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Otherianthropes: Fantasy Were-Creature Concepts

Were-creatures are a common part of many world mythologies and fictional fantasy worlds. Depending on the origins for your therianthropes they could potentially be as varied and diverse as all the animal species and humanoid host societies. Thinking about that, I decided to jot down some thoughts on less-common forms of werecreatures, what humanoid species they might be most common amongst (using fairly generic fantasy species ideas), and what special features they might have.

All of these are mammalian carnivores, in keeping with the common were-species of werewolves, werebears, and weretigers. That’s not to say wereboars, weresharks, and werecrocodiles aren’t also well-established and interesting options, but I feel carnivorous mammals are the most typical therianthropes, and since I’m already going a bit far afield when considering nonstandard types, sticking with the most common classifications seems a good limiter.

So, what would YOU make as a new form of werecritter?

Werebadger
N, Dwarf, halfling
Vulnerable to gold, territorial, can shapeshift to change both badger-form and humanoid-form appearance

Werecaracal
Catfolk, elf, human
Vulnerable to bone, immune to poisons, can move with extreme speed

Werecheetah
Goblin, gnome, halfling
Vulnerable to copper, can cause despair in those that see or hear it.

Weredolphin
CG-CN, Aquatic elf, elf, human, merfolk
Vulnerable to volcanic glass, can grant the ability to swim and hold breathe as a dolphin to other creatures… and can also take such abilities away.

Were-fennec-fox
CG-NG, Gnomes, faeries, halflings
Vulnerable to cold iron, have prophetic powers

Werehyena
N-NE, Dwarf, human, gnoll, goblin, orc
Vulnerable to stone, can break spells and curses and curse others

Were-leopard-seal
N-CN, Human, orc.
Vulnerable to fire, immune to cold, in animal hybrid or humanoid form can take off it’s skin as a cloak and give it to another to allow them to use that form, which is unavailable to the wereleopardseal until it gets the cloak back.

Wereorca
LG-LN-LE, Giants, ogres, trolls
Vulnerable to lightning, weakened by storms, can swallow people and even boats or small ships and keep them safe for weeks or months inside a magic space separate from their gullet.

Wereotter
NG-N-NE, Halfling
Have charm powers

Were-pallas-cat
LN-NG, Goblin, gnome, halfling
Vulnerable to wood, immune to charm and fear

Werequoll
NG, Gnome, mouselings
Vulnerable to steel, can charm and command other animals

Wereracoon
CG-CN-CE, Goblin, halfling
Vulnerable to anything polished to a high shine, gain natural thieving skills, can become invisible

Werewolverine
CN-N, Goblin
Vulnerable to adamantine, has rage powers, regenerates.
(Hey, it’s good conceptual worldbuilding, even if the ideas are blatantly stolen.)

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Spicing Up ttRPG Combats: Local Benefits and Drawbacks

One way to make combat encounters more interesting is to add local features that can affect the course of the battle. Regardless of game system and whether using maps and miniatures, vtts, or theater of the mind, you can make a simple attack by brigands (or mob enforcers, walking tanks, dragons, or whatever lese works in your campaign) more complex and memorable by adding quicksand, tar pits, rickety bridges, vines, dense underbrush, boulders, eldritch altars, holy sites, traps, fog, and dozens of other elements.

Today I am going to discuss two kinds of elements — local benefits, and local drawbacks.

A Local Benefit: Anything that makes the PCs’ easier, but only in part of an encounter or only in limited ways. The most common examples of this in ttRPG adventures are concealment, cover, and holy auras, and those are great places to start. These can be ad hoc ( a pile of rocks that characters can get on top of or crouch behind), or more explicitly set up (an old ruined defensive wall still has a single one-person crenelated tower a archer or spellcaster can take cover within, and only two easily-guarded stairs grant access to it, allowing melee-focused characters to intercept foes trying to reach the tower top). Local benefits can be as simple as having the high ground or an easily defensible position, or as complex as a narrow zone on the map that can be seen by an allied sniper, fighting fire elementals in the rain, or having a space where PCs can set up traps and extra supplies in advance.

A Local Drawback: Anything that makes the PCs’ lives more difficult, but only in part of the encounter or only in a limited way. While things like monstrous spider webs, difficult or slippery terrain, enemies with cover, traps, and unholy magical auras are fairly common in ttRPG adventures, it’s possible to spread well beyond these examples For example, fighting in a cave behind a waterfall can drown out all sound, or fighting full amphibious foes around a deep, black pool they can easily see and move through but the PCs (or at least most of them) can’t.

It’s true that anything that counts as a local benefit for the heroes can be reversed to be a local drawback, but look out for things that seem local but are actually the only location the majority of the action is going to happen. A fight with a staircase on the field might well lead to a few interesting combat moments, but if the fight is focused almost entirely on getting up or down those stairs, they go from a regional effect to the majority of the terrain used in the encounter. There’s nothing conceptually wrong with that, but it can greatly magnify the impact the added element has on both overall fun and the outcome of the encounter

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Root of the Problem (A Pathfinder 1e Mini-Adventure)

I recently applied for a full-time, remote, full-benefits, game writing position at Foundry. (One thing I have learned in this industry is that you need to keep up with changing needs and markets.) While I didn’t make the final cut, I did get far enough along to do a timed writing test. I was given instructions at 10am by email, and had to return my work by noon. The test called for an adventure in any game system I wished, that included a missing druid as part of the plot and at minimum one encounter that included investigation, one that included talking to an NPC, and one that was potentially a fight. The main prompt was “The wilderness surrounding a remote town has become perilous. Wildlife that previously avoided contact with humans is now overcome with some form of madness or disease, attacking townsfolk with reckless ferocity. A local druid and longtime protector of the region has gone missing. The protagonists are tasked with investigating the nature of this affliction and resolving it, if possible.”

Obviously, with just two hours for a complete adventure I just managed a “first draft” level of manuscript. But I thought people might be interested in what a produced. So, with Foundry’s express permission, here is “Root of the Problem,” a Pathfinder 1st -edition Mini-Adventure for 3-4 characters of 1st level. By Owen K.C. Stephens.

