Linear Everyone – Defining Game Principles

Hello, and welcome back! Last week we looked at how the heroes can restore the world of Argohex. This week’s blog post examines the guiding principles behind the design of Let Thrones Beware. Full disclosure: I didn’t design this game to appeal to everyone under the sun. That’s something I decided upon and made peace with early on in my writing. It’s my hope that while the total audience pool isn’t quite as wide as it could be, the ultimate product is substantially more appealing to those who do like it.


The Principles

There are four basic principles that drive the design of Let Thrones Beware, which I’ll go through one at a time. I’ll address two in this week’s post, and we’ll get to the next two on the 26th.

  • All players are equally capable of affecting the game narrative, no matter the combination of choices they make

This first principle really hints at my gaming past. As I’m sure you can guess from this approach, I’ve played more than my fair share of class-based role-playing games that privilege one set of choices above others. This design philosophy is commonly referred to as “linear fighters, quadratic wizards.” Recognizing that a lot of the rationale for this ingrained disparity is to provide a “starter” option for new players. I don’t think that such an option is a great idea, and here’s why. It’s my intention that Let Thrones Beware be a campaign-focused game; certainly a game that lasts more than one or  two sessions. I feel that intentionally designing a simple, less capable starter option for players is misguided in that context.

Sure, it’s slightly easier to learn, but understanding a new system takes at most a few hours. After that, she or he is stuck with a less capable hero for months or years. That’s no good. I feel that it’s far better to place an emphasis on ensuring that each option is clearly explained so that a player can easily pick up and play with any combination of options.

I addressed the core of this principle by creating an abstracted non-combat challenge system. Because of the abstraction of skills, we ensure that no combination of hero choices is significantly more capable than another. Naturally, there ought to be some differentiation, and that’s where non-combat powers enter play, as well as the background feature and choice of repertoire. That said, there won’t be situations where one can invalidate a challenge simply by declaring it to be so, while others must struggle.

  • Choices must be purposeful; a decision must have a significant mechanical impact, otherwise the details should be considered fluff and left to the player to define

My position as an indie designer guides this principle; I’ll never have the time nor ability to build out an entire game platform. Certainly not one with hundreds of classes and backgrounds across dozens of books. I need to be sure that people who pick up this system aren’t restricted by my limited capacity. To be sure that point’s conveyed adequately, the book is littered with a number of reminders that this is the case. A great example of this in practice is the non-combat system. Rather than codified skills (e.g. rope use, etc) or even player defined skills, the non-combat system is abstracted such that it allows players to describe for themselves how their hero approaches any obstacle in their path.

Want your rough and tumble criminal to be able to expertly sneak through a guarded gate? That’s fine. Want to bypass the gate by causing a distraction and diverting the attention of the guards? Great. Want to skip the gate entirely by luring your target outside through the power of song? Also good! How you choose to portray your hero’s skills and abilities is totally your choice.

After all, it wouldn’t be a compelling story of Conan was stymied by a tall tower. Similarly, there’s no reason for you to be thwarted because you wrote down use rope rather than climb wall. Specific skills are out, competent heroes are in!


Try it for Yourself

As always, you can download the playtest packet and try it for yourself. Visit drivethrurpg to download the beta and introductory adventure for free.

Beating Back the Darkness and Restoring the World

This week’s post is about restoring the world of Let Thrones Beware. Last week I wrote about hope vs. fear, and what I was aiming to accomplish with Let Thrones Beware. I feel absolutely floored by the discussion that post generated; I’ve never seen 280+ blog visits in a single day on a single post before! As always, I continue to welcome your thoughts and feedback – both here and on social platforms like twitter, and G+.


The Traumas of Let Thrones Beware

The last few weeks were spent talking about themes of trauma and hope. This week, I’m going to dive into exactly what I mean by trauma. To be clear, when I talk trauma, I don’t mean personal trauma. Setting Let Thrones Beware hundreds of years after the collapse of the Kingdom of Man was a design choice expressly made to allow players to avoid that sort of intimate and immediately personal hurt. In Let Thrones Beware it means two things: trauma inflicted on the world, and trauma inflicted on the world’s inhabitants.

The Inhabitants

Each of the five species in Let Thrones Beware has suffered at the hands of the Kingdom in a terrible and unique way. As you’ll see in the brief overview below, Man’s invasion has lasting repercussions on all the survivors.


Relatively uncommon, legend tells that the Cabeiri of Argohex were once immortal, but their immortality was lost when the Kingdom of Man wrenched them from the forests. Today, every Cabeiri born is afflicted with the Curse of Ash, doomed to wither away to dust on their 30th birthday


It is said that the Dactyls sprang from the very cradle of Argohex itself, earth given breath to defend the planet from the those set upon its surface by the gods. To be sure, were that the case, not only would it explain the brilliant metallic colour of their hair, the mottled, stone-like appearance of their skin and features, but also their affinity for the earth. Their skill in constructing fortresses and defensive works was so formidable that Man used terrible sorceries to alter the very nature of the Dactyl, and since then, stone and mineral have been like terrible poison.


Unlike the other denizens of Argohex, the Echthroi are not natural inhabitants. Instead, Man gave them life, wrenching them from the very shadows to rend the last defenses of the Ipotane in its conquest of Argohex. Echthroi avoid others of their kind where possible. The horrid magics that gave them life still course through their veins. As Echthroi congregate, their willpower recedes, and their more violent tendencies emerge. Given a large enough congregation, a group of Echthroi is little better than a raucous, brutal mob.


The great Ipotane republics were last to fall to the onslaught of Man, many thousands of years ago. Man created the Echthroi to crush Ipotane resistance. After the triumphed, their defiance was punished with the Vanishing. A single, horrible night in which Man’s vile sorceries tore the vast Ipotane metropolises from the very earth itself. The great columns and massive populations to never be seen again.


Before the coming of Man, the Myrmekes were as one, unified under the great hiveminds of Xzzryxy. Thinking as one, acting as one, existing as one, Myrmekes spread across the whole of Argohex. The vastness of their civilization made its shattering all the more tragic. Where there had only been one voice, suddenly a cacophony. The shock of sudden individuality was too much for most, killing many and driving others mad.

The Land

I mentioned two types of trauma above. The first, just described above, is intentionally designed as fiction. How (and whether) it affects each hero is up to the player. It’s not something I codified and enforce mechanically because people will have difference preferences about how deeply to engage with the theme. If players want to engage and explore this area, great. If not, that’s okay too.

However, that’s not true when it comes to the trauma of the land – which has deep mechanical integration. This trauma is primarily represented by the Primordial Forces of Evil, which I wrote about last week. While I’m still fine-tuning how they interact mechanically, these forces very much interfere with the heroes as they adventure. In combat, each of the four (Despair, Disorder, Greed, and Malice) have different effects that will alter the battlefield. The forces will serve to make adversaries more dangerous, alter battlefield terrain, and further complicate combat.

Restoring the World

Let Thrones Beware wouldn’t be a game about hope if there weren’t ways to overcome and conquer this trauma, especially when it comes to restoring the inhabitants themselves. With that in mind, we turn to a particular type of enemy – the Mythic Foe. I’ve mentioned this class of adversary on the blog before. These terribly powerful adversaries are more akin to an earthquake, forest fire, or tornado than they are to a regular baddie you face on the battlefield. Overcoming a Mythic Foe takes grit, dedication, and extensive research, as before the heroes can confront and defeat such a creature, they must undertake a series of trials to weaken it. They can only defeat a Mythic Foe after successfully accomplishing all of the related trials.

So what happens after the heroes challenge and slay a Mythic Foe? Well for one, hopefully the players feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment! Mythic Foes are complicated, treacherous, and more dangerous than any other encounter that Let Thrones Beware has to offer. More than that though, each Mythic Foe in the game has an explicit connection with a trauma inflicted upon the inhabitants of Agrohex. If the heroes end the dominion of the Mythic Foe Asag, the Curse of Ash is lifted from the Cabeiri; they are no longer fated to die.


That’s where I’ll leave things for this week. I’ll be back next Monday with another blog post, one that examines the principles of the game from a “what this game does and why you should play it” perspective. Until then, happy gaming!


Try it for Yourself

As always, you can download the playtest packet and try it for yourself. Visit drivethrurpg to download the beta and introductory adventure for free.

Let Thrones Beware: Hope vs. Fear

This week’s blog post is all about how Let Thrones Beware is a game predicated on hope. But before I begin writing on that, I want to take a moment to talk about how thrilled I am with the discussion that last week’s blog post touched off.

One interesting bit of feedback that was very universal was that describing Let Thrones Beware as Traumatic Fantasy didn’t send the right signal. As a matter of fact, the connotations of the term seemed to be that it would focus on the exact sorts of topics I’ve explicitly disavowed.

Obviously that’s not going to do, so coming up with a new description is something that I will need to ponder over the next little while.


Hope v. Fear

And with that, it’s time to the actual topic of today’s post. In writing Let Thrones Beware, I deliberately set out to make a game about hope. The real world is chock full of dangerous events and bad actors. It’s not always true that the good side wins. Designing a game and setting that centred around hope and the potential for good to triumph was something that I felt was important to me. A game of escapism in which evil is formidable, but through struggle, good will triumph.

Some Examples

In much of the media we consume, the protagonists are confronted with a rising evil. An ominous danger that threatens to radically alter (or even destroy) life as they know it. In the classic computer game Baldur’s Gate, your character struggles to defeat Sarevok, a villain with designs on becoming the new God of Murder (sorry for the spoiler, but the game’s 20 years old). In the Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship journeys to the fires of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, in order to prevent Sauron from regaining his full power (you’ve had over 70 years to read this one). This arc is prevalent outside of fantasy: in Die Hard, everyone’s favourite Christmas Movie, McClane races to stop a group of sophisticated criminals before they clean out Nakatomi Tower and murder all the hostages to cover up their crime.

A common theme in all of the above is fear. Fear of a dangerous new threat, that if left uncontested, will see a vile, violent plan through to the end, with tragic repercussions for everyone involved.

What’s Different About Let Thrones Beware

I’ve written that Let Thrones Beware is a game about hope – so what exactly does that mean?

For starters, it means that evil has already won. There’s no rising tide to thwart. The fiction describes the Kingdom of Man’s invasion and the destruction of the civilizations of the indigenous species. It describes Man’s enslavement of the conquered and it’s subsequent thousand-year rule. It describes the apocalyptic destruction of Man’s empire, and the frenzied flight to safety of those natives who were fortunate enough to be outside the maelstrom.

All of these events would be fascinating stories to explore, but they’re not what Let Thrones Beware is about.

Instead, the heroes of Let Thrones Beware exist hundreds of years after the fall of the Kingdom. Man is gone, vanished from existence, but the aftershocks of his empire’s annihilation have served to arrest development and stop progress. Life, especially in the Deep Wood, the focal point of the adventurer tier, is hardscrabble. Restricted to tiny refuge villages hidden in remote clearings, the denizens of the forest struggle to survive. Bandits and ruffians, seduced by the opportunity for easy profit or starving, prey on travellers who venture from behind the protection of ramshackle walls. Unnatural horrors lurk between the trees, feeding on those desperate or crazy enough to brave the mist between the trees.

I’ll readily admit that all of this sounds quite grim; where, you might ask, is the hope? As I wrote earlier, evil has already won. Depressing as all this might be, it represents the nadir. A party of brave heroes can confront this darkness, breaking it’s shroud and restoring light to the world.

Of course, this fiction wouldn’t be anything without supporting mechanics, and there are two of particular note that I’ll mention here.

Chapter Track

The first is the Chapter Track. This GM tool allows the table to chart the progress of the heroes throughout each chapter of their campaign. Succeed at an adventure and the heroes advance on the chart – the light shines more brightly. The domain grows as more people are attracted to the safe haven the heroes have created.

The players receive a domain enhancement (which, at the Adventurer tier, could be as simple as a blacksmith moving to town – and as significant as adding a new kingdom to a growing alliance at the Legend tier).

Fail at an adventure, and the the heroes falter, receding down the track. Their domain shrinks as it’s inhabitants flee the growing danger.

Primordial Forces

The second is the concept of Primordial Forces. Let Thrones Beware is a game about overcoming evil – evil so complete and all encompassing that it has manifested as malevolent entities. Four such forces exist: Despair, Disorder, Greed, and Malice. Each of these forces opposes the efforts of the heroes, interfering in their adventures. Each strives to thwart the emergence of light. As the heroes progress through an adventure, they have opportunities to reduce these Primordial Forces. These manifestations can be brought low by making positive choices and overcoming evil foes.

Primordial Forces have agency in game. As GM, you can classify a particular encounter as one being advanced by these forces. When you do such a thing, the Force itself can exert influence. For example, if Disorder champions a combat walls and structures may collapse, opening pathways that enemies can traverse. The Force is reduced, or even eliminated from the adventure, if the heroes triumph in such an encounter.

Next week, I’ll continue this discussion by examining the tragedies wrought by the coming of the Kingdom of Man.


Try it for Yourself

As always, you can download the playtest packet and try it for yourself. Visit drivethrurpg to download the beta and introductory adventure for free.

What Traumatic Fantasy is All About – An Overview

Before I dive in to this post about Traumatic Fantasy, I’m going to spend a moment discussing a new approach to posting. In the past, the genesis of most blog posts was the development of a specific game feature or process. Sometimes (most excitingly) the posts were about the release of a new iteration of the beta. However, the further I get into writing, and the more Let Thrones Beware edges toward completion, the fewer new things there are to write about. This results in postings slowing down, which is a pity, because it’s a great way to connect with the new and old audiences.

So! Going forward, I’m undertaking a new approach. Rather than just milestone blogging, I’ve developed a schedule that encompasses a whole myriad of topics, ranging from theme and mechanics to character design and GMing. Now, without further adieu, the first of these new posts!

Just What is Traumatic Fantasy?

What is Traumatic Fantasy and how does it differ from high fantasy and dark fantasy? Great question – here’s what I mean when I describe Let Thrones Beware as traumatic fantasy!

High Fantasy

Just about everyone who plays RPGs is familiar with high fantasy games – lots of magic, powerful heroes who maraud their way through ancient crypts and dungeons, amassing crazy new magics. Old favourites Diablo and DND are classic high-fantasy staples. Heroes start at a relatively low power level. Gradually over time as they overcome challenges, they amass more and more powerful abilities, magic items, and whatnots.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy tends toward the gritty; there’s typically an emphasis on (supernatural) horror and psychological spookiness. Heroes are much less capable. At least a few RPGs predicated on being “Dark Fantasy” gleefully describe themselves as meat grinders. Oftentimes (but not always), dark fantasy games are “mature,” which can mean anything from having an emphasis on gritty violence or a few surprise boobs in the artwork to incorporating real or imagined racism, to full on sexual peril and excessive gore not normally seen outside of old Troma Entertainment films.

Traumatic Fantasy

With Traumatic Fantasy, a genre I’ve made up out of nowhere, I’ve tried to walk a different path. Despite the word trauma, Let Thrones Beware is not a “mature” game – you won’t find excessive gore or any sexual peril within its pages. Instead, the trauma describes what’s happened to the world and its inhabitants after the Kingdom of Man’s invasion. This trauma exists everywhere: the destruction of the Mrymekes hiveminds, the artificially low lifespan of the Cabeiri, the destruction of ancient kingdoms and old ways of life. These traumas are to be confronted and overcome.

Ultimately, this is a game about hope. Banding together, a group of exceptional heroes struggles against the darkness and strives to defeat the lingering evil that plagues their world. The adventures of Let Thrones Beware aren’t about stopping an evil from conquering the world. That’s already happened. Instead, they’re about throwing off shackles and restoring light to the world.


Next week I’ll unpack more about what this focus on Trauma Fantasy means for the heroes of Let Thrones Beware – their motivations, adventures, and pasts. Plus, an examination of hope vs. grit as a theme.


Try it for Yourself

As always, you can download the playtest packet and try it for yourself. Visit drivethrurpg to download the beta and introductory adventure for free.


Let Thrones Beware Free Open Beta

The Let Thrones Beware Free Open Beta is officially on!

I’m excited to announce that the free open beta of Let Thrones Beware is officially a go!

Let Thrones Beware is a role-playing game about rediscovering hope in a traumatic fantasy world

Despite its strength, the eternal Kingdom of Man is no more, accidental victim of the very power it wielded to conquer your world. Bowed but not broken, those who survived the Kingdoms brutal thousand-year occupation fled to the far corners of Ceyenus.

Despite your freedom, there is danger. Horrors stalk the Deep Wood in which you and your kin shelter. Isolated, vulnerable villages quake in the darkness, hoping they are overlooked by what lurks in the trees.

Despite the danger, you must end Age of Despair. The rebirth of Ceyenus awaits and now is the time for you to step forward and restore what was lost.

Features of Let Thrones Beware include:

  • A setting that challenges heroes to restore their world, shattered and broken by an otherworldly invasion
  • A universal resolution mechanic that uses attack/counter/interrupt powers
  • Gridded tactical combat and abstracted non-combat systems
  • A codified adventure cycle where success and failure have meaningful effects on the campaign
  • Stronghold and Domain management
  • Mass combat
  • Character portability between tables

You want to take a look at this if…

  • … you enjoy tactical combat, but dislike having nothing to do in between taking your turns
  • … you want a mechanically interesting non-combat resolution system
  • … you enjoy gradated success in games, but want a tactical component to your gameplay
  • … you like character building, but dislike item treadmills and fiddly feat choices

Game Principles

  • All players are equally capable of affecting the game narrative, no matter the combination of choices they make
  • Choices must be purposeful; a decision must have a significant mechanical impact, otherwise the details should be considered fluff and left to the player to define
  • The game should run on a unified mechanic that is simple, but allows for progression as characters develop
  • Combat and skill challenges must be crunchy but fast to run – and easy to adjudicate

This open beta includes the Let Thrones Beware core rulebook, a printable character sheet, and Bells of War, an introductory adventure for your table.

Download the free open beta now!

Playtest 007: Power Management – putting powers to work

The Problem: Power Management

As you know, power management in combat is a huge deal in Let Thrones Beware. Having access to the right power at the right moment can help turn the tide of battle, and coming up short can leave your character defenseless in the face of an adversary’s attack. Lately, the need to manage powers has been butting up against the collection of in-game abilities that say “if you exhaust an additional combat power, you do [extra effect].” These powers are fun opportunities for players to have a big impact, but the cannibalism of combat powers can slow down fights, and that’s a big problem given my emphasis on combat wrapping up in three to four rounds at most.

The old Rogue class feature:

A Rogue who has an Edge while engaging an opponent can use an Interrupt power in place of an attack power (this means that your Interrupt cannot be prevented). When wielding a light weapon, you may exhaust a second combat power of any type to inflict its damage in addition to that of the Interrupt.

Upcoming Changes

I got to thinking about the how to refine this mechanic. My first inclination was to use a chit system to provide characters with a resource they could expend. Rather than making them deplete precious combat powers, they’d have a secondary resource (a pile of tokens). That seemed okay at first, but then I got to thinking about tiered play. E.g. what happens when they leave the Adventurer tier and end up in Champion or Legend.
In the Adventurer tier, heroes have a finite supply of chits that they can use – three total. In higher tier play, I want the players to have the ability to recharge their chits so they more functionality. Gradually over time (in Champion) or constantly (in Legend). It occurred to me that I already had a resource system: powers. Rather than requiring players find and use chits, I could use the non-combat powers they already have as markers.

The new Rogue class feature:

A Rogue who has an Edge while engaging an opponent can use an Interrupt power in place of an attack power (this means that your Interrupt cannot be prevented). When you have Edge, and are wielding a light weapon, you may exhaust a non-combat power to double the damage of the Interrupt.

Advantages of the New System

The new power management system provides flexibility for adventurers to exploit their powers while ensuring that they’d not left helpless; something that can be very boring if it happens to you more than once.
Now, when heroes leave the Adventurer Tier, the rules say, “when you use a non-combat power to charge a combat ability, place it in your pile of exhausted powers. If, when you are refreshing powers, you draw a non-combat power, draw an additional power.” At the legend tier, they say, “when you use a non-combat power to charge a combat ability, place it in a separate exhausted pile. When you are refreshing powers, draw both a combat power and a non-combat power.”
The increasingly potent regeneration of this resource will allow players to take advantage of the options provided to their heroes as they climb through the tiers of play – stunting and supercharged powers, for example.

Non-Combat – Getting it Just Right

One of my most important design goals for Let Thrones Beware is to ensure that the non-combat challenge portion of the game is as compelling and fun to play as the tactical combat component. I’m really looking to avoid designing yet another game where heroes roll some dice against a target difficulty and pass or fail depending on how high their number is.


The First Try at Non-Combat

Well, if combat was interesting and fun, my first thought was “why not use the same challenge mechanic?” I replaced the tactical grid with zones that the heroes had to move between, I whipped up a list of complication mechanics that could be attached to obstacles to make them dynamic and interesting, individual obstacles were given the ability to block heroes from accessing other obstacles until they were dealt with. In place of a way to deal damage to the heroes, obstacles had clocks – and they had to be defeated before the clock ran down, or the heroes would lose the challenge.


A Prelude

Going in, I knew that these intricate non-combat scenarios would need prep – there didn’t seem to be any good alternative to great set-piece challenges, especially because I had concerns about  how easy it would be to create a challenge out of whole cloth on the fly. Still, not a problem, I figured. Interesting non-combat challenges were the point, weren’t they?


I also wasn’t quite sure how to present these challenges, but since I was playtesting anyway, that didn’t seem like a big deal. It’d all sort itself out in the end.


Rubber Meets the Road

My playtest group and I sat down to run through an adventure. We’d primarily focused on combat before, with just a few quick demonstrations of how the non-combat system worked. They breezed through the first part of the adventure, quite happy with the improvements that had been made to character creation and combat.


Having bested a brigand ambush of the caravan they were guarding, the heroes now had to escape with a small group of peddlers to the safety of a nearby village. I laid out the scenario, and we immediately crashed into problems.


“How do I know which of these obstacles to prioritize?”


“There’s not really any way to


“It just feels like we’re throwing our powers at them and hoping that attrition works in our favour”


“What if we wanted to do something else?”


The list of questions and complaints continued. It was clear that something had to change.


Arriving at a Solution

Reworking the non-combat system was a must, but there were a number of mechanical elements that I wanted to retain. I was also very determined to retain the detail and complexity of non-combat challenges.


Hashing things out with the playtest group and reflecting upon things later, my thinking coalesced around a few very obvious pain points.


First, I needed to address obstacle difficulty. Obstacle health and individual round clocks went out the window. In its place was a standardized set of difficulties. This change makes it straightforward for both GMs and players to know what sort of challenge they’re up against.


Second, and more importantly, was challenge presentation. Before, I was laying out the entire scenario in detail, effectively railroading players into a specific sequence of events. The new approach, which I much prefer, works as follows:


Planning Phase

The GM lays out a goal for the party – this can be something as straightforward as “question the merchant about recent bandit attacks,” or as complicated as “infiltrate the ruined town and steal the mcguffin.” With this goal in mind, the heroes plan out in detail how they’ll achieve the objective.


Execution Phase

Based on what the players have planned out, the GM builds a series of Obstacles representing the situations that the players must deal with as they carry out their plan. A single success overcomes each Obstacle, rather than the complicated rounds and timers of before, but these Obstacles have individual difficulty levels – they’re also where the mechanics are hooked up.


The table resolves all of the Obstacles presented, and will end with a tally of victories and failures – note that failing to overcome an Obstacle doesn’t mean that the plan fails and ends immediately. The plan’s success or failure hinges on the total number of failures and successes.


Resolution Phase

Once all Obstacles have been addressed, the GM narrates how the well the plan was executed. Success across the board means that the heroes accomplish their goal exactly as intended. A mix of successes and failures means that the plan hit snags along the way. How significant the complications are will depend on how many failures occurred.


Wrapping Up – The New Non-Combat System

Thus far, I’m quite happy with the new approach to non-combat. It’s done a lot to encourage roleplay and gives players freedom to make their own choices, rather than shepherding them into pre-constructed scenarios. Excitingly, it also has a certain Oceans 11 quality to it, which I’m very excited to see unfold at the tables.