An Alternative for Skill Challenges

Collaborative and narrative play are more my jam when it comes to roleplaying games. I like to leave breathing room for the players to be creative and inject something into the narrative within the confines of moral dilemmas and hard choices. Back in my Dungeons and Dragons days I made heavy use of skill challenges for action scenes as opposed to always using the combat game structure. This allowed me to confine my players to a particular situation whilst providing the aforementioned breathing room. However, I did find skill challenges had the danger of becoming too ‘control panel’ for my players so to rectify this I wanted to change the way players interacted with the mechanic and adapt to other d20 systems that use the 6 attributes but potentially not skills.

Some lovely dice spilled on a table! I find it nice to just break up text with an image.

What is a Skill Challenge?

A skill challenge was D&D 4E’s approach to providing structure to a scene of action that was not combat to encourage players to make more use of their varied skill lists. This structure was later popularised by Matt Colville in his YouTube series, Running the Game, in which he encouraged Dungeon Masters to incorporate the structure in their D&D 5E games.

The short of it is there are some number of successes that are required for a given scene before some number of failures is reached. These numbers are determined by the Dungeon Master. Players can then utilise each one of their skills once throughout the scene to help the party overcome it. They make their roll and mark whether or not it was a success or failure. All the while this scene is narrated and eventuates in either total failure or success. You can read more about it and find some examples at dungeonsmaster.com.

Some potential issues of Skill Challenges defined by D&D 4e is the risk of boredom from players utilising the same kind of skills, taking too long, and determining who has the greatest chance at using a particular skill, and the preparation for these could become quite a slog if you are hellbent on utilising each skill or even half of them – though of course you could be lazy and wing it like myself and likely many others. My new approach to utilising skill challenges takes the skills out of it and meshes it with elements from the One-Roll Engine (ORE).

A New Approach

This new approach involves the 6 attributes of your traditional d20 systems. The players will contribute varying dice sizes based on these attributes in a given round after which the collective pool of dice is rolled to determine if success was met. Success is determined by adding up the values one each dice, if it meets or exceeds 20, then the party is successful, otherwise the party has another round, but they must each use a different attribute than they already had individually.

Example: if the party consists of three players and they used Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma in the first round. Player 1 can no longer use Strength, player 2 can no longer use Wisdom, and player 3 can no longer use Charisma for any future rounds in this challenge.

Now, this may make it seem like the players cannot fail and that’s because failure is entirely up to them. After a pool of dice has been rolled at the end of the round, the players can choose to give up on the challenge and deal with the consequences. Consequences? Yes, for every duplicate result on the dice in the pool and previous pools of the challenge, a bad thing will happen to those involved. This could be anything that makes narrative sense or could be something as simple as some damage, a lost item, a drop in standing with an NPC, etc.

Procedure

  1. The Game Master outlines the situation, and determines a target number, and agrees on a goal with the players.
  2. The first round begins, and the Game Master asks each player in turn what attribute they would like to use for this round and a number of dice of maximum face values summed up to their attribute value. E.g., A player with 16 strength could use 1d12 or 1d8+1d6+1d2 or 2d8 or any other combination of maximum face values that is equal to or less than 16.
  3. Roll the dice: The collective pool of dice is rolled after everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
  4. Check for success: The dice values are summed and if it exceeds or meets the target number then the party is successful.
    • If they are not successful, repeat this procedure but the players can now not use their prior attributes and you must keep the individual dice values from this and all prior rounds.
  5. For each duplicate result, a bad thing happens. The Game Master determines this.
  6. Narrate the outcome including the consequences.

In Practice

Okay, so the procedure is there along with a preamble but how do you prepare for this and bring everything together? I have a brief example below alongside some general tips and caveats.

Firstly, the purpose of this is provide a structure for a scene in a game that has some stakes. The main question you are asking is: “How much are the players willing to risk reaching their goal?”. The more they invest into overcoming the scene, the more likely there are to be consequences, especially if it hits multiple rounds as they become more limited by which attributes they can choose.

Secondly, the target number should be chosen based on the system you are playing and what tone you are trying to set. You may find 20 is just too high and the players are having to use too many rounds to overcome the challenge or maybe you are playing some more heroic and 20 is easily met with too little consequences. I think a good rule of thumb is to aim for one round is usually enough alongside a 1-2 consequences per player and maybe a second round every now and then.

Thirdly, it may be prudent to prep the situation (NPCs involved, the general stakes, locations, etc) with some general goals in mind but remain open to what the players want out of this too as they have a say in step 1. Alongside this, the only other thing I would prep is just some general consequences that could happen and some specific consequences for the situation, however you could always just improvise this.

Example

Our cast:

  • Jimbob Jabowski, the cankerous healer played by Marley
    • STR: 12, DEX: 14, CON: 10, INT: 14, WIS: 14, CHA: 10
  • T-Rex, the cowardly gang boss played by Charli
    • STR: 14, DEX: 10, CON: 8, INT: 13, WIS: 10, CHA: 14
  • Hankering Hucklehugg, the oversharing pastry baker played by Fihr
    • STR: 14, DEX: 9, CON: 12, INT: 11, WIS: 14, CHA: 12

The Game Master: Each of you are lounging around in your makeshift den of mismatched, street furniture hosted in a long abandoned warehouse on the docks. It reeks of sweat and something like dead rats. A subtle smell of bananas lingers in the air – that’s new.

