Published on 12/17/2014 Written by 0 comments

Review: Silent Night, Darkest Night

"You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer and Vixen. The other reindeer from that song have all been eaten, by Rudolph. This monstrous reindeer was made fun of when he was growing up, but then he kept growing, dwarfing the other reindeer by the time he was an adolescent. Their jibes about his size finally got to him, and he lashed out, killing at least three other reindeer before Santa was able to chase him away using his Christmas magic. Now Rudolph plots revenge against Santa, the elves, and the other reindeer, and he has been studying dark magics which make him more powerful than any reindeer before him. His nose now glows not with Christmas magic, but with seething hatred, and its red color is the product of the fresh blood which covers Rudolph’s face after feeding on the flesh of the living, which he must do every few hours in order to power his profane magic."
- From Silent Night, Darkest Night

In honour of the Holiday Season (the "Christmas" Season, for you non-PC types out there), I thought I should pick-up and discuss something appropriately festive. Normally I hate writing reviews, but this particular item caught my eye and I really wanted to check it out and share it with you. Not to mention all proceeds go to RPG Creators Relief Fund, so I get to cover my holiday-charity-guilt at the same time as coming up with some content. It's a win-win.

Fat Goblin Games' Silent Night, Darkest Night is my favourite type of book - one in which I can't tell if the creators are being serious or not. It's a short (28-pages including covers, intro, table of content, OGL, etc - so about 22 pages of actual content), mini-campaign guide to the denizens and locales of the "North Pole." It's the kind of thing I would slap together as a half-assed blog post for a joke, but the FGG guys put it together in a beautiful package with lovely illustrations and a nice layout (the holly/bloody parchment motif on each page is particularly choice).

It's designed for the Pathfinder system, but that means it's easily adaptable to any d20-based system. The stat blocks are standard and well laid out, and very visually similar to the stat blocks from D&D 4E. (I'm not super familiar with Pathfinder - is that a Pathfinder thing or unique to Fat Goblin Games?)

Anyway, the antognists are (mostly) all familiar, such as Abominable Snowmen, Cobbler Elves, Emperor Penguins(!), and Silver Bells (which are 7-foot tall violent metal flowers). There's also a tattooed sylphan gunslinger Mrs. Claus and Rudolph the Bloodthirty Megatherium, as well as the obligatory visit from Krampus.  Oh, and Santa Claus is a goat. (Apparently this is a thing)

There's also a couple of very nice North Pole maps, some arctic exploration equipment and a handful of appropriately themed magic items. While not particularly exciting in effect, just saying your character is wearing a Cloak of the Yeti and wielding a Mammoth Lance is pretty badass.

The best part, as I eluded to, is that everything is presented completely straight and serious. Even Jolakuttar the Festive Cat, who sneaks into villages to devour misbehaved children. You could play this material completely absurb and silly, or go balls to the wall creepy and dark in the other direction (because seriously, a 200-pound tabby that eats kids who don't make their beds is fucked up). Personally I would aim somewhere in the middle, skewing toward the absurd and occasionally swinging back to the dark just to keep people on their toes. But that's just me.

All in all, the folks at FGG put some love and care into a great little source book, especially one that is available for practically nothing (it's Pay-What-You-Want at RPGNow.com) - though again, anything you do pay goes directly to a good cause. Do yourself a favour and pick one up this Holiday Season. You might even bump yourself up a couple of spots on the Nice List.

I don't know if I'm going to have time to run a game over the holidays, but if I do I will definitely find some way to jam this material into it. Even if it's my dark modern zombie survival game.

And with that, Happy Holidays, everyone! Stay safe and enjoy your eggnog.
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Published on 12/05/2014 Written by 5 comments

How to Run a Long-Term Zombie Apocalypse Game

In the past few weeks I've written a bunch about zombie apocalypse games (I blame it on The Walking Dead). I've also been running my regular group through bi-weekly "zombie grinder" sessions, which is basically DCC Funnel adventures but set in a modern zombie apocalypse. It's a hilarious good time but not a basis for a long-term campaign, so I've been trying to come up with some ways to stretch it out and get some more mileage out of a pretty simple premise.

I realized that zombie apocalypse scenarios, as depicted in movies, books and games, can be broken down into three distinct stages (there may be more, but three works well for my purposes). Each stage comes with its own story possibilities and game mechanics, which will hopefully revitalize the players help the game go longer.

Tell me what you think:


Civilization is crumbling. Humankind has been struck by a terrible plague that is killing people by the millions and causing them to rise from the dead as mindless cannibals. Those that survived the initial infection are now fighting those monsters, as well as other survivors, in a desperate attempt to find food, weapons and shelter. Few will make it far.

This is the phase of the game that follows the "Funnel-Grinder" system. Each player gets 4 characters, and PC mortality is high. Characters die quickly, and only the strongest and/or luckiest survive. The randomness and chaos is the fun and joy at this stage, as a single failed save or attack roll could spell the end of any PC at a moment's notice.

The key is that (hopefully) those few who survive this stage will be extra-tough and ready, with developed personalities and back-stories leading into...


Civilization is gone. A handful of people and small communities still exist, but they are few and far between, and hopelessly outnumbered by the listless dead. Those that survive at the toughest of the tough - the brave, the cunning, the quick and the merciless. Finding food and shelter continues to be a daily struggle, but those who live in this world are used to it and know how to handle themselves, whatever the heartless land throws at them.

My favourite zombie-related art of all time, and I don't even know if the dude with the deep fryer on his head is actually a zombie or not. And I don't care. From Kreg Mosier's "The Dead."

This is the stage where the player characters become heroes (or villains). They reach level 1 and continue to advance, developing new skills and abilities to make them a threat to the living dead. They can compete against cutthroat bandits and looters that roam the countryside - or maybe they become those very villains.

Relationships are important at this stage. Other people keep you sane and help you to remember your humanity. Losing people (or refusing to seek them out) turns you into a unfeeling shadow of a human being. These mechanics will borrow shamelessly from Kreg Mosier's excellent game "The Dead." Death will still be a real and constant threat, but it shouldn't be as severe as stage one. They characters are able to withstand a few bumps and bruises now, and are more capable of handling tougher opponents. Because of this, hopefully those deaths that do occur will have more meaning.

Of course, growing stronger will draw attention to the player characters, eventually bringing us to...


I admit, this part of the game was entirely inspired by Sarah Northway's great game "Rebuild."

It's like SimCity, but with zombies. You have no idea how many hours I've wasted on this game.

Humanity has reached a point where it can start clawing its way back from the brink. Survivor camps turn into small towns, and eventually stronger fortifications with farmland, homes, schools, churches. The dead (and bandits) are still out there, but a few strong, capable leaders can build new safe havens, and protect the last vestiges of humanity against the encroaching darkness.

At this point, the player characters now have people relying on them to keep them safe. They have to decide how to protect their town, who to trust, how to balance their resources between fortifying, patrolling, scavenging, farming.  When it's time to go scout areas for supplies or build defensive bunkers or clear out bandit camps, the players can take over new bands of 0-level survivors, or resolve the scene with a few quick rolls. Either way, it is their choices that will now determine the lives of dozens, maybe hundreds of other people. It's a different sort of resource management and almost a whole new game.


The three levels are not completely linear. Maybe some folks like the idea of running a town and jump right to the Rebuild phase. Some people may detest that idea and don't bother with it at all. You can step backward, too. If someone loses all their Leveled characters in the Survivor phase, it's recommended they grab 4 new 0-levels and grind out a new "Survivor." Perhaps during the Rebuild phase, the players decide to take out their "good" characters on a particularly-tough mission, which would basically be stepping back to Stage 2.

Or maybe, during the Rebuild stage, shit really hits the fan and the players are FORCED back into Stage 2 (or lower)...

Anyway, these are my ideas for stretching out a zombie apocalypse game. It will still never have the long-term, endless potential of something like Dungeons & Dragons, but it could work for much longer than a one-off lark on a Friday night.

I plan on running one last "grinder" game this weekend, and I hope a handful of playable characters will survive that can go on to phase 2 and become even more memorable. Will we still be playing this game and these characters 5 years from now? I seriously fucking doubt it, but at least now we have the option to do so...

So what do you think? Does this game have legs?

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Published on 12/04/2014 Written by 2 comments

You Can Never Have Too Many Campaign Ideas

I am somehow at a time in my life where I'm running, or playing,  all the games. So, now I get to bore everyone with all the weird ideas I have for campaigns. Here goes...

Mythical/Heroic Ireland
System: D&D
There is a lot of fodder for a good campaign in the myth cycles of Ireland. Giants, wizards, kings with silver arms, gods from weird magic islands, who fly around in spaceships, and of course, a huge bucket full of fey folk, curses, geas, and all the other wacky Celtic shit you can think up.

Renaissance Call of Cthulhu
System:  Call of Cthulhu, or Harnmaster with insanity rules.
Kind of a wacky Leonardo Da Vinci investigates fucked up horror stuff in the Italian city states vibe.  Most likely a bunch of  church corruption and conspiracies, secret cultists, and all the usual good ol' Cthulhu stuff, mingled with a bit of X Files monster of the week.

Apocalyptic Nazi's in space
System: d6, or BRP
Nazi's destroyed the world and moved to space, because of reasons. Now the only hope is a few ragged ass rebels to destroy this evil empire... wait, I think this has been done before.

This one is way overdone, and mostly stupid. But, who doesn't like killing nazi's, and getting to do it in spaceships is even more awesome. A one shot for sure.

Illuminatus Conspiracies 
System: Maybe a hacked version of Paranoia
Wilson and Shea's opus is filled with so much mind fuckable goodness, that it's hard to know where to start. With every conspiracy ever available to mess with, I think a giant random table, 2 hits of acid, and some fine hashish, are the best ways to proceed.

This would be a one shot, and everyone would die, go insane, or kill each other by the end.

A somewhat realistic low magic dark/dung ages type campaign
System: Harnmaster
Everything starts bad, and just gets worse, and right when you thought there was light in the distance, it just turns out to be bandits come to rob you. Kind of an embrace the darkness, anti-heroism kind of thing.

Anyway, those are just a few ideas, you got any I can steal.
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Published on 12/01/2014 Written by 4 comments

Can You Tell If People Are Having Fun Over The Internet?

As I posted about here, I had been toying with GMing a new game.  Well it has come to fruition.  My group has started a PBEM (play by e-mail) game, set in the world of Robin Hobb's Farseer books.
We've only been going for about 2 weeks now, which isn't very long in PBEM time, but I'm already having doubts.  The problem is, I can't tell if my players are having any fun.

The start of an adventure is always tedious.  Players aren't sure who the other PC's are, or where they are supposed to fit in.  As GM, I never know how much infomation to give.  So far my adventure is pretty open.  The King has given the party a task, but how they go about it, and what they discover along the way is up to them.  I do have a general story in mind, but if they take a left turn, I'm happy to adjust and improvise.  And as a PBEM, that's much easier for me as I have time to think about any changes.
Where I think I might be going wrong is that I haven't explained any of the mechanics of the game.  In a PBEM, I do all the dice rolling anyway so I'm not sure how much the players need to know.  I don't want to bog the game down with players starting to ask "Can I reach him?" "How much damage can I do with my longbow of shattering screams?".  I want the players to help me tell the story and act in character. 

Do you need to see this to have fun?

The thing I think I do need to explain, and am probably going to post for the group soon, is the basics of combat (especially as the potential for violence in imminent in the game right now).  Having been the player much more often than the GM, I always like to know how likely it is that my character will die.  Does 1 hit fell me? Or can I take a pounding and just shake it off?
This is all I can picture any time "Niles the Muckraker" speaks

I do have to say, the one thing I'm very impressed with is how dedicated one of the players is to his character choices.  He rolled a 3 intelligence.  I'll adnit if that were me, I would have just re-rolled.  But to his credit, he stuck with it, and is quite entertainingly playing the village idiot.

So tell me: How much would you want to know the mechanics of an RPG?  Would you be happy just contributing to the story, or would you lose interest if you didn't know how things were working?
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Published on 10/31/2014 Written by 2 comments

Halloween Horror Hits - Best of Spooks and Zombies from Rule of the Dice

Happy Halloween, Dicers!

Hopefully all of you have your horror-themed games planned for tonight or this weekend, or maybe you're watching Night of the Living Dead for the hundredth time, or maybe (like me) you'll be hiding in the dark on your porch to scare the shit out of little kids when they come to your door begging for candy. (To be fair, now that I have my own little guy, I'm starting to feel bad about that one.)

