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Making our favorite games even better
A game I was working on that won’t be published so I can share it here.
Since the board is finished and we feel it is marketable it will likely be released in 2019.
Standard game: Play one game with Seven Assets a piece.
Handicapped Game: Play one game with the stronger player having fewer Assets.
World War Trilogy: Buy all Assets for all three games before the first game.
Cold War: Play a standard game or a World War Trilogy and after the last game flip a coin and if it comes up heads then a new game is added giving the loser a new chance for final victory.
Start the game with 7 Assets. Each side picks their Assets prior to the first move during the pregame. Assets can be played prior to a player finishing a move by taking their hands off of the piece.
A Patient is the target of an Agent or Asset. An Agent can be any piece that is not the King on the other side that has been recruited or suborned to spy on your side.
The center of the board is known as the DMZ which is where the safe house and honeypot assets can be used. These are the middle four rows.
Use post-it notes or small notecards to write down the type of Asset and details. If using premade cards or a video game than use icons that are in parentheses.
Treasury (coin): Each asset labeled Treasury is one that can be used with another asset card to empower a powerful Asset.
Diplomatic Immunity (Diplomat): Play and discard this Asset and remove an effect caused by an Asset with a duration from one of your pieces.
Safehouse (a safe in the shape of a house): Play this Asset and a Treasury Asset and move a piece into the center of the board. Lay the piece down in the new place and the piece cannot affect or be affected for the next five turns. No other piece can move into that square for the duration.
Shell game (three cups): Swap your king with a predetermined type of piece such as a rook or a pawn that you write down on an asset card. This uses your action for your turn and expends this asset.
Confusion (Dunce cap): Late Game Asset: After turn 40 play this Asset and two Treasury Assets and your Opponent skips a turn if not in check.
Quagmire (quicksand with an arm reaching out): Write down on an asset card a square in the middle rows of the board. Once any piece moves into that square this asset is activated and any piece that later enters that square for the next five turns cannot leave until the asset is expended. Each time a new piece enters the square the duration is reset. Either player can spend a Treasury Asset and extend the duration by another five turns.
Defector in Place (Honeypot): Write down on an asset card a square in the middle rows of the board. Once any enemy piece moves into that square this asset can be activated and the piece can be suborned to your side if you spend treasury assets equal to the piece’s value.
Agent Provocateur (snowflake): Write down a category of piece on an Asset card. Later in the game, an Agent can be activated among the category of the piece and any enemy piece this Agent threatens can after spending a Treasury Asset be frozen in place for the next five turns. This Agent can be used as long as the player has Treasury Assets and the Agent is threatening a piece.
Agent of Influence (smiling politician): Write down a category of piece on an Asset card. Later in the game, an Agent can be activated among the category of the piece and any enemy piece this Agent threatens can after spending a Treasury Asset be forced to move one time within for the next five turns. This Agent can be used as long as the player has Treasury Assets and the Agent is threatening a piece.
Burn Notice (papyrus on fire): This Asset allows you to remove any piece on the board that is or was once yours upon the expenditure of a Treasury Asset.
Triple Agent (Greek drama masks): Allows the Asset to take over temporarily any piece that the enemy has suborned for five turns by expending a Treasury Asset. This can be extended for another five turns with another Treasury Asset spent.
Mole: (Sleeping soldier): Late Game Asset. After the 40th turn you may play this asset and spend a Treasury Asset plus your move this round and force your opponent to choose one of their pawns to be the patient and that piece becomes yours for the rest of the game and is replaced with a pawn of your color.
Siberian Candidate (bottle of vodka): Late Game Asset. After turn 40 this Asset can be played and it prevents your opponent’s king from moving for 5 turns. After those five turns, you can spend a Treasury Asset to extend the duration another five turns.
Coercion (a bear trap): Any piece that is threatened and cannot make a legal move can be suborned and made into a defector. Use this Asset and Treasury Assets equal to the value of the piece. Upon use, Asset is discarded.
Quisling (?): Late Game Asset. After turn 40 you can play this Asset and force your opponent to move their King on their next turn or if the King can’t move then move an adjacent piece to the King. Upon use, this Asset is discarded.
Scenario (strategy map?): Play Asset and discard Asset upon use and your piece returns to its position on the previous turn and make a move as normal from the position it had been the previous round.
Reconnaissance (an eye?): Use this Asset on the first or second move of the game to allow one of your knights to move twice.
Inquisition (Spaniards?) : Play this Asset before the 40th move of the game and all Late Game Assets on both sides are burned and removed from play. This uses your move.
Legend (Spy v Spy?): Late Game Asset. After turn 40 you can play this Asset and one of your pawns pretends to be a pawn of the other player and can’t be taken by an enemy piece for five turns though it is vulnerable to Assets.
I thought I’d share some of the best sources that helped me be a better storyteller since the question has been asked a fair amount of times.
I’ve found that just picking up some good movies, comics, and a novel or two in whatever genre that matches a new game I’m starting as a GM really helps out with the creative process even if the sources are mined just for the “vibe”. As a player learning more about a genre helps with ideas for backstory and your PC’s personality within a society in that genre.
I highly recommend any DM or GM to interact with The Evolution of Trust to get a better idea of how trust works and to look into the Prisoner’s dilemma. Understanding how trust, environment, and choice interact with each other and how certain philosophies or outlooks can flourish in one environment and then fail in another. If you’re world building this is the key that will unlock better games for you.
