This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last summer’s Origins convention in Columbus, Ohio gave me a platform for an eye-opening experience, and not an especially pleasant one, at that. It made me want to sharpen my own game as a designer and self-promoter, and to urge my colleagues to do the same.

As part of the con’s seminar track, I rounded up some of my fellow guests of honor for an event called Gaming Gurus Pick the Goods. Designer extraordinaire Jonathan Tweet, GenCon honcho Peter Adkison and supreme muskrat purveyor John Kovalic and I crawled the dealer’s hall looking for new, cool products to plug during a subsequent seminar.

We were looking for new and newish releases, so our recommendations had to be based on a quick initial impression. We didn’t have time to play games in detail and winkle out their hidden flaws. If a product caught the fancy of any expedition member, it won a spot on the pile. This is the lowest possible bar for product evaluation. Even so, we were devoting more concentrated energy to the hunt for hidden gems than any right-minded person would in a dealer’s room of that size.

I was shocked by what we encountered. At booth after booth, we had to wade through lazy, confused, indifferent and just plain non-existent product pitches. We presented ourselves at each dealer’s tables with way more energy and eagerness than most wary buyers. We didn’t need to be drawn in; we were serving ourselves up on a silver platter. Granted, some booth staffers knew us as industry types and may have figured an actual cash sale was not in the offing. Still, it was positively gobsmacking to ask the question “What have you got that’s new and w wonderful?” and hear, “Ehh, not much,” or, even more devastating, “Oh, the same old junk.”

Other bloodcurdling non-replies included “I really don’t know, I’m just working the booth,” and the time-honored, “I’m the girlfriend, you’ll have to ask him.” (A few weeks later Jonathan, Kenneth Hite and I repeated the event at GenCon; you really don’t want to hear the worst pitch from that event.)

Except for a small handful of well-staffed companies, most game manufacturers couldn’t run booths without volunteer labor, whether those roped in are friends, freelance creators, fans, or significant others. What our little adventure inadvertently highlighted was that most don’t take the time to provide even a minimal level of briefing to their conscripts before leaving them exposed to the teeming public. Projecting a welcoming persona does not necessarily come naturally to members of our glorious geek tribe. Many of us are alternately aloof or overly voluble, and either have a hard time speaking up, or of staying on point.

Anybody with any responsibility for running a booth at a show should be terrified that their booth staff, whether employees or volunteers, is giving the public dispiriting answers like the above. My hair stood on end. It made me question my own booth-weaseling skills, and whether I’ve become complacent after having been, in my early years, an energetic and successful pitchman.

Any booth runner, before every show, positively must, must, must, gather his volunteers together for a meeting. If they’re roleplayers, by golly, make ‘em roleplay. Run them through a scenario in which they pitch the product to you, the quasi-interested customer. Make sure they know what they need to about each product. Don’t let anyone work your booth till you can pull them aside and hone their spiel. Nobody wants an over-eager lunatic leaping into the aisle to corral unwilling participants, but you do need someone who can, once prompted, infuse the customer with the same enthusiasm about the product that led you to produce it in the first place. Do what any booth runner for any real industry trade show would do — give them a script! You don’t want them to robotically parrot it, but they need to know the bullet points.

That’s the second deadly, and far more common, sin we saw out there in the dealer’s hall that day. When prompted, most booth denizens were indeed able to reach for their newest, coolest thing — but almost none of them were able to quickly encapsulate its basic hook.

The successful marketing of any product starts with a unique selling point. What is it about this item that makes somebody want to buy it, instead of something like it? A unique selling point should be a quick, punchy sentence laden with both promise and information. Twenty-five words or less, preferably less.

We heard a lot of answers that didn’t at all resemble selling points. We were told that a certain book had a cult following because it was very popular in a particular country in the eighties. Sometimes the pitchman would flip through the rules book to his favorite game mechanic and then begin to describe it in detail — as he would if he were teaching the game, but devoid of all context. Or we would be told how incredibly great and different a product was, with the exact nature of this difference remaining elusive.

On several occasions I tried repeatedly to wrest a selling point from a struggling pitchman. With a roleplaying game there are lots of ways to phrase the question: “What do the characters actually do in the game world?” “I’m a GM; how do I convince my players to try this?” “How does this differ from D&D?” Or the blatant: “Tell me about it in 25 words or less.”

In some cases it was clear that there was a hook, and the booth guy hadn’t been properly prepared to supply it. Far grimmer was the realization that many of the books, cards, and playing boards strewn out on the tables had been envisioned, playtested, invested in, manufactured and brought to market without a valid, unique reason for being. The products had no immediately gripping points of distinction from the established games already dominating their respective categories.

The time to compose the 25-word encapsulation of your hook is not when you show up at the convention where your big product is due (gods of printing and courier services willing) for release. It’s about three minutes after you first conceive the desire to create and market the thing.

A handful of folks passed our test with flying colors. Their products immediately wound up on our plug piles. If you ever want to see how it’s done, try and get Alderac kingpin John Zinser to demo his company’s latest game for you. He’s a man who knows why you want to buy his game.

The impulse to create a game is a pure and beautiful thing, but if you want to sell it to other people (and spend money to do it) mere desire is not enough. We of the geek tribe adore elaboration and surface detail. We love to tinker and fix things. We may dig a particular game except for one apparently broken element. Though valid, most of these impulses should lead to the creation of a web page, not an expensively published game.

If you’re a civilian — that is, a gamer who quite sensibly wants only to play games and never design or publish them — you may be wondering why you should care about this at all. Maybe you shouldn’t. You certainly don’t owe anything to the folks who staff their booths with well-meaning but ineffectual volunteers, or who blow wads of dough on ill-conceived publishing ventures.

The value of a game to you, however, is directly related to your ability to find other people to play it with. The best way to predict whether a new game will yield a ready crop of fellow players is to ask the tough question: what’s the hook? What is it about this game that makes it different? Is the hook appealing enough to repay my investment of time and money?

Forget the health of the industry, or the financial well-being of new manufacturers. If we all get just a wee tougher about this, the games will get better.

The designers and developer did a seminar at Gen Con introducing 13th Age to an audience that had, up until then, only known of it through rumor and hearsay. We got this short video clip, and wanted to share:

You can hear more about 13th Age this weekend at PAX, where Rob Heinsoo will appear on the panel “13th Age, Dungeon World and More: Old School RPGs With Modern Design” with Logan Bonner, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel. Also, Rob H. and Rob W. will be running 13th Age in the Indie Tabletop Games on Demand room, and you can stop by our table on the 2nd floor of the convention center.

In the meantime you can pre-order 13th Age and download a playable copy of the rules in progress, and back Rob and Jonathan’s Kickstarter for 13 True Ways.

This interview originally appeared on EN World on 17th May 2012 and is reposted here with their kind permission. Jonathan Tweet is co-designer with Rob Heinsoo of the 13th Age fantasy roleplaying game. He has numerous games to his credit including Ars Magica, Over the Edge and 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons®.

Jonathan TweetSo first things first. “13th Age” – presumably the title ties into the setting fiction of the game world; could you share what the title means, and how you decided upon it?

Thirteen is a powerful, ominous number, but there’s more to it than that. In the 13th Age setting, civilization has gone through twelve distinct ages, each one different from the others. This idea plays into a core concept in 13th Age, which is customizability. During the twelve preceding ages, civilization has taken different shapes. In some ages, the dwarves and the elves get along. In others, they are mortal enemies. There is no one right way for the rulers and enemies of civilization to interact. Implicitly, then, the GM or the player is allowed to customize the setting. That’s the way things are “in this age,” different from the norm. No two 13th Age campaigns are the same, or even really can be.

Metaphorically, Rob and I hearken back to roleplaying in an earlier age. You might say we’re returning to the “pre-grid” age.

When you refer to a “free-wheeling style of old-school gaming”, are there any particular games which formed the majority of your inspiration? For example, would it be fair to say that the game is mainly inspired by earlier editions of D&D, or by other game systems?

13th Age is inspired by earlier editions of D&D, where everything wasn’t all spelled out, and you didn’t have to play on a grid. It tries to recapture some of the hobby’s early freshness, when RPGs were less professional but perhaps more genuine. That said, Rob and I draw on a large number of games that we have created, worked on, playtested, or played for fun. Indie games have taught us both a lot of creative approaches designing game rules creatively.

RuneQuest has always been a major influence on my RPG designs, and 13th Age’s icons are direct descendants of RQ’s Gloranthan cults. Like the pagan religions in RuneQuest, the icons ground player-characters in the game world. PCs have distant but useful relationships with the mighty icons, giving them allies, enemies, resources, and obligations.

Rob and I admire a lot of game designers. Personally, Robin Laws has taught me a lot about RPG design over the years. 13th Age, for example, has its own take on the mook rule that Robin introduced in Feng Shui.

Some of your verbiage – particularly phrases like “a toolkit of rules that you can pick and choose from based on the kind of game you want to play” strongly echoes much of the stated design goals of WotC’s 5th Edition D&D. Is this game designed to capture the same market as D&D Next?

With 13th Age, Rob and I have the distinct pleasure of writing for gamers like us: GMs and players who like to make up cool stuff. Fifth edition, like First through Fourth, will be expected to normalize the game experience. That way, a player can take their official D&D character to any official D&D game and play it. Thirteenth Age, on the other hand, is designed to inspire GMs and players to customize their campaigns and characters. Your “wood elf ranger” with the elaborate back story might not fit in the campaign next door, if the GM or players there have defined elves or rangers differently.

We are not 5E. We’re a lot more like Arduin Grimoire by Dave Hargrave. If you want to keep playing Pathfinder or 2E or whatever, you can still lift subsystems out of our game and drop them smoothly into your campaign. Incremental advances give PCs the chance to improve a little from session to session instead of all at once when they level up. The escalation die helps pace combat better. The icon system connects PCs to the game setting. You can use subsystems like these in whatever d20 game you’re playing. Especially ours.

You have a D&D 3E designer and a D&D 4E designer working together – two design approaches which appear to generate more friction with each other than most. What do each of you bring to the table, and how do you resolve fundamentally different design styles?

Rob and I have different styles, but we both have a soft spot for D&D-style coolness. That’s why our publisher calls 13th Age our “love letter” to D&D.

It was easy for us to mesh our different styles because we were creating a new system. Thirteenth Age isn’t halfway between 3E and 4E. Instead, it hearkens back to 1999, before 3E turned D&D into a game you played on a grid. We take the good rules and concepts from 3E, 4E, old-school games, and indie games, and we pump all that goodness into a setting that honors grand old D&D tropes.

Lucky for us, our styles are not just different but complementary. Neither of us could have created 13th Age alone. Rob likes players to have a good time, and I like them to suffer, so together we’ve got it all. In addition, Rob and I have known each other since the 80s and have been gaming together since the 90s. We’ve played all sorts of games together: Everway, Feng Shui, Sorcerer, a parlor larp, Omega World, HeroQuest, several editions of D&D, plus our own experimental systems. We’ve worked together on various card games, board games, and miniatures games, and we’ve played plenty more. We’re a good team.

Could you explain a little more about the “Icons” which seem to feature heavily in the game? From the ad text, I’m getting the sense of a framework similar to that of traditional deities.

Mortal civilization is ruled by several mighty icons, such as the Archmage and the Elf Queen. The fates of these virtual demigods are bound up together. Threatening civilization are the Lich King, the Diabolist, and other villainous icons. The icons define the action in the campaign at the “world” level. The wars or plagues or enigmas of the campaign setting are the business of the icons. These thirteen icons anchor and focus the setting. They are in dynamic tension with each other. The natural forces of the High Druid, for example, strain against the arcane constraints of the Archmage. The Priestess and the Crusader are both allied to the Emperor, but they are opposed to each other. With the icons locked in a complex balance, there’s always the possibility that a stalwart band of heroes could accomplish great deeds and tip the balance one way or another. Such is the stuff of legends—and of 13th Age campaigns.

These iconic NPCs—Archmage, Lich King, etc— are already familiar to your typical roleplayer. When a game setting is familiar, it’s easier to improvise. GMs are expected to play some of the icons at least a little differently from by-the-book. When players create their characters’ back stories, they invent parts of the world to fit. We even kept the titles of the icons pretty generic, to leave more room for GMs and players to define them. This is the game world designed less to show you how cool our ideas are and more to ask you how cool your ideas can be.

Icons are the secret sauce that connects the player characters to the game setting. As part of character creation, you define how your character relates to one or more icons. If you’re a dwarf fighter, maybe your entire clan was exiled by the Dwarf King, while your own personal deeds have brought honor to him. The relationships come into play as relationship dice, which players use to gain advantages in the game world. Relationship dice can get you helpful allies, secret intelligence, divine blessings, arcane knowledge, imperial authority, criminal assistance, and more. Each advantage you gain is something that exists in the game world, not as a bonus on a die roll or that sort of thing. It’s where role-playing meets roll-playing. Relationship dice also sometimes introduce complications into the plot. Being related to a mighty icon can get you out of trouble, but sometimes it gets you into a different sort of trouble at the same time.

If you had to pick one thing, what do you think is the biggest thing which really makes 13th Age stand out from other RPGs in the fantasy genre?

Rob’s class designs are really something else. His class features bring out the exciting and endearing qualities of each class. The class-based attacks, powers, and spells give players plenty of crunchy bits to use in combat. These classes stand out because they’re both crunchy and evocative. On one hand, it’s clear how to use their features mechanically. On the other hand, Rob designs games with a great sense of fun, and there are countless class traits that are a joy to play.

Sometimes a story-oriented RPG leaves out the crunchy bits, but Rob sure hasn’t.

How are you approaching the combat portions of the game? Are they designed to work with tactical battlemaps and miniatures, or are they geared towards the “arena of the mind”? How tactical would you say the combat portion is?

13th Age is story oriented, but fast, fun combat is still a key element of the game. We’ve played a lot of different games together, and we know how important it is for a game like this one to have exciting battles. For one thing, we took combat off the grid to make it looser and more dynamic. Players spend more time imagining the battles in their heads and less time counting squares. In 2000, the 3E design team put D&D on a grid partly to unify game play. With tightly defined combat rules, a player could play any official D&D game anywhere and know how combat worked. With 13th Age, we’re really only concerned with how the game runs for you and your friends in your personal campaign. Some groups will run combat more tactically, other more cinematically. GMs will have house rules, and no two tables will run combat exactly alike. That’s as it should be.

Rob and I put a premium on exciting combat. Player characters have an array of interesting class features, powers, and spells to use in battle. Monsters do, too. Magic items feature powers designed to add fun options to combat. Our escalation die shifts the pace of battle, adding more energy to later rounds, when combat otherwise tends to drag. Without the grid, combat moves faster, packing more action into less table time.

What innovation are you most proud of in 13th Age?

Don’t make me pick a favorite, but our mook rule is pretty sweet. The rule hearkens back to a version of combat popular in the early years of the hobby. Back then, when you attacked monsters in a mob, you just attacked the mob. If you hit, your damage was applied to the first monster, and excess damage spilled over to the second, and so on. You didn’t figure out which orc you were swinging at. You just swung at the orcs. Our mook rule is like that. A “mook” is a low-grade monster, with lower hit points and damage than normal. Against mooks, damage is applied to the mob as a whole. As a GM, it’s nice to have a dozen mooks on the board but only track one hit point score. As a player, it’s fun to take mooks down by twos or threes.

As a side note – the artwork is gorgeous! I love the feel it evokes! Is the artistic style a conscious choice? Are you trying to evoke any particular feel or style in particular? For me, it makes me think about the AD&D 2nd Edition era, for some reason.

The art revealed so far has focused on the icons, so it tends to feel especially… iconic. We are trying to give the D&D fan something they will really like. We’re using familiar archetypes to activate memories and call up associations. We’re trying to evoke a sense of wonder from jaded gamers.

NorwesconJonathan Tweet, co-designer of 13th Age, will be at Norwescon in Seattle, WA this weekend — and he might reveal a thing or two about the game.

(Okay, he will definitely reveal a thing or two about the game. He’s been dying to talk about it for weeks.)

He’ll also have a limited number of 13th Age postcards to give away at the con. Here’s where you can find him:

Saturday Noon Cascade 8
Ask the Gamemasters
Has your current campaign taken reached a dead end? Not sure how to keep your players happy? Have a problem player that you need to deal with? Want to add some house rules to your game, but unsure how to make them work? Come to this panel with questions about your RPG campaign.
Erik Mona (M), Jonathan Tweet, Scott Gable, Jason Bulmahn

Saturday 3 pm Evergreen 3&4
Building a Better Campaign Setting
What makes a good campaign setting? What elements in the world or universe of the campaign make it stand out above all others? What does it take to make a Forgottten Realms, or a Planescape, or a Golarion? Join our gaming panelists in discussing how to design a truly engaging and memorable game setting.
Wolfgang Baur (M), Logan Bonner, Bruce R Cordell, Jonathan Tweet

Saturday 8 pm Cascade 8
Crunch vs. Fluff: FIGHT!
Gaming, especially role-playing games, has essentially two elements. The “crunch” is the rules that define the game system, and dictate how to simulate real-world actions. The “fluff” is the fiction that gives the game its setting, and aids in the players role-playing within that setting. Not surprisingly, gamers are often divided as to which element is most important…and those divisions can be strong! Our gaming panelists engage in a civil discussion on realism vs. role-playing, rules-heavy war games vs. rules-light/theatre-based games.
Robert J. Schwalb (M), Dustin J Gross, Wolfgang Baur, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook