The GM Screen of Narcissus

I ran a 13th Age one-shot for some wonderful authors as a part of the online TBRCon (check out the full set of panels), and the fact that it was recorded gives a chance to talk about one of the most important but most ephemeral aspects of rpg play – gamemastering decisions. As a GM, you make dozens of decisions about the plot, the description, the actions of the NPCs, the interpretation of the rules, the interpretation of the scenario, and how to react to and anticipate the actions of the player characters – but it’s all in the moment, and hard to pull out and analyse.

So, in this article, I’m going to try to reconstruct my thinking as I ran the game.

Pregame Thoughts

It’s a 13th Age demo for players who are familiar with D&D, with an audience and a faintly literary vibe. So, I handed out generic pregens (no One Unique Things, Backgrounds, or Icon Relationships) in advance, and sketched out a simple scenario – the player characters are adventurers hired by a local lord, Barismus Quent, to quietly re-murder his long-dead great-grandfather Uther Quent, who’s come back as an undead monster. Lord Barismus fears that his grandfather’s come back to chastise him for marrying a member of the Hale family, the Quents’ long-time rivals. In truth, Uther’s woken up because Barismus’ brother Asfod has stolen Uther’s armour, in the hopes of undermining his brother and rousing a peasant revolt. I statted up Uther and his undead guardians, as well as Asfod and some potential combatants in any such revolt – but I left the scenes after the barrow dungeon crawl very vague. As it was only a three-hour game, I didn’t want to commit to any complex plots that I couldn’t bring to a conclusion in time.

One-shots really benefit from a strong conclusion. That doesn’t necessarily mean a strong ending – the ending of this one-shot was fairly messy – but it’s good to give the players the impression that they played through a coherent and complete story, that what happened at the beginning of the game connects to the middle and leads to the end. If the players come away feeling that the adventure made no sense, then even fun individual scenes can feel like a waste of time. Conversely, an adventure that’s only ok to play through can become more satisfying in retrospect if most of the story elements connect.

Character Creation

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=133 The players introduced their characters.
GR Matthews: Halfling “Merchant” Scrammish Framwell

Anna Stephens: Dwarf Barbarian Bunny Smallbottom, with a large family and an anger problem

Justin Lee Anderson: High Elf Wizard Arian Ravenblood, highly arrogant and inquisitive

Steve McHugh: Wood Elf Ranger Bayn Fangwhisper, rebelling against evil parents

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=341 I told the players they could add backgrounds on the fly during the game. This works really well for one-shots – it reduces the initial complexity as the player doesn’t need to pick backgrounds until they need them, it gives the players a chance to embed their characters in the story, it boosts their chances of succeeding, and because it’s a one-shot, it doesn’t matter if a character ends up with +5 in “Recognising 8th Age Pottery”. I wouldn’t do it as readily in a campaign, as you risk the player investing in something that won’t come up very often.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=385 For Icons, I dropped the number of relationship points to 2, just to speed things up. In other one-shots, I’ve insisted on a common icon (“you all have to have a positive or conflicted relationship with the Priestess” or somesuch). Icons tend to be tricky to work with in one-shots – it’s still fun to work them in, but it requires a lot of luck and mental agility to weave half-a-dozen disparate Icons into a scenario. I do try to hit at least one Icon per player character, although in this game I really only got to use the Prince of Shadows.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=628 Note Steve’s connection to the Three here, which I got to invoke later on.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=663 One Unique Things! Arguably the most distinctive element of 13th Age, and one of the trickest parts of a one-shot. Ideally, you want the game to touch on each player’s OUT, at least a little bit. In a one-shot, it’s enough to just acknowledge the player’s contribution, but often you can drag the game to a satisfactory conclusion by tying whatever plot twist you need to add to a One Unique Thing. (“And because Bob is the Only Halfling Who Can’t Cook, he can poison the dragon with botched Halfling cuisine“).

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=689 Justin takes “Eidetic Memory”. This is one of those OUTs that sounds like a really powerful ability, but boils down to “look, GM, instead of taking notes, I’m just going to ask you to describe stuff a second time later on” and generally works in the game’s favour, speeding up investigative play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=698 Anna’s dwarf Bunny is the “youngest of fourteen siblings” – which is a fine OUT for a campaign, but I never had a chance to bring it into play in the one-shot. If I had more presence of mind, I could have turned one of the NPCs into a dwarf and added some family dynamics, but it never came to pass.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=740 GR’s halfling is a penny-pincher. I encouraged the player to exaggerate this trait a little, to make it a bit more unique, and immediately planned to hit the player with a roleplaying dilemma in the barrow-dungeon crawl. Given I already had an adventure based around the consequences of grave-robbing, I knew I’d easily be able to bring this OUT into play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=766 Finally, Bayn can tell when someone’s lying. In a campaign, I’d almost certainly have put some restriction on this – either he has to do something (“I can tell when someone’s lying, but I have to be able to hear their breathing”) or there’s a tell of some sort (“I can tell when someone’s lying, because a giant ghost cat appears on my shoulder and hisses ‘lying’”). For a one-shot, I let it fly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=800 Both Scrammish and Bayn took connections to the Prince of Shadows, so I leapt on that as connective glue for the company. Those two started out travelling together, and the other two joined them. I let the other two players decide who was the long-time travelling companion of the two thieves, and who was the newcomer. Establishing simple relationships and status differentials like that early on gives players a little texture for roleplaying.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1023 Scrammish and Bayn decided they were smugglers, so I leapt on that and asked what they were currently smuggling. This meant that I was deviating from my initial outline (which started with a briefing scene giving the players the dungeon-crawl), but it did mean I could introduce the two feuding factions and give the players a bit more context. The wagon with the boxes of straw was improvised on the spot. A wagon gives the players something to defend and protect, putting the mysterious cargo in boxes defers making a decision about it until later (and gives a nice “what’s in the box” jolt of anticipation) and the straw suggests whatever’s in there is fragile.

Given that the cargo was going to the Hales, and their enemy Asfod Quent had a potential druidic connection, I guessed it was some sort of alchemical defoliant or plague – but I left my options open. (In retrospect, I should possibly have made it a potential _elven_ connection to tie into Bayn and Arian – but, equally, that might have been one level of complexity too much for a short one-shot.)

Gameplay

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1119 Mechanically, there’s absolutely no justification for this Intelligence check – it’s just purely a dice warmup and a super-basic mechanics reminder for the audience.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1313 And the party’s already splitting up…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1354 I wasn’t planning to endanger the wagon at this point anyway, but nothing gives the game away more than asking for marching order for the first time before triggering a trap. So, I started setting precedent that they’d have to worry about the wagon’s security.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1720 I have absurd hands. This is not of any relevance to gamemastering techniques, but it’s really hard to unsee.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1749 My plan here was for Bunny to find evidence of the secret passage that the lord’s treacherous brother was using to sneak in and out of the castle. Her low roll meant that this discovery never happened. I try to bring this subplot into play again later on, and the players fail again. If this subplot had been necessary to the story, I’d have skipped the roll and just had the players find the secret passage (or better – tied it to Bunny’s icon relationship. “This castle is dwarf-built, and you know from your association with the Dwarf King that…”)

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2367 One of the key skills for a GM – shutting up when the players are riffing. It’s especially tricky in online play, where table crosstalk is harder to achieve.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2543 If the players evince interest in something, like talking to the lord’s wife or visiting the local library, run with it – but think about how it can lead back to the main plot! Often, you’ll have some key plot elements you want to foreshadow, and any form of foreshadowing works. If they’d asked to look at a portrait of the dead ancestor, or talked to the kitchen scullion, they’d also have learned about Uther’s shiny armour, but the information would have been presented differently, and in a way that suggested the player had asked a very clever question indeed.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2710 Justifying the failed roll on external factors (you don’t speak this language) instead of suggesting that the genius elf is at fault.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2889 This scene with Lady Hale sets up the intended use of the cargo in the wagon, by showing her interest in the forest between the two domains. The cost was less time with Hargul, who I enjoyed playing – but as the players couldn’t understand his exaggerated gravelly grim dark voice, that’s for the best.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3269 I wanted to give Geoff a bit of spotlight time, and to hint at intrigue and disputes. The second Intelligence test would have spotted the same secret passage that Bunny missed earlier…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3468 An hour into the game, and we’re through scene one…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3511 This is a good example of giving the players a choice where both options are consequential but not entirely clear. Do they endanger the wagon by leaving it behind, or keep it with them and risk arriving at the haunted barrow by night? If the choice was “take the wagon with you or leave it behind”, it’s a lot easier for the players to default to the safest (or, rather, most controlled) option of taking it.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3660 When you say “don’t roll a 1”, players will roll a 1. My intent for this roll was just to remind the players that the wagon’s contents are perilous and fragile, but Anna’s roll of a 1 forced me to nail down the contents of the box.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3755 To a degree “the box contains an egg” is basically “the box contains another, smaller, box”, but it is forward progress. Also, it gave me a chance to use an icon relationship – specificially, Bayn’s connection to the Three – to explain the nature of the egg. And because a Red, Blue and Black Dragon comprise the Three, it makes thematic sense for the egg to either go fiery-boom, weird-magic-boom, or acid-poisony-boom as needed. Later on, for example, the players contemplate blowing up the barrow with an egg. If they’d done that, I’d probably have decided that the eggs contained a poisonous vapour that didn’t affect the undead.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4341 As Bunny examines the tomb, she spots some religious paraphernalia. I’d originally planned to have a subplot where the players meet a sympathetic cleric who tried to exorcise the haunting of the barrow, but ended up dropping this and focussing on the druidic connection.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4521 The fight here – a bunch of low-damage mook skeletons who grab on and reduce their foe’s armour class, and two tougher skeletons with a high-damage attack that has a big attack penalty. So, if the players don’t deal with the mooks, the big guys can hit them with big swords. I made the mechanics of the fight very clear, and took things easy on the players until they go to grips with their abilities.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4849 Another natural 1! Especially in a one-shot, it’s always good to make a fuss of memorable rolls, hence Scrammish gets used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight. Note that this didn’t really penalise Scrammish that much – he was effectively Stuck but could still fight perfectly well – but it’s a memorable visual and a fun scene.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5517 It’s always a good idea to tie elements in a fight scene back to the overall story – when the dice come out and the conversation becomes all about attack bonuses and hit points, the plot can get forgotten unless you keep bringing it up. Hence, the detail that the mook skeletons are dead Hales.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5884 Technically, this shouldn’t have been a crit, but I wanted to get moving with the fight and the wizard wasn’t yet breaking out area-clearing acid arrows…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6035 And yes, this wasn’t even a hit – but timing takes precedence over rules in a one-shot.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6135 I gave each player character 4 recoveries – a full complement of 8 is too much for a one-shot, as there’s almost no chance of burning through all of them. Similarly, when running a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, I tend to drop Network and Cover scores to half their normal values.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6514 Letting players narrate kills is always fun.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6832 TFW you realise that none of the player characters have a single healing ability other than the barbarian.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7744 As soon as I made it clear that they could walk away from this encounter, the dynamic changed immediately.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7935 Arguably, this should have been an autosuccess to spot the plot, ala GUMSHOE. Then again, in 13th Age, the plot tends to be a lot more wobbly and changeable.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8153 The temporary confusion of Margot Hale with the druid is an interesting point – in a short adventure like this one, the players are going to reasonably assume that any mysterious shadowy figure is connected to established plotlines or characters.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8299 And Bayn’s Bullshit Detector ability pays off nicely here, letting the players eliminate suspects and move along smoothly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8664 Here, I use Lady Hale to draw all (fair enough, both) plotlines together – the players can use the weapons they’re smuggling for the Prince to blow up the barrow.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8739 And as we’re into the last 30 minutes of the timeslot, it’s time to bring everyone and everything together by having the druid show up.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8817 I really wish I’d brought Asfod “on-screen” earlier, as it’s really bad writing to have the villain of the piece show up only in the last scene. Oh well – that’s the nature of roleplaying games. You can’t neatly script satisfying and coherent plots. You’ve got to roll for and with it…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8948 I’m fascinated by the potential of audience input during live online games…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9378 This ability also had a cool hook into the potential peasant revolt, but again, you can’t always be sure how a scene will turn out.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9447 It’s always great when players come up with scenario-ending moves for you – and a player-generated plan should always take precedence over a GM’s solution to a problem.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9526 Hargul does deserve to be hit, to be fair.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9769 With only a few minutes left in the slot, and knowing that I needed to move towards an ending, we abandon the regular rules and move towards a looser, more narrative approach to the mechanics. You still want the uncertainty and fun of dice, so “roll high and cool stuff happens.”

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=10097 Technically, yes, the bad guys won, but it’s still a satisfying end for the players.


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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