Double (down on) Dragons

When I first got into D&D I didn’t have friends who played. I bought the brand new 3rd edition core books and had a lot of lonely fun reading the game before I ever played it. To my late-90s teenage mind it was analog Diablo. The biggest disappointment was easily the relative lack of dragons. This was Dungeons & Dragons, for crying out loud! Where where the dragons? So I did what any lonely teen would do—I added a metric fuck ton of dragons into my own D&D world.

The tl;dr pitch is this:

    • The gods created the world, the beasts, the folk, and lastly the dragons.
    • There was peace on O’ethe until the dragons committed deicide and assumed divine power.
    • Now the world is ruled by lesser, mortal dragons and the not-quite-god dragons are the divine forces.

One of the biggest questions you get asked as a game designer is how you started designing games. That’s how I started in the RPG hobby. First by trying to reverse engineer the West End Games Star Wars RPG and then by hacking all eleven of the classes in the Players Handbook to be more dragoned up. Paladins didn’t serve gods, they were the hardcore enforcers of a dragon’s servants. Monks studied in monasteries to learn the secrets of the dragons, channeling their ki to bring their bodies and minds closer to the perfection of dragons should they ever need to stand against them. Rogues weren’t sneak thieves and cut purses, they were the mortal assassins working the dragon’s will.

These hacks weren’t just back stories, world hooks, and cosmetic makeovers, either. Every class had new abilities, new options, or new spells written up to make them more in tune with the dragons.

Long story short, I didn’t think about that world for more than fifteen years. I got a group, I started playing but I wasn’t the GM. My world wasn’t the focus. A couple years ago my grandfather passed away. He’s the first (and still only) grandparent or even close relative that I’ve lost. I dragged out the idea of doubling down on dragons in D&D and fired up Scrivener to start typing away. At first it was just a dragon patron for the Warlock, maybe as something to put up on the DM’s Guild and make a few dollars. As I wrote, the memories of that old, original setting came flooding back. The little writing project evolved into a cosmology and a whole world—I could include my idea of the dwarves as a Roman analogue and really put my stamp on what I think D&D is by writing up the whole world.

It was therapeutic but as I grieved I moved into anger and… just stayed there for a long time. My writing was put to the side.

Anyway, a few days ago I had the opportunity to read a friend’s material on his D&D world and it got me thinking about mine. I went back and cleaned up the cosmology. The writing was (still is, honestly) pretty rough but it got my ideas across better.

The Dawn of All Things

At the dawn of all things the gods were born into the void, a vast emptiness before the world. There they stayed, unmoving and unchanged for countless eternities. Baru, the Remembered, was the first to create. From the darkness outside of time she spoke the universe into being. She became light and pushed the darkness away. But the darkness was too great and her light was not enough. Baru stretched, stretched herself to the ends of the heavens where she shattered into countless stars. They hang there to this day, a reminder of the first goddess.

The other gods soon wrought their own creations in the light of the stars. The world, O’ethe, was forged by all those that remained. They learned from Baru’s exertion and built a world to share. Soon the firmament was laid and the gods began to work alone. They wrought works according to their natural, disparate inclinations. Thus O’ethe was covered with oceans, mountains, trees, plants, and all the beasts that roam the wilds. The gods contested with one another to create the most wondrous things — fireflowers and displacer beasts; islands floating in the sky and burrowing bulettes; thunderbirds and krakens.

The gods contented themselves to create for ages untold. Some believe that the gods created other worlds before abandoning them or letting them fall to ruin. They say O’ethe is but the ninth and final world created by the gods. Regardless, all agree that there was harmony on O’ethe when it was the naught but the gods, the world, and the beasts. It wasn’t until the gods created the folk that strife, disharmony, and the cycle of life and death arrived upon O’ethe.

Birth of the Folk

The folk of O’ethe — dwarves, elves, halflings, gnomes, and all the others — were the beginning of the Godfall. The dwarves were the first folk, carved from the living rock. Their creator breathed into them life and freewill. The dwarves are a naturally clever people and soon began to create things of their own—they dug mines, built forges, and built cities.

The other gods were jealous, for the dwarves were the greatest creation yet. Soon the elves, orcs, humans, and more folk were born. Dozens of folk were created, some now forgotten, as the gods sought to impress one another in their pride.

One god, weary of the contest and strife, gifted to the elves a measure of his own power. The folk call this power magic. Again, the other gods were jealous and soon gifted magic to all the folk. Priests worked miracles while wizards and sorcerers bent reality to their will.

Through all the contests there was one—known now as the Youngest—who was mocked by the others. This god’s workings — the turning of the seasons, flowers, birds — were humble creations, beautiful in their simplicity. The others laughed at them and boasted of their own grand creations. But a god’s pride is boundless and the Youngest keenly felt the words of his siblings. This fault of the gods—the pride and pettiness they all shared—was the instrument of their destruction.

Come the Dragons

The Youngest set about in secret to create the most marvelous thing yet. Hidden far away in the heavens, he labored for an age to create the most powerful, beautiful, and terrible creation any god had produced. When the Youngest returned, it was with a host of dragons. The earliest dragons were massive creatures, rivaling mountains in size. Their magic was stronger than any of the mortal races.

The Youngest had created something to rival the power of the gods.

They lived together in relative peace for an age, perhaps. The gods, the folk, and the dragons found harmony together when O’ethe was yet new. There was much to do, much to create, and much to discover. The dwarves built their empire in the mountains, with entrances carved into the living rock and keeps fashioned from the peaks themselves. The elves claimed the forests and grew their living cities from the trees themselves. Humans spread far and wide, building cities near lakes, rivers, and seas. Their wanderlust encouraged trade and their cities became cosmopolitan centers of knowledge and wealth.

The dragons, enormous as they were, sought to live in peace with the others. For an age they listened. They watched. They learned.


The dragons soon realized their power and the chance to seize yet more. Yet dragons are patient. For centuries they bided their time, meeting in secret and scheming in whispers. They first turned upon their creator. The oldest of the dragons, Geshnaq, went to the Youngest and implored him to visit the dragons on the moon. There the dragons devoured the Youngest, elevating their own power as the god’s blood stained the moon red ever after.

The dragons then swooped down to O’ethe, seeking out the rest of the gods. They were not swift enough for the simple, bloody coup they had planned. The gods felt the Youngest die and gathered in strength against the dragons. Many gods and dragons died that day before the wisest of the dragons, Lyx, called for a retreat as the tide turned against them. The dragons had tried to usurp power in a single night. They failed.

The war that followed laid waste to O’ethe for centuries.

The gods and dragons called upon the folk of O’ethe as allies. Thus the folk were divided. The dwarves and elves largely sided with the gods, though that is a simplification of history. The gods birthed a new folk to bolster their ranks—the giants, a simple warrior race gifted with elemental powers but devoid of magic.

The dragons gathered warriors from the abandoned and forsaken folk of O’ethe. Those that joined the dragon army were transformed through magic, granted a modicum of draconic majesty and power. These warriors became the first Dragonborn.

Humans were the most divided of the folk, without a majority supporting either side. Legends tell of siblings meeting on the battlefield under different banners.

The final battle took place on the plains of Pilam. It was a desperate gamble, for the dragons were losing the war. The gods had been making ground for decades and had killed many dragons. Their numbers reduced to but a few score, the dragons gathered for a final assault against the gods. Sensing a chance to end the conflict once and for all, the gods gathered in response and their armies stood to face the dragons.

The battle raged for most of the day until Geshnaq, the eldest and most cunning of the dragons, sprung her trap. Centuries ago, before the death of the Youngest, she had laid a brood of eggs on the dark side of the moon. They had finally hatched and grown strong on the blood of the god that soaked the moon. As night fell and the blood red moon rose in the sky, she cried out to her children and scores of young dragons fell through the skies upon the ranks of the weary gods.

The gods were slain but at great cost to the dragons. One goddess, remembered now only as the Last, cursed the gods as her last act. The font of divinity was strangled to a mere trickle of its original potency.

When the dragons slew the gods, they took what remained of their power, and assumed divinity for themselves. Of the original host, only thirteen dragons survived. Each ascended to a divine mantle, seizing control of some portion of O’ethe for themselves.

The chromatic dragons claimed elemental dominions and guide the cycle of the wilds. The greatest of them is Geshnaq, the Five-Fold Mother and Elemental Fury, who guides the cycle of death and rebirth on O’ethe. The metallic dragons became the stewards of the mortal races, each influencing civilization. Lyx, the platinum dragon, is known as the Judge and established the rule of law after the death of the First Gods. The thirteenth and final dragon has no name. It is known only as The Night and is the guardian of the dead. The Night sits in judgment of souls that await rebirth, guaranteeing that balance is maintained between the planes of existence.

Posted in Role Playing | Leave a comment

Convention Star Wars

My Star Wars game at AcadeCon was remarkably, thrillingly satisfying. It went better than I had hoped, certainly better than I expected. In fact, it went so well I couldn’t process it for some time. My players were excellent and bought into my cheap trick GM shenanigans gleefully. This post is about that session, what I learned, and how I can make it better. Continue reading

Posted in Actual Play, Blog, Game Design, Role Playing, Star Wars | Leave a comment

X-Wing: Sprucing Up the Namesake

There are a lot of fans of the X-Wing miniatures game who are dissatisfied with the game’s titular ship. It’s somewhat lackluster, with no way to reposition, limited green maneuvers, and is generally more expensive than comparative ships. Here I put my game design chops to use and theory craft some fixes. Continue reading

Posted in Game Design, X-Wing | Leave a comment

Short Form Games as Campaigns

Running shorter sessions of games can be a good thing. We’re all busy adults and carving out 4 hours of time to play pretend can be tough. Shorter sessions help ease that pain. But how does it affect play?

Talking Games

Senda and Phil covered this topic on today’s episode of Talking Games. It’s good, you should really listen to it. They even include an AP of a Fate game. This is mostly Senda’s wheelhouse, as she runs one-shots at conventions and often runs games of 2 hours or less. Phil’s talks about pacing, structure, and shared spotlight in campaign play. I think he left a lot out of the conversation.

How Short Sessions Affect Mechanics

The mechanics of a lot of games refer to sessions, either as a measure of time for special abilities or as a meta-measure of when things trigger. The most common is that XP is often given out at the end of a session – see DungeonWorld and FFG’s Star Wars come to mind.

The phrase “once per session” pops up in games quite a bit. This is all over the place in 7th Sea Advantages. Those are powerful abilities that let you take a big action in the fiction. If you have 1 hour long sessions, the characters in your game can often be much more powerful than if you were playing a 4 hour sessions.

Gaining XP is another consideration – if you give out XP after every hour of play, characters will ramp up much more quickly than if you give it out after every four hours of play. That is, unless you do something to alter the amount of XP per session. Another thing to consider there is that characters will be more fluid and less static when this happens – the amount of time any given character stays at a certain XP level is going to be reduced. Consider DungeonWorld and its handling of end of session moves. Doing that every hour of play is going to alter the flow of the narrative.

The last thing I wanted to point out, and something that actually needs to be addressed if you’re playing FFG’s Force & Destiny, is that certain mechanics only work if your sessions are long enough. The Force & Destiny Morality mechanic just doesn’t work in short sessions. It’s designed that through a session a character will have enough rolls and enough choices to make that a significant amount of conflict will have built up before the Morality check at the end of the session. That just doesn’t happen in a single hour. It’s probably best to do your Morality checks after a few short sessions (or, to be very gamist about it, once the character has earned 5 Conflict).

Posted in Role Playing | Leave a comment

Night’s Black Agents Session 1

Last week we played 7th Sea for the first time. This week -J. took the GM seat and ran Night’s Black Agents (NBA) for us.

NBA mashes up vampire fiction with super spies in the vein of Jason Bourne. It’s an action-thriller with a focus on conspiracies. As a Gumshoe game the play focuses on resource management, with players spending points to advance the story and gather clues.

nbacover_zpssriqao4m Continue reading

Posted in Actual Play, Role Playing | Leave a comment

Hacking My Own Game

Over on G+ a member of the Fate Core community asked “How can I use Three Rocketeers to play TMNT?” and basically made my whole week. The main thrust of the question is, “How can I modify the swordplay rules to other styles of combat?”

It’s a great question! And particularly apt as the swordplay in Three Rocketeers grew out of my desire to have something similar to the kung fu  in Tianxia but spun out into fencing. So I began the strange experience of hacking my own game and teaching others how to do it.  Continue reading

Posted in Game Design, Role Playing, Three Rocketeers | 1 Comment

New Group, New Games

It’s been a while since I’ve had a regular game group. A few weeks ago I decided to fix that. After reaching out to game design friends, we now have a group for playing RPGs and playtesting new designs. Since we’re all busy adults, the plan is to play on Monday evenings from 7-10. This is going to require us being very focused and intent on the game, not the social aspect. I set that expectation in the early stages so hopefully it will just take. Click after the jump for a recap of our first session. Continue reading

Posted in Actual Play, Role Playing | 1 Comment

7th Sea Text Review, Part 2

Today I’m going to tackle things a little differently. Rather than go in order, I’m going to start with Chapter 4: Action & Drama, jump over to Chapter 9: Game Master, and then tomorrow circle back to do chapters 5 through 8.

Chapter 4: Action & Drama

The first page of this chapter, which comprises the bulk of the game rules, says that you only roll the dice when it matters. Is there a chance of failure? Is it interesting? If you answered ‘no’ to either of those things, just let it happen.

Actions where you roll the dice are called Risks in 7th Sea. That choice of phrase is deliberate and well made. Risks are risky, dangerous, and exciting.

The basics of making a Risk are simple: you declare your Approach (which Trait and Skill you are using), the GM tells you the Consequences and any Opportunities involved, then you roll the dice and create Raises, lastly your character spends Raises to accomplish goals (achieve your intent, prevent a Consequence, or seize an Opportunity).

Consequences are side complications that make life difficult for you. It could be taking some Wounds as you rush out of the burning room but it could also mean the MacGuffin falls overboard. It’s possible to achieve your intent but suffer consequences – essentially success at a cost in Fate Core, or a partial hit from Apocalypse World. It’s also possible to fail at your intent but avoid the consequences – failing forward, as it were. If you have lot of Raises, it’s possible to both achieve your intent and avoid the Consequences.

Opportunities are the opposite of Consequences – they are chances for you to do a little extra, be a little more heroic. If the GM didn’t list an Opportunity, don’t worry. You can spend a Raise to create one for another Hero – you could knock that pistol out of the Villain’s hand and have it slide over to your partner, for instance. Spending a Raise to create an opportunity is a lot like create an advantage in Fate Core. It’s a setup move, maneuvering pieces into place for more awesome stuff later.

When you spend a Raise, what you declared would happen happens. This is huge. As in this is the killer app of 7th Sea. Why? Because you never miss that clutch attack, never fail to swing on the chandelier, and never fall off your horse jumping the fallen tree. In short, when you spend a Raise, you are guaranteed to be heroic.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get a Raise. Dice are fickle. But the number of dice involved in the game stack the odds so that nearly every roll you will have at least one Raise. A Raise is a set of dice that add up to 10. On average, you should have one Raise for every 2 dice in your pool (or so). Remember in my first post of the review that I said every Hero starts with 2 Ranks in every Trait? That’s the baseline of your dice pool. You will always be rolling 2 or more dice, and two dice average out to one Raise. If you give dramatic flair to your description, you get another die. So, really, the fewest dice you should ever roll is 3. The examples in the book have the players rolling up to 10 dice. That should show you where the designers want you to go with dice pools.

It also doesn’t mean that the Villain you stabbed can’t use the Parry maneuver to cancel damage. But you hit the Villain. You always hit the Villain. No one can take that away from you. When you play 7th Sea you’ll never describe this amazing, dramatically appropriate moment as you engage with the Villain you’ve been hounding for months and then look sheepishly at the GM to announce, “I rolled a 1…”

I really love this idea and can’t wait to put it into action.

Action and Dramatic Sequences are a bit more structured than simple Risks. You can think of Action Sequences as the Battle of New York in The Avengers – all action and heroics. A Dramatic Sequence is much more like the CIA clean room hacking scene in Mission: Impossible – people do cool stuff but the tension isn’t released at the end of the scene.

Rolling Risks in Action and Dramatic Sequences is a bit different, too. At the start of the round, everyone announces their Approach (with flair for that bonus die) and rolls the dice. Then Raises get counted and the person with the most Raises goes first. If players are tied, they decide who goes first. If a player is tied with the Villain, the Villain goes first. You always act based on your current number of Raises – this goes down as you spend them and eventually everyone will sync up. When no one has Raises left, a new round begins. It’s an elegant bit of design that should make big, dramatic fights flow smoothly.

There are a couple of wrinkles to “spend a Raise to do a thing.” First is if you change up your action midway through. You can do it but it costs you an extra Raise – so if you’re looking to spend your last Raise to do something else… well, tough luck, I guess. (A quick house rule hack is to let the player do it but it knocks one Raise off the top in their next round.) The second is that if you don’t have at least one Rank in the Skill you use in your Approach, it costs and extra Raise to do the thing. And these stack, so if you change up your action in the middle of spending Raises to do something you don’t have the Skill for, it costs 3 Raises. Dabble accordingly, I suppose.

Keep in mind, I like these wrinkles. They’re not bugs in the system (except maybe the edge case of one Raise left and changing actions) but rather encourage a particular form of play.

A couple other things I want to point out real quick: 1) you can always choose to fail before you roll the dice and doing so gets you two Hero points that can be spent to do cool things like activate sorcery; 2) any dice you don’t use to make Raises can be ‘bought’ by the GM to add to the Danger Pool: you get 1 Hero Point while the GM gets as many Danger Points as dice you had left over. These both add really interesting tactical choices to play. I like that it’s not the dice you rolled that came up 1 that the GM can buy. This operates in a different space you can’t emulate in Cortex Plus games.

The rest of the rules in the chapter cover Brute Squads, which are dead simple to use, and Villain rules.

Villains are antagonists that operate on the plot level. They have two stats: Influence and Strength. Added together is their Villainy Rank. When a Villain rolls dice, they roll up to their Villainy Rank. This can put the Heroes in trouble when a Rank 20 Villain shows up. But! The game has a system in place where Heroes can undermine a Villain’s Influence, thus lowering the Villainy Rank and making them easier to tackle.

The writers of 7th Sea have found a way to mechanize the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo and make it the emphasis of play for long term campaigns. My hat is off to them. There’s also a system by which the Villains can gamble Influence to gain more through Schemes, which ought to intersect with the Hero stories to give them a chance to thwart the scheme.

The section on monsters is fine. I like it. It’s very utilitarian and aimed at letting you build your own monsters rather than handing out a bestiary. That’s good, that’s solid.

The last two sections of this chapter have me really excited. Game Master Stories is about building story arcs for your game. It uses the same system as the Hero Stories from Hero creation but turned around so the GM is at the helm. It’s very simple but it’s really a very elegant and useful way to prep the threads of the plot in your game. They break down some different classes of stories but really the juice here is in how to construct them as use them as a game master. It’s great, functional design and advice for GMs. I grok this more than Fronts in Apocalypse World.

The last page of this chapter, page 203, is about Corruption. Remember how I said “always capitalize Hero when talking about PCs in 7th Sea“? This is where that gets put into place. If your Hero commits acts of evil, they gain corruption. After just four acts of evil, they are guaranteed to become a Villain but they could fall and become evil after just the first. Dice are fickle. What’s an act of evil? Murder. Torture. Hurtful indifference. Ultimately it’s up to the GM but the guides in this section are clear: this is not a game about murder hobos.

Chapter 9: Game Master

Right from the beginning the emphasis here is that the GM’s job is to entertain the players. It goes on to outline three hats the GM will wear: author, storyteller, and referee.

The author hat is about constructing a plot and story. The chapter outlines modes of stories (conspiracies, adventure, espionage, etc.) and a dozen dramatic situations (abduction, disaster, revenge, etc.) before getting into the construction of a plot. This is where the chapter starts to get a little disjointed to me. There’s a half-page about nailing your opening and then an extended example of plot construction (in play with improvisation from a starting point) that ignores the opening.

Wearing the referee hat is to be the arbiter of the rules and to keep play moving forward. Here John Wick advises you to play hard and play fast. Don’t let the players sit back and think about what they want to do. Get them to act impulsively and heroically. Keep your action scenes running at a breakneck pace. Be fair but never dawdle and don’t brook dissent. This is a hard thing for me to get behind but I have problems asserting myself in social situations. This section does, however, provide the three-line summary of 7th Sea rules:

  1. You create a Scene.
  2. Players create Raises.
  3. Players use Raises to change the Scene.

That is the core of play. It’s a shame it takes 286 pages to get to that point.

One last thing in the referee section: death. Heroes don’t murder and Heroes don’t die from happenstance. They can only die from Villainous action. And the rest of the Heroes have the ability to save them, no questions asked. So how do you kill a Hero? With the player’s permission. Get them on board with the idea by asking how they’d like their Hero to die – what would make a satisfying, glorious end to their story? How can we bring that about together? Because stories are about endings.

Being a storyteller is a performance guide. How to get in the head of your NPCs and villains, engaging all five senses in descriptions, and different voices (action, description, dialogue, exposition, and thought) for different information and tone. It also advocates a very animated, stage-like performance aspect to game mastering where you embody your characters.

7th Sea is the first tabletop RPG I’ve read where I’ve seen instructions for debriefing after the game. This is common in LARP but hasn’t really entered the mainstream of tabletop RPGs as far as I’m aware. It’s framed mostly as a way for the GM to get useful feedback for improving but there are hints of making sure everyone is okay.

The last four pages of the book are dedicated to making Villains compelling. This seems like solid advice.


The core system of 7th Sea (the GM makes a Scene, players make Raises, and then spend Raises to change the Scene) is robust. It empowers players and largely avoids the fickleness of dice. The idea that spending a Raise always accomplishes something is powerful technology that you should be on the lookout for in future games.

It’s not perfect, no system is. There’s a lot of responsibility thrust upon the GM, which isn’t really my style. It seems a lot of the GM advice boils down to “Dance, monkey! Dance!” That doesn’t jive with me. There’s a certain truth to it but it’s only one perspective. The GM advice here is how to GM like John Wick. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot trying it but in the end I’ll need to figure out how to run 7th Sea in a way that works for me and doesn’t involve quite so much dancing monkey.

Throughout the text there are edge cases that pop up and I’m not sure if they’re intentionally vague – there’s a lot of ink spilled about making rulings, not rules – or just weren’t covered. Are players just SOL if they want to Improvise with only one Raise left? Can you buy Minor Glamours in your Knight Errant’s Major Trait?

Criticisms aside, I’m really excited about this game system and can’t wait to get it to the table. Soon! Alright tomorrow I’m gonna close out the last four chapters, which cover Sorcery, Dueling, Sailing, and Secret Societies.

Posted in Role Playing | 2 Comments