RPG a Day 2020, Part Twenty-One – Push Your Luck with Stress in Alien

I was originally thinking about writing yet more praise of Trophy and the addictive ‘push your luck’ mechanics found there. I’m going to stick with pushing your luck but I want to talk about a different system I’ve not written about yet.

This nasty boy, ready to give you a chomp.

I was a massive fan of the Alien franchise as a kid. My dad showed us the first one when I was eight and my little brother was six. He figured we’d want to see an 18-rated movie and we should do that with him so he could talk us through everything afterwards. I can see some logic in that and hopefully it didn’t warp me too much. We saw Aliens shortly afterwards and when there were UK reprints of the Dark Horse comics, I picked them up from my newsagents. I bought the Kenner toys. I was going to be an easy mark for the Alien RPG by Free League even if I thought I was long removed from any Alien fanboyishness.

My favourite Alien toy… I might still have the blue facehugger somewhere.

The system used is similar to Coriolis, Forbidden Lands and others Free League have, which I own a few of but haven’t really read beyond a cursory skim. You have a pool of six-sided dice you roll, looking for a six. It’s a bit difficult not even being like Blades in the Dark’s system where you can succeed at a cost with a 4+ as your highest dice.

Hide if you can, it probably won’t save you, though.

So then there’s Stress. As the game goes on your character will get stressed out. You’ll see dead bodies, you’ll get attacked by monsters. It’s all really stressful. They’re a different set of d6’s which you add to your pool. The theory is that you’re getting hyper-vigilant, tense and focused on trying to get through the situation. That’s great, right? Extra dice are lovely. The problem is that they’re different for a reason. If you roll a 1 on any Stress dice, your character panics. There’s a table of results which show how you freak out. At first, they aren’t even all too bad when you’ve got a little Stress, so you kind of want to suffer some for that sweet bonus. You can perform some actions to calm down and lower it, so you might be able to fine tune it and try to keep some bonuses. Then it slips and gets a bit too much. Perhaps someone else panicking adds to your Stress of makes you panic as well. You can only manage so much and then it all explodes. This is what led to three of the surviving characters all going berserk and attacking each other in the grand finale of the game of Alien I ran. For some of the rolls they had, the Stress was perfect and really helped. Alas, in the end it didn’t and they weren’t able to escape LV-426, dying at each others’ and a xenomorph’s hands.

The last time I ran Alien.
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RPG a Day 2020, Part Twenty – Different Methods of Investigation in Games

I like a good mystery and back when I was first roleplaying Call of Cthulhu was my game of choice. It combined investigations with horror. The problem was that in a lot of the writing things could end up gated off by a success on a die roll. If you fail your Library Use roll, you just have to keep going. The 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu has apparently been a bit better at dealing with these sorts of things and it was of course possible to hack the system or adventures to behave better. Rather than do that, here are some games which have tackled investigation in interesting ways.

Trail of Cthulhu and Yellow King’s Investigative Abilities

Both born out of the Gumshoe system, Trail of Cthulhu and Yellow King bypass the need for a pass/fail system when clues to pursue are on the line. If you have a relevant ability then you can get any clues which are present. Nice and simple. I mainly know this from Yellow King as I’ve been working my way through that series of books at the moment.

As an example, an art student in Yellow King’s Paris setting is in the workshop of a friend who went missing. They have Sculpture as an Investigative Ability so they look around and the GM explains that there’s one statue which stands out from the others. Specifically the style doesn’t match the artistic flourishes which the missing friend put in his work. Maybe the feet are more normal than the artist makes them or the expression doesn’t fit those he tends to make. The player can accept that this is a clue and the statue stands out, or they can spend a Push to get a bit more. Maybe the Push allows the character to see wet footprints just about visible leading up to where the statue is but not away, or explain that the stone is not like anything found on Earth.

The King in Yellow?

Squamous and Cthulhu Dark’s Relentless Clues

These are two games which have quite different ways of handling cosmic horror. Cthulhu Dark is a game which follows the descent into forbidden knowledge and the innate tragedy befalling the cast. If you fight a monster, you’re dead right away in Cthulhu Dark. You have one stat which is your Insight slowly cracking as you see horrors you were not meant to see. Squamous takes more of an investigatory approach, allowing success in fights, campaigns and levelling up of characters.

Both these games do one specific thing with these stories: Even on a failed roll, you get a clue. Cthulhu Dark has you roll 1d6 plus one if you’ve got any character details (background, career, etc) which will help and another if you’re willing to risk your body or mind. You pick the highest result. On a four you get what you want, on a five you get a bit of a bonus and on a six you get too much. On a one to three you get only enough information to continue but with a sting in the tail like taking a lot of time, getting hurt or anything else along those lines.

Squamous uses 1d6 and you roll trying to get a result equal or above your stat. As an example you might roll against Mind to carry out research or Person to interview a suspect. You can get a minor bonus or penalty to the rolls, but not much. If you succeed you get a major clue: direct & clear actionable information you can make use of. If you fail you get a minor clue: vague & indirect, leading you to something which might help but you’ll need to work to get further with it.

I love that both of these games keep momentum even if you’re hurt or impeded somehow.

Some brilliantly bizarre art from Cthulhu Dark.

tremulus’ Lore Currency

The PbtA Lovecraft game tremulus gives out clues as the result of certain moves like Puzzle Things Out. This is in the form of Lore, a currency powering a move each playbook has, as well as any spells. The great thing is that the information gained can be anything to help drive the plot, but in giving them an amount of Lore you’re saying that this is specifically relevant to what they’re doing and providing them with a prize. The Lore Moves don’t always directly affect the investigation, as they can include things like healing other characters or asking questions about an object. Still, that kind of ‘Achievement Unlocked’ sort of thing in saying, “Have a point of Lore!” means the players know the information they’ve got is relevant to what’s going on in the story itself. Players can get lost or follow false leads, but in Puzzling Things Out, they might become aware of what’s in the scene which advances the story.

A small town with inevitable dark secrets in tremulus

Brindlewood Bay – The “Theorize” Move

This is something I love from a game I’ve been reading lately. Brindlewood Bay has you playing old ladies who are a book club, but also they solve murders.

The GM in the game creates or uses an existing scenario, but they don’t know who the murderer was. They interact with the suspects and the world, meddling and doing cosy moves as they go. The GM will have a list of clues, not specifically leading to any one suspect. Players may interpret where and how they’re found and GMs can skew them towards or away from someone. After the players think they’ve got enough clues they can make a Theorize move which looks like this:

That’s really cool. It means that not only can people play the same scenario multiple times but it keeps things interesting for the GM and players alike as we all build towards an answer which feels like it was always there from the fiction we built together.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Nineteen – My Custom Dread Tower

Let’s do it, let’s talk about Dread. It feels inevitable with the “Tower” theme.

Dread’s an early story game, relative to where we’re at these days with so many fantastic story games out there. The book is, as admitted by the author, a little padded because it was believed that any RPG should be pretty big. The system itself is pretty short but incredibly thematic. I’m a horror movie fan and despite being someone with lousy hand-eye coordination, the idea of the game appealed to me.

The bloody cover of Dread.

I’d watched an actual play of Dread on Tabletop which was great fun, but also meant that the kind of gamers I’d be running for could have seen it. I abandoned that scenario and moved onto the second, a science fiction one. I bought an off-brand WH Smiths version of a Jenga Tower which is charmingly rough and with slightly uneven pieces. I decided to consider that a feature rather than a bug. I also had a couple of plans.

First of all I got a toothbrush and some fake blood, then flicked it over the pieces so it was already bloodstained and even more thematic-looking. My second plan had to wait until play began.

The Tower.

I brought permanent markers to my first game of Dread and waited until a player died. One of the group, Maggie, did her best to never have to pull a block from the tower. You could do that, as there was always an option to stop pulling or to give up and fail. If a player does that, the GM can do anything short of killing the character. If they pull and succeed then that’s great, they’ve passed the action. It’s when you pull and the tower falls, that’s when you’re done. Maggie had what seemed like a wise plan at first, just not doing anything great or impactful first, but the problem is the group don’t pull blocks in a vacuum. The rest of the group had been pulling from an almost intact tower. This meant when a monster was racing through an airlock to get to Maggie’s character, she pulled and the tower fell.

