Category Archives: Tips and Tricks

Camp Nanowrimo 2016 and Planning

Well, that’s April. I finished several projects, all ahead of schedule and within the target word count. Part of what I did took place on Camp Nanowrimo, and I’m glad I took part. I’m a big believer in surrounding yourself with a strong “team”—even if that team is working on vastly different things—and Camp Nanowrimo, with its cabins, provided just that.

Camp NanoWrimo 2016


I pulled off some great work this month; an adventure, some location writeups and a short story. I wouldn’t have finished on time or even close to the word count goals if I didn’t plan well.

What worked was not writing until I was sure of what I wanted to write. That’s it. No bullet points. No fancy diagrams or mind maps.

Let me say it again. Don’t write a word until you know exactly what you’re writing. For my adventure, knowing was writing the Adventure Synopsis. For my writeups, it was drawing the location maps. For my short story, it was figuring out why a hero was standing in a church with his eyes closed.

Don’t write until you know what you’re going to write.

Try it. Now. Write your own version of Little Red Riding Hood—you know the story. It won’t take long. You’ll add your own voice, your own ideas, but the plot will be the same. Watch how much easier it is than creating something totally new.

In our experiment, what you knew about Little Red Riding Hood was the plan, a writing goal. Your writing, your execution, was informed by the plan/goal, but not strictly constrained by it; you had some room to embellish in your own way. Plan your work until you have such a strong concept and then write, words will flow from your pen.

Watch this space because I’ll be posting more about some of the work I did in the months to come.

At World’s End

RPG Blog CarnivalImagine you’re coming to the finale of your years-long campaign. Friends are moving away, and you want to end with a memorable bang. A big bang. A cataclysmic bang! This time it’s not just the people and things the PCs love that are at stake, but their entire world that’s on the line. There is no turning back.

So how do you prepare for a world shattering session? With the Kickstarter for Crisis of the World Eater successful funded, we’ve got plenty of this sort of thing to look forward to. Maybe you, as a GM, are feeling inspired. Perhaps, as a player, you’re about to face your toughest challenge yet.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Viktor M. Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The topic for May’s RPG blog carnival is “At World’s End”, and the best and brightest RPG bloggers will be sharing links to related posts, right here, in the comments below.

Anything is fair game; cataclysmic events, stats for planet crushing monsters, rules for the Apocalypse, or perhaps a hero’s survival guide to the End Times. We’re not playing games anymore, now we’re playing for keeps, winner takes all!

Don’t forget to follow the Phoenix on Twitter and Facebook, it’s the best way to keep up to date with the world shattering events that are about to be unleashed by ruthless GMs the world over.

More information about the RPG Blog Carnival can be found on

Don’t Be Boring

We don’t have much time on this blue planet. We just don’t. If we can do anything we put our minds to, and I really believe we can, then we need to get focused and not waste our precious time. We don’t have time to be boring.

I don’t want anyone, ever again, to have a boring rpg session. I declare it, henceforth, to be “verboten”. Great, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s break it down.

What Makes a Session Boring?

Low Buy In.

If you’re not invested in your game, then you’re going to have less fun. Some easy ways to get more involved include hamming it up, putting on those accents and, I can’t believe I need to say it, but roleplaying. I’m surprised at how many people (myself included), don’t roleplay.



If you’re confused about the rules or the situation your character is in then you’ll have less fun. This is largely a GMing issue, but as a player you need to make an effort to call out your confusion and work out a solution with your GM.


Low Risk

The more your character has riding on the dice, the more fun it’s going to be. I know plenty of cautious players, and I don’t think caution is bad, but I do think it’s worth remembering that our characters are heroes, and they’re expendable. Put them on the line and enjoy the wild ride that follows.


What else can cause a boring session? I’d love to hear from you, leave a comment and I promise to get back to you.

5 Tricks for Perfect Portals

This months blog carnival is about gates and portals, the jam to fantasy roleplay’s bread and butter. Let’s throw it open and jump right in!

1. Build Drama

Gates and portals build drama because they have potential. Something behind the lock is forbidden, and by putting a door in the PCs way you’ve wrapped a big pink bow around it. Make sure that whatever is behind the door doesn’t waste that built up tension. When a door is unlocked, the plot should advance.

