GM Tricks: Arbitrary Links as Imagination Seed

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My Beyond the Wall game is a Westmarches-style hexcrawl, for the most part. The players are from a small village situated on the edge of a deadly wilderness, but the “settled” lands are also filled with adventure locations (largely safer ones for low-level characters not yet ready to venture into a forest of razor-sharp thorns). I’ve been thwarted for years by attempts to make a hexcrawl, due to the sheer amount of creation involved, until, finally, for this campaign, I hit upon the following idea.

First off, I didn’t try to fill every single hex with content. Instead, I used BtW‘s conception of distance bands (near hexes are those within a close radius, moderate hexes are the next band of that distance, and far hexes are the band after that), and decided that I’d use an alphabet key for each band. Basically, of the 37 “near” hexes, only 26 have significant content, as do 26 of the “moderate” hexes. Other than the players’ home town being A1 right in the center, the hexes that got a letter were determined randomly.

This still leaves space for things I might decide to add later, but coming up with 52 locations across a 7-hex radius was much less daunting than filling in every single one of them. I had a pool of general ideas for locations I might want to have in the game (like a haunted farmhouse, a crossroads, a giant inn, and the old watchtower required by one of the threat packs I’m using), and then filled in the rest with the random location generator from BtW.

But none of that is the trick.

The trick is that, at this point, all I had were some vaguely atmospheric locations and a few ideas for how some of them hooked into the overall campaign themes and threats. So next, I made a spreadsheet*. In addition to salient data about the location’s key letter, name/description, and overall position within the world, it got a couple of useful columns: clue to near, and clue to moderate. Each location would hold some kind of clue to how to find one other location in the near band, and one in the far band, and some kind of useful details about those other locations. And each location would get used the same number of times (so each location essentially has two out clues and two in clues).

Some of the locations were easy. Obviously the haunted farmhouse (which was secretly the home base of goblins trying to scare people away) would be a good place to put a clue to the goblin market location. But most of the connections wound up being fairly arbitrary: when you only have one location without a clue, and one location that can take a clue, you match them up.

And this became the trick to filling in these locations with interesting details. On the spreadsheet, I could now see that each vague location had some kind of clue to two other vague locations. And that clue would inform both sides.

Why is the estate of rival nobles getting a clue from the old battlefield and sending a clue to ancient ruins? I already know they’re nobles that are good at farming, but maybe they have an inferiority complex about it. Maybe they’re trying to find proof that they’re actually an extremely old noble house in order to raise their prestige among the other nobles. Boom. The old battlefield now has a roleplay encounter with archaeologists hired by the family to dig for relics of the family’s armies, and if the players follow it up they can get hired by the noble family to hunt for further proof in the ancient ruins.

Not only is every location now findable without just having to go hex-by-hex, but each location has four data points to spur imagination about why it’s interesting and how it fits into the larger world.

And the GraphViz of the connections is pretty neat too:


* My next step is almost always to make a spreadsheet.

Savage Angels, Conversion Rules

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I’ve been running the No Soul Left Behind campaign for Better Angels for several months now. While the campaign is great and the setting of the core RPG is awesome, we couldn’t really wrap our heads around using the trait system effectively. I’ll probably get around to doing a system review one of these days, but the upshot is that the translation of abstract vices and virtues into concrete rolls to accomplish something never gelled, and my players finally asked me to convert to a system with a more traditional trait system.

I wound up choosing Savage Worlds, for a few reasons: it seems pretty resilient to hacking, I already have the Super Powers Companion for a game that never wound up happening, and it’s pretty easy to grok (plus one of the players already has a lot of Deadlands experience and was one of my review playtesters when I originally tried Savage Worlds).

My goal was to keep the central struggle of Better Angels, which is that the more powerful you become, the closer you are to getting dragged to hell. So the main change to Savage Worlds supers proper is the bolting on of a translation of Better Angels‘ vices and how they relate to powers, sinning, and damnation. This conversion also takes a lot of inspiration from Smallville, insofar as the vice you pick to roll is based on your agenda for the conflict.

The below assumes familiarity with Better Angels and Savage Worlds (and its Super Powers Companion).


Your wild die (a d6 in standard Savage Worlds) is replaced by a die for whatever vice is your primary motivation for the conflict/scene (e.g., if you have Greed d8, Espionage d10, and Breaking and Entering d6, you’d roll d8+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to steal something but d10+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to get information).

  • Greed: Your motivation in the conflict is to gain something for yourself (typically of permanent value): this is generally something that you feel will be useful to you, particularly in the long term (short-term gains may actually be another motivation). If no other value seems appropriate, Greed can also be used for crime- and economics-related challenges.
  • Espionage (with elements of Gluttony): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your physical needs (anything that makes you feel good physically, including getting into a fight not because you’re angry, but just because you enjoy the thrill) or to discover something secret. If no other value seems appropriate, Espionage can also be used for academics- and perception-related challenges.
  • Cruelty (with elements of Wrath): Your motivation in the conflict is anger: you are pissed off in general and that’s driving your behavior or you specifically hate the opponent. If no other value seems appropriate, Cruelty can also be used for violence-related challenges.
  • Cowardice (with elements of Sloth): Your motivation in the conflict is to not be involved in the conflict: you have no other agenda beyond not submitting to the opponent’s agenda or not being bothered in the first place. If no other value seems appropriate, Cowardice can also be used for athletics-related challenges.
  • Corruption (with elements of Lust): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your psychological needs: generally this is an urge to be loved or otherwise appreciated, but it may involve going after something that will make you feel good emotionally in the short term. If no other value seems appropriate, Corruption can also be used for seduction- and impression-related challenges.
  • Deceit (with elements of Envy): Your motivation in the conflict is to try to exceed the qualities of someone you feel is better then you, to spite someone who has something you don’t have, or to pull one over on a sucker. If no other value seems appropriate, Deceit can also be used for stealth- and deception-related challenges.
  • Pride (Special, See Below): Your motivation in the conflict is to prove your superiority over someone else and prove that you’re the better person (or villain); since this could theoretically apply to almost anything for prideful characters, any other appropriate value should be considered as motivation first before pure pride is the dominant value. If no other value seems appropriate, Pride can also be used for diplomacy- and leadership-related challenges.

Raising Vices

In any scene in which you used a vice (or a power keyed to a vice) and your demon is active, the rating of your vice can go up by one die step. You must have both used the vice and accomplished one of the following things (as argued by the Screwtape):

  • Greed: Stole something you didn’t need (double bump for something priceless you didn’t even want)
  • Espionage: Gloated in victory or consumed something bigger than your head (double bump for totally suborning someone with illicit knowledge or consuming something so big you shouldn’t be able to do so)
  • Cruelty: Killed or permanently maimed a person/lovable animal or destroyed something of real value (double bump for a massacre or mass property damage)
  • Cowardice: Humiliated someone or sat by idly while something awful happened that you could have easily stopped (double bump for killing someone with a death trap or permanently maiming someone through torture)
  • Corruption: Made someone your minion or seduced someone that should know better (double bump for getting lots of minions all at once or completely suborning a hero’s ally through your charm and wiles)
  • Deceit: Betrayed and mocked someone that trusted you or seriously hurt someone because you were jealous of them (double bump for killing an ally or ruining someone out of jealousy)
  • Pride: Claimed that you were invincible and proved to your enemies that you were right; also special:
    • Whenever a vice would be raised over d12, it resets to d8 and your Pride goes up by one die step. (If you get a double bump while at d12, your Pride goes up by one die step and your vice resets to d10.)
    • If your Pride would exceed d12, this begins the process of dragging you to hell (it goeth before a fall… needless to say, don’t claim you’re invincible unless you’re planning to job it and get beaten).


In order to lower a vice, you must forego a wild die for the whole scene (rather than using a vice-based wild die), succeed on at least one test where the outcome matters, and accomplish something opposed to the vice you want to lower:

  • Greed: Help someone with no expected gain or give away something of high value to yourself
  • Espionage: Learn something new and important through above-board means or deny yourself something physical you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Cruelty: Demonstrate mercy when it would be much safer and more expedient not to or protect someone at actual risk to yourself
  • Cowardice: Lose a conflict that costs you substantially (rather than running away) or go out of your way to accomplish something the right way when there was a much easier way to do it wrong
  • Corruption: Admit that you did something wrong and work to make up for it or deny yourself something emotional you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Deceit: Tell a truth that is injurious to you or your interests or help out someone you hate at cost to yourself because you know your hatred is irrational

In order to lower Pride by one step:

  • You must lower a vice below d4 (it resets to d8).
  • You must simultaneously humiliate yourself in a lasting way that will have huge consequences for your reputation.
  • If Pride would go below d4, instead reduce another vice by one step (the dominant vice still resets to d8).
  • If all of your vices are d4, you can attempt Exorcism.


The normal Savage Worlds skills are replaced with:

  • Pretending to Be What You Ain’t (Acting/Deception)*
  • Playing Sports and Shit (Athletics)
  • Hacking, Cracking, and Social Media (Computers)
  • Grand Theft Auto (Driving/Piloting/Boating)
  • The Old Ultraviolence (Fighting)
  • Taking Slugs Out of Your Buddy (Healing)
  • Scaring the Hell out of Someone (Intimidation)*
  • Digging up Dirt, Looking for Clues (Investigation/Tracking)
  • That Shit You Learned in School (Knowledge)**
  • Breaking and Entering (Lockpicking/Security)
  • Good Looking Out (Notice)
  • Getting People to Do What You Want (Persuasion)*
  • Making Shit and Fixing It (Repair/Crafts)
  • Downrange Violence (Shooting/Throwing)
  • Lurking, Prowling, and Generally Skulking (Stealth)
  • Being Down With the Street (Streetwise/Gambling)*
  • Camping and Outdoorsy Shit (Survival/Riding)
  • Being a Mean Girl (Taunt)*

* Uses Charisma bonus
** Not required to be bought as individual skills (unlike normal Savage Worlds)

Powers and Aspects

Powers and Aspects are rebuilt using the rules from the Super Powers Companion as a guideline. In general:

  • Powers scale in effect pegged to the associated vice die (roughly equal to the value of the die; e.g., at a d6, it’s got 6 power points worth of effect, and at d12 it’s got 12 points worth of effect).
  • Aspects scale in effect pegged the higher of the two associated vice dice (roughly equal to twice the value of the die; e.g., Darkness-Shrouded was Devious, so it’s now pegged to Corruption + Deceit, and if your Deceit is d10, it’s got 20 points worth of effect).
  • I’ll give you little summary blocks to show where the power is at at each rating.

For how they work:

  • You can always use powers, but if you use them your demon is active and raising the associated vice is on the table for the scene (even if you didn’t roll that sin’s die at all).
  • To turn on an aspect, roll the dice for the two vices associated with the aspect:
    • If the demon is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step down the value of the vice).
    • If the mortal is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step up the value of the vice).

Example Power, That Hideous Strength (Cruelty):

  • d4: Super Strength (p. 43) +2
  • d6: Super Strength (p. 43) +2, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d8: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d10: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)
  • d12: Super Strength (p. 43) +4, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)

(For example, if your Cruelty is currently rated d8, you have the Super Strength power from page 43 of the SPC at +3 steps, and the Attack, Melee power from page 22 at the first rank.)

Other Demonic Abilities

  • Sinful Perfection: Step down the vice the player is rolling before the roll is made, but add +4 to the roll’s result.
  • Demonic Endurance: Death is not usually on the table for a hellbinder when Incapacitated. If there’s an easy way for you to escape, when Incapacitated you escape (possibly in a no-body, no-kill kind of way). If your opponents have you in a situation where that’s impossible, they’ll find themselves compelled to arrest/capture you rather than killing you. You’re only in danger of dying past Incapacitated when dark magic is on the table in the hands of someone at the end of her rope (i.e., usually, only other hellbinders can actually kill you, or a mortal that’s been pushed way too far).
  • Devilish Creativity: Use the system in the book and replace the virtue costs with Resource units. You can break one big money unit from crimes into 4 Resources. You also accumulate 1 Resource each per scenario to represent your legitimate income. When you want to make a device/improve the lair, spend Resources equal to the book’s costs (in Generosity and Knowledge) and step up a meaningfully related Vice by one. Boom, you have the device.


Secrets and surprises from Better Angels work as special-use Bennies: you can expend them to reroll a test for which they’re specifically relevant.

Character Conversion

  • Make characters normally for Savage Worlds. You don’t have to take an arcane background to get your powers (as per SPC). Edges that don’t make sense may be off the table (most of the supernatural ones, anything that makes you rich, etc.).
  • Award Savage Worlds XP based on how far you are into the campaign.
  • Convert your current Generosity to spare Resources, and your various vice ratings to the new vice rating (1 dot is a d4 up to 5 dots is a d12; if you’ve zeroed out a vice, it’s at an X and no powers associated with it function).