Why Taverns?

Why taverns? I posed this question in the foreword of the original version of Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear. Taverns are where we got our start, five years ago. We were so proud of our work at the time, though reviewing it shows how inexperienced we were and how much we’ve grown since then.

The past five years have seen an improvement in every aspect of what we do. The writing is sharper and more concise. The art is more skillfully executed, and more of it is produced in-house. The maps look great. The layouts improve every release.

We couldn’t have believed five years ago that our humble little release would be the stepping stone for working with other publishers.

If you’ve noticed a slowdown of Dire Rugrat releases, it’s due to just that fact. If you like what we do, you may be interested to know that Kelly has done work for Kobold Press, Playground Adventures, Flaming Crab Games, and other third-party publishers of D&D 5e materials. I’ve worked with Rogue Genius Games and others.

But… back to the question. Why taverns?

The local watering hole is a representation of the community as a whole, whether that community is a neighbourhood in a larger city or a tiny hamlet. Adventurers can go to the tavern, figure out what the locals are like and what problems they have, solve those problems (or make new ones), and return to the taphouse to collect payment before moving on… or not. I’m certain entire RPG campaigns could be set in a tavern, just dealing with the drama created by all those visiting adventurers!

If you downloaded the latest Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear because you received a notification of an updated version, thank you for your patronage these last five years. 

To those who are new to what Dire Rugrat does, welcome!

I’m excited to see what the next five years hold for us and our little company, and hope many of you reading this will come along for the ride. Regardless, put your feet up, pour yourself your favourite drink, and enjoy this little slice of our gaming reality.

We’re pleased to announce the anniversary edition of Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear. These new files include more original artwork, a revised colour map, and additional stat blocks for 5e and Pathfinder.

Ken Pawlik, September 2020

 

Pick up Your Copy Today

Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear (5e)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear (Pathfinder Compatible)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tangible Taverns: The Bull & The Bear (System Neutral)  

   

Our Crew Solution

A problem reared its head shortly after we began playing a pirate themed D&D 5th Edition game: there are a lot of NPCs in play when the crew of one ship boards another ship.

Assessing the Options

I looked at the limited rules about handling mobs in the DMG and disliked them. I then read a lot of advice on the subject, most of which boiled down to “avoid mass combat at all costs”, or “let the NPCs do their thing in the background while the PCs star in the important action.”

The advice didn’t work for me. I like situations where perhaps the PCs are struggling against their opposition while the friendly NPC crew have quickly mopped up the enemy crew and can help the PCs. Or the inverse where the crew is nearing defeat which forces the PCs to divert some or all of their efforts to save them. I could just decide these things as the GM, but that felt cheap as well.

Looking Elsewhere

Unable to find a solution in the core D&D 5e books, I looked at other solutions such as the minion monster rules in D&D 4e, which are workable but still require too much management and rolling at the table. I also looked at 13th Age which has excellent and elegant rules for mooks, and I almost adopted them until I found the entry for the Bar Brawl in the Creature Codex by Kobold Press (which is a fantastic monster resource and highly recommended by us rugrats). This third-party work gave a group of aggressive humanoids the swarm feature, allowing them to use their numbers to threaten the PCs and their crew while elegantly working within the 5e framework.

Creating the Crews

I took this idea and ran with it. The resulting crews and monster swarms worked well in play testing (aka: our campaign). We compiled them together, added some officers and captains to bedevil the PCs, and created some magical and mundane seafaring equipment.

The Seafaring Supplement contains nine crew stat blocks, including two sets of sea creatures. Challenges range from 2 to 10. From crews of undead to experienced marines, these stat blocks keep ship combat from becoming bogged down, while still bringing excitement to the combat. 

You can pick up the Seafaring Supplement on DriveThruRPG.


NAVAL MARINE TROOP

Little clenches the stomach of a pirate faster than the sight of a frigate carrying regiments of naval marines. These hardened soldiers are equally adept at fighting on land or the heaving deck of a ship. Naval marines are more heavily armed and armored than most sailors, and take a great deal of care ensuring their weapons and armor don’t succumb to the brine and spray. 

Potions Class with Madam Margareth

For our latest field trip the students of the college set out to find the magical ingredients needed for a potion. We used an adventure called Madam Margareth’s Magic Potion, and simply changed the setting from the Village of Glavost to the school.

Here’s the premise:

A young boy has fallen ill after eating a poisonous mushroom and the only cure lies in an ice cave at the top of a mountain! Can a group of heroes make it to the top of the mountain, face down a fearsome yeti, find the cure, and maybe learn a bit about chemistry on the way? This science based short also includes a fun experiment for everyone to enjoy.