2. A Level-Up Reward

In the same way, a door can be a prize. If the DC to open a door is too high for the party now, or they need a key, it lets them know that they’ll be coming back later. Give them a hint of what’s behind it to really wet their appetites.

3. A Gate to a New World

Did you ever watch Stargate? I love the idea of stepping into another world. Portals give you limitless options, so use that to really shake things up. Don’t just send the party off to a hotter climate, send them to a different planet where they can truly discover the meaning of the word “alien”.

4. Change it Up

Forget iron-bound doors around every corner. Change it up!
What would a door to the fey realm look like? Would it have wings? Would an earth elemental even bother with doors, or just shape the earth around itself?
What if a door was the reanimated skull of a long dead monster, all too happy to open up wide?

5. The Door is the Journey

Everything comes together when you make the door as much a part of your story as the main NPC or boss monster. Stargate did it well, so here’s a clip.

Remember, every door is a chance to tell a story, so tell thrilling tales.

Fantasy is full of memorable doors and portals. Do you have a favorite? Or one from a campaign? Please tell us about it in the comments.

Self Publishing – Deadly Troubadours

November is done, NaNoWriMo is over, and you may be wondering what’s next. How do I get my book out there? Brent Thomas, a good friend of mine, self published his novel, and he’s here to share his journey.

Rodney Sloan: Hi Brent. So tell us a little about yourself.

Brent Thomas: I original come from the south-east of  the USA, but for the past 10+ years I’ve been living in Japan, mostly working in Education. Currently I teach English at an all-girls elementary school. Also, I’m married to my book’s cover artist, and together we have a 6-month-old boy.

RS: Tell us about your book, Deadly Troubadours. What inspired you to write it?

BT: The sad truth is it started as a way to relieve boredom at work. I had one of those jobs that would either be extremely busy or extremely not. Since I’ve always liked writing I started doing short fiction as something that a could work on while seriously typing into my work computer and looking busy. One of the characters, Demetrius Tate, was a short  story character that after I put the story down kept dancing around my head. This whole thing is just an idea that appealed to me that keeps expanding.

RS: We’ve played a bunch of Pathfinder together. Has role-playing inspired your work? Do specific experiences at the table find their way into your writing?

BT: Not really. There are homages to events and settings, even a hidden reference to my core college group. I try not to is specific experiences here because those were created by a group experience and I don’t want to claim ownership of them. That said, rpg has certainly served as the spark of inspiration.

RS: You self published. Can you tell us how that worked out for you.

BT: I looked into where I wanted to be available and how to go about getting there. That ended up being Smashwords and Amazon. I think it has worked okay for me. My expectations were low as a first-time, unknown author. I’ve sold maybe low triple-digits.

RS: Was there anything you wish you’d known before you self published?

BT:The importance of person to person connections. Getting that first book sold means asking everyone you ever met to buy and read it. It is kind of embarrassing but really important. Almost every contribution I’ve gotten on Indiegogo has come from a personal request for a friend to take a look and consider.

RS: You’re running an Indiegogo campaign to fund print copies of your book, tell us about that?

BT: I want to make a paper copy available. In America and some other countries that is as easy as setting up print-on-demand through Amazon. Japan doesn’t have that option and I want somethings to have on hand for friends and family here. So, I thought if I need to do a print run, why don’t I try crowdfunding and offer perks that might make this appealing to those over-seas as well. If nothing else, it can help serve as pre-orders. And so far I am on track to hit my goal.

RS: So, what’s next for Brent? Is a sequel in the works?

BT: Yes! Book 2 is in the works. I want it to be similar to book 1 in that it will tell a complete story while leaving hooks for book 3. The goal for that is to have it released next winter. Over summer I want to do an ebook release of a collection of some of my favorite short stories I’ve written.

RS: Hey, that sounds great. Any advice for aspiring writers? How do you get the words flowing?

BT: Don’t wait for inspiration. Just write. It is awesome to have those ready-made sentences pour out, but that feeling is rare. At least for me. Usually the first paragraph I write in a session is clumsy and awkward. It’s the warm-up. But that is why we edit. And then, when the juices start flowing, I can get into that rhythm of writing something quality.

RS: I hear you, I’m starting to think that good writers are good editors. And I hear you’re into comics…

BT: Oh, goodness! Love ’em! Even though I’m told I am too grumpy about them sometimes. Currently I’m having a lot of fun reading 70s Marvel comics through their unlimited app.

