huth_GR_gazcover_frontPlanets of Peril and Vengeance, Arranged From A-Z

An impossibly distant future. A vast sprawl of planets, each without parallel, with its own bizarre customs, bedeviling procedures, and wily inhabitants.
As one of the implacable revenge-seekers populating The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, you know that correct intelligence on these worlds makes all the difference between grim success and howling failure.
As a GM running The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, this exhaustive cataloging of the planets and places of Jack Vance’s classic science fiction cycle will keep your players hopping.
As a fan of Jack Vance who wouldn’t know a d6 from an intersplit engine, this indispensable guidebook gathers the beauty and danger of his incomparable worlds into one handy reference.

  • Plan your next jaunt to the glass towers of Alphanor, the Groaning Ocean of Ladaque-Royale, or the Oxygen Marshes of Cuenos Notos, where frolics the delicious five-horned darango.
  • Compare the amenities of such establishments as the splendid (if overpriced) Hotel Tarquin, the notorious Wild Isle resort, and the blackmailer-ridden Sin-San’s Tavern.
  • Contemplate the technical specifications of interstellar space-yachts, packets and liners.
  • Learn of the Reach’s currencies, surveillance technologies, and computing devices.
  • Study with academic detachment weapons ranging from the subtly lethal air-tube to the ostentatiously combustible flame-staff, from the workaday projac to the highly illegal Dys Model G Skull-splitter.

Brought to you by renowned excavators of Vancian lore Christopher Smith Adair, Peter Freeman and Jim Webster, this book will not protect you from accusations of weaselry.

But it can tell you which planet you might best escape to when such charges fly.

Stock #: PELV02 Author: Christopher Smith Adair, Peter Freeman and Jim Webster
Artist: Chris Huth Pages: 72pg, 6 x 9, Perfect Bound

Pre-order Now

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I designed DramaSystem to allow groups to impose their own dynamic on play. It gives you a framework and lets you decide what to do with it. So when it turns out that one-shot games tend to take on a cutthroat edge, that’s not because I installed structures to make that happen. In fact, I pulled back from a structure that encouraged that, when I moved from suggesting that a single session game move toward a definite resolution to a preference for a game that feels like the first episode of a serialized drama. I used to recommend that PCs be able to kill each other in the final round of single session play, as you might expect at the end of a Fiasco or Skulduggery game. Allowing that forces the group into a PVP mold and distorts what DramaSystem feels like when you run it in the ongoing format it’s tuned for.

When a more openly PVP feel emerges, it happens because that’s what’s natural and organic to that group that night, not because a clock ticks steadily to a kill-or-be-killed end-state.

Not all groups gravitate toward this. Demo groups encountering the rules for the first time tend to be more cautious as they orient themselves to the system. Conveniently, this feels more like the first episode of an ongoing game than a quickly escalating one-shot, suiting demo purposes perfectly.

In an ongoing game you naturally pace out your character’s emotional arc to give lots of room for growth over the course of many episodes, rather than quickly transforming over the course of a few scenes. You change your relationships with other cast members incrementally, not through successive emotional leapfrogs. Big betrayals don’t happen right away, because you’re reluctant to burn your bridges with characters you’ll be interacting with for a long time.

If as a GM you want your one-shot to feel more like a pilot episode, look for a Series Pitch that dials back the external stakes. Seek out premises where the characters aren’t arrayed in a power structure. If there’s a king, or a chieftain, or a chief of station, a one-shot left to its devices defaults toward a struggle to displace him. Tighten the focus of the main cast to make them all peers. To play with themes of power without going cutthroat, establish a NPC as the authority figure, and give the players something to do other than scheme to get rid of him. Call the first scene to give the group an external threat to cooperate against.

Published Series Pitches with subtler stakes include Andrew Peregrine’s “Vice and Virtue”, Jesse Bullington’s “The White Dog Runs at Night”, and Rob Wieland’s “Encore,” last month’s Series Pitch of the Month Club pitch.

On the other hand, cutthroat play may be exactly what the group wants. A group that only gets together intermittently but knows each other well enough to enjoy putting each other into tight spots will have a blast with a pitch that lets them gleefully go at it.

You may have an idea ahead of time whether a DramaSystem one-shot will go cutthroat. If so, you can take some measures to increase your chance of coming out on top during the final round.

