The Shining South

For a while, I had been considering setting up a fallback D&D game for the local crowd. Something simple and easy to pick up for situations where schedules explode and such. This idle though ended up intersecting with a pair of curiosities: How does high level D&D play really feel in practice, and what does an all martial game feel like?

The result is a standby game designed with a sort of Lankhmar vibe, with a collection of characters who are personally badass, but are still skipping out on their bar tabs.

For ease of use, we went with the Forgotten Realms, but picked a less traveled corner of it. I have always been struck by the idea of the Shining Sea (in the southwestern corner of the map) as a trade sea. Just based on geography, it’s a lot more interesting in that regard than the Sword Coast, and I kind of wanted to lean into that.

So, with that in mind, I started digging into the setting and figuring out what to keep, what to toss, and what to roll with.

Timeline wise, I figured I’d set the game a little bit (say, ~20 yers or so) after the “current” 5e era, which I’m anchoring as “The events in Tomb of Annihilation”. I’m picking that particular anchor because Chult is one of the nations on the Shining Sea, not some weird foreign backwater. Also, I rather enjoyed the characters in the Tomb of Annihilation campaign we played, so this gives me the opportunity to clean up some setting elements I didn’t like, while also potentially arranging some future guest appearances.

Which lead to geography.

I looked over the maps of the various editions, and one thing that jumped out is that 4e really did a number on the south. Prior to the spellplague and related events, the Shining Sea looked like:

 After 4e mugged it in an alley and went through its pockets, we got

So you don’t need to spend a lot of time flipping back and forth, the big differences are:

  • Halruaa is now more or less a magical smoking crater
  • The land bridge connecting Chult to the Mainland is now an archipelago
  • The Shaar grasslands are now a desert.
  • The inland sea- the Lake of Steam, is greatly reduced in scope

There are other changes, of course, but those are the big ones.

Now, I’m largely ok with the Halruaa thing – a big magical disaster was on point for a magical nation, and it creates something that has been “lost” within recent memory, as well as a dangerous place for things to happen or come from. So, that’s cool.

I’m kind of leery of the destruction of the land bridge, but I can lean into that. In my version of things, that whole arm used to be a sort of trade alliance, with Chult in a position of prominence. The disaster did a number on that, and also explicitly weakened Chult sufficiently that Amn could come in to “help” them recover, setting them up as a client state, and more or less explaining a lot of the political and economic weirdness in Tomb of Annihilation.

I’m not super hot on the destruction of Shaar, largely because it’s really boring. If you zoom out on the map, the eastern edge of Shaar is now a preposterously large hole in the ground down into the Underdark, and it feels like someone decided there should be some consequences to that, so they rolled out a desert and wiped it away. This bugs because Shaar’s really interestingly diverse as its conceived, and gives space for a lot of races and cultures that are squeezed out of the rest of the map. On the other hand, I still wanted a disaster of some sort, just to roll with the theme.

So, I rolled back the desert, but replaced it with rips in reality. Swaths of Shaar now touch upon (and sometimes drift back and forth into) the Feywild and the Shadowfell, and as a result, the whole place has gotten more dangerous. This is more pronounced to the east, but the problems have been pushing slowly westward, forcing locals to either adapt or flee. Result is that it’s a wild place, full of excuses for weirdness, but it also gives a good source for a wide variety of people to come from, which is something I want in this hypothetical city.

But for all that, it was the last thing that really stuck in my craw.

See, I look at the 3e map of the Shining Sea, and I see a trade sea with numerous interesting cities, with a narrow stretch of water connecting it to another, smaller trade sea. Which is to say, I look at that map and I see a location that absolutely resonates with Istanbul/Constantinople, which is a darn good starting point for any city. And then I see that 4e really decided to stomp on that as hard as it could, not only changing the geography of the water, but also more or less explicitly torpedoing all those interesting trade cities in favor of generic weirdness.

So, that wouldn’t stand, simple as that. I knew where I wanted my city, and I knew I wanted robust trade, specifically pulling upon two historical influences – Istanbul, and the Indian Ocean trade routes. But the good news is I had over a century since the events in 4e, and that gave me the lever I needed, since all it really took was time to let the Lake of Steam fill in again, and for the various cities to make their recoveries. By doing that, it allowed my as-yet-unnamed city to start to coalesce into shape.

Sidebar: No Hard Feelings, 4E

It may come across that I have some hard feeling towards what was done to the setting in 4e, and I suppose I do, but it’s not something I’m upset about. There are a lot of factors in play when editions change, and the general decision to drastically upend the Realms was entirely reasonable on paper. What’s more, they made the probably-entirely-reasonable decision that this was not a section of the map that there was a lot of emotional investment in – the further you get from Waterdeep and the Dales, the fewer people really care what happens in the setting.

Plus, frankly, there were two good reasons for some of the changes. First, a lot of them were more thematically in line with 4e and it’s points of light ethos. By breaking everything drastically and making everything kind of a mess filled with dramatic and visually striking badness, you set up a very 4e friendly sort of setting.

Second…well, a lot of stuff the blew up had been kind of cringey. If you dig into the old sourcebooks about the South, you will not have to wait long for words like “exotic” to start showing up. In more traveled parts of the Realms, the weaker parts of the world-building were frequently shored up by the patina of history that came from layering material atop itself many times, but for these “exotic” locales, it was more likely to just reinforce the bad patterns. There’s something to be said for cleaning out that particular detritus.

I’m sort of torn on this, because on one hand, it feels a little uncomfortable to deal so explosively with the places which exist for foreigners to come from. But on the other hand, it’s not like they were going to take the time to flesh them out, especially in a single FR book.

But, ultimately, I get it. Someone had a job, and that job was to blow up the South. And, honestly, until I decided I explicitly wanted to move off the Sword Coast, I hadn’t really noticed. I had to re-read a lot of material to remember what had even happened in the South, so they probably did their job right.

Thankfully, one of the joys of this hobby is that my hands aren’t tied by those past decisions. I find it useful to study and understand them, but only so I can take ownership of the things I intend to do.

The Sprawl’s Missing Move

Cyberpunk image of someone shopping at a kiosk

Ai Art image (“Cyberpunk Shopping Kiosk”)

We finished a really fun campaign of The Sprawl a while back, and it’s been rattling around in my mind. It’s a great game, but it has a few assumptions and structures which are essential to play that have some inobvious elements. The one that sits most strongly in my mind is the Hit the Street move.

This is the move that players use to get things like gear and information. It’s one of the big drivers of play because as a move it’s a generator of problems and motivations to bring things to life, and it’s also the gateway to other moves like getting cyberware. However, it can feel a little odd to invoke for things that seem like they should be much lower stakes or a normal part of life. I know that I, at least, was a little bit leery to engage it for the simple reason that it’s a bit like playing with fire. I was happy to do it when I was looking for that sort of scene, but in other situations, it felt like too much.

And that was a very practical problem. Because we didn’t use the move as much, it also meant we didn’t use the Create a Contact move nearly as often as we could have, and in turn, that meant we gave up one of the more fun knobs in the game. Now, for our particular game, it worked out ok because we had a number of invisible compensations, but that doesn’t seem like a very sustainable solution.

The trick, I think, is to add one more basic move to the game (as well as a couple more item tags). It’s a very simple move, and critically, it’s a move that I think you can safely introduce to any Sprawl game without concern because there’s a good chance it will never get used, but by never getting used, it still provides value.

Sounds weird, yes. But roll with me – here’s the move

Hit the Kiosk (Cred)

When you go to to the store to buy something like a civilian, you can spend cred to buy gear or other services.

    • Any gear acquired has the legit tag
    • If you spend an extra 50% (round up) the gear has the luxe tag
    • If you double the cost (minimum final cost of 4 cred) cred, it has the super luxe tag.
    • You can use this move to buy cyberware without making the Go Under The Knife move. If so, the but the cyberware has the owned tag.

So, there you go. For color “the Kiosk” is really any shopping opportunity, ranging from a high end showroom to whatever your amazon equivalent is, and if your cyberpunks want to be good consumers, then shopping is a breeze. Most of these things even come with free shipping! Why would you ever Hit the Streets and deal with all that uncertainty?

New Tags

Luxe – It’s really nice, and obviously so. Exactly HOW it’s nice is up to you. It might be more obviously decorated or of a fancier brand. Perhaps it’s a limited edition, ultra rare collectors item. Whatever it is, anyone in the know is going to notice.

Super Luxe Oh, sure, that ultra rare collectors item is nice, but did you know the creator had 5 initial prototypes with unique engraving and three of them were destroyed in a workshop explosion, and the rest of the line is based off the remaining two? One of them is in that big glass case in the foyer of HQ. Oh, the other? Well, let me show you something.

Legit – this item was procured in the correct manner, and complies with all regulations and agreements associated with its extended usage contract. It is properly registered in all appropriate databases, keeps its licensing current and of course allows authorized access for maintenance and compliance purposes.


If it’s not obvious, legit is very much like owned as a tag that is there to be an absolute lighting rod for complications. Exactly what sort of complications will depend a bit on the specifics of your setting, but for most things, the easiest way to think of it is like a smartphone or an EZ-Pass[1]. It leaves a trail, is easily compromised by folks with permissions, and it could even show more sophisticated behaviors, like geographic awareness. Guns might not be able to fire in places like airplanes or secure corporate facilities.

For the handful of things that may not have built in smarts (like, say, explosives), the legit version still has a serious data trail that goes back to you, and can include things like unique molecular signatures in explosives, effectively giving an explosion a serial number.

Implicit in this is the idea that the gear that characters use has the serial numbers filed off, so to speak. However, it’s also been done well enough that it doesn’t immediately raise red flags as being off the grid. For that, see the Street tag, below.

Optional Tag: Name Brand Products

If you want to lean into the setting a little bit more, an alternative to the legit tag is a “brand” tag. To set this up, take the corps in your game and have the table come up with a couple product brands that corp is behind. Feel free to have fun with this. Once you have this list, you can now use these all as tags which serve as some combination of legit, luxe and super luxe. There’s no real mechanical change, but knowing which corps are behind which brands may help provide a bit of direction to the complication that arise.

Optional Tag: Street

If you use the legit tag and have a sense of how it fits into the world, consider also introducing the street tag.

Street – This is an off the shelf item that’s been hacked, modified or has otherwise violated its TOS. It’s still entirely usable, and no longer has the drawbacks of a legit item, but the modification is also obvious to inspection.

In practice, this draws a different sort of complications – Street items are going to triggers sensors and alarms in the sort of places that pay licensing fees.


To make the subtext into text – this is not a move that the characters want to make. Buying over the counter is convenient, and may be great for civilians, but you absolutely don’t want to be trying to raid a Labryintel facility with guns running Labryintel software.

Rather, what this does is make it very clear *why* you are hitting the street, and maybe gives a little nudge in that direction.

1 – This is an American thing, I dunno what the equivalents are elsewhere, but it’s a little transponder like widget you put in your car so you can drive right through tolls and have them auto-charged against your account. Super convenient, and also an incredibly efficient way to track where your car goes.

