The Free RPG Day adventure Make Your Own Luck was the first published 13th Age adventure I ever ran. (Well, not counting The Wreck of Volund’s Glory, which I wrote!) I love how much it does within the confined space of a city under siege, and I come back to it again and again—incorporating it into my ongoing campaign, customizing it for various one-shots, creating siege mechanics for it, and using it for ideas and inspiration.

Recently I was asked to run 13th Age for two players, one of whom wasn’t familiar with the game. I knew the player loved the Mechwarrior videogame series, and pictured their heroes searching a forbidding mountain range in the Dragon Empire for a long-lost war machine from a bygone age. Why? To help defend the besieged town of Harrowdale, of course!

See, it hit me that there’s a lot going on around the events of MYOL that could provide the seed for an adventure: heroes of a previous age acquire a powerful artifact and hide it in Harrowdale; Marrowbreath rises to become a powerful general; a villain raises a troll army under Marrowbreath’s command to lay siege to the town; the troll army marches through an inhabited area, leaving devastation in its wake; riders or runners must get word of the siege to the Emperor; the Imperial Legion must get there before the town is overrun.

For this adventure I borrowed the format of Swords Against Hell, a convention adventure by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan:

  • The heroes know that the machine was located near one of a handful of interesting places
  • The players decide which locations they wanted to search
  • Their search reveals clues about where the war machine is
  • The actual location of the machine depends on how the players respond to the information they learn, and the amount of time we have left to play

For enemies, I used the monsters from the free 13th Age 2-Hour Demo on the Resources page.

For the Dragon Walker war machine, I hacked rules from the  Dragon Riding and Mounted Combat PDFs to make a dragon-like vehicle. (I threw it together so quickly that I’m not confident enough in its design to post now, but I might after I’ve tinkered with it more.) The Dragon Walker’s pilot moves and attacks using the machine’s powers rather than their own abilities, and makes DC 20 Control checks when they:

  • become dazed, hampered, or stunned
  • become staggered or drop to 0 hit points
  • are hit by an attack against Mental Defense (MD)

The gunner/navigator makes normal attacks from their seat in the vehicle.

Here’s the framework I used to improvise a fun one-shot for my friends:

Make Your Own Luck: Siege Breaker

A thunderstorm lashes the towering peaks and forbidding cliffs of the Frost Range, in the northlands of the Dragon Empire. Travelers wind their way through the crags and valleys amid the driving rain. A flash of lightning reveals they are [YOUR HEROES].

The area has been rocked by terrible news: an army of trolls, goblins, and worse is laying siege to the town of Harrowdale, where a powerful artifact was hidden by the heroes of a long-ago age. A small band of defenders holds the walls, but just barely—and reinforcements are still days away. Local legend says that an ancient war machine lies somewhere in the area. You are on a mission to find it; and if it still functions, bring it to Harrowdale to aid its defense.

Each of you has a deeply personal reason for taking this dangerous mission. What is it?

The few scraps of information you’ve gleaned suggest the war machine is in one of four places:

North on Frost Giant Glacier, where the icy tower of Avius the Frost Wizard stands. He is said to be fond of turning visitors into ice zombie minions.

East on the volcanic slopes of Mount Whiteplume, where dragonfolk make their home. 

West near the Shrine of Evil Elementals, where none venture.

South near the Chaotic Caves, where the castellan of the nearby keep is said to have been behaving erratically lately.

Clues

  • The war machine is a Dragon Walker—one of many built by followers of the [ICON WITH WHOM AT LEAST ONE PLAYER HAS A RELATIONSHIP] to wreak devastation on the armies of [OTHER ICON]. None survived the conflict, and the secrets of its construction have been lost.
  • My great-great-grandmother told me she saw the Dragon Walker once as a child. She said a [SHAPE OF SOME SORT THAT LATER TURNS OUT TO BE A DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF THE LANDSCAPE] pointed the way to it, but I do not know what she meant by that.
  • You are not the only ones who seek the war machine. A band of [SOME ENEMIES] came through two days ago asking after it. They had an ill look about them and we told them nothing.
  • Many years ago I traveled in a merchant caravan, and I saw the machine of which you speak. It was a lifeless hulk that seemed like a dragon made of iron with seats for riding. A [DWARF, CLERIC, WIZARD, OR SORCERER] traveling with us tried to revive it but could not. They said that one wise in the ways of the [AFOREMENTIONED ICON] might be able to bring it to life and command it in battle. 
  • The war machine is to the [DIRECTION] near [PLACE], but I do know know precisely where.

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

So ye seek the lost treasure of Karrag Voraldo, do ye? There’s a tale about Voraldo told in the taverns of Shadow Port that ye should know, then. They say that during the Age of Corsairs he was a trusted lieutenant of the King of Corsairs himself, until greed overcame him. He began lying to the King about the loot he’d won while sailing under the King’s patronage, so he could keep a larger share for himself. When the King discovered this treachery, he laid a curse upon Voraldo: from that moment on, only cursed treasure would find its way to him. If the tales are true, such items are powerful—but they carry a cost. . . .

Cursed Item Rules (from 13 True Ways)

If the magic item’s curse is minor, its default bonus is standard (e.g., +1 at adventurer tier). These cursed weapons and armor are just plain worse than a basic magic item of the same type. A hero might use one if they can’t get their hands on a decent item, or if something terrible happens to their normal weapon and they have to scrounge in the middle of a battle.

If the curse is major, the item has a default bonus as if it were a higher-tier item (e.g., an adventurer-tier sword with a +2 bonus instead of +1). A hero might be interested in using one of these weapons because they see that benefit as being so good.

Wade Says: If I introduced a cursed magic item into my campaign, there’s no way it would simply be worse than a basic item! To me, cursed magic is an opportunity to give players an interesting choice. Is the benefit enticing enough to accept the downside of owning such an item?

Three Cursed Pirate Items

The Cursed Compass: Once per full heal-up, this battered compass points unerringly toward whatever location you wish to travel to—for example, the Dwarf King’s treasure chamber, the Stone Thief’s exit, the lair of the evil wizard you’re supposed to kill. When you use this item, roll 1d20. On a 1-5, sometime in the near future the needle spins wildly with enough speed to make the compass vibrate, and then it comes to a stop. You must go at once in the direction the needle points toward and perform whatever task awaits you there. The task will be obvious due to its strangeness or urgency. It might be dangerous, or completely safe; you might complete it with a single action, or the task might span several game sessions. The task will not be relevant in any way to your current situation: whatever supernatural force controls the compass, these tasks are vitally important to it but not to you. Quirk: Highly suggestible.

Shipmate in a Bottle (wondrous item): A corked glass bottle containing a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. Anyone adjacent to the item hears a guttural voice speaking in a hollow whisper. The voice belongs to “Old Sam”, the ghost of a widely-traveled sailor from a long-ago age. When you attune this item, you gain a bonus +5 background “Shipmate in a bottle” that can be used for skill checks appropriate to a sailor or pirate. Each time you use this background, roll 1d20. On a 1, the bottle shatters and Old Sam emerges as a dybbuk (13th Age Bestiary, p. 63). He will pursue and attack you until either you die or he is destroyed while in his ethereal form. Quirk: You find yourself singing strange sea shanties that cause seasoned sailors to look at you in fear and quickly leave.

Driftwood Cutlass (+2 adventurer, +3 champion, +4 epic): This gnarled wooden blade has a crit range of 18+ when fighting on or within a body of water, and against aquatic monsters in any environment. However, you take a -1 penalty to AC and PD. Quirk: You feel an urge to brag about your exploits, especially in situations where bragging about your exploits would be a bad idea.

Adventure hooks

Topsy Turvy—An icon comes into possession of a cursed magic item from Voraldo’s hoard. It could be an icon the heroes have a relationship with, or one that’s not normally involved in the events of the campaign. When the item is used, a heroic icon temporarily becomes villainous, a villainous icon becomes heroic, and an ambiguous icon swings wildly between both extremes. How much damage they do before they recover their senses depends on the tier and the tone of the campaign. It could be as dire as the Emperor declaring war on the Elf Queen and Dwarf King; or it might be relatively harmless but chaotic, like the Lich King cheerfully showing up in Rabbleward with a legion of zombies and skeletons to help poor families.

Voraldo’s Ghost—The scroll that marks the location of the cursed treasure also says the King of Corsairs gave Voraldo a way to free himself—and his treasure—from the curse. What the King required was so intolerable to Voraldo that he couldn’t bring himself to do it in life. If the heroes can find Voraldo’s bones and summon his ghost, maybe they can persuade him to do it in undeath. Possible complications include:

  • Voraldo tells the heroes that to lift the curse he has to apologize to the King. Now the heroes have to find the King’s bones and summon his ghost in Voraldo’s presence. If they succeed, how does that conversation go?
  • If the group lacks a necromancer, does the one they enlist to help have an agenda of their own?
  • Once he’s freed from the curse, will Voraldo let the heroes keep his newly non-cursed treasure? Or will his greed once again overcome his sense of honor?
  • Multiple icons might consider Voraldo’s treasure rightfully theirs. Can the heroes prevent a diplomatic incident, or even war? More importantly, can they figure out how to make the icons happy while keeping the treasure for themselves?
  • Once summoned, can Voraldo’s ghost be put down again? Maybe he feel like exploring the world and raising hell on the high seas again!
  • Is this whole thing a trick? Is that really Voraldo they’re summoning, or someone much more dangerous?

 


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

By Julian Kay

As penned by Viriel Pyrolea, newly appointed Imperial Astrologer, formerly an esteemed seer of Lightwood, now doing penance service for spurring theft and piracy along the Spray.

The foreboding register consists of stars seen as hostile to imperial interests. Those that adorn themselves in raiment or accessories showing the foreboding constellations make a show of disloyalty, though it is said that imperial spies may use these marks as shams to deceive barbarians and criminals.

While the imperial dictum imposes distinctions between the registers (as opposed to a distinction clear in the stars themselves), I would have open concerns about placing any of these in the official imperial register. One should not need to be an astrologer to anticipate the dark times to follow.

The Dagger: It’s marked by the “Drop”, a reddish star that helps novices locate its tip. I find it best to speak little of this skullduggerous constellation. For those that fear visitors in the night, look to the sky, and when the dagger whorls closest to the center so that it opposes the moon, the symbology is not subtle. Knowing the position of the dagger and its implications can net one many wealthy clients, though the length of one’s employment is dependent on one’s accuracy.

The Owlbear: Let’s settle the tiresome debates; yes, in the past, both owl and bear stood as separate constellations. Such an interpretation is still popular in the Court of Stars, after all. But popular thought on the matter has shifted my own opinion. The resulting constellation is one everybody can recognize without wondering if they’re looking at a pair of spoons.

We live in a world with magical beasts, and the meddling of mages combined with druidic practices lets one more properly predict when a flight of griffins or other unnatural creatures will descend; it’s a practical solution for people likely to be eaten by griffins.

The Skull: Oh, so you need a simple, ill omen even a babe can interpret? Here it is. No tiresome arguments over its meaning. It signifies orcs at the gates and skeletons marching over the hill. No one can miss the simple line of stars that forms its spiteful smile.

The Veil: Where bright stars shine, hiding a cluster of dim pinpricks, one finds the veil. It is a sign of hidden things and shocking revelations. Unlike the Dagger, the hidden is not inherently dangerous, but its revelation carries implications. A lost noble scion. A stolen valuable hidden away. A traitorous notion kept in one’s mind. The Veil an omen of secrets kept, either good or ill.

