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Brust’s Dragaera

If you’ve ever played 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons, when you read a Dragaera novel it becomes clear that Steven Brust has, too.

The thing that draws me to Steven Brust’s Dragaera novels is the first person narrative. It’s hearkens back to hard-boiled crime fiction, a genre I also love and I suspect a lesser influence on Brust’s work as well. His main stated influence is the work of Alexandre Dumas, and if you’ve ever read Dumas you can pick up on that right away. What smacks you in the face, though, is that this feels like a player telling you about their character. Not in some weird, I’ve been cornered by a lonely nerd at a con sort of way, but by someone who’s probably a really great gamemaster skilled at setting a scene, describing the supporting characters, and making you really feel immersed in the world.

Brust’s main series revolves around Vlad Taltos, a human living among a tall, long-lived humanoid race called the Dragaera. The Dragaerans are organized into noble Houses, all named for the animal that reflects the values and personalities of each House. Taltos is a Baronet, a title purchased from the only House that sells them, the Jhereg. The animal jhereg is a small predatory scavenger resembling a dragon, and Taltos one as a familiar; the House Jhereg are basically in charge of organized crime throughout the Dragaeran Empire, including gambling, prostitution, thievery, and assassination. Which means Taltos is a crime lord, essentially a swashbuckling fantasy mafia don and hit man.

A spin-off series, known as the Khaavren Romances, begins several hundred years before the Taltos books, and features younger versions of a few of the Taltos cast in supporting roles, although for the most part they feature new characters. These books not only fill in some bits of Dragaeran history, but are homages to Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances. The Three Musketeers becomes The Phoenix Guards; Twenty Years After becomes Five Hundred Years After. The Vicomte de Bragelonne becomes The Viscount of Adrilankha, which Brust expanded into a trilogy. This series is a lot more light-hearted in tone than the Taltos books, not that those don’t have their whimsical and comedic moments. They’re not straight-up Dumas pastiche or scene-for-scene adaptations of the Musketeer books, but manage to capture the spirit while telling original stories.

There’s not a lot in Brust’s novels that can’t be dropped directly into a standard fantasy roleplaying game. There’s some large-scale magic that has no equivalent in standard fantasy rules, like floating castles, at least in terms of existing spells or magic item creation. Citizenship in the Dragaeran Empire allows anyone to know the current date and time, to contact other citizens telepathically, and to teleport nearly anywhere within the empire; this can be handled with a hand wave to the rules and a declaration that it exists, rather than sussing out specific mechanics or requiring die rolls.

There is also a heavier emphasis on psionics than can be found in later editions of mainstream fantasy games, or in most fantasy literature. All creatures with intelligence can learn to use psionics, and Brust clearly states that the witchcraft practiced by humans utilizes psionic, rather than magical, energy. There are some science fiction underpinnings to the world in the distant past, not present in the time the stories are set, which is in line with some of the things Gary Gygax wrote as well as more than a handful of books in the original Appendix N.

A lot of things in Brust’s world are standard fantasy elements with the names changed. The Dragaera are pretty obviously elves, with their delicate features, slightly pointed ears, and long natural lives. I’ve always assumed that humans are referred to as “Easterners” not just because they come from the lands east of the Dragaeran Empire, but as a sly nod to Aman, the continent that lay to the west of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where the elves sail off to when they weary of the world. Brust essentially files the serial numbers off of things and makes them his own, reskinning standard elements and using them they way he needs them to be used, like and good gamemaster is wont to do.

There’s a lot of resurrection in the books, so just like in many of the early games I played in and ran characters don’t tend to stay dead if they have friends and/or money. Brust creates some rules to mitigate this, like burning bodies and destroying the brain making people un-revivifyable. He makes assassins’ rates a sliding scale based on how dead a target needs to be; killing them in a manner that renders them impossible to resurrect costs a lot more, because it’s also a greater crime than simple murder. To further complicate the resurrection situation, Brust introduces Morganti weapons, ego-intelligent blades that destroy a target’s soul. No soul, no way to bring them back to life. Possession of Morganti weapons is illegal within the Empire, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t get ahold of them, for the right price. This, again, is creating solutions to rules problems within the context of the story and the setting and the rules themselves.

