Talislanta: The Savage Land…still no elves!


Back at the beginning of 1987, a small company named Bard Games released a very cool new roleplaying game called Talislanta. Ads in Dragon Magazine loudly proclaimed “no elves…” and explained that it was for people “tired of ‘look-alike’ fantasy games.”



The world of Talislanta was densely populated with alien cultures, strange races, and fascinating character types (a.k.a. classes). The system revolved around the Action Table, a single chart against which the players rolled to determine the success (or failure) of any action. It was a great example of an early unified system that worked the same way regardless of whether the character was fighting, casting spells, sneaking past a guard, or haggling over prices with a merchant.

The original game was written by Stephen Michael Sechi and illustrated by P.D. Breeding-Black, and Talislanta quickly became known as a great little game with some unique elements in the otherwise Tolkien-dominated fantasy genre at the time. The art was fantastic, and a four-page section showing all the different races and character types became one of my favorite parts of the book. I remember paging through that section, carefully examining each picture in order to determine which character I was going to play.


Unfortunately, I didn’t purchase Talislanta myself in those days—another person with whom I used to game bought all the books available at the time:

  • The Talislanta Handbook
  • The Chronicles of Talislanta
  • A Naturalist’s Guide to Talislanta
  • Talislanta Sorcerer’s Guide

But, things being what they were, the guy who owned the books didn’t find the actual system crunchy enough, and he converted it over to RuneQuest III for the one short-lived campaign I got to play. He also severely limited the racial options (e.g. I wasn’t allowed to play a Danuvian Swordswoman because I wasn’t female myself), and RuneQuest was far deadlier than the actual Talislanta system, which meant the whole high-adventure feel was replaced with gritty and careful exploration.

Sidenote: Many people have horror stories about early GM’s who were terrible at running games, and this guy was my own nightmare. I’ve heard that his other favorite game, Shadowrun, can actually be fun to play, but I’d never know it from his running of the game back in the day. But he hasn’t been a part of my gaming group for a long time now.

Anyway, after the entire party was wiped out by a 20-foot-deep pit (not a hidden one, all the characters died just trying to descend—with climbing gear—into the pit and back up the other side), we moved onto other games. I borrowed the books from the GM for almost a year, but never got to run it myself.

The Talislanta game was quickly followed by a second edition, and then a third edition was released in 1992. This edition moved the timeline of the setting forward and made some changes to the status quo found in the first two editions. During the d20 boom, it even got a Talislanta d20 edition by Wizards of the Coast (when they temporarily owned the game). The fourth edition—called the “big blue book” by Talislanta fans—became the best known and generally most-favored edition. And finally, the fifth edition introduced a Path system for creating characters, and broke the books out into separate volumes again.

In 2010, the original author (and now the sole rights-holder of the game) Stephen Michael Sechi made all of the editions free to download on the main Talislanta website. He felt that he wanted to give the game back to the fans, and hopefully introduce a whole new generation to the Talislanta world. PDFs of all the books can be downloaded legally from the website for free.

And it seemed like that would be it for Talislanta. But it turns out the game with no elves is still kicking.

At the beginning of April, Nocturnal Media launched a Kickstarter for Talislanta: The Savage Land. Sechi teamed up with Nocturnal to produce a whole new Talislanta game. The original game is set in the New Age, “a Renaissance-like period that started a thousand or more years after The Great Disaster, a cataclysm that marked the fall of the once-great Achaen Age.”

Talislanta-The Savage Land Book

Talislanta: The Savage Land is a prequel to the original Talislanta game. It takes place just a short time after The Great Disaster.

Written once again by Stephen Michael Sechi, this new Talislanta game is much more a sword-and-sorcery game than one of high-fantasy. The artwork by David Arenas looks fantastic, and there are some great new innovations in the rules (e.g. the characters can influence the success of their tribes by managing large-scale actions on a Mass Action Table, similar to how the original Action Table worked).

The game will be released for three different rules systems. The first is, of course, the Talislanta system. In this case, they are using the second edition of the game as the base, and incorporating innovations from the fan-favorite fourth edition to arrive at the best possible system for this particular setting.

The second set of rules will be Open D6, the fun system that was found in the original Star Wars RPG from West End Games. Nocturnal now owns West End Games, and so has the expertise to produce a version of Talislanta: The Savage Land for this system.

The final set of rules will simply be the current (fifth) edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Not a great fit for Talislanta by any means, but I’m sure it will open up the setting to more players, and that’s ultimately a good thing.

The Kickstarter is still ongoing until April 30th, and I’m happy to be a backer. With 21 days still to go, they’ve already raised three times their original goal and have more than 800 backers.

Sidenote: I’ve had pretty good luck with Kickstarter so far. I’ve been careful to back projects by companies that have a good reputation, and so far I’ve yet to have a Kickstarter be late, never mind not deliver at all. This is one in which I have a lot of confidence, as the Talislanta-rules version is already completely written, so the risk is fairly minimal.


Now is a great time to get into Talislanta (or get back into it if you haven’t looked at it in a long time). All the rule books are free, and this new game promises to be gorgeous and fun, and open up a whole new era in the history of the Talislanta world.

Did you play Talislanta back in the day? Do you remember the ads in Dragon Magazine? What was your favorite character type in the Talislanta world? Tell us about it in the comments.



The One Ring is a Work of Art

No one can deny the influence that J.R.R. Tolkien has had on the fantasy genre. Many of the elements from his books have become genre tropes that dominated novels for decades. There are countless books that include Tolkien versions of elves, dwarves, and hobbits (though they might be called halflings, or little people, or some other non-copyrighted variation).

Tolkien-esque tropes also dominated fantasy roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons, the biggest game by far, incorporated most of those genre elements, and there have been many, many imitators since then.

And yet, despite the popularity of Tolkien’s writings, there haven’t been very many licensed roleplaying games through the years.

The first, and longest-running, was the Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) game that was published from 1984 through 1999 by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE). This game used their house system, Rolemaster, which was a poor fit for Middle Earth, but their success was based on the hunger of gamers for official Tolkien RPG products.

The next company to produce a game based in Middle Earth was Decipher. This was published in 2002 and was intended to capture renewed interest in Tolkien’s world from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. This was a short-lived game, with just seven published books over two years before the line was cancelled.

Which leads us to The One Ring Roleplaying Game, published by Cubicle 7. Originally published in 2011 as The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, a revised core rulebook was released in 2014.

There is no doubt that The One Ring (a.k.a. TOR) is love letter to Middle Earth. Using rules developed specifically to support playing through the kinds of stories that Tolkien himself wrote, Cubicle 7 has managed to publish a game that actually feels like Middle Earth.


Mysterious Magic: Unlike the in-your-face magic of games like D&D, magic in Middle Earth is subtle and mysterious. A common question by new players of the game is “Where is the magic-section of the rulebook?” but magic is embedded in the various races and cultures. It’s internal, rather than external. There are no rules for playing Gandalf or others of his ilk, as player characters are intended to reflect special individuals caught up in grand events, in the vein of Bilbo and Frodo, Boromir and Faramir, Gimli and Legolas.

Emotional Tone: Characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of attributes and skills. Middle Earth can be a dark place, and this often takes an emotional toll on its heroes. Hope and despair are key thematic elements in the games, and this is reflected in a character’s Hope score, which can be used to keep the character moving when faced with adversity and shadow.

Fellowship: A group of player characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of adventurers who happen to travel together. The characters are expected to form a Fellowship, which represents friendship, loyalty, and trust. Their Fellowship score provides points that can be used to regain Hope (turning to your friends in times of need can help you overcome despair), and special abilities that the party can use to overcome adversity.


Journeys: Much of Tolkien’s stories involve great travel by the books protagonists. Many games gloss over travel, perhaps simply including a random encounter chart or something similar. But travel is an essential part of any game set in Middle Earth, and so they developed a set of rules to make travel a more interesting part of the adventure. It’s not just the destination that’s important in The One Ring, it’s also the journey.

Corruption: The forces of darkness don’t rely solely on physical threats. Both Boromir and King Theoden found themselves under the influence of Shadow at various points in The Lord of the Rings, and the rules reflect how this can affect the player characters. From the book, “Adventurers accumulate Shadow points to represent the growing burden of grief, doubt, weariness and self-interest that comes to rest on the hearts and minds of those who oppose the Shadow.”

Since its release, there have been a number of fantastic sourcebooks published by Cubicle 7 for this game.

  • Ruins of the North: A collection of six great adventures for the game.
  • Adventurer’s Companion: New cultures and callings, and expansions to some areas of the game.
  • Horse-Lords of Rohan: Expands the game to include a new region that is quite different from those in the North.
  • Erebor: The Lonely Mountain: Expands the game into this region of Middle Earth.
  • Rivendell: A guide to the people and places of this area in Middle Earth.
  • Tales from Wilderland: A collection of seven fantastic adventures.
  • The Darkening of Mirkwood: A thirty-year campaign that starts in 2947 with the first hints of the returning shadow and ends in 2977 with the death of King Bard. This is an epic book that provides an entire campaign for the players to run through.
  • The Heart of the Wild: A guide to Mirkwood and the Vales of Anduin.

And there are other great products, such as custom dice, a Loremaster’s Screen, map collections, etc.



There are few games that work so well capturing the themes, tone, and experience of an existing property like The One Ring does with Middle Earth and Tolkien’s stories. Everything, from the rules, to the art, to the design all contribute to make a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Luckily, Cubicle 7 continues to support The One Ring with new products. It’s a fantastic game, and one that I will continue to buy as long as they keep putting out quality material for it.

Have you played The One Ring, or any of the other Middle Earth-based RPGs? Which one was your favorite? What is your TOR campaign like? Tell us about it in the comments.

T.I.M.E. Stories

Recently I had the opportunity to play a very interesting boardgame called T.I.M.E. Stories. The primary publisher, Space Cowboys, calls it a “decksploration” game, and that invented word actually describes the game play fairly well.

The premise of the game is that the players are temporal agents of the T.I.M.E. Agency (the acronym stands for Tachyon Insertion in Major Events), an organization that protects the time steam from alterations and “time faults” that could destroy the continuum. The time stream itself isn’t just a linear sequence of events, however. There are also an infinite number of alternate realities that also have major events that affect the entire continuum.

The agents do not physically go into the past or these alternate realities. Rather, only their consciousness is sent and they inhabit the physical bodies of individuals who live in that time/reality. And there are some rather interesting characters that you get to play.

The game is played on a board, but the key element of gameplay is the mission deck. The deck is divided up into “areas” (an area could be a room in a building, an outdoor space, or any defined place that could be encapsulated in a single picture). The cards for that area are laid out on the board and together they display a picture of the area. Each player moves his or her agent to a particular card, representing that the agent is examining something in that part of the area, or interacting with a person or creature in that part of the area.


For example, the area might be a kitchen in an insane asylum in the 1920’s. One card shows the butcher cutting up meat, another card shows the dishwasher cleaning dishes at a sink, another card shows a couple of staff members whispering to each other, and the last card shows the door to a walk-in freezer. One player may assign his/her agent to check out the freezer, another might assign his/her agent to speak to the butcher, and the last player might assign his/her agent to speak to the whispering staff members. (Note that I’m not describing exactly a room in the base mission for the game, I’m just using it as an illustration of what you might find in an image across a bunch of cards.)

Then, the players turn over the card that they picked and read the information on the back. The freezer, for example, might contain a large slab of beef hanging from a hook, with strange claw and bite marks on it. The text on these cards provide clues to the situation, which the players use to figure out what is going on and how to fix it.

There are a great number of reviews of T.I.M.E. Stories already available out there on the internet, which go into more detail about the gameplay, the many awards this game has already won, and more. What I do want to mention is that the rulebook for the game asks the question if this is a roleplaying game or a boardgame.

The rulebook states, “Neither one or the other — or rather both! Our first desire was to capture the feeling of the roleplaying games of our youth, but in a more compact and less time-consuming format as the era of self-contained campaigns in bomb shelters is unfortunately over …”

And it’s true that you can certainly choose to roleplay the person your agent inhabits during the mission. There are little behavioral cues that a player can use to help them get into “character”. And when the I played the game the first time, I certainly enjoyed getting into the role and speaking in character when it was my time to act.

But by the second time we played—most missions will take more than one session to complete—I found that I had stopped playing the character and focused solely on playing the game.

Ultimately, roleplaying in T.I.M.E. Stories is exactly like roleplaying your investigator in Arkham Horror, or roleplaying your hero on Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, or any of the D&D Adventure System boxes. You can do it, but it has absolutely no bearing on the game itself.

This is because, unlike most traditional roleplaying games, no one is playing the opposition. This is a cooperative game in which each player is playing a T.I.M.E. Agent. So you while you can roleplay among yourselves while making decisions, at the end of the process you are just reading clues and instructions off the card you’ve selected. And that severely limits the options you can take.

It’s like trying to roleplay while reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

But is it Fun?

The game itself was enjoyable enough, and it’s a very well-designed game. It provides an experience that is unlike any other boardgame I’ve ever played, and there is a definite story that you play through during the game. The cards are evocative of the time anomaly in which you find yourself, the artwork is great, and the entire thing is impressive in its clever use of the various elements to work together.

But I have to admit that by the end of the second session, when we successfully completed the mission, I did feel like, “finally it’s done.” Keep in mind that I’m not a big puzzle person, so part of the basic premise of the game—that you’re investigating and putting together clues to figure out what is actually going on—is not one that I particularly enjoy. If you like mysteries and puzzles, you’ll probably have a very different take on this game.

For me, though, I felt like the game was interesting, but not compelling. I compare this to Blood Rage—after playing that game I wanted to run a Viking RPG and use thematic elements from that game in my campaign, because I was excited by both the flavor and the gameplay. After playing T.I.M.E. Stories, I was happy to have gotten to experience this game, but that’s it. It didn’t get my imagination fired up and I wasn’t thinking of ways to take those elements into my preferred form of gaming.

Would I play it again? Yes, I’d be willing to try another, different, mission if my friends wanted to give it another go. But there are more games I’d like to try than I will ever have time to play, so if it turns out I never return to T.I.M.E. Stories, I’m perfectly happy with that.

Should you try it? My advice for anyone wondering if they should play a particular game is to read reviews, both positive and negative, and see if that gives you a better idea if you’ll enjoy it or not. I think it’s an interesting experience to have, and I was lucky in that some close friends invited me to play their copy with them.

Have you played T.I.M.E. Stores? What was your experience like? How many runs did it take for you to complete the mission? Tell me about your own stories in the comments.

Jason Bourne versus…Vampires?!?


I’m not afraid to admit that I have a problem. I buy more role-playing game books than I will ever have time to play, despite my sincere desire to do so.

There are whole lines of games that I absolutely love, and for which I have purchased all (or at least the vast majority) of book, but that I’ve never gotten to run for any gaming group. And yet, I can’t help myself—there’s just too much good stuff out there to let it pass me by.

Night’s Black Agents is one such game.

Back in 2007, Pelgrane Press released The Esoterrorists, a game using a new system, which they called The GUMSHOE System. At the time, the GUMSHOE System purported to fix a problem that I never had—investigative scenarios that hinged on the players making a particular role to gain a particular clue that was required for the game to proceed. If the players didn’t successfully make that role, it would be a roadblock in the scenario.

The GUMSHOE System was advertised as a game system where that couldn’t happen, as characters will always find the essential clues needed to proceed. It’s not about finding clues, but interpreting the clues they have.

Personally, I always looked at that particular situation as a failure of both the written scenario and the person running the game. If you set up your scenario so that a single failed roll can stall everything, then you’ve made a big mistake. It wasn’t the system that was the problem there at all.

So I passed by on The Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself, and Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues, and Ashen Stars (though that game’s premise did peak my interest for a bit).

But Night’s Black Agents (which I’ll just refer to as NBA from here on out) is the one that got me.

The premise of NBA is that the player characters are former spies (e.g. ex-CIA, or ex-KGB, or ex-MI6, etc.). At some point in their past, these characters broke from their respective agencies. Maybe they retired (yeah, right), maybe they were burned, maybe they faked their own deaths, whatever. Since that time, they’ve operated as independent agents, keeping a low profile and working on jobs as necessary as make a living.

The game begins when they get called together for a job, a la Ronin. But when things go south, they discover that there is some real strangeness going on—things that don’t have easy explanations. And they are no longer in a position to just walk away, because the conspiracy is now aware of them.

Ultimately, NBA is about uncovering a conspiracy ultimately controlled by vampires. Imagine if the secret head of Treadstone (from The Bourne Identity film) was actually a blood-sucking fiend, using the organization to eliminate threats to its own survival and control.

Now vampires in NBA don’t have to actually be blood-sucking fiends at all. The game provides many options for the Director (the name for the person running the game) to create his or her own unique vampire nemesis.

When creating your vampires, the game offers multiple options. For example, how can you generally class your vampires?

  • Supernatural: “Vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth: spirits, ghosts, necromancy, witchcraft, and the like.”
  • Damned: “Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic entities opposed to mankind and God.”
  • Alien: “Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Such ‘paraphysical’ vampires might be alien invaders, psychic phenomena, corpses animated by alien science, or just ‘humans’ from another dimension.”
  • Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Such ‘parabiological’ vampires may be mutants, constructs of some black program, humans adapted to future conditions of plague or global cooling, insane humans obsessed with blood, or sentient diseases that possess their hosts.”

Then you need to select the origin of your vampires, how far they have spread, how many there are in the world (or just in this particular conspiracy), how many different types there are (if any), whether they are truly dead or not, to what extent are they still human, whether or not there is a cure for them, what special abilities do they possess, and what kinds of weaknesses can the characters exploit?

The book gives the Director great options for each of these questions, and you can mix and match them into a huge number of possible combinations. Or, you can go with traditional mythological vampires and have all of that work done for you.

After that, the book delves into creating the vampire conspiracy. What are they up to? What kind of resources do they have? Who are their allies and who are their enemies? This conspiracy is what the players will attempt to unravel in the course of the game.

NBA was released in 2012, and it took me four years to “discover” this game. More and more, as scenarios and campaign packs were released for it, the buzz around NBA grew. And so I read a few reviews and some actual play accounts, and I reached a point where my curiosity got the better of me.

And now that I have the NBA core rules, and a few supplements, I cannot wait to run it.

This is obviously not a game for everyone. It needs players who are interested in covert operations and investigations. It needs players who want to act like actual spies (these people are not James Bond). The book has a chapter with great advice to players, like “When stuck, get more intel” and “Follow the money” and “Build your own network.” The book expands on these ideas and provides the players with ideas on how to succeed in their investigations against the vampire conspiracy.

The mechanics of the GUMSHOE System have gone through multiple iterations since 2007, and they support investigations without turning them into tedious, “ask a million questions” grindfests. The characters are able to quickly collect important clues that will point them in one or more directions, and it’s up to them to decide where to go next. And their activities will inevitably lead them into short, sudden, violent conflicts with their enemies, to add a healthy dose of excitement to the proceedings.

Jason Bourne versus a vampire conspiracy. If that sounds cool to you, then this is the game to check out.

For those interested in how a game might actually play out, there is a fantastic Actual Play thread on RPG.net by Mathew McFarland.

Have you played Night’s Black Agents or another GUMSHOE System game? What was your campaign like? If you’ve never played a GUMSHOE game, do know if any good fiction with a similar feel to NBA?

Tell us about it in the comments.

The First Few Levels

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m running a first-edition AD&D game for my son a few other kids in the 10-12 age range.

My primary goal is to give them a great experience so that they enjoy the game and look fondly at the RPG hobby in the future. I’m not trying to indoctrinate them into one true way of gaming, and I intend to go with the flow and adjust things as necessary to suit the interests they develop as they play.

This, of course, impacts the selection of adventures that I intend to run for them. I want to demonstrate the range of various activities that a character can get up to in the game. This is a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so some elements are a certainty, such as exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, gathering treasure, finding magic items, encountering traps, exploring the wilderness, fighting a “big bad” at the end of an adventure, interacting non-violently with non-player characters (regular people, other adventurers, and opponents), spending time in towns or other civilized areas, learning a bit about the history of things that have gone before, and a few other basic staples of typical D&D campaigns.

But there are two things that hold no interest for me, which I think are just stupid, and which will play no part in this game.

  • Edition-warring: There are hundreds of adventures that have been published for the game throughout its lifespan. Obviously, as the game has changed with editions, the specifics of the published adventures have changed in response. But a good adventure can be made to work with AD&D, no matter what edition it was originally written for. There are great adventures from Classic D&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E and 5E, and nothing is off the table. In fact, I’m starting the campaign with a 4E adventure, because it works really well for a group of new players, regardless of edition.
  • “Earning” greatness: I’m not interested in running a game where a single wrong move can end up with multiple dead characters. And random death is boring as hell and has killed more D&D campaigns than anything other cause. The kids are playing characters who are the stars of their story. And while a heroic death is possible, randomly killing characters will easily kill the interest in this game. And the characters, even at first level, are capable of succeeding with reasonable odds.

The First Adventure

I wanted to mix a bit of tradition with something more modern. So I started the game in a tavern…which was immediately attacked by goblins and hobgoblins in a surprise raid on the town. I’m kicking things off with a Dungeon Magazine adventure for D&D 4th Edition called Rescue at Rivenroar (Dungeon #156). This is a great little adventure that involves a bunch of villagers being kidnapped off-screen during the opening fights, and the players are hired to follow the surviving goblin raiders back to their lair to rescue the villagers and recover a bunch of historical artifacts that were stolen by the goblins.

One of the great things about D&D 4th edition was that characters started as heroes right from the first level and took on fights that would have been too tough in previous editions of the game. So, of course, I need to modify the actual encounters to make them reasonable for a first-level AD&D adventure.

But other than playing with monster numbers and changing out a few creatures, the adventure stands pretty well on its own.

The kids have played through the opening fight in the bar (with some creative use of abilities already), and then encountered the ogre that was chained to a wagon and throwing incendiary bombs at the buildings. They pretty handily beat both of those encounters with only minor damage to a couple of characters, which filled them with a healthy dose of confidence and made them want to come back for more.

Rescue at Rivenroar is the first adventure in the Scales of War adventure path, and I have no intention of running the whole path. I’m not actually a fan of the “adventure path” idea, as it requires the players to have no plans of their own for their characters, and the payoff takes a very long time to come.

Besides, I’m running AD&D – the speed at which characters level slows down the more powerful they become, rather than the consistent levelling system in 3rd and 4th editions. Which means adventure paths get too difficult too quickly for these characters.

I mentioned before that I’m planning to use The Temple of Elemental Evil adventure in this campaign, which is a fairly large, single adventure. I plan to make a bunch of minor changes to the TOEE adventure so that it doesn’t become a dungeon crawl that bogs down partway through. Those changes include plans for the various factions within the temple, providing opportunities for the characters to approach the temple in various ways (full-on assault, sneaky infiltration, cutting deals with factions against other factions, etc.) and allow opportunities for these different approaches to work.

So the goblins that raided Loudwater and which will be the first opponents of the characters in this game have a link to the temple. It won’t be so blatant that the kids will immediately find out about the temple, but it will give them a couple of clues that they can choose to follow when they are back in Loudwater.

As I’m running this game for completely inexperienced players who are also children, I want them to have a level or two under their belts before they discover the location of the moathouse in TOEE and head in that direction. This means providing them with a bunch of other adventure options they can choose to explore before they learn about the moathouse itself.

In this case, there are some great adventures that I can insert into the campaign:

Module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God – I intend to use the town of Secomber, just down the road from Loudwater, to replace the town of Orlane in the module. The characters will hear the rumours about the town and can decide for themselves if they want to investigate.

The Sunless Citadel – This was a 3E adventure for first-level characters. In the adventure, the characters have a chance to ally themselves with kobolds against a more powerful goblin force. Again, they will have a chance to discover some force behind the goblins, foreshadowing the rise of the temple.

Menace of the Icy Spire – This is a 4E adventure from Dungeon issue #159. This short adventure gives the chance for the characters to encounter an elemental-themed location well before they discover anything about the temple itself. I will use this as a great opportunity to drop in some history about the area and the temple.

The Fountain of Health – This is an AD&D adventure from Dungeon Magazine issue #39. It’s a pretty standard dungeon-crawl in which the characters are searching for a well that provides a healing potion. I intend to replace that with rumours of some kind of magic item that was lost here a long time ago, prompting the players to try to acquire the item.

While running these adventures, I intend to start foreshadowing the rise of the temple by having minor earthquakes, freak rainstorms, sudden heatwaves or perhaps a fire, and a tornado or two hit the region. The players won’t have the information to link them to the temple right away, but once they discover the temple, they’ll see the effect its presence has already had on the area and will understand the threat it presents.

I figure these adventures will easily get all the characters to second level. Once they hit level two, I will drop the location of the moathouse to them via rumours or NPC interactions. It’ll be up to them to explore the moathouse (I figure they might hit all four of the above adventures first before they head in that direction).

Other than a couple of minor adjustments, I intend to run the moathouse as it is in the adventure.

Actual Play

Unfortunately, as mentioned, we’ve only managed two sessions so far as there have been some life-related things that have gotten in the way. But I expect that we’ll be able to pick up a more regular schedule in January.

I’m considering writing the game up as an actual play, which I would post here on my blog. But I’m going to wait until we have a few more sessions under our belt first, just in case this game doesn’t end up having legs. I hate reading an actual play thread that just ends up fizzling out shortly after it begins.

Who else has run the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure? Did you add a couple of early adventures for the characters to get them some experience before they tackled the moathouse or did you send them out there right away? Did your players actually complete the entire TOEE adventure? Tell us about it in the comments.


A D&D for everyone

The Dungeons & Dragons game has been around a long time. As befitting a game with more than forty years of history, the publishers of the game (first TSR, now Wizards of the Coast) have gone through multiple editions.

And while the current edition of D&D is referred to as the fifth edition, this is not actually true. After publication of the original game in 1974, the game was split into two similar but separate lines in 1977.

  • Starting with the D&D Basic Set by John Eric Holmes, this edition was a rewrite of the original D&D line that made it more accessible to those joining the hobby. A new edition in 1981 (the Moldvay/Cook edition) and another in 1983 (the Mentzer edition) kept this version of the game alive right through most of the 1990’s
  • Starting with the Monster Manual, and followed by the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game was published in hardcover books and was a more comprehensive and more complicated version of D&D that opened up many more options for the players. A second edition was published in 1989, most notably removing all references to demons and devils from the game. After being purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the D&D third edition was released in 2000, with a “half-edition” update coming out in 2003. The innovative D&D fourth edition hit the shelves in 2008, with a major shift in the core design to bring something new to the table. And the current edition was released in 2014 and is notable for the anemic support for this edition from Wizards of the Coast.

Despite the moniker of the current published edition being labelled as “5th” edition, you can see that there have actually been nine separate editions of the game. And this doesn’t include the “3.5 update,” which was not marketed as a new edition due to fear of backlash from fans of the game who had invested in the third edition books, despite having hundreds of rule changes and many elements no longer being easily compatible with the original third edition.

What’s best?

As each edition of D&D has had certain strengths, each has also had some big weaknesses. No game system is perfect for everyone, and each edition does feel different in play.

In the old days, however, the launch of a new edition always meant support for the current edition would completely dry up. In fact, after a short time had passed, players could often no longer easily find copies of the previous edition’s books to purchase. This meant that the majority of gamers would follow along as the editions were released in order to be able to get ongoing support for their games.

However, technology being what it is, there reached a point where old editions could be made available again.

Wizards of the Coast decided to release all their old products as downloadable PDF files on the online store, DriveThruRPG. It’s an ongoing process, but right now you can purchase the core rulebooks for original D&D, Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert, most of the Mentzer Basic line, AD&D first and second edition, D&D 3.5 (though not the original third edition core books), and D&D fourth edition.

Along with the core rulebooks, there is a huge amount of support material released, including adventures, core setting releases, and sourcebooks.

What this means is that a player of Dungeons & Dragons can find and legally purchase materials from their favorite edition. They are not stuck playing the current edition if it doesn’t appeal to them.


Of course, so far I’ve completely left out the retro-clones and the OSR games, but they have played a big part in bringing back the interest in older editions of the game. Originally designed to be a common rules framework that would allow someone to write and publish adventures and support material for an out-of-print edition, they have evolved into an ever-growing pool of games that do more than just recreate old materials.

In some cases, these OSR games are little more than someone republishing an older edition of D&D with their own personal house rules incorporated into the text. But in many cases, these games take the old chassis and innovate in different directions from that taken by TSR or WotC, creating something both familiar and new at the same time.

In an era where Wizards of the Coast has published an edition (5th) that has avoided major design innovation in favor of putting out a game that feels familiar and inoffensive to the greatest number of gamers, some of these OSR games really show what can be done when you’re not afraid to break new ground.


Despite the constant doom and gloom predictions from certain “industry leaders” and those who don’t really understand this hobby, we are actually in a golden age of RPGs.

For the first time since 1974, players of D&D can pick and choose from nine different official editions of rules, and dozens of unofficial ones. There is a resurgence of support for every one of those D&D editions in the form of adventures, settings, and sourcebooks.

And I haven’t even touched on entirely third-party games, some of which arguably do D&D-style dungeon crawls better than D&D itself (e.g. Dungeon World).

It’s a great time to be a gamer. Games long out of print (not just D&D) have become available again through the magic of official PDF releases and print-on-demand services. The choices available to someone joining the hobby are vastly superior to any other time in the history of our hobby.

And despite the tribalism, the utterly stupid and pointless edition wars, and the “my favorite game is better than your favorite game” nonsense, the reality is that all of us in this hobby are gamers, first and foremost.

So how did you get into this hobby? What was your first game? Do you still play it? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

Blood Rage


I enjoy gaming in all forms, but my first love is roleplaying games. Having said that, I do enjoy a good boardgame.

For me, a “good” boardgame has to have three elements:

  • It has to be “fun.” I know this is a nebulous criteria, but basically I have to get a feeling of enjoyment from playing it. As an example, I don’t particular find the game of chess to be fun. It’s interesting, and challenging, but it doesn’t ever bring a smile to my face when playing it. But there are plenty of games that do bring that smile.
  • It has to have some complexity, but that complexity must serve the needs of the game. I don’t mind simple games, but I find that my mind wanders if it’s too simple. And games that add levels of complexity just to make the game more “challenging” without serving some in-game purpose are not going to keep my interest.
  • It has to have flavour that actually interacts with the rules of the game. Going back to chess, it doesn’t matter what the figures are shaped like—the rules are the rules. Playing chess with figures shaped like dragons may look cool, but it has no bearing on the game.

I recently got to play a great boardgame with some good friends that hits all three of those criteria.

Blood Rage is a game that was funded on Kickstarter and produced by Cool Mini or Not, Asmodee, and a few other companies.

I’m not going to go into a full review of this game—there’s a ton of those out on the web. I’m just going to mention a few things that I particularly enjoyed.

The minis

Needless to say, the minis in this game are fantastic. The sculpts are excellent, and there’s a great selection. Obviously, this is an area where the publishers of the game excel, so no one should be surprised the minis are so detailed and well-formed.

The only thing that detracts from the collection in the box is the fact that the female figures are dressed like strippers from Thor’s “gentlemen’s club.” It’s an unfortunate choice that was completely unnecessary. Everyone in the game is supposed to be a badass, and the men are dressed in appropriate armour that makes them look so, but the game designers decided the women had to be half-naked badasses.

However, if you leave the minis unpainted, the details aren’t so pronounced and you can play the game without having the boobs in your face.

The various levels of play

There’s a lot going on in this game. The card drafting, the battles, the clan upgrades, the multiple paths to victory, all combine to give the player a lot to think about. But the whole thing hangs together really well, and I was never left thinking that complexity was added just to make the game more challenging. Each element works with the others to make a complete game.

The flavour

This game just drips with flavour. You’re playing Vikings, dammit! And the designers decided that every element should both have that flavour and serve the rules. For example, if you collect Loki cards, then you’re not just going to go out and win battles. Rather, you gain victory points for losing battles, which is exactly the opposite of what one would expect (hence, Loki). There are so many examples of this in the game that I could write multiple posts on the various bits of flavour and how they were tied into the actual gameplay.


If you play board games and you haven’t heard of Blood Rage yet, you owe it to yourself to at least check out some reviews. This is a game that takes some time to play (our first game went ~3 hours), but at no point did I feel anything got bogged down or felt like I wanted it to be over. It’s no substitute for a good RPG session (in my opinion), but it was a blast to play and the entire thing felt suitably epic.

Have you played Blood Rage? Tell me about your experience in the comments.

Storytelling Card Games

Those who read this blog already know I’m a big fan of roleplaying games. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in 1981 with Tom Moldvay’s Red Box set, shortly followed by Dave Cook’s Expert Set. Since then, I’ve played every edition of D&D at least once. In fact, the current edition (5th) is the first one I haven’t bought into since I started playing 35 years ago (for reasons I’m not going to get into here).

And D&D is hardly the only RPG I’ve bought and played—well, mostly run—in all those years. There’s something about roleplaying games that I absolutely love, and I’d always rather run a game for a bunch of friends than see a movie, go out to a bar, or watch a sporting event.

Having said that, I also enjoy a good boardgame. Lords of Waterdeep is a current favourite, along with Legendary and a couple of others. And then there are card games, and video games, and…

I noticed I had already written about two different RPGs recently, so I thought I’d take a break and write about another kind of game I enjoy: card-based storytelling games.

I’m going to mention three really fun games that are pretty easy to play, not terribly expensive, and that provide an interesting story-based gaming experience. These are not the only games of this type, but are the ones I’ve personally played and enjoyed.

Once Upon A Time

Published by Atlas Games

Despite its name, Once Upon a Time has nothing to do with the television show. In fact, this game has been around for far longer than the show and is currently on its third edition.

This was the first card-based storytelling game I ever tried, and it still holds a special place in my heart. In the game, each player is dealt a hand of cards that contain places (e.g. the forest), or characters (e.g. a knight), or situations (e.g. lost), or items (e.g. a key). Each player also receives an Ending card, which contains an ending to their story.

The first player begins to tell a story, and when she includes an element that appears on one of her cards, she gets to play that card. The idea is that the player will continue to tell a story that ultimately weaves in all the elements on her cards before coming to the ending outlined on her Ending card.

But, if the storyteller mentions an element in her story that happens to appear on a card held by someone else, that person can play his card to interrupt the story and take it over.

For example, if the first player is telling a story about a brave knight and she says that the knight crosses a bridge and a troll jumps out to attack, another player holding the “Monster” card can play it and interrupt the story. That player now takes over the story from that point.

However, when you interrupt the story, you cannot just start over. You have to take what has already happened and continue the story in a coherent manner. So the interrupting player couldn’t just forget about the knight—that character could only be left out of the story if the interrupting player could justify it in the context of telling an interesting story.

The player who finishes the story by playing his or her Ending card is the winner.

I’ve played this game a number of times, and it’s always a lot of fun. The stories do meander a bit, of course, but there is always a lot of laughter and it’s great to watch people trying to weave in elements from another player’s story while shifting it towards their own cards.

Hobbit Tales

Published by Cubicle 7 Games

The full name of this game is Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn. The game is published by Cubicle 7, which is the company responsible for The One Ring Roleplaying Game—one of the best games ever published for a play experience that truly emulates its source material.

Needless to say, Hobbit Tales is themed around those little furry-footed folk from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The premise is that the players are a group of hobbits sitting around in the taproom of an inn, sharing stories of their strange adventures.

The first player (narrator) draws a hand of cards from the Adventure deck. These represent things that can happen in the story. He then draws two more Adventure cards and places one face-up at the beginning of the story board (a board with space for five cards) and one face-down at the end of the story board.

The narrator then tells his tale, using the first face-up card as the beginning of his story. He tries to weave the story so that it leads to his next Adventure card in his hand, which he plays when he is able to add that element to the story.

However, the other players each have a hand of cards from the Hazard deck. These cards represent forces working against the narrator-as-character (rather than the player). At the bottom of both Adventure cards and Hazard cards are special symbols. When the narrator plays an Adventure card on the story board, the other players check their Hazard cards to see if any of their cards carry matching symbols. If a player has a Hazard with matching symbols, she can play the card and introduce that hazard into the story.

Without repeating all the rules here, the hazards can result in the narrator running out of Adventure cards before he reaches the end of the story board. In that case, he must improvise, drawing new Adventure cards from the deck and playing them immediately, and then trying to weave those elements into the story.

Successfully-completed stories result in the awarding of cheers tokens (based on various factors). Once all the players have had a chance as narrator, they compare their number of tokens, the person with the most tokens is the winner.

This is another really fun game. The main difference between this and Once Upon a Time, is that the narrator doesn’t switch from person to person in a single story. Rather, each players gets to tell his or her tale, with a few hazardous additions from the other players.

What’s also neat about this game is that the cards are also designed to work with The One Ring roleplaying game. The One Ring has a great set of mechanics to emulate the journey aspect that was such a large part of Tolkien’s stories, and Hobbit Tales includes rules that allow the use of the cards with that mechanic in The One Ring.


Published by Atlas Games

Of all three games I’m mentioning here, Gloom is perhaps the most creative and amusing. Like Once Upon a Time, this is another Atlas Games product—they are the company that also publishes the roleplaying games Ars Magica and Feng Shui 2, both fantastic games that do very different, and interesting, things with the roleplaying game experience.

In Gloom, the players are also trying to tell stories, but these stories are dark and somber, and are meant to come to a bad end.

Each player selects a particular family, each member of which is represented by a single card. The objective of the game is to play horrible tragedies on your own family, thus lowering their self-worth, before killing them off one-by-one. In the meantime, you play joyous events on your opponents’ family members to increase their self-worth (and thus score fewer points when that family member is killed off).

What’s really neat about this game is that the cards are transparent, so both happy occasions and terrible tragedies can be played on each family member, and the players can see all the modifiers at a glance, since the lower cards can still be seen through the cards on top.

The intent of the game is that the players are required to narrate each tragedy or happy event as the cards are played, so that what emerges is a convoluted story of twists and turns as each family’s members are killed off one-by-one. Needless to say, this is a game played entirely for laughs—the somber mood is fully tongue-in-cheek.

The one thing that detracts from this game is that the storytelling element does feel a bit tacked-on. The story itself has no specific requirements. You could play this game entirely without telling any story at all and all the mechanics would still work fine (which is something that couldn’t happen with either of the other two games I’ve mentioned here).

But despite that, this one is probably my favourite of the three games. The cards just drip with flavour, and I find them to be really inspiring in ways that the generic story elements of, say, Once Upon a Time lack. With multiple expansions available, there are many families from which to choose, and a whole host of tragedies and happy events to inflict on your poor family members.


I love stories [no shit]. And storytelling can be a fun, collaborative effort within the framework of a fun game. Each of the above games bring something different to the table. Once Upon a Time has an almost free-form structure with very few, simple rules. Hobbit Tales has a bit more structure to it and is a bit more constrained, but plays with a fictional world which most people are at least passing familiar. And Gloom is tightly-focused with more gamey elements, but a ton of flavour and more baked-in humour than the others.

If you like card games, roleplaying games, or shared storytelling, take a look at any of these games. You might find something you’ll really enjoy.

Do you know of other great storytelling games that are not quite RPGs? What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments below.

Cool Stuff – Podcasts

As mentioned in my previous blog post earlier this week, I’m now following a schedule for regular posting on this blog. And this week is the first on the schedule. Let’s see how this goes…

I have a lot of podcasts that I’ve listened to and enjoyed over the last few years. Some I’ve stuck with longer than others, but here is a (very partial) list of ones I’ve found really interesting:

However, I want to call out two specific podcasts that I think are great, and that may not be as well known as some of those listed above.

Edict Zero – FIS

I like listening to audio books, but I’ve found that I tend to gravitate toward non-fiction. Of the fiction audio books I’ve listened to in the past, I’ve found that they were often too slow and couldn’t keep my attention from wandering. I read very fast, and I’ve never really enjoyed listening to people reading to me.

I say this because I wasn’t sure exactly why I started looking up fiction podcasts. I had reached a point where all my usual podcasts were becoming boring, and I was looking for something different. So I guess I figured I would give audio fiction another try.

And I’m really glad I did.

I started off with Welcome to Night Vale, a “twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale.” The idea is that Night Vale is a strange place, full of unusual occurrences, supernatural events, and so on.

Unfortunately, it really didn’t grab me. I listened to a few episodes and just couldn’t connect with it. It’s amusing at times, but not what I would call a compelling podcast. Since Welcome to Night Vale is pretty popular, I wondered if it was worth my time to look into any others.

And then I discovered Edict Zero – FIS.

Edict Zero – FIS is not like an audio book. It’s actually more of a radio play. And it managed to hook me from the very first episode.

The sci-fi story takes place on the planet Edict Zero, also known as New Earth, a colony planet founded at some point in the past. It all starts on New Year’s Day 2415 when a bomb goes off in a nightclub, killing dozens and injuring many, many more. The FIS (Federal Investigative Services) begins an investigation into the incident, and that is the focus of the podcast.

I have to say that the mystery is interesting enough, but the voices, sound effects, and general quality of the drama are what make it compelling. I’m still in the first season – they’re up to season four as I write this – and I can’t wait to get time to listen on my daily commute or after my son has gone to bed at night. I have a feeling I’m going to churn through all the available episodes pretty quickly.

This type of audio drama is not for everyone, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t for me, either. But I’m really glad I gave it a try. It’s inspired me to search out more of its type – once I’ve listed to all four seasons of this one.

The Top 100 Project

I’m by no means a movie buff. I like movies as much as the next person, but I doubt I could name any of the last ten Academy Award Best Movie winners, never mind getting into the trivia around any particular film.

I say that because I wasn’t expecting to get much out of listening to The Top 100 Project podcast. To be honest, and give full disclosure here, I gave it a listen originally because I’m related-by-marriage to the two hosts, Bev and Ryan. So I figured I would show support by listening to their movie podcast and learn a little bit about some films.

I didn’t think I’d end up listening to the entire run of the top 100 films, and then keep listening afterward.

The podcast is based around the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies of all time. The first list was released in 1998, and then an updated list was released in 2007. Between the two lists, 123 movies were honored.

Bev and Ryan decided they were going to watch every movie on those two lists, in chronological order. From Birth of a Nation through to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, they reviewed all 123 movies. And they somehow made it all interesting.

Each of the hosts has their own preferred focus. Ryan is very interested in stats and the more technical details, and Bev’s experience as an editor pushes her critique more toward story, flow and pacing, and acting. Together, they provide not just a movie review, but a comprehensive critique of these films, placing them in the social and technological contexts in which they were originally made.

Needless to say, I certainly haven’t seen every movie on this list, but that hasn’t stopped me from listening to the podcasts about movies I will probably never bother to watch (e.g. The Jazz Singer or the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights). And yet, the hosts still manage to capture my interest and I find I look forward to each week’s film.

The Top 100 Podcast is now increasingly inaccurately named, as they’ve completed their original project and have moved onto critiquing other important or interesting films that didn’t make the AFI’s lists.

You don’t need to be a film buff to listen to these. Grab an episode – The Shining, Casablanca and Chinatown are three excellent stand-outs – and give it a listen. You’ll learn things about the film that probably didn’t know and come away with a better appreciation of the movie at the end.

What about you? Do you have any favourite podcasts you’d like to share with me and others? Mention them in the comments.