https://campaignwiki.org/rpg/ This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).

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2021-07-30 Forged in the Dark

I’m liking the Forged in the Dark games I’ve recently encountered. I’m two sessions into a John Harper’s Blades in the Dark game with my wife and GM Jörg, did our first score, and I must have listened to thirty hours of Sean Nittner’s Actual Play podcast based on the YouTube channel based on the Twitch stream, where he plays with GM Stras Acimovic, Jenn Martin, Misha B, and Jahmal Brown, and they play Stras Acimovic and John LeBoef-Little’s Band of Blades.

I don’t think the setting is all that important. We all know that rules and setting can be separate, and we all know that some books have rules and setting tightly intertwined. In this case, Blades in the Dark is about a gang in a sort of magic steam & electricity haunted London, and Band of Blades is about a group of soldiers in a sort of magic guns & undead military fantasy campaign (think Glenn Cook’s The Black Company). Both use the mechanics first introduced by John Harper. I feel that like in the brilliantly short Lady Blackbird, Harper manages to pull together the strands that are all out there in the various games being played right now and transforming it into something new but vaguely recognisable.

In short, the game uses d6 dice pools. Your traits determine how many dice you use, add one if somebody is helping you, add one if you’re pushing yourself, multiple people roll their own dice if it’s a group action. All these extra dice are paid for with “stress”: helping another character costs 1 stress, pushing yourself costs 2 stress, group actions cost the leader 1 stress for each failed roll by a group member. The highest roll in the dice pool determines the result. 1–3 is a failure, 4–5 is a success with a consequence, 6 is a success, two sixes is a critical success. Consequences can be resisted with more rolls, and if you don’t get a success in the resistance roll, that causes even more stress. And when you’re stressed out, you start acquiring permanent “trauma”: changes to your character that end up putting your character out of the game.

The three outcomes are not new: succeed, fail, and mixed results are something we’ve seen in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Instead of being very specifically tied to Moves listed on a character sheet, the consequences here are tied to rulings made by the game master (GM). I get the feeling Chris McDowell wrote about the simplicity of his Into the Odd system where the dice providing a simple 50:50 chance was good enough since all that you needed to make it work was to adjudicate the consequences accordingly. The Forged in the Dark games do just that: there is some necessarily vague guidance on how to adjudicate based on “Position” (controlled, risky, desperate – i.e. how bad is it going to get when you fail) and “Effect” (limited, standard, great – i.e. how good is it going to get when you succeed). Since you also get that dice pool instead of a single die, the simplicity McDowell was talking about is lost, but the core idea remains: since the GM is going to adjudicate anyway, why not entrust them with it and just provide some guidance so that the table knows what’s going on.

Another fun element are the encounter roll and flashbacks. The goal here is to skip all the planning of a heist or an operation. Start playing immediately! Do a simple the encounter roll and there’s your starting position (controlled, risky, desperate). The GM improvises the first scene of the adventure based on the starting position rolled and some info the players provided beforehand. If the players would have benefited from some planning, they can always call for a flashback scene where they did just that, and based on how obvious or improbable it seems, all they pay for it is more stress. Stress is the measure of all things.

I think that basically covers it. The above should also make obvious that most encounters on the adventure are handled by a very small number of rolls. Sometimes, just a single roll is enough for the scene: you explain how you overcome the obstacle, roll some dice, maybe take some damage (“harm”) or face some other consequences, perhaps the fiction changes, and the game moves on. If you want to resist the consequences, there’s a second roll to made. For big bad bosses or more complicated activities, multiple rolls might be necessary, but there’s practically no difference between those rolls being in the same scene or in another scene. It reminds me of the simple “Bloody Vs” tests in Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel.

I used to be fond of saying that I aim for the fights in my classic D&D games to be short: two rounds is ideal. I hate endless slog fests. It’s why I think that Save or Die effects are so important in D&D. You don’t actually die if you run these fights a certain way, you just start using up “neutralise poison” and “raise dead” spells, and you force players to avoid simple hack & slash fights. When their hit points are low, they fear the sword; when they have more hit points, they fear the level drain; when they have more levels, they fear the poison; and on it goes. The simple “Bloody Vs” tests in Burning Wheel, or these rolls in Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark games, are even better: they mandate a resolution in one or two rolls, and then you just move on. Next scene!

My enthusiasm is perhaps not entirely surprising given that I just finished a D&D 5E Humblewood campaign with plenty of casual players that didn’t know the rules like the back of their hands (and they also struggled with no translation of the rules being available, I think) resulting in drawn out fights where everything just slows to a crawl. I’m easily bored as a player and this doesn’t work well for me. I start volunteering for session report write-ups that I do while the game is still ongoing, that’s how many spare cycles I have.

More interesting combat rules don’t make a slow fight more interesting. The fix to a slow fight is less roles and moving on to the next scene, I feel.

Another thing I’m trying right now is to have less people in the game. We’re just three people now: GM and two players. Perhaps we had too many people in that D&D game and that exacerbated the problem.

Comments on 2021-07-30 Forged in the Dark

Great read, thanks!

– digitalsin 2021-07-30 15:14 UTC

@Sandra wrote a long blog post starting out by describing how Blades in the Dark can be super slow as every enemy gets a clock and every roll invites a lot of discussion, and how D&D 5E fights can be super fast and over in a few minutes, with examples for all her points, and then she pivots and discussed how this is not necessarily so. It depends on the presence of those aforementioned clocks, on the number of characters per player, on playing online or at the table, on the ceremony one upholds around initiative, rolls, keeping information secret (which in all my D&D 5E games has been optimized for long and boring fights, for my taste, unfortunately).

All of the above needs to be nuanced by two hard facts♥ 1. As the aforementioned Blades campaign went on, fights became way quicker. 2. In our own D&D game, fights are now super slow – Why fights take a long time

– Alex 2021-07-31 10:02 UTC

Yeah, combats are a bit of a slog, especially from the player’s perspective. Although I still find 5e better than 3e in that regard with all the rules comblications. It’s also influencing pacing if each fight takes an hour or two (or sometimes three). I often skip planned fights as a DM when we already had one because then nothing would get accomplished storywise.

I am looking forward to go back to in person gaming, I remember combats to be a bit faster or at least they felt more exciting than staring at a screen all the time. There was also more room for side talk.

– Peter 2021-07-31 13:27 UTC

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2021-07-22 Episode 36

Halberds and Helmets Podcast Boars as pets for orcs, giant boars as mounts for dwarves and halflings, and demon boars as protector spirits of a forest.


  • 2016-10-13 Boar: “I dislike 2d4 and 3d4 for damage and just used 1d8 and 1d12 instead. Close enough for me. 🙂 As for HD there’s always the comparison with wolves and war dogs: 2+2. Apparently multiple wolves are required to take down a wild pig. So the only way I see is up. But HD 4 and 5 is for worgs and the like?” Thinking about boars in the comments…
  • Boar spear, on Wikipedia. Just read the title of the book cited: “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles” (multiple copies available on the Internet Archive)
  • Halberds and Helmets: my homebrew rules with links to the PDF files


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2021-06-25 Sumerian Spell Names

Remember Elf & Magic-User Sumerian Spell Names / Command Words for Labyrinth Lord? Well, I’m playing a spell caster again, since my grappling wanna-be-thief-but-actually-a-fighter died last session. And I’ve decided to look up words in The Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD)!

  • Cantrips (4): Fire Bolt [GANZER!], Light [ĜEŠNU!], Mage Hand [KIŠPU SILIG!], Ray of Frost [ŠARŪRU MABI!]
  • 1st (4): Protection from Good and Evil [SAĜTAB DUG HULĜAL!], Magic Missile [KIŠPU TI RAH!], Shield [GUR!], Disguise Self [ŠU BAL NI!], Mage Armour [KIŠPU AKAR!], Alarm (R) [IGIZALAG!], Fog Cloud (C) [BARŠEĜ UPÛ!], Unseen Servant (R) [IGINUDU!]
  • 2nd (3): Alter Self (C) [KAM NI!], Knock [IG GUB!], Blur (C) [SUH!], Misty Step [BARŠEĜ KABĀSU!]
  • 3rd (3): Lightning Bolt [NING GIR!], Phantom Steed (R) [SISI EŢEMMU!], Clairvoyance (C) [IGI DUH NASÛ!], Dispel Magic [ULNIĜAK!]
  • 4th (1): Ice Storm [MIR HALBA], Phantasmal Killer [LIL GAZ]

I mean, I just smash words together. I have no idea about the language. For the moment, I just admire the fact that we still know anything at all about this bronze age world, from the dawn of recorded history. All hail the mighty durable clay tablet!

Comments on 2021-06-25 Sumerian Spell Names

We’re doing something similar♥ gemini://idiomdrottning.org/verbal-components

– elpherZ5vikL 2021-06-26 06:48 UTC

Excellent! All of this reminded me of the magic rhymes from Das Schwarze Auge, the very first edition. “Saft, Kraft, Monster Macht!” 😄

– Alex 2021-06-26 12:07 UTC

Do NOT cast lightning bolt.

pitycrit 2021-08-01 16:57 UTC

The above comment was written when the word for lightning bolt was given as “niĝĝir”. I guess we can always count on somebody to have a penchant for foul language and thinking it funny, so I guess I’m looking for an alternate spelling or some other words to use.

This is what the ePSD says:

niĝĝir [LIGHTNING] (2×: Old Babylonian) wr. niĝ₂-ĝir₂ “lightning bolt” – niĝĝir

Perhaps this can be written some other way? As I recall, the USA doesn’t always use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

In some transcriptions of Sumerian, ĝ is used to represent the velar nasal /ŋ/. – Ĝ, on Wikipedia

So the question is, what is a voiced velar nasal?

It is the sound of ng in English sing as well as n before velar consonants as in English and ink. – Voiced velar nasal, i.e. ŋ on Wikipedia

So perhaps we could write it as “ning ngir”, or perhaps “ning-ngir”. Too close, I’d say. How these makers of bad jokes annoy me. What’s next, turning Latin plant names into jokes? I like Populus nigra…

Populus nigra, the black poplar, is a species of cottonwood poplar, the type species of section Aigeiros of the genus Populus, native to Europe, southwest and central Asia, and northwest Africa. – Populus nigra, on Wikipedia

I think I shall use a kind of transformation: “ning-gir”, “ningir“, or “ning-ir“

– Alex 2021-08-01 17:07 UTC

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2021-05-18 The Traveller campaign after 8 sessions

I sent the following email to my players:

Hi all!

We’ve played eight sessions. Yay us! When I’m playing with people at the same table, I usually imagine myself being able to read how people feel about the game. Online, I’m not so sure. I think we’re having a good time, but there’s never any “meta” talk. Perhaps that’s a good sign, who knows. I’d still like to offer a channel for feedback, so the questions that follow are simply a list of the things I’ve been asking myself. Feel free to answer whatever you like, or something different altogether, or simply reply with “I’m happy exactly as it is.” 🙂

  • Campaign tech level, law level, and similar details: does the weird Traveller retro-future work for you? Would you like more emphasis on technology and tech-levels and gadgets? Would you like less thinking about what sort of weapons are available on what system?
  • Buying equipment, trade: does the simple inventory work for you? Would you like do more Elite-style trading? Do we spend too much time buying equipment?
  • NPCs: are there too many of them? Are their names too weird? Are they interesting enough in their ambitions and their personalities? What about the organisations, the navy, the crime orgs, the local governments?
  • Setting: What would you add to the setting to make it more interesting?
  • Mechanics: Would you like to make more skill rolls, have more fights, roll more dice?
  • Organisation: Does video chat work for you? Does date voting work for you? Do the times work for you? Not enough, or too many sessions?
  • What about campaign length: how many sessions do you think will we play in this campaign?


If you’re in a Traveller campaign, I’d be happy to hear from you!

Comments on 2021-05-18 The Traveller campaign after 8 sessions

My own answers, for the Tau Subsector campaign:

Campaign tech level, law level, and similar details: does the weird Traveller retro-future work for you? Would you like more emphasis on technology and tech-levels and gadgets? Would you like less thinking about what sort of weapons are available on what system?

I think the tech level works just fine. The system takes some getting used to. My current thinking is that all the blueprints are available everywhere, inside computers. Tech level is not about knowledge and research but about production and economics. If your tech level is low, you don’t have the factories, the raw materials, the customers. Therefore, rich people can still have equipment above the local tech level, no problem. And people know about high tech worlds, just like these days anybody with a TV has a sense of how the modern tech world “is” – as in: you know what ads and movies and series tell you about “beautiful people” owning mobile phones but not much else. A devious glamour hides the supply chains required, the cobalt mines, the lithium mines, the limits of the app store, the surveillance built into the infrastructure, the manipulation, the leaks, the programming languages, the pollution, and on and on.

I don’t need more emphasis on technology and gadgets. The inventory of Classic Traveller is enough for me.

Buying equipment, trade: does the simple inventory work for you? Would you like do more Elite-style trading? Do we spend too much time buying equipment?

When I ran Traveller for the first time many years ago, I thought that trading was an important element of the game but it ended up being boring and none of the players wanted to spend time on it. Player characters owning a handful of items and no more works for me: a weapon or two, some armour, a communicator, another thing or two you found on the equipment lists, and that’s it. No custom-made guns with special properties, no cyber-limbs, no body-enhancements.

NPCs: are there too many of them? Are their names too weird? Are they interesting enough in their ambitions and their personalities? What about the organisations, the navy, the crime orgs, the local governments?

Currently the names use long name lists from a small number of sources: English names, Japanese names, Chinese names, names from various African languages, and names from various Native American languages (source). It provides just the right sort of challenge for me. For most of the names, I don’t know how gender appropriate they are. I just do a quick search and go with what I find.

As for their ambitions and personalities, I must admit that they aren’t complex. Then again, I also don’t think that complex characters are per se something to aim for. Interesting interactions need a conflict of interest, ways to get leverage, ways to build empathy, that kind of thing. My idea is that this grows naturally the more we interact with characters. Therefore, it’s fine for a pharmacist looking for drug couriers to be cautious or jovial and not much else until we meet them more often. Then perhaps we’ll see that they have a crude humour, or don’t value the lives of their clients, or worry about their daughter, and it’ll add depth to the character.

Setting: What would you add to the setting to make it more interesting?

I’ve been wondering about this. There are some elements that are part of the expanded Traveller universe, namely aliens and PSI powers, and there are well known elements like searching for the ancestors or progenitors. The problem is that I don’t much care for the story potential of these elements. With aliens we can explore racism without race, which is something I don’t really want in my game; or we can explore the consequences of strange biology, which is hard to make exciting in a tabletop game, I think; with PSI powers we can explore witchcraft, the treatment of people with special abilities, and I guess I’d rather leave that to Fantasy games, or watch Avatar, Korra, or any other of the many shows talking about the subject.

