Tuesday, October 29, 2013

One sorcerer blog, two voices

After a couple months away, Jonathan recently returned to our 13th Age table playing a halfling sorcerer named Samlael. Well, the halfling is sort of half of the character. Samlael's One Unique Thing is that he learned sorcery from his familiar, a small green snake named Winder. Winder does all the talking for Samlael, who only speaks in his normal halfling voice when he is casting spells. In other words, Jonathan has stepped out from his usual pattern of playing small spellcasters with funny voices. This time he's got a small spellcaster whose familiar has a funny voice. You play what you love.

All the other PCs knew Samlael back when he was a skilled courier in the Elf Queen's service, back before he met Winder and learned magic. Samlael's reintroduction to the PCs was one, no, two of the freakier roleplaying sessions I've GMed. Not because of anything I set up. Just because of Jonathan's absolutely faithful maintenance of Winder's creepy snake voice, speaking of Samlael in the third person: "He's really happy to see you guys too," Jonathan hissed while Samlael bounced up and down gleefully and gave his old wood elf comrades big knee-hugs. The combination of apparently normal halfling personality and creepy snake intonation was a freaky gift that kept on freaking.

So much so that before the next session, Jonathan took the time to clarify that although he was weirding the table out with his roleplay, the key to the story was that Samlael and Winder are not scaring everyone in the world. They have so much charisma and magical mojo that people just go along with the arrangement, it seems unique-interesting instead of unique-freaky. We've gotten better at playing it this way, so much so that while the wood elf PCs are busy putting their kingdom together, Samlael has wound up presenting himself as an Agent of Distinction (Jonathan's wonderful choice of official title) and the main spokesperson for the ever-so-busy elves.

So that's the story side. On the mechanical side, Jonathan has written this this guest blog on sorcerer mechanics as they relate to the history of DnD spellcasting.

Jonathan says: 
My 13th Age sorcerer casts empowered spells, which are a new way to embody the original approach to spellcasting. In D&D in 1974, a magic-user’s spells were special. They were more powerful than a fighting-man’s attacks, but the magic-user cast fewer spells than the fighter made sword attacks. This original formulation—spellcasters with one-use spells and fighters with infinite-use attacks—survived all the way through 3rd Edition and on into Pathfinder. The problem is that high-level spellcasters not only get more spells but the average power level of their spells also goes up, creating a multiplier effect. High-level spellcasters deal more damage than the fighter, round after round after round. Fourth Edition solved this problem by normalizing all the classes, so that they all have comparable access to limited-use, high-power attacks. For the first time ever, D&D classes were really balanced, but they were also too similar to each other. The dichotomy from 1974 was gone. Fighters had limited-use, high-power attacks just like the wizards did. Magic wasn’t special any more. Rob and I brought this dichotomy back in 13th Age, where spellcasters have more limited-use, high-power attacks than fighters do. If we did our work right, the classes are still balanced even though their power profiles are different. The sorcerer in particular embodies this dichotomy with its “Gather Power” class feature. A sorcerer can spend one turn “powering up,” and then cast a double-strength spell next turn. It means that my sorcerer casts two or three bigs spells per battle, while the ranger makes five to ten attacks in the same number of rounds. The classes are balanced, but magic is still special. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Many Trumpets: this week in 13th Age

A wonderfully eventful week that opens several doors.

Early in the week, Pelgrane sent out an update of the 13th Age Bestiary's Hatchling Edition to those of you who have pre-ordered it. If you haven't pre-ordered it, now may be a good time, because Simon's note about possibly increasing the price later isn't getting any less likely with me dropping the couatl into the book and adding at least three new monsters (one fungaloid, two jorogumo). 

A day or so later, ASH LAW sent a short seasonal adventure out to the 600+ groups participating in 13th Age Organized Play.  600 groups!  ASH did some cunning work here that I'm planning to adapt into an-entirely-different campaign. 

Yesterday the new Page XX from Pelgrane announced the release of our Archmage Engine SRD. Thanks to Chad Long and Cal Moore, it turned out very well. Apparently some people worried that it would be a fakey-SRD, but the point of doing 13th Age as an OGL game was to get people playing it and using the system. Yes, it's a real SRD, and it should prove useful to people looking to overlap with our game engine. 

On 13 True Ways, Jonathan and I are running our Daily Workplace Simulator experiment at my place. Playtesting of the commander went well and I'm processing feedback for the commander and the monk to get new versions of these two classes ready for external testing. Discussion of all the other new character classes has led Jonathan to dig into work on the occultist. He has surprised me with an entirely new type of spellcaster. I'm not using the words 'new type ' lightly, I don't think these mechanics have been tried before. I'm simultaneously excited to have Jonathan working directly on character class design and scared because I'm the GM in the group these days and this occultist is going to spring occasional reality-wrenching ambushes on whoever wears the GM-cap. 

We'll update again on 13 True Ways next week.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

13th Age Bestiary Sighting: Couatl

When the 13th Age Bestiary updated *today* for people who purchase the Hatchling Edition pre-order, there was a special treat. Yes, this time the 220+ pages of the Bestiary includes all 52 of the intended entries instead of accidentally leaving out the couatl. Special!

The couatl dodged the first Hatchling Edition because I'd created the monster outside the book's standard process. I wrote the couatl in the middle of the project when we needed a replacement creature. I sent it along to the editor instead of sticking it in the pool with the other submissions and only noticed after our Hatchling broke out that we were one couatl shy of a full nest.

It wasn't that long ago that I asked Robin Laws for a new story for D&D's couatl when I was leading the design of the 4e book WotC called The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea. Robin's couatl were all about status competition and serving as patrons for adventurers and would-be-heroes who they pushed on to greater heights or deeper dangers. And also: brilliant cloud-palace ziggurats.

My new take on the rainbow flying snake could incorporate Robin's couatl story if you choose that route for your campaign. But most of what I've written hinges on elements unique to 13th Age, such as the icons. There are probably also traces inspired by my recent re-exposure to the mysteries of Shadowrun's dragons. In the words of the opening flavor text: Some monsters exist to fight, to feed, to dominate, or to destroy. Couatls exist to remind the icons that reality may be more complex than what they’ve made of it. If your 13th Age campaign is getting anywhere near epic tier, or if you enjoy monsters that shake up what everyone else considers reality, you're going to want to check out this couatl.

 Below, Rich Longmore's take on what a couatl looks like on first glimpse, when it's flying traditional rainbows instead of iconic colors.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Doom that Came to the Night Eternal

Keith Baker and Jenn Ellis Baker and Dan Garrison stayed with us this weekend while they were playtesting a prototype of their upcoming rpg, Phoenix, at GeekGirlCon.

Saturday night was game night. Aside from the Cryptozoic offices, we had what might be the only table in the world that could play back-to-back sessions of my upcoming game, Night Eternal, and Keith's upcoming game, The Doom that Came to Atlantic City.

I've been playing a lot of Night Eternal since Cryptozoic sent me a pre-publication copy. I'll say more about it soon, but for now I'll just say that my extreme familiarity with the game's strategies didn't help me any against the Baker-Machine. Keith was the dominant vampire, despite my status as a knowledgeable elder.

And life didn't get better for non-Bakers when we moved to playing Doom. Actually I've only *seen* one game of Doom that Keith didn't win, so if people eventually try to argue that Doom is a luck-based dice-rolling game, they're missing something. It takes skill to summon your Doom.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fear the Treasure. Fear IT!

About four sessions ago, in the 13th Age campaign that has developed into heroic efforts to reclaim the legacy of the magically suppressed Elf King, I decided to give out some treasure.

Not just any treasure. I told everyone that it was time to use the Optional No Math System on page 191 of 13th Age. It's a small table you can use to hand out occasional healing potions and runes without worrying about tracking loot piece-by-piece.

We'd never bothered using it in this campaign, mostly because we haven't cared much about one-shot items. True magic items are what we've cared about, especially with some of the character development that has played out through items devoted to particular causes or liberated from other time streams.

So I thought it was time to give the one-shot items a chance. In retrospect, telling the players I was about to give them treasure was the wrong way to set-up the situation. Because when the players realized I wasn't giving them "true" treasure, but was instead about to make them roll for potions, well, there was some grumbling. Probably cursing. Cue the classic paternal GM-voice, "Well if you don't want any treasure you don't have to roll," lecture. Of course they wanted to roll.

For some reason Jonathan rolled first. Maybe because I wanted him to try the system, I don't know. As he rummaged for his favored d20, I decided to set up the story by saying that the PCs were searching the enemies' bodies after the battle they'd managed to squeak through the previous session. In this case, the enemies had been extremely well-equipped ogres from an alternate timeline in which the Dragon Empire was ruled by ogres instead of humans. I'd originally intended to just stay abstract about the looting as the system suggests, but I got carried away with details. I described the many bandoleers hanging from the ogres' broad backs, all ready to be looted, and Jonathan rolled. I think he was excited about the roll but he rolled just a 6 and he reacted like he'd blown the roll. I lost track of the fact that I was trying out the Optional No Math Treasure system and asked Jonathan to tell us how he had managed to bungle the looting operation. I can't remember his exact story, but he made something up about poking his finger where it shouldn't have gone, otherworld magic not acting like he thought it would.

"Right. It was booby-trapped. The thing blows up on you. OK." I rolled a couple d8's, the first dice that came to my hands, and said, "So you take 7 damage. No, wait, 14."

Jonathan's mouth dropped and he was so very far from his happy-rational place. As he leaned forward to record the HP loss on his sheet and to voice a reasonable protest, I sensed the enormous shadow of the mistake I was making. But Jonathan's outrage was so hilarious I couldn't resist thrusting the comedic dagger. "Also you get an adventurer-tier healing potion." Kept my straightface for a few seconds. Then laid my head down on the table and laughed, as everyone else howled and carried on and called me a terrible person and a worse GM.

Paul, who was supposed to have been rolling next, said, "I was told there would be no math. And that . . . that looked like math." He threw his d20 aside. "Y'know, I think I'm fine. I don't need any treasure. No treasure here. Treasure hurts."

Four sessions later, people are still scrambling for cover every time I use the word "treasure."

Monday, October 14, 2013

13th Age Monster Sighting: Dybbuk

Everyone else seems to be decorating for Halloween so I thought we'd meet the holiday on the threshold with a horror-tinted monster preview from the 13th Age Bestiary.

 The dybbuk is a creature from Jewish mythology. The version ASH LAW designed takes just as much from Japanese and Korean horror films. Rich Longmore's art nailed the fantasy/horror crossover.

The Dybbuk Legends section is a good example of our approach to the half-created world of 13th Age. We provide multiple interesting options and trust each GM and their players to come up with the ideas that make for the campaign's best story. The half-created world completes its creation in each separate campaign.

The Dybbuk Possession section might spark weird horror-haunting stories or it might just go into the background as an explanation of what's going on when dybbuks aren't actively possessing someone like the poor elven priestess shown above.

The I Cast Thee Out! sidebar touches on the fun mechanical twist to this monster. If you hit it with holy attacks, there is a chance of blasting the dybbuk out of the body it is possessing. That's the good news. The bad news is that the dybbuk becomes an undamaged higher level ethereal dybbuk that will wreck your souls. Fortunately for some PCs, the ethereal dybbuk can't maintain its presence in the world without its host, and fades round by round, so just . . . hold . . . . on . . .

We'll let you find the current mechanics for yourself when you buy the finished book or pre-order the Hatchling Edition from the Pelgrane Press online store.


Possessing ghosts, demonic intruders, or alien visitors. Who can say for sure?

Dybbuk Legends

The stories surrounding dybbuks are often contradictory, probably muddied by the dybbuk themselves. For your game decide which one or more of the following ideas are true:
·         Dybbuks are demons who seek physical bodies to do evil deeds. They imitate the recently departed to confuse demon-hunters who hear about them. [demon]
·         Dybbuks are the souls of the dead who wish to continue living in warm bodies. [undead]
·         Dybbuks are strange visitors from another realm who use the memories of the dead as their guides and the bodies of the living as their vessels. [aberration]
·         Dybbuks are possibility-echoes of those who never were, people who could have existed if not for the birth of another. [aberration]
·         Dybbuks are the souls of those who were rewritten out of existence by magic. [undead]
The monster entries for the dybbuk show their type as “demon,” but that dybbuk origin might not apply in your game. Feel free to change their type to suit your story.

Dybbuk Possession

Dybbuks are blown about by spectral winds no one else can see and must cling to people and objects. Spellcasters and others who have more spirit vision than most occasionally see dybbuks clinging to the sides of buildings like fluttering flags or desperately clinging to the shoulders of animals and people like shadowy capes. Characters who can see the other-world will mistake the translucent shade of a dybbuk for a trick of the light unless they make a DC 30 check.

Once a dybbuk finds a host it wishes to possess, it anchors itself to the victim’s body. Thereafter it lives inside its host’s physical shadow and is no longer buffeted by other-world storms. Over time the dybbuk warps the mind and body of its host, and eventually inhabits it entirely.

<<insert sidebar>>
I Cast Thee Out!
Using holy damage on a dybbuk possessing a corpse (a corpse dybbuk) or a living victim (a parasitic dybbuk) can force the dybbuk to leave that body, but it produces a new, slightly tougher monster. Thankfully, the ethereal dybbuk fades away after a short time, because it can’t maintain a physical presence in the world for long without a host. Exposing a dybbuk to holy water or dragging it onto holy ground might have a similar effect, or not—that is the GM’s call.
<<end sidebar>>

Friday, October 11, 2013

Current 13 True Ways work (Drakkenhall, dragons, and druids)

Jonathan and I have moved into a new work phase on 13 True Ways, meeting every afternoon in my garage studio. Long periods of separate work punctuated by discussion. Yesterday Jonathan finished up a big section on icon relations in Drakkenhall and moved on to monster design. Our debate on metallic dragons roamed over the history of D&D and eventually clambered onto our standard 13th-Agey approach of handling the familiar with twists that suit us. We're more or less agreed, but expect designer sidebars in that section.

That monster tile above? That's the silver dragon tile by 13 True Ways artist Lee Moyer. See the Great Gold Wyrm tile in the core book for the ur-tile that set the pattern for the silver.

Meanwhile I finished a draft of the commander class that's ready for internal playtesting but I'm not going to say more about it than I said in yesterday's post until I'm happy with the tests. I've moved on to the druid, which somehow immediately generated new insights on handling multiclassing and racial feats, so yeah, enough of the blogging, back to the big picture druid mechanics and the new category of feats that turned out to be hidden in the underbrush surrounding the druid's woods.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Commander, Cardhunter, Golem Arcana

The undercurrent for this week is miniatures-style play. 

The Commander for 13th Age
I've been working on what we used to be called the 'battle captain' class for the 13 True Ways supplement for 13th Age. I got tired of the battle-captain mouthful and renamed the class "commander." It's more direct, dodges the adjective-generated question of how many other types of captain you can play, and describes the current mechanics better. 

When I'm happy with internal playtests the commander will join the monk in wider playtest. Jonathan thinks that this version of a commander is more like a miniatures game thing than he would expect a 13th Age class to be, but I'm arguing for the fact that the ongoing carefully weighted options are a play pattern beloved by the people who want to play the commander class in the first place, so at the moment, yes, this is another class that plays unlike any of the others. 

Meanwhile in the world of spending time pushing electrons on a game board instead of typing electrons into design files, I've been playing a lot of Cardhunter, the deck-based minis-style dungeon-fight game from Blue Manchu. I like this game a lot. Playing is free though they may find ways of attracting you as a Paypal. If you enjoy crunchy minis games, tactical puzzle-solving, or comedy-of-genre riffing on the cheesiest conventions of early D&D roleplaying, definitely check it out. It's been a long time since I worked with Skaff Elias on Chainmail and D&D Miniatures and I'm happy to see that he got involved as an advisor on a game that's so much fun. 

Where Cardhunter tickles old school memories with newfangled deckbuilding TCG design, Golem Arcana is the next big idea pulled from Jordan Weisman's hat. People have talked about using digital media to make a tactical miniatures game faster and easier to play. Jordan & Co. are trying to pull off the first ambitious version of such a design with an epic fantasy setting and big and beautiful 'miniatures.' The Kickstarter runs another four days and even if you're not likely to support it, you should look at the video, which does a good job of explaining some core concepts miniatures fans and game designers are going to want to keep track of. 

[[below, Golem Foundry by Kekai Kotaki]]

Golem Foundry, by Kekai Kotaki