Group Calibration

Hello TopSecret readers!

Putting together a gaming group is rarely easy. Conflicting play styles, mismatched schedules, and just plain finding a group to game with can feel like a mountain of obstacles that stand between you and a good night of gaming.  When you do finally have a group together, it’s important to make the most of that time; no one wants to be stuck in an uncomfortable, awkward, or frustrating game.

At TopSecret we’ve had a lot of really great RPG sessions with awesome gaming groups. We’ve also seen the flipside of that coin: the group that slowly dissolves, the group where a player becomes increasingly alienated and frustrated to the point of sabotaging the game, and the group where the GM is gradually worn down and burnt out.

Tabletops should be a good experience for everyone and to that end we’ve developed a method to help reduce negative group experience.

Group Calibration

The theory behind group calibration is simple: a bad gaming experience results from mismatched expectations. No one goes to the table expecting to have a bad time (if you do, why are you playing?) but everyone comes to the table with expectations.

Maybe you expect to play a game of social intrigue, maybe you expect to dungeon delve with absurdly powerful heroes, perhaps you expect a night of horror or of humor, etc… When expectations are not met, people become disappointed and disenfranchised from the game.

Steampunk Vader is totally cool in Eberron, right?

Steampunk Vader is totally cool in Eberron, right?

Group calibration is a technique that ensures everyone’s expectations are matched and everyone is on the same page before the game starts. You generally don’t need to calibrate a group mid-campaign unless someone drops out our enters the group.

To calibrate your group, answer the following questions with all the players and the GM. They are listed in order from easiest (least contentious) to most difficult (most contentious).

What game should we play? The first question; it would be interesting if it wasn’t asked. We’ll call it question 0.

1) What genre should we play? Are any genre’s or subgenres specifically disallowed? Don’t bring chemistry to a magic fight if it’s going to peeve off the players; don’t bring magic to a steampunk fight if it’s not allowed in the setting.

2) What will be the setting? Urban, jungle, dungeon, starship, island, oceanic, other? Where the adventure happens is key to preparing for the adventure.

3) Where does the typical session fall worth respect to combat, puzzles, and social encounters? Mostly combat? Some social? Lots of puzzles? It’s important to set the expectation for play. If a player comes to the table with a social character and the game is almost entirely combat, they are virtually guaranteed to have a bad time.

4) What is an appropriate power level? Are we playing characters that are on the path to godhood? are we playing characters who are new to combat? If you have mismatched power levels it usually leads to players feeling useless as certain group members hog the spotlight. Where the power level is does not matter, as long as everyone is in the same ballpark.

5) What are the special rules/quirks? What are the GM’s houserules or rules that the players feel should be implemented? It is always bad to surprise players with new rules, get these out of the way before you start.

Answering these questions helps to align the group expectations before starting a game. When everyone’s on the same page it reduces burnout, keeps people invested in the game, and opens room for discussion about the direction of the game.

Group calibration is usually performed in some manner by nearly every gaming group before starting. Unfortunately, sometimes critical questions are missed and players or the GM lose interest in the game. These question help mitigate that, but they also help the game to stay on track by opening up for meta discussion.

If the game starts drifting into another genre, players become too powerful, there’s an abrupt change of setting, etc. players and the GM can now say “This is an interesting direction the game has taken, but in our group calibration we decided we would do X” This opens the discussion and allows the group to consider if they’re OK proceeding into new territory or if it really is best to go back to the initial game settings.

Should've calibrated your group.

Should’ve calibrated your group.

Answering these questions explicitly and honestly is the key. If everyone is on the same page going into the game, then no one will be unexpectedly disappointed. By calibrating the game beforehand, you open up an avenue to discuss changes to the game later on and increase player investment in the game before it begins.

Group calibration works for us and we’re always looking to improve it. If you think of any other important questions, head over to the forums and let us know.

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Union of Magical Child Care Professionals

Hello TopSecret readers!

For those of you just joining us, today we’ll be talking about the Union of Magical Child Care Professionals, one of the winners of the first ever Two Page Tabletop Contest.

A game with a unique premise, in the Union of Magical Child Care Professionals, you play as the magical guardian of a child as you travel together on fantastical adventures. You may be a magical nanny, a creature made of smoke, a fairy tale knight, a talking car, etc… Part whimsy, part coming of age, part union regulations; it’s truly an RPG like none other.



The game maintains a story focus, with simple and quick mechanics while encouraging players to engage in silly behavior. Singing a song can increase your chance of success, just don’t sing too often.

What really makes this game stand out is unique approach to challenging the players. Death is not the main threat, in fact, both you and the child that you are watching are immune to harm so long as you carry your magical implement. The challenge isn’t necessarily overcoming monsters and puzzles, though there will be plenty of them to overcome, but how you overcome them is important.

Take the easy way too many times and your child/ward may become lazy and complacent, assist your ward with magic too much and they may not develop the ability to stand on their own without your magic. Encourage your ward to use unscrupulous means and they may become spoiled or rotten, and worse yet, you may have to answer to the Union.

Don’t let it’s whimsical nature fool you, the Union of Magical Child Care Professionals may have children, but it’s easy to use mechanics and well written background make it easy to explore the dark side side of fairy tales, to delve into the stories that are best played out only after the children have gone to bed.

It’s a game of role playing, fun, fantasy, challenges, and coming of age. Will you lead your ward bravely through the adventures, or will they be corrupted by your influence, dependent on your magic or unwilling to take the hard path?

Game sessions can take on many tones from light beer and pretzels play, to dark fantasy horror and everything in between. If you love games that feature more challenge than “reduce this monster’s HP to 0″, games that invest you in the characters and the world, or just games that make you think beyond the current challenge and consider the larger goal, then the Union of Magical Child Care Professionals is for you.

If you would like to keep up with news on how this game has developed since the Two Page Tabletop Contest, you can check the author’s website here or continue to check back at We’ll be providing you regular updates on the progress of the Union of Magical Childcare Professionals as well as the three other games that are slated for release in the upcoming Tabletop Anthology Alpha: Nightmares and Daydreams.

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All Things Truly Wicked

Hello TopSecret Readers!

The night is long. Too long. The Sun sets and the temperature falls. They come with the Dark. Beasts the size of houses stalk the streets. Doors and window shutters clap and clatter, brushed by towering, spindly figures, skittering past. Foul-breathed demons leave the sidewalk slick with slobber. The grownups complain about the rain as they side-step the reeking pools. There’s
something evil happening in town, but they don’t see it.
But there is hope. You have power. If you believe in the good and the power of things, you can hold the Dark at bay. The small brown bear you’ve kept close since your birth has a power, a goodness in it. Hold it tight against the dark, and keep the worst at bay. Perhaps the tattered old army jacket that belonged to your grandfather will act as a shield against the monsters. It
will if you have faith.
But the nights are still getting longer, the world is getting darker. Things are changing. Voices call to you from beneath the floorboards. The scratching on the walls is getting louder, frantic, violent, and hungry. They want out. They want in. They want you.

For those of you just joining us, All Things Truly Wicked is a fantastic horror and one of the two winners of the first ever Two Page Tabletop Contest.

A horror game like none other, All Things Truly Wicked is not a game for children, but a game about children. The placid tranquility of your suburban neighborhood floats atop a pitch dark sea of magical horror. Can you stop it before it sinks into the darkness?


All Things Truly Wicked has some incredibly intense and flexible gameplay. The mechanics often force the players to make tough decisions: do I risk the spiritual will being of my character to heal? Do I move one step closer to disbelief just for a slightly better chance to succeed?

Despite its tough decisions thegame play is fast and fluid, using a partial success system to resolve actions quickly and intuitively. This let’s you focus on the story, the characters, and the decisions they face without having to stop the action to figure out which rule you need for which roll.

Overall, it’s one of the best dark-fantasy/horror games we’ve ever played.  But don’t take our words for it, check out the two page version yourself, or listen to One Shot for an example of gameplay.

The best part is that the rules have gotten even better. As the game has expanded from two pages to twenty, more options have been added for players and the rules have stayed every bit as intuitive. It’s no longer your typical partial success system.

Bring your friend and your rival as you join us in the coming month for a breakdown of some of the changes to this already amazing game.

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Top 10 Re-Imaginings of Superheroes

Hello TopSecret readers!

For those of you who are new to the site, we only run official updates on Monday and Wednesday. However, randomly we find something cool or interesting that we’d like to share and you end up fantastic bonus content.

Today, we’re going to share our top 10 re-imaginings of superheroes.

10 – Viking Batman

Viking Batman

9 – Storm Trooper Iron Man

Storm Trooper Iron Man8 – Pixar Punisher

Pixar Punisher

7 – Film Noir Iron Man

Film Noir Iron Man


6 – Punk Rock Superman

Punk Rock SUperman

5 – Child Galactus

Child Galactus

4 – Classical Joker

Classical Joker


3 – Squirrel Thor

Squirrel Thor

2 – 8 Bit Thor

8 Bit Thor

1 – Cyclops Manatee

Cyclops Manatee


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Copyright and the Tabletop RPG Industry

Hello TopSecret readers!

When Gary Gygax founded TSR in 1973 he insisted that the company allow its employees, himself especially, to retain all copyrights, trademarks, and royalties for their works rather than assigning them to TSR. This policy was largely maintained until Gygax was effectively removed from the company in 1985. [1]

Lead by TSR, the tabletop RPG industry would take a different approach to handling copyrights: they would belong to the publisher and not to the author of the work.

AD&D Player Handbook

One of Gygax’s more well known productions.

This has become one of the defining distinctions between independently developed games and games produced by the major players of the tabletop RPG industry. If you want to own the copyright to your game, you need to publish it yourself.

Fortunately, with the rise of print on demand services, it has now become easier than ever to publish and distribute your own RPG book.  Unfortunately, this has resulted in a large number of self published books that could have benefited from the services of a large scale publisher: editing, layout, art, and promotion.

At TopSecret we don’t think it has to be this way, we believe that authors can keep the copyright to their work and still utilize the practical benefits of a publisher. To that end, all of our authors are keeping the copyright to their works.

Instead of the traditional business model, our authors keep their copyrights and grant us a license to their work for some years along with a short period of right of first refusal.

As a company, we are not prepared to deprive an author of the creative control over their work. While arranging for a publisher owned copyright would simplify operations from both a business and legal perspective, we don’t feel that it’s necessary  to have a mutually beneficial relationship with our authors.

Our motives aren’t entirely ideological, we believe that this model makes sound business sense. Once our right of first refusal expires, our authors will be free to publish material under the copyright on their own or even with another publisher. This allows our authors to create as much amazing RPG content as they desire at the quality that they desire without being forcefully constrained by our production schedule. This means more content related to the games we sell which means that we can sell more games and reach a wider audience.

Our maintaining a license instead of the copyright results in a book publishing model that appears closer to a profit-sharing model than traditional book publishing, with each author receiving a portion or the overall profit from every book sale. This means that when you buy a TopSecret Tabletop, your money actually goes to the authors that wrote it.

At TopSecret we’ve chosen to take a non-traditional approach to publishing, by maximizing the freedom and creative control of our authors. We feel strongly that this is the right publishing model for us and that Gary Gygax would approve. We don’t expect our model to shake up the industry or become a new standard, but we believe it is a good model and we hope you find it worthy of your support.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for sneak peaks at the upcoming tabletop anthology.

[1]The Ambush at Sheridan Springs
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