Category Archives: RPG Design

Thousand Worlds – Introduction

dying-of-the-lightThe Thousand Worlds is a bizarre science-fiction universe created by the mind of George R.R. Martin in the 70’s and 80’s. Yes, that guy.

What draws me to it are that the stories told describe a broken universe that is very alien to our experiences in the real world on earth. Like most stories set in the future, the themes presented are all parallels for modern problems the world is experiencing right now, in the present. However, the subject matter is often unsettling, creepy, uncomfortable, and most important, hits with an emotional impact like a punch to the gut. This is exactly how I like my RPGs to be.

So, I created, ran, and successfully completed a Thousand Worlds campaign, using Edge of the Empire as a basis for the nuts and bolts ruleset. From the outset, I started the campaign design by sketching out what I wanted to accomplish. I had a burning passion to share my enthusiasm for these stories, which I had just finish reading. And I wanted to have a “rags-to-riches” campaign, one that started the game off with the player characters extremely weak and poor, struggling to survive, but then end with them in an earned position of incredible wealth and power. Above all else, I wanted a campaign that – on an emotional, gut level – gave the players the feeling of wondrous discovery. I wanted to give them the childlike wonder of exploring what’s buried under the rocks, and have that thing be fun, interesting, and memorable. I wanted them to never feel like they had run out of the game, or were in any way limited to where they could go or what they could do. There’s always more out there.

In the next few blog posts, I’m going to be talking about some of the details of my Thousand Worlds campaign – design goals, planning, house rules, a starmap puzzle, creating heists, a design checklist, and reinforcing the theme of wondrous discovery in as many ways as possible. Sit tight, it’s a hell of a ride. It might take me some time, be patient.

If you’d like to dig in more into The Thousand Worlds, and I heartily recommend it, go check out this overview video. There’s links to the stories themselves in the video description, many of which have audiobooks or free recorded readings available. There are a lot of stories, but (aside from Dying of the Light) they are all short stories and novellas, making them very quick reads. My favorites are probably In the House of the Worm, A Song for Lya, and The Stone City; though it’s very hard to choose, many of them are really, really good.


CRUSH the REBELLION released!

imageTrue to my word, February has come and CRUSH the REBELLION has been released!

Go get it now! – LINK

While you’re at it, delve further into the minds of the designer (that’s me) by checking out the sick kicks of the customized CtR playlist, then go sign up on the CRUSH the REBELLION G+ Community to chat up other fans!

Spread the word, suffer no insurrection to your rule, and may The Emperor’s merciful shadow fall upon you!

CRUSH the REBELLION is a structured storytelling game with an emphasis on competitive world-building. It is a fast-paced roleplaying game of competing agents struggling to fulfill their own personal agendas in a hostile, bureaucratic nightmare futuristic fantasy universe.
The actions of the players all contribute towards a shared history together, set in the fictional game universe. However, Crush the Rebellion is also a strategic, competitive game between the players. There are winners and losers to this game.
The universe of Crush the Rebellion is grim, dark, and hateful. It is a futuristic fantasy setting, full of both awe-inspiring technological prowess and ancient mysticism.
A central dogmatic figure known only as The Emperor rules over the whole of Humanity. The Human Empire spans across an untold number of galaxies. The true size of The Human Empire is difficult to even comprehend, supported by the most byzantine, Kafka-esque bureaucracy of all existence. It rules through fear and intimidation, using unlimited resources to oppress the unruly masses of civilization who dare challenge The Emperor’s infinite wisdom.
The Emperor uses an elite cadre of specialized agents (the players) to lead missions against His enemies, crushing any rebellion. Unfortunately for The Emperor, these agents are highly ambitious and treacherous, subverting and abusing their Emperor-given powers to further their secret objectives.

C is for Characteristics

4105bd4d5c854fd89537b249e6bbcc19When designing a deadly, challenging B is for Beast or N is for Nemesis, it is often helpful for the Galaxy Master to begin by envisioning what extreme Characteristics their creation should have. These types of superlative enemies should always have an array of talents, tricks, weapons, and defenses that present a challenge to the players that have broken the rules, gone beyond the envelope of “fairness”. Most importantly, these additions make this creature into something totally awesome. The techniques described in this post are in large part an extension of the design of the major enemies in Fane of the Sith Lords, such as The Emperor, Mara Jade, and the Four-headed Hyper-evolved Dianoga.

Under the FFG Star Wars RPG, a typical creation made in this manner will have one of four options for their brutal base Characteristics:

  1. one characteristic at 7
  2. two characteristics at 6
  3. four characteristics at 5
  4. a mix of the above

In addition, every frustrating enemy must always have one or two Characteristics at a lowly 1. Your creature should have an unfair advantage, a true challenge to be overcome, but also a distinct weakness that can be exploited by clever and persistent players. The fun in using these horrorific creations is not in punishing the other players or reveling in your own ability to “win”; satisfaction is instead found in seeing the players pull out a glorious victory in the face of certain doom.

At this stage, a Galaxy Master should also begin imagining the fiction that informs and supports the Characteristics. What makes your creature’s abilities so extreme? Is it cybernetic, Sith-touched, genetically modified, from another universe, incredibly ancient, or something else?

Lastly, make sure to enforce your narrative with real bite by applying concrete, definable new abilities and weaknesses to reflect your creature’s Characteristics. An enemy with Willpower 7 is just one that rolls a lot of dice, but a foe that can drain the life force of living creatures is an opponent that will never be forgotten. An array of special abilities and weaknesses has been provided below to help inspire your own designs. It is recommended that a truly frightful enemy be provided with a minimum of 3 such abilities.

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Torchbearer Towns in Star Wars

About a year ago, the dungeon crawling fantasy RPG Torchbearer was released and I absolutely love it. One of the key concepts in Torchbearer is the idea that adventurers are not knights in shining armor, they don’t venture into dangerous dungeons because it’s fun or noble, and they certainly aren’t in this life seeking fame and glory. No, like Han Solo in George Lucas’ “used universe” of Star Wars, the protagonists here are just trying to survive. They don’t have any fat inheritances or cushy jobs waiting for them back home. They ply the most dangerous routes and explore forbidden alien ruins because that’s the only way they can scratch out a living in this cold, unforgiving universe. This, I can totally dig.

Torchbearer also tends to lead with the fiction, smoothly integrating game mechanics into a description of the world. My favorite example of this, something that really blew me away when I first read it, is how Towns are designed in the game system. The Town that a character grew up in lends distinct mechanical effects based on descriptions that, on the surface, are interesting, intuitive, and evocative. This article is the start of my answering the question, “What if Torchbearer was set in space?”

The following is a list of seven generic home locations for Player Characters. Each of these locations describes a type of home location that Player Characters hail from, though the player or Galaxy Master should use be using these descriptions as a starting point in describing specific locations in the galaxy in detail. Where a character grows up has a lasting impact on his or her life; and as such, each character gains 1 rank in a skill of their choice as well as 1 rank in a Talent of their choice from those listed for their home location. Galaxy Masters worried about game balance should just stop and chill out. Each of these home locations serves the greater narrative in describing a brutal, bleak galaxy oppressed by the totalitarian Galactic Empire. There are no safe zones, the Rebellion exists as scattered, terrified cells across the outer rim, and life for everyone besides the uppermost echelons is miserable. It’s a much darker take on the traditional Star Wars themes, but I think one worthwhile and enjoyable, something to mess around with and use to contrast the norm. It is part of a philosophy I call SpaceCore.


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The Trial

Mindtrick2Very often, scenes of compelling drama plays out magically across mediums such as television and books, but fall flat when ported over into a roleplaying game. One time, I ran into a situation in my Star Wars RPG where the scene I wanted; a tense trial to convict a player character’s old Nemesis of her guilt and put her away behind bars for good. This was going to be the capstone for one of the character’s Destinies, the ending to their story of triumph, revenge, and redemption. I knew I couldn’t just muddle through it, that I needed to make this an engaging experience. In the end, according to my group, I succeeded admirably. But how did I make courtroom proceedings, of all goddamn things, fun and interesting?

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Tragedy of the Commons

This is why, fundamentally, the ideas behind the Crush the Rebellion campaign for the FFG Star Wars RPG make an empirically good roleplaying game.


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Secret Agenda Cards

In a few weeks I’ll be starting up a brand new FFG Star Wars campaign. Determined to make something great out of Age of Rebellion, I have crafted together the framework for a campaign dubbed Crush the Rebellion, as described three moths ago here. The core element of this campaign is the idea of a Secret Agenda – a major project overseen by the Agent and hidden from the Emperor for various reasons. Secret Agendas replace Obligation and Duty and offer no mechanical effect other than the first player to fulfill all 5 steps of their character’s secret agenda wins the game by changing the face of the Galactic Empire forever.

As we progress and actually play out my theoretical ideas about this game, I’ll be posting small updates to my treatises and house rules to better reflect what we’ve learned. Already, I’ve tweaked the original Secret Agenda post to include contingencies for Destiny Points and revised the reward system.

The first of these are Secret Agenda Cards (PDF).

These simple handouts are designed to clearly show how agendas operate, how the actions dovetail into a compelling narrative, as a practical means of keeping track of one’s secret agenda, and as a handy reference guide when trying to divine the secret agenda of rival Agents.

Secret Agendas_Page_1Secret Agendas_Page_2Secret Agendas_Page_3