RPG Confessions: Experience points (XP)

So. I don’t care about XP. Just… at all.

Some folks express concern about getting XP at an appropriate rate. And look, I get it. Whatever system you play, there are probably rules about how to get XP and how to turn that XP into a level-up for new skills or spells or whatever. Because that’s part of the game. And you like that. I hear you. I do. I just don’t share that feeling. It’s a fundamental disconnect for me.

Here is why XP does not interest me as a designer, or as a GM.

How I see it

When I think about fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror, I think about books and movies first, and then games next. I think about Conan and Ripley, Elric and John Carter, Perseus and Bilbo, Han Solo and Indiana Jones… And they don’t ever “level-up”.

Perseus getting his godly gear on

They definitely make all sorts of allies, and get magic swords and rings, flame-throwers and power armor, Wookies and cats… but they don’t suddenly awaken to new skills or powers during their adventures.

(I realize that in some newer media, the characters absolutely do suddenly awaken to new skills and powers in the middle of their stories. But I didn’t grow up on those.)

As a player, I have very little interest in leveling up. I want to find dope weapons and gear that I discovered and earned. I don’t want a skill bump just because I killed 37 goblins. I want the goblin king’s axe! And his crown! And that funky belt he’s wearing. And his pet wolf! And maybe his boots, what size is he?

This difference in expectations is partly cultural (in both time and space), and partly idiosyncratic.

But what about…?

Yes, of course I level-up my players’ PCs in my campaigns. But I use various other systems that don’t require me (or the players) to do any extra bookkeeping. I’ve used different methods in different situations, like:

  1. Level up at the end of every session. (A less serious method to just keep things moving along.)
  2. Level up gradually. (One session at level 1, two sessions at level 2, three sessions at level 3, etc., which tends to be what you get anyway when you actually do all the math.)
  3. Level up by milestones (after completing a significant quest, feels reasonable and appropriate).

Although frankly, I’d be content to play an entire campaign at one level and just have the PCs grow stronger through their gear and achievements. But that’s just me, so…

I don’t care about XP.

Do you?

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RPG Confessions: Too much loot

So. I don’t believe an adventure can have too much treasure in it.

Some folks express concern when an adventure has too many treasures in it. Specifically, too many magic items. Perhaps they see the loot in each dungeon room, or the list at the back of the adventure, and worry that their players are going to become too wealthy or too powerful.

Here is why a ton of loot does not worry me as a designer, or as a GM.

How I see it

There are plenty of reasons why “too much loot” is not a problem at the table.

(1) They never find it. Let’s say your players enter a room and you describe three pieces of furniture. They search two of them, find nothing, get bored, and leave the room. Or they roll badly. Or they get distracted with planning their next move. Or you describe a vicious dog digging in the corner, and they focus on the dog and not what’s buried in the corner. So for any number of reasons, your players may simply not find the loot. This happens all the time.

(2) They never identify it. Let’s say your players find the glowing orb in the hidden drawer. Cool! But none of them have a skill or spell to identify the orb, and they’re not willing to risk experimenting with it. So they put in their backpack and hope to get it identified later. (After the dungeon. Even though it has a cool use that you planned for this dungeon!) And they might just forget they have it entirely. This happens all the time.

(3) They never use it. Let’s say your players find the bone wand, and they identify that it can mind-control any single creature, once a day, for one minute. Cool! But now they can’t decide when to use it. The alert guard? The scheming magician? The angry ghost? And then they make it to the end of the dungeon without using it, and they all shrug and laugh over their indecision about the wand. Oh well! This happens all the time.

(4) They lose it. Let’s say your players find the blessed dagger, and they identify its powers and rules, and they plan to use it when they catch the villain… But then they find a weird stranger, or a magic fountain, or an eldritch altar, and they decide to sacrifice the blessed dagger in exchange for something else of value. This happens all the time.

But what about…?

Even if your players are good about finding, identifying, and using their treasures, it is still well within the GM’s powers to keep things under control. You can remove the item from the dungeon, or you can nerf its powers, or limit its uses, or give the PCs a reason to give up the item, or have someone steal it. The GM has unlimited power, so…

I don’t believe in too much loot.

Do you?

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Reavers and Rogues: New cover art

Check it out now: Reavers and Rogues on DriveThruRPG

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RPG Confessions: Over-powered treasure

So. I don’t believe in over-powered, “game-breaking” treasure. There is no such thing.

Some folks express concern when an adventure has certain types of magic items. For example, magic armor that makes the wearer immune to fire… at Level 1.

Here is why this type of item does not worry me as a designer, or as a GM.

How I see it

Let’s say you’re the GM and one of your Level 1 PCs gets their grubby little mitts on an ancient bronze breastplate that makes them immune to all fire-type damage. They will never be burned again at all! Well, here are ten extremely mundane things that can still hurt them:

  1. A rabid dog.
  2. A kicking horse.
  3. A dagger in the eye.
  4. An arrow in the neck.
  5. A diseased rat or mosquito.
  6. A falling tree branch or boulder.
  7. Being strangled with piano wire.
  8. Being held underwater in a bathtub.
  9. Tripping and falling down the stairs.
  10. Getting smashed in the face with a chair at the tavern.

And all of these things are much more likely to happen in my games than having a dragon snort flamey red stuff on you.

But what about…?

Even when you do run up against that red dragon, so what? One member of the party is immune to the breath attack, but everyone else is still in mortal danger. And the one immune PC is still plenty vulnerable to the bite, and the claws, and the tail, and the wing-blast, and the lair effects, and all the spells your dragon can cast. So… I don’t see a problem.

But what if every member of the party has a “powerful” magic item? Well, I’m the GM, so it’s up to me whether they’re all immune to different things, or they’re all immune to the same thing, and then I get to decide what type of dragon shows up, so… I don’t see a problem.

And this applies to everything, from weapons to wands to pets to whatever. Who cares if a PC can do something special? Teleport, time travel, shape-shift, mind control? The GM controls the entire game world, and the GM knows what the PCs can do. The GM has unlimited power. So…

I don’t believe in over-powered treasure.

Do you?

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Dungeon Age Bundle of Holding!

UPDATE: This event has ended.

The good folks at Bundle of Holding are currently offering ten (10) adventures from Dungeon Age for just $14.95 (that’s 75% off the regular price if you bought them individually).

The bundle includes ALL of these adventures:

  1. Acid Metal Howl
  2. Battle of Carrion Vale
  3. Desert Angel Fiasco
  4. Kraken Corpse Delve
  5. Obsidian Keep
  6. Orbital Vampire Tower
  7. Ragged Hollow Nightmare
  8. Star Dragon Rage
  9. Witches of Frostwyck
  10. 13 Weird One-Shots

There is only one (1) day left before this offer expires, so check it out now!

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New solo RPG: Reavers and Rogues!

Hey, remember that solo game I was playtesting over and over? Well, it’s here!

In Reavers and Rogues, you become a classic sword-and-sorcery pulp adventurer. This solo game allows you to create a unique character and play out the story beats of a gritty fantasy adventure in the style of Conan the Cimmerian, Elric of Melnibone, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Reavers and Rogues is easy to learn and quick to play. The guide walks you through the Scenes of your story, giving you options to choose from, and helping you to interpret your dice rolls. Using random tables, you will create exciting encounters with strange people and creatures in bizarre and dangerous locations. And the combination of tables, dice, and your choices ensures that every adventure is unique and unpredictable.

Play time is 30-60 minutes. All you need is a pencil and two 6-sided dice.

Seriously guys, this game hums. I just played it two more times right before I hit the big scary PUBLISH button, and I had two wildly different adventures that were genuinely fun, and tense, and surprising. I’m really proud of this little game. I truly hope you all really enjoy it. I can’t wait to hear about all your pulpy adventures!

Get Reavers and Rogues on DriveThruRPG for just $3 right now!

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New novella: Lawless Rogues

I still write stories! Lawless Rogues (Amazon | DriveThruFiction) is a novella containing six short stories about, well, you’ll see below the cover…

The ancient world of Harth withers beneath a dying sun…but it’s not dead yet. In the foul streets of Carcassay, all manners of merchants and thieves, mercenaries and assassins, magicians and alchemists, clerics and zealots, and tomb raiders carry on the business of the day. This novella features six tales about two of the more fascinating rogues stirring up a bit of chaos in the City of the Rat.

Bazil Mink, a weary occultist from a brutal theocracy, carries hundreds of magical trinkets that he has purchased, found, or stolen all over the world. With these strange and dangerous items, he does whatever odd jobs he can find to pay the bills.

Sarajel Solongo, a skilled assassin from a decadent queendom, enjoys the arts as much as killing her targets and manipulating global politics. She too uses bizarre magical tools and weapons, some taken from her own body, to serve her Domina.

Journey to a world inspired by the stunning works of Jack Vance, nestled between the borders of Tolkien’s high fantasy, Howard’s and Moorcock’s sword and sorcery, and Lovecraft’s eldritch horror. A world of scheming dragons that burst from the ground, mad vampires who fall from the stars, and lost civilizations buried under the corpses of titans.

Lawless Rogues on Amazon

Lawless Rogues on DriveThruFiction

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Solo RPG Playtest #98-100

Seriously, there have been so, so many playtests. But I think we’re there.

#98 – Enfys

Meet Enfys, a herder trained by a hunter, armed with an axe! In the tavern she heard of the Lapis Scarab, and strode out unchallenged to seek it. In the market she found invigorating spices for her food, but failed to hire an Ally.

While crossing a vineyard outside the city, she ran into an outcast prince, drunk on stolen wine. It was easy for her to persuade him to join her quest. But soon they were clambering over a jagged rust dump and spotted a swarm of diseased rats. Enfys called on the spirits to help her evade the vermin, and a kindly ghost of an elderly woman guided them to safety, and then whispered a helpful secret to Enfys.

High in the mountains, Enfys and the prince found a powerful gladiator making an unholy sacrifice at a blood-red altar. Enfys persuaded the gladiator to read the entrails of his sacrifice as a sign to join her quest. But as they descended the mountains through a rocky ravine, a swarm of frost mosquitoes began to whine as a deadly rime covered the sharp rocks. Enfys called upon the spirits to help her, using the secret knowledge provided by the first ghost, to summon a gentle wraith to lead them past the swarm. The wraith also whispered a second secret to Enfys.

Arriving at the Dark Tower, Enfys and her companions found an icy gate guarded by a bronze skeleton. They tried to evade the sentinel with the help of a spirit, only for the ghost to vanish and leave them slashed and bleeding on the ice. Once inside the Dark Tower, Enfys spied the crimson moon princess in a high turret. Using the secret whispered by the wraith, she found her way to a safe room, where she rested and healed.

Then Enfys, the prince, and the gladiator confronted the Villain of the tower, an elderly assassin armed with deadly razor wires. But working as a team, the three adventurers rushed in and struck down the assassin without taking a single wound. They claimed the Lapis Scarab and returned home with their valuable Prize!

Notes: When you roll high, things are pretty easy. But this was a fun game! I was not expected to get so much ghost-guidance, but that sort of gave the adventure a ghostly theme, which I really liked. Didn’t get any Loot, and didn’t lose any Allies. Not bad.

#99 – Raven

Meet Raven, an artisan trained by a thief, an expert with knives! At the tavern he learned of the Yellow Book of Light and Shadow, and sauntered out into the night with a few drunk friends. At the market, Raven bought some invigorating spices and hired a mercenary to help him.

Outside the city, Raven rested at an old hunter’s cabin, only to find a swashbuckling bandit already squatting there. But Raven persuaded the bandit to join him. The next day they crossed an abandoned temple graveyard and were attacked by a bounty hunter looking for the bandit! Raven called upon the spirits to help them evade capture, and a grim earth elemental rose from the graves to carry them to safety, where they found some fresh berries to pick.

High on a windswept ridge, Raven came upon a priest praying to a giant obsidian pillar. Raven asked the spirits to help him evade the holy man, and a ghost of an ancient sacrificial victim guided them to safety and whispered a helpful secret to Raven. Soon after, they came upon a huge bronze statue of a warrior nun, and a giant onyx scorpion emerged to patrol the area. Raven used the victim’s secret to summon a rock elemental to carry them to safety, but the scorpion leapt upon them and tore the bandit apart with its claws. Ashamed for having failed to protect them, the elemental bestowed upon Raven an Iron Dagger.