Charli: I am going to walk away from wherever that smell is strongest and eat some of Fihr’s old pastries.

Marley: Where is the smell coming from?

The Game Master: As you all become more aware of the smell, a crazed and gargantuan sentient banana smashes through the door to your sweet digs. It looks to your portable kitchen on wheels Fihr. Large globs of saliva spatter on the stone ground. It is clearly hungry and it is not going to let anything get in its way of your delicious pastries.

Charli: yeep

Marley: Ouch, my ulcers. It smells too great!

Fihr: Yee gads, me pastries!

The Game Master: This is a target number 20 challenge. What is your goal here? Are you going to take it down with brute force, lure it away, or something else?

Party (in unison and maybe song): We’re going to kick its peel off!

The Game Master: Okay, it’s bearing down fixated on the portable kitchen. Marley, what are you contributing to this effort?

Marley: I am using my Dexterity to intercept the banana and trip it up with some fishing wire attached to a support beam. I have 14 in my Dexterity so I am going to contribute 2d4+1d6.

The Game Master: Charli? Same question.

Charli: I am using my Strength to run away with the portable kitchen. Those are my pastries dammit! I want to try to avoid any duplicate results so I am going to contribute just 1d12.

The Game Master: You’re up Fihr!

Fihr: Hmm I don’t really care about those pastries but damn, I loved that door. I am going to try and help Marley trip this thing over by tackling it with my Strength. So I will contribute 2d6.

The Game Master: Okay, *rolls 2d4+3d6+1d12* and the results are {3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 3}. Ouch, that only totals to 15 and you have 3 duplicates! Okay, Marley you stretch the fishing line across and the banana trips up and crashes down onto Fihr and then rolls over and pins you to another support pillar Marley. Both of you take damage. Charli, you took off running but the banana had launched some smashed banana from its split open head as it fell which caused you to slip over, you have the wind knocked out of you. The portable kitchen has rolled out through the backdoor where another banana was waiting! Are you all still invested in this?

Marley: No way! How many bananas are there? I’m out!

Charli: Do you even need to ask? I’m gone.

Fihr: They busted me door! But I suppose I look around and see that I am not backed up, I think I will have to retreat for now.

The Game Master: You cowards flee your warehouse, the sound of sloppy munching can be heard. You all have the sinking feeling that these bananas have just found their new hunting ground.

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GRIMOIRE Ashcan Edition is Now Available

The past month has been a busy one for me as I have been required to tend to other aspects of my life, but this week I found some time to draft up the next version of GRIMOIRE. The development of GRIMOIRE this week involved some basic layout, a touch of graphic design, and scouring the internet for some pretty pictures. Though I have many more ideas for GRIMOIRE, I believe that I need to step back from it and expose it to a wider audience before I begin implementing more changes – this way the experiences of more people can help shape my ideas and the development of GRIMOIRE.

GRIMOIRE - a solo roleplaying game of wizardry.

In the hopes to reach a wider audience, this version of GRIMOIRE will be released as a PWYW. I believe there is a good amount of content already within the game, but I hope to add more study locations in the next edition of the game. I left the list of study locations that I am intending to create in this version so as to give people a better idea of the tone of the game. Maybe I will see people suggest some changes or additions to this list.

Speaking of changes and additions, I already have a few ideas about how to expand GRIMOIRE for the next edition. First, I want to see how others play and enjoy (hopefully) the game before I begin designing, though one system I will be tinkering with on the blog sooner rather than later is the spell generation. From the beginning, I have not been totally pleased with it as I find the tables can be cumbersome and limiting. I enjoy the cards and the referencing aspect of it because it feels a little like mystical research, I think an interesting alternative would be to somehow assign physical books that people own to card suits or numbers or whatever. This is something that I will be exploring in upcoming blog posts and will likely find its way into GRIMOIRE.

On layout and editing: Will I do it again? Yes. Will I enjoy it? Maybe. I do enjoy the design aspect of layout, but it can become very monotonous for me after a while, and it was difficult to come up with a cohesive design because I was only able to work on the development of GRIMOIRE intermittently. I like the final design I went with and I have learned a lot about using Affinity Publisher, particularly the quirks it has with tables *Shakes fist*.

If you are interested in playing GRIMOIRE, you can find it here on my itch.io page. If you have any feedback, criticisms, or ideas then I would love to hear about them. You can either post a comment here on the itch.io page, or on my twitter. Happy Wizarding!

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Grimoire Development Post #2

Grimoire is making steady progress. I have just finished creating version 0.3 of Grimoire and I am opening it up for wider public testing. The first round of feedback was very helpful in the development of Grimoire and I am hoping that I can receive even more feedback to ensure that I can develop something that people will enjoy. This post will explore the series of changes that I have made to the game and describe some of the current issues I have or features to be included in future version.

Cover page for the final version of Grimoire.
Figure 1. This is the current cover page I am intending to use for the final document.

Changes to Grimoire

I have a leaned further into my inspirations for this project and have now included multiple journal prompts for the Quest entries. To better utilise these entries, I have also introduced a new resource that will have players interact it: friends and foes. These are the two major inclusions of this version along with the beginning of a more in depth wizard creation and some random tables that can be used as inspiration for journal prompts.

In the first round of playtesting, I found that the game could become somewhat repetitive and with minimal player interactivity. To mitigate this, I included multiple journal prompts for each entry that is involved with the Quest procedure. Players will likely be spending most of their time with this action, as such, I wanted to include prompts that explored certain themes or told a small narrative. This current model worked well in Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and it seems to work well here.

To work alongside the multiple journal prompts, I introduced a new resource that interacts with Quests. Friends and foes activate when certain conditions are met in the drawing of cards for a Quest. They simply work to make things more challenging or easier and provide another twist in the narrative for a player to include in their prompt. I have yet to fully implement it as it requires reviewing many of the journal prompts that already exist which will likely come in the next version. For now, players can simply create a single friend and single foe at the start of the game.

Finally, I wanted to provide players early in the game with a touch more structure to support them in responding to journal prompts. It often takes me a little while to fully immerse myself into a new narrative and by having a player do some initial development, I hope to make this process faster. This includes some simple additions such as creating a name, drive, flaw, and a way to commune with the ley lines. I intend to expand this with some details about the study, however this is a significant feature that will be included in a later version.

Features to be Included

As mentioned, I have several ideas in the works for Grimoire. Firstly, I need to fully implement the friend and foe resource which will require reworking journal prompts. This is something that I was intending to do regardless as they are still quite rough, in particular the prompts for Researching in the City as they mostly lack consequences.

Secondly, I am going to be including multiple options for research locations. Some of these can be seen in the current version, though they are struck out and do not have their respective prompts included. This is a large part of the study aspect of creating as wizard and I am hoping to finish a few of these before I expand on that further.

Finally, I am currently not happy with the manner of spell generation. I think it works well but the aspect that I am least happy with is the Offerings section. I feel like it should be vaguer and more open to interpretation. As it currently stands, it is far too prescriptive for my liking and feels somewhat jarring compared to the rest of the game. I also believe that providing some examples of spell generation within the document itself may support players in tackling that system.

Playtest

If you are interested in trying out the current draft of Grimoire you can find a DropBox download link below. This is quite a rough draft, but I have included a table of contents to help players navigate the document. I am now one step closer to doing some nicer layout work in Affinity Publisher but for now my drafts can remain drafted up in a word processer. I am still implementing features!

Considering this is a rough draft please keep in mind:

  • There is inconsistent phrasing.
  • Likely numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes.
  • No art.
  • Useable but ugly layout that is inconsistent (tables in word processers hurt me).

If you would like to provide constructive feedback, you can leave a comment here or @BardicInquiry on twitter. I hope, at the very least, you find some joy in playing the game in its current form.

Download GRIMOIRE v0.3

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Kaiju Generator

Kaiju is a fixation of a student of mine. Every time this student is given the opportunity to create something, it is always about a Kaiju and he will talk to me non-stop about them. I love it! A new project was started this week which means more discussion of Kaiju for me, so I thought I would throw together this Kaiju Generator in hopes to pass on the passion of this student to you all.

A Kaiju begins as an unknown monster but is rooted in familiarity.
Photo by Innermost Limits from Pexels

What is a Kaiju?

To put it simply, Kaiju refers to a genre of film that originated in Japan that featured giant monsters, but it can also refer to the giant monsters themselves. The actions of these giant monsters are typically devastating to the planet and pose a global threat. This can range from the intentional destruction of infrastructure or, my student’s favourite, the combat between two giant monsters.

From these discussions with my student and some brief reading on my part, I have discovered that, like most film genres, Kaiju is inherently political (Kaiju Cinema Narratives, Twiggyabsinthe) or representative of society in nature (The Theory and Appeal of Giant Monsters, Red Wedge Magazine). Typically, from the perspective of hubris or the fallout of another people’s actions (King of the Monsters and History of Kaiju Movies, James Hanton). I will not discuss the theories behind the origin of Kaiju as a genre of film as I do not believe I can add much to that discussion, but I will use what I have read to help you create a devastating Kaiju that you can use in your campaigns.

Laying the foundations for an adventure

I am not typically the kind of game master to create a plot and I have yet to fully immerse myself into the idea of a front or similar mechanic as described in Dungeon World. Instead, I like to create situations instead of plots as described by Justin Alexander (Don’t Prep Plots, Justin Alexander). In essence, Justin suggests that a game master lays the foundations for a situation and create the entities involved instead of writing a series of events and contingencies for player actions. The idea behind this is that you set the game up to be reactive to the players, providing them an opportunity to steer the narrative through their character’s actions.

With this in mind, I believe this Kaiju generator will work best if you create the Kaiju and generate an initial plot hook. From this point, the non-player characters and locations that require fleshing out will become clear. The solution for the Kaiju is not for you to know but for your players to create. Most Kaiju films typically begin with scientists observing a strange phenomenon which leads to the witnessing of the Kaiju itself. This works beautifully as a plot hook for your players. The table below suggests six different plot hooks in this theme.

