Poor Benedict Cumberbird. He wanted so badly to flex those deductive muscles for the interview! An embarrassing showing for the Aarakocra Investigator to be sure. It’s important to remember that it could be worse though. With Assassin lurking about the candidate pool, our poultry PI is lucky to be alive! One shudders to think what might befall Oracle’s finalist candidate in Part 3 of this interview arc.

While the Anti-Party carry on with their hiring process, what say the rest of us depart the land of oubliettes and ouroboroi for a strange interlude less conventional genre? Earlier this week I finally got the chance to GM a Powered by the Apocalypse one-shot. For those of you unfamiliar with PbtA, the family of games is part of the “fiction first” style of RPG, cutting down on crunchy mechanics in favor of collaborative narrative. The focus on messy relationships and group (as opposed to GM-led) storytelling means that everyone helps to shoulder some of the world-building load. That turned out to be a good thing in my case, as I doubt I’d have come up with a proper Thirsty Sword Lesbians setting by my lonesome.

The setting is every bit as over-the-top as it sounds, with equal parts camp and angst. Our group settled on the book’s Sparkle Heart Magic Force Go!  premise, a Sailor Moon-esque romp through friendship and glitter-based magical attacks. We modified the shit out of it though. Here’s the starting pitch from the book to give you an idea:

It’s been years since the Mystical Guardians of the Sparkle Heart received their call to arms. Seemingly ordinary college students transformed to battle the Eidolons, otherworldly monsters of eerie beauty and vicious intent. Thanks to the Mystical Guardians, the gate was sealed—just in time for finals! The PCs parted ways after graduation, and the Sparkle Heart became a distant memory. Years later, they’re going to have to remember their power and their friendship to confront a new threat.

My contribution was a “20 year reunion” premise, with the band getting back together on-campus in middle age. Things quickly spiraled away from my expectations however, as my players variously suggested a sci-fi setting, a college campus tethered to Earth by diamond space elevators, and replacing the conventional magical girl transformation with freaking mecha. All of this sounds like a great premise on paper, but the basic moves took me a long way from my D&D comfort zone.

You see, the game’s basic skill checks include things like “emotional support” and “finally kiss, in a dangerous situation.” That’s immediately evocative. Every geek in the room flashes on any and every shōjo product they’ve ever encountered. But when you swap the play loop of the dungeon (enter room > encounter hazard > overcome hazard) for the play loop of emotional engagement (encounter NPC > understand trauma > commiserate), figuring out how to stage that mess can be one hell of a paradigm shift.

As players, we are often told to remember options beyond combat. We’ve even done that comic ourselves. And like we said way back when, actually talking to the monster rather than stabbing it can be good policy, resulting in friendship rather than bloodshed. But as GMs, I think it’s equally important to prep sessions with a different set of assumptions in mind. Because I found myself unexpectedly flummoxed by, “How do you run an emotionally fraught college reunion?” And I think that a good storyteller ought to be able to engage more narratives than “kill the monster.”

So what do you say, GMs of Handbook-World? Have you ever found yourself running a romance / investigation / social session? How do you change your approach to session prep when you want to emphasize character relationships rather than murder? Tell us all about your own less-lethal campaigns and fiction-first gamer moments down in the comments!


ARE YOU AN IMPATIENT GAMER? If so, you should check out the “Henchman” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. For just one buck a month, you can get each and every Handbook of Heroes comic a day earlier than the rest of your party members. That’s bragging rights right there!