Mystery-o-Matic: The Academy

The Academy doesn’t send acceptance letters. You just feel different one day. The things you once took for granted seem strange to you. You don’t recognise your family or friends. You don’t recognise your hands. For reasons you will never be able to explain, you walk out of your house, past the places you know, and into the nearest patch of woods. In the center of those woods - wherever they are - you will find The Academy. Your school supplies are waiting for you.

The Academy is in black castle Czorsztyn, surrounded by mountains and sunk into a slush marsh in the shadow of a melting glacier. Even from the highest spires of the castle, you can see nothing but endless, impenetrable taiga in every direction. On clear days, you can sometimes see thin spires in the fogged ice of the looming glacier, and the shadows of crooked things moving across them.

Use the tables below to generate a dark mystery in a twisted magical academy. Roll to find each magical class, who teaches it, what terrible secret they're hiding, and their relationship with one other teacher. Once you're happy with the amount of characters and intrigue, roll to see who is killed, and which character is the murderer.

Customers at the migraine store

Lady Melinda Birthright's Migraine store is packed. Hordes of furtive customers grab one of the glowing lanterns around the shop and head out into the drizzling rain. Others can't wait: they slip into a corner to crack the thing against their forehead as soon as they get it, letting the pain ooze down their face like egg yolk.

Who would be buying headaches at this time of night?
  1. This old wizard's brain hold a terrible secret which no-one can know - not even him. He needs to keep it forced down in his mind with ever more powerful migraines.
  2. The ninth world's BDSM clubs grow tired of the usual punishments.
  3. After a knowledge spell gone wrong, this ambitious young nobleman must keep his brain constantly fed with ever-more difficult tasks and obstacles, lest it grow bored and leap out of his skull.
  4. Jimmy two-fingers just wants to get out of work. Anything's better than another day at the Thresher.
  5. The Torturer's guild is researching some of the more intricate psychological punishments for a Pain Conference later this year. They hope to impress the other attendees with some new techniques for inducing a Migrainous Infarction.
  6. Madame Du Pont is using them to cloud her husbands mind as she drains his finances into several off-shore bank accounts.
  7. Tom Tongue buys in bulk to sell as a hallucinatory drug to the Under-Things, which experience pain as pleasure and pleasure as pain.
  8. The Order of Saint Tinnitus attempts to divine visions of the future from the spots and auras they see while in the throes of one of Lady Birthright's custom creations.
  9. This shriveled magician is pitting headaches against each other in cage matches inside her head. Her eventual goal is to breed the strongest specimens together to make something capable of instantly pulverizing your brain.
  10. Most psychics stop by here regularly for a top-up. They isolate the migraine to the outer regions of their brains, using them as a barrier to stop intruders.

What's happening with me

Hey nerds,

So, I finished and ran this Megagame, God Emperor.

God Emperor

You can see the details at

It was pretty fucking great. Here's a review from a player, Tony Martin.

I’m still breaking into daydreams about the game on an hourly basis.
This was my third MegaGame. Here is the aspects of God Emperor that stood out to me compared to previous games:
Components: The components were a joy to deal with. Especially the Castles on the War Map and the Titan Masks (and the Emperors Mask). So good. Great job to the person/team who crafted all the components.
Moderators: All the moderators really knew their stuff. The mechanics for GE were complicated and running on tight schedule. Mods did a great job keeping the game turning.
Table Crossover: The other megagames I’ve played had a number of different areas of play. But I’ve never experienced such a clear, dramatic “interruption” of one table by the actions on another table. I loved being in the court when a Military Coup turned the political game upside down in an instant, or at the War Table when a Titan was destroyed by Court card-play, turning the tactical calculation upside down.
Costumes: At other games I’ve played I’d say roughly half the people were dressed up. The percentage was a lot higher at GE. Terrific fun. Thanks to all the players for dressing up.
Mechanics: All the Megagames I’ve played incorporate elements of boardgames, roleplay, and simulation. GE leaned more heavily towards the boardgame aspect, because it had a lot of specific rules for resolving every situation. Not really a criticism. Each style of gameplay has its own pros and cons. I’m more of a roleplay/simulation type player, but I still enjoyed the boardgame style play.
Manual: Related to the above. I found the manual to be intimidating when I first saw it. Clearly a lot of thought was put into communicating the rules clearly, but I was simply intimidated by the sheer volume of mechanics. I ended up reading the manual over 4 days and that made it manageable.
Player Management: When I first read the rulebook, I was super impressed by the idea that players were also resources, and you could focus resources by deciding where to send players. But in hindsight I have mixed feelings about it. The “traditional” megagame system, of giving each player a focused role and their own unique responsibilities, helps me understand my fictional role in the world, and ensures that every player in the team gets a chance to be in the spotlight. Sometimes being the 2nd or 3rd player at a table, you felt less like a player and more like “meeple”, sent to harvest resources.
God Emperor: So good. Not just the God Emperor himself but his entourage of minions, who worked together to impress what a big deal the God Emperor was. I loved the cowering priest when the God Emperor made his entrance. The God Emperors court (while the God Emperor was alive) was my favorite part of the game. I just loved the drama and spectacle of it.
I had a great day. Every player was really getting into the spirit of it. I never felt self-conscious or judged. Every time I tried to inject a bit of roleplay, other players picked it up and had fun with it. Thanks to every player and mod I dealt with on the day.
Right now I'm working on creating a visual novel. It's a breakfast club rom-com about a bunch of kids who are trapped alone in their school overnight. It's exciting for weird reasons I can't talk about. I've almost finished one out of the three paths and I'm hoping to release it late this year.

Tonight, in America:

  1. Dough-faced nightmare men emerge out of ovens all over the country to grab their creators and bake them until they are just right.
  2. A cabal of market researchers has captured a school bus and taken it down to their lair under the sewers. They are slowly building a perfect understanding of Humanity through rigorous experimentation. Their findings are not comforting.
  3. 47th Avenue is packed with corpses. Everyone steps around them on their morning commute, irritated. 
  4. The mirrors are all delayed by 5 seconds. Mirror manufacturers across the country apologize profusely and assure everyone that normal service will resume shortly.
  5. The heat is unbearable. People in Manhattan are slowly joining together in huge sticky piles which flow through the streets in giant waves, screaming in either protest or celebration. You cannot tell which.
  6. People everywhere have the sense that they have forgotten the existence of someone who was once very important to them. Didn't they used to have a husband, once? Didn't they have a sister?
  7. The ocean is no longer present. Boats are stranded on piles of dying fish, hundreds of meters deep. There is no moisture on the former ocean floor.
  8. Cows everywhere have begun moving west. No-one can stop them. If halted by a barrier, they beat themselves to death against it. When they reach the west coast, they keep wading out into the open sea.
  9. No-one understands you when you talk about simple, everyday things. You find yourself having to stop to explain the concept of "School" or "Coffee", multiple times a day.
  10. The Trash Queens have been seen moving through the great landfill oceans on the west coast. Their bodies are long and sinuous, festooned with shattered glass and broken mirrors that glitter in the moonlight. They are gathering. For some reason, this brings you hope.
  11. You find yourself going to a lot of funerals for people you don't know. Churches and cemeteries everywhere are forced to expand due to unprecedented levels of attendance. 
  12. The crooked limbs of sewer-witches snake out of the drains to grab unwary travelers and demand cigarettes. 
  13. You become unable to understand other people, except in abstract terms. You know someone is your friend, but you cannot connect that fact to any kind of emotion or feeling within you. When people hug you, or cry, you don't understand why.
  14. At 11:30, a random member of the population is selected to be burned in effigy. This is enormously cathartic to everyone.
  15. Tonight, 12 random teenagers from across America gain the sudden and unstoppable urge to kill each other. This happens every year. They walk away from their homes and families, travel out, and will not rest until the other 11 are dead. No-one questions this, or knows why. 
  16. You hear stories of people throwing away their contact lenses and glasses. They kept seeing the wrong things.
  17. People on the street have forgotten to dress themselves. You walk past a man with one shoe, a woman without pants. You look down and realize you've forgotten to put your shirt on. 
  18. The moon takes up most of the sky tonight, and people have gathered in candle-lit vigils all across the city to it set. You see mobs gathered on balconies, roofs, on the streets, all looking up as it slowly goes under the horizon. You're surprised to find yourself crying.
  19. Coffee has stopped working. You are tempted to riot.
  20. The old dead meat in all the dumpsters and drains deep under the city twists together into a slaughtered god which rises, screaming and bloody, to retake the world. It gets a small column on page 3 of the New York Times.

Spy Games

Watch the Skies 2 is go! I helped run this 50-person alien-fighting megagame last year, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now we're trying to fix all the broken bits. Top of the list are a lot of quiet background changes to make sure your actions have a serious impact on the 51 other people in the room, but the big fancy eye-grabbing change is a new focus on conflict between nations.

I can't reveal the big secret underground sub-system that's going to spark this backstabbing, but I can reveal that a big new way to win that conflict will be a whole new room for Spies.

In the original Watch the Skies, the Diplomats go to the UN, the Scientists go to the Science Center, the General goes to the World Map, and the President... mostly just sits at their table and waits for everyone to come back. Sure, they can mingle and chat, but they don't really have a cool thing to do in the way the other roles do.

This time, my lovely colleague Melissa and I will be running the Spymaster's room. In that room are manilla TOP SECRET folders for every country. While everyone's off at their tables, the President can write secret orders for their spies and slip them into these folders. When they return next turn, they'll find a type-written report saying what the result was.

In the original, spies were controlled by the generals and map control (who are already a little overwhelmed). When you used a spy, you had to physically place it on the map in front of everyone and announce what they were doing. Map control had so much to do with actually adjudicating battles that they couldn't let you do anything outside the base rules with them. 

Now we have two people dedicated to the spies, you will be able to use them to do anything that you can think of. The basic rules for them remain (Making countries into allies, and defending against alien infiltration) but you'll have the RPG freedom to just make up crazy ideas. You want your spy to dress up as the president of america and blow up a dam in russia, you can do it. Once you've submitted the order, we'll figure out the rules, roll the dice, and go out to make it happen - all with nothing to link it back to your country.

Oh - and the alien Infiltrators will be going through the exact same system. They'll have the same powers, same subterfuge. I can't wait to see the spy games that y'all are gonna come up with.

Mad Max Car Bits

Soon, the apocalypse we've prayed for will come, and we'll fly through the wasteland in crazy fucked-up road demons, shiny and chrome. Until that glorious day, maybe you want to pretend to do that in an RPG.

At the start of the game, give everybody 2 skulls and this page of car bits. They can pool their skulls to get anything on the page, or anything they make up.  Here's clarification on what some of this stuff does:

Bull Bar: Can be raised or lowered, sending up plumes of sand dust.
Spiked Wheels: Pops the wheels of any nearby car.
Boarding pole: Swings around with a counterweight, so you can swing onto another car.
Harpoon Grapple: Pierces another car. Can be swung around and aimed.
Smoker: Belches thick black smoke, blinding people behind you.
Caltrops: Each skull gives you one shot of them. Tip them out the back of your car to pop tires.
Wall of Sound: Hook up a musician to inspire the troops. The musician can give one of the following effects to cars around them:

  • Strike fear: All enemies must save or flee.
  • Pump up: Everyone drives faster
  • Death or Glory! Everyone becomes stronger and suicidal brave.
You can keep giving your players 2 skulls to customize their cars and grow a fleet every time they level up. Otherwise, you can just let people buy this shit and customize their car naturally.

While I'm here: Here's a simple tool to judge how much damage your car just took.

For a small amount of damage, roll a d6.
For a decent hit, roll a d12.
For a massive blow, roll a d20.
  1. Paint scraped. 
  2. Rear view mirror smashed. You can't see behind you.
  3. Side door fucked up. If it was open, you can't open it. If it was closed, you can't close it.
  4. Windshield smashed. Everyone in cockpit must roll or take damage from flying glass.
  5. Any oil or gas you've got around - in flamethrowers, oil tanks, etc - catches on fire.
  6. Tire punctured. Roll randomly to see which one.
  7. Brakes destroyed. You can't stop the car.
  8. The engine's taken damage and the car is slowing down rapidly. 
  9. Door torn off.
  10. You careen off-course in a random direction.
  11. You're skidding out of control. 
  12. Engine's overheating. If you keep driving it'll explode. 
  13. Someone is flung out of the car.
  14. Steering wheel destroyed. You can't steer.
  15. One of those beautiful car bits you bought has been torn off or destroyed.
  16. Roof torn off.
  17. The car's on fire.
  18. Your car screeches over on it's side. It's about to roll!
  19. The car has split into two pieces, both of which are still rocketing down the road.
  20. Giant, fiery crash.

    When you use a result for one specific car, mark that you've used it. If you roll that result again, use the next result up. So, if the windshield has been smashed and you roll a 4, you go up to result 5. If result 5 has been used up as well, keep going up until you find one you haven't used. This means even a small amount of damage gets more and more harmful as a car gets smashed up.

    If your car has armor, you can use it up to declare that a specific hit does nothing. One piece of armor is two skulls.

    May our lord V8 preserve us. Amen.


    I've been reading the RPG Dread. It's a horror game, where you must pull a block from a Jenga tower whenever you make a risky action. If the tower falls, you're removed from the game. It's such a neat little idea that I'm planning to make my own tower, based on Tartarus from Persona. 

    Instead of removing blocks to make risky actions, you add them. The tower slowly rises in front of you. I prefer this metaphor of the dark tower rising - more ominous. Eventually, the tower naturally becomes too unstable to hold any more blocks. Here's a test I made out of houses and scraps from Mystery Teens. You choose blocks at random, so every tower will be different. In this test, the tower tumbles at around 11 blocks. I'm not sure what the sweet spot should be: 30? 20?

    The big bonus of building the tower instead of tearing it down is that there's no setup time. Whenever someone dies in Dread, you have to rebuild the tower and pull some pieces, so the game has to screech to a halt for a setup break just as it was getting interesting. This tower is meant to start in pieces, so when it falls you can keep on playing without a pause.

    I'm planning to use this for my game Mystery Teens. Whenever you take some time or risks to find a clue, you place a block on the tower in the center of town. None of the adults can see it. You can open up each tower block (if you can manage it without making it fall) to find strange and revelatory dream cards. When the tower falls, you've reached the climax. Hope you've figured out the solution to the mystery, because the villain's plan is currently boiling out of the moonlit suburbs like an exploding black octopus.

    Here's another thought about Dread, though:

    Motivation in Dread

    Dread characters are made by giving you a questionnaire with loaded questions like "Why did you kill your wife?" After listening to this full play recording of Dread, I've decided every Dread questionnaire needs one extra question: 

    What do you value more than your life or sanity?

    The DM on that podcast explained that every block pull is optional. Even when a madman is swinging an axe at your head, you can still choose not to pull the block - it just means you've chosen to fail. Choosing not to pull a block means you can't be removed from the game, but the Host can do whatever they want to your character in exchange. 

    Reading through the Dread rules now, I'm not sure they support that reading. I love it anyway. Whenever dark and terrible things happen to their characters, it is crucial it's their own fault. Like I've said before, they need to choose to go into Silent Hill or Death Frost Doom. If you force them to die, it's arbitrary. They're just frustrated at you, not blaming themselves.

    Now, in any game with dice, this is hard to get right. It's easy for something horrible to happen to a character just because they were unlucky. You have to design against this possibility, working against the dice, making sure everything can be anticipated and foiled before the dice come out. Conversely, the tower in Dread makes sure that every death is the players fault- that's just how the system works. If you don't want a consequence (losing a limb, going nuts) you can always pull. If you don't want to die, you can always choose not to pull. Death always comes at your own hand.

    So it's wonderful that Dread makes players to doom themselves, but by default the choice to risk death doesn't feel interesting to me. In the play recording above, their goal is just to Survive. As a horror game, I assume that's the goal of many Dread adventures. But when that's your only goal, most block-pulling choices boil down to two options:

    A: You pull a brick, and risk being removed from the game.
    B: You refuse to move the story forward, and suffer some consequence that makes it seem like you're more likely to be removed from the game in future.

    This choice seems interesting in the moment: Do I want to risk death, or get a broken leg for certain? But it's fake. If you choose B forever, you'll never die. If the goal is simply to survive, you just need to always pick B. When the obvious best choice is to do nothing and refuse to move the story forward, something is wrong with your system.

    To solve this problem, you need to give the players a goal other that survival: Something they value more than getting removed from the game. The wonderful thing about the Character Creation system is that you don't even need to decide what this is - you can ask the players themselves. Maybe they decide their character would sacrifice their life for their family, their honor, their country, whatever. You can then take those answers, and put them at the end of the adventure.

    Now that value will be put to the test and strained to breaking point. At every step of the adventure, as the tower gets more and more unstable, they need to decide - do I really care about this thing? Am I really willing to sacrifice death for it? That's an interesting choice. If they decide no, and flee as their family is slaughtered, that's a fantastic character moment that'll make them great to play in future games.

    This is so perfect for getting that Doomed Obsession that I'm crazy about. James Sunderland, looking for his dead wife. The journey to find Colonel Kurtz. Getting the players to give you the rope to hang them with. It's lovely.