Note: this contains spoilers!

Set the Scene

In play, the kids started out in the village of Belcassel where they had figured out that a griffon had been stealing the local farmers’ livestock. Further investigation indicated the former mayor’s daughter was using a book she found in the library to magically combine beasts into other monstrosities. Worse, she had taken the book and set out for parts unknown. Who knew what she could get up to with such a potent magical tome?

On their way back to the college, the kids and their teacher ran into Professor Kirby, another teacher from the school. She was being led by some confused and frightened children. Learning that another student had collapsed in the forest, the kids joined them. Using the directions from the scared kids and their own nature skills they found Cedric, the injured boy who had collapsed after eating a wild mushroom. 

Navigate the Woods

Professors Rattles and Kirby didn’t have all the ingredients to make an antidote for Cedric, but they knew frost stones could be gathered at a nearby mountain. The kids set out to get the frost stones and were waylaid by hungry wolves. After taking care of the beasts, they had a bit of trouble climbing the mountain, but managed with a bit of teamwork (both in and out of game).

Defeat the Yeti

At the mountaintop, they discovered a cave! The boys went into the cave and discovered the frost stones they needed. Gemstone the barbarian stayed outside and was alone when the resident yeti came home. Gemstone defeated the yeti in an arm wrestle and gave it some food in exchange for the frost stones.

the so called frost stones from the yeti cave

Save the Student

The kids then descended the mountain and set off to save foolish Cedric.

We knew everyone would want to be hands-on, so we made enough to assemble three magic potions. For ease of cleanup we also put everything on a cookie tray. Kelly has invested in various fun shape dice cube trays over the years, so she made the frost stones in the shape of stars. (The directions for how to recreate your own experiment can be found in the pages of the adventure.)

potion ingredient ready to go

They loved dropping the frost stones into the potion. After our conversations about diffusion, the rugrats predicated the potion would be blue. This is a fair guess since the liquid is clear and the stones are blue. The resulting purple seemed like magic. 

the magic potion

If you haven’t checked out any of Playground Adventures After School Adventures, we highly recommend them. They are short, easy to run for kids, and have an educational element called out in them.

 

So Many Pets, So Little Time

The Dire Rugrat Family Tails of Equestria Campaign, Part 1

Who’s Who in Equestria

Excitement was high in the Dire Rugrat household, Daddy Rugrat had read the Tales of Equestria rulebook, and all three rugrats, as well as Mummy Rugrat, were excited to make their PCs (pony characters) and start adventuring in Equestria. I went to the River Horse website, downloaded the PC sheets, one for each type of pony, and everyone set to work.
Rugrat 3 created Cup Cake, a riotously coloured unicorn with purple head and flanks, green legs, black eyes and horn, crimson tail, and I think a green mane. Cup Cake’s cutie mark is a diamond on a purple and green cake… maybe. It’s hard to be certain. Her chosen talent is the ability to create force fields, and her very appropriate quirk is a short attention span; her Element of Harmony is Magic, which has yet to have much effect on her…
Rugrat 2 created Thunder Gust, a pegasus with green body and blue mane and tail. His cutie mark is three clouds with lightning shooting out of them, and his Element of Harmony is Honesty.
Against my better judgment, Rugrat 1 was allowed to create a changeling (rules for changeling characters are in The Bestiary of Equestria [review forthcoming], which Rugrat 1 was expressly asked to not read…. but he did anyway, because children know it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission…) named Shiftwing. Shiftwing chose laughter as his Element of Harmony, a fear of bees (just like his player) as his Quirk, and chose to upgrade his innate Morph Talent rather than selecting a second one. Rugrat 1 will be a rules lawyering powergamer in the future, I fear… but we will love him anyway.
Finally, Mummy Rugrat created Calm Heart, a light brown earth pony with darker brown mane and tail. Her Element of Harmony is Kindness, her cutie mark is a heart with two crossed band-aids set on it, and she selected Healing Touch as her Talent, and Messy as her Quirk.

A Day at the Market

The game started with the PCs at the weekend market. Calm Heart was looking for more bandages, Thunder Gust wanted some eggs, Shiftwing was searching for a solar powered lamp, and Cup Cake wanted toys. So many toys. While they were shopping, they came across a cute, but very rude bunny. The ponies interacted with the aggressive rodent in humorous fashion, until his pony, the famous pegasus Fluttershy, found them together. Realizing their obvious animal wrangling skills, and needing someone to take care of the Mane Six’s pets while they went off adventuring, she recruited them like a a shy, pony Gandalf asking Bilbo Baggins to give up his comfortable hobbit life. The PCs agreed of course, as there’d be no game otherwise, and they visited Fluttershy at her home outside the Everfree Forest.

Look at the cute little bunnies!

Everything Goes Wrong

At Fluttershy’s house, the PCs met the rest of the Mane Six, the most famous ponies in all of Equestria! And after a brief introduction to the Mane Pets, the Six were on their way.
It didn’t take long for everything to go wrong. The unruly pets, spurred by the very poorly named Angel Bunny, misbehaved. The PCs attempted to treat them to their favourite things, Cup Cake obsessively looked for the chocolate mice that she knew were the favourite of Twilight Sparkle’s owl, Owlowiscious, but Calm Heart stepped on Angel’s tail and set the foul tempered rodent off! He bounced through the house, riling up the already agitated pets. They smashed things, knocked over furniture, and finally escaped out the front door left open by Cup Cake in her fruitless search for chocolate mice.

Well, That Happened…

Sorting themselves out, the PCs realized the pets had escaped… in different directions into the ominous Everfree Forest. Deciding that the mess in Fluttershy’s house could wait, the PCs set off into the forest to effect a rescue. They started by following baby alligator tracks down the river which eventually led them to a small island. Flying above the island was a blue bird with a funny green feather frill, a mohawk! Pinkie Pie’s pet alligator, Gummy, had firmly chomped down on the frantic bird’s tail feathers, and wouldn’t let go. Thunder Gust and Shiftwing (morphed into pegasus form) flew up and attempted to remove the alligator from the bird, which they did, but their actions resulted in Gummy plummeting toward the ground (and near certain doom), until the distractable Cup Cake used her telekinesis to catch him.

Don’t Let the Cuteness Fool You!

Scary Monsters (and Diamond Dogs)

After rescuing Gummy, the PCs decided to follow the faint dog howls to a small hut, surrounded by variously sized holes in the ground. Applejack’s dog, Winona, was tied up in front of the structure, and she was upset about it. Using stealth and guile to approach Winona without her making any noise, the PCs managed to free her and made it nearly away before attracting the attention of something underground. Moving quietly, the PCs managed to avoid the diamond dogs who had taken Winona captive, though those greedy hounds may come into play again if the PCs don’t escape the Everfree Forest soon.
While following a smoke trail, the PCs ran into the mysterious rhyming zebra named Zecora! Zecora gave some cryptic advice and gave each pony a healing potion for their journey.
Continuing to follow the smoke, the PCs left the Everfree Forest and entered a craggy, rocky canyon with pits and holes in the canyon walls. From the canyon mouth, they could see Rainbow Dash’s turtle Tank! Tank’s helicopter backpack apparatus was broken and the poor turtle was helplessly caught on a stone spur. Thunder Gust flew toward the turtle and got him free, but drew the attention of a fearsome quarray eel in the process. A breathless scuffle with the quarray eel ensued, in which Calm Heart, as well as Thunder Gust were swallowed whole by the monster! Cup Cake and Shiftwing (morphed to look like Cup Cake) used their telekinesis to get their companions free, and the four narrowly escaped back into the Everfree Forest with Tank.

What Happens Next?

With three of the Mane Six’s pets rescued, who will the PCs attempt to find next? Will it be the wise owl Owlowiscious? The prissy pussycat Opalescence? Or naughty Angel Bunny herself? You will just have to wait until part 2 to find out!

Roleplaying is Magic!

A Review of Tails of Equestria, The My Little Pony Roleplaying Game

Somepony’s looking for trouble…

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been a fixture in our household for some time. It’s one of the rare programs that appeals to all three rugrats, as well as, if we’re being completely honest, Mummy and Daddy Rugrat as well. I am going to go ahead and assume that whomever is reading this knows what MLP:FiM is, but I will say that it is certainly the richest piece of branded programming I can think of.
What we are looking at here, is Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game licensed by River Horse Ltd. and Published by Shinobi7 in the United States and Canada; let’s see if I think it is worth your family gaming time.

The Cutie Mark Chronicles

I want to start by mentioning that having a My Little Pony Roleplaying Game licensed for development by a third party is hilariously ironic. MLP is owned by Hasbro. The most popular RPG in the world, Dungeons & Dragons, is owned and developed by Wizards of the Coast. Which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro. Weird, right? Anyway… let’s move on.
The Tails of Equestria book is a slim 150 pages, with around 135 pages of content after you exclude the table of contents, index, ads, and dice charts. The text is written in a large enough font to make my aging eyes happy, and is presented in relatively simple language throughout to make it easier for younger players to grasp. The text is broken down into twelve numbered chapters, with an unnumbered adventure module, and an appendix.

Appleoosa’s Most Wanted

After a brief introductory chapter, chapters two to five, as well as chapters 8-11 are devoted to the creation, maintenance, and advancement of your PC (that’s pony character in this game). Why they planted the two chapters of game rules in the middle of the character rules, I couldn’t say, but I find it a bit irritating.
Chapter 2 – Creating Your Pony Character is short and provides an overview of the process which is detailed in the following chapters. Once you’ve read the rest of the book, Chapter 2 will suffice for most of a player’s PC building needs.
Chapter 3 – Pony Kinds details the three different types of Ponies one can choose from: earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi. Earth ponies are physically stronger than the other two types, and they get an additional boost to tests that use their Body trait once per session. Unicorns are more innately magical than the other pony types and they start the game with telekinesis. Pegasi have wings and can fly. There is also a note in this chapter about Alicorns (unicorn / pegasi hybrids with the physicality of earth ponies), stating that they are not available as a player type, likely due to issues of game balance.

Just Another Day in Ponyville.

A Flurry of Emotions

Chapter 4 details the Elements of Harmony: Kindness, Generosity, Laughter, Loyalty, Honesty, and Magic. In Tails of Equestria the Elements are treated as alignment is in D&D. They don’t have rules implications, but each player chooses one for their PC which can help guide that player in how their pony deals with the challenges that crop up in the game. It’s nice and subtle, and honestly a lot easier to interpret than alignment is, in my opinion.
Chapter 5 details each pony’s traits, which are the equivalent of ability scores in other games. There are three traits: Body, Mind, and Charm. Each pony starts with a d6 rating in Charm, and can can assign a d4 and a d6 to the other two traits. Earth ponies upgrade their body trait by one step, so a starting earth pony can either choose to be very strong, or to be completely balanced.
Stamina is the equivalent to hit points in other games, and is determined by adding a PC’s Body and Mind traits together, so a starting PC has 10 Stamina (or 12 Stamina if they are an earth pony).

The Mane Attraction

We’ll jump to Chapter 8 to continue with the character rules. This chapter deals with Talents and Quirks. At the game start, each PC chooses a Talent, such as Healing Touch. Some Talents are available only to certain pony types. The book contains sixteen Talents, some of which, such as Creative Flair can be further focused.
Quirks on the other hand, give ponies a gameable drawback. Each PC has one at the game start, and when they come into play, they reduce the PC’s ability to complete the task at hand. The book has seventeen suggested quirks ranging from phobias, to being too silly, to MeMeMeMeMeMeMe!
Chapter 9 deals with pony naming conventions, cutie marks, and the pony’s look, all of which will ideally tie into each other and result in a memorable PC!

The Mane Six

A Friend in Deed

Returning to Chapter 6, we learn about Friendship. More specifically, the chapter is about Friendship Tokens.
Friendship Tokens can be used to re-roll failed tests, re-roll with a d20 rather than the listed trait die, or to auto succeed. Tokens can be granted from one PC to another, and while the text mentions that doing so might have some additional effect, it never codifies this. In my sessions, I formalized this by ruling that one Token granted to another PC allowed them to re-roll a failed test with a d20 (this costs two tokens if a PC spends them on themself), and two Tokens granted to another PC allowed an auto success on a test (this costs three Tokens if a PC spends them on themself).

Testing Testing 1, 2, 3

Chapter 7 contains the rest of the game rules. Tails of Equestria uses a die step system, increasing the die rolled by a step, from a d6 to a d8 for example, rather than adding a pile of modifiers a la D&D 3.5. The game has exploding dice (called Exploding Hoof, naturally); when a player rolls the maximum on a die, they get to then roll the next die type, and can do the same if they roll the maximum on that die, and when they have no more dice to roll, they select the most advantageous result and use that to resolve their task. In play, Tails of Equestria feels a lot like a simpler Savage Worlds.
A chapter on money and equipment follows, which is brief but informative; Tales of Equestria characters are capable all by themselves, they don’t focus on money and stuff.
The character rules are then rounded out with a chapter on leveling and advancement, which is a suitably straightforward affair. The last numbered chapter contains some player advice, as well as some really good advice on how to run a game like an episode of MLP:FiM.

Mmmystery on the Friendship Express

The included adventure module, The Pet Predicament, is nearly forty pages long, taking up a substantial portion of the book. It has the PCs take over the care and handling of the Mane Six’s pets while they are on a mission, to predictably disastrous results. With an experienced Gamemaster running it, the adventure is really neat, and ably shows how to move from more physically conflict-oriented games to one where solving problems and working together are paramount. There are sections of the adventure, however that are really light on information and boil down to telling the GM to let the players resolve the problems however feels right, which may be difficult to do for most new GMs…

Pinkie Pie imitating her sister Maud Pie. Just because.

Keep Calm and Flutter On

In a nutshell, Tails of Equestria is a great game. It provides a surprisingly simulationist rules framework in which a group of players can have a lot of fun solving problems and exploring the world, and their relationships to each other. It is also easy to read in an afternoon and have an adventure ready to play the next day. It is not perfect however.
I would love to have a chapter on the land of Equestria included; many licensed games also serve as an excellent resource about the lore of the IP (Dragon Age and The One Ring spring to mind). I would also like to see more information on campaign creation, as well as a more fleshed out adventure included. Finally, there are some typos and grammatical errors (Princess Cadance is referred to as Princess Cadence in every reference to her. I know it’s a weird spelling of the word cadence, but it’s the poor pony’s name for goodness sake!) Overall, I give the game 4 stars and am looking forward to reading the other books in the game line.

Adventures In Wonderland (1-4)

Last October our family started this fun series of children’s adventures. We had an ESL student we had hosted some time ago visiting for a few days, and it seemed like a great activity we could all enjoy.  We shared a review of Adventures in Wonderland #1: Chasing the White Rabbit at that time, and the kids loved it. So much so Kelly ran the second adventure the same night with only a quick scan of the PDF before playing. The third was played the next day.

Then a long time passed. Our former student returned to Japan. The kids begged and begged to find out what happened to the white rabbit. We played another fun kids adventure. And eventually a new chapter in the AIW series came out.

With Rugrat #3 old enough to not be napping, but young enough she can’t quite grasp everything that’s going on, we set her up as Kelly’s animal companion. She sat on Kelly’s lap, rolling her own set of dice randomly and chiming in to repeat what people said.

“Perfect summer day.”

 

Continue reading Adventures In Wonderland (1-4)

doorway to another time

Way of the Worlds – A Design Journal

Last week I detailed my thoughts about Paizo’s new Starfinder Roleplaying Game. While the game itself is competent, if uninspiring to me, Kelly and I decided to use it to run a new campaign, partly in order to test the game out and see how well some ideas we have for products might fit. It may not be my favourite game, but hey, if you want to earn a few credits, you sell material for the systems that people will buy products for, right?

Here we go again…

Instead of taking the easy road and running straight from pre-existing material, Kelly suggested running a game inspired by a show she’s devoured on Netflix: Outlander. This is nothing new; Kelly works from home and occasionally the television is on in the background while she goes about her business.

If you aren’t aware of the premise, Outlander is about a young, married nurse who travels from 1945 Scotland to 1743 Scotland where she meets and falls in love with another man. The show is beautifully filmed, and is full of drama, intrigue, brief bouts of vicious brutality, and, of course, romance. It is well worth watching, if you are looking for something in the vein of A Game of Thrones with 100% more men in kilts and 80% fewer naked young women standing/writhing/being… seductive(?), during expository scenes.

But wait, there’s more!

While Outlander is a great place to start, I don’t want the game to primarily take place in the past with only framing sequences and flashbacks in the present. So looking at other stranger in a strange land tropes, I have taken inspiration from the DC Comics character Adam Strange, particularly the Adam Strange: Planet Heist miniseries by Andy Diggle and Pascual Ferry as well as, to a lesser extent, the Adam Strange: Man of Two Worlds (which I believe is just called Adam Strange in its original mini-series release) story by Richard Bruning and the Kubert brothers. Adam Strange also led back to his sword and planet forebears, John Carter (of Mars!) and Carson (Napier) of Venus, both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs of course. As an aside, I’ve always preferred Carson to John Carter.

What do we do now?

So, now we have our premise of a young, affianced diplomat (yes, she is an envoy; our frustrations with this class are pretty well tested) who randomly travels from 317AG to 4717AD Korvosa on Golarion where she will meet another appealing young man who is completely different in temperament from her fiancé. Plenty here to create romance and drama, right? But what will the characters do? Where’s the adventure?

Here I look to pre-published material. While the first Starfinder adventure path is far from complete, I can look to the description of the adventures that comprise it, and adapt from those plot to literally collapse the Pact System via a weapon of mass destruction (called the Stellar Degenerator in the AP, but which I have renamed the Maw of Rovagug for… reasons). From here I have sketched out a solar system spanning series of events, full of action and tense negotiations.

starfarer's companion coverWhile in Korvosa, I am adapting the mostly fantastic Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path to the Starfinder system (with a little help from the Starfarer’s Companion by Rogue Genius Games). There’s a lot of drama already baked into this adventure path, and set in a pre-Victorian England and France inspired Korvosa, with sharp divides between social classes and plenty of unrest, it is already proving to be exciting! Having the two adventures running concurrently also allows me to move the action from one setting to the other when Curse of the Crimson Throne hits a portion Kelly is less likely to enjoy (namely anything involving a dungeon), or when there is extended travel through the Pact System.

What’s your inspiration?

I really enjoy adapting material that I enjoy into game material, and the rewards thus far have been immense. This has been a great campaign so far, with a lot of drama, and possibly some hard choices looming. It feels a lot like Outlander by way of Battlestar Galactica.

Does it sound appealing to you?

What material have you adapted for gaming, successfully or not?

What material do you think is ripe for adaptation?

Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

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5 and 5 for Starfinder RPG

Now that Paizo’s new hotness, the Starfinder Roleplaying Game has been out for a couple months and we’ve had a chance to read the rules and take them out for a spin in our new, ongoing, Way of the Worlds campaign, I’m ready to expound on my favourite and least favourite aspects of the system.

Without further ado, the awesome:

1. It’s pretty. It’s really pretty.  With nearly a decade of being a top dog in the RPG industry, Paizo knows how to make a good looking book. The Starfinder Core Rulebook  is well laid out and is full of gorgeous art, with only a couple of clunky pieces, and no terrible ones. In particular I love the look of the chapters dealing with the races and classes, as well as the gorgeous depictions of the weapons, and the pulp sci-fi fishbowl helmets the space goblins (we’ll talk about that name later) wear make me smile.

Continue reading 5 and 5 for Starfinder RPG

two happy people

5 and 5: One to One Gaming

We’ve all been there; you’ve just picked up a shiny new RPG that you’re really excited about, but you’re currently in the middle of an extended campaign with your current group, so getting to try out this new amazingness is impossible. Or maybe you’re not already in the midst of something, but getting your players to buy-in is proving difficult. Or perhaps something else is getting in the way of you playing this new game; regardless, you aren’t getting the chance to play something you want, and it’s frustrating you.

What is one to do?

Luckily we live in an age where a plethora of options exist to facilitate our gaming; today, I’m going to address some of the pros and cons of an option you have perhaps not given a lot of thought to: gaming with a GM and a single player, otherwise known as one to one gaming.

One to one gaming seems to be gaining some traction in recent years, with Pelgrane Press’s recent release of Cthulhu Confidential, Sine Nomine Publishing’s Scarlet Heroes, and Expeditious Retreat Press’s 1 on 1 Adventures line for the Pathfinder RPG coming to mind.

Kelly and I engage in one to one gaming on a regular basis (minds out of the gutter folks, we’re talking dice and character sheets here), and find it to be a great way to enjoy time with one another, but there are a few pitfalls to keep in mind as well.

The Good

1. Scheduling

Getting a group of four to six people together to play a game regularly is challenging, especially as players get older and their priorities and responsibilities shift. My group is comprised of six players as well as myself, all in our late thirties or early forties, and it is rare that all of us are attendant at a game session with work and family obligations understandably taking precedence. Finding time to get together to game with one person is undeniably easier.

2. Character Arc

How many times have you had a killer character concept that either didn’t work at all because of the other characters in the party, or just fell short of its potential due to being lost in the crowd, or for some other reason. This shouldn’t happen in a one to one game. The PC is the protagonist. There is no sharing of the spotlight because the campaign is all about them. In a one to one game, the two people playing should be able to focus on the aspects of the campaign that really appeal to them. Want to play a game that focuses on debate and intrigue, where the mere act of drawing a blade means something has gone horribly wrong? Do it. Want to play that campaign where the PC wanders the countryside on a quest to become the best swordswoman in the land? There’s no other players there to stop you.

3. Less Conflict

We always get along with our fellows, right? We’re adults after all. Sure. The more people there are in a group, the more likely that tensions will erupt. Everything from varying rules interpretations, to interpersonal issues, to resentment over who grabbed that last Dr. Pepper can lead to arguments. While there will certainly still be disagreements over some things in a one to one game, it is much easier to be reasonable and discuss things when it is just you and one other player rather than having a myriad of voices jumping in to add their two cents, or just as bad, have the rest of the group just sit there awkwardly while two people verbally (hopefully just verbally) spar.

