Indie Gems – Heroes of the Hearth (2016)

Heroes of the Hearth

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Stiainín Jackson and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The third of these is a game by Stiainín Jackson, titled “Heroes of the Hearth Rise and Fall”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Today, we do not sing of the adventurers. Today, we sing of the people behind the adventurers. We sing of their stories. We sing of their struggles. We sing of how they themselves deal with the threat that holds their lands in thrall – the threat that dragged their loved ones from their sized. The Heroes of the Hearth.

This is a complex and well-crafted game that focusses on the loved ones whom the adventurers left behind. Each person portrays one of the various individuals from the village who are related to one of the mighty adventurers: the spouse of the Barbarian, sibling of the Paladin, Child of the Bard, or the Rogue’s betrothed. Each of the player characters are defined by a key question you aim to answer in play, such as “What are you afraid of” or “Do you really believe in the gods?”. They also have a list of potential bonds with the other player characters, such as “You idolise this person and want to be just like them” or “This person is a threat to your business”.  These few elements bring enough richness and characterization that a robust community drama can emerge.

Drama does indeed emerge out of this relationship web.  Play proceeds through a series of acts, corresponding to interactions with the great darkness. Act 1 involves the characters writing letters to the adventurers, while Act 2 involves hearing rumours and news from the front. Act 3 includes letters from the adventurers, which is then followed by an attack from the threat. In each of the first three acts, players declare if their characters appear strong or weak, in the face of the difficult situation. Those strength and weakness checks will inform how the village will respond to the threat’s attack.

The game builds these beautiful tragedies, offering player all of the tools for safety (X-card), improvisation (Yes-and), and vulnerability (playing to lose). The game reminds me in many ways to Montsegur 1244 or Witch: Road to Lindisfarne, with the pre-generated characters doomed to an inevitability tragic situation. The system is streamlined and clean, while offering ample tools for storytelling.

I thought quite highly of this game, and then I discovered the additional scenario at the back. This additional scenario changes the context of play, from Tolkeinesque fantasy to French villagers in World War II. This thoughtful, additional scenario is excellent, and has seduced me even more than the original one. The game is perfectly calibrated to tell human stories, and it’s an excellent reference for future designs.

Indie Gems – Rise and Fall (2016)

Rise and Fall

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Elizabeth Lovegrove and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The second of these is a game by Elizabeth Lovegrove, titled “Rise and Fall”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Dystopias come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. They appear because someone is able to convince others that they are reasonable, and they disappear because someone is able to exploit their weaknesses. They rise, and they fall.

 This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

The core loop is a straightforward question-exploration-interpretation cycle, which proved its utility in Microscope scene setting.  As players, you cycle through a series of scenes that explore the dystopia. One person poses a question and picks out two characters to play through a scene that seeks the answer. When the scene is done, you write the answer down on the central ideas sheet. You continue to add more details to this sheet during play, which creates a compelling artifact.

You repeat the same process for each scene, with the role of questioner rotating around the table.  The first third of the scenes explore the rise of the dystopia, the middle third explores its operation, and the last third demonstrates the collapse.  This game stands apart from many others, though, by explicitly encouraging generational play. Each player doesn’t have a single fixed character, but rather they embody a persistant archetype such as “Artist”, “Matriarch” or “Warrior”.  During play, you create new individuals who fit in both the archetype and the society at that time, discarding characters freely.

I am fond of this game, but I feel that it is a tad understated and restrained. The framework of the game would be robust enough to handle much broader and more complex stories than the base scenario.  When I get the opportunity to run this game, I plan on hacking it into a 3-session experience, so that we can dedicate more time to explore each of the three phases of a society. I feel that this game has too much potential to be limited to a single session.

Indie Gems – When the Dark is Gone (2016)

When the Dark is Gone

Designed by Becky Annison and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The first of these is a game by Becky Annison, titled “When the Dark is Gone”.

This game starts with an excellent summary that I will steal outright.Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300

Imagine the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They visited a magical land, fought battles alongside talking animals and centaurs, and won a war against a powerful and evil enemy. Then they returned home, no-one believed them, and they were back to war time rations and maths homework.

What does that feel like? How did they live with the memories of what they saw? Did they end up in therapy?

This is a game about children who went through a fantastic ordeal in their youth which traumatized them. It’s an emotionally gripping and ruthlessly compelling game about a group of broken people, trying to fix themselves.  Each player portrays one adult with a psychological disorder stemming from their childhood heroics. The GM plays the role of the Therapist, charged both with the safety of the players and in encouraging productive exploration of the character’s issues.

The game is only about 40 pages of content, but it offers some of the most robust GM guidance and support that I have seen in any game.  It explains the role of the Therapist to listen and reflect back, and not to judge or create. It asks the GM to establish an atmosphere, ask open questions, allow players to choose their story, share spotlight time, maintain the pace of the game, and maintain the focus on the characters. It teaches participants on how to improvise, incorporating the advice from works such as Play Unsafe, Impro, and variety of other larp sources. Last, but most important, it offers tools for safety so that the obvious sensitive topics can be addressed.

For players, this seems to produce very emotionally rich gameplay.  Each character is defined by a psychological disorder, two cornerstone relationships with other player characters, dark secrets associated with those relationships, and one redeeming feature.  It’s a simple list of ingredients, but they do an excellent job of creating a cohesive and dysfunctional group of adults, bound to each other by their common trauma. The game tells you that your characters is hurting, and asks you to explore what part of their childhood fantasy ordeal caused this pain. It offers a chance for catharsis and healing, and the emotional Bleed off this game should be significant.

I look forward to bringing this to the table. I just need to acquire some Turkish Delights first.

Scribus for RPG Layout – A Template

Since I released my video on RPG layout , I have gotten a number of comments and subscriber who were interested in more resources. Since I am currently in the midst of procrastinating prior to GenCon 2016, I thought I would pull together a quick Scribus template for that other people could use to get started.

There is a zip file Scribus Template which includes the full Scribus file, all of the free (open-source) fonts, and a sample image I created. That scribus file has a handful of pages laid out with example text, including an inner cover page, credits page, table of contents, and a couple of main content pages. This also includes a number of paragraph styles (header 1, header 2, header 3, body text, example text) and character styles (emphasis, small cap emphasis) that can be used to get started. The basic fonts used for this document work together, have a variety of weights, and generally look professional. I encourage you to use this as a baseline to get started in laying out your own games.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Design Geology

Every game comes from somewhere; from personal experience, to intellectual puzzles, to something inbetween.  Each designer is naturally faced with a question of which element to use as the foundation for their games. This blog post explores three different approaches, with the strengths and weaknesses I have seen in them.  These approaches are:

Stalagmite Design: Concentrating on mechanics first.

Stalactite Design: Concentrating on themes first.

Pillar Design: Concentrating specifically on the interaction of mechanics and theme.


Bottom-up, concentrating on mechanics

Mechanics are the foundation of gameplay. Games are, defined by the presence of rules and procedures that guide play. These could be as simple as deciding who gets to speak next, or as complex as a tactical conflict matrix. These mechanical elements inform that actual activities at the gaming table; what to write down, what to say, when to roll dice, or when to play cards. The stalagmite design concentrates on determining how we act, and when we act during play.

Stalagmite game designs are established with an intentional focus on specific mechanics of play. The entire experience of play is fundamentally driven by those systems. This is typically done by concentrating on a resolution mechanism, but other forms of system design can also qualify in this category. Some excellent examples of Stalagmite designs include…

Burning Wheel, with the life path system, volley-based expanded conflict systems, and the well-crafted Artha cycle.

Microscope, with a robust procedure for generating a timeline collaboratively, and detailed procedures to reinforce equal collaboration at the table.

Stalagmite design is a strong at producing verifiable and repeatable play experience at the table. The focus on core activities of play means that there is a great deal of attention spent on the various decisions made by participants, which can make for a robust and consistent game design. It can produce groundbreaking designs that move the craft forward, and support a wide variety of settings.

Stalagmite design has dangers associated with it. I have found that many of these games have a tendency of having fragile themes during play, that can fall flat and feel more like a board-game than an immersive roleplaying experience. The concentration on activities during play means that there is often a reliance on a few individuals to interpret/describe events so that a coherent story emerges from the gameplay activities.



Top-down, concentrating on themes

Roleplaying games are defined by the narratives they produce. These themes inform the assumptions, the politics, and the values of the creators. Strong games are also artistic statements that communicate ideas through play. These could be done through a focus on certain perspectives, constraints on communication, or on specific settings. The Stalactite design concentrates on who acts, where we act, and why we act in play.

Stalactite game designs are established with an intentional focus on themes and messages. The entire experience of play is designed to reinforce the narrative, and to shape the fiction into reinforcing the themes. This is typically done through establishing strong characters, complex relationships, and a rich setting. Some excellent examples of Stalactite design include…

Montsegeur 1244, a game about Cathars under siege who choose to renounce their faith or burn at the stake. This has pregenerated characters, a premade relationship map, and no random factors. The game is intensely focussed on themes of faith, love, and martyrdom.

Posthuman Pathways, my own game about transhumanism, transformation and sacrifice. The entire system is predicated on the fact that players are constantly faced with hard choices and are obliged to sacrifice something important on the wheel of progress.  

Stalactite design is strong at producing emotionally compelling and memorable play experiences at the table. The focus on ideas and themes tends to make for a very dramatic narrative, with compelling character dynamics. It can be an excellent tool for making political statements or discussing sensitive subject matter.

The dangers associated with Stalactite design is that it can be very dependent on the players. Everyone in the game needs to have robust improvisational skills, because the mechanics of play tend to be minimal. Participants also have to all be on the same thematic page, as any disconnect can ruin the experience for the group. These games also tend to be short-lived, burning brightly for a single session and fading afterwards.



Middle-out, concentrating on situations

Stalagmite design starts with the mechanics. Stalactite starts with theme. Pillar design is the third path, where the designer intentionally chooses both a core mechanic and a core theme that interact in a specific way. Pillar design is a way of concentrating on the specific situations that you want to encourage with your design. It’s a compromise solution in many ways, neither as thematically driven, nor as mechanically developed compared to the other options.

Pillar game designs are difficult to craft, because of the difficulty in pairing the two disparate elements. In order for a pillar game to be successful, it needs a core mechanic that is engaging that is either reinforcing or intentionally contrasting the theme. A successful pillar game might be a game about the price of violence, where the strongest tools are violent ones. It might instead be a game that gives tools for resolving conflicts in other ways, and rewards those who abstain from violent options.

Some excellent examples of Pillar designs include…

Headspace, a game about technology (normally portrayed as a dehumanizing force) and teamwork (which requires humanity). The game mechanics centre on a piece of technology, known as the Headspace implant that allows people to share skills. When skills are shared, you also share emotional baggage along for ride. If focusses on emotional consequences as characters work together, and learn about each other’s dark pasts.

Red Markets, is a game about capitalism and zombies. It’s a game where you have to keep careful track of your equipment and maintenance costs as the fundamental experience of play. The only way that you can manage those costs are by spending money, which can only be earned by risking your lives by facing the undead hordes. It’s a game about poverty, and the no-win situations it causes. It’s also currently on kickstarter!

Dread may be the strongest of all of the examples of pillar design. It’s a horror game that uses a Jenga tower as the core mechanic. The physical tower provides a strong sense of suspense and anxiety, underpinning the intentional themes of the game.

Pillar design is good at producing games with a memorable experience. They are relatively unique and focused. They are often quite difficult to design, and are relatively rare. It’s an area of design that I believe warrants further exploration, and it is driving my new design work.


I would welcome your thoughts on this article, and the lens through which I am viewing design. Are there any hidden strengths for any of the approaches that I have neglected to mention? Are there downsides not yet identified? My comments are open.