Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #2

Make sure to catch the first part of this series here:

Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #1

Now that we’ve looked at our session zero, let’s see how the first game session came together. Some of this is a matter of running the first adventure in the book, and some of this is dealing with the framework we came up with last time.

Running Hollow

Hollow is the first adventure in the Tales of the Old Margreve adventure anthology, which is an adventure about a small town on the edge of the Margreve forest that is dealing with strange occurrences. Before we could jump straight into the adventure, however, we played through the introductory section I came up with to introduce the campaign framework.

The Bear King’s Competition

Everyone started at a glade in the Old Margreve at a competition being held by the Bear King. I had each of the bearfolk PCs come up with a competition they had won, so they had a reason to stand out from the crowd of bearfolk. Two of them picked physical competitions, and one won a pie eating contest.

The halfling warlock was led to the glade by Baba Yaga’s dentures, and was hiding while she watched the festivities. The gearforged and Lhatmir, his attendant, had been captured and brought before the Bear King.

Lhatmir, as a remnant from a previous campaign, is a terrible gambler. Baba Yaga’s dentures (unseen by everyone but the halfling warlock), whispered in Lhatmir’s ear that he can compete with the Bear King, and “miraculously” he wins, asking for the gearforged warlord to be allowed to prove his heroism (instead, of course, just asking for his freedom).

At this point, the halfling is instructed to introduce herself by the dentures, and the Bear King offers all of the winners, the gearforged, and the halfling, charms (as per the DMG). The Bear King mentions that the fey have noticed some kind of creeping shadow in the Margreve, and he tasks the PCs with investigating this. The charms will protect them from some of the negative aspects of the forest, as well as keeping nasty things from them when they travel the shadow roads--which he uses to send them to Levoca.


I wanted to set up the structure where the Bear King, Baba Yaga, and possibly other fey lords are nudging the PCs in a direction when there might not be a direct connection between adventures. I also wanted to keep Baba Yaga a bit more remote and mysterious, so I only used her dentures in the scene.

I wanted the bearfolk players to be able to say something about their characters with the contests that they won. The warlock had already introduced a lot by specifically asking to have Baba Yaga as a patron, and the gearforged already got his “wish” by being an outsider in the setting, and had a tie to the previous campaign.

I also wasn’t sure how much the PCs were going to interact with the standing stones or the shadow roads on their own, so I wanted to introduce those elements of the setting on the edges, even if they don’t come up that often. If I need to connect them to another place that doesn’t feel logically connected to Levoca later on, I can present them with a “safe” passage through the shadow roads to another part of the forest.

On the Road to Levoca

I know, I’m still not to the beginning of the actual adventure, but I added one extra thing--they ran into a giant elk outside of the town. I wanted them to pick up on something being off about the animals, and one of them could hear the music affecting them (but without being able to pinpoint the song). They killed the elk, then heard a creepy flock of carrion crows that made them decide to hurry into the town.

I wanted to give them a chance to interact with creatures in the forest, and if they had avoided killing the elk, it may have let them call on the elk positively later on, but because it was attacking them, I didn’t want to penalize them for fighting a hostile creature.

A Trip to Town

Along with the creepy, indeterminate music, I wanted to reinforce the strange local customs and the overall creepiness of the forest. I made sure to describe the scarecrow like Wood Wards around town, and described them with sacrifice bowls at their feet, for the townsfolk to use to invoke their protective spirits.

I also wanted to make sure to say and do a few creepy things with the townsfolk, but not in an overtly sinister way. I was aiming more for “isn’t everyone like this,” instead of “these guys are going to kill us when we’re sleeping.”

This had some interesting interactions with the characters--the bearfolk were willing to accept that all humans are kind of weird, the gearforged was even more certain that he was culturally superior, coming from Zobeck, and the halfling was balancing between the weirdness she was accustomed to from her time with Baba Yaga versus what she would have expected from nice, normal halflings.

