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TL;DR

  • Chaser confronts Adacius about the war hosts gathering in the Klau and learns that his mentor is mad or possessed.
  • Tulasa finds a family hiding from the warriors now converging on the Klau, and they tell him some local lore in exchange for a letter of protection.
  • Duke and Ghanna find a cozy cottage surrounded by ripe corn and take shelter there for the night.

A Report from Elder Kristus

Kristus briefs Chaser as the Hounds lead their horses down the steep descent into the Klau: Adacius led the Felkiezers here several weeks ago to establish a Magisterial presence in the Klau and began searching for any signs of heresy. Soon, he found a family conducting heretical worship in a barn.

Under interrogation, they revealed that they were mere minions of a Necromancer abiding at the spire of Heksepunt on the Deenskewâl. Adacius left a tithe of his force in the Klau while he force-marched the family into the mountains so that they could guide him to the Necromancer. Two nights later, Kristus saw a fire on Heksepunt.

When Adacius did not return, he sent a messenger to summon Chaser. But Adacius came back this morning after long travels, and he brought an army of Hudbeklaaid mercenaries and their dogs with him. Adacius is planning war with the Necromancer, whom he claims is gathering strength in the Deenryk, and he has sent for other warriors to join him in the Klau.

Chaser and Kristus ride into Klausted, where a crowd of angry Klavs confront Felkiezer sentries who surround the village. A Felkiezer tells the Klavs that Adacius will address them shortly. Chaser asks him about Adacius, and he recounts making the ride to Heksepunt with Adacius.

He reports riding up the mountain with the heretic family, and seeing someone climb up the last stretch like a spider while carrying a body. The other Felkiezers were uneasy, but Adacius could not be detered and made the last climb, taking only the boy with him while the other men kept watch over his parents.

The parents broke free and pursued Adacius up to Heksepunt, and the Felkiezers followed. When they reached the summit, they found only Adacius and the boy. Adacius was badly wounded, and the boy was stricken with terror and would not speak. As Adacius recovered, day broke over the Deenryk and they saw signs of the Necromancer mustering forces there.

Just then, the Kirk bell tolls and Adacius appears in the bell tower. Klavs crowd around the hilltop on which the Kirk stands, and Adacius tells them that they will have to endure sacrifice in the fight against the Necromancer in order to defend their way of life. He tells them that their stores for the winter will be taken and redistributed so that Adacius can provision his assault on the Deenryk.

After the speech, Adacius recognizes Chaser in the crowd and comes out to greet his pupil. Adacius takes Chaser into the Kirk to speak privately. Adacius tells Chaser about the threat posed by the Necromancer, and says the Klau’s geography offers them a perfect fort. Adacius insists that they can foil the Necromancer’s plans to attack Magisterium lands if they strike before the enemy’s forces are ready to march.

As Adacius looks Chaser over, he marks the heretical Kasai amulet Chaser wears. Chaser tries to deflect suspicion by telling his mentor that the amulet belonged to his wife Lily, who was killed by necromancers. Adacius expresses sorrow for Chaser’s loss while continuing to scrutinize him.

The Hinnemûs Farm

Tulasa and his armed escort follow Chaser’s path down into the Klau. As they follows the Fuorjen, they pass a farmstead that appears recently abandoned. Tulasa investigates, and notes an external cellar door. Knocking, he gains welcome from the family hiding inside.

They tell him that the Magisterium took the Lupitz family away and killed them, and now they have brought Hudbeklaaid barbarians to the Klau. Tulasa offers them his protection, in exchange for a story from the local folklore. The grandmother, Beppe Hinnemûs, tells him the tale of Granaatmem and Appelmem. Once satisfied, Tulasa dictates and letter which the monk Kurik in his escort takes down, granting the First Warden’s protection to the Hinnemûs family.

