Tuesday 15 December 2020

Movement Through Space

On a wee little break, such as it is, over the Christmas season, such as it is. But had this thought and felt like writing, so here you go. No idea if it’s worth reading, mind.

Take care of yourselves and the people close to you, and I’ll see you in the New Year to do this all over again.


I tend to think of a game as a space, not literally. Something like: “A game is a theoretical space defined by its participants’ interactions with and around a set of rules while mitigating or subverting relevant consequences and obligations present for those actions outside the space, with the aim of facilitating exploratory experiences within participants, activated or driven by their chosen interactions.” Or whatever.

But most games that aren’t ttrpgs utilise physical space or representations of such in a much more direct way than this hobby does. That’s what I’m on about here - actual space. Or virtual space. The realm that gameplay happens in.

Sports have courts and fields, adventure playgrounds are the space, and other games become the physical space they take place in - hide and seek, tag, climbing a tree, etc. Even board games do more than most ttrpgs by having a board, or at least expecting a “play space” such as a table to house their components.

Video games take this one step further by representing physical space digitally, then allowing movement through that space vicariously through an avatar. Movement mechanics help define the space and vice versa - Mario being my go-to example for most things as his game design is widely and simply understood. But see how the way a PC/avatar can move in other games like Zelda BotW, Gravity Rush, Splatoon, and even the cursor in RTS games affects gameplay, and defines and is in turn defined by the space through which they move. And if you think I’ve used the word space too many times already, buckle up.

Ttrpgs don’t use or need space this way, being played through conversation. Any space - actual play space - is, generally, imagined.

Our relevant sphere, adventure games, has several approaches to this. Our go-to, and still a classic, is the dungeon map. The mechanics to move through these spaces are divorced from the maps themselves though - enough conversation, the medium’s proprietary core mechanic, can take the place of any physical map or drawing. More rigid mechanics such as movement speeds, encumbrance, etc, define and map the space in game terms like echolocation, through the avatar’s interactions, also giving the avatar its necessary movement mechanics through abstraction. Even if we were to put actual miniatures on a nice piece of gaming terrain, we would still be representing the game state rather than enacting or enforcing it, like a little real-time puppet show.

So then, the typical adventure game response to this lack of definition in the play space is to rigidly define necessary parameters and limitations that directly impact play, and leave the rest to oracles and the GM role. The rules, along with the social contract and play culture produce verisimilitude, the narrative equivalent of reliability for our fictional equivalent of a literal space.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with all this, in fact it all works remarkably well for half-century-old design. But it’s only one approach.

Another fairly typical game response in this space is to accept the lack of realised play space as a limit of the medium and design around it, whether through abstracting concepts of space and movement partially or entirely, or by rendering them irrelevant to play states through design. Some games might use range bands in place of literal measurements of fictional space; some might simply declare that you are wherever it seems like you should be. These rely more heavily on the social contract and are common in “story” games, in which oracles such as genre convention may be used in conjunction with GM fiat or group consensus. (Given the free form nature of the medium, these tools are of course available in any game.)

If we are designing an adventure game, however, and space needs to be both important to play and theoretically limitless in its specificity, defining that space is imperative. Some abstraction will always be necessary to avoid some Borgesian simulationist nightmare, and so it is then the nature of that abstraction that will define our game space, the nature of movement through it, and our gameplay.

The issue, then, is in designing around the implementation of space through abstraction, much as many games design around the removal of space through abstraction. This has lead to clunky, bloated or misguided design implementations in the past - see Why Your Travel Rules Suck, one of the earlier things I wrote on here. Simply put, gameplay must be centred around movement in order to justify/necessitate mechanical abstraction of space.

Video games - those mentioned above being shining examples - have this down pat. The nature of video game development and structures inherent in the medium obviously contribute to this, but there’s no reason relevant lessons can’t be taken and imported.

Dungeon crawls centre movement nicely - though many find the mechanics antiquated in places and the specific procedures for crawl play have been lost, skewed or lazily implemented in many places outside the tiny hobbyist sphere. Beyond the classics, new ways of abstracting space and movement into the medium have been widely unexplored, without of course borrowing mechanics wholesale from wargaming and board games.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this (ha). Just... the space (and here i do mean not-literal-or-virtual space, but the design space) is out there. A new mechanic or perspective is waiting.

(As with the last post, don’t worry, I’m working on it :P)

Wednesday 25 November 2020

How Can Games Teach Themselves?

 First I’m going to define the different ways i think a game can “teach itself”, then I’ll look at how and if and why these are/can/should be used in the ttrpg space.

These categories are broad abstractions for my own benefit, obviously at the end of the day it’s all semantics and I’m not a theorist! (Thank god.) There are overlaps and I don’t think any game can be said to belong to just one category, in fact almost all belong to 2 or more - an argument could probably be made that they all apply to all games in some way but that’s not the point here. I’m also just talking about learning here as in the base level of knowledge needed to then go on and play/replicate the basic game state, not mastery or levels of good/“bad” play.

Games teach themselves in these four ways. (I thought of a fifth but I seem to have forgotten it.) Mostly 2 or more at a time.

Culture: The knowledge needed to play is in the ether. This is the reserve of games so simple they can’t be played “wrong” (a baby can play with a ball or blocks without instruction), or more frequently games in which the rules have achieved wider cultural understanding. Nobody reads the instructions for tic-tac-toe or tag. You might buy a chess set, but you almost certainly didn’t learn from the manual. Nobody has ever published rules for hangman.

Video games encroach on this space in some ways too (you learn how to use a D-pad probably on your own, then learn how that controller affects each game in turn, again normally through cultural understanding. Ttrpgs are moving into this space too, and in some ways have always been there (you might not inherently know about attack bonuses and AC, but you know about water displacement and what types of materials are flammable, and that knowledge can be used to play a dungeon crawl game).

Of course, these games are not learned innately as with a ball, and necessitate a combination of cultural knowledge w/ the second on our list -

Teacher: Someone teaches you how to play the game. Playground games are most common, but board games also fit this space - someone learns via another method, then imparts that knowledge via this one. You probably didn’t learn monopoly from a rule book, for instance.

This is maybe the best, most effective, and most direct method. We have schools and teachers because we believe this method works. The main advantage is tailored, personal instruction - correcting mistakes as you learn, the teacher intuiting emotions, trying different methods, etc. A Teacher can use all the other methods as tools.

Text: A rulebook. Instructional videos also count, though they feel more like Teacher - watching actual plays is maybe the biggest overlap between these. Tutorial modes or hint boxes in video games are Text as they are non-diegetic to gameplay.

Maybe the worst method. Requires the person without knowledge to intuit and interpret instructions from one medium into the new, unfamiliar game medium.

Play: Continued play will always teach further, but this is about feedback from the act of play imparting initial and fundamental lessons on itself. Sit on a bike and pedal (teacher), then I’ll let go, see if you can stay on (play). Learn how the controller works (culture, sometimes teacher or text), then see if you can beat the level (play).

Most video game types have moved partially or completely into this space, or never left it - tutorials are out of favour, if the level design itself can impart the same lessons. Mario 1-1 is the classic example - no text, no teacher (unless external), no culture (at time of release - we now all know to jump on turtles and eat mushrooms).

Ok, so,

Ttrpgs leave the designer’s hands as Text, as if that’s enough, but in practice they almost always require a combination of the other three to actually be taught. These are generally external though - from sources other than the designer or the book itself. The GM, mostly, in the Teacher role.

We can use the other three more effectively, maybe.

Culture: OSR/adventure games lean into this by assuming a common design and even mechanical language. The Text can go further - use terms intuitively and without jargon, for instance, relying on the reader’s existing cultural understanding. Use terms from other games, wider cultural knowledge of game space, place the game within existing frameworks.

Teacher: Videos and actual plays are being used already as mentioned. Footage of someone else being taught could provide some of the same lessons as being taught directly. This is not nothing, but is still external to the text.

