Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition Kickstarter: Nightwalkers

The Kickstarter campaign for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition is well underway, and I’m proud to be associated with it. It achieved funding in less than 16 hours and, as I write, is on the way to unlocking its second stretch goal: the Nightwalkers Companion, by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams.

This is a supplement I really want to see come to fruition. Wiggy’s a great designer with a huge catalogue of top-notch, atmospheric settings and supplements, and he loves the horror genre – check out Triple Ace Games’ website for his recent work.

But does a horror supplement covering vampires and werewolves belong in the Chivalry & Sorcery line-up? Absolutely! Medieval folklore – and theology – is replete with examples of such creatures.

To use a line from Game of Thrones, the night is dark and full of terrors.

Let’s have a look at some of the medieval beliefs, and how they fitted into the medieval Christian worldview, for even the strictest historical game, which eschews the supernatural, must acknowledge that though these creatures did not exist medieval people thought they did, and made them part of their beliefs and behaviour.

I don’t know if Wiggy will follow medieval beliefs in his companion. The night may be dark and full of terrors, but Wiggy is creative and full of awesome ideas. If he goes his own way, I guarantee it will be a way that enhances your games – and mine.

Werewolves and Shapeshifters

About three years before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The term ‘werewolf’ derives from the Old English term for ‘man’ (wer) and wolf (wulf). There are many medieval legends of werewolves and other shapeshifters – from Norse berserks who became wolves by wearing a wolf-skin to the Norman garrulf, the Breton bisclavret (the subject of Marie de France’s Lai Bisclavret (PDF link), and the villagers of Ossory described by Gerald of Wales. Gervase of Tilbury matter of factly stated, “In England, we have often seen men transformed into wolves with the changing of the moon.”

Gervase stated that wounds inflicted on one of a werewolf’s forms would carry over to the other when it changed, thus providing a means to detect the creature.

There were several ways a person could change into a wolf, beyond the changing of the moon. The bisclavret, according to Marie, must spend three days a week in wolf form; before the change he hides his clothes, and is unable to change back if they are stolen. Other stories have people doffing their clothes and donning a wolf-skin, as with the berserks.

“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.”

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The natives of Ossory were unusual in that their change was mandated by a divine curse.

So how does a werewolf fit into the Christian worldview? Theologians of the day discussed the matter, focussing on one particular question: slaying a human was sinful, but slaying a wolf was not. Was slaying a man-wolf a sin?

They decided the answer depended on the reason why the person changed into a wolf.

If the transformation was the result of magic, then slaying the man-wolf was sinful. If the change was divine, it was acceptable.

The reason for this was that they believed magic could not change the essence of something, only its appearance. The creature might appear as a wolf, but its essence remained human, and so slaying it was a sin. But God could change the essence of a creature or thing, so a man divinely changed into a wolf became truly a wolf, and slaying it was lawful.

Nor are werewolves the only shapeshifters of the medieval period. The influential philosopher Boethius, writing c. 1120-1140, stated that eating certain kinds of food might change men into asses, swine or other animals; and Lai Yonec, also written by Marie de France, features a knight who transforms into a hawk – presumably, in this version, Michelle Pfeiffer turns into a stag.


In two of William of Newburgh’s stories the hauntings are accompanied or followed by the spread of disease, and in one of them the revenant actually sucks blood in the traditional vampiric way: ‘they wounded the lifeless corpse and immediately so much blood flowed from it that they realized it had sucked many people’s blood.’

Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225 (New Oxford History of England)

The word ‘vampire’ doesn’t appear in English until the 18th century (and wasn’t popularised until the 19th century by writers such as John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker).

Nevertheless, tales of bloodsuckers go back at least as far as we have written records. They occur in myths and legends from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and in folk tales through the Middle Ages.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often considered to originate with the 15th-century Romanian national hero Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, known as Dracula (son of the Dragon. The historical Dracula belongs to what Chivalry & Sorcery considers the Waning Feudal period, and his vampiric legend belongs later.

Since the medieval English had no particular word for vampires, Bartlett uses the word ‘revenant’ to describe the walking dead of medieval legends – and as noted in the quote above, in one case the revenant did suck blood.

Similar to the Eastern European legends of vampires, revenants of English lore might arise through having lived a bad, un-Christian life.

Revenants in English lore were usually dispatched by exhuming their corpses, and either decapitating them, removing the heart or burning the remains – or any combination of those remedies. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, laid one to final rest by having its grave opened and a letter of absolution placed on its chest.

Medieval revenants were no cultivated, pale noblemen in cloaks and opera hats, nor Louisiana gentlemen in lace cuffs and frock coats. They arose from their graves at night, clad in their funeral shroud, to prowl the land and terrorise the living. Disease walked with them.

The 2009 discovery by archaeologists of a 16th-century ‘vampire burial’ in Venice was widely reported. The body in question was an elderly woman whose corpse had, after death, had a brick forced between its teeth. Several more ‘vampire burials’ have been discovered, including a 10-year-old boy in Umbria, near Rome, in the 5th century AD, and a man in Northamptonshire, England, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD.

