Riffing on ‘The Vast in the Dark’

Charlie Ferguson-Avery’s The Vast In the Dark zine is a treasure, and I highly recommend anyone with an interest in slightly off-beat OSR-adjacent material picks it up. The zine presents itself as being “about exploring dark and alien megastructures of an infinite realm”, and it delivers on that deliciously ominous tease. It’s a toolbox, succinctly written and jam-packed with neat ideas. Only negative? It’s fairly short, and I would love to see more of Charlie’s vision of this fascinating premise.

Setting, mood and tone are important in The Vast In the Dark. Rather than being set in quasi-European castles and dungeon, the Vast is more akin to something from the most feverish and half-mad realms of decayed beauty from the stranger bits of Lovecraft and Ashton-Smith. Unknowable, hostile, yet indifferent, all tinged with Dark Souls-esque ruin and a sense of melancholic dread. The zine packs a punch.

Handy in print too!

It present some variant rules for hexcrawling, exhaustion, generating ruins, inventory management, and so on, all broadly compatible with most OSR systems. It also has rules for what Charlie has termed ‘the Harrowing’, described as “an erosion of memory, drive and desire” that infects those who wander the Vast. It works like this: Each PC writes down five memories that drive their character. Certain events trigger losing one of these memories permanently. When the fifth memory is lost, the PC dies or effectively becomes an NPC, another empty husk of a being left to wander the Vast. It’s brilliant stuff.

Charlie’s Harrowing rules have achieved what I have seen many other game-tinkerers (including myself) have failed to: To mechanize the sense of spiritual dread that pervades so much dark fantasy media. They’ve done it in a way that’s thematic, evocative, unburdensome, and completely in line with OSR design principles. It instantly inspired me to think further on its possibilities.

I can imagine a game where death is inconvenience and not an end, but losing Memories is permanently dangerous. Where danger is as much about the condition of one’s soul and spirit as it is about physical danger. To muse on Charlie’s excellent rules, there might be a way of regaining lost Memories, much as Humanity can be restored in Dark Souls. But it should be a finite resource, dangerous to get hold of – and dropping to 0 hp is listed as something that triggers a loss of Memory…

Perhaps this game takes place in a pseudo-afterlife. The Vast might be a space between life and death, where (to steal from Dark Souls once more “the flow of time itself is convoluted”. The characters aren’t adventurers; they are the Limbo-bound lost souls of adventurers. Adventuring in the Vast is a quest not for riches and glory, but a quest to escape the entropy that withers everything away. The goal is motivated by hope, and that hope is expressed in Memories.

Cool. Chilling, but cool.

Thank you, Charlie, for this spark of brilliance.

Thoughts On Delving, Burning and In-Betweens

My current Burning Wheel campaign is wrapping up, and so we’re discussing what to play afterwards. We still want to play BW, and it was suggested that we could do a ‘Burning OSR’, and take the traditional starting premise of dungeon-delving knaves out for treasure as a springboard for a campaign. This, in a sense, is very much the idea of Torchbearer, which I sadly haven’t played.

Threw a ‘teaser poster’ for the idea together in Affinity.

All this got me thinking about ways to inject some OSR into Burning Wheel and vice versa. A quixotic task. The two systems exist in vastly different spaces, and operate on vastly different mechanical chassis. Creating a character for B/X D&D can be done in minutes; burning a character for BW can take all afternoon. OSR wants you to accept that your character can die any moment; BW tends to make death rare and dramatic. We can compare and contrast until the end of time easily enough.

Yet what both systems share is a sense of struggle. A sense that every decision can and will matter, that consequences (good or bad) will appear based on player agency, and that no reward comes without a cost. We can do a couple of gross simplifications here.

Burning Wheel is a highly character-centric game, and so rewards and obstacles tend to be structured around the emotional lives of the PC’s. They believe Thing A, which is at odds with their loyalty to Thing B, while they are instinctively driven to do Thing C, and so on. The inner struggle is often the most powerful in Burning Wheel. BW is Luke and Vader in the lift before entering the Emperor’s throne room; it is Aragorn agonizing over his shame about his heritage.

OSR gaming tends to be more focused on the physical space and on physical rewards and obstacles. You delve for physical treasure, and while there is obvious psychological elements (and sometimes codified rules) to the whole affair, the drama of OSR stems from how spatial and physical problems are dealt with by the characters. OSR is Indiana Jones running from the rolling boulder; it is Conan attempting to infiltrate the orgiastic rituals of Thulsa Doom.

These two kinds of struggle could, and should, cross-pollinate and inform each other. They do so a bit by default, of course. But can they do so even more, without becoming an awkward attempt to hybridize two systems with very different design intents? No one wants to show up to play Old School Essentials and then be told we’re actually playing Burning Wheel in disguise – and I strongly suspect the reverse to be true as well.

For OSR, I think the answer might lie in emergent context. Whenever there’s a goal reached, or a sacrifice made, or some other powerful decision point, it’s a spotlight on the character(s) making that decision. Ask them about what drove them here. Questions are good, leading questions even better. When the 1st level party returns from their first delve, ask them what keeps them from retiring on the spot with the loot they got. When the fighter almost died and was saved by the last cure spell, what thoughts allowed him to grip unto life? Contextualize the inner life of the character through their physical hardship, and empower the seat-gripping moments with just a bit of extra spice. Hitch unto the dramatic moments rather than the downtime moments for revelation and exploration of characters. It might reveal something cool.

For Burning Wheel, physical obstacles disconnected from the character’s story feel awkward and arbitrary. In the words of one of my players, “There are no random encounter tables in this game”. There aren’t, and that’s for a reason. The opposition to PC’s in Burning Wheel is less interested in the interactive physical specifics, and more in the opposition’s relationship to the PC’s character. But, and this is an important but, a lot of the inspirations for Burning Wheel strongly emphasize the physical hardships as well. BW games can too often over-focus on the inner struggle and emotional sacrifices. The resource management of OSR gaming is enlightening here. Torches are sparse. Food is running low. The rocks are slippery, leading to a great chasm. These are all challenges the heroes of the great tales must face, and there is no reason our BW protagonists shouldn’t either. Do not handwave their rations when they go on an expedition; do not skip over climbing the cliffs so we can get heart-wrenching inner drama; do not let them go through mud and blood without getting their clothes real damned dirty. The struggle should be fair, but it should be a struggle.

Five Beasts from Bosch

Being a collection of OSR monsters statted system-agnostically (but OSE-adjacent), and inspired by the imagery of the magnificent Hieronymus Bosch.

All art from the wikimedia site for Bosch’s art.

Unmourning Harpist

HD 5 AC as chainmail Attack bite +4/1d8

Move 120′ (40′) Morale 7 Alignment Chaotic

The unmourning harpist is a solitary creature possessed of a patient joviality and love of art. It operates by the creed that truth is beauty and beauty truth, and the best art therefore reveals truth. The harpist appears like a gangly-limbed figure clad in brass and a red silk veil, head like the skull of a horse, strumming a sturdy harp, and mounted on something that resembles a featherless goose whose slender neck has been reduced to half length and sports a lamprey-like mouth instead of its proper head. In truth, the two components are a single creature, though their movements suggest rider and mount.

The unmourning harpist seeks out the graves of those who died with unrevealed secrets, favoring hypocrites, liars, frauds and secret-bearers. Its lower mouth consumes the bones of these individuals, and from their essence, the harpist composes a beautiful, sonorous song that extols and reveals every speck of dirt, every hidden bigotry, every unpunished act of crime and hatred, that the person had in life. This brings the harpist immense joy, and it sees strong reactions to these revelations much as a concert musician sees a standing ovation.

The unmourning harpist does not love to fight. It will happily debate the virtues of music, the beauty of death, and the art of disgusting secrets revealed. But it will never willingly fight to the death, and considers martial conflict the purview of other, less musically-inclined beings.

Cathechist of Nefun

HD 3 AC as leather Attack bite +2/1d4 or catechism

Move 60′ (20′) Morale 9 Alignment Chaotic

Nefun is one of countless quasi-demonic, half-dead demigods whose vestigial ethereal form still contains just enough power and spite to keep a few servitors active. His catechists roam the underworld, each of them bound to a book containing the nihilistic and offensive lore of their master. They were formed from the remnants of the cultist that in a forgotten age worshiped Nefun, when he was more than what he is now, yet still less than he desired.

The catechists resemble beast-faced parodies of priests, clutching weighty tomes and each with an open wound revealing glistening bone and organs. They are never silent, always muttering to themselves, complaining about the fundamental absurdity of the universe in grandiose and theological terms. Most of what they say is nonsense, though blasphemous nonetheless.

Catechists of Nefun prey on creatures like goblins, petty elements, lost undead, and anything else with enough intelligence to have religion but not enough reason to withstand obfuscation. Attended by their unhappy retainers, the catechists sermonize and proselytize. They weaponize their discourse if attack, channeling Nefun’s spite into proclamations of negation. Each combat round, they engage in some new topic, rolled randomly.

1d6Catechism
1Litany On The Futility of Love: Within hearing range of this catechism, allies cannot aid one another, give each other cover, or otherwise confer bonuses or benefits to one another in combat.
2Theory on Greater Entropy: With hearing range of this catechism, healing spells and other forms of healing magic instead inflicts damage.
3Psalms of Discord: Within hearing range of this catechism, all spells that are cast get their target assigned randomly.
4Thesis on the Nature of Aggression: When this catechism is spoken, all within hearing range must save or immediately make a free melee attack against nearest target, friendly or otherwise.
5Theological Observations on Divine Capriciousness: When this catechism is spoken, all clerics (and similar types of casters) within hearing range must save or have all their prepared spells replaced by randomly determined new ones.
6Sermon on the Blessings of Greed: When this catechism is spoken, all enemies within hearing range must save or be compelled to shed all valuable treasure off their bodies.

Cyclus Hound

HD 2 AC as leather Attack bite +2/1d6, claw +2/1d6

Move 120′ (40′) Morale 7 Alignment Neutral

Slender, stealthy, hairless rat-canines with cursed mouths. They come in a variety of colors, and tend to hunt in scavenging packs whenever they emerge from baleful places. For though their behavior and modus operandi resembles the common scavenger-predator, the cyclus hounds are different.

The cyclus hounds do not kill. They are incapable of killing. For they are cursed; never shall their bite or claw cause the death of another being. Never shall they murder, never shallthey rob anyone or anything of life.

But that does not keep them from trying. They will gnaw, they will claw, they will howl, they will chew, they will scratch and render and worry. And their prey will feel it all, never perishing, staying alive and in agony throughout.

Furnace Rake

HD 6 AC as plate Attack searing hot staff+5/1d6+2 or spell

Move 60′ (20′) Morale 9 Alignment Chaotic

Furnace rakes desperate wish to be more than they are. They are shrill and petty tyrants drawn to ruins and sites burned by primordial fire, where they set up court in emulation of imperial splendor. Always desperately insistent about their own magnanimity and glory, they exercise preternatural command over fire and creatures of fire.

Each furnace rake carries in its body an ember of an ancient divine fire, stolen from its rightful deity in some forgotten age. This fire provide the furnace rake with their powers, and they can command fire-based creatures like an evil cleric of 16th level commands undead, and they cast spells as a 10th-level cleric. Fire and heat harms them not. They prefer to let their minions (few of which are happy) do any and all dirty work while the furnace rake sits upon their throne and issue shrilly-voiced edicts.

Furnace rakes are far from harmless, though they are susceptible to bribery and flattery. Yet they are temperamental and capricious bullies, often worse friends than enemies. Quick and luxurious gratification will always win over any long-term plans in their bitter, egotistical minds. Were they smarter, more patient, and less prone to despotic excesses, they might be counted among the greater kinds of fiends.

Gebbaling

HD 1 AC as plate Attack spike poke +0/1d6

Move 120′ (40′) Morale 6 Alignment Neutral

Connoisseurs of the underworld’s detritus, gebbalings are drawn to the refuse of battle and excitement. Bits of armor, launched arrow shafts, shattered shields, emptied potion bottles – everything discarded and lost in fights interests these pests, as does anything of unusual but useless nature. A gebbaling appears as an oversized, slightly deformed full helmet supported by a pair of dirty, taloned legs and dragging an awkward, heavy tail. The surface of their helmet is decorated with whatever trash they are currently enamored with. From visor of their helmet sport a cluster of iron-bone spikes, which as they use as weapons and as primitive manipulators to scoop up pieces of treasure-trash.

Gebbalings behave much like oversized rats, and to the denizens of the underworld, they are mostly treated as such. Occasionally they will snatch objects of greater value, and use it to attract a mate. Some gebbalings are known to live symbiotically with underworld societies, acting as guard dogs in exchange for delicious, dirty refuse.

Gebbalings are cowardly creatures, and prefer sneakiness and stealth over a direct fight. They are quick to scamper if threatened. When a gebbaling dies, it vomits forth 1d6 items from the 1d20 list below.

1A brass inkpot.
2The hilt of a broken iron sword.
3A roll of parchment with the hint of once-arcane lettering.
4Half a leather cap.
5A bundle of dirty bandages.
6The skeletons of six goldfish.
7A well-chewed spellbook, ruined but possible to restore with the right tools and dedication.
81d12 Red-brown glass beads each etched with a number between one and sixteen.
9A ceramic mug sculpted to resemble a grinning face.
10An arrow of (random creature type) slaying.
11The blade of a sturdy bronze dagger.
12The skirt of a brigantine with significant claw marks.
13A brass abacus without beads.
14A saliva-drenched mail coif.
15Half an iron pauldron resembling a roaring boar’s head.
16The head of a heavy bronze axe, notched from wear and battle.
17A random 3rd level arcane scroll, kept safe inside a hollowed femur bone.
18A 10-foot long leather string, both ends tattered.
19A leather belt decorated with evenly-spaced brass bells and jingles.
20The tip of an iron spear resembling an angry, pointy-faced mouse.

Local Tech

The equipment section of Stars Without Number Revised mentions briefly that there could easily exist local variants of the listed equipment, or entirely new pieces of techno-goodness. With the skewered, sometimes post-apocalyptic tech distribution of the default SWN assumptions, it seems completely plausible that some worlds, or even sectors, wouldn’t conform entirely to the presented list. Some equipment might be better, some worse, some just a little different, marked by the imperfections of culture, material conditions and production methods that creates them.

One of the appeals of SWN is in its simplicity. So adding new or local variant tech shouldn’t introduce too many subsystems or fiddly rules. For all-out weapon stat orgies, there’s always Shadowrun or Traveller.

With that said, here are some (probably half-baked) ideas for local/sectoral tech variants.

Ariel Perez makes absolutely stunning material sci-fi art. Check out their stuff at https://www.artstation.com/arielp. Ariel Perez 2016.

Bahrami Laser Technology

Laser weaponry in the Bahram Sector relies on ionized prismatic glass (‘prisglass’) to function properly, and the methods of creating this material is restricted to a few production spots. Thus the majority of laser weaponry makes do with less-durable substitutes. Laser weapons with genuine prisglass function as normal, but cost four times as much. Laser weapons that use substitute materials (‘subglass’) have a 1-in-20 chance of malfunctioning every time they fire (5-in-20 chance if using burst fire), requiring at least a Main Action and a Difficulty 8 Fix/Int check to get back in order. A malfunctioning subglass weapon can still fire, but if it malfunctions again, it explodes and deals 2d6 damage to the holder.

Yumati Heat-Suits

The burning world of Yumati demands much of its inhabitants, who labor under its brutal sun and within its searing atmosphere. Vacc suits built on Yumati are adapted to local circumstance. They function as normal vacc suits, with the follow modifications: They include sophisticated cooling technology and highly heat-resistant coating (if relevant, reduce damage from fire-based weaponry by 10). However, they are less adapted for zero-g environments, and the -2 penalty for cumbersomeness always applies.

Renozadan Shock Whips

On the harsh world of Renozad, electronic technology is rare, and often coveted. The shock whip is a weapon created to assist in the capture of such equipment. The resemble somewhat black-blue leather mesh whips with slightly oversized handles, connected to a power package worn on the wielder’s hip. Shock whips function as medium advanced weapons, with the follow modifications: They require a type A power cell (can function for two weeks on one such cell), and when they hit an opponent or when they deal Shock damage, the whip’s wielder can choose to forgo that damage and instead try to neutralize some of the target’s electronics by sending an overcharged electricity burst through the whip. This triggers an Evasion saving throw for the target. On a failure, a random piece of electronic equipment on the target is overcharged and ceases to function for one hour (or until fixed with a difficulty 10 Fix/Int check).

Canis Armor

The iconic armor of the elite commandos of House Lothar, Canis Armor has a great number of non-intrusive embellishments that suggest hound-like jaws, eyes, ears and claws. Canis Armor functions like a standard combat field uniform, but it provides the wearer with enhanced smell roughly equal to that of a trained hunting dog, albeit with a crispy electronic tinge. Canis Armor can usually not be bought on the open market.

Axe-Shield of Kor

The grand arena of Kor on the planet Samanis XI draws spectators from every corner of the sector, eager to see its famed gladiators fight to near-death in the ancient sands of the pits. The axe-shield is the most famous implement of this bloodsport, and resemble wickedly spiked crescents of bronze-colored material. They function as normal shields, but can, as an Instant Action, be changed into an elongated, axe-like weapon – in effect, a large advanced weapon. It takes an Instant Action to change back to shield configuration as well.

Situation Mining: Umbar After Sauron

Judd Karlman established the practice of situation mining: taking ideas and premises from various media and formulating them as potential Burning Wheel campaigns with character ideas, questions, etc. His site is full of great stuff in that regard.

It’s mentioned in Tolkien’s appendices that after the War of the Ring, Near Harad and Umbar are brought under Gondorian rule. I always thought that sounded like a rich environment for a Burning Wheel game. We got a proud city-state with a shady history, whose religion has been revealed to be a sham perpetuated by the dark lord, now without its proud navy, and forced to submit to its hereditary enemy. Excellent campaign fodder. Here’s an attempt at situation mining it.

These ships? Sunk! Fantasy Flight Games 2016.

In the books, we never hear much of Umbar aside from the corsairs. Is it a kingdom? An oligarchy? Perhaps ruled by a council of the grandest corsair lords – whose power base of warships has now been eradicated. Perhaps it is ruled by a puppet prince. How do the Gondorians impose their rule? How do merchants and commoners navigate the new situation? What has happened to the former priests of Sauron? What’s political environment like after the city has been humbled so profoundly? Use the pre-game to answer these questions and fine-tune the Situation.

Potential flashpoints include choosing new leaders, new market opportunities, dealing with underground Sauron-cultists, negotiating the power vacuum left after the war. Tie the Beliefs into volatile, dramatic premises. Umbar is a small enough setting that the political and the domestic go hand in hand – milk it for all its worth! Lean into the themes of injured pride, of dark pasts, of forgiveness, redemption and rebuilding.

Sample Cultural Traits

Culture clash between Umbaran, Gondorian and Haradrim norms could be a central theme. Cultural traits in Burning Wheel don’t mean that every member of the culture actually are this way, but are rather points for how the culture is perceived and sometimes perceives itself.

Umbaran: Aggressive, Mercenary, Swaggering.

Gondorian: Dutiful, Proud, Righteous.

Haradrim: Devout, Merciless, Sharp Dresser.

Burned Up Characters and Belief Prompts

All made using the excellent charred-black online character burner.

Umbaran Ship-Noble

  • Write a Belief about the qualities and worthiness of your house, and how you aim to preserve those in the new age.
  • Write a Belief about something you admire about Gondor, reluctantly or not.
  • Write a Belief about how you need to ensure you get a say in ruling Umbar.

Ex-priest of the Dark Lord

  • Write a Belief about the connections you still have with the Dark Lord’s loyalists.
  • Write a Belief about someone you need to ally with and offer your services to.
  • Write a Belief about what you gave up to serve the Dark Lord, and how you now wish to reclaim it.

Good excuse to use the ‘Faith in Dead Gods’ rules from the Codex.

Gondorian Envoy

  • Write a Belief about some public or governance project in Umbar you wish to realize.
  • Write a Belief about your home’s history with corsair attacks.
  • Write a Belief about the pressures and demands from the crown of Gondor and how they affect you.

Haradrim Merchant

  • Write a Belief about how your business can benefit from setting up shop in Umbar.
  • Write a Belief about what you lost in the War of the Ring and how Sauron’s lieutenants subverted your home.
  • Write a Belief about some clandestine trade deal you have a part in.

Put the Fear of Gob In Them

Battle Brothers is a 2015 video game about leading a mercenary company in a dark fantasy world with a deliciously and balefully old-school, no-mercy, gritty sensibility. And, amazingly, it manages to make a positively terrifying foe out of the humble goblin. Why? Because its goblins fight dirty, they fight smart, and they fight like cowards. They use every trick in the book: poison, traps, immobilizing attacks. It’s all very Tucker’s Kobolds.

Good stuff. Let’s use it.


Let’s try and formulate a vision of goblins taking cues from Battle Brothers but usable at the OSR table. Rather than think of a goblin encounter as a cluster of discrete NPC’s, we can think of it as a situation, an obstacle to overcome. A form of elaborate trap, even. That means we need to keep in mind how to do traps well. Poorly executed traps tend to come across as cheap and as untelegraphed, and very often the problem is a lack of hints and a lack of meaningful ways of interacting with the trap.

The first issue is solvable. Goblins mark their territory. You won’t mistake a goblin-held piece of wilderness for anything else. Bones arranged in warning beacons. The smell of wolf spoor. Wicked runes etched on stones and trees. Goblin country lets you know you’ve entered it.

Goblin territory is peppered with traps and unpleasant surprises. Roll a d6 1d4+1 times below to see what surprises the goblins have laid out.

1Bear trap. If it snaps, 1d8 damage and 50% chance of losing a leg, 50% chance of getting stuck between wicked iron jaws. Clue: Discreetly arranged pile of leaves in an open space, hiding the trap.
2Net trap. Return of the Jedi style. Step on the right place in front of the big tree, and the ground lifts up and catches you in a hanging net. Clue: The vegetation on the patch of grounds looks beaten.
3Tripwire. Hidden among some low scrub. Unless detected, characters will be tripped over when moving across the patch. Clue: None of the local animals move across the spot.
4False corpse. Remains of an expired adventurer clutching what looks like a bag of coin. When opened, the bag explodes into a pale and lung-hostile coughing powder. Clue: The arsenic-white, goblin-shaped handprints and splotches on the corpse’s clothes.
5Poisoned spring. A picturesque natural spring with clear, clean-looking water. Actually poisoned; each hours induces 1d4 liver-rending damage on a failed save, or a level of exhaustion (depending on your system). Clue: The number of dead squirrels, birds and other wildlife in the high grass around the spring.
6Fire ant honey. A naturally-occurring substance that’s delicious to certain species of ants; the goblins smear this stuff on the leaves of ferns and other large-leafed plants that intruders are likely to pass. Ants are attracted, and cause considerable irritation and non-lethal pain. Clue: The colony of fire ants close to the ferns, making expeditions to retrieve their sweet prize.

Each trap overcome brings the character’s closer and closer to defeating the goblins. The goblins, after all, won’t take a fight they’re likely to lose, and assuming the PC’s are keeping eyes and ears open, the chances of the goblins getting the jump on them are slim.

Any trap that successfully activates triggers a goblin attack, as they capitalize on the momentary weakness. Run combat as normal, but the goblins use bastard tactics – most notably, they coat their little arrowheads in poison.

FingerfreezeSave or fingers begin to stiffen and freeze; hands rendered useless for 1d6 minutes.
GibberSave or be unable to enunciate anything but gibberish for 1d4 rounds. Hated by spellcasters.
FeverknockSave or be unable to sleep or rest properly because of feverish symptoms, lasting until cured by healing means.
ColorbooSave or see the world in black-and-white for 1d10 minutes.
NopotionSave or be unable to process potions for 1d4 hours; any potion consumed induces nothing but gagging.
Garnach ExtractSave or begin to swell like a balloon. Makes movement cumbersome, and induces 1d2 damage for each round where rigid armor is worn.

If the PCs avoid getting poisoned and put up a fight, the goblins retreat. Any goblins they down should be counted against the original number of goblins defending the territory.

When all traps/obstacles are overcome and the PC’s push on, the goblins make a last-ditch attempt at repelling the invaders. They probably bring a couple of dire wolflings, or throw some enraged badgers at the characters, or other general nastiness. But they do it at their last possible ambush site. If the PC’s get the drop on the goblins, they’ve earned it fair and square.

In the final struggle, the goblins will retreat as soon as defeat seems inevitable, or as soon as their own life is at stake. Remember, goblins are cowards; they want to live, and the best way to live is avoid a fight you can’t win.

If the PC’s win the last fight, either by sheer grit or by outmaneuvering the goblins, they’ve won. Yay! There’s probably some cool loot in the goblin lair. Surviving goblins retreat and make for other holds. But for now, the forest is safe. For now.

To summarize: Present the goblins as a situation. Present a series of traps and obstacles; sprinkle in some attempted ambushes. Have the goblins fight dirty, draining the party’s resources and testing their mettle. Build towards a final ambush. Play it out. Let the PC’s jockey for advantage against the goblins. If they win, let them savor it.

Just One Prop

I am currently running a game of Stars Without Number Revised and pilfering liberally from various Traveller modules and materials along the way. Most notably, the premise of the game revolves around the players being granted a ship and a letter of marque by a space-duke in a kickoff stolen from the magnificent Pirates of Drinax sandbox campaign from Mongoose. Obviously, they needed a sheet for their ship and their cargo, and obviously they needed to sign the letter of marque. Because of deliberately retrograde technology in certain areas of the campaign setting, letters of marque are still written and signed in ink by hand. I figured it’d make a fun opening scene to have them physically sign this scrap of paper containing the promise of riches and glory. Thus I made a mock-up of the letter, complete with the ducal coat of arms and lingo purloined from a historical source, and after the players had negotiated with the duke, I plopped it in front of them.

The actual signing of the letter took mere minutes, and purely functionally, we never strictly needed that piece of paper again. The text had been copied, and we all knew what had taken place in the fiction, after all. But they kept it, and ever since, the Letter of Marque has been sitting on the table, displaying the duke’s heraldry and the terms of his patronage. It’s become a part of the table setup, treated with the same respect and carefulness as a finely scribbled character sheet or map poster.


It’s easy, far too easy, to overburden players with physical handouts. I’ve learned this lesson bitterly. Props, including pieces of paper, tend to lose their efficacy when the table’s oversaturated with them, or when they genuinely superfluous or, at worst, distracting. So economize. If you want a prop, particularly if it’s a physical prop, make it just one, and make it count. ‘Adventurers Wanted’ notices from the local billboards are a dime a dozen and likely obsolete a few sessions later.

Letters of marque. The deed to a castle that’s the catalyst for the story. The bestiary they’re tasked to expand and revise. A blank hex map, begging to be filled. Something that’s tactile without constantly intruding. Something that can be glanced at for an immediate reminder of the campaign’s premise, something the player characters have a relationship with. My players might continue to serve their ducal patron – or they may join a court intrigue against him. Or they might defect. Or seek legal release from the agreement. I don’t know yet, which feels awesome.

But whatever the players choose to do, it’ll inform their relationship with and perception of that humble scrap of paper.

Starting a blog

It’s done, finally. Hi. I’m TK, and by some accident you’ve stumbled upon my blog about gaming, stories, roleplaying, wargames, fantasy, science fiction, and sundry subjects. I hope to update this semi-regularly. But most of all, I hope there’s something here you can use at your own table.