The strategies that your players will attempt to use are predicated on the environment you create and how you respond to them and their strategies. If all the players are murder hobos then you might think about why the gaming environment is rewarding that tactic and how you might try and build a different tactic with your players. If your players trust you then this is easier to do. Sometimes it is easier to do by changing the game environment completely with a different campaign or game system while making small changes to the current campaign may work better for other troupes or for you.
Mining media for your games is an important skill and can broaden your own imagination. Having a grounding in the genre you’re running really helps to avoid tropes or throw tropes at players in unique ways.
I’m going to list by type of media some of my favorites chosen for how much they helped me tell stories which isn’t necessarily the same as how much I enjoyed the media but usually they are roughly congruent.
Frank Herbert’s Dune books are dense and full of politics and complex ideas and really useful for Amber or Scion as they deal with the “Big” as well as the personal. Frank wrote another series of books that are often forgotten beginning with Destination: Void which is an absolute bonanza of fertile ideas for the cruelly minded GM. I ran a one-shot of Destination: Void in a Mage game with Void Engineers teaming up with Sons of Ether to make a new type of spirit using kidnapped and mindwiped Mages that was wonderful. I used the core idea in a Paranoia game and in a fantasy setting with an AI in a crystal matrix influenced by Janny Wurt’s novels that really was fun.
Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud remains foundational to me on the many possibilities that life and mind may form. The idea that our earthbound sort of life was the unusual one was mind blowing to a 10 year old which with Simak’s City which had life in the atmosphere of Jupiter helped me run some very fun Gurps: Space games. I see the trope of the universe zipping out any mind that groks the universe in this one too. I can’t remember if this novel had the universe get more complicated in response to enlightenment like physicists playing 20 questions in the manner of the participatory universe theory but that is a fun idea you can use in your game. Reality adapts.
Roger Zelazny’s Amber books are fun and witty showing a mastery of knowing when to go into detail and when to gloss over the unimportant. He can cover a hundred duels with inferior opponents with a sentence but wax on for a chapter involving the machinations of maneuvering an enemy to step into a trap. This is hugely important for a nascent storyteller to understand. Far too often I’ve seen GM’s waste a lot of time on combat that doesn’t really matter or move the story or in social situations that the GM would be better served with a casual waving on of time passing.
If running an SF/Fantasy Immortals campaign then Lord of Light is a must read especially if you’re like me and like to inject some down and dirty politics with your wannabe gods. Frost and Fire is probably the best book of short stories I’ve ever read. Donnerjack and Lord Demon were co-written with Jane Lindskold and provide very fertile and easily adapted cosmologies.
I’ve been hugely impressed by Hannu’s Rajiemi’s writing and in particular the first book in his trilogy The Quantum Thief. If you’re looking at a Singularity/Posthuman campaign you’d be hardpressed to find a better resource. Think of it as Neal Stephenson, China Mieville or William Gibson pushed out a few hundred years past cyberpunk.
Some of my first fictional exposures to African myth was Alan Dean Foster’s Carnivores of Light and Darkness, the Al Qadim D&D setting (middle east/northern African), and South of the Sun the Ars Magica Prester John setting.
It is really important to get beyond just European and North American based ideas if you’re going to be good at creating unique worlds for your players. In Psychology class, we’d talk about how weird and atypical Americans are in human history particularly white middle-class American college students who were the most studied people. Sociology and Psychology tend to assume that these test takers are the norm and sometimes find that about a third or more studies can’t be replicated when using a different more varied sample.
Frederik Pohl’s Starburst introduced me to Godel and my friends and I would use the mathematical language to encode short acronyms with each other. 600 equals getting a cab to go somewhere if I remember correctly.
The idea of a bodiless ghost being a soliton wave of energy was another idea introduced to me by this story that I’ve used in my games before I read about St. Jack the Bodiless in Julian May’s books. The core concept of Starburst ties in pretty well with Destination: Void except rather than trying to create artificial intelligence of a higher order to the idea was to put geniuses together away from the stresses of people in a spaceship to mine them for their ideas and creativity while they journeyed.
The tv show Eureka kind of steals this idea by putting the crew of a spaceship into a VR realm in their minds so that the scientists could spend their time inventing without the real world interfering too much.
David Brin’s Earth and Existence are must-reads for near future hard SF adventures. David’s ability to predict future potential realities is a bit eerie. For more space opera campaigns I cannot recommend more his Uplift series in which humanity uplifts dolphins and chimpanzees to sentience before expanding to the stars and discovering a vast intergalactic set of civilizations built on the idea of mature spacefarers uplifting other species to sentience. We are unusual in that we uplifted ourselves and thus the other species call us the “Wolflings.”
Speaking of Wolfing that is the name of a story by Gordon R Dickson that isn’t anything amazing by itself for its writings or even general plot but it has given me a lot of story ideas to use including probably George Lucas. There is a weapon that is basically a lightsaber that you can extend in length which focuses the blade smaller like a cone and that you can retract to almost a small buckler shield. This weapon I’ve used in many of my space campaigns from Amber (Courts of Chaos), Traveller, Mage, and Gurps: Space.
Imagine if you could make a lightsaber that was as thin at the tip as a smallsword but could stretch across a room and burn a small hole through an enemy and then quickly shrink it down to an arming sword shape to dispatch a nearby foe before quickly making a small shield to block a blaster. Now imagine dual wielding and the Tower Fechtbuch or I33 sword buckler combat with weapons and shields that can switch back and forth between swords and shields at will.