According to Beppe, Granaatmem and Appelmem were witch sisters. Granaatmem was a bitter old misanthrope who kept a golden grass snake in her garden named Jhaltys. When some Klav children wandered into Granaatmem’s garden to steal her produce, Jhaltys caught them and Granaatmem held them prisoner until Appelmem came.

Appelmem challenged Granaatmem to a game of riddles for the fate of the children and for her grass snake. When Appelmem won, she returned the children to their parents in the Klau. Granaatmem flew into a rage and went up to Heksepunt, from which she sent storms and plagues to smite the children of the Klau. But no matter what magic she wrought, Appelmem’s magic was stronger. Appelmem defused and countered every plague sent by her sister, so that it became a blessing for the Klav children.

Finally Appelmem turned the last curse back on her sister, sapping all of Granaatmem’s power, and they all lived happily ever after.

After taking leave of the Hinnemûs family, Tulasa sees a hundred Skaalruter horsemen riding down into the Klau following the same path as Tulasa, passing the farm to press on to Klausted. Tulasa follows with his escort, and speaks briefly with the riders in the rearguard. They say they were summoned by Altin Qarga.

Golden Patch on the Landscape

Duke and Ghanna ride into the Klau with Duke’s Baachus mercenary crew, and Namuu of the Skaalruters.

As they ride, Siliona tells Duke that she is feeling deja vu, but can’t quite place why. When Ghanna nocks her bow to use Pinaka’s far-seeing sight, Namuu draws his instinctively and they enjoy some sport in aiming for a circling buzzard.

Ghanna uses Pinaka to get a wide view of the Klau, and she catches sight of a golden patch surrounded by grey and brown lands that have already been harvested.

The Ring of Fire

Adacius presses Chaser with questions about the heretical amulet. Chaser says he is ready to be purged of his sins, and jots down a regret on a piece of parchment as Adacius kindles a fire in the Kirk’s central brazier. Chaser drops the note into the fire, but Adacius urges him to burn the amulet as well. Chaser looks into Adacius’s eyes and sees a ring of golden flame illuminating the deep wells of darkness.

Chaser takes the amulet, and orders Lily to possess Adacius while Adacius knocks the amulet into the brazier. Lily struggles with Adacius and recoils, burning; she gives out a cry of pain and shock, which Adacius hears.

Panicked, Adacius draws his knife to stab Chaser, but Chaser catches his arm and they struggle beside the burning brazier.

Sjef Hun Tegn and Her Puppy

Tulasa follows the Skaalruters to Klausted, where he sees Magisterial Inquisitors. Inquiring after Adacius, they direct him to the Kirk hill, where he finds the Felkiezer Jacobus speaking tensely with the Hudbeklaaid war chief Sjef Hun Tegn.

Sjef Hun Tegn warns Jacobus not to let his men speak in the presence of her warriors, because men are not permitted to speak among the Konur Villtar. Her wolfhound growls over Jacobus’s protest. She tells him that she will speak only with Adacius, who can find her making preparations for war in the Southfarthing.

Rattled, Jacobus takes his leave of Hun Tegn when Tulasa approaches. Tulasa asks where he can meet Adacius, and insists on seeing him immediately when Jacobus reveals that the Lord Inquisitor is in a private meeting. Jacobus leads him to the Kirk, were they throw the doors open to see Adacius and Chaser struggling over the brazier.

Tulasa and Jacobus pull the men apart. Adacius wearily withdraws to a seat beside a table placed on the dais, and asks to be left alone. Chaser exists with Jacobus and Tulasa, and begins to convince Jacobus that Adacius is losing his mind.

The Golden Field

Namuu parts ways with Duke and Ghanna when they reach a farmstead surrounded by ripe, golden corn. Namuu wants to catch up with his uncle immediately, but Ghanna and the Baachus crew want to make camp here for the night.

Armentad and Sidney check out the burned ruin of the barn, and find a massive lump of gold in a charred brazier buried in ash and blackened beams. They inform Duke and celebrate their unexpected windfall. Something watches them from the corn, marking Ghanna’s pocked scar, Duke’s earrings, Pinaka’s heat waves, and the flaming shimmer on Maiven’s blade.

As the sun sets, they determine a watch order and shelter in a tiny cottage untouched by fire. Ghanna takes the last watch. Before Duke turns in, she sees that the corn has surrounded the cottage, cutting off their path to the Fuorjen.

She sends an arrow from Pinaka into the rows of corn to see what is watching them. Ghanna sees nothing, but Pinaka recognizes a demonic presence in the field, and greets Ourora in the Old Rumadhic tongue. A wind blows through the corn, and a rustling voice greets Pinaka in Old Rumadhic, and then greets Ghanna.

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This is a record of our first session of Sorcerer & Sword.

Introducing Characters

Ghanna and Chaser are two characters we played in another campaign that took place nine or ten years in the future. In that game we learned offhand that they met once before, when they both got entangled hunting necromancers in the wild forest region. That hint of an interesting adventure provided the kernel for the whole situation.

Ghanna comes from a conflicted family. Her grandfather was a priest of the Magisterium who turned his own wife over to the Inquisition as a necromancer. Ghanna learned sorcery from her father who was part of a desert cabal. But when she saw him sacrifice a sickly child, she reported him to an Inquisitor visiting a nearby city. Her mother threw her out, and she went to her grandfather, Fr. Bain. Desperate for a sense of belonging and to prove her loyalty to the true faith, she agreed to be his child soldier and spy by infiltrating a ring of necromancers in the Klau.

Malcolm Chaser is an Inquisitor and witch hunter whose wife was murdered by witches. He recently got a letter from an operation in the Klau, informing him that his own mentor Adacius went missing while rooting out the heresy there. He was asked to round up some cutthroats—the Hounds—and come there to search for the missing Inquisitor.

Krenzi Lupitz is a veteran of the endlessly transforming conflict between the Magisterium and Adûn. During his military service, he was captured by the enemy and ruthlessly tortured. When he gained his freedom, he fled to the borderlands to live as a hermit, and never again be caught in the wars of men. He recently learned that his last surviving kin were murdered, provoking him to leave his hovel and find the perpetrators.

Tulasa is a member of an ancient order tasked with guarding the Magisterium’s knowledge. Before she was slain by the Eater of Knowledge, Tulasa’s mother surrendered her demon to him—a vast library of all notable history, past and future, hidden in an apparent “pocket universe” accessible only by a key in the form of a sword. Tulasa got a report that a priestess who served with his mother was taken as a captive into the Klau, and of course he knows it’s a trap laid for him by the Eater of Knowledge.

Duke Ahwe is a 500+ year old half-human and therefore undying. The event that severed his soul in two was so traumatic he can’t remember it, but he is aware that his other half is out there somewhere. He has been involved in organized crime, founding a mercenary crew, and hunting artifacts for his antique business. Recently rumors came to him that someone looking like him has been working miracles in the borderlands, before disappearing into the Klau.

Binding the Demons

After doing some show-and-tell with the diagrams (see them here), we went around to resolve how each player bound their demon, so that we could make their Binding rolls and Humanity checks.

I wanted to make all sorcery in this setting Humanity-relevant, and I told them to bind a demon, the ritual must involve renouncing and destroying (at least symbolically) some part of your identity, something unique and precious that makes you who you are. Examples include your home, your community, an honorific, a precious belonging, or even a bodily feature. This got everyone describing really vivid binding rituals that were awesome to behold—and much richer than I expected from a first session of Sorcerer with players new to the game. Some of the scene setting included what would be Contacts and Summons in actual play, but we didn’t make separate rolls for those and I didn’t press the distinction.

It made me wonder, though, if you typically have such vivid scene setting and action for the binding of their starting demons. Since Binding is the one ritual where the sorcerer’s active score depends on the circumstances, it seems to be required.

  • Ghanna’s renunciation was of her father, over the bonfire where his corpse smoldered, as she took up his bow and called on the spirit of the sickly child he killed to inhabit it. As a result, her bow Pinaka has the personality of a toddler, and she has to swaddle it at night.
  • Chaser described slaying the witches who killed his wife Lily, as her body lay cold and his fellow witch-hunters lay dying from their wounds around him. Desperate to keep his wife, he threw his holy symbol in the fire and took up the heretical amulet the witches were using in whatever ritual they killed his wife for. To conceal his heresy, he killed the wounded survivors of his own team. The twisted memories of his wife possess him now, with the need to reënact memories of their courtship and married life.
  • Krenzi described a scene in the dungeon where he was tortured. Covered in his own blood, he marked the walls with it while calling upon his demon—known only as the Invader—to give him power to survive and overcome. After the game the player and I realized we both forgot to describe what he renounced of his identity! His demon, the Invader, is an invisible creature of shadow and secrets who needs Krenzi to smoke an acrid and foul-spelling plant.
  • Tulasa’s renunciation involved going to his father’s grave with a pick-axe to wipe out his father’s name and reduce the markers to pebble-sized rubble. Now Tulasa is the master of his mother’s demon, the Infinite Stacks, who needs Tulasa to provide them with a steady supply of obscure lore—especially demon lore.
  • Duke Ahwe’s love was a soldier of the Inquisition named Maiven. When her mentor Adacius learned that she was learning sorcery (from Duke), he had her killed. Duke took her sword and destroyed the memento of a former lover from his long life, in order to appease his slain lover’s spirit in the sword. Now Maiven needs Duke to sing love songs to her.

After that, we had just enough time to frame one scene for each character, based on the content of their diagrams.

Ghanna

Ghanna meets Fr. Bain at a caravanserai on the borderlands between Adûn and Skaalfalia. Ghanna’s mother Afsun tracks her there and confronts her father for radicalizing Ghanna. Afsun throws a poppet at Ghanna and tells her about her mother’s death. Ghanna sides with Bain, and Afsun departs.

Chaser

Malcolm Chaser is crossing the borderlands between Skaalsalia and the Elquatarus Mountains with his Hounds, when he meets a Skaalruter border patrol led by Namuu. Namuu urges Chaser to leave Skalsalia without taking any Skaalruters with him. When Chaser asks if Namuu knows of any other Magisterium officials in the region, Namuu tells him there is one that the Skaalruters call “Altin Qarga”: “Gold Crow”.

Chaser travels through the Fraustgap, where he finds Elder Kristus waiting for him. Kristus leads him to the trailhead that descends into the Klau and tells him that Adacius has returned—but he is mustering mercenaries for war.

Krenzi

Krenzi Lupitz climbs up to Hichtepunt on the Deenskewâl—the ridge separating the Klau from Deenryk. Among the standing stones, he finds the cremains of Jon, Matilda, and Timmy Lupitz, mingled with the ashes of a stranger. Krenzi gathers some of the ashes and finds a weird golden scutum. The Invader urges him to collect some Skunkblum before they descend.

Tulasa

Tulasa and his armed escort is intercepted by Namuu’s patrol while crossing the Skaalsalia borderlands and he orders his men to show their armaments. Namuu greets them aggressively, but he lets Tulasa pass after Tulasa informs him that they ride to conquer a mutual foe who will devour the bones of Namuu’s ancestors. Namuu allows Tulasa’s party to pass.

Tulasa’s escort picks up Chaser’s trail while traveling through the Fraustgap, which leads them to the trailhead.

Duke

Duke Ahwe meets with the Baachus mercenary crew at a caravanserai on the borderlands between Adûn and Skaalfalia. They ask him why he gathered them out here—what is the job and what is the score? Duke notices Fr. Bain pay the innkeeper in gold for his tea and follows him outside.

Duke and Siliona witness the exchange between Bain, Ghanna, and Afsun by the well before going back to the innkeeper to ask about their Magisterium patron. The innkeeper directs Duke to Bain. After greeting Bain and exchanging introductions, Bain hires Duke and his crew to escort Ghanna to the Klau to infiltrate and overthrow whatever necromancers Adacius has tracked there. Duke agrees.

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TL;DR:

Use GM moves between sessions to generate grabby content for the table!

Glossary

GM moves
A way to set up complex situations and ratchet up tension in role-playing, including complexity in tactical, strategic, as well as moral and dramatic terms.

Pre-ramble

My last game session was my best one in a few months! I am blessed with players I can count on for non-stop cleverness and creativity to keep things exciting. The campaign has been building toward something like this for a while, but why did it all come together for an effortless, dramatic impact?

One thing I think made a difference was the way I prepped for the game.

In my last Dungeon World campaign (2016–2018), I finally mastered the concept of Fronts and how to make them sing.

But my current campaign runs on Freebooters on the Frontier, a Dungeon World variant by Jason Lutes, which focuses on the hard-scrabble adventure that happens on the way to the dungeon more than epic exploits of the characters. Our game is Freebooters souped up with a lot of setting-specific stuff.

Two things about our game require a different kind of prep than my previous Dungeon World game.

  1. The FotF travel moves create a much more open-world sandbox for exploration and discovery; and
  2. The intense political intrigue that I would usually express in Fronts is offloaded to a separate domain game. Factions are run by actual players using Kevin Crawford’s domain rules from An Echo, Resounding.

I’m sure Jason Lutes was mindful that the content that is useful to prepare for Freebooters is somewhat different than what is useful to prep for Dungeon World. The Freebooters GM is encouraged to generate dangers and discoveries just-in-time using tables in the Perilous Wilds rulebook.

I’ve tried that, but those tables don’t really suit our setting. I love using randomly-sourced content as an inkblot for my prep, but I’ve found I’m not good at adapting the suggestions from PW to our world.

I stumbled across another method, one that worked amazingly, and it was shockingly close to my fingertips.


The idea is super simple: Using standard Dungeon World GM moves between sessions to generate a small “slush pile” of dangers, discoveries, and drama.

What you need

Optional…

A method of creating “inkblots” that works for you and the established fiction. (This is where the PW tables didn’t quite work: We’ve played 49 sessions in this setting, and a lot of established details rule out classes of content generated by the PW tables.)

I listed some inkblot methods previously in Dungeon BINGO. What I used this time was B.J. West’s Story Forge deck.

Method

Choose 1 GM move (and 1 input from your inkblot method, if you are using one—like drawing 1 card from the Story Forge deck).

Take that move and come up with a situation based on the move. What are some resources, problems, opportunities, or dangers near the freebooters’ current location that might manifest?

Use the GM move, combined with your optional inkblot, to generate an answer.

Important: Jot down whatever ideas come to mind. At this stage, it’s not important if the ideas are any good, just that you get your pen moving.

Then repeat: Pick another GM move, and generate another possible situation based on it.

And iterate: Take the ideas that came up, and notice patterns and connections. You’ll find that meaningful relationships suggest themselves, based on established details, questions you want to explore, and the NPCs, values, and goals that the players care about.

That’s it.

All that’s left is adding some minimal organization to what comes out of it. What I did was list all the NPCs generated or fleshed out in this exercise, and jot down their agendas (and stats, for 1 or 2 of them).

But you could just as easily organize the notes by location—then you have yourself a hex-crawl!

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For U.S. Thanksgiving, I’m sharing the current playtest PDF of Twisted Tunnels RPG. Download it! Skim it! Play it! Criticize it! And, please let me know how it goes. You can reach me at “deeperdelvings” at “gmail”.

- Twisted Tunnels β7 playtest rules
- TwistedTunnels β6 character sheet

For anyone who hasn’t been in on the action, Twisted Tunnels is a raw and simple game of madcap dungeon demolition inspired by Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls—especially the 1975 1st edition rules. There are some older posts about the game on this blog here

I’ve done a lot of playtesting this year, and I’m very happy about the way it’s shaping up. But it’s not too late for biting critical feedback. I’d love to hear if you find anything confusing, confounding, unwieldy, or unhinged.

I’m aware that several sections still need a lot of cleanup and rewriting, particularly the Dungeon Spiral, Monsters, and Secret Weapon Techniques chapters. I’m also mindful that more examples are needed. Plus art.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

In this post, I’ll show you 1 method for running a one-shot or First Session with almost no prep. This isn’t advanced GM knowledge, but it is something useful that I did not know until I saw it in action. It includes some examples, and some free downloads from the Risus Monkey archives to get you started—keep reading!

Getting ready for the 29th session of Planets Collide next Saturday got me rifling through my old notes, and I stumbled over my First Session scribbles. At the same time, one of the Planets Collide players is kicking off a new campaign as a GM, and our conversations lately have taken a close look at GM prep for role-playing.

What kind of prep is vain and ineffective? What kind of prep is useful and productive at the table? We all know (or we should know) that the best-laid plans “don’t survive first contact with the players”, but how can we focus our prep on those things that we will actually use at the table, and eliminate or minimize everything else?

There are many ways, some specific to certain games or styles of play. And there are better blogs than mine out there discussing them. But as I look back at what I do from week to week, and how my current campaign got started, I suppose there might be some benefit in talking about what works for me. And when it comes to what sparked the First Session of this campaign, I stole the method from playing with the Risus Monkey blogger Tim Ballew—a masterclass in GMing. Since his website is no longer with us to point to when new GMs need the benefit of his wisdom, I thought I’d take a crack at describing it.

A few years ago, Tim invited me and Natalie over, along with some of his regulars, for a one-shot of Old School Hack. Natalie wrote about it here. It was a riot!

While we were making our silly band of characters, Tim was secretly rolling dice, maybe even cackling to himself, and jotting down words. We wouldn’t understand why until later—after we dined, after a libation—when the adventure began.

I did not know that Tim had no plan for the evening’s fun. There was no dungeon map keyed with encounters for us to explore, nor was there an overarching network of villainous schemes in the offing. Everything Tim needed to weave the adventure emerged from the adventure goals each player came up with, right then and there; and that secret list he made while we made our characters; and most of all, from the conversation of actual play.

At some point during the night’s antics, someone noticed that Tim was checking off words on his list while we explored. “Are you playing Dungeon BINGO?”

“Dungeon BINGO”—I don’t know who said it, but the name stuck.

What Tim was doing that I call Dungeon BINGO can be boiled down to 2 steps:

  1. Generate a short list of evocative words, images, or concepts using a method of selection that will give you unexpected results. For this purpose, Tim was using his own lists of DungeonWords and WilderWords, picking words at random using dice.
  2. Whenever you need an idea to move the game forward, look at your list of words, and check it off.

That’s it! The alchemy that turned it into gold came from another discipline: Listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas. That’s beyond the scope of this post. If you want to get a jump on it, read Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley: You can get it in PDF from DriveThruRPG or in paperback from Lulu. (I’m not part of an affiliate program, and these aren’t affiliate links. I just love the book.) I might write about Play Unsafe another time.

But even that stuff isn’t too hard. And you are probably doing a lot of it already, because listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas go with having a conversation. And having a conversation is the medium in which role-playing happens.

Setting up your BINGO card

Tim got his words for Dungeon BINGO from lists of words he made just for this purpose—DungeonWords and WilderWords. To get unexpected combinations, he used dice to select a few words from each list. Thanks to Tim, you can download these resources below to get started. Thank you, Tim!

The Risus Monkey word lists are a great source for getting unexpected content inspiration like this, but there are a multitude of options out there that can serve the same purpose: Rory’s Story Cubes, B.J. West’s Story Forge Cards, or any of the billions of tables in role-playing rulebooks, supplements, and blogs that give you random encounters, dungeon twists, or NPC motivations.

Tim called them inkblots, after the Rorschach test: An inkblot is anything that provides input that doesn’t have a settled meaning, but gives you the raw content to spark creative connections. The key is not where you get the ideas, but how you use them.

For my First Session of Planets Collide, I didn’t have any prep at all. I used the D30 Sandbox Companion by New Big Dragon Games. It has a 2-page spread of 10 “Adventurer Generator Tables”—10 columns of evocative ideas for seeding an adventure.

In the spirit of BINGO, I drew a 3-by-3 grid on scratch paper—right there at the table—while the players were making their characters, and quickly obtained 9 words from the tables using a 30-sided die. The table at the top of this post was the result, but here it is again:

Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

Using your BINGO card: An example

One of the players was Phoebe, who created a Ranger named Ghanna. I asked Phoebe about the lands Ghanna ranged as a ranger, and she said “desert”. That put me in the mind of 1,001 Nights and Persian folklore—like Aladdin.

Now, one of the elements on my BINGO card was a clock tower. So on the spot, I made up Yusayin Buruck, and said he was smuggling Black Lotus into the city. I said he was an aristocrat, and his clock tower was the tallest spire in Adûnibad, the city of a thousand minarets. I asked Phoebe why he was out to get her. She came up with the idea that she had been guarding his caravan, and it was caught in a sandstorm. We established that she was the only survivor, and he held her responsible for the loss.

We could have set the scene during the sandstorm and started playing there, but I was asking the other player questions too. He was a Druid of the plains, and he decided he met Ghanna because she found her way there after the sandstorm. That was where she tamed her animal companion, and 1 of their bonds was based on that. I can’t remember much about his character though, because he just came that once.

You could say the sandstorm was the inciting incident, but that was simply narrated as background. The actual play began with Buruck’s lackeys attacking the heroes just outside the city gate with a wild animal. They defeated the lackeys, and Ghanna got a relic from one of the guys they captured: an intricate stopwatch from Buruck’s tower. And that established enough mystery and drama to launch a campaign that has spanned most of 2 years of nonstop action, without showing any signs of winding down. (No pun intended.)

You can probably see how elements of the BINGO card worked their way into the conversation: I combined “tower” with “clockwork machinery” to get a clock tower. “To clear her name” wasn’t exactly an obstacle in the adventure, but the idea that Buruck blamed Ghanna for the loss of his shipment was based on that. And “greed” was very much Buruck’s apparent goal. Even though we found out later that he had more complex motivations, “greed” was enough to get us started. “Wonder” is hard to invoke, and in my experience it happens by accident. But “wonder” is part of what inspired me to embrace the flavor of 1,001 Nights and describe a city of 1,000 spires instead of a more gritty desert setting.

Then there was stuff I did not use: Instead of a “flask”, I introduced a relic connected to the clock tower theme. And I didn’t use the idea of “hauntings” at all. And though it didn’t turn into a hard boiled detective story, the players were left with a “mystery”: What the heck is going on?

What, indeed? It was after that session that I asked, who is this Buruck guy? And why was he smuggling Black Lotus into the city? I could have said “profit”, and then the next session might have focused on the sordid Black Lotus trade. But it occurred to me that he might have other reasons to keep a critical mass of the population in a dreaming state.

That’s when I got the idea of a demon-dragon attacking the real Buruck and drinking his blood. What if Buruck was a descendant of one of the Sages involved in an forgotten ritual? What if there was a Seal keeping 2 planets apart, and the clock tower was an instrument that measured the Seal’s strength? What if the dragon took up the Sage’s work after gaining his memories? And what if something caused the Seal to weaken?

These musings were what launched a campaign that the players are still unraveling 2 years on. Now I was off the “First Session” reservation and out in the domain of Fronts. And that is for another article.

Why does this work?

We’ve all been in a “conversation” where the other person just wants to hear their own ideas, and it’s not much fun. It’s distorting the meaning of the word to even call that a “conversation”.

But role-playing is about conversation first and foremost. Whatever else might be included—rules, complicated scoresheets with character info, dice, maps, figures, counting tokens, or anything else—these other elements are for reference in the conversation. Conversation is what provides the medium in which all this other stuff can play an active, supporting role.

One of the risks we take as the referee in a role-playing game is that maybe we won’t know what to say when it’s our turn to talk. Like, the players want to explore that dungeon they heard about, and we don’t have a map, a boss monster, or any ideas about the deathtraps, hazards, or the treasures it holds. Oh no!

We plan stuff because we want to feel safer during the game. We want to have something cool to offer the players no matter where the conversation turns. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to relieving this anxiety—including pre-fabricated monsters, doodads, NPCs, rewards, plots, modules, sandboxes, and campaign sourcebooks. They wouldn’t sell very many products if they just said, “you and your friends have brains, make it up!” Some of it is quite good. Some of it… not so much. (And some of them deserve every penny they get!)

Whether the prep comes out of our own brains or we get it elsewhere (or some combination), the hazard is that we’ll get so attached to the ideas in our prep that it blocks the conversation. It can become an obstacle to the authentic listening that’s necessary for a conversation. If we get too attached to our own ideas, we won’t notice or build on the sometimes brilliant ideas that come up in the conversation of actual play.

One of the benefits of getting your ideas from an inkblot, instead of planning, is that you don’t think results you got randomly are anything special. You know the dice or cards or whatever could have given you all kinds of other stuff, so you aren’t so attached to the ideas. If anything doesn’t fit, you can more easily drop it. You can use them to form leading questions to get the players’ ideas, and you can use their ideas in combination to make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you.

But if you memorize a 4-volume campaign setting, or labor over binders of your own ideas before actual play, you’re much more likely to get stuck on them. After all, these ideas are the product of deliberate design. “Of course they’re better than whatever might come up at the table”, you might say. Trouble is, that ain’t always the case.

I’m surprised I used so many of those random ideas that First Session of Planets Collide. But as you can see, I let them fall by the wayside when actual play took other turns.


As a referee, you also have the duty to portray a more-or-less consistent world so that the players can make judgments based on their experiences and reasoning. That means, over time, you do get attached to certain ideas, namely the ideas that were given concrete reality in the shared imagined space. That will sometimes mean putting a cool new idea on hold in favor of established “facts” of the scenario.

But that’s not to shut down the players, rather to protect the boundaries everyone needs to participate constructively.

Okay, now what?

If you have limited time and attention for prep, it’s better to prepare to have a conversation than it is to prepare a sequence of encounters, or anything else that strong-arms the players into a given scenario.

“Story” can grow naturally from the most meagre seeds, if you water them with good conversation habits. Concrete, meaningful challenges can likewise emerge from the simplest parameters, provided you make them a “real” part of the scenario and let the players deal with them according to reason and experience.

Dungeon BINGO, inkblots, and building on the ideas that come up in conversation are not the only way to run a First Session or one-shot. You can layer in any other prep that you want. You can bring a dungeon map, use the Adventure Funnel, or generate a scenario with the Mad-Libs adventure generator. You could even bring a fully-keyed 1-page dungeon or some more comprehensive resource.

The most important thing is not that you eliminate all prep, but that you focus on what is useful. And if actual play turns your scenario upside-down, it never hurts to have a BINGO card ready and to know how to use it!

And if actual play doesn’t turn your scenario upside down, session after session, you need to fire your boring players!

Get started now!

With Tim’s kind permission, I have archived some of his inkblot resources here, until the day the Risus Monkey soars again!

DungeonWords
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
WilderWords
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
WestWords
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]

More and more…

10/10
Meandiering Banter posted this wacky dungeon word generator you can use for your BINGO cards. Check it out!
8/28
After this article went live, @OFTHEHILLPEOPLE sent me this resource for more Dungeon BINGO fun: The Old School Hack Adventure Generator.

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