My Wonder Woman



JESSIE WILKINS, a professional ambush reporter, approaches DIANA after she stops a bank robbery. He rushes up, putting the microphone directly in her face. DIANA looks confused.

Wonder Woman! Can you answer a few questions for me! Why are you dressed this way? Do you think it’s a good example for young girls?

Excuse me?


WILKINS pushes closer, pressing on the advantage of confusion.

Do you think you’re a good example for young girls running around dressed in your underwear?


Close up of DIANA as glares at WILKINS, not saying a word.


Same shot. DIANA responds.

Where I come from, we celebrate the human body as beautiful and we do not shame our children into believing they must cover themselves.

So you…

On your way to speak to me, you rushed by a man sitting on the corner with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” And you did it without any pause or hesitation.


So you believe you are a positive influence—

That is a man who is literally begging for the right to live. Begging for the right to survive another day. And you did it without thinking. Because you have seen it a thousand times a day and it means nothing to you. A man who is literally begging for the right to live. And you are not disgusted by it. Or disgraced by it. Or dishonored by it.


DIANA begins flying away, holding the homeless man. WILKINS holding up the microphone. She looks down at him.

—a positive influence on young girls?

And yet you persist. You are a pathetic creature. Go home and apologize to your mother that you have dishonored her so miserably. She deserves better than the likes of you.


UnReview: Suicide Squad


A desperate plea to all screenwriters. Please stop trying to destroy the Earth. Or, if you’re gonna do it, have some guts and actually do it.

I have a notion for a Star Trek campaign for my friends. They’re Federation cops on the fringe of Federation space handling smugglers, renegade Klingon captains and other miscreants. Their ship is small (a command crew of five with a squad of marines) but heavily armored and armed. Yes, they try to use diplomacy, but their job sometimes calls for a little firepower.

They stumble on a shapeshifter plot to destroy Earth and cripple the Federation. They capture one of the conspirators and with the help of a Vulcan mind meld, they discover the details of the plot. They send the information back to Earth—they’re on the fringe remember?—and start heading back to help and drop off their shapeshifter buddy.

Then, the Earth blows up.

All Federation computers go down. All starships have to be manually rebooted and are helpless while doing so. Sixty minutes of emergency life support and nothing else.

The shapeshifters invade with the Romulan Empire.

The Klingon Empire divides into two factions: those who want to help their allies and those who are ready to exact revenge.

The Vulcans look at the situation and come to the only logical conclusion to save their species: they surrender.

Everything’s fucked. Every. Thing. Is. Fucked.

And our little police ship—with a crew of five, some marines and a shapeshifter in the brig—are on their own.

If you’re gonna blow up the world, have the guts to blow up the fucking world.

So. We were talking about Suicide Squad...

My friend Rob Justice ( ran a Suicide Squad game for our online group last year. I had a blast. We all had a blast. Rob understood the comic is about consequences and choices. The characters not only pay for the consequences of their past lives, but pay for the consequences of their choices in the Squad. Folks die. A lot of folks die. Our first mission had us waking up in mid-drop, plummeting toward the ground. We all pulled our parachutes… and Kraven the Hunter’s shoot didn’t open. He went splat.

Was that intentional? Was it an accident? Was it a message? We didn’t know and our boss wasn’t telling.

That’s how our game started.

My favorite session involved Amanda Waller ordering us to find and kill The Batman. We spent four hours talking about it. How we would do it, if we should do it, if we should just run. I asked Waller, “Can I have a suitcase nuke?” She said, “Yes.” And gave it to me.

Shit got real after that.

But the game was always about the consequences of our choices. The World’s Greatest Thief, the World’s Greatest Assassin, the World’s Greatest Mastermind and the World’s Greatest Imposter. Others died around us, and we knew we could die at any moment. And our choices mattered. Our choices got other folks killed. And maimed. And splatted.

Because that, my friends, is what Suicide Squad is about: choices and consequences. Everything else is bells and whistles.

And so, when the movie came out, with all of us in one place at Gen Con, we conspired to see it together. A little drunk. Well, the world conspired against us and that didn’t happen, so I saw it myself this morning.

I really liked the beginning. I liked the style of it. Liked the introduction of Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The others… eh. Oh, except for Diablo. I loved Diablo. But more on that later.

I love “gathering the team.” And that’s exactly what the first act of this film was. The director made it fun, the actors made it interesting and I was thinking, “Why do people hate this movie so much.”

Then, the second act started. And I wished I was doing anything else. Such as laundry.

You see, the plot has our anti-heroes going after a villain who wants to destroy the world. Is she going to succeed?


Of course she’s not going to succeed because that would mean the end of the DC Cinematic Universe. And because this is Warner Brothers, they’re not going to do anything remotely that interesting or daring or challenging.

Instead, we make sure to get plenty of shots of Harley’s ass. Make sure she bends over, boys. As often as you fucking can.


Now, let me stop right there for a quick aside. Because I have something to say about Margot Robbie. She saved this fucking movie for me. Her performance sold me. She knows the Harley Quinn character. She’s perfect for the role. This is despite all the bullshit dialogue they throw at her, despite all the cheesecake shots, despite all the… well, despite the film itself doing its best to bury her performance.

And Will Smith delivers. He gets an opportunity to play a real bad ass. And he milks it for all he’s worth. I don’t know for certain—in fact, I’m just guessing—but I believe his best lines were written by him or improvised on the spot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is a real motherfucker and I like him. Despite the fact the film does its best to bury his performance.

And let’s talk for a moment about Jay Hernandez in the role of Diablo. Goddamn, I loved him. I loved this character. I bought it. There’s a bit at the very end that made me stand up and cheer. Granted, I was in a mostly empty theater, but I did it anyway. My buddy Mark Diaz Truman needs to see this movie for Hernandez’s performance. I’m telling him that as soon as I get done here.


So, anyway, back to the whole blowing up the world bit. The second act begins with the Squad crash landing on the outside of the city where all this shit’s going on and they have to hoof it to the huge beam of light flashing into the sky to stop Zul from opening the…

… yeah. It’s the plot from the first Ghostbusters. Fucking hell.

So, like Frodo and Sam, they walk to the fucking big beam of flashing light. And that’s when the plot grinds to a dead halt. We get a fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And they have another fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And Harley has a solo fight scene so we can prove she’s a real bad ass in high heels and a thong and we know she’s gonna win because…

… you get the point.

Everything that happens after the crash landing bored me to fucking tears because I know where all this is going. We’re gonna get to the big beam of light, they’re gonna fight the villain, they’re gonna win. And maybe—just maybe—some of them are gonna die.

Deadshot? Not a chance.

Harley Quinn? Not a chance.

Killer Croc? He has maybe two lines of dialogue, so I don’t give fuck all about him.

Captain Boomer—

… sorry. I had to stop myself from crying/laughing. Captain Fucking Boomerang.

In other words, you know exactly who’s disposable and who isn’t. Unfortunately, they kill off the most interesting non-disposable character—if you’re paying attention, you know who that is—which also made me wish I was doing anything else.

Because I know how this all ends. The Squad beats the villain, saves the world and goes right back to their cells. I’m not intrigued. I’m pretty fucking far from intrigued. And when you kill my favorite character… yeah, you can fuck right the hell off.

I really liked the first act. I liked it a lot. But the movie misses the entire point of the comic.

Choices and consequences. They don’t matter in this universe. We’ve seen that in the Zack Snyder movies. Choices and consequences don’t matter.

In Suicide Squad, they’re the only things that do matter. Except in this film.

In this film, the only thing that matters is walking to the inevitable ending.




BATMAN v (supersomeguymaybe) PLUS WONDER OMG WOMAN


Before I begin, I feel the need to reintroduce my concept of an “unreview.”

I write reviews using e-prime, a linguistical tool that excludes all uses of the verb “to be.” In other words, I can’t say “the movie is bad” or “the plot is confusing” or anything like that. I put this limitation on myself because I feel most reviewers would be out of a job if they couldn’t utilize that language. Instead of telling you whether or not the movie is good or bad, I just talk about my own reactions to it. My own highly subjective reactions that you evaluate on your own. Using e-prime also assists a writer in getting rid of a pesky little habit known as “passive voice.” If you want to learn how to write, I suggest you try it sometime.

Also, in reference to reviewers of any kind, I highly suggest you remain skeptical of anyone who makes a living criticizing the creative accomplishments of others.

Oh, and I’m including spoilers. Just so you know.



Now, in other mediums (cough-cough-Facebook-cough) I expressed some doubts about Zach Snyder directing a second Superman film. In fact, I think I expressed doubts on whether or not anyone should allow Zach Snyder to direct any movie ever again. However, I decided to check out this latest my adoration for Superman demanded I check out this film.

I liked Gal Gadot. She looks right, sounds right, moves right. My friend Mike said that when he first saw her—the way she moved, the slinky red dress, the way she was flirting with Bruce—that he thought she was Selina Kyle. I could see that. My (very healthy) preoccupation with Wonder Woman means I could not make that mistake, but after some reflection, I could see why he would. And I liked the way she looked in the costume. Although, I couldn’t parse out why she wanted her picture back. Because she didn’t want a picture, she wanted a digital copy of a picture which… well, I didn’t understand that part. Maybe because I was distracted by the fact every outfit she wore directed by eyes to about three inches below her shoulders. Not that I’m complaining! I like her shoulders very much.