The other idea I’ve borrowed from Wolfling, Star Trek, and Larry Niven’s Protector books is of various types of humans being spread across space or in the case of Star Trek seeded. I had a game in which an ancient race had made the earth a garden planet (look up hydrogen wall and Alice) and would periodically sample hominids to use as a base creature for manual skilled labor on a thousand worlds. So, when the PC’s leave earth on the first FTL (see E.E. “Doc” Smith) they end up finding a series of worlds with divergent hominids going back to Homo Erectus to neanderthals who all evolved differently over the past million years as the precursors have disappeared leaving their tools and pets behind.
In a fantasy game, I used this idea as the basis for elves, dwarves, giants, mermaids, and other races as humans who adapted to different environments as they gated from world to world. All dragons were in the beginning brown in that campaign with different dragons evolving on different planets and the big story of that campaign was learning that the brown dragon was from the homeworld of the dragons which had been isolated millennia before during a war with the Titans/Joten and now almost no one knows what brown dragons are. For another take on this check out Titan by John Varley.
Going back to Gordon R. Dickson check out the Childe Cycle particularly Soldier Ask Not and Dorsai! for military games, Young Bleys for understanding a good villain, and Necromancer for time travel.
Julian May’s The Many Colored Land and the rest of the books in the series are great fun books to read while also being fertile ground for storytellers. You have a Celtic-Germanic myth, time travel, psionic powers, sex, hybridization, and in the later series, you have telepathic coercers working for the mob and eventually galactic war between augmented cybernetic superminds and the poor aliens who welcomed us into galactic civilization. It also involves a long thread about redemption with the tale of Abaddon. I don’t want to ruin the series by providing too much more.
Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio series is another world that covers different types of humans and evolution but it is his Songs of Earth and Power which is a true wonder. I read them originally in separate stories but the newer version has them packaged together. Religion, fairies, the Serpent Mage, evolution, magic, reality hacking worlds, and this is YA enough to give to precocious young storytellers and readers. If you’ve played the Strange by Monte Cook Games I wouldn’t be surprised if it was influential in the making of that setting.
C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire series is one of my favorite SF stories as an origin for a fantasy setting with an excellent magic system. If you’re wanting to build an innovative magic system then read Janny Wurts and C.S. Friedman. If you’re wanting to delve into the mind and the alien wrapped in humanity in a hard SF setting then read This Alien Shore.
If you’re writing, designing, or running a game with swords or things that can cut then you would be well served learning about proper edge alignment and cutting techniques from Mike Edelson’s Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application.
Moonheart by Charles de Lint provided a key chunk of my first Mage campaign and his other stories influenced my horror games and some of my lighter campaigns. He opened the way for urban fantasy to become more popular with authors like Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher following later.
Robert A Heinlein’s Lost Legacy among others was very influential in how I have villains and villainous organizations operate in my games particular Mage and the Technocracy. The villain Nehemiah Scudder is another threat worth reading about.
Honorable Mentions include Raymond E Feist’s Midkemia series particularly the character Pug which remains the rare compassionate and caring human wizard who achieves great power but is still a good person without being an avatar or angel et cetera. Pug stands in stark contrast to DragonLance’s Raistlin Majere who was mostly selfish and cruel like an 80’s incel when he arrives into his power.
Another of the rare “human” wizards are Ged from Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the bard Arithon and Jaric Firelord from two of Janny Wurts’s series. Too often you see the powerful lose their compassion in games, movies, and books unless they are somehow “other” such as Superman or Gandalf both of which are aliens in a world of men.
Planetary by Warren Ellis is entertaining with a lot of different settings and shows really how to delay certain reveals to later points in your campaign. Don’t tell your players everything at once. Warren Ellis has a whole suite of great comics from Transmet which is great for a more fun wild story in the far future to Injection which I highly recommend for those trying to inject a “rational” system of magic in the modern day. Global Frequency I just outright stole from for a set of one-shots when I knew that some players were going to be absent. In the comic Trees, aliens come to the earth and don’t recognize us as sentient.
Saga is a must-read for entertainment but for a storyteller, it opens up a setting with a war between magic and science and a multitude of worlds and species. Well fleshed out characters and an overarching story with clearly defined story arcs under the umbrella of the love child between two species at war. Players will probably benefit the most with reading this for a little help getting a good backstory.
Beasts of Burden is a solid series over the decade involving talking dogs and cats. I’ve run a few different games with sentient animals including one inspired by Cliff Simak’s short stories bundled in City.
Hellblazer and John Constantine are pretty hard to beat for a mainstream comic book involving magic in a superhero world (DC). I’ve read at least a few hundred issues.
The Unwritten, Fables, and Ever After are fertile ground with a multitude of worlds with fictional leakage, reality hacking, and many excellent bad guys. Where are fables have become real. There is also a pretty good video game based on it. Not all the offshoots are created equal though.
Harbinger and the rest of the Valiant Universe provide solid stories and characters in a universe that strives to make sense despite being weird and containing wildly different character types. If you’re looking to make a game world with a lot of different play types and power sources then you would be well served to look here. Living alien body armor and African voodoo Loahs in the same world as psychic greek Buddhist monks from the time of Alexander the Great and CEO’s capable of taking over small nations.
Check out Paper Girls for a wild run with some young heroes traversing time and universes. Good for ideas on how to run a campaign with younger PC’s.
For fantasy, it is hard to beat Rat Queens for a good raunchy and wild time in a D&D style setting. There are two different runs with slightly different stories. I particularly like the Lovecraftian plotline and the orc side issue.
For world building, it is hard to beat Monstress. I really want to make a game in this world and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It is still new so not a whole lot has been revealed but if you’re wanting to build a world in a magic setting this is the comic to read.
If you’re going to run a superhuman game in the last century involving war then one of the two Uber series is the comic for you. During World War II the Nazis discover how to create super humans capable of leveling cities and deploy them shortly before the Allies started winning. It is violent, depressing, and gory like war would be with superhumans involved.
The Wicked and the Divine is an easy world for a storyteller to steal a campaign from. It is a normal modern world in which people become gods for two years and then die. I think this would be great for new players because they don’t know what they’re doing and neither do their characters compared to settings that demand the players know a lot to be able to function.
Garth Ennis’s The Boys is the kind of comic to read when you want to overturn everything that is the normal superhero setting. It is NSFW! I heard it is going to be made into a tv show which would be hard to manage.
I was growing the most as a storyteller in the mid to late 90’s so it probably isn’t too big of a surprise that that is the era with the most movies for me to recommend. I will just make a short list as there is Wikipedia, IMDB, and rotten tomatoes to explain them.
Dark City is the movie I recommend most as a source of inspiration for a new GM running a solo adventure. It may also be my favorite movie which is a hard thing to pin down but it is wonderful if you haven’t seen it. Dark City had the unfortunate fate to come out at the same time as the Matrix. In that era, SF movies didn’t have a deep bench of fans that bought movie tickets and everyone was talking about the Matrix. The Thirteenth Floor and Existenz had a similar problem.
Fallen with Denzel Washington is another movie that makes for a great solo campaign as a police detective goes toe to toe with a spirit/angel/demon that can possess what it can touch. Great for ideas on how to build tension and how to reward investigation and problem-solving. Sometimes you can’t swing a sword and win a fight.
Incredibles and its sequel are just great films for running a supers game and for running kid characters with middle-aged parents.
Excalibur was my first big fantasy movie and it still has a magic that is hard to beat. Patrick Stewart in plate armor should be enough of a draw for any of my younger friends but the Merlin in this is my core base when I make a cunning and powerful good magus in my imagination. The Princess Bride I watched a few years later and is also a favorite fantasy epic.
Hard to beat Babylon 5 for SF settings and for being one of the first tv series that had short, medium, long, and series-long story arcs written by JMS and Harlan Ellis mostly it had a lot of famous director’s like Neil Gaiman. As I’ve grown older I’ve rewatched the series a few times and while the first season remains the weakest I no longer see the Shadow War as the best part of the series and lean with the fifth season with Lando as the pinnacle of the show and G’kar as the character who developed the most. Delenn is my favorite woman/alien on TV as a character and is arguably the core of the show.
Rome is a gorgeous show filled with politics and intrigue. Absolutely one of the best shows and highest production values ever made. If you’re going to make or run a political game then you’d be well served by a bit of “Even you Brutus?”
Game of Thrones is probably up there with Lord of the Rings when people think fantasy worlds and both the books and the tv show are well made and entertaining. Read or watch this series to learn how to be ruthless as a GM.
Dark Matter is just “sci-fi” or SF lite but it is a great example of how to throw a bunch of characters into a world they know nothing about and just try and wing surviving it. Fun show to watch while surfing the web on your phone or reading a novel. This is an example of something that isn’t a pinnacle of storytelling still being a totally valid source for ideas.
Microprose’s Darklands taught me how to make campaigns that last centuries. I had a world in which I had three different campaigns and it was only at the end of the third that the players realized that all three campaigns were on the same world separated by time and geography as the heroes of the third campaign get helped before the gates of hell with an artifact that their PC’s in the first campaign had recreated. Two of the PC’s in the first campaign had retired upon having a child so the now elderly child who grew up on a different continent was the protector of the crown that opened up the way to hell and prevented the devils from attacking them.
More modern games like the Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games are a lot of fun to play, inexpensive to play, and some of the mods are very good. Older games like Psychonauts or LA Noire are still worth checking out for puzzle ideas or detective games.
The Dragon Age series is good fantasy fun with a surprisingly deep setting. The first game is more strategic while the second has a stronger focus on the personal and the third shows a more strategic perspective as the leader of a large organization rather than a ragtag band of heroes.
Civilization by Sid Meier is dear to my heart and that is how I learned about world history as a kid. I ran a Palladium Transdimensional RPG with mutant centaur-like Mongols because I played Genghis Khan in the first Civilization game. Learn about other peoples and how tech and society fit together and you’ll make better settings.
Witcher 3 goes far beyond the previous installations and is the best game which I’ve played that you control just one character. Fantastic setting.
Star Control 2 was the inspiration for my first Gurps: Space campaign with some elements of Traveller RPG which taught me hexadecimal and the idea of antigathic medicine as an 8-year old whose second PC ever died during the process of making the character. Looks like they are making a new one which I will have to try out just for nostalgia’s sake. You’re a spaceship on adventure visiting new solar systems in the game and get to upgrade your ship and learn the importance of diplomacy with aliens.
Don’t hesitate to try out other settings or systems for ideas.
I started out with AD&D, Gamma World, and Traveller as a little brat and in middle school moved on to TMNT, Beyond the Supernatural, AD&D 2nd Edition, and Talislanta.
In high school, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, and Amber Diceless ruled the roost and I even in one nearly fatal experiment tried out the World of Synnibar which almost clobbered one of my mates in the head after I tripped and fell forward with the book. That gamebook should be read for how NOT to design a game but it did give me a few ideas despite the system.
As an adult, I ran a very long World of Darkness campaign focused on Mage: The Awakening and continued playing Shadowrun, Amber, and Ars Magica.
Recently, as a father and having moved to a different city I mostly just read rather than run games but with Monte Cook’s “No Thank you, Evil!” that has changed giving me the opportunity to run games for my little boy.
If I was going to run a game today it would be in Bruce Cordell’s The Strange. The Cypher system is remarkably similar to a system and setting that I was working on for years but much more polished and easier to run. The Strange is closely aligned with my old Amber/Ember and Mage games and is a great setting with lots of possibilities and the same is true of the Numenara setting.
Shadowrun is a wonderful setting and I’ve loved running and playing the pen and paper games and the old and new video games in that setting but the mechanics are just not conducive to my style anymore. I’d recommend reading material for running games in any setting.
Gurps has made well researched and put together gaming books for years and if you are running a game it doesn’t hurt to pick up one of their sourcebooks that might tie-in to the genre or setting your running your game in.
Ars Magica is the setting to check out if you’re wanting to run a fantasy or grounded medieval game. When Wizards of the Coast owned D&D and Ars Magica at the same time they put out joint products and I would recommend getting Ars Magica books if you’re running a D&D or Pathfinder game. The lead designer for 3e was the lead designer of Ars Magica so a lot of ideas have already cross-pollinated.
Magic: The Gathering and On the Edge were great one-on-one games and Jyhad: The Eternal Struggle and Illuminati by Steve Jackson Games were a blast if you could get a few people together that were devious and had the natures of sneaky cunning weasels…so most gamers!
I was dead tired once running a fantasy Gurps game and just used some mana to decide on a terrain type that the PC’s were traveling on and then modded some creatures of that type to the game and made it through the game with no prep at all just winging it with some magic cards I visited while taking bathroom breaks so no one had a clue. Just have fun and use what you can. The players loved all the combat since I normally ran more intrigue and social games so they thought I was inspired instead of exhausted.
If you’re a new storyteller I hope I’ve given you some ideas for media to watch to help expand your repertoire and if you’re an older storyteller or player I hope this was an enjoyable walk through memory lane. Feel free to comment and leave your favorite media below.
I hope this blog post gives you a good idea or encourages you to try out some new media for gaming ideas. Thanks for reading.
The assembled men and women nodded or grunted at the lady speaking. Her tusks gleam as she walks around the bonfire which illuminates her brightly colored garb and the terrifying mask attached to her belt like a buckler or dagger.
“This is going to be tough. Less than one in ten of you made it through Horizon boot camp so you probably think you’re tough because you were the biggest baddest mooks on your homeworlds.”
“The kukeri training is intense and we stand to ensure trade is the only thing that happens here and no denizen of the Abyss decides to go on a vacation to this miserably cold and barren world. We must prevent any souls from being harvested without proper compensation or trade will break down and then invasion is inevitable as they will see us as too weak to be useful other than to be incorporated into being a part of a layer of the Abyss. And Gruumsh forbids any Tanurukk to get loose again.”
“This very Minkowski Tower we stand outside of is a Hellmouth linked to a trade fortress we have established at an unaffiliated crossroads in-between several Abyssal layers on the river Styx. From the “many-folded lands” point of view, we are now standing in the Abyss albeit a part of the thin lands. The portal underneath the Tower allows direct and easy travel from this world to Fort Zant and its bazaar.”
“I suppose most of you don’t even know the slightest thing about the Abyss other than the tales a shaman or skald tells to scare children around a campfire at night.”
“I don’t know the absolute truth of it but here is the legend I heard from Colonel Ilneval’s valourous skald when I last visited Fort Zant.”
“During the First Age but after the prime dreamed this eggs of the first worlds it began walking the dreamtree out of wanderlust and seeking novelty. Finally, it found the font or pool at the heart or base of the tree that fed the tree and all within it. Looking down at the well the prime saw nothing but itself. For an eternity it stared hoping for a response but nothing was revealed.”
“Then prime delved deep into the heart and the ocean became the same in all directions with no clues about up or down or left or right. For the first time, the prime felt panic and then terror. At last, it screamed.”
“Never before had the prime dreamer felt pain or doubt. This suffering gave birth to the first of the logos attuned to the emotions and experiences it felt while all alone in the crushing deep. Loneliness, loss of hope, and pain became real in the dreamsea. The first children fought each other and their blood and desires disturbed the purity of the deep and mixed with the prime’s tears. In the patterns etched by all of their experiences, the dreamer dreamed the first runes revealed like blood twisting and twirling slowly in a bath.”
“The prime screamed into the deep and in the echoes, the logos discovered the prime and language was born from that meeting. Joy now gave birth to new logos as did love and anger. A great host of logos and ideas were born and more and more began wandering and exploring the nascent Abyss.
“In time the greatest of the logos began shaping their environment with these primal tongues and runes. In wonder, the prime began writing the story of how to be a maker and with this toolset, the prime and the logos sang the first planes into existence with the prime guiding any of the logos who sought to create a home of their own. From that moment the logos would seek to create or if they could create they would seize a planar home for their own as the pinnacle of achievement laid down by the prime dreamer.”
“In the Prime Era, the Abyss had no layers around it as this was before the world eggs hatched our mortal kind and our worlds and much before the dread invasion.”
“I will skip the rest but a key concept is to understand that the Abyss is the most important thing in the cosmos. It is what the aberrations want to enter more than anything else. This is why the celestials haven’t marched in and destroyed every fiend and demon prince they could find for it is the fiends who protect the cosmos from the aboleths, beholders, and illithid aberrations.
“The layers of the Abyss shroud the heart of reality like those little Matryoshka dolls at the Bazaar with dolls within dolls within dolls. They are powered by the Abyss with each layer as you go deeper each ruled by a stronger and mighter lord or lady or cabal as if the Abyss is a sun and the many layers are empowered by the radiance. The masters of the Abyss include every major power from an alliance of mostly Githborn Grey Captains raiding the Astral and Abyssal Seas to a former Feywild Druid Circle and a Dragon-King of Athas. As time goes on the layers morph and eat other layers or unaligned planes as their masters grow stronger or shed regions as they grow weaker.”
“The nine deepest layers of the Abyss are commonly known as the Nine Hells with Nessus nestled next to the heart of the cosmic tree. It is Asmodeus who guards us all against the fickle treacheries of demons and the fearsome nature of the aberrations. Access to the heart is necessary for the birth of truly new and unique planar domains rather than just extensions or enhancements to existing planes or demiplanes.”
“Colonel Ilnevel hasn’t yet learned how to master an Abyssal layer so at the moment the plane is slowly shrinking and ceding territory to nearby rivals but Horizon and Sigil scholars are hopeful that we can decrypt more of the Primal runes or trade for knowledge so we can better defend the Abyss from aberrations and defend ourselves from overzealous fiends who consider it their duty to conquer the weak. Remember though that while at the Hellmouth this is considered the Abyss and the Fiends will face final death should they die here so any that manage to do so the intelligent will often be quite cautious for fiends.”
“That is enough legends for today. Get some rest for tomorrow we will go over combat strategies against Fiends and the types of Fiends you will likely face on the field.”
I hope you enjoyed my little story. Wanted to get it out before Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes came out and before what I read there would color my story.
The Kukeri Tradition is pretty neat and just begging for adoption in a game involving demons.
The many folded (manifold) lands is a cosmos I created after a war between the logos or gods/demons with the mortal worlds against the aberrations in which abominations like aboleths or illithids conquered entire swathes of the prime material plane and sought to gain access to the Abyss so they could create their own planes in their own images and displace the vast dreaming completely. The Horizon guild operates Towers as bases and portals throughout the material planes and the planes of the dreaming tree. The Horizon walkers are the most well known of the guild and will often travel alone to worlds unaware of the greater comings and goings of the cosmos and join groups of adventurers or nudge groups of successful adventurers to places and situations they can be useful to the Guild and even eventually join.
A key idea is that while the blood war is happening it is pursued for the power to fight the aberrations as each side thinks of the other as weak and that they should die so that their resources could be used by better more competent and powerful beings. It also shows why “good” gods and celestials don’t just slaughter all the distracted “bad guys.” The fiends serve a purpose and a big part of their power comes from the abyss or from the souls or lifeforce of mortals. The infernals tend to see mortals as mostly useless and good only for fuel or food. Powerful fiends like to forge fallen souls into magic items and then trade those items to useful semi-competent mortals who happen to be their descendants.
Devils don’t trust demons and rumors of demons being suborned or dominated by aberrations are spread by agents of the Lords of the Nine as part of their propaganda. They may be right. A demonic aberration would be a fearsome thing to face.
Since the river Styx flows through all the layers of the Abyss it is the key point of travel, war, and trade. It is not uncommon for the river to have tributaries pass through it at hellmouths in the material and elemental planes. There are rumors of powerful fae and celestials having their own hellmouths feeding into the Styx and supporting abyssal vassals.
If the devils could stop the flow of the river Styx they would do so and starve the other layers but demon hordes invade and prevent any serious attempt done so far by Asmodeus or other Lord.
(A Technique or “Half-Feat” that can be combined with another Technique or with an Ability increase). Gain Natural Explorer (Abyssal Lands) and Favored Enemy: Fiends from the Ranger list when in the Abyss or a “thin-lands” adjacent to a Portal called Hellmouths as the Abyss will flow into the region around an open Portal and these thin-lands operate much like the Feywild or Shadowfell do. The character gains the Abyssal language from the Favored Enemy ability.
This mask makes Abyssal creatures uncomfortable granting them Disadvantage on social skill checks when the mask is worn by an attuned user and allows the user to see the abyssal connections and traces like truesight pertaining to Abyssal Fiends and their magic. This makes it immediately obvious to any Kukeri trained individual anyone who is in servitude to a Fiend of the Abyss via an infernal brand or mark but wouldn’t reveal a mercenary who was doing paid labor for a Fiend.
D&D House Rules:
<Edit> I just found a really unique to me house rule called Variant Shared Turn Combat on Reddit on the Unearthed Arcana subreddit and I’m amazed at the production value and quality ideas.</Edit>
The above diagram is a depiction of the OODA Loop which is a tool for understanding how people make decisions. Many of the ideas I will be presenting use this framework and come from my homebrew game I’ve been designing and redesigning for years that works very well when transferred to D&D 5e.
With the OODA Loop you have four steps: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.
The general structure of combat in the PHB 5e on page 189 is as follows:
There are many ways the DM can handle showing combat whether with miniatures, physical or virtual maps or overlays, or purely via imagination and description.
I prefer if possible to use the fog of war during the initial setup and not let players know things they can’t perceive if possible. Having a second map or description available just to the DM can make it easier to show the movement of NPC’s in the fog of war for the DM that the PC’s do not know about. It can be fun to flank the PC’s and get the PC’s to think about flanking especially with mounts or vehicles in play.
I also would like to say that D&D is not supposed to be simulationist and works just fine as is. I offer my system to people who like a little more complexity and options in their battles and to add a bit of tactical confusion and surprise. There are some changes that can make things very different in your game as it shifts priority away from Dexterity towards Wisdom but I think that is actually more balanced.
