Flex Your Game Design Muscle

An excellent way to flex your game design muscle is to take on a mini design challenge, like a game jam, the One Page Dungeon Contest, the 1KM1KT 24 Hour RPG Contest (if it ever gets going again), or the 200 Word RPG Challenge (due May 28!). Even if you’re not into table-top RPGs, you can learn a lot from mini challenges like these. It’s often said that limitations encourage innovation, and that’s exactly the point of these challenges.

Claustrophobia Cover
Claustrophobia was born out of the 24 Hour RPG Challenge.

A bunch of our products built on work I did for various challenges. Claustrophobia was born out of the 24 Hour RPG Challenge and Lunatic Labyrinth built on the shifting dungeon I created for the One Page Dungeon Contest. Those mechanics also influenced David N. Ross’s design for Forests of Secrets, making the adventure infinitely replayable. You can find the Secret Forest map here.

Lunatic Labyrinth Updated
Our cover designs have come far, from this…
Forest Of Secrets
…to this!

But enough product placement. How about some real tips?

How to Hack Contests

There are some (legal) things you can do to improve your chances of winning a contest. These steps will also help you be a better designer, and are based off lessons I’ve learned through various contests and as a freelance writer for other RPG publishers.

  1. Read the Brief. Then read it again. When you’re done, read that bad boy one more time. Make sure you’re presenting something the judges want to see.
  2. Be Innovative. Create something new and interesting that makes the judges go “hey look, this is cool.” A sense of wonder can be hard to achieve, but look to explore new ground.
  3. Be Grounded. While innovation is important, don’t make something too weird or wacky that people won’t get it. Find ways to ground your design in current conventions that people can easily “read.”
  4. Make Fun. Look at your games collection. There probably isn’t anything boring there, but there are bound to be games that stand out as more fun than the rest. Deciding if a game is fun or not is subjective, but a good place to start is by asking “What’s fun for me.” Build that.

Go out, flex your game design muscle, and have fun. Good luck out there.

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

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Write – Design – Program is a series of game design, writing, and programming articles that includes interviews, insights, and tips. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it.

Children of the Fall — Design Insights

In this edition of Write – Design – Program we’re chatting to Gareth Graham of Frenzy Kitty Games about his latest Indiegogo campaign for Children of the Fall.

The cover of Children of the Fall.
The cover of Children of the Fall.

Rising Phoenix Games: Hi Gareth. First up, can you tell us a little more about Children of the Fall?

Gareth Graham: Hi Rodney. Thank you for inviting me to feature on the blog. Children of the Fall is an apocalyptic story game for 3–5 players. In the game, the players play as the sole survivors of a terrible apocalypse that has turned all the adults on the planet into evil, bloodthirsty savages. In addition to portraying their characters, the players will also need to manage their tribe and haven — fighting off the terrible atrocities that exist in this broken new world. It is a GMless game and has an improved system that is built on the mechanical skeleton of my previous big design, KARMA. Each session is framed around a mission and the world is built collaboratively by all the players through an extensive session zero. Children of the Fall also offers support for campaign play as well as one-shots. There is a huge variety of different missions and characters which are all customised every time they are used, meaning the game has a lot of replay potential.

RPG: You’ve already achieved some of your stretch goals. Where is the campaign currently sitting and what can fans expect once the next stretch goal is met?

Gareth: The campaign got off to a bit of a slow start, but we have successfully funded and unlocked our first stretch goal. Future stretch goals include new character playbooks, missions, and improved quality of the printed materials.

RPG: Frenzy Kitty Games has several apocalyptic survival horror titles, including Dusk, Downfall, Unchained, and a few of the modules in KARMA: A Roleplaying Game About Consequences. What is it about the genre that inspires you?

GG: There is something about this particular genre that excites me from a gamification perspective. What’s great is that it is rich with opportunities to create narratives that are dripping with tension, drama, and high stakes. It also allows the players to get into the action straight away, starting scenes or sessions in-media-res. In my opinion, the best stories are those of characters overcoming truly terrifying and seemingly insurmountable challenges (or seeing them die trying).