The creature ripped her throat out and went on its way, continuing the hunt. I gave Maggie a pen and had her write her character’s name on the tower. The same happened with Saffy and her character who nobly sacrificed herself to save the group. Another name for the tower. These names would remain forever, along with the next characters to die in the second scenario, and the third.

I’ve been accumulating names now for a while, making a kind of evolving graveyard for future groups to see. If they die, their character will be trapped there forever. I’ve lent out the tower a couple of times so there are even names on there I don’t recognise. I love that, it means the tower’s got a life of its own. No one will ever know the fates of everyone who died there. It is eternal, waiting for the next deaths.

Some of the dead. I don’t know who Clippy is, but they probably had it coming.

There’s one last thing with this. Despite my dyspraxia putting me solidly on Team “I’ll run Dread but never play” I kind of need to practice with a Jenga type tower. There’s a really cool looking two player RPG called Star Crossed which I want to run. It’s about a star-crossed romance between two people attracted to each other but unable to act on it, like a programmer and hologram, an alien and first contact worker, a planet and its unstable moon… those kinds of relationships. As you play, you pull from the tower. You need it to fall at some point to let the inhibitions fall, but you need a certain amount of pulls to have happened in order to get the best level ending for your story. Too soon and the relationship will burn out too quickly; too late and you’ll never act on it at all. It sounds fantastic, but my current problems are my coordination problems and that the tower is covered in fake blood. It kind of sets an expectation of the sort of story the star-crossed romance I play will be.

Star Crossed
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RPG a Day 2020, Part Eighteen – Meeting Roleplayers in the Wild

It’s not happened a ton, but it’s happened more than you’d think. Certainly more than I thought likely. Meeting someone who seems normal and like other people, but then you find out they’re a fellow roleplayer. It’s great, kind of magical and understandably impenetrable to anyone else around, at least at first.

One of my first encounters was the older brother of one of my friends from primary school. Ollie Ballance and I would play with DC Super Heroes and Marvel Secret Wars action figures, with no care about crossing the franchises over. Once or twice we snuck into his older brother’s room and it was weird. It was a bit like a library with the amount of books in there. Who would need so many books? And why are so many hardback and A4? Ollie might have known but to me it all seemed alien, almost wizard-like. I discarded the thoughts and went back to our games.

Paranoia… possibly the edition I was using at the time. I definitely own this version.

At News International I probably had my biggest surprise appearance of roleplayers. I had a month of work experience in their library, back when they had one. It was a really interesting place, with journalists grumbling that there used to be a bar in its place and endless rows of rolling shelves. One of the longer stretches of time I had was with the data guys, who had to record on their databases each news article which came in and subjects so it could be easily sorted. My role was a bit different, having to catalogue some of the older court cases against them as all the new ones were already on a spreadsheet but the old ones were in rusty filing cabinets. It was mindless, but it was Excel, which I have a deep love for and I could listen to music.

I’d taken in an RPG to read… probably a D&D Third Edition book thinking of when this was. One of them saw this and started explaining that he and some of the others in the office were big into Paranoia, having played a bunch of games of it over the years. I’d only just got into Paranoia having bought a copy at GenCon UK a year before. I was amazed at hearing anyone acknowledge it out loud, especially in a place like this which was so… Alpha Complex at times. We didn’t really speak of it again, but it broke down the barriers between us and created a shared understanding.

At a colleague’s 50th birthday I was drunkenly confronted by a friend from work who started asking questions about D&D (he meant roleplaying in general, but like a lot of people, he just said D&D). After a few minutes I realised he was trying to ask to join a session and see what it’s like. He was die-curious and approached it like he was angling to join some kind of secret society. I agreed and while he was too shy to initially, he joined one of my weirder community nights running Trophy Dark. In that game I ran for him, having never played an RPG before, one of my writing group who often ran games at those nights, science fiction author Jeff Noon and his friend who’d also never roleplayed before. They all bought in beautifully to the tragic horror of Trophy Dark and it was an amazing session.

Ah Trophy… So wonderful, so horrible…

At the same workplace I’ve also found other roleplayers starting to come out of the woodwork. Some new hires in my old team, one of whom tried out a newbie night and instantly got hooked. A board game and basketball friend even told me about how he used lockdown to start exploring playing RPGs rather than board games. They started with D&D but quickly moved to Lasers & Feelings and now Breakfast Cult.

It’s been fascinating meeting so many people who are roleplayers and not as painfully ingrained into the online culture or anything. They’re just there, under the surface playing their games or pining to meet a group and start playing again. Who knows where the next one I find will be?

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Seventeen – Some Cosy Games

Today’s theme is “Comfort” so I thought it’d be good topic to have a look at some slightly more cosy games.

I like the idea of RPGs with some slightly calmer concepts, especially in this year of our Hellworld 2020. One of my first experiences of wanting to run RPGs was going around Arundel Castle as a kid and wanting to experience stories in that sort of an environment. Not slaughtering orcs or massive battles, but something more exploration-based and pastoral. It’s possible to have quieter moments in some more popular RPGs, but it’s kind of difficult when the mechanics incentivise murder and loot acquisition.

Journey Away by Jacob S Kellogg

Journey Away

Journey Away is a game which advertised itself on being without conflict. You make characters who are going on a journey in a small pocket of land, with stats you work out and give ratings to with no demand on how many of each stat you have. The older GM in me balked a little at that idea in the kind of, “What if players just put the highest rating possible in everything?” But then this isn’t about that so much. It’s a bit short and simple, but something I want to try out just in case it does work, as it’d be great if it did.

Sleepaway by Jay Dragon


Using the Belonging Outside Belonging system, Sleepaway is about young camp counsellors in a spooky summer camp. You look after new campers and have serene moments all while the Lindworm who tormented you in your youth is still there. It’s not without challenge and still has some spooky moments, but it looks like it’ll be great at showing those wistful camping trip moments. As an additional point of note, Wanderhome by Jay Dragon is on Kickstarter right now and looks like it’ll be an even more perfect game for this sort of theme.

Brindlewood Bay by Jason Cordova

Billed as ‘Murder She Wrote meets Shadow Over Innsmouth’, this game is about a book club of old women who happen to also solve mysteries. There’s literally a Cosy Move in the game. It has techniques like painting the scene baked into the system and a move where you can recall how your favourite mystery novel character solved a problem similar to what you’re facing. One thing I love is that you don’t even know who the murderer is until the players collect clues and process who the murderer was out loud.

Weave by Minerva McJanda

Weave is a game about young wizards in a world where magic is all created through clothing and the act of making it. If you have time and resources to work your magic then you succeed at what you’re doing, but if you don’t have both those things then life can get a bit tricky for you.

You’re on a kind of pilgrimage to discover the secrets of items belonging to different communities and by staying with them, you gather enough information to create a kind of clothing golem which will teach you secrets. It’s beautiful and interesting, with diceless mechanics and colouring in patterns for the different rote spells you can cast through your clothing.

You can build up relationships, but then when you’re done with your current step of the pilgrimage you move on, ever forward until you have made enough stops to learn your last spells and graduate. It was a really simple system, the book itself is tiny with every other page punctuated by example patterns people could make or get inspired by. Still, it worked for a two-session game and would carry on even better for a campaign.

Finally I also have:

Tavern, by Graham Walmsley

Tavern is a game I’ve had for a while but haven’t played yet. It’s a story game about daily life in a tavern. Not really even a fantasy one, although you probably could do that. You are the staff of the tavern, serving food to the locals, hearing some of their stories and then they set back out. You won’t always get a full story from them, but you’ll get bits of these people’s lives. You’ll use playing cards to represent them, but also the meals being prepared. It sounds like a fascinating little experience of liminal relationships and quiet moments shared in a pub. And what’s more cosy than a little chilled time in a pub with friends?

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Sixteen – Dramatic Battles and Managing Epic Scale

We all like a big fight, don’t we? Those bits in things like Game of Thrones where we’d have a lot of drama and tension, then a massive cathartic battle and the fallout. Or in Lord of the Rings, or any of those kinds of games.

The problem I have with these sorts of moments is it all scales out a bit too much. People become dots on the map or it ends up a bit board gamey. It becomes a tricky balance of making sure everything feels epic but personal at the same time.

I’ve had players take on whole units before, but that meant people were all split up and controlling multiple characters with NPCs serving as a kind of plot armour.

