Tag Archives: tabletoprpg

Tabletop War-Game Terrain & Scenery: Bombastic Buildings and Fantastic Features – Creating your Tabletop Battlefield

If you’ve ever played any sort of tabletop game that did not require a board of its own, you’ve probably considered terrain.

Terrain in tabletop war games is used to represent geographical features on a battlefield, whether it’s medieval France, the grim darkness of the 41st millennium or the post apocalypse. Terrain makes the tabletop battlefield not just look interesting, but offers tactical features, blocks line of sight and generally adds an extra layer to the tiny dimensions. Terrain features become part of the game.

The are lots of cool things out there already and a lot of it very cheap. Take for example, MDF laser cut buildings. Affordable and surprisingly detailed…

But what to do if you don’t have any terrain? How can you get it? Well, since I’ve not written much over the last month, I’m offering you a multi-blog series on my attempt to acquire and create tabletop terrain. Here goes…

Think Big and Start Small

I’ve been tabletop gaming for years, on and off. As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s it was impossible to buy terrain that was a) good and b) affordable. Now that I’m all grown up, it’s about time that I set aside some of my life and get together something which I can invite friends over to checkout and drool upon.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

What do I want?

Being realistic I’m not going to have all the space in the world. Everything needs to fit on my current gaming table (I dine on my gaming table, not the other way around). My trusty gaming table isn’t huge: it’s not quite 4.5’ x 3’ foot – that’s a couple of feet too small for most standard wargames.

I’m a player of Warhammer in its various forms, so ideally I’ll need something which is 6’x4’ but I’ll be honest – the size isn’t what matters to me (they all say that). I’m more about the terrain, fantastical features to bring life to the battlefield of the Age of Sigmar or the 41st Millennium. So, forget the size for now, lets see how we’re going to create the stuff!

Design Notes

I won’t be going into any great planning detail for this project. I know in my head what the theme of the battlefield will look like and I think that is enough for now. I’ve also spent a few weeks watching YouTube videos and reading articles to give me some sort of grounding in the techniques used by modelers with a tonne more experience than I have.

There are two very important messages that I’ve got from the internet; 1) It is OK to be totally new to this part of the hobby, 2) don’t spend your time painstakingly drawing up designs and measuring everything.

Part 1 seems sensible – everyone has to begin somewhere.

Part 2 seems a little silly at first, until you realise that modelling terrain is just like any other creative endeavor. If you enjoy planning to the millimeter then lucky you! But for everyone else, just get stuck in and learn from your mistakes – it’s totally worth it, just like writing and editing your NaNoWriMo each year – write it first and enjoy the creativity, then learn from your editing and proofing steps. Easy to say and read and I understand reality isn’t that straight forward, but there’s something to be said for just getting on with the task.

I will add that I am not a total stranger to crafts. I’ve got several years of leather working experience, completely self-learnt. Why is this important to you? Well in the interest of honesty, I can cut pretty much freehand… and it’s right first time. You guys probably can’t so please take your time cutting anything, and for heaven’s sake, be careful!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Safety & Hazards

A word of caution, some of the stuff I’ll be using is considered toxic – but don’t panic too much. I’m talking about polystyrene based materials, which are essentially plastic.

Loads of people will cry out about how toxic polystyrene can be when you cut it with a hot wire or melt it. Yes, it is toxic, and yes the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) say it may be carcinogenic (may cause cancer) but I’ll point out that every MSDS is written from an industrial point of view where exposure is massive compared to that of a hobbyist. That said, always craft in a well ventilated area or if you can, outside. Always vacuum up any bits and pieces so they don’t stay floating around your house or work space for children and pets to inhale or ingest.

A clean work space is a safe work space.

Next up are materials and tools. I want to stress that you don’t need to go out and buy a load of expensive stuff. If you’re starting out you can get away with some PVA glue and a craft knife with some old packaging material. But if you want to make your life easier and have a small budget, you can get yourself some time-saving tools.

Materials

The great thing about making terrain is that you don’t have to buy in loads of expensive materials and tools. Chances are you throw out a lot of the materials we’ll be using in your household waste bin. Save some of it and recycle it into something useful.

