Tips and Ideas for Tabletop RPG GMs Tue, 08 Nov 2022 20:48:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tips and Ideas for Tabletop RPG GMs 32 32 Creating Gods for your Tabletop RPG Setting Mon, 15 Nov 2021 14:10:57 +0000

Creating Gods for your Tabletop RPG Setting

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

Creating gods and deities during worldbuilding

Here’s a a guide on how to create Gods for your own tabletop RPG setting or campaign. It’s a great aid for any kind of fantasy worldbuilding. The PDF file is an single page with lists for names, epithets, domains, holy symbols, sacrifices and the architecture of temples or places of worship. Ideally, every player creates their own deity – then you have a whole pantheon.
rollenspiel setting götter erschaffen

From our “Dying Gods” campaign

We developed the idea for a deity creation sheet in our Dungeon World group in our current campaign. The main story is about the fall or the death of multiple Gods, and how this event would impact the game world. The demise of the Goddess of fertility Xirin, for example, lead to bad harvests and famine.
You can find a game report on our Dark Fantasy Dungeon World campaign in this article.
dungeon world rollenspiel dekoration

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]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
Wickedness – A Story Game about Witches Thu, 23 Sep 2021 13:12:19 +0000

Wickedness – A Story Game about Witches

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

What is Wickedness?

Wickedness is a storytelling game by M Veselak about three witches who must maintain the dangerous balance between the overworld and the underworld, to prevent the end of the world. This task has the witches make huge sacrifices during the story. Their bodies and souls suffer, allies are betrayed, dark forces are at play, and solidarity within the coven is also put to the test.
Wickedness is a storytelling game with no GM. Plot elements, conflicts and tasks are given through the medium of tarot cards. The Arcana images on the cards trigger certain events in the story, which the players must react to. The story takes place as a one-shot in a single session. By the end of the round it will be known whether the witches managed to protect their world, and at what cost. A happy ending is unlikely, and there is a lot of drama to be expected.

One plot, three settings

The story is about three witches maintaining the balance between the kingdom of the overworld and the hells of the underworld. However, there is a snag – both realms are driven by greed and want anything but peaceful coexistence. Furthermore, these witches are viewed with distrust by the realms. The coven is faced with quite some hostility and intrigue.
The overworld and the underworld aren’t fully defined at the start of the game. During character creation, players determine what these worlds look like and who rules over them. For example, the underworld can be the realm of the dead, a demonic hellscape or a world of shadow. The game offers many inspirations to aid the players in their decisions.
One luxury with Wickedness is that is comes with three settings. At the start of their game, players can choose between classic fantasy, urban fantasy and cyberpunk. Depending on the setting, Wickedness offers different character arcs and plot hooks. This cool feature gives players more room to customize their game world, while also providing great replayability value.
wickedness pen & paper rollenspiel hexenzirkel

No GM? How’s that supposed to work?

Story game RPGs often do without game masters. The plot develops from a list of events and conflicts that randomly come into play through various mechanics. In Wickedness, this is done through a deck of tarot cards, sticking with the witch’s aesthetic. At specific points, the game tells players to draw a card and to read the corresponding event from a list. The “Three of Wands” goes like this, for example:
The witch marked as the Fool reads: I have awoken, without warning or fanfare, with a horrifying mark of the Underworld’s Menace on my face. Worsen the Underworld’s Claim on me, and I’ll discard a Wisdom card. I can’t even leave the Sanctuary without inspiring fear and alarm in the kingdom’s populace… How do I get rid of this mark?
As is customary in story games, the plot elements need to be interpreted by the players and built into the existing storyline. For example, what does this demonic mark look like? How do you deal with it? This creative work is both a curse and a blessing of these storytelling games. You need to put some thought into the story, so that it becomes coherent and fun. However, you are granted extensive story telling rights and can adjust the story any way you like.
wickedness erzählspiel rollenspiel

The power of three will set us free

Sorry for this “Charmed” reference. You know, that 90s TV show. Couldn’t resist.
What I’m trying to get at here is that improvising the story all the way through can be quite taxing. Wickedness uses a clever trick to help the players. When narrating scenes, each of the three players takes over a certain part of the narration, which splits the creative work up nicely. It is described for every event which player must narrate which part of a scene. This way, no one person has to improvise everything 100% of the time, but instead all players can work with each other’s ideas. Here is an example:
Two of Swords
The holder of The Moon reads: I’ve been challenged to a duel, so Worsen the Kingdom’s [Ignorance]. The holder of The Sun will tell us who issued the challenge, the holder of The Star will tell us what I did to offend them, and I’ll tell you how I feel about it. The Kingdom is watching, to see how we respond. What should I do?
wickedness rollenspiel tarotkarten

Tarot cards instead of dice

Instead of using dice, the story progresses by drawing tarot cards. The deck is sorted into multiple smaller decks for this – one main deck for the plot, one deck for character creation and finally an individual deck for each character with individual problems and plot hooks.
But how are conflicts within the story solved? If a player character is in danger or is faced with a difficult task, then they decide what they want to happen. But success always comes at a price. Magical powers are consumed, relationships with allies are burdened or the witches’ refuge is being damaged. These resources are, of course, limited – there are too few of them to successfully resolve all issues with them. A failure costs no resources, but has devastating consequences for the story and threatens the balance between the overworld and underworld.

Wickedness Actual Play Video

Want to know how Wickedness works in practice? Check out this great actual play video with Jay Dragon from Possum Creek Games, celebrity GM Brennan Lee Mulligan and game designer Jeeyon Shim.

Three chapters: Truths, Troubles, Trials

Wickedness is split into three parts. At the start, the characters, allies and setting are established in “Truths”. In “Troubles,” the coven is faced with issues and conflicts, which they must overcome together. Here, there is always the question of how far the witches are willing to go. They must decide which problems to leave unresolved. Because they don’t have sufficient means to tend to all problems in the two realms. If they go too far, this has an impact on their personalities, solidarity within the coven and also on their direct environment.
In “Trials,” the conflict between the overworld and the underworld intensifies. Depending on how the witches have used their resources so far, the result will either be the downfall of one of the realms, the disbanding of the coven or a terrible fate for one of the witches.
hexen erzählrollenspiel pen & paper

Three witches as the main characters

During character creation, you determine through the tarot deck who plays which role in the coven. There are the Pure Heart, the Wild Spirit and the Old Soul. For each of these roles, Wickedness supplies you with two pages of options to individually create your character. Similar to the PBTA games’ playbooks, you select every character detail from a list of names, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, backstory events and source of magical powers.
Afterwards, you determine through the tarot cards which celestial body each witch devoted herself to – sun, moon or stars. Each celestial body comes with its own traits. A moon-born witch, for example, is more emotional and mysterious. Finally the characters’ favored school of magic is determined in the same way.
Wickedness’ character creation is really great fun. Through the tarot cards and the many options, it contributes a lot to the atmosphere and the joy of playing. And the fact that players can determine much of the characters’ background information also helps weaving their stories together.

Who would enjoy playing Wickedness?

Like with all storytelling games, Wickedness needs players who enjoy writing large parts of the story themselves. The tarot deck gets you quite far with its plot hooks. But still, you need to flesh out many of the scenes yourself, and adapt them to your current story. Ideally, you should play Wickedness with three people, who have been GMs before. It is incredibly helpful if you can fall back on a repertoire of ideas and stories to create a new plot with on the spot.
Players who prefer reacting to a pre-determined plot rather than creating the story as they play should probably instead stick to traditional roleplaying games. But this is, of course, true for all storytelling games, and not just for Wickedness.
wickedness hexen erzählspiel possum creek

Where can I buy Wickedness?

Wickedness is available at Possum Creek Games as a pdf for $20 or as a softcover bundle for $30.

Also check out their other wonderful games like Wanderhome, Dungeon/Venture or The Sleepaway.

Summary: A spot-on witches’ coven story game

Wickedness is a really great interpretation of the witch coven theme as a story game. The texts are written with a lot of love and care and perfectly describe the setting, while still staying short and concise. The storytelling mechanics are excellently implemented with the tarot deck and the shared narration techniques. As a cherry on top, the game also comes with three separate settings. Those who like storytelling games like A Quiet Year or The Deep Forest should definitely get their hands on Wickedness. An absolute must-have for $20 for the pdf or $30 for the softcover bundle.

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The Wickedness Story Game
Author: M Veselak


Release Date: 2021

Pages: 139 (thereof 30 pages for rules)

Themes: Witches, trust, personal loss, power, magic

Setting: either Fantasy, Urban Fantasy or Cyberpunk

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]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
Dungeon World Session Recap Wed, 04 Aug 2021 12:11:18 +0000
Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

Once more into the Dungeon

It’s been a few years since I last played a tabletop RPG in a fantasy setting. So I thought, why not give Dungeon World a try? Here’s a session recap of my group’s current Dungeon World campaign. My friends and I wanted to have an especially dark setting for our campaign. So we adjusted parts of the world building steps and also some of the rules.
A few words about Dungeon World: It is a Fantasy RPG that feels like D&D but uses completely different rules (Powered by the Apocalypse). The plot develops during the game. Players and DM share narration rights. That means less time spent with preparations, but also a story tailored specifically to the characters. How that went for us, you will find out in this article.

Play to find out

The core idea with PBTA systems (Powered by the Apocalypse) is called “Play to find out”. This means that big parts of the story are created during the game. Dice rolls don’t just decide the outcome of any action, but also the result of a scene or a conflict, and how the resulting plot develops. A simple perception check doesn’t just give you new information, but also plot elements such as additional clues (with successful rolls) or obstacles and foes (with unsuccessful rolls). The rules help you with lists to choose from. Depending on the roll and its result, either the players or the DM decide how the scene continues. But here’s the twist: even the DM doesn’t know how the plot will develop and can experience the story through the eyes of a player.
dungeon world rollenspiel dekoration

My doubts with Dungeon World

Most PBTA RPGs have very limited settings. A group of bomber pilots in World War Two, a team of doctors in the ICU, a pack of werewolves arguing about their hierarchy. The close relationship between the characters and the story in a limited setting massively help to build plot hooks and interesting conflicts. The story nearly writes itself. But Dungeon World is a fantasy setting. That means there are long travels to far away places and a ragtag group of heroes with spurious motivations for their travels. So I had my qualms about whether a plot in a PBTA style would develop in this setting, or if I’d have to help out as a DM by adding my own storylines.
I invested quite a bit of time in limiting this huge fantasy setting as much as possible and creating various story arcs. In my experience, it helps the players’ creativity if the story frame is well defined. Many Dungeon World DMs say that the story should develop entirely from the characters’ stories. That works well with standard fantasy settings or in one-shots. But I wanted an especially dark setting with many religious aspects. Relying entirely on the backgrounds from character development seemed too risky in my eyes. What follows now are the framework plots and setting ideas that I worked out in preparation for the round.

How I prepared our campaign

I wanted to limit the setting as much as possible, so that all places, NPCs and storylines are more interconnected. Here are few guidelines that I worked out together with my players.

The right tone for Dark Fantasy

We wanted it as dark and gritty as possible, which is why we chose an early medieval setting as a basis. Life is full of hardship, a dominant belief or order decides what is good and agreeable to God and what isn’t. The people are pious and superstitious. Magic is rare and decried as witchcraft. Heretics are burnt at the stake. The common folk isn’t very well-travelled and only knows their immediate area around their home town. There are no ground-breaking inventions yet that could somehow upheave the power structures of the aristocracy or the clergy (e.g. no gunpowder). Knowledge is passed on orally. Writing is rare and expensive.
Touchstones for our campaign’s atmosphere were: Uprooted (Naomi Novik), The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss), Princess Mononoke, Castlevania, Darkest Dungeon, Dark Souls, Blasphemous, Darkwood, The Last of Us, The Witcher

Rules hacks for a Dark Fantasy setting

The rules should augment the setting naturally. That’s why I included these four hacks of the original Dungeon World rules.

1. No bards

Bards are often goofy characters which are used for comic relief. This wouldn’t fit in with our campaigns style. That’s why I turned the bard into a “”vagabond”” and adjusted the rule book accordingly. Vagabonds are a mixture of travelling craftspeople and historians, who are greatly respected in the villages and towns. They have similar tasks to the bards’ historic models, but without the clownish aspect.

2. No healing spells

Without spontaneous healing out of nowhere, all fights become more risky and the injuries more painful. The stakes are raised, if I don’t have a cleric who can just act as a battery charger and heal up the whole team after each fight. This also supports the dark tone of the campaign. The cleric’s playbook thus becomes obsolete. So, we went without clerics and instead settled for paladins as the only holy warriors.

3. Magic comes at a price

Magic should be something rare and special in our setting. Performing it needs to be well thought-through. It won’t come for free. The mage therefore became a elemental summoner, who needs to call forth elementals and bind them, in order to perform magic with their help. This act is rather risky and can lead to exciting side effects. The idea comes from the Stormbringer RPG (Eric of Melniboné novels) and fits well into our campaign. Accordingly, the shapeshifter also faces several risks and possible complications, when using their shapeshifting move.

4. New races/cultures

Instead of the classic elves/dwarves/orcs, in our setting, we have humans, as well as these races:
Sylvani – the descendants of elves, a nomad people, who were expelled from their home by a putrefication and who are avoided by humans, as they might be working together with the sickness that haunts their former lands.
Nadragh – a race of servants created by humans, made subservient through chemicals and who are used for hard and unpopular work due to their physique.
dungeon world kampagne plot

Limitations for the setting

The play-to-find-out concept of PBTA RPGs works best in strictly defined settings. That’s why we severely limited the setting in which the player characters can act. The west of the empire is a hostile wasteland, polluted by a mysterious plague. The east of the realm is ruled by a militant religious order. The north and south are both unexplored wilderness.
This confines the plot to a manageably large swathe of land. It is a contested borderland ruled by quarrelsome lords. While the western part of the area has to deal with refugees from the polluted regions, the eastern section is infiltrated by a strict religious order that wants to gradually annex the area.

Dying Gods

As the historical background for the setting we established the fall of the old pantheon of gods. For (as yet) unknown reasons, the gods began to turn on each other. This cost one of them immortality, and where their remains hit the world, the mysterious plague spread year after year in the West.
A religious cult took the fall of the gods as an opportunity to proclaim their deity as the only true savior. Large sections of the common people defected to this order, which promised salvation in these difficult times. The remaining followers of the old deities became outcast heretics over the years. The Order had the temples of the old Gods razed to the ground and declared them unholy places.
This dark frame story offers our party many plot hooks and open endings to explore with Dungeon World’s play-to-finish-out concept. What are the followers of the old Gods up to? How does the fall of the Gods affect the world? For example, the Goddess of Fertility withdraws her blessing from the fields, leading to bad harvests and famine. What path will the order of the new God take when all lands are under its rule? We left it open which sides the player characters will take, and which parties are the good or the bad ones. This provides us with plenty of material for future storylines.
dungeon world spielleiter notizen

Adversaries and Campaign Plot

For our Session Zero, in which the group works out the details of the world, the foes and the overarching plot, I gave the players seven possible campaign plots to choose from. The storylines were not yet worked out in detail. I only provided some keywords and an approximate direction. In the “Allies of the Sylvani”, for example, the players would try to assist the descendants of the Elves and cleanse their lands of the mysterious plague. In the “Chosen by the Old Gods” the players would join the followers of the old Gods and try to stop the dwindling of the Gods from this world. In “Marked by the Plague”, you would enter the field on the side of the mysterious plague and ensure its spread while being hunted by the Order’s henchmen.
Depending on the choice of campaign actions, there is a very different dynamic between the parties in power. The fact that the parties’ attitudes and motivations are still completely open makes things very exciting for me as a DM, too.

Tips from Adam Koebel on running your Session Zero

To prepare our campaign and the session zero, the tips from Dungeon World co-author Adam Koebel were extremely helpful for me. In his video, he explains in one hour how he structures his one-shot sessions and how he develops the plot from the players’ ideas directly in the first game. His approach is ideal for a one-shot.

Our Session Zero

In our first session we worked out the overall setting, the characters with their background stories and set the overarching plot for the campaign, as well as some more individual character-focussed plot lines. Let’s take a look at how that worked out for us.

World Building – Creating the Setting

On game night, I was quite happy to have already established some of the conditions of the game world (the plague, the death of the Gods, the religious Order) with the players in advance. That way we didn’t have to start from scratch. From this basis, new ideas for the setting were constantly added by the players. Which races predominate, the geography of the land, who rules over the region, etc. We also established what the putrefaction in the West looks like, how people protect themselves from it, how the fear of it determines the everyday life of the common people.
For example, it turned out that city guards regularly check people for plague sores, that people shave their hair short, and that wood, as a carrier of plague is a very rare commodity in this world. In this way we also worked out the structure and influence of the militant order. There were only a few moments when the players had a creative block. That’s when my catalogue of questions helped. Questions like “why are people turning away from the old Gods?” or “who or what is leading the order?” then brought new momentum into our world building phase.
As a campaign plot, the players chose to be selected as warriors for the old Gods. But they also wanted to be marked by the putrefaction and hunted by the order. We designed this choice as a mini-game: Each player got a few glass stones with which they could bid on the respective frame plots. We still left the exact details of this mixture of different plots open. This is supposed to develop from session to session.
dungeon world charaktererstellung

Character creation

After the interesting but also exhausting world building, the character creation was just what we needed. Thanks to the cool selection lists on the playbooks (character sheets), the players were finished with their characters, including stats, appearance, equipment and a rough backstory in only 20 minutes.
Afterwards, we had a detailed question and answer session for each character to flesh out the background stories. In the process, we went through all the details that the players had previously chosen. What does your fighter’s magic sword look like? Who wielded it before you? How did you get your animal companion? How does your family feel about the fact that you are always travelling? You chose a noble family as your background – what noble families are there in this area? This is one of the absolute strengths of Dungeon World. In this section, the players can determine an extremely large number of details about the game world. And as DM, that gives me a lot of food for thought for future plots.
For example, one player chose that she came from a noble family that was wiped out by a rival noble house. I then asked her how this came about. She replied that the rival noble house followed the new faith (the order) while her family remained loyal to the old Gods. Through several intrigues, it then came to the fall of her own family. Naturally, some people are now looking for her. As the last survivor of her house, she still poses a certain risk for them. And there we had a new plot line, which was also linked to one of our campaign plots. Brilliant!
Two other players chose the Nadragh as the race for their characters. In doing so, they determined that the Nadragh were human-animal hybrids bred for various jobs. This is how the pig-like and the cattle-like Nadragh came into being. In keeping with the Dark Fantasy setting, the players decided that the Nadragh would be made docile by their masters via a treated tree resin. The human aspect of those who do not consume this “nectar” daily, fades away until only an empty shell remains.

Creating Gods and killing them

To conclude our Session Zero, each player had to create a deity for the game world. For this, I worked out my own God playbook in advance so that this step could be done quickly. That way, the players determined the powers and spheres of influence, names, offerings and the architecture of the temples of their deities.
Together, they then chose one of these four deities who had already forfeited her supernatural life. Selenya, the goddess of nature was chosen as the fallen Goddess. This suited us well in the campaign plot of the putrefaction. Because the sacred glades of Selenya thus became the breeding grounds of the putrefaction. How convenient for the plot!
dungeon world worldbuilding götter

Final Preparation Steps

With all the plot ideas and the elaborated setting, we were sufficiently prepared for the first session. For me as the DM, there was not much more to do. I created portraits for a few of the NPCs, and with the information from Session Zero I used the Wonderdraft map making tool to create a rough map of the area. Especially in narrative games, I like to have a setting map with me. It’s a visual aid that provides additional plot ideas and inspiration.
From all the storylines that the players provided during character creation and the world building in our first session, I was then able to help myself for the first game night. I came up with a plot for each of the four characters and linked them together as best I could.
1. One character has escaped from his master’s servitude and is now being hunted by bounty hunters.
2. A monster marked by putrefaction is terrorizing a nearby woodland.
3. Another character’s family is in the area and is in danger.
4. The wooded area is in the principality of a lord who is looking for heroes to take care of the monster. He recognizes the party’s fighter as a descendant of the disgraced noble house. We leave his reaction to her open for the game (play to find out).
spielrunde dungeon world pen & paper rollenspiel

Our first round of actual play

As a warm-up exercise we designed out the main location of the area together, the border town of Hayfalls. To do this, I asked several questions in Dungeon World style, and through the players’ answers, the town became more and more vivid. Finally, we had a very interesting setting that we could use as a starting point for the group’s adventures.
I presented the prepared plot hooks for the round to the players as a handout in the form of a noticeboard (similar to Witcher 3). From then on, the story for the evening developed by itself bit by bit. The preparation of Session Zero really paid off. First, the bounty hunters who were after the escaped Nadragh were driven away. Then the lord’s offer was accepted, who wanted the monster eliminated from his forest. Next, the characters paid a visit to family of the vagabond in the group. This was a particularly tense scene, as the family’s mother had been infected with the mysterious plague and was being hidden in the cellar from the Order’s witch hunters. Fittingly for the finale, the infested woodland was explored, and a mutated dire boar was hunted down. In the process, the characters themselves were scarred by the rot. Then, as they went to claim their reward from their employer, Lord Mulwen, he summoned a nearby band of holy knights from the Order to sit in judgment on the band of heroes. Why he did this, and how the matter ends, is something we have saved to be discovered in our next session.
pen & paper spielleiter thomas weinberger

Dungeon World works well for us

Of all the PBTA role-playing games, Dungeon World, with its “fantasy world” theme, has the least well-defined setting. So if you want to play more than a one-shot with it, it makes total sense to work out a few framework plots and peculiarities for the setting in advance. From this, a lot of plot ideas can be derived for the game rounds in combination with the character backstories.
All in all, a round of Dungeon World is still much less work than learning a prefabricated setting of a classic role-playing game and working out a purchased adventure module. You just need players who enjoy helping to shape the plot and improvise the occasional scene. In return, you will be rewarded with a story individually tailored to you and your group. It worked out great for us, and I’m already looking forward to the next sessions and plot surprises in our dark fantasy setting. Many thanks to my great players Nathalie, Dominik, Joni and Michael!

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Dungeon World Fantasy tabletop RPG, feels like D&D but comes with shared narration rights and indie game rules
Available on:
Publish date: Nov. 2012 Authors: Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel

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]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
The Most-Played Tabletop RPGs in 2021 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 04:18:12 +0000
Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

What are the most popular TTRPGs in 2021?

Want to know what the most popular roleplaying games are in 2021? We analyzed the monthly searches on Google for the most prominent RPG systems. Then we compared the results with the ORR Report from Roll20, which provides data about all games and sessions that have been played there. Here are the most-played tabletop RPGs from the first quarter of 2021.

Tabletop RPG search queries on Google

roll20 orr report tabletop rpgs

Roll20 ORR Report – % of played games

roll20 orr report tabletop rpgs

Tabletop RPGs divided by genre

tabletop rpg genres percentage

What’s the most popular tabletop RPG genre?

Medieval fantasy leads the chart for RPG settings with a share of 66%. That’s no big news, as D&D is the most popular system by far. Another 26% of the pie is shared by these other settings: Horror, Sci-fi, Cyberpunk and super heroes. That leaves roughly 8% for all other genres.
It’s quite impressive that 92% of all game sessions fall into these five main clusters. I myself did not expect Indie RPGs to be such a small part. Within the main genres, there are of course more sub-categories. Take Cthulhu and Vampire for instance. Both are part of the horror genre, but very different. (In one of them, you’re running away from monsters, in the other, the players are the monsters themselves.) Even the Fantasy genre has several distinguishable sub-categories like Epic, Low, Dark, Weird Fantasy and many more. But the general message from these figures is a clear one: Most players stay true to the classic RPG settings.

Where is this data from?

Monthly searches on Google

The monthly search volume shows how often people look for certain terms on Google. There’s a bunch of online marketing tools where you can get these figures: Google Ads Keyword Planer,, SEMRush, etc. We just fed these analysis tools with the names of the most popular tabletop RPGs and put the data in a spreadsheet. When you compare the absolute figures between the different tools, there’s a quite some variance. But the percentages and shares for each game are pretty much the same, no matter where you take the data from. This means that how often people searched for D&D in comparison to Pathfinder and Cthulhu is largely valid.

ORR Report from Roll20

Roll20’s ORR report is our second data source. They measured all games and sessions that have been played on Roll20 in the last quarter. This is super interesting, as they gathered real data. At first, I was unsure if the number of online games played is a valid representation of the whole community. The thing is, there are a lot of TTRPG gamers out there who are not playing online and are instead waiting for the end of the Covid19 pandemic. But these figures are pretty close to the ones we got from the analyzed searches (see above, data source 1). The share for the single RPG systems differs, but you see the same games among the top 10 positions. For more details check out the Roll20 blog.
Thanks to the Roll20 team, who allowed us to share there figures here.

D&D is the undisputed no. 1

D&D has been the top dog since the beginning of tabletop RPGs. The brand is so massive, people talk about “playing D&D” when they mean roleplaying games in general. If you ask four roleplaying gamers about their hobby, one will say, “I play roleplaying games,” while the other three will tell you that they “play D&D”. Additionally, the community behind D&D is huge. Celebrities are playing D&D, there countless Youtube channels about it, and it’s really easy to find a D&D group in your area.
dnd most popular tabletop rpg
The tabletop RPG hobby definitely owes a lot to D&D. It’s in the wake of D&D’s strong marketing that smaller systems gain access to new players. It’s D&D that most of us started playing RPGs with. But D&D’s power also has its downsides. It conveys a very specific image about roleplaying games: Epic fantasy, fighting monsters, and complex rule mechanics. If someone is interested in the hobby, but this mix does not appeal to them, there’s a high chance that they won’t try roleplaying or story games at all.

So, is D&D the best tabletop RPG?

D&D has been leading the charts as the most played RPG system for decades. Does this mean it’s the best tabletop RPG out there? Not necessarily. Of course, the massive community behind D&D and the immense selection of adventures and campaigns makes it a great system to start with. But there are many more modern tabletop RPGs offering the same great gaming experience with much easier and faster rules.
For example, Dungeon World offers the same fantasy RPG feeling as D&D. But it requires much less preparation time for the GM. And it facilitates including the players’ ideas into the plot to let them adjust the story as they want it to be, even during play.
dungeon world tabletop rpg
Moreover, some players don’t like the colorful epic fantasy world of D&D and its big share of tactical combat. For them, indie RPGs can be a great alternative. They cover so many different settings: Investigative, horror, intrigues, romance, wrestling or even telenovelas, you name it. For example, here is a list of all available indie systems with Powered by the Apocalypse rule mechanics and the settings they cover:

Why are two thirds of the most popular roleplaying games older than 30 years?