I generally filtered all NPC interactions through three main NPCs:
  • Karl--he got to be the grumpy old man that was mildly annoyed and could also mention how “normal” the old witch pit in town was, even though they haven’t used it for 100 years, because sometimes you need to burn witches to get rid of curses (cue the halfling being a little nervous)
  • Drash--son of the man killed by his own bull, to introduce the conundrum of killing the bull even though it would hurt the family fortunes, also allowed me to introduce another weird custom (he drained his father’s blood from his body and offered it to the trees, to see if they reacted to it). Because the trees drank the blood instead of rejecting it, the curse couldn’t be specific to his father.
  • Anna--gets to be the “general” information person in town. She offers food and shelter, and could mention that there was a woman and her daughter that went missing in town to hook the PCs into the adventure. Once they investigated this, I planned on “rewarding” them with the poem about the Hollow Man, so they had that information before they run into him the first time.

In the adventure itself, it mentions calculating the group persuasion bonus and determining how much the town is willing to help them based on this. Instead of this, I just went with a group charisma (persuasion) check, and if the majority were successful, the townfolk are generally helpful. I’m a fan of using group checks when I can, and this seemed like a good place to do so. They did very well, so I determined that the townsfolk were certain that the bearfolk, specifically, were friendly forest spirits sent to help, and offered them as much honey as they could gather.

Adventure Progression

The group went after the missing woman and her child to find them, and because the bearfolk barbarian’s background includes wanting to protect others because she had lost her family, I ended up changing the encounter a bit.

The party fought off the bee swarm, and saved the mother. The daughter is, by default, already dead, but because it was important to the PCs and played better into the barbarian’s background, I had the child reacting badly to the bee stings, but able to be saved. They made a medicine check and the child was purged of the venom, to the point that she could survive.

Originally, I thought the party might rest more, and that we would have at least one murder happen while the PCs were recovering. Instead, the party brought the woman back to down, heard the poem from Anna, and set back out to find whatever was causing the animals to go berserk.

Because they were so focused on methodically searching all of the entrances to town, I didn’t want to delay them from getting some answers, but I still thought they might retreat from the Hollow Man when they first ran into it. They loaded up on torches after hearing the poem, and kept searching.

Meeting the Hollow Man

Since they were out searching, the wolf attack on town happened while they were catching up with the Hollow Man at the first farmstead with a victim. Instead of being distracted by the wolves, they were trying to hurry up and save the farmer so they could get back to down to help with the wolves.

They had a bit of a power boost from the charms, which they used to summon a bear that kept the Hollow Man’s animated Wood Ward at bay while they engaged the Hollow Man. I wanted to make sure that they had a chance to see the methodic behavior of the Hollow Man, so it got to the farmstead door and started knocking before they had a chance to attack.

Between the torches, magic, and the cleric’s shillelagh, they did a lot better versus the Hollow Man than I expected. The Warden managed to make sure an ally didn’t get splattered by the Hollow Man using his abilities. I specifically didn’t have the Hollow Man use its scythe, because I wanted to create the impression that it only used the scythe for its designated victim. In fact, if any of the PCs got dropped, I wasn’t going to do lethal damage unless they later were designated as the victim of the Hollow Man. None of this was too important in the long run. It wasn’t an easy fight, but it wasn’t as dangerous as I was worried about from straight analysis of the stats.

Surviving the Hollow Man meant that not only did they defeat a major obstacle, but they also picked up a magical weapon along the way by claiming the scythe. Again, I was surprised that the 1st level party was ready to press on, but they wanted to follow the Hollow Man’s tracks before they went cold and find it’s master, so they dove into the forest.

The Singing Tree

The party reached the Singing Tree. The cleric and the warden had largely used up their resources, but everyone was near full hit points, so it was a bit of a gamble as they headed to the “final boss.”

I played up that the giant spider summoned by the tree formed from the oozing “tears” of the tree. The party almost started to target the head hanging from the tree, but they talked themselves out of trying it, as they were worried that without a head it might get more active.

The bearfolk barbarian used the Charm of Heroism they were given, but unfortunately, the warlord succumbed to the confusion effect of the Singing Tree, and the warlord turned on the cleric and took him out of the fight. The warden kept the spider busy as the enhanced barbarian with the magic scythe attacked the tree. The warlord wandered aimlessly around a during the fight, meaning that everything came down to the barbarian, the warden, and the warlock.

The group eventually prevailed, stabilized the cleric, and found the treasure. When the Singing Tree revealed the apple, the group destroyed it because they were too paranoid about possibly curses and corruption to eat it. The halfling was very tempted.

Overall, the group was pretty happy with the treasure haul.

Session Observations

For most of the adventure, the group only took short rests, but they did have one ally taken out of a fight, and another one under confusion for most of the final encounter. Without the clue about the fire and the Hollow Man, I think the fight would have gone much worse, but the cleric having access to a spell that granted him a magic weapon helped. As run, with five 1st level characters, without the charm allowing them to summoned the bear and the Charm of Heroism, I’m not sure the fights would have gone as well as they did, and I didn’t ramp up any of the threats this time around (other than the initial elk encounter).

My players pointed out that they think the warlord class is front loaded with its abilities, something I thought in my review as well. That said, it didn’t feel too dominant this session, because for one of the major fights, the gearforged was under the confusion spell and not helping the party. The warden’s player felt a little starved for reactions, because it takes a reaction to protect others and to protect himself as well.

I was actually expecting the adventure to take more than a four-hour session, but the group was very focused on driving toward their goal. We still had a good amount of roleplaying, but they were still very focused on solving the problem. I suspect part of this is that they had a good idea that they would level up after the adventure.

I am using hero points instead of inspiration in the game, and the hero points got used a lot. I was originally planning on having the PCs explain how their traits came into play in the session to “recharge” hero points, instead of awarding hero points on leveling up. This is where I learned a lesson I already knew, but here we go again.

D&D traits are a nod in the direction of more story based roleplaying and fleshed out characters. Despite this, traits are not worded well to be triggers. Too many of them are broad or about long-term tendencies, so they don’t work like XP triggers or bonds in Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark games, and despite knowing this, I keep trying to make them work that way. I may end up reverting to hero points awarded by level.

To sum up:

  • Without charms and hero points, this adventure may have been a bit rougher for the PCs
  • I may need to revisit my house rule for dealing with hero points soon
  • Not sure how the warlord is working because the warlord was out in a major fight
  • Warden seems very dependent on reactions, especially early on
  • Creepy atmosphere of the Margreve is definitely being felt

Sunday, July 28, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #1

If you follow the reviews that I write, you know I had some concerns over Tales Of the Old Margreve. Most importantly, there are references to the Kariv in the gazetteer and one specific adventure that play into harmful real-world stereotypes. Because I already own the adventure, and because the material outside of the problematic content is very compelling, I moved forward with running this series of adventures for my group.

If you haven’t read it, I would recommend reading my review here: Tales Of The Old Margreve Review

What I would like to do in this series of articles is look at how I adapted this material for my own campaign. Some of this will deal with reacting to player expectations, concerns, and actions, and some of this will just be showing how I approach published material. Hopefully, it will be an enjoyable read.

Session Zero

After sending out a campaign standards document that had all of the legal materials for the campaign and my proposed optional and house rules (see the campaign standards here), I waited to see if anyone had any concerns or modifications they would like to propose, and then we had our session zero.

In session zero, we found out that we have the following characters:

  • Bearfolk Warden
  • Bearfolk Barbarian
  • Bearfolk Cleric
  • Gearforged Warlord
  • Halfling Warlock

You may notice the Warden and Warlord classes present in this list. I really wanted to see how the Max Press classes worked in a game, so I made them legal for the game, and they were intriguing enough that two of the players picked them up. When something interesting comes up with how those interact with the campaign, I'll try to bring it up.

