Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting

I had an idea for a combat system while out for a jog. I've also been rereading Kill 6 Billion Demons. I sat down and barfed this out.


This is obviously unfinished and a first draft. There are no character creation rules, as such. You can test it out by giving everybody any 3 techniques they want and seeing what happens. 

I think there's something salvagable here. I'd love some feedback. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Bull in a Teahouse

I made up this little d66 table for a tiny project I'm making about kung fu.

If battle breaks out and you need to know quickly what sort of epic location you’re in, roll twice on this d66 table and combine the two entries.


  1. A colossal buddha-like statue of Prim Ysma, opener of doorways, meditating

  2. Thundering waterfall

  3. Garden pond covered by a blanket of lotuses 

  4. Many storied teahouse and brothel

  5. Guild-run opium house, choked with foul smokes

  6. Ruined temple, overrun with goki monkeys 


  1. Small shrine set near the skull Sivran, god of iron, tended by single saffron-robed monk

  2. Graveyard of swords, some sized for men and some sized for titans

  3. The Bank Unerring, where coins beyond count are stacked in lofty vaults

  4. The Shrine of the Chalice, where a blessed grail issues forth a fountain of blood into a sanguine pool

  5. The Eidelwood, a forest of white trees who were once men - they bleed and groan if cut

  6. A dumpling cart pulled by one of the Gentle Race


  1. The neon-bright Casino of Hanuman, the monkey-faced demigod of luck

  2. Underground gambling den

  3. The 11th Cesspool of the Lower Sewer of Hell

  4. The bone-white colossal throne of a forgotten and unnamed archangel

  5. Red-lacquered torii guarding a hot spring

  6. A crumbling staircase of 777,777 stairs, leading up into nothingness


  1. The Dreaming Pearl, the finest house of pleasure in the Red City

  2. Bamboo grove 

  3. Panopticon to the First King, lit by a thousand thousand butter candles

  4. Laundry-laden clothes lines between two tenements

  5. Public fountain tended by an un-dragon doing penitence; will stand in this manner for six-thousand more years

  6. The smoking chimneys of the furnaces of Koss the forge god


  1. Palatial river barge of Mun-et-Mun, the God-Eater

  2. Graveyard of angels, whose broken bodies of stone still seem in the midst of struggle

  3. Noodle District, home to a thousand ramen stands and carts

  4. The Hall of Mummified Bodhisattvas, who still sit among the incense smoke 

  5. The glass Triumphal Arch of the Universal Wars

  6. Tumbled-down lighthouse


  1. Terraced fields of rice patties 

  2. Two koi ponds shaped like yin and yang

  3. Bathhouse of the Red Devils

  4. Parade of the Paper Lanterns, signifying a minor god’s birthday

  5. Training yard littered with partially animate wooden training dummies

  6. Peach tree garden

I get I-1 and I-2. The combat stage is set in the middle of a thundering waterfall, under which the colossal statue of Prim Ysma sits meditating among the spray. Combatants climb her divine body of stone, leap across the pool fed by the waterfall, or stand on the pillar-like stones at the base of the falls as they battle.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tolkien Would Have Hated the Lord of the Rings Movies

In June of 1958, Tolkien wrote a detailed response to a screenplay of a potential film treatment of The Lord of the Rings (Letter 210, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). He begins the letter by noting: "If Z[immerman] and/or others do so, they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised). But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about. ..."

Tolkien proceeds to complete eviscerate the screenplay down to the most minute detail, objecting to literally any deviation from the text. Any amendment, contraction, exaggeration, or flourish was met with Tolkien's acerbic rejection. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • "I deeply regret this handling of the 'Treebeard' chapter, whether necessary or not. I have already suspected Z of not being interested in trees: unfortunate, since the story is so largely concerned with them."
  • "Why on earth should Z say that the hobbits 'were munching ridiculously long sandwiches'? Ridiculous indeed. I do not see how any author could be expected to be 'pleased' by such silly alterations. One hobbit was sleeping, the other smoking."
  • "The Balrog never speaks or makes any vocal sound at all. Above all he does not laugh or sneer. .... Z may think that he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him."

