Duress mechanic and updated Base Camp Map

Two exciting elements have taken shape. The first is the duress mechanic is coming along nicely. This hasn’t been playtested yet, but Thor and I have been noodling with the numbers and we’ll continue to fine tune it.


The local Sharwa are in a state of uncertainty and fear, which is causing tension between them. At the start of the adventure the Sharwa are Wary. Unless they are placated by the adventurers they will progress to the next stage of duress every time the adventurers return to base camp or gain a twist in base camp that progresses duress.

Duress Levels

At Ease – “Lowlander, come into to my hut and I’ll tell you stories of the gods. It’s cold outside.” Sharwa are welcoming of lowlanders, assured of their own safety, and thankful of the gods for bringing them the bounty of the mountain. The adventurers can make camp in the base camp and will be fed and offered a comfortable place to sleep. [Removes hungry and thirsty and grants +1D to recover from exhausted]

Wary – You’re greeted with a mixture of hard looks and averted eyes. Men by the fire huddle close to each other, speaking in a foreign tongue. The Sharwa are concerned about having enough supplies to make it through the winter, they look to the salt nomads for guidance on appeasing the gods, and are reluctant to give aid to strangers. Wary is a factor in any test to convince the Sharwa to climb the mountain. Reducing a group from Wary to At Ease requires an Ob 2 Orator test.

Disgruntled – Sharwa villagers, many who look like they have traveled long distances, quarrel with the woman Jhala. Pointing up to the summit of the mountain, then turning their gazes and pointing at you. The Sharwa doubt Jhala’s leadership and begin to ask hard questions “When will the salt nomads climb the mountain?” “Where are the missing climbers Chembal, Sani, and Ki-bi?”. Disgruntled is a factor in all tests to convince Sharwa to act outside their nature (Climbing, Laboring, Persevering). As an additional cost of failing ain social test, the adventurers can make an enemy of the person they are interacting with. Reducing a group from Disgruntled to Wary requires an Ob 3 Orator test.

Hostile – A Sharwa stands in your path, “The gods are angered by your presence. Lowlanders are not welcome here.” Behind the sharwa, you can see a sizable group of soldiers assembling. Lowlanders are banned from the camp and the Khalish arrive. A test is required to enter a camp, or you need a friend to be invited. Reducing a group from Hostile to Disgruntled requires an Ob 4 Orator test.

At War – An army marches north and those left behind guard the camp with spears. Any who are not already pledged to fight the Mikra are enemies the Khalish will do violence to. The Khalish ascend to fight the Mikra. Reducing a group from At War to Hostile requires an Ob 4 Commander test.

If the test succeeds, the state of duress is reduced. Margin of success can be spent to gain additional benefits. Each effect requires a certain margin of success. You can’t use the same effect twice on the same test:

  • Margin of Success 1: The adventurer gains a friend.
  • Margin of Success 2: Positive reception. Gain +2D advantage on your next social action in camp.
  • Margin of Success 3: Duress is reduced an additional level. If that would reduce duress below At Ease, the adventurer who led the action is invited to become a Sharwa and is eligible to learn Sharwa-wise at their next opportunity.

Suggested Orator failure result (choose one):

  • Twist: One of the Sharwa is offended that strangers are telling them how to live and act. One of the characters must make an Ritualist Ob 2 test to show they know the proper observances to the gods or be ask to leave the Base Camp.
  • Twist: Enemies are polarized. Two of the named NPCs (Hoa Veit, Jhala, Sampat, Ankit and family, or any of the Salt Nomads) turn against one another and focus their efforts on the other. Both of those characters are unavailable to the adventurers unless they can make a Persuader Ob 3 test to regain their attention and good favor.
    Your face pisses me off. Gain a new enemy.
  • Condition: Angry. The Sharwa are calmed but it is an infuriating process to placate them.

Suggested Commander failure result (choose one):

  • Twist: The adventurers are chased off by twenty soldiers. Flee or be captured.
  • Condition: Physical violence ensues and the adventurers are injured before they can calm the Sharwa.

It’s worth noting that many of the Wandering Monsters in base camp affect Duress as well, increasing it and/or offering the adventurers additional opportunities to reduce it (through means other than oratory).

Updated Map from Michael


Very close to done!

Post playtest Design Meetings

Torchbearer_SagasBack in the saddle. Thor and I met on 11/11/15 and 11/15/15 to review an exhaustive list of changes I wanted to implement based on feedback as well as questions for how things should work.

Topics covered:

  • Conservation of NPCs (linking Ankit to the missing climbers, tying the Thewsdays to Sampat, and otherwise tightening up connections)
  • Relationship maps. Figuring out how everyone on the mountain is related to everyone else. Stone Dragon’s Facebook status is “it’s complicated”.
  • Layout design review (where to put wandering monsters, where to put stat blocks, how to break up the outside of the mountain).
  • Important NPC Development: Pasang – more than just a beggar on the mountain. The gods are finally punishing the Sharwa for their impiety.
  • Important NPC Development: Jhala – Her motivations to maintain the status quo, and how that is challenged.
  • Important NPC Development: Salt Nomads – Completely re-thinking their role (was very much background fluff) and making them the spiritual conduit for the PCs and the Sharwa. Giving them relationships across the board.
  • Discussion on handling twists like “you fall off the mountain…” (either give them the dead condition of injured or sick, or make it a complicated twist and give the GM some suggestions for how to adjudicate it)
  • Other NPC nuances: Diamond Tooth, Mingmar, and Deepti. Little things, but good stuff.
  • New mechanic I’m going to create: Duress. The pervasive attitude in an area, it’s effects on the PCs, and how it can be changed. The intent is that this could be pulled out and used for towns and other locations as well.


Still more work to do. The biggest challenge for me right now is taking these very nuanced characters with long histories and condensing them down to a short entry in a list of wandering monsters. I think this is why designers always know more about their stories than they share with the audience…because you can’t fit it all in there!

Stone Dragon Playtest Feedback

Stone Dragon Mountain Playtest FeedbackThe playtest closed a month ago but it’s taken me this long to get around to reviewing all the feedback.


First off I want to give special thanks to Thomas Elmeblom, Duamn Figueroa, Luciano Meza, Marco Caprile, Sebastián Ojeda, Yoan Lessard, Orion Cooper, Justin Chang, Bay Chang, Jim Morris, Max Külshammer, and Nathan Roberts for playtesting the game AND giving me great feedback on it. I also want to give special thanks to Jason Morningstar for reviewing the source document and giving me some great direction. Jason was like having a third editor on the project. Finally, a huge thanks and personal awe to Noam Rosen who not only played through the entire adventure (not a feat I was expecting) but also corrected quite a few errors and gave great feedback to boot!

What did I learn from the playtest feedback

  • Cut to the chase! I knew this in principle, but I clearly wasn’t applying in practice. Draft 1.14 (the playtest draft) starts with six (6!) pages of back story and cultural information. That’s way to much. Duamn and others gently told me to get to the point already! What I’ve done (for now) is to take the entire “The Story” and “People of the Mountain” section and put them in the back as appendices. Mostly for my own reference right now. I hope to eventually cut them out completely forcing me to…
  • Show, don’t tell.  Another one that is obvious but not easy. Jason suggested using Graham Walmsley method of giving every character three mannerisms or activities that not only show who they are as a person, but also reflect on their culture. I tried to squeeze these in as beliefs, traits, and/or instincts but they didn’t fit well. So at present they are just lists of things under the characters name. For example:

Sampat the Wealthy

  • Brings money into the conversation
  • Paces back and forth
  • Speaks sweetly to strangers; barks orders at servants.


  • Looks to the mountain’s summit thoughtfully
  • Pours pink salt on the ground and murmurs “Thanks to Namakambhari.”
  • Checks her pack for rations and supplies.

I’ll keep tinkering with these, but I already prefer this method because it is not only tools for the GM to make the world come alive, it’s also exposition that can be given directly to the players.

  • Cleaning up the twists. A few of the twists like Hidden Crevasse and Avalanche have too many if, then clauses built into them. It makes them difficult to parse and effectively splits the twist into two branching twists, which each are fully detailed. That is cumbersome in the text and difficult to parse in game. I’m changing them to assume one option (the characters are below the avalanche and that they are tied together respectively) and then make the “worse” outcome, a follow up twist. This way these twists effectively work like traps. First giving the players a possibility to avoid them by taking the actions that would prepare them, and then facing the actual danger if they either fail the roll to avoid it, or don’t make the attempt in the first place.
  • Base camp is too “big”. Too many people there to talk to, and too easy to end up spending a whole session find out information and getting supplies. I’ll consider breaking up the camp into two locations (Everest, which this is modeled after, has one base camp and four camps on the way up). Or possibly making the shrine effectively a second camp and moving some of the NPCs there.
  • Everyone loves Ankit. Not a surprise, but probably worth noting that he has one of the shorter descriptions. Shorter is better! Now just to get much more complex characters like Jhala, Sampat, and Deepti to be that compact!
  • Mingmar is a weak character as he stands. He shows up too late in the game to every get his story, so all his motivations are for naught. He comes off as more maniacal than pious, which while not completely off base, isn’t my intention. I think I need to provide more opportunities for the monks to interact with the PCs earlier on.

Most important of all though is that I’m back at it! SDM is a 90 page google doc that is slow to load (lots of tables for the stat blocks) and like the mountain climb itself, editing the doc is a daunting process. I’ve got my ice axe in one hand and my mouse in the other. Oh shit, that’s bad news for my keyboard!

SDM Design – Line Editing (5/3/2015)

editingNow that Thor has finished the developmental editing, I turned the document over to Karen Twelves to perform a line/copy edit. Here’s what she fixed:


If a major event happened 20 years ago, would you still know about it? Of course you would. Even without the internet, I knew about the Vietnam War and Watergate growing up, despite that fact that they happened before I was born.  If something happened when I was 10 and it was a big deal… I’m pretty sure I’d remember it now.

Karen caught a rather large disparity what is common knowledge on the mountain and helped me address it in a way that makes way more sense. There are plenty of things we don’t talk about. Not because we’ve forgotten, but because they are taboo. We even slipped a law into one of the towns that speaking of such things was punishable by a day of public shunning, where no-one will speak to you. Hell yeah!

So Many Monsters

The “Wandering Monsters” aka “Random Encounters”, aka “Here are possible twists to spring on your adventurers” table I had was long. Really long. Not only are there both a ton of threats and personalities on the mountain, but most of these required a fair amount of space to detail. Whereas Skogenby and Three Squires each have a page or so to cover the Wandering Monsters, I had over a dozen. Part of that we cleaned up, but we both agreed (and Thor had suggested this as well) that what I really had to do was split up the “outside” and the “inside” encounters .

The end result is the document feels much more like a two part adventure now. First climbing the mountain… and then descending into it.

Action Man Font – GM Advice

The language we use when writing varies at lot. Sometimes I’m speaking directly to the GM “remember this, do that, consider the following, etc”. Sometimes I’m imparting information about the mountain to the GM as an impersonal fact “This area of the mountain is above the snow line, etc.” Sometimes however I really want to have a conversation, for what that’s worth. Something to say “hey, I’ve run this adventure too, and I know it can be tough to sort through all of this, this is what worked for me.”  This is for advice like when it’s a good time to use one twist over another or what danger signs to be watching for.

I noticed that the Torchbearer rulebook has an example text font (ComicPlain) which serves to do a little bit of this. It’s not quite the same thing, but it does go from “here we’re talking about the rules in general” to “here we’re talking about how something worked in play.” I realized I wanted that. However, I couldn’t get that because I couldn’t even find the ComicPlain (or Comic Plain) font, nor did I want to purchase another font. So instead I used Action Man. Seems very fitting for text to describe what’s happening in play!

Lots of little things

Karen also did a ton of standardizing. Making sure it’s always “+1D” and not “+1d”. Changing case (I tend to make a lot of terms upper case when they shouldn’t be), and clarifying many confusing sentences. All good stuff. One other change was to remove the Page XX references (or at least most of them) as it seems like the document is now much more manageable to flip through. We’ll see if that turns out to be true in playtest.

Current status:

  • Final editing approval by 5/15 (Karen Twelves)
  • Expecting maps by 5/15 as well (Priscilla Spencer)
  • Plan to launch playtesting by 5/20 (Sean)

SDM Design – Presenting Data is Hard! (4/4/2015)

data modelThe Question

Where do you put a stat block for a creature that appears multiple times in an adventure?

  • The first place they appear?
  • Every place they appear?
  • At the end in an appendix that has all the stat blocks?
  • Some mixture of these?

The same is true for their background. If a monster/place/character is mentioned in one location, but it’s really prominent until they appear another, should you?

  • Make a page reference to them?
  • Duplicate the information?
  • Present the information in bits and pieces (some one part of the text, some in others)?

These aren’t simple questions to answer, nor are the answers the same for every reader.

Example – Reading the test before the adventure:

If you’re reading the text before running it, you’ve got time to do extensive page skipping. It’s this case it’s nice to have all the text linked to each other but not duplicated. The flow is natural and you get all of the story in one place.

Example – Referencing the text during game:

When I’m running an adventure the LAST thing I want to is be flipping pages or clicking links to skip around. I need to know all the info for my location and everything in it all in one place! Here it doesn’t matter how many times data is duplicated because at any given time I’m just looking at one section and I want it all right there in front of me.

Example – Looking up related data:

If I remember there is a bunch of NPCs or monsters, or special items, and I want to get a list of all of them, then what do I want? Certainly not to have to flip pages or do a ton of related but not identical searches. Now I need an appendix that has them all together. And ties them together in the grouping that suits my needs RIGHT NOW.

These are super tricky to balance in any game text, adventures in particular. You might be using monsters in multiple locations and for sure those stat blocks are handiest when they are present because they are needed while the game is being run. But page counts is a consideration. The longer the doc the more expensive it is to print (if you’re printing it) and the slower it is to load, index, scroll through and search as a PDF. Also, data duplication can be dangerous. What if your monster has one set of stats in one area, and another in a second area. Say…skeletons equipped with sword vs. skeletons equipped with battle axes?

The trick is that our brains are too smart for our own good. We love patter matching and will sometimes do it as long as something is mostly the same. So adventure designer might have included three stat blocks for those skeletons, but the GM might very well use the first one they find and not even realize the difference. Frankly, pages and pages of stat blocks all start looking the same to me if I don’t have art to break them up.


This is pretty untested. I speak more from someone who has read/run adventures than someone who has written them, but here’s my thoughts:

  1. Kill trees, spill ink, take all the bytes. Boring as it may be for your prospective reader to see the same information multiple times, as long as there is a clear flag they can skip it (such as a stat block that looks just like the stat block they just saw) the reader doesn’t mind seeing the same data multiple times. In turn, when they have a page up during the adventure they will thank you profusely for having it all in one place.
  2. You talk too much. This is more me than you. Stone Dragon Mountain is currently 71 pages in a Google Doc. It’s 25,000 words and I haven’t even finished it yet. Damn! I really go on an on about some things. Think of your descriptions like a tweet. Write the whole thing, check your word count, then start cutting and cutting until you get it down. This has to do with sentence structure, with clarity, and with leaving room for the imagination. You don’t have to lead a GM by the nose and put all the pieces together for them Sean!
  3. Boxes! Boxes are great. Boxes let you put a little bit of text (under a header so everyone knows what the text is all about) in a box that can both be easily skipped and found later! You’ve got a new magic spell that a Magician or Ranger can learn in your game? Put it in a box. Until they want it the GM can easily skip over it. When the GM needs to find it, it catches the eye easily.
    When I say a fish made of gold you think I'm full of crap. When I show you this picture, you reach for a fishing pole!
    When I say a fish made of gold you think I’m full of crap. When I show you this picture, you reach for a fishing pole!
  4. Include page references and links! Yeah, it does get old to say “see page XX” but it gets even older to be reading your adventure and say “where the hell is that page!” In digital formats you can link them together but don’t assume someone hasn’t printed out your adventure and is running it off paper. Page numbers.
  5. A picture is worth… A LOT. Art does so many things. It brings descriptions alive, but it also serves as memory trigger for us. Where are Skill Factors in Torchbearer. When I’m looking at the digital copy I go to the linked Table of Contents (on page 3) and Click on Ability and Skill Factors (page 132). When I’m flipping through the book though, I just look for Gerald on the inside of a right page and know I’m next to Loremaster.

What do you think? Is there a better way to organize data? I know when I play Pathfinder I use d20pfsrd to look up EVERYTHING. Should adventure designers make easy to search Wiki’s for their products? What works best for you when you’re reading, running, or searching through and adventure?

SDM Design – Map art direction is hard! (4/3/2015)

Over lunch today I had a Hangout out the the magnificent Priscilla Spencer, who, when not jet setting, making maps for Jim Butcher, or filming entire movies in a week, has signed up to make maps for Stone Dragon Mountain.

We’ve been emailing back and forth for a bit but decided a Hangout would helpful as we could talk while screen sharing. So much screen sharing…

Doing art direction for a map is hard! Especially a map of terrain that isn’t flat or even has any sort of “levels”. My horrible scribbles that I’ve used so far have really only told me what points are connected to what other points. But there is no sense of their existence on or in the mountain.

To convey the locations I went through:

With aplomb Priscilla took it all in and assured it me would all be fine. Given the work she has done and her ideas as we talked, I’m confident as well. And as a bit of a teaser, here’s the terrible map I’ve been using this far (with location names removed).

Preview Stone Dragon Mountain Outside

SDM Design – Three’s company, Four is a crowd. (3/31/2015)

Perhaps my last Google Hangout with Thor!

We’ve been doing this about once a month since last September (missing November and January due to either holidays and/or more development time needed). The calls are about 90-120 minutes long and damn…Thor is awesome.

He asks the questions that I should have been asking from the beginning. Why? How? What’s it look like? And even better he gives suggestions. Really, really, good ones. I think I’ve used 75% of his ideas, and the ones that I’ve tossed back, I’ve often still used some kernel of later on.

Today we talked about the faction motivations. The three different people on the mountain, as well as lowlanders from below. While the term “lowlander” pretty much encompasses the rest of the world, in the context of Stone Dragon Mountain lowlanders all share some important characteristics. 1) They don’t know anything about the mountain, and 2) what they do know about, they want to plunder. These defining characteristics work well for both adventurers and the salt merchants eager for Stone Dragon Mountain’s rare pink salt.

The fun tension we’ve put together is that every faction on the mountain is vying for control over the other and it’s ultimately the outsiders (player characters) that can/will tip the balance between them. And if it wasn’t the player characters (should they leave the mountain early) it would still be lowlanders that instigated tension leading to conflict… though probably not in anyone’s best interests.

But what did we actually do during this meeting?

  • Playtest question added – specifically about how usable/easy to reference the text is?
  • Discussion of wandering monsters and where to place them. There are some that can appear anywhere, some that are only outside, some only inside, and some only outside at high altitudes. That’s an interesting needle to thread.
  • NPCs motivations and activities. I’m really going for a living world here where things are in motion, but that’s hard to put into text without scripting outcomes (BAD BAD BAD). We talked a lot about what the characters in the story want from the NPCs and what do they need. What will they do to get those. This has gotta be the 5th time we’ve gone over NPCs (a talking point nearly every meeting) but it’s worth it to keep looking at the world through their eyes and bring them to life.
  • Moving some things around to remove clutter in certain locations.
  • Treasure! More treasure added!
  • A whole mess of other stuff I didn’t write down because there were changes made on the fly.

Sneak Peek – Jhala

A Sharwa woman who speaks an accented version of the common tongue and warmly greets lowlanders. She is intrigued by any stories from the lowlands and affectionate, even motherly, to adventurers.

If they inquire about guide she will shake her head solemnly and explain in a disappointed tone that her daughter is a guide, though she wishes she would give up that life and move down the mountain where it’s safer, but she is already up the mountain, leading another group.

Jhala is fond of foreign tokens and charms. She has a lacquered cherry wood humidor that preserved pipe leaf tobacco. She also wears a colorful rose quartz pendant which she frequently rubs for good luck.

Jhala is a prominent member of Sharwa and others in the camp will defer to her.

Instinct: Walk the camp every morning.

SDM Design – The order of things (2/4/2015)

Just after recording Narrative Control 82 with Vincent and Rob, Thor and I got on the horn to talk about Stone Dragon.  We scoured through comments in the text and came up with this list.

Salt Terrace
Salt Terrace

Meeting Goals:

  • Trimming down the intro (way to long)
  • Giving better motivations to the characters met as wandering monster encounters (Deepti, Lakpa, Zopon, and Sampat).
  • Contents of the new locations (Salt Terrace and Monastery)
  • Pacing of exposition (through NPCs, from the monastery, etc)
  • Plan for changes on the inside locations. Redesign the society and factions on the inside given our changes.
  • The Sharwa gods don’t have to be different than the Immortal Lords (leave that idea open)
  • Make sure content matches it’s header/subheader
  • Antagonist pursues an agenda that you admire but do it with a method you abhor. Or vice versa.
  • What if Jhala wants to go to the lowland and leave the mountain, but Deepti wants to stay?

The information, as it stands right now is all over the place. Re-order int he following sections:

Stupa in a Monastery 

Part 1 – Intro to the setting

–Ancient History
–Recent Events
–Bringing It All Together

Part 2 – People of the Mountain


Part 3 – Setup in for the GM

Playtest Version

Part 4 – Running Stone Dragon Mountain

Wandering Monsters
The End


Lots of head scratching from me. Lots of good ideas from Thor. Mostly what I’m impressed by is how much invisible world building we’re doing. Like any story, there is way more behind Stone Dragon Mountain that whats going on the page (and even that is a lot), but knowing the background of it all helps me understand the world the adventure takes place in!