Friday, January 4, 2019

Imminent Death and Other Delights

The Index Card Role Playing Game’s death mechanic brings imminence and tension to the table in a brilliant blend of tangible time-keeping, dice rolling and unflinching commitment to the consequence of failure. Never have I seen players as genuinely invested in their character’s survival than in their first ICRPG experience.

The set-up was nothing special.  The setting is Pugmire, a post-apocalyptic, post-human game about anthropomorphic dungeon-crawling dogs.  The Good Boys (they named themselves) were in a giant ant hill, attempting to thwart an evil plot and save a stolen puppy.  The first level contained a movement challenge (Dex check or spores) and one—ONE—enemy: a giant warrior ant.
The players didn’t appreciate how squishy they were nor how tough ICRPG enemies can be, and it wasn’t long before the Good Boys’ front-liners were down for the count. The remaining two—Tralfaz the Mysterious, a mage, and Ho Shih Tzu, a thief—were squishier yet; things were looking grim in the ant hill.

In ICRPG, death stalks you.  Once your hit points are down to zero, you roll a d6.  The die acts as a countdown timer; you have as many rounds as you rolled before your character dies.  This is perma-death: they die for good and forever. However, in the intervening rounds, you have two ways to prevent their demise: get lucky or get saved.
Here’s the lucky way.  On your turn for every round until death, you get to roll a d20.  On a natural 20, you miraculously revive and pop back up with one hit point.  This didn’t happen to the Good Boys.  However, it did give the unconscious characters a die roll every time they had a turn and a timer to manage.  This kept them engaged with high excitement, even though their characters could do absolutely nothing.  Brilliant!

To be saved by another character, the character must get in touching range with you and perform a “Don’t die on me, man!” action.  (Yep.  That’s what it’s called.)  Once in range, the player attempting the rescue makes a Wis roll.  If successful, the dying character is stabilized, but unconscious.  The knock-on effect of this is that downed characters introduce a new timer to the scene, and the conscious characters must choose their actions in an emotional, moral, time-pressured swirl.  That generates excitement as well, and plenty of it.

ICRPG shines in these moments.  The mechanic is dead simple.  The dying character manages a timer and a die roll each turn.  The other characters must race against time to save her, all the while contending with whatever horror is already in the room with them.

At our table, Ho Shih Tzu and Talfaz the Mysterious managed to stabilize their comrades and haul them out of the anthill with a judicious application of hero coins and supreme effort.  It was one of the most genuinely tense, heroic moments I’ve seen at a gaming table.  ICRPG looks simple, but I would call it elegant: it’s everything you need and nothing you don’t to have a rousing, memorable, truly engaging night.

Friday, December 14, 2018

ICRPG is my new goto tabletop rpg

Greetings, all!  It’s been too long!  I’ve been very busy with a truly wonderful career transition and a lot of high-level parenting, but I wanted to drop in and tell you about a wonderful game called The Index Card Role Playing Game.

To answer your first question: You do not need index cards to play ICRPG.  At all.  The index cards are a useful but entirely optional part of the ICRPG play experience.  Odd naming convention aside, ICRPG has fresh, vital, engaging gaming mechanics that have made it my new favorite RPG.
ICRPG’s approach to role-playing is that it is a game that results in a story.  The dice provide the up and down beats; the GM provides a setting and the players provide the characters who face adversity to meet their goals.  Everything in ICRPG works towards this end.  It is not a story game; mechanically, it’s more like a stream-lined retro-clone.  One key mechanic has given our group our most memorable, orderly, equitable gaming sessions:

Always in Turns

In ICRPG, players are always in turns and there is no initiative.  Like a board game, the players and GM go in order, counter-clockwise. No matter how time is being counted--moments (like rounds), hours, or days--the players take their actions in turn.  The players are free to talk and plan out of turn, but even when their characters are milling around the fancy ball trying to spy on the Duchess, they take die-dependent actions in turns.  In ICRPG, everyone gets a say, even if it’s “pass”.  It sounds restrictive, but I promise you it’s liberating.  Doing a town session in turns takes about thirty minutes.  Everyone does something constructive: crafting, shopping, gathering info, taking care of animals.  No one flails around doing nothing for an hour while everyone else plays on their phones. The most boisterous players can express their personalities without monopolizing every scene (guilty). Everyone gets to give input and act meaningfully for the entire game session.

The turn rule is flexible enough for characters to act naturally.  If a player says, “I’m going to the livery stable”, another player can pipe up and say “me too.”  The just can’t take any action until it’s their turn.  Players can hold their action until another player catches up.  The one-action-per-turn rule winnows tedious tasks down into one die roll per action: “I make new horseshoes.” “I help.”  Easy-peasy.

This simple mechanic creates a very safe play environment.  It’s equitable by design:  Important if you want everyone to have fun without herding cats. My players are mature, reasonable human beings, but human beings they are and prone to the foibles of their kind. The ICRPG turn structure keeps them focused and thoroughly engaged from the intro to the final turn.  That alone is worth its weight in gold.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Five things to steal from the Mad Max video game

The Mad Max video game has a lot to offer post-apocalyptic tabletop gamers.  The setting, mechanics, and story are all troves to be mined for the delight and enjoyment of players and GM’s alike.  Here are 5 things to steal from the Mad Max video game:

      1. A Thematic Setting

The Great White is the setting of the game. Once a seabed, the salted plains of the Great White are full of reminders of what it used to be. Rusting buoys, coral forests, great caves and canyons, and the remains of oil pipelines fill the landscape.  Piles of desiccated seaweed, bits of paper and plastic trash and derelict boats turned into shelters remind the player their world has been broken and remade as a landscape of madness.
For the table-top GM, the lesson here is theme.  While the Fallout games have a strong continuity, and there are a few memorable re-purposed structures (the satellite stations in Fallout 4 and Rivet City in Fallout 3 come to mind), the theme of the sea gives Mad Max a powerful continuity that those games don’t quite achieve.

What theme might bring cohesion to your wasteland?  Failed and repurposed technology? The land reclaimed by water and greenery?  Retail?

2. Threat Levels

The threat levels in the different regions of Max Max dictate the frequency of random encounters with hostile drivers.  As Max does specific actions (mostly destroying the infrastructure of the Big Bad) the level decreases there are fewer random encounters and various upgrades and missions are unlocked.
The threat levels give the player an easily-tracked measure of progress and a sense of impacting the world.  To give your players this tangible sense of impact, note on their map how the threat level changes in a region due to their influence.  There are 6 levels in Mad Max (0-5) but you could do as few as three.  For each level, have a different random encounter table.  Make the encounters more benevolent (or less malevolent) as the threat decreases.  Decide one or two milestones that occur at each change, the triggering events, and you’re good to go.  Your wasteland will feel more alive, and your players will feel more like they are affecting the world.

3. Scrap

Scrap is Mad Max’s currency.  Scrap buys upgrades and repairs to Max’s car and improves gear, skills, and bases.  Max acquires scrap by looting locations, bodies and wrecked cars, salvaging buried wreckage from the seabed, finding it after a huge storm, stealing trucks full of it, and as encounter rewards. Certain base upgrades generate scrap a well.
Because it is abstracted, the scrap mechanic doesn’t need a fiddly crafting system.  It works essentially like gold in any other game, but because it is canonically sourced from cars and is represented visually as car parts, it reinforces the setting while it simplifies play.
The Other Dust rpg does a good job of abstracting crafting with Spare Parts at various tech levels.  Characters in Other Dust can build or upgrade gear with spare parts, as well as using them as trade goods.  OD also uses rations as a basis of trade and abstracts bullets to weapon type, so “rifle bullets” rather than “.223 steel-case military load” bullets.  Low Life also uses an abstracted form of wealth called “clams” which are the shiny bits and bobs left over after the Wipe. 
If you’re using the Index Card Role Playing Game, you could say that each destroyed vehicle chunk yields 1d4 scrap, and that each scrap unit repairs one hit point on a vehicle. Then, you can add various tools and equipment loot to the table that increases the yield, repairs more hit points, use scrap to add hit points to a chunk, and so on.

4. Vantage points

In each region of Mad Max, there is a hot air balloon that Max can activate to reveal points of interest on a map section. Usually, there is a fun challenge to get to the actual balloon. Once aloft, Max scans the terrain with binoculars, noting locations on the region map.
In a tabletop RPG, a region could have obvious vantage points: a mountain, a ruined skyscraper, a dirigible.  Using a vantage point can confirm rumors, correct the character’s map, and provide an intermediate goal for an adventure that opens options to players.  They can also entice players to explore: reaching a vantage point requires a journey. Even the vantage point itself can be an encounter site, providing some challenge before reaching the desired altitude.
Other games that use vantage point mechanics are Tomb Raider, Horizon: Zero Dawn and the Assassin’s Creed series.  Games like The Long Dark and Fallout 4 use altitude as an advantage as well, but without the mechanical presentation of Mad Max.

5. Connections between factions via missions

One of the missions in Mad Max requires Max to mark three locations with flares that will enable a stronghold to produce gunpowder.  In turn, that allows another stronghold to produce ammo via trade.  This kind of connection between factions and the tangible reward the player receives because of it makes the setting feel dynamic and the player feel influential and powerful.
The quest also unlocks car upgrades and gives insight to a third faction via things Max discovers en route.   The mission accomplishes four things: it gives Max a benefit in two strongholds, it unlocks missions for Max that will unlock more upgrades and story progressions, it furthers the story by revealing more about Stank Gum’s foul nature, and it draws Max deep into territories that he might otherwise not visit.
Thinking about how missions or quests interact with the factions and the campaign map can add another dimension of wonder, exploration, and immersion to your campaign.

What about you?

What inspiration have you drawn from video games to make your RPG’s more fun and engaging?  Share below!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Hellscapes: a review

Hellscapes: A Review

Hellscapes, from Scrivined, is a post-apocalyptic add-on for fifth edition D&D.  It's a good product, far from perfect, but worth the money if you like 5e mechanics.

The Good

Hellscapes is fun to read. Its style is conversational and peppered with sly asides. The writing needs polishing, but it gets the job done with enough panache to cover the rough patches.

There is no section on how to play.  Hellscapes is not a complete game; it is a post-apocalyptic tool kit that uses the D&D 5e rule set. It offers interesting player options, rules for vehicles, scavenging and crafting and a monster section.

The classes in Hellscapes are explicitly based on D&D classes.  Each class has access to gambits: non-magical powers that can be used a limited number of times between rests.  The gambits are a clever and well-implemented alternative to spells.

Origins replace D&D’s races.  These include bestial (uplifted animals), mutant, and tribal. My favorite section is Tribal Ways, traits that define the character's tribe. Players pick three ways (We Ride On, We Hunt Prey, We Worship, etc.) that give their tribe various personal advantages. Tribal ways also provide advantages for visiting the tribe's home settlement.

If all the PC’s come from the same tribe, they can pick a fourth way.  This builds an attractive home base into the setting, which can be a story investment for GM and players alike.  Having characters come from different tribes, however, adds more settlements to the map and creates opportunities for faction-based play.  Either choice is strong; tribal ways is a great mechanic for kicking off a cooperative survival experience.

Vehicle combat in Hellscapes looks simple but satisfying.  The core conceit is that vehicles in a combat behave like a hybrid of monsters and terrain, and the rules built around that idea make for exciting and hazardous combats without adding unnecessary complexity.  It plays like D&D, not Car Wars.

The monster section balances DIY advice with a broad selection of creatures to inhabit various post-apocalyptic scenarios: aliens, mutants, raiders, and zombies all get a fair portion of the section, which is simultaneously lean and robust.

The Bad

Apart from the advice given in the early part of the book, there are no mechanisms for creating an actual Hellscape.  There are no mapping tools or hex-crawl suggestions, no random ruin tables, no mission generators.  There is a certain synergy to Hellscapes that becomes clear after reading the entire product, and your Hellscape will eventually emerge from that.  For a product named for a type of space, however, it offers very little in terms of defining the geometry of your wasteland.

The Ugly

The illustrations in this game are beautiful and skillfully done, but the palates are more appropriate for space opera or cyberpunk.  That and some truly baffling graphic design choices make the game’s art direction seem tone deaf.  I’m not saying Post-Apoc products must have The Road’s Pennsylvania winter palate-WOTC’s Gama World was always colorful, if not garish.  However, the graphic choices made in this game leave me feeling confused rather than immersed.
The crafting system is…well, it’s weird.  Objects and locations can be broken down into raw materials.  These are used to customize gear, create Personalized Items (the game’s version of magic items) and to fuel gambits.  There’s a lot of “it’s up to the GM” language, which assumes a reasonable and cooperative GM. “Hard-nosed and oppositional" is a better assumption, in my experience. Nevertheless, the alternative of “a rule for every situation” is untenable. Perhaps a GM’s section on how to cooperate with players and encourage their creativity is in order.


I like Hellscapes.  It uses the 5e engine to create deep interesting characters for action-oriented post-apoc gaming.   Its 5e foundation allows me to cherry-pick mechanics and use them with Pugmire, which I greatly appreciate. Despite some missteps in art direction, Hellscapes is a welcome addition to my post-apoc toolbox.

Hellscapes at DriveThruRPG

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Of Weapon Damage and Catfish Ogres

Greetings, wastelanders! Today, I bring three complementary creatures for your terror and amusement. I also wax philosophical about weapon damage and why one base damage die is enough.

Thoughts On Weapon Damage Dice

In ICRPG, basic weapon damage is d6. Longbow, crossbow, laser, club: d6. Variety comes through stats and gear, some of which increase die type or add bonuses to rolls. Blood and Bone uses the same idea: what you can do with a weapon make the difference, not the weapon itself. In Blood and Bone, your traits make your weapon choice matter.
The first time I saw d6 weapon damage was in the D&D Blue Box. I was about ten and I didn’t know much about weapons or fighting. D6 damage for everything from a butter knife to a bec de corbin seemed boring and lame.
Now I know that a dagger can kill you as dead as a great sword. I know that a fighter’s strength, skill, speed, experience, and luck matter more than the weapon of choice. I know that weapons do damage when they skirt your defenses and deplete your luck, blood, and stamina.
You can argue “yes, but with all things being equal…”, but they never are. A knife is better than nothing, a club is better than a knife, and a gun is better than a club…sometimes. Ranged beats melee…sometimes. Knives are harder to disarm than clubs or guns…sometimes. Clubs and knives tie in skill investment vs. return on trauma; you need very little skill to win with either. We’re not even talking yet about terrain, lighting, psychology, adrenaline, armor or any of the other factors that influence combat. There’s no such thing as a fair fight unless we work hard to fabricate one. We do this by removing variables. We provide a clean flat surface, weight classes, rules, cut men, referees, coaches…fighting is brutal, but it’s not combat. Combat is deadly chaos. Who does the most damage is more complex than rock-paper-scissors. D6 for base weapon damage works for me because it allows other factors to matter more.
Enough theory. Let’s look at some monsters!

Monster Sets
Monster sets are trios of monsters that complement and build on one another's strengths. ICRPG's streamlined monster design makes it easy to dovetail their concepts an mechanics.
The monster set concept comes from Hanerin Ferinale, the inestimable force behind the Runehammer brand. Monster sets was a topic on his Patreon, linked to below. For a buck a month, you get access to some of the most innovative gaming tools and theory around. A worthy investment for newbies and grognards alike! On to the beasties.

Channel Lurkers

These are the foot-soldiers. They live to feed.
  • One heart (ten hp)
  • Rolls: +2 Str, Con, weapon damage
  • Tough bastards. Melee attacks against them are always Hard.
  • Swat, swat, bite: weapon damage
  • Taste the air: No combat penalties for darkness
  • Taste the blood: When any character loses half their hit points, channel lurkers gain +2 to hit  them for the rest of the encounter.

An unused catfish mirelurk concept from Fallout 3

Blasphemous Croaker
These are the leaders, the ones who give purpose to the lurkers.

  • Two hearts (twenty hp)
  • Rolls: +2 all stats, weapon damage
  • Really tough bastards. All attacks against them are always Hard.
  • Glow-touched: magic damage (radiation burn)
  • Taste the air: No combat penalties for darkness
  • Pheromone frenzy: One target gains +2 to hit and damage
  • Blasphemous Croak: All non-catfish within far range make Cha saves or may take no action and may only move Near for the next turn.
Another Fallout catfish variant

Big wretched Science Machine (BWSM)
This is the thing they worship, guard, obey…
  • One heart
  • Rolls: +4 to all rolls
  • Hard to kill: ignore damage under 10, take only one damage per hit.
  • Lightning arc: Magic damage, damage above six arcs to another target, re-roll to hit. Above six arcs to another target, etc. 3 attacks per round. If the arc hits a channel lurker, it is healed instead of harmed.  If an arc hits a blasphemous croaker, the croaker can automatically direct an arc to another target regardless of how much magical effort it absorbs.
  • Floats on air: grav-based crackly giant sphere
  • Seismic thud: all save vs. prone and basic effort damage, close range
  • +3 to all attacks and damage
  • Horrid keening: All non-catfish within far range make Cha saves or may not move and all attempts are Hard. If already hard, add +1 to difficulty.

Channel lurkers can be the orcs of a PA campaign: expendable, bestial and reliably malicious. Maybe the BWSM is in a food depot, originally an AI with an altruistic mission-driven slowly insane through isolation and trauma. Some good dogs may be able to restore or re-program the BWSM for its mission of food security.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, wastelanders. Let me know in the comments if you’ve found anything useful along the way! I’m also interested to know what content you’d like to see explored on the Ragged Road: more maps? A Car-based loot table? Systems? More monsters? Spit your need and be witnessed!

Don’t forget to share!


· Runehammer Patreon, the inspiration for monster sets
· Other Dust, a great PA resource
· Pugmire, a game about good dogs in a bad world
· Blood and Bone, a gritty, low-magic Sword and Sorcery RPG that delivers the Sword & Sorcery vibe.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Harvest of Doom! Part 3: A Post-Apocalyptic Adventure

Harvest of Doom! Part 3 – The Hub (Target: 11)

This is the final segment of Harvest of Doom!, an adventure based in a ruined aquaponics farm. In the prior segment, I detailed the last living tower, a vertical farm worked by robots. The PC's goal was to ascend the tower and open the giant aperture in its floor. The open aperture leads to this segment's goal- a priceless cache of seeds.
The control room at the top of the living tower in part 2 is the main boss fight of the adventure. When they get to part three, the PC's should need rest and low on resources. If they have been able to recharge, increase the difficulty.
When the aperture opens, PC's may lower the freight platform into the hub (10 effort). PC’s with a prosthetic link or a farm-linked datapad do magical effort (d8). (Part two explains the Effort mechanic.) The party can also lower themselves using ropes, levitation, etc.
The hub has two levels: operations at the top, and distribution on the ground floor. The operations catwalk is twenty feet from the aperture; the ground floor is forty.

Operations Level

On this level, a catwalk encircles the main shaft. Six sets of double glass doors open to the farm's operational facilities:

  1. Robot repair shop. The lights flicker; otherwise, the shop is pristine. Two repair robots are working on a self-propelled tractor. Tools, materials, parts litter the room. The robots ignore the players unless attacked. This room contains three type A power cells and one type B cell.
  2. Chemical storage room. Two hazmat suits. Neat and clean, but dark. Open flames here are a bad idea.
  3. Fertilizer mixing lab. Almost identical to Chem Storage, but with workstations. Makes chemical mixing Easy for characters with appropriate skills or background.
  4. Fisheries management. This room is for monitoring aquaponics and catfish health. Catfish swim through the three aquaponics tubes running through the room. Monitors and diagnostic equipment crowd the space. Looping video shows a four-legged catfish leaping off a table and scuttling away.
  5. Dispatching office. Bones, manifests, coffee cups. Treasure: Farm-linked datapad. Includes shipping manifests that reveal locations of other hubs, farms and distribution depots. Effort 10 to unlock. A Hard check and twenty points of effort deactivate the robots on the hub floor. In the back of this office is a tram tunnel that leads to a small parking lot. The tram’s type B power cell is dead.
  6. Pesticide lab. Three monitor-bots are here, refilling with pesticide. They will ignore the characters unless attacked. Mixing chemicals in the lab is Easy for characters with appropriate skills.

