item can be a suit of armor if you like, in which case you get its benefits instead of your baseline 3rd level armor when you wear it.
You get THREE other items of your choice of 3rd level or less.
You get 9 other items of your choice of 1st level.
If you selected a ranged weapon, its item level is 2 lower. All weapons with usage above 1 never run out of ammo or batteries. All weapons and items with a usage of 1 or that are 1-shot count as 3 items, but are fully restored at the beginning of each game session.
Each game session you can use the StarBarian Power to do two spectacular things (two different things, one each). This is because you have a StarBarian Stone. Lichlor is always trying to steal StarBarian stones. He never succeeds, and you can’t lose yours. Ever.
Starbarian Powers are based on class, can be performed whenever an appropriate roll or even occurs, and take no time.
Treat a failed Int/Wis/Cha skill or ability check as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.
Allow an ally who failed any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 15 on their d20.
Succeed at any one Engineering check
Drone: Allow your drone who failed any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 15 on their d20.
Exocortex: Treat any failed attack roll as if you had rolled a 15 on your d20.
Treat any failed saving throw of yours as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.
Restore yourself or one ally to full health, ending all conditions.
Treat a failed Str/Dec/Con skill or ability check as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.
Force a foe who succeeded on any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 5 on their d20.
Take an extra round of action.
Solar Weapon: Treat any one solar weapon attack that failed as if it had automatically hit and done maximum damage. Apply any critical effect, though don’t double your damage.
Solar Armor: Negate all effects of any one successful attack against you.
Treat any failed attack roll as if you had rolled a natural 20 on your d20.
Replace any one damage roll you make, or that is made against you, with either maximum or minimum damage (your choice)
Force a foe to treat any successful saving throw against an effect of yours as if they had rolled a 5 on their d20.
End any one magic or technological effect with a duration.
Lichlor is a 4th level Technomancer with a +2 bonus to every roll he makes. But he always does minimum damage, and the duration of all his effects is a maximum of 1d4 rounds. No matter how often you defeat him, he always escapes.
His Themed Minions are CR 2 NPCs. They always escape between adventures.
No one ever dies. If you should have died, you are just unconscious.
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This is a very small thing… and yet an important one.
When, as a freelancer, you turn your project over to the contact with the client (be that editor/developer/manager/producer/publisher), make sure you are giving it to them in the format they want.
If they have a style guide, READ AND FOLLOW IT.
If they DON’T have a style guide, ASK how they want it.
For many years, I VERY much preferred writing in WordPerfect, then exporting files as rtf or text, depending on what my client would take.
But over the years, more and more of them specifically wanted .doc, or .docx, or even styled Word documents using specific fonts and styles.
So, I had to give up my Beloved WordPerfect, more than a decade ago.
The vast majority of freelance work I do now is turned over in styled Word docs, as requested by the publisher.
Some publishers HATE styled Word docs. Some need things in google docs. I literally had one ask me to send the material in the body of an email… which would be anathema for everyone else I work for.
So the takeaway here is that it’s very little effort to ask, and it wins you a lot of goodwill to give publishers materials the way they want them.
I’m not saying this is a good version of this idea, or even that this is a good idea.
But it SHOULD be playable…
*There are three colors of pieces, white, black, and red.
*Black and white are both lines up on one side of the board, with the white pieces being the left half of each line, and the black pieces being the right half. There is no queen, instead both black and white have kings.
*Red pieces are set up normally on the opposing side.
*One player runs the white pieces, and one runs the black pieces. They work together, and are considered to be on the same side (for example, their pieces cannot capture one another).
*The red pieces represent the opposition, and their movements are determined randomly.
*White moves first. Then red. Then black. Then red. Repeat this sequence until a king is in checkmate, or normal rules of chess would indicate a draw.
*Number all of the Red pieces, 1-16, starting with the pawn on A7, running right to H7, then moving up to the rook on A8, and running along the back row to H8.
*On Red’s move, move it’s pieces by following these priorities:
1. If its Red’s King is in check, it takes a legal move to capture the piece placing its King in check (if this removes the King from being in check from any piece), block check, or remove the King from check. If multiple such moves are possible, Red prefers capturing a checking piece, then moving the King out of check, then using another piece or block the King. If multiple such moves exist determines which move it makes randomly.
2. If Priority 1 move does not occur, and a Red pieces is in a square where a black or white piece can capture it on the black/white’s next turn, and the piece can legally move to where that will not be true, it does so. If it can capture an opposing piece with this move, it does so (see Priority 3 if there are multiple pieces it can capture).
Otherwise it moves the fewest squares it legally can to move to a square where it cannot be captured on black/white’s next move. If multiple such squares exist, select which one it moves to randomly.
If multiple Red pieces can fulfill priority 2, move the one that is of the highest value. If multiple pieces of the highest value exist, move the one that can capture an opposing piece. If none can capture, determine which one moves randomly.
3. If a Priority 1-2 move does not occur, and Red has a piece that can legally capture a black or white piece, without exposing its king to check or ending in a square where a black or white piece can take it on their next move, it does. If there are multiple such legal captures, it takes the highest-value piece it can. If there are multiple such captures of pieces of the same value, determine which one it takes randomly.
4. If a Priority 1-3 move does not occur, and Red has a piece that can legally capture a black or white piece, without exposing its king to check, but doing so leaves it in a square that can be immediately taken by a black or white piece on its next move, roll 1 six-sided die. On a 1-3, the Red pieces makes the capture. On a 4-6, it does not. If there are multiple such captures possible, roll once to see if Red makes any such capture, and if it does use the rules from Priority 3.
5. If a Priority 1-4 move does not occur, and Red has only a single legal move, it takes it. This is true even if it is a move that was ignored during Priority 3.
6. If a Priority 1-5 move does not occur, roll three dice, total them, and subtract 2 from the sum. If the result is 1-16, and that Red piece is still on the board, move the piece matching that number. If that Red piece is no longer on the board, go to Priority 7.
6a. If the piece is a Red pawn, and it can move to the Black/White home row without ending in a square where it can be captured by a black/white piece on its next turn, the pawn takes the move and is promoted to a Queen. It retains its original numbering.
6b. If the piece can move to a square where it could take a black or white piece on its next move, it does so. If there are multiple such squares, it selects the one with the fewest black or white pieces able to take it on their next move. If multiple such squares exist, determine which one it selects randomly.
6c. If no move is indicated by Priority 5a, make a legal move that goes as far as that piece can go, in a randomly determined direction, that does not end with it in a square where it could be captured on black or white’s next move.
7. If the Red piece indicated by the die roll is no longer on the table, instead move the remaining Red piece with the closest number. If two remaining Red pieces are equidistant in numbering, go with the lower number if the result was odd, and with the higher number if the result is even.
7a. If the newly-selected Red piece can legally capture a black or white piece, it does. If this would expose its King to check, the King is moved in a randomly determined direction however many squares are needed to keep it out of check, in ADDITION to the Red piece making a capture. If there are multiple black/white pieces the Red piece could capture, use the preferences from Priority 3.
7b. If the newly-selected Red piece cannot capture a black./white piece with a legal move, it is moved in the following manner. Roll 1d6 and add one. This is the numbered row the piece moves to. Roll 1d6, with 1 being B, 2 C, 3 D, 4 E, 5 F, and 6 G. This is the column in that row the piece moves to.
If there is a black or white piece in that space that is not a King, it is captured, if there is a black or white King in that space, the Red pieces is captured. If there is a Red piece in that square, the higher value of the two Red pieces takes the square, and the other is capture. If the two red pieces are of the same value, determine randomly which one gets the square.
*If either the Black or White king is placed in Checkmate, or if both are ever in Check, Red wins. If the Red King is ever in Checkmate, black and white win.
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“I want to aim for his eye! So I can blind him, and kill him in one shot!”
“Okay, his eyes widen as he sees your malicious intent, and he throws up a guard. Make an attack roll.”
“What modifiers for aiming for his eyes?!”
“None. You’re always aiming for your foes’ eyes.”
“No I’m not! I’m just trying to hit. I want to do a lethal blow now!”
