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.

 

 

GenCon logo_websiteWith Gencon upon us like an amorous gorilla of fun, here are six precepts that have served me well when running games at conventions.

1. Know The Player Characters

The PCs are the players’ interface with your adventure. If there’s one bit of preparation you can never skimp on, it’s the player characters. You don’t need to memorise everything, but you need to remember any key plot hooks or powers that you can use to bring that character into the action. Point out places where a particular PC might use one of their abilities (“hey, your spy has Traffic Analysis, so you can intercept the bad guys’ radio communications and work out their movements”) and things they need to know (“as a Paladin of the Great Gold Wyrm, you probably know someone in the Imperial Legion. You could try tapping them for information”). You can’t rely on the players to volunteer information like they might in a regular campaign game.

2.Go Around The Table

At a table of six, you’re going to have a mix of players – loud ones, quiet ones, shy ones, dominant ones, rules-lovers and people who don’t care what dice they’re rolling, combat monsters and character actors, hardcore fans of the game, and people who wandered in because there was a free spot at your table. It’s easy to fall into the trap of catering to the really enthusiastic, engaged players at the expense of others. So, always go around the table and make sure all the players have the opportunity to get involved in the action. Suggest ways for them to contribute if necessary.

Also, go physically around the table, especially if it’s a noisy room. If you need to have a one-on-one conversation with a player, don’t shout across the table. Get up and walk around to that player if you can.

3. Observe The Rules

Don’t necessarily obey them, mind, but don’t completely ignore them. Many people play convention games to see how a particular rules system plays. They want to see how the game works, especially the elements that are especially thematic or distinctive. For example, you can run an Aliens-inspired bug hunt mission in any science-fiction rpg, and it’s always a good model for a convention game – but show off the distinctive elements of your game of choice in the bug hunt. An Ashen Stars bug hunt might highlight the use of investigative abilities to find a way to escape the remorseless aliens, while a Gaean Reach bug hunt might spend more time talking about how this is a trap set by the hated Quandos Vorn.

4. Beware of Time Dilation

In a four-hour convention slot, you can assume that the first 30-45 minutes are lost to late arrivals, reading character sheets, introductions, trips to the bathroom and/or snack bar and other administrivia, and you should aim to finish up half an hour before the end of the slot, to give yourself a buffer in case scenes overrun, players need to leave early, and to handle any post-game debriefings. That leaves you with a shade under three hours of actual game time. Expect your first few scenes to take much longer than planned, as players struggle to find their character’s voice and role in the group, and to get to grips with the setting. Expect later scenes to go much more quickly than you’d expect, as convention players take bigger risks and make grander gestures than they might in campaign play.

5. Be Prepared!

Character sheets, dice, pencils, scratch paper (enough for you and the players), copy of your scenario, enthusiasm, quick-reference sheets, a rulebook, bottle of water, more dice because the first lot are going to roll under tables and get lost, more enthusiasm. Phone, set to silent. Throat lozenges, because you’re going to be hoarse after running a few games. Get some sleep and eat some real food if you can manage it.

In extremis, enthusiasm may be simulated with sufficient sugar and caffeine.

6. Let the Game Breathe

Part of your role as a convention GM is to make sure that everyone has a good time at your table. Sometimes that means giving the players things to do by throwing interesting NPCs and mysterious and action scenes at them, but it also involves stepping back when the players are having fun just roleplaying their characters or planning their next move. If everyone’s talking animatedly about events in the game, just step back for a moment. This can be hard to do in the heat of the moment, especially with that remorseless clock ticking down towards the end of the slot, but it’ll pay dividends with a good table players.

01LootEven as I write this, the indefatigable Chris Huth toils into the Canadian night, putting the finishing touches to The Book of Loot, our upcoming compendium of new magic items for 13th Age. The book’s crammed full of wonderful treasures and potent creations of sorcery, along with several items that we ourselves call out as utterly unforgivable puns.

Not every item written made it into the book for one reason or another. Some were cut for thematic reasons, others for balance. Here’s one that fell early on, on grounds of complexity. It’s an Epic-tier item associated primarily with the Emperor icon.

Epic

Chessboard of the Ages: There is no mistaking this item; the board of onyx and marble, and the gold and ruby playing pieces are described in songs and sagas from previous ages. However, the pieces are subtly different each time – the pawns change to resemble the allies and enemies of the chessboard’s bearer, while the features of the Icons of the Age appear on the other pieces.

When you first take possession of the chessboard, the GM gives the role of your opponent to some rival, ongoing villain or even an enemy Icon (GM: roll relationship dice if you want). Usually, it’s the Lich King or Orc Lord. You have the opening move. Once per battle, you may ‘move’ by activating one of the chess pieces as a free action. Each piece has a different ability. You may use each ability once per piece (so, you can use the pawn power eight times total in your life, most of the other powers twice ever, and the king and queen powers once each). A piece disappears when used.

Unlike most magic items, the chessboard doesn’t have a recharge value. Once you use a power, you can’t activate any of the chess pieces again until your opponent takes a move (or until your opponent voluntarily forfeits the chance to use a power – see the King, below, for why that might be a good option)

The powers possessed by the chess pieces are:

  • Pawn: One nearby ally may take an extra standard action in their next turn or heal using a recovery as a free action.
  • Rook: Cast teleport (as the wizard spell) to travel to any stronghold or flee from a battle without incurring a campaign loss
  • Knight: Gain three paladin talents with all associated feats until the end of a battle or call a legendary hero to aid you for one battle
  • Bishop: Cast any one Divine spell of up to ninth level or automatically succeed at any one skill check, no matter the difficulty
  • Queen: Either copy the powers of any  other chess piece remaining on your board (other than the king) or sacrifice the queen to remove any one piece possessed by your opponent, other than the king.
  • King: You may only use the king’s power if you have at least twice as many pieces left as your opponent, and your opponent has suffered a significant defeat in the real world outside the chess game. When you use it, the chess game ends and the chessboard vanishes. However, your opponent is magically compelled to perform one task for you as a forfeit for losing the game. You may specify the task as you wish, and the opponent must obey.

Quirk: You share your opponent’s dreams while playing. 

I may be mad – no, I am mad – but I can count. Eight pieces for good, eight for evil, that makes sixteen. But they say there are but thirteen Icons in the Empire. Who are the other three? Or do some play both sides, like the treacherous harlots they are?

–        Erach, crazed preacher


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.

 

trailofcthulhu300wideIn all GUMSHOE games, there’s a benefit for having 8 rating points in Athletics – your Hit Threshold rises by 1. Night’s Black Agents expanded this to all General Abilities – if you invest eight of your precious build points in a particular ability, you get a cherry, a special ability that shows off your mastery in that field.

So, for your high-octane Pulp games, here’s a bunch of Cthulhuoid cherries that don’t overlap with the various occupation special abilities.

Conceal: Trap Sense

You may spend Conceal when making a Sense Trouble test if the potential threat is a concealed trap or other hidden environmental peril, like an overgrown pit or impending cave-in.

Disguise: Alternate Identity

You’ve established a whole other life for yourself, complete with friends, possessions, documentation – possibly even a home and family. This alternate persona must have a lower Credit Rating than your main identity (unless you’ve been masquerading as someone else since the start of the campaign). A Disguise rating of 8+ gets you one alternate identity; you can purchase more for 4 experience points each).

Driving: Drive-By Shootout

You’re adept at lining up shots for your passengers when they’re shooting out the window. (We won’t ask which mob outfit you were working for when you learned that trick). You may transfer up to 4 Driving points to your passenger’s Firearms pools at the start of a car chase. Unspent points are lost when the chase ends.

Electrical Repair: Alien Insight

Your intuitive understanding of electricity and magnetism gives you an insight into devices far beyond the paltry technology of humanity. You may spend 4 Electrical Repair to activate an alien device, like a Mi-Go brain cylinder or Yithian lightning gun. You only guess at how to turn the thing on, not what it does or how to properly control it.

Explosives: One Last Stick

You can spend Explosive points on Preparedness tests to obtain dynamite or similar explosives.

Filch: Here’s One I Stole Earlier

With a Filch rating of 8+, once per investigation, you may declare you stole something retroactively from a previous scene. You need to get into the mansion’s boathouse to flee the rampaging shoggoth? Well, it just so happens that you picked the groundkeeper’s pockets earlier on, and here’s the very key you need. You still need to make a Filch test to actually acquire whatever you want to unexpectedly produce.

Firearms: Nerves of Steel

Difficulty numbers for your Firearms tests aren’t affected by being Shaken.

First Aid: Sawbones

A First Aid Rating of 8 or more gives 1 free point in either Medicine or Pharmacy, player’s choice.

Fleeing: Blackout

Once per adventure, when you fail a Fleeing test or are about to be consumed by some other horror, you may declare that you black out. When you wake up, you’re somewhere safe. You have no idea how you escaped or where you are now, and may have dropped items or abandoned fellow investigators to some horrible fate. But you’re alive, and that’s something.

Hypnosis: Mesmerize

You may attempt to use hypnotism on subjects who aren’t actively willing to be hypnotized. Your subject must still be somewhat open to your influence – you could hypnotize someone that you’re in conversation with, or the doorman at a club, but you couldn’t hypnotize the mugger who’s about to rob you, or the cultist who’s intent on sacrificing you to some alien god. Increase the Difficulty of any hypnotism tests using this ability by +2 (so, putting someone into a trance without their co-operation is Difficulty 5; planting false memories is Difficulty 7).

Mechanical Repair: Give It A Kick

Once per adventure, you may make a Mechanical Repair roll instantly. You could kick a plane’s engine back to life as it falls from the sky, or unjam a machine gun with one solid whack.

Piloting: There’s Always A Plane

Once per adventure, you may ask the Keeper to introduce an aircraft of some description that you can fly with this ability. Maybe it’s your own plane, and you’ve flew out or had it shipped out. Maybe it’s someone else’s aircraft you can borrow, or a crashed plane that’s repairable. Maybe the cultists have a zeppelin-temple. In any event, there’s always a plane nearby that you can use/borrow/steal over the course of the adventure.

Preparedness: Expedition Planning

If you have time to prepare and pack for any sort of expedition, then you bring enough for everyone. When you succeed at a Preparedness test to obtain an item, you may spend one extra point to have one of those items for everyone in the group. For example, if you use Preparedness to declare you’ve got an electric lamp, then you can spend an extra point to give everyone else a similar lamp too.

Psychoanalysis: Insight

A Psychoanalysis Rating of 8 or more gives one free point in Reassurance or Assess Honesty (player’s choice).

Riding: Ride the Flying Polyp

You can ride anything, including Mythos mounts like shantaks. Even better, if a creature is introduced to you as a mount and you only use it for riding, then any Stablility losses for seeing the creature are reduced by 2.

Scuffling: The Old One Two

You may make an extra Scuffling attack per round, as long as you hit with your first attack. Your extra attack costs a number of Scuffling points equal to the result of the damage die (so, if you roll a 2, that’s 2 Scuffling points for another swing).

Sense Trouble: Quick Reflexes

If you overspend on a successful Sense Trouble test, you get those points back as a pool that can only be spent on Athletics, Fleeing, Firearms, Scuffling or Weapons tests in the first round of combat or in tests immediately related to the trouble you sensed. The maximum size of this pool is equal to the number of Sense Trouble points spent. For example, say the Difficulty to sense a lurking Deep One is 5. You spend 3 Sense Trouble and roll a 4, for a total of 7, beating the Difficulty by 2. You get 2 points back that you must spend immediately on attacking or escaping the monster.

If you’d rolled a 6, you’d have beaten the Difficulty by 4, but you’d still only get 3 points back.

Shadowing: In Over Your Head

Whenever you have to make a Sense Trouble roll while shadowing someone, you gain 2 points in a pool that can be spent on Evidence Collection, Locksmith, Disguise, Filch or Stealth. You lose any unspent points in this pool when you stop shadowing the target and turn back, or are discovered.

Stealth: Stay Here

As long as someone follows your explicit instructions, they can piggyback (as per the rules on page 57) on your Stealth tests even when you’re not present. So, if you tell a fellow investigator to hide in the undergrowth and keep crawling until they reach the road, they can piggyback on your Stealth tests if they do exactly what you told them to do.

Weapons: Favorite Weapon

Pick your favorite melee weapon. You draw strength and courage from its familiar heft in your hand. Once per adventure, you may gain 4 Stability from drawing or brandishing your weapon. With this sword by your side, there’s nothing you can’t handle.

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

Gar O'BrienUnder the glorious new regimen, my articles get upgraded to a column with a running title, which is like an academic getting tenure. Bear with me a moment while I suckle at the pelgrane’s noisome teat.

* * *

Accretion Disk, the Ashen Stars expansion book, continues to live up to its name. More and more motes of text are drawn inexorably into the gravity well of the project folder, and there’s a huge chapter on abilities by the masterful Kevin Kulp that’s about to slam into the existing draft.

Adding detail to the Ashen Stars system and setting opens up the possibility of running other styles of science fiction adventure. Of course, the default setup of ‘licensed freelance problem-solvers’ can bleed into any of these styles.

Space Traders

The PCs are the crew of a small tramp starship, bouncing from system to system taking on whatever cargoes and passengers they can find. One week, they’re delivering terraforming equipment to a new colony; next, it’s a cargo load of cryogenically frozen space cows, or a few hundred metric tons of chemical waste, or just a bunch of mysterious sealed containers. GMs and players with an interest in speculative economics could explore the weirdness of a super-high-tech post-scarcity economy suddenly feeling the bite of scarcity again. Another interesting wrinkle is the change in the characters’ legal standing – they don’t have badges or any legal authority, so they’ll have to be careful about staying on the right sight of the law.

Investigative abilities are used to spot business opportunities, to solve problems when delivering cargoes, and to deal with troublesome clients, so stock up on Bargain and Assess Honesty. In this setup, the characters rarely get regularly contracts – they’ve got to support themselves solely with freight or other trading contracts, which means a high Business Affairs to keep gaps between missions to a minimum.

The anarchic nature of the post-war Bleed means the characters are kept busy in the early part of the campaign, bringing supplies and exploiting opportunities to profit from the chaos. As law and order return, the megacorporations expand back out from the Combine. When they seize control of trade routes and contracts, it becomes clear that the small free traders like the PCs are going to be squeezed out of existence. Do the characters try to stay ahead of the megacorporations by running out to the fringes of known space, or do they try to protect their lifestyles by stirring up instability and chaos in the Bleed?

 

Let’s Be Bad Guys

You could either borrow from Firefly, and have a crew of semi-legitimate traders who occasionally turn to crime, or go all the way and play a gang of specialized thieves (space pirates)! GUMSHOE works great for crime if you flip some of the investigative abilities around so they’re about concealing evidence instead of finding it. So, you now use Holo Surveillance to avoid being picked up by sensors, or Decryption to conceal your transmissions from law enforcement, or Evidence Collection to make sure you collect all the evidence of your intrusion before you leave. (This twist works very well in other GUMSHOE games, like Trail of Cthulhu – bootlegging Boozehounds of Innsmouth, anyone?)

 

Ashen Troopers

The characters are all soldiers in the Combine’s armed forces. As roleplaying games work best when the players have the freedom to get themselves into horrible trouble, they either start on some sort of detached duty (‘we’re an elite commando unit that lands on enemy-occupied worlds, gathers intelligence, then sabotages the planet’s defences in advance of the landing’) or get separated from their regular chain of command in the first session of the game. Optionally, borrow some Thriller Combat rules from Night’s Black Agents, and Accretion Disk adds plenty of new equipment that becomes military gear when given a coat of reactive camouflage.

And who are they fighting? Bleedist separatists? Nufaith terrorists? Hostile Class-K aliens like the Jaggar, Nanogons or Phyllax? Or hostile galactic powers, like the bizarre Crysolis gestalts or the crumbling tinpot dictatorship of the Galactoid Legionnaires? You could even go back to the Mohilar War, and pit the characters against durugh and Combine turncoats, leading up to a final confrontation with the Mohilar themselves!

 

Brave New Worlds

Your continuing mission is to take a small scoutship into the unexplored reaches of the Bleed, and survey whatever planets you encounter. You won’t be alone out there – in addition to unscrupulous rival explorers and prospectors, you might run into hostile aliens, refugees who fled the war, durugh fleets who refused to follow their king’s command to switch sides, lost starships, temporal anomalies, and the remains of long-vanished civilisations. On each world, you must assemble a thorough survey report, which means scanning it from orbit, then flying down in your shuttle to gather samples and investigate any indigent cultures or mysterious sensor glitches.

You’re even authorized to make first contact on behalf of the Combine with any newly-discovered intelligent species. Just try not to start the next war…

 

 

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