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Meta Thursday: Isolate Don’t Incapacitate

isolateWhile doing my first ever seminar panel at Aethercon [available here! -MM], I stumbled on a great, simplification of a principle that applies equally well to both monster design and game design in general: isolate don’t incapacitate.

My favorite example of this is the temporal filcher, specifically the time filch ability. This wonderful grappler snatches up an opponent, and the two disappear from time for 7 minutes. Toss in one per party member and you’ve just created a dynamic fighting space using time, with one-on-one combat that lets each player get a moment to shine.
Of course not everybody is ready to be filched! Maybe psionics aren’t a part of your game, your players aren’t a suitable level, or it doesn’t fit your style of play—that’s alright! You can use terrain, magic (or its equivalent), and different objectives to do the same thing!

GladiatorOne of my favorite games was one where I was a player; D’thul [if you’re thinking, ‘from Rise of the Drow?’ you are quite right. -MM] fought in a gladiator arena composed of platforms. Meanwhile another ally in the stands was dumping potions of true strike down the gullet of their marksman buddy, who in turn was flicking poisoned shards of glass at Dthul’s opponent. All while another party member was listening in on important discussions in the crowd, and another prepared an ambush for one of our quarry.
It was epic and unforgettable, for two reasons: first, D’thul very nearly lost his life, climbing out of an acid pit with 1 hit point and watching the head gladiator die beneath him; second, everybody was extremely engaged with the game and indeed the fight, but there was still active participation on the part of the entire party.

1) Terrain
Difficult terrain can do the trick, but what about really employing some true obstacles? Perhaps the party’s enemy has prepared nearby trees to fall when struck, cutting allies off from one another, or chose a battlefield with a natural hazard to do the same. While we are indeed talking about a game with inherent teamwork, it can be extremely exciting  to use the battlemap to force natural divisions between PCs, making them take to the fight on their own rather than as a group

Image_Portfolio_102_Fantasy Jason Walton 302) Magic
This is along the same lines as the temporal filcher but is a troublesome route—depending on what methods are used to get the desired effect, the PCs may rightly employ the same means to negate the whole thing! This is, of course, where conjuration effects are going to serve you best.

3) Different Objectives
As illustrated in the story above, making sure everyone has a role to play can be just as important as having the right monster for the fight! There’s rarely complete balance in a combat, and one individual will end up taking the spotlight, but that doesn’t need to be the only spotlight.

All of these can easily be used within the Lands of Ludolog! Terrain naturally plays a huge role in the 2-Bit Dimension, magic is constantly at work (and GMs are strongly encouraged to make use of more invisible walls of force as they see fit!), and having simultaneous goals to finish a miniworld should be quite common.

Just remember: stunning and paralysis can be a great tool, but nobody wants to spend a fight on the sidelines because of one bad saving throw!

Isolate don’t incapacitate!

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Featured Artists: Mates Laurentiu

Mates Laurentiu was born in a small Romanian town not far from the Carpathian mountains. Self trained and dedicated to the life of an artist at a very young age, Mates has worked on a wide array of products from personal portraits for individuals to cover art appearing on many popular roleplaying game books. Most recently he was recruited by AAW Games & as the lead artist on both the epic Rise of the Drow tome and the fantastical tale of Snow White.

Mates shows his work here moving from sketch to basic colors and finally layered colors with details and shading.
mates queen lines

It’s great fun to be on the receiving end of these amazing works of art as they roll into my email each day.
mates queen flats

I think my favorite part of writing and working on a roleplaying game book is seeing the art and especially the artist’s interpretation of our art requests. Sometimes we have to request changes but when it comes to Mates he’s usually spot on with his creative intuition and we’re able to use his final draft straight out of the gates.

mates queen finished

The work Mates did on the Pure Steam campaign setting (for ICOSA Entertainment) was also very high quality and reminded me how versatile he is, moving from medieval landscapes and architecture into futuristic or advanced technology with ease. In 2015 we plan on expanding the Aventyr Campaign Setting and releasing many new adventures—Mates will be the lead artist and cover artist on many of these products so keep your eyes peeled! If you would like to see your favorite RPG character fleshed out YOU can recruit Mates via his website to draw your PC (his rates vary depending upon if you want B&W, color, and/or background).

Keep your eye on Mates, I predict that he’ll be moving over to Paizo or another large publisher within the next few years and I wish him the absolute best!

mates castle

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Meta Thursday (Uralicans Uncut): Insanity and Psionics

One the biggest misconceptions within many roleplaying games revolves around insanity; this isn’t to say that it should not have a place in RPGs, or implemented in one particular way, but that generally it is overzealous and harsh in the depiction of high mental states without showing the progression of the actual condition. One might argue that since these are within games, most conditions are mechanical and need to be triggered and resolved quickly. In those cases, kudos, but my concern is more of an aspect to a character’s thoughts, feelings, and general well-being after the mecImage_Portfolio_101_Fantasy Jason Walton 07hanical effects are gone.

The after effects of conditions can amount to very little, or accrue into a bigger issue; it is up to the player, but as a GM I always think it is great to see the PCs grow not only with powers and abilities, but weaknesses and desperations as well. These characters are heroes, adventures, and masterminds from all walks of life. Not every single condition should deeply affect them, but after awhile every great person begins to crack. With that in mind, it may not always be a bad thing that a person gets a chill every time they come across their fears—one hero may shrug it off and rush off into a deadly trap to die a fool’s death, while their compatriot’s learned caution leads them to live another day.

What happens when psionics are mixed with insanity? There are myriad ways a psychic suffering from a mental condition could represent that aspect of their character while using their powers—the biggest thing that may happen is how the character’s powers manifest when used under stress. When creating a weapon from the characters mind, it could have images of the wielder’s greatest fear represented on the blade,Image_Portfolio_104_Fantasy Jason Walton 44 or the hilt itself could embody their personal terrors. For example, a wielder with arachnophobia might have a blade that has eight moving fringes which seem to scuttle across it as the weapon cuts through the air. One of the important considerations when evaluating mental afflictions and psionics is how it changes a PCs powers regardless of whether it is a short, high, intense burst of the condition or an arduous, ongoing battle within themselves that lacks any mechanical effects that the group is likely to notice at first.

Bearing all that in mind, remember that insane characters are not stereotypes, caricatures, or cartoons; they are people with feelings, consciences, and real struggles. Playing those struggles out is far more rewarding than trivializing them, and makes for far more dynamic encounters with not only the GM, but other PCs as well.


[Submitted by Tim Snow!]

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Featured Artists: Jacob Blackmon

aaw-website many-handed jakk - jacob blackmonWe’ve shone the spotlight onto designers before, but artists are just as important here at and we wanted to show some love for our illustrators! The first on the list is a personal favorite of mine—Jacob Blackmon! [He’s doing the cover for my world, after all! 😀 -MM]

Spoony Jaws - Trectoyri [Jacob Blackmon] (reduced)If you’re one of the AaWBlog’s devoted followers, you’ve seen Jacob’s work before. He’s one of our premier up and comers, and the illustrator behind Underworld Classes and Underworld Races, which are a fantastic example of his range and continually developing artistic talent.

He is an amazing illustrator and continual delight to work with, his experience as a gamer (and game designer!) giving him an uncanny grip on the subtler elements of visual design that come hand in hand with the peculiarities of game mechanics.

This is of course, however, an artist’s spotlight, and we’ll let Jacob Blackmon’s work speak for itself.

Veranthea Codex cover [Jacob Blackmon]
Veranthea Codex cover art
Quorron Dwarf Smith (from Rise of the Drow)
Quorron Dwarf Smith (from Rise of the Drow)
Stark City Cosmic Battle


You can follow Jacob on Deviant Art (, Twitter (, Facebook (, and support him on Patreon (!


Check out Jacob’s extensive line of stock art from Rogue Genius Games!


Lovers of Comics
Jacob Blackmon’s got another ace up his sleeve—a comic, The Path Less Traveled! You can read it in the free Pathways e-zine from Rite Publishing.
Issue 1: Pathways #36, Issue 2: Pathways #37, Issue 3: Pathways #38, Issue 4: Pathways #39, Issue 5: Pathways #40, Issue 6: Pathways #41, Issue 7: Pathways #42, Issue 8: Pathways #43

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Meta Thursday (Macabre Manses): Tabletop Terror

tabletop terror 4Horror can be a tricky thing—anybody can be gorey, but to really have an impact there are a number of factors to consider. Who are you trying to scare? Why are you trying to scare them, and most importantly, how?

Who You’re Scaring

  • What kind of group do you have before you?
  • Do they work well as a team?
  • Have they experienced a PC death before and if so, how recently?
  • Powergamers? Spotlighters? Meticulous planners?

This needs to be your initial concern because it colors everything that comes next. If you’re playing against power gamers, do not give them mechanical foreshadowing (see “How” below); conversely, if the group isn’t very team oriented (less the “X-Men” and more the “Defenders”), splitting them up won’t do you a huge amount of good. Carefully weigh out your options and do your best to anticipate what the PCs are likely to do when things get dark—no matter how you do it, surprise is going to be a part of the equation.


Why You’re Scaring

  • Building to a crescendo?
  • An essential element to a creature or particular encounter?
  • To increase the general suspense of the game?

tabletop terror 3If you’re running a game in Ravenloft, the word of the day is always going to be horror! The things to keep in mind in this case is that ultimately you do want the players to win, only that their struggle be a true test against an ever present darkness. I’ve found that warm reprieves can get the trick done, but there’s a lot to be said for a long, arduous trial with truly shining moments of glory.

Maybe this is just a brief foray into horror—in this case, definitely avoid pulling punches and keep extra material around in the event the PCs are on a lucky streak with the dice! On the whole, most games are encouraging the party’s victory (Paranoia being my favorite exception) so a good way to inflict terror is to really give them the feeling that the odds have definitely gone up. You don’t have to necessarily change the numbers to do it, either (more on that below under “How”).

Of course you might just want to increase the general level of suspense in the game because you’re starting to introduce some darker themes and elements in your world and story. This is where you’re looking for a sense of balance between what was and what is; don’t go and start throwing Cthulhu nightmare at the PCs right away, build up to it! An unsettling dream every other game session probably doesn’t register as too strange (stress, right?) but if you let it grow into a greater concern over time, the average player is going to concoct something far more terrifying than what you’re cooking up!


tabletop terror 1How You’re Scaring

  • Via the gaming atmosphere?
  • Using mechanics to get it done?
  • The old fashioned way: with a right proper scary story!

Making a gaming atmosphere that encourages fear is simple enough: get some soft lighting (but not too soft—everyone needs to be able to read!), be (more) secretive with your notes, throw in plenty of rolls that serve no real purpose other than to throw players off kilter, and play some music in the background. Not the epic stuff either, but something dark and foreboding (I recommend Midnight Syndicate; D&D music is their thing and there are lots of spooky tracks!)

As mentioned above, the second option is not for groups with power gamers unless you are a very experienced GM. If you can handle it (and aren’t afraid of a TPK), a surefire way to give your players the willies is to start giving them really good, very specific magic items. Nobody will be suspicious about the first one or two powerful weapons or protectives, but once they get the third or fourth, concerns begin to arise. This is a tough road to hoe though—you’re literally raising the stakes. By giving PCs specialized equipment of considerable potency, you’re able to throw something extremely dangerous at the party. If things go as you’ve planned, they should be of two minds when the final battle comes: oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die and holy-crap-we-might-win.
If you can hack it, I’ve found this to be the most rewarding.

tabletop terror 2Finally, there’s just a well-told horror story. There’s a Kickstarter going on from Louis Porter Jr. Design for the Cross of Fire saga, and all the talent wrapped up in that is in good standing to deliver a terrifying tale, but I wouldn’t count out the logically consistent river of blood in The Mysterious Peaks of Baranthar. 😀

If this is your bag, tips for telling a scary story abound on the internet, but remember: people fear the unknown more than anything else, so make use of that suspense and stretch it out to good effect!

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Meta Thursday (Macabre Manses): Star Spawn Template

Star Spawn Template

There exist horrors in the universe incomprehensible to man. Sometimes these abominations manifest themselves within other living creatures, warping them into monsters more deadly than their ordinary selves. Creatures of this order are known as star spawn,identifiable only bythe bizarre traits that they possess. It is not uncommon for two statistically identical monsters with the star spawn traits to appear as two completely different creatures altogether.

The following template can be used to adjust the stats of monsters (the base create) that have been touched by forces beyond understanding.

one drive- art- illustratios - please sort me - final-pseudonatural-bwCR
AC Increase deflection bonus to AC by +4
Size increase one step from original form (+2 Str, +2 Con, -1 Dex)
Immune critical hits, bludgeoning damage, slashing damage, force damage
Unnatural Intelligence (Su) The base creature is granted a +10 bonus to Intelligence and a selection of 1d4 +2 wizard spells (up to 5th level) that it may cast at will as spell-like abilities. Additionally, this increased intelligence allows the base creature to learn any five languages.
Hive Lord (Su) The base creature is granted the innate ability to compel creatures of its own kind to fight for it whether the creatures are intelligent or not.
No Anatomy (Su) The base creature has no anatomical structure and is therefore immune to some weapon damage and spells like magical missile. Attacks from these sources temporarily displace the struck portion of the creature for 1 round hampering it from making an action that relies on the displaced area by incurring a -5 to the AC of that portion of its body or a -5 penalty to attack rolls (as appropriate; a displaced head penalizes the creature’s bite attack, etc.).


[Submitted by Jeremy Kleve!]