Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year, New Look


It's hard to believe that I started this blog way back in 2009!  It's come a long way since then, as is apparent from reading my first post.  I had spent the previous year across the country in WA volunteering full time through AmeriCorps.  I was an individual placement as opposed to the more common field crew, and so I found myself living in a strange city far from anyone I knew, and without a car to fully take advantage of the recreational opportunities the area offers.  D&D 4E was in full swing, and I dove into the online community, followed all the new releases, contributed to character optimization discussions, and took advantage of the system's tactical combat engine to stage "solitaire" playtests aplenty.  In short, having an overabundance of free time and nothing else to do with it allowed me to delve more deeply into this hobby than I had before.

Back in those days, this blog was just another outlet.  Once I returned home, between seasonal jobs again, I got a campaign going (the Talamhlar campaign) and used the Chamber of Mazarbul as a platform to keep a record of the sessions.  This was more for myself and any players in the group who were interested than anything else.

Then I got another remote field job, and 2010 was a very lean year for posting.  I did a little bit of writing on 4E mechanics sporadically, but a combination of poor internet accessibility at my site, a lot of overtime during fire season, and a close enough proximity that I could visit home or friends on most weekends meant that my "obsession" with TTRPGs waned.

2011 was a year when I had a lot of time "between jobs."  While this wasn't that great for my bank account, I was at home playing D&D regularly.  At this point the Chamber of Mazarbul was still mostly used to record my group's sessions, this time for our GM-rotating campaign called The Red Frogs.

2012 was a bit of a transitional year for the blog, with a notable spike in total post count.  The D&D Next playtest was generating a lot of hype, and in addition to that The One Ring served as my second introduction to RPGs that weren't D&D (fun fact; I played a campaign of Vampire: The Masquerade in college, but outside of playing in that game I didn't really invest much time exploring the system).  The Edition Wars heated up, but instead of being focused on 3.x vs 4E it was more of an every edition for itself free-for-all.  I read arguments from OSR (old school renaissance) grognards, fans of non-d20 systems, and all manner of other people whose interest seemed to be piqued by the possibility of having some input in the direction of D&D's 5th edition.  I became less steadfastly loyal to 4E myself even as I grew tired of the very concept of edition warring, and I began to focus my energies on exploring other systems and analyzing what a given game brings to the table, and how its rules make that happen.

In short, I feel that my posting developed more substance, and I began to view the blog as more than just something to record my game sessions with.  2013 followed suit, with more emphasis on 13th Age and Edge of the Empire, and more willingness to tweak mechanics and home brew.  That, and it broke 2012's record for number of posts (though not by much).

Looking Ahead

I've slowly come to realize that I enjoy using this blog to contribute to the online community, and as a way to explore game mechanics and examine various game systems.  I didn't use it to log game sessions for the13th Age game that I ran, nor the Edge of the Empire game that I play in (and will be wrapping up soon).  I'm not usually much for New Year's resolutions, but my goal for 2014 is to post more consistently, and increase the readership for the Chamber of Mazarbul.  I'm having a lot of fun with my 13th Age Options series, and I'd like to continue with that in addition to creating more regularly updated columns.  The vague idea I have floating around in my head right now is a series on generic set-pieces in an effort to provide useful content for GMs.  The side effect is that this will help to get my own creative juices flowing and hopefully make me better at coming up with well-crafted set-pieces when I run games.  Hopefully my posting rate for 2014 will not only beat 2013, but ideally I'd like to average about 2 articles a week, at least one of which is useful content for GMs.

By the time you're reading this you'll have noticed that I decided to change the look of this blog as well.  The old color scheme was becoming a bit off-putting, and I wanted something in a calming light blue, with the text on a white background for increased readability.  The background picture was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but when I saw it I thought of the Misty Mountains, which fit well given the title of the blog (the Chamber of Mazarbul is the ancient Dwarven hall of records in Moria).  So hopefully you all enjoy the new color scheme, and I look forward to seeing what 2014 will bring!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Making the Most out of Knowledge Checks

Knowledge checks can often fall flat in tabletop RPGs, or at least this happens a lot in my games.  Either the GM has information that they'd planned on giving out anyways, in which case calling for a Knowledge check can be a formality (and a frustrating one if it's failed), or the player requests to roll a Knowledge check and, put on the spot, the GM can't think of anything particularly interesting or impactful on the fly.  While it can be cool to play the know-it-all, sometimes you just can't help feeling that you're not getting as much bang for your buck as players who have invested in more "active" skills.

I was skimming through Dungeon World today, and one of the GM Principles stuck with me: "ask [the PCs] questions and use the answers."  Combined with one of the three bullet points on the GM's Agenda, "Play to find out what happens," a GM can make Knowledge checks a lot more interesting and engaging by soliciting player involvement.

What this means is that when a PC asks to roll a Knowledge check and you don't already have something in mind, if they succeed you can ask them to tell you what their character knows about the subject.  If it ends up taking things in a completely different direction than you'd planned, well that's a great embodiment of "play to find out what happens."  As an "explorer" type player, I like to learn details about the fictional world even when I'm GMing, and (for me at least) these types of twists make GMing a lot more enjoyable.

All of the sudden players might be scrambling to pick up some Knowledge skills for the chance to influence the narrative.  There's a real, tangible benefit from the character's knowledge instead of some half-formed "fact" that often ends up being fairly pointless, if not entirely uninteresting, when the GM is forced to come up with something on the spot.  Obviously this could potentially be abusable by certain types of players, and the GM should counter that without devaluing the skill by building off of the player's suggestion to keep it in-line power-wise, and/or varying the difficulty based on the specificity of the information.  And ultimately, a roll should only be made where it's dramatically appropriate; players should know that they can't just knowledge-spam in an attempt to power-game (most players probably wouldn't go for that anyways).

Here are a few examples:

  • The party finds an ancient religious text in some old ruins.  Instead of the GM answering a successful Knowledge check with "it's a history of X deity," they ask the player "it refers to X deity, what interesting fact or legend have you heard regarding them?"  If the fact is relevant to the current adventure in some way, all the better!
  • When encountering a new type of creature a PC rolls a knowledge check to learn about any possible weaknesses.  With a success, the GM says "ok, you can tell me a little-known weakness of this creature."  This should be kept narratively interesting; answers like "uhhhh, it's vulnerable to swords because I'm carrying a sword" are pretty lame.  As a GM, you can build on that by saying "oh yes, there are tales from ancient Akaras that say the beast is vulnerable to swords.  Of course, all swords from that time were made from Akaran steel, so they felt no need to specify that an 'Akaran blade' was the beast's true weakness."  Instant story hook, and now when the PCs seek out an Akaran blade they'll have a tangible mechanical advantage against this creature.
You can take this idea even further by employing a variant of the "fail forward" philosophy.  That is to say, failure is not simply a dead end, but leads to a different approach that needs to be taken or a pseudo-success but with complications.  Say a PC fails their Knowledge check (or in a system like Edge of the Empire, perhaps they even succeeded with Threat or Despair).  You can provide one fact, and then ask the player to provide an additional fact.  Alternatively, you can have another player at the table provide one of the facts.  Then you roll randomly to determine which of those facts is true, and which is false.  The player will know that one of the facts is false (just not which one), but the character will probably think that both are true.  Acting on misinformation can provide interesting (and sometimes hilarious) results, but the player can't complain too much since they got something true out of the deal, too.  

Alternatively, the complication might be that the player provides just one fact and the GM rolls randomly to determine whether it's true or false.  This works especially well if nobody at the table can think of a second fact right away, and you want to keep the game moving at a fast pace.  It's worth noting that the "is it true?" technique shouldn't be used for all failed Knowledge checks, because it has the potential to become frustrating.  You definitely don't want PCs to be afraid to attempt Knowledge checks!  What's "too much" will vary group to group, but once every few sessions might be a good baseline to start at.

When the GM rolls randomly any die roll that offers a 50/50 result should do just fine, but in some games it might be interesting to make a special type of roll.  The Force Die in Edge of the Empire springs to mind (the GM notes one of the facts, and if a dark side result is rolled it's false, with perhaps more severe consequences if it's a double dark side pip).  The "degrees of truth" idea can also be used with the feat die in The One Ring, making the d12 roll potentially more interesting than a 50/50 roll using a d6 (if the Eye of Sauron or Gandalf rune are rolled, up the stakes).  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

13th Age Options: The Ranger

The Ranger is an odd class from a design standpoint.  While it's generally grouped with the simple classes (alongside Barbarian and Paladin), it's arguably the most complex of the three with multiple options for nabbing spells, an improvisational terrain stunt talent, and access to an animal companion that gives you two creatures to control.  It's also the only class without any class features, and it doesn't have any powers either.  To compensate many of its talents are on the stronger side compared with other classes, it has the best AC in light armor,  can use Dex for melee attacks, and in the case of the animal companion feats it sets a precedent that not all feats need to be taken progressively.

The no class feature thing kind of bugs me, but I'm not about to alter a class so radically as to give it a class feature where it had none.  However, considering that the book invites players to swap talents if it suits the story (even going so far as using the Ranger's Animal Companion as an example), it can start to feel like the Ranger gets the shaft.  With no powers or class features to make it stand out from the crowd, why not just swap Ranger talents with a Fighter or another class?

A minimally disruptive way to fix this would be to homebrew a list of new feats, since Rangers already have a precedent for feat flexibility.  This is also a good opportunity to fill another gap in the Ranger's design, which is a lack of mobility from a class that's typically seen as a wilderness skirmisher.  Restrict these new mobility feats to being useable only while wearing light or no armor, and all of the sudden the Ranger's looking pretty nice since it's hands-down the best with light armor!

New Ranger Feats

Special: Requires Animal Companion (all) OR Ranger's Pet (Adventurer only); only useable in light or no armor.
Adventurer: Once per battle you can pop free from an enemy that your Animal Companion or Pet is also engaged with.  
Champion: If you're intercepted by an enemy, roll a normal save.  On a success your Animal Companion intercepts the enemy before they reach you, popping free from any enemies it's already engaged with.  If you attempt this a second time during this battle, it becomes a hard save.

Fast Reactions
Special: Requires First Strike; only useable in light or no armor.
Adventurer: You can take a free move action when you roll initiative.
Champion: If you're intercepted by an enemy that you haven't attacked yet roll a normal save.  On a success you can continue to move past them, unhindered.

Hamstring Foe
Special: Requires Two Weapon Mastery; only useable in light or no armor.
Adventurer: Once per battle you can turn an adjacent enemy's successful disengage check into a failure.
Champion: After turning an enemy's disengage check into a failure, that enemy is also Weakened until the start of its next turn.

Hobbling Shot
Special: Requires Archery
Adventurer: When you hit with a re-rolled ranged attack the target is Stuck until the end of your next turn.
Champion: Once per battle when you hit with a ranged attack you can choose to deal half damage and Weaken the target.

Nature's Wards
Special: Requires Ranger  ex Cathedral
Adventurer: Once per battle when you miss with an attack the target pops free from you or a nearby ally.
Champion: If the target of your Nature's Wards power tries to re-engage with you or your ally on their next turn, they must succeed at a normal save or fail, wasting their movement.

Predictable Movement
Special: Requires Favored Enemy OR Lethal Hunter; only useable in light or no armor.
Adventurer: You gain a bonus to disengage checks against your Favored Enemy or the target of your Lethal Hunter equal to your Wisdom modifier.
Champion: If your Favored Enemy or the target of your Lethal Hunter moves to engage one of your allies make a normal save.  On a success you can intercept them even if you're already engaged.
Epic: Once per battle when you intercept your Favored Enemy or the target of your Lethal Hunter, make a free basic attack against them.

Quick Footwork
Special: Requires Double Melee or Double Ranged Attack; only useable in light or no armor.
Adventurer: When your basic attack is a natural odd roll, gain a bonus to disengage checks equal to your Dexterity modifier.
Champion: Once per battle if you roll a natural 16+ you can take a free move action in addition to possibly triggering a second attack or a bonus to disengage checks.

Step of the Fey
Special: Requires Fey Queen's Enchantments
Adventurer: Recharge 11+.  You can teleport to any nearby location that you can see.
Champion: Step of the Fey becomes a Recharge 6+ power.  Once per day you can use it after it's been expended.
Epic: One battle per day Step of the Fey becomes an at-will power.

Terrain Step
Special: Requires Tracker; only useable in light or no armor
Adventurer: When your Terrain Stunt power triggers you gain a free move action that you can use at any point before the end of the battle.  Narrate this as being related to the stunt in some way.
Champion: You can re-roll any rolls (skill checks or saves) you make to overcome the effects of difficult terrain, choosing the best result.

Friday, December 13, 2013

13th Age Options: Paladin Domains

This installment of 13th Age Options will be a little bit different.  Instead of designing new feats, talents, spells, etc., I'm going to explore some possible interpretations for one of the more open-ended class talents - the Paladin's Divine Domain.  Specifically, the portion that reads "if the domain you choose is designed to help Cleric spells and attacks, reinterpret the talent to help your Paladin powers."  This rule exemplifies the experimental, "rulings over rules" spirit of the game as a whole, but because it shows up at character creation in might be initially intimidating for players and GMs not used to that sort of thing.  The list of options I present here are by no means meant to be concrete; if you think of something that suits your Paladin better, by all means use that!  But hopefully this provides a solid starting point, as well as a general overview on the utility of the different Domains for Paladins.

Healing Domain

While you won't get as much mileage out of this domain's benefit as a Cleric (you simply don't have enough healing), it's by no means a waste.  It provides a solid bonus to Lay on Hands, but it probably works best if you also have the Cleric Training talent and have chosen a healing spell.  The Champion tier feat even gives you a couple uses of the Cleric's Heal spell, making this an excellent choice for a second Domain at 5th Level.  The Invocation is pretty straightforward; you get a daily use of the Cleric's Heal.

You'll probably only pick up this Domain if you have a focus on healing.  Either you don't have a leader-type in the party, or your leader simply focuses on buffs and action economy over healing (Bards and Commanders), so you're trying to supplement that.

Justice/Vengeance Domain

This domain works perfectly fine without any reinterpretation.  It's actually a really thematic domain for a Paladin, too, and a powerful party support option.

Knowledge/Lore Domain

This is another domain that doesn't require any tweaking to be used by a Paladin.  Most Paladins won't go for the "smart guy" concept, though, but perhaps the background points can be used to support a OUT or a backstory without using your normal allotment of backgrounds.

Life/Death Domain

This strikes me as one of the more limited domains in general (you don't want your allies making death saves in the first place!), even if the base benefits work fine for a Paladin.  The Epic feat notably references the Cleric's Resurrection spell, but considering it provides a free use of the spell I don't see any reason why a Paladin taking the feat shouldn't simply get a free, single use Resurrection.

Love/Beauty Domain

This domain plays with the Icon relationship rules, and as such isn't tied specifically to Cleric abilities.  Paladins, poach away!  I'd also like to add that this one is a great way to add some mechanical depth to a knight in shining armor, trying to win the favor of a paramour, archetype.

Protection/Community Domain

The Invocation works fine for Paladins, but the base benefit modifies spells (specifically, those that can be cast for broad effect).  While you could theoretically get some use out of this domain if you picked up a Cleric spell via Cleric Training, it wouldn't be worth it.

Instead, you might want to turn your Paladin abilities into broad-effect powers.  For Bastion you can take half damage from attacks against up to three allies, provided you take these attacks in the same round.  It's more straightforward if you're taking damage from an area attack that hit multiple targets, but that would likely be too situational.  Lay On Hands might allow you to effect two or three allies with a single use, effectively turning it into a mass heal (GMs should keep in mind that a Paladin is sinking two talents into this, and talents are all that a Paladin's got, and so should be generous with the effects).  For Paladin's Challenge, go ahead and have two active challenges at the same time.  The Champion feat already allows this, you'll just get the benefit earlier (and for the cost of a Talent, why not?).

Some Paladins might have more than one talent that could reasonably affect additional allies.  If the effect is minor, limited, or situational (Cleric Training and Paladin's Challenge come to mind here) this isn't a problem.  The Bastion/Lay On Hands/Protection Domain combination, however, may need to be reigned in (allow them to affect only one additional ally each), but be sure to discuss your expectations with your player (or your GM, if you're the player).

As an alternative, generous GMs might allow a Paladin with this domain to simply pick up a Cleric spell that could be cast for broad effect, but rule that the spell only affects 2 allies (since the domain also provides an invocation, we don't want a straight-up power boost compared with a Paladin who picks up the same spell from Cleric Training; instead, we're representing what the domain would grant in addition to a base spell).  Since most Clerics who benefit from this domain probably have more than just one broad effect spell, this should probably be in addition to a broad-effect Paladin talent or two.  If the Paladin doesn't have any, then maybe giving them two broad-effect Cleric spells is in order.

Ultimately, each build is going to have a different combination of options that might be boosted here.  My advice would be to aim low, and if the Paladin feels underwhelming give it a free broad effect Cleric spell (or two).  If the player upholds the role-play aspects of the Protection/Community domain, that is.  Not to the effect of being the role-play police, mind you; just be less generous with a Paladin who acts like a loner, and ask why they're really picking this domain.

Strength Domain

Obviously the invocation works fine for Paladins, but what to do about the domain's base benefit?  Paladins already wield heavy/martial weapons without penalty, so where do you go from there?  Some might be tempted to give the Paladin an additional boost to weapon die size, but letting Paladins use a d12 for a big two-hander doesn't really sit right with me considering that Barbarians can't even do that.

How else might you represent better proficiency with weapons?  Why, giving the Paladin access to a Fighter maneuver, of course!  Since the feats are already pretty much the same idea as Smite Evil you might consider offering some alternative feats as well (though a Paladin could do worse than gaining some more pseudo-Smites!).  I'm thinking something along the lines of an Adventurer feat that grants you a second Fighter Maneuver, and a Champion feat that provides a third and opens up the Champion tier options (5th and 7th level Maneuvers).  The Epic feat would follow suit, granting another Maneuver and opening up the 9th level pool.

This obviously has the additional effect of increasing the Paladin's complexity a little bit, which is attractive for those players who find the basic Paladin too simple.

Sun/Anti-Undead Domain

This time the base benefit works fine, but the Invocation could use some tweaking!  In place of "daily spell," I'l allow a roll to recover any other daily ability the Paladin has access to.  This could include a Cleric spell with Cleric Training, but Lay On Hands is also fair game.  Any use of Smite Evil beyond the one you get per battle for "free" would also qualify.  Ultimately it's a pretty straightforward conversion (and at minimum all Paladins will have Smite Evil, so it's a good general-use domain, especially for Paladins who can't get past the fluff of Way of Evil Bastards but still want to Smite a lot).

Trickery/Illusion Domain

While this domain might not fit the fluff of your archetypal Lawful-Good, Knight in Shining Armor, there's no denying that it's a powerful option for any Paladin.  It's a good thing 13th Age doesn't shoehorn you into the goody-goody role ;)

The Trick Die is great as a party buffer (if you roll high) or enemy debuffer (if you roll low), both of which fit the Paladin's expected secondary role just fine.  The Invocation will only serve to make you even harder to kill than you already are.  Your GM won't be happy, but if you like being an impenetrable fortress with legs this'll help.

War/Leadership Domain

This is another great domain that requires no modification and can easily fit the flavor of almost any Paladin.  You won't get a much more reliable party buff (every time you attack), and the Invocation is probably the strongest of all the Cleric Domains.  Just make sure you time it right; certain classes don't like when you increase the Escalation Die before they get a chance to use an ability that keys off of its value (the Fighter's Counter-Attack when it's even, or the Wizard's Cyclic Spells).

Bonus: Arcana/Mysteries Domain

This domain (and the next one) are from my "13th Age Options: The Cleric" article.  It seems a little harsh to make a Paladin first pick up the Cleric Training talent to get a Cleric spell, and then pick up Divine Domain to swap it for something else.  That's effectively one talent for the price of two, and it's nowhere near as good as the Ranger's animal companion (the only talent so far that costs 2 talent slots).
It's an easy fix, though; just let the Paladin swap out one of its limited-use abilities.  One use of Lay On Hands, or one of your daily uses of Smite Evil seems like a fair trade for most spells.  Obviously there's potential to pick up an option that's much more powerful than what you gave up.  If it seems like it'll be too game-breaking, forfeit two daily uses of Smite Evil for a single spell, or limit the spell to one that's 2 levels lower than you (like the Sorcerer's "Access to Wizardry").  Remember, this game isn't about power-gaming, and while it's pretty resistant to min-maxing that can go out the window when you start swapping options between classes.  You don't want this to be a go-to option for any Paladin in your campaigns because it just happens to be that good.  It should be a roughly-balanced tradeoff for a Paladin that legitimately has a connection to arcane magic as part of the character concept.  Maybe they have a background "Former Bodyguard of the Archmage," or their OUT is "I'm the botched attempt at creating a super-soldier through powerful arcane magics."  Let 'em take this domain to back that up!

Bonus:  Focus/Fortitude Domain

Paladins don't have much in the way of spells that they can prepare multiple times.  This domain is going to be a lot more niche than most even with tweaks, but for the Paladin who picks up Cleric Training, the Arcana/Mysteries domain, or Lay on Hands this can let them tweak which options they have access to each full heal up.  For example, they can prepare an extra use of Lay On Hands by sacrificing a daily Cleric spell, or a spell gained from the Arcana/Mysteries domain.  For Paladins that only have one such option (we'll use Lay On Hands for our example again, but this time the Paladin has no spells), swapping for those daily uses of Smite Evil is a good idea, just like in the above Arcana/Mysteries domain.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Flexible Interpretations of Flexible Attacks - Battle Cries

There are a lot of directions you can go when portraying a Bard, especially given that the class is typically depicted as a jack-of-all-trades.  In 13th Age, it's arguably the most complex class in the core book so there are a lot of ways you can customize your Bard mechanically, but Flexible Attacks are a surprisingly open-ended springboard for narratively differentiating your Bard's fighting style.

The most obvious interpretation to take is that Battle Cries are exactly that - your Bard shouts commands, and your allies follow them.  The mechanical benefits represent the effectiveness of your commands.  While this is certainly a valid take on these Flexible Attacks, today I was trying to think about ways to step on the toes of the upcoming Commander class less.  Because ultimately, that's the Commander's main schtick, and in that sense it's a bit unfortunate that the default flavor for the Bard's attacks overlaps with it so much.

Another option is to play off the whole magic-from-music angle for as much as it's worth.  Your Bard isn't shouting orders when he uses his battle cries, but singing, and the effects of the attacks are a direct result of the verses recited.

Some players don't like the "guy who sings when he's fighting" archetype, and admittedly in some settings and groups it can be a little out of place.  It's no big leap to say that your Bard casts minor magics while fighting.  "Pull It Together" isn't so different from the Cleric's "Heal" spell, though it's quicker, if less reliable.  Maybe the reason why it's less reliable is that the somatic components of the spell are the jabs and slashes of your blade.  If your enemy parries your sword at the wrong time, the spell fizzles out.  Or maybe the blade itself holds the magic, and it's not released unless you strike properly with the weapon.  Any of these explanations and more are perfectly well-supported by the flexible attack mechanics (you gain some benefit depending on the results of your melee attacks).  You're a "gish," much like the Swordmage, Bladesinger, Hexblade, etc.

One particularly intriguing interpretation is that Battle Cries are not magical, but they're not literal shouts either.  This type of Bard is a clever, flashy swordsman, adept at feinting, misdirection, and providing openings for allies.  This could be your swashbuckler, or you could inject the performance elements back into your description but instead of song, go with dance.  This is most appropriate for a Dex-based Bard (and most are anyways), and I like to visualize this fighting style as being like River Tam's fight scene from the end of Serenity.  You use a dancer's grace to keep a foe busy enough to give an ally a breather or an opening, inspire allies with the sheer beauty of your movements, cause enemies to over-extend as they try to match your strokes with their substantially less flexible bodies, etc.

The point is, remember not to box yourself in when you create your character and see "Battle Cries" written in the book.  During play, embellish the descriptions of your Flexible Attacks to make it clear to the other players what's going on.  You don't have to do this every time you roll the d20, obviously (that would grow tiresome), but you should definitely embrace the fact that 13th Age is a narrative game, and note that the rules for Battle Cries leave them very open-ended (except for the name...).

Monday, December 9, 2013

13th Age Options: The Fighter

The Fighter has always been a popular class, and is arguably the most relatable, grounded-in-reality archetype in the game.  D&D (pre 4E) has always treated the Fighter as a simple class, ideal for beginners but without the options to be all that relevant at higher levels.  Many players consider it boring.  In 13th Age, the Fighter is middle of the road in terms of complexity, being manageable for beginners (especially if the more straightforward options are selected), yet with enough dials to keep players who like that kind of stuff engaged.  Some complaints about the class include flexible attacks, which some players feel remove too much narrative agency from the hands of the player (an issue I've addressed before), and the reduction of its tactical "defender" options compared with D&D 4E.  In this article I'll present new Fighter-specific feats and a new Maneuver that address these issues, as well as making a lightly-armored Fighter a more viable option.

New Maneuver

Interpose (1st Level Fighter Maneuver)
Triggering Roll: Any natural even roll
Effect:  An ally engaged with you or the target gains a bonus to AC equal to the higher of your Dexterity or Constitution modifier.  You take an equal penalty to your own AC.
Adventurer Feat:  You may reduce the penalty to your AC by half, rounded down.
Champion Feat: Once per battle you can use this maneuver at-will, without having to trigger it (decide before you make the roll).
Epic Feat:  You may ignore the penalty to AC when you use this maneuver.


Obviously some players will balk at a maneuver that reduces their own AC, but that's missing the point.  This is a tactical maneuver, not a strict power boost.  It's designed to replicate the "mark" of 4E, and its sole purpose is to make the Fighter a more attractive target than the ally he's protecting.  The Fighter is probably tougher with higher AC, HP, and Recovery rolls, so most enemies should logically avoid attacking them and go for the easier quarry first.  By buffing the ally's AC and hurting your own, you tilt that enemy's decision in favor of attacking you. Yes this could allow an enemy attack to hit when it would have missed, but sometimes it's worth the risk if you can take it but your ally can't.

In some ways Fighters already had solid defender abilities with the Threatening class feature, the Skilled Intercept talent, and a handful of maneuvers (Shield Bash, Punish Them, Strong Guard, and Swordmaster's Anticipation), but no real good way of defending an ally while maintaining the position of fighting side by side with them (Strong Guard notwithstanding, but that requires both a shield and that you miss, so it's less likely to trigger when the Escalation Die is higher).  This Maneuver provides that, and with the feat support it can be less dangerous to use.

New Fighter Feats

Reliable Attacker
Adventure: You may opt to use any Maneuver that triggers off of a natural even roll or hit as an at-will power instead.
Champion: Once per battle when using a natural even roll/hit at-will power, you may opt to trade in its effect for another if the roll triggers a Maneuver that you'd like to use instead.
Epic: Once per battle you can trigger a flexible attack with your natural even roll/hit at-will, gaining the effects of both.

Mobile Fighter
Adventure: When wearing light armor you gain a bonus to Disengage rolls and Skilled Intercept saves equal to the higher of your Dexterity or Wisdom modifier.  
Champion:  Once per battle while wearing light armor you gain a free move action that you can use at any time during your turn.  You can use this move action to continue moving after being intercepted if you successfully Disengage.
Epic: Once per battle as a free action you can pop free from an enemy instead of rolling a Disengage check or a Skilled Intercept save if you're wearing light armor.  Additionally, you may use your free move action granted from the Champion tier feat when it's not your turn.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Heart of the Wild


Heart of the Wild is the most recent supplement for The One Ring.  It's essentially a gazetteer to western and central Wilderland (the Vales of Anduin and Mirkwood; which is to say everything except the Dale-lands, Lake-Town, and the Long Marshes).  The yet-to-be-released companion volume, Darkening of Mirkwood, is a plot point campaign sourcebook that requires Heart of the Wild (though you can use HotW just find without Darkening).  It's most useful for Loremasters as a setting reference and a source for new Adversaries and NPCs, though there are some player options sprinkled throughout it.  You can purchase the book here, and it's also available for sale as a PDF.

Production Value

This is the first hardcover product in the line, and it makes all the difference.  Previous softcovers (including the core rulebooks) had issues with the binding (my copies included), which is a sore point for an otherwise beautiful set of books.  The hardcover format seems to have eliminated this problem, as the binding certainly seems as solid as any other RPG book I've owned.  At 128 pages it's a little short for the price point.


The book is divided into 3 main sections (plus an introduction, an updated map, and an index), the Vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Adversaries.  The two major regions are divided up into various sub-regions, which are treated separately.  The subregions correspond to those on the maps, and while this makes the book convenient to reference if you're interested in a specific place on the map, it can be a little repetitive to read this way, especially with all of the similar-sounding regions (west upper vales, east upper vales, west middle vales, east middle vales, etc. through Anduin vales and nether vales).  This is exacerbated by the fact that each region is given entries for wildlife, inhabitants, notable characters, and notable places.  The wildlife entries in particular are tiresome, as most of them include the expected bears, deer, squirrels, etc.  There are a few notable details like the swarms of insects that beset travelers in the East Nether Vales, which the wandering Erringmen fend off with fire-pots full of incense, but by and large I think that space could have been saved by detailing the general wildlife in the introductory section to the two major regions, and then if there are interesting wildlife for a given sub-region mentioning those in its summary.  This is the one part of the book that feels like it was placed in to pad page count, which is all the more noticeable with only 128 pages.

The art lives up to what we've come to expect from this line, which is to say that the style fits the setting very well.  You get a mix of paintings and, for some specific NPCs, pencil drawings.  There is at least one piece of recycled art (the portrait of Thranduil), but the vast majority of it is new.  My one complaint is that a lot of the Mirkwood pieces look really similar, and don't seem to depict anything besides "ooooh, scary trees!"  Given that similar pieces are found in the core books, it's tough to really appreciate some of the Mirkwood stuff.

Sidebars abound in this book, and they run the gamut from new player options, to interesting details about characters ("Thranduil's Ring" and "The Crown of the Elvenking" being particularly nice touches), to short little stories that better demonstrate locations or situations ("A Campfire Tale," "Forgotten Treasures"), or advice about keeping already-visited locations fresh ("Strange Faces in Familiar Lands").  This is a great way to maintain the consistent region to region structure while still allowing for unique details to be given, and it visually informs the reader that something here is different, important, or is getting a different style of treatment.  My only gripe is that while the sidebars are in the index, there is no notation that indicates they're sidebars (a minor gripe, to be sure).


As a setting reference this book does what it needs to do, without over-detailing things.  A description of the landscape for each sub-region, and a handful of versatile NPCs with motivations and personalities that seem relevant to the interests of adventurers.  Some might end up as adversaries, some allies, while others could go either way.  Concepts are generally not repeated, so you're getting something new and interesting with each NPC.  The entries are short and to the point, with an attribute level given, Traits, Endurance, and ranks in any skills that the NPC is likely to demonstrate.  One nice touch that updates Tolkien to the sensibilities of most modern gamers is that about half of the NPCs are female.

A lot of the descriptions (of both NPCs and specific locations) act as hooks, to spark curiosity and inspire GM creativity.  Personally, this is the type of published material that I tend to get the most use out of as a GM.  A little "seed" that I can take off in my own direction.  I supply most of the details and plotlines, but I wouldn't have ever thought of it if I hadn't read that interesting little initial description.  For this reason I anticipate that Heart of the Wild might be sufficient for my GMing needs, in that Darkening might provide too much detail for my tastes.  In other words, Heart of the Wild will probably still be useful to GMs who don't like running published adventures (which I don't).

A few locations are given a more detailed treatment, to the extent that they're mapped out.  These are the Halls of Thranduil (a much better version than the one from Karen Wynn Fonstad's "The Atlas of Middle Earth," though doubtless that's because more liberties were taken), Dol Guldur (an overhead view of the exterior with important features labeled), Beorn's house, and the three Woodmen settlements in Mirkwood (with a note that Mountain Hall is mapped out in Tales from Wilderland).  Actually, there are a few locations where only a very short summary is provided, and the entry otherwise says "refer to Tales/Loremaster's Book."   For example, Beorn doesn't get much treatment since the LMB goes into a lot of detail on him.  This attempt to keep the book "dense" and not reprint information may be a pro to some, and a con to others who would rather have a more complete reference in one book.  Going back to the maps, these hit a pretty sweet spot of providing enough detail to get a sense of how the place is laid out, but not going so far as to count individual houses and whatnot.  For me as a Loremaster, this level of detail is enough to keep my description of the place consistent, but it's not so rigid that it locks me out of options.

I think the biggest missed opportunity in this book is that there are no hazards provided at all.  I thought the region-specific hazards in Tales from Wilderland were a very nice touch, and I expected an abundance of them in Heart of the Wild.  Again, considering that the book only clocks in at 128 pages it's a bit mind boggling why these were neglected.  The few general hazards listed in the LMB can get stale really fast, and while you could do a quick scan through the area's description to adapt them to a sub-region in a pinch, there's not a lot of ease-of-reference there, and there might not be something immediately obvious.


At just 11 pages the Monsters of the Wild chapter is much shorter than the other two, but considering how limited the selection from the LMB is it is a pretty decent expansion to the number of foes available.  Obviously Tolkien doesn't have the menagerie of monsters that a game like D&D does, so it's a fine line between giving the Loremaster enough options to keep his players interested and providing so much that it no longer feels like Middle Earth.

Aside from basilisks, grim hawks, and wood-wights, all of the adversaries are more or less variations on stuff that the players have likely already come across.  There are enough mechanical differences to be noticeable, though.  There are some specific "boss" orcs (including one with a named weapon), forest goblins, a warg "boss," hill-men, wild men, a new type of spider, and a trio of...nah, I'm not going to spoil that one ;)

Player Options

The most significant options for players are new Fellowship Phase Undertakings, though these will largely be linked to a very specific location, so your options are unlikely to be greatly expanded during any one Fellowship Phase.  Some of them are interesting new twists on what can be gained from an Undertaking, with some being fairly generic (Hunt with the Woodmen) and others being very unique (Taming the Steed of the Moon).  There are 14 altogether, and with so much variety they can easily be used as examples to inspire Loremasters to create custom Undertakings using the same or similar mechanics with tweaked or substituted details.

There are 2 new "sub-cultures," which are the Wild Hobbits of the Anduin Vales and the Woodmen of Mountain Hall.  The entries are disappointingly sparse, with some starting skill ranks being switched around and new Cultural Blessings being granted (though in the case of the Woodmen it's as simple as switching the wording of Woodcrafty from "in a forest" to "in the mountains").  Unlike the Men of the Lake from the Lake-Town book, there are no new cultural Virtues or Rewards, and no new backgrounds.  What makes this especially puzzling is that for the Hobbits in particular, a lot of the options from the core rulebook don't fit thematically at all.  Again, I stress that at 128 pages there could have been more here.

Woodmen and Elves also get one new Cultural Virtue each.  River-blooded represents a Woodman who has River Maiden ancestry, whereas The Call of Mirkwood can be taken to show how an Elf PC is beginning to fade.

Final Thoughts

Overall I'd say this book is well worth it for GMs, and for anyone who wants a fairly comprehensive reference book on Wilderland.  Though it's worth keeping in mind that as a reference book, it's not strictly canon as many liberties were taken to make it appropriate for use in an RPG.  I still think it's a great read for getting a sense of what these lands are like, and what life would be like there.  If you're just a player with only a casual interest in Tolkien lore you might not find much of use here.

By and large it's a great addition to the TOR library, though it's not without its flaws.  A lack of new Hazards, player options that could have been done in more detail, and a short page count for the price (but hardcover is awesome!) keep this from getting a perfect rating, but they're pretty minor issues and shouldn't get in the way of purchasing this book if you're on the fence.  The book is absolutely stuffed with "seeds" that will provide GMs with inspiration for many adventures and campaigns, and it makes a great reference for adding color and detail to travel through these regions.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

13th Age Options: The Cleric

Next up are a few more options for the Cleric.  The Cleric has a history of allowing for various build options in D&D, most notably depending on domain (i.e. a Cleric of the Sun plays differently than a Cleric of War).  While I don't think that the current 13th Age Cleric lacks for options, the player in my group who played one complained that the class is too Daily-heavy.  The vast majority of its spells are Daily use, and the Domains have Daily effects as well.  All of the following options provide a little more flexibility in resource management.  The new spell was an option that I created specifically for my Cleric player, while the Domains are new (and unplaytested) creations.

New Spell

Divine Mark (1st Level Cleric Spell)
Ranged Spell
Once per battle
Target: 1 nearby creature

Attack: Wisdom + Level vs MD
Hit: The target is dazed until the end of your next turn.  The target is also Marked (Hard Save ends).  Each ally that hits the Marked target heals HP equal to double your level.

3rd Level Spell: The target is Weakened instead of Dazed.
5th Level Spell: Allies that attack the Marked target deal an extra 1d10 damage.
7th Level Spell: Increase the bonus damage to 2d10.
9th Level Spell: The spell now targets 2 nearby creatures.


A once per battle spell is really a no-brainer since there's only one other (Spirits of the Righteous) on the Cleric's list.  While Clerics do admittedly have a lot of Daily options to play with, during rounds when you know you're not going to use one, you're reduced to the choice of spamming Javelin of Faith or a basic attack (or Combat Boon, later).  For someone hoping for a more "complex" class this might seem lacking.

My player was also interested in getting some more control abilities, as well as in providing healing that doesn't cost a Recovery (my group is...weird about Recoveries).  A "pacifist," non-damaging spell fit the bill really well (which is a niche all by itself; one of these days I might have to work up a non-damaging at-will ability).

While a Hard Save sounds pretty powerful for a once per battle ability, I've not found the spell to be overpowered, mainly because Marked enemies go down really quickly, so it doesn't provide as much healing as you might think.  Still, any feedback from other groups would be highly useful, as it's more art than science to create a non-damaging spell like this, especially when most of the others you might compare it to scale via an HP cap.  Perhaps an HP cap is a better way to go about designing this spell, but truthfully I wanted to explore something a little different.

New Domains

Domain: Arcana OR Mysteries
Choose another spellcasting class.  You can swap out one of your own spells for a spell of your level or lower from that class.  
Adventurer Feat: You can use Wisdom for the swapped spell's attack and damage.
Champion Feat: You can swap out 2 of your own spells for 2 spells of your level or lower from that class.
Epic Feat: You can swap out 3 of your own spells for 3 spells of your level or lower from that class.  Additionally, you can choose a second spellcasting class, and spells you swap out can come from either additional class.
Invocation of Arcana/Mysteries: The crit range of your spells and spells cast by nearby allies expands by +1 this battle.

Domain: Focus OR Fortitude
When you pick your spells at the beginning of a Full Heal Up, you can choose any Daily Cleric spell twice, gaining two uses of that spell.
Invocation of Focus/Fortitude: Once during this battle you can allow an ally to make a Recharge Roll immediately after using a Recharge power.  If they fail they can still attempt to Recharge the power after the battle normally.  OR you can let an ally make a Normal Save immediately after using a once per battle power, and if they make the save they can use that power again.
Champion Feat: Reduce the power's Recharge result by 5 (so a Recharge 16+ power becomes Recharge 11+) for the bonus Recharge roll.  Regaining a once per battle power becomes an Easy Save.
Epic Feat: You can affect 2 allies with this Invocation during this battle.


With the Arcana/Mysteries Domain a Cleric has access to more non-daily spells simply by virtue of being able to choose from the list of another class, which should offer enough customizability to satisfy any player.  For players who feel that they're "stuck" playing a Cleric because the group "needs one" (which, as it turns out, is one of my gaming pet peeves, but plenty of players still have this mindset), this Domain is an opportunity to expand into a concept that they'd rather be playing.  For Clerics interested in this Domain but who still want to focus on their core role as a "leader," I would point them to the Bard class, and ask their GM really nicely if they can use this Domain to swap out spells for Bardic Songs.  This Domain can be used to evoke the feeling of the old Mystic Theurge Prestige Class from D&D 3.x, and this is no coincidence; the Cleric player from my 13th Age game once played one of these, and layered another Prestige class that threw Psionics into the mix on top of it.  Needless to say the character was fairly useless (and in a 3 person party, no less), but if he ever wants to revisit the concept, this version avoids the pitfalls of 3.x.

Meanwhile, the Focus/Fortitude Domain gives the Cleric a version of the Wizard's High Arcana, namely the ability to double up on Daily spells.  Going along with the theme of doubling up, the Invocation lets an ally gain a double use of a Recharge or once per battle power.  This Domain will allow a Cleric to "play favorites" with their myriad of Daily spells (hint - a doubled up spell might be a good candidate for Ritual Magic, since you'll still get to use the spell in a fight later).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

13th Age Options: The Half Elf

This is the first article in a new series, which will have the tag "13A Options."  13th Age is a young game, and it has a streamlined, transparent, and flexible rules set that lends itself really well to houseruling and homebrewing.  It embraces the philosophy of working with players to help them create the type of character that they want, but with just the core rulebook so far there's a lot of room for expansion.  As a disclaimer, I'll say up front that I'm NOT hoping for a long line of splat-books and option-glut.  D&D suffered horribly from that, I think that it ultimately detracted from the game.

These additional options are more along the lines of providing advice through examples on how you can go outside of the rules as written (RAW) to provide some interesting mechanics that back up your players' concepts.

So let's dig right in, then.  The Half-Elf was given its own unique racial ability during the public playtest, and while its racial power "Surprising" does give the Half Elf its own identity outside of its two parent races, it suffers from the unfortunate consequence of being applicable to only a narrow range of classes.  Given the strides that 13th Age otherwise took to ensure that any race could be viable with any class (ability bonus from both race and class, notably), this is a problem.  I'd argue it's a big problem.  While rolling up characters for playtesting I've always passed on the Half Elf, and none of my players have ever chosen one in a game I've run.  My solution is an alternative racial power.

Dual Heritage
Special: You can choose this instead of Surprising when you create your character.  When you make this choice, you also need to choose one Elven sub-race for your parentage.
Roll Initiative twice as if you had the Human's "Quick to Fight" racial power.  If the second roll is lower than the first, you gain the power of the Elven sub-race that you chose for this battle.
Champion Feat: Once per day you can use your Elven power even if your second initiative roll was higher

Discussion on Balance
At first glance this might seem to be a but too powerful.  After all, Humans don't get a "consolation prize" when their second roll is lower than their first!  But Dual Heritage should be better than Quick to Fight, because a Half Elf doesn't get the bonus feat of a Human.  And since you're only using the Elven power when the Initiative re-roll failed, you'll still never benefit from more than one racial power in a single battle.

Thematic Goals
This is pretty similar to the original racial power from the first Escalation Edition, "Adaptable."  That power let you choose either the Human or Elven racial power when you roll Initiative.  Dual Heritage is a little more streamlined in that it bypasses the possibility of option paralysis.  Because it combines the two racial abilities into a single-trigger amalgam it also feels more like its own thing compared with "choose one of these two powers, use them exactly as written."  I also like that it has an element of randomness to it, which reflects the wildness and the chaotic elements of a Human pairing with a Fey.  What you get out of that union shouldn't be completely predictable.  This notion is at least partially inspired by the art on p. 69 of the core rulebook.

First Iteration
I'm including this section to provide some insight into the design process of this power.  Initially, I was thinking of wording it this way:  "Roll Initiative twice as if you had the Human's "Quick to Fight" racial power.  If the second roll is odd it doesn't count; instead you gain the power of the Elven sub-race that you chose for this battle."

This version came about after thinking about monster design and flexible attacks right after each other, so I obviously had "let the die roll be the trigger!" on my mind.  It was also a really easy way to get 50/50 odds on whether you use the Human or Elven power while obviously preserving that element of uncertainty.  The problem with this is that it's no fun for the player if their first Initiative roll is really low, and then they roll a 19 on the second die and don't even get to keep it.  The current form is much more satisfying to a player.  It feels cool to be able to say "I have the Human's power, but better!" without actually making the two races unbalanced.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Adapting Ally Rolls to Other Systems

I recently posted an article on the Ally Roll table in The One Ring.  Interestingly, it was pretty similar to an improvised mass combat system I'd come up with for 13th Age, with inspiration from Dungeon World.  The concept itself has a lot of potential for general applicability, with the gist being that a single die roll is used to represent a group of allies fighting a group of enemies, with a scale of outcomes tied to the results.  These outcomes need not be written out as a table ahead of time, but they certainly can be.  At minimum your spectrum of outcomes should include bad stuff (allies losing ground) on low rolls, neutral results (or success with complications) on middle rolls, and good stuff (allies gain ground) on high rolls.  The One Ring makes it easy to include really bad stuff and really good stuff at the far ends of the spectrum due to the Eye of Sauron or Gandalf Rune being rolled, respectively, but this could easily be represented by lowest and highest numerical results as well (fumbles and crits, in d20 terminology).

What Die Type Should Be Used?

This question is, of course, system-dependent.  For The One Ring (TOR) the Feat Die (the special d12) was the obvious choice, and the precedent for the mechanic already exists in a published adventure.  A d20 might be appropriate in d20 systems, though I chose to instead opt for 2d6 with 13th Age (13A).  As it turns out, I have some further ideas for modifying the ally check which become more interesting with 2d6 compared with a d20, which I'll discuss later.  But what about a system with non-standard dice, like Edge of the Empire (EotE)?

The similarities between TOR's Feat Die and the Force, Challenge and Proficiency dice of EotE made using the Force Die or the red/yellow d12s pretty tempting.  Theoretically the blank face and the Triumph/Despair could stand in for the Eye of Sauron/Gandalf Rune, with Success/Failure and Advantage/Threat standing in for good or bad results (faces with both being neutral).  On the Force Die the applications of light/dark side pips should be pretty easy to guess.  The ultimate problem with such a system is that the results of the roll aren't easily or intuitively as modifiable as a numerical system.  This presents a couple of big problems, the first being that you can't "custom fit" the probabilities to account for the difficulty of the odds your allies are facing, and second being that bonuses or penalties (due to PC intervention, terrain, narrative changes, etc.) are tough to apply.  It's easy to just say "use a regular d12, or 2d6 just like the other examples!" but ideally you'd use a die or dice that are already used in the game, since not all players can be expected to have a set of standard RPG dice (ok, ok, so most probably have a couple of d6s from board games or whatever).  Thus the obvious choice becomes the d% dice.

You'd basically treat the Ally Roll like you would a roll on the critical injury table (again, you can pre-make a custom table or just wing it).  Off the top of my head, I'd probably break the results down into 1-5 very bad (Eye of Sauron), 6-40 bad, 41-70 neutral, 71-95 good, and 96-100 very good (Gandalf Rune).  The odds are stacked against the allies with the bad range having a 35% chance of being rolled, neutral a 30% chance, and good 25%.  The percentile roll provides a lot of granularity for adjusting based on the difficulty/conditions of the battle, and of course you need to leave PCs the opportunity to be the real heroes by making it an uphill fight.

Oh, and while we're at it I'll note that in the 2d6 system I employed for 13th Age the equivalents to an Eye or Gandalf would be double 1's or double 6's, respectively.  While this makes these results less likely to trigger than in the other examples, it also has the advantage of simplicity.  GMs can get around the reduced probabilities by interpreting those results with a heavier hand, but the probabilities are also a little more malleable when the roll is modified (see the "Game Specifics" section).

Allowing for Player Interaction

There can potentially be problems associated with running different sections of the battlefield with differing degrees of abstraction.  On the one hand, the PCs and their immediate foes will be operating on the scale of individual actions, individual Hit Points/Endurance/Wounds/etc., and individual initiative slots.  The allies all get lumped into a single roll which represents how both sides are faring in relation to each other, and the results are more often than not going to be much more narrative with much less bookkeeping.  While you can add some bookkeeping (see the unit strength idea that I presented in the original 13th Age post, which was the second link at the top of this article), my personal preference is to reduce that level of tracking and instead focus on the broad needs of the plot.  The PCs shouldn't care about too much detail, because in-game they have their own problems, and so they'll be perceiving their allies in broad strokes (besides, this keeps the game moving more quickly, with less time spent on the GM "fighting themselves").

But what happens when a PC wants to interfere?  This is best handled by a modification of the Ally Roll.  Here are 4 distinct examples.

  1. A PC kills the foe he was fighting, and wants to effectively "join" the ally group.  Simple enough, just pick out a single opponent or two (or a mook/minion group, if the game supports that), pull them out of the ally roll and into a new personal combat with the PC, using PC scale actions, HP, etc.  If it makes sense that the enemy would already be a little wounded, go with whatever feels right.  To represent the loss of some enemy forces, you could grant a bonus to the Ally Roll (magnitude dependent on the strength of the foes that the PC "drew out").
  2. A PC blankets the enemy forces with an area effect (grenade, fireball spell, etc.).  Depending on the size of the enemy group and their durability, this might result in bonuses to the Ally Roll, or perhaps even an automatic positive result.  This is most likely the case if your positive result reads that an enemy/enemies are wounded or slain, and it makes sense that the area attack would have wounded/killed some enemies.  If the PC spends his entire turn and what is probably a limited resource (grenade or daily-use spell), yeah the effect on the Ally Roll should probably be pretty huge.
  3. A PC wants to use a skill to bolster the allied forces.  An obvious choice would be Leadership (EotE), Inspire (TOR), or a Cha check with applicable background (13A).  Again, if the PC is using their action to do this then the results should be pretty big.  For some systems that call is automatic (for example, in EotE using a skill is almost always an action), but for others it'll be up to GM discretion (13A and TOR).  GMs might even want to give players a choice of doing things quickly and getting a simple bonus, or spending their action/turn and getting a more significant bonus (a bigger numberical bonus, or perhaps even an automatic "good stuff" result depending on the nature of the action).  
  4. A PC wants to command a specific ally to act upon something outside of their own conflict.  For example, commanding an allied archer to shoot the enemy Wizard, or ordering a rebel soldier to fire at the Moff at the computer terminal.  A successful check should allow that ally to be "pulled out" of the ally group for a turn or more, letting them act as an individual at the same scale as the PCs (this is basically example 1 in reverse).  The price you'll pay for this is that you'll probably add a penalty to the Ally Roll, since without that individual's aid the other allies will have a tougher time of it.  Perhaps with a really good roll (Great/Extraordinary success in TOR, Advantage/Triumph in EotE, or a Natural 16+ in 13A) this penalty can be reduced or eliminated.

Game Specifics

Ok, so with the general principle and some examples laid out, let's provide a summary of some baseline mechanics that a GM can draw upon.  Keep in mind that this stuff is still mostly theoretical, as I've minimally playtested it with 13th Age and The One Ring.  Not only that, but because there is so much variance in specific conditions this is designed to be modifiable and somewhat improvisational by the GM.

The One Ring - You'll be using the Feat Die for the Ally Roll, usually with a spread of Eye (really bad), 1-4 (bad), 5-7 (neutral), 8-10 (good), and Gandalf (really good).  Bonuses/Penalties to the Ally Roll should generally be between 1 and 4, with +/-2 and +/-4 being good starting points thanks to the Complications Table (pg. 48 LMB, GM Screen).  Keep in mind degrees of success, with a simple success on any PC's skill check to interfere providing a modest bonus, and Great or Extraordinary successes have better results.

13th Age - Use 2d6 for the Ally roll, with 6 or less being a bad roll, 7-9 as neutral, and 10 or more being a good result.  Optionally, double 1's can be very bad, and double 6's very good.  While simple numerical modifiers certainly work for bonuses or penalties (I'd use the range allowable by Backgrounds: 1-5), I really like the idea of successful skill checks adding a die to the pool to provide a functional "re-roll."  In other words, roll 3d6 and keep the highest 2 values.  Severe penalties could go the opposite way (roll 3d6 and keep the lowest 2 values).  This boosts the low probabilities of the double 1's/6's for very bad/good results, and in my opinion is a more satisfying impact for players than a straight modifier (a modifier can't save a horrific roll, but a re-roll very well could).  Optionally, a 16+ on the PC's roll can add the extra d6 in addition to a numerical modifier.  The base dice pool of 2d6 works really well here because re-rolling the entire Ally Roll comes across as a bit too powerful to me.

Edge of the Empire - Using a d% for the Ally Roll this system potentially offers the most granularity, but realistically things should probably be kept to intervals of 5%.  As I stated before, the baseline breakdown might be as follows: 1-5 (very bad), 6-40 (bad), 41-70 (neutral), 71-95 (good), and 96-100 (very good).  A bonus of 10% per success on a PC's skill roll seems about right, though with checks that have a goal other than simply boosting the Ally Roll, allowing Advantage to be spent to also boost the Ally Roll by 5% per Advantage seems reasonable.  Additionally, keep in mind that with EotE the minion rules already provide an easy way to adjudicate battles between small groups of allies and enemies, and so GMs should consider carefully when using these Ally Rolls is really appropriate.  Probably only with large squads that would result in unwieldy dice pools if treated as minions, or if the GM wants the combat to run especially quickly and doesn't want to deal with actual dice pools and minion tracking.

Miscellaneous Note on Cumulative Bonuses

Sometimes it makes sense for a bonus to an Ally Roll to last more than a single round.  For example, if you give the roll a penalty for one of the ally combatant being wounded or killed, then that penalty should probably stick around until the playing field is even with an enemy being wounded or killed.  If the Ally Roll gets a bonus because the enemy leader was taken down, that drop in enemy morale should probably last for the entire battle.  

Some player actions will result in advantages of variable duration.  If a PC rolled to inspire his allies, how long does that bonus to the Ally Roll last?  It could be just 1 round, it could be longer for a higher degree of success.  Maybe it simply lasts until a low roll comes up (bad or very bad) and the allies are demoralized again.  Go with what makes sense.  Some "tactical" rolls where a PC tries to direct allies to a better fighting position should obviously last as long as the allies hold that position.  You might even alter the outcome of a roll (on the fly, even if you're using a pre-made table) so that a bad result, which would normally wound or kill an ally, instead drives the group off of this position, nullifying the bonus.  
Ultimately, one last thing to keep in mind is to go with what makes sense in the moment.  This house rule isn't designed to be an in-depth new mechanic tacked onto the game, and doesn't need to strike a perfect balance.  Rather, it's designed to provide some structure for handling groups of allied combatants narratively.  It's for when "making it up as you go along" feels too arbitrary.  It's there as a baseline, to get your creative juices flowing, and to basically provide a status update on how those other guys are doing, especially during rounds where the PCs aren't direction involved with that side of the battle.  If you use it in a game, let me know how it goes.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ally Rolls in The One Ring

It's funny what kinds of rules gems you can find buried in unexpected sources.  In the second adventure of Tales from Wilderland (Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit) there is a scene where the PCs are supposed to make a stand in a defensible position (the ringfort) with a handful of allies.  Enemies swarm the ringfort, and the battle description contains a table that describes how the allies fare in battle.  This "Allies In Battle" table (pg. 34) keeps things moving quickly, preserving a narrative focus and making it unnecessary for either the Loremaster or the PCs to take control of extra characters.

In the play-by-post (PbP) game that I'm currently running the PCs ambushed a large orc camp backed up by 2 units of Elven cavalry, a handful of Barding archers led by the Barding PC, and a handful of Bardings disguised as orcs led by an exiled Dwarf PC who escaped a brutal captivity in the hands of orcs.  Obviously that's a LOT of individuals to keep track of, and the need to abstract the mechanics for the battle were even greater considering that Legolas himself led one of the Elven units, and I didn't want to open up a can of worms by statting him out.  Remembering that table from the short campaign that I ran for my regular gaming group (relevant posts under the TOR-C2 tag), I decided to adopt it for this battle.  

While the table from Tales from Wilderland offers specific results for the battle that it applies to, it was immediately apparent that the results could be tweaked on the fly to apply to virtually any combat, with any number of allies and enemies.  Here are the basics, in a nutshell:

The Loremaster rolls a Feat Die (the special d12; for those using regular dice, the 11 counts as an Eye of Sauron and the 12 is a Gandalf rune).  
  • If the Eye is rolled something really bad happens.  For a smaller number of allies this will usually mean that one of them is slain.  For larger "units" this could mean that multiple individuals are slain, the leader is slain, etc.  Whatever is dramatically appropriate.
  • On a roll of 1, 2, 3, or 4 the enemies are doing better than the allies.  This might be represented by one of the allies suffering a wound (or being slain for larger groups), one or more enemies slipping past them to attack a priority target (probably one of the PCs, even one in Rearward stance), or a change in the tactical landscape.  For example, if there are any modifiers in place due to the Complications table (pg. 48 of the LMB, or the GM screen), these can change to favor the enemy.  Additionally, a 1 should probably have worse effects than a 4 (in TfW bad stuff triggered if you rolled under the number of allies, but obviously this wouldn't work for larger groups).  
  • On a roll of 5, 6, or 7 the allies hold their own, but don't necessarily gain any ground.  Nothing particularly interesting happens in this round, or if you'd prefer to narrate changes in the battle they should be net zero.
  • A roll of 8, 9, or 10 mirrors 1-4 in that now the allies are doing better.  Depending on how many enemies are present and/or how fast the LM wants the pacing of the battle to be, this could mean that an enemy is Wounded, an enemy is slain, or the allies gain some sort of tactical advantage (there should always be a good narrative description for this, but it can be mechanically represented with that Complications table).
  • If a Gandalf rune is rolled, the allies are doing extremely well.  Perhaps an unwounded enemy is instantly slain, multiple enemies are slain or flee, an important enemy (perhaps a leader) is slain, or in some circumstances the LM might allow one or more PCs to regain a point of Hope as the tides are turned (though this should be used very sparingly, and you should have a good reason for doing so!).  
Some Notes

These numbers are consistent with those from the table in TfW, with the results more generalized.  But these can easily be changed based on the details of the battle.  Are the allies severely outnumbered or in a rough spot?  Maybe the numeric results are broken down like this:  1-6 is bad, 7-8 is neutral, 9-10 is good.  In fact, it's worth pointing out that the originally published values are skewed toward the enemies (1-4 being bad vs. 8-10 being good), and I think this is important.  Since the allies are statistically in a position to lose the fight, it drives home the fact that it's ultimately up to the PCs.  They're the heroes, the stars of the show.  

Along those lines, it's a good idea to offer the possibility of adding modifiers to the roll.  These can absolutely be player-driven.  A successful Battle roll might allow a PC to direct his allies to higher ground, providing a +1 bonus to the Ally Roll.  A Great Success on an Inspire roll might give the allies a second wind, with a +2 modifier to the roll.  A Healing roll might allow a PC to bring wounded ally back into the fight.  Conversely, you can add a penalty to the roll to represent a new advantage gained by the enemy.  If a PC is knocked out and their opponent(s) join the fight agains the allies, that might be a -1 penalty.  The same logic obviously applies to reinforcements.  And if you're stuck on how to adjudicate an Eye result by a player taking a risky action, why not make the allies pay for it?

Finally, you can give the battle some tactical "texture" by having multiple groups of allies (as is the case in my PbP game), with each group getting its own Ally Roll.  This can give PCs an interesting choice to make as they need to decide which ally group to aid, if any, and it allows the victors from one group to affect another group, or the PCs and their foes.  It's perfectly reasonable for a good result on an Ally Roll to result in a combatant breaking off from that "unit" and joining the PCs with its own individual stat block (this is especially useful if one of the PCs is knocked out, as it can give that player an ally to control).

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Critical Injury Table (Edge of the Empire)

Last week our group took a bit of a detour, and thanks to an Astrogation mishap ended up at some "hick outpost" in Wild Space.  Now, my character is actually really AWESOME at Astrogation (just to be clear), but I was pulling a really crazy stunt (making a jump while in a planet's atmosphere to avoid Imperials in orbit), with a slightly damaged navcomputer (next check was supposed to be upgraded), and my GM decided that the difficulty for this was Formidable.  Yep, that's the first time our group has had to face FIVE purples, and the upgrade certainly wasn't helping matters, so you can understand the mishap.  Granted I was able to decrease the difficulty thanks to Master Starhopper, but that's just part of how awesome an Astrogator my PC is!

But anyways, I digress.  The navcomputer was REALLY shot after that (oh, Despairs...), so we landed at this station to see if we could scrounge up supplies for a repair.  Some Jawa junk dealer had what we needed, but we had to return to the ship to get the credits for it, and the half of the party that was guarding the ship were attacked by "salvagers" who had proceeded to tear pieces off of our ship.  In a fit of rage after dealing with that (which only followed a whole string of "the party gets screwed" events, and did I mention the BBEG was a few days behind us in hyperspace?), I decided I was just going to walk into the Jawa's shop and take the parts by force, if need be.  I took the assassin droid as backup.  Our previous encounter with the Jawa revealed that he hit some type of security button in response to our weapons, and I suppose our GM thought that this was enough warning for us.  I figured it would summon some guards, or activate an alarm, or at worst some kind of security system with lasers and stuff.  No.  The button had armed a THERMAL DETONATOR, and when the droid shot the Jawa he dropped the dead man's switch, and BOOM!

The GM called for Coordination checks, and while I disagree on how he implemented the results*, he's the GM so it's his call.  Not surprisingly, both of us go down, and both of us roll really high on our d% rolls.  The thing's got Vicious 4, so the Droid ended up Blinded (which seems to be permanent), and my character got Gruesome Injury (Presence).

I was bitter.  I still am, a little bit, even if I've gotten used to the cool factor of my character being so horribly burned that people can't stand to really talk with her.  I've suggested pursuing some kind of experimental regenerative procedure (equivalent in cost, or in my case obligation, to the Cybernetic options that increase Characteristics) so I guess "permanent" isn't quite as dire as it seems.  It was definitely eye opening, though, especially since even without a prior critical injury I was pretty close to rolling "Bleeding Out," which would have effectively meant death since my only ally in the vicinity was also down.

Even now, I'm not really sure how I feel about the Critical Injury table.  On the one hand, I've always been vehemently opposed to ability score damage in D&D, and one of the pros to 4E was that it was one sacred cow that was slain.  So the fact that I took a permanent reduction to Presence (did I mention Cool and Negotiation are important skills for my character?) really hit a sore spot for me.  I'm also not a fan of "save or die" spells in D&D, and a high percentile roll on the table can be exactly that.

On the other hand, the table does have the neat effect of providing a sense of danger without having combat be too lethal with regards to taking too many Wounds.  It also captures the feel of the setting really well, what with lost limbs being a big thing in Star Wars, and certain weapons (like that Thermal Detonator!) being EXTREMELY deadly.  Besides that it offers a plethora of neat "control" effects when used in combat, and provides a gritty realism without being too crunchy and still allowing for brash stunts, since you won't get badly hurt all the time.

It's not the most "fair" of mechanics because there's so much variability inherent in that d% roll, but overall I think that's probably ok.  Characters SHOULD be in bad shape after being caught in the blast of a thermal detonator, or after taking injury after injury.  It changes the stakes in a way that can't be solved by simply loading up on stimpacks, and I think that's important for the game.  I just wish I hadn't rolled so high with my character.

*Basically, what I would have done was subbed Coordination (or Athletics) in place of Ranged Light as a "defense roll," with a success equivalent to a missed attack roll, threat equivalent to an attack roll's advantage, etc.  Essentially make it no harder to avoid than if he'd lobbed the thing at us.  What the GM had ruled was that success reduced damage by 1 each (I'd rolled 4 successes, but that was still higher than my Wound Threshold so I still suffered a Critical Injury).  Neither way is "wrong," but I do find his ruling pretty harsh.  Especially since the difficulty was either Hard or Daunting, and the only reason I did so well was 2 blank faces on the purple dice.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Repeated Skill Use: An Addendum

Several weeks ago I posted an article on why I dislike repeated skill use in RPGs.  Last night's game of Edge of the Empire caused me to re-examine the issue.  I still think the general argument stands, but it bears clarifying that it's exactly that - a generalization.

Early on in the campaign my character stole a swoop bike.  A really nice swoop bike (the Obligation was totally worth it).  So naturally, when the planet we land on is hosting a big swoop race I'm going to enter it.  Unfortunately, my character is the only PC that actually owns a swoop bike, and the only one who is a decently focused pilot, so this was my time to shine with a minimal amount for everyone else at the table to do.

The GM set it up by sketching out the track, and numbering 4 different points where Piloting checks would be called for.  The race was 2 laps, so that's 8 Piloting checks in a row, which could potentially get tedious.  I was certainly wary going in, when he was describing the set-up.  But it actually ended up working really well, for a few different reasons.  Most importantly, the narrative was at the forefront.  Each number on the track was a distinct obstacle (a slalom, a canyon jump, a corkscrew down-ramp into the canyon, and a narrow, one-lane choke point), and so the results were going to be interpreted differently based on which obstacle was being navigated.  Obviously there was also the jockeying for position by the other racers.  And I must admit that I couldn't have done it if our assassin droid hadn't been running interference on the leaders from a covert sniping position just off the track.  Mechanical reasons why the excitement kept flowing included a torrent of Destiny Point use, and the constant fear of what a Despair, or even a large number of Threat, might mean.  This was a tricky run at high speeds with a lot of competition, so there was a lot that could go wrong!  Fortunately, thanks to the Droid's help and luckier rolls than I'm used to getting, I actually placed 1st (I expected 4th or 5th).

Aside from the details of the task itself, there was also a lot riding on this race.  My sponsor (I certainly couldn't foot the bill for that entry fee!) works directly under the Hutt that we're trying to make nice with.  He's also the same guy that just entrusted us with a smuggling test-run (a few "freebie" crates of Booster Blue, on loan, to make sure we were reliable).  Bungling the race could negatively affect the smuggling job, and there is potentially a LOT of Obligation riding on both tasks.  Oh, and the only reason we're even trying to get into this Hutt's inner circle is because the corrupt sector ranger responsible for my Blackmail Obligation from char-gen smuggles for him, and I'm looking for a way to expose the dirt-bag (or more likely to turn the tables and blackmail HIM) to reduce my Obligation.  To make matters worse, our group was teetering dangerously close to 100 Obligation total.

So, yeah.  Aside from making the descriptions of the task itself creative and interesting, with a lot of variation between the different rolls, it helps when the scene is high stakes from a big-picture point of view.

Ultimately, the big difference I see in the above example compared with the examples from my earlier post is that despite the fact that the same skill was rolled multiple times in a row, each distinct roll represented its own mini-challenge.  The scene was the swoop race, whereas the task was a canyon jump, or a choke point, etc.  I'm glad my GM ran it this way.  When he was setting the stage for this, I was thinking "I wonder if it'd be better to just roll a single Pilot check for the race, or for a lap?" but in hindsight that wouldn't have been NEARLY as exciting.  A scene like this needs the constant jockeying for position, the tension of knowing that the GM still has X Destiny points, which makes a Despair that much more likely, ample opportunities for Advantage and Threat to be interpreted, and enough screen time to do it justice.

So I guess the point I'm driving at is that it's important to know when to "zoom in," and by how much.  Definitely do so if there's a lot riding on the scene, or if you're prepared to offer up a lot of juicy description and meaningful consequences.  The point of the game isn't the rolls you make, but the fictional details that are sometimes adjudicated with rolls.  Don't let rolling dice get in the way of the story, and if rolling the same skill multiple times enhances the story feel free to do it, keeping in mind the potential pitfalls (as outline in the previous article).

Monday, October 28, 2013

Revising the Archaic d20 System

There were two very intriguing articles posted on the Gaming Security Agency recently - Die, d20 die and its follow-up, Extreme Makeover, d20-ish Edition.  When I first read them I thought "huh, that's interesting, and the arguments certainly have merit," but it didn't go much beyond that.  During last week's Pathfinder game I remembered these articles again, and it brought to light how the d20 system is actively impairing my gameplay.

I'm playing a Bard with 10 Wisdom and no ranks in Perception, so I'm rocking a +0, yeah!  For two levels a running joke has been that I might as well not even bother rolling Perception.  Aside from the fact that my d20s all hate me, often I won't even be successful if I take a 20.  For a while I just went with it, accepting that it was one of my character's weaknesses.  But then I got to thinking - isn't a score of 10 explicitly stated to be the human average?  Why am I running around like a blind guy just for having an average ability score?

The answer, of course, is due to a mechanical quirk exemplified by the Druid in our party.  He has a +20something in Perception (23 or 28 come to mind, but I honestly don't know for sure).  Granted he's specifically specialized in Perception, but that's a pretty big gap for level 5.  His static modifier is noticeably larger than the randomizer, and thinking about it THAT way really brings the point home.

Though the Druid is on the extreme end of the spectrum, the other PCs probably have modifiers around +10 for Perception, with no specialization other than putting ranks into it.  And that's already HALF of the randomizer.  Basically, the DCs have to be set pretty high to challenge PCs skilled in that area, but pretty soon every task you go up against is one in which your average guy literally stands no chance of succeeding.  This is an inherent problem in systems that represent increased skill by increasing the maximum result.  It's an archaic piece of game design that many modern games have abandoned.

The fix presented in the GSA article essentially turns a d20 roll into a d10 dice pool mechanic.  Instead of rolling 1d20, you roll 2d10.  Skill training, feats like Skill Focus, etc. all add an additional d10 to the dice pool instead of providing a static modifier, and you keep the best 2 results.  No need to project DCs into the stratosphere, smaller numbers equals quicker math, and you model that fact that skilled characters are still more likely to succeed while still giving unskilled characters a chance.

I like this.  Because it's no fun eliminating an option because my chance of success is slim to none.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My RPG Person Profile

So apparently this is a thing now, a thing that a lot of people are doing.  So I figured I'd join in.  This was started on the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog.

I'm currently running (at home):  Nothing, although it's probably going to be my turn to GM again around the new year (Edge of the Empire, with the Age of Rebellion beta allowed).

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include:  Edge of the Empire and a Pathfinder game that has some 13th Age bits included.

I'm currently running (online):  The One Ring.  Superb system for Play By Post.  The game is here, but if you want to view it you'll have to request lurker status.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include:  Nothing; I've tried playing in a couple of PbP games but they fizzled out pretty quick.

I would especially like to play/run:  13th Age will continue to be a go-to game for me, in addition to Edge of the Empire and The One Ring.  Games I don't run/play regularly but would like to try include Savage Worlds, Night's Black Agents, Dungeon World, and old school D&D (just to see what it's like).  I'd also like to return to D&D 4E, but probably not for long-term games.

...but would also try:  Trail of Cthulu, Buffy/Angel, Firefly, Vampire the Masquerade (which I've actually played a long time ago), Dungeon Crawl Classics, A Song of Ice and Fire, Spellbound Kingdoms, Smallville, Ashen Stars

I live in:  Cleveland, OH, though I've been known to live elsewhere for seasonal work.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like:  In an effort to not just say "duh, the core rulebooks for the systems I play regularly," I'll go with Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer's Edition (because it's $10), and 4E Enhanced: Combat in Motion.

2 or 3 novels I like:  The ones I re-read regularly are The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.  To throw a less cliche one in there, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

2 or 3 movies I like:  To keep up with the cliche, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  Jurassic Park.  And because it's getting close to November, I'll throw in Home Alone as my bonus 4th pick.

Best place to find me on-line:  I post halfway regularly (not as regularly as I'd like) here on this blog.  I'm also on G+ and Facebook pretty often, and a handful of different forums ( being the most general one).

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's:  something with elegant, flexible, transparent mechanics that I can fiddle around with if need be.

I really do not want to hear about:  Cheesy, character optimization arguments that hinge on strict, rules-lawyer-y interpretations of the Rules as Written as if tabletop RPGs weren't a medium with inherent flexibility and GM/Player discretion.  If a rule or rules interaction doesn't make sense, you can IGNORE it!

I think dead orc babies are ( circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....)  I guess the last one, because it depends on the situation and the tone of the campaign.

I talk about RPGs on _G+_ (social media site and/or RPG forum name) under the name __Brian Slaby__ 

I talk about RPGs on _pretty much any other forum_ (social media site and/or RPG forum name) under the name __alien270__