Friday, June 28, 2013

Heart of the Wild!

After much waiting, the preorder for Heart of the Wild, the next book in the TOR line, is live.  This release has been much anticipated, especially given that we haven't gotten any new material (nor definitive news of new material) since the release of Lake-Town and the announcement of the delays on the upcoming books.  And as a bonus, the book will be hardcover!

There's a lot of upcoming RPG products so I'm not sure if I'll preorder this one or wait until later (13th Age and Edge of the Empire are both being released this month), but it definitely has me intrigued!  It's basically a source book for Wilderland, which will undoubtedly be chock full of random ideas that I can incorporate into future campaigns.  I was extremely impressed with Tales from Wilderland (and I don't generally like published adventures), so I'm sure this will be top-notch as well.  The game certainly needs some new variety of adversaries, and I was VERY pleasantly surprised at the new playable cultures (River Hobbits and Wayward Elves!).  It'll be especially interesting to see how the Stoors differ from the Shire-Hobbits, especially since iirc in the canon it's unclear whether they still frequent Wilderland at all, in which case they're probably just small, secretive bands of those who haven't quite cleared out yet.

In any case, thought it was worth mentioning since I haven't talked too much about TOR recently.  I haven't played it with my gaming group(s) for several months, though I am still running a PbP game on Roleplay Online and I'm liking the way the game complements the PbP format (if you're interested in lurking, just click on this link and request lurker status).

Anyways, after Heart of the Wild will be Darkening of Mirkwood, which is the big plot-point campaign that's been in the works since the game's release (hints of it are in the core book).  I'm guessing that'll be available this year as well.  After that there will be a Rivendell book, and that's the last we know anything about.  Looking forward to seeing how the line progresses, especially after the fiasco with the PDFs (presumed to be a licensing issue).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Expanding Rituals in 13th Age

I'm currently watching season 4 of Angel for like the 50th time (ok, that's probably a slight exaggeration) and I can't help noticing that between the end of season 3 and throughout season 4, there are a lot of attempts at dark magics made (some unsuccessful, some successful with hefty complications).  The "ritual casters" (to use the 13th Age term) range from Wesley (training as a Watcher), Fred (generally book smart), Lorne (contacts), to Angel himself.  None of these characters could be considered witches/warlocks.  When magic is used on Buffy, it's usually done by Willow (the vast majority), Tara, or Amy (all witches), and occasionally Giles or Dawn (same deal as with the Angel characters - not witches).

To further the analogy, the witches on Buffy would be spellcasting classes if you had to force them into 13th Age (or at least an RPG with a ritual system reminiscent of the one in 13th Age).  But the non-casters get to do magic too!

See where I'm going with this?  Everyone's gotta start somewhere, right?  Before he cast his first spell, a Wizard is not yet a Wizard.  For those who want magic to be more accessible in their worlds, I've been thinking about an optional houserule.

So normally Clerics and Wizards can simply perform a ritual, expending an appropriate Daily spell in doing so.  Other spellcasters (usually Bards and Sorcerers, in the core book) can pick up the Ritual Caster feat and do the same thing.  The point of rituals in the game is to allow the magic-user to manipulate the magical energies in improvised ways to weave together a unique effect.  They can bend the magics to their will.

Non-spellcasters don't have Daily spells to expend, though.  But there's a workaround for that.  Ultimately, here's how I would envision an un-trained practitioner going about casting a ritual in my games.  First of all, the skill check would likely be a straight-up Int check.  Depending on the complexity of the ritual, it might be penalized, too, but that can be negated with extra preparation.  Ah, preparation.  That's the big difference, isn't it?  A non-caster would have to research the potential ritual, not having the training or intuition to bend magic to their will on their own.  It's more like following a recipe for them.  Perhaps they'll need to gather more ingredients, components, or foci as well.  All of this will take more time.  Without a magical background, the skill check is also less likely to succeed, meaning that the spell has a higher chance of "going wrong" (which could simply mean complications, as that's more interest than straight-up failure).  But then there's the Daily spell wrinkle.  I say no problem!  Just have them spend a recovery instead.  Perhaps they're draining their energy, unused to their body being used as a magical conduit, straining their mind, or using a form of blood-magic.  There are a lot of ways to justify the use of a recovery.  Perhaps a full caster can opt into that as well, but they'd have to go through the same process as a non-caster; without using a specific spell as a base to build upon, there would need to be research, and complications might be more likely.

See, just because you're a "martial" character doesn't mean you have to be barred from dabbling in magic from time to time.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Homebrewed Lasting Wounds in 13th Age

I recently posted about danger vs lethality in RPGs.  For 13th Age specifically, I don't think that greater lethality is necessary, but increasing the danger (risk associated with combat) would add more tension to the game.  I've been running pretty difficult encounters that, while they may be "hard," usually don't result in harsh consequences outside of Recoveries burned.  With a risk of lasting wounds I wouldn't feel so obligated to increase encounter difficulty, even for my group's super-defensive party.

I think the first step is looking at the lasting wound rule that's actually in the book.  It's an optional rule, and the results seem like they'll work pretty well (the caveat being that I've never actually used this rule).  Basically, if you take a wound your max HP is reduced by an amount equal to 2+your level.  The problem with this (at least in my party), as well as with the homebrewed rules linked to in my danger vs lethality post, are that they trigger when you're down to 0 HP (or making Death Saves).

My group illustrates why this might not be the best way to trigger a lasting wound - they rarely drop thanks to the prodigious in-combat healing provided by the Cleric (and the incredible defenses of the defender-specced Paladin with a magic item and a racial power that enhance those abilities).  But the problem isn't just that it wouldn't come up that often in my own games, but that it inflates the value of a Cleric (or other healer) in a game designed to get away from "needing" a healer.  I don't really want to go there (especially given that I fall very firmly in the "you shouldn't need a Cleric" camp).  So what other mechanical event could potentially trigger a lasting wound?  Critical hits.  Best part about critical hits?  They're random (so that can happen any time, no matter the fight's difficulty), and there's really nothing a healer can do to prevent them (a PC at full health can be critted just as easily as a PC near 0 HP).

Triggering a lasting wound on a critical hit was actually suggested by one of my players, and I fully agree with this over the 0 HP trigger.  It also makes more sense given that the critical hit mechanic models a particularly solid, well-placed blow, whereas HP can represent fatigue, will to fight, morale, etc. as well as physical injuries, so running out isn't necessarily supposed to mean that you've taken a nasty injury.  The specific idea that my player suggested was that when you're subject to a critical hit, the attacker rolls again (sort of like the confirmation roll for a critical in 3.x/Pathfinder).  If the second attack also hits with a natural even roll, you take a critical injury.  Actually he had 3 ideas (one involving saving throws and the other the magnitude of the hit as compared with HP), but this is the one I liked the best, and the one I'll likely use as a starting point in my game.

Cool, we have our trigger, now what does a lasting wound mean?  The rule presented in the core book does a great job of modeling the fact that an injured PC won't have the same amount of stamina that a hale PC would.  The rules I linked to in my danger vs lethality post (using negative backgrounds as a base) serve a completely different function, though.  The negative modifier is applied to any skill check where the specific injury would be detrimental.  Jumping over a pit?  That'll be tougher with a leg or foot wound.  Ideally I think negative backgrounds in combination with the temporary reduction of max HP does the best job of mechanical representing an injury.

With regard to determining the severity of the negative background, the natural result of a failed death save doesn't really apply, but I'm thinking you can use the same principle with the confirmation roll.  It would shake down like this - the higher the even roll for the confirmation, the larger the penalty.  A natural 12 would be a -1, 14 would be -2, 16 would be -3, 18 would be -6, and 20 would be -5.  Regardless of how many cumulative lasting wounds you have, the negative "injury" background penalty can never exceed -6.  The reduction of max HP due to cumulative lasting wounds would probably work exactly as it already does in the core book.

In addition, it might be fun to have the dice determine what type of injury is sustained as well.  Instead of referring to a critical injury table (like in Edge of the Empire), you could simply roll a d6 after taking a lasting wound.  The result of the roll would determine what body part was injured.

1 - left arm
2 - right arm
3 - left leg
4 - right leg
5 - torso
6 - head

For simplicity, cumulative injuries would simply add on to a single negative background.

Finally, there's the issue of healing a lasting wound.  The rules in the book of "you're completely rid of it after a full heal up!" seem a bit too easy to me.  Obviously the specifics would require a fair amount of playtesting (and would vary based on the style of game a given group wants to run), but as a first start I'm thinking this.  Whenever the group takes a full heal up, make a Con check.  If you fumble, the negative background gets worse by 1 point.  Hit a normal DC for your current environment and it gets better by 1 point.  A hard difficulty reduces it by 2 points, and a very hard difficulty snares you a 3 point improvement.

As far as the reduction in HP is concerned, you'll have a single injury's worth of HP reduction (2+level) until the negative background is completely gone.  If you have cumulative wounds, every time you succeed at your Con check you reduce the HP loss by 1 wound (though you still suffer from at least 1 total wound until the negative background is completely gone).

Again, I haven't playtested any of this, it's just my initial thoughts.  For all I know it could get to the point where PCs almost always suffer from a lasting wound, and that's just not a great situation unless you're going for a particularly gritty style of game.  If it comes up too often, it will get stale and won't be as narratively meaningful.

Another alternative that I've thought of is handled more narratively, and is based on the "Messy" tag in Dungeon World.  The tag basically says that damage is dealt in a particularly destructive way.  For 13th Age I would essentially say that certain monsters inflict lasting wounds when they land a solid enough hit.  Lasting wounds would emphasize the risk in fighting the particularly dangerous creatures, but would get out of the way when facing more mundane foes.

Ultimately the key is in fine-tuning the trigger.  There's a whole spectrum in which lasting wounds can occur, from being very common in a grittier game to not existing at all in a group where the players just don't want to deal with them.  That spectrum might look something like this:

Wounds are common - trigger on a critical hit
Wounds are somewhat common - trigger on a natural even confirmation hit after a critical
Wounds are uncommon - trigger on a natural 16+ confirmation hit after a critical
Wounds are rare - trigger on a natural 20 confirmation hit after a critical
Wounds don't exist - they're not triggered at all.

At least this spectrum offers an easy method of fine-tuning the "injury dial" if you find that lasting wounds are coming up too often or not often enough for your group's tastes.  Such a spectrum would me much less intuitive using a "trigger when you drop to 0 HP" method.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Danger vs Lethality in Roleplaying Games

Several weeks ago the Pelgrane Press website posted a very intriguing article on the versatility of 13th Age Backgrounds.  Taking this idea and running with it, someone posted some lasting wound houserules in the 13th Age Google+ group.  I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately.

It's no surprise that narrative-centric games tend to be less lethal compared with grittier simulationist-style games.  If the story is the most important aspect of the game, a dead PC can really muck things up.    Not only does it drastically affect the game's ongoing narrative, but precisely because the game is so focused on story that probably means that the player put a whole lot of creative effort into that character.  Of course if you go too far in that "safe" direction, what's the point?  If the chance of dying is negligibly small where's the risk?

At this point we need to make a distinction between danger and lethality.  Edge of the Empire is a great example of this.  True to its narrative roots, it's pretty hard for PCs to actually die in EotE.  And yet, I've heard a lot of comments about how "lethal" the system is.  That's not exactly true because lethality implies death (but who knows, maybe they had GMs that slit the PCs throats once they're unconscious).  Rather, it's extremely easy for PCs to drop in a fight, even if dropping doesn't come close to killing them.  Guns don't kill people, critical injury tables kill people!  Personally I think this is an extremely elegant solution as combat still feels appropriately dangerous and full of risk.  It was pretty clear from the start (well, if we ignore the Gamorrean encounter from the Beginner's Box...) that combat has real consequences.  My players became much more cautious than they are in d20 games, pretty much instinctively.  They actively tried to avoid combat (you know, like most real people do).  So you can have your cake (low risk of character death screwing the story), and eat it too (combat is still dangerous).  There's also more incentive to fight smart.

Because 13th Age uses inflating HP whereas Edge doesn't it's impossible to translate mechanics even remotely closely.  And yet, both games are narrative-focused systems with an emphasis on cinematic action.  Despite the similarities, combat presents few risks in 13th Age.  My Cleric player isn't even afraid of dropping because the death save rule is so generous, and besides that they don't drop very often (thanks to the fact that they're a Fighter, Paladin, and Cleric adventuring together).  Sure, combat's still fun, but it'd be more fun if there were more risk (despite the relative feeling of safety, my players still describe my encounters as "hard," and I agree completely).

I'm reminded of an episode from season 7 of Buffy, which I watched recently.  Buffy gets grievously injured fighting a turok-han (ubervamp), and it was precisely those injuries that made for a compelling story.  Buffy doesn't get seriously hurt all that often.  Heck, she's probably more likely to die ;)  It's pretty routine watching her fight monsters, but it soon becomes clear that she's outgunned.  The scene starts out as a typical fight scene, but soon it starts looking bad for our Slayer.  Instead of coming through victoriously as usual, the frame rate increases.  The turok-han appears to move even faster as he attacks Buffy, and the attacks get more brutal-looking.  Finally it crushes her under a big pile of debris, draining morale and hammering in the point that "this is bad."  In RPG terms she didn't just lose the fight, but she sustained a critical injury (or lasting wound).  The element of danger was very visceral even though the fight wasn't lethal.

Injuries aren't just for "simulationists," they make for compelling narrative, too!  They're a challenge to be overcome.  Players can be creative describing how the injury hampers them, and then they feel even better when they overcome the odds and emerge victorious.  There's a reason why most final fights see the hero facing a superior foe - it's more interesting and people generally like seeing the underdog prevail.

I'll conclude by referring to another example (because I watched Iron Man today).  Imagine if Obadiah hadn't built a bigger suit, or better yet if he hadn't stolen Tony Stark's second mini-arc reactor, leaving him with the less powerful prototype.  Would you be as emotionally invested in the movie's conclusion if Iron Man went into that final confrontation at full strength?  If he was able to win with brute force instead of being forced to use guile?  It would be completely anti-climactic.  Shouldn't this be exactly the type of thing that an RPG should model (cinematic combat, overcoming challenges, opportunities for player creativity)?  In my next post I'll brainstorm some ideas for injecting more danger into 13th Age.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

13th Age Options: The Paladin

Note:  This post, formerly called "New Toys for the Paladin," has been retroactively placed into my 13th Age Options series (tag "13A Options").

The Paladin player in my group has been complaining that the class is a bit too simplistic.  While I hope that they eventually provide some extra official options to make the Paladin a bit more complex, these homebrew Talents and Feats should work in the mean time.  I initially posted some of this on the Pelgrane Press forums for feedback, and plenty of other great ideas were suggested there as well (if you want more than presented here).

New Paladin Talent - Channel Divinity

Any time you roll a basic melee attack and it's a natural even hit, you can Channel Divinity as a free action.  You can choose 3 of the following Channel Divinity options when you take this talent.

Divine Vengeance - If the target's next attack hits it takes Holy damage equal to double your level.

Divine Cleansing - The damage you deal with this attack is Holy damage.  In addition, you or a nearby ally gains a +2 bonus to saving throws until the end of your next turn.

Divine Vigor - You or a nearby ally gains temporary hit points equal to double your level.

Divine Banishment - The target pops free of any engagements.

Divine Vanguard - Allies unengaged with the target at the start of their turn that engage and attack the target before the start of your next turn deal bonus damage equal to your Cha modifier if they hit (double Cha at Champion, triple at Epic).

Divine Enervation - If the attack hits and you used Smite Evil you can choose to deal half damage and Weaken the target.

Adventurer Feat:  Channel Divinity triggers on any natural even roll, hit or miss.
Champion Feat:  Choose a fourth Channel Divinity option.  Once per battle you can lower the natural result of your die roll by 1.
Epic Feat:  Once per battle you can heal using a Recovery when you Channel Divinity.


Smite Evil Adventurer Feat - On a natural 16+ the target becomes Vulnerable (save ends) to all damage.

Paladin's Challenge Adventurer Feat - If a challenged enemy hits one of your allies with a melee attack it takes Holy damage equal to your level + Cha modifier (double Cha mod at Champion, triple at Epic).


General Feats

Defensive Rally (Adventurer Tier Feat) - Whenever you use the Rally action you gain a +2 bonus to all defenses.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Barbarian (and other) Playtesting Observations

I just ran through 2 "solitaire" playtest encounters to test some fixes for the Barbarian from this post.  The party were level 2 (Sorcerer, Bard, and Barbarian).  The Barbarian used my base HP 9 house rule, and had Slayer, Whirlwind, and Unstoppable.  Feats were Rage, Unstoppable, and Strong Recovery (he was human).

The first encounter was 4 goblin mooks, 2 hobgoblins, and a bugbear.  The second were 4 Lizardfolk and a homebrew 3rd level Lizardfolk Shaman (who basically has an at-will entangle).


The increased base HP probably hits the sweet spot in terms of durability.

Unstoppable is pretty phenomenal, as despite his low AC the Barbarian ended up using the fewest recoveries of the group for the two fights.  Using it while Raging and/or when the ED is relatively high minimizes the risk of "calling" the shot and then missing.  Still, I like the tension that potentially missing and wasting it provides, as well as the strategic considerations (when to use it).

Slayer was sort of tough to utilize (which was my player's experience in our first game as well).  However, in the goblin fight I did manage to crit with it (thanks to Rage) for a hefty 44 damage.  That's probably enough to finish off most staggered enemies a level 2 party is likely to encounter.

Whirlwind might be too powerful, even if you're likely to take a beating after using it.  Especially against mooks, since they tend to surround PCs and you get a separate attack against each, each one dealing damage to the same HP pool.  Normally I try to be pretty generous with allowing players who deal a ton of damage to the mook group to kill unengaged mooks, but with Whirlwind the Barbarian easily took out all 4 mooks (despite being engaged with just 2), and in fact dealt enough damage to take out 7 if there were that many present.  He wasn't even Raging.  Spilling damage onto non-adjacent mooks is likely to be a LOT more common if you have a Barbarian with this talent in your party, and it's making me think I have to reconsider where to draw that line.  Upon first reading the mook rules I figured "whatever can be realistically justified with the narrative," but in practice it's too easy to do that.  Perhaps I set a bad precedent by describing the "extra" mooks killed as the Fighter in my group pulling out his dagger and throwing it at one after cleaving through the others.  I'll need to recalibrate, otherwise mooks will be pretty pointless vs a Barbarian (i.e. the same problem that 4E minions had when there were big AoEs in the party).

In the first fight I intentionally didn't Rage until the ED was 4 (the second I started the battle Raging).  This was to simulate the fact that in a 4 encounter "day," even with the house-rule recharge rules Rage is likely to only come into play in 2 fights.  It was cool to see a Raging Barbarian really tear into things, as the game in which one of my players was a Barbarian seemed cursed with unlucky d20 rolls.  Like, he'd miss while Raging for 3 turns in a row.  I'd never seen such rotten luck, actually.

Overall I feel pretty good about the Barbarian after the base HP 9 and recharge Rage after every battle houserules.  Rage is definitely a game-changer (as it should be), and even if it's not quite as powerful as the damage-centric Fighter in my game it seems like it's probably on more even footing with the Paladin and Ranger.

An even-leveled Sorcerer is definitely handicapped until s/he earns an incremental advance, but it wasn't as dire a situation as I'd feared.  Their Daily and Recharge powers are still extremely formidable, and hitting with them after Gathering Power makes you completely forget about your low at-will damage.  But even at-will damage isn't so bad if you concentrate on spreading damage via Burning Hands.  The upgrade from 1d6 to 1d8 at 3rd level isn't a big enough change to get too worked up about being out-damaged, and if you hit two targets you're actually about on-par in terms of damage dealt to Team Monster.  While focus fire is generally more tactically-sound, it's definitely worth mentioning that AoE is the way to go vs mooks.

The Bard was cursed with perpetual bad luck.  He's a Halfling so when one of the Lizardfolk hit him he used Evasive, only to reward the Lizardfolk with an 18 (which gives him a free bite).  Ok, good thing he jacked the Shield spell from the Wizard list!  Or not, since the third re-roll was a 19 (at least it wasn't a 20!).  On top of that he hit with exactly ONE attack over the course of 2 battles.  And it didn't even trigger any flexible attacks.  The worst was when Befuddle was used and it missed, and it was an odd miss so didn't even trigger the miss effect.  I'm definitely starting to re-consider whether "Pull it Together!" is reliable enough for the Bard to function as the party's only healer (assuming the players expect a healer).  The ONE hit scored by this guy was a natural 9 (thanks to the ED), so he quite literally didn't roll an 11+ at all.  Actually, he did manage it once, but it was for a disengage check.  So aside from soaking up damage, the Bard didn't really do anything.  It's tough for me to judge the class, obviously, but it's a class I want to like.


Ah, Cleave.  So cool that two of the core classes have a version of it (Fighter and Barbarian).  It's worth mentioning the differences between the two though, because their feat support is very different.  The Fighter in my group makes excellent use of Cleave every battle, and no wonder with that Heroic feat!  Letting the Fighter move to a nearby enemy before "cleaving" is how he uses the power the majority of the time.  In my first game, the Barbarian never got to use Barbaric Cleave over the course of 2 sessions (at which point he trained it out).  It wasn't even that he wasn't getting ganged up on; it's just that he didn't happen to kill anything when that was the case.  Which is a pity, since the feat is extremely impressive in that it turns Cleave into a potent offensive AND defensive option.

Granted, there are ways around this, and ways that 13th Age embraces.  Player creativity is highly encouraged and mechanically rewarded, assuming you have a GM that "gets" the game.  Point being, an on-the-fly "stunt" system is critical for getting mileage out of Cleave.  Allies can shove more enemies around the Barbarian, the Barbarian can taunt enemies into surrounding him, etc.  A lot of players might get discouraged by the lack of forced movement options (especially if coming from 4E), but they're not gone completely, they're just not spelled out.  Trying to trick the enemies into springing the Cleave-trap could become a fun mini-game in and of itself.

And at Champion tier it's a lot easier, because after that Barbarians can also move before Cleaving.  In fact, Barbaric Cleave is probably a better pick than either Champion-tier talents (if you don't already have it).  Likewise Barbaric Cleave's Epic feat is much better than the Fighter's version.  Though less reliable in the early levels, it quickly becomes better with feat support.

Truth be told, I debated between Cleave and Whirlwind for my playtest Barbarian for a while.  Whirlwind is certainly more potent being an at-will method for generating multiple attacks, but the defensive penalty really shoves an already-squishy class pretty far over the edge.  You become easier to hit than a Wizard or Sorcerer when you swing wildly enough to hit everyone around you.  In contrast, Barbaric Cleave (with feat support) actually helps you defensively, but it's only 1 extra attack per battle (and one that's hard to trigger, at that!).  Ultimately I liked that Whirlwind was more active and so I went with that.  If your party doesn't have a healer, though, Barbaric Cleave is worth looking at.