Plot Hook (Roll 1d6)
1. A town or part of the city has sunken beneath the ground after violent tremors.
2. Several lakes and rivers have been seen boiling or evaporating rapidly, and the ground around them is very hot.
3. The ocean has risen, and towns are flooding.
4. A mountain exploded, and large tracks of an unknown beast were sighted nearby
5. People are complaining of a strange voice speaking in an unknown language in their heads
6. An isolated people have begun a strange ritual that seems to impact the weather
A table to spark ideas for an initial plot hook themed to a Kaiju adventure.

Generate a Kaiju

To generate a Kaiju to be used in your campaigns or adventures, roll 1d20 for each of the following four tables (1d10 for the last) or simply choose the results that sound cool. This will create a Kaiju for you in the form of: A gigantic [form] that [has this ability]. It was [something else], now, it is [accomplishing a goal].

A gigantic…

Roll 1d20
1. Lizard11. Hawk
2. Ape12. Earthworm
3. Moth13. Mole
4. Centipede14. Snake
5. Crab15. Squid
6. Toad16. Shark
7. Spider17. Slug
8. Wasp18. Tortoise
9. Scorpion19. Rhinoceros
10. Bat20. Platypus
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the form of the Kaiju.

That…

Roll 1d20
1. Spews acid11. Has hundreds of eyes
2. Has multiple heads12. Has dozens of limbs
3. Radiates disease13. Absorbs the life force of everything around it
4. Has a sonic scream14. Fires lasers
5. That teleports short distances15. Emits psychic bursts
6. Has metal skin16. Is made of hard crystal
7. Is made of waste and pollution17. Oozes slime
8. Creates illusions18. Can change state (solid, liquid, gas, plasma)
9. Breathes fire19. Disrupts and creates electrical and magnetic fields
10. Glows20. Create clones of itself
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the ability of the Kaiju.

It was…

Roll 1d20
1. From the far reaches of space11. Frozen in a glacier for many years
2. Created by extra-terrestrial beings12. An orbiting moon
3. Normal until exposed to radiation13. Originally the denizens of a city
4. Normal until exposed to pollution14. Created by the nightmares of those asleep
5. A laboratory experiment15. Once the lost souls of a battlefield
6. From another dimension16. Once from the future
7. A god of an ancient civilisation17. Hatched from an egg
8. From beneath the ocean18. The result of a summoning gone wrong
9. Created in the core of the planet19. The manifestation of collective magic
10. Once an island20. A war machine, now turned sentient
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the origin of the Kaiju.

Now, it is…

Roll 1d10
1. Seeking revenge on those who disturbed it6. Acquiring devout worshipers
2. A tool for a secret faction7. Mistaking an artificial structure for a mate
3. Protecting its territory8. Hiding from a greater threat
4. Guarding a powerful resource9. Rampaging across the land
5. Protecting the denizens of this world10. Controlled by a hidden figure
Roll 1d10 on this table to determine the goal of the Kaiju.

Putting it together

To ensure clarity I am including my use of this generator and thoughts of how I would approach using this information.

  • For my plot hook I rolled: A mountain exploded, and large tracks of an unknown beast were sighted nearby.
  • The Kaiju generated was: A giant wasp that creates illusions. It was normal until exposed to pollution and now it is a tool for a secret faction.

Now that I have both the plot hook and kaiju, I already have some ideas floating around in my head. My initial thought was to do with how those tracks were placed as I rolled a wasp. The tracks are going to be slight depressions in an array like that of the six face on a six-sided die to represent each leg of the wasp.

I also want to integrate the ability of this Kaiju in the initial investigation, so the nearby settlements of this mountain were heavily damaged and there is some relief support. Given the disruption, some of these depressions are filled with water and are now being used as an emergency water source. However, shortly after this, the people of these settlements are explaining wild stories of a giant insect erupting from the mountain or only hearing a constant buzzing. Maybe this will make the players think that these people are just hallucinating from drinking the stagnant water.

Because the Kaiju is a tool for a secret faction and was created from pollution, I think it makes sense that a mining corporation is involved. Their day-to-day operations produce a large amount of waste in some form and this has had an adverse effect on a nearby wasp hive. Maybe they discovered some strange, unknown material instead of pollution through their operations too. Whatever it may be, this led to the eventual discovery of the giant wasp of which they trained to support their mining operations. Instead of mining a mountain out, they just had their wasp destroy it and now they are the faction providing relief support by cleaning up the mountain. Why do to the trouble? Maybe it was a licensing issue, maybe it was a rival corporations mountain, maybe it was something else entirely.

From here I know that I must create the destroyed settlements and its people and a mining corporation to set this adventure up. I think it is sounding like the beginning of a wild adventure of corporate espionage. In any case, I hope you found this helpful.

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Play Report: The Wretched

The Wretched is a solo roleplaying game by Chris Bissette that has the player take on the role as the lone survivor of a salvage ship. It is also an intense play experience that inspires dread through its choice of narrative tools and mechanics.

In the game your ship was struck by an asteroid which resulted in engine failure. The crew were all killed by an alien life-form, and now, you must strive to restore the engines and prevent the creature from getting back inside to finish the job. This post is a play report and my reflections of my time spent playing The Wretched.

The Wretched by Chris Bessette.
Figure 1. The Wretched game booklet with artfully positioned Jenga blocks and a deck of playing cards.

How Do You Play The Wretched?

The Wretched utilises a deck of playing cards with the jokers removed, a Jenga tower, a six-sided die, some tokens, and wraps it all up with journal prompts. The game largely operates with the following procedure:

  1. Roll die.
  2. Draw that many cards.
  3. Respond to the prompts.
  4. Pull from the tower if required.

A game of The Wretched lasts around 30 minutes and left me in a delightfully heightened state.

Reflection

Chris suggests that players record their journal prompt responses as audio or video logs after the cards have been responded to. When I played this game, I chose to type up my log and read them out loud as I did so, but I discovered that I may not have given this game the justice it deserved. Each time I read my entry out loud, it felt exciting and helped put me in the role of this lone survivor. It felt more real to say what was happening and act it out with my body than simply just type it on my computer. If you play this game, I highly suggest you record an audio or a video log like Chris suggests because he is right, it is the better experience.

The use of the Jenga tower blends beautifully with the themes of the game and helps to inspire dread. It is used to represent the state of the salvage ship. Most cards will have you pull from the tower and they typically make narrative sense. Each time I bumped my table while playing my heart raced when I saw that tower wobble. To further add to this sense of dread, when all four kings are drawn, the alien life-form will gain access to the ship. Never knowing when each king will arrive is nerve wracking, especially when you already have two or three drawn. And to top it off, you are rolling a six-sided die each day and could be drawing anywhere from one to six cards. I never knew how I would die or when it would happen, but I needed to draw those cards. I needed to survive! The Wretched creates an intense play experience much like that of Dread by imposing a feeling of urgency and suspense.

When I first began playing The Wretched, I felt at odds with the game. I believe this initial feeling was due to Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV) as my only prior experience of authoring solo RPGs which is an entirely different game. TYOV is a slow burn while The Wretched is fast and terrifying. Once I realised this, I quickly became hooked.

I am looking forward to the next time I play The Wretched. This time I am going to follow Chris’ advice record an audio log instead of typing it out. If you like sci-fi horror and feeling on edge, I recommend sitting down for thirty minutes and playing a game of The Wretched.

Game Log

Day 1, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. The other members of the crew are dead, and the engines remain non-operational, though ship integrity remains good and life support systems are still active. I successfully jettisoned the intruder from the airlock, but it remains alive and continues to try to access the ship. With a little luck I can repair the distress beacon, and somebody will pick me up. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 2, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I hear it scraping on the outside of the ship, the alarm rings and I try to close it out. I try to remember Lucy. We had the beginnings of something before it came, but I ruined it. Not that it matters anyway. I just wish I had said something, instead of being silent. She was opening to me, trying to be intimate and close and I just did not respond. Now she is dead. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 3, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. The life system keeps making an unhealthy grinding noise, and I do not know what the problem is. I do not know what I will do if it fails, maybe I will try to survive off the reserve air in the portable oxygen tanks. They would not last long. I tried for an escape from the ship using one of the lander modules, but the blasted thing was damaged beyond repair from when the asteroid struck us. I jettisoned it in the hopes the creature would take for it. In disarray I sought some level of control. The internals of the ship were heavily damaged from the encounter with the creature. I fixed all the structural damage, at least the ship creaks less now. This Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 4, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I still remember their screams, though distantly as I hid inside a large salvage bin. I returned to the bin today and found the journal of Lucy. I do not remember taking it there or ever having possession of it. She seemed to be missing her friends back home the most. I wish I did say something back to her. The audio scratched on today, it was the creature, I am sure of it. I cut the comms quickly but not before I heard a distorted chirping and clicking. Mold sprung up in some of the food stores and with the climate control on the fritz, I just sealed it up and hope it holds long enough. Something got into the vents today, I am not sure what it is but to be safe I have padded my feet to prevent myself from making noise when I move around the ship. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 5, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I have taken to calling the creature Chirp because of the noise it made earlier. Maybe I am right and that is how it refers to itself. I heard a faint hissing sound which set me to panic but I quickly saw an oxygen pipe leaking. It must have happened during the collision. It took some time, but it is fixed now. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 6, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. That creature drags itself along the outside of the ship. It is the only way it could make that constant scraping sound. The water purification system barely works, and the water smells faintly of ammonia. It is nauseating. The power shut down and the backup generator did not work. I managed to salvage some parts from the backup for main gen and it is working now, but I do not like my chances of survival anymore. I remember Malak – he jumped in front of the creature to give us all time when it first broke into the ship. It did not buy us much and we could still hear his screams when we ran. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I say something?

Day 7, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. Lucy just wanted to talk about a dream, to talk about her fears of us being struck by an asteroid. I did not want to open myself up to that kind of fear. She seemed so stressed and fearful; I did not want to listen… I should have listened. When I was hiding in the salvage bin, the lights changed colour and warped like the particles were entering a magnetic field. That damn creature remembers things. It remembers the door I jettisoned it out of. I could not close the airlock and it comes around at least once a day to try its luck. I never did see the creature properly when it first attacked. It just chirped and occasionally clicked when it moved. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 8, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I had a close call today. The creature tore one of the habitat modules off, but I thankfully heard the tearing of metal in time to allow myself to close off that section of the ship. It could not get in. I followed a long corridor today. The gouges and scratches left by the creature. I think it must be covered in wide, short spikes it uses to drag itself about. I had a little hope restored today when I heard some comms chatter from a distant ship. I do not think they noticed me but maybe tomorrow they will. They were talking about some sport, I think. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 9, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I gathered the bodies of the crew I was closest too. It took most of the day. I did not know what to say to remember them by… All I said was that I was sorry, sorry they are dead and sorry that I hid. Lucy was among them. I could not jettison them. They are still there. I saw some movement amongst the bodies in a sealed off portion of the ship. I do not know what it was, maybe it was the creature feeding? I disabled the proximity alarms; I could not handle them on top of the constant scraping sound. I found a sample of the creature today, some strange looking maroon piece of flesh. Maybe it is an arm? It is covered in rigid spines. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 10, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I cannot sleep. I keep dreaming of Lucy. The creature. Everyone. That creature haunts my dreams and I hear my friends dying repeatedly. What is that? Something is inside. Ohhh the scraping. It’s… IT’S INSIDE THE SHIP! I HAVE TO HIDE!

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Grimoire Development Post #1

Grimoire is steadily making some progress. As with all projects in the early stages of development, I have multiple directions that I could go in. In any case, it will be an authoring solo roleplaying games because I believe that will bolster the artefact created – the grimoire, bolstered by including journal entries from the wizard that created it. Currently, the game is set in a fairly standard fantasy city setting and its surrounding region. I am not sure if I will change this in future, though the inkling is there.

Currently the game works with two modes of play, both of which involve differing amounts of writing journal entries by the player. The reason they are different is simply to keep things feeling fresh and to ensure that spell generation is quick without needing to spend most of the time undertaking creative writing – that is not the sole point of the game. Spell creation is.

Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game.
Figure 1. Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game

Modes of Play

My initial draft required many journal entries to be written, so much so that I spent two hours playing the game and I had only created 3 spells! Since then, I streamlined the journal prompt generation through the two modes of play: Research and Quest, and I made the game a touch more deadly. The game is much faster now and can be completed within 1-2 hours of play with more spells created and fewer journal entries.

Research is the first mode of play. It involves the player spending Coin to conduct their research in the safety of their office within the city. Currently, this mode works like the spell generation except at the end of it the cards that are used are shuffled and one is drawn to generate a journal prompt. After which, all cards are discarded to reflect the energy given by the wizard to interact with magic.

Quest is the second mode of play. It involves the player spending time away from their study or the city entirely in search of something – often Coin to conduct research with and sometimes other items like magical artefacts that allow cards from the discard pile to be returned to the deck. This is a far more deadly portion of the game as the journal prompts here tend towards the dangerous and instead of one journal prompt, a player will respond to a minimum of three to complete a quest. In this section, each entry for a card has three prompts much like Thousand Year Old Vampire portrays journal prompts. The reason I chose to implement this is to provide a more satisfying story arc across quests and because these cards are not discarded, therefore repeats may occur. It would be boring to have to respond to the same prompt time and time again.

So far, these two game structures work well, and it helps bring more flavour into the world while providing the player an opportunity to explore the wizard character. However, I am not entirely sold on this approach and I am considering changing it to focus even more on the creation of a spell and the drawing a glyph. Possibly extending the time of creating a spell by incorporating more of that into the Quest game structure. I am also undecided on whether or not to keep the original method for generating spells with cards or to adapt it more to Grimoire. It works fine as is, but I wonder if it could be better or, at least, different.

The Setting

I was not sure about a setting and I am still not sure of the setting that I have chosen for Grimoire just yet. The game is set in a fairly typical fantasy world that does not try to be too different so as to not have the wizards and grimoires created feel out of place when transferred to your worlds. It is centred around the City of Athanasia which is a pearlescent city of white created by a mysterious figure: The Great Wizard. None know them and none speak with them but from time to time, people do see them. Several journal prompts refer to The Great Wizard so as to provide a moment for the wizard to reflect on magic and their progress.

The surrounding land is again fairly standard, though quite humanised. Wizards will meet a variety of characters from wizard hunters to dream merchants to simple mercenaries. It is designed to flexible and easily ported to your own world. In saying this, a part of is considering removing the surrounding area and focusing solely on the city or maybe changing the city into a university or library of some kind where wizards conduct research. Another option is to include both. After all, the journal entry prompts for the city are the smallest because they only have 1 prompt each instead of the 3 that exists for Quests.

Overall, the game is developing nicely, and my head is swimming with ideas. Soon I want to start having others playtest it and maybe then I will begin to have some answers to my questions above.

For now, you too should listen to the humming of the ley lines to keep up with news about Grimoire by following this blog below. I would also appreciate hearing your thoughts, questions, or ideas over at twitter.

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Using Tanglegrams for Dungeon Crawling

EDIT: I honed in on that tree. I saw nothing but it and I heard nothing but the clacking of my keyboard as I typed up this post. Upon stepping back… Alas! I saw point crawls.

Dungeon crawling has been the standard game structure for many roleplaying games for a long time. During this time people have presented all manners of preparing them from a series of randomly generated encounter tables for every room or corridor to entire algorithms that generate the dungeons and its mundane contents. Some game masters run them with the notes written near each room, others have a separate sheet of paper and a key to match descriptions to rooms, and some game masters are mad and ad hoc the whole thing. I have tried each of these methods with varying degrees of success, but I was never entirely satisfied with how they played out. I recently learned of tanglegrams which are like mindmaps that emphasise the relationship between people and things – you can read more about them in my original post here – and I believe they would work very well for helping your dungeons feel more interesting.

Figure 1. A randomly generated dungeon from donjon.

I believe the greatest impact on my dissatisfaction was my misunderstanding of how a dungeon crawl runs and using a system that did not actually supply rules to facilitate them, so I defaulted to the absolute basics of the dungeon crawl structure outlined in the article Game Structures – Part 3: Dungeoncrawl by Justin Alexander. This structure works well, and a session run this way can prove to be enjoyable – after all, a narrative can still be spun, but it is lacking in defining how these rooms are connected in the dungeon. In more traditional games, rules are supplied for exploring a dungeon and it can often involve turns with random encounters or resource management that is influenced by corridor length. Corridors being the connectors of the rooms in a dungeon. Without those rules, the dungeon can fall flat and lose that sense of exploration unless a game master particularly accounts for the corridors. Tanglegrams can provide an easy way to prepare these corridors between rooms because the corridor between rooms, in a way, is how these rooms relate to each other.

How does this work?

Take the dungeon above that was generated using the donjon random dungeon generator. It features four rooms, three dead ends, an entryway, and stairs leading down. The first step is to convert this into a tanglegram that has each room and a line connecting them to represent the corridor – the relationship. You can see my interpretation of this below.

Figure 2. The first step in converting or creating a dungeon with a tanglegram.

Currently this tanglegram form of the dungeon is less interesting as it has less twists and turns, however this leads to a cleaner interface for the game master to work with. The advantage of this cleaner interface is now more detail can be added to those corridors as there is more space to work with. In Figure 2 I have included the dead ends as dotted lines and attempted to maintain the relative positions and size of the four rooms which are all connected with curved lines. The lines with arrows signify entrances and exits respective of the arrow direction. I suppose you could go into as much detail as necessary for this step but then you may as well map the dungeon in a more traditional way. The next step involves populating the dungeon. I am going to gloss over the actual rooms and begin to add in details for how they are connected, however when this is done the rooms should be considered as this allows the game master to foreshadow things from the rooms that are connected. You can see this below.

Figure 3. The next stage of the tanglegram dungeon with relationships mapped.

The tanglegram dungeon now looks a little more interesting with the included substance and more importantly: the relationships that connect the rooms and intersections. I suppose one could include more detail and even highlight encounters and the like in these relationships, but I elected to maintain the purity of the relationships between rooms. That first corridor connecting room two and three allows a game master to describe the feel of that connection and add a little bit of information for the players to consider – the splashing. This is further used in the connection between three and one and then one and four where the growing sound of voices becomes clearer. At a glance, it is easy to see where the party is heading and what hints you can provide them which should support them in their agency and decision-making. However, the greatest strength of mapping a dungeon in this manner is that flexibility to provides in what these connections can look like, for example I made the connection between one and four a shaft leading upwards instead of a corridor. Because this method does not care for geographical accuracy, the flexibility for connections increases. All a game master has to do when the party enters a room is check the connections it has and describe it as such alongside whatever else they had planned to occur in that room.

This method is not without limitations. Dead ends can still behave strangely with this approach as they are not necessarily rooms but still exist as an entity that is not just a connection. To get around this one might elect to treat them as such or use them as flavouring along the connection to break it up such as the raised platform in Figure 3. Lastly, this approach does not elicit the same feeling of exploration as the more traditional dungeon crawling, instead it provides flavour and more pseudo-choice for the players.

Overall, I think this is an approach that is worth exploring if you lack the rules for traditional dungeon crawling, you find that style of play not to your taste, or you want to adapt it to bolster the way you run corridors. Though this approach is limited with certain aspects of dungeons like dead ends and only working for theatre-of-the-mind games, it does provide an excellent strength in the form of flexible mapping in which a game master can include all sorts of strange and different types of corridors that connect rooms such as the ladder shaft above.

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Introducing Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game

This is an old post that introduced the original idea for GRIMOIRE. You can find the released version of GRIMOIRE at itch here.

As discussed, I have been developing a solo roleplaying game that has the player take the role of a wizard. By the end of the game, the player will have several randomly generated spells in the form of a grimoire and a brief journal detailing the life of the wizard that created it. It is my hope that this will be an enjoyable way for game masters to create new spells or entire grimoires for their campaigns. I have tentatively settled on the name: Grimoire.

Figure 1. Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette: Two of my favourite solo RPGs.

During the development of Grimoire, I have been scouring the internet to find similar titles, adjacent subsystems, and more solo roleplaying games with the hopes to expand my palette. Today I found a gem, Sigils in the Dark by Kurt Potts, that does something similar to my fantasy spell generator I released a few days ago. There are several key differences, namely the manner in which the graphics representing the spell are created where mine has a penchant for more detail and variety. In spite of this, I have had a great deal of fun using Sigils and I recommend checking it out – though the journaling aspect of it is quite minimal.

This week I have also been exploring Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette. Wretched was a quick dip in to explore some more solo RPGs, however I have found that its clarity of the rules to be helpful and it is making me consider whether or not I should reduce the thematic of the layout and design of Grimoire, as seen in the spell generator, in place of something more minimal that allows for greater reader comprehension. Vampire is whole other beast. It is a phenomenal game with a great deal of replay-ability and it is a huge inspiration for Grimoire. The system of multi-level journal prompts leads to interesting side plots throughout the course of your vampire’s life. In Grimoire I am now working on 166 different journal prompts. This is not as much as in Vampire but is a significant number that should allow for suitable replay-ability of this game.

The first draft of the rules for Grimoire is almost complete. Once I have created most of these journal prompts then I can begin playtesting and tinkering. As it stands, the game functions like other journalling RPGs with a management of resources such as Coinage, Wounds, and Corruption – what is magic without a healthy dose of twisting manifestations of magic? As cards are drawn, they provide journal prompts while allowing the player to generate spells but the game will also drive players to undertake a variety of quests to change how spell generation works and to support the management of the aforementioned resources.

I hope to begin playtesting next week which means that I will hopefully be able to release a public playtesting draft for people to have a tinker with. After that, I will likely release it onto itch.io.

DOWNLOAD GRIMOIRE

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One-Page RPG: Collaborative Taskforces

Collaborative Taskforces is such a tacky and cumbersome title but that is the exact reason it is so fitting for my first attempt at a GMless one-page RPG. My day job has been throwing around some buzzwords of late and in spite of my shown cynicism in this one-page RPG, I believe it is leading to something good. However, I still found that I needed to vent some of my frustrations with “office talk” so I made an untested one-page RPG that makes a mockery of it!

Figure 1. I think I had a nightmare like this

In this game players will be “luckily” chosen to participate in a new initiative at their corporate office job. It has them involved in working with people from other departments while tackling tough problems on top of their regular duties and to top it off, the employees that do not perform will be fired at the end of the day.

I am sure this kind of work may be suited to some people but I do not find any joy in it. I believe you will find this reflected in the primary resolution mechanic which has players on a downward spiral unless they can risk the whole project or ensure that they are seen when they do something positive. Is it bleak? Yes. Am I cynical? Sometimes.

I also thought this might be a good opportunity to practice using some graphics and laying out the page. I think it worked out okay though it was something slapped together. I had one issue with a particular image becoming jagged around the edges after export. I tried everything except changing the image but no amount of messing with DPI or rasterising settings seemed to fix it. I think it may have been caused by me inadvertently changing the size of the image when it was grouped with some other layer. Whoops.

Anyway, I hope you find joy in this whether that is snickering as you read the wonderful job title generator or if you play it with your pals and laugh about being fired at the end of the day. Let me know what you think!

This link will take you to itch.io where you can preview the game and download it for free: Collaborative Taskforces Download

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Fantasy Spell Generation

Spells that are esoteric, wizards that are deranged and corrupted by magic, and mysterious magical symbolism are all features of some of my most enjoyed fantasy in roleplaying games. For this reason, I have been working on a solo RPG that, by the end, will have the player in possession of a grimoire of spells and a brief history of the wizard that created them. I think this could have great results when porting the grimoires into other fantasy games, however I have yet to finish designing the game. In the meantime, I wanted to show off the spell creation process as it currently stands. WARNING: Some of the spell offerings here depict violent or aggressive acts.

Figure 1. A spell randomly generated using the process I developed for a solo RPG I am also working on.

The above image demonstrates the type of spells that can be created using my process. The spells are referred to as Opus Phenomena Vicissitude because I thought it sounded neat and mystical. Each Opus Phenomena Vicissitude includes a spell name to provide just enough information as to what it might do, a requirement of the spell that must be offered to cast the spell, and finally the glyph which is mostly just for show in the grimoire. Imagine handing a scroll or a whole tome of these to a player! I know I would be excited to delve into it.

To create spells like the one depicted in figure 1 you can use the process described in the download at the bottom of this post. It should be noted that I have taken aspects of the design out that related to the solo RPG for your convenience of generating spells without becoming bogged down in other details. For this, you will need a set of playing cards with both Jokers removed, some paper, a pencil, and a mind for the dark arts.

I know elements of this process can be a tad vague but that is by design to allow flexibility in the interpretation of spell names and glyph-making. Hopefully, I can find the sweet spot before releasing the solo RPG. In the name of the RPG community, I hope you find this helpful and I would be happy to receive some feedback as I do know that these things can be difficult to describe to someone else who has not been working on it and some of those tables are large which can make them difficult to read.

This link will take you to Dropbox so you can download the document: Opus Phenomena Vicissitude

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