Friday, March 20, 2015

New Campaign: Dark Heresy, Verum Arbitus

Recently I came to a decision to begin winding up my Marienburg: Sold Down the River campaign, and I will do a full post on that one in the future, as I believe the campaign deserves a true post-mortem.

Whilst this is sad, it means I have a chance to create something new. *cue rubbing hands together*

For a bloody long time now I have wanted to run a campaign set in the 41st Millennium of Warhammer 40k.  A long while back, I did just that, but it never got very far due to my moving away from the group. I have since grown considerably as a GM, and I am ready to step back into the fray.

Last year I designed a campaign called Into the Expanse, but unfortunately that wont really work with where I am now. I am no longer a student, and don't have as much time to put towards planning as I once did. Further, many of the questions asked with Into the Expanse were answered by Marienburg: Sold Down the River (but not all!)

Therefore, I need something new. Enter Verum Arbitus.
DISCLAIMER: This is not indicative of the coming campaign.
But I had you there for a minute.
Or do I still have you? Is this all a lie?

Verum Arbitus

Just to be straight, this is an episodic Dark Heresy campaign, where each 'episode' mission has 3 parts, played over 3 sessions. As a usual Dark Heresy campaign goes, the PCs will be Throne Agents... But there is a twist.

I first had inspiration for Verum Arbitus after I watched True Detective (the pseudo-Latin inclined among you will note that "verum arbitus" very loosely translates as "true detective"). I wanted to create a campaign where the players are, loosely, "the law", yet they are bound in near-mythic events and stumbling through. The players should feel competent - this is their job, after all - but the situation seems strange and unlike anything they have seen before. To put it into metaphor, they hold a well worn deck of cards, yet manage to draw one they've never seen before.

The second round of inspiration for Verum Arbitus, and what prompted me to write the first session was, strangely, the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. This was strange for me, but it hammered home the idea that inspiration can strike you from any source. And at any time. Because, as it happens, I was wasted at the time and dancing in my living room with a group of friends to very loud music...

Don't look at me like that.

Anyway, I got to writing, and I sorted out my thoughts. So let me present the Grand Concept Document for Verum Arbitus.

Campaign Name: I've already covered this, but Verum Arbitus

This name gives the needed "fake Latin" feel which is essential to Warhammer, reinforces the strange arcane nature of the campaign, and identifies that the players will take an Arbitrator role during the game. Great stuff.

Campaign Tag-Line: When you know your enemy, you know your ally.

This tag-line is a bit of a riddle, and I wont answer it here as my players are likely reading (and so they should!) However, think about this one. Really think about it. It should give you a few ideas on the sorts of games I'll be running.

What is the Campaign Question?: Who do the PCs trust when their bosses are worse than their foes?

This question is a pretty standard one for 40k, however when mixed with some of the other points in this GCD it should get the players thinking. Just what kind of scum will their employers be?! If we know that their employer is an Inquisitor, as the PCs are Throne Agents, then what does that say about the campaign scope? Is it a Radical or Renegade Inquisitor? Or a truly Puritan Inquisitor? Or neither? Maybe they are 'fake' Throne Agents! Who knows...

(I do.)

Who are the PCs?: Those in the wrong place at the right time. Those that survived. Those that can be manipulated.

The PCs will be forced into servitude, quite literally at the barrel of a gun. But then again, they are Throne Agents. They aren't just bilge scum scrapped up to service. They are competent agents, able to deal with situations that come their way. But they didn't CHOOSE this life, that is the main point.

What are the Doing?: Get a Mission, Infiltrate the Situations, Cut off the Head, Burn Everything.

The PCs will mostly spend their time clandestinely operating behind enemy lines. They will be performing things that, should they be discovered, they will be disavowed, disowned, and destroyed for. They will be doing the "thankless duties the Emperor needs them to do". And they will be doing it in bad company... Or is it better company than those who sent them into these hell holes?

Looking forward to talking more about Verum Arbitus in the future! Viva la Dark Heresy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Announcing New Contributor: Myself!

Greetings all,

Just a bit of a management update for now. I've finally tethered my proper email address to versamus, so from now on I will be posting from this account.

What does this mean? Well, not much, really. Not much content-wise, at least. Except that it is now far less of a hassle for me to post, so that should mean I post more often!

So that this post wasn't a waste of time for you to read, I will share a map of Rijker's Isle - the fortress prison in Marienburg - that I made this week using Campaign Cartographer 3.

Looking forward to chatting again soon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

If It Ain't Broke, Make It Better

Hey everyone, please excuse the lack of posts recently. I've been writing for a website called Another Dungeon, and doing lots of projects on the side, so versamus has fallen somewhat by the wayside. But no longer! I have a few articles I plan to post in the near future, so that should be grand.

There is a very old and very wise saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This sounds like good advice: if your chair works, then don’t go fiddling around with it. Your meddling might break it to begin with, but either way you’ll be wasting time.

This piece of advice is, of course, terrible for a games designer. Simply terrible.

When it comes to game design, I am a little bit Derridean - that is, I believe that pretty much every idea has already been done before at some point in time, and attempting to come up with something 100% original is pointless and impossible. Everything we think is based on our experience, so it isn’t possible to think of something that isn’t in some way referential to something that has come before.

This must therefore also apply to mechanics, story, and every facet of every genre of game design. So where does the creativity come in? By smashing those old, tired, and generic ideas together. Not only that, but by constantly questioning the choices that we make ourselves.

Now, let me be clear, this doesn’t mean reinvent the wheel - another very old and very wise saying. However, take those wheels, pull them off the monster truck, and jam them onto the tricycle.

Let me give you an example: Carcassonne.

Carcassonne is a great, classic Euro board game which is enjoyed by people worldwide. It has a sleek elegant design which makes it a quick game to learn, to play, and to enjoy. It is very fun-efficient, suitable for all ages, and has a nice combination of luck and strategy that make it a near-flow game.

However, Carcassonne isn’t perfect. No game ever is.

So I decided to change that. Now I’m not pretending I was the first person to do this - I have never seen it before, but it is such a simple change that I am certain someone else has done it before - but I decided to change the random draw of tiles at the beginning of a round of Carcassonne with a random hand of three drawn at the beginning of a round, which is replenished after each tile is played individually.

Simple change. I didn’t invent anything whilst doing it. I didn’t invent Carcassonne. I didn’t invent the concept of hands in a game. But I did cram one invention into another. But doing so does not a designer make. Game design isn’t about posturing. It is about playtesting. No idea is ever good until you play it and have fun - better yet, no idea is ever good until you play it and have more fun than you had before the idea.

So we gave Franken-Carcassonne a spin, and it turned out great! The addition of a hand allows for higher strategy, and faster gameplay. It removes the shambling randomness and incomplete feelings that some games of Carcassonne can create when the deck is shuffled particularly badly. It also allows for some rather spectacular back-stabbing and fiero moments when you execute an amazing play over a few turns.

The variant doesn’t unbalance the game, because all players have the same ‘advantage’, and are equally able to plan ahead. Yes, each players’ hands can still come out badly, but the hand size is big enough to allow for forethought and clever planning, whilst not big enough for a single player to monopolise all of a single tile-type.

This is just one example. And not a very good example. The change was small, and not very original. But it worked! It made for a different experience, if not certainly a better one (though I prefer it, personally), and got everyone at the table thinking about the game in a different way.

If you need any more proof that constant iteration on games is a great thing, just look at the amount of mods Skyrim has. That should convince you.

So the next time you pick up a board game, card game, or video game, consider the rules you are playing, ask yourself why those rules are in place, and then ask what you could do to change them. Yeah, some of the changes will suck. But some will be awesome. You won’t know until you try them out, and before you’ve realised it you’re a game designer.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Regent: A Free & Easy Card Game For Infinity Players

Regent is a game I came up with today on the way to work... Seriously, I'm not kidding. I wrote this in less than 10 minutes, and I have no idea if it will work or not yet, so I am hoping some of you play it and give me some feedback!

