Archive for February, 2023


Filipino RPG links

February 28, 2023

Over in a different spot, folks linked this article and I realized it might be a cool idea to just drop a list of links for RPGs from Filipino creators.

Dog Eat Dog – a short, story focal game about colonialism which is deeply insightful about the nature of colonialism.

Navathem’s EndKickstarter for hardcopy – Fantasy mix of PbtA/FitD of stopping an apocalypse

Rae Nedjadi’s games – there’s a lot listed here

From the aforementioned article:

Tadhana – Filipino fantasy

Makapatag’s games


Why not superheroes?

February 25, 2023

I’ve recently hopped onto an online space where a lot of people (relatively new) to RPGs are asking questions, mostly recommendations for different games. One of the things people are often asking is “I want to play (setting from book, movie, videogame, comic book) what system can I use?”

And while usually people have recommendations based on stuff in the appropriate genre, or something genreless, it occurred to me that if I was invested in having an action/adventure game where ability/power levels mattered, superhero RPGs are probably a better starting point for MOST of these kinds of ideas – if only because they cover so much in terms of what characters can do, and scale of ability.

Of course this is not me saying always go to superhero RPGs, it’s just weird to me how no one recommends these systems except FOR superheroes.

Consider; people go through good number of mental gymnastics figuring out how to, say, model a jet fighter in D&D. Or a tank. It’s not… super hard, but it’s also not super easy – even if you say “a tank cannon is like a fireball” there’s some things like “tanks really don’t shoot every round at moving objects” or “It can kinda do this terrain but not that terrain”. Not that you need full realism or anything, but it should feel right appropriate to the genre.

However, if you want to model an ogre in a superhero game, it’s just a 20 ft tall strong guy, which… is really common and easy in most superhero games? Do you want to have high fantasy magic? Most of it feels identical to superhero powers anyway, just change up how it’s described and what effects go around it. Sci-fi? Superheroes already include robots, aliens, powersuits and spaceships most of the time as is. What about horror? Keep the protagonists at the bottom end of the power tier, and all the supernatural threats go above it.

Anyway, this is a random musing that I’m just going to file away for the rare time I want to do a game around an idea and don’t already have an immediate system in mind.

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Character Sheets & the automation pitfall

February 20, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about character sheets and playing online. I feel like a lot of online character sheets and trackers in Google Sheets have been really poorly done and make play harder, rather than easier. Mostly because I feel people have focused too much on the fact computers can autocalculate numbers, or that you can have tons of information in a document, all at the cost of readability and faciliating play.

I just know that things are not working well when I see so many groups creating new character sheets, or worse, just using Google Sheets or an equivalent spreadsheet program, including for games with 2nd Grade elementary math.

I’d like to hope that more game publishers and designers start reaching out to people to set up better online character sheets for ease of play with some better ideas of how it should work.

Let’s start with the problems:

Making a Maze of your Character Sheet

The first and easiest example is that just because you CAN include more information than you can on a printed character sheet, doesn’t mean that you should. I’ve seen more than a few character sheets or character keepers include a million sections for information that is tertiary or may not even show up in many games. I think back to old AD&D character sheets with a space to include your hair and eye color, height and weight like it was an ID card, when in reality, very few people needed that space on their sheet. This is the kind of info that a general “notes” section or blank space could have fulfilled.

It’s best to think of a character sheet like a work desk where you are putting something together. You have a number of tools or parts, or things that you need on hand and in easy reach. And then there’s stuff you might only need once or you’re not sure if you need it, because it only comes up once in a while if at all. If the desk is cluttered with the latter stuff, it gets in the way of the stuff you need all the time… which is why you would place it off the desk somewhere nearby like a shelf or a table and so on.

This is worse when you are working with new players, because you’re trying to teach the rules AND teach the UI of how to use the character sheet. It turns it into a maze, when it should be an easy to read display.

We think it’s easy “oh you only have to page down a few times to get to X info” but if that’s the info you need regularly, you’ve just added a “UI Tax” onto doing basic things. This sort of problem gets worse when you realize some of your players are working on small screens, on tablets, even their phones, and now they have to scroll 10 times to get to the info.

The point is to make it AT LEAST no worse than using a paper character sheet and dice.

A Thousand Drop Down Menus

Now, you might think, “Ah, the modern era allows us to hide a lot of info in drop down menus or hover-over comments” and that’s true. These are definitely tools to use and use more often. These are something to use for those “sometimes” tools and info, and not regular use info.

I’ve also seen some sheets where key info is hidden or the drop down is not obvious. You can think of any app where key features were hidden behind some gesture that is not obvious, or something that wasn’t clearly an icon to use. Overusing and incorrectly using dropdown/popout info makes it just as invisible as before, except at least it’s not blocking whatever you DO have on screen.

Twenty Steps to Add Two Numbers

Powered by the the Apocalypse games are generally designed to be very easy on the player side; roll 2d6, modify between -3 to + 3, did you hit a 7 or 10 or higher? Running these on Roll20 has generally been an experience of ALL of the bad character sheet issues which drastically slows play unnecessarily. Let’s walk through what it looks like

  • Find/open the character sheet (players have limited screen space, so char sheet isn’t always open)
  • Find the Move you want to roll dice with. (Moves have full info listed, players must scroll through the window to find it)
  • Click the Button
  • Small pop up window asks if you want to do a modifier. (Window often hides behind other windows, and it just looks like the dice roller didn’t do anything.)
  • Click the Button
  • Click back to Roll20’s chat window to see your outcome
  • Make choices (PbtA games often have a “pick list” where you choose outcomes based on your roll)

I’m at the point where I think automation is actually probably best used sparingly in RPGs until we get some better UI options. Like, I use automation formulas on Google Sheets for Errant and tracking encumbrance (which matters a lot in that game) but I haven’t found it a big issue needed for anything else in play.

Remember; players take a bit of time to internalize a procedure, but bad UI is something you get to suffer with each dice roll forever more.

I don’t have a single solution but I think these principles will hel p a lot:

Readability First

Imagine you are looking at the screen and rolling physical dice. How do you get to the info you need? How easy is it to understand where to look? If there’s things that aren’t as important for play, things you would tell a new player “we can talk about that later”, do they need a full section?

Do you have an area left blank for notes? I feel a lot of things can get tossed in these spots and it allows a player or group to customize the character sheet to the things they do focus on, while not forcing them into a cluttered space.

Checklists and Dropdowns First

Most of the time a checklist on a paper character sheet involves things that will come up fairly regularly in play; injuries, conditions, rechargeable powers, magic, ammo for weapons, armor damage, etc. It really depends on the game, but usually a checklist means it’s something that both gets used and altered somewhat often – and makes good sense to replicated a checklist or dropdown in your digital character sheet.

Hard Locked Math Second

Some games have formulas are stats that are “hard locked” – they derive from one thing and never change outside of that. “Class Bonus + Level + Endurance = Max Stamina points” or something like that. It can be useful to make formulas that autofill and track these, however it’s important to make sure these things actually ARE hard locked. If you’ve got half a dozen powers that could alter it, or it’s sensible that environment/circumstance conditions might have the GM making exceptions, putting in the formula only causes it to be a pain the ass when you have to ignore/circumnavigate it constantly.

These also tend to be less common than you think.

I’d also say there’s stuff I call “almost” hardlocked that’s worth considering too; RPGs with like 6 modifiers from other stats skills and abilities might be worth having a formula do the automath, even if exceptions happen here and there, if only because it’s going to be the number you use 80% of the time anyway.


It’s pretty tough right now because I’m really hitting the point I’m not sure we’re getting much from MANY of our online character sheets outside of either WOTC or Paizo. And I haven’t found a VTT that makes it as easy to learn and customize your own sheet as much as just jam together something via Google Sheets. And that’s kind of damning.

It’s definitely changing how I want to run games, but also makes me a little sad because so much of the hobby has moved to online play, I’d like to hope we’d have more innovation here as well.

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One Way to Frame a Dungeon – Wandering Dungeons

February 16, 2023

Recently I binged the manga Dungeon Meshi / Delicious in Dungeon.  It has a lot of cool things going for it, but one thing I enjoyed a lot was a smart world building take and deconstruction of the dungeoncrawling tropes. In that story, dungeons are magical locations that simply appear and have a process to how they change and grow and what role they play in the world. 

This idea lets you skip a lot of the questions about why dungeons exist and why they haven’t been looted yet, or “how the hell did all these monsters get down here?”.  On the other hand, it’s not quite a full Magical Underworld where everything is necessarily symbolic or dreamlike; the hard logistics of exploration matter too.  

Anyway, I think the next time I run a dungeon crawl game (after Errant, some time down the line), I’ll use this set up for my dungeons and world building – Wandering Dungeons.

Dungeon Islands

Somewhere out in the ocean, a dungeon isle erupts from the sea.  Well, no one has seen it happen, but they assume it must because they appear from seemingly nowhere.  Unlike real islands, dungeon islands actually float and travel, however they ignore currents or waves, going in directions no one knows how to predict.

The island has the dungeon ruins and entrance, just there, somehow, already.  The monsters and treasure, too.

Also unlike real islands, they can make landfall, and crush their way through the land, albeit at a slower rate, sometimes stopping in the same location for generations or slowly moving at a glacial rate or unnervingly fast in the “it wasn’t there yesterday” kind of fashion.

If left alone, monsters will come out.

The World and Wandering Dungeons

Most of the world looks upon them as disasters.  Sometimes manageable ones, but sometimes not.  Wandering Dungeons disrupt trade routes, have destroyed cities, or even plowed through palaces. (which is not quite the same as the disaster zone as a dungeon idea I wrote about recently)

If one must deal with a dungeon, the best kind stays in one place and the locals build a containment wall around it, sending in patrols once a month or so to beat back some monsters and keep it under control.  

The general public sees them as dangerous but sometimes a good source of rare resources.  They do not know the general rules of how a dungeon works or the structure of Beast, Regent and Ruler.  People know sometimes someone can “kill” a dungeon and cause it to disappear, but it’s rare enough that just as many people believe that to be a myth.


Apparitions are people whose souls have been trapped by the dungeon and now manifest as solid beings here.  They have full living bodies, except they need not eat, drink or rest to live.  Apparitions have unresolved goals within the dungeon or feelings they’ve never worked through.  They do not understand their situation, but are often willing to talk to, trade, or assist outsiders to the dungeon – often in exchange for doing favors for them.  They seem to have a good sense for quiet, safe places in the dungeon.

Apparitions can be killed, however they cannot be brought back to life by the usual magics.  After a year and a day passes, they will simply remanifest in the dungeon.  A little bit less themselves and missing more memory.  They’ll remember who attacked them, or general good feelings of friendship.  That part they remember.

If one can resolve their issues AND the dungeon itself, their soul is freed.  This happens rarely enough most people consider it a fairy tale.

The Beast

Within each dungeon is a monster not smarter than an animal at best, with terrifying capacity for destruction.  These things are often the most dangerous thing to fight in a straight out battle, and often become the legend associated with any given dungeon.

The Beast may be thematically or symbolically tied to the nature of the dungeon; based on element or idea.

The Regent

The Regent is an Apparition who commands a large force within the dungeon and rules at least part of it.  The Regent is intelligent, with an ambitious goal, however that goal may or may not be reasonable or possible to achieve.  While the Regent will be aware a world exists outside of the dungeon, they have little interest in it, but may broker some kind of deal (“Deliver sacrifices to us and we’ll teach your followers a special spell.”).  The Regent may not personally be the most dangerous intelligent threat here, but they have cunning and will deploy their forces accordingly.

The Regent might be aware of the Ruler, or be the reason they’re not in charge currently, or simply believe the Ruler to be a myth or fable.  No matter what the Regent wants to maintain and grow their power base.

The Ruler

The Ruler is the spiritual heart of the dungeon.  The Ruler is extremely magical, however they may not be aware of their own magical effects. The Ruler may or may not be cognizant enough to reason with or bargain with; they might be cursed to be a half worm monstrosity, they might be a mummified corpse, or they might be delirious trying to find their lost dragon child.

The Ruler is always an entity who is ailing in some fashion; they might be cursed, injured, or have an unfulfilled need.  It will entail cleverness and maybe several steps in a quest to resolve their ailment, if one seeks to do so.  Success will cause them to transcend from existence, usually leaving behind an artifact or granting a magical boon, and the dungeon will slowly Resolve.

Killing the Ruler will also Resolve the Dungeon but there will not be additional boons or treasure for doing so.

Resolving a Dungeon

When the Dungeon is Resolved, everyone inside or anyone who enters the Dungeon can sense the change and how long remains; by the end of 30 days, the Dungeon will close up and sink into the ground, never to be seen again.

Building A Wandering Dungeon


1) Start with deciding where the dungeon is in relation to a local town, village, capital, etc. and how disruptive it is to have it there. Do they have any containment on it?

2) How well understood is this Dungeon? Is it mapped at all? Are there any resources people know to seek out? Threats? Will you need to pay for a guide? A map?

3) The more well understood the dungeon is, the more the players will have to deal with potential rival groups also moving in the dungeon.  It may be a point where violence or sabotage are being undertaken.  Also it makes sense that there may be some groups who make a living by the dungeon continuing to exist; a party that disrupts too much of it, might be a threat to thir way of life.


1) Build or use an existing dungeon map.  In the latter case you may have to adjust or reskin some things to fit with the next parts.

2) Decide where the safe areas are, and whether they have resources (fresh water, firewood, food, etc.) And then decide how many of them have Appariations.

3) Design Apparitions; NPCs who have unresolved goals or issues in the Dungeon.  Some may provide useful services like healing or selling needed materials.  Most are neutral a few are friendly, a few are devious and hostile.  Their attitudes might change in play.

It’s very useful to think about how their issues may point to another part of a dungeon; one Apparition still seeks his missing brother in the lower levels, another has been looking for a book of magic and history, which can only be found in a library deep within.

Beast, Regent, Ruler.

Either create these characters and NPCs for your dungeon, or, if using existing materials, look to see if something or someone already fits the bill.  Most dungeons are built with a few “boss type” monsters or NPCs and those might fit perfectly or be something you swap in.

The Regent commands other monsters, so if the dungeon doesn’t include intelligent or pack like creatures, you may have to swap some in in a way that fits the theme you’re going for.

Because these Wandering Dungeons are magical, the theme doesn’t have to fit with the ecology of the rest of the setting; if you want most aquatic threats in a dungeon in the desert, go for it.

Changes over time, Restocking

I usually like to think of changes or restocking happening over the course of a month or even a season or more.  You can assume that if an area is cleared out, some other creatures might move in from another section.  If a large threat, like the Beast, or Regent are taken out, then you can expect a lot more drastic changes, including possibly altering the path or the layout over the next few months.  Or even having the dungeon slowly push it’s way to a new location in the world.

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Mystery Quest

February 12, 2023

Elsewhere, some folks are having a pretty great conversation about how one sets up a mystery in TTRPGs. Not, like, the step by step of it, but the broad issues about why these things are hard and the issues of setting up info ahead of time vs. coming up with it in the moment and all of that.

And I realized one thing I’m going to do going forward in the games I run; if solving mysteries is a “thing to do” even if it’s a tertiary aspect of the game, I’m going to just give players XP/points/whatever when they verbalize the solution in a way that they feel 70% – 80% correct in it. Having them spend a lot more energy trying to dig up info when they have the crux of it, seems wasteful of time, anticlimactic, and RPGs are generally not well set up to do the “ah ha! The killer is in this room!” dramatic reveal scene.

Giving them the points hits the climax of the situation, and also lets them know, as the audience, that this was correct.

While videogames often do stuff like pour tons of lore and has people writing 4 page essays or 30 minute video analysis… I don’t actually think this is great for tabletop play. I generally don’t want players swimming in confusion; I want them to know they’ve explored part of the world, figured something out, and to move onto the next mystery or cool thing.

I think about how much 80s and 90s GM advice is about hiding info and obscuring the situation including for adventures where mystery isn’t even the point of the game. It’s a weak way to fill time, and time is the most precious thing when you have a group coordinating to play together.

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