But if you're a sad lonely person who doesn't have plans tonight, here is some reading material for you to catch up on. Please feast your eyes on some of the best horror-related content Rule of the Dice has posted over the years. Enjoy!

Rule of the Dice - Top 8 Best Horror-Related Posts

1. D6 Zombies - My all-time most popular post on Rule of the Dice (in terms of hit count), showcasing some weird zombie antagonists, statted for the D6 system.

2. How I Put Crazy in My Game (Sanity Levels for D6 Horror) - One of my personal favourite posts I've written, about using a Cthulhu-esque sanity system for the D6 system. I think it came out really well.

3. Mini D6 Horror - Former contributor Joe Nelson's play report on actually using my D6 Horror Rules in a game.

4. Review of Last Night on Earth - More Zombies, this time in Board Game Form! Review by Jason Salvatori.

5. Made to Suffer - The DCC-Funnel / d20 clone / Walking Dead RPG I recently made for the sole purpose of killing large volumes of player characters.

6. 10 Random Zombie Intro Scenarios - Starting a horror survival game shouldn't be hard, it should be random and chaotic.

7. Notes from the Master - On Writing Weird Fiction by H.P. Lovecraft - Our fearless leader John shares some Lovecraftian advice useful to writers and game designers alike.

8. SPLATTER-ELF: The Grimmer Than Grimdark RPG
Back in May I wrote a series of posts highlighting the design of an RPG based on the half-serious/half-spoof fantasy-sub-genre coined by Philip Overby. (For more on Splatter-Elf as a genre, check out this hilarious Twitter). The game has changed quite a bit since the original design and one day I'll get around to sharing the complete, updated rules, but these posts may have some historical value at some point:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Character Creation
Part 3: Combat
Part 4: Blood Magic
Part 5: New Races
Part 6: Monsters

What was your favourite spooky Rule of the Dice post?

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Published on 10/30/2014 Written by 0 comments

Play Report: Last Night on Earth

Since it's Halloweek, we decided that our last game of the night should be thematically appropriate.
I had just bought last night on earth, so we opened it up and got cracking.  Here are my thoughts on the game:

1) Packaging.  The box has tons of room, but the interior plastic trays are poorly thought out.  When
the game is new and all the tokens are still in their cardboard frame, it fits beautifully.  Once you punch out all the markers, there's no good place to put them where they won't slide around in the box. If the "card" areas had been made deeper, all the other bits would have fit perfectly.  Not the end of the world (though that's the theme of the game), but something that could be improved.

2) Gimmicks.  The game comes with a CD for background mood music.  The music is fine, but the CD is too short to last a full game.  Especially a first full game where you are stopping to look up rules and figure out strategies.

3) Speaking of rules:  The rule book could use some work.  The first read-through does a very good job of explaning the game.  But when it comes to looking something up while playing, information is scattered all over and many things are mentioned in more than one place.  So you can't just say "The gas can - I saw that on page 3."  Because it's also mentioned on page 6 and 8, and the information you're looking for is on the one on page 6.   Even with the info scattered like this, an index would go a long way towards helping. There is a FAQ in the back, and a link to an online FAQ, but with the game being more than a year old, an updated rule book would be nice to see.
4) Parts:  The plastic figures are very detailed and a good size for handling.  The cards are a comfortable size and good quality stock.  A couple of the board pieces I have are already curled as if from moisture.  They are still quite usable, but it's mildly annoying to have the edges not meet perfectly.

That's the starting board with over 100
pieces for GFoL1666
4) Now on to the good stuff - game-play.  Our group was a mix of experienced gamers and a couple of newer people.  Setting up the board took a bit of time, but nothing that drove us away. (Unlike The Great Fire of London 1666, which is a fun game, but the set up is so daunting that we rarely take it out.)  Playing with 6 players, we had 4 heroes and 2 zombie players.  We went straight for one of the advanced scenarios and dove in.  Basic game-play is straight forward, with "turn steps" cheat cards for everyone to follow.  The game took us about 90 minutes to play, and will probably be 15 minutes shorter next time now that we won't have to hunt for rules. Having gone back to reread some of the FAQ's today, I notice we were using some of the rules incorrectly.  This likely didn't make a huge difference in our outcome, but it's frustrating to find out after the fact.  See number 3 above about the rule book.

Here's a quick scope of how to play: Part 1, the zombie turn. Zombies advance the turn number, then draw cards that may help them.  Then they roll to see if any more zombies can be added to the board. Then they move each zombie 1 space (slow movement as the "shamble"), resolve any fights if zombies share a location with heroes, then place newly spawned zombies.  Part 2, the heroes turn. Heroes roll 1d6 to see how far the can move, then decide to either move OR search the building they are in (draw a card). Then if they have a ranged weapon, they can make ranged attacks. Then if any zombies share a space with them, any fights are resolved the same as in the zombie turn.  Lather, rinse, repeat.
This framework is followed, to try to achieve the specific goal of whatever scenario you are playing.

5) Takeaway thoughts:  Despite some flaws in the rule book and the annoyance that caused, I'm eagerly looking forward to playing Last Night on Earth again.  If you have a group that likes themed games and has a little bit of patience, go grab this title, it's a worthwhile investment.  If you're not sure, try watching the TableTop episode where Wil plays this game and see if it's for you.

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Published on 10/28/2014 Written by 1 comment

10 Zombie Survival Intro Scenarios

Can you smell Halloween on the air? Smells like non-toxic face paint and burnt pumpkins.

In case you weren't aware, I've been playing around with a zombie/horror game based on the Dungeon Crawl Classics Funnel system - basically you send in a gang of 0-level schlubs, hoping that at least one survies to become a level 1 character in an on-going post-apocalyptic survival game. It uses basic d20 rules that everyone is pretty familiar with.

To keep the game as chaotic as possible, in our first playthrough I just rolled the scenario out randomly as we went along - determining encounters, locales, etc purely by a toss of the dice - and I plan to continue doing the same thing. Partly this is to keep my prep work down, partly it's to keep the tension and suspense high as the party never knows what to expect. Sometimes the group meets 1d4 stray dogs, sometimes they meet 1d4+1x100 roaming zombies. I've been using the many tables in Palladium's DEAD REIGN™®© books (about the only thing those books are good for) for most of my inspiration, tweaking them as necessary.

However, the one thing that I was missing was the opening hook - where the players start in their initial onslaught against the rising tide of the undead. It needs to be a scenario where a decent-sized group of random, ordinary people (remember, each player gets 4 characters each) are trapped together. The characters should preferably be strangers and a little disoriented, out of their element. The zombie outbreak should also have been going on long enough that there is a considerable force of undead for the players to have to deal with.

I brainstormed 10 quick examples so that now I'm prepared for my next or any game. I can pick an option or roll one on the spot to keep everyone (including myself) on their toes. Remember, as soon as they move away from the opening scene you can continue generating further encounters randomly as well, or build from what you've established if you're one of those crazy people who like consistent story. Keep going until the group finds a safe spot to rest and/or the majority of the survivors are dead.

10 Random Zombie Survival Intro Scenarios
Feel free to steal these for other games/purposes. Most of them are already stolen from other sources, anyway.

Art by Joakim Olofsson

01. The Wheels on the Bus
A bus fleeing an overrun city strikes a group of zombies on a dark stretch of road. The bus crashes, pinning some of the survivors. The zombies of course survive, and the noise of the crash will soon attract others. The bus is totalled but there may (or may not) be other working vehicles nearby. Does the group flee back towards the city, keep going on foot, or head into the wilderess? This is the setup we used for our first game, and we lost 2 or 3 characters before the group even left the vicinity of the bus.

02. Manotick 
A group of survivors are holed up in a high school gym or a community centre in a small town in a rural area. Their safe haven is breached unexpectedly - do they flee? Try to stay and save it? If they run, where do they go? For added options, say the town is on a small island with limited routes in and out. Does the group fight to establish a safe zone on the island?

03. Movin' On Up
The group is holed up in a couple of units on the top floor of an apartment building deep in the city. They've been hiding for a few days and they're out of food. They know there are zombies in the building and of course the streets are crawling with them, but they have to try and get food somewhere. Do they try to secure the building? Go out into the streets? Maybe there's a supermarket or pharmacy close by. For an added kick in the teeth, have some zombies make it to their floor and start pounding on their doors.

04. Steel Serpent of the Underworld
A subway train crashes deep underground. Maybe it just happened, or maybe the survivors have been trapped inside for a couple of days. Either way they have to get out, but the tunnels are crawling with undead, as are the streets above. Might the underground tunnels prove a haven, or a deathtrap?

05. Zombies on a Plane!
A plane crashes on the airport runway, either just taking off (trying to escape the outbreak) or trying to make a landing (ran out of fuel trying to get away from outbreak elsewhere). There are, of course, zombies on the plane. The group has to get off and find safety, either in the airport or somewhere else nearby.

Art by Joakim Olofsson
06. Dawn of the Dead 
The survivors are hiding in the storage room of the Gap at the local mall. Maybe the outbreak just started or maybe it's been going on for a few days. Either way, the mall has lots of supplies, but also lots of zombies and would be hard to secure. Groups of bandits and looters in the mall could also complicate things.

07. Night of the Living Dead 
The group starts in the dark in the forest, chased by zombies and separated. There should be chaos and the characters should have trouble telling the difference who is alive and dead (and hopefully attacking each other!). Eventually they reach a cabin, which will provide some relief and a moment to catch their breath, but their Alamo-style last stand is inevitable...

08. I'm on a Boat!
The survivors are trapped on a cruise ship at sea when the outbreak starts. Most of the life boats were launched during the initial confusion, but there are still hundreds of zombies left on board and the survivors need to fight their way out, though just getting off the ship is not necessarily the answer because they're at sea in the middle of nowhere.

09. LOST... with Zombies! 
The group survive a boat or plane crash on a tropical island, only to find it crawling with zombies. Is it the home of mad scientist? Lost military experiment? Maybe there was a resort full of people who turned? Either way, the group has to combat both the dangers of the island as well as the undead.

10. Trans-Siberian Zombie Train of Death
The group of survivors were on a train travelling through a remote part of Russia or elsewhere in Europe. The train broke down and is overrun with zombies, but there is nowhere else for the group to go. Do they try to make it in the harsh wilderness? Try to clear the train and get it running again? Of course, any town they reach will be crawling with the dead too, though they don't know that yet...

What do you think? Any others to add?

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Published on 10/22/2014 Written by 4 comments

Killing Characters is Fun!

We tried the Walking Dead-style Funnel last Friday and I think it went really well. It was a welcome change after my recent GM-related negativity - I personally had a ton of fun running it, and I hope the players did to.
The best part of it, that I didn't even think about when I came up with the idea, is the freedom it gave the players to try weird things and to play out horror-movie style tropes to full effect. See, I had assumed that the game would just be the characters lining up to be ground into paste, played for laughs as we described the gruesome ways they were torn to pieces as their dice betrayed them. While that certainly did happen, the coolest side effect of playing 4 "disposable" characters was that players developed scenes and situations that they don't normally get into during regular games.
I don't know about you, but most people I play with tend to be cautious, careful and calculating in their games. They have a strong connection to their character and try to keep them alive, ESPECIALLY during zombie-style games where they try to act the way someone SHOULD act during an apocalypse, being all practical and boring. 
Without that connection to their characters though, caution goes out the window and crazy shit happens. Out of 16 starting characters, 8 survived, but 3 of those belonged to the one guy who was playing fairly conservatively. The other three players jumped at the chance to act out all those ridiculous things that characters do in horror movies all the time:
  • Two characters killed each other fighting over supplies.
  • One guy got attacked while making out with another character.
  • One character literally ran away - she was so freaked out that she just took off in a panic and we never heard from her again. There was no roll to preclude this, the player just decided that it made sense for the character, and it did. But that's not something you would ever see in a normal game.
  • The biggest running gag was the two sociopaths who kept fighting and trying to kill each other. The noise from their bickering led to the group constantly being attacked and having to run for their lives (everyone else probably should have left them behind but it was too hilarious). In the end both dudes were ripped to pieces by zombies because they were both too stubborn to be the first guy to run away.
  • I was even a little saddened by the loss of one character, and not the one you would think. He was the total asshole of the group, but the player ran him perfectly, using the other characters and NPCs, stockpiling supplies and taking advantage of his charisma to get ahead. He was easily the best developed, smartest and most equipped character, and then he died in the last moments when he fell of a fucking roof and broke his neck.
  • One guy even got to make a heroic sacrifice, holding the door in the face of a hoard of zombies while the rest of the group ran to safety.