(Art by Chaotic Design Studio, and not part of the original writing test)

Adventure Background
The Crosstimbers are a dense and ancient forest, filled with towering evergreen trees that rise up to 300 feet tall, smaller trees that grow in clumps so tight that their limbs cross and weave together to form natural platforms, and dense, thorny underbrush that is often impassable to anything larger than a rabbit. They are also the site of an ancient battle thousands of years ago, between a powerful necromancer queen and a court of faeries. Though relics of this battle are mostly buried deep beneath the roots and moss of the forest, their influence can sometimes reach up to the surface level.

One such ancient power is the Grave of Lord Vaugir, also known as the Baron of Stakes. A powerful wight warrior who served the necromancer queen, Vaugir had a particular hatred of vampires (even those who were theoretically his allies), and carried a number of wooden stakes he used to both unsure those he killed would not raise as vampires naturally, and to destroy any vampire he could successfully accuse of treachery to their queen. Lord Vaugir was slain by a group of faerie Swan Knights, and buried in a stone tomb hundreds of feet below the surface. While Vaugir himself remains trapped in the tomb, a few roots of one redwood have cracked one corner of his burial vault, and been tainted by his undead powers.

This influence has not gone unnoticed, as the dwarven druid Ferron Ironbark has long known one of the Crosstimber’s mighty trees was fighting some dread infection. Ironbark has monitored the tree for decades, doing his best to heal and nurture it in the hopes it would overcome what ailment was attacking it. However, at the last new moon, the necromantic energy finally took control of one of the redwood’s roots right at the surface becoming the Grave Root and, when Ferron came to visit it, it impaled him through the heart. Ferron’s apprentice, a brownie named Rumpleridge, managed to drag Ferron back to the druid’s grove, and has watched over the body to ensure it won’t rise as some form of undead.

The Grave Root still does not control more than one short length of the redwood it is attached to. It cannot free itself, and cannot, yet, taint the entire massive tree it’s attached to. However, it can reach a spring adjacent to where the redwood grows, and has been tainting that water for a month now. The spring is a common watering hole for native fauna, which are also being tainted by the Grave Root’s power. This makes them ravenously hungry and much more aggressive than usual, but also causes them to work together and not attack one another regardless of the natural instincts.

Not far from Ferron’s grove is the town of Highmoss-On-The-Hill (often just referred to as “Highmoss”), a walled settlement just outside the Crosstimbers. The people of Highmoss have long been on good terms with Ferron, and work to maintain a sustainable relationship with the Crosstimbers. They gather herbs and wild mushrooms, hunt only as much food as they can eat, drag out dead timber for their own use, and make sure any foray into the forest is able to come home before nightfall. While an occasional attack by minor monsters or wild animals is not unknown, in the past month anyone who stays in the Crosstimbers for more than 2-3 hours has suffered an attack by wolves, wolverines, a bear, or even packs of apparently-rabid squirrels. No one has seen Ferron (and the town is unaware he has died), and in recent days some townsfolk have been attacked within sight of Highmoss’s walls, not even within the Crosstimbers.

The Town Council has decided someone must venture into the Crosstimbers are travel to Ferron’s Grove, a 6-hour trip down a well-known path, and speak to the druid. This group should confer with Ferron, determine what is going on, and if possible assist him in fixing it. The more experienced hunters in town who would normally undertake such a missing are missing or too injured from wildlife attacks to attempt it, so the PCs have been chosen to do so. It is the height of summer, and daylight lasts 15 hours from sunup to sundown. If the PCs hurry it is hoped they can enter the Crosstimbers at dawn, consult with Ferron, solve the issue, and return before sundown.

Random Encounters
Wandering around the Crosstimbers is genuinely much more dangerous than usual, and there’s a chance the PCs may encounter some of the fauna that has been affected by the water tainted by the Grave Root. Until the water source is cleaned, for each hour the PCs are exploring the Crosstimbers there is a 20% chance of the PCs being confronted by one of following random
encounters. That chance doubles at night, and is halved if the PCs have been confronted by an
encounter in the past hour.
[Insert CR ½-1 random animal encounters here]

The Dead Hunter
The trail is marred by the smell of blood and signs of a vicious fight. Torn leather and cloth are scattered about, and a few tufts of black fur sit matted in old pools of blood.

This is the location where a Highmoss senior hunter, Apaxus Longshank, was attacked and killed by a pack of black wolves tainted by the spring next to the Grave Root. His body was dragged off the trail when they ate him, and a DC 10 Survival check to track or DC 15 Perception check to spot signs of the drag marks can locate him.

Examining the body show bite marks that can be identified as wolves, but the more significant clues are on Longshank’s own weapons. He fought with a masterwork handaxe and shortsword, which are still clutched in what’s left of his hands. They are bloody from the fight, but the blood is streaked with dark, oily slime. A DC 10 Knowledge (religion) check reveals this is necroplasm, a material sometimes used in place of blood by undead creatures. Finding it mixed with actual blood suggests the attacking wolves had been tainted by undead energy, but not yet true undead.

The Grove of Ferron Ironbark
The dense canopy of leaves and branches above break open, and light shines down to reveals a small, neat grove just off the path. There is a round hut with neatly fitted stone walls, a low, wide wooden door, and a roof apparently made of interwoven tree leaves and needles. A firepit sits in the middle of the clearing, with a wooden framework holding a small iron cauldron and
kettle side-by-side above it, but there is no fire now.

To one side of the clearing a neat pile of rocks has been build in an elongated dome roughly five feet long and three feet high. Laying next to it is a short humanoid, no taller than a human’s knee, with a bulbous head topped with a pointed felt cap.

This is the grove of Ferron Ironbark, but now it is his burial place. The brownie Rumpleridge build a stone cairn for his teacher and friend Ferron, and guards it all day and night. Rumpleridge won’t notice or acknowledge the PCs unless they call out to him, and even then, he’s slow to realize who they are or what they want. But eventually his enormous tear-streaked eyes will focus on them, and he’ll answer their questions as best he can. Rumpleridge wants to honor his teacher’s alliance with Highmoss, but is unwilling to leave the cairn for any reason. He plans to stay here through the summer and fall, and only come winter will he consider moving on.