(Assuming that triumph is even your objective—it can be at least as much fun to spectacularly flame out as the tragic or comic center of attention.)

If you start out as the cast’s heavy hitter, you’ve got nowhere to go but down. Well, there’s down and then back up again, if you want to aim for a bankshot. But in general if the game is king of the hill, start off some distance from the slope. In a cutthroat game a little misdirection always helps. Express your desire in a way that doesn’t obviously require you to sweep the table to get it. A desire like Power, classic though it is, establishes your character as a threat. Alternate expressions like Respect, Order, or Safety might also give you a reason to pursue a victory over the other cast members without clanging an alarm bell to that effect.

Just as in a LARP or game of Diplomacy, gathering allies in the early going serves you well in cutthroat DramaSystem. Offer resistance to other PCs at the top of a scene, make them work to petition you, but then relent. By making petitioners feel that they overcame real reluctance, they’ll declare that they got what they wanted—giving you the drama token you seek.

Be ready to sacrifice a drama token or two early on by digging in your heels on a petition or two. A big lead in drama tokens marks you out as a potential threat. Seeming non-threatening goes only so far as you amass a big pile of them for all to see. In an episode of an ongoing game, players may hoard tokens for conversion to bennies, or simply for bragging rights. In a single session game, especially if it takes on a free-for-all cast, everyone expects a fat token pile to turn into a big spending spree at the end.

An early force might sound like a sure way to paint yourself as a target, but it also reduces your token pile. If you seem like you’ve shot your bolt, you take the heat off, allowing you to advance your chosen victory conditions under the radar. Naturally, when another player builds a big token pile, a little carefully executed table talk can set her up as the threat, and yourself as a defender to rally behind.

Finally, you might discover that the rest of the group intends a more internal drama, and that your groundwork for backstabbing doesn’t fit the overall direction. Embrace the challenge of setting aside your plans, which never last long in DramaSystem, and find a way to support the story as it heads into another space.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws


Hillfolk and Blood on the Show present a couple of series pitches that cross the streams with our flagship GUMSHOE games. Chris Lackey’s “The Whateleys” lets you play in Lovecraft territory from the cultists’ point of view. My own “Mutant City: HCIU” flips the police procedural of Mutant City Blues into police drama where the cases matter less than the personal lives of the anamorphically altered detectives.

This mini-pitch pulls a similar trick in the world of Night’s Black Agents.


A nest of vampire operatives finds that its tangle of undying desires interferes with its mission to keep the modern world’s human spies from blowing the lid off the inhuman power structure.


The main cast plays mid-tier operatives of the international vampire conspiracy. Other, more powerful bloodsuckers stand in the shadows to destroy you if you fail them.

Is one of them the Big D, whose real name none dare whisper? Would you even know if he was?

From a careful distance, you control a network of renfields, human dupes and perhaps a low-ranking vampire or two.

What kind of vampires are you? Select from the array of choices given in Night’s Black Agents.

You comprise a command station—maybe linked to a single headquarters, maybe a notional HQ always on the move. Toward the goal of managing the activities of top human threats—or as you have come to call them, bloodbags—each of you performs a particular role.

  • Gray-faced bureaucrat, afraid an old mistake is about to bite you
  • Demoted former team leader, burning for redemption
  • Weasel, reporting through a back channel to the big bosses
  • Mole, a vampire doubled into the service of some competing supernatural power. Put off deciding who for as long as you can.
  • Frustrated hothead, thirsting for direct action
  • Recent recruit, sought by all as a balance-shifting ally
  • Furtive comm jockey, secretly monitoring the lives of the human family she’s supposed to have left behind
  • Passionate reformer, determined to change the way the command keeps the bloodbags in line.
  • Burn-out, obsessed by a personal issue that overrides all but the most desultory interest in command business.
  • Underestimated grotesque, shunned by the other cast members because he belongs to a stigmatized vampire subtype.
  • Control freak obsessed with maintaining normality, whatever that is in this context.
  • The heir apparent, recently turned by the boss and recipient of blatant favoritism and seething resentment
  • Brilliant amnesiac, whose skill set makes her irreplaceable to the team, and whose incuriosity over the loss of all memories more than a few months old hints at mental programming.
  • Token human, a toadying Renfield who fears that his masters will never turn him—and that he doesn’t deserve such a magnificent honor, even if they finally make good on their promises.