RS: Where can people find you on the interwebs?

BT: My main website is I also put up the podcasts Reading Deadly Troubadours, Comics League International, and Living Japan. All of those are on iTunes. Plus my Twitter is @deadtroubadour.

RS: Thanks very much Brent.

BT: Thank you Rodney.

Be sure to check out Brent’s Indigogo campaign and support a fellow gamer–writer. Good luck with your editing everyone.

Something wicked this way comes!

The folk over at have announced that it’s carnival time, and what a creepy carnival it is.  Here to hound and harrow your players is the Seething Slime, an ooze for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game that gets more powerful as the heroes get more angry.

Seething Slime by D & R Sloan. © 2014 – 2015.
Seething Slime by D & R Sloan. © 2014 – 2015.

Continue reading Something wicked this way comes!

Mindfulness – Grant’s Kitchen

Our guest writer today is a good friend of mine who I got to know over many games of Magic: The Gathering® and discussions on craft beer. I learnt a lot from him, so I’m glad that he could share some of his knowledge here with you.

Hello and welcome to my new column here, Grant’s Kitchen. There are a huge number of people who play “kitchen table Magic,” but most articles are for the competitive player who is looking to take down big tournaments. My plan here is to talk about the sorts of things that more casual players want to talk about. So you won’t find detailed meta-game breakdowns or play by plays here. But you will find commentary and ideas to bring back to your local play group.

“Be mindful, youngling!”

To start off with let’s look at the concept of “mindfulness.” This is being mindful of your plays, and paying attention to what the other players are doing, and how they might respond to you. One of the biggest mistakes beginning players make is to get wrapped up in their big play. You can get so enamored planning for your big win that you miss the clues that herald your defeat.
Picture this: You are each at 2 life. Your opponent has three 3/3 creatures, and you have a single Archetype of Aggression in play. You know that card will grant all your creatures trample, and so you play Savageborn Hydra for 10. You have a 10/10 double strike, trample hydra, ready to crush all comers next turn. You’ve got this! And then the next turn comes around, your opponent swings with his three creatures and you die. Whoops! If only you had cast a slightly smaller hydra AND the little Llanowar Elf that was also in your hand. Then you could have chump blocked with your elf, traded your architect and blocked with your hydra. The coast would have been clear the next turn and victory would have been yours.
This is mindfulness. Magic is a complicated game, and it is easy to miss small details. But if we try and keep those details in mind and pay attention to what the opponent is up to we can have a better chance of victory.
Another way to use mindfulness is in multiplayer games. While in a two player duel, rushing out the gate and smashing face is usually a great idea. In a multiplayer game, with politics in the midst of everything, it can be deadly. Being an obvious front runner can spell an early doom for you as the other players gang up and take you out. Being aware of the relative power of each player while subtly advancing your own plan for victory is the key. Be a friend to everybody, until the time comes for your ultimate victory.
There is a lot going on in any game of Magic: The Gathering®, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Just take a few moments, and pay attention to both your plan and what your opponents can do to stop you. This will both increase your chances of victory and your enjoyment. The more you can foil your opponents, the more fun you will have!

Grant is an avid casual Magic player and drafter who has been playing since the release of Dark Ascension. He loves value, drawing cards, and his Zedruu Commander deck. When he’s not playing Magic he is probably brewing or drinking beer. You can follow his beer related adventures at


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Easy-Peasy Terrain Projects

A great looking map and some simple model terrain can go a long way towards making your games stand out. Here are three super easy projects.

A Sign (Post) of Things to Come

I made this little sign post to put alongside roads on my game map. It gives the players a visual reminder of where something is, like the big city, in relation to the combat action. I intentionally left it blank.

Orc and sign post.
“Dis way!”

To make it, all you need are some small pieces of wood, cut to shape, and some modelling clay for the base. I actually used a kind of papier-mâché, which worked fine. I highly suggest painting the wood and giving it a wash to bring out the grain.

Stalagmite (of Doom)

Stalagmites and standing stones are all over every fantasy world, so having one I can plop down on the map really helps highlight those features.

A well, a sign post and... a rock.
“Some sexy models!”

This is mostly modelling clay, molded into shape and then filed to add some detail. I added chains so that it could be part of a broken bridge or a feature of a jail, surrounded by miserable prisoners.


Well, well, well. What have we here?

Again, water wells are everywhere. You know there’s something down there and you know your players want to find out.

Well ambush
“All I ask for is one empty well!”

The well was also made with modelling clay, built on top of plastic card, which I painted black. I added chains to look like they connected to the depths below. Some dry brushing really made this model pop!

Incidentally, Chris Shaeffer created an amazing map centered around a well as his entry to round 2 of RPG Super Star Season 9, go check it out.


Hillfolk’s DramaSystem as a Meta System

Today’s guest post is from a longtime LARP ally and RPG writer friend of mine, Chris V. Chris has always astounded me with his knowledge of game systems, to which this post stands in testimony. Enjoy.

Robin D Law’s  Hillfolk: the Roleplaying Game of Iron Age Drama, and by extension the underlying DramaSystem game system, has been around since the end of 2013.  Thanks to the Kickstarter project we have many settings — or Series Pitches as they’re called — and the DramaSystem reference document.

The Hillfolk hardcover book has had a major impact on my gaming group, but not in any way we would’ve imagined when I first explained the game to them.  It changed how we build characters for other games.  We’ve begun to use parts of DramaSystem to build our characters and their relationships, before we even pick up the character sheets of the game we’re actually playing. It has become a metasystem we use for most of our games.

Pirates airship by Min-Nguen
Pirates airship by Min-Nguen

In Hillfolk, Robin Laws distinguishes between dramatic systems e.g. Hillfolk and procedural systems e.g. D&D, White Wolf’s Storyteller, Cortex and SilCore. In traditional games, the focus is more on what your character does, instead of why they are doing it. Instead of pouring over tables, calculating modifiers and having the dice decide your fate while facing off against an antagonist, effectively you and the other players come to a mutual agreement on the result.

The focus always returns to the characters and their interactions with each other.This is very much in line with the style of storytelling found in television series such as the Sopranos and Game of Thrones, where while there are actions scenes, the focus is more on the characters and their personal goals.

In our groups, we discovered that we enjoy a balance between the different styles of game play. We enjoy the different procedural systems for the excitement and flavour they bring to action scenes.

Dramatic systems, on the other hand, encourage depth and increase player involvement in the story. They add layers to characters, turning the characters into more than just a collection of numbers that exist only to deal vast amounts of damage to foes. They bind adventuring groups along more lines than just abilities and the bonuses. Characters become brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. They become chiefs and advisors, rivals and lovers.

Many groups—including ours—consider those concepts when building our characters anyway, but using a system such as DramaSystem focuses the group on it. Everyone becomes involved in the dramatic side, even the player who always plays the loner and only speaks up to call out the amount of damage they did, gets involved. Instead of their tragic backstory getting lost in the Gamemaster’s notes and being resolved in one on one sessions, it becomes part of the whole game.

Both types of game systems gloss over the parts the other focuses on. Instead of playing a pure DramaSystem game, we use the system to add more to our traditional procedural games. Instead of clashing, we found that the systems ended up complimenting each other.

The first game we used the DramaSystem in this manner for was our Abney Park Airship Pirates game. Our Game Moderator came to us with the idea of playing a crew of pirates or traders belonging to the Skyfolk faction in the Abney Park setting. He then set precedence (a DramaSystem concept) by asking who wanted to be the captain?

As the first player it fell to me to proclaim my name and role in the group:

  • Always a fan of playing a dashing swashbuckler, I stepped up and proclaimed myself as Captain Eric Hail and said that I liked the idea of having a family member on board.
  • Our next player decided to play Eddie Hail, a scoundrel and Eric’s younger brother.
  • Our last player noticed that both of us had picked names beginning with an E and chose the name Epitome (Epi) Hail for our levelheaded younger sister, medic and engineer.

In this way we decided each character’s name, role and relationship in turn. We moved on and defined each character’s desires:

  • Eric wanted to rebuild the family name to honour the memory of their father and his wife after they had died due to a feud with another family.
  • Eddie desired nothing more than to be free to see the world after growing up in his brother’s shadow.
  • Epi wanted to keep her family together through this feud, so she could go back to university.

Next up we defined our character’s dramatic poles:

  • The pull between being a dashing hero and a responsible elder sibling became Eric’s dramatic poles.
  • Eddie on the other hand was torn between being a free spirit with a criminal bent and a respectable member of the the Hail family.
  • Drawn from her desire, Epi’s poles became the need to continue her studies and take care of her brothers.

At this point we had a good idea of the characters and began to define what each character wanted from the others and why they would not give it.

  • Eric obviously wanted the well educated Epi on his crew as an engineer and medic, but her player pointed out that Epi was an independent young woman and that, while she would fulfil those roles most of the time, Epi would not be ordered about like a common sailor.
  • Epi on the other hand wanted Eric to forgive himself for the deaths of their father and his wife, but Eric saw it as his duty to avenge them and rebuild the family name.
  • Epi wanted Eddie to rejoin the family that loved him, but Eddie loved his freedom and had done things he didn’t want his family to know about.
  • Eddie wanted Epi to just let him go, but Epi was afraid of losing him for years again.
  • Eddie wanted Eric to see him as his own man, but in Eric’s eyes he was irresponsible and had deserted his family in their time of need.
  • All of this was because Eric wanted his brother at his side, rebuilding the family, while Eddie had acquired a taste for doing what he wanted and not what others wanted of him.

Our character concepts defined and explored with DramaSystem, we ignored most of the procedural system of DramaSystem. We used the Abney Park system to build our characters as we normally would and used its procedural system instead.  An interesting side effect we noticed was that because we already had full-formed concepts, the nitty gritty character building went quicker.

Some of our choices even added side characters and background to the family we ended up creating.  For example: Our youngest brother named Ernie who looked up to Eric and got himself into trouble trying to impress him, usually spurred on by Eddie and taken care of by Epi.

The game played like most of the procedural style games we have played through the years.  We enjoyed the action that the procedural game provided.  Using DramaSystem though meant that when scenes became dramatic, we focused more on them and they turned into an enjoyable part of the game.

We knew what buttons the other players wanted to push on their characters and how our characters would react when they did.  The procedural nature of the game defined who was in a scene and established the framing and all that was left to do was to roleplay the scene.  The lessons learned from DramaSystem affected how we resolved the scene.  In this way we overcame a shortcoming of traditional procedural games: how to resolve emotion filled scenes.

So when we discovered Eddie’s secret family and Ernie’s actions almost turned the crew against the Hail family, we had powerful scenes of family struggles, set against a backdrop of dashing duels and tense airship chases.  Instead of playing a DramaSystem game with a Series pitch, we played an Abney Park Airship Pirates game enhanced by the DramaSystem.  It focused us on our characters, deepened the connections between them and to the world, and enhanced our overall experience.

Chris lives in South Africa, where he enjoys exploring the depths of RPGs
and other forms of storytelling. He also enjoys cooking and organizing
events, as a way to live and hear even more stories.

Dwarves Rule

I’m overly fond of the little guys, although I’d never use the word “little” to a dwarfs face. I love everything about the bearded warriors. Their lore, their grim nature, … their beards. I guess I’m part grumpy dwarf me-self.

Recently, I’ve been watching the excellent Vikings series. In one episode, I believe the first, one character says to another “we’ll be as rich as dwarves.” That struck me as a veritable gold mine, excuse the obvious pun, for a dwarf related blog post, so here we are.

Dwarf by armandeo64
by armandeo64

Dwarven PCs are often portrayed as greedy, but there’s no RPG I’m familiar with where they are actually rich. There’s an obvious reason for this: game balance. You simply don’t want every dwarf to be running around with better weapons than everyone else in the party. Or do you?

Imagine a world where dwarves generally are much richer than your average human, elf or halfling. You can bet that every inn, blacksmith and brothel is going to charge our squat friends a much higher rate for their wears. And then we have the all too commonplace issue of thievery. An escalation in the cutting of dwarven purses leads to more heavily armed dwarves (if that’s even possible), which leads to a veritable arms race. No wonder dwarves are reclusive.

But there’s a shiny side to every coin, and you can bet it would be dwarves who organise the best expeditions to the most wondrous locations, along with the best send-off parties (with the best beer) and the best victory banquets. It is, after all, the excentric rich guy who usually blows his money on the absurd adventures (cough cough Brandson cough cough Musk).

Got any ideas for rich dwarves in your campaign?

(See what I did, I called the post “Dwarves Rule”, when I’m actually talking about rules for dwarves. Sneaky little hobbitses.)