Rumpleridge knows the general backstory of the Crosstimbers, but not the details of Lord Vaugir’s tomb or creeping influence. He does know Ferron was convinced some ancient, deeply buried evil was tainting a specific redwood an hour from the grove, at a major watering hole, and that a root from that tree impaled the druid. He gets tearful when he admits he saw the event,
and that it took all his strength and cunning to drag Ferron back home, and bury him.

Rumpleridge knows animals are going rogue, and can confirm that behavior began when Ferron was killed. It doesn’t occur to Rumpleridge that the Grave Root is infecting the nearby watering hole, but he does mention the infected redwood is “By the main watering hole in this section of woods,” and if a PC asks if the watering hole could be the source of the problem, Rumpleridge agrees the animals becoming vicious are all ones that would periodically drink there. As Ferron had been checking on the tainted redwood for decades, there is a well-worn path leading from the clearing here to the watering hole.

If attacked or pushed too hard to render aid, Rumpleridge will use his brownie powers to harass and confuse the PCs, but he won’t risk harming them. If he must, he flees into the Crosstimbers, and only returns to the cairn after the PCs have left.

The Grave Root
A large pond sits in a low point in the forest, a short outcropping of rocks surrounding it to the north and west, and the roots of a mighty redwood bordering it to the south and east. The surface of the pond’s water seems oily and black, with dark swirls spinning within it though there seems to be no breeze or current to cause the movement. At the southern edge of the pond, one root among the masses is darker, wetter, and more gnarled than the others, it’s 10-15 foot length pulsing slightly. The tip of the root moves, dipping itself into the pool to release a black ooze that joins the oily darkness covering all the water. The root then curls up, rising like a wooden tentacle, and sways back and forth.

The Grave Root uses the stats for a Draugir (HP 19, Bestiary 2), but with the following changes.
It has 15 feet of reach. It is immobile. It can fire a hunk of its own rotting bark as a target as a ranged attack that uses its slam attack, but has a range increment of 20 feet.

If the Grave Root notices the PCs, it immediately attacks. If destroyed, it breaks down into rotting mulch, and the oily blackness begins to clear from the water (taking 2-3 hours to be fully gone). If a PC drinks the water before it is clear, they are immediately confused and affected by the rage spell for 1d10 minutes.

The oily material on the pond is necroplasm, and PCs who found Longshank’s body can identify it as the same as was in the blood on his weapons. Without the Grave root, the water will run clear within hours, and the tainted animals return to normal within a few days.

Continuing the Adventure
Dealing with the Grave Root eliminated the immediate problem, but the risk presented by Lord Vaugir’s tomb remains. Striking up a friendship with Rumpleridge can help explore the region and safely travel further into the Crosstimbers. Seeking a senior member of the faerie court that claims rulership over the forest may reveal the true nature of the evils buried beneath it, and
lead to finding and dealing with Lord Vaugir, and other threats like him.

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My Personal Head Canon on Transformers Combiners

Now that I have made a character for Jacob Blackmon’s upcoming Transformers RPG (though in my case, I made a Joe), I have been thinking about the multiverse of Transformers stories, including multiple animated series (and multiple continuities within some of the series), movies, comics, games, and so on, and what I take away from them to form my own personal, preferred versin of a history and reality for those characters and stories.

And, weirdly, combiners. So, here’s my personal headcanon, for editorial purposes, with no challenge to anyone’scopyright. Also, this article is not Open Content, and is not covered by the OGL.

For my own head canon, I always wanted there to be a total of 3 true gestalt combiners with hard reasons why they aren’t in every battle, and more aren’t made.And it all begins with one of my favorite Autbots, Omega Supreme.

Omega Supreme was a proto-combiner, able to form multiple elements outside of his robot form but still a single Autobot consciousness. Though extremely powerful, he was built long before the Cybertronian Civial War as a true military weaponand thus requires vast amounts of Energon to be active. Ancient and one of the most dangerous of all Cybertronians, his vast Energon needs when in action meant he could only be called on in extreme situations.

Even so, countering Omega Supreme remains a top priority for the Decepticons. When Starscream finds ancient Progenitor Ur-Matrix Tech from the Lost Age of Cybertron, he decides (in order to counter Omega Supreme and prove his superiority to Megatron), to creates a group of new Decepticons who can combine their power to form a mega-Transformer. These are the Constructicons, and when combined into Devastator they are more powerful than Omega Supreme. However, Megatron was able to blow Devastator back into their component parts (not a trick anyone else has ever mastered), and thus the Constructicons accept Megatron as their leader, ending Starscreams bid for power. Devastator remains a major power for the Decepticons, but the Constructions don’t like each other, dislike becoming Devastator, and like Omega Supreme tend to run out of Energon when in Devastator form. Megatron tries to keep them in reserve for pivitol moments in battle.

To counter Devastator, Optimus Prime uses the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to create Autobots for the first time, focusing entirely on bravery, loyalty, and raw power. These turn out to be the primal Dinobots. Though not combiners, they are extremely rugged and as a group they have a fair track record against Devastator. Additionally they are no more Energon-expending than standard Transformers, allowing them to be involved in action regularly, though Optimus often trusts them with defensive positions, where they can be called up to stop Devastator if necessary.

Now in possession of the Progenitor Ur-Matrix Tech found by Starscream, and wishing to create a super-weapon more than a match for either Omega Supreme or the Dinobots, Megatron orders Shockwave to build a war-machine combiner group. These are the Combaticons, who form the extremely powerful (and Energon efficient) Bruticus. However, while the Combaticons are loyal to Megatron and Shockwave, and Bruticus can operate for long periods of time, Bruticus turns out to be a berserker nearly as likely to smash ally as foe. Again, this somewhat limits the cicumstances in which he can be deployed.

