Hi, gmike here and welcome to a bit of a personal tale! When Wizards of the Coast released the Open-Gaming License, a whole universe of designers set out to use the mechanics and material from D&D to make either “their perfect RPG” or “that one niche branch of RPGs that you just can’t find elsewhere”. Many of these RPGs drift away from the modern trends expressed in D&D 5e, and try to come closer to what the game felt previously. This allowed for an explosive revival of old-school trends, and a renaissance in games that felt old, but could carry modern sensibilities and nuance. This is what OSR (old school renaissance/revival) games are.
For about a year while at the Programming Languages lab (hi guys!) at UCSB, we made an effort to try out as many of these non-D&D games as possible, because they seemed like the perfect little jewels for short campaigns, so that we could switch game masters often and all get a chance to practice the art. During that time, I got to play Blades in the Dark, Godbound, Stars without Number, and Tales from the Loop, to name some. I left afterwards, but hopefully, the lab played more great RPGs since!
In the “Lessons from Last Summer” series, I want to unpack each of these games and go on explaining how they’ve influenced my game-mastering since. They’ve taught me lessons that D&D 5e just couldn’t get the chance to, but ones that are completely applicable inside D&D 5e, and which have since made my players much happier. Also, you should certainly try them out at least for a short while, as they’re super fun games in their own right! Let’s start with the wildest one: Kevin Crawford’s Godbound.
Godbound: A Game of Divine Heroes
The Throne stands empty.
Heaven has fallen, and the Words of Creation thunder from new throats.
Undestined, unfettered, unchosen, you are Godbound, and your will is writ with fire.
If you’ve ever worried about being overpowered in a game, this is the game for you. Godbound is a game in which the player characters literally start off as demigods, and only get more power as they go. Every player character in Godbound is a holder of words of power, that give them dominion over specific domains. These powers are awesome, and, honestly, hard to fathom. Just imagine having a character that has the following power (coming from the Bird word):
Eyes of the Hunting Hawk (On Turn): Commit Effort. The Godbound gains incredible visual acuity, able to see at any light level and clearly pick out the smallest details of any target closer than the horizon. Non-magical stealth is useless against the user, and mundanely-hidden items or features are obvious.
Imagine having one with this power from the Luck word:
Impossible Victory (Constant): Exactly once, the hero automatically wins a conflict or obtains their end in a situation by blind luck. It may not be a total victory, but it gains their main goal. They then lose the gift, are refunded its cost, and can never purchase it again. Luck miracles cannot replicate this gift.
Think real hard about how you’d challenge characters who start with these abilities. Take some Time to rethink what you just thought:
Reweave Time (Action): Commit Effort for the day and choose an event in the area which has taken place in the last hour. You may reweave the past to produce a different outcome to the event, provided the outcome you ordain is possible. Such reweaving cannot kill or resurrect creatures, cannot restore Committed Effort, and must be restricted to an event of no more than 15 minutes duration. A hostile worthy foe involved in the events may make a Spirit saving throw to foil the reweaving.
Sounds awesome? It is. The one thing that we noticed quickly is that combat situations that most people are used to (from D&D etc.) are good in the beginning only to showcase how powerful the PCs actually are. They will rarely, if ever, be enough to bring any harm to your characters. On the other hand, the Godbound are, from the start, extra powerful. Did I mention how damage works?
This damage roll is then compared to the table below, and the given amount of damage is suffered by the target. Against Godbound foes, this damage is subtracted from their hit points. Against other opponents, this damage is taken by the target’s hit dice.
The Out-of-Box Thinking Challenge
That’s a whole order of magnitude than what I’m used for, and it’s awesome to see the monster stat blocks from this perspective. To give an example, an Adult Black Dragon (D&D 5e statblock) has 195 hp, or 17d12+85 hit dice (85 is approximately 7 times 12, so I’d say the dragon has a total of 17 + 7 = 24 hd). It’s these dice that you deal damage to in Godbound: if you deal 4 damage to an Adult Black Dragon in this game, that amounts to around 48 damage in D&D!
With all of that said and done, Godbound isn’t about gods. It’s about godlings. The game is meant to be guided by the wishes of the players, and what their characters might want to do with their new powers. It takes “be the change you want to see in the world” quite literally. Your job as a DM is then to create a box for the characters to think out of, using their godly powers. You have complete insight into these powers, so every session is like a puzzle that you have a toolbox for, but the puzzle still is pretty hard to crack on top of that. This is something that can be taxing on the DM, but done right, the feelings shared in the post-mortem are some of the best experiences you can have around a table. The players feel as if they had full grasp of the problem and tools enough to solve it. Coming back to DMing D&D, I realized that every encounter that didn’t feel like this was probably just me being a bit lazy. I now have a much better grasp on how to build these party-specific, goal-oriented boxes for the players to solve. It’s not that D&D never makes you do this kind of encounter building (in fact, I hope that it often does!), but Godbound forces you to. I didn’t know how much leeway I was using regarding encounters until this game. I realized that I was using encounters for the sake of encounters, and have steered away from this ever since.
A Huge, Minuscule Sandbox World
Another fact that Godbound makes very clear is how small a world is when your party consists of gods. It was the first time that I, as a DM, had to roleplay a Youtube buffer, and load new scenery as they flew through hundreds of miles of land and sea towards their goals. Flying is simple when you have three Godbound, and the words luck, journeying and might around. In fact, flying is so simple that the players had an actual debate about whether they could reach the moon once they deal with the current problem, or not. The answer, if anyone’s wondering, was affirmative, albeit the actual plan was convoluted.
There were phases of intense discussion about how to manage the action economics, but in the end, even the limitations that came from these mechanics couldn’t stop a party of demigods. It’s still a bit scary to realize that the iron vessel that the demiurge of Sun and Artifice just created (with the full force and labor of 100 working men) is going to be tossed by the demigod of Might hard enough that it takes us to the other side of the country. Nothing would go as smoothly as expected, which is where the Lucky Journeyman comes into play, to make sure everything is as it should be. The Journeying word also means that the party doesn’t need any rations or air, to survive. If you’re wondering how the one holding the Might word is going to hop onto the flying ship once it’s in the air, leave that to the Sun word that gives instant transportation capabilities to whatever one can see under the, well, sun. It’s exhilarating to understand that yes, this is going to work out just fine. And you, as the DM, need to learn to say “yes, and” to that. Talk about a tall order.
However, that’s only what the world looks like to the DM at first. The actual world in Godbound (called Arcem) is huge and full. Kevin Crawford’s signature super-power, if one needs to be explicitly pointed out, is crafting good tools for the DM to do some serious worldbuilding. First, the world presented with the game is huge and well-explored. It has a well-established voice and a good sci-fantasy feel. The world built for the game takes around 1/4 of the book, explaining everything from how the world started, to how which country/state functions, and which names are common in them. Religion obviously plays an important role in a game about playing gods, but these things come into focus only with the mechanics that manage faith for your own use: the players, as they do fantastic stuff, gain a following, and through this method and by establishing dominion (making large scale changes) over territories, cultivate that following. Godbound is meant to be played as a sandbox game, and this is most obvious when more people get involved. Both directly leading and fighting large groups of people is often a remarkable experience, and this is something that I never knew or thought of before! Kevin does say the following, and it’s completely true:
The first is the golden rule of sandbox preparation. Every time you go to make something, ask yourself whether it’s certain to be needed for your very next game session. If it isn’t, ask yourself whether you’re having fun making it. If you answer no to that as well, stop making it. […] But how do you know what you’re going to need for the next session? It’s simple. You ask the players.Kevin Crawford, Godbound pg. 98
I’ve always roleplayed with a doze of sandboxing, but until that point, I’ve never had any pointers in how to formalize this notion. Starting with those pointers, the rest of the book is just enlightening. Everything, from designing courts, be they aristocratic, bureaucratic or criminal, to building full-fledged factions; constructing ruins and their rewards, artifacts and treasures beyond imagination; dealing with change within this world (the idea to introduce environment as a player might be very compatible with this setting): there are tips for all of these things that are useful elsewhere, even more so than within the context of Arcem. It is honestly an inspirational experience just to re-read through the book again, writing this, trying not to miss anything important.
After DMing Godbound, D&D felt simpler. It felt less scary. Most of the questions that seemed hard to solve before were now not an issue until they happen, due to both seeing how much harder it can be, and embracing sandboxing a bit more than before. It isn’t that I don’t plan my D&D campaigns in advance, but I do so more slowly. I incorporated the tip about asking the players into the game, constructing Christmas presents from those experiences: learn the players want something, leave it simmering, and then give it to them in the form of a puzzle box. Let them not only have what they want, but have to earn it too. And don’t be afraid for the sake of balance. A balanced situation isn’t always that fun, and if done right, it’s not that there are no problems a god can’t solve. Just having the powers can sometimes be a problem, as only Godbound can teach you.