Thursday 28 July 2022

Liquid Flesh on an Iron Skeleton

Last week I wrote about how I was prepping for my Primeval Bastionland playtest (which went well!). In particular, how I wanted a world that felt real, like it existed outside of the players, but didn't require reams of prepared notes and detailed maps.

An IRON SKELETON of truths, fleshed out in broad strokes, and plenty of procedures and tables on hand to improvise to fill the gaps.

(this analogy was more gross and organic on the first draft, so I decided to make it absurd instead)

Not quite fully emergent improvised play, not quite full-on blorb.

The Iron Skeleton is immutable. If you put a castle on the map that castle isn't moving anywhere unless that's its whole thing.

The Broad Strokes are firm but flexible. You can choose the route to take, but the direction is mostly set. 

The Gaps are wide open. Freeing but daunting.

Really it's the "filling the gaps" part which can be the trickiest, and the one that I've heard most people struggling with. As such, consider this post to be a hodgepodge of thoughts I've had around running filling those gaps, especially in the context of Primeval Bastionland.

Also we're in an apocalyptic heatwave over here, and as our homes are generally built to retain heat I've gone to work in a local co-working space, which was boasting about it's AC and cold drinks.

It also happens to be a pub, but what choice did I have?

No, the pub is not called THE IRON SKELETON but I wish it was.  


As I wrote in that patching post, improvisation can feel arbitrary if you're too generous or too strict. I've played in games where it felt like we could convince the GM of just about anything, making success just a case of thinking of something cool. We definitely had fun, but I didn't feel challenged or satisfied. 

It's an old one, but I think it's really worth sitting down with new players and telling them that your role is to be impartial, and while you're not out to get them, and you want everybody to have fun, you're also not going to hand their characters success on a silver platter. Note that this is absolutely not mutually exclusive with being a friendly, welcoming host for the game and having fun at the table.


Lots of procedure talk going around lately. It's easy to think that procedures have to involve rolls, and while they absolutely can it's often those that don't which really open up the possibilities when improvising.

Part of the reason I like these is that they can give you mechanical permission to be more generous or punishing than you would normally feel appropriate.

I know, the GM can do anything, right? You don't need a rule to tell you what's allowed! Well, like I mentioned above in Impartiality, sometimes it helps to stay within a certain range until you're given a nudge by the game.

To look at Primeval Bastionland, the Running the Game page sets clear guidelines for when the players Succeed or Fail at an action. When they fail you're prompted to create a new problem, escalate an existing problem, or deliver on a hanging threat. Now go wild. 

Are guidelines procedures? I'll let somebody else write a blogpost debating that.

Heed the direction of the procedures, and don't be afraid to deliver big impact when they prompt it. 


I've written before about Cheap Tricks that a GM can use in their game. 

But check this out... Dice are the cheapest trick of all.

When you roll these things, or get the players to roll, it's like you're invoking the power of fate, absolving yourself of all responsibility. 

Throw ten dragons at your players while they're travelling and you'll get a bad reputation.

Put ten dragons on the encounter table? Now when the players roll that encounter their fear is directed at the world instead. What kind of place has 10 Dragons as a wandering encounter? Let's get out of here!

Well, you might get some protests... 

But the point is that this power is yours to wield. When you roll on a Spark Table you're both restricting yourself to ideas that grow from the result, but freeing yourself to interpret the result in a more impactful way than you might normally feel is fair. 

If I roll Death/Lizard then you can't really blame me when the encounter is some highly venomous reptile. If I'd pulled that out of thin air then you might wonder if I'm out to get you.


Similar to impartiality, I like to think of the GM as a medium between the players and the world. 

The players speak and I translate that into worldtongue, making an impact on the world, calling for a roll if necessary.

The world speaks to me through notes, procedures, rolls, and I translate that back to the players. 

It should never really feel like I'm telling the players what I think should happen, and likewise I should avoid changing the world as written based on my own decisions, only those of the players. To me, a great GM isn't one that leaves the players fawning over their skills, but one that leaves the players in love with their world.  

This leads nicely to...


This is a new addition to Primeval. It goes like this:

Even when using the rules for travel, exploration, and combat, remember this, the most important thing.

No rule or system within the game should override the Actions the players take.

Remember the core of giving players information, honouring their choices, and describing the impact of their actions.

So a Knight is off doing a Task, let's say they're searching for a vantage point to get a good view of the Hex. 

They fluff their roll, so I figure they hit a Complication.

Sure, you could pick a random Complication Element as inspiration, but what about that Hunter who the Knight thoroughly humiliated just yesterday? Do we think they'd be seeking revenge? They live around these woods, right? Should we just have them show up looking for revenge?

Now I don't think this counts as illusionism. That idea is primarily based around protecting player agency, and here we want to increase that agency. 

We didn't pre-plan an encounter with the angry hunter and force the players into it. Instead the player's past action (humiliating the hunter) combined with their present action (hitting a complication in the woods) to present an opportunity to show the lasting impact of their decisions.

Of course you can go too far. If you travel to a remote land and that old enemy just so happens to be there, it might feel contrived, so always do a quick check to make sure the previous and current actions line up convincingly. 

Hope this is useful if you're hitting similar snags when "filling the gaps". 



This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Prep Exposed

I've run games with every amount of prep you can imagine. No prep, low prep, mid prep, high prep, gigaprep (maybe not). 

Any of these styles can be made to work, but for Primeval I wanted a similar amount of prep to what I normally do with Electric Bastionland, but I wanted that prep to be different.

In both games I wanted the book itself to be a generator of sorts. EB has Spark Tables, PM has Omens, and every spread is meant to have little nuggets of setting that you can pull out as needed.

But I still like having a world prepped. I like the idea that the players are exploring a place that already exists, not something I'm entirely making up as we sit at the table.

The term I'm using right now is Focused Prep. You don't need to do much, but the stuff you do is going to be pretty important to the game.

So I thought I'd expose the prep I've done for my upcoming playtest of Primeval Bastionland, and talk through the reason why I did each part of it.

(on the slim chance you're somebody that's playing in my upcoming PB game, turn back now!)


I use Hex Kit here (you might already own this without knowing, as it's been in some huge itch bundles) but Hextml is also fantastic if you want something browser based. For the purpose of testing I've followed the Domain building procedure as written in the doc.

There's the version I'll be giving to the players:


The small dots are Shires, the castle is the Seat of Power, and the other three symbols are Holdings. 

My map has the Myths numbered and names for significant places:


The names were derived from the Knight and/or Seer that I populated the places with. The Myths are numbered 1-6 for my reference, and I've got a separate list of the actual Myth numbers that they correspond to. 

Now you could just run the game with what I have here, as long as you're happy filling in the blanks as you go using omens and the elements within. I wanted to do a little of that ahead of time without getting bogged down in too much homework.

I've allowed myself one page of A4, two column, including the pitch I'm giving to the brand new players as we sit down for the game. Extracts from this page are in italics, accompanied by my comments. 


  • This is a primeval place, born out of a history that never was. Myths are reality and nature is both magical and monstrous.
  • You are Knights, seeking Quests granted by the dreams and visions of Seers.
  • The greatest of all is the quest for the City, a lost shining metropolis.


The doc currently has the somewhat vague advice to name "significant terrain features". I should have done this on the map, but I just put them in my notes instead. I want to clarify this in the doc, but my intent is that these sorts of feature are generally visible from a vantage point in a neighbouring hex, but in very broad strokes. Like "you see a chain of mountains on the horizon" rather than being able to actually pick out any specific places. 

Visible from neighbouring Hex

  • The Scorwerloch (lake, C)
  • The Green Brothers (mountains, N)
  • The Jagged Chain (mountains, NW)
  • The Corpsewood (forest, SW)
  • The Floodlands (swamp, grass, SE)

Super generic names but gives a starting point for descriptions. 


Using the guidance in the doc, I wanted to put the Knights somewhere that would require a good amount of travel to get anywhere significant, but not too far from a Shire where they could talk to people. 

I had them arrive by riverboat (the river being off-map) and gave an immediate choice between two directions to go in.

Arrival in Scowerloch

From the NE map corner, riverboat.

The boatsman told you:

  • The Halo Knight sits at the Seat of Power next to the Loch.
  • It’s been a good harvest this year, but people are fearing a bad winter.
  • People avoid the woods between here and the Loch, it’s safer to head South, then West to join the river and travel by boat.


I used the "Rolling Elements" system (p10) to give some prompts for these, cheating slightly as I have d100 lists for each of these elements to help me in writing future entries.

As you can see, it's very broad strokes, but I think some focused starting points are sometimes all you need. 

Remember, this is prep for me to use, not notes that I'd give to somebody else to run a game. 


  • Half crumbled castle, the keep stands tall, battlements painted gold, men-at-arms patrol.
  • The Halo Knight (Delande, long scraggly black hair)
  • Now a Seer, reads Halos.
  • Iridescent Helm washed up from the River.
  • Thin Claymore taken from the ice titan. Frosted Hares.
  • Gets visions from Black Pool or Abyssal Pit.
  • Obsessed with getting reports from Scouts.


  • Rare markets, drawing on goods brought up from the river. Small village with bakery.
  • Nearby mounds infested with wolfspider nests.
  • Overseen by the Coffer Knight, frail businessman.
  • Lapis Lazuli Mace (d8) taken from a competitor


  • Ornately carved ivory tower housing the Rotted Seer (1) protected by the Bone Knight (Elouan, cowardly diplomat, agony sword (2d6, CB or Wound causes Woe), shadow lens)
  • Musky mist, fanged doves.
  • Carpentry village.


  • Brook flowing with algae and weeds, floating flowers
  • Roaring Coots, hidden Tomb of the Wanderer with Lightning Wine
  • Stone Circle housing the Carved Seer (7)

Now purists would say:

"Putting Wolfspider infested Mounds in as a location? Surely that sort of thing should emerge organically from the Omens as they are encountered? That's what you said, right?"

Well, yes, and while I want the Myths and their Omens to do a lot of work in this game, they should feel like a tool, not a restriction. The point of them is to create gradually unfolding strangeness in the world, and these tomb spiders are actually entirely mundane. Yeah, they're big man-eating spiders, but that's not quite enough to be a Myth in their own right. 

Now to put this to the test. 


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Tuesday 12 July 2022


So, most of this week has been hammering away at the Primeval Bastionland Playtest and today I sit down to write the editorial but... the writing part of my brain is crumbling.

There's a lot I want to talk about in relation to Primeval. I rambled quite a bit about it over here but small things have already changed since then! 

I'm holding back on making significant gameplay changes, but I wanted to tweak the way Omens are rolled, and fine tune a few of the specific Knights and Myths, so I've snuck in a few alterations. 

This post was originally going to be a plea for mercy. "Hey, I released that free pdf this week, so do you mind if I'm too tired to write an editorial too?"

But here we are. I'm writing it. And I'm afraid it's not going to be pretty.

I thought I'd share the current mantras of my notes document for Primeval. These are things that I hold to be so important that I shove them at the top of the doc in big bold caps.

In Electric Bastionland they were:


Well I think those are still relatively solid, but Primeval is its own beast. I want it to be a game that still fits my values, but has an identity beyond just being ITO or EB again. 

So here's what I have currently yelling at me each time I open my notes:


For a while this was subtitled with NO ROMANS NO ROADS. A reminder that just because I'm drawing on some elements of Arthuriana and Early-Medieval Britain doesn't mean that I should be grounded in reality. This is a world based on the idea of those sources. The myth, not the history. The feel, not the specifics. 

You know how it's weird when you see a picture of Lancelot wearing shining plate armour that's probably more 16th Century than 6th? That's what I want to embrace. A world where that's real, because it's the myth. 


This is similar to the ALL GAME note I had for Electric Bastionland. Since ITO I've embraced the challenge to see how much of a world I can present without having any pages of raw exposition. 

Pedants will note that I have one or two pages just explaining setting elements in both of my previous books (and indeed this one), but y'know, shoot for the stars, aim for the moon or whatever. I'm talking about getting as much setting into the actual game tools as possible. 

In Electric Bastionland I boasted that the Failed Careers were the world, and I stand by that, but I think I can go further. In their current state the Knight/Myth spreads already do a better job of giving you what you need at the table. The plan is for any given spread to give you a knight, a steed, a seer, a building, a person, a beast, a landscape, an object, a wonder, some encounters, and a couple of mini spark tables. Maybe I'll add more too. As close as I can get to a one-stop shop without just cramming each spread full of 8pt text. 


Horrible words to live by, but named after this blogpost. Omens are basically encounters, but I've given myself a little more freedom to make them broader little packages of stuff. 

In spite of that, I want them all to stick to the players. I can't stop them just walking past certain Omens, but I want most of them to make a lasting impression. Maybe it's something they'll want to come back to later, maybe it's something that needs dealing with right now, or maybe it's just something that lingers in their head. 

See, I had an editorial in me after all!

And I'll end with a note that these are giant reminders because I need reminding and haven't fully internalised these yet, so don't be surprised when the current version isn't quite there yet.


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Wednesday 6 July 2022


(Note: This was written a week ago, before the current playtest release of Primeval Bastionland)

Like the dreamlike mists that cloak its landscape, Primeval Bastionland continues to slip through my fingers, but is always twisting around some part of my brain. 

In Electric Bastionland I wanted the Failed Careers to be evocative enough that you could open to a random spread and get some instant ideas for your version of Bastion. It works, but this isn't a world that's quite so people-centric. Myths are the character traits of the world itself. Stories made real, their endings unwritten. I knew I wanted to give them a full page of each spread, opposite each Knight. Together the two form a potential story. "The Moss Knight & the Wyvern" or "The Talon Knight & the Underworld".

As they stood, these Myth entries typically contained a creature or two, a 3-bullet entry covering the supernatural rules of the greater myth, and a mini spark table for a specific element of the myth. These were to be plonked down on your map in remote places, waiting for the Knights to ride in on their quest.

Later on, when prepping for a playtest, I found myself writing up some random encounter tables for the different areas of the map. It should draw on the Myths in the area, right? So if the Wyvern lives in that mountain, there should be a few Wyvern-related entries on that encounter table. Maybe you find the remains of a previous attack, or it flies past, or just straight up attacks you. 

Would be nice if each of these Myth pages actually did that work for me, right?

In fact, looking at the Myth pages I was struck with an all too familiar thought. 

This stuff is all very nice, but how do I actually use it at the table?

So I'm back on an old favourite of mine: seeing how much of a setting I can project entirely through game elements, in this case encounter tables. Well not quite, as these are Omen tables.

Each Domain (typically 12x12 hexes) has 6 Myths scattered in remote places. When you roll a random encounter, roll on the Omen table for the nearest Myth to your location. 

Check how far away you are from the Myth's hex:

  • In the Hex containing the Myth - Roll 2d6 and keep the highest.
  • In a neighbouring hex - Roll d6 only.
  • In any other Hex - Roll 2d6 and keep the lowest. 

If the rolled Omen has already been encountered, take the next result. 

So you encounter the lower results before the high. These tables go to 7, so you outright won't get that final result, typically something climactic, until you've at least had a warning. Even within those first 6 we can gradually raise the weirdness to give a nice slow unveiling of the area's myth. 

You get some weird effects, where if you just pass by near to a Myth enough times, then you will find it eventually upon you. I'm fine with this. Knights are a magnet for this sort of thing, you don't get to just ignore The Dryad forever. A lake might not move that much, but The Lake has a way of bringing you to it, or appearing in places it should not be. 

A Myth page is now just Omens, statblocks for the encounters, and a mini Spark Table. That piece of art and two lines of flavour prose has a lot of work to do eh?

Finally, an example. 


1: Six monks, appeasing the river with offerings of bread. 

2: Lost serf washed up on the riverbank. 

3: The river roars, a riverboat struggles against the current. 

4: Three monks seeking a blood offering for the river. They need an innocent animal or a sinful person. 

5: Pilgrims arguing with a Bridge Knight demanding a toll. The river crashes about the bridge. 

6: The river bursts into a new stream, rapidly encroaching into the land. If travelling, the route is cut off. 

7: A great flood, the river is released and claims the entire hex. 


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Tuesday 5 July 2022


A land born of myth. The past that never was now is. 

Petty domains in wildland. Horrors from story and song.

But in our dreams, the shining city. A haven of civilisation.

All Knights take the oath:

Protect the weak.

Witness the myths.

Find the City.

You can now download a very early playtest document for...


(formerly Primeval Bastionland)

The back page has some notes on the purpose of this playtest, and if you've got feedback then head over to the Discord server and look for the Mythic Bastionland room. 

Expect the document to change as I mess with this. There's a changelog on that back page.