I have not playtested this at all with D&D so if you’re interested in trying it out and letting me know what you think that would be awesome. Please just leave a comment about your experience. If I forgot something obvious please let me know as well. It is easy to make mistakes on this kind of thing.
1. Determine Surprise:
Nothing changed in this step.
It is important at this point to go over what each PC perceives prior to Initiative so that they can form an idea of what is going on based on their personal perspective not that of a Player who can see much more. So, if an ooze is slinking behind the wizard and the wizard doesn’t know they obviously won’t be casting a spell at it. This encourages a bit of roleplaying so the very perceptive Rogue who sees the ooze approaching his ally can take a free action to yell “Behind you Mage!” after stabbing the Orc in front of her which might confuse the Orc while alerting the wizard so they may change their mind and cast burning hands in front of them rather in front.
The DM also needs to keep in mind what the NPC’s perceive and how they react. Experienced soldiers used to working in tandem with each other are going to be much more difficult to deal with than expert duelists used to working one on one or a mob of amateurs.
Here things start to depart from the PHB 5e rules.
A big change here is that in my system Initiative is how well you observe your environment and process information rather than in the PHB which focuses on how fast you can move your body. After all, why would Dexterity have anything to do with how fast and well you can observe a combat, make a decision, and say “Shazaam!”? It makes a lot more sense to use Wisdom here to represent a combination of perception, common sense decision making, intuition, and actions and reactions especially those actions that don’t have any real physical component.
D20 + (Wisdom Modifier) + Proficiency Modifier/Die
For diceless Initiative just use the PC/NPC’s Proficiency Modifier and have an automatic 20 for the roll. For more variable Initiative use the optional rule for Proficiency Dice in the DMG on Page 263 which replaces, for example, the +2 Proficiency Modifier with a +1D4.
One could even use both in a game depending on the situation. Use the variable Initiative when surprise, “boss” battles, or unusual combat is happening and for the more normal lineup of good guys here and bad guys here just use the diceless version instead.
The reasoning behind using Wisdom here instead of Dexterity I provided above and my reasoning for using the proficiency bonus is that handling and reacting to combat is a matter of experience.
For example, take a reasonably healthy and elderly Special Forces combat veteran and mentally they will be able to process a combat situation faster and in a more capable fashion than a novice character with world-class Dexterity. Leveraging that experience to process the OODA Loop is a big part of improving decision making and thus performance in combat be it social, mental, or physical and you can substitute talent only so far when competing against old age and treachery.
Once you have everyone’s Initiative totals you can either post them for all to see or you can keep them to yourself.
The highest Initiative total provides the number of Combat Phases in this Combat Turn.
Rogue: 30, Ooze: 23, Wizard 22, Orc 22.
Thus, there are 30 Phases in this turn.
If two characters are acting the turn or movement during the same phase both actions take place at the same time. Thus, you can have both characters stab each other in the heart and this happened quite commonly in history or characters charging each other would meet at some point in between the two warriors rather than one warrior charging across the battlefield while the other sits there.
Any action that would take place at 0 Phase or when the combat phase is in the negatives all happen at the same time. Thus, a character who used their entire move before swinging a sword would have their action take place on the 0 phase along with any other characters.
At this point starting with this highest phase the DM has the characters decide what they are going to do in a descending fashion phase by phase allowing the characters to have started their round and have their action/s take place during or after their phase depending on the type of action.
Each action, maneuver, spell, or movement takes place during or after the round/phase the character scored in the Orient step of Combat.
Remember you still have only the actions you can do just like in the PHB even if you still have leftover Initiative after you attack or cast a spell. If you don’t use it up with actions or movement you lose it. So, if you attack during phase 15 and don’t want to move you don’t get more attacks to do later unless you have the extra attacks feature.
I am going to introduce a term called tempo which has various definitions depending on the martial tradition or master but in this case, tempo means how long it takes to complete an action. Each action has a tempo cost which tells you how much later the action actually takes place in since your Initiative score is simply how fast you were able to process the combat situation not the time it takes to perform an action.
Some martial masters have used the idea of hand, body, foot, and feet to describe combat, reaction, and initiative. This means that the tempo of moving your hand is fast, moving your body is a bit slower, moving one foot is slower than that, and moving both feet is the slowest. In other words, swinging a sword at an opponent in measure is faster than moving your torso/body back to dodge or forward on an attack. Moving a foot forward or back takes even longer and moving both feet is the slowest. In other words, it is faster to thrust a blade with just an arm movement vs an arm movement plus moving the body forward with the arm vs the arm, the body, and a foot forward such as when lunging vs the arm, body, and both feet in a shuffling strike.
To put this in perspective it takes longer for a warrior to walk 30 feet and swing a two-handed warsword than it does for the rogue to move 5 feet and backstab with a sgian dubh knife even if the warrior rolled a higher Initiative score which is how things stand now.
A character can under this system postpone their action or be indecisive. For example, a pikeman could see cavaliers and their horses charging towards him and plant her pike and ready themselves for the charge postponing their attack until the cavalier comes in range. Should the cavalier stop rather than coming into range the pikeman could charge forward instead or drop the pike and draw the loaded crossbow at their side and fire thus allowing more flexibility than the current system at the cost of more complexity for the DM and players to handle.
Actions and their Tempo:
For a second attack, the action takes place after the first one and any movement has subtracted from the initial Initiative. Starting Initiative of 10 and a heavy strike for on phase 7 and a second heavy strike for -3 for an attack on phase 4.
If the character is not Familiar, Proficient, or Expert with the weapon then add +2 to the Initiative Cost.
Heavy and Light Weapons have that trait listed with all others without that trait being regarded as Medium below.
Heavy Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged): 3 Initiative Cost.
Medium Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged): 2 Initiative Cost.
Light Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged: 1 Initiative Cost. (Most Unarmed Strikes)
Loading a Weapon: 5 Initiative Cost.
Cantrip: 1 Initiative Cost.
Spells: (1 + Spell level) Initiative Cost.
Innate Spellcasting, Legendary Actions, and Special Abilities: 1 to 5. (DM should quickly decide based on the complexity and potency of the ability or power or the complexity of the situation.)
While the spellcaster is making magic they are vulnerable just as if they are Concentrating on a spell…because they are concentrating on the spell they are casting. This means not only does it take awhile to drop a major spell and thus adds difficulty to the tactical landscape it also means it is even more important to protect the big guns because if they take damage and lose concentration it can be the difference between an easy encounter and a deadly one.
For example, the Cleric has an Initiative of 15 and is casting a 6th level spell so their spell begins on Phase 15 and ends on Phase 8. If they get hit with a barrage of arrows and Magic Missiles they could lose Concentration and have their spell fizzle out. The spellcaster doesn’t lose the spell slot if they lose Concentration because they weren’t able to marshall the magic before getting distracted.
This can give a quick character a chance to use Arcana to recognize the spell the big baddie is casting and yell for the Archer to shoot the Wizard before they drop a Meteor Swarm on them. It also makes Counterspelling a bit more fun which counts as a Reaction below so it only has a 0 IC.
Skills, grappling, and non-combat actions like help, search, ): DM may add or subtract depending on the complexity of the skill use. This represents the simple automatic speed that develops from increased competency at a task. Picking a lock when you’re an expert and under pressure in combat is much faster than if you’re not an expert.
Unfamiliar: 4 Initiative Cost
Familiar: 3 Initiative Cost. (Jack of All Trades, Remarkable Athlete, or my house rule linked above.)
Proficient: 2 Initiative Cost.
Expert: 1 Initiative Cost.
Walking (base movement): 3 Initiative Cost per 5 feet
Dash: 2 Initiative Cost per 5 feet.
Sprint: 1 Initiative Cost per 5 feet. (Dash without gear, weapons, or any substantial encumbrance such as dropping everything and running for your life from the greek fire armory that a mage dropped a delayed blast fireball inside.)
Breaking up your move:
Walk 15 feet for a 15 Initiative Cost then cast a spell and use the remaining X (15) feet to get back undercover on the 0 Phase.
Use Object: 1 to 5 Initiative Cost based on the complexity of the object. Opening a stuck door may take longer than pressing a button.
Mounting: 10 – Dexterity Modifier
Dropping Prone: 1 Initiative Cost.
Standing up from “Prone”: 10 – Dexterity Modifier
Disengage: 1 Initiative Cost.
Dodge: 0 Initiative Cost.
Free actions: 1 Initiative Cost.
Quick Look Around: 1 Initiative Cost. Let’s the character get a quick scan of the environment for obvious things that don’t require a roll. Since things change dynamically during the round this can be important.
Reactions like Opportunity Attacks: Usually have a 0 Initiative Cost and take place at effectively the same time as the action that caused the reaction such as a Shield spell blocking an arrow.
Bonus Actions: Can take place before, after, or at the same time. For example, a Shield Master could do a shove before they do their attack or after. A Two-Weapon fighter could thrust forward with both daggers in simultaneously on the same phase or one after the other.
Using the earlier example: Rogue: 30, Ooze: 23, Wizard 22, Orc 22. Thus, there are 30 Combat Phases.
Starting with the highest Initiative Score have the highest scorer decide what they want to do. So, the Rogue at Phase 30 would say I am probably moving 5 feet forward to stab the Orc after a quick look around. On Phase 29 the DM would tell the Rogue that an Ooze is slouching towards the Wizard but about 30 feet away. The Rogue has to decide whether to tell the Wizard and alert the orc or move forward and backstab the orc. She decides he should be fine and walks toward the orc and sneak attacks. So, the DM would go through Phase 28, 27, 26 (sneak attack with sgian dubh a light weapon -1 IC) and on Phase 25 rolls for damage and kills the orc. Now on phase 24, she yells at the wizard “Behind you!”.
On phase 23 the Ooze starts sliming up to the Wizard but is 30 feet away. It will have closed five feet by phase 20. The Wizard on phase 22 panics and flings a firebolt cantrip at the Ooze without thinking and hits without killing the ooze. The cantrip had a cost of 1 IC so on phase 21 the Wizard turns and walks toward the Rogue keeping an eye on the ooze. Both the Wizard and Rogue move back to keep their distance from the creepy looking Ooze which decides to Dash on its remaining move to close the distance.
The DM would map out the movement as the phases would drop one by one. Any remaining movement would be used during Phase 0 for all three creatures.
The next round would start with either a new roll if the DM thinks the situation is very different like new creatures enter the combat arena or dynamically in a different “scene” or if the situation is relatively static just reuse the same totals from the previous rounds.
Hope this gives you some ideas on how to spice up your combat! Keep in mind that this system does penalize movement and powerful spellcasting the most. It does encourage more active protection of your spellcasters when they are casting spells and makes it a bit harder to unleash the big guns when not protected by the tanks/front line.
D&D House Rules: