All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at 563rdattempt.wordpress.com.

Level One Wonk: Post-Apocalypse

Greetings, wastelanders! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today it’s the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world has captivated authors for centuries, and also left a strong mark on film. Whether it’s anxieties about where society is going or fantasizing about being a sole survivor, post-apocalyptic novels, movies, and games have been popular for quite some time. The post-apocalyptic genre works very well for tabletop RPGs, too: an unexplored world full of dangers, potential treasures and traps existing from the old world, and driving motivations that are simple and strong make for a huge palette of potential games. A post-apocalyptic setting conceit can be layered on top of many other genres, and the resulting games can range from a brutal struggle for survival to a gonzo trip down Fury Road. What’s important is not the particulars of any given game, but rather how to choose and write those particulars to best serve your desired play experience.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: Post-Apocalypse

Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons Part 1

Two weeks ago, a group of ragtag wanderers and students of the road met in the basement of the Widow’s Walk Inn in Port O’Rock. Run by a group of fearful elders, Port O’Rock did not open its gates to travelers very often, and warned against leaving the few times that it did. When two smugglers, Alstern and Renard, offered passage out of the city, there were seven who paid their fee.

Jethro was a farmer from the area, and a bit provincial (maybe more than a bit). After his Pa’s passing, he felt compelled to open his grandfather’s chest…and now he felt compelled to get out of town. It didn’t take much for the others to realize there was more going on.

Elliot had been cooling his heels in town for a while, serving as a bouncer at another tavern. However, he didn’t truly belong here, being a literal giant from the fey realm. The suspicious folk of Port O’Rock only tolerated his presence, and he had the legacy of his clan to carry on.

Hugh was a man, practiced in the healing arts. There wasn’t much for him in town, though, and like many tallfolk, the wanderlust struck.

Hrive was the most exotic looking of the group, not only an Eladrin but also carrying ceremonial weapons from his family. They had been struck down, and he crossed the realms looking for justice.

Ander was a member of an obscure order, the Order of Ending. One of the more tolerated cults of Dommus, God of Death, the Order of Ending presided over funeral rites in much of the Folk lands. For Ander, the whispers of unnatural monsters and dead spirits walking the Earth aggravated his human wanderlust even further.

There were two more, Boer and Paelias. They stayed quiet through the first meeting and boarding the ship. That didn’t make it less troubling when they disappeared.

After leaving the harbor of Port O’Rock during the New Year’s celebrations, the “favorable winds” Alstern and Renard saw quickly turned into a storm. What was supposed to be a quick sail down the coast turned into hard fight, and the boat eventually capsized, snapping the mast against the shallow ocean floor. The boat and five adventurers washed up on a sandy beach…two adventurers, two smugglers and much of the trip’s extra supplies were gone.

It didn’t take long before their arrival had attracted some unwanted guests. Six undead shambled across the beach, quickly dispatched by the adventurers with bows and other ranged weapons. As everyone got their bearings and as Hrive retrieved his terrified mule, three others appeared on the beach…three gnolls. Not all gnolls are evil, however. These three, lead by one named Rom, were Dogs of War, servants of the Nether Realm sent to shepherd the souls of the dead to their final destination. Apparently, the zombies that the adventurers just killed were Witherlings, cursed gnolls who had been cannibalized by those who turned their back on their mission and indulged in pleasures of the flesh. And also apparently, there was a large cult of former Dogs of War who had done just that. The Dogs helped the adventurers burn the bodies, and explained that a large detachment of these renegade gnolls had taken up refuge in the otherwise abandoned keep of a nearby city, a city that the smugglers had referred to as the former Kavish capital of Glebhavern. These gnolls were under siege from masses of undead in the city, and had not eaten in weeks. Renegade gnolls only eat the flesh of sentient beings, so the smell of the adventurers on the wind meant the gnolls would be looking for them. And indeed, a hunting party of three gnolls showed up soon after, giving the adventurers only a little time to prepare. The group exchanged pot shots, using their scuppered boat as cover. After the gnolls fell, it was clear there would be more coming.

The adventurers consulted with the Dogs and came up with a plan. After the gnolls sent out their next hunting party, they’d sneak into the keep, and see if they could deal with whoever remained. The Dogs would use the distraction of fresh game to begin their mission, shepherding the undead out of the city and to their final resting place. Knowing there was no time to lose, the two groups bade each other farewell and headed towards opposite ends of the city. The adventurers found an old corroded sewer gate and made their way through foul water to the bottom of a privy, fighting rats along the way. Fortunately, by going through the sewer and climbing up the privy, the now filthy adventurers had masked their scents to the many gnolls within the keep.

Elliot led the adventurers down dark corridors until they came to a heavy door, with gnolls speaking on the other side. Thanks to his knowledge of Abyssal, Hugh was able to make out the conversation. Apparently the adventurers were not only on time, but early…the “master” was about to send out the hunting party. The two gnoll hunters were heading for the door…the party quickly retreated behind a corner. As the gnolls walked towards them, Elliot gave a count and the five jumped out and quickly dispatched the surprised gnolls. The door was no more than ten paces ahead, and it wasn’t clear if the “master” inside had heard the commotion. No time to lose. Elliot and Ander stacked up against the door, with Hrive, Jethro and Hugh following.

When they pushed the door into the gnoll on the other side, they were surprised to see that he hadn’t bowled over, or even budged, really. This gnoll was a Fang, a powerful cult lieutenant. However, stripped of his underlings, he was weakened. The adventurers might have a chance. The battle was fierce, but after exchanging blows and inspiring Ander to rage, the fight ended with the adventurers victorious. They quickly barred the door and searched the room. The chamber had mostly been ransacked, though Elliot found a signet ring with a magic signature, apparently belonging to the Kavish Emperor. This city was definitely Glebhavern, in that case. Looking around, there was a sense of unease. The Fang’s death almost certainly created alarm among the remaining gnoll cultists…they were coming. It wasn’t clear how long the adventurers’ temporary fortifications would hold, but for now they had a chance to rest, prepare, and get ready for a fight.


One of the biggest challenges in a game is starting it, and this is doubly true if you’re doing something new. I have GMed D&D Fifth Edition before, but this was the first time I was running a sandbox, in any system. I spent a lot of time poring over my setup, but now it was time to put it all to the test. Would the players go for my hooks? Would they find the world interesting? I wouldn’t know until I tried.

The inspiration for the first hook came from reading the chapter on gnolls in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. I wasn’t a huge fan of what was there, honestly. The idea that gnolls were driven by an evil god and were irredeemably evil didn’t sit well with me…it implied things about free will that either stated that no one had it, or that intelligent monsters were inferior to equally intelligent player races. Since goblins and kobolds are player races in this setting, I needed to make sure that there was some revision there. And that’s where my idea for good gnolls came from. Gnolls still served a god, but one that other races knew about. And gnolls could still be driven to evil just like anyone else.

My players took this all in stride as part of the world, which was great. They also jumped on the hook, as befitting characters in a strange new place, looking for adventure. The mini-arc of the gnolls would only last a couple sessions, but it provided exactly what I wanted it to: something for the characters to jump in immediately, and a concrete goal that would take them places where they could find out about the world and later make their own decisions.

At the end of this session, the characters present had all gained enough experience to advance to level two, helped by the challenging encounter at the end as well as the total number of encounters. This was the first session where I realized that 5th Edition might move faster than what I had remembered, but minimizing the time spent at level one is immediately helpful for party survivability as well as getting to some of the core class abilities quickly.

All things considered, session one was a success. The party had a short-term goal, and was already being introduced to setting details that they would be able to return to later. In the near term, I was getting ready to face our inconsistent attendance issues head on, as well as figure out unobtrusive ways to dole out setting information. Those challenges, though, will come later.

Kickstarter Wonk: February, 2018

Welcome back to Kickstarter Wonk! February is the month of romance, and I think you’ll find plenty to love with a deeper field of new RPGs than we had in January. In addition to nine completely new games people are trying to bring to life, we have two honorable mentions: First, a new edition of an old game that deserves some recognition, and second, a board game which is trying to make RPG elements a primary part of its design.

Continue reading Kickstarter Wonk: February, 2018

Stars Without Number

Are you an old-school gamer, or a new-school gamer? I’m the Level One Wonk, and I consider myself both, which may be why I enjoy this week’s game so much. Today we’re going to talk about Stars Without Number, a game designed by Kevin Crawford. Crawford has released many games through his Sine Nomine Publishing imprint, which are all built around similar design principles: hackable sandbox experiences with an old-school heart. Games like Godbound, Scarlet Heroes and Stars Without Number are all designed to bolt right in to both old-school D&D and its retroclones, but these games are no mere clones. While Stars Without Number has characters with six familiar stats, saving throws, classes, and levels, it stretches the D&D framework quite far. As you may be able to guess from the name, Stars Without Number is a science fiction game.

Continue reading Stars Without Number

Level One Wonk: Gaming on Earth

Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and this week I’m being totally down to Earth. Fact is, we live on a pretty interesting planet, and if you’re running a game that concerns itself with the past, present, or future of humans as we know them, you may be running a game using actual places. Depending on your disposition, using the real world as a basis for your games can either be way easier than worldbuilding, or way more difficult. Everything in the real world is “written” for you, which can be a boon to those of us not predisposed to improv…but on the other hand, the idea of doing research to run a game rubs a lot of people the wrong way. However, no matter the preference, anyone can run a fun game in the real world, or something like it.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: Gaming on Earth

Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons Prologue

Welcome to Adventure Log! While the Borrowed Time may have finally run out, there are still new adventures to be had around every corner. Today, we move from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to a distant world, where empires have crumbled and the planes themselves are opening passages between dimensions. There may be dungeons, and there may be dragons, but not everything is as it seems.

Continue reading Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons Prologue

Level One Wonk Reviews: The Veil: Cascade

Welcome back to Level One Wonk, where it’s time to go back to the Dark Future! We’re substituting the interface plugs and cyberarms for a whole new Slack as we check out The Veil: Cascade. This supplement not only advances the timeline on PbtA Cyberpunk game The Veil, but also adds a whole slew of new settings, playbooks, and rules tweaks for upload. After reading, it appears that Fraser Simons and his contributing authors were not only thinking outside the box, but have gone so far as to delete the box with no chance of data recovery.

Continue reading Level One Wonk Reviews: The Veil: Cascade

Kickstarter Wonk: January, 2018

Greetings all, and Happy New Year! The Level One Wonk has returned, emerging wide-eyed and determined to face 2018 down! Of course, New Year often means new games. Like I mentioned in the Holiday Special, I’ve wanted to find good write-ups of new RPGs available on Kickstarter ever since Kickstarter began absorbing strangely large quantities of my money back in 2014. While some of these sorts of articles do exist, they are either irregular (covering only Kickstarters relevant to the topic of a given blog as an example) or short-form (there are good Kickstarter threads on RPGnet, but with a max post count north of 1000 these can be quite tough to track with). So I’ve taken it upon myself to plumb the depths of Kickstarter looking for new games.

Continue reading Kickstarter Wonk: January, 2018

The Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2017

‘Tis the season, nerds and geeks, fellow wonks and gamers of all ages. The season when we gather with family and friends, reflect on the year that is ending, and look forward to the new one. And, of course, ’tis the season when your very own Level One Wonk sneaks away from his family, but only has time to hastily bang out a year-in-review article rather than bring you any new content. It has been a good year, though. We started the year with a good foundation and finished strong, bringing in tons of eyeballs with a review that was very nearly a scoop, and of a game people actually cared about to boot. Let me tell you what I’ve seen, and what I think 2018 is going to look like.

Continue reading The Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2017

Level One Wonk: The Kitchen Sink

Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re throwing things at a wall to see what sticks! Most popular games out there exist within the framework of a genre or existing setting, and use those constraints to create interesting stories. In Dungeons and Dragons you have magic, monsters, and an underlying battle between good and evil. In Star Wars you have the Force, liberties taken with the laws of physics, and…an underlying battle between good and evil. At the end of the day, though, sometimes you want to mix chocolate and peanut butter and get something else. What if your D&D setting was invaded by aliens? Who were actually Force Ghosts…who actually came from the world of Exalted? What if they were all psychic? Why stop there? Sometimes you want everything and the kitchen sink.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: The Kitchen Sink