Reading Brust’s Dragaera

For the most part, the books aren’t written in chronological order. The second book, Yendi, for example, takes place before the first book, Jhereg; it’s not a prequel, it’s just a separate tale that happens to take place at a different time. There have been attempts to construct a timeline and create a chronological reading order, but I don’t put much stock in them. I prefer the publication order, the way Brust chose to tell these stories. You aren’t missing anything no matter what order you read them in, because each book gives you as much as you need to get through that story. The hints and clues and little bits of information about the world do add up, though, and the more books in the series you read, the better you understand both the individual characters and the big picture of what’s going on in the setting.

The Vlad Taltos Series

The Khaavren Romances

Le Guin’s Earthsea

Appendix N inspired a generation of roleplayers, gamemasters, and game designers. This series explores the connection between fiction and tabletop.

The first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy was when I was in high school, shortly after I’d begun playing Dungeons & Dragons and consuming fantasy fiction at an alarming rate. I remember framing the book in D&D terms, and that it struck me as being about a wizard learning his craft and leveling up. Obviously, I was reading it as fodder for my game, and not objectively or critically, but a number of things still managed to get past my filters and make an impression.

There are a number of things about the Earthsea setting that are unique, or at least unusual, in the realm of fantasy fiction. The people, while human, aren’t white Europeans in culture or appearance a fact grossly overlooked in both the Studio Ghibli film and the television miniseries loosely based on the series. It does not neatly map to any real-world places of history, which to me accentuates the fairy-tale quality of it.

Le Guin borrows Tolkien’s tone in creating a sense of wonder, but doesn’t tap into the same mythologies and analogies. Instead she relies on her own Taoist beliefs, less known and even less understood in the West, to create something that has verisimilitude yet feels unfamiliar, allowing the reader to explore without relying on cultural baggage and overused tropes. In its time, Earthsea was tremendously original and groundbreaking.

Magic is largely based upon knowing the true names of things, because all things possess a spirit to some degree. By knowing the names, things can be summoned, asked politely for assistance, and manipulated. It is understood that this is a zero-sum game; asking the wind to come and help fill the sails of a ship to speed it on its journey means that the wind is not somewhere else, doing something else. Wizards must use magic in ways that do not disturb the balance of nature, because doing so can cause tremendous harm.

For this reason, magic is often small in scale, to avoid tipping the scales and invoking unintended consequences. It is also why much magic is illusory and temporary. To change a thing permanently would be to change its true name, because it is now something else entirely, and changing true names has a ripple effect throughout the balance. It is never done lightly, and when it is, the consequences tend to be grave, if not fatal.

Good and evil are largely defined in relation to the balance. Wizards mostly work at maintaining it, fixing things when they get out of whack so that the world continues to operate smoothly. Altering the balance, especially in service to one’s self and one’s own baser needs, is considered evil because your gain almost invariably results in someone else’s loss.

The action in the books in minimal. It’s there, but the plots often revolve more around figuring things out and acting with wisdom, rather than wildly hurling fireballs at monsters or invading armies. The use of magic can often be as much of a hindrance as a useful tool, so the characters have to reason their way through things.

Le Guin’s fantasy is far more philosophical, driven by story and character. If you want to read the Earthsea books as inspiration for a game, it cannot be on a “game mechanics” or “encounter design” level. You should approach it by considering that character actions have ramifications within the setting, for better or for worse, and the additional story thread that get generated not only by whether they succeed or fail but in the manner in which they attain those successes or suffer those failures. You need to be able to think in terms of balance, of ecosystems, of politics and economics and culture. You need to think beyond the encounter, beyond the adventure, and consider the impact that the characters have on the people they meet and the places they journey through. Thinking on that scale, I believe, has made me a better gamemaster over time.

Le Guin’s Earthsea 

Reflections: Appendix N

Appendix N inspired a generation of roleplayers, gamemasters, and game designers. This new series explores the connection between fiction and tabletop.

The original Appendix N was a list of suggested reading included in the back of the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. Its actual title was “Inspirational and Educational Reading,” and consisted of a very long paragraph where author Gary Gygax explained how he developed his love of fantasy literature, followed by a list of authors’ names and sometimes (but not always) suggested works by that author. It ended with a very short paragraph explaining what the primary influences on the game were. Appendix N was one of many appendices in the back of that volume intended to aid burgeoning gamemasters. All these years later I could not tell you what was in Appendix A through M, or anything that came after N, without looking it up. That brief, poorly-cited bibliography may have been more influential to me than anything else in the entire book.

Unlike H. P. Lovecraft’s essay on essential weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature, where each story listed was given a detailed summary and analysis, Appendix N offers no real explanations as to why those stories and those authors were selected. It was just a very plain list. Over time some more details came out, in articles Gygax himself published in Dragon magazine, in interviews he gave, and in conversations at conventions that were documented and recounted by others, but the actual Appendix N itself remains infuriatingly mysterious.

I don’t know that later authors and designers that have worked on D&D were as well-versed in all of the books within the Appendix N canon, if it can even be called such, as Gygax. With each edition they brought in their own influences and tastes, carrying some things forward and abandoning others, adding more recent fiction as well as other media like comics, film, television, and even games that had themselves been influenced by D&D. I don’t have a problem with that, because new perspectives have the potential to keep the game fresh and interesting, but it also can create concept drift; in large part the Edition Wars were partisan conflicts based on which influences were emphasized. It’s difficult, however, to argue why certain tropes and conventions can’t be downplayed or ignored when Gygax made no clear case as to why they were ever included.

As D&D developed official campaign settings, and began to publish fiction based on those settings, the tail began to eat itself. The point of the game mechanics became to properly support the workings of specific published worlds rather than a range of fantasy styles represented by Appendix N. The campaign settings, in turn, were designed to showcase all of the possibilities presented in the rules. The successor to the original Appendix N, then, became the list of official Dungeons & Dragons novels.

I understand the business need to keep people within the brand; you don’t increase your profits by sending you customers off to buy things from your competitor. Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbels, to use an archaic reference. I know that many publishers do still include bibliographies in their games, and that there is a huge overlap between players of fantasy roleplaying games and readers of fantasy fiction. I just don’t feel that the link is as overt as it used to be.

Reflections on Appendix N

That’s why I’m launching a weekly series of essays inspired by the original Appendix N. I want to dig into fiction and film, to show why tabletop roleplayers should read these books, and why the readers and fans of these books should try tabletop roleplaying. For those already into both, I want to show where the playable ideas are, and point out the things that can be swiped for your home game. I want to delve into some of the original Appendix N authors and books, as well as explore newer works of fantasy, and detail the influences that that informed my efforts as a player, a gamemasters, and a game designer.


Core Mechanics

The core mechanic for all of the games I publish going forward is fairly simple. Whenever a character does something where the outcome is in doubt, roll a twenty-sided die (d20), add any modifiers, and interpret the total.

  • If the total is high (11 or more), the character succeeds.
  • If the total is low (10 or less), the character fails.
  • If the result is even, the player who rolled the die gets to describe what happens.
  • If the result is odd, the player’s opponent (or the gamemaster) gets to describe what happened.

The only thing you need to know is high or low, even or odd. No charts, no tables, no complications. Character ability bonuses will push their chances of success above the default 50/50 odds; situation modifiers can pull that back down. But you never need to figure out a specific number to hit; it’s always the same.

Getting to describe what happens can be a big deal. If your character succeeds, you can really lay it on thick and describe how cool they look, add in some secondary effects, and set up your next move or lay groundwork for the direction the story takes. Even if you don’t succeed, you can make the defeat less humiliating. If someone else gets to describe the action, they can make things look better for their own character, tweak things in their favor, and really make your character look bad.

Dice Bids

When a character is acting in opposition to something — fighting another character, picking a lock, trying to get to a weapon before the villain does — there is a dice bid. You bid one die type (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12) for your attack, and one for your defense. You opponent (or the gamemaster) does the same.

If you succeed in your action, you roll your attack die and your opponent rolls their defense die. If you roll higher than they do, they temporarily lose the use of that die. If they roll higher than you do, they successfully defend and keep their die.

When you get down to one die, you can either attack or defend, but not both. When you run out of dice, the character is incapable of action. Depending on the context of the situation, they might be wounded, unconscious, locked in a closet, pinned under a rock, have had their tools broken or confiscated, any number of explanations that account for their inability to act. Only in very rare instances is a character killed.


Remember the bit above about being able to describe what happened? The larger the die you bid the more you get to embellish. If you used a d12 on an attack die and won, you get to add quite a bit of color. If you bid a d4 on defense and your opponent lost, you don’t really get to embellish at all. A more complete explanation as to how this works is included in the complete core rules.


When your defense fails, you temporarily lose the use of that die type. You also gain a complication whose severity and duration vary with the size of the die. A d4 complication might mean you dropped an item, so you can’t use it now but you can pick it up on the next turn. A d12 complication might be a serious injury that takes months to heal. Complications are plot points that can stick around even after you’re recovered your dice.


There are two types of recovery: gaining back use of your dice, and resolving story complications. Recovering dice happens automatically across in-game time, with larger dice taking longer to recover. A d4 comes back on your next turn, and a d6 in the next scene, but a d12 might not come back until after the next adventure. Of course, there are magical and technological ways to make recovery happen faster, based on what’s available in the setting.

Resolving complications happens one of two ways. If it’s tied to a die, it resolves itself when the die comes back. This is the case with physical injuries. If you have a d8 wound, it’s healed by the time you gain back the d8. Other complications can only be resolved within the story. If a d10 complication is that a fairly large and important item has been stolen from you, recovering the d10 doesn’t bring the object back. If you want it, you need to go find it and get it back.

Embracing Polyhedral Dice

For about a year I experimented with various types of mechanics to use for the new core rules set. I played around with everything from dice pools to card mechanics to more traditional single-die methods. I hit on a few things that I liked, and playtested all of them in small groups. Most of my players had either no previous experience with tabletop roleplaying games, or were casual gamers who had played a bit and generally knew which end was up, but never got too deeply involved in the hobby. This was partially due to circumstance, because I didn’t have a many old grognards readily at hand to sit down and play with face-to-face, and partially by design; I’m sort of targeting future releases toward new and casual gamers.

Almost universally, when I presented a system that didn’t use polyhedral dice, I got the same reaction. I would be asked where the funny dice were. If I used all six-sided dice (d6s, referred to by some of my playtesters as “Monopoly dice” or “casino dice”) or playing cards, there would be confusion. Even if they know very little else about tabletop roleplaying games, they associated polyhedral dice with the experience, and when there were no “funny dice” in sight, they all seemed a little disappointed.

I tested this, albeit unscientifically, running short scenarios using different mechanics for the same people and then asking some specific questions. Almost unanimously, they preferred the systems using polyhedrons over non-polyhedral systems. Even when I felt the game play was smoother or offered some benefit using other methods of resolution, they wanted the funny dice. I once ran a really bad adventure, on purpose, using polyhedrons, and then brought my “A” game to a d6 die pool game, and they all said they had a better time with the polyhedrons.

Humans are funny creatures.

My whole reason for using things like d6s and playing cards over polyhedrons was because they’re more readily available. It’s more likely that new and casual gamers will already have them on hand, and not have to seek out a specialty store to acquire them. I was trying to make it simpler for them. They didn’t want simpler. They wanted a particular type of experience, and they wanted all of the trappings that they associate with that experience.

The final system, using a full set of funny dice, does work really well. It’s easy to learn but still has enough nuance to challenge even the bitterest old grognard. I think it manages to feel familiar while still being unique and different from a lot of other systems out there. And I only figured it out because my playtesters wanted to polyhedral dice.

Why I Do This

Stories fascinate me, but more than the stories themselves I’m fascinated with their structure. I eat books on writing like popcorn, devouring everything from how to plot to developing characters, from the construction of novels to the formatting of screenplays. It’s a lot like playing with blocks, or sculpting, taking basic materials and plying them into something larger. In this case it’s the craft of fictional people, worlds, and events.

One of the reasons I love tabletop roleplaying games is because it’s all about that structure. There are systems for creating characters and adjudicating interactions between characters. There are systems for everything, from how magic works to inventing superpowers to constructing starships. You don’t have to be a professional writer to play with these toys; you don’t have to be a writer at all. Anyone can get out a pencil, some paper, and a bunch of dice and start creating things.

The best game settings are essentially large collections of story prompts, things that characters can do, places they can explore, mysteries that they can solve, and antagonists for them to fight. There are stories implied within those settings, and there are stories told using those settings, but they’re intentionally open-ended, allowing players and gamemasters to decide how they want to fill in the blanks, determine who wins or loses, to sort out what happens next.

The other reason that roleplaying games appeal to me so strongly is the element of social interaction and collaboration. If I wrote a short story, a comic book, or a screenplay, it’s a fixed thing. You can read it, and when you’re done, you can go off and so something else. When I write roleplaying game material, we can sit down together and write the story. Even better, other people in other places, unconnected to us, can sit down around a table and tell their own stories. Everyone can take those same blocks, that same clay, those same resources, and create something that is uniquely their own.

That’s why of all the things I could create of, of all the various things that I could write, I choose to write roleplaying games. Instead of writing one story, I’m potentially collaborating on dozens or hundreds of other stories, the stories that the players and gamemasters who play my game come up with. I’m providing people with an excuse to sit down with their friends and make up stories. I’m creating toolkits and toyboxes, and allowing other people to amazing things with them.

Use Your Words

Roleplaying games got me into words.

I was always a reader, mind you, having learned to read by looking at World’s Finest Comics and desperately wanting to know what Batman and Superman were saying. In the third grade, I was part of a ring that passed around paperback novels of movies we weren’t allowed to see. I read anything I could get my hands on that seemed fantastic — science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and even literary fiction. When I got into roleplaying, though, my love of words kicked into high gear.

Not only were the original “advanced” manuals full of some dense prose themselves, they were chock full of vocabulary I didn’t understand. What did those names assigned to player character levels mean? Where did those monsters come from? The dungeon master’s book was especially intriguing, because in addition to lists of descriptive words for dungeons and political systems I’d never heard of, there was a list of recommended reading!

When I wasn’t sitting at a table playing, or rolling up characters, or drawing maps on graph paper and planning encounters, I was reading. I ate up fantasy novels. I read history books and biographies, mythologies and volumes of fairy tales, comparative religion and things about the different types of government. Because of roleplaying games, I developed a love of knowledge.

Roleplaying games also gave me the confidence to perform words. I’ve done a little bit of acting, and a fair amount of public speaking, because while seated around a tabletop I learned about playing a character and telling a story to an audience. Roleplaying has made me appreciate the writing behind performances in television, film, and stage productions; it’s made me recognize and appreciate the writers who put words into the mouths of my favorite characters, and set up the situations those characters find themselves in.

My love of words has also resulted in a very strange attitude toward artwork in roleplaying games. I understand why it’s there. On one hand, it gives a book visual appeal and increases the chances someone will buy it; you can’t read a while book while standing in your friendly local game store, and in many cases you can’t even open the book because they shrink-wrap them so they don’t get shopworn and unsellable, so you need to judge content and quality by the cover. On the other hand, it’s supposed to inspire players and gamemasters by illustrating the story possibilities that the game offers.

But I find it extraneous. Sometimes it’s moderately useful, like when it’s illustrating what a piece of equipment looks like. While an argument could be made that depictions of characters and monsters are useful, my issue is that those pictures become canonical; they have to look like that in your game now, rather than what you might want them to look like in your version of the setting.

That’s why there are so few pictures in my games. I don’t see tabletop roleplaying a visual medium, but rather one of words. As the game designer, I need to communicate the important bits of the rules and the setting clearly and concisely with words. As a gamemaster, you need to describe what’s happening in the adventure, what the player characters see, and what’s going on with words. As a player, you need to describe what your character is doing with words, and communicate with the other players using dialogue.

My Game Design Philosophy

What got me into tabletop roleplaying games was the way they allowed me hang out with my friends and tell stories. On weekends, holidays, and summer vacations we got to escape from school and spend hours and even days doing the sorts of things we loved to read about in novels and comics, watch on television, and see in movies. We got to make up our own characters, design our own worlds, and create action and adventure rather than just be a passive consumer of it. I remember having a tremendous sense of empowerment over the ways that I could use my imagination. I could hack around with a roleplaying game even when I couldn’t afford a movie ticket, when I wasn’t able to get to the library for a new book, or when I couldn’t find anything interesting on TV.

As I entered adulthood, I held onto roleplaying as a hobby in spite of all of the other changes that occurred in my life. The deeper you get into the triumphs and tragedies of real life, the more you need some sort of escapism. You need to let your mind wander, and your emotions rest, in order to stay sane and face the things required of you by the nature of the world. Roleplaying has allowed me to venture into make-believe, to create things, and to have discussions with people on topics other than family, finances, health, sports, politics, religion, the weather, and other odious grown-up things.

Somewhere along the line people started taking roleplaying games seriously. There are good things and bad things that have come from that. On the positive side (bonus!) there is now some reasonably standardized vocabulary and a whole body of theory that we can use to discuss game design, player personalities, and all of the things that can be used to create better game experiences. On the negative side (penalty!), we have people who wield those presumably objective criteria like a blunt instrument, seeking to smite those who in their eyes are not doctrinally pure. There is, somehow, a wrong way to hang out with your friends and make up stories about fictitious people in imaginary lands.

A lot of wrong ways, apparently. I don’t want to play games with those people.

Games, to me, are a lot like movies in respect to tastes versus critics. I’ve sat through movies that were technically brilliant but painfully dull; I’ve seen movies that were objectively train wrecks, but subjectively a ridiculous amount of fun. Most people, in my experience, tend to rely on their own preferences, their own gut, and word of mouth from people they trust. A good critical review might make you aware of something you hadn’t heard of before — assuming you pay attention to reviews. If it’s something you’re interested in, the reviews might influence your decision to go see a movie or not. But if it’s something you’re not interested in, neither the quantity or quality of good reviews is likely to bring you there. If it’s something you are interested in, you might ignore all the reviews, go see it anyway, and form your own opinion.

People buy games because they sound like they’d be fun to play. If they play a game and enjoy it, they’ll play it again and tell their friends about it. Most people, I would argue, really don’t care about the theory and quality of game design that went into the creation of the game; they care about whether it let them have a good time with their friends. That stuff needs to be invisible to them, not a selling point.

My favorite roleplaying games act as a framework, and allow me to tinker. I want a foundation to build on. When I first started out with roleplaying, we were more interested in how a game system allowed us to express our ideas than what it actually allowed us to do. When one of us had an idea, either as a player or a gamemaster, we’d consult the rules. If it was in there, we ran with it; if it wasn’t, we adapted something that seemed close to what we wanted, or we made up our own stuff from whole cloth. It was more frustrating when the rules flat-out told us no than when we didn’t find a way to do something overtly spelled out for us. We created new character classes, new spells, new monsters, and new magic items for our fantasy games. We made up new powers for superhero games, and new gadgets for spy games. That was half the fun.

The other half of the fun was interpreting the die rolls. We knew what number we needed to succeed, but what did that mean? When the supposedly master swordsman rolled painfully poorly, we had a blast describing just how embarrassingly bad that looked. When the character with virtually no chance of success rolled improbably well, we cheered and came up with all sorts of story reasons why that happened. I once had a 2nd level ranger who killed a huge, ancient black dragon with a single arrow to the eye (and neither he nor I will never let anyone forget about it); he was obviously favored by the setting’s deities, and that became a major plot point that drove the rest of the campaign.

I have clear goals when writing roleplaying game material. I want new and casual players to be able to learn the basics quickly, but I want there to be enough subtlety and nuance that experienced gamers will still find it engaging. I want things to be as clear and complete as possible, while allowing room for people to customize it, tweak it, and add their own embellishments to it. I want people to be able to have the same sorts of experiences that I had back in the day. I want, at the heart of it, to give people an excuse to hang out with their friends and tell stories.

We’re Reorganizing

There’s not much here yet, but feel free to poke around. The wohle company is relaunching, and the site’s getting an overhaul to reflect that. The official target date is my birthday, which falls on Friday the 13th this year. That’s November 13, 2015. Until then, here’s the basic rundown of what’s happening:

New game system.

New worlds.

New adventures.

Same company.

Stay tuned.

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