Jeff Kornberg’s YouTube channel, The Dragon’s Tomb, does not stand out from the throng of other channels hosting tutorials for board games. Like his peers, Kornberg explains the rules in a slow, gentle voice with frequent cutaways to each game’s pieces, cards, and setup. The difference between Kornberg’s channel and the others is that every single one of his tutorials is completely fake.
Kornberg’s channel kicked off two months ago with a tutorial for Settlers of Catan, in which Kornberg explained that “gameplay is focused around an eccentric billionaire named Mr. Catan who wants to build a tower.” Players use the resource tiles to construct Mr. Catan’s tower, each competing to be the one to place the “tower hat” (the final tile) on top of the completed structure. Except, uh, those aren’t the rules to Settlers of Catan. But maybe they should be?
Since the initial Settlers video, Kornberg has released five other tutorials for well-known party games, such as Twister and Ticket To Ride. Twister, of course, requires one player to use the “spinner of devastation” to determine when the tornado chasers (the other players) will lose each of their limbs over the course of their quest to find the location of an F5 tornado. Ticket To Ride, as we all know, encourages players to take on the roles of waste collectors picking up trash from the plastic train cars—err, dumpsters—strewn all over the streets of North America.
Some of the videos work better than others. Kornberg’s redesign for Codenames has a transmisogynistic premise (players’ teams get brainwashed by the government into becoming women, at which point they lose), but the host concludes the video by lampshading it all, deadpanning to the camera that “whoever came up with the concept for this game should really be ashamed of themselves.” One of the commenters pipes up that players could make their own remix on Kornberg’s version by switching the gender cards according to their preference, at which point Kornberg responds in character to advise the commenter against changing board game rules. We can’t have that. It would be madness!
In every video, Kornberg wears the same bright blue T-shirt that reads “Cards. Deal With It.” He concludes every review with the same overused platitude: “All in all, this game is a blast to play.” The channel’s title and logo, The Dragon’s Tomb, are so mundane and forgettable that it took me weeks after first seeing the Settlers of Catan tutorial video to even find the channel again. (Searching for “mr. catan dragon’s cave” did the trick.)
The channel’s unassuming appearance allows it to disguise itself in the related sidebar alongside reams of earnest board game tutorials. It’s much funnier if you watch it without knowing what you’re getting into, but after a week of laughing at all of these by myself, I just didn’t want to leave this hidden gem buried anymore. I hope he does Monopoly next. I’ve always wanted to know how to play it.
system design by Caitlynn Belle, setting design by Ben Lehman
GJ 237, vernacularly known as Luyten’s Star, is a largely unremarkable red dwarf star located in the constellation Canis Minor. It is twelve light years from Earth, a distance which renders it invisible to the naked eye. The star itself is only notable for it’s close proximity to the much larger star Procyon, which appears as bright as Venus in its planets’ sky.
Luyten’s Star is orbited by two planets, the outermost of which, GJ 237b, is capable of sustaining a biosphere. This is not particularly unique. Humanity, in its wanderings, has encountered many such planets, met them, and studied them, and colonized them, learned to live in their biospheres, or given them new ones.
Like on many worlds, multicellular life never developed in GJ 237b. Unlike those worlds, most of which had a few bacteria or amoeba clinging to life on the edges of volcanic vents or in moist underground caves, the single-celled life on GJ 237b thrived in abundance, developed its own eco-systems, its own evolutionary niches, its own rich complicated ecological web. But even in this, GJ 237b is not unique.
What makes GJ 237b unique is that it is the only biosphere, other than the Earth’s, to have developed meaningfully intelligent life, even at a single-celled level. This intelligence was utterly different than humanity, utterly alien, completely unrecognizable to the human probes or the human explorers that followed them. It is not that they had a simple analogue to human society. They had a rich, nuanced, complicated system of communication and social organization which we not only will never understand, but we can never understand, because we lack even the ability to comprehend their thoughts.
This intelligent species — or, more accurately, intelligent clade (although even the term “clade” is a terrapomorphism), because genetic variation may have formed, for them, not an engine of evolution but a means of communication — prospered and thrived in the rich ecosystems of GJ 237b. They developed technology — although utterly different than our technology — art — although utterly different from our art — and even, we believe, limited space travel. But, fundamentally, whatever society existed is fundamentally unknowable. We can only look at the remaining artifacts, some recorded biological samples, the records from our initial probes, and guess.
This is because, as soon as humans arrived on GJ 237b, our very presence caused a catastrophe which destroyed not only the intelligent life, but their entire ecosystem. The exact nature of this collapse is not well known — it is presumed to be a virus carried on the ship’s cat — but nothing now remains of not only the intelligent life, but any of other life from their planet. GJ 237b is a now a cold, dead rock, a monument to the worst mistake humanity has ever made.
This game is about the societies and cultures of GJ 237b.
Materials for Play
a print-out of these rules
paper, both lined and white
pencils and pens
at least one set of 4 12-sided dice in unique colors.
Arrange the above-mentioned materials for play around a table in a room which is not part of a regularly trafficked area. Ideally, it should only have one door.
Playing the game
Stay outside the room. Do not go in.
The game, being played in the room, is about the history, societies and cultures of GJ 237b. It is not something that you can play, or even understand.
Do not enter the room. Don’t look at it, either.
When someone opens the door, they are the human explorers that have arrived on GJ 237b. The game immediately ends. We do not play out the catastrophe.
this edition has been lightly edited for obvious typos and to replace the word “d12s” with “12-sided dice.”
this game was funded by our patrons: Saul Pwanson, Josh Symonds, Andrew Cain, Alissa Mortenson, Adam Kenney, Michael Wight, Aaron Lim, John Leen, Eileen Koven, Jonathan Reiter, Lapo Luchini, Flavio Mortarino, Lester Ward, Jessica Hammer, Chris Hall, Gregor Hutton, Vincent Baker, Anders Smith, Jake Baker, Fabien Hildwein, Red Ed, Peter Ciccolo, Johannes Oppermann, Cheryl Trooskin-Zoller, Kevin Li, Quintin Smith, Robert Day, Aaron Friesen, anna anthropy, Sam Anderson, omas Novosel, Stuart Chaplin, Rob Abrazado, Charlie Etheridge-Nunn, Taylor Smith, Kathryn Hymes, Brad Gravett, James Stuart, Carlton Wilbur, Tayler Stokes, J Li, Nathan Harrison, Matthew Klein, Brian John, Mike Sugarbaker, Tony Dowler, Noah Illinskey, Edoardo Baruzzo, Christoph Boeckle, Jonathan Walton, Epidiah Ravachol, Peter and Carolyn Lehman
Before a “Dungeons & Dragons” player joins a game, before she finds her first sword or slays her first gnoll, she must create a character who has a race and a class. Will she skulk in the shadows as a gnome rogue? Sally forth with her human paladin? Reave up and down the Sword Coast as a dwarven barbarian?
Since the tabletop role-playing game debuted in 1974, “Dungeons & Dragons” has grown to include so many different kinds of characters that there are two races of playable bird people. In August, the game’s publisher released an online tool called D&D Beyond that streamlines the process of setting up a new character. Players created hundreds of thousands of characters in the site’s first month, and Curse, the developer behind D&D Beyond, sent us users’ most popular picks for races and classes from the game’s Fifth Edition.
So what does this data say about players’ character preferences? At first blush it looks like characters are drawn from literature and everyday life, which seems surprisingly unimaginative considering that “Dungeons & Dragons” is the quintessential fantasy game. But some of the common character choices can be explained by the game’s structure of racial bonuses. Humans — the most popular race by far — get an extra point in all of their ability scores, which makes them a balanced pick for any class.
Other races dovetail nicely with particular classes. The wood elf gets a bonus to dexterity as well as proficiency in longbows, perfect for the ranger class. Halflings also have extra points in dexterity and may have access to the “naturally stealthy” trait, which makes them exceptional rogues. The appearance of both these archetypes in Lord of the Rings and other works of fantasy likely also plays a role in their popularity.
Some pairings you won’t find anywhere in Tolkien’s books, but might stand at the vanguard of a new fantasy canon. Apparently the lumbering, scaly dragonborn are frequently cast as paladins, a class traditionally inhabited by snooty whitemen. And remember the bird people? Players who pick the avian aarakocra are most likely to adventure as martial artist monks, filling the skies of the Forgotten Realms with Jet Li Big Birds.
When I started playing “Dungeons & Dragons” five years ago, I never would have chosen the game’s most popular match: the human fighter. There are already enough human fighters in movies, TV and books — my first character was an albino dragonborn sorcerer. But these days I can get behind the combo’s simplicity: It lets you focus on creating a good story rather than spending time flipping through rulebooks to look up spells. Players who are more interested in the action than the storytelling might relish the technicalities of more arcane race and class pairings, watching the dice fall and arguing over whether they have full or half cover. You can play “Dungeons & Dragons” as a pure combat simulator, a murder mystery or even a dating competition. For decades, that open-endedness has brought players back to the table to fill out one more character sheet.
On my kitchen table was the ass end of a giant demon bird. I was inspecting its empty orifice, comparing it to a photo on my iPad. The directions said that I had to glue a tiny lump of human hands, less than a half inch across, into the beast’s cloaca.
I’ve stuck a lot of things to a lot of other things in my time playing tabletop games, but this was a first for me.
I read the directions over again. I compared the photos to the parts in front of me. I looked up the definition of “cloaca” while I trimmed off some flashing to adjust the fit. Then I gently pressed some super glue out of the tube, applied a firm, even pressure and counted to ten while the cyanoacrylate got a good bond inside its hole.
I held the model up to the light to admire my handiwork, and just as quickly I put it down.
Just a few nights prior I had one of the best tabletop gaming experiences of my life. Over nearly six hours, Kingdom Death: Monster had challenged and mystified me, presenting me with combat encounters and opportunities at world-building that I had not anticipated.
What in the hell was I doing now?
Kingdom Death: Monster is a tabletop game created by Adam Poots. More specifically, it’s a hobby miniatures skirmish game, sold at retail for $400.
The “sold at retail” bit is academic as the game has been out of print for most of 2016.
That campaign has over $9 million dollars in pledges, making it the single most successful gaming Kickstarter of any kind. A basic copy is available as a pre-order for $250.
Normally I’d be here celebrating such an achievement, but with Kingdom Death there’s an awful lot of baggage.
Inside the 18-pound box are hundreds of cards, dozens of dividers and cardboard chits along with racks of plastic sprues filled with the parts and pieces of dozens of plastic models. But that’s not the baggage I’m talking about.
The Kingdom Death universe is notorious for its sexual imagery and body horror. Poots calls it “nightmare horror,” but it’s hard to look past the flat out grossness of it all. In particular its the add-on components, non-canon miniatures and in-canon narrative sculptures that he sells on the side that rub some people the wrong way.
The above image is of a new expansion, available through the Kickstarter campaign. A demonic phoenix with hands reaching out of its insides is the least disturbing part of the universe.
Kingdom Death is easily the most offensive game that few have ever played. One miniature called the Wet Nurse was sold alongside the first print run. It featured a monster with phallus-shaped tentacles in the midst of violating its female captives. You don’t play the game as the Wet Nurse, nor do you play against it. But it’s part of the game’s lore, it exists in the game world and that alone troubles people.
When I reached out to Poots to clarify what was going on with the Wet Nurse he explained to me that the tentacle wasn’t having sex with the woman, it was merely feeding off her miscarriage. As if that was supposed to make me feel more at ease.
So yeah. The hands clawing their way out of the genital flap of the demon bird in my kitchen gave me pause.
Prior to my night affixing fists to a phoenix, I had spent roughly six hours playing Kingdom Death with some friends in Chicago. It was, without question, one of the best nights I’ve spent playing a board game in my entire life.
Kingdom Death: Monster, the core product, is outstanding.
The massive base set is a masterclass in product design. Once unpacked, it’s set up like a Rolodex. Every bit of the game’s content is at your fingertips. The presentation ranks among the very best in the industry, meeting and exceeding the lavish pack-ins found in Riot Games’ Mechs vs. Minions.
While it’s sprawling and awkwardly sized, it is entirely self-contained. Other hobby miniatures games require you to gin up your own army sheets or spend time and treasure creating terrain to fight on. As a starter set, Kingdom Death is exceptionally complete. Everything you need to run a game — excluding the delicate miniatures — fits inside the box.
The game manual itself starts off with a set of lavish, full-page illustrations. The accompanying once-upon-a-time story enraptured my players, engaging them immediately in the universe. They awoke alone, naked save for a loin cloth, on a seemingly endless plain of stone faces. Without the power of language, they met the other human figures at their side before being set upon by a ravenous white lion. It was a fight to the death, and their only weapons were sharp stones and a will to survive.
All of the game’s enemies are driven by a novel deck of artificial intelligence cards. Picked at random, you never know what’s going to happen next. Add to that the completely foreign landscape, the bizarre and otherworldly creatures and you have a turn-based game that is fresh and magical.
The entire experience is enhanced by Kingdom Death’s exceptional tutorial. The manual’s first 30 pages are a study in how to concisely educate players on gameplay fundamentals. It tells you only what you need to know, makes details easy to find and reinforces its ruleset with accurate diagrams and useful illustrations. Everything is where it should be.
I’ve spent years as a games master, with Dungeons & Dragons and other systems. I’ve taught complicated games to people who have never rolled a die in anger. I can safely say that there is no better ally, no better tool for teaching a game than the first few chapters of Kingdom Death.
After that first battle the game blossoms. It’s like stepping out of the Vault for the first time in Fallout. Players found a tiny village where they invent language, make strategic decisions about how they’ll fortify themselves against the unknown and make plans to hunt the very creature that nearly killed them. The next battle is more harrowing than the first, and on and on.
The only prize in the game are resources, materials carved off the bodies of monsters to be fashioned into weapons and armor.
Imagine XCOM: Enemy Unknown where, instead of a set of wealthy nations sending you ammunition and fresh troops, the only way to get ahead is to wear the alien’s flesh as a cloak and wade, still dripping with gore, onto battlefield. The only way to increase your number was to take two consenting adults and mate them together, praying for a successful roll of the dice. That’s the kind of game we’re talking about here.
Actions are decisive, and the stakes are high. Many have compared the game to Dark Souls, but that franchise’s approach to death doesn’t truly capture what’s at stake in this game.
Once characters are wounded in Kingdom Death they must roll on a table to determine if they’ll be permanently disfigured, emotionally crippled or simply killed outright. Total party kills are common. Entire campaigns — dozens of hours of gameplay — regularly get written off as a total loss.
This game is extraordinarily hard, and extraordinarily rewarding at the same time.
For that first playtest nearly every player at the table was so interested, so engaged and so excited to play. One lamented the fact that they’d not brought their paints and brushes with them, otherwise they’d be speedpainting as we played. Another said they’d been following the game online for years and was looking forward to putting up money for a copy.
By the end of the evening my initial set of players had been so repulsed that three of the four wanted basically nothing to do with it ever again.
“Great game, just not for me,” said one.
“It feels a little rapey,” said another.
“I really like the game,” one of my players told me. “It’s exciting and it’s challenging. But the art styles are jarring. It feels like every other page was illustrated by a sex-deprived 14-year-old boy.”
That first night in Chicago wasn’t the only playtest that I ran. In my second, the players ended the night excited to carry on with the campaign. I have plans to run a second battle for them against the Screaming Antelope in a few weeks. The lengthy, brutal campaign is a mountain we’re interested in climbing together.
But after even a cursory glance at the Kickstarter campaign, no one at that table wanted anything to do with the expansions or the “narrative sculptures” available.
The gameplay was enough for them, and I’m inclined to agree.
Clockwise from upper left, the King’s Man, the Screaming Antelope and the Watcher.
I’m personally looking forward to the hobby aspect of the game. I have dozens of player character miniatures left to assemble, and I’m waiting because the customization options in the base game are so extraordinary.
I’ve been able to take pieces, individual arms and torsos and legs and weapons, and mix and match them together to create accurate representations of my most powerful characters. But those player characters are so unlike the art represented in the game manual — and the Kickstarter’s add-on items — that it feels like I’m playing a different game.
So long as I don’t engage with the art in the book, or with the universe’s larger body of lore, I feel like I can get a lot of enjoyment out of Kingdom Death. And, for the current pre-order price of $250, I think it’s an absolute steal. The campaign runs through Jan. 7.
But if you decide to buy a copy, be completely aware of what you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t for kids, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. Board games are intimate experiences that bring together diverse groups of people in real life. That’s what makes them special. Be a good steward of whatever table you play on, and be open about what’s inside before you begin to open this particular box.
There’s a reason why Crabs Adjust Humidity, Humanity Hates Trump and Cards & Punishment might sound familiar. Their cards might look familiar, too—so familiar that the popular card game Cards Against Humanity has been forced to buckle down on those and several other lookalikes.
Cards Against Humanity doesn’t own the rights to black and white cards with Helvetica font and fill-in-the-blank mechanics. They don’t own the rights to the acronym “C.A.H” or to all uses of the word “humanity.” And yet, several card games with—let’s just say—extreme similarities to Cards Against Humanity complain that the blockbuster tabletop game for self-described “horrible people” is bullying them over intellectual property. (Ironically, Cards Against Humanity absorbed its own mechanics from the family-friendly card game Apples to Apples.)
In May, Cards Against Humanity pushed to remove Humanity Hates Trump from Kickstarter, where the self-described “expansion pack to Cards Against Humanity”—unofficially, of course—had raised over $20,000 dollars. Kickstarter obligingly removed the game to avoid an intellectual property dispute. Humanity Hates Trump’s creator, the toy company SCS Direct, claims “corporate bullying.” In April, SCS Direct filed a complaint with the District Court for the District of Connecticut alleging that the popular card game “wrongfully and without justification made infringement assertions” against them.
Humanity Hates Trump hasn’t yet served the complaint, so no one there has received it in a formal legal sense. They say they want to work it out outside court.
Co-creator Max Temkin describes Cards Against Humanity as “a free party game for horrible people.” On Kickstarter in 2011, heraised $15,000, three times the funding goal, to print the sardonic card game professionally. 80 black and 420 white cards comprised its core set, which players can also print at home at no cost. That’s possible because Cards Against Humanity has a Creative Commons license, so anyone can “use, remix, and share the game for free.”
There was something viral about Cards Against Humanity—or, at least, viral in a 2011 sense. The game was a sensation. Of course other tabletop designers wanted to join in on the fun. Free, unofficial expansions and interpretations of Cards Against Humanity cropped up everywhere, which Temkin says he relishes, so long as they follow the rules. Temkin told me he loves fan-made Cards Against Humanity expansions and knockoffs. The caveat: “You can’t sell it without our permission.” The Cards Against Humanity fine print adds, “Please do not steal our name or we will smash you.”
For inspired designers, though, the problem with following Cards Against Humanity’s IP rule against monetizing a lookalike is that making money off a free card game is very, very hard. One of the more popular Cards Against Humanity spin-offs, aptly titled Cards Against Originality, shuttered in March, 2015. A note on the game’s website titled “That Was Fun” explains that its creator couldn’t afford hosting fees anymore, even though “three million people spent a combined 47 years playing CAO.”
Humanity Hates Trump, published by toy company SCS Direct, did monetize their product. “Make ________ great again” is one of their black cards, which white cards like “Dating your daughter” and “A Huuuge wall that the Mexicans will pay for” can complete. Check Amazon and you’ll find it for a swell $28 ($25 on their site—the same price as Cards Against Humanity). Not to be partisan, SCS Direct also sells a set of cards called Humanity Hates Hillary, Too. The Amazon pages for both games note that customers who purchase them also regularly buy Cards Against Humanity.
Like other tabletop creators who wanted to get in on the Cards Against Humanity gravy train without going broke, Humanity Hates Trump’s creators will tell you that they’re in the same “genre” as Cards Against Humanity. It’s not an expansion. It’s not a fan interpretation. SCS Direct owner Howard Greenspan told me that Humanity Hates Trump is a “base game.” But, for a base game, it sure looks a lot like Cards Against Humanity. Since its now-removed Kickstarter campaign, Humanity Hates Trump still has black and white cards. The mechanics, of course, are fill-in-the-blank. Their logo is on the bottom left. Their font was Helvetica-like, but is no longer. And, to boot, their name had the tagline, “Cards Against Everybody.” Seem familiar?
Greenspan told me that Cards Against Humanity has dominated the gaming card industry. And he doesn’t think it’s fair. “People will not produce games that compete against them just for fear of lawsuit,” he said.
After Humanity Hates Trump launched their Kickstarter, Cards Against Humanity says they started receiving e-mails from confused customers who thought the new Kickstarter was another expansion of theirs. During the election, Cards Against Humanity had actually released two Trump-related products: AmericaVotesWithCardsAgainstHumanity.com and the Donald Trump Bug Out Bag. The first was in planning for a year and a half before the election, and the second, Temkin cobbled together after Cruz dropped out of the race. “None of us knew that this Humanity Hates Trump game existed,” Temkin said. “We came up with the cutting-edge technology of making jokes about Donald Trump on our own.”
When Temkin and his team saw Humanity Hates Trump, they decided it just checked too many visual and branding boxes. There were too many similarities, a critical mass. It confused fans. Cards Against Humanity asked them to make some adjustments to the design and name—perhaps print the cards in colors, and not black and white. Change the font. Something. Humanity Hates Trump did make some changes to the original design (which, Greenspan insists, was for “virtual cards”), but they’re not happy about it. “They don’t own the right to ‘humanity,’” Greenspan said. “There’s been black and white cards since the beginning of time.”
Temkin thinks that’s a total mischaracterization. He’s been to Target. He’s seen dozens of black and white card games. He said, “Some third-party expansions people publish—they want to publish cards that we don’t think are in good taste for Cards Against Humanity. If people think we made those packs, that’s embarrassing to us. No one owns a patent on the game mechanics. The issue is, if the thing looks so similar to us — the packaging and the typeface and all those factors — the public is expecting us to take accountability for those things. At some point we have to stand up for ourselves and say, ‘We don’t wanna stand behind this.’”
It’s happened before. Cards & Punishment creator Josh Perkins told me he originally printed his unofficial Cards Against Humanity expansion in black and white with black, white and red fonts. Now, the cards are dark blue and yellow. Perkins told me he’s “not interested in biting the hand that feeds” and changed his cards after Cards Against Humanity contacted him. He added that he “made the recommended changes to try to avoid any legal battles. We do this for fun, sell a small volume, and don’t make much money from this venture. It wasn’t worth the cost of the battle, and like their printer bluntly told me on the phone with a thick Jersey accent, ‘These boys have a lot of extra money.’” On its website, Cards & Punishment cutely describes itself as “an unofficial, unauthorized, underground, black market expansion pack for the most excellent party game, Cards Against Humanity (TM).”
Last year, Crabs Adjust Humidity, published by Vampire Squid Cards, corresponded with Cards Against Humanity about desired changes. Their cards too are black and white with a small red, crab icon on the bottom right. Their acronym, hilariously, mimics Cards Against Humanity’s. The fonts too look similar. Over e-mail, Vampire Squid Cards owner Michael Kohler claims he tried “to forge a coexistence agreement,” but that Cards Against Humanity “insisted on some clauses to the contact that we simply couldn’t agree to.” They have a case in front of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Kohler added, “We’re disappointed by CAH’s decision to oppose our registration of the Crabs Adjust Humidity trademarks, which we have been using for more than two and a half years. They never seemed to have a problem with our trademarks until recently. In fact, early on they told us that Crabs Adjust Humidity’s packaging ‘works for us.’” Right now, the status of their trademark claim reads “opposition pending.”
Cards Against Humanity kind of has to be a bully in these situations. While they encourage lookalikes, Cards Against Humanity draws the line at what co-creator Max Temkin calls “commercial exploitation.” Trade dress, a kind of intellectual property that applies to the general look of a product, is what’s at play. Just think of how Coca-Cola’s glass bottle signifies their brand—that’s trade dress. If a company doesn’t assert their ownership of a “look,” they might lose it.
Video game lawyer Stephen McArthur, who says he is fascinated by the back-and-forth between Cards Against Humanity and games in its genre, published a blog post weighing in favor of Cards Against Humanity. Humanity Hates Trump went too far, he wrote. But he thinks Cards Against Humanity asserted their design trade dress inconsistently. “It will have a harder time making that argument in court now that it has presumably overlooked over a dozen other competitors and copycats using the exact same design aesthetic,” he said. Over the phone, McArthur elaborated that, “If Cards Against Humanity is the only game out there with black and white cards and that gameplay, if you see a second one, you’ll think it’s Cards Against Humanity. But if it’s 19-20 of them, you’re not gonna think it’s Cards Against Humanity.” When “likelihood for confusion” is the benchmark for asserting trade dress, having 19-20 lookalikes of a product can erode away that likelihood.
Temkin’s advice for those hypothetical 19-20 games “isn’t to copy how Cards Against Humanity looks or try to trick people into thinking we made your game. It’s actually much more valuable to stand out and develop your own audience,” he told me. In the competitive world of party games, who can say whether that’s true.
On Kickstarter.HumanityHatesTrump.com*, not actually Kickstarter, you can still “pledge” and receive any of ten Humanity Hates Trump packs. Humanity Hates Trump will continue to do business as long as they can on Amazon and around the web, although they’re still bitter about the plush $20,000 they missed out on. Amazon continues to direct interested consumers to Cards Against Humanity’s page.
[Update—5:05 PM]: A mention of Apples to Apples, the game that inspired Cards Against Humanity, was accidentally cut during the editing of this piece, so we’ve re-added it.
*Kickstarter.HumanityHatesTrump.com has gone down since this article’s publication.
The venerable Dungeons & Dragons franchise, the granddaddy of the modern role-playing game, is now in its 5th edition. And, to hear publisher Wizards of the Coast tell it, the sourcebooks are selling like hot cakes. More people than ever before are discovering the magic of rolling dice and telling stories with their friends, and lapsed fans are returning in droves.
For lead designer Mike Mearls, that’s created a bit of a problem. How do you keep the source material fresh for a 42-year old franchise? And, when you’re in the business of selling books, how do you make the next one more interesting than the last?
Consider a pillar of the franchise, the sourcebook known as the Monster Manual. The first, titled simply Monster Manual, was published in 1977. Since then there have been 18 iterations, some for different editions of the game with different rulesets, others with slightly different snippets of lore. But, through the decades, it’s always been roughly the same thing: An alphabetical list of monsters.
“I have this kind of personal philosophy for managing the product line,” Mearls said last month in Renton, Washington. “I don’t want to duplicate any product that’s come before. I think that if people have seen it, then it’s not really new and it’s not really exciting.”
The first Monster Manual, circa 1977.
This time around, he and his team have decided to do something a little bit different. Their next take on the Monster Manual will be called Volo’s Guide to Monsters and, for the first time, it will have a lot more character to it.
“It’s risky,” Mearls said. “In the end, it’s still a giant book full of monsters. No one would argue with that. But I just think that if that’s all the Monster Manual is, then we’re selling ourselves short. So the idea was, the kind of genesis of it, was that want to do something that’s more story oriented.”
Volo’s Guide will have a narrator — two actually. One will be Volothamp Geddarm, an over-the-top, braggadocious explorer. The other will be Elminster, the wise Sage of Shadowdale. And the two will often be at odds with one another. Their differing accounts will be scattered throughout the book, and take the shape of comments scribbled in the margin.
Wizards of the Coast wants their sourcebooks to be fun to read.
Put simply, the goal is to create a book that high-level players and dungeon masters will enjoy reading. The goal, in the end, is to inspire new stories at the table, not simply reinforce the lore of the Forgotten Realms and ram storylines down player’s throats.
“I have this pet phrase I use,” Mearls said. “I like to say that we’re living in a post Game of Thrones world. Fantasy has changed.
“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”
Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.
“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”
The fantasy genre is growing up.
Mearls sees Game of Thrones as evidence of the same kind of evolution in the fantasy genre, and it’s his hope that Volo’s Guide can become a new kind of sourcebook to help bring about new kinds of stories.
So what’s inside? I’ve had an advanced digital copy for a few weeks now and I’m pretty impressed at what I’ve found.
The first third of the book is a series of deep dives on specific species of monsters. How specific? Mearls and his team lavish nearly 14 full two-column pages on beholders alone, exploring every aspect of their nature both in and out of combat.
Most of the information is great fodder for dungeon masters. How do you roleplay a beholder? How do you speak like a giant? What does their four-tier caste system contribute to goblin society? What does a gnoll chant to keep his spirits up while on the hunt? What is the lifecycle of a mind flayer?
Well, actually, I’ll let Volo himself handle that last one.
Ever wondered what a hag is most likely to drive off the used car lot, or fancied a careful examination of the kobold pantheon? It’s all in there, and something is going to light a fire in your mind and bring a richer, more memorable experience to the table.
The second third of the book might be my favorite. I’m not able to share much, but suffice it to say that with Volo’s Guide both dungeon masters and players will be able to bring new races to the table, both as player and non-player characters. That includes rules for goblins, orcs and even something called a “firbolg.”
The final third contains rules for 96 monsters that are new to fifth edition, including the Gauth and the Mindwitness.
All told, Wizards of the Coast sent over six pages to share with our readers. We’ll include the final three below.
The very last section of the book features a great add-on. It’s a nice little appendix that includes a handful of fully detailed stock NPCs. It makes the entire package a fantastic resource for dungeon masters, turning a pretty standard sourcebook into a self-contained toolkit capable of spawning dozens of different dungeons — or sparking entire campaigns — without very much prep work at all.
To create it, Mearls says his team has had to take a long hard look at Dungeons & Dragons’ oldest and most iconic creatures. Their goal was to explain them to a degree that’s never been canonically attempted before in one place.
“If you take a look at something like a mind flayer,” Mearls said, “it has that sort of ‘50s science fiction feel. It’s the creepy monster that lives under the bed and eats your brain by the end of story. But I think with a 21st century approach, you can say, ‘Well, who is the mind flayer.’ And it sounds funny, but then you start getting into it. What’s with this guy eating brains?
“Dungeons & Dragons was very much developed with this almost scientific mindset,” Mearls said. “What’s the biology of the mind flayer? But no one asked about its feelings. But when you think about, it the game tells me that mind flayer has an 18 intelligence. The highest intelligence a human can achieve, that’s their average. Literally, they walk in the room and they are the smartest being there. They are smarter than every human they’ve ever ate. So talking to us is like meeting dogs, for them. What’s that got to be like?”
Mearls says that, if the book is successful, he intends for his team to handle more of their upcoming sourcebooks in a similar way.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters will be available at your friendly local game store on Nov. 15. You can also find it on Amazon. It’s also the first Dungeons & Dragons product to have a collectible, alternate cover which you can see here .
Dungeons & Dragons has historically used attractive monsters, and especially of the female persuasion, to appeal to potential players. Busty demons and lithe wood maidens populated its source material, namely its Monster Manual, throughout the last 40 years.
With recent editions and supplements, D&D has phased out its bare-breasted female monsters and included more sexy male ones, making it clear that the game is going in a different direction. Now, as the game’s 5th edition, released in 2013, works to bring in a bigger audience, you’ll see fewer bare breasts and more abs in the Monster Manual and its Fall, 2016 supplement, Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Recent design changes to the game’s beasts reflect how D&D meditated on its own marketing practices.
Mike Mearls, the Senior Manager of D&D, told me that “In the game’s earliest years, you definitely had a sense of nudity (looking at you, topless succubus in the 1st edition DMG [Dungeon Master’s Guide]!) as something that was becoming a common counter-culture of the time.” Now, D&D is a different game. The counter-culture Mearls refers to was, for the most part, marketed to straight men.
That’s because D&D’s early fandom was mostly male. A 1978 survey puts the percentage of female fans at between .4 and 2.3 percent. The game’s disinterest in courting women was hotly discussed in early ‘80s Dragon magazine columns like “Dungeons aren’t supposed to be ‘for men only’” and “Women want equality. And why not?”. In AD&D, players could reference a “Harlot Table,” an array of twelve “brazen strumpets or haughty courtesons.” Early on, the game’s rules penalized players’ strength score if they chose to be female. It’s not hard to see how the game’s ruleset, illustrations and culture, so mired in wargaming, engendered a bit of a boys’ club
Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator, was a big pulp fantasy guy. Conan was his bible. And, in Conan, women are hot, well-endowed, and ready to get down—even enemy or non-human women. In Robert E. Howard’s “Frost Giant’s Daughter,” a sexy frost giant who, “save for a light veil of gossamer” was “naked as the day,” is used to lure the barbarian to her father and brother, who would kill him. It’s the classic femme fatale trope, Mearls explained. Greek myths and European folk tales, from which D&D take inspiration, often use these non-human women as vulnerable lures or fierce beasts. Mearls said, “I imagine in the early, male-dominated years of the hobby that took root and became a cliché.”
“I think there was a feedback cycle where the inner circle of fandom was mostly male, that group gave feedback on what they liked, and you had art that delivered what they wanted,” Mearls said. For D&D’s Monster Manual, the game’s first hardcover supplement, that was especially the case.
Mariliths, Erinyes, Lamias and other female monsters are canonically naked with large breasts in the late ‘70s AD&D (the Dryad is hiding behind a tree in a tattered dress). AD&D’s Monster Manual also features a completely naked succubus, crouching down with her arms covering her nipples. It makes sense—a succubus is traditionally seductive, and appears naked in ancient sculpture and Medieval paintings. But in AD&D, 2e 3.5e or 4e—between the late ‘70s and ‘00s—-there was no male aspect of that mythological paradigm, no incubus. He finally appears in a 4th edition supplement, the Demonomicon, in 2010, two years after 4th edition’s release.
Monster Manual canon added the incubus in 2013’s 5th edition, D&D’s Lead Rules Developer Jeremy Crawford explained to me, to “echo the wondrous variety in the human experience and in the myths that muse on that experience.”
If a creature is canonically sexy, Mearls confirmed, D&D’s 5th edition team designed it with a male and female form. In 5e, the ncubus happens to resemble a Buffy character—definitely a bid for straight women’s interest (in the Demonomicon, he’s fully-armored, cross-armed and leaning back in a chair). “We’re equal opportunity cheesecake merchants,” Mearls added. “We don’t assume heterosexual male players.”
Crawford elaborated, “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why should we add an incubus to our game?’ The question should be, ‘Why was the incubus taken away?’ Why is only half of the succubus/incubus tradition being carried forward by so many games?”
My early years with D&D can answer that question. The first or second time I played in college, my buddy Sam showed me a picture of the nymph in the 3.5 edition Monster Manual. He flipped through the book and paused on her, a slender, red-haired woman wearing only a thin cloth. She rose from the water, the fabric sheer and revealing her every detail. (The nymph is a staple of the AD&D Monster Manual, and in the next Monster Manual edition, she’s wearing the same sheer dress as she is in 3.5.) That, Sam said, is what got him into the role-playing game.
What he said stuck with me. A few days ago, I followed up with him and asked him for more details. He told me that, when he was 12 at summer camp and horny as hell, he got introduced to D&D. The nymph was the first thing that grabbed him. He said, “When I saw that image of that nymph, I was excited, not just because I was turned on, but because, strangely, it wasn’t weird. We were just fantasy nerds saying ‘oh, man, sexy nymph.’” He felt like a part of a community that accepted him.
“Because of the fantasy of D&D, I felt safe in my attraction to her. It played a role in my personal sexual awakening,” he said. Later, he bought some D&D books and accessories. D&D’s edginess, which helped connect my friend Sam to his first D&D party, seduced people on the outskirts of mainstream culture.
Mearls explained that he thinks“it was natural to gravitate toward art that, at the time, would’ve been considered edgy and ‘out there.’” And much of that art showcased ripe, young lady monsters—still ubiquitous in bedroom fantasy posters and figurines.
I never really identified with that. Sure, there were ripped male demons in the D&D Monster Manual. But that wasn’t a lure for me, and in any case, those monsters’ design didn’t really appeal to me or my straight, female friends. I loved the idea of communal storytelling, of escapism, of gaming a very strict (and at that point, complicated) ruleset to get an intended outcome. The nymph, for me, felt a little off-putting. It was so obviously engineered to turn on straight men. Was there anything about the game’s monsters obviously engineered for me?
By the 4th edition of D&D, the nymph is absent from the Monster Manual. By 5th, it’s clear that she’s gone for good. In an e-mail, Mearls said that nymphs were simply unpopular monsters among Dungeon Masters. 5th edition was designed after crowdsourced playtesting, and over 175,000 responses from early testers confirmed that gamers prefer elder brains and beholders, apparently, to monster boobs.
“When we considered the audience, we tried to think of how men and women would react, and make sure the reaction we elicited was in keeping with the monster’s character and the design intent,” Mearls said.
In the 5th edition of the Monster Manual, nudity is still there when it needs to be—but, when breasts can be covered, generally, they are. Even the harpie, canonically unashamed of her body, is crouched such that none of her lady-bits are visible. Bare breasts are absent from Volo’s Guide, the latest supplement to the Monster Manual out in October of this year, in what Mearls says was a conscious effort to “make sure that the art we presented was as appealing to as wide an audience as possible.” Probably the most stereotypically “sexy” female monster in Volo’s Guide is the Yuan-Ti Nightmare Speaker, a dark, muscled woman in a tight halter top with a snakelike torso. Her male counterpart, the Yuan-Ti Pit Master, is long-haired, hard-bodied and undeniably sexy.
It’s worth noting that D&D itself encourages players to riff on what’s in the source material. A Yuan-Ti Nightmare Speaker can be naked in your campaign. The nymph can exist, and she can be wearing a boa and red platforms. How sexy you want your monsters to be all depends on the creativity of your Dungeon Master. For new audiences getting introduced to the game, though, a more toned-down or even sexuality across genders may prove more seductive to diverse audiences.
Top-ranked female chess players have been told that if they want to compete in next year’s world championships, they’ll have to wear hijabs—because the competition will be held in Iran.
Grandmasters have accused the World Chess Federation’s Commission for Women’s Chess of ignoring the implicit sexual and religious discrimination, reports the Telegraph.
US women’s champion Nazi Paikidze told CNN she would not participate unless the championship venue was changed.
“I am deeply upset by this,” she said. “I feel privileged to have qualified to represent the US at the Women’s World Chess Championship and to not be able to due to religious, sexist, and political issues is very disappointing.”
It has been illegal in Iran for women to go without a hijab since 1979. Failing to comply can lead to arrests and fines.
Former Pan American champion Carla Heredia echoed Paikidze’s concerns, telling The Telegraph that no institution or government should force women to wear hijabs. “This violates all what sports means. Sport should be free of discrimination by sex, religion and sexual orientation,” she added.
The chair of the Commission for Women’s Chess, American grandmaster Susan Polgar, urged players to respect “cultural differences.”
“I have travelled to nearly 60 countries. When I visited different places with different cultures, I like to show my respect by dressing up in their traditional style of clothing. No one asked me to do it. I just do it out of respect,” she said. “I personally would have no issues with wearing a head scarf (hijab) as long as it is the same to all players.”
We reached out to the World Chess Federation—which is also known by its French acronym, FIDE—for comment, and will update this post when we hear back.
For Stefan Pokorny, said buildings are castles and caverns, cities and sewers. But he’s not building them for people to walk through or to have displayed in museums. He’s crafting them for use in Dungeons & Dragons games.
Pokorny—who has a master’s degree in painting—is the founder of Dwarven Forge, where he has spent the past 20 years creating environments for use in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. He’s raised over $6.4 million in various Kickstarter campaigns, and was also recently the focus of the documentary The Dwarvenaut, which was released on video-on-demand on August 5.
This year’s Castle Builder Kickstarter brought in $1.7 million, and included pre-configured packages like a Wizard’s Outpost, a Gate House, The Sorcerer’s Sanctum, and even a $1500 – $1950 Royal Stronghold. Each piece is detailed down to the very brick, modular, and also works with the past sets that the Forge has created.
Motherboard caught up with Pokorny to talk about his creation process, why he doesn’t regret giving up painting for castles, and of course, Dungeons and Dragons.
Motherboard: When did you initially get interested in art and sculpting, and the design work that you do now?
Stefan Pokorny: I started playing D&D when I was 12, but I didn’t embark on the artistic stuff, until [I] went to art and design high school, around the age of 16. Although, I had been drawing ever since I was a little kid. So, I was always artistically inclined, but I didn’t have formal training until I went to art and design high school.
And, the same time, I was always playing D&D, so being a very creative game it was sort of the same vein.
How did you first get introduced to D&D? What brought you to start playing?
At summer camp I had an archery counselor named Doug who introduced us all to D&D. He used to…show up in a cloak, walking stick, and bring his books and roll us up some characters and we were like, I don’t know, 12 or 13 at the time and [he] just introduced us to it. It was weird, these funny shaped and all these weird game methods, it was pretty cool. Ever since then, I guess I was hooked.
With your training, what did you want to do? Did you want to be a painter? Was that the original plan?
Oh yeah. My parents wanted me to be like the next Picasso or Michelangelo. But they tolerated the game, they were like “Well, it’s creative too and…if it keeps him out of trouble.”. When I made the company in 1996, that was when my artistic training and my hobby for D&D came together, I was like “I can sculpt walls to go along with these beautiful miniatures.” But I guess really what got me started was the miniatures were so detailed and beautiful, and I started painting them. But there was only like graph paper to put it on. And so I decided “Wow, we need an environment to go along with the miniatures.” And I couldn’t find any that were really any good, so I decided to make it myself.
Image: Film Buff.
And that’s when the light bulb went off: “We’ll make this modular dungeon and we’ll get a booth at Gen Con, a 10 foot by 10 foot booth at Gen Con, and we sold out in four hours.” And we knew we were in business.
What’s your favorite class to play in D&D?
I usually like sorcerers, magic users. And fighters, half orc fighters…I’m an adopted person, I always felt sort of like an outsider, so I like to play half orcs. I’m half Korean, half American, I relate to half orc kind of character, the outsider. And then I like sorcerers because I get to use magic and be creative.
What’s your process like for constructing, designing, and actually making these sets?
You start by sketching out the idea. Then you take this soft putty and sculpt it in miniature. Once it’s sculpted in miniature in this soft putty you then make a rubber mold off the original sculpture. And from that rubber mold you can then make the solid master.
Once you have that master, and you can make more than one of them, I would make one that’s painted and one that’s just the master, unpainted. And I would send the unpainted and the painted piece to China and then they would make their own molds off of the master and they would look at the painted piece and copy the painted piece by hand and then send me back the sample and say “OK, we’ve received your master and here’s our sample of how we can copy it and this is our paint sample and this is how much it would cost us to make like 5000 of these.”
Image: Marco Silva.
That’s basically how it goes. Now, we do million dollar projects, but it’s still pretty much the same. We make a piece by hand and then they send it to the factory. Although now we use metal molds, the metal molds are now very expensive. Thousands of dollars.
Last year’s Kickstarter I think we spent $750,000 on metal molds. Very expensive…they’re so big you have to lift them with a crane to put them into the machine, and then you start cranking out these pieces that we now make in a substance we call Dwarvenite.
That was a compound that you guys developed, right?
Yeah, because before we used to make them out of polyester resin and they were sort of brittle and breakable. Now we make them out of a more plastic type PVC, so customers love they don’t break. You can bounce them off the wall. Let their kids play with it without fear.
You mentioned that you are using a lot of magnets for the Castle set. What are you using the magnets for?
Well, I’m not sure if you looked closely at the Castle Kickstarter, but it’s made up of pieces that stick to the walls of the towers, they’re like pins. And so, if you want to look inside a tower you can just pull off the wall. And then you can see inside the tower…so that’s been one of our big innovations is that you can use the castle to play your miniature game, because you can just pull the wall off and see what’s happening inside the castle. The gamers are really excited about that.
Image: Film Buff.
Now we’re trying to make sure that works properly. We made prototypes. No one’s ever tried anything like this before, so it’s a little nerve-racking.
But we think it’s going to be awesome. Totally modular castle. You can take all the floors off, look inside, and you can play with it. You can use it in doing your battles. And then we even have ruined sections, you can replace a wall for ruined wall, so if you hit it with a catapult you can change the wall. And obviously the whole thing is modular so you can take it apart and rebuild it as something else. That’s what the value is, that it’s useable again and again.
Did You think you’d be doing this for 20 years?
No, it was always supposed to be an extra income for me so I could survive as a painter. And then it just took over, and now it’s become my artistic medium. Some people ask me, “Do you lament the fact that no you’re no longer a painter” and I thought, well…yeah, I sacrificed my career in painting, it really wasn’t going anywhere at the time. I was a realistic painter during a time when abstraction was the main thing, so I wasn’t getting any breaks. I used my skills at doing realistic stuff to make realistic dungeons.
And what I’ve discovered over the course of these 20 years is that, it’s a much friendly and much happier place for an artist to be. I feel like the art world is so cutthroat and full of people that just treat artists like dogs, but in the gaming world people love what you do and they’re very friendly and I’ve met the greatest people. It’s just such a much nicer atmosphere.
And then when I create something, if I create a sculpture of a cavern, it’s like my artwork, and I get to share it with thousands of people. And then when they get it, they get to use that creatively, and share that with their friends. It keeps getting used. It’s a much happier destiny for my artwork than a picture that would just go in somebody’s back room.
This War Of Mine: The Board Game is the tabletop adaptation of the award-winning video game that pictures the drama of civilians trapped in a war-torn city.
You will enter this experience as a group of civilians trapped in a besieged and conflict-ridden city, enduring many hardships that often test the essence of humanity.
During day time you will take shelter in a ruined tenement house, which you will care about and manage by: removing rubble, searching through various rooms (often behind barricaded doors), you will build beds, improvised workshops, stoves, tools, water filters, small animal traps, you will cultivate an improvised vegetable garden, fix the tenements’ shelled facilities, reinforce the security of your shelter and should winter come, you’ll try to keep it warm.
Upon nightfall your main duties will consist of guarding your shelter and what little possessions you can accumulate against bandits and raiders. Those in your group fit for such a task will use the cover of the night to carefully explore dozens of the ever-changing locations scattered throughout the dangerous city in search of all the things that a person needs to survive (materials, food, meds, equipment, etc.). On your way you will meet tens of characters, each with a unique story (residents of the locations you visit, thieves, bandits, soldiers, war victims, refugees, neighbors, traders and members of local communities), each encounter is a potential, unique adventure. To guide you through all these events you will have the special SCRIPTS mechanism, responsible for implementing the deep and complex story and a coherent plot (each game will be unique and different than the previous).
Your goal is to SURVIVE until cessation of war hostilities. During your struggle as the survivors you will experience dramas connected with making extremely difficult decisions and choices (you will have to face the consequences of your actions sooner or later in the playthrough). The survival itself will often prove not to be enough. The price, each of you will decide to pay, might be too high in the final outcome. So the goal is really to survive in a way that will let you live on with the decisions you made. The EPILOGUES mechanism will kick in here.
TWOM The Board Game features multiplayer experience for up to 6 players, as well as a solo variant. You will be able to personify one of the well known characters from the electronic version of the game
and face hundreds of new challenges and difficult choices.
The boardgame significantly broadens the original game’s universe and emphasises the depth of plot, yet its main focus will be on human interactions driven by survival instinct and group decision-making.
Project aims to omit the usual boardgame threshold – TWOM the board game is an INSTANT PLAY game, with no need for reading the manual before starting the adventure.
Experience the simulation of a struggle for survival as a group of civilians facing the blind and merciless war.