Gnome Stew The Gaming Blog Fri, 14 Jun 2024 16:59:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gnome Stew 32 32 Adventure Design: Backgrounds and Factions Wed, 12 Jun 2024 10:00:06 +0000

Since the opening days of my RPG life, I’ve created backgrounds for my characters. It’s just how my brain works. I love creating characters and their backstories. Don’t worry, I don’t force my GM (or fellow players) to endure reading the pages and pages of hastily-written material I’ve made for my characters. You shouldn’t do that either. Any backstory of more than a single page will end up in the “TL;DR” pile and will never come into play.

However, I’m not here today to talk about extensive backstories for your characters. I’m here to give some advice to the GMs out there creating adventures for their group. At the start of the adventure, there is a thing called a “story hook” that I’ll be covering in more detail next month.

Two elements of an adventure (or any ongoing campaign) that can help generate quality story hooks are backgrounds and factions. By providing a short list of options that are closely tied to your adventure setting, you can sprinkle hooks throughout the adventure to keep the PCs on track toward the end goal of confronting the adventure’s Boss.

Most of this material may feel like Session Zero goods, but its really not. Yes, backgrounds and faction alliances (and oppositions) should be determined during Session Zero, but they must come into play throughout the adventure. Otherwise, there is no point in including them at all. The key here is to ensure everything drives the adventure forward, deepens the experience for the players, or gives them motivation to be included in the adventure’s premise.


 Backgrounds should include hooks. 

Backgrounds come in a wide variety of flavors and styles, depending on what game you’re playing. It might be a Fate aspect. It might be a D&D 5e background. It could be a series of die rolls on Cyberpunk 2020’s lifepath system. The list goes on and on and on. I can’t possibly cover all of the distinctions here. If I try, I’ll miss your favorite game’s background system, and then the hate mail will flow in. (Or maybe not; you’re a bunch of nice people.) Instead, I’m going to approach this from a higher-level and more generic angle.

Backgrounds should include hooks into one or more of the following aspects of the adventure. Don’t try to wrap all of these into a single background. Otherwise, it’ll just be too much and will overwhelm the player while they try to keep track of how their background impacts their character.

  • Relationship with an NPC
  • A different style of relationship with a different NPC
  • Alliance with a faction
  • Opposition to a faction
  • Investment in the story hook
  • Creation of a bond with a key location or object

Life is better and creation is easier with examples. Here are a few:

Mentorship – Your character is a mentor to Allela. She is interested in learning from you, is always attentive, and brings you a piece of candy during each of your teaching sessions. (Then, in the story hook, Allela goes missing while on a field trip in the nearby Duldin Forest.) (This creates a relationship with an NPC and the story hook.)

Business Venture – Your character is attempting to get a local merchant guild, The Red Consortium, to invest in an import/export idea that you have. Garlu, the headmaster of the consortium, is reluctant, but will agree to entertain the idea if you do him a favor. (In the hook, the favor requested will be to return a family heirloom that his son lost in the recently discovered ruins in the nearby Duldin Forest.) (This ties the character to a faction, an NPC, a location, and possibly an object.)

Forest Warden – Your character is a member of the Wardens of Duldin Forest. You tend to the forest for Duke Arglist, the local leader of the area, by reducing dangers within the forest and preventing poaching of the duke’s deer. Lately, however, the duke has become concerned with a recent discovery of ruins in the forest. He’s unsure how his royal records and maps never revealed the ruins until its discovery last month. (This ties the character to the duke, a faction, and a location within the forest.)

As you can tell, the ruins within the Duldin Forest are probably going to be key. There is some mystery to the ruins as they were recently discovered. There a few minor hooks here, but they have yet to be fully triggered until the opening few scenes of the adventure. If you can “aim” backgrounds toward the same or similar areas, then hooking the characters (and hopefully the players) into the story will be much easier.

As an addendum, these backgrounds are small elements of a character, not the complete story of the character. Don’t write up a character’s background for the player. Just provide some options for them to pick up and build around while they come up with their own stories about what their characters did before the adventure started.


 Not all factions require background hooks. 

As you can see from my examples above, the factions are woven into the backgrounds. In my three examples, I made use of two different factions. You can include all of the factions into the backgrounds if you choose, but keep in mind that some of the factions may be opposition, not allies. This is easy enough to incorporate into backgrounds by simply having a faction do some wrong or misdeed to a character within the background.

Not all factions require background hooks, though. It’s easy enough to keep some aside, or even secret from the PCs, until it’s the right moment to incorporate them. While I’m talking about secret factions, I’m going to advise you to use those sparingly. If every other faction is a “surprise reveal,” then the shock value will wear off very quickly and have the impact of yawns and boredom, not actual surprise.

Most factions should be known to the players, even if they are not attached to or opposed against one another. There are plenty of factions in the real world that have zero impact on my life, but I’m aware that they exist. (I’m mainly thinking of the artificial construct of home owner’s associations here.) I would recommend only creating the factions that will have a direct and tangible impact on the adventure’s story flow. Give each faction a brief description, and create a “faction handout” for the players to peruse and reference. Obviously, if you have a secret faction or two, you’ll want to avoid putting those on the handout.

Some details about factions that I like to come up with are the leaders, organizational structure, goals of the faction, why the faction wants to accomplish those goals, and identifying marks (if any) of the faction. I don’t detail the membership rank and file beyond noting how many members exist within each city, village, or key location. For the identifying marks, I break those into two categories. The first is to note how members are marked. This could be a uniform, badge, secret handshake, a tattoo, or something else to allow either the public or fellow members to know who is in the know. Secondly, how do the faction “mark their territory” to let opposing factions know to stay away or stay out?


I hope this article helps you come up with some quality adventure-related backgrounds and factions to put to use. I touched on story hooks a little in this article, but next month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into story hooks and how to lay them in front of the players with proper bait on the hook.

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Deathmatch Island Review Mon, 10 Jun 2024 10:00:37 +0000

Ever have a rough morning and not remember where you are? No judgement, just curious. But, what about if you don’t remember where you are, and there seems to be a set of branded clothes sitting on a table across from you? What happens when you wake up with a weird device on your wrist, monitoring how many followers you have?

Can you imagine how terrible it would be to be trapped in a place where you don’t know anyone, you don’t know if anyone is acting in good faith, and everyone is obsessed with followers? I’m so glad stuff like this only happens in games. It would be a nightmare if something like that became commonplace and even started to affect life outside of that strange, disconnected environment.

And on that note, let’s take a look at Deathmatch Island, a new game published by Evil Hat, in association with Old Dog Games.


I received my copy of Deathmatch Island from backing the crowdfunding campaign. I haven’t had the opportunity to play in or run the game, but the game is based on the Paragon System, the same underlying system originally created for Agon. I ran Agon both as an ongoing part of my gaming group’s schedule, and at conventions.

