More about that Planarch Codex game

(Here’s an overview of the game in question: “Wandering Through Dis”. Here’s a link to my materials, including the opening “love letter”.)

My opening pitch explaining the full lineage of the game by throwing every physical book I had on the table in a stack – D&D, Dungeon World (DW), World of Dungeons (WoD), the Planarch Codex, Invisible Cities –  upon a table that was already burgeoning and over-full with dice, a noteboard, markers, dice, character sheets, and index cards. It was quite a sight.

I then explained the concept of Dis – how it was an extraplanar city consuming all planes of existence – gave them a sense that this would be rather improvisational anthropunk fantasy, and shared the letter to the freebooters (page 1 from the materials above). I emphasized about how I had no idea what most of the bolded terms meant exactly.

I decided to go with World of Dungeons, augmented with DW basic moves (but incorporating my “HR Manual of the Planes” project). The character creation process was:

1. Roll your level and stats as normal. (I offered 10 XP if they rolled their stats in order. Everyone took it.)

2. Pick your heritage, using one or more monsters as a base. I offered the one-shot list of monsters, but also offered to provide a random monster if asked from DW (hence the mammodon and nirvana wasp).

3. I told them to ignore skills, and dealt out my careers from “HR Manuals of the Planes” (page 4 of my materials). Everyone got two classes and chose 1. They then picked two of the WoD Special Abilities.

4. They went shopping and did everything else for character creation.
4a. (we had a very difficult time with hit points and hit dice and shall say no more of the matter)

In addition to the initial “love letter”, I had some pre-gen jobs from someone else’s blog, and started the players by asking which of 4 jobs did they first take to get in trouble with the Wanderers in the first place. We did some rough jump cuts through that first job (perhaps too rough? but it worked out). I think my letter was framing things too hard, because it turned out they didn’t quite have debt with the Wanderers after all, and merely in a contract with them. The subsequent job was done more or less normally, scene-to-scene, and that worked great. We didn’t end up leaving Dis unfortunately – I should push more jobs out onto the planes.

I took the “everything is a dungeon” prompt as a direction to use these pseudomorph dice to generate a map of the spaces they enter, but then this created a moment where we neated to stop and draw out any map. But that’s fine? I think there’s a good question of whether it’s better to keep things narrated, or to seize upon tokens + a drawn map. I feel like having the time wizard’s dorm be a weird cave formation was funky, but also nicely unique.

I did what I often do when MCing games like Dungeon World, which is slipping into raw improv/response instead of a pure agenda/principles/moves mode. The game’s high-improv nature was a bit exhausting. I’m interested in playing a slower-paced non-one-shot game, and perhaps getting better at leveraging the agenda/principles/moves more. (I totally need to make myself a DM Screen to put all the relevant agenda/principles/moves in one spot.)

I’m interested in “HR Manuals of the Planes” as a concept – it just makes more sense to me that there are weird careers across the planes? – and people liked the ones I handed out. I wonder how to better unify the “3 character abilities” that were part of character creation. Some ideas:

  • Perhaps these should work as simply as Heritage Moves, rather than being their own class-style moves?
  • Will having 3 moves be too many?
  • Can I reuse spell as a kind of alternate character moves?
  • Do I want to keep some common “adventurer” moves, like the ones in World of Dungeons? This implies that people have moved on from their past experiences to accommodate life as a Freebooter of Dis.

I’m also wondering if I prefer the WoD or DW part of the spectrum. There seems to be a lot of fluidity around the WoD moves and options (by design?), but I might prefer some of the abstraction and concreteness around the DW approach. If I pick one, then I can make XP be a bit more coherent.

Planarch Codex at Dreamation 2014: Wandering Through Dis

I wanted to talk about my great Dreamation 2014 Planarch Codex game, which was just excellent. (Context: Planarch Codex is a setting-hack for planar exploration, designed for use with Dungeon World or its lightweight/retro spinoff, World of Dungeons. Planarch Codex tries to push some boundaries of weirdness while being inspired by Calvino and globalization and other stuff.)

