Category Archives: Table Craft

A Sample of My Planning:

James, you know who you are, don’t read this!!!!

This week, I’m gearing up to run a one or two shot game for a friend who has never gotten to play in a Star Wars campaign . . . so since I just spent two hours writing, I thought I would share a sample of my pre-game “home work” with you, dear reader, so that you could see the kinds of notes I like to make for myself prior to a session.  It more or less encompasses the first few social encounters of the game, and is meant for the fantasy flight “Rebellion” system.  Sorry for the lack of pictures, Disney is tight-fisted with it’s copyrights!  I generally read the italic parts to my players, and then let them react to the situation!

NPC Rank: (This is to simplify the npc’s in the system, which I am relatively unfamiliar with.)

Legendary*: 3 yellow in something they’re good at, plus perks that let them ignore black dice. 2 yellow 1 green in class skills, 1 yellow 2 green in things they’re bad at.

Heroic: 2 yellow 1 green in something they’re good at, plus perks. 1 yellow 2 green in class skills, 3 green in things they’re bad at.

Normal: 1 yellow 2 green in something they’re good at, 1 yellow 1 green in class skills, 2 green in everything else.

Easy: 1 yellow 1 green in something they’re good at, 2 green in everything else.


Ch. 1: Aboard the Redemption

As the starlines in the viewport revert to fixed points, the myriad dizzying colors of hyperspace flicker and then die, leaving you alone in the vast emptiness of regular space. Well, almost alone.  Suspended in space before you is an oblong, asymmetrical shape, little more than a wad of engines connected to a wedge shaped hull by a slender tube.  Klaxons begin blaring, filling the small cockpit with enough noise to make a firefight seem relaxing.  Above the alarms, LOM-8’s eerily cold voice booms out of the speakers in his mouth, “Calm down.  They’re just painting us with their not inconsiderable sensor arrays.” A charge of static bursts from the intercom, a woman’s voice, saying, “Unidentified ship, power down shields and weapons, and prepare to be boarded.  I hope you can explain how you got these coordinates, because you’re about to have a really bad day if you can’t.”

A dark haired, slender woman in a light brown, blue sleeved uniform, flanked by two rebel soldiers, greets you at the airlock.  She doesn’t smile, and the dark circles under her eyes betray a sense of exhaustion.  She looks you up and down and say, “Well, come on then.  I’m not so far removed from Alderaan that I’ll kill a few sentients without checking out thier story first.  She leads you to a small conference room, and leaves you with a tankard of water, and a few ration cubes.

One way or the other, the characters are brought aboard the frigate, and put in a locked conference room with water and ration cubes.  An hour passes, and Captain Marquez enters the room.

*Captain Marquez (Heroic) – Alderanian, dark hair, slender, tall, commanding.  She has dark circles under her eyes, and treats the PC’s matter of factly, even after confirming their bonafides.

Talking Points:

  1. story checks out.
  2. They have to prove themselves . . . A recommendation from Moonam isn’t good enough.  
  3. On the mission, for insurance, Lom-8 will be piloting another crew, while you are stuck with one of our guys . . . to keep an eye on you, and because Lom-8 is something of a curiosity.
  4. Do you accept the mission? You don’t get to know specifics beforehand, except that you will be running munitions off an Imperial world, and it will be dangerous.  They can walk around the ship, but only if accompanied by Ken and a protocol droid named Emtrey.  Lom-8 has volunteered to be studied by Dr. Rolkied, who has an interest in A.I.


*Emtrey (Heroic only for scrounging) – strange droid, reminds you a great deal of Lom-8


If they choose to explore the ship, read the following:

Each corridor you pass is absolutely martial, all in hard whites and greys, with the occasional hard black.  Each person you pass has a hard, hollow look, like soldiers who have seen too much, and lived too long in the shadow of some great loss.  Emtrey casually announces that 42.3% of the crew are survivors of Alderaan, a planet you recognize from the rebel propoganda machine . . . an entire planet destroyed?! It simply isn’t possible.  But from the glances you are catching, something must have happened . . . something worth hating the empire for.


The Hydrospanner’s Bolthole.

:Shop, with all goods rarity five or lower.


Run by Quiggles, a Duros refugee from Coruscant.  He has special interest in Laminate armor parts and will pay full price for them.