I thought this Bruce Wayne was the most comic book Bruce Wayne we’ve seen yet. What I mean by that is, this whole movie felt like a Batman comic. Out of all the Bruce Waynes I’ve seen on the screen, I like Ben Affleck’s the best. I like the news about him getting to write and direct his own Batman movie. I think I will like that one more than this one. Although, I have to say, if we’re going with a Batman who kills people—and he kills a lot of people in this movie—I can’t think of a reason why the Joker is still alive in the DC Cinematic Universe. A Batman with such a casual attitude toward murder would not allow the Joker to take ten more steps. Harley Quinn, neither. In fact, half the cast of Suicide Squad should be in the ground. Batman murders gangsters without blinking an eyelash, he sure as shit ain’t lettin’ the Joker walk away. He’d take one look at that crazy sumbitch and PLLLLTHTHTHTH no more Joker. Which also made me wonder why Lex Luther was alive at the end of all this. Batman killed his cronies, why didn’t he kill Lex? Hm. Questions to ponder.

I felt the initial scene of Wayne in Gotham should have started the film. I’ve seen Batman’s folks killed a thousand times already, I don’t need to see it in Zach Snyder Slow Motion (TM). In fact, those moments really took my breath away, that shot of everyone running away from the wreckage and ruin and Wayne running toward it? That moment communicated more to me about who this Bruce Wayne is than anything else in the movie. I like this Bruce Wayne. Which made all the moments after that one really difficult for me to watch.

I didn’t like Batman and Superman threatening to kill each other. Not at all.

And I don’t like being ahead of the detective. For those of you who don’t read mysteries, “being ahead of the detective” is when you feel like you’ve figured out the mystery before the protagonist does. In this movie, I know from the first second of the film that Superman is a hero (e-prime protocol break there; my apologies). I know this, but Batman does not. Which means throughout the entire film, I’m ahead of Batman. I’m smarter than Batman. And it isn’t until the very end of the film that Batman catches up to the audience. I didn’t like that. Not one bit.

As for other stuff I liked…




Gal Gadot looked fantastic. I understand Snyder isn’t directing the Wonder Woman movie. I’m glad about that.

And if I have to suffer through this movie to get an Affleck Batman… after seeing Gone Baby GoneThe Town and Argo, I’m good with that.

Rulings, Not Rules

(from the forthcoming 7th Sea: Second Edition Game Master chapter)

People always ask me how I feel about hearing GMs change the rules of games I’ve published. I always say the same thing: “Great! I’d love to see what they came up with.” That answer tends to confuse people, so then I often have to explain that I see RPGs as a kind of oral tradition. You can go to different cities, sit down at different game tables and play different versions of 7th Sea. To me, that’s exciting. And it was hard for me to explain why… until recently.

A few months ago, I read an article online called “How I helped to pull the rope that tolled the bell for OD&D.” (You can read it here.)

The article stunned me. In summation, the author—a kindly gentleman named Tim Kask—talks about the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, and how the rulebook wasn’t a rulebook at all, but a list of example rulings. The difference, he argued, was that rulings gave the Dungeon Master freedom to improvise creatively while rules limited the DM’s ability to run the game. He lamented that later editions went to the side of rules vs rulings and the game has suffered ever since.

Like I said, the article stunned me. (I could talk about it for hours, really. And have.) And it also got me thinking about how I run my own table. Many times, if I can’t think of a specific rule, I make something up on the spot. A quick ruling that’s fair, but also fast. I make the promise, “After the game, I’ll look up the rule,” and I do and try to keep it in my head for the next time. But, generally, if I can’t think of a rule, I ask for a quick roll of the dice. If the player has an Advantage that would benefit him, I let him use it. Sometimes, I even ignore an existing rule and create a new one that better fits the circumstance.

That’s how I want you to look at these rules. These are the rulings we’ve come up with, that we’ve found fair and useful. Sometimes, they’ll get in the way and a quick roll of the dice may be a better solution. Sometimes, the rules we’ve given you will fit like a glove and add to the fun.

The end result of all this navel-gazing is a simple piece of advice. When it comes time to run the game, you don’t need to have all 300 pages memorized. Just stick to the basics:

  1. You Create a Scene.
  2. Players Create Raises.
  3. Players use Raises to change the Scene.

That’s really all you need. Those are the only rules. All the rest is rulings. Suggestions we found useful. You may not find them useful. You may ditch one in a moment of forgetfulness or panic or dramatic necessity.

That’s okay. Nobody’s sending the 7th Sea Rules Enforcement Force to your door to make sure you get everything right.

Improvise. Have fun. And remember: it’s a storytelling game. And these are your friends. More importantly, this is your game. You bought it. You can change whatever you want in it, including the rules. Sometimes, especially the rules.

7th Sea Quickstart FAQ v2

After consulting with Mike Curry, here are answers to your questions.

Can you please clarify how Wounds now work as a Consequence? The explanation seems clear in the rules, and the adventure Risk box seems to have been adjusted to reflect Wounds as a group consequence, but then the walk through of how the risk works immediately after is confusing because it references the Hero taking two wounds if they haven’t spent raises.

The walkthrough is an artifact of the earlier version of the Quick Start. Use the explanation in the rules portion.

Also, under taking wounds for another hero, it says a hero who wants to take wounds for someone else must have spent a raise. Does that mean must have spent a raise in the Risk to show that they were a part of it, or must have spent a raise specifically to allow them to take those wounds, or must spend a raise to take each wound as it had been previously? (The last option isn’t economical)

If you want to take Wounds for another Hero, you spend one Raise. You can take any number of Wounds that Hero would have taken. You don’t spend 1 Raise per Wound (that’d be silly, as you should then just use your Raise to cancel the Wounds as a Consequence instead) but your Raise otherwise doesn’t do anything. Effectively, you spend a Raise and say “I’ll shield the Prince with my body.”

Would you ever require players to spend more than once raise to accomplish their intent if it’s particularly difficult?

Probably not. Use the Danger Point rule for increasing the cost of Raises, rather than requiring additional Raises to be spent for Intent.

During an action sequence when a player has already completed his intent (and ignored or resisted the consequences), what does he do with any remaining raises? If he had a bounty of raises, can he complete another intent? He can create opportunities for other players, which seem kind of like intents. If he knocks the gun out of the guards hand (as in your example), can he also pick it up, or must that be another PC?

He does whatever he wants with his Raises, within the context of the Scene. If it makes sense to you, as the GM, for them to be able to accomplish another Intent, that’s your call. My advice would be that as long as it makes sense, a player can spend a Raise to do it.

As for your question about Opportunities, it would need to be another PC. You can’t create an Opportunity for yourself. Think about them sort of like a “combo move.” You don’t need to spend a Raise to knock the gun out of the guard’s hand, then another Raise to pick it up. You just spend a Raise and say “I take the guard’s gun away from him.” An Opportunity is if you want to give the gun to another PC who couldn’t get it on their own—for example, if the guard is out of their reach because they’re locked inside a jail cell.

A PC can never achieve another PC’s intent. When a group tries to escape a burning building, and one PC #1 fails to generate any raises, what do you say to PC #2 who wants to use extra raises to carry out PC #1?

I would probably let them spend a Raise to carry them out, but I’d saddle PC #1 with some pretty hefty drawbacks for failing to make their Intent. Maybe they’re Helpless for a scene, or they drop something as they’re being carried out and their friend doesn’t notice it. PC #2 should not be penalized for helping their friend, but PC #1 should pay a price for not making Intent.

In the QS on page 7 under “Wounds as Consequences” you say that the consequences are resisted as a group and any remaining wounds hit all players at the end of the round. On page 10 under “Using Multiple Raises For a Single Action” you say that have to commit any raises to resisting a consequence as a single action, and afterwards can’t negate any more wounds. I’m having trouble reconciling those two passages. Could you clarify?

Basically, this means that if you want to Do A Thing, you need to decide how many Raises you want to devote to it at the time. You can’t spend 1 Raise to reduce a Wound Consequence by 1… and then do it again on your next Action, and again on your next Action, and again on your next Action. You have one Action that you can use to reduce a particular Consequence, and you can spend as many Raises as you want on that Action, but you can’t piece them out one by one.

If there are multiple Consequences, they are addressed with individual Actions. For example, if the ceiling is going to collapse (5 Wounds) and a bomb is about to explode (10 Wounds) you can take separate Actions to devote Raises to each. But you can’t spend 1 Raise to reduce the bomb Consequence, then on your next Action spend an additional Raise to reduce the bomb Consequence, then again, and again. You say “I’m going to deal with the bomb. I’ll spend 3 Raises.” Then on your next Action, you say “I’m going to deal with the collapsing roof. I’ll spend 2 Raises.”

Imagine I have 2 resolve and find myself on three wounds. I take three more wounds. Which of the following situations is true: A. I fill up the next three available boxes, including the starburst dramatic wound box, leaving me with one box of the second track filled. B. As soon as the fourth and final box in the first track is filled, I also fill the dramatic wound box. The remaining two wounds are applied to the next track. C. Taking the fourth wound triggers the dramatic wound, and all other wounds from that source are ignored. D. Filling the dramatic wound with the second wound applied stops any more damage from being applied from that source.

If I understand your question correctly, A is true.

When Villains use influence to “buy” things (Like other villains etc.) is that influence “tied up” in the process? Or is is spent and lost forever? E.x. If I have my BBEG buy a strength 5 villain for 2 influence points. Does he loose those 2 points from his influence score? Or, does he still have those points – but they’re just “tied up” in the villain so they aren’t available to be used for anything else? If they are “tied up” what happens if the players kill the hireling? Are the points then lost? Or does the villain then get to reinvest those points?

That Influence is effectively “invested” in his new hireling. If his hireling is lost (the heroes defeat and exile him, throw him in prison, convince him to turn against his boss, etc) then the Influence spent on him is lost. If the hireling returns to his boss after a failed mission and his boss executes him for incompetence (as is all-too-common with Villains whose underlings fail them), he gets his Influence back. Basically, hirelings are Influence piggybanks.

What determines whether a “scheme” is successful? I get it if the players directly oppose a scheme—but I think the idea seems to be that the players might know about the schemes, but won’t necessarily be able to stop them all. Do unopposed schemes automatically succeed? Is there a roll that the villain needs to make behind the scenes?

A scheme is successful if the Heroes don’t stop it. After all, you’re the HEROES. If you don’t stop the Villain… who will?

Finally – how would you handle the players “finding out” about the schemes?

The same ways you handle them finding out about plots from any other RPG. Informants, gossip at local watering holes, secret letters that they intercept, an underling having a crisis of conscience. As Areo Hotah said, “Someone talked. Someone always talks.”

Special Brute Squads. Is there any way to counter the theft or kidnapping effects that certain special brute squads have. Such as the ‘Thieves’ and ‘Pirates’. Say a group of Hero’s are trying to protect something/someone or if they want to prevent the action can they spend a raise? Or would they have to spend a Hero Point? Or does it just happen?

In general, it just happens. It’s important to remember, however, that as the GM you should be using these things to further the story rather than annoy or punish your players. If you have the thieves steal a player’s sword, the one he inherited from his grandfather, it should be because you plan to have him go get it back.

Can I swim with Athletics, Profession (pearl diver) or Sailing?

Yes, yes (probably), and yes.

Can the Consequences come by packs of Wounds? E.g. Falling to a river “2 damage from the fall”, “5 damage by pirannas”

I don’t see why not. 🙂

Villainous influence: does influence spent on sending henchmen (lesser villains and brutes), producing betrayals and getting data for villain’s Scheme count as influence invested in a scheme?

No. A Villain invests Influence to launch a Scheme, and then sends his underlings to make sure that Scheme succeeds.

You’ve mentioned that there’s potential plans to remove the Duelling rules entirely as Action Sequences cover it well enough. I agree with that in principle, but the dueling rules do provide some unique abilities – such as generating Hero Points or preventing wounds while doing damage with a Riposte – that are not covered (I don’t think) by the standard Action Sequence rules. Is it intended that these abilities will become unavailable to characters/swordsmen with the removal of these rules?

This is something of a miscommunication. The dueling subsystem is being removed, in favor of moving much of that instead to ways that Duelists can spend their Raises in Action Scenes even outside of a formal duel. The new way that the system works wasn’t ready in time for the Quick Start revision, but you can think of it more along the lines of the Maneuvers listed in the Quick Start Dueling rules being used anytime.

Similarly, the changes to the Swordsman’s School technique for Ambrogia technically give the Swordsman School less interesting abilities than in the previous QS rules. Is this going to be the extent of Swordsman’s Schools – one minor ability – or will their be other abilities, or even tiered abilities as in 1st Edition in the full rules?

There is some amount of progression with Duelist Schools, but we are focusing less on a linear progression (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master) and more on a Duelist’s personal journey and crafting their own unique style by studying others. It’s not the easiest thing to explain without the full ruleset being available, but instead of being an Ambrogia Journeyman, you know Ambrogia. You also know Aldana. You also know Eisenfaust. And you switch fluidly from style to style, based on what you’re doing and what the situation calls for.

There are plans for “Style Mastery” to denote a difference between someone who “just knows” a Style and someone who has devoted themselves to true Mastery, but it’s still in the early stages of development.

7th Sea 2nd Edition Quickstart FAQ

Here are the biggest questions. We’ll be adding/updating/editing them as we go. If you have a question we didn’t address, just add it as a comment!

Who goes first in Contested Risks?

Whoever has the most Raises spends the first Raise. By the way, we are re-designing contested risks in a big way. You should see something soon.

What if a player/GM uses a rule to be a jerk?

Sorry, I can’t fix that, and honestly, that’s the GM’s job. She maintains the order at the table. To quote our friend Jesse Heinig, “Best you can do is encourage desired behaviors and discourage unwanted ones.”

What does the “Reroll” tag at the bottom of the Skills list mean?

It means that, if you have at least two Ranks in a Skill, you can reroll one die every time you make a Risk using that Skill. If you had at least four Rank in a Skill, you could reroll two dice every time you made a Risk, but in the Quickstart, nobody has four Ranks yet.

Do the Heroes get 2 bonus dice against a Villain when the Villain has two Dramatic Wounds?

Nope. Villains just keep on tickin’ until you knock ‘em down.

When you reach your third Dramatic Wound, is it just nines that count as tens, or do you now only require a total of nine to make a Raise?

Your 9’s count as 10’s on the dice. To make Raises, you still need to make a total of 10.

Can Keen Senses be used for eavesdropping?


Can another Hero aid a dueling Hero by spending a Hero Point (such as shouting encouragement or yelling advice, or insulting their opponent)?


When performing a Duel Maneuver, does it cost 1 Raise for the Maneuver itself?

No. If you spend 3 Raises to slash, your opponent takes 3 Wounds. There is no “start up cost.”

It seems to me that the hero point system is designed so a player never uses their own hero points, but need to coordinate with the rest of the group and share them. Is that correct?

I wouldn’t say “never uses their own,” but a single Hero Point from your friends is worth more than a single Hero Point from yourself. It’s important to remember that you can only receive a single Hero Point from another Hero to help you in a Risk. You can use as many of your own as you want.

There are some other factors at play, however. The person giving you the Hero Point does need to play into the Risk in some way, even if it is only emotional or inspirational. They also have to have a Hero Point to give you, or one that they are willing to give; you can only receive Hero Points from other players to get bonus dice, not to activate effects. So if I really need to use my Second Story Work here in a second, I can’t afford to give you my Hero Point so that you can get dice.

Will there be a guide to convert characters from original 7th Sea to the new system?

Probably. If you want to play an experienced character from 1st Edition to 2nd Edition, use John’s Unofficial Conversion Rules:

  1. Make the character you want to play.
  2. If you have any questions, see Rule 1.

I have a question you haven’t answered. Can you answer it?

Yes! Send us the question and we’ll do our best to answer it quickly and concisely.

The Best Adventure of All Times

(Be sure to read the counterpoint piece: The Worst Adventure of All Times)


When I do game design seminars—where I actually take time to listen to you talk about your game, give you advice, challenge your assumptions, etc.—there’s one question I ask that usually knocks people off their feet.

“Can characters die in your game?”

Usually, the answer I get—after a stunned silence—is, “Yes. Of course.”

I follow that up with, “Why?”

Standard answer: “Because if characters can’t die, there’s no real danger.”

That’s when I laugh. Because, like some other GMs out there, I know a deep, dark, nasty secret: I don’t need to kill your character. I can do things a thousand times worse than kill your character. I can hurt your character in ways you can’t imagine. And I can do it without ever engaging with your character sheet. So, when people tell me, “If my character can’t die, there’s no real danger,” I advise them to consult a few of the people who have played in my games.

As a case in point, I invoke the adventure module I believe is the best ever written in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. This one.


Ravenloft came around at an important time for me. Just two years after the Tomb of Horrors debacle, I found Ravenloft at the same store, in the same back corner. I took one look at the cover and I knew it had to be mine. I mean, I knew the guy on the cover was Dracula. Just look at him. It’s Dracula! And I loved Dracula, so I shelled out my ten bucks and took the module home.

All afternoon, I poured over the pages. And it showed me a way to run an adventure I had never considered before. I mean, I’d been doing it as a GM for years, but nobody actually gave me permission to do it.

The game told me to modify the adventure based on my group. Right there. In black and white.

Sure, adventures encouraged you to change the number of monsters, adjust hit points and abilities, but here was a published adventure telling me to change the plot based on my players’ roleplaying abilities. Not their character’s skills, but the players’ roleplaying abilities. 

Yeah, it had this random thing to determine the location of the Sun Sword and other key plot elements, and that’s cool, but really, under the text, there were Tracy and Laura Hickman saying, “Go on… just do it. Change it. We do. All the time. You can do it, too.”

And reading through this adventure, something clicked in my brain. A rapid fever, rushing through my blood stream. An excitement I couldn’t explain. I was on the edge of an epiphany, except I didn’t know the word “epiphany” at the time, nor would I be able to tell you what was happening, but I can now. Because by the time I finished reading the adventure, I realized…

… I could make this stuff up as I go.

I didn’t need to decide where the Sun Sword was before the adventure started. I didn’t need to know who Tatyana was. I didn’t need to know anything. I could improvise based on how the players were going through the adventure. In fact, I realized deciding before hand was a mistake. I’d let them wander through the corridors, drop hints, and the player who was most interested in the Tatyana sub-plot got to be Tatyana.

I’d customize the adventure to my group.

Now, like I said, I’d been doing this to a small extent before, but after reading Ravenloft, I went full bore crazy with it. And all because the Hickmans gave me permission to do it. Right there, in the text, clear as black and white, they said, “Modify this as you will.”

I could change the plot. I could—

Wait a second. Wait a second. There’s…

There’s a plot. Like an actual plot. Not a chain of events linked together by the fact the players are in the same room at the same time, but a plot. With a beginning, a second act, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion. And my players are going to influence when these things happen, how they happen, who they happen to and the consequences.

My fourteen year old mind was blown. Blown to smithereens! as Bugs would put it. I’d… never seen anything like this before in an adventure. I mean, sure, there were things like the A-Series that had something resembling a plot, but it was really just a railroad your players jumped on and rode. Here… things could happen in any order. Castle Ravenloft wasn’t a dungeon, it was a sandbox, long before the term became used by game designers. The players could wander around, try different things, encounter stuff… but… but… aren’t other dungeons like that, too?

My little head was swimming. I couldn’t figure it out. There was a nuance here I was missing… what was it?

I’ll tell you what it is. It’s Strahd.

The whole adventure hinges around Strahd. And if I didn’t make him as dark and deadly and dangerous as I could, the whole adventure would fall apart. It would be just another dungeon crawl.

“Yeah, we go in the castle, we find the sword, we figure out that one of us is the reincarnated girlfriend—yawn—and we kill the vampire.”

Strahd was the lynchpin. He gave everything happening context. The players had to discover Strahd. They had to know him. Otherwise, he was just another XP piñata, ready to be popped.

And that’s where the Hickmans really handed me a golden goose. I mean, this one is something I’ve been carrying with me forever. Ever since I sat down on that Saturday afternoon and read this adventure cover to cover. The key element to every adventure I ever wrote.

Killing the adventurers isn’t the worst thing I can do to them. Oh, no. I can make them Strahd.

The Price of Power

D&D is a game about power wish-fulfillment. You start off as a nobody, start working you way up to a local somebody with the eventual goal of becoming a Big Damn Hero. And along the way, you have to make choices. Some choices are minor: do I pick the +2 longsword or the +1 flametongue? Some choices have more significance: do I multi-class into wizard or cleric? And some choices… they have nothing at all to do with your character sheet.

What do I do about my brother seducing the woman I love?

(Don’t tell me, “John, alignment takes care of that!” Because you know and I know that alignment is bullshit. Yeah, you don’t want to say it out loud, but I’m saying it out loud. Alignment is bullshit. It gives you justification for killing people. “Are they evil? Great, we can kill them without moral consequences!” “Are they good? Well, we have to talk to them first.” That’s all alignment does: it tells you who can kill and who you have to talk to before you kill them. Come on… isn’t that why you have the detect evil spell? So you know whether or not you can kill the people you’re talking to? But that isn’t the point of this article. If you want to talk about it more—including my assertion that 90% of adventurers have the alignment “Chaotic Me,” we can do it at a con this year. I’ll be around.)

Strahd had power. He had lands and followers at his command. He had wealth. And, he thought he had found the love of his life. But… things didn’t work out the way he planned. He made a mistake—a horrible mistake—and now he’s cursed for the rest of his life. No, longer than that. Until someone kills him.

He can’t die of old age. Someone has to murder him.

Sounds like the perfect power for your typical player character doesn’t it? Immortality. Your wounds heal in moments, you’re immune to most magic, you have an entire kingdom under your control… everything most PCs want. And yet… the one thing Strahd ever wanted was Tatyana. The one thing he could never have.

Think of it this way… Strahd was a player character. A player character with a really brutal GM. A GM who gave him everything he ever wanted… except one thing. That one thing was the only thing the GM said, “You can’t have this.” And it drove Strahd mad.

At GM seminars, people ask me, “How do I keep my characters from getting too powerful?”

I always answer, “Don’t. Let them get as powerful as they want.” And then, I tell them about Strahd.

Invoking Thulsa Doom: “And that is strength, boy! That is power!”

Players think strength and power comes from the magic items they own, from the levels on their character sheets, from all those abilities they’ve pushed to 18 and beyond… oh, no. There’s a greater power than your character sheet, boy. The strength and power of desire. Of keeping that one thing away from a player… and watching him betray everything and everyone close to him to get it.

The Hickmans taught me this. They taught it to me through Strahd.

As my players wandered through Castle Ravenloft, learning his story, I put them in the roles of the past. Had them play out the tragic love triangle. I didn’t tell them about Strahd’s story, I showed it to them by having them live the story through flashbacks. And once they realized who Strahd was and how he was once like them…

… killing Strahd became a lot more difficult.

The best villains are ones we understand. The ones we see within ourselves.

Doctor Doom isn’t a villain. He’s trying to save his mother from Hell. And he’ll do anything to do it. Pay any price.

Magneto isn’t a villain. He’s trying to protect mutants from the horrors he saw in WWII Germany.

Cardinal Richelieu isn’t a villain. He’s trying to protect the young king and France from schemes and plots both foreign and abroad.

And Strahd isn’t a villain. He was betrayed by his brother and the woman he loved. They lied to him. Deceived him. And he loved them so much…

Strahd is King Arthur gone bad. Super bad. Like poison apple bad. He’s Arthur, she’s Gwenevere and he’s Lancelot and there you go. And that’s what makes him such a fantastic villain. He has understandable flaws, he has admirable strengths and he made a mistake that any of us could have made. And now, he’s paying the price.

The reason good horror movies work and we laugh at the bad ones is sympathy. In Alien—the greatest horror movie ever made—the protagonists have no idea what they’re up against and neither do we. They come up with a plan and we say to ourselves, “That sounds like a good plan. Yeah, let’s do that.” Then, someone gets killed and we’re sitting in the audience going, “That could have been me.”

We laugh at bad horror movies because the people are dumb. Dead Teenager Movies. We aren’t scared. We are the serial killer. We’re amused watching these people die because they deserve to die.

Yeah… I can’t watch those movies, either.

Back to the point… when we recognize the villain is us, that’s the true horror moment. You could be Strahd. could be Strahd. And putting in flashbacks so you’re walking around in his shoes is the most brilliant way imaginable to show the players the truth.

You want power? You want wealth? You want a kingdom of your own? Great. You can have it. And when you claim everything you want with bloody hands… there’s a price you have to pay.

Here’s Strahd. Here’s the price. Are you willing to pay it?


The first time I met Tracy Hickman, it was at an after party for the Origins Awards. I had just won for Legend of the Five Rings RPG and I was flying pretty high. Someone pointed Tracy out to me. I wanted to win points. So, approached him, I shook his hand and said, “I really loved THAC0.”

He laughed, recognizing my ploy—Tracy is a clever man—and we talked very briefly. I also told him, “You made me a better GM.”

He said, “I’m glad you liked Dragonlance.”

I told him, “No,” then I corrected myself. “I mean, yes. I liked Dragonlance. But Ravenloft. Holy crap, man. That was amazing.”

He said something polite and we talked for a little longer, then he went away and I spent the rest of the night trying to get over meeting Tracy Hickman.

Years later, I’ve shown up twice at his Killer Breakfasts. They’re a riot. You should check them out. I tried to pull a trick. It stumped him for a moment. Just a moment.

See, I had a plan. I wanted to throw a spanner in the works. I’m a Discordian, I can’t help it. So, when it came time for my turn in the Breakfast, I announced, “I cast a spell that directs all damage and danger to me, making all other players invulnerable to damage for this many rounds…”

I rolled the d6. The only part of my plan that could screw with me. Dice never liked me, but for some reason, I rolled a 6.


I also made sure I was at the end of the line so my “spell” would have the maximum effect.

The crowd cheered, thinking someone had thwarted the Mighty Tracy Hickman at his own Killer Breakfast. I tore up my character sheet. “I DIE HAPPILY, KNOWING I HAVE DEFEATED THE GREAT HICKMAN!”

And for a moment… for a brief moment… Tracy was stumped. I left the stage, getting a few high fives. I was on top of the world.

And then, the Great Tracy Hickman smiled. “I can’t kill any characters…” he said. So, he handed the GM staff over to Laura. “Can you run the game, honey?” he asked.

She smiled and took over. “Of course,” she said. And preceded to kill everyone on stage.

I succeeded in thwarting the Hickmans for a moment. Just a moment. And that’s victory enough for me. But the fact of the matter is, Tracy and Laura are amazing GMs. Because they can think on their feet… they can improvise… and they understand what makes a great story.

That’s why Ravenloft is The Greatest Adventure of All Times. Because in that text, they showed me… no… they gave me permission to follow in their footsteps.

And those are damn big footsteps to fill.