Living in Dev-Time

Dev-Time is a lot like Time Travel

Dev-Time is a lot like Time Travel!

“When is that book going to be done? When?”

It can be strange living in what I call “dev-time” (or “development time”) because eagerly-awaited projects are often not just yesterday’s news for me as a writer but most likely last year’s news at times. The development cycle of a book, much less an entire game, is a fairly long one, and getting all of the words written is among the very first steps. Typically, I may get to see a project at the concept stage, getting in on discussion of whether or not to do it at all, along with what it might look like, contain, and so forth. More often, I get involved at or after the outline stage, when the overall concept of the book is pretty well established, and the developer is looking for someone to write stuff. That’s me.

Now, these days, I don’t write too many entire books for RPG publishers, including Green Ronin. While product development time for a book is long, actual writing time is relatively short. So unless I’m publishing a book myself (as I do with Icons Superpowered Roleplaying) and can take 4 to 6 months to write it all, or I’m working with an extended publisher timeline that allows me to write sixty to eighty thousand words or more, chances are I’m only writing a part of a book, a chapter or two (maybe three). Solo projects tend to be short: adventures, Patreon write-ups, articles, and the like, and many of those also get incorporated into larger books or collections.

I get my assignment, write it, and (ideally) hand it off at the appointed deadline. There’s feedback, development, revisions, new drafts, and then I hand over a final version of the text. Typically, that’s where my involvement ends. Sure, an editor might have the occasional “what were you thinking here?” question (tinged with varying degrees of frustration) or an art director might need notes or “does it look like this?” confirmation but, for the most part, my text sails off to those other shores to continue the rest of its journey towards becoming a finished book without me. That can sometimes be a long journey, even under the best of conditions. When conditions look like they have over the past year or so … even longer.

Thus the eagerly-awaited book someone is looking forward to is already in my rear-view mirror, often several exits back behind other recent projects I have handed off, some of which the public hasn’t even heard about yet. There’s a running joke in the freelance business that sometimes the only answer to a polite inquiry of “So what are you working on these days?” is “Upholding my non-disclosure agreement.” Dev-time is such that many projects aren’t even announced publicly at the time when people are writing them, although there may be rumors (the tabletop game industry being quite small and tight-knit).

While I have moved-on to other projects, the words I’ve already written are sailing through development, editing, layout, illustration, and proofreading. If they’re destined to see print, there will also be preflight checks, print buying and quotes, print proofs, and more before the book is finally handed-off to the printer. Even then, there’s printing, binding, shipping, warehousing, and distribution before it finds its way to a game store or gets shipped off to the buyer. In every one of those steps there is both margin for error and the potential for things to go wrong. I mentioned before about “ideally” handing off my text by the agreed-upon deadline. I pride myself on getting my work in on time, but life happens. This past summer, I took a fall off my bicycle and fractured my hip. While my recuperation didn’t overly impact my ability to work, allowances still needed to be made. Multiply that times all of the people who touch a project before it sees print and you magnify those allowances accordingly. People get injured, sick, divorced, married, pregnant, quit or take on new jobs, lose loved ones, run into financial problems, and all of life’s other challenges, to say nothing of encountering global pandemics, political upheavals, and more—all in the same year!

So if anyone involved in the publishing process of a book or product ever looks vaguely bewildered concerning its eagerly-anticipated release, it is quite possible that they exist in “dev-time.” From their perspective, that project has been “done” for some time, and it’s not that they’re not eager to see the finished products (believe me, there are several of my projects I’m looking forward to actually holding in my hands), it’s just that they’ve had to move on to other things in the meanwhile. Patience and understanding that there is more going on behind the scenes than you know will always get you a kinder response.

When the Developer Plays: Dueling Time!

Last time I told you about the Modern AGE Threefold game I don’t Game Master, but play in as Andrzej, who happens to be one of Threefold’s signature characters. Tonight, as I write this, I’m coming off another session where, as Andrzej, I fought a duel. I want to share some insights about combat using Modern AGE’s system I gleaned from that clash of imaginary swords.

First, the set-up. Why was I in a duel? As I noted last time, our Sodality Mission was on an independent Otherworld (a magic-dominated plane) to support diplomatic efforts toward an alliance with the Vitane, the peaceful democratic government of planes the Sodality supports. This plane had contact with the feudal warriors of the Nighthost in the past; their remnant needed to consent to the alliance. There were intrigue-soaked negotiations which…succeeded! They were ready to ally with us.

Threefold Nighthost

These folks need aggressive diplomacy!

Then the real Nighthost showed up: the army that had long waited on the other side of an unreliable gate between their realm and where our new friends lived. They made it through the normally closed gate…somehow (trouble with playing is I don’t know yet). The Nighthost aren’t just soldiers from Hell–they’re soldiers who rebelled against the Netherworlds, slaying demon lords and freeing the damned. They’re badasses out of a Black Metal album with a classic dueling culture, and they were about to lay siege to our allies’ outpost. So what else could I do except challenge their leader, the thane, to a duel?

I won’t leave you in suspense–I lost. I’m a 5th level character, but as our GM Steve told me, the thane was a Dire threat opponent. I think him being 7 feet tall with a crown of horns was a hint. I yielded with 3 Health left in me. Rather than go blow by blow, I’m going to list what I learned, after the thane and I put on mail, he got his sword and shield, and I brought my two-handed sword to the party.

