Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 True Ways Initial Thoughts (Part 2)

This is the second part of my 13 True Ways overview.  For part 1, which includes the first two chapters (new classes and multiclassing),  click here.

Chapter 3:  Cities and Courts
This chapter has in-depth descriptions for Axis, the Court of Stars, Drakkenhall, Horizon, and Santa Cora.  These are really flavorful descriptions and like most of the fluff in 13th Age, meant to be taken as suggestions rather than gospel.  There are multiple "takes" on many elements of these places, and each section (minus the Santa Cora write-up, which is brief) has descriptions of important places, themes, NPCs, everyday details, and a list of 13 rumors about the city/court.  In addition, Horizon and Drakkenhall go even further with descriptions of how each Icon is connected to the city.  The best part is that there are several examples for each Icon of how a relationship die result could be used in those cities.  I find these examples to be really useful for gauging how the designers intended Icon results to be used.  The description in the Core Rulebook is fine and all, but using Icons is consistently something discussed in forums and on the Google+ group as being difficult for a lot of GMs and players to grasp.  This chapter adds a lot of additional examples which can be used as-is, or to spark inspiration and/or serve to calibrate the effects of ideas that GMs might come up with.

This chapter and obviously the chapter with all of the new classes were my favorites.  I love having so much new setting information, and it's all the more pertinent since both Drakkenhall and Axis have featured prominently in both of my campaigns.  Interestingly, nothing in these descriptions outright contradicted what my group has established before, but it offers a ton of new ideas that will keep these cities interesting for a long time.  And while my group hasn't explored the Queen's Wood at all yet, the Court of Stars has a very "dangerous fey," fairy tale inspired feel to it which is exactly how I would run it.

Chapter 4:  Monsters
The monster chapter is a good chunk of the page count and offers a lot of new foes for GMs to throw at their players.  The entries follow the example from the 13th Age core rulebook as opposed to the detailed, narrative entries from the Bestiary.  That's ok though, because that's a bit outside the scope of the book.  The stat blocks themselves are excellent and some really fun monsters are included.  Besides that, a lot of space is devoted to devils, and they get their own Bestiary-style fluff chapter so it's actually a mix of the two presentations.  Most devils get a very thematic power called Devil's Due.  It works a bit differently for each type of devil, but the gist is that you basically have to give the devil its due if you want to use the Escalation Die.  If you decide to make the deal, using the Escalation Die carries a nasty negative consequence.

In addition to devils, there are higher level dire animals (boar, tiger, and giant praying mantis), azers, cloud giants, metallic dragons, elementals (which serve as both foes and summoning options for Druids), flowers of unlife (these have a nifty new resurrection mechanic), gnolls (new, nasty, high level gnolls!), mummies (there's an awesome story behind them), pixies, soul flensers (they're mind-flayer levels of nasty), specters, treants, werebeasts, and zombies (including the awesome headless zombies that break the tradition of the normal insta-death headshot crit rules for zombies).

Chapter 5:  Deviltry
This chapter describes many ways in which devils can fit into your campaign.  There's a unique, campaign-defining story associated with each one of the Icons.  Each entry includes a section on Origins and Agenda (this is the meaty part that describes what role devils will play), Hierarchy (which details the role(s) that each unique type of devil plays in this story, usually with Lemures at the bottom of the barrel and Pit Fiends ruling over everything else), and how Other Icons fit into this particular story.  Finally, there's 16 more Icon-neutral (mostly) ideas for using devils.  I found this chapter a bit dull to read straight through, but that's not necessarily the point.  The best way to use this chapter is to pick Icons that play a prominent role in your campaign and brainstorm how devils might fit into that story.  Each description isn't simultaneously true in any given campaign, but rather you'll pick one of the entries or use ideas from two or three of them.  And if you want to focus on devils again in a future campaign, you'll have plenty of ideas at the ready for telling a completely different story.

Chapter 6:  Gamemaster's Grimoire
Whereas the other chapters each have a specific focus, this one is basically a grab bag of miscellaneous stuff.  It starts out by introducing artifacts, which are unsurprisingly just really powerful true magic items.  They work more or less like other magic items, except that they have multiple powers that they can unlock over time.  Honestly, I've already implemented a few multi-power magic items and have also had individual items gain power over time instead of being replaced with more powerful items, so there's nothing really new here for me.  They do list three example artifacts: the feathered crown, the fist wrought of blood, and the gloves of the dark path.

Next we get three lists of 13 things.  There are dungeons/ruins, flying realms, and inns/taverns.  Each one gets about a paragraph of description and they seem to be great for GMs who need a quick idea in a pinch, either because they didn't have much time to prepare, are having a creative block, or when the PCs go off the rails.  I'm not a huge fan of flying realms that the designers seem to enjoy, but I'll admit that the entry for Big Dumb Rock was pretty awesome.  The taverns in particular will be great for adding some color to what otherwise usually ends up being a generic inn just like every other inn that the PCs inevitably end up staying at.  I'll admit that I don't usually think of embellishing on inns aside from a clever/funny name every now and then, but this list should change that, making inns interesting for their own sake.

