Kevin Weiser on Pathfinder and the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path

Kevin, you are GMing Pathfinder! What is your campaign’s premise? How did you begin the first game?

The main premise is “Hey, Virtual Tabletops have sure come a long way, haven’t they?”

I wanted to incorporate a virtual tabletop at the actual tabletop. My friend’s game room has a nice big table with a 80″ HDTV that fits perfect at one end. So a couple months before my turn came up to GM in our group, I fired up Roll20, the group picked a Pathfinder Adventure Path, and I set to work importing the maps, monster tokens, and art from the Skull and Shackles Adventure Path PDFs into Roll20. I wanted the visual aspect of the RPG to actually be pretty, and the battle map itself to help play: easy to measure distances, easy to move tokens around, automatically calculating lighting and fog-of-war, stuff like that. Computer-aided RPG.

So, this is my first campaign I’ve GM’d with a strong visual component. I also wanted to highlight the nitty-gritty tactics of Pathfinder, as I’m a firm believer of System Matters, and the Pathfinder system does tactics very well, go big or go home. I wanted the other players to be challenged, and to feel clever for overcoming those challenges. So far, so good!

Also, pirates. YAR! It’s been fun learning more about historical pirates, and thinking about how a high magic setting like Golarion would affect piracy. It doesn’t hurt that there are so many gorgeous works of art around the Age of Sail. So I’m really glad we decided to go with Skull and Shackles.

Skull and Shackles! Nice.

Tell me more about piracy in Golarion, please. What makes them different from Earth pirates?

Sails are much more vulnerable in Golarion. Sure on Earth we had chain shot and a good hit to the mast can really ruin the mobility of a ship, but a single fireball will evaporate the mainsail and all the rigging. A flying wizard can hit all three masts from 600 feet away, well out of the range of any cannon or ballistae, and now that ship is a sitting duck. Another big factor is attacks can come from many more directions. Mostly on Earth you just have to watch for sails on the horizon. On Golarion, there are many intelligent creatures that can swim faster than most ships, likewise flying creatures can increase the scouting range of a pirate crew by many miles. It becomes much more about not being seen at all than it is about losing any possible pursuer. It actually feels a lot closer to modern naval combat in that regard.

What is the coolest (or what are some cool) nitty-gritty tactics moments?

I’ll give two, one GM side and one Player Side.

As the GM, I had a LOT of fun when a player introduced a Aboleth in the backstory for his Hunter. GM: “A hunter, eh? What do you hunt?” Player: “I HUNT THE WHITE ABOLETH.”

This was super fun for two reasons: 1) I got to unleash a wicked pun when I changed it from White Aboleth to Wight Aboleth, oh man the look on that player’s face when he realized why that tentacle slap gave him negative levels… Priceless.

2) Aboleths try to raise slave armies through mental domination, so I got to thoroughly muck with the pre-written adventure by introducing a monster that’s running around dominating all these important NPC’s. There are limits, though. The domination lasts 16 days and works from unlimited range, but has to be renewed in person. So, how big of a network can one undead Aboleth create? Well, since they don’t tire and can swim all day and all night, the answer is “pretty big.” Watching the players discover, then dismantle this network of thralls was very rewarding. Working out the logistics of all this made my brainmeats happy.

From the Player side, a little while ago they rolled up on a fortress of Cyclopes. The Adventure Path suggests compartmentalizing the encounters, but I didn’t like that idea. If the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t everybody come? So what was supposed to be 4 or 5 encounters with Cyclopes was in fact one encounter with 16 Cyclopes, a Big Boss Cyclpse, and his 2nd in command. If the PC’s had played it straight, they would have been paste. But they were super smart about it. A combination of area denial, crowd control, and blocking line of sight with spells forced the Cyclopes into a kill zone. I did my best to play them smart, but there just wasn’t much they could do about it. It was amazing to watch the players organically develop a strategy that was absolutely devastating. System mastery at its finest!

Sweet. It was the Moby Dick of Aboleths. Love it.

I ran the Kingmaker Adventure Path a few years ago using BW and really liked it. How are you liking Skull and Shackles?
What is the AP providing?

I like Skull and Shackles quite a bit. The rags-to-riches revenge story of a group that started their pirate career drugged and press ganged then gradually rise in power and reputation to the most fearsome pirates in the sea!

A couple things I like in particular: I really enjoy how much of the adventure path is about reputation, infamy, and the political realities of piracy. Like the fact that in the beginning, other pirates are just as much of a threat as the occasional Pirate Hunter sent down from Chelliax. That is, until the PC’s have made a name for themselves. I also enjoy the political intrigue of the pirate council, and the major plot thread that involves sniffing out a traitor, with the looming threat of a massive invasion.

Another thing I’ve been enjoying is the lack of large dungeons, but instead there are many small dungeons, some just 2 or 3 rooms. They’re quick but very flavorful: a sunken temple here, a mysterious Black Tower there, and the obligatory series of clues written in poem form on a treasure map. These smaller locations are much more believable than a multi-trip large dungeon, and they cram in only the best stuff, very few filler rooms.

Also, this AP lets aquatic themed character builds really shine, and that’s rare.

Any favorite dungeons?

I really enjoyed the finale to the first module: Riptide Cove, a sea cave lair of Grindylows on Bonewrack Isle, where the PC’s have been shipwrecked. It’s a dungeon that varies widely depending on what time of day it is: during high tide it’s almost entirely underwater, but low tide most of the time it’s only ankle deep. There’s also a nice mix of encounters in there, Grindylows, a Devil Fish, and some Lacedons.

I also really enjoyed the Sahuagin Tunnels in Mancatcher Cove, completely dark and underwater, the PC’s had to play it smart to get in and out alive. That’s also where the final showdown with the Wight Aboleth was, as he’d dominated the Sahuagin and was using them to grow his nascent undersea empire.

I’m fascinated by Chelliax. They worship a devil, right?

Yes! Chelliax’s ruling family signed a multi-generational deal with the Archdevil Asmodeus, which has been re-negotiated twice since then, and so the throne now has the most metal name ever: The Thrice-Damned Throne. The overarching geopolitical situation in Skull and Shackles is that Chelliax used to have a colony down in the south called Sargava (analagus to Rio De Janeiro) which fought for and claimed independence a little while ago. The only reason Chelliax hasn’t reclaimed their colony is because those pesky Shackles Pirates cut a deal with Sargava, and pick apart any Armada that comes through. Chelliax is fed up with that, and plans to send an invasion fleet to deal with the pirates once and for all (in about 4 months game time in my campaign, we’re close enough to the end that I’ve actually set a hard date.)

Creating a good build is a big part of Pathfinder. What are your thoughts on grabbing an optimal build?

I do think optimal builds are important in Pathfinder. System mastery is one of the primary reasons to play a game of this complexity. While I definitely am not a fan of the idea of the antagonistic GM, I do feel that one of the most important aspects of Pathfinder and games like it is the feeling of being challenged and overcoming that challenge. The stakes need to be high, and the players need to be able to say “Man, we would have been so screwed if we didn’t have X” where X is a class ability or spell that the player took, or the exact right magic item they sought out and acquired.

Which is not to say sub-optimal builds don’t have a place. I just think it’s better suited for very experienced players who are deliberately handicapping themselves. “You say Bards suck? Let me see what I can do with one.” That kind of thing.

What does an aquatic character build look like?

One of the cool features of Pathfinder is over the years each class has accumulated dozens of variants called archetypes. Each one swaps out a base class ability for something else along a theme. Every class has a “aquatic” variant or two, plus spellcasters can often take specializations or patron deities that are sea-related and those convey special abilities too. So far we’ve had a Pirate Rogue, an Aquatic Druid, a Mer-folk Monk, all of which would be a poor choice almost anywhere else in Golarion, but they all got to shine here.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed adding my own details and spin on Golarion. How are you feeling about making Golarion your own?

Oh man I love it. The wiki(s) has just the right amount of information on a region or faction to get you started but it’s all there for the taking. It took me a long time tog et over my fear of established settings and pre-written modules. But now I’m finally comfortable with the idea that these things are tools in my toolkit, not sacred texts to be followed.

In general, I the credit for overcoming that fear to discovering indie games. In fact, a lot of how much I can enjoy Pathfinder now comes from what I learned from indie games. And part of that comes from finding the Sons of Kryos all those years ago. So, thanks for that. ūüôā

What advice would you give a GM trying to find their own angle/toehold on this huge world with so much published material?

For the love of God, don’t try to remember all of it or even READ all of it. Fall into wiki-holes related to whatever’s relevant for your campaign, and just dig around. Don’t be afraid to hand over lore-dumps to a player at the table who might know more than you. We’ve got a guy at my table that LOVES the Golarion Lore. He knows it way better than I do. I let him narrate when our party Bard inevitably gets an insane Knowledge (whatever) check.

Don’t forget that Pathfinder is a long-form game. There’s very little you actually need to know from session to session. Plenty of time to research related stuff as you go along.

That might be a great place to end it.

Anything else you wanted to talk about?

Just a thank you for asking me to do this, it was a lot of fun!

Thank you!

Rachel E.S. Walton and Playing Thieves at the Gaming Table

Rachel E.S. Walton is one of my favorite people I’ve met through role-playing games. When I ask some friends if they had a good gaming convention, some have said, “Well, I got to game at the same table as Rachel 3 times, so yeah, it was a good con.”

You can find her on G+ or see an example of her work here, where she made our campaign an amazing movie poster.

We got talking about 2nd edition D&D and playing thieves and then this interview happened.

Tell me about playing a thief in Quest for Glory, please!

Okay, so I’m going back 20-some years here, but Quest for Glory was my first memorable experience playing a thief in a game and one that forever cemented my love for the character type. At the time, playing a computer game was still pretty new and exciting, so it’s hard to separate the game itself from that world-opening experience. But the graphics were really good for the time, and the MIDI atmospheric sound was excellent. I can still feel my gut clench up a bit at the foreboding music of the “pick your hero type” screen and hear the tap-tap-tap sound of distant villagers going about their business in the background. The sound is so cheesy now, but they really knew how to work it.

What I remember the most was practicing abilities over and over to improve them and getting to see them actually improve. Like climbing. At first the hero is slow, but after practicing a bunch, he’d be zipping up and down the rope or gate with comical speed. After dragging myself away from a frustrating encounter, it felt pretty great to practice a bunch and then go out again and overcome that thing. And while that had moments of tedium, overall the game was just fun. Different sorts of puzzles and quests. Talking to people, helping them, and getting clues. Sneaking around. The scary thrill of going through the world at night. Dorky puns and a built-in sense of humor. (Pro tip: do not drink the Dragon’s Breath ale.)

I don’t think playing a thief was spectacularly different from playing a fighter or magic user in the game, but this was a game and character that stood out from any of the other games and characters I had played on my brother’s Nintendo. It was a character type that rewarded preparation, planning, puzzling things out, caution, and a bold move at just the right moment – a manifestation of my personality type like I hadn’t experienced in a game before.

Dungeons and Dragons was still a taboo gateway-to-darkness in my mind, not even really on my horizon yet. But this game! This game was all fun and adventure.

Clearly, we will have to play this for the rest of the interview.

When you describe the way skills go up and planning and puzzling things out, it almost sounds like Burning Wheel! That said, I feel like when we talk, Burning Wheel is always looming in the background when we geek out together.

Did you play every game in the Quest for Glory series?

Were there more steps on the transitional road between Quest for Glory and D&D?

I am listening to it right now. I am mildly horrified that I can enjoy a MIDI soundtrack, but this still has power.

And yes – what you just mentioned is part of why I found Burning Wheel so appealing. With D&D I never liked that advancements did not correspond with what happened fictionally. It broke continuity to go up a level and improve a skill never used or to suddenly have access to complex spells. It always felt like we were leaving out an interesting and important piece of fiction – and this was years before I ever heard of story games.

But going back to Quest of Glory, no – I never played another. As much as I loved various pieces of geeky media, I wasn’t really part of nerd culture in the way a lot of folks seemed to be. I had moments of obsession and did a few intensely nerdy things (nerdiest thing ever: AOL Nintendo summer camp on the internet), but sometimes my love encircled a thing and found contentment and satiety. Quest for Glory was one of those things. And I didn’t find another roguish game I loved as much until the much more recent Dishonored.

As for what came after Quest for Glory, Betrayal at Krondor was another dearly-loved computer game that prepped me for tabletop gaming. But it was a few years before I ever played D&D.

D&D was not something I had heard anything good about growing up. As part of a conservative Christian family and community, I had heard the urban legends. I was a pretty sensible kid and had little interest in opening a gateway to the occult. But then our family became friends with another Christian family and they were awesome. They also happened to be democrats, which was weird for us, and their son, who was my age, ran D&D. He talked about it and it sounded like the kind of stuff we were already into, but more social. So my parents said okay. Softies! And suddenly there were four of us, exploring the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in my room while our parents met for Bible study downstairs.

I played a thief of course! Disappointingly, I remember exactly zero about that character. I think I only played them for a few sessions and it wasn’t particularly memorable. I remember two things keenly though. One, was lovingly pouring over the AD&D Complete Thief’s Handbook. Especially the equipment lists that evoked that most amazing possibilities for carefully planned adventures…caltrops and poisons and oh no! – encumbrance. I’d have to plan my pack carefully…an annoyance I secretly delighted in. But these sneaky adventures never came.

Just a few sessions in, Christmas came around, and my GM handed me a present. He was practically wiggling with excitement about it. So I opened it and was a bit confused – it was the AD&D Complete Psionic’s Handbook (no, my GM was not John Stavropoulos). “This is for you to play!” he blurted out. He was a friend and super excited, and I still didn’t know my way around the game yet, so I said, “Cool, thanks,” while trying to hide my disappointment. I figured I’d give it a go because maybe it actually would be cool. But the psionic proved ill-suited to the world and fun proved elusive. womp womp

On the plus side, even as a tabletop newb, I understood the faux pas and determined to do better when the opportunity arose to GM D&D in college. I never did get a chance to do a D&D rogue justice except with an NPC – it was hard to pass off the mantle of GM! By the time I finally had the chance to play in someone else’s ongoing game, I was deep into the world of indie games and D&D was history I felt more frustration over than nostalgia for.

If you had mentioned any of this before we started our current (and wonderful) BW campaign, that game would have had a very different pitch!

Well then I’m glad I didn’t mention it, because I love our current game a lot. ūüėČ But I would LOVE to do a rogue-ish Burning Wheel game with you sometime – or try the same setting from a different angle. And as much as I love them, I often don’t play rogues! They’re something of a genre unto themselves, so some of the really good stuff – the sneaking around, the underdog or outcast status, the fraught back-stories, the clever problem-solving, the undermining of the political system, the fun equipment, the mix of undesirable and charming, etc. – these things don’t fit into every game well, nor should they. Not that all of these pieces have to be present to play a proper rogue, but they do suggest things about what the world is like, what the character’s place is in it, and what kind of challenges might happen, or what the game needs to support.

When coming to the table, unless I’ve been asked to, I try not to come with strong preconceived notions about what I want to play. Because more than a black-leather-clad sneak with some lock picks, I want to play a character that fits with what the game does well, feels like a part of the setting (even if they defy it somehow), and works with what other players are trying to do. If I try to force my preconceived idea into what’s going on, it’s rarely satisfying to me or anyone else.

The image of kids exploring Grand Duchy of Karameikos while their parents were studying the bible is delicious! Do you have any particular nostalgia for the Gazeteers or Mystara?

None at all! My memory of that campaign is a handful of fuzzy moments and little else. The pleasure of hosting my friends in my room, the old briefcase the GM kept the books and papers in, the sound of scribbling pencils, the desserts we scarfed afterward when the adults were done – those memories are much more palpable.

Dishonored is a game I’ve heard many of my friends talk about. Is there a common thread between Dishonored and Quest for Glory?

Switching to this soundtrack now. ūüėȬ†
The common threads between the two games are just a few basics. They’re both rogue adventure games, although Dishonored is much darker and grittier. And most notably for me: they’re both finite. They have main objectives and side quests and you can decide on approach, but they both head toward an end game. I like sandbox games, but I avoid them because they’re bad for me – I have a hard time stopping! I may blow week on Dishonored, but then it’s done. A sandbox game just keeps going. Of course, it’s different for a sandbox tabletop game – everyone meets for a couple of hours or so and then puts it aside until next time. Much healthier! ūüôā

Dishonored though. I have not loved a video game more than this one. It has some problematic content – I won’t deny that, but the setting is rich, and the game play is phenomenal. I have reached such levels of frustration playing games with awkward or highly complex controls. In fact, I used to say I hated first-person shooters for this reason. But I can’t say that anymore because but the controls in Dishonored are intuitive and super-smooth, and if you have a hard time doing a thing, there are other possible approaches – it doesn’t punish you if you can’t master the drop-from-above & stab motion, for example – you can try another way. In fact, you don’t have to stab at all! It’s a violent game no matter what, but you can play the entire thing non-lethally and that influences the game world in subtle but cool ways.

To me, these parts make a huge difference in playing an amazing rogue game! It goes beyond rogue-in-name and takes it to rogue-as-an-experience. Smooth game play means I get to feel like I’m really controlling a badass with physical prowess, not like some other games where there’s a disconnect like, “sorry dude, I know you’re awesome, but I can’t perfect this awkward 6-button forward-up-aim-shoot motion on the controller.” And having options in how I approach a problem or finding another way also feels very rogue-ish to me. I can be straightforward, stealthy, murderous, merciful, resourceful – whatever suits me and the situation and keeps the evil rats away. I’ve played it through twice and I can’t wait to play through it again, but I’m waiting until I finish a big project.

I read somewhere that you started GMing in college. Did you give any special attention to the thieves and rogues in the group you DMed?

I had a big group, so I tried to provide a variety of plot hooks to appeal to different players, but I mostly tried to make interesting situations that didn’t require a single solution. If wanted to see what they would come up with, whether they were a rogue or a barbarian. AD&D gets a lot of flack, but I actually preferred it to 3rd edition because it had suggestions for giving characters XP for doing things that defined them – rogues doing thiefy things, wizards casting spells, etc. Once we converted to 3rd edition, there was really only XP support for killing stuff, if I remember correctly. I worked around it, but I felt much more on my own. It was my first big realization that the system really didn’t support the fun we were trying to have.

Anyway, there were a couple of rogues that cycled through that game – I mostly remember how much trouble they got into because they had poor impulse control. ūüôā And I got a little bit of a rogue fix with an NPC who had a lock racket. He would make and sell master locks and break into homes that didn’t have them. I used him as a bit of a guide in their early days, and he ended up pretty well loved so he was a useful plot device too. When I started a new D&D game some years later, he came with me like a well-worn jacket and he survived our conversion to Burning Wheel. He was mostly a friendly face in the village by that point, but it was nice to have him around.

Any other fond memories of 2E, system AP, whatever comes to mind?

oh! How about I confess my worst GMing sin?

Even early on in my GMing days, I knew it was important to not hold so tightly to my vision that I shut down players, so I was pretty good at working in oddball stuff. BUT I also didn’t have a strong sense of when to say no and what certain imbalances could do to the game. Mostly this was not a problem – my friends were all amiable and interested in having a good time together. But then there was this one guy. He built a Drow or half-Drow and because we used a stat system where you could spend two points from one stat to increase another by one point, he ended up with this monster with 3 Charisma and 21 Strength. We’re like, “that’s ridiculous – you know you have the Charisma of a skeleton and people will run screaming from you, right?” And he was okay with that and the group said okay too. Ugh! But the worst part was, he was also playing Chaotic Neutral and in order to play that up, he made his character start acting increasingly erratic and lashing out. And with 21 Strength, you don’t lash out without huge consequences. He got into a fight with another PC and almost killed them and he threatened the others “because that’s what my character would do.” The other players were pretty upset. They didn’t feel like they could say or do anything to steer his behavior in-character and worried that even if they ganged up to exile, capture, or attack his PC, he would likely kill a couple of their PCs in the process.

Obviously this was something to be addressed out of character. Obviously. But we were worried that confronting the player would only lead to a temporary improvement and we were SO over this character. But rather than handle this like adults anyway, and talk to him, laying out some parameters if he wanted to keep playing with us, a few of us gathered in the dimmed florescence of the cafeteria after hours and plotted his PCs assassination.

We sat there discussing resources and pros and cons of different methods. My above-mentioned NPC had on him a vial of powerful acid for dissolving stubborn locks. Someone else had silencing Boots of Elvenkind. I offered to have my NPC carry out the act so the burden of responsibility would be on my shoulders (how noble of me).

So…the terrible day arrived and we started playing as usual. But I didn’t draw it out too long. I narrated it being at night when everyone was resting. Every moment of this felt heavy. The group was unnaturally silent because they knew what was coming. I made a successful roll to stealthily sneak into the ill-fated PC’s tent. And then I described the awful pain of acid being poured onto his face and the fade to black. The absolute worst part of all of this is that the player didn’t yet understand what happened and he picked up his dice and had this really eager look on his face – he thought it was yet another challenge to overcome because he trusted me. “Okay, what do I roll?!” “Nothing. There’s no saving throw here. The assassin didn’t make a sound and he poured powerful acid on your face…you’re dead.” This one of the most uncomfortable moments in my life. None of us were happy – we were all squirming with discomfort.

The player got up and left, swearing up a storm down the hall. One of his closer buds went to check on him. I can’t remember what conversations were had after that. I think we did manage to talk more directly to him. He asked if he could play another character and of course I said yes because I felt terrible. So here’s the best/worst part: he came back with a new PC: a friendly, boisterously cheerful wizard who spoke in the most ridiculous Scottish accent. It was so obnoxious. But we let it slide. Penance, I guess.

That is a great story. I’ve totally been there.

Thank you for taking part in this interview, Rachel.

Jim DelRosso on Unknown Armies

Jim, what drew you to Unknown Armies?How did you become aware of it?

The question of how I became aware of Unknown Armies is a fraught one: I had thought that I’d first heard about it from either Ben or Josh, but on consulting with them they thought they’d heard about it from either the other or from me. So it was impossible to discover how the game had actually entered our sphere of dice-rollers, which leads me to believe that perhaps the game doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps were were all members of a cabal that made a play for Ascension, lost, and got mind-scrambled by cliomancers. The concept of the Unknown Armies “game” was inserted to explain away any residual knowledge or insight about the real occult underground, and this interview will just let Stolze and Tynes know that we’re on to them.

This is what UA will do to you: you start viewing any oddity or weirdness from the real world through the lens of the game. It’s the game Jack Chick should’ve warned folks about. It’s wonderful, and it’s contagious: my wife started talking about things in UA terms, and she’s never played the game.

In fact, that element is one of the reasons why the game is so enduring for me, though no doubt the established elements of the setting and the ruleset itself hold up damned well more than a decade after the second edition came out.

As far as what drew me to the game, in addition to the enthusiasm of folks who I gamed with, I loved the humanist take on the supernatural. I loved that it was humans — even those who weren’t clued-in to the occult — who were responsible for everything good and bad and wonderful and horrific, both because it fit with my own philosophy and because it meant that the player characters were being set up from the start as folks who could literally change the world. It was a far cry from most modern or semi-modern occult horror RPGs that I’d seen at that time, in which being human usually meant a complete surrender of agency.

I loved it, and still do.

I always love watching you guys apply UA logic to news items.Do you mind fielding a few, taking a few articles and making UA bite-sized chunks out of them?

Brenda Tattoo


Poor bastard. I’m not sure if he’s actually obsessed with Brenda or not, but she’s clearly using him as a proxy… though her methodology lacks finesse. If he is obsessed with her, though, that will help.

Alternately, he’s attempting to mystically disguise himself as someone named Brenda. As soon as he’s completely covered…

HItler’s Toilet

The toilet has no inherent magickal properties: Hitler was as moribund magickally as he was in terms of empathy and art. However, it could be the object of an ugly war among the nastiest of Jersey’s dipsomancers. (Yes, dipsomancers. I said nasty, didn’t I?)

The art one is more interesting, definitely. Canonically, the Reich was associated with phobomancers, so much so that the school seems to have been wiped out at the end of the war. (Unless there was a race among the Allies to capture the phobomantic equivalent of Wernher von Braun, though I’d like to think such efforts ended when an upstanding Allied soldier risked court martial to shoot the target in the face.)

The the art collection, though, reeks of either cryptomancy or a twisted form of bibliomancy, or maybe even a (doomed) effort to Ascend as the Collector or the Artist. Maybe there were other mystical advisors in Hitler’s inner circle. Honestly, the Monument Men read like a group of PCs as-is, so I’d be tempted to do the whole thing as a period piece UA game. Maybe there’s a major ritual in the works, and the MM need to race to stop it. (I’m cribbing mercilessly from some of the hints dropped in Delta Green about occult conflict in the dying days of WWII, but only because I always thought that was cool.)


P.S. I think my greatest work in terms of drawing real world events into UA was when I replaced Alex Abel with Michael Jordan, though.

Please explain that move, switching Alex Abel with Jordan because it mystifies me. I’m not sure I get it.

Basically, Alex Abel is set up in the text to be a popular figure in the mainstream consciousness; the “reveal” that he’s running TNI is supposed to be a surprise. But it doesn’t work in a game because he doesn’t exist outside of UA’s fiction: he exists only to run TNI. Getting players to be surprised by that fact is like getting them to be surprised that billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is actually Batman. You’d either have to try to subtly introduce him to the narrative over time, or just ask them to pretend to be amazed. Neither seems fun.

So I went looking for a different Alex Abel. Michael Jordan came to mind because as soon as I read about the MVP Archetype in the UA2 corebook, I wondered, “If this exists, how the hell did Michael Jordan not Ascend?” By stealing some of Abel’s backstory, we get an explanation… or at least a better context for the mystery. I even put together a timeline:

1990-1993:¬†Jordan’s career is at its peak, such that a few clued-in folks begin wondering when he’ll Ascend and replace Babe Ruth* as the second MVP. A few proto-mystery cults spring up in and around Chicago, but¬†something¬†— perhaps the murder of his father? —¬†prevents¬†Jordan¬†from Ascending.

1993:¬†The blowback from the failed¬†Ascension¬†manifests in¬†Jordan’s retirement and subsequent move to minor league baseball.

1995-1999:¬†Recovering, Jordan returns to basketball and finds success which mirrors that of the first part of the decade… but¬†something¬†is missing and his frustration grows.

2000-2003:¬†Jordan¬†retires again. During this period his search for resolution to his frustration begins taking him down more and more esoteric paths. These paths lead him to the Washington Wizards: the team’s name and placement in a city designed on mystic principles appeal to his¬†increasing¬†understanding that what happened to him in 1993 was supernatural, and his increased¬†leadership¬†within the club provides him with the opportunity to shape it into a vehicle to reclaim what he lost. Unfortunately, they suck; whether this causes his efforts to fail or is a result of his inability to directly recapture that fleeting moment of greatness is unknown, but he abandons the effort.

2004:¬†Capitalizing on the fact that he’s¬†rich as fuck,¬†Jordan¬†founds TNI to just beat on the pinata of the occult until answers fall out. He is assisted in this effort not only by the canonical NPCs, but by his agent¬†David Falk, who’s clearly a high-level Avatar of the Merchant and has been dedicating most of his efforts to TNI since 2007.

That’s cut-n-pasted from an email chain from 2010. Interestingly, I almost didn’t go with it after a bunch of us reached consensus that it was too comedic. But damn if it didn’t work in play.

Interesting. Thanks for writing that, because when you told me the idea of replacing Abel with Jordan, I thought it was silly too but I know it worked with the players because I talked to one of them.Jim, one thing I have seen folks saying about UA is that they are not sure what to do with it. Any advice for a new UA GM, opening the book for the first time, trying to get their players into it?

I’m trying to come up with an answer that goes beyond, “Play members of The New Inquisition (TNI).” But damn if that doesn’t cover a big part of it.

TNI is just so nice and close to other games’ narrative structure: you’re members of an organization that provides you with a little bit of back-up, and provides a vector for exposition and missions. The missions themselves tend towards a mix of dungeon crawl and investigation. Most gamers are gonna fundamentally get that, since it resonates with the roots of the hobby. But non-gamers will often get it, too: folks who’ve watched¬†X-Files¬†or¬†Fringe¬†or¬†Angel¬†or¬†Supernatural¬†will know the score… or at least enough of it to go out and get into trouble.

Which is the other great thing: there’s no assumption that TNI agents know how the world (really) works. Quite the opposite.

[Note: I kept your response in here because it was a good jumping off point.]

All of the organizationss are a good place to start: TNI, the folks who are legends and take out those who awaken the tiger but are really under-staffed and getting by on smoke and mirrors, the fast food kids. All solid ways in.

Yup. I’ll admit that TNI’s where I have my experience — two solid campaign’s worth, now — so that’s where I lean.

But to some extent, I feel like the Sleepers and Mak Attax and the Order of St. Cecil require a bit more setting buy in, and are a bit removed from that core narrative hook I was talking about. With TNI we could hit the ground running, and then I used my GM time barfing forth UA weirdness at a projectile pace. (Yeah, that’s an¬†Apocalypse World¬†reference. I’m not sure if I’d read AW when I ran UA last, but damn if that Principle didn’t match up with what I tried to do.)

I also wove in stuff like “Bill In Three Persons” from¬†the core UA book¬†and “Drink to That” from¬†Weep. I was pretty pleased with how I worked in¬†“Bill In Three Persons”: I wrote up their first assignment for TNI, set it in New Mexico, gave them the briefing, let them¬†make all their pre-mission prep, and then on the drive from Chicago I had them run into the weird-ass accident that triggers the action in¬†“Bill In Three Persons”.

Which meant they had to deal with that scenario’s¬†weirdness, then actually get back on the road and do their¬†real¬†job before they could fully recover. It also set up the Comte as someone who was interested in them, but didn’t really give a shit about their well-being or TNI’s interests. Which worked well as I brought in the NPCs from “Drink to That” as part of the Occult Underground in Chicago.

TLDR version: have ’em make characters for TNI or another group with a clear narrative for scenarios, and throw UA weirdness in at every opportunity. They may or may not read the books, but if you do these two things it’s less likely that they’ll have to.

I liked the way Ben structured the game we were in together, taking it from monster-of-the-week into a more player-driven sandbox-y style of game.

Yes. I cannot overstate how much the excellent campaign run by Ben Fierce influenced my thoughts on the game, and my later experiences running it. That game was huge for me.

In the months since we started this interview, it has been announced that we can look forward to a UA reboot.

What do you want to see in a new edition?

That’s oddly one of the tougher questions you’ve asked. Let’s see…

I’d personally prefer that more of the units of times used in the mechanics were tied to the real-world table, rather than the in-universe clock. By which I mean, less “days/weeks/months” and more “scenes/sessions”. I think that would rub some folks wrong, and might be tough to work into the obsession theme of the adepts, but it’d be an improvement for me as GM. It might make downtime a bit easier to manage, too.

On a similar note, better rules for putting together NPCs. I was able to fudge stuff pretty well based on my knowledge of the game and the sample NPCs, but folks like avatars and adepts were more difficult. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find any guidelines for how many charges an NPC adept should have, for example. I could (and did) come up with something, based on what I knew of the school, but it’d be good support to have. (And like I said: maybe it’s there and I missed it.)

One thing that I feel the second edition did well, and the third could take further, is providing campaign models. With first edition, there was definitely a “what the hell do we¬†do”¬†problem, and second edition gave much better guidance along those lines with its mini campaign blurbs for each level of play. It’d be nice if they took it further: select one blurb each for Street, Global, and Cosmic play. Flesh it out with a more thorough discussion of resources, potential missions, larger goals, key antagonists, etc. Not all the way to where¬†Lawyers, Guns, and Money¬†took TNI, but further in that direction. Expand the provided scenarios to discuss how each highlighted campaign structure would interact with them. If there’s a specific scenario type that’s strongly linked to a given campaign — e.g. investigation to TNI — give a more thorough¬†discussion¬†about how the rules should be¬†used to play that out.