Here are a few aspects from my Fallen Kingdoms campaign, which had moved from D&D 4E to Fate Core.

The Battle of Leonis.

First of all I did a bit of a Mass Effect 3. The group were a resistance force building up armies for their big battle against the draconic forces which had through spin doctoring and outright murder become the rulers of the land. They went to places they’d allied with previously, fought and impressed rivals and found new people to help out. Each one became a card which was part of their forces. They even kept a record of how many people were offered up by each area. I loved Mass Effect 3 (don’t @ me) because it got all the doors you opened in the first games and closed them. There were conclusions to so many stories and rewards were more people on your side for the big final fight. If you failed in a mission there would be less (or no) people donated to the cause.

I kept things zoomed in at a player level. The group had their own missions, even though there were generals taking their orders and units doing all kind of things. They were able to issue some orders, but they had personal goals during the battle and some would split off to do diplomatic missions, emergency aid or carrying out assassinations. Personally as the GM, their good or bad decisions and the fallout from them impacted the overall level of success or failure which would happen. There were some rough schedules of things which would happen and some plans were just doomed (when the fire dragons weren’t distracted and could attack the giant wooden dwarf war mechs.

Even though I kept things personal for the group, I also let them see the overall view. The players aren’t characters and they needed to know that big things are happening. They worked for all those units, they’re invested in the big battle, so why not give them the big picture?

Harder They Fall, such an epic game.

Finally, a system’s actually been released which handles big unit battle really well. Minerva McJanda created Harder They Fall as a way of using dominoes to run big combats. It’s something I’ve done before in Dungeon World and will probably do again. Each unit (or person, if they’re a big or powerful person) has traits and actions they can try to do which aren’t just ‘I do a fight’. You can reposition around people, carry out underhanded tactics, draw folks in and so on. If you think you’re near enough you can try knocking the chain of dominoes over to see if you hit your foe. Or you could get archers to shoot enemies, plucking out individual dominoes making an attack useless. It’s high stakes, but you can run it and still have the heroes survive. No one’s getting taken out by a stray arrow unless they really want to be. I wrote a review on Who Dares Rolls and really recommend this as a way of playing mass combats.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Fifteen – Framing Scenes

Establishing a scene can be tough sometimes. You need to communicate information to the group quickly, and as a player you need to parse what’s being said for value.

It’s easy enough to say, “There’s a room with four kobolds” and leave it at that, but it’s pretty dull. Some GMs oversteer by describing everything in extreme detail. “The room is a slick green from a broken pipe leaking out refuse, there’s a battered old wardrobe which reminds you of home. It has been fitted out as a kind of makeshift bed, a weapon rack, a campfire and a hopefully dead rat on a spit which drastically needs turning. Oh, and there’s four kobolds.”

I get the instinct to describe everything first so people will take it in and then mention the kobolds, but it’s likely to get forgotten about the moment you say they’re there. This is bypassed in using tiles, maps and miniatures, but then that pushes imagination away and becomes simple backdrop to the grids and any markers for terrain. So back in theatre of the mind style play what do we want to do?

I couldn’t find a tile filled with trash so just imagine piles of trash.

Personally I like to hit the high notes. If the group are seeing a threat they won’t take it all in anyway, they’ll be alert. “The room’s slick and green, filled with trash. Four kobolds are arguing over a half-dead, half-cooked rat.” This way we’re adding a vague sense of what’s there, the enemies and what they’re doing in the room. They’re naturally part of the world instead of a mob simply standing and waiting to see an enemy.

Keeping details but making them a little vague can be useful, too. A player might ask questions about whether they could use any of the trash as a hiding place or a weapon and the answer can easily be ‘yes’ without contradicting anything you’ve said before.

Rather than using box text in encounters, I like to encourage this style by mentioning a couple of elements for the room which I can riff off, like, “4 kobolds & their camp. Slick w/sewage. Trash.” And that way I can keep track at a moment’s notice and if I end up not using something I can cross it off for my own continuity.

I do love some mischievous kobolds.

