Thursday 25 April 2024

TTRPG Rules Reading as Play


Defining "play" in TTRPGs is a tricky thing. It's also sort of unimportant but as a naval-gazing game designer these are the things that keep me up at night (that and my youngest cat, Fox). 

Back in 1938 historian Johan Huizinga would publish his book Homo Ludens, a Study of the Play Element in Culture. In it, Huizinga would set out his theory on the magic circle of play, which would be expanded on by games theorists decades later. 

The magic circle delineates the boundaries of play and real life. The framework of the game's rules creates a temporary location where the ordinary rules of real life change and the edicts of the game take over. This is a vast oversimplification of the concept, but for illustrative purposes hopefully it works. 

It's easy to apply this to TTRPGs. We gather around a table, physical or virtual, and from that point of "curtain up" we understand the expectations and procedures that follow. We know players might be talking in strange accents. We know dice will be thrown and maybe the bigger number is better. We know there's an unfolding narrative. We understand that we need to modify our character sheets. 

But we can take this further. We're interacting with these expectations and processes when we create our character, whether in a group or sitting alone. We're also interacting with them when we come up with new strategies and builds, if those are the kinds of games we're playing. Me making a choice between choosing a Pathfinder dedication is, in fact, part of play.

Over on Rascal, Chase Carter wrote an article about how play itself can be expanded to reading the rules, which is what prompted me to dust off the old blog and write this. 

When the GM writes an adventure or a bunch of tables, they're stepping into the magic circle. Reading a rulebook isn't the same as reading a novel, as Cassi Mothwin says. Likewise, it's not the same as reading a rules leaflet for a boardgame. TTRPG rulebooks are often amalgamations of lore guide, mechanical procedure, art book, and self-help guide (genuinely). Considering what your character might be and how they interact with the world is part of play, and an enriching one at that. I've recently been re-reading OD&D and there's so much inspiration I'm drawing from the gameplay loop of going to a dungeon for a few levels before heading out into the wilderness, possibly to come across a necromancer's patrol of werewolves en route. This level of interaction with the game is play and it directly feeds into the group element.

What does this mean? Well, game designers should consider how to use this extended magic circle (if it can be even considered a circle at all) to enhance the play experience. In part, this is recognising that play expands beyond the session and designing for it by finding the fun in other sections of the circle. This could be offering more gameable material, having out-of-session mechanics for continuing the narrative, better understanding how bleed impacts players, or simply by making levelling up as fun, interesting or thought-provoking as you need it to be.

Saturday 28 October 2023

Lantern Man (Romance of the Perilous Land)

A spirit related to the corpse candle, the lantern Man appears as a shadow figure carrying an ethereal lantern. He wanders the marshlands and swamps, ensnaring wanderers who go towards his light. As they slowly sink into the marsh waters the spirit lets out an eerie cackle before fading into the night. Many can be found close to the lairs of hags, knuckers and others water-dwelling creatures. 

HD 4 

HP 18

AP 4

Attack: Lantern Lure (ranged 60ft) or Cold Grasp (melee)

Damage: d8+4 

Number appearing: 1


- After dealing damage with lantern lure, the target must succeed a mind save or move their full movement towards the lantern man. This includes moving onto or through hazardous terrain. 

- The lantern man gains an edge on rolls to find hidden or stealthy travellers.

- If a creature lies face down prone, they are immune to lantern lure. In addition, the lantern man doesn't get their edge on rolls to spot hidden creatures in this position.

Sunday 1 October 2023

Three-point plot clocks

 Now say that twice as fast.

In OSR games we often talk about prepping situations, not plots, which means having a bunch of locations, NPCs, motivations and hooks ready. 

This is half right, since plots should totally be part of your game - just the plots of NPCs rather than one to lead the PCs by. This simply means knowing that over time your voidcalling necromancer is always hard at work in the background fulfilling her ungodly ritual and will complete it if the players don't intervene. 

Too many modern modules are like the observer effect in quantum physics - if the players aren't interacting with a part of the world then it just remains static. In my mind, your campaign world should be in full bloom - a rainforest eco-system of cause and effect. 

This brings me onto three point plot clocks.

The idea is that you have three plots running at once. Raiders are sweeping in from the mountains looking to torch three named villages and kidnap the mayor for random. A wizard is looking for the ancient orb of Garnash to open a portal to the nether realm, unleashing the Beast Who Walks in Dreams. A queen is mustering an army of volunteers to make a last stand against the red orc army.

For each plot there are three points (based on three story acts): activation, escalation and fruition. 

Activation is the plot's beginning - its first act. The raiders are seen on the mountain pass. The wizard hires a band of miscreants to steal a map from a noble.

Escalation is the middle. There's a problem that needs to be solved or a change in situation, or things simply heat up. The wizard gains the help of a bronze dragon in exchange for a sacrifice.

Fruition is the end. This is what happens when the plot resolves without intervention. The red orcs overrun the queen's forces. The raiders are paid the random and the mayor becomes both destitute and wildly unpopular. The key here is that things should change drastically but it should never preclude adventure. 

Each point should have a hook for the PCs. The wizard can't spend a point just researching the orb in their tower since that has no impact on the game and no visible threat for the PCs. They should always be doing something that constitutes an adventure hook.

Now, for each plot assign a die type. For a short plot a d6 or d8 would work, or for a longer plot use a d20 or even d100. You will want a mix of die types across plots. 

Write the three parts to each plot on cue cards and put the die on Activation at 1. Each number on the die represents a day by default. For each day increase the die by 1. Once the die reaches the halfway mark move it onto Escalation. Continue doing this until it reaches the highest value and move to Fruition. 

So for my raider plot, I might make it a d10, the wizard a d12 and the red orcs a d20. 

This is just a simple way of tracking the dynamic plots happening in your campaign at any given time. Once a plot has come to Fruition just create a new plot. This might be a follow on from a previous one - the destitute mayor is exiled from his village and now needs help securing money.

Of course there's no reason not to have two plots rather than three (it's just a good number), or add in more plots. Obviously the more you have the

 more complex things become. 

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Back to basics

 It's been a bit of time since my last post, and now I'm off Twitter (find me on Blue Sky) I wanted to kick the blog back into gear by taking it all the way back to basics. That is to say, old school gaming and inspiration. 

I've found myself digging back through OD&D, T&T, Dragon Warriors and a bunch of other yellowing, foxed game books and I'm inspired to write more about the OSR/traditional games than anything more modern, for the sake of focus. 

See you soon!

Sunday 23 April 2023

Ruins of the Dread Bishop Out Now for Heartseeker

In ancient days the Veiled Bishop demanded tithes of treasures from his subjects, all of whom worshipped him like a god. When riches became scarce the Bishop would instead take their very souls, trapping them in a reliquary. The tides of time would claim his flesh, but his foul reliquary stayed his malignant spirit, wandering the church ruins in search of new souls to steal. 

Ruins of the Dread Bishop is a 4-page pamphlet adventure for use with Heartseeker, but is easily converted to other OSR games. 

Saturday 22 April 2023

Scratching the Itch: New RPG Hotness 22/4/23

 It's time for another creamy dollop of new games I see on itch that hit my brain just right.


by Feral Indie Studios

Now here's an interesting one. It's a grimy-looking fantasy skirmish wargame with roleplaying elements, with part of the draw being its compatibility with OSR scenarios. It plants its webbed feet firmly in the domain of dark fantasy, with characters like a mutated Decrepit Magus and a Noble Duellist fused to their armour. It's co-operative and competitive too, which I assume means can require a GM if you want. Looks great! 

Vyrmhack is Itchfunding now, so go throw money at them.

Magpie by Moonlight

by Anna Anthropy

Evlyn Moreu's art is always going to catch my attention, and I love magpies so how could I resist? Magpie by Moonlight is a one-page solo journaling game where you "collect" (nick) things and make your getaway before noting all your new curiosities in your ledger. I enjoy a one-page game with a bunch of flavour, so MBM was an instant buy for me, and maybe you'll like it too.

Elfland: Beyond the Fields We Know

by DragonPeakPublishing

While I'm not a DCC player (yet, I want to rectify this at some point) I have a soft and squishy spot for Lord Dunsany. Elfland is a setting size detailing the titular environ made famous by Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter and later a DCC module The Queen of Elfland's Son. Basically, six adventuring locations also written in a way to service the solo player.

Runecairn Bestiary

by By Odin's Beard RPG

Another Itchfunder and this time for a bestiary for the wildly popular Runecairn, which I finally picked up at Dragonmeet. The art by Kim Diaz Holm in this look incredible, holy moly! It's 100 new monsters for the game, with conversion rules and ways to create your own wee beasties.


by Rémi Töötätä

My last pick is a cosy little number called Souvenirs, part of the Tiny Keepsake Jam. Lookhow adorable this is! I love the art and of course I love a pamphlet. It has a similar theme to Magpie by Moonlight but here you're going on a week long holiday and bringing back nice trinkets, including gifts for your friends. I'd definitely play this with a mug of coffee and some lo-fi hip hop on in the background.