Blog Posts

Three Book RPG

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World by Collin Wells

The Bear and the Nightengale by Katherine Arden

Prompted by DIY & Dragons post Dungeons & Decorators as a #3BookRPG.

Earlier this year, FM Geist from Ziggurat of Unknowing started a meme: Choose 3 books to act as your Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

For my three books I choose:

The Campaign Sketch

You and your kin steward something far more ancient and transcendant than the shifting national borders. At the cross-roads of eternal conflict and disputation, you bear witness to the frequent burning of one flag as another ascends.

There is something about this region; Humanity feels it is something to fight over. They believe it is for resources and commerce. Which is true. But no, this region is where one can form a god. And you have sworn to prevent that from happening.

Ashurbanipal grew close, and your kin lead the burning of Ninevah. At great cost, you felled Alexendar before he completed his transformation. And were it not for Judas, things may have gone far different. Your kin later stoked the fires that burned Alexandria. And those Grail questing knights? You end them fast.

For now, humanity knows nothing of these secrets, aside from the epics of the past. But within this perenial border region lies knowledge, relics, and resources necessary for this apotheosis. And for your part, you work to keep this border ever in flux. Aiding those that would rebel against the powers that be.

Honorable Mentions: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Paradise by Toni Morrison, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin, The Odyssey by Emily Wilson (and Homer), A ShortHistory of Myth by Karen Armstrong, Frankenstein Mary Shelley, The Broken Sword Poul Anderson, Shadow of the Torturer Gene Wolfe, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven by Lindsay Clark, Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles: Or, the Book of Galehaut Retold by by Samuel N. Rosenberg and Patricia Terry

Using Adventures in Middle Earth procedures for Tomb of Annihilation

Cover of two books. On the left a lich brandishing a staff. On the right a bearded wizard clutching a staff.
Combining Tomb of Annihilation with the Journey Procedures of Adventures in Middle-Earth: Player’s Guide

Set on the sub-continent of Chult, the Tomb of Annihilation involves a lot of travel. Procedurally, there should be 3 random encounter checks—with a 25% of an encounter—each day of travel.

As written, this procedure feels like its there to grind out level advancement. With almost complete recovery happening between every 3 checks (e.g. a Long Rest), resource management is at a minimum—bring out the big guns each and every time. In otherwords, travelling through Chult isn’t as dangerous as one might think (or hope), but it sure will take a lot of real time. In other words, travel is a bit boring.

Finding Inspiration Elsewhere

Baked into Adventures in Middle-Earth: Player’s Guide are rules for journeys. See the summary below:

  • Players assign tasks and plan route.
  • Loremaster determines Peril Rating of the journey.
  • The Guide makes an Embarkation Roll: 1d12 modified by the Guide’s Survival proficiency bonus plus half their Wisdom bonus minus the Peril Rating.
  • The Loremaster either relays the result, or optionally hints at it.
  • Determine the number of Journey Events.
  • Events are played through, noting down the result for reference.
  • The Arrival roll (d8) is made, and results are applied.

Key to the system is the idea of planning the trip. Players pick a point on the map to go to, and from there a few rolls are made to set the tone for the journey.

Important to note, Long Rests are not available while journeying. You need to get to your destination before a Long Rest would possibly be available.

Applying the Journey Procedure to “Tomb of Annihilation”

First, let’s flesh out a journey from Port Nyanzaru to Fort Beluarian. Our group is a fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric along with a hired guide.

Table 1: Example Party and Relevant Skills
Class Survival Stealth Investigation Perception Athletics
Hired Guide +4 +3 +3 +3 +3
Cleric +3 +0 +0 +3 +3
Fighter +3 +0 +0 +1 +5
Rogue +1 +5 +2 +3 +2
Wizard +1 +1 +3 +1 +0

Based on p165 of Adventures in Middle Earth, we’ll assign the following tasks:

Table 2: Task Assignments
Task Assigned To
Guide Hired Guide
Scout Rogue
Hunter Fighter
Look-out Cleric, Wizard

As a Loremaster, looking at the map, I’ll go with a Short trip (less than 150 miles) across Moderate terrain (company has some knowledge, broken terrain, scattered paths, and trails). This joureny has a Peril Rating of 2. The plan is to use boats. Using boats or pack animals allows party members to ignore the first level of exhaustion incurred while on the journey.

We roll for Embarkation 1d12 + 2 for proficiency + 1 for half wisdom - 2 for Peril Rating and get a 10; +1 to rolls on the Journey Event Table, and the first roll for each Journey Event is made with advantage.

As Loremaster, I secretly roll up the number of encounters. For a short journey across moderate terrain, I use a d2. I rolled a 2. I don’t tell the players how many encounters there will be on this journey. After all, I don’t want to tip my hat as to how they should spend resources.

For the Journey Events, I establish the base DC of all checks at 14 (Base of 12 + the Peril Rating).

I’ll roll twice on the Journey Events table. I rolled a 3 (2 on the die + 1 for the modifier) and a 5 (4 on the die + 1 for the modifier).

First Event: An Obstacle

Fallen trees, a fast flowing river, a rockslide, or a fallen bridge block the path ahead. The company must work together to clear the path. The Guide must make a Wisdom (Survival) ability check and each of the other company members must make their choice of Wisdom (Survival) or Strength (Athletics) ability check.

If the company has horses or ponies, one of the company must instead make a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check. All of these checks are subject to disadvantage/advantage if the Guide’s Embarkation roll was either 4 or 9. If all of the checks are successful, the company has worked well together, clearing the route and feeling a sense of satisfaction from their unity. As a result the Guide’s Arrival roll will benefit from a +1 modifier.

If half or more of the checks are successful, the route is cleared with some difficulty and no bonus or penalty is incurred.

If less than half of the rolls are successful, but not all fail, the company has struggled to overcome the obstacle and each of them gains a [level] of exhaustion.

If all the rolls fail, the company is forced to backtrack to bypass the obstacle. Each of them suffers a level of exhaustion and the Guide’s Arrival roll is subject to a -1 penalty.

Let’s roll for the party. They don’t have animals, so lets get rolling:

  • With advantage, the Guide rolls against a DC 14 Wisdom (Survival) check. Rolled a modified 18 and 12. Success
  • Cleric, DC 14 Wisdom (Survival) check. Rolled a modified 17. Success
  • Fighter, DC 14 Strength (Athletics) check. Rolled a modified 8. Failure
  • Rogue, DC 14 Strength (Athletics) check. Rolled a modified 13. Failure
  • Wizard, DC 14 Wisdom (Survival) check. Rolled a modified 18. Success

End result, the company cleared the route without any major setback.

Last Event: Agents of the Enemy

Hostile scouts or hunters cross the company’s path, this may even be a sharp eyed Crebain, gathering news for the enemy.

The Look-out must make a Wisdom (Perception) check to spot the enemy before they become aware of the company.

If successful, the company has seized the initiative and may decide how to proceed. They may either sneak past the hostile force or ambush them, in which case they benefit from a round of surprise.

If the Look-Out’s Perception roll fails, the hostile scouts set an ambush and they benefit from a round of surprise.

If combat ensues, the Loremaster may resolve it as normal, setting out the combat abilities of the small enemy party to give a small to moderate challenge to the company.

All rolls made outside of combat during this task are subject to disadvantage/advantage if the Guide’s Emarkation roll was either a 3 or a 10.

From here, I’ll roll up a Random Encounter from p. 194-195 of Tomb of Annihilation…and I got Flaming Fists. Time for the Rogue to earn their keep:

  • With advantage, the Rogue rolls against a DC 14 Wisdom (Perception), getting a modified 14 and 22. Success

The company can choose, do they avoid the Flaming Fist entourage or do they lay out an ambush? As the Journey Event was Agent of the Enemy, I’d definitely predispose the encounter towards hostilaty. Sure they could try and talk, but really their itching for a fight. They choose to avoid the Flaming Fist entourage.

On to the Arrival

Having completed all of the Journey Events, it’s time to roll for the Arrival. For this particular journey, the terrain, events, and Embarkation results do not modify the roll. I get a 3; Arrival in Poor Spirits

They are beset by foul moods and short tempers that they must work hard to throw off. Each has disadvantage on all ability checks pertaining to social interaction, until such time as they succeed in one of these rolls. This penalty will apply if they seek an Audience at the destination. If there is a single upside to this dark mood, it is that they are so spoiling for a fight that each member of the company receives advantage to their Initiative rolls until they take a short rest.

The Arrival also assumes you’ll be requesting an audience with whomever is in charge.


The procedures from Adventures in Middle-Earth echo 4th Edition’s skill challenges. The procedures provide a framework to make travel interesting and meaningful. That same journey from Port Nyanzaru to Fort Beluarian would’ve required around 18 random encounter rolls, and allowed for long-rests in-between.

The overlap between Adventures in Middle-Earth’s journey procedures and Tomb of Annihilation’s exploration and random encounters is not quite seemless. However, having used the random encounter process in Tomb of Annihilation and Out of the Abyss, I’m ready to explore an alternate approach.

Ten Influential RPGs (for me)

The meme going around was "Ten Influential RPGs that Influenced Me". Try as I might, I don't want a passive voice title.

Star Frontiers: in 1987, my Dralasite threw a tangler grenade and thus opened the gateway into the larger role-playing game cosmos. I had the rules, but I’m fairly certain I never played by the rules.

Middle Earth Role-Playing Game: my proxy for Dungeons & Dragons during the Satanic Panic.

In a laboratory a grey haired wizard looks surprised at the materializing demon
My mother insisted that Dungeons & Dragons was evil and abhorent. Yet in my house I had a displayed copy of Rolemaster Compaion III that I would take to Sunday School class.

2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons: the game that I snuck into my house, and from which I ran a long-ranging campaign with fellow high-schoolers. This is the game that cemented numerous friendships that I carry forward to this day. And declaring actions before rolling initiative is still my favorite thing.

Rolemaster: in 2000, I wrote my first RPG article for the Guildcompanion, highlighting a critical aspect of RPGs—the rules are there for you to hack and extend.

3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons: a flexible system with lots of player facing technology. More important, an open source rulesset that allowed everyone access and rights to the many layers of the system.

Burning Wheel: a masterfully constructed fantasy RPG that puts the rewards and advancement squarely in the hands of the players. The Range & Cover and Fight system exemplify the idea that combat should be unpredictable and ambiguous for its participants.

Dungeon World: a game iterated on via Github. I committed changes to what would be the final release. I also wrote up several for sale supplements. And last, the breakdown of Principles and Agendas provides a framework for articulating how you approach an RPG system.

Diaspora: I fell in-love with the mini-games, and having played a few space battles using a one dimensional map, I must say that is all I need. Providing a system where out maneuvering a ship is just as viable as disabling the opposition. Diaspora does a fantastic job of highlighting that you need not have a unified set of systems for all elements of your game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: re-iterated that it can be a howling good time to problem solve with a cadre of fragile characters with nominal resources.

Whitehack: elegant, minimalist without relying on an understanding of the meta-context that is fantasy RPGs. I’ve been working on a modification and clarification of Whitehack that incorporates some B/X and Lamentations.

Marching through the Sandbox

Written in response to Alex Schroeder’s What is Sandbox? which is in response to Brad J Murray’s sandboxery.

update: Aaron Griffin pointed me to his What is a Sandbox? post from 2018-11-09. I concur with his tl;dr—a sandbox is a game where play is driven by characters with strong goals, as opposed to a game driven by an overarching story.

This afternoon, I was reading through Ben Robbin’s West Marches posts. In part, because I see my current campaign possibly spinning down.

For the next game, I want a game in which the players and characters choose the direction and invest in the campaign because the campaign pushes back against the character’s actions. I’m also looking to minimize the amount of preparation.

I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world?

Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?

I’m not looking towards Plot Planning, that smells too much like railroading. We played in the Scales of War adventure path, neither hex crawl nor sand box, and found the most meaningful thing to be when our business partner tried to swindle us out of our franchised brewery and pubs; Something absolutely not in the adventure path. And consequences emerge. So I’m looking at World Planning; From past experience, I won’t do too much world planning until around session 4. Any earlier, and it may well be wasted effort.

Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.

Tomb of Annihilation is a hex crawl. You start with a wizard teleporting you to Port Nyanzaru and tredge through the jungles of Chult looking for the source of the death curse. In no way could I say this is a sandbox. The locations and events of the adventure point—with varying degrees of clarity—towards the city of Omu and the Tomb of the Nine Gods. There are side quests and diversions, but with a time constraint in play, they feel counter production. Also, I believe an external time constraint—especially one that starts before the campaign begins—is anathema to sandboxes. To make Tomb of Annihilation a sandbox, I would swap out the death curse and setup Omu as a place to plunder for wealth and riches.

Constrast with the DCC Campaign that I ran at Better World Books. This was a hex crawl and a sandbox. I started from a single adventure Purple Sorcerer Game’s Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry and built out the world through a series of other published adventures Goodman Game’s Doom of the Savage Kings, Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s Tower of the Stargazer, and portions of Greg Gillespie’s Barrowmaze. .

Which brings me to Alex Schroeder’s response:

I just feel that a campaign that is solely determined by the products we bought or by the adventures we picked from a shelf (in other words, decisions made outside the game), is less immersive, has less pull on me, than a campaign where we play for fifty sessions or more, moving through the world pulled along by our in-game decisions.

I couldn’t agree more. Stringing together adventures is not adequate for a sandbox. The sandbox is what the players do with the treasure, information, allies, and enemies they create in those adventures.

The DCC campaign was more than a series of published adventures loosely connected. Instead those adventuers were elements of the campaign composition; I took the characters actions and built the world up from there. The players were driven to learn more about a Writ of Orcus and to convert vast sums of wealth into something more portable. I set the world in motion based on their actions. Creating a procedures for the worlds response to a gold rush in a small village, and how a villain might escape and exact revenge.

The components of my DCC campaign highlight what a sandbox is for me:

  • A starting situation (Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry)
  • Players pushing to explore and push against the world with their characters
  • Clues and hints at a larger world and history
  • Procedures to feed content into the game (eg. Random encounters)
  • GMs taking time to reflect on the consequences of the character’s actions

Based on Brad’s diagram, I’d be joining him in his definition of sandbox. I don’t know if I’ll create layers of history as Ben Robbin’s did, but I think those layers are critical; I may just backfill them as I was doing for the DCC campaign.

Procedures for the Liberation of Sir Uravulon Calcidius

What follows are the procedures for that I set up after the character’s cleared out the Tower of the Stargazer. Sir Calcidius broke free the immediate following session, thanks to a fortuitous meteor breaking the salt circle.

At the start of each session after leaving the Tower of the Stargazer, have the player with the unluckiest character pick a number between 1 and 16. Then have them roll a 1d16. If they roll their number, something or someone has freed Sir Uravulon Calcidius. Roll on the following table:

Table 1: Revenge of Sir Calcidius
d7 What Frees Sir Uravulon Calcidius?
1 A lone adventurer (level 1d3+1) and 1d6 hirelings
2 A curious peasant - roll Occupation (DCC p22-23)
3 A group of 1d3 + 1d5 adventurers (level 1)
4 An agent of a patron: 1 - Bobugbubilz, 2 - Malloc (Iron Tavern), 3 - Spider Goddess (Hubris), 4 - Sisssnagagarrasssh (Gong Farmers 2015), 5 - Ibyk (Gong Farmers 2015), 6 - Obitu-Que, 7 - Jehat & Grell, 8 - Van den Danderclanden (Crawl)
5 A band of orcs (1d8+1d12)
6 A pseudodragon
7 An act of nature: 1 - meteor, 2 - earthquake, 3 - erosion, 4 - windstorm
Table 2: Random Adventurer(s)
d20 Random Adventurer(s)
1-2 Dwarf
3-4 Halfling
5-6 Elf
7-12 Warrior
13-18 Thief
19 Cleric
20 Wizard

When freed, Sir Uravulon Calcidius will seek the party and exact his revenge. There are a few steps he will take:

First, he will work to secure a suitable spellbook (immediate or 1d6 sessions, depending on character actions)

Then, he will begin asking questions to find the characters.

At the start of each session:

  • The unluckiest surviving character makes a Luck check. Failure means Sir Uravulon Calcidius has found them. He will strike in the next session.
  • The luckiest surviving character makes a Luck check. Success means they learn that someone has been asking questions about their whereabouts.
  • The survivors are Albert, Dave; Ilvora, Stemp; Badger’s Bane, Yeasty; Ungo the Beggar, Ahm-mal the Witness; Quenlynn, Ralph; Obexa the Agent, Spike

While asking around for the characters, he will begin hiring assistance. The players may learn ahead of time that someone is hiring a band if they themselves are hiring characters.