Ground Level
On this level, eight openings lead away from the central hub. A low dais edged with safety lights marks off the circumference of the freight platform. Self-driving electric flatbeds stacked with crates sit in three of the tunnels. The others hold only darkness and a musty smell. Robot loaders stand motionless near the three trucks, covered in dust and cobwebs.
If the freight platform touches the dais, the robots power up and start moving crates to the flatbeds.

Timer 1 (d4)

There are three timers on this level. First timer: D4 rounds until five giant ants spill out of one of the empty tunnels. The ants go for the crates and PC’s; the robots attack the ants (unless the PC's deactivated the robots in the Operations office). Every round thereafter, d4 ants show up and attempt to take crates and small PC's back to their nest.


Giant ants! The PC’s must find the seeds and escape!


The seed crates are sealed and stamped with a symbol of a green sprout. (illo). Produce crates are open-topped and contain only desiccated compost. (Sharp PC's will see value in this as well.) The seeds are a great treasure in the famine-stricken wasteland. They will open doors for the PC’s to prestige, power and wealth. The robots will attempt to prevent the PC’s from taking the seeds and compost.

Timer 2 (d4)

Second timer: after the ants appear, roll a d4.  In that many rounds, three myconid scouts appear from another tunnel and try to make off with the seeds. The robots will resist them.

Threat 2

Now the PC’s are in a three-way battle. The myconids carry shards of crystal that emit radiation. Treat them as rods/wands of poison. If the myconids take damage and have managed to grab a seed crate, they all run into a tunnel. If anyone pursues them they find only a weird door-sized tracery of mold on a solid wall.

Timer 3 (d4)

Third timer: after the myconids appear, rolla d4. In that many rounds, the giant aperture creaks to life and begins to close. The aperture works like an elevator; even slight resistance will open it again. The PC’s don’t know that, though. Hee, hee, hee…


As soon as the PC’s hit the ground floor, the first timer starts. D4 rounds later, the ants arrive. They go for the crates and PC’s. The robots resist the ants if the robots are active.
As soon as the ants arrive, the second timer starts. D4 rounds later, the myconids arrive. They try to steal three seed crates and escape.
As soon as the myconids arrive, the third timer starts. D4 rounds later, the aperture begins to close.
This encounter is more about discovery and disruption than danger. There’s a lot going on, but nothing catastrophic. If the PC’s dally at the aperture before they descend, deciding to rest, have it sloooooowly begin to close. Emphasize how loud and massive it is. Even if the PC's discover how to reset the aperture, its closing routine is on a short, regular timer. The only way to keep it open is to jam it. Once the aperture is jammed, a crew of four spider bots will appear in 1d4 rounds to clear the jam and will fight to do so. Don't let the party rest if you can help it!

Other treats

Ingenious players will see many crafting opportunities on the Operations level. If they try to craft weapons out of chemicals or robot parts, let them! These are one-use magic items. Use effort to make crafting timely. If they spend too much time in Operations, roll the first timer and have the ants go for the seeds. Also, let them know what an explosives-crafting critical failure looks like. They may not even want to chance it. (Or that may be an incentive; players are nuts.)

The Tunnels

The tunnels can lead to food distribution depots anywhere in your wasteland. Mandate bases, population centers, research facilities, other farms, are all possibilities.
The tunnels are also a good way to connect locations in your wasteland. They can be a fast travel mechanism, providing safer camping. The tunnels can introduce different rules, challenges and subterranean encounter tables. What other things have discovered these efficient pathways? How have they adapted the tunnels for their own purposes?


Harvest of Doom is a great way to introduce Runehammer’s timers and effort to your game. These little tweaks will add tension, narrative gravity, and an element of fun to skill use. Try them out and see for yourself!

If you dig Harvest of Doom or Ragged Road in general, please share or pass a link along to your friends. Thanks!

Runehammer (Support his Patreon for a buck; it's a steal.)