I guess I’m basing my ideas of the far future on images from Dune: it’s all about humans. Yes, the navigators are weird, but that’s it. The houses, their soldiers, the natives, they’re all human.

I’ve added a rebellion to the setting, and crime organisations, and I’m interested in the various governments as ways of organising the system, of exploring politics and economics: capitalism, fascism, theocracies, technocracies, oligarchies, democracies, this is stuff that I always find interesting. Not interesting enough to be in the foreground, but as interesting colour to add to the background.

Anyway, the short answer is that I already added all the things I felt were interesting and that I don’t feel like adding aliens, PSI powers, or a search for the ancestors.

Mechanics: Would you like to make more skill rolls, have more fights, roll more dice?

I’m still fascinated by Traveller as a set of rules where the player characters have a lot of skills to solve problems with violence in a world where violence is dangerous and thus this escalation is something to be avoided. What remains is a few “throws” here and there, not necessarily involving any skills or attributes – just “dice as oracles”.

I wrote a longer commentary on Traveller and dice rolling a few months ago (blog post from 2021-03-27). Feel free to revisit it. I didn’t want to just copy four or five whole paragraphs from there, but they’re all relevant now: skills as professions; not having many skills; having no skills for social interactions; and yet: more talking than shooting; the importance of ambushing; the joy of planning; the decision of when to fight being more interesting than the decision of how to fight; the improvisation nature of Traveller; how the honest life doesn’t pay in Traveller… good stuff!

Organisation: Does video chat work for you? Does date voting work for you? Do the times work for you? Not enough, or too many sessions?

It took me a year to accept video chat for my games, but I think it works, now. I’m liking games with two or three players plus referee the best, I think. It no longer reminds me of work and the home office all that much. We’re living in the pandemic and I’m starting to realise that I need to socialise via video chat if I’m going to socialise at all.

As for the sessions: we’re currently doing a session every one or two weeks, which works well enough with my other two games: I’m also a player in two D&D 5 games, one with similarly irregular sessions every one or two weeks, and one with regular sessions every two weeks. I’ve even gotten used to the date voting (which is what the other D&D 5 game uses).

What about campaign length: how many sessions do you think will we play in this campaign?

I don’t know. I wonder how the campaign is going to take summer, once it arrives. The only effect so far is that we’re starting at 20:15 instead of 19:30 because “dice only get rolled after sundown” or something like that. What a lovely idea! 😄

I can also see myself doing more stuff outside and feeling like I don’t want to be in so many campaigns at the same time. My long summer break is coming up. I might want to do hikes and other things where I can’t be sure I’ll be back home in time for a game.

Then again, with a lot of free time I generally want to game more, so it’s not entirely clear to me how this will turn out.

The other thing I’m wondering is what the end of the pandemic is going to do to our social lives. Will be spending time in coffee houses and parks again, in restaurants and with friends? That might mean less games as well.

In short, I’m suspecting that this is not going to be a campaign of fifty sessions. I we play around three sessions per month, for the summer, that’d be another ten or twelve sessions? Enough to change our mind, but also not something where we say to each other: that’s something for us to do once we reach level nine, or whatever one says when using rules with power tiers due to spell levels or the like.

I’m looking forward to the next game, in any case! 😁

– Alex

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2021-04-18 Blogosphere

Yet another list of links to blog posts I liked, inspired by the read through of @jmettraux’s End of Week Links 16. Like John, I get my links from the RPG Planet. Please join us, if you haven’t already.

“A thousand miles and a thousand years. That’s the Middle Ages as a setting for popular fiction and reference frame for Fantasy. Compared to many popular fantasy settings, that’s tiny. But there’s so much stuff in this little box. More space than you could ever possibly need to tell your stories” How large does a setting have to be?, by Spriggan’s Den. I often wonder about that when reading some adventure or setting background. On the one hand, we barely remember what happened one thousand years ago. Think about it. When was the last time you saw ruins that were 1,000 years old? 2,000 years? And yet, there are settings with back history going back several thousand years (the Wilderlands of High Fantasy being the one I remember right now). Totally unnecessary, I think. And yet… Thinking about the longevity of elves: even if they are not immortal and just live to a thousand years, two thousand years is something their grandparents might have been involved in, like my grandfather’s involvement in the second world war. It’s not something I know much about, but I certainly read about the war. And I know how to read the signs: I recognise the bunkers and tank barriers that dot our landscape. So perhaps we need to add more history than makes sense on the human scale? And yet, think about it. The bronze age was 3,000 years ago or so? City states 5,000 years ago? Agriculture 10,000 years ago? I’m hazy on the details. Modern humans about 300,000 years ago? I guess you could go all the way with Robert E. Howard’s The Hyborian Age, but I think that’d be weird. Either you wanted to link it up with the present in which case great, use the Hyborian Age, or you don’t, in which case you can simply posit your world as-is without having to trace a history through the millennia, or only as far as you actually need it to provide some texture. For example, my setting “an orc settlement style unchanged ever since the War of the Landgrab”, “a relic from the Old Lizard Wars”, “forged in Asgard by Ábria Proudaxe during the Vampire Wars”, etc. Who knows what else happened back then? Nobody cares unless it affects their magic items, I’m sure.

More about deep time: “Today their culture is old, proud, hide bound, jaded and decadent. You cannot tell them anything they have not seen before. Novelty is a precious thing.” Still Here: Lizardfolk culture post, by Seed of Worlds. I love such posts about culture and time. I first thought about this in a game with some elves played by @oliof, if I remember correctly. They basically told us: “Why fight? Let’s wait for 50 years and they are all dead anyway…” 🧝🧝 Well, if you put it that way…

“Some people look for epic battles – I look for epic ambushes. I try to scout and prepare so that the enemy is totally surprised and totally overwhelmed, all die or surrender in the first round.” Game design: life experiences, by the Viking Hat GM. This is my thinking exactly. And this is why I like my fights to be over in two rounds (at least that’s the goal). The last round is the most interesting one, so it’s more exiting if every round could be the last one. And if my players are well prepared, their plans just work, not much die rolling required. Some people might thing that anticlimactic, but as far as I am concerned, the planning was part of the game, and if the plan was well thought ought, we don’t need to roll to figure out whether it worked, unless there is some surprise change circumstances.

“How do you judge what was an important early influence? This is my (undoubtedly shoddy) rubric: if you look at it now, you still feel a visceral reaction to the possibilities it hints at.” (a repost from 2013) A Visual Tour of Boyhood Influences, but Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. “If I’d been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12, these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to provide the inspiration for my game. … What were your earliest childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world look like back then?” My Earliest Childhood Fantasy Inspirations, by DIY and Dragons. As for myself, I don’t know. I read Perry Rhodan, Darkover, Dragonriders of Pern, Karl May, and Jules Verne as a teenager. I’m not sure whether these influenced me in my gaming: there’s precious little of a fantastic science-fiction universe in my games, nor psychic redheads, not a lot of sexual themes, no riding of dragons, no bonding with huge creatures, no adventures in Kurdistan or North America, and precious little of strange submarines and descents into the centre of the earth.

“They’re a sub crew, piloting a demon-powered submarine through an eldritch, haunted water-world called the Bathosphere. To help capture the feeling of a crew with titles and jobs … I’ve made a menu of party roles for them. … what the player is in charge of calling and what their duties are. … The duties are an ad hoc mixture of notes you might be in charge of taking, and just a fun little flavor thing.” An OSR experiment: Party roles, by Seventy-Seven Vicious Princes. I guess this is something I’d like to see but that I never get to see: players taking on the roles of diplomat, pilot, quartermaster, dungeoneer, fireteam leader, ritualist, scrapmaster, epicure, jailer, divemaster… Inspiring! Perhaps I should think of it in terms of inspiring names and cool privileges instead of thinking of it in terms of duty: not who must draw the map, but who gets to decide which corridors to pick and what the marching order is going to be, for example.