“You’re always trying to land a lethal blow, unless you do something special not to. It’s a fight. Your character is always doing their best unless you say otherwise. Your attack rolls already represent the very best attack your character thinks can land. Of course you want to stab him in the eye, or cut off his head, or pierce his heart. And that’s represented by the existing combat rules of the game. And when the foe goes down, that is when you succeeded.”
“But maybe I can do those things before that!”
“Sure. It’s called a “critical hit.” in this game. A “stunt” or special maneuver in other games.”
“But I want a SPECIAL chance to kill him in one shot!”
“Okay. Do you want every foe you ever fight to have a special chance to kill you in one shot, too?”
“You’re no fun!”
“If you want to try to be flamboyant in your attacks because that’s fun, I am fine with that. That’s why I said he reacted to your effort. And if this attack kills him, it’ll be because you ran him through the eye, and that’ll be awesome.
If you want to have a reduced chance to be effective because of what you are trying, feel free to not use your full combat bonuses.
If you want an increased chance to be effective because of what you are trying, once I allow that why wouldn’t you always do that? And every other PC? And every NPC?”
Runeblades always have cool, evocative names… but it can be a pain to have to come with them from scratch all the time. So for all your Runeblade name needs, here’s the What’s Your Runeblade quiz!
Take the second letter of your first name, and the last letter of your last name. So, as Owen Stephens, my Runeblade name is Shadow Slayer. (Or Shadowslayer—you can run them together or not, as you prefer.)
Or, you can roll 1d100 twice to create a random name.
Or just pick something cool. 😊
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Second letter of your first name, or 1d100)
A (01-04). Ash
B. (05-08). Bane
C. (09-12). Battle
D. (13-16). Blaze
E. (17-20). Blood
F. (21-24). Bright
G. (25-28). Crimson
H. (26-32). Dawn
I. (33-36). Death
J. (37-40). Doom
K. (41-44). Fear
L. (45-48). Foe
M. (49-52. Gray
N. (53-56). Hell
O. (57-60). Ice
P. (61-64). Luck
Q. (65-68). Mourn
R. (69-72). Night
S. (73-76). Pain
T. (77-80). Rage
U. (81-84). Run
V. (85-88). Sea
W. (89-91). Shadow
X. (92-94). Soul
Y. (95-97). Storm
Z. (98-100). War
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Last letter of your last name, or 1d100)
A. (01-04). Blade
B. (05-08). Bringer
C. (09-12). Claw
D. (13-16). Cleaver
E. (17-20). Crasher
F. (21-24). Dragon
G. (25-28). Fist
H. (29-32). Flame
I. (33-36). Friend
J. (37-40). Gate
K. (41-44). Hammer
L. (42-48). Iron
M. (49-52). Master/Mistress
N. (53-56). Moon
O. (57-60). Raven
P. (61-64). Razor
Q. (65-68). Sigil
R. (69-72). Skull
S. (73-76). Slayer
T. (77-80). Song
U. (81-84). Star
V. (85-88). Thunder
W. (89-91). Tomb
X. (92.-94). Tooth
Y. (95-97). Wand
Z. (98-100). Widow
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I think it’s helpful for the name of an RPG to tell you something about what the game is (supposed to be) like.
For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars (even if some folks will always claim it is just the Ghostbuster’s rules of D&D, “reskinned”).
Dungeons and Dragons does a good job of this–it’s a game about monsters and underground locations. Yes, it’s more than that, but it still tells you something. And it’s ubiquity allows you to show kinship with it easily enough — Tunnels and Trolls is clearly giving a similar feel as D&D. Mutants & Masterminds was brilliant.
Hero System and Champions are both pretty good.
Shadowrun was not as good as Cyberpunk, originally, but it is now. Gamma World was good, but Aftermath was better, and Marrow Project at least as good.
But Omega World was brilliant, because of Gamma World.
Both Vampire and World of Darkness did good jobs with this.
Star Frontiers was better than Traveller in this department, but Space Opera may have been better than either.
I’m not comparing the quality of these games as games. Just the ease of branding offered by their names.
I think about this, when I am working on things like Really Wild West, which I hope does a good job of immediately identifying itself as a kind of over-the-top Weird West setting.
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