Salvage Union: a short playtest review

This weekend, I got some the Dublin West Marches crew got together to play the beta test kit for Leyline Press’ Salvage Union. We had a lot of fun exploring the rad desert, fighting off outlaws, and salvaging lost tech from the wasteland

Salvage wut?

Salvage Union is a rules-somewhat-lite tabletop roleplaying game funded on Kickstarter at the end of last year. I was lucky enough to get a backer-only print copy of the Beta Quickstart book at Dragonmeet in December. You can get the PDF for free on Leyline Press’ website.

The cover of the Beta Quickstart Guide for SALVAGE UNION by Leyline Press.
I love the weathered look of this book!

In Salvage Union, players take on the roles of mech pilots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Living in the relative safety of a Union Crawler (a mobile settlement) they venture out to salvage tech from ruins, downed spaceships, and forgotten science complexes. Of course, there are many dangers out in the wastes: radioactive storms, outlaw mechs, possibly alien beasts, and corpo forces — because not all survivors are eking out a living in the wastelands, some are privileged enough to inhabit one of the many competing arcologies dotting the map. Basically, it’s Mad Mechs.

The quickstart gives you six illustrated characters and their mechs, as well as complete rules for running adventures, including salvaging and building more modules and systems for your mechs. The system is based on Quest with a few additions, such as a push mechanic that lets you reroll if you’re willing to add to a pilot’s Stress or to their mech’s Heat.

Running the game

The game explains the dice aren’t used to test someone’s competence, it is about luck and serendipity when things get hot. Characters are competent, so when they need to do something they’re fully capable of doing, they just do it. Everyone enjoyed the resolution mechanic, based on this unique table — no modificators, no advantage or disadvantage.

The resolution table for Salvage Union, derived from the Quest RPG.

20 Nailed it - You have overcome the odds and managed an outstanding 
success. You may achieve an additional bonus of your choice to the action.  When dealing damage you double it.

11-19 Success - You’ve achieved your goal without any compromises. When attacking you hit the target and deal standard damage.

6-10 Tough Choice - You succeed in your action but at a cost. The Mediator will give you a tough choice with some kind of consequence. When attacking you hit but something has gone wrong.

2-5 Failure - You’ve failed at what you were attempting, and you’ll face a consequence of The Mediator’s choice. When attacking you miss the

1 Cascade Failure - You have not only failed, but something has gone 
terribly wrong. You will suffer a severe consequence of the Mediator’s choice. When attacking you miss the target and something has gone
Just roll a d20! The equivalent table for NPCs lets player decide of consequences.

I appreciate this simplicity. It is actually something I am playing with at the moment in one of my projects. You don’t alter the roll according to circumstances; you take them into account when describing the results and consequences. No maths, no headache.

I haven’t read or played Quest, so I can’t say if the more old school part of the system comes from it, but I definitely appreciate the use of random encounter tables, as well as tables for reaction and morale. They help make the world feel alive, and bring some surprises to the GM as well.

I added a list of Dungeon World style bonds for players to choose from so we could start the one-shot with relationships already established. I want to think this kickstarted the group’s roleplay over the radio as they were crossing a dangerous patch of rad desert but in retrospect, these folks are great at back and forth banter.

The Downing of the Atychos

We played about half of the provided adventure The Downing of the Atychos. It is a simple seek & salvage mission, complicated by the fact that the target, a corp transport that somehow went down and crashed in the ruins of a city, is valuable enough to attract a lot of attention.

Our salvagers were efficient, doing their best not to waste too much time and disregarding possible time wasters. They ran into some outlaws, which was an opportunity to try out the combat rules — well, to try combat cause combat doesn’t use any extra mechanics save distance — in a low risk environment. It was fast and cinematic: lasers overheated, pilots messed up, metal was torn to shreds. Exactly my style of combat.

Stat block for a Heavy Mech (NPC) with a silouhette. 
Structure Points 9
Systems: Large phase array laser (range long : damage 4SP), Heavy locomotion system, Escape hatch
Modules: Comms module
The stats for an NPC mech – petty straightforward

I don’t want to spoil the adventure, so I’ll just say we had some more exploration and salvage, some interaction with NPCs, and another fast-paced combat with tougher opponents. The mechs are now fully loaded with salvage, but they agreed to keep looking for more valuable tech. We hope to conclude the game this weekend (and in person if all goes well!).

Final Thoughts

Salvage Union is fun! It has an engaging, easy to get in premise that the players and I could definitely appropriate, rules we already master, and plenty of toys to play with. I recommend checking it out when it’s released.

Riding the con high from Trolls & Légendes

I am back from Trolls & Légendes. I had a blast. It was so nice to meet so many people, many of them I consider friends, who I hadn’t seen in at least three years. Inexplicably, I do not feel drained from the constant socialising, consecutive late nights, and precious little alone time. I am riding the high and I feel energised, ready to take on all the work that’s been behind schedule for months now. If this is how extraverts feel like, I should definitely eat one to steal their powers.

I don’t have time to recount the whole thing, plus I was so underslept during the whole trip that I would probably get the details right. I won’t namedrop much either. Many publishers come to Trolls & Légendes and many of the guests are famous in our circles, so it’d look like someone’s autograph book. I did my best to get dinosaurs like François Marcela-Froideval (it’s ok, he knows I call him that sometimes 😉 to write for KNOCK! or legends like Paul Bonner to draw something for us, and though no hands were shaken, I’ll do my best to gently nag them in the coming months. I had no stock with me to sell, but I showed off KNOCK! to everyone with eyes, and I even got to sign a couple of copies of MM Noisette to the people who’d brought their PoD copies with them.

