Harlem Hunters

I was too tired to run the finale of City of Mist: Dead of Night yesterday so instead we created our group of hunters for Harlem Unbound: Monster of the Week Edition.

We had an extensive brainstorming session for our group concept, and settled on a small periodical/alternate weekly newspaper, The Black Cat’s Meow. Our team of Hunters are not the owners but they are the heart and soul of the newspaper.


Using the Expert playbook, Blanchard is an aspiring playwright and novelist. He started his career as a black vaudeville actor on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where he was involved in a play derived from a heavily redacted version of The King in Yellow. This changed him in subtle ways, and he found himself driven to uncover the truth behind the supernatural which he now realizes is everywhere around him. He’s the archivist and a senior writer at the newspaper.

Starting moves:

  • Haven: Lore Library, Mystical Library, Protection Spells
  • I’ve Heard About This Sort of Thing
  • Often Right

Delia Ross

Based on the Spooky playbook, Delia is the up-and-coming society page editor and advice column writer. Her polished appearance hides another facet: she is the grand-daughter and apprentice to a successful if discreet conjure-woman (grandma has not yet been named). She doesn’t yet fully control her powers and as a result, struggles with side effects of occasional hallucinations, lust, and poor impulse control.

Starting moves:

  • The Sight
  • Hunches
  • The Big Whammy

Persephone Fox

Built on the Flake playbook, Persephone is a young conspiracy theorist who happens to be right more often that not. She is also Blanchard’s niece. Although few people take her seriously (aside from the other Hunters), Persephone sees all. and has a finely honed talent for investigation.

Starting moves:

  • Connect the Dots
  • See? It All Fits Together
  • Suspicious Mind


Based on the Hard Case playbook (2020 version), Whales is the workman of all odd jobs at the newspaper, a job he got thanks to Blanchard; before that he was a dockworker and day laborer. He served in France with the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters” and came back a changed man, now driven more by willpower than anger. If you need the printing press moved or the delivery truck loaded, Whales is your man.

Starting moves:

  • Hard Knocks: Street Fighter
  • Furnace
  • Unstoppable
  • Ascetic

As part of character creation, we created a relationship map between the Hunters using the ready-made backdrop included in Evil Hat Productions’ Roll20 modules for Monster of the Week.

Photo credits: Nathan Francis Mossell, c. 1882, University of Pennsylvania archives; James Van Der Zee, Strolling, 1925, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York; unknown; and Laborer (Stevedore Longshoreman, Norfolk, Virginia), from the project The Negro in Virginia, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Next: Harlem Unbound

My bi-weekly campaign Ariadne’s Spindle, which explores the universe of The Expanse using the Fate system, is going swimmingly. Dead of Night, my weekly series of City of Mist, is reaching the Season 1 finale after about 25 episodes and very satisfying gaming. So here I am, planning another limited series, which will be set in Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound.

Cover of Harlem Unbound

This award-winning book offers Lovecraftian mythos investigations amidst the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-30s. I have the original edition, which was statted for both the GUMSHOE (Pelgrane Press) and Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) systems. A second edition has just been released under the auspices of Chaosium, statted only for CoC but offering four new scenarios; the contents otherwise look substantially the same. I may eventually purchase the PDF version to get these scenarios when I have a bit of spare change; however, neither of these systems floats my boat as GM.

Instead, I decided to use Monster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions), a game Powered by the Apocalypse with which I am very comfortable: I playtested the Revised Edition, I wrote a scenario for the Tome of Mysteries supplement, and along with Sean Nittner and Fred Hicks, I put together the five adventure compilations on Roll20. It’s like taking off my steel-toed boots and getting into my slippers.

Continue reading “Next: Harlem Unbound”

RPG a Day: Inspiration is out there

CreativeProcessPieChart26. Favourite inspiration for your game

You could say my source is immersion. Whether creating a new character or planning to run a gain, I like to surround myself with sources of inspiration: music, books, movies, images, online sources, etc.. I browse the ‘Net for related materials, I scour my creaking bookshelves, I cook recipes from particular cultures, and so forth.


Credits: Image obtained from MurrayTheNut.com, used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.

Fate of the Budayeen: ebook versions

An ominous meetingNow that I have finally completed my Fate of the Budayeen series, I thought I’d make up for the lateness of the last instalment by offering readers e-book versions.  All three are fully bookmarked and more-or-less spell-checked. Ahem.

  • PDF, with illustrations; two-column layout. Edit: All the hyperlinks are there but you have to hover your cursor in the right spot to see them.
  • ePub (for use with Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc.) with cover and metadata, in a zipped file. Just unzip and add to your library.
  • mobi (for use with Kindle, Mobipocket, etc.)  with cover and metadata, in a zipped file. Just unzip and add to your library.

Feedback is welcomed!

Credits: Image from OpenClipart.

War of Ashes RPG: Campaign Creation, Part 3

Eruption of Mount Murmadon

Continuing with Part 3 of my excerpt from the draft Campaign Creation section as I write the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions; it’s based on the process as described in Fate Core. Part 1 (Premise and Scale) and Part 2 (Big Issues and Faces & Places) were posted earlier this week.

Making Characters As A Group

You’ll probably find yourself discussing character concepts in parallel with the campaign creation steps discussed above. That’s fine, just don’t close your mind to changing details along the way. We talked about the nuts and bolts of character creation in How Do I Make the Character?, but let’s consider character creation here as a group activity.

Mixed Nuts or Assorted?

Before you start creating player characters, you’ll want to discuss party composition.

How and why you would play characters from a single people: A group of heroes aligned with one of the factions—Elvorix, Vidaar, or Jaarl—makes party cohesion easier, makes it easier to connect the characters, and provides impetus to readily accept certain types of missions as adventure seeds. Heroes from one faction will generally be welcomed or blend in among the lands of their own faction, and face grave danger and hostility in the other factions’ lands.

A single faction does not mean sacrificing character individuality or niche protection. For example:

  • A party of attendants to an Elvorix high mucky-muck, chosen for their ability to act as lightning rods away from their boss: Roles could include resident scholar, foppish noble friend, jolly entertainer, spy posing as a servant, practical majordomo, poor relative, stalwart bodyguard, dour confessor, long-suffering tutor, etc., all probably chosen for they eccentricity or originality.
  • A splinter group of Vidaar Late-Comers left on some Island-That-Wasn’t-Garigla or another and now finally catching up with everyone else: Roles could include captain, shaman, navigator, freebooter, strange “pet” from a distant island, and the keeper of all oral history of the clan’s voyages at sea. Because a ship is a world unto itself, everyone could have a variety of secondary abilities from cooking to carpentry.
  • Last Best Hope for the Jaarl to recover volcanium: The Jaarl are looking for a way to forge swords and other volcanium objects again; they would prefer another suitable volcano, but perhaps another sufficient source of heat can serve too. The heroes’ mission is to find a solution. Roles could include elite Military escort, Arcane specialist studying the effect of Sacred Rock, metallurgist or smith from the Provider affiliation, Preserver scholar who serves as the expert on pre-Catastrophe volcanium forging techniques, Elvorix or Vidaar slaves serving as guides, porters, and interpreters in exchange for their freedom, etc.

How and why you would play characters from different factions or peoples: Maybe not everyone in your group shares the same interest in a particular faction. Mixed groups will likely face suspicion and a measure of struggle to get help almost everywhere, and some group members will face outright hostility in certain areas.

If your group wants to mix origins, you’ll want to come up with a good solid reason the characters will hand out and have adventures together instead of killing one another or just splitting up. For example:

  • Odd man buck out: If you have only one player character from a different faction, the onus is on the player of that character to come up with a good reason to be there, such as a war captive in a group of another faction if there are some bonds of obligation or friendship with other PCs.
  • A mixed Elvorix-Vidaar party from a region that has had a lot of inter-breeding: Sure, the past of Prolyus collapsed three years ago, but that doesn’t mean that family and friends were forgotten.
  • Descendants of Elvorix and Vidaar sent to check on Murmadon’s mysterious cities and captured by the Jaarl: Generations later, the descendants of the original prisoners had become part of Jaarl society, but after the Great Catastrophe and exodus their status was reduced again. The loyalties of current-day descendants, born in Agaptus but raised to think of Murmadon as the homeland and Jaarl as friends, are sorely tried.
  • A group of mismatched escapees from the advancing Kuld army: The Kuld don’t care about distinctions between Elvorix, Vidaar, and Jaarl; the heroes found themselves hiding and running away together, pooling their meager forces to defeat a small Kuld force, and bonded. You’d want to make this either part of the characters’ backstory when making PCs, or tell the players upfront that this is what the first adventure will be about, and get their buy-in.
  • The Company of the Rock: Not everyone in the lands of Agaptus is blind to the necessity of cooperation between peoples. The heroes are tasked with the epic mission of finding a way to slow, stop, or even reverse the effects of the Great Catastrophe. Theirs is a secret alliance that could save all of Agaptus!

Can You Play Something Unorthodox?

Some players look for their kicks on the margins of the game’s society. Perhaps they will ask you whether they can play a Nhilde troll, a Kuld, or a member of a sentient species from one of the more distant islands. The gamemaster may have some additional work to do, or the players may dislike the resulting “flavour”; but if the group agrees, this is doable. Look at the description and stats in Antagonists and Monsters to get inspiration, then make your character as normal.

Just like the mixed party, you need to come up with a plausible rationale for this, such as:

  • Nhilde troll with a party of Vidaar
  • Lizard-man or giant sentient bird with a party of sea-faring explorers or pirates from any faction
  • Visionary Kuld ostracised by its own people for wanting to make non-alimentary contact with other species


The better connected your characters are, the more fun the team will be. This doesn’t mean you can’t have rivalries, enmities, other other antagonistic relationships between PCs; in fact, the most dramatic relationships are those in which there is a certain tension, both something your character wants from another and something she refuses.

But you can start with straightforward connections of family, friendship, profession, politics, clan, and so forth. The important thing is for PCs to have a reason to work together.

In addition to connections between the player characters, try grounding your character into the War of Ashes setting in general, and the details of your campaign in particular; identify connections with the Faces and Places you just create.

Example: The group opts for a mixed collection of heroes from diverse factions, adopting The Company of the Rock as described above not only as their concept, but as the name of their group and an aspect for the campaign.

  • Sharlene creates Rustica Bibulus ix Atronia, an Elvorix scholar showing too much originality for her elders at the Academy. Rustica studies the mystery of the Great Catastrophe and the connections with the eruption of Mount Murmadon.
  • Ian creates Ulf Long-Teeth, a young Vidaar with a love for the old heroic sagas who longs to return to the life of swashbuckling seafaring adventures instead of this inhospitable land. He and Rustica are distantly related.
  • Ben creates Iva the Stubborn, a Jaarl Virian mother torn between fulfilling her duty to the Virian Order and the Stone-Seekers by assisting Rustica’s quest, and the wish to go looking for her banished lover, who lost his sword.

Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.

War of Ashes RPG: Campaign Creation, Part 2

Elvorix city

Continuing with Part 2 of my excerpt from the draft Campaign Creation section as I write the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions; it’s based on the process as described in Fate Core. Part 1 (Premise and Scale) was posted yesterday.

Big Issues

In the The Big Picture we talked about some of the global issues for the world of Agaptus, issues that most people there can’t even see clearly because they are in the thingk of the action. Is Agaptus a doomed world, one on the cusp of change, or a backdrop you’re happy to keep more or less constant while you focus on local events? It depends on where you want the story to go.

But the issues for Agaptus may not be the ones your group will want to focus on in your campaign. Perhaps they are all about carving territory for a little lordling in the hills above Prolyus, exploring islands to the south where it’s warmer, or salvaging Ancient knowledge from an unstable ruined city before it collapses.

Types of issues: The issues should reflect the scale of your game and what the characters will face. They’re broad ideas; they don’t just affect your characters, but many people in the world. Issues take two forms:

  • Current Issues: The problems or threats that exist in the world already. Heroes tackling these issues are trying to change the world, to make it a better place. Examples: The on-going War of Ashes, the Kuld invasion, the loss of Ancient knowledge, the ossification of Elvorix society, the cult of ignorance in Vidaar society, the Jaarl’s loss of their Murmadon homeland.
  • Impending Issues: These are things that have begun to rear their ugly heads, and threaten to make the world worse if they come to pass or achieve a goal. Heroes tackling these issues are trying to keep the world from slipping into chaos or destruction. Examples: The cooling of the climate, a pretender to the throne bent on seizing control, the imminent invasion of the heroes’ town.

Foreshadowing the Issues: The default number of issues in a Fate game is two, and you can mix and match types. As one issue is being resolved, a gamemaster can foreshadow a new issue that is gaining prominence. That way, the group of heroes always has its collective hands full but not too full and the story flows with crests and troughs, like in our favorite epic tales.

Turning Issues Into Aspects: You’ve already seen how we’ve done something like this for every plot seed in this book. Distill your issues into aspects which you will use during play.

Expanding Story Seeds Into Issues: Speaking of the story seeds, maybe one grabbed your attention while thumbing through the book; why not expand it into more than a challenge or even an adventure, and make it part of your campaign? You may have to rephrase it to give it more scope.

Example: Sharlene is interested by the Great Catastrophe, its causes, and whether its effects can be stopped. Ben likes the heroic possibilities—saving the world!—and Isaac like the scope. Isaac would really like to see some swashbuckling adventures at sea but doesn’t have a specific issue. Since all three have shown some interest in Ancient technology, Kim suggests that maybe this idea of salvaging knowledge from an unstable Ancient site could take place on a small island off the coast of Sentia.

They boil this down to two aspects: Secrets of the Ice and Lost Island of Konaré.

Faces and Places

Now that you have your issues figured out, decide who the important people and locations are. In discussing these issues, you probably thought of some organizations or groups that are implicitly part of your story, whether to provide support or opposition. You will also have important locations. All of these will be more vivid in your campaign if they are represented by people; assign a few characters to be their faces, give each a distinguishing aspect, and think of some relationships between these and the player characters which you’ll create in the next step.

Example: Kim, Ben, Sharlene, and Ian agree that there will be some travel by sea to get to the island of Konaré, and perhaps a rival for the Ancient knowledge, a shadowy organization that doesn’t plan on sharing. Ian would like this rival organization to include an enemy captain so there can be plenty of naval battles and boarding actions. Ben suggests that the heroes should also have some sponsor or sponsoring organization who put them onto the track of this island.

They create the following:

  • The Seal of Prolyus, the rival organization for Ancient knowledge, dedicated to recovering science applicable to warfare to provide the Elvorix with an edge over their enemies.
  • Rogue scholar Laetitia Bibulus ix Gailus, sponsored by the Seal of Prolyus; her aspect is I’ll Show Them All.
  • Captain Volo Troll-Axe, Laetitia’s ally; his aspect is Is This Thing Valuable?
  • The Stone-Seekers, a faction of the Virian Order that is trying to find out the truth about the eruption of Mount Murmadon and the Great Catastrophe.
  • They’ve already identified the island of Konaré as a location, of course, and they know it will have Ancient ruins, but they want to leave it shrouded in mystery so they don’t assign a face to it for now.

Tomorrow: Group Character Creation.

Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.

War of Ashes RPG: Campaign Creation, Part 1

Kuld Guldul Rider

Woo-hoo, the writing on the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions is going briskly! (If you’ve been following this series of posts, you’re probably tired of seeing me repeat title and publisher, but there are always first-time readers, so I try to provide context.) Today I was writing on campaign creation, modelled after the process in Fate Core, and I thought I’d share excerpts in the next few posts.

Campaign Creation

The GM has many responsibilities, such as presenting the conflict to the players, controlling NPCs, and helping everyone apply the rules to the situation in the game. Let’s talk about the first of the GM’s jobs: to help the group build campaigns.

A campaign is a series of games you play with the same characters, where the story builds on what happened in earlier sessions. All the players should collaborate with the GM to plan how the campaign will work. Usually this is a conversation among all of you to decide what sort of heroes you want to play, what sort of world you live in, and what sorts of bad guys you’ll have. Talk about how serious you want the game to be and how long you want it to last.

Campaign Creation: The 30-Seconds Version
1. Decide on a premise
2. Choose the scale
3. Identify the big issues
4. Create faces and places
5. Make player characters


The world of Agaptus and the War of Ashes are based on a “grimsical” aesthetic, a word coined by its creators at ZombieSmith to meld the grimness of brutal conflict with a whimsical, humorous attitude. When you plan a game you know you’re going to be working with the following elements in your premise:

  • Fantasy setting.
  • Unpredictable magic and inept gods.
  • Warfare and conflict as at least an important backdrop, even if your particular storyline concentrates on other aspects.
  • Technology and tactics levels comparable to early Middle Ages, around the world—not just Europe—and no cannon powder or firearms.
  • Lost knowledge of the Ancients and marvels that can no longer be replicated.
  • Characters and societies that are blind to their own silliness, treated in a humorous way.
  • Despite the humour, real danger, drama, and death.

While there is nothing that prevents your group from removing or altering these elements, they are part of the scope of this book. Make note of anything you want to change, and we’ll talk more in a little bit about how you can customize the setting to your preferences.

Within this framework, your group should discuss some the fundamental questions about the stories you want to build, for example:

  • What tone you are hoping for: Do you want to place the accent on humor, drama, danger, heroism, friendship, politics? Is Agaptus a doomed world, one on the cusp of change, or a place of hope?
  • What level of violence you are comfortable with: Does your group want only humorous violence, “realistic” gore, or some point in between?
  • What kind of PCs and PC groups you want play: For example, will your player characters be champions writ large, unlikely allies, scoundrels, Chosen Ones, reluctant heroes?
  • What kind of adventures you will have: Does your group expect quests, political intrigue, dungeon-crawls, mysteries, con jobs?

Ask the group whether anyone has other such questions that should be discussed up-front.

Example: Kim is going to be running a game for Ben, Sharlene, and Ian. They decide that they want a feeling of high adventure, and to visit a lot of the world rather than centre their story in one place. Ben wants to play a Big Damn hero but Ian feels like a bit more of a “grey area” character, and Sharlene just doesn’t want to play a completely amoral character. They agree to use this to create some dramatic tension, but stay away from making characters too close to the extremes. They won’t shy away from brutality if it shows up in the story, but they don’t want to focus on it as a primary element.


Play in the War of Ashes is possible on a wide range of scale, from small local campaign featuring young villagers to world-spanning campaigns where the (inept) gods of Agapta themselves intervene. In fact, if your players feel really ambitious, they can play gods themselves!

Decide how epic or personal your story will be. In a small-scale game, characters deal with problems in a city or region, they don’t travel a great deal, and the problems are local. A large-scale game involves dealing with problems that affect the entire kingdom, all of Agaptus, or even the rest of the world beyond.

Example: Kim, Ben, Sharlene, and Ian decide that they would like to participate in world-changing events, but they would also like to start small so they can get a bit of a Hero’s Journey feel.

A small-scale game will turn into a large-scale one over time, as you’ve probably seen in long-running novel series or television shows. We’ll talk about re-scaling a mature campaign under Expanding the World.

Finally, scale can also refer to group size, especially in conflict; we’ll talk about this in Connecting the Games when we see how the War of Ashes RPG can connect with other games set in the same world but dealing with a different scale of play, such as War of Ashes: Shieldwall.

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.