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.

Playtest 007: Adventures and Primordial Forces

It’s been a few months since I’ve last posted about the Let Thrones Beware playtest. How’s it doing, you ask? Great, I’ll reply; and then I’ll go on to explain some of what we can expect in the 007 iteration (no British spies will be included). There are two major highlights for today’s post: Bells of War, a Let Thrones Beware adventure and Primordial Forces.

Playtest Addition: Bells of War: A Let Thrones Beware Adventure

Bells of War is an introductory adventure for 3-5 players (plus GM). It is intended for groups who are new to the system, and was designed with several goals in mind:

First, Bells of War serves as introduction for everyone at the table to the core concepts, mechanics, and style of Let Thrones Beware. Through a series of encounters, players will learn how the non-combat and combat challenge system works. GMs will learn how (and why) the system works the way it does, how to build effective and challenging encounters, and how to respond to player decisions.

Second, Bells of War establishes the groundwork for a long-term campaign spanning the hero, champion, and legend tiers of play. Primordial forces, mythic foes, and settlement management are all introduced to the groups who complete this adventure.

Third, this adventure is a template for anyone who’s interested in designing their own quest for Let Thrones Beware heroes. The challenges, decisions, and structure of the quest contained herein are representative of the system. Following the example set out by Bells of War will allow you to construct balanced adventures that challenge players and take advantage of all of the functionality Let Thrones Beware has on offer.

Playtest Addition: Primordial Forces

Primordial Forces are a new addition to Let Thrones Beware. The Kingdom of Man’s invasion, enslavement, and eventual destruction has left Ceyenus a fractured, broken world . The Primordial Forces of Trauma are the anguish of Ceyenus manifested. Four forces exist: Malice, Greed, Despair, and Disorder. Each of these forces stands in opposition to the heroes and their efforts to repair the world. Mechanically, each Traumatic Force provides the GM will a set of obstacles and complications that are inserted into combat and non-combat challenges. The ability of the Primordial Forces of Trauma to influence Ceyenus will be reduced as players progress through an adventure combating evil and righting wrongs.

Future iterations of the playtest will introduce new options for the players. Heroes will be able to align themselves with Heroic Primordial Forces that seek to bring Ceyenus back into balance: Hope, Compassion, Love, and Harmony. As characters gain experience, their connections to these Heroic forces will deepen. This will provide them with advantages which they can exploit to counter the machinations of Trauma.


Playtest 006: Domains, Mass Combat, Mythic Foes

August has arrived, and with it, the 6th revision of the Let Thrones Beware Playtest. This iterative build refines the campaign cycle, adds preliminary domain management and mass combat, provides additional adversaries, and introduces new, uniquely dangerous mythic foes.

Playtest 006 Updates: GM Options

Non-Combat Challenges

Non-combat challenges have been provided more depth with the addition of background and foreground components and blockers. These components will make resolving non-combat challenges much more interesting, as heroes have to contend with a variety of new complicating factors.

Domain Management

Domain management is a new way for players to make their mark on Ceyenus. The heroes success or failure at resolving adventures manifests as changes in the campaign track; advances along the track allow the heroes to construct new enhancements (e.g. basic buildings such as a smithy or a stable at the adventurer tier). These enhancements provide additional resources to the heroes whenever they undertake a new adventure, and will allow the heroes to field a larger army when it comes to the ultimate battle between good and evil.

Mass Combat

Mass combat is the capstone of the campaign cycle. Depending on how well the heroes advanced the campaign track, the nefarious villain behind everything may launch an invasion. The heroes will assemble an army of allies based on how well they performed, and the pitched battle that results will determine the fate of the Deep Wood.


Two new adversaries have been added – one another faction in opposition to the heroes, and one something new entirely.

Mythic Foes

While most of the foes heroes face are surmountable with grit and determination, there are some opponents that cannot be defeated by mere force. These mythic foes pose significant danger, and can only be defeated by the heroes with significant preparation. In fact, if the heroes confront these foes without research and adequate preparation, they will quickly find themselves in an unwinnable situation.