 Deathmatch Island

Game Design, Writing, Graphic Design, Layout, And Illustration Tim Denee
Editor Karen Twelves
Indexer Sadie Neat
Cultural Consultant James Mendez Hodes
System Consultants John Harper and Sean Nittner
Development Consultant Greg Soper
Business Manager Chris Hanrahan
VTT Developer Sophie Lagacé
Marketing Manager Tom Lommel
Project Manager Sean Nittner
Product Developer Fred Hicks

The Staging Grounds

This review is based on the PDF of Deathmatch Island. The PDF is 218 pages long. This includes a title page, a publication page, a credits page, a table of contents, a four-page index, a two-page competitor sheet, a two-page game tracking sheet, and two pages of rules summaries. The document is dominated by orange, white, and black, matching the colors designated for the organization present in the game.

The layout is the same bold, simple, but attractive layout that many Evil Hat projects have. Most pages have a single column layout, but there are a few two column pages, tables, and charts in the book. There are a number of simulated documents, as well as images of items from the competition, like branded flashbang grenades and competitor uniforms.

Production Meetings

Deathmatch Island is meant to emulate media where people compete in unconscionably dangerous games for the amusement of others. It channels the feel of media like The Running Man, The Condemned, The Hunger Games, The Hunt, Battle Royale, and Squid Games. In addition, it folds in some “stranded on a mysterious island/trapped in a mysterious facility” tropes from shows like The Prisoner and Lost.

Contestants wake up on the island, with no idea how they got there. A mysterious figure from Production encourages the players to give their all, while they are shipped off to different islands with fewer and fewer surviving the competitions there. Challenges can grant valuable resources to the competitors, and some may even reveal secrets about the competition and those who run it, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the deathmatch.

The general story of the RPG is simple. Survive, find out something about the mysterious organization, and decide if you are going to work together, or face off against the other players in the game. The texture of the game comes from the details. There are other detailed NPC competitors, a variety of resources to gather, some specific events that can be slotted into different phases of the game, and some mind boggling clues to the nature of the company, which may point people to secret government agencies, massive criminal organizations, secretive labs doing unethical experiments, and maybe even the presence of aliens.

The Backstage Area

While there are some differences, if you have played Agon, you’ll get the general structure of the game. If you haven’t played Agon, let’s talk about the basics.

Characters have die ratings detailing multiple aspects of their character. Characters will have a die for name (how popular you are, hence, how much weight your name has), occupation (what you did before you woke up here), and five additional capabilities, all ranking how well the contestant interacts with different stages of the game. These capabilities are:

  • Social Game–communicating and negotiating with others
  • Snake Mode–performing underhanded actions to succeed
  • Challenge Beast–overcoming physical challenges against the environment
  • Deathmatch–fighting for your life
  • Redacted–finding out things that the organization doesn’t want you to know

You’re always going to be using your name die, because you’re putting your followers and popularity on the line. When you attempt a challenge, if your occupation seems relevant, you can add that to your roll as well. You use one die from your capabilities from the one that makes the most sense for the challenge. If you have Trust with another character (a currency that can be spent), if they are in the same contest that you are, you can spend Trust to add their name die to your pool, and you can spend Trust to avoid harm, representing your ally coming to your aid exactly when you need them.

In addition to these dice, you can mark Acquisition to use relevant items to help you. If you find something relevant and useful to what you are doing, outside of your normal gear, you can also add an Advantage die to your pool. So, your pool is going to look like this:

  • Name
  • Occupation (if applicable)
  • Relevant Capability
  • Advantage (if available)
  • Trust (if you want to spend it and you have that competitor in the same contest)
  • Second Capability (if you mark fatigue to use some out of the box thinking)
  • Acquisition (if available)

To determine if you succeeded, you add two dice from your pool together, except for your Acquisition, which if present, adds to the two dice you picked. NPC competitors or challenges will have their own dice ratings, which will add a set difficulty bonus based on what island you are on, and how dangerous the island and the challenges are.

In Agon, the “parent” to Deathmatch Island, challenges are addressed as if you are narrating an epic poem. Players announce their character by name, stating who they are and what they intend to do. In Deathmatch Island, you introduce characters the way a commentator might on a sports program, and after you determine what happens by rolling the dice, each player goes into a confessional where they talk to the camera and explain exactly what happened and how, in whatever details they want to add, so long as it matches what the dice determined.

That means that, like Agon, a lot of the roleplaying is a zoomed out, third person narration of what the character is doing, with most of the “in person” roleplaying happening in the confessional, and during the trust building and theory crafting that the PCs do between islands.

Characters have Fatigue and Injuries. Failing a task normally costs you Fatigue, and you can spend it as a resource in some instances. If you don’t have Fatigue to mark when you fail, you take an Injury. If you are out of injuries, your character has met their demise. Injuries don’t clear during a season, but you will remove some Fatigue between islands.

As you meet challenges, you gain followers, and when you hit certain milestones, you can advance your characters, picking from the advancements shown at the bottom of the character sheet. Advancements are also gained by accumulating Injuries, but that’s a risky way to improve your capabilities.

The Call Sheet

Another thing you will know if you have played Agon is that there is a specific procedure to play. You tell your story within the structure. Characters arrive on the island, and they will participate in a number of contests. This is Phase One. These challenges happen at different nodes on the island, and some islands and situations may cause the PCs to head to different nodes. Prevailing at some of these challenges may get the PCs an Advantage die due to a situation moving in a favorable direction for the PCs.

They may also find some Acquisitions, the currency you use to add specialized gear to your rolls. While the actual Acquisition isn’t detailed (i.e. you may not find a specific weapon or a specific piece of gear), Acquisition is divided between weapons, equipment, and Redacted. You may have a hard time justifying using survival gear in a Deathmatch, and you can only use Redacted Acquisitions when you are using Redacted to do things “off book” to gather secrets from the organization.

There are also additional traits that a contest may have, including the following:

  • Dangerous–you mark Injury instead of Fatigue if you fail
  • Exhausting–you spend 1 Fatigue to enter the challenge due to effort
  • Restricted–you can only use Redacted Acquisitions

If you use Acquisition to add a weapon to your pool, the contest automatically becomes Dangerous, because you escalated the situation. On the other hand, any challenge that is a Deathmatch is automatically Dangerous.

Phase Two is the climax of the island, where everyone must participate. This is the big event that all the followers are . . . following? Phase Two has its own smaller sections, Scouting, Scramble, and Battle Royale. Scouting lets you engage potential threats that will happen if you don’t address them. The Scramble is a challenge that gives one competitor an Advantage to use in the Deathmatch. If the PCs don’t mark their last Injury, they survive, but some competitors won’t make it to the next island.

Between islands, characters debrief, which is where you find out which NPCs survived and what else happened on the island. After the debrief is Theory Crafting. Theory Crafting is where the PCs get together and talk about the clues they have learned from Redacted activities. It’s worth noting that there isn’t one “truth” about what’s going on, and as the PCs start to come up with in Theory Crafting is probably what you should lean into as the “truth.” The theories are all grouped into broad categories, which are Political Project, Entertainment, Big Experiment, or Weird. The PCs can also build trust with other PCs by sharing flashbacks they have about parts of their life that they couldn’t remember, that are now becoming clear again.

