Saturday, December 13, 2014

Epic Tier 13th Age

This past week my Tuesday group finished our 1-10th level campaign of 13th Age.  I've talked about this before, but for this campaign we rotated GMs every adventure (3-4 sessions) and allowed a roster of multiple characters per player, choosing PCs at the beginning of each adventure.  Our goals for this campaign were threefold: 1) to give more of our group a feel for GMing 13th Age, 2) to play around with different combinations of characters (particularly the new stuff in 13 True Ways), and 3) to see how Epic Tier plays out.

For what it's worth, I've never liked Epic Tier in D&D.  In 3rd and 4th Edition once a character got into the teens, which wasn't even Epic Tier yet, things got too complicated and/or balance suffered.  On paper 13th Age seems like it might avoid the worst of this.  Most notably, balance suffers a LOT less than in D&D, but it still wasn't perfect.

The 13th Age encounter building chart is a nifty thing, though it does have its quirks.  It didn't take me long to realize that "fair fights" weren't particularly dangerous.  Last year in my campaign that ran from 1st to 5th level I got into the habit of starting with double-strength encounters, but I'd go up to triple-strength and the PCs managed to win those.  "Fair" fights would end up being handily dispatched before the Escalation Die even hit 3.

But a strange thing happened as we started gaining levels.  The encounter building chart says that in Champion Tier a "fair" fight is an equal number of normal monsters of character level +1 (instead of character level).  In epic, this becomes character level +2.  Odd, to be sure, but certainly this accounts for the fact that while PC numbers and monster numbers keep pace, PCs get more toys with more synergy, which give them an edge.  Except that's not quite how I've found things to work.  A lot of higher level monsters ALSO get improved nastier abilities, and it's explicitly stated that the encounter-building math only takes into account raw numbers and NOT special abilities.  It's what makes a 4th level dragon better than a 4th level hobgoblin.

Using the Champion tier guidelines as-is, I noticed things getting a lot tougher.  My double-strength fights, which were baseline in adventurer tier, really put the party through the ringer.  Encounters of 1.5 strength were more reasonable.  Then came Epic.  One of the first Epic encounters that I put the PCs up against was a pair of leveled-up Frost Giants from the Bestiary (all damage was scaled exactly using the monster's percent damage compared with the baseline stat chart).  It was a "fair" fight exactly, and less than what I'd planned on having them face (they bypassed a lot of potential enemies and didn't raise any alarms).  Within one round the wizard was dead.  The (optimized, animal companion) ranger didn't last much longer.  That's half the party down, and only the chaos mage's Unsummoning spell allowed the rest to actually win.  I was pretty shocked, to say the least.

I talked this over with the group and we agreed that whoever was GMing would use the Adventurer-tier challenge levels from the chart.  That is to say, a "fair" fight at 9th level would be a number of normal 9th level enemies equal to the PCs, instead of 11th level monsters.  For the most part things worked pretty much as they had in Adventurer tier.  The "fair" fights usually weren't too much of a problem, but double-strength encounters were pretty challenging.  Anything over that was potentially campaign-loss-worthy.

In other words, the Epic tier math still works great from a balance standpoint; it's just the encounter building guidelines that are off.  And I can live with that.

That said, I still don't like Epic tier.  Number inflation is a huge problem for me (I've written about this from a GM's perspective before), with the disclaimer that most of my group doesn't have a problem with it.  Everyone's turns simply take a lot longer to resolve, with the end result being fights that last about as long as they did in 4E.  No, really, we've had 2 hour long fights in 13th Age, and a lot of the PCs are playing "simple" classes.

I'll use my own archer ranger as an example.  Her baseline attack damage with double ranged attack is 10d6+18.  I've simplified it further to 4d10+39 (ever since Champion tier I've been rolling 4 dice at even levels, 5 at odd levels).  There's more than a trivial pause to add everything up, especially when damage starts to get added from improvisational stunts, crits, or other PC abilities, not to mention the fact that most of the time she gets a 2nd attack off.  It simply takes longer than adding 2d6+4.  I can do that almost instantaneously, and then add some narrative description to boot.