Polystyrene – there’s a couple of varieties we may all be familiar with; Expanded polystyrene which is used in packaging and is normally made up of small spheres which crumble away when you break chunks of it up. It can be referred to as EPS. Extruded polystyrene is much more homogeneous and smooth. Extruded polystyrene is sometimes referred to XPS foam. If like me and you’re in the UK, XPS is generally referred to as Styrofoam. There’s a lot of confusion about what materials are named so if you’re in the know (and by that I mean: use the stuff at work or make it) please let me know!

Tools

I find that you can get away with the cheapest craft knives and some PVA glue, but if there was one essential piece of equipment I think you will benefit from its’ a hot glue gun. Not the massive sized ones, just a simple, small one. Why? Large glue guns get really hot and you don’t have as much control over them. A small glue gun is more precise and there’s less wasted glue. You can get cheap glue guns with a hundred glue sticks for less than £10, maybe even less than £7. I think I spotted some in Hobby & Craft for £5 (sans glue sticks). Shop around.

You can pick up craft knives quite cheaply. I recommend you have a disposable & retractable knife and a separate single bladed craft knife (the ones that look like surgical knives). Depending on where you are in the world, you can find these in hobby stores with extra / spare blades. Whatever you do, be careful with knives – I’ve cut myself more than a few times so I imagine you will too. GO SLOWLY.

The Ruined Tower

I’m going to wrap up this post with a few images and some constructive criticism of my own pilot project –  a ruined circular tower, which I’m hoping to use in Age of Sigmar, Frostgrave or even Warhammer 40K…

I made this up using a sheet of packaging polystyrene for the base, and polyethylene foam (the stuff they use to make LARP foam weapons) for the brick work. Some lolly sticks and gravel / flocking for the details.

Criticism Number 1 – the bricks. Polyethylene is quite robust. Easy to cut and apparently heat moldable. However, it doesn’t get battered easily. Even after I scraped it across the concrete outside, it still managed to hold itself together. It looks too perfect.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Criticism Number 2 – Inside the tower there is a nice portion of what looks like a once highly detailed floor surface. I made this with a rolling pin made by Green Stuff World. The rolling pin kept sticking to my putty, no matter how much water or Vaseline I used, hence why it is only a small portion of the broken flooring!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Criticism Number 3 – The dry-brushing. Dry brushing is when you add a bit of paint to the brush, wipe most of it off and very lightly and quickly move the brush over the item you’re painting. Because the bricks lack detail this didn’t turn out exactly how I hoped – but the textured bricks I hope to make next time may change that.

Overall I think for a first attempt this turned out alright. I’ve still got to finish off the edge of the base (you can see the bubbles of expanded polystyrene).

In my next post I’ll go into the formulation I’ve devised from my first test piece. I’ll make a visual account of it too so you get to see the different stages. I’ll also go into more detail in the next few posts.

Part 2 Coming soon!

Twitter @FerrisWrites or @TheCConsortium

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Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

mountain surrounded with trees

Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

Killing in the Name of: Dungeons & Dragons and the unbridled passion of slaying the adventuring party – A few lessons learned

For the last three gaming sessions, I’ve been guiding my players as they attempt to uncover and solve the mystery surrounding the small fishing town of Sharholme. People have gone missing. There’s a taciturn lighthouse keeper who no one likes. Weird and exotic fish are turning up in the nets of the fishermen. What did it all mean?

Well I’m not going to give you all the details, where’s the fun in that? No, I’m going to give you an insight into when the adventuring party were fooled and the Dungeon Master commits to running the adventure to its inevitable end, whether that’s the final encounter or much sooner!

‘Some of your characters may die towards the end of this adventure – I’m testing the adventure on you guys.’

These were my first words when describing the adventure idea I had to my players, a week before they started. Perhaps subconsciously I was giving them a clue to play tougher or optimised characters, or perhaps I was trying to defend myself from any fallout that may occur if it all went wrong. Whatever the reason, the very next gaming session we started the adventure.

The beginning was cryptic – they were called north, along  the Sword Coast by a voiceless whisperer who would not allow them to rest unless they were moving. A brief stop at Candlekeep is all they needed. Get there, and perhaps some clues could give them answers.

