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Fudging Dice, Saving Characters

Buccaneers 2Nobody likes to see a character die (well, most of the time) and when you’re sitting behind the screen and you can see the shoulders of a player square off you know the table is about to rumble. The temptation to give a little to see this staved off is a strong one and members of the group that are fond of the character will go to great, improbable lengths to see that mortal coil wound back up – an act that may or not be a just one, but an inevitable event regardless.

The DM has the power to intervene in these unfortunate situations, but there’s a serious danger here – not only are you messing with the continuity of the game, you’re setting a precedent. When you say, “your armor breaks and partially deflects the blow, nullifying the critical hit” when the PC has no means to express this ability with statistics means that you’re going to hear that in another combat down the line where a character’s life is not about to end. When you grant an extra +2 circumstance bonus to make sure somebody with a prodigious grip makes it up the side of a cliff, you’ll get requests for similar bonuses the next time they get disarmed.

While nobody wants to die, nobody wants to stop getting extra bonuses either; like a kid eating ice cream, players are going to try and get as much of it as possible until they start feeling sick. What’s a DM to do?The skeleton in armor

The DM in one of my games (a wily goblin man named JP Krhovsky), has come up with a fabulous solution for situations like these. He endorses the use of ‘hero points’, which in his games are used to cinematic effect and allow for a character to do quite a bit more than they might normally achieve (for instance, instead of my 3rd level cleric dying, he spent his one hero point to kill 4 gnolls before going unconscious). This is mitigated by the circumstances required to get one (still haven’t managed that yet) but essentially it’s a John-Woo-get-out-of-death-free card. Because they are so rare it doesn’t take too much control from him but it still empowers players and lets them save their arses when the situation demands it.

Given my penchant for flourish and generally applauded locution, a hero point is extremely dangerous in my proverbial hands (which, I suspect, is why I still haven’t gotten another one) and I wouldn’t recommend it to most groups. Chances are good that a fair amount of players are going to use that hero point for more dubious purposes, which makes it a far less balancing element than it might otherwise be; for example, “in one smooth motion I dash by the wizard, nabbing his spell book before using my free hand to unsheathe and abscond with the king’s enchanted sword as I flip the tome open to the page with the teleport spell, disappearing as the magic washes over me before being transported to the forests outside of the country’s borders.”

The precedent set by my dwarf (getting two more attacks than is even possible at 3rd level) makes me believe that what I describe above is far more reasonable and inside of a minute or two I’d have convinced the table of the same. That’s a whole bag of holding filled with crap that nobody wants to deal with, so once again, I dissuade the use of these sorts of ‘damn the dice’ objects for the vast majority of groups.

7-dice-setThat is not the only item in this DM’s bag of tricks however, and the one I’m about to expound upon is definitely something I think could find its way into the hands of players everywhere; an entropic die. A magic artifact with a variable aura, when rolled (a free action) it dispenses a bane or boon depending on how high or low the result is. What the bane or boon is, nobody knows but the DM – at times it might simply enlarge the combatants on either side of a conflict, or swap the weapons in the hands of either side, or reincarnate a recently died comrade (or enemy) or polymorph an enemy into a dragon – it all depends on the roll.

Dress it however you like (my cleric worships the trickster god in his campaign) but the inclusion of one of these items, whether the party knows they have it or not, is thematically appropriate and enhances the gaming experience; anywhere with a wagon can reasonably have dice and what more, it strengthens the connection between players and their characters.

So the next time your group’s favorite dwarf takes a mortal critical hit, pull out the shiniest six sided die you have (or the biggest) and roll it (personally I prefer to spin it) while saying, “and as you begin to fall for what may be the last time, a curious die rolls from your sleeve and tumbles across the ground. It bounces along, the pulses of light coming from it intensifying with each contact before…”


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An Alternative Approach with Myth and Magic

jormungandr-3Myth & Magic is from a company called New Haven Games; I was one of the many backers of the Kickstarter for the player’s guide (there’s a free starter guide available here) and DM guide. As with many of these projects out there, things have been slow and the fate of the ultimate outcome doesn’t look too promising but as a backer I got a PDF copy of the aforementioned player’s guide, a PDF of the player journals that were made and I simply use a copy of the DM starter guide. I sent it all to Kinkos and use these as my primary books, along with my old 2nd edition AD&D tomes and the Pathfinder rule set.

In a nutshell, Myth & Magic keeps the 2nd edition feel by using weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. Classes have choices, but less than they have in Pathfinder; they’re more structured as opposed to ‘pick anything you want’ and the spells are a bit more old school than the more polished Pathfinder magic.

091-Costumes-of-Priests-01-priest-q97-642x1096The are two reasons I looked for a new system (and don’t get me wrong I love Pathfinder) ; first off, I was spending too much prep time before each game, especially at higher levels and if I didn’t prep, I wasted time looking up rules and page flipping at the game table. Secondly I noticed that my group was going through the motions when playing. Sure, we had fun and laughed but I wasn’t getting the old excitement from the games like I used to back in the day. So I started looking at my old stuff but over the years we’ve advanced too far to go back to something too simple like 1st edition D&D, and while 2nd edition D&D was my big chunk of gaming it was clunky. At the Paizo boards I came across Myth & Magic and it’s great; it puts the DM back in charge without too much rule searching and I can make more things up on the fly.

Currently I’m running my players through the Pathfinder Adventure Path “Carrion Crown” and we are having a blast, and I use the stats mostly as written in the books. Since it’s Paizo’s attempt at a gothic horror setting I’m also incorporating old Ravenloft games/characters into the plot as well; when I use the old stuff, it easily converts. I’m spending less prep time for each session which helps me focus more on story elements, and by having a few less rules it puts most of the decisions back in my hands and my players have gone back to being more creative.

The Pathfinder/3.5 feel of the system comes from using ascending armor class, the three saving throw stats and instead of feats, they have class talents (and there are not as many of them); all in all I like it. They’ve also created the Base 20 system, where the DM sets most of the DC numbers (referred to as TC for Target Complexity). The challenge of the task to accomplish is chosen to be Basic (a TC of 5); Average (a TC of 10), Superior (a TC of 15) or Exceptional (a TC of 20). There’s also a Legendary category with a TC of 25. Proficiencies are ranked and provide bonuses to rolls rather than regular skill ranks. This isn’t true of combat, but applies to pretty much everything else.

medieval-clothes-5BASE is the acronym in use here. To search a room a PC can use the nonweapon proficiency (NWP) Perception or simply make a Wisdom check, depending on which system you use (as proficiencies are optional). You can have Basic, Average, Superior or Exceptional skill level in each NWP (+2, +4, +6 and +8 respectively) although no first level character can be more adept than Average. Attributes are treated as 1-for-1 in terms of providing modifiers, making an 11 +1, a 12 +2 and so on and so forth.

For example, a first level thief with an Intelligence of 14 gets a +4 modifier. He spends his NWP points to take Average skill level in Perception. When searching a room, he rolls D20 + 8 (+4 Intelligence and +4 Average level) and is trying to beat the TC the DM sets (which is based on how easy or difficult it would be to find something hidden.) Meanwhile a cleric with a Wisdom of 18 has a +8 modifier to search the room, simply rolling an attribute check (which comes out to the same D20 + 8 to roll.) Please note that Myth & Magic has charts for each ability and the ability check modifiers are higher than either 2nd Edition was or Pathfinder is. For example, a Wisdom of 18 gives you a +8 to all Wisdom ability checks, but only a +3 to your Fortitude Saving Throw. There’s separate columns for each of these under the relevant attributes.

dire rat

Instead of the party’s thief taking 10 to search for traps, then opening the door, seeing giant rats, make a hit to throw torch at them and so on, we were treated to him making a Perception roll, spotting the beady red eyes, throwing open the door and making an acrobatic leap up onto the tower walls to get out of the way as he hurled the lit torch at the pack of rats scurrying out to attack. Later he stylishly did a back flip over the party (being in the front and landing at the rear) to avoid the oncoming haunt approaching them, the sneaky bugger!

There are enough options to keep the players happy but more structure to keep character creation and leveling changes to a minimum. True, most of what’s described above is just that and easily mutable, and I can do that with the normal Pathfinder rules, but this new hybrid is working out better for us and ultimately that’s what matters at the gaming table.

Dennis Pascale

(edited by Mike Myler)

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Avaricious Advancement – Dealing with Greedy PCs

Not everyone plays a roleplaying game the same way intentionally, and the results are often spectacular when you get those players to step outside of their comfort zone.
I know this because I am one of those players.
rogue 1Unless there’s a vow or alignment restrictions (and sometimes despite my best efforts even then) there’s deceit and greed aplenty that just seeps into every PC that I bring to the table. More gold, more fame, more powerful items (heck, more items); you name it, and Boris/Rankir/Fedlin/Krathar/etcetera want it.

You’ve talked with me, you’ve told me outside of game that it’s stressing party tensions, you’ve tried bribing me with food and drink but it never seems to change.

What do you do? There’s a few ways to go about it.

The first option I’m going to present is typically the worst way to go: appeasement. History has taught us time and again that this just doesn’t work, but a roleplaying game is a more contained object than the world at large. Hooking this player up with loot is an option that carries its own dangers though (which you can read my solutions to here) and should generally be avoided if you can help it.
If it’s a matter of stealing from party members, give the suspicious PCs a circumstancial bonus when the heist is going down. It shouldn’t be a staggering thing, but it should get progressively harder as time goes on (paranoia will do that to you.)
Are they continually winning the loot lottery? Make specific items they don’t have the racial or class requirements to use.


154-Beggar-with-Hurdygurdy-q90-602x950The second option is probably the best one but is by and far the most time intensive. One of the biggest problems with me and people like me is that way too much game time gets spent amassing wealth (and the various dangers associated with doing so via dubious means).

To break open more time to game as a group, indulge the player with individual sidequests. Even if they don’t walk away heavy with loot (and they are probably less likely to, since you’ve got something prepared and can fully explore all the ramifications of their actions) they’ll still get some play time out of it and an opportunity to affect the game’s plot, and that is ultimately why they are there.

The acquisition of items and wealth are a reflection of their desire to express greater control in the game world and you’re granting them that with their side quests. As a result you’re going to have a happier player and a more active gaming group.


You don’t have the indulgence or the time for either of the above suggestions and you don’t want to just kick them out of the group; what else is there to do?

This last option is by and far my favorite, but should be avoided unless you’ve developed a bit of talent for manipulation and can deal with someone initially being quite frothy with you.

fighter 8Give them a cursed item. Not just a cursed item, but an intelligent one, an unusual one. Check out the Deck of Many Things (which is not a solution, because every single time it’s been introduced to me, I draw like 7 cards and walk out two levels higher with wings) and get a good look at the Knight/Page of Swords/Jack of Hearts, and when they ask you about this cite that card in the artifact.

This cursed item, whatever it may be, only activates when grabbed by the greedy or those consumed by avarice. Make it shiny and golden, something that they won’t leave a dungeon without. Once they’ve taken it, it never ever leaves them. When sold or thrown away, it reappears in their pocket. Research reveals that it bonds to the user’s soul until death (removable only via true ressurrection or wish).

The next time they wake up, they’ve gained the services of a (Character Level – 1) Lawful Good fighter (effectively granting them the Leadership feat for this companion). It looks exactly like them and always keeps within a few feet as long as possible, obsessed with guarding their well-being. This is because the fighter is a manifestation of their inner goodness, their desire to submit to the rules and laws of civilization and to respect all they encounter. It cannot be damaged or harmed by the PC in any way – indeed, it is a physical manifestation of themselves, which is why it can harm the PC, and it will. Whenever they get into the swing of looting, their lawful good companion must make a Will save (DC 10+1/2 character level+highest stat modifier) or both immediately take (1/2 level x d10) damage and are fatigued if they get greedy, attempted to steal or force a poor trade or are otherwise dubious.

Over time the value of this free feat (which is pretty sweet all told) will easily outweigh any additional loot they get their hands on in both terms of statistical advantage and roleplay.

There are other solutions of course, but these are where I typically go to when the situation is reversed and I’m behind the screen.

Treasure Golem

What do you do in these situations? What have you tried and failed with? Succeeded with? Not sure yet? Leave a comment!


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Magic Items Gone Wild – When Excalibur Becomes More Than A Tool

004Whether you admit it or not, I think you love loot.  Everybody does. Magic Items are often the frosting on the cake for me as a player; unless I’m specifically trying not to, I’m always playing a rogue in cleric/fighter/wizard/etc.’s clothing (yes, I will get to a post about how to deal with people like me later, although the Pathfinder Gamemaster’s Guide has some novel ideas) and the acquisition of more impressive and unique items is always among my priorities. We are playing swords and sorcery type games, right? Gimme that enchanted bling!

There are occasions, however, when in our infinite wisdom and kindness as the arbiters of player fates that we may get too merciful and give out a bounty that really is just too good. Whether it’s the keystone of a plot, a weapon wielded by an NPC that was never intended to fall into player hands or just a whimsical allowance for an obscene treasure roll, there’s no shortage of GMs that have made the mistake of handing out something that should have stayed in the books.


What happens? It depends on the circumstances. In a game years in the past my group was doing a wizard’s academy thing (Harry Potter was popular at the time – I think we may have stopped after the DM had enough of me asking when the quidditch match was going to happen; either that or I left for college) and our low level characters, on a holiday, encountered a fledgling dragon terrorizing a small town. To make the whole scenario more plausible inside of an academic schedule, we’d been given a scroll of teleport to speedily return home from whatever our intended goal was. Fortunately everyone knew magic missile and we had no shortage of castings at our disposal (there may have been a wand or two to boot) and much to the surprise of everyone, we beat the pants off that beastie, which in typical draconic fashion fled to fight another day.Dragon Red


This was what the plot called for – next time we got a chance, our more experienced characters had a dragon to face down. As I mentioned previously, however, I am always playing a rogue, and I wasn’t about to let that get out of my hands, no sir. After about five minutes I had convinced everyone that the thing to do was teleport to the dragon’s cave and ambush it when it came back since it was nearly dead anyway (“We’ll return as heroes in a caravan with valuable magical components!”); it worked like a charm. The very experienced DM of my youth had his bases covered though and used that surprising scenario to expedite other plot events and did an amazing job of integrating it into the overall story.


That’s one way – unexpected mobility. This instance was just a single scroll of a potent spell, but it easily could have been a flying carpet, ebony steed or any other movement item. If it’s getting your players out of reach of your enemies, grant some special ranged attacks or put them in environments where that just isn’t a viable option (maybe the winds are too fierce to ride easily or the walls are covered in a strange hazard that negates Slippers of Spider Climbing). You are the master of the game! It is well within your power to create obstacles that match the abilities of your players, keeping things challenging without diminishing the extraordinary talents at their disposal. If they’re using an item in a way not described or immediately calculated by the creator, don’t hesitate to do the same; just try to be fair about it.


mite__simon_buckroydPerhaps more common (and probably more difficult to deal with) is when an overpowered weapon falls into a PC’s hands. Everybody loves a magic armament that amps up their combat prowess and I’ve known several players that go to great lengths in regard to their arsenal of weaponry. Of course this can be a solution as well as a hindrance – powerful tools of combat are sought after by many parties and anyone that loses their favorite item is going to be quite prepared to collect it from whatever party took it.

This is a good time to mention this: if you haven’t picked up Sean K. Reynold’s File Off the Serial Numbers ($2), do it now – it’ll give you some brilliant ideas on how to take unique creatures and quickly substitute them for more mundane NPCs that fit your immediate needs. This is going to be especially useful for anyone who’s dealing with the problem described above – that flaming sword isn’t so good against the misguided hound-archon-statistics-block-turned paladin with ‘fire resistance’ cast on it. Check it out.


Fighter 13

What about armor that is continually giving someone an invulnerable advantage? There’s always combat maneuvers and if the disparity is truly great, this is a wonderful opportunity for a dual sequence combat (where the PC in question is faced off against one ‘prepared’ foe and the remainder of the party gets on with things as usual.) Don’t just run a side battle – run a small side quest. Make their success (which should have something to do with that terrific item they’ve got) have real-time consequences on their allies, or vice versa.


PotionThen there are the unique items. I’m guilty of abusing the Bag of Tricks myself, and were I in my gamemaster’s place, it would have stopped working the third time a summoned animal was forced through a trap-infested hallway. Instead, there would be a bonus or something when the use is friendlier to the spirit of the item. Maybe they emerge with an advancing template or instead of pulling one, you get three or four lesser creatures from another version. If you don’t offer your PCs incentive to do more playing by the rules, why should they?


Of course, maybe that’s an integral part of your game. Instead of letting that one character’s powerful magic item take the stage, give everyone a proverbial mic that lets them stand out as well. Every PC can have an item that amplifies their racial or class abilities, or better yet, fits the behavior of the character. If the Bard is always rushing headlong into battle, grant them something that boosts their Bardic Music ability when they do so. If the Monk is always taking a contemplative, peaceful approach to obstacles, give them some awareness-based item or a piece of gear that enhances their social skills when they are following The True Way. Without Excalibur there is no Arthur, after all.


This is going full circle though – the ultimate answer is you. Whatever you do to ameliorate the situation, remember not to play the ‘god giveth and god taketh away’ trope. Nobody likes having their toys taken away and in my experience it’s easier to bring something out of your own play chest rather than deal with a (rightly) angry player.



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Empowering Experience – Setting aside CR

036-letter-writing-correspondence-q90-1974x1052Everyone has their own concept of what an ideal tabletop experience should entail. Sometimes this means a rigid adherence to every detail to really drive home the simulation and aspects of reality inherent in a roleplaying game, right down to the carefully maintained inventory of carried equipment and penalties for anyone a pound past the limit. This is where it’s at for some groups.

That’s just never been the case for me.

 When I sit down to run (or play in) a game ultimately the reason is to participate in a story. It’s all storytelling. This system takes a nuanced approach whereas another is far broader and you can pick and choose your favorite (personally I’m waiting for my fiancee to grab a copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen for our anniversary; apparently it only uses coins?) but ultimately I think there’s a place in every tabletop gamer’s heart for the original, the irreplaceable, the indomitable: Dungeons and Dragons. But as I mentioned above, everyone’s idea of what makes a good game is different. For me it’s about the story and certainly not the numbers. You sit down to engage it as an empowering experience and getting bogged down in math just doesn’t sit with me (although I’ve seen plenty of satisfaction when someone’s critical mathematical plan falls into place and that is great).

pyroThis doesn’t mean you should go fudging dice willy-nilly. If anything it should deter you from doing so. The beautiful thing about roleplaying games is that the story generated is extremely organic – a good session of dice rolling can go places that nobody could have anticipated! When the final hour of play is coming to a close my players aren’t asking me how many experience points they garnered from the encounters because that’s just not how I do it.

In an ideal (or programmed) world every adventure I design still would not reward the exact amount of experience required to properly level a party of characters from 1st to 20th. The imposed structure would diminish all the places the story could go and place responsibilities on the whole of it that would make the module unto a novel or tome. The beauty of the organic structure would be hindered and the story would ultimately suffer for it.

Instead I design encounters by the appropriate CR, adjusting as necessary (via HD enhancement, simple templates or just more foes) to keep players on their toes, making sure that there’s some questions about the scarcity of resources and various other dramatic afflictions (environmental, medical, timed quests, etc). Nobody levels in the middle of the night after killing a randomly encountered animal the day before; they do it when a story arc is complete.

Really that’s the point of the XP rewards system. The difficulty of each entry increases given its CR on a statistics table that corresponds with the experience rewards system (in three different tracks for Pathfinder!).

Goya_ForgeRemoving the numbers, especially if you’re playing in the aforementioned rules set (which does away with the experience cost to create magical items), accomplishes a few important things of note; players are more driven to engage the investigative and social elements of the game since now the rewards aren’t in the slaughter but the story instead. Character development quite literally carries its own rewards now.

When I am using a proper experience point system, there’s always room for grabbing some points on the side. Canny conversations, clever use of resources, innovative approaches to obstacles; all of these get you something for your troubles, as they should.

But what about the players that just don’t have the skills to outwit a castle guard in conversation, or the bard at your table that insists on singing in real life every time they do so during the game?

I get liberal with the gift giving (I encouraged that bard to be as reckless as possible – his singing was atrocious) and find ways that they can shine (such as the inspiring bravery suggested above) that don’t require a dice roll or a quickly solved puzzle. Did they give somebody a ride to game? What about recounting the events of last session? Maybe they can be the group cartographer?

You want every player walking away from the game feeling as though they engaged the story and played an essential part; make sure that if you are using numbers that this is reflected in the characters statistics. Nobody wants to take an hour out of game to go searching the woods for a creature to pop just so they can get that next level, right? How many wild hogs will  it take to get my next feat is a question no GM or DM wants to be asked.


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Meta Thursday #1: Puzzles and Players – Finding that Groove

Water Puzzle Glyphs

What makes a game stand out? I remember one instance when my high school dungeon master created an elaborate gladiatorial pit, complete with platforms, ballista, acid baths Gladiatorand spiked pits. We even managed to work out a way for the remainder of the party (in the stands) to be engaged with the event (true strike with some poisoned shards of glass, if you were wondering). The victory isn’t what stays with me though – it was the need to invent strategy on the fly – what my DM had created wasn’t a gladiatorial pit, it was a puzzle.

Mike, that’s ridiculous. Puzzles are easy to identify. They have the numbers on them.” I would argue that they are not, actually, always that simple to notice. A political mystery that’s little more than a series of skill checks quickly becomes a puzzle for all parties involved when the PCs begin pushing against the boundaries of the game mechanism. If you’re running the game don’t shy away from these moments – embrace them! If you’re engaging players instead of their characters, the story being crafted is going to stick with them and ultimately everyone will have an enriched experience from the extra effort. The unpredictable routes through an adventure are sometimes the most worthwhile.

summoning puzzleSome puzzles are definitely easy to identify though, you’re right about that. When I make a puzzle for a game my goal is to engage everybody. Whether a dungeon or a treacherous ascent up a mountainside or whatever, there is always some way to engage your players instead of (or in addition to) their characters.

Why bother with a puzzle?Because I hate sitting on the sideline to watch the rogue get an entire game session to themselves to look for traps. Because I can’t stand the look on my player’s faces when the only person who can actively engage an encounter is the druid or characters with a high fortitude save. Because a table of enraptured participants is worth some extra work on my part.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place within the game for archetypes like that – it’s a roleplaying game, right? That doesn’t mean the entire experience has to be set into these strict roles and the value of an experience is what you take out of it, so give your players something to walk away with rather than just their characters.

How does one go about making a puzzle for an adventure?” A deceptively simple question with a deceptively simple answer; it begins with an idea. I find it’s useful to decide on a theme shared by both the activity you’re making people do and its implementation in the game. For instance, stacking dice and climbing a mountain – both involve going up, and the cohesion of themes does a little bit to strengthen that ever-important suspension of disbelief.


That brings me to my next point – how do you generate this idea? From my own experience, finding something nearby that everyone has access to (a set of dice, coins, paper, writing implements) and playing with it is the best thing to do. If this is just for your players then it can get as elaborate and wild as you like (as if Gabe at Penny Arcade wasn’t already cool enough…) but if you’re designing something for general consumption, stick to that you can find in the kitchen drawer.

Another thing to keep in mind during design is to make it as accessible as possible. Not that kaleidoscopic puzzles aren’t a fun time but what happens when a player is colorblind? Always keep alternative rules available for unforeseen circumstance but never allow yourself to be limited by the medium in such a way that it’s going to potentially exclude a player. That way the puzzle really is for the whole party, not just the player with a high Disable Device check (or keen eyesight or obsession with sudoku).

This damnable contraption continues to defy my will! “ I hear you. It’s a bad place to be. Hours of contemplation seem to have gone to waste and you’re ready to ditch the whole project. Do not throw away your work. I never throw out any of my puzzle (or for that matter, story) ideas. Just because it isn’t working now doesn’t mean it won’t work later; give your subconscious a shot at it and you may be very pleased with the results.

Get the opinion of someone else as well. Everyone’s brain is made of the same parts but rarely will any two work exactly the same way. A new perspective helps to shed light on things and will sometimes generate new ideas, even if your reader-helper is stumped. Many of my friends get upset because ultimately they get used as springboards and I’m told it’s quite frustrating. Value the opinions of others and most of the time you’ll have something of worth.

The bottom line? It’s worth the effort and your group will appreciate what you’ve added to their gaming experience. Give one of mine a try (there’s a wicked one at the end of The Damned Souls of Fenleist) or make something up, but definitely give it a shot. You’ll be enraptured by the results.

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