In general, we ended up with the following backgrounds for these characters:

  • Bearfolk Warden, Bearfolk Cleric, and Halfling Warlock are all Margreve natives—the halfling warlock asked if she could have Baba Yaga as a patron (I said yes emphatically)
  • Bearfolk Barbarian is a native of Shadow Realm
  • The Gearforged Warlord is a “noble” from Zobeck, related to one of the council families (in their past, more fleshy life)

Pulling This All Together

Coming up with a background for all of these, I thought about the best way to get them all together in one place, and how to task them with helping the small town in the opening adventure. I also wanted to create an overall campaign framework to explain why they would stay in the Margreve and continue to accept future adventures that are only tenuously related in a few cases.

What I came up with is that all of the bearfolk were present at one of the Bear King’s competitions. I wanted to have Baba Yaga’s presence felt, but I didn’t want to overuse her, so I had the halfling guided to the gathering by Baba Yaga’s dentures to spy on the proceedings.

Since the Gearforged wanted to be from an upper-class family and be from outside the forest, I decided to tie him to my previous Midgard campaign. In that campaign, the party ran into a gambling-addicted, hapless, but generally earnest retainer of the Greymark family, Lhatmir, who accidentally got them lost and captured by the bearfolk.

Seeds for Session One

I asked the bearfolk players to come up with a competition that they had one at the Bear King’s competition, so that each of them had been singled out in the gathering of bearfolk. This was partiall so I could introduce the idea of the Bear King handing out charms to get the PCs going with limited use magic items (I felt that in a fairy tale/horror hybrid adventure, having magic right out of the gate felt right, especially if they were limited use items). This also let me address something that came up later.

Player Concerns

The players weren’t as happy with the idea of magic not working to full capacity in the setting, or with the continued issue with metal items rusting. They were okay with having status with the forest that might introduce positive or negative random events.

I wanted to keep the idea of the Margreve “eating” magic, and rusting metal in the untamed woods, but I understood the concerns the PCs had. Initially, I had said that characters that took the forest native background wouldn’t have to worry about this, but that restricted some of what the players wanted to do with those backgrounds.

Eventually, I decided to tie the “magic works normally for you,” and “you don’t have to worry about rust” to the charms given to them by the Bear King. Even once their regular magic runs out, they still protect against some of the quirks of the forest, as well as making traveling the shadow roads less dangerous. That let me explain that “if you lose these” there is a consequence, but not a consequence I have to follow up on, so it becomes a “thing” in the campaign that doesn’t exert constant pressure.


The players couldn’t help but have a bit of a comedic tone to them, having three bears, a gold plated gearforged, and a halfling named Scarlett. One thing that is important to me about this humor, however, is that it is generally “in character.” The bears are good-natured and love honey, and are only really scary when they get into fights. The halfling is wide-eyed and continually over her head. The gearforged is comedically elitist and out of place in the rural villages and among the woodfolk.

So far, we haven’t had too much “meta” humor or out of character jokes, because the personalities and backgrounds of the characters allow for “venting.” On top of all of this, even though the adventures have a horror-themed leaning, it is also very much “dark fairy tale” horror, so instead of undermining the tone of the adventures, the more light-hearted PCs kind of serve to underscore the horror elements when they come up.

It’s not entirely unlike when (most of us in this group) played Curse of Strahd with characters based on Disney princesses, and we constantly played them as being horrified about the conditions in Barovia and the consequences of their actions, as they assumed any proactive heroism would solve problems unconditionally.

Overall Campaign Framework

Once I had the idea of how to get the whole party together, it helped to inform the overall campaign framework and theme that I wanted to present as I run the adventure. There are some times between adventures, but many of them are just connected by “they all take place in the Margreve,” and I wanted more of a through-line than that.

Between the Bear King and Baba Yaga being involved, and the three Derend adventures that are short adventures interspersed through the original stories and acting as a capstone, I realized that I could frame this campaign as “Fey versus Cosmic Horror,” which also feels a bit like “Older than Time versus As Old as Time.” That appealed to me, especially since it meant that sometimes this would feel like good versus evil, but it isn’t literally good versus evil.

This gives a reason for the Bear King and Baba Yaga to be (tenuously) allied, and it gives me an excuse to have the Bear King or some other Fey Lord show up at the end of various tiers of adventures to hand out more gifts and remind the PCs that this is all related and to keep moving forward.

The Future Awaits

I am going to try to keep this as a regular feature of varying lengths, focusing more on how I’m changing the adventures to adapt to my preferences and also to the player’s actions and reactions to the content. As of the time of this writing, I’ve got two sessions under my belt, so I’ll try to work on how the first adventure shook out soon.

Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #2

Friday, July 26, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Touched Prime (The Sprawl)

A few months back I took a look at The Sprawl supplement, TouchedA Darkening Alley, which introduced cosmic horror elements to The Sprawl’s cyberpunk baseline. This time, I’ll be looking at another Touched supplement for The Sprawl, Touched Prime.

If you are unfamiliar, The Sprawl is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that emulates cyberpunk stories, being very narrative forward and mission-based. TouchedA Darkening Alley introduced corporations obsessed with cosmic rifts and artifacts, and the runners that will help or hinder their obsessions with that which humans were not meant to know.

Touched Prime takes place in an extension of the universe introduced in A Darkening Alley—the rifts have opened even further, and a significant number of humans now resemble creatures from folklore, and magic has become even more prevalent. Does this sound familiar? Most likely, but there are some distinct and subtle differences in the implementation of this brand of near-future urban fantasy.

Digital Grimoire

This review is based on the PDF of Touched Prime—from what I understand, a print version of the collected Touched supplements will eventually be available, but currently, each individual installment of the line is a separate PDF. This one is a 64-page supplement, which is available in the standard formats for The Sprawl, Midnight and Noon.

If you haven’t picked up any of The Sprawl books, the PDFs are formatted with both a black background and a white background, so readers can pick the format they are the most comfortable with. The contrast and formatting are very striking, and allows for some wide margins and chapter headings. The interior art is filled with the manipulated photography that the rest of the line has also enjoyed, but with a new painted cover, featuring some distinctly fantasy flavored runners getting into a firefight.

A World Born Anew, The Powers that Be

These chapters provide a succinct explanation of the setting, building on the lore introduced in TouchedA Darkening Alley. There are supernatural rifts opening around the world, and since the timeframe portrayed in A Darkening Alley, it’s only gotten worse, causing sweeping changes that have made magic even more common and making significant alterations to humanity.

Various nations and corporations are outlined, but as with many Powered by the Apocalypse games, including the base setting of The Sprawl, there is a great deal of room to customize the setting and to allow the players to add their own touches. You have about ten pages of setting information, and the various power groups have bullet pointed strengths and signature moves detailed for them.

A New Player Has Entered The Game, A Bigger Toolbox

The next section of the book introduces the new playbooks available in Touched Prime. These include the following:

  • Adept (Characters that can channel the supernatural to be better physical combatants)
  • Horror Bane (Monster hunters)
  • Mage (Practiced wizards using more directed magical approaches)
  • Thrall (Spellcasters that get their powers from the elder things in the rifts)

While I’m not going to spend too much time going into it here, the playbooks and what they say about magic in the setting are a definite indication of the departure this game and setting make from The Other Urban Fantasy Cyberpunk Setting. While it introduces spellcasters into the mix, instead of some questionable decisions about cultural religious practices, we get a split between more reliable magic and dangerous magic fueled by cosmic horrors.

I’m very interested in the Thrall’s magic, because I’m not sure exactly how it will feel at the table. I really like it when PBTA games push the envelope a little, and the Thrall’s magic seems to definitely do this. When making checks, the Thrall banks d6 rolls, and uses these rolls later, spending them to pick spell effects from a chart. They can eventually get the magical effects they want, but they may need to hold off on spending their banked die results, which adds a little bit of resource management and chaos into the play of the character.

Touched Prime uses elements introduced in A Darkening Alley, which are described in the A Bigger Toolbox section. Characters that manipulate the supernatural gain the Touch stat, for, well, touching the supernatural. Additionally, just as the core game of The Sprawl has [gear] and [intel] to represent resources that can be spent to simulate the effort that professionals go through to acquire in the Legwork phase, [artifact] is a resource that can be spent to power some magical effects.