Aldera’s Peace:

Emtrey takes to an inconspicuous doorway on an otherwise barren hall, but as the door opens, you hear the low rumble of music, conversation, and the occasional raucous laugh.  The rec room, called Aldera’s Peace, is a narrow space filled wall to wall with tables and chairs.  A bar runs the length of the left side of the room, with a what looks like a repurposed surgery droid casually mixing drinks, while the entire right wall of the room is covered in two dimensional representations of happy looking humans, peacefully green vistas, and the occasional holoprojection, depicting happy scenes.  A large plaque above the wall reads “Never Forget.” A group of pilots in rebel orange sit at a back table, watching a holo of a recent space battle, using their arms and hands to reenact remembered maneuvers, and it is from this table that the laughter is coming from.  At a large table in the center sit five humanoids, dressed in the white, black, and khaki of rebel troops, quietly nursing drinks.  One, a horned Devaronian, gestures at you to join his table.


Red and Green teams:

Red Leader:

1) Dev Sandar, Devaronian, Heroic Commando.  He made his home on the peaceful slopes of Mt. Alder, before the Death Star blew it up. Welcoming, but sad.  His smile never reaches his eyes.


Red 2:

2) Flax Voltune, Human Alderaanian, Normal Commando. He is quiet, untrusting.  He looks over the newcomers constantly, as though sizing them up.


Red 3:

3) Sam Newman, Human Alderaanian, Normal Pilot.  His face is shadowed, and he openly speaks out about the need to hold to Alderaan’s non-violent philosophies.  


Green Leader:

Alice Dweller, Selonian Female, Heroic Commando.  Her catlike features are hard to read, but her friendly and open demeanor so much to soften her angular face.  She speaks of a fear that the Empire will know they’re coming, because Vader and the Emperor practice the “dark arts.”


Green two:

Gom Shugard, Corellian Human, Heroic Smuggler.  Gom is a burly, blustery man with massive handlebar mustaches.  He is in stark contrast to Alice in that he is not friendly at all, and openly accuses the pc’s of being double agents.  


The conversation can go however it needs to.  Talking points:

  1. Dev greets the newcomers and asks them about themselves.
  2. Flax is obtrusive in his vigilance, possibly evoking a comment from a PC
  3. Flax’s only comments are about revenge, righting wrongs, and killing imperials.
  4. Sam pleads with Flax, asking how much of himself he will lose to these dark times, and whether or not he will ever embrace peace again.
  5. Flax replies that, when he is standing over the smoking ashes of the emperor, maybe then.  He will put some in a capsule to release at the Alderaanian asteroid belt, to help his family rest easy.
  6. Alice brings up the possibility that tomorrow’s mission is a trap. Dev tells her to can the talk, they aren’t supposed to discuss the mission, and that her fears are unwarranted.
  7. Gom accuses the PC’s of being double agents, telling them to watch their backs tomorrow, lest they catch a stray laser . . . he’ll be watching them for anything suspicious.
  8. Dev tells everyone to get some rack time, the mission starts in nine hours.  


At this point, the PC’s can do whatever they want.  For the mission briefing, see the “Rebellion Gun Running” file.

I hope you enjoyed reading what I’m going to be putting my players through . . . let me know if this is something you would like to see more often, and as always, don’t fall for the old kobold pit trap!


Hello sports fans!

I know it’s been a while . . . Real life has been kicking my butt in the form of my 6 month old’s first cold, and training him to soothe himself to sleep . . . the entire family was running a fever simultaneously last week! IRL can be more perilous than the game world sometimes . . .

“I would like all of the drugs, please.”

Anyway, I know I was supposed to do a character biography next, but I’ve switched to primarily writing this blog on a chrome book, which has been awesome so far, but I’m not 100% sure how to create the editable sheet I was working with on my iPad to make a character that you can just print and play, so until I figure that out, the bio’s will have to be on hold.

Instead, what I would like to talk about this week is a common plight of the GM, namely that we never get to play in the games that we hold closest to our hearts.  A friend recently started running a game in the new Star Wars system I’m calling, affectionately? D-sh***y, mostly because I hate games that make me buy stuff above and beyond the already pricey book . . . Ugh, I digress.  Anyway, he loves Star Wars in the same way you might say a new parent loves sleep, and what’s more, he loves this new system.  It involves a set of dice with faces that range from “Triumph” to “Despair” with varying gradations of success and failure in between, designed to encourage role playing from the PC’s and GM, as apposed to the simple, “I rolled a 15,” “You hit it,” mechanic in more conventional games.  While I was skeptical at first, and while I still loathe the dice themselves, I have come to really enjoy the abstract and story-telling-heavy sense of play that I get from this game.

“What’s the problem?” you ask, sitting in your ivory tower, judging me for not getting to the point . . .

Pictured: You, in your tower . . .

Well, like all GM’s, we like to keep our eyes open for new experiences, rule sets that change up the state of play, and when we find something we like, we usually dive into it, headfirst, with all the excitement of drug addict finding an 8-ball in his coat pocket from last winter.  Of course, this is what my friend did, to the tune of three books, a starter set, two decks of cards, several boxes of minis and two sets of dice.  None of this would be a problem, except he fell into the classic conundrum of the Game Master: I love this game, I want to run it for you in the hopes that you will, one day, run it for me.

Of all the members of the Borderlanders, only he and I truly have the kind of love for Star Wars that allows me to tell you, in all seriousness, that the crew compliment ranging from about 30 to over 150, depending on how many systems are slave-rigged, and what kind of modifications have been made.  My point is, no one else in our group would even consider running a Star Wars campaign, because they don’t have the raw nerd knowledge to know the difference between a R2 and an R5, and what if it comes up?!

“Hey, that rebel pilot should’t be on the same board as a clone trooper! They’re 20 years apart in the timeline . . . ” “NEEEEEEERRRRRRRRDDDDDD!!!!!”

He recently told the group that he wanted to play a character, and since he knew that I would never run this new system, he felt like he should just roll up a character for his own game and play it as a background, almost NPC to fill in our gaps as a party.  @#$%^&* . . . I suddenly felt a great disturbance in the force, as though a thousand GM’s heavy-sighed in frustration, and were suddenly silenced . . . Ok, so not a thousand, but I know a few of you groaned!

Basically, what I’m trying to get at in my long winded post, is how to make running a system you’re not crazy about fun for your PC’s.

I was listening to the System Mastery podcast today, in which two guys review garbage, out of print systems for their merits and flaws, and this particular episode mentioned a mechanic in which each character picked a “Best Friend” and a “Rival” out of the other PC’s, and every time they crit, the best friend decides how the bonus comes into play.  Every time they botch, it’s the rival’s job to tell how the egg ends up on their face.  While the game that this mechanic came from sounds absolutely awful, (It’s called Panty Explosion, which I think is enough said on the matter) the mechanic has excellent applications in a game like the Fantasy Flight Star Wars, which is heavy with “Advantages” and “Threats” that you spend every time you roll to your character’s boon or bane, respectively.  Therefore, I am going to run this system for my friend, so that he can experience his favorite setting in his favorite system.  Ostensibly.  Really, I’m going to run a mad experiment to see if this mechanic is a viable way to keep all the player engaged in a system where, often, character are specialized to the point of having literally nothing to do in about a third of the situations that crop up.

“I wish I’d put points into literally anything social . . . “

Let me know what you think, and tell me your stories!  What have you tried, house-rules-wise, in order to make an undesirable system more tolerable? I’m all ears! And as always, roll enough advantages so that you don’t fall for the old Kobold Pit Trap!

Back in the World of Darkness

I keep trying to get out, White Wolf,  you vixen, but you just keep pulling me right back in . . .
I keep trying to get out, White Wolf, you vixen, but you just keep pulling me right back in . . .

I don’t know how well you follow Old World of Darkness publication information, dear reader, but I can tell you that Drive Thru RPG has been doing some pretty amazing work making old White Wolf books available to the general public.  Click on the link and give them a view if you’re at all interested in older books of any genre, or small, no-name publishers that have some pretty great merchandise just waiting to be discovered. Anyway, if you go to the link, you’ll find a 20th anniversary edition of Mage, The Ascension, which I will be purchasing as soon as I can convince my wife that I need it to live.

I only bring this up, because the book I received as a gift from my wonderful wife on my birthday last year was the 20th Anniversary edition of Werewolf, The Apocalypse.  And ever since then, I’ve been dying to run it, but with so much going on, the baby, other existing games that needed to be finished, and my place in the running schedule of who will GM next, I have yet to get the chance to use that magnificent, full-color, quadrabizillion page tome to the betterment of myself and all of my friends!

Well that is no longer the case! My turn in the old rotation is coming back around fast, and I have quite a lot of work to do!  As an experimental post, I thought I’d let you in on my process . . . the things I do to get a game ready to go for my group.  I can’t go into too much detail about the actual story, because my players read this blog, but I can tell you about . . .


So first, a word about building the old world of darkness into something that’s still relevant today.  Luckily, the new 20th anniversary edition has actually added a fair amount of content to help with this, but if you’re not familiar with the setting . . . well, it’s not called “The Apocalypse”  for nothing.  If you re familiar, then you’ll likely remember that the great bloodbath in defense of the Wyld was supposed to take place in . . . you guessed it, the year 2000.  Obviously, it never happened, so they had to do a little ret-conning to fix the problems present in playing fifteen years into a world that has not been apocolypsed.  The themes of Werewolf were always a kinda “save the cheerleader, save the world” deal, except instead of the cheerleader, it was Gaia, and instead of the world as it is, it was the world before the three competing deities went mad and fell out of balance.  The setting itself was a reaction to growing fears in the 90’s that the environment was on its way down fast and hard, and that if we didn’t change something quickly, then we were going to choke on our own befoulment before the changing of the millennium.  Especially since the main antagonists were part of a corporation that looked fine on the surface, but was actively seeking to destroy the world behind the scenes, the setting made for some awesome, desperate stories about downtrodden, alienated heroes fighting against overwhelming odds to save humankind from itself . . .

At least, that’s what I think now that I’m an adult.  At the time, it was probably more like, “I get to be a 14 foot tall murder machine? Awesome!”

How, then, do you make the story relevant in a time when the population is much more conscious of the importance of preserving our environment?  My idea is fairly simple.  If the antagonist has gone to ground, then I’m going to bring the focus on the characters themselves, because mostly, Werewolf was always a story about growing up, and all those terrifying changes that happen as one gets older, only in this world, those changes are very much personified in the player character’s sometimes monstrous abilities.  I’m going to attempt to make the game more about what my characters are going through, and less about the epic struggle to defend the world against Pentex.  And to do that, I have to actually do the one thing we always ignored in all the old White Wolf games we played; run the prelude to the story my characters will eventually play.

That's a metaphorical forest fire.  It's really your hormones  that are trying to kill you . . .
That’s a metaphorical forest fire. It’s really your hormones that are trying to kill you . . .

To do this, I will be starting my players as vanilla humans . . . or wolves, or metis, depending on their preference . . . you get the idea.  They will not have auspice gifts (the ones granted from the phase of the moon they were born under), nor will they have tribe gifts (the ones granted by the werewolf tribe that eventually accepts them into their midst), but they will have the ability to turn into a 14 foot tall killing machine lurking just beneath the surface . . . they just won’t know what it is.  I’m basically going to have them create basic humans, and play through that first dramatic event that forces them to make the change, and instead of making it all about saving mother earth, I’m going to make it about saving themselves.  I don’t know how it’ll work out, but I do know that if I don’t do something with my last 100 dollar book, there is no way in hell my wife will ever let me get the next one!  She stands to benefit . . . she’s one of my players!

Anyway, one way or the other, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on starting a new game.  If I get positive feedback on this post, I might continue on the vein of how I write my games, so if you liked the entry, please click like, leave a comment, reblog or share this post on your media . . . literally anything to let me know you enjoyed what you read!  Otherwise, it’s back to the Borderkeep, to talk about some more traditional (at least, for this blog) topics.  Check out my partner blog, Tales from the Borderkeep, and as always, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap!

Setting: The Borderkeep

Great stories can be told across settings.  Think about how many iterations of Sherlock Holmes have popped up in the last twenty years or so.  From Robert Downy to The Great Mouse Detective, the compelling characters, universal themes of good vs. evil, and the tension created when that evil is just as capable as the good, could come together to form a story relevant to any time or place in human history.

“Grawp really think killer left call sign?”
“Elementary, my dear Gurk.”

Is the same thing true for a setting?  Could a place be so inherently pregnant with potential story arcs and memorable characters that it could be the staging area for high adventure in any time across human history?  I’m sure there are many correct answers to this question, but today, I want to talk about that first setting that really captured my imagination; The Keep on the Borderland.

Pictured: The only equipment you need after the kobold cave.
Pictured: The only equipment you need after the kobold cave.

I never played it in its original glory . . . we actually were playing a 3.5 adapted version, but oh my god, I still remember our shock when, after facing orcs, gnolls, and a minotaur, we had to flee the caves of chaos at the hands of a tribe of kobolds.  Well-played, Gygax . . . well-played.

It’s more than just the memory of that first, memorable foray into the world of D&D, though.  Of all the games we have played in the last 15 years, my honest estimate would be that at least a third feature some version of that first setting.  Gamma World, Star Wars, Pathfinder, and now even 5th Edition, we just keep coming back to that last bastion of civilization on the edge of the wild frontier.

Hell yeah!
Hell yeah!

So two things: What makes this setting so versatile, and how do you recreate it at home?!