Dear shameless freebooter scum: The Wanderers are after you! Perhaps you can lose them in the Silverscream Heights or West Hollowtown, or find valued assets in the Tetraphylactery of Mirths, or obscure weapons left upon the Nightforge, or find a helpful post-deity at Jakabi’s Gilded Echohall, or perhaps just pay them the thousand pounds of debt (half in crystal, half in fleshbone) that you owe them in the first place.

This band of freebooters was: mammodon, ratfolk-doppleganger, djinn-doppleganger, djinn-vampire, nirvana wasp, and this human (SO WEIRD) with an embedded demoneye (oh ok). It was determined that their first, troublesome job was attempting to destroy an artifact in an arcane wizard’s tower. We handled that job with some quick cutting (through the setup, an early phase, and a critical moment), and then handled the next job in a more organic way.

The players were fantastic! I don’t think any of them are in my G+ circles but I hope they’ll find this post so that I can thank them again! A few folks had specific Dungeon World / World of Dungeons experience, which helped greatly, and everyone helped roll with the improvisational nature of things. At the end of four hours of hard and raucous improvisation, I was utterly exhausted and quite pleased.

Instead of a full recap, I’ll provide just a few moments:

– the ratfolk frustratedly bargaining with Arcane Rats of the arcane tower, who tend to talk kinda like historical re-enactors
– the wanderers: creepy slendermen who appear from shadows with contracts and just want friends
– (a helpful player who knew when to jump up and a sign contract (in character) to keep the plot going forward. thanks!)
– using a mammodon move – TRAMPLE – bust through the wall on the fourth floor, tumbling to the water below. At least it’s an escape?
– forlorn dolphins that just got assimilated into dis, and needed to fast-evolve legs to find work
– oops, both your exes look identical and one of them is the waiter at this bar
– nirvana wasp dream venom + djinn dream power = see almost any place, but at a cost
– Caul the nervous, untrained mammodon time wizard whose only AMAZING ABILITIES were the ability to determine the time and the ability to determine the age of a given object in its current form
– otherwise he was SOL because he was being hunted by other time wizards using time-travel-hax to repeatedly kill him
– wait did you just give the wanderers a time wizard

Seriously, the time wizard nonsense is too good to not reuse.

In my next post, I’ll go into more fiddly details how the session came together procedurally.

[spacerpunk] AP with my friends WOO

I played session 2 of a spacerpunk series with my close friends who I game with. (Which reminds me: gaming with close local friends is awesome.) So, I had a great time. Whether this game ever makes it into some externally-recognized/finished state, I’m glad I’ve got to play out this creative vision with folks I like.

So far, the gameplay seems to fit what I had in mind! This is probably primarily because I keep pushing my vision as GM and because my patient friends have figured out enough of my genre references to see where I’m going. Hopefully, the setting fluff and random plot tables are also helping capture that essence.

And the march of the resolution system goes on: so far, the rate of Complications arising has been pleasant. I’m still keeping a watch on the general resolution mechanic (10+ on 2d6) and on my various subsystems (such as: travel) to see if I’m still a fan.

Yay for space.

[spacerpunk] and Traveller

When I hung out with the SGB crew, I played some Traveller and joked about their inevitable co-evolution. (Both now feature a 2d6 mechanic, random charts and world generation, and sandboxy play.)

In the session, my noble diplomat hotboxed the engineering room with a priestess and tried to get our veteran mech soldier to loosen up. I realized, partway through, that I was letting spacerpunk aesthetics impact my traveller play. Win!

Free Tyr: new version + Actual Play

I’ve released a new version of my “Free Tyr” adventure framework for Dark Sun. It presumes some familiarity with the world of Athas, and expects the use of D&D 4E (but can easily be adapted to other games).

The hook is this: the tyrant Sorcerer King of Tyr, Kalak, has been killed. The situation in Tyr is changing by the hour, and the characters must make the most of it to determine the fate of Free Tyr.

What I like about it: it’s a condensed sandbox scenario with a big kicker and plenty of time pressure on the characters. There’s random tables and encounter suggestions to help with DMs with improvising the events of the adventure. I’m interested in using the timeline sheets to allow multiple playthroughs and continually shift the timeline of what happens in the first 72 hours of Free Tyr.

I played once at GenCon with some friends from the Design Matters booth, and it was nearly ideal for a D&D experience that was improvisational while still having the fun tactical challenges of 4E.

The group was two nobles (an aloof Veiled Alliance sorcerer and a rebellious Adept ardent), with their Thri-Kreen battlemind friend who had recently escaped the life of a gladiator. As the city erupts in the wake of Kalak’s death, the party defends bystanders from Templar attacks, run through the city to check up on their friends, and become involved in an insurrection in the Brickyards. There were some good character moments: the Battlemind remembers his past and convinces his friends to aid in the insurrection, and the rebellious ardent leaves her father to commit an act of class treachery. There was plenty of stunting – chasing guards into the maw of an ankheg, ambushing of some hapless guards, knocking kank riders into fragile guard tower built over several fire braziers.

It was also neat to see some of the Dark Sun mechanics some into play. The sorcerer was successfully tempted into using the Arcane Defiling after a failed Daily (rather easily, in fact); there was some awkward glances between me and his sister. Meanwhile, I perhaps oversold the Reckless Breakage rule. The Ardent’s game went something like this:

Encounter 1: Rolls reckless breakage on her metal spear. Breaks it. Fights with fists for a while, then picks up another metal spear from a dead Templar. Breaks it. She finds a obsidian spear after the fight.

RP scene: “My daughter, as your Noble father, I cannot help you liberate the Brickyards. But take this: the magical metal Spear that is a metaphor for both our relationship and the fate of our Noble house.”

Encounter 2: (eh, blazing starfall + minions + strategery = let’s skip this encounter)

Encounter 3: Rolls reckless breakage on her ancestral metal spear. Breaks it. (Meanwhile, the Battlemind rolls Reckless Breakage for the first time and crits a templar. I imagine him basically pumping his weapon in the air like “WHO’S THE PSIONIC DEFENDER AND HAS FOUR ARMS? THIS GUY!”)

The ardent would probably not be using Reckless Breakage for a long while, but her game was also a decent string of badassery. Did I mention the psionic punching because she broke her spear on someone’s face? Yes.

[Blowback] A Member of the Constablery

(Note: Blowback is a game of spies and relationships.)

At GenCon Games on Demand, I ran two games of Blowback, both with the “New Orleans” job dossier. The first game was imperfect, since I was still reading through the rules. After some time to reread and asking some questions of the author, I felt more prepared for the second game. I was also inspired to give the group a taste of the long-term mechanics that happen when you run through multiple jobs. My plan: sprint through the three phases of a previous job – Analysis, Operation, Blowback – to give them a basic feel for how that structure works, and to set up some forward momentum for the main job.

It turns out that the original botched job – the one that stranded the spies in the city – was a good fit for this. I began with a few Analysis rolls: “this is how you do it Without Incident, now you’re Going For Broke, and notice that you’re using up your Nerve”. I then fast-forwarded to some choice Operation rolls: “See how we’re using the prep dice? [boom] See how we’re improvising a new plan now, without said dice?”

I then suggested some extra stress that the group would have taken on in the course of a job, taking us right into Blowback where the group’s previous stresses turn into changed relationships. In about 15 minutes time, this was a good bit of improvisational warmup and set up some basic relationships to play upon in the job proper.

And so, we entered the Analysis phase for a new job: a Justice Seeker taking on a corrupt cop, and of course this wasn’t the whole story. I immediately ensnared a Civilian with a sympathetic approach from the Client, and made sure to keep up the personal pressure on the character.

The title of the post comes from a great scene from the Analsyis phase. A Provocateur specialist set up a meeting with a crooked cop, posing as a very Southern, very aristocratic mobster. “And sir, with my business interests being what they are, I thought it would be to my advantage to speak with a member of the constablery.”

We laughed, but this was also a great setup for the character. Later, under interrogation, this character “broke down” and revealed his “real accent” (which we knew was just another faked accent). Moments later, once he was rescued and the tables were turned, he was now speaking in his own, real accent, spoken with the urgency of a professional spy with no further time to waste on pleasantries.

Other events from our game: a driven reporter actually participates in bugging a cop’s office, and likes getting in over her head; a young child listens in on a planted bug as her brother reveals his crimes; the operatives rescue each other a few times over; a mafia mook is more or less kicked through a Starbucks window in order to “send a message”; a corrupt cop turns the gun on himself, with the reporters live cameras rolling nearby; and justice is further deferred in the city of New Orleans. A local District Attorney’s political ambitions are nearly crushed, but she still has power – and now, a grudge against the Professionals. (And certainly: the vulnerable Civilian reporter.)

I also used the “Red Herring” move on the Push Pyramid to get the group needlessly entangled with the (actual) mob. (See also: the broken Starbucks window.) This is another neat thing from speeding through a cycle of Analysis/Operation/Blowback: I got a chance to play with Push Pyramid moves (specific ways the Agency can earn the chance to mess with the players).

What I'm Playing Now

I’m running D&D 4e online for some friends, which is a fun experience. I never DM’d before, and so far I like the various DM tools (though the rules are a little bit more dense than I ususally prefer). Still, it’s fun and I’ve really gotten into it. Our various common points of geek experience (D&D itself, CRPGs, World of Warcraft) are providing some useful mutual context. Yes, I’m marking quests as “yellow” or “red”.

A friend is running Mage: the Awakening soon (vanilla rules, no hacks, though I’m bringing my Mage tarot). Excited about that. I really have affection for the setting.

I’m going to over 9000 cons this year, apparently. I’m certainly excited about the games I proposed for this year’s Dreamation.

And that’s more than enough gaming for now, though I’d love to run something non-trad some time in the future.

[How to Host a Dungeon] and the GrimDark Song of the Pyrple Wyrm

I played How to Host a Dungeon the other evening, and it was a surprising amount of fun. It’s solo game of procedural dungeon creation, with emergent narratives and everything.

Let me tell you about my dungeon.


In the Primordial age… three rivers cut through the bedrock below. (The River of Delusion, the River of Phantasmagoria, and the River of Fantasia. These rivers would ultimately crash together violently into a single source as they left the dungeon. Many creatures would be destroyed by its hidden plagues and other dooms within.) In the Civilized Age, a corrupted society of Elves created their underground city (Lumijic) and its two colonies (Couvre and Coir) amidst these rivers, as they dug deeper into the rich mitral vein around them. Their lust was too great, and they fell into anarchy and destruction.

Years passed, and the Human City of Vashilo was established – unknowingly – on the surface above the buried city of Lumijic. The humans did not venture far, as the horizon was marked by an eerie and Colossus of the Fallen One, the last ruler of Lumijic. Civilized souls stayed away (although it is said some human misfits would meet mightly to burrow beneath it, seeking treasures below the surface). The people of Vashilo meekly attempted to farm their lands, and yet were again confronted with defeat: a Purple Worm made it’s lair below the site of their castle, and would prey upon the farmlands repeatedly. The humans grew craven and resigned; farmers would plow their lands in morbid silence, knowing that the Worm was lurking below, biding its time before ending their meager lives.

West of them, clans of Druegar and Gnolls made war on each other: the Druegar mined the sistervein of Lumijic’s mithril, while the gnolls grew in number, preying upon the Druegar. As each hoarded immense mounts of treasure, villainous Mind Lords were attracted to the Dungeon, and they established a lair neer the ruined Elven colonies. They began to extend their reach, and yet these villains are a mere footnote in the history of this dungeon.

The first heretic of Adreas the Mad Bard, sent by the King of Vashilo to destroy the monsters below. He immediately entered the lair of the Purple Worm, but was seduced with the promise of treasure if he would make war against his people. He attacked innocent farmers above and was ultimately killed; it seemed the power of the Purple Worm was defeated.

But this was not to be. A mercenary band of rogueish adventurers again took up the King’s offer and quested below, and again the Worm offered an offer for betraying the human kingdom. They accepted, and short order burned away the surrounding farmland and the castle itself. They returned to the Worm again, seeking payment, and were sent an another quest: to destroy the upstart Mind Lords.