How many of those awesome deaths would have happened in a game where everyone is playing safe and calculating?

Another fun horror trope: Only half the character deaths were directly caused by zombies, and half of those were only caused by zombies because the characters were distracted trying to kill each other.
Just like in a zombie movie, the characters' worst enemies were themselves.

I seriously recommend playing a DCC Funnel-type of game in a zombie apocalypse setting. It's a spleen-ripping good time.

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Published on 10/16/2014 Written by 6 comments

The Walking Dead RPG - DCC Funnel-style!

Ah, October. Month of horror and spookiness. We have Halloween, autumn in full swing choking the life out of the world, the season premiere of The Walking Dead, Canadian Thanksgiving. It's a good time for wearing white sheets out in public.

But what's the Month of Spooks without some scary gaming to go along with it? I love horror-themed RPGs, and despite there being plenty of great ones out there, I keep trying to create my own. I was convinced that the d6 system was perfect for it for awhile, and have toyed with the idea of building a full on "D6 Horror" game, but recently my fancy has turned to the glorious world of Fate. I started to brainstorm for a Zombie Survival version of Fate, which would work perfectly fine except that the characters in Fate are purposefully built more competent and capable than average everyday joes. Obviously you can tweak Fate to make it work (you can make Fate work for anything) but what if there's a better way? A game where you can slaughter scores of characters as the zombie apocalypse unfolds around you and only the bravest, toughest and luckiest survive. Look at most zombie movies (or our current zombie benchmark, the afore-mentioned Walking Dead) - there is always a high body count in the beginning, and only a handful survive the early encounters. In The Walking Dead, those characters that survived the first couple of seasons have continued to survive, to the point where the death of a major character is now a big deal. They've become harder to kill. What kind of game follows that kind of progression?

DCC Funnel.

I'm sure I'm not the first person who realized this. The premise of Dungeon Crawl Classic's brilliant "funnel" system is that each player takes a bunch of 0-level normal humans and throws them into a dungeon situation. Those that survive (and there usually aren't many) "graduate" to level 1 and gain a character class and the powers that go along with it. I think this kind of setup is perfect for a zombie/horror survival setting. The world is falling apart around you, the dead are rising, and only the strongest are going to survive.

How would it work? Not that much differently than the current DCC funnel, just tweaked slightly to update it for the modern age.  Each player would get 3-4 characters with completely random attributes (standard 3d6, rolled straight) as well as hit points (1d4). Each character gets one or two random pieces of equipment and a random occupation. The occupation is important because it may imply special skills - a doctor or park ranger would have obvious benefits, while a waiter might be just shit out of luck. I've compiled a list of random occupations, whether you want to codify special skills for each one, or just use the GM's ruling on a case by case basis is up to you.

Some characters might also have a special knack for certain tasks (hitting with a certain weapon or performing certain skills, etc) but these are random and not every character even has them.

And that's it. Once each player has their characters, they are plopped into the adventure. Maybe they're holed up in a cabin and have to survive the onslaught of walking dead. Maybe they're in a shopping mall. Maybe they're trapped in a city with dwindling resources and have to fight their way out. Whatever sort of zombie movie cliche tickles your fancy, toss your players into it and let them fight it out. And let everyone enjoy the mindless slaughter of the innocents as your once-large band of survivors is whittled down to a small band of TRUE survivors.

Who will make it out? Maybe someone who got some lucky rolls and has a great AC bonus? Maybe you'll roll up someone with a really cool/useful occupation and his skills will be valuable enough that the whole party will try to protect him? Or maybe it will be a completely fluke, and you'll end up getting out with a dude with a 4 Strength and 1 hit point.

I came up up with some rough classes for the survivors to take. They're variations on the basic D&D classes but with a post-apocalyptic theme. There's the fighter-type class, a ranger, an expert (could be a thief or a anything else you wish, based on the mix of skills you pick) and a leader (kinda like a bard/cleric but without all the bullshit poetry and godliness). Feel free to tweak them or make up your own. Maybe you want a world with magic, so a wizard would be an appropriate option for your group.

Here's the link to the complete work-in-progress file. It obviously needs some work but hopefully you can see where I'm going with it. Any comments or suggestions are welcome!

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Published on 10/12/2014 Written by 0 comments

Happy Turkey Day, My Fellow Canadians!

Happy Thanksgiving to all our Canadian readers. Enjoy it while you can, before the poultry rises up to destroy us all and serve our roasted remains with stuffing and cranberry sauce.
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Published on 10/07/2014 Written by 2 comments

The 3 Stages of Gaming Life

I started playing D&D when I was 12 years old. I wrote a detailed story about my first days in gaming back in one of my very first posts on this site. Recent events in my gaming life have gotten me once again thinking about those early days long ago, and especially how it has led me to where I am today.

By my best estimates, I started gaming in the summer of 1992. I'm now 34, with 22 years of gaming in between (look, I can still do math!). I think I can safely break by gaming years down into three distinct "stages" (or "Ages" for you Tolkien folks).

1. The Golden Years (1992-1998)
Ah, the blissful freedom of youth. After I picked up D&D (AD&D 2e, to be precise), Marvel Super Heroes, Palladium's ROBOTECH and Rifts, Vampire the Masquerade and West End Games Star Wars all quickly followed, and pretty much consumed my junior high and high school years. All my other interests (guitar lessons, Boy Scouts, school choir, etc) fell by the wayside as I filled all of my free time with RPGs. We played several times a week, and any time we weren't playing I was making characters, monsters and running solo games. The margins of my school notebooks were covered with doodles of swords and wizards and orcs. This is around the time I also really started getting interested in writing, and of course 90% of what I wrote was fantasy fiction. All these years later I cannot conceive of how much time I spent wasted on this stuff. These days I cannot even fathom having so much free time as I did back then.

2. The Dry Years (1999-2009)
In 1999 I moved from my hometown in Newfoundland to the big city lights of Toronto for university and gaming dried up for awhile. To be fair, it wasn't completely absent from my life. My then-girlfriend (now wife) got into Vampire the Masquerade and I ran some solo adventures for her. There was a brief resurgence in the summers of '01 and '02 when I was working at Canada's Wonderland and we re-lived the glory days of youth playing D&D almost every day like nerdy teenagers again. But as the decade went on and people grew up and developed lives, time for gaming became scarce. RPG nights went from weekly to bi-weekly to monthly to a few times a year. Play-by-email became my only regular gaming fix. Probably not coincidentally, with less time to game I spent a lot more time writing, and finished like 8 novels during that period (I'm hoping you may be able to read one or two of them soon!). At the end of 2009 I moved from Toronto to Ottawa, leaving the last of my gaming friends behind, and it looked like RPGs would be completely lost to me.

3. The Rebuilding Years (2010 - present)
Unbelievably, despite now being a full-fledged grown-up (wife, kids, mortgage, car, office job, etc), my gaming has been on an upswing the last few years. At first I played with my in-laws - they lived nearby and it was relatively easy to get together for a game, though now our kids are getting to ages where it's a little more complicated to schedule. I went down to the local university to sit in on some Encounters and Living Forgotten Realms games during the height of 4th Edition. Writing on this blog has helped, because it keeps me interested and forces me to keep an eye on the online community. Finding the chance to play online via Roll20, Skype and Google Hangouts has been a huge opportunity, because it has allowed me to not only play with my buddies from Toronto, but to also get back in touch with high school friends I haven't spoken to in over a decade, AND I've met some new folks, too! Honestly, I don't know how I've found the time to do as much as I have, especially this past year (only sleeping 5 hours a night helps) and I have no idea how long it will last - I suspect with the second baby on the way that there will be another enforced lull in the near future. Still, if I have enough kids I'm hoping that in a few years I'll have enough bodies to fill my own gaming table and I'll start the Fourth Age - The Family Gaming Years.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, though. Hopefully I still have a few good years in the current stage. But it's funny the way life works, and how it changes. I often hear people describe their lives in the stages of money or kids or responsibility, I never thought about it in terms of gaming.

What about you, of faithful readers? How has the Passage of Time affected the ebb and flow of this, our most illustrious hobby for you?

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Published on 9/30/2014 Written by 5 comments

Four Reasons "Playing" RPGs is Better than Game Mastering

Last weekend, I hooked up with Rule of the Dice contributors Jason and John, as well as our resident kook Dave, to play a Google Hangouts version of John's D&D hack. (See Jason's post for more details about the game). I realized shortly after we sat down that this would be my first time PLAYING an RPG live at a table - not GMing and not play-by-post - literally in years.

About 4 years ago I played a bit of 4th Edition Encounters and Living Forgotten Realms, which... is not role-playing. It's rolling some dice, waiting twenty minutes for everyone else to argue about the interactions of their ridiculous powers, and then rolling a couple more dice when your turn comes around again. It was a grinding slog most of the time, but I played happily because it was my rare chance to sit on the other side of the screen and to create stupidly awesome (or is it awesomely stupid?) nonsensical rangers.

The last time I played before that was I believe in 2002 when Jason ran a one-off session where I completely dicked him around the whole night acting like a jackass (if I haven't apologized for that before... yeah, sorry).

(No really, that was an honest apology, I was totally a jerk)

But last weekend we gamed and it was eye opening for me. I've been playing RPGs for over 20 years, and I've Game Mastered 95-98% of every game I've been involved in. Don't get me wrong, while I do love GMing I've decided I may never do it again. Sitting on the other side of the table is so much better.

1. Way Less Stress
So here I was Friday night, rushing to get signed on at the appointed time, frantic to get the game started when it hit me: What was I rushing for? I had nothing to prepare or get ready. Signing in and grabbing my character sheet was literally all that I had to do. I didn't have a ton of notes to collect, stuff to re-read, rules to look up. My RPG experiences are usually hours of pre-game prep, wondering if it's going to work, worrying the whole time if people are into it, and then wondering afterward what I could have done differently and kicking myself for the parts I screwed up.

Why did I have to have them fight four ghouls? Why didn't I keep it three, I knew it should have been three...
Friday, I was able to sit back, relax, and let someone else do the heavy work. I had time to casually eat a bag of Doritos AND had a chance to Tweet about the game as we played. It was brilliant.

(For the record, John seemed perfectly relaxed and way more comfortable than I usually feel when running a game. Either he's a lot better at this than I am, is better at hiding his frustrations or realizes this is just a game and doesn't take it too seriously - whatever it is, kudos to you, sir. You're a better man than me.)

2. Way Less Work
I kinda hinted at this in the previous entry, but this one should be obvious. GMing is a lot of work. Work that often feels more like doing your taxes than playing a game. You have to prepare - whether that's creating your world, writing your encounters/adventures, coming up with your own rules, whatever - and it takes work and dedication. Hours of pre-game prep. I try to wing it and improvise when I can, but I worry too much about making the game seem polished and put together to leave it to chance. I feel like I need to prepare for every eventuality (I know, I know, it's impossible) and inevitably end up writing pages and pages of content and the players usually skip over 80-90% of it.

And that covers the cultural and historical significance on the carvings above the knob of the door to the first level. Now where did I put my notes about the floor?
For Friday's game, I wrote up my character in about 20 minutes weeks ago, then completely forgot about it. I didn't have to look at it again until I printed the character sheet 5 minutes before the game. It was like I was in heaven. I don't want to insult John by saying I didn't think about it or get ready for his game or anything, but it was truly such an unimaginable relief to go in and just play. Prepping a game is a ton of work and I would never imagine to not appreciate a GM's effort (except for Jason in the earlier example), but man, dude. Sometimes it's nice to not do anything.

3. It Actually Feels Like A Game
I laughed a lot. I joked around and made an ass of myself (Jason, Dave, sorry if I was a dick to you or your characters). I played with trying to give my character silly accents (haven't quite found the right one yet). It felt like it wasn't a big deal if I had to get up and use the washroom or deal with some outside issues - my stepping away wouldn't necessarily make the game grind to a halt. I didn't have to keep track of every detail of everything that was going on, there was no book-keeping or traffic direction. Part of that was because we had four experienced guys who knew what they were doing and knew the rules reasonably well, but a bigger part of that was because I didn't feel responsible for the good time of everyone at the table.

If you guys are having this much fun, your GM must be pretty miserable.
I've said before that (several times, actually) I believe it's everyone's responsibility to make sure everyone else has fun, but the GM carries the lion's share of said responsibility. The GM has to make sure everyone is engaged, that everything makes sense, that the action keeps flowing. As a player, you don't have to do that so much. Sure, you need to be respectful and open minded and not try to purposefully de-rail the game, but you have WAY fewer moving pieces to worry about than the GM, so you can concentrate on what's in front of you and having fun with it.

4. It Shows Me How to Be a Better GM
I'm sure that my weaknesses as a Game Master stems from not playing enough under different GMs. Like any game or sport, you have to play with people who are better than you in order to get better yourself.

This guy looks like he's logged, what? 7500-8000 of his 10,000 hours?
This is going to make me sound like a jackass, but bear with me because I have a point: If I had run the game John did on Friday night, I would have been extremely disappointed. In nearly three hours, very little happened. We visited one location. There were two NPCs. There was one very simple combat encounter. If it was me, it would have felt like we didn't accomplish anything (probably because I would have had 20,000 words of material we didn't get to).

But on the other of the table, we as players had a wonderful time. We bickered and joked and played our characters. We found entertainment in all the little things, and put importance in everything we did. As a GM, I always worry about making sure the players have a goal, and obvious steps they need to take, and interesting, important things they should encounter along the way. But for the players, every door, every exchange, every weird noise - it all seems important. We latch onto what we think is interesting and that becomes the memorable part of the adventure. We spent twenty minutes trying to figure out if any of our characters new how to read or not, for frigsakes, and it was hilarious. The GM is responsible for throwing some stuff in front of us, but the players are responsible for doing something with it.

To John's credit, I don't think he was disappointed and I hope he recognizes that we got a lot of enjoyment out of those three hours. I can pretty safely say that it was one of the most satisfying games I've played in years. And all we did was kill one bad guy, which I had no hand in as I spent the whole battle tied up on the floor.

Role-playing games are weird. But they can still be really, really fun.

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Published on 9/28/2014 Written by 4 comments

Characters Can Be Crazy

Most of my posts here are about board games, but in the last couple of weeks I've had two new RPG's start, one as a PBEM and one as a live on-line experience.  This has me in an RPG frame of mind, so today I'm all about that bass our last live gaming session.

We played in google hangout, and the system and world are home-brew D&D knock-offs created by +John Williams.  A couple of weeks ago he sent us a slimmed down rule book, some world background info, and let us make our characters.  The rules have a lot of random generation tables, and all 3 of us PC's used those to a fairly large degree. 

This, in my mind is point #1 where things started to go really right. Whenever I've made a character in the past, it has involved things like "What does the party need?" and "What's something really cool I can do?"  This isn't a terrible way to make a character, but it does lead to me often making similar characters with similar traits that all play in a similar manner.  Using the tables here gave me something I never would have come up with on my own - and that's a great thing.  It allowed me to break out of the mould I had been in for a long time, and forced to me really think about how my character will react in different situations.

How my character
spent the game
The second thing that lead to this being a great session is also a character creation tidbit. This game requires you to pck or generate things like background occupations, medical conditions, psychological traits, personality traits, and quirks.  Having some of this decided for me (again, by random table) set a base for me to build my character around.  It turns out I was a nervous person with a nervous little laugh, and a pyrophobe.

Part 3 of kick-ass game night was our GM.  +John Williams set a simple scene for us with almost no NPC's to worry about.  Instead the action centered on the relationship between us 3 PC's (myself, +C.D. Gallant-King and +Dave Geno).  We had just been thrown together and had to figure out how to deal with the scary things happening to us, all while not knowing how the other PC's may react. 

This is my legacy.
A few highlights of that interaction: +Dave Geno's character had a bit of a foul mouth and foul temper, and it irked my high-strung nerves.  I *MAY* have pushed him down the stairs in to the cellar where he *MAY* have put his hand through a putrefied corpse.  Later, after being hounded by a ghost, my character thought that burning the bones we found would be a sure-fire (pun intended) way to get rid of it.  Being a pyrophobe, I didn't have any experience on how best to accomplish this safely.  So I doused to place in oil, struck a spark, then fled while screaming at the top of my lungs.  I will admit that in hindsight this did very little to help ingratiate me with the rest of the party.  There were some harsh words as we stood out in the rain and watched the only shelter for miles around crumble in a smoking heap of rubble.

Now the real question is "What happens next time?"  I think I might have to watch my back, as I'm not so sure my friends will actually be friendly.

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Published on 9/24/2014 Written by 12 comments

Soundtrack to the Weird West

So that game I was bewildered about last week is happening. I still don't know if it's going to work, but I come armed with all the great feedback and suggestions that I received on the topic. If it flops at this point I have no one to blame but myself.

Apparently we're running Deadlands without calling it Deadlands or even realizing we had chosen it. When we were deciding what kind of game to try I told my group that I was willing to run one of four types of games:

1. Sci-fi (more appropriately, space opera, a la Star Wars/BSG/Serenity)
2. Zombie survival/horror
3. Western
4. Pro-wrestling (knowing no one was going to do it)

Of course, we ended up with a sci-fi/zombie/western hybrid. Just couldn't shoehorn the wrestling in there. Through brainstorming (yay, FATE!) we ended up with a vaguely wild west setting with supernatural elements, heavy on steampunk and airships (so the one guy who wanted to play Firefly could still get to be Captain Reynolds). 

I didn't want to just run Deadlands because I'm not at all familiar with it, plus I really like that everyone is getting a chance to contribute to our weird little mash-up of a world. If anything it's turning out to be more of an homage to the world of Stephen King's The Dark Tower, but that works, too.

Anyway, my point today is that we're still shaping and creating the style and mood of the game, and I thought some appropriate music would be, um, appropriate. But what kind of music fits with a weird west/steampunk/dark fantasy setting?

Here are a few I've come up with. More suggestions are welcome and encouraged!

1. Ghoultown

Anyone who calls themselves "gothabilly" or "hellbilly" is probably appropriate, which is what puts these guys on the top of the list. Their videos certainly have the look we're going for. The music might be a little too heavy for some taste (I would prefer something a little more classically western for this setting), but it's a damn fine place to start.

2. Iron Horse

These guys are f*cking awesome. Instead of taking classic downhomy stylings and metaling them up (how many words did I invent in that sentence?), they do the opposite by taking hard rock and metal and arranging them into acoustic bluegrass numbers. It adds a whole new layer of oddness and weirdness (their cover of Enter Sandman is downright creepy in a way distorted guitars can never achieve) that fits perfectly into the setting. I think.

3. Ennio Morricone

You can't go wrong with classic spaghetti westerns, and in that case you can't do better than Morricone. The Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" movies, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Ecstasy of Gold - his soundtracks are iconic, and they have an epic, larger-than-life grandeur to them that totally works.

4. Alabama 3

A British electronic-blues-gospel-country band shouldn't work, but that's probably why it does. And it works so, so well. It's got a touch of funk that kind of throws you for a loop in a western (I can't picture Clint Eastwood or Roland Deschain shooting a guy to this soundtrack... or can I?) but if you crank up the Steampunk a few notches this becomes wildly appropriate.

5. Puscifer

I don't think this will work, I just really like this song. (CAUTION: Wildly NSFW)

So what about you, or faithful readers? What are some other good songs and bands that could score the soundtrack to a weird west/steampunk type of setting?

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Published on 9/16/2014 Written by 8 comments

GM Advice Desperately Needed (I'm In Way Over My Head)

What was I thinking?

I just had 14 people sign up to play a game I've never run, in a system I'm not familiar with, in a setting we just made up over the weekend. And Cthulhu help me, I think I'm going to go ahead with it.

It's a play by email game it not like I'm going to have 28 eyes staring at me. But it's still a lot of stuff over track of, and it will be impossible to keep everyone engaged with something to do. And because we'll be waiting for so many people to respond, we could be waiting ages between posts. So why am I considering going through with this?

Am I nuts, agreeing to do this? Should I have just cut the group off at 5, 6 or 7? I'm so bad at saying no...

I'm considering splitting it into 2 parties, which will make it more manageable, but then I will basically be running two games. Even if I run them through identical, mirrored scenarios and reuse as much material as I can, in a setting like this they're going to quickly wander off into their own directions, so I'm going to have two groups no matter what I do.

Any other advice from anyone who's run a group this big? Especially a play-by-post type of game? I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed at the moment.

For reference, this the game we're trying to play.
Art by DarkMatteria

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Published on 9/15/2014 Written by 0 comments

With but a Whimper (The Death of Another Campaign)

I am terrible at ending campaigns.

To be fair, this one did have a pretty good bang before the whimper. For reference, this is what I had as an outline for our final adventure (which I didn't know at the time would be our final adventure):

1. The party has to protect the actor during the performance. Hopefully some of them have to get on stage and take part.

2. The will be attacked by assassins trying to kill the actor, and wild mountain men on the way to the performance.

3. After the performance when they leave with their pay they will be attacked by pirates.

That was it. I thought it would take a couple of weeks of real-time and be a short and hopefully fun little scenario. I had no idea it would blow up into the huge drama that it did.

It turned into a major political insurgence. A king was killed, a princess kidnapped, a religious revolution instigated. Lost family members returned. One of the party betrayed his friends, and another died trying to be a hero. Yet another nearly died and lost an arm when he sacrificed himself to save the others, but survived because the remaining party members actually went back for him. I wasn't expecting that after all the other shit that happened.

Sounds pretty impressive, when I put it like that. The issue was that after all that cool stuff happened, with the group split and no immediate next course of action obvious, the game kind of fell apart. I could have forced the narrative along and rushed the party into the next adventure, but I really wanted to see where it would go, what the players would do when left to their own devices. Unfortunately I think they felt a little lost and overwhelmed.

"Hero-ing is getting old, man. Wanna go somewhere and get drunk and high and eat chicken fingers?"
The thing is, which I don't think the players realized, was that they had created all the awesomeness that transpired. As I said, I had a fairly bare-bones script to go by. Everything else that happened was in response to their actions, so I was waiting to see what next crazy thing they would do.

The political uprising came about because the players (rightfully) questioned why the assassins were trying so hard to kill their target, even being willing to kill themselves in the process. I determined that they weren't simply trying to kill the actor, but to destabilize the government, and had the opportunity to wreck havoc because the king and numerous important nobles were attending the performance.

The increasingly stupid conflicts in the theatre scenes were my (poor) response to keep the tension up during a lull in everyone's writing.

When all else fails, blow something up.
The religious revolution was in response to the cleric helping some of the survivors and then preaching about his god. Because the desperate refugees were so despondent and replied favourably to his promises of hope and salvation, he continued to stir the pot until he started a riot (a well-timed divine "sign" provided by the party's illusionist didn't hurt, either).

The tension with the party's patron was because they thought he was a bad guy, even though he was way more honourable than they were and was actually trying to do good things while the players subverted him at every step.

The character that died did so because he chose to save the princess all by himself without seeking help, and refused to retreat despite several opportunities to do so. While on the surface this seems incredibly stupid, it made sense in character because he was not only developing feelings for the girl but he had a long history of distrusting the rest of the group due to the stupid decisions he felt they constantly made.

The long lost relative showing up was in response to a throw-away couple of lines mentioning how one of the character's uncles may have been a PC from a long, long ago game. The player was pretty excited about this, so I decided that the pirate who was lying in wait for them would turn out to be that uncle, long thought dead. Unfortunately, when two of the PCs stole the party's ship and took off on their own (in-character they were fleeing the riot, out-of-character it was meant as a joke), they were woefully unprepared to do battle with the pirates. They made some very poor tactical decisions and had their asses handed to them, but ultimately surrendered their valuable cargo and threw in with the pirates.

"I think he's bleeding to death, dude."
"Fuck off and let me finish my coffee, then I'll
think about casting cure light wounds."
- This actually happened in the game.
And that was it. The two guys who fled are now sailing away with the pirates while the others are stuck without a ship or a clear direction (though I did give them several clues to what happened, as well as a couple of options of how to follow them). I guess it's as good a place as any to stop, and we're planning to start a new game in a different genre soon.

After writing this out I realized that maybe the game didn't end as badly as I thought. If this was a fantasy novel series this would be a pretty good cliffhanger ending for book one. The Fellowship is broken, the world is turmoil, and the future is uncertain. Maybe one day we'll come back to write book two. How will the heroes get out of this one?

The more I think about it, though, the player characters in this story really aren't the heroes...

Oh, and one last spoiler, for the players who were left behind: After Ulrich and Wicket gave the cargo to the pirates, they burned and sank the Stardust Memories.

Just thought you should know that.

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