A Free & Easy Card Game For Infinity Players

Regent is a card game which can be played with any number of players above 2, with normal decks of cards (you need 1 deck per player) and probably 30 minutes or so to spare (though this is merely conjecture at this point).


The aim of Regent is to defeat the other players - all aspirants for the Throne - by destroying their Holdings, which represent their military and political might. The last player standing is the Regent and gains the Throne, winning the game.


To play Regent, you need a normal 52-card deck of playing cards for each player. Once you have these, shuffle them all together and place the massive pile that you'll have on your hands in the centre of the playing area. 

Deal 20 cards face down to each player. This is their Holding Deck. Then deal 7 cards to each player which they may look at. This is their Hand.

Everyone declare how many Royals they have. The player with the most Royals goes first. If you have people with equal amounts of Royals, then the one going clockwise left of the Dealer goes first. Play progresses clockwise from this player.

Playing The Game

At the beginning of their turn, players draw a card if they have less than 7 in their hand.

During their turn, players can perform up to 3 Actions and play a Court Member. Outside of their turn, a player may Defend, Exploit or Assassinate at any time.

Each Action is assigned to a particular suit of cards, and to perform that Action, play a card of that suit. The number on the card represents the power of that Action. There are four possible Actions:
  • Attack (Club): Pick a target. Remove Holding cards equal to the power. You must declare your target before defence.
  • Scheme (Spade): Look at up to power number of cards on the field (in players' Hands or Holding Decks) and rearrange them as you see fit, though maintaining the amount in each location. You need not declare your target before defence.
  • Favour (Diamond): Draw up to power number of cards and add them to your hand. Discard down to 7 cards before taking another Action or finishing your turn.
  • Heal (Heart): Draw up to power number of cards face down and add them to either the top or bottom of your Holding Deck.
Instead of using them as an Action, a player may play one Royal per turn to their Court, face up. Doing so prevents any other player from being able to use that same Royal for as long as that card remains in their court, though the player who owns that Royal may still use them in Actions. Additionally, if you have all three Royals of a suit, you gain +3 power to cards of that suit. This may only be done in your turn.

Additionally, at any time (in your turn or off-turn) you may remove a Royal from your Court voluntarily to use them in an Action (though they never re-enter your Hand, so you must use them immediately or discard them). Once this has been done, you may not add an additional Royal of that same type to your Court this turn. I.e. You may not have a King of Hearts in your Court, remove him, use him, and play another King of Hearts that you hold to your Court.

Defending can be done by any number of players when another player plays an Action, but each player can only Defend with a single card per Action. To do this, play a card of the opposing colour to the Action (Red > Black, or Black > Red). Reduce the power of the Action by the power of the Defence. If an Action's power is reduced to 0 it failed (but still counts to the total Actions used). This can only be done in your off-turn.

Exploiting can be done by drawing cards from your own Holding Deck. This can save you in a tight spot, but also harms your 'health'. This can only be done in your off-turn.

Assassinating can be done by playing a Joker Card and removing a Court Member from an opposing player's Court, thus allowing another player to add that same Royal to their own Court. This can only be done in your off-turn.

Winning The Game

Once a player's Holding Deck is reduced to 0, they lose, and their Court is disbanded (and discarded). When there is only 1 player left, they win.


Once a card has been used to perform an Action, Defend, Assassinate, been Assassinated, or is discarded, it goes into the Discard Pile. Once there are no more cards to draw from the Deck, reshuffle in all cards from the Discard Pile into the Deck, and keep going with play as usual.

Royals are worth the following amounts: Jack (11), Queen (12), King (13). Ace is worth 14, but is not a Royal and cannot join a Court. Further, Jokers are worth nothing and cannot be played in any way except to Assassinate another Royal. You may also never have multiples of the same Royal in your Court so as to "hold" the space. Only one Royal of each suit can ever be in a Court at any one time.

Cards used to Defend do so to their full amount. Any excess 'defence' left over does not get stored anywhere. Therefore, if you use a Defend card of 5 power against a 2 power Action, the other 3 power is simply wasted. So choose carefully!

As I say, please give this a try and let me know in the comments.

[EDIT #1] Thanks go out to Robert for making me realise I forgot some things in the original write-up, and for suggesting some changes. I'm a goof.

[EDIT #2] Thanks to Amelia, Laith and Sam for playtesting this over the weekend. It's fun, though a few issues need to be ironed out, so I will likely have to make a 2nd Edition!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #3 - Involving the Other Senses

Woo! Back after a long break from a great many things, I am ready to start writing again. So, I'll get to continuing my oldest/newest series.

This is Part #3 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #1, Part #2, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1234). This post is a continuation of last post, Involving the Senses.

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #3 - Involving the Other Senses

Last time I talked about Sight, Sound, and Smell in RPGs, but now I am going to finish up this 2-parter with Touch and Taste. Both of these are massive categories, so I had to split it up a bit.

You don't have to go full LARP to create immersion - though it couldn't hurt.


Touch is perhaps the most difficult sense to employ, but one of the best when used correctly. This comes in via props - in-game letters that you've prepared and handed to the players, 'magic' rings you've found, precious stones, coins, and the like.

Whilst making these items is possible, it can take a lot of time. Except in the case of letters, which are pretty easy (just get some parchment paper from your local craft store, and either print out your notes in calligraphic fonts, or get a fountain or quill pen and have some fun!) What you can do instead is raid local garage sales, thrift shops, and your parent's attic over the holiday break.

Anything from old jewellery, to pewter tankards, to a pipe, a hat, a broken doll, a wooden box. Anything. You should be able to pick up any old item like this and craft a story around it, or using it, or at least think of a way your players would love it. If you're playing a Sci-Fi setting and a friend of yours has a broken computer, laptop, tablet or other device, see if you can steal the broken pieces and make your own 'Tech' with it.

Coins, and in-game currency, has always been a close one to my heart. I've always wanted to be able to thrown down a bag of money in front of my players, and have them use it as they would in the game. However, currency represents a few problems: how do you get enough of it to be usable? And how to you make sure the use of it doesn't overshadow the game?

Several services now exist for in-game coins, the best of which would have to be Campaign Coins. However, Campaign Coins are quite expensive, and unless you can easily afford it, it is an expense that shouldn't be high up on the list for GMs (as coins don't add THAT much to your game).

Another alternative is to use metal washers, or other circular tokens. Again, getting enough of them is an issue, but can be done with a little investment. One method I have used is when I went to Japan I saved all the small Yen currency coins and brought them back with me. A few hundred 1 Yen coins work wonders as silver coins! Don't use native currency, as it has the issue of having immediate monetary value, and can become confusing if someone has their wallet out at the table.

Or, you can do what I do and offset some (or all) of the money with paper notes which can be printed in the same way as normal parchment notes above with a little photoshop skills to make the design. I've done this very successfully with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Dark Heresy in the past, so I highly recommend this! (And if anyone wants the files I made for these, feel free to ask)


Taste is probably my favourite sense to use in games, as I do love to cook. It can be done cheaply and quickly - serving coffee (or ReCaf) in a tin cup when your players are fighting in the trenches of Cadia - or slightly more expensive on time and money - by serving a full multi-course Russian meal when your players are the guests of honour in a Boyar's court. Cooking is great, because you can have everyone bring something else to the table when game day comes around, and it fills your play area with smells, and tends to get everyone in a good mood before play begins.

You may wish to serve food before play begins, eat, and then get into the swing of things, or eat during play, but remember a full mouth is a misunderstood mouth, and the GM may want to hold back during dinner time. My advice would be to either serve before hand as stated, or plan for some PC planning or discussion - an intrigue scene where you can talk as an NPC instead of narrating. Have someone bring the bread, and someone else the wine-spirits-or-beer as dictates, and either cook something yourself, or get another player who can cook better than you to bring the main course.

Trust me, it will make a memorable game. It has for me many times.

Next post will be about the Cardinal Emotions.

Have you ever used touch or taste at the tabletop to heighten the ambience, and create more memorable moments? Did it go well? Did it go poorly? Let me know!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What I Learned About RPGS from MC'ing a Wedding

Yesterday, Saturday December 6th, 2014, my best friends got married. They were both beautiful, and the wedding went off without a hitch... Which was surprising, considering I was both Best Man and Master of Ceremonies, so a lot of the screw-ups (which thankfully didn't occur) would have been on me!

The whole experience got me to thinking: planning and running a wedding is a lot like running an RPG as the GM. In fact, the two are so similar, that I wouldn't be surprised if that was why I was chosen for the role!

So here are a few tips for both MCing a wedding and for running a successful RPG session.

Tip #1 - Over-Plan, Under-Plot
When planning for the special day, I looked over several revisions of run sheets, spoke to everyone who may-or-may-not speak, collected together a series of items for the Groom in case of emergency, and ran through every situation in my head before it could surprise me. I also wrote a giant stack of palm cards with every step of the day marked out clearly.

Now, do you think the day went according to the plan? No way. Herding wedding guests is like trying to direct players - except you have about 10x as many, or perhaps even more! And yet, all this planning wasn't wasted.

Because I knew how the day was supposed to go and why back-to-front, I knew what I needed to change on the fly to get it back on track, or just as good. It also allowed me to be comfortable enough with the material that I could improvise when I needed to (which I did need to with several points).

For RPGs, I would recommend this sort of over planning, yet under plotting. Know who your characters are and what they want deeply (and why!), and then figure out how they're going to get their goals completed. Once you know this through and through, throwing a few players into the mix wont hurt so much. Your players will mess everything up, but your finely crafted NPCs will be able to reel with the punches and deliver some great dynamic game play!

Tip #2 - Get to know your guests and supporting cast
I spoke to everyone (or near everyone) on the Bridal Party, close family of the Bridal Party, and Church/Reception Staff before their roles were exposed to everyone else. I knew where their weaknesses were (Would they dance? Would they give a speech? Would they prefer to mingle early, or take a break from photos, etc?) 

This enabled me to know who I could rely on for what tasks, and to delegate out pieces of the evening. If I needed something for the Bride or Groom, I knew who to ask. If I needed to shuffle around some of the speeches, I knew who to talk to. If I needed to get the music changed, I had that covered.

Obviously I couldn't do everything at the Reception myself, and nor should I. The parents of the Bridal Party would want to help out on the newlyweds wedding, and I was more than happy to have their help! This delegation allowed me to focus more on the Bride and Groom, and also allowed the rest of the Bridal Party to feel more included, and to actively shape the happy night their children will remember for the rest of their lives, and that is truly special.

For RPGs, this advice boils down to: know your players, and know what they're good at. Do you have a player who is great at maths? Have them keep tabs of HP. Do you have a player who loves music and has a great ear? Have them run your playlists. Do you have a player who can bake? Have them bring some delicious treats for the rest of the players!

Keeping your players involved beyond just being characters enables them to build culture with the RPG group, beyond just in-game memories. You'll have your players talking about not just the two-headed Troll they slew, but also the sweet music going on in the background, and the delicious biscuits to go along side it! This sort of culture is, in my opinion, deeply important to RPG groups.

Hell, it's the reason the Bride and Groom are my best friends... I became close to them through my first campaign in Melbourne!

Tip #3 - It's ALL about the Bride and Groom
The single greatest piece of advice I received when planning for last night was that nothing matters beyond the Bride and Groom having a great time. Nothing. If they are happy, the wedding is going well, and in return they are happy, ad infinitum.

