Friday, September 21, 2012

Playing 13th Age at Penny Arcade

I’ve been running some great games of 13thAge lately. This is a long writeup of the game we played at Penny Arcade on Wednesday.

Jerry TYCHO Holkins and Mike GABE Krahulik were joined at the table by two players who are in my usual 13th Age game (Sean and Fehlauer) and another who joined our table later that night (Lane.) I didn’t deliberately import my players. They happened to be there: of the six dangerous stalwarts in my 13th Age game, four of them presently work behind the security doors of the Penny Arcade compound, though mostly not for PA. The extent of the crossover came as a surprise to Jerry and Mike and even as a bit of a shock to me, it’s been one of those progressions where friends gradually accumulate in a workplace.

We played the freeform demo style I’ve been having so much fun with since PAX. I hand out pregen second level characters with most everything filled in but name, one unique thing, backgrounds and icon relationships. Players create the story for their characters without sweating the mechanics. I don’t impose campaign-direction, everyone’s free to create their characters any way they like. Well, I did ask for the PCs to be more-or-less good guys, but as you’ll see, with this group that skewed towards or less. After an hour of character creation, I weave a sensible opening plot out of their diverse histories, something that will lead to combat, soon, we roll icon relationship dice to start the session with story-pointers, and away we go.

All character history notes in what follows are the players’ creations, their contributions to the storyline.

Sean played a dwarf gem salesman/bartender named Gnoff (Son of Grimmt; 14th of Clan Gnoppt) who’d gotten into the cleric business as a consequence of having his severed hand replaced by a holy ruby hand by a great hero. It wasn’t clear if the hero performed this transformational feat to reform Gnoff, reward him, or pay him back.

Lane played Lojan Kinslaver, a half-orc barbarian who was repenting for his previous slaver-ways by serving the High Druid on errands of liberation. Lane opted against creating a unique thing about his character because his backgrounds were already a twisted mess of betrayal, we left it open to be created during the session or to arrive in a hypothetical future.

Mike played a halfling rogue named Finn Dinder who stole the Ever-Burning Flame from the Tower of the Shapechangers. Hold a minute: the Red Tower of the Shapechangers. Not the Blue Tower. That’s entirely different. Finn was disappointed that the Ever-Burning Flame looked like a pretty normal candle. Boring. He sold the Ever-Burning Flame back to the same Red Tower Shapechanger wizards. That act was a perfect expression of his one unique thing; like the Prince of Shadows, Finn passes everything he steals on, it’s not about owning, it’s about thieving. (Dinder rhymes with ken….) So he was a great thief and a good fence. It was the resale activity that had introduced him to Gnoff of the Ruby Hand.

Fehlauer played a French-accented dark elf sorcerer named Henri Blanc who’d been the chief torturer in Drakkenhall. Henri hears pain as music. Henri creeped us all out with well-placed synaesthesia melodics. For example, once, while an adventurer had been performing (ick) for Henri, Henri learned that the Blue dragon was plotting with the Diabolist to unleash demons through the world. That was too much even for Henri, who became something of a traitor to the Three but was still kicking around the Drakkenhall area.

And then there was Jerry’s gnome bard. Jerry explained the basics of character, Maudlin W___. We all nodded. Then Jerry capped the explanation in fine storyteller style with the truth of what was going on and we all said “Ohhh....”in unison. Then I sat and thought about it for a moment. Yes, a character to think about. The great news is that Jerry’s gnome bard is going to be in 13 True Ways thanks to the magic ofKickstarter, so I’m not going to blab about what’s going on with Maudlin. It’s going to be a surprise.

The plot that took shape came as a surprise to me. Which is one thing I love about the way 13th Age has come together, the GM gets to be surprised like the players.

It turned out that the opposition were slavers from the Crusader muscling in on a hellhole north of Drakkenhall. Marching through the forests, the Crusader’s forces had taken slaves to throw against the hellhole’s ablative defenses. That irked Lojan. Earlier, Finn the thief had sold the Crusader slavers a flame-key he’d stolen from someone else. Now Maudlin turned out to need that key for his next, um, mission. (Everyone thought the ‘flame’ that would be needed was going to turn out to the flame that Finn had stolen earlier, but I poo-pooed that notion while half-agreeing…) So with Lojan’s enthusiastic prepwork, the group pitted itself against the slavers in a semi-ambush beside the Crusader camp.

Lojan’s prepwork included Lane throwing terrain all over the table! And then taking a photo of it...

Highlights of the battle were probably the moments when Maudlin the gnome bard sang the Song of Heroes while holding off two armored warriors on a boulder pile, singing about an earlier doughty hero of the Great Gold Wyrm who fought off an ogre (?). Maudlin made it so by casting spells while engaged, disregarding their feeble opportunity attacks to score critical hits with a spell he’d jacked from the sorcerer. Then he finished the job with his sword… and thanks to a successful storyline roll with the Great Gold Wyrm, Maudlin got a golden-spirit trace on the pouch of the warrior he took down, showing him that the key he needed was there.

Meanwhile the enemy’s spellcasting chanter made the huge mistake of approaching Henri the drow sorcerer where the sorcerer was perched in a tree. (If you squint, you can see Henri at the top of the right-hand tree in the photo!) The Crusader’s magician said something like, “Hello, fellow spellcaster,” and hit Henri with a set-up spell that did 3 points of damage. Henri had spent his previous turn in the tree gathering power. I don’t remember what Henri said in reply, but I know he sneered. He used his drow cruel ability to turn his lightning fork’s natural even attack into a crit and the enemy chanter exploded, starting with his armored Crusader gauntlet and sparking through his torso. Then Henri’s spell forked all over the battlefield (rolling and rolling even) and fried the two other strongest Crusader warriors, both of whom had been softened up already by the falchion/dagger/hammer of the barbarian/rogue/cleric.

I rule that the spell had been so powerful that Henri blew the tree apart underneath him. Fehlauer said that was a bullshit call and he was may have been right, I was roleplaying being sore about his ridiculous dice luck and the fact that I’d forgotten to bring more archers but really I was just impressed and wanted his sorcerer to blow things up even more. Especially since he’d started out by saying that he was ‘gathering power stealthily,’ which I happily pointed out was the opposite of anything he got to do as a flashbang sorcerer, particularly when he was gathering power by damaging his wounded enemies, drawing lines of power from them to his non-hiding spot up the tree.

So when the symphony of pain was finished, the remaining Crusader thugs put up minimal resistance. The highlight here was that I had inadvertently screwed Mike’s halfling rogue by failing to print out the improved version of the Shadowalk rules, so he had failed every time he tried to slip into shadows. I made a story angle out of the failure by saying that he was screwing up because the Ever Burning Flame of the Red Tower of the Shapechangers was back and burning over his head, serving as a beacon every time he tried to get away!

The group finished the battle with several of its members realizing that the icons pulling Maudlin’s strings weren’t who they claimed to be… and that the key they’d obtained from the Crusader was in fact a key to the hidden gate of the hellhole the Crusaders were attacking… and that Maudlin’s next mission involved the mistress of the balor who ruled the hellhole.

With just a bit more time I would have been able to pull off a mask to show what happens when you steal from Shapechangers, but Finn was already have enough trouble coming to terms with the candle burning over his head and there was a limit to the torture that could be brought to bear in an hour and fifteen minutes of play, even if that torture played out like a sweet-flowing Song of Heroes. 

Robin Laws in 13 True Ways

Any moment now, when Kickstarter pushes the 13 True Waysbook over $64K, Jonathan Tweet and Robin D. Laws and I will be working together again for the first time.

Jonathan and Robin have worked together, most notably on Over the Edge.  Robin and I have worked together from my first paid gig writing an adventure for Pandemonium through Nexus/Feng Shui/Shadowfist for Daedalus and King of Dragon Pass for A-Sharp and 4e books like Underdark and Plane Above. And of course Jonathan and I have collaborated on a bunch of games, those happy collaborations are why we undertook 13th Age.

But unless I’m forgetting something, Robin and Jonathan and I have never all worked together on the same big project at the same time. The success of the 13 True Ways Kickstarter has enabled us to bring Robin aboard. I sent him a list of four possible subjects to round out the book, Robin chose to write about the world’s idiosyncratic devils (bizarre individual personalities distinct from the demons who only want to destroy) and the intricacies of three courts, one of men, one of elves, and one of monsters.

The 13 True Ways book is mapping bigger and better than we hoped. Thanks to Robin joining up, this burst of big/better isn’t going to mean ‘slower.’

And assuming we hit the slightly higher target, Robin will also be joining the previously scheduled back-and-forth designer dialogue between me and Jonathan wherever that works out through the rest of the book! We expect Robin to bring the wit-punches. Or maybe he’ll just agree with everything we say, demurely. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Monk, necromancer, occultist

The monk and the necromancer are definitely in 13 True Ways. The occultist is more of a Hail Mary stretch goal (well, the diabolic equivalent of the Hail Mary).

The monk: Early 13th Age playtests and various versions of the Escalation Edition showed the over-the-top direction we’re taking the monk. Once or twice Jonathan has argued for a less flamboyant version of the monk, something more like a martial artist, which would certainly be possible but not as much fun as what I’m headed for. I’ve won the argument by pointing out that JoT never plays monks, no matter what type of story/mechanics they have. I am always drawn towards the monk but often frustrated by mechanics. So our monk unapologetically feels like a character from a different tradition, using opening attacks, flow attacks, and finishing attacks in sequences that build in power and compose (barely passable) haikus. We’ll get the balance right in 13 True Ways. The fun is already there.

The necromancer: Here is another class summoned by the story of 13th Age. The Lich King used to be the Wizard King. He’s got a whole lot of arcana-jitsu and these days it’s all tied up in dead things. Maybe PC necromancers can siphon away the Lich King’s power and use it for their own ends.  

I’ve wanted to do a necromancer class for awhile. It’s good to be able to approach the necromancer in a system that lets classes diverge, since I’m not certain of all the places the design will lead.

The necromancer will also affect the monsters that appear in 13 True Ways. So when y’all ponied up $37,500 as a stretch goal for an RPG that hasn’t been published yet, well, you brought some undead monsters aboard along with the necromancer.

The occultist: This is the top-line stretch goal at the moment and would represent a stretch for both the backers and the designers. It will be interesting design work to make a class that lives up to connections with the Diabolist while playing differently than the wizard, sorcerer, necromancer and chaos shaman. Handling it now when we’ve got the team of me and Jonathan and Lee and Aaron would be a great thing, we could accomplish some design and artistic maneuvers that aren’t as likely later on. Given the amazing support we’ve been getting from increased pledges, new pledges, new dungeon backers, new legendary bard backers… we’re certainly stretching a pseudopod toward the figure on top of the pyramid.    

[[Art/Minis: The blue-robed necromancer and the red-robed occultist were painted by Richard Bark. I believe they are both old Ral Partha minis. The monk with his back to the camera appears to be an old Shang-Chi figure, I bought it from the WotC library when it sold off many of its old minis. Maybe Steve Winter knows who painted it....]]

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Battle captain, chaos shaman, druid

There are nine character classes in the 13th Age core book. Four new classes are definitely appearing in the first expansion book, 13 True Ways. Two more classes, the battle captain and occultist, could be added as stretch goals for the Kickstarter.

It takes a lot of work to do a new class right, particularly when we’re also committed to handling multiclassing. I suggested the two new classes as stretch goals for 13 True Ways because they would make the book into something bigger and better than I could have hoped.

I’m going to say a few words about each class that appears (or might appear) in 13 True Ways, three at a time. Let’s start with the battle captain, chaos shaman, and druid.

Battle Captain

Originally Jonathan and I were planning to let the bard fill the role of “healer who gives people orders.” But obviously bards are more than that. And the warlord’s approach to commander-style healing seems to resonate with many players. So I started thinking about how we’d do the mechanics for this type of class in 13th Age. I came up with some answers I liked, at which point it seemed obvious to add a warlord-style character to the list of stretch goals.

Who remembers the marshal class that appeared in the Miniatures Handbook that Jonathan and I helped design for 3e? Hand that gamer the ancestral badge of obscure discernment. The marshal was an important antecedent for the warlord. I’m not saying the battle captain is going that route. But I thought I’d mention that the warlord wasn’t the first commander in the squad. Definitely the first martial healer commander in the squad though. I imagine that adventuring parties led by a warlord would have a bit of trouble going back to a marshal: “What do you mean that you can give us orders but you can’t let us heal? Arrgh!”

Chaos Shaman

I’m fond of occasionally random mechanics. This fondness can be a strength when I figure out how a particular section of the gaming audience isn’t being served by mechanics that are too cut-and-dried. It can be a weakness when I let randomness get in the way of actions that should be straightforward. Well, the chaos shaman is going to be an unapologetic class for people who prefer to play on the ragged edge of WTF instead of the cautious curve of well-ordered priorities. It’s likely to present a very different way to play. Some people will love it. Others, not so much, which means part of the design challenge is to make sure that people who don’t want to play a chaos shaman have no problem playing with a chaos shaman.

In the story of 13th Age, the chaos shaman is a tradition of magic kept alive by the High Druid and now invigorated by the reappearance of the Orc Lord. Classes that make more sense of connections with problematic icons are part of what 13 True Ways is about. You may not need to be a half-orc to be a chaos shaman, but it might help.


It killed me to have the High Druid as one of our thirteen icons and not be able to get the druid into the original book. But my design goals for the druid were a bit too ambitious to be finished working in the initial phase of this project. We needed to nail the system down before mastering the stunts we hope to  pull with the druid. We’re tinkering with themes that have always been in stories involving druids but haven’t shown up in druid class mechanics. I’m happy to get a chance to take a deep breath, go over the whole thing with Jonathan, and carve the druid into shape.

[[About the art/minis in this post: Richard Bark painted the battle captain; I think it may be a Glorantha mini, but I’m not certain. // I’m also not entirely certain what the chaos shaman is going to look like, it will be fun to work that out with Aaron & Lee. So I chose three minis that might triangulate the chaos shaman concept. The two on the flanks are also painted by Richard Bark, Peter Lee painted the Ral Partha magician in the center. // The druid mini is the Ravencloak Visionary that I wrote the art suggestion for in Dreamblade. Perhaps it was tacky to set myself up with a mini I knew I wanted but couldn’t quite get created through D&D Miniatures. Logan Bonner offset the tackiness by painting the mini up for me to game with, the original is monochrome.]]  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

2 Serendipities

Last week my aunt and cousin visited from Wisconsin.
They drove through Oregon and visited my mother's grave in Springfield.
They ran and laughed and dodged through the cemetery, scattering in four directions every thirty seconds
because all the sprinklers were on and they were big powerful sprinklers, not the kind you want to get blasted by the whole hit.
Eventually the older generation accepted its fate and stood stoic in the spray, but the younger generation kept dodging.
A wonderful visit to my mom's grave.
I can't decide, now, if Mom would have kept dodging the water or taken the hit, if she'd been there.
When she had her mobility she liked a challenge.
But she was always the first person to say "It's only water," and accept the rain or a splashing.

Our friend Steve has organized or run the Cereal Thrillers breakfast cereal bar at Burning Man for years.
We helped the first year since it had somehow turned out to be my idea, but haven't been back.
This was the best year ever for Cereal Thrillers.
There are dozens of stories from this year I don't know yet, but the one I heard came from Dreamblade minis.
Every other year I've supplied a case or two of Dreamblade minis (and early on, some D&D minis as well) to be inserted in the cereal boxes as prizes. Shake a cereal box, get a freaky miniature from humanity's dreamscape, the cereal barista gets to tell a little story about the newly discovered creature.
When I started running out of minis, my olde Dreamblade co-creator Jonathan helped with a case or three.
But this year I was out. No more Dreamblade minis to give away as prizes.
Then Steve found a full case of Dreamblade sitting on the bar at Burning Man and thought it was something Jonathan had brought.
No. It was a gift from a man sitting and eating his cereal.
He had loved getting the Dreamblade minis in his cereal two other years, so this year he decided to bring a case of his own to contribute to the cereal bar.
So the tradition continues.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Song for the Elf Queen

 I wrote a few lines on gaming art that appear on the wall at the Art of Roleplaying Games exhibit at Krab JabStudio.

Before I was a gamer, children’s books and historical illustrations sparked my sense of wonder. I spent hours daydreaming over favorite paintings, imagining that I was canoeing through a lushly textured Maine swamp (The Summer Folk) or landing on the beach beside the Vikings (Time Life History of the Ancient World).

Not surprisingly, gaming eventually absorbed some of my daydreaming time. But I still daydreamed over gaming illustrations, putting myself into the adventuring party outside Morno's Skull Tower when there was no one to join me at the table.  

When I’m writing art suggestions for games, I imagine that a kid somewhere is going to daydream their own solo game through the pictures that result. Dense possibilities, many entry points, active magic, mysteries—these can all matter as much as what’s supposedly the focus. 

I've loved working on 13th Age with Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer because we’re creating dense and daydream-worthy art. Take this sample layout (using old text) from the bard character class as an example. You can see from the way I wrote the art suggestion that I wasn’t sure the piece would come off. Getting fully successful magic effects that match your own vision from a talented artist whose vision is probably on its own track? It’s tough.

Icon Notation
Possible high concept illustration.
The point would be to show an elven druid playing a musical instrument.
The notes are visible magic coming out of the instrument. 
Some look like classic musical notation.
Others look like stars joined by the Elf Queen’s face.
This would fit incredibly well with the game mechanics. Don’t know if it can be done.
Could be small or large as Aaron desires.

Icon Notation turned out better than I dreamt. It’s beautiful, it flows, Aaron used the full-page instead of piping small, and it’s a perfect 13th Age illustration of a bard using the Balladeer talent to sing the praises of the Elf Queen. This partnership has me excited about finding new (or simply wonderful!) ways to illustrate fantasy tropes. I’ll show some more samples of Aaron and Lee's work on 13th Age before the 13 True Ways Kickstarter is through. I’m hoping that the Kickstarter works and we’ll be able to create more active magic.