One final thing about scene framing which I love is a technique I first heard about from The Gauntlet, called “Painting the Scene”. This is where you can set the scene, but also invite questions from the group to help flavour a place. I love sharing ownership of a world and a story with players as it drives up their investment in it and means it’s not just being created by one voice. In this case, you might travel up the Dry Altar Mountains and as GM I might say:

“The mountain road is long, winding and you feel it difficult to keep a sense of direction. There are statues and ruined temples belonging to long-forgotten gods. Which ones stand out to you the most?”

Then the players can add things which could include a temple to add safety, a source of water in the dry mountains, hints to the backgrounds of the characters or even a threat. Other questions could be things like, “What tells you this market was once prosperous?” “What obvious tells does the waitress have that she knows more than she’s letting on?” And so on.

If you’ve not heard of this technique, I know surrendering some of the reality of the game over to the players might seem daunting but I definitely encourage it. As a form of worldbuilding and getting your players invested it’s great fun.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Fourteen – Online Game Banners

Here’s one in the “Charlie’s been running RPGs for twenty-six years but is still learning” category of entries.

I love a good online tool for managing a campaign and have mainly used Obsidian Portal for these past few years. My groups have rarely engaged with them to a level I’d like, but then I also forget about them. I think my high point was in a game of Amnesiac City, an RPG world I’d created and ran using the New World of Darkness system. In that one I had entries for different things including faceclaim photos of the cast, updated with a black and white version with “DEAD” in big red letters. I started the page in season two with one cast and as the final season brought new and old characters together, it was incredible seeing the group being whittled away.

The original campaign’s deleted so I don’t have an image of it, but I do have this X-Men cover image.

Anyway, banners. One thing I’ve never quite managed to get right is the banner, the first thing you see when you enter one of these pages. My last big campaign recorded on Obsidian Portal was Dungeon World Exodus, set in a gigantic city made of cities. There’s not really been a great way to show that other than to take more photos of Mark Oakley’s Thieves & Kings as I love the sweeping city of Oceansend but that doesn’t quite feel right. Being a comic, the panels didn’t really fit a banner. In the end I looked for old city walls and found this:

It’s uh… not great. I’m pretty sure I did it in a rush. It’s worse given that the second campaign was in a pastoral setting in one of the central cities inside Exodus, so this was an entirely unnecessary image.

I think my best work was on a sadly now deleted Dr Who RPG where I put an ice cream van against a weird landscape because that was the group’s TARDIS. I’ve not been able to find a copy so I can’t show it to you, but I assure you it looked pretty good.

I’ve been a little less customised with my approaches to banners lately. Masks and Band of Blades ended up being art from their main books, looking like these:

The Masks opening page on Obsidian Portal.
My Band of Blades opening page.

Next time I make a campaign with a good amount of lore I’ll try to make another custom banner and hope that adds to the buy-in from the group. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up commissioning something from Fiverr or somewhere similar.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Thirteen – Short and Long Rests are a Dull Mechanic

I’ve resisted the D&D bashing so far this month, but here we go. Rests are a really dull mechanic and should be changed. Admittedly a lot of D&D needs changing and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone run it rules as written in my entire roleplaying life because of that. But I’m talking about short rests, which aren’t just in D&D. They’re something a lot of games to do heal up.

D&D Third Edition was when I first realised that for a game about adventurers, players were way more cautious than they needed to be. Encounters were balanced to take down a percentage of the supplies (HP, spells, feats, etc) of the group and you should run them down a few before resting. Only players rarely realised that and would explore a small number of rooms before resting, and then repeating that. This happened in Hackmaster Fourth Edition as well, with my group making their way a couple of rooms at a time through a dungeon and then taking half a day to ride back to town and hide.

My old flat mate Ash simply reset the dungeon when he ran games. If we went to town to heal up and sell loot then everything would be exactly as it was before we did anything. It was videogamey and accomplished nothing because we’d only push our luck a little further before we realised we needed to rest and then everything would reset again.

Why aren’t there umbrellas in D&D?

I played Lost Mines of Phandelver with a group of old friends and my brother last year, to get him playing a tabletop game with folks and to just hang out with them, even if I didn’t really want to play D&D. Both travelling and in the first dungeon there were multiple long rests for the group, whenever we got near to 50% of our health. It cut into the action and we had to make sure where we were staying was safe, set up watches, etc. It never really felt right, seeming way too cautious, but at the same time it was a step which had become necessary at first and second level.

Games like D&D and Hackmaster are pretty damn lethal early on, so you’re going to need to grasp onto your health, especially if you’ve spent ages making your character. This means a short rest is going to be needed unless you’ve got a good pool of hit points like D&D 4th Edition, Fantasy Craft or Dungeon World.

My proposal would be to nick a mechanic from Lady Blackbird to replace long rests: refreshment scenes. It’s also a good way to make use of Inspiration, as players can have a little scene going through the dungeon and then they’ve healed, they’ve got some uses of abilities back and so on. Personally as well as not having seen D&D rules as written, I’ve also barely ever seen Inspiration get handed out either. It’s a shame as alongside Advantage/Disadvantage, it’s one of the good new mechanics from D&D 5th Edition. This would be another good way to encourage engaging with that mechanic.

Lady Blackbird’s refreshment scenes

Some examples of Refreshment Scenes could be:

• Sharing some rations or a drink around a half-dead campfire the bandits you killed were using
• Catching fish in a nearby stream or hunting deer in the woods
• Burying a beloved henchperson
• Checking armour for any damage and recovering arrows

A short roleplay scene during these kinds of moments as a way to earn Inspiration and the benefits of a short rest could be really interesting. Codex: Gold from The Gauntlet has The True-Gold Forge, a set of tables which can be used for characters round a campfire as prompts about their origins or wishes to add even more flavour. It’s the kind of thing which if you weren’t feeling inspired about how to have a refreshment scene, you could use one as a prompt.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Twelve – Sending a Message to Players with Love Letters

I first heard about Love Letters in the Gauntlet’s podcast and I instantly knew it would be something fun to play with. The main games I heard of using Love Letters were Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, but I’ve used them in a number of other games. One of my players even used them in a D&D game last year.

So what is a Love Letter?

It’s a small letter written to a character rather than a player. It can cover some downtime actions, a time jump between seasons of a campaign or what a character was up to when a player was missing. Start out by addressing the character, mention the situation they’re going through and include a couple of the following:

• Some open questions for them to ask, “Who called you away on urgent business?”
• A binary option or two: “Did you report your indiscretion to high command or hide it?”
• A mechanical flourish, like a custom move in a PbtA game or a saving throw: “If you report your indiscretion roll +Charm. On a 7+ this infraction will be overseen, on a 10+ you won’t have internal affairs watching you in the next mission. If you hide your indiscretions, roll +Guts; on a 10+ you hide all evidence, on a 7-9, what did you forget to hide?”

That sort of thing. I have some specific examples below from Masks:

First of all I have a dream sequence. The group got caught and put into a hallucinogenic dream state. For this kind of thing you could run a long sequence where the GM has to run the scenes for each character back and forth, which would in my case cut out 75% of the group at a time. As this was most of the way through the season I figured I knew enough to create the nightmare sequences for the group and gave them Love Letters to read at the start of their next session. Here’s one for Apollo, a liquid metal boy who was using The Newborn playbook:

Apollo’s nightmare

This meant that even though the hit of information was pretty quick, it got to play with Apollo’s specific origins and neuroses. It allowed a chance of fighting back against it all and most importantly for Masks, filled him with angst.

Next up we have a combination of Love Letters which I used between season one and two. At the end of season one, The Periodic Table of Evil made their presence known to the world, pretending to be a new superhero group. Given the sheer amount of them, they took over the city. This meant there were different options for some of the group. I folded the following three to the group only saw the opening statements about what they did during the summer. Our fourth player’s character was trapped in the timestream and the player wasn’t about that week, so he would return to the present after the Love Letters had been dispersed.

The players saw, “What I did during my holiday” followed but “I sold out”, “I retired” and “I went underground” as the three options which couldn’t be duplicated. They decided between them who took which action.

Steel picked this option
Apollo chose this option
Stalker chose this option

I also gave personalised Love Letters to each of the players for their characters as well, so help add some more lore to the world and events to establish the setting for season two. Here’s Steel’s. She’s the Reformed playbook and a former supervillain’s sidekick. Her alter ego was best friends with a socialite who was the former sidekick to the most popular hero in the city.

Steel’s summer

I definitely recommend this as a technique, especially if a campaign’s had a bit of a break or a season gap.

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