Chicago Geek Guy

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Author: RexCelestis (page 1 of 11)

Getting Paid to GM: A Man with a Dream, Two People with a Plan

“I love gaming,” he told me when I asked the question. “I am told I am a pretty good Game Master.”

Amanda Nichole and Acel Loren Jenkins how to open a game store one day.

Acel Loren Jenkins seems to have the chops for a career as a professional GM. His history with role playing goes back over 20 years. Like many of us, he started with Dungeons and Dragons. As a teen, he participated the Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs. Since then, he’s run tabletop or live action sessions for Shadowrun, Mutants and Masterminds, Aberrant, GURPS, and Iron Kingdoms. When he, and his then girlfriend, started reading about people making money from leading games, an idea started to crystalize in his head. With the support and encouragement from his friends and his now wife, he started sketching out a five to seven-year plan that included owning his own shop where he could run games for customers in virtual and meat space.

But how easy is it to make a living from something a lot of people do for free? What backgrounds to the pros have? What skills does GM-ing professionally require? What does a day look like in this world? What challenges do pro GMs face? Chicago Geek Guy took the opportunity to chat with two professionals in the field to talk about how they got there, how they plan to stay there, and their two very different approaches to the field.

What Did You Do Back in the Day?

Houston “StitchTheAlchemist” Robinson started with D&D in high school but quickly moved into Pathfinder. A roleplaying group on Skype introduced him to virtual gaming and The World of Darkness. After a few years of financial difficulties, a stable job afforded him to run regular campaigns, again. A local shop introduced him to FATE in the form of the Dresden Files RPG and even 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. He quit his “real” job seven months ago to focus on GM-ing and still makes enough to feel comfortable.

Tara M. Clapper (Photo by Heather Fesmire)

Tara Clapper followed a different path to gaming. A school trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia sparked an interest in history and storytelling. Challenged to journal as someone who would have lived in the town, she created a character with a rich backstory: an Irish immigrant, married young to a doctor, a midwife. Tara followed these ideas of characterization and imagination through the creation stories, plays, and sonnets landing a job as a production editor then freelance journalist.

Then Tara discovered Live Action Role Play, moving quickly from a theatrical player to a behind the scenes role as game marketer and blogger. She continued to cover local geek events, started The Geek Initiative, and embracing LARP as an opportunity for self-discovery. Her first LARP, “She’s Got a Gun,” embraced a Feminist message and embraced the differently abled. Erin “The Geeky Gimp” Hawly, credited Tara with coming up with solutions to enable the disabled to fully participate in the game and creating a space where other players could comfortably interact with her.

In addition to playing LARP in the meat space, Tara also writes and runs LARPs, such as First Bite, Second Birth: A Contemporary Vampire Digital LARP Experience and Chariot LARP in a virtual space.

Given the disparity between their backgrounds, these two GM’s experience the professional world differently. Houston never thought about accepting money for running a game until it was offered to him. Looking back, Tara told me this is what she should have focused on from the beginning and feels it’s what she’s meant to do.

Developing Mad Skillz

This burgeoning profession requires certain skills. Success in the field requires an ability to regularly provide constant and consistent entertainment. Houston considers himself “fluent” in four games and works to expand that a little bit every day. Tara writes; new material, articles, interviews, marketing documentation.

Both Houston and Tara rely heavily on word of mouth and the success of previous efforts to secure new gigs, but both also maintain a presence on social media. In addition to The Geek Initiative, Tara offers nearly daily reflections on the industry via Facebook Live. Houston’s social media presence is a bit more nascent.

A Day in the Life

The days of these two pros also differ. Houston usually runs two, four-hour games a day, preparing between 30 minutes to two hours for each. He spends days without games negotiating with new clients, learning new rules systems, and studying to GM better. On a day off, he tries to get as far away from gaming as possible, choosing to take a break from the table.

Tara spends her days editing rulebooks, scouting locations, consulting with game companies, and securing the next event or commission. An effective marketer and self-promoter, it’s not unusual for private organizations to hire Tara to run one of her games or another game. People seek her out for industry guidance and advice and she’s started to offer more official mentoring programs. When she gets a day of holiday, it’s usually spent playing in a LARP or hiking.