Being a Protector Rocks: +2 to attack rolls and an extra SP on Stunt Attacks with the Sodality Protector talent rocks, especially if you also double on your roll–and especially if you master Two-Handed Style.* I was lucky to get big stacks of SP a bunch of times, which I spent on Lightning Attack to get a chance to inflict damage in, along with a constellation of other stunts, including Armor Crush, which reminds me…

Armor Crush is Better Than You Think: My second, a fellow Sodality Protector named Chester, couldn’t negotiate the thane out of his armor, so we were both wearing mail (I know this is all pretty fantasy for Modern AGE but that’s life life on a magical Otherworld) and it so happens mastering Two-Handed Style and using a big sword lets you gain 2 SP toward Armor Crush. I hit the thane a few times, dropping his Speed considerably. This combines beautifully with Knock Prone. Soon enough the thane was so slow he had to waste his actions getting up (part of a minor action) and fixing his armor (a major action). The thane eventually used it on me, however, and it was way worse for me because I didn’t have Armored Combat Style, like he did. At one point, the thane hit me with multiple Armor Crush stunts and the Hamstring stunts, and  knocked me prone. I ended up with a Speed of 3, half of which I needed to use to even get up. Oh yeah:

Annoy People with Knock Prone: For 2 SP and high reliability (no opposed roll required), Knock Prone is a very useful stunt when mobility counts. If you do this after attacking their Speed with the previous tactics, there’s not much they can do except stand up and sigh…which I did.

Ready for a Duel?

Being a Protector rocks!

Pick Your Disarms Carefully: The duel featured a number of Disarm stunt attempts. One of mine and two of the thanes were successful. Choosing the direction and distance of a disarmed weapon ends up being rather a big deal, however. I knocked the thane’s sword over my shoulder so he’d have to fight me disarmed to get it. Of course, that’s when he Stunt Attacked me with the Knock Prone/Hamstring combo after I’d been Armor Crushed, so, uh, maybe that decision sucked.

Remember Your Stats: Oh, I screwed up a couple of times here. I forgot to reduce damage by Toughness, which I was allowed to do in our Pulpy Mode game. Fortunately we realized and fixed that midway through, or else I’d be toast. But the other thing I forgot is the free grapple off a missed attack for Self-Defense style, which might have been used to mess up the thane a little more before he beat me.

Boost Your Defense When You Can: Defense-boosting tactics and powers are rare in Modern AGE, so make use of them whenever the opportunity arises. The Parry stunt is useful for chopping down high Defense opponents. The thane had a frickin’ shield, and that advantage wore me down–I had my share of misses. Since Protectors get a +2 to Stunt Attack rolls, I tried stacking that with a +2 Defense Guard up a few times, since my bonus nullified the penalty. This works pretty well–unless your opponent rolls high, which the thane did with annoying regularity. Generally speaking, seeing your bonus as an opportunity to cancel out a penalty linked to some other benefit is a smart move.

Fights Should Be Meaningful: This duel was a political maneuver. I wanted to show the Nighthost thane that the people on this plane were every bit as honorable as he and his army was–they weren’t fit to be brutally conquered, but had to be approached as equals. Game designers often talk about stakes in terms of game systems.. I prefer to think in terms of the fiction–talking about the reason for the duel (to secure negotiations), the emotional components, and negotiating the terms–not to map the outcome, per se, but to write the rationale in the fiction boldly, while maintaining the possibility that anything could happen.

One of us could have cheated, or attempted some other risky move outside the confines of the duel. The rest of the Mission group were in the crowd, after all, ready to help. In the end, though, we all followed the etiquette of the situation, and the great thing is that, since we were never locked into these terms, following the gradually built trust between us and our enemies, and it felt real because of course we could have cheated at any time. So when I yielded and didn’t die, but was allowed to limp back and heal, it felt earned.

* NOTE: In the upcoming Modern AGE Mastery Guide Stunt Attack now provides a base of 2 stunt points, increasing the Sodality Protector benefit to 3 SP in a stunt attack. We use this rule in our game.

 

When the Developer Plays: Threefold

Threefold for Modern AGEThere’s a stereotype among game designers and developers that you eventually get so swamped with work you don’t play. I must admit there’s a challenge, but in many cases it’s more that, if you work in games, you love games. You want to have some time in popular games, pick them apart, and see what you can use or devise in reaction to them. It sometimes makes it hard to concentrate. Plus, my working schedule tends to be chaotic. Between all that and some persistent minor but annoying health stuff, I haven’t been as diligent at getting to my weekly game as I would like. Fortunately, I’ve pushed past the fog of it all a bit and am back to my Modern AGE game in the Threefold setting—one which I play in, instead of GMing. This of course speaks to another stereotype: Designers run their games instead of playing characters. This was my situation too, but over the past year I have stuck to playing.

Modern AGE Andrzej

Andrzej, a Sodality protector and nerdy swordsman

Where Have I Seen That Sword Dad Before?

What’s it like to play the game you developed, with the setting you developed? I recommend it to anyone who makes games if you approach it with the right attitude. My group plays on Discord most Sundays, with people I played with in person back in pre-COVID times. I’ve known most of them for over 20 years, and it makes for a comfortable environment, as well as a testament to games’ ability to create and maintain friendships.

On my side, the biggest challenge is learning to relax into my role. By weird coincidence, I randomly created a character who happens to fit the abilities one of Threefold’s iconic characters, Andrzej, perfectly. Andrzej was, incidentally, created as a heroic parody of yours truly by writer H.D. Ingham. After some laughter at the coincidence, I just went with it. Thus, I’m playing Andrzej, a Sodality protector and nerdy swordsman.

Seeing What Works

I know Threefold extremely well, since I invented it, though the writers who worked on it gave it a life beyond anything I could have imagined. That’s the same creative expansion I enjoy coming from my GM, Steve (not Steve Kenson, a different cool Steve) and there’s been nothing so pleasurable and useful from a design perspective as playing Andrzej and exploring worlds Steve expanded and invented based on cues from the Threefold setting. I can see which parts of the setting are the most accessible, and which are a little more challenging to use, and these tend to be a lot different from what you might get out of just reading the book.

