Posted in Tools & Techniques

GM Cues: Impressions, Aims & Pitfalls

No Plot? No Problem! is a great little book that describes itself as ‘a low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days’. It’s written by Chris Baty, the guy behind Nanowrimo, which I’m participating in this month for the fifth year running. Writing a novel in 30 days requires at least some improvisation. GMing often requires a lot. I’ve read this book each year but I figured looking at it from a different angle it may have some hidden insights into gamemastery. And I think I’ve found some.

The book talks about, among many other things, making two lists: one with all the things you like in novels and one with all the things you don’t. It’s not quite a pros and cons list, but close. It’s sort of a list of cues or reminders for yourself. I realised that doing the same thing for RPGs could keep us GMs on track, especially for on-the-fly or improv-heavy GMing.

I thought this idea was too simplistic at first to bother posting about, but I think it has legs. The Nanowrimo lists are supposed to help you identify what you like (and don’t) and write to that (or avoid it, respectively). If you have a theme for your game or just some goals (or pitfalls you’re prone to) you could make similar lists. I’ll give it a quick go now and see what we get.

Aim for…

  • Interesting NPCs with human motivations
  • Cinematic fight scenes
  • Fight scenes incorporating the environment
  • Situations where all answers creates interesting situations


  • Drawn out conversations without a story purpose
  • Lengthy, boring combat
  • Rolls where failure is boring
  • NPCs hogging the spotlight
Okay, so those were just some quick lists off the top of my head. But, put them on index cards in front of me while I run the game and I’ll have a few touchstones to call upon. We run into combat and I have a reminder that I want it to be cinematic with use of the environment, but not too long and never boring. It’s easy to forget some of these goals in the heat of the moment and easy to fall into traps you wanted to avoid. After writing the lists above, I also feel that for the aims and avoids I wrote, maybe I should make one index card for ‘social’ and one for ‘combat’, perhaps expanding on each a little.
For theme this method may be even more useful. If I have a Demonsea campaign I know I want a few things to be at the fore.
Aim for…
  • Exciting, swashbuckling high-seas adventure!
  • Demonic touches and twists to pirate tales
  • High adventure world, but with real and gritty consequences
  • Generic pirate adventures (remember there are demons too!)
  • Having everyone heavily involved with demons; make it subtle
  • The different cultures ending up just the same in roleplaying
Now this gives me some solid ideas to incorporate each time I play. Again, I probably have to revisit these lists, especially after play when I’m like ‘Oh, I wish I had done this there’ or ‘Whoops, forgot to do X’. Add those to the list. I’m using quick examples that I’ve made up as I’ve written this, but for themes some better ones spring to mind.
The Goblin Hole and The Shallow Sea are both modules for the excellent Dungeon World and feature lists of 20 ‘impressions’. These are things that evoke the theme of the area. The Goblin Hole has such gems as ‘a goblin with his hand tied to a ring in the ceiling’, ‘hairless, blind rabbits in hutches’ and ‘a talking bird skull on a string’. All of these are quick and evocative ideas that can be used to give the impression you desire or might spin into a full encounter depending on how the PCs react.
Using lists of cues, impressions, aims, or personal pitfalls to avoid can help you keep your game on track and coherent. It’ll help you hit the right notes and beats and keep in genre and theme. I’ll be trying it next time I run a game. Give it a go sometime and see how it works out.
Posted in Settings

Demonsea: Ships of the Demonsea

Avast maties! It be Talk Like a Pirate Day! To celebrate we be postin’ a piratical article about the colourful characters ye be likely to meet if ye be so bold as to venture into Haulshore: a treasure-hunter’s paradise in the Demonsea campaign settin’. We’ve even got a big campaign seed for ye, and hooks for each o’ the captains. Ye could also use this here article for some other world, but if ye arrren’t privy to the secrets o’ the Demonsea, cast ya eyes yonder to read of a world of demons, pirates and adventure on the high seas!

Haulshore is a sunny bustling seaside town in Darbrin. It has auction houses aplenty that pay good coin for all manner of exotic artefacts brought in from the sea and far away lands. Pirates, explorers and adventurers consult maps at taverns such as the Jolly Dagger and recruit crew members here for daring expeditions. Such crews often bid on items at the auction houses too, as many of these artefacts – be they engraved shields, horned skulls, battered journals or what have you – also serve as maps to even greater treasure for those who know what to look for. You won’t always find the same ships at Haulshore – they’re usually off on adventures – but it is a frequent port of pirates.

