The following article originally appeared on in May 2006.

Game Designers’ Favorite Games

Every games designer has an inner games geek (sometimes not so inner) who spent hours playing the RPGs you know and love. We’ve all played D&D, GURPs and other big names, but what about the slightly obscure? Perhaps they are games you’ve heard mentioned, or seen online, but maybe you’ve never got around to trying them. The Pelgrane asked games designers, “What’s your favourite lesser-known game, and why do you like it?” and we got some surprising answers, and a year’s supply of potential gaming sessions to plan. How did I persuade them? Well, games designers and not noted for their agility, and none are prepared for a lightning aerial swoop. Most of the designers mentioned how hard it was to choose a game, but I dangled them above a squawking nest of pelgrane chicks, and they rapidly complied. I ripped out various soul-searching quotes, as seen below.

This is a long article, and I’d like to give the attention- (and time-) challenged the opportunity to jump to their favourite designers first.

Ron Edwards
Andy Peregrine, Pie Shop
Mike Williams, Earthdawn, President of Living Room Games
Matt Forbeck, freelance game designer and novelist.
Chris Helton, Battlefield Press
Aaron Rosenberg

We’ll start with Ron Edwards (Sorceror), who unasked my question with a Zen-like MU. Here was I expecting (and hoping) he’d list a bunch of his favourite indie games over at the Forge, but instead he thoughtfully undermined my assumptions. When he wouldn’t answer directly, I listed a bunch of Indies games I thought he’d have mention. Ron said:

“…Yeah but, see, to me, those aren’t ‘lesser known.’ I see them as well-known, well-played, highly-discussed, influential games. In order to answer your question the way you hoped, I have to pretend I’m someone I’m not, then look over at where I really am and say I like those games ‘over there’.”

“I’m really not trying to be argumentative. I simply cannot see answering the question from an “industry” point of view. Maybe if I just say, ‘Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, The Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard, [quoting me back]’ and let the reader say ‘oh, those are little-known’… would that do? If so, those are my answers.”

At the very least, this will make me more thoughtful when wording my next question!

Naughty Andy Peregrine, creator of Pie Shop,couldn’t make his mind up and gave me four RPGs Amber, Nobilis, Maelstrom, and James Bond. Rather than choose between them (which puppy not to kill?) I’ve left them all here. After all, bytes are cheap.

“While just about every game tries to tell you it is ‘a totally new rpg experience’ Amber (1991 – Phage Press) actually is. It does itself an injustice by calling itself diceless, as it doesn’t just remove dice but uses a rules system that relies purely on storytelling. In one sense this is what all rpgs should aspire to be, although the system is hard to apply to just anything. With Amber characters being ‘lesser Gods’ they can get away with more than your average pc. This game is hard to get used to as you must ‘unlearn’ many rpg habits, but the experience is more than worth it.”

“Maelstrom (1984 – Puffin books) is the cheapest RPG ever written [hmm – this excludes a number of free games, and a number that can’t be given away]. Alexander Scott gave us a detailed 16th century historical rpg, with a magic system well ahead of its time for just £1.95! Everything about this game is simple and very clever. For instance, you note your wounds separately, and they heal separately, one point a day. So if you take 8/8 damage for a total of 16, and someone else takes 2/2/2/2/4/4 for the same damage the second guy is up in 2 days with 2/2 wounds and the first is still in bed nursing 6/6. Simple and brilliant. The magic system is basically the same as Mage, but written 9 nine years beforehand. On top of all that you get some excellent detail on the 16th Century as well as a solo adventure and an introductory adventure. Most companies have trouble getting that much into two rulebooks these days.”

“James Bond 007 (1983 – Victory Games) is of the earliest licensed products, and such a big license too. The system captured the flavour of Bond very well but sadly the license didn’t allow the company to use Blofeld and SPECTRE. The system is simple and inventive. You have a skill chance from 1-20 and it is multiplied by the difficulty (10 being easy and 1 being hard) to give a percentage chance for success. As long as you know your times tables this is a doddle (and it is printed on the character sheet just in case you don’t). The adventure supplements were based on all the movies. However they cleverly changed the details so you got into all the same situations Bond did, but if you assume you know the plan because you’ve seen the movie you will go way off track.”

“By the same token Nobilis [1999 (Pharos Press) 2002 (Hogshead)] is one of my favourites, everything I love about Amber with a stunning world background as well. It is sadly the most under-supplemented game available. One supplement promised in the original edition is still yet to appear. However, if you are looking for a work of art as well as a game, Nobilis is for you.”

Andrew Kenrick also enthuses about Nobilis –

“…for sheer blows-out-your-mind concept and execution, this is one of the finest books ever written, let along rpgs.”

“Playing Nobilis is such a unique experience in almost every way. You play a god who can do damned near anything, which rather widens the options available to the player, and means that the challenges you face are on a whole different level. No other game I’ve ever played in has involved such fantastical and epic foes, or challenged me so much. Oh, plus it’s completely diceless, and with good reason, which takes a certain amount of the frustration of failing to accomplish something out of the game.”

Diceless mechanics confuse pelgranes, who likes shiny things such as gem dice, so I lowered him nearer the chicks, asking “is it GM fiat – and the social contract with the players – which resolves conflict or is there an explicit mechanic which overrides the GM?” He expounded: “Each of the PCs has certain attribute scores, and depending on these determines what they can do and how many miracle points a miracle costs. A PC will automatically succeed at anything they try to do (they are gods, after all) unless another entity tries to stop them, in which case there are conflict mechanics for resolving this.”

Andrew mentioned two more games:
“Unknown Armies – following closely behind Nobilis, UA has the best magic system ever devised and hardwires so much coolness into one small book that it’s impossible to not have a good time when playing it.”

“Delta Green – technically a supplement, but DG packs in so much and changes the dynamic and style of Call of Cthulhu to such a degree that it really is an rpg in its own right. Another damned well written game.”

Staying with the British contingent, Marcus Rowland also suggested Unknown Armies, and added Ghostbusters: “Wonderfully simple rules that really worked well and designed with real humour by Chaosium and good production values from West End Games. Then WEG rewrote it for 2nd edition, dumped a lot of the stuff that made it a fun game, and it sucked.” Finally he offered Space 1889 – not a glowing endorsement, but still. “Wonderful background, shame the actual rules are a little clunky. Still in print from Heliograph Inc.”

Kate Flack was short and to the point with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , Kult “for creature concepts,” In Nomine “for those great archetype descriptions: If <insert character class> was confronted with a drinks machine, it would…” and HOL “got to love the anguish factor, and the mad scratchy writing.”

Mike Williams gave me Teenagers from Outer Space, one of the few about which I know nothing.
“There are lots of lesser known games that I’m fond of for one mechanic or another, but if I had to pick a favorite I’ve got to go with Teenagers From Outer Space. Nothing is better after a bunch of “serious gaming” than unwinding than playing a teenager in a setting influenced by comedy anime turned up to eleven. It’s high school – you’ve all been there, and they’re all pretty much alike. But the alien kids have landed. A typical group of characters might include an average earth kid, a space princess, the football team’s new linebacker that turns into something that looks like godzilla’s big brother, a whatsit that’s easily confused for the stuff the cafeteria ladies claim is tapioca, a one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater, and the obligatory cosmic catgirl. The game’s exhausting, and more often than not a game session has tickled my funny bone enough that I’ve laughed so hard it hurts. Yeah, the game’s getting close to twenty years old now, but it’s hard to find a more fun time at the game table.”

Matt Forbeck plugs White Wolf’s Adventure! Whilst WW is responsible for a number of mainstream games, Adventure! is sadly not as well known. He says: “I’m a sucker for pulps of any kind, and the mechanic that allows players to back up and rewrite a scene is brilliant.”

Chris Helton (Battlefield Press developer of the Open Core System) nominates Lords of Creation from Avalon Hill.

“Despite some wonkiness that can really only be found in the best of old school games, it was really the first multi-genre game that I imprinted upon. And its special place wasn’t usurped until GURPS came along a couple of years later.”

“… [I]t promoted that wild and wooly style of wahoo gaming of by-gone days. I loved the fact that it not only had NPC stats for Billy the Kid and Morgan Le Fay but it also had illustrations featuring all the “historical” NPCs interacting. It was a fun gaming experience.”

Utterly without shame, Aaron Rosenberg discusses his own baby: Asylum.

“…first game I produced myself, Clockworks’ first product, and still one of the most fun to play. I’ve played in it and run it many times, including at cons, and it’s always a hoot. Despite being written with allowances for both serious and silly play, it always winds up being very silly and very funny.”

For form’s sake, he also adds the SAGA version of Wizard of the Coast’s Marvel RPG.

“The book itself is a bit of a mess–no real character creation, no explanation of things like initiative–but the powers and the card-based game mechanic (and the deck itself) make up for it.”

Steve Kenson (Talon Studio) is also a fan of SAGA, a sadly unrated system. He also contributed to it.

“[SAGA is] a lot of fun to play and to run. SAGA first showed up as the rules-light story-driven engine for the Dragonlance: Fifth Age game from TSR. Later, after Wizards acquired TSR, a streamlined and updated version of SAGA became the engine for the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game, still one of the best superhero RPGs ever, in my opinion.”

“I was such a fan of SAGA at the time-writing SAGA articles for Dragon and Wizards’ website-that my group got to playtest the Marvel game and we had a blast! It was fast-paced, easy, fun, and the card-play offered some cool mechanics, like damage forcing “discards,” reducing the size of your hand and neatly reflecting “damage penalties” without any additional mechanics. I even wrote a couple things for Marvel, namely the “Avengers: Masters of Evil” Adventure Book and some stuff for “Reed Richards’ Guide to Everything”.”

“Unfortunately, the card-play element turned many people off, particularly when they associated “cards” with Wizards’ “Magic: the Gathering” (which was, after all, annoying many old-time RPGers).”

“Sales were modest, especially by Wizards’ standards. Once D&D 3e got rolling, it was all d20, all the time, and SAGA was no more: the Marvel and Dragonlance games were canceled, with Dragonlance eventually updating to the d20-based D&D rules. Still, I had a lot of fun with the game while it lasted!”

Eddy Webb of Spectrum Games suggested another game I have a soft spot for – Over the Edge (Atlas Games).

“I picked the game up on a lark in 1994, and the lovely blend of surreal conspiracy and modern occult weirdness has been a fond part of my gaming memories for over a decade. I still have a number of the supplements for the line, and hope to one day get another group together to play it again.”

Keith Baker (Eberron, Dying Earth) has no doubt that Over the Edge is his favourite, too.

“I’m just starting up a new campaign myself, after a two or three year dry spell… and despite the fact that I make my living writing for D&D.”

“The relatively simple rules and (more or less) modern setting make it an easy game to spring on non-gamers. The setting allows for a wealth of story opportunities and styles of play, and I find that the rules help focus attention on roleplaying instead of number-crunching… in particular, Robin Laws’ Cut-Ups Method is my favorite all-time game mechanic. “

Elizabeth McCoy, In Nomine Line Editor suggests – In Nomine.

“I like the characterization most — the way that the game can be done silly, straight, gray, black-and-white, bright or dark… As a GM, I really, really adore the Intervention mechanic. It’s not just a critical failure or success, it’s an actual Divine or Infernal Intervention and just about anything can happen so long as it connects reasonably.”

“I’m a sucker for redemption stories, too. And playing the cute little proto-angel reliever NPCs is also fun. Death by cute!” To atone for the self-aggrandizing nature of her choice she says “I’m especially happy about the entirely free “lite” adventure, with all the rules needed to play.”

Caias Ward (Uncommon Character) suggested Run Out The Guns.

“Forget 7th Sea. This was the Pirate Game of all Pirate Games. It encouraged large groups of players (one convention session had 14 players around the table). You got to use the Rolemaster savage critical hit tables. No noble causes for you; you spent entire sessions stealing the sword and pants of the Governor of Puerto Rico after you drugged him on ether at a state party, seizing spanish ships and ransoming their crews, and trying to cure your dose of the clap you got due to the Vice table (well, that was one session).”

“Yes, the vice table. Every time you hit port, you had to roll to see if something bad happened while drinking, gambling, or carousing. That in and of itself meant you often didn’t need a story; just getting out of your latest problem with the law or outraged husband or father was enough to motivate the crew.”

“Although mathematically complex at time and requiring charts, it also was a true example of the Golden Age of Piracy and much fun to play.”

Fond though the Pelgrane is of viscera, Larry D. Hols’ first choice might offer a little too much information for some. Ouch!

“Sword’s Path: Glory by Leading Edge Games. SP:G breaks combat down into increments of 12ths of a second, details exactly which organs or bones get struck, and so forth. LEG used a watered-down version of the SP:G rules in its Phoenix Command line and other games.”

“Powers & Perils_ by Avalon Hill. A very raw game from a design point of view–some really interesting bits surrounded by a lot of ill-conceived and/or -developed dross. The separation of experience and expertise is likely the most interesting aspect.”

“I found the detail in the character definition to be most enjoyable in P&P. There are ten characteristics and generating them involves both random luck and player choice. The background event tables allow for a whole host of good or bad things to have happened to the character before play–from special teachers to special items to crimes accused of to special abilities. The player can choose to have more experience or more expertise or more wealth for the starting character. The game explicitly supports a great deal of variety.”

I lowered Ed Stark (Game Designer and Special Projects Manager, RPG R&D WotC) particularly close to the my offspring’s snapping maws, and that had a salutary effect. He couldn’t stop talking – he suggested seven games, modestly suggesting only three that he worked on himself.

“I worked on TORG, MasterBook, and Shatterzone for West End Games. They all used the same basic system, and I liked them a lot. They certainly had balance issues, but they were just darn fun to play. Very pulp-action oriented, very fun.”

“I also enjoyed WEG’s Ghostbusters game. It had a “brownie points” mechanic and a general whacky fun.”

“Outside of WEG, there was a game called Psychosis I enjoyed playing … once. It had a tarot-card mechanic that was very interesting, but the game was incredibly structured. It would be nearly impossible for a GM to create his or her own adventure; the story-based system was too complex.”

“I don’t know if it’s obscure or not (maybe to our new audience), but I loved playing Rolemaster, particularly in its simpler form: MERP (Middle-earth Roleplaying). I liked the attack roll system and its wild critical hits. The magic system was also interesting, and allowed you to play a character in Middle-earth who could “cast spells” but didn’t feel like he was totally breaking from the Tolkien-style world (not a fantasy world rife with high-powered spellcasters).”

The polymathic Alex Stewart (Warhammer, etc), offers Forgotten Futures.

“[It’s] been far and away the most popular game with my regular group ever since I introduced it to them, and it’s become my system of choice for running pretty much everything regardless of genre or setting. Quick simple mechanisms, easily tweakable if necessary, and more GM resources than you can shake the proverbial stick at.”

“I’m also hugely enthused by 2nd edition WFRP at the moment; the design team have done a brilliant job of streamlining the mechanisms to make it far more playable, while keeping the feel of the original and bringing the background into line with the current Warhammer continuity. From the GM’s point of view it’s felt like trading in a Cortina for a Porsche.”

“And I’d have to put in a vote for Classic Traveller: I cut my gaming teeth on it a couple of decades ago, and still find it fun.”

Finally, I was very pleased to get a thoughtful response from Paul Czege of Half Meme Press. The Pelgrane has played a number of versions of his estimable My Life with Master, including My Life with Santa, My Life with Jesus, and My Life with Tony. And what’s best – this game is free.

“My favorite lesser-known game is James V. West’s The Pool. Playing it in 2001 changed the way I think about roleplaying games. It remains my absolute favorite system for unplanned roleplaying, and always a contender when I get caught up with setting ideas and need a system. In so many ways it just suits me as a GM. NPCs have no stats, so I can improvise them at will. And I never have to set target numbers, because adversity is instead modulated by how many bonus dice I give the player. Every game I’ve designed since The Pool betrays its influence.”