A frogperson in scale armour holding a coffee cup and a dagger says "Marco, wait before you trigger the trap, I'm finishing this macchiato"
My glasses went AWOL for the whole con, so I’m pretty happy how these turned out.

Having had COVID three weeks prior and feeling the fatigue still, I hadn’t scheduled any games, thinking I’d take a free spot should I feel up to it on the day, but between malfunctioning A/C and plain old staying up past 3am, I showed up both mornings pretty shattered. Fortunately, Thomas at the RPG tables booth accepted to pencil me in when people who’d played Macchiato Monsters with me in 2019 asked if I was running it again this year. The game was on the last slot of the con (4-7 on Sunday) and I doubted my ability to run in a space that sounds (and looks) like a plane hangar full of drunk goblins. Trolls & Légendes, more like Goblins & Breweries.

Players negotiate the best way to cross a river where a hungry crocodile awaits

So I made it as easy for myself as I could: we relocated to a patch of grass between the tents of market vendors and LARPing companies (much quieter despite a few horns and drums sounding off now and then) ; I elected to run Valley of the Desert Hound from KNOCK! 3 which was fresh enough in my mind; I used a simple, top off my head system: I wanted to playtest the core principles of Dwarfs, Elfs, Haubitz, (new project — more on it later) but ended up reverting to something like 2d6 FKR; for character creation, I asked the players to come up with classes, races, traits, etc. but gave them the Sean and Deanna Poppe paper minis from KNOCK! 2 to choose from and use as inspiration. Exploring the valley was a good time for everyone and we would even have reached a satisfying conclusion had the security people given us 10 minutes to wrap up when the closing time bell rang. Ah well, better to stop before finding out whether it’s going towards a flawless victory or a TPK…

A dwindling crowd of friends on Sunday night

But of course, the best times were had back at the hotel after dinner, where a lot of us stayed up late to sample the various alcoholic drinks we always bring with us, while nerding out about everything nerdy. I’m smiling just thinking about it. On the Saturday, I also got to tell everyone who didn’t already know I had turned 50 that day and that I was delighted to have spent it in their company at Trolls & Légendes.

Finally, I didn’t have the required energy to attend any of the gigs. I didn’t stay for Trolls & Légendes regulars Corvus Corax (who schedules a gig at 11:30, Trolls & Légendes?) but I nipped in to listen to The Sidh, and I am glad I did. Here’s a sample I took:

Italian Celtic folk/world electro people, you are on your way filling the void Garmarna left in my heart

Now that I know that conventions won’t kill quinquagenarian, post-COVID me, I may show up to more of them. At least I’ll investigate going to Octogônes in Lyon in October. And who knows, maybe Gary Con next year?

The cover of my Storm Kingdoms wip docupent

Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

Apologies for the big words. But you know, I have to get some traffic to my neglected blog. By diegetic mechanics, I mean those mechanics pertaining to the collaborative fiction. Or simply, in-world. So how can mechanics be in the world if they are rules, you ask? Let me start with context and an example.

These last few months, I’ve been running a (yet unpublished) game I call Adventures in the Storm Kingdoms. It is my homage to the old Stormbringer game from seminal publisher Chaosium by way of experimentations in the Free Kriegspiel Revolution design space. I may write later how the game came from a long unfulfilled desire to retroclone Stormbringer 1st Edition, and how it surprised me and became an engine for Moorcockian multiversal heroic fantasy in a literary mode instead. The minimalistic game design work I’m doing on this game is teaching me how tabletop roleplaying games rules can come from the world, and why they don’t always need to be expressed in dice-and-numbers mechanics.

If you haven’t followed my link above about Free Kriegspiel, here is the tl;dr: players interact with the world as presented by a referee who adjudicates actions and applies whatever rules they feel necessary to simulate the world. Most FKR groups prefer simple rules and character sheets with few to no numbers on them, but neither of these is an obligation.

How an obfuscation spell made it all clear

It dawned on me last week, when one of my players wanted his character to call on a demon of Chaos to help escaping a haunted tower. James (the player) had previously defined the demon as The Mistress of the Hidden when Jo-Jo (the character) needed to turn invisible. We’d established that the price for the spell would be to hide something from someone in the future to please the demoness with some chaotic mischief. I could tell the whole story, and how it ended up retroactively explaining why another antihero couldn’t find his lantern (while the original reason was the item had disappeared from the virtual character sheet and we’d assumed it had been lost and we’d all forgotten about it), but the important part is: we collaboratively designed a set of magical rules that require neither numbers nor dice rolls.

Jo-Jo’s Mischievious Magic

When Jo-Jo calls upon the Mistress of the Hidden to misdirect or disappear, she must promise to repay the demon by causing mischief in the near future. The Mistress will state the price in advance (James and Eric can both suggest ideas, and they must agree on the price).
Jo-Jo doesn’t have to accept it, but no magic will take place is she won’t.
If Jo-Jo hasn’t paid the price for the last spell when she petitions the Mistress again, the demands escalate and the price becomes heavier and bloodier. The Mistress may refuse to work her magic, or even play a trick on the young sorcerer to teach her a lesson.

I am just writing this to illustrate my example, but this is more or less what I have in my mind — and as a half-decent FKR referee, I’ll explain the rule to the players when needed. I’ve also given titles to the demon, as the game requires to better define a spirit. She is the Mistress of the Hidden, Unnamed Duchess, First Spy of the Courts of Chaos, and lover of the Great Deceiver, Aronax the Black.

The List of Unpaid Prices

If the Mischievious Magic rules aren’t stated in the game (or even in my campaign notes), the situation prompted me to add one rule to AitSK: the List of Unpaid Prices. At any given time, the referee should keep in plain sight a list of what promised rewards and prices have been agreed upon by sorcerers and spirits. It functions as a reminder, but can also give inspiration to set up interesting situations and choices. I’m looking forward to see it work in play.

An icon of Arioch as a Melnibonéan youth with orange skin, a chaos star as a halo, and a bleeding heart in his right hand.The background shows black and white chtuloid chaos beasts with red eyes.
Arioch Icon by Tristan Alexander (used without permission)

RPG settings have tons of diegetic rules

If you have never stopped to consider the thought, look at how the worlds we play have many rules that don’t interact with the rules / system / mechanics. Wizards don’t have healing spells. Dragons fly despite physics. Megacorporations treat freelance street operatives like shit. These are all diegetic mechanics (or rules of the setting, if you like).

So my question is, why would any in-world rule have to be modelled by mechanics? Our magic rule doesn’t require any die rolls. It sure could have a bunch of them, with tables of modifiers and parameters and options, as detailed and headache inducing as you care to make them. It works just fine as is in our rules-lite context, but it would also work fine in Rolemaster.

So why do we play with all these dice pools and modifiers? Do we love late night arithmetics so much?

But rules make the world more real, Shirley?

People will argue that we need rules to simulate the world and/or genre we want to emulate.

Sure, you can give halberds a +1 Reach Factor, an extra Attack Die when grabbing at a mounted opponent’s plate armour pieces, and a better Penetration Quotient against quilted leather than it does have against chainmail. Oh, and don’t forget the rule for going under a halberdier’s guard and easily stab them with a shorter weapon!

You can also ask your players to trust you to take all these factors into consideration when they become relevant. You then are able to come up with rulings and/or odds of success that portray each given situation much better than any set of rules ever could, however detailed.

You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so maybe do some research on halberd combat, or use a table from Halberds & Helmets (okay I didn’t go and check how detailed Alex has made his weapon lists — probably not a lot, but you know what I mean). Or make your own list of science-fantasy weapons that explain what each of them are good for in plain language. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable adjudicating situations without slowing down the game to a crawl by looking up rules and modifiers every five minutes.

An ink sketch showing the Chaos lord Xiombarg in his female form, riding a skeleton headed bull demon
from a James Cawthorn sketchbook that I can’t seem to find online (sadface emoji)

More on the topic of diegetic mechanics

On this subject, I highly recommend a series of articles called Less Rules to Do More by Justin Hamilton of the Aboleth Overlords blog (I’ve actually asked him to riff of them in an article for KNOCK! #3). And for an example of how this could work, foremost OSR thinker Chris McDowall has recurring blog posts (and some modular games) about what he calls primordial gaming.

You can learn everything there is to know about Free Kriegspiel roleplaying by following the links in my Obliviax Oracle post.

DCC : minutes d’un module maudit

This is a rare blog post in French about the module I’m writing for the French edition of Dungeon Crawl Classics. Go pester Joseph if you’d like to explore the moon in English.

Non, le module DCC français n’est pas un sort d’illusion majeure. Il est réel, même s’il n’existe encore que partiellement dans ma tête et dans celle de Mika. On avait plein de temps, et puis la progression s’est avérée difficile cette année pour des raisons personnelles, organisationnelles et de santé. Sans parler de la fin du monde qui nous est tombée dessus.

En un mot, j’assume l’entière responsabilité de ce retard. N’hésitez pas à m’insulter dans les commentaires.

Je tiens quand même à rassurer les fans et les contributeurs : on avance, même si pas très vite. Laissez-moi déjà vous montrer la page titre que Mika nous a concoctée. Une partie des PNJ du scénario y est représentée.

A la conquête de l'astre nocturne
🎶​ Les sélénites sont les hôtes de cieux… ​🎶​

A la conquête de l’astre nocturne est un bac à sable qui se déroule sur la lune. Alors oui, les fans hardcore de Dungeon Crawl Classics savent que le monde d’Aereth a trois lunes. A condition toutefois que les joueurs aient joué Moon Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdoms parce que sinon, eh bien ça dépend des juges (MJ), et des modules que vous avez déjà joués, non ?

Vous imaginez bien que cette balade lunaire ne sera pas juste une cueillette de champignons (même s’il y en a). Le module a une forte composante catastrophico-temporelle. Disons juste qu’avoir plus d’une lune dans votre univers de campagne sera un plus si votre équipe se débrouille mal…

Pour le reste, on a essayé de rester dans la tradition du jeu. Un module DCC français se doit de faire référence à la fantasy pré-tolkienienne de notre beau pays hexagonal. En l’absence d’un appendice N francophone, j’ai pêché dans Méliès et Ayroles/Masbou, sans bien entendu oublier un certain Savinien II…

État des travaux

Mika a produit plus de la moitié des illustrations, y compris une couverture de toute beauté. Il aura fini bien avant moi, c’est sûr.

De mon côté, j’ai un synopsis et des plans griffonnés, ainsi que tous les lieux esquissés dans le texte. Toute la première partie est déjà écrite (25% du volume de texte). Le module comportera aussi un nouveau patron pour les personnages magiciens. Celui-ci reste à détailler mais je me connais, ça devrait pas me prendre bien longtemps d’écrire les sorts et les mutations que ça implique. J’ai déjà trop d’idées sur le thème de la ░▒░▓░░▒▒▓▒▓░ et du ▒▓▓░░▒░▒░.

Oups, on dirait que la censure cosmique m’empêche de trop en divulguer sur la ▒▓░▒░▓░░▒ du ▓░░▒▒▓. Désolé. Avec un peu de chance cette image ne sera pas trop pixelisée par les hackerbots de mon éditeur :

Une énorme feuille de papier avec les brouillons des cartes du module
Les cartes du module DCC VF seront bien plus jolies que les miennes !

Bref, ça avance, même si pas très vite. J’ai promis à Emmanuel d’Akiléos (donc l’éditeur de la VF Dungeon Crawl Classics , cet homme a la patience d’un saint !) de lui envoyer le premier jet début décembre.

Merci de votre patience. J’y retourne !

/ u n t i t l e d u p d a t e /

As you are obviously aware of, is back online.

It took me months to find the time to investigate how to put this site back up after I screwed up the SSL settings. One email to my hosting company to get the answer, and about half an hour of finding the right account and box to check later… it’s working.

You’d think at my age I’d have learned that the things I put off the longest are the most painless. Anyway. Have an Olivia to celebrate:

The 100 - Olivia shouts "We're back, bitches!"
The soon to be less than 100

I’m keeping the Desks & Dragons page up for now, but I’m going to use as a general professional site. I’ll write a couple pages for specific projects such as Macchiato Monsters when I have a minute.

See you soon!

Secrets of Shadoloo cover

Obliviax Oracle: my dive into FKR design

I could have explained what FKR design means in the title, but I wanted you to click through. And now if you dare leave before you’ve read the whole post, the Ancient Dread Curse of the Drained Device Battery will plague you and the children of your children. Sorry not sorry.

The cover of the Secrets of Shadoloo supplement for the Street Fighter storytelling games by White Wolf Studio
Reading further is the only way to know why I’m posting this pic

FKR stands for Free Kriegspiel Renaissance Revolution, a school of game design experimenting with the very roots of our hobby. Here is a couple links with attempts at definitions, in case this sounds like something you’d be interested in. If not, just assume that by FKR design, I mean super simple rules, tweaked and developed at the table.

I knew precious little myself about Free Kriegspiel games until I realised than my latest attempt at designing for short online sessions had fallen squarely in the FKR wheelhouse (thankfully no one in there was harmed). So I dived into blog posts and forum threads and Discord servers to hoover all the wisdom I could. I even proposed a segment about FKR design to Radio Rôliste (which we recorded a week ago) to have an excuse to do some more research.

Long intro short, I’ve been running two weekly games for about a month, and having an absolute blast. I really needed that freedom and creative mindset after running almost excusively 5E D&D for over a year.

Obliviax Oracle, the d20 to rule them all

Obliviax Oracle is how I call this two-page ruleset. My love of cheesy alliterations is only surpassed by my love of obscure Dungeons & Dragons monsters.

It is very simple. Let me quote the game text:

The referee describes situations; the players say how their characters react, asking for details as needed. When the referee is unsure of the consequences of a course of action, the table agrees on a question and a player rolls the d20 to get an answer from the table below. The referee interprets the result and describes the consequences. Traits, knowledge, items, favourable circumstances, etc. can add a bonus to the roll. 

That’s the whole of the game: a d20 table with a suggestion of what could happen for each entry. An oracle.

Click to read, or go see the whole game

The other page gives you rules you could have made up yourself — and I encourage you to do so! — for character creation (and death), as well as some random ideas to expand the ruleset as needed.

Because you certainly will need more rules, for chases, for magical duels, for divine intervention.

Make up the rules as you need them

Of course this all depends on the kind of game you’re running. One of mine is set in Andrew Kolb’s beautiful hexcrawl Neverland, so the exploration and encounters procedures are baked in (except maybe carousing but Jeff’s Gameblog has me covered).

All I had to do was to drop the characters in hex 01. Character creation was simplified to lower the barrier to entry for non gamers, but so far I haven’t had to come up with anything else yet.

The other game is World Warriors, a nostalgic look back at the Street Fighter Storytelling Game (ah, the 90s! do you reckon there is a place on Earth where White Wolf is still making weird license games?). For this one, I thought about character creation and combat, of course. And now, after about seven hours of play over three sessions, I have thoughts about written and unwritten rules, but that will probably be the subject of another post.

In the meantime, if you want to read what I’ve done with this game, I put everything I’m happy with in the Obliviax Oracle folder.

A hard fight is about to break out in a game of Dungeons & Dragons

Lunchtime D&D: fifth time’s the charm?

It sometimes feels like since I decided to start offering lunchtime D&D games in workplaces, I’ve spent most of my time designing rules.

And it’s probably true. I blame 2020 for some of this, but I also learned a lot along the way. The initial goal was simple: have a robust adventure game for beginners and veterans alike, using the funky dice and some of my favourite old school gameplay concepts.

As you’ll see below, it changed quite a bit over the last three years.

Granddaddy’s D&D: simple original rules

I started running for work friends using a simplified version of OD&D that I was basically ran off the top of my head. I quickly had to make an experience table and other bits (I kept a summary here). I also made pregenerated characters with some fun classes from the blogosphere.

The character sheet below is what I gave the players.

I still like this one very much, but I’m a nostalgic

But of course, hacking leads to hacking and pretty soon our lunchtime DD sessions used an entirely different system. (And the players had to transfer their characters onto new character sheets, and more than once!)

Lunchtime Dungeons: a game for lunchtime campaigns

After a dozen iterations or so, I ended up with a game I really liked for our lunchtime D&D games. It used the six attributes as skills, which are a ranked from d4 to d12, Savage Worlds style. It also had a wounds system where you chose to spend one or more hit dice to avoid lasting damage and d66 special abilities for each of its seven classes as well as d100 origins (most of these I have compiled in my d200 abilities post).

Lunchtime Dungeons worked really well for bi-weekly sessions with a core group, but I realised it was too much crunch for people who showed up once a month, or for the reticent or intimidated who I had convinced to try fantasy gaming just once. Also, in the context of a billable, professional service, what did I need rules for experience and evolution for a 3-session adventure?

And back to the drawing board I went!

Dungeonsnack: a game for short sessions

It didn’t take too long: I refined the principles of Lunchtime Dungeons, dropped most of the polyhedrals, keeping the d20 because it is so iconic, along with the d6.

Dungeonsnack has a d66 table merging origin/former occupation and equipment because after all, your starting equipment is your backstory (an idea that haunted Macchiato Monsters in an unformulated way). I had the idea of printing all 36 entries on character sheets (index cards, actually) so you could just draw one as the first step of the character creation process.

Five of the 36 character cards
Some of the 36 index cards I made as character sheets

Characters in Dungeonsnack have no classes. On top of their former occupation, they start with a random special ability, and they earn skills with levels. These are freeform, but they tie to an in-game event: when you level up, you ask the other players about one time you did something memorable, in a good or bad way. You select one anecdote and the table agrees on a skill.

There are plenty of things I like in Dungeonsnack, and I’ll probably release it as a sort of abandonware thing. At some point. Maybe.

Spell lists are the best lists

As much as I’m a fan of the sort of freeform magic you find in Whitehack (and my own dK System and Macchiato Monsters), I think spell lists are easier for beginners. Spells are tools you can use in many different ways. They are a resource to manage. They add a lot of flavour to a setting and to player characters.

While Lunchtime Dungeons used Lost Pages’ excellent Marvels & Malisons and Wonders & Wickedness spell books, I decided to come up with my own spell list for Dungeonsnack. To do this, I tried to rewrite the Basic/Expert spells (initial versions on this blog). It’s a collection of quirky spells, but I think they convey a weird Jack Vance atmosphere.

Tools for short sessions

Parallel to core rules design, I also worked on prep and pacing tools to make hour-long lunchtime D&D sessions easier to run.

Among the ones that actually worked, the SNAP procedure for sandbox events, which inspired the SNACK sheet you can see below. It’s a very straightforward way to pace a one-hour session and as such, it has been integrated into Dungeonsnack.

How Do I Play Oldest School D&D?

This is actually the game‘s title. I designed it in the spring, a quick stab at a 2d6 system that would let people bring any D&D-adjacent character to my Goblinburg games. When we all ended up in lockdown, there was no way I was asking non gamers to play on a virtual tabletop, or even with online dice rollers. Not with their kids hanging about asking if they could play too.

So 2d6 and one page of rules is all I wanted. Plus an online character creator using to save time. As an aside, I like that you can have your character on your phone, and roll dice on the screen if needed.

I ran HDIPOSD&D a handful of times, but no one brought their 15th level Sorcerer/Paladin, so I can’t attest to its capacity to seamlessly integrate characters of different editions and schools of design.

The Ogre Mage’s Oracle

This is the working title for a 1d20 system I’d like to try out soon. A 2d6 system is handy for pick up online play (who doesn’t have a couple of dice somewhere?) but let’s not kid ourselves, D&D and d20 are basically synonymous in people’s minds.

So wondering what could most streamlined 1d20 rules be, I came up with the idea of an oracle: you roll a d20 when unsure of what happens next, hoping to roll high. And the exact result gives the referee an indication of the consequences. Like so:

First draft, as screengrabbed from my notes. Don’t @ me.

If I can slap minimal character creation rules on top of this, including interesting equipment and fun spells, I think I may have made my own Ultimate Grail of Awesomeness for a very specific type of games.

More news soon.

One day we’ll be able to have picnic dungeon crawls again!

The Story of KNOCK! Magazine

This month, I’m helping run my first Kickstarter campaign ever.

Olivier made a kickass video for the Kickstarter campaign of KNOCK! magazine

We are crowdfunding the first issue of KNOCK! magazine, a publication we have exhaustively dubbed an Adventure Gaming Bric-a-Brac and a Compendium of Miscellanea for Old School RPGs. It’s a bazaar of the OSR if you like. Not a news periodical (who needs printed news for a niche hobby these days?) but a thick, colourful brick stock full of ideas you will want to keep close by for perusing, daydreaming, and prepping your next session.

Where did the idea come from? Well, it came from Urt, a village in the Basque mountains. That’s where the email I got came from, about two years ago.

I had met Olivier circa 2001 in Paris, in the offices of Hexagonal, when he was laying out their gaming magazine, d20. Soon after that, he came to write for the third party D&D line I was in charge of, Archipels. I really enjoyed his writing, which was very much in keeping with the heroic-meets-Vancian tone we’d established for the past couple years. It was obvious we’d had the same influences in our gaming youth.

Two of the books we worked together on

But back to winter 2018: Olivier had drifted off roleplaying games shortly after Archipels, and had only come back to them through the OSR blogosphere, a dozen years and a move from a barge on the Seine to a horse farm in the Pyrenees later. Having created a sustainable model with his English language wargaming magazine Battles, he had had an idea for another publication. I’ll quickly translate his initial pitch, because it feels like we stayed pretty close to it:

My OSR project is nothing revolutionary; to publish a revue, not a magazine [I don’t think there’s a straight translation of revue in English]. So no news or reviews, but a compendium of theory articles, thoughts about game systems, scenarios, play aids, random tables, bits of settings, etc.

Sure, all of this is already on the internet but I want to make something you can read old school, like sitting by the fire. It’ll be printed on nice paper, and it’ll take you several weeks to read, taking your time, bit by bit.

So we went to work. Olivier drowned me in links of blog posts he wanted to publish, and I started getting in touch with their authors, sending them mockups and contract terms. Also, I got an advance on my royalties immediately. Which this freelance designer immensely appreciated — it paid for Christmas that year.

And then, life happened. We got back in touch after a few months of silence, made some progress, and dropped the ball again when something more urgent came along. Our growing stable of authors and artists didn’t seem to mind the time the whole thing took.

I disagree with this: I have the longest beard, and he’s the horserider!

Every time we had a frenetic couple of weeks, I got a longer, crazier looking PDF to feed my motivation. And we got there, taking our time, bit by bit.

Now, with the help of our siblings in arms of the adventure gaming scene, KNOCK! Magazine issue one is becoming a reality!

(Dropping the website for our imprint here too: – this blog post will be posted there in the next couple of days.)

A goblin mamluk riding a tamed thoul, from Eric Nieudan's Goblinburg, art by Didier Balicevic

The goings on with Goblinburg (part 1)

When the situation started, I thought it was a great creative opportunity.

And it is: extra time to write and think about games, who wouldn’t love that? Answer: my brain. I’ve found it very difficult to use my brain to make stuff. I mean I read, I write, I’m interested in new things, it’s all fine really. But making is like pulling teeth from my skull.

My feed has been full of new releases. Games made during, and sometimes inspired by, this pandemic. I’m very happy to see that my fellow game designers are able to produce. (The bastards.) We need games of the imagination now more than ever.

A mutated nilbog of Stargaze borough, from Eric Nieudan's Goblinburg, art by Didier Balicevic
This nilnog looks like my brain feels most of the time

But anyway: Goblinburg

I have made Goblinburg my single creative project for this crazy period. But since I cannot make things easy for myself, Goblinburg is a multi-faceted project. We talked about Goblinburg with my co-conspirator Didier in this video if you want more details right now (and to see a lot more cool gobliny art), and I’ve also dropped some hints on Twitter.

You can also dig into the archives of this blog, as it has imported posts from an aborted Goblinburg project, like this one about the map. But you don’t have to, cause I’ll just try and sum it all up now:

Goblinburg is a D&D Zine

Goblinburg is a system agnostic setting for Dungeons & Dragons (and other fantasy games, really). It is designed and written to play as an adventure game, meaning as a sandbox, where players do whatever they like and the games master/DM/referee has all the tools to follow them — without scripting anything ahead.

Goblinburg will exist in zine form – or PDF – that you will be able to buy at some stage in 2020.

Goblinburg is an Online, Lunchtime Game

I never work as well as when under pressure. And Satan knows I need pressure to get anything done right now. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for weeks.

Goblinburg is also the setting of a public, open-table game I want to run at lunch time. I am doing this to promote Desks & Dragons, but also to show that short (one-hour) game sessions are beneficial to the mental health of everyone involved.

I’ve ran a few games with my usual pool of players out of the Fumbally Exchange here in Dublin, and I’m beginning to open it to new people, gamers and newbies alike. If you’d like to come explore Goblinburg with us, I’ll let you know how to get in touch soon.

This thoul rider is a huge improvement on the one I drew for James V. West’s Glorpy project

Goblinburg has… GOBLINS!

Did I say there would be goblins?

Goblinburg is full of goblins – goblins of all sorts, from this Earth and other fantasy worlds. If you’re not a goblin, chances are the burghers will categorise you as another type of goblin.

My old friend Didier Balicevic (I’m linking to Goodreads cause he’s kind of internet-shy) has sent me tons, and I mean tons of goblins. Some based off my writing, some inspired by it, some straight from his weirdo Dungeon Master brain.

More about Goblinburg Soon!

I managed to sort of organise my workload, so productivity should resume soon. I want to optimise the writing for short, engaging sessions where old dungeoncrawlers and neophytes can easily mix.

My priority right now is to design the tools the referee’s will need for these sessions. We’ll test these tools together, and then I’ll go back to writing a zine that you can use yourself.


My AirDnD Dungeon Master kit

Become an AirDnD Dungeon Master

I mean, I am a Dungeon Master on AirBnB Experiences*. AirDnD is not a real thing (but it should).

If you’re not aware of AirBnB Experiences, it is a part of the global lodging marketplace that puts visitors in touch with local hosts offering food tastings, hikes, workshops, you name it. Of course, there are a few weirdos around the world who designed Dungeons & Dragons experiences as a way to share their passion for the hobby, or to try and monetise their DMing expertise**.

How do we do it? Well I’ve been running games for strangers at conventions as long as I’ve been a professional designer, so it wasn’t a big leap. If you haven’t been running games at events for twenty plus years, let me tell you what to keep in mind of when setting up your own AirDnD experience:

The DM is in.
The DM is in…

7 Tips to Host a Great AirDnD Experience

1. Be accessible. Even if you describe your AirDnD game as “The Most Difficult Dungeon Crawl Ever Designed”, you never know how familiar with D&D your guests will be.

  • Have your explanations ready. Practice them on friends if you can.
  • Have cheat sheets to help players who aren’t familiar with the game mechanics.
  • The AirBnB interface lets you contact the guests in advance, use this feature to make sure everyone is on the same page when the session starts.

2. Be prepared. Does it bear mentioning that if you want to work as a professional Dungeon Master, you need to act like a pro DM. No looking up monster stats on your phone, no “hang on, I have to check this rule” or “what does this NPC want again?”. I don’t mean you need to be a machine; just make sure you have all the necessary information in one place before the session.

  • Make a folder or binder with your adventure, NPCs, monsters, handouts, EVERYTHING you think you might maybe need. And then some.
  • Pregenerated characters are a must! Unless character creation is part of your experience, or the game you’re playing includes character generation as part of its gameplay of course.
  • Use Ze Internetz. Whether you have your stuff saved on Roll20, DnDBeyond, Evernote, or your own wiki, you can access it from a laptop or tablet. If you go the tech way, make sure you have a decent connection in your venue. Not a lot of ancient tunnel systems have wifi.

3. Be snazzy! Have some cool props on hand. Newcomers get confused when TRPGs don’t have some tangible element to them besides those weird dice, but even grizzled D&D vets enjoy a cool hand written scroll. Some ideas:

  • Handouts like a map of the area, or an encrypted letter. Use parchment sheet or a lot of tea.
  • If your adventure has an important magical item, you can design it from a cool object you own. Go to car boot sales and flea markets. Just don’t bring that realistic Zweihander to the pub you’re playing at.
  • Dungeon tiles or a battlemat and minis always look good! Also consider buying cool looking dice sets just for the experience.
  • Often overlooked, your Dungeon Master accessories will contribute to the experience if they look good – here’s what’s inside the DM kit picture above for example.
My AirDnD Dungeon Master kit
And that’s just a start!

4. Be mindful of the time. Obviously you want to pace your session in the best possible way, given your time constraints. It’s just like a convention game really. Or any game, if you’re not a lazy DM like me… People have paid you and it’s nice to give them extra time, but bear in mind that guests often have made plans for after the game. Always agree on a schedule, especially if, two thirds into the session, you realise that you need another hour to wrap your AirDnD experience up.

5. Beware of bad venues. Find an underrated pub (that doesn’t have live music at the time you’re playing), well appointed games bar, cool community space, etc. Bonus points if you have access to a château or medieval cellar, of course. Wherever you end up playing, make sure you get in touch with the staff and book your table if necessary, and that you can play in a relatively quiet space (YMMV, but I tend to die after shouting for three hours.)

6. Be a nice guide. This isn’t directly game related, but your guests will be tourists, and they’ll appreciate pointers to places they might like (history museums and game shops jump to mind, but tips for good cafés and restaurants are always appreciated). You might be the first local they meet, so be friendly!

7. Cater to your audience. I mean, literally cater. This is something I haven’t tried yet, but some experiences on AirBnB offer food and drinks as part of the package (adjusting their price accordingly). It will obviously require that you work out something with your venue or a catering company (unless you’re a great cook as well as a pro DM, in which case you need to update your Tinder profile accordingly. Trust me.)

End of the listicle! These are the basics things to keep in mind when setting up your AirDnD experience. AirBnB also has tons of advice to help you become a great host. And I’m not going to teach you how to DM a game, right? You’re a pro after all.

* If you’re looking for my AirBnB Dungeons & Dragons experiences, here they are. I’m going to be busy and/or out of the country for the holiday season, but I’ll add some more dates in January. You can always reach out if you’d like to set up a game for a specific time and day.
And if you’re in Ireland and would like to hear more about playing D&D at work, I’m just an email or phone call away.

** I know a lot of people have reservations about DMing for money, so I’ll just slay this monster in its lair once and for all. People run games for profit it all the time: getting a free convention entrance in exchange for running a game; receiving swag from publishers for organised play or playtest reports; a game designer running a demo of a game they designed on Twitch is GMing for gain.
Gaming doesn’t have to be something we only do among friends.

My notes, maps, rule book, and pregenerated character sheets for Macchiato Monsters

DM prep with Macchiato Monsters

Last weekend, I ran Macchiato Monsters for the first time since Easter. Over a couple days, I tweeted a sort of journal of my DM prep. Go read it if you want the background info or skip to the listicle.

Oh, and I don’t think I posted about the new official character sheet for Macchiato Monsters? You can grab it for free from my itch page.

7 Tips to ace your DM prep for Macchiato Monsters

I’m an ageing, lazy referee (this is what we adventure game crowd call the games or dungeon master). Prepping for a game is a lot of fun when you’re coming up with cool ideas, but (at least for me) it quickly becomes boring when I have to write down lots of stats and/or read a bunch of material.

Well, that’s partly why I designed Macchiato Monsters. Below are a few pointers.