Something I’ve brought up a few times in discussions on Mastodon was this: “I suspect that the reason the D&D campaigns go on for so long are built into the system. Spell levels structure D&D gameplay: on the one hand, every new spell level attained changes the gameplay itself (suddenly you can fly, or fireball large groups of kobolds), and it also advertises that change ahead of time in the rules: if you play until you get to level so and so, you’ll be able to do this and that. And immediately, people start dreaming.” Changing Gameplay Over Time.

“… maybe make a double attack and if both succeed you perform the maneuver, … utilize a contested strength roll. You then give the enemy who has suffered under the technique a disadvantage – next strike gets a bonus to hit them, … they degrade their armor class. You start thinking of how to balance this, … what class restrictions lay around it, and ask how will you rectify this maneuver with weapons that aren’t blade or blade-like. I recommend by default: don’t do this.” Less Rules To Do More: Combat Maneuvers, by Aboleth Overlords. I agree! At the time, I phrased it as “nobody gets to push Conan around, trip him or disarm him, unless he’s out of hit-points.” Combat Maneuvers.

“… there are tons of issues that come up when how we use rules conflicts with why rules were written that way. A gamer who’s looking forward to delight but is handed an elaborate fairness engine? Boring! A GM who’s excited to share their knowledge and has to work with a bunch of inspirational-but-goofy tables? Ugh! And so on. Pick any mismatch, you’ve probably seen it play out in the world.” The Many Utilities of Rules, by The Indie Game Reading Club. So true. That reminds me of my take on thieves: Originally, I wanted to get rid of them. Anybody who steals is a thief, I would say. But my wife did not agree, and she was playing a thief. So I left them in the Halberds and Helmets rules and just added: “Since thieves don’t cast spells and don’t wear a lot of armor, playing a thief is a bit like playing on skill level Hurt Me Plenty. You have been warned.”

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2021-04-13 Against EDO mono-culturalism

I was listening to @Judd’s podcast, Daydreaming about Dragons the other day. In episode 74 he was talking about avoiding mono-cultures in our world-building.

Good point! This tendency to think of monsters a bit like a different species in terms of biology, or calling it race, and then ascribing a single culture to all of them is something that often has me squirm in my seat. I know this is how we learn about the game, but there is an uncomfortably close connection to racism and all that. It bothers me here in Europe as well, on a smaller scale: the attitudes we ascribe to all Germans, the attitudes we ascribe to the mountain cantons in Switzerland, and so on. It’s weird. I don’t want to deny that sometimes there can be some truth to it – that is, I don’t want to deny the cultural differences themselves, but I do object to the idea that these cultural values are all-encompassing. It’s probably true that most people do not fit the mould; perhaps there’s just a tiny minority that does. If a small group fits the same mould, however, they might still stand out. What I’m trying to say that individual actions, individual words, are still what counts.

So, we have two forces at work, here. On the one hand, these shortcuts make it easy for us to all be on the same page. I can’t deny how well it suits me to have “elves, dwarves, orcs Fantasy” (EDO Fantasy) as a short hand. We can all agree on those archetypes (or prejudices, I guess). The question is, what do we do with the mould we are given? Break it, of course! Thus, on the other hand, I need a quick way as a referee, to generate cultures that are “close, but different”.

In order to keep the benefit of EDO Fantasy, I have to keep some of the cultural traits and at the same time, I want to make sure that the individuals aren’t predictable, that is: not every elf is haughty, not every dwarf is greedy, not every orc is hateful.

Elves live a lot longer than everybody else, so surely the aspects of their culture that derive from their longevity can be universal. They are patient. They are sticklers for detail. They have seen it all before. They are perfectionists. But some elves are cruel and some are kind, some like to travel and some stay in their regions, some are great builders and some are great gardeners. I often try to find an explanation for the local culture by looking at the local terrain. In this sense, the elves are a bit of an embodiment of where they live. So sure, wood elves can be similar to other wood elves, but it’d be a shame if every wood is the same as every other wood. So as I add diversity to woodlands, I add cultural diversity to wood elves, and as I add elves to other lands, even more diversity is created.

In my multi-planar campaigns, I often have elves be “first comers” in Tolkien style. This means, you can find elves everywhere, and they always embody some of the planar terroir as well. Surely, the wood elves are different from the elves living along the Astral Sea, and those are again different from the elves that live in a fiery hell.

Dwarves simply have access to better technology. That is to say, anybody can master it, if they want to: building, mining, steam engines, it’s knowledge that anybody can attain. And there are plenty of dwarves leading simple lives as travelling salespeople, tinkerers, knife sharpeners. I still keep trade and clan as talking points for dwarves. The importance of these can be universal, but the particulars must vary. Some are rich, some are poor, some are greedy, some are generous, some are far away from home and some have lived here for many generations.

In my campaigns, I often have dwarven strongholds associated with powerful monsters, colouring their culture. Fire giants, frost giants, dragons, beholders, chain devils, these all influence how the individual dwarves act. Beholder-friends might be travelling the area, spying on people, reporting back what they see. Chain devil-friends might be closeted, paranoid, xenophobic. Fire giant-friends might be proud of their products, makers for fantastic weapons and armour, or maybe even divided with respect to the giants. And so on.

Orcs are tricky in that I don’t particularly like the brute or hateful stereotype, but I also don’t want to fall into the noble savage trope. I see two ways out: for one, the Tolkien orcs marching across the plains of Mordor like soldiers in the first World War. There’s soot and fire and the cannons of hell, and all the plants are gone, and here are two orcs, complaining about having to march all these miles, having to guard these tunnels all these hours, resentful, but cruel or kind, spiteful or merciful, it all depends. The other orcs I like are the Skyrim orcs. They are peaceful people living away from the big cities. I don’t know where I got the idea, maybe it was from ktrey parker who suggested them to me as I was working on the Hex Describe tables for my setting: orcs are great cooks, and they like strong cheese. So now my orcs are often herders, dairy farmers, cheese makers, as well as martial artists in fantasy sword fighting schools, a bit like the fifty schools or more of kung-fu, maybe warlike, maybe peaceful, maybe xenophobic, maybe serving the long distance trade networks.

Given the context of their military leaders, or the dairy animals they keep, the food they cook, and the preferred fighting style of their clan, often allows me to give orcs their individual touch.

For other creatures, it gets harder. One way around that is to deny biology as we know it. The reason that trolls and goblins are all the same is that they’re magic. Goblins grow in the mud; trolls grow from dead trees that are kept in the dark, and so on. I find that such a magical origin story, without procreation, without family, makes them poorer, of course, but also allows me to use a mono-culture of magic creatures without feeling too weird about it.

And generally speaking, if, in your mind, the campaign is localised, then mono-culturalism isn’t a problem if the next campaign takes place in the same location, or if the next campaign has different elves, dwarves, and orcs. So if you are in fact playing mono-cultural EDO fantasy, but your EDO ideas change over time, then maybe that’s not a problem after all.

I’m just suspicious of people that play all elves, dwarves and orcs the same way, all the time. Happily, I don’t see this happening a lot in my games, so all’s good.

Comments on 2021-04-13 Against EDO mono-culturalism

EDO is probably the biggest reason why we run Zakhara where orcs etc are just part of the population. Basically the only difference is what ears you have. Sort of like a Duckburg except green. No-one bats an eye at an Ogre walking down the street. The lines of conflict are more planar.

– Sandra Snan 2021-04-14 05:45 UTC

Haha, I like the idea of ears being the important differentiator. Like Star Trek aliens, or Goblinoid Games’ Forehead Friday back in 2012.

– Alex 2021-04-14 06:39 UTC

This is why I find myself using elves in my games a lot more than dwarves or orcs even though I find dwarves and orcs infinitely more interesting than elves. The way elves seem to adapt to their environment (wood elves vs sea elves, dark elves vs high elves) means you can easily set one group of elves apart from others while still retaining one general feel for the entire species. They all share the same building blocks - haughty, magical, obsessed with nature - but the differences between a wood elf and dark elf are massive even though they’re still the same on the most basic level.

Individually, of course, it’s relatively easy to avoid every character being the same, but when talking about whole communities, you have to walk a fine line between what people like and expect from each species and what can be unique and surprising but different. If you go too rigid it gets uncomfortable, but if you go too loose you start to wonder why you don’t just replace dwarves with a human mining town.

– Malcolm 2021-04-16 07:59 UTC

Good point about the dwarves and the mining town, I agree. Perhaps the use of demihumans in Fantasy games is a way for us to make it easy on ourselves. Operating with prejudices and putting people into neat categories just makes it easier all around: the inexperienced player has a better idea of what their character’s personality might be like, the others have an immediate opportunity for interaction, after all: don’t all elves and all dwarves quarrel all the time? It’s how we started our elves & dwarves interactions as kids, in any case. 😀

As I think about it some more and as I consider my current Traveller campaign (the Tau Subsector), which doesn’t feature any aliens (no wolf-people, no lion-people, no Psionic-people), I wonder: why would I introduce aliens? What plots would they further? They definitely don’t fill the roles of elves, dwarves and orcs, at least not for me, since I’m absolutely clueless regarding their lore. They can’t serve as shortcuts for characterisation. So it would have to be an interesting first-contact story, or a “find the home world of the ancients” story, or an “explore strange sexuality” story.

A mono-gender race, the asari are distinctly feminine in appearance and possess maternal instincts. Their unique physiology, expressed in a millennium-long lifespan and the ability to reproduce with a partner of any gender or species, gives them a conservative yet convivial attitude toward other races.” – Asari on the Mass Effect Wiki

– Alex 2021-04-16 11:50 UTC

I agree with you entirely regarding including or not including aliens, because of the five main non-Imperial races in Traveller’s default setting, it’s the Zhodani and Solomani who’ve always interested me the most - even though they’re as human as the Imperials (moreso, arguably, since the Solomani are descended directly from us Earthlings).

It’s hard to roleplay a truly alien alien, so most PCs and NPCs alike are going to wind up being rubber-forehead types, who are more less just humans with one or two unique traits. Which means, in my eyes, that the more “human” of Traveller’s aliens - the Vargr (wolf vikings) and Aslan (lion samurai) - aren’t really all that distinguishable from the literally human “aliens”, who wind up being as interesting as them, if not more, even though their only differences from the Imperium are cultural.

I still like aliens (and elves/dwarves/orcs, for that matter) because I like the biological and surface-level cultural differences, but I think they’re better used as Star Wars-style “average galactic citizen who happens to be amphibious” characters than Star Trek-style “entire civilization defined by their love of war/peace/science/hats/etc” characters.

Malcolm 2021-04-17 05:16 UTC

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2021-04-09 New features for Gridmapper

Gridmapper hasn’t gotten a lot of new features lately, but today somebody calling themselves the Flying Neko (neko being a cat, if I remember correctly) (which reminds me of El Gato Volador by Gian Varela & El Chombo) (anyway, Gridmapper!!) submitted some small changes:

  • $ toggles the visibility of secrets
  • ! makes all the lines a bit thinner

Making the strokes thinner is something I might have appreciated twenty years ago, when my eyes were better. If you’re twenty years younger, have at it! 😀

Flying Neko also added unidirectional doors, which is a nice new feature.

If you want to see some of the things people are creating using Gridmapper, you can visit the web app and click the “Load” Link for a huge list, or you can visit the Grimapper wiki (which is where the maps are actually stored):

To open the map in Gridmapper, click on the link, and then click on the link at the top of the page.


Comments on 2021-04-09 New features for Gridmapper

Oh my goodness, hiding the secrets is a brilliant idea! Thanks to the Flying Neko whoever they are. 🙂

acodispo 2021-04-16 20:42 UTC

Now I’m wondering about secret notes! Maybe even multiline notes?

– Alex 2021-04-16 20:50 UTC

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2021-04-07 RPG Podcast Planet

If you are a RPG podcaster, would you like your podcast added to the RPG Podcast Planet? It works much like the RPG Planet except for Podcast episodes instead of blog posts.

I started it with my own podcast so that you can get a feel for it.

Et si vous avez un podcast français, la même offre s’applique à la planète podcast rôliste francophone, et à la planète de blog rôliste francophone. 😀

Comments on 2021-04-07 RPG Podcast Planet

I’ve got an RPG Podcast: Monster Man! It’s a micropod that releases multiple episodes weekly about monsters in fantasy RPGs broadly defined. You can find it here:


James Holloway 2021-04-09 21:19 UTC

Added! It’ll be up in a few hours. As I’m going through monsters myself on my podcast, I’m going to have a listen to your old episodes. Over 300! Wow!

– Alex 2021-04-10 07:38 UTC


– froth 2021-04-13 19:33 UTC


– Alex 2021-04-13 19:53 UTC

I added preload="false" to the templates because my browser made metadata requests for each episode. Documentation.

– Alex 2021-04-15 07:53 UTC

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2021-04-06 More directories!

Is there a good RPG podcast directory?

To be honest, I’m thinking of something like the RPG Planet, but for podcasts. You’d have the directory itself in the sidebar, and recent episode summary excerpts (if any) for the most recent episodes.

Is it worth it? Does somebody already maintain such a thing?

I’m also interested in expanding into other languages. So, if you’d like to help me setup and maintain a list of blogs, or a list of podcasts, in some other language, I’d love to help!

All I know is that @blechpirat runs rsp-blogs.de, “das Netzwerk der deutschsprachigen Rollenspielblogs.” So we have German blogs covered.

The help I need involves the following:

  • write a few pages in the respective language for the Planet wiki
  • get the OK of blog or podcast hosts (via email)

I’ll be happy to handle the technical side of things.

For now, it looks like @jmettraux will help me set up a French RPG podcasting directory. Yay! Let’s see how far we get on the upcoming weekend. 🙂

See 2021-04-07 RPG Podcast Planet for more.

Comments on 2021-04-06 More directories!

I don’t know of any such thing! I often see people online asking for this and the answers are scattered. Having an updated directory like the planet is sweet

– Oliver 2021-04-06 14:47 UTC

Well, we have French Podcasts, now! 😀

The English RPG podcasts are just a proof of concept...

– Alex 2021-04-07 07:17 UTC

And French RPG Blogs. 😀

– Alex 2021-04-07 11:21 UTC

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2021-04-05 The things I learned

“Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine.” – Failing better: a GMing retrospective, by Joseph Manola

Last month, Joseph wrote about the campaigns he ran and what he learned from them, and at the time I thought to myself that someday I’d do the same. Well, I guess today is that day.

The format used in Joseph’s blog post is that he has four short paragraphs for each campaign: what it was, what worked, what didn’t, and lessons learned. We’ll see how well this goes!