Well, the magic of the border keep is less about any specific keep, and more about what the keep represents.  By the very nature of its name, the border keep is a walled fortress, out there on the edge, protecting the rest of us from the chaos of the wildlands.  Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, A Song of Fire and Ice’s Wall, and to a lesser degree, the Stark’s castle, the Serenity in Firefly, all places on the edge of civilization that must be protected, manned, supplied, or otherwise interacted with for the sake of good storytelling everywhere!  Supplies will always need to be guarded that close to the border.  The Lord of the Keep will always need a few good mercs to bolster his guard when the hoards come.  The roads and pathways will aways need to be safer.  The possibilities here, more than any other setting I’ve ever played, are nearly endless.

Yeah . . . She knows what I'm talking about.
Yeah . . . She knows what I’m talking about.

I’ll try and make this last part brief, because I’m almost over my word count goals for this post. What do you need to recreate the awesome story generator that is a Borderkeep for your game? Honestly, I’ve been trying to answer that very question with every single post I’ve made since the inauguration of this blog.  If this concept is even slightly interesting to you, go back and read some of my posts.  Leave a few comments if you have questions or suggestions, click a like, share it with your friends, and most important of all, stay tuned! The Borderkeep is just getting started, and I’m excited to be a part of it!

And as always, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap.

Crafting a Situation

Now, I don’t want to make sharing the mundane details of my life at the beginning of these posts a habit, dear reader, but today, I had four glorious hours to myself!  My wife is at her best friend’s bachelorette party, and my son was being babysat by my sister-in-law . . . and what, you ask, did I spend this precious free time on?

Pictured: The Lord's Work
Pictured: The Lord’s Work

That’s right, I ordered a feta, gyro, and mushroom pizza from my favorite local pizzeria, cracked open a beer, and commenced my first ever “Daddy’s Special Alone Time” ritual. Someone call a cleric! I think I’ve slain hunger!

Anyway, as I sat, stuffing all of that sweet, sweet za into my mouth, I started thinking about all the best situations I’ve encountered in our many gaming sessions over the years.  I was sitting at our game table, which was still out from the night before, and I realized that I’ve been talking about npc’s, and giving examples of individual pieces of running a game, but I have yet to touch what is most near and dear to my heart: The Situation.

Years ago, when I started running my first games, I wish someone had explained to me how to craft interesting situations for my players.  I would do things like make the pc’s search a room for something vital to the storyline, and make forwarding the story dependant on that roll:

"Did you find the files?" "I botched."  . . . well, shit.
“Did you find the files?”
“I botched.”
. . . well, sh*t.

The problem with making anything that is majorly important to the plot of a role-playing game dependant on a single roll of the dice is that botches happen.  Then, you either look silly making the characters roll the same roll over and over until someone “gets it right,” or you just give it to them, and then maybe they wonder, “well, what the hell are we rolling for anyway?” You can give them something extra for success, but always try to keep the situation open, and let the players take the spotlight.

Here’s an example:

No it's not, it's a piece of crust covered in tziki sauce!
No it’s not, it’s a piece of crust covered in tzatziki sauce!

Sorry! Here’s the example, for real this time:

The Situation:  Your players need a paper file that proves a local cop is on the take.  This file is located in a room on the bottom floor of a corporate building nearby.  It is being guarded by two people.

You can handle this one of two ways.  The first is to plan for your characters every move, pitting your intellect against theirs in an epic battle of wits; one you are sure to win, because you are the very ground beneath their character’s feet! The guards are always alert, always focused!  There is no getting the drop on them, foolish players!

Ok,, I’m exaggerating . . . a little.  I’ve seen this done in many games!  it’s a very adversarial type of running a game, in which the player’s victories somehow represent a deficit in the GM’s skills.I like the second way better:

Create short but distinct traits for each of the guards.  Barry Wiggins likes to take frequent smoke breaks, but always does so at a different exit from the building.  Jimmy Double-Points shops A LOT at the local coffee shop, and hates his nickname.

"It's Jimmy Double BARREL, damn it!"
“It’s Jimmy Double BARREL, damn it!”

The room the files are in has one door, a bathroom adjacent, and one locked window.  This is literally all the plan I will make.  If the players take the time to case the place, they will pick up on the guard’s quirks, maybe find a way to exploit them . . . Or, they could run in, guns blazing, consequences be damned.  Either way, they make the plans, and all you do is . . . react!  Reward good roleplaying and excellent ideas, but let THEM fill in the blanks!

Thanks for reading, and I’ll probably try to throw in a situation example from now on . . . It’s seriously my favorite thing about running games, just reacting to all the crazy stuff my brilliant friends come up with.  Until next time, compadres . . . and remember, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap!