Designing magic: Make learning the magic more engaging

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. When I publish parts 2 and 3 I’ll link them here.)

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

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But you can still follow me on twitter @coppersandboars

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What does ‘balanced’ mean?

This causes many disagreements and misunderstandings.

Here’s a list of some of the things that balance can mean in games. Lots of the examples are 5e, mostly because its a good lingua franca.

I’ve written each explanation from the point of view of somebody who agrees with that concept of balance.

The scales of justice are constantly being rebalanced.

Balance in Character Creation and Character advancement

Balanced means there are no ‘trap’ or ‘God’ options

If the game designer has written a list of options, you should be able to pick any that fit your character without there being a correct or best answer (a God option). Example: D&D 5e has a Sharpshooter feat that is widely considered to be extremely good for a ranged attackers against low AC targets, so the feats are not balanced.

There should also never be a situation where an option looks like it will be a good way of achieving something but turns out to be bad at that thing (a trap option). Example: 5e has a feat called Savage Attacker that looks like a good way to increase your damage per turn, but is mathematically outshined by almost every other fighting feature. It’s a trap for inexperienced or maths-averse players.

Obviously nobody expects absolute mathematical equivalence between options, but there needs to be some level of parity, or they are not balanced

Balanced means that there should be good niche protection

Niche Protection is the idea that a character should be good at the thing they are meant to be good at, and that others should not outshine them in that area. Example: If I made a rogue to be the super sneaky dark-and-edgy character, but then the Monk chooses the Way of the Shadows subclass, then they will be stepping on my niche. It’s not their fault, but the games fault for giving them the option. When I chose to make a rogue, I thought I would be the sneaky one. A game that is unbalanced will have poor niche protection or unequal niche protection, leading to over-versatile character options.

Often the best stories involve unbalanced encounters, such as the Battle of Thermopylae

Balanced means that characters may be created unequally, but the game systems or expectations render that inequality moot

Troika! has a high level of entropy. At character generation, players roll dice to determine skill, stamina (HP) and Luck. They also roll on a table of 36 backgrounds. Some backgrounds are stronger than others and some are stranger too. If a player happens to roll low for their skill, stamina and luck, then their character is weaker than others, but that is fine. Characters die when they go below 0HP, and initiative in combat is randomly determined every round in combat. Some rounds you might not get to go, and sometimes you get to go twice before anybody else! Weak characters are fine because the game embraces the randomness wholeheartedly. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It is balanced due to the game expectations.

In Mausritter you roll 1d6 for your HP and 1d6 for your starting money. This can leave some characters with 1HP and 1 Money, whilst others have 6 HP and 6 Money. This is balanced by the game systems, as you look up your HP and Money on a table, and read off your starting equipment. A 1HP, 1 Money mouse starts with Magic Missile and heavy armour. A 6HP, 6 Money mouse starts with a felt hat and perfume.

Balanced means there are no ‘feels bad’ options

Feels bad means that something happens which makes the player feel bad. I know that’s a tautology, but its the best definition I can think of. I once ran a 5e game (last time I’ll bash 5e, I promise) where a player picked the Ranger class, because they wanted to do all this cool woodlands survival and travel stuff, and the name suggested the class would support that. However, the Ranger’s class abilities and spells minimsed this element of the game and the player felt bad, to the extent that they retired that character to play another class. WotC has acknowledged the ‘feels bad’ of the Ranger design with their Ranger, Revised. It is not balanced because it makes people feel bad. This is almost a ‘trap option’ problem, but the main problem was that the player saw the cool stuff other players could do and felt bad that they couldn’t do their own cool stuff. Here balance was not inherent to the mathematics of the class, but how people feel about it.

…high levels of player dissatisfaction and its ranking as D&D’s weakest class by a significant margin.

Wizards of the Coast on the reasons for the Ranger, Revised

Balance in Encounters

Many disagreements here come from one core clash.

My rpg isn’t the same as your rpg.

Heck, my rpg isn’t even the same as my rpg.

My current game is a gritty OSR sandbox realpolitik dungeon fest. My previous game was a TNG-era Star Trek slice-of-life thing.