Lastly, I will mention the White Star, the sky-void; “Star” is a misnomer, but one too persistent to deny. Do not think to place the White Star in any constellation, major or minor. If the Abyss is a hole in the world below, the White Star is the hole in the sky above. Legends tell of a demon that tore a star free to forge a blade. What lies beyond might be hell, or the realm of elder things or star-masks. Or, to tell those of the Cult of the White Star tell it, a wise creator-god beyond any of Santa Cora. I am not wise enough to tell you what lies beyond, other than to not meddle with it. There have been those who have tried to mark it as part of a constellation. This has been an egregious mistake I will not speak of further.

There are some that claim the shifting of the stars—or the meddling of the past Astrologer—swapped the White Star with a star in a major constellation, hiding it away. This is folly, and need not be seriously considered. But if you do hear any such claims, report them to me. While such notions are patently false, it is important to track them so we may quash such notions before they take root.

[Earlier in the lecture series, the merely Capricious Register can be seen here . . .

. . . and the fully-approved Imperial Register can be found here.]

[[art by Aaron McConnell & Lee Moyer]]

“Man should not know the future. Such knowledge can be fatal.”

— attributed to Wolf Messing

In 1977, researchers Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks uncovered evidence in the accidentally unshredded MK-ULTRA files that the CIA had hired the stage magician John Mulholland as a consultant. After decades of further research, and the fortuitous discovery of the “magic manual” Mulholland prepared for CIA Technical Services head Sidney Gottlieb, some portion of the truth is out there. Born in Chicago in 1898, Mulholland moved to New York City, briefly apprenticed with Houdini, and became known as “the prince of prestidigitators.” During the 1920s he toured the world, returning to launch a successful stage career in New York in 1927. He briefly investigated UFOs in 1952 (ascribing them to hallucinations and unreliable eyewitnesses) and in 1953 (probably) joined MK-ULTRA to write a manual on, and teach CIA agents, how to use misdirection in the field. Specifically, according to the manual he wrote for the Agency, how to handle tablets, powders, and liquids, surreptitiously remove objects, and work as a team. Later, he investigated claims of telepathy (pronouncing them bogus) for the Agency; his last surviving invoice dates from 1958. His health damaged by chain-smoking, he died in 1970 with an enormous magical library, including virtually all of Houdini’s papers. His own papers contained no trace of his CIA work.

Wolf Messing, not messing around

Was there a Soviet equivalent to John Mulholland? Since the KGB was far less sloppy with its record-handling than the CIA, we may never know for sure. But the most plausible candidate we know of for “the KGB’s magician” is Wolf Messing, a Jew born in Russian Poland in 1899. Around 1910, he drifted to Berlin. There, a gift for catalepsy got him a job in a freak show, where he learned many more sorts of stage magic, including hypnotism, suggestion, and the mentalism that became his trademark. Blindfolded, he would carry out complex series of instructions “telepathically sent” by members of the audience. Touring Europe in the 1920s, he may (or may not) have encountered Erik Jan Hanussen, the mentalist and occultist popular with the rising Nazi elite; he claimed to have escaped the Gestapo by mentalist suggestion in 1940 and certainly arrived in Belorussia that year. He toured as a “psychological demonstrator” (Soviet ideology frowned on mentalism and magic) and made enough money to pay for two fighter planes. Anecdotes of Stalin testing his abilities personally come from a ghost-written (and unreliable) memoir published in parts in 1965 (and pulled from publication in 1967), but rumors persist then and now of Messing working with the KGB — probably willingly. By the late 1960s he was also claiming prophetic visions, likely a sign that his covert days were behind him — but the Soviet government insisted he keep touring almost until his death in 1974.

“There is no overall secret to magic, or any part of magic. It is the multiplicity of secrets and the variety of methods which makes magic possible.”

— John Mulholland, Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception

It doesn’t require postulating John Mulholland as a MAJESTIC control or Wolf Messing as a Yithian KGB asset to incorporate them into a Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign. (They might even have met in Europe during a Trail of Cthulhu campaign.) The actual story of intelligence agencies’ use of stage magicians and their techniques is wild and evocative enough. Although both Mulholland and Messing probably retire backstage before the 1960s, they might have prize pupils or magical heirs carrying on their good work and slowly becoming drawn into the unnatural world behind the clandestine shadows. A particularly thrilling Agent might even have a background as a stage magician, just like Rollin Hand from the Mission: Impossible TV show.

Stage Magician

Points: 10 Investigative, 40 General (includes 4 Special Training)

Art (Stage Magic) 2, HUMINT 2, Notice 2, Reassurance 2

Pick two Investigative: Anthropology 1, HUMINT 1*, Inspiration 1, Notice 1*, Occult 1

Athletics 4, Conceal 4, Disguise 4, Filch 5, Mechanics 4, Preparedness 3, Stealth 4

Pick two General: Conceal 4*, Disguise 4*, Filch 4*, Sense Trouble 4, Stealth 4*

Pick three Special Training (one free, others 2 build pts. each; FoDG, p. 072): Brush Pass/Pickpocket, Card Cheating, Escape Artist, Lockpicking, Sleight of Hand (see below)

Special Training Magics

Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents trained by Mulholland or using the Mulholland system can easily justify spending 2 build points on Special Training in Sleight of Hand (+2 to Filch rolls to palm, manipulate, and “vanish” small objects, very much including covertly spiking drinks), as well as the existing example of Special Training in Brush Pass/Pickpocket (+2 to Filch rolls to pass an object between two people, knowingly to both or unknowingly to one). Generous Handlers might allow one spend of 2 points to buy both abilities. Very generous Handlers might allow Sleight of Hand to count as a quick-draw technique (spend Filch on the surprise test; FoDG, p. 090). In Night’s Black Agents, a combine them both as a Filch cherry: Legerdemain. Spend 1 point of Filch to automatically slip a palm, pass, vanish, spike, pickpocket, load, or dip past a normal civilian (defined as anyone not: a stage magician, a pickpocket, a trained spy or cop watching for just such an action, or a supernatural observer). This also applies to the A Lift in Time Saves Nine cherry (Double Tap, p. 41).

Soviet agents trained by Messing or using his techniques have two arrows in their quiver: Ideomotorism, and Vnusheniye (Russian for “suggestion” or “inception”). Ideomotorism is a Special Training skill granting the ability to use Psychotherapy or Sense Trouble (pick one when buying the skill) to “read thoughts” by touch. For example, asking “where are the documents” induces a microscopic muscle reflex that the trained Ideomotorist can “read” to give a direction and possibly even a location (“it’s a long walk from here, and on a high shelf perhaps”). Vnusheniye allows the use of Disguise to present (seemingly obviously) false credentials, state an incorrect identity, or otherwise convince someone you showed them something or said or did something that they expected. Both skills require a test of the relevant ability, and do not include a +2 bonus. Agents resist Ideomotorism using Stability, and resist Vnusheniye with Sense Trouble; the Difficulty equals the total of the KGB operator’s roll+spend.

Player Agents who can somehow convince the Handler to let them use either of these two Soviet Special Training skills should also have to spend 1 point of HUMINT for Ideomotorism and 1 point of either Intimidation or Reassurance for Vnusheniye. In Night’s Black Agents, Ideomotorism is a cherry for Shrink or Sense Trouble; with a spend of 1 point of Bullshit Detector it automatically works on mooks, scrubs, and similar bystanders. With Disguise 8+ Night’s Black Agents characters can take Vnusheniye as a cherry; with a 1-point spend of an appropriate Interpersonal ability it likewise works automatically on the weak-minded.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The Free RPG Day adventure Make Your Own Luck (get it here!) begins with an army of trolls and goblins besieging the town of Harrowdale. As written, the siege is a jumping-off point that gives the events in the adventure context. If you want to explore the ongoing tension and danger of defending a town under siege, one possible mechanic is a twist on the escalation die called the siege die.

Using the siege die

  1. Just as you do with the escalation die, place a special d6 on the table so it’s visible to the players. This is your siege die. Make sure the two dice look different, so you don’t confuse them!
  2. Using a sheet of paper or other note-taking method, divide each in-game 24-hour period into periods of Day and Night. (I’m cribbing from the fantastic heist RPG Dusk City Outlaws here.)
  3. On the first Day period, set the siege die to 1 and roll a d6.
    • If the result is greater than the current number on the siege die, the status of the siege is unchanged. At the beginning of the following time period, increase the die to 2 and roll your d6 again. Keep increasing the siege die by 1 and rolling a d6 until you roll equal to or less than the number on the siege die.
    • When the result of your d6 roll is equal to or less than the current number on the siege die, roll on the Siege Table below or choose some new action by the enemy that requires the heroes to take action.
  4. The first time you activate the siege die by rolling equal to or less than its number, reset the die to 1 and start over. The next time it happens, reset the die to 2; then 3, then 4, and so on. This represents that the enemy is slowly building toward total victory—if things continue this way, eventually the siege die reaches a permanent 6 and the enemy assault becomes relentless..
  5. The players can lower the siege die in a number of ways. They could describe how they’re expending a class or item ability that reduces the escalation die to lower the siege die instead. They could find a clever use of skill checks, or run a montage scene describing how they’re strengthening the town’s defenses and improving defenders’ morale. When they do this, have them roll a d6—feel free to give them a bonus if they did something especially cool or hilarious. Reduce the siege die by that amount, to a minimum of 1. This keeps them engaged with the current status of the siege, and lets the heroes influence how the larger battle is going.

There are a few ways you can adjust the pacing of the siege with this approach. You could have the siege die escalate at a different rate—for example, it might go up once per 24-hour period, or every three hours, or every six. You could also reset the siege die to 2 instead of 1 the first time it triggers, or roll a larger die (d8? d12?) against the siege die.

Siege table (d6)

Make Your Own Luck cover

  1. The enemy launches a major attack, one with sufficient strength that it requires the PCs to expends significant resources (such as daily spells).
  2. The enemy successfully destroys one of the city’s important defenses: a tower, a section of wall, a magical defense, etc. The heroes must help rebuild it, or find some other way to shore up the defenses in its absence.
  3. Saboteurs inside the city wreak havoc in some way: arson, poisoning the water supply, setting off a bomb, toppling a structure. The heroes must save the victims and identify and defeat the saboteurs.
  4. The enemy strikes a blow against the townspeople’s morale: targeting a beloved landmark, capturing or killing a town official or other pillar of the community, stealing something symbolically important to the town, spreading rumors that the rescuing army was defeated, etc. The heroes must either undo what the enemy has done, or counteract it in some way with a morale-boosting display.
  5. A group of assassins sneak into the town during an attack, and try to kill the PCs later that Day/Night.
  6. The enemy seizes part of the town—it must either be recaptured, or defenses quickly set up to keep them from advancing further.

For another fun escalation die hack, check out the investigative montage rules in Crown of Axis, a new introductory 13th Age adventure for level 1 characters!


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

In the 13th Age Facebook group, a new GM asked for good examples of PC backgrounds. I offered some, but couldn’t help also giving advice on what makes a good background. (It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.) I said that a good background doesn’t just outline your character’s backstory in three or four brief sentences, and provide a bonus you can add to a wide variety of checks—a good background also gives the GM story hooks for an adventure or even an entire campaign.

For this column, I’m going to take an example of a good PC background, and talk about how I’d turn it into an adventure! The background is, “Former sailor on the Imperial frigate Intrepid, which was sunk in battle against the Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet under the command of the lich admiral Vertinor (+4)”.

Before we dive in (ha!) I want to mention that If any part of the background conflicted with a non-negotiable element of my campaign, it would be completely reasonable for me to ask the player to change that detail. For example, if it were important to me that my version of the Dragon Empire strongly resembled ancient Carthage, I would ask the player to change it to something like “the warship Adherbal“.

Breaking Down the Background

I’ll put on my (nautical) GM hat and think about the elements of this background.

The Imperial navy. The game tells us that the Dragon Empire has a navy, but its presence in a PC’s background brings it—and the theme of seafaring adventure—to my table. I can have the heroes explore the Midland Sea, search for sunken or buried treasure, hunt a traitor in the navy’s upper ranks, fight sea battles, battle sea monsters, and more.

The frigate Intrepid.Wikipedia tells me that a frigate is “a lighter galley-type warship with oars, sails and a light armament, built for speed and maneuverability” that originated in the late Middle Ages. This tells me something about the composition of the navy, and the technology level of sailing vessels (and maybe other things) in my campaign world. To help bring the world to life, I can research what other kinds of ships were used in fleets of that era and include them in the game. It also gives me a template for the kinds of names those ships might have.

Sunk in battle. This background cites a specific naval battle that occurred in the past, where the Emperor’s navy was one of the combatants. I ask the player how long ago this happened, and how large the battle was. She says it was a major sea battle that happened about ten years ago. Both sides had heavy casualties, but the Emperor managed to prevail with the help of air support from the dragons of Axis. There’s also a specific sunken wreck somewhere at the bottom of the Midland Sea. Did something valuable go down with it? What monsters might inhabit the wreck? What are the Intrepid‘s survivors up to these days?

The Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet. Okay, so the Lich King has a navy of his own! This is a big change from how he’s presented in the core book: the book describes the island of Necropolis as “dormant” thanks to rituals performed at tombs on the island’s outer ring by the Gravekeepers of the Empire, and it says if those rituals aren’t performed, “the undead swarm through the ocean and emerge onto land all around the Midland Sea.” Giving the Lich King actual ships puts him more on a level with the Emperor as an earthly ruler to be reckoned with. It also raises the possibility of ships crewed by the undead occasionally putting in at Shadowport.

The lich admiral Vertinor. This is fantastic! I now have a villain who one of the PCs hates. He—or his minions—could be recurring foes, showing up anywhere on the coasts of the Midland Sea. Are you headed to the island of Omen in search of an artifact? One of Vertinor’s ships is right behind you—or maybe they got there first. Negotiating a peace treaty with the sahuagin? Vertinor shows up on behalf of the Lich King to offer them a better deal.

I think I want Vertinor to stick around for a while, so I’m going to make him a high-tier monster using the stats for the Lich Count in the 13th Age Bestiary. If the heroes manage to kill him, their next and final target might be the Lich King himself!

The Lich KingThe Lich Admiral Vertinor

Double strength 8th level spoiler (undead)
Initiative: +11

Touch of the grave +13 vs. AC—50 cold damage, and the target is dazed (hard save ends, 16+)

Natural even hit: The target is weakened instead of dazed (hard save ends, 16+)
Miss: 25 cold damage.

R: Shadow rays +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—35 negative energy damage

Natural 16+: The target is encased in shadows (save ends). While under the effect, it’s weakened and takes 10 ongoing cold damage.

R: Empowered fireball +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—35 fire damage, and 10 ongoing fire damage

Natural even hit: The target takes 20 ongoing fire damage instead of 10.
Miss: 15 fire damage, and 5 ongoing fire damage.
Limited use: 2/battle.

C: Look upon your doom +13 vs. MD (up to 3 nearby enemies)—Vertinor gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle

Fear aura: While engaged with this creature, if the target has 48 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

Thank you for the best ten years of your life: When Vertinor scores a critical hit, the target loses a death save until the end of the battle (effectively, it now dies after failing three death saves, and the effect is cumulative). In addition, the crit range of attacks by Vertinor against the target expands by the escalation die and he heals 40 hit points.

Immortality: When Vertinor drops to 0 hit points, his lifeless body turns to seawater but he does not die. He begins to reform near the item that contains his soul—a blue gemstone set in a silver necklace—taking a number of days to regain its full strength equal to his level. If the gemstone has been destroyed, Vertinor dies when he drops to 0 hit points.

AC 24
PD 18
MD 22
HP 240

Let’s Make an Adventure!

I have all the elements of a fun adventure that’s powerfully relevant to one of the PCs; now it’s just a matter of assembling them. Let’s see…a sunken ship connected to the Emperor implies sunken treasure that includes a true magic item connected to the Emperor. Looking at Loot Harder, I think the melee weapon of Imperial Might fits well—let’s make it the Sea Axe of Imperial Might, a weapon wielded by the Intrepid’s captain. A search for sunken treasure suggests fights with various sea-themed monsters, so I’ll go through the books and build appropriate battles. A recurring villain with a connection to the wreck adds urgency and variety if he’s also after the treasure. The villain is undead, which means his minions probably don’t have to breathe, so they can just walk around on the seafloor.

Here are three possible approaches to an adventure based on this one background:

Wreck of the Intrepid: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with a dagger in his back that bears the symbol of the Lich King. In his dying moments he gives the PC a map of the Midland Sea that shows the location of the Intrepid. “He’s after the Sea Axe,” he wheezes before passing away. The GM tells the player what her character knows about the Axe, including that it was a symbol of the Intrepid’s honor, to be kept out of enemy hands at all cost. “He” can only refer to Vertinor. The adventure is a race to get to the Intrepid first, with challenges that include figuring out how to reach the ship, an underwater hazard montage (see Book of the Underworld for hazard montages), and battles with gigantic sea creatures and the undead.

Skulls of Shadowport: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that a group of treasure hunters has located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. The Sea Axe is now in Shadowport, and it already has a buyer—Vertinor is on his way there in the Revenant to purchase it as a trophy of his victory over the Intrepid. The PCs must get to Shadowport and prevent it from falling into the hands of the hated lich admiral! The adventure is a city scenario with challenges that include an investigative montage to learn who has the Sea Axe and where it is (see Crown of Axis for investigative montages), navigating the city’s criminal underworld, and battles with thieves, smugglers, pirates, and the undead—plus other monsters that lurk in Shadowport’s dark alleys and docks.

Reclaim the Sea Axe: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that Vertinor’s minions located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. It now hangs on the lich admiral’s wall as a trophy of his victory. This adventure is a heist caper where the PCs must devise a plan to get the Sea Axe back: either steal it from the lich admiral’s cabin aboard the Revenant, steal it from his manse on Necropolis, or steal it when the lich admiral is traveling, away from the usual protections provided by his ship or Necropolis. Be ready to work up battles and hazards appropriate to the plan! (See this column on how to quickly and easily adapt a monster to a different location or role.)

I could also run this as a series of three adventures, with the Sea Axe continually being snatched from the heroes’ grasp at the last moment until they finally seize it for themselves. Their eventual triumph will be that much sweeter for the delay!

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

“Tall, gaunt, cynical, with tragic eyes … like a man who had seen the inside of hell.”

— description of Liam Tobin by IRA mole David Neligan

Michael Collins, the George Washington of Ireland, picked a 23-year-old man named Liam Tobin to be his spymaster. If I were related to George Washington’s spymaster, I’d never stop talking about it, but I had to find out about Liam Tobin not from Pelgrane’s esteemed co-owner and managing director but on the Internet like a savage. Go figure. (According to Cat, Liam is “possibly like a sixth cousin but we haven’t really looked into it.” According to me, he was her great-great-grand-uncle. This will not be the last engaging lie I tell in this column.) Born in Cork in 1895, Liam Tobin joined the Easter Rising in 1916, where he first caught Collins’ eye. The British commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, then released him with many other revolutionaries in 1917.

Liam Tobin, hero from a line of heroes

Thoroughly radicalized, Tobin rose through the IRA’s inner circle: Dublin Brigade intelligence officer, then intelligence officer for Munster in 1918 (under the cover of an insurance agency in Cork), then IRA Deputy Director for Intelligence in January 1919. Like Washington, Collins remained his own director of intelligence; Tobin basically served as his right hand. Based at 3 Crow Street in Dublin above a print shop within 200 yards of Dublin Castle, the British headquarters in Ireland, Tobin’s operation rapidly built up a database (with photos) of British Army, G Division (the intelligence unit of the Dublin Metropolitan Police), and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC, or “Black and Tans”) officers, mostly using OSINT such as newspaper society pages, the London Gazette (which reported officers’ postings, including “special assignments” to Ireland), and Who’s Who. Tobin recruited doormen and telephone operators in all Dublin hotels, allowing the IRA to track comings and goings as well as listen in on British comms. One of Tobin’s agents got access to Dublin Castle personnel records, supplying photographs and dossiers of every typist and clerk who worked for the British, allowing the IRA to recruit and suborn agents in place throughout the occupation government.

Tobin did more than manage information gathering. One of only six men in the whole intelligence command (until it expanded in July 1920), he also ran agents in the field, identified and fingered British spies, and occasionally hands-on renditioned and killed targets when needed. In October 1919, Collins sent him to London for two weeks to case security for the British Cabinet: Tobin reluctantly decided assassinating the entirety of His Majesty’s Government was too hard. Tobin led the squad that grabbed Alan Bell, president of the Irish Banks Court (investigating IRA funding) off the tram to work and gunned him down on the morning of March 26, 1920.

That squad was part of “The Squad,” the IRA’s wet works division. IRA training commander (and CO of the Dublin Brigade, who first recruited Tobin back in 1917) Dick McKee hand-picked “The Twelve Apostles” (engaging lie note: there were almost certainly more than a dozen men in the Squad) in September 1919 to execute British officers, spies, and collaborators. The Squad reported to Tobin, although only Collins could order an execution. By March 1920, the Squad were full-time assassins, using a cabinet-making shop on Abbey Street as a front and home base. The British response to the Squad was to recruit their own team of specialized infiltrators in January 1920, the “Cairo Gang.”

So-called either from their previous service with Army Intelligence in Cairo during WWI, or from their Dublin hangout the Café Cairo at 59 Grafton Street, the Cairo Gang were officially the Dublin District Special Branch, or D-Branch. (Engaging lie note: Few of them provably had any connection to Egypt, and the term “Cairo Gang” first appears in print in 1958. They were probably just called “the special gang.”) Doggedly, they pursued the IRA command, especially Collins and Tobin; Tobin posed as an informer (using a different name) and got inside their decision loop. But not too far inside: the Cairo Gang raided Vaughn’s Hotel on November 13, 1920 while the IRA leadership were meeting there, and only iron control (and sloppy British prep work) let Tobin and Collins bluff their way out of the arrest.

Collins’ response: ordering simultaneous hits on the 20 top British assets in Dublin, including most of the known Cairo Gang. At 9:00 a.m. on “Bloody Sunday,” November 21 1920, ten teams of a dozen men each struck their targets. (Engaging lie note: About a quarter of the teams didn’t show up, and over half the targets escaped.) Seven intelligence operatives died on Bloody Sunday, along with three RIC Auxiliaries working security, two British Army court-martial officers, and two seemingly uninvolved former British officers. The Black and Tans retaliated that afternoon with a massacre at a soccer match, killing 14 and wounding 68. Although “Bloody Sunday” didn’t quite decapitate the Cairo Gang, like the Tet Offensive it scored a massive propaganda victory.

In January 1921, the British recruited a new team of Irish Unionists from the provinces (“Tudor’s Tigers,” also known as the Igoe Gang after their leader Eugene Igoe of Galway) who knew their local IRA men on sight, and sent them on hunt-and-kill missions. Tobin spent most of the next six months playing a game of cat-and-also-cat with the Igoe Gang until the Truce in July 1921 ended the war. Collins brought Tobin along on the intelligence staff of the Irish treaty delegation in October 1921, promoting him to Major-General in the Irish Army. Tobin may or may not have masterminded the “off-book” killing of arch-Unionist British General Henry Wilson in June 1922; he briefly ran the Irish CID and served as Director of Intelligence for Ireland until his political opponents sidelined him in January 1923. After leading a failed mutiny against those opponents in March 1924, he resigned his commission and ran a car-hire service until 1931. He helped organize the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, and then ran security for the Irish legislature from 1940 to 1959. He died, covered in glory and redeemed in honor, in Dublin on April 30, 1963.

Sunday Yellow Sunday

“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you.”

— Hildred Castaigne to Mr. Wilde, “The Repairer of Reputations”

If you look in the history books, especially the excellent Michael Collins’ Intelligence War by Michael Foy, you read that Tobin didn’t plan Bloody Sunday. Under Collins’ overall leadership, Tobin’s deputy Frank Thornton provided the intel while Dick McKee planned the strategy with Squad killer Charlie Dalton as tactical head. So narrow was the IRA margin that McKee was actually captured and interrogated early in the morning of November 21, and “shot while trying to escape” by the RIC that afternoon. Foy claims that Tobin had a “nervous breakdown” and was “on rest” that day.

So what was Tobin actually doing? Maybe tying off the loose ends from the late-July 1920 Denys Barry case in Kilderry in Westmeath, or shutting down the British intelligence vampire-research farm at Dun Dreach-Fhola in County Kerry (DH, pp. 235-236), or investigating porcine anomalies and time drifts at a house on the borderland of County Galway past Ardrahan. Any of those incidents might have caused his alleged “nervous breakdown.” Or maybe the “nervous trouble” was a cover for something else, something he couldn’t even tell Collins.

IRA mole David Neligan’s memoir claims that he met with Tobin at the Gaiety Theatre the night before Bloody Sunday to be briefed on the targets, which sounds like Tobin was very much involved in planning. Intriguingly, that night the Gaiety was mounting a 1914 play by Michael Morton, called The Yellow Ticket. Okay, that’s another engaging lie: The Yellow Ticket was in rehearsals then and didn’t open until December 1; the show actually running at the Gaiety on November 20 was the 1914 American version (by Harry B. Smith) of the operetta The Lilac Domino, based on the original 1912 German version by Charles Cuvillier. The Lilac Domino takes place at a masked ball in France and concerns a series of mysterious courtships somehow demarcated by dice. Cuvillier probably knew Robert W. Chambers in Paris, I note idly.

Another idle note: Among those killed on Bloody Sunday was one Leonard Aidan (nee William) Wilde, born 1891 in Reading to one Richard Wilde, who vanishes from the records almost immediately. Before the War, Wilde spent time in New York City (possibly teaching Spanish), and as a divinity student. He enlisted in the Staffordshire Rifles in 1915 and served as a second lieutenant until discharged for shell shock, upon which time he changed his middle name to Aidan. Becoming Vice-Consul in Barcelona in December 1916, he carried out a number of intelligence-type tasks, including investigating a monastery in Montserrat suspected of hosting a German radio transmitter. Discharged for running up debts in 1917, he nevertheless courted a rich American woman, Frances Rabbitts, whose pull got the happy couple a February 1919 wedding in Notre Dame in Paris, blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in person. The Wildes returned to Spain, where amid some kind of chicanery Wilde emerged without a wife (she sailed to New York in June 1919) but with a “consular protection certificate” issued by the Foreign Office.

So yes, he could have been a spy. He could have even been in New York running a reputation-repairing blackmail operation in April 1920. He was 5’8″, and did admittedly have both his ears, along with a reputation as an eccentric and “a foreign appearance.” In August 1920 he moved into the Palace Court Hotel in London, the former home of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, for more Yellow Decade juju. On November 3, 1920 he checked into Room 22 (or 14) of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on no clear business. And on November 20, thirteen IRA assassins (including one man with “a huge hammer”) led by Patrick Moran burst into that hotel. Section commander James Foley later listed one of the kill team as “Michael Noone,” who has no other record I can find. Tobin used false names regularly … perhaps including Michael “No One”?

According to the IRA after-action report, Wilde was in the hallway. Mistaking the IRA gunmen for British police, he identified himself as “Alan Wilde, British Intelligence Officer, just back from Spain.” Michael Kilkelly and two (unnamed) others shot Wilde in the head and leg, killing him. The manager of the Gresham Hotel found the body on the floor of his room, soaked in blood. After resigning his commission in 1924, Tobin runs his car-hire service from behind the Gresham Hotel, perhaps keeping an eye on any lingering fluctuations in reality and sending trusted former Squad comrades to investigate strange Signs throughout the 1920s and 1930s. So what do we know for sure, and what can we engagingly lie about? We know that in the “Castaigne” timeline, Mr. Wilde was killed by a cat. And in our timeline, Mr. Wilde just might have been killed by a Tobin.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In part one I described how Crown of Axis began with an invitation to write the next big introductory adventure for 13th Age, and my idea to set it in the Emperor’s city of Axis. I just had to convince Rob Heinsoo this was a good idea!

First, I read everything ever written about Axis in 13th Age. The game’s “your Dragon Empire will vary” approach meant that I was free to present one possible interpretation of the city, but I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of, and feel for, what had come before. I was also aware that a GM might not have 13 True Ways (which contains the most extensive writeup of Axis to date), so I would need to figure out what background information was important enough to include within my limited page count. Brief descriptions of the various neighborhoods were vital: PCs might travel anywhere in the city, and I had to equip the GM with enough information to handle the basics. Some of it was important to making players feel like Axis is a place: the tastes, the sounds, the smells, and how people there live their lives. I wanted to invite players to sample the street foods, play wargames in the taverns of Garrison, and cheer on gladiators in the arenas.

I wrote a detailed, bulleted outline with a rough map of a key adventuring location and sent it to Rob and J-M DeFoggi, the project’s developer, for review. I knew they would come back with incisive questions, as well as comments about things I may have overlooked or not fully thought through.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll share some issues (large and small) that I needed to work through before the outline was approved:

  • The outline included real-world historical people and institutions as placeholders for fictional ones, and the longer those placeholders stick around the harder it will be to create the fictional versions.
  • Nothing prevents the PCs from going straight from the situation in the beginning of the adventure to the final battle, ignoring everything in between.
  • Why doesn’t [BAD GUY] simply do [OBVIOUS THING]?
  • The design needs to account for the possibility that the PCs will fail in the end.
  • Some players will want their characters to fight in the arenas as gladiators, so the GM needs tools to handle that.
  • The PCs spend much of the adventure solving a mystery, and there aren’t investigative rules in 13th Age. It would be great if there were an elegant mechanic to handle those parts that feels like it belongs in 13th Age.

In the end, I wrote eight drafts of the outline before Rob gave me the go-ahead to write the adventure. This was great because even though plenty of details would change during the design phase, my foundation was rock-solid. However, I struggled at the beginning: this was the biggest RPG writing project I’d ever taken on, and my anxious perfectionist brain became overwhelmed. The solution was to schedule weekly Skype discussions with J-M where I’d share the status of the draft and we’d work together to solve any design and plot problems that came up. That’s where most of the solutions to the challenges above came from. It’s the closest I’ve ever worked with a developer on an RPG project, and it was incredibly helpful.

The final draft kicked off the development phase, a back-and-forth process where J-M ensured that my design matched the desired play experience, and he checked my math and mechanics. He also asked me to write a handful of art orders: descriptions of people, items, or locations for an artist to illustrate. From there it went to the editor, Trisha DeFoggi, and from there to layout. Which is where we are as of this writing!

I hope these posts are helpful to anyone who’s interested in becoming an RPG designer, or just wants to know how the RPG sausage gets made—and I hope you enjoy playing Crown of Axis when it comes out!

 

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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by Julian Kay

As penned by Viriel Pyrolea, formerly an esteemed seer of Lightwood, recently appointed as Imperial Astrologer. His appointment is rumored to be penance service for promoting piracy along the Spray.

The capricious register consists of constellations held as neither strictly opposed to Imperial fortunes, nor loyal. Use in Imperial heraldry isn’t unknown, usually as a statement of power and control, as if to say, “I do not fear opposition.” An Imperial guard bearing the Manticore upon their shield bears it as a warning against transgressors. The Road, of course, is frequently associated with messengers, particularly skilled messengers.

For context and understanding of what has gone before—in this case that is to say, before my appointment and the adjustments to charts based on my gathered observations—there  had been only two registers of constellations held by the imperial throne: favorable and disfavored. Previously, the Imperial throne deemed the Couatl, Road, and Manticore as favorable, while considering the Horns and Wolf as disfavored. While you need not account for these less subtle understandings in your equations, bear in mind there are traditionalists who cling to the original blinkered view of the sky.

The Couatl: In Axis or Horizon, you would know it as the Couatl; a symbol of magic and potential wisdom. Diabolic cults call it the Serpent, a symbol of magic and insight. No doubt, if the Archmage’s Superiors and the Diabolist’s followers were on speaking terms, there could be a fierce debate whether the Fetherstar is the 10th star in this constellation.

But from my outside view on these petty distinctions, the meaning of the symbol is the same to both parties: a marker of importance to ritual casting. The flight of the Couatl’s stars align it with other celestial markers, with each being vital to empowering a different ritual. But it’s a fickle constellation, and I would not rely on the blessing of its position overmuch—particularly when it makes it painfully clear to foes when your circle of casters will attempt a exceedingly important task.

The Horns: The power of the woods, things stirring on claw and hoof, sometimes known as the Stag. Far from the concerns of Horizon, but this constellation always sits in the corner of a farmer’s eye. But it’s more than just beasts, it also can help predict storms and stranger weather. Peasants and merchants alike take care to avoid the two times of year when the Horns cross the Road. “Stag in the road, take to your abode.”

The Manticore: Ancient symbol of imperial justice or a symbol of violent rebellion? The Manticore stands in whenever both matters cross. It is a lesson for novice astrologers: there are no contradictions, only complications. The Manticore may mark unrest in a city, or it could mark an imperial crackdown. Its head may seem loyal, but always pay attention to the tail.

Note that present-day manticores hold to the constellation as part of their claim to past imperial agreements. In such cases, abandon neutrality and take up sincere agreement, at least within earshot. Note that their earshot is further than one might presume.

The Road: The first constellation any child can glean, the Road serves as a simple means of wayfinding. Though the positions of the stars have shifted over the years, they have not drifted so much as to be unrecognizable, and all still lead towards the Warden Star far to the north of the Empire itself. While other stars whip around the sky, the Road shifts so slowly as to be reliable even between ages.

There are some that claim an ancient highway once stretched along the path laid out by the stars, but such claims would seem absurd with the Midland Sea barring any such passage. Still, I am accustomed to absurdities; perhaps such a road might exist in the underworld, overworld, or other realms betwixt our own.

The Wolf: A craven, cruel beast nipping at the edges of the empire like, or to the faithful, the canine “Shepherd” gathering the vulnerable flock. As with the Manticore, it can be both, both the guiding light and the terrifying darkness, the thin line between safety and being swallowed. Orcish raiders and sheltering temples.

One can see it as the lesser danger that keeps us prepared for greater troubles. But do not dismiss or underestimate it. A lesser danger is still dangerous, and often lethal.

[Part 1 of Viriel’s lecture can be found here]

Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

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