Knowing the Decepticons would use whatever they had to create combiners to try again, Bumblebee infiltrated Shockwave’s labs, and recorded the Combiner-creation process. Stealing the very last of the Progenitor Ur-Matrix Tech and returning it to the Autobots, the group’s best minds (including Perceptor and Wheeljack) design the Aerialbots, who can combine to become Superion. Superion is as energon-efficient as Bruticus, and mentally stable, but not nearly as powerful. Superion is a major threat to the majority of lone cybertronians, but can’t match the raw power of any other combiner.

Lacking the ancient Progenitor Ur-Matrix Tech, no other full gestalt combiners can currently be created, though a few efforts have resulted in 2-robot combiners, headmasters, triple-changes, vehicle-mode combiners (where several robot forms combine into one large vehicle, generally a starcraft or ship), City-Class Transformers, and multipart Cybertronians (where one personality can split into multiple smaller robot forms, all still part of the same mind).

And there’s my entirely-personal preferred Transformers Combiner head-canon.

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Developer Basics: The Art Brief

I got asked by William Patrick Peña about Art Briefs on Twitter today, and I realized it’s a topic I’ve never talked about much. It falls in the same kind of category as my “Writing Basics” line of articles for ttRPG creators…except writers aren’t normally asked to write art briefs for their work. There are exceptions of course (ranging from one-person shops to small groups that want to divide the workload to companies that just do things differently), but in my experience most often an art brief is created by a developer, art director, graphic designer, publisher, producer, or content editor (depending a lot on how work is divided and what titles are used for what roles within a company).

So I’m calling this a “Developer Basics” article, though I’m still tagging it as Writing Basics in the blog categories and tags.

I don’t have a LOT of advice on this topic – it really is an area where doing is the best form of learning. But I do have a few, so here they are.

First, the what.

An art brief, also sometimes called an art order, art description, or graphics order, is a written description of non-text elements needed for a book. This is very likely to include the cover art, and interior illustrations of various sizes (often broken down as full-page, half-page, quarter-page, and spot art… but not always).

Second, WHOEVER you are doing art briefs for, ask how they write them, see if you can get some examples, and follow their lead. This may be as specific as format (I have done art orders in Word, Google Docs, Excel, Discord, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, and even a few forms of proprietary software designed specifically to receive art briefs). There may be rules about the budget, where are can come from (which is often handled by an art director rather than a developer… but not always), how much you can fit into a size of art (such as requiring quarter-pagers to be just a single figure with absolutely no background, or spot art to only be a single object such as one piece of equipment, or one distant shot of a simple building like a tower). There may be rules about orientation (landscape vs portrait, specific proportions, the need for a border that can potentially be cut or obscured, and so on). No one will thank you for deviating from a publisher’s format without prior approval.

Third, be aware an art brief may or may not include map sketches. While almost no one expects a writer or developer to be able to create a print-ready quality map (although some incredibly talents devs, myself very much not included, are capable of doing so), professional cartographers won’t put *anything* on a map unless it is clearly marked. If you want wrecked cars in a street, they need to be on the sketch and be clearly marked what they are. If you want them to be different types of cars, you need to say so. Trap doors, wood vs stone textures, rugs, chairs — it all needs to be clearly marked on a map sketch.

The timing of an art brief can also vary wildly by company. Some want art briefs done before writing is even finished on a manuscript, because art can take a lot of time to get in, and the publisher wants time for revisions. Others prefer for the final layout to be done or near-done, so it’s easy to see what pages need art, and what size and shape they need.

Be aware that not every artist has English as a first language, Avoid idioms and euphemisms if possible. These aren’t always obvious. I was once shown a piece of art that came from an art brief for a “man-eating tree.” It was a man, sitting in a forest, with a fork and knife, eating a tree.

Think about how posture, accessories, and form may impact the shape and space of a piece of art. A single figure in a quarter-page illustration of a woman with a rapier may seem simple enough, but if the woman is doing a drop-thrust with a rapier at full extension, she’s going to take up a lot more room.

Keep track in a written, searchable format of choices about gender representation, ethnicity, body type, age, and other factors. It’s up to you to decide if you want all your men to be heroic warriors and all your women to be scantily-dressed seductress witches (don’t do that, by the way), but it’s super-easy to not notice a trend unless you have these factors written down. And if you ever think you might have to fight for a decision that’s important to you, being able to point out that out of 27 character illos in a book you only made one obese, bespectacled, and bald can be useful ammunition.

Be aware that artists will generally default to what they are asked for most often if you don’t specify otherwise. If you don’t specify an ethnicity, they’ll be Caucasian. If you say they should be “brown,” they’ll be tan Caucasians. If you don’t specify body type, they’ll be fit and attractive. And if you don’t call out in the strongest terms that a woman should be illustrated with “no skin showing other than on her face, neck, and hands,” (and yes, I evolved that exact language to combat this trend), there’s a really good chance all women will be sexualized, with exposed cleavage and bare thighs.

Art references can help. If I want an estoc, specifically, I need to send the artist a visual example or link to the same. If you want a man to have strong African features and natural hair with a fade, you need to be clear on what that looks like.

Also, if you are doing any hairstyles outside your own personal experience, research them. A lot of hair styles mean something to the cultures they come from. Don’t assign them without some idea what statement you are making to people you are now representing in art.

Similarly, keep track of and think about the message your art sends. If all goblins are barefoot and have bones in their hair, you are presenting them as both uncivilized, and tied to racist caricatures of African natives. Don’t do that. Also, don’t pick an ethnicity or culture and make them exclusive to the visual style of your villains and evil cults. Yes, this is a lot of things to keep in mind while trying to describe the visuals for a imaginary world. but representation matters, normalization matters, and the message you are sending in visual form to people in different groups?

It matters.

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ADDED CONTENT!
The following are art brief tips by veteran developer AND artist, Stan!

Art Brief Tips:

• Come up with a CONCEPT for the piece rather than trying to imagine exactly what it should look like.

• A piece of art is a snapshot of a single moment, not a flowing scene of actions and results.

• Keep the description as short as possible. A sentence or two if possible.

• Include only the details that are NECESSARY. The artist can’t tell the difference between a key element and a “colorful addition.”

Guest Blog: Going Gray at the Table

From time to time I highlight opinion pieces written by other folks in the industry who are interested in having their thoughts hosted on my blog. This one is by gamer and writer Dan Gallo.