Work in Progress – NotAmber

I’m running an Amber game for the household, and I’m using the following system. It’s a super rough writeup, but I wanted to get the draft version up somewhere.  There’s a very minor power system I’m not getting into right now, but the heart of it revolves around a iceless system where you roll dice after success to determine the position the success leaves you in.

Core Stats

The 4 stats[1] are:
Fire (Spades) – Covers actions relying on physical speed & nimbleness.

Air (Diamonds) – Covers actions relying on intellectual horsepower or pure perception.

Water (Hearts – Covers actions of personal presence or understanding what is known.

Earth (Clubs) – Covers actions of physical strength or toughness.

When taking an action, if it falls under one of these stats, the character gets the stat as a bonus. If two stats might apply in different ways (such as using clubs or spades to hit someone with a stick), use the one that aligns with the player’s description of the action. When two or more stats both seem applicable (such as spades and diamonds in a question of how quickly you notice something) use the lower of the two. 

Characters start with 2 points in each stat, and have 12 more points to spend. This number is the default for an Amber like game, but might be adjusted up or down. 


Characters have 3 descriptors. They’re freeform, so go nuts. If a descriptor is applicable to a situation, then you get a +3 in that action. If a second descriptor is applicable, the bonus drops by 1, so you get +5 (that is, +3 and +2). If all 3 are applicable, then it drops again, and it’s +6 (+3, +2 and +1).


NPCs have descriptors, but very rarely have stats. However, they have another mechanic to give them a little variability – Tiers.

NPCs can have a tier from 1 to 5, and the tier represents:

  1. How many descriptors they can have
  2. How big their starting descriptor bonus is. 

So, a Tier 4 NPC might be a, I dunno, Brave, Bold, Knight, General, and in a fight he’s going to be running around with a value of 10 (4 + 3 + 2 +1) so he’s KIND of a badass. 

0 Inexpensive furniture. Lunchmeat. Very small rocks.
1 The woefully inadequate. Children. Exceptionally fierce squirrels.
2 Most People
3 Heroes, adventurers, general badasses
4 Demigods, paragons, Isekai protagonists
5 Dragons, Gods, all that jazz.

As a double cheat, the GM is not obliged to sketch out all of an NPC’s descriptors, and they’re free to re-use them for simplicity. Which is to say, you don’t need to flesh out that Tier 3 Bandit. Just give him a 6 on banditing. That’s what he’s there for. IMPORTANT: This is just a trick for sketching out nameless characters. Anyone important enough to have a name merits a little more attention to detail, especially because for those characters, it can start mattering what descriptors they have or don’t have. 


Higher number wins.

I mean, yes, sometimes there’s no an opposing number, in which case the number is “what kind of person could successfully do this?”, and then higher number wins. If you need guidelines, consider that a tier 2 human doing the thing they’re best at has a big old 3, so 3 is a pretty good default. 5 is good for something pretty hard. 9 is pretty much best in the world sort of stuff. 

Couple rules of thumb:

  • Set the difficulties as if they were for NPCs, and that allows the characters to benefit from their stats, which is what they’re for.
  • There’s a whole thing here about the role of narration in resolution. If players are clever or use tactics or find other ways to shift the situation, you can very reasonable make up a few points difference. This is, however, very subjective and that’s deliberate. If you don’t want it to be subjective, you probably want more numbers. 
  • Tools done provide bonuses, they just change the difficulty. A cliff might be really hard (5) to climb on its own, but much more doable (3) with rope. The same logic applies to things like taking time, having help and all the other ways that people tackle problems. 
  • For all that I’m committing page inches to them, static difficulties are largely boring. Even if players can’t immediately overcome such a challenge, a little extra effort will usually be enough, so try to assume success, and just fold in things like extra time.
  • Opposition, on the other hand, tends to be a little more interesting, at least it can be. 
  • MOST of the time, there’s no actual “resolution”. You know what the character’s numbers are, and you are going to stop to trigger the system when the logic of the narrative is obvious.


When it’s interesting, or there are uncertainties, the GM can call for a roll. Critically, you only call for a roll when the character is going to succeed. If not, stick to narration and description. But when success is certain, but other questions are open, that’s the time to call for a roll. Possibilities include:

  • Going into town to ask around about a person
  • Crossing swords with a notable opponent
  • Breaking into a well guarded villa
  • Relying on magic for…well, most things.

The purpose of the roll is to see how the situation unfolded – has it revealed new opportunities, or has it sprung unforseen complications?

A roll is made with 2df, so the potential results range from -2 to +2, and the results are interpreted as follows:

+2Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse. A happy coincidence introduces a major opportunity.
+1A lucky break. Things go well, and a minor opportunity is revealed.
0Business as usual. The scene plays out by the numbers.
-1Bad Break. Minor complication
-2Oh @$^%! Major complication.


Opportunities & complications are both elements that move the scene forward – they either introduce a question that the player must answer (like: The building is on fire, what do you do?) or an opportunity for action that had not previously been available (like: You spot a secret door, do you want to go through it?). 

Opportunities are generally easier to adjudicate. A minor opportunity might take the form of a little bit of extra information, a friendlier reception, a nice tip or the like. A major opportunity is a full on lucky break – run across a friend, discover a significant piece of information or generally be in the right place at the right time. 

Complications are trickier. They can suck, but it’s important that they not negate the underlying success. If the complication offers a choice, the choices should not include (effectively) retroactively failing.

As an example, the character sneaks into a castle to steal the Maltese Frankfurter. They have the skills to succeed, but there are a lot of variables in this, so the GM calls for a roll, and the player gets a -2. 

