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

“We Didn’t Touch Dice the Whole Session!”

Role-playing games are games which involve role-playing, and that would only be a tautology if the category was consistently named. As it is, plenty of games termed RPGs can run just fine without any role-play to speak of, and plenty of role-play described in so-called RPGs lacks the structure which would allow it to fit the loosest definition of a game. Whether not an RPG is a game or involves role-play, it is certainly a product, and perceived experience sells a product as well as if not better than the actual experience that the product delivers. There is no other medium where the audience exclaims, quite positively, that they did not in any way engage with the experience as delivered to them.

When gamers state, often with happiness, that they went through a whole session without touching their dice, this is a tacit declaration that they did not engage with the game they were playing as intended; if the game did not intend for the players to roll many dice, or had no dice at all, such a declaration wouldn’t typically be made. This is not debatable, the experience of not engaging with the rules is special only insofar as the rules are there to be engaged. As much as it’s clear that the game isn’t being played as intended, what we cannot do in a blanket way is state this is a bad thing. RPGs are designed to deliver specific experiences and many of them, especially more rules-intensive games, deliver multiple specific experiences depending on the fraction of the game you’re engaging with. Looking at what players are or aren’t doing with a specific game requires which mechanics they are or are not engaging with, as well as what they’re doing in their game which isn’t in the rules and is done without touching any dice at all.

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How the Wonk GMs: Session Prep

Welcome back to How the Wonk GMs! Last time we had a bit of an introduction, framing the GMing experience by talking about campaigns and how one sets up for a campaign. Today, the discussion will be more specific, talking about how one gets ready to run a session. Later, I’m going to go into what I actually do in the GM’s chair, and what running a session looks like.

The one comment I got on the last post in this series was that it was vague, and I concede that. Here’s the thing, though: After you frame up what kind of campaign you want to run, what conceits and systems would be fun for you, you want to keep it vague. An RPG campaign is not a novel, and when you’re setting everything up prior to play you want to leave as many doors open as possible. It is now, when you’re looking to set up an actual session that your players are going to show up to, that you can start closing the doors and settling on what you actually want the game to look like.

I call this session prep, but in the real world with schedule breakdowns, cliffhangers, and everything taking just a bit longer than you’d expect, this might be more of an ‘adventure prep’ given that some of these ‘sessions’ will last two or three. For the most part, then, we’re going to be talking in units of plot rather than units of time. For each of these units of plot, you’re going to be figuring out a problem statement, a problem space, and then a problem resolution. When you’re prepping, though, you start with the problem resolution from last time, use that to write your new problem statement, and then use the new problem statement and your existing prep to define a problem space.

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Cyberpunk RED: Black Chrome Review

We don’t review a lot of supplements here at Cannibal Halfling Gaming. From a pragmatic standpoint, there’s a lot less that a review can tell you about a supplement that will affect your purchasing decision than with a full game. For today’s subject, Black Chrome for Cyberpunk Red, that’s certainly true. We all knew Black Chrome would be the ‘stuff’ supplement, and even if there hadn’t been some grumbling about the ‘stuff’ or lack thereof in the core rules the ‘stuff’ supplement in a Cyberpunk game is almost always a must-buy, if only due to the association of the cyberpunk genre with gear porn. On the other hand, in some cases there’s a bit more to say about supplements. Cyberpunk Red is slowly working up to being a full-on RPG ecosystem just like Cyberpunk 2020 was; the earlier game had supplements from gear catalogs to corporate profiles to location gazetteers to big plot books like the Firestorm series. One consequence of this, perhaps an unintended one, is that Cyberpunk 2020 played quite differently when all the supplements were in play than when it was just the core book. While that’s neither unique to Cyberpunk nor particularly unexpected, it had a significant role in the reception of Cyberpunk Red, where the game in its early single book state was being judged against a Cyberpunk 2020 which already had literally dozens of supplements released. It stands to reason, then, that Black Chrome would be the first full-sized rules supplement for Cyberpunk Red. Black Chrome is an homage to the supplements which changed Cyberpunk 2020 the most and the fastest, the Chromebooks.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: March, 2023

Welcome to the Crowdfunding Carnival for March! It’s a bit of a weird time, early March. ZineQuest is ‘finished’, but with campaigns starting as late as yesterday there’s still a bit of backlog to dig through. Meanwhile, the bigger, more traditional campaigns are starting to spin up, but they’re often lost in the shuffle.

The campaigns we’re covering this month reflect that reality. There are 25 Zine campaigns here, which I will do my best to sell to you in a sentence or two. I didn’t have to have a hard cutoff like in the middle of the month, but most of the Zines that didn’t make the cutoff were just material for 5e that I don’t have the energy to care about. Such is life.

Here at the beginning of March it’s also worthwhile to reflect on ZineQuest as it is now, here in 2023. Based on numbers, there’s no doubt in my mind that this year was a return to form compared to the misstep of moving the event to August. That said, there’s an enthusiasm gap that seems to have formed between 2021 and now, and it’s in large part due to what happened in 2022. The number of people tracking and providing data on ZineQuest has withered significantly, meaning I don’t have a project count, funding level, or success rate easily at hand to compare to last year or the year before. Based on our August 2022 coverage, this year was significantly better than last year’s Kickstarter’s outing, but I don’t know how it compares to the combined total of the 2022 events, and that’s important because of what happened to Zine Month.

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Meet the Campaign: Bigger Bastionland

If you’ve been around the site for a while, you may know that one of my favorite games in the old-school sphere is Electric Bastionland. Chris McDowall’s game of electropunk weird fantasy is a high watermark in the world of gameable settings, creating the city of Bastion as a thematically consistent setting which still has nearly endless ability to be interpreted, customized, and hacked by players of the game. A city existing right after the discovery of electricity, it is a huge, chaotic place filled with strange beings and objects, unmappable boroughs and streets, and numerous factions, councils, and unions constantly at odds with each other. If that’s not enough, the Underground below, Deep Country surrounding, and the Living Stars above all serve to create a weird world to get lost in.

Electric Bastionland as a game is designed to use as few rules as possible to get everything working, and therefore allow each gaming group flexibility when it comes to which elements of the setting they want to nail down. That said, the game also includes a very clever piece of worldbuilding tech in the form of Borough creation. For a Borough in the city, or an area of the Deep Country or section of the Underground, there are rules for mapping out the key transit routes through the area. These mechanics create a segment of Bastion with a great number of locations and hooks, and one Borough provides more than enough information to start the game.

What I find, though, is that if you want to use Electric Bastionland for a longer game, you’re going to want more than one Borough. It’s quite possible to prep one Borough at a time, let the map expand organically as the characters wander. That said, many people are going to want some form of larger map. While Bastion as a city naturally resists mapping, I think there’s still value in building out a higher level diagram, something that tells you where the bounds of the city are. That’s why I’ve been experimenting with a game creation framework that I call Bigger Bastionland.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: ZineQuest Check-In

Welcome back to Crowdfunding Carnival! ZineQuest is all the way back in full swing this year, and I have definitively lost track of everything going on so far. According to Kickstarter there are 158 ZineQuest projects live as of this writing (live, not total, live), and sorry, but I can’t summarize all of them. I can’t.

What I am going to do is show you fifty zines that I thought looked cool. We’ve got everything here: Llamas, procedural generation, ghost porn, bowling, and of course, pirates. This group also includes all of the zines I’ve personally backed so far from this ZineQuest, so you know there’s some good stuff in here. Like I did at the beginning of the month, I’ve divided the projects into three categories. There are full games, playable on their own, supplements of note, adventures and other materials for specific systems, and system agnostic gems, which should work with either any game or any game of a relevant genre. Without further ado, here are fifty more projects of note from ZineQuest 2023.

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How the Wonk GMs: Intro and Campaign Prep

If there’s one thing I’ve been asked to write about over the years, it’s what my home games actually look like. Not an imagined campaign, not a system hack, just how I run when it’s my friends, my ideas, and my time. Needless to say that’s not something that can be condensed to 2000 words, so instead I’m welcoming you, albeit temporarily, to ‘How the Wonk GMs’.

I’ve recently come off of a literally five year stint of GMing for my primary gaming group, and I have run a lot of different games in that time. Spending all this time in the GM’s chair has reminded me that I’m extremely lucky to have as engaged and curious a gaming group as I do…as well as the fact that breaks are good. While taking this break, though, I’m going to be trying to distill down my methods and madness into something approximating fit for public consumption.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: February, 2023

Welcome back to the Crowdfunding Carnival! Now, it’s Thursday, which is a little unusual. I did this, though, for you, dear readers. You see, yesterday was the first day of ZineQuest, and a veritable torrent of zines hit my inbox around the time this article would have otherwise gone to post. That just won’t do, so I held off to pick through the wreckage for you. So now we have over 40 zines, and it’s been just one day! There are some other games too, and of course our second installment of the Crowdfunding Carnival/Kickstarter Wonk fifth anniversary retrospective. Onward!

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Rolemaster Unified Review

The OSR is a movement of nostalgia. Rather than seeking to actually emulate the way RPGs were played in the 1970s and 80s, the OSR is seeking to bottle the lightning of the first time you found a Player’s Handbook or Basic Set and just played, actual rules be damned. While the OSR as a movement is certainly informed by the cultural phenomenon of having the D&D red box show up in toy stores and in the hands of many kids and teens in the 1980s, the roleplaying hobby itself was already significantly more diverse than any one movement could capture. As an example, around the time that the OSR casts its rose-tinted glasses toward, there was a successful and long-lived game called Rolemaster.

Rolemaster is the antithesis of the OSR credo: rules, not rulings, character ratings over player skill. Ironically, when reviewed in 1984 it was lauded for the amount of freedom it allowed compared to other games (read: D&D). This freedom, of course, comes from the breadth of Rolemaster’s rules, which D&D did not have (and, it could be argued, never got). Once you included supplements like Spell Law and Campaign Law, the result was more fantasy gaming than you could shake a stick at…provided you finished the math prereqs. Yes, Rolemaster was astoundingly complex even in 1980, when wargame-based RPG design ruled the roost. Now, though, in 2023, it’s not merely on the complicated end, it is a profound aberration. So with the 2022 release and success of Rolemaster Unified, what exactly do we make of that?

The Basics of Rolemaster

Rolemaster was first released in 1980 by Iron Crown Enterprises. While Runequest was released in 1978, Rolemaster was the second percentile-based fantasy RPG system of note and enjoyed fair popularity throughout the 1980s. Iron Crown used the basic mechanics of Rolemaster to release several other RPGs, including Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP), Spacemaster, and Cyberspace. Rolemaster itself saw four (maybe three) editions; the second edition was released in 1984 and the Rolemaster Standard System was released in 1994. Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying was released in 1999, but was also arguably a repackaging of supplements a la the Rules Cyclopedia as opposed to a whole new edition. Iron Crown went bankrupt in 2000, and all of the IP was bought out by a holding company. While Iron Crown properties had been published under license during the 2000s (including a reprint of the second edition called Rolemaster Classic), the last rightsholder took on the name Iron Crown Enterprises in 2017. A new spate of material for Iron Crown’s more contemporary game, High Adventure Roleplaying (or HARP), was released in the early 2020s, but as of late last year the first revision of Rolemaster in nearly 25 years was released to acclaim and solid sales.

There is nothing like Rolemaster, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The core of the game is a percentile system, where players roll a d100 and add the appropriate bonus to find the result. As opposed to Runequest and other BRP games, Rolemaster is additive; your bonus plus the die roll must add up to 100 in order for the roll to succeed. While this means there’s more math, it also means that your skill bonus is equal to the probability of success for a ‘medium’ task. As your skill bonuses for new characters will be in the 40-60 range (or lower), this should perhaps concern you.

While stats and skills are both percentile-based, they simply do not work in the way you think they should (how they work in BRP games, Eclipse Phase, WFRP, and many others). Your stats range from 11-100, but you cross-reference this value against a table to generate a bonus of between -15 and +15, somewhat like how modern D&D does it but with more than triple the results range. Similarly, your skill ranks do not simply create the base of your skill bonus, rather you get a number of bonus points depending on the number of skill ranks you have which declines as your number of skill ranks increases, but only for the ranks in the marginal bracket. Yes, bracket. Like tax bracket. In total there are five different elements which go into the skill bonus, but don’t worry, if you don’t remember the rank-to-bonus translation it’s available in Table 3-0b (yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s on page 84, along with Table 3-0c).

While it’s done in perhaps the least direct way possible (welcome to the 1980s), all of the math in the basic stats and skills of Rolemaster essentially works statistics into the mechanics. Normal distributions for stats, diminishing returns for skill advances, even controls on stat advances. This particular element I found a neat compromise between stat-heavy advancement and making stats untouchable: when you roll stats randomly for a character, you roll 3d100 for each stat. The lowest die is thrown away, the middle die is your stat, and the highest die is your ‘potential’, or the maximum you can advance the stat to. And then, of course, there are different rates for stat advancement depending on what level they are. It’s all very granular, but it’s all intended to make every element of the game work in a specific way. ‘Work in a specific way’ is basically the motto of Rolemaster, and when you get to the combat system, it goes terrifyingly fractal.

Actuarial Tables for Gamers

The math behind character stats, despite likely being more involved than any RPG you’ve ever played, is on the simpler scale of things. Skill rolls have multiple results: failure, absolute failure, partial success, success, and absolute success. Each skill type has a different version of the table with these results, giving specific outcome rules especially for the absolute outcomes and partial success. It’s a lot more detail than you’ll find in most RPGs, but the table is templated and easy to follow. That all said, for all of the detail there’s not a lot of difference in what happens, certainly not what one could expect from a PbtA game where each move feels completely different. Of course, in the context of Rolemaster the skill outcomes aren’t much detail at all, because we aren’t talking about combat.

Utter focus on combat is unsurprising for games of this vintage, though Rolemaster’s single-minded dedication to resolution mechanics makes even AD&D seem much broader than perhaps it actually is. Nonetheless, the ‘Arms Law’ section of Rolemaster Core Law is the most detailed and…it’s just the most detailed. You’ll see what I mean.

The combat system in and of itself is perhaps crunchy but not really out there. Each combat round has four phases, and each character has four action points to spend. This means that if a character were to perform a 3AP action (see Table 8-1! Still not kidding) they could start the action in phase 1 and complete it in phase 3. This means, among other things, that you may go down the initiative order four times before a character’s melee attack is resolved.

But let’s say you do resolve a melee attack. How? Well, this is where we get into the meat of Rolemaster. Sure, make a d100 roll, add your characters Offensive Bonus and subtract the opponent’s Defensive Bonus. So far, so good. But then you must consult a table. And what a table it is. Every weapon in the game has a table; the tables are a full page, or the entirety of Grant Howitt’s award-winning RPG Honey Heist. On this table you cross-reference your die roll with the opponent’s armor type (fully described in Table 7-2b) and see how much damage you do. Of course, if you roll well enough, you need to then check the appropriate critical table, looking up one of the five tiers of critical severity across 15 different critical tables, sorted by damage type. Each critical table is, once again, a full page, and contains roughly 1200 words of descriptive text. On the plus side, that text is mostly gruesome outcomes describing the various ways your opponent (or, if you’re unlucky, your character) is maimed, mutilated, sterilized, scarred, or just plain dead. Though, with that being said, I don’t believe there are any ‘plain’ ways to die described therein.

The weapon and critical tables are the above-referenced actuarial tables for gamers, and if you play with any amount of combat you’re going to be referencing them all the time. Criticals in this system are more like criticals in WFRP where they start happening more often as combatants get more hurt. They also come up relatively often anyways, requiring only ten percentage points over any hit at all for a lightly armored character. Of course, how much this slows down the game does depend somewhat on how many different attack types are being used (remember whether you’re using Bolt, Fire as opposed to Ball, Fire) and how good you get at remembering what ‘12BP’ means on the arming sword table. You’ll need to be fairly good at it…and you’ll probably need to enjoy the table lookups. It’s as the Brits say, a bit Marmite.

Rolemaster and the Future

I don’t think it’s exactly fair for me to declare whether Rolemaster is ‘good’. Rolemaster Unified is at a fundamental level the same game that Rolemaster was in 1980, and frankly it has way more of a purpose in the market as exactly what it is than if it was watered down; that’s one reason I thought that HARP never really went anywhere. I had the same comments back when I reviewed Cyberspace in 2016 (though I opened Cyberspace to reference for this review and found to my horror that in some places it’s quite simplified compared to Rolemaster): I understand statistics well enough that I actually see the reasoning behind most of these mechanics. That said, I’m not in Intro to Probability, I’m playing a game.

There is absolutely an element of me seeing this game’s audience and knowing I’m not in it, and given that I’m trying to be fair. That said, crunch has evolved a lot since 1980. GURPS is significantly lighter, more elegant, and yet more feature-rich than Rolemaster (note it down, the only review you will ever find unironically calling GURPS light and elegant). Even Hero System, which is less user-friendly and more granular than GURPS, found an audience through its clever, modular design, which Rolemaster does not emulate.

I’m sure there are wargamers who want exactly this; hell, Rolemaster Unified shot to the top of the DrivethruRPG top sellers upon release. If you are a fan of Rolemaster and its granularity, nothing came close until Rolemaster came back. This level of detail does not exist in contemporary RPGs any more, which is why an honest-to-god resurrection of Rolemaster was immediately noticed. And if the note at the beginning of the book explaining the shifts in stat distributions is any indication, the guys at Iron Crown v2 know their audience, and knew they’d check their work on the math.

The audience is what creates the split with this game. From a practical perspective Rolemaster is a design nightmare; as much granularity as there is there is almost no functional or outcome-based element of this game that couldn’t be done in half as many steps. Despite having five roll outcomes (and earlier versions having more), PbtA manages more interesting gametime results with just three. GURPS provides half as many defense types and less action economy detail, but still too much detail for a large number of players.

If you’re on the other side, though, there’s basically nothing like it. Each number means something, each die roll is going to provide something specific. You never have to worry about a binary hit or miss, there will always be more information. You feel like the system is telling you more, is giving you more. And that, ultimately, is both why Rolemaster will always have its fans and also why it will never, ever be popular. We do want systems that give us richness and impact from our actions. Making the die results more granular (even if they’re also more precise) isn’t an efficient or particularly compelling way of doing that. In some weird ways, Genesys may be the spiritual successor to Rolemaster, because it too is trying to make every die roll different and interesting. The difference between the two, really, lies in how realistic you insist your fantasy games are, and how much math you’re willing to do in service of your hobby.

Is Rolemaster an artifact of the 80s? Yes. Does the new version live up to its legacy? Absolutely. Would I ever play it? God no. Am I glad it exists? Yes, I am. Rolemaster is not an old broken game; arguably it was popular in the 80s partly because the math was so nailed down. This game has its fans, and I’m glad there’s a new version out there. That said, Rolemaster represents a mode of fantasy gaming that doesn’t really exist anymore. Rolemaster provides verisimilitude as one of its core promises, but delivers it at a level that’s beyond what most people want in video games, let alone at a tabletop where you’re doing all the algebra yourself. All this means, though, is that Rolemaster will remain niche, and you can say that about most RPGs of any rules density. There are unironic fans of this game, number-crunchers who will be more than happy to pick it up again. And hey, if you like math, and you want buttoned down and consistent mechanics to support your fantasy world, you could do pretty well with Rolemaster. Just consider printing out a few copies of Tables 2-5a, 5-1, 8-1, and 13-1a.

Core Law for Rolemaster Unified is available on DriveThruRPG.

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Most Games Don’t Matter

After graduating into one of the worst recessions the global economy had yet seen, I cut short a fruitless job search to go to grad school. I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Innovation Management, a field which sounds like it was made up by the Business School industry but yet taught me a lot. While invention is the act of creating something new, innovation is the act of deriving value from new things, from inventions. According to the World Economic Forum 1.7 million patents were granted in 2021, which is a huge number. But even setting aside things like filing the same patent in multiple countries, a small fraction of those patents represent anything like tangible value to society at large. While invention can happen with a bit of creativity and some work, innovation is significantly more dependent on exogenous factors, on what happens to the invention after it comes into being. RPG designers are like inventors in that way; many many people are designing, are inventing, but the vast majority of games will never make an impact on the market at large.

While there are certainly forces contributing to a greater stagnation of the RPG hobby (D&D comes to mind), the low ‘hit rate’ for new RPGs when it comes to moving the needle in the greater marketplace is largely structural, and unlikely to change in the long run. On the creator side, making an RPG is relatively easy, requiring significantly less money and specific skill than making video, digital games, or visual art, and often less time than writing long-form fiction. This means that the number of entrants into the market will be relatively high. On the consumer side, RPGs have higher switching costs than virtually any other form of media; a consumer needs to find a minimum of 2-4 friends to play with them, with a play time of two hours on the low side. Beyond that, when the presumed norm of the medium involves campaigns of literally dozens of four-plus hour sessions and understanding at least one densely-written rulebook, the perceived switching costs are significantly worse than the already high actual switching costs. These things combined to make the number of consumers in the market relatively low, and the number of games they will consume lower still.

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