Wow, two thirds of the most-played RPGs are more than 30 years old! There’s not a single board or video game with such a long shelf life, aside from Settlers of Catan. This is true, even though around 100 new tabletop RPGs are being released each year. Why is that so? Here are a few theories:

1. Countless settings and adventures

The number of stories still waiting to be told is endless, though the rule mechanics might be outdated. But as long as they don’t stand in the way of the narration, they are good enough. True to the saying, “never change a running system”.

2. Nostalgia

New gamers usually start the RPG hobby with one of these classic, mainstream systems. And the first few years of roleplaying define what we expect from our game sessions. Most of us enjoy looking back on the good old times, when even simple stories and plots were fascinating, and things were still fresh and new (some call it “sense of wonder”). We long to return to those good memories. That’s why we tend to stick with the RPG system we played first.

3. The law of the market

Tabletop RPGs are an absolute niche market. Very few publishers earn a considerable amount of money from roleplaying books. And only those that earn money can afford advertising and marketing. That’s why the big RPG systems are much more popular and why new gamers come into contact with these games first. Which brings us back our first theory.

High-ranked non-fantasy tabletop RPGs?

The most popular non-fantasy systems are Shadowrun, Cthulhu, Star Wars, Vampire the Masquerade and Starfinder. All of them are dominating their respective genres unchallenged. Many people in RPG community regularly play one or two of them as secondary systems next to D&D. Apart from the cyberpunk setting, they reflect the most prominent genres from books and movies. What is well received there also works for roleplaying games. It’s real-life drama, comedy and romance that are a bit underrepresented in the RPG sphere. You’ll find these genres mainly as niche games or indie RPG systems.
indie rpg games pbta

Indie games – Insider tips you should know

Indie games are roleplaying games in less mainstream, a bit exotic settings that are printed in small batches. Swashbuckling adventures, Latin American telenovelas, fairytales, stories with animal characters, teenage dramas – these are just a few examples of settings indie games can provide. Additionally, they come with lightweight rules and a strong focus on narration.
If the big mainstream RPG settings seem too trite, or if their complex rule systems feel too inflexible for you, then you should definitely try out a few indie systems. Occasionally, we’ll review several indie systems on this blog. We also highly recommend the PBTA roleplaying games (Powered by the Apocalypse). Here’s a list of all available PBTA games and settings:

Have you got any other survey data?

Got any additional statistics about the most-played tabletop RPGs? Or would you like to share results from a survey on Facebook or Twitter? Then please post a link in the comments below. We’d really like to compare more statistics with ours to get a better impression of which roleplaying games are being played out there.

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]]> 10 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
Creating NPC Portraits with Fri, 05 Mar 2021 14:05:55 +0000

Creating NPC Portraits with

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

What is Artbreeder? is an impressive portrait and landscape image creation tool. Not only does it provide a few thousand different portraits, it also lets you edit them to a very high degree with easy-to-use sliders. You can change facial traits based on age, skin tone, and even emotional expressions. And this literally only takes a few seconds thanks to Artbreeder’s powerful image creation AI. Let’s review’s features and see if it can provide a new way of making NPC portraits for tabletop RPG sessions.
Note: All images shown here are screenshots from

Making your own portraits instead of searching for images

When preparing an NPC portrait or handout, you usually have a certain image of this character in mind. So far, you’ve had to use Google image search and Pinterest until you found a portrait that fit approximately what you envisioned the NPC to look like. You never got a perfect fit, though.
With Artbreeder, you can take any image you’ve found or pick one from the thousands of images they provide and adjust it until it matches how you want the NPC to look. There are over 30 attributes you can change, such as age, gender, skin tone, emotional expression, etc. No design skills needed. Need a portrait of a grumpy old wizard, but only have one of a smiling teenage mage apprentice? Simply adjust the “age” and “happy” attributes in Artbreeder and voilà! you’ve got yourself a cranky, wrinkled sorcerer. It takes only a few minutes.
artbreeder wizard npc portrait
Let’s take a look at the available editing options on

Crossbreed: Merging two portraits

The crossbreeding feature lets you merge two portraits into one. There are two slide controls that let you chose which of the “parent” images should be dominating when passing on facial traits or style to the “child” portrait. Here’s an example in which images of Daenerys Targaryen and Tony Stark have been merged into new portraits. In the first version, Tony’s style is dominating and Dany’s facial features are more present. In the second version, it’s the other way round.
artbreeder npc portraits crossbreed ttrpg
tabletop rpg npc portraits artbreeder

Children: Quickly creating variations

The children option is an on-the-fly way to create three new versions of an existing portrait. A single slider lets you choose how much the new portraits should differ from the original one. Here’s an example of Tony Stark’s three sons with the slider set to less similarity to the parent image. This does not even take a full minute.
artbreeder npc portraits for d&d

Genes: Customizing a single portrait

The third option for creating a custom portrait is called “edit-genes.” Genes stand for the 30+ facial traits you can adjust to style the portrait the way you want it to look. This is probably the most useful feature for GMs. Check out the example below. The Daenerys Targaryen portrait was altered with different gene modifications. For each of the new portraits, only one or two genes have been modified, which only took 30 seconds per image. This gives you a pretty good impression of what Artbreeder is capable of.

Custom genes: Modifications for fantasy race looks

If you want to create portrait images for non-human fantasy characters, such as elves, dwarves, or orcs, you will need to use custom genes. You can access them via the “add gene” button on the edit-genes screen. In the following overlay window, you can search for your desired look; for example, “dark elf.” Not all fantasy races are covered so far. It looks like these custom genes are being provided by other community members. Hopefully, there will be additional ones in the future. Here’s an example of a portrait adjusted with the dark elf gene modification.
artbreeder dark elf npc portrait
Want to learn more about creating and using NPC portraits for your game sessions? Check out our in-depth article on NPC portraits.

Creating landscape images

All of the above options also apply to making your own landscape images. Instead of editing facial traits, you can change attributes like the amount of light, the vegetation, the occurrence of trees and mountains, and so on. There’s a total of 21 available landscape modifications. Here’s an example of a landscape full of lava and how it can be transformed into new environments. Pretty impressive, huh?

The catch – Limited uploads and pricey subscriptions

For Artbreeder’s free version, there is a strict limit of three image uploads. And it looks like there is no way to free up these slots again after you’ve uploaded a file. From a GM’s perspective, that’s a pretty big turn-off. Because the easiest way to create an NPC portrait would be to take images from the web and adjust them in Artbreeder until they match what you’re looking for perfectly.
To get more uploads, you need to buy one of Artbreeder’s subscriptions. The “Starter Breeder” is their smallest package for $9 per month and it gets you 80 additional uploads. It’s unclear if this is a lifetime limit. As you can cancel and reactivate your subscription, we guess these 80 uploads are per month. A subscription also lets you restrict the visibility of your uploads on Artbreeder and enables high-res downloads of all images (but the screen resolution is usually good enough to print the images).
$9 per month looks like a fair price for professional visual artists and designers. But it seems rather pricey for hobby GMs. So, unless you’re a full-time professional GM charging for your services, you might want to stick with the free version without uploading your own images.
To the guys from Artbreeder: Please consider providing subscriptions for hobbyists without providing licenses to publish the images they create. This could be interesting for a lot of people.
artbreeder image editing pricing

Summary: A brilliant tool for making NPC portraits is a fantastic new tool for creating NPC portraits and landscape images for your tabletop RPG games. It’s mind-blowing how much you can adjust and fine-tune any given image to what you’re looking for. Additionally, it’s easy to handle and super-fast. We’re super hyped about Artbreeder and can’t wait to do a few test runs for our next few RPG adventures. We recommend you give it a try yourself. Let us know in the comments how it worked out for you.

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Artbreeder Portrait Creation Website
Lets you create high-quality portraits and landscape images with a powerful AI-tool, mostly for free

Available since: Sep. 2019

Pricing: Free and premium subscriptions

Recent Posts

]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
Mythos World – Cthulhu RPG with PBTA Rules Mon, 14 Dec 2020 14:14:06 +0000

Mythos World – Cthulhu RPG with PBTA Rules

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

What is Mythos World about?

Mythos World is a fresh interpretation of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Just like in the original version, the player characters are a group of investigators solving mysterious cases of murder and missing persons. The setting is the interwar period in the 1920s in our world. The antagonists are usually fanatic cultists and their global networks, who worship aeon-old gods with power beyond human imagination. Using the PBTA rules system, Mythos World delivers a new take on the Cthulhu Mythos setting: It partly moves narration rights to the players and it shifts the focus away from the story onto the player characters. In this review, we’ll take a look at how this works out.

The tone of Mythos World: Subtle horror

Mythos World clearly aligns its topics and content with the original Call of Cthulhu RPG and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. This means it delivers subtle horror, which is difficult to grasp through the course of the story. This horror will gradually be unraveled by the players’ investigations, inevitably leading to a big revelation in the finale. It makes for a special atmosphere, when cryptic lore found in old dusty tomes and vague hints from questionable informants finally merge into a dreadful complete picture, shaking the player characters’ view of the world to its core.
Doing research and connecting the dots are at the forefront of the game. The investigators need to keep a cool head, as some findings cannot be explained with rational thinking. There is clearly no emphasis on fighting monsters. Encounters with supernatural entities usually means one or more player characters will find a quick and gruesome end, as they are not super-heroes but characters from everyday life. Cthulhu scenarios are known for their high mortality rate. This stresses the dark tone of the setting.
mythos world rpg review

A short summary of the PBTA rules

PBTA rules differ from most other RPG systems in two aspects: (1) During character creation, you create very strong plothooks with the characters’ backstory and motivations and (2) the dice mechanics allow players to alter the story progress. Let’s take a look at what this means.

1. Character-focused stories

When creating your characters in a PBTA game, you spend a lot of time defining their goals and motivations. What drives a character to plunge headlong into dangerous investigations? What do they want to achieve? The PBTA rules provide a list of atmospheric motivations and passions for each character class. This leads to great plothooks for the GM. Here’s an example: One of the players picks the passion, “My job is to tell the stories no one else will” for her Journalist character. This gives the GM a hint to include stories about fringe groups.

2. The dice rolls carry the story forward

Huge parts of the story in PBTA games are developed during play. This concept is called “Play to find out”. For each dice roll, there are three possible outcomes.
a) Phenomenal success: The action succeeds. Additionally, the story takes a favorable turn for the players. They can choose from a list of benefits.
b) Barely a success: The action succeeds. Additionally, troubles in the story result from it. The players choose from a list of complications.
c) Fail: The GM decides, how the situation turns out. This often means more problems for the players.
Here’s an example of the rules for the move, “Search for Something”.

mythos world pbta rpg move
“Play to find out” is a core concept for most PBTA games. It gives the player more narration rights and relieves the GM of a lot of preparation work. Of course, all players should have some improvisation skills to make this work. The cool thing about this is that even the GM will be surprised by the outcome of the story. Instead of being the main entertainer or facilitator for the game, the GM gets experience the story as a player to a certain degree.

Layout and contents of the book

Mythos World has a clean and functional layout. Like for most indie games, there is no big budget for illustrations or perfect design. But overall, I think the crew behind Mythos World did a good job with the resources that were available to them. The images and layout of the book don’t really match the high quality of the overall system. The book is definitely well structured and it’s easy to find what you need, even during play.
If you speak German, then consider yourself lucky, as German publisher System Matters did a German version of Mythos World with a completely new layout and their own illustrations. It’s a real gem. Check it out here:

Why do we need another RPG system for Cthulhu?

The original “Call of Cthulhu” might have aged well thanks to its simplistic rules. But many of its scenarios are rather linear and based on a recurring plot structure. They always start off with a mysterious incident, then the players search for clues to reveal what’s going on. Finally, they need to sabotage a foul occult ritual in the finale. To make this three-act structure work, the GM usually needs to do a lot of preparation and the players need to go along with this kind of story arc.
This is where the PBTA systems use a different approach. The scenarios to have rigged beginning, but afterwards, there is no predetermined plot. Instead, the GM gets a building kit with these three parts: (a) a roughly outlined setting, (b) a list of mysterious happenings and risks the players have to face, and (c) a set of clues. Now, if you combine bits of each of the three categories with the plothooks and relationships from character creation and also throw in the outcomes of the dice rolls (see above), you get a convincing and exciting story. Even though three quarters of the story is improvised, this system works surprisingly well. Additionally, there is a lot of player buy-in, as the GM shares narration rights with them. Providing rule mechanics that combine all these moving parts into an atmospheric story during play is a great feat.
I was very skeptical when I first heard about these PBTA mechanics, but after playing several PBTA sessions, I am a big fan now. Just from reading, I could not understand why there was such muhc hype around PBTA games. That’s why I can only recommend participating in a PBTA game as a player to try it out.
mythos world tabletop rpg illustration

Does Lovecraftian horror work with an improvised story?

For me, the best Cthulhu adventure are those that manage to scare or unsettle the players themselves and not just their characters. I like it when the players are initially confused by all the clues and what’s going on in the story. And then all those moving parts finally merge together, maybe after a clever twist, to form a shocking revelation. By the way, this is only true for about 10% of all published Call of Cthulhu scenarios.
Can Mythos World deliver such brilliant twists and surprises? I don’t think so. To get there, you need a well-orchestrated plot with precisely timed scenes, which usually needs a lot of preparation and is pretty hard to improvise. Can Mythos World provide the Cthulhu Mythos feeling for the remaining 90% of the published scenarios? Yes, definitely. And it does so with little preparation work for the GM and also with high player buy-in. But for this you need to accept that the plot’s secrets are not hidden by the GM behind his screen. Instead the twists and turns of the story come from having everyone at the table pitch in their ideas.
That’s why I doubt that Mythos World can replace the classic Call of Cthulhu RPG. But it provides a clever new approach to the genre, which makes the Cthulhu Mythos setting more accessible for people who find the traditional rule system too rigid or dislike plots with a lot of railroading.

Buy Mythos World on

You can get Mythos World here as a as a pdf for $8:

(We’re not getting paid to promote Mythos World. We’re just big fans of PBTA games)

Using Call of Cthulhu scenarios for Mythos World

There is a large number of scenarios for the classic Call of Cthulhu RPG from Chaosium. Can you play those with Mythos World, too? The answer is yes, if you adapt them a little. The classic CoC adventures are characterized by a middle section (the investigation), in which the clues can only be found at predetermined, fixed locations; the occult tome lies in the closed-off section of the library, the informant only reveals herself as soon as the players have scared off the mafia bagmen, and so on.
Here, Mythos World needs a bit more flexibility. To make the improvised plot work, there needs to be more than one single way to find certain clues; e.g. the ancient tome can be found not only in the library, but also at the antiquarian bookshop or on the local black market. Sure, you could call this hand waving or even cheating. I’d rather call it a “kind concession” toward the players to keep the flow of the story running and to anticipate frustrating cul-de-sacs. With this kind of flexibility, Mythos World provides a great gaming experience since the players can influence the course of the story according to what they would like to see.

A trial run with editor-in-chief Stefan Droste

Here, Mythos World needs a bit more flexibility. To make the improvised plot work, there needs to be more than one single way to find certain clues; e.g. the ancient tome can be found not only in the library, but also at the antiquarian bookshop or on the local black market. Sure, you could call this hand waving or even cheating. I’d rather call it a “kind concession” toward the players to keep the flow of the story running and to anticipate frustrating cul-de-sacs. With this kind of flexibility, Mythos World provides a great gaming experience since the players can influence the course of the story according to what they would like to see.
mythos world rpg online session
At this year’s 3W6 online convention I got lucky enough to nab a seat at a Mythos World session hosted by Stefan Droste, the editor-in-chief for the German adaption of Mythos World. The character creation part was already great fun, as we were able to influence the scenario by choosing our character motivations and passions. The story was about a meteorite that struck a field at the edge of town. One player picked the Farmer profession, so the meteorite crashed in one of his fields. The following adventure was really exciting.
The feedback after play was very positive, too. We all said that the story felt like a classic Call of Cthulhu adventure, but parts of it seemed to be a bit linear. I was pretty surprised when the GM told us that he had not prepared a storyline. Instead, the plot had developed during play by our actions and dice roll results. His job was only to guide us from one scene to the next. It was very impressive to see that “play to find out” also works with the Cthulhu Mythos setting.

Mythos World vs. Tremulus

mythos world versus tremulus comparison
Aside from Mythos World, there is a second PBTA adaption of the Call of Cthulhu RPG called “Tremulus.” Both systems were published in 2015 and, at their core, their contents are 70% alike. In online communities and forums, people always ask which one is better. Here is a comparison of the advantages and drawbacks of both systems.
Mythos World
Layout and structure ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Basic layout, well-structured and easy to read, black and white, illustrations are stock-images from the 1920s.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Basic Layout, structure could be improved, black and white, illustrations are minimalistic.
Game mechanics ★ ★ ★ ☆
Well-structured explanations, good introduction to the PBTA play style.
★ ★ ★ ☆
Well-structured explanations, good introduction to the PBTA play style.
Character generation ★ ★ ★ ☆
Many character classes, character moves are explained well, includes character motivations, which provide plothooks for the GM.
★ ★ ★ ☆
Many character classes, character moves are explained well, unfortunately, no character passions (motivations) provided.
GM tips and adventure creation ★ ★ ☆ ☆
GM tips section is rather short, needs a lot of prior knowledge about running Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Focus lies on “Play to find out” and sharing narration rights.
★ ★ ★ ☆
Long chapter on GM tips for horror scenarios, detailed adventure building kit providing plothooks, NPCs and Cthulhu Mythos aspects.
Ready-made scenarios ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Three very short scenarios, kept simple to suit “Play to find out”. Solid run-off-the-mill Cthulhu adventures.
★ ★ ★ ☆
A single high quality setting with many optional plotlines. Explains how the scenario building kit works. Good compromise between dramatic composition and player involvement.
So which one is better? That depends on your personal preferences and your style of play.

Tremulus provides a good compromise between a prepared plot and storylines that are improvised with the players during the game session. So it’s not a full-fledged “Play to find out” storygame. That makes it a good choice for GMs who still want to retain a certain amount of control over the plot. On top of that, it has a really helpful scenario building kit. And because it comes with a comprehensive chapter on how to GM Cthulhu-related adventures, Tremulus is a good fit for GMs who are less experienced with the setting.

Mythos is a genuine story game, where the story is created during play and narration rights are shared between the GM and the players. Its rules offer a really good link between player character motivations and the plot. But it requires the GM to have more prior knowledge about the Cthulhu Mythos setting. Its GM tips section is rather short and the included scenarios are mainly geared toward veteran Cthulhu GMs, who are able to link the lists of clues and NPCs with the inputs from the players to generate a well-rounded story.
There is no real winner here. As a fan of both the Cthulhu setting and PBTA games, I bought both RPGs because the PDF versions don’t cost a fortune. I usually combine the character creation from Mythos World with the adventure building kit from Tremulus to get the best of both worlds.
mythos world rpg pbta

Summary: A brilliant new take on the Cthulhu RPG genre

Mythos World delivers a great new take on the Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying game. The character backstories are more intricately woven into the plot, and there is more player buy-in thanks to the shared narration rights. Additionally, the GM can enjoy story twists and turns from their own players’ perspective thanks to the “play to find out” concept of the PBTA rules. There might be some difficulty when trying to use the Mythos World rules for classic Cthulhu scenarios with complex stories and planned twists. The high degree to which the stories are being improvised comes with the risk of the carefully laid out plot derailing at some points. Depending on your group’s play style and preferences, this can either be a blessing or a curse. Still, I’d strongly recommend buying Mythos World (or Tremulus) for any GM fond of Call of Cthulhu scenarios.

You can buy Mythos World here:

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Mythos World RPG
Author: Russel Brown
Release Date: August 2015
Pages: 164
Themes: Lovecraftian horror, cosmic horror, investigation, mystery, 1920s

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]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
GM Screens – My Guilty Pleasure Mon, 16 Nov 2020 14:15:08 +0000
Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

GM Screens are my no. 1 tabletop RPG accessory

When you’re seriously into a hobby, you tend to buy a lot of accessories for it. PC gamers have high-performance PCs, larpers own an extensive wardrobe full of authentic costumes, and tabletop roleplaying fans usually have a lot of dice. Me, I’m very much into GM screens instead of dice. Over the years, I’ve collected a small but exquisite selection of them. And since I play indie games such as the PBTA systems, I also build most of them myself. Want to know more about why I fancy GM screens and which showpieces I own? Then check out this article.

Why we use GM screens

First off, because they look cool! They’re an eye-catcher at the gaming table and indicate who the GM is. Additionally, they serve as a divider panel to hide notes and handouts from the players’ eyes. They work similarly to the curtains at the theater, concealing all technical gear and other items to keep the stage design free from distractions. In this way, the GM screen indirectly contributes to the atmosphere of your session.
I also like to use the GM screen as a mount for image handouts and NPC portraits (learn more about NPC portraits here). And on the backside, I attach notes about the plot, the timeline, and also cheat sheets for special rules. That’s how the GM screen helps me keep my GM workspace tidy.
behind the gm screen rpg

Buy them or make them yourself

For popular tabletop RPGs, such as D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and Shadowrun, there’s a huge selection of different GM screens available in stores. They are solidly built, show great front designs, and can be bought at reasonable prices. For about $20 to $40 they are a really good deal. The material costs of self-made screens are also around $20 to $40 for cardboard, printing, and protective film. So why build a GM screen yourself?
There are two reasons to make your own GM screens:
a: You’re looking for a GM screen for an RPG system that has no screen available for purchase. That’s the case for nearly all indie games or PBTA systems.
b: You want to have a unique design or use an extravagant material for your GM screen, which is not available elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve collected both store-bought GM screens and custom-made GM screens. We’ll take a look at them below.
call of cthulhu rpg gm screen

4 criteria to consider when buying a GM screen

1. Durability

Even the most stylish GM screen won’t make you happy if it doesn’t survive being transported in a bag or backpack. Pay attention to sturdy material and also the hinges to make sure your GM screen will last for several game sessions.

2. Size

The most common measurements are three letter-size (or A4) pages in portrait or landscape orientation. But I’d advise against portrait-oriented GM screens. They hide too much of the GMs upper body. It’s better to choose a GM screen that lets your players properly see your body language and gestures.

3. Design

Epic fantasy, flashy steampunk, gloomy sci-fi, or just a minimalistic style. Pick a design that fits your campaign and scenario settings.

4. Price

Off-the-shelf GM screens cost about $20 to $40. For extravagant custom-made designs, you will probably pay a premium between $150 to $200. I’d only invest in such expensive GM screens if you can use them often enough. This is true if you and your group stick with a single RPG for a long time, or if the design is universal enough to fit different settings.
degenesis tabletop rpg gm screen

Why I make my own custom GM screens

The main reason is that I’ve GMed a lot of systems lately where there are no GM screens available. I played a lot of Monsterhearts, The Sprawl, and Dungeon World, and there is no official GM screen for any of them. I would not want to GM without a screen, and a generic screen with a universal design would not feel right for me. I want to have a screen with an on-point design that fits the setting. I’m probably a bit picky when it comes to this 😉
Besides, I enjoy making props and tinkering, which includes making custom GM screens. It also helps to work for a company that manufactures laser cutters. We may occasionally use them for practice, and I often end up making a new GM screen from either wood, acrylic, or metal.

GM screens I’ve bought

Here’s a gallery with all the GM screens I’ve bought over the last 15 years. For Call of Cthulhu I’ve even bought several, which I use depending on the scenario and setting of the session.

GM screens I’ve made myself

These self-made GM screens are the real eye-catchers in my collection. See the details below about the materials I’ve used to make them and when I use them.

GM screen for Cthulhu Now and 10 Candles

Materials: Cardboard, adhesive book cover film

GM screen for Warhammer Skaven campaign

Materials: Cardboard, plastic film, goatskin

GM screen for The Sprawl, Mark I

Materials: Laser cut and engraved acrylic, backside painted with acrylic color

GM screen for The Sprawl, Mark II

Materials: Anodised aluminum, laser engraved, magnetic film on the backside

GM screen for Monsterhearts

Materials: Walnut wood, white paint, laser engraved

GM screen for Dungeon World

Materials: Birch wood, UV printed, design from “Darkest Dungeon”

GM screen for Dungeon World

GM screen for Degenesis (post-apocalyptic RPG)

GM screen for Middle Earth RPG (MERP)

Materials: Coated MDF, wooden hinge design via special laser cutting technique

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]]> 0 Office Hours Episode 81 - All About Dungeon World nonadult
Why my heart beats for Monsterhearts Tue, 01 Sep 2020 13:08:51 +0000

Why my heart beats for Monsterhearts

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

What is Monsterhearts about?

Monsterhearts is a roleplaying game by Avery Alder focusing on the daily lives and struggles of high school teenagers in our time. It’s about emotionally unstable characters trying to learn who they are while being stressed out by hormones going wild, peer pressure, and their changing bodies. Monsterhearts deals with topics like first love, classroom rivalries, your reputation amongst peers, social marginalization, queerness, and coming of age. And to spice things up even more, every character has a monstrous side to them. This dark nature grants them special powers, but also influences their behavior and way of thinking.
Monsterhearts uses the PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse) rules system. This is a rules-light, low-preparation system that gives players a lot of say in how the story of a game session develops. PBTA is a great fit for Monsterhearts, as it leans strongly toward a narration-heavy play style.

What a typical Monsterhearts story looks like

Imagine Brad, the high school’s star quarterback. He’s secretly in love with Christopher from the drama club, but afraid to out himself because of his ultra-conservative parents. Brad maintains a sham relationship with Stella from the cheerleader squad, whose true boyfriend is Cho, an emo kid with a knack for witchcraft. Things get out of hand when Cho urges Brad to come clean, so he and Stella can have a normal relationship. Brad’s werewolf side gets the better of him when he slams Cho into a locker. Things get even more out of control when Cho lays a curse on Brad to force him to speak the truth every time he opens his mouth for the next 24 hours.

The tone of Monsterhearts: Emotional drama, teenage angst, and bleed

Stories in Monsterhearts revolve around teenage angst. The characters are often confronted with intense social situations, but are having trouble with dealing with them because of their young age and their raging hormones. Saving face in front of the class, trying to ask somebody out, standing up to a bully – every social interaction is a minefield. Stressed by their insecurities, they often overreact and insult others, get depressed, or resort to violence. Their monstrous nature makes things even worse, as it pushes them to more extreme reactions.
A lot of us went through a difficult time as we grew up into adulthood. Monsterhearts lets you tap into those memories and re-experience the emotional drama of high school life and puberty. This can range from social exclusion to learning about one’s true self and also a changing sexual orientation. As these are very sensitive topics, having them in the game can affect not only the player characters but the players themselves. This phenomenon is called “bleed”.
monsterhearts rpg decoration posters
For example, if a player character is flirting with another one in the story, this might make the players at the table feel uncomfortable. Especially with love and romance being rather rare topics in most tabletop RPG sessions, things can get uncomfortable fast.
Because of these topics, it’s crucial to check in with your group regularly to make sure everyone feels safe and okay with the subject and tone of your Monsterhearts game session. See below for details on safety tools.

The tone of Monsterhearts: Emotional drama, teenage angst, and bleed

Check out these two great actual play videos to learn how Monsterhearts works in practice.
GM: Kira Magrann
Critical Role
GM: Matthew Mercer

Inspiration and touchstones for Monsterhearts

To prepare for GMing Monsterhearts, I read a bunch of teenage drama books and watched several TV series. Here are the ones that really stood out for me:
13 reasons why netflix

13 reasons why (Netflix series)

A girl in her sophomore year commits suicide. Before doing so, she records her thoughts and emotions about 13 peers who were close to her. One of them drove her to this act. A tense and dark story, perfect on for Monsterhearts. Includes many different characters and plotlines. Season one is highly acclaimed, but I can’t vouch for the other ones.

serpent king teenage novel

The Serpent King (Novel, by Jeff Zentner)

Three interwoven plotlines about three very different teenagers from a rural Tennessee high school. Angsty and depressive, it delivers brilliant material for a Monsterhearts campaign.

the list teenage angst novel

The List (Novel, by Siobhan Vivian)

Every year, a list is posted all over Mount Washington high school with two girls from each grade. One is named the prettiest, one the ugliest. The List comes with eight linked stories about these girls and their thoughts and feelings about being nominated. Their characters are described authentically and in great detail, with great inner monologues giving insight into the thoughts of high school teenagers.

There are no good or bad guys in Monsterhearts

With Monsterhearts, there is no big plot the players try to solve as a group. Instead, the story develops organically from their daily lives and struggles. There may be a rival trying to embarrass you in front of the class, or maybe a character has a crush on the boyfriend of their best friend. Or maybe your parents plan to send you to military school because of your anger issues. Take these plot points and connect them with some NPC relations and voilà, you have a plot.
The story jumps from scene to scene, with not all player characters being present all of the time. Like in many TV drama series, where a handful of main characters follows different plotlines, all of which are connected.
There is no big bad villain, whose plans the players try to thwart. The player characters are the main trouble makers here, who progress the story with their own issues. They are causing problems and conflicts because they act out of passion, malice, or insecurity. There’s a lot of grey areas here. The same character might be the nice well-behaved girl in the first row on one day, and a blood-hungry werewolf the next day, just to regret the fallout of their actions afterward.
monsterhearts rpg character sheet

Play it safe – use safety tools

As the topics of Monsterhearts are very delicate and personal, it’s an absolute must to use safety tools. The minimum should be to use an X-card. With this, everyone at the table can signal which topics should be skipped, because they feel uncomfortable about them. Additionally, I recommend asking players before the start of the game or campaign if any subjects are no-goes for them. With this in mind, the GM can avoid these topics in the session preparation. That’s easier than having to shut down a plot point during the session and having to improvise a new one on the fly.

Having defined no-go topics before play and an X-card on the table as a safety switch, you’re good to go. There are additional safety tools like checking in with your players during the game or a debrief at the end. For a more comprehensive look on different ttrpg safety techniques check out this GM tips article.

Why so dark? Other ways to play Monsterhearts

While I prefer Monsterhearts to be dark, angsty, and full of conflicts between the player characters, there are several other possible ways to enjoy the game. Some Monsterhearts campaigns have an external threat or villain the players need to team up against. Or maybe you want to add a longer investigative part to it, like a conspiracy the player characters need to uncover. Monsterhearts can also be played in a variety of different settings beyond the traditional contemporary high school. Imagine a boarding school, a summer camp, or even a Lovecraftian campaign in 1920s Kingsport, you name it. Make it your game and pick whatever style you and your players like best.
monsterhearts generating npcs classroom

The reason why Avery Alder is a genius

Teenage angst is the topic at which Monsterhearts really shines. It comes with different facets, such as uncontrolled anger, a feeling of loneliness, extreme dependency on others, etc. These emotions are usually inner struggles that a character must face. In order to create conflicts, drama, and plot hooks, you need to make them visible and tangible between the players. To facilitate this, Avery created playbooks revolving around these emotional issues. Here are some examples:
The Werewolf is all about anger issues. She wants to assert dominance as the most physically strong student in the class, as well as establish and defend her territory. She won’t accept others challenging her status and if her inner monster takes over, she’ll respond with violence. A lot of violence.
The Ghost is about being ignored and overlooked. With his shy personality, he’s struggling to have others notice him and win their affection. But the harder he tries, the more he’s distancing himself from others. Until his inner monster makes him hurt others to get their attention.
All the playbooks translate a certain aspect of teenage angst into pure escalation. What a brilliant mechanic to arrange for drama in the game! And it’s also beautifully interwoven with the game’s setting of teenage urban fantasy. This is what makes Monsterhearts so outstanding. Somebody give Avery a medal.

Get your copy of Monsterhearts now!

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(We’re not getting paid to promote Monsterhearts.
It’s just a really, really great roleplaying game)

Why I fell for Monsterhearts

Because of everything I said before and because I like the teenage high school drama setting. It’s a very specific cosmos, and there aren’t a lot of pen and paper RPGs out there doing as fine a job as Monsterhearts.
I enjoy Monsterhearts’ focus on conflicts and dilemmas.
I can relate to a lot of the teenage angst issues covered in the game, because I had a difficult time too back then. And I do like the bleed and awkwardness that result from this.
Shortly before reading the Monsterhearts pdf, I watched “13 Reasons Why” which I really enjoyed.
It was my first PBTA game and it massively change my GMing style. To be honest, I had to read it three times and experience it as a player once, before I fully understood how it works. But then it really clicked. Sharing narration rights is incredibly cool in Monsterhearts. And as a GM, without a fixed plot, I get surprised by dice rolls or choices the players make and their effects on the plot.
There’s just one tiny point of negative feedback from me: The images and layout of the book don’t really match the high quality of the overall system. I do like the few illustrations that are in the book, but I would love to see five times as many. I guess it’s because Monsterhearts is an indie system, which just does not yield enough budget for more illustrations. Okay, I can live with that. A great game with only a few images is better than a terrible game with fantastic illustrations.
monsterhearts rpg setting generation

What I learned from 10 sessions of Monsterhearts

A – You need a special group of players to make it work
You will need to be looking for players who are interested in this teenage high school drama setting. Usually this means players who are 30+ years old. For younger players, Monsterhearts is often “too close to home,” meaning not enough years have passed since their time in high school to make it interesting for them. Additionally, you need players interested in having control of the narrative and having fun with actively shaping the story instead of only experiencing it (which is true for all PBTA games).
I also found that the players should be familiar with each other. Diving into the emotional topics of Monsterhearts requires a fair amount of trust between the players, which is usually lacking, if they haven’t played a game with each other before (e.g. at conventions).
B – It’s not a game for one-shots
Monsterhearts is ideally played over three to six sessions. The first session is for generating characters and the setting. The second session is a test run. It’s the third session where Monsterhearts really uses its full potential, when you can develop the story based on the players’ actions and decisions from the session before.
I had to learn this the hard way. I did two convention games with Monsterhearts and tried to cram in character and setting generation as well as three hours of play into a five-hour slot. Those five hours were way too short for the players to get used to their characters and at the same time develop a player-driven story. We did have drama, but it felt forced by the plot and did not feel as authentic as when built up over a session or two.
monsterhearts tabletop rpg session

Summary: If you like high school drama, play Monsterhearts

I love Monsterhearts, both as a player and as a GM. Yes, it is a very specific setting for a small target audience. But if you and your group are into emotional drama, conflicts between players, and the high school setting, paired with a bit of urban fantasy, I absolutely recommend giving Monsterhearts a try. It’s an absolute gem and my favorite RPG system of 2019 and 2020.
Check out Monsterhearts and other roleplaying games from Avery Alder here:

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Monsterhearts 2 RPG
Author: Avery Alder
Release Date: June 2017
Pages: 175
Themes: Teenage angst, high school, emotional drama, urban fantasy

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8 reasons for going to a tabletop RPG convention Sun, 30 Aug 2020 13:18:56 +0000

8 reasons for going to a tabletop RPG convention

Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby.

Why tabletop roleplaying conventions are amazing

A weekend full of roleplaying game sessions is like an awesome short holiday. You get to try out new games, meet new people, and hang out with old friends while talking about one of the greatest hobbies out there. RPG conventions have been on the rise in the last few years. Sure, there have been megaevents like GenCon in Indianapolis, USA, or the Roleplay Conventions in Cologne, Germany for years. But there has been a recent rise in smaller events such as online conventions or roleplaying game areas as side events to big comic cons. So here are 8 reasons why attending a tabletop RPG convention is a great idea.

1. Try out new games

Conventions usually host many game sessions with a wide array of different systems. You can try out the hottest new indie games or any old school system you haven’t played yet. You even get a live rules explanation as well. What better way is there to check out new games and settings? Sure, you can watch actual play videos, but playing a character in a live game gives you a much richer experience. You can also talk to the GM after the session and ask them for their experience with the new game.
This also offers a welcome break for all those GMs who spend most of their time running sessions and never get to play themselves. I often go to conventions to find new one-shot scenarios and adventures I can play with my group at home. This gives me the opportunity to experience the scenarios as a player, which offers great insights on how to run them.
try out new tabletop rpg

2. Learn tricks from other GMs

Playing with new GMs is a great source of inspiration for me. Every GM has their own style and set of tricks. Some focus on amazing handouts, some do brilliant NPC acting, others are masters of improvising plots from player character backstories. It’s so refreshing to see how others do it. And experiencing GMs first-hand from a player perspective has a much bigger impact than just talking to them about what they do. I personally get a lot of ideas from playing with new GMs at RPG conventions. I’ve learned pacing from watching other GMs, and I like to copy great NPCs from others, too.
advice for tabletop rpg game masters

Looking for tips on how to GM at conventions? Check out this article: GMing at Conventions

3. Play roleplaying games with complete strangers

It’s such a thrill playing roleplaying games with people I’ve never met before. With your home group or friends you can usually tell how they’ll play their characters and act in certain situations. But at a convention, you get to sit down and play with a group of strangers. You never know how they are going to react to the threats or conflicts within a story. Regardless of whether I’m the GM or on the player side – it’s always exciting to play a tabletop RPG session with people I’m not familiar with. This is especially true for games with a strong share of narration rights for the players. This includes most indie or PBTA systems and also freeform games. Getting to know each other as part of the game is something I really enjoy.
convention rpg session

4. Get to know new people from the community

Tabletop roleplaying conventions are great for meeting new people. You can make friends with members of the community, find a new GM or additional players for your home group, or even talk to some “celebrities”. Have a chat with the author of your favorite roleplaying game, talk to publishers who have a booth at the convention, or meet YouTubers and bloggers to discuss their latest content. Years ago, I met one of the players in my regular group (hey there, Carmen :D) by accident at a convention 700 kilometers away, where she told me that she was just a 20-minute drive away from where I live. Don’t miss out on such great opportunities to meet new people like this one.

5. Hang out with old friends who live far away

Made friends with people at a faraway convention? Or did you get to know someone in an online game session who lives in another country? Chances are high that you might not see them face-to-face for a while, so this is also a good reason to go to large regional conventions. Seeing all those friends again who live too far away to casually visit for a weekend will feel amazing. It’s great to catch up with old friends over a beer or coffee and talk about the games they’ve played since you last met up.
tabletop rpg convention game

6. Play freeforms and larps with big groups

Looking for a bunch of super motivated players in one spot to do a big freeform or larp game? Then go to a roleplaying convention. It can be difficult to organize a freeform or mini-larp with 10+ players and a location on your own. But at a convention, everything you need comes together naturally. I’ve had so many extraordinary freeforms at cons, it’s amazing. A masquerade ball in 1920s Arkham, being a passenger on the Hindenburg airship, aboard the Titanic, or at a psytrance festival, just to name a few.
horror pen and paper rpg freeform

7. Enjoy a short holiday and travel

Sometimes it’s just about getting a few days off from your daily routine. A tabletop RPG convention is a great reason to travel, enjoy a road trip with good friends, see new locations, and meet new people. And don’t forget the anticipation of an upcoming con. Months before an event I enjoy being part of con Facebook groups, reading the latest news from the organizers, watching the participant list fill with familiar names, see the timeslot board fill up with all the great games, and so on.

Looking for tabletop RPG conventions in your area? Check out this convention calendar: Convention Schedule

Know of any other useful convention calendar websites? Let us know in the comments.

8. Networking

Want to pitch your newest idea for a roleplaying game to a publisher? Fancy talking to a YouTuber from the scene? Want to find GMs for your own RPG event? Chances are high that you’ll meet them at one of the bigger roleplaying game conventions, because events like these are great for networking. Buy them a coffee and have a chat with them. Play it cool, don’t be too pushy, and people will open up. Or if you get the chance, play a game with them. I got to know some of the coolest people in the community by participating in one of their game sessions.
networking at tabletop rpg convention

Bonus: Do some shopping

The big conventions usually have a few shops at the venue. They’re a great opportunity to buy that new game you have just been dying to play. Or go fetch some souvenirs like a new set of dice or that shiny GM screen. Make sure to check their stands, because there are often some great deals or rare tomes to be found at conventions.

Summary: I love going to pen and paper RPG conventions

Tabletop RPG conventions are just great. Get out there, play new games, meet new people, and hang out with old friends. Talk about the greatest hobby on the planet. I just wish there were more conventions every year 🙂

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Über mich

About me

Hi, I'm Thomas, a tabletop RPG enthusiast since 1994. Currently I'm very much into indie and story games. My goal is to support other GMs with advice and inspiration for this great hobby. tabletop RPG blog

We’re finally live!, a blog for pen and paper RPG gamemasters and storytellers, went online in August 2020. From now on we’ll be providing you with GMing advice, reviews and news from the tabletop RPG scene. The focus of dramadice will be on story-heavy, rules-light RPGs and indie systems. But rest assured, most of the topics we cover apply to traditional roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons too. There’ll be new posts every 3-4 weeks. So make sure to drop by regularly or follow us on social media for the latest updates.

GM tips + blog + wiki is split up into these sections:

GMing advice

Tips and inspiration for new and veteran GMs. Look out for topics such as how to create immersion, game session preparation, making handouts, etc. We’ll also cover inter-personal issues like how to handle toxic players or balancing spotlight between the players. Read more…


The blog section will provide news, system reviews and game session recaps with a considerable amount of private opinion. We want to keep the blog section personal, to give you an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. Read more…

RPG Wiki

What is OSR or PBTA? What does pacing or bleed mean? We’ll explain these and more RPG-related technical terms and buzzwords in the wiki-section. Read more…

Why another blog about pen and paper RPGs?

On the web there are hundreds of good blogs and threads in forums and social media groups about how to be a “good GM”. They are super fragmented. And often they’ll leave you with a lot of different tips and opinions about a subject. But specific recommendations about which tricks and techniques work best in reality are rather rare.
This is where we try a different approach. We are going to scan all the storytelling tips out there in discussions, blogposts and podcasts, and also talk to the most experienced GMs in the tabletop RPG scene. We’ll then take this knowledge and share it in high quality articles about specific GMing topics. Not only are we giving you a broad spectrum of tips. We’ll also tell you which of them is worth spending time on. How complex is it to make a certain prop? How much time should I invest into preparing background music? What will have the biggest impact on your games? These are just some of the points we’ll be focussing on here.
Why do we do all this? Because we love pen and paper roleplaying games and the whole TTRPG community. It’s most likely the best hobby on Earth 🙂
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Who is behind all of this?

Hey there, this is me, Thomas. Tabletop RPGs are my favourite hobby. I am fascinated by this unique mix of storytelling, creativity and playing a game at a table with good friends. I’ve been playing pen and paper rpgs for over 20 years now, most of the time behind the GM screen. What I enjoy most is interesting characters, conflicts of interest between the player characters and moral dilemmas the group has to face within the story.
After all these years of playing and GMing, tabletop RPGs never ceased to fascinate me. And now I’d like to share my passion through this blog. I hope I can contribute to the great community behind this hobby.
For more information about me check out the “about us” section.
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Future topics – What would you like to read?

We’ve got a long to-do list for additional topics, which should keep us busy for a year or two. But we’d also like to include our readers’ thoughts. So send us your ideas for new content.
Got a request for a specific topic? Let us know. Post your ideas in the comments, on our social channels or send us an e-mail. I’ll add them to our editorial schedule.

Stay up-to-date – follow us

Never miss a new GM tip or blogpost. Discuss GMing-related questions with the community.
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GM tips + tabletop rpg blog + rpg wiki
Go-live: August 2020

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