Lamentation’s End

It was just before Gen Con, and I had had a good run. I had gone months without thinking about anything related to Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Zak Smith. I realize that is a luxury and a privilege that some don’t have. But any obligation I had to think about LotFP was in the rear-view mirror, and I was happy to let it stay there as long as possible.

All came to a halt when I saw this tweet from Daniel Kwan of the Asians Represent! podcast, from Gen Con.

A bit of background. In February of this year four women came forward with credible allegations of abusive behaviour against Zak Smith, a loud and undeniable exclamation point to what many in the TTRPG industry had been saying about Zak for years. This caused several companies to finally cut ties with the abusive Zak Smith, among them Lamentations. What made the LotFP split different from others at the time was the “more in sorrow than in anger” attitude of Jim Raggi, head of LotFP and himself a controversial figure. While the industry was finally responding to a situation it should have dealt with years ago, Raggi had a slightly different opinion:

You all need to keep your eyes out for these snakes slithering among us, feigning compassion when they once spat only cruelty, loving what this has done to us, ready to take advantage of the situation for themselves and further erode what we’ve all collectively built as a creative community.*

Don’t let them.

And one last thing. I’d like to thank Zak for all the work and support over the years. I am absolutely crushed that we cannot continue to collaborate.

Despite this attitude Raggi seemed to be true to his word. The abuser Zak Smith was no longer profiting from LotFP publications, and would not be involved in any future work by the company.

Fast forward to Gen Con, and the tweet by Daniel Kwan, and the first sign I’d had in a while that Raggi and Lamentations were not going to let the situation go without one final heel-kicking, snot-blowing tantrum. Welcome to Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, or as I’ll be referring to it for the rest of this article, 3W (for “waah! waah! waah!” which is all I could hear as I read it).

3W was written, obviously, with the sole purpose of giving the middle finger to the people Raggi thinks of as, “…snakes slithering among us…”. In addition to the title, there are several other subtle clues sprinkled throughout that show this is the case: the back matter which is simply the statement “He really doesn’t.”, the copyright notice attributed to “Not Zak” (with a cover-my-ass alternate copyright notice on the Credits page for Raggi), and the Credits section, which are all variations on it not being Zak. Except of course where Raggi credits Inspiration for the book directly to Zak: “Fuck…it is Zak after all, isn’t it?

For more subtle clues you have simply to flip to the back of 3W. The last three-and-a-half pages of text, entitled “A Word From The Publisher” layout Raggi’s opinions on Zak, the situation surrounding his ejection from the TTRPG industry, and how he (Raggi) intends to move forward. If Raggi seemed awfully quiet and subdued about the situation after his official announcement back in February, he wasn’t any longer. Like a sloppy drunk who seems to be holding his liquor until suddenly he isn’t, Raggi spewed his opinions all over the page. And after months of careful reflection and thought…they were very much in line with his announcement in February, just a bit more explain-y.

He makes two statements in the first several paragraphs about what he believes the role of a publisher should and should not be. Remember these, I’ll come back to them later:

A publisher’s job (or any sort of employer, really) should never be to police the personal or legal life of its creators or contractors beyond what is directly involved in the creation and production of its publications. A publisher that acts as a moral guardian or enforcer is laughable and ridiculous…


Nevermind that it is a publisher’s job, one of their most important duties, to protect their talent and their work from attack, even if it is offensive to their personal sensibilities. I completely abandoned my most important responsibility out of self-preservation. It was cowardice of the worst and most unforgivable kind.

If the end of that quote is confusing, it’s in response to the previous paragraph. One of the first things Raggi wants us to know is that he only cut professional ties with Zak because he is a Responsible Business Man:

[…] and the demands to get in line, right the hell now, or else were there. I had just a few months before taken on my first actual employees, one full-time, and the same week the allegations went public I’d been approved for the last of a series of large loans intended to be used to expand the company, I was responsible for other peoples’ lives and I was leveraged to hell and back. I was in no position to make my own decisions, let alone put up any sort of fight over it. So, I had to announce that I would no longer work with Zak.” 

He then goes on to laud Zak and credit him with the early success of LotFP (which if true is one of the lesser crimes Zak will have to answer for), and for allowing Raggi himself to be a Real Boy: 

For the first time ever in my forty years of life, I was both earning my own way and not sweating about next month’s bills. He did that for me.

I’m assuming the sentence, “And all I had to do was ignore Zak’s deplorable personality and how he treated the folks around him like shit.” was cut from that for concision. He does take an entire paragraph to compare Zak to his ex-wife, though. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.

Then there are several paragraphs that can summed up with “Jim has a sad”, as he rails against all the horrible folks in the industry who want to ruin everything by *check notes* holding abusers accountable for their actions and removing them so the industry can flourish. Because remember, in Raggi’s own words, publishers are not responsible for employing abusive shitbags, but are responsible for protecting them. Why, what sort of industry would we have if publishers actually took a stand against abusive behaviour among their employees? Speaking for myself, and you’re welcome to agree with me or not, one without any Zak Smiths in it for a start.

And likely not any Jim Raggis either. Because in one of the most puzzling defensive maneuvers I have ever read, similar to an animal that defends from predators by punching itself in the face, Raggi tells us about the not one, but two women who are accusing him of assault and sexual abuse. You see, Dear Reader, Raggi has also felt the cruel sting of people holding him accountable for his shitty behaviour, so how could he not sympathize with Brother Zak? Let he who has not beaten, or stalked, or sexually assaulted a woman cast the first stone!

Raggi goes on to admonish us for several paragraphs about our failure to separate the creation from the creator, like life is one big centrifuge and we can spin the garbage away to keep Creation pure. Setting aside for a moment that what he’s talking about is, well, LotFP material, and the purity of that creation is questionable on a good day, there is no way to separate the two completely. Whatever form the art takes, whether books, paintings, films, and yes, TTRPG materials, creator and creation are linked. There is no process which separates them. I have heard too many artists talk about “giving birth” to their creation, that it’s a part of them made real, to let anyone slip around the side door and try to argue the opposite point. Frankly, it’s a horseshit opinion and it’s what got us here. I’d also like to note, it’s an opinion which only comes out when the artist is a ratbag; no one ever tries to separate the art from the decent, kind artists.

Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day (“What’s a clock, Grandpa Brent?” “Shut up, kid.”) I will share one quote from the screed which I think is important. Raggi rightfully brings up an important point about Zak’s work, both for LotFP and others:

And I will say again, you lavished all of those books with great sales and tons of votes for awards.

And he’s not wrong. To what should be the TTRPG community’s shame, Maze of the Blue Medusa won ENnie awards. And I spread that blame between the ENnies judges that year, and the community. The judges nominated the work (with the same attitude of splitting the creator/creation atom as Raggi, apparently), but the community voted for it. This, despite everyone knowing what the abuser Zak Smith was and is.

Don’t think I hold myself apart from this inditement. I may not have been aware of exactly what was going on. I was not hugely involved with social media beyond Facebook, and I was certainly not by any description an industry insider, but I knew there were issues. I have never purchased anything from LotFP, but I certainly grabbed the “edgy” Free RPG Day offerings they put out prior to this year, because “edgy”. So I’m not guilt free in any of this. Both I, and the community, still have work to do.

Back to the book. Raggi begins to wind down his tantrum with a couple of bold declarations:

[…]and the house must be rebuilt.

And it will be rebuilt in accordance to my wishes, and mine alone. Anyone that thinks they have a say in this is very badly mistaken. The ‘community’ will have no say in the matter, because the ‘community’ is poisonous. You’ll take what you’re given, or you’ll go away.


With this book I reclaim my power and deny the policers, the censors, the puritans, the kindly inquisitors, all those that seek [to] define for other people what is ‘proper’, and those who endeavor to enforce their moral will upon the dreams and imaginations of others and dictate what other people may and may not create, purchase, or read.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one slim volume with an initial printing of 500 copies, but dream big I guess?

So this section is the middlest finger of all, in a screed built on middle fingers. It is Raggi’s Hill He Will Die Upon™. I have to admit, the first thing that caught my eye, after the “Glorious Leader” tone of this section, was the reference to the community as being poisonous. I’m pretty sure he meant it was venomous, since that would be the condition most dangerous to him. A poisonous community could only be of concern to him if her were trying to consume the community in question, which is a bit telling. Since being poisonous seems to work pretty well in the animal world for dissuading predators, I for one hope our community gets more poisonous, not less.

Though not quoted, he says at one point that, as consumers, we have the choice to consume what is given to us, or make our own thing if we are dissatisfied. This is a pretty common point made by many who argue against “forced” inclusivity in gaming, to counter critique of a given work’s lack of same. And it’s no less a horseshit point because he took three pages to make it. Yes, of course consumers have a choice. It’s just funny (in the same way that clowns are funny) that for people like Raggi, that those choices are only ever right if it includes their work. Because as soon as it doesn’t, as soon as we choose not to support the work of writers, artists, and publishers who create a venomous community environment, we’re suddenly the Bad Guys.

It should be apparent by now that I am not a Lamentations of the Flame Princess fan. I wish I could remember who said it, because I want to properly credit them for this masterfully concise scalpel of a review of LotFP’s work, but someone summed them up thusly: “…it’s like a thirteen year old writing to impress an eight year old…” If you said this, or can point me to where it is written, get in touch because I want to properly credit you and buy you a beverage of your choice. But that’s why there is no discussion of the adventure which makes up the bulk of this book. It’s frankly not very good, and suffers at the hands of a publisher who thinks he don’t need no damn editor! I was going to make a big deal earlier about how the “Not Zak” contrivance in the credits deprived someone of due credit for their work. But in this case I think it’s for the best. Assuming it wasn’t Ol’ Raggi his ownself, better to keep this credit off the CV, and do better next time.

I can only hope that we have seen the end, in any effectual way, of Lamentations. If, as Raggi himself has said, Zak was the key to his success, I get the feeling that even Raggi knows his days of relevance are numbered, and largely with negative integers at that. I’m sure we’ll hear little noises and alarums for a bit yet. Like a child loudly declaiming dirty words so the adults will pay attention to him, expect to see some execrable offerings in the next while. With any luck those will trickle off and we can enjoy our poisonous community once again.

Calling out this sort of thing is one thing, and should be done. But pointing out a problem without offering up some actions to go with it feels a bit hollow. So going forward, no more coverage for LotFP from me. I don’t think I have ever written a formal review of anything they’ve done, so that will be easy enough to manage. As well, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the names associated with LotFP, and doing some necessary digging before I support anything else they work on. I get that freelancers often take the work where they can get it. And I also understand that a person could accept work with Raggi’s company and not realize at first who they were dealing with. But if a particular person has repeatedly gone back to that well, they know who they are working with and have decided they don’t care about the harm.

The fact is, there are more than enough creative folks in the TTRPG industry and hobby who are not abusive sexual predators, there is no excuse not to call them out when you see them. Our hobby will be fine without them. And I suspect that once we do purge them, finally, the hobby will get even stronger.

Update: For another perspective, check out this post over at Papers Falling from an Attic Window, who was kind enough to mention this article.

RPGaDay, Day Sixteen: Dreams

Dreams are often used by the Game Master to provide a spooky or unsettling moment for the players. But there are so many ways to use dreams to enhance the game for your players, and add exciting elements to your campaign. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind:

I dreamt this moment! – Prophetic dreams have long been a staple of folklore and Sf literature. It’s easy to use in stories because the writer can control the plot to make sure the dream lines up with the events as they unfold. In an RPG this can be a bit trickier, since player agency may mean that something you show as coming to pass in a dream may not play out that way at the table. If you plan to have prophetic dreams, try to keep things as symbolic and non-literal as you possibly can, so the dream suggests general directions as opposed to specific outcomes. Giving the character a series of prophetic dreams that is best way to keep them on track. This way you can dial each ensuing dream in to better fit the details as they play out at the table.

Your mind to my mind – The waking mind is a tumultuous place, and one could imagine trying to contact that mind from outside would be difficult, even dangerous. Much better to wait for a person to sleep, and contact their mind when it is at rest. This can be a lot of fun to play out, as the player starts out treating the situation as a dream, and only eventually comes to understand that someone is trying to talk to them. In fact, it’s possible that at first it is a dream, just not the character’s. Perhaps the two minds have become entangled somehow, and now they character and the NPC now share dreams. Eventually they might be able to talk to each other in their dreams, but for now they each get an insight into the other’s mind.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas – Travelling in dreams has also been a popular facet of fantasy and SF fiction. The Cthulian Dreamlands are a good example, the Thomas Covenant books would be another. Perhaps the character’s sleeping mind travels to another time or dimension, and lives out a life there in what would normally be the character’s downtime. What effect does this have on the character? Has this always been the case, or is it something new? If a new occurrence, why is it happening now. And the biggest question of all: is the character really the character, or another sleeper dreaming a different life?

Allowing the character to skip between times and even dimensions in this way is a great way to introduce information to the campaign the characters might not otherwise be able to find. Perhaps they get historical perspective on an ancient evil they currently face. Or they see that what they thought was a local problem actually spans across the multiverse. Used well, it’s a great tool for expanding the scope of your campaign world.

Whose head is this again? – One possible use of dreams is to link two characters, with the players’ permissions of course. But if the players assent, think of all the possibilities of having two characters linked through their dreams. Why are they linked? How did it happen? If it was forced on them by a third party, is that entity also linked to both of them? What if shared dreams are the common link between all the party members? This certainly expands the usefulness of dreams as a method of conveying information, or adding a different facet to the threat facing the adventurers.

Good? Bad? I’m the one in your head – As we have touched on, not everyone who worms their way into your dreams is going to have your best interests at heart. Perhaps the villain the party is working their way towards confronting has found their way into the sleeping minds of one or more characters. What sort of trouble could they cause? Misleading prophetic dreams, nightmares, attacks on the mind, all these are on the table. Even just making sure that characters get no sleep could be enough to disrupt the heroes and keep them out of the villains business during waking hours. Consider also, that none of this has to be antagonistic. If the villain truly believes in what they are doing, maybe they appear in dreams to try and sway the characters to their point of view. After all, they have a captive audience until the character wakens…

So these are just some ideas around dreams and how to use them in your game. From these I am sure you can find specific ways to introduce dreams and dreamscapes to your campaign. After all, why should the fun stop just because a character is sleeping?

RPGaDay, Catching Up!

As always, we come to the part of RPGaDay that I play a bit of catch up. So enjoy, and if you want to chat about anything I’ve written here, find me on Twitter!

Day Ten – Focus

This is something I might write a longer article about, because there has been some interesting discussion around focus at the gaming table. We used to have (and in some case, still have) this picture of the Ideal Gaming Table where all the players are laser focused on the Game Master, their attention never wavering.  But that’s a very neurotypical view of things. In reality, with things like ADHD as an example, a player may need to play games on their phone in order to be able to focus on what the Game Master is saying, or doodle, or have their headset in. Other players may need to do other things, but it doesn’t mean their interest in the game is any less. So before you lay down some draconian table etiquette rules, make sure to have a conversation with your players to figure out what everyone needs.

Day Eleven – Examine

It’s important to examine the games we play, because there are a great many holdovers from the early days of gaming that are highly problematic. They were problematic then, as well, but we were all still euphoric from the New Car Smell of the TTRPG hobby to call them out back then. We don’t have that same excuse today. There have been enough new editions of games that we can’t use the ignorance excuse anymore. The folx traditionally marginalized in our hobby have told the rest of us what the problems are. It is now up to the rest of us to get the work done fixing our shit. Or you have to finally admit, out loud for everyone to hear, that you actually didn’t care about the problems to begin with. I’d prefer the former, but the latter at least lets me know I don’t have to waste any more time listening to you.

I was involved in a thread the other day where someone posited (and I’m paraphrasing) that just because someone wrote problematic things back in the early days, does not then mean that person is problematic themselves. I disagree. Games come from people, they don’t just appear fully formed on an altar in some Temple of Games somewhere (by the way, if there is a Temple of Games I need to know now, so I can retire to that monastery). That means games contain, at their core, what the game writer believes. So if a game is problematic, it’s because the views of the game writer are problematic as well. Now, I’m willing to concede that people can change. And when you consider that many of these games were written two, three, even four decades or more ago, there has been plenty of time for those writers to have grown and learned better. But if I’m seeing the same type of writing coming from those people now, or I see them defending that earlier work and telling marginalized gamers that they are wrong? Nope. You’ve just shown me that the hobby has outgrown you. And while I can be sad about that, I don’t excuse it. Our hobby continues to grow because we examine these problems and learn to fix them. If someone can’t or won’t do that then we need to move on from them.

Day Twelve – Friendship

This isn’t a new or original idea, but TTRPGs have been responsible for more new friends, as well as long lasting friendships, than anything else in my life. I’m told that talking to someone is a key component in making friends, and as an introvert, talking to anyone is a job of work. But games give me something in common with the other folks around the table, a starting point for conversation. If we do nothing else, I will talk to and about their characters for the entire game. I may even learn their actual names, but probably not before I learn their character names. To this day there are folks I know only as their character name, and I’m lucky that they accept it as an eccentricity when I run into them at cons. I will learn them eventually, I swear.

Day Thirteen – Mystery

I’ve said it before, but my favourite game for playing out mysteries is Trail of Cthulhu. It has some wonderful rules around problem solving and finding/using clues that make the investigation part of an adventure as satisfying as the combat and roleplaying portions. I would even go so far as to say that they promote good roleplaying. The big reason I love Trail of Cthulhu is that it solves a problem common with other games not directly created for mystery and investigation; that failing a die roll can stall the players. Of course you can find work-arounds, and in fact I pull heavily from Trail to house rule other games so I can avoid that issue. I highly encourage you to pick up the core book and check it out, if you haven’t already. I’d also recommend the setting book, Bookhounds of London, as an excellent first setting to play with those rules. I consider it to be the perfect setting to highlight the Trail of Cthulhu ruleset. It also speaks to my nerdy, bookworm heart.

Day Fourteen – Guide

Besides the games themselves, probably my favourite part of TTRPGs is guiding new players as they enter the hobby. I love everything about dispelling confusion and anxiety for them, and giving them an excellent early gaming experience. I’m not going to go on an anti-gatekeeping rant here, because I have done that before. In short, gatekeeping is horseshit and anyone who plays games is a gamer. So as soon as you sit down and roll dice with me or anyone else, you are part of the hobby, and I want you to have the best time! Ask me questions, try things that scare you, play all the games! Welcome, and I hope you find as much joy in TTRPGs as I have.

Day Fifteen – Door

Lately I have been thinking about ways to make doors more interesting in D&D. Too often the players get into a rut when they encounter doors. They quickly develop a checklist that usually runs something like: I listen at the door, do I hear anything? Is the door locked? I check for traps, is it trapped? This litany is divided up by the appropriate die rolls, and either they succeed or fail. But repetition becomes tedious, and I really want to find a way to spice up what is arguably the single most common encounter in all of D&D.

Part of this process for me is making the die rolls myself, instead of letting the players make them. That small change already adds some tension back into the encounter; if the player checks for traps and I tell them they don’t find anything, they don’t know if that’s the die roll or the absence of traps. While this is a good first step it still just makes doors a dice-rolling encounter. I want to find ways of making memorable door encounters, and I’m still puzzling that out. If you have ideas, please share them.

That’s it, all caught up! We’ll see you tomorrow for your regularly scheduled post.

RPGaDay 2019, Day 8 & 9: Obscure and Critical

Yesterday was a bad brain day so no post, but my migraine/depression is your gain with a twofer today. Enjoy!

Day Eight – Obscure

As I was building my current D&D campaign world, I had to make decisions as I went as to what things would be common knowledge and what would be obscure or specialized knowledge. I have always done this in my campaigns, even when using published campaign settings, because I think it is important that there be certain lore or knowledge that the characters have to find for themselves. More than anything, I want the players to feel like their characters are discovering hidden secrets of my campaign, things that only they might be privy to.

It was especially important to delineate common and hidden or obscure knowledge, because my world had just gone through five hundred years of war followed by a cataclysm leading to almost five hundred years of devastation and isolation. I had to decide who knew what prior to the war, then figure out how the war affected that knowledge base. Once I had that I then had to decide how the cataclysm affected everything, and what happened to existing stores of lore when cities isolated themselves. But more, I also had to figure out who, if anyone, still knew the true history of the war, what actually happened to cause the cataclysm, and what happened to the Summer and Winter fey courts in all this.

But that’s good, it gives me a wonderful depth of history and secrets for my players to discover with their characters. In the one campaign, my players are already getting hints that the war may not have gone exactly as currently believed. Which then begs the question, why do folks believe it went a particular way, and who benefits from that belief? And does that affect anything now? Only time will tell.

That last is important, and for me it’s the hardest part of building all these secrets into my campaign: not spoiling everything to my players because I want them to see all the cool things I made. You’ll struggle with it, but I urge you to hold on and keep all those secrets until the players earn them. The payoff is so much more delightful and rewarding when they have worked for it, and can hold that precious bit of obscure lore in their hands. Not only for the work they’ve put in, but also because now they hold a secret, a secret they can now choose to share or keep. And that’s a wonderful gift to give your players, and your campaign.

Day Nine – Critical

I have done a fair amount of theory-crafting lately, but now I’m going to talk practical gaming matters. I have written before about pulling together my game room at home, and the process of making that a comfortable and inviting space. So let’s talk about what I think is the most critical aspect of that space. You might think I’m going to say the table, but in fact I think the most important thing for maximum comfort in the game room are the chairs.

A lot of focus goes to the table, and that’s good. It is important. It’s going to be the focal point of your gaming, plus hold all your stuff during a game, so by all means you need a decent one. But most game sessions fall into at least the 3-4 hour range, possibly longer (lucky devils!). If you’re going to be at the table that long you need good, sturdy, comfortable chairs. Otherwise, about an hour in your players are going to be more focused on their sore butts than they are the game, and that just won’t do.

I had to learn this the hard way. When I was first setting up the room I didn’t have a lot of cash, so I went with an inexpensive table and a half-dozen folding chairs. Those are sort of okay if you’re playing board games for shorter periods. But for longer games, or RPG sessions, they just don’t work. They’re uncomfortable, they aren’t very sturdy (and when you have big gamers coming to play, sturdy is important), and they’re uncomfortable. Yes I said that twice, because comfort is key!

So where am I looking for better chairs? Two places I’m checking out, and I highly recommend you do the same. The first is any charity thrift shop you have in your area. They often have furniture available, and this is a great way to grab four to six good dining room chairs cheaply. If you’re lucky the table that comes with them will also suit your needs, and then it’s wins all over! The second place I recommend checking out are architectural reclaim or reuse shops. These would be places that reclaim furniture from home and restaurant renovations, and sell them on. Usually a bit more expensive than a thrift shop. But the ideal chair, for me, is one of those very solid wooden chairs you find in steak houses and the like. They are definitely sturdy, and will sometimes also be padded, which should be considered a bonus but not essential at this point. There are ways to upholster the chairs later, so initially I just need six solid chairs I can trust to last for a long time.

I’m planning a shopping trip in the fall, so expect me to post pictures of what I am looking at and what I eventually choose. But for now, that is my one piece of critical advice for setting up your game room: don’t skimp on the chairs! 

RPGaDay 2019, Day Seven: Familiar

I love wizard’s familiars. They have been a staple of fantasy fiction for ages, and a part of TTRPG lore for as long as the hobby has existed. I love that the bookish, sometimes curmudgeonly, wizard has a cute(ish) little companion that follows them around. Occasionally they are even useful, though that doesn’t matter because in the hands of a talented player a familiar is a roleplaying gift.

And I especially like the way that the find familiar spell works in 5e. Instead of calling a passing animal to them, the wizard instead summons a spirit which takes the form of an animal, from an impressive range of choices. This spirit creature then allows the wizard to talk with it telepathically, see and hear using the familiar’s senses, and cast spells with a range of touch through the familiar. I especially like the restriction that familiars can’t take the attack action. Flavour-wise I think that’s an excellent choice, and the game certainly doesn’t need another animal companion added to the mix.

As much as I love familiars in 5e, however, I do house rule the spell a bit, both for ease of use, but also to give it a smidge more magical flavour and added utility at higher levels.

Changing the Familiar’s Form

As written, if you want to change your familiar’s form you have to recast the spell. That seemed a bit restrictive to me, as part of the usefulness and fun of having a creature I had formed out of spirit and magic would be changing its appearance and shape. In my game a wizard can change any aspect of the familiar’s appearance (colour, fur length, patterns and markings, and so on) as often as they like. Once per long or short rest, the wizard may change the form their familiar takes. This allows the wizard to have their familiar blend in better in specific situations, with the utility of changing it to a more useful form occasionally. And putting a once per rest limit on that last keeps it from being used for every little thing and turning it into a nuisance.

Expanding the List

I also don’t restrict the wizard to picking things off that list. I understand the traditional reasons for keeping the familiar as an animal, but I give wizards in my games the option to be as creative with the familiar’s form as they like, while keeping it within the general parameters of the suggested forms. But why shouldn’t a wizard fond of clockwork toys have a wind-up toy soldier as a familiar? Maybe your very young wizard has a stuffed animal familiar because it makes them feel safe.What about the wizard who was told, “You’ll study magic when pigs fly!”, and now has a flying piglet familiar just to spite everyone? It does take a little bit more discussion and work with the player to figure out how to make their familiar work, but I think it’s worth it in the end. And as a DM, all of this is a story and roleplaying goldmine.

Bigger and Better

Find familiar cast as a ritual allows me to find creative ways to expand the spell’s power, so that as they go up in level the wizards in my campaigns can use it to gain the benefit of more powerful familiars. In turn this lets me offer up magical creatures of all sorts for the wizard to draw upon, and makes it more summoning than conjuration. Instead of the wizard creating something out of spirit, they are instead calling a specific type of creature to serve as their familiar. This can give them very powerful familiars upon which to draw, but also carries extra cost and risk. Essentially what I’ve done is created higher level versions of find familiar, which increase the casting time and the cost of material components. You can see the different versions on this handy chart:

Spell Level

Casting Time (Hours) Cost in Gold Pieces Maximum CR of Familiar


1 10

As spell


2 50 3


4 250 6


8 1000 8


12 1500


Sixth 18 2000


Seventh 24 4000


Eighth 32 8000


Ninth 48* 16000*


*Each CR above 20 will need four more hours of casting time and require another 1000 gp.

So wizards in my campaign can certainly just “buy off the rack” as it were, spending the time and gold listed to summon and bind more powerful familiars. But, if the wizard can provide me with situational additions to the casting ritual, I will allow them to bump down one level on one of either the Time or Cost tracks. In addition, if the wizard wants to remove or modify something in the base spell (allowing the familiar the attack action, for instance), the spell is bumped to the next highest casting level for each thing modified. If find familiar is cast at any level higher than first, the wizard must succeed on a caster level check with a DC of 8 + the maximum CR listed for that level, or the spell fails and the material components are wasted. Additionally, after a period of time equal to the CR of the creature in days, the wizard must again succeed on this check to keep the familiar bound. If the creature remains willingly the check is made at advantage, if the creature is unwilling the check is made at disadvantage. As well, the DC for checks on an unwilling familiar go up by 2 for each successive check.

Example: Florenia the Flamboyant really wants a riding peacock as a familiar. We talk it out and decide that the best fit is a re-plummaged griffon, which is CR 2. Great! Florenia can spend a couple of hours and 50 gp and they will have the prettiest familiar mount around. But with something the size of a griffon, Florenia really wants it to be able to protect itself from unruly creatures which might try to steal its tail feathers. She wants to change the base spell to allow their familiar the attack action. This bumps the ritual to a third level casting; now it’s going to take four hours to cast and cost 250 gp in material components. Florenia has the time, but isn’t quite that flush with cash at the moment. Not to fret, though, a little research has revealed that giant peacocks (griffons) can’t get enough of the heartfruit. As luck would have it, Florenia did a favour for a fruit merchant a while back, and can collect on that favour in the form of several baskets of precious heartfruit. As the DM I decide that is an acceptable addition to the ritual ingredients, and Florenia’s player decides to reduce the Cost back down to that of the second level casting. With the heartfruit, 50 gp in other components, four undisturbed hours, and a successful DC 14 caster level check, Florenia will soon be showing off her peacock! 

Now you might look at that chart and say, “Brent, you great doofusarus, why would I ever want my already powerful wizard, who can cast ninth level spells, to also have a CR 20+ familiar?!” First of all, mean. Second, why would you not want that? Think of all the roleplay and story potential involved in getting to a point where the wizard can even cast that spell. Assuming they do nothing to reduce its level, it’s going to take two days and 16,000 gp to pull off. Players of even the highest level characters are going to get sweaty-palmed about spending that much money all at once. And then there is the casting time to consider. Forty eight hours is a lot of levels of exhaustion! Which maybe wouldn’t matter except for, oh yeah, that pesky caster level check at the end! So now what?

Maybe the wizard has to convince the party cleric, with whom they don’t get along, to join them in the ritual and help them deal with the exhaustion. Roleplaying! Or the wizard has to research ways of making the spell easier to cast, speaking with sages, reluctant librarians, and delving into musty stacks of books. Roleplaying! The wizard has to want this big nasty familiar for a reason, and maybe that reason doesn’t want the wizard to have it. Is someone sent to “take care” of the wizard, through bribery, duplicity, or violence? Story and roleplaying!

Everything about this situation is fecund with opportunities for roleplaying, adventure, and ridiculous good times! And all from one little first level spell. That’s value for money, that is!

I hope you’ll consider these house rules for your campaign. If you do, drop me a line to let me know how it works for you. And do you have different house rules for familiars in your campaign? I’d love to hear about that as well.

RPGaDay 2019, Day Six: Ancient

The characters in my D&D campaigns encounter old things all the time. My current games are set in a homebrew world in which an interplanar war 1000 years previous led to an arcane cataclysm almost five hundred years before present day. So as they explore the world they are commonly encountering ruins that are at least four to five hundred years old, sometimes twice that or more. But I don’t count any of that as ancient.

No, to me ancient describes items, locations, and sometimes even creatures that are so old, that existed so long ago, they are as incomprehensible to the characters as if they had come from that same time frame in the future. I don’t tend to put a hard number on that, but in our real world terms I’m thinking early bronze age or older. Numenera is a game which explores this particularly well, with characters handling technologies and magics which are potentially thousands, millions, even billions of years old.

The details around ancient things in your world will be specific to your campaign. But here are some things to think about when you want to present the truly ancient to your party:

Wear and Tear

Sure, people generally build things to last. But even those paragons of building long term, the dwarves, might struggle to build structures that will function perfectly after 10,000 years have passed. Especially if no one has been around for upkeep and repairs. So think about what time would do to a structure. Has water had time to erode the stonework, or rust the metal parts? Have there been storms or other violent weather? Earthquakes? Floods? Does water have the chance to seep in and then freeze and thaw; ice will crumble even the toughest stonework over time.

And consider that not everything has to have suffered the same level of wear. The stone facade of a structure might look fine, maybe a bit weathered. But all the metal bits inside, gate mechanisms, drawbridge chains, door hinges and latches, could all be corroded and falling apart. That would make exploring an ancient building dangerous enough, but consider what age would do to trap mechanisms. The rogue may do everything right in disarming a properly functioning trap, but what if the trap mechanism is rusted or pitted by age? Or the supports that would normally keep the pit from opening just aren’t up to the task any longer? All things to consider.

Devolve or Evolve?

If the ancient area being explored has been cut off from the rest of the world for all that time, what has happened to the creatures that lived there? Look at our own history. Human civilization, regardless of what part of the world you focus on, has changed dramatically in 10,000 years. But even our world has examples of cultures which have chosen not to develop alongside the rest of the world, but maintain their culture in isolation. So if there is an ancient sentient race living in your ancient structures, what are they like? Are they more or less advanced than the party? Are they a familiar species, but changed in some way to adapt to their isolated environment? Is their culture locked in tradition, or have they changed over time? What do they worship, or do they worship? This is an opportunity to present a unique culture and people to your players, and play with their expectations.

Similar questions could be asked about the animals and other creatures. Ten thousand years isn’t a huge amount of time for evolution to take a hand, but it certainly wouldn’t be idle; it didn’t take ten thousand years, after all, for us to get so many different breeds of dog. And that doesn’t even consider the effect magic would play in the evolution of a creature. Again, this is a chance to pull out all the stops and present your players with some truly unique monster encounters.

Time and Magic

Sure, when the wizard enchanted that sword or magic ring, they thought it would last forever. Well, forever is a long time and ten thousand years is a pretty big chunk of it. What sort of effect does time have on the magic in your campaign. Again, like with buildings and structures, the magic might be fine if someone is around to replenish it periodically. But with no one there, how long before it fades? And does it fade quietly and easily (boring!) or does that draining of arcane energy have an effect on the world around it? If you find magic items that are almost but not quite drained, can they be restored somehow? Or are the perfectly functional “mundane” magic items being found, actually partially drained artifacts that just need a little boost?

And since their state is sort of magical, let’s talk about the undead for a second. Obviously things like skeletons and zombies might not last the eons (or maybe they do, and the party is constantly under attack by undead dust swarms**)(**Yes, I’ll have the stats for that soon). But what about intelligent undead, trapped for eons? How are ghosts, wraiths, liches, even vampires going to react to the news that that much time has passed? Do they just not notice, or have they been driven mad (or madder) by this passage? A person can spend a day or two alone and get a little squirrelly, imagine what ten thousand years trapped alone in a tomb would be like.

Those are some questions to consider when trying to construct truly ancient encounters and locations in your game. As I said, there may be more things for you to think about based on the specifics of your campaign world. But these should get you started. 

There is an excellent series, called Life After People, which examines our world and what would happen to it in the first thousand years if all humans on earth disappeared at the same time. Each episode looks at a different facet of human civilization and explores how that would break down in our absence. If you are interested in creating some realistic environments for your players, I highly recommend the series.

Have you created ancient locations in your game? Or encountered an ancient location your GM has prepared? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.

RPGaDay 2019, Day Five: Space

I presented at a convention last year, talking about the history of science fiction roleplaying games. I’m in the process of switching that up and editing it for future use. But it was fun to research and pull together, because science fiction RPGs have always taken a back seat to fantasy RPGs. Recently, though, with a resurgence of popular sci-fi TV and movie properties, SF RPGs are popping up all over the place.

The first one I ever played was Metamorphosis Alpha, an indirect precursor to TSR’s Gamma World. You played as the (sometimes mutated) descendants of colony ship Warden’s crew and passengers, who don’t realize their world is actually a failing generation ship. It had its flaws, but it worked for eleven-year-old Brent because it still had a fantasy feel because of the relatively low-tech involved. It also informed a lot of how I would later run the AD&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where D&D characters explore a crashed starship.

Flash forward to this year, and I have found a new SF RPG to love. Mothership is a tight, well-written game of sci-fi horror roleplaying. Think Alien, think Event Horizon, think Starship Troopers with less humour; this is the type of world your characters will inhabit. Better yet, think of everything you love doing in other RPGs. Then imagine your characters doing all that in the inhospitable vacuum of space. At almost every turn you are forced to choose between pushing to do the necessary thing, or resting and hoping that won’t lead to disaster. The game is currently in alpha, with a full release planned for 2020. I await it with bated breath; hopefully my oxygen holds out.

What’s your favourite space RPG? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.

RPGaDay 2019, Days 1-4

August is once again upon us, and that means it is time for RPGaDay! Started by Autocratik way back in the mists of time, RPGaDay is a series of daily creative prompts, meant to inspire folks to talk about TTRPGs. I write blog posts, but folks are encouraged to post on twitter and facebook, record videos, draw… the choice of expression is up to you. This year is a little different as well. In the past there were daily questions, but this year sees a series of single word prompts which you are encouraged to interpret as you like. Oh, sweet, horrible freedom!

As has become traditional, I am starting a few days behind (yes, four is a few) so this post covers the first four days; I’ll have a stand-alone post tomorrow and (fingers crossed) every day after that.

Day One – First

I’ve talked on numerous occasions about the game that first got me in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons, so I’m going to leave that aside and instead talk about the first gaming convention I ever organized. The year was 1985, and I was just shy of my fifteenth birthday.

The thing of it is, I really had no business organizing a “convention” at all. I was a kid, I didn’t know the first thing about conventions except for snippets from Dragon Magazine, and there was zero reason anyone should have believed I could pull something like this off. The two things I had on my side? I knew most of the local gamers, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know, meaning I wasn’t scared by the scope of the undertaking.

But in Boy Scouts we did a lot of problem solving exercises and planning for our events, so I used a similar approach to this. I broke down the event into smaller tasks and starting knocking them out one by one. And I mercilessly exploited people I knew. I convinced the minister at the United Church in town to let me use the basement of the church for a Saturday; in lieu of a rental fee, the church could run a concession, and I would donate half the door to them at the end of the day (So generous, right? It wasn’t until later I understood that the church was basically risking giving me the space for free). I basically blackmailed every DM and GM in town to come and run games, and I took advantage of my excellent relationship with both the library and the local bookstore to get prizes.

Looking back, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of the day itself. I remember that the door was $5 for the day, and that let you play in all the games you wanted, and got you a free pop at the concession. I’m sure I remember it going off better than it did, but it went off. And I certainly remember the looks on peoples faces when they saw me in charge. I mean, the DMs obviously knew, but this was pre-internet. All the players from around town knew was that someone was running a game day, and they could hang out and play all day for five bucks. That it was organized by a teenager was a shock to most of them.

So my take-away from that? Don’t be afraid to do your first one, whatever that one is. Could be writing an adventure, could be running a game for the first time instead of being a player. Heck, it could be organizing your first convention/game day. Look at the whole thing, break it down into bits, and start solving those bits. You might find it easier than you think.

Day Two – Unique

I love TTRPGs for the unique experience we get from them, compared to other forms of imaginative entertainment, such as films, TV shows, books, and so on. First, roleplaying games are active as opposed to passive. I read a book, I watch movies and plays and TV, but I don’t get involved. I can’t affect them, except in rare cases of choose-your-own-adventure or audience participation.

But TTRPGs are something else. I play those, I am making choices and plans and acting on those plans. More than that, I am sharing the experience with my friends. Instead of us each reading a book and then trying to explain how we saw it, I am right there with my pals and we experience everything together. We still have different view points to be sure, but we share the core experience as a group. And we remember that experience differently as well. Someone more qualified can talk about the brain science, but I remember actions taken in game in the same way I remember things I have done in real life. No other entertainment media has ever come close to that for me.

None of what I just said is news to anyone in the hobby. But I feel like it bears repeating as often as possible because I believe that telling heroic stories with your friends is at the heart of this great, goofy, grandiose hobby. And sometimes you have to pare things back to basics and remember that.

Day Three – Engage

This is something I struggle with in many aspects of the hobby. I am an introvert, and putting myself out there, whether that’s to play with new people or run something at a convention or other public space, is hard for me. I need a lot of quiet time leading up to it to charge myself up, and when it’s over I need some time to recharge before I go again. I’ve had many players at cons either not recognize me, or be dismayed by what appears to be my standoffishness, when they run into me after a game. Because when I GM I am animated and energized, but that drains the batteries pretty quick.

Over the years I have learned tips and tricks that work for me, to help me spend my energy more slowly and regain it quicker. And I have found that running games for friends doesn’t task me the same way. I don’t feel drained after running either of my regular D&D sessions, for instance. In most cases I need to take a bit afterwards to rev down so I can go to bed. Which is good, because I could give up every other part of this hobby today, as long as I got to keep the parts I share with my friends.

Day Four – Share

Sadly, I feel like this should just get posted on a regular basis, along with what I wrote above for Day Two. But here we go:

Gatekeeping is horseshit, TTRPGs are for anyone who isn’t a nazi or an asshole who wants to play, and if you gatekeep even dogs won’t love you. And they will love anyone with a stick or a can opener, so you have to know you’re on the wrong side of things right there.

People you don’t normally play with coming into the hobby has zero effect on the game at your table. I think you’re the poorer for not trying to include folks with experiences different from you at your table, but I’m not going to tell you your fun is wrong. By the same token, though, I would appreciate it, the next time you have an urge to post a gatekeeping comment on someone’s tweet or FB post, or perhaps just blast that horseshit on the internets without any prompting at all, if you would take a second and not do that. Instead, follow these steps:

  1. Take a deep, cleansing breath.
  2. Step away from the keyboard for a while.
  3. Read a limerick or take the cat for a walk.
  4. Do literally any other thing except be a douchecanoe on the internet.

It isn’t difficult. However, if the urge persists, contact your health provider to schedule a rectal-craniotomy at your earliest convenience, and repeat steps one through four.

Okay, that’s the first four days. Join me on Monday for Day Five: Space. Oooo, what could it be?

2019 ENnies Nominations

Today is a big day for the 2019 ENnies and for me. The 2019 nominations and Judges Spotlight winners were announced this morning, which means my work as an ENnies judge is 95% complete. If I weren’t going to Gen Con I’d be completely finished. Since I am attending there are the small matters of spending some time at the ENnies table while I’m there, as well as giving a short speech about my Judges Spotlight pick, plot ARMOR.

That short speech is why I’m not going to wax poetical about the game here. Except to say, if you want to check out a smart, challenging, single-player story game by one of the smartest folks in the industry right now, head to at the link above and pick it up. Then grab everything else dungeoncommandr has available. Then follow them on (which I realized I hadn’t done and hastily fixed) so you don’t miss anything else. You won’t be sorry.

A big congratulations to everyone nominated this year. Submissions were excellent this year and there was some pretty fierce competition out there. Our job as judges was tough as a result, but I think we put together a solid nomination list. Now, of course, it’s up to the members of the hobby to cast their votes and see who wins. I’m looking forward to the announcements at the award ceremony.

A huge thank-you to Hans and Stacy, and all the volunteers that keep the ENnies ticking along. As hard as we judges may have worked this year, all of them worked as hard or harder keeping everything running smooth so we could focus on the judging. I hope the ENnies continue to grow under your stewardship.

Last but not least, thank-you to my fellow judges, Alex, Ben, Brian, and Chris. I’m going to miss our Sunday morning conversations about gaming and the submissions. I learned a great deal talking with you all and I hope my fifth of the conversation was at least as interesting. Best of luck to those of you hoping to continue on for another term!

And now I’m going to take a little break from reading gaming books, maybe get started on some novels and comics that have gone by the wayside over the last year. After all, I need to cleanse the palette for all the new games launching at Gen Con.

It’s Been a While

The annual nerd festival I run is over for another year, and a number of other impediments have fallen by the wayside. So this is me getting back in the saddle. Sorry for the long silence, but expect to see more from me more often.

I haven’t been entirely idle, of course. I wrote some things over at The Rat Hole, and you can catch up there. I’ve been jumping in on the monthly RPG Blog Carnivals, which has been excellent fun. Not only are the subjects interesting, but it has helped connect The Rat Hole with other TTRPG bloggers. And I highly recommend checking it out if you just want a curated list of good bloggers writing about good topics.

In addition, work has proceeded on the Uncaged Anthology, and Volume Two drops on Tuesday, July 2! Of all the projects I have recently worked on I think Uncaged Anthology is the one of which I’m most proud. I am forever grateful that Ashley Warren allowed me on board as one of the editors, and I look forward to the adventurers I’ll get to work on for Volumes Three and Four. And if you haven’t picked up Volume One yet, I recommend getting on that.

I’m also excited to take part in Ashley Warren’s RPG Writer Workshop this July. I’ve needed to get some focus on my own creative efforts, and I’m hoping this workshop will help me get a handle on better managing my adventure writing. The people and resources involved are impressive, and I look forward to coming out the other side of July with a publishable D&D adventure.

Editing proceeds apace, of course. My June was full, but I have time in my schedule July onward. So if you or someone you know is looking for an editor for an upcoming project, check out my page and get in touch. I’d love to talk to you about your project.

And one scant month from now I will be at Gen Con! I’m running a few games of Crossroads Carnival in the Magpie Games room (which have already sold out, so thank-you to my players!), and I will be at the ENnies Award Banquet on Friday night. Otherwise, I’m there to take in excellent panels and play some games. I’ve scheduled a few things each day, but I also have a mitt full of Generic Tickets so I can try to jump in on games or panels that catch my eye. If you’re running something, or have a panel, drop it in the comments so I can check it out. I can recommend the Uncaged Anthology panel if you want some behind-the-scenes info on how an anthology comes together. It’s also a great opportunity to get your copy of Volume One signed, if that sort of thing appeals to you.

And that’s my summer! Expect me to post more regularly here over the next couple of months, as I keep you up to date on my writing, editing, and playing. It’s looking like a good summer for TTRPGs, and I can’t wait!