Hard to do it internally. Ideally the text should be clear enough and overall flow in the manner of a lesson, such that it acts as its own teacher - take ideas from lesson structure, essay/argument writing, to impart ideas, eg laying groundwork first, “testing” knowledge gained at key points? Which then kind of becomes -

Play: This is the one I’m most interested to explore. Some board games are teaching themselves - “set up the blue pieces this way, then do this,” then, “congratulations, you just played a turn” is normally the method, or thereabouts.

Could we make a text that it is impossible to interact with without playing, as with a video game? Or, signposted to encourage play, in steps, while reading? So, you can’t read the character creation chapter as written without ending up having made a character? Mothership’s character sheet has the character creation rules and a flowchart on it, this is maybe the most encouragement a non-interactive text can give.

Can we break up rules with interactive elements? We just taught you how attack rolls work - oh no, here’s a monster, quickly kill it before turning to the next page. Modular and simple rulesets obviously fit this particularly well. Can we get the reader to use each rule after it’s been taught, then find they’ve played the game in one way or another by the time they finish the book?

Or, in games whose play necessitates a GM type figure to “run”/facilitate play, can we provide teaching materials? Better than an abstract GM’s guide, but a lesson plan or checklist - not one that results in a tutorial, those suck, but one that necessitates interaction through play on behalf of the players? Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a “teaching dungeon”, but could it teach which die is which and how to add a to-hit bonus? Could character creation be a dungeon?

- of course this all has the caveat that it is harder to play a ttrpg “wrong” than, say, a board game, because the table interpreting and using the rules as and how they prefer is central to the medium and most often a deliberate design choice. So with that in mind, maybe encouraging that experimentation can be done through play? Could a game be written such that you can’t finish the book without hacking it?  (Yes, almost all games already do this by their nature - but sometimes indirectly or without clear signposting.)


Anyway, I hate theory without practice with a deep, unbridled passion, so don’t worry this isn’t just abstract thought. It’s all me trying to codify thoughts I’ve already had while making something I’m working on. You’ll see my interpretations of these ideas and be able to judge whether they work or not when that thing comes out.

(Side note, is zine quest happening next year? Do we know? This was around the time last year people started planning for it)

Monday 9 November 2020

November Update

 Hey all!

Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette unfortunately had an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign last month. I learnt a lot from what went wrong and am absolutely planning to get the game finished some way, some how, but it still sucks. So, uh, stay tuned!

Because of the KS, and the govt here’s decision to suddenly go back into lockdown - plus their terrible financial aid services which I am currently subject to, having lost my day job due to the last lockdown - money is very tight for me this month. I’m also unlikely to do much gaming, being trapped indoors. So basically, tl;dr, don’t expect many posts here for a while.

Sorry about all that! If you’re looking for game stuff my store is always open - there’s free bits there as well as some stuff you can pay me for if you’re able to.

That’s all for now, I guess! We’ll see how things turn out. Stay safe everyone!

Tuesday 20 October 2020

The Ancient Rule of Cool

The “rule of cool” is a phrase some Online RPG People use, referring to the idea that if a player comes up with something interesting and fun, it should go into the game without question (i.e. without rolling dice).

The idea that people should put things they like into their game is so banal and tautological that it barely warrants repeating, which is of course why the internet repeats it constantly. Also because it rhymes.

But! Since you lot love people telling you what you can and can’t do so much, I have delved into the musty dragon-hoards of academia, studied the ancient and sacred roleplaying texts and found that the original rule of cool actually refers to the entire act of GMing - it is not a mindless mantra after all, but a proper Rule by which games may be governed.

(Which is to say that, as with any Rule in an RPG, it should be largely ignored until deemed necessary, like baking soda or a pneumatic drill. But don’t tell the nerds about all that, you’ll frighten them.)


The true, actual, Ancient Rule of Cool is as follows:

The GM first sets up a fictional situation. There may be cool things already happening. The other players have characters who find themselves in that situation. The game is those players suggesting cool things for their characters to do and the GM responding. Repeat.

Sidenote A: characters should therefore be constructed with the potential to do cool things through play. This takes precedence over a character being cool (optional, largely subjective) or, crucially, characters being able to do cool things separate from play - play in an RPG being the conversation and imagination provided by players. A character with a rope, torch and flask of oil has play potential. A list of die-roll responses to obstacles in the game state exists separate from play.

The GM then rates all player suggestions by the Rule of Cool.

If an idea is Not Cool at All, the GM’s response is No. The idea is not added to the fiction/ game state.

Sidenote B: This largely occurs only as a result of simple miscommunication, but if malice is involved the player is ejected from the game (note: this is a people problem, not a game problem, and therefore warrants no further discussion here).

If an idea is Not Cool Enough, the GM’s response is Yes, And. The table comes up with ways to make the suggested action and its consequences cooler before it is added to the fiction/game state.

If an idea is Cool, the GM’s response is Yes. The idea is added to the fiction/game state.

If an idea is Too Cool [for School], the GM’s response is Yes, But. The idea is added to the game only upon the players achieving certain prerequisites. (Eg: a player wants to ride a laser dragon into battle. The prerequisite might be journeying to a far corner of the world to steal a dragon’s egg.)

Roll dice if you get stuck or don’t want to make a decision.


Now then, that’s enough academia from me, I’m off to actually play some games. Why quibble over coastlines with cartographers when you could be having fun at the beach?

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette

Hey folks,

Paradice Arcade is my side project for making non-RPG tabletop games. Each minigame costs just £2 for a digital download with gorgeous art from a variety of talented collaborators, and only needs two ordinary dice and some spare coins to play. No crafting, no components.

The Kickstarter for our latest minigame, Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette just went live! I’ve got an incredible team on this one, and have been working on the project on and off for well over a year now, in between everything else I’ve got going on. I’m super happy with the mechanics and the art we’ve got so far, so I thought a KS would be perfect to finally get this thing finished and in your hands, ready to play.

You can support the KS for as little as £2, getting you the game at launch!

I know this is a little different to what most folks come here for, but if you like my stuff at all then this is the best way to support me right now. Backing the project helps pay me to finish development on this game, but could also free me up to get cracking on some other games too. If the game’s not your thing or you can’t spare the money right now, consider sharing it with your friends!

Thanks x

Sunday 4 October 2020


 A small game of fantasy adventure

You will need: 1 set of polyhedral dice.

How to play: Pick characters, communicate clearly, be good friends.


Everyone has one flaming torch and one packed lunch. Destroy items after they’re used for something cool.

Fighter (d4), 4d4 HP: When you attack, roll your die instead of doing 1 damage. You have 4 Protection Points. When you or an adjacent ally takes damage, either spend a Protection Point or forfeit your next action to roll your die and reduce incoming damage by the number rolled. You can spend multiple points at once for multiple rolls if you want.

Thief (d6), 2d6 HP: Before an adventure, roll your die on the Tool Table twice and get those items. If you use an item for something cool or useful it will probably be destroyed (same as with any character), but you can keep items that don’t get destroyed to use on your next adventure.

Tool Table: 1. Tinderbox, candle and mirror. 2. 20ft of rope and a giant fish hook. 3. A convincing disguise. 4. A pot of grease and a pot of glue. 5. Ball bearings and a clockwork mouse. 6. A spyglass and a knife.

Cleric (d8), 3d8 HP: You can roll your die, immediately lose half that much HP (rounded down), and then use healing magic to restore that much HP from yourself or others. You can split the number between multiple targets. Healing magic has the reverse effect on undead, dealing damage.

Wizard (d10), 1d10 HP: To cast a spell, pick a target and say the spell’s name out loud, then roll your die on the Magic-o-Meter. If the number you roll is equal to or higher than the number of the spell, it works. If not, you cast the spell whose number you rolled instead, at the same target.

Magic-o-Meter: 1. Bright Light. 2. Fireball (damage equal to die roll). 3. Handy Heal (3 HP). 4. Goose Grease. 5. Goblin Glue. 6. Frightening Lightning (loud, no damage). 7. Transform-a-Toad (turns animals to people and back). 8. Teleport. 9. Sudden Death. 10. Magic Wish.

Barbarian (d12), 1d12+12 HP: Any time you want, you can frenzy - roll your die and deal that much damage exactly, spending damage first on enemies, then allies, then yourself. You take half damage (rounded down) from weapons and traps, excluding your own.

Dungeon (d20): Make up a fun adventure for your friends and see what they do. Give them magic treasure if they do well.

If they get into a fight with monsters, let everyone involved take a turn doing one important thing, then keep doing that until the fight ends. Roll your die to see how much HP a group of monsters has, and tell your friends how scary they look based on that number. Your friends’ attacks do 1 damage. When a monster attacks, the person they’re attacking rolls their die and loses that much HP - same with anything else that would hurt.

If you’re not sure what happens next, roll your die. Use the Dungeon Decider to come up with ideas for monsters and stuff to use in your adventure, or make up your own.

Dungeon Decider:

1. Skeletons, one is wearing a crown and giving orders, they’ll all obey whoever wears the crown.

2. Zombies, very slow and stupid, hate fire.

3. Rats, roll your die to see how many, each attack kills one.

4. Skeleton Rats, same as rats.

5. Mosquito Bats, attracted to light, or whoever has the most HP if there’s no light.

6. Goblins, clever and mean.

7. Skeleton Goblins, less clever.

8. Troll, smart and greedy, roll your die each turn and restore that much HP, unless it was hurt with fire.

9. Dog People, easily become friends.

10. Cat People, easily become indifferent.

11. Pit Trap, big hole that’s hard to cross.

12. Spike Trap, very obvious, spikes come up from the ground if you step here.

13. Arrow Trap, very obvious, shoots arrows at head height.

14. Fake Carpet, nice carpet, comes alive and attacks if stepped on.

15. Jelly Cube, big transparent cube of jelly, tall and wide as a corridor, bits of old adventurers inside.

16. Armoured Ghost, each time it takes damage it takes 1 less than it would, wear it if you beat it, each time you take damage take 1 less than you would.

17. Vampire, all the normal rules about vampires work.

18. Ancient Wizard, can cast spells like the wizard but can’t cast Sudden Death or Wish and uses your die.

19. Many Eyed Beast, if it does damage to someone they turn to stone on an odd number of HP.

20. Dragon. Can’t be beaten, might be tricked.

If you want to use a map to show everyone the dungeon layout, use another set of polyhedral dice to mark where everyone is.

Thursday 17 September 2020

a Free Hobby

Threads on the subreddit for board games tend to fall into one of a few categories. Is this game any good, framed as “is it worth the money”. This new game is out now/soon, framed as “here’s a thing you can [soon] buy”. Here’s my collection, or “here are the things I’ve bought”. Even the more innocuous posts like personal crafts projects often result in comments asking to purchase the thing someone’s made.

The rpg subreddit, and other online spaces for talking about ttrpgs, aren’t all that different. Online conversations about hobbies are framed around money. This extends to physical spaces, too. In a pre-socially-distanced world, the real-world hubs for the hobby were, at least through the US-centric lens of most conversations, the FLGS (where you buy things) and the game convention (where people sell you things).

As someone who can’t afford to frequent games stores or travel to conventions, I could have seen this focus on interaction with the hobby through commerce as a deterrent, or passive capitalist gatekeeping. Same as any other hobby with a price point - I can’t play golf, and wouldn’t consider trying, because I’m aware of the costs involved. The money means it’s not for me.

As game designers know, if most of your book is combat rules people will think your game’s about combat - and if most of the conversation around your hobby is framed around commerce, people will think they need money to engage with it. People will assume, fairly reasonably, that buying and owning things is the primary mode of engagement with tabletop as a community and, by extension, a pastime.

Luckily, my personal gateway to games was through old hand-me-downs and homebrew, and eventually through stumbling into a sphere of generous, creative writers and designers, happy to build things for fun and share them with anyone who might want them. Free content was my introduction to this hobby and, like any interest, without a suitable introduction I doubt I’d ever have engaged with it.

Free stuff as a gateway is brought up fairly regularly, but the conversation often stops there. The fact that the current most popular ttrpg, 5e, has its basic rules available for free, is mentioned briefly in your average introductory blog post or YouTube video - but the underlying assumption is always that you will, sooner or later, buy things. The starter set is “only” x dollars, or you can use online dice rollers “until” you want to buy your own custom dice set. The assumption is that you will spend money on something at some point.

And, yes, all these prices are relatively low. This is an enormously reasonable hobby, by and large. But any price point is a barrier to entry in a world in which poverty exists. I’m not against creators putting price tags on art to express its value within the restrictions of capitalism, and I’m certainly not against artists trying to use their skills to earn a living and survive. This is how the world works at the moment. Knowing that money sucks ass and that I need it for rent are not mutually exclusive beliefs. Insert Matt Bors comic, etc. But the fact remains that any product outside my price range is by its nature inaccessible. TSR’s greatest and most terrible innovation was turning home games and zines into a paid subscription model.

(Side note on piracy - if it’s your only option then you do you. If you’re using it to deny hegemonic corporations your money then that’s chill, but also you... do realise you don’t have to play their games at all, right? And if you’re using it to deny income to poor and marginalised creators then fuckin check yourself.)

The thing is that under all this, under all the starter sets and subscriptions, the free SRDs and at-cost PoDs, the limited editions and Invisible Suns, the collections and libraries and d20s made of gemstones... under the restrictions placed on it by capitalism, which are the same ways in which capitalism affects all things, this is a free hobby. Anyone can access it free of charge, and crucially anyone can continue to play, indefinitely, without spending.

There are free games. There are free modules, adventures, hacks. Free essays to read, free conversations to engage in, creators who are open to dialogue. It costs nothing - not nothing but, not nothing until. Tabletop RPGs are, at their heart, entirely separate from capitalism. Not above it or transcending it, not below or restricted by it. They are communal traditions. My game design didn’t start with the first book I bought and hacked, but with my playground games and notes scrawled on stolen paper.

Now, this is obvious, but please, please, support independent creators. I wish I could put out everything I make for free, and I do my best, but that’s just not the world we live in right now. Capitalism uses money to denote value, and so if you feel you’ve found value in this hobby, and are able to support the people who make the stuff you like... well, y’know. Money, mouth. You can start here, hint hint.

But if you, or someone you know, thinks this space isn’t for them because they’ve fallen on hard times, or have never not known hard times, if someone is working class or marginalised or just has better things to spend their money on... this space has no ticket price. You’re already included.

D&D is folk art. It is made of words, the only legitimate barriers to play are accessibility, culture and communication, and capitalist restrictions on our hobby are entirely arbitrary.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Sisterhood of Sleep

This is a dungeon i doodled about a month ago, good for a side quest maybe. Someone you know got took.

Entrance - 1d4 cultists, moving inward

A cave at the foot of treacherous cliffs, out of the reach of the tide but wracked by sea spray. Cold, wet grey stone and the faint orange glow of torchlight on the far wall. The entranceway is hidden in the stone. This is where the cultists, women in white robes, cloth masks bearing the Closed Eye, have taken their kidnapped.

Pillar Chamber

Here, the stone is less rough, natural but hewn into shape. Four pillars support the craggy ceiling. On the first two, facing inward, are two twisted faces - any movement between them causes sleeping gas to spew from their gaping mouths. The cultists know this, and casually walk around the pillars in a twisting path.

Stairwell and Antechamber - 1d2 cultists, preparing

Stairs in the stone lead down. There is an opening to the east into a small room - to the left as you enter is a stone basin for the ritual washing of hands, and to the right a keg of sleeping draught. The back section of the space is separated by a thick white curtain - behind it are spare robes and masks.

Great Pit 

The passage opens onto an enormous cavern deep in the cliffside. A walkway encircles the great pit in the centre, leading to a raised altar on the opposite side. The pit is immeasurably deep, and leads to the dimension of the Dreamer.

On the western side of the walkway, an alcove contains a spiral staircase leading up to a mezzanine level, which mirrors the walkway except for a gap over the altar. To the east, steps lead down into the library.

Library - 1d4 cultists, researching

Two joined chambers, full of old tomes. The first contains the majority of the books, while the second has the rarer pieces. The northern bookcase in the second chamber is a secret door - pulling the right book causes the case to slide away and reveal a hidden passage.

Notable Books: 1, a spell to ease nightmares and protect dreams from being eaten; 2, holy texts on the Dreamer, detailing the sacrificial ritual; 3, history of the Sisterhood, giving the current leader’s name and details such as clothing, greetings and minor rituals; 4, a history of the area, leading to another dungeon.

Hidden Passage - cult leader, with prisoner

A tunnel connecting the library to a room behind the altar. In this space, the leaders of the Sleeping Sisters prepare for their sacrifices - placing a sleeping person on the altar and performing the rites cause the Dreamer to stir and lift Her mighty trunk from the great pit to impart dreams into the sleeper’s mind.

Once the drugs wear off the sleeper wakes in a stir, and has mere hours to recall their prophetic dreams before their mind fades into endless sleep. The prophecy will contain information about a greater power in your campaign.

Friday 11 September 2020

GRAVEROBBERS Bare Bones Edition - update 0.3

 New version of the Bare Bones just went live! Download for free here.

Patch notes:

Setting + semantic changes

Have changed the intro and various game terms to reflect the new implied setting, the urban gothic fantasy city of Lanton. Prep and Job phases are now Day and Night phases (this was actually what they were called in the first ever version of the game, I just remembered), other shifts in terms and tone. Changed use of die face Unicode for better readability. The Judge is now called the Dealer to fit the casino theme. This should be the final time any of these terms and bits of flavour are changed or updated.

Crime changes

The Grifter is now the Mountebank. No more die roll for items, now gets set vials of potentially useful substances. Other small changes to starting items in some Crimes.

New Rule: the Raise

One additional line under Night Phase means that players can now “raise” a fellow player’s roll with some risk/reward cooperative stuff. Not too dramatic but should bet everyone focused in more on the rolls.

This is probably the last “big” change to the Bare Bones until it goes to layout/art - which will be whenever I can afford it. So... we’ll see. Support your local graverobber by redownloading the Bare Bones and tipping a buck or two!

Happy gaming x

Tuesday 1 September 2020


My ZineQuest 2020 project, BUTCHERY, is now available for purchase.

Thanks again to all the backers who made this happen! Check your messages on your Kickstarter account for a code to get the zine for free.

Happy hunting.

Wednesday 26 August 2020



I’ve been writing this blog for nearly 3 years now, which means 3 years of being a hobbyist RPG person. I had brushes with games before then, but in my mind that’s when I started being an active participant. Since then I’ve become a professional RPG person, as in I’ve been paid to make stuff, but I still pretty much see myself as a hobbyist.

This is probably a combination of good old impostor syndrome and the fact that the infinitesimally low barrier to entry for RPGs means that there’s very little distinction between different “levels” of engagement with the hobby. A GM with a home game is a game designer already. If you put your home game notes up and earn a few bucks off itch or the DM’s Guild (don’t use the DM’s guild, it’s ass) you’ve got a foot in both the entry level and highest echelons of the industry - doing it for free and doing it for a bit of money. It can be hard to know where you stand - best to carve out a niche of your own.

The whole time I’ve been writing here I’ve been working on GRAVEROBBERS. It wasn’t called that to begin with, and it’s changed drastically through various iterations, but hey so’s D&D. I’ve always seen it as the same ongoing project, from when it was “the heist game” I mentioned in one of my earliest posts that got any kind of attention to when I first put up the public alpha.

If you don’t know what GRAVEROBBERS is... well, that’s probably my fault. The aforementioned impostor syndrome and just a general anxiety get in the way of me talking about my stuff, pushing it and putting it out there. I’ll never be a SEO-optimised marketing bro, but there’s got to be a balance between that and barely communicating.

I’m drafting a “GM’s guide” type section of play procedures for GRAVEROBBERS right now, and I keep pushing this idea of communication being foundational to these kinds of games. I should probably take my own advice a bit more, huh.


I’ve always kind of struggled with the setting of GRAVEROBBERS, mostly without realising it. The core mechanic covers so much of the game’s tone that I’d considered setting info as a nice bonus, but other games have shown me that what I really appreciate in a setting is specificity. I was never aiming for a “universal” system, I don’t think those particularly work, but more of a D&D thing where the same engine can be put into various flavours of machine. Of course, delving into old school stuff has taught me just how specific D&D really is. Or was, or was meant to be.

The other struggle with setting was more abstract than mechanical. I’ve written before about how GRAVEROBBERS mechanises its morals, how it doesn’t function outside of the assumption that you’re an oppressed minority fighting an oppressive system. It’s a game about struggling in the face of capitalism and societal rejection. This is, clearly, a reflection of my own beliefs, but I also knew when it came to flavouring these faceless mechanics that It wasn’t my place to tell someone else’s story of rebellion.

I abstracted this issue away with the coward’s genre, Western European fantasy, then soon after by leaning into gothic romance - a realm I didn’t feel was appropriative from me to draw from but was also a great source of flavour that fit the rules nicely. That’s how the setting of GRAVEROBBERS has been for a while now - a vague “gothic fantasy”. I could flesh it out in adventure modules, I thought, the openness and range of influences was a boon to players rather than homework, I thought.

I love the gothic, it’s a genre that introduced me to some of my favourite writers and has a strong tradition of feminist and working class texts. But it felt like a well I was going to rather than something that came from out of me and my experience. GRAVEROBBERS is my baby, but there was scant family resemblance.

I’d shied away from expressing myself outside of my art, and I’d been doing the same with GRAVEROBBERS too. If this thing is going to be “my game”, I’m going all in.

And all this realisation came at once when I was designing an adventure and googled “gothic cathedrals” for inspiration, and remembered that I had a perfectly good one barely a 15 minute journey from my front door.

I knew then that I wanted the setting to be based on my home, the city I was born and raised in and love from the depths of my heart, the city my family fled to when the Spanish Inquisition came knocking (Jewish and Romani? Not here you don’t!), the city made of its vibrant, artful, colourful citizens but ruled by an oppressive class of imperialist, colonialist bastards. As limited as my first-hand experience of oppression is, I know what it’s like to be poor in the greatest city in the world.

But it had to be fantasy, not modern, because I didn’t want to write computer hacking rules. So, keeping the looming spectres of medieval gothic and gothic romance in the background, I turned to the urban gothic, and the city of London as depicted by Charles Dickens.

Thieving urchins? Check. The plight of the underclass? Check. Randomly sometimes a ghost? Big ol’ check! It’s a weirdly perfect fit for GRAVEROBBERS and I’m honestly shocked I didn’t see it before. This is still my take on the setting rather than a straight rip - I’m not taking enough from Dickens to call this a “Dickensian fantasy” RPG - but there’s a lot there that fits and I’ll be stealing it all, as light-fingered as the Artful Dodger (though perhaps we’ll leave behind Fagin’s semitic caricature winding up executed vs blond-haired Oliver finding out that he’s actually good and pure because he was from a rich family all along).

A Christmas Carol is the best one btw.

they’re all in. ‘cept maybe steampunk

Yet to Come

GRAVEROBBERS is a set of rules and tools for adventure games of stealth and sedition, set in the gothic fantasy city of Lanton.

Once my zinequest project is sorted, GRAVEROBBERS will get its final “alpha” update, which is going to change a few maths-y bits and add a new “raise” rule to dice rolls, but mostly what it’s for is cementing the new setting (and getting me to start really working on getting this thing done. 3 years is too long already).

And once the alpha version is done?

The Bare Bones are available for free, and always will be. I’ve wanted this project to be free for anyone who wants it, in one form or another, since I started it - and that’s probably what’s been taking me so long. I’m a lot luckier than most, but I’ve spent almost all of those past 3 years below the poverty line, even when I’ve had work.

I’m resolved to take this seriously and put myself and the game out there more, but as it stands I don’t have the time and resources to give that this project needs. Realistically, at this rate I probably won’t be able to continue participating in this hobby.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few RPG jobs here and there, but I need a more solid foundation if I’m really going to buckle down and get this damn game out there. I’m unemployed again right now, and looking for something unrelated to support my writing as I have in the past, but if my eventual goal is to do this full-time I need to step up my game.

Thing is... I’m not yet sure how to go about this. My current thinking is to launch a subscription service, the Graverobbers Gazette, with monthly updates on content, gm stuff, adventures, rules, resources and whatever, plus first looks at the final, fancy version of the book once that becomes a thing. £2 a month for a stream of WIP content, maybe.

I just don’t know if there’s enough interest - I did something similar when I had Patreon and a few awesome supporters stuck it out on there, but that wouldn’t be enough to get GRAVEROBBERS off the ground as a side project, let alone eventually doing it full time. I’m sure getting the Bare Bones laid out nicely and adding an adventure and selling that would generate a bit of attention, but that requires an initial investment to hire people for layout and art and whatnot, and I’m really not at the Kickstarter stage yet.

If you have any interest at all in GRAVEROBBERS - and I’m going to assume you do since you’ve reached the end of this post - please let me know if you want to see more of it and if you’d be willing and able to lend your support in making it happen. And support can be financial, sure, but also retweeting stuff is great, or playing the free version with your group and giving me feedback, or whatever.

I’m prepared to, finally, put my all into this, and give back to the hobby that’s given me so much over the past few years. I really hope there’ll be an audience waiting.

make a Will roll

Thursday 13 August 2020

DEADLINE rules draft + play report

I got a great response on the socials to yesterday’s post about my new game DEADLINE (get up to speed here), thanks to everyone who commented, shared and offered their own thoughts and ideas! It’s super early days but everyone’s reaction has me energised to get to work on this thing.

I figured I might as well share the draft rule book so far, such as it is - this is very sketchy but has all the basic mechanics and should be enough to run the game on (you’ll have to supply your own adventure for now though, sorry!).

Here’s a google doc with the first version of the game.

Like I said everyone’s feedback and ideas have been really awesome and helpful, so if you have any comments, questions, etc about the game now that you’ve read it (especially if you manage to play it!) I’d love to hear them.

The final version will obviously have more mechanics and content than this sketch version, so if you have some thoughts about what you’d like that extra stuff to be let me know that too! Comment on this post, hit me up on Twitter, email me, whatever (my email is in my twitter bio).

I also wrote up a little play report, the idea being that something like this could maybe be included in the final version of the book to help teach the game.

Honestly I think I’ve laid out the rules pretty clearly in terms of giving readers an idea of how gameplay works, but maybe something like this could be useful? It’d be edited down and changed up of course, as with everything the paint is very wet here.

Anyway here’s a Mission Report, with GM advice-type commentary.


Mission Report: Room 106


The best Agents learn from the best. Study the following mission report from Agent 1, and try to find techniques you can utilise when playing your own game.


In this mission, Agent 1 is in a hotel room, behind enemy lines, where she must meet with a supposed defector from the other side who claims to have important information.


As the Agent who has prepared this mission for the other player, Agent 1 currently has all the info, while the Operator has none. Her first objective is to get the Operator on the same page so that he can play along too.


Agent 1: “Ok, so for this mission, I’ve been sent to a hotel room to meet someone and get some secret info. This is our first mission so let’s just work it out as we go.”


Here, Agent 1 is just a player, talking to her friend and explaining the premise of the game. The easiest way to get key information across to someone is always to just tell them! At the very least, an Operator will need to know the objective of a given mission.


Operator: “Cool, makes sense.”


Agent 1: “Operator? This is Agent 1. I’m approaching the room now.”


Now, Agent 1 is speaking in-character. This can be a fun way to bring players into the game, but it isn’t always necessary. The key is to communicate clearly, whether or not you’re acting a role.


Operator: “…”


Here, the Operator is pausing, unsure of what to do. That’s because Agent 1 hasn’t yet given them enough information to go on. They know their overall objective, but not what to do to get to it, or what obstacles might be in their way.


Agent 1: “Shall we check if the room is secure? I don’t trust these people…”


Now, Agent 1 has given the Operator an actionable prompt. She’s not telling them what to do, or doing the thinking for them, but she’s given them a clearer, immediate goal.


Operator: “Ok, uh, listen at the door?”


Agent 1 has all the mission info, and she knows there’s nothing in the room that could be heard through the door. But the Operator doesn’t know that, and is making a pretty sound judgement based on the small amount of information they have.


Agent 1: “Good thinking, Operator… No, I don’t hear anything. Let’s proceed.”


What just happened was an example of the basic cycle of play in DEADLINE. The Agent described a situation, the Operator made a call on what to do next, and the Agent made a decision about how those actions would play out. Everything that happens in your game will be some variation on this basic pattern.


Operator: “And then you get shot as soon as you open the door.”

Agent 1: “Ha, yeah, that would be terrible!”


They’re only joking, but the Operator has just given an example of how an Agent could disrupt that basic cycle of play and possibly ruin their game. If there really was someone waiting with a gun behind that door, it would be the Agent’s responsibility to telegraph that danger somehow. Footprints, noise from the room, or a suspicious individual seen earlier might be good clues.


Then, if the Operator did make the mistake of letting the Agent proceed without caution, it would be their mistake for not paying attention, not the Agent’s for communicating poorly. If an Agent ever realises they’ve misspoken or left out a crucial detail, they can always just apologise and backtrack a bit.


Operator: “Ok so are you in the room now?”


Agent 1: “I’m in. Looks like a pretty standard hotel room… I don’t see anything suspicious…”


Agent 1 knows that the room is bugged because she has all the details of the mission noted down, but within the game, the Agent wouldn’t know this information. Part of the fun is for the Operators to work out what’s going on themselves and investigate the mystery.


Operator: “Ok… So, I guess we just wait here for this meeting?”


Looks like the Operator hasn’t guessed the room might be bugged. Somebody familiar with spy stories might jump to that conclusion, but in this instance Agent 1 simply hasn’t communicated the situation clearly enough. Just like the assassin example, she should have left some clues lying around.


With a bit more time to think, or if she was playing this mission again with someone else, Agent 1 might add to her notes, reminding herself to describe the room as being in disarray, as if someone had been in there before. That might work as a clue.


Agent 1: “Well, like I said, I’m not sure we can trust them… maybe we should search the room?”


For now, Agent 1 is thinking on her feet. Telling the Operator what to do next isn’t a perfect solution, but at least she didn’t reveal the surprise. Now the Operator knows to search, but they don’t know what for, so they’re still able to play the game by coming up with their own plan. If Agent 1 just led them through the mission step by step, they wouldn’t be playing the game along with her.


Operator: “Oh, yeah, there might be traps. Or bugs or something. Ok, uh… Agent 1, search the room.”


Agent 1: “Where should I look? There’s not much in here, just a bed, some lamps, a chest of drawers and a mirror. And there’s the bathroom next door.”


Now, the Operator can play the game. They have agency, information, and can make their own decisions. Agent 1 knows where the bug is, so it would be no fun if she picked where to search.


Operator: “Well, it says on the character sheet that you have Investigation… So can I use that?”


Agent 1: “You could, but that would advance the DOOMSDAY clock. Maybe it’s best not to risk it.”


Operator: “Ok, I think I get it. So rolling dice is dangerous, huh. So what do I do instead?”


Agent 1: “I’m the Agent, you’re the Operator. Just tell me where to search and I’ll get to work.”


Good work, Agent 1. Here, she’s reminding the Operator of the core tension of the game. Just running in blindly and using the Agent’s training to solve every problem will only end badly. She’s encouraging the Operator to rely on LIFELINE more, think creatively and come up with their own plans. That’s going to make for a more engaging and rewarding game.

Operator: “Start with the mirror. It might be one of those two-way mirrors, where they can see you from the other side.”


That’s a good idea from the Operator! In this case, though, it’s just a mirror. However, since Agent 1 knows that this part of the mission is about finding a bug, she decides to reward the Operator’s clever thinking.

Agent 1: “No, it’s just a mirror… It comes away from the wall. Wait a second… You hear a kind of cracking sound, then I whisper through the LIFELINE… It’s a bug! They’d hidden a listening device behind the mirror.”


In Agent 1’s notes, she’d just written that there is a bug in the room. That fact wasn’t going to change. But what wasn’t particularly important was where exactly the bug was. By deciding in the moment that it would be behind the mirror, Agent 1 made the Operator feel good for trusting their instincts, and also saved a lot of time instead of checking every piece of furniture one by one.


Agent 1: “Ok great! You found the bug. That was the first obstacle I had planned. Sorry, that was a bit simple, it should get more interesting from here on.”


Operator: “No, it’s cool! I get the game a bit better now, and I feel like we’re in a spy thriller. I’ll check every room that I can for bugs from now on!”


Agent 1: “I liked your two way mirror idea too, I might steal that…”


Be careful changing details last minute. An Agent is the Operator’s eyes and ears into the mission, and so something only becomes true from the Operator’s perspective once the Agent communicates it. As well as communicating information regularly and in detail, an Agent needs to keep the world of the mission consistent.


If an Operator feels like reality is shifting, or that things only appear or exist for their benefit or to make the mission difficult, they won’t have any fun. Agent 1 could have decided that the mirror really did have a window or camera behind it, but that’s not true to the mission she’s playing here. Sticking to her notes helps her keep the mission’s reality feeling real. Besides, improvising a whole other mystery she hadn’t planned for would be a lot of work!

This part of the mission is now over. An obstacle has been identified and overcome. It’s a small victory, but now both players understand how to play better, and can use that knowledge in future missions.


Nobody starts out as a world class agent. The best way to learn is on the job. Start playing, work things out as you go, make mistakes and have fun.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

oh god not another one

BUTCHERY is in its final stages of development, Paradice Arcade is a go (and will have a small Kickstarter later this year for its first “non-mini” game!), and GRAVEROBBERS is pootling  away in the background as ever.

Obviously, my game design brain cannot let me rest, and so another brand new project is needed. I tweeted about this and a couple of folks seemed interested, so I figured I might as well spill the beans even at this early stage of development. I think there’s some value to doing things relatively out in the open, letting people in from day 1 as it were. Anyway.

Announcing DEADLINE.

DEADLINE is a set of rules and tools (I’ve stopped calling rulesets “games” for the same reason that a LEGO kit with a spaceship on the front doesn’t market itself as a toy spaceship) for tabletop roleplaying adventure games (like, OSR or whatever) in an underworld of intelligence that never was, inspired by the superspy thrillers and Cold War chillers of the 1960s.

Spies. It’s a spy game.

The idea came because I wanted to do a game, any kind of game, where the players are the shadowy intelligence agency that oversees these classic secret agent capers. That seemed fun to me - being in a kind of “mission command” position, as M or Q or whoever, the folks the movie cuts back to when the spy talks into their earpiece, looking at maps and personnel files and overseeing operations.

I like heists for the same reason, hence GRAVEROBBERS - a plan coming together and being executed under pressure, while your enemies are, hopefully, none the wiser.

I tried doing a board game, and bounced off a few ideas, then decided on an RPG. The fun bit of RPGs for me is the adventure game aspect, exploring a situation or world, collecting and utilising information and items, devising and executing your own plans. That’s the whole point of the games I play and make, and those elements of the playstyle at least seemed like a good fit for the genre.

As I saw it, though, there were two big problems with doing a spy adventure game. I think I’ve fixed them?

The first is that James Bond (who honestly didn’t come into my head until later, my first points of reference were The Man from UNCLE and Spy x Family and the less fashy Tintins) works alone. There are tons of workarounds to this though.

The obvious would be to ignore it and do a team narrative (Mission Impossible does this great already) but there are already RPGs that do this and it seemed a bit obvious. Since I had it in my head to focus on the agency over the agent, I could’ve done a Jason and the Argonauts with one OP character and their lackeys/support, but that just doesn’t seem fun to me. Given the option, everyone would want to be Bond.

So in DEADLINE, the GM role is fulfilled by the person playing the Agent. They have something called the LIFELINE system, an in-universe device that keeps them in constant contact with HQ. The players are still controlling the character in the exact same way they’d control adventurers in D&D, and the GM still has the same job - describe situation, players make decisions, describe how situation develops - so gameplay is exactly like a typical OSR or adventure type game. The only difference is how it’s couched in the fiction. The GM isn’t reporting on the situation as a semi-omniscient arbiter of the action but as the agent in the field, and the players aren’t making decisions as the characters in the field but as, in-fiction, semi-omniscient arbiters of the action.

I can’t quite picture how difficult or not this will be for players used to other games to get to grips with, but to my mind it’s pretty simple? “You enter a room, there’s a locked door” becomes “I’ve just entered the room, looks like there’s a locked door, over”. “I wanna try my lockpick on the door” becomes “Agent 99, you should have been outfitted with a lockpick for this mission, disguised as a fountain pen. Try it on the door.”

And LIFELINE being a Thing That Exists draws attention to the primary play mechanic of ttrpgs - communication. I hope this will encourage GMs and players to be more open and talk through descriptions and plans more, leading to better play! Also I hope changing “you have to be the GM” to “you get to be a cool spy” makes more people want to be GMs :D

The other Big Problem with playing an OSR game as James Bond, other than that there’s just one of him, is that he’s really good at everything. He has bad luck and loses fights, but he always wins overall, and his basic capabilities as a character far outstrip, say, a level 0 farmer in DCC. We never doubt the danger, but we also never doubt that he’ll succeed at anything he attempts. Not exactly “roll a d20 and see what happens” material.

OSR games enforce the playstyle I mentioned above - planning, creative problem solving, careful exploration - through not only making the world perilous, but the characters frail. A secret base under a volcano is a perilous dungeon, but Sean Connery is more than up to the task, removing that sense of threat and therefore the tension that necessitates an “adventure” playstyle.

I’m sure there are other ways to solve this, but in DEADLINE I decided to mechanise the concept of threat. This might seem abstract and game-y, but RPGs have been doing it from the start with HP - only HP focuses on physical threat. I took a leaf from GRAVEROBBERS, where Luck (“HP”) can be lost through the treat of being caught as well (it’s a stealth game), and in which any failed roll results in loss of Luck (thereby discouraging rolling and encouraging creativity, more on that here) and took it one step further.

Now, all rolls result in the game’s equivalent of HP loss, advancing the DOOMSDAY clock closer to failure (hit midnight and it’s game over, roll up a new agent). There are two big differences - you don’t know how far you’re going to advance the clock (that’s what the roll is for), and all rolls succeed.

In the fiction it’s abstracted as the Agent “falling back on their training”, basically the agency throwing their hands up and leaving it to Bond to do his thing (which literally matches what the players are doing! ludonarrative assonance, yum), who succeeds at the given task but in his own reckless, cool-guy way, which can alert attention or leave clues or otherwise jeopardise the mission. You can explore the area, find clues, investigate and devise a plan, all without rolling - or you can roll and hope for the best.

This puts the players firmly in the role of those folks back at HQ, trying desperately to find answers and keep the situation under control, with a highly skilled but strong-willed agent in the field enacting their orders - to the letter, if with a little flair. If you’ve seen any Bond movies, or any of the similar things I’m drawing from here, you’ll recognise the dynamic. I’m hoping players of DEADLINE will too.

Also, mechanising the threat means the Agent (GM) doesn’t have to stat enemies or anything, just make up a cool mission. That, and I’m going to give notes and a few random tables and whatnot - I foresee DEADLINE being very easy to run.

And, uh, that’s it? That’s almost the whole game mechanically, it’s very light, just how I like em. As I said I’m working on a draft rulebook, if you like the idea of this and want to see more then yell at me about it and I’ll oblige.

