Welcome to Kickstarter Wonk! The month of June was an embarrassment of riches for RPG Kickstarters, but I’ve taken on the sobering duty of narrowing the month down to my top ten projects. Here you see some inventive games, some games by rising stars in game design, and some games that just need to be seen. Check it out!
Raid the dungeon. Take the treasure. Don’t get killed by the dragon. Backstab your buddies? This might sound like a standard Dungeons and Dragon campaign (maybe not the backstab your buddy part), but it is one way to summarize Clank!: A Deck Building Adventure by Renegade Game Studios. Rather than picking up a character sheet and some dice, Clank! instead operates as a combination of a deck building game (such as Ascension or the DC Comics card game) and a more standard board game.
Sometimes it’s the last ones to arrive that end up being the secret sauce that make an adventuring party, and even a campaign, fully coalesce into something truly memorable. It was that way with White Coat and High Impact Heroics, it was that way with first Caleb and Patience and then the Alliance troops aboard the Borrowed Time, and so it was with the crew of the Lost and Found. The Dice for Brains Season 4 Pregame crew was coming together pretty solidly as a band of ne’er-do-wells, but even with Zaja they might not have turned out as friendly without the help of their final member, who certainly made an interesting first impression (on the hull) . . .
Horror gaming has a long and storied history, starting as far back as 1981 with Call of Cthulhu. When Vampire: The Masquerade came out a decade later, new fans were drawn into RPGs by the appeal of a game that combined horror, violence, and romance. Both of these properties are still going strong, alongside other games that emphasize the supernatural (like Urban Shadows) or the Mythos (like Delta Green). When you combine the popularity of these games with the multitude of genres that use horror elements (Ravenloft or Warhammer in fantasy, Eclipse Phase in science fiction), it’s easy to see that horror is a big draw at the gaming table, even if it can be difficult to do right. Here to help, for one of the unlikeliest systems possible, is Evil Hat, with the Fate Horror Toolkit.
Welcome back prospective GMs! Last week, we started off intrigue and mystery in the City of Brotherly Love using Dresden Files Accelerated from Evil Hat Productions. In Break & Enter, the players discovered a Fomor burglary ring attempting to steal a mysterious document from a wealthy collector. In Group Texts a missing researcher found himself seized by a spirit beyond his control, looking to tap into a well of power.
I also encouraged GMs to take some time with Case Files of their own in order to address plot elements brought in with the players. While this isn’t necessary, it does help people flesh out their characters. However, if you are feeling anxious and want to get right into the action, we will bring this plot arc to a head with Raising Cain and Court Summons.
Transcribed by Bigby, stolen by Shemeshka, dictated by Mordenkainen, and drawing from the many worlds of the multiverse, the Tome of Foes has arrived! Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, of course, the latest supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, following in the footsteps of Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It has lore, character options, and foes aplenty for us to check out, so let’s get started! I’ll be taking us through chapter by chapter, seeing what Mordenkainen has left for us to read, and comparing the final product to the various bits of Unearthed Arcana that got it started!
The adventurers rested, either leaning against the altar with weapons in hand, or scrambling around the spare furnishings of the temple. The Shadows moved faster than Folk did, and they didn’t have much time until the ten of them that were released found the way up and out of the crypt. Ander and Jethro found glass bottles in the Undertaker’s apartment and filled them with water for their skins, setting the bottles and some of the silver they gathered from the Keep in front of Hugh, who performed a ceremony to bless the water. Holy water seemed to be a potent ally in the fight against what was to come. Clouds gathered over the temple, and the adventurers prepared for a fight. As the sky darkened, the adventurers scrambled to the squares of sunlight made by the overhead windows; shadows didn’t usually exist in daylight, and the adventurers needed all the help they could get. The Shadows ascended the crypt stairs in groups of two and three, met by eldritch blasts, sacred weapons, and holy water. Now, with time to prepare and adequate supplies, the adventurers drove back the Shadows with only a few wounds and a little strength sapped. Not yet ready to return to the crypt, Hrive went outside the walls to retrieve his mule, and the group foraged old abandoned gardens for food. Sleep came easier in the keep without gnolls to harry them, but the adventurers were still wary.
Welcome back prospective players and GMs! Last week we took a crash course to learn about a slew of the movers and shakers of Supernatural Philadelphia for a Dresden Files Accelerated campaign, and some advice about aspects for the city. Now, we’ll start with some Case Files for GMs to use for their players. These, quite obviously, contain spoilers, but a clever GM can have ways to use that to their advantage if they discover that players are planning things to go exactly to script.
Now, a a note, these case files should be by no means an exclusive list of adventures for a campaign. If players incur more complications on their own throughout the campaigns, or bring in troubles of their own on a large scale from their own characters (a vengeful Fairy Godmother, a deal with a Denarian gone wrong, a magical rival) you should feel free to write up your own case files to address them. I am a strong advocate for bringing in player’s own background details into the game, as it helps with their immersion, but these cases offer a place to start. The early case files have endings that are more set in stone. Later cases will encourage the GM to come up with their own conclusions, as the longer you play the more likely events will go off the rails.
This week, we are looking at two cases: Break & Enter and Group Texts.
Case File #1: Break & Enter
There have been a rash of break ins and minor property damage in a number of buildings around the Old City area. The last one happened to be a store specializing in rare books, which is friendly to the Ventatori Umbrorum. The Venatori ask the party to check it out as a favor, and to report back what they find.
The perpetrators are the Fomor, who seem to be targeting sites looking for a particular document. They have been trying to go unnoticed, and are trying to space out their break-ins in order to avoid arousing suspicion.
There are a number of ways the players can go about this. If they have contacts in the police department, they may be able to find case files and try to track likely next targets. They could ask around the Supernatural community for leads. They may attempt some form of magical tracking.
Along their journey, they may run across Elias Raith, a White Court vampire from Chicago. He will be hanging around the last break-in site, and is likely to try to talk his way out of a confrontation rather than starting a fight. He claims that he’s been sent by the head of the Raith clan in Chicago to keep a closer eye on the Fomor, and clan Raith feels that they are a danger too great to let clan squabbling get in the way. House Cathus feels otherwise, and has been trying to push him out. Elias is willing to help the party by sharing what he knows, but demands help in regaining his strength. This can be done by finding a place to set him up where he can safely feed (say, a strip club), people he could stay with, or a player may offer to allow him to feed on them (Long term consequences if they say yes).
However the players go about it, they find the same core truth: The last store once held the document that the Fomor are looking for. Now they know where to strike next (feel free to add or slant details depending on how players find out). Players might be able to figure out the next target based on the shop’s records, or by scouting for the Fomor (now that the party knows what they are looking for).
The document was purchased by a private collector who lives in Norristown, a wealthy suburb. When the players arrive, the Fomor are already there and are searching through the owner’s collection. Have a Fomor Lieutenant and a number of minions as opponents. They will oppose the players, and aren’t afraid to use the family in the house as hostages if things turn rough. They will retreat if they can’t get any leverage, or try to bolt if they find what they are looking for.
Meanwhile, there is an event going on in the background. If both the Fomor and the Party are engaged with each other, or distracted, a third party is going to be a factor. Eliza Chance, a high ranking NPC for the Sons of Free Magic, is going to attempt to make a copy of the document (single use magic item from someone else in the order). She has a +4 subtle score (-2 in everything else) and the Aspect “Magical Phantom Thief”. Feel free to spend a GM Fate Point to keep it quiet. Eliza will not interfere with either the Fomor or the party, and will not take the prize for herself.
The party can choose to destroy the document, or keep it for themselves. If they mention it to the Venatori, they will ask to archive it for safekeeping.
Depending on how things play out, the factions will have the following changes:
If the Fomor manage to get the document, whispers begin to bubble about more people going missing in the fringes of the city and New Jersey. Add an aspect such as “Control of Minor Leylines” as a secret resource. If the party keeps the Fomor from the document: The Fomor suddenly fall quiet. No one seems to be hearing a whisper about them for a while; add an aspect to show their renewed caution such as “Twice Shy”.