If Night’s Black Agents is the Bourne Trilogy if Treadstone were vampires, you’re the undead Brian Coxes, David Strathairns and Joan Allens. Raid the core book for world information.


The GM calls the opening episode as Red Alert, in which a new team of bloodbag operatives appears on the cast’s radar. Do they seem at first to be just another threat, or is their series-defining menace apparent from the start.

If you’ve played straight-up Night’s Black Agents (and if not, why haven’t you?), a nod or two to the human agents that made up the PC group will surely occur…

  • Power is a Cage: Though among the world’s most terrifying beings, you’re stuck doing paperwork, peering at laptops, and ordering unseen minions to pursue troublesome bloodbags. Maybe it’s time you cut loose and let others worry about the humans for once.
  • Buried Secrets; You thought you’d dealt with it as thoroughly as a stake driven through a heart, but an old operational blunder gains new, awful life.
  • Articles of Faith: The ancient code governing all vampires collides with the exigencies of a crucial operation. Which do you sacrifice?
  • Return of the Repressed: All vampires suppress their old human impulses, no more so than the steely operatives of Bloodbag Command. This week some of them start seeping out.
  • Dead Drop: The ennui of undead existence is never more acute than in the drab, LeCarre-like offices of Bloodbag Command.
  • Hellhound on your Trail: The bloodbags couldn’t possibly win, could they?

Tightening the Screws

  • Office Party: One of you brings some live food into the command center to play with on a quiet night. It can’t possibly escape. What could go wrong?
  • The Con Eternal: Your bloodbag subjects target a convention for horror fans, thinking its LARP rooms conceal real vampiric activity. Can you stop their sally against the fake thing from casting light on the real one?
  • The Big Stake: A CIA drone destroys a vampire nest in Peshawar. You’re trained to rule out coincidence. Who knows what, and how do you shut them down?
  • Chatter: Communications intercepts suggest a wave of anti-vampire actions from a group you’ve never encountered before and can’t immediately identify. To switch to this new target you’ll have to loosen vigilance over your existing ones.
  • Crypt of Decryption: Bloodbags kill one of your best renfields and grab a key hard drive. You scramble to have it retrieved before they can decrypt it.
  • Downturn: Vampire spy agencies run on black money. A global economic crisis turns off the spigot when you can least afford it. Do you resolve your budget problems by intervening to stop the financial panic?

Many themes and screw tightenings from Ken’s “Moscow Station” pitch could be adapted to a “Bloodbag Command” series.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Roleplaying offers a pleasure we don’t much mention or, for that matter, particularly think about. When you play with a group, you get to see how each of its members thinks. Here I’m speaking not so much of the content of their thought—about resource management or politics or last week’s Doctor Who episode—as of the way each player puts ideas together and comes to decisions. Our brains process choices differently, and you get to see that in action, each play group providing its own unique mix of contrasts.

One common way to think through a roleplaying dilemma is the internal monologue, in which the player verbally reviews the situation from the character’s point of view. This may happen in the first person, the third, or a fluid mix of the two:

“Okay, Michaela’s thinking the chupacabra sighting has really pushed the whole deal into an entirely new territory. She’s not worried any more about disbelieving any of the crazy stuff they’ve seen since the truck went off the road. So what she’s going to do is approach Raj about it and take him aside and see if he’s willing to accept the mantle of leadership, and if he agrees, I [meaning Michaela] will have to eat some crow.”

The thinker-in-monologues breaks down a problem into steps and works his way through them in a sort of verbal previsualization sequence. The upsides of this technique include its methodical process, its clarity, and its promise of forward movement. Unlike a ditherer, who goes in circles, the monologist does get somewhere. The presentation of the PC’s thought process can often be extremely entertaining. However, it does present the GM with a couple of challenges. First, as a solo process, it shuts out the participation of others. Second, it moves too far into the future tense, revealing stuff that should happen instead of letting events play out. By tipping so much in advance, the player who thinks too much through out loud ensures that what does finally occur is either repetitive, or must be a reversal of expectations.

The DramaSystem dynamic invites monologing, particularly during scene calling. It asks each player in turn to create or invoke a situation, and to name a scene partner or partners to interact with. Events in a DramaSystem session can move so quickly that even a player who has been thinking ahead can find all of his prepared ideas have lost their relevance when his turn to call comes up. When stumped, thinking your way through the available options becomes not just understandable but actively useful.

