I’ve been doing some various craft projects lately to keep myself sane. One new thing that I’ve started is something called garden books – ordinary bricks painted to look like books, that you keep in your garden.

I’ve done a few of my favorites so far – Don Quixote, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Green Eggs and Ham, etc. And, of course, the corebooks.

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I’m putting together a little how-to video for them on my Awkward Labs YouTube channel. I’ll share a link when it’s live.

I also painted this, because when I’m waiting for paint to dry, I look around for other stuff to paint.

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Stay safe and sane, everyone. I’ll have another review up soon.

(Dice not included. I just wanted an excuse to show off my antiqued and bloody dice.)

As you probably know from reading my past reviews and posts, I’m a sucker for random inspiration tools, and yet another one fell into my lap recently.

Better Backstories is a deck of cards with story elements printed on each to help players and GMs develop backstories for their characters and NPCs, but with a lot of extra features that I didn’t expect.

The review deck that I received contained 80 regular cards, 5 blank customizable cards, 3 reference cards that describe the various symbols, and an instruction sheet. The sheet explains the layout of the cards and recommendations for use – it suggests drawing 1 card for a random NPC encounter, 3 for a recurring character, 5 for a new PC, and 8 for an experienced PC or NPC.

The layout guide isn’t very necessary, however – the cards are clearly and simply designed, with subtle art elements that don’t distract from the information, and symbols that are easy to decipher. You can just flip through the deck and get an idea of what the various parts of each card mean.

There are two basic types of cards – one with a paragraph of flavor text, and suggestion cards, with a list of ten options listed below. A symbol in the top right tells you the category of the card – Benefit, Change, Drive, Life, Mystery, Trouble, Mystical, and Technical. This is handy in case you wish to remove certain elements from the deck (or simply redraw if one shows up). The suggestion cards provide a character element, like a birthmark or a pet, then give you ten options to choose from, or roll for randomly.

What I love most about this deck is the multiple uses you get from the cards. In addition to a backstory element, each of the cards also has a weather type, terrain type, and an “alignment” – positive, negative, equal, or random – which not only can be used to determine how the story element affects the character, but NPC or monster reactions, or practically any other result you want to use it for.

The backs of the cards repeat these three (with weather and terrain represented with symbols), as well as a number from 1 to 10 – so you can draw a card in place of rolling a d10 if you wish. This is perfect when one of the suggestion cards comes up – you can just place a face-down card on top of it to get a result.

I decided to give the deck a quick test to see what it would give me for a recurring character. I drew Cataclysm, then put another card on top to get a 9 – Plague. Then I drew Runaway, with a 4 – You were captured by police and returned home. Finally, I drew Worldly – the character has a friend or family member who has shared stories of travelling the world.

This inspired me to dream up Emill Lyrinthenn – the youngest daughter of a large family, in a continent ravaged by an unusual disease that leaves victims weak and feeble. One out of every 40-50 citizens is completely immune to the disease for some undiscovered reason, and Emill is one of the lucky ones. Local laws dictate that the immune must care for their families and others in their region until a cure can be found. Emill’s family is low on food and supplies, she and has tried to escape the town to visit her friend Tobias, who is very knowledgeable about curative herbs and plants from all around. Her previous attempts have resulted in capture and punishment, but one night she hatches a plan that she hopes will succeed…

Note that I could have taken other elements from the cards as they lay – heavy rain, shoreline, island, lake – or drawn more cards as the mood struck me, to add more to the story.

Better Backstories is a clearly designed, multi-functional tool that you’ll want to keep handy during both character creation and the heat of the game, to supply that little spark of inspiration when you need it. You can find out more at betterbackstories.com.

Under the Floorboards is a system-lite tabletop RPG published by Loot the Room that is inspired by stories, movies, and shows about little people living in a big people world, such as The Borrowers, The Littles, and The Secret World of Arrietty, to name a few.

Under the Floorboards uses a simple dice+stat system, combined with a basic three-phase story structure to set up a scenario that the players and gamemaster – or “Guiding Voice” – can collectively build a story from.

The game uses a simple 2d6 system. Characters are described in 8 abilities, and are built with point buying, or can be selected from a collection of premade Roles. Ability rolls are 2d6+Ability versus a target number. Success gives the player story control, while failure gives it to the Guided Voice. A Lucky ability allows players to roll to change the environment to their benefit, but it drops by a point every time it is successful.

The game has no system for combat or hit points, as it is expected that any sort of combat would be avoided by the little people. “Floorboard folk have no word for coward, because there is no shame in running away.”

This game would be a fantastic introduction to RPGs for kids, or for anyone who enjoys the genre. The system is simple and easy to grasp, and the story structure is an excellent method of giving new players some guidance when trying out an adventure game for the first time.

The writing is clear and well organized, and the majority of the PDF contains locations to explore, with lists of goals and complications related to each one – a wealth of options for potential scenarios, and something that really increases the replay ability.

I also really enjoyed the name table, for players having trouble coming up with a character name. It includes names like Stumble, Bucket, Percivie, and surnames like Underbed, Overmantle, and Chimney-Stack – this was an excellent addition that helps establish the feel and theme of the game.

Bonus point for gender inclusivity – there’s a space on the character sheet for gender pronouns. I’m always happy to see this, and happier to see it occurring more and more.

Overall a well-written and well organized product that captures the thematic elements very well, and would be an excellent choice for kids, a quick-prep one-shot, or a convention game.

52 pages, PDF only – Find it on DriveThruRPG

Sooooo… I haven’t darkened this blog for a little while. I’m not even sure if anyone is still reading it. To those who are, I apologize for the absence.

When I was last here, I was brimming with inspiration from a video of Joe Manganiello running RPG sessions for kids in a children’s hospital – something that I’ve been wanting to do myself for a very long time. I’d hoped to get my own such project going at the children’s hospital up in Wilmington, but it didn’t pan out. The hospital required a schedule commitment that I was not able to agree to, and the travel to and from the hospital would have become very expensive and time consuming over that time. I’m still on the lookout for any other options that are closer and more accessible.

Of course, I wouldn’t be running those sessions now anyway, due to the pandemic, which has also put my regular face-to-face gaming group on hiatus until further notice (as I’m sure it has done for you, as well). We’ve done a little bit of other gaming online, and I tried running a Zoom D&D session, but it’s just not the same. I still want to give it another shot – any gaming is better than no gaming, after all.

I’ve been keeping myself busy with other things – my second children’s book is in progress (story is finished, working on illustrations now), and I’ve been doing a lot of painting and music making (which you can find out more about at awkward-labs.com, if you are so inclined).

I’ve also got a bit of review materials sitting around, waiting for me to take a look at them. So I’ll be posting some reviews here in case you’re looking for something new for your gaming sessions.

I’m sure we’re all eager to get back to our face-to-face groups, but I hope everyone is staying safe. I’ll be back with reviews very soon.


…and I am submitted. Our local children’s hospital’s website has a form to fill out on their Volunteer page, which I just completed. They require a couple of personal references, and short descriptions of previous relevant experience and what sort of activity you would like to provide for the hospital. The site tells me that I’ll have to attend an interview and informational meeting, submit to medical clearing, a drug test and background check, and then do some online training. So we’re past the first step, easily enough.

So, let’s talk about postponed resolutions. You know, like the one where I said I was going to get back to making blog posts here, almost three years ago.

And the one where I said – a LONG time ago – that I was going to put together an RPG program for the kids at the children’s hospital. I can recall a social network site called 43 Things – back when those things were popping up left and right – that encouraged users to list things that they’d really like to accomplish, and sent you regularly timed reminders asking you how they were coming along. I think I even managed to check off some of mine. But one of them – “Run roleplaying games for children in hospitals” was NOT one of them.

And then, just a few days ago, this video came along.


And I said “Damn.”

A lot has changed in the years since I blogged here regularly, and since I started doing work in RPG advocacy. D&D has become more than accepted, it has become downright ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. And it has finally received the credit it always deserved as a fantastic hobby for building teamwork, problem solving, a love of learning and exploration, and so much more.  As I recently said on my RPG advocacy site theescapist.com

These days, when the media covers a D&D group at a school or library, it’s to extol the benefits of socialization, problem solving, teamwork, and leadership skills that the hobby provides – and very often there are stories about gaming groups hosting fundraisers and doing other acts of good in their community. The handwringing, pearl-clutching satanic panic is gone. RPG defense simply isn’t needed anymore, and the hobby has become a part of popular culture that is receiving the appreciation that it deserves. 

We won. Yeah, I said it.

We’re now in a time where this sort of thing will be truly seen for the benefits it will provide, not only for the social skills, basic math skills, and problem solving skills – but for the escape.  A child trapped in a hospital needs that escape more than anything.

So, I’m doing it. I’ve got the volunteer form for our local children’s hospital loaded up in my browser right now, and I’m going to finish filling it out after I’m done with this post. And I’m planning to blog my efforts and experiences as I embark on this new journey – the things that go well, the things I should have done differently, and the obstacles that I encounter.

Because that might help someone else who may want to take the same journey. Like, perhaps… you?

Yeah, I know. I tried, I really did. I said I’d start posting again last August, and it just didn’t work out.  Sorry about that. I got pretty busy with theatre stuff and personal stuff and the time just got away from me. I even missed doing a 1d12 Days of Christmas last year – I tried to get it going, but couldn’t find very many holiday-themed gaming posts and products to make it worthwhile.  Sorry about all of that.

I have a couple of good things to report, if it’s any consolation. The 5E D&D group that started up last May has been meeting ever since, and has grown from 4 to 6 members (and we’ll soon be adding a 7th). They’ve been adventuring in Ashenhurst, a setting of my own design. It’s a massive, cursed city that is constantly crumbling and being rebuilt (think of a fantasy version of Kowloon Walled City, and you’ll have the idea).  So far they’ve thwarted an assassination attempt and helped contain a disease outbreak, and they are currently standing trial for conspiracy to aid a necromancer.

On the weeks we can’t meet up, I run some other stuff, like the one-shot Star Wars REUP game we played last week. And a friend has recently invited me to run some Introduction to RPGs events at the Dover Comicon, which has been growing in popularity over the last couple of years.

Now that I have a regular group of gamers in place, I should have more material for the blog – play reports, details on my custom setting, product reviews (with actual playtesting this time!), and all that sort of thing.  I hope. I’m making no promises. But I’ll try my best.

But right now, let’s discuss a more serious matter.

There’s a blog post going around that is difficult to read. I’ll link it here, but be forewarned that it contains some very disturbing (and possibly triggering) subject matter.It’s one woman’s account of negative experiences she has had while being involved with tabletop games – sexism, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and more. It’s been making the rounds among most of my gamer friends online, and I shared it myself on the social feeds for The Escapist.

Sharing it seems to bring a bit of backlash. Some state that the claims are unsubstantiated, and we shouldn’t believe everything we read on the internet. And there’s a valid point in that. It’s easy to let your outrage switch get flipped by things like this, and I really don’t have any knowledge of the author’s veracity. It could just as easily be a completely fabricated attempt to stir the pot.

Know what? Doesn’t matter.

The fact is, whether the claims made in that post are true or not, even if none of them happened to the author – they are happening to others. And regardless of who is the culprit and who is the victim, it is always wrong and unacceptable.  It’s poisonous to our hobby and harmful to the people who want to enjoy it.

Pretending it doesn’t happen won’t make it go away. Discrediting the claims of one doesn’t make the rest disappear. Turning a blind eye to it when it’s happening right in front of you is despicable.

Some time after the post started to gain some legs, someone else (I’m not sure who, I’d love to give credit) started a little hashtag campaign – #SafeGamerPledge – to encourage gamers to reject those behaviors, and not allow them at their tables.  Despite the innocuous nature of such a pledge, there was a little pushback as well. I suppose that will always happen, no matter what.

Regardless, I participated. The pledge I posted on the site’s Twitter, Facebook, and G+ accounts, is below.I’m not encouraging anyone to participate. I’m not bullying anyone for not doing so, or even shutting down discussion on the matter. I’m just making my own statement, and standing by it.  I’ll be back very soon.

All of the wonderful varieties of people are welcome and safe at my game table. Intolerance, hatred, & harassment are not.

Oh, hey guys. Yeah, I got kind of busy there… for almost eight months.

Sorry about that. The good news is that I have a new D&D campaign going. And theescapist.com won a Gold ENnie at Gen Con!

More about those things very soon. Until then, here’s a couple lists of positive and negative character traits to print out and stick in your GM binder. Put them to good use.

See you soon.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m prepping my clan for an evening trip to visit family up north, but I have time for one quick check on the Random Christmas Encounter Table before I go.

This time, it’s the Rōgun Holiday Special, a free holiday special supplement for the new Retrostar RPG by Spectrum Games. Retrostar is the RPG of classic 70s science fiction television shows. Now I’m going to be honest here – I haven’t had the time to check it out yet (the Pay What You Want starter edition is here), but if history means anything, I’m certain it will capture the genre with the same spirit that their other games (Macabre Tales, Slasher Flick, Cartoon Action Hour, etc) have in the past.

So if the idea of roleplaying some classic Buck-Rogers-styled adventures piques your interest, be sure to check out Retrostar, and pick up this free holiday supplement to get started.

Swords and Stitchery has another creepy Christmas treat for our science fantasy OSR games – Zebulara, the Twisted Christmas Demiplane:

Zebulara is an Outskirt demi plane realm that has been created from the debris and remains of mankind’s dreams and memories of Christmas’s past lost to the collective unconsciousness of humanity’s memory from the Nineteen Hundreds through the present seen through the eyes of a Holiday Christmas special from classic television. At least in the beginning of a visit. This demi plane actively hunts and sucks in adventurers as well as heroes from across time and space. A strange candy can colored vortex is often the first and only warning of  Zebulara’s dimensional trap springing upon PC’s. The dimensional vortex opens near the PC’s and Dex checks are needed just to avoid the debris and what not that will try to knock characters out. They will awaken upon Zebulara.

Learn more, and check out the Zebulara encounter table, at Swords and Stitchery.