The GM’s first instinct is “You grab the Frankfurter, but then every alarm in the place goes off. You have only moments to flee ahead of the guards”.

Now, that might be a fun scene, but it raises the question of what the player was trying to accomplish. If their goal was GETTING the Frankenfurter, this is probably fine. But if their goal was passing undetected, this pretty much flips the bird to that. For that character, the twist emerging after they get out might be more appropriate. 

A minor complication sours the result a bit. You succeeded, but…perhaps you took a minor injury, or the prize had a catch, or you didn’t end up right where you hoped. A minor complication tends to not be about a choice but is instead just a little extra badness that was outside of the character’s control.

A major complication take one of two forms. First, they might be a consequence – an injury, a loss of resource or some other complication they need to proceed in the face of. These are fine, and if you can think of a good one, they’re cool. Otherwise though, consider a force: the complication create a situation the character must respond to, such as an imminent threat, and asks “What now?”


  • Roll for all the good stuff – If a scene is particularly cool, such as a duel with a nemesis, the outcome might be sure to be failure, but it might be fun to allow them to throw in a die roll to see where it goes. 
  • Bad Stuff – If using this rule, characters are allowed to take one more descriptor (though they can still only use 3 of them on a given action). This descriptor is flagged as “Bad stuff”, and in any situation where the character actively uses it, a roll is appropriate, and if the roll take a bad turn, the bad stuff descriptor is almost always the problem.

Anaway, as I said, it’s a work in progress, but I want to capture the bones of it here.

1 – I could not tell you how many variants on these 4 stats I have used throughout the years.

GM Cues

I’m always intrigued by the idea of mechanizing language, but I usually think about it from the player side, where certain phrases are designed to trigger mechanical effects. Things like aspects and moves, yes, but it also is a big part of games that require a lot of learning to engage – “I cast magic missile” is a sentence that is absolutely dripping with mechanical hooks. “Cast” is an action which engages mechanics. “Magic Missile” is a specific set of effects laid out in the rules. Once you understand those things, then the sentence feels natural and organic, and the volume of rules kind of fade from view. It’s a good trick, and one worth deliberately pursuing.

Last night I ended up thinking about this from the GM side. Now, the GM has somewhat different responsibilities in her language. Yes, the rules mechanics are also in play, but the GM is also the proxy for the characters sense of the world. She is their eyes and ears, so to speak, and the decisions related to how to communicate the world are incredibly important.

Specifically, because the GM cannot convey every piece of information about what’s going on, she must be able to shorthand it efficiently. Consider a scene where our bold adventurers enter a room – the GM describes it in a quick sketch (“About 30×3, with bare walls and a door on the opposite wall”) but then goes into great detail about a specific piece of furniture, let’s say a desk. The GM has just signaled to the players that the desk is important and would be interesting or useful to engage with.

Or so we hope.

This is one of those areas where the history of adventure design has worked against us. In older, more competitive games, that sort of thing would be viewed as cheating, or the GM giving hints, which was bad sportsmanship. That lead to two specific patterns that have kind of dirtied the water.

First, adventure designers and GMs started deliberately subverting this expectation by applying loving detail to things that were distractions or ultimately hazardous. This, in turn, made players very wary of anything the GM drew attention to as a probable threat, which in turn inspired GMs and Designers to make things worse. Not a great scene. Hopefully, newer players don’t have as much of this baggage, but this is one of those areas where a new player can be quickly scarred and taught not to trust the GM, so its worth being mindful of it.

Second, it lead to an idea that descriptions needed to be “neutral”, with no cues from the GM. This is not super practical because it requires that the GM either go into excruciating detail, or that the players must ask questions about every single thing until they happen to hit upon the right thing, in a weird variation on one of those computer puzzle games where you need to get the mouse on exactly the right pixel to solve the problem. Not fun for anyone.

The solution to this was to move it to the dice. Early perception skills were mostly a way to skip this process and answer the question “Do you find the cool thing?”. Obviously, the topic of perception skills has evolved a lot since then, but I hold it up as what is ultimately a pretty convoluted way to avoid a fairly simple mode of communication.

I’m not necessarily saying that you should forgo perception checks in favor of GM cues, but I’m definitely suggesting that you COULD.

Buying Trouble

A Fate Die Rolling Variant


I’ve been running a lot of games in the Blades in the Dark family lately, and enjoying it a lot.  I really missing having aspects as a knob to turn, but it’s full of other shiny bits.  The one that I really enjoy is the mechanization of the complications as something orthogonal to difficulty.  It’s an idea that exists in other forms in other games, Fate included, but it’s a tricky piece of tech that I’ve sometimes struggled with.

This is, hopefully, the end of the struggle.


This rule has only two parts: Complications, and Buying Trouble


Complications are twists on a situation.  Stylistically, they have a fair amount in common with aspect compels, but mechanically they are separate from the aspect economy, and are instead tied to the situation at hand.  Aspects are fertile ground for inspiration for complications, but it’s bad sport to use a complication for something which is more appropriate to a compel.

Complications are created as a result of rolls, and it’s important to remember that the complication should never negate the success. The complication is *something else* going wrong – it may complicate the situation (thus, the name) but it should never devalue the success. Specifically, if the player takes a complication in order to avoid a problem, the complication should not be that problem. 

