Bringing Fear to the Table

Hello TopSecret readers!

Today we’re going to cover a very important topic in RPGs: how to cause fear in the players. It’s very easy to invoke most emotions in the players: joy – give a new shiny thing to play with or a couple of awesome scenes; frustration – have a bad guy keep them in the same spot for sessions on end; jealously – have the other players get just slightly more; the list goes on.


But fear holds a special place. Unlike the other emotions, there are very few shortcuts to causing fear. Fear needs build up and lots of it. Things start seeming consistently off and way outside the norm: randomly all the townspeople will stop what they’re doing and stare at the PCs with hallow eyes; lately whenever the wizard casts a spell he sees a gigantic snake-like eye appear above him and voice whispers disconcerting messages quietly into his ear; the animals of the forest are acting strange, when approached by the PCs a harmless squirrel’s eyes glow red and it begins to prophesy the doom of the their loved ones, if they’re paying close attention they may notice that the squirrel is growing steadily larger during its prophesy.

There are many good ideas on build up, but they all share a couple of common themes. Good buildup makes the players feel uneasy, but even more importantly the unease stays with the players: weather it’s through their weapons, their wizard’s spells, the townspeople, the large surrounding forest, the NPC that the party really cares about, etc… making the players face that unease all the time is one of the best ways to build up to the moment of fear.

Awesome reaper image by moni158.

But what is fear and how do I get my players to feel it? It’s not the moment that the big scary monster jumps out to confront the PCs, they’ll actually be relieved that they now have something on which to take out their frustration. This is your chance to latch onto that temporary relief, to invert it and make them realize the monster/bad guy is so much worse than could have ever imagined.

For this step, there is one surefire way to make your players know fear: remove something that they believe to be constant, something that they rely on. When you do this, the monster doesn’t even need to be strong, it only needs to show that is far outside the realm of what the PCs expected. After a long and tiring chase, the fighter strikes the possessed beast of the forest down only to find that there are now two possessed beasts; in their moment of triumph over the BBEG the wizard hears an otherworldly laugh as demon forces its way into the material realm through his magic, drained of resources the party fights the demon, but they slowly realize that it’s beginning to use all of the spells that the wizards had prepared.

If you want to evoke true and immediate fear this can be taken one step father, but you should be careful when doing so, lest you cheese off your players. The last shortcut to fear is to create a monster that changes or alters the rules of the game:using a 2d6 partial success system? The monster appears and now the players can only roll 1d6. Does the party consistently rely on one single strategy? Don’t just disable it, have the monster become empowered by it: absorbing the spells or growing in size with every wound.

Fear is a difficult emotion to invoke in the players. The level of separation between a player and their character requires a consistent build up of unease and terror to overcome, punctuated by a final moment of panic as the bad guy/monster makes itself known. In the end it takes a delicate approach: do too much build up and you risk becoming cliche, bend the rules too much and you risk frustrating the players.

But if you can make your players feel true fear, they will remember it forever.

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The Winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest

Hello TopSecret Readers!

On May 9th of 2014 , TopSecret Games began accepting entries for the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest. Over the next month, TopSecret received 90 valid entries with more than 200 pages of tabletops that covered every genre from classic fantasy, to science-fiction, to beer and pretzels vampire killing, and beyond.

The breadth and depth that we saw in these Two Page Tabletops far exceeded our expectations. There were many games that contained rich and unique mechanics and settings which were deep and interesting enough to rival some full length RPGs. Unfortunately, there can only be two winners.

Every entry received a score of 0-100 from each of our three judges, resulting in a maximum possible score of 300 and a minimum of 0. Our lowest ranked entry received a score of 75, while our highest ranked entry received a score of 271. It was a tough competition, and in the end there were about a half dozen entries that were all within a mere 20 points of a winning score.

Contest Winners

Announcing the winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop contest: All Things Truly Wicked and Union of Magical Child Care Professionals. Feel free to give their creators a round of congratulations, buy them a pint, or head over to their forum threads and give them a good ole fashioned internet pat on the back.

All Things Truly Wicked

All Things Truly Wicked

Union of Magical Child Care Professionals

Union of Magical Child Care Professionals

To our winners: Congratulations on placing in the top two entries for the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest. We look forward to working with you and you should expect to see an email from TopSecret in your inbox before tomorrow.

Honorable Mentions

If you don’t see your game in one of the top two spots above, that does not mean it was not a good game. Rather, we had too many good games this competition and only two could be selected.  Please keep working your games, there are many of them that really are quite fantastic and there several that touched our judges in personal way; these are a few of those games.

Jovian Despair

The story of a lone crew’s struggle against the omnipresent dangers of space as society collapses around them. In a beautiful way, this game turned a lot of common tabletop paradigms on their head, resulting in a science-fiction game that makes the player feel like are truly part of the universe. It’s character and setting creation really blew us away, to say nothing of its other well designed mechanics. If you are at all a fan of science fiction, this game is worth a long look.

Jovian Despair

Jovian Despair


Kobold Story

Life isn’t when you’re a Kobold. Especially when your necromancer landlord keeps raising the rent on your tribe. You don’t have much money, but you do pay him back in quests:  “Stop these adventures”, “Dig up this body”, “Retrieve three pounds of beholder eye extract.  Don’t ask why I want it!”. He can be a little weird, but a Kobold’s got to make a living somewhere and where else are you going to find spacious volcanic caverns to house an entire tribe?

Kobold Story

Kobold Story

Police Cops

Have you ever wanted to be a loose cannon cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules? To drive your cop over the the ramp of semi and into the wall of building? Do you live off of coffee and donuts? Do you have the mustache of an Italian plumber? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Police Cops may just be the game for you.

Police Cops

Police Cops

That’s it for this year’s competition. Check back Wednesday as we resume our regularly scheduled gaming oriented blog posts. The newsletter will be out this Friday.

Don’t forget to offer a round of congratulations/celebratory alcohol to our winners and a round of thanks to our external judges  James D’Amato of ONE SHOT  and Critical Success and John Arcadian of; you can offer them alcohol as well.

We look forward to seeing you next year.



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Contest Winners Announced Monday the 7th

Hello TopSecret readers!

Before I write anything else, we should all give a round of thanks to our external judges:

James D’Amato of ONE SHOT  and Critical Success and John Arcadian of

The contest far exceeded our expectations with 93 official entries and 3 unscored entries. Resulting in well over two hundreds pages of text. 48% of the contest entries were submitted in the last week of the contest. It looked kind of like this:

Why did I think an umbrella would help?

In the face of a Two Page Tabletop tsunami, our judges went above and beyond the call to ensure that each entry received high quality, useful feedback. Give a round of thanks, they’ve earned it.

Today we finished disseminating feedback to all of the entrants. There were a lot of really good games in this competition, there were ideas, mechanics, and settings that blew away anything we had ever seen before. The amount of talent in the indie developer community is nothing short of amazing.

We are nearly finished tallying the final scores from our judges. On Monday the 9th of July, the winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest will be announced to world.

A lot of you are curious about how the entries were judged. As the feedback started to trickle into your mailboxes this week, a careful reader might have found some hints about how the judges score the entries.

Our judges scored the entries across 5 weighted domains. These domains are:

  • Playability: How easy is it to pick up and play?
  • Mechanics: How well do the mechanics facilitate gameplay?
  • Theme: Does it convey a clear genre or purpose and incorporate that into the game?
  • Clarity: How well written is it?
  • Presentation: Overall, how appealing is the submission in terms of writing and visual presentation?

Each of these domains is important for tabletop publishing. In this industry, where the competition is fierce and it’s a perpetual buyer’s market, to make a game that rises above the din and shouts “Here I am, play me!!!” the game needs to be excellent in each of these categories.

That said, not all of these factors are weighted equally. For this competition, Playability is the highest ranked factor for a few simple reasons: when people pick up a short or succinct tabletop RPG, they want something they can get into and start playing without hours of setup; otherwise they wouldn’t be looking at a short tabletop, they’d be playing D&D.

Playability was also ranked the highest because a Two Page Tabletop needs to be easily playable; what is the point of a TPT that is convoluted or difficult to play? That’s not say it can’t offer a variety of deep tactical options, a rich setting, or inventive mechanics; we’ve seen several entries in this contest that offered all of that and more, but when these are present in the TPT they need to be present in such a way that they facilitate play rather than hinder it.

The second highest weighted domains are Theme and Mechanics and they are weighted equally. Ultimately theme and mechanics go hand in hand. The purpose of the theme is to bring  your audience’s expectations in line with the game they are about to play, and the purpose of the mechanics is to allow them to play that game.

If my tabletop is focused around geriatric adventurers struggling against the management of their retired adventurer’s home to get an extra serving of tapioca ooze for lunch, then I should have mechanics that reflect and facilitate playing out that theme.

Awesome art by ursulav on deviantart

“Let grandma tell you a story.”

Good mechanics will help me to be immersed in the theme: there may be rules for using canes, walkers, plastic spoons, faking heart attacks, pretending to be senile, napping, etc.. there may even be rules guidance for how to set up the facility, create the nurses, and finally gain enough leverage to force the nurses to give you that second helping of tapioca ooze because you’re a freaking chaotic good hero and you saved the world from the threat of Tralfar the Terrible while she was still in diapers, damnit!

Bad mechanics would be a d20 system where the heroes take penalties on all their rolls ‘because they’re old’. The theme sets the expectations of the audience and the mechanics need to deliver on that expectation or they risk turning away potential players.

The last and equally least weighted domains are Clarity and Presentation. Oddly enough, these are some of the most important qualities in a full length RPG. If your RPG can’t draw in readers or if it keeps confusing them with ambiguous writing, typos, or contradictions then you aren’t likely to keep anyone reading for long enough to buy your tabletop.  However, when writing a full length RPG you also have the benefit of a copy editor and an artistic director to help you deal with this  (if you’re writing a full length RPG and you don’t have people to fill these roles, then it means you’re filling them).

We also recognize that most of the participants of this competition are at least somewhat experienced at writing RPG material and much less so at doing layout and editing for an RPG. The Clarity and Presentation factors are built into the score to encourage people to consider these factors when they write; they are weighted the least because ultimately if you’re the writer, you typically have proofreaders, editors, and at least someone to help you with layout.

There are a lot of fantastic RPGs in this competition, but in the end there can only be two winners. Join us Monday as we announce the winners and celebrate good RPG design.

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Feedback Begins – Today!

Hello TopSecret readers and First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest participants!

Later today, the feedback from our judges will start filtering into your inbox. We’re providing feedback on nearly 100 entries. But exactly how much is that?

It turns out that the 93 official entries totaled  205 pages. That’s enough to fill an expansive RPG book. But don’t take my word for it, here are the contest entries next to a D&D 3.5 player handbook.


And side by side for comparison: 20140627_072430

The volume, quality, and diversity of the entries has blown away our expectations. We issued a challenge to the indie tabletop community and you responded in force.

These last few weeks, our judges have poured over the contest entries analyzing each one and creating constrictive feedback to help designers improve their craft. The feedback will be filtering out to email boxes throughout the weekend; if you do not receive your feedback by Monday please contact me at james (at) topsecretgames (dot) net.

We’ve seen a lot of really good entries in this contest and many of you will go on or continue to be great game designers. We look forward to seeing your future games and seeing you in the contest next year.




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TPTC – Week 4 Recap

Hello TopSecret readers!

The First Ever Two Page Tabletop Competition recently drew to a close.  It’s time for the breakdown of week 4 entries. If yor’re just now joining us, be sure to head over and check out the week 3 contest breakdown.

In the last week of the contest received more entries than the previous two weeks combined. Weighing in at an impressive 95 pages of material, the indie developer community submitted 43 Two Page Tabletops. Bringing us to an impressive total of 93 tabletops and 205 pages of amazing independently developed tabletop RPGs.

The judges have nearly completed examining the tabletop entries. For those of you who submitted, you should look for feedback from the judges in your inbox on Friday with the official contest announcement to come shortly after.

Below you can find the tabletops organized by genre*, in no particular order. Find a genre you like and check it out:


Genre/Reality Hopping

Science Fiction

 THOUGHTCRIME The Heights Star Striders
 Traitor Rover Rumble
 Red Scare

Time Travel

 Conspiracy  Zero-Point Posse  Shattered Earth RPG
 Racing Around the Sun

Post Apocalyptic


 The Tundra Trudgine
 Rangers  The Rooms  Helios
 Dead World  Penny Dreadfuls


 Murder Mystery


Samurai Vampires  The Murder of Mr Crow  Texas Hold UP
 Total Badass Forever

Crime Adventure and Treasure Hunting

Prison Escape

 The Invasion False Faces  Nathan
 Colorful Imps! Bank Job


 Myths and Legends

 The Gifted


 Spartan: RPG
 Cryptid Hunters

 Humor/Beer and Pretzels

 Politics and Plotting

 Zombie Pigs Take Afganistan

 Magic Academy Adventure

 The Sanguine Dynasty
 Excess All Areas  Brightmore Academy  Kingdom Come
 Clown Hellsing  WIZARDBALL


Cthulhu – Horror

Fairy Tales

 Rise and Fall of the Empire
 Vikings vs Cthulhu  Union of Magical Child Care Professionals  Tale or Dare
 The Room

If you like what you saw, or you have questions for the author, head over to the forums and let them know what you think.

*It’s worth mentioning that a lot (most?) of these games don’t fall solidly into one genre or style of play. It’s really amazing how much you can push thematic boundaries in just two pages.

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