As Andrzej, I belong to a Sodality mission with some Aethon adjuncts that specialize in rough and tumble approaches to problems. One of the challenges here is that the Sodality and Aethon are designed to support traditional party play, but that tends to bring a lot of the baggage related to wandering “adventurers” with it. But being a Sodalt means having ideals—they represent mostly legitimate good guys, since they’re part of a multi-planar magical utopian federation of states—and as a group it’s taken time to get there, but we’re starting to lean into it. When it’s time to expand the Sodality, I’ll have to keep this indoctrination aspect in mind.

Right now, we’re engaged in diplomatic negotiations and some quiet investigations on an independent plane that has some relationship with the Nighthost, and who broke off contact with the Vitane (the aforementioned magical federation) because of the Crimson Trident incident, when a branch of the Sodality (the Vitane’s exploratory arm) went rogue. I find it interesting Steve grabbed inspiration from that part of the setting’s history, which Jaym Gates created to give the good guys a spicier backstory. Well, Jaym, it worked—we’re playing with the results. We haven’t met anyone from the Nighthost yet, but we’re dealing with rival diplomats from the alternate earth of Al-Hadiqa. In Threefold, our world, the “primeline,” claims to be the true Earth, and prevents other Earths from accessing other plans as much as it can, but Al-Hadiqa (a plane invented by the late and sorely missed Alejandro Melchor) won’t be limited by the primeline and its enforcers, Aethon. They want a political arrangement with this new plane that shuts us out. Normally, this wouldn’t be particularly alarming for us, but we’ve just come off some operations tracking down a family of soul smugglers who we strongly suspect are allied with this Al-Hadiqa faction. The role of souls in the game, and their role as illicit trade goods, was developed by Neall Raemonn Price, and coincidentally, his adventure for Five and Infinity, The Soul Trade, had some strong similarities to what Steve independently devised. That tells me this is one of the more accessible concepts in the setting and might merit further exploration.

Threefold through the dimensions

Learning What You Don’t Know

Now, I am pretty much the boss of Threefold. I invented the setting and plot its course. What does that mean when I’m playing a character in the setting? Well, I try to keep my mouth shut, and I’m mostly successful. My participation is about having fun through my character, and I also get to enjoy insights about how people use the setting, but Steve is going to have different ideas about what’s happening behind the scenes and how to interpret things—and he’s right. So far where I’ve mostly stumbled is in maintaining a separation between player and character knowledge. Last week Steve said, “Roll to see if you really know that” and he was right to do so. This is a common enough problem for anyone, especially in lore-heavy settings (Threefold is dense with information—you want to give it a few reads because I designed it as if it was already, say, 20 years old, on purpose), but it also tells me it might be a good idea to explicitly describe the knowledge base possessed by members of various factions.

Next Session

Are we on for this Sunday? I hope so. The plane we’re exploring is fascinating. It’s a low-gravity world with mile-high buildings and a floating continent that whips around the primary supercontinent at high speeds. The floating land has a gate that intermittently opens, letting visitors from the Nighthost through. We’ve only heard rumors, and I’m eager to figure out the truth.

A free quickstart PDF is available in our Online Store, and on DrivethruRPG!

Modern AGE Mastery Guide Preview: Two Weapons Revised

Mastery Preview Two Guns StyleThe biggest release for Modern AGE this year will be the Modern AGE Mastery Guide. This book is a little different from similar offerings, which are usually aimed exclusively at Game Masters, or feature player-facing material. The Mastery Guide is for both GMs and other players. In some ways it can be thought of as a partner to the Modern AGE Companion, but while the Companion presented new options, the Mastery Guide not only has these, but digs deep into how to use the basic Modern AGE rules—and even revises some of them.

Which Two Weapons?

Among other things, the Mastery Guide revises the rules or fighting with two weapons. The Dual Weapons Style talent from the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook now only applies to close-combat weapons, not ranged weapons. The following new talents cover other options.


Mixed Weapon Style

Prerequisite: Dexterity 2 or higher

Thanks to a combination of training and brutal experience, you can effectively use a one-handed close combat weapon in one hand, and a one-handed ranged weapon in the other. This is a signature style for highwaymen, pirates, and other figures in swashbuckling games, and might also be learned by members of elite military organizations.

Novice: You can fire a ranged weapon to make yourself harder to hit in close combat. By using a minor action, you may make an attack roll using the weapon’s appropriate Accuracy focus. This my force a reload, but does not inflict damage. Instead, a hand-to hand attacker must roll the higher of your Defense or the attack roll to hit. You may use this maneuver to react to an incoming attack even if it isn’t your turn, as long as you have a minor action left this round.

Expert: When using the Novice maneuver for this talent, you can now inflict damage with your minor-action ranged attack roll if the attacker misses you and your ranged attack roll would have hit, if it had been a standard attack.

Master: Instead of using the Novice (or Novice and Expert) degrees of this talent, you may make a standard attack with one of your weapons as a major action, then make a second attack with your other weapon as a minor action. This second attack cannot generate stunt points from doubles, and you can only add half your Perception (for ranged weapons), or Strength (for close combat weapons), rounded down, to damage.


Two Guns Style (Pulpy/Cinematic)

Prerequisite: Dexterity 2 or higher

You can effectively fire a gun in each hand. However, when making use of this talent to do so, the minimum Strength for each gun increases by 1 for a pistol, 2 for an SMG, and 3 for a longarm or assault rifle. Additionally, reloading requires an additional minor action to stow one of them, and if making one attack roll using both guns, a Capacity check that prompts a reload applies to one of the two, chosen randomly (1d6;1-3 left/4-6 right).

Novice: You’ve learned you shoot with both hands. If you use a minor action in addition to a major action to attack while holding a firearm in each hand, you may only make one attack, but do it with the best combination of both firearms damage, rate of fire, and Capacity, but the lowest range. In addition, on a successful attack, add +1 to the result of your Stunt Die. This bonus is not considered when checking for doubles on your roll.

Expert: Squeezing both triggers, you can fill an area with bullets. If you use the Novice degree of this talent with a single shot firearm in each hand, you now gain the Stunt Die bonus to damage and access to stunts that are normally reserved for semiautomatic weapons. If one of the weapons is already semiautomatic or fully automatic, roll the Stunt Die again after a successful attack, and take the result you prefer to score extra damage from the weapon’s Stunt Die damage bonus, get doubles, or both.

Master: You shoot both guns with speed and precision. Instead of using the Novice (or Novice and Expert) degrees of this talent, you may make a standard attack with one firearm as a major action, then make a second attack with your other gun as a minor action. This second attack cannot generate stunt points from doubles, and you can only add half your Perception (rounded down) to damage.

 

Joe Carriker’s Top 5 Green Ronin Picks

Like other Ronins, I work at Green Ronin because I love what we do. So narrowing this list down to just five products? Not easy. That said, here we go! “Joe Carriker’s Top 5

Ork! The Roleplaying Game, Second Edition5. Ork! The Roleplaying Game, Second Edition

This updated version of the original Ork! is a glorious revisit of the sheer bonkers chaos of the original Ork! In this beer-and-pretzels game, you play…an ork. And it is your job to unleash all sorts of ork-like mayhem in the world. Being a systems wonk, though, it’s not (only) the premise that sells this for me, but the system that makes me love it.

Every check in Ork! is an opposed roll. Sometimes against enemies, but quite often the roll is opposed by…well, by the ork god, who is a surly, ill-tempered sort of deity who delights in the suffering of his people. The sheer gonzo premise of a game system based on “God hates you and wants you to fail, except that you’re doing your best to spit in his eye” is absolute catnip for me.

4. Book of the RighteousThe Book of the Righteous for Fifth Edition

I’m a big Fifth Edition player, for starters. I am also a huge nerd when it comes to worldbuilding, and I find one of the best disciplines of worldbuilding to be the construction of pantheons, creation myths, and the forms of religion that populate a setting. The gods of a world say so much about that place, and how its people revere them adds to it.

For my money, the Book of the Righteous does the best job of addressing some of that style of worldbuilding in Fifth Edition material to date. Fully realized pantheons, religious orders, creation myths, and all the rest of it, with tons of player-facing mechanics (including a wealth of new cleric Domains and paladin Orders)? I’m so in.

Threefold A Campaign Setting for Modern AGE3. Threefold

It is no secret that I love me some big universes. I’m a world-builder at heart, and I love sprawling, deeply interconnected, and flavorful settings with room to tell all kinds of interesting stories in. It’s probably no wonder then that I love me some Threefold. A setting that includes organizations for player characters to belong to, each with specific goals and modes of operation. A theoretically infinite variety of worlds to explore, including a whole bevy of them right up front, and potentially more to come? Alien tech and psychic abilities and weird history timelines? Seriously, this is exactly the kind of high-stakes rollicking adventure that I love, and developer Malcolm Sheppard has wrapped it all up in the extremely accessible Modern AGE system for me.

And uh you, too, of course. :)

2. Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition Deluxe Hero’s HandbookDeluxe Hero's Handbook for Mutants & Masterminds

Superhero RPGs and I go way back. During the Satanic Panic, my mom and pastor confiscated all my D&D goods to burn them. They left my Marvel Superheroes RPG stuff, assuming they were comics, and I kept right on gaming. If I have anything close to an Ultimate Universal System for my tastes, it’s probably M&M. It is very capable of doing superheroes, and a whole lot more. I’ve used it for cyberpunk, urban fantasy, and weird dimension-hopping type games, and I know folks who’ve used it for lots more. It is extremely flexible, but also easy to use.

Honestly, I just love using its system to build power sets. Mutants & Masterminds Third doesn’t present finished powers for you to use for your heroes. Instead, it presents an extremely exhaustive set of power effects. “What does this power do, mechanically?” the system asks, and encourages you to determine how it interacts with the rules. Does it do damage? Inflict penalties? Reduce an enemy’s power? Debuff with negative conditions? Once you figure that out, you can select the appropriate effects, slap a Descriptor (like Psychic, Magic, or Fire) onto it that describes what is responsible for those effects, and your power is ready to go.

The fact that you can play games that range in power from street-level shenanigans where a knee-breaker with a bat is dangerous, all the way to hyper-dimensional cosmic epics is nothing short of incredible. Best still, both types of games are extremely playable, too – I sometimes brag that unlike some other games, Mutants & Mastermind’s “high level” games are perfectly playable and just as fun. I love the system so much, in fact, that when I was first putting together the main protagonists for my novel Sacred Band (available now from Nisaba Press), I built them using Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition rules! (You can get them here, for free, by the way.)

Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy 1. Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy

I am the developer for the Blue Rose line at Green Ronin  precisely because this book is in my number one spot. I didn’t contribute to this book myself, so I feel entirely justified in just how much of a ridiculous fanboy I am for this game. I did some writing for its first edition, and fell in love then. Why?

Romantic fantasy is my jam, for starters. Fantasy that postulates magic that makes the world better and more accessible rather than more dangerous and more awful, narratives in which the people one meets and connects with are as important to the resolution as one’s skill with sword or spell, and a sense of egalitarian aspiration are all mixed together to form a sort of inspiring, uplifting fantasy that I just love. This edition of Blue Rose specifically is fantastic, as well, for its use of the AGE system. Stunts give exactly the sort of swashbuckling feel that should pervade these stories, and its magic system which allows the use of magic as long as one can resist the psychic exhaustion that comes of doing so is really enjoyable.

But anyone who knows me probably knows that I love this game because of how abundantly queer it is. Queerness is not an afterthought here – I commend a lot of games for their “well, nobody cares if you’re queer” approach to inclusion, but in Blue Rose queerness has impacted the culture and social identity of its people…in a good way. It also explicitly makes room for different types of queer characters, from those characters who have no idea what bigotry against them is (which can be very comforting to play for some queer gamers who don’t need marginalization in their gaming) to those whose heroism includes having come from very restrictive backgrounds and having fought their way to freedom (which can be a cathartic gaming experience for some queer folk as well).

Plus, honestly, the ability to play a sapient, psychic animal? Yes, please.

Crystal’s Top 5 Green Ronin Picks!

It’s hard to pick just 5 items from the Green Ronin catalog as favorites, because the company’s library covers an enormous variety of genres and system, but here’s the best I could do. Presenting “Crystal’s Top 5 Green Ronin Picks

Mutants & Masterminds Condition Cards!

5. Mutants & Masterminds Condition Cards

Mutants & Masterminds is mostly a fast, intuitive system that’s easy to adjudicate on the fly with little or no prep. Everything is a d20 + modifier resolution, with the modifier usually being related to your campaign power level. The only place I tend to stumble is in remembering the rules for the two-dozen or so conditions that powers and failed checks might apply to a character. That’s when game stops and I have to flip back to page 18 of the Hero’s Handbook and remember what rules to apply. That’s why I made a homemade condition card deck back when 3rd edition first released. Now that we have an official condition card set made from shiny cardstock and featuring iconic art so I can deal out conditions in style and I love them!

4. Mutants & Masterminds Superteam Handbook

Superteam Handbook for Mutants & Masterminds!

Alright, spoiler alert: I’m making my list assuming you already have a Hero’s Handbook for M&M, so that’s not even going on my list. But once you have the Hero’s Handbook (Deluxe or Basic), then what? There are the obvious choices—the Deluxe Gamemaster’s Guide if you’re the Gamemaster or Power Profiles if you’re a player—but for my money the handiest book for the whole group is the SuperTeam Handbook. It’s got expanded rules and character options for players and talks about building your superhero team as a collective, deciding roles and strengths and weaknesses that you rely on your teammates to shore up. But beyond that, the SuperTeam Handbook is a stealth campaign guide, showing you 8 distinct models for how you can run your Mutants & Masterminds game. You’ve got your standard “big heroes on the block” campaign, but also “fugitive heroes,” “urban vigilantes,” “super sentai,” and “quirky agents,” all with examples of the kinds of adventures and opponents those heroes might face. For Gamemasters, it also has a giant catalogue of characters that you can pass out to new players, or file the serial numbers off and use as villains if you don’t have time to make your own.

Modern AGE Basic Rulebook3. Modern AGE Core Rulebook

I have a soft spot for modern games, as illustrated by the large catalogue of d20 Modern manuals that observant readers may have seen in the background of M&M Monday streams. To mean, there’s a lot more excitement in bringing fantastic elements to a familiar world than in showing off fantastic elements in an already fantastic world. Modern AGE is a fun, fast, and flexible system that works great for any game set between the golden age of piracy and the near-future cyberpunk dystopia. The basic rules make it easy to put together a player character or NPC in no time, while the stunt system adds depth to combat and investigations. I’ve been running a monster-hunting campaign set in 1890’s San Francisco using just the core book and a copy of Modern AGE Enemies and Allies (a little side plug there) and having a great time.

2. Mutants & Masterminds Hero HighHero High Revised Edition for Mutants & Masterminds

I’m a sucker for X-men and Legion of Superheroes. It’s hard not to be when you spend puberty feeling like an outcast, so roleplaying in a world setting where you’re empowered for being the weird kid is just the chef’s kiss of roleplay options. This setting book for M&M is from before my tenure on the line but remains my evergreen favorite as a setting to run, play in, or fantasize about expanding. The 3rd edition version takes one of the strongest supplements for 2nd edition and revises and expands it to fill out the flavor and options of playing teen superheroes (or villains) while still worrying about getting your homework in on time.

Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy Core Rulebook 1. Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy

I know, I know. I’m the Mutants & Masterminds developer. Shouldn’t my number one product be an M&M book? Well, it isn’t. As much as I love comic books and superheroes, I love things that are unapologetically queer more. And I love romance and fairy tales and drama and people trying their hardest to be better than they were before, and Blue Rose offers all of that. While I usually sell it to my friends as “you can play a sassy psychic cat,” the selling point for me is that encounters are meant to be talked down or puzzled out at least as often as they’re meant to be fought, and all against a backdrop of gorgeous art.

 

Blue Rose Cover (work in progress)

Blue Rose Cover (work in progress) by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

 

Malcolm Sheppard’s Top 5 Green Ronin Picks!

What’s good? Taste is subjective, though I think everybody feels there are certain exceptions, such as the terribleness of the Star Wars Holiday Special, which transcends cultures and times as an object of derision, albeit sometimes affectionately so. So, this list of “Malcolm Sheppard’s Top Five” is just my opinion, though there may be hidden objective excellence rattling around in there, somewhere. This list isn’t in any particular order.

Mutants & Masterminds Basic Hero's Handbook coverMutants & Masterminds Basic Hero’s Handbook

Supers, and generally, point-build systems, aren’t my strong suit as a designer, but I love the genre. The Basic Hero’s Handbook is a masterful introduction to Mutants & Masterminds that communicates everything you need with remarkable brevity and straightforwardness. I especially like the streamlined character creation system, and how after using it, and not having to sweat points too much, you still end up with a character fully compatible with the rest of the M&M line, including characters made using the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook. Plus, it has all the rules you need to run it!

Fantasy AGE LairsFantasy AGE Lairs

This supplement for Fantasy AGE does a great job of mixing function and atmosphere. Each lair presents a creature, location, and situation. None of these are hard-coded adventures, but contain plenty of hooks and suggestions, and can be run sandbox style. My favorite lair in the book is the Lair of the Ghoul Prince, which I’ve talked about before, in a pervious article. Go read it!

 

 

Trojaqn War for the D20 system!Trojan War (d20)

Maybe I’m doing this wrong and I’m supposed to stick to current releases, but I love Homeric mythology, and really enjoy Trojan War’s particular adaptation. It covers all the major elements of this mythic-historic event, from gods and heroes to how it all works for original characters using the d20 System. I think it’s still valuable now because of the way it’s structured for games and the fact that d20’s design has been influential enough to seed itself in many other games, making conversion pretty easy. I miss these kinds of treatments of real-world mythology in games, and while there are new ones around, I want more! Maybe I have to do it myself….

 

The Lost Citadel Roleplaying (5th Edition)The Lost Citadel Roleplaying for 5th edition

Here comes the bias! I worked on the Tales of the Lost Citadel anthology, The Lost Citadel Roleplaying, and The Lost Citadel Fantasy AGE Conversion Codex—but there’s plenty I didn’t work on, in fiction, rules, and concepts, that’s just fantastic. The Lost Citadel is set in the last, desperate, walled city of the living, who struggle with each other while battling for survival against the risen Dead. One thing I love about the setting is it takes the basic conflict in the zombie apocalypse genre—that your living companions are as much a problem as the undead—and renders them on a social scale, in conflicts between the city’s factions.

Threefold A Campaign Setting for Modern AGEThreefold (Modern AGE)

Where The Lost Citadel is a choice tinged by my bias as a designer, well, uh, I’m the principal designer of Threefold. I made up the broad strokes and developed other writers’ work to get what I wanted: a setting for Modern AGE that would use the conceit of planar travel to permit virtually any kind of character, but wouldn’t seem generic, unfocused, or lacking strong story structures. Whether you explore the planes as a member of the Sodality or defend the Earth (sometimes from other Earths) with Aethon, there are always things to do, rivals to deal with, and secrets to uncover. One reviewer said the game felt like its setting had already been established for years. That’s the feel I wanted, and I hope you like it.

Steve Kenson’s Top Five Green Ronin Picks!

When Troy Hewitt (the disembodied host of Mutants & Masterminds Mondays, amongst other schemes) asked me to compiled a list of “Steve Kenson’s Top 5 Green Ronin products“, that constituted a challenge, because I’m terrible at self-promotion and felt like it would be disingenuous to pick products I’d written the majority of, or had a substantial hand in designing or developing. So I’ve tried to steer clear of those things on this list, since I contribute to a lot of Green Ronin’s products.

I’m also focusing on products currently available in the Green Ronin Online Store, rather than the company’s entire twenty year history—maybe another “Top 5 of All-Time” or “Top 20 of the last 20 years” list is something to revisit at a later date. Lastly, I’ll note that my list is in alphabetical order by title, rather than being ranked from 1–5 in order of preference, because I’m lazy and had a hard enough time narrowing things down to just five products.

So, without further digression, here’s my list.

Aldis: City of the Blue RoseAldis: City of the Blue Rose

I love city books—as anyone who is familiar with Freedom City knows—so the Aldis: City of the Blue Rose sourcebook could have been written just for me. It describes the center of Aldis, the default setting of Blue Rose, in loving detail, jam-packed with characters, local flavor, and adventure hooks, such that you could run a whole Blue Rose game where the characters hardly ever left the city. I’m also quite happy with my own contribution to the book, the introductory adventure “The Case of the Rhydan Swine.”

Envoys to the MountEnvoys to the Mount

Envoys is the first full-fledged campaign book for Blue Rose Romantic Fantasy Roleplaying and offers a series of adventures leading up to an epic conclusion, with some breathing room to add in other “side” adventures, either of your own creation or various stand-alone published adventures. One of my favorite elements of Envoys is the establishment of various character “roles” for the series—like the Envoy, the Historian, and the Rhy-Bound—which you can “cast” with your own characters. The adventures then provide prompts for subplots and other story elements involving those character roles.

Modern AGE Basic RulebookModern AGE Basic Rulebook

I sometimes feel like the Modern AGE rulebook is an under-appreciated implementation of the AGE System rules, because it packs a lot into a fairly slim rulebook: enough character design and game-play material to run countless campaigns ranging from the early-modern (Industrial Revolution) era up through the near-future or even far-future science fiction (although the latter may benefit from some stuff in The Expanse RPG, which was developed concurrently with Modern AGE). With the inclusion of arcane and psychic powers in the book as well, Modern AGE is also a system for urban fantasy or “secret powers” settings in any of its various eras. It’s hard to beat in terms of bang-for-your-buck game-play value.

Mutants & Masterminds Basic Hero’s HandbookMutants & Masterminds Basic Hero's Handbook cover

Mutants & Masterminds developer Crystal Fraiser has done some great stuff with the game: launching the Astonishing Adventures series (which has already produced more adventure content for M&M than we managed in all the years prior combined) and developing the terrific Time Traveler’s Codex, but my favorite is a project that could have only been developed with Crystal’s vision and guidance: The Mutants & Masterminds Basic Hero’s Handbook. Because sometimes, as a designer, you really need someone else to come along and lay out how the whole thing works. This book does that. If you have ever been intimidated by the rules or character design of Mutants & Masterminds, well, this is the book for you. It’s easy, accessible, and gets you right into creating a new hero in minutes and ready-to-play. Plus it is 100% compatible with the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook rules, so everything you learn is of value. I especially love the comic book examples of game-play that really bring the rules to life while providing clear and concrete examples.

Threefold: A Campaign Setting for Modern AGEThreefold

Because I’m a fairly jaded tabletop gamer, it’s not often that I get excited about a new game world or setting, but the Threefold setting for Modern AGE drew me in from the get-go with its concept and depth. It’s a meta-setting of sorts, in that it encompasses a “metacosm” of parallel worlds, a manifestation of the breadth and depth of the Modern AGE rules themselves. But Threefold goes further in setting up a unique and detailed cosmology that puts particular spins on the manifestations of magic and psychic (occult) powers, along with creating unique character backgrounds. Developer Malcolm Sheppard pitched it to me as “John Wick and Harry Potter team up to fight Satan’s robots” and I was in from that moment on. Personally, I’d change “team up” to “join Starfleet and Stargate Command” because, yeah … it’s like that. Check it out.

End of Year Sale and GR Gift Guide

Happy holidays from all of us at Green Ronin! I don’t think 2020 was the year any of us hoped for but on the upside, it’s almost over! Right now, we’ve got our Year End Sale going on, which offers 20% off most of our titles through January 3. Get gifts for your friends and family, or just treat yourself. If you survived 2020, you deserve it! Two important notes. First, we do offer gift certificates in our online store, so if you don’t know what to get for the gamers in your life, that’s always an option. Second, shipping is particularly slow this year, so if you want things in time for Xmas, get your orders in early. If you aren’t sure what to get, I’ve put together a gift guide that may help. Let’s get to it!

Death In Freeport for Fantasy AGEAs you may heard, 2020 was Green Ronin’s 20th anniversary. One way we celebrated that was with new editions of one of our earliest releases. I wrote Death in Freeport 20 years ago, and now it’s available in two formats: Fantasy AGE and 5th Edition. Pick your system and then set sale for Freeport, the City of Adventure! Fantasy AGE fans will also enjoy Lairs, another new book for this year that features a host of ready to use encounters. 5E fans should check out The Lost Citadel Roleplaying, where players are survivors of an undead apocalypse in the last city standing.

 

Enemies and Allies for Modern AGE

If you want a flexible RPG that can handle just about every sub-genre of action adventure, check out Modern AGE. It got its character/adversary book this year with Enemies & Allies. If you want a kickass setting, also check out Threefold. It got some adventure support with Five and Infinity, which we serialized over the course of the year. We also launched Modern AGE Missions for even more PDF adventure support. We’re certain you need 30-50 feral hogs in your Modern AGE campaign, so make sure to check that out!

 

Envoys to the Mount for Blue RoseBlue Rose, our Romantic Fantasy RPG, is also getting (and giving) a lot of love right now. If you’ve never checked it out before, there’s a new Quickstart that gives you a complete adventure with rules and pre-generated characters. For more experienced players, we’ve just put Envoys to the Mount up for pre-order. This is a complete campaign for Blue Rose that takes characters through all four tiers of play. There’s also a tie-in fiction anthology called Tales from the Mount that’s available now. You can get a bundle with both Envoys and Tales too!

 

Sacred Band 2nd editionSpeaking of fiction, our imprint Nisaba Press has some great titles for holiday reading. Blue Rose fans will definitely want to check out Sovereigns of the Blue Rose, an anthology of stories about the fourteen rulers of Aldis. We’ve also just released Sacred Band, Joe Carriker’s critically-acclaimed LGBTQ+ superhero novel. Supers will also enjoy Roadtrip to Ruin, the latest Mutants & Masterminds novel. If short stories are your jam, we’ve released three anthologies this year: For Hart and Queen for Blue Rose, Powered Up for Mutants & Masterminds, and Under a Black Flag for Freeport.

 

 

Time Traveler's Codex for Mutants & MastermindsSuperhero fans should look no further than Mutants & Masterminds. If you haven’t tried it before, jump right in with the Basic Hero’s Handbook. We’ve just release the Time Traveler’s Codex (now available in print!), which is a whole book about timeline hopping shenanigans. If you’ve been wanting adventure support, we’ve really leaned into that this year with the Astonishing Adventures PDF series. These include stand-alone adventures and the five-part series NetherWar. Danger Zones is another new series. Each entry details a new location for superheroic action. And, by popular demand, we’ve also just released a deck of Condition Cards!

 

Ships of the ExpanseBut what if you want to go to outer spaaaaccceeee? That’s where The Expanse RPG—based on the terrific novels by James S.A. Corey­—comes in. There’s a free Quickstart if you haven’t dived in yet. This year we released Abzu’s Bounty, a series of six linked adventures for the game. Salvage Op offers a one shot for an evening or two of play. We’ve also just put Ships of the Expanse up for pre-order. This is the long-awaited book full of deck plans and details about the spaceships of the setting.

 

Sword Chronicle RoleplayingLast but by no means least, we launched the Sword Chronicle RPG this year. This takes the system we designed for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and spins it off into as an independent fantasy system. This has been available as a PDF for several months but just this week we’ve made it available as a Print on Demand title on DriveThruRPG.

 

Happy holidays, everyone! See you in 2021!


Shake Things Up – Adding Complications to Encounter Designs

Whether you are a veteran GM who crafts every campaign world and adventure from scratch, a newcomer to running games who is just trying to get through a published adventure, or someone preferring any of the hundreds of possible in-between styles of gamemastering, sometimes you realize your encounters are in a rut. It may not be your fault—many GMs run published adventures for lack of time to create all their own content, and even for GMs who make a lot of custom adventures, players can often get really good at determining how a specific game works, and cutting to the solution of any challenge much faster than expected. Even if neither of those issues is a problem, sometimes you realize a player has built a character to be good at something that never comes up in play… and they feel cheated for not getting to do the kind of adventure they are prepared for.

Regardless of why you think your existing adventure toolkit isn’t doing everything you need it to, and no matter the game system you are using, it may be time to shake things up with a complication. Or a dozen complications.

Complications

Art by Biagio D’allessandro

Simple Complications

There are a number of very simple complications you can use to change the feel and flow of the RPG sessions you run. Here’s three that don’t take much advance work or thought.

Add Restrictions: If the players have gotten good at killing foes, require them to drive off threats without seriously hurting anyone. If they are masters of out-talking competitors during negotiations, make them argue their case next to a waterfall so loud no one can hear anything. If a single character is the best hacker the world has ever seen, set up the need to get information during a complete blackout when no computers are running. If the players’ favorite tactic is setting everything on fire, make them fight underwater.

The advantages of adding a restriction is that it doesn’t change the core rules of the game, it just makes players tackle a problem with some of their options off the table. You shouldn’t do this often—then it’s just shutting down character abilities—but there’s nothing wrong with forcing players to be flexible now and again.

Add Hindrances: While a restriction is specifically something that takes away some of the players’ normal options, a hindrance is something that makes the challenge of the encounter more difficult by adding new elements that can cause problems. If the PCs can sneak into any secure site anywhere, make them do so with an angry songbird in a cage they can’t muffle. If they normally bully citizens into giving them what they want, make them carry out their investigations with a bigger bully the citizens already hate. If they are experts at ranged combat, have a fight in a corn maze, with strong winds and torrential rain reducing visibility.

Add A Twist: Don’t go all M. Night Shyamalan about it, but sometimes the situation not being exactly what is expected is a great complication to throw at players. Perhaps the “attacking” wolves are just running from even bigger monsters right behind them. The crime family not only capitulate to the PCs’ demands they lay off a neighborhood, they ask the PCs to help them go fully legit. The final lock on the dragon’s vault is a sleeping cat you have to move without waking.

Secondary Challenges

Rather than just adding complications to an encounter’s normal challenge, you can add an entire secondary challenge of another type. If the encounter is a fight with a band of highwaymen, perhaps a group of mercenaries wander by and the bandits try to recruit them as reinforcement while the fight is already underway. Now in addition to the initial challenge of the combat, the PCs must deal with the secondary challenge of a negotiating while the fighting is ongoing. If the PCs were trying to break into a vault before the next guard shift comes by, perhaps they discover previous thieves have already rigged the vault with a barrel of gunpowder on a lit fuse, and now both problems have to be handled at the same time.

A secondary challenge can be a great way to allow characters who aren’t good at the type of encounter as the main challenge (or players who just don’t care about that kind of encounter) to get some time in the spotlight of attention anyway. If you have a complex puzzle lock with riddles, and that kind of challenge bores one of your players who has a combat-focused character, adding a mini-secondary challenge can give them something to engage with while the other players tackle the puzzle lock. Perhaps the lock is also haunted, so ghosts of past (unsuccessful) lockpickers materialize and attack every few rounds

When adding secondary challenges and complications there is often a temptation to make sure the difficulty of overcoming them is tied to how crucial it is they be overcome. That’s pretty standard design for the main challenge of an encounter, but it can be needlessly difficult and complex for something you are adding as a complication. When an encounter already has a key challenge, it can be overwhelming for an additional challenge to require the same degree of focus, effort, and resources. If you’re going for a climactic, epic encounter, that may be exactly what you want. But if you are just adding a complication to increase variety and interest in the encounter, there’s no reason it has to be as challenging as the primary problem—in many ways it’s more interesting if it isn’t. If most of the characters are trying to evacuate children from the burning orphanage, and you only expect one or two to be dealing with the still-present arsonist, making him relatively easy to deal with keeps the encounter’s focus on the lifesaving, rather than a fight. The characters who are poorly equipped to help get kids out, or who can’t resist a chance for a brawl, can focus on just a few of them easily defeating the firebug, while the rest of the characters get the more important plot point of saving children.

But that doesn’t mean the secondary challenge can’t be just as important, even if it’s not just as hard. Obviously, the children in the burning building need to be saved, but stopping the arsonist is important as well. Not only does it keep him from starting more fires (possibly in the building just across the street), so resource efforts don’t have to expand, it’s also a potential opportunity to find out why he started the fire to begin with. Is it fire-for-hire, as a crimelord wants to make a point, or a developer needs the land to finish a new project? Or did one of the children see something the arsonist wants to make sure never gets reported?

Keep it Fun

No matter what elements of complications you add to spice up encounters, try to make sure you are creating things your players will see as challenges to be overcome, rather than efforts to punish them for having powerful or single-minded characters. Problems with how characters are built or players should be handled with a conversation out-of-character on what is bothering you, and how the players can help you have fun while still making sure they have a good time.

Complications and additional challenges are to make the game surprising and fun for everyone and, like seasoning in good cooking, a few sprinkles now and then often go a long way!