August 2020


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.