If the players stop the Fomor: Faith is restored in the Venatori allies. Add an aspect to show the validated trust in their partnerships such as “Renewed Faith”. If the players give the document to the Venatori Umbrorum, they will hand it over to a researcher who appears in Case File “Group Texts”. If the players fail to stop the Fomor, then Venatori contacts around the city doubt that the Venator can protect them. Add an aspect weakness along the lines of “Friends have targets on their backs”
If the players help Elias Raith, create a new faction for House Raith. Their goals are looking to remove (or weaken) House Cathus and the Fomor within the city. If the players ignore or don’t run into Elias Raith he is driven from Philadelphia, and add an aspect to House Cathus to show their willingness to defend their turf such as “See what you get?” If players turn over Elias Raith to House Cathas, they will respond positively to you, and add on an aspect such as “Remembers a Favor” to their faction description.
Free Sons of Magic
If Eliza Chance manages to make a copy, add the aspect “Knows Places of Power” to the Free Sons of Magic resources. If Eliza is detected: fill in another box on the “Fear of Being Identified” track.
Case File #2: Group Texts
The Venatori contact the party again. One of their researchers has gone missing. Kalen Trath has been working to decode ciphers that the Venatori suspect hide clues to relics stored around the city by the Venatori throughout history. He’s missed his past two meetings, and his apartment has been abandoned. They are asking that you investigate and try to find where he is.
An investigation of his apartment shows that it looks like a wreck of conspiracy theories. Maps of the city cover the wall, with pieces of yarn tying them together. To the players, it looks like there is no rhyme or reason to it. If players gave the Venatori the document from Break & Enter, they’ll realize from the notes that it looks like it relates to the map on the wall. With a high enough effect on whatever investigation method they choose, they’ll find a box with runes inscribed on the inside and a handwritten note reading “Put this to good use. I can’t wait to see what you dig up.” From his notes, social media, delivery menus, etc., (be flexible about how players go about it) you can track some of the general areas Kalen’s been in.
If the players choose to try to track Kalen down, they’ll head down to South Philly to a bar Kalen had been frequenting (Imagine Paddy’s Pub from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Asking around will get the attention of some wise-guys in the area. It seems that Kalen has gotten rather pushy, and roughed up a bunch of the local boys. This is out of character for him, and he’s managed to piss off the locals, who are none too happy with you nosing around about him. They are looking for a fight, but while they can be talked down, they still make it clear they want Kalen for themselves.
After the mob enforcers have been dealt with in one way or another, the owner of the place can be cajoled (easily bribed, threatened, etc.) into revealing what Kalen has been so disturbed about. He’s been asking about a construction job, one that the local mob has been delaying until they get their piece of the pie. The bartender, if the players really get him talking (a high degree of success on any rolls), will also mention that he saw an older guy talking to Kalen (Abbon Fitzpatrick).
Depending on how the players follow up, they can learn all or parts of the following information: Abbon Fitzpatrick was able to track Kalen using the resource “Paranet Subversion”. The box which Kalen received from Abbon Fitzpatrick contained a spirit of knowledge, similar to Bob from the main series, but one which overwhelmed and drives the host. The Sons of Free Magic may have a copy of the document from the last session, or if not, would want general information that Kalen has around. The spirit has allowed Kalen to decipher a lot of hidden information, but it is slowly turning him into a Faust (see the writeup in the DFA Core Rulebook). Kalen has managed to crack the location of a leyline nexus in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House. It has been going through renovations, and these have been slowed by the local mob, which wants its share of construction. They’ve been blocking access to anyone to enter, which is what spurred Kalen’s (or rather, the spirit possessing him) anger.
Kalen, robbed of self-control, is going to try to tap into the leyline nexus and no longer cares who he has to hurt to get there. If the GM feels like the players have put together his location quickly, he can have them in place when Kalen arrives (though the guards might be a problem). If they have taken their time, or if the GM wants to up the stakes, the guards outside are missing and Kalen is inside trying to cobble together a ritual spell to tap into the leyline. Faust!Kalen will send minions at the players to try to distract them. These can include mind controlled guards, summoned up spirits, or whatever the GM feels is appropriate.
Choose a number of rounds to act as an effective countdown for Kalen to complete the ritual, and then institute a halfway point. If the players are able to disable Kalen before the halfway point, the ritual fizzles. If alive, Kalen will recover and be able to tip off the party to Abbon and what he’s found about leylines in the city. If Kalen is disabled before the spell is complete, but after the halfway point, the spell goes off disastrously. Kalen is killed, and there is severe physical and magical fallout: there is a large crater in the building, and the leyline nexus has been corrupted with a sinister presence. If Kalen completes the ritual, or the party is taken out, Kalen will use his newfound power and vanish, becoming an antagonistic NPC. The leyline is depleted, and no one can tap it now.
No matter how it resolves, the case file ends with a stinger: someone has tried to clean out Kalen’s apartment. If the players haven’t done anything to snatch up, guard or destroy Kalen’s research (don’t encourage them, or hint to the players about it, this should be a surprise) then anything that wasn’t backed up by Kalen (if he is alive and helpful) or picked up by the party is gone, taken by persons unknown.
Depending on how things play out, the factions will have the following changes:
If players manage to save Kalen: Add the asset “Completed Cipher”
If the leyline hasn’t been corrupted or tampered with: add the aspect “Major Magical Site for Research”
If Kalen completes the ritual: Add the aspect “A Former Friend Turned Enemy” to the Venatori. Make Kalen a new faction and assign aspects as you deem fit.
If the players fought the mob enforcers and don’t hand over/kill Kalen: Add the aspect “You Better Watch Your Back”
If the players don’t fight the mob enforcers, and Kalen survives or escapes: No change
If the players kill or hand oven Kalen: Add the aspect “We Don’t Forget Good Work”
Free Sons of Magic
If the party manages to link Abbon to the incident or uncover a major clue: Fill in another box on the “Fear of Being Identified” track
If Kalen’s research is stolen: Add the aspect “Completed Cipher.” If they managed to obtain a copy of the document from Break & Enter add the aspect “Parts of the Leyline Puzzle” as well.
That’s the start, and while writing it, I envisioned that this is a solid jumping off point for players to get involved with their personal stories. You can absolutely fit a few sessions in without disturbing the story arc. Players are often a GM’s best resource, and can offer ways to bridge the plot even more cleanly than you can imagine. They also have the potential to throw things devastatingly off the rails. From here on out, the plots are going to be more free-form. A general story is in place, with confrontations set up, but players will be given considerably more operational freedom. This is something that should be encouraged! It means the players care!
The last two case files are designed to be the ending of a plot arc. This can mean the end of the campaign, but it’s also a perfect time for a Major Event, to offer players an advancement. We will tackle this next week as we delve into Raising Cain and Court Summons!
Here’s the thing about adventuring parties, ad hoc teams, and ragtag starship crews: they don’t always get along with one another. Whether it’s past associations, disagreements over a course of action, or basic personality conflicts, every group is going to have moments where they’re fighting among themselves (hopefully only verbally). The crew of the Lost and Found is no different. Carga found himself joining up with Zaja’s eccentric crew of data pirates, and has even gotten along with the curmudgeonly technician Thraga, but the fact is that the crew has both an ex-Rebel and an ex-Imperial on the roster, and that was bound to come to a head at some point . . .
Theories are tools for understanding and explaining any number of different subjects. As role-playing games began to increase in subject matter breadth, there immediately followed an attempt to explain what different games do, and what games do best. Unsurprisingly, attempts to “explain” the range of games on the market were typically incomplete and sometimes dreadfully inaccurate. Despite this, some theories stuck around, usually because they were punchy and easy to remember, and were “close enough” to work as a shorthand. Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look a bit at game design theory, and use one of the most popular theories as a springboard to discussion about RPG Theory as a whole and what it’s trying to accomplish. As George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That is the best way to understand many RPG Theories, including the GNS Model.