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!)

Saturday 27 June 2020

The Rookery

The following adventure is best played using GRAVEROBBERS. Download for free here.

This is a bit more linear than what I’d tend to write, and that’s for simplicity. Good for a short one shot maybe. If not, consider putting it into your wider world, relocating it to be next to another small location and connecting them somehow into a larger Job site. Maybe a tunnel or sewers in the basement.


The Rookery stands alone on a cliff, its crooked tower scratching at a heavy, clouded sky. It is a postal office, used by the House to send missives between various colonies and seats of power.

Your graverobbers are going to break into the Rookery tonight because:
1. A package has arrived that must be intercepted before morning.
2. A letter has arrived that must be read, but not diverted from its address.
3. A letter must be sent overnight to a spy in the House. If sent by day it may be inspected.
4. The official seal of the Postmaster would make invaluable forgeries. Copy it perfectly.
5. The trained ravens of the nest could be used to our advantage. Kidnap one.
6. A local shaman senses unrest beneath the tower. Investigate the House’s latest sacrilege.

Give each player their own goal if you’d like.

From the Outside

The Rookery is approached by a winding road that encircles the cliff it stands on. The road passes beneath a ground floor window at the back before coming round the bend to the front door. Two guards stand on duty here by night - guard changes at dusk and dawn. Light comes from the window and the door.

The tower is topped with a huge, vaguely spherical birdcage, made of an uneven lattice of strong iron bars. There is no gap up here large enough for anything bigger than a raven to slip through, something obvious enough to see by moonlight.


The Foyer: The foyer is circular, taking up the whole ground floor. It is the only lit room in the Rookery, with two torches burning in the east and west walls. A thick pillar of stone marks the middle of the space, with a series of shelves put up against it and a desk in front of those. The desk, by night, is unmanned. On the desk is a note:

“Morning Shift - PM’s key went missing today? Find it before he shows up! Sorry xx”

There is a postal worker’s uniform folded up on one of the shelves, as well as stacks and stacks of postage stamps and seals. On one shelf, little brass keys hang on hooks, both the key and their respective hook each labelled E and S. The hook labelled W has no key.

Stairs at the back of the room on the north side lead up past a large window to the offices above. There is guano on the floor and on the windowsill.

The Offices: The next floor up. A corridor leads all the way round the central pillar to the next set of stairs, past three doors set into the outer wall. They are labelled, in turn, E, S and W, for the cardinal directions they are facing. The keys downstairs open their respective doors.

In E: Parcels line the walls, organised by some obscure rule into various cubbyholes. The parcel the players may have been sent to intercept is not here.

In S: Letters are placed in files. The letter the players may have been sent to read is not here.

In W: This room is nicer, with an armchair and a stack of books beside a large writing desk. One of the books details the magic needed to forge silver manacles which bend the wearer to the will of one marked with a specific sigil. One person may command one manacle, but the magic is not strong enough to control a mind more complex than a small animal’s.

On the desk are a letter opener, small red candles and the postmaster’s seal. The letter and parcel the players may be looking for are both here.

At the far end of the corridor, stairs lead up to the stores.

The Stores: On this floor, the central pillar is not stone, but a thick lattice of iron bars. Barely more than a hand could pass through the gaps, but with light the interior can be seen - a cylindrical shaft that passes through the middle of the entire tower. The floor above can be seen through a grate, and the interior of the stone pillars on the floors below leads down like a tunnel to the basement below.

Around the central pillar are cages of the same iron, stacked high and haphazardly. Many are empty, while three die rolls worth contain live rats. There are bags of seed and grain slumped in corners Which look relatively untouched.

Up yet another set of stairs, these rickety and made of metal, is the tower’s top - the nest.

The Nest: Iron stairs lead up into the cage atop the tower. The construction is a mess of thick iron and gears. On perches all about the cage are ravens, each with a small silver manacle around one leg. Feathers and guano litter the floor, and by some perches are small nests with eggs.

Set into the floor in the middle of the nest is a grate on a hinge, beyond which is the central shaft that leads down through the middle of the tower to the basement. There is a mechanism with two wheels - one opens the grate, and the other opens a door in the side of the nest, out onto open air.

The ravens will caw and stir, but not move from their perches, as each has been commanded to stay by its postal worker. If the door to leave the nest is opened, any raven without a manacle will fly away.

The Basement: A pitch-black cavern in the foundations of the tower. There is a circular hole in the ceiling leading to the central shaft above, and no other entrance or exit.

The floor is littered with bones - mostly rat, some bird. One skeleton is human. It has a torn and rotted postal uniform and three coins in its pocket. Scratched into the floor beside it is a magic sigil - if tattooed on the body, the wearer may turn into a raven at will. Turning back requires a successful Will roll. Any Heretic, or whoever in the party is most likely to, can understand the magic.

A Heretic can speak with the ghost of this person, who floats above their bones. They worked here but felt sorry for the ravens, studied them claiming it was research for the House, found old magic and tried to stage a small rebellion, but were caught and thrown down here to die. They’ll help with the magic and explain it, and also tell the group things about the layout of the tower they might not know, or volunteer to act as a lookout. They can’t leave the tower, but might pass on if they can see the spirit of rebellion is alive here.

There is an old raven down here with a collection of shiny trinkets. Among its possessions are a busted silver manacle, and a silver key marked W which unlocks the corresponding office. The raven is intelligent for a bird, but proud of its possessions. It will trade them for equally shiny items, such as coins, or food, such as live rats.

Thursday 25 June 2020

Class Design in GRAVEROBBERS (so far)

This is the table you roll on in the Bare Bones Edition of GRAVEROBBERS, my set of rules and tools for playing adventure games of stealth and sedition in a gothic fantasy setting (get it here, it’s free)

(Am sorry for the crappy screenshot, blogger won’t let me import the table. Best way to read along is to get the doc, I included a word version as well as pdf in the latest update if you need one)

The equivalent of classes in GRAVEROBBERS is Crimes. They function as more like a Troika! background or Bastionland Failed Career than a 5e “class”. This is how you start, the game is how you continue.

Calling them Crimes gets the player to consider - at least the minimum amount - who their character is. You don’t choose a Crime (literally, you roll for one), nobody would choose this as an identity, so... what happened? Why are you like this/how did things end up this way? You can write some history here if that’s your jam, but “The House” is a good enough answer, and it’s the answer the game gives. This unites the group against a common oppressor and sets the stage for the game’s central conflict - undermining the House without them catching you.

I’ve also tried to name each one something that your character might get called behind their back or yelled at them in the street. “Harlot!” “Traitor!”, etc. This is the House talking.

They are also all verb-ish? Verb-adjacent. The burglar burgles etc. And that tells you what’s happening here, in this world. There’s burgling afoot, there’s grifting to be done in this game, some folk in this setting might be seen as harlots or heretics, there’s a traitor so there must be something worth betraying, and there are vagrants so people exist outside the system entirely which means there’s a system. You’re all against something, outside something, under something, downtrodden, disrespected. You hear your Crime and you know just enough about where you stand and what this all is.


I love starting items! Maze Rats does maybe my fave job of this, or the games I mentioned above. I’ve aimed to kiiinda avoid weapons (though they’re sprinkled in because Violence is an important concept in the rules) and go for gameable items - stuff you can come up with your own uses for. Glue! A mirror! Some bugs why not!

They’re also all totally diegetic, things you can imagine people would have. Character generation is maybe the best worldbuilding.

The big standout in the item list, I think, is the Heretic’s third eye. It’s the only magic mentioned in the Bare Bones, and the only “fantasy” item on anyone’s list. This should tell you a bit about what magic is in GRAVEROBBERS, while being open ended enough to be used in various ways. It’s also the one thing that puts onus on the Judge to come up with uses for it, but hey it’s one thing to remember? Put ghosts in adventures! Also if your players kill people, instant ghosts, so it’s ok if you forget I guess lol

(I call this the Aquaman Principle btw. Aquaman can fight crime underwater, therefore there is crime underwater in Justice League. Don’t put too many Aquamen in your game, but one or two helps define the setting because it must now include very specific problems and opportunities.)


In these kinds of games, adventures, “what you have on you” is important. I reckon it should be defined along with starting items - it is a starting item, really? Clothing gets defined enough in D&D because you have to write your armour type, but this isn’t a game with AC so I needed another option.

Also it’s just handy to picture more detail about your character so I wanted kinda “extra” bits in character creation that gave little details, but I want details immediately gameable rather than an eye colour table or whatever (though those are fun).

I guess the main thing clothing does is help gauge reactions from the world around you, both giving the Judge ideas and also the player. My clothing is Respectable? Hmm, I wonder if I can get this guy to respect me... or, “this guy seems to be listening to you rather than the Vagrant beside you”, etc etc


I don’t like putting money systems in games where it’s not necessary, I think a lot of games just put it in because money’s a thing, but it absolutely is necessary here. The full game will have more info on how it’s used but I think a smart group can come up with their own ideas.

Differing amounts of money ““balance”” (Hahahaha) classes and give more options, but it’s mainly for flavour. It’s important to the world and the game that it be included, but it’s not... “important”.


Ok let’s talk a bit about each Crime in turn, that seems like a good way to stop me rambling.

Burglar: This is a game where you’re all basically Rogues... but here’s the Rogue. Burglar rather than Thief, despite how I like that as a name, because of the specificity. Items are very clearly and immediately useful to the kind of things you’re going to be doing. It helps to have a specialist - but also the Burglar is so specialised that they’ll be glad of the company of the others. I like that it’s alphabetically first in line, it’s a good introduction. I think if you’re going to have a relatively “neutral” class in the game, the Ryu if you will, it still needs to fill a niche, otherwise it’s just “the boring one”. I like to think the Burglar manages that

Grifter: The newest class if you’ve been following the updates. I like the name (I prefer Mountebank as a word but it’s too specific and doesn’t fit on the page) because it suggests, hints towards, personality. You also start with one of the lower amounts of money, that’s surely enough for a backstory! It’s a good verb, I grift. The player will want to grift. The items are fun and silly, you’re the gadget man, the guy who sets off the distraction. Aaaalmost the joke class but when the punchline is saving your team’s ass it’s a joke I want at the table. Although pouch of bugs is fully just a big joke, I can’t not be me

Harlot: I love that this is a Crime because I don’t think it would work in any other context but it makes so much sense for GRAVEROBBERS. Very open ended for backstory too, anyone discomfited by the implications can decide for themselves what they mean. The first ever PC in a GRAVEROBBERS game was a Harlot, fun fact. The items are absolute classic adventure/heist fodder but so different from the stealthy burglar. Your clothes are distracting, an adjective that’s going to spark schemes in the player’s mind. We know the concept of the distraction on a caper from Scooby Doo or a million other things. Encourages creative plans, interaction with NPCs. Yes you have a weapon, but Violence is its own problem in this game so...?

Heretic: As described above. This is the most RPG class here, the game’s Cleric, but you don’t get spells you just get... more information, more talking. That’s cool I think. A good Judge can really open the Heretic up, and I’m hoping adventure modules will assist there. You’re also a liability because, hey, you have anti-House sacrilege tattooed on your actual face. This is an immediate, obvious and fun problem to solve. I can picture the Harlot leaning across before character creation is even fully over to paint over the Eye. Also on the other hand it’s a stealth game, so if someone sees you you probably fucked up anyway, so in that way it’s not the biggest deal.

Traitor: Maybe my favourite Crime name. So much weight in that word, implications for backstory but also forestory - gameplay that is. What you did is surely nowhere near as dangerous as what you could do... In heist terms this is the closest you get to an inside man, with your Respectable garb, great new avenues for plans opened up, the Judge can offload setting info through you, but again you’re also a big liability. I can imagine Traitors separating from the group more often... they’re “allowed” here, they have a weapon to defend themselves... then disaster strikes, hehe. You also get so much money! So now you’re the fixer, the Prep phase is your oyster. Kitting out your team - oh, only got one lockpick, Burglar? Let me handle that.

Vagrant: The utility class? The ranger? Kind of. You have a weapon, only half the classes do, but yours is pretty non-lethal. Also that’s “stone”, singular - if you fling the stone away, do you go and get it back? Do you find something else as ammo? Either way you have to explore the area. That’s gameplay boiii. Waterskin is big utility, as is the ability to start fires, carry light... as far as underdogs go you’re a powerhouse. The 1 coin thing is a fun bit of character mainly, I don’t think it’s much of a problem since you’re on a team. Also rugged clothing means dirty but also durable... is this the game’s closest thing to armour? :P


I’m going to leave it there. Hope some of that made sense! Check out the game, hope you like it. Tell me what weird fun things your players do :) x

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Dissident Whispers + Updates

Dissident Whispers is a massive anthology of 58 adventures for some of the best games currently available, including Troika!, Mothership and MÖRK BORG, as well as a host of system neutral adventures - with layout, writing and design from some of the best creative minds on the scene.

All proceeds from this massive international project go to bail funds, supporting Black Lives Matter activists across the US.

You can download the pdf and preorder a limited edition physical copy right here.

I’ve been working on stuff slowly but surely. Will have a lot to show for it fairly soon - a few more blog posts here before the end of the month, a fun announcement... soon? That’ll be on here too, or on my Twitter.

BUTCHERY backers should be getting the final zine about September/October time? It’s 90% done with only the included adventure left to finish, but as we all know the last 10% of any project is about 90% of the work so that’ll take a bit more time. Still ahead of schedule tho!

I’ve been thinking out loud about this over there for a while, but I’ll probably be shutting my Patreon down soon. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who’s chipped in a buck or two a month since I started it, but it’s turning into a burden that I don’t feel up to continuing further. Plus the company suuuuucks. I’d put an update on there but I don’t have access to a machine that likes Patreon’s interface right now so it might just... go :P If you’ve supported the patreon for any amount of time and feel you’re still owed some free stuff, please do reach out and I’ll get you codes and whatnot for upcoming releases! I really do appreciate the support and I want to show that where possible.

For all that’s still to come, stay tuned, buy Dissident Whispers, eat your veggies, Black Lives Matter, ACAB, stay safe, keep 2m apart, support independent art, love uproariously, and I’ll speak to you soon. Peace xox