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

Twilight of the Old Gods: Going Gray at the Table

By Dan Gallo

“Oh cool, my dad plays that.” 

That was the horrifying response I got when I told a young man I used to play Vampire the Masquerade. 

I was sitting at a bar and talking about what it was like to LARP in the One World by Night organization back in the 90s and early 2000s. OWbN, as we used to call it, was this huge shared universe game that had hundreds of LARPs across the US, all playing stories connected to the Mind’s Eye Theatre system from White Wolf Games. You could play as a reality-hacking Mage, snarling Werewolf, angel-powered Hunters, and countless other kinds of supernatural beasts. Vampire the Masquerade was my poison at the time and it was my obsession. You will never understand how many hours I squandered in a black trenchcoat pretending to be a bloodsucking creature in student unions around the Midwest.

Then one of the people I was talking to suddenly decided to choose violence and drop that Dad line on me. It socked me in the gut as I realized that the person who said this to me was roughly the same age I did my LARPing. I turn forty this year and I never felt older than when I heard those words.

No one likes to think about getting older or talk about what happens when they become the “elder statesman” of their gaming group, but for many gamers, that’s something we’ve had to deal with. The first generation of table toppers and dice chuckers are now in their 80s and 90s  and our hobby, a thing that feels artificially youthful to many of us, predates the invention of the personal computer by about three years.

We, the OGs who remember when this stuff wasn’t cool, are all old now and our hobby looks nothing like I remember it. Celebrities play this game and being a DM is actually a thing that can make you cool in high school. People casually talk about what kind of halfling rogue they play and how neat it was that they adopted Boblin the Goblin. RPGs have podcasts and video blogs and it has turned one group of voice actors into celebrities. Do you know how many times I have heard that weird guy from Dimension20 do that “Laws are threats” monologue? I’ve actually lost count. 

That guy has his own subreddit, by the way. 

With aging comes anger and annoyance. You start to build these ad hominem attacks on things that were never supposed to be your enemy in the first place. Often I find myself reacting to newness with a knee-jerk sense of grumpy rage. It can feel like I’m indulging in these invisible anger fantasies that came straight out of an internet message board. 

Oh, yeah, says the voice in my head, 5e has really shiny books but they sucked every piece of crunch out of the damned thing because they don’t teach math in schools anymore! I’m a veteran of the Edition Wars and you’ll pry 3.5 out of my cold, dead hands! Everybody on Critical Role was already rich. I’ve been gaming for years and no one gave me a cartoon show. Grrr eat the young!

I swear that at times it’s like there’s an elderly Incredible Hulk living inside me who reacts with anger at other people who just want to learn what I already know. I look around my gaming store and get irrationally angry None of you knows how to fight a gazebo, I think, and I refuse to explain to you fetuses what that means. Google it, you cowards! 

When I find myself slipping into that line of thinking, I have to pull back and realize what I am doing. I feel like I am being overthrown in my own hobby, not because of anything that’s actually happening but because of how I feel about myself. It’s misplaced anger and it’s silly. 

The better reaction is to acknowledge that kids are different, their worldviews are different, and that I, as a grown-up, have the chance to save them from the mistakes I have made. My conversation in that bar sent me on a google spiral that ended in me reading the latest edition of VtM and discovering all of the racist garbage that they took out of the game and feeling a sense of pride. New players to the game I really loved won’t have to read about dark brown vampires who get darker with age or the fact that someone decided that the African vampires are all drug dealers. 

Yes, that was all in the original books, and thank god it is gone. 

Still, you change as you get older, and not always for the better. There is a depressing sense that you are fading from view sometimes like you’re being colored into the background with gray paint. This meme is going around on Facebook about how we’ll all be tossing dice at the retirement home and how awesome that will be. It’s a nice idea but I know the truth: it won’t be as much fun. We won’t be using the newest systems, whatever that will be, we’ll be struggling with our dog-eared copies of books that have been out of print for forty years. We will vainly try to recapture our youth and the returns will be diminished every week. It’s hard to live in a fantasy world when everything is so painfully real and age robs you of fantasy each and every day. Playing a gray-haired old wizard is less fun when you’re an actual gray-haired old wizard. 

I know this is true because when I remembered my LARPing, I also remembered why I stopped. I was thirty-two years old and the game I was playing had dwindled from fifteen vampires to just six players. We had lost our last gaming location and we had to move to a park where we would have fake gunfights next to the jungle gym. At one point, we had a loud argument about a rule that the ST had misread. Then it hit me that I was arguing on a playground about who had died in our game of cops and robbers. 

That night I went home and did my taxes. 

Dan Gallo is the pen name of a former reporter and writer who lives in Louisiana. He currently writes the Strange Cases of Jimmy Bionel, a sci-fi detective series now available on Kindle.

And as always, you can support this blog at Owen K.C. Stephens’ Patreon!

Top 10 Ways For the D&D Movie to Emulate the D&D Game

I had something clever to say about the D&D movie, and it went viral on Twitter. So, just to blatantly chase that engagement, here’s a new Top Ten list of Ways For the D&D Movie to Emulate the D&D Game.

10. Start The Movie In A Tavern
I have no idea if it does, but it would sure prove someone knew how the D&D game actually works!

9. DungeonMaster Commentary
Instead of Director’s Commentary or Actor Commentary for the Digital Release, have a special feature of the DM explaining what was SUPPOSED to happen in each scene, how badly characters rolled, and where he fudged the rules so as to not kill the PCs. (And I volunteer to be the voice of the DM for this!)

8. Backup Character
One of the major protagonists die, everyone is sad for about 1 minute, then a new protagonist, played by the same actor, shows up who can fulfill any function the dead one could. The heroes immediately accept him as a trusted friend, and the issue is never mentioned again.

7. Railroading
The protagonists decide, for no apparent reason, to ignore all the clear clues on where they should be going and instead head in the opposite direction. they turn a corner to find…. nothing. No hills, no trees, no sky, just an endless stretch of 5-foot squares.
Then, without warning, they are all on a train, with the conductor announcing the next stop is the place they had decided not to go.

