Every time I shitpost about Dungeons & Dragons I get a bunch of folks in the notes going “ACTUALLY that’s wrong, how it ACTUALLY works is” because the thing I’m clowning on isn’t true of the one specific iteration of the game that they’re familiar with, and they’re assuming that the edition history of Dungeons & Dragons consists of small variations on the same essential core and not half a dozen completely different games stacked on each other’s shoulders in a trenchcoat.
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Cerebos: The Crystal City Version 1.0
Cerebos: The Crystal City leaves early access today! This tabletop game of memory, attachment, and magic(?) trains was successfully crowdfunded in April of this year, and today’s update marks its full public release. If you’re into trains, deserts, magical realism, the looming spectre of mortality, and/or talking about your feelings, Cerebos may be the roleplaying game for you.
Cerebos is available via itch.io and DriveThruRPG.
Changelog under the cut:
Note: all page numbers refer to the PDF version of the game.
Added four-page introductory comic "City of Surprises" by Cynthia Yuan Cheng (pp. 2–5), plus a bonus epilogue page (p. 91)
Updated "Credits and Acknowledgements" (p. 6) to include authors of stretch goal Conductors (see below)
Added four new illustrations: "Meet the Conductors" (p. 18) and "Traffegg Jam" (p. 50) by Kaninchenbau, and "I Hate Phantom Mothman" (p. 39) and "Speeding Along Like Dynamite (pp. 58–59) by Madeleine Ember. This rounds out fulfillment of the the "Double Art" stretch goal.
Expanded preamble/genre discussion for all four existing Conductors (pp. 20–23)
Inserted hyperlinked page references for Conductor Powers that modify or replace standard Train and Stop Actions, pointing to the relevant Action's writeup (pp. 20–26)
Corrected several incomplete/improperly formatted pull quote citations (pp. 20, 26, 52, 54)
Made minor clarifications to the "Musical Journey Through Space" Conductor's Montage Power (p. 23)
Added three new Conductors: "Surreal Anime Bildungsroman" by Ashley Flanagan (p. 24), "Twisted Folk Horror" by Madeleine Ember (p. 25), and "Mythic Transgression" by Zach Welhouse (p. 26)
Restored missing page border art to the "Random Touchstones" appendix (pp. 74–83)
Events and Stops
Added printing instructions to "Events and Stops" PDF
Added "Cities of Motion" by Zach Welhouse to the Events packet.
Added "Cities of Persistence" by Zach Welhouse to the Stops packet.
Added blank and form-fillable Events/Stops table templates to download package; these resources are also available via the Penguin King Games website
Quick Reference Postcards
Reformatted print-and-play PDFs to have more printer-friendly margins
Updated page references throughout "Summary" reference card to reflect updated core rulebook pagination
Updated page reference in Waking Dream Power of "Psychogrit" conductor reference card to reflect updated core rulebook pagination
Update description of "Musical Journey Through Space" Conductor's Montage Power to reflect core rulebook changes
Added reference cards for "Surreal Anime Bildungsroman", "Twisted Folk Horror", and "Mythic Transgression" (see above)
Fixed several formatting issues with passport-style character record sheet; this resource has also been made available via the Penguin King Games website
Download package reorganised to gather all blank playsheets into a zipfile and keep the length of the file list from getting out of control
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Adventuring party idea: one PC is a peasant who happens to look exactly like the ruler of the nation. All the other PCs are servants or officials who know the truth - the real monarch has run away, or been turned to stone, or otherwise vanished. In order to protect the realm, these conspirators must work together and give their friend the training to be properly regal.
I think this has some good potential for Big Dramatic Intrigue, but I’d also love to see it as a wacky comedy campaign.
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Next puzzle is going in a goddamn anti-magic field.
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i think about this every fucking day
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Action Scene Kits, or Fantasy Action Playsets, were hobbyist kits designed for tabletop roleplaying games at the absolute height of the Dungeons and Dragons craze of the early 80s. The beautiful part is that as fantasy in general can’t be copy-protected, a ton of companies put out kits.
The reason they went away is that the only person who would buy them is the Dungeon Master/Game Master/Referee, 1 in 5 players, and when the craze was over, that fraction of a fraction wasn’t enough for third party makers.
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Vaporwave by AngryCryptidDice on Etsy~
Help support the blog~! ☕
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No Sandwiches in D&D
Guys I’m begging you to stop acting like anything not in the player’s handbook only exists if they had it in medieval Europe during whatever specific arbitrary year you’ve decided D&D maps to.
Someone made a table of random things you could find on a body, and one of the things was a sandwich. Other dude says that’s absurd, because sandwiches weren’t invented until the 18th century and they “didn’t have the technology” back in D&D times.
The technology. To cut some bread and shove some other food in there.
The RIDICULOUSLY complicated traps that are still functional in long-forgotten tombs? Uh, maybe that was some lost more advanced society and the art of sandwich-making died with them. The robotic gun turrets and airships? Well, magic helps with some of that. The complicated clockwork devices and extremely advanced artistry in metalworking, stoneworking, architecture, and basically every other area? Sure, but none of that directly results in a sandwich now does it?
Okay but what about all the cultures? Are you telling me that with all the different culinary traditions that must exist with all the varied races in D&D none of them have made sandwiches just because on Earth it happened at a time that you’ve decided isn’t there yet in the Forgotten Realms or whatever planet? You’re seriously saying that you can imagine Halfling culture and it doesn’t involve sandwiches?
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-Standing Stones Guardian-
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This is gonna sound weird, but I think one of the reasons I enjoy tabletop RPGs so much — and any sort of long-form, cooperative, rule-based storytelling exercise — is that the rewards are so... haphazard. The investment to payoff ratio is never guaranteed, and there is a considerable amount of work involved that isn't necessarily "fun" in the strictest sense of the word. There is a lot of delayed gratification, that gratification itself is elusive and spontaneous, and you have no way of predicting what form that gratification will take. You can sketch out a narrative trajectory, but at the end of the day, the campaign unfolds in accordance with (literal) rolls of the dice and the emergent dynamics of a collective of players.
And those dynamics in and of themselves are so fascinating to me, because it's a bunch of people sitting around with each other for hours, ruminating over puzzles and problems and how best to solve them, laughing and cheering, occasionally getting frustrated and squabbling, preparing and eating food together, quietly and patiently sharing space during downtime. Everybody is learning on the fly, doing math on the fly, creating on the fly. Sometimes you get lucky and the magic happens, and you all look at each other and go, "Wow! We did that. That was pretty cool."
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I was thinking about how the most conspicuous difference between the kinds of cool powers that characters tend to have in He-Man versus the kinds of cool powers that characters tend to have in She-Ra seems to be that Eternians mostly employ magic to enhance their bodies and weapons, while Ethereans mostly employ magic to shoot energy blasts and shit, so basically in Dungeons & Dragons terms we’re looking at the difference between a culture of enchanters versus a culture of evokers, and now I’ve got this vivid mental image of, like, a kids’ show with an Avatar: The Last Airbender style magic-systems-as-cultures conceit, except each of the setting’s major cultures is based on the practice and aesthetics of a specific Dungeons & Dragons school of magic – so you’d have the Abjuration Nation, the Conjuration Country, the Transmutation Tribe, and so forth.
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Gaming with Godot is a compendium of fifty tabletop RPG supplements – playbooks, scenarios, rules modules, and other miscellanea – by 48 different authors, with a catch: none of the games the material is written for actually exist. Entries run the gamut from transdimensional diners, to polyamorous starships, to a character class which can only be taken by a character who has killed God, each one offering a tiny glimpse of what tabletop roleplaying might look like in a world very slightly askew of our own.
Gaming with Godot can be downloaded for free via itch.io:
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Play a warlock character who calls himself Vithimorex or something like that. Always mention how grateful you are to your patron, Frank, for the wondrous powers he gives you.
Slowly reveal that the powers you get from Frank are things like “sense of smell” and “verbal communication”. As it turns out, Vithimorex is an extradimensional Thing possessing the person formerly known as Frank. All the eldritch blasts and shadow conjurations are boring powers according to Vithimorex. He can’t wait for the level 14 ability to understand and appreciate music.
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THIS! DUNGEON! IS! ABOUT! RESOURCE! MANAGEMENT! GET GOOD AT RESOURCE MANAGEMENT! DONT! BURN! YOUR SPELL SLOTS! AND KI POINTS! IN THE FIRST ROOM! AHHHHHH! YOU KNOW THERE ARE MORE MONSTERS AND MORE ROOMS!
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The Empire of the Petal Throne, printed first in 1975, was the first real “campaign setting” ever created in the early days of roleplaying games, at least as we would recognize it, e.g., the idea the setting has unique characteristics and history, magic has certain rules, the tech level means a wildly different equipment list...as opposed to just being a platform for campaigns, discovered as the characters explore and move around, which was often the default in most early tabletop games. You can’t think of the first generation of tabletop gamers without seeing the huge influence of Empire of the Petal Throne in nearly everything; in the 70s, at the scale games worked at, this was a big deal.
As for the setting itself, it’s often fascinating to me how divergent thinkers tend to diverge alike. Nearly all “weird and different” tabletop settings (e.g. Talislanta, Skyrealms of Jorune, heck, even Synnibarr, the Uwe Boll of this subgenre) follow the blueprint of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, in that it usually is a setting of impossible antiquity that at one point was starfaring but reverted to barbarism, so a feudal society is surrounded by alien artifacts and superscience they barely understand, with ruins of 20,000 years and so on. That’s the world of the Empire of the Petal Throne, an earth colony that reverted to barbarism when it was sucked out of the planet’s orbit 40,000 years ago and into a dimension with vastly different physical laws. It led to impossibly stratified, priest-ruled cultures where social standing had to be factored into everything, more like precolonial India. Artists tend to make it look vaguely like precolonial South America, as their overly busy ornamentation seems to be visual shorthand in the western mind for “culture that is truly alien and wildly divergent.”
The creator of the setting was M.A. R. Barker, a professor of Indian and Middle Eastern studies who was a white Midwesterner who converted to Islam and changed his name to Mohammed Abdul Rashid (before weebs and Japanophilia, the culture nerds tended to obsess over most was the Middle East, India, and Persia, just ask Harold Lamb, John Milius, or even Lovecraft, who gave himself the “Arab name” of Abdul Azhared and wrote “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”). Barker was essentially every single teen dungeon master, myself included, with dozens and dozens of marbled composition books with all kinds of detailed notes on their settings. The interesting part is that as he was a linguist, he created artificial languages for his settings, and with Tolkien, who Barks is often compared to, it’s challenging to discover whether he started setting-first, or created the setting as a vehicle for his constructed languages. The amazing thing is, when he started writing about his setting, there was no tabletop gaming; he first saw it as a vehicle for a novel, then wargaming, then when D&D came into existence, he started running games there that lasted for decades and were published.
Barker ran a famous “Thursday night game” for decades in Minneapolis set in the Empire of the Petal Throne, one of his players was D&D founding father and co-creator Dave Arneson. The fascinating thing about early D&D in these days is how cliquish it was; everyone knew everyone through personal connection. Professor Barker was in the right place at the right time - the midwest wargaming scene in the early 1970s - to befriend the first circle of D&D gamers, impress them with the sheer shocking depth of the worldbuilding he created at a time when that wasn’t anywhere near close to normal, and get a release of a boxed set of his world setting in ‘75, making it the first true game world setting as we know it.
Details in worldbuilding are great but eventually, there’s a point of diminishing returns. M.A.R. Barker reminds me of a documentary I saw called Jiro Dreams of Sushi where the guy who runs one of the most famous sushi restaurants in the world insists octopus be massaged for 45 minutes before serving. All while reading about Barker, you ask one question: does he care a lot and is he detailed, or is this unhealthy compulsion or obsessiveness? The line between being detailed and “caring a lot” vs. truly obsessive behavior is kind of blurred sometimes, like for instance, when you hear that Barker had a collection of over 2,000+ miniatures he personally created for Empire of the Petal Throne (rather like how sometimes the line between collecting and hoarding is vague). I mean, I don’t even think I can answer that because the line between the two is blurred: was Barker a genius who created a towering achievement, maybe the most detailed fantasy world of all time....or was he an obsessive eccentric with an unhealthy fixation, like a slightly less reclusive Henry Darger?
My personal approach to worldbuilding is to start story first and build the world around the story. Don’t create any details you don’t intend to be important or to create a conflict. If it doesn’t come up, it might as well not be there. Story comes first, not setting. If you want the finale of the first adventure to be in a volcano, put a volcano next to the starting town. Only bring up that trolls once invaded the world from another dimension if you intend for Trolls to return and their dismantled gates to reactivate, and so on. If you create a rule that sorcerers lose their powers when they fall in love, have one get in danger of falling in love. If you have a rule that all clones go insane, but cloning doesn’t come up at all, what was the point of that mental energy and effort, anyway? My point is, you can get away with flimsy worldbuilding and good stories, but never the opposite.
The danger of truly strange settings is that as there’s nothing to mentally compare it to, it all comes off as insane and disconnected - and that’s more a problem with tabletop games than any other, which have to have 6+ people “on the same page.” That’s why games are at their best at genre simulation and it is difficult to do truly unique concepts, e.g. “you’re all superheroes in Marvel Comics.” Someone, I think it was James Rolfe, once pointed out that nobody ever finds it weird or strange that Godzilla has atomic breath, because he kind of looks like a dragon, and breathing fire is a thing dragons do. But when Gamera, another monster, tucks his head and limbs in and starts flying like a pinwheel, it looks crazy and kind of hilarious because that comes from absolutely nowhere.
Here’s one final question to ask about the first true game setting: can you run a game in it? I’ve found that in my case, the answer is no. It’s such a product of the distinctive genius/insane mind of M.A.R. Barker that it’s hard to see how anyone else could do something with it or approach the material. I admire and love Empire of the Petal Throne, but it’s the only game setting I ever got I haven’t used. It’s interesting that D&D never revived Empire of the Petal Throne; I suppose it was too much of a product of a single stubborn vision to be absorbed into the D&D cosmology or multiverse. You will not see the armadillo men with 8 sexes who defecate in public get a listing in the Monster Manual in any future edition.
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Layered Rainbow Bingsu by DeadEyeDice on Etsy
They’re a very nice seller, I definitely plan on getting more of their stuff in the future~!
Help support the blog~! ☕
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Y’gathok, the Ceaseless Hunger from Tabletop RPGs is making fucking mac and cheese, and nobody can stop him!
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For nearly all intents and purpose, the second edition of Avatar: The Second Age is nearly ready. You can see it now in its (mostly) complete form if you seek out the "[In Dev] Core Rulbeook" located on Dropbox.
Version 2.0 will bring The Second Age fully in-line with the Genesys roleplaying system. There will be few distinctions, which should allow for seamless integration with Genesys-supporting applications like RPG Session, FoundryVTT, GenesysRef, and the like. With this major overhaul, many skills, talents, characteristics, archetypes, careers, specializations, etc. all had to be reworked or tweaked in order to mesh with Genesys.
Though the official release is still a bit off (I have much proofreading to do), this is roughly the final form of the *rules* for the Avatar setting. After nearly 5 years and over 1000 hours, I'm getting ready to consider this project "done" and finalized. I'll still continue to update the book for errata or spelling & grammar, but I probably won't add anything substantial unless new official FFG supplements warrant inclusion. This has been such a tremendous journey, and the undertaking has been done by not just me but all of you who played and offered feedback. To you, I say thank you!
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