Some books, notes, character sheet, and the Macchiato Monsters rulebook

1. Start with a challenge

In old-school-slash-adventure games, we like our player characters to be squishy. Danger is dangerous and monsters are monstrosities that eat you as soon as you draw your sword.
MM respects that, but it also grants heroes a little more oomph. Smart players find ways to use their abilities and spells to great effect, and lucky ones can get out of bad situations with a single roll.
So as soon as the PCs are around level 2 or 3, you can drop them in the deep end at the beginning of the session.
Nothing like an in medias res opening scene to get your adventure going.

2. Trust your sandboxes

For Saturday’s session, I was drawing from both Emmy Allen‘s procedural, books-filled dungeon, The Stygian Library, and an old Planescape module called Something Wild.
The former made it easy to generate a small playroom dungeon for the players to interact with. It had some monsters to run away from, a couple traps to fall in, a local character to talk to, and enough ideas to fill in the blanks if needed. I’m sure I could have trusted the procedures in the book to get me there, but half the players that night were new people (most of them new to roleplaying games) and I wanted to spare them the inevitable loading screen experience while I was rolling dice to generate rooms and stuff.
The second part of the session was more open, so I went back to the sandbox.
I had a map (there’s a few good players’ maps in Something Wild), a wilderness risk die table (the simple, lazy DM method MM uses to merge encounters, resources, and discoveries in twelve entries), and some random notes. It took maybe half an hour over breakfast that morning.

3. Don’t read too much material

Roleplaying games adventures are great reads, aren’t they? They have these fantastic places, these characters and situations you want to use in the game. All these beautiful, intricate details you want to get right. I don’t know about you, but whenever I don’t remember one of these details in the middle of a session, I tend to go back to the book to look for it.
While if I’m working off half a page of notes, I just make some shit up.
Since I hadn’t ran this particular campaign for maybe five months, I didn’t remember much from Something Wild. It’s an interesting adventure (at least the part I was using) and when I first prepped it I remember taking pains understanding the goals and motivations of each faction. Well this time around, I didn’t let myself go back for these details. I ran with what I remembered, trusting myself to come up with the specifics at the spot.
And you know what? I don’t think anyone noticed.

3. When in doubt, make it a risk die

Risk dice are very handy tools to add chance and tension to a game. I wrote a table to adjudicate the risk of the party being spied on or ambushed by dark elves (no, I won’t get into the whole story). It took me the whole of three minutes (five with the tweet).

4. Add more risk dice!

I also added a Transformation die to make the chances of turning into an animal (a planar effect from Something Wild) more interesting:

Each character starts with a risk die (the type depends on their Wisdom, see the Stamina optional rules at the bottom of page 28). They roll every time someone uses magic, and each morning when they wake up.

  • When they reach Δ6, they start showing animal traits
  • At Δ4, they turn into a human-animal hybrid
  • When the die fizzles, they’re an intelligent animal that talks and casts spells

6. Have some pregens handy

It takes only a few minutes to make a character, but it’s a bummer to have to come up with a new concept if your hero just died. That’s why I try to always have a handful of filled character sheets — plus you never know, I might have an unexpected guest!

7. You’ll prep too much anyway

Of course, I ran for about seven hours and used about 35% of my notes. The dark elves didn’t show up, half the monsters and rooms in the Library ended up being superfluous, and the players didn’t even venture into the sandbox.
I guess that’s one of the secrets: DM prep is its own reward. We come up with all these ideas for the fun of it. Seeing the players tangle with them is just a bonus.

Goblins chasing chickens outside the Sleeping Hound inn

A Roomscape in an Inn

Here is a roomscape for you:

This used to be a wide, well appointed kitchen before it got looted. A smell of burning stew drifts from the fireplace (and into the adjoining rooms).
Referee info: the kitchen was recently visited by goblins who took most of the food and booby trapped the cauldron in the fireplace.

  • LARGE TABLE with messy ingredients and crockery. A lot of broken plates and bowls on the floor.
  • FOUR CHAIRS toppled or used to reach the SHELVES.
  • A BUCKET IN THE CORNER with forgotten, cold laundry, and a bar of black soap near it.
  • SHELVES. Only the items on the highest shelves are still there (flour, candles, salt). A couple of good butcher knives.
  • FIREPLACE [trapped]. A cauldron sits on a dying fire.
  • [trap] A tripwire causes the cauldron to fall over, spilling and/or breaking six flasks of heated oil that immediately catches fire (damage as oil, spills over a 10ft x 10ft area). The clever goblin who set the trap also threw lard and a freshly dead, unplucked chicken in the cauldron to lure hungry adventurers in.
terrible doodle by me

But what is a Roomscape?

Roomscapes are dungeon room descriptions. They’re the creation of Foot of the Mountain, a mapmaker and blogger I’ve met on Twitter. He posts maps and asks people to describe a room of their choice. In a couple of hours, we all get at crowdsourced dungeon for our games. Here is the archive of all the roomscape threads so far. You can play too if you follow Foot of the Mountain Adventures on Twitter! He also has a Patreon where you can support his work.

My roomscape is actually a translation of room number 5 in my French-language adventure La nuit des rêves perdus (Night of Lost Dreams), which I published on my page a week or two ago, using one of Foot of the Mountain’s maps. It’s written for Old-School Essentials (so fully compatible with B/X D&D) and I’m hoping to carve out the time to publish it in English too.

I wrote this adventure for newcomers to the old school adventure game style, and I’ve tried to organise the information in order to help the referee easily find the information they’re looking for. After a sentence of general description, the referee gets background information (in italics). The rest is in bullet points: immediately apparent details are in all caps, and lootables are in bold.

You tell me if it would work for you. (And then I can make the adventure better when I translate it.)