Perhaps the Worm hoped the Mind Lords would defeat this mercenary band, but it was not to be: they quickly dispatched the Mind Lords, taking control of the power of the Mind Pool for their own. They finally returned to the Purple Worm and, being unsatisfied with his payment, destroyed the Worm and took its name – “the Pyrple Wyrm” as their own banner. And so, this mercenary band plundered its way through the entirety of the dungeon – destroying the selfish Gnolls and greedy Druegar, raided the ruins of Lumijic, and plundered the vast gold of the underground for themselves.

This was a cool outcome, if a bit grimdark. If I wanted to convert this into playable setting, I would have had player characters start their quest as the choatic mercenaries returned from the Worm (so their quest would include quelling the Mercenaries, as well as investigating everything below).

Or, I could simply take this all to be ancient apocalyptic apocrypha for the tribe of nomadic halflings that would inhabit the surface lands several years later. They of course would develop many cultural phobias regarding the color purple, and would fear elevenkind and humankind as evil and corrupt. They would venture no further than the Colossus, and certainly not venture into the human lands. But, eventually a party of adventurers would question what they were told and explore the terrain below the Colossus, and ultimately uncover the history behind the fall of Vashilo.


Ultraviolet is a terrible action movie. Ultraviolet: The RPG maybe have been a forum joke about how bad that movie was. But my crew at StoryGames Boston… We don’t do things half-way. Yes, we played it.

[Quick game review: it took a half-hour, reflected the source material, matched our over-sugerated sensitivities. Had realistic combat, mature thematic storytelling. Insert other lies here.]

I present to you:


– Blade-knockoff with blood-colored hair (played by Enri)
– White-coated dude with ultraviolet hair (played by Dean)
– Woman in an evening dress with polka-dotted hair (played by Aara)

I GM’d which was a lot of work. I dutifully asked the players not to tell me the characters’ names so as not to ruin my Suspension Of Disbelief. We found some unused scenery from the wargamers’ table, so we just used fragments of that to set our scenes.

OPENING: The three of them are seeking an Artifact at an Ancient Ruined Temple. They pick up a transponder, which turns on ominously. Then: NINJAS! Enri kills 3 of them by hurling the obviously-about-to-explode-yep-it-explodes transponder at them, while the rest of them are killed by the use of swords and swords. Then Aara finds motorcycles for the team. We rolled an eleven, so that meant there were eleven motorcycles that the three of them would sorta ride in tandem, somehow, yeah.

SCENE: So they’re riding down this apocalyptic highway around this pool of bright green acid when they are assailed by MORE NINJAS! Who are clearly riding bikes and who are completely surrounding htem from behind. The crew begins to fight the mooks.

SCENE: Ninjas are dead. Dean’s bike is sinking into the acid and is stranded; Enri is trying to help him out. When suddenly a boss appears: a man wrapped in black silk. He makes a bold offer: he will allow Enri to save his friend, but only if they duel. Enri accepts, but with Aara dueling in his stead. (Sure.) She quickly rolls doubles after only four or five rolls, by changing her costume: she rips off her evening dress, utterly shocking the bad guy, but this merely reveals Aara’s three-piece suit underneath. And her hair is acid-green. And the bad guy falls in and Dean rides his bike over him to escape.

SCENE: The Man In The Wheelchair, at The Farm, is scheming, because everything is going according to plan.

SCENE: Back at the highway/acid-pool, the crew is trying to dilute the acid pool. Except Aara decides “fuck it” so she lights the pool on fire. The whole pool. But then the Man In The Tricked Out Cyberchair appears on the highway, some distance away, and tells Dean that their trapped now, because he has his cousin (!!) dangling above the acid pool, which is now a flaming acid pool, and he’s going to make him jump by talking at him, and now actually the scene cuts to Man In Chair being on top of that high dangling height too, whispering salty language into the innocent kid’s ear. (Continuity errors? I prefer to call it artistic license.)

But yeah the kid gets thrown in and Dean is like “NOOOO” except – here’s a twist – The Man In The Cyberchair reveals that in fact that this kid wasn’t Dean’s cousin — in fact, it was DEAN who was the cousin after all! Dean is crushed by the weight of this truth. Enri figures out what must have happened: “Your memory has been messed up. Only the power of the nanoswords can do that.”

SCENE: So there’s some VR-style CGI scene and there’s a really, truly, gorgeous idyllic farm that is deep in Dean’s memory and there’s some imagery with water and mothers and stuff. So that’s where they have to go.

SCENE: Except they go to where the farm is, and… Dean was just leading them to the original temple all along. There’s no Farm. It was all an illusion.

SCENE: So now they’re at the ruins, and they’re really disheartened by what has happened. Except I roll on the plot table again and now they’re actually really heartened, and they realize that the Nanoswords Have Always Been Inside Them! Like Swords Swallowers. So they reach deep inside, their throats, and pull out their swords. (Except for Enri, who pulls his swords out of Dean’s throat.) Except I roll on the table again, and the swords dissolve into keys. (Nanokeys??) Aara correctly (?) figures out that she needs a door, and finds a garage door, leading to a garage.

SCENE: Garage. They are in a garage… but a big Truck, with a Face, and this is like the Mammoth Car but repainted, is trying to run them down. It takes a long time for someone for someone to roll doubles so this is like the truck is zooming back and forth, threateningly, past the heroes, like about twelve times. (Gameplay note: I got really tired of saying “ZOOM”.) Then Enri defeated the truck by whistling for the motorcylces (!!) to jump in and sacrifice themseles to destroy the truck. Enri is now in biker garb with bald-colored hair.

BUT: the Man In The Stylish Hoverchair appears, and laughs at their folly! He starts to talk about a hospital where many turtles are being tenuously kept safe, and describes their science. “You see, what you don’t understand, you cannot understand, is turtles – that are the fundamental element of our society. Few people know but these turtles are special. They inhale our Carb-On-Di-Oxide of the air and covert it, through these turtles, into a certain kind of Oxygen…”

Aara blessedly rolls doubles right away, and appears behind the Boss with a bazooka. No more boss, but Aara is now in a one-piece bathing suit and blonde.

BUT: Two twin villains now appear, dressed in black silk like the original villain from the beginning. Speaking in unison, they explain: only the power of a Platinum Blonde will unlock the power of the NANO SWORDS! which they now draw and are awesome. Also there are now ninjas.

Aara kills half of them by bending time via her own nanosword and/or doing a hadoken. Enri kills the over half and actually killed more than enough that he turns the two bosses into undead – it was just that hard a punch or something. Which was cool because there were a lot of 9’s rolled and I decided any 9 that got rolled means Bad Things Happen — that is, I could change the haircolor and costume of any target player or boss!

So the bosses simultaneously where now in white coats and had long white hair (but were undead), and as the heroes failed to roll doubles (but rolled 9’s anyway), one by one their hair became white and their clothing matched that of the villains. Enri called out a grave warning: “The power of the nanoswords! It is corrupting us!”

Also there were more ninjas appearing, cutting off Dean (who must face off against the Bosses) from Enri and Aara, who had the first techno-montage of the game, as they gunned down the ninjas and clearly “Requiem For A Tower” was playing because obviously.

Dean couldn’t roll doubles, so they clearly gloated. One quickly drew a Gun from his side and the other drew a Box With A Kitten In It and well it did not end well for the kitten.

But then Dean rolled doubles so he summoned a Farm House (FROM HIS MEMORIES) to fall upon one of the bosses. The remaining boss cursed aloud, and all these cute puppies starting running from the farmhouse towards he. Said boss just scowled and backhanded them into the horizon. Dean is now totally like looking the same but in black (black hair, black coat).

Dean tried a few more times to take down the last boss. Someone rolled a 9, so the last boss became like two-tone black & white stripes.

SCENE: Back at the temple, they discuss how they took down the last boss off-screen.

Aara: “Who knew he would be allergic to bees?”

They respectfully put the transponder back in it’s rightful place, but as they’re walking away, it beeps and comes back on, and they all jump away from the explosion towards the screen as it explodes, and FREEZE FRAME.


I’m done with RPGs.