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


A Fantastic Therapist

I don’t even remember the context of the conversation I was having, but I was talking with my friend Jack via Facebook messenger a couple of weeks ago, and as part of the conversation, he said “I’m a fantastic therapist.”

Knowing Jack, I don’t have any reason to doubt him, or think it was just empty bravado. He’s an accomplished therapist who is doing great work in his field. I’ve heard him describe how he works, and he does sound fantastic. Getting to know him, it is quickly clear that he is very good at what he does, and loves what he does.

What struck me was that he said it, just like that. Creative people, and/or people in my social circles, are so often haunted by imposter syndrome and self-doubt. This ranges from beginners, who might have reason to doubt but who shouldn’t let that stop them, all the way to incredibly accomplished and skilled individuals – people who might be better at what they do than I am at anything.

We spend so much time rehearsing and repeating how we are inadequate and not up to the challenges we face, or only get where we are through luck, or whatever. It is what is expected of us, what we expect of each other. To hear something else is jarring.

My friend Jack is a fantastic therapist, and he simply said so in a matter-of-fact way. It was a weirdly radical act, surrounded as I am by fellow self-doubters and imposters.

At what point, when one of us is good at something, do we just say “I am good at this thing” and leave it at that? Why does that seem like such a huge thing to say?

Save Against Fear 2018: Aftermath

This year, Save Against Fear was awesome. For me, it was just 3 solid days of happiness. Possibly the best convention experience I’ve ever had. I hope it was good for everyone else there, too. Folks looked happy, and I saw a number of people just walk in from the Mall and check out what was going on. (One way to tell – Save folks are almost all white, so when I saw POC there I was pretty sure they were walk-ins, and it was great to see them)


I got there bright and early to run Satanic Panic in the first slot of the con. It was a ton of fun, and I really like some things about the system. It does what it does very well, I think, even for a playtest version of the full game, which is all I had. The game isn’t about whether you succeed or fail at using skills, but rather about whether you can manage your collateral damage and the amount of panic that you cause in the community. The players had tactical decisions to make.

The main challenge for me, as Game Master, was dealing with the fact that there are no skill rolls. The agents always succeed if it is within reason. So I had to tamp down my instinct to call for rolls and just decide what happens next. It was good, though, and I remembered that I enjoy a mechanic in games that lets you succeed without rolling, both as a player and as a GM. I’d just never run a game where that was the only mechanic.

For players, I had two game designers and one woman who had never played a tabletop RPG before. She actually came to the table thinking it would be a panel discussion or presentation on the history of the Satanic Panic, but she stayed to game and did a fantastic job.

Next, after cramming some Subway into my gullet, I jumped into a Pugmire game with Eddie Webb! Basically, it was a refurbished version of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the 1980 D&D module, which is a great fit for Pugmire. The game was fun – everyone brought their best, I think, and we apparently bypassed all of the main threats (accidentally) and then rolled a natural 20 at the end of the scenario. In essence, we defeated the Barrier Peaks. Pwned.


Once again I woke up early and drove out to Harrisburg Mall so that I could play in Barak Blackburn’s Retrostar game, “Galactic Run 83.” This was actually a game put together by Jack Berkenstock so that he could play with his friends all at the same time. The game is simple, but was a ton of fun, mostly because of the work that Barak put into the scenario. It is the first game I’ve played that included a puppet as one player-character, and the character sheets were cassette tape inserts complete with a character soundtrack on the tape. Baller.

In the middle of the day, I facilitated our Game Designer’s Panel, which was recorded so that perhaps someday you could enjoy it as well. It featured Joseph “Bear” Thompson, Rich Thomas, Eddie Webb, Doug Levandowski, and Barak Blackburn.

I got to play in a game of Kids On Bikes with the designer, Doug Levandowski. It was another very fun scenario, featuring the curse of Hamlet and more than one punch to the nards.


The third day of Save was quieter, but I got to play in a playtest of the Critical Strengths Engine. In brief, it is a RPG being designed for therapeutic use from the ground up, and Jack ran a Pugmire scenario for me and four therapists. We gave some recorded feedback and filled out forms and handed our materials back in. I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about, so I won’t, but it did motivate me to work on some new RPG projects for The Bodhana Group. With any luck, you’ll be seeing those sometime in the future.

Save Against Fear 2018

The time has come once again for Save Against Fear, the fundraiser convention that we run to support The Bodhana Group.

I love TBG, and I’m proud to serve on the board and support them however I can. In case you don’t know – The Bodhana Group uses games in therapy, primarily with children and youth who struggle with mental illness, Autism Spectrum Disorder, grief and other socio-emotional challenges. We are working on multiple games, research projects to put rigorous data behind what we do, and are running multiple groups in collaboration with care providers in the York, PA area.

Save Against Fear is an awesome, small, local convention held in Harrisburg PA. The schedule is flush with games, including multiple opportunities to game with game designers like Eddie Webb, Doug Levandowski and Jason Godeski among others. I think we’ll actually have six or seven designers in total, running their games. We also have plenty of Pathfinder Society games, board games, a game auction, and a huge collection of games that you can sign out and play.

I will be running Satanic Panic for a full table, and I will also be moderating our Game Designer’s Panel which should be a blast.

I know, this is basically a commercial for Save Against Fear, but if I can only go to one convention in a given year, this is the one I attend. It’s fun on its own terms, and in addition raises money for a good cause. Pretty much everyone you meet there will be awesome, because a nonprofit that uses games to heal children attracts some special folks, as you’d expect.

Maybe I’ll see you there this weekend.

Origins 2018

The Origins of Goodman Games|Goodman Games

Clockwork: Dominion

Reliquary Game Studios was in full effect at Origins 2018 – I knew because they are my friends from college 20 years ago and are still my friends today. They had a booth, shared with Fearlight Games, and a demo room that they also shared.

Clockwork: Dominion is a game I have demoed for them before, and I likely will get roped into demoing it again. I edited the core rulebook and Quick Start Guide back in the day, and helped them set up their Kickstarter campaign. It is a great game, and is the only Victorian game I would actually play (and certainly the only one I’d ever run). I’m not a huge fan of Victoriana, but the game is that good.

The Quest for Overlight

There were plenty of issues with events at Origins, which ins in my limited experience not new. For example, the location listed for demos of Overlight by Renegade Game Studios was not only incorrect but maybe a third of a mile or more away from the actual location. Fortunately I was still able to find my way to the demo room and play some Overlight.

The setting is interesting; the art is beautiful. The system…is probably in a final phase, but it made me wish they had refined it earlier in the process. The main issue is that there are two full resolution mechanics, one that is similar to Savage Worlds without a Wild Die and the other that was a target-number dice-pool system. This is just a needless problem – one or the other could have been cut, and honestly needs to be cut from my point of view. It’s as if in D&D you rolled a d20 for half of your tests, and then for the other half used a percentile system.

Oh wait, that’s what D&D was until…4th Edition, to varying degrees. But it was never good game design, and it still isn’t. The guy running the demo was nice and did a good job, but I don’t think I’d be able to get past the parallel resolution mechanics to play the game on my own.

Kids on Bikes

Kids on Bikes is a really fun game, also by Renegade. The killer app is definitely setting creation and character creation – they smoothly tie in blank space for creativity, leading questions about the other characters, and the charaters’ hobbies and fears. The tropes you choose from for your characters make sense, and I like that though the game is Kids On Bikes, you can play kids, adolescents, and adults all together.

We didn’t engage the powered character rules, but I like the options there as described to me by the demo person after our session. You can play the powered friend (Eleven, E.T., etc.) as a character who is shared by all of the players at different times (Maybe E.T.), or as one of the player-characters (Eleven), or you can not include a powered character at all (Stand By Me), or all of the characters can have powers (Supers School). You can build the powered character, or you can use a deck that they sell to draw powers and character traits randomly.

The significant flaw I perceived was with the resolution system. It is very much like Savage Worlds without the Wild Die – roll a die, and all dice potentially explode. D4 if you are bad at a thing, up to d20 if you are great at it. (All six tropes use one each of all six common die types, so everyone has a d4 and a d20 to start) The problem comes with the fact that you roll against a target number set by the GM, and it is very difficult to map, or intuit, the probability with this dice system. It is, for example, much mroe likely that a d4 will explode than a d20, but the d4 lets you roll up to an 8 and the d20 up to a 40.

In brief, you get very swingy results, and our game included difficulties from 5 to 20, which I think is too wide a range. Honestly, I might even end up hacking the dice system, or not going with the guidelines for difficulty in the book (if those were being used correctly in the demo). The nice thing is that the system is simple and clean, so you can probably hack it readily and get on with what is a very fun game. (And when you fail you get Adversity tokens, so maybe the swingy difficulties are a way to build those up? I’d have to play more than one demo to know.)

More Refurbished, Less Art

It’s been about 6 years since I was last at Origins, and since then the whole convention center has undergone an overhaul. More public art (by actual artists – there are touch screens where you can learn about their work) and far more plugs make the whole thing a lot more comfortable for someone like…everyone at Origins. A disappointing difference between this time and 6 years ago (or 11 years ago) is that there seemed to be fewer artists and less art. The last time I was there, a whole hallway was dedicated to artists and their work. Now it was just a smal corner of the dealer hall. I can only speculate on why this is – and to be clear, the artists who were there had a lot of excellent work on display.

Soul Food in Linden

I got to have some legit soul food at an African-American Cultural Arts Center in Linden, across the street from a Nation of Islam funeral home. The food was great, and it was about as far as you can get from Origins culturally while staying in the city of Columbus. A nice break, despite the heat.

Hiding In Starbucks

To be fair, I did a good amount of hiding near coffee at this convention, and it helped me deal with being over-stimulated and anxious as I am at events like this (combined with the parts that are genuinely fun). Right now I am just trying to build up some resolve to go talk to the very friendly Renegade Games demo team about whether the designers are interested in making a connection with The Bodhana Group. (Yesterday my friend the Executive Director gently reminded me that I am on the freaking Board after all)

Heroes and Villains

An unintentionally kind of intimate seminar with Michael A. Stackpole and [person’s name and background here] with only a handful of people there, so it was kind of intimate. We got to ask whatever we wanted. It as a bunch of solid writing advice from two very solid professionals, but it made me wonder as I nodded my head – am I at the point where I know this stuff? I think I might be. What I need to do, that I am not doing, is try my hand at some more actual fiction. Nothing they said surprised me, and it was all things I have heard from writers before. Not that it was run-of-the-mill, I’ve just listened to a LOT of writers and editors talk about their work and process. But did I, like, level?

Video Game Room

Some folks here at the convention are happy about the video game room. It is a darkened room set aside with huge screens and video games you can play on those screens. You just walk in and sign up and play. You might even just watch, or take a nap, or whatever, and it could easily double as a quiet room for people who are somewhat over-stimulated by this whole convention thing.

It gave me the idea that The Bodhana Group might be able to host a quiet room for folks at Origins 2019. I think it’s a good option to have – necessary for some people, and when we’re talking about thousands of con attendees, “some” is a lot.

Pathfinder 2nd Edition

I got to sit in on the demo scenario for  the current iteration of Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Overall, it is still very much Pathfinder, and it seems like they are taking this opportunity to clean up some of the rules, simplify a few things, and take feats that everyone always takes (Improved Initiative for example, or Precise Shot for archers) and just make them class abilities. Some observations, presented as bullet-points:

  • Increased hit points at level 1. My 1st level goblin alchemist had 15 hit points (Constitution 12 I believe)
    • Speaking of which, goblins are a core race and alchemist is a core class. We had a fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue, and an alchemist. Other tables with 6 players had another character – I’m not sure whom. Except for Fumbus, the new iconic goblin alchemist, the familiar iconics were the pre-gen characters
  • Skills and attacks seem to be ability score bonus + level. I couldn’t tell if it was just that, or if skill points had been spent
  • Fighters can fiddle with shields (and so can wizards who cast shield) by raising or lowering them to provide more cover in a fight
  • Only fighters get attacks of opportunity, which is GREAT, because I really detest attacks of opportunity. It’s just an onerous movement tax in combat that slows down everything and adds nothing and doesn’t make sense in a fight
  • Play is split into “modes” – exploration mode and combat mode. Exploration mode is open, skill-based, etc., and combat mode begins when you roll initiative. A little video-game-y but makes sense and formalizes something that’s always there
    • Your initiative roll is based on what you were doing when the fight started – many of us rolled Perception and the rogue rolled Stealth for initiative
  • Some weapons are “deadly”, meaning they add an additional die to critical damage rolls
  • Critical successes are always 10 over the target number, and apply to skill rolls as well as attacks, and critical failures are always 10 below the target number
  • You get 3 actions per turn, and can make 3 attacks if you don’t move. The second attack is made at -5 and the third at -10, making critical failures much more likely as you go. Still, some third attacks still landed for our 1st level characters against zombies
  • I was watching the numbers, and vulnerabilities are more common. Zombies are vulnerable to slashing, and took 5 additional damage from any slashing attack. Skeletons were resistant to fire, so resistances might be a bit more common as well
  • Speaking of skeletons and zombies, they had much more hit points than normal as well, based on how much we had to pummel them to bring them down
  • Spells take up to 3 actions to cast, and they take 1 action per component required – verbal, somatic, material.
    • For example, the cleric could cure light wounds with 1 action, or cure light wounds 30 feet away for 2 actions, or channel energy for 3 actions, dealing 4 damage to all undead and healing 4 for all living things in a 30′ radius. Undead had to save and if they failed they took 8 damage
    • Same with magic missile – the wizard could send up to 3 magic missiles, 1 per action spent casting, and I imagine other spells scale up as well

And just assume that if I didn’t mention something, it didn’t catch my attention (we weren’t allowed to have our phones out during the demo and agreed not to try to take pictures) or it hasn’t changed. For example, the three saves seem unchanged, and your second diagonal step still counts as 10 feet on the battle map.


For me personally, it seems to be much better, and more enjoyable, to have a loose schedule that is mostly free time. I can do things like have three hour conversations with my friends, and jump in on demos if they interest me, or just sit near a a plug and write (as I am doing now). Origins is a good convention for this method, though I would somewhat prefer the greater numbers of artists and writers in the past combined with the greater numbers of seats and plugs now. Maybe that’s the future of Origins?

The Bodhana Group is looking at attending Origins in 2019 and having a presence there to talk about therapeutic gaming. We need to figure out what this presence will be – a booth? Table? Games? Seminars? The nice thing about Origins is that it is a much more local convention than GenCon – I see people here I recognize from 2007 and 2012 when I’ve been here in the past. Lots of folks from OH and the adjacent states, from what I can tell. This means that we can attend once, or maybe periodically, but don’t necessarily have to be here each year in order to have a Bodhana presence.

Epilogue: Be A New DM

My friend Wendy is thinking of DMing for the first time. She’s been playing D&D for years and is familiar with a number of twitch/streaming D&D folks. She was at Origins playing Adventurer’s League and going to seminars for new DMs.

Folks: be the new DM. DM for your friends. As long as everyone at the table is being nice and trying to have fun, you almost cannot fail, and you will never become great at it until you practice a lot. Running a game is the most fun way to engage with it. At least that’s my experience.

Save Against Fear

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This weekend, starting Friday, I will be attending Save Against Fear, the gaming convention and fundraiser hosted each year by The Bodhana Group. TL;DR: The Bodhana Group uses tabletop games in therapy. They are awesome. 

I’m going to be running two RPG sessions myself: Arcade Showdown on Friday at 12:30pm and then The Long Night on Saturday on 4:30pm. I will also be moderating the Game Designers Interactive Panel at 2:30pm on Saturday, which should be fun.

Sunday is my day to actually get some playing in, and I’m signed up for Fifth World – The Monster and then ending things off with Retrostar run by Jack Berkenstock Jr. himself.

If you are not going to be at Save Against Fear this year, you have made a terrible mistake. But it’s not too late! You can still register, or get your badge at the door. There are still slots in the games I’m running and, I believe, in the games I’ll be playing, as well as lots of other games. We’ll have our first celebrity guest, Martin Klebba, and you will meet a lot of great people who are not only huge gaming nerds but are also huge gaming nerds who are using their games to make people’s lives better.

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