(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.

It’s the last day of our 2013 calendar, and I and my family are getting ready to visit friends and play lots of games (as we often do to commemorate New Year’s Eve and Day). But there are still a few holiday RPG goodies in the bottom of this year’s bag, so let’s dig them out!

 

Adventure Seed – The Christmas Robbery is a plot seed for Mongoose’s Traveller RPG that features the characters, and factions surrounding a Christmastime bank heist – you supply the players, and the hooks to get them involved in the story. This adventure seed package is a Pay What You Want product, which means that you get to decide the price (But please be generous! It’s the holidays!)

Get The Christmas Robbery at DriveThruRPG.

Next up – It wouldn’t be Christmas without some Krampus, would it? Xion Studios brings our favorite holiday demon to the Mutants & Masterminds system with Acts of Villainy – The Krampus!

“Locked away in another dimension until the last month of every year, The Krampus has been set loose on the world yet again! Lock your doors and bar your windows, for he’s on the hunt for naughty boys and girls all around the world and has picked the heroes city for this year’s pickings! The Krampus, only in Acts of Villainy: Solo #53 and only only 99¢!”

Get your copy of Acts of Villainy – The Krampus at RPGNow.

 

Finally, there’s something for the kids! Yuletide Journey is an adventure for Hero Kids, an excellent introductory RPGs for young people. In this adventure, the kids must bring a tribute to Father Odin to regain his favor, and to keep the sun’s light from fading. This package includes character cards, maps, and paper miniatures for the heroes and their adversaries.

Get your copy of Yuletide Journey at DriveThruRPG.

 

And that does it for this year’s 1d12 Days of Christmas! I hope everyone had a great 2013, and here’s hoping that 2014 will be filled of all new adventures!

Teratic Tome is a retro-styled monster manual compatible with OSRIC and other old-school fantasy role-playing games. The cover and interior have been designed to capture the look and feel of some of the classic AD&D hardcover books of the early to mid-80s – the fonts, organization, and colors are all there, and a dead tree copy of this tome would fit right in next to the original orange-spined core books.

The monsters within are truly monstrous, not just big and hairy, and could easily cover a shift to let one of Clive Barker’s Cenobites have a day off. There seems to be a strong theme of creatures that seek out specific victims – the Acronical, for example, is an insectile beast created by ancient priests to find and destroy those who have been unfaithful to their spouses, as well as any who have aided and abetted such activity. The Epexiant is a tentacled serpent who seeks out those who are so wracked with grief that they do not wish to carry on with their lives. (What it does when it finds one, I won’t go into.) And these are not even entries from the demon or devil sections!

These are not monsters for a cheerful, fairy-taleish dungeon crawl. The dragons feature a list of horrific events that occur to herald their approach – unnatural weather, animal slaughter, and much worse. The halflings keep hell hounds as pets, and torture their captives for entertainment. If you’ve been looking for a bestiary to flesh out a Lovecraftian mythos styled fantasy campaign, I think you need look no further.

The artwork is superb, and other than a few typos and a section where some paragraphs were repeated, the layout and content is excellent. It’s difficult to read most of the entries without getting ideas about how to work them into a game, even as you’re shuddering at the thought. And that’s really where Teratic Tome shines – the attention to the details and motivations of the creatures really brings them off of the page.

As a side note – there’s an interesting twist on the way treasure is handled that would be worth using in most of your OSR games, even if you don’t get a lot of use out of the monsters.

Because I review a lot of RPG products with young people in mind, I feel obligated to say that these are NOT monsters to put into a campaign that you’re going to run for your kids. Please don’t. Save these for the grownups. And only the grownups with strong stomachs. Please.

My two gripes: The beautiful retro-styled cover isn’t a part of the PDF, and I think reading the monster entries before bed every night for the last few days may have given me nightmares. And some plot ideas. Okay, make that one gripe. (EDIT: Rafael informs me that the cover is now part of the PDF, so I am out of gripes.)

Check out Teratic Tome at DriveThruRPG

Gamemastering: Preparing and Running Storytelling and Roleplaying Games is a 162-page manual that addresses the subject in six sections: A Gamemaster’s Tasks, The Role-Playing Group, Mastering a Gaming Session, Preparation, Adventure Themes, and Further Gaming Techniques.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the format – rather than looking like your typical RPG book, the use of color, graphics and subject icons on the cover and interior make this book look like it could easily share a shelf with “how-to” books such as the popular “X For Dummies” series. While it definitely gives the book a professional look, I can’t really say if this would lend any appeal to the target audience, who can be notoriously fickle about such things, and easily turned off by such a mainstreaming of their hobby. I didn’t encounter much of a problem with it during my own read-through.

The advice is solid and useful, and runs the spectrum from common-sense tips that only the beginners would find useful to common-sense tips that even the veterans never considered. Much of this advice can be found in other places, but the “For Dummies” style of the book invites a somewhat different approach to the material – for example, there are “Exercises,” or thought experiments at the end of sections to inspire the reader to consider how they would handle certain situations

The book outlines the tasks of the gamemaster and his relationship with the players, the different types of players (power gamers, storytellers, etc.), suggestions on dealing with problem players and resolving personality conflicts and conflicting player desires, as well as preparation and story structure. It is the latter two of these that I found the most useful, particularly the suggestions for using Mind Maps and Conflict Webs to structure and organize stories.

The book is wrapped up with an appendix that includes Georges Politi’s list of 36 dramatic situations (with possible RPG applications added to each) and possible solutions to the exercises presented throughout the book.

Gamemastering is an excellent collection of GM advice compiled in a familiar format – but one that I hope won’t turn too many gamemasters away, because the content is solid and very useful.

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It should be pretty obvious by now that I am a big sucker for any product that helps inspire creativity and improvisation, and generally makes the GM’s job easier – and I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon many in recent years.

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game could be a candidate for one of the best GM tools ever, at least in my book. It is a 300+ page collection of NPC personality sketches that is not just a list of characters, but a collection of tools to adapt them to your own campaign and use them to the best advantage. It’s not only a book of NPCs, it is a book on how to NPC.

The entire first chapter is devoted to GMing advice – making NPCs memorable, “re-skinning” NPCs from one genre to use them in another, polarizing elements of the character to make them unique – and most importantly, how to not overdo it (these are supporting characters after all, and should never steal the show from the real protagonists).  The lists of traits and “invisible keywords” at the end of this chapter, and the explanation of how they were used, will prime any imaginative GM to immediately begin customizing these NPCs before they even get to them.

After that comes the parade of NPCs, divided into three genre categories (fantasy, modern, and sci-fi), each of which are divided into sub-categories (villains, neutrals, and allies). Each NPC is fleshed out in an array of descriptors – Name, Capsule Description, Quote, Appearance, Roleplaying, Personality, Motivation, Background, and Traits. The descriptions are very concise, to keep the most important and functional elements of the character in the foreground. Many of the NPCs could easily be adapted to other genres with a bit of fiddling and tweaking (and advice for this is supplied in Chapter One).

If all of this wasn’t enough, the book contains a “name ribbon” running through it – a one-line list of names running along the bottom of most of the pages that a GM can quickly reference if a character name is needed on the fly.

While looking through this massive collection of character backgrounds, I found an additional use for it, as I caught myself coming up with story ideas to draw them into. I’m even tempted to challenge myself and choose some at random (they’re all numbered) and try to write a plot around them!

As a side note – I was pleased to discover that it was inspired by one of my favorite Dragon magazine articles of all time – “The 7 Sentence NPC,” by C.M. Cline. It appeared in the August 1992 issue, and I’ve kept a photocopy of it in my RPG binder for many, many years now.

I really can’t recommended this collection enough for any serious GM’s reference library. If I had to come up with a negative about Masks, it would be this – it’s entirely too big to fit into my RPG binder. I’m probably going to have to invest in a good tablet PC that can display PDFs.

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Many gamemasters, myself included, like to spice up their roleplaying sessions with background music and sound effects. I’ve been finding quite a few examples of both in the bricked-up library, so I thought I would put them into a big pile, give them all a listen, and share my reviews for anyone who might find them useful for their games.

Toxic Bag’s Game Masters Collection is a series of sound effects arranged in several themed volumes. I’m going to tackle the first three in this post, and cover the rest in future posts.

Volume One: The Twentieth Century is a collection of ambient sound tracks and individual sound effects for contemporary RPGs.

The ambient sound tracks are full and rich – “1930s/40s Swing Club” features three minutes of crowd noise and jazz music, with laughing patrons, clinking glasses, and cigarette girls in the foreground. The “1950s Corner Gin Joint” track features the sounds of a pool match, a radio broadcast of a baseball game, and some background conversation, and the 1960s Go-Go Club, 1970s Disco, and 1990s Industrial Bar are just as full and rich. Each track clocks in at around three minutes.

Other goodies in this set include: a noisy, staticy morse code message (I’m tempted to try to translate it), calm and panicked distress calls with lots of dropouts and static, an emergency broadcast message announcing the declaration of martial law (thousands of uses!), an evil genius headquarters and mad scientist lab, a cave, a sewer, a couple of different cities, and several different types of gunfire.  Most tracks seem to run around a minute and a half long, with the ambient tracks running closer to three minutes, and the sound effects (like gunfire) clocking in at less than half a minute.

Some of the background tracks don’t work quite as well when looped. The Swing Club track, for example, fades in as the house band is in the middle of a song, and fades out the same way. I feel this track might have worked better if it were a bit longer, and included three complete songs (that would make the track seem less repetitious to the players if their characters are spending a lot of time in that particular scene).  Some of the other tracks have a long period of silence after the fadeout, which would create a noticeable hole in the effects if it was being looped. This could be somewhat remedied by playing the tracks more quietly (at the risk of losing some of the nuances), or more technically adept gamemasters could use an audio editing program to remove the silence and make their own extended versions of the tracks.

All in all, it’s a quality package for a reasonable price.

Volume Two: Monsters is a collection of sixty three creature sounds and noises ranging from bugs, cats, and snakes to aliens, undead, sea monsters, and demons.

Many of the effects here are very easy to repurpose. The Dimensional Beast, for example, could easily be used as a malfunctioning robot or distorted radio message, if you don’t happen to have a place for a Dimensional Beast in your scenario, and anyone with access to some audio editing software and even a modicum of skill could combine two or more of these tracks into something perfectly suited for their needs.

Most of the tracks run less than thirty seconds, with some of the more simple sound effects clocking in at between :10 and :15.  Some of the effects are a bit campy, but intentionally so (such as the “Polly Playtime” doll and one of the zombie tracks) which means that GMs looking for humorous and/or cheesy sound effects will find something of use here as well.

Volume Three: Fantasy features – you guessed it – fantasy themed sound effects and ambient background effects. This collection boasts fifty six tracks, with over a third of them battle themed – arrow hits and flybys, sword draws and clashes, and outdoor and dungeon skirmishes.

Other audio goodies include a royal fanfare, some orcs grunting and talking, a bit of gregorian chant (with some nice reverb effect to make it sound like it’s happening in a monastery), a church service, a few spells being cast and some dragon noises, to name a few – all of which could find a place in any good fantasy campaign.

As with the other volumes in this series, the ambient tracks (like the Busy City, Smithy, and Enchanted Forest) suffer from long stretches of silence at the end, which isn’t a problem when the tracks are played once, but will create a noticeable hole in the sound if they are looped during longer scenes in the game. This could be resolved by playing the sounds at a lower level, or using an audio program to trim out the silence and maybe even extend the entire duration of the file through cutting and pasting.

That’s it for this batch. Keep your ears peeled for my next batch of RPG music and sound effects!

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WyshMaykers is a storytelling game about a special group of people who have the power to make wishes (sorry… “Wyshes”) come true.

The setting is rather open-ended – no time period is implied (though it seems to assume a contemporary one), so GMs could set their stories in almost any era they liked. Virtually no mention is given to the repercussions of this wanton WyshMayking. Do Wyshes cause any kind of karmic backlash? Are WyshMaykers only allowed to make Wyshes when the mundanes aren’t looking? If not, what would happen if a mundane witnessed a Wysh in action? None of these questions are answered, but the right group of players may have a good time making up their own.

The game uses -U-, a fairly rules-lite system.  Characters are detailed by three Attributes (Action, Thought, and X, which is sort of a catch-all attribute for things such as Will and Luck), a list of Studies (areas In which they have some level of expertise), and any Items that they possess. To create a character, players assign dots to these Attributes, Studies, and Items. Actions are resolved by rolling 3d6 for each dot in the appropriate Attribute (plus any dots in related Studies and/or Items). If any of the 3d6 rolls come up with a pair of matching numbers, the action is a success, while three matching numbers indicate a critical success. No matches denotes failure.

It’s a very freeform system – possibly too much so. The Wyshing ability allows a character to do pretty much anything they desire, with little in the way of limitation (a table of modifiers makes larger acts of Wyshing more difficult, but at the very worst, there’s still a 1 in 36 chance that a WyshMayker can topple a skyscraper). There is a large and powerful group – the Society of WyshMaykers – who work to keep any such activity in check, but even with them in place, I fear for any gamemaster who ends up with even a single powergamer in their group. Please choose your players responsibly if you decide to run a session of WyshMaykers.

The artwork is rough and sort of “scratchy,” and leaves a bit to be desired – thankfully, it is somewhat sparse and non-distracting. The crumpled paper background for the “World of WyshMaykers” section makes it a little more difficult to read, but is absent in the print version of the document.

WyshMaykers gets bonus points from me for the inclusion of the “Print 2 Play” pages at the end of the book. These include character record sheets, story outline cards, and cards to help players keep track of their points, as well as “Rules-at-a-glance” cards. These cards contain a simple synopsis of the rules so that the Story Referee and players can check them quickly, without having to reference the rulebook. They even have the page arranged in sections, so you can fold or cut it apart to make it pocket-sized. This is something that I wish every RPG publisher would do with their game (in fact, for those that don’t, I usually end up making one myself, the first time I run the game).

Check out WyshMaykers: The Game of Magical Stories at DriveThruRPG.

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Edison Force is a setting supplement for QAGS (Quick Ass Game System) set in the early 1900s, combining weird science with the real-world vision and inventions of that era. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison team up to create a mobile weapon that will defeat the forces of Marshovia from invading Florida, and eventually form a special force to hold back any future efforts against the United States – the Edison Force.

This short and sweet package for the QAGS RPG rules comes complete with player archetypes Ex-Soldier, Daredevil, Aviator, Junior Inventor, and more), weird science equipment from the 1900s (a lot of guns that shoot lightning, as you would guess), sample skills, gimmicks, and weaknesses, as well as a sample adventure – Edison Force Versus the Martians, in which the Force is called to investigate some strange walking machines in the Arizona Territory.

The GMs section includes historical characters from the era statted up for play, and there’s a great section of inspirational books to get you into the proper mindset. The art and layout are very good, as I’ve come to expect from Hex Games. It’s a small package (37 pages), but it would make a great one-shot campaign for any gaming group that is looking to try something different and unique.