 Complications might include:

  • The arrival of opposition
  • Unwelcome information being released
  • Resources being used up
  • Flumphs

Complications come in 4 different levels

  1. Annoying – These are minor complications – maybe a small resource loss or a moment of slapstick.  
  2. Inconvenient – This complication is making the current situation a little more difficulty.  It might require another roll, an unexpected resource spend or otherwise keep things from going quite as smoothly as hoped. As a tip, this is *roughly* the severity of a compel. 
  3. Problematic – The complication is a problem of it own, and needs to be dealt with or avoided. 
  4. Disastrous – Things Go Bad.  This complication is a BIG problem, and is likely to totally upend the situation.

Buying Trouble

When a player rolls dice, they have the option of dropping all dice showing minuses to ‘buy trouble’.  Doing so changes the result of the die roll, but introduces a complication  of a level equal to the number of minuses spent.  


Finn is picking a lock, because RPG Conduct Code demands that all examples include at least one door.   His player rolls – – + +, for a net zero.  Finn could take that, but he’s in a hurry – the guards are coming and he’s tight on time, so he buys trouble, and changes his roll from a 0 to a +2 and the GM is free to introduce an inconvenience.   

The GM should explicitly NOT have the effort take longer, or have the guards show up as a complication – that’s exactly what the player was buying trouble to avoid, so it would be a Jerk move.

If Finn’s been making trouble elsewhere, this would be a great time for that to be found out, and perhaps have an alarm go off.  This is going to make things harder, but it doesn’t create an immediate consequence.

But supposing he hasn’t, the GM might have the door go someplace other than Finn’s player expects.  Perhaps his map is wrong, or he picked the wrong door, and now he’s lost, or in an awkward location.

If Finn had bought more trouble (say, he’d rolled  – – – +), then the door might go someplace like a closet, or to a room where the staff are preparing a meal, and now he has a whole new problem. 

Using These Rules

You can drop these rules into any Fate game, and they’ll work fine.  However, there are some interactions that are going to be worth watching.

First, in games where there are a LOT of Fate points in play, this is going to be a less appealing option, because the mechanical utility of this approach depends on the pressure to offset a bad roll.  If fate points are bountiful, there’s very little pressure to take consequences.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing – presumably the many fate points mean that compels are keeping things plenty interesting, so complications are less necessary.  This rule still works in those games, it just may come up less often. 

Second, this approach synergizes well with having aspects flip dice rather than give a flat +2, because it keeps bonuses bounded, and it introduces a bit of a dynamic of using aspects to avoid trouble when appropriate. 


Nuanced Trouble

There may be a temptation to let players decide how much trouble they want to buy (rather than have it be all or nothing) .  That’s fine, and it’s a reasonable option, but it has the risk of introducing analysis paralysis.  Don’t use this option if your players are going to take more than half a second deciding how many minuses they’ll spend.

Closed Economy

For players who like to constrain the overall Fate Point budget in play, consider this option:  

  1. The GM starts play with a fixed pool of Fate Points (say, 1 per player)
  2. When the player takes a complication, the GM may opt to take a number of Fate Points equal to the level of the complication.
  3. The GM’s Fate point pool is limited to those on hand.


Aka “The Morgan Rule” – If you want to steal Devil’s Bargains from Blades, they can turn blanks to plusses.  Not sure if this really works, but – putting a pin in it as I think.


So, this is pretty much version 0.1. I’m genuinely excited to try this at the table and see how it evolves. I suspect the closed economy option has got a lot of legs, because I think it might be a real solution to the se’f-compel issue. My biggest concern is to see how well it plays with the flow of fate points. They might be complimentary, but there’s a non-zero chance of them tripping over each others shoelaces, in which case this might be the basis for something else entirely.

The Gygaxian No

A d20 iconRandom aside: One design ethic that I do not particularly enjoy in D&D is what I would describe as the “Gygaxian No” – that is, the players have legitimately earned certain abilities and spells, and adventure designers explicitly negate them for simplicity or effect.

Two most common examples being higher level adventures that take away mobility effects (like flight), and effects which explicitly pierce immunities.

I 100% understand why adventures remove mobility, I just find it lazy and sloppy in almost every situation, especially because it’s almost never “This is harder”, but rather “This is FORBIDDEN”

And I just find the immunity thing a jerk move. Player immunities are reasonably rare in D&D, and are often against rarely-encountered things like disease, and the result is often the only time disease shows up is when it ignores immunity, and that’s just crappy.

What’s most curious to me is that this is not actually a problem with D&D – it’s not a thing the rules require! It is 100% bad habits in adventure and encounter design, passed down by tradition.

and to unpack a little, the immunity thing is actually a bit worse than a jerk move, it’s explicitly a violation of the social contract. As soon as players realize that the game may randomly negate choices, they are well served to change how they choose in more “safe” directions

Which is to say, just taking stuff that works well in a fight. If you’re wondering why your players are min/maxing all the time, make sure to consider the lessons they learned when they tried something else.

(From a Twitter Thread)

Prime in the Dark

Ok, small rules hack for Forged in the Dark, which I’m calling Priming.

Priming is something that may be used as a GM option when players take efforts or risks that draw attention to an element in play (such as an item or supporting character). The effect to capture here is something akin to Chekov’s Gun (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”), when play has clearly suggested that a thing is interesting, and the GM wants to show that she too is interested.

When an object is primed, it gets a point. An object may have multiple priming points if it keeps showing up interestingly – it’s entirely at GM discretion – but the bar should be higher with each step. The primes don’t do anything until such a time that it is part of a flashback which explains why this thing is significant. When that happens, the number of primes is subtracted from the stress cost of the flashback.

Cinematic Primes

If the game you are playing is more of the cinematic/high action variety, then consider this optional rule – any excess prime (that is, prime beyond the cost of the flashback) turns into potency. This is potentially very powerful, but it also very much lines up with cinematic sensibilities.