RPG: As a designer, how has Children of the Fall allowed you to dig deeper into apocalyptic survival horror? What can fans of the genre expect from the game?

GG: One of the design goals I had with COTF was to really emphasize the struggles that these characters face as children in a deadly and dangerous new world, and the scarcity of resources that are slipping through the character’s fingers as they and other tribes fight over supplies. The engine was mechanically designed from the ground up to tell these kinds of stories — stories of desperate measures in desperate times. The complication system has been weighted to make characters succeeding in difficult complications something rare and truly worth celebrating. The players also have story points which serve as a metagame currency to allow the players to possibly affect other player’s scenes — and this resource is limited and invaluable — emphasising the scarcity and helplessness that these characters must be feeling as children in a world hell-bent on wiping them out. It’s not all hopeless though — players also each get one Determination and Helix point which allow them to flip a result on its head and add great twists in the tale.

RPG: The art from Vincent Sammy really fits the theme and the mood of the game. Can you tell us a little more about their involvement with the project?

GG: I’ve known Vincent for years — we worked together on DUSK and in my opinion, nobody does dystopian art like him, so when it came time to make Children of the Fall he was my first choice. One of the things I love about Vincent is that we are both on the same wavelength — something I’m not extremely good at is writing up briefs for art commissions, so I explained the setting to him and told him to let his imagination run wild — and the images he has created for COTF are better than I could ever have hoped for. He’s also from Cape Town, so it’s great to have a product that is proudly South African.

Click here to see the image in full screen.

RPG: This isn’t your first Indiegogo campaign, following the fully funded KARMA: A Roleplaying Game About Consequences. What, if anything, did the past campaign teach you and how has it influenced the Children of the Fall campaign?

GG: The two main lessons I learned from KARMA was to set a more achievable goal and to make the campaign only 30 days (as opposed to KARMA’s 60-day campaign). Setting a lower target allows you to fund quicker and to get into that delicious stretch goal territory which is why people really decide to back crowdfunding campaigns in the first place.

RPG: You’re from the “Mother City” of Cape Town, South Africa. What’s the gaming scene like there?

GG: The gaming scene in Cape Town is great. It’s grown exponentially over the last 5 years, with gaming stores, cafes and conventions becoming more and more commonplace. One thing about Cape Town’s scene is that it is still a little more fragmented than I would like. Hopefully, as the conventions become bigger and more popular they will help to solidify connections between different gamers and game groups.

RPG: And yourself? What are you playing, what’s inspiring you as a designer, and where can folks find you and Frenzy Kitty Games?

GG: I’m diving into John Harper’s stuff a lot at the moment — Blades in the Dark and Lady Blackbird are absolute masterworks. There are lots of indie RPGs that just get me excited — I love the whole DIY mentality of indie game design. I’m also very interested in a lot of the OSR stuff that’s been coming out over the last few years — that feeling of nostalgia with modern design sensibilities is hard to beat.

Thanks Gareth and good luck with the campaign.

If you’ve got questions for Gareth then put them in the comments below. Be sure to check out Children of the Fall on Indiegogo and Frenzy Kitty Games on Drive Thru RPG.

 

 

Three Stone Stories — Rerolled

In 2014 I wrote Three Stone Stories, a quick and easy solo story game that used simple dice mechanics to resolve challenges — challenges that told a story.
Now I’m putting the final touches on a playtest version of the updated game.

What’s New

The mechanics have been totally reworked, making each die roll more important to the story you’re telling. Some concepts introduced in the first version of the game are still there, but I’ve worked hard to make the game more fun and playable while keeping things streamlined.

Three Stone Stories
Fear the Skull Die

Challenges still form the basis of the game and are the main aspect driving the story. The rules include simple instructions for creating meaningful Challenges, but they’re still as intuitive as asking a question.

Banes have been replaced with Consequences, and you suffer more of them than before. Consequences drive the story to some degree and also aid the major villain in your story. Watch out!

Boons are still around. Who doesn’t like Boons! Now you have a chance of gaining more Boons per Challenge, and they have a greater impact on the story, giving you some control over your hero’s fate.

The biggest addition is a section on Group Play, which details how to use the rules to play in a group, with or without a Game Master.

