An Acceptable Level of Risk

This week’s post came out of some pondering I was doing after I wrote about introducing a couple of new people to the hobby last week. Specifically, about how one of the players ended up bouncing off the system a few times as the dice didn’t want to cooperate with his idea of how he wanted the game to go.

It got me thinking about systems, and about how I like different systems to provide different experiences, depending on who my players are and the game setting and assumptions that we’ve chosen for a particular campaign.

I’m not going to get into heavy theory here, and I’m not going to bother with the whole GNS categorization that was a major topic of the Forge back when it was a thing. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few specific games, what they do, and how they do it. Hopefully, this will be of some use to those who are searching for the “right” system for them.

Past Examples

One good example that I’ve already written about on this blog involved my search for the right system to use for an action-espionage campaign. There are many different systems that have been used for various espionage RPGs:

And more, not to mention all the generic systems such as GURPS and Hero System that have published espionage supplements or that are often referenced by players of those systems.

But in my search, I eventually settled on the Feng Shui RPG, because I knew it would provide the kind of play experience I wanted.

Media Settings

It can get more muddied when you want to run a game that takes place in the same setting as a known media property. For example, one might want to attempt to run a game that is essentially the RPG version of the Mission: Impossible movies.

But even that requires further definition. The most common confusion that I tend to see that crops up when people discuss playing in a popular setting is whether or not the game is going for emulation of the property itself.

For example, when people talk about running a game in the setting of Conan the Barbarian (using Robert E. Howard’s original stories), there is usually one group that wants to use the setting as it was in the stories, as if it was a real place. Let’s face it, the Conan setting is dangerous, and people die easily and often. So if you’re focused on the setting itself, you’d probably want a game system that is fairly gritty and where combat can easily be lethal to the characters and NPCs. A player might lose multiple player characters over the course of the game, and it’s only when a PC survives does he or she become the “hero” of the campaign.

The other group wants to play the game like Robert E. Howard’s stories. The fundamental difference here is that, while NPCs are fragile and often die easily, the protagonist of Howard’s stories (i.e. Conan) is fated to survive at least until he becomes the King of Aquilonia. A game taking this focus isn’t about whether or not the characters will survive—of course they’ll survive, because they are the protagonists. The question is what adventures will they have and what interesting things will they experience over the course of the game.

Both of the approaches are totally valid, but they really are at odds with each other. And a game system that is perfect for one approach will almost certainly be wholly unsuitable for the other approach.

Just as an example, the excellent Mythras RPG is great for the first approach. The game system can be very deadly for PCs and NPCs alike, combat is fairly involved and provides opportunities to do interesting things during a fight, and it’s grounded in a certain sense of realism.

On the other hand, HeroQuest 2E, Fate Core or the second edition of 7th Sea is more appropriate for the second type of game. These system assume a good level of competence from the PCs, and it’s easy to frame challenges in a way that highlights the PCs’ role as the protagonists.

When the Dice Don’t Cooperate

John Wick (the RPG designer, not the movie assassin), wrote an interesting blog post back in 2015 about dice and how they are used in RPGs. While I don’t agree with everything he says in that post, I do agree that sometimes I have no interest “in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.”

Now, I do run D&D games, and random failure due to dice is a key element of the rule system for that game. And when I decide to run D&D, I’m accepting those rules and what they bring to the table. For one of the games that I’m running with some of my friends (playing Out of the Abyss), that feel of D&D, where I roll out in the open and let the dice fall where they may is a thing that we enjoy. We know that any of the characters might die at any time through a series of bad dice rolls (though there are ways to mitigate that somewhat). We accept it, because that’s the experience we’re looking for.

But that doesn’t work for every game I run. And that’s why I like the Fate Core rules (as an example). In Fate, it’s not generally about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about what success will cost you. Generally, between skill levels, Aspects, and fate points, a player can usually pull of a success when it really matters to them. But when the player spends those fate points, it means that the character’s negative Aspects are going to have to triggered at some point to get those points back into the player’s pool. You can succeed now, but what will it cost you (and when)?

This is not just a thing in a narrative system like Fate Core. The current Conan RPG by Modiphius has a mechanic by which the player can “buy” additional dice for a roll, but those bought dice provide the GM with “Doom”, a resource the GM can spend to make things more difficult for the characters during a scene.

These kinds of mechanics smooth out the random nature of the dice, and allow the players to direct improved odds when they really need a success.

And going back to John Wick, his second edition of the 7th Sea RPG is great for this. The player rolls a handful of dice (based on ability scores and skill ratings), and then “spends” those dice for actions. In 7th Sea, it’s not about success or failure on any given task. Rather, it’s about how much the character can accomplish in a round. Roll well, and you can achieve your objectives, avoid harm, and potentially take advantage of special opportunities provided by the GM. Roll poorly, and you’ll still succeed at what you’re trying to do—but it will mean you’ll miss out on some opportunities, or take some damage while you accomplish your objectives.

Tying It All Together

And this goes back to the introductory D&D game that I ran for the new players. This was a one-shot adventure, with no expectation that the characters were going to continue in a campaign afterward. The adventure itself—Mad God’s Key—is a bit of a mystery, with a dungeon crawl at the end. And the players played well and reached the final encounter in the dungeon with only one character having been injured.

And then the dice decided not to cooperate.

For the new players, who were coming from books and movies that follow a pretty identifiable narrative arc, it was time for them to succeed and overcome the evil at the end of the story. But D&D’s rules are not set up to support that kind of game. The rules are designed around random failure creating difficulties for the characters (including possible death) because those become branching points in a campaign.

So we ended up with a mismatch between the rules and players’ expectations. Because when the player tried to attack the evil high priest, of course his character shouldn’t start whiffing at that point. That would be entirely anticlimactic. Again, not in an ongoing campaign, but definitely in a one-shot adventure.

As I said, I like D&D and I’m perfectly willing to run it as written and let the dice fall where they may. But after the game, I realized that it’s not a great system for a one-shot with new players. As an introductory game, for people who may or may not end up in a campaign later on, the rules can result in a real disconnect between expectations and reality.


Over the last year or so, I’ve introduced a few new people to roleplaying games, some kids and some adults. D&D worked well for the kids, because we launched right into a campaign, and D&D is designed to support that kind of game.

But the more recent experience was a good reminder to me that another approach is probably better for brand new players who aren’t jumping into a full campaign right at the start. A system like the one in 7th Sea would have provided a more appropriate experience.

And so it’s resulted in me reviewing my various campaigns and taking a hard look at the system used in each one, to make sure the rules are appropriate for what we’re trying to accomplish in each of the games I run.

How do you choose the “right” system for a campaign? Do you just go with the default system attached to a particular setting, or do you tinker and modify, or do you replace the system wholesale with one that you feel is a better fit? Tell us about it in the comments.


Action-Espionage in RPGs

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen every James Bond movie ever made. Some I’ve watched over and over, and others (anything with Timothy Dalton) I’ve only seen once. I know they are not real espionage movies—they’re action movies with a thin veneer of espionage trappings sprinkled over them…sometimes.

But I’m okay with that. When I want real espionage, I read something from Le Carré, Forsyth and others. Sometimes, though, I don’t want real espionage. I want action-espionage.

More recently, I’ve watched the last few Mission Impossible movies. Now, I hated the first MI movie—I thought it took what was best about the original Mission Impossible television show and ripped it out, and then created a crappy James Bond copy. I heard enough about MI:2 that I knew I should avoid it because I was guaranteed to be annoyed and disappointed.

But then some people I trust told me that MI:3, MI: Ghost Protocol, and MI: Rogue Nation were all decent action movies and that I’d probably enjoy them. And they were right.

Which, of course, brings me to roleplaying games.

Espionage or action-espionage?

Real espionage is hard to do in an RPG. This is because real espionage doesn’t actually have much action in it. It involved meticulous research, long planning, endless surveillance, and other elements that don’t really translate to a fun and exciting time at the table.

Which is why most espionage RPGs add other elements to increase the fun factor. Night’s Black Agents, for example, is a fantastic game with a system (Gumshoe) that really emulates espionage in fiction in both book and film. But NBA is about operatives against vampires. The original setting for the first edition of the Spycraft RPG (Shadowforce Archer) included psychic powers and magic. Conspiracy X has aliens.

But that’s okay. A good RPG needs a hook, something special for players to grab onto so that the game doesn’t flounder. Vampires and aliens give the players something to focus on right from the beginning. There’s a conspiracy out there, and it’s run by creatures that aren’t human, and your job is to stop them. It’s pretty easy to get a campaign going quickly with such a solid premise.

But the James Bond movies and the Mission Impossible movies don’t include any of those elements. There are no vampires, or aliens, or psychic powers in either of those franchises, and yet they are fun and exciting to watch.

So how do we do that in an RPG?

What system?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last few months, as I prepare to run an action-espionage game for some friends. I admit I’ve had a hell of a time deciding on what system to use for this campaign. My initial thought was to use Fate Core, but I don’t think it’s the right system for my players.

I also have the original James Bond 007 RPG published back in the 80’s by Victory Games. There are some things I really like about this game—it stands up very well despite its age—but there are some elements that don’t work for me.

I considered the first edition of Spycraft, but classes and levels are not something I want to use for this campaign. I don’t feel that such a system captures the feel of an actual action-espionage book or movie.

Night’s Black Agents, while an amazing game that I absolutely love, is a bit too complicated for some of my early-teen players. I expect that managing the ability pools will cause some issues.

I also looked at Mythras (including some of the elements from Luther Arkwright), and was very close to picking this as the system to use for the campaign, but the hit locations and the overall deadliness didn’t match what I wanted.

Feng Shui 2nd Edition is almost perfect for what I want. It’s a game designed to emulate Hong Kong action movies, and most of the elements that work well in Feng Shui translate over perfectly to the action-espionage movies that inspire this campaign. My main problem with this choice is that I’d need to make some additional archetypes to ensure that the key character types are covered, since there is only a single “Spy” archetype in the game. I can rename a couple of archetypes and switch out a schtick or two, but I’ll probably have to create a couple of scratch. Still, right now it’s probably the best choice for what I want to do.

The only other option is to go full narrative and use HeroQuest 2E. If you’ve read this blog, you know I’m a big fan of HeroQuest. My only problem, as I mentioned in last week’s post, is that I’d have to create the entire genre pack for this campaign because HeroQuest has no support for settings other than Glorantha, besides a few pages in the back of the HQ2 rule book. And I’m not sure if I can commit the time to develop this for the players without seriously delaying the campaign (which I’m getting very eager to get off the ground).

The key elements

So what are the key elements from the James Bond and Mission Impossible movies that I want to highlight in my action-espionage campaign?

  • Plots are usually fairly simple: Hugo Drax plans to wipe out all human life on the planet with a specially-developed nerve toxin, which he will drop onto the planet from his secret space station. Or a mole within the IMF has arranged for an arms dealer to acquire a secret weapon to sell to a terrorist group, so that the IMF has a reason to launch a pre-emptive strike. The overall plot of the mission should be easy to summarize in a sentence or two.
  • The protagonists (i.e. the player characters) aren’t worried about dying from a stray gunshot. They can face overwhelming opposition and be forced to retreat, or even get surrounded and captured, but they rarely get actually shot. Injuries tend to be in the form of beatings, but that’s about it.
  • The planning of operations is left in the background. Almost no time is spent in the planning phase because a) it slows down the pace of the game to a crawl, and b) it becomes repetitive once the operation begins. The players should have a quick way of outlining an objective, grabbing some equipment, and then heading out into the field.
  • The player characters are highly skilled from the start of the campaign. This is not like those old zero-to-hero fantasy campaigns. In Casino Royale, you get to see James Bond as a pre-007 agent in the opening sequence, in order to show how he skillfully earned his double-o rank. But that’s about it.
  • Characters have an overall focus area in which they are the “best” on the team, but all the agents are skilled in multiple areas. Ethan Hunt, Luther Stickell, and Zhen Lei can all drive vehicles under stressful conditions and they all know how guns work. But when you need someone to hack into a computer system, Stickell is the best one for the job.
  • Each mission should have opportunities for sneaking into a location, for chases, for gunfights, for close combat, and the possibility use special tricks, like hacking, disguises, etc.
  • Each scene should result in the player characters receiving obvious clues that lead them to one or more other scenes that advance the mission. Red herrings should be kept to an absolute minimum (with the very occasional exception for those that are a key part of the villain’s plans).
  • The “good guys” and the “bad guys” should generally be fairly obvious (with the very occasional double-agent). The players should feel they are working on the side of the heroes and that they are making the world safer/better. Shades of grey don’t really fit this campaign.
  • Action (including combat) should be fast and easy to adjudicate. Complicated systems that slow down the resolution are not appropriate.

I think that if I can hit these major points, then the campaign will really feel like something out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. A few of these are the result of the system I choose to use, and the rest influence how I will design the missions. It will be important not to become too repetitive—by that I mean that a car chase on a highway in one mission might be replaced by a chase on skis in the Alps, or a motorcycle chase through crowded streets, or something else. It’s still a chase, but it feels different because of the unique elements involved.

The James Bond movies are a great example of this. James Bond has been involved in a great number of car chases throughout his 24 (Eon) films, but they often have elements that give them a unique flavor. The car chase in Goldfinger is a different sequence than the one in The Spy Who Loved Me. And that’s not counting all the chases on skis, or in boats, or on foot, or while falling out of a plane, etc.


Emulating a particular media property requires some effort to get right. The system plays a big part in this, but it’s important to remember that the GM has a major role to play in giving the players some direction and in setting boundaries. An action-espionage campaign, for example, won’t feel like the Mission Impossible movies if the GM keeps coming up with complicated and convoluted plots that contain multiple double- and triple-crosses and where everyone walks the fine line between hero and villain.

Have you ever played a campaign that was based on a single movie or movie series? How did the system and the GM help (or hinder) that emulation? Tell us about it in the comments.


Betrayal at Shadewood Keep in Print

I’m happy to announce that Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, the licensed adventure for the Mythras roleplaying game with the Classic Fantasy supplement, is now available in print!


This 68-page adventure is a perfect-bound, full-colour book with a beautiful glossy cover. And it is now available from Amazon.


Remember, buying the POD book entitles you to a free copy of the PDF. Simply send us an email, attach your Amazon receipt and quote “Betrayal at Shadewood Keep Free PDF” in the subject line.

And if digital files are your thing, Betrayal at Shadewood Keep is also still available in PDF from DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

Betrayal at Shadewood Keep Now Available

I’m happy to announce that Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, a licensed adventure for the Mythras roleplaying game using the Classic Fantasy supplement, is now available for sale on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.


Raiding parties have been emerging from the dark Shadewood Forest to attack local villages. The paladin responsible for protecting the area is unable to stem the tide of destruction. Can you protect the helpless villages while uncovering the mastermind behind the attacks? Or will you fall prey to Betrayal at Shadewood Keep?

This 65-page adventure is designed for Classic Fantasy characters of Rank 3 and can be dropped into practically any existing campaign. This primarily wilderness-based adventure will give your druids and rangers a chance to shine, while still providing plenty of adventure for all character classes.

Betrayal at Shadewood Keep includes detailed descriptions of Kewin Town and Shadewood Keep, and all maps needed for play. Full monster and NPC statistics are provided, as well as two new gods—one good, one evil—that you can use to supplement your existing campaign pantheon.

Print versions will be available shortly, and anyone buying the print version will receive the PDF of the adventure at no cost. I’ll make an announcement here when the print book is available.

Mythras Adventure: Betrayal at Shadewood Keep

As announced last week, I’ve been working on an adventure for the Mythras roleplaying game and the Classic Fantasy supplement, both fantastic RPG products published by The Design Mechanism.

The content for the adventure is complete and is currently undergoing review with TDM, and all that’s left at this point is to finish up the maps and complete the cover.

This week, I thought I’d share two of the maps I did for the game, and compare them to the original maps I published back in the early 2000’s when I first released the adventure. I’ve had a lot of years of experience creating stuff in Photoshop since then, and I think that the maps are definitely much better than what I had back in the day.

Region Map

The first map is for the region where the adventure takes place. In the original adventure, I split this up into two different maps, one for the overall region and one for all the various encounters in the Shadewood. Since I don’t need “filler” encounters when using Mythras and Classic Fantasy, I was able to streamline the encounters and simplify the map.

The originals:

Shadewood Keep.indb

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:


Kewin Town

The region has a single large town—Kewin Town—and multiple smaller villages. The original map was done in Adobe Illustrator and was fairly simple. For the updated map, I wanted to improve upon it, so I moved over to Photoshop.

The original:

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:


Encounter Areas

Last year, I spent a little bit of time updating the encounter maps as I intended to re-release the adventure, minus any reference to the D20 license. I had considered releasing the original version for 3.5, and also to add another version compatible with the Pathfinder RPG.

Here is a map that I did for the updated version. This encounter area will not appear in the new Mythras/Classic Fantasy version of the adventure, but it gives you an idea of the style of the new maps.

The original:

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:


What’s Next

I have a couple more maps to complete, and a few minor corrections to the text, then the final version will be sent off to The Design Mechanism for approval. Once that’s done, I’ll post the new cover and announce a release date on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

I do intend to also have a print version of this adventure available—POD through DriveThru/RPGNow—but that will likely come a little bit later, and I’ll need to tweak the files for submission to Lightning Source, the POD supplier.

Once this adventure is complete, I’ll be back to working on The Traitor and the Thief. I’ve needed a bit of a break from the novel, as I have to rework a few sections and I needed to clear my head. But now I’m ready to get back to it and get the final draft done.

See you next week.

RuneQuest and Mythras

I first played the RuneQuest RPG back in the mid-80’s when my best friend ran a campaign centered around Griffin Island, a setting that had been adapted from the earlier Griffin Mountain of Glorantha fame. We spent a long time exploring the island, fighting orcs and broos, getting arrested and thrown in prison at least once, and generally causing as much mayhem as we solved.

I was never a fan of the larger Glorantha setting, as it never grabbed me. I found the sourcebooks unable to make me care about that world at all, and so we were happy to play on Griffin Island as a standalone location in a generic fantasy world that we never ended up exploring because there was more than enough adventure material on the island itself.

Since then, there have been a few editions of RuneQuest. One of the more well-known versions was the Mongoose Publishing RuneQuest 2E (MRQII), written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. That game was a great version of the RuneQuest rules, and Mongoose gave back to the fan base by making the rules OGL, thereby ensuring that some version of the rules would always be available to anyone who wanted to use them.

When the Mongoose licence ended, they renamed their version of the game Legend (the core rules are still available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for only $1). Lawrence and Pete formed their own company, The Design Mechanism, and picked the licence back up. They released their own version of RuneQuest—for various numbering reasons referred to as RuneQuest 6—that took the work they had done on MRQII and expanded it in ways that they felt made a better game. It was a bit more complicated than previous versions, but the combat system, for example, allowed a level of detail that gave players a great deal of control over how they fought and inflicted wounds on their enemies. RuneQuest 6 is still held to be a high-point in the development of the game.

Ultimately, however, Chaosium found itself in dire straits and the original owners came back and rescued the company from its previous management team. Unfortunately, they also decided to pull the licences back in-house and, despite Pete and Lawrence keeping the game alive for many years when Chaosium did nothing to support it, The Design Mechanism could no longer publish RuneQuest 6.

Enter Mythras.

Mythras is The Design Mechanism’s version of RuneQuest 6 without needing to rely on the RuneQuest licence. They have further developed the system to implement some tweaks and ideas they had since RQ6 was published, and it’s an amazing game engine that still provides an experience that is in marked contrast to other big fantasy game, D&D.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Mythras.

Since then, TDM also published the Classic Fantasy book, which takes the core ideas of D&D and moves them over into the d100 system framework. Classes are recreated in Mythras terms, monsters are converted, and many of the famous D&D magic spells have their counterparts in Classic Fantasy.

All of which leads me to my next RPG-related project.

Back in the early 2000’s, I published an adventure for D&D 3.5 called Betrayal at Shadewood Keep. When the d20 licence expired, I pulled that adventure from sale, intending to remove the d20 references and then put it back up. But I moved on to writing novels and never got around to it.

Lately, however, I’ve been using this blog to support great games that I enjoy. I looked at Betrayal at Shadewood Keep and realized that it would make a great adventure for Mythras and Classic Fantasy. So I reached out to The Design Mechanism and soon signed a licence agreement to allow me to re-publish a converted adventure for the Mythra/Classic Fantasy system.

I’ve been holding off on announcing this, as there was some important work to do on the adventure first. For example, in D&D 3.5, encounters are supposed to be set up to provide a particular level-based challenge at any given time. This results in a lot of “filler” encounters—combats that serve no other purpose than to provide some needed experience points so that the characters are the right level for later encounters.

Of course, those filler encounters are not necessary in Mythras, as there are no levels or restricted progression paths. So what I’ve done is take a look at the basic premise of the adventure, extract out the key elements and NPCs (and monsters), and redevelop it as an adventure that provides more open options and challenges that can be overcome in many different ways.

At this point, I’ve completed all the writing on the new version of Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, and the adventure is with the TDM folks for review. I’ve got a few maps that I need to complete, and then I’ll be publishing it through my Vanishing Goblin publisher on the OneBookShelf sites (DriveThruRPG and RPGNow). I expect this part to take a few weeks still, but over the next little while I’ll post the new cover design and a sneak peek or two.

In the meantime, here is the blurb for the adventure:

Raiding parties have been emerging from the dark Shadewood Forest to attack local villages. The paladin responsible for protecting the area is unable to stem the tide of destruction. Can you protect the helpless villages while uncovering the mastermind behind the attacks? Or will you fall prey to Betrayal at Shadewood Keep?

That’s it for this week. Check back next week for some sneak peeks at the adventure, as well as information on some of my other projects.