Slow Burn Primes

Primes usually don’t last beyond one session (or one story, if they’re packed in there) but if you want the idea of a longer payoff, the Slow Burn prime rules allows for a single object to accrue one point of prime per session per player. If you’re using slow burn priming, you probably shouldn’t mix and match with regular priming, but if you do, then any excess is removed.

An Example

In our most recent game (a very cinematic one), one of the characters entered play with a giant blue teddy bear on the back of his motorcycle. What followed was a series of action-adventure stuff; car crashes, explosions and the works. For several 4-5 results. I offered “losing the bear” as a consequence, but the player chose to take other hits rather than lose the bear. As a result, it got primed three times over the course of the session.

When the player finally flashed back to revealing that the bear was full of explosives, I normally would have only charged them one stress (because it was not a stretch), but instead it was free. Also, because this was cinematic, I used the overage towards potency, so when the bear blew up, it was a big, satisfying explosion.


* This is never mandatory for players. The GM is expressing interest, but there is never a mandate that there must be a flashback. That said, if there isn’t, then the GM will probably re-use the element later.

* There’s really no rule here. This could 100% just be done with the GM auto-discounting flashbacks based on her sensibilities. The reason for a mechanic is less about the discount and more about the signaling.

Single Elimination Vs The Dungeon

Simple diagram of a soccer field overlaid on graph paper

If you have ever tried to design a sports-centric game, you quickly run into the core question of how you will handle winning and losing, and how it impacts progression of the game. For a sports story, it is necessary that every game (or at least enough games) be won to allow the team to make it to the big game. Doing less than that is pretty unsatisfying.

There are a couple different solutions to this1, but at the moment I’m speaking to the problem itself, because it underlies so many potential RPG models. Fiction (and life) is full of single elimination events (Games, Duels and such) because it’s an easy way to set the stakes. Losing has an obvious cost.

In an RPG, this model proves VERY fragile, because losing tends to not be fun. Even if losses aren’t punitive, a loss cuts off a direction of action. This is a big reason that so many media properties (fighting anime in particular) seem like they’d be great RPG material, but always end up dull as dirt. The secret ingredient is single elimination action, and it doesn’t translate.

This is a well known problem, and I’m hopefully not saying anything too surprising here. But what got me thinking about it is that the dungeon avoids this problem, and I think that’s part of why the model is so powerful.

At first glance, this seems odd. Dungeons are dangerous – as a series of fight set pieces, that seems like it should have a similar single elimination problem. And, yes, there are occasional TPKs, but by and large, the dungeon avoids this. How?

The obvious answer is “balance” – dungeons are designed for a certain level band and are meticulously balanced to produce just the right experience. But that’s nonsense. The rules are simply not constraining enough for that to be true, at least taken as a whole.

But that does get us pointing in the right direction – it is uncommon for any single encounter in a dungeon to be enough to overpower the party. Rather, it is the accrued cost and effort of multiple conflicts that will make them more vulnerable, increasing the odds that the next fight will break the camel’s back.

Which points to something interesting – Dungeon fights are supposed to be easy (on an individual basis). In fact, the best trick they pull is making them FEEL challenging while the reality is that the first few rooms are more or less guaranteed wins.

How is this possible? Well, let’s consider – a game like D&D has a lot of different currencies in play (Spells, abilities, and hit points most notable) and they’re set up so you can buy success. That is, the more willing you are to spend your currency, the easier the victory.

This sounds obvious when said this way, but consider that if that was true, the way to make adventures more challenging would be to add more encounters and more reasons to press on. Instead, the go-to method is to make things harder, which just pushes players to tactics like the 5 minute workday, where they use all their currency to win, then withdraw.

But to bring this back to the question that got me thinking, it’s a strong case that the dungeon’s play model is not single elimination, but rather, press your luck. This makes sense, and it also highlights an important element here – agency. Players control how they engage, what rate they engage, and whether they withdraw (which is why one more technique of the cheese GM is removing that agency). So, even if incentivized to take risk, they will usually be able to pull the ripcord in time to avoid the single elimination.

Where I find this useful is in considering how to set up adventure templates in other genres, and specifically consider how I can move them from single elimination to press your luck. Mecha battles are a good example of this – assuming you don’t want a gritty game of pilot death, how could you restructure it in this way? You don’t want people to fight til one of them dies (that’s single elimination again) but you also don’t want there to be no cost to defeat (like if all the mechs were remote drones) because then people would fight to the last hit point “just in case”. You also don’t want the cost of defeat to remove the opportunity to play. This is a challenge with “Mecha are expensive, so they’re also the cost of loss”, because you need to answer the question “Then why let this loser pilot another one?” (Hint: A setting element that limits who can pilot a mech can smooth over this).

This is not a hard problem to solve, but only if it’s a problem you’re LOOKING to solve. And that’s the trick.

It also has me pondering other victory models, and that is where I think it gets VERY interesting.

  1. Options include: Flexible paths to victory, Out of game priorities, or working backwards from victory with mechanical losses translating to costly victories.

Weekly Roundup, July 31 2020

  • Fandom snagged the rights to the Dragon Prince RPG which is awesome in its own right, but Fandom is also currently home to amazing things like “Cortex” and “Cam Banks” so my expectations are at 11.
  • Washington Post article on the rise of tabletop gaming in the pandemic and some of the issues facing D&D
  • incase, who makes pretty good carry gear, has a $200 EDC kit (“everday carry” for the non-nerds) which seems decent, but most notably is apparently made of recycled bottles. This promotional article hits the high notes. Price is very reasonable in the fancy backpack space, but a little high for mortals, but possibly worth it for what it represents. I admit, I’m very curious about how these materials hold up.
  • Bit of material science nerdery – they’ve made a new material to resist cutting that’s going to be really useful for things like bike locks. As I understand it, because the core of it is less a matrix and more a collection of “beads”, vibrations get distributed and blunted by the material, so something like a rotary cutter will go blunt before this stuff cuts much at all.
  • Radical Focus, a pretty good book with an attached consultancy, has gotten active again because they released a new edition. One good upshot on this has been a pair of articles on feedback, one on the problems with constructive feedback and one on how to get people to give feedback. Roundup
  • Mark Richardson (my favorite RPG cartographer) has been posting his WIP for a post-waters-rise Los Angeles, and it’s delightful
  • Atomic Robo pin set kickstarter!
  • Even without Gencon, the awards march on. The IGDN awards have been announced, as has the Diana Jones award.
  • I’m a big fan of the term “security theater”, and now we have “hygiene theater
  • Apparently the Sentinels of Freedom game got released on the Switch yesterday, so I may vanish for a while.
  • After I talked about material components in D&D, someone was kind enough to share a link to a spreadsheet that breaks them all down.
  • Cool system for tracking D&D combat in text The model’s very applicable to other games, and also works very nicely with a kanban system.

The Cost of Magic

Class Symbol: Cleric | Dungeons and dragons classes, Dragon icon ...

So far, my longest contiguous play of 5e has been with my Cleric of Life, who has gone from 1 to 11. He’s a ton of fun, and I may ramble about him sometime, but he’s ben my window into something curious in 5e – spell components.

Now, to be clear, spell components are not a new idea (to me, or to D&D). The thing that I was offered insight into what the specific implementation of components in 5e. That said, let’s start from zero.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, casting a spell in D&D generally requires some combination of saying magic words (aka the “Verbal component”) making mystical looking hand gestures (the “Somatic component”) and waving around handfuls of weird stuff like toad eyeballs and such. These last are referred to as “material components”, and they’re what I’m talking about today.

In most cases, material components are mundane (if odd) items. For example, the sleep spell requires a bit of sand. This may sound like a bookkeeping nightmare, but for most spells, this is just all rolled under the idea of having a components pouch, which is assumed to have all your low cost components (which is most of them).

For a small percentage of spells, the requirements for material components are a bit more onerous. First, some spells requires components which are specific or costly. Specific components are usually tied to the spell – if you want to make a simulacrum of someone, you need a collection of hair, nail clippings and such from the target. Costly components are just what the sound like – for example Heroes’ Feast requires a jewel encrusted bowl that costs 1000gp to cast.

The other consideration is that for some spells, components can be re-used. For others, they are consumed when the spell is cast. This is not really a concern for mundane components, but for specific and costly components, it can have a big impact on how often you cast the spell.

In the game, they serve a couple of purposes:

  1. They’re thematic. The pinch of sand, for example, is tied to the idea of the sandman, sleep, dream and all that.
  2. They’re a practical limiter. If you take away a spellcaster’s component pouch, it greatly limits the number of spells they can case.
  3. They’re a potential gateway. If a spell requires a specific or costly component, then the act of getting that component is a potential driver to play. That drive may be as simple as “When we get to the big city” for something costly or may drive it’s own adventure if you find yourself in need of an archmage’s fingernails.
  4. They’re a throttle. Most spells can be cast every day without any kind of problem, but there are certain kinds of spells which get dull and fun destroying if they’re cast every day. These tend to be spells that provide information, give long-term buffs, or which create or recruit allies. Giving these spells a costly, consumable component should mean that they are only cast when it really matters.

These are really good design goals, and pretty well implemented. 1 and 2 very seamlessly enhance the play experience without any extra hassle. 3 introduces a little bit of extra bookkeeping, but it’s still less onerous than counting arrows.

But #4…well…that’s trickier.

The problem is not the intent – I’m all in for that – but the execution. Specifically, tying this mechanical throttle to money (in the form of costly, consumable components) introduces an array of problems.

For purposes of specific illustration, I’m going to use Heroes’ Feast, though almost any spell would work. HF gives the whole party a pretty nice all-day buff – it clears status effects, gives extra hit points, and gives a bonus on some saves. It’s a GREAT spell for the “we are going into terrible battle tomorrow, so tonight, we FEAST” moment in the story. But if unconstrained, well, just assume that any adventuring party would cast it every morning when they wake up, and it would quickly become very dull.1.

To balance this out, HF requires a jeweled bowl worth 1000gp which is consumed when the spell is cast. And that definitely is a limiter on casual casting. 1000gp is not a trivial amount of money, and locking it into the form of the bowl (which requires actually getting the bowl, not just money) also means there’s a specific opportunity cost to the choice to prepare for this spell.

There’s a logic to this, but it invites some tough questions. Specifically:

  • What is the right frequency that this spell can be cast at?
  • As an 11th level Cleric, how much money should I have in my pockets for things like this?

I’m gonna be honest, I don’t have answers for either of these. I might be able to vaguely handwave the second based on average treasure per encounter at that level, but that gets murky VERY fast.

But more critically, I’m pretty sure there is not and should not be an answer to #2. Money is a strong thematic element, and its presence or absence is something that’s going to vary greatly from game to game. One D&D game may be incredibly mercenary, with all money getting counted, banked and invested. Another may take a more Conan-like approach, with fortunes earned and squandered in rapid succession. Another may be as mercenary as the first, but have less financial success due to any number of reasons.

All these groups are playing the game correctly, but the second and third groups are going to have trouble with things like spell components, and I posit that either their GM will need to handwave a bit, or they’re just going to have access to less of the game (which equates to less fun by my measure).

