Subtlety is over-rated.

Subtlety is over-rated.
Your #DnD players are journeying to a new town and something is amiss. đź‘€ What are some subtle ways to hint to your players that something is wrong here?
Kids run up to the party cleric and/or paladin and all if their gods are going to destroy the devils that the mayor has summoned to consolidate their power. #subtle #DnD
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Most of the time I’d rather get my players into the mix with information at hand so they can make interesting, informed and meaningful decisions. There will still be room for surprises but in my experience, when I find myself actively hiding something from the players it is often a mistake.

Uncovering secret lore or figuring out a complicated situation can be fun. I’m just saying, keep careful track of how hard you are working to keep secrets or keep information from the players. Character decisions are far more interesting when they have more information.

Even when players don’t know things, I don’t think of it as hiding it from them or being subtle. I think of it as controlling pacing by unspooling the hidden at the pace of their discovery, especially if they are after the information and are taking smart angles to find it.
More subtlety? OK Statues of saints crying blood. The Screaming Tree is at it again, they say. Everyone who has killed can see and talk to the ghosts of those they have slain. Everyone in town is trying to get the merchant’s son out of the mirror he accidentally walked into.

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Books from Castle Ravenloft’s Library

Goomwrought / City of Midnight / Factions, Powers and Merchants / Observations & Reports from Servants

This tome was compiled by Strahd over the years, keeping track of Gloomwrought, through the reports of his messengers. This was the place he reckoned would be his first stop when he escaped from the Demi-Plane of Dread’s clutches.

Allows for 3 rerolls when seeking out lore or understanding people embroiled in power struggles on the streets of Gloomwrought or finding people or Powers in the City of Midnight. Describe how Strahd’s writings on his messengers’ reports explaianed this aspect of Gloomwrought.

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Conquering the Planes
a manual by
Arch-age Xrathburlg the Unsparing
Emperor of the Cosmos

This tome was written by the infamous Frog-kin Arch-Mage, concerning being a cross-planar conqueror.

Allows for 3 re-rolls when you are seeking out planar lore or understanding beings who are attempting to conquer the planes.

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Van Richten’s Guide to Hunting the Lich

This tome was written by the famous monster-hunter who has killed monsters in many domains of Ravenloft. This tome was procured by Strahd so that he could better do battle with Azalin Rex.

Allows for 3 re-rolls when you are seeking lore concerning liches, demi-liches, necromancers on the path to lich-dom or their catspaws and servants.

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Curse of Strahd, Session XV, Loose Ends & Lost Gods

Curse of Strahd, Session XV, Loose Ends & Lost Gods

Curse of Strahd
(I thought we were done; we were not)

In which the Sigil Six throw a rocking party, talk to a deity, set an angel right, make a Wish, convert a werewolf, offer wise counsel to a Flesh Golem regarding anger, take a lost friend’s remembrances, take up a saint’s femur as a weapon and don the Knight of the Black Rose’s breastplate.

Epilogue, Session XV, Loose Ends & Lost Gods

Holy shit, we really packed it in tonight.

Who are Trundle, Helewynn, Bugwump, Kuru, Jusko and Failed Soldier?

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Rahadin and the remaining vampires left the Domain. None are sure where they went.

With Strahd’s curse off the land, the angel realized that it had been out of the Morning Lord’s gaze and if that was a test it failed. The players found them healing the mongrel-folk until one refused to be turned back. “Fuck you. I want you to see what you did. I want you to feel that you did this to someone for no good reason.”

Kuru asked the angel to meditate with him. While meditating, Kuru had a holy vision of the Morning Lord, who asked him what he planned to ask of the angel and when Kuru said he was going to get him to defeat what evil remained, the Sun God agreed. The Morning Lord looked at Kuru’s as-yet-un-Identified short sword and said, “There is only one left. Now there are two.” Kuru came out of the meditation with a deep fully body sunburn and the angel complied with his request, humbled that the Morning Lord spoke to this Hobbit Thief.