I made sure to keep my Bride and Groom stocked with drinks, food and anything else they could possibly need. I made them know that if they needed anything I hadn't offered, they could merely ask and I'd get it. (I also discovered a form of Wedding Sorcery - honestly, if you're ever on a Bridal Party, try going to the Reception Staff and asking for something for the Bride or Groom. They will drop what they're doing and run for it. I may have gone power-crazy.)

For your game, know that so long as they players are enjoying themselves, the game is going well. So what if you'd planned for a Dragon fight at this point - if they're having fun discussing court politics with the aging King, then damn well let them! However, if they're starting to nod off, have the Dragon come to them! Bring them the fun - don't make them find it.

Tip #4 - Be Sincere, Be Happy, Laugh When You Fall, and Help Up Everyone Else
My last tip is simple - don't take yourself or anyone else to seriously... At the Reception, I didn't write in jokes. I was nervous, and I just said what came to mind. I opened the night by standing like a dick in front of everyone chatting away. I thought, How will I get their attention? I picked up my fork and tapped it against the glass in front of me like I'd seen in the movies, and like I'd always wanted to do. Everyone shut up and looked and me, and I forgot what to say, so I said what came naturally to mind...

"I've always wanted to do that."

People laughed, I laughed, and I remembered everything I was supposed to do. I made myself a momentary prat, and then captured the audiences attention and empathy. We were all there to have a good time. They weren't there to listen to my verbosity - they wanted to see and toast and love the newlyweds.

Plus, the line became a running joke for the evening, bringing everything together. Whenever I needed attention, everyone looked over and laughed again, and it kept the tension broken. We could get on with the good stuff. During my speech, I spoke sincerely. I didn't shove in Buck's Night Humour as one cousin congratulated me on afterwards, but spoke from the heart, and matched how I felt. I hope I did them well.

And so my last time is this: Don't run your game like a TV Comedy Panel, trying to force entertainment on your players. They want to have fun along with you, not be entertained by you. They want to build their own fun out of a game session, and build it co-operatively. So let them. It will make your job easier, and make the sessions better! Just run a game as you'd tell a good story to a friend down at the pub. Your players will laugh in the right bits because you will. Your players will be tense in the right bits because you'll feel it. And they will laugh when you fall, and you'll laugh when they fall, but just as you should help them back up, so to will they.

Final Words
I love my RPG group. I really do. We are all the best of friends, and I feel comfortable around them in and out of game with anything. I've seen two of them fall in love, and two others get married now.

The game is nothing compared to the culture, and that's what I want to protect. We're an RPG Family. Thanks, M.O.R.T.E.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Lightest RPG Ruleset Ever

Don't worry, I'm still writing the next part of my recent series.  I haven't forgotten! This is just something I thought about on my way to work this morning...

The following is a ruleset for a light RPG you can play in any amount of time, even less than 30 minutes. Character generation takes 10 seconds, and combat (if you even have any) takes a single dice-pool per 'side'. It can be used for any setting, ever.

Each player chooses 3 things their character is good at. This could be anything, from Strength, to Running, to Talking People to Sleep.

Each player ranks these traits from +1, +2, and +3. You have to use each, and you can only use each once.

To make a test, a player rolls a d6. If they are testing an action against something that they have a trait in, they roll that many more dice and add all the results together.

The GM sets the Difficulty of an action (or in the case of a contested action, the other party rolls and compares the highest). Difficulty 4 is the base-line.

If a player rolls equal to or above the Difficulty, then they succeed. If they get equal to or more than twice the Difficulty, they have performed a Critical Success, and they can describe the extra awesome things they've done.

Combat is fought by both sides adding up all their dice and rolling it as a single dice-pool. The side with the highest total wins, and the other side loses. It is up to the GM and the players to decide what this means.

Weapons and armour, and other gear add more dice, or have cool effects determined in the moment.

Rules of Thumb: Don't be a dick. Play to have fun with everyone. Trust each other. Do these things and the system will work.

Have fun!