Save Against Fear 2019


Once again, I’m headed to Save Against Fear, The Bodhana Group‘s annual convention. As I’ve said before, if I can only make it to one convention in a year, it will be this one.

I’m going to be busy there, but hopefully not too busy. I’ll be running two demos of games I’ve designed and helping with two panels during the event.

First Game: Reckoning

Reckoning is a diceless horror game that my friend Aric and I have been working on for…years now. Maybe 10 years? What happened was that Aric runs awesome horror games for Halloween. He found that there just wasn’t an existing horror RPG that suited him well. We tried All Flesh Must Be Eaten and other D20 systems, as well as others I can’t remember at the moment. But nothing seemed to fit quite right. One problem we ran into was that dice gave players a way out – it meant that every moment was potentially hopeful, and allowed some goofy possibilities.

The core of Reckoning is in character creation, though, more than the resolution system, which is a pretty standard number comparison with cards to modify. But our thinking, or focus in design, was how could we simply portray psychologically plausible characters on the one hand, and how could we represent the things that enable characters to survive horror stories.

Second Game: Iron Pax

Iron Pax is my OSR hack that is honestly just a OSR version tuned for the Midnight setting, or a similar setting. It is a colonialist dystopia as written, and the published version is more of an OSR rules-set engine with a chassis made of random tables for setting design. Players roll dice for all tests, similar to how Dungeon World does it, and the basic system is a roll-under D20 system. One original element is Heat, a combination of the effect of spellcasting being exothermic and also ‘heat’ in terms of negative attention from the authorities.

So far I only have one player signed up, and she’s a friend of mine, and I’m wondering if I maybe have the wrong title or description for the game, or maybe there just isn’t much of an audience for OSR. No worries. If I only have the one player, I’ll let her level up her pregenerated character a bit and see how she does rescuing this halfling from the Iron Pax.

First Panel: Game Designers

This year, we have a total of at least nine game designers who are special guests, and they are going to be part of a few game design panels over the course of the con. In the past I’ve helped facilitate the discussion on behalf of Bodhana, but honestly I don’t think that’ll be needed this time around, as these folks have been on more panels than I’ve run.

Second Panel: Spirituality in Games

At GenCon, I met this cool Rabbi named Menachem Cohen who uses games in spiritual direction as part of his practice. We came up with an idea to run a panel/workshop on spirituality in games, but without necessarily using the word “spirituality”, as that word can give people a wide variety of impressions that might not be correct. I think the way we talk about it is that we will look at how you can use games, design games, and hack games to access deeper elements of life. I’ve never done this kind of thing with Rabbi Cohen before, but I’m looking forward to it because he seems like a really interesting person who is knowledgeable about games.

You Should Join Me


Re-Skin, Drift, Hack

There are a few terms used to describe changes made to a tabletop game. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably. I just wanted to mess around with definitions – at the very least, to explain how I would use these terms to describe the various things I do to games.


A re-skin is when you don’t make significant changes to the actual mechanics in a game, but change the “color” – that is, the descriptive text or “fluff” that surrounds the mechanics and gives them meaning. The dice rolled or cards drawn don’t significantly change, but what the player or GM describes in the fiction changes.

Example: games like Savage Worlds and BESM invite re-skinning their various abilities, so that a ranged attack might be a jet of flame, a magic missile, or a thrown spear, all with essentially the same mechanics (dealing damage at a distance).


A drift of a game is a change to the mechanics, kind of an intermediate step between a re-skin and a hack. A drift is a departure from the apparent intent of the original writer/designer(s).

Example: using Mouse Guard to play Jedi traveling a galaxy far away, or Rangers in the North of Middle-Earth. In a way, many Powered by the Apocalypse games are drifts of one another.


A hack is a new version of a game when the game’s history can still be recognized. Most of the mechanics are retained in some form, but they are adapted, and new mechanics might be added. It is common to take mechanics from one game and put them into a hack of another game.

Example: I just wrote up a hack of the Clockwork: Dominion initiative system for use with D&D 5E.

So, designers and gamers, what about you? How do you use these terms? Do you think they’re just synonyms for each other, or are there significant differences?

Parsec Revised

I’m thinking of revising Parsec and re-releasing it as a PDF. Probably with the same wonderful art; hopefully with similar layout and graphic design, just wrapped around the new and updated text. I’m thinking of this for three reasons:

Errata from the Original

Because I was the designer, writer, and primary editor of the original, there were a number of mistakes. I’m proud of the work, but at the same time it could have been better, and in a way should be better. The game deserves an edition that I can look to and say “That’s pretty much what I wanted it to be.”

I’ve Learned In the Last 12 Years

When I started writing Parsec, it was the second half of 2007. The game design landscape was significantly different then, and in the 12 years since then I have learned more about writing, editing and game design. I can make a better game today than I could then.

Parsec is also now entirely mine. The rights to the property, as it were, have reverted back to me entirely. A few years ago, actually. I got great advice, and had it written into my contract as we negotiated that the rights would revert to me if the game was out of print for a couple of years. It has been out of print for a while now. This means that, for better or worse, I can write and design exactly the game I want to. I can update the setting, add elements that interest me, etc.

Therapeutic Use Through the Bodhana Group

Parsec could be really useful for therapeutic gaming. If nothing else, name a hard sci-fi roleplaying game. Even 12 years since I wrote Parsec, there aren’t that many out there. Parsec still does things that no other game out there does, and includes some elements like player-defined goals and obstacles, secrets and scars, that have obvious, powerful therapeutic applications. I’d like to revise Parsec with input from Bodhana this time around, not as Therapy: the Game, but to perhaps include more elements they would like to see that makes it a better therapeutic tool.

RPG Setting Round-Up #2

Arcano-Futurist Warforged

In Eberron, and in other places I’ve seen them mentioned, the source of warforged has been left open-ended. I like the idea that warforged are artificial bodies that the wealthy have their consciousness downloaded into. I think it’s a great opportunity to delve into interesting questions raised by post-humanists now. What if the wealthy can download their consciousness into bodies that don’t age, and be continually repaired and upgraded? What if they start doing the same with powerful golems or warforged titans? What if a powerful wizard copies her consciousness into multiple warforged, replicating herself?

Arcane Unitary Intelligence

Following on the above idea, what about artificial intelligence in a fantasy setting? Magic that affects the soul might be what can affect consciousness. A powerful wizard could create an artificial mind, and the mind might learn to replicate itself and spread to new hosts. How would your standard group of PCs fight an enemy like that? Or even be able to detect its presence.

Why We Don’t Meet Interstellar Species

I think it’s because, for any sentient species to develop to the point of interstellar travel, they have to have industrialized, despoiling their own planet and probably others, creating artificial intelligence, relentlessly harvesting materials from their solar system. Whatever space-faring species we might meet is composed of those who flourished in these circumstances. There is very little chance they come in peace. But most species will be destroyed on the path to interstellar capability.

I think it would be interesting if this was a reason why some version of the Cthulhu Mythos is found to be correct. There are beings out in the darkness of space with a boundless hunger, whose thoughts are inscrutable, and whose arrival on Earth would signal the end.

Villains by Necessity Multiverse

The novel Villains by Necessity is hard to come by, and interesting. Not amazing literature, but a premise that has stuck with me over time. In brief, the Dark Lord is defeated by the heroes of Light, and then the world becomes bland and boring as there aren’t villains anymore. But then it turns out that the last remaining villain-adjacent people have to band together to save the world from powerful, misguided do-gooders. I’ve run a fun D&D campaign in a similar homebrew setting.

I thought it would be interesting if the defeat of the Dark Lord was so momentous that it created a set of alternate universes where the Last Battle Against Evil turned out differently. It was a Pyrrhic victory that scoured the land. The Dark Lord won – and it’s the Midnight setting. The Heroes of Light won – and it’s on to Villains by Necessity. The battle tore a hole into the Astral Plane, and now good and evil had to unite in order to fend off invaders from the planes.

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #12: D&D Again

Time = XP

In D&D and similar experience-driven systems, xp roughly represents time spent playing. This is true when WotC says that Adventure League standards should be about 4 hours to level to 2nd, and then 8 hours to 3rd and the same for 4th, etc. This is what it has always meant, and the way it functions is to incentivize certain behaviors and play styles.

Why not just have XP = time played? This would work equally well for your home game as for organized play, and would work better than every system for leveling in organized play I’ve ever heard of. It would be easy to track across games, including for players and DMs without consistent play-groups.

This system can be hidden behind a milestone leveling system, and just have milestones equal X time played. Honestly, it’s what most DMs and GMs who use a milestone system are doing anyway, and is the thinking behind xp going back to the beginning. In terms of design, experience points are a reward for the player, so why no reward the players for their time? This would also unhitch xp from certain behaviors. So PCs would not need to go out and kill things and take their stuff. They would level just the same for RPing, or shopping in town, or exploring new places, or doing upkeep on their holdings. They can do whatever they find to be fun in game.

Yes, this drifts D&D significantly from its design, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

Using 5E Exhaustion More Often

Exhausting is an interesting mechanic, and almost never gets used in games of D&D 5th Ed I run and in which I play. I think it was used for the fist time in the 10th session of our current home game, and it was funny because I was the only player who even knew about exhaustion rules. So here a few other times to engage the exhaustion rules, imposing a level of exhaustion for each of the following:

  • When you are dropped to zero hp, even if immediate raised back up (i.e. by Healing Word)
  • When you take damage in excess of a threshold (maybe that threshold = 2x your Constitution score) to represent a sudden, significant injury
  • When you roll a 1 on a saving throw
  • When you fail a high-risk skill check, but the DM wants to let you fail forward (you miss an Athletics roll to jump a chasm, so the DM says you cling to the far side and drag yourself up, but it costs a level of exhaustion)

Healing Potions

As written, healing potions in 5E restore 2d4 +2 hit points per level of potion (i.e. 4d4 +4 or 6d4 +6). Why not have a healing potion instead restore 2 hit dice +2 for each level? This would mean that higher-hp classes like Barbarians would benefit more from a healing potion. As it is, past level 1 or 2 a barbarian won’t want to use an action to restore 7 hit points on average, and higher level barbarians who have more powerful potions won’t bother using them either because they’ll make such a small difference.

  • Healing potion: 2 hit dice +2 restored
  • Greater healing potion: 4 hit dice +4 restored
  • Superior healing potion: 6 hit dice +6 restored

Stolen Skill Challenge Idea

This is an idea my friend Brett, who is our current DM, stole from another DM, and I’m stealing it as well. The idea is that for shared skill challenges (like the ubiquitous Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to let the party sneak around), you set a total that they have to hit with their rolls.

  • Relatively easy challenge: 10x number of characters
  • Opposed challenge: passive score x number of characters
    • Ex: if the PCs are all trying to sneak past a guard, and the guard has a passive Perception score of 14, then their Dexterity (Stealth) rolls would have to total more than 14x number of PCs
  • Normal (?) challenge: 12x number of characters
  • Really challenging: 15x number of characters or higher

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #11

Out of Combat Advantage

The scene is that your adventurers are taking a break from danger, hanging out in town. There is some kind of local festival happening, and they decide to enter the various contests. The ranger joins an archery contest. It doesn’t make sense to me that the ranger would roll the same thing that she would when she is in a life-or-death combat situation – I think of studies showing that the most accurate police officers, the NYPD, still miss 2/3 of the time when they use their weapons. These are people who know what they are in for, train regularly, etc., who probably do great when they are at the gun range. So it occurred to me that in a situation where a D&D-style adventurer is using an adventuring skill in a safe environment such as a local fair, she should roll with advantage. This is also a way to let PCs shine in comparison to locals who only shoot at stationary targets and the occasional rabbit or deer.

Fixing Call of Cthulhu Sanity (Again)

There are obviously problems with Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system: all of the problems of any hit points style system for modeling trauma; it can be problematic with regard to real-world mental health; it is hard to get players to act against themselves when suffering a bout of madness; the madness that you suffer might come from a list or a table, and therefore feel arbitrary.

As a way to address three out of these four concerns, I thought that it would be interesting to just treat Sanity as hit points. When you run out you can’t play anymore. But when you lose Sanity, take Sanity ‘damage’, you can choose to ‘soak’ some of that damage by taking on a bout of madness. The player chooses the madness that makes sense, maybe from a list the Keeper provides. This way players who want to power through and keep control of their characters can do so, but they will take big hits to Sanity (and for this rule, I would basically double Sanity damage as written). Otherwise, players get a say in what happens, which hopefully gives them buy-in, which hopefully makes them more likely to actually play the insanity to the hilt.

In systems other than Call of Cthulhu, even like D&D, the idea I would use is to provide XP when a character suffering from madness acts against their own best interests.

This also makes me take a moment to consider my house rule for Hold Person type spells. Hmm…

Social Abilities and Hierarchy

I like the idea that social skills function differently when interacting across a social hierarchy (it’s why I designed Parsec that way). Taking D&D’s social proficiencies as an example (Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion), I might say that all three work best with someone who shares your place in the hierarchy; Deception works when dealing with someone higher than you (“Of course, m’lord”); while Intimidation is the default when dealing with someone beneath you (“You address me as ‘Your Grace'”). If you are using those social skills in other ways, you roll with disadvantage (a pauper Intimidating a Prince, a Prince trying to Persuade a pauper, etc.). I also like what this says about how differences in power shape (corrupt) all social interactions, even when the people in those interactions don’t mean to.

If you don’t buy the Deception rule – when was the last time you were honest with your boss? If you don’t buy the Intimidation rule – how do you feel when a cop pulls you over and starts asking you questions with a hand on his gun?

Passive and Active Perception (The Investigation vs Perception Problem)

D&D, even RAW, has an Investigation and Perception problem. The problem is that they are used inconsistently in the rules text. It isn’t clear what it means to use Investigation as compared to Perception. Both have a passive score on the character sheet. Both are used for searching. Perception is the far more useful of the two, honestly. In most games, there isn’t much reason to take either Insight or Investigation compared to Perception.

For my own games, if you are actively looking for something, I use Investigation, and when we are rolling to see whether you happen to notice something, it’s Perception. Investigation is something like active senses, and Perception is something like passive senses.

I had the idea to clarify this someday with abilities in a game. For active perception, I’d use Attention, and for passive perception, I’d use Sensitivity.

Bad Trope: Cruelty Is Magic

This is an awful, and common, trope – the idea that cruelty is the way to build the perfect soldier, or to reveal super-powers, or to get to the ultimate truth about a situation. The idea put forward is that cruelty is incredibly effective, like a tool or a weapon just waiting to be deployed, instead of something more realistic, where cruelty is usually the easy way out of a complex situation. I’ll mention a few examples that leapt to mind as I thought about this awful trope, and at the end I have a long list of more, for any of you who are thinking that this trope isn’t that common.

The Borne Identity

One of the things that I like about the Borne movies, especially the first one, is that they make a few attempts to actually deal with how traumatized Jason Borne and the other secret government assassins are. One of my favorite moments is when he is facing off against another assassin in a field, and asks something like “Do you still get the headaches?” At which point the other assassin says he does, with a suddenly pained expression. Its this cool moment of honesty in the midst of a fight.

But the whole premise of the Borne Identity is that the best way to train a super-predator is by traumatizing them. This cruelty gives them preternatural abilities.

Jack from Mass Effect 2

When you do Jack’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you get deep into this experimental Cerberus facility where, basically, children were tortured in order to develop their telekinetic (biotic) abilities. Basically, space-Nazis tortured children in order to create the perfect weapon, Jack. I like how they characterize her, actually – I feel like in a lot of ways she’s a plausible person who would have come from that kind of background. If anything, maybe higher functioning than one would expect. But again, we have the idea that cruelty is, literally in this case, magic.

24 and Torture

I didn’t watch a lot of episodes of 24, but it was obviously a “ticking time bomb” kind of show, and there is an overwhelming mythology in America around the efficacy of torture in a situation like this. Torture is seen as a highly effective way of getting to the truth in a situation, especially when you don’t have the time to do the right thing because so much is at stake or whatever. 24 was out, of course, around the time of Abu Ghraib as well, and revelations about CIA ‘black sites’ used to torture information out of suspected terrorists (in some cases literally children, or random people kidnapped by mercenaries).

The Unsullied

The Unsullied are the ultimate military force of the World of Ice and Fire, and key to their training is horrific trauma inflicted on children. They have to attach to a puppy, and then kill the puppy. They have to go purchase a slave baby, and then murder the slave baby in front of the mother. Only 1 in 4 even survive the training. They are all castrated so that they will never have any desire other than to obey and to kill.

This…would not work. This in no way creates an effective fighting force. If it did, someone would have tried it in the real world, because every civilization ever has tried to find ways to train the best fighting force. Historically and in the present, the most effective fighting forces have been volunteer forces with plenty of quality equipment serving under ingenious leaders.

Abu Ghraib

As I mentioned above, the idea that cruelty is magic has real-world ramifications. I don’t know how much our fiction plays into this, but at the time I couldn’t help but see connections between how torture is portrayed in media and the torture that our government was using in the War on Terror. If you ask professional interrogators, they will tell you that torture does not work, but in fiction it pretty much always does. And we certainly keep returning to that method of truth-seeking.

US Border Policy

Right now United States policy on migration across our southern border boils down to inflicting trauma for no reason other than the belief that if we are cruel enough, it will solve the problems that are sending millions of human beings north. We believe so deeply in the magic of cruelty to solve our problems that we are willing to inflict it on tens of thousands of children, torn from their parents to be starved, sexually abused, given away to new parents; denied soap, toothpaste, medical care, even hugs.

There is something in us that desperately wants to believe in the magic of cruelty.

So What?

I suppose this is me asking fellow creative people to stop using this horrible trope. Cruelty doesn’t give you superpowers, and it doesn’t bring out the truth, and it doesn’t create super-soldiers. The pervasiveness of this trope is such that I can only imagine that it is contributing to our comfort with, and even support for, cruelty in the real world. Art mirrors life mirrors art and so on. I’m asking us to tell harder stories that reflect the truth of trauma – it isn’t magic.

Other Examples: (with thanks to my Facebook friends)

  • Artemis and Drizzt from Salvatore’s novels;
  • the Mord-Sith and Richard from the Sword of Truth/Legend of the Seeker series;
  • Hannah – the movie and the show;
  • the Sardaukar of Dune;
  • Carrie;
  • Ender’s Game;
  • the creation of the Orcs in Middle-Earth, as well as Gollum, and the Nazgul;
  • Batman;
  • Deadpool suffocated until his powers activated;
  • Eleven from Stranger Things;
  • the Maze Runner series;
  • Thanos telling Gamora that what he put her through made her strong;
  • the Kushiel series;
  • Asa Drake’s Bloodsong;
  • Cenobites from Hellraiser;
  • Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake;
  • the Wheel of Time’s Seanchan and damane/Egwene; Goetic magic;
  • Magic the Gathering;
  • Aberrant;
  • Divergent’s Dauntless;
  • Jessica Jones;
  • Game of Thrones’ Sansa;
  • Gundam;
  • the Broken Earth series;
  • Harry Potter’s Death Eaters;
  • Bioshock’s Little Sisters
  • Altered Carbon’s Emissary training, torture sims, etc.