Raven and his mercenary then found the Dark Tower and discovered its secret wooden door guarded by a water elemental hiding in a wide shimmering puddle. With the merc’s help, Raven persuaded the elemental to join their quest and defeat the master of the tower. Inside the foul musty cells of the tower, the water elemental pointed out a mutated crab-cursed youth patrolling the area. The water elemental swept Raven and the merc to safety, and they discovered a bone amulet in an empty cell.

In the throne room, Raven and his companions confronted the master of the tower, the fearsome crab shaman! A terrible battle ensued. Raven hurled his knives to deadly effect, but the crab shaman exploded the water elemental using sea magic, and ripped the brave mercenary’s heart out with a dripping claw. But just as Raven seemed poised to win the battle, the shaman resurrected the mercenary as a crab-cursed mutant to slash, stab, and batter our hero until he lay dead in the briny remains of the water elemental… only to rise moments later as yet another crab-cursed minion!

Notes: This game was amazing! All of the characters kept lining up in great ways. The bounty hunter with the bandit, the water elemental with the crab youth and the crab shaman. The story just leapt to life. And the final battle was really epic! I’m so, so happy with this!

#100 – Aeryn

Meet Aeryn, a farmer trained by a soldier, carrying an old sword. At the tavern she learned of the Silver Scimitar of the Raging Flame, and slipped out the back to start her quest. At the market, she strong-armed her way into some powerful spices and a beefy mercenary.

Outside the city, they had to cross an old barge canal. But a dripping blue ghost haunted the algae-covered waters. Aeryn summoned a river elemental to create a bridge of water for them to cross, and the elemental tossed them an old iron dagger from the bottom of the canal.

Far out on the open plains, they approached an ancient tower of steel and rainbow glass. They could see a small army of soldiers exploring the upper levels. A single soldier slept in its entrance. To prevent the guard from raising the alarm, Aeryn and her henchman attacked the lone warrior and quickly defeated him. From his corpse, they took another iron dagger identical to the one they received at the canal.

Hurrying to the Dark Tower, Aeryn found the stone walls guarded by a pale elephant. Unwilling to risk battle, she and her merc summoned the ghost of the elephant’s dead caretaker to guide them past the beast and over the wall. The dead man whispered a lucky secret in Aeryn’s ear.

In the tower, they explored the cobwebbed workrooms and discovered the Black Widow Maiden. Aeryn tried to convince the monstrous woman to join her, but the Maiden became enraged and attacked! The Maiden sank her venomous fangs into the poor mercenary and choked him to death with her webbing.

Aeryn buried both of her iron daggers in the spider-woman, and then demanded her surrender. And she did! The Maiden agreed to serve Aeryn in exchange for her life. Then they proceeded down into the cellars of the tower, where Aeryn spied a strange jade knight. And with the Maiden’s help she avoided the knight while stealing his iron shield.

In the throne room, Aeryn and the Maiden ambushed the shrieking ghost lord who ruled the tower. The ghost’s devastating screams shattered the iron shield, and the Black Widow Maiden’s head exploded across the walls. Aeryn felt her organs starting to rupture as the blood ran from her eyes and ears. But then she struck the ghost with a demonic scream of her own and the ghost fell back into oblivion.

Aeryn found a scimitar hanging above the throne. But she knew from the dead elephant caretaker that the true Silver Scimitar was hidden by a tapestry, which she found! She carried it back to the City, where she learned the scimitar was possessed by a fire elemental. Huzzah!

Notes: I deliberately tried to skew this adventure with unlikely stats. I also skipped as many encounters as possible… and it was still a blast to play! No more notes, no more tests. It’s time to publish this thing. As soon as I create some art for it. And do the layout. You know. Stuff.

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Solo RPG Playtest #9-10

We are getting very close to a finished product here folks!

#9 Valient Vieno

Meet Vieno, a farmer trained by a traveling musician, afflicted by a fatal illness. He heard tell of the White Book of the Gently Healing Hand, which could save his life, so he set out to find it. Unfortunately, he was not able to get decent rations or find any Allies to join him.

Leaving the city, he passed the royal tombs where a swarm of diseased rats surrounded him. Vieno played his flute to charm the rats [parley], and they agreed to join him [recruit]! He then cross the temple grave yard and encountered a gray ghoul. The rats helped him converse with the dead man [parley], who revealed a secret that would help on his quest [bonus].

Vieno took a small ferry boat across a river and encountered a mindless fungus zombie, which he defeated easily with his axe [combat]. Then he harvested some healing herbs [plunder]. Soon after he had to cross a fragile rope bridge guarded by a tall muscular soldier. Vieno tried to sneak by the soldier with the help of his rats [avoid], but the rats tumbled into the ravine and Vieno was wounded. He then took a night to rest and recover.

Alone, Vieno found the bronze gates of the dark tower, guarded by a trained leopard. He played his flute and charmed the leopard [parley], who let him pass and told him a secret that would help him on his quest [bonus]. In the dungeon cells of the dark tower, Vieno stumbled upon a giant vulture‘s nest. The vulture was easily swayed to join Vieno’s cause [parley], hoping for its freedom from the cruel master of the tower [recruit].

Just moments later, Vieno bumped into the bewitched silver princess armed with a dream dagger. He tried to speak to her [parley], but the evil enchantment on her was too powerful, and a deadly battle began [combat]. With the vulture’s help, Vieno used the secret whispered by the leopard to defeat the princess [bonus]. And with the enchantment broken, she agreed to help Vieno as well [recruit]!

Finally, Vieno and the princess and the vulture confronted the master of the tower, a hovering psychic squid! The battle was swift and vicious [combat], and Vieno took a few wounds. But with his powerful allies he made short work of the Villain and found the White Book. Vieno and the princess flew back to the city on the vulture, where he found the book was genuine and used its magic to cure his fatal illness. Huzzah!

Notes: No notes. This was fun and smooth.

#10 Cursed Angel

Meet Angel, a merchant trained by a priest. At the tavern she learned of the Steel Rat of Trap Sniffing and Tripping. Might useful for someone dealing with a gambling debt! She tried to leave the tavern, but a drunk punched her in the face [combat]. She slipped into the shadows and rigged a snare [regroup], which caught the drunk. And then the drunk agreed to join her [recruit]! She also found a Lawful ring in a crack in the floor [plunder]. Then she hired a guide and they set out.

At the old dam, they ran into an escaped prisoner. Once again, Angel convinced the foe to join her party [recruit]. Then they spent the night in a yurt camp of pilgrims, but a galvanic drake attacked the camp with blasts of lightning! Somehow, with the aid of her friends, Angel persuaded the drake to leave the camp in peace [parley]. Perhaps she convinced the monster that they were all sickly and no good to eat?

The party (Angel, the guide, the drunk, and the prisoner) arrived at the living flesh drawbridge above a chasm of bloody spears, which led to the dark tower. A shadow elemental guarded the crossing, but Angel persuaded the creature to stand aside and let them pass [parley].

In the echoing halls of the tower, Angel found an ensorcelled knight. She used her Lawful ring to free the knight of the spell, and he whispered to her a secret about the master of the tower before he fled for his life [parley]. High in the turrets of the tower, Angel met the black widow maiden, whom she convinced to join her party, though this scared away the hired guide [parley].

Back down in the halls, they woke the Beast that slumbered in the pit. A huge white wolf burst through the floor and proceeded to hunt them by running on the walls! Angel tried to sneak past it, but the Beast sniffed her out [avoid]. They fought the wolf to death’s door, and the Beast agreed to serve Angel [recruit]! And she pulled a Chaos ring from the wolf’s fang [plunder]!

Finally they found the master of the dark tower, an undying saint armed with a soul-stealing sword! A terrific battle broke out [combat]. The party slashed away at the saint, but one by one it cut them down. First the escaped prisoner fell, then the white wolf, and finally the black widow maiden. Angel used her secret knowledge and her Chaos ring, and finally dealt the killing blow. Victory!

Utterly alone, Angel returned to the city, only to find her treasured steel rat was a cursed trinket that doomed her to lose every time she played at dice. Cruel fate!

Notes: I think we’ve got a winner here, folks. Time to work on some artwork!

Question for you… how is this game sounding now? Interested? Anything bothering you, off the top of your head?

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Solo RPG Playtest #7-8

I added in a mechanic to negotiate with a foe (and possibly recruit them) and to sneak past a foe to avoid any confrontation.

#7 Victorious Vanja

Meet Vanja, a farmer trained by a beggar, equipped with old knives and a lot of Luck. She heard a rumor about the Emerald Dagger of Vile Venom, and had to fend off a rabid dog to escape the tavern. Then she geared up and headed out.

At a crumbling aqueduct, she was accosted by a blind bandit. She convinced him to let her pass, but he needed to prove to his boss that he was doing his job, so she let him stab her a little to bloody his knife.

At a holy shrine, she found four diseased sailors praying for healing. She tried to be friendly, but in their sea-madness they attacked her! Vanja called out to the saint of the shrine to help her, and a ghostly sea captain appeared to help her subdue the sickly sailors. She took a well-made cloak from one of them and carried on.

She arrived at the hidden stone door of the Villain’s tower, which was guarded by a black unicorn. Hoping to gain its help, she spoke to it. It agreed to show her the secret door, but only if she gave up her new cloak so it could clean its hooves.

Inside the tower, Vanja found a winged albino lion prowling the cellars. She begged the lion for help, and the winged beast agreed to be her mount! Then Vanja confronted the decrepit lich that ruled the tower and possessed the Emerald Dagger. Her initial ambush failed, and the lich’s plague magic wounded her and destroyed her rations. But with the lion’s help, Vanja called upon the power of an earth elemental to thrash the lich, and then she set a series of traps to snare and impale the lich to death. Victory!

She returned to the city, where she found that the Emerald Dagger was genuine and enchanted. A priceless magical relic! (Vanja is the first adventurer to get this Best Ending.)

Notes: The mechanics to negotiate and recruit foes seem to work well. The fail-state for both is to enter combat. If you want to fight everything, you can. But you also have these alternatives. I also created more options for Plunder (2d6), which seems right for this little game. We’re still at about 15 pages.

#8 Fortunate Fiore

Meet Fiore, a fisher trained by a hunter, good with a spear. He heard a song about the Bronze Spear of Blinding Thunderbolts, knocked out a guard, and set off for adventure with a hired mercenary.

While crossing a foul trash knoll outside the city, Fiore encountered an occultist digging for trinkets. Fiore convinced the occultist to join his expedition as a high level ally [+2]!

As they crossed the burning sand dunes, they met five starving sailors who were wrecked on a nearby shore. Fiore tried to parley with them, but they were desperate for rations and attacked. Fiore defeated them, but lost his hired mercenary in the battle. But he did find a Chaos ring on one of them!

At the dark tower, Fiore and the occultist climbed a rotting bone stair guarded by a living marble statue. The occultist helped Fiore convince the statue to let them go inside, and the statue revealed a secret about the villain’s servants. In the dim passageways of the tower, they found the villain’s thrall, a swift-moving demon sorcerer, but using the statue’s secret information about the thrall’s habits and movements, they avoided a confrontation.

Then Fiore and the occultist confronted the villain, the Ruby-Eyed King armed with a deadly maul. The battle began poorly, costing Fiore several wounds (and a lost camel), but then he summoned the ghost of his grandfather to deal a devastating blow. And with the occultist’s help (and the Chaos ring), he slew the king and found the fabled Spear of Thunderbolts. They returned home and learned that the spear had no power, but was worth a month’s wages. Huzzah!

Notes: This was a great game! Being able to recruit foes as allies, sneaking past confrontations, having dynamic weird battles. Aces! I’m going to get rid of the mounts (bye bye, camels and gilasaurs) and just have allies. But otherwise, I think this game is super close to complete.

Question for you – As someone reading these playtests, is this sounding like a fun game? It’s basically a sword-and-sorcery version of Solitaire. It takes about 30 minutes to play. You probably have a better-than-average chance of winning each game, but the chance to lose (die) is very real. And I find it fun to roll the dice and then imagine how the results would manifest in a written short story (or movie!).

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