Worse is that almost everyone else in my group refuses to use dice conventions.  They'd rather roll 10 (or more, for certain abilities and spells) dice and that takes even longer to add up.  That might be a problem specific to my group, but it's still something that kills Epic for me.

In some ways I'd rather run a campaign from 1st to 5th level, awarding incremental advances every OTHER session and having it run the same amount of real time.  But on the other hand, I really like a lot of the higher-level abilities that PCs get without being an unbalanced mess.  Characters have enough options to feel like they can deal with almost anything, but the choice-paralysis and never-ending interrupts and minor actions of 4E are nowhere in sight.  I suppose it's fair to say that I have a conflicted relationship with Epic level 13th Age.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Plot Points" in 13th Age

Wow, this may have been my longest hiatus from writing in this blog.  Not much to say about that other than I've been busy, and that's included doing a whole lot of gaming.  Gaming to the point where I'm not in the mood to think about it at my leisure.  I suspect that as long as I keep up with all of my weekly games my posting rate will probably remain sparse, alas.

My Saturday group has been playing through the D&D 5e beginner box, and we've actually been having a blast so far.  While the point of this post isn't to review 5e, I mention it because of the Inspiration mechanic, which we're quite fond of.  Half of this group hasn't played 13th Age yet, and that's what we're going to be playing next.  While considering character options I couldn't help but think how much I'd miss Inspiration, and then the gears started turning about how I might be able to implement it in 13th Age without introducing 5e's Traits (which are largely redundant with Backgrounds, OUT, and Icons).

Ultimately Inspiration is a narrative carrot that serves the same purpose as Fate Points, or Plot Points in Cortex+.  While I get why Inspiration isn't cumulative, I think everyone in the group agreed that we prefer being able to bank 'points.'  The question still remains of how to earn those points, though.  I'm getting close to running Firefly with the Tuesday group, and I think Cortex+ really nailed it with Plot Points.  In that game characters have three Distinctions which can have up to 3 triggers.  Think of Distinctions like Aspects in Fate, or Traits in 5e.  It's a narrative phrase or concept that can either work to your benefit or detriment.  Whenever you roll a dice pool and a Distinction would be a boon for the action you can add a d8 to the pool.  The first trigger for all distinctions (which starts automatically unlocked) is that if the Distinction hinders you, you add a d4 to the pool instead of a d8, and you earn a Plot Point.  It's important to note that rolling a 1 has detrimental consequences in this game, and that d4 is going to make that really likely to occur.  That's why it gets added to your pool (possibly helping you a little) instead of the opposing pool.

This provides for interesting, dramatic stories because the player is self-handicapping their character with certain rolls in order to bank a benefit for later.  A character needs flaws in order to be interesting, and this mechanic provides a narrative incentive for players to play up their characters' flaws.  I think that it simply works better than the 5e and Fate versions (at least on paper).

So here's how I'd make it work in 13th Age.  Any time a Background would be a disadvantage for a given action, the player can opt to apply its negative value to the roll as a penalty.  Doing so grants the player a plot point, which can be spent later to re-roll any d20 roll.  Optionally if your OUT would be a hindrance you can take a -4 penalty in order to earn a plot point.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

13th Age Options: The Rogue

I've always really liked Rogues, and so it's a bit odd that it's one of the 13th Age classes I have the least experience with.  I've had three different players play one for just one (or a few) session(s) each, and two of them were dissatisfied.  Granted one of those players had a string of terrible dice luck for the few session he played (he went through multiple combats without hitting a single time), but that only highlighted one of the issues with the Rogue.  The other big three popular damage-dealing classes at my table who target AC (which is higher than PD/MD commonly targeted by spellcasters) all have ways to increase accuracy: the Barbarian rolls 2d20s while raging, the Ranger typically has either double attack and/or an animal companion, and the (shifter) Druid re-rolls the first missed beast form attack (and can also have an animal companion).  I'm not sure if I'd necessarily call the Monk a raw damage class, but even if you threw him in there Flurry grants more attacks and some of the Forms offer multi-attacks (or attacks at increased accuracy).  The Rogue, which was probably the most accurate of the weapon classes in 4E, depends on a single d20 roll.  The meager tricks able to ameliorate this either require a staggered enemy (Murderous with a feat, or Deadly Thrust), momentum (Sure Cut) which requires you to have hit already in the first place, or being engaged with more than one enemy (Slick Feint).  So a power that allows re-rolls was a priority for me to design.  