While several playbooks give access to supernatural moves and spell-like abilities, there are rules for non-magical characters interacting with artifacts and rituals as well.

Keep Dreaming On, Phorever People, and Running the Rifts

The last section of the book details new species that players may use to modify their playbooks, as well as additional MC moves that are appropriate for the setting. The species are:
  • Dwarf-kin
  • Elf-kin
  • Human-kin
  • Troll-kin
  • Wild-kin

Depending on your personal outlook, you may be please, unphased, or upset at the lack of orks in the various species descriptions. I’ll admit, I’m on the side of favoring things that have a link to folklore over a species that was largely created for one fictional universe, but your mileage may vary. All of the species have a minor boost that changes them slightly, such as trolls regaining a level of health when they roll doubles.

In addition to the species traits, there is a sidebar discussing the pitfalls of introducing fantasy racism and emphasizing the importance of avoiding stereotypes, which I greatly appreciated.

The Running the Rifts section adds a few new twists that can go wrong on a mission, like attracting the attention of magical orders, setting loose a blast of rift energies, or even freeing one of the horrors into the world. There is a reference to the Eldritch Trauma section of A Darkening Alley, but it’s not assumed that you will have access to that material as well.

Side Note: A Darkening Alley introduced the idea of coping mechanisms, rather than inflicting mental illness on characters, and I love the concept. In fact, I enjoy that mechanic more and more, the longer I think about it. Not 100% relevant to this review, but its definitely something I appreciate from the previous supplement.

Surviving the Night

The rules introduced in this supplement add just enough detail to a cyberpunk urban fantasy game to be flavorful and flexible. The magic systems introduced are interesting and inform the tone of the game. This supplement does a great job building on the material presented in A Darkening Alley, while still standing as its own supplement.

But The Night Is Long

I think the setting details, regarding the history of the rifts, the corporations, and the nations that exist at this time hit the sweet spot of inspirational and open-ended, but I have to admit I wouldn’t mind a few named horrors, great and small, to help fire the imagination, and to steer away from using some of the more obvious go-to names and shapes of cosmic horror.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

The outline of the setting is imaginative and could be used for just about any sci-fi/urban fantasy mash-up game you wanted, there are lots of fun mechanics to play with on the periphery of the usual Powered by the Apocalypse mold, and the supplement plays well with A Darkening Alley but also stands on its own.

I’ll even let you in a secret that’s been rattling around in my head—all of this is modular enough that you could just introduce mages, thralls, adepts, and horror banes into a world that doesn’t have elves or dwarves, and it would still work pretty well. Not that I would deny anyone the full range of their favorite fantasy reskins.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review Conundrums

I’ve got a lot of things to say about the John Carter RPG, but not in the form of a review. John Carter is a property that has fired my imagination before, has been foundational to modern action stories in both science fiction and fantasy, and presented some ideas that were not common in the era when the books were presented.

All of that having been said, John Carter is also about a former Confederate soldier who shows up on Mars as an archetypal White Savior, and whose primary motivation is to win the heart of an attractive woman that barely wears clothes. For all of the positive elements, like getting disparate cultures to work together in harmony, and teaching people about the dangers of blindly following religious dogma, some of those cultures still need to learn that their ways are wrong and to subvert them to the consensus opinion of the previously allied groups. John Carter is still the perspective character that has the clarity to see and understand what needs to be done.

Touching on Issues

This is addressed in the book, and that’s good. The book mentions that John is a Confederate soldier, and that may not sit well with some players. It mentions that, especially early on, male characters are the primary action heroes. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t do much to deconstruct the White Savior trope or give players or GMs tools to avoid it in game. After acknowledging the problematic content, the biggest admonition the text provides is to make sure that women in the setting have a chance to be heroes as well.

While the text brings up much of the problematic content, instead of providing tools to create stories that capture the positive aspects of the stories while avoiding the more harmful tropes, the virtues of the story seem to be held up as a defense of the overall content. For example, John isn’t a proud Confederate, he was just defending Virginia. John really does love Deja Thoris. The evil hierarchy of religion was oppressing the people, so someone had to break the system (even though that system isn’t just organizational, but also tied to one specific species of people).

It’s Not You, It’s Me

In the end, I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have liked to have been with the presentation. It had me thinking about how I almost think the best way to engage content like John Carter is with games like Cavaliers of Mars or other RPGs that have some “distance” from the source material and aren’t as invested in preserving and protecting it.

In some ways, it is a very similar feeling I get to the Conan RPG, but inexplicably, I have picked up several of those releases. I can’t fully explain it, except to say that it might have something to do with the fact that I don’t picture Conan as a role model, so much as a point of view protagonist. If Conan is right in a story, and someone else it wrong, it is often because of Conan’s detachment from biases, rather than his moral compass. And even with all of those disclaimers, every time I have sat down to read through the book and think about how I would run it, I’m still overwhelmed by a concern that I would run smack dab into various harmful tropes that exist in the source material. In my mind, it’s a lot easier for me to avoid it with a game or setting that pays homage to Conan, like Primeval Thule, than with something wholly faithful to the source material.

I’m not saying that if you like the John Carter novels, comics, movie, or even the RPG, that you are wrong for doing so. All I am saying is that for me, personally, I don’t feel comfortable doing a full review of the game, because it’s hard to separate my concerns from the way the rules are presented. Most of us like some problematic content. I really like a lot of the elements of the John Carter stories. The important part is to acknowledge the bits that are problematic, and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I’m just a little concerned that a defense of the elements, instead of a critique, may allow problematic elements to thrive going forward.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Alternative Traits, Advantage, Disadvantage, and Another Inspiration Solution (5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons)

On this very blog I’ve posted repeatedly about multiple ways to address my favorite least favorite entangled mechanics, traits and inspiration. After looking a few more games (such as the Storypath system and the ability to invoke story paths), I’ve got yet another take on how one might address the fact that it’s just kind of awkward to stop a game of D&D and adjudicate if someone has actually been roleplaying their traits.

Invoking Traits

For this particular alternate set of rules, we’re going to skip Inspiration completely. Instead, whenever one of your character’s traits is relevant to a roll, you can invoke that trait, and make you check with advantage. You can only invoke each trait once per session. You have to justify that the trait in question is relevant to the roll you are making.

To facilitate this, you may want to draw a box next to each trait, which you can put a checkmark in when it has been invoked. At the end of the session, you can erase all of the checkmarks, and start fresh next session.

While it’s not required, I would suggest that, instead of using the traits as presented in the various backgrounds, that player’s write traits based on the general definitions of each type of trait as they will be explained below. Your background still provides you with skills, starting equipment, tool proficiencies, languages, and special abilities as normal.

Trait Descriptions

For each trait, write a trait description that matches the definition for this trait. The trait should be summarized in a single sentence. For more guidelines on writing succinct and meaningful traits, it might be worth it to read through Fate Core for some ideas on how to write aspects.


Under this system, alignment is a trait. Alignment is what your character aspires to be, not a summary of what they are. They may be really good at living up to this ideal, or they might fail constantly, but when an action is emblematic of the alignment that the player character aspires to follow, they can invoke their alignment trait for advantage.

Alignment traits do not need to be written as a sentence. Just noting the alignment will do.

Personality Traits

This is a trait that summarizes the most common aspect of who your character is. It is essentially a thesis statement on the character. If they are grim and humorless, that’s the personality trait. If they never take anything seriously, then write a sentence that summarizes that.


This is something long term that the character strives to do. If they think the greatest threat to the world is the undead, then their ideal may be to always oppose the works of the unliving. If their ideal is to always make sure they remain free of entanglements, that guiding principle would be something you would write out to summarize the character’s views. This trait is probably a good one to look at in light of the character’s alignment trait.


Bonds are something that the character cares for to a greater degree than other aspects of their life. It may be an organization, a person, or a possession, but a bond serves as a tie to a specific thing, and it makes sense to invoke this trait whenever that thing can be protected, bolstered, or advanced.

At this point, you may be wondering, hey, where did flaws go? Well, we will be getting to that. The next step in this journey is to look at something I’m calling Negative Traits.

Negative Traits

Every character will have one negative trait, and that trait is their Flaw. In addition to their Flaw, they may pick up other negative traits. Negative traits can be invoked once per session by the GM to cause the player to roll a check with disadvantage. If a character can justify why one of their other traits is also at play, the player can invoke that trait to cancel out the disadvantage on the roll.

Other negative traits that characters can accumulate are include short-term, Lingering, or indefinite madness, divine displeasure, sundered pacts, or lasting injuries.


Every character has a flaw, so a Dungeon Master, under this system, will have the opportunity to invoke a flaw to impose disadvantage once per session. This still follows the rules for other traits, so if a flaw doesn’t seem relevant to a particular roll, the Dungeon Master can’t invoke that flaw to impose disadvantage.

Short-term, Lingering, or Indefinite Madness (Mental Trauma)

First, my recommendation is to would be to change the name of these negative traits to Short-Term, Lingering, and Indefinite Mental Trauma. Whenever one of these would normally be incurred by the player character, instead of the normal rules, use the following rules.

Write a sentence summarizing how the character deals with the mental trauma they have just suffered. A short-term mental trauma can be invoked once by the Dungeon Master, and then it is removed from the character. A Lingering mental trauma can be invoked until the character takes a long rest. Indefinite mental trauma can be invoked once per session until the character does something to remove the condition from the character.

Divine Displeasure and Sundered Pacts

Each time a cleric, paladin, druid, or ranger does something that goes against the tenants of their faith or belief system, write a sentence that describes the transgression. Unlike other traits, the Dungeon Master can invoke this negative trait whenever they feel it is appropriate, rather than waiting for narratively appropriate time (it is a sign of the gods, spirits of nature, or karma turning against the character for their transgression). Upon atoning, this trait goes away. A character can have multiple divine displeasure traits, one for each time they transgress the teachings of their faith or the morays of the belief system from which they derive power.

Sundered pacts are similar to divine displeasure, but they represent a warlock that has not fulfilled their end of a pact. In this case, the warlock does not receive a Sundered Pact trait because they have violated an established tenant of behavior, but because their patron has expressed a desire for the warlock to perform an act that they have failed to perform. A warlock can have a sundered pact for each time they refuse to perform an action on behalf of the patron, and it is only removed when the warlock performs the deed, or does another deed that the patron wishes to be accomplished. Like the divine displeasure trait, this can be invoked once per session, whenever the Dungeon Master deems it to make sense to remind the warlock of their patron’s displeasure.

Lingering Injuries

If the group decides to play with the Lingering injuries rule, this is a means of implementing those injuries without using the specific effects noted on the optional chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The first step is to decide if you are using Lingering injuries, and when they are triggered. The potential triggers are listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but can include the following:

  • When a character takes a critical hit
  • When a character drops to 0 hit points but isn’t killed outright
  • When a character fails a death save by 5 or more

In this case, each time a character receives a lingering injury, write a description of the injury that makes sense for how the character trigged one of the above conditions. Once per session, after that injury is incurred, the Dungeon Master can invoke that lingering injury trait to impose disadvantage on the character. The character can have as many lingering injuries as have been triggered by the agreed upon source of lingering injuries, and the character removes a lingering injury trait when they receive a lesser restoration spell to remove the trait.

That all sounds very heroic, but what about the villains?

Villainous Traits

While the Dungeon Master should not go out of their way to assign traits to every character the players might meet, any important NPCs that have been assigned traits should also be able to invoke those traits to gain advantage on an appropriate roll.

If a villain has negative traits, player character should be able to discern those negative traits with appropriate rolls, and can trigger disadvantage at an appropriate time once the negative trait is discerned. This should normally require a skill check and spending an action doing something appropriate to discern the negative trait.