The Retired Adventurer wrote about Six Cultures of Play, a taxonomy for comparing games and their contrasting expectations. This is highly related to the classic discussion of Combat as Sport or Combat as War. Depending on the game in question, several different expectations for balance exist. They are all valid, but they are not all valid for all cultures of play.

Are your protagonists Heroes or Adventurers?

Are they even protagonists?

LIGHTNING ROUND *thunder noises*

Balanced means that protagonists should survive except in narratively-appropriate situations, such as bossfights and moments that speak to the inner nature or journey of a character

So you can die whilst fighting Darth Maul but it shouldn’t happen whilst fighting battle droids. Unless the character was disrespecting the threat of the droids in a fit of hubris, or the character was fighting off many droids to allow their allies to escape to safety.

Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless genre expectations make survival unreasonable

The distinction with the prior concept is that we are more concerned with playing the world than playing the story of the characters.

Balanced means that protagonists have a reasonable chance at guessing the danger level of an encounter

You shouldn’t be blindsided by a sudden un-telegraphed spell, boss fight or tough enemy. In Skyrim if you go to High Hrothgar early, it is a challenge to deal with the troll in the mountain pass. Its not a balanced encounter because there is no fore-warning, it’s significantly harder than previous enemies and its on the main path you are supposed to be taking. [I do think it is a fun and memorable encounter, but not a balanced one.]

Sometimes a lack of balance is the entire point of an encounter.

Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless they really mess up

This is a very ‘combat as sport’ view of balance. When I ran Humblewood there was one PC death when the Barbarian didn’t rage, the healer had kited out of healing distance and the party split focus on different targets.

Balanced means that careful and thoughtful protagonists have a decent chance at survival

My current game, Old School Essentials, which has been running once a week for about 10 months, has had 6 character deaths. This is low for OSE because I am using injury rules for PCs that go below 0hp, not instant death. About half of the protagonist deaths have been due to carelessness and about half have been from fights that went south. Every fight that went south was an avoidable (or postponable) fight.

Balanced means that there are no ‘feels bad’ encounters, and that all deaths feel earned directly from player error or character decision

Expectations are really important. My OSE players know that going into a creepy forest runs the risk of lethal encounters, and so they won’t feel bad dying to them. If I was running some sort of Hogwarts game then they would expect to be able to sneak off into dangerous Forbidden Forest, just like in the books. If the were then eaten by giant spiders, they would feel bad. The genre expectations (boarding school mystery) and the world (Hogwarts) told the players that they would face mild peril at worst. The game would not have been balanced because the death would not have felt earned.

To Summarise

Balance is an awkward concept to employ. Are we talking about encounter design or character options? Are we concerned with following the story of our characters, or the world, or emulating a genre? Is combat meant to be war, or sport, or a puzzle?

Balanced is a relative term.

Something cannot be inherently balanced, it must be balanced relative to out expectations.

So often we talk about balance without stating what we consider those expectations to be.

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Play Worlds, Not Rules – What is a world and how do I play it?

The Free Kriegsspiel Revival (FKR) is all about putting the world before the rules. The idea is that you play out the events of your game and refer to rules only when (and indeed if) needed.

I’m deliberately using the term ‘games’ as it is not specific, but typically we are talking about roleplaying games and wargames.

An FKR game can be contrasted with games where you use rules as a matter of course and then transition into free-play only when the rules do not cover the interaction.

This all leads to the big mantra of the FKR:

Play Worlds, Not Rules

What is a world?

Contrast Game of Thrones with the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale (both of which star Mark Addy).

The Game of Thrones setting is a very gritty and grim place. Protagonists have all sorts of vile and cruel punishments laid upon them. Noble houses vie with each other for dominance, whilst backstabbing, assassinations and familicide are all par for the course. Heroic and noble intentions count for nothing. Realpolitik, and chance, will determine your fate.

A Knight’s Tale is set in a light-hearted and anachronistic version of 1300s France and England. Protagonists are injured whilst jousting, socially embarrassed and, at worst, put in a pillory. Nobles vie with each other for reputation, whilst dancing, flirtations and jousting are all par for the course. Our protagonist succeeds through his honour, sportsmanship and his hopefulness. The friends he made along the way determine his fate.

Both of these are worlds. Both worlds could use the same ruleset if they were run as a roleplaying game, just as many, many groups play D&D 5e and have wildly different experiences.

These are pillories – and the point where the protagonist is in one is the Act 3 low-point. Not exactly The Red Wedding, is it?

Playing the World

To make either of the worlds work, (regardless of the rules) the GM would have to make decisions so that the game have the desired feeling.

That is playing the world. Every single time the GM makes up a PC, or a quest, or a location. Every time they speak in character. Even when they describe the weather, they are playing the world.

The GM does it every time they make a decision (conscious or unconscious) so that the game has the desired feeling.

Whenever the GM puts that desired feeling before the rules-as-written (or even the rules-as-intended) they are playing the world, not the rules.

The non-GM players are also playing the world all the time. Every character decision, piece of dialogue, throwaway action. Every puzzle, problem or conflict that is solved is (or should be) done in a way that fits the world.

I recently read that the ISS will de-orbit in 2031, which makes me feel mournful.

Further examples of different worlds

The world is not just a planet – games set in Earth’s medieval period, and in the present day, are in different worlds.

The world is not just a time period – games set in 1944 New York and 1944 Berlin, are in different worlds.

The world is not just an approximate location – two games set in King Arthur’s court, but where one focuses on the intrigue and romancing of the nobility, whilst the other focuses on an elaborate heist by some near-do-wells to steal Excalibur, are in different worlds.

The world is all-encompassing. It is genre, tone, location, character traits, aesthetics, story beats: It is everything that makes a fiction.

The world can even change from session to session.

Season 7 Episode 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (Take Me Out To The Holosuite) sees the protagonists take on the crew of a Vulcan starship in a game of baseball. It’s a classic sporting underdog story. The previous episode sees the crew’s therapist help a turncoat former(?) spy manage his panic attacks. Episode 8 of the series (The Siege of AR-558) centers on a gritty battle to hold the line in a war against an overwhelming foe.

These episodes follow the same characters in the same time frame, but vary wildly. They are all in Star Trek, but they are in different worlds.

Sometimes, worlds overlap within a given installment.

The Star Wars original trilogy has three main worlds. I’m not talking about Tatooine, Dagobah and Bespin.

  • World 1 = The Rebellion against The Empire – it’s the world of the Death Star, hidden rebel bases, secret plans and dogfights
  • World 2 = The Criminal Underworld – it’s the world of Jabba’s Palace, bounty hunters, cargo smuggling and greasy alien bars
  • World 3 = The Force – it’s the world of Ben Kenobi, lightsabers, Darth Vader and searching your feelings

This is something that Fantasy Flight seemed to understood – they made different core rule books for each world, designed at supporting that world, so that the world and the rules were in less conflict.

The three worlds overlap often. A great example is during the first Death Star run, which puts the rebels vs empire conflict at the front. Luke can only succeed because of help from the criminal world (via Han Solo) and the Force (via Ben Kenobi).

The story has masterful command of the three worlds that define Star Wars.

As a GM, and as a player, (or as a wargamer) the FKR tells you to strive for understanding of the world of your game. Put the world first, and use the rules only when it feels right.

Play Worlds, Not Rules.

Further Reading

All of the above is my interpretation of ‘Play Worlds, Not Rules’. Some other folks have views, and some of those are below.

Some qualities of a souls-like ttrpg

  • Story-light, lore-heavy
  • Map exploration with loops (Jaquayed dungeons)
  • Deliberate and punishing combat
  • Gameplay mechanics that interact with death
  • Boss Fights
  • A dark/grim overall tone
  • Git Gud – player skill/knowledge increase more important than gear/levelling up

If only I could be so grossly incandescent!

Solaire of Astora

It is entirely possible to make a game with all of these qualities.

But if a game has enough of these qualities that it continues to feel souls-like, then it is still souls-like.

Everyone’s experiences of a game are unique, so this is really my list of qualities for a souls-like game. Yours might differ.


It was revealed last week that the new Dark Souls ttrpg will use a version of D&D 5th edition.

This is a very odd pairing.

Odd enough that not one, but two ttrpg game jams have sprung up in response.

Predictably, I am working on an entry.

House Rules for Chess with kids

I introduced my Chess Club (comprising of eleven-year-olds) to several variants of chess.

The children instantly broke up into three groups of 4 and started playing Bughouse chess.

