Review of Low Stakes by Craig Campbell (Art by Ashley McCammon)

RPG lite for the creatures of the nite

Alex G. Friedman

TTRPGs usually start with a founding fictional text they are trying to turn into gameplay. Lord of the Rings, Interview with the Vampire, Call of Cthulhu: Each of these spawned their own games. In modern times, we expect the systems that have arisen to answer these fantasies to be able to cover the new fantasies we conjure for each other. Yet, fiction tends to find or adopt storytelling styles that don’t neatly fit into our TTRPG systems, even as these systems expand and broaden their concepts. (My friends and I were briefly obsessed with capturing Mystery Men in TTRPG form, with some success.) So I can understand why, faced with creating a wholly new game or attempting to live the What We Do in the Shadows fantasy in Vampire: The Masquerade, Craig Campbell and his team opted for the former. Thankfully, they were successful.

Low Stakes is a GM-less rules-light RPG with a heavy emphasis on improvisation and story structure. It runs smoothly with a group of four adults with above average reading and improvising proficiency in about two and a half hours. For the purposes of this review, I played sessions with two different groups of four adults who varied widely in terms of familiarity with the source material* and TTRPGs.

Low Stakes weighs in at 34 pages. These are divided into a lean 14 pages of setup and rules, 10 pages of character options, and 10 pages of story options (seven episodes and instructions to build your own). The game does not assume that players are familiar with improv games, so the rules begin with a concise breakdown of that concept. The rules can be read or described very easily in 15 to 20 minutes, characters can be created in five, and the story outline is best determined by a few rolls of the dice. Within half an hour of being handed the book, a group should be ready to play. Materials required are pens, paper, and a fistful of D6s. 

Low Stakes is a delightful book in both PDF and print-on-demand formats. The PDF reads well on a phone, tablet, or e-ink reader. The print-on-demand book is an inexpensive softcover, but the paper quality is high enough that I was able to repair a minor spill on an interior page with a little soap-and-water dabbing, no harm done. McCammon’s art is charming and presents a diverse cast of weirdos. Five of McCammon’s illustrations are present here, and while I always like more art in a book like this, it feels well populated enough due to the book’s layout. McCammon’s aesthetic is cute, textured, humorous, and packs plenty of pathos. Low Stakes is well laid out and well edited. My only complaint with the book is that it lacks a spine and will get lost in most physical displays. That said, McCammon’s cover art stands out very well in digital libraries.  

The character options and storylines support a much broader scope of play than simply running a derivative retelling of What We Do in the Shadows. Rules are included to play as a human, vampire, psychic vampire, werewolf, ghost, and spellcaster. There is an “other” option for any other horror story trope or beast you might invent. Storylines present account for sitcom scripts that fit within two standard deviations of the collected bell curve of 20th and 21st century television. It would take a group roughly 15 hours to play through the content provided. In our two playtest games, one featured a Lady Bathory-type vampire and her variously creepy housemates dealing with a plumbing disaster (bathing in the blood of virgins generates a lot of laundry). The second featured a witch running a taxidermied bird-themed B&B haunted by a couple of flighty ghosts and a would-be murderous butler. We enjoyed both games immensely and by halfway through the second we had mastered the rules. 

Gameplay in Low Stakes involves managing a couple of resources and once-per-game actions during improvised scenes with the objective of trading the upper-hand over other player character’s actions for better outcomes at the end of the story. While it is largely GM-less, certain game mastery duties are traded as part of the power trading gameplay cycle. Every player will generally get to act in every power dynamic role during a session as long as they play their resources when given the opportunity. Anyone with a basic understanding of television storytelling will find that the gameplay naturally flows with the storytelling framework of the game, usually with humorous and rewarding results. The most difficult part of the game is remembering to use your Confessionals, moments where your character speaks candidly to an imagined audience in order to shift the dynamic of a scene to your advantage (or gain resources). Representing resources physically with pawns or coins is usually enough to remind players to use them, but if your table forgets, it won’t break the game. The fun is in the structured improvisation and weird characters. If your TTRPG table collectively has a couple levels in Bard, you’ll find yourself in for a fun creative structure to play with.

Low Stakes is an excellent game presented in a well-dressed package. At its PDF price point, this game is a steal. NerdBurger Games has a real winner with this game and I hope it finds its audience.

*One of my players had not seen the WWDinS and I tried to explain: “It’s basically The Odd Couple but with vampires.” She replied that she had no idea what The Odd Couple was (the reference being older than the Carter administration), and I had to fumble around for an example of the format from the past decade. I settled on The Big Bang Theory (early seasons) and then promptly crumbled into Boomer-vampire corpse dust, as though exposed to the aging influence of a thousand suns.  

Review of The Anatomy of Adventure by M. T. Black

An easy-to-recommend handbook of practical scenario design blended with an indie writing career retrospective. 

Alex G. Friedman

Students of writing and design absolutely crave practical composition advice. I personally remember trying to explain as much to a professor or two during my graduate writing programs. As a neophyte, I was under the impression that if I could just follow a step-by-step guide to finish a first novel, regardless of quality, I would glean the core structure of the process. From there, I figured, it would become a skill to be honed instead of a feat to aspire toward. These days, as a professor of English myself, I see both how absolutely accurate and witheringly naive my scholarly desires were. In The Anatomy of Adventure, M. T. Black is largely successful in distilling classic TTRPG design within an accessible, entertaining essay collection. 

The Anatomy of Adventure collects ten essays about the composition, publishing, and marketing of independent D&D 5e compatible adventure content. For fans of his popular D&D 5th edition adventure line, he provides very specific behind-the-scenes examples drawn from his own library of works. Even if you haven’t read his modules, Gen-X and elder-millennial lifelong fans of D&D and other old-school TTRPGs will be treated to some tasteful nostalgia about the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons era of gaming. Those with less of a background will have picked one up by the time they finish this book. The classics provide a context for Black’s writing and business advice. It’s a fun choice that also reinforces the legacy of the hobby. 

Legacy is present in many of these essays. Black’s first essay, “Goblins in a Cave,” is about his beginnings writing adventures as pastiche projects. He describes the design and play of the famous module The Keep on the Borderlands. Black goes to lengths to explain how important “copying what you love” is to getting started as a module writer (a phrase he borrows from fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, very career forward my dude). In the third essay, “Nightmare in Amber,” Black traces the legacy of his own adventure Shadows on the Long all the way back to ideas first lifted from Clark Ashton Smith’s pulp fantasy stories by TSR author Tom Moldvay. Black’s scholarship really shines here due to his awareness of the shoulders upon which he built his career. 

These essays encourage the reader to invest in their own careers as well. Aside from practical writing advice, the fourth essay gives readers real insight into how Black has successfully marketed his work. He includes his own early missteps as well as his breakdown of his own sales and marketing numbers, down to his spreadsheets and experiments in bundling products. Another essay describes practical dungeon design with randomly generated elements. Another details incorporating interactivity within your dungeons. The Anatomy of Adventure could easily serve as the text for a junior year college course on writing adventures. If the right people read it, that scenario may actually come to fruition. M.T. Black has even written an expanded reading list to accompany his TTRPG essays on his blog.

Overall, The Anatomy of Adventure is an easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in adventure design. Even veteran players who just want a peak behind the curtain will be educated and entertained. Pick it up on his site or on DriveThruRPG.