The end of Amber

14 March, 2014 at 7:47 pm (Amber, game mastering) ()

I started an Amber game. One of the players was okay with playing but not too enthusiastic, one was very enthusiastic, and three others something in between. One of them was going too leave at some point.

One of the players, the enthusiastic one, wanted a political game with secret actions, players against each other and also against environment. Why not, for does not the rulebook also suggest that? He suggested playing between games by email, and so I implemented that. To make things even more interesting, I decided to recruit some background players who would play non-player characters of their choosing or design. This would also happen between sessions.

It turned out that not one of the players actually contributed substantially between games, in any way, not even the one who had suggested this. The organisation of the game was geared towards making this kind of game happen, and it became quite cumbersome and unmotivating when the players were not engaging with the game between sessions.

The background players did their jobs better than I could have hoped, and they did contribute. For a game of political scheming and plotting I will in the future consider similar implementations. I could have tied them more closely to the player characters and each other.

Also, in retrospect it is easy to see that the players, though enthusiastic at the table, were not generally very comfortable with using email for long messages, or responding promptly. Maybe some other players in some distant future will show more interest towards this kind of play.

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Feeding gamers

21 October, 2011 at 3:14 pm (Amber, roleplaying) (, )

I usually cook something moderately edible and feed everyone before we play Amber. Nothing fancy, as my kitchen barely has room for two people to stand (the joys of living in a student apartment), but generally something edible.

I do this for a few reasons.

First one: Fed gamers are happier than hungry ones, and as we are eating people get to talk about comics, games, daily life and politics.

Second one: I like offering people food to eat.

Third: Amber has player contributions – players get points for their characters by agreeing to write game reports, draw trump cards, etc. I’ve got a GM contribution to balance things a bit. This shows certain commitment to the game, which I think makes it better.

Fourth: I think that everyone benefits from eating with other people once a while. This includes roleplayers living by themselves or in cell apartments.

This habit I highly recommend.

Easy food without recipes

Soup: Take some source of protein and enough cookable vegetables to make the food not too depressing. Add sufficient fat so the food contains enough energy that people won’t get hungry. Add salt and spices.

Omelette/etc.: Take eggs. Take whatever bits and pieces of edible matter you can find. Cook those that need it. Once everything else is ready and on the hot frying pan, add the eggs, salt and spices.

Meat and veggies: Take a lot of vegetables that can be eaten with little preparation. Fry meat or some other source of protein, add spices and salt.

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Not saving NPC dignity

18 September, 2011 at 9:48 pm (actual play, Amber, game mastering) (, , , , , )

So, we were playing Amber. There is this one NPC, lady A!Gyre of the house Meria, that holds a lot of very limited power and has been using it once or twice. She is also hidden in a place that is very hard to reach, even for Amberites.  And nobody knew she was there.

One of the player characters got in the contact with agyre. The form of contact was conversation through an old TV display, barely capable of showing colours. The picture was blurry. And on the other side there is this woman-like entity sitting on a far too tall black throne. She has a black featureless mask covering her face, and is made of stone, is the colour of stone, or is just covered with dust.

Some negotiation about who built this certain trap, and a’Gyre demands something in exchange for the information. Simeon, the character who had in his life played the part of Bond-like secret agent, offers a hot night (as reads in the session log – the exact phrase I can’t recall).

A_Gyr had not moved from her seat in ages, so the offer was surprising. She was a fairly unknown chaos entity, so it was surprising to me, the GM.

The two did end up in bed, but we not comfortable with playing through that. I and the player in question did play it out a bit – not the physical stuff, but more the emotional side and building trust and psychical meddling that happened.

Saying yes

My typical preparation for the Amber game is as follows: I have a list of stats for the NPCs, I know what many of them are up to, I have a relationship map which illustrates some of that. Further, I have the next scene for each character somewhat prepared, based on what their plans were at the end of the last session. I may also have a random scene or a few ready, for when the circumstances make it possible (if some NPC has prepared it) or when a good opportunity arises.

I also know, with varying levels of details, what has happened in the past. I also know something about how different powers and items of power function, but exploring this is a significant part of play, so much of it is unknown to me.

I knew a little about aGyre’s motivations, but nothing about personality. Would she accept Simeon’s offer? Could have gone either way, so I left it open for a bit, but than later said yes. In very certain terms – Simeon was at her court, such as it was, full of monsters and entities of unknown powers and intentions.

Status quo?

In Apocalypse world, one of the principles is to look at everything through crosshairs. Consider killing whoever your attention lands on, and do not try to maintain the dignity of NPCs. This does not translate to Amber as such as especially the elder Amberites demand some extra consideration, but in the situation – why not? I don’t have a precious plot to save, so why try to maintain status quo, and not let an adventurous Amberite get it on with a lady of a Chaosite house?

This is something for me to think about, and for something for other game masters to also consider, supposing they are playing a game where big and powerful NPCs roam the lands. Should there be a status quo that you strive to maintain? Why not let the player characters kill Elminster (or maybe fuck Elminster) – the consequences will create enough material to run the game for next sequence of sessions, and the players will be happy. Maybe I’ll look at the elder Amberites through crosshairs – blood curses expected.

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Metaphysics of Amber

1 September, 2011 at 11:02 am (Amber) (, )

There is Amber, the only real place, of which other worlds are but shadows. There are also the courts of Chaos, ever changing, easily molded. Then there is Abyss, from which (almost) nothing has ever returned.

One way to think about it would be to take Pattern as the center of order and stability and lack of change, while have Logrus represent change and instability. But Abyss clearly is emptiness, which is totally unchanging, and still Abyss lies close to the Courts, which seems suspicious.

So I would have Abyss be emptiness while Logrus is everything. They are very close to each other, since neither can separate things from each other: None lie in Abyss, while all of them are in Logrus. Pattern, then, is structure – very far from nothing and everything. This is how an Amberite might see the situation.

But what of the Chaosite perspective? Certainly nothing is the ultimate in structure, for it (vacuously) has all the structure imaginable, and so Abyss must lie somewhere behind Pattern and Amber, if looked at from Chaos.

What of the Abyssian point of view? Well, it is empty, so there must be nobody looking, and so the issue is moot.

And what of Corwin’s pattern? Suppose it is another center of order. Is it compatible with the pattern of Amber, or do they simply not interact at all, or are their conceptions of order constantly struggling? And how does all of that look from whichever perspective one takes?

This all reflects on the use of powers when moving through Shadow. By Pattern-walking both Abyss and Logrus are distant from Amber, but maybe for the Chaosites, however they move, both Pattern and Abyss are distant places. Or do some Chaosites wield the powers of Abyss, or do some other entities? Then, for them, both Logrus and Pattern would be far, however they move.

Yet, as a further complication, it is tedious to shift Shadow near Amber. What of the other powers, and how well does Pattern work near the other centers of power? What of Corwin’s pattern, and initiates to it?

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Diceless in Finnish and other unfinished projects

26 July, 2011 at 11:40 am (Amber, dungeon crawling, game design, Ropecon, Solar system) (, , )

I developed the ideas of previous post a bit, cleaned them up, and wrote them down in Finnish. It is not done yet. It is free of copyright, so do whatever you will with or to it. Here’s the link: diceless

WordPress does not allow uploading .tex or .txt files, so if you want the .tex source for the PDF, feel free to ask. You can then recreate the PDF with LaTeX and easily modify it, change the appearance, remove the aesthetically unpleasing hyperlinks, or whatever you want to.

I also have two other PDFs that may have content of interest. I have not really worked on them for a while, and if I do so, it will include rewriting and in case of the old school project redesign from scratch. The projects are scifi material for Solar System (in Finnish) and yet another attempt at old school system (in English). Links: huomisenvarjot and OSrpg. A fair warning: The writing and presentation are horrible. These are more first drafts than anything else.

As previously, the .tex and .bib (bibliography) files are available on request.

Now I’m off to meet relatives and then to Ropecon, where I’m running one throne war of Amber diceless and one town of Dogs. Back online after a bit more than a week.

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Vanilla fantasy diceless

20 July, 2011 at 9:33 pm (Amber, game design)

This is an idea for a method for world creation and for playing a preferably high-powered fantasy rpg. This is rambling and overtly detailed, but the idea was making my sleep difficult so I had to write it somewhere.

Inspirations

Consider, how in Amber diceless, there are four attributes (psyche, strength, warfare, endurance) which correspond to different arenas of conflict – though endurance is more of a supporting attribute, but let us ignore that for now. Since the attributes are auctioned from a common pool of resources, balance between them is not a great problem.

Consider computer strategy games, real-time or not, with fantastic creatures. For example: Battle for Wesnoth, Heroes of might and magic, and Warlords & Warlords battlecry. (Various iterations of each, naturally.) Typically they have various factions which are often tied to races/species or cultures. The factions have certain mechanical tendencies. In Wesnoth drakes breath and resist fire and are individually tough, orcs rely on hordes of damaging units while elves fight and move exceptionally well in forests and have strong archery. There are also thematic trends. In Warlods battlecry, dark dwarves have war machines and magical technology, demons have summoning and souls, while orcs have aggressive and simple units.

Synthesis

Suppose there are at least three players and maybe a game master (not counted as a player here). I’d like to have four or five players for this. Each player selects one theme or venue of conflict or something similar. This could be: warfare, beauty, horse, runic magic, dream, faith, water, thunderstorm, cunning, politics, candle, sword, economics, alien technology, mutant, spider. There are constraints on this, but they are soft and social. Group can and should discuss what sort of elements they want – consider that everyone select an animal, or a Greek or Chinese element, or some form of magic, or maybe a tarot card or horoscope. Or just have a chaotic soup and see what emerges.

The selected elements are the attributes all characters have. Now each player needs paper for character sheet. There’s an auction for each attribute. For the order of attributes, determine randomly or as follows: Each player selects a number between one and hundred. First auction the attribute associated with the second highest number, then the third highest, …, and finally the highest.

The auctions happen pretty much as in Amber diceless. Each player has hundred points. The player whose element is auctioned does not participate in the auction, while every other player does. First participants each make a blind bid. These are listed and public. Any bid after this must exceed the highest bid thus far. 99 is absolute maximum bid, while 0 is the minimum. If there is chaos, proceed as follows: The lowest bidder first has an opportunity to bid higher, than the second lowest bidder, and so on until everyone has had an opportunity. Then repeat until done. All bids are binding. If players do not use all their points, or bid in excess of them, they get corresponding amount of good or bad karma or fate or luck or stuff (use whichever term has not been selected by any player as an element). Optionally, you can allow upping the attributes in secret, up to the number of points equal to any higher bid minus one.

For each attribute, calculate the total number of points bid on it (so whatever the player who selected that element bought is not included in the total). Sort the attributes correspondingly. The attribute with the highest total is the most relevant, and so on.

Now you need an empty paper for a map. A4 or A3 should be quite enough. The player who selected the highest attribute starts by drawing some place that is the center of her element roughly in the middle of the map. It could be a kingdom, a mountain, a forgotten and ancient statue, crashed alien spaceship, or some other reasonably evocative location. The player names the location and gives a brief description of it, thereby explaining how it relates to the player’s element. This also further defines the element – consider: Fire as the element, and the location is a city with its citizens fiery of nature and red of complexion, or the location a lonely mountain that occasionally spews forth liquid fire, or a huge forest through which fires often run. Each gives a very different view of the element. Take another paper, write the element in the middle of it, and write down some of these associations (or use a list instead of mind map).

The other players do the same in order of their attributes, always selecting some large empty area of the map (consider established locations and edges as not empty and stay some distance away) and telling what place there lies and how it relates to their element. There are few limitations: Anything associated with one element can’t be associated to another. E.g. if quick thinking is associated to fire, it can’t be associated to speed (with fire and speed as elements). For each element again take a paper and use it for a list or mind map.

Now, for each attribute, rank all player characters. The one who selected the attribute is always first and must use corresponding points (at least highest bid + 1 points, that is). The ranks, not the points, are used for resolution most of the time, but more on that later.

The lowest ranked player character gets some vulnerability or weakness or curse related to the attribute – the nature of this should be discussed by at least the player who selected that attribute and the player whose character is involved. Write new stuff on the relevant attribute page as thus required. Examples (format: attribute – weakness): Warfare – crippled, faith – marked as evil, insect – small and fragile, politics – never accepted as honest, candle – cursed to turn to stone in sunlight. The second lowest ranked character has no special power or vulnerability. As for others, it depends on the number of players.

If there are three players, the first ranked gets one perk or benefit or blessing or whatever related to the attribute. If there are four, first rank gives two benefits while second rank gives one. If there are five, second and third rank give one, other as before. In case of six players, fourth rank gives nothing particular, others as before. Perks should be discussed among the involved players or everyone in case of first ranked characters. They can be special powers (consider e.g. trumps in Amber, magic in various fantasy settings) or extraordinary physical capabilities or networks of contacts or items of power.

At least now, but earlier if the inspiration strikes, players should tell who their characters are. Typical stuff – description, some bits of history perhaps, some mannerisms, some beliefs and goals, friends and enemies. So on. The character may or may not have ties to the locations. To help in character creation, players (and GM) should decide on the power level of play. The easiest way is to set up the number of points that most people have. If it is 10, then player characters are quite powerful, like the gods in myths of ancient Greeks. Something like 100/(number of players) + small bonus would give very competent player characters, while larger bonus would reduce the competency. Hundred points for everyone would make players characters ordinary in terms of stats, and anything above that would make player characters below normal. See resolution below for details.

Using the map, fractally

To start playing, select some spot from the map. Go with consensus, have the player with the highest karma decide, take median of x- and y-coordinates of the established locations, or act as follows: Let the player who selected the least influential attribute select a spot, and then have the player with next least influential attribute either (1) move it halfway towards the location she established or (2) move it directly away from the closest established location, exactly doubling the distance, then go through rest of the players in the same order. The result may be an unestablished location. Or possibly have every player select one location for their character.

Whenever player characters come to an empty place on the map, check how far away it is from the elemental locations established in character and world creation. For our purposes, there are three possibilities. The simplest is that one of the elemental locations is clearly closest to the new location. Then the related player describes and draws the new location on the map. Slightly more complicated: There is only a minor difference in distance between two elemental locations. Then whichever is closer dominates – the player may choose to either describe or draw and name the new location. The other involved player does the other thing, of course along the lines established by the first one. If two elemental locations are equally far away, then use the ranking of the attributes to and go as per previous point. If more than two are involved, then divide the tasks further.

You can use a similar method for drawing maps of smaller locations, such as those on the map. First, establish order of the attributes by distance of this location to the elemental locations, breaking ties by dominance order of the attributes if required. Second, have the player related to the first attribute place something related to that and in accordance with the description of the location on the map. Have everyone do this. These are the new elemental locations on this map. For space between them, use the previous rules. Zoom in as necessary.

Resolution

For resolution I think the Amber diceless would work fine. If some event is left unresolved by common sense, then check if it relates to some attribute. The mind maps or lists are helpful for this. If the issue is included, then use the relevant attribute. If there are several that could be used, then check whichever is dominant (use either the global ranking or the geographical methods – I’d be inclined for the latter and getting rid of the global attribute ranking altogether, since it seems cumbersome), and add some related word to that attribute’s list or mind map.

Once the dominant attribute is determined, proceed as in Amber: There is a ranking of attributes established by the players. Any NPC either follows it or has rank zero (above highest player character – this is not recommended to be the case), half ranks (between the player character ranks), and one entire rank for those that are below all the player character ranks. Higher rank eventually wins a conflict, unless there is something to tip the odds. Half a rank of difference requires only minor contribution to overcame, while each complete rank of difference requires one significant factor. These judgment calls should be done by the game master or by uninvolved players or by consensus. Aggressive or defensive tactics and feints (and whatever equivalents) count as significant circumstances, as do smart decisions in general. Edge in karma implies extra opportunities for making decisions and in particular retreating.

Adding players

To add a new player, have that one know the previous elements and select a new one. The player then spends points on all or some of these, possibly changing their dominance order, and is ranked as others are. The player character gets one good perk on their attribute and nothing from others. Players draws to a new part of the map or large unclaimed territory far from the others – consider adding a new A4, for example. That player describes the location as normal and is then ready to play. The new attribute should be written down as the others were.

Character change

At some intervals players are allowed to shift points from pools to others. I’d go with one point per session, but it might be more meaningful to move five points every five sessions, or whatever. The pools are: particular attributes, karma. Further, change can happen in play: Some ritual or training might allow moving points, maybe even in powerful manner. Being exposed to new source of influence (see adding players, above) may or may not allow immediate transfer of points. This is up to the fiction and game master or consensus or the player associated with the new attribute.

I would not allow character development in the form of adding points, though that might be reasonable if there are entities with more points than the player characters have.

Cool powers and trinkets and curses and affiliations to groups may be gained and lost in play. Maybe karma can be allocated to a particular item or group, if someone wants to.

Meta

In an auction, players should bid most on what they find interesting and evocative (it will tend to become useful), and less of what they don’t feel intellectually comfortable with (if something is emotionally or socially uncomfortable, deal with it by talking and aborting or going on with it in spite of that, knowing you can trust the other participants). Having your attribute first in the auction is a benefit, since in that case you know how much you must spend on it – the others must guess.

You can have GM participate in character and world creation, or decide who is the GM after creating characters, and use the GM’s character as an NPC.

You can have each player establish something about the setting before drawing anything on the map, in the same order. These should relate to the attributes the players selected, and be such as – this world is a huge network of caves, people here have skin the colour of copper, birds are divine, there are dinosaurs.

It is reasonably easy to use this as a world creation and detailing process and playing by some completely different rules. By converting the attributes established here to some other system one can even use the characters generated herein as sketches for characters in some other system. Or they can be used as gods of the setting, with the elemental locations their holy places and centers of power. Cosmology and world creation in the same deal.

The fantasy genre is almost arbitrary – it is an easy and well known basis for many roleplayers and allows for varied elements.

Anyway, this is completely untested, so use with care, or steal ideas with abandon. I like the mapping mechanics.

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Metagaming in Amber

1 July, 2011 at 8:46 am (Amber, game mastering) (, , , )

In my Amber game, none of the players are familiar with the setting. None. I am, somewhat, and thus far sufficiently.

So, we start with the standard amnesiac plot – you are all prisoners in this facility and know nothing. Have fun.

The players of course knew what I told them during character creation. I also told them to freely read the rulebook, and if they happen to read Amber material online, that is also completely okay. Their characters recover their memories to the extent that the players find out about things. They should still note that my Amber is, by necessity, not the official Amber, as I don’t remember that well enough. So their characters might have misconceptions and remember falsities. I get all that for free by allowing metagaming in these ways.

The organisation which imprisoned the player characters is (heavily inspired by) the SCP foundation. They have, for example, already had several encounters with [REDACTED], have sort of allied themselves with certain employee of the foundation, and attacked it more than once, generally pretty unsuccesfully due to lack of preparation and disparity in manpower. I have stated that they are free to read any stuff found there and use it to their own advantage, though my SCP foundation is not exactly what they find there, as before.

As a game master it takes some trying to not simply tell things or hint at them or whatever, especially when not playing. Games with serious secrets and hidden information are pretty much unlike the games I usually run, where there is certainly unknown information, but revealing it is not a problem. Here hidden information and not knowing are parts of the game. We also theoretically use secret notes, though actual use has been sparse, mostly due to old habit of not using them at all. I should send some dummy ones. And some proper ones, too.

As with all things, claiming that metagaming is good or bad is useless. In this case, it is mostly desired, but players are also free to stick with what their characters know. It might even be more fun that way, depending on the player. Players are free to make the call either way.

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Unique and beautiful amberite

30 June, 2011 at 10:05 pm (actual play, Amber)

A brief description of character generation in Amber diceless and some commentary on how it went. See the previous blog post for an introduction.

Characters start with 100 points. These are used to buy the following: Attributes, powers and items. The balance remains as good or bad stuff, essentially karma. Powers are expensive: Pattern, the fundamental and very useful power, is described as a bargain for 50 points. Attributes have the following scale: Attribute may be human level (which gives 25 points and is very much discouraged), chaos rank (gives 10 points) which stands for peak human ability, amber level (0 points, default) which is a major improvement over chaos rank. Further, each attribute is auctioned and bids buy ranks. Whoever has the first rank is significantly and permanently better than the other player characters. Only the ranks matter, points spent do not. In theory. In practice, NPCs (of which there are several in default cases) have point values, so ranking player characters with them goes by points. After auction, players can buy up the attributes of their characters so as to provide hidden information and uncertainty.

There is also player contributions: Diary, game reports and drawing trump (tarot) cards of the player characters and other major characters all give 10 character points per commitment. I add: Bringing munchies gives 5.

There are four attributes – Strength, warfare, psyche and endurance. The first three are used directly in conflicts, while endurance breaks ties and works as a sort of battery for powers. Of the attributes strength and sometimes endurance are judged weak, while psyche and warfare are strong. This is not a problem, since the auction nicely balances this. We had the first rank in psyche with 30 points, while first rank in strength was mere 11 points, so it was quite a bargain in comparison.

I set one limit: Everyone is to have at least amber rank endurance. That way they can regrow lost body parts and recover from other injuries in reasonable time and can acquire the pattern power. I did not force them to take pattern to start with and only one character has it (as public knowledge). I did emphasise that it is a good power and highly recommended. I suppose the other powers looked more interesting. Pattern allows one to shift from shadow (reality) to another, to manipulate probabilities, and gives certain other benefits.

Right now one of the characters has frequently used pattern to move from a reality to another, one draws trump cards, which are sort of cell phone-teleporters with extra risk of mental assault when used and allow travel to known locations and to familiar people, though they are slow to use. One has a pollaxe that allow to seek objects in shadow, but which is limited when compared to pattern. One has not demonstrated any significant ability shift through shadows. The trumps have been rarely useful (though there is a reason for this that is not related to their usefulness), pollaxe sometimes and pattern frequently.

So, of four characters, one is shadow-crippled and two have problems. One is as capable as one would assume an amberite to be. Give the players enough rope to hang themselves…

As it happens, the character without ability to travel shadow is separated from the others, in an unknown reality, and with no good means of escaping. There is one risky way, though, and more might be found – but they’ll have a price.

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Now running: Amber diceless

8 June, 2011 at 10:34 pm (Amber, game mastering) (, )

I’ve been playing in several fairly short games with the Monday rpg group, but now I have again managed to start running a game, or maybe even a campaign, with some energy to it. We’ve played five sessions thus far. The players are Aleksi, Henrik, Mikko and one who on the internet goes by the name of Thalin.

Amber diceless is based on the Amber books by Roger Zelazny that seem to be quite obscure hereabouts, which is sort of pity. I read the roleplaying game first, then at some point (it has been more than five years, I suppose) read the books when Gastogh bought them, and then reread the rpg. Recently Thalin gave the rpg to me, or, rather, I saved it from an unknown destiny when Thalin moved.

Some mild spoilers about the books follow.

The cosmology of Amber is vast. There is a central pole, the city of Amber itself, which (simplifying and lying a bit) represents order. On the far edges of the multiverse there are the Courts of Chaos and behind them there is the Abyss, vast nothingness. Between these are innumerable shadows (of Amber), each of which is a world or a universe in and of itself. Our world, the shadow Earth, is one of them. The entire setting of Planescape presumably is one of them. Amberites can walk from shadow to shadow – they can, for example, find a shadow of their desire by starting anywhere and shifting between shadows until they get there. So, the multiverse or the cosmology or whatever is, well, quite large. There are philosophical issues and details that I choose to omit, as they are not really relevant until someone starts seriously playing around with the Pattern, i.e. the power of walking between shadows.

More accurately, almost all Amberites can walk through shadows. Of the four characters, one has in public admitted to having the power. This is somewhat due to the peculiar character creation rules and certain psychological factors, I presume, but more on those later.

Amber diceless is actually a diceless rpg. It does not use any other randomiser or bidding system or other complicated resolution system, either. Characters have attributes and they are compared. In a fair fight, the higher attribute wins. In practice, what the play is about is not having a fair fight. This can be accomplished by manipulating the fiction and using certain mechanical powers, more on which later.

For reference: The game was published in 1991 and was designed by Erick Wujcik. One interested in its design philosophy could do worse than read Wujcik’s article on diceless roleplaying. The articles is short and though it is hosted on the Forge, there’s never any GNS mentioned. Really.

I do also intend this article to mark the rebirth of my humble blog. Let us see how it goes.

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