It’s Not All Fun and Games, Literally

The relative newness of the field poses challenges to these pros. The idea of paying a GM rubs many people the wrong way. Many gamers still view tasks involved in running a session or campaign as a labor of love. With interest in role-playing exploding, any number of GM’s still provide their services for free, or for a few bucks on the side. “A lot of them,” Houston told me, “haven’t considered that people expect professionalism from paid GMs and it can really turn the clients off of the whole idea.” As both a game designer and marketer, Tara explained the dichotomy:

Marketing does require you to sell your soul and it’s generally an unethical business if you want to make money.

Game design is not something you get into for the money, but the number one complaint people will have is that you charge for it.

Marketing your own games is a demoralizing process because of the above combo.

Technology offers assistance and resistance to the professional GM or storyteller. Both Houston and Tara rely on digital mediums to run games. However, improvements in player matching applications make it more likely for potential clients to discover someone who will provide these services for free, if not as well, professionally, or consistently.

Outside of succeeding in a new market, both Houston and Tara struggle with the obstacles facing any entrepreneur in the United States. It’s still very difficult and costly for the self-employed to secure health insurance. They handle it with a combination of “I just hope nothing happens,” carefully rationing the medications they can afford, and efforts to find part-time jobs that provide some benefits and protection.

Is there a future?

Tara and Houston hold two very different views on the future of the field. Tara firmly believes the future of LARP lies in virtual space and has committed to the field as a lifelong career. “Things are about to explode and large companies are taking notice. We’ve seen steady growth in interest in the last decade and probably beyond,” she told me. “There is especially a need for inclusion; for GMs with a variety of voices to make inroads. We need to do better there. It’s a big challenge not just for marginalized designers, but for the emerging industry.”

Still, her future as a professional GM hinges on whether she can secure health insurance.

Houston doesn’t see the profession as sustainable or well suited outside of a few individuals with a massive online presence or people already big in the business with other sources of revenue. “I get to do my favorite thing for a living right now, which is amazing. I am happy with my earnings and my situation now, and I have plans on expanding the business. I just also have a nice fallback if this doesn’t work out. I believe I can keep this sustained for five years or so, without any major improvements.”

Words of Wisdom

“It’s really rewarding but a lot of work!” said Houston. “Not everyone realizes that playing the game as a hobby and doing it for money is a totally different ball game. Whereas in a regular game it’s everyone’s responsibility to have a good time, in a paid game the GM has to be the one making everyone else have a wonderful, memorable game. There’s no more ‘I’m not feeling inspired’ or ‘I’d rather do something else today.'”

“All that said, if someone wants to do what I do, just keep trying! If you’re a good enough GM, someone will be happy to be a client. And don’t worry about not taking off at first, nobody does. Be reasonable, get the money up front, and do everything in your power to run the best game you can.”

Tara offers more practical advice. “Establish the basics first – day job, stability, etc. Your work has value — don’t feel bad about getting paid. The right community isn’t going to complain about it (for the most part), either. I have a much easier time getting paid by gamers than businesses who hire me for other freelance work. Make storytelling an integral part of your life. For me, that meant integrating marketing jobs and innovations in LARP. For you, that could mean observing Critical Role or reading a lot of books. Storytelling is key; being secure and comfy with players having agency is mandatory to a great experience.”

It is a huge change in the gaming market that some folks are able to create a space for themselves as professional GM. Although its unclear what the future holds for the field, Tara and Houston forged their own paths, a path that Acer might follow. For those of you who are dreaming about a professional GM career, creativity, hard work, professionalism, comfort with uncertainty, and a backup plan may hold the recipe to success.

#9: The Gazelle Gets Found

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The professor’s eyes traveled from potential savior to savior. “What is that secret code?”

Lothar caught Captain Gili in his glance. “Oh no. Don’t look at me,” she insisted. “I already gave him the code.”

The swarthy, erstwhile rescuer smoothly and quickly drew his revolver from its holster. “It looks like we will have to go back to doing this the hard…”

It sounded like ripping paper. The flash of the barrel startled Lothar. His eyes opened wide with pain as blood spread across his shirt. He gasped once before collapsing to the floor.

Giselle stepped closer to kick the revolver out of his quivering hand, her submachine gun at the ready. Lothar spat out a lump of crimson blood and died. Watching the carnage, Keven coughed once then turned to vomit all over the floor.”

“Very clever, Professor,” the good captain mused. “How did you know I wasn’t the plant?”

“You asked me what works better than torture? Kindness, safety, respect. This man,” Arleth gestured towards the body on the floor, “seemed less concerned with helping and more interested in getting Keven drunk.”

“I am not drunk,” Keven said as his body shuddered with another heave.

Giselle reached down to pick up the fallen revolver then handed it to the Professor. “We need to move,” she told him. “I can’t reach my ship in here, but I’ve got to think they’ve got the whole place wired up.” She walked over to help the graduate student steady himself. “Come on, Keven. It’s only a matter of time before they come to see what happened. The professor needs our….”

Somewhere in the hunting lodge, a door crashed open.

*****

Sharp edges of a savaged straw threatened to flay Dede’s tongue. She ignored the coppery taste in her mouth. Data scrolled past her on the screen. Her fingers pinched and twisted it, trying to coax out its secrets.

“Oh captain, my captain,” she murmured around the plastic in her mouth. “You look like you’re in trouble now.” Her head tilted as her fingers hovered above a button on the console. “At least I hope you’re in trouble. If not, I really don’t want to screw up your escape.”

*****

“I’m out.” Professor Arleth snapped the empty cylinder of the revolver back into place. Giselle, flipped the stunted frame of her submachine over to check its magazine. She shook her head before leaning over to spray a burst down the hallway.

“Caseless ammo,” she grunted. “Still, it’s not going to keep them off us forever. It’s only a matter of time before they decide they’ve had enough and lob a grenade back here.”

“They want me alive,” the professor remarked. “If they kill me, they will never learn the location of the Ruins of Kabreth.” He looked over to the unconscious body of his research assistant. The alcohol and stress finally caused a collapse. “Maybe it would be better if we turned ourselves in and gave you a chance to escape.”

Giselle sighed. “I have a better idea.” The muzzle of her gun shifted from the hallway to settle on the older man. Her intestines twitched with the impossibility. This would never work. “Stop firing!” she yelled. “I’m bringing them out!”

“Move it, Professor,” Giselle said. “Get sleeping beauty on his feet, too.”

Not speaking, the Arleth slowly turned to rouse the listless body next to him. “Time to get up Keven.”

“I’m not going back,” Keven mumbled, “I’m not going back.” A tear traveled through the dirt on his cheek. Hitching an arm around his neck, the Professor got the younger man to his feet. The two stood, unsteady with pain and stress.

“I want your hands where I can see them!” called a voice from down the hallway.

“We’re doing our best,” Arleth snapped back. “We’ve got a wounded man here.” His eyes settled on Captain Gili. “I understand why you’re doing this.”

The muzzle of her gun gestured down the hallway. “Just keep those hands up,” Gili told them loudly. “Stay in front of me.” The submachinegun flicked one more time. Hobbled by his injuries and the weight of his student, Arleth stumbled into the hallway. The Captain stepped just a meter behind.

Four fatigue clad figures poured into the corridor, their faces obscured by balaclava and goggles. Two of them kneeled to give the two behind them a better field of fire. The barrels of four rifles followed Arleth and Keven into the hallway. “I want to see your hands! Walk towards us, slowly.”

Keven tried to lift one visibly shaking arm. “If I show you my hands, I’ll drop him,” the Professor snapped back. “Do you want to see my hands or walk towards you?”

“You back there! Come out where we can see you!”

“Move it professor,” Gili pressed the muzzle of her gun into his back.”

The hallway filled with loud voices and shouted commands.

“Hands! Show me your hands!”

“Come out from back there! We will shoot!”

“I’m getting there as fast as I can!”

“Look. This hallway isn’t really wide enough for three across!”

“Right now! Move right now!”

“Hands. Give me your hands”

A low rumble filled the hallway as the ground trembled beneath their feet. Four pairs of googles looked at each other then around them. Gili stepped forward and whispered in Arleth’s ear, “Show them your hands, Professor.”

Keven’s body slumped to the floor as the Professor loosened his grip. With their eyes focused elsewhere, Gili filled the hallway with fire. The soldiers’  bodies collapsed in heaps and guttural grunts.

“What was that?” The Professor asked.

“I think our ride is coming.” Gili responded. Slipping Keven’s other arm around her neck, she helped to lift the young man. “Let’s go. We don’t want to keep it waiting.”

****

Dede leaned over the console. Her eye squinted as they tried to get a better view of the ground. Her hands maneuvered the controls to drive the arrowhead shaped Gazelle in the direction of it captain’s last known position. The engineer spared one glance at another monitor. A rising column of smoke where the massive anti-ship system stood just moments before comforted her. The To’kath Karaa couldn’t vector missiles or airbreathers if they couldn’t lock on.

The ship shifted and curved as Gili’s subdermal transponder came back online. “Captain!”

“Please tell me you’re close, Dede.” The sounds of gunfire filtered through the connection. “We’re out of the house but pinned down.”

The monitors reported the captain’s position. “One minute, I’ll draw their attention.” The ship dipped and shuddered as Dede tried to align it over the small open space in front of the hunting lodge. She stretched her arms across the controls, trying to manipulate both the pilot and her regular position. A defensive turret twisted under the ship. The touch of a button ejected a ton of laser baffling sand towards the guerillas keeping Gili stuck in the doorframe of the cottage. As the To’kath Karaa took cover, Dede brought the ship down hard in the yard. The engineer lowered the rear hatch as the Gazelles’ lifters and thrusters kicked up dust and sod.

Dede waited….

“We’re on,” barked the ship’s intercom. “Get us out of here!”

Settling back into the pilot’s seat, Dede did as she was told.

*****

“It’s not the good stuff,” Giselle told them as she poured their glasses, “but it will serve well enough.” She took a seat at the mess table then raised her glass. “To Lothar. It didn’t work the way he planned, but it worked just fine for us.” The others smiled and touched their cups.

“I owe you an apology, professor,” Giselle said as she rested her glass against her lips. “I should have identified Lothar as a plant earlier. You were unconscious when we left the bunker. I thought he was being flip. I realize now he was talking to his handler.”

“Yep.” Dede nodded. “About that same time, they jammed almost everything outside comm bands.”

Professor Arleth lifted his glass again before speaking. “It doesn’t matter. It worked out in the end.”

“Are we clear?” Keven asked. His voice quivered as if it had difficulty finding the words.

“We’re still five days out of a jump point,” Dede explained. “The To’kath Karaa don’t have anything space worthy. Hasmyke been yellow-zoned since the uprising. They rely on smugglers to deliver off-planet supplies.” She took a long quaff, then rested her hand in her chin. “I suppose they could hire a bounty hunter, but I have a feeling they’re more worried about repairs than catching us, at the moment.”

Professor Arleth lifted the bottle from the table and refilled the glasses. “Let’s hope the royal family is giving them a pounding while their defenses are down.” The four raised their drinks again.

“What will you do now, Professor?” Gili asked as she nursed her drink. “We’re you able to recover anything from the site?”

The old man shrugged. “I hope some of the team was able to make it back to the university with some of the data we recovered. We’ll need to catalog and analyze it as we wait for a chance to return to…”

“Wait,” Captain Gili interjected. “We don’t want to know.”

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Steampunk Masquerade

Some fine and well-dressed people came out for the Chicago Steampunk Salon’s Valentine’s Masquerade.

Valentine Masquerade 2018

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12 Days of Holiday Gaming – Cursed Court

I’m once again doing something a bit different for Day 10 of my 12 Days of Holiday Gaming Suggestions and discussing a game that won’t be released until Tuesday, December 19th. Look a few days into the future with Cursed Court!

Disclosure time: John Nephew (the head of the game’s publisher, Atlas Games) is friends with Lory Aitken (my boss at Pegasus Games). John was in Madison for Thanksgiving weekend and brought a copy of Cursed Court to the store to run a few demos. Neither of them had any idea that I’d be writing this.

Cursed Court is a deduction game for two to six players, who take on the roles of minor nobles in a fantasy setting. The game’s board shows nine major nobles in a three-by-three grid. There is also a deck of 36 cards; four copies of each of the major nobles. The players will be trying to use public and semi-private information to deduce which cards will be appearing, and in what combination.

The game is played over the course of three cycles (or years), each with four phases (or seasons). At the beginning of each year, every player gets four wagering crown tokens and 20 influence coins. The deck of major nobles is shuffled, and one card is dealt in between each of the players. That card is shared information for the two players it is between. At the beginning of each season, a single card from the major noble deck is publicly revealed and placed next to the board. (Meaning for cards will be made public by the end of each year.)

After a noble card is relieved the betting begins, and this is where Cursed Court shines. Each season, players can place one of their wagering crowns on the board; either on a single noble, or a combination of nobles who they think will appear the most that year. (For example: a player could bet on the Queen, or bet on “The Wedding” which assumes a combination of the Queen, Duke, and Priestess.) At the end of each year, all of the cards that were dealt between the players are added to the revealed cards, and successful wagers are scored. Bets on a single noble score based on how many copies of that noble’s card are showing. Bets on a combination score if at least one copy of each of the required cards is showing at least a single copy. (“The Wedding” will only be worth three points, even if two copies of every card is present.)