The B Team returned from fighting Baba (Lysaga) Lasagna. One of the Drow and the Dwarven Priest of the Portal God died in the battle. Also, don’t accidentally call an evil and powerful NPC Baba Lasagna; it doesn’t matter what you say after that, they are forever Baba Lasagna after that. Trundle took up the priest’s ring with many keys holy symbol to bring back to Sigil.

The Frankenlady approached Failed Soldier, who is now in the Flesh Golem also made by the angel. She named herself Dusk and confessed that she had great anger towards her Creator. Failed Soldier suggested she find a group of people like the Sigil Six and respected her feelings. Their discussions about VERY human things is so lovely.

The group was concerned with the cycle of souls and rebirth that was a mess in Ravenloft and was still a mess. The angel suggested to Failed Soldier that the Trinity that had created the Domains of Dread were very powerful. “Strahd was but a plaything to them.”

Hellewyn spoke with Emil, the werewolf they freed from Strahd’s dungeons, made sure he was taking leadership of the wolves. “They call you the Moon Queen,” Emil told her. He said that they would hunt for a time before migrating from these cursed lands and agreed to contact her should he do so. She asked that he look to the Moon for guidance, “Even though she can’t respond to you here; she does hear you.” Emil was moved.

Kuru’s sword, Identified by Bugwump, was a Luck Blade and it had not 1 but 2 wishes. Circumspect and full of self-control as he is, Kuru made a wish 7 minutes after learning this. He wished that if any of the Sigil Six should die, that time would go back and give them a chance to live. Cosmic tumblers clicked into place and a being told him that his friend still might die (we discussed the rules). One Wish remains.

Failed Soldier talked with the last of the Ulmist Inquisitors, giving them the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and the last of the Ulmist order gave Failed Soldier a letter of introduction to any in the Ulmist order and the Femur of St. Markovia.

Jusko got a garish (and awesome) tattoo of a broken heart with a flaming sword through it. He got a pedicure and got drunk at the big party that broke out. He staggered into Castle Ravenloft and thrust his sword through Strahd’s coffin and said something like, “We won.” When he woke up he was in an alcove with a steel breast plate, enameled black with a black rose on it. He took it – Bugwump identified it as a +1 breastplate, one can turn a single attack vampiric if one is using a Superiority Die. Once they have done this and accrued more hit points than they currently have (we keep track of the hit point tally when they do it) new fell powers will open.

Kuru, drunk from the party, went into the Bag of Holding to confront the Bagman, who had been big as an ogre since they got to Ravenloft. The Bagman admitted that Strahd approached him and asked him to betray them but he had not done so. He asked Kuru to drop the bag in the Mists and free him. Kuru realized the Bagman was evil and refused and got away.

He gave the bag to the angel, who burned it with a touch. And so a tiny Demi-Plane of Dread was decimated.

Next week we head into the Mists, into the Shadowfell…

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Daydreaming about the Northern Death Pantheon

Daydreaming about the Northern Death Pantheon

Seemed like a cool skull image to start this thing with.
Northern Death Pantheon
Death Gods and Necromantic Witch-Queens in the Frozen North using Godbound / Friday / 1/14 / 6:30pm PST 9:30pm EST

Campaign Pitch

Godbound (Free Edition/Deluxe Edition) is a D&Dish game about demi-gods changing a broken world. I’d like us to riff off of the Witch-Queens feuding in a Gothic-Viking icy north blurb from the book’s Ulstang Skerries. I imagine the game beginning with a young Witch-Queen praying to her family’s cold shrines as her rivals close in (maybe literally, maybe armies are en-route…I don’t know). You, her family’s ancient and cold death gods, are who come to her aid.

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These might be questions we answer during chargen, go on adventures to find the answer or decide that there isn’t just one answer…

What are the islands? 

Dead rival gods, dead monsters slain in the primordial past, the bodies of the victorious dead who founded these lands…

Why did you fall asleep?

Trickery, it was time to give the mortals time to build on their own, it was foretold, too much energy was spent fighting against an ancient and hazy threat

Do new Witch-Queens need your pantheon’s blessing to be legit? Do other islands have their own pantheons? Are those reflections or heretical reflections of you or entirely different pantheons all together?

What is the state of the Ulfstang Skerries right now? Are the thrones feuding? Vacant? Ignored? Stagnant?

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This picture by the amazing concept artist, Winona Neslon is how I picture the young Witch-Queen whose prayers will wake you up as we start play.

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Character Concepts

[Possible Words of Creation – choose 3 to start] These are meant to stir up ideas and not limit them. These are not the only characters on the table and I’m sure you all have better ideas. If you need some ideas, here they are. If these don’t do anything for you, I can’t wait to hear your amazing ideas.

The First Witch-Queen, The All-Mother, Lady Ulstang [Command, Death, Deception, Knowledge, Night, Sorcery, Winter]

Patron Saint of Witch-Queen’s Consorts [Passion, Deception, Fertility, Knowledge, Dance, Desire, Music, Protection]

Kidnapped Saint from Mainland Pantheon, adopted by Northern Death Pantheon (please be careful) [???]

The Wolf-Mother, the Red Matron, the Raiding-Witch, the Sword-Aunty [Bow, Command, Death, Endurance, Fire, Might, Night, Sea, Sword, War]

The Shipwright [Seas, Journeys, Artifice]

The Castellan of All Tombs [Earth, Death, Knowledge, Fire, Protection, Underworld]

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Factions and other odd thoughts

The Coven – a trio of powerful Witch-Queens who have manufactured their own gods in your absence

Mainland – Witch-Queen(s) who have looked to the mainland for power, worshipping their deities and levvies of troops to support their reign(s)

Order of the Drowned Asshole– religious order dedicated to a deity you all drowned in the sea centuries ago because they were being a shit

13 total living Witch-Queen thrones (but more than 13 islands that make up the skerries)

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Tropes to Avoid

Women never get along because B-words be crazy

What else?

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Blank map that we’ll add stuff to…

Map of Ulstang Skerries
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Leveling Up

How about questions like Blades in the Dark and when we get enough XP, the pantheon levels up all together. The XP needed is the number of the next level, if you gain more XP than needed, it disappears.

Did you defeat an enemy with cunning or turn an enemy into an allie with empathy?

Did you explore a new area on the map, add a new detail to the map or venture off the map all together?

Did you add new details about your pantheon’s religion?

If you’d like to watch us figure all this out in play, please join us in chat this Friday at the Actual Play twitch-stream.

Excited to game with Luke, Rae, Sean and Jay.

And if you’d just like to rock out with what character you’d play in this campaign, please comment below.

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Forgot that I pitched this to Sean a few months ago (should be forwarded to the Godbound part of the video below):

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Here’s the first session, chargen and all:

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Skull image at the top is from the British Library Flickr

Image from Sword Subject Divider from the Cleveland Museum of Art

Title Image is from the NYPL Digital Collection

Font on the title and map is Nightmare Gothic

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Spending the Dragon Hoard without counting every copper piece

The players have killed the dragon and dragged the treasure down from the mountain. Here’s a way to make the spending of those riches without having to do accounting and putting rolls onto the table. This system will create adventure-making problems.

PNG and PDF below.

NOTE: Very much inspired by the Resources system in Burning Wheel.

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The coins you swept off the floor, pryed from the scales of the dragon's corpse and dragged down the mountain are not only coins. They are a catalogue of civilizations destroyed by the dragon’s greed. Spending this kind of ancient coinage attracts attention. Your dreams have been strange since acquiring it, as if the dragon's arcane blood has seeped into the gold. When you spend money from the the Dragon's Hoard, tell the DM what you want to buy and in what marketplace you are trying to purchase this item. The DM will set a DC if it is possible to find such a thing in the marketplace. If not, the DM will let you know who the merchants' gossip networks say might have such an item or a map to a tomb where such an item could be found. If the item is common, the DM might just ask you to check off a gold coin or two (maybe three if it is really opulent) without a roll. When you roll, mark a gold piece off of the fortune below. You may add +1 for every gold piece you mark off of the fortune. If you succeed, you purchase the item without a problem. If you fail the roll, you do one of the following:
Characters draw attention from a dangerous faction
The purchased item/service has a complication
The merchant demands some adventurous skill bartering, wanting access to the characters’ unique skillset
1 Gold Coin Checked = 1 month room & board in most cities for 6 adventurers.
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I’d give advantage if the character’s background match up with what they are purchasing – knights if they are purchasing armor or horses, spy buying poison, folk hero purchasing rooms or pipeweed in an inn where they were heroic, or a noble purchasing land or title (depending on the nobles’ relationship with money in the setting), etc.

If this looks familiar, I made something just like this for the Thursday Night Game last week but wanted something here that might be more useful. Coins are from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

These designs and more in my Threadless shop – t-shirts of all kinds, mugs, stickers and even shower curtains…

Blog of Judd Karlman from Daydreaming about Dragons

Curse of Strahd, take-aways (not an in depth review)

Curse of Strahd, take-aways (not an in depth review)

Some post-Curse of Strahd thoughts as me and my friends prepare to depart Ravenloft after spending 14 deliciously horrific Thursday evenings there.

Sometimes the time for talking is done and the only response that makes sense is to kick toxic masculinity in its parasitic teeth. Sometimes that toxic masculinity is named Strahd and is a vampire who believes he owns a woman because of his feelings. Fuck his feelings.

The other take-away is that prisons don’t work and they damage the communities they claim to protect. True for Ravenloft, true for any world.

But then at the end of the adventure is this:

Strahd’s destruction is temporary, for his curse can’t so easily be ended.

The Curse of Strahd

Nope. Me and my friends didn’t spend 14 Thursday evenings for that paragraph to render all that horror, derring-do and fun meaningless. Strahd was killed by Hellewynn, an Elf Barbarian sworn to a Moon Goddess. She was wielding the Sunsword that belonged to Strahd’s brother, Sergei. While in Barovia she picked up lycanthropy and wrestled both a werewolf and Strahd himself (he chipped his tooth on her armor).

Tome from the Met (link below) Curse of Strahd with our group’s stickers on the tome.

Link to the original tome used in the above image.

The book is ours now; not because I bought it but because we played it and the words shared among friends at the table are bigger than any and all words written.

That said, someone made Ravenloft, someone is behind this evil demi-planar prison complex. Osybus, Shami-Amourae and Tenebrous, the architects who made Ravenloft, have a lot to answer for. You can’t just kick middle-management’s teeth in and call it a day. What else is high level play for?

The campaign continues…

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Spending the Ravenloft Fortune

Spending the Ravenloft Fortune

The Sigil 6: Outlands Expedition Team

I did not feel like going through the treasure in Castle Ravenloft and tallying it up after the Sigil Six killed Strahd. So, I wrote up the below houserule to use as the players make their way through the Demi-Plane of Dread’s mists, into the Shadowfell (random encounter tables are brewing) and eventually to Gloomwrought (tempted to write the factions up Blades in the Dark/Doskvol style) spending loot fresh out of Barovia. Inspired very much by Burning Wheel’s resources.

NOTE: Will I ever play a fantasy RPG and not take some inspiration from Burning Wheel? Probably not.

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When you spend money from the Ravenloft Fortune, tell the DM what you want to buy and in what marketplace you are trying to purchase this item. The DM will set a DC if it is possible to find such a thing in the marketplace. If not, the DM will let you know who the merchants say might have such an item or a map to a tomb where such an item could be found. If the item is common, the DM might just ask you to check off a gold coin or two (maybe three if it is really opulent) without a roll. When you roll, mark a gold piece off of the fortune below. You may add +1 for every gold piece you mark off of the fortune. If you succeed, you purchase the item without a problem. If you fail the roll, you either draw attention from a dangerous faction, purchase an item or service that has a complicated history attached to it or the merchant demands an exchange of services, wanting the skills that adventurers are known to possess. 1 Gold Coin = 1 month room & board in most cities for 6 adventurers.

I imagine we might clip the coins into halves and quarters if needed. We’ll see. If they ever take a dragon’s hoard, I’ll write something similar up but with a touch different flavor (and probably more slots to burn).

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Will this somehow link to my unfinished resources system or will that wait until I have Project Ampersand (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH ANY NONSENSE THE nu-TSR fools are brewing) into some kind of playable format? Time will tell.

The wonderful picture of loot in the above image is from Feral Indie Studios, whose asset packs are well worth the money.

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Curse of Strahd, Session XIV, Death of Strahd

Curse of Strahd, Session XIV, Death of Strahd

Curse of Strahd

In which the Sigil Six ends of the Curse of Strahd slaying the legendary vampire through sorcery, steel and cunning.

Episode XIV Death of Strahd

Who are Trundle, Helewynn, Bugwump, Kuru, Jusko and Failed Soldier?

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  • Helewynn ran outside the tower, where the group had entered and saw Strahd’s Nightmare Steed, still unable to see him. She jumped on a pterodactyl and titled with him once, doing brutal damage to him with the Sunsword but Strahd did brutal damage with his hands and a Blight spell. When the group arrived, the Nightmare took Strahd into the ethereal.

  • The plan was to lure Strahd into the room where he had a teleportation brazier and teleport everyone, including Strahd, to a killing field they had set up in the Abbey of St. Markovia’s courtyard.

  • The group ran down the tower’s steps into the crypts and started looting his ancestor’s tombs (finding a cloak and a sword). Rahadin found Bugwump alone and did some brutal damage to him, dropping him to 0 hit points right in front of Trundle, who was standing by the secret door from the crypts to the hallway that led to the teleportation room.

  • The group dropped Rahadin down to 1 hit point, nearly killing Strahd’s Red Right Hand but she misty-stepped and got away.

  • There was a cool moment where Bugwump went down and Kuru used Mage Hand to get a healing potion to his comrade but the way A described it was really nifty. He described running towards them, tossing the potion to his Mage Hand and the magical hand zipping to pour a potion down his friend’s throat. He made a simple casting of a spell feel like an action movie. It was cool.

  • Strahd arrived, invisible, and asked the group to fall to their knees and beg for mercy; they did not and began to run for the secret door that led to the hallway that led to the teleportation room. Strahd threw 2 fireballs that really decimated the group. Failed Soldier and Jusko fell but were brought up to single digit hit points.

  • The group was huddled in the teleportation room and Strahd entered, walking through the door. The group was ragged. He asked them to make their way through the mists to the Shadowfell and tell Sigil of his mercy. Hellewynn grabbed him and pulled him into the teleportation area but not before he gutted her with his hands.

  • The group was on the precipice. The killing field they had prepared and it gave them advantage on that first round. They did a brutal amount of damage to Strahd and Strahd, in turn, dropped Jusko and nearly dropped Bugwump. Failed Soldier used a cool spell to take negative damage and brought Helewynn up to 40-something hit points.

  • Sun Sword in hand, Helewynn killed Strahd and in the sunlight of this magic blade, he could not turn to mist. The clouds party and for the first time the Sigil Six could see the blue sky.

    Jusko, once he was healed, picked up Strahd’s signet ring, knowing that it would have great meaning to his family, proof that he had killed the vampire who had feated on his kin. He offered it to Helewynn, who pushed his hand away, wanting him to have it.

  • Next session the Sigil Six is planning to head into the Shadowfell, through the mist, and make their way to Gloomwrought. Or as Trundle said, “Fuck the Lady of Pain. Let’s take our sweet-ass time getting back to Sigil.”

    The Sigil 6: Outlands Expedition Team
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Prelude in Sigil

Questions Before Curse of Strahd

Session I Welcome to Barovia

Session II Battle of Ravenwatch

Session III Wolves and Souls

Session IV Ghosts & Bones

Session V – I fucked up numbering; there is no Episode V. 

Session VI Enter the Amber Temple

Session VII Dark Gifts

Session VIII New Wolves & Old Friends

Session IX The Execution of Kiril Stoyanovich

Session X The Crypts Under Castle Ravenloft

Session XI Plans Within Plans and the Broken Angel

Session XII Blood and Philosophy in the Abbey of St. Markovia

Session XIII The Ballad of Kuru Heartbreaker
DM Advice: Give yourself structure

DM Advice: Give yourself structure

The hardest thing to do is create into a void. When you are making something, give yourself some structure, even if you throw it away later or hate it. That is fine, it gives you something to chafe against and that will help you create.

Where did this come from?

Reddit Post: I’ve just started the daunting task of creating my first world from scratch, and it started pretty simple: A town here, a city there, maybe some mountains near it. I thought I was doing a pretty bang-up job. But then I started seeing other people’s worlds and getting overwhelmed by the amount of thought they put into the logistics of their setting. I remember seeing Matthew Mercer create a believable mining town in 3 minutes, he started with a vague outline of a mining town and then added farms, and then unions, and then mining guilds, and then adventuring guilds, and so on and so forth. It was so impressive and horrifying, how does one think about these things? Does everyone think about their settings like this? Am I just stupid and unfit to be making worlds and just stick to prewritten stuff? So does anyone know a “Worldbuilding for Dummies” book?

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My response:

You are not an idiot. Folks have been doing this for a long time and have internalized structure.

When you have a new place, try this:

Think of 3 things – a place, a faction and a secret.

Eventually, you’ll want 9 but to start fast, but for fast-and-loose at the table – just jot down 3. Eventually, when you’ve had a moment to think or time to prep – you’ll have 3 of each:

3 Interest Places.

3 Factions.

3 Secrets.

9 things. More will grow out of that. If you can’t think of 3, that is fine. Just move on. Jot the things down and get going.
Haiku Character History

Haiku Character History

I see threads on DM’s Academy asking what players will need to get started or what kind of character backgrounds should they have prepared when they come to the table. My preferred answer: as little as possible – just enough to have some context and inspiration as play begins.

If the players in your TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) want to write something up for their characters or do some online homework before the game to flesh things out, here’s my 2-step suggestion:

Find a cool pic of your character.

Write a haiku about said character.

If they only have time for one of those endeavors, skip the haiku and grab a picture.

If you need pic resources, I’ve got a collection on Unsplash that I call Punams (Yiddish for faces) and have lots of collections on Pinterest that could work.

Barbarian Prince
Far from home to learn and grow.
Eyes of the Hawk God.

Barbarian Prince Pic

Is the Eyes of the Hawk God an item or a power or a blessing or the character’s name? Maybe the player has an idea and tells the DM. Maybe the player has copious notes about the barbarian lands where their prince comes from and a family tree. That is fine. Let’s talk about it.

Warlock with Moon Patron.
Hunter’s Moon born. Arcane Wolf.
Chaos and Justice

Moon Warlock Pic

What does being born on the Hunter’s Moon mean to the Warlock? Is Arcane Wolf going to be a homebrewed sub-class or background or just a bit of cool character fluff? Is Chaos and Justice a flowery way of saying Chaotic Good or something different?

Just back from a job.
“What in the Hells did we steal?”
Handsome devil charm.

Handsome Devil Rogue

Is the thief’s handsome devil mean their are a Tiefling or is it just a turn of phrase, inspired by what their beloved Aunt Sheila used to call them? What did they steal? Hand the DM a locked chest with something dangerous people want is a pretty cool background gift.

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Are these brilliant examples of the fine art of Haiku?

No, they are not. That is fine. I’m not trying to make great art. I’m making fun character concepts that will inspire further conversations.

The way I like to play, character histories give just enough context to get the players to the table and the rest we’ll figure out in play. I like Haiku because the limits on words is built right in. There will be blank spaces and cool turns of phrase that will inspire questions and conversation as play begins (Session 0 is play).

If a player’s Character History Haiku raises questions and they aren’t sure about the answers, that is great. Find out together in play. The important thing is that they inspire pre-game conversations about the world and the people in it.

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NOTE: If gaming is a kind of writing exercise for you and your friends and that is how you have fun – YAY! I’m happy for you. Truly, I am. I’m not saying that you are gaming wrong or that your fun is bad-wrong-fun.

In my experience, long character histories are a sign of frustration but I have totally used gaming as a writing tool and don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum.

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If you want to make your own, drop me an email and I’ll gladly send you the Affinity Designer template.

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