6. Run It Again For New Players
While filming the actual movie, any scene with a main character is shot a second time (fast and dirty) with new, minor actors playing the major roles (but the same actors for every other role). Then, when the movie goes to Digital, release this alternate version as the same adventure being run for a different group of players.

5. Argue Over the Rules
A minor villain defeats Chris Pine’s character with quick wordplay, and Chris Pine is confused because “That power doesn’t work that way!” The continue to argue until Michelle Rodriguez kills the villain with an axe, looks at Pine and says “Do you want to argue about how THAT works?!”

4. *POOF*: A Familiar Appears
One hour into the running time, a crow pops into existence on the sorcerer’s shoulder, and is used to solve a minor problem (flies through cage bars to grab the keys, for example). The other protagonists ae shocked.
“What’s that?!”
“My familiar.”
“How long have you had it?”
“Oh, he’s always been here.”

3. Theater Of The Mind
Have one scene where everything goes dark, the action has to be described by the protagonists (who also can’t see), and there’s significant confusion about where everyone is.

2. Miniatures
For a scene where the protagonists are planning a heist, use actual D&D miniatures and a map with one-inch squares as their planning tools. For bonus points, have most of the figures not be painted, and when someone points it out the mastermind complains he hasn’t had time to paint them all.

1. Reschedule The Movie Because Not Everyone Can Make It
Yeah, scheduling can be a huge challenge for ttRPg groups. And THIS one the studio seems to actually be doing!

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The Print Run Crunch

(My blog post opinions are my own, and do not represent any of the companies I work, write, or freelance for.)

Tabletop RPG products that are part of an ongoing line and need a big, traditional print run (and here I’m going to go with 2,000 or more copies as “big” sadly, though that’s basically the minimum low end of big and 10k or 50k fits more strongly into this category) that goes into the distribution channel in order to make an acceptable Return On Investment have scheduling pressures that books that aren’t reliant on those factors get to avoid.

For that plan to work, distributors want to know your release date months in advance. Always well before a book is anything like ready to go to the printer. So, you do your best to write a schedule that makes sense to do that, and then you make arrangements with people like printers, warehouses, shippers, advertisers, freelancers, licensors… it’s a whole thing.

And because it is “a whole thing,” it is much, much more impactful if you miss that series of dates. Now, yes, it happens. Even the biggest companies sometimes miss a ship date. Sometimes it’s their fault. Other times, your normal printer can’t ship your product on time because they are shut down with too many employees out with Covid. (Yes, Covid. Yes, now in November 2022. This is not a random example, it’s something a tabletop-related company reported and is dealing with as we speak.)

But the consequences of it happening can be pretty severe, in both the short term and the long term. Distributors may push your product less if it doesn’t come out on time, or it may miss marketing windows you’ve set up in advance. Printing and shipping costs can go up precipitously (the Kickstarter Killer problem). Stores can end up not having the budget they set aside to get your book on their shelves because you don’t show up in the month they expect, and they reserve the money to spend on products with more reliable schedules. Printers and magazines may become less willing to reserve times for you in advance. And, retailers and customers may lose interest if they decide your release schedule isn’t stable.

No matter how hard companies try, sometimes their best effort at a reasonable schedule doesn’t allow for unexpected problems. Over 25 years in the industry I have had books get delayed because cover art was late, writers were late, editors were late, licensing approvals took longer than planned, licensing issues are found, files got corrupted, key team members became sick (or, sadly, even died), freelancers became unavailable due to things as serious as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or war, and, of course, an international pandemic.

So when something you cannot predict or control goes wrong, and it goes wrong enough that the slack you built into your schedule can’t cover it, there is often a strong pressure to throw more hours at the project so you hit your printing/shipping deadlines anyway. Sometimes you can do this by adding more people, but that doesn’t always speed things on projects that require coordination between sections(especially core rulebooks). So, you look to have the staff working on it put in more hours… “Crunch Time.”

And, of course, the bigger and more expensive the book, the more pressure there is to get it done on time. Nor is this unfounded concern. A lot of game companies work on very thin margins. A major release going from a big moneymaker to just-above-break-even-or-worse can lead to cost-cutting that causes its own problems (you can have layoffs or do less marketing for one quarter, but you will suffer later), or even kill a game line or an entire company. This isn’t theory-crafting on my part. I have seen it happen.

Nor, in my experience, when a tabletop company has to go into Crunch Time, is it a matter of executives and managers airily commanding rank-and-file employees to work harder, do more with less, and stay late. At least with the companies I have been lucky enough to see the inner workings of, it’s much more likely that directors and department heads and publishers are among the hands for “all-hands-on-deck” emergencies. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but at least it’s shared pain.

And this, by the way, is one reason game creators can get pretty annoyed when someone claims something was just a cash grab, or the creators clearly didn’t care about quality, or it “just needed someone to read through it once to catch all the dumb stuff.” Because the bigger the book, the more likely it is everyone working on it put blood, sweat, and tears into it, and only caring about the quality kept them going at 2am, or when working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row, or pulling an all-nighter.

(This is actually one of the reasons the crowdfunding campaigns I run never include traditional print runs. I stick to pdf and print-on-demand, so that I can dodge some of these issues. And if something does get badly delayed, the fallout is less complicated. That does mean I am forgoing the possibility of a big retail hit, which limits my possible reach and income, but for me it’s worth it for my private projects. And given how many 6-digit Kickstarters I am aware of that ended up losing money, I’m happy to stick to my smaller-risk, smaller reward model.)

Now, none of this is an excuse to mistreat people or not keep striving to find ways to avoid Crunch Time. This kind of relentless deadline grind that still sometimes fails to hit the mark is one of the things that lead to burnout among creatives, and financial loss among companies. Nor is this an issue that only impacts some companies, or that has only come up in recent years. It’s hard to avoid, and happens often, to companies of different sizes, different structures, and different locations. It *can* happen as a result of negligence or bad decisions. But the vast majority of times I run into it (and end up Crunching for a project), it’s just an unfortunate consequence of how the industry and technology and retail have evolved. Those forces may not be insurmountable, but they are powerful. And a company may not crash if no one pulls crunch, but it’s a risk.