William of Newburgh, attempting to make sense of the stories, ascribed the corpses’ rising to the work of Satan, but the disease they spread to the contaminated air they created.

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Dangerous Journeys: Mythus revisited

About three years ago I wrote a post about my love-hate relationship with Dangerous Journeys, the game Gary Gygax designed after leaving TSR.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of playing 12 sessions of a Dangerous Journeys game run by an expert in the system. Whereas I am something of a system hoarder, with hundreds of rulebooks supplements for scores of games, Lars has devoted himself to Dangerous Journeys for years.

The experience has confirmed my initial views that this is a highly playable system. I have learnt that it is also an atmospheric one, and highly enjoyable. Now, it is a truth in gaming that a good gamesmaster can make a badly designed game fun, and Lars is certainly a good gamesmaster.Mythus Cover

It is also true that Dangerous Journeys is not a user-friendly game; its organisation leaves much to be desired, and there are many special cases and exceptions to the core rules buried in paragraphs far from the chapters you’d expect. It is therefore a difficult game to learn.

Certainly, Lars’ first task was to introduce myself and the other players to the rules, advising us on abilities we’d find useful for our character concepts. It helped that he created a handy Excel character sheet to keep track of Mythus’ many subskills and heka (magic point) calculations. I covered character generation in some detail in the previous post, so I wont rehash it here.

While character generation remains complex, I really don’t mind that if it leads to evocative characters, and with my character I managed to find a very suitable set of skills to flesh out her background – as the daughter of an innkeeper I was delighted to find she could have a rating in commercial household management, and in appraising the quality of food and wine.

And Mythus proved to be much simpler in play. Percentile-based systems are intuitive, and although the difficulty levels are granular (moving from Hard to Difficult halves your effective skill), this is modified by using Joss (Hero Points) if you really need to succeed.

Joss proved to be one of the major features of the game. I haven’t played many systems with a hero point mechanic, so its importance eluded me on a simple read-through of the game.

You can spend Joss not only on yourself, but on behalf of other PCs, which helps encourage cooperative play. However, they don’t regenerate between sessions or adventures, but must be earned. This means you can quickly deplete your stock – several times we suggested using Joss to help a roll, only for Lars to ask us if we really thought it was worth it. He was right, of course – Joss can be such a game-changer that it is worth saving for the big encounters or the must-succeed attempts. One of the uses of Joss is in damage – before damage dice are rolled you can choose to have automatic minimum (useful if you’re about to take damage) or maximum (if you’re dishing it out). Lars was strict about enforcing the only-before-a-roll rule as well.

Since I’d run a few solo missions when other players couldn’t make sessions, I’d rapidly depleted my Joss pool, and later missions more than once heard me cry , “Can anybody Joss me?”

If absolutely necessary, you can burn unspent experience points as Joss. Obviously, it’s not a particularly good strategy – using them like this means they’re not available for boosting your character’s skills – but if it keeps your character alive it’s a good last resort.

The other major quirk of the system is the potency of magic. Like (A)D&D, Mythus classifies spells into 9 levels or grades based on their potency. It’s not uncommon for a heka-user to being play with access to fourth- or fifth-grade spells – the equivalent of being a 7th-9th level spellcaster in D&D.

There are many kinds of magic too, and I quickly discovered our party spellcasters could act as force multipliers on my melee-only rapier-wielding street bravo – one of our most effective combat methods was to have my character rush in, boosted in speed and magic resistance by the spellcasters, to attack twice as fast, and with the judicious use of Joss when necessary. Since her Special Combat skill allowed her to target vulnerable parts of the body, she proved devastatingly effective in combat.

She picked up many injuries, though. Mythus doesn’t allow a parry unless you forgo an attack, and I quickly discovered I’d better forgo the idea of a renaissance rogue in light leather armour and supplement that with a helmet and some armoured boots. Even then, she relied on herbs or clerical healing after most fights. Fortunately, one of her contacts was a priest (none of the other PCs – sorry, Heroic Personas – were), so at least she had a healing source back at base.

The combat system, by the way, is moderately deadly – I’ve played worse, but an unlucky roll can hurt your character badly, and large-sized creatures such as ogres can easily kill in a single blow. That’s where I discovered failing to give my street bravo any missile weapons was a strategic error. However, she could make relatively short work of the goblins while our dweomercraefter dealt with the ogre by peppering it at a distance with magic.

And therein lies another feature of Mythus. Balance is not a primary consideration of the game. Dweomercraefters and priests have access to potent magic. Others may have buffs or protective charms, but the raw power of a specialist magic user is difficult for a sword to match. I know that bothers some people, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. So long as my character has an interesting story, I don’t need to be the baddest on the block. And it’s been fun roleplaying a street tough proud of her smarts and her sword skills watch the delicate flower magician take down a creature she’s too scared to go toe to toe with.

And it’s been Lars’ ability to make sure each character has something interesting to do – whether by his own design or by running with player ideas – that’s helped make this introduction to Mythus at the table such an enjoyable experience.

However, spellcasting is often a lengthy process, and a spellcaster will have to choose which spells to keep ready. Readying a spell doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as AD&D’s spell preparation – it can be done in minutes, rather than overnight – but the number of spells that can be prepared in advance is very limited. Spells quick enough to cast in combat may still take several rounds to cast, and are usually much more limited in power. And a sword will remain effective as long as its user.

Combat, the way, is primarily narrative. There’s none of the tactical movement found in games like Pathfinder or GURPS advanced combat, nor discussions of frontages like AD&D. Miniatures or tokens are not necessary.

Lars was using the more complex optional initiative system from the core Mythus rules. I’d dismissed this version as unnecessarily complex on a rules read-through, but found it better in play. He also used various rules from Journeys, the Mythus magazine, and the Mythus Masters Magazine, which circulated electronically. I found a few prior calculations – totalling character speed, weapon speed penalty and armour penalty beforehand, so the actually initiative roll boiled down to one dice roll and one modifier speeded and simplified the process greatly. The same could be said for the spellcasters, whose heka regeneration and ‘aperture’ (the amount of magic points you can spend in one go) is better calculated in advance. Tricks like this is where Lars’ experience made the game flow better, as there’s no real suggestion in the rules that one do the prior calculations, nor space on the official character sheet to record them.

To recap, key features I’ve found after 40-50 hours of play with Mythus:

1) Poor organisation means the game is difficult to master. Not only are relevant rules scattered around the core rulebooks, but a couple of important rules (such as readied castings, which allow a spellcaster to prepare spells in advance to reduce lengthy casting times) were missed from the book and published later in the game’s dedicated magazine.

2) It produces evocative characters, each capable in multiple areas. A sword-slinger, rogue or spellcaster will have a broad selection of secondary skills as well. Characters come with fairly detailed backgrounds – their quirks, social class, family history, contacts and so on. These factors encourage roleplaying.

3) The system rewards clever play. Combat is fast and fun, but deadly, and some time spent working out how to catch one’s enemies off guard is time well spent. Effective use of Joss is part of that clever play.

4) The game is brimming with atmosphere, not just in its mechanics (the many forms of magic, the various skills available), but in its default setting, Aerth. Goblins are not the simple low-level combatants of D&D, but a form of faerie, with supernatural powers.

Would I run Mythus? Yes, although I have no immediate plans to (I’m about 1/3 of the way through Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, and plan to run GURPS Traveller after that).

However, that’s after experiencing the game under someone who’s played it extensively, and seeing how it hangs together as a whole. For more than 20 years I’ve had the game sitting on my shelves, trying to make sense of it, only to be turned off by the poor organisation.

Would I recommend others do so? That very much depends on what you’re after in a game. Mythus is not a game to play for a session or two and set aside. It’s a roleplayer’s game, not a tactical battlemap game, and it rewards creative, story-driven campaign play.

If that sounds intriguing, then it may well be worthwhile to spend the time getting to grips with its complexities.

Put it this way: I can see why more than 20 years after it went out of print, Mythus’ fandom is (a) small and (b) dedicated. This is not a game for everyone, but it offers a great deal to those for whom it strikes a chord.

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Basic Hex and Square Grids

Hex A2 1-Inch Horizontal

Update: Added one-inch square grids in European and US paper sizes.

One of my colleagues in the Gulf Roleplaying Community was looking for some hex grids to print out, so I made these basic ones for European and US paper sizes.

Each of the hexes is one inch (measured from side to side), suitable for use with 28mm minis at a scale of one inch = 5 feet or 1.5 metres, or for 15mm minis with a scale of one inch = 10 feet or 3 metres.

The A4 and US Letter grids are suitable for home printing (as is the A3/Tabloid if you have a suitable printer). Unless you have a plotter, you’re best taking the PDFs of the larger sizes to a commercial printer.

Pro Tip: If you have them laminated, you can draw on them with a wet erase marker and have a reusable battle map that’ll last for years.

Hex Grids (One Inch)

European sizes

US sizes

Square Grids (One Inch)

European Sizes

US Sizes

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Review: Dave Gross, Lord of Runes (Pathfinder Tales)

Lord of Runes is without question the best piece of tie-in fiction I’ve read. It’s an excellent fantasy novel in its own right.

Before I further explore why I think this, let me first address this: if I consider it so good why four stars, not five? Largely because I’m stingy with stars. With only five stars to choose from, that last star gets awarded only rarely. Four stars puts Lord of Runes, by my reckoning, alongside works such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Saga, Ray Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, Lieber’s first 6 Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser collections and the works of David Gemmell – novels I have read passionately, series I have followed, for many years. (What gets five stars? Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lieber’s novella Stardock.)

Dave Gross’s Pathfinder novels have consistently been good reads, among the best tie-ins I’ve read. Lord of Runes is better.

Gross has always had a deft touch with narrative and dialogue, but here it sparkles. Within the first two chapters, the city of Korvosa was alive in my mind. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue natural.

The plot, perhaps a little simpler than his earlier Pathfinder Tales novels, is yet more epic.