But they will never know.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
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The first adventure was to warm them up. I was going to let them be goddam heroes and throw small hordes of easily defeated monsters at them. I was going to give them hostages to break out in a daring escape, maybe face off with the enemy leader and thwart the even stranger, deadlier nemesis who defines the backdrop of the narrative.

Alas, it was not to be. They believed they had reached the final encounter. They had not. The Prince Under the Reef was not the monster’s commander as they thought. I’m chuckling as I write this because some of them will only realise as they read this… yeah, it gives me an amusing tingle.

The adventuring party had, in fact, only reached the third to last encounter in the natural dungeon setting. They had suffered some terrible wounds and faced some unsightly horrors, many of them surprises. Up to this point they had advanced in a somnambulistic way perhaps thinking that, being the first part of a what was promised to be a long running campaign, they would have it easy. To some degree this was right.

grey skulls piled on ground
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Allow me to explain:

As a DM I had done my research, read endless articles by other DMs & GMs, consulted the oracle that is Reddit and gone back to basics. I even wrote this article, which, if any of them had read it, may have given them a clue into what to expect. I threw low-challenge creatures at them, made the monsters act in a fantastically pulp manner, unthinking but not to be mocked.

Then I hit them with a monster whose challenge rating was a single point higher than their party level. He was a large humanoid, fighting on even terms. He didn’t even rush them, instead he paused and waited to see if they would parley, to see if they could talk to him and see if they could find peace. They outnumbered him but they seemed tired – his minions had carried out their task of killing the adventuring party with a thousand paper cuts. All he had to do now was thrust his trident into the open wounds and finish them off.

What followed was five rounds of bloody mayhem.

The bird-man monk fell first, the priest next, followed by the halfling rogue who couldn’t quite dash into cover, leaving the archer as last-elf-standing. It was a bold gesture to cast away that bow and draw a long sword, after-all, the enemy had thrown his trident at them previously, disarming himself in the process. Both combatants were heavily wounded.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Taken from media-waterdeep.cursecdn.com 6/2/19

The elf stood little chance.

While the fight continued, his comrades bled to death on the wet subterranean sands of the oceanic grotto. Some would stabilize but be useless to sway the flow of battle. As the sun’s final rays set against the turbulent waves above, my heroic adventuring party slumped to the ground in a final gasp below the waves.

As the DM, I had defined my dungeoneering destiny and finalised the characters fates by not holding back. I had lulled them into a false sense of security and then pounced upon them with a well calculated challenge. Or so I thought.

The daft thing is: I expected them to get to the final encounter and then suffer tremendously through a terrifying race across an underground, underwater grotto ala Indiana Jones’ cinematic dash, avoiding natural traps and pitfalls as they barrelled along heroically.

In a nutshell, the DM did not hold the player’s hands and guide them through. I realised that if there is to be any fun in the game, it has to be risky. I knew this already, but the temptation to guide the players through the story had flattened the experience for me… it had simply lost some of its fun.

As for the players, well the fun reached a happy height above our gaming table. Although they were getting ripped to pieces, bleeding all over the place and possibly facing death (well, actually they did) they all seemed happy to go along with it.

Here’s the kicker for the players though – that challenging encounter left the monster with just twelve hit points. TWELVE! That’s one good or two average hits with a long sword… but the dice rolling was poor, and I was using my specially reserved Dungeon Master Dice. They never let me down.

So there you have it:

Dungeon and Games Masters, don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and kick their arses if it’s all going wrong, you’ll all enjoy it!

And Players; never trust the DM. Ever.

We’re sly a bunch.

J.D. Ferris

The Godless Realm – Update and Changes Made

We’ve been quiet on the social media and website front. We’re not lazy. We’ve been busy!

Four weeks ago I enlisted the help of an experienced RPG gamer and writer named Mr James, to bring some much needed energy and creativity. In that time we’ve packed a tonne of lore and story into the Godless Realm setting, making it meaty and plausible in equal measure.

Fantasy RPG Pulp Adventure Hero Knight Cavalry D&D
Edited Image, Originally by David MacKenzie from Deviant Art https://www.deviantart.com/jagged-eye/art/Lee-Warrior-4a-435067509

We’ve decided to make the Godless Realm system neutral, meaning it is chock full of lore content, with plenty of hooks and ideas to create your own adventures in whatever RPG system you desire. We still aim to release adventures and story arcs to fit into the Godless Realm, and we have planned several evolutions to the Godless Realm setting in the future as the world populates and widens.