And often, it’s a risk even the rank-and-file employees and freelancers want to avoid if they can, even if that means Crunch Time.

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Storytime: The Insane 20-Person, 14-Hour, Multiple ttRPG Game System Adventure I Played In At WorldCon 1984

Over the weekend I was reminiscing about my first big convention, the 42nd WorldCon when I was 13 years old, and how I wandered around by myself in LA with hundreds of dollars for most of a week. For those curious about the whole post, it’s at the end of this blog entry.

But one of the things I have gotten the most feedback on from that story was mentioning I played in a “20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.” And, yeah, that was pretty crazy. Several people have asked me to talk more about that game, and it was darn near 40 years ago, but I’ll give a quick rundown to the best of my recollection.

There were lots of “Open Gaming” rooms at the 1984 WorldCon, spread over numerous hotels, which were set aside for people to just organize their own game sessions. I am sure there were organized tournaments and scheduled games as well, but I didn’t interact with that end of things at all (and still rarely do). Instead, I had a backpack with my favorite characters, a bunch of dice, some snacks, and a couple of rulebooks, and looked for people interested in striking up an ad hoc game. That was how gaming had been handled in the tiny convention that was my first taste of cons in Norman the year before, so that was what I expected to be the “standard.”

And, there was a pretty robust 24/7 gaming scene in at least one of the hotels, and I got a few games in. But the one I remember best started about 5-6pm, I think on Thursday (might have been Friday), and came together because a charismatic young man (I thought of him as “an adult” at the time, I’d guess now he was somewhere in his 20s, likely college-aged) stood on a chair in one of the biggest open-game rooms, and shouted he would run a game for any number of people, allowing any characters, from any game system, all together.

There was a lot of slack-jawed disbelief, but when he started setting up multiple fishing tackle boxes of dice, miniatures, and terrain, a bunch of us got interested and went over to see what was up. There were 20 of us players (give or take), and only 3 open round banquet tables in the room. I mentioned there were spare tables a couple of floors down and a young woman (older than me, but I thought not by much — I do not remember her name… I don’t think though it might have been Susan, but she had what I thought was an adorable Canadian accent) said we should go steel them. And she was leading the mission, because she was going to playing an Expert Thief.

So a few of went with her, rode an escalator down one level, cleared and grabbed two round tables no one seemed to be using, rolled them down the hall, had 2-person teams brace them on the escalator for a ride up, and rolled them down to the game room.

The GM had the now 5 tables arranged in a circle, stored his stuff on the floor under them, stood in the middle, and explained the game. First, he really meant any character, any game system. We each got to do one thing in a round, and he’d deal with each of us in our native game system. If there was one monster, the Metamorphasis Alpha characters would fire gyrojet rounds at it, the various D&D players swing swords and fling spells, and the Boot Hill gang (all of one table IIRC) could fan revolvers and unload shotguns. I’m pretty sure he played fast and loose with the rules, all the rules, but it never interfered with the game.

I played a high-level cleric who worshipped Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel, and carried said saint’s cudgel as an artifact. There were several D&D characters of various editions and classes, a flying psychic telekinetic blue whale and it’s ally a white 4-armed gorilla covered in chitinous armor plates, a Boot Hill outlaw gang (maybe called the Broken Trestle Gang?), and I am absolutely forgetting several folks.

The GM got straight to the set-up, explaining that each of us had a dream where we were told by a wispy voice that only we could save everything, and the End was coming to destroy the Demiurges, destroying all of reality, and we had to stop it. And then our characters woke up on an island covered in various ship, train, and carriage wrecks, with a huge ruby tower at the center. We roleplayed introductions briefly, dealt with the fact several characters thought they were still dreaming (or had gone mad, or were high on bad moonshine, or all of the above)… and then just as we were trying to figure out who would be in charge and what we were going to do, creatures that looked like the garthim from the Dark Crystal came wading out of the water to attack us, and they had small turrets on their shells with machine guns in them.

It was quickly clear that if you didn’t have cover, the machine guns would chew you up. And if you did have cover, the guns would chew it up in a few rounds. So we tried to cover each other and fell back toward the ruby tower. But we couldn’t get in the front door. So, the flying blue whale told us all to climb on board it, and it flew up the tower… and through a big crack in the sky.

And we went reality-hopping on a psychic mutant blue whale. If someone’s character died, they ran to go grab food (we all pitched in), then usually came back to watch, at least for a few hours.

I absolutely can’t remember everything that happened. We stayed up all night, eating cold pizza and drinking warm Pepsi, and I had the time of my life. There were undead WWII battleships, living “evil eyes” that would fly into the wound of a dead person to become a “third eye” and possess them, floating islands, reality and alternate planes curling back on each other, and at least a little time was spent in fantasy, Old West, and Generation Ship in Space settings. One of the D&D rogues ended up with a sawed-off Boot Hill shotgun. One of the Boot Hill gang members got a ray gun from Metamorphasis Alpha. The psychic blue whale sacrificed itself to save us when a spiked ghost train attacked us in the Astral Plane by crashing into it head-on, while an AD&D wizard riding it broke his Staff of the Magi on its cowcatcher.

We worked out that The End wanted all our worlds to stop existing, and had discovered our worlds all existed because the Demiurges willed them to, and all the Demiurges were gathered in one place, and it was going to kill them, but we could stop it. And the flying eyes all belonged to an extradimensional creature that served as a lookout for the End. It had a weird name, like “That Which Disapproves,” though I doubt that’s exactly right.

We played all evening, all night, and well into the next morning. Character after character died, but we knew it was okay, because if we stopped the End, they would live again, and if we didn’t we’d all cease to exist.

We ended up with just 5-6 of us left, in the Modern Era, in LA, hunting the End through the halls of a hotel… and finally found it. It was a scrawny, unimpressive, short boogeyman, lurking outside a room at the hotel. And it was looking through the door at… us.

Us, the players. We were the Demiurges. The End wanted to kill us, and if our characters didn’t stop it, we, as real-world people, would be killed by it. The idea thrilled me…and freaked me out.