That’s chess where if you take an opponent’s piece, you can pass it to your teammate to play as a reinforcement in their game.

I need pieces! Give me pieces!

repeatedly overheard during the club

The next day’s club, with different kids, was not so uniform.

  • One pair played Horde Chess, where a full set of black pieces faced off against 36 white pawns
  • Another played Alice chess, with two boards next to each other. Pieces teleport between boards after every move
  • They then played Atomic chess, where all the pieces explode when taken.

They two kids asked me if they were allowed to combine Atomic chess with Alice chess.

It’s a little sad that they felt the need to ask permission, but the answer was

Absolutely! That sounds amazing!

And it was amazing.

Every so often they had some rules question about the new interactions, and I mostly gave them two possible options and allowed them to choose the more fun ruling.

Chess with mods

And then there were these two boys.

I noticed they each had a bishop stacked on top of a castle on their board.

They told me the piece had to alternately move like a bishop and then alike a castle on each of its turns.

Their knights were atomic and would blow up.

They decided the king could do castling any time it was in a line with a castle.

These two boys got it. I mean really got it.

Each new game they played had new and different rules that they made up without hesitation.

For once the games weren’t simultaneous attempts at an early scholar’s mate.

Relating this to ttrpgs

In tabletop roleplaying-games, (in my experience) most groups house-rule as a matter of course.

It’s nice to be reminded that tinkering with gameplay doesn’t have to make a thing more balanced, or pure, or focused.

It just has to make it more fun.

Further reading

My previous posts about kids-at-play

Shut Up and Sit Down’s video on chess variants.

Wikipedia article called List of chess variants

Minimalist Modular Magic for 5e and DnD clones

Minimalist Modular Fire Magic

This is the blueprint for most fire magic. It’s what a 1st level fire spell would look like.

Each of the numerical elements – the radius of the sphere; the range; and the damage – can be increased.

Each increase in any of those three areas increases the spell level by one.

So a 1st level fire spell makes a sphere of radius 5ft, has a range of 120ft and does 4d6 fire damage.

A wizard can cast their 2nd level fire spell as any of the below:

  • A 5ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 8d6 damage
  • A 20ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 4d6 damage
  • A 5ft radius sphere, 240ft range and 8d6 damage

Under this system, wizards can modify their spell to suit the situation they are in.

If a wizard with access to 4th level spells wants to cast a fireball with a radius of 40ft, then it can either have a range of 120ft and deal 8d6 damage, or it can have a range of 240ft but deal just 4d6 damage.

The power of the fireball increases in line with the idea of ‘Quadratic Wizards‘.

A wizard casting fireball as a cantrip would use the 1st level blueprint, except they would halve two of the values. For example, 4d6 damage but only 60ft of range and 2.5ft radius for the sphere.

In fact, the numbers I’ve use keep the power levels approximately the same as Firebolt, Burning Hands, Fireball and Meteor Swarm in 5e.

Nuclear fireballs – an oft-ignored cautionary tale for overly-enthusiastic fire wizards.

Fire Magic status quo

Here’s a brief rundown of the fire magic spells in the player’s handbook. I’m only including spells where the main purpose is fire damage and which wizards can cast.

SpellLevelDamageRangeExplanation and details
Fire BoltCantrip1d10 fire120ft1 target
Burning Hands1st3d6 fire15ftCone area of effect
Scorching Ray2nd2d6 fire120ft3 attacks at up to 3 targets
Flaming Sphere2nd2d6 fire60ft5ft diameter sphere, move 30ft each turn, damage each round
Fireball3rd8d6 fire120ft20ft radius sphere
Wall of Fire4th5d8 fire120ft60ft long, 20ft high, 1ft thick
Flame Strike5th8d6 mixed60ft10ft radius, 40ft high cylinder, fire and radiant damage
Delayed Blast Fireball7th12d6 fire150ft20ft radius sphere, 1d6 more damage per round for 1min
Incendiary Cloud8th10d8 fire150ft20ft radius sphere, move 10ft per round, damage each round
Meteor Swarm9th40d6 mixed1 mile40ft radius sphere, fire and bludgeoning damage

Some thoughts:

  • As they advance, wizards can use their fire magic attack to:
    • Do increasing damage to each target
    • Hit more targets at once
    • Hit targets which are increasingly far away
  • Most of the spells are fire damage in an area of effect, but some have their own gimmicks
    • Flaming Sphere, Wall of Fire and Incendiary Cloud all persist on the battlefield
    • Delayed Blast Fireball has a ramp up in its damage until it is released
  • There is a mildly annoying lack of symmetry.
    • There’s no 6th level fire spell for Wizards. They have Sunbeam but it only does radiant damage.
    • Most spells use d6s but not all of them.
  • Each spell takes roughly 1/4 of a page, so in all they take about 2.5 pages.

There is some functionality to the spells above which the modular system does not have. However, they can be patched on.

  • At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can persist for a minute, and can be directed to move 30ft every round as a bonus action. Creatures inside the fireball make a save at the start of their turn etc.
  • At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can be delayed for a minute, with the damage increasing by 1d6 for every round of combat that it is held for.

In fact, any desired functionality could be patched on.

The minor annoyances have gone since every level has fireball magic and it all uses d6s.

The modular version is also a lot more concise – perhaps half a page rather than 2.5 pages.

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Qualitative design and quantitative design are not a dichotomy

First, two definitions guidelines.

Quantitative design is design in which the numbers (quantities) change.

Example: In 5th edition, a greataxe does 1d12 slashing damage whilst a greatsword does 2d6 slashing damage. They both have the keywords ‘heavy’ and ‘reach’.

The only real difference is the dice you roll for damage (though the greatsword is also a bit more expensive) – only the numbers change so the design is quantitative.

Qualitative design is design in which the qualities change.

Example: Suppose an axe and a mace both hit for 1d6 damage, but the axe can cut through wood effectively, whilst the mace can pierce plate armour effectively.

The difference here is the qualities that the two items have, so the design is qualitative.

Pictured: an Ancient Greek Bronze Age axe head

There is definitely something fun about optimisation, noodly mechanics and quantitative design, but only at an appropriate time.

I like it when I’m playing Magic: The Gathering, Slay the Spire or Terraforming Mars.

For these games, noodly optimisation IS the game.

I don’t like it so much in my roleplaying games.

I prefer qualitative design because

  • It decreases the chance the game will get bogged down
  • It guides player thought towards the world they are in and the role they are playing
  • It pushes the game towards choices that matter

Numerical changes can be qualitative

Dwarves have a base movement speed of 25ft.

Humans have a base movement speed of 30ft.

This means humans are 5ft per round quicker. This is quantitative.

Humans are quicker than Dwarves. This is qualitative, and flows logically from the previous statement.

A change of 5ft – which is a numerical, quantitative change – results in a change in qualities.

Pictured: A Mycenean bronze and gold sword

But it depends on the situation

Changing a fireball spell from having a 30ft radius to a 35ft radius is another 5ft change.

However it is only quantitative. The qualities of the fireball are still the same – its a large explosion of fire.

Changing a fireball spell from having a 30ft radius to a 100ft radius is both a quantitative and qualitative change.

It has gone from a large explosion of fire to a massive explosion of fire. From engulfing a house to a whole street.

Summary: Quantitative changes are also qualitative changes when the quantitative change is qualitatively appreciable.

Glog spell as a reward for reading

Unyielding Hair

Range: Touch

Duration: [dice+sum] seconds

Pluck a hair from your head and bend it to the desired shape. The hair will stay in that shape no matter how much force, pressure, stress or torque is applied for the next [dice+sum] seconds.

A mechanism for prophecies in roleplaying games

The problem with prophecies

Prophecies don’t work as easily in roleplaying games as they do in non-interactive (or less interactive) fiction. The ‘tactical infinity’ of roleplaying games poses problems.

In non-interactive fiction (such as a book, movie or tv-show) the fiction’s creator (for ease I’ll call them all authors) can ensure that any prophecies are sufficiently fulfilled. This is easy because the author can know how the prophecy will be fulfilled before they even write the prophecy itself. The other main component is that authors maintain Absolute Control of all the events occurring in their fiction.

Game masters have no such luxury.

Suppose that in my game, one of the players eats a herb which gives them prophetic visions. If the visions are too specific then I will have to push the world hard to enable the conditions of the prophecy to be met. This can crush player agency and tactical infinity. It is the oft-feared railroad.

Conversely, if the prophecies are too vague, then, for the players, it can feel like a frustrating game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – A biblical game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’ (hint: It’s not good)

Now this wouldn’t be a problem if prophecies didn’t have to come true, but that solution raises its own issues. If some prophecies just don’t come true, what is the point of them? They just become possible futures which may or may not happen – who cares?

One solution would be to have an unreliable source of prophecies, such as The Oracle in The Matrix. She tells Neo that he is not The One, because she has an agenda. She told him exactly what he needed to hear so that he would be able to become The One.

Alternatively, you could do the Harry Potter solution

and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives

and make the prophecy linguistically tricky. However, without the Absolute Control of an author, a GM can run into issues. The author can ensure that Harry doesn’t die to a random encounter(and is therefore alive to be able to fight Voldemort in a duel, which), or a lucky crit, but a GM could easily wreck their game by protecting a player character from harm like that.

Continuum, the time-travelling roleplaying game presents a different solution.

Continuum and its singular timeline

In Continuum, you roleplay as a time-traveller in a society of time-travellers. Because you are part of this timeline, it is your duty to ensure it remains as you know it to be.

For example, if you know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th day of April in 1864, and you find out that another time-traveller is planning to assassinate John Wilkes Booth on the 13th of April, so that he cannot assassinate Lincoln on the 14th it is imperative that you prevent this from happening.

The existence of this paradox (or as continuum calls it, the as/as-not) will fragment your timeline, potentially to the degree that you can no longer corporeally interact with the universe.

A second example: you see a re-run of 90s sit-com Friends, and notice that you are in the background of the episode, sipping coffee and ordering a bagel.

But this never happened to you. In fact, you were born after the episode aired.

Waves of nausea wash over you. The as/as-not hits your soul, fragmenting the essence of your reality.

To repair the damage, you will have to go back in time and get cast as an extra. Well, there are other solutions, I’ll list a few solutions to both problems at the bottom of the post.

We can model our prophetic visions in this format, but without the time-y wimey Jeremy Bearimy nonsense mind-screws.

The Oracle of Delphi

How to do prophecies the Continuum way

  1. The character experiences a clear, precise vision of an event that will happen, unless the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening.
  2. If the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening, they get a consequence.

This turns the prophecy into a forewarning of the future which you can stop, but at a cost.

It makes it specific enough to act directly upon, whilst allowing for player agency and the lack of Absolute Control that an author would enjoy.

Aim to make the visions poetic yet specific and clear. They can be lacking in specific detail, just like a dream, but the character should know what they experienced enough to act (or not act) upon it. Like when you’re dreaming of a place you’ve never been to before but in the dream you just know its your house. The character just knows certain details about the vision.

I would let players fulfill prophecies in an unintended way if it was within the scope and expectations of the game. However weasel-worming your way around the wording of ‘deliberately acts’ with some rules-lawyer shenanigans wouldn’t be allowed. The Fates will know you will face the consequences. The consequences should also be clearly telegraphed (or outright stated) for players.

Consequences should be really bad, hard-to-fix stuff. They should also be setting/tone dependent but I’ve listed a few suggestions below.


  • You die
  • You lose your conscience
  • You are a ghost
  • You lose a mana dice
  • You can no longer cast spells
  • You are hit by level drain
  • You are cursed
  • Your deity/patron rejects and shuns you
  • You are hit with several levels of exhaustion
  • The devil claims your soul
  • Any of the above but to people the player characters care about
Continuum’s front cover

Solutions to the Continuum scenarios above

Abraham Lincoln scenario

  • Go back in time to 13th of April 1864 and kill the time traveller
  • Go to a point in time where the time traveller is younger and attack them before they can go back to 1864
  • Allow John Wilkes Booth to be killed by the time traveller, and get futuristic surgery and acting classes so you can replace Booth after he is killed and kill Abraham Lincoln yourself