More Three Stone Stories

When the full rules are released I’ll include six or more adventures, each offering a jumping-off point for your Three Stone Stories. Each adventure will be vastly different from the others, giving you an excellent look at the variety of stories you can tell (or play) with the game.

Get Your Copy

There are three ways to grab your copy of the playtest rules, once they go live:

Subscribe to our newsletter.
Each subscriber will get a free copy of the playtest rules when they launch.

Support our Patreon.
Every patron on Patreon gets a free copy on launch day.

Buy it on Drive Thru RPG.
The playtest rules will sell for $1 on Drive Thru RPG. Why a dollar? It’s my experience that people who’re invested in the game are more likely to provide feedback, so we’re not giving it away to any old Joe. The bonus with this option is that you’ll get the full version of the game for free. We’re not making you pay twice.

I hope you’ll join us in making Three Stone Stories an excellent game.

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates and visit us on our blog, our Facebook page and on Twitter.

Simplify Your Design

A big part of good design is simplification.

Simplify Your Design with Icons - Classic Simplification in Design
Photo by Harpal Singh.

I often rewrite rules text, fiction, or code, and the rewrite almost always ends up a lot simpler than the first draft. Version two is often more intuitive, which is a big part of why simplification is important. If something’s too complicated, it’s hard to wrap your head around and more likely to break down.

Write - Design - Program: Simplify Your Design
Write – Design – Program

Here’s an example from my recently released Manual of Masks. The first piece was my initial stab at a magical puma mask that gives the wearer a speed bonus when they’re running:

Totem Spirit Mask – PumaWondrous item, uncommon (requires attunement)
While wearing this mask you gain a +20 ft. bonus to your speed while taking the Dash action. This bonus is doubled along with your speed as part of the Dash action, effectively giving you a +40 ft. bonus to your speed while using the Dash action only.

The rules weren’t clear enough, and another designer questioned the mechanics as well. The second piece is much clearer and takes far less space:

Totem Spirit Mask – Puma
Wondrous item, uncommon (requires attunement)
When you take the Dash action while wearing this mask your speed is 50 feet.

Less is More — Refactoring

In game writing, writing in general, and in coding, the simplest solution is always the best. In practice, it might take several attempts to find the most elegant option, which is why rewriting or refactoring is so important — it’s what makes “good enough” better. The more time you put into simplifying your work, the more it will shine.

In On Writing, author Stephen King gives the following formula:

2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

King writes that this simple formula had a big impact on his writing and was at least partly responsible for his success. It’s not only that the formula reduces word count, but that it forces you to chuck the unnecessary baggage your story is lugging around.

Design Question: How can I simplify.

A Pathfinder Example

A lot of you may be following the Pathfinder 2 Playtest. If you have you’ll likely have noticed how Paizo has gone out of their way to make Pathfinder 2 simpler yet still as deep as its predecessor. Pathfinder 2 is essentially the same game refined through a process of simplification. The end result can be seen in mechanics like the streamlined action system and their more intuitive encumbrance system.

Some Homework

If you’re a game designer, you probably do this anyway, but next time you play a digital game, take a hard look at the menu system and the graphic user interface (GUI). Great pains are taken to keep the GUI intuitive. Explore the GUI of your favorite games and find what works, what doesn’t, and how the designers have attempted to simplify things.

Till next time, simplify your design and Make Good Games!

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

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The Manual of Masks

Masks are eery and mysterious — even a “funny” mask can seem ominous and threatening. Masks can represent a culture or tell a story — there’s so much to these objects that can inspire your game, and that inspired me to write the Manual of Masks, a supplement for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, now available on the DMs Guild.

Manual of Masks Cover Preview

Recently I gave you a sneak peek at two of the player options featured in the book. The Manual of Masks also includes new adventuring gear, including the alchemist’s mask, armored hoods, and the infamous iron mask. There are also rules for headshots, called shots, and hit locations. Rounding everything off are 12 new magical masks.

Manual of Masks Layout 1

M.T. Black, a best selling creator on the DMs Guild, called the book “Very creative and well written. There is something in this little supplement for everyone!”

The book is $1.25 on the DMs Guild.

