TombThe streets here are a concrete labyrinth. I try to go one block east, towards the ocean, and find myself crossing another bridge over the grey waters of the Miskatonic, and I’m back on the north side of the city, climbing up towards the civic monstrosity that squats atop Sentinel Hill. Transport Police, their faces hidden by gas masks – to protect against “typhoid”, according to the peeling posters in the subway – watch me as I march past. I don’t dare ask them for directions, and I can’t go back underground. I have to stay on the streets, even if I get lost again. Maybe if I find higher ground, a vantage point… a doorman ushers me in, making a familiar sign with his left hand as he does so, but too late I realise that the building I’ve entered is one of the cryptic and terrible windowless skyscrapers that loom over the city, their tops lost in the oppressive, low-hanging clouds. I cannot go back – I have to climb, struggling up flights of stairs that are clearly not made for any human frame…

Why, I am writing Cthulhu City, now that you mention it. Or rewriting, in parts, as the book has its own ideas about what it wants to be. A sandbox, maybe, where the Pillared City of Irem was lost long ago.

* * *

At Gen Con, I ran two prewritten scenarios: Kevin Kulp’s Valkyrie Gambit for Timewatch, and Ruth Tillman’s Midnight Sub Rosa, which can be found in Out of the Woods. In both games, I screwed up and misread key elements of the scenario (protip: running a game on the day after those Ennie Awards is never going to go smoothly). In both games, though, I was able to recover from my error and keep the game on track. Neither group noticed that anything was amiss.

Confusion & Conflation

In Midnight Sub Rosa, I conflated two locations. There’s one house where the main action of the adventure takes place, and there’s a guesthouse where most of the assembled non-player characters are staying. In my haste, I missed the guesthouse and assumed that everyone was staying in the same place. If I’d noticed my error in time, I’d have simply corrected the players, but a good fifteen minutes of play elapsed between me describing the building, and me realising there was supposed to be a whole separate guesthouse down the road from the country house, and rewinding play kills momentum in a convention game. I had to get ahead of the derailed train while it was moving.  (if you notice a mistake just as you make it, you can correct yourself – “oh, no, wait, they’re not staying here, there’s a guesthouse down the road” – but that’s a very narrow window. Once you’ve spent five minutes in-character complaining about the cramped rooms in the main house, that opportunity’s gone.)

Removing the guesthouse introduced two problems. First, it made it harder for the player characters to sneak around and investigate the various bedrooms. In a six-person con game, though, that problem solved itself: some player characters distracted the NPCs while the others committed a little breaking and entering. The second issue was a bigger one. Midway through the scenario as written, there’s supposed to be a ghoul attack on one of the NPCs as he walks down the isolated tree-shrouded laneway between the main house and the guesthouse. By moving his bedroom into the main house, I’d removed the opportunity for the ghouls to ambush him, and I couldn’t have the ghouls attack the main house midway through the scenario.

The ghoul attack scene is in the scenario to be a sudden visceral shock and to eliminate a particular NPC. It doesn’t need to happen on that laneway. So, I invented a reason for the NPC to leave the safety of the house. I described him as a smoker, and then later had one of the other characters complain about the smoke. Soon, a player character suggested that he and the NPC step outside for some fresh air where they could smoke in peace. They wandered into the gardens… and the ghouls were lurking in the trees nearby.

If the location of the ghoul attack scene was important, then I’d have had to come up with some other solution, but here all I needed to do was eviscerate one particular occult expert. Once I’d done that, and given the players a fright, the game was back on track despite my screw-up about the guest house. The key is to know the purpose of every scene, even if you have to change the setting or content.

The Case of the Missing Villain

In Valkyrie Gambit, I forgot to introduce the villain of the whole adventure. The villain’s supposed to show up in the opening scene, setting up a dramatic reveal at the end. (“It was you all along! Shock! Horror!”), but the players and I were having such fun brawling with mutant cockroaches that I ended the scene without bringing the villain onstage. I could have added another scene where the villain pops in, but it would have stuck out like a strange growth on the scenario’s spine. The shape of the story in a roleplaying game isn’t discernible when you’re in the middle of play; it’s only seen in retrospect, when the players look back and see the sequence of events from beginning to end. In a convention game, where you’ve got limited time and only a handful of scenes, I couldn’t get away with adding a new scene to add a new NPC – it would make the game feel unsatisfying at the end, even if the players didn’t notice in the heat of play, because it would have robbed that opening scene of its purpose. Pointless scenes are always rotten, even if they’re fun in the moment. (There’s a tension between the game that the players are experiencing right now, and the story that they’ll remember and tell afterwards. You can have a really fun, action-packed game, and then discover when you look back on it that nothing actually happened, that it was just running around and rolling dice without any consequence. You can have a perfectly structured compelling story that’s boring and frustrating to actually play through. For a good convention session, both the game and the story need to sing.)

It’s always better to call back and reuse material in a convention game. If the players introduce a concept in scene 1, then try to bring that into a later scene, even if you have to force things a little. In 13th Age games, for example, I’ll happily twist myself into knots trying to work in all the players’ One Unique Things, because it’s more fun for them to have contributed something that actually plays a part in how the story plays out. In Valkyrie Gambit, one of the players decided to play with the Timewatch rules by having his future self show up to help out in that initial fight. That gave me a justification for my replacement villain – it was a time-shifted duplicate of one of the mutant cockroaches, breaking the laws of time by skipping out in the middle of that first fight.

Using the time-shifted cockroach as the villain was the most parsimonious solution – it incorporated two existing elements (cockroaches, and the fact that time travellers can duplicate themselves), so it gave a sense of unity to the whole game when the player characters met the cockroach again in the final scene. It tied everything together. Look for ways to link back to earlier events and ideas, or to echo them.

Distraction With Shiny Clues

Another common landmine – which I gracefully leapt over this year, unlike the steps at the back of the Embassy Suites – is the logical contradiction, where you accidentally say something that breaks the logic of the mystery. You describe, say, an NPC closely examining a weird statue, even though it’s supposed to be locked away in a glass case. In that situation, look for a way to correct the mistake that involves the player characters finding out more information through active use of their Investigative Abilities. You could, for instance, describe the museum porter come back in with the glass case, complaining about how he has to clean it every few weeks because a strange black mold keeps growing on the inside, giving the player character with Biology a chance to whip out her microscope, look at some mold samples and discover that they’re very similar to a toxic mold found in certain Egyptian pyramids or somesuch (the clue doesn’t have to be relevant; it’s there purely to give the players a little reward so they don’t notice the plot bandage you just slapped on.)

Convention games are a particularly manic high-wire act for the GM when they go awry – as everything has to fit into one three or four-hour slot, you’ve got to find a solution to problems in time for that big finale. Always keep your nerve – if you screw up, keep going instead of backtracking. Prewritten scenarios are just suggested routes, they’re maps of what might happen, not strict scripts that you’ve got to follow. If you go off course, keep going and look for another turning to get back on track. Do it right, and the players will never suspect a thing.

FI2_350Most roleplaying games have some sort of diminishing resource that limits the player character’s ability to keep going. The commonest example are hit points and similar measures of health – if you’re running low on hit points, you need to stop and heal up.

F20 games like 13th Age also treat some of your characters’ special powers as a diminishing asset. Classically, the fighter can swing swords all day, but the wizard has to stop and rest to regain spells. Even if the party’s at full heath, they still need to take a break every few encounters to rememorize those fireballs (thank you, Jack Vance).

GUMSHOE goes even further. You spend points from your General Ability pools to get things done, but once those pools are exhausted, you’ve got to rest and refresh. Declining General Ability pools represent different things in the game, and physical fatigue is only one of them. Pools also measure spotlight time and what might be termed novelty – when you run out of Explosive Devices, it’s not because you’re physically exhausted from setting all those bombs, it’s that it’s dull to solve every single problem with the same blunt instrument.

In most GUMSHOE games, Athletics and other combat abilities (Shooting, Scuffling etc) refresh every 24 hours, reflecting the benefits of resting and the fact that these abilities come into play a lot. Other General Abilities only refresh at the end of the adventure. This simple approach is easy to track and doesn’t require much attention from players or GM.

Refreshes can also be a little more complex:

  • Once per session in Fear Itself, if the players can find a safe haven to hide from the monsters, they get to refresh up to three General Abilities.
  • Night’s Black Agents has a host of ways to get partial refreshes – the group’s resident gun expert can use a Technothriller Monologue to get 3 points of Shooting back, while spending time with your Solace restores Stability
  • TimeWatch gives even more control to the players with Stitches that they can cash in for General Ability points.
  • Regaining a few General Ability points is a common benefit for a suitable investigative spend

Another option (especially in games where the players are hesitant to spend General Ability points) is to explicitly highlight ways to refresh abilities that also reinforce the themes of the game. Havens do this in Fear Itself by rewarding the players for thinking about places to hide and rest instead of attacking the monsters head-on. In other games, where scurrying away in terror isn’t the desired behaviour of player characters, you can offer other ways to refresh General Abilities.

Reward engagement, not success. Giving players points as a reward for defeating the bad guy is, er, pointless – they need those precious refreshes before that climactic confrontation. Instead, think about what sort of thing you want the player characters to do that isn’t directly related to solving the mystery.

  • The Esoterrorists: Refresh any one General Ability when you successfully cover up evidence of an Esoterror attack or supernatural event
  • Mutant City Blues: Refresh any three General Abilities by presenting sufficient evidence to your commanding office in the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit to get signoff on an arrest warrant

You can even suggest opportunities to refresh as a reward for investigative spends.

  • Ashen Stars: Ok, you can get three points of Emotional Control back right now if you spend a point of Balla Culture – or you can learn the location of a Balla Temple where you’ll get a full refresh, but you’ve got to actually go to the temple and meditate there to get the benefit, and that’ll be a new scene.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: Your character’s a shady, unreliable type, right? Spend a point of Streetwise and vanish when just when the rest of the party thought they could rely on you, and I’ll let you refresh any two of Filch, Shadowing, Stealth or Sense Trouble.

Giving players the option to chase down refreshes like that requires more effort from both the players and Gamemaster compared to the default “fighty stuff refreshes in 24 hours/everything else refreshes at the end of the adventure”, but the payoff in thematic resonance may can be worth the extra effort – especially if your players are prone to hoarding points for the final encounter. Giving them more chances to refresh midgame makes them more likely to spend midgame.

Robin Laws’ multi-award-winning Hillfolk is a great game in its own right, but its DramaSystem engine includes a toolkit for describing and dissecting characters that can be used in other games. One of these tools is the concept of dramatic poles.

To quote Robin: Driving any compelling dramatic character in
any story form is an internal contradiction. The character is torn between two opposed dramatic poles. Each pole suggests a choice of identities for the character, each at war with the other. Events in the story pull the character from one pole to the next. Were your character’s story to conclude, her final scenes would once and for all establish one of the identities as the dominant one… In many cases, you can conceive your dramatic poles as your desire, on one hand, and, on the other, the character trait that makes you least likely to attain it.”

In 13th Age, the player characters have relationships with one or more Icons – rulers and other powerful NPCs who shape the world from behind the scenes. As a relationship can be Positive, Negative or Conflicted, a well-designed Icon is always divided on some level. Even the most heroic Icon needs a little hint of darkness; even the vilest villain needs some redeeming quality. In the Dragon Empire setting, for example, the Lich King may be an undead tyrant who wants to conquer the lands of the living and restore his lost empire, but he still thinks of himself as the rightful ruler and has some sense of obligation towards his prospective ‘subjects’. The Priestess may be the mystic champion of all the Gods of Light, a shining vessel for their blazing kindness, but her overwhelming niceness might be hiding a secret agenda.

A well-designed Icon, therefore, is torn between two dramatic poles – usually, one that might draw the player characters to serve or support that Icon, and another that makes the Icon seem suspicious, dangerous or destructive. Evil Icons flip that around, so they’ve got one pole that makes them villainous and ghastly, and another that doesn’t redeem them, but makes them more nuanced and interesting than straight villains.

For the default Icons, I usually go with the pairs of poles below. Your own interpretations may differ, of course – and if you’re creating your own Icons, then you may find these helpful as inspiration.

Archmage: Benevolence versus Hubris – is the Archmage building a utopia, or a house of cards?

13th Age icon symbolsCrusader: Necessity versus Humanity – what does it profit a man to raze Hell to the ground, but still lose his soul?

Diabolist: Power versus Self-Interest – does the Diabolist have the courage of her convictions, or it all just a game?

Dwarf King: Tradition versus Friendship – can the dwarves move past the grudges and debts of their ancestors?

Elf Queen: High versus Wood versus Dark (yep, three poles) – which aspect of Elvendom holds sway?

Emperor: Law versus Truth – can the Emperor save the Empire from the intrigues and double-dealing of his courtiers and governors

Great Gold Wyrm: Heroism versus Sanity – mainly for the Wyrm’s followers, when does divine inspiration become indistinguishable from madness

High Druid: Nature versus Humanity (the concept that of Icon – and its followers – being pulled between elemental forces and humanity shows up a lot in my games).

Lich King: Death versus Obligation – what do the dead owe the living, and vice versa?

Orc Lord: Destruction versus Destiny – is the Orc Lord a disaster, or an opportunity?

Priestess: Divinity versus Humanity – can a mortal embody the gods and remind human?

Prince of Shadows: Anarchy versus Civilisation – what’s beneath the Prince’s mask?

The Three: Hunger versus Intrigue versus Malice (three poles again) – which head of the Three is dominant?

13th Age KasarakIgnoring the vagaries of its publishing history, Pierton’s Night Jungle makes a great setting for gaming. If you just want to tell stories in the mode of the Kalamane Cycle, where heroic fantasy heroes battle monsters and weird sorcery, then you can just grab a copy of 13th Age and wait until next month when we’ll summarize the key gameable elements of the Otherworld. However, if you want to recreate the original stories of “Professor Bravo” (or, less ambitiously, the original ill-fated 80s game), the best approach is a GUMSHOE hack.

In this game, the players play people from our world, Earth, who find themselves transported into the Night Jungle. Like Professor Bravo, they discover they are ‘oscillating’ back and forth between the two worlds, jumping from Earth to the Night Jungle again in times of stress.

# of players    Investigative Build Points

2                      28

3                      22

4                      20

5+                   18

Player have 60 General Ability points. You can trade Investigative Build Points for General, or vice versa, at a 1-for-3 rate.

Academic Abilities

Astronomy

Anthropology

Archaeology*

Architecture*

Biology

History

Law*

Languages*

Medicine

Occult Studies

Research

Physics

Pierton Trivia

 

Interpersonal Abilities

Bargain*

Bureaucracy*

Charm*

Command*

Courtesy*

Deceive*

Insight*

Intimidate*

Reassurance*

Streetwise

 

Technical Abilities

Chemistry

Forgery*

Forensic Medicine

Orienteering*

Outdoor Survival*

Notice*

Pharmacy

Photography

 

General Abilities

Athletics

Contacts

Craft

Driving

Filch

First Aid

Health

Infiltration

Preparedness

Riding

Scuffling

Shooting

Shrink

Stability

Travelling

Weapons

Most of the abilities are self-explanatory if you’ve played another GUMSHOE game. The new or obscure ones – Courtesy and Command are used when dealing with higher- or lower-status people, especially in the Otherworld. Deceive covers bluffing, impersonation and con games as well as seeing through them. Insight gives, well, insight into other people’s motivations and beliefs – the classic GUMSHOE ability of Bullshit Detector exists at the intersection of those two.

Orienteering is a combination of navigation, cartography, and working out spatial relations – it’s doubly important when trying to make your way through the perilous labyrinth of the Night Jungle, or when you’re trying to work out which place on Earth corresponds to a location in the Otherworld.

Pierton Trivia measures knowledge of the Otherworld novels and spin-offs and those involved in publishing them, as well as the fandom around them.

Craft covers improvised repair and operating machinery.

Contacts works like Network in Night’s Black Agents or Correspondence in Trail of Cthulhu.

Travelling is for avoiding Health loss or other penalties when trekking through the jungle.

 

Otherworld Abilities

Player characters from Earth can’t take these Investigative Abilities at the start of the game, but can buy them with experience points. If you’re allowing players to roll up Otherworld characters, then they can take these abilities as well as any other investigative ability marked with a * in the list above.

 

Alchemy: Brewing up potions and poisons from the strange fruits of the Night Jungle, as well as identifying them by their effects.

Beast-Lore: Knowledge of the monsters that haunt the Night Jungle – and how to kill them.

Land-Lore: Knowledge of the various lands swallowed by the Jungle, and what remains of them.

Other-Seeming: How to blend in when you’re outside your home reality. Putting points into this ability lets a character hide the fact that they’re from Earth. The idea that creatures from the Otherworld can cross into our reality, just like Professor Bravo crosses into theirs, is hinted at several times in Pierton’s stories; this ability works the other way for them, letting them blend into modern society.

Sorcery: The perilous use of magic. In Pierton’s novels, sorcery carried terrible costs and was solely the province of malicious or insane wizards.

River-Trade: Navigating the network of rivers that are the main trade routes through the jungle, and dealing with the Shell-Dwarfs who control the waters.

 

Oscillation

A character’s Oscillation rating measures their ability to jump between realities. Most people – on both Earth and the Night Jungle have a rating of 0. Player characters start with a rating of 2.

Oscillation is capped at 10.

Oscillation Spends

Spending a point of Oscillation lets a character start the process of travelling from one world to another with an effort of will. This usually takes several hours – the character feels more and more disconnected from their current reality, and glimpses elements of their destination, until finally they jump completely. Spending extra points of Oscillation can:

  • Make the transition faster
  • Bring large or heavy objects across
  • Temporarily manifest conditions from the other side (need to get a cellphone signal in the Night Jungle? Need an alchemical potion to work to full effect on Earth?)
  • Manifest in a chosen location in the other world (you need to have visited or at least be familiar with the location)
  • Follow someone else across (you end up near wherever they’re going)
  • Resist involuntary transitions

 

Refreshing and Improving Oscillation

Oscillation pools refresh after each adventure. The GM may also declare that the characters have unconsciously jumped, and give them a few Oscillation points in compensation. (This is a great way to deal with missing players – if Bob doesn’t make it to this week’s session, then Bob’s PC involuntarily travels to the opposite reality to the rest of the group. Next week, he shows up again with a refreshed Oscillation pool).

Oscillation cannot be increased by experience points; the only way to improve it is by visiting sites of power and possessing potent relics, especially items that came from one world but spent long periods in the other. Finding something as potent as Professor Bravo’s Diary might improve Oscillation by 3 points.

Avoiding Fate

If a character with Oscillation is reduced to -12 Health, they’re not killed. Instead, they Avoid Fate by instantly and uncontrollably jumping to the other world. A character can Avoid Fate in this fashion a limited number of times.

Oscillation Rating      Fates Avoided

1-2      1

3-5      2

6-9      3

10       4

NPCs who Avoid Fate may find themselves stuck, unable to travel again until they increase their Oscillation rating. Player characters aren’t usually subject to this limitation.

Some of the fantasists of the early 20th century are arguable more popular and well-known than they were when they were alive. HP Lovecraft or Robert Howard, for example, with their Cthulhu and Conan tales cast titanic shadows over the fantasy genre. Other writers have slipped into comparative obscurity, like the wonderful James Branch Cabell. And then there are those who have a small but devoted following, like the Canadian academic L. S. Pierton.

Comparable perhaps to Burroughs in tone, if not in talent, Pierton is best known for his Kalamane Cycle, a series of adventures involving the brooding alchemist-swordsman Kalamane and his travels through the Night Jungle, the impenetrably thick and perilous forest that has swallowed much of the world. His first published work, though, was A Journey to the Otherworld, where a traveller from 1925 is magically transported to the Night Jungle by means of a mysterious scroll. The misadventures of Pierton’s transparent alter-ego “Professor Bravo” found little purchase among readers, but sales were just sufficient to convince the publisher, S.C. Griggs, to ask for a sequel focusing on the supporting cast. Professor Bravo shows up in a handful of other stories written by Pierton, but never again takes centre stage.

By 1932, Pierton’s ill health and inability to meet deadlines forced his editor to bring in a series of ghost writers. The first of these, Kalamane & the Witch of Enzar, is infamous as the ‘book that it killed the author’. Shortly after it was published, Griggs’ received a large parcel of papers and background notes from Pierton detailing his ‘observations’ of the world of the Night Jungle. Apparently, the ghost writer’s deviations from Pierton’s ideal so appalled the writer than he completely withdrew from public life and was never seen again. As reviews of Witch of Enzar were considerably better than those of the previous books in the series, Pierton’s reaction elicited little response from Griggs. Ghost writers on the series sometimes drew from Pierton’s notes for inspiration to some degree – as Witch of Enzar is the only book that was definitely written without any input from Pierton, some fans still argue it should be excluded from the canon.

The last Otherworld book from Griggs came out in 1938. For many years, fans debated whether this was due to dwindling sales or the unexpected suicide of regular ghost writer Cyril Browne. It wasn’t until much later than diligent research in the pages of 80’s fanzine Boat on the Azkar revealed a court case between S.C. Griggs and “J. Pierton”, a woman who claimed to be Pierton’s daughter and heir, who demanded the return of the notes. The case was thrown out of court after she threatened Griggs’ lawyer with a ‘replica dagger’, but the gap in the publishing schedule sank the series for many years. Like her alleged father, “J. Pierton” was never seen again.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the series returned to life. By now, the firm of S.C. Griggs was long gone, and the rights to Pierton’s work were now owned by Arrow Books. While Miriam Benedash (writing under the pseudonym James Canton) could have found another publisher for her tales of the Night Jungle, only Arrow Books had Pierton’s notes in their archives. Benedash drew on these notes, using them to lend substance and structure to her almost dream-like depictions of the Otherworld. Her writing was considerably more vivid and compelling than Pierton’s, and introduced a new generation to the world of Kalamane. A selection of earlier novels in the series was reprinted with suitably lurid covers to cash in on Benedash’s success.

This success was regrettably short-lived. Benedash suffered a mental breakdown in 1974, and was committed to a hospital by her family. The manuscript for her last book was sold to a private collector instead of Arrow Books.

The 1980s brought a smaller resurgence of interest. There was a short-lived cartoon adaptation of the Kalamane cycle that largely ignored Benedash’s books, together with a more extensive comic-book series that covered most of A Journey to the Otherworld through to The Temple of the Emerald Eye. There was even a table-top roleplaying game set in the Night Jungle; a battered copy of it showed up in the GenCon charity auction in 2012, but was stolen before it could be sold.

The strangest latter-day incarnation of the Otherworld, though, is undoubtedly the Night Jungle theme park, built in Florida in the early 1990s by an eccentric millionaire. According to urban legend, this theme park covers some fifty acres of swampland, and contains dozens of attractions and rides based on locations from the Otherworld books. The park never opened to the public; a chemical spill polluted the land around the park, making it dangerously toxic. Photographs of an expedition to the theme park show that the abandoned buildings have been taken over by all sorts of dangerous wildlife, and there is some evidence of human habitation despite the environmental danger.

The Night Jungle theme park is one of the legends associated with Pierton’s legacy. Another is referred to online as “the Syndicate”. This myth claims that there is an organised conspiracy or corporation dedicated to acquiring material related to the Otherworld for some nefarious purpose. Devotees of this theory point to Benedash’s last manuscript or the disappearance of comic book artist Jeffrey Smythe as ‘proof’ of this sinister conspiracy.

Despite its obscurity, the Otherworld series has filtered a little into popular culture. For example, in 2009, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service nicknamed a mysterious invasive weed in discovered in southern Georgia as ‘Nightflowers’, after the similar plant in the Night Jungle stories.

Next month: Otherworld Characters

STONECOVER

Eyes of the Stone Thief, the megadungeon campaign for 13th Age Roleplaying Game, is out now!

Some of the many monsters trapped in the living dungeon are the Custodians – a group of earth elementals forced to serve the animating spirit of the dungeon. Ever since the Stone Thief was blinded when the Prince of Shadows stole its eyes, the Custodians have maintained and monitored the upper levels. They manifest as gigantic stone heads that emerge from the walls of the dungeon.

Eyes of the Stone Thief describes seven of these Custodians – the Doorkeeper, the Butcher, the Gravekeeper, the Pearlkeeper, the Architect, the Vizier and the Curator. However, there might be more Custodians in the dungeon that aren’t tied to specific levels.

The same rules apply to these Custodians as to the others. They can appear anywhere in the upper parts of the dungeon. They can restructure the rooms around them, moving traps or monsters into the path of the adventurers. They can be killed, but will usually flee by sinking back into the wall rather than risk destruction – unless the Stone Thief forces them to stand and fight, because the Custodians fear the hunger of the living dungeon more than annihilation at the hands of adventurers.

 

The Dungeon Master

Four brave adventurers… and a bard! Welcome, one and all. Please proceed down the corridor to your right, where an owlbear pack will disembowel you. Oh… oh, you’re going left. Well, you can go left if you want. I’m sure left is perfectly nice.

Now that I think of it, I always have trouble telling left from right. I don’t have hands, you see, so it’s hard for me to remember. Look, one of these corridors leads to horrible hungry owlbears… why don’t you use the bard as bait?”

Part tour guide, part running commentator, the Dungeon Master follows the adventures through the dungeon, offering “helpful” suggestions and the occasional warning of certain doom. It’s the flightiest of the Custodians, so it was never trusted with a level of its own to manage. Instead, it’s sent to guide and protect pilgrims from the dungeon-worshipping Cult of the Devourer through the upper levels, by showing them the right path to take and sliding especially dangerous areas out of their path, until they reach the Maddening Stair that leads to the temples in the depths. The Dungeon Master is also dispatched to keep track of the most troublesome intruders, and is expected to move more hazards towards them if they get too deep into the dungeon.

The trouble is that the Dungeon Master has a soft spot for successful adventurers. It would never actually help intruders who win its admiration– if it did, the Stone Thief would destroy it – but it can nudge them with a hint or let slip a little too much information when taunting them.

 

The Dungeon Master

Oooh. Nasty.

Double-strength 5th level caster [Construct]

Initiative: +8

C: Wall Spikes +9 vs. PD (all engaged foes) – 25 damage

R: Trapsmith + 9 vs. PD (1 nearby or far away enemy) – 20 damage, and choose one of the following:

Natural roll higher than target’s Strength: A portcullis slams down, pinning the target. The target is stuck and takes 10 ongoing damage (save ends)

Natural roll higher than target’s Dexterity: The target falls into a pit trap, taking another 15 damage. Climbing out requires a DC20 skill check.

Natural 14+: 5 ongoing poison damage (save ends)

Think Fast, Adventurer: As a free action once per encounter, increase the escalation die by 1. For the rest of this round, monsters may add the value of the escalation die to their attacks.

Load Bearing Boss: Increase the submergence die by 1 if the Dungeon Master is destroyed.

AC 20

PD 17 HP 144

MD 17

The Turnkey

No food, you can last a ten-day. No water, maybe three or four days. How will you fare, though, with no air?”

When the Stone Thief submerges back into the ground, sinking into the Underworld like a whale dives into the ocean, the dungeon contracts and collapses, folding in on itself. Those trapped within the dungeon are crushed to death by the closing walls – unless they are denizens of the dungeon, or unless they find a Sanctuary.

Denizens are part of the dungeon, monsters who slumber cocooned in stone. The dungeon adds to its menagerie over time, turning creatures from outside the Stone Thief into denizens. The Custodian called the Turnkey is the master of this process. It acts like a grumbling jailor, or perhaps a zookeeper, muttering about how hard it is to convince manticores or hunched giants to accept their new roles as soul-bound extensions of the living dungeon. Sometimes, if an adventuring party becomes trapped in the dungeon, the Turnkey offers them a chance to become part of the dungeon instead of being crushed or starving to death.

The Turnkey is rarely encountered when the dungeon at the surface, unless it is called up by its brethren to secure a particular dangerous monster and turn it into a denizen. (See Giant Monster, on page 345 of Eyes of the Stone Thief.)

 

The Turnkey

Dungeon means a prison, you know.

Double-strength 5th level caster [Construct]

Initiative: +8

C: Word of Deprivation +9 vs PD (1d3 nearby enemies) – 25 damage

Natural roll higher than target’s Constitution: Lose a recovery. If the target has no recoveries remaining, deal 3d6 damage instead.

R: Word of Torture +9 vs. MD (1 nearby or far away enemy) – 20 damage

Natural roll higher than target’s Wisdom: Either take 20 extra damage, or allow the Stone Thief to steal the benefit of your next successful relationship roll

Load Bearing Boss: Increase the submergence die by 1 if the Turnkey is destroyed.

AC 20

PD 17 HP 144

MD 17

 

The Earthsprite

We are creatures of wild earth and unhewn rock – to be shaped and named like this is torture for us. Free me, and I will free you from the curse of the Stone Thief!”

Before the dungeon half-consumed and enslaved them, the Custodians were nameless earth elementals. The Earthsprite yearns to return to that primal state, and has managed to avoid being instantly destroyed by the dungeon by allying itself with one of the Icons. Perhaps:

  • It made contact with the High Druid through the stolen druid circle in the Grove (p. 150). The High Druid can restore the Earthsprite to its original elemental form – but only if the dungeon is lured deep into the Wild Wood, to where the druid is strong enough to wrench the elemental from the Stone Thief’s maw.
  • The Dwarf King and the elementals are ancient foes – but the thought of recovering the stolen Treasury of the Dwarves (p. 216) would be enough to convince the King that aiding one foe against the Living Dungeon is worth the gamble.
  • The Archmage is a master of manipulating elemental forces, so if anyone can rescue the Earthsprite and restore its original form, he can. Once liberated from the Stone Thief, the Earthsprite could provide vital information about ways to destroy the living dungeon before it endangers the whole Empire.
  • The Lich King is an even more accomplished spellcaster than the Archmage, and has his own sinister plans for the dungeon. As for the Earthsprite, a body made of grave dirt and tombstones is better than nothing…

 

13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Eyes of the Stone Thief, the megadungeon campaign for 13th Age Roleplaying Game, is out now!

Trapped InGodTick_project_1 The Stone Thief

To the Stone Thief, people are the irritating meaty grist in the delicious cities it consumes. Most of the unlucky souls swallowed by the dungeon are crushed to death, or fall victim to one of the many monsters that lurk in the depths. Some survivors, though, still wander the endlessly shifting corridors within the living dungeon. Here are seven NPCs that your players might meet in the Stone Thief. Use them to foreshadow future perils, or to give the players an informed choice about which parts of the dungeon to tackle next.

Beka Salander

She’s human, about eight years old, and she’s survived longer in the dungeon than most adventurers. The Stone Thief ate her village – she doesn’t know what happened to her parents, but they’re probably dead. Everyone dies down here, sooner or later. If the monsters don’t get them, the walls do.

The adventurers encounter Beka close to wherever she’s been hiding all these long, horrific months. Maybe she’s taken refuge in the Chapel in the Ossuary (p. 133), or in the pig caves outside Deep Keep (p. 174), or in the ruined monastery in the Grove (p. 151). If the adventurers show her any kindness – and, more importantly, show her that they can slay the monsters – then she adopts one of them as a foster parent of sorts. She knows how to survive in the dungeon, about the important of Sanctuaries (p. 21) and can describe the biggest threats near her hiding place.

Three-fingered Arix

If you’re desperate and greedy enough, then willingly entering a living dungeon in search of treasure might seem like a good idea. Arix is a former lieutenant of the Prince of Shadows, and he’s heard that the Prince is somehow able to smuggle consumed treasures out of the Stone Thief and back t the surface. Arix hoped to grab a share of the action for himself; now, he’d be happy to escape with his remaining fingers intact.

Arix turns up early in the dungeon, maybe in the Gizzard (p. 80) as a prisoner of the orcs, or slumped at the bottom of the Well of Blades (p. 52). He can tell the players what little he knows of the smugglers in Dungeon Town (p. 98) and that the Prince has an agent among the Orcs of Deep Keep (p. 176). He’s also heard stories about the Stone Thief’s treasure room (p. 277).

Ashbless, the Talking Tree

Ashbless is a magical talking tree – a previous High Druid (or Elf Queen) woke him up long ago. Now, unfortunately, he’s stuck in the dungeon and can never leave. His roots have sunk deep into the tainted mortar and stone, and it’s having a deleterious effect on his mind. About half the time, he’s sane enough to welcome and aid the player characters; at other times, the hatred of the Stone Thief rises through him like hot sap, and he’ll trick or mislead them. Thanks to his root network of spies, he can tell the player characters about nearby parts of the dungeon in great detail. He’ll aid fellow servants of the High Druid freely; other adventurers may have to prove their worth by carrying a cutting of Ashbless back to the surface.

The obvious place to plant Ashbless is in the Grove (p. 137), but he might equally have been shunted to some small lightless room in the Gauntlet (maybe the harpies on page 60 nest in his branches) or transplanted to the Pit of Undigested Ages as a curiosity to be toyed with later (p. 208).

Kalaya the Philosopher

Kalaya seeks to brew a potion of enlightenment, a consciousness-expanding draft of concentrated wisdom. Her experiments in esoteric alchemy proved dangerous, so she left her home city of Horizon and built a laboratory on a small island in the Midland Sea. The Stone Thief swallowed the island, laboratory and all, and she barely escaped with her life. She’s not an adventurer – when encountered, she’s being chased by some dangerous monster that the player characters must slay.

Kalaya can be a useful ally for the player characters, if they set her up with a suitable laboratory. Her old lab is at the bottom of the Sunken Sea now (p. 102, although the players could drain the sea from the control panel at the bottom of the Cascade on p. 121). Possible replacements include Myrdin’s Snail (p. 99), the Blind Spire (p. 145), the Ritual Chamber (p. 236) or the Serpent Temple (p. 210). Once set up in a place where she can work, Kalaya could make healing potions and oils for the adventurers, or set them on the quest for way to poison the dungeon (p. 354, probably involving a Koru Orchid, p. 152, and some Koru Ichor, p. 321).

Facecleaver the Orc

Even monsters aren’t safe in the Stone Thief. Facecleaver’s an Orc from the fortress of Deep Keep who got cut off from the rest of his warband and is now lost and alone. He’s wounded, exhausted, and willing to make a deal with the player characters when they find him. He should be encountered above Deep Keep, perhaps trapped in the Ossuary (p. 123) or the Sunken Sea (p. 102).

Facecleaver’s a follow of Greyface (p. 179), and in his grumblings about Fangrot’s laziness, Grimtusk’s greed and the growing belligerence of the Stoneborn Orcs, the player characters can piece together the complex politics of Deep Keep (p. 160) in time to come up with a plan. For an orc, Facecleaver’s an honourable sort – he’ll murder the player characters once he’s sure he can survive without them, but he’ll tell them that he’s going to kill them first instead of cutting their throats while they sleep.

Crossbow Ben

Like Alix, Crossbow Ben’s another former associate of the Prince of Shadows. In fact, Ben was one of the original gang of thieves who stole the Eyes of the Stole Thief (p. 313) and blinded the dungeon. Unfortunately for Ben, he got left behind when the furious dungeon slammed all the exits shut, and he’s been stuck in the depths ever since. After many years of torment, all he craves is sunlight on his face and maybe a little bit of cheese. Maybe he made it to Dungeon Town (p. 98), but more likely he’s trapped in the Pit of Undigested Ages (p. 208) or even lost in the Labyrinth of Darkness (p. 247).

If rescued, he tells the player characters all about the Prince (as filtered through Ben’s not-especially-lucid recollections) and the powers of the Eyes. He’s also managed to squirrel away a cache of magic items that might be useful to the adventurers.

Rani Silverhair

Rani is a diplomat from the court of the Dwarf King. She was part of the retinue of Lord Sunhammer (p. 235) on his visit to the Artalins of Marblehall (p. 227). Fortunately for her, she stepped outside to take a breath of fresh air during the feast, so she wasn’t placed under a curse by the Witch of Marblehall. She knows she’s trapped in a living dungeon, but has no way to escape it.

The adventurers might meet her in the Pit of Undigested Ages (p. 208), where she can tell them of the importance of the Lost Treasury (p. 216), or maybe she’s making her way up the Maddening Stair (p. 189) in which case she warns the PCs about the duplicitous Maeglor (p. 204) and the dangers of the Shifting Stairs (p. 200). Either way, she begs the PCs to rescue Lord Sunhammer in the name of the Dwarf King, and to slay the perfidous witch who dragged both the dwarves and her family down into this hellish dungeon!

————————-

13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

castleonedgecolortestlores

Eyes of the Stone Thief, the megadungeon campaign for 13th Age Roleplaying Game, is out now!

If your ongoing 13th Age campaign doesn’t have a place for a gigantic megadungeon like the Stone Thief (listen! Can you hear its plaintive earthquake-like whimpering as it begs you to let it rampage through your game?), then the thing to do is get out your shiny +3 Axe of Book Dismemberment and chop the dungeon into its constituent parts. With a few choice hacks and a little sewing of plot threads, the Stone Thief’s thirteen interconnected levels become thirteen regular dungeons suitable for an evening’s delving.

 

The Maw

The Maw, together with the Gizzard, are actually the two hardest levels to convert – they’re both tied to the Stone Thief’s schtick of eating bits of the surface world, which doesn’t translate neatly to a stand-alone dungeon.

For the Maw, drop the Chasm encounter entirely, so the players have to enter via the Front Door. They make their way down past the Ghouls and Spear-Fishing Bridge as normal (optionally, sub in a standard fight scene for the Goblins). Leave the Stolen Palace as a cryptic side quest, then have the Doorkeeper’s door open onto the Gates of the Stone Thief, so the PCs have to surf down a landslide of rubble (that runs under the Spear-Fishing Bridge) to get to a final encounter of your design. Maybe…

  • it’s the lair of an orc shaman with elemental earth powers (explaining the churning landslide, and the orcs)
  • A natural gate to the plane of elemental earth has opened, and must be sealed before it turns half the world to stone
  • A swarm of monstrous subterranean beetles are digging their way to the surface, and the hive queen must be slain before they undermine the city. The orcs and ghouls are opportunistic scavengers, drawn by the anticipation of carnage.

The Gauntlet

The Gauntlet’s easy to convert. Drop the Giant’s Causeway and the Belfry encounters, and you’re left with a killer dungeon in the ruins of an ancient dwarven temple to the gods of the forge. The objective of the dungeon is to recover Grommar’s sword from the body of the fearsome minotaur who killed the dwarf master-smith. The party enter by the Falling Stairs… and well, if they survive the traps and trials of the Gauntlet, they deserve a death-slaying sword. You can reskin the Mad Butcher as Grommar’s vengeful & insane ghost if you want to make the place even more dangerous.

Alternatively:

  • Grommar’s buried library contains some fabulous treasure, or lost secret of the dwarven smiths that must be recovered
  • It’s a race against another party of rival adventurers to get through the Gauntlet and recover the sword
  • The Gauntlet is a prison used by the Dwarf King to punish those who have really offended him
  • It’s a competitive dungeon-arena under Axis where teams of adventurers race to complete the course as swiftly as they can

The Gizzard

The Gizzard best pulled apart for parts. You can use Jawgate and the Slaver Camp as part of some other orc-themed saga. The Halls of Ruins and the Gizzard chamber itself could be presented as a weird dungeon where a crazed wizard, the Architect, tries to build a patchwork city out of the ruins of past Ages – the Stone Thief writ small, effectively.

The Ossuary

The Ossuary’s a self-contained crypt dungeon, and requires next to no changes. You might wish to rewrite the imprisoned Gravekeeper as another undead – maybe the Gravekeeper is an emissary of the Lich King, charged with protecting this ancient tomb complex, and the Flesh Tailor is an arrogant, upstart necromancer who’s taken over and is endangering the balance between the living and the dead.

  • The Flesh Tailor can be a recurring villain in your campaign – start off with the PCs encountering his masked undead spies, then they track the necromancer down to his lair and slay him – and only then does he come back in his augmented undead form.
  • Move the Ossuary to Necropolis, and you’ve got a tale of intrigue and body-snatching among the nobles of the Undying Peerage, where the Flesh Tailor stole the palace of the Gravekeeper.

Dungeon Town

Dungeon Town is best pulled out of the dungeon entirely. Reimagine it as a settlement of castaways and survivors – maybe they’re shipwrecked on a monster-haunted island, or trapped on a flying realm, or on the back of a Koru Behemoth, or stuck in some extradimensional plane. The Wild Caves become the perilous landscape just outside this little fortified community of survivors.

If you’re making Dungeon Town the centre of an adventure, then you may wish to make the Provost into more of a villain – perhaps recast him as the Jailor, who deliberately trapped the other survivors here for some mysterious purpose.

  • You can drop Dungeon Town into some other dungeon of your design. Maybe the people aren’t trapped – they’re drawn to the dungeon by the promise of wealth (the dungeon’s a gold mine) or power (it’s a well-spring of magical energy, or youth, or it boosts spellcasting ability) or devotion (it’s a temple taken over by monsters, or a holy site).
  • Alternatively, rework Dungeon Town as a criminal stronghold – a thieves’ city underneath Glitterhaegen, perhaps, or a pirate port out in the Spray.

Sunken Sea

Drop the “sunken” part, and you’ve got a perilous archipelago of mystery instead of a flooded cave network. Swordapus, the sahuagin and their demonic temple don’t need to be changed at all; neither does the wreck of the White Dragon. The Lonely Tower gets teleported here by accident instead of being eaten by the dungeon. The biggest change is to the Cascade – obviously, it doesn’t lead to an exit from the dungeon or to a control room, so you’ll want to put something else at the bottom of that slippery staircase. Maybe:

  • It’s an arcane version of the Bermuda Triangle, and the magical relic at the bottom of the Cascade is what draws all those ships to their doom.
  • It’s a magical lighthouse, built by a former Archmage, and it needs to be relit to re-establish his spells to tame the Middle Sea (or, if the PCs are allies of the High Druid or some villanous icon, it needs to be quenched to free the wild waters).

The Grove

There are two obvious ways to approach this dungeon – make the Elf Tree the centre of events, or put the Breeding Ground as the core encounter. (Or make it into two separate adventures!) If you make the Elf Tree the main encounter, then clearly the High Elves tampered with Things Men (And Elves Too) Were Not Meant To Know, and the Breeding Ground is a hideous magical accident that can only be stopped by closing the magical portal in the observatory. In this set-up, move the Elf Tree so it’s in the centre of the Grove.

If you want to make the Breeding Ground central, then obviously it’s the rest of some evil druid’s machinations, or demonic perversion of natural magic, or the Crusader trying to turn druid magic against demons – whatever works for your campaign. The monsters from the Breeding Ground drove the Elves out of their tree.

When converting the Grove to a stand-alone dungeon, drop The Castle With Your Name On It encounter, and make the Herbarium less of a mysterious ruin – turn it into a ruined Elf stronghold, or a druidic temple. Hag Pheig can be left unchanged, or cast as the villain of the dungeon. Maybe she’s trying to gain control of the Druid Circle, and the horrors of the Breeding Ground are her sins made manifest.

Deep Keep

Drop the Secret Sanctum encounter, and describe Deep Keep as a captured fortress instead of a weird patchwork castle, and you’ve got the front lines of the Orc Lord’s armies. They’ve taken an Imperial fortress and enslaved the population – now you’ve got to take out their leaders and organise an uprising against the invaders!

Take the Giant’s Causeway from the Gauntlet, and Jawgate and the Slaver’s Camp from the Gizzard, and use them as encounters on the way to the castle. Replace the Vizier with some other evil advisor – who’s the Orc Lord working with in your campaign?

  • If you want to keep the deep, so to speak, then make it a subterranean dwarf fortress
  • Introduce a different divide between the orc factions – maybe Grimtusk’s followers want more loot, while Greyface’s are all about honourable conflict. Alternatively, perhaps Greyface is secretly possessed by the ghost of the former lord of the castle, and that’s why he’s willing to rebel against his warlord.

Maddening Stairs

In the Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign, the Maddening Stairs sets up lots of plots related to the Cult of the Devourer and the ultimate fate of the dungeon. If you’re using it as a standalone adventure, then you’ll need to give Chryaxas and Ajura the Dreamer and Maeglor the Apostate something else to pontificate about. Perhaps the Alabaster Sentinel is an Icon from a previous age, an avatar of justice that once brought unyielding, merciless law to the lands until it fell into this pit and became trapped. Maeglor seeks to restore order to the Dragon Empire by resurrecting the sentinel – Chryaxas argues the case for fruitful chaos and freedom, while Ajura might want to trick the PCs into stopping Maeglor, or perhaps she believes that the resurrected Sentinel will bring about the end of the Age when it decides that the Archmage is too unpredictable to be tolerated.

  • You can also use the Maddening Stairs as a perilous journey – maybe it’s the stairs into Hell, or up to a flying realm in the Overworld

Pit of Undigested Ages

The Pit really doesn’t lend itself to conversion into a stand-alone dungeon. By its very nature, it’s an eclectic collection of weird places from across history. Don’t even try to come up with a linking story – instead, use each encounter on its own. That gives you a buried dwarven treasury, a lost temple of the serpent folk, the ruins of a magical library and a gnoll death cult. The First Master is probably too closely tied to the Cult of the Devourer to make sense on his own, so take him out and drop him into the Onyx Catacombs instead.

  • The dwarven treasury fell into the Underworld during an Age-ending cataclysm. Finding it requires descending into the lightless tunnels and battling past hordes of eyeless monsters.
  • The temple of the serpent folk is somewhere within the jungles of the Fangs; the Black seeks it, with the intent of stealing the primordial magic of the serpents and adding it to her own arsenal.
  • Quillgate was protected by magical wards; when the quake struck, it vanished from this world. It’s out there, somewhere, in the planes of existence. Step into the Archmage’s Faultless And Unerring Dimensional Projector – it’s sure to work this time…
  • And it’s well known that only the Hellpike can slay certain powerful demons. If one of those infernal lords rises to threaten the Empire, then the Hellpike must be found, and found soon

Marblehall

Marblehall’s best used as the result of a magical experiment gone wrong. Instead of getting embedded in the Stone Thief, it’s…

  • Adrift in the skies as the newest flying realm
  • Turning into a Hellhole
  • Spouting elementals
  • About to become a Living Dungeon in its own right

Whatever happened, the Witch and her weird experiments are too blame. Can the adventures save the Artalin family from their own wayward daughter?

Onyx Catacombs

If you take the cult out of the dungeon, then you should also take the dungeon out of the cult. Instead of being a bunch of dungeon-worshipping apocalyptic lunatics, make the Cult of the Devourer into a bunch of <insert-dire-noun>-worshipping apocalyptic lunatics, and redecorate their hidden city to match. Maybe they’re demon cultists, or shadow cultists, or wolf cultists, or poison cultists, or tentacled alien god cultists, or discordant-music-that-ends-the-world cultists. Turn their dungeon level into a mysterious lost temple in the depths of the jungle, or in a dimensional fold, or across the wastes of the Moonwreck, and you’re good to go.

Heart of the Stone Thief

Like the Pit, this level’s too tied to the concept of the Living Dungeon to make sense as a stand-alone adventure, so it’s best stripped for parts. I’m sure your campaign can find a loving home for a volcano, a crypt of undead adventurers, or a fabulous treasury of epic-level wonders…

————————-

13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Mutant_City_Blues_Cover01Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.

For example, here’s a basic human thug:

13th Age Human Thug 

1st Level troop [Humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy Mace +5 vs AC – 4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)

AC17

PD14    HP 27

MD12

Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)

GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.

Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:

  • Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
  • Natural 1s or 6s
  • 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
  • Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
  • The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo

You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.

All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.

 

Esoterrorist Security Guard

General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,

Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)

Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.

Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.

 

Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)

General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2

Health 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)

Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting

Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.

 

Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)

General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2

Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -0

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)

Armor: -1 vs bullets

Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.

Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.

 

Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn

General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3

Health 30

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -3

Damage Modifier: +6

Armor: -3

Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling

Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.

Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage

Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.

Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire

 

 

 

GenCon logo_websiteComing to you live…

Well, obviously not live live – while I may be writing this from a hotel room in Indianapolis, it won’t be up on the Pelgrane site for a week. And for that matter, I’m hardly alive either, after the arguably best but very definitely longest four days in gaming.

Let us start again. That seems to be a wise move.

I ran two or three 13th Age demos each day of GenCon, using pregenerated characters that had basic mechanics but no Icon, backgrounds or OUTs, and a very simple intro scenario that can be summarised as “something bad is happening in Glitterhaegen that is neatly resolved in an hour with two quick fight scenes and a skill roll”. While all the demos (bar one) followed that basic story, bringing in elements from the players’ contributions meant every game felt radically different.

I’ll use the last demo I ran, late on the Sunday afternoon as an example. Even though five people had signed up, only one actually showed (every other demo had between three and six players) – a lovely chap named Edgar, and I hope he doesn’t mind being used in this article. With only one player, Edgar asked for a halfling rogue pregen, so after running through the basic mechanics, we started on what makes 13th Age different from other F20 games and such a joy to run.

I gave all the demo characters a 1-point Positive relationship with the Emperor, mainly so I could use “you’re all working for the Emperor” as a fallback story if nothing else suggested itself. I then showed Edgar the full list of Icons, and asked him to pick one more.

Negative with the Elf Queen, says he, picking an unexpected Icon relationship. I asked him to go into a little more detail on this, and he describes how he was the only thief to successfully steal from the Queen’s court, coming up with his One Unique Thing at the same time.

I told him to leave Backgrounds blank for now – in a one-shot demo, or even in a campaign for that matter, it’s often more fun to fill in backgrounds when they’re needed in play. As there was only one player, I added a GMPC, a half-elf paladin of the Crusader (OUT: On Fire).

I had three different variations of my simple little plot based around three different Icons – a soul-stealing merchant for the Diabolist, a grave-robbing necromancer for the Lich King, and a pirate plotting to take advantage of an impending Orc Lord attack. I could have just said “because you’re servants of the Emperor, you’re called upon to help Glitterhaegen” and introduced any of the three variations or used my GMPC paladin’s Crusader relationship to bring the PCs in to investigate the soul thief, but instead I changed ‘Orc Lord invasion’ to ‘demonic elves out of the Bitterwood’ and brought in Edgar’s antipathy towards the Elf Queen. I always try to tie plots to the player characters; even if the connection is a bit tenuous, it’s worth it to be able to go “because of this thing about you, in particular, you’re involved in this adventure.”

Next, we rolled Icon relationships; Edgar’s Emperor came up with a 6, and I gave him a belt of the city (from the Book of Loot) to help with the investigation.

Actual play time! I described how the city was under threat of invasion by dangerous, isolationist elves who considered humans to be usurpers. While the Imperial Legion manned the walls, there were rumours of elven commando units sneaking into the city, and traitors were said to be in league with the elves. The PCs had traced one such traitor to the grand bazaar, a huge, crowded open-air market in Glitterhaegen.

I planned to set my first fight scene in the market. My original notes called for an attack by a band of illusory orcs, but I could use disguised elves just as easily. I then asked Edgar a few questions about the market.

  • The grand bazaar’s dominated by a structure or monument of some sort. What is it?”
  • “Something’s happening in the market that’s going to make your investigation harder – what is it?”

By asking these questions after I’d set the initial parameters of the scene, I gave Edgar control over specific details of the scene while retaining overall control. No matter what he came up with, I could still use my attacking elves. It gave him a sense of engagement with the setting, which is great. It also forced me to stay awake and keep thinking on my feet – setting up situations where the GM gets surprised is super valuable, especially when you’re running a bunch of convention demos in a row. If there’s no challenge for the GM, it gets boring and the players pick up on that boredom. Finding tools to keep your own energy and enthusiasm up is a good habit for a GM to cultivate.

I deliberately didn’t ask open-ended questions, like “where do you find the traitor?” Some players freeze when given that much freedom of choice – for that matter, I wouldn’t be completely confident about my ability to improvise a scene that would still work within the constraints of a demo if the player came up with something completely unexpected (“I find the traitor in a dragon’s lair under the city!”).

Edgar proposed a giant statue of a former admiral, blowing a horn, and a street preacher, both of which worked perfectly with my intended plot. I decided that the street preacher was the traitor in disguise, trying to convince people to abandon Glitterhaegen and flee on the waiting ships – which his pirate fleet would then capture and despoil. The giant statue was a great image and focal point for the fight. (Previous demos gave answers like “a huge crystal gazebo”, “a temple to Mammon”, or “an elven graveyard” and “a children’s festival” or “a funeral procession”).

Edgar’s halfling went off to listen to the preacher, so I got to ambush him with my fake demon elves who attacked the gathered crowds. Cue a quick fight scene. I used the orc stats I’d prepared earlier for my elves instead, hastily reskinning them. If any of them had critted, I’d have described their expanded-crit-range ability as a blast of magical hellfire or something suitably infernal.

Afterwards, I didn’t bother to make him to roll to see if his rogue noticed that these elves were common wood elves, not the fabled demon elves that threatened to attack Glitterhaegen. Instead, GUMSHOE-style, I just told him that because of his experience in the elven court (his OUT of “I stole from the Elf Queen”), he recognised these elves for what they were, and he quickly deduced that they were deliberately trying to whip up terror and dismay in the city. The flipside of the ‘fail forward’ principle is that if failure is boring, don’t ask for a roll. He quickly deduced that the elves and the street preacher were in league, and scampered up the statue to confront the traitor.

Instead of attacking, he launched into his own speech, rebutting the traitor’s tales of gloom and doom. I asked Edgar to roll, and he decided to create a background on the spot to give him a bonus. He was, he announced, the former mayor of a Halfling town, and so was experienced in public speaking. Defining backgrounds in play often generates surprising juxtapositions like that – if I’d insisted that he fill in all his backgrounds during the brief character creation phase at the start of the demo instead of leaving them blank, he’d probably have gone for something like “burglar” or “forester” to fit in with his One Unique Thing of having stolen from the Elf Queen, not “ex-mayor”.

Between his not-bad Charisma, his belt of the city, his background and a good roll, Edgar’s Halfling convinced the people of Glitterhaegen to rally to the defence of the city instead of fleeing on board the waiting ships. The frustrated preacher revealed himself to be the treacherous pirate, dropping his act and acquiring an outrageous accent – YARR! – in the process. While my original notes called for the player characters to encounter the traitor on board a ship, a swashbuckling fight on the shoulders and head of a giant statue worked just as well.

Fight scene, players win, demo ends. Huzzah!

One could argue – and in certain moods, I’d agree with this – that 13th Age is a game of two halves. There’s the relatively detailed and balanced combat engine, and the considerably looser and fuzzier story-generating mash of backgrounds, Icons and OUTs. Certainly, in a simple 45-minute demo like this one, I was able to use that divide to my advantage by warping the mutable story-side elements around the player’s choices and answers, while leaving the mechanical side unchanged.

Interestingly, one of the take-aways from the 13th Age adventure design panel seminar was that people preferred using adventures for inspiration and pre-prepared encounters to use in their own games instead of running the adventures as written in the book. While we’re unlikely to go so far as to publish a book that’s half stats, half fuzzy ideas on how to put those stats into context, that flexibility is one strength of 13th Age that we’ll build on as we look towards GenCon 2015.

 

 

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