The even bigger glaring hole in the class as-written is more thematic than mechanical - the popular "sniper Rogue" is unsupported.  If the 13th Age designers set out to make a dashing melee swashbuckler they succeeded, but a lot of players expect Rogues to be pretty good at range as well, or at least have the option to go that route.  Thus the majority of this article supports that build.  

Finally, I thought a feat to enhance Swashbuckle was appropriate.  Despite being extremely cool, my players and I consider it the weakest of the improvisational talents since it not only requires momentum, but requires you to spend it.  We've found momentum to be extremely valuable in play, and sometimes tough to gain.  The costs associated with Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations, Tracker, Cackling Soliloquist, and Improbable Stunt are not as severe, and the one with the steepest limitation (Tracker) comes with a hefty background bonus to make up for it.  Swashbuckle can use some love.  My player who adored Improbable Stunt on his playtest Monk specifically avoided Swashbuckle because of its cost, despite liking the concept.


Swashbuckle Adventurer Feat: When you use Swashbuckle roll a normal save.  If you succeed you regain momentum after completing the stunt*.

*Now that I'm re-reading the talent, it's unclear whether the suggested attack you make as part of the stunt can regain momentum if it hits.  I had initially thought no since it's part of the same action, but if you interpret it differently then this feat isn't really needed.  The more I'm thinking about it the more I like that interpretation of Swashbuckle, though, since it puts it at much more even footing with the others.  I'll leave the feat up nevertheless for instructive purposes.  


New Rogue Talent

Sniper: You can now deal sneak attack damage with ranged attacks, provided you are hidden from the target.  To become hidden you need appropriate cover or concealment and you need to succeed at a skill check based on the environment (normal for low light and/or lots of hiding places, hard or even very hard for brightly lit areas with sparse cover).  Make this check as part of your move action.  When you attack from hidden, whether you hit or miss, you give away your position.
Adventurer: Once per battle you can use sneak attack without being hidden provided the target is engaged with one of your allies.
Champion: Once per battle you can attempt to hide using a quick action.  
Epic: Once per battle when you crit with a ranged attack it deals triple damage instead of double damage.


3rd Level Rogue Powers

Distracting Shot
Ranged attack
at-will
Target: one enemy engaged with an ally
Attack: Dexterity + level vs AC
Hit: WEAPON + Dexterity damage, and if your natural attack roll was even the target is Dazed.
Miss: damage equal to your level.

Covering Fire
Ranged Attack
at-will
Target: one enemy engaged with an ally
Attack: Dexterity + level vs AC
Hit: WEAPON + Dexterity damage and an engaged ally can either immediately pop free as a free action or gain a +2 bonus to their next melee attack against the target.
Miss: damage equal to your level.


5th Level Rogue Powers

Snap Shot
Momentum Power
At-will (once per round)
Interrupt action; you must spend your momentum
Trigger: an enemy moves to engage you in melee
Effect: make a basic ranged attack against the triggering enemy.  The attack deals half damage if it hits.
Special: you can't gain momentum from hitting with Snap Shot.
Champion: if the attack hits the triggering enemy is also Dazed.
Epic: The Snap Shot attack deals full damage.

I'm Quicker Than You
Momentum Power
at-will
Trigger: you miss with an attack
Effect: spend your momentum to re-roll the attack, but without sneak attack damage even if you qualified for it with the original attack.
Champion: you get your sneak attack damage with the re-rolled attack.
Epic: If the re-rolled attack was a natural even hit, regain momentum.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

13th Age Options: The Druid

It's been a while since I've written a 13th Age Options article (or, uh, posted much in general), so I thought I'd kick off the 13 True Ways classes with the Druid.  Not surprising since it's one of my favorite fantasy classes, especially the shapeshifter archetype.  Back in my initial review of 13 True Ways I hinted that I'd be doing an in-depth breakdown of the Druid class.  This is not that article, because quite frankly the class is complicated enough that I don't yet feel that I've fully digested everything yet.  This is despite playing a Druid in one of my current games.  In brief though, the sense that I've gotten from that experience so far (at least for the build I'm using, which is Shifter Adept and Terrain Caster Initiate) is that the Druid looks slightly weak on paper but in practice seems to perform about average.  I've got to watch my recoveries a bit more than most, but overall I feel pretty competent.

Shifter is interesting because it allows you to take the chassis of a spellcaster (no joke; instead of having decent defenses, HP, and recoveries like the Cleric, the Druid is at Wizard/Sorcerer level) and turn it into a melee fighter.  The only intrinsic bonus you get is the fact that Beast Form Attack offers really great damage per round (DPR).  So you're basically a glass cannon, particularly at low levels.  But that's where Aspects come in.  Aspects are limited-use (recharge for Adepts) and give you various mechanical bonuses while in beast form to model the differences between various animal forms.  Bear form makes you tougher and lets you mow through mooks, leopard form makes you quick and opportunistic, etc.  The key is that almost every form provides access to a stackable bonus to AC and PD (and sometimes MD).  Pop one aspect and now you've at least got Bard/Rogue level AC.  Take the feat(s) that let you stack aspects and you can even be somewhat tanky with the right ones.  While this was my hunch upon reading them, play experience has confirmed that a defense bonus is pretty much a necessity when designing Aspects.  Anything you transform into should have baseline toughness better than a spellcaster.

The existing Aspects are all really cool.  There were a couple that I initially considered underpowered and didn't think I'd take, but on a whim I used them with my character and found them to be really fun.  There's a nice mix of standard beasts like bears, tigers, and wolverines as well as more magical stuff like giant mantises, owlbears, and behemoths.  The one glaring hole is the lack of the obvious Wolf Aspect, and mechanically there's a paucity of control and mobility.  Basically, the published Aspects are very focused on boosting raw damage, durability, or both.  I figured I'd fix that by making Wolf Aspect more control-heavy (as well as making natural odd rolls a little more exciting).  It naturally rewards "pack tactics" as well.  I imagine it would be quite fun to combine with Animal Companion Initiate (sidebar: while Shifter Adept is really cool, I'm convinced that Shifter Initiate is the weakest of the initiate options, to the point where it's probably not worth taking).  As a counterpoint to Wolf Aspect I've added another magical beast, the Blink Dog (mostly because they're underrated).  This one's very focused on both mobility and defenses, making it the ideal "striker" Aspect.  It'll be quite effective at getting behind enemy lines to the priority target(s) and dealing with them.  It can also zip around the battlefield giving it a similar feel to a Monk or Rogue (or a 4E Predator Druid).

Aside from the new Aspects I also felt the need to add a general feat for boosting AC in beast form.  This will reduce the guilt for not choosing the Warrior Druid talent just to keep up with melee defenses, and it will give Shifters an easier time at low levels when they only have a couple of Aspects.  It should also let players feel like they don't have to pick up the more defensive Aspects just to keep up, missing out on offensive Aspects that they might rather take.  It might verge onto "must have" territory just a little bit, but the published Shifter feats aren't really very high-impact at low levels anyways because you'll need to stretch few Aspects out over a full day instead of stacking them.  If you're spending two Talents on Shifter, you should have some decent low-level feat choices.  Balance-wise, it's functionally identical to the Warrior Druid adventurer feat except that it only applies in beast form (as opposed to always), so I certainly wouldn't call it "overpowered."

After analyzing the Druid a bit more in-depth, comparing it to other classes, and some discussion online I've decided that a "Natural Armor" feat isn't quite what the class needs.  In fact, I think a reversion to the playtest Druid's base defensive stats is in order.  Thus, I've decided on the following suggested house rule to bring the 13th Age Druid up to consistency with tradition as a physically tougher spellcaster, if not one that's armored as well as a Cleric.

House Rule Revisions to Base Class

Revised Druid Armor Table

Type        Base AC        Attack Penalty
None            10                       -
Light            12*                     -
Heavy          14                     -2
Shield          +1                     -2*

Revised Druid Hit Points

Change from 6 + Con mod to 7 + Con mod.

Revisions to Warrior Druid

Your AC in light armor is 14 instead of 12 like most other Druids.
Your base hit points are 8 + Con mod instead of 7 + Con mod.


New Shifter Aspects


Wolf Aspect
Initiate Effect: Gain a +2 bonus to PD.  If the target is engaged with one of your allies, your natural odd beast form attacks deal an extra die of damage.
Adept Effect: As initiate effect, plus you can choose to make the target of your natural odd beast form attacks Vulnerable or Hampered.  Also, the bonus to PD applies to AC as well.

A: Allies gain a +2 bonus to melee attacks against enemies engaged with you that you hit on your previous turn.
C: Once per battle you can make the target of a natural even beast form attack Vulnerable or Hampered.
E:  Until the first time it recharges each day, Wolf Aspect is Recharge 11+ for Adepts instead of Recharge 16+.  



Blink Dog Aspect
Initiate Effect: Gain a +5 bonus to Disengage checks and when you hit with a natural 18+ the target is Dazed until the end of your next turn.
Adept Effect:  Gain a +2 bonus to AC and PD and once per battle you can teleport anywhere nearby as a free action.  

A: Gain a +2 bonus to beast form attack if you moved to engage the target this turn.  
C: Once per battle roll a save when you're hit with an attack.  On a success you take only half damage.
E: Until the first time it recharges each day, Blink Dog Aspect is Recharge 11+ for Adepts instead of Recharge 16+.



Natural Armor
Adventurer Feat: While in Beast Form you gain a +2 bonus to your AC.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

D&D 5th Edition First Play Experiences

There are a LOT of reviews of 5th Edition up by now so I'll try to keep this concise.  My Saturday night group tried out the Starter Set + Basic Rules (I'm not sure if the Basic rules are included in the Starter Set; I'm not the one who bought the box).  Of the 4 of us, myself and the DM are the only "experienced" gamers, and that includes being the only ones who have played D&D before.  We started this group because the DM's fiance and brother were messing around with FFG's Star Wars dice one night, asked him what the rolls meant, and were intrigued enough to want to actually play.  So we played Age of Rebellion (with Edge of the Empire material) for several months, then moved onto short "campaigns" of Fate Accelerated, Fate Core, and now 5th Edition D&D.

This isn't the first time I've taught new players how to play D&D, but it's especially interesting teaching people who have played other games (especially more narrative games) a bit before vs teaching people who are completely new to roleplaying.  As streamlined as 5th Edition is, there are some inherently unintuitive concepts ("what are these ability scores for when I always just used the modifier?") and the layout of the pregen sheet also posed some problems (skills, saves, and raw ability scores being in different places meant that a few times the players referenced the wrong number when a check was being made).  That said, things went much more smoothly than they probably would have if we'd been using a grid and/or playing 3.x/PF, so 5th Edition is pretty newbie friendly compared with other editions of D&D.

The pregens we used were the Rogue (that was me), the Dex Fighter, and the Wizard.  Arguably this is probably the most "hard mode" combination of pregens that we could have selected, but I think we've already bypassed the first big hurdle, which was that frightening first encounter.  I'll try not to provide too many spoilers, but needless to say I think the only reason we survived was because the Fighter rolled a natural 20 on his Survival check to determine the direction that some horses had been shot from, and so the DM denied the archers the surprise round that they were supposed to get.  The Wizard's Shield spell was a literal life saver, too.  Of course also worth mentioning is that the DM has decided not to scale encounters back just so we can see how it'll play out, and the fact that we were able to survive (albeit barely) is a good sign.

The adventure itself seems to be pretty well-designed so far (I'm used to WotC published settings being pretty bad, and it's good to see that they've improved in this area).  There are a TON of different hooks so that we all feel we've got a pretty full array of options to pursue even after just one session, and many of these are built into the backstories of the Pregens.  This means that with a party of all 5 characters there would probably be too many different options and I can see choice paralysis being an issue, but that's better than being heavily railroaded.

Mechanically, the system is pretty slick.  I'm a huge fan of Advantage/Disadvantage, and doubly so considering my Rogue doesn't have a reliable flanking buddy.  The spell system was confusing for our newbie Wizard (especially since her last character was a very free-form spellcaster in Fate Core), but I think it's loads better than the Vancian casting of old.  I'd even go so far as to say I might prefer it to 4E's power system, assuming option bloat from splatbooks don't become an issue.  While the Rogue didn't wow me at first level, I'm looking forward to getting Cunning Action at 2nd and really ramping up the skirmisher shenanigans.  It's worth mentioning that we couldn't figure out how Stealth and attacking from Hiding worked during the session, so the DM just ruled I'd get advantage for it (after looking up the rules later, which are in 3 different sections of the Basic PDF, which also happens to lack an index, I found out that we did it correctly).  I'm still not super clear on how the Halfling's ability to hide behind larger creatures works.  If the enemies see be run behind my buddy and then I succeed at my Hide check, I guess they can't see me so they'll take Disadvantage against me (and I'll get Advantage against them), but they'll know where I am.  That seems very cheesy to me, and I'm not sure how often I'll make use of it because it stretches my suspension of disbelief a bit too far.

My favorite mechanic was Inspiration, which seems to work pretty similarly to Fate Points and Aspects.  This made it really easy for our group to latch onto, and the DM was really good about generously throwing out Inspiration.  The Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws were written well enough to be very broadly applicable, probably even moreso than many of our Fate Aspects.  The consensus was that it was easier to get Inspiration than it was to get Fate Points in play, though this is easily balanced out by the fact that in Fate you start out a session with 3 Fate Points.  I suspect that many groups (especially those who have stuck with D&D and not branched out into systems like Fate) won't make as much use out of the Inspiration mechanics as we did.  Because of the way it works it will come into play about as often as the group prefers it to, because the players and DM have to be active about asking for it and awarding it.  For us, Inspiration had a huge effect on how the game plays, definitely disproportionate to the treatment it was given in the rules.

So at the end of the day the most important question is does 5th edition seem like a system that will be worth playing for my group(s)?  Does it have enough of a niche to set it apart from all of the other systems that we play (or want to play)?  The jury's still out on that one, but I will say that having the Basic PDF helps a LOT because it's always there for us to go back to and try out just a little bit more.  I imagine that if we play again outside of the starter set I'd be tempted to pick up the PHB, but only time will tell.  The way I'm looking at it now though, the biggest selling point for me is probably the grittiness of the system.  My go-to fantasy RPG is 13th Age, but it's really tough to make that game gritty because it's all about the PCs as Big Damn Heroes.  Sometimes I get the itch to run (or play) something that's a little more Sword and Sorcery, and I think 5th Edition could be that game.  I've heard a lot of people comment that there are already many retro-clones that emulate such an experience, and if that works for some people, that's great!  But 5th Edition also brings to the table the superb Inspiration mechanic, as well as Advantage/Disadvantage, and perhaps other neat little bits that I haven't come across yet after just one session of play.  And then there's class design in general, which is different enough in 5th Edition to be worth looking at.  I'm not sure whether 5th Edition does most classes better at this point, but the way that spells work for the Wizard is really nifty, and the Rogue seems like it will play somewhat like a 13th Age Rogue in some aspects after a few levels, which is a HUGE plus in its favor.  I don't have strong opinions on the Fighter yet, and haven't seen the Cleric (or obviously any PHB classes) in action.  Overall, color me intrigued.  A gritty, fast-paced (oh yeah, I did mean to comment on how quick the game runs) game with a smattering of "modern" and more narrative mechanics might have a bigger potential niche than I expected this edition to have.  Based on many reviews I've read the game is largely perceived to be "more of the same," which in some ways might be true but there are enough little changes that it's not quite that simple in my opinion.

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 spellcaster...no, 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.