Buy the Manual of Masks

Future Plans

I’ve already started work on the next 10 pages of the book, and the plan is to upgrade it later in the year. The update will likely include a section on Mask, the god of thieves, some cursed masks (so much fun to be had!) and some mask related adventure seeds. I’d love to add more class options, so featuring Mask will be a great way to offer more options for the cleric class.

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

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LEGO Makes GMing Better

You have to love LEGO. The toy is infinitely reusable and loads of fun. Besides that, LEGO makes GMing better. Here’s a rotating stand I built for my Kindle out of LEGO I got when I was a kid.

LEGO makes GMing better with this Kindle swivel stand.
It’s IMAX for Minifigs!

It even comes with its own grumpy tech support.

LEGO makes GMing better with a grumpy tech support.
“Have you tried turning it off and on again, block-head!”
LEGO makes GMing better, except when grumpy is playing solitaire on his consol.
Every now and then I catch him playing solitaire.

The stand works without the rotating base too, and at it’s simplest — without the base and tech support — is only 12 LEGO pieces.

Lego GMing Tools

I use my Kindle when I GM, so the swivel base is great for showing my players the screen and keeping things at the right eye-height for quick rules checks. Maybe I should build a dice tower next.

Do you have any interesting GMing tools built out of LEGO? Share them in the comments below or tell us your story of how LEGO makes GMing better.

Till next time, Tell Thrilling Tales

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

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5e Character Option Previews

We’ve got a bunch of books in the works, but I wanted to take a moment to give you a sneak peek at three new 5e character option previews for your D&D game. The first two are from my forthcoming Manual of Masks for the DMs Guild, and the third option is for our third Choose Your Destiny book.

Manual of Masks Cover Preview
Here’s an exclusive preview of the forthcoming Manual of Masks cover.

New Pact Boon

Masks have a mysterious, otherworldly nature, which certainly inspired this first one. There’s a pinch of inspiration from The Mask comics and movies too.

At 3rd level, when your otherworldly patron bestows a gift upon you, you may instead select the Pact of the Mask instead of the three pact boons given in the Player’s Handbook.

Pact of the Mask

Your patron inspires you to create a mask representing your patron. While wearing this mask you have disadvantage on Persuasion (Charisma) ability checks, but have advantage on Intimidation (Charisma) ability checks. In addition, during a short or long rest, you can imbue the mask with the power of your patron… [More in the playtest version]

New Arcane Tradition

The basic concept of the mask mage is a wizard that imbues masks with spells. Imagine reaching into your coat to bring out a different mask for each challenge you face and you’ll have some idea what this one’s about.

Mask Mage

Searching for a way to extend the life of their spells, an obscure order of mages perfected the art of imbuing masks with magical energies. As a student of their legacy, you are able to use the power in these masks to become a fearsome entity on the battlefield or to doll out powerful masks to your allies to enhance and protect them against enemies.

Mask Magic

Beginning when you select this arcane tradition at 2nd level, you learn to craft and imbue masks with your spells. When you prepare your spells, you can cast some of them into these specially prepared masks… [More in the playtest version]

Path of the Lone Wolf

The last of our 5e character option previews is inspired by good old Conan and designed to fill the needs of solo players in our Choose Your Destiny campaign.

Some barbarians value self-sufficiency and personal endeavor over all else — for the warrior who can stand alone is a much stronger defender of the tribe. The Path of the Lone Wolf is an often lonely path to greater glory, lined with the bodies of one’s enemies. As a follower of this path, you trust in your weapon and wit to see you through any trial.
At 3rd level, you may select the Path of the Lone Wolf instead of other primal paths.

Undying Will

Starting when you choose this path at 3rd level, when you enter a rage you regain hit points equal to your proficiency bonus. From 11th level, when you would drop to 1 hit point because of your Relentless Rage ability, you instead drop to 1d4 + your proficiency bonus.

[More in the playtest version]

You can get the playtest versions of all these options and more by supporting us on Patreon at the Flaming Backer tier. Additionally, if you provide us with playtesting feedback, we’ll put your name in the book’s credits. Playtest packages go out tomorrow, so jump aboard now if you want them.

I hope you enjoyed these 5e character option previews. Till next time, play good games!

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates and visit us on our blog, our Facebook page and on Twitter.

If, like me, you can’t get enough mask-inspired mayhem, do check out the great CGI short Majora’s Mask – Terrible Fate on YouTube.

Resurrecting Your MtG Collection

I’m a big collectible card game fan, but I have piles of Magic the Gathering decks and swaps lying around that I’d love to get more life out of. I also have a bunch of friends who don’t collect Magic cards, but who might still be interested in playing if I can kit them out with a deck or two. Here’s my simple solution for resurrecting your MtG collection.

Resurrecting Your MtG Collection
Art Credit: Tan Ho Sim

First up, gather all your decks, ideally in deck boxes. Build more decks with the rest of your cards — it’s okay if they’re not tournament winning decks. The point is to have a bunch of different decks, so play around with as many variations as you can think of.

Now, line the decks up on a shelf, in order of what you figure is worst to best.

Invite friends over to play. Each player gets one deck from a group of decks sitting next to each other on that shelf. When you’re done playing, put the decks back in order from worst to best.

In this way, your decks get sorted as you play, making it easy to grab a bunch of comparable decks for a level playing field.

More Ideas

That’s my idea, but there are tons of ideas out there:

  1. Play solo games, which are a great way to test out a new deck concept.
  2. Build your own booster packs and play booster draft.
  3. Make a collage. Seriously! My bro cut out all the art from his commons and covered his door with them. It was awesome.
  4. Gift extra cards to friends who don’t play. It’s a great way to get new players into the hobby, but be warned — making a crappy deck for your friend is a good way to get them frustrated. Build something that can win amongst your group of friends.
  5. Pass your extra cards on to your local gaming store. If they sell commons then it’s one way to say thanks to them and keep your favorite store going.

Have any other ideas for resurrecting your MtG collection? Share them in the comments below.

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates and visit us on our blog, our Facebook page and on Twitter.

Cooking With Magic

Food, glorious food!

Food is such an important part of our daily lives, a representation of our culture, and a border-smashing commonality that is more easily shared than anything else. Yet, food seldom takes center stage in a role-playing game.

But not anymore.

The Culinary Magic Cookbook for Cooking with Magic
The Culinary Magic Cookbook: Everything you need for cooking with magic!

The Culinary Magic Cookbook, from Flaming Crab Games, gives you a unique way to spice up your game: a cookbook of edible spells.

Compatible with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the book lists almost 100 recipes, each with cooking instructions and magical in-game effects. Try Lektar’s One God ale keg beer bread for fortifying the body, flaming crab cakes for burning your enemies, or scroll dough as an alternative to scrolls and potions, to name but a few.

To use the spells your character only needs a few ranks in Craft (culinary) and the Culinary Magic feat. It’s a worthwhile investment considering the sheer volume of spell-recipes available in the book. If you’ve ever wanted to play a halfling cook or a wizarding chef, there has never been a better time than now.

Book Specs

The book comes in both Metric and Imperial versions, which is amazing. The pdf is 117 pages, with a back and front cover, 4 pages of OGL, and photos for every recipe.

You can buy The Culinary Magic Cookbook on Drive Thru RPG and start cooking with magic today!

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

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Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4

Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4: Hawkins’ Horde was our fourth session playing vs. Stranger Stuff, a game published by our friends at Fat Goblin Games.

Episodes: Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5 – Episode 6 – Episode 7 – Episode 8

Stranger Things Season 3 - Episode 4: Hawkins' Horde
Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4: Hawkins’ Horde

Disclaimer: Because Stranger Things Season 3 isn’t out at the time of writing, you don’t need to worry about spoilers, but I’m going to assume you’ve watched Season 1 and 2 already.

Our Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4 session saw the boys bringing the fight to the mindless hordes of Hawkins. Here’s a summary of episode 4, with tips for running your own Stranger Things campaign at the end of the post.

rpg blog carnival logo Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4 is brought to you by the RPG Blog Carnival. This month is hosted by Codex Anathema, and the topic is Gamemaster’s Cut, in which we look to the movies (and Netflix) for inspiration.

Stranger Things Season 3 – Episode 4 – Hawkins’ Horde

Scene 1

Player Characters: Lucas, Mike, and Dustin. Will was played by the GM.

Things kicked off from where we’d left off, with the boys watching as Eleven supercharged a truck with lightning.

Making quick plans, the boys cycled across town to the general store. Enroute, they encountered the four-legged brain creatures — which are roughly the size of footballs — for the first time. They managed to dodge them and recall some important Dungeons & Dragons law — they were dealing with intellect devourers, the spawn of mind flayers that have the ability to turn people into mindless thralls. Yup, everything’s starting to make sense now: mindless people in the streets, brain creatures trying to capture Nancy, people acting weird.  Now they just needed to find a way to rescue Eleven and the rest of Hawkins.

At the general store, they managed to find the makings of smoke bombs, some rubber gloves, lighter fluid, and even a katana (in the manager’s office). Anyone remember the Anarchist’s Cookbook? I’m pretty sure the boys have a copy.

With Dustin on lookout, the rest of the boys made a dash for the town hall, where things were going totally bizarre. Eleven was still pulling down lightning bolts, and the truck, which was outfitted with some custom-built tech, was bathed in a blue field of energy. Suddenly the truck disappeared, leaving in its place a red portal into the Upside Down, rotating above the fountain in the town square.

Will, Lucus, and Mike had a hard time with the thralls in the streets but managed to put one or two down with a katana blow to the stomach and some Wrist Rocket shots. It turned out that whacking a thrall hard enough would free them of the intellect devourer’s hold. Good thing they only had 2 Toughness each.

Thrall
Brains 1
Muscles 2
Toughness 2
Enthralled: A thrall that takes 2 damage is freed from the intellect devourer’s enthrallment.

The boys managed to get across town, fighting as they went. Mike made a Brains check to reverse a car into the fountain, jumping out just before it crashed. In moments the car was sucked through the portal, as it continued to grow.

Mike, Will, and Lucas were now surrounded by thralls and having a hard time of it.

Cut to Scene 2!

GM’s Notes: It was a long scene, but it was great giving the boys a chance to shine. I love Hopper and many of the older characters, but really it should all be about the boys (including Max an El). Scene 1 took up most of our session, but it was great pitting the boys against a town filled with zombies and watching the players figure out how to win through.

Scene 2

Player Characters: Hopper, Steve, and Billy.

Hopper and Steve showed up as the battle raged on. Behind them, blasting Rock you Like a Hurricane, was Billy. The three quickly grabbed the boys, pulling them into their cars, as El swung the portal at them. Everyone dodged, succeeding on a massive Muscles 11 check.

Then El swung again, pulling the portal across all the cars. Every one of them was sucked into the Upside Down.

Roll credits!

GMs Notes: Oops. I did something no GM should ever do. I made all the players suffer by forcing a failure on them after they had just made a massive save. This is the worst kind of railroading, and I’m sorry I did it. Not only do I now need to separate two groups of characters, but I also need to somehow get them back out of the Upside Down. Worst of all, the players might feel that their checks mean little in the greater scheme of the game.

GMing Stranger Things

Dealing with GM Error

We’re all less than divine. We mess up. GMs are under a more powerful lens than other players, and we owe it to ourselves and our players to learn from our mistakes and make a better go of things the next time around.

It’s worth looking back at why things went the way they did. I was set on getting Hopper, Steve, and Billy into the Upside Down. When the players dodged the portal that should have been it. They should have made a clean getaway. Because I was focused on them being sucked through the portal as the cliffhanger ending to the session, I didn’t consider other options. So, everyone got sucked through, without a check. If I’d been sharper I could have had something come through the portal, like a Demogorgon. Or have the portal continue to grow as the characters drove off. Both of those options would have been way more fun.

So, don’t hold onto your ideas too tightly, because that’s when you lose sight of what’s important: the players having fun. That was my mistake.

Till Next Time

Our next session is two weeks away, so check back in three weeks for more from Stranger Things Season 3.

Rodney Sloan
Rising Phoenix Games

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates and visit us on our blog, our Facebook page and on Twitter.

Make Good Games