Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Games Games Games

RPGs, 13th Age: 
I had a lot of fun finishing the new drafts of the monk and the commander classes for 13 True Ways. They're going out to the Kickstarter backers and the Escalation Edition purchasers and people who bought the 13th Age Bestiary pre-order. I believe they'll go out before the end of the week as part of the Pelgrane Press Page XX process.

Both classes will benefit from playtesting, especially the commander since this is its first iteration. Playtest notes definitely count. My last step with the monk was to reread all the playtest email we received at and check off each item as accounted for or at least considered.

Meanwhile in our Wednesday night campaign, the players have started calling me "Agemaster." It appears to be especially amusing to them when they're being helpful, or seeking favor, or sincerely trying to get my attention through the tumult of the room. They're also doing it because it irritates me a little. Perhaps because I'm the oldest human in the room. Perhaps because I'm not that fond of inventing new names for well-understood terms. It's not like I actually want this term to catch on. But it has gone on long enough that they're now shortening it to AM. I can't very well escape it and I suppose it also works if you're playing Dragon Age. So if amuses you, you're welcome. Yeargh.

RPGs, Thornwatch: 
We played one session of the in-development fantasy rpg created by Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade. A delightful experience. I don't speak any French but there's a French word I love, bricolage, which may or not mean what I think it means: putting together pieces of everything to assemble something new. Thornwatch is a bricolage game, assembling elements of rpgs, card games, and deckbuilding games into something unique. It's not trying to be a do-everything rpg, it's trying to be a specific game experience you'll play when the time is right and when there are new things you want to try. The initial design is excellent. I'm a sucker for the-world-is-forest narratives. I love the Thornwatch/Lookouts stories and art. This should be really good.

Digital, Dwarven Delve: 
Down below where only fungus grows, my gaming group comrades have mounted another assault on their Dwarven Delve Kickstarter game. They've got an excellent playable demo to show where they are headed and they're getting extremely close to Kicking, a couple days left and not much farther to dig. When they Kick I'm definitely going to thank them for calling me Agemaster by introducing them to 13th Age versions of their own monsters in our Wednesday night games.

The Face in the Frost, the gang from the tube

I finally read John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost last week after owning and ignoring the book for decades. Why did it take me so long? Maybe glancing at the book's cartoons as a youth turned me off for no good reason other than being tired of reading about friars and monks. Not much of a reason, but that could have been it, and when you have a book forever it's easy to forget that you could get around to reading it instead of finding something new.

John Rateliff reminded me of the book's existence a couple years ago when we were talking about the history of fantasy for the permanent Fantasy exhibit at the EMP. Then a couple weeks ago, reading John's review of an Ursula Le Guin talk he attended in Seattle, I was reminded of The Face in the Frost again, a connection that made sense when I pulled the book out of a downstairs shelf and found Le Guin's admiring quote on the cover.

The Face in the Frost reads quickly and still feels substantial. The story has held up remarkably well for a fantasy written in the 60s. It's quirky, it's charming, it's dead-scary serious. I liked it a lot.

As I was reading the book last weekend, pressed to the glass of a door on Seattle's light rail train, there was a moment when reality and The Face in the Frost darted past each other. In the book there's a confrontation with a shouting wizard during a crossover between worlds of fantasy and the world we know as real. On the Seattle light rail a heavyset Filipino man burst out of his seat and shouted down an older African American man who had been talking quietly to someone else in a seat a couple rows back. "Hey! F*** you man! I'm a member of the Sons of Anarchy! I'm sick of people disrespecting us!"

"Alright, man, alright," said the older guy, slipping out of his seat and out the train's door, which had luckily just opened at a stop in a south Seattle tunnel.

I took a few seconds to watch as the ranting gang-man stalked back to his seat. I turned back to the war of magic in my book. Then I tried to connect the dots in the real world scene I'd just half-witnessed. I thought the Sons of Anarchy was a TV show about a fictitious biker gang? Who, if anything, really piss off the Hell's Angels? So this would have made a lot more sense if he had been yelling that he was a Hell's Angel. Which he didn't. Which means this guy a few seats down identifies himself as a member of a television biker gang? Oh. He's really crazy.

Or have the Sons of Anarchy crawled out of the tube and turned into a real gang in Seattle? Which is also crazy, but it's socio-cultural crazy involving the blurred line between tv-shows and and tv-reality-shows instead of just personal batshit crazy. No answers, unless I wanted to move up a few rows and ask the Son of Anarchy about his gang affiliation. So I went back to my fantasy book about blurring lines across malleable realities.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Kicking the Strange

Roger Zelazny's Amber series and side-doors in Moorcock's Elric books started my love of reality-shifting adventures. John Ostrander's Grimjack comic book series made good on the genre's promise. Years later I started serious work in the roleplaying game industry as a writer and editor on Nexus: the Infinite City, the genre-scrambling predecessor of Feng Shui

So I'm tickled that my friends Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook are teaming up on The Strange, a multiversal project that cleverly promises to portray the characters' world-hopping through character sheet power-set transformations  based on my favorite part of the Numenera system, the character statements. But never mind tickling my personal fancy, Monte's Kickstarter projects define how successful Kickstarters should be run . . . and at how extremely successful Kickstarters end up offering almost-but-not-quite-too-much value to backers. 

The Strange is in its last three days on Kickstarter. The pile of alternate-world loot that's headed to backers is growing hour by hour. Today's updates include The Paradox Room, a nifty introductory short story that I've been looking forward to seeing in final form since Bruce brought it to our writing circle. 

Professionally, I'm looking forward to the new game. Personally I'm so happy knowing that Bruce is going to be spending his next year working on something this much fun.

Friday, November 8, 2013

13th Age update: Commander, Monk, Playtest Files, Dragon Kings

This week's playtest of the new commander and the half-revised monk went well.

In the commander's case I didn't make any changes after the playtest. Partly that's because the design is in OK shape for now. Partly it's because Thorinn, the 5th level dwarf commander who used to be a bard, was hapless. He had no hap. When you're rolling d20s, playtesting every so often devolves into "Wow, so this is what the character class looks like when you suck." The dybbuks who had possessed the party's erstwhile paladin friend turned out to have Mental Defenses that deviated from the monstrous norm and even the commander's last-ditch outmaneuver attempt came to naught. The class design mission is to somehow make even these sucky moments potentially worthwhile.

The potential doesn't always get realized. Thorinn has had a slightly rocky road since he transitioned out of being a bard. Weird things happen when your story-oriented 13th Age campaign is also the campaign that's being used to test all the new classes. Thorinn who was once a bard became a bardmander and is now a full-on commander who is likely to shift even more when we adjust for results of public playtesting.

There will be a new playtest document some time next week. The talent half of the monk is revised, the forms half is still underway. Some of the early monk talents worked so well that the rest of the talents were somewhat irrelevant. The monk could vary from hugely powerful to utterly feeble because the talents and forms were so uneven. That's not entirely surprising, given that the class hasn't had an official development pass, but I'm trying to avoid it on this pass. The next version of the monk design aims to make all the talents worthwhile, eliminates one of the pieces of the class that wasn't working (daily options for finishing attacks), makes ki powers a more integral part of the class (instead of only appearing as feats), and opens up some of the unnecessary restrictions on icon relationships and weapon choice and flavor that were getting in the way of character design. Those of you who sent playtest comments? Your comments helped a lot.

Playtest Distribution Plan
As before, we'll be sharing the monk & commander playtest files with people who bought the 13th Age Escalation Edition and people who supported 13 True Ways. We're also planning to go one step further. The publication of 13th Age has brought in many new players and GMs. People are writing us every week asking to help playtest, particularly people who seem to be converting over from other systems and want to know how we're handling classes that aren't in the core book. We've settled on a cunning plan that seems fair. People who pre-order the 13th Age Bestiary by ordering the Hatchling Edition will also get the 13 True Ways playtest files. If you've supported us by buying the Bestiary in advance, you'll see the playtest versions of the new classes and whatever else we decide to send out for wide playtesting on 13 True Ways.

A Different Kickstarter
There's another Kickstarter with 13th Age connections surging towards the finish line this week. Timothy Brown's Dragon Kings project is a campaign world and rock and roll project in the spirit of Dark Sun. The project is funded and is presently a few thousand dollars away from a stretch goal that would create a 13th Age-compatible rules PDF as part of the package. Darren Pearce is the designer slated to tackle the 13th Age aspect of the project and I'd love to see what he comes up with. Give the project a push if you can.

And elsewhere in video
Mike Shea interviewed me about 13th Age for Critical Hits earlier this week. The first half hour or forty minutes is a discussion of icon relationship rolls, including verbal notes on advice Jonathan and I will be formalizing in the GM chapter of 13 True Ways. The video amounts to working notes on the topic. Other topics include the formats of upcoming adventures and Heisenberg's Monster, Mike's wonderful term for the sense in which 13th Age frees GMs up by allowing them to be surprised by what comes out of the box.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For inspiration: Archaeology magazine

The most recent issue of Archaeology magazine, November/December 2013, has four pieces I found inspirational.

An Imperial Underworld details the network of roads that cavers have been uncovering underneath Hadrian's Villa, 15 miles east of Rome. There was an upstairs/downstairs dynamic in play here, where upstairs was a world of palaces, libraries, baths, and gardens, while downstairs was a network of tunnels that kept things running smoothly and silently. The cavers recently found underground roads 19 feet wide, wide enough for ox-carts traveling both ways. I'm planning to use these ideas in Axis somewhere and I loved the hint of interplay between the enthusiastic cavers and the stuffier people running the site.

Later there's an examination of how at least one ancient Roman glass workshop mastered a type of nanoartistry, suspending gold particles in glass so that an apparently opaque cup changes color based on what light or liquid is in or behind it. Then there's a Bronze Age Mystery in which perfectly useful boats (and a couple old ones) are sunk in boggy East England rivers. Along with a few other excellent articles there's a look at ten ancient tattooing traditions. And finally, on the last page, a wonderful look at what appears to be a ceremonial shield from the Moche culture of Peru, constructed like warriors' shields but made of reeds and yellow feathers!

Definitely an issue worth looking at . . . . unless you lack the willpower to resist the magazine's bizarre medley of golden oldie and odd collectible advertisements, highlighted this month by "The only Cuckoo Clock inspired by the Wonders of Ancient Egypt."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Scatterlings of Fire Opal

In a start-up, everyone has other projects going.

Here are three of the projects people in Fire Opal have created in recent months. Two are published. One is pushing towards the printer on Indiegogo. 

Wade's Ravens
Wade Rockett handles community relations for Fire Opal, notably on 13th Age. How pleasant that is to say. Working with Wade has been wonderful. Now he has published a Pathfinder booklet for Open Design called Advanced Races 5: Ravenfolk, a supplement for the new world of Midgard that's being put out by Wolf Baur and Companions. Ravenfolk started as Wotan's spies among the mortal races. They have a reputation as thieves but what they're really about is stealing secrets. Yeah, that's a race with Prince of Shadows stamped all over it. So Wade took a first swing at the 13th Age-compatible conversion notes and we'll probably nudge those notes a bit in the future. 

Lee's Pin-Ups
I've loved Lee Moyer's literary and science fiction calendars the past couple years. This year's calendar is a benefit for the Clarion Foundation, the people who put on the extraordinary science fiction and fantasy writing workshops. It's a great cause, Lee's art is a delight as always, and you can obtain the calendar by contributing to the Indiegogo campaign that's running another three weeks. The video has a couple cute moments, I'd say. With the calendar done, we're going to get Lee back for a few more pieces for 13 True Ways, and the better the Indiegogo goes the better mood he'll be in. 

Brandon's Quingo
Brandon Bozzi produced our 13 True Ways Kickstarter video and will surely work on other Fire Opal projects in the future. His current project is a socially responsible gaming company called Game It Forward. Their first game is Quingo, available for free on iPhone and iPad. It's a savvy quiz game with well-implemented time pressure mechanics, pop-culture awareness and wonderful side-jokes. And that's just the fun side. The serious side is that you earn cash rewards for a charity of your choice as you play. My wife Lisa loves it and lucky for us it works extremely well as a two-player team-up on iPad, two people stabbing or nudging the screen depending on their spheres of knowledge. We do OK with Revolutionary war battles and animals that are invertebrates, but the 80's pop songs are killing us.