This is because this is an untethered economy. See, D&D has a TON of economies – you only have so many actions, spell slots, attunements slots, time in the day and so on. When you make a choice, there is an implicit trade off in the choices you didn’t make, and that maintains a sort of equilibrium in play because the number of options does not dramatically change from moment to moment. These things are tied together.

Money is not. If one GM puts 100gp in a treasure chest and another puts a million, this doesn’t actually change the game much in any direct way. It can make a substantial difference story wise, yes. It can make a logistical difference, because gold is heavy. And, depending on the game, it will probably affect the flow of magic items.

But, critically, there was no cost to the DM’s decision (for good or ill). Contrast this with, say, the DM deciding which attack an enemy should use – it’s a constrained set of options, all clearly delineated, and the GM can use her judgement and the guidance of the situation to make the decision. There’s an economy to it. In contrast, the amount of gold in a box has no such constraints.2

Bottom line: There is probably some optimal balance of income which works with costly, consumed components, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it in play. Instead, these spells just become things I’m less likely to use (which is especially a pain for clerics, since a lot of their cool stuff falls into this category).

So, that kind of sucks.

Thankfully, it’s not an insolvable problem. We just return to the core purposes of material components – we need a throttle. Nothing says that throttle has to be shaped by money.

One option is to just rewrite all those component costs into something different, but that’s a lot of work and not terribly portable. We still want a generalizable solution, and ideally one which requires the least actual hacking to the system.

So, with that in mind, we look at the other implicit question: How much of a throttle is this supposed to be? How often would it be reasonable to expect to be able to cast one of these spells?

We could really get wrapped around the axle on this, so I’m making a leap here and saying “Every week or so”. It’s a bit of a gut call, but not entirely arbitrary. Since I’m starting from the cleric, I’m taking guidance from a few spells and abilities that have longer timers, like Divine Intervention, where you need to wait 7 days between uses. With that guidance in mind, I propose three options:

1. Simple House Rule

Special Ability: Divine Proxy

By increasing the casting time of a spell by 20 minutes, a cleric may cast a spell without consuming the material components, even if the spell usually does not say so. This ability only effects components which are monetarily valuable, not those which are unique to the spell. After a cleric uses this ability, they cannot use it again until seven days have passed.

Comments: This is probably the easiest solution, with the least bookkeeping. Note that it still requires that you have the components, which could still be a problem if the game is one with very little money. In that case, the ability could be changed to ignore the material component cost entirely, but in that case I would actually recommend that the components become rewards and objectives, since the default in this mode is that these spells are cast when the ability is available, but can – if desperate – burn the component.

Option #2: More Complicates House Rule

Special Ability: Devotion

Clerics have a reserve of points called devotion which can be spent in lieu of the gold piece value of material components. This reserve has a maximum value of the Cleric’s level x 20 and starts at zero.

Once per day, as part of a long rest, the cleric may pray to their deity and add a number of points to their devotion equal to level x 5. Any excess points are lost.

While this ability removes the need for costly components, these spells still require mundane equivalent material components, and as such will still need a components pouch.

For example: Zaldan is a level 11 cleric. His maximum devotion pool is 2200, and during a long rest, he gains 55 devotion. If he has 800 points in his pool and he casts Heroes’ Feast (which costs 1000gp), it still requires destroying a bowl worth 200gp to cast and reduces his devotion to zero. If he had 1200 in his pool, he could cast the spell using only mundane components, and be reduced to 200 points.

Comments: When I first considered this, I had the refill rate as 10x level. At that rate, a level 10 cleric could cast a 1000gp spell once every 10 days, and that seems like a very satisfying rate. Heck, it might still be right. However, the fact that this entirely obviates the need for material components makes this perhaps a little bit too easy to game. I slowed it down to 5, but it’s an easy knob to turn back.

Option #3: Object of Devotion

Add the following magic item to this mix

Focus Object

(Wondrous Item, Uncommon)

These items come in a wide variety of forms. Usually, they take the form of the material components they replace, but sometimes they may take other forms and sizes – it is not unknown for these to be built into architecture or statuary of sacred sites.

Each focus object acts as material components for a specific spell whose components cost more than 10gp and which are consumed in casting. When the object is used to cast its assigned spell, it acts as the appropriate material component, but is not consumed in casting.

Once a focus object is used, it cannot be used again for a week.

Note: If in a setting where there are prices on magic items, any price should be in addition to the cost of the components this item replaces.

Comments: This approach has a couple benefits. Items are MUCH easier to append to D&D’s current rule set without feeling hacky. Easier to homebrew into D&D Beyond too, if I decide to take a swing at that. This also has been explicitly written so that these could be used by other classes for other spells.

Personally, I’d probably recommend option #1. Option #2 feels like satisfying crunch, but it’s probably more work than needed. Plus, with #1, I still need to HAVE the material, which is reasonable requirement. However, if I ever get around to writing something up in DM’s Guild or D&D beyond, I’d use #3, just for enhanced portability.

  1. While I say this, I admit, I now kind of want to run a Hal fling game of EPIC BREAKFASTS.
    More seriously, this is also one of those 3e legacy items. In 3e D&D, there were a set of all day buffs for stats, and it started becoming a common practice to just cast them every morning. Formed the foundations of a lot of anti-fun.
  2. It also has vastly less guidance. There are charts and tables, yes, but they’re best guesses, and they have no space to adjust for context. The cash economy is a complicated thing, and the GM needs to balance both supply and demand usefully, and the right decisions for each game may go in radically different directions.