But the last few heroes (including my cleric) destroyed the End, ensuring that the worlds of adventure would continue forever. And we realized we could, as our characters, go into the room and meet ourselves, as players. And in that moment, having gorged myself on junk food and soda and been awake for something like 36 hours and playing for 14, I believed. But, we decided in-character that might freak out the Demiurges, so we left.

Also, there was something about a dartboard. There was a folding-cabinet bar-style dartboard in that hotel conference room for some reason, and it came into play in the story of the End, but I can’t for the life or me remember how.

And the game ended. We exchanged long-distance phone numbers and address and promised to keep in touch and I, at least, had lost all that info by the end of the weekend.

Then I went and slept in the Anime Room, because it was closer than my hotel room.

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For those of you who want some context, here’s the story I posted on Social Media about my time at the 42nd WorldCon.

I don’t have kids, and I am well aware that things were different 40 years ago. But apparently even people my own age are shocked to learn my mother was fine with me wandering around LA on my own at age 13 with $500 on me.

Though to be fair, $300 of that was traveler’s checks.

It was for the 42nd WorldCon, and I was almost 14.

My mother went with me, and we had a hotel room, but we mostly checked in on a notepad in the room. We rarely saw each other.

She was filking. I was gaming.

I went to a Elfquest #20 Howl/release party. A woman dressed as Nightfall flirted with me and gave me first-ever romantic kiss (from someone I didn’t even know the real name of).

Saw the anime Lensman movie.

Was part of a banquet table heist so we could fit more gamers in a room.

Rode to Disneyland with C.J. Cherryh.

Ate breakfast at a diner counter at 4am, discussing Return of the Jedi with some nightflyers who weren’t, AFAICT, die-hard geeks.

Played a 20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.

Bought my first junk metal wall-hanged sword.
Broke my first junk metal wall-hanger sword.
Bought my second junk-metal wall-hanger sword.

Got offered, and declined, my first beer from a stranger.

Ordered a delivery pizza just for me to eat watching movies, for the first time.

Saw, for the first time, ALIEN, Dawn of the Dead, Heavy Metal, Flesh Gordon, Dark Star, Sapphire & Steel, The Quatermass Experiment, Mad Max, Life of Brian, Clockwork Orange, and Zardoz. The video quality was often terrible, and some may have been taped off movie screens.

That was my 2nd or 3rd scifi convention ever, and it would be a high-point until I got to a Gen Con in the late 1990s.

I was a BIG 13-year old, in both height and weight. I’d never been unsupervised while away from my home town before. We didn’t have cell phone, or pagers.

Now as it turns out, I was fine. I can’t say if it was genius parenting, or luck, but the experience was formative for me in a lot of ways. Not the least of which was I saw how total strangers reacted when someone whipped out a big wad of $20s, and stopped doing that.

Ideas For “Hidden World” Modern Fantasy Settings

I have a long track record of loving what I think of “Hidden World” modern fantasy settings. A lot of it comes from my reading of pulp novels as a child, but certainly a number of more recent authors and stories have fed into it as well. Whether it’s magic nannies coming to save children from the troubles of everyday life, caretakers with magic devices in their homes who take in children during the Blitz (and possibly animate armor soldier to fight Nazis), wizard acting like detectives in the modern world, fantasy detectives doing the hard boiled act in feudal settings, magic worlds beneath the streets of London (or New York, or heck Dallas), immortal swordsmen, secret clans of assassins, bounty hunters (literally) from hell, busters-of-ghosts, psychic subcultures, revenant goths, or WWII witches and werewolves, I’m there for it.

Or, you know, ShadowFinder.

Sometimes I have ideas I think would work well within Hidden World settings, often while taking in Hidden World stories and thinking of directions the worldbuilding could go, but doesn’t.

Here are some.

Ancient Wards

Numerous magical defenses have been invented over the millennia, but the most common were developed in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s. These wards are far more effective against types of weapons that were invented after they wards were developed. Thus a fist or claw is almost always effective against creatures and mages with ancient wards, and clubs, swords, and bows are more likely to be effective than firearms, flamethrowers, and grenades… though if someone is carrying around an ancient design of Chinese fire lance, there’s a good chance they are doing so for a good reason.

Gravedigger Clan

When you need a body removed quickly and without evidence, but also need it to be treated with respect and buried with honors and traditions proper to its life, you call the Gravedigger Clan. A cult devoted to a wide range of gods of the dead and burial from different pantheons, and devoted to preventing the rise of undead and corpse-curses, the Gravedigger Clan is neutral in all other affiars, and offer their services fast and free to anyone who knows how to get hold of them.

The Mask Arcade

The Mask Arcade is a massive dance club and cocktail lounge that has multiple tiers, indoor and outdoor areas, several different themes, and a number of private, semi-private, and VIP areas scattered about its premises. Numerous street performers wander about at all times, sometimes stunt exhibitions are held, and there are numerous small stages where weird acts can perform. It also requires all attendees to dress in costume, and taking pictures is forbidden and strictly enforced. There’s always a line to get in, and bouncers walk the line and let people with costumes with “the right look for tonight’s theme” go in ahead of the line through various side entrances.

Officially, this is because it’s schtick is to be a nonstop costume ball cranked to 11 that attracts celebrities and . Actually, it’s because the Mask Arcade is designed to be a neutral ground for Hidden World ladies, lords, adventurers, monsters, and agents to meet, move about freely (even if they have horns, or fangs, or wear armored trench coats and carry katanas), and do business.

Ninjamancy

Almost no one is attacked by hordes of ninja. However, all true ninjas are trained in the art of summoning, and everything they summon looks like a ninja, and appears when conjured by stepping out of shadows and from behind cover. These conjureninjas can be used to try to assassinate, or cover a true ninja’s escape, but they are also often used as distractions while the true ninja carries out their actual mission, or as cover to all the true ninja to get closer to a target while looking just like the summoned ninjamancy. As a result hordes of ninja appear to jump out of nowhere, and experienced Hidden World agents know you need to kill them all, because one might be the true ninja you can’t afford to ignore.

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