More chess with kids – Chess with Mods

I previously made a post about introducing kids in my chess club to chess variants. The more enterprising kids called it Chess with Mods and promptly started hacking the game with different versions.

They didn’t stop there. Here are some more variants of chess that the kids made up.

Train Chess

Train Chess is played exactly like a normal game of chess, except that every 8 turns, a train steams through the middle two rows and destroys any pieces in those spaces. Normally the center four spaces are heavily fought over, but in this variant, you don’t want your pieces hanging around there.

Often players move pieces to the middle rows expecting that they can move them out before the train comes. Then the opponent pins their pieces there or wastes turns with easy-to-deal-with checks, until the pieces in the middle die.

If your king is hit by the train, you lose.

It sounds like a really dumb variant, and it is, but its also good fun and worth a try.

Double Chess

In Double Chess you set up two boards end to end, and set the pieces up at as normal at opposite ends. Now there are lots of spaces between each army, which inflates the value of the queen, bishop and rook, whilst decreasing the value of the other pieces. To rebalance the game, pawns can double move for their first turn and their second turn. Pawns also promote when they get to the end of their board, ie half way to the opposing army. Additionally, queens, bishops and rooks all have to stop their movement after crossing the seam between two boards. Knights are weaker than usual, and end up just being defensive pieces, or protecting pawns as they advance.

Double HP Chess

Set up the board as usual, except on each space, place two pieces instead of one. Each piece now has two HP, as represented by the second piece.

This game was an interesting experiment but it didn’t really work as intended. It becomes quite impossible to snipe pieces and everything becomes a bit of a meatgrinder. Unlike the other variants here, Double HP Chess didn’t get any repeat play.

Not every experiment works, but negative results are still results.

Alt Text: a chessboard set up with two pieces on each space

Double Train Chess

Combine Train Chess with Double Chess. Those important middle two rows where pawns upgrade and rooks, queens and bishops have to pause becomes very dangerous due to the train.

Battleship Chess

Not a variant that the kids invented, but one that became quite popular. Two players play back to back with a judge administering the game. Like in Battleship, players can only see their pieces and have to guess where the opponent’s pieces are. It’s often easy to know where pieces are, as they take your pieces, but hard to figure out what pieces they are. I never played this variant, but the players all found it to be very stressful and intense.

Black’s view in a game of Battleship Chess

Black pieces on a board with a few white pieces captured off the the side

And the opponent’s view.

Key Lessons

  • Sometimes the new rules didn’t work, but fun was had trying them out regardless
  • You can increase the longevity of a game by a lot with a little elbow grease
  • Nobody ever asked why there was a train steaming through the battlefield at regular intervals, they just accepted it because it was neat.

Further Reading

My previous posts about kids-at-play

Pokémon Essence V0.8

My Pokémon ttrpg, Pokémon Essence, as just received an update

Feature list:

  • Revamped dice-pool Action Resolution System – just as easy to use as before, but now better able to reflect each Pokémon’s individual strengths
  • Rules for Dark, Steel and Fairy types
  • All 151 Gen 1 Pokémon included
  • Rules for adding Pokémon from later Generation 2+
  • 96 appreciably different and qualitative abilities

Download Pokémon Essence for free on now!

Check out the full length dev-log here

The next update, V0.81, will be the Viridian Region edit. It will include encounter tables, quests and locations for Pallet Town, Route 1, Viridian City, Route 2, Viridian Forest and Pewter City, including Pewter Gym, the Pewter Science Museum and the Pokémon School. Work is already in progress, check out a Route 1 encounter table below:

  1. Youngster Ronny has a cowardly Rattata and wants some help teaching it the move Quick Attack.
  2. A group of Rattata are eating from an abandoned picnic hamper. A Pidgey keeps swooping down, trying to take a sandwich.
  3. A Rattata is gnawing at a can of tinned food, trying to open it
  4. Schoolkids Shermon and Danny are having a very slow Pokémon battle, trash-talking each other all the while. Shermon has a Kakuna and Danny has a Metapod. They will trash-talk anyone who comes nearby too.
  5. A nearby tree contains a nest with 2 fledgling Pidgey getting ready to fly for the first time. A Rattata is below the tree, waiting to pounce on them if they fall.
  6. A young girl chases after a Pidgey which is flying overhead, carrying a pencil case.

I figure that if I can make a route with only Pidgey and Rattata interesting, the rest of Kanto has great potential!

The OTHER three best spells in Harry Potter

mood music

I previously argued that the three best spells in Harry Potter are:

  • Expecto Patronum
  • Polyjuice Potion
  • The spell which returns Voldemort to corporeal form in chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Here are the other three best spells in Harry Potter.

ALT TEXT: an old pencil drawn image of an upper class lady and sorcerer casting his hands over a crystal ball. A caption reads "what is it you see?" she gasped.
I see crude images of monkeys, a multitudinous horde in infinite cartoonish variations.

The Unbreakable Vow

It’s a magically-binding promise from one wizard/witch to another, witnessed by a third.

If you break the vow you die.

It’s not clear from the fiction exactly why baddies aren’t using this to control people and are instead using the Imperius curse (a sort of mind-control), which can be repelled with training. Perhaps there is a component where the Unbreakable Vow just won’t work if the person making the promise is under duress. Of course, there are many types of duress, so even that doesn’t really explain it.

In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an excellent fan-fiction in which Harry is raised by scientist parents, the Unbreakable Vow permanently siphons off a bit of magical potential, which is a good explanation for why they are not constantly used. (I think its the magical potential of the person to whom something is promised that is sapped.) In fact, HPMOR is a fan-fic that adds and improves on the original – everyone is more competent and magic is used to its fullest extent with minimal plot holes.

The Unbreakable Vow has some similarities with Gaes in D&D.

What makes the spell so good is the potential for high-stakes drama.

The Fidelius Charm

You make something, typically a location, unfindable. Not just hidden, but unfindable. It can only be found by the person you designate as the Secret Keeper.

The Secret Keeper can tell other people the secret, so that they can find it, but those people cannot pass the secret on again. Its a mechanism for limiting the passage of secret information, and was used in the Wizarding Wars to keep The Goodies safe.

The roleplay juice here is centered on who you tell the secret to.

People who trust nobody can’t use it.

People who trust somebody are now beholden to that person.

That person is the weak link in your chain. Did you choose the right person?

It also feels similar to magic relating to the True Names of things. If someone knows your True Name, they have power over you.

Like the Unbreakable Vow, the Fidelius Charm provides some good roleplay possibilities, mostly relating to drama.

The Remembrall

I know it’s not an spell but the original list included a potion.

The Remembrall is a large marble-like ball with white smoke inside. If you’ve forgotten something, the smoke turns red.

As a kid I thought that the remembrall was a pointless gift. If I’ve forgotten something, at least tell me what it is!

As an adult I would love one. A magic item that means you never miss a deadline, you never forget to pay a bill – how many times have you rushed to barely complete something in time because you forgot about in entirely?

It’s a magic item of convenience – like a bag of holding.

In a ttrpg it would function as a mechanism to make sure that player knowledge stays aligned with character knowledge. As an excuse for the GM to aid the party without breaking the illusion of the game. It’s excellent not due to drama, but as a tool for the GM – in fact its a tool for the GM which the players probably think is a tool for them.

The DAQ Criteria

I’ve written before about the DAQ Criteria. We ask three questions of an ability (or item or spell etc.):

  • Is it Distinctive?
  • Is it Appreciable?
  • Is it Qualitative?
The Unbreakable VowThere is nothing else in the Harry Potter world which can do this, however the Imperius Curse comes closeYes, if a character acted based on an unbreakable vow it would be an appreciable, noticeable moment in a game (or in the fiction)Fundamentally the spell applies a rather unique quality to the target.
The Fidelius CharmIt is unique, there is no other stated mechanism for the protection of dwellings like thisYes, escaping to a secret location and knowing that you are safe (unless betrayed) is highly appreciableVery qualitative
The RemembrallIt is distinct, nothing else does what it doesThis is debatable. We see in the fiction that Neville’s Remembrall reminds him that he’s forgotten something, but he can’t remember what he has forgotten. But if the players can remember what it was that was forgotten, then it would be highly appreciable.Yes

All the best spells in Harry Potter are linked by their qualitative and distinct natures. They are also all appreciable, but I think this is a secondary design concern to the other two. The longer I have thought about the DAQ criteria, the more I’ve thought that it would be very hard to make something which is distinct, qualitative and yet not appreciable. Furthermore, I think that anything which falls into that category is still useful as a game element for setting tone.

Banner: Welcome to Camp Merlin. Image shows a wizard and a fox wearing boy's clothing. The Wizard says "Hocus Pocus!" and the fox says "Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!"

Shilling for myself

I recently released Welcome to Camp Merlin, a short (6-12 session) game about a group of kids at a magical summer camp.

When I was designing the magic in Camp Merlin, aimed to make every spell fit the DAQ criteria. Here’s the spell list below:

  • Shape Shifting – take the form of an animal
  • True Slime – a perfectly lubricant, completely frictionless
  • True Glue – a perfect adhesive
  • Slowing – slows target
  • Ranged Shove – pushes back target
  • Power Walking – can walk up walls/on water
  • Perfect Replica – makes a reflected copy of an item
  • Truth Food – you must tell the truth while eating it
  • Sense Mind – sense, but do not read, nearby minds
  • Liquify – liquifies the target
  • Misremember – edits a memory
  • Mirth – forced laughter

These spells, combined with the qualitative tasks that must be completed to learn them, several unique monsters (with sub-tables to vary the encounters) and a dozen static encounters around Camp Merlin, compose 80% of the game. Very content-heavy, with some GM guidance and very light rules.

Welcome to Camp Merlin is available on DriveThruRPG and

Until the end of the month Welcome to Camp Merlin is 50% off on DriveThruRPG if and only if you click on the link below.

Welcome to Camp Merlin 50% off link

My first experience with Matrix Games

What is a Matrix Game?

Essentially, a Matrix Game combines the tactical infinity of role-playing games with control of an ‘actor’ – a faction, organisation or entity – as would be expected in a strategy game. They align with the play worlds, not rules philosophy of the Free Kriegspiel Revival movement, meaning that setting, and the rules/expectations of the setting, takes precedence over a dense system of rules.

A cobbled-together primer:

Open Strategy Game is a term that Chris McDowell coined to avoid confusion with all the other things that ‘matrix’ means. I think I prefer it.

My first Matrix Game

Michael over at lizardmandiaries put out a call for players of his Matrixhammer, a matrix game/Warhammer Fantasy mashup.

We played-by-post over discord and I fully recommend you go and read his play report of the game from a referee’s perspective.

I was the Empire player with the forces below at my command.

The Forces of The Empire: 4 Zweinhanders, 8 Halberdiers, 6 Riflemen, 1 Imperial Captain and 1 wizard. The wizard can summon, manipulate and warp the elements. All units have a general devotion/faith to the emperor/empire.

My forces were camped at a hut beside a lake, it was midnight and an army of evil beastmen could be heard howling. They were about 2 hours travel away. My forces had to survive 6 hours until re-enforcements arrived.

Emotions are tricky

I want to preface everything I’m about to say by making something crystal clear – I think Michael did an excellent job of responding to the inputs that the other player and I gave him. I would absolutely play another matrix game run by him.

That being said, I did not fully enjoy the game whilst I was playing it.

There were some moments where my initial emotional reaction to the update was negative.

My rational brain had to step in and actively overrule those reactions.

After reading Michael’s play report, I am happy to say that my negative initial emotional reactions were founded on flawed premises, as my emotional reactions assumed certain things about the beastmen player’s actions that were untrue.

My after-the-event enjoyment of the game is much higher.

I think the root cause of my negative feelings was the high amount of hidden information in this scenario. Without prompting or suggestion from me, Michael seems to have identified it as an issue as well, as his next Matrixhammer scenario includes player arguments which are completely public for all terms. I think that is a good idea and would have mitigated the majority of the negative feelings I had, though he might not be doing it for that reason.

How I felt and what I thought throughout the game

Again, if you haven’t read Michael’s play report I recommend it. It’s a good read and it will provide useful context for the next section.

Turn 1

I was torn between setting up defensive positions and doing something sneaky. I went with sneaky and set up a flammable area nearby the hut, whilst keeping the area closest to the hut less flammable.

The Forces of The Empire make the are immediately near the hut fire-resistant, whilst making the area further outwards more prone to fire/the spreading of fire
-The Halberdiers deposit dry leaves and twigs in the flammable area to act as good fire starters
-The Riflemen deposit some powder in the flammable area for the same reason
-The Wizard surges the lake water onto the fire-resistant area to dampen it

Turn 1

This was a success so I reasoned I would spend the next hour/turn fortifying, and the one after that triggering my sneaky fire trap.

At this point I was pretty pleased with myself for “doing a tactical infinity”.

Turn 2

I ordered fortifications on turn 2.

The Forces of The Empire make defensive preparations
-The Riflemen make holes in the roof so they can shoot out from it
-The Halberdiers use wood from the trees to create sharp spikes at the edge of the lake, facing towards the water
-The Captain gives rousing speeches to each group of soldiers to steel their courage

Turn 2

I was told that my fortifications were a success, but that the horde had not got closer during the last hour.

…a very faint itchiness wafts briefly over your units skin. Your wizard senses some foul magics have occurred in the surrounding forests.

I inferred from this that a curse had been put on the surrounding area. I didn’t know what the curse was and wasn’t sure how to counteract it – I had a wizard in my forces, but he was tooled for elemental magic.

Turn 3

I decided that since I had another hour to prepare I would summon an air elemental who could take watch in case the pause by the beastmen forces was a trick.

The Forces of the Empire create an air elemental to act as a scout, and sends it to the edge of where they can see, within the flammable area
-The Wizard summons the air elemental using his magic
-The soldiers ensure its sanctity by singing hymns and prayers of the Empire
-The Captain takes the plumes from the Halberdiers and gives them to the air elemental, so it can drop them as a signal if it sees any beast men

Turn 3

I found out that there was a large force of beastmen to my right and a smaller force to my left, and that they had started burning the forest. A helpful map was shared.

An image showing a forest by a lake. A hut on the lakeshore has the lake below it. To the left and right are flags representing beastmen and above it is fire.

Turn 4

I decided that I would try to catch a large portion of the attacking force in my fire-trap. So far my emotions had been steadily positive.

The Forces of the Empire attempt to catch attacking the beast men forces in the flames. If they can split them by trapping some beastly forces with them on the inside of the fires (that is, in the flame-resistant area around the hut) whilst keeping most out then that is a bonus.
-The Wizard keeps the flames at back until the right moment, then surges them forward
-The ground is prepared for fire with powder and dry material, so it should spread quickly to the attacking beast forces
-The air elemental will also keep back the flames before surging them on by adding air as fuel

Turn 4

My trap worked (combined with the other defenses) and the larger force of beastmen were caught in my flames, mostly perishing (but taking two halberdiers and a zweinhander man with them).

Another helpful map was shared.

ALT TEXT: An image showing a forest by a lake. A hut on the lakeshore has the lake below it. On all other sides of the hut there is fire. Beyond the hut, to the left, is a banner representing a beastman army.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself. I’d used the fire trap effectively and only had to survive for two more turns/hours.

Turn 5

I was concerned about the fire, though I remembered that I had constructed a fire break so my forces should be safe. I decided to put the effort of the turn into pushing back the remaining beastman force using smoke from the fire.

The Forces of the Empire will attempt to prevent injury from smoke inhalation, whilst making the smoke a problem for the remaining beastmen
-The Zweinhanders will soak any available robes and tunics with lake-water to act as a mask/filter against smoke
-The wizard will use fire magic to push the fires towards the remaining beastmen
-The air elemental will push the smoke towards the beastmen. It will extinguish/kill itself with the effort if doing so will help.

Turn 5

The results mentioned that magical agents on both sides were trying to control the fires (the air elemental sacrificed itself in the process). Then the fires broke through and rushed over the hut, killing all the riflemen inside. The remaining forces fled the fire into the water, which writhed with demonic influence causing their skin to itch and crawl. They put damp rags over their mouths to protect from the choking smoke, which may have transmitted some illness in the process. Out in the lake, the wizard surged fire after the beastmen, who fell back. Another, smaller beastman force was revealed. Another map was shared.

ALT TEXT: An image showing a forest by a lake. A fire rages across the forest, the hut consumed within. Far beyond the fire, to the left,  a banner representing a beastman army retreats. Another banner of beastmen is on the right. A banner representing imperial forces is in the lake.

When I got the results of the round, I was mildly grumpy. Those pesky emotions.

I had not expected that the fire could spread so quickly over the whole hut area, especially when I was vying for control of the fire too. I felt that the fire going against me was arbitrary, a throw of the dice on which too much had rested.

Let’s examine why that was not true. The beastmen’s goal for that turn was to burn my troops alive, and there was already a fire raging on 3 sides of the hut. Even if I was pushing the left half of the fire towards the beastmen, I wasn’t doing anything with the right half. It was a pretty even toss up between the two, weighted in favour of the beastmen.

Turn 6

So my remaining forces are in the lake water, which is seemingly cursed. I only need to survive another hour until re-enforcements arrive. So I decided to go to the eastern shore and have the wizard use magic to cleanse them all with fresh water. Michael kindly pushed me to suggest more than this, as it would be pretty easy to do and it was the last turn. I reasoned that the forces on the east of the lake must only be a rag-tag group as the main force died in the fire.

The Forces of the Empire leave the lake on the eastern bank and attempt to engage the beastman forces that the wizard sensed there
-The Captain will lead the way to inspire his troops
-The wizard will cleanse their soaked and probably cursed bodies and clothes by summoning fresh new water once they get on land
-The halberdiers will attempt to form a spear wall, with the zweihanders on the flanks

Turn 6

The results ended with a battle, where my survivors fought a shaman, 6 raiders and 20 plague demons. Arrows rained down as a miasmic cloud engulfed the battle. The imperial forces won a pyrrhic victory, and the survivors (the wizard, the captain, a zweinhander and 2 halberdiers) were met by their reinforcements. The beastmen retreat to their camps to fight over who will be their new leader. And finally…

…those surviving men of the empire died of some rotting, delirious fever several days later after setting foot into that diseased lake….

Those pesky emotions again – I was quite grumpy at this.

My emotional reasoning ran thus. The surviving imperial forces had died due to the curse on the lake, which had happened in turn 2. They had been forced into the lake due to the arbitrary decision that the fire had consumed the hut on turn 5. So really, not matter what I did on turn 6 my soldiers could not have survived. It was a forgone conclusion and a wasted turn.

Of course, the fire-hut ruling wasn’t arbitrary, it was very reasonable. But at this point I still felt it was arbitrary as I hadn’t yet seen how decent a ruling it was.

And the lake wasn’t just poisoned by the curse on turn 2. The curse on turn 2 was amplified by the scavenging for dead animals that the beastmen had done on turn 1. And the nurglings (summoned demons) had poisoned the lake further when they travelled through it on turn 4. And the beastman player had devoted most of turn 6 to spreading clouds of sickness and defiling the humans with nurglings. And I had instructed the humans to wrap rags soaked in lake-water around their mouths.

So the stacking of plague was quite reasonable. I could have done a variety of things to mitigate it (for instance, praying to the imperial gods – even during the last turn.

Once I read Michael’s post and saw the actual details of the beastmen player’s turn, my emotions turned around.

What next?

I’m interested in seeing how the next matrixhammer goes. I think that there was too much secrecy in this instance, though it all matched the information our factions would have had. As I’ve already said, Michael’s next Matrixhammer will have all arguments completely public. I think this will improve the play-experience, and I look forward to seeing how it goes.

The matrix games discord is here for anyone whose interest has been peaked.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas for matrix games to run myself, most recently I’ve been considering running a game based on The Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit.

LOTR: Many Meetings and Council of Elrond

Mood music – Song of Eärendil or Eärendil was a mariner

I wanted to re-read The Fellowship of The Ring, specifically the Council of Elrond chapter, as I’ve been thinking about making a game where the players are at a council. Council of Elrond, Game of Throne’s small council, Congress of Vienna – that kind of thing.

I read the preceding chapter, Many Meetings, so that I would have all the minor context details refreshed. I actually got a lot more out of Many Meetings than The Council of Elrond.

In order of appearance the interesting things were:

…And Elves, Sir! Elves here, and Elves there! Some like kings, terrible and splendid; and some as merry as children.

Sam to Frodo

I found this quite interesting as the merry-ness of some elves doesn’t get represented in wider Tolkienian fantasy (or Tolkien-esque fantasy) nearly as much as the kingly-ness of some elves.

This exchange between Gandalf and Pippin was also excellent, there’s such a strong sense of character here.

ALT Text: 'Hurray!' cried Pippin, springing up. 'Here is our noble cousin! Make way for Frodo, Lord of the Ring!'
'Hush!' said Gandalf from the shadows at the back of the porch. 'Evil things do not come into this valley; but all the same we should not name them. The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world! We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark.'
'Gandalf has been saying many cheerful things like that,' said Pippin. 'He things I need keeping in order. But it seems impossible, somehow, to feel gloomy or depressed in this place. I feel I could sing, if I knew the right song for the occasion.'

It reminded me of all those jokes about campaigns which want to be LOTR but end up as Monty Python – there’s a vast gulf between the two, but there’s space for humour and playfulness in LOTR.

At one point, Bilbo is struggling with some song lyrics that Elrond has insisted must be finished before the evening’s gathering, and asks after Aragorn to help him. This is apparently a habit of theirs. I really like this detail and it’s one of many that occur at this part of the book, as Aragorn transitions from Just Some Ranger to The Heir of Isildur.

The song that Bilbo writes is about Eärendil the mariner. The song reveals that he was an elf from long ago who was a traveler, and that he was entwined with the Silmarils and the Valar. There’s a lot in there, but the bit that really struck me is that the Valar make a sky ship for him from mithril and elven-glass. And that he became a star. This reminds me somewhat of Ramandu, a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who is a star who hangs out on an island. It also makes me think about how pedestrian some of the Tolkien-esque media is compared to the actual legendarium. Edit: my point here is that Tolkien’s works are presented generally within quite strict and mundane parameters, which his actual works don’t adhere to. Another striking bit was that Eärendil’s wife takes the form of a bird to fly with him.

In the next chapter, Elrond reveals that Eärendil is his father. Aragorn talks of the cheek of Bilbo to make a song about Eärendil in Elrond’s house, but Elrond encourages Bilbo. I think Elrond was very pleased with Bilbo’s song, not least because the other elves wanted Bilbo to recite it again, but because of the next passage which I found interesting. (Oh and remember that phial that Galadriel gives Frodo, the one of shining light, that is used to fight of Shelob? It is the light of Eärendil’s star.)

Bilbo and Frodo want to leave the singing in Elrond’s hall to go and have some quiet talk. Bilbo says:

It is difficult to keep awake here, until you get used to it. Not that hobbits would ever acquire quite the elvish appetite for music and poetry and tales. They seem to like them as much as food, or more.

At first I misread this to mean that Elves take their sustenance as much from music etc. as from food, which would be really interesting, but that’s not really the point of this passage. This passage is telling us a lot about both Hobbit culture and Elven culture in one swoop.

Bilbo notes that the Elves really like music and poetry and tales. From Bilbo’s perspective, they like them as much as food or more. This is a very odd comparison for a human to make – imagine someone saying ‘I like TV as much as I like bagels’. It’d be odd for a human to compare entertainment with food in such a way, they are on two different scales.

But its not odd for a Hobbit to make such a comparison because of how much Hobbits like food. The best way for Bilbo to make Frodo understand how much the Elves like music is to compare it to how much they both like food. And this is coming from a Hobbit who regularly writes songs, and has more than one ‘favourite bath-song’.

The only thing of note from the chapter Council of Elrond was that there is much less interpersonal drama than in the movies, particularly surrounding Boromir. He and Aragorn come up with a plan to re-forge the shards of Narsil and ride together to Minas Tirith to support its defense.

There is also a line that Gwiahir the Eagle says to Gandalf

I was sent to bare tidings, not burdens

Which pretty definitively puts to bed the ‘fly the ring to Mordor’ argument.

Overall I found lots of little surprises in the small section I read. My measure of ‘What is Tolkienian’ is broader than it was before.

If you liked the mood music by Colin J Rudd, here’s his rendition of the Song of Durin, which I find far more soulful than many of the grander renditions online. He has many more renditions of other Tolkien songs.

Designing magic: Make casting the magic more engaging

(This is part 2 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Part 1 is available here.)

Once again I’ll be referencing Harry Potter a lot, as well as D&D 5e. Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic, whilst D&D 5e is the big ttrpg.

When I refer to casting magic, I mean the actual things that the character does to make the magic happen, not the results of the magic.

Magic can serve lots of purposes in a fiction. In Lovecraftian fiction it is dangerous and dark, something to be feared and avoided. In Harry Potter it is largely whimsical and a time-saving tool. In Mistborn (I recently read the first book and really enjoyed it) magic is a mechanical tool, mostly of oppression. You get the idea.

The the casting of the magic should reflect and support its themes within the fiction. Generally, it does.

Casting of Lovecraftian magic is esoteric. Casting is likely to involve strange words and dark rituals. Lovecraftian magic is very tightly themed.

Mistborn’s magic is mechanical – ingest the appropriate metal and then use it as mana for that branch of magic. Appropriate for a tool-like magic.

Harry Potter’s magic falls down here (with one big exception). Most magic involves pointing a wand and saying some pseudo-latin. This is somewhat whimsical but it’s core flaw is that it is boring. I’ve written at length before about the three best spells in Harry Potter and the best spell, Expecto Patronum, bucks this trend.

Expecto Patronum creates a glowing magical creature which brings warmth and happiness, and defeats the dark monsters which stand in for depression. To cast Expecto Patronum, the caster must bring to mind a powerful happy memory. This is great theming and moreover it is interesting, not just from a fictional position but from a ttrpg perspective.

Expecto Patronum is essentially acting like a storygame prompt. If a player were to cast the spell, they would need to explain their character’s happy memory to the rest of the players. The casting mechanism is engaging as it is directly supporting narrative development by the players.

This doesn’t directly support the whimsy of the setting, but the glowing animal companion bit does. And this spell is only relevant when depression-monsters are attacking – the darkness to which the whimsy is juxtaposed anyway.

It’s probably not worthwhile to make every spell this engaging in a game like D&D. I don’t want to have to improvise a new memory every time I cast magic missile, and I certainly don’t want my combats to be dragged out even longer than they already are.

In Critical Role, players describe how they character does their attack when the get a killing blow. Reserving engaging questions only for important moments (first time used, fight-ending moments, narratively crucial decision points) would be a good workaround.

It’s hard to provide a formula for making spell-casting more engaging, as it’s very dependent on themes and individual spells. But it is worth considering.

A title 'Welcome to Camp Merlin'. A wizard points a wand at a fox wearing human clothing. The Wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve made casting the magic in Welcome to Camp Merlin more engaging

I can broadly categorise my approach in three groups: positioning; character prompts; and telegraphing.


Shape Shift: Position your body so that your limbs are in the shape of the animal which you
wish to become. Hold that shape for six seconds.

It’s not a strict ‘unable to cast in combat’ restriction, but it means the players will have to create the time and space to make the shape. If the player can also pose to show the shape their character for added whimsy.

Character Prompts

Truth Food (food that makes the eater tell the truth): Whilst preparing food for consumption, speak aloud a truth that you have never told anybody.

This is a storygame-esque prompt, like the happy memory for expecto patronum. It also serves as a soft restriction depending on whether the character is around other people.


Sense Mind (locate nearby minds): Close your eyes, calm your body, and empty your mind of all thoughts.

Any other magic user can infer what magic you are doing by looking at you. In this instance, it also makes you vulnerable, so it’s a risky move in a game of cat-and-mouse.

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and

It’s also part of three bundles:
small press fantasy – 75 indie fantasy items for $25, 91% off!

PocketQuest 2022 Sunny Bundle – 12 cheery pocket quest games for $19.99

PocketQuest 2022 Mega Bundle – 34 poket quest games for $49.99

Designing magic: Make learning the magic more engaging

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Get part 2 here. I’ll link part 3 when it’s finished.)

Unfortunately, Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic. This is unfortunate for several reasons, but the one I’m focusing on today is that the way that they learn magic in Harry Potter is boring.

A lot of the time it comes down to rote practice.

Try doing the spell again.

Make sure you can swish and flick properly.

Pronounce the words properly.

A gif of Hermione saying It's leviOsa, not leviosAR
It’s a good meme, but boring to play out.

Sometimes the spells themselves are so interesting that they push the lessons to be very engaging. One of the more popular posts on this blog was about the 3 best spells in Harry Potter (and why they are the three best spells).

But if you’ve got a story (or in the case I am interested in, a roleplaying game) where magic needs to be learnt, the actual process of learning the magic should be engaging and interesting.

If your game is set in a magic school, then learning the magic should be engaging to play in and of itself.

Well it just so happens I have been writing a game about learning magic, set at summer school for kids from non-magical families who have suddenly found out they’ll be going to magic school at the end of the summer.

Title banner: Welcome to Camp merlin

I have an underlying theory of magic that I am using where spells are like magical spirits called into service of the magic user. It’s not brand new, I’ve seen it before in various games. What is new is how I connect that to learning the spell.

First the magic user must coax the spell into making an initial connection with the user. This allows the user to cast the spell once on that day. If the magic user wants to cast that spell again, they must wait until a new day and then coax it again.

However, if the magic user can link with the spell, then they will be able to cast the spell once per day without needing to coax it every single time.

The template works well as long as the acts of coaxing the spell and linking with the spell are engaging.

I’ll show you an example spell so we can discuss the linking and coaxing.

True Glue. 
Duration: 1 minute. 
Instructions: Touch the tips of your index fingers together and True Glue will drip from their meeting point until your fingers part. 
Effects: True Glue is a perfect adhesive, it is impossible to break its binding. True Glue does not dry out when applied to only one surface, and takes 1 second to bind when touching two surfaces.

I’ll talk another time another time about the actual magic and why I think this sort of diegetic spell is interesting, and also about the casting instructions. For now though I’ll focus on how to coax and link this spell.

To coax True Glue the character must player must choose an obviously false viewpoint (eg. the sky is green; water makes things dry; ice is hot etc.). Then they must refuse to abandon that viewpoint despite any and all evidence to the contrary. The other characters must actively refute and challenge the viewpoint with substantial arguments and evidence.

To link True Glue the character chooses two awkwardly sized, shaped or weighted items, They must then hold them, one in each hand, as though they were glued to their hands for the next six hours.

Both of these are tied to the nature of the spell. When coaxing the magic user must fix their point of view in place. When linking they must fix an object into their hand. This connects them to the spell, which is all about fixing two things together. The player is trying to entreat a magical being with their actions.

So what do I think is good about this design?

  • They’re thematically linked to the spell
  • The coaxing generates inter-character discussion by default
  • The linking causes clear problems that the players will have to solve – how will I eat? etc.
  • They are diegetic – you could use dice rolls to support this gameplay but it probably doesn’t need it
  • It shifts the core question of the game from whether or not the characters will succeed to how they will succeed. This is good for a game about kids learning magic which will be tonally lighter than most games.

I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel here. Followers of the Goblin Laws Of Gaming will have seen the Δ glog classes before, which focus their advancement on performing diegetic actions rather than accruing xp.

So I think this format makes learning magic more engaging than most tabletop roleplaying games I’ve seen, and certainly more engaging than most of the magic in the benchmark for magical learning, Harry Potter.

Poster style front cover of a game titled Welcome to Camp Merlin - A summer camp for non-magical children in need of magical education in preparation for schooling. The image shows a wizard who has cast a spell on a fox wearing boy's clothing. The wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve adapted this system for Welcome to Camp Merlin

Each morning at the camp, the kids get to choose which spell they want to learn. The camp counsellors show the children how to coax the spell as an activity. Then they have the afternoon to attempt to link the spell – doing so also allows them to stitch a badge onto their camp uniform.

There are also several magical creatures that the children are taught about, as well as an array of magical locations and encounters in the forest surrounding the camp.

Follow the development and release of Welcome to Camp Merlin by:

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and

A rubbish drawing of a bird made in paint that looks very vaguely like the twitter icon. The bird has a speech bubble 'I say ttrpg and nerd things'
But you can still follow me on twitter @coppersandboars

And follow my KingBim – head over there now to download my previous game about playing jedi-esque characters, Laser Monks in Outer Space, for free!

Using linguistic false friends in your games

In linguistics there are sometimes words in two different languages which sound like their meaning will be obvious, but actually they aren’t.

Some false friends have very separate meanings. The English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (pregnant). They might cause some miscommunications, but most of the time it will be obvious that an error has been made.

Some are trickier. Je passe mes examens is not French for I pass my exams. It means I take my exams. This is a particularly tricky one because the meanings are quite far apart, but are used in the same context, so the error can go completely unnoticed.

One I hear a lot from Greek-speakers using English is the word costume – they will use it to mean outfit or suit. For instance ‘The astronaut’s costume’ or ‘The groom’s costume’. Costume is a false friend here, it sounds like the greek word κουστούμι (koustoúmi), and some of the uses are the same, but often it is different. It’s not as bad as passe/take because it’s on easy to spot error with a vey close meaning.

So false friends are words that you expect to have one meaning from your own cultural/linguistic context, but actually have a different meaning.

A false friend can be worse than a terrible translation, in that all participants can think their has been no miscommunication, and walk away from the conversation with completely different understandings.

D&D 5e false friends

D&D 5e has some magical false friends in its spells. These are spells which someone might expect to have one effect from the gaming/fantasy context, but actually have a different effect.

Chill Touch sounds like it is a melee spell attack that does cold damage. However, it is a 120ft range spell attack which does necrotic damage.

Dimension Door sounds like it would create a door though which you can pass to another dimension. However, it’s a 500ft teleport.

Thunderwave sounds like it will release a wave of energy outwards, with the caster at its epicenter. However, it is a cube of energy placed adjacent to the caster.

Misconceived Thunderwave vs the actual Thunderwave

How to use this in your game?

It’s easy enough to allow the players to miscommunicate if your game has language barriers.

The hard part is avoiding that ‘gotcha’ feeling.

The players have to feel like they (or their characters) made errors. And not because you tell them what the errors were that they made.

For instance, the players are searching for a dragon. They talk to some local Gnomes using broken Dwarvish, and the Gnomes tell them that a terrible scaled monster called ‘Dracusa’ lives in an abandoned castle in the hills. So the players think this is the dragon and head off to the castle.

But Dracusa is a false friend. Dracusa is actually a medusa. Or Dracula. Or both. It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as its not a gotcha. So how do you avoid the gotcha?

  • Give the players the option to spend time and/or money on getting a better translation.
  • Layer in clues that it might not be a dragon. Describe wild sheep and goats roaming the nearby countryside. Abandoned farmsteads but no fire damage.
  • Drop hints of the real nature of the creature. Bats and mist for Dracula, life-like statues for medusa.
  • Most importantly, don’t mentally commit to the moment of the twist. If the players send out a shapeshifter or a familiar to scout ahead, let them spot the mistake if its reasonable.
  • Make the situation with the real monster complex. The medusa is sobbing; Dracula is tutoring some orphans in the castle’s library.

You can also do false friends with spells (as evidenced by d&d 5e) and magic items.

A classic example occurs in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where the characters can find an alien gun. Because the alien physiology and design expectations are different, the way you expect to hold the gun is backwards, leading players to often shoot themselves in the face. A cautious player would avoid this by experimenting on the pistol with care.

Which direction does this gun fire? To the left or the right?

One last example is location names. This is not really a false friend, but it serves as a good example.

We don’t know exactly how Iceland got its name, but we assume its to do with the frigid climate.

Greenland, which is more more cold and more icy, has a much more pleasant sounding name.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, we learn that Erik was exiled from Iceland and founded a settlement in Greenland, calling it Grœnland, precisely so that it would be more attractive to settlers.

In the summer Eirik went to live in the land which he had discovered, and which he called Greenland, “Because,” said he, “men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.”

The Saga of Erik the Red, chapter 2 (read the whole saga here)

So it’s not really a false friend, but it fits this general category of ‘linguistic trickery which might waylay an ill-informed player character’.

Laser Monks in Outer Space is released! Free on itch!

Laser Monks is an ultralight tabletop roleplaying game where you play as space-paladins with Laserblades and superpowers.

The core of the game is about adhering too, or rejecting, the Laser Monk creed, known as The Path.

The Path is Peace

The Path is Compassion

The Path is Moderation

You can get it for free on by clicking the image below.

I made Laser Monks for the Ultralight Game Jam, which had two design rules:

  • the game’s rules can fit on four or less pages in an A5 format
  • the game uses a single dice type for all resolution mechanics

I interpreted these restrictions even more tightly, and decided that the rules, including the character sheet and character creation, were going to fit on 4 pages of A5. The game has a simple dice pool system and only uses D6 dice.

The left half of the character sheet, which includes the character creation rules. The right half, not pictured, has advancement and injury rules and the space to track them.

During playtesting, the players had fun with the ‘draw your Laserblade’ rules.

There is no mechanical effect, it’s just kinda neat

Laser Monks also includes an easy-to-run setting. I think it would take a GM about 15 minutes to read the setting and prepare a game session from it.

And I released the whole game under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license (except the front cover items).

If you play a session, let me know how it went via my twitter or in the comments here.

Coppers and Boars First Blog-iversary

It’s been a year since I made my first post, which was about Character progression in games. The blog started out as a way to crystallise my vague roleplay game thoughts into coherent and communicable ideas. The majority of my posts are game design theory, tips or insight.

I think the best three are

I feel like I should insert a picture now to break up the wall of text.

My 10 most played games on Steam. League of Legends is mercifully absent.

The other main purpose of the blog was to push myself to do things, to make things, rather than to just think about them. I’ve put more effort into making things this last (blogging) year but a lot of them never came to fruition. I don’t really like publicising things prematurely, but here’s a roundup of what I’ve been up to.

  • I worked on a ‘mon style game, first back in June ’21, most of which is documented on the blog. I revisited it again in December/January but I found that the game was pulling itself in two directions. One direction was a rules-light PbtA/FKR game, and the other was a miniature combat skirmish game (my friend Becca_3D makes some seriously good minis for 3d printing based on ‘mons). Unsure how to resolve the internal tension, I put development on hold, hoping that time away from the idea would bring clarity. I did make a post about minimalist modular magic for 5e using a lot of the ideas I had developed though, and I have an excellent list of mon ideas and powers waiting in the wings.
  • In September/October I revisited some of my old notes on a collaborative project set in a magic school, and got it to a playtest-able stage. And then didn’t playtest it because my collab partner was busy. Speaking of which, they have a rat-themed tarot deck on KS, check it out.
  • I worked on a soulslike game for the Better Soulslike Tabletop Jam, which fell apart due to timing issues with my collab partner, but at least I got a post about the qualities of a soulslike game out of it.
  • I’ve also made a few useable tools for GMs on the blog

I’ve actually been working on something that I will definitely publish

Laser Monks in Outer Space has its core rules written, has been playtested and has been (mostly) formatted.

It’s a game about the pull of the dark (which is really about the pull of doing what is easy rather than what is right) and the difficulty in following a morally founded, but restrictive creed.

I’m making it for the Ultralight Game Jam, so the rules (including the character sheet) can fit on just two pages of A4.

The rules are going through what is probably the penultimate revision, following playtesting last weekend and preceding this weekend’s test and likely subsequent revision.

However, there is one thing that will absolutely not change: the rules for laserblades.

So far this has resulted in the following fine additions to my collection:

When Laser Monks in Outer Space comes out (some time in the next two weeks) it will be free. I’ve already started thinking about what I’ll do next, especially over the summer holidays and beyond. I’m thinking about Zinemonth 2023 of course (KS doesn’t support my country so that’s always been a non-starter).

Quietude on the blog has generally meant I’m working away at something with more scope than a blogpost but I might change that during blog year 2.

If you survived to the end of the post, here are some of the bloggers I’ve read the most during this year. I’m limiting myself to 5 ‘cos I have to draw the line somewhere. Consider this a Joesky tax.