We can get even fancier with the Friends scenario

  • Time travel to the set of Friends and get cast as an extra (by using more time travel to get yourself added to production notes as an extra)
  • Time travel to before a key member of the production was working on Friends, befriend that production member then travel forward and call in a favour, therein getting a scene as an extra
  • Travel back in time and find a good impersonator as you and then use time travel shenanigans to get them cast as an extra on Friends
  • Travel back in time, abduct the cast and crew of Friends, force them to film the scene with you, mind-wipe them and out them back where you found them, then when the master tapes have been edited, insert the version of the scene with you in it into the episode
  • Travel to the future and hire a special effects expert to make a master tape matching the scene you’ve just watched, then sneak (by time-travelling) into the modern broadcasting house which just aired the episode you watched and swap out the original episode for the fake version you have. So the paradox is resolved, and it turns out you never really were in Friends. This creates another paradox – one of information origin. However, Continuum isn’t concerned with that, just with as/as-not paradoxes

Most of the problems in Continuum fall into two categories

  1. Information Control: I know something, and must maintain the timeline. If I learn too much more, it will get harder to maintain the timeline (for instance, the more you know about the movements and actions of John Wilkes Booth, the more precise your movements in 1864 must be)
  2. Narcissists: Nefarious time travellers are trying to mess with the timeline

Because you can time travel, you don’t have to worry about money and skills. You can obtain large amounts of money and any number of trivial ways, and you can travel away, spend years learning a skill and then travel back to when you want to use the skill.

Your main restriction is your Age (spending years learning skills will catch up with you) and the events which you know must happen.

Worldbuilding/Game Trope: The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility

I think there is a (rough) trope within multi-species worldbuilding to include species in three (fairly broad) categories – The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility. Its also a gamebuilding trope to have three categories of player character – which often fit this Warrior, Brain and Utility triple.

Often species and classes actually end up as some sort of hybrid cross between these three concepts.

I think the origin of the trope is that worldbuilders and gamebuilders (new favorite word) are looking for ways to have their species differ from humans, without being some sort of uber-human. Therefore they need to find niches for their species relative to humans, and these three niches are the most obvious. Ancient and experienced Elves are really cool to have in game but (1) how do you play something so alien and (2) how do you balance something so experienced? You can do it, but its not easy.

The Warrior

I’ve compiled a few examples below. Often there are multiple entrants within a niche in more broadly built worlds. Sometimes I’ve written the name of a character when we only really see one member of a species. It’s a point in favour of the existence of this trope, that it sometimes occurs for just groups of characters not whole species.

SettingThe WarriorThe BrainThe Utility
The Lord of The RingsOrcs/Uruk-HaiElvesHobbits
Star Wars (1977)ChewbaccaC3POR2-D2
Star Trek: The Next GenerationWorfDataDeanna Troi
Mass EffectTurians/KroganSalariansAsari
Warhammer 40k Officio AssassinorumEversor/VindicareVanusCulexus/Callidus
Wheel of Time AjahsGreen/Red AjahsBrown/White AjahsYellow/Grey Ajahs
D&D 5eHalf-Orc/OrcGnome/ElfHalf-Elf/Dwarf
The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)UrgalElfWerecat

Okay so using Eragon is a bit of a cheat since it’s a composite of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings anyway but I think the point is being served.

Warhammer 40k doesn’t quite fit, but within each faction you’ll find examples of The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility, as evidenced by the 40k assassins. It’s just a matter of game balance really, most factions need to be able to do a variety of things.

The Brain

Using (and inverting) this trope

It’s a good trope.

It provides distinction between in-world groups and between players.

It’s worth being aware of it and bearing it in mind when worldbuilding or gamebuilding (I’ve used it three times so that means it’s a real word now).

Invert the trope

A nagging voice at the back of my head
  • No (or minimal) inherent specialisms
    • Some games do this – for example in Knave what you can do is based on your inventory, not a race or class
    • Continuum, the time travelling roleplaying game allows you to jump out to another time, take months learning a skill, then jump back and resume what you were doing. You’re spending your age to skill up, and everyone can learn new languages and skills.
    • Similarly, a game based on The Matrix would fit this because characters can download skillsets and just learn, for instance, kung-fu from a program. They are distinct due to their personality, destiny, fate and will.
  • Mono-class (or archetype) campaigns
    • A campaign where every PC is a Wizard (or Fighter or Bard or what-have-you) would enable the party to solve certain problems really well, whilst struggling with others. Even with the (massive) variations you get with 5e subclasses, a group of Wizards will struggle with healing whilst a group of Barbarians will struggle with utility.
  • Everyone is The Warrior
    • Games can (and do) differentiate between lots of types of warrior quite easily. From the top of my head there’s
    • The Brute
    • The Honourable fighter / The Fighter with a Code
    • The Ranged attacker
    • The Sneaky warrior
    • etc
  • Everyone is The Brain
    • When I used to run Star Trek Adventures (which I once accidentally reviewed) the players had different competencies, but everyone was a brain. They could all find solutions to problems, or clues to mysteries with treknobabble in a way relating to their character. They were actually all the utility too. I think Star Trek actually has too much utility to be easily gameable, but that’s a post for another time.
  • Everyone is The Utility
    • I’ve been working on-and-off for a while on a gamebuilding a magic school rpg. When its finished (if its finished) – everyone will be the utility, delineated by knowing different spells.
    • I’ve not played it but I understand that Mage: The Ascension fits this trope-inversion.
  • The opening to The All Guardsman Party is a classic inversion of this trope. If an Ork WAAAGH! are going to kill you all in ten minutes, it doesn’t matter that much if one player is a bit more of a warrior than another.

Let me know of any others I can add to either this list or the table further up.

The Utility

Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

There was a meandering conversation on discord which touched upon character deaths in roleplaying games, and Undead Bob said this:

I do get that, but from a GM point of view, while an interesting and timely death of a PC might be perfectly in keeping with the style of play, single character death is often a functional game problem. If it happens near the end of a session, not so big of a deal, especially if the Party can then regroup offscreen between sessions elsewhere and pick up a new PC. In a very real way, a Total Party Kill is less annoying on the GM end than a single character death mid-session and away from some sort of recruiting site.

Undead Bob (emphasis mine)

Essentially, one player is eliminated from the game and that’s annoying. (Many classic board games also have this problem: Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk all have the potential for a bored player at the table who’s out of the action.)

I have a suggestion on how to deal with this, although it’s a niche one.

Soul-linking in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Heroes of Hammerwatch is a roguelike hack-and-slash where you delve through the dungeon.

When a player’s character dies they can be brought back to life by a different player, but when this happens the two characters become ‘soul-linked’. Now if either of them die, they both die.

If they were both to die, then another character could come and resurrect them, but then all three have their souls linked, so now if one of them dies, all three die.

So if you have five character’s in the dungeon, this gives 4 respawns. On the fifth death, everyone goes down.

How to add soul-linking into games.

It can give combat a sort of death-spiral, as if the fighter has already soul-linked the wizard and then the wizard dies again, the fighter also dies.

There is a ramping tension as more and more party members become part of the soul-link. Knowing that if one of your allies goes down then all of them go down makes your thoughts wander much more toward potential escape routes.

I imagine that groups of cut-throat adventurers might be reluctant to use this mechanism, whereas groups of heroes are more likely to be willing to take on the risk to themselves to save an ally.

I would make soul-linking about a minute long – long enough that you can’t easily do it in combat but not so long that it weighs into other time considerations the party has.

I’d also make it nigh-impossible to reset soul-links whilst out on an adventure – maybe it takes a week-long ritual to undo or it can only be undone by a priest at a temple.

Alternatively, soul-linking can come from a specific magic item which is either unique or uncommon enough that it’s not a big worldbuilding concern.

There’d have to be a reason why peasants aren’t constantly soul-linking to recover from sudden accidental deaths or illnesses (actually there doesn’t have to be, but it’s less disruptive to the setting if the peasants aren’t doing this). I’d suggest that the ritual is done to a deity (saint/god/demon) whose domain specifically covers adventuring.

You could also have rival adventuring groups use this ritual. It actually gives a higher incentive for groups to de-escalate and bargain mid-combat. It also gives a greater incentive to not let that one enemy get away – they could come back and resurrect the whole group. Similarly hiding corpses and securing side-passages in dungeons (so that you don’t get flanked and have that whole lizardfolk guardroom you cleared out storm you from behind) become more important.

So soul-linking: it’s an interesting and quite workable solution to Undead Bob’s problem. However, there are campaign/setting implications so it’s hard to just drop it in thoughtlessly. A niche solution, and perhaps one worth orienting a campaign around.

This is part 2 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley.