Magic Words in Practice: One Year of Magic Words in ORWA

Ronnina the Magic User
Ronnie’s art of Ronnina, the Magic User

From inception, my ORWA campaign has used the Magic Words system. The game only has one magic user in it, but that M.U., named Ronnina, and played by my brother Ronnie, has been around since the very first session on January 6th 2016. Ronnie has been one of the game’s most consistent players, being present for nearly all 40 sessions of the game to date. That means I have something I don’t often get to share: practical data about the functionality of one of my game systems.

In the past year, Ronnina has gathered the following words: Cold, Fist, Blood, Imbue, Animate, Web, Magic, Dog, Balance, Star, Feather, Fairy, Missile, Cone, Pain, Hate, Corpse, Glare, Rock, Sleep, Cloak, Cling, Fall, Fire, Portal, & Hold.

With these, she has created the following 13 spells. Each of these spells has gone through some revision over time, as edge cases arise, and rulings are needed. Some have been buffed a bit here, others have been nerfed a bit there. A certain level of imprecision, and a constant need for fine tuning, are at the heart of Magic Words.

Fire Portal
Opens a portal in any surface which releases a gout of flame from some unseen place. The flame covers a 10’x10’x10’ space, and deals 1d6 damage, +1d6 for every 3 levels of the caster. The portal must be cast on a surface, and is one-way, nothing can travel from our side to the fire side. For each caster level, the distance the fire reaches from the portal increases by 10′. This does not increase the size of the portal, merely the how far the fire can travel from the portal.
If a space is not large enough to contain the full force of a fire portal, it will, the flames will follow the path of least resistance.
Alternatively, the spell may be cast to grant the caster the ability to conjure five smaller portals over the course of a 12 hour period. These smaller portals deal no damage, but are sufficient to light a candle, or burn a rope.

1. The portal sucks all fire from the room.
2. Fire blasts from the caster’s nostrils, dealing no damage but being very painful.
3. The surface the portal is cast on catches on fire and is destroyed, even if that would not normally be possible.
4. The caster goes temporarily deaf for 1d4 hours.

Star Fire
A touch range spell which buffs one willing target for 24 hours. While the spell is active, any time the character successfully improves an NPC’s reaction, they gain one point per level of the caster. These points may either be spent to recover a lost hit point, or to add a +1 to any die roll. Points may be spent individually or in groups, at the discretion of the spell’s target. If used to improve a roll, the use of points must be declared before the roll is made.
For the purposes of this spell, “Improving an NPC’s reaction,” refers specifically to raising the results of an initial reaction roll (2-12). This is commonly accomplished with the converse, Perform, Grovel, Honor, and Threaten social actions.

1.The target’s skin glows orange, but they gain no other benefit.
2. The target grows massive breasts for 24 hours.
3. The spell works as normal, but any time a reaction is lowered the target takes 1d6 damage.
4. The caster becomes face-blind for a week, and cannot recognize anyone.

Hold Fire
The caster’s hands gain the ability to pick up and hold fire for 1 turn per caster level. Doing this requires a pre-existing source for the fire, but does not extinguish or diminish that source. Once held, the fire can either be thrown (range of 10′) or used  as part of an unarmed melee attack. In either event the fire deals 1d4 damage per two caster levels. If the damage rolls in the upper 50% of its range, then the target has caught fire and takes another 1d4 damage per caster level the next round. This continues so long as the damage rolls in the upper half of its range.
1. The caster believes the spell worked correctly, and is compelled to place their un-protected hand into the first fire they encounter.

2. The caster makes themselves particularly vulnerable to fire, and will take +50% damage from it.
3. The caster’s hand muscles lock up into a fist shape, and the hand is entirely useless for anything but punching for the next 1d6 turns.
4. The caster becomes transfixed by fire. If they see one, they must stare at it until someone yells at them. Minimum one full combat round.

Magic Missile
A missile of magical energy shoots forth from the caster’s fingertip and strikes a target within 60′ + 10′ per level, dealing 1d4 damage. The missile strikes unerringly, even if the target is in melee combat or has cover/concealment. Specific parts of a creature cannot be singled out.
The caster is able to produce a number of missiles equal to their level. The full force of this barrage may be directed at a single target, or divided between multiple targets, as the caster desires. Missiles must be assigned to targets before any damage is rolled.
Each of Ronnina’s magic missiles look like tiny cartoon, jet-propelled missiles.

1. The spell functions normally, but each missile is assigned randomly to a non-caster in the area.
2. The spell works as the caster intended, but only a single missile is produced, which deals 1d4 -1 damage.
3. A number of small glass pellets fly out of the caster’s fingers, plonking against their targets but dealing no damage.
4. A bouquet of flowers appears in the caster’s hand.

Animate Blood

A volume of blood is animated into an ooze like creature. The creature has one hit die, plus one additional hit die for every 3 caster levels, (3, 6, 9, etc). The ooze moves slowly, at only 90′ (30′), but is immune to piercing or slashing damage. (Bludgeoning damage, however, can be very effective at scattering the blood, and works normally). If not destroyed, the creature lasts for 1 hour per level of the caster.

The blood ooze attacks by exciting the blood within the victim, causing it to rush and clot irregularly. This deals 1d4 damage if the creature has 1 hit die, increasing up the dice chain each time the hit die increases. (1d6 at 2 HD, 1d8 at 3 HD, etc).

If cast on the living blood within a person’s body, that person is entitled to a Save versus Magic. On success, the casting failed, and no ooze is created. On failure, the ooze begins to run rampant within the victim’s body. They immediately take damage of a die type appropriate for the ooze’s hit dice. On each successive round, the victim may again attempt the save. If they fail again, they must again take damage. On their first successful save they will vomit up the blood ooze. Both victim and ooze will require a round to compose themselves before they can act normally. If the victim dies before a successful save is made, then the ooze exits of its own volition, and can act immediately)

1. The caster mistakenly animates their own blood.
2. The spell instead animates the target’s snot. If there is no target, reroll.
3. Everyone within 60′ of the caster must save versus Magic or be afflicted by a bloody nose which takes friggin’ forever to stop.
4. The caster sets fire to the hem of their robes (or dress, or pants, or other lower body covering).

Animate Cloak
Causes a cloak (or cape) to become animate, moving and acting according to the caster’s verbal commands. The cloak moves by levitating, but cannot move in any way that would be impossible for it to move if it was attached to someone with arms and legs. It cannot fly, leap over melee, or squeeze itself through small spaces.
If the caster wishes, the animated cloak may attempt to visually emulate a moving human figure. As it has no limbs of its own, it can only really be effective if the target of the deception is at some disadvantage. This is used to best effect if it is dark, or if the cloak is at a great distance from the one being tricked.The cloak rolls stealth to succeed in this deception. The chance starts at 1-in-6, and improves by 1 at every 3rd caster level, and for each significant detriment to the target’s perceptions.
The cloak may also attempt to entangle the caster’s foes in combat, preventing them from taking any action. To do this, it grapples as a fighter of the caster’s level, but deals no damage. The target of the grapple must be appropriately sized. Any creature too large to wear the cloak, cannot be effectively grappled by it.

Animated cloaks have have 2 hit points per level of the caster, and last for 1 hour per level of the caster.


1. The cloak attempts to grapple its own caster until it is destroyed.
2. The cloak becomes intelligent. It’s animation becomes permanent, and it leaves.
3. The spell functions properly, but is cast as though the caster were first level.
4. The spell cast is actually “Self-cleaning and folding cloak.”

Spectral Dog
Summons 1 dog per level, for a total of 2 hours per level. The dogs are translucent creatures of light and smoke, but solid to the touch. They look, feel, and act just like normal dogs, but have no scent. They will obey simple commands from the caster, but are not well trained enough to do anything fancy. “Sit,” “Heel,” “Fetch,” and “Sic ’em” are pretty much the extent of their abilities.
Each dog has an armor rating of 12, 1 hit point, and a +0 to their attack rolls. Each dog starts out dealing 1d3 damage with their bite. At level 5, this increases to 1d6. At level 10, it increases again to 1d8, but does not increase any further than that.The dogs may act for the first time on the round following the one in which they were summoned.

1. The dogs are summoned normally, but are not “reasonably well trained” at all. They do not understand any commands, and will pursue only their own instincts and immediate needs.
2. A single real dog is summoned.
3. All the spectral dogs have the aspect of pugs. They are completely useless at any task, but will do their best to obey as normal.
4. The caster turns into a Labrador for the normal duration of the spell.

Hold Portal
Magically holds a passage either open, or closed, as the caster wills. It can effect a door, gate, window, or shutter of wood, metal, or stone. The magic affects the portal just as if it were securely closed and normally locked. Hold Portal lasts for 1d6 turns per caster level.

1. Holds the portal the opposite way that it the caster intended: open if you wanted it held closed, closed if you wanted it held open.
2. The effect lasts only 1d4 rounds.
3. Instead of effecting the intended portal, the spell effects the caster’s own mouth for the same length of time.
4. Instead of effecting the portal, you affect the mouths of 2d6 creatures, randomly determined.

Cling to Rock
The person or object the spell is cast on will be stuck to the next stone or concrete their body comes in contact with. There are two versions of this spell: one which allows movement, and can be used to climb sheer stone walls without effort. The second does not allow movement, trapping the target against a body of stone. They are entitled to a save versus Magic to resist the effect.
The spell lasts for 3 turns per caster level.

1. Which version of the spell the caster intended to conjure is reversed.
2. The caster must save versus Magic or contract some form of lycanthropy.
3. The spell cast is, instead, “Summon,” as written in the LotFP Rules & magic book.
4. The target of the spell transforms into a pebble for the duration of the spell. They are entitled to a save versus Magic to resist.

Cone of Cold
A cone shaped area extends from the caster’s hand, 5′ in length per level of the caster. Heat is suddenly drained out of this area, dealing 1d4 +1 damage per caster level to any living creatures within. Targets may save versus Breath for half damage.

1. The cone deals damage equal to the caster’s level, rather than 1d4 + 1 per level.
2. The cone extends backwards from the caster’s hand, striking them, and anyone behind them within the cone’s area.
3. The caster’s hand freezes solid, and must be carefully warmed up again in order to free it. It takes 2 hours of dedicated effort to get the hand free.
4. A randomly determined target within the area of the cone must save versus Magic. On a failure, all heat is drained entirely from their body. Their internal temperature is reduced so dramatically that they are vaporized, becoming a chilling gas which deals 2d4 damage to everyone within 20′ of themselves.

Hold Missiles
The caster raises their hand. So long as they keep their hand up and take no further actions, they generate an invisible sphere with a radius of anywhere from 5′ to 15′, at the caster’s preference. Missiles entering this sphere are halted in mid air, and will remain suspended there until the caster stops channeling the spell, after which they will fall to the ground.
The sphere is able to stop 1 missile per round, per caster level. (Thus it may not be fully effective against automated weapons until the caster reaches higher levels). If the caster is level 5 or higher, they can make a half move action while channeling this spell. If they are level 10 or higher, they can make a full move action while channeling this spell.

1. Missiles entering the sphere are accelerated, and deal +1 damage.
2. The sphere functions normally, but also prevents missiles from EXITING the sphere.
3. The sphere functions normally, but is opaque instead of invisible. No one can see in, or out.
4. The sphere functions normally, but the radius expands by 15′ each round, eventually becoming so large that the ones firing the missiles are inside of it, and thus immune to having their missiles stopped by it.

Hold Magic
After this spell is cast, the next spell cast by the Magic user will not go off as normal. Instead, the spell will hold in suspended animation at the first picosecond of its existence. It will remain in this state until the caster activates it with a mental command (or for 1 hour per caster level, after which the spell rots away into nothingness).
When activated by the caster’s mental command, the spell comes to life, and occurs from the same spot it was originally cast from. Activating a spell which has already been cast is a free action.
If the Magic user is level 4 or higher, Hold Magic may be cast as a free action. Thus, only the casting time of the spell that is being held is required. If the magic user is level 8 or higher, the held spell may be “carried” with the magic user. Thus a Magic Missile could be cast, held, and then carried around with the magic user, ready to be activated as a free action at-will.
At first, only one spell may be held at a time. At level 6, two spells may be held. At level 12, three spells may be held. Each held spell requires an additional casting of Hold Magic.

1. The spell the caster intends to hold is simply destroyed.
2. The next spell cast is held appropriately, but when it is released, it must roll on its failure table.
3. The hair on the caster’s head immediately grows for 1 exploration turn, cascading down around their body until it reaches the floor.
4. The next spell cast is held appropriately, but its release is out of the caster’s control. Instead, it is a ticking time bomb. There is a 1 in 4 chance each exploration turn that it will go off.

 Magic Glare
Magic Glare may be cast subtly without need for wild gestures or loud speech. If the caster has a reaction of at least Neutral with the target, Magic Glare can be used to shame the target out of a decision they have made. The target is entitled to a save versus Magic to resist this effect. On a failed save, the target will announce their altered decision.
For every 4 levels, the caster may expectantly ask “AND…?” after each time the target finishes explaining their altered decision. For each “AND…?”, the target is entitled to another save versus Magic. If they again fail, they will add provisos to their new decision to make it even more pleasing to the magic user. If they succeed on the save, they’ll just say “And that’s it.”

1. The target will realize a spell was attempted upon them, and will have their reaction lowered by 2.
2. The target goes temporarily blank from having someone mess with their mind. They forget the last 2 minutes of their lives.
3.The caster lets out a fart that just…will…not…stop. It lasts for 1 full exploration turn.
4.The target begins to dance. They will continue dancing until anyone mentions that they are dancing, after which they will sheepishly stop.

Nick LS Whelan Project Roundup

Like most writers I know, I have a bad habit of committing time to more projects than I can feasibly complete. It’s the kind of thing which, intellectually, you know you should avoid. Yet somehow it just…happens. One day you realize its been three weeks since you last touched Project A, and those doodles you were working on in your spare time have become a full fledged project B. It’s a massive drain on my output, and I’ve been making an effort to reign myself in.

On the advice of Brendan, part of that effort is going to be more openness about what I’m working on. This will be difficult to me, as it seems entirely self indulgent. The satisfaction of doing a thing should come when the thing is done. Sharing half-finished work seems like an attempt to steal a little satisfaction for yourself before you’ve actually earned it. But, Brendan has one of the more successful books in the OSR, and is working on a marketing PhD, so what the fuck do I know?

So, cards on the table. Below is a catalogue of every project I’ve devoted a significant amount of time to, and which is still more or less on my radar. I’m not including anything that I’ve definitively abandoned, nor anything which hasn’t progressed beyond being some ideas scribbled down on paper. There are too many dozens of those to share.

I’m sorry if you think this is boring. I’ll make sure something really cool is scheduled for next week.

Ongoing Projects
This is stuff that will never really be “finished.” Projects which will require regular effort from me until some completely arbitrary point when I decide to stop doing them.

Papers & Pencils: This website! Hopefully that doesn’t require any further explanation. Currently it consumes about 9-12 hours of my time each week.

On a Red World Alone: My current campaign, and a frequent topic of discussion here.  Eventually I’m planning to produce a 100~150 page book. It’ll primarily cover campaign setting information, tables, and the various rules adjustments I’ve used. It’s not something I’m pursuing seriously at the moment, but I’ve already written a collective 36 pages of back-end material, just to help run the game. There’s also the play reports, which take a few hours each week.

Dumb Stuff Taken Seriously: Did you know I have a podcast? Well I do! It has absolutely nothing to do with tabletop games, which is why I’ve never mentioned it here before. It’s just me and my buddy Rabbi Tzvi Kilov sitting around trying to find common ground on silly topics. When we’re on top of things, it updates weekly. When we’re not, it updates sporadically. It’s not something that either of us stress about. It’s more of a palate cleanser. An easy way to spend some time chatting with a friend, and feel like something has been accomplished at the end of it. None the less, on a week when we update it, it takes up about 4 hours of my time, between recording and editing the thing.

…Ahem: I write salacious material under a pseudonym. Without rendering that pseudonym pointless, there’s not a whole lot I can say. I make no money from it yet, but I probably get more personal recognition for it than I do for any other project I’m working on. I debated as to whether I should include this, but it’s something that consumes a chunk of my writing energy, so it would seem dishonest not to.

Imminent Projects
These are things I will release this year. Preferably in the first half of the year. I realize I have a terrible track record with deadlines, so you can take that with as much salt as you like. But, if I stop setting deadlines, that’s the same as giving up, and I won’t do that.

Bubblegum Berzerk: The working title for a completely new game that is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a kind of hyper-masculine, fast paced, guns blazing, science fantasy, dungeon runner, that exists somewhere on the gradient between role playing game and board game. It’s not the sort of thing I would have come up with on my own, but a few months back my buddy Jesse Newman invited me to a one shot. He was running a game he had quickly homebrewed himself, and let me tell you: it was a uniquely entertaining experience. I had never played another game quite like it.

During the whole last hour of the game I was distracted by all the possible rules tweaks that kept popping into my head. Afterwords, when Jesse asked me if I had enjoyed myself, I asked if he would let me co-author a publication with him, so we could  sell it for mad crazy cash money. He said yes.

Since then we’ve been polishing the game up, adding some tables, some custom flavor, some sample adventures, etc. At one point we sincerely thought we could get the thing published before Christmas. Unfortunately both of us had bills to pay, and jobs to work, and that didn’t pan out. But we’re certainly close to having the writing done. After which the art & the layout stuff may take some undetermined length of time.

Be excited for this.

▓▓▓ ▓▓▓▓▓ ▓▓ ▓▓▓ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ ▓▓▓▓: This is a total copout, I know. The whole point of this post is to be more open about what I’m working on. I can say that right now, this is the project that is devouring most of my time. Roughly 6-8 hours every day, 5 days a week. It’s an adventure module. And, at least in its core concept, I think it’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever written.

I don’t want to say any more because I’ve already put a ton of work into how I will reveal this project to the world. The blog post announcing it is already on the schedule and everything. So in this singular instance I’m going to continue playing my cards close to my chest. But I promise: this, and that one thing in the section above, are the only things I’m keeping from you.

As Seen On TV: This is a card game I came up with a few years ago. When I started writing this post, I put it very firmly in the category below this one. At that point I hadn’t touched it in over a year, and had no plans to get back into it soon. The single playtest I’d run had been a crazy good time. But the execution of the game felt sloppy, and I could never think of how to fix that.

Then, as I’m typing up this very summary, I realized something: I’d actually played it much more recently. Not my game exactly, but another game, professionally published, which used an insanely similar resolution mechanic: Superfight.

Using that game to guide my thinking, all of the problems with As Seen on TV just fell away. Over the weekend, when I usually avoid working on projects, I couldn’t stop myself from cutting up paper and sleeving 100+ cards. I’m currently waiting on more sleeves to arrive so I can get the full game put together.

The basic idea is that one player draws some ridiculous problem. The other players then use the cards in their hands to create a ridiculous invention which solves that problem. Then they’ve gotta make an infomercial style pitch in favor of their product. At the end, the player with the problem “buys” one of the products, and that player gets 1 point.

The real trick with this one is going to be navigating the publishing process. I don’t mind self-publishing books, because there are tools which allow me to self-publish a high quality product.  Card games are a whole other can of worms. I’ve never played a print-and-play card game, and I don’t want to ask other people to do so either. That means I gotta be a grown up and find a publisher.

Projects I Will Finish
None of these are part of my day-to-day writing routine at the moment. There are only so many hours in the day, and everything above this point in the list takes priority. That being said, I will not give up on any of it. I’ve spent way too much fuckin’ time on each of these to let them rot away, unread, on my hard drive. As soon as I’m done with one of the things above, something from this section will move up to fill the space.

Miscreated Creatures: The biggun, my monster book. I started working on this fucker at some point in the later half of 2013, which means it has been in serious production for 4 years now. At this point it’s pretty much a textbook example of that book that some pedantic fuck you know is always “writing,” but never actually finishes. I’m just glad I never kickstarted it.

I could write a whole post on the issues with this project alone. But, for the sake of brevity, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes on how the last few years have gone.

I completed my second draft at some point in late 2014 or early 2015. The full book. A second draft exists for all 331 monsters. Right around the same time, two things happened. First, I had an accident which caused me to lose most of the skin on both of my hands, and prevented me from doing any writing for a few months. Second, three new monster books came out that I read: Lusus Naturae, Fire on the Velvet Horizon, and Creature Compendium.

Reading these books, and reflecting on my own 2nd draft, I realized I’d made a fundamental mistake. The very core philosophy on which I had based the writing of Miscreated Creatures was flawed. Very little of what I had written was interesting, and much of what I had written was just pointless reinvention of the wheel that was more frustrating than it was worth. I’m not talking about some kind of juvenile “ugh, I hate that thing I wrote” bullshit. The 2nd draft of Miscreated Creatures was legitimately a shitty, unlovable book.

So I started a 3rd draft, and worked at a frantic pace. Within a couple months, I had 70 of the book’s 331 monsters updated, and they are glorious. The 3rd draft is really friggin’ good, and I’m excited to share it with you.

But at this point, still in early 2015, life got in the way. My girlfriend and I hit some serious financial troubles. The kind where you spend a lot of time hungry, and you’re not sure if your relationship is going to survive. Miscreated Creatures fell off my priority list as I spent all my time looking for a job, packing up my apartment, and trying to avoid the next inevitable fight with my ladyfriend. Things finally started to get back on track in late 2015 when I found a job. An emotionally demanding, full-time job that didn’t leave me a lot of energy to write when I got home. I started working on smaller projects. I continued working more or less full time from September 2015, to December 2016. And so Miscreated Creatures still sits,

But after the nightmare that was 2015, I’m finally starting to find some stability in my life. Enough to plan my writing around. My hope is that after those two projects listed under “Immenent” are completed, Miscreated Creatures can go back to being my #1 priority, and I can finally get this beast out the door.

Dungeon Moon: Out of everything I’ve ever done, I think more people have expressed interest in seeing a Dungeon Moon book than anything else. (Though ORWA may have eclipsed it recently.)

The thing is, very little of what I have actually written for Dungeon Moon would work as the basis for a book. It could be repurposed for a book, but I can’t really publish it the way it was originally written, because the way it was originally written was completely unsustainable, and barely usable.

Fortunately, about 7 months ago, I stumbled on an idea that I called Unspecified Dungeon Space. It’s something I’m planning to write about in a future post, but TL;DR it’s the missing piece of the Dungeon Moon puzzle for me. Now my mind is swirling with ideas for how I could put together a Dungeon Moon book. The only thing I’m missing is some space in my schedule. It’ll be a long time before I have that, and even when I do, it’ll be a long road before Dungeon Moon is ready to publish. But when I finally get there, I’m confident you’ll love what I’ve got to share with you.

The Boulder Dungeon: A little less than 2 years ago, a buddy of mine wanted to play some D&D. So I spent 10 minutes coming up with a dungeon, then I ran it for him. He died 3 times, then gave up. Later, I talked about the experience on Google+, and Cecil Howe spontaneously drew some art and maps of my idea. Then he told me to key them, so I did.

The funny thing is that the writing for the Boulder Dungeon is about 80% complete. Both of us fell off the project, but it really just needs a few tweaks and some polish before it’s done. After that it just needs some art, and some layout work, and it’ll be ready to share. But as with many things, all I lack is time. I’m already writing 12-14 hours a day, and can’t really push that any further without breaking my poor fragile little brain.

The Sideways Tower of Slaggoth the Necromancer: Do you remember The Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer? It was the first module I completed and published, and people seemed to like it. Well the sequel has been sitting on my shelf, more or less a complete first draft, since 2014.

The vast majority of the creative work is done: maps, room descriptions, NPCs. It’s a lot bigger, and a lot more interesting than Slaggoth’s tomb, and I’m still excited to share it with you. I just need to find the time to finish it.

The Luncheon: One day in like…friggin’ 2013, I sat down at lunch and I sketched out a dungeon on a pad of paper. Every day for a week I came back to this dungeon and worked on it for an hour before going back to work. I dubbed it the Luncheon, and it was really kinda clever.

I later expanded the dungeon to exist in a symbiotic relationship with a town built above it, full of people who don’t want anyone exploring the dungeon beneath their town. It’s a small, simple project, but one that I think people would enjoy. Like the Boulder Dungeon and Slaggoth’s Sideways Tower, most of the work on the Luncheon is long finished. I just got distracted when I started the second draft.

1,000 Dragons: Like I said in my post about how I structure encounter tables, I think our games need more Dragons in them. I’ve got this whole dragon philosophy that I want to share, how to make them, how to run them, how often they should appear, etc. And because I can’t ever take the simple road, I figured I’d make 1000 examples to help communicate that philosophy effectively.

Currently there’s only about 250 dragons in the book, but that’s a solid start!

Projects in Limbo
I honestly don’t know what will happen with any of these projects. I’ve put enough work into them that I’d like to do something with what I’ve written. But I haven’t written enough to feel bound to finish them.

Anything is possible with these. Some might move up the list over time. Other might end up as much smaller projects than they were initially conceived as. Still others might be rolled into other projects, or just scrapped altogether.

They Came from the Silver Wheel: This is a weird one. One day, someone asked me to run a campaign for them. I said yes, then I sat down and wrote a 6 page player document on the spot. I even made some art for it.

The idea of the campaign was that the players were these semi-brainwashed people who would occasionally wake up standing outside of a giant silver disk. Their job was to collect fuel for the disk on whatever world they landed on–a different campaign setting each time. Once they gathered the fuel, they got back on the disk, the session ended, and the disk moved on to a new world.

The PCs were essentially slaves, but there were some crazy cool benefits for remaining enslaved. Laser guns, hit point boosts, the works. That being said, it’s explicitly stated in the document that if the players want, they can just not return to the disk. They’re not the only ones slaves, so it’ll eventually get fueled up and leave without them, leaving them stranded forever in whatever campaign setting they chose to settle down in. Their cool toys will all break down, and they’ll have to start from scratch in a new world.

I was incredibly excited about the project for all of about a week. I still think there’s a lot of potential in the idea, but I never did end up running the game, so it never really had an opportunity to develop properly.

Serial Killer Board Game: A slasher movie twist on asymetrical war games. One player plays the killer, while the others all play as potential victims. The players move around the board,trying to escape without getting killed, and the killer tries to kill everyone. I’ve come up with a dozen different board game ideas over the years, but settled on pursuing this one because it seemed like the most managable concept.

I’ve got a thrift store copy of monopoly that I’ve chopped up and repainted to experiment with. So far, though, I haven’t managed to make the game even slightly fun. Which, ya know, is kind of a problem.

The Clitoris is the Devil’s Doorbell: One day I found this image, and I showed it to my girlfriend:

The Clitoris is the Devil's Doorbell
Yes, I know it’s fake.

She and I thought it was riotously funny. Then we then spent the next hour or so pacing around each other, talking about what kind of wacky adventure module could arise from that idea. We came up with this horrible hell dildo which could turn a vagina into a portal to hell. And what if the church was keeping it in hiding? And what if a rebellious young nun who had been forced into the convent decided to use the dread artifact?

Long story short, there’s a fairly well researched outline of this idea sitting on my hard drive. At one point I even spent several hours pouring over maps of France looking for a suitable location to set it in. If I ever do finish it (and, of all these projects, this is easily my favorite), it’ll be set in a village based off of Baume Les Messieurs.

SciFi Game: I have a strong dislike for pretty much every Science Fiction RPG in the OSR. I’ve read a few which I’d call decent, but just don’t fit my needs. Others are…dumb, and bad, and awful.  Anyway, a few years back, there was this SciFiRPG which everyone told me was amazing, so I read it. It was not amazing, which made me frustrated.

I got myself pretty worked up over this at the time, so I started to sketch out my own SciFi rules. Something which stuck to the core D&D model, just with different base assumptions about who the characters were and what they’d be doing. I spent about two months working on this in my spare time, before I realized I was distracting myself from more important projects, and that I needed to shelve this idea before it consumed too much of my time.

I’d still love to complete a Science Fiction game, but at this point I think it’s more likely that everything I wrote here will be rolled into ORWA if the players ever manage to find a space ship, and escape mars.

Fallin: Ironically, Fallin is the one project on this whole list which I am almost certain I will abandon, but it’s also probably the single most complete game I’ve ever written from scratch. (With the exception of Bubblegum Berzerk).

The goal of Fallin was to emulate the feel of the best Fallout video games, without ripping them off completely, and without trying to emulate their mechanics in the slightest. At it’s core, the game was a B/X clone, tinkered with until it was barely recognizable.

The reason I probably won’t move forward with Fallin is ORWA. When my players in ORWA discovered the Internet, I was forced me to quickly add some technological elements to the game, so I drew on Fallin. At this point, about 80% of the cool stuff from Fallin is already in ORWA, so it seems redundant to persist with the project.

The only reason I haven’t written Fallin off completely is that there’s still a lot of cool stuff in it that doesn’t fit in ORWA. Most likely I’ll just try to fit it into a later draft. Other stuff may just be lost to the ether. Gotta kill your babies, yo.

What I Need to Improve on as a Referee, 2017 Edition

Community D&D episode, Pierce on throneCompletely by accident, I stumbled on a post I made last January reflecting on my failings as a referee, and describing the two major ways I wanted to improve.  Considering that the timing of my stumble was so perfect, (literally on January 1st of the new year), I figured it’d be a good time to take another look. To reflect on how I did with my self improvement last year, and in what ways I can continue to improve this year.

In last year’s post, I discussed two ways in which I wanted to improve. First, I wanted to become a more responsive referee. Someone who didn’t need to dig through notes and books in order to answer questions. Second, I wanted to maintain a more consistent game world. One where characters and factions recurred, and the players started to gain a sense of place. And as weird as it is to say this…mission accomplished? I’ve managed to become really good at both of those things.

Both of these goals were kind of accomplished by the same, single change in my refereeing strategy: I stopped putting in much work before each session, and instead I put in all my work after each session.

I used to write multi-paragraph-long room descriptions for each room, which had to be done before I ran my game each week. It was an immense strain on my creative efforts, and on my time. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s the first room players encounter within Dungeon Moon. Almost every room was like this:

Spiral staircase, descends 6 stories from the surface. It twists around a large golden pillar, which is covered in gouges of various sizes and textures. It looks as though gold might have been chipped away from the pillar using knives.

If the players attempt to cut gold from the pillar, the gold will turn to a small snake, and successfully bite whoever is holding it. They must make a save v. poison, or all gold they touch for the next 24 hours will rot away to nothing. The snake will immediately try to escape, and will grow to maturity in 1d4 weeks. Once mature, it will hunt the one who created it until it is destroyed.

The secret door can only be discovered by searching for secrets on the appropriate section of wall. A small press-stone opens it.

For the last year, my prep work has been crazy low. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the many random tables I’ve written, which only need to be restocked occasionally. The rest of the work is usually doodling or downloading a few maps, and writing a handful of sentence-long room descriptions in the margins, with arrows pointing to where they’re relevant.

When I was running Dungeon Moon, I had nearly 30 pages worth of maps in front of me, which had to be cross referenced with an equal number of document files with the room descriptions in them (which might, themselves, be 8 or 9 pages long). For On a Red World Alone, I might have 3-5 maps in front of me for any given session, but that’s it. All the information is right there, which allows me to be lightning fast with my response when the players do something.

This does require a lot more improvisation, which means that I have to be deadly careful of creating Quantum Ogres. But that’s a whole other discussion.

On the back end, as you may have noticed, I do an imperial fuck ton of note keeping for each session. It’s really boring to write, and sometimes it takes almost as long as running the actual session did, because I have such a hard time focusing while I do it. But, I’m tremendously happy to have those 40 play reports. Not only does it delight my archivist sensibilities, but those play reports are my best source for finding new challenges for the PCs to deal with. Browsing those records, it never takes me long to find someone in there who probably has a grudge against the NPCs, and might be scheming against them.

Those play reports, combined with the work I’ve done to improve my factions, and my encounters, have made ORWA feel like a consistent world, and I’m  super proud of that.

I also had a third goal last year. One I didn’t mention, because it seems gauche to talk about. I wanted to revive Papers and Pencils.  This website was a lifesaver to me during a very dark period of my life, and it remains a touchstone for my well being. When the website is dead, it’s because my life is in chaos, and I probably don’t feel very good about myself. If you look at the sidebar, you’ll notice that 2014 and 2015 were pretty much dead, and you can imagine how I was feeling.

Heck, roughly a third of all the posts in 2015 happened in September of that year. I just pulled out my personal logs to see what was going on that month. On the 3rd, I finally got a job after months of unemployment and financial uncertainty which nearly destroyed my relationship with my lady friend. A few days later, I created the Magic Words system.

In this, too, I was successful. Not only did I manage to produce at least 1 post every week, but I also built up a buffer of posts to keep the blog healthy, even when I don’t have the time to maintain it. I wouldn’t mind seeing the blog get up to 2 posts a week, but I’m perfectly happy with just one. (I suppose if you count the ORWA play reports, it already IS two posts each week. I don’t count the ORWA play reports).

I’m never going to hit 2012 levels of blog activity again, but that’s just part of me maturing as a writer. In 2012, P&P was the only writing I was doing. In 2017, P&P is a single project among many. Most of what I write is too big to be a blog post. And honestly, my average post quality in 2012 was garbage compared to my average post quality in 2016. I much prefer putting out one quality post each week, compared to heaping writing onto the Internet as fast as I can manage.

So there it is. In 2016 I had 3 goals, and I succeeded with all of them. I know a lot of celebrities died, but it was honestly a pretty good year for me. Which brings me to the question: what do I want to improve on next?

None of my goals this year are as dramatic as last year’s. I’m more or less happy with where I am as a referee, and my concern is more about fine tuning my skill, rather than pursuing an entirely different philosophy. So here are some things I’ve been thinking about:

Languages: Last night I was revising the skills list for my ORWA campaign. When I got to the Language skill, I thought “huh. Nobody ever puts points in that. I wonder why.” This thought was quickly followed by an answer:”Because nothing in your campaigns ever speaks any language other than English.”

I really have never included language barriers in my games, and I need to give it a try. It will enhance the alien-ness of the creatures my players encounter. It’ll also allow me to give them information with a lock on it. Or maybe it’ll just give me an opportunity to finally use the languages rules I drafted last year, where you get a +1 to your reaction roll if you can speak in a person’s native tongue.

It’s entirely possible that I will discover I don’t like having language barriers in the game. In that case, I can drop the Language skill, and continue on running games as I always have. But before I throw the idea out completely, I’d like to make an effort.

Hirelings: You know how in the first half of Order of the Stick, Varsuvius’ raven familiar only poofs into existence when it’s useful to Varsuvius? The joke, of course, being that despite the fact that it’s “always there,” it’s never acknowledged unless it has some benefit to the party’s goals.

I need to stop allowing that with hirelings. I need to start taking an active role in making the party’s hirelings feel present at all times. Sure, they may be the PC’s employees, but they’re still NPCs, and that means it’s my job to play them.

It’s a fine line to walk. As referee, I already do the majority of the talking. The last thing my game needs is for me to start dominating half of player discussions, simply because there are nearly as many hirelings as there are players. They’re not GMPCs. They can be deferential to their employers.

But they need to be present. They need to have preferences, they need to express concerns. They need to create opportunities for players to grow to like, or dislike them. That’s all on me.

Profit: I don’t know if I ever mentioned this on Papers & Pencils, but in July of 2014 I quit my job so I could have more time to write. It was a pretty good job, where I made a lot of money, and had great job security, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So, at the prodding of my lady friend, I quit.

Since then, if I’m being brutally, humiliatingly honest, I have made less than $100 from writing. Less than $100 in 2.5 years. That’s legitimately difficult for me to admit out in the open. It reflects really fuckin’ poorly on me, in more ways than one. In order to get by, I’ve worked a few minimum wage jobs, and at some point along the way I just kinda accepted that as the new norm.

But this cannot be the norm. I need to find a way to start making some money off of my work, or I won’t be able to continue to justify spending as much time on it as I do. This means a lot of things. I need to actually finish some of these bigger projects and get them published. I need to find out if there’s any potential in setting up a Patreon for P&P. I need to get over myself and learn to ~hrnuk~ self promote.

So that’s how my 2017 is shaping up. How about yours?


Structuring Encounter Tables

Random EncounterA couple weeks back I shared how I handle factions in my ORWA campaign. People seemed to like it. I like it when ya’ll like things. So in an effort to experience more of your approval, I’m going to tell you how I construct encounter tables. Once again, I don’t think I’ve got anything particularly revolutionary on my hands here. It’s just a method that I’ve put together over the last few years, which works well for me.

First off, all my encounter tables are 2d6 tables. The bell curve allows me to define some encounters as more or less frequent than others. The most frequent encounters can be a little mundane, and I’ll use them to create a feeling of place for the players. (More on that below). The less frequent encounters can be the zanier stuff that I love to include, but would end up making the game feel disjointed if they were omnipresent. You could, of course, get a similar effect with a 2d4 table or a 2d8 table, but I personally find the former too restrictive, and the latter too excessive.

2 is always a dragon, because we need more dragons. The game is called “Dungeons and Dragons,” yet in my experience, the appearances of dragons end up being exceedingly rare when contrasted with how often dungeons show up. They don’t need to be these hulking colossal beasts capable of stepping on PCs as though they were ants. They don’t need to be impossible to defeat, so long as they’re scary. A 10 hit dice lizard the size of a car, with a bite, two claw attacks, and a breath weapon, is more than enough.

These dragons can be interesting social encounters where the players try to figure out how to not get eaten. Dragons can also create a situation where the players feel they have to flee from combat. Both of these first options allow the dragon to become a recurring villain for the players, which may eventually drive them to seeking the final option: fight the dragon. And sure, there’s a good chance it will kill them. But there’s also a slim chance it won’t, and then they’ll have all of the wealth and glory that slaying a dragon will bring them.

Honestly I could write about dragons all day. I’m literally writing a book about dragons and how important they are to include in D&D. I’ll leave it by reiterating my thesis here: on the encounter table, 2 is always a dragon.

Likewise, 12 is always wizards. Because we need more wizards. Not because the game is called “Dungeons & Dragons & Wizards,” but because I fucking love wizards, and you know that you do too. Much like dragons, you can justify a wizard being pretty much anywhere, so there’s rarely any reason not to have a wizard in the 12 spot.

To facilitate this for myself, I wrote a d4 table of wizards. It’s a pretty short table, which has served me for about a year of real time without needing to be expanded, or have any of its entries replaced. Like dragons, I prefer for these to be frightening encounters, but not impossible to overcome by parley, flight, or combat. This requires a little beefing up from the standard magic user, which hey, look, I wrote a table to help you do that. I also usually include a retinue of devoted servants, which I presume most wizards of prestige would have.

7 is recurring characters. This isn’t as imperative to me as “2 is a dragon” or “12 is a wizard,” since it doesn’t always make sense for recurring characters to show up no matter where the players are. But I do like to include it wherever possible, because it’s a lot of fun.

I maintain a separate table for recurring characters, which I roll on whenever this comes up. There are basically two ways for an encounter to end up on that table. The first is to be a friendly NPC that the players enjoyed interacting with. For example, in ORWA, the players once visited a market, where they bought Giga Zucchinis from a guy with a crazy Russian accent who swore they would make your penis “better.” (Not bigger. Better.) The players had a raucous good time with him, so I threw him in the recurring character table, and he has become a kind of mascot for the game. Every time he shows up the players spend a good 10-15 minutes talking with him, and new players are inculcated into the joke.

The second way to get on the recurring characters list is if I think an antagonistic NPC has “unfinished business” with the party. Maybe they want to get payback, or maybe they just want to beat the party to the punch on completing some quest or another.

Recurring characters make the game world feel more interconnected. It’s not just a linear series of events, it’s a world where you can bump into an old friend, or discover that your past actions had unintended consequences.

I should note that I never put wizards or dragons onto the recurring character table. That would wreck the whole point of sticking those two options at the extreme ends of the table in the first place. They’re supposed to be rare, and scary. They can still recur, they just do it when a 2 or a 12 is rolled, rather than a 7.

6 and 8 are there to build a sense of place, as I mentioned above. When put together, these two results have a greater chance of coming up than any single result on the table. So, if you stick encounters that are emblematic of the environment’s theme in these two slots, it will make that theme more concrete and meaningful for the players. Which brings me back to ORWA’s factions.

Each of ORWA’s factions controls a territory, and each territory has its own encounter table. So when the players are in The Fighting Mongoose territory, an encounter would be rolled on The F.M. encounter table. But once they crossed over into another territory, encounters would be rolled on that territory’s encounter table. To create a sense of place, I want a good number of the encounters on each table to remind players of what territory they’re in.

So, while in Outsider territory, 6 and 8 might both be “2d6 Outsiders.” I might vary it up a bit, by having 6 be “2d6 outsiders on foot, without any urgent business” while 8 is “2d6 outsiders on mounts, who have a serious purpose.” Either way, 6 and 8 are usually pretty mundane. It feels boring to write, but in play it’s nice to have a little contrast with the weirder stuff you might encounter.

So with 2, 12, 7, 6 & 8 all assigned, that leaves a mere 6 “free” spaces that I have to get creative with. And while all of the above are meant to be infinitely repeatable, I like to make these remaining 6 spaces specific enough that they have to be re-stocked if the players kill them. I also like to divide them roughly 50/50 between weird encounters that support the sense of place, and weird encounters that are just plain weird.

I don’t feel like I need to explain weird encounters that are just plain weird. It’s literally whatever crazy shit you can possibly come up with. But what is a weird encounter that creates a sense of place? Here are some examples.

The Rulers Beneath the Black are religious fanatics. In their territory, one encounter might be an archbishop of the faith whose fanaticism is even more wildly out of hand than most. He’s calling down the powers of his god to smite people for wearing shoes on the wrong feet, or parting their hair incorrectly. Another encounter might be a street preacher surrounded by a prostrate crowd. A third might be someone practicing a minority faith in secret because they’re afraid of retribution from the establishment. All of these encounters remind the players of where they are in the world.

Another example is the territory of the Comet Callers. They’re all Wizards, which is why it’s one of the few places in my game where 12 isn’t a wizard, because both 6 and 8 are wizards. (Comet Caller territory is dangerous as shit.) In their lands, encounters will often be things that were obviously done by a wizard who isn’t currently present, such as an “undead work site,” where skeletons have set up fleshy equipment to perform some complex task with an obscure purpose. Perhaps the players will come upon a failed homunculus with wings and insect legs sticking out at random angles. Or maybe they’ll come upon a chain gang sifting through sand looking for some ancient jib-jab that a wizard believes to be here.

If I’m out of ideas and I just need to fill space, “open X monster book to a random page” is always an option. I’ver certainly got enough monster books sitting around, and there’s no reason I can’t do an on-the-fly monster conversion from Pathfinder to LotFP. Another good option that works pretty much anywhere is “2d20 raiders from the nearest opposing faction.”

One last thing I’d like to mention is that the dangers on the table should reflect how dangerous an area is supposed to be. Regarding ORWA, as I said in my previous post: unless you’re in the very heart of a faction’s territory, you’re never more than 2 steps from chaos. But that doesn’t mean that some places aren’t more or less dangerous than others. Certainly all of the major factions try to keep their territory safe. The Redstone Lords are notably better at it than anyone else is, so their encounter table is a little less dangerous than average. Meanwhile, places like No Man’s Land, the Sewers, or the territory belonging to The Friends of Needletooth Jack have much much more deadly encounter tables.

There’s nothing wrong with encounters that are more likely to end peacefully. They can still be interesting. As mentioned, the Redstone Lords are pretty good at keeping their territory safe. So instead of encountering a rampaging mutant monster, the players might encounter a political candidate looking to secure votes. They might stumble onto unique locations, like a slave market, or an announcer reading out a new law to a crowd.

And that’s how I write my encounter tables.

The End.

D&D Christmas Carols: Searching for Silver and Gold

Look here my goodly gentlefolkRemember last year when I wrote & performed a D&D themed Christmas song called “Damage Dice the Ref Rolled High?” Remember when I said I wanted to make it a yearly tradition to write & perform a D&D Christmas song each year.

Well I did you one better. I wrote a D&D Christmas song, then I found someone with actual ability to do the singing part! This one is to the melody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and is performed by my sister, Olivia Whelan.

Searching for Silver and Gold


Look here my goodly gentlefolk
This map won’t lead astray.
A path to fame and fortune,
It can be yours today.
The journey will be perilous,
But you will be okay.

O searching for silver and gold.
Silver and gold.
O searching for silver and gold.

With dreams of future glo-ory
A band began to form.
Comrades with nothing else to lose
Swore to brave any storm.
A Thief, a Witch, a Farming Boy;
Left Homes both safe and warm.

The Bloodwood lay ahead of them,
Each feigned to have no fear.
The warnings of their mo-others
Were ringing in their ears.
All knew within the forest dark
The serpent would appear.

It came upon them quietly,
Just as the stories said.
A cry rose from the farming boy,
One bite took off his head.
The witch invoked a sleeping hex.
Now two left, frightened, fled.

Before them lay the gra-ave yard
As far as they could see.
Inward swung the iron gate
Shedding rusted debris.
Passing between the marker stones
They made grim repartee.

Sleeping among the grassy mounds,
A day’s march from the gate.
Here the ghoul stumbled over them
With hungers yet to sate.
The witch awoke and raised a cry
The thief’s blade was not late.

Fin’ly the lake shore beckoned them,
The goal of all their strife.
The witch would breath upon the shore,
One lung to keep each life.
The thief dove into the cold dark,
Teeth clamped around her knife

The Sun’s light far behind her now,
A sight near broke her will.
A faceless mass with glowing skin,
And wicked, waiting quills.
Beneath the thing she saw their chest.
Her task she would fulfill.

With shroud of dark to cover her,
Through water the thief creeped.
But eyeless it still spotted her,
Foul barbs cut her breast deep.
With flailing hand she snatched the chest,
To surface quickly leaped.

Sensing that the beast followed her,
The thief scrambled for shore.
Ran to her love with chest in hand,
Not knowing what’s in store.
The barb that had been meant for her,
The witch’s lung did gore.

Far from the graves, she buried her.
Too good for that foul place.
The fortune bought cheap pleasures,
But could never erase
The loss of one whom she had loved.
The thief died in disgrace.

To all who celebrate it, I hope you’re enjoying your Christmas, and that this brightened your day. As a little bonus, here’s a supercut of all the times Olivia fucked up:

And for those of you looking for one more tragedy that can be attributed to the 2016 meme, here’s me singing the song. Because I wanted a record of it, and I enjoy blowing audio levels.

Questgivers are Evil

Evil QuestgiverTwo thousand years after the fall of Oriac, seven adventurers came to Negune. Many adventurers had come before them, but all had either returned home or perished. These seven would prove different. […] For over thirty years, they traveled to every land of Negune. They slew monsters, saved villages, and bred good will throughout the land.”

I wrote that a few years back as part of the history of my Ascendant Crusade game. It’s the story that explained the way the nations on the continent were broken up. One for each of the heroic adventurers who had shown up out of nowhere and fixed everything. It’s a setting I was passionate about for many years, and I still have a place in my heart for it. But this particular tidbit is a good example of something that has come to bother me a lot about the stories that come out of D&D games. “Everything was bad. Nobody was competent. Fortunately, a small group of nobodies from nowhere fixed everything.”

I’m not a story guy. You wouldn’t have to try very hard to find quotes where I vehemently deride the over-emphasis of story in tabletop gaming. But I can’t pretend that story doesn’t play some role.

What really gets to me about this trope is the idea that players are SPECIAL. That even at first level, they’re basically the only instrument of change in the world. The only characters with agency. Of course, in matter of fact, they are the only characters who have agency, but rubbing it in their faces like this just seems gouache. How can you ever feel like you matter if the world is obviously constructed for the sole purpose of making you feel like you matter?

Which brings me to questgivers, an essential element to the game. They’re the folks who get stuff moving by giving the PCs something useful to do. There are a few essential elements that make up a questgiver’s character. First, they want something done. Second, they’re going to rely on strangers to do it for them. Third, they’re probably going to offer a reward for getting that thing done.

Lets start with that point about the PCs being strangers. We (as in you and I, looking at this text on a computer monitor) live in an anachronistic period of history. A period created by recent inventions such as the train, the automobile, the telephone, and the Internet.

These inventions allow us to buy our groceries & build our relationships outside of our immediate vicinity. Prior to this era, any community that wasn’t a cosmopolitan city would be tight knit. Strangers were immediately recognizable, and nobody liked or trusted them. So what would drive someone from that community to ask a stranger for help, when there are doubtless plenty of strapping young locals who would be happy to help?

We’re better at dealing with strangers now because everyone is a stranger. We don’t have a huge pool of neighbors to draw upon for every little thing. But that’s not true in a less modern setting, such as the ones we typically play D&D in.

Which brings up my next point: in any given place, there are tons of people who can get stuff done. Getting something done is a privilege. Ever notice how politicians will often stop other politicians from getting something done, even if they want to get the same thing done themselves? They don’t want the other party to get the glory of accomplishing this task. This is not a new practice, it’s as old as human society.

If you’re a king, you want your heir, or at least a strong supporter of yours, to do the cool things. Doing cool things strengthens their (and thus your) position. Likewise, if you’re a town of 30 people, you’ll want your own kin to handle a problem. It’s a matter of civic pride. And if a small town really can’t handle it themselves, then they’re going to expect the king to handle it. And the king is going to want to handle it, because if he doesn’t protect people from dangers, they’re going to start wondering why they pay taxes. It takes more than simple momentum to maintain an effective government.

Which brings us to the point of payment. People who do good things for money are not heroes. They don’t generate good will. Heroes are people who do good work without any promised reward. Heroes may be rewarded with positions, jobs, and land after the fact, but these things are not negotiated in advance. Certainly not out in the open, and certainly not for a simple cash payment. People who negotiate in advance for cash payment are called mercenaries.

Mercenaries are not heroes.

So when are mercenaries hired? In wealthy societies where the populace is unwilling to risk life and limb to protect their own lands, mercenary armies often replace home grown ones. But your PCs are not an army, they’re a handful of dudes with weapons who are willing to kill stuff for money. Who hires people like that?

People who want you to do some bad shit. People who want to deny knowledge of something. People who want to blame “those outsiders.”

In other words, questgivers are evil.

Now this isn’t a rule without exceptions. There will always be bounties on villains. There will always be towns at the end of their rope looking for 7 samurai. There will always be kingdoms ruled by despotic children who only send out soldiers to enforce tax collection. But there is pretty much NEVER going to be a long chain of dudes who want to hold your hand while you become an icon of heroic heroism and noble nobility, all while making sure your endeavors remain profitable.

Further, this doesn’t mean that players can’t be heroes if they want to be. It just needs to be their choice. They need to help people without being asked. When they do help people, they can’t then ask for payment, or ask for rewards that are not offered freely in gratitude. “Hero” is a tenuous title, and unless you’re dead, it can flip over to “tyrant” in a heartbeat.

It’s not my intent to argue that games should be more realistic as a general rule, or that this is the only way to play. Far from it. Anyone familiar with my work knows that realism bores me. The minute that somebody tries to justify a mechanic by saying it’s “more realistic,” my instinct is to just tune them out. But this idea of “the traveling adventurer” as an unambiguous hero shatters any sense of believability a story has for me. The way the word “adventurer” is used has become almost as cringe-inducing for me as the time I had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with my favorite university professor, and I spent the whole time talking about why his favorite TV show was dumb.

Play the way you want to play, of course, but for me, accepting a quest should mean that you’re about to do some shady ass shit that will probably hurt some good people.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.