The Lich

The Lich

a small phylactery containing role-playing ideas and spirit

#RPGDay 5 – Stories Groups Tell of Your Character

Delay Note: Days 5+ are delayed because I got completely owned by some kind of infectious disease for about a week. Verdict is still out on what it was, but as one of the possible scenarios was dengue, no chances were taken.

When I was a teenager, the philosophy at the table was to utilise player skill to survive the narrative. Fastidiousness was rewarded with furtherance of plot, unveiling of story, and deeper investment into the machinations at hand. Sadly, we rarely made it very far. Sometimes, we went through upwards of four character deaths a long night. Each time the party completely faltered, the DM packed up the narrative and gave us a disappointed look — he was never going to tell us that particularly story again, and he was never going to reveal to us, who had failed, how it may have ended. Like defeated gladiators, we returned to our pens after and spent the week at school discussing strategy and ideas.

In college, that paradigm changed with GMs who put more stock in telling the whole story than in adhering to the rules of survival. Suddenly we had characters who lived out the year-long campaigns that ran from Fall to Summer that grew with us and became zeitgeists of those years, reflections of us whose traits we absorbed year by year. If in high school my identities were being ground and reconstituted and my growth was measured in how long I could keep each idea alive, in college I deepened my sense of self through role-playing by adapting a single idea through a washer of different ideas, story hooks, and inter-relationships.

However, because those characters were reflections and because, for the most part, they eventually became parts of me as I also changed with their inclusions, the stories about them outside of their eras fade and the group instead tells stories about you. As a player, because identity was a large part of what I played for, that was always the fate of my character stories.

But as a gamemaster, the ideas were all different. I didn’t need to create only the characters I could stand to keep in my skin for a long time; I could create caricatures, facades, fools, and annoyances! I did, and those are the characters I am remembered for.

The Devil Box by Richard Pett gave me my first NPC boobytrap – Lumbie, a half-goblin, half-troll hybrid who is incredibly useless and yet extremely integral to the successful conclusion of the adventure. While I had already peppered my players with my interpretation of Eberron’s fallen noble race, goblins with cloying and high-pitched voices who wore stolen whitewashed fences as ridiculous masques, nobody was ready for how utterly banal and stupid the “last scion of the great shaman line,” Lumbie, was going to be. I foreshadowed it gingerly in the goblinoids’ reactions when they realised that the only way to contain the chain devil their people were charged with was with Lumbie’s help, and the players did give me a few raised eyebrows when the goblins revealed that they had sold Lumbie to a circus… but once they actually bought back Lumbie and in his incredibly stupid presence for more than five minutes, I knew I had done my job right. The party had to babysit him, change his diaper, try to reason and communicate with him… and the goblins? Were very happy to conveniently not be there whenever Lumbie had an emergency.

“I hate Lumbie.” My brother told me after being his primary caregiver for the adventure. Even today, the easiest way to make his face contort in disgust and accusation is to go, “Hey, remember Lumbie?”

My brother will never forget Lumbie.


For different groups at different times, the characters people remember: from Remnants, Cador Hare. From Out of the Abyss, Shuushar the Awakened.

If you ever get the chance to run Out of the Abyss for your party, ham up Shuushar. Give him voice, take away his self-preservation instinct, have him lecture the party constantly, let him display powers he will never use. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. They will never forget Shuushar.


#RPGaDay 4 — Most impressive memory of another’s character

While my brother is one of the most memorable players I know, this won’t be about him.

My table has been exploring Legend of the Five Rings again lately, and what makes Rokugan here in the Philippines different from Rokugan as I played it in Canada is that there is legitimate interest in the Mantis Clan outside of marveling at their deadly proficiency with the bow. If you’ve ever taken a look at L5R, you’ll realise that it is not a very Japanese setting, not truly, and more a strange hodgepodge of Asian-like, or dare I say “Oriental,” cultures living together under a “Japanese-y” emperor. With the Unicorn Clan, you have the Mongols; the Scorpion, Thailand; and with the Mantis, you have a sea-faring island culture roleplayers in the Philippines feel affinity to.

(Nosfecatu, for instance, is always talking about running a Mantis-centric game in which he uses his vast research of what life was like in the pre-colonial Philippine Islands.)

It’s with this in mind that we walk into this story. While three of us decided to take our one-shot characters forward into a semi-ongoing travel campaign, our fourth player, Gelo, wanted to really explore the different cultures of Rokugan, and so planned to change his character with each new arc. Gelo’s a fun-loving player and who really wanted to dig into the social dynamics of the world, so when we traveled to Mantis lands, he took on the persona of a young lord wanting to increase his financial standing and please his easily-influenced, nouveau riche young wife in the process. All this is of course standard fair for the idea of switching, until his first scene when suddenly Gelo transforms from player to fully immersive actor on the table! Two players strive for an introduction with him by buying him a drink, and it initially looks as though he’ll accept and call them to his table, but instead what he does is quietly order everyone else to leave the tavern. Then he suddenly hurls their offered jug of sake to the ground beside him! “Tell me,” he growls within the very edges of civility, “Do I have the appearance of someone who can not afford his own drink? Do I seem to you someone asking for your charity?”

Mon_MantisThe roll of the head, the intensity in his eyes, and the aura of machismo emanating from him is exhilarating. His body language is not Gelo’s. You can tell the other two players are taken aback at this subversion of what ought to have been an easy introduction between player characters. But this is the young Mantis calling the shots, not Gelo. He orders the most expensive drink in the house. He gives no easy ground to anyone trying to ingratiate themselves to his character. He makes everyone work for it, forces them to come at him through his wife, his weakness, because he’s now a living, breathing part of the world whose rules we must obey. Our antagonist for the session, a Crane samurai seeking to drive the prices in Mantis lands back into Crane favour, does the same in exploiting that weakness until a meeting is called between the two economic rivals.

Now, typically in Rokugan, when it comes to social manipulation, the Crane have the upper hand, and that’s moreso true here given that our GM is very proficient with the Crane clan. But Gelo matches. The Crane begins by dragging everyone into the Crane game of social niceties, enforcing norms that obviously benefit them. The Mantis finds reason to force the conversation out in the open instead. The Crane takes the opportunity to toss verbal daggers and aspersions, but gets caught in a trap set by someone else that the Mantis capitalises on. When the Crane tries to delay to recoup, the Mantis taps his fingers on the table impatiently. It is unnerving how irritated he is. When the Crane tries to save face, the Mantis clicks his tongue in annoyance, “Tch. Are you telling me that the mighty Crane Clan with all its riches admits they cannot afford the price? That they ask the Mantis for a discount?” The words drip with the venom of disappointment and echo with the sound of someone disillusioned by how base this Crane is making her clan appear.

The meeting ends with nothing left to be said but that. We leave. The Crane kills herself. The session ends not long after, and Gelo returns to us as Gelo, not the Mantis lord.

But we all remember the Mantis lord.

#RPGaDay 3 – Proudest Character Moment

So I had actually planned to talk about a Bubblegum Crisis 2033 campaign in this space, but after gathering all the proper graphics and editing them to fit, the true moment-to-be-discussed lodged itself in my head. Do excuse me as I restart.

Instead of BGC, we’re going to talk about a RIFTS: Chaos Earth game.


Chaos Earth was a post-9/11 publication for RIFTS that took the setting to the apocalypse that created it. The focus of the narrative within Chaos Earth was to honour the efforts and dedication of heroic firefighters, police officers, and military personnel as they rescued civilians caught in the multi-dimensional firestorm that ultimately destroys modern-day civilisation. Our game of it was played in a quiet corner of the University of Windsor student centre, and despite the American flag on the cover of the book, the story took place in an unnamed part of Ontario-Quebec.

Patriotism, of course, abounds in these kinds of games and swells because we live on the border with Detroit, so everyone else plays a Canadian. I decide otherwise and, to the disgust of my fellow players, take on the role of a genetically augmented and massively large American soldier — Theodore Jefferson Russel, or T.J. Russel for short. He’s there on loan to support the Canadians because America helps its allies. He also cheerfully tells them that at every opportunity. At this point, I’m pretty sure all the other characters (and players) hate him (and me), so spreading the goodwill of AMERICA begins as an uphill battle.

Yes, I even talk like that in character while puffing out my chest and holding my arms out so it looks like my shoulders turn at my elbows. Apple pie. Freedom.


The GM starts my character out with a damaged mech, citing that because of my massive size, parts have become increasingly difficult to come by. T.J.’s never phased by such news, and is more than happy to let existing parts and labour go to other soldiers and pilots who need it. He takes the opportunity to, on the march, talk to absolutely everyone about how great and noble Canada is, and how AMERICA will not let them down.  It does mean, however, that our first rescue mission happens with T.J. lacking access to a power suit — but he performs admirably enough by helping the team of PCs rescue some refugees from a collapsing building. Since T.J. is so strong and has the D&D equivalent of a Constitution score of 30 (I’m not even joking because RIFTS), he does this by holding up a collapsed support beam with his back until absolutely everyone gets out. AMERICA.

That’s not even the moment I’m going to talk about, but it is the moment that wins T.J. the trust and support of his Canadian allies. I think it’s also when my hammy performance starts eroding the apprehension of the other players against having an AMERICAN character there. Our technicians fast track repairs on T.J.’s Glitterboy (Powered Armour, also a real name because RIFTS) and even paint an American flag on it just in time for us to meet our first real inter-dimensional conflict — a stolen, rampaging Atlantean spider-mech armed with a nuclear payload!

If I didn’t win my table over with T.J. before this conflict, here’s where I do it. T.J. goes toe-to-toe with the Atlantean spider-mech with the support of the party, but our main efforts are on guiding our refugee column away from the danger zone. The pilots of the spider-mech reveal themselves as escaped slaves of the Atlantean Empire; the spider-mech is their only defense against being recaptured and they don’t trust anyone because brutal slavery has been their whole life. Their priority is getting rid of us fast. They fire a nuclear warhead at us, and T.J. uses his action to pick up the less armoured PC beside him and throw him past the blast radius! The missile hits T.J. at ground zero, we calculate damage. I pray. The dust settles and the blast destroys the mech, but T.J. is still alive to climb out of his suit. It’s him alone, now unarmoured, facing down the alien spider-mech.

All of T.J.’s monster stats are in his Endurance and Strength (he’s seriously probably immune to radiation because RIFTS), but after hearing the aliens’ story, he stops and relies solely on his more human qualities. In the quiet of the explosion, before combat can resume again, he calls out to the aliens and engages them as fellow refugees. Runaways. People seeking safety and a home to belong to. He speaks to them about the Underground Railroad and America’s emancipation of slaves. He recites to them the words written at the base of the Statue of Liberty. He tells them that there exist peoples and nations here dedicated to truth, justice, and freedom. Who stand against tyranny in all its forms. In earnest, as a man who lives and breathes and truly embodies the ideals of America the Good, he invites them not just to join them as companions, but to begin the road to citizenship and the guarantee of equality. I nearly kill my throat maintaining his baritone through this whole spiel of nearly over ten minutes, but it moves everyone at the table so much that the aliens (turns out they were people with pointed ears like most first contact alien cultures), exit their spider-mech and accept the care and hospitality of Canada, America’s most precious ally and stalwart partner in freedom and other AMERICAN ways.

The game ends with us finding our way to the mega-bunker that will protect these people from the worst of the apocalypse. The scenes all close with everyone celebrating Christmas Eve together. T.J., someone tells me when they find that bunker in a separate campaign, although he never does find his way back to AMERICA, becomes so beloved by the settlement that its greatest landmark is his statue at its entrance.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


#RPGaDay 2 – Best game session since August 2015?

I’m going to cheat here because I actually already wrote about this session back in January. Part of living with a teacher’s brain is constantly deconstructing experiences to seek out evidence and points of growth — both in yourself and in others. As such, while I’ve had the pleasure of many a grand times with gaming this year, particularly after I joined up with a local community dedicated to sharing the fun of the TRPG hobby (Gamers & GameMasters Philippines), the “best” sessions for me are those in which I can detect individual evolution. With that criteria, two major events come to mind:

1. My Last GMed Game of 2015 (click this for the full write-up)

DSOATTraditionally, I’m a ponderous person whose great claim to player action is what has been called the “seven session set up” in which I lay down the seeds for an amazingly air-tight gambit in the first seven sessions of a game… and cascade from there. It’s an operation that requires lots of time and forethought, and it belies my preferences on both sides of the GM screen. So the idea of running an unplanned game complete with character and world creation all in just 4 hours? Unthinkable! Doing so as a public game during a Gamers & GameMasters event? More so unthinkable! But what amazed me was that I didn’t just manage it once (albeit at 5 hours), but twice when I ran the same set up with different people, a different world, and a different quest entirely at the January G&GMs event “New Beginnings”! Now, when I doubt my abilities or mistakenly think myself hedged in by habit and shyness, I have two tangible moments that I can draw upon to tell myself that, “Yeah, I can do this! I can grow and run games for people I’ve never played with before!”

2. The APEC Week Esteren game

So in November last year, dignitaries from the world over including Barrack Obama crowded into our already crowded city to have a giant conference that, since the country wanted to hide its hideous traffic issues, also resulted in a surprise week off for most people and, thus, an impromptu Shadows of Esteren mini-campaign (3 sessions) hosted and run by my good friend, Mahar. Now this is a massive turning point because, admittedly, our first Shadows of Esteren campaign ran into some issues given that we didn’t really communicate expectations and that Mahar had yet to entwine his dramaturge profession (that guy who researches a text’s context to align the actors and directors with the ideas of the author and the period of the piece) with his tabletop techniques, but I had been witnessing his steady growth in adopting both and creating his own style from it, so knew this one wouldn’t be a problem. What I wasn’t expecting was just how much he’d break free from the idea of “steady growth” to let himself soar as the GM of these sessions! There’s been non-stop growth from Mahar as a GM since that point, but I’ll always remember that week as the pivotal point of his apotheosis and my best Esteren experience to date.

#RPGaDay Collation Post

So I wrote my #RPGaDay 1 post before actually explaining what was going on. The idea of #RPGaDay came to my attention when it was linked in my main local TRPG chatroom which I share with Philgamer, Nosfecatu, and other hobbyist bloggers. The actual idea behind it — posting once a day on a gaming topic for the whole of August — comes from Runeslinger whose aim is to bring these posts in aggregate to “people that you know are curious about games and gaming” so that they no longer just have to take your word for it — it’ll be everywhere, online, and easily accessible through the use of the #RPGaDay hashtag. While I’d be hard-pressed to call The Lich “easily accessible,” this seems a fun activity to do in community.

For anyone wishing to jump along in (trust me, retroactively is fine too), this is the graphic outlining all the prompts:


And here is the ongoing list of my #RPGaDay posts:

  • 01: Real dice, dice app, diceless, how do you prefer to “roll”?
  • 02: Best game session since August 2015?
  • 03: Character moment you are proudest of?
  • 04: Most impressive thing another’s character did?
  • 05: What story does your group tell about your character?
  • 06: Most amazing thing a game group did for their community?
  • 07: What aspect of RPGs has had the biggest effect on you?
  • 08: Hardcover, softcover, digital? What is your preference?
  • 09: Beyond the game, what’s involved in an ideal session?
  • 10: Largest in-game surprise you have experienced?
  • 11: Which gamer most affected the way you play?
  • 12: What game is your group most likely to play next? Why?
  • 13: What makes a successful campaign?
  • 14: Your dream team of people you used to game with?
  • 15: Your best source of inspiration for RPGs?
  • 16: Historical person you’d like in your group? What game?
  • 17: What fictional character would best fit in your group?
  • 18: What innovation could RPG groups benefit most from?
  • 19: Best way to learn a new game?
  • 20: Most challenging but rewarding system you have learned?
  • 21: Funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group?
  • 22: Supposedly random game events that keep recurring?
  • 23: Share one of your best “Worst Luck” stories.
  • 24: What is the game you are most likely to give to others?
  • 25: What makes for a good character?
  • 26: What hobbies go well with RPGs?
  • 27: Most unusual circumstances or location in which you’ve gamed.
  • 28: Thing you’d be most surprised a friend had not seen or read?
  • 29: You can game anywhere on Earth, where would you choose?
  • 30: Describe the ideal game room if budget were unlimited.
  • 31: Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice?

#RPGaDay 1 – Real Dice, Digi Dice, No Dice?


Real dice have always captured my attention.

Even before I started gaming and retrieved my first multi-coloured collection of polyhedrals from the Dragonlance Campaign Setting box set, I was fascinated with Balut, a simple dice game conceived by an American soldier in the Philippines during World War 2. My Balut set came complete with a black leather, red velvet interior cup to vigorously roll the dice in, an extravagance, I realise, that none of my RPG dice have ever enjoyed.

Real dice, with their flaws and imperfections, create the illusion of “gamer luck.”

In high school and throughout college, I enjoyed above average luck with my polyhedrals. I had a blue dice dedicated to longsword damage that always rolled 7-8 when it mattered and a loyal green d20 linked to the many elven bladesingers I adored playing. Those dice are still in Canada because I came here with the notion that I’d not find much in the way of TRPGs in the Philippines and that I’d return soon to Ontario anyway. Obviously, however, I’m still here. Instead, I found quality D&D again, and now, with dice purchased here, I’ve discovered that my luck has absolutely evaporated — anything double digit on a d20 is a miracle now! I don’t own Chessex Dice; these are Cursex.

Real dice evolve and change with us.

When I was playing Warhammer Fantasy (as Skaven) and the dice quantities needed were high, I enjoyed having little d6s that, when rolled, didn’t take much real estate on the table. Later, when I took Houses of the Blooded and the dice pools were rarely above 5, I backed the Artisan Dice kickstarter to get a set of beautiful McDermitt Petrified Wood dice. Unfortunately, Charlie’s garage tech wasn’t up to the task of tackling stone dice yet, but after several botched attempts he did me a real solid and sent me the blank McDermitt cubes anyway as well as several compensatory sets (I also won some prototypes made from Australian wood in one of his contests!). Now, since Dungeon World has become my easy pick-up game, my games tuperware has a table’s worth of plastic black and red d6s — from tiny to fancy to strictly utilitarian.

Real dice can be cumbersome… but fun.

The most dice I’ve ever rolled at once was 47, Exalted 1e, Sidereal Martial Arts. Incidentally, that was also when my cover was blown. Those 47 dice opened up an arc in which my character had to earn back the trust of his eclectic circle. Rolling them was also very, very satisfying.

Real dice, for all my bellyaching about probability and curses, are how I “roll.”

Considerations for my Upcoming 5e Campaign(s)

Next month I’ll be trying my hand at running one of 5th Edition’s new adventure modules, Out of the Abyss, as a test for when Ravenloft appears on my shelf. In preparation for that, I’ve embarked upon reading Elaine Cunningham’s Daughter of the Drow (which I finished today) and considering the complaint of one of my players on the abrupt shift in paradigm combat has been for her. Nominally, my players find their ease in Fate and in Dungeon World, and this one in particular has never played any edition of D&D before, so the shift jarred. To be honest, it jarred me as well, and so we’ve embarked upon learning more about the new systems at play to find avenues through which narrative play can have a command over the mechanics, and how the mechanics inform the narration. I’m really not sure how long we’ll stay with 5e given how many other games there are out there these days, but nostalgia, familiarity, and the usefulness of the system as a gateway for new RPers means I’ll at least keep looking for ways to make it work for my table for a while yet. 

Here are some of my musings and decisions for how I’ll likely hack it.


Hit Points as Stress or Shock, not Measure of Wounds.

David McGrogan remarks upon the new way hit points are represented (compared to older editions) by highlighting how numerous they are and how quickly they replenish. The latter, in particular, makes it difficult to consider hit points as a measure of real wounds as then we’d have to accept deep wounds, like a knife in the gut, as naturally healing in a matter of hours. This just doesn’t make sense, so I’ve initially decided to view hit points as a measure of stress or system shock — one’s ability to withstand the fatigue of battle and continue fighting. However, this opens two major considerations:
1) How do I represent the inevitable wounding and death-by-combat that can occur mechanically if hit points are no longer a measure of wounds but 0 HP (or the negatives values) still represents a potential end to life?

On this, I’ve decided that a possible solution may be to assume that all combat produces the cuts, grazes, and bruises that comes with jostling in melee, and that 0 HP is the body finally succumbing, buckling under all the strain of bleeding and pounding hearts. It may be elegant to simply assume that, even at full HP, a character isn’t necessarily fully recovered or healed from the deeper cuts, that they are always bandaged somewhere in games of copious combat. Magical healing in this instance is primarily focused, then, on the regaining of one’s wind, with closure of those smaller cuts a happy side effect instead of the main effect. That may work.
2) If hit points are not wounds, how should I track actual wounds?

Let’s face it, players like to strike others in ways that last. For the player, the idea is to bypass ridiculous amounts of HP buffer; for the GM, it is to threaten something permanent, and thus valuable, on a character. Nary a combat session goes by wherein someone isn’t seeking to kneecap, hamstring, blind, or cripple someone forever, so how do we deal with that in 5e? Here I flounder a little because of the strange inclusion of Feats (the nominal human advantage) — particularly the presence of the Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter feats which stipulate that the feat owner can make a called shot to deal +10 additional damage at the cost of ~25% accuracy (-5 to hit). Even with those, bypassing the HP buffer still isn’t possible, and play still seems wrapped around the idea of striking the monster pinata until it goes down. The fair solution here without adding systems bloat seems to be to lock real wounds, and the idea of called shots, behind the luck of scoring a critical hit. My reasoning here is that the idea behind lasting wounds is skewed in that the most likely to suffer longest from them are the players, not the short-lived creatures the party encounters. This seems more a GM fiat/story issue, one I’ll have to be upfront about with my table to control expectations among my more zealous maimers.


Combat as More than Just a Race to 0HP.

This is where combat really sucks. There are many things you can do in combat, like help your friend land a hit, knock an enemy prone to make it easier to land a hit, move into a narrower space to make it harder for your enemy to land a hit, or land a hit. Everything, from gaining Advantage and inflicting Disadvantages, rolls back to a single mechanical conclusion — drive that opponent to 0 HP! This, coupled with how I’m already refusing to add called shots to the rules (I know my maimers well), will rankle at my narrative players if I choose to limit myself to mechanics alone, so how do we deal with this?

The Angry DM has my favourite viewpoints and workarounds on this in that he focuses on scenario design and intent as the true culprits in battles that bog. I highly recommend you read that, then come back as it says pretty much everything I have to say about letting the narrative override the need to even use the combat system. Especially because I’ll be running modules and settings which seek to highlight strangeness and alteration in atmospheres, it becomes all the more important to my purpose that I delineate the shift between role-playing and the separate mini-game that is combat. Eschewing the initiative order ala Dungeon World? I can do that until initiative is absolutely essential. Abstracting combat against lesser foes or because simulating it wouldn’t add to the story? More than pleased to.

The other really big requirement is to never stop thinking from the perspective of the NPCs or monsters. Always give them a reason, a goal. They, like the party, are only in battle because their goals are achievable or more expedient through murder. Combat and the resolution of combat should never be the goal of the scenario because that just doesn’t make sense. People and monsters need something to put their lives on the line for, particularly if they’re prepared to go all the way to 0 HP. If not, they should be open to other resolutions or, barring that, be able to make a judgment call on when it is time to boogie out or surrender. Do the odds look grim? Get out. Does it look like we can still win? Push! Same choices players make every round should go to the enemy. That’s nothing new for me as an NPC-focused GM, but worth codifying.

Other than this, it may be worth being more liberal with the Advantages and Disadvantages to keep everyone thinking about using the terrain and fiction. There’s a base list I found on reddit, but I think it is a little thin and can be expanded in play.


What’s up with Inspiration?

Inspiration is an odd duck. First of all, it’s divided into two categories: the inspiration you receive from Bards and the one you get from acting according to your ideals and bonds. Bard inspiration is toolkit and affects your next action because, hey, the Bard used brilliant pathos to convince you that this action is something you should be awesome at. Regular inspiration comes from doing what’s right by you, but rather than directly affect the action in which you fulfil the tenets of your personal beliefs, it pools on your sheet and is available for use on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to what inspired you.


It can also be used by the GM to bribe a player into complicating their situation. This concept I know — I use it in Fate all the time! However, what’s different again is that the point can then be spent on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to any of your bonds or ideals, while in Fate, you can only use the bribe to support an action directly related to those aspects.

This just doesn’t jive with me.

Ideals, Bonds, and Inspiration are all tools meant to push the narrative aspect of the game, but they only seem to go half-way at supporting the fiction. Thankfully, this is the easiest fix so far, particularly for Fate players. I’ll keep the bribe, but I’ll stipulate that Inspiration can only be used when directly supporting an Ideal, Bond, or Flaw. What this means is that players can declare their actions and, on the side, point out to me that this action is in keeping with their character’s narrative matrix, in which case I can adjudicate if it earns the Advantage roll boost of an inspired action. This may be expanded to actions in which a character also plays directly into their niche. 

EDIT: Actually, I’ll have to think about this one some more. What is most likely to happen is that I will accept when players declare actions pointed out to directly relate to their ideals/bonds/flaws and boost those rolls while allowing the bribe point to only be spent on niche actions (their role in the party) or acts of digging themselves out of the trouble caused by the bribe (meaning I’ve paid them to get into trouble for the story, but give them a chip to get out). This sounds cleaner.

Bardic Inspiration is fine as is, so no changes necessary.

First Impressions on D&D 5e and Exalted 3rd Edition Combat

The two systems I’m learning at the moment are the new editions of D&D and Exalted. I don’t often have problems with the actual roleplaying parts of the game, so this declaration mostly means I’m figuring out what is involved in the murder portion of the game — combat.

I’ve skipped an edition for each system because of my move to Asia and the long time it took for me to pick up new groups to revisit these games with. (It took time to find people here with my hobbies.) As such, my impressions are based on older permutations of each game.

Exalted 3e:

  1. This is short since I only really have one observation. I really like withering and decisive attacks in that they suit my bias for battles that set up for big finishers. Each round of withering attack seems like Creating an Advantage in Fate — all leading up to the decisive attack that ends it all. Didn’t get the chance to test this with a true battle between equals, however, and the GM running the game isn’t really a combat-oriented one, so this observation may be inaccurate in the long run.

D&D 5e:

    1. So, apparently grids are a thing now. Apparently, they were even a thing back in AD&D!? What rock was I living under that I never noticed? From my perspective as a strictly theatre-of-the-mind player, the added tracking that comes from exact measurements and five-foot-squares seems to really bog down the game.
    2. I’m glad they removed the 3.5 wall of rules surrounding Attacks of Opportunity, for the most part. However, it’s still there through feats such as Sentinel, and actually still kind of annoying to track because it cuts into the tension and flow of combat by constantly interrupting it.
    3. Speaking of, what are hit points even supposed to represent now? They still bloat at higher levels to ridiculous levels (I’m a 2nd level warlock and have 23 hit points) and regenerate at extremely fast rates. I’m thinking it may be best to consider them as a measure of system shock, but what now tracks physical wounds and other consequences of deadly combat? Exhaustion?
    4. I’m embarrassed this took me all battle to realise, but it seems that it may be possible to play with the shiny-new Advantage/Disadvantage system in a way that emulates Fate’s Create an Advantage system. Maybe, like a full action to commit to an action like the Bard’s Inspiration move. This may be helpful as it was really sad to watch one of our best combatants whiff misses for ten consecutive rounds in a battle that lasted four hours. It’d also add a much needed narrative approach to combat that the current mechanically minded ruleset doesn’t outright reward.
    5. I like the new single-roll party initiative die, but it’s funny to see time-saving, party-focused innovations amidst the fossils of crunch. The streamlining effort feels a bit half-way in that respect.

I’ll be trying to keep it to what I’m used to when I run Ravenloft and Out of the Abyss later this year to see if it still works (and if anyone complains because I’m weird for not wanting grids), so I’ll form more concrete thoughts on all of this later.

Training Players to Create Advantages in Fate (with Gate)

I’m two years into running Fate now, but I still have trouble encouraging my players to use the Create an Advantage move as often as I think they should be. Like me, my players cut their teeth in games which initially trained us to use our “turns” to bash the enemy for direct damage. The idea of potentially wasting a round on a gambit (not a certainty) for advantage is not one most other systems teach.

However, well-stacked Advantages in Fate are the key to legendary feats. To illustrate that, I’ve chosen to highlight and dissect a key battle from a show everyone at my table watches — Gate: Jieitai Kano Chi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri.

(SPOILERS for the Red Dragon Arc to follow.)

To set the scene, the party is hunting a vicious red dragon that terrorises the land. Unlike with dragons in Dungeons & Dragons, nobody here can even conceive of defeating this ancient, brutal, and cunning beast, and so it has remained for thousands of years in a cycle of hibernation and slaughter… until the JSDF roll in. The party, armed with modern military weapons, attempts to do so for the sake of a comrade. Traveling with them is a small cadre of young, hot-blooded dark elf warriors, who have been poorly trained to use rocket launchers.


The anime even skips the part where they have to pull out the pin from the explosive before firing.

Incidental aspects so far (we aren’t using all of them, but I like pointing them out): “Ancient, Brutal, and Cunning” (for the dragon) – “Modern Military Weapons” – “For the Sake of a Comrade” – “Young, Hot-Blooded Dark Elf Warriors” – “Poorly Trained”

Poorly Trained is probably the result of a Create an Advantage failure, but those happen when giving fantasy races modern weaponry.

The dragon’s den is inside of a crater in a mountain, and the only access in is through a cave. Immediately, the strongest member of the party can’t join the fight because, despite being a demi-goddess, she’s terrified of being underground. She gets paid a fate point to stay outside, and tries to Create an Advantage by using the walkie-talkie to tell the party when the dragon is approaching. Sadly, another failure means the mountain blocks the communication, and the dragon will get an advantage later on.


Inside, the party gets to work setting up their trap while the dragon is out hunting. Using their “Modern Military Weapons,” which may actually be a stunt now that I think of it, they get to work kneading out a ridiculous amount of C4 and creating the bomb. They also notice all the magical swords from dead heroes as a Situational Advantage they can use later, so they keep a fate point in reserve.

Advantages now available: “Ridiculous Amount of C4” and “Magic Sword Graveyard”

The red dragon comes back, and the GM uses both free tags from earlier — “The Rock Face is Cutting Off the Signal?” to negate the look-out’s warnings and “Poorly Trained” to avoid the worst of the damage from the rocket launchers. It probably also uses an Overcome to temporarily negate the “Ridiculous Amount of C4” by cutting the wires to the manual detonator — or the players decide that on their own to make the fight more dramatic. Then the dragon does what it does best – slaughter and breathe fire.


I can see why nobody wanted to fight this thing without fighter jets and guided missiles.

The party is up against the wall in this fight. The dark elves engage in trying to damage it directly, but their training is insufficient to fight back their fear, so they just die brutally. The soldier is trying to reconnect the detonator, but the dragon is focusing its attention on him. The mage steps forward and uses the existing “Magic Sword Graveyard” and her “Desire for Revenge” (it also destroyed her village) to make a big 2-invoke advantage by levitating and propelling the swords in all directions to pincushion the dragon. It may sting for the dragon, but the mage’s player wants this to be an Advantage, not an attack, because the elf is moving next.


A testament to how much the Gate author really loves that other Fate.

The elf to this point has been battling her emotional state to deal with the Severe Consequence of having lost her father to this dragon. This is her arc to overcome that, her story, so the moment of triumph really has to be hers. To that end, she’s created her own mega 2-box advantage (by invoking that earlier aspect about how everyone is doing this for her), “You won’t take anyone else from me!” Everyone also gives her their accumulated free invocations because they know this is what the story was leading up to — or at least because they want it to be awesome. So, now, the stack looks like this.

“Ridiculous Amount of C4” [ ]
“Pincushioned with Magic Swords” [ ] [ ]
“You won’t take anyone else from me!” [ ] [ ]



She’s an elf with elemental magic, so she uses it to call forth the lightning. She spends her one allowed fate point to boost that to +2 (because elf), then uses the lightning to trigger all the freebies — +2 from the C4, +4 from the metal magic sword lightning rods, and +4 from her determination to win. Even before dice and skill, that’s a devastating +14 to the dragon. It’s just dead. Hurrah! Team effort!



This really is a session I’d have loved to run.

Now, I probably mangled the rules on CoA and invocation somewhere in all that, but the point remains — Advantages are killer! They also can come in a variety of flavours because of fictional focus:

  • The pincushion could have been a direct attack, and probably would have been in most other games, but it doesn’t have to be in Fate.
  • Old advantages can be used to create bigger, more direct-to-the-situation advantages.
  • Not all advantages need to be physical ones. Resolve and focus are legitimate forces in Fate combat.
  • Sometimes one really big hit makes for maximum drama and satisfaction.

Fate really does have a lot of fiddly bits for people like me who were trained on other styles of gaming, but these are the bits I actually miss most now when playing other games. These’re also the bits I’m actively trying to influence my players to pick up on. Hopefully, by dissecting shared media, I can manage that — that’s how I learned aspects, after all, from seeing Sparks Nevada’s aspects laid out. So if you’re like my players (and enjoy Gate), I hope this helped. If you’re like me, maybe dig into something you know your table likes and break it down into a fake actual play to highlight what you’d like to see more from your table. May we both find (dramatic) success!



The War of Ashes slated for Open-License

Last night, I stayed up just long enough to watch the Evil Hat “Fate More” Kickstarter project edge its way past $70,000 in the final two hours, a huge triumph. Mid-way through the campaign, you see, Fred Hicks filled in the voluminous gaps between books with more community-oriented stretch goals, which included what is likely Fate’s greatest strength — open content.

Here is where I became really excited:

Now, I don’t know much about licenses as they apply to system hacks — anything I know is bundled in with the D&D 3rd Edition OGL and the newer Creative Commons — so this graphic delivered two realisations: (1) that the War of Ashes mechanics weren’t open for use or reprinting, and (2) that they could be.

I should rewind a little here and talk briefly about War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus. War of Ashes dwells firmly in the impulse-buy section of my collection, the part I can’t explain. I have no idea why I purchased it — worse! why I pre-purchased it! — but I know precisely why I keep it and continue to re-read it. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous book with light-hearted fun blended in with the serious issues of war, ethnicity, and geopolitics. It is also the latest “core” book for Fate out in publication (as of now), so it benefits from a currently-running hypothesis of mine in which the following is true: Evil Hat gets more canny at explaining how Fate works with every book they put out there. As such, War of Ashes is actually a great place to begin playing Fate too.

This isn’t meant to be taken as a review; I just love this book.

Anyway, so at $70k, the systems inside War of Ashes got put on Evil Hat’s workflow for open-license, which is fantastic news for me and for everybody because that means Weight is most likely chief on that list! Weight is the single most elegant manner for tracking size or scale differences in opposing forces in Fate. Weight gives, well, weight to the idea that it is dangerous to be outnumbered or outclassed. In my own game, which mimics MMORPG genre fiction, I use Weight to reflect the differences between PCs and Boss Monsters and to encourage players to engage in the social aspects of the game by gathering enough friends and allies to negate that Weight advantage. Basically, Weight allows for a mechanical enforcement of party requirements, and it’s an absolutely invaluable tool that I could not imagine the setting or genre without.

And now I don’t have to.

Yes, it’ll take a few months for the open-license to appear, but those are months in which I can get to work writing out the setting I’ve been wanting to share with others. $70k is allowing me to look forward to doing that without sacrificing even the tiniest mote. (I begin earnest planning on Monday.) It’s allowing me to look forward to what other people do with the mechanic — and all the other mechanics unlocked by Fate More — as well. It’s an exciting time, but then again, open-licenses always are in this hobby.

Next time, I’ll talk some about that setting and game I mentioned, as well as my plans for sharing it as a book. Please look forward to it!