While that may seem straightforward, there is a major limiting factor in Cursed Court: each space can only have a single wagering crown on it. When a player places their crown on an unclaimed space they can add any number of their 20 influence coins to that space as well. If a player wants to take a claimed space they must be able to play twice as many influence coins as the controlling player has already played. (This means spaces with 11 coins on them are completely secure.) Players must time their influence use wisely because they cannot get coins back until they lose a space, or at the end of the year.

Cursed Court is another game where the mechanics and the components compliment each other perfectly. The fact that only one player can control a possible wager, plus the limited number of influence, plus shared “hidden” information, plus the slow reveal of public information leads to a lot of bluffing, second-guessing, and ruthless undercutting. It feels like cutthroat political intrigue. This is magnified by fantastic artwork and well-designed tokens. Everything blends together very well.

When I first did this list in 2015 my game of the year was Revolution!, and I said it was an underrated game that deserved much more love than it gets. It made me happy to see so many people agree with me in the comments. To those people in particular, I say keep your eyes open for Cursed Court. Beyond that little niche, I think this game is going to be a hit with anyone who likes deduction, bluffing, and playing the odds in a highly combative way. If this sounds like a game for you, get ready for its release in a few days!

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Holiday Gaming – Baffle

Hello, Day 9 of Holiday Game Suggestions! Today’s entry is will be short, but it’s for a game that I feel deserves a much wider audience than it has. Let me tell you all about the Baffle!. (No, that’s not a typo. “Baffle!” is the full name of the game.) This one is independently published, so most stores don’t carry it.

Baffle! is a variant of Sudoku that uses colors and shapes rather than numbers. There are 25 pieces in five different shapes and colors, and a 5×5 playing board. To win Baffle! you must have a full board that doesn’t repeat a single color or shape in any column, row, or corner-to-corner diagonal. There are 60 puzzle cards full of different starting-states for the board, each with a different difficulty.

What sets Baffle! apart from other puzzle games is that it has different rules variations, including competitive multiplayer. A possible way to play with multiple people is that the person who places the last piece wins. On a player’s turn, they can add or remove a piece; or swap two pieces around the board, or from the board to the unplayed pile. Since many of the puzzles have multiple solutions, the challenge now includes figuring out which one everyone else is going for and cutting them off.

Baffle! is most certainly a game for fans of logic puzzles, and it also has great potential as a learning tool for all ages. This is especially true with the competitive or cooperative multiplayer aspect. I could easily see this working well in a classroom, after-school club, or senior center. This one gets a big thumbs up, folks. If you’re a fan of logic games, this one’s for you.

(And I can say personally that the game is highly addictive. For you see, when Pegasus Games first started carrying Baffle! there was an open copy at the counter for customers to look through. But after a week or so it was obvious that Baffle! was causing some major loss of productivity on the employee end, and the open copy was put on the demo shelf.)

Baffle! can be purchased from the manufacturer Flying Rabbit (http://www.bafflegame.com/) or from Pegasus Games.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Holiday Gaming – Simon’s Cat

Sometimes you just need a simple, silly game. Maybe you have friends or relatives over who aren’t habitual gamers. Maybe you need to kill time while half your gaming group finally finishes that. Damn. Game. Of. Agricola. ALREADY. Maybe you just need something to pay at the restaurant while you’re waiting for your order to show up. For all those instances (and undoubtedly many more) we have our Day 8 suggestion, the Simon’s Cat Card Game.

Yes, it’s that Simon’s Cat straight from the YouTube series. The card game is another one that follows trick-taking mechanics, but adds a few unique twists to it. For starters, none of the games’ six suits are the same length, and some don’t even have the same value. (For example, the pink Cat deck goes from 3-10, but the green Gnome cards only have a 1 & 2!) Secondly… well, let’s get into that as we discuss the play.

Shuffle the 36 cards together to form a deck of Mischief. Deal an equal number of cards to each player. How many? As many as you want. The bigger the opening hand, the longer the game. Any leftover cards are set aside face up, public knowledge to every player. During the game, players must play a card by following the same number or color of the last card played. If a player can’t do either, they are forced to take the trick.

The round ends when everyone has played all of the cards from their hands. Whoever has collected the most tricks has made the biggest mess, and therefore gets one Simon card. The first player to collect three Simon Cards has lost.

That’s just about it. If I gave any more details, I’ll have copied all of the game’s rules. So why am I recommending this game? Because like I said above, sometimes you just need a simple, silly game. Have you had fun with games like Love Letter, Yam Slam, or Zombie Dice? Then you’ll probably enjoy Simon’s Cat.

The Simon’s Cat Card Game is by Steve Jackson Games.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Holiday Gaming – Sentinels Comics RPG

I’m breaking yet another of my very-much-not-long-standing traditions with Day Seven of my 12 Days of Holiday Game Recommendations because I’m going to recommend a game that just came out. Step right up, Sentinels Comics RPG Starter!

“But, James,” protests some voice that definitely isn’t just in my head, “everyone knows about the Sentinels of the Mulitiverse card game. It’s a best-seller everywhere!” While that’s absolutely true, the followup Sentinels Tactics board game didn’t share nearly the same success after its Kickstarter. (Which is a shame because it’s a great game but we’re not talking about it right now focus James!) So please loan me a few moments of your time, and let me tell you about the Sentinels Comics RPG Starter.

(And for my own sake, I’m going to talk about the RPG Starter without referencing Sentinels of the Multiverse. For my fellow Sentinels fans, just know that this story takes place after the OblivAeon Event.)

The Sentinels Comics RPG Starter takes place on an Earth that is being rebuilt following a global disaster, one that could have been total extinction event had it not been for the world’s superheroes. Up to six players will step into the spandex of the most famous superhero team, the Freedom Five (plus their former intern), while one takes on the traditional GM roll. Over the course of six adventure booklets, the players will lead the Freedom Five through a series of events that will set the state of the world for the full release of the Sentinels Comics RPG.

The Sentinels Comics RPG is a world of brightly colored superhero shenanigans. The closest “real world” parallel I can think of is the old DC Animated Universe. While the tone of those shows varied from the gloom of Gotham, the urban utopia of Metropolis, the fantasy of Atlantis and Olympus, and even the blighted hellscape of Apokolips, there was always a positivity and optimism over the stories. So too is the world of Sentinels comics. There will be highs and lows, emotional stakes, and the threat of death, but the players are Capitol H Heroes.

The mechanics of the game reflect this by supporting a play style that’s more about storytelling than number crunching. At the system’s core is a unique mechanic that uses three dice, ranging from d4s to d12s. When a player wants to accomplish something, they pick a die associated with one of their character’s powers, a die associated with one of their character’s qualities, and a status die. The three dice are rolled, and usually, the middle result is used. (Individual abilities will often modify which die is used, but will always be three dice for the PCs.) This could be an attack, or it could be…

– An OVERCOME action to remove an obstacle, or narrative danger. (Tachyon the speedster using her scientific knowledge and inhuman quickness to override the guidance system of multiple missiles.)
– A BOOST or HINDER to modify someone else’s roll, be it a player or the GM. (The ninja-like Wraith using her gadgets and stealth to lay down a series of smoke bombs.)
– A DEFEND action for when the player wants to focus exclusively on protecting more than just their hero. (The cold-based Absolute Zero creating a wall of ice to shield his team from an incoming gout of flame.)

The emphasis on action type and broadly defined powers and skills gives players a feel of narrative influence, while still allowing for the dice to dictate a degree of randomness beyond the outcomes of success or failure. Additionally, the initiative system is completely under the player’s control! After a character gets an action, that player decides who will go next, even if it’s the GM’s villains. This streamlines in-game conflicts, by focusing on teamwork, and doing away the need for prepaid or held actions.

To a veteran RPG enthusiast, I would say that the Sentinels Comics RPG Starter is much more freeform than D&D or Pathfinder, much less straightforward than Savage Worlds, but not nearly as open-ended as FATE. It shares a designer with the Marvel RPG published by Margaret Wies Productions, and probably is most likely that game more than any other.

A final note in case you’re wary of starter products or prepackaged adventures because you don’t like linear stories. Of the six story booklets, only the first two and the final one have to be done in order. The first serves as an introduction to the heroes and the setting, while the second sets up the state of the world and the story. The next three are up to the players; how they arrive to the final showdown (and in what shape things are in at that point!) is up to them.

Bottom line, if you’re an RPG fan of any sort, get the Sentinels Comics Starter. Better yet, buy it from a Friendly Local Game Store that’s part of Bits and Mortar. You’ll get all the PDF of the whole bundle for free if you do!

The Sentinels Comics RPG is by Greater Than Games.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Holiday Gaming – Grifters

We’re halfway through my 12 Days of Holiday Game recommendations! Now over the last two years, my first nine picks were in no particular order, and I saved any ranking for my top three. I’m doing something different this year. Today may be day six, but this game is not only my Number Three pick of the year; it’s also a teaser for my overall Game of the Year.

Today’s game is Grifters, and it feels weird to have to shine a light on this one. Grifters exists within the same world as the incredibly popular Resistance and Coup card games, but seems like it’s become to be their forgotten sibling. (The William Baldwin of the group, if you will.) But Grifters is an excellent game, and it deserves way more credit than it gets.

In Grifters two to four players take on the role of rival criminal organizations, competing over a limited supply of money, jobs, and specialists. When any one of those three supplies run out, the game is over. At the beginning of the game, each player will start with a hand of six cards. Three of those cards will be the game’s three ringleaders (Mastermind, Thief, and Pickpocket), and three will be randomly drawn from the specialist deck. Players will recruit additional specialists throughout the game either by drawing from the deck or stealing them from other players.

Specialists in Grifters either work solo or as a team. If a card is played by itself, follow the rule text on it. (For example, playing the Mastermind would allow a player to add more specialists from the deck to their hand.) To complete a job, multiple specialists are played as a team. When this happens all of a card’s printed rules are ignored in favor of what suit it is. Each job requires a combination of one or more of the game’s three suits (red, green, and blue) to be completed. (For example, when played as a team the Mastermind simply counts as one blue card.) Players can choose to either play a single card, or as many as they need to complete an available job.

My favorite mechanic in Grifters is in its player boards. Each player has a hideout with a multistage discard area, representing the time their specialists are laying low after an assignment. When cards are played, they go into the “Night One” space. At the beginning of every turn, players will move any cards from Night One to Night Two; from Night Two to Night Three; and from Night Three to the Refresh area. At the end of a players turn, they put any cards in their refresh area back into their hands. The heat is off; time to get back to work.

Much like Honshu, and Bad Beets, Grifters is a small box game that’s easy to teach. It’s also a game that does a great job of merging mechanics and theme. Between assembling the perfect team for a job, and having that team lay low for a few turns afterwards, it feels like a heist game. Having to race against the other players for the perfect team and the perfect score—all the while stealing specialists and resources from each other—definitely gives the whole experience the cutthroat feeling of rival crime families carving up a city. If you’re a fan of quick to play, highly competitive player-vs-player games, you should check out Grifters.

Grifters is published by Indie Boards and Cards.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Holiday Gaming – The Others

Day four’s Holiday Game Suggestion is going to be a bit different from the rest. Nearly all of my past (and upcoming) choices are meant to cast a wide net in terms of interest. But much when I recommend the Dread RPG last year, it’s time to focus on people who like their games a bit creepier. Step out of the light with The Others, a one-versus-many, dungeon-crawl board game set at the beginning of a potential Apocalypse. Up to four players take on the role of the Heroes who will fight save the city of Haven. Opposing them is the player who takes the role of one of the Seven Deadly Sins!

The Others begins with a lot of player choice immediately. First, the players decide who will be the Sin. The Sin player then choices their sin (Pride or Sloth in the core game, more in expansions), and their acolytes (three choices in the core game, more in expansions). Then the group will decide which scenario they’ll play, and which of the map options of that scenario they’ll use. The Hero players then each pick their one starting characters from a team of seven choices, each with different strengths and focuses. The Heroes win in different ways, always dictated by the chosen scenario. The Sin may get other victory options, but one never changes: if they eliminate all of the heroes, they win.

This game oozes atmosphere in its every component, so much so that I could gush about for way too long. Instead, I’ll attempt to do it justice concisely. The Others is a game of both gothic horror and science fantasy, and every part of its presentation merges those two aspects. The map tiles depict a range of buildings like sterile medical centers, towering cathedrals, and decaying warehouses; all of them unified by a gloomy style. The monsters have a visceral, body-horror design that may call to mind the works of Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, or H.R. Giger. There are a lot of extra teeth and tentacles on the likes of zombies, medical workers, astronauts, hobos, and things that were clearly never humanoid. So it’s only fitting that the heroes include a trained marksmen, a vampire, a werewolf, and a mind-controlling mutant. Monster and hero are all depicted in highly detailed miniatures that come fully assembled.

The atmosphere is supported by the game’s mechanics, which help convey a sense of inevitable doom to the Heroes. When it comes time for the Hero players to make roles in the game they can choose to corrupt their heroes to gain a quick boost. The more corruption a Hero takes, the bigger the boost they get. Naturally the more corruption a Hero takes the closer they get to a grizzly end, but they will not succeed without it! It is a question of when, not if. When a Hero dies (and they will die), the player picks a new one from the reserve. If there are no Heroes left in the reserve when one dies, the Sin wins.

The Sin player also has difficult choices to make, but the one most unique to The Others is when they will act. Unlike most one-versus-many games, the Sin player doesn’t have a spot in turn order. The Sin player gets a turn by spending a reaction token after a Hero has completed their turn. The Sin begins the game with a small supply (usually only two tokens), and can only send monsters after the Hero that has just acted, so they must pick their moments to strike carefully.

The Others is one of the most unique dungeon crawl board games I’ve ever played and is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever owned. (Corruption, decay, and eldritch horrors can be beautiful no you shut up!) As a bonus, the massive amount of expansions for both Sins and Heroes means that it will be a long time before this one gets stale. If you enjoy games like Zombicide, Decent, Imperial Assault, or Castle Ravenloft; and you have a taste for movies like Hellraiser, Alien, or Event Horizon, you should check out The Others.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

12 Days of Gaming – The Dragon & Flagon

It’s Day 3 of my Holiday Game Recommendations, and after two card games, I feel like doing a board game. And I’m on a self-imposed deadline so let’s skip the preamble: Today’s/yesterday’s game is The Dragon & Flagon, by Stronghold Games.

The Dragon & Flagon is a massive bar fight simulator set in a Dungeons & Dragons-style tavern. Two to eight players pick a character from a roster that includes the likes of a paladin, a monk, a pirate, and a druid. Each player gets a deck of cards, cardboard pawn, player board, and tokens unique to their character. The tavern board is set up using 3D tokens representing tables, chairs, flagons, barrels, and rugs. (The game has a suggested format for the first few games, but players can customize the board however they want once they have a some playtime under their belts.) The game’s maguffin—the bar’s signature Dragon beverage—is set up in the middle of the board. The goal of the game is to have the most Reputation at the end.

Then the chaos of a bar fight can begin! The Dragon & Flagon use a time-track system for turn order; a checkerboard-style grid system for character movement; and players use their cards to program their character’s moves. Players put a token representing their character on the first space of the time track. When the “current round” token is on the same space as their token, it’s that player’s turn. (In the event of a tie, all of the tokens on that space are shuffled and drawn one at a time to determine order. This means the first turn is once giant tie!) Player actions are chosen in secret by selecting from their deck of cards, and placing two of them face down on their board. The first card is then turned face up, revealing the action, and how many spaces along the time track the player’s token must be advanced. The second card stays face down, and is moved to the first space on of the player’s board; it will be their action their next turn. (This is an action system very similar to the game Flag Dash, which I reviewed two years ago and still highly recommend.)

“Wait, James” you may be thinking. “I thought you said ‘chaos of a bar fight’. That sounds like Robo Rally, which isn’t that chaotic.” First off; it’s like Flag Dash. Didn’t you read the last sentence of the previous paragraph? And yes, I said chaotic. And this is where all those nifty 3D tokens I mentioned come into play because everything on the board can be used by the characters. EVERYTHING. Flagons can be used either to make a drunk boast from the top of a table, or as makeshift throwing weapons. Chairs are great for smacking opponents with. A kicked barrel will roll across the floor, plowing over everything in its path. A pulled rug will knock over anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it. And of course characters can swing from the tavern’s chandeliers. Each time a player successfully hits someone else’s character, they take renown from that person’s supply and add it to their own.

The cleverness in the design of The Dragon & Flagon is how the tokens and the programed actions interact. To swing from the rafters, for example, a player must first spend one action to move their pawn onto a table, then a second action later to perform the swing. This means another player could—upon seeing a tempting target atop a table—decide to program their action to throw a flagon to where they think that target will be swinging to. Or shove a third character in the way of the swing. Success hinges on anticipating what ones opponents are doing, and planning around that.

I strongly recommend The Dragon & Flagon to any groups who like their gaming silly, a bit unpredictable, and very competitive. Rules options like team play, and two pirate ships on the other side of the tavern board, give the game an expanded lifespan beyond the bar.

About the Author

James Nettum started playing RPG’s while in fourth grade, sneaking in sessions of AD&D on the playground of his Catholic school. He went pro at the age of 25 when he took a position at Pegasus Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been there 10 years and plays every sort of game, except collectibles.

James started posting a 12 Days of Holiday Gaming via Facebook on Black Friday in 2016. I enjoyed the recommendations and wanted to share them. With his permission, I’m reblogging the series here at Chicago Geek Guy.

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