4. You Can Just Play

I sometimes think that my gaming group spends three minutes goofing around for every minute they spend focusing on the game. In reality it probably isn’t so bad, but I still feel frustration when someone interrupts to tell a joke, or show another player something “hilarious” on Youtube, or spends more time looking at his phone, or my admittedly awesome collection of comic books than listening to what is happening in the game. One to one gaming doesn’t allow anyone to do that though. With only two players, the focus is primarily on the play experience. While there will always be small interruptions, an anecdote here, a brief discussion of some errand there, one to one play offers a much speedier experience.

5. Inspiration Abounds

Anywhere you look, you can find inspiration for a one to one campaign. Did you love playing through Dead Space? Me too. And translating that video game into a tabletop experience for one player is as easy as finding the game maps and a walkthrough online, and deciding which monsters you’re going to reskin as the game’s necromorph enemies.  Are you a big Harry Potter fan? One to one gaming allows you to be the Boy that Lived without having the rest of the group pouting that they aren’t as special.

So that’s all good, right? Well it isn’t all puppies and unicorns…

The Challenging

1. Heavy GMing 

One to one play can be awesome, but it has a heavy load for a prospective GM. With only one player, the GM needs to prepare more material than for a group, because it can be played through rapidly. The GM also has little downtime in play because there are no other players to discuss matters with; The GM is almost always “on.” While one to one games can be very rewarding, they can also be exhausting.

2. Paradox of PC Choice 

Similarly, the player in a one to one game needs to make every substantial choice; there isn’t anyone else to bounce ideas off of, and a GM rarely wants to use an NPC to tell the player what the best option is. Players that have difficulty making decisions may find a one to one game gets bewildering and stressful.

3. Some Game Aspects Are Problematic 

When you only have one player, certain things need to be avoided. Commonly used fantasy tropes such as mind-affecting magic and fear need to be designed around or avoided entirely. Any effect that takes the control of the character away from the player can only be used sparingly as a plot device if it is used at all.

4. Most Adventures are Designed for a Group

Most published adventures, regardless of system, are designed with an expectation of a group of players and altering them for one player can often be more work than just designing your own scenarios from scratch. GMs that want to be able to just run a game from published material with minimal fuss may have difficulty doing so in a one to one game.

5. It Can Get Real

I’ve found that one to one gaming can occasionally trigger unexpected reactions in one or both players. It shouldn’t be a surprise really, there is an opportunity to really delve into the characters and world in a one to one game that I rarely find in typical group gaming. Players that really get into character, so-called method actor players, can find themselves dealing with real emotional trauma as a result of situations in game. One to one gaming can demand that the two players involved trust one another more than typical group situations do.

Grab a Dance Partner!

I personally recommend gaming with one GM and one player, at least some of the time. It has been very fulfilling for me, and has offered me the opportunity to play some campaigns that I wouldn’t have been able to with a group.

Have you played an RPG with just one player and one GM? If so, tell us how your experience was in the comments below.

Wish

Ken’s Gaming Bucket List – Campaigns

I turned forty this August. Despite it being a landmark of a sort, at my request it was a quiet day spent with immediate family and a couple of close friends and their kids. It was near perfect.

A birthday like this, of course, has led me to assess my life to date, to revel in the victories and throw another coat of spackle over the parts I’d rather put far behind me (in reality, I’m prone to constant self-critique, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s pretend that isn’t the case). While I’m certain that a reckoning of my neuroses and an itemized list of things I have yet to accomplish would be a riveting read, let’s get to the meat of this article: the RPG campaigns I want to run but have not yet had the chance. What has made this storied list? Well, for starter’s there is:

Eyes of the Stone Thief – Pelgrane Press (13th Age)

I’m not a big fan of megadungeons. A series of keyed encounters heavy on combat but light on role play just doesn’t do a lot for me. Eyes of the Stone Thief is a different beast though. The Stone Thief is a megadungeon, certainly. But it is also its own character, and if the GM does their job even reasonably well, their players will hate this vindictive and evil place.  The fact that Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is one of the best adventure scribes in the business helps as well; if it will help make the GM’s task easier, he has likely included it. From adventure hooks, to icon relationships, to campaign structure, to dungeon configuration changes, to a chart that makes it easy to track when the titular living dungeon will/should dive back into the bowels of the earth, the tools are close to hand.

Chance of Playing: Good. Eyes of the Stone Thief will be conquered by my players one day. Or it will consume them. It is just a matter of time.

Zeitgeist: The Gears of Revolution – EN Publishing (Pathfinder RPG)

Zeitgeist is likely the most ambitious campaign produced for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to date. In its twenty levels, the player characters will advance from being lowly constables attempting to prevent dockside riots to key players in their world, defeating nigh-godlike fey titans and, ultimately setting the course for the next age of the world. The world deserves some mention as well; despite the relative brevity of the Campaign Guide, Zeitgeist’s world, calling it a fey-steampunk marvel doesn’t do it justice, is compellingly well drawn. Zeitgeist is a campaign full of heavy themes, that will demand the best of the GM and players, but if it plays half as well as it reads, it will provide one seriously epic campaign.

Chance of Playing: Excellent. I will likely run this as a solo game; the intrigue and emphasis on role play over dungeon crawl will appeal to Kelly.

The Darkening of Mirkwood / Tales from Wilderland – Cubicle 7 (The One Ring)

When it comes to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (other than The Hobbit), I prefer the films to the books. Yes, I am a godless philistine, I’ve come to terms with it. My current favourite fantasy RPG, The One Ring, however, hews much more closely to the literary source material than to the shield riding shenanigans seen on the big screen. While it may seem to be a bit of a cheat to list two adventures here, there is a good reason: The Darkening of Mirkwood is a sprawling campaign frame full of lightly sketched adventures that cover thirty years (!) from 2947 through 2977. Tales from Wilderland, on the other hand, offers a handful of discrete, excellently designed scenarios that a Loremaster (GM) can slot into the above campaign. There’s a lot to like in these books, but I think my favourite aspect is the expectation that the PCs be heroic. After playing RPGs with largely the same group of people for twenty years, I’ve seen every flavour of douchebag mercenary behavior (“I’m just playing in character, Dweazel the Hamstringer would totally burn down the orphanage just so the populace could see him rescue the orphans from the blaze. How else is he supposed to get a special ladyfriend…) it would be nice to have them actually be the good guys, just this once.

Chance of Play: Moderate. Though ToR is not a difficult system to learn and use, it isn’t D&D or a derivative thereof; getting my players to buy in will likely be difficult.

 

Eternal Lies – Pelgrane Press (Trail of Cthuhlu)

 Eternal Lies is a monster that spans generations as well as continents. While I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, it is a horror-mystery after all, it is safe to say that the sins of the fathers (and mothers) come home to roost, forcing subsequent generations to fix their forebears grave mistakes… or die trying. The nice thing about this campaign is not just that it’s a compelling story; this book is laid out in a way that makes it easy to use. Information is clearly called out. Keeper (GM) material is clearly delineated from player information. Designer notes and anecdotes are copious. The campaign is also open, so while there is definitely an overarching plot, the investigators are free to go where the clues take them without worrying that they’ll miss out on something important.

Chance of Play: Good. When the stars are right, I will run this. Depending on her leveI of interest, I can run it solo for Kelly if necessary; Pelgrane Press does have rules for one Keeper one player play after all…

 

The Dracula Dossier – Pelgrane Press (Night’s Black Agents)

Pelgrane Press hits my bucket list for a third time, as does designer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. There’s a reason for these trends: Pelgrane Press makes fantastic system-seller material for their games, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is a top-tier RPG designer. The Dracula Dossier is two books, The Director’s Handbook, which, as the name implies, contains all of the material an NBA director (GM) needs to run the campaign, and Dracula Unredacted, which is the “real” story as transcribed by Bram Stoker. The two books are extensively cross referenced and both serve to build not just an epic GUMSHOE campaign; they are simply the best RPG adventure I have ever read. I’ve read a lot of adventures over the last thirty-two years, and none of them matches, let alone exceeds this. Honestly, nothing else even comes within spitting distance. The best part isn’t the extensive research the authors obviously did. It isn’t the almost excessive work done to make such a sprawling sandbox easily playable for the director. It isn’t even that whoever gets to play in this campaign is in for something truly epic. The best part is that I could hand (or more likely send a PDF) a copy of Dracula Unredacted to my players and say, “Read this in whole or in part… and tell me where you want to start.” This campaign can be completely driven by the investigators, and the material is presented in a way that the director won’t have any real trouble in adapting to their moves. I’m not sure how Pelgrane Press, or any other company for that matter, will be able to top this.

Chance of Play: High. One way or another, I will run this campaign eventually.

 

So there it is…

While there are other campaigns I’d be happy to run, these five are the ones I’d be most excited to. I was hoping that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition would have produced something to add to the list, but no luck so far. Not that there aren’t good campaigns for 5e, all of the ones Wizards of the Coast has produced so far have been good, some very good, but none of them are superb in my opinion. This is still better than 3.5 or 4th Edition which had one excellent adventure each (Red Hand of Doom and Madness at Gardmore Abbey respectively) and a bunch of dreck otherwise. Despite producing some of my favourite campaign settings, 2nd Edition AD&D has no memorable modules or campaigns I can think of off the top of my head…

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Which campaigns are on your bucket list? Let us know!