But what really lifts the book is the emotional content. Gross’s Pathfinder novels are buddy stories, and in this we get to see just how deep the bonds between protagonists Radovan and Count Varian Jeggare go – and how far they can be stretched.

The emotional undertones of the novel go beyond the protagonists, though. The supporting cast carry issues of their own – at one revelation, I found myself having to put the book down for a moment while I worked the lump from my throat and blinked a tear from my eye.

This is potent stuff.

It’s hard to give details of character development without revealing spoilers, but few of the main characters end this novel with the attitudes or beliefs with which they started it. Count Varian’s slow deterioration is particularly well handled, both in his first-person chapters and when we get to see him from Radovan’s point of view (it is a technique of Gross’s that in these books the first-person point of view is swapped between the protagonists).

There are treats in store for Pathfinder fans – the return of Pathfinder Eando Kline and (given the title it’s no real spoiler to say it) the rise of a Runelord. But I don’t think it necessary to know the game or its setting to appreciate the quality of writing and storytelling Gross achieves.

Tie-in fiction has a bad rep because there’s a lot of poorly written dross churned out, but there are a few gems out there. Lord of Runes is a diamond.

This review is based on the Kindle edition of Lord of Runes. I will be looking for a paper copy as well (perhaps two), because this is a book I intend to lend to friends – both to players in my Pathfinder games and to fans of fantasy fiction.

View on Goodreads

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E-Z Dungeon: construction review

I’ve been papercrafting for a week or two
And I’ve spent all me money on craft knives and glue…

A simple dungeon layout

A simple dungeon layout

I’ve become increasingly involved with miniature-based roleplaying games, largely down to the amount of time I’ve been spending playing Pathfinder. It seems to be an ever-increasing obsession: from Pathfinder Pawns and hand-drawn maps, to flip-maps, to hand-painted minis…

A friend brought a rather impressive card-built village to the Gulf Roleplaying Community’s stand at the Middle East Film & Comic Con in April. Googling it later, I discovered Fat Dragon Games’ line of 3D, cardstock buildings, interiors and dungeons. I’ve had the idea of building a 3D dungeon in the back of my mind for a while.

Try telling non-gaming friends you’re planning to build a dungeon at home – the reactions range from puzzlement to horror to a sudden creepy interest.

The idea behind these is that you buy a PDF and print at home. The PDF’s are pretty cheap (the core dungeon set, E-Z Dungeons Deluxe, is $12). Of course, you also bear the cost of cardstock and ink (and glue, craft knives and, most significantly, time to build).

The advantage is that you can print as many of an individual item as you need.

A nice touch is that each PDF is layered. You can choose to add water stains, cobwebs and blood spatters to the dungeon walls. The ones I’ve printed have the water stains layer activated.

Printouts are clearly marked with score lines and cut lines. There are even guides for automatic cutters, if you have one of those (I don’t).

There’s a pretty good set of instructions included, with advice on optimal printing, preparing the items to cutting (scoring the card before bending is important), and the right types of glues to use (paper glue with the lowest moisture content you can find – UHU is great) and how to assemble the items. Members of Fat Dragon’s forums will also provide helpful advice on request – the papercrafting community seems small but very friendly.

As with any craft there’s something of a learning curve. Some items, such as walls, are fairly simple to build – they’re basically just boxes. Pillars aren’t hard to build, but involve some fairly complex cutting. Archways are a little more complex, and there are some items (such as the dungeon idol), that I’d rather not tackle until my skills improve – partly because I don’t need them right away.

Not that the skills needed are especially complex. You quickly learn which cuts and scores are important, how much glue to use and so on. Complex items come with their own instructions. The main thing that increasing experience builds is speed.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction - printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction – printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

There is some necessary equipment before you start building. A good craft knife, steel straight edge and glue are essential. A cutting board and a pair or sharp scissors are also extremely useful.

Cardstock is, of course, necessary, and foamcore is useful for making sturdy bases.

There are a couple of ways to approach construction. The default approach is to permanently build key elements of a dungeon (corridors, corners, rooms, etc), then fasten the foamcore bases together with cocktail sticks (aka toothpicks). Free floating elements such as walls that tie the permanent structures together are fastened with hair grips (aka bobby pins).

I elected to go for the second approach: build a foamcore base with holes cut in for over-length ‘E-Z lock’ columns to plug into. These provide an anchor to which you can attach walls and other items as needed, and unused holes are hidden by card ‘caps’. It seemed more versatile and easier to store the individual elements. I planned to build the dungeon a few rooms at a time, rebuilding it when the PCs moved to a new area.

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

However, though storage is indeed easy, it takes far longer than I expected to build the dungeon; when I’ve used it it’s been for big set-piece encounters, as my original plan of building and rebuilding would hold the game up too long. I wonder if the original method is not the best after all.

Making the foamcore base proved something of a chore. One of the Fat Dragon forum members recommended printing the floor tiles on full-page labels (such as shipping labels), and sticking those on the foamcore base. This worked like a charm, and avoided me having to mess around with spray adhesive. However, cutting 60 one-inch square holes in the base was a chore, even with a heavy duty X-ACTO knife.

(Although I’ve used the square floor tiles for my dungeon, a hex tile is provided – but the method I’m using here is really designed for the square tiles; with hexes you need to build the elements and glue them in permanently in place.)

The next issue was simply making enough walls and other elements. The first time I tried to assemble a few rooms I realised I was way short on walls – and with the game the following day, I spent all night making more.

These issues, however, are mine. I’m extremely impressed with the PDF set. It’s clear a lot of time and effort has gone into designing them, and the results are extremely attractive – and for a very affordable price.

Building a papercraft dungeon certainly isn’t for everyone. In the two weeks it took moe to make mine, I’ve gone though frustration and pleasure, but for me it’s been worth it.

And it isn’t over – I want another base board and a lot more elements (the PDFs include everything from ‘construction’ elements such as archways and stairs, to barrels, crates, tables, traps and treasure chests. Expansions include sarcophagi, various traps, a torture chamber (with paper guillotine, rack and iron maiden among other devices), sewers and more.

It’s going to be a long time before I consider this project finished. But, hey, I can just print out what I want to work on at any given time and I’m away.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists. Can you spot the card caps covering the unused holes? Seoni the Sorcerer (bottom, centre) is standing on one.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists.

After that, of course, there’s a village, the castle, the caves, the forest campsite, the science-fiction base, the modern city street… Fat Dragon have built up quite a catalogue. And I backed their wilderness terrain on Kickstarter.


Five stars out of five. An excellent product offering a great deal for a very low cost. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a low-cost alternative to commercially manufactured 3D terrain and you’re prepared to put the time in.

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Review: Realm Works and Hero Lab

After a year of running Pathfinder Society games almost exclusively, I needed to scratch the itch for a longer campaign with a regular group.

With several regular PFS players feeling the same, I offered to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Demand for the game was satisfying, but nine players is a lot for Pathfinder, which can get very fiddly in its tactical details. It’s an awful lot for Rise of the Runelords, which is designed for 4 PCs. Scheduling issues brought the final number down to 7 players, which is still a lot and requires me to find ways to beef up each combat encounter.

But I was reluctant to turn away gamers who have become friends. A long-term campaign is a bonding experience.

I started looking at computerised assistance. Since I already had Hero Lab (which I’ve used primarily as a character generator) and Realm Works, I decided to put them into action. It’s the first time I’ve used Hero Lab as more than a character generator, and the first time I’ve used Realm Works in a live gaming environment.

Both programs are by Lone Wolf Development. Realm Works is designed so that it can call up Hero Lab when needed (though you don’t need Hero Lab to use it).

I don’t think I’ve had a game go as smoothly for a long, long time. Furthermore, I ended both sessions feeling fresh; usually, running off paper notes, I often feel exhausted by the end of a session.

Realm Works

Realm Works is a cloud-based campaign manager. It differs from a campaign blog, even a dedicated one such as Obsidian Portal, by being able to track a lot of information in a variety of ways, supported by automatic hyperlinking (a great time saver).

The realms list shows what realms I've been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I'm the GM for that realm.

The realms list shows what realms I’ve been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I’m the GM for that realm.

The experience was extraordinary. I ran the sessions entirely on my laptop, with a set of dice beside it for rolling as needed. Even though I had a stack of rulebooks (and the adventure path) within arms reach, I hardly needed any of them. In the first session, I touched a rulebook once, to check the procedure on a combat manoeuvre. In the second session, I didn’t touch one at all.

Nor did I have to spend time flipping through my own notes – they were all in Realm Works. The software automatically hyperlinks the names of any topics or articles I’ve put into it. That means if I mention, for instance, that a particular NPC is present I can quickly open up the article on that NPC in a separate tab, where I have a picture I can show to players, notes on their personality and background, and any roleplaying/acting notes I’ve made.


The GM's view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players. The notes in pale yellow are GM notes which players won't see at all.

The GM’s view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players.

Realm Works has a couple of options for keeping track of NPC stat blocks. First, you can link directly to a Hero Lab portfolio. Second, you can import a text file containing the stat block.

The advantage of a Hero Lab portfolio is that with the click of a button, you can import NPC stat blocks into a portfolio already open in Hero Lab. I can keep a portfolio containing PC stats open, and import enemies from Realm Works as needed.

All of this takes preparation time, of course. I’m usually a seat-of-the-pants GM, so that’s necessitated a change in style for me. I spent three weeks getting Sandpoint background and the Swallowtail scenes into Realm Works, using a mix of story and world topics, storyboard and mechanics. The cloud allowed me to input data on my desktop and run from the laptop, without faffing around creating Dropbox folders for my notes.

As an added bonus, inputting all the information about Sandpoint NPCs really made me think about how to put their stories on the table.

Realm Works has the facility to release information to players on a paragraph by paragraph basis. This requires players to have their own version of Realm Works, which will set them back up to $10. That’s the price of a couple of large coffees at the coffee shop where we usually play Pathfinder Society – not too onerous. We agreed before starting the campaign that players would invest in their own copy of the software, so several clubbed together to get a pack of licences, which brings the price down to as little as $6 each.

What having the player edition means is that when I release paragraphs of information, players can read it at home. I wrote some speeches for the opening of the Swallowtail Festival that contain a fair bit of background information on Sandpoint. Players didn’t need to worry about writing them down or trying to remember details from week to week – I click a button, and they have access to it.


What the players see: these are the locations in Sandpoint they’ve visited or heard about. Clicking a pin will take them to whatever information they’ve found out about the location.

The GM's view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

The GM’s view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

It also helps me write a synopsis of each session since the software records the time I release each paragraph. The synopsis is the minimum information I think the players need to remember between sessions – with the automated hyperlinking, anything I write leads them to more information if they want it.

For the GM, Realm Works is a little pricier – $50 for the software and 6 months of cloud storage, with a recurring fee for continued cloud storage ($40 a year).

Hero Lab

Hero Lab is a character manager, with a tactical console that allows you to run combats. I thought at first I would use it merely to roll initiatives (even with my magnetic combat pad, rolling and organising initiative order for up to 20 combatants would be tough). I ended up using it to run combats entirely.

Not all my players have Hero Lab, but several do. Those with it emailed me their character portfolios. Those without emailed me their character sheet, allowing me to input their character in Hero Lab.

I’ve used Hero Lab for more than a year as nothing but a character creator. I wasn’t familiar with the capabilities of its tactical console, but I have been amazed at how effectively it works.

Rolling initiative for all combatants and organising them in initiative order with one click is a major time saver with a large combat. I can also input damage taken (or healed), and select a number of conditions (mounted, prone, blinded – the full gamut of Pathfinder conditions). The console automatically adjusts stats to account for conditions. This doesn’t always substitute for knowing the rules. For example, a prone character will have their AC reduced by 4, which is fine for melee combat, but it takes the GM to know that Prone condition actually increases AC by 4 against ranged attacks. This information is contained in Hero Lab’s description of the Prone status but isn’t automatically applied in the software.

A number of conditions are applied automatically – before a character has moved in combat, they will automatically have the Flat-footed condition. A character reduced to 0 HP or lower will automatically gain the Dead/Dying condition. Their turn will still come up in combat, which reminds me to make stabilization rolls for downed enemies (and, yes, once a character is stable, Hero Lab records that condition as well).

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The software even keeps track of spell use and consumables. If someone’s loosed one of their 20 arrows, I knock one off and they now only have 19 available. If someone casts a spell, I mark it used.

There’s even a ‘night’s rest’ button which resets all daily abilities back to full. This has to be clicked for each character individually.

Batch damage, healing or conditions from an area effect isn’t handled at all. It must be applied to each combatant individually. It would be nice to have a ‘multiple select’ button which allows the GM to put conditions or damage (or a night’s rest) on several characters at the same time.

Outside combat, the tactical console gives a brief summary of characters’ important stats – their Perception score, Sense Motive and other skills I may need to know without asking players. I can click a character to bring up its full portfolio, which gives me the full rules on their spells, for instance. No more hunting up the details of a spell or condition in the rulebook.

The tactical console's non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

The tactical console’s non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

Hero Lab can be an expensive proposition if you want to go beyond the core rules. The main software (with the core rulebook data) costs $30. Each supplement must be bought separately at prices ranging from $10 for one of the Ultimate books or a bestiary, to $5 for several of the Player Companion or Campaign Setting volumes. It’s unlikely you’ll want to buy everything at once, and spread out over a number of months the cost it isn’t so bad.

Integration with the tabletop

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

We still use battle maps and markers (miniatures, pawns, paper minis, etc.) for combat. My biggest issue with this is not a failure of the software: it’s remembering which mini is Goblin #7. That would be an issue whether using software or dead trees to run the game. I need to get some little stickers to number the minis or pawns.

Players bring their printed (or electronic) character sheets with them for reference in the game, but we agreed the copy in my portfolio is the ‘master copy’.

Even with the electronic aids, we’ve agreed on a number of steps to help us cope with the large number of players. First is that I don’t award XP. Characters will level up when the story demands. That cuts down the record keeping.

We’ve agreed to keep the number of PC pets down to a minimum. Familiars are allowed, but generally used for their non-combat benefits. When it’s a key class feature (such as the druid’s animal companion), it will be allowed in combat. At the moment, mounts are used as transport, not in combat.

I use real physical dice, rather than Hero Lab’s built in dice roller. It isn’t just personal preference; it’s quicker to grab a d20 and roll it than to use the built-in dice roller.

I don’t feel secure enough with the software to run without my printed rules and adventure path to hand. I haven’t used them, really, but they’re a backup in case the tech fails us.

Although we’re using Realm Works as a between-game reference for players, it does have the ability to display items in-game as well. Players are already offering to loan me portable projectors to use this functionality; I want to get a little more familiar with the software before I take this step.


Letting the software carry the burden of reference and tracking allows me to concentrate on presentation and interaction with the players. Even if I need to figure out how to do something technical with the software, there’s a net gain in interaction time because I’m not hunting for notes.

The amount of advance prep leaves me much more familiar with the material.

The cloud allows me to prep whenever I have a network connection. Realm Works won’t run on my smartphone, but I keep the rulebooks and adventure path PDFs on my phone so I can read them when out and about. If necessary I can make notes and memos on Evernote, which syncs to my desktop and laptop.


We’re reliant on all the technical aspects working smoothly. Before our second session, a mandatory Realm Works update took time to download and install; there was a Hero Lab update at the same time. Those, combined with a bandwidth issue (either on my wireless network, my ISP or on Lone Wolf’s servers), delayed the start of our game by 90 minutes. Since we’re all friends, we got our socialising done, but it was a longer delay than I wanted.

Sessions last longer than my laptop battery, which means I need to be close to a power outlet.

There is a short learning curve with both Realm Works and Hero Lab. It’s not major, but it’s there. As I become more familiar with them, I expect things to go more smoothly.


I’m impressed with the set-up. Extremely impressed. It’s had a significant and very positive impact on my game. It’s an extra cash investment, of course, but it’s not ridiculous unless you’re on a tight budget.

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RIP, Dave Trampier

I learnt through Facebook that former TSR artist Dave “Tramp” Trampier died earlier this week. There’s a very brief obituary here.

Tramp’s art was a major part of my AD&D experience. Not only did he have the cover of the Player’s Handbook – always the first rulebook you buy – he supplued several full page drawings in the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. To this day, all my fantasy campaigns feature an inn or tavern called the Green Griffon, after a Tramp ink drawing in the DMG.

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FASA Star Trek: to boldly go

West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored, and the young star-captains glow

James Elroy Flecker

I’m not so much a games collector as a games hoarder. The covers of my ancient rulebooks are tattered, pages have notes in the margins. Boxes of games that might be valuable in mint condition are held together with Sellotape. My games are meant to be played, and they’ve been lugged around with me from house to house, and shipped in a Chinese freighter from one continent to another.

But a hoarder I am. I rarely let a game go once it enters my clutches. I can name the ones I’ve lost over the years – the original Warhammer box set, my 1977 classic Traveller box (replaced with the 1981 version), Wilf Backhaus’s Mage and Warrior, Advanced Melee and Wizard.

The only game I can remember actually selling was FASA’s Star Trek. I loved that game, and wanted to play it so badly, but no one I knew at the time wanted to. I created characters alone in the evening. I designed starships with the Starship Construction Manual and sent them into battle with each other in the Star Trek III Combat Simulator. I designed traders a little more ethical than Harry Mudd and sent them on to earn their living in the Triangle. But it’s a lonely experience, pretending to be a bridge crew, and their enemy. Space is cold. Eventually I got rid of it.

I’ve regretted that decision for years, and finally I’ve rectified it, with a copy of the deluxe edition rules from Wayne’s Books, and some of the supplements I once owned from Wayne, Noble Knight and the Dragon’s Trove.

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

And I’m loving it. The deluxe box cover art is rather more dull than the basic set I had so long ago, but once again, after more than 25 years, I’m creating characters alone in the evening.

My lonely character creation this time is not born of wishful ennui, but part of my efforts to re-familiarise myself with rules I haven’t seen since I was a teenager.

The system is rather quirky. Character generation is a somewhat complex affair, with characters earning skill points in various professional or hobby skills at various points in their training and career. Skills are percentage based and, unlike in Traveller, in which you discover where you career takes you, you first decide what position you’ll hold on board the ship, and learn what happens to you character between joining Star Fleet and beginning the game.

The game rules emphasise tactical combat rather heavily, with a particular focus on character movement. Combat resolution is extremely simple.

Some searching around second-hand game sites backed up the deluxe rule set with some of the classic supplements I used to own: The Triangle campaign setting, Merchant Princes, the Starship Construction Manual, and The Romulans sourcebook.

I aldo managed to find the Enterprise and the Klingon D-7 15mm floorplans.

All in all, it’s a hefty haul of nostalgic game material. But I think the time-consuming, complex character generation may mean I prepare pregens or templates for players to customise rather than run the full character development.

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Medieval charters from Salford Hundred

Stuart Mendelsohn runs a superb blog examining the medieval documents of Salford Hundred in Lancashire – an area he rightly points out is among the least explored in England, at least as far as medieval history is concerned.

He’s just uploaded some magnificent high-resolution scans of some of the charters relating to Spotland, near Rochdale, which he found in Chetham’s Library, Manchester. I am going to have to have a stab at translating some of these – but the first difficulty will be transcribing them. Medieval handwriting is not the easiest thing to decipher when you’re not an expert in it.

Here’s Stuart’s post with the charter images.

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My Pathfinder set-up

I’m a rather old-school gamer, more used to descriptive combat, judgement calls and hand-wavery than a strict adherence to the rules. Even when I ran the tactically intense D&D3.5 I kicked it into submission with my gaming style.

With Pathfinder, I’m modifying my style somewhat. I’m doing my best to stick to the rules. No, I’m not tracking low-value spell components, and yes, PC/NPC social interaction still requires a fair bit of handwaving. But I’m using minis – Pathfinder Pawns, actually – battlemaps, combat trackers, and there’s no friendly fudging to save PCs’ necks.

Many of the reasons for old-school handwavery and friendly fudging simply don’t exist with Pathfinder (or, to be fair, with D&D3.5). Combat is more of a tactical skirmish game if you have minis/counters. Rules are clear and more comprehensive than older systems – there’s less need for a judgement call. And, particularly with Pathfinder, rules are there online for players to read and become familiar with.

I’m not stopping my old style – there’s plenty of scope for it with other games – but I find the experience of GMing Pathfinder a rather liberating one. I’ve also become something of a Pathfinder fanboy – as well as rules and setting books, I’ve picked up a couple of the adventure paths, and some tabletop accessories of use in many different games. I’ve also bought the comics and some of the novels in digital form (and though I generally loathe game fiction, Dave Gross’s novels I rather like).

Last week, several players were off watching the Hobbit before the game, so after setting up the lounge for play, I had enough spare time to photograph it (yeah, OK, I was bored).

I don’t suppose it’s radically different to most other people’s, but here’s what my current set-up looks like:

1) For players

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

The player set-up is reatively simple. I’ve several sets of Pathfinder pawns (very high quality cardboard minis, which I highly recommend as a much cheaper and still attractive alternative to metal or plastic minis), a handful of Pathfinder flip-mats and map packs, with a Chessex megamat for drawing battlemaps on the fly.

I am running this as a tactical game, so the battlemaps and counters are crucial. The table will also see maps of Golarion (the Pathfinder world) and its towns, villages and the like laid out as well.

The Pathfinder pawns, by the way, I happily use for any fantasy game, backed up by things like Steve Jackson Games’ Cardboard Heroes and Arion Games’ and Okumarts paper minis when necessary, or when I’m playing genres other than fantasy. I let players pick appropriate pawns for their characters from the NPC Codex box. Besides that, they’ll have their character sheets and dice (because dice are in fairly short supply in the Middle East, I keep plenty of spares).

I encourage players to bring spare Pathfinder Core rulebooks – either physically or digitally. If I forget a rule, they can pick me up on it. This is not rules lawyering – I have some great players – but a valuable aid to me as I try to follow rules more closely than I have over the past 30 years. The only thing I don’t like is players checking the bestiaries to find opponents’ stats and weaknesses.

2) The GM set-up

Pathfinder GM set-upI don’t usually use a laptop for anything more than playing mood music when I GM. It’s different for Pathfinder. The PDFs are so well designed that they’re excellent to use in play – not only are they well bookmarked, but they are hyperlinked within the text, so you can click on a creature’s special abilities and be taken to the rules definition, or follow up combat results to check the effects of a condition imposed on PCs or opponents. Other game companies take note: this is what you should be doing when you make PDFs for sale.

With using a laptop comes the second monitor to display maps, handouts and NPC portraits. I didn’t plan for this; I ran out of printer ink just before the first session, so rigged up an old monitor as a stand-in. It worked well, so I added it to the regular set-up. I’ve currently got a Pathfinder wallpaper set up, but that can easily change for other games. I could also use it for inspirational illustrations, but there are relatively few available for sale in a suitable digital format.

I also run Hero Lab on the laptop, and keep the master copies of the PCs stats there. Players can have printouts, but my electronic copy is the master when in doubt. I don’t use Hero Lab’s combat panel in play – I haven’t quite succumbed to that yet.

The Pathfinder GM screen is mostly just to shield my notes. It does have reference tables and whatnot, but my eyesight is now bad enough that I have to switch between reading glasses and distance glasses – and even then, the print is small enough and on a greyish background, that I find it hard to read – and the PDFs do a good enough job of getting me to a relevant rule in a hurry.

In addition I have the magnetic combat pad (on the left). This is one of the best game accessories I’ve ever bought, and I highly recommend it to anyone running any game with complex initiative orders. It helps me track PC/opponent turn sequence, the number of rounds, when spell duration expires and the like. Brilliant – a major, major aid to keeping things as close to the rules as possible. I put it on a mini-easel so everyone can see it, everyone knows when their turn is coming up, and can remind me if I’ve skipped someone (and they do, even if I skip an opponents’ turn – I have good players). It doesn’t always stop dispute, but it does keep it to a minimum.

Speakers are there for mood music. I use a lot of film or game soundtracks, but I’ve also used things like the fan-generated Pathfinder Goblin Song, which annoys my players intensely when ever they fight goblins – at least it speeds up combat.

I also keep a good stack of printed rules behind the screen – rulebooks, any adventure path I happen to be running (Rise of the Runelords at the moment), and printouts of stat blocks for easy reference. And a space for rolling my dice – I have experimented with rolling openly, but I found myself running backwards and forwards from player table to GM table too much.

It’s all ready to add players.


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