The GM must then lean a bit on the monologist to make sure that the list of possible scenes doesn’t turn into a rehearsal for the scene itself. It must be a gentle lean, though: you don’t want to cut off the player’s thought before the framing coalesces. Some bits of character thought process are too much fun to cut off. If everyone at the table is clearly rapt, don’t step on the monologist out of general principle. You don’t want to lapse into hyper-vigilance, rattling your players by barking at them the second they start to venture down Future Tense Lane.

This then requires an instinct and sensitivity, to spot the right moment to jump in and say, “Great! Now play the scene!”

As a player, you should be as attentive to the other players at the table as the GM is. In reality, though, we of the nerd tribe aren’t always attuned to the demands we’re making on others’ attention. When you’re groping toward a scene call, remember that each other person at the table has been put on tenterhooks, wondering if they’re the ones who are going to be called on to take part in the scene. The tipping point between fun suspense and frustrated waiting can be a matter of a sentence over the line. Frustration goes up by another notch when you know you’re the scene partner, but the caller is still struggling to refine what’s going on, or is essentially playing the scene without you in it.

“I suppose Raj might be reluctant but never mind, yes I’ll go to Raj because I’m thinking he’s my guy, despite our past disagreements.”

As a soliloquizing player, or as the GM listening to this waiting to nudge matters along, this is the edit point, when the character is saying stuff in his own head (or the player is explaining to the other players) that the character could be saying to the other character. Roleplaying is drama, not prose. What registers is not what a protagonist thinks might happen, but what we “see” happen.

If that’s what’s going on, the GM should then definitely step in to say, “Okay, play the scene!”

As the player on tenterhooks waiting for the caller to shift from framing to playing the scene, you can also move things along. Break in with a line of dialogue that kicks off the scene proper:

“Hey Michaela, you look freaked! What’s on your mind?”

Even if the scene hasn’t been fully framed yet, the GM can later sidle in to fill in needed details. Maybe the caller hasn’t specified where it’s taking place. This often occurs, with or without extended internal monologue introductions. The astute GM lets the scene gather momentum and then asks for setting details. Sometimes precise location never matters, and each person at the table can imagine the scene taking place in a slightly different place, with no harm done to the dynamic.

Players can instinctively over-explain their characters’ thinking because they’re used to games that don’t promote dramatic interaction with other PCs. In DramaSystem the GM can help them jump from thinking about the scene to being in it:

“Excellent—now say that to Raj!”

If you recognize yourself as a pre-thinker, don’t beat yourself up. This is a matter of fine-tuning, not a grievous sin against game style. Train yourself to make the shift from framing to playing before anyone has to nudge you. Give yourself permission to discover what the scene is about by jumping into it. As soon as you know who you want something from, and have an opening idea of how you might try to approach them, get it rolling. Often the scene takes a surprise turn, as your petitioning character learns that the granter’s attitude is not what you expected. DramaSystem is meant to do that. So take a deep breath and let it happen.

No Crowns coverThanks to the overwhelming generosity of our Hillfolk Kickstarter backers, we are able to bring you the DramaSystem Series Pitch of the Month Club – 2000+ words of setting material written by a stellar cast including John Wick, John Kovalic and Hal Mangold.

Each month from November through to November you will get a new pitch – new subscribers will get all pitches to date.

If you are a backer, you should have received a voucher for your free subscription. Email support if not.

1. No Crowns

Sean Patrick Fannon (Shaintar, Star Wars: Edge of Darkness) unleashes the struggles of democracy and free market capitalism in a high fantasy world. Discover the answer amid the greed, passion, and power plays of No Crowns.

2. Narcocorrido

Jesse Scoble (Wizard101, Game of Thrones d20) sings a narcocorrido for you on The Devil’s Highway: narco traficantes and border patrol circle each other in the canyons and deserts between North and South.

3. Honor Among Thieves

John Wick (Legend of the Five Rings, Seventh Sea, Houses of the Blooded) steps into a world of sorcerers, crowded cities, corrupt nobles, eldritch assassins and big payoffs in Honor Among Thieves. In a world where everything is illegal, everything is a crime, and it only pays to be a thief.

4. Hold the Chain

By Matthew McFarland. You are the entertainment in the gladiatorial arena of a steam-powered flying city on the brink of revolution.

5. Encore

Rob Wieland (Shadowrun, Star Wars Saga Edition) shows you his jazz hands in Encore, following the dreamers, has-beens and never-will-be’s who make up the cast of a touring jukebox musical.

6. Iron Tsar

ASH LAW (The Reliquary) cranks up Iron Tsar: engineers battle zombies in the Imperial court of a magical 1920s Russia.

7. Sheep’s Clothing

Jerome Larre (Qin, Tenga) takes you inside the Sheep’s Clothing of a tranquil bedroom community for cops—as a massive Internal Affairs bust threatens dozens of its key citizens.

8. Art and Murder

By Robin D. Laws. In a post-scarcity economy, there remain only two routes to status: Art and Murder. As guardians of the Great Museum, you struggle to protect the world’s cultural patrimony from outside marauders—and your own ambitions.

9. Niflgap

Raven Daegmorgan (Orx) sails the black tides of the cosmos in Niflgap. As the universe dies, you, the fractious Norse gods, set forth in starships from lonesome Midgaard, hoping to find salvation in the void where armies of the hungry dead writhe endless beneath black suns.

10. Promised Land

By Caias Ward (Strike Force 7, Noumenon) In a far-future religion based on enlightenment through genetic engineering and organic technology, a squad of young cadets struggles with their commanders, their fellow cadets, the outside universe and crises of faith.

11. Terminal X

Hal Mangold (Atomic Overmind, Green Ronin) loses your luggage in Terminal X: A fractious circle of modern sorcerers wage a subtle turf war within one of the world’s busiest airports, while fending off  occult forces threatening to erode the very source of their power.

12. Campus Desk

John Kovalic (Dork Tower, Munchkin) returns to ink-spattered halcyon days with Campus Desk:  students behind the Daily Forward, newspaper of Wisconsin State University, figure out life, love, and burying the lede.


Esoterrorists 2 cover_reduced

A stand-alone roleplaying game by Robin D Laws

You are elite investigators combating the plots of the Esoterrorists, a loose affiliation of occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world. The Esoterrorists introduces the GUMSHOE rules system, which revolutionizes investigative scenarios by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward.

Upgrades, Improvements and New Content for the 2nd Edition.

This new edition of The Esoterrorists is 4 times longer and allows you to:

  • Equip your characters with fine-grained investigative abilities, ranging from Interrogation and Data Retrieval to the ever-popular Forensic Entomology and always useful Bullshit Detector.
  • Round them out with 13 crucial action abilities, which help you fight, run away, and retain your mental stability when the horrors come knocking.
  • Absorb the latest, in-depth intelligence data on the terrifying world of the Esoterrorists.
  • Learn the never-before-revealed inner workings of the Ordo Veritatis, the secret international agency that sends you out to smash the foe.
  • Recoil at raw reports detailing all-new creatures of unremitting horror.
  • Root yourself in a site of small town menace with the new Station Duty campaign frame and scenario.
  • Confront fever dreams of the apocalypse in a brand new introductory scenario, OPERATION: PROPHET BUNCO!

Also included, for gamemasters:

  • Data on the terrifying world of the Esoterrorists, and the Ordo Veritatis, the benevolent global conspiracy that fights them
  • Creatures of unremitting horror.
  • Detailed instructions on structuring investigative scenarios for the innovative GUMSHOE system
  • Advice on bringing those scenarios to life in play
  • Operation Slaughterhouse, an advanced example scenario of geopolitical horror

The Esoterrorists is easy to learn, easy to play and replayable by design.

Incorporating years of advice, actual play experience, and design evolution, The Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition includes all the rules you need to play the game that revolutionized investigative roleplaying. Dripping with ichor and jammed with content, this is the heftier, meatier, definitive tome gamers have been crying out for ever since they laid their paws on the original.

Reviews of The Esoterrorists:

… the game does deliver on its promise. You could easily explain the rules to someone in 15 minutes enough so that they could play. You can also learn them enough to run the game in about an hour.

I was apprehensive about the system but I was wrong – it worked really well for me.

The rules are incredible – I honestly think this is the best investigation-based RPG ever printed.

Related Material

Stock #: PELG012 Author: Robin D. Laws with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Phil Reeves, Kyle Strahm Pages: 160 page perfect bound


FanExpo Canada rolls out this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. Robin will be joined this year on his home turf by his fellow Pelgranista Kenneth Hite. Their various appearances include a special live episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Gather up your questions and catch them in the flesh at 3:45 pm on Saturday, in room 705.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

For a pivotal feature of the roleplaying experience, the ability of players to make choices that alter the course of events can be awfully easy to lose track of.

The way in which an adventure is devised and delivered tends to alter both the number of choices given to the players, and the impact of those choices.

In a purely improvised adventure, a collaborative GM can most easily respond to player initiative. She doesn’t have to envision a complex set of branching eventualities. When the party encounters a challenge, players tell her what they plan to do about it. They conference about this before arriving at a proposal, giving the GM time to imagine likely approaches and outcomes. Or she can sit there attending to some other bit of planning and respond with well-honed common sense to whatever the plan of action turns out to be. Through some combination of rules resolution and fiat, she works out whether the plan succeeds or fails. Then she narrates the consequences of that outcome. Bingo, the players have made a choice, seen a result of that choice, and now move on from that result to their next obstacle, where the pass/fail cycle repeats itself. Choices not made remain invisible, except to the extent that the players consider making them during the conference phase, but then don’t.

In a prepared adventure, and most particularly in an adventure written by a designer for another GM to run, the introduction and communication of choice points complicates itself.

When you prep an adventure for yourself, you’re probably leaving in room for adjustment and improvisation as you go. You likely don’t write it out in full prose, as a designer of a published adventure has to do. You only need enough notes to remind you of what had in mind ahead of time. Within the bullet points lies lots of room to improvise.

Published adventures have to spell out much more of the author’s intention. In this process the author can constrict his intention, limiting player choice—or force you to compensate on the fly when you hit a result that should have been accounted for. To compensate for this, adventures should explicitly include plenty of choice points and make it easy for GMs to spot and deploy them.

A couple of obstacles stand in the way of that, though.

One, it’s all too easy even for an experienced adventurer writer to slip into full-on narrative mode, describing what’s happening as if in a screenplay, rather than sticking to a blueprint for the GM so she can tell the story. Some of my earliest adventures fall into this trap. You might call this the distinction between story-mapping, in which you lay out choices for the GM to set out in front of the players, and storytelling, in which you present a vivid chain of events she somehow has to wrangle them into. Storytelling tempts the adventure writer because it is more fun to write and therefore to read. People who buy adventures to imagine running them, as opposed to actually running them, may enjoy a storytelling style more—it’s clearer and more exciting.

A story-mapping style, on the other hand, bursts with if-statements.

  • If the PCs go down into the basement, they encounter the charioteer’s ghost.
  • If they decline to go down there, they’re confronted by the caretaker.
  • If they present themselves to the caretaker as reliable citizens, he warns them to leave.
  • If they upset him somehow, he calls the cops.

To test an adventure for choice points, see if it keeps using, along with a profusion of ifs, words like might, probably, possibly, perhaps and maybe. A story-mapped adventure has to lay out a variety of roads, most of which will not be taken, and their consequences. Then it has to make them easy to find during play.

Certain tricks can aid in this. If the main choice before the players is which scenes they involve themselves in, and in what order, the individual scenes don’t necessarily require a ton of if-statements that chain into other if-statements. On a macro level, GUMSHOE scenarios often work like this. It doesn’t mean much, though, unless the order in which scenes occur makes a difference to the overall outcome of the story, or introduces some other long-term effect into the series.

Zooming in further, a GUMSHOE investigative scene also poses the choice of where to look for clues, how to gather them, and, most importantly, how to put those clues together to either move forward toward the ultimate solution of the mystery.

Fight scenes offer an array of choices—perhaps too many if you like your scraps simple but the rules system doesn’t. As with the clues in an investigative game, these are baked into the structure of the rules set. The designer or GM drops the creature stats, terrain and situation into play, and the game’s basic dynamic takes care of the rest. When the fight starts, players decide who to engage, what to hit them with, and then how to change the situation to their benefit as the dust-up continues. That’s why they work so well and are such a staple of roleplaying, as we see gloriously celebrated in 13th Age. Fights offer an array of choices all bundled together outside a messy nest of if-statements.

It’s scenes between the extremes of mystery solving and head-bashing that require the greatest attention to bake in meaningful choices. These scenes include negotiation, politicking, and exploration, to name a few.

As pure text, even with bullet points, a scene consisting of possibilities and if-statements can prove hard to decipher. For a recent Pelgrane adventure I visually mapped a couple of particularly branchy scenes to bring the text into focus. This is not only clearer for the GM who has to untangle the thicket of choice points, but forces you as adventure designer to consider dangling options and ensure that the choices matter to the players.

This is a model any GM can follow when prepping a scene. When writing an adventure only for yourself, branching diagrams might largely replace text. That makes your adventure not only tighter and richer, but faster to notate.

In this diagram, you’ve chosen to grant the most benefit to the risky move of hiding from the caretaker—if it succeeds. The less dangerous choice of talking to him misses out on the documents, which happen to be wherever the group chooses to hide.


In this diagram, you’ve chosen to grant the most benefit to the risky move of hiding from the caretaker—if it succeeds. The less dangerous choice of talking to him misses out on the documents, which happen to be wherever the group chooses to hide.

During the game, refer to your scene map not only to bring in the choice points, but to remind you to show the players that their choices mattered. Find a way to hint that they did something well, and that it helped them in a concrete way. In the above example, you might note that if they hadn’t hidden from the caretaker, they would never have found the documents.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The text of 13th Age refers at several points to the tradition of “d20-rolling fantasy games.” The result of a super-designer team-up between boon pals Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the game arises very much from the the legacy of D&D. For legal reasons related to its use of the D20 license, it can’t evoke that hallowed trademark by name. I can mention that big kahuna of fantasy gaming in this column, because I’m using it for commentary and not to confuse anyone into buying my product instead of the item they really want. But we’ve reached an era in the development of the flagship fantasy game where we need two terms: one for D&D as it is published by our friends at Wizards of the Coast, and another for a tradition of gaming that has now expanded far past that simple demarcation.

Dungeons & Dragons at this point is not just a game but a series of expectations players carry with them down into the monster-haunted depths, packed just as surely as their fifty feet coils of rope. These expectations apply not just to D&D games, but to Pathfinder, which courtesy of the D20 license speciated out from D&D3E in response to the business ecosystem disruption initiated by a previous WotC brand team during the transition to 4E. They also permeate those pole-axe wielding revanchists of the Old School Roleplaying movement—branches of it, anyway.

This places on the table the question: what is D&D these days, anyway? Not coincidentally, that’s the core design challenge of DNDNext, the new version given the self-appointed task of doing away with the whole concept of new versions, in favor of a constantly renewed constellation of variations.

Discussing this would be much easier if we had a term that was less of a mouthful than “d20-rolling fantasy games.” Under its umbrella we want to encompass all versions of D&D, including the one in progress. Along with it we want to bundle the D20 fantasy games that must respond in one way or another to the assumptions Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson rolled out nearly four decades ago—but not other D20 games that dispense with the halberds and dungeon-bashing model. That is, Pathfinder and 13th Age but not D20 Modern or Cthulhu. And the OSR games that seek to replicate various elements of early D&D play, but not the ones reverse-engineering classic Traveller or Marvel Super Heroes. You might argue whether a particular game on the fringe of this definition fits within it or sits outside of it, but to do that we need a simple term.

You could say D&D&D, for Dungeons & Dragons and Descendants. As much as it gets at the idea, it’s still inelegant to say and on the page looks like an eruption of machine code into the surrounding text. DDD looks better in type but when you try to say it sounds like you’ve swallowed a chickadee. 3D might work, if it weren’t already taken by something much bigger than the hobby game industry. Triple-D invites innuendo.

I crashed on the rocks of acronym despair, until in front of my eyes, I saw it: F20. It takes the key elements in “d20-rolling fantasy games” and rolls them into a short-form that looks all right on the page and is easy to say.

Let’s all practice saying it:

“Hey, Mike, are there elements of the F20 tradition you tried to fit into D&DNext, but no longer see as an option?”

Pathfinder does the best kobolds of any F20 game.”

“I’ve scheduled my game slots at this con as a progression through F20 history.”

Since it’s a blueprint for the actual fun had at table, any roleplaying game creates a tradition larger than the rules set itself. Especially in the early days, assumptions about how games ought to feel, and the division of responsibility between GM and players, came about as much from oral tradition as what was on the page in the game books themselves.

Love it or roll your eyes at it, Dungeons & Dragons has always occupied a flagship position in the roleplaying field. The state of F20, whether it’s on an upward curve or cycling down, ripples through what the rest of us do. Even if you’ve never gone near D&D and don’t plan to anytime soon, the industry that sprang up around it created the infrastructure that made possible the slice of the hobby you do enjoy.

The D20 revolution that accompanied 3E brought about a reversion to the mean, as the flow of design and commercial energy previously devoted to other standalone RPGs largely diverted itself to a re-engagement with the latest take on D&D. That in turn left another field of exploration open for the storygame movement to go in a completely different direction.

After the less attractive strictures of the open license accompanying 4E, the attendant growth of Pathfinder, and then the early setting aside of 4E for the deliberative roll-out of DNDNext, we are now in the complicated taxonomic world of F20. Here, multiple takes on the tradition try to decide what is core to the experience and can’t be dispensed with, and what is unnecessary outer detailing that can profitably be stripped away.

In each case the designer works not just with the rules, but with the expectations of players. When examining an apparently unbalanced element of F20, you have to ask yourself—is this just getting in the way of fun? Or is it intrinsic to the F20 feel that so many gamers cherish, even with the various taxes on learning curve and pacing it levies on GM and players?

Grappling with what is and isn’t essential to make an F20 game resonate with players, then, goes to the heart of roleplaying’s balance between math and art. The more choices F20 offers us, the more it helps us as individual gamers to articulate what we like about the set of ingredients that go into our favorite recipe for F20.

For example, within the F20 umbrella you might play on a grid and carefully track positioning, which forms a hook on which to hang various mechanical effects, from flanking on down. Or you might reach for the miniatures only when you’ve lost imaginative track of what’s going on in the fight. Both feel very differently from one another. Depending on the latest thinking from Wizards, one of these might be D&D at the present moment—or both of them, depending on which module you choose. But these choices are F20.

By framing it in this way you sidestep the definitional argument in which many of the geek tribe prefer to conceal their preferences. Instead of saying, “this doesn’t feel like my game,” you might be able to grope your way to why you like the one choice better than the other, and what that says about what you want to happen in your games.

Hillfolk_Cover_reducedIn the shadow of empires, an epic saga of ambition and desire!

In an arid badlands, the hill people hunger. Your neighbors have grain, cattle, gold. You have horses and spears, courage and ambition. Together with those you love and hate, you will remake history—or die.

With the Hillfolk roleplaying game, you and your group weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Its DramaSystem rules engine, from acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws, takes the basic structure of interpersonal conflict underlying fiction, movies and television and brings it to the world of roleplaying. This simple framework brings your creativity to the fore and keep a surprising, emotionally compelling narrative constantly on the move.

As you build your story, you mold and shape the Hillfolk setting to fit its needs. Do you entangle yourself with the seductions of your wealthy cousins to the north? Do you do battle with the fearsome sea people to the west? Or do you conquer the scattered badlands tribes to forge a new empire of your own?

SP14-The Whateleys

Detailed play style notes show you how to make the most of DramaSystem’s new tools. Once you’ve mastered DramaSystem’s nuances, you’ll hunger to take them to new vistas. A stunning talent roster brings you 30 additional series settings. From Cthulhu cult family drama to ninjas, pirates, and steampunk cowboys, Hillfolk offers years of play value.

Contributors from every corner of the gaming scene and beyond include Ed Greenwood, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, Jason Morningstar, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Meg Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Jesse Bullington, John Scott Tynes, and Keith Baker.

Authors: Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Michelle Nephew, Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck, T.S. Luikart, Jason L. Blair, Chris Pramas, Emily Care Boss, Rob Wieland, Steven S. Long, Eddy Webb, Jesse Bullington, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, James Wallis, Chris Lackey, John Scott Tynes, Ryan Macklin, Graeme Davis, Dave Gross, Allen Varney, Meguey Baker, Sarah Newton, Kevin Kulp, Mac Sample, Jason Pitre, Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Will Hindmarch, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood Artists: Aaron Acevedo, Andrew Gustafson, Gene Ha, Jon Hodgson, Rachel A. Kahn, Jason Morningstar, Scott Neil, Jan Pospíšil, Hilary Wade, Jonathan Wyke
Pages: 240pg A4 Hardcover Stock #: PELD01


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