Prediction Time: What to do with Draconians in 5E?

Once again Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is teasing the return of two older campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). This came from WotC releasing some infographics on upcoming projects in 2022 (https://screenrant.com/dungeons-dragons-setting-classic-ravenloft-wizards-coast/). It was “confirmed” by certain WotC/D&D leads over on Twitter, with the little addendum that the products in development are just in development, and not all projects in development make it to release. So, WotC/D&D is working on two settings that have not received support in the current edition (5E), but there’s no guarantee they will see the light of day, and WotC is being tight-lipped on what those two settings are. Which leads to a lot of speculation. The prime candidates based on social media response have been: Dragonlance (DL); Spelljammer (SJ); Planescape (PS); and Dark Sun (DS). Ravenloft (RL) and Forgotten Realms (FR) received 5E support almost immediately out the gate with 5E, with both of those settings continuing to get additional updates and sourcebooks. Eberron (EB) finally got a bit of coverage, but support has been left up to one of that setting’s creators, Keith Baker, to release additional products through the DM’s Guild (basically, Baker is developing additional products on his own, although WotC continues to hold the rights to the intellectual property).

All of that is just a long-winded intro to the real bit of speculation: What will they do with Draconians if they bring Dragonlance to 5E?

The answer potentially lies in two books by Margaret Weis and Don Perrin: “The Doom Brigade” (1996) and “Draconian Measures” (2000). The prior was published by TSR, while the latter was published by WotC after the acquisition of TSR. These novels follow the exploits of the First Dragonarmy Engineering Regiment (comprised of Draconians) after the War of the Lance. These two novels are important for two reasons:

  1. Establishes that Draconians are not fundamentally evil; and
  2. There are female Draconians.

Once or twice a year the discussion on “races” and “alignment” pops up in D&D circles online, and I’m not going to do a deep dive into that here. It is just worth pointing out considered when these two books were published, and that Draconians were considered inherently evil. They were also depicted as all being male.

“So, if they’re all male, how did they originally reproduce?”

Draconians in their original iteration were creations of servants of Takhisis, the Queen of the Abyss, and chief among the “evil” third of the Dragonlance pantheon of deities. To really do a deep dive into this you have to understand that Takhisis on Krynn was originally a reskin of Tiamat from the default D&D setting of Greyhawk. Takhisis frequently appears in the form of a five-headed dragon (each head being one of the base “chromatic” dragon types: Red; Blue; Green; Black; and White), the same as Tiamat. Takhisis’s “good” counterpart in the Dragonlance setting is Paladine, who sometimes is depicted as a platinum metallic dragon, the same as Bahamut in default D&D. At the time TSR was playing around with this whole unified metaverse for the various D&D settings, and Dragonlance was modeled on that. What that meant is that different worlds could share deities even though the localized names may be different. When the first module (Dragons of Despair) and novel (Dragons of Autumn Twilight) released in 1984, Dragonlance was still very much tied into the greater meta-cosmology of D&D. It would not stay there, but the Draconians are immediately introduced into the setting. They present one of the greatest mysteries: Chromatic dragons follow Takhisis, while metallic dragons follow Paladine, yet the Draconians’ scales are metallic. The Draconians are the shock troopers of the Dragonarmies, who are evil fascist villains in service to Takhisis. Draconians are depicted as evil, with early depictions not even clarifying their gender. Before anyone decides to chime in with, “Yeah, but they’re lizards, humans and elves probably wouldn’t even pick up on their gender identity,” I want to point out that every named dragon in the series gets gendered. And yes, eventually Weis and Hickman would point out that all of the Draconians at this point in time were male.

Spoilers ahead for books that are over thirty years old on the origins of Draconians. As mentioned before, Draconians are created by mortal servants of Takhisis (who is a barely reskinned Tiamat). How it is done is extremely horrific. They stole all of the eggs of metallic dragons while they slumbered, and that’s why the metallics aren’t opposing the Dragonarmies, because the Dragonarmies are holding the eggs as hostage. Except that is a lie. Instead the eggs of the metallics are a key component to the ritual, that binds demonic servitors of Takhisis to the metallic eggs, which then hatch producing as many as a dozen Draconians per egg. The different types of Draconian are based on what type of metallic egg produced them:

  • Aurak – Gold Dragon
  • Baaz – Brass Dragon
  • Bozak – Bronze Dragon
  • Kapak – Copper Dragon
  • Sivak – Silver Dragon

Here is where the Takhisis/Tiamat connection comes in. In various iterations of D&D there is a fiendish species known as Abishai, who serve Tiamat. The Abishai were depicted back in the 80s as being between a humanoid and a dragon in appearance, and were Medium to Large in size. While DL never uses the term Abishai, there were fan theories that the “demonic spirits” that the servants of Takhisis bound to the metallic eggs were actually Abishai. That would come to make less sense as the DL cosmology grew and became more distinct, separating Takhisis from Tiamat.

Even if it was not specifically Abishai, there were still “evil” spirits drawn to the eggs to corrupt them and turn them into the evil Draconians. The Draconians stood out in Dragonlance very distinctly for this reason. They were inherently evil in the beginning. They were the only intelligent species that was depicted this way outside of the dragons. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Kender, and Minotaur were all depicted as being capable of dedicating themselves to good, neutrality, or evil. Even the goblinoids were given this greater degree of agency. But not the Draconians. They were evil because they were demonic entities that were walking around in stolen forms. Dragons were “good” or “evil” because they were so closely connected to either Paladine or Takhisis. Even though they were physical beings that were arguably mortal, they were also considered to be extensions of the gods that initially created them. And whoa, is there a whole complex set of legends in the DL setting on where each of the “races” come from. What is important for this discussion is where the Draconians came from, and since it happened in the War of the Lance period, it was happening while those initial modules and novels were occurring.

Weis, at least, wasn’t happy with Draconians being coded as just designated evil. That’s where the two novels about Kang and crew come in. Basically it goes, “Yeah, all that stuff about Draconians just being evil? Wartime propaganda.” Considering the strong anti-fascist tone of the original trilogy, and yeah, wartime propaganda makes sense to me. On top of that, the Draconians were stolen from their culture and raised to fight and die in service to another. There are a lot of really just gut-wrenching details with the Draconians that really make them interesting. It also makes the original books seem cold in how the Draconians are used as narrative cannon-fodder, because they are coded as storm troopers who die in unusual ways. When you are writing novels about some resistance fighters trying to defeat a fascist empire, it helps to have enemies that are viewed as “fundamentally evil”, because killing them in that context becomes perfectly acceptable. Give them names, friendships, and real motivations, and suddenly killing them without a second thought becomes squidgy. Weis and Hickman instead decided to follow D&D’s racial alignment coding for individual Dragons and Draconians, but not really for anything else.

Kang and his Draconians turn that on its head. They are not inherently evil. They are however programmed by a life that only knew service to a God of Evil, which means that even though they are trying to shift away from that past, they keep falling back into it. Then they find females of their race. Here is the other weird thing about Draconians. Apparently when they hatch they are fully matured, complete with basic knowledge and awareness. Because the whole finding females thing? They find eggs ready to hatch into female Draconians.

All that is weird, disturbing, and raises a whole bag of ethical questions, but we get to the important point:

Draconians can now reproduce.

Yeah, I made sure that was bold and italicized, because it makes the next step important.

Do Aurak have to reproduce with Aurak, or can they reproduce with Baaz? Those “spectacular death” abilities? Are they an extra enchantment on the initially created Draconians, or is it a trait that would pass to offspring?

My prediction is that Dragonborn will just be repurposed with a slight coat of paint with a little box that details the minor differences between core Dragonborn and Krynnish Draconians. In fact, if you look at the entry for Dragonborn on D&D Beyond, you’ll find this:

DRACONIANS

In the Dragonlance setting, the followers of the evil goddess Takhisis learned a dark ritual that let them corrupt the eggs of metallic dragons, producing evil dragonborn called draconians. Five types of draconians, corresponding to the five types of metallic dragons, fought for Takhisis in the War of the Lance: auraks (gold), baaz (brass), bozak (bronze), kapak (copper), and sivak (silver). In place of their draconic breath weapons, they have unique magical abilities.

The “unique magical abilities” are not listed, but WotC has already set the groundwork to put minimal effort into how Draconians will be developed into a playable ancestry, and a couple of vaguely remembered novels will set the stage for the current era of Dragonlance set in the Age of Mortals (or the 5th age) to have “trueborn” Draconians of adventuring age.

To understand how this would work out, we have to go to the timeline of Dragonlance, but I’ll keep it narrowed down to major events starting with the War of the Lance:

348 After Cataclysm (AC) – The War of the Lance begins – “Dragons of Autumn Twilight”

352 AC – The War of the Lance ends – “Dragons of Spring Dawning”.

384 AC – The Second Cataclysm – “Dragons of Summer Flame”. This also marks a new calendar system with 1 Second Cataclysm (SC).

386 AC / 2 SC – The events of “Draconian Measures”. The Draconian city-state of Teyr is founded by Kang and his followers.

423 AC / 39 SC – The original gods of Krynn return as detailed in “Amber and Blood”, the final book of Weis’s Dark Disciple trilogy. This is the last entry by Weis or Hickman other than a “Lost Chronicles” entry (which covers events that occurred concurrent to the original Chronicles trilogy).

The buzz is that Weis and Hickman have settled their legal disagreement from last year regarding a new trilogy of Dragonlance novels, which Weis seems to have indicated would pick up after the events of the Dark Disciple trilogy. This means that Draconians have been potentially breeding for at least 37 years.

The other reason why this timeline is important is that the vast majority of “ritual” Draconians would have been created by 352 AC. There may have been hidden clutches of unrecovered eggs (like the female Draconian eggs), but overall Draconians that were veterans of the War of the Lance would have been somewhere between 30 and 40 years old by the time of the Second Cataclysm (and when Draconians would have been able to start reproducing). This means that the 1st gen Dracs would by anywhere from 70 to 80 by the time we get to the “now” of the Dragonlance setting, while the oldest 2nd gen “born” Dracs would be nearing 40. Depending on how quickly Draconians reach reproductive maturity, players could be playing 3rd or even 4th gen Dracs. With 40 years under its belt, the Draconians of Teyr would likely have begun to establish their own customs and cultures.

Effectively, why wouldn’t WotC just recycle the Dragonborn as the Draconians? Especially when you consider the origins of the Dragonborn way back in 3.5E with “Races of the Dragon” (2006). Those Dragonborn were basically the inverse of the Draconians, having been created through rituals dedicated to Bahamut where humanoids (humans, elves, dwarves, etc.) were transformed by Bahamut into their draconic forms. The Dragonborn were basically created as a way for players to play Draconians, without having to play a Draconian. 5E reskinning the Dragonborn for the Draconians basically just brings the Dragonborn full-circle.

Not only will WotC just slightly alter the flavor of Dragonborn for Draconians, it has already been done. They just have not officially printed a Dragonlance book yet that explicitly states it.

How a video game managed to become everything the genre warned us about

There’s a lot of buzz going around about a new video game based on a TTRPG. It was initially set for release in the Spring, but got pushed back (a few times) to avoid “crunch” (but then it was revealed there still was in fact crunch). Add to that exploitation of the trans community, some really ableist statements by one of the company leads, and now reports that certain scenes may trigger epileptic seizures, and what you have is a big old hot mess that is still looking like it will rake in tons of profit.

And there are a lot of people who want to find ways to try and defend it. Because they want to consume that product. There are those who just want to defend the company, because they’ve made other games that those people enjoyed. There are those who want to defend it because they played the TTRPG it is based on. There are those who want to defend it because, “How could it be problematic if this ‘good’ celebrity was willing to be involved with the product?”

But it doesn’t need your defense. The company responsible only cares about the money you will give them or the marketing you give them through live plays, promoted tweets, and other free advertisement.

The entire thing is somewhat meta. The genre it is based on shares a name with the game: cyberpunk. The genre really got traction in the 1980s. It was “near future” sci-fi. Frequently it delved into concepts of anarchy and trans-humanism. In many of these works, the enemy was entrenched power structures or conservative ideology. This often took the form of corporations that viewed people as disposable. Human life was nothing more than a renewable resource. Human beings reduced down to numbers and statistics to be manipulated and used for the further consolidation of wealth and power by the elite entrenched power structure.

In the genre, bleeding edge tech was another tool of control. You want the best gear? Better sign up to work for one of the major corps, because they’ll issue it to you as part of your life contract to be bound to that corp until the grave. It went beyond that, though. Need a new heart or lungs? They can get you on the list for that transplant, if you just sign the dotted line. This led to some equating “chrome” (advanced cybernetic tech) with a loss of “humanity”. It was never about the tech. It was always about the autonomy you give up for the tech. How much of your humanity you give up, just to keep surviving. Really think on that. Does someone who has a prosthetic arm deserve to be any less human than someone with a flesh and blood arm? What about someone who lost an arm but doesn’t have a prosthesis? How does having an advanced disability aid somehow render someone less human?

“But what if they voluntarily have a functioning organ/limp replaced/augmented?”

So? Do people who have purely “cosmetic” surgeries less than human?

Because, as I said, it was never about the chrome. It was about control. You see a lot of these Faustian compacts in the genre, just with Satan replaced with some corporate suit with an unassuming name like Mr. Smith. A faceless cog in the corporate machine. Something much more terrifyingly realistic.

The protagonists in these stories were usually people who lived in the fringes of society. Outcasts and outlaws. Scavengers. Derelicts. A lot of the narratives start with the protagonist being somehow part of the entrenched power structure. Maybe they are doing off-books jobs for one of the corps in exchange for a new set of lungs. The type of job where if it goes south, the corp employer can disavow the protagonist. But our protagonist gets pulled into something bigger. Some piece of information, or a person, or some new tech that threatens to completely rock the foundations of the entrenched power structure.

It is a common narrative. Most of the “noir” mystery genre had a similar theme. Of course, there are other elements to the genre that explore much more philosophical questions like how do you define “life” or “humanity”.

The anti-authoritarian element though is what got the genre labeled as “punk”. It was anti-authoritarian, anti-conservative, anti-corporate, and anti-fascist. It would have been anti-government as well, but in the genre any government around is clearly just a puppet for the big corps.

We now have a game which has reduced a marginalized community to a harmful fetishized marketing ploy. A game that contains a harmful tech virus to those with certain medical conditions. A game that forced programmers to work excessive overtime without additional compensation (during a pandemic, no less).

They don’t need your defense. They are the villains if this were a work of cyberpunk fiction.

But they have the NERP (new exciting retail product). And if there’s another thing I’ve learned from cyberpunk fiction, it is that people will cause themselves and others harm simply for the NERP. Not only that, they will defend the NERP (momentarily, until the next NERP) knowing full well of its harm. And the producers of the NERP will walk away wealthier and more powerful than before, no matter the real world harm caused. Because cyberpunk is also cynical as fuck.

So if you feel the need to defend this NERP and its manufacturer, you aren’t really interested in cyberpunk at all. You just want to play a bang-bang game where you get to sell your soul for some chrome, no matter what the cost to others.

Boot Hill: or, “That Wild West game you probably never heard about” – 1st Edition

Content Warning: this post contains an analysis on a game from the 1970s, and contains references to racism and sexism. Usage of the term “Indian” to refer to Native American people.

If you have been following this blog, you probably have at least a passing understanding of my feelings towards Gary Gygax, aka the (co)creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). What you may not know is that D&D was not Gygax’s only foray in table-top role-playing games (TTRPGs). In those early days, Gygax was quite prolific, creating completely different systems of games for different genres. These posts are specifically about his Wild West TTRPG, Boot Hill (BH). Gygax would only work on the 1st (1975) and 2nd (1979) editions of the game, alongside Brian Blume.

This post is somewhat different from previous posts. This is a review of both 1st and 2nd editions of BH, as I was able to temporarily obtain copies. Due to continued COVID-19 concerns, I was unable to do any play-testing of the rules as written. Because 1st Edition is a bit more of a slog to get through than initially expected, this will be a two-parter. Part 1 will be 1st edition, and Part 2 will be 2nd edition, with a few notes regarding 3rd (1990). Worth noting is that BH would get a 2nd edition a decade before Advanced D&D. In fairness, AD&D wouldn’t get a 1st edition until 1977’s Monster Manual, with the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide to follow respectively in ’78 and ’79.

The 1st edition is a booklet that sold for $5.00. Today, we would probably refer to something along these lines as a ‘zine. Each piece of paper is printed horizontally to create 4 pages of text, 2 on front, 2 on page. These were then organized by number, and bound with a couple of staples between a heavier stock cover. All told, the 1st edition runs 44 pages: 5 pages devoted to title page, index, and intro; 33 pages of setting and rules content; 1 page left blank for “NOTES”; 1 page devoted to a further “Product List” of other TSR games; and 4 pages of reference tables. In total there are 10 illustrations by 4 credited artists: C. Lesch, T. Lesch, J. Seaton, and K. Batey. Considering production value on TSR games at the time, it is likely that all four artists were local to the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin area in the mid-70s. I was unable to locate any additional information on the artists, including their full names.