  • As you can see, Tolkien has strong opinions about even minor deviations from the text. Balrog laughing? I think not. Hobbits eating sandwiches instead of smoking? Ridiculous. 

    The Lord of the Rings Film Series, Newline Cinema, 2001-2003

    Consider, then, Jackson's treatment of the trilogy. 

    Film adaptations are notoriously bad, but Jackson's is generally well received. What makes a film adaptation "good" or "bad"? Enjoyment of a film is pretty subjective. But here--in this RPG blog that has nothing with film criticism at all--I would actually argue that Jackson's treatment of the trilogy is "bad," in so much as it unfortunately mishandles the core themes of heroism and virtue present in the novels. 

    Let's talk through the ways that the director adapts the text to film. Jackson's adaptation is done through addition, omission, translation and more unfortunately, subversion. 

    I'll talk through these techniques. 


    At times, a 1-to-1 rendition of a book into film would leave the audience confused or unsatisfied. Tolkien's text was notoriously scant on a lot of details later filled in by long talks with Gandalf (or the appendices, or by pouring over the letters of Tolkien). In these cases, Jackson has (usually wisely) added in connecting scenes to fill in the gaps. 

    Sometimes this is done successfully. When successful, the tone of the books is maintained, but additional context is added for the audience:
    • Galadriel's introduction gets a new audience up to speed, more or less, with the events of Isildur and Bilbo's adventure in only 8 minutes. 
    • The treason of Isengard is shown with a pretty cool wizard duel (my favorite "addition" in the films).
    • Various flashback scenes where Aragorn and Arwen make eyes at each other, and her whole backstory is explained. 
    When unsuccessful, scenes or story points are added that do not advance the story. For example:
    • The elves show up at the Battle of Helm's Deep. Why? The Rohirrim already have a narrative out (the huorns--the same as the books) and the elves pull their weight elsewhere in the movies. 
    • Aragorn crosses swords with a CGI army of the undead. Why? In the books, invoking himself as Isildur's heir is enough--and comes across all the stronger for it.


    The films are already long. If Jackson had included absolutely everything, they would have been unfit for a film treatment. 
    • Tom Bombadil, a puzzle piece that never quite fits, is removed from the story entirely. 
    • Various minor characters, like Fatty Bolger or Beregond or Imrahil, aren't mentioned. 
    • The Scouring of the Shire never happens. 
    This is usually where people tease me about being a stickler ("You're just sad because there's no Tom Bombadil"), but this is perhaps the most "pure" form of adaptation. I agree with almost all of Jackson's calls here. 


    Sometimes Jackson keeps a particular story beat in the film but translates the character or the circumstance. In general, this is done successfully. 
    • Arwen, not Glorfindel, rescues Frodo at the ford. This introduces her character before literally the last book, which is fine because you really never see Glorfindel again.
    • Elrond, instead of his sons, tells Aragorn that he must take the Paths of the Dead.


    Of all the techniques used to translate the trilogy into film, this is the one that proves to be most onerous. If Tolkien was nitpicky about small changes, these would have been intolerable. 

    Subversion is where a character says or does the literal opposite of what it is stated in the text. 
    • Movie Faramir: "The ring will go to Gondor."
    • Book Faramir: "But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory."

    • Movie Aragorn: *Aragorn just straight up kills the Mouth of Sauron*
    • Movie Mouth of Sauron: "I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!"
      Movie Aragorn: *Abides by this because that's what heroes do.* 

    • Movie Aragorn: "Do not let him speak! He will put a spell on us! Let us be quick"
    • Book Aragorn: "We may not shoot an old man so, at unawares and unchallenged, whatever fear or doubt be on us. Watch and wait!"
    You will see a trend here. There is a sense, I think, for American audiences that might makes right. The heroes are being heroic by taking bold action, drawing their swords, rushing in to fight the bad guys. But this is not the morality found inside the text. Quite the opposite. The heroes are heroes because they do not use their might. Almost every villain--Saruman, Wormtongue, Gollum--are offered a chance to go peacefully, or stay and put right what they've made wrong. They are villains because they refuse, but nobody compels them to do anything through force of arms.

    In conclusion: If Tolkien objected to Pippin and Merry eating sandwiches (something in line with their character), he would have objected more strongly to characters acting in a manner completely in opposition to their core values. The film has "no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about."

    Wednesday, September 30, 2020

    Under Hill, By Water - Form Fillable Character Sheet and Village Map

    Everybody has been very kind about Under Hill, By Water. Thanks so much! 

    I made form-fillable sheets for the character sheet and the village map. Download them or save them to your own Google Drive to access their form-fillable-ness. 

    Also, during the process of creating the game, I talked to my friends and playtesters about what the skills should be named. Chris at Wayspell pitched a particular suite of skills. I ended up not going in that direction, but I did make an alternate character sheet just for him. 

    Wayspell Version of the Under Hill, By Water Character Sheet

    Honestly, creating these character sheets was a stretch for me. Would love feedback. But in the meantime, hope these are helpful! 

    Friday, September 25, 2020

    Under Hill, By Water - a real game that I made

    Adventures? No thank you.

    The OSR is pretty metal. And metal rules. But it’s fairly far away from the source material of Tolkien and the eclectic, rustic, anachronistic little British gentry that were the center of his stories. 

    This is an OSR(ish) game that’s about living in the cozy under-hill homes of the halflings.

    What do you do in Under Hill, By Water?

    • This game is about capturing your aunt’s escaped ornery goat. 
    • This game is about growing the biggest turnip for the Harvest Festival.
    • This game is about gathering rare ingredients for a birthday feast. 
    • This game is about being simple and silly. 

    What's the game like?

    The book is split into three parts:

      • Chapter 1 covers the basics of being a tiny little gentle person. Players use this chapter to create their characters and GMs use this chapter to create the characters’ home village.
      • Chapter 2 covers the rules for ambling around the countryside, getting into nasty business, and cozying up to your fire at the end of the day. GMs and players use this chapter to understand the basic mechanics of the game. 
      • Chapter 3 details the flow of the four seasons and the random events that trouble your peaceful pastoral life. The GM uses this chapter to randomly create scenarios for the players.

      Wait, this sounds familiar

      You might remember that about three years ago I made a series of posts of a LotFP hack about playing a halfling in a peaceful, pastoral, quiet land called the Commonwealth. It was essentially a what-if game about what fantasy RPGs would be about if Bilbo had stuck to his guns and said, "Get out, you stupid dwarves, and take this conjurer of cheap tricks with you!" 

      During quarantine this year, I blew the dust off of this project and gussied it up real nice. It's no longer a hack but a standalone game. Its parts and procedures should be familiar to fans of old-school TTRPGs. It's explicitly a game about the quiet pastoral life of halflings so a lot of fat from dragons and/or dungeons has been trimmed off. There are tons of flavorful randomizers to make sure your halfling's life is quiet, but never boring. Additionally, Evlyn Moreau and Isaac Podyma very generously donated the use of their art to the project. 

      2020 Special

      2020 has put a lot of people in a tough place. Playing games can be a breath of fresh air, but you might be hesitant to spend money on them. If this is the case for you, please feel free to reach out for a complimentary copy.


      If you have enjoyed my content in the past or would like to buy me a beer, I very much hope you'll check it out!

      Tuesday, September 8, 2020

      Wizards Wagons Taverns & Flagons: An Actual Play Podcast

      One of my friends had never played RPGs. We finally convinced him to play, but he had a (bizarre but true) caveat: he wanted to leverage his hobby of sound design and playing music while we did it. So we made a podcast. 

      By my estimation, we're the very first D&D podcast ever and the first one to have a "WTF" acronym in our podcast title. 

      What else do we have going for us?

      • Hotsprings Island Actual Play: Hotsprings Island is an amazing adventure by Jacob Hurst et al that hands the players an in-character gazetteer. We're having a lot of fun with it. Check out our actual play before you run it yourself. 
      • A Range of Experience: The podcast features players who have been playing 20+ years and players who literally are sitting down for their first session. 
      • An Actual Bard: Our bard takes his job very, very seriously. There's all sorts of musical numbers. 
      Plus you can hear how I put a lot of the RPG theory I talk about on this blog into practice. It's messy, but we're having genuine fun. 

      I hope you'll check it out! If you do, leave me your adoring praise. 

      Monday, July 20, 2020

      Soft Skills in Running a Game

      I was writing the chapter on GMing my homebrew game, His Majesty the Worm, and I got to a section where I felt conflicted. The thing I wanted to say ("Jesus, just be fucking nice and learn how to read a room") felt unhelpful and insulting. I'm not sure Wil Wheaton ever really helped anybody with his oft quoted maxim. 

      Roleplaying games have been compared to sex. You usually do it with friends. Sometimes you pay someone to be your dungeon master. Sometimes safe words help. Sometimes you don’t need them. Ultimately, it’s important that everybody involved enthusiastically consents to the stuff that’s going on and everybody has fun.

      I've read a lot of project management books as part of my professional development. I've used a ton of these techniques in my gaming hobby. I thought I might write them down here in case they are helpful for anybody else. 

      Caveat: I am the sort of guy who sometimes makes scripts to follow before I make a phone call, so take from that what you will. I find tools or procedures sometimes make me more comfortable when handling social situations.

      Finding people to play with

      I have a consistent gaming group. I feel blessed. They are friendly, tractable, open to new experiences, enthusiastic about the rules, funny, welcoming. They're great. 

      I got this group by looking for games in my local area. I used a LFG website. I joined a D&D game and found a few people who were nice, and after I got to know them I invited them to join my own game. (I continued to play with them in their own games; I wasn't just pretending to join to find fodder for my own interests.)

      Once you have nerd friends, you find other nerd friends. Breaking into a new friend group can be daunting, but it is doable. 

      When I had an established game, I had the ability to invite new players into the hobby. Honestly, this is the best source for good players: they're free of gaming prejudices, force you to actually learn the rules when they ask you questions you don't expect, and have incredible insights into the peripheries of running table top games. I've found new players to be some of the most enthusiastic and talented role-players I've ever had the pleasure to game with. Invite new people and teach them many different games

      Running a game

      The number one rule for running a game is consistency. Play at the same time. Don't skip sessions. A skipped game starts a chain reaction where players (and the GM!) begin to think "Wow, this game isn't that important, I guess." 

      That said, the real world always takes precedence over the fake world. If bad luck necessitates several players missing a session, it's not the end of the world (or the game). Don't try and cobble together a game night with just two people. Cancel that session and try again next week.

      If a player is inconsistent in attendance, talk to them as soon as the pattern develops. Have an honest conversation about how much they want to play and how they're enjoying the game. If there's a problem in the game's content you can solve, try and solve it. If they are a player with poor time management skills, they might not be a good fit for your game. (Consistent attendance is one of the things that is important for me as the GM.)

      I credit consistent play to my fairly good record of "completed campaigns" vs "abandoned games." 

      Sensitive subjects

      I am not currently using explicit consent tools in my normal weekly game. I usually game with friends. I'm explicit about the game's content up front. The game's content is mostly vanilla. This feels like it's appropriate for this particular table and this particular campaign. 

      I use a session 0 to talk about the table rules for my game, set expectations, and get a sense of each player's boundaries. I use the Same Page Tool when running my session 0.

      This is an important opportunity to make sure that sensitive subjects are treated with the respect that they deserve. If you plan on including difficult themes in your game, make this apparent up front. For example, if you’re intending to deal with themes of slavery, just say so upfront. Roleplaying games can be opportunities to confront important real world issues. They can also be the opportunity to escape these and not think about them at all.

      Be respectful when listening to player’s reactions. Don’t put players on the spot (e.g., “Do you have any triggering subjects that we should avoid?”). This can be well intentioned but can make some players uncomfortable. Rather, ask open-ended questions that allow for honest feedback. 

      Once the game has started, I check in regularly with the table. If someone looks uncomfortable, I will either check in verbally ("Hey, is this going into weird territory? We can pull a veil over this and move on,") or check in after the session if it seems more appropriate to be discrete ("Hey, I could tell that the group was sort of making a lot of jokes about your character this session. I'm confident they were doing it as a goof, but I wanted to check in to see how you were feeling about tonight's session"). 

      Work together to find out what subjects are and are not appropriate for your friends.

      Inviting new players to join a running game

      If I invite a new player to join the game, I ask them to meet me downtown for a drink. I then essentially run a session 0 just for them--I explain the rules of the game, ask for buy-in about the subject matter, and ask gentle, open-ended questions that help me understand what subjects need to be handled with care.

      For every new player, I try to tell them that not every game is for every person. You can like TV and not like every show. You can enjoy RPGs and not enjoy every game. That's fine. I tell them that if my game isn't their cup of tea, I would love to hear how I could improve it--or give them a chance to bow out gracefully. 

      Dealing with problems

      You are doing hard work by GMing. I assume you want to do this hard work because you want your friends to have fun. If they are not having fun, you will want to know (I assume). This is done by asking honestly for feedback and providing a safe and discrete space to receive the feedback.

      The first one informs the second. Some people say they want feedback, but you can tell that you're just hurting their feelings when you give it to them. If you're serious about wanting feedback, people will be able to tell.

      If someone is having a problem, you should feel goddamn grateful they were brave enough to tell you about it and excited about solving it with them. 

      You solve problems by talking. This might seem obvious, but maybe it's not. When someone brings up a problem, thank them for bringing it up. Tell them you're sorry they had this problem. Don't make excuses. 

      Sometimes, just talking is enough to solve the problem. After a chat, you both feel good and can continue playing.

      Sometimes, you'll need to adjust content in your game in response to player feedback. That's fine: if you value your friends' fun, you can make adjustments to accommodate them. Apologize and correct the course. 

      Sometimes the problem is with another player. If the player who had the problem is comfortable with it, you can discreetly talk to the other player. Or, you can all grab a drink together and talk it out. You're adults. Be kind to each other.

      Asking for feedback and then respectfully listening to your players is the best tool you have to deal with problems in your game. 

      Mistakes at the game table

      You're going to make mistakes as a GM. At the beginning of just about every session, I say something sort of like this:
      "Hey, I made the wrong call last week. I said that it should be a free action to get something from your belt, but I thought about it and decided that it'd be better if you actually had to use a move action to do that. I get this might make your potions a little harder to use in combat, but I think it will be better for the game. Let's try this rule for a little while and we'll check back in after a week or two, okay?"

      Literally every session, I feel as if I could have done one or two things a little better. Instead of feeling guilty about it, I just publicly apologize. 95% of the time, this conciliation of the mistake is enough; you can move on. Sometimes, you'll need to apologize to a specific player privately and then publicly acknowledge the mistake and what you'll be doing in the future instead. 

      In conclusion

      Running a game is a collection of a bunch of soft skills. You're going to make mistakes and social missteps. That's okay. If you feel as if you've hurt someone's feelings, apologize and take responsibility. You are going to get better at gaming as you continue to do it, including the chores of running the game.