There are three islands to a season, and each island has a larger bonus added to the dice of the individual challenges, representing the increased threat of each location. Island Three has its own quirks, because it’s the end of the season, and everything has to come to a head. By default, players secretly select if they are going to try to break the game or play to win. If anyone is playing to win, and the other PCs are breaking the game, that character gets an Advantage on the others, because they’re betraying the team they’ve been with the whole time.


If someone playing to win makes it to the end, and kills the last (PC) competitor, there are a few questions to answer about what happens next. This is probably some version of you blacking out and waking up back in your normal life, before or after getting to celebrate your win.

If the characters breaking the game survive and there are no PCs playing to win, they still have to fight their way through the remaining competitors. If they win the Battle Royale, they get to pick from a list of damage they can do to the organization, like getting evidence, killing operatives, or blowing up something important looking.

While the islands all have the same procedure, there are different casts that you can apply as a template over the island. This gives you some specific encounters native to that cast, some specific NPCs, and a thematic set of things weaving in and out of the NPCs and their encounters. There are also some questions to answer about the motivations of the cast members you choose, to help determine how they will act.

The game has a range of ways that you can set it up. Your PCs can all have randomly determined aspects, including your motivation, which by default you don’t share, but which you can share if you are playing New Game+, or if you just want to cut down on the potential player versus player activity. You can start with New Game+ if you just want to play characters that know about the game and the organization, and you want to go straight to tearing it down.

Champion For Life
 The game does a great job of using the structure of Agon and framing a different narrative that uses the same toolkit. 

The resolution for this game is simple and intuitive, and while the procedures can look intimidating, there are several places where the process is spelled out in flowchart-like references. There are some delightfully weird Redacted secrets to find out when poking around the island, and some subtle humor tucked into the details. The game does a great job of using the structure of Agon and framing a different narrative that uses the same toolkit.

It was Purgatory

While it is completely intentional, the default mode that allows for player versus player resolution may turn off some players not interested in the potential for that kind of play, even with the optional rules for calibrating those aspects. For some players, it may be less intuitive to switch between narrative roleplaying and in-character roleplaying. It may be daunting, knowing that different phases of the game inform which approach is most appropriate. That’s not so much a flaw as it is a consequence of a game with a very specific personality, which this game shares with its forebear, Agon.

Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

Any caution that I express about picking up this game isn’t because the game does anything that it doesn’t intend to do, and it’s certainly not because it misses the mark on the narrative it presents. If you are a player that doesn’t mind structured roleplaying games where you do specific things in different phases, and you like weaving in and out of being in the “writers room” and being “on set” as an actor, this is still going to be a pretty safe bet, so long as the genre itself appeals to you.

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Gnomecast 190 – Beginning Campaigns Comfortably Wed, 05 Jun 2024 10:00:08 +0000

Join Ang and Josh, along with guest Carl Lehmann as they talk about finding your sweet spot on what you need to begin a campaign comfortably and confidently.


Symphony Entertainment

Alien with Carl – Part 1

Alien with Carl – Part 2

Alien with Carl – Part 3

Alien with Carl – Post Game Lounge with Bridget Jeffries

Six Cultures of Play

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath

The Gamemaster’s Handbook of Proactive Roleplaying

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Dungeons, Dragons, and Emotional Development Fri, 31 May 2024 10:00:04 +0000 Close-up of a Dungeons & Dragons book featuring artwork and the name Gary Gygax. A purple twenty-sided die (d20) with gold numbers, showing a 20, rests on top of the book.

Since their humble beginnings in the 1970s, tabletop RPGs have grown from niche hobbies to mainstream hits. Despite their popularity, they still battle a stigma of being for socially awkward nerds—a notion any seasoned GM or player will happily debunk. These games are far more than fantasy escapism. In fact, studies show that RPGs can significantly boost social skills, emotional intelligence, and empathy.

Emotional Growth Through Role-Playing

From an outside perspective, RPGs might seem like a way to lose yourself in a fantasy world of monster-slaying and loot-grabbing. But anyone who’s played knows there’s so much more. These games shine through collaborative storytelling and social interactions, offering a unique platform for personal growth.

When you’re engaged in role-play, you experience a range of emotions, from success to failure, joy to heartbreak. Experiencing this range of emotions helps to build empathy and improve your social awareness. 

A study from the Johns Hopkins therapy group backs up these claims. They found that role-playing leads to increased empathy, better social interactions, and reduced social anxiety. Dr. William Nation, the group’s leader, explains that the game provides a “psychological distance” allowing players to explore real-life problems in a safe environment. One participant shared that testing waters in-game helped them see how actions and dialogues might play out in real life, making it a fun and effective form of group therapy. 

Additionally, in this video on Building Emotional Literacy Through Dungeons & Dragons, the speakers discuss the concept of the “magic circle” which describes the buffer between the game and the real world. This provides a safe space where players can explore different aspects of their personality and emotions without real-world repercussions. It creates a psychological safe zone, allowing for experimentation, risk-taking, and emotional growth.

RPGs also offer a safe space to express and experience situations you might shy away from in real life.
Ever wanted to try being the bold leader or the charismatic negotiator? RPGs let you explore these facets of your personality in a low-stakes environment.

You also learn practical communication skills that can be used in the real world. Ever tried to convince a stubborn NPC to give you a discount while your party’s rogue is trying to pickpocket him? It’s like negotiating with your toddler while your dog steals dinner off the table—pure chaos, but you learn a lot about patience and quick thinking. By working through in-game scenarios, players gain real-world confidence and ability in conflict resolution.

In essence, D&D is a powerful tool for emotional and social growth. By immersing yourself in another character’s world, you expand your emotional toolkit and become more adept at navigating human relationships. The collaborative nature of RPGs fosters empathy, self-awareness, and social competence, proving that these games are far more than just entertainment—they’re a means of personal development.

Tabletop RPGs in Therapeutic & Educational Settings

Disclaimer: While tabletop RPGs offer many benefits, a normal gaming session should not be viewed as therapy, nor is it a substitute for professional help.

While RPGs offer benefits from regular play, they’ve shown to be useful in clinical and educational settings too. A comprehensive study by Boston University explores the use of D&D in educational and therapeutic contexts. This study emphasized how D&D enhances problem-solving, critical thinking, and social skills.

For instance, the pilot program involving middle-school students focused on promoting social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies like self-management and relationship skills, showing significant improvements in these areas. According to the study, “students demonstrated notable progress in self-awareness and cooperation, essential for both academic and personal success.”

Another study from foundty10 examined the impact of RPGs on socialization and emotional stability. The findings suggest that RPGs significantly reduce social anxiety and enhance communication skills, offering a safe space for individuals to practice social interactions without real-world repercussions. The study reported that “participants who regularly engaged in RPG sessions exhibited lower levels of social anxiety and improved social functioning.”

An article from Dicebreaker highlights the use of RPGs by support workers to manage trauma, addiction, and loss. Support workers found that RPGs provided a safe space for vulnerable individuals to explore emotions and build confidence. One participant recovering from addiction noted that playing a brave character helped them become more confident in real life. According to the article, “RPGs offer a unique therapeutic approach, allowing participants to safely explore and confront their fears and anxieties within the structured framework of the game.”

In educational settings, RPGs have been used to assist in teaching a range of topics. According to a study by Alexandra Carter, D&D was used to teach subjects like mathematics, history, and language arts by embedding educational content into the game’s narrative, resulting in improved engagement and learning outcomes among students. The study found that “students were more motivated to participate and showed higher retention rates when educational material was presented through the engaging medium of an RPG.”


Tabletop RPGs offer far more than just entertainment; they are powerful tools for personal development, fostering empathy, social skills, and emotional intelligence. The studies and examples highlighted in this article show how RPGs can help players navigate real-life challenges, build confidence, and improve social interactions. Whether used in therapeutic settings or as part of educational programs, RPGs provide a unique and engaging way to develop essential life skills. 

It’s amazing how a simple game can impact personal and emotional development. RPGs remind us that play is not just a pastime but a vital tool for growth and self-discovery. For those who regularly play, I’d love to hear how it has impacted your life. Share your stories in the comments below, and let’s celebrate how this game brings people together and helps us grow.

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Make it Episodic – GM Tips & Tricks Wed, 29 May 2024 10:00:11 +0000 Two people stare at a scarred moon over a gothic background

Let’s start from the beginning… what is the primary BBEG in all gaming tables? We all know that is scheduling. So the moment one of your players fails to come to one of the games, you know you will have to get the player up to date on what happened and give an explanation to why they weren’t present during the previous session with the players. What if I told you this could be easily solved?

A plethora of games already use it as the default way to handle sessions, but still, so many of us shy away from it for some reason. Several TV shows (especially cartoons, anime, and sitcoms) are episodic (with one or two chapters every once in a while having a “To be continued…”). Why is it that they did that and why might we want to apply it to our home games?

Episodic Narrative

Similar to a one-shot or a stand-alone movie, episodic chapters in some cartoons, TV series, animes, and more use a format of beginning, climax, and end. They are auto-conclusive, any episode can be seen without having seen the previous one and, in most cases, you should not have any problem understanding the narrative. In the mostly dead era of regular television, people would often just watch whatever was being aired on TV. If the chapter from the TV series being aired was too difficult to follow if you hadn’t seen the rest of it, most people would just change the channel and watch some other thing. In the streaming era we are in right now, that concept is pretty much dead by this point.

But why would we want to do this in our TTRPG sessions? It is a fact that if you end a session on a cliffhanger, not finishing the narrative, people will be excited to come back to the next session. I am not denying that. However, being the adults we are, it may often be difficult to find a good time for us to all be able to meet for one session. When you make your sessions episodic, you can allow for someone to miss a session and there is nothing wrong with it. You can even tie one person not being there into the narrative!

Episode Structure

Episodic structure refers to a narrative composed of loosely connected or self-contained incidents. Essentially, each scene stands alone as a distinct unit, while still contributing to the overall storyline of the work. Episodic structure is often utilized in television shows, where each episode tells a self-contained story while still advancing the larger series plot.

The image features a graph showcasing how tension rises the more it approaches to the third act, to finally go down into a conclusion

Three Acts Narrative Structure

If we structure our sessions in three acts, it will look something like this: the first one is the exposition, where a villager or the mayor of the town gives us a mission to take. Then comes the rising action or climax, in which the characters are sent to investigate a farm that appears to be haunted, only to find out there is a secret lab filled with traps below it. Lastly, for act three we reach the falling action, or finale, when we find evidence that the lab belongs to the town’s police officer’s daughter, and you have to chase her down in an epic chase concluding the story with a final epic fight. Sounds rad, huh?

This format is studied to easily hook the viewer, gamer, or listener, and that’s why we find it across all media. You can use it in all your sessions to achieve great success. However, doing so can lead to railroading the players and needing to do much more preparation. The GM needs to have great management of the flow of pacing in the game to achieve these (see Jennifer’s great article on how to handle time for running games at cons or an old article of mine for guidance on these). Running multiple one-shots can also help you get the hang of it, as one-shots are made to work like a single episode. Lastly, several games facilitate the whole episodic format way better: the Kids on… series of games, Brindlewood Bay, Agon, and Cantrip, just to list a few, excel at this.

The Larger Series Plot

Series that follow an episodic format still usually have an overarching plot going on in the background. Unless it’s something like The Simpsons, or South Park where a character’s death rarely means anything, there usually is a story going on in the background. Supernatural, or Gravity Falls, just to list two episodic series I am watching at the moment of writing this, follow that same format, with the overarching narrative having me come back again and again willing to know what is going on. However, at the same time, I know that if I pass 2 weeks without seeing a chapter I can easily jump back into the narrative without the need for a recap.

Brindlewood Bay has mechanics for the game work exactly like that, with the grandmas solving small cases, but encouraging the GM to have at least 2 details of the big plot happening involving Lovecraftian secrets or conspiracies to be thrown per episode. You can do this with any game if you plan ahead enough, and I can guarantee there is great fun to be had from it, coming from experience. It can also be a fun minigame having the players name the episode at the end of the session.


As stated, episodic narrative has a bunch of benefits, and can be a fun change from the usual style you are used to. Grab a one-shot adventure, tie it into the overall narrative, and get your players to play in a series of self-contained episodes leading to a bigger narrative. You can have a “To be continued…” thrown every once in a while, but as a personal challenge, why not try giving an episodic campaign a chance in your game of choice?


Have you ever run an episodic campaign in your home games? What are your thoughts on it? Do you have any additional pros or cons about them that I didn’t list here? Let me know in the comments below so we can keep the conversation going!

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Nostalgia Gaming Fri, 24 May 2024 10:00:48 +0000 Recently, I had the chance to do something I never thought was possible. After 36 years, I returned to the table with most of my high school gaming group to play a game. I spent a few weeks preparing for it and ran two sessions during the weekend. It went fantastically, and along the way, I learned a few things about this specific type of session… Nostalgia Gaming. So let’s talk about it. 

What is Nostalgia Gaming? 

Let me make up a definition for this. Nostalgia is defined as, “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past”. Nostalgia gaming is when you run a session to bring about that sentimental longing or wistful affection for a past game or game group. 

This was my goal. I wanted to play a game that would feel like when we played in our teens. I wanted us to forget about it being 36 years later, and transport us back to a time when we would get out of school on a Friday, run to the grocery store to stock up on drinks and chips, and then head to one of our houses to play games until it was way too late in the evening.

Because of this goal, I made some specific choices about what game we played, the adventure I wrote, and how I GMed it.

Picking The Game

For the group that I was going to visit and the years that I was the GM for them, the game that was iconic for our group was Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We played several campaigns of TMNT. One member of our group was an artist and drew character portraits for all the characters back when we were playing. While I could not remember too many specifics about the sessions of our campaigns, all of us could remember the characters. That was the kind of game I was looking for. One that everyone had fond memories of that could bring about that nostalgic feeling. 

There was just one thing. Over the years, I have lost my love for that system, but lucky for me Julian Kay created Mutants in the Now. Julian had the same feelings about the original system and the same love for the source material. I wanted a game that would bring about a nostalgic feeling and was happy to do it with a game with modern game design. 

Prepping The Game

The Adventure

I knew I would be writing the adventure. I wanted to go for something nostalgic, and it had to be a one-shot and playable in 1-2 sessions. I went with an assault on a big bad’s lair. It was an easy plot, with only one twist. I cut out the planning of the assault by making my Mad Lib plan. To make it nostalgic, I took the iconic villain from the TMNT RPG, Dr. Feral, and made him the center of the adventure. 

My goal was for the adventure to be high-action, with lots of minions to mow down, and an epic battle for the finale. I also wanted to make sure that there were scenes where everyone got a moment to shine and do something cool. All of that was worked into my prep. 


I did not want us to spend any time making up characters as time was precious. Mutants in the Now has a pretty extensive character generation system (though more streamlined than the source material). While that may have been fun if we had more time, I went with making all the characters beforehand. 

In doing so, I emphasized getting the memory of the character more correct than any of the mechanical specifics. I remembered all the archetypes for the characters and created the pre-gens around those themes. 

Abilities Sheet

Since none of the players were familiar with the system and none of them had any of the books, I made a Google Doc with the text of all of the character’s specific abilities so they could easily reference them during play. I wanted to avoid having to pass around the one table copy of the game during play.

Cheat Sheets

Mutants in the Now also has a helpful combat sheet, to aid during play. I made copies of that for the table as well, so that they could easily look up all the combat options. 

That was a lot of prep, but I wanted to be able to hit the table and start playing as fast as possible. For this kind of gaming, I was ok with putting the burden of the work on me, to make the play experience better for everyone. 

Running the Session

For the running of the session, I did just a few specific things to make the game go smoothly. 

No Planning

 This would remove the need for planning but also would emulate the competency of a team that had planned their assault well. 

I wanted this game to be about action and not bogged down in planning. That is why I prepped the game with the Mad Libs plan, and because this was the type of mission where a lot of planning would have happened, I gave each of the players a token that they could use for one flashback, where they prepared something for a given moment in the game. This would remove the need for planning but also would emulate the competency of a team that had planned their assault well. 

The Spirt of the Rules…Not The Letter

During the session, I did not worry about if everyone exactly got the rules right, or if I was remembering each rule. The goal was to have fun, and so after a quick overview of how the rules worked we started playing, and when we hit any questions, I just made up answers and kept going, and did not check the rulebook. That is in contrast to how I run games at home or even at a convention, where I put more of an emphasis on getting the rules right or showcasing the rules.

I was also generous in making rulings in favor of the players, to make sure they all got to do some cool things. This game was not the place to worry about realism or how exact mechanics work. We played Theater of the Mind so that I could make the world fit what the players wanted to do. 

Everyone Got To Kick Ass

I made sure in my prep that there was the potential for each character to do something cool. During play, I also made sure that those opportunities came up or I capitalized on something cool the players came up with, and in most cases, both. The vast majority of the enemies they encountered before the climactic battle were minions and plenty of them. I let them mow them down unmercifully. This mixed with the advice above, allowed me to make sure each of them had some awesome moment where they got to shine in their archetype. 

For the climatic battle, I had a mix of combatants and non-combat objectives. The combat-focused characters could brawl while the non-combat characters could work on the other objectives all in the same dynamic scene.

They Were Going to Win

No matter what happened, we were here for a kick-ass time, and that meant that Dr. Feral was going to die, no matter what. I did not prep anything specific for this, but there are a number of GM tricks I could have used to ensure that he was taken down by the characters.

But in the playing of the game, I did not have to do any of that. In the climactic battle, one of the players scored a brutal Barrage maneuver, which took out Dr. Feral much to the joy of the table. 

How Did It Go?

It was awesome. The game lived up to what I was hoping it would be. First, the Mutants in the Now rules are excellent and they make for some very exciting combats. For all my intent of streamlining rules, I had to do it only a few times. Most of the time we played the game pretty much as written.

Second, all the prep paid off and I was able to get everyone into playing the game quickly and kept the focus on the action. Lastly, the way I ran it maximized the fun over the accuracy, and it was the right vibe for a nostalgia game.

This Kind of Sounds like Convention Gaming…

For sure, I drew inspiration from running numerous convention games, to design the game for everyone to have a good time. I think the biggest departure for me was that I relaxed on rules accuracy/mastery and emphasized having fun. Also, in convention games, I will let a party lose, but that was not going to happen in this game. 

Waxing Nostalgic

Thirty-six years is a long time to get that group back to the table. I wanted to make sure that our return would be an enjoyable time. It was. For that weekend, at that table, we were teenagers again, with our mutant animals saving the day. I was thrilled to be able to bring that experience to the group and to share the table with them once more.

The thing about nostalgic gaming is that feelings are more important than accuracy. Do what you need to do to make the game feel like it did back in the day. For me, it was to change systems and do a lot of upfront prep and just a minor change to my normal GMing style. 

If you ever get the chance to run a nostalgia game for people in your past, I hope you have as much fun as we did. Have you ever run a nostalgia game and for whom? How did it go?

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Gnomecast #189 – Kobayashi Maru: Unwinnable Scenarios Thu, 23 May 2024 10:00:09 +0000

Ang, Jared and Chris get on the mics to talk about unwinnable scenarios. Why to run them, how to run them, and everything in between!


Encoded Designs 5e Bundle X-men ’97

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Dungeons, Dragons, and (Online) Dinner Parties Fri, 17 May 2024 13:08:22 +0000

I’ve been mulling over the follow-up to my article On Dragons, Dungeons, and Dinner Parties for [ checks notes ] officially too long, but just this last week, I remembered a saying we used to have when I worked in theater arts: “The audience isn’t just coming for the show; they’re also coming for the experience.”

These words guided every decision we made, from the ticketing process to the music that played in the lobby to the snacks we served at concessions. It was all part of the experience, which brought me back to the idea of how to successfully host an online game experience.

How do we craft a good experience for our players when they’re just voices in our ears and videos on our screens?

There are plenty of articles and how-to videos out there about the technical skills you need to run a game online, but for this article, I want to talk about the charisma-based skill challenges we face when our campaigns are digital—the soft skills, the social stuff.


Whether you’re using Discord, Slack, or (gods forbid) Microsoft Teams, you will need some way to communicate with the people you’re playing with. That part’s obvious.

What isn’t so obvious is how you organize the chats. Plural.

I suggest a minimum of three different chat channels:

  • An out of character channel where you can schedule sessions, socialize, and generally just, you know, chat.
  • An in-character channel where players can send each other messages from their characters through sending spells, text messages if it’s a modern or future setting, or letters and missives if it’s a more fantasy-based setting.
  • A rules-only channel where you can discuss the fiddly bits of the system and keep track of house rules.

Your Out of Character channel will likely see the most use, and I encourage you to keep that channel active between sessions. Share fun links or funny memes. Post gifs that remind you of what the characters did (the “Adam West Batman with a Bomb” gif gets a lot of use in our channels, as does the “Concern compilation” gif). Talk about your day. Use it like you’d use any social group chat.

TTRPGs are about having fun with your friends, so use the out-of-character channel to have fun with them.

Keeping the channel active between sessions means your players will get in the habit of checking it. This makes them more likely to see your game-relevant posts and keeps the game top-of-mind. It’s a great way to foster a healthy table and a flourishing campaign.


Healthy table chatter during a session is part of the game. When you’re sitting at an actual table, it’s easy enough for folks to talk through their moves during someone else’s turn, discuss the plot during someone else’s scene, or maybe even complain about their boss or something else non-game related if they need to vent.

The problem with table chatter in an online game is that, usually, everyone’s in the same voice channel at roughly the same volume, so it’s much easier to interrupt the session. Try relegating the cross-talk to the text channel.

My groups have taken to trading relevant GIFs back and forth as a kind of running peanut gallery when we don’t have the spotlight. It adds humor and levity to serious or tense scenes and keeps people engaged and – in a way – participating in what’s going on, even if their characters aren’t there.


When looking up a rule will take longer than the scene can sustain, good GM’s break out the tried and true “We’ll do it this way for now and clarify it for the future later.”

The rules channel? It’s the perfect place to do that “later” work. Not only will it give the more rules-minded people a place to discuss their interpretations, but it also acts as a running repository for the eventual rulings and a great place to drop house rules.


An online chat space can seem…amorphous. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of notifications from other apps, pets begging for attention, or kids who don’t understand that Mommy needs her shiny math rock time right now. Rituals are one way we can help turn that amorphous, unformed space into a realm of wonder and imagination.

Whenever my players log into our Virtual Table Top, they see the same image: a kind of title screen with the name of the campaign and pictures of their characters. In technical terms, it’s just a gridless map in the VTT, but psychologically it has the same effect as a video game loading screen.

Likewise, I always open my games with the same phrase (borrowed from something Taliesin Jaffe once said on a podcast): “Grab a seat and a snack and attend carefully as we begin.”

Having a small ritual like this grounds players in the fictional reality we’re about to weave together.

I also end every session with Stars and Wishes. Not only is this a great way to get a glimpse into what your players want to see in future sessions, but it also gives them a chance to reminisce over the most recent session, and it’s a great way to signal that we’re done now.

(Rituals like this work great for in-person games, too, by the way.)


It goes without saying, but it’s kinda hard to read body language on a voice call. Even if your group uses video, it’s not easy to get a read on people if they’re not in the same room as you are. It’s not impossible, though. We all get used to the cadence and flow of conversations with our friends, and human brains are great at spotting both patterns and anomalies in those patterns.

You’ll notice changes in your friends’ usual tones, when the talkative one goes quiet, and when the amiable one gets curt. However, it’s almost impossible to know why precisely the vibe has changed. Maybe your talkative friend has gone quiet because she doesn’t like the way the scene is going, or maybe her cat pulled her mic cable out of her computer.

For this reason, it’s vitally important to check in with your players frequently, even if you think everything’s going great. Make a habit of checking in after breaks and at the end of sessions.

Your VTT should have plugins for other safety mechanics like the X card, and Demiplane has even created a new app that folks can use to anonymously alert their GM to aspects of the scenes that are making them uncomfortable.

Hell, I’ve even started doing what I like to call “Re-Session Zeros” after big milestone moments in the campaign. These out-of-character-only sessions give me a chance to make sure everyone’s still on board with the way the story’s been developing and give us all a chance to course-correct if we need to.


Speaking of making sure voices are heard: If you’ve got quiet players or players that don’t like to interrupt, creating a way for them to “raise their hand” when they want to interject is important. Personally, I keep a list of the PCs and put tick marks near their names as they take the spotlight. This helps me, as the GM, make sure everyone gets scenes and attention, but you could also institute a player-side mechanic depending on the chat program/VTT you’re using.

Roll20, for example, changes your character portrait based with a drop down menu. You could color code the portraits for folks who want to interject or take the spotlight. Zoom literally has a “raise hand” option.


Lastly, depending on your group, you’ll need patience in terms of timing and fictional spatial awareness. Just like during in-person games, one player may want a minute-by-minute accounting of their character’s actions while another might take a more, let’s say, narrative view on time, rushing through hours or maybe even days worth of tasks in a few descriptive sentences.

When you’re all together at a table, it’s easier to juggle the time stream, but even more, when you’re playing online, you need to make sure everyone else is aware of where and when their characters are. Consider taking a queue from video games and creating “overworld” maps to show characters’ general locations during downtime.


This list isn’t exhaustive, obviously, and not every group will need every bit of advice given above, but even if you throw out all of the above, remember this one rule of thumb, and you won’t go wrong:

If you put as much care into all of the things surrounding your game as you do into preparing the actual game itself, then you’ll craft a wonderful experience.

After all, experience is more than the points that get handed out at the of the session. Experience is literally the friendships we make along the way.

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Adventure Design: Detailing Back to Front Wed, 15 May 2024 10:00:46 +0000

This time around, I’m going to talk about the order in which you design your adventures. There are many takes on this, and loads of approaches to use. However, I’m going to focus in on what works for me. If it works for you, great! If you give it a try, and it doesn’t quite jive with how your creative processes work, that’s fine too.

As you can tell from the title of the article, I’m going to be talking about adventure design in the order of do the back of the book first, then work toward the front of the book, with one exception. I encourage to know where the story starts at a high level. Determine your location, setting, situation, and any NPCs needed for that opening scene. Don’t setup the story hook just yet. That’ll come later because the hook will point the PCs toward the Boss fight and the final scene.

Opening Scene

 Where to start? 

Figure out where in the world you want the PCs to start. This can be a village, a city, an outpost, a set of ruins, or some place that has a named marker on your overland map. Then, determine the specifics of where in that location you want the PCs to be when they get the hook. This could be a tavern, a temple, the village square, a row of merchants’ tents, or something similar.

Don’t determine your hook yet. The hook is a pointer to the first stop across many navigation points. You’ll need to determine where the PCs are going to go and what they’re going to face prior to pointing them in a direction. Not having your final location and scene determined is like shouting “ROAD TRIP!” and diving into the car without having a map or a plan. Sure, you might have some fun and adventures, but without that map, you’ll soon wonder where you’re going to end up. That’s not the best plan of action when it comes to planning out an adventure for your players.

The Boss

Figure out who the Big Bad Boss of your adventure is going to be. The world is your oyster, but make sure the Boss reflects that mood, tone, and theme of your adventure. If you’re going for a whimsical, humorous story about unrequited love, the Boss should probably not be an eldritch horror from the depths of the ocean. I mean, that could work, but the bar for success will be set very high.

 What are the boss’s goals and motivations? 

Once you know who the Boss is, determine what they are trying to accomplish. Does the Boss want to perform a ritual to douse the sun for a full month? Does the Boss just want to open a portal to escape to another realm? Does the Boss want to open a gateway to summon horrific creatures from a far realm into the local area? Does the Boss want to take over a local trade route to make some coin? Perhaps the Boss is a spurned lover of a local NPC, and the Boss just wants to make that NPCs life as miserable as possible.

Whatever they are trying to do, it is paramount to also document why the Boss is trying to accomplish their goals. This motivation will allow you to adjust the Boss’s goals and approaches when the party gets in the way of the goals. A good Boss has a backup plan.

The Lieutenants

 Lieutenants are the obstacles and side quests. 

Once you know your Boss, go out and create or find appropriate Lieutenants for the adventure. It’s pretty rare that the party will beeline from the opening scene to the final location to confront the Boss. There are going to be obstacles, side treks, mini-quests, and other things to pull the party aside from going straight to the Boss’s lair and putting a good whippin’ on them. This is where the Lieutenants come into play. Depending on the length of your adventure, find some varied Lieutenants for the party to work their way through. A good range of headcount here is 1-3 Lieutenants. You can do more if the adventure is longer of if the party is going to encounter more than one Lieutenant in a single location.

The Underlings

All Bosses and Lieutenants need people to give orders to. Otherwise, they’re not very good at their jobs. This is where Underlings come into play. These people and creatures are generally more numerous and weaker in power than the Boss and Lieutenants that you’ve come up with.

There are different types of underlings.

Underlings can be absolutely loyal, completely fanatical, swords for hire, or thoroughly unreliable. They can also be a mix of those attributions, so there might be a chance for the PCs to undermine the Boss’s power structure by hiring away, cajoling into cooperation, or dominating into fleeing some groups of Underlings. Straight combat and slaughter of the Underlings will most likely happen in some encounters, but that gets boring if the Underlings’ sole purpose is to sap the PCs’ resources and hit points.

Final Location and Scene

Once you have your power structure of Boss, Lieutenants, and Underlings in place, you’ll need to figure out where the Boss is going to be encountered and who will be with them when the PCs finally arrive on the scene. This location needs to be discoverable by following a trail of clues, information, and signposts (not literally) that the PCs come across throughout the adventure. They need to be able to clearly traverse from the opening scene to the final location.

 Where will the PCs encounter the Boss? 

Document what the final scene will look like. Where is it? What does the room, set of rooms, complex, or arrangement of buildings look like? What’s the exterior and interior made of? Give some good, potent descriptions here of the setting that support your mood, tone, and theme.

Also figure out what else is going on here beyond “The Boss is waiting for the PCs to show up.” Areas always have activities going on, even when the PCs aren’t present. Figure out what those activities are to make your setting pop and come alive.

Work Back to Front

Have you ever cheated at solving a maze? Yeah. You. I’m looking at you. It seems to me that mazes are more difficult to solve if you start at the entrance and work your way to the exit. However, it just seems to be easier to go from the exit toward the entrance. Maybe it’s just me.

 The trail of breadcrumbs is essential. 

Once you have your final location, setting, and scene established, you can work your “adventure maze” backward toward the opening scene. You know where you are at the end. You should have an idea of what information the PCs need to get to that location. Where can they find that information? Build out that new location with proper setting, Lieutenants, Underlings, mood, tone, and theme.

Now you have a new location that the PCs will need information to get to. Where can they find that information? Hey! Now you have yet another location to detail.

Repeat the above process until you’ve followed the trail from back to front to get to the opening scene.

Set the Hook

 The hook is where everything starts. It’s vital! 

The location of interest nearest the opening scene in the order of the story arc needs to be pointed to via information. This is your story hook. This is the first piece of pertinent information the party is going to receive. This is probably the most important piece of information the party is going to receive. If they ignore it, dismiss it, don’t latch onto it, or just plain miss it, then the adventure is dead in the water. You don’t want this to happen.

This means your opening salvo of information needs to be timely, pertinent to the PCs, actionable, achievable, and not too horribly risky at first glance. Once you have momentum in the story, your future bits of information can be helpful in nature, but if you can make each piece of information along the way as vital to the PCs as the opening story hook, all the better.

Up Next!

Next month, I’ll be talking more about backgrounds and factions. These will help you out in creating and setting that initial hook. If you have proper backgrounds and factions in place for the players to incorporate into their characters, then you can even develop multiple hooks for the various backgrounds and factions that all point in the same direction. This will make the start of your game even more potent! More on that next month, though.

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For the Queen 2024 Edition Review Mon, 13 May 2024 10:00:22 +0000 A colorful close box that says "For the Queen," which has five femme presenting characters arranged on the cover. There is also an image of the box open, with the cards inside. There are examples of what the Rules and Questions cards look like, and there are two queen cards, one showing a woman wearing a purple business suit, and another showing a celestial queen with a glowing crown.

A new version of the roleplaying card game For the Queen is upon us, and as I prepared to write this review I thought, “I just wrote a review for this game.” Then I realized that it’s been almost four years since I wrote this review, and the enormity of the progress of time, how long I’ve been writing reviews, and how close death is to claiming me all hit at once. I’m better now. Composure is back. So, let’s take a look at the new edition of For the Queen.


I am working from a review copy of the game provided to me by Darrington Press. My previous review, based on the initial publication run of the game, was based on a copy of the game that I purchased myself. One of the first games I picked up when I finally resolved to run games via VTT was the digital version of For the Queen on Roll20. I have played this game quite a bit and have even gotten a few rounds of play for the new version under my belt as well.

For the Queen

Darrington Press
Game Designer:
Alex Roberts
Meredith Katz
Cultural Consultant:
Cai Kagawa Game
Production Manager:
Alex Uboldi
X Card:
John Stavropoulos
Graphic Design:
Matt Paquette & Co
Arlei Dormiendo, Arthur Riel Cabezas, Brady Evans, Caitlyn Kurilich, Céline Vu, Cheseely Li, Chelsea Ortega, Constance Bouckaert, Denis Freitas, Eleonor Piteira, Esther Tejano, G.C. Houle, Hamahmeyo, Jeong Kim, Kelsey Eng, Lemonjuiceday, LABillustration, Lara Georgia Carson, Lauren Covarrubias, Malia Ewart, Maxine Vee, Nicole Gustafsson, Karina Pavlova (WeirdUndead), Silly Chaotic, Tasia M S

Consulting the Deck

This edition of For the Queen contains all the content of the previous edition, except the art on the previous run. All the queens have been reimagined and reinterpreted. The original game had 82 cards, while the new edition comes in at 91 cards.

The previous version of the game had a top slide deck box, meaning that you pulled the cover off from the top, and if you grabbed the deck from the top, the bottom of the box would fall out. This version is designed to look like a book and has a magnetic clasp to seal the box shut.

All of the Queen cards are now double sided, with one of the cards having each of the queens’ “names” and artist listed. Each card’s name is a descriptor of what kind of queen they are, for example, one card is the Carnival Queen.

The previous edition of the game was already an attractive game with great artwork, especially the queen cards. This version of the game manages to push the envelope further, with an amazing box and a wonderful set of new artwork for all the queens. You need to see it for yourself, but if you ever looked at your copy of For the Queen and wondered, “what would a computer program, cyberpunk, or murderous prom attendee look like as a queen,” this deck’s artwork answers that for you.

The cards break down something like this:

  • Game Content Card—1 card
  • Queen Cards—13 cards (25 illustrations, 1 list of queens and artists)
  • X-Card—1 card (X on each side)
  • Rules Cards—17 cards
  • Question Cards—60 (including “The Queen is Under Attack”)

If 17 cards of rules feel intimidating, don’t worry, the cards are meant to be read out loud to set the stage and explain how the game works. Each card has a short paragraph of explanation on it.

What’s the Deal?

I’ve played this game with my former game group at the local game store and at various conventions. For a new review, and a new edition of the game, I wanted a fresh perspective. Once a month on Saturday, I run a D&D game for my daughter, my daughter-in-law, and their friend – all in their late 20s to early 30s. I asked if they would be interested in playing the game, and I got an enthusiastic yes from all of them. The concept was already selling the game for them.

For comparison, I also brought along the previous edition of the game. I wanted the group to have a chance to see the difference between the editions. I asked them not to consider the dinged-up corner on my first edition box, where I launched it out of my backpack at a convention. After we took some time to look at the cards from both boxes, and we decided where we were going to set up the game, we started.

If you haven’t played the game before, I’ll summarize it the way I did for my Saturday group. Each player takes a card from the deck on their turn. There is a prompt asking you questions that range from who you are to the queen, how you feel about actions the queen has taken, and how you feel about other players. You improvise your answers to these prompts, and as you are answering, you get a general idea of who you are. Other players can ask follow up questions when you answer a card, but you don’t have to answer them.

While there is no formal process for creating a character, an image starts to take shape the more questions you answer, which helps to inform the next question you are asked. I’ve seen people get a general idea about who they are by the end, and I’ve seen people weave some deep narratives based on the prompts. There is a single card in the deck that says “The Queen is Attacked,” and when that card is drawn, you decide, based on how you have answered the questions, if you will defend the Queen – and that’s how the game ends.

If there is a prompt you are uncomfortable answering, or one you just don’t want to answer, you can touch an X-Card, and the prompt card gets discarded. If you don’t want to answer your prompt, but you don’t want to X-Card it, you can pass it to the next player, to see if they want to answer the prompt.

The box for the game For the Queen, across from the X-Card opposite the box. In the middle are a stack of question cards, with a discard pile on one side and the image of The Witch Queen on the other side.Game Number One

To decide on which queen we were going to use, I held up each card, then showed its opposite side, and asked everyone to vote on which side we would keep. Once we decided on which images to have face up, we narrowed down our options from there. We settled on The Witch Queen, in large part because my daughter-in-law wanted to boop the dragon in the picture. This became very important. One of the players said, “she’s so cute, we’re probably going to make her into a monster.”

We took the bottom third of the deck, shuffled “The Queen is Under Attack” in, and started the game. Because of how the table was laid out, it was easier to make sure everyone could reach the X-Card if I pulled the card from the original edition and placed it on one side, with the new X-Card on the other side. Once we had the placement of the deck sorted, we started playing. The group asked me to pull first, since I’ve played it so many times before.

From the first card that I drew, I started going deep into answering from the perspective of a vulnerable individual, to the point that one of my player’s mentioned, “you’re in therapy mode right now, aren’t you?” Maybe.

In addition to my emotionally compromised character who was defensive for how the queen talks about his family, we had someone that had killed 42 men, and only disappointed the queen when she failed to kill 43. We had another character begin to emerge that kept the queen’s menagerie of animals but was never allowed to touch the dragon. She was also kept in a cage and eats people. Our final character had her freedom curtailed by various means, is similarly bound, but does not, in fact, eat people.

When “The Queen is Attacked” was drawn, we found out that the keeper of the menagerie was a demon who can turn into any creature she touches, which is why she wanted to touch the dragon. She did not defend the queen. Our killer was a sell sword looking to avenge her father, who did not defend the queen because the queen was complicit in covering up who killed her father. Our bound but not human devouring character was an old friend of the queen now in indentured service, who did not defend the queen in hopes of regaining her freedom. My character did defend the queen, because I was from a disgraced noble family that had to flee our homes, and when my loss of station meant I couldn’t marry the queen, she still provided a place at court for me.

That was a lot. One of the highlights was my daughter asking her friend if she was Inigo Montoya, at which point she answered, “damn it.”

Question cards in the middle of the table, with a discard pile on one side, and the card with the image of the Undead Queen on the other side. There is an X-Card sitting to one side, above another card that reads "The Queen is Under Attack. Do You Defend Her?"Game Number Two

From previous playthroughs, it was my experience that having different people draw the same cards, while envisioning a different queen, leads to a much different experience. I was excited to play through a second time, and so were the other members of my Saturday D&D group. We looked through the other queens that we hadn’t used yet and selected the Undead Queen. “We’re totally going to make her into a sweetheart, I bet.”

The second time through, I think we had our creative neurons firing, because almost everyone started coming up with a deeper backstory after just a few prompts. We had one prompt passed on, and then X-Carded, but it was mainly because it just didn’t work for what either player wanted to answer, rather than causing a safety issue. Still nice to have the X-card available if it had been the latter.

The further the game went, the more it seemed like we had two, maybe three, people related to the queen, and two others that had practiced magic with her in the past, and possibly in the present. One had saved her life, and another had feuded with her publicly. I kept her tomes of necromantic spells at hand for her, as well as her other magical implements. “We went really high fantasy this time around, didn’t we?”

By the time the queen was attacked, we found out that she had taken in one character, a refugee of the lost royal line that the queen’s father had wiped out. Another character was the queen’s mother, and the queen had killed her father to free her mother from him. Because the queen mother was from the previous royal line, that meant that our refugee and the queen mother turned out to be cousins. Our other character was the princess, who had refused to marry someone to forge an alliance with another country, meaning her mother then had to do so. Through my answers, we determined that the queen was operating under a curse, so she had to learn both dark and light magic, and as her apprentice, I was deciding which path I was going to take. I was the only one who didn’t defend the queen when she was attacked, because I wanted her to be free of the burden of balancing light and dark, because I had seen how much the dark magic pained her to use.

Apparently we are incapable of generating maximum drama. We all had a blast, although I pointed out, we only made the Undead Queen a qualified sweetheart, not an unmitigated one.

Accolades from the Group
 This is a great game to play in general, and a good option on those nights when you have nothing prepared, or a player is missing. 

Everyone in the group enjoyed the game immensely and said we could play it any time and they would be happy. They liked that the prompts pushed them to think about things and answer questions that forced an emerging picture of themselves and the queen. They loved the artwork for the queens and started coming up with ideas about the queens from the pictures alone. They all agreed that they would buy additional cards that were just new queen artwork.

Setbacks Along the Path

There were two things the group agreed on, neither of which were major issues. Because we used X-Cards on both sides of the table, they thought it would be a good idea to have at least one additional X-Card to help with making the card accessible to everyone seated at the table. The other criticism is that when they compared the game to the previous edition, they noticed that the queens were not double sided, meaning you could see all of them together, at a glance. The new artwork is amazing, but half of the queens are hidden from view, depending on which side of the card you are looking at.

Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

The last time I reviewed this game, I thought it was amazing. Now that I’ve had the chance to play it even more over the years, and after seeing the new packaging and additional artwork, I’ve only grown more fond of it. Unless you really are not comfortable answering guided, but pointed, questions, it benefits almost any roleplaying enthusiast to have a copy of this game. This is a great game to play in general, and a good option on those nights when you have nothing prepared, or a player is missing. It remains one of the ultimate “bring this with you to a convention for impromptu gaming” products.

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