So, go out and try these games! Some are just a mouse click away, others you’ve bought and are rotting in cupboards or on shelves, still more lurk on Ebay. Seek them out. SAGA, In Nomine, Ghostbusters, and Over the Edge get special mention for being nominated multiple times. It would be an interesting exercise (one for the student) to see how this list differs from a similar one compiled from the preferences of the average punter.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.

The term: table sense.

It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.

It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.

Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.

How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.

Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.

If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.

In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.

Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?

Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?

When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.

Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.

When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.

In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.

Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.

The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.

GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.

Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.

You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.

It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.

Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.

Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.

This die isn’t bad, it’s just a bit weird.

At our GenCon panel on horror, we got asked about the risk of breaking atmosphere in Trail of Cthulhu games by asking for Stability tests. You describe whatever horrific or disturbing sight the investigator encounters in ghastly detail – and then go “now, roll Stability”, dragging the player out of the story and soiling everything with bald mechanics. I don’t entirely agree with the premise – sometimes, switching to mechanics at a moment of high tension lends huge dramatic weight to the roll – but if it resonates with you, then what you need is a bad die.

A bad die is a die that’s dedicated to a particular purpose. Ideally, it’s visually distinctive – I’ve got a d6 with skulls for pips that gets designated a bad die in some games. The bad die is only used for one type of roll only. For example, in a Trail game, it might only be used for Stability tests. If the GM hands the bad die to a player, the player knows it’s time to make a Stability test, and that failure would be costly. There’s no need to say anything in the heat of play – the GM makes it clear before the game that if you’re given the bad die, you’ve got to make a Stability test and that failure will mean a big Stability loss.

You can use bad dice for other purposes. You could have a bad die for Sense Trouble rolls, or Heat checks in Night’s Black Agents. In 13th Age, you might designate a particular d20 as the bad die for Last Gasp saves. As long as the bad die can be easily distinguished from other dice, and the players are told beforehand what the bad die entails, it gives the GM another non-verbal channel to communicate with the players.

The following article for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on in November 2005.

Push aside the detritus to see the shiny gew-gaws horded by the Pelgrane

I have two things to announce, one horrifying, the other edifying.

For your edification, we have relaunched the webstore after its long hiatus. Rather than leave you at the mercy of unreliable sandestins, we’ve come to an arrangement with our sister company, ProFantasy Software Ltd. Their minions have been working for over a decade processing multiple mail orders every day, and will deal with Pelgrane orders with barely a mumble of protest and with their customary efficiency.

If you buy any of our older books, you’ll find that you can get the PDF within minutes of your order. The link will be presented on your receipt.

We also are proud to launch the Book of Unremitting Horror, full of creatures which would grace the snopes urban legend site. The disturbing content contrasts admirably with the quality of the layout. There is already a short review , and one commentator suggests that it “puts the V in vile.” Persons of quality will buy it forthwith.

XPS 7/8 (now collected in the Excellent Prismatic Spray) is progressing, and Jim Webster has agreed to field any and all questions on the topic after I threatened him with desanguination. We would also appreciate any letters to the editor, either in or out of character.

Finally, I must report on a complex development. The Gazetteer and Bestiary are to be rolled into a larger work – The Dying Earth Cyclopedia (ed: now called the Compendium of Universal Knowledge). Edited by David Thomas it will be our largest work, and our most impressive.

Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until August 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Wade Rockett 13th Age designer logoIf you attended the 13th Age Monster Workshop at Gen Con Online this past weekend, you were treated to some odd and creepy fun with gnomes. It reminded me that way back in 2013, when 13th Age was still brand new, I ran this weird little adventure at Gen Con. It was a lot of fun so I’ve shared it here with some updates. The linkling and the clockwork automaton are both by ASH LAW—the former is from Into the Underworld, the latter from Shards of the Broken Sky.



A small adventure for level 2 characters


A representative of the PCs’ patron icon (choose one from their icon relationships) asks the group to investigate strange goings-on in a town within their region. Outgoing trade, travel, and communication has ceased; people who attempt to visit the town report seeing from a distance that it’s been bizarrely transformed by the presence of weird machines and mechanized structures such as gates, bridges, and automated  watchtowers that fire crossbow bolts at anyone who gets too close. At the same time, a rough gang of drow bandits have been raiding nearby villages and robbing merchant caravans at night.

When the PCs arrive (run a travel montage in which you dole out snippets of information about recent activity in and around the town over the past few months) they discover that the town is under the control of deep gnomes: a branch of gnomekind that dwells deep in the underworld, where its weirdness has made them become profoundly erratic and obsessed with “improving” things through science. The city is now ruled by the gnomarch Azbqiplth; its non-gnomish citizens live in fear of the new overlords and their well-meaning but profoundly dangerous civic efforts. The gnomes are accompanied by a contingent of surly drow who report directly to Azbqiplth’s majordomo Gaspard, a drider cyborg.

The horrible truth: Azbqiplth is actually controlled by a science-minded intellect devourer named (as is custom) for its greatest achievement, which unfortunately is Escaped Execution by the Dwarf King for Blowing Up His Favorite Steam Chariot While Fixing It. After fleeing the Dwarf King’s realm in its automaton body, E.E. stumbled across a deep gnome settlement and was struck by inspiration: “Is an intellect devourer not entitled to the sweat of its brain?” it thought. E.E. envisioned a city dedicated to technological advancement far above the underworld, free from meddlers and naysayers. It killed Azbqiplth while the gnomarch was in a drunken stupor, took over his body, rallied its new subjects to support its scheme, and hired Gaspard’s gang of drow mercenaries as muscle. Gaspard convinced E.E. that simply taking over the town that happened to be directly above them would be easier than building one. Gaspard now uses the town as a base for looting and pillaging; he plans to disappear with his gang back into the underworld when the inevitable army shows up, leaving the gnomes to face the consequences.


Monsters encountered in town: 

Deep Gnome Apprentice

1st level mook [humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Truncheon +6 vs. AC—4 damage

C: Grappling hook +6 vs. AC—3 damage

Natural 16+ hit: Target is hampered (basic attacks only, normal save ends.)

AC 14

PD 14        HP 5 (mook)

MD 11

Mook: Kill one mook for every 5 damage you deal to the mob.


Deep Gnome Journeyman

1st level troop [humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Truncheon +6 vs. AC—6 damage if the gnomes and their allies outnumber their enemies; 4 damage if they don’t.

R: Repeating crossbow +6 vs. AC—4 damage

Confounding: Once per battle, when the deep gnome journeyman rolls a natural 16+ with an attack, it can also daze the target until the end of its next turn.

AC 16

PD 13    HP 22

MD 12


Deep Gnome Master

4th level leader [humanoid]

Initiative: +5

Sword +10 vs. AC—14 damage, and willingunderling triggers

R: Throwing axe +8 vs. AC—10 damage

Protect  me, you dolts!: Until the start of its next turn, the first time an attack would hit the deep gnome master, it can partially avoid that attack if  deep gnome journeyman or apprentice is nearby: It only takes half damage from the attack, and that ally takes the rest.

Confounding: Once per battle, when the deep gnome master rolls a natural 11+ with an attack, it can also daze the target until the end of its next turn.

AC 20

PD 17    HP 50

MD 14



A tiny mechanical golem, linklings are spherical assemblages of cogs, chains, and clockwork.

1st level mook [construct]

Initiative: +4

Gear teeth +7 vs. AC—5 damage

Natural even hit or miss: Disengaging from the linkling has a -5 penalty as it wraps tiny chains around its target’s feet.

Limited golem immunity: Non-organic golems are immune to effects. They can’t be dazed, weakened, confused, made vulnerable, or touched by ongoing damage. You can damage a golem, but that’s about it. Linklings are fragile, and lose their golem immunity when the escalation die is even.

AC 17

PD 15.     HP 7 (mook)

MD 10

Mook: Kill one linkling mook for every 7 damage you deal to the mob.


Clockwork Automaton

Gears grind and the thing moves forward on a pair of spoked, iron wheels. Each of its metal arms ends in a sharp point.

2nd level troop [construct]

Initiative: +4

Spear-hands +6 vs. AC—6 damage

Natural even hit: The automaton can make a second spear-hands attack as a free action (but not a third).

Made of gears and cables: When an attack crits against it or when it’s staggered, the automaton must roll an easy save (6+). On a failure, the construct’s internal workings fail, and it breaks apart in a small explosion of metal and gears. Drop the automaton to 0 hp and make an exploding gears attack.

C: Exploding gears +6 vs. PD (each creature engaged with or next to the automaton)—2d12 damage

AC 17

PD 14     HP 40

MD 12


Monsters encountered in the Mayoral Hall 


An elegant, polite dark elf who acts as the majordomo of the Deep Gnome gnomarch. His lower body is a mechanical spider constructed by deep gnomes and powered by harnessed lightning.

Large 4th level caster [wrecker]

Initiative: +4

Sword-wielding mechanical arms +9 vs. AC—14 damage

Natural even hit: Gaspard can make a lightning bolt attack as a free action.

R: Lightning bolt +11 vs. PD—20 lightning damage

Natural even hit: Gaspard can make a lightning bolt attack against a second nearby enemy, followed by a third and final different nearby enemy if the second attack is also a natural even hit.

C: Lightning web +11 vs. PD (up to 2 nearby enemies in a group)— the target is hampered (basic attacks only, save ends)

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action, if the escalation die is even.

Clockwork spider: Gaspard can climb walls as easily as running across the floor.

Summon Lightning Ghosts: Once per battle when staggered, Gaspard can summon 1d6 lightning ghosts to attack his foes. They act on the following turn and remain till killed or the battle ends, whichever comes first.

AC 20

PD 18      HP 54

MD 14


Lightning Ghost

1st level spoiler [elemental]

Initiative: +8

Shocking claws +6 vs. AC—3 damage, and 5 ongoing damage

Electrical aura: Whenever a creature attacks the lightning ghost and rolls a natural 1–5, that creature takes 1d10 lightning damage.

Flight: Lightning ghosts are hard to pin down because they fly. Not that fast or well, but you don’t have to fly well to fly better than humans and elves.

AC 16

PD 11   HP 27

MD 15


Dark Elf Mercenary

1st level spoiler [humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Fancy sword +5 vs. AC—4 damage

Natural even hit: The drow deals an additional 5 ongoing bleeding damage  (6+ save ends)

AC 17

PD 14       HP 27

MD 12


Azbqiplth, Gnomarch of the Deep Gnomes

Azbqiplth has become more machine than gnome. Madness!

5th level wrecker [construct]

Initiative: +8

Fists of iron +10 vs. AC—15 damage

Miss: 5 damage.

Limited golem immunity: Due to his part-mechanical nature, Azbqiplth can only be dazed, weakened, confused, made vulnerable, or touched by ongoing damage when the escalation die is even

Poison gas: The first time Azbqiplth is staggered, poison gas leaks from his mechanical body into the area. He can make a poison gas cloud attack as a free action.

[Special trigger] C: Poison gas cloud +10 vs. PD (all nearby foes)—5 ongoing poison damage

Confounding: Once per battle, when Azbqiplth rolls a natural 11+ with an attack, he can also daze the target until the end of his next turn.

AC 21

PD 19                  HP 72

MD 15


Escaped Execution by the Dwarf King for Blowing Up His Favorite Steam Chariot While Fixing It (aka E.E.), Intellect Devourer

13th Age intellect devourer3rd level spoiler [aberration]

Initiative +5

C: Recall trauma +8 vs. MD (one nearby enemy)—16 psychic damage

Natural even hit: The target can’t add the escalation die bonus to its attacks (save ends).

C: Ego scourge +8 vs MD (one enemy)—10 psychic damage, and the target must choose one: take 10 extra damage; OR lose two points (cumulative) from its highest current background until the next full heal-up.

C: Mind wipe +9 vs MD (nearby enemies equal to escalation die)—The target can neither detect the intellect devourer’s presence nor remember it was ever there to begin with. If no enemy remembers the devourer is there, remove it from play. All nearby enemies immediately detect the devourer’s presence if it makes an attack or if it hasn’t left the battle by the end of its next turn.

Limited use: 1/battle.

Exploit trauma: An intellect devourer’s crit range with attacks against MD expands by 2.

Psychovore: An intellect devourer remembers the current escalation die value the first time it becomes unhosted in a battle and gains a bonus equal to that value to all attacks and defenses.

Nastier Specials

Increased trauma: Add the following extra effect trigger to the intellect devourer’s recall trauma attack.

Natural 5, 10, 15, 20: The target can’t cast spells until the end of its next turn.

AC 19

PD 15     HP 56

MD 19


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article, on the Dying Earth RPG and The Book of Unremitting Horror, appeared on in December 2004.

This month, David Thomas has completed the editing of The Book of Unremitting Horror. I will cast my eye over it before Christmas and send the final version off for layout.

Dragonmeet 2004 went well for everyone – Sean Varney ran an amusing game where the PCs succeeded in travelling 7th class on a gondolier. The players enjoyed being fleeced and hornswaggled. We showed the full range of artwork and a sample layout from the Book of Unremitting Horror.   It was fun to watch everyone’s eyes scanning our covers then whipping back to Unremitting Horror.

Dave Allsop is the artist and creator, has released a limitededition print this month – this edible beauty. Her and me in a fight, who would win? You can buy Dave Allsop’s art here .

The Cave is a new short film directed and produced by John Jones. This month we feature the Trailer. It’s a low budget affair, with John learning the basics of special effects as he went. We’ll be releasing it in installments over the next few months.

XPS 7 (ed: now bundled as The Excellent Prismatic Spray) is progressing, and Jim Webster has agreed to field any and all questions on the topic after I threatened him with desanguination. We would also appreaciate any letters to the editor, either in or out of character.

Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until August 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

by Julian Kuleck

illustration by Dagmara Matuszak

We focused on demons in the first curse article—cursed and accursed demons. Here, we cover the many other 13th Age and F20 monsters that originated as curses or get much of their oomph delivering curses.

Deathly (Well, Undeathly) Curses

After the Diabolist, the Lich King is the icon most frequently associated with curses. Cursing a foe with a fate worse than death is a long-running fantasy trope, and what fate could be worse than undeath? (A few, but let’s not belabor them.)

Many undead arise from curses, possibly even as a careless curse as one dies. As such, it could be that some undead aren’t entirely destroyed by being reduced to 0-hp—to eliminate a truly cursed undead, you’ve got to resolve the curse that created them.

Start with the zombies of the Silver Rose (13TW pg. 207). Are their curses spoken in service to the Lich King, or are they condemnations of a world that failed them?

To take this idea all the way to the top, consider the Lich King. The One-Eyed King is almost certainly a self-made monster rather than the product of somebody else’s spite, but it could be that while another—like the Emperor—sits on his throne, the Lich King cannot fall, fueled by fated hatred that goes beyond necromantic artifice.

Orcish Objurations

Orcs, goblins, and other followers of the Orc Lord often deal in curses, which could easily be a lesson or secret unearthed by their icon. Or it could be that curses are a primal form of magic born of emotion, not requiring the towers and textbooks that produce many wizards. With that, it also could be part of the training a “book-wizard” goes through is just to steer them away from the easier and more troublesome hexes offered by magic.

Or it could be that curses are the magic of the underdog, and that those who lack power in an age find them easier to cast. This wouldn’t really square with the tales of icons casting curses, but icons break the rules.

The fact that orcs emerge from ruined lands absolutely feels like the ancient curse of an icon.

Curses of the Moon

Werebeasts (13TW pg. 204) spread a deadly, curse-based infection. If the moon is full, an adventurer who takes a nip from a lycanthrope can be infected with lycanthropy. How easily heroes can diagnose lycanthropy before the full moon shines is a matter for GMs to decide. If you’re seeking a more playable version of lycanthropy, the beastblood from Book of Ages (BoA pg. 77) could fulfill that need.

Before lycanthropy was a curse, it’s said to have been a blessing given by the Wolf Druid (BoA pg. 74). Perhaps the Wolf Druid punished those who stole his gift of shapeshifting, creating the infection the Dragon Empire knows today. Alternately, if the Wolf Druid forbid those who took on bestial shape from feeding on humans, one of the Druid’s folk biting down on the Emperor of a past age would certainly have broken that ban. The lesson you could apply more widely is that any blessing, with sufficient corruption via replication, can mutate into a curse.

Curses of the Blood

In fiction, vampires (13A pg. 248) are often the result of an ancient curse. Perhaps they arise from the curse of a god (or blessing of a dark god), a curse cast by the Lich King on his wayward descendants, or maybe they’re an object lesson as to why alchemists don’t include elven blood in their potions anymore. But how would a PC come under the effect of a curse? We suggest making it a slow process, requiring several nights or multiple bites, so that the characters can race against time to keep the curse from taking full effect.

But if you want a playable vampire curse, here’s an option for those who have become creatures of the night:


+2 Str OR +2 Cha

Since vampires have many interpretations, we’re providing two different racial abilities for bloodkin. Players should choose one for their characters. Draining bite is more suitable to those who like wading into the thick of combat, while hypnotic gaze can be used by any character.

Draining Bite (Racial Power)

Once per battle, after you have hit with a melee attack that staggers a non-mook foe, you may heal using a recovery as a free action. You may substitute your Strength modifier for your Constitution modifier for the purposes of this recovery. This recovery must be rolled; you may not take the average result.

Champion Feat: When you trigger draining bite, the foe staggered becomes dazed until the end of your next turn.

Hypnotic Gaze (Racial Power)

Once per battle, when an enemy misses you with a natural attack roll of 1-5, they may not target you with an attack until the end of their next turn.

Champion Feat: When you trigger hypnotic gaze, you may deal 3 x the enemy’s level in damage to a different enemy engaged with you, as you induce the attacking enemy to strike another. If the enemy that triggers hypnotic gaze has a damaging ranged attack, the target of the damage no longer needs to be engaged with you!

But Vampires Can’t . . . .

As with their more monstrous cousins, it’s suggested that you customize a bloodkin’s weaknesses and requirements to the specific character or campaign. Such limitations should serve as roleplaying flavor and fodder, not as blocks on what the character can do. Maybe bloodkin just find the sun uncomfortable rather than harmful, or can shield themselves with heavy clothing. They could can feed on lifeforce or magic as much as blood, or may choose to feed on animals and monsters. Perhaps garlic tastes like soap rather than repelling them. This might seem lightweight, but is ultimately just a necessity of including vampires in an ensemble cast—having them bound by hard limitations risks too much of the game revolving around their needs.

Haggish Doggerel

The monster most strongly associated with inflicting curses would be the hag (13B pg. 104). After all, the name “hag” also gave us the German hexe. Their ability to cast a death curse is one thing, but just as interesting is their ability to remove other curses. They could be good folk to consult for any curse. . . for certain definitions of “good”, anyway. But what price might a hag ask? Self-serving requests come to mind, but it could be to remove a curse, one must inflict an equal curse. Does a hero choose to live with their affliction, or pass it on, not knowing who might be the next victim?

It could be that a hag is what you eventually become after casting one too many curses. Or they could be victims of the first curse, a lesson they took to heart. The hags aren’t telling, at least without exacting a price just as severe.

The Modern Hag

In my games, hags can be any gender. I also don’t call them “hags”I give them specific names or titles, like Anali the Soulsmith or Ever-Hungry Tvertak.

The following article for the Dying Earth RPG and Fear Itself originally appeared on in November 2004.

Push aside the detritus to see the shiny gew-gaws horded by the Pelgrane


Our last release was XPS 6 (ed: now bundled as The Excellent Prismatic Spray) – a good few months’ ago now. But we aren’t slacking, I promise you – certain persons have been eaten, others dropped from a great height. The manuscripts are stacked up, and at last an artist is licking his nib, and our schedule is a thing of beauty, if not truth. We’ve employed the artistic services of Dave Allsop, best known in the RPG community for SLA Industries; although he has also created Magic card images and D&D® creatures for Wizards of the Coast. We are lucky to have him, trapped in the nest, to be released when his work is done, or eaten as a light snack if it is unfinished. Dave is also the artist and co-creator of a non-Dying Earth project we’ve been working on – The Book of Unremitting Horror – more on that later.

We’ve commissioned Robin D Laws to create the Arch-Magicians book – a whole new style of Dying Earth play. The vigilant questing of

the magician gives way to power; but with ultimate power comes ennui, and only the other Arch-Magicians provide a suitable challenge. Squabbling, intrigue and pettifoggery might cause even the affable Preceptor of the Conclave to tear out his hair. Robin is devising a clever new mechanic, dare I say a metagame mechanic. I can’t say much yet, but what I can reveal is that in this version of the Dying Earth RPG you can win, and it won’t be by conjuring up a dark army of underlings and conquering the world. Robin is in little danger of being eaten, partly due to his past services, but mainly because of his personal chaffe and offensive shirts.

Jim Webster and Peter Freeman have created the Dying Earth Gazetteer (ed: now The Scaum Valley Gazetteer), a splendid overview of the entire known world, and elsewhere. Its accuracy is absolutely and unreservedly guaranteed – at least that is what they assured me as I dangled them, one in each claw, over the edge of the nest. Dave Allsop is currently illustrating the more significant entries. I find a friendly grin and a few kind words hurry him on.

The Book of Unremitting Horror is a bleak book of horrific monsters for use in an OGL setting. Each horror is detailed in depth, so much so that it each is more a complete adventure in itself. Each one has its own agenda, its own reason for existence and its own legend. The book includes GM and player information. A PDF sample will follow next month, but for the moment, here is a little teaser for one of the creatures.

Dave Allsop is the artist and creator, and the creatures have been detailed by Adrian Bott, who has written The Book of Hell for Mongoose Publishing amongst other RPG titles.

Tooth, Talon and Pinion, The Dying Earth Bestiary is now ready for the first round of editing. Compiled with extra material by Ian Thomson (Demons of the Dying Earth) it will cover all the beasts and humanoids. It includes authoritative discussions of each creature, with a little polite scholarly disagreement over the nature of each beast, allowing you to choose which version to use. Many of the creatures are tied together in a grand adventure, although each segment can be run separately. If only Ian can curb his natural exuberance, and present me with more shiny things, I will in turn curb my natural appetite.

The Shining Fields (ed: now The Fields of Silver,) written by Lynne Hardy, is a Turjan-level campaign in the style of the old Call of Cthulu™ campaign books is languishing awaiting art. It is with regret that I can find no excuse to consume Lynne, as she is without fault in this matter. That small nicety has not concerned me before, however.

XPS 7 (ed: now bundled as The Excellent Prismatic Spray)is underway, but you will have to ask Jim Webster, the editor, if you want to know more. I dare not.

Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until August 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

One of the strange joys of a Yellow King campaign, with its quadripartite structure, is that you can be certain for months in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a rare gamemastering luxury; in other games, you can roughly guess where the campaign is going, but you can’t be sure. Maybe your Night’s Black Agents agents will be in the Carpathian mountains on the trail of Dracula in six month’s time, but knowing player characters, it’s just as likely they’ll be trying to organise a coup in a small South American country or something equally absurd. In The Yellow King, you know that your Parisian artists are going to become soldiers in a surreal European war, then traumatised freedom fighters trying to rebuild the country, then parallel-universe ordinary people about to come in contact with alien forces for the first time.

The bigger the gap between prophecy and payoff, the greater the chance that the chaotic nature of roleplaying games will ruin your planned set-piece. Key player characters might get killed, the campaign might go in another direction entirely, or the mood of the campaign might no longer fit the vision. In most games, the only solutions are to use heavy-handed railroading or make the visions so vague they apply in any situation. The Yellow King makes things much easier; you can tailor the starting situation of a new sequence so it leads naturally into the prophesy. That means you can drop hints – visions, prophecies, flash-forwards – into one sequence that pay off in another, and be sure of executing them successfully.

Visions Of That Rugose Thing Really Tied The Campaign Together, Man

Foreshadowing and prophecy work like call-backs and echoes; just as having a Wars character find a piece of artwork made by a Paris character links the two sequences, a flashforward from The Wars to This Is Normal Now connects those two parts of the campaign. The connections don’t have to be especially significant or meaningful in themselves – the point is to amp up the weirdness and claustrophobia, and make the players feel like the campaign sequences are all part of a single alien experience. Foreshadowing just for the sake of being strange and shadowy is a perfectly acceptable technique in this campaign.

Some Suggestions

  • In Paris, the artists come into possession of a painting called The Ambush that depicts a fantastical future battlefield, where giant walking war machines rain death upon footsoldiers. The painting shows a small squad about to be attacked by an unseen foe; the squad are all distracted by the stalker in front of them, so they don’t notice the foe behind them. When you create characters for The Wars, you specify that the player characters are close to the front lines; it’s easy then to find ways to get them onto the battlefield, in the same situation depicted in the painting.
  • Also in Paris, one of the characters comes into contact with Carcosa and is saved from madness by a mysterious explosion that destroys part of the alien city. Later, in Aftermath, the characters there plant a bomb atop a Carcosan gate; the explosion blasts through the portal to the far side.
  • During The Wars, the player characters run into a traveller who insists the war is over – it ended two years ago, in 1945. Europe’s at peace now, at least until the Soviets and the Americans start fighting. The traveller’s clearly from the timeline of This Is Normal Now. Later, when you move onto that sequence, the slacker player characters find the traveller’s diary, and read of a previous brush with strangeness.
  • Also during The Wars, the characters recover surveillance photographs from an enemy dragonfly. Mixed in with the photos of troop detachments and supply lines are a set of images of a strange futuristic city (the present-day setting of This Is Normal Now). The surveillance flights seem to focus on a coffee shop. Later, when you create characters for This Is Normal Now, you declare that the characters all favour a particular local coffee place,
  • In Aftermath, while going through surveillance reports recovered from the ruins of the Castaigne regime’s secret police, the characters find a bizarre transcript of a telephone call. One of the participants is clearly a Carcosan agent of some sort; the other participant’s speech is transcribed only as [INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUZZING]. Later, during This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters gets a phone call – you use the Carcosan agent transcript as your script, and let the player respond to the Carcosan’s rantings and ravings as they wish.
  • Alternatively, during Aftermath, the characters find a corpse in a disused suicide booth – but the victim wasn’t killed by the booth. During This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters’ friends vanishes, and their body is never found…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

This article originally appeared on, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.

This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.

“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.

This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.

You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.

Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.

Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.

When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.

Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:

“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”

Then, once again, prompt for questions.

Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:

1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”

What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.

So your replies to the above questions might be:

1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”

As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.

As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.

Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:

“Do I have a shotgun?”
Yes, but no ammo.

“Am I super strong?”
Yes, but only for a few moments a day.

“Do I have the key to that door?”
Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.

Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”

The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”

Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”

If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.

At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.

When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.

Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.

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