Next there's more magic items, including some cursed items.  I'm honestly not thrilled with most of the magic items in here or in the core rulebook.  They feel a little too much like 4E D&D magic items, except they're not baked into the game's math and the quirk mechanic makes them more intrinsically interesting.  More than half of the items I've passed out to my players have been custom ones that fit the story, the character, or are just a weird thing I thought of at the time.  In my first campaign I passed out 3 magical daggers that all did different things.  One provided a bonus to rituals, one was able to cut through stone but had a certain number of charges, and the third launched its wielder into the air like a catapult when slashed through the air a certain way (this one had charges too).  I prefer weird powers that PCs can use in creative ways as opposed to having just another combat bonus.

Finally, there's a section on 3 monastic tournaments (which I didn't find particularly inspiring, but hey this is the book with the monk in it), 4 NPC descriptions provided by high-level kickstarter backers, and 2 living dungeons, also provided by kickstarter backers.  The NPC entries don't include stat blocks, but rather advice on how they might fit into your campaign with multiple options provided (including as allies or adversaries).  Each NPC also has a list of 13 rumors about them, which may or may not be true.

The living dungeons include Underkrakens (tied to the Soul Flensers in the monster chapter) and the Wild Garden (tied to the Flowers of Unlife, also in the monster chapter).  There are multiple options for what Underkrakens might be (vehicles, cities, monsters, or living dungeons), most of which have a Cthulu-like flavor.  There's even an optional rule for "sanity" called Terrible Enlightenment, and Call of Cthulu is straight-up referenced as an inspiration.  The Wild Garden entry is a little more detailed, with a background story for where it came from and then a quick walkthrough of an adventure.  The adventure is pretty bare-bones with a couple of paragraphs for each level of the dungeon and suggestions for what monsters to include (with page number references, but without repeating stat blocks).  Honestly, this is probably more useful to me than a traditionally-written published adventure.  I tend to be pretty bad at running prefab adventures, not least because I hate having to read a long adventure multiple times in preparation for running it, and because referencing them is usually a pain because there's so much text to wade through.  I could see myself running this, though.  A quick description to set the stage and provide a spark of inspiration that I can then expand and improvise upon as we play.  And since it has such a small word count it can be tacked into a "grab-bag" chapter like this without taking up too much space.  Too few adventures are presented this way, and while I'm sure a lot of GMs prefer the more detailed, traditional published adventures something like this works better for more improvisational GMs who like to do a lot of their own world-building and/or collaborative world-building with the players.

So that's 13 True Ways in a nutshell.  It's been a long wait, but it was worth it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

13 True Ways Initial Thoughts (Part 1)

The first announced supplement for 13th Age, 13 True Ways, is finally out in PDF form.  If you preorder the book (which has a projected print release date of August), you'll get the PDF now.  This book is pretty much a grab-bag of everything, with plenty of useful material for both players and GMs.  And with that, I'll just dive right in.

Chapter 1:  Classes
This chapter contains 6 new classes for 13th Age, bringing the total for the system up to 15.  This includes the Druid and Monk, both initially intended for the core rulebook.  They were left out to prevent further delays of the book, because they weren't yet ready.  I'm fully in favor of making sure that a class is done right even if it means getting to it later, so while the wait was agonizing it's worth it to see the classes in their polished form.  Rounding out the list is the Chaos Mage (great for players with a randomness fetish), Commander (13th Age's answer to the 4E Warlord), Necromancer (finally a game gets this archetype right!), and the Occultist (a reality-bending, THE reality bending spellcaster.  There can be only one).

The Chaos Mage takes the wild magic flavor that's hinted at in the Sorcerer and takes it to the extreme.  You get three categories of spells - attack, defense, and Iconic.  When you roll initiative and at the end of each turn you randomly select a category (the default method is drawing colored "stones" from a bag, but there's an alternative that uses dice, though it's a bit clunkier).  On your next turn, you get to choose which spell of that category you want to cast.  You have a limited number of daily and 1/battle spell slots, so you're generally deciding whether you want to use an at-will spell or a limited use spell of some kind.  If you roll Iconic there are spells associated with each Icon (the Icon you use is determined by rolling a d12; the Emperor doesn't mess around with Chaos).  Some Talents allow you to randomly obtain spells from another class (Necromancer, Wizard, Cleric, or Sorcerer), and so this can give you a few extra choices (most of these will be assigned to either attack or defense, depending on what makes sense).  Their other talents are Warp talents, which give you a random benefit whenever you roll a certain spell category (i.e. Attack Warp, Defensive Warp, and Iconic Warp).  Finally, there's a class feature called High Weirdness (as if all of these layers of randomness weren't enough!).  High Weirdness gives you a random effect by rolling on a d% table in certain situations, and the effects aren't always beneficial.  I look forward to seeing this class in play because it looks like a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, this class will only appeal to a subset of players, and I'm not sure if any of them are at my table.  Maybe I'll take it for a spin one of these days, though admittedly I'd probably get burned out on the chaos after more than a few sessions, so I doubt I'd use it for a long-term campaign.

The Commander seems to be able to do much of what a 4E Warlord could, but without using 4E's AEDU system.  Instead Commanders use a mechanic called command points, which are gained during the fight.  You can either gain them by hitting with a melee attack (fight from the front), or by using a standard action to automatically gain command points (weight the odds).  Commanders rely on their interrupt actions, with which they spend command points to trigger Commands on their allies' turns.  They can allow allies to rally, let them re-roll missed attacks, boost their damage, gain movement, etc.  As a Commander, you'll really have to pay attention on everyone's turn to best make use of your abilities.  Commands are at-will, and rely on the flow of command points to limit their use.  Commanders also have Tactics, which are quick action recharge powers.  A major "family" of Tactics lets you use your quick action to grant extra attacks to your allies.  Yep, Warlord fans will enjoy this class, which along with the Monk is one of two new "martial" archetypes that join the Rogue on the complex end of the spectrum.

I'll probably end up doing a more detailed breakdown of the Druid in a future post (it's one of my favorite classes, after all).  Druids have shouldered a lot of different roles in D&D (sometimes simultaneously, if you've ever heard of CoDzilla from 3.x/PF), and the 13th Age design goal for the Druid was to let players build their own Druidic archetype without having to wield an overpowered mess.  Each of the 6 Druid talents encompasses a distinct schtick; you've got Animal Companion, Elemental Caster (which includes summoning), Shifter, Terrain Caster, Warrior Druid, and Wild Healer.  If you spend a single talent slot on a given talent you're an initiate in that sphere, but you also have the option to take a talent for two talent slots, in which case you become an adept.  Each talent lists its benefits for initiates and adepts separately.  As an added bonus, the Ranger gets a revision that makes its Animal Companion talent the same as the Druid's (if they keep it at two talents they gain a list of animal-buffing spells, or they can choose to spend only 1 talent on it and they get the companion every other battle).  Another interesting twist is that the spellcasting talents grants a mini spell list but by default only give you daily powers.  Druids can spend feats to pick up at-will and (with Terrain Caster) 1/battle spells.  The class design really does seem to strike a balance between covering everything that Druids have historically done without having to balance CoDzilla against the other classes.

The Monk is probably the most complex of the "martial" classes, rivaling some of the more complex spellcasters.  Monks use attack forms that consist of an opening attack, a flow attack, and a finishing attack.  Each form consists of a theme, but the fun of playing a Monk is mixing and matching your forms.  Using the opening attack from Dance of the Mantis to quickly get into melee range, following it up with the flow attack from Claws of the Panther to hit multiple guys, and then finishing it up with Three Cunning Tricksters for some defensive retaliation goodness.  You also gain a cumulative +1 bonus to AC after each step in your form, which resets back once you use another opening.  It does a great job of emulating movement while using a very different mechanic than the Rogue's momentum.  Monks also get a pool of Ki that they can use to modify their natural die roll by +/-1 (many forms use natural result triggers, but it's also nice for critting and triggering two weapon fighting), and in addition to that each talent grants an option for using Ki and the forms have feats that use Ki.  So you've got the sequential form-based tactics to think about round-by-round as well as a daily resource in Ki to use when you really need a little extra oomph!  The Monk is a lot of fun to play, and does a great job of emulating wire-fu martial arts.

The Necromancer is a breath of fresh air (except, you know, in the literal sense) because D&D has never done this archetype justice.  13th Age hits it out of the park.  You've got an improvisational talent (Cackling Soliloquist) that calls to mind Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations but with much more awesome flavor, one that lets you speak with the dead, a Redeemer talent that frees the souls of the undead you utilize (releasing a burst of holy energy when they're destroyed), you can gain a skeletal companion much like a Druid or Ranger get an animal companion (except you can set yours on fire with the right feat!), you can kill enemies that are already close to death with a quick action, and finally a talent called Sorta Dead which grants you the benefits of being Undead when it's convenient (or not, if it's not), and lets you roll a save when you die to heal instead.  Largely it's a fairly meat-and-potatoes spellcaster from a mechanical standpoint, with a heavy focus on summoning.  There are some surprising support spells in their list too (Necromancers can heal, but of course they do so by siphoning off someone else's life force!), and transmutation spells that offer various undead forms, and a surprising variety of plays on necromantic energy (things like unholy blasts and rotting curses).  And then there's my personal favorite, a spell that targets mooks by animating their own skeletons and causing them to burst forth from their bodies, granting you a shiny (well, bloody and messy probably) new skeletal minion.

Finally, we have the Occultist.  That's THE Occultist, because the default fluff is that there's only one.  Basically she's a powerful spellcaster that rearranges reality to suit her whims.  Like the Commander, he mostly focuses on interrupt actions.  The gist is that you spend your standard action to gather your Focus, and then you'll spend your Focus on someone else's turn to either make reality more favorable to your allies or make things suck even more for your enemies.  Reality also works a little differently for the Occultist, who recharges spells just a bit differently from normal people (she doesn't necessarily recharge the same spell, but rather that spell slot), and because he tends to send his intellect all manner of places that's not his physical body, he receives magical healing a turn late.  The Occultist sounds like a very interesting support character, with perhaps more of a damage focus than the Commander, and to use 4E roles can be a neat mix of leader (helps allies) and controller (screws over enemies).

Chapter 2:  Multiclassing
As expected, 13th Age multiclassing is not as straightforward as most other mechanics for the system.  The classes are just too diverse for a simple formula, and the designers are (rightly) too concerned with balance to allow a min/max focused solution that would run roughshod over other PCs.  Each class has details for making 1st level multiclassed characters (the new classes have a line for it right in their level progression chart), and otherwise a multiclass character gains spells or other powers one level lower than their current level.  So a 4th level Fighter/Wizard would have the maneuver pool of a 3rd level Fighter and the spells of a 3rd level Wizard.  You get the base AC of whichever class is better for a given armor type (though penalties still exist if, for example, you cast Wizard spells while wearing heavy armor), and you average your base HP (rounding down AFTER you multiply for your level) and recovery die (the die type rounds up).  Your weapon damage die drops UNLESS both of your classes are from a list of "skilled warriors," and the ability score you use is your "key modifier."  There's a big key modifier table for each class combination that ensures each multiclass character has to care about two ability scores.  Your key modifier is the lowest of the two indicated ability scores, and is used in place of either score for the purposes of making attacks and damage.  The math is really well-done for the most part; for example, Fighter/Wizard and Fighter/Sorcerer key modifiers are Dex/Int and Dex/Cha, respectively.  Str certainly would have been more intuitive, but that would result in a character that wants to keep two scores high, neither of which contribute to AC.  As Dex is an AC boosting stat you won't get gimped for these combinations.

Still, multiclassing generally won't get you an overpowered character.  Quite the contrary; the designers flat out state that most of the time a multiclass character will probably have less raw power, but more diversity.  They also advise doing the simple talent swaps from the core rulebook if that fits your concept well enough; multiclasing is mostly for those who have a concept that they just can't achieve any other way.

Part 2 of my overview of 13 True Ways features chapters 3-6.  Yep, that's a lot more chapters than Part 1, but the class chapters are very meaty so I'm cutting this post off here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

13th Age Gnome Illusionist (RAW)

I had a random thought the other day about the lack of illusion spells in 13th Age and the fact that of all the Wizard specialist builds Illusionist has (arguably) been the most popular historically, and yet the only one we've gotten is the Necromancer (thanks to 13 True Ways).  Don't take that as a complaint against the Necromancer; it's never been well done (or even fully realized) in D&D, but 13th Age has knocked it out of the park!

Speaking of which, a review/impressions of 13 True Ways is forthcoming (as a Kickstarter backer I've had the PDF since the 27th), but I'm still reading through it.  Since it doesn't include an Illusionist, and none of the popular fan-made classes have been an Illusionist, I was thinking about how one might approach the archetype in 13th Age.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that you can make one pretty much using the existing material.  Here is one such approach.  I'm leaving out Icons, Backgrounds, and OUT because it's more fun for a player to come up with that stuff on their own.  The point of this post is more to illustrate a concept than to provide a finished character.

Race: Gnome
Class: Bard
Level: 1

Ability Scores (tinker as desired):
Str 8, Dex 16 (class), Con 10, Int 18 (race), Wis 14, Cha 12

AC: 15
PD: 11
MD: 14
HP: 21

Recovery: 1d8+0

Loremaster (replace Cha with Int, choose either of the other two benefits)
Battle Skald
Jack of Spells

Since Illusionists are traditionally Intelligence-based, it seemed appropriate to do the same here despite using the Bard class.  Conveniently, Loremaster ensures that there's no conflict here.  Battle Skald might seem like an odd choice but one of the key concepts of this build is that Battle Chant is going to be flavored as your bread-and-butter at-will illusions.  What exactly the illusion does will depend on the roll, and the damage can represent the loss of morale, growing frustration or fear, or simply the illusion causing the target to open their defenses such that an ally can exploit it.  Part of the fun of playing an Illusionist is letting your creativity run wild; even in D&D where options are usually pretty rigidly defined, illusion spells have always been an oasis of free-form improvisation.

Racial Powers:
Minor Illusions

Powers and Spells:
Battle Chant
Terror (Necromancer), Blur (Wizard), or Ways of the Dark (Druid)

Stay Strong!, Move It!, We Need You!

So we've already established that Battle Chant will be flavored as your every day illusions.  What else do illusions do mechanically?  Well, they're intrinsically all about confusing your opponents and so any spell that applies the Confused condition is pure gold.  Bards do a lot of this, and Befuddle is your first workhorse.  You've got a few options for Jack of Spells, but Terror does a good job of emulating a terrifying illusion that causes any sane person to flee.  Blur represents an illusion applied to yourself (and could provide a useful defensive boost since this build is pretty squishy), and Ways of the Dark is a good way of creating the illusion that you (the caster) aren't even there.

As far as Battle Cries are concerned, notice that we're not taking the staple Pull It Together!  Illusionists aren't really about healing, so as tempting as it is the pick this up it's not really on-theme.  Illusions can, however, distract an enemy long enough to let an ally disengage or make a save, and Stay Strong! could represent a defensive illusion along the lines of Blur or Mirror Image, or it could also simply be a distracting illusion.

Feats:  Battle Chant

Even if Illusionists are more about control and misdirection, you still want to contribute to damage.  HP are an abstraction anyways, so keep in mind that you're not necessarily dealing physical wounds and play that up.  If you're the one to deal the "killing blow" to an enemy, try to think more along the lines of taking them out of the conflict as opposed to actually knocking them unconscious.  A distracted mind could lead to physical harm, sure, but it can be just as interesting if the enemy flees out of fear, or simply because they're chasing something that's not there!

Level 5

So let's check in with our Gnome Illusionist now that we've achieved Champion tier.  While it doesn't matter quite yet with the array I've chosen (all evens), at level 4 we've boosted INT because it's the primary attack ability of the Loremaster Bard, as well as the Wizard and Necromancer, two highly useful classes to Jack spells from.  It's also probably a good idea to boost WIS (the Cleric and Druid both offer attractive options for Spell-Jacking as well, not to mention that it contributes to AC) and Dex (again, we're thinking about AC here but Initiative is also important, and besides that if you ever need to actually hit something with a melee weapon you can use Dex for that as a Bard).

Now let's see what's changed.

3rd Level Spells:
Vicious Mockery
Song of Spilt Blood

5th Level Spells:
Battle Chant
Terror (Necromancer)
AND/OR Cause Fear (Cleric)
AND/OR Ways of the Dark (Druid)
AND/OR one of the following Wizard spells:
Color Spray

Battle Cries:
Take Heart!
Move It!
Stay Strong!
It's All Yours!

1. Battle Chant (A)
2. Battle Skald (A)
3. It's All Yours! (A)
4. Befuddle (A)
5. Jack of Spells (C)

Note that I've taken the Champion feat for Jack of Spells without first taking the Adventurer feat, as per the optional rule that GMs can allow players to take higher tier feats if they don't build off of the lower tier feat.  I don't consider the "use X ability in place of Y" feats particularly useful since you'll generally only get 1 spell from another class with these Talents, and they're usually Daily options.  Combined with the fact that spells are usually pretty accurate since they target PD or MD, I fail to see how a +2 1/day is that big of a deal (assuming you're trying to boost a WIS spell from the Cleric or Druid).  Not to mention the fact that most Illusionists will probably pick a Necromancer or Wizard spell anyways, and so everything you've got probably uses INT.  Thus, the Adventurer tier feat for Jack of Spells will either do nothing or not much (Jacking Terror from the Necromancer is probably your best bet), and so if your GM insists that you take it before the Champion feat they're just being a jerk.

Level 10

So what does this Illusionist look like at the end game?  Let's find out!

Spells (all 9th Level):
Battle Chant
Vicious Mockery
Song of Spilt Blood
Song of Victory
Song of Destinies
Terror (Necromancer)
Cause Fear (Cleric)
one of the previously mentioned Wizard spells
OR Ways of the Dark (Druid)

By the time you reach Epic tier you should probably have BOTH Terror and Cause Fear because the concept of creating an illusion so frightening that your opponent wets their pants and runs for the hills is just too fun to pass up.  The Wizard offers a ton of strong options that can be flavored as Illusion spells, but if you want an at-will alternative to Battle Chant you'll probably want to pick up Ways of the Dark from the Druid.  Although Color Spray just might be good enough as a cyclic spell, since by now you'll have enough options to keep you pretty busy.

The songs might come across as a bit odd on an Illusionist, but you don't have to literally sing them.  Just say they're illusions that require some concentration to sustain.  Some of these are a bit of a stretch, but ultimately I went with the options that fit the concept best, if not 100% perfectly.  Again, I'll reiterate that even though you're using the Bard class you'll mostly be staying away from healing options.  You might want to just tell your party that you're playing an Illusionist and re-name all of your spells so they don't get false expectations when they hear you say "Bard."

Battle Cries:
Take Heart!
Move It!
Stay Strong!
It's All Yours!
Victory is Ours!
They Fall Before Us!
The Time is Now!

1. Battle Chant (A)
2. Battle Skald (A)
3. It's All Yours! (A)
4. Befuddle (A)
5. Jack of Spells (C)
6. Battle Skald (C)
7. It's All Yours! (C)
8. Jack of Spells (E)
9. They Fall Before Us! (E)
10. Confounding (C)

Obviously feats are where an individual player has the most leeway.  They're designed to allow you to specialize in certain areas, and Bards (especially those with Jack of Spells) tend to have a lot of options that can be improved via feats.  The most important feats are Jack of Spells (because other classes have excellent options that can easily be flavored as Illusions, and having a bunch of stuff that fits well also serves to dilute those options (like some of the songs) that are a bit more borderline) and that first Battle Chant feat (because you'll really want to avoid swinging a melee weapon; an Illusionist is a spellcaster, and you're trying to create the feel of a Wizard more than a duelist Bard!).  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The One Ring Official Updates

As some of you may know, several months ago Cubicle 7 announced that they were printing a revised version of the core rulebook for The One Ring.  Well, pre-orders are now open and the PDF is available right now as well.  Whereas the original printing was a boxed set with two softcover books (an Adventurer's Book and a Loremaster's Book), the new core book is a single hardback volume.  It's not quite a second edition, as it's been mostly re-organized so that the two books are now combined into one, and individual topics are not split up and difficult to find anymore.  Considering that the book's organization and index were the biggest criticisms of the system when it was released, this is a huge improvement.  If anyone has been on the fence about getting into TOR, now is the time to jump on board.

Even if it's not a second edition, there have been some errata incorporated into the new printing.  A few specific player options have been re-balanced (i.e. the notoriously underpowered Beorning Cultural Blessing has been given a boost, and the even more notoriously overpowered King's Blade has been hit with the nerf bat, bringing it down to parity with other Rewards and eliminating the "Hobbit uber-swordman" issue).  Preliminary rolls have been simplified into a unified mechanic between the three heroic ventures (Journeys, Combat, and Encounters), which was admittedly a houserule that the game's designer, Francesco Nepitello, had posted on his blog for a while.  Now it's official.  Favored skills are cheaper to upgrade, Fatigue from traveling gear has been increased, and the effects of the Intimidate Foe and Rally Comrades actions have been given a boost, making them more competitive options in combat.  Hazards have been re-worked, as they now trigger when an Eye is rolled on any Fatigue test (succeed or fail), and the consequences have been streamlined into a table that you can then narrate (instead of having dozens of narrative examples scattered everywhere with sometimes similar effects).

All in all, it polishes up what is one of the most well-designed licensed RPGs I've seen.  If you already have the original boxed set and don't plan on purchasing the new core book, never fear!  All of the updates have been posted as a free PDF.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fate Accelerated Edition: Thoughts After Playing

I picked up the PDF for Fate Accelerated Edition a while back, and wrote a "first impressions" review of it.  As I said in the review I couldn't see myself running the game in the near future, largely because I've got so many other things I want to run.  But one of the players in my group was intrigued by it, bought it, and decided to run a three session mini campaign to test drive it.

The setting was a modern day alternate universe where the Cold War never ended, and recently Russian terrorists launched nuclear warheads at many major cities across the globe.  The twist is that it was combined with a bio-weapon, and the resulting disease (called RadPox) wiped out most of the global population.  The PCs began in Missoula, Montana.  We had an interesting array of characters, which is perhaps to be expected from a modern game without a tight thematic focus (i.e. spies, or dungeon delvers, or fringers trying to get by under the radar of the Empire/Alliance, etc.).  My own character was an old man (under description I wrote "current Harrison Ford") with the aspects Retired Border Patrol Ranger - Canadian Border (high concept), I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit (trouble), Sucker For a Pretty Face, Bruce Collins Is My Oldest Friend (refers to an NPC), and My Dead Brother's Shotgun.  The other PCs were a large animal veterinarian and a quirky accordion player (part of a duo with an NPC mandolin player; like I said, quirky).  The premise was that we were leaving Montana because of the imminent onset of winter, headed south to pursue rumors of a "holy land."

Approaches are a great narrative "shortcut," but they definitely have their limitations.  While it's easy to liken them to ability scores in D&D, they feel a bit more like watered down backgrounds in 13th Age.  That is to say, they represent a philosophy or broad thematic archetype much more than a physical trait (and I say "watered down" in that it lacks the specificity and detail of a good 13th Age background, which isn't to say that it's "worse").  So having a high Sneaky approach doesn't just make you the stealthy (Dex) guy, but you're good at tricking people or lying to them in social situations as well.  One big strength is right there in the name: it encourages players to think about different ways to approach a situation.  Different GMs will draw the line differently insofar as how much they'll allow a PC to justify a shaky or borderline approach; it seems like too much leniency can lead to approach-spamming, whereas strict adherence to the GMs vision can stifle creativity.

There are two big issues that I have with approaches in play.  The first is that sometimes (at least once per session) a PC will try something that doesn't neatly fit one of the approaches.  It might not even kind of fit one of them.  At that point you just have to try to shoehorn it into a category, which can feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole.  It's awkward.  It also means that certain approaches (Clever, Careful, and perhaps Forceful) tend to be more useful because it's easier to justify "off" actions as being one of those.  Sneaky and Flashy seemed to be noticeably more limited than the others.  It's worth mentioning that my character's highest approach was Sneaky, and the accordion player's was Flashy, and we both ended up using them less frequently than we would have expected.  In contrast, the vet had Clever at the top and probably used it about half the time.

My second issue is unavoidable given the abstracted, streamlined nature of approaches, and it's simply that sometimes suspension of disbelief can be strained.  Skill systems imply previous experience at a given task, but with approaches your potency with the same task will vary depending on which angle you're coming from.  For example, I ended up using no less than 4 different approaches at different times to shoot a shotgun.  Charging in guns blazing was Forceful, an ambush was Sneaky, a "quick draw" type situation was Quick, and most of the time it was assumed shots were aimed, and so Careful seemed most appropriate.  Now I don't know about you, but I tend to be more accurate when I actually aim.  Problem was, my PC's Careful was only rated at +1, and so I ran into this strange situation where I was more effective making more reckless shots.  Fortunately the GM awarded us a milestone after session 2, and so I boosted Careful to +2.

Aspects and The Fate Point Meta-game
At its heart this game is all about the Fate Point economy.  Oftentimes it would be necessary to invoke multiple Aspects in order to succeed at a roll, and so having more Aspects is useful, even if they're redundant.  Indeed, redundancy can be really useful if the Aspects apply to common situations!  I think more ideally though is that PCs should make judicious use of the Create Advantage action to get more Aspects into play, and while we didn't do that as much as we probably should have it probably becomes habitual the more you play.

The extent of the meta-game, and how players and their characters might have very different goals, really clicked for me in session 3 last night.  The climactic final battle was an EPIC firefight, and I honestly thought it would end up being a TPK.  Anyways, at one point I got shot at and hit for 1 shift, and decided to compel an Aspect against myself to turn it into a 3 shift hit so I could get a Fate Point out of the deal that would help me out with offense later.  Yep, that's right, me as a player wanted my character to get more hurt, and the game actually rewarded me for it.

While a +2 bonus might not seem like much, especially if you come from a d20 background, Aspects (and sometimes Stunts) will determine whether you succeed or fail more often than what you roll on the dice.  The results for a pool of Fate dice ends up being between -2 and 2 most of the time.  We calculated a result of +4 on the dice as happening 1.25% of the time, which is sobering considering a natural 20 on a d20 happens 5% of the time.  Exciting rolls are the exception (such as when I rolled +4 on my attack when the enemy's defense roll was -3), and so you really have to embrace Aspects as your primary "success currency."

What hit home in that third session, when I tried to get my character hurt to give him more Fate Points, is that the player's job is to orchestrate the tempo of their character's story as much as it is to roleplay them.  The player can contribute to deciding when the character gets beat down, all so that they can come back swinging later, when the stakes are higher.  It's an interesting twist, for better or worse, that can really only occur in a game with Fate Points (or Plot Points; hopefully I'll get to play Cortex+ Firefly soon!) as the game's major currency.

I wrote up my first Stunt using the guidelines in Fate Accelerated Edition, but I found that implementation really dull.  Yes, a +2 bonus is a pretty big deal in Fate, but when everything of consequence boils down to "another +2!", my interest starts to wane.  Sure, the game is more about how you use the elements that give you the bonus, but there's already plenty of that with Aspects.  If something is called a "Stunt," I want it to feel cool.  Besides that, I find the "fill in the blank" statements of the FAE stunts to be pretty clunky.  And the +2 modifier makes it feel like part of a skill system tacked onto the more abstract approach-based system.

The easy solution is to port in some of the ideas from Fate Core and the Fate System Toolkit when you're making your Stunts.  Some of these also boil down to a situational +2 bonuses, but at least the wording is more free-form and so the stunts feel more organic.  In addition to the modifier, Fate Core also outlines examples for creating rules exceptions, using balancing mechanisms like "once per session I can..." and for creating Stunt "trees" with effects that build off of each other.  The Fate System Toolkit really goes into detail with Stunt costs, broader Stunts with smaller bonuses, triggered Stunts, combined Stunts, and tying Stunts to Aspects.  Essentially as long as you keep in mind the refresh equivalency you have more flexibility in creating balanced Stunts.  While some of these options might be considered to crunchy for FAE by some, others are just as simple (if not moreso) than the default FAE Stunts.

Final Thoughts
I can see why Fate is so popular, but it definitely requires a different mindset to play than most traditional games (even traditional/narrative hybrids like 13th Age and Edge of the Empire).  We had a bit of a rocky transition period that made me really glad that my GM went with a 3-session arc; the first session was a messy disaster where we struggled to fully use the system (half the group are new to RPGs, having just played one campaign of Edge of the Empire that lasted a few months), the second went fairly smoothly, and in the third session things really started to click.

I don't see Fate becoming my go-to system (I prefer medium crunch, hybrid narrative/traditional games), but it was definitely an interesting change of pace and it makes me excited to try out Firefly (Cortex+ seems very similar to Fate).  This also wasn't the last time I'll play it, though.  In fact, I'll GM the next mini-campaign for this group, and at some point we'll probably have the main group try it out.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Number Inflation in 13th Age

Considering how frequently I write about it on this blog (with the exception of the past couple of months; blame a creative dry spell), it should come as no surprise that 13th Age is one of my favorite RPGs right now.  My first long-term campaign went up to 5th level (barely), but it stretched each level out over a long period of time.  An Incremental Advance every 2-3 sessions.  For our current campaign (which features rotating GMs), we've been awarding an Incremental Advance every session, and after the 3rd one we gain a level.  We've just now reached the same point at which I ended the last campaign - level 5 - but one of the explicit goals has been to experience high level play.

I already dislike it.  Granted I've never preferred high level play in D&D, but 13th Age is especially egregious with its number inflation.  Unfortunately, it's sort of a double-edged sword because the numbers scale the way that they do precisely to maintain an even progression over the course of a PC's adventuring career.  In other words, damage scales at about the same rate as HP.  Since you gain a weapon die for damage every level, HP has to become pretty inflated to keep up.  While I haven't crunched the numbers in detail, my experience seems to be that PCs will drop after suffering around the same number of hits from an appropriately challenging foe regardless of level.  In most editions of D&D it seemed like low-level characters were quite fragile, but at higher levels they could soak up more attacks due to their increasingly-inflating HP (to the point that high-level combat skewed even further toward "rocket tag" of save or die/suck abilities to bypass HP entirely).  This smooth-scaling in 13th Age is desirable to me, but I really wish it could be more tightly bounded (like, and I can't believe I'm saying this, D&D 5E).

So why is this even a big deal?  Well, mostly because when you start dealing with bigger numbers, the math gets just a tad slower.  I've noticed that my PC's turns go a little slower than at low levels (though at least one player doesn't think it's a big deal), but the real annoyance has been GMing.  I've got at least as many monsters to run as there are PCs in the party (and usually more), and I like to get through NPC turns quickly to maintain momentum.  I feel like those few extra seconds per NPC (per turn) starts to add up, and I occasionally find that it distracts me from interesting tactical and narrative embellishments in combat.

A Possible Solution

Obviously I'm not going to stop playing 13th Age because of this.  And as much as I prefer the alternative of "bounded accuracy" espoused by D&D 5E, from what I've seen of 5E so far 13th Age simply hits way more of my other preferences in an RPG.  Besides that, my group has been instictively negative toward 5E despite knowing little to nothing about it.

Thus, I'd like to try to make high-level play in 13th Age more manageable.  Based on the numbers that were being thrown around in last night's session (again, this is at level 5), I'm considering simply rounding monster HP and player damage to the nearest 5.  None of this "always round down in D&D" legacy crap, either.  Standard rounding rules simply make more sense because theoretically you should be rounding up about as often as you round down, and so your rounding would effectively "cancel" each other out.  Obviously results will skew slightly up or down in any given combat, but is this really any different from earlier editions of D&D where monsters got variable HP by rolling Hit Dice?


Barbarian: "I crit for 94 damage" (because that literally happened last night, on the first attack, vs a 200 HP dragon)

GM: mentally rounds that up to 95 and notes that the dragon has 105 HP left

Wizard: "I deal 32 damage with Ray of Frost."

GM: Rounds that down to 30, so the dragon's at 75 now.

Multiples of 5 are easy, because we deal with them every single day.  I have to think for a couple of seconds longer when I subtract 94 from 200, and if I'm starting from a value that's not an easy multiple it takes longer still.  Like, say, subtracting 32 from that dragon that now has 106 HP if tracked by RAW.  In my head I would generally do this in 2 steps by first subtracting 30 from 106, and then subtracting 2 from 76.  Which is tougher if I'm dealing with odd numbers, and tougher still when one or more players is talking (especially if they're correcting their damage, whether that's from math errors or forgotten bonuses.  Sometimes I have to start the mental math over from scratch when that happens).

Some people might be faster at mental math than me, and others still might not be but don't mind the cumulative time lost.  For me though?  Rounding seems like a really promising solution, because those huge numbers are just an unnecessary amount of granularity.

The Gumshoe Precedent

After coming up with this solution, I was reminded of a rule from the Gumshoe game "Night's Black Agents."  To quote from page 215 which is a summary of Hit Threshold Modifiers: "In games using the full range of options and tactical rules, Hit Thresholds can vary widely.  Try to rebalance those values if you can: if one combatant has a Hit Threshold of 7 and one has a Hit Threshold of 9, run their combat as if they had Hit Thresholds of 3 and 5, respectively.  This keeps fights shorter and more dangerous, and therefore more exciting."

This is particularly useful to keep in mind in Night's Black Agents because the die that you use to resolve actions is a d6.  The principle isn't as mechanically necessary in 13th Age, but it sure helps to simplify that math.  You're effectively treating each increment of 5 as a value of 1, turning a 100 HP creature into one with effectively 20 HP.  That 30 damage attack becomes 6 damage.  14 out of 20 is the exact same ratio as 70 out of 100.

Once you get into Epic tier and the numbers get higher still, it will become practical to mentally round to the nearest 10.  I'm not quite sure where the best cut off points will be (I haven't playtested this yet), but I'm thinking it will probably feel pretty intuitive once you start dealing with numbers of a certain size.

Also worth noting is that you don't have to necessarily institute a sweeping house rule for this.  You don't even have to tell your players you're doing it.  Just do the conversion to simplify the math, and they may never be the wiser.  It's the best of both worlds, actually:  your players get to feel uber powerful by throwing around high damage attacks, but by rounding the values you don't have to deal with the mathematical challenges of quickly adding and subtracting high value numbers to the nearest one.

Magic Item Vault

Here are a handful of magic items that I worked up for the PCs in my game.

Champion Tier Magic Items

Dwarven Cloak
+2 to PD

You can enter stone and walk in it as if it were a very thick fluid, but you can't "swim."

Quirk: You season your food with sand and small bits of stone.

Lifedrinker (sword)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: When you kill the target the blade absorbs its soul, which you can use to either heal using a recovery, or you can animate a corpse* that you touch.

Quirk: Your beverage of choice: blood.

*When you animate a corpse you create a zombie mook of the same level as the original creature.

Level  Attack  Damage  HP  AC  PD  MD
1          +5           3          10    14    12    8
2          +6           4          12    15    13    9
3          +7           5          15    16    14    10
4          +8           6          18    17    15    11
5          +9           8          23    18    16    12
6          +10         10        28    19    17    13
7          +11         16        33    20    18    14
8          +12         20        42    21    19    15
9          +13         18        52    22    20    16
10        +14         34        61    23    21    17

Demonbane Axe  (axe)
+2 to attack and damage

Always: The axe blade glows red when demons are nearby, and its surface depicts a compass that points to the nearest hellhole.

1/battle: +4 to attack and +1d12 damage (hit or miss) when attacking a demon.

Quirk: You talk to fire.

Deflection Staff  (staff)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 16+: When you're hit with an attack, take half damage and the attacker takes half.  If the attack inflicts a condition, roll a normal save; on a success, the attacker suffers it instead of you.

Quirk: You constantly admire yourself in mirrors.

Coatl Ring

Recharge 6+: At the start of your turn roll a save against one effect.

Always: When falling from a great distance, you float to the ground unharmed.

Quirk: You adorn yourself in bright feathers.

Iron's Will (Hammer)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: As a quick action you can magnetize the hammer and pull a metal weapon out of a foe's hand, or pull and enemy wearing metal armor into engagement.

Quirk: you like to grab objects out of people's hands.

Captain Crow's Glaive (2-handed reach weapon)
+2 to attack and damage

The first time you roll a natural even miss each battle make a magi's lightning chain attack:  +11 vs PD - 15 lightning damage and each natural even attack lets you target an additional creature.

Quirk: The glaive wants to be returned to the hands of an ogre mage...