***EDIT: Thank you to Tracy Lesch for reaching out to me about this to offer some clarification and context! From Tracy:

This was based on accounts of the time, some say it actually happened, some folks don’t. But the tale said that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday almost shot it out outside a billiards parlor. Holliday suggested they settle their differences with a showdown at 10 paces. Ringo reportedly said, “I only need 3 feet to take you down,” and pulled out a handkerchief, flicking the end at Holliday for him to take. In a handkerchief duel, combatants must retain hold on their end of the handkerchief while dueling, or be declared the loser/coward. It’s said that this duel was broken up by the local law before shots were fired.

I was 14 years old when I did this illustration for TSR. My father is Charles, who gave me some guidance at the time. He drew the “dead gambler” illustration with the antagonist that has smoking gun in hand.

END EDIT***

I am somewhat impressed by the layout of the book. It looks fairly clean and professional with paragraph text fully justified. The Index is neatly defined: Basic Rules; Advanced Rules; Optional Rules; Campaigns; Appendices; and Reference Sheets which are indicated as being meant to be removed from book. My guess is that Gygax invested at least some money into a word processor, because there is no way you would get pagination this clean on an old manual typewriter. Keep in mind, we are talking about 1975. The first “home computer” would not hit the market until 1977. There were some build-your-own kits on the market in 1975, but I do not believe they included any word processing software. It is possible that Gygax and crew had access to a professional editor who was just really good at this type of stuff, but all indicators are that Gygax published the 1st Edition of BH in-house (potentially literally in his own house in those early days). Today (2020) you could get a better printing and binding job done at your local big box office supply store.

Title Page: The name of the game uses an “old west” style font that I was unable to find a match for, but it clearly indicates to anyone familiar with the genre that this is, indeed, a game set in the “Wild West”. As if the font wasn’t enough to tip off the reader, immediately below the game’s name is text reading,

RULES FOR “WILD WEST” GUNFIGHTS AND
CAMPAIGNS WITH MINIATURE
FIGURES ON A MAN-TO-MAN SCALE

Okay, so right away, Gygax wants players to know that this is a game to be played with “miniature figures”. While people in 1975 may not have had immediate access to metal (would have been lead in ’75) or hard plastic minis like we do today, you could get a bag of soft plastic “Cowboys and Indians” toys of the same quality and scale as green army men anywhere toys were sold (including the toy aisle at most community grocery stores). As a kid back in ’80s, I had a whole mess of these cheap plastic dime-store figures, along with cheap building play-sets as well. I can only imagine what adults with paint, a hobby knife, and some polystyrene cement were able to do with these kid’s toys. If you were in an area that had an active table-top miniature wargaming scene, you may have had a local hobby shop that sold metal (lead) miniatures as well as scale train sets and rocket kits. If not, you probably had someone with the hook-up on a print catalog that you could purchase stuff through mail order. But I digress.

Foreword: Here Gygax explains how BH is different from traditional wargaming. He wastes no time in explaining the setting, just working on the assumption that everyone is familiar with the Hollywood Western. I’m not reading between the lines here. He states that. This is a game about gun fights. To quote, “In fact, Clint Eastwood Westerns are somewhat mild compared to the typical BOOT HILL game!” He then goes on to explain these can be contained scenarios or part of an ongoing, “epic of action.” “And larger scope can be given to either sort of play if players are given some henchmen — a band of desperadoes, a bunch of cowpokes, a troop of cavalry, a war party of Indians, a deputy and a posse. Showdowns? Dry-gulching? Range wars? Vigilantes? Yep, pard, It is all here.” That’s a lot of content to be found in around 40 pages, right? At this point, I’m somewhat incredulous of whether or not BH is going to be able to live up to Gygax’s hype in the foreword. He mentions “Indians” a total of three times on this one page, which doesn’t make me feel great where he will go with that. So, let’s keep going…

Oh, more of the foreword. I figured that would just be a single page. I was wrong. He breaks down that the book contains core rules, advanced rules, and optional rules. Kind of figured the table of contents would provide readers with that insight. He mentions his co-writer Brian Blume. He assumes readers are already familiar with Brian for his work on WWII wargames, and he shouldn’t have to tell you about all the stuff he and Brian worked on with Martian wargames. Oh, and Brian is working on other stuff, but he’s still hard at work researching the history of the Old West so that we will get more BH supplements in “THE STRATEGIC REVIEW”. (Little bit of digging reveals that The Strategic Review was TSR’s predecessor to Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. It would contain rules clarifications and additions, as well as scenario and campaign ideas.) He ends the foreword with, “Time to stop all the palaver and saddle up. If we hurry we can head ’em off at the pass!” – E. Gary Gygax, Tactical Studies Rules Editor, 1 May 1975.

Here’s the first interior illustration by Charles & Tracy Lesch, 1975. It shows two people standing face to face, with what appears to be a neckerchief stretched out between them, clenched in one’s right hand, and the other’s left hand. I do not know what this is supposed to be indicating. Was this some sort of alternative to shaking hands? I don’t know. There is no context given, and it looks to be a rough graphite sketch. ***EDIT: Thank you to Tracy Lesch for reaching out to me about this to offer some clarification and context! From Tracy:”

This was based on accounts of the time, some say it actually happened, some folks don’t. But the tale said that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday almost shot it out outside a billiards parlor. Holliday suggested they settle their differences with a showdown at 10 paces. Ringo reportedly said, “I only need 3 feet to take you down,” and pulled out a handkerchief, flicking the end at Holliday for him to take. In a handkerchief duel, combatants must retain hold on their end of the handkerchief while dueling, or be declared the loser/coward. It’s said that this duel was broken up by the local law before shots were fired.

I was 14 years old when I did this illustration for TSR. My father is Charles, who gave me some guidance at the time. He drew the “dead gambler” illustration with the antagonist that has smoking gun in hand.”***

Introduction: Here we start the regularly numbered pages. He lets the reader know the game is simple. Well, that’s good right? Except I’ve read enough books penned by Gygax in my life to know this is likely to be a lie. Things are not going to be simple, and the reader is going to feel like an idiot when they can’t figure them out later. So, you roll for your characteristics, place your figurines, then start shooting, apparently. That does seem simple. He mentions those who play-tested the rules should be able to jump right in. He references the LGTSA, which apparently stood for Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. According to the Wikipedia entry, “Its early membership included Gary Gygax, Terry and Rob Kuntz, Ernie Gygax, Jeff Perren, Mike Reese, Leon Tucker, and Don Kaye. The group usually met weekly in Gygax’s basement. Brian Blume joined the LGTSA in the summer of 1973.” So, the play-testers that he is referencing are his buddies (and his son) in his basement. The LGTSA found that the more times they played, the easier it was to navigate the rules. I would have never figured that out. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the LGTSA for that insight. You can have a referee, but it is not required.

Gygax suggests avoiding “rigid” scenarios, and instead just setting up a town, populating it, and then letting the players have at. He suggests using 25mm or 30mm scale figures. For current point-of-reference, Games Workshop/Citadel games like the Warhammer series are standard 28 mm (1:64) scale. Most fantasy role-playing miniatures over the years have been at 25 mm (1:76) scale. 30 mm (1:61) was a standard for pre-1970 wargaming minis, so I’m guessing members of the LGTSA still had plenty of these, and they were also of a similar scale to S scale model trains. Because he uses specific model scales, Gygax is signaling that the dime-store “army men” aren’t right for his game, because they are 54 mm (1:34) scale. Gygax also takes this opportunity to personally take a shot at Airfix plastic minis, by stating, “which don’t hold their paint jobs,” and how metal (lead) minis are more desirable. He then lets the players know they can use paper cut-outs until you can obtain “proper” models.

Sidebar: Airfix is still in business, and they are still producing plastic models. They are a UK based company, and were purchased by Humbrol in 1986, then Hornby purchased Humbrol and Airfix in 2007. Unlike TSR, which became defunct after Wizards of the Coast bought them out and ended the imprint in 1997. Also, worth noting, lead stopped being used to make metal miniatures around 1993, after some consumer protection lawsuits out of New York. Apparently, it was a bad idea to make “toys” out of lead or something, with miniature wargamers insisting their lead minis were not “toys”. Guess how that argument went for them in court?

Scale: And here you were thinking that just got covered in the introduction section, right? Nope. Here he tells you the Figure Ratio, which is 1:1. I, uh, don’t know why Gygax even mentions that, right? So, one figure is equivalent in scale to…one figure. I’m clearly missing something that is probably old miniature wargaming related. There is a lot of that in some of these early games. Many assumptions are made regarding the player’s prior experience with table-top wargaming. Time: 1 turn = (approximately) 10 seconds. Distance: 1 inch = 6 feet (assuming 25 mm scale). Gygax notes the time scale should be approximate, but still fixed at that unit, because they tried “distorting” it, but there were “adverse” results. Simply put, if one character’s action only takes 6 seconds, then they could do that action 5 times over 30 seconds, while the 10 second action could be done only 3 times. In the end, they arbitrarily set it for 10 seconds, no adjustments.

Characteristics: Alright! Time to roll some stats. There are four stats: Speed; Personal Bravery; Personal Accuracy; and Strength. You roll two ten-sided dice numbered 1 to 0. The first die counts as the first number, second roll the second number, to generate a result between 01 and 00. What we generally now refer to as “rolling percentiles”. There are four charts for each stat. Your percentile roll determines the stat. Okay. This is going to get confusing. The stats are not numerical. They are descriptive. For instance, Speed goes from “Slow” to “Greased Lightning” with a total of 10 descriptive level markers. “Greased Lightning” is the result on a roll of 96 to 00, and you have to indicate what “level” it is. So, that means a 96 is “Greased Lightning 1”, while a 00 is “Greased Lightning 5”. In comparison, “Slow” is 01 to 05, but there is no differentiating between if you rolled a 01 or a 05. Wait. Upon closer examination, the differentiating “Greased Lightning” stats are OPTION rules, as opposed to ADVANCED rules.

Rolling my character: I rolled a 60 for my Speed, which means my gunslinger is Very Quick. I rolled a 62 for my Personal Bravery, which means I am Above Average. Oh, I have to roll twice for Personal Accuracy, once for thrown weapons, and once for fired weapons. Well, why not make those two entirely separate stats, right? But I’m already here so, 16 and 75 means: Below Average for thrown weapons, and Good for fired weapons. Now we move on to Strength, which oddly has not only descriptive ranking, but an associated numerical ranking from 8 to 20. Let’s see what I get! An 82! That means my Strength is 16 (Hardy). An 84 and I would have been 17 (Strong). Hold up. I rolled an 82, and I’m not strong? Hold on, there’s more. Under the charts, it shows that there are Bonuses and Change in Ability modifiers. Would have been nice to know beforehand. The Bonuses apply if rolling a “personal figure”. This translates as what we now refer to as the Player Character or PC. Well, this is my gunslinger, so I apply this chart. With bonuses: Speed 65 – Very Quick (no change); Bravery 67 – Brave (increased); Thrown Weapons 26 – Average (increased); Fired Weapons 75 – Good (no change); and Strength 84 – 17 (Strong) (no change). Looking at the info for Change in Ability, and that is for stat improvement. Basically certain actions, which have not been described yet, if successful, can increase your percentile roll, which is why on your character card you want to record your percentile roll and your characteristic result.

BASIC RULES: Holy cow! We are just on page 3, and start in on the basic rules. This endeavor may require a bit more time than I initially thought it would, but hey, I’ve already got my character rolled up. I’m going to call her “Wynonna”. Except I’m not sure my gunslinger can be a woman. Not without penalties to Strength, at least. More on that later. We start with:

I. Turn Sequence: The basic rule uses Sequential Movement which consists of: A. MOVEMENT; and B. COMBAT. Simple enough. So, each player moves in turn…as outlined in the MOVEMENT section. Then, after moving, each player has the option to engage in combat. From what I can tell, all movement and combat in a turn happen effectively simultaneously with the basic rule. Nope, I was wrong. Players all call out what target they are shooting at and how many shots at the same time, but order of firing is determined under the FIRST SHOT section.

Alright, so there is going to be a lot of this, so I’m going to break down my perception of the Rules as Written: Sloppy design. If your first section references five later sections, these rules are poorly laid out. Apparently there is also a BRAWL phase after COMBAT.

II. Movement: The MOVEMENT section is what I would expect from Gygax, having played early editions of D&D and AD&D. Lots of variables, depending on if you are walking, running, crawling, on horseback, traveling through difficult terrain, etc. This shows the same lack of foresight Gygax had with D&D/AD&D: he couldn’t imagine anything past combat.

III. Weapons: Oh goody! This is usually where these old games shine, in their ridiculously exhaustive listing of weapons!…And, I got my hopes up for nothing. There are sixteen ranged weapons listed. These have stats for: Range in inches, divided up into Short, Medium, and Long Ranges; Rate; Weapon Speed; Ammunition; and Reload. Already, I see some issues. If you were note playing precisely at the scale suggested, you would have to adjust the ranges yourself. Of course. Gygax told you what scale you should be playing with. How dare you not! Oh, there are a lot of variables with these weapon stats. Be prepared to understand that when actions start, you have to announce if your weapons are holstered, drawn, or drawn and already aimed.

I’m starting to hate this game.

Oh, look, a picture of a pirate…no, a prospector. Wait. He’s riding a horse, I think. This illustration is by J. Seaton. The more I look at it, the more disturbing it gets. I’m sorry J. Seaton.

IV. Combat: This has to be reasonably easy to pick up, right? Uncle Gary said the rules were simple to understand at the beginning of all this, and I’m only on Page 6, consarn it! (Yeah, that’s right! I can type Hollywood old timey slang, too!) Okay, I’m trying really hard not to type expletives right now. 1st you determine FIRST SHOT, based upon the chart of the same name. So, you don’t roll for FIRST SHOT. You total up all the positive and negative modifiers for each shooter. Whoever has the higher modifier according to the chart shoots first, and then so on. In case of a tie, the shots are fired simultaneously. The chart is poorly designed. In the text, Gygax just keeps stating “X” is self-explanatory. No, they are not!

Gary Gygax just expected everyone else to intuitively understand his rules as written (RAW). This is not unique to BH. In this section he is talking about how wounds act as modifiers, but note, he has never mentioned what wounds even are before this section. He just assumes you are reading the rules in a non-linear fashion, or that this is your 2nd or 3rd time reading through. Once again, he thinks all of this is “easy”.

Back to the action!

Okay, so rolling to hit. Every attack starts out at a base 50%, and then you go through the modifier chart. There are forty-nine (49) different modifier possibilities. Admittedly, some of these are part of a grouping, like the eleven (11) different Individual Accuracy modifiers (you only select one of these). Still, this is a lot of math, and you have to do this every attack. Now, if you have a firearm that lets you fire three shots in one COMBAT round, you will have the same roll on all attacks (-10 on each shot). This does not appear to be cumulative. So, if the other factors put you at 70%, it would be 60% on all three shots instead of 70%, 60%, 50%.

Oh, now he tells us what wounds are. If you hit, you roll percentiles, and a 01-50 is a Light Wound, which results in -3 to Strength; 51-85 is a Serious Wound, and give a -7 to Strength; and 86-00 is a Mortal Wound, and target is DEAD. If Strength reaches 0, target is unconscious, but not DEAD. That was just the FAST HIT LOCATION chart. On the next page is the EXACT HIT LOCATION chart, which means you roll twice. Once for location, once for severity of hit. Leg and arm hits are never fatal, but chest and head have a higher chance of fatality. Clearly, Gygax was not an expert in firearm injuries, even in the “Wild West”, as there were plenty of cases of people dying from gunshots in the extremities, and also the unusual cases of people surviving head shots. Apologies, you can survive a head shot in BH, it’s just the odds are definitely not in your favor.

Looking all this over, I see that there is one way to basically obliterate every opponent: scattergun at short range at rest on a solid object. That alone, without considering Accuracy and Bravery will put your hit chance at 90%. On top of that, you get a +15 on HIT LOCATION rolls. Keep in mind thought, that’s at short range only, which is only four (4) inches.

Going over the rules, the firer may use either of the HIT LOCATION charts to determine damage to the target. Dealer’s choice, I guess. No idea why you would ever opt for the FAST chart, but to each their own.

V. Brawls: I just read this section five times. For someone who is lauded as being an expert game designer, Gygax really phoned these rules in. None of the brawling rules really make sense. From what I’m able to piece together you can throw a punch with each arm, or grapple. If you have a knife or other stabby thing you can stab and punch, but the stab uses the HIT LOCATION chart instead of the BRAWL chart. Here’s where it gets weird. The BRAWLING chart shows Adjusted die score as being 2 or less ranging to 12 or more. It does not indicate if you are only rolling 1d10 instead of percentiles, but that is the assumption based upon the chart.

ADVANCED RULES: Okay, so once you “master” the BASIC rules, you get the honor of being able to progress to the ADVANCED game. There is no reason to go here. Only additional disappointment lies behind Door #2. Just take the goat. I’m not going to go in great detail on these rules, just give a brief overview, noting particularly “what now?” type things.

VI. Simultaneous Movement Turn Sequence: All players write down on scrap paper how their characters are going to move, or what actions and contingencies they are taking, like “Wynonna is going to hide behind the water trough, and cover the entrance to the saloon with her peacemaker.” Then everyone reveals their directions and movement all happens at once. I hate this. I hate all of it.

VII. Advanced Movement: Here you need an impartial referee, because they determine whether any figures trying to stay hidden reveal themselves. Also, vehicle movement. This is also garbage.

VIII. Advanced Combat: First (but not last) special rule for “Indians” – Arched Arrows. Apparently ONLY “Indians” use bow and arrows. They can indirect fire over cover, for a 15% chance to avoid cover and be treated as a normal attack, unless the target also has cover over them as well. Also, rules for Firing at Horses. Yeah, you can totally attack someone’s horse, because this is Gygax. The man hates horses. Good news, horses are sturdier than humans, so they are 20% harder to get a fatal injury roll on. It’s the little things, right?

IX. Minor Character Morale: In basic play, the player only controls a single character, the “personal figure”, or as we call them now, player characters (PCs). In advanced play, the player may also control any number of minor characters, or the referee may instead control them. In contemporary RPGs, we refer to these as non-player characters (NPCs). Gygax had not quite nailed down the terminology in ’75. Even D&D at this point was still using “referee” and “Dungeon Master” interchangeably, which shows a design philosophy different than in many contemporary games. In BH, the referee was primarily to settle rules disputes between players, and occasionally interject and “play” minor characters. I just explained in much more detail what a minor character actually is in BH than Gygax bothers to explain. Like most of his rules, he expects the reader to already know what he is writing. So basically, you roll against the NPC’s bravery score, with modifiers. If you roll equal to or less, they do what their PC orders them to do. If you roll higher, they try to run. You have to make this check each turn, unless the number of enemies is reduced by casualties below the number of “friendly” PCs and NPCs. So once Wynonna and her ragtag band of townsfolk outnumber the desperadoes, the townsfolk don’t need to make morale checks anymore.

There are special rules for Cavalry. Gygax assumes you know what cavalry he is talking about here. He is not generally referencing horseback units. He is specifically referencing the United States Army Cavalry. How do we know? He talks about commanding officers (CO). Basically, while the CO is alive, they don’t fail morale checks. If the CO is knocked out of commission, they have to make regular morale checks.

Indians“. I mean, we knew Gygax was going to have more to say. Apparently “tribal Indians” are Very Brave, and their “War Chiefs” are Fearless. No morale checks until they suffer a fatal casualty. Really detailed rules here in this block about how these “war bands” lose morale. He also refers to regular “braves”. Yeah, this is the kind of casual racist crap you would find in the 70s and 80s, with most of the (white) population not even batting an eye.

X. Miscellaneous Characters: Here we have another chart of different types of NPCs, along with their suggested stats. The last column reads “Experience“. There have been no mentions of this stat previously in the book, nor is there an explanation in this section. (After a full read through, there is NO explanation for what Experience means in BH.) There are a lot of Western archetypes found here: Sheriff, Bounty Hunter, Miner, Gambler, etc. Two stand out from the others: “Indian” and “Saloon Gal“. The first for obvious reasons. Everything else is a profession, but then we have listed an entire human ethnic group. The second is because this is the first reference in the game to women. The default singular pronouns used in the book thus far are “he/him”. Now we see that the only role that women seemingly serve is “Saloon Gal“. And this is where we see Gygax’s belief in Biological Determinism kicking in, because the man just could not help himself. Every other NPC has a Strength listed as Any (except the Deputy US Marshal/Gunfighter at 15+). The Saloon Gal’s Strength is 13-. That means the strongest that a woman can get is Average. Some of you may say, “Well, that’s not fair. Any of those other character types could be women.” You would be wrong.

XI. Setting up a Town: Here Mr. Gygax suggests that you potentially include in your Western town a Mexican or Chinese Quarter. Or maybe even a fort nearby because of hostile “Indians”. Basically, to add some extra flair to your setting, add in a segregated section of the town. Keep in mind, “quarters” didn’t arise in these town organically. Non-white populations were forced to build away from the white settlers, even in areas that were already populated by non-white peoples. But hey, Gygax seems to think it would be fun to go ahead and toss in that detail for fun! Oh, and also, might as well remind people that “Indians” are hostiles! Yippee-ki-yay!

XII. Building Interiors: Nothing to see here. Seriously, there is nothing really of value in this section for anyone. Apparently, buildings have interiors, and you should have those drawn out.

OPTIONAL RULES: Here we find alternate rules for:

XIII. Alternate First Shot Determination: There’s not enough whiskey to make this rule make sense to me.

XIV. Greased Lightning Rule: Harken back to rolling stats. Remember the different tiers of Speed if you roll Greased Lightning. This just explains that in a First Shot determination, the higher tier Greased Lightning would go first.

XV. Sharpshooting: Higher Accuracy ratings make a character a sharpshooter. Sharpshooters can call targets or get extra shots a round.

XVI. Stunning: There’s a chart for this, depending on what you are hitting with, and if you hit the target from behind/surprised.

XVII. Intoxication: Booze decreases Speed and Accuracy, but increase Bravery and Strength.

XVIII. Professional Gamblers: Normally if characters are playing cards, the players actually play cards to determine the winner. However, if a professional gambler character is at the table, they get to cheat by rolling percentile dice against the other players at a +15 to the gambler’s roll. If they win three times in a roll, the other players get to roll to see if they catch them cheating by rolling equal to or less than the gambler’s Cheat ability. How is the Cheat ability determined? The gambler rolls percentile dice until they get a result of 50 or below. That is their Cheat ability. It is not indicated whether this is rolled at character creation or at the beginning of each gambling session. It is also not clear how a player character gets to be a professional gambler.

XIX. Dynamite: It goes BOOM. The rules are basically for safecracking, but makes it clear that you don’t want to be near it when it goes off. There’s a chart for damage based upon proximity and quantity (by stick). The chart is poorly formatted.

XX. Misfires: There’s a chart for different types of firearms. Only the Cap & Ball Revolver has a chance of exploding. Clearly Gygax never observed a shotgun barrel explode. It now becomes more obvious why Gygax was adamantly opposed to firearms in D&D (but not lasers, for some reason): he had no real idea how firearms worked.

XXI. Stray Bullet Rule: It is exactly what it sounds like. If you miss your target, path a straight line out based upon shooter and target. If there is another person within one inch of that line, there is a 1% chance it will hit them. If there are five people, there is a 5% chance it will hit one of them. That math doesn’t really seem correct, does it?

XXII. Gatling Guns: They go BRRRRRRRR. Basically they have a 3 inch wide “swath” of fire that extends out 200 inches. Anything in that zone if probably taking damage, as indicated by yet another chart. Why not a cone? Who knows.

XXIII. Cannons: Also go BOOM. Rule only applies to “cannister” (my dictionary spells it “canister”) rounds, so cannons use a cone-shaped area. Targets who are within the first 10 inches are just dead. No rolls. The cone is described as being, “22 1/2 % to each side of the barrel. The maximum range is 60 inches.” Make sense of that. I think what Gygax meant, is that the cone was a 45 degree cone (so, 22.5 degree on each side). Leave it to Gygax to describe a cone in the least understandable way.

CAMPAIGNS: We’re nearing the end, even though we are only on page 22. Wait, we’re only on page 22? All of this, and we’re only on page 22? I’ve been working on this review for days, and I still couldn’t play this game. In this section we have what appears to be additional optional (or maybe advanced) rules. Effectively though, these rules are for “big” overland maps stretching miles, while normal play is in a contained “town” map. This section contains rules for foot and mounted travel speeds on a “hex” map with a scale of 2 miles per hex. Turns are weekly or monthly, depending on…stuff. In this section you find out how to do things like a cattle drive, or forming a “posse” to pursue bandits or…”Indian raiders”. Those are the two examples given, plus and “etc.” Oh, you can also track outlaws or…yup, you guessed it…”Indians”. It is also apparently more difficult to track “Indians” unless they are going through settled areas.

APPENDICES: This includes two sample scenarios: Gunfight at the OK Corral; and Battle of Coffeyville. There is also an appendix for “Prices and Wages”, that surprisingly has nothing on it about prostitutes. Well, except the entry for “Waitresses” actually is “Waitresses, etc.” No other entry for occupation wages has an “etc.” tacked onto it. Oh, but here we get a drawing of Belle Starr by K. Batey 4/75! This is literally the only reference to a woman being able to be a gunslinger in the game, and it is a sketch.

SUGGESTED READING: Now, Gygax was a lot of things, but the man did like to read, so I’m sure that he and Blume did in fact read all of these books. 26 books in total. Three are specifically about Wyatt Earp/Tombstone. There are a lot of titles containing the word “gun”, but none of them are actually about firearms, but rather the men who used them. Only a handful of the books cited were published within the 10 years prior to 1975, but really, how much can be written about the same very specific range of time and people? (That’s rhetorical.)

After this, there is a blank page titled “NOTES” and a “PRODUCT LIST” of other TSR books and accessories. Dungeons & Dragons is $10.00 and is a boxed set containing THREE BOOKLETS! There’s a sci-fi game called Star Probe which sells for $6.00. I’m going to see if I can find a copy of that game somewhere, because I am curious. I see that Chainmail is still available for $5.00, which is important, because the version of D&D on this list references rules in Chainmail, so better grab both of them. You can also subscribe to THE STRATEGIC REVIEW! for $1.50 for four issues. It does not state how frequently the newsletter is released, so that $1.50 could have you set for two months or two years depending on how much Gygax feels like typing. TSR pays all postage and shipping, so that’s pretty sweet. Back in the 70s, USPS shipped everything for pennies. It just may take four to eight weeks to get delivered. Things were different back then. Instant gratification was basically only for big city folk. You also have to keep in mind that other than the dice, every product that TSR was shipping was print media, which had its own special reduced shipping rate. The last four pages are BASIC and ADVANCED rules charts. None of the OPTIONAL charts are reprinted in the back. As mentioned in the beginning of the book, these pages were to be carefully removed from the book. If you had a local print-shop, you could probably have them run copies of the chart sheets on their Xerox machine. If you happened to have the right connections at a school or library in 1975, you were more likely to have access to a crank mimeograph machine. If you’ve ever seen a blurry copy of something in purple ink, it was probably a mimeograph duplicate. Now, you couldn’t just pop in the charts and crank them out. You first had to make a stencil master to make copies of. That means you would have to type out the charts on a typewriter with a stencil setting, then put the stencil in the mimeograph, and crank out the copies. I knew people still doing this with charts from TTRPGs until around 1990 or so, because the school would let students use the mimeographs, but not the Xerox, because the ink cartridges were EXPENSIVE.

OVERVIEW: Gygax wasn’t the visionary of clean game design some make him out to be. While BH has a decent visual layout on first glance, the placement of certain rules lacks any consideration to how anyone would go about learning to play the game. There are references to rules not yet mentioned, but no indicator of what page those rules are found on. As I said before, Gygax expected players to intuitively figure out the rules. If you couldn’t manage that, well, that was clearly your failing. Effectively, the entire book is antagonistic. That fits Gygax’s philosophy of gaming perfectly though. To him, gaming was antagonistic. This likely has to do with Gygax’s gaming background being in tabletop wargames. BH doesn’t have a solid design philosophy behind it, either. Are the players playing cooperatively or competitively?

And now, I’m going to talk about the sexism and racism on display in BH. Gygax makes a point of using he/him pronouns when describing both players and their characters. This is not just because the “default” pronoun in the 70s was the masculine. In some future posts, I’m going to go into all of the times that Gygax blatantly declared he was sexist on Main Street. For now, just know that not every game would default to male pronouns. Many games would use neutral terms like “YOU” or “PLAYER 1” or other indicators. TTRPGs were different, and Gygax would really set the tone for a lot to follow, defaulting to example players only in masculine terms. The reasoning? Gygax did not believe that “girl” brains were inclined towards his combative games, and only preferred what was effectively playing out soap operas, or “social games” as Gygax would occasionally refer to them. This also explains the anger that Gygax would have on open display to how HIS games started being popularly played in the 80s with developing stories (seriously, this dude HATED the idea of an ongoing story narrative).

What is fascinating is how much racism Gygax managed to cram into a few sentences here and there. He made it clear that “Mexicans” and “Chinese” were effectively background set pieces to add in for flavor. “Indians” were there to be antagonists that even got their own special rules. If you don’t understand how having special rules for “Indians” to use bows and arrows is racist, you, like Gygax, don’t really have a very accurate understanding of the “Wild West”. Most Native Americans were forced out “West” after being displaced in their original lands to the east of the Mississippi. The “Trail of Tears” wasn’t just a forced relocation: it was the destruction of entire cultures. It was genocide. They were placed on what was considered inhospitable land, often bordering on other Native American cultures that called those regions home, and then just expected to survive with effectively no support from the U.S. government. It wasn’t the world of the old Western matinee serials. The U.S. Cavalry that Gygax so admires? Murderous scum. There are plenty of accounts of U.S. Cavalry forces slaughtering women and children, many of those accounts written by the men in the U.S. Cavalry or journalists accompanying them to write of their “great” deeds. Gygax was well aware of this. It isn’t that he just didn’t care (not saying apathy towards racial issues is a good thing, here), but that he painted them as purely antagonists that existed only to be hunted and killed by the players. “Indians” to him were no better than Hobgoblins in D&D. It is no coincidence that Gygax groups many of these “humanoid” foes into “tribes”. Not once does Gygax suggest that a player could make their character as something other than a white man, and it is HEAVILY implied that you are going to make a white man as your gunslinger.

In summary, this wasn’t a “fun” nostalgic look back at a product from 1975. This was a journey into a poorly written game created by a smug asshole who didn’t think women should be playing HIS games, and thought that anyone not white was at best a prop and at worst a sub-human monster to be used for target practice. It was, like many other games, a way for Gygax to live out his white man’s power fantasy. It really does make sense why Gygax shifted away from tabletop wargaming, because in a lot of those games it was white guys against slightly different white guys. Maybe it just didn’t scratch the particular itch that Gygax was seeking when it came to simulated killing? Where’s the sense of moral superiority when you play a Waterloo game for the 100th time?

If you have read this far, and your thoughts are, “Yeah, real objective of you!” Well, I never even implied my goal was objectivity. When it comes to a review like this, only a liar or someone who grossly misunderstands the nature of subjective/objective would try and claim an objective analysis of the material. This isn’t physics. Also, so many (primarily white men) in the TTRPG community hold Gygax aloft like some sort of sacred/profane idol. He wasn’t a man worth that praise. His games weren’t even especially inspired or inventive. There are some sources that say he cribbed most of D&D from rules created by Arneson, and that Gygax basically turned it all into a jumbled mess that could only be played if your group “house-ruled” it to the point it no longer resembled what Gygax put on the page. On almost any of these games, Gygax is not listed as the sole author, but he sure went out of his way to make people think he was.

Next up: Boot Hill 2nd Edition. I’m guessing it doesn’t get better.

On Fantasy Worlds and Military Forces: or, “Why don’t we just send our army to clear out that dungeon?”

Content Warning: this post contains references to military actions, combat, and death. This post also contains strong language.

This blog post specifically is in response to a August 2020 tweet by one of the more prominent individuals in the table-top role-playing game (TTRPG) industry with an active Twitter account. The post was about why you wouldn’t send an army to clear a “dungeon”. Effectively, the reasoning given, was that an army doesn’t have the specialized skills that adventuring parties do, so therefore the dungeon in question would result in a whole bunch of dead soldiers. What follows here is a write-up of how this line of thinking is absolutely absurd and reductionist, and provide TTRPG players and Game-Masters (GMs) with a better set of tools to look at how you use the military in your games.

I want to preface this by declaring that I have never served in the military. My knowledge is secondary, compiled from reading both primary and secondary sources in my personal and academic study of military history. I have read a large amount of military history, and grew up in a household with a father who consumes massive amounts of Civil War and World War II history. My personal interest was in pre-industrial European military history and World War I. I would say 50% of the discussions I have had with my father during my life have been about military history (read into that what you will regarding my personal relationship with my father).

A definition before I jump into the deep-end: the subset of fantasy I will be referencing is what I refer to as “high fantasy” (HF) or “sword & sorcery”. These settings are somewhat European medieval in appearance outwardly, but also have people running around flinging fireballs, lightning bolts, and using healing magics. Most fantasy TTRPGs operate in these settings. This is opposed to “low fantasy” where magic may exist, but it is extremely rare. Many people are familiar with Game of Thrones, which is a fairly good example of what I would classify as “low fantasy” (LF). Magic, monsters, and dragons are “real” in that setting, but they are rare. In a LF setting that is roughly technologically on par with 14th century France, the military tactics and strategies could reasonable echo their real world analog. However, in a HF setting, that would not be the case.

Let’s start out by looking at medieval (5th to 15th century CE) European warfare. You have three basic unit types: cavalry (horseback units, both heavy and light), missile (archers, crossbow), and infantry (spearman, pikes, sword and board). The pop-culture view of the battle was that it was done on a large cleared field, with each side boasting a force of up to 20,000 troops. Units would be politely grouped into rectangular groupings, and then you would have a series of advances, retreats, and so on. All aspects of the battle having been agreed upon by the “nobility” on both sides that agreed to the conflict to begin with, often based upon a border dispute or allegation that someone had besmirched someone else’s honor. Most of the is utter bullshit, but one thing is fairly common, in that the actual field commanders would not actually engage in the combat. They were usually positioned to the rear on an elevated ridge or even a temporary wooden platform so they could see their forces on the field, and have runners or riders deliver orders to individual units. The reality is while there were many battles that may have started neatly blocked out, that didn’t last long. After initial engagement of cavalry charges and some arrows flying back in forth, these battles often descended into brutal melees, and you better hope your forces had some sort of visual identification such as wearing the same color or rallying around a banner, so you could tell who you were supposed to be killing.

Even medieval forces had specialist units, such as sappers, skirmishers, outriders, siege specialists, quartermasters, etc. The roaming knight errant, seeking chivalrous adventure, unattached to any one kingdom or military is purely fictional. There were some “knights” once regular tournaments were created that went from tourney to tourney to earn some quick money, but they were not the norm. Generally speaking, your most skilled combatants were to be found serving in military units. They may have been attached to a certain kingdom, barony, fiefdom, etc., or they may have been mercenaries.

The concept of the fantasy TTRPG adventurer would be based upon fictional artifice, from fantasy pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, or Robert E. Howard. These writers would influence the “New Wave” counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s. All of these works would provide the influence for Gary Gygax, et al., in creating the first fantasy TTRPGs. Then people started writing novels set in the worlds of those TTRPGs, and the influence started bleeding over into the entire genre, where everything started being the “Hero’s Journey”.

So we wind up with settings where magic is commonplace and functionally acts as a stand-in for technology. Case in point, the Forgotten Realms (FR) setting for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). FR is about as high fantasy as you can get. There are events known as a Rage of Dragons or a Flight of Dragons. This is when many dragons would collectively gather and go on a rampage. Keep in mind, dragons in FR make the dragons in GoT look like pathetic fire-breathing dumb lizards. There are also tribes of giants that will come out of the mountains to attack non-giant settlements. This is on top of wizards, clerics, wielders of Spellfire, literal children of gods, and numerous other monsters and powerful threats just walking around on a daily basis.

The idea that this world would have military forces structured like standard medieval European armies with cavalry, infantry, and missile units is ridiculous. They definitely would not be using tight formation “squares” for troop movements, because a single wizard could annihilate a massive amount of troops with a few properly located spells. Most armies in FR have air units, in the form of aerial “knights” mounted on griffon, hippogriff, pegasus, drake, or numerous other large flying creatures.

Here is where I think most HF goes wrong. The writers still try to pack all of this into the context of medieval European military structure. With all the magic and monsters, wars wouldn’t be fought in battles like Tours (732 CE), Hastings (1066 CE), Bouvines (1214 CE), Mohi (1241 CE), Agincourt (1415 CE), Castillon (1453 CE), or even Waterloo (1815, which was post-medieval). We have to look at magic as being an analog for technology when we consider the development of warfare.

This leads to World War I. HF air units are typically flying mounts or rather slow and cumbersome airships. These are analogous to biplanes and rigid gas airships. The initial usage for both was reconnaissance and communication, with biplane pilots occasionally taking shots at each other with pistols or dropping hand deployed bombs on units from overhead. By the end of WWI, biplanes would have mounted machine guns, which would forever change the face of warfare. In HF, you have spell-casters capable or raining down elemental fury upon the landscape or empowering inanimate objects. While a catapult on its own is a decent siege weapon for attacking enemy fortifications, it typically was not effective against individual units. However, have a magic user (MU) or an alchemist that can make that rock explode into a fiery inferno, and you have artillery units.

You no longer have a military that’s only good for “square” formation battles. You now have a ground force that is going to engage in trench warfare and tunneling operations, focused on smaller unit actions and skirmishes. Add in magic and magical creatures capable of making tunneling that much easier, not to mention subterranean species like dwarves, gnomes, goblins, and kobolds, and the face of the battlefield gets very three dimensional.

The more varied the battlefield tactics, the more specialist forces you wind up having. If there are those in your nation that can use healing magic, are you going to just go, “Nah, I see no reason to try and recruit them.” Of course you wouldn’t. Especially in settings where there are literal gods of war. A cleric of a god of war (who has access to healing spells) is probably going to enlist with whatever the local military is, or attach themselves to a mercenary unit. Then you have gods of healing. You better believe that the faithful of those gods would be acting as battlefield medics, even if they took vows of pacifism. You would have snipers. You would have camouflage forest stalkers. You would have hit and run units with a MU who could cast spells speeding those units up. You would also get “landmine” units, dropping magical explosive wards out in No-Man’s-Land, and you would get units specifically designated to locate and disarm those landmines.

Odds are, in a setting like that, most adventurers would probably have gained their specific sets of skills from military service, as the bulk of their abilities in a game like D&D are largely combat oriented, even when it comes to MUs.

“So, why shouldn’t we send the army to deal with that dungeon again?”

Context. In a HF world where you have all of these neurodivergent veteran “adventurers” on hand (seriously, anyone willing to do what an adventurer does has to be ND), who have formed little specialized squads designed to cover every type of small-scale threat a dungeon may pose, that odds are, are not even local citizens, and they will put their lives on the line for a handful of gold or gems upon completion of the task, along with whatever loot they find in said dungeon/abandoned mine/arcane tower/ancient crypt/etc., are you going to waste your military on a target that may not even actively be an imminent threat to your nation/city-state?

Nine Hells, no!

I’m going to post up that job on the local adventurer’s guild board and see who bites. I’ll probably even do it through an intermediary, so if T’hutuuuul the Lich gets annoyed by all the adventurers traipsing through his opulent crypt, he won’t necessarily know that the local government is trying to put a permanent end to him. Instead he is going to blame some faceless land development company that wants to build 50 thatched roof cottages where T’hutuuuul keeps his army of the dead. And good luck to T’hutuuuul to go through all the paperwork buried in a “clearly marked” subbasement of City Hall to find out who is actually behind “Dragon Valley View Development, LLC”.

So the King of Notaplace is going to keep his military in reserve for, you know, military actions. Now, he could send them into the Crypt of T’hutuuuul, and they would probably clear it out, piece by piece. But that’s prime real estate. Once the Notaplace Army is done with it, it will be an excavated crater. Admittedly, no more lich or undead army lurking around. Why use a force of 1,000 though, running the risk of death, disease, and injury (which if you are an even mildly benevolent or smart ruler, you take care of your military) to your troops, when you can hire out to successive groups of 4 to 8 scruffy adventurers with death wishes, until a group of them gets the job done? Because even with your trained troops with specialists tearing through that crypt stone by stone, they still have to take on a lich, and T’hutuuuul isn’t going down without a fight. Better the people dying are some randos that don’t even pay taxes.

It has nothing to do with your army being capable of disarming traps or not. Corporal Squeev, a kobold, who is part of your tunneling and traps corps is going to be just as capable of disarming the pressure plate trap than Hot-Hands MacGoogins, the halfling adventurer “rogue”.

“Adventurers can do things because they are PC classes, and anyone in the military is a NPC class, therefore they just don’t have the same abilities.”

This is one of the most ludicrous narrative pieces of D&D that persists. The idea that the player characters are somehow super specialized individuals, representing some insanely small percentage of the populace. 3rd edition introduced NPC classes, which were slightly depowered versions of the core PC classes. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but okay, it makes the PCs feel special and superior to everyone else running around in the world. I liked some of the NPC classes (especially the Mage-Wright introduced in Eberron), because they introduced classes that could occupy certain high fantasy roles, sometimes better than the PC classes. For instance, and Expert is geared to be really good at one trade skill/craft/profession. So, you could have an Expert sailor, blacksmith, or accountant. While any PC class could arguably also eventually gain expertise in one of these things, there are going to be people out there who don’t need to be combat experts in addition to being an accountant.

The only reason why not everyone walking around in D&D has levels in a “class” is for mechanical expediency, not because of any sort of internal setting consistency. D&D would even ditch the NPC classes in favor of tiered stat-blocks for various “challenge levels” of no-name NPC types in the current edition.

The weird thing that happens is an attempt to make the mechanical aspect of the game fit fictional stories set in those games. The concept that a 1st level Fighter, who may be an 18 year old kid that just picked up a sword or a 40 year old military veteran based upon the character’s background is ludicrous. The rules are as the rules are written, though, even if they have no real internal narrative logic. Instead, the writers tried for years to hammer in some sort of narrative meaning to PC classes and levels, and it has stuck.

But none of it makes sense in a setting like FR. Honestly, nothing makes sense in FR, because the setting has basically been smashed together over and over again with so many differing concepts and nations with different levels of technological/magical advancement, that none of it really works.

The military forces in that setting really don’t make any sense, where you have full-blown Euro-fantasy knights and medieval era forces in Cormyr; the Dalelands are organised militias; Mulmaster had a Beholder corps (only three actual Beholders, but still); the old Zhentarim being highly trained soldiers and clerics of Bane; Waterdeep having an army, navy, air force (griffons), a city watch, and an elite force of adventurers (Gray Hands); and then there’s Thay with its wizards (some living, some not exactly living), summoned planar beings, and undead forces.

So we get back to the initial question:

“Why aren’t my military forces going out to clear that ‘dungeon’ site again?”

Let us say your PCs have found themselves in command of an army. It happens in games. It has happened in games I’ve been a player in, and games I have been a GM in. This is a potential occurrence. Just because your players rise to a position where they have other things to worry about than clearing a dungeon, doesn’t mean those dungeons just vanished. I mean, maybe your adventurers were that good and did clear all the dungeons in the kingdom, and that’s how they became the rulers of that kingdom. That’s possible, I guess. Generally though, there’s always going to be a new “evil” wizard that decides to set-up shop in that abandoned piece of prime tower real estate out past the haunted woods. They have built up their kingdom, and there’s this issue brewing, that if not dealt with is going to be a bigger issue later. While they could go out and deal with it, there are other affairs of state that need to be seen to, and no one trusts the eunuch advisor to the ruling council to deal with that stuff, right?

Also, you don’t want to hire another group of adventurers, because hiring adventurers is what got the old rulers out of office and your group in. There’s a lot of funds to be had from those dungeons that could go in the kingdom’s coffers, but if you hire adventurers, that money is gone.

Now, you have a dilemma, because you have determined that the inhabitants on the “dungeon” pose a threat to the citizens of your kingdom. I don’t care how you came to that conclusion, but you did (and maybe you were very shortsighted in that determination, but here we are). You could do it yourselves, risking your own lives, and keeping all the sweet sweet loot for…your kingdom…yeah, your kingdom, but leaving the hands of day-to-day operations and diplomacy to that chamberlain whose always doing that steepling thing with his fingers; you could hire adventurers to do it, but then you lose all of that loot, and potentially set yourself up for challengers to your rule; or you could just send your trained military to utilize a more direct and practical solution where they will recover any of the riches contained for the kingdom’s coffers.

If your players want to do that…let them! Let them know (maybe through the chamberlain) that there could be unforeseen consequences to a military approach, and that it potentially leaves your kingdom open to other outside invaders while a portion of your army is out trying to forcibly evict some transient magic-user with an unsettling laugh.

Also, add in certain features like asking them what type of military they have been building in their kingdom? Did they focus on hiring veteran soldiers, or did they focus on recruiting local “green” levies? Have they recruited any war wizards or battle priests? Maybe they made a pact with the local druids to protect their sacred sites in exchange for a Beast Corps? Make recruitment, training, and maintenance of their military part of the game if that’s the direction they want to take. Especially if they want to start using their military to solve certain problems.

While, yes, their military CAN be used to resolve certain issues, there should always be consequences (which may be positive, negative, minor, or major). Perhaps if they become overly reliant on their military to resolve issues, the priesthood of the God of War starts gaining more and more influence over things in the kingdom? Maybe sending troops out to handle every little “incursion” starts making the soldiers get a bit frustrated with leadership?

There are effectively limitless ways to address why you shouldn’t use your military to clear a dungeon beyond, “Well, the soldiers just aren’t, ummmm, skilled in stuff that adventurers are because of, ummmm, the way the rules are written, and, ummmm, none of them are PC class because they’re, like, ummmm, untrained commoners.”

When you start making your world out so the adventurers are the 1% because they are just “better”, you are engaging in a specific style of power fantasy. Which, hey, if that’s your jam, enjoy. Just don’t pass it off as making any actual narrative logic unless you are playing in a setting where the PCs are literally demi-gods or in some way else specially anointed beyond the average person. Even then, there’s a whole bag of issues associated with “chosen one” type narratives.

So, in conclusion, any military force of note in a high fantasy setting should be composed of trained and specialized units as well as standard foot soldiers (who themselves are not “untrained”). These various roles would cover anything that an adventuring party would normally be skilled at doing, and may even be better at doing it than an adventuring party. However, if you start using your military to accomplish tasks that could be served by private sector operators, you run the risk of becoming overly reliant on your military, and setting the stage for a future military coup, or at least your own power base being eroded to the point you are a mere puppet of the military. Better to think of adventurers as being “specialized” and 100% expendable private operators, that you only have to bother paying if they succeed in their task (only the smart ones with attorneys get a portion of their money up front to use for “operational expenses”).

Political/Societal Critique in Table-Top Gaming: or, When did gaming get so political?

Content Warning: this post contains references to genocide, racist stereotypes, murder, violent assault, and derogatory terms used to describe members of certain marginalized communities. This post also contains strong language.

The gaming sphere is an interesting place, with its own little microcosms forming throughout. Table-top Games alone covers several sub-categories like Board Games (BG), Wargames (WG, including the subset of Miniature Wargames (MWG)), Card Games (CG, including Collectible Card Games (CCG)), and Table-top Role-playing Games (TTRPG). These games occupy a liminal space between art and entertainment (not a reference to the Liminal TTRPG published by Modiphius Entertainment). None of them are passive activities. The players actively engage in the playing of the game. Rules may be very structured, as is the case with most conventional board games and card games; or they may be more abstract, as can be observed in certain Table-top Role-playing Games.

Try as people might, many of these games, like a great deal of art and entertainment, contain “political” messaging, at least what we currently refer to as “political”.

Take the classic board game of all board games Monopoly. The original creator, Lizzie Magie, was an anti-monopolist. Her game (The Landlord’s Game, 1906) was supposed to be an educational tool to explain the evils of resource monopolies. It is still in the game today, but most people don’t get that as a player owns more of a property (or utility) section, they charge people more for its usage, eventually forcing all other players into bankruptcy. Ultimately, one person owns all and the game ends. There is no further competition. It is incredibly blatant in its messaging, even after Charles Darrow stole the idea and sold it to Parker Brothers in the 1930s, remodeling the board after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey (although now you can find local variants renamed after Your Town!).

Considering how many of us have played Monopoly at some point, and probably had a huge argument between family/friends over a game, how did any of us manage to grow up not understanding what the point was of the game? I mean, this game is probably responsible for more damaged relationships than any other in modernity. Shouldn’t we understand by now the reason why? I think it is clear by now that whatever educational message that Lizzie Magie intended, most of us missed the point.

And Monopoly is not alone in this. With many table-top games, the narratives are built into the rules, but the idea of creating a massive “sandbox” narrative space for these games is something of a more recent development. For instance, while Cluedo, 1949 (aka Clue for us uncouth North Americans), tells a mystery story, it is contained to 6 characters, 6 weapons, and 9 rooms. This creates a rather large number of possible solutions to the game (324 combinations to be exact), but it is not really a narrative world, at least not until the 1985 film Clue, which may be the only known board game to make the leap to the silver screen (I could be wrong here, but I am not aware of another, with Jumanji 1995 being based off of a book by Chris Van Allsburg, and Zathura 2005 also being based off of a book by the same author).

TTRPGs would really open the door to establishing a larger “world” than what was necessarily being played out on the table. Most board games were self-contained universes when there was a narrative involved, as in Monopoly, Cluedo/Clue, or The Game of Life. Other games like checkers, backgammon, or poker had no associated narrative, or if they once did, it is effectively now lost. Classic table-top wargaming would sometimes have a narrative element, such as the ever popular recreations in miniature of the Battle of Waterloo. Being well versed in the historic context allowed “players” in these wargames to be more familiar with the forces under their control. The narrative was not exactly what we would consider “open”, in the sense that there are not events occurring outside of the immediate parameters of the game. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and even Old West and Contemporary setting TTRPGs opened the door for players to delve into wholly constructed narrative settings or alternate history settings where anything could potentially be altered. This differs from wargaming the Battle of Waterloo, because even if the Napoleonic forces were victorious, the game ends and resets. In a TTRPG campaign, the game doesn’t have to “end” with the victory of Napoleon at Waterloo. Events in the narrative can continue beyond that point, if the narrative calls for it.

You got your politics in my game!” or, Ignoring the History of Gaming

I observe this statement a lot these days in gaming spaces, especially in TTRPG-space. (I also observe it frequently in other art/entertainment spheres like comic books and movies). It is ignorant. It is ignorant of the fact that things like “politics”, “ethics”, and “morality” have played a role in table-top game development for ages. Look no further than the introduction of the 9 square dual-axis alignment chart (or 9-grid) in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1977. Alignment existed in iterations prior to AD&D, but it didn’t really become the highly familiar 9-grid standard until this edition of the game. In its traditional format the horizontal (X) axis is the “ethical” position while the vertical (Y) axis is the “moral” position of the player character. “Ethical” alignments are Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic; “Moral” positions are Good, Neutral, and Evil. The origin on this chart is Neutral/Neutral, otherwise known as True Neutral. If you do not understand how this element of the game is political, I have a startling revelation for you. Gary Gygax himself used real world figures and political movements as examples of the various alignment combinations, and they were not always what someone might expect:

“Paladins are not stupid, and in general there is no rule of Lawful Good against killing enemies. The old adage about nits making lice applies. Also, as I have often noted, a paladin can freely dispatch prisoners of Evil alignment that have surrendered and renounced that alignment in favor of Lawful Good. They are then sent on to their reward before they can backslide.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is by no means anything but Lawful and Good. Prisoners guilty of murder or similar capital crimes can be executed without violating any precept of the alignment. Hanging is likely the usual method of such execution, although it might be beheading, strangulation, etc. A paladin is likely a figure that would be considered a fair judge of criminal conduct.

The Anglo-Saxon punishment for rape and/or murder of a woman was as follows: tearing off of the scalp, cutting off of the ears and nose, blinding, chopping off of the feet and hands, and leaving the criminal beside the road for all bypassers to see. I don’t know if they cauterized the limb stumps or not before doing that. It was said that a woman and child could walk the length and breadth of England without fear of molestation then… 

Chivington might have been quoted as saying “nits make lice,” but he is certainly not the first one to make such an observation as it is an observable fact. If you have read the account of Wooden Leg, a warrior of the Cheyenne tribe that fought against Custer et al., he dispassionately noted killing an enemy squaw for the reason in question.

…  

I am not going to waste my time and yours debating ethics and philosophy. I will state unequivocally that in the alignment system as presented in OAD&D, an eye for an eye is lawful and just, Lawful Good, as misconduct is to be punished under just laws. 

Lawful Neutrality countenances malign laws. Lawful Good does not. 

Mercy is to be displayed for the lawbreaker that does so by accident. Benevolence is for the harmless. Pacifism in the fantasy milieu is for those who would be slaves. They have no place in determining general alignment, albeit justice tempered by mercy is a NG manifestation, whilst well-considered benevolence is generally a mark of Good.

With regard to pacifism, that is aprpos, also with regards to atheism in the FRPG where there are active deities. Only idiocy or mental derangement could explain such absurd beliefs in such a milieu.”

– Gary Gygax 2005, Dragonsfoot Forums (“…” denotes break between posts, signature and salutation lines edited out)

Words right from the “creator”, and if you do not observe a “political” message within those words, I ask that you consider them again. The fact that Gygax quoted John M. Chivington, Methodist pastor, colonel in the U.S. Army, and mass murderer of non-combatant Native Americans, and lumps him in with Lawful Good is problematic to say the least. Gygax made many problematic statements in his life, but this one is the one that you find most frequently popping up. There’s a reason for this. The reason is that in a history of problematic depictions of non-white characters and cultures, this quote lays his views bare. Genocide/mass murder can be done by people and they still remain “good” and “lawful”, so long as they believe themselves to be preventing the spread of a “greater evil”. Which…just…NO. You don’t get to still be the “good guy” when you go around murdering non-combatants, but it definitely illustrates some encounters in older adventure modules where your characters are encouraged to wipe out non-combatant “monsters” so they won’t pose a future threat and not have it shift your alignment towards “Evil”. He goes on to say that if intelligent “humanoids” (goblins, orcs, etc. are considered as such by Gygax, while Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are “demi-human”) were to surrender, a “Good” aligned character could kill their POWs without jeopardizing their alignment, and not doing so would be “stupid”, while an “Evil” character would just enlist these “humanoid” POWs as their minions.

Now, it would be great if when we used the term “political” we were communicating about levels of taxation, allocation of taxes, infrastructure, and what I would consider to be the more mundane functions of government. That is not the reality of current usage, however. Issues such as should one person have the same rights, protections, and liberties as another person are instead viewed as “political” instead of fundamental issues of human rights, decency, and respect. Through Gygax’s posts, he divided up intelligent and self-aware beings into several categories: Human, Demi-Human, and Humanoid. Keep in mind, all are intelligent and capable of independent thought and action. Only humans, though, are fully actualized and not in some way governed by some sort of programmed biological or genetic determinism. Dwarves gravitated towards Law and Good, while Elves were inclined towards Chaos and Good (Gygax was heavily inspired by both Tolkien and Moorcock, which explains some of these alignment biases). Orcs were originally Neutral in versions prior to AD&D, but were then codified alongside the other Humanoid goblinoids as Evil. Not just inclined towards Evil. Evil from birth. Because in Gygax’s mind, only humans can truly choose their path. Demi-Humans have inclinations one way or the other. Humanoids have no choice. They are how their gods made them.

And if you have ever read any of the writings of proponents of the eugenics movement, you will start to notice some very disturbing similarities. It becomes difficult to overlook the nasty truth about Gygax, and how his own worldview seeped into the game he created, which leads to the cycling every couple of years back to the controversy about Orcs. I think it is clear from Gygax’s reference to what he considers to be the “truth” regarding Chivington’s horrific statement. In case you did not understand, Chivington was not actually talking about lice: He was alluding to Native Americans as pestilent parasitic insects and how even the children should be murdered lest they grow up and become enemy combatants or sources of another generation. In short, Chivington was a believer in genocide against Native Americans. Gygax goes on to say that this is not only “Lawful” but also “Good” as far as he is concerned, because even the Native American known as Wooden Leg talked about killing an “enemy” woman from another Native American tribe. (I have not read Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer by Thomas Baily Marquis, 1931, so I do not know specifically what Gygax was referencing, or why Wooden Leg allegedly killed this woman for, “the reason in question.”)

All of this is political in context, and contained within what many consider to be the progenitor or contemporary TTRPGs.

What is really being communicated when someone complains about politics in gaming is that they are happy with the politics presented in the game as written, or at least the politics that they interpret as being in line with their own, and do not want to see it changed. They want their characters to be able to murder stand-ins for Native Americans or whatever group they consider to be sub-human, and still have those characters get to be the “good guys”. Because they want to think of themselves as the “good guys”. Most people don’t go through life thinking of themselves as the villains, and the creator of the game out-and-out signaling to players in writing that murdering other human beings, including infants and children, is still “Good” and “Lawful” is as blatant a message as you can get. (If it isn’t obvious yet, that message is one of white European “manifest destiny”, aka Colonialism/Imperialism.)

And a large portion of the TTRPG community is not willing to have that conversation.

Then there are times when the intentions are a swing and a miss. In 1987 the British gaming company Games Workshop/Citadel Miniatures (which started out making miniature figures in the U.K. for D&D) launched a sci-fi TTRPG/MWG called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (40k) by Rick Priestly, with Bryan Ansell and Richard Halliwell expanding the rules and setting in supplements. According to Priestly, the setting was influenced by Tolkien, Lovecraft, Frank Herbert, John Milton, and the anti-authoritarian “punk” comic book line 2000 AD (if you aren’t familiar, that’s the comic line where Judge Dredd originated). This was during the Thatcher administration in the U.K., which received a great deal of criticism for pushing what opponents saw as an authoritarian police-state. These anti-authoritarian themes, along with themes of cosmic horror, populate the early iterations of 40k. The Imperium of Man is an ultra-authoritarian (some might even say fascist) empire, following an Emperor who may or may not even be alive, fueled by a corrupt priesthood/bureaucracy and zealous xenophobia. The Imperium presents itself as the bulwark against Chaos, but will not think twice about eradicating an entire planet of “xenos” or even humans, because of some arcane concept of genetic purity. In short, the Imperium were not supposed to be viewed as the “good guys” in the setting. Rogue Trader was more designed for the players to take on the actions of a small squad drawn potentially from various corners of the galaxy, some human, some not, trying to survive in between a dystopian fascist empire, Alien xenomorph inspired Tyranids and Genestealers, and the growing tide of Chaos. It was, in short, political. However, something rather unpleasant happened: a lot of the players were not anti-establishment “punks”. They were teenage boys and adult men with disposable income shelling out pounds sterling/dollars to purchase metal and plastic miniatures. The various Space Marine chapters of the Imperium went from highly trained soldiers with cybernetic enhancements to genetically engineered super-soldiers, all with their own flavor of fervent religious zeal towards the Imperium. The Space Marines would be the top-selling and most popular force. The TTRPG elements would be entirely scrapped after Rogue Trader (eventually a 40k TTRPG would be released in 2008 by Black Industries/Fantasy Flight Games, with the majority of the game books focused on players as human agents of the Imperium. The TTRPG would be discontinued from support by Fantasy Flight Games in 2017 after their license was not renewed with Games Workshop). 40k would also spawn a massive amount of novels and short stories (collected under the Black Library imprint).

Even Games Workshop has had to come to terms with the fact that their game universe has been embraced by authoritarian fascists. The ironic/satirical vision of Priestly was paved over by “Space Marines look cool” fash-fanboys with cash to spare. Writers who were trying to illustrate the horrors of an authoritarian high-tech religious state were confronted by an audience who just didn’t see it as a nightmarish vision. They saw these Marines, Inquisitors, and Imperial Guardsmen as being heroes trying to uphold the “purity of Man”. This culminated in the release of a public statement referred to as the “You will not be missed” statement on June 4, 2020:

Alt-text caption. Image reads: Warhammer is for Everyone. One of the great powers of our hobby is its ability to bring people together in common cause, to build bonds and friendships that cross divides. We believe in and support a community united by shared values of mutual kindness and respect. Our fantasy settings are grim and dark, but that is not a reflection of who we are or how we feel the real world should be. We will never accept nor condone any form of prejudice, hatred or abuse in our company or in the Warhammer hobby. We will continue to diversify the cast of characters we portray through miniatures, art and storytelling so everyone can find representation and heroes they can relate to. And if you feel the same way, wherever and whoever you are, we’re glad you are part of the Warhammer community. If not, you will not be missed. (Symbol of Warhammer logo.)

Seems like a pretty straight-forward political message, right? And really, it is one the most clear-cut messages from a big game producer to date. (Wizards of the Coast on the other hand will flat-out ban releases from the DM’s Guild that make clear anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, or other “politically targeted” statements.) The result? A very loud wave of protest from those who refuse to be pushed out of their pro-fash game, complaining about it silencing their political freedoms, which has led Games Workshop to basically go radio silent in response, instead of doubling down and reiterating with follow-up, “We said what we said,” statements.

40k is an example of what happens when political satire/irony fails. Because when it fails, it fails hard. It will still be some time before we find out the monetary impact of Games Workshop’s position, and whether they will follow-up. At the time of this writing, the statement is only about 10 weeks old, and with the global COVID-19 pandemic production, distribution, and sales will have been impacted. What we do know, it that in its 33 years of existence, 40k has managed to attract a fervent fan-base of pro-fascists and white supremacists, to the extent that fans who are in opposition to those platforms have been driven away from the game. We also know that the designers have leaned into those elements, because they move product. This is what I personally refer to in pop-culture as the “Empire Effect”, a reference to the Galactic Empire of Star Wars, also known as the “Evil Is Cool” trope which is the inverse of “Good Is Boring” trope.

This isn’t to say that Games Workshop has not made attempts to counter the Imperium in their own setting. In 2001 a new playable faction would be introduced to 40k: the Tau (later redesignated as T’au). The T’au would be a relatively young faction (only around 6,000 years) and were presented as idealistic and somewhat naive, with an ideology dedicated to service of the “Greater Good”. Some fans responded positively to the new addition, seeing them as a bright point of light in a dark galaxy. The most vocal members of the fan-base branded them as pandering to “political correctness” and alleging that their presence undermined the universe of 40k. The T’au would be rewritten over the years, transforming them from idealists to yet another rigid authoritarian state, willing to use mind-control or genocide against those who do not bend to their unique interpretation of the “Greater Good”. Because of course the fandom couldn’t be presented with playing an option that wouldn’t make the skin of an empathetic person crawl. Clearly the only options available should be one of the Imperium of Man forces, or some other iteration of a blatantly evil or dying civilization. Basically, the loudest (and often most virulent and capable of real-world violence) members of the fandom couldn’t stand for a faction that suggested the possibility of strength through inclusion and diversity that the T’au originally represented. The original version of the T’au presented did not believe in forcible expansion or the destruction of other cultures and species, while understanding that some things stood in opposition to the philosophy of the “Greater Good”. For instance, human worlds would be accepted into the T’au Empire, without those humans having to necessarily give up their own humanity or cultural identity, but adherence to the Imperium of Man’s zealous xenophobia would not be allowed. There’s a whole essay’s worth of analysis regarding the philosophic argument regarding the limits of tolerance in that first published version of the T’au that could be done, but I’m not going to do that here today. What then happened was a shift in presentation of the T’au as willing to turn to mind-control and other nefarious practices to push their agenda (which also feeds into the fears and beliefs of some real-world extremists that “progressives” are willing to use mind-control techniques to corrupt people into believing their SJW/Liberal agenda). The T’au shifted from being an idealistic collectivist group of xenos trying to make their corner of the galaxy a better place, to just being another tainted galactic empire.

I use 40k as a primary example of how, “Keep your politics out of my game,” is actually a battle-cry for, “Keep YOUR politics out of MY game, but allow MY politics to stay in MY game.” Because the politics have always been there, just as much as they have been present in D&D, R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk, or Paranoia. The politics are there, and have been, no matter how much a certain portion of the fandom wants to howl that it is all some sort of liberal mind-control plot to make people more accepting of those not exactly like them or to…*gasp*…not destroy the habitability of our world through pollution or religious zealotry. Or in the case of Paranoia about how we should be worried about communism…or capitalism…maybe AI…really, just be worried about all of the things, because any sort of extremist viewpoint is going to mess things up in a big way.

The two primary examples I focus on here, D&D and Warhammer 40k, illustrate different ends of political influence and the development of those games. D&D had baked into it a concept sometimes referred to as biological or genetic determinism, the concept that behavior is controlled by a person’s genetics. We see this through the presentation of the non-human intelligent species categories of demi-humans and humanoids. Demi-humans still exert some degree of variance, just with certain moral and ethical tendencies, while humanoids are by their very nature follow a certain moral and ethical nature. Only humans are not bound by this (and let’s face it, the humans presented in these early iterations of the game were almost always white-coded civilizations). 40k on the other hand started out with political commentary of its time also baked in, which was ironic criticism of a singular church and state combined under a zealously xenophobic authoritarian empire that was literally crumbling around it from the weight of corruption and a general inability to understand the weight of their own technological advancements, but you know, with space elves and orks.

Warning: Usage of strong language after this point! Also, Steve is not a reference to any actual individual person. I use it as a place-holder and I apologize to any cool people named Steve that may read this. If you are a Steve, and you are a jerk, I do not apologize.

Both of these extremely popular and profitable games have found themselves at the mercy of assholes who want to control the intellectual property. Those assholes found the former because it was fundamentally made for them with the conquering evil “savages” and looting the holy sites of foreigners themes. Hells, player characters are given incentive in early editions to kill whatever they encounter for treasure and experience points. It is only through such brute force conquest that your characters advance. The latter attracted the very authoritarian/fascist assholes it was critiquing, because of course they were attracted to what was effectively an empire of fucking Space Nazis. Yeah, I know, there’s people who will come in to defend the usage of the Totenkaupf (skull & crossbones) saying that the Wafen-SS weren’t the only ones to use that iconography, insinuating that sci-fi fascists like the Galactic Empire from Star Wars (stormtrooper helmets are designed to look like skulls), the Coalition from Rifts TTRPG, and the Imperium of Man from 40k are not specifically taking up Nazi imagery. Those assholes are wrong! Yeah, I get it, pirates used skull and crossbones designs also. Those three fictional organizations are clearly NOT modeled after the Pirates of the Caribbean! Yeah, I get it, fucking Space Marines with guns that go BOOM! Not all of them are presented as evil. But they serve a genocidal fascist empire. The Imperium of Man are genocidal fascist Space Nazis! The imagery isn’t subtle.

The problem with 40k is that the creators apparently weren’t blunt enough about the Imperium, because I truly believe they just expected people to get that the Imperium are NOT the “good guys”. As a whole, they aren’t even the “neutral guys”. The Imperium reeks of oozing, putrescent, decrepit evil. Now, am I saying only assholes play Imperium? No. No more than Peter Cushing was an asshole for playing Grand Moff Tarkin (everything I’ve ever read about Peter Cushing was that he was a charming and humorous man, who was also an ardent miniature wargamer who painted his own minis). The problem isn’t simply the “Evil Is Cool” trope at play, but that Games Workshop leaned into it for so long that it attracted some of the worst personality types to its game because of the faction that it featured as the protagonists in its setting. Sure, anyone with a critical eye can look at the setting lore and go, “Oh, the Imperium is fucking evil, Steve,” but if Steve is a closet-case or out-in-the-open Nazi, he is going to start quote-texting lore material to back up how the Emperor is all that stands between humanity and destruction at the hands of xenos or Chaos. It shouldn’t even be a question. It shouldn’t even be a position remotely capable of defense. Because if Steve is trying to convince you that the Imperium of Man are the good guys, Steve has some political beliefs that have nothing to do with this miniature wargame hobby. Maybe ask Steve what his thoughts are on women, immigrants (especially those who are not white), or the LGBTQIA+ community are? Maybe ask Steve what he thinks about Black Lives Matter or Antifa?

This is where the Games Workshop “You will not be missed” (see above) statement comes back into play. Maybe it was too little, too late. I hope not, because one day I would like to come back to 40k, because I have over $1,000 invested in minis, and odds are no one is going to want to buy a couple of armies in various stages of assembly and painting. But before I come back to it, yes, the assholes need to be run out of that space. There’s a couple of reasons why the women gamers I know don’t play 40k, and very few non-white gamers I know have either minimal interest or avoid it:

  1. Little to no representation. This has become better in recent years, but traditionally if you wanted to play forces that were women, you were restricted to Eldar (who were somewhat androgynous), Dark Eldar, and Adepta Sororitas. That has been expanding, with women now featured in the ranks of the Imperial Guard, but there is still minimal representation. If you are not white, representation has been minimal since some of the original materials printed in old issues of White Dwarf magazine or in The Citadel Journal. Back in the early days of the hobby, players would submit their modded miniature designs, along with lore to go with them. It was awesome, and there was a greater deal of fan-driven representation, with Asian, Hispanic, and African culturally influenced worlds and even Space Marine chapters. Imperium worlds and Space Marines were often shown more as being bedraggled forces on the frontier just trying to survive in an incredibly hostile galaxy, who may just as easily team up with Eldar and Orks to push back Genestealer cultists and Tyranid hordes instead of fighting them. Now, if you are Black, there’s pretty much just the Salamander Chapter of Space Marines whose Primarch, Vulkan, is depicted as a Black man, and whose gene-seed turns all of his genetic “children” Black as well, no matter what they were prior to being blessed with his gene-seed. (Let’s maybe not go into too much detail on the implications of that bit of lore.) Some sources refer to the White Scars as “asian/Chinese/mongol”, and Dark Angels recruiting from “feral” worlds with Native American connotations (ugh, no, I do not care for that); and
  2. There are a glut of gate-keeping white men who play the game, who make damn sure that anyone who isn’t a (straight) white man doesn’t feel welcome at the table. Honestly, this has been fairly common in TTRPG, MWG, and CCG spaces for years on the player side (not even going to dig into the issues on the development/production side in this post to any significant degree, but that is a huge issue as well). I focus on 40k because every group that I’ve even tried to belong to has at least one out-and-proud fucking Nazi that the rest of the group tolerates. “Well, yeah, Steve’s an asshole, but he also sucks at the game, and everyone feels better when they win against Steve.” The problem is, if you dare try to shut Steve up when he goes off on one of his pro-fash rants (which happens regularly), you get told by the rest of the group to shut up, because Steve dumps a lot of money on the reg, and, “I mean, is he really hurting anyone?” Basically, you get branded the asshole and possibly banned from the group for calling out a dude who is openly misogynistic, racist, and who literally wears Nazi symbols and shit! I’ve played a LOT of games, but 40k is the only game where I have had to deal with literal fucking out-and-proud Nazis on a regular basis!

Maybe I’ve just had horrible luck with the stores I’ve tried to find games in, but online forums and groups on social media sites don’t disabuse me of that notion.

But the push-back to the “You will not be missed” is this:

“You say Warhammer is for everyone, but then you say it isn’t for me, because I believe in the superiority of the Aryan race, and the inferiority of all others, and I see those beliefs echoed in the Imperium of Man. How can you say I am not welcome in Warhammer 40k when you (Games Workshop) literally have my ideology ingrained into your heroic faction! And clearly it isn’t for everyone if you want to gate-keep me out of the game!”

First up, Games Workshop’s statement is pretty clear: their games are meant to be played and enjoyed no matter what the immutable characteristics of their players are, such as ethnicity, national origin, religious viewpoints (or lack thereof), gender identity, etc. However, people make the choice to be fascist assholes. It isn’t like there is a lack of information available on how the Nazi ideology was evil. Being a believer in ethnic cleansing, genetic superiority, and all that shit is a choice. Let me be very clear, it is a very awful choice that by making you decide to invalidate the existence of entire chunks of humanity. There can be no mutual kindness and respect with someone who literally wants to see you dead for being you. Not because of choices you made, but because of who you ARE. And when YOU make the choice to let someone like that sit at your table, you are signaling to those they want to see dead that they are not safe with YOU either.

I singled out the damned Nazis in this post, because that’s what I’ve seen most of in 40k space, most often trying to hide it behind a thin veneer of “Space Wolves and Sigmar are my Germanic/Northern European heritage!” Really though, it also applies to any authoritarian white supremacists, even if they don’t strictly adhere to Nazism. And save me with your, “Well what about the anti-cis-het-white-man gaming groups? I’m not welcome in their safe space!” Yeah, there’s a reason for that. And here’s the thing, as a white cis-het man, I can always find a group. And you know what else? Some of those groups that don’t want your presence have invited me in, and sometimes I’ve accepted, and we’ve all had a lot of fun. Other times I’ve declined, because I knew they were only inviting me to be cool, but really it was going to upset one or more of the members of the group, and someone was nice enough to point it out to my incapable-of-detecting-certain-social-cues-ass. Honestly, I don’t think I would want to play in a group where one or more of the members of that group wanted to literally see me dead, but I’ve only had to deal with that with cis-het-white-man groups. And other times, no, I’m not welcome, and that’s cool too, because people like me have long dominated the public spaces. I don’t take it personally, because I make an effort to think critically about why someone might not feel 100% safe around me, even though I may not have done anything specifically. It is called having empathy, and it isn’t a weakness.

Seriously, I have received death threats from an angered white dude in a gaming group before, and “noped” right the hell out of there because it was clear I was no longer safe or respected. The other members of that group backed their violent “friend” because, “he was going through a rough time.” I never spoke with any of those people again, because it was clear where their priorities were. I have NEVER had this response from anyone other than a white man in a gaming space.

Back to 40k, and how it is an interesting game to study: 40k requires a certain amount of space to play, and not only does each player need a decent number of minis to play, but you also are probably going to need terrain, tape measures, acrylic area of effect templates, dice, and a whole lot of other stuff. This means that either you have someone willing to dedicate sufficient space in their home to let their group come over and play during certain days/times (and a two-player game can stretch on for hours depending on the victory conditions set), or you play in a local gaming shop that either has “public” tables (and plastic tubs full of usable terrain) or “private” spaces you can rent out. (I have known some groups that will reserve meeting rooms in the local public library, but this still means carting around tubs of terrain.) If you do not live in a major metro area, your choice of venue is going to be limited, as will be your pool of other players. If that venue is a local gaming shop where the 40k group uses the “public” tables, then you cross your fingers and pray to the whatever gods may be listening that they strictly enforce certain behavior guidelines and have zero tolerance for racist, mysoginistic, homophobic, and transphobic fuckery. If they aren’t ready to boot the guy who starts going off about how the Holocaust was a hoax, and have that policy clearly posted on the door and above every gaming table (and actually enforce it), then you may have no other possible venue to play at. That’s it. The hobby is shut down for you, when all you wanted to do was play a game with some other people and not have to deal with them flinging hatred and bigotry while they roll to see what sort of damage their heavy bolter is doing to your mob of grotz.

And when the producer of that game comes out and says, “Yo! Yes, you! The asshole who flings around hate and bile! That’s right, you! Stop playing our game! Get out! Spend your money with a company that wants you! We don’t!” The correct thing to do is recognize that the makers of the game do not want you harassing other people. They are flat-out saying that you missed some major clues signaling why these fascists may not be the good guys after all. Not only are they saying that the assholes are not welcome in their gaming community, they are saying that they lack some very fundamental critical thinking skills that if they possessed should have picked up the flashing “EVIL FASCIST EMPIRE” indicators.

What Games Workshop is NOT doing is taking full responsibility for the atmosphere that has enabled these boors to populate the landscape for so long. Games Workshop is not recognizing that they leaned into 40k as a white-man-fascist space fantasy and buried a lot of the early more diverse depictions of the setting in favor of only white flavored euro-gothic imagery.

Not only does Games Workshop need to continue clearly signaling to the new wave of Nazis and other bigots that they need to move on from the hobby, the company needs to own up on its role in this. And then, they need to actually do better with their games. Not just in representation in the game through art and minis, but also behind the scenes with writers and artists.

And lest you think I’m letting the other giant in the room off the hook, D&D has a long way to go as well. Lately there have been a lot of pandering messages being put out to the people who want the game to be more inclusive, both on the player-side and the production/development side, but they have not yet put in the work to make players like me come back. They have not directly addressed the very problematic underpinnings related to Gygax’s views on alignment and alignment-by-race. They continue to profit from older materials from the TSR and early WotC days in editions past that have extremely problematic “fantasy” depictions of real-world non-white cultures. Perhaps most telling is that they still have not made any effort to diversify the behind-the-scenes leadership, and rely upon a model of primarily hiring freelance writers and artists that do not get any sort of benefits that an actual employee would be entitled to.

To loop all the way back to my initial question of when did gaming get so political, the answer is that it always has been. Sadly, the politics involved have often favored the white guy assholes who were largely responsible for creating the games to begin with. Even in situations where the game was meant to critique those political positions, the assholes still managed to shove their way into it, and convince the publisher that they were the real market for the product. Now we see the real-world political landscape of North America and Europe impacting the various spheres of table-top gaming as “progressives” want to see more inclusion and diversity within games, and “conservatives” believing that these games belong to them and are inseparable from their white, predominantly euro-christian dominant, cultures. They see the inclusion of a Black woman in their uber-white fantasy setting as some sort of crippling blow to everything they hold dear. The idea of a player character being able to use a wheelchair in a setting with dragons and magic that can open portals between planes of existence is treated as if it is some sort of death blow to everything they hold dear because it isn’t “realistic” or it “breaks immersion”. In a world that has minotaurs and clockwork living constructs that can cast fireballs, a wheelchair is just a step too far for them.

To the disingenuous jerks of the world, who think that others need to just take their abuse willingly, it was always political. We’re just done letting you and yours be in charge. And it looks like the gaming industry is starting to take note because you aren’t the only ones making noise anymore.

So for the other table-top gamers out there that want to see more people of different backgrounds welcome in our gaming spheres, we need to get political, and we need to be loud, and we need to send the message loud and clear not just to the assholes at the table, but to the gaming industry as a whole, that our money spends just as well as that of the assholes, and reaching a wider audience by blocking them out means a bigger financial benefit.

On top of it all (if any TTRPG producers are bothering to read this), you get to make money and sleep better at night knowing you aren’t enabling white power fantasies.

Dungeon Delving: or, “Why are we going into that hole in the ground?”

Content Warning: this post contains references to fictional death/murder scenarios.

The dungeon is a time-honored feature of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). It is even in the title of the most ubiquitous TTRPG of all time.

But what is a dungeon, and why are the player characters (PCs) delving into it?

Traditionally the dungeon was a subterranean structure populated by monsters, traps, and treasure. One of the earliest instances was Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game that started up in 1970-71 (considered by some to be the first Fantasy TTRPG campaign ever). Basically, there were subterranean dungeons, catacombs, and ancient lairs beneath Castle Blackmoor that the party was tasked with clearing. Gary Gygax would latch onto the concept as well, with some of the original Dungeons & Dragons games being nothing but massive dungeons mapped out over numerous sheets of graph paper. I’m curious if graph paper sales surged in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with the growing popularity of TTRPGs during those decades, before most players turned to computer mapping programs to do most of this?

In these early dungeon crawls, there was only a loose objective, such as, “There’s an evil lich that has set up shop beneath Castle Tengreeves,” or, “A red dragon is dwelling in the dungeon beneath the ruins of Arbormoon,” and maybe the big bad evil monster would be harassing local villages, but generally the motivation was big bad evil monster has a lot of treasure (which may or may not have including something magical). So, the PCs may never really experience life outside of a dungeon during game-play. This was the structure in the very early days, but by the time adventure modules started coming out in the second half of the 70s, the writers started adding in deeper plot elements to the dungeons, and the term “dungeon” became more of an abstract term.

Today, “dungeon” could refer to any setting in a TTRPG. It is a generalized piece of terminology to reference any location prime for exploration, skill usage events, and combat. Playing a cyberpunk genre game? That corporate office your team has to infiltrate is a dungeon. Playing a sci-fi space opera? That derelict space station is a dungeon. Playing a game set on the high seas? That pirate ship your crew has to board is a dungeon.

“Wait. What does NOT qualify as a dungeon?”

The banquet hall where the PCs are having dinner with the local city council is not a dungeon if all that is occurring is an enclosed scene. But, if that banquet hall is in a manor house and during dinner the lights go out and there’s a murder, for the PCs to discover that they are locked in the manor house until the murderer is discovered (or they all die, whichever happens first), then it becomes a part of a dungeon, or a “room”.

Think of it in terms of boundaries. A location for a single scene, with really only one event occurring in it is just the setting for that scene. This event could be combat.

Example: an altar to an inscrutable entity that has been summoned forth, and the PCs must engage in combat with it and its evil cohorts. That is a single location or “room”. No exploration is going to occur. The PCs arrive there, some narrative dialogue occurs, then combat. The boundaries of that setting are limited, with it effectively being one room and one event. A dungeon is an interconnected series of such “rooms”.

Think of a dungeon like you would a flow-chart. You have Point A (point of entry: which could literally be where the PCs physically enter the dungeon, or it could be the plot-hook that initiates the chain of events) and Point Z (the ultimate objective of the dungeon). In between those, you have a variety of other points, which could indicate physical rooms or events. Some of these interim points on the flow-chart are one-way.

Example: “one-way doors” that vanish, collapse, or otherwise become incapable of usage once used. Another example is if there is a prisoner in the room with valuable information. The PCs free the prisoner, and the prisoner will tell them anything they ask before trying to exit the dungeon (better hope the way back was cleared of traps and monsters by the PCs). The PCs fail to ask the prisoner certain questions, and the prisoner leaves. Once gone, the PCs can not back-track to get that information. That event is also a “one-way door”, just as much as the passageway that collapsed or vanished behind the PCs.

Now, keep in mind that players can get very creative. Let them. Don’t stifle their creative solutions to certain situations. Maybe instead of letting the prisoner just escape out, they heal the prisoner, give them some water and rations, and then equip them with spare gear and tell them they are now part of the crew? Let them, and don’t punish them for it just because you didn’t consider the possibility and develop a reason why that won’t work. Don’t start targeting the prisoner with traps and enemies to eliminate the players’ creative solution (that doesn’t mean the prisoner should have plot armor, just don’t go out of your way to kill them off). Players, like life, will find a way. Embrace that! I guarantee that the experience will be more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Do not…I repeat…DO NOT tell the players, “no,” just because the book you are running from (or your own flow-chart) doesn’t specifically allow or disallow a certain action.

Example: The description of the room states that it is, “Carved from the very stone of the mountain. The PCs entered from a passageway from the west. There is a metal grate in the center of the floor, embedded in the stone. To the south is a stone slab door with a ringed handle in the center.” The PCs decide to see if they can remove the grate, and if the passage beneath it is large enough for the party’s gnome to slide into. The description of the room simply states that the grate is embedded in the stone, not that the grate is absolutely incapable of being removed. The problem is, the adventure source says nothing about where the grate goes. Do you simply tell the PCs, “No. You can’t remove the grate,” and force them to move on? No. Let them remove the grate. Tell them that all that is visible is rushing water flowing west at a rapid rate. Or, let them find a short-cut to skip over certain obstacles. Do not just say, “NO!”

This is not to say you should never use “no” when running a game. There are some things that are not okay, and you should drop the proverbial hammer on those behaviors. You shouldn’t do it just because the quick thinking of the players has disrupted your dungeon flow-chart. Improvise and adapt to the situation.

However, not everyone who runs a game is going to be as adept with handling player creativity. Make sure you communicate your own comfort levels with your players. If they are pushing past the accepted boundaries of the dungeon flow-chart, have an agreed upon phrase that you can use like, “That’s outside the parameters of this adventure.” It is okay to have limitations and know your own boundaries, and to share those with the players at your table. Most reasonable and decent people will understand that, and be cool with it.

And yes, this is all part of dungeon delving, because if you haven’t figured out by now, my design philosophy is holistic. No, this doesn’t mean crystals and essential oils. This means that you should have comprehension of all of the parts to gain a better understanding of the whole (hol = whole). This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use crystals and essential oils when you game. I have seen some exquisite crystal math rocks, and some essential oils have quite a pleasant aroma (just make sure no one at your table is allergic before using).

“How does the holistic approach apply to dungeons?”

Think of it this way: If you only focus on Point A and Point Z, why even have all the other points in between? You should be asking yourself quite often when developing a dungeon, “Why?” I’ve played in a lot of dungeons. I’ve run a lot of dungeons someone else created. It becomes obvious when the designer didn’t ask themselves, “Why?” You get rooms that are 20 x 20 with a huge monster, but only one small entry passage, and no obvious means for that monster to get in and out. You get entire clans of goblins surviving in a dungeon that was sealed off from the outside world for centuries. You get undead human skeletons and zombies populating a dungeon that predates humans in the setting. You get office buildings that don’t have bathrooms. No, you don’t have to be an expert in structural design, history, or ecology to design a dungeon, but you should put at least a bit of thought into how things got in the dungeon, how they have survived in the dungeon, and why they are in the dungeon now.

“Does my dungeon have to make logical sense?”

No. It only has to make narrative sense. For instance, is your dungeon some sort of quasi-dimensional chaos realm? Some dungeons are thematic and based on abstract concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Jung’s Collective Unconscious. These may exist in pocket dimensions populated by magical constructs or exist “outside” of time so that nothing in them gets thirsty or hungry or has to poop. They don’t necessarily have to follow strict rules of logic, but if they don’t, there should be indicators for your players on what has shifted. These are great for “puzzle box” dungeons, where the dungeon as a whole is an interconnected puzzle. Once again, allow your players to come up with creative solutions that may not be exactly what you have marked down. If your players are starting to show signs of frustration and annoyance, the fault is probably not their own. Creating a puzzle box that only you can solve because you did not offer your players a key to solve it is not clever, it is boorish. Because of this, you should plan on a set of additional “keys” that you can insert into any room in the event the players are about to start throwing dice at you.

“If PCs die, does that mean my dungeon is bad?”

Not necessarily. Some groups like playing difficult grinders, and will replay a dungeon over and over again with new character combinations until they succeed. This definitely falls under the principle of “know your audience”. Also, if you are designing a dungeon you intend to some day publish, let your players know that this is designed for play-test, and how they fare will determine tweaks and alterations before you decide to publish. Consent regarding the style of play is incredibly important. Take the time to sit down and talk to your players about what experience they are interested in engaging in. If they want to play dungeon grinders, send ’em into that grinder! If they don’t want to deal with constant fatal scenarios, adjust accordingly. There are ways to challenge players that do not involve the constant fear of character death. What if failure to clear the dungeon in time results in another dramatic effect, such as the PCs not getting the magical sphere of *bzzzzzt*, which is a necessary quest piece for the larger meta-plot of the campaign? Now, don’t forever deny them the magical sphere of *bzzzzzt*, but make them put some time in located the next point it will appear and then going into another dungeon to try and retrieve it.

(The magical sphere of *bzzzzzt* is just full of bees, by the way. Magical bees, really important to the meta-plot, but still, it is a sphere full of bees.)

Death should not be the only tangible result of failure. Nor should failure in one box of the dungeon mean complete failure. Also, you don’t have to just have Point Z be the only end-point. Some of my favorite video games offer alternate endings depending on whether you achieved certain objectives during the game. There’s no reason your dungeons shouldn’t have the same design concept.

Example: The dungeon ends with the party encountered the undead Lady Ormantha. You could plan for the following four optional endings: 1) The PCs attack and destroy Ormantha, ending her cursed reign of terror over the surrounding lands; 2) The PCs make a pact with Ormantha, sparing the local populace by sacrificing one of their own; 3) The PCs located the Talisman of the Emerald Pope, and using to restore Ormantha to life, ending her curse, but then she immediately dies (her soul saved); or 4) The PCs located the Tome of Unther, and use it for the Ritual of Becoming, restoring Lady Ormantha’s soul and transforming her into an angelic being dedicated to protecting the surrounding lands and its people. You could even tier these as 1 is the worst outcome (while still a success) with 4 the best outcome, and award experience/treasure/plot advancement based upon which tier they accomplish. If they come up with something super creative, like they recover the Talisman and the Tome and the party’s Theurge figures out a way to merge the magics of the two for an even more spectacular outcome, then awesome! Give them bonus beyond what you initially planned for Tier 4. Maybe they defeat but don’t destroy her, working out a pact similar to Tier 2 without sacrificing a member of the party. Go ahead and give them the same Tier 2 reward.

Remember, the players are not following a script, and they should not be punished because they do not know their lines.

Another very important piece of advice when choosing a dungeon for your players is that if the group is new to playing with one another, go simple the first few sessions. Let the players get comfortable with each other and with you. Once everyone has established a rapport, you can launch into some more challenging scenarios.

So, to summarize, a dungeon need not be an interconnected series of rooms containing monsters, traps, and treasure. A dungeon in a TTRPG is a generalized term of art to designate a flow-chart style design that ties together physical zones, events, challenges, and other story devices designated as “rooms”. An event such as banquet where conversation occurs is itself not a dungeon, but it could be a “room” within a dungeon. When building your dungeon, consider why the “rooms” are where they are, and what function they serve in the overall dungeon. The dungeon need not be purely linear progression, and may allow for reverse movement and course adjustment. Be prepared for your players to come up with solutions you had not considered, and avoid telling them, “No.” Do not run your players through a dungeon that they are not interested in or actively opposed to. Know your audience.

Most important: Have fun as a group. If it is only fun for you and not your players, you are misunderstanding the spirit of gaming. Fun comes in a lot of different flavors of dungeon. Find the dungeon flavor right for your group. (Please don’t let your PCs lick the dungeons, unless thematically appropriate.)

Postscript:

And to answer some questions on why I think I am experienced to share my opinions on these matters with anyone:

There is the old standard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in a given field, although most will tell you that is patently false. I could probably spend 10,000 hours trying to master football, and would still be a miserable failure. But I can tell you I have spent well over 10,000 hours designing and running dungeons for TTRPGs. I can honestly say, I was well over 10,000 hours into this by the time I turned 25. No, I have never published. Until recently, with the advent of digital marketplaces, you had to know the right people in the right places to get a dungeon published. Because I redirected most of my energies towards my profession of choice over the last decade, this also means I haven’t been honing my craft as much in recent years.

I could not say whether or not the terminology I use is used by other designers. I’ve never really been involved in any sort of official design community. These are just the terms I use, and it is possible that they wound up in my vocabulary after reading an issue of Dragon or Dungeon magazine years ago.

Ultimately, I expect any reader to do the same thing I did: take what you like, forget the rest. My only hope is that some bit of what I’ve put here helps you design a more enjoyable dungeon for your players. I know, it isn’t a step-by-step how-to manual, and more of a philosophical treatise, but I find design manuals to be overly confining.

Anyway, enjoy your games. That’s what they are there for.

What System Should I Use?

For a lot of people, D&D is the first tabletop role-playing game that they will be exposed to. This makes sense, because it is the most ubiquitous TTRPG system, with it being sold at certain major retailers (thanks in part to the distribution network that comes built-in by being owned by one of the biggest toy companies on the planet). Add to that all the streaming groups who play with that system and you have a massive amount of market coverage.

But it isn’t the only game on the market. There are hundreds of other TTRPGs and story-games available, which can be a bit overwhelming, but there are also a lot of people out there who will gladly give their time and energy to help you narrow down your set of options to what you are looking for in a game.

Because (and this may be controversial to some), D&D is not actually designed to do EVERYTHING. It is, at its core, a combat-game, and always has been. But that may not be what you want from your game.

Maybe you and your table want to have a game set in an existing intellectual property (IP), and you do not want to attempt to “hack” D&D until it will work for that setting. Good news! A lot of IPs already have a dedicated TTRPG. The thing is, some of those systems are very limiting, because they are designed around that IP in tone and possible actions.

Then there are other systems that are built around an original IP, or systems that are setting agnostic with an original IP constructed around them.

Say you want to run a game in an existing IP, but there is not dedicated system already produced? Which system do you use? My advice is you look for a system that matches the tone of the IP. If the IP is grim-dark, you need to find a system that is focused on grim-dark. Do characters have plot-armor in the IP, or is the IP lethal to main characters? There are some systems where death of a player character (PC) only occurs by tacit agreement between the player and the game master (GM), but others where PC death can occur because of one bad die roll. This all matters significantly, because taking a system designed for high PC death and “nerfing” it to provide PC plot-armor starts to unravel the way that system operates mechanically. The same is true with taking a system where PCs have built in plot-armor and introducing lethal rules. There are some systems where combat rules are tertiary to the system, and not well defined, because combat is supposed to be rare or non-existent as a conflict resolution in that game system.

Example 1: the old West End Games Paranoia “system”. I put “system” in quotes, because this game used what I would refer to as an anti-system, because nothing matters. The “system” is a facade to facilitate the setting. (Full disclosure, I have not played the current iteration of the game by Mongoose Publishing, so this example is limited to the old WEG versions.) This anti-system really only works for the specific IP, because the rule mechanics are intentionally designed to be nonsense. This game encourages the GM to do a lot of head-nodding and to look at table “XX” as part of the illusion that there are rules, before telling the player that their action failed or failed miserably. “How is that fun?” you may ask. It is a legitimate question. The answer is that it is more fun if everyone is actually in on the joke to some degree or another. The rules are not what makes the game enjoyable. It is also why the rules do not really work with anything outside of the related IP.

Example 2: the old West End Games Star Wars system (1987). This system was built around the first Star Wars trilogy, and is designed to facilitate adventures in that specific IP setting. Overall, I think it did a decent job, while having some massive gaps in the rules (Force powers were extremely minimal, because no one was supposed to be playing a fully-fledged Jedi, because the Jedi were all but extinct during the time period the game was set in). The D6 system it used would also be used for other WEG games like Ghostbusters (1986, with a 2nd edition in 1989) and Men in Black (1997). So, the underlying system of Star Wars (D6) would be considered system agnostic, and it did not focus exclusively on combat or non-combat. In fact, WEG would eventually just release the D6 System on its own as The D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game (1996).

Example 3: Dungeons & Dragons (any edition). A fantasy setting combat simulator with non-combat peripheral rules attached. It works fairly well if you are fine with its very delineated character role functions and strictly defined magic system. There are some often very vague “optional” rules (depending on edition) that allow the game to go in a less combat-oriented direction, but the character roles are defined by their various combat abilities. Even the majority of the spells are centered around how they affect combat. The 3rd Edition set of rules was the closest that you get to being setting agnostic with the D20 system, especially when you look at the variants of D20 Modern and D20 Future, although some would argue that while using a similar rules framework as 3rd Edition, they were completely separate systems. So, D&D may work well for your swords and sorcery fantasy setting (maybe some tweaks required), but may not work if your game is based upon comic book superheroes (or only work with a significant amount of “hacking” that effectively creates a fundamentally different system framework in the end).

“That’s a lot, and you haven’t actually given me an answer to the initial question? What system should I use?!?!”

Sorry about that. I’m not skilled at prognostication. Start out be looking for an online community of TTRPG players. I recommend Twitter, and just putting the question out there tagged with #TTRPG and “looking for recommendation/advice”. There are a lot of gamers who LOVE answering these questions, but look for the people who are asking follow-up questions on what type of game/genre/tone/mood/etc. you are going for. They are asking these questions for a reason, because it helps them narrow down their recommendations. Trust me on this one, because there are hundreds (no exaggeration there) of games available, and some of the folks on Twitter are very familiar with a LOT of them.

(For instance, I am not terribly familiar with a lot of the Indie story or narrative games. They aren’t really my cup of tea. But there are people with an intense passion for these types of games on Twitter who can give you some very good advice.)

You can also try out your local gaming store, if you have one. Experiences will vary. Some of these stores are SUPER friendly with amazing staff who are very knowledgeable about the subject matter. Some of these stores are owned/operated by elitist gatekeepers who will respond to your questions like you are ridiculous for even asking. Don’t shop at those stores.

Fair warning, TTRPG space on Twitter has its fair share of gatekeepers and grognards (veteran players who believe that their 10/20/30/40+ years of gaming experience make them the FINAL opinion on any matter gaming related, and if you disagree with their hallowed opinion, then you are some sort of upstart that doesn’t honor their elders). General way to spot these sources is that they will TELL you what to play, as opposed to inquiring what you are interested in and then making informed suggestions to you. You will also get people making joking references to Rifts. This is going to happen. It is an inside joke that twelve people really understand, and the rest of the TTRPG community on Twitter puts up with.

So, ask around. Ask me. For real. If I do not have a solid suggestion, I can boost the question at least, and get the word out to people who may be a bit more in the know with currently available systems (my knowledge is a bit archaic at this point).

I guarantee that there is a system out there that can suit your needs, or at least get you pretty close to where you want to go!

Languages and Your World

I recently read a post asking if you had ever ditched “Common” as a language from your campaign setting, and how it went?

Language is a complex issue, and not all of us have the advantage of having studied linguistic anthropology in any degree. Using “Common” has been a long-standing means of narrative sleight-of-hand to not have to constantly rely upon a translator in day-to-day activities that your player characters have to undertake.

Ask yourself this: how frequently do you have to interact with foreign languages on a daily basis, and how do you deal with that?

Most of us do not. Those who do, find that things function much easier if they learn the other language they are having to interact with on a regular basis.

“But learning another language is hard!”

Except it really isn’t. Monolingual English speakers in the United States are in the global minority. You may also be surprised that there is no singular spoken English language, but rather a whole contingent of English dialects, some which you may be able to easily understand, and others not so much.

Most people in the world are multilingual. The most significant factor is exposure.

Take myself, for example. My primary language is English (dialects are “Ozarkian” and “American Broadcast English”). I studied German for years (don’t ask what dialect specifically, but from what I understand it would have been the primary dialect of Berlin). I never actively used it though. I was not using it conversationally, nor was I trying to read German texts. I can still pronounce most German words, and can even still pick up the meaning of spoken or written German on occasion, but I never became fluent. After years of not using it at all, I am still effectively monolingual. Had I actually been exposed to it by, say, spending a few months in Germany, Austria, or another German speaking area, I would have more than likely at least become conversationally fluent.

Why should your game be any different? You don’t need to go overly complex and crunchy with it. But you should ditch Common. Why? Because it is rooted in Imperialism/Colonialism. The notion of a “common” trade language is something that has been pushed by certain major world powers for a long time. Taking away another culture’s language is key to destruction of that culture. This is how languages “die”, and how even if the populace is not physically wiped out, their descendants only have fragments of their once rich culture left. Now, if Imperialism/Colonialism is a major theme in your setting, having the “common” tongue be that of the corrupt empire trying to destroy everything in its path would be fitting, but to fit that narrative, if your protagonists are fighting that system, would they really want to run around using the language of their oppressors?

“But it’s just a game!”

Then why signify what language your characters are speaking in at all? If you feel you need a narrative solution, maybe create some form of “universal translator”. Science Fiction stories have been doing that for the better part of a century, at least. Look at what Star Trek or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did. Don’t look at what Star Wars did, because it basically used the Common short-cut.

For me, differing languages and dialects make for a much more immersive and interesting world. Not everyone agrees, and I get that. Personally, I find settings that rely on Common to be uninspired at best, and upholding concepts of Imperialism/Colonialism at worst.

How to make it work in your setting:

First option – “Universal Translator”. As mentioned above, this is found in science fiction quite frequently, but can also work just as well in your magical fantasy setting. Does the system you are using not have a spell that does the same, or is that spell prohibitively high level? Create a spell or modify an existing one. Make it a low-cost or zero-cost cantrip, and maybe limit it somehow to languages .

Second option – If your player characters are globe-trotting adventurers, just let them know a lot of different languages. Even looking at European history alone, you can find accounts of scholars and travelers knowing over a dozen languages. Player characters in most TTRPGs are supposed to be “special”. They aren’t just some kid who grew up worm-farming before picking up a rusty sword and going to fight some local bandits. Or maybe they are, but once they move on from the hills and valleys they grew up in, they are going to learn a few things, including some expanded language skills.

Third option – If the game you are playing has skills, make languages low-cost skills, or even “two-for-one”, as in for every skill point into “language”, the character gets proficiency in two additional languages beyond their background language(s). I would even suggest that you may being multilingual the default, with all characters having two background languages that they are fluent in.

Fourth option – Go deep. Create language trees with different dialect branches. Really map out what these languages are, how the dialects developed, and what affect isolation (or lack thereof) has had on the development of dialect.

“I notice you use ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ separately. Why is that?”

Think of them as broad and narrow terms. For instance, English is considered a Germanic language, as it originated as a dialect of what could be dubbed Old German. Old English still followed much of the syntactical and structural rules as its German roots. Over time (and invasions), English evolved to absorb elements of Norman French (which has similarities to Latin and is the actual basis for a lot of those “Latin” legal phrases), and just kept on using “loan” words, resulting in the contemporary language family of English. But if you really dig into it, the bones of German are still there.

As most of you are aware, there is no singular English language. There is English as spoken by high society Londoners; English as spoken like New Yorkers; English as spoken by rural Minnesotans; English as spoken by Scots; English as spoken by Southern Californians; English as spoken by those in Kolkata; and more! All of these are examples of English dialects. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also a dialect of English. All of these dialects are also COMPLETELY VALID dialects, with their own internal rules and structures.

You know what? All of that diversity of even a single so-called language is amazing. Language is morphic and ever evolving. Reducing that experience in your TTRPG setting down to “Common” is reductive, and honestly, boring.

“But I don’t want my players to have to dedicate all that space to what languages they know!”

Do you make them keep track of equipment? The reason why some groups shy away from details like this is because they want to play hack’n’slash, and that’s okay. I’ve had plenty of fun in games that hand-waved a lot of detailed elements. You may not want an immersive game. You may prefer to just have everyone walking around speaking your iteration of English (or Spanish, or German, or Mandarin, etc.).

“How detailed do I need to get?”

As detailed as you want, but do not feel like you need to give the dedication to the issue the same degree of attention as Tolkien, creating entire spoken and written languages for your fictional world. That’s cool and all, but not everyone has the time or the extensive academic knowledge of linguistics that Tolkien did (his academic focus was language and literature, after all). Just try and avoid linking your languages to cultural stereotypes.

“This seems too complicated.”

Then don’t use it. A lot of fictional narratives just don’t even pay any attention to language, unless it specifically sets the scene. For instance, if your PCs are in a room with some NPCs, and those NPCs make comments to one another in Esperanto. Well, does one of the PCs happen to know Esperanto? Your game may not ever go outside of a small area. It may entirely take place in a single skyscraper or banquet hall. There are a lot of different games that can be played, and different languages don’t always need to be a feature. If you are going for an open-world sandbox setting though, ditch Common. It’s a junk concept.

The Tale of Erk: or Behind the Scenes on how Gods are Made

Content Warning: this post contains references to fictional religions and gods.

In the world of Afion, there are (currently) 36 divine thrones. The beings occupying those thrones make up the Pantheon of the 36, the largest single religious system on the planet. There are other deities and pantheons, not to mention Dragon “Cults”, but the 36 have remained the dominant theology (even back when they were just the 24).

I’m not going to get too deep into the whole shebang about how the 36 came to be in this post. What I’m going to talk about is the god Linnik-Erkthanian, or Erk for short.

Erk started as a throwaway gag. A random NPC that popped up when the party wanted a name. The party was travelling and was stopped by a group of highwaymen armed with rusty short swords. Clearly they were no match for the party, but instead of simply going stabby-mode, the party decided to talk to them. The leader was a man named Erk. He continued going on about how, “No. No. We ain’t bandits. We’s farmers who’s down on our luck, is all. Crop was real bad, wasinnit?” The party let Erk and his band go, with a stern warning that there was to be no more banditry on this stretch of road. If they heard of any, they would be back. And so, Erk tipped his cap to the party, and they thought that was that.

But I’m not one to waste a gag, nor am I to forget when my players put me on the spot and demand I give a random NPC a name. Erk was amazingly too sly of a mind for me to just ditch. I just knew there was more about this farmer turned bandit than even I realized at the moment.

A few months later, the party had to embark on a journey that required them to cross the sea. They heard of a ship they could charter, and were greeted by Captain Erk, who was definitely not a pirate, no sir. He was also very adamant that he was not the same man as the farmer/bandit they had met months earlier in-land. This her was Erk the Sea Captain (who was in no way a pirate). That other fellow was clearly his cousin Erk the Farmer. He took them where they needed to go, collected his payment, then sailed off. The players were rightfully confused. They all remembered Erk the Farmer. Why in the wide wide world of sports had Erk reappeared, using the same name but claiming to be someone else?

And it was after that second appearance that my mind starting trying to figure out several things:

Who was Erk?

Was that the same Erk?

What was going on here?

Then it dawned on me. Erk was a god. And not just any god, but a trickster deity whose domains were agriculture and fishing, as well as banditry (both on land and sea). Reasoning being, 1st Erk wasn’t entirely lying. Drought and bad crops could drive desperate farmers to desperate measures. It wasn’t like that crew was really out to murder anyone, just collect enough coin to get them through the lean times until the crops did better next season.

What made Erk unusual, is that during that era of Afion, there were no gods. The 24 had “died” and left the remnants of their power in 24 sacred artifacts, including the Scythe of Linnik-Erkthanian, which one of the party members possessed.

So how did Erk exist? Simple, really. Erk was a primal deity. So long as their were farmers and fishers who left an offering at crude shrines for a good harvest or catch, the spark of Erk maintained.

Erk would show up a few more times before the party put two and two together on the names. I mean, I literally spelled it out for them, but there was a lot to keep track of.

Erk would make appearances in later games, but in a different capacity. I eventually tied him in “burning man” harvest lore, so one of his physical manifestations was a person with no features whose body was made of solid fire. He became a patron of farmers, fishers, and thieves. A rather unusual combination that would produce some bizarre alliances in the setting.

Despite all the detail in Erk’s development, he started as a one-off joke. That’s it. Just a kind of goofy NPC that posed no real threat to the party.

So, enjoy your game. Take inspiration when it comes and run with it! And players, just know that anyone you meet on the road could turn out to be a god further down the line.

Brave New Worlds: or, “So you decided to homebrew a setting”

For me, creating my own worlds has always been a big allure of tabletop role-playing games. Even when running a game in an established setting I try and find ways to make it new for my table. Where’s the fun in playing a “X-Men” game when you are just following the plot-lines from issue #75 forward with new player characters plugged into the plot?

Actually, never mind that last question. That sounds like it could be kind of fun.

Enter “homebrewing”. This term actually covers two separate situations:

  1. Creating your own rules: this could be some added house rules that either replace or expand upon the rules as written, or it could mean an entirely scratch-built rules system;
  2. Creating your own setting.

This post is primarily concerned with #2 (which leads me to believe I should have made it #1 on the above list).

So, where do you start? There are a lot of different design philosophies on this, but what it comes down to is what works best for you. That being said, here are a few suggested starting points:

  • Start with a Single Community: it may be a small fishing village where all the player characters will be from, or maybe it is a bustling cosmopolitan city. The idea here is to start small, then build outward. In some settings, this initial community may be all you need for your game. Examples: Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (there was even a boxed set for this setting for 1st Edition AD&D); the village of Two Rivers from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Even if your plans are to leave that starting community almost immediately in your game, this can give you the opportunity to lay the basis of things to come.
  • Start with a Theme: is your world going to be a setting of high political intrigue, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Determining the theme of your world first can help you know what direction to take with building it. The theme will influence whether there are city-states, nation-states, or vast empires potentially spanning multiple worlds. Your theme could be summarized in one word, or it could span hundreds of pages (more on that later).
  • Start with a Conflict: most will choose a war between two rival states, but it doesn’t need to be a traditional military war. It could be a trade war or a cold war. Don’t limit yourself to the different flavors of war. The central conflict could be between two rival merchant guilds. It could be between the “air-breathers” and the “water-breathers”. Knowing the central conflict that will at least be the initial underlying focus of your setting can help you set the stage for all the bits and pieces you will place later.
  • Start with a Non-Player Character (NPC): this may be a child-like Empress seeking champions to save her realm. It could be the local innkeeper looking for some brave local youths to go out and find out what happened to the regular weekly supply wagon. Sometimes your best starting point is a single character. Consider who that character is, how they dress, how they speak, then start to create their immediate environment.

All of these reduce down to one simple bit of advice: Start small, and build from there. Don’t think this means you shouldn’t start with one nation. A nation-state can be for the purposes of development small. What is the name? What is the system of government? Population? Demographics? Imports/Exports? These are pretty easy to fill-in questions, but they then determine later considerations like geography, relations with bordering states, important NPCs in that nation.

I’ve tried designing settings where I started too big. I quickly abandoned those settings. They never made it to play. Sometimes fragments of them would wind up in a future setting, but many just wound up in what I think of as the “world grave”. That right there gives me an idea for a setting.

A lot of people are going to tell you that you absolutely have a map. They are wrong. Maps are nice, but they are not necessary. Honestly, if your setting is fun, I guarantee if one of your players wants a map, they will start making the map for you (some people really dig fantasy cartography). I used to make insanely detailed maps on graph paper for entire cities that my players never even visited, because I liked making maps. I made the Big Ass Map (BAMP) for one of my setting that chewed through multiple printer cartridges and took me a full two weeks to assemble and mount on poster board so it could take up most of a wall. I like maps. But you don’t have to make one. Or, your maps could be very basic.

map generated using inkarnate.com

Here we see just some mountains, a path, and what could be an enemy camp. Maybe it is the temple of an ancient deity that still holds the source of some great mystic knowledge. Maybe it is integral to your setting, or maybe it is just a map for whatever particular quest the player characters (PCs) are on.

The important takeaway, is do what works best for you, at your pace. That’s going to be different for every creator. For some, designing a world can be a relaxed broad strokes project. For some, you may finding yourself missing out on sleep because you’ve spent all night developing a detailed cosmology for your world.

Don’t be afraid to read (especially non-fiction). Your world is going to be influenced by whatever media you are taking in. The more you read, the less likely it is your world is going to feel like a carbon copy of whatever particular series you are fond of. If the majority of your media consumption is Star Wars, that’s going to show in the world you are making. Maybe that is what you are going for, but if you want to share your creation with others, that might at some point start asking, “Why aren’t we just playing Star Wars?”

Which leads into the next suggestion: Involve your players.

“But I don’t want my players to know everything!”

Trust me, they will not. Bringing them into the creation process gives them a sense in being a part of the creation, which means they have more of an emotional connection to the created setting. This is important for the initial selling point of getting players to want to play in your homebrew setting. Maybe they have always had a concept for a species that there just wasn’t a space for in the established settings you normally play in. Listen to their suggestions, and use some of them. Find something from everyone that you can work into the setting. Give them that connection.

Something to avoid:

Developing cultures based on cultures not your own. If your game never goes further than your table, this may not be that big of an issue, especially if your group is ethnically homogeneous. If you ever plan on releasing your setting to a wider audience though, you better on-board some people who actually have an actual connection to the culture you want to use. Maybe this just means bringing on-board someone to be a sensitivity reader. Just because you watched some Kurosawa movies and have a “katana” you picked up at the county fair on display on your mantel does not make you qualified to introduce a “samurai bushido culture” into your setting. Pay someone of Japanese descent to at least do a read through and make notes of things that may be considered problematic depictions, and for the love of everything you hold dear, take their advice, change what needs to be changed, and credit that person. It is one thing to have a variety of cultures based on real-world influences in your setting, but don’t do what Forgotten Realms has done (looking at you Maztica and Kara-Tur).

Please please please do not write an entire campaign setting around a culture that you have absolutely no personal connection to, no matter how many books on the subject you have read, or because you lived in that country for a semester abroad. Just do not do it if you are releasing your world to a mass market audience. It wasn’t actually cool in the 80s, and it certainly is not cool now.

Even if it is just for your home game, this is still a practice that I would avoid, as it sends a signal to any of your players that might not be the same ethnic background as you, that your table is not actually friendly to them. Now, if you want to approach that person independently, away from the rest of the group, and ask them, “So I wanted to include a culture in our world that is inspired by Culture X. Would that be something you would be interested in?”

  • If the answer is yes, then follow up with, “I do not want to perpetuate any harmful stereotypes or play into any racist tropes, and since this is just for our table, would you like to collaborate with me in designing that culture?”
  • If the answer to the initial question is no, then follow up with, “Cool. I respect that and will not do it. Thank you. I really value your input and want you to feel comfortable in this space.”

Once again, this is an issue of private versus public forum world building. You may think that you have done all the research, and that you are not being racist or falling into those stereotypical tropes, but without someone actually qualified to read through it and check for that kind of stuff, you can inadvertently walk into a REALLY problematic depiction of another culture.

So, you’ve now got the idea for your world (which may in fact be multiple worlds). Now, how do you populate that world? Is it only humans? If so, are there different kinds of humans (cyborgs, magically enhanced, shape-shifters, etc.)? Start figuring out what the people populating your world are going to look like (in a very broad sense). Realize that most “common people” (CP) in just about any setting are going to have the same drives and goals: work, family, home. Think about reasons why the PCs may interact with the CPs. Figure out what the creatures of your world are like. Maybe you want to populate it with flora and fauna relatively the same as the real world (I refer to this as default environment). Maybe you want default+, where you have standard creatures plus “magical” creatures. Maybe you want something unique and somewhat alien (think Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and all the insectile creatures).

Now here’s some advice I wish someone had told me years ago:

None of it needs to make sense. There are always a way to hand-wave issues with environmental incompatibility. Reptiles in a frozen tundra? They aren’t truly “reptiles”, although they share certain physical similarities. They are actually warm-blooded, with thick layers of insulating fat below their scaly skins. Hey, most arctic marine mammals shed their hair during infancy, right? Try to avoid overusing, “They’re magic.”

Which leads to my next point: MAGIC/HI-TECHNOLOGY! To draw from Arthur C. Clarke and his three “laws”:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

While you may feel compelled to not truly describe how magic/tech functions on your world and just grunt and go, “Well, ’cause it’s magic, innit?” that isn’t very eloquent. Maybe your table is cool with that. In which case, carry on my friend. If you are developing your setting for distribution, your magic/tech needs to have rules. You do not need to be a renowned occultist or have a PhDs in particle physics and neurology to do so. You just need to be consistent and establish certain boundaries, understanding full well that the players in your world are going to poke and prod at those boundaries on a regular basis.

All of this talk on homebrew #2 now circles back to link up with homebrew #1:

Is your world supported by a game system that already exists? If so, you may already have the answer to your magic/tech question. Basically yoink the system from the core game and use that in your world. Maybe do a bit of a “reskin” to make it more fitting to yours. Maybe magic users on your world are literally solar powered and draw their energy from their world’s sun instead of drawing from a magical well-spring of energy. Instead of anti-matter reactors, perhaps the tech in your setting is derived from contained micro-singularities. Here you are effectively using the system mechanics as written, but with different flavor text.

For my last piece of advice, start writing a “World Book”. Effectively, keep records. Did you name the ruler of the kingdom to the east Karl? Better write that down in a document that has some sort of organization. How I do it now, is I have a paper notebook, and if I bring in a detail like that during play, I jot it down in my paper notebook. After the session, I then transfer that into a digital document in the appropriate category (I usually go by nation or city, so I would create and entry for the kingdom to the east, and under people of note fill in something like “Karl – Count of Dyspaire and King of the Five Spirals”). Have a digital reader handy, so if a player asks, “Hey, what was the name of the ruler to the east?” you can just pull that info up and proudly say, “Karl. His name is Karl.” Your players will be pleased with your superior organizational skills.

That’s what I got in me for tonight. I may make this a recurring series of posts, going into more depth on designing maps, functional (enough) ecology, and how much magic is too much magic for your setting!