Cult of Man

There exist secretive groups that seeks to discover the vile magics harnessed by the Kingdom to further their own goals. Venerating relics, unholy artifacts, and the bones of the dead, the Cult of Man seeks to uncover ancient secrets that hint at unleashing untold power. The Cult comes with a full compliment of adversaries of all types.

Playtest 006 Updates: Player Options

While 006 doesn’t include a significant change to heroes, it does add one new item. Much like how each class has a special feature that provides additional utility in combat, each background now comes with an ability useable in non-combat challenges. This will help differentiate the different backgrounds from each other and will help make background selection even more of a meaningful choice.

Playtest 006 Downloads

Player Packet

Playtest 005: Character, Combat, Adversaries

Holy cow, somehow it’s already June: that means it’s Playtest 005 time! This packet contains a multitude of improvements for characters, the combat system, and remade, challenging adversaries

Playtest 005 Updates: Characters

Death to Ability Scores

One of the most dramatic changes for 005 is the elimination of ability scores. I’ve looked at several different ways of making generalization and hyperspecialization equally viable options for characters, but nothing was satisfactory.

005 completely eliminates ability scores, replacing them with a single Roll Bonus that characters include on every roll they make. This is quite beneficial,  as balancing challenges and designing opponents that are equally challenging for generalists and specialists was a frustrating experience, and that dilemma is no-longer a problem.

As it turns out, removing ability scores was an exceptionally simple process, and the game isn’t appreciably weaker for doing so. This reinforces that DTAS was the right choice!

Class Refinements

Playtesters using the previous version suggested that two classes, the Rogue and the Oracle were in tricky spots with respect to their class features.


While the Rogue’s Penetration skill was effective in damaging opponents,  it didn’t work with the rest of the party very well. Sure, it did direct HP damage, but if everyone else still had to carve through armour, meaning that the Rogue’s ability didn’t do a very good job of contributing to the fight.

Consequently, Penetration has been scrapped as a class feature, in favour of a new mechanic that allows the Rogue to initiate an engagement with an interrupt, as a cost of two powers, when in combat situations where she’s got Edge. This transforms the Rogue into an automatic damage machine, and meshes it well with the rest of the party.


Out is the ability for the Oracle to allow hp transfer to allies while engaging. The heal capability has been transferred entirely to powers. This helps eliminate duplication within the class (why bother taking the heal archetype and it’s powers when you can auto-heal for free?)

In place of the autoheal is a similar ability that increases an adjacent ally’s Resistance by one, up to its maximum. This encourages the Oracle to be front and centre in the fray, and giving free Resistance rather than allowing a transfer from Reserve to HP is a huge tactical advantage for frontline combatants.

Playtest 005 Updates: Combat


Totally new to Let Thrones Beware is the Desperation mechanic, which is designed to encourage combat to end quickly. No more combats stretching on for hours. Desperation begins at Composed, and over four rounds, climbs until it reaches Frantic.

In order to streamline combat, the old Edge mechanic has been pulled out. No longer will you have to round dice up or down, depending on the result. In its place, combatants will add or subtract the Desperation value (+1 through +4). This saves time versus figuring out how to modify each die. Further, it also encourages teamwork and collaboration, as the boost is much more significant than previously available.

Initiative Stack

The Initiative Stack is another new system introduced in 005. The old roll+Response stat was quite cargo-culty in design. It went a long way in pigeonholing characters in initiative order. There’s no reason that an equally encumbered Knight shouldn’t be as fast as a Rogue, for example.

In the new system, which has its own detailed post here, the heroes will bid combat powers against their adversaries, with the side who has the highest total initiative score going first.

Playtest 005 Updates: Adversaries

I’ve punched up adversaries in 005! I added a little description to adversary, and they’re now hooked into the Desperation system.

As Desperation increases, the tactics that your foes employ will change. Where once footguard would strategically crowd together, they will break apart, each fending for themselves. Brigands, initially confident in their ability to cut down any foe will grow less sure of themselves.

Their powers too, will change. Ranges will shrink and damage will grow. Foes will gain additional effects as they grow more desperate to defeat the heroes.


Initiative Stack: Making combat order a meaningful choice for players

The Initiative Problem

I continue to churn along in the development of Playtest 005. One of the things that struck me the other day is just how dull and meaningless the current iteration’s initiative system of Tier Die + Response score is. It’s almost entirely luck-driven, and there’s nothing about it that would lead players to make interesting decisions. Plus, it shoehorns characters into acting in a relatively similar order every combat.

A Solution

After mulling this over for a little while, I was struck by a bolt of inspiration, and after a day or so of furious tinkering, emerged from the darkness with a brand new initiative system! The intent of this revision was to make determining initiative a meaningful decision for the players. The party can virtually guarantee that it will act before the baddies they face, but there will be an immediate impact in terms of reduced capability in the first few rounds.

How the Initiative Stack Works

Each adversary the players face has an initiative modifier: arranging these from lowest (typically minion opponents) to highest (fast, mobile enemies) before the fight provides you with the Initiative Stack.

To determine when they go in each combat round, the heroes first decide among themselves the order in which they would like to act. It might make sense for the nimble Rogue to go first in one combat, but in the next, the party may wish to get its heavily armoured Knight into position right at the outset. This decision is made by the party, and the GM has no role to play. Once the heroes have determined their combat order, they as a group exhaust combat powers (as many as they like), totaling the Force Score of the powers they have bid to form an Initiative Stack of their own.

The order in combat is determined by comparing the values of the competing stacks. The side with the highest-valued stack goes first, the largest value is removed from the stack. This done, another comparison is made, and the next-highest value is removed. This continues until the full order is determined. Once determined, initiative order does not shift for the remainder of the combat.

Players begin the first round of combat with all powers chosen for the purposes of determining initiative order exhausted.


An Example

In the above Stack, the heroes have committed to winning the initiative, and have exhausted five powers to try and make sure they go first. In the first comparison, their stack has highest total value (9 vs. 8), and Sue acts first. The heroes remove the rightmost value from their stack, and another comparison is made. This time, the adversary stack is largest (6 vs. 8), and so the Sargent is placed next in initiative order. The adversary stack is reduced, and another comparison is made, identifying Bill as the next to go (6 vs. 4). The comparisons continue in this manner until the order of one side is full determined. At that point, the remainder of the other side is appended to the initiative order.

These comparisons leave us with the following combat order:


Playtest 5: How the Campaign Cycle Pulls Your Game Together

With playtest 4 out the door, it’s time to start discussing new features that will appear in playtest 5. Today, the campaign cycle!


What’s the Campaign Cycle All About?

The campaign cycle is a way to organize your Let Thrones Beware games with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. The cycle is broken up into three distinct chapters (Adventurer, Champion, and Legend), one for each Tier the player-characters reach.



Each chapter focuses on a particular threat which, when resolved, leads into a more ominous threat in the subsequent chapter. In your default setting, the Adventurer chapter is about bandits plaguing the Deep Wood, led by a fearsome bandit queen. This leads into the Champion chapter, focusing on stopping a fanatical death cult that has infiltrated the highest levels of the Baronet’s court. Finally, in the Legend Tier, Heroes confront the otherworldly forces manipulating the cult which threaten to annihilate all of Ceyenus.


Campaign Chapter

Each chapter  is separated into adventures. Three’s normal, but you could do just one if you want to rush, or nine if you’ve got the time. At the end of an adventure, the GM adjusts a villain track depending on their success or failure measuring how well the evil plan progresses. The heroes also get to base-build when they finish an adventure, expanding the town, fortress, or country in which they reside.

Each campaign chapter concludes with a climactic battle between the heroes and their allies and the chapter’s villain the forces that the heroes can marshal against evil depend on the base-building they have accomplished over the course of the chapter. Finally, the heroes engage in a ferocious duel against the villain, and when victorious, transition to bigger and better things.

Playtest 004 Errata

Whoops. These definitions were missing from the playtest packet.

Armour attributes


Heavier armour slows you down, imposing a penalty to your Response score.


Resistance indicates the number of points of damage that your armour can prevent over the course of a combat. Each time you cancel a point of damage, your armour’s resistance is decreased by one. At the end of a fight, your armour’s resistance is reset to its original value.