Stay tuned for more, I guess?

This message will self-destruct in 5... 4...

Friday 7 August 2020

UFO Grab! Minimart Mischief

Hey folks!

Briefly raising my head from the BUTCHERY grindstone to let you know about the new Paradice Arcade game that just launched - UFO Grab! Download link riiiight here.

Check the tag for more info on Paradice - basically, these are my non-ttrpg games, and you can play all of them with just a pencil, 2d6 and some loose change. UFO Grab is a minigame, all on one page, for 1 or 2 players. Hope you enjoy it!

I’ve said more about this elsewhere, but I recently lost my day job due to COVID. Posts on here will be pretty much paused while I look for work, and other than the projects I’ve already got in the pipeline (like those mentioned above) I won’t be putting much stuff out for the foreseeable future.

If you can and would like to help me out a bit, consider getting this new game, or some of my other stuff maybe! Also you can hire me, business enquiries to graverobbersguide at the gmail dot the com.

Stay safe! Speak soon x

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Paradice Arcade


I’m thrilled to announce the launch of Paradice Arcade!

  • A label for my not-ttrpg tabletop games!
  • Analog arcade, digital distribution. Download and start playing.
  • Every Paradice Arcade game can be played with just the downloadable instructions, a pencil, some spare change, and a pair o’ dice. (That’s 2d6 to you RPG nerds!)
  • Beginning with a series of one-page black ‘n’ white minigames! All kinds of genres, styles and player counts, experimenting with the Paradice format.

I’ve been working on various games in this series for over a year now - and some have been in development for a while before that! I’m super excited to make these little games into fun, complete finished products that you can enjoy for yourselves.

If you liked GoGoGolf, this series is something of a spiritual successor. The same emphasis on tight, light mechanics and focus on fun, with art and graphic design as good as we can get ‘em.

Bespoke analog gaming in bite size digital packages.

The first game from Paradice Arcade is Sky Pirate Solitaire, a 1-player roguelike with RPG and classic arcade elements, fully illustrated and hand-drawn by prominent OSR-adjacent artist Sam Mameli, aka skullboy!

If you like the work Sam’s done for RPG hits like Troika! and Questing Beast as well as his own awesome projects, you’ll be blown away by the art and design he’s cooked up for this project.

You can get Sky Pirate Solitaire right here.

...And we have a whole lot of games still to come!

For now, the best way to keep up with Paradice Arcade is to follow @ParadiceArcade on Twitter. I’ll also post on this blog whenever there’s a new game or a big announcement!

If you like anything I’ve made so far, I sincerely hope you’ll enjoy these odd little games. I have some bonkers stuff lined up for this first series and beyond, and I’m so so excited to share it with you all.

Thank you!

Happy gaming xox

Monday 6 July 2020

My Top 3 Non-Violent Quest Hooks

If you’re playing a classic, “challenge-based” adventure RPG, you’re going to want things for your players to do that don’t involve the often deadly combat rules killing them. And if you’re playing a more combat-focused modern game, your players might want a change of pace from slaughtering monsters now and then!

Here are three types of quest “hook” I put in front of my players all the time. Remember that in a sandbox game there’s no guarantee they’ll go for these, but you never know. Pop these in your world and your players may surprise you.

The Sudden Proposal

Your players rescue the prince from the dragon’s tower, or save the daughter of the hog-folk chief. As well as a substantial reward, the most eligible among their party is presented with a dramatic proposal... of marriage!

The best thing about a proposal is that anything your players do when faced with it can have interesting consequences for your game going forward. Whether they accept, decline, or hatch some other scheme, they’re planting seeds for future events in your world. I wrote a bit in this short post about different angles you can take with a proposal hook depending on the tone of your game.

The Production Crew

A local playwright wants to put on a new theatrical event - or needs to, at the behest of an execution-happy monarch, if you want to raise the stakes - but all they have is a script. Your players will need to provide the rest: props, actors, special effects and the like.

This resembles a classic fetch quest, but manages to avoid the drudgery of those kinds of tasks by allowing the players to decide what items they’ll need and how best to get them, and then execute those plans themselves. Player-driven adventure is something ttrpgs excel at facilitating, so lean into it! Give vague prompts like “we need a monster for the final act” or “the fanciest costume you can find”, and let your players interpret their mission creatively.

There’s a similar prompt involving the world’s first cinema in my free micro-setting Calliope. (In fact, Calliope is entirely made up of non-violent adventure prompts, should you want any more!)

The Impossible Foe

The players need to get somewhere, or retrieve some item, etc. But in their path, set against the completion of this important task for their own reasons, is an enemy like none the party have faced yet... something or someone far beyond their fighting abilities.

I haven’t talked much about Combat As War on this blog, I guess because it’s such a simple idea that I kind of take it as a given, but if you need a primer Ben over at Questing Beast has a great introductory video on the concept. Pitting your players against a foe they simply can’t beat head-on forces them to think creatively and come up with other options. Let them use the world around them, hatch schemes, try communication, trickery or bribery. Don’t be afraid to really stack the odds against them - players will always surprise you with their ingenuity and ideas.


Combat will always be an option in ttrpgs, because the medium runs on freedom and player agency. To (heavily!) paraphrase Zedeck Siew’s great thread on colonialism in D&D, taking a non-violent option when violence is also an option is a moral decision, but it becomes a mercenary one when non-violence is the only given path.

Some of your most interesting and memorable adventures, and the very best of tabletop gameplay, will happen when you play against the restraints of the system and fiction and forge your own solutions.

Saturday 4 July 2020

Journeylands, for now

Just a quick update,

I’ve removed the public play test version of Journeylands from my Gumroad store. It’s still available for free, just now it’s in a google doc. Access it right here if you want it. There are a bunch of resources for it on this blog, check the journeylands tag for those posts.

As I’ve said before, I’d love to return to Journeylands, probably gut it and update the mechanics, and release it with a bunch of setting stuff in a kinda UVG style thing. I just don’t have the time, and definitely don’t have the budget. I moved it from Gumroad because there are better things on there now and I don’t think it’s up to that standard!

Also re: the Gumroad store, I’ve set the minimum price of my Graverobber’s Guide to Slimes for 5th Edition to £3, up from free. I’ve barely made any money off it ever, and I don’t really do 5e stuff (fuck WotC), but it’s good and if people want it I might as well get something for it :P

That’s it for now! Just cleaning house. More to come~

Thursday 2 July 2020


I continually revise my idea of what the eventual, full release of the GRAVEROBBERS system (free alpha version here) will look like. Sometimes I want to create an entire baroque gothic town of potential heist locations with blueprints and secret sewer tunnels and criminal contacts et al. Sometimes I feel like the current Bare Bones Edition might be the best and truest expression of the system.

Right now I’m leaning towards something like: the Bare Bones, a small but dense starter adventure with extensive Prep section, and a big wad of pages in the middle with extra rules, hacks and commentary.

Stuff like these:

Alternate Odds Generation

Some players won’t want to roll completely randomly for their characters’ Odds. They might not like the chance of being exceedingly unlucky in an area of expertise, or they might have a vague idea of who their character “should” be and want their higher and lower numbers to be distributed a certain way.

Here’s another way - it instantly creates a character that’s just over the threshold of not dying to a >13 total Odd score, but the fixed numbers mean it won’t ever produce characters much more lucky than that minimum. Those are for gamblers.

Your alternative:
- Roll a die and put that number in an Odd of your choice.
- Flip the die over, and put that number in a different Odd.
- Repeat for the remaining two Odds.

[btw this is how stat generation works in BUTCHERY, my zinequest project that Kickstarted back in Feb. That’ll be out in a few short months!]


By default, characters in GRAVEROBBERS can carry however much stuff makes sense. Work it out, as with most things, through standard play.

If the Judge wants to keep tabs on things or enforce a greater sense of danger, use the following rule:

A player character has six inventory slots for useful items, with one item generally taking up one slot. Collections of smaller items, such as the Grifter’s pouches of goods, take up one slot each, while very large, cumbersome or noisy items such as swords or cockatrice eggs might take up two. Another person, or a corpse, takes up three, plus any weight on that person. Carrying something big between multiple people splits the weight evenly, but those carrying the item can’t make rolls without dropping it.

If a character carries items that would take up slots but they have no slots left, remove a die from any Finesse or Fortitude rolls that character makes for each slot the extra items would take up. If a character carries enough items that they no longer have dice for Fortitude rolls, they are weighed down and completely unable to move.

Tuesday 30 June 2020


GRAVEROBBERS is not a game that requires the Judge to invest time or effort into “running” NPCs in the same way others might. When I run with this system NPCs are uncommon, and when they do exist, such as in the Chapel, the adventure is structured entirely around their impact. But generally, “characters” just aren’t a thing in this system, at least not in the same way that I feel they are expected to be a thing in most modern games.

That is, the game doesn’t require NPCs as you may have seen them in 5e adventures, streamed games, narrative-based or storygames, etc. An adventure can have no monsters, no people to meet, and still be very much a GRAVEROBBERS adventure. And when they are there, the conventional wisdom of making your NPCs seem complex, motivated or “real” doesn’t necessarily hold.

Characters with depth can be a part of your game - my players enjoy interacting with black market dealers or co-conspirators during a Prep phase, so I’ll at the very least give them names or quirks - but from my perspective as a Judge even the most fleshed out character in a game run using GRAVEROBBERS is mainly there as a function of game design. The game’s primary antagonist, diegetically a system of oppression enforced by the House, is non-diegetically expressed through an automated game mechanic. Traders and conspirators, as mentioned, are for getting items, resources and info in players’ hands, and these Prep interactions are also driven by the underlying card system. These mechanics function with or without the window dressing of verisimilitude.

When characters do exist in adventures, it’s for gameable reasons before dramatic ones. The line can be fine, and it’s kind of a chicken-egg thing if you’re a good enough designer/writer, but I think the distinction is important.

This all sounds very “game-y”, and it is. That’s by design. You can flesh out NPCs with backstories and motivations, and your game will likely be better for it, but the text and games you run using it should function just fine without them. Learn that part of the game first, put it first in your design, and I reckon GRAVEROBBERS will work better for you.

(Then, if you want, you add in three dimensional NPCs with complex motivations and elaborate histories, and really knock their socks off.)


Preamble over, let’s look at the most common kind of NPC-type “character” your players will be encountering during your games, the common or garden guard, through a lens not of running characters as most of us have come to understand the term, but as a function of game design. I’ll detail three things that guards are in GRAVEROBBERS, but first let’s touch on how and why they’re not - again, merely not necessarily - characters.

First up, detail. Your guards don’t need to have names. They don’t need backstories or motivations, and you don’t need to flesh them out or think of them as human. This kinda works diegetically if you look at it right, as they’ve given up their humanity by buying into a system of oppression, wearing the uniform of the oppressor and enacting the House’s orders. As far as any deeper fictional reasoning for this lack of detail, GRAVEROBBERS only offers what it functionally needs - this won’t satisfy all players, or all Judges, but you know your table better than me so I’ll leave that with you.

And, y’know, if you want to get into morally grey, both-sides storytelling and try making your players find out that guard had a family or liked to bake bread or some other #notallcops bullshit, play a different game. The rules as written require a faceless, oppressive, antagonistic force. Moral ambiguity is incompatible with the core gameplay loop. ACAB.

So then what is a guard in your game if not a person?

Well, like a wall or a key or a door behind a bookcase, the guard in GRAVEROBBERS is an element of your level design.

An Obstacle

We can’t go that way because there’s a wall; we can’t get through because the door is locked; we can’t pass because the guards will see us. At its base level, a guard is something you put into your dungeon to stop the players moving forward in a particular way, at least temporarily.

And crucially, a guard is not a passive obstacle but a hazard - this is a stealth game, and with the failure state being spelled out in the text as “being caught or hurt”, a guard represents ample opportunity for both. Because of how the ruleset works this likely isn’t something you’ll need to heavily enforce as the Luck mechanic will represent the danger for you, but don’t forget standard play. Consider where guards take prisoners in your level, whether they attack on site, etc.

Telegraph the presence of guards. The Prep phase is ideal for this - players could case the joint, get inside info, find schedules or scope out a guard’s beat. During the Job, don’t spring guards on your players either. As the opposite of the failstate “caught is “not caught”, ie as-yet-undetected, they should be aware of the obstacle before it’s aware of them. Stealth is a given.

Of course, as with most obstacles in a world that runs on fictional positioning or what GRAVEROBBERS calls standard play, a guard as an obstacle is not impassable - which leads to the main thrust, challenge.

A Challenge

Once an obstacle is identified, it can be overcome. Part of the joy of ttrpgs is in the freedom for players to set goals themselves and then devise and execute their own, invented plans in order to overcome obstacles. (It’s most of the joy in an adventure game. This is where the meat is.)

Be aware when designing your dungeon that a guard - unlike, say, a solid tunnel wall - is an obstacle that begs to be overcome. Assume your guards will be dealt with. Set up opportunities to do so. It’s fun.

As far as overcoming that challenge... during play, the options presented by the players’ Odds might be the most obvious solutions, and don’t dismiss the impact of a successful Violence roll, but standard play is where the medium shines. So accept your players’ plans! Talk them through with them as a Judge, not helping per se, but encouraging creative ideas and identifying dead ends. Be generous, especially when the players can back up their schemes with concrete fictional detail - their items, clothing, or truths they’ve uncovered about your world.

(This is one area in which a guard being “fleshed out” can be useful in a sense, but remember the goal is not to create complex human beings but provide gameable detail. An allergy or a fear of rats is immediately useful, adventure game-style info, but don’t get bogged down in specifics. Setting information in GRAVEROBBERS exists to be put to use in gameplay first; worldbuilding is not a goal but flows naturally thereafter.)

If you’re unsure about a plan, talk it out - rolls are not catch-all oracles but pivotal moments of risk in this system, so don’t fall back on them too readily to divine outcomes, especially if the actions being undertaken by the player characters don’t fall under any of the Odds. The gaps in those four categories are there for a reason - let ideas from outside that box play out.

And remember, the game is not linear, and a challenge overcome is not the end of the story. A guard you sneak past is still on duty, a guard you seduce is still your enemy - a guard you kill is a corpse that may need hiding.

A Resource

Your players can, and will, put your guards to use for their own ends.

Guards have info, and info is a weapon. Guards are info - their existence and behaviours tell you something about the world. They might not be “people” but they’re a design element that can perform all the useful, gameable functions that people can.

And if the guard is dead or tricked or trapped or tied up, etc etc, you have not only cleared the obstacle but opened new paths through the fiction. They can be stolen from too. Either way, you can have their stuff.

This is crucial to consider during dungeon design. Any weapon you give a guard is a weapon that may end up in a player’s hand. Don’t forget this, but even more importantly don’t ignore its potential - offering interactable detail and open ended tools to your players within the sandbox is the best and easiest way to facilitate play. A sword is fine and good, but I tend to default to a nice pike or crossbow. Give the guards torches if there are dark areas or flammable things, metal items if there’s electricity about. Uniforms are fun (also, put spares lying around, or offer them in Prep).

Don’t shy away from creative uses of this stuff from your players. They’re going to think up things you didn’t, this is a feature not a bug, it’s the point and the fun of GMing - your share of the discovery that adventure games offer (while the players’ is in seeing how their creativity expands and changes your world and their understanding of it).

Putting a guard into your level design, like any good gameable element, is going to explode with possibilities during play. Acknowledge this during design, lean into it, and encourage it during play. By looking at guards as functioning pieces of the game first, and characters or people second, you can facilitate the kind of creative problem-solving gameplay that makes OSR-genre adventure games like GRAVEROBBERS shine.

(And don’t forget, if they do kill a guard, Heretics can see ghosts!)