I got Das Schwarze Auge from my mom and ran some modules for her and her friends when I must have been around twelve (1985). I ran three or four official adventures. The first edition rules were simple and characters were hard to kill: they started out with 20–30 hit points; there was an active defence roll (instead of using armour class); armour was damage reduction; magic used “astral” points; the game had no clerics. What worked: I remember we had plenty of players. I was a kid running the game for three adults and older teenagers and as far as I remember, it worked. What didn’t: It didn’t last long. One of the adults wanted to stop playing, and then the campaign stopped. Lessons learned: simple rules enable kids to run games. I also remember the last adventure I ran, where the party discovers a gate to another world. When one of the players said that we should develop trade between the two worlds, something opened up in my brain. An open world! My first whiff of the sandbox.

I ran some adventures of my own devising in high school when I was fifteen and sixteen. We used Das Schwarze Auge at first, switched to AD&D 1st ed. and then to AD&D 2nd ed.; we still had no concept of a “campaign” – we stopped buying Das Schwarze Auge modules and we didn’t buy TSR modules, we just wrote our own and played them one after another (1988-1989). What worked: we played D&D, we played in English, and we played our own adventures. What didn’t: we didn’t know how to handle party conflict and when the thief tried to steal another player character’s gems, we didn’t know how to deal with that and that player left the group. Shame on us! We also discovered that one of us was a rules lawyer and a power gamer. Lessons learned: The upgrade treadmill is relentless. There’s always somebody who wants to upgrade to the next edition. In hind-sight we managed to deal with the hot mess of AD&D rules pretty well.

I ran a few sessions of a light variant of Mutant Chronicles game for fellow students at university (1995). What worked: we played in some maintenance tunnels, which was creepy and cool. What didn’t: no rules, no structure, no adventure; I don’t quite remember why it fell apart but it did. Lessons learned: a cool place to game does not make a campaign.

Kurobano and the Dragons. I ran a D&D 3.5 campaign after a long hiatus (2006–2008). It started out with me using M20, but we soon switched to D&D 3.5 even though I dreaded the size of the rule books. I successfully managed to integrate my own starting setup with Red Hand of Doom; later, I added more Paizo adventures. What worked: I learned the D&D 3.5 rules. What didn’t: I ended up disliking the battle map; I felt I was being forced to play a wargame week after week, against five other humans, and I wasn’t even good at it. So I had to add tougher opponents to counteract the lack of tactics on my end. Lessons learned: high level D&D is weird; some players loved it even though they were bad at keeping track of it: the multiple attacks, the buffs, it was a chore. All they wanted was to be super-heroes! The rules were failing us.

Golden Lanterns. I played in the Shackled City adventure path using D&D 3.5 with DM James (2007–2010). I started running this game for a few sessions and then I handed it over to James. It was my first Adventure Path and I loved the idea. What worked: James managed to make the fights work; and given the rare opportunities to play, he skipped a lot of filler material. What didn’t: Advancement was fixed. I felt that sometimes I got new abilities even though I hadn’t even used all the abilities I had previously gained. My paladin found a Holy Avenger in an armoury somewhere and that was weird. I guess James had decided that we needed it for balance. Lessons learned: Adventure Paths are great and terrible. They are great because they promise a story arc that takes you to fantastic heights. They are terrible because advancement, opposition, power levels, it all has to harmonise and the more freedom the game offers, the harder this is.

Hagfish Tavern. I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path using D&D 3.5 (2008–2011). Another Adventure Path. What worked: Again, the beginning was awesome. What didn’t: Again, the it started to fall apart towards the end. High level D&D is complicated because what works at lower levels doesn’t get abandoned at higher levels. Bless is still there. If you have three or four attacks like +16/+11/+6/+1 you still roll that last one because who knows, you might get lucky. Lessons learned: the next campaign I would run was going to be a sandbox for sure!

Krythos. I ran a small Burning Wheel campaign inspired by ancient Greece (2008). It was my first attempt at Burning Wheel. It turned out to be a short campaign of six or seven sessions, by my standards. What worked: It was my first online game using TeamSpeak. I was able to use Burning Wheel’s Bloody Versus (simple opposed rolls) and the Duel of Wits (social combat). What didn’t: The game didn’t “sing” for me. I think I’d need a lot more practice. Lessons learned: online gaming can work. All you need is voice chat. At the time we had no video, no dice roller, no virtual tabletop.

Sohn des Schwarzen Marlin. I played in this D&D 3.5 campaign set along the Dragon Coast in the Forgotten Realms with DM Peter (2008). It was a sort of nautical sandbox. I don’t remember us ever leaving that initial island, though. What worked: We didn’t have a cleric in the game and it worked. What didn’t: I don’t remember. The campaign ended after a handful of sessions; I don’t remember why, though. Lessons learned: An island hopping game with pirates might be interesting.

City of the Spider Queen. I played in this D&D 3.5 adventure set in the Forgotten Realms with DM James (2008–2009). It’s a long adventure; dare I say a short Adventure Path? We started at a higher level, if I remember correctly. Somewhere around level ten? What worked: I liked playing a cleric of Shaundakul; I liked creating a character with a strong bond to another character, a kind of tag team. I liked leafing through that Forgotten Realms setting book for D&D 3.5 in order to write up a backstory. What didn’t: I didn’t enjoy the high level fights. Lessons learned: Tag team characters from the get go are fun. Avoid high level D&D 3.5.

Grenzmarken. I played in a D&D 3.5 campaign with a homebrew setting by DM Peter (2008–2010). I played a dwarf wizard licking his toad familiar and doing other small disgusting things. This was a kind of West Marches game: almost every session was an excursion that ended back in town. By this time we had established a way to split the game between the session itself and writing on the wiki. Reports got longer. Things happened between sessions. What worked: sandbox exploration was great, with many monsters to defeat and small dungeons to clear. The wiki saw a lot more use. What didn’t: After a while it was a bit formulaic, travel to the destination, fight, fight, end boss, skip over the trip home because we were running out of time. As fights took longer, the non-fighting was relegated to the wiki. Lessons learned: I need my sandbox to be more interesting than monster fighting. The excursion structure needs some tweaking but it’s very promising.

The Alder King. I ran a D&D 3.5 campaign in Lenap of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and later switched the game to the Solar System RPG (2008–2012). I used very slow advancement compared to the games I had seen with DM James since I didn’t actually want to reach those higher levels. I had decided to start the game with practically no high-level non-player characters, either. My thinking was: we’ll play the next campaign in the same setting and the surviving player characters of this campaign would be the high-level non-player characters of the next campaign. What worked: There were factions all over the place. Finding allies against Yarshag the lizardman and his giant wasp riding dragon-blood infused super-soldiers provided for a nice campaign arc. What didn’t: When the low-level henchmen formed a new party to play through the Caverns of Thracia, I didn’t enjoy myself as much. The dungeon and I did not quite agree. Lessons learned: my default implied D&D setting doesn’t work well with Greco-Roman sensibilities; I’m starting to suspect that by now I might not like playing through bought Adventure Paths, high level adventures, and big dungeons. Time to buy a lot less!

Die Reise nach Rhûn. I played in a heavily house-ruled Rolemaster campaign set in Middle Earth with GM Berni; we later switched to Legends of Middle Earth (2009–2010). What worked: Rolemaster was weird in a good way. What didn’t: the campaign was short lived. We tried switching to a rules light system but that didn’t work, either. Lessons learned: both rules heavy and rules light cannot save a campaign; I think we should have talked less about the system and more about what we actually wanted from the game.

Kaylash. I ran a Mongoose Traveller game which was later switched to Diaspora using a randomly generated subsector (2009–2010). What worked: The random subsector creation inspired a campaign. What didn’t: The Traveller rules seemed to imply that trading was the way to play the game, a bit like the old Elite computer game, except that nobody actually cared about trading; when using Fate, the game shifted away from trade to fighting zombies in space. Lessons learned: again, switching rules does not save the game if you don’t talk about what you actually want from the game.

Lied vom Eis. I played in a few sessions of an Song of Ice and Fire RPG with GM Berni (2010-2011). We rotated GM duties a few times. We had one player via video call. What worked: the new game rules worked for us. What didn’t: we had created all sorts of characters that then had no in-game reason to actually adventure together; at the same time we did not think of running our house like a stable of characters with people picking the appropriate ones, depending on the adventure at hand. Lessons learned: do not create parties that are too far apart, conceptually. You can make it work if you run your game like a fast-paced movie but it takes a lot of energy. I also remember once telling those players that I had come to play, not for the small talk. In retrospective, perhaps I should have invested into that small talk. We stopped playing together.

Desert Raiders. I played in the Legacy of Fire Adventure Path using Pathfinder RPG with GM James (2010–2011). What worked: Pathfinder worked a bit better than D&D 3.5 for us. The campaign also didn’t go all the way to level 20. Once again, the lower levels were super cool. What didn’t: I had created a mounted archer and got to use a horse maybe once. Lessons learned: talk to players if you don’t know how to incorporate their character concepts into the campaign. Also, never let anybody borrow your RPG books because now I’m missing one of the books from this Adventure Path.

Burning Six. I played in a six session Burning Wheel campaign (2011). It was a short game set in an Italian Renaissance town, or something like it. What worked: It was Burning Wheel. What didn’t: again, I feel that the lure of the Tolkien-style troupe of everything and everybody foiled our plans. Instead of being laser focused on a thing, we all created characters and dropped them into a situation. I think I was playing an abbess, there was an elf, and others… Lessons learned: at the time, I felt that Burning Wheel simply wasn’t for me; these days, after hearing the Shoeless Peasant podcast by Sean Nittner and Judd Karlmann, I feel that perhaps we just thought we could play Burning Wheel like we play D&D: create a bunch of weird characters based on the rules and it’ll all work out. Not so. First, laser focus on the kind of game we want to play!

Durgan’s Flying Circus. I played in a HARP game with a homebrew setting by GM Stefan (2011–2012). It was short lived. What worked: It was HARP. As I think back, I now get the feeling that often we played campaigns because we wanted to try new rules and had no other plans beyond that.

Mondschein Saga. I played a handful of sessions in an OSRIC campaign set in the Forgotten Realms with DM Peter (2012). It was a sandbox and Peter was searching for rules that were simpler than D&D 3.5. Unfortunately, he picked OSRIC, i.e. AD&D 1st ed., and those rules aren’t actually very simple. The printed book is substantial. What worked: the island hopping sandbox was once again improved. What didn’t: OSRIC was not smooth sailing. The players didn’t like it. Lessons learned: OSRIC and AD&D are not rules light. The island hopping sandbox can still be made to work.

Ymir’s Call. I played in a Barbarians of LemuriaCrypts & ThingsAdventure Conqueror King campaign with DM Florian (2011–2013). It was a frost sandbox. We were people in some sort of polar region and there was trouble all around us. What worked: I loved it. There were many places to visit, people to talk to. What didn’t: The rules for Barbarians of Lemuria did not convince me. On the one hand, they were too simple, and on the other hand, spending that point to mow down dozens was too weird. Crypts & Things was better, but still very much on the simple side. Lessons learned: I really started to love the wilderness sandbox. Just make sure there’s plenty of stuff to do wherever players go. As for the rules, I started to realise that I liked something somewhere between Crypts and Things and Adventure Conqueror King.

Ritter von Salisbury. I ran the Great Pendragon Campaign for the years 485 to 510, when Arthur pulls the sword from the stone (2012–2014). What worked: we had a rough campaign outline and we loved it; the traits that sometimes make characters do things the players did not expect. What didn’t: character creating took a long time; the deadly battles were frustrating if your character bit the grass; the inability to actually influence the outcome of these battles took some getting used to; you could build infrastructure but they had no effect on the game; the winter phase felt like an integral and badly designed part of the game. We always wanted something important to happen in winter but the rules did not deliver. We should have just narrated it. Lessons learned: There’s a cool, simpler game with those traits hidden somewhere in those rules.

Karameikos. I played in a Labyrinth Lord game set in Mystara every second Monday evening (2012–2015), by @oliof. We played B10 Night’s Dark Terror and it was very cool. What worked: the siege of Sukiskyn was fantastic; fighting vampires felt good. What didn’t: I’m not sure how the campaign ended. We arrived at the hidden valley and then… I don’t know. Lessons learned: B/X D&D is the level of D&D I like. After some initial enthusiasm regarding the Mystara setting, I’m much less enthusiastic about the incredible emptiness. Large maps with many empty hexes simply don’t inspire me as much.

Berem and Beyond. I played in an Adventure Conqueror King campaign with DM Florian (2013–2015). It was another sandbox, except no longer up in the icy north. What worked: I liked the sandbox; there was also a second group playing in the same area and I remember at least once we came upon a little mausoleum that had already been plundered. What didn’t: I saw Florian improvising a lot, rolling up encounters, and I didn’t like it. It broke my immersion because I no longer felt we were exploring a “real” place. It was being made up as we moved through it. The ACKS upkeep and other economy rules did not interest me. It felt like homework. Lessons learned: ACKS is too involved for my taste. When I run a game, I make sure to use a screen in order to better maintain immersion. If the players stray of the prepared material, I want to maintain the illusion for as long as possible.

Montag in Zürich. Various people interested in one-shots got together and experimented with new systems (2009–2015). What worked: I never again played so many different games as back then. It was amazing. What didn’t: eventually things broke down as people no longer volunteered to run new games. Lessons learned: there are a gazillion games out there. Also, not many of them seem to be made for the kind of long campaigns I like (50+ sessions). What I totally learned was to present a game, hand out characters, and run a game in 2½h.

Fünf Winde. I ran a Labyrinth Lord game set in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy with a big dash of Planescape and Spelljammer on every second Tuesdays (2010–2017). What worked: plane hopping, B/X + house rules, building projects to spend gold and enrich the setting; references to the old player characters from the Alder King game. What didn’t: I had placed a few mega dungeons in the campaign setting but the players didn’t really want to go there; Planescape looks cool but if you’re actually looking for adventure material in the setting boxes, there is very little; the same is true for Spelljammer. Lessons learned: playing multiple campaigns in the same setting is a good idea; visible changes from one campaign to the next is great.

Wilderlande. I ran a Labyrinth Lord campaign set in a Points of Light campaign setting for my best friend and his three kids for two hours on a Friday evening every four weeks (2010–2018). What worked: one of the kids is my godchild and I managed to stay in touch for all these years. What didn’t work: I was unable to have the spark jump. As the older kids turned seventeen and eighteen, they showed up less and less. None of them wanted to pick up the referee mantle. Lessons learned: kids can play Labyrinth Lord; when they’re five and six, they might just sit there and draw pictures, making the occasional decision for their character, but as they grow older, they simply absorb the game. There’s no need for special games for children. Children don’t want toys made for children. Children want toys made for adults. They might ignore a lot of the rules, just like we did when we were kids, but that doesn’t prevent them from wanting the real deal.

Greyheim. I ran a Labyrinth Lord game around The Castle of the Mad Archmage (a megadungeon) on every second Wednesdays (2015–2018). It was a big dungeon, with a computer-generated wilderness map surrounding them. What worked: we played until we got down to level seven of the dungeon. We managed to invest the riches retrieved into infrastructure: a castle was being built soon after the campaign got going; we had a construction site, masons, carpenters, guards, a palisade, a quarry, and on and on. What didn’t: the wilderness map wasn’t populated with enough monsters, tribes, factions, and all that. We did have orcs and ogres and treants, and evil elves and necromancers, and whenever they were encountered, the game was great. I should have added a lot more at the beginning of the game.

Mondschein Saga. I played in a D&D 5 game with DM Peter, with no regular dates (2018-2020). This was a reprise of the earlier campaigns. Peter had refined his concept: islands, factions, sandbox, links to the rest of the Forgotten Realms (e.g. a visit to Baldur’s Gate), no single safe haven but a variety of safe harbours, more dungeons, and a group that took to D&D 5. What worked: Peter’s sandbox gained even more depth; a less formulaic approach. Player Rafael taught me the value of well written session reports to show character development and I started taking to it. Some of my best writing for role-playing games happened (in German, translate using DeepL if you’re curious): Der Wert eines Zwerges (talking at the campfire), Caer Corwell auf dem Opferaltar (burning down a city), Der Feuerzirkel von Rottesheim (epilogue after the party lost the last fight at the end of the campaign). What didn’t: I still have no great love for D&D 5, but playing with just the Basic Rules for D&D 5 actually works. I like that! Lessons learned: as a player, writing vignettes on a campaign wiki is great (or posting them on whatever medium you use to share writings for your campaign).

Rasiermesserküste. I ran a Halberds and Helmets game using Razor Coast on every second Wednesday (2017–2020). I was looking for a nautical sand box, islands and pirates and all that. What worked: a nice campaign with cool ideas using were shark and cultists. What didn’t: the book tries to square the role-playing book circle, it has everything – events, maps, dungeons, characters, prep sheets, and on and on. It’s huge. It’s dense. It takes a lot of work, I think. Lessons learned: try to run the next game without using any books and without big plans that need to be prepped.

Die dampfenden Dschungel von Chult: I played in a D&D 5 game with DM Peter, with no regular dates (2020-2021), via Skype. Same deal as before: I used the Basic Rules for D&D 5. Instead of a fire wizard I played a rogue and it was great. What worked: the mix of sandbox, interesting locations with smaller dungeons, the ruins of Omu, the big final dungeon. What didn’t: if at all, the big dungeon at the end was a bit too long, but just barely so. It was still a great game. Lessons learned: the D&D 5 sandbox still works! Yay!

Die drei Wälder. I ran a few sessions of Just Halberds, with no regular dates (2020), for a bunch of kids, via Zoom. What worked: it was a play test for the Just Halberds rules. What didn’t: I wasn’t really able to get into a good 2d6 groove and eventually the game just petered out. Perhaps the kids lost interest; perhaps gaming remotely using Jitsi, Zoom, and friends, isn’t made for larger groups of players. Lessons learned: for future games, I’m going to try and limit the number of players to three.

Die Zeit der Waldbrände. I’m playing in a Humblewood campaign using D&D 5 with DM Lars (2020–now), via Jitsi. What worked: D&D with anthropomorphic animals works better than I expected! The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Der Fluch des Stradh: I am playing in a D&D 5 game with DM Mircea, with no regular dates (2021–now), via Zoom. I’m playing a fighter that picked the Skilled feat to pick rogue skills. So, a rogue without sneak attack, haha. I’ve started using the D&D 5 Player’s Handbook, at long last. I guess it works for me because I’m playing a fighter. What works: the mix of interesting locations with smaller dungeons everywhere. The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Tau Subsector. I’m running a Classic Traveller game, with no regular dates (2021–now), more or less weekly, via Jitsi. I used a ton of random tables to provide even more details for the generated subsector and now I’m hoping that one thing leads to another, with not too much prep required. The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Lessons learned, overall: Keeping the notes of the games you played in, is future pleasure – in a jar. Do it! Open it a decade later and enjoy the memories, like I did.

Comments on 2021-04-05 The things I learned

Very interesting and a good read!

My lessons from the last decade:

  • Campaign wikis are great for lore, player background stories and interactions with the world. I also think they work better for character development and many aspects of role playing, as most people are more comfortable and creative at writing between sessions than at speaking during a session.
  • D&D 5e rules work. They are the best version of the rules in my opinion. Easy to get into, quite well balanced and without any really serious flaws. I would prefer them to be a bit more gritty and less Marvel Super Heroes style. The exploration/survival aspect is also too trivial.
  • Sandboxes are great. I love creating and running them. But pure wilderness hexploration as in the Grenzmarken campaign is a bit bland and can feel meaningless soon. Who cares about how many arch demons from Hell your hero killed in a forsaken dungeon in the wilderness? Killing an arch duke in a city or just having the power to possibly do so, is much more interesting and also character defining. So social sandboxes with fame and factions are more interesting for everyone, I think.
  • Dungeons are still the heart of the game and what the D&D 5e rules are made for. The players are on the edge of their toes and fully engaged most of the time: Thinking about tactics, spell selections, resting points etc. Everyone can contribute. The problem with social encounters is that usually it is just 1 or 2 players that are really engaged or relevant and the rest is fiddling their thumbs. I am just experiencing this again as player in DM Mirceas campaign.
  • Now here’s a big conflict with the point about sandboxes: For the campaign to be interesting and meaningful, you need a social setting rife with conflict and interactions. But in actual play it seems to me that running dungeons still works best. It is also less demanding of the DM than running and improvising interesting social encounters. So this led to my current kind of preferred gaming style of running mostly dungeons and combat in actual play and running a social sandbox for character development and world exploration on the campaign wiki.
  • There’s a also a social aspect of relevance at the meta-level: A smaller party size (3 or 4 max) would certainly make it easier to have more social interactions and character development during a session like we had in the past. But I also came to the conclusion that having a bigger party size makes the game and campaign much more relevant for everyone at the meta level. Many of my sessions with just 3 players felt a bit meaningless or bland in retrospective. If you kill the BBEG with a critical hit with just 2 companions at the table it doesn’t feel the same as with 5, where there’s always a lot of cheering, high-fiving etc. going on. It’s a bit like watching sports now in empty stadiums compared to fully packed ones in the past. It’s kind of stupid, but it really seems that among humans, everything becomes much more meaningful and long lasting in memory if there are a lot of spectators/companions.

– Peter 2021-04-05 20:59 UTC

This is a great post! Thank you for it! Is it just where you were in life or something about B/X based games that led to them lasting so long?

– Oliver 2021-04-05 22:39 UTC

It’s not just the B/X campaigns that went on for a long time; the D&D 3.5 and now the D&D 5 campaigns all went on for at least 30+ sessions, if not twice as much – even if I did not enjoy high level 3.5. I suspect that it has to do with how spell levels structure D&D gameplay: on the one hand, every new spell level attained changes the gameplay itself (suddenly you can fly, or fireball large groups of kobolds), and it also advertizes that change ahead of time in the rules: if you play until you get to level so and so, you’ll be able to do this and that. And immediately, people start dreaming.

See 2012-01-24 Changing Gameplay Over Time.

– Alex 2021-04-06 06:58 UTC

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– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-22 12:19 UTC