Saturday, September 19, 2020

That Time I Nearly Will Write a Solo Zine

Yes, that title is messed up on purpose. I still want to do a solo zine that is easy/cheap to mail in physical form. But for now it's on hold awaiting inspiration. In the meantime, I once did a survey in which I asked people what they wanted in a solo adventure zine. Let's see the stats first and then I have more to say.

Survey Says

  • Sample size around 75.
  • Only 17.5% want it tied to a system. 45% prefer it to loosely refer to a system.
  • 55% want a unique and flavorful setting, 20% want a D&D style setting, 25% want something else (rotating, SF, etc.)
  • 52.5% want 1-2 hours of playtime material, 42.5% want 3-5.
  • 60% prefer self contained adventures, 15% want continuity, 25% don’t care.
  • PDF is preferred, about 17.5% want to be sent paper. Many asked for phone/tablet/Kindle friendly.
  • 25% want graphic content, 22.5% want it kid friendly, everyone else is in-between.


  • "Include mysteries and puzzles"
  • "Build a setting over time"
  • "Endings are cool, and rarely carried off well” 
  • And while they wasn't anything particularly quotable on this front, about 10% of the responders expressed a desire for hard or semi-hard science fiction. I feel like there is a real (and probably loyal) audience there waiting on someone.

The Great Black Bell is Back

It was all I could do not to tack a "Baby!" on the back end of that heading for the alliterative factor. Christian Walker is back with his very cool little by-mail solo adventure zine. He can explain it better than I in this short video.

Themes and Formats

I really think I'm waiting on something to grab me, theme-wise. My original thoughts were a) a magical realism story involving a homeless guy who, due to mental illness (or superpower, take your pick) can see into other realities. And b) a weirdo sf-fantasy setting inspired by Zothique, Barsoom, Dune, etc. I'm not sure if I have the chops to carry off either! 

Some other things to think about in my laundry list of musings:
  • Paper map and stand-up minis or counters similar to what Walker is doing? Or more choose your own adventure style text-based with illos?
  • Stand-alone scenarios loosely tied together in the same world or a true ongoing adventure? If the latter, "seasons" of 12 issues or just commit and keep going?
  • Envelope size? I want to use a standard stamp. But I could probably do it with either business envelopes (2-4 tri-folded full-size pages) or with a birthday or thank you card sized envelope and a small stapled (or not) booklet. A thank you card envelope might even work with a folded one-page zine like the Pocket-Mod format.
So you can see why I this project is still on the back burner for me. I got a little overwhelmed with choices. I need one thing to "lock in" to move forward: format or theme. 

I hope some of this has proved useful to you in some form. If you are a creator thinking of making a zine, have you thought about a solo adventure zine? Seems like a good time for one! If you are a fan of solo play do you know about the Great Black Bell? Now you do. Do you want to see me make a solo zine? Give me some inspiration or a good nudge! 

Minizines... ArE sO CoOl

Thursday, September 10, 2020


I am shrinking. Intentionally. I have fled most of the social media groups to which I once belonged. So, to cut to the chase, does anyone care about this blog? It's okay if you don't. Because that will be one less thing for me to manage. But if you follow my vain and extemporaneous writings here (and enjoy doing so), let me know.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Yet Another D&D Stat Generation Thing

 TLDR: what it says on the tin. But this time it's a kind of fun sub-game around rolling 'down the line' (stats in order).

The following is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness mode and comes straight from my Evernote notepad. The page it's on is called A Boulder and Two Blocks; it's about different ways to generate numbers with only 1d20 and 2d6. 

Roll 2d6, stats in order. The “third die” has fixed outcomes of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. You can use each number only once and can add only one number to each roll. E.g. you roll a stat, sum the 2d6 and then add one of the fixed outcomes (removing it from the list of options for the future). No retracing your steps!

I used this order because I couldn't think of the "right" order off the top of my head.

STR: 5+4=9, +3 = 12
DEX: 5+5=10, +1 = 11
INT: 4+3=7, +2 = 9 (here is where things turn, I was hoping for a wizard but using a 6 only would get me to 13, so I punted)
WIS: 5+3=8, +6 = 14 (going for the cleric)
CON: 5+1=6, +5 = 11
CHA: 6+3=9, +4 = 13

Tweak? Player chooses the order of the stats before rolling. That would allow them to prioritize certain prerequisites and if they don’t pan out they could switch plans earlier. Let’s try it again but go for a Thief. Back up plan is a Dwarf or Magic User. Order is DEX, CON, INT, STR, CHA, WIS.

DEX: 3+1=4 (shit!), +4 = 8 (punt)
CON: 4+2=6 (groan), +2 = 8 (punt, come on intelligence!)
INT: 6+5=11 (bingo), +6 = 17 (wizaaaaard)
STR: 3+3=6, +3 = 9
CHA: 4+3=7, +5 = 12
WIS: 5+4=9, +1 = 10 (whew, saving that 1 for last could have turned out badly)

One more tweak. Decide on next stat to roll as you go? More fluid and less analysis paralysis up front. So sequence is declare stat, roll dice, add fixed value, repeat.

It’s fun. Like a mini game. It gives the player some control, perhaps increases chances of an 18, but also makes two or more 18s impossible. In fact, if you rolled boxcars six times your stats would be 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13. Snake eyes characters would be 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. Ugh. So there’s still a chance a GM would allow a re-roll. Let’s say if your stats total 55 or less you die during character generation (Traveller style). We’ll call it the “I can’t drive 55” rule (this one’s for you, Sammy). Odds are 90% for a player to roll a total of 56 or better based on 12d6+6+5+4+3+2+1, so you are ditching the bottom 10% of characters. Worst stats then might look like 10, 9, 9, 9, 9, 9. But they would tend to vary more than that unless the player was shooting for the middle with their choices.

[ONE MORE TWEAK. The ≤55 character, instead of dying, becomes the first retainer of your new character. Give the character a basic load out, a dumb name like Toad or Donk, a red tunic and a death wish. See how great you can make their death in game!]

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Capsule Review: Free Traders

Free Traders by Lari Assmuth is an outstanding (free) little rpg that fits on two sides of a business card.

Influences named are Wing Commander: Privateer, WEG Star Wars d6, Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy, Nathan Treme's Wander, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, and Lasers & Feelings.

Your character has three stats with scores of 3, 2, and 1. You roll d6's by applicable trait when things get hard and read the highest die. The results are trinary as in most ApocWorld games: it's bad, you do it with a complication, and success! Each "job" you complete gives you one "payoff" which you can use to upgrade your ship or pay down a debt (not blood likely).

Obviously it's hard to put a complete system on a business card (w/art!). I think the two biggest things the designer leaves up to the gamer are a) how to work stress/damage to a character and b) what to do with ships and their tags. 

I would handle the former fictionally, and perhaps by taking away a die or two from rolls for major stress until it is healed/relieved. At -3 dice I would consider the character incapacitate/out-of-action in some way. 

Ships I guess I would just treat like characters and consequences are relative. (Same is true for dealing with alien monsters.) All rolls are player-facing. So if you (or your ship) is being chased by a giant alien (dreadnaught) you roll as normal (no dice penalties for being outclassed). Since you are being chased and (let's assume) your goal is to get away, a character would roll her Maneuver stat dice. (A ship would roll dice for tags like "sleek" and "nimble" and "fast.") On a loss the consequences would be worse because it's a large alien (dreadnaught) rather than a voracious squirrel (alien scout boat).

But of course one of the beauties of these microgames is that they are a starting point and each game could be tailored by/to the players.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Controversial Opinion: Make Your Virtual Games Less Virtual

TLDR: If you want your virtual game to feel more real, consider using your VTT to emulate your tabletop games rather than using it for things that only VTTs can do.

Like many of you, my local gaming group has been forced to game virtually for some weeks.

I recently started my turn as GM, and am running an innovative (but flawed) game from 1998, the Marvel Super Hero Adventure Game using the Saga system. The game uses a fixed deck of 96 action cards featuring five suits (Strength, Willpower, Intelligence, Agility, and Doom!) with values from 1-10 arranged in a bell curve; there are way more 5s in the deck than there are 1s or 10s.

Anyway, since a big part of play is the manipulation of cards, I've used to emulate a real table top, not some cut-rate video game. That means I made the deck of cards, created play mats with table space for each player, allowed everyone to manipulate cards, have used photos and hand-drawn maps as handouts, etc.

Surprisingly, I have found the experience almost more immersive and fun than games that use all the Roll20 bells and whistles. Here are my take-aways, aimed at people who want their online games to feel more like their in-person games:

If you are one of those GMs that doesn't let players touch anything -- e.g. control their own tokens -- cut it out! How much fun would you buy if you went to play a board game with your nephew and you didn't let him touch the pieces? If you want players to engage with the game, stop putting up walls between them and the game's components.

Top-down full-color maps and tokens aren't any more immersive than theater of the mind. They ARE more inherently visual, but they subvert player attempts to imagine the environment and retard the use of other sensory data. GMs often use the maps as a crutch and fail to describe the environment in detail. (Since there's no reason to tell you that there is a narrow alley to your left, perhaps they forget to tell you that it smells strongly of urine and rotting flesh.) The more basic the map, the more players will have to imagine -- and that's a good thing. Try hand-drawing your maps and then taking a photo or scanning them in. Just like you would at the table. Or use a pen tool to create quick, sketched-out diagrams. Another cool thing I would like to try is actually setting up some terrain (e.g. home-made styrofoam hills or Dwarven Forge stuff) then taking pics of it and throwing those onto Roll20. I've seen Matt Finch actually move miniatures around terrain on-camera for his players, which ignores the suggestion above but is super cool none-the-less.

Nobody in real life plays with cardboard tokens with PC faces on them, do they? What about tokens that look like miniatures you might use on the table top? Can you imagine putting these tokens on Roll20? You'd put them on your table, wouldn't you?

Let players roll real dice. In fact, maybe force them to roll real dice instead of clicking things on a virtual character sheet or writing cool macros or ham-handedly typing in the formulae. If you can't trust them to roll fairly/report their dice accurately that's a whole other problem. While your at it, why not use an honest-to-goodness piece of paper character sheet instead of a digital one?

If your VTT has something you wouldn't have at your real table, don't use it. What? Why wouldn't you take advantage of all the cool stuff the platform has to offer? Because it changes the experience and it can even be a distraction or counterproductive to the nature of a role-playing game. I like dynamic lighting as much as the next gamer -- except when it doesn't work, or the GM doesn't know how to work it and fiddles with it endlessly, or it doesn't let me see as far as I really wood. Hell, it's not even like real light; you can see 30' out and then instead of tapering off there's a magic wall of inky blackness. How "realistic" is that? 

Turn on your webcams. For one thing this makes players focus instead of walking around or messing on their phones or whatever. You can see what they are doing. Just like in real life! It also allows you to utilize body language, which can be REALLY important for GMs who like to make NPCs with quirks like constantly licking their lips. Video helps the GM read the group's reactions or level of boredom. It helps people who are having trouble hearing since they can see lips moving and get tone-cues from your face. But most importantly it just reminds you there is a human being at the other end of all those wires.

Of course all of this presumes you WANT your games to feel more like role-playing games played at a real, physical table with living, breathing human beings. If you like engaging in all the cool fiddly bits of Roll20, more power to you! I get it. It can be fun as hell. However, enforcing these simple measures of reality, especially during this time when we are steeped in virtual things, can be really cool and exciting!

Friday, May 1, 2020

Capsule Review: Dungeon Gits

Dungeon Gits by Scott Malthouse is a great minimalistic take on fantasy adventure games.

  • Mechanic is your basic 2d6 + attribute + relevant knack ≥ 10 = success. 
  • All rolls are player-facing. 
  • Bonuses take the form of "hero dice." 
  • Binary character attributes are "Bashing" and "Not-Bashing." 
  • Simple Not-Bashing based initiative. 
  • Copper based money system. Small equipment list and magic item list.
  • Even smaller (but adequate for showing the pattern of building your own) bestiary. 
  • Form: $2, 10 pages, B&W interior, public domain art, 2 column layout, few if any typos are grammatical errors.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week 4

TLDR: town building was/is kinda tedious. Does it have to be?

I finished my Gygax 75 Challenge months ago now and I've released the workbook with examples in it. You can find it, and my other games, at

That being said, I could probably go a little deeper into where my head was at when I actually built the town of...

Exciting huh. Well I mostly just generated a town using this, Watabu's Medieval Fantasy City Generator, and colored/numbered it up. Of course then I had to describe places where all the numbers were, build NPCs, seed some rumors, generate a few hirelings, etc.

In the original version of the workbook I took a more workmanlike approach that was tedious to implement. Even though it doesn't take much mental effort to name a store where adventurers can buy sacks, backpacks, shovels, and lamps, the result is about as exciting as the process was. In other words, boring processes produce boring results, at least in this case.

So in the rewrite, I turned the process into creative prompts, asking players to write a short sentence on things like:
  • The place where the characters could lose all their money
  • A secretive guild hall and its reputation
  • A feature unique to this town (view of a natural wonder, a strange clock, a healing spring, etc.)

I also suggested a very quick method for NPC building. The DNA method. D is for a Distinguishing trait of feature. N is for what they Need most. A is their Agenda, secret or otherwise; what do they hope to do in the following days, weeks, months, or even years? (Alternately, A could stand for an Asset they have that the players need.)

I don't know if this is the strongest section of the book now, but it's way better than the version I personally experienced while building out Uzrak. Imagine that, playtesting makes a thing better!