The extra help from Mr James has given me time to rewrite the Pulp Core rules in two important ways; firstly it is streamlined and the probabilities now work properly. For a success, a dice roll now requires a single score of a 6. Secondly, we realised that the Core Pulp system has flaws and lost its direction. Based on the feedback we received, I’ve really hit the system hard and cut out irrelevant details and mechanics to tighten everything up. The development process, based on your feedback, has really helped us get this right. I am now much happier with the system and we’ve developed some interesting mechanics.

Pulp Fantasy, as it is currently called, comes in three documents which we are releasing to our reliable readers and testers soon. These will be a Player Guide, a Games Master Guide and a tome of Creatures & Inhabitants. We felt this would help keep the attention and excitement for players new to the gaming world, and keep some of the secrets for the GM.

mistings

The magic system has had a complete overhaul and now works in a fashion more inline with a ritualistic and narrative style. It is based on ritual preparations but also allows for desperate unprepared spell casting. We hope this makes it flexible and adaptive with countless possibilities for players and GM’s to create their own spells. We’re even encouraging the players to write down their spells as they think of and use them, essentially creating a tome of personal spells which will help them improve with character advancement. Best not lose that spell book, eh?

Bad Guys

Monsters have been a bit of a bugbear but we’ve settled on some nice ideas to break the mold of typical gaming habits. The biggest change we’ve implemented is the size and actions of larger creatures.

Larger monsters, though rare, will not act at a single point in the combat process each turn. Instead they will be able to act as several individuals, making special attacks based on the number of limbs and special abilities they posses. Now, a player will have to think twice about charging forward to get stuck in, because that Dragon hasn’t blown all its actions targeting the warriors in the party just yet, so getting too close is still dangerous. Players will have to think about their actions and weigh the chances of getting too close too soon.

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Artwork Desires

On a little side project, we’ve been seeking artwork to help bring the world and documents to life and poke some imagination back into our minds. This has been difficult. We are not in a situation yet where we can pay artists to bring our world to life, so instead we’ve been relying on stock images and editing what we can get our hands on.

We’re working hard to make sure that the images we use are properly credited – we’re the Creator Consortium, we want people to be recognised for their hard work.

One problem we have encountered is the over sexualisation of female adventuring style stock photos. While this may prove titillating to some, it isn’t very inclusive. Since we’re looking for more realistic fantasy stock images, we may have to dig deeper to find something less bosom-heaving for something like more gritty realism. Watch this space!

We’re focusing on a process which will allow us to take any stock images and create some cohesion to make it less jarring to look at. Hopefully some nice black and white water colour effects will help the mystery blossom too. There’s a couple of examples dotted throughout this article, and we’re accepting criticism if you can show us a few tricks!

But we realise that people may want to print our documents at some point, so we’re going to be supplying some print easy options too. No one likes to spend a fortune on inks!

There’ll be a blog post this week to show how we’ve been editing our chosen stock images and I’ll go into detail about how to credit and reference people correctly for their hard work! It’s been a fun learning curve.

Until then…

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back with another update soon.

Mr Ferris

Here’s how we made our images!

Fantasy RPG Pulp Adventure Hero Knight Cavalry D&D

An Intro To The Pulp RPG Modular Framework.

An Intro To The Pulp RPG Modular Framework.

The Future Of Pulp RPG And You.

Dev Blog: Pulp Play-Test, Feedback, Zombies & Editing

“Talking Pulp” – A whole new world for Pulp RPG

This week we got together and have somehow managed to record the next in our series of development logs for Pulp RPG. We talk about what it means to run a game of Pulp and why we think this tabletop RPG system will really bring something fresh to your gaming table.

We’re recording these sessions because we really want you to feel involved in the development of our game, as is reflected in the involved style of the rules where the GM and players justify their actions and go back and forth to realise the outcome. We give an example of this later on in the podcast, showcasing our penchant for on the fly roleplay.

So there it is, download and enjoy!

Download Link

If you do want to be involved, join the discord community:

https://discord.gg/PGj8yYS

Or, read up on the last few exciting weeks of development:

The Future Of Pulp RPG And You.

The devs play the first ever session of CC’s new game: Pulp RPG

Dev Blog: Pulp Play-Test, Feedback, Zombies & Editing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks here at CC.

We have NaNoWriMo underway (John tells me he’s smashing his word count) which is taking up some of our time, but despite this we’ve managed to get some play-testing underway for Pulp RPG’s first adventure module!

In the meantime I’ve been undertaking the proofing, editing and adding to the core rule-set or Pulp. I’m happy to say that we’re going to release a file with everything you need to run your own Pulp games with less than 20 pages!

Sounds small – but I think that if you condense much of the 5th Edition Players Handbook you’d probably get about the same – except that our character creation is so easy and swift you’ll be done in a matter of minutes.

For the next play test there’s a list of things we’re hoping to iron out…

  • Currently there’s information on vehicles, weapons and objects that we’re working on and we’re certain that they will fit seamlessly into the narrative style game play of Pulp.
  • We’re working on some simple player crib sheets for character creation and guides on how to play the game.
  • Maps, handouts (including a mission slide presentation) are all on the list for things we’ll be working on soon. There’s even a chance of in-character dossiers and mission briefings, all for free of course (don’t worry, they won’t self destruct!)

In the meantime, once we have the PDF sorted out, we’ll be posting information for anyone wishing to help us out by play testing with us – if you want to be one of the first to have access to the raw core file, let us know and we’ll start a list. Alternatively join our mailing list and we’ll keep you updated.

Finally, we’ll be looking for artwork over the next few weeks which we think can really bring Pulp RPG to life – if you’re not bad at this sort of thing and reckon you could supply a handful of page fillers, get in touch so we can discuss the idea further.

Don’t forget we have our discord server up and running, which we hope will give you all a chance to discuss ideas, feedback on play tests and generally have a great time getting eager!

We also have a portion of our website set aside which will soon hold our game files for unlimited access – we’ll let you know when we start to populate it!

Anyone else notice the zombies teeth don’t line up with the rest of its mouth?

J.D Ferris, CC

How to Write Single Session Adventures for RPGs (with examples)

Whether you’re new to RPGs like D&D or you just want a fresh perspective as a veteran, we’ve got some suggestions to creating a single session adventure in a couple of hours (which, over a week isn’t that long at all when you think about it).

Writing a whole campaign for table top role-play games like Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the role of games master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). It doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I’m setting out how to write a single session adventure and how make it a worthy story!

Definition

A single session adventure takes place for a single gaming session – usually around 3 hours or an evening of game play. It is designed to resolve itself by player interaction at the end of the session, allowing the players to move their characters on. It is a great way to introduce yourself as a new GM to the game because the effort involved is minimal compared to writing a full campaign. That said, extra credit for proper design such as maps and non-playing characters really helps!

Single session adventures need to be concise, so some of the work the GM has to undertake can be a bit more intense: the game needs to start succinctly, the players need to be hooked in right from the start and the game needs to build up to the end smoothly.

I’m going to be running with an adventure example so you can see how it builds up. If you’re lucky I’ll throw in some diagrams to explain what I’m talking about.

Note: I’m not writing this with any game system in mind, although I’ll use generic fantasy elements like those found in D&D. The advice and technique should apply to just about any setting or game.

First Step: The Facts

Identify what the facts are in your adventure – this is the most creative part of the design stage because what you’re doing is setting the plot. The players don’t need to know these facts – it is their job to find the clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together much like a murder mystery show. The clues culminate into the facts and then there is a resolution, in games like Dungeons & Dragons this is normally the second to last encounter: facing the enemy.

Look on the facts of your adventure like the synopsis of a story or a film. It needs to be only be a line or two at most.

Example fact: A Hag is living near a village and has sleep-charmed one or more of the villagers to kidnap young children and take them to her grotto where she devours them or uses them in dark rituals to proliferate her coven. Travellers have also gone missing in the night, leaving all of their belongings behind in the small village inn.

From this simple factual synopsis, we have the antagonist of our story, the method and locations of their actions and finally a reason as to why – creating her own coven of hangs or witches.

Second Step: The Clues & Encounters

A single session adventure should have no more than 3-4 key encounters where the players are able to discover clues. Clues are simple bits of information that, when combined with other clues point the finger or give a direction for the players to investigate further, leading to the showdown encounter which is the resolution. Clues do not have to be combat engagements – your players will be playing different characters with different skills and abilities and you are going to want to provide something for everyone in some of your encounters. Each clue should involve a different style of play to accommodate skills and abilities. This is a story, not a series of fights.

Here’s a diagram showing ways you can organise your clues to make the adventure coherent to you and your players. It is not a comprehensive diagram, but covers the basics which should be more than enough for your single session adventure:

clues for resolutions

Route 1 is linear and fair for first time players. Route 2 starts with the first clue, requiring at least clue two or three to be discovered before heading to the final resolution. Route 3 implies that any clue may lead to the end resolution. Personally, Route 2 is my chosen style as it gives the players a natural feel for the progression of the plot and doesn’t lead right to the resolution after a single clue.

Examples clue encounters

I’ve picked four clues which the players may encounter.

The first clue is that a child vanished in the night from the family’s log cabin. The players can investigate the cabin and realise that there are no signs of forced entry, and under questioning the parents, the bar to the front door was still in place in the morning. Rogue like characters, or trap masters will enjoy setting up their own traps to see where the thief comes from, or analysing the events, possibly suspecting the parents (which is true, but the parents are not aware of their actions).

The second clue is that the elders of the village have been having dreams where they have taken up their young ones and carried them through the forest in the dead of night, to a stone altar where a beautiful woman waits in a strange scant clothing, a tall horned figure lingers in her shadow, never quite realised clearly. Stone altars, strange large creatures and witch-like individuals should inspire the lore masters and religious or cult focused characters.

The third clue involves tracking bare footprints that lead from the village into the forest. Outdoor characters and hunters / trackers will enjoy finding clues such as broken branches or torn clothing (matching the villagers nightwear). Nature characters such as druids will likely notice that the fauna of the forest is very quiet, and that there is evidence of corruption in the flora: leaves are slightly yellowed, new growth is not as vibrant or strong.

The fourth clue is optional, as the players may not try to set up a watch and see if another child or traveller goes missing. This clue / encounter should lead the party into the thick of the forest where the hag will be awaiting her sacrifice. The players will likely forcibly engage the hag, who will make her escape and let the horned figure do her fighting. Tracking the hag from here will lead to the final resolution.

If you feel the party is going too fast, you can include some other encounters as red herrings – bandits camped nearby the main road, wandering monsters which, once dealt with, turn out not to be the culprit!

You should write short introduction paragraphs for each area which gives the details the players need to start investigating. Use the clues you have already written to help you with this. My example is attached to the first clue – clues two and three can probably fit into the map of the village we’ve already given to the players.

“The abandoned cabin sits in shadow, empty of life. The door has been flung open, the bar that held it shut discarded on the floor. From the outside, the various windows have remained closed, firmly held shut by their wooden bars. Inside is cold, hidden away from sunlight and without a fire to keep the house dry. The three rooms are separated by door frames covered in heavy fabrics. The beds are disturbed.”

From this description, your players will want to begin their investigation of the various rooms, asking you questions and poking around for more clues. In this instance, it is clear that the kidnapper did not force their way in, suggesting there is another way into the cabin (which there is not). After a thorough search the players will probably conclude that the kidnapper came from inside the house and may suspect the family – which is another intense encounter which can develop from the clue.

Third Step: Draw the Players In

This is often referred to in RPGs as the plot hook – the device you use to draw the players in and make them want to participate in the adventure. For longer games that last several sessions you can play on plot hooks by enticing players one at a time, but in single sessions you can’t afford to spend the time tailoring the hook for each character.

This is usually the last step for me, as don’t often use personal character hooks (my players are pretty good at that themselves). Arguably this step could be the first or last for many GMs – it’s all down to how you feel about it.

Start the game by asking their characters why they are on the road or why they may be in the village. Take no more than 5 minutes to round this information up. If you have completely new players, you’ll want to do this before the gaming session.

You’ll find that some players are quite good at giving you a little bit of character plot themselves – likely they will provide you some of their own motivation.

Fourth Step: Extra Credits

Maps will be essential to the players immersion for a single session game. Keep them simple: a map of the village will suffice as a centerpiece for the gaming table or space. Make it larger than it needs to be so the players can add to it as they explore or learn about points of interest from the locals – particularly the outdoor type characters, your Rangers, Druids, Hunter etc.

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Have a dungeon, by all means, but keep it small, maybe 4-6 areas in said dungeon at most. Again, add elements that will give each class or character type something to play with to utilise their abilities such as traps, moral obligations, conundrums, and obviously monsters and bad-guys.

Have a two tailed ending. This is where the clues may allow for different approaches to affect the resolution of the adventure. This could be helping one faction over the other, using a faction to thwart the other or toppling both factions at once. In order for this to happen, consider two or more factions where one is a definite enemy, and the others as possible enemies.

In our current example, one of the townsfolk may have control of the hag, perhaps they hold a fetish which stop the hag from killing them, and so they use the hag for their own agenda, perhaps they suffered at the hands of the villagers years ago and now have an avenue for their revenge. You’ll need to edit your primary fact from your first step.

Fifth Step: Running the Game, Pacing and Rhythm

You should start the gaming session from this point and describe the setting to them from the outset. Leave no room for them to be in different places or occupied with other events unless you can trust the players to come together quickly. I’ve including an example opening description, feel free to use it as a template.

‘Winter in the northern reaches comes sharply this time of year and is unforgiving to the lost and weary. You have been travelling through dark forests for several days. Seeing the first village in what seems like months, you happily head to the warm glow of fires. The village is quiet as occasional snowflakes fall silently. Well wrapped stragglers hurry indoors, some clutching babies close to their chests or dragging resisting children indoors. A single guard approaches holding a torch high to see you all clearly in the growing darkness. She carries a well service sword on her hip. “We don’t see travellers much here – we’re shunned,” she points to a large, scruffy two-story building in the centre of the village, ‘You’ll find rest there, but beware, people have gone missing in the night, locals and travellers alike. If it wasn’t for the coming blizzard, I’d tell you to keep walking.” She nods curtly and continues her patrol.’

In this opening, we set the scene: winter and cold, the characters should be seeking shelter. We give them a location, the village. Being dark, children and being called in, which seems normal at first. The guard, although taciturn doesn’t provide the mission as such, but she does lay the ground work, suggesting the village is not a highly regarded by outsiders and that people go missing. Finally, the players are told a blizzard is coming, so they will likely want to seek shelter and stay a while. Once the players are at the Inn, they can begin questioning the suspicious and untrusting locals, which is an encounter in itself and helps you set up the clues.

So, it is a bit cliché, but this is a working example which I hope gives you an idea of how to draw the players in without making it seem forced. Nothing kills the immersion that keeping your players rigidly in the story, you need them to feel like they want to stay and investigate.

So far, we have the clues, encounters and the plot hook to get the players drawn in. You’ve already got the meat of the adventure set out, now you need to add the garnishes and side orders.

And the last bit…

Keeping the flow of the game is vital for single session adventures. More than ever the party must not dawdle about, wondering where to go next – if they do, they’re eating into the valuable session time and need to get moving. My simple advice here is to keep the players active. If they don’t seem to be doing anything, for example in the evening of the first night at the Inn, then get them to commit to sleep or carry out an action.

If the players are stumped and are not sure what to do next, bring an encounter to them, but make them work for it – don’t spoon feed them! If the following morning they are sat outside wondering where to start, add a small encounter where another child has gone missing: a mother’s shriek. If they still don’t investigate, the villagers gather around the house and begin weeping – another child is missing and then they active ask the characters to help them investigate, which should lead them to the first clue.

There you have it – a single session game planned out and underway in a couple of hours of work. If, like me, you get the odd 10 minutes here or there, jot down your ideas, add to them, let them grow.

If you give yourself a finite number of key encounters, the rest pretty much writes itself and you’ll be steaming ahead with tonnes of possible ideas, just waiting to be played!

That’s all for today!

We’ve been working hard on NaNoWriMo, Pulp RPG, adventures modules, proofing, editing and brainstorm, all whilst holding down full-time jobs. We’re getting there 😉

J.D Ferris, CC