Focus on archetypes and adept schools that will work well at the table. Something like the MVP, for example, can work great for an NPC (see above), but giving a full write-up to something that will almost certainly not work for a PC takes space away from more gameable concepts. A short write-up of extra-weird¬†archetypes, schools, and powers to drop onto NPCs — or hack for PCs with the right crew — would be a neat way to handle such things.

Setting-wise, I lean more towards revamping it for 2015 rather than just moving the timeline a decade and more ahead. Too much has changed, too many groups or their stories no longer resonate. Some evolution could work — Mak Attax in a word of strikes at the Scotsman is interesting to me — but others would probably just need to be scrapped, and too much of a focus on the intervening years could be a drag.

And honestly, some of the language that gets used to describe some¬†marginalized¬†groups sounds problematic to me now, and could use revision. Truth be told, a game that focuses on folks who find themselves¬†marginalized¬†into the occult underground could use more discussion of real¬†marginalized¬†groups, either written by (or consulted on by) actual members of those groups. It’d make the game ring even truer, and improve it.

Clearer rules for¬†exactly¬†what happens when a PCs Passions come into play. I remember us struggling with that a bit, and it’s a mechanic I generally love.

All that being said, I think the rules for second edition hold up pretty damned well. The fuzzy logic rules for different kinds of checks is still one of my favorite game mechanics ever, I love Obsessions and Passions, I love the dangerous randomness of combat and the secret hit points and… well, I could go on. There’s a lot to love, and I hope things don’t change¬†too¬†much.

Jim, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and thanks again for welcoming me into your gaming group all those years ago and introducing me to this wonderful game.

We’ve been sitting on this interview for over a year and upon looking through drafts of blog posts, I discovered it and asked Jim if I could hit the publish button. Thanks again, Jim for your patience and creativity.

Judd, thank you for your patience with my long delayed responses, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about UA, and thanks for joining the group way back when! For many reasons, I’m glad that came together.

Brand Robins on Tribe 8 and Exalted

I was thrilled to talk with Brand Robins about Tribe 8 and Exalted.

What drew you to Tribe 8 initially and what kept you playing?

Ghislain Barbe’s art and the use of fiction for setting drew me to the game. I remember seeing these punked out freaky looking people, iconic and alt and then reading the Prophecy of Joshua and being hooked. It was everything I wanted out of post-apocalypse games and wasn’t getting from anything else on the market: weird, edgy, dirty, and sexy.

It’s also how I’d get others into the game. I’d show them the pictures of Deus and Hal, of Kimber and Troy, and read them the Prophecy. If they were the sorts of folks who were going to be into Tribe 8, they’d be down as soon as I was done.

It also was rich material to keep you playing with. At the time I thought the metaplot was what kept the game going, but in retrospect I don’t think that’s true. It was the richness of the setting, the dynamic characters and stark opposition of¬†purposes.

Does rich setting = metaplot?

What is the relationship between the two.

No, rich setting and metaplot are distinct from each other — though for a long time folks (myself included) conflated the two.

A rich setting, in my mind, is a setting with lots of details, usable fictional chunks, interesting personalities, and the potential for dynamic interaction with the players.

Metaplot is about the forced or pre-planned changes of the setting, usually as directed by the publishing house in order to drive a specific story of the world or agenda for play.

So Tribe 8 was a rich setting in that it had detailed specific locations, cool groups, awesome characters with specific and aggressive agendas, amazing art, detailed maps, a strong sense of time and place, and was set up so that no matter where the PCs went or what they did they would automatically end up in shit, on shit, or causing shit.

Tribe 8 also had a metaplot, in which the game world was changed and advanced by published adventure and setting books. The ideal state was that your PCs played in those adventures and stayed close enough to the central line that the events in the future books matched what had happened in your campaign, in broad strokes at least. This worked with greater and lesser degrees of success, and was run by the company with greater and lesser degrees of skill.

I know Exalted is another game with a rich setting and metaplot that you enjoy. Could you compare and contrast the way Tribe 8 and Exalted use setting and metaplot?

Its funny, because when I was into Exalted it didn’t have a metaplot.

See, Exalted had this vast fantastical world. It was huge. I think on the main map in the inside of the book covered every inch was like 800 miles or something — the Realm was bigger than North America IIRC. And many of the portions of that world were detailed in many different books.

At first the areas of the world were only lightly sketched out — like to the West there are many islands and archipelagos, filled with many different people who do cool things such as ride on whales and hunt sharks, or have a way to harvest magical pearls so they can breathe underwater, etc. Then setting books came and detailed many of the areas, built up details on different kingdoms and cults, republics and timocracies of the area. Some would detail a single city or¬†kingdom¬† some a whole region.

A lot of that stuff was wicked cool. You had dudes with clockwork blimps and other people who lived inside giant trees, guys who rode on massive eagles to make war with the women who worshipped the bull god, you had cities ruled by spirits that were made up of the stories people told about the city, and on it went. It was a brilliant, beautiful collection of mad crazy anime-fantasy-mythological ideas.

Over time folks, largely on the fan side while I was still into the game, started wanting to canonize that. They didn’t want the crazy ideas to all be things you could do, they wanted them to be a coherent world with few (if any) gaps left to be filled. Over time the published material started to reflect that and the tone changed from “here are zany things across the world” to “here is the name and numbering of all things that are.”

Around that time, though my¬†recollections¬†are hazy as I was losing steam with Exalted at this point, “metaplot” like elements started coming into play. Parts of the world that had been previously established as dynamic and on the verge of change (so that PCs could walk in and screw it all up) were now written as having changed. That Bull of the North dude who we’d first heard about starting a rebellion was now in full out war with the Realm. The world was moving, progressing, without any action from any group of PCs involved.

If that’s metaplot or not depends on your definition. It could just be a living world — as there is so much in Exalted that if you weren’t interested in the Bull of the North you’d just ignore it to focus on your campaign in the Western Islands. But there was some change from it on the community, or at least the part of the community I interacted with, where the emphasis went from “how much cool are your PCs doing” to “lets talk about the world¬†separate¬†from whats happening in any individual game.”

Still, it wasn’t quite full metaplot as the world as a whole, the single story of the setting, wasn’t being changed.

At least not until the Empress returned. But I can’t speak about that, as by the time the rumors of that even started I’d moved on to other games.

Anyway, in Tribe 8 the world was small and specific. It was pretty much all on the island of Montreal, and was a closely detailed setting. And within the first 4 or so books being published that setting started being deliberately changed. And not like “well over there maybe the dude is having a rebellion” like in Exalted. It was more in the realm of “every possible relationship and power structure in the game is about to get hit with a bat, and it’s all going to change.”

When this was done well it gave the game energy, made the setting feel alive. The problem was that it meant that right from jump many folks were more about following the setting than playing in the setting. And those that did had to find various ways to manage their story within or against the game’s story. Because make no mistake, Tribe 8 was telling a story. A Story. And that story was the metaplot. Your story was the part you played in telling the A Story.

Exalted never did that. Tribe 8 did it as¬†aggressively¬†as any game I’ve ever seen.

Is metaplot just a lazy way to sell books thinking that folks who follow it and aren’t playing will buy the next book to find out what happened and the people who are playing will just ignore it?


I mean, that is part of why metaplot was so popular with so many publishing houses in the 90s. But it was never just about that, and with the folks I knew it was never even primarily about that.

The folks that say that are much, in my mind, like the folks who accuse Vincent of writing Apocalypse World so that they can’t play the game they want to play — they have to play it as it is or that’s it, out the door!

In both cases there are issues with where the centrality of story/system/power lies — with the publisher or with the designer vs. with the players and the local group. However, both are, in my estimations, vast overstatements of what’s a relatively small and subtle gap.

Certainly many “indie” games have a strong designer as center of system bias. And yes, many metaplot games had metaplot to help move product. But Vincent isn’t there to run your game for you or take away your ability to roleplay, and Tribe 8 wasn’t just trying to move product.

Well said!

You did some writing on Tribe 8, yes? How did that transition happen, from gaming fan to writing for the property?

(And if you have talked about this or written about it elsewhere, feel free to just provide a link if you don’t care to re-hash anything.)

I did some writing on Tribe 8, yes. I think it was the second game I published for.

I’d been active on the Tribe 8 mailing list since near its¬†beginning¬† (Ah, the old days of mailing lists…) I’d gotten some attention, and I’d been playing with a couple of groups of folks on and off through the period. Lisa Nicols, Josh Roby, Laura Bishop, and Moyra Turkington were the main group.

There came a point in Tribe 8 were the original writing team moved on to other things, and a call for MS submissions was sent out by the Pod. Lisa had a good idea for an original book and she brought me the outline. I worked with her to do the “game stuff” for it and we pitched it to the Pod. Hilary Doda, who was editor at that point, loved it and bought it from ¬†her. That became Harvest of Thorns.

With that foot in the door we rounded up the whole group and started pitching for books on the planned roster —¬†Adrift¬†on the River of Dreams, Word of the Dancers, etc. I’d had a little RPG publishing experience (mostly magazines) at that point and some more significant non-RPG writing and team-leading experience to leverage, and we’d done Harvest both on time and proven ourselves easy to edit, so we got the books.

And turns out once you’ve done a few and done them on time, folks will keep hiring you. That we could actually all write was probably a bonus.

Anyway, after that we got the majority of books on the Tribe 8 roster until we killed the line.

“…until we killed the line.”

As in, we made a decision or as in, we just wrote and wrote until the horse was dead, dead, dead?

Until the horse was dead.

Though, at the time, as the line was running out of steam, the metaplot was getting harder to sustain, the 90s model of publishing was changing and D20 and indie publishing were altering the hobby on every level there were a lot of fans who pretty much accused me (and the rest of the group) of murdering Tribe 8.

Because, you know, freelancers suck.

As a fellow freelancer, I hear ya.

I sense some bitterness there? Any scabs you want to pick at in public?

It’s long ago enough that I mostly just joke with the bitterness.

But yea, at the time it got pretty ugly and personal. I had people trying to write to my day job to get me fired, had difficulty getting paid, and pretty much went down the road that leads to bitterness.

So pretty much, Freelancer story #3.

Still, I’m happy about what we did. The group won some awards, published a lot of cool shit, and learned a lot of things.

What is your favorite in-game moment that happened while you were playing (GMing, whatever) Tribe 8?

That would have to be after the PCs convinced Joan that the only way to atone for the murder of her brother was to let them sacrifice her to raise a new fatima to replace her.

When the new fatima, Deborah, rose from Joan’s ashes Mo started dancing around the room chanting “Debor-AH, Debor-AH!” until we almost got kicked out of our hotel. The other players didn’t chant so much, but (other than Josh) were all in tears.

(Josh doesn’t cry in games. He did, however, have some allergies that caused his eyes to get all¬†shiny.)

Nice, I love those moments.

I feel like there is some kind of thematic link between Tribe 8 and Exalted…something about the way the both mutate and play with myth to make something new but familiar. You know them both far better than I do, is there something there or am I looking for something that isn’t there?

I’d say there is something there, but its nothing obvious.

In many ways Tribe 8 and Exalted are near opposites — one is all goth, grunge, punk and post industrial in an almost¬†claustrophobicly¬†small setting where the other is high flying, gravity defying marital arts and anime in a huge world of spirits and gods.

Perhaps that they’re both a different kind of post apocalypse with spiritual and mythic overtones? Tribe 8 is after our world, with spiritualism and a hint of¬†Gnostic¬†icecream, where Exalted is a fantasy post-apocalypse with the gods run wild.

Maybe that’s it, despite differences in tone, scope, and scale, they’re both about worlds in which after an apocalypse the spiritual order is out of whack and the physical problems of the world are a manifestation of that. And, of course, your characters are the only ones who can fix it.

Both games in some way are about fixing a universe gone wrong.

Cam Banks talks about Dragonlance

I have seen glimmers of Cam Banks’ (twitter, Google+) passion for Dragonlance over twitter and wanted to delve into it a bit.

Cam, I know you love Dragonlance and wanted to have a conversation about the setting.

It is a setting with a huge canon now. There are several different games with different editions in different eras of the setting, the often-maligned-for-railroading modules and novels, short stories and if memory serves, an animated film of some kind.

If you were guiding someone towards playing Dragonlance for the first time, what game would you use, how would you familiarize them with the setting? How would you introduce Dragonlance to someone who didn’t know anything about it?

I think reading the original trilogy of novels is always a good place to start. Margaret & Tracy’s books continue to be bestsellers, after all. This does create some problems, however, which we encountered during the 3rd edition era of the setting. Our audience expected two things: a faithful recreation of the original novels or the modules they were based on, and an open world of play that allowed original characters. Much as Star Wars runs into trouble with fans when it “strays” from the original movies, Dragonlance likewise runs into trouble with its own fans when it heads off in any kind of new direction.

That said, for a new audience, with no experience of playing it as a game setting, almost any rules would work. It’s not difficult to get hold of the original modules in some format or another, and the same adventures have been updated for two editions beyond the 1st edition of AD&D. Pathfinder GMs could run the Sovereign Press versions quite easily. For myself, as of right now, I would probably go with a hack of Dungeon World. There’s a lot I’d be able to do with DW’s flexible economy of movies and narrative choices that would make the romantic fantasy of Dragonlance a little easier to grasp.

It is funny that you should mention Dungeon World, I was just thinking about the game Matt ran at last year’s Dreamation, using Dungeon World to play the old Dragonlance Modules.

The fact that my buddy, Rob, who introduced me to gaming played a kender made me laugh. A kender thief was my first D&D character, Stultus “The Kid” Flipppoloticus.

Could you talk about a favorite character that you played or a favorite moment from a Dragonlance game at your table?

As a gamer, how do you deal with that established canon? How do you turn it from a shadow looming over the table to an asset to inspire the players?

When I was working on the 3rd edition of Dragonlance I had a local group of players who were of varying degrees of familiar with the setting. Amanda Valentine was in the group and early on decided just to play a fighter since it would let her just get on with playing the game and not worry about spells and other things. As it happens, her character Katja developed into one of the campaign’s most heroic and fleshed-out PCs. She grappled a blue dragon and forced it down to the ground, breaking its neck, with some lucky dice rolls. It was kind of a shock to the whole table.

I decided at some point that it was OK to stray from continuity, too. I have a firm grasp on it to begin with, and know enough about alternate timelines and so forth that throwing something new or different in was fun for me and interesting for those players who are familiar with the standard continuity. Knowing it as well as I do frees me from worrying as much about it, which is kind of my approach to everything like this. It’s in my nature to absorb and digest continuity and canon. Keeping that all sorted in my head might be one of the things I enjoy most about fandom.

Grappled a blue dragon to death! That is fantastic. Nice.

Any tips for using an established setting’s details in a way that is fun for a table that has players with varying degrees of setting knowledge and buy-in?

You can name drop characters and locations all the time, but unless they matter somehow to your players it’s not worth it. I think it’s best to focus on who they’ve chosen to play. If you’ve got a fighter and a wizard, then obviously you want to talk to the players about the kinds of groups that fighters and wizards belong to. In Dragonlance, that’s not just Knights and High Sorcery mages, it’s things like the Ergothian Cavaliers, or the Academy of Sorcery, or renegades, or whatever. What I did was provide the small, out of the way starting point, ask how the players got there, what kind of places did they come from, and then I could provide them with the details that lined up with those things they had settled on.

With D&D it is kind of a cheat. Like if you did a Fate Core Dragonlance you’d sort of have to get to work on lists of aspects and things that made sense with the setting, but with D&D you can usually just say “OK so you’re an elf fighter, right, that means you’re probably Qualinesti or Silvanesti, which one sounds good” as opposed to just “errr… okay, so, you’re an elf with some skills…” D&D and games like it are already templates for background before you even add the setting material. So it’s a good cheat. Not saying you can’t do Dragonlance with other games – I think it’s probably BETTER with other games, sometimes – but for newcomers it’s a lot of work done for you just up front.

Fate CORE Dragonlance?

Quick! What are a few of Raistlin’s Aspects?


Obviously his high concept is Wizard of High Sorcery. He’s probably got some like Hourglass Eyes, No Bully Shall Be Victor Over Me, Heir of Fistandantilus, “My tea, Caramon!” etc. I’m a little rusty with Raistlin and with Fate, for all that clever phrases are a part of my work!

Who is your favorite Dragonlance character and why?


My favorite is Tanis Half-Elven. He’s an archer and a swordsman, he’s from two worlds and neither of them is really completely his, he’s a redhead, a reluctant leader but a pretty good one when he tries (and isn’t distracted), and so on. I often joke that the difference between Tanis and myself is that I picked the brunette and not the blonde. Maybe he would have been happier if he’d done that, too.

You hear someone at a con bad-mouthing Dragonlance and you can say anything to them and there will be no consequences other than cheers and hugs all around and a greater understanding of the setting.

What do you say?


I’d say it’s often easy to talk dismissively of Dragonlance because it has had such a huge influence on campaign settings, genre fiction, and so on since its creation. By that I mean, the ideas and tropes of Dragonlance might seem old-hat or tired or fuel for railroaded games, but at the time it was as revolutionary as something like the Dresden Files or Game of Thrones or Skyrim seems now. We live in a timeline that both embraces and demonizes the past, as seen by the Old School Renaissance and countless reboots of movies, comics, and literature. So I say, sure, you don’t need to like it, but you should at some level respect and acknowledge it, which is pretty much the right way to deal with the Queen of Darkness, too. ūüôā

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me while we both went through huge transitions in our lives.  May both of our transitions lead to happiness and success!

Thank you.


You’re welcome!

Interview: Megan McFerren on Moldvay D&D

Megan McFerren was kind enough to talk to me about her recent first tabletop RPG campaign, playing Moldvay D&D. When her group tweeted about the game, they used the twitter hashtag, #wednd.

You just got done playing a D&D campaign and correct me if I’m wrong but it was your first tabletop experience but you’re an experienced video gamer? What are some of your favorite video games ever?

Yes, D&D was my first tabletop game that was more than just a one-shot or a one-session play test (and I’d only had a handful of those). I’ve been playing video games pretty much my entire life, though. My favorite games ever are the original X-Com, Joust, and pretty much anything by Valve or Bethesda (I am an Elder Scrolls and Fallout junkie). Bioshock was also one of the most intense, memorable experiences I’ve ever had in gaming – actually maybe any form of media. I’ll never forget the way I felt when I played through that story for the first time.

I’ve played a number of MMOs over the years (starting with Meridian 59, old school!) but¬†over the last couple years I’ve mostly been¬†hooked on super-intense permadeath type¬†sims – Dwarf Fortress and Day Z are the purest forms of gamer crack I’ve ever found in video games.

I don’t play many video games at all but before I had to reformat it, I had Dwarf Fortress on my little notebook and enjoyed the hell out of it. It is a mad, baroque game.

Dwarf Fortress turns me into a mad hermit. I get obsessed with it and go through black-out fugues when hours of my life just VANISH. Love it!

What did you think about your transition between your long-time video game experience and your first foray into campaign play via Moldvay’s D&D?

When this started I was in the midst of a really all-consuming Skyrim obsession, so at the time I was feeling very “in the mood” for the setting – delving into great caverns to pillage anything that isn’t nailed down? Bethesda PRIMED me for this!¬†I also thought that those games had primed me for the style of play and It took me a handful of characters to realize how totally unprepared I was –¬†that I can’t just charge ahead and fight everything, because that leads to death. Lots of death.¬†This¬†was a really rude awakening from the video game version of role-playing, which is “kill everything and take potions not to die.”

What did you like about it? What was similar and what was different?

I remember coming back after losing a particularly rad character (a cleric who lasted a whopping two sessions, which was like a RECORD for me at that point) and complaining about how frustrating it was that there’s no do-overs, no “reload from save”. I didn’t even realize how much I just EXPECTED that option to be available in games. In retrospect, this might be what turned me off a little to the video games I had been playing and made me really enjoy the thrill of permadeath experiences like Day Z. When there’s consequences for actions, everything feels so much more important.

I think we owe it to that cleric to hear that story and honor their memory.

He was the first character that I really put thought into creating a backstory for – just for myself to feel more connection to that character (oh the irony). My prior character, along with another at the table, had died in an unceremonious fall through a pit trap, INTO WATER, and they both died instantly, so this new cleric was “found” with the other new character as the original troupe made their way deeper into the dungeon. I had a whole story in my head about¬†how he got there, who he was before he was¬†stuck there, why he was a cleric, everything. Two¬†sessions later, in an attempt to be heroic (he was Lawful, naturally) and save one of his rescuers¬†from a Hobgoblin (not as scary as the Stirges we’d just encountered, by way capable of killing the hell out of any of us), he took a fatal blow – just one! – and was a goner.

One of many before and after, but I¬†was very bothered¬†at the time – I actually cared about this silly character and I let him die! I knew at that point that I was playing the game “wrong” by¬†always trying to fight, plunging ahead without being cautious,¬†and so on. And slowly the game was teaching me, trial by fire style, how it actually¬†needed to be played.

Sounds like D&D was a tough teacher.

How did you next character or characters do once you learned some caution?

Actually if I remember correctly, the¬†next character I made was the one that I stuck with until the end, so I guess I did something right after that point. That lesson of “don’t just try to fight everything because you’ll mostly lose” hit pretty much all of us at the same time, and we had to be reminded of it a few times, but we were increasingly cautious after that. There are a number of really powerful options for avoiding hand-to-hand combat. We¬†learned how to¬†stop and listen for possible danger before plowing ahead thoughtlessly, how to¬†parlay our way out of trouble (my character spoke like seven languages – you never know when Doppelganger is going to come in useful!), and how to¬†best utilize¬†distanced spells to kill outright or immobilize (or Charm – Charm Person was in use CONSTANTLY for us, having the added benefit of creating cannon fodder… I mean, new friends!).

Did you make less exciting choices due to that fear of death or just more prudent choices? Did the game get better once you started boxing clever?

I think these were smarter choices, but they weren’t less exciting – they were perhaps more so, because we’d learned just how much it sucks to have to start a new character from scratch. It definitely added an excitement that was very new to me in my experience of gaming. There was a sequence where another character and mine both took an Invisibility Potion and scouted a cave of bugbears – by far the biggest, nastiest character we’d encountered at that point – and I remember feeling my palms sweat and heart race as we tried to get as much information as possible without alerting anything to our presence.

Going back to Skyrim felt seriously hollow after that!

Are there video games that capture that kind of fear and harsh lessons?

Day Z is the only one that immediately comes to mind¬†as coming anywhere close to that experience for me. The impulse is to approach it like any other zombie shooter, such as Left 4 Dead, and it doesn’t take long to realize that’s the exact opposite of how you should play. When you die, you start over completely with nothing but a backpack, a flashlight, and a bandage – anything you’d managed to scrape together is otherwise gone. And since there’s an injury system (broken legs mean you can’t walk and often go into shock, a bad hit will draw blood and unless you can bandage yourself you’ll bleed to death, etc.) all of this gives you a very definite reason to avoid conflict with zeds, and ESPECIALLY to avoid conflict with other players.

My first life ever lasted approximately twenty seconds before someone shot me for my meager little bandage. My first encounter with another player ended with me shooting him in a moment of hysterical panic, after swearing up and down I’d “never be that kind of player”.¬†And my longest life (a few months at this point) has lasted long because I’ve gotten good at being sneaky, and¬†I stay¬†far far away from other players that I don’t know personally. You learn by making mistakes and being harshly corrected!

Are there cool game design lessons that tabletop can learn from computer RPG’s and of course, are there game design lessons that computer RPG’s can learn from tabletop?

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I really think video games can benefit from becoming quote “hard” again. The reload from save, auto-targeting, it’s okay you made a mistake because it’s on a rail so everything will proceed as though you had succeeded feeling of games has become a real turn-off for me – I want to play a game that challenges me to learn how to play it, and doesn’t hold my hand through each step of the process. Games like Call of Duty now to me just feel like watching a movie where you push a button occasionally – give me a sense of exploration and let me discover on my own how to play, because the rewards are so much¬†grander when there’s consequences for failure.

I wouldn’t know what lessons can go in reverse, though – I’m still very new to tabletop gaming and there’s so much out there that I’m not yet familiar with! I’m expanding my experiences though, as our D&D game is on hiatus for the moment. We played a particularly rough game of Paranoia, and are now doing a weekly FreeMarket game, and I hope soon to start Dogs in the Vineyard, which I’m so excited about that I can’t even stand it. Maybe once I’ve experienced more of what tabletop games have to offer I’ll be able to better answer this question!

Thank you for taking the time to interview with me, Megan.

Interview: John Harper on Talislanta

Here’s a fun interview with John Harper, talking about Talislanta:

I used to read the Talislanta books as a teen, loving the implied setting but never delving deep enough to actually play in that setting. I kind of skimmed the surface, never finding the main book in any local game shops. I loved the Mogroth and those mystic wanderers who had eyes on their sticks. Suddenly, I had another monster manual to paw through and paw, I did.

What drew you to the setting? Did you play? GM? What did you do with Talislanta at your table?

I’ll never forget finding that 2nd edition book in the game store. This must have been… 1989? The white cover with the tattooed Thrall warrior by P.D. Breeding-Black. I was blown away by that image and immediately picked it up.

(By the way, all the Talislanta books are available as free PDFs, here:

That edition had little illustrations for every single character type, across several pages. No stats (they were elsewhere), just names and images. At first I thought they were monsters — there were winged gryphon-men, weird scorpion-tailed things — but then I realized these were all playable characters! And the names were great. Arimite Revenant. Black Savant. Phantasian Astromancer

. I got so excited. The art and the setting were crazy; like nothing else I’d seen. Also, on the back, it said “For experienced players and gamemasters only” which I thought was very cool. I was showing my friends and basically jumping out of my skin to play the game.

We played for years and years. I’ve played hundreds of sessions. Almost entirely as GM, but sometimes as a player here and there. Several of my all-time favorite gaming experiences have been with Talislanta.

Mainly, we did sprawling, picturesque travel/adventure yarns in the vein of Jack Vance meets Conan meets Indiana Jones, which is really where all that crazy material points you, I think. The characters rose from petty mercenaries to princes, warlords, and inter-dimensional explorers. I always love a good dungeon crawl, but dungeon games weren’t like the books I was reading. Talislanta gave us that sweeping, alien kind of adventure fantasy that I loved in A Princess of Mars or The Demon Princes.

(One of my favorite series, the Kang Civil War, was recorded for posterity on the Internet around 1993 or so. I cringe at a lot of it now, but it’s kind of fun to go back and look at my very first “actual play” report, from 20+ years ago. Someone reposted it to the Talislanta website, here:

I’m reading the antique AP and loving it.

The guys find themselves at the Farad‚Äôs estate (big, big place.. this Farad is one of the key players that ‚Äúborrowed‚ÄĚ the windship arcanology from the Phantasians / Cymrilians and ‚Äúloaned‚ÄĚ it to the Rajans). 

You clearly had internalized the setting right into your bones and making those pieces dance. What was that process like? Reading and day-dreaming? Were you making your own relationship maps between nations and cultures?

Talislanta has a neat trick when it comes to its setting. The world is massive and diverse, but each region and culture only has a few colorful sentences to explain it. So you know that the Kang are ‘a warlike people, born to combat’ and the Farad are ‘widely known for their unscrupulous business dealings’ and there’s some cool artwork and that’s about it. You have to fill in a lot of details yourself, which helps tie everything together in your imagination.

I also did a lot of reading and day-dreaming, for sure. I filled my head with imagery and ideas from every kind of media (the Kang in our games were a lot like Klingons, really). The cultures were built slowly over time with the same player group, so we all had a lot of ownership and familiarity with them.

I definitely made relationship maps; boxes and arrows and all. It was less game prep and more playing catch up. I’d committed to certain things in play on the spur of the moment. Then I’d make these relationship maps that fit the facts so far, to make sense of it and give it structure when the players started delving more deeply into it. I still use that technique a lot as a GM today.

The other side-effect of reading your AP posts is that I am falling in love with the character, Abdul. When he took on the Kang warrior, riddled with arrows and hit a few solid 20’s, I was cheering. I love those mad, beautiful moments.

It is also interesting, in the course of the Kang Civil War, to see you wrestling with a play-style, allowing the awesome things the players were doing to dictate the direction of the game and getting away from linear adventures and moving towards fluid situations with exciting consequences. You can see why the MC Agendas and Principles made sense to you right off.

At this point, there was no civil war. All I had in mind was that there was a deep conspiracy going on in the Empire, and the Warlord was travelling abroad personally to ‚Äúsecure‚ÄĚ something or other. I didn‚Äôt know what yet. The actual civil war was sparked by‚Ķ you guessed it, Abdul. But that‚Äôs a ways off yet‚Ķ

In these AP, we are watching you organically come to Play to find out what happens and Being a fan of the players’ characters. I’m also seeing partial successes…AW must have fit you like an old pair of comfy sweat-pants when you read it, huh?

I knew you would love Abdul! He’s one of the all-time great PCs. My friend Patrick Cunningham created him. Abdul became something of a legend in the Talislanta online community.

I definitely developed my play style as a GM during that series. Before that, I had tried running “plotted” campaigns several times, with mixed results at best. Games often fizzled and I felt drained by all the work I had to do pre-game. The Kang Civil War happened because I had created this big plotted campaign in the northern lands, but after the players tried the first mission, they simply said, “Nah, we don’t want to do this. We leave,” and headed south. I was flabbergasted, had nothing prepped, and just decided to wing it.

 That lead — very organically like you said — to a style of play that Vincent captured so well in Apocalypse World. You might not know that Vincent is also a huge Talislanta fan, and was playing the game and reading the email-list during the Kang Civil War stuff. Talislanta is listed as an influence in the AW book. So there’s definitely a historical connection there. I’m blown away by Vincent’s ability to distill and evolve that play style into something concrete and procedural in the AW text. It’s really a work of genius.

But yeah, the style of play described in AW is something that I came to gradually over many sessions during the KCW, thanks to the amazing group of players we had, and the solid foundation of Talislanta‘s setting and game system. It’s really cool that you were able to see that develop in the AP. I remember the feeling at the time — like we were discovering some secret language of gaming. It was so hard to explain! I spent a couple decades trying to convey it through countless discussions online and off. Now I can just say “Read Apocalypse World.”

I went through that same frustrating process, trying to wade through conventional wisdom and my own experiences to figure out what mysterious alchemical process made for a good/great/legendary session of gaming.

I knew that there were games where it was fun to hang out with buddies and talk in funny voices and nights where something tangible happened to make the game amazing but wasn’t sure what techniques were necessary to get there.

I can feel the strong pull of this conversation, leading me to ask the inevitable and maybe too obvious questions:

If you were going to play Talislanta today, how would you go about doing so?

I’d play it straight. I know the game inside and out, and it’s a solid design. The tricky part is getting everyone on board with the vast setting in a reasonable time frame. I might use a sub-section of the world to start, like the Seven Kingdoms or Carantheum or something and let the group explore outward into the unknown from there. The exact makeup of character types would really drive things. That weird alchemy you get when a Sindaran Collector, Thrall Warrior, and Cymrilian Swordmage get together is pure gold.

And I know you did work on the game’s 4th edition, is there a temptation to go to Mark Williams and help orchestrate a kickstarter of some kind?

I designed the 4th edition of the game system, did the layout for the book, the bulk of the writing, and published it with my partner Jon Elliott, under our Shooting Iron imprint. We had the help of the Talislanta online community (which is stellar) and the full support of the game’s creator, Steve Sechi — otherwise it never could have happened. Also, lots of people from Wizards of the Coast (who did the 3rd edition) helped us a lot, including John Tynes, Jonathan Tweet, Ron Spencer, Anson Maddocks, and especially Jesper Myrfors, who arranged for us to get the massive Talislanta artwork archive, all scanned and ready to go.

 It was a huge, crazy task. Self-publishing an RPG book was so much harder back then, but I’m really glad I did it. I made so many mistakes and learned so much. The book design alone got my foot in the door for several cool gigs and ultimately lead to the graphic design career I have today.

There’s no temptation to do a kickstarter. It’s Steve’s baby, and he’s happy to keep it freely available in PDF form, far as I know. I’ve been talking to him about some other game projects recently — some of which are really cool — but who knows if they’ll come together. Steve is a great guy and I love working with him, but we both have other lives pulling at our attention.

It is really interesting to me that the eclectic groups of player characters are the ones that work best, especially in a setting this alien and wondrous. Any ideas on why that is and how to best set that kind of game up for success?

In Talislanta, your culture/species is your “character class”, for the most part. So the eclectic mix works for the same reason that Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, Cleric works in classic adventure gaming.

The bonus is, in Tal, your characters also have an outlook and heritage automatically attached to their character type that gives the players an easy roleplaying hook beyond their job description. It’s a simplistic way to handle a complex thing like culture, but it gets richer and more interesting through the process of play, as stereotypes are challenged and cultures become nuanced as they’re revealed.

That sounds great, John.

 Thanks for sharing your love of Talislanta and taking the time to talk to me.

Please post comments below or over here on the G+ thread.

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Interivew: Pete Cornell on Greyhawk

My friend and two-time roommate, Pete is a podcaster on the Rule Zero podcast and I wanted to talk with him about Greyhawk.

Pete, if you were trying to introduce people to Greyhawk, where would you suggest they start? How should one begin their journey into that world?

Could you name a few things you love about Greyhawk?

I have just one caveat before I begin to answer your questions: most, if not all, of my answers are going to be based on the boxed set that was released 1983.   Also, there are some things here and there that have come from the Living Greyhawk campaign and from a couple of house ruled Greyhawk campaigns that I had the pleasure to either run or be a part of.

If I were to introduce someone to Greyhawk, I would start in either of the old empires: Keoland or the Great Kingdom.

When I first read about the Great Kingdom, I envisioned a human Melnibon√® that had collapsed under its own decadence.  I pictured a really powerful Thieves‚Äô Guild (a la Lankhmar) existing in the Great Kingdom and the nobles are just one bloody mess waiting to fall onto each other either coupling or stabbing or both.  As of the timeline of the boxed set, the Great Kingdom is divided in vassal states that are all equally cool: i.e., the Bone March and the Theocracy of the Pale.  The Great Kingdom borders on the ocean so that adds the maritime element to gameplay there.  Also, I have a special place in my heart for this because my friend Dave ran his really cool AD&D campaign and we started in the Great Kingdom at one of the Bard Colleges.

Keoland is in a similar situation as the Great Kingdom with a couple of very cool exceptions: 1) Keoland willingly gave its vassal states; and, 2) it is geographically close to most of the modules set in the Flanaess (G1 through G3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, to name a few).  Also, it is really close to the areas of the map that include nomadic and Middle Eastern cultures.  Plus, Keoland‚Äôs ruler is named Kimbertos Scotti ‚Äď it makes me feel like that scene in ‚ÄúFletch‚ÄĚ where Chevy Chase says ‚ÄúJohn Cock-tos-ton‚ĶIt‚Äôs Scotch/Ukrainian.‚ÄĚ  Kimbertos Scotti ‚Äď It‚Äôs Greek/Celtic!

So, to sum up: You can start in a dark, depraved area rife with courtly intrigue, questionable morals, and SO much potential for villainy. OR you can start in a brighter, fiercer, cosmopolitan place that borders on a LOT of very cool possible storylines.

Honestly, I would have to find out what the group wanted out of Greyhawk to decide where to begin.  My gut feeling is to start in the Far North in the Archbarony of Blackmoor.  I‚Äôm not sure why, but if there were one place in all the Flanaess that you‚Äôd want to get the hell out of as soon as possible, Blackmoor seems to be it!  That or Hold of Stonefist.

The few things that I love about Greyhawk are over-the-top cool high fantasy stuff.  All the Artifacts in the original DMG exist somewhere in the Flanaess.  THAT is awesome!  Also, the gonzo wizards and other NPCs out there like Xagyg or Mordenkainen or anybody!  There is a freaking DEMON who rules his own kingdom.  There is a crashed spaceship in the mountains.  There is a place called the Tomb of Horrors!  I love that Greyhawk is the home to High Fantasy in all of its colors and flavors.  I like that the Great Kingdom is decayed and awful.  I like that there are places called Rel Mord, the Scarlett Brotherhood, and Ket.  I like that there is a fantasy democracy called the Yeomanry.  Greyhawk in the original boxed set is such a rich tapestry of what this game could be if you don‚Äôt go the Forgotten Realms route.  Plus, there are things that have come out of the setting like the Mage Wars in the City of Greyhawk that really ramp up the awesome!  I think it would be cool to play a foreign spellcaster who comes into Greyhawk completely unaware of the War.  Or to play a mercenary whose first experience as a fighter was on a side in the Mage War and it has scarred them for life!  It really annoys me when people poo-poo Greyhawk, because this was THE setting for fantasy gaming in the early ‚Äė80s.

I still want to play a young up-and-coming wizard who wants to be an arch-mage during Greyhawk City’s Mage Wars.

What has Greyhawk inspired you to create? What did you make as a GM or as a player that you are proud of, some little setting detail or bit of character history that linked you to the greater setting?

Within the setting, I have breathed life into various NPCs of which I am quite pleased.  Kimbertos Scotti I made into the Volstagg of Keoland: Nearly 7 feet tall and tipping the scales at 370 lbs, the Lion of Keoland is a massive man.  I made the Western Flanaess the setting for a secret Illithid invasion.  The Illithid are being hunted by Githyanki.  I think that Greyhawk has inspired me to mix it up when I want to run something.  I like the idea of taking a familiar setting and then throwing something different into it: i.e., a spaceship crash lands in the Barrier Peaks.  Or a gunslinger is transported to Rel Mord from our world.  Or the Triffids are expanding their empire into the Flanaess.  I think my favorite idea that I only really got to sketch out and not run was having all the aquatic races that lived in the Azure Sea decided to invade the surface world.

Outside the setting, I‚Äôm not sure that Greyhawk directly inspired anything I‚Äôve made.  I feel that Greyhawk taught me that it was all right to be gonzo or tongue-in-cheek when I ran adventures.  There is a part of me that will always adore how villainous and epic the modules which are set in Greyhawk become.

As a player, I was really proud of fleshing out the Grandfather of Assassins in the Great Kingdom.  My friend, Dave, was running a campaign wherein I played a thief who was a pacifist (believing that a genuinely skilled thief should never have to kill anyone).  I wanted to play a guild thief and when we were discussing how the Great Kingdom‚Äôs underworld worked, Dave advanced the idea that the Great Kingdom is actually run by a Godfather: it is properly organized crime.  Semi-seriously, I said to him that it would be really something if the Godfather were some other thing than one of the demi-human races, like a vampire or a dragon.  Well, the Godfather of the Great Kingdom was named Melikor and he was a polymorphed Red Dragon.  None of us knew this little factoid until we were caught with Melikor in an Anti-magic Shell and his polymorph was cancelled.

Also as a player in the same campaign, the party encountered Kas.  And we didn‚Äôt know who he was.  He was just a rakish swordsman looking to get in out of the rain.  He told us that his previous employer had stolen his sword and he was planning on getting it back.  We wished him luck.  It is the little things like that encounter that I really enjoy about the setting.

You mentioned the gunslinger teleported to Greyhawk, could you talk about that NPC and where it came from?

The gunslinger is the wizard, Murylund.  As I recall, he was a Boot Hill character that Gygax and Company converted into a wizard in Greyhawk using the conversion rules in the DMG.  He may have been the test character for that, in fact.  I vaguely remember reading something about that in Dragon Magazine.  I think.   Maybe.  Anywho, he was cool because he still wore his duster and carried his revolvers as part of his wizard kit.

You met Kas! In a pre-history D&D game, Jason’s rogue slept with Kas’ wife.

Wow, Jay did some brown chicken-brown cow with Kas’ wife?  Gutsy.  Dumb, but gutsy!

What happened when the dragon’s polymorph went down?

I guess I need to preface the Melikor’s polymorph with a little explanation:  Melikor was stuck in human form.  A rival had wished him to be trapped that way.  In AD&D, wishes were awesomely powerful things – just to cast one aged the caster or weakened them.  So, this rival wasn’t screwing around.

When we entered the Anti-Magic Shell, it wasn’t a normal spell.  Rather, it was a device that the Great Kingdom had used to punish people and ruin their stuff.    We “walked” into this trap on purpose.  All of our stuff was ruined.  And suddenly, Melikor is a Red Dragon.  My first response was to panic. The party had been helping Melikor track down the rival who had wished bad on him.  Honestly, the way that Dave portrayed him we were actually carrying Melikor around with us: he would do little to nothing at any given point.

Needless to say that when he changed into a Red Dragon we were all a little shocked.  Mel tore down the room we were in, blasted a hole in the roof and flew away.  Essentially, he left us to clean up his mess…again.  We only saw him twice more for the rest of the campaign: once when were in Rauxes to recruit mercenaries and he totally blew us off; and then again at the big fight just outside of Rel Mord against the amassed armies of the undead.  He was in dragon form for the last bit.  He was eventually taken down by three vampires working together.

But, Melikor was possibly the biggest surprise of an already surprising campaign.  It was kind of awesome because Dave had never let on the Mel was something other than an influential and lazy human being.

Thanks for talking about Greyhawk with me, Pete!

Interview: Jason Morningstar on Traveller

Jason Morningstar posted on a Story Games thread about things he learned playing Traveller in his youth and I immediately sent him an e-mail:

Now I really want to get the story of how Traveller taught you kinematics, stock market and planetary science. Were you gaming with scientists and economists?

GDW’s Traveller was published in 1977. If you were a gamer in 1977 you had access to crappily-produced games like Dungeons & Dragons that looked like zines assembled by slightly deranged high school students. The art alternated between pervy and terrible. In contrast, in the same format (a digest-sized box with three books) Traveller was professionally laid out and edited and had made a few passes through a Linotype machine. The text was crisp and clear, sans serif, in an austere black box. There was no art, because art was for people who were not serious. It was revelatory and awesome, and just looking at it made you want to be a better player.

And then reading the actual text – the actual well-edited, concise, well-written text – was even more eye-opening. Marc Miller, Traveller’s designer, is a decorated Army Captain and the game reflects his experience and influences. In many ways it is a game about service, even though the core activities of many traveller PCs are grey market tramping, piracy and mayhem. A tired joke about Traveller is that you can die during character creation. This is completely true. As a guy who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam no doubt knows intimately, it is also true in real life.

I mentioned that it was serious in tone, and that is reflected in every corner of the design. There is an assumption of realism throughout, even though the gloss is space fantasy. This realism extends to space travel, which is relativistic until the hand-wavey FTL kicks in (and even that is reined in by hard and fascinating limits). It also extends to planet and system design and fighting, on every scale from the shoving match to cracking planets in half. You can compare this approach to, say, 1976’s Metamorphasis Alpha, just to see the gulf in design approaches. Traveller doesn’t always succeed but at least it tries. It is serious.

As an elegant adjunct to this, the game relies on the majestic 2d6 bell curve for pretty much everything. You don’t need a Crown Royal bag full of special dice that look like an elf’s magic jewels to play Traveller, no sir. You need randomizers, six-sided, quantity two. That and a thorough grasp on the metric system and you are good to go. Traveller taught me the metric system and, of course, the 24 hour clock.

Perhaps the most unappreciated piece of Traveller is the setting, which is presented in media res as a living thing, and with the lightest of touches. There’s an Imperium, which rides herd over a loose coalition of semi-autonomous regions of space. There are the military services which define the Imperium. There’s a name tossed out very occasionally – a planet here, an Emperor there. And that is about it. If you come late to the traveller party (and by late I mean after 1979 and the game’s second supplement, High Guard) you may be confused by this, because a crushing history and metaplot second only to Glorantha has subsequently developed. It is roundly stupid and sad, because the first little black books straight-up told you to make your own damn universe.

Which me and my brother dutifully did. We couldn’t afford any additional books anyway. We made our own Imperium in our own universe and it was a fantastic place full of danger and adventure, precisely calibrated to our interests, enthusiasms, and attention spans. We made up characters until a merchant mustered out with a heavily-mortgaged ship, no small task. That ship became our home away from home, and keeping her solvent and operational was the alpha and omega of our game play. Mortgaged? Yes, for 40 years. Playing Traveller introduced me to the concept.

One of my brother’s friends, flush from a job-related in-game windfall, suggested we go into commodity trading. There weren’t any rules for that, per se, but we all agreed that if we could do it on Earth they must do it in the free market future of Traveller. So we traded commodities, using actual products and actual firms and actual stock market data, pulled at each game session from that day’s newspaper. Playing Traveller introduced me to the concept (and also the concept of losing money in the stock market). Our ship tooled around on a semi-profitable trade route we had built. Occasionally we were beset by pirates, which is how I learned about applied kinematics and the intricacies of delta-V. Traveller taught me that. It taught me how lasers work, and how to foil them with sand. Planetary science, how atmospheres work, gas compositions and why some were better than others to breathe, how to get fuel from a gas giant, hell, what a gas giant was. Traveller, Traveller, Traveller. It was, for tiny me, extremely hardcore.

Your game was so adult with mortgages and investments. I am really fascinated by how the book’s lay-out inspired you to take the game seriously. Are you looking at your lay-out choices for Bully Pulpit with those kinds of eyes when a game is coming together, thinking to yourself, What does this inspire a reader to do with it?

Regarding Traveller’s book design, I think it was influential in a subtle way to me – it demonstrated that digest sized could be a genuinely cool format. Compact, succinct, easy to handle and reference, easy to use and browse. Digest and trade formats were more or less abandoned until small press publishers reclaimed them many years later, and I think that’s fantastic. Maybe it also taught me something about how to present information in a way that communicates both rules and tone, but that’s more of a stretch.

You wrote:
“We made up characters until a merchant mustered out with a heavily-mortgaged ship, no small task

Do you happen to remember that ship’s name?

Thinking back on it, I don’t think our ship *had* a name. Why
would it need a name? It was our ship! I remember one very bad day when we were boarded by pirates, and we fought them off in the corridors of our ship, the ship we were working so hard to keep from being repossessed by the space bank. In the end there was one pirate who survived, and we had him duct taped to a chair, and we put him in an airlock and cycled it without a second thought. I remember being viscerally livid, just furious, and that horrible execution seemed like justice. We loved our ship. I was like ten years old.

How does one get fuel from a gas giant?

Traveller Jump Drives use hydrogen, so it is possible with the right equipment to skim the atmosphere of an appropriate gas giant to top off your tanks with unrefined l-hyd. Gas giants are so important to the Traveller universe that “presence of nearby gas giant” gets its own letter in the Universal World Profile.

Did one of you GM or did you take turns?

My brother, who is four years older than me, was our GM. I didn’t start GMing until I started playing with my own peer group some years later – with Traveller I was the punk kid among my much-cooler elders.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Jason.

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Interview with John Stavropoulos: The Complete Psionics Handbook

I have wanted to talk to John Stavropoulos about The Complete Psionics Handbook for a while, as it is a book he often mentions in online conversations and it is a book that I also remember fondly.

Did you DM using The Complete Psionics Handbook or did you play a character?

Play not GM. First time I played DnD was by accident (joined the cartooning club which was secretly the DnD club). I had no idea what an RPG was. They said think Lord of the Rings; just write a backstory and we will do the rest. Being 15, I made a Gandalf clone. You can see the problem.

“Cool, except you can’t use a sword and can only cast one spell between naps!” What!

I played. It wasn’t for me.

I gave up playing RPGs till I tried Marvel FASERIP and was hooked.

The Psionic 2E handbook was what brought me back to DnD.

What was your first Psionic character? What kind of powers did they have? What was the first thing you did in the game that made you sit up and take notice?

First I have to admit I was a terrible teenager! My family grew up below the¬†poverty¬†line, lost their house, and at some point I was shipped away to another country to be raised by my grandmother on the semi-isolated mountain tops of Sparta raised not so different than what one might imagine after watching the movie 300 (maybe that’s an¬†exaggeration).¬†At 15 role-playing was a power fantasy, a chance to socialize, inspiration to draw, and motivation to come out of my shell.

That’s a lot of disclaimers to simply say… I don’t feel my first Psionic character was a character at all.

It was more a pencil for me to draw crazy things with my imagination. And once I unwrapped my new toy, I wanted to test it by pushing it well past its limits. RPGs was a safe space to vent my teenage awkwardness. My character was me but with super powers.

Vividly I remember I was a Psychometabolic and used a combination of the Metamorphosis Science to turn into adamantite, the Body Weaponry Devotion to turn my arms into blades, and Expansion to stretch my arm as far as I could. I then took down an entire group of bad guys who were charging us on horseback by running at them in an open field with my arms outstretched. I rationalized that I must be able to attack all of them given my giant Wolverine claw arms elongated Mr. Fantastic style.

I’m sure we weren’t playing rules as written!


It is interesting to me that you should mention your upbringing, because one thing I always liked about psionic characters is that they were so very self-reliant. They don’t seem to need much stuff, unlike wizards and fighters, characters with psionics carrying their power in their minds.

Did the handbook grow up with you and your gaming, leading to further psionic characters down the line or is your affection for it mostly nostalgia?
When I re-visisted the book in my 20’s in a one-on-one game with a buddy of mine, I was pleasantly surprised at how cool the powers and the psionics systems were.

I do love their self-reliance. Some people loved them because the DM couldn’t take away their stuff! I liked them because they could work on a team or solo. Which is sometimes weird in D&D because needing each other is part of what makes D&D a great game.The Psionics Handbook is partly¬†nostalgia¬†for me. But it’s also a reminder.

I love the social and mechanical aspect of games but the fiction isn’t my priority. I love GMing but I don’t care about making worlds. I’d rather the players do that. I love people… so games are great because I can hangout talking intimately with friends for several hours. The mechanics engage my interests in problem solving and psychology. But I’m not an enthusiastic fiction reader. I love how to books, history books, science books… especially how to books (I do love fantasy comics but the visual component is my buy in) But the Psionics Handbook really inspires me fictionally. The way it’s written makes my mind wander in fruitful ways!

So I often go back to the Psionics Handbook as my guide for how to inspire.

Could you quote a short passage that inspires you to inspire?

There is too much to choose…

Dream travel

Dream travel is a powerful but unreliable means of getting from here to there. The traveler journeys in his dreams, and awakes wherever his nocturnal wandering carried him.

Split Personality

This is not a psychosis; it’s the power to divide one’s mind into two independent parts.

Sensitivity to Psychic Impressions

A psionicist gains a sense of history. He perceives the residue of powerful emotions which were experienced in a given area. These impressions offer him a picture of the location’s past. Battles and betrayals, marriages and murders, childbirth and great pain.

Feel Light

This extrasensory power allows the psionicist to experience light through tactile sensations (by touch). His entire body becomes a receiver for light waves. In effect, his body replaces his eyes; he can see what his eyes would normally reveal.


With the detonate power, latent energy inside plants or inanimate objects can be harnessed, focused, and released explosively.

Animate Object

Inanimate objects can be “brought to life” with this devotion. The objects are not actually alive, but they move under the psionicist’s control as if they were. For example, chairs may walk, trees may dance, and stones may waddle around.

Double Pain

By touching another person, the psionicist greatly lowers that character’s pain threshold (even a little scrape will feel like a serious injury).

Mind Over Body

Mind over body allows the user to suppress his body’s need for food, water, and sleep. In exchange for one hour of meditation per day, all of the psionicist’s physical needs are overcome. He does not feel hunger, exhaustion, or thirst, nor does he suffer any ability reductions for privation. The psionicist can also suppress the basic needs of others while suppressing his own.

Dimension Walk

With dimension walk, a psionicist can travel from place to place in his own dimension by piercing other dimensions at right angles.

Time Shifting

Time shifting allows the psionicist to travel up to three rounds into the future and observe things until time catches up with him.

Id Insinuation

It seeks to unleash the uncontrolled subconscious of the defender, pitting it against his superego. The attack leaves the victim in a state of moral uproar.

Phobia Amplification

This power allows the psionicist to reach into someone’s mind and discover his greatest fear, then amplify it to the point of irrationality.


With this power, a psionicist makes something – a particular person, place, or object – completely repugnant to another character.


Empower allows a psionicist to imbue an item with rudimentary intelligence.

Ego Whip

The power assaults the victim’s ego, leaving him with feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.


Wow, I hadn’t read this book in a while. The powers are so vague, which is another way of saying, they leave lots of room for creativity in play and execution, much more than I remembered them being.

Great stuff, John.
I have one last question. Do you have any plans to re-connect with this book at the table? A game of 2nd Edition AD&D or a hack of another game with these powers in the mix?

Some of these powers included mechanical information following their descriptions but wow, those descriptions are powerful!

I would like to hack Dungeon World to use the Psionics Handbook except I would likely take out all the mechanical effects!

Thanks so much, Judd.

Thank you, John. You can comment on this interview and ask John some questions, share your love of The Complete Psionics Handbook or talk about what books inspire you  in the comments or over on G+ (link).