Right now, some very notable captains have docked in Haulshore and are looking for new crew members. Everyone seems interested in a secret auction in the back rooms of the Jolly Dagger – something too precious to be shown in the auction houses. It is an ornate shield known as Sarrek’s Voyage. Engravings and threads of gold depict the ancient hero Sarrek at various stages in his epic voyage: the Battle of One, the Battle of Many, Respite, the Ascendancy, the Stranded and so on.

Exact locations of the events depicted on Sarrek’s Voyage are unknown, but it is said the ancients built a temple at each point. Rumour has it that taking the shield to each temple will show the way to the next location and ultimately, the final resting place of Sarrek: a mythical holy city of treasure and wonder lost for thousands of years!

Broken Shackle

Captain Hodric ‘Red’ Bragg is a ragged portrait of a cutthroat pirate. His gut is heavy with grog, his thick black beard full of lice, his teeth yellowed or replaced with gold and his reddened skin leathery from sun. His crew is a bunch of murderous criminals with nowhere else to go and no moral compass to guide them.

Very few women ever join his crew and those that do have to be tough as nails to survive, and even then the Broken Shackle is not an inviting place for females – or for civilised males. Below deck, the three-masted black and brown galleon smells like grog, piss, blood and sweat. It has a large filthy brig for any foe who survives an onslaught from the ship. On deck there perches a black cannon that has obliterated more than a few enemy ships.

Bragg’s crew has some good divers who quickly loot their sinking foes. The crew also contains one incongruous man named Lorne. He is well-dressed, well-spoken and seems very out of place here. Whispers say that he may have once sailed with the Fierce Sharai, but there is bad blood between them now and Lorne is the recruiting officer for the Broken Shackle.

The Broken Shackle’s crew pillage and plunder. Their average missions include raiding unfortified towns, scuttling or capturing courier and merchant ships and generally causing havoc that reaps rewards of gold, grog or women. Lately, though, Bragg has been sending his crew on more and more raids against smugglers. What do they have that he wants so badly? The Red Captain has been getting redder recently, it seems – some say it’s not the sun at all, but that Bragg has been hiding an addiction to Ambrosia – the red liquid rumoured to be made of demon blood – and has fallen off the wagon. Perhaps now is the perfect time for mutiny?

Seventh Chance

Captain Jenny ‘Fishnet’ Shemmer is a strikingly beautiful woman. Her lustrous red hair, long legs and good looks are the talk of the town whenever she comes ashore. However, she is as dangerous as she is pretty. It is said that Fishnet got her nickname when she strangled to death the former lascivious male captain of the Seventh Chance with her stockings.

It is well known that Shemmer sails both ways and seems to only recruit attractive and alluring people. Because of this, her entire crew consists of beautiful men and women who are also deadly in combat – if they weren’t before joining the crew, they quickly learn to be under Shemmer’s harsh and domineering rule.

Shemmer likes control and hates being showed up. She holds a grudge like no other and will commit considerable resources towards vengeance. She loves her ship, the Seventh Chance, and since winning it from the previous captain she has made the two-masted galleon into a work of beauty. Polishing and painting the ship are common chores for the crew and the vessel is flawless, save for one massive scar down the side of the ship that reaches so high it mars the railing on the bow itself. Shemmer sometimes sits and strokes the splintered wound on the railing, thoughts of revenge dancing behind her eyes.

The Seventh Chance favours bounties of jewellery, artwork and other beautiful things. Whenever they can, these are the prizes they seek. Beautiful new crew members are also sought out and any ships or even towns that strike Fishnet’s fancy will often become the target of ruthless and relentless attacks until she has what she wants. Most of the rest of the crew’s time is spent tending to the ship and tracking down those who have wronged the crew and captain.


Captain Seth ‘Breezer’ Tallow is a lanky young man, spry and full of wit and good humour. He is incredibly laid back for a pirate captain and other crews sometimes call the Freerunner the ‘Party Ship’. His people are relaxed and spontaneous, making them unpredictable in combat and allowing them to excel in unexpected situations. However, their attitude means that they don’t plan ahead a whole lot and just ‘breeze’ through life taking advantage of opportunities that come their way.

Breezer’s crew could probably achieve great things if they put their minds to it, but few of them ever bother. Most are highly intelligent, but bored with lives of discipline. Breezer offers a life with hammocks on deck and tropical drinks and card games most of the day. Because of Breezer’s lax policies, his ship is a haphazard vessel patched together and barely staying afloat. It is one of the fastest ships on the waves due to it’s design, but after even a short skirmish there is a chance of sinking.

Being an opportunistic captain, Breezer has made a lot of enemies. He’s avoided many more thanks to the quick thinking and glib tongues of his crew during short cons. Breezer’s even pulled one over on Shemmer a few times – he doesn’t think she’s on to him, but he can’t be sure. Whether Shemmer is involved or not, one particular mark Breezer struck at long ago has teamed up with a more recent mark, tracked him down and is about to start some trouble. Meanwhile, the ship is in desperate need of repairs.

Fierce Sharai

Captain Dasharah ‘Ransom’ Kalkaran is a fit, bald Kalrashi man in his mid-thirties, lean, tall and looming. Dasharah is a serious but friendly and reasonable man who understands the importance of structure and discipline, but also knows that people need to cut loose every now and then – especially when hunting demons. The Fierce Sharai – meaning Fierce Queen in Kalarashi – is dedicated to protecting the world by hunting down demons, cultists and artefacts that could be used to strike back against the demons in the Burning War back in Kalarash – or securing those that could be used by demons.

Because the captain is Kalarashi and the ship’s cause is close to his people’s hearts, many other Kalarashi are drawn to this multicultural crew. Dabrish are the minority aboard the ship, but not by much. Generally, the crew is very accepting and there is little racial tension as everyone has much greater threats to contend with, in the form of demons. Criminals find their way onto the Broken Shackle, but many outcasts have a home on the Fierce Sharai, as the captain has a soft spot for these people, being an outcast himself.

Dasharah’s nickname, ‘Ransom’, comes from the fact that he is more likely to ransom prisoners back than kill them. Some say, however, that the true origins of his nickname are much more intriguing. The Fierece Sharai, golden in colour, was originally a royal Kalarashi treasure ship and rumour has it that Dasharah stole the large swift vessel – laden with a sharai’s ransom in valuables – and fled his homeland. It is unclear what drove Dasharah to this course of action.

Perhaps he was banished for committing some horrible crime or maybe he discovered a dark secret during his time as a royal guard and could no longer bear to serve his sharai. Whatever happened, everyone – especially rival captains – have their own opinions of the event and scandal surrounds his departure. Regarding nicknames, it is said that Shemmer finds Dasharah quite appealing and has given him a second nickname: ‘Handsome Ransom’.

The Fierce Sharai’s missions are much more dangerous and exotic than some of the other crews, due to their frequent encounters with the demonic. In Darbrish waters, they are more likely to come across cultists or demonic artefacts than true demons, but they have sighted a hellship or two in their time.

One member of the crew, a waif of a woman named Esmala is demon-touched and receives prophetic visions, though some say the demons can see through her eyes. Sarrek’s Voyage supposedly leads to a place that holds a mighty weapon that could be used for or against demons. Dasharah wants to get there first to use the weapon to fight against the demons, but he knows the other captains have their eyes on Sarrek’s Voyage too.


Captain ‘Bloody’ Bertha Harding is a hardbitten fearsome woman who makes Shemmer look like a kitten. Bloody Bertha is burly, battleworn and stout. She is not short, but not towering. She is middle-aged at least, but her exact age is hard to determine and anyone who has dared ask is now dead. Bertha is widely known to be heartless and ruthless. Her crew are crazy, bloodthirsty monsters too, and she is the only one who can control them. Nobody messes with Bloody Bertha.

Her ship is a massive cannon-laden heavily-armoured vessel, painted red – rumours say that the paint is the blood of her enemies and “Bertha will paint the ship with you!” is a common warning to fellow crew mates or a threat to enemies. The Bloodwave is so well armed and armoured that ramming other ships is definitely an option and the scars on its hull are testament to the battles it has won.

Nobody knows how new recruits are chosen for the Bloodwave, but what is common knowledge is that the ship’s recruiter is also an infamous and effective torturer, possibly an outlaw inquisitor wanted for treason. Rumours told by men now dead at Bertha’s hand proposed that one of her rival captains was actually her child. Dasharah is out of the question, but could Bragg, Shemmer or Breezer really be related to Bloody Bertha? If so, nobody is letting the secret out and they all seem just as terrified of her as anyone else. Or is that just a show? Could one of them be working with her? Or is their relationship even more fuel for the fires of rivalry?

Bloody Bertha is a woman obsessed, it seems. Her ship, the Bloodwave is the toughest ruddy ship on the sea, but she isn’t satisfied. Word has it that Bloody Bertha is looking to capture herself a Hellship. Only she would be crazy and ballsy enough to try to board and take a hellship: these ships sailed straight out of Hell, lashed together from flesh and bone, leaving a trail of sulphur-smelling steam in their wakes.

Some believe the hellships are colossal demons themselves, and more than one half-drunk half-insane sailor has told tales of catching a fleeting glimpse of a hellship through a thick blanket of steam and swearing that a huge yellow eye peered back from the bow. How much of this is true is unclear, but it’s all damn scary and Bloody Bertha doesn’t seem phased in the least.

Casting Off

PCs starting off in Haulshore have plenty of opportunities for adventure. Which crew will they join? Do they admire the ship’s captain or share his or her goals and desires, are they just there for the riches, or are they joining as spies or so they can mutiny? Do they have any ties with the other ships’ crews? What trouble and advantages will this lead to? How interested are they in Sarrek’s Voyage? Do any of them have connections to demons? Maybe one has seen a hellship before or perhaps they are inquisitors or demon-touched.

You should make sure to let PCs make knowledge checks and talk to the ships’ recruiters, because whichever ship they end up on, it will make quite a difference – even if all the captains are after Sarrek’s Voyage. Pirate ships are great, because they are mobile adventure locations. Don’t think of them just as a means of transport from one adventure to another. Lots of exciting things can happen in the middle of the ocean, thanks to the variety of interesting NPCs stuck together in a relatively small area.

The descriptions above talk about the crews in general, but there are always crew members who break the mould – there might be some nice people, like Lorne, aboard the Broken Shackle, surely Shemmer can’t be a task master all the time (right?), maybe there are a few really dedicated long con grifters on the Freerunner, there are definitely some nasty people on the Fierce Sharai amongst all the other accepting crew, and who knows what really goes on behind the fortified hull of the Bloodwave?

Remember, too, that pirate crews are large and the PCs might not meet everyone straight away. That allows you to introduce new NPCs later, even in the middle of a voyage. Pirates die too – especially in Savage Worlds – and recruiters will need to gather more crew, meaning new NPCs – good and bad – will be joining the established crew from time to time. Connections with other ships also make for interesting hooks when you inevitably run into a rival pirate crew.

Whatever you do, make it fun and exciting! That’s the spirit of adventures on the Demonsea!

Posted in Settings

Demonsea: Setting Sail

Fact one: demons are awesome. Fact two:  everything is better with pirates.

Combining them is an obvious move, yet I can’t think of a campaign setting I’ve seen that was dedicated to this concept. Hence, my new campaign setting: Demonsea.

I’ll post more as I develop the setting. But for now, read on to get the first sneak peek at this swashbuckling, demon-slaying world of mayhem and adventure!

Five years ago the Demoneye opened and the fires of Hell boiled the seas. Demons sailed their Hellships, lashed together from flesh and bone, out of the furious inferno and straight for civilisation. They arrived at the shores of the desert kingdom of Kalarash and brutal war has raged between the Kalarashi and the demon invaders ever since.

Further north, the colonial empire of Darbrin remains relatively untouched by the war. Their former foes, the Kalarashi, now serve as their primary defence against the attackers. Yet demons are insidious creatures and their influence reaches far. Demonic cults have begun to appear all over Darbrin. Smugglers bring in hellforged weapons, demonic artefacts, cursed writings, and a drug called Ambrosia that is rumoured to be made from demon blood.

Darkness stirs and fears become reality. Walls of old houses bleed red, the dead rise from their graves at night, and monsters that existed only in nightmares stalk the shadows of the waking world. The mere presence of demons has corrupted life itself, transforming harmless creatures of the land and sea into deadly threats, and turning already dangerous creatures into living weapons of bloodshed and destruction.

Even pirates cannot deny that the world has changed. On the waves, pirates are harassed by other pirates, sea monsters, hellships and zealous law enforcers who make captured criminals choose between death and becoming demon hunters. At shore, these dangers are replaced by demonic cultists, pirates-turned-thugs who have abandoned the sea, corrupted beasts and suspicious inquisitors who passionately seek to root out evil in the world.

Pirates being pirates don’t put up with any of this and even while fleeing from the law and other dangers, they often find themselves the unwitting heroes of this dark new age.

So, that’s Demonsea in a nutshell. I picture pirates being attacked at sea by demons on a hellship, or raiding a town during a demonic cult’s summoning ritual, or capturing a ship only to find vials of ambrosia, cursed artefacts or hellforged weapons on board. It’s a recipe for excitement!

But, you don’t have to play as a pirate. You could be a naval officer hunting down demons that have made it to Darbrin’s shores, searching out demon artefacts to destroy and capturing pirates and deciding their fate – or even working with them to fight the bigger threat. Some of these officers are extremely zealous – paladins of the sea, if you will – and are deadly serious about fighting evil, whether it’s pirates, monsters, demons or anything else.

Playing an inquisitor is another possibility, and one of my favourites. Imagine a wandering detective/exorcist and you begin to get an idea of what these guys do. Add a liberal splash of Inquisitor Glokta and Harry Dresden and you’re getting closer still. Grim loners whose minds are their greatest weapons and who are mortal but take on the supernatural on a regular basis.

Inquisitors travel the coast by land and sea, investigating crimes, particularly those where demonic influence appears to be involved; they root out cults and demonic smugglers, exorcise demons, and hunt down pirates from time to time – after all, pirates are cutthroat villains who spread the influence of evil in the world and are thus, knowingly or not, aiding the forces of Hell.

Speaking of aiding the forces of Hell, there’s nothing to say that you can’t embrace the demonic. Pirates, inquisitors or even hardcore naval officers could be ambrosia addicts, wield hellforged weapons, attempt to bind demons into service or even – oh yes! – capture and captain a fearsome hellship! There’s plenty of demonic fun to be had by all! It’s likely to corrupt your eternal soul, of course, but who says you can’t have a good time during the process?

As you can see, there’s lots of potential for fun and a variety of play styles. I don’t plan to expand much on Kalarash or the Burning War – as the Kalrashi-Demon War has been dubbed – for the “main” part of the campaign setting. Kalarashi will have a big part to play in the setting, but their homeland will remain “off the map” for the most part. If this setting takes off and I want to add more to it, Kalarash would be the obvious place to work on next.

But for now, as I work on developing Demonsea I’ll post articles and excerpts here. As this is a campaign setting rather than a whole new roleplaying system, most of what I’ll post will be “fluff” rather than game mechanics. I haven’t decided what system I’ll use for Demonsea yet, and I prefer it that way – then I don’t feel limited by what each system does and doesn’t offer. That said, I’m running a Demonsea game for my wife to help me flesh out the setting, and for that we’re using Savage Worlds which appears to be an excellent fit so far.

I’m really excited about Demonsea, so you can expect to see more of it in future.

So, sharpen your hellforged cutlass, take a swig of ambrosia and get ready to set sail for Demonsea!

Posted in Settings

Demonsea: Delphina’s Womb

Delphina’s Womb is an island made up of a labyrinthine series of natural stone arches somewhere off the Darbrish coast. These arches are large enough that even the largest ship can easily sail through them. Delphina’s Womb is a place where truth, direction and vision are born.

Ships sailing through the twisting tunnels of the rocky island are tugged, guided and buffeted by strange currents. Captains who hold a question in mind while traversing Delphina’s Womb are said to emerge facing the direction in which they can find the answer.

Upon emerging from the Womb, captains find their navigational equipment useless and must instead sail by their guts and wits until they land on a shore that will start them on their journey towards the answer they seek – though the answer may be found on the waves before land is even in sight.

Sometimes the answer will present itself immediately. For example, a captain looking for a particular person may encounter another ship at sea with that person on the crew, or they may stumble across the person once they reach shore. Often, the answer will take more time to find. Perhaps the person the captain is looking for is nowhere near the shore they land on, but they hear the person’s name in a dockside tavern or meet a relative or friend of the person they seek.

If the question the captain held in mind is more abstract – such as “What is my true calling?” – an opportunity may present itself after traversing the Womb. Perhaps another ship in trouble will call to an honourable heroic soul, or a job flyer in a tavern will catch the captain’s eye.

Delphina’s Womb works in mysterious ways and it appears to have the power to alter fate, chance and coincidence to bring answers to those who come looking for them. Nobody remembers who Delphina was, but many believe she was an oracle goddess who drowned in the place where Delphina’s Womb now lies.

Because of the powers attributed to Delphina’s Womb, crews often use it as a method for resolving disputes. If crews are divided, they will sail through the womb with a question in mind asking which faction in the crew should be followed. Even cutthroat pirates take the Womb’s decisions very seriously and traversing it usually settles any dispute.

However, crews also use the Womb for more malicious purposes. Many pirates dealing with mutineers or other trouble makers choose to maroon them in Delphina’s Womb, saying “let Delphina sort ‘em out”.

Survivors of Delphina’s Womb speak with fear of its dark rocky shores. Giant crabs inhabiting skulls of dead humans scurry through the tunnels and feast on those unfortunate enough to be stranded there. Delphina’s Womb is haunted by the ghosts of those of those who have committed suicide there – who now try to claim the lives of others who land there. It is said that malicious spirits of the sky and sea make Delphina’s Womb a neutral ground on which to hold battle.

Anyone who makes it out of Delphina’s Womb is very lucky, indeed – perhaps even blessed by the dead forgotten goddess.