Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Updated Reference Sheets for Edge of the Empire

I had some reference sheets floating around from the Beta, but now that my gaming group has started playing again with the core rulebook I decided I'd revise the sheets (since we went through that first session using slightly erroneous rules).

Here they are, for anyone who wants them.  There's a general reference sheet with an extremely consolidated table for spending Advantage/Threat, a list of weapon qualities, and some other misc. bits of information that I found myself wanting to have handy in-game.  Second is a starship reference sheet, which has benefitted from a more comprehensive overhaul since the beta version.  It's got the pilot and crew maneuvers/actions (though I didn't include obvious and intuitive things like making Gunnery checks), the Chase rules, Astrogation details, and notes on Sensors and repairing Hull Trauma.

These sheets may not be absolutely perfect for everyone.  Some people might prefer separate tables for Advantage and Threat, for example, but personally I like the concise table since many of the effects are mirror images of each other, and I tend to improvise a lot anyways.  I also left out some information that probably wouldn't come up too often (Bacta rules, some of the less commonly-encountered weapon qualities), and certainly didn't clutter the sheets up with basics like dice symbols, which I've got down.

That said, I'm sure there are plenty of gamers out there who think along the same lines as me, so if these look useful use them!

Flow of Information

The issue of Perception and how it grants PCs information in TTRPGs has been a popular topic in the blogosphere lately.  It's also one that I've struggled with personally.

To start with, most players consider Perception to be the most powerful/useful skill in D&D 4E.  I know I would train it with virtually all of my characters.  But then a funny thing happened; I started reading and researching more narrative-centric RPGs with their fail-forward philosophies and what-not, and my character ideas began to deliberately ditch Perception.  For one thing it's often not an "active" skill, but rather one that the GM calls upon PCs to roll, and second things can simply get more interesting (albeit more difficult as well) if you fail a Perception check.  I'd rather have to claw my way out of a tight spot that I could have avoided if it was memorable as opposed to getting some piece of information that basically tells me what's up.

Unfortunately this doesn't always work in practice.  In the Pathfinder campaign that I'm currently playing in there was a lot of "roll Perception" results as we were exploring a dungeon.  Failure came with its typical problems; players knew something was up and then either got no information, or got a surprise scythe-blade trap to the back.  But success was equally boring.  "Rogue, you find another trap there."  "I roll Disable Device."  "Ok, you disabled the trap."  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I'm glad the Rogue got to be useful (he certainly hasn't been in combat), but it still wasn't very exciting.

A while ago there was an article on Thought Crime that explored this very issue.

Dungeon World

Since a lot of the blog articles reference Dungeon World, we'll step back for a second and examine how Perception is handled in that system.  One of the Basic Moves in Dungeon World is "Discern Realities."  You roll (2D6) +Wis and on a 10+ you can ask 3 questions, and one question on a 7-9 (the "partial success" ubiquitous in Dungeon World rolls).  The list of questions is as follows:

  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is useful or valuable to me?
  • Who's really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?
By reading the list of questions it should be apparent that Perception is a very player-driven process.  It's also worth mentioning that a Move in Dungeon World can only be triggered by the fiction as described by that player.  The player says what he's doing, and the GM may say "sound's like you're trying to Discern Realities; roll + Wis."  Or the player can specify that, but it won't work unless his description of the PCs actions also match up with the Move's trigger.  For Discern Realities, you have to "closely observe your target," and it's also called out that you "can't just stick your head in the doorway," but rather you have to closely examine the surroundings; pick things up, get up close and personal, etc.  A really helpful clarifying statement from the book:  "Discern Realities isn't just about noticing a detail, it's about figuring out the bigger picture."

That's a key difference with the classic Perception check - the GM isn't just going to tell the player "you find a trap," but rather they're answering a player's specific question.  The detail of "there are traps here" might still be included, but the specifics will vary depending on what question was asked.  Furthermore, if the player succeeds they will learn something even if the GM didn't plan for anything; by asking the question they are injecting a fact into the narrative based on the GMs response.  As a further carrot for the PCs, when acting on the answers they get a +1 forward (bonus to a future action).

This sounds cool and all (I haven't actually played Dungeon World yet), but rolling a 6 or less is still a null result, and the player doesn't get to ask any questions.  It's easy enough to incorporate a "fail forward" philosophy, which leads back to another blog post.

Query-Based Perception Hack

Yesterday there was a heavily Dungeon-World inspired article over at Mystic Theurge about Query-Based Perception.  The hack draws questions from several *World games and applies them to several different systems, including 13th Age.  In some ways this sub-system is more interesting than Dungeon World's.  It doesn't offer the "ask 3 questions" option, but it does let PCs ask a question regardless of whether they pass or fail, and either way they'll gain a +2 bonus to any actions while acting on the information.  On a failure, the information is wrong (or incomplete), but interesting results are sure to ensue when players risk acting on misinformation to get the +2 bonus.  It's a clever way to inject fail-forward into the system.

Clues and Mysteries

Thought Crime posted an interesting sub-system that might serve investigative style games quite well.  Ephemera are like temporary Backgrounds in 13th Age, and one such type is the "Clue."  Clues can be earned through a Perception or other investigation-related check much like the above system (or Discern Realities in Dungeon World), but they can also be gained from Icon rolls or as loot.  Though it's only orthogonally related to the Perception issue, I LOVE the idea of handing out Clues as loot, since they come with a built-in mechanism to entice players to play with the information (the ephemera bonus, which stacks with Backgrounds).  A later post outlines how a GM can structure an adventure around these mechanics with an example mystery.


We're getting a little further from straight Perception here, but that's ok because Perception is only one facet of the bigger issue - how the GM doles out information to the players.  I've been eyeing a third-party supplement for Pathfinder for a while now; it incorporates the GUMSHOE system (which is the system that games such as Trail of Cthulu and Ashen Stars uses), and is called Lorefinder.  As I understand it, the way that GUMSHOE/Lorefinder works is that simply having an investigative skill is enough to give you some basic information in a situation that relates to that skill.  Your proficiency in an Investigative skill (which works differently from your standard skills like Climb, etc.) grants you a number of points that you can use per session rather than a modifier to a d20 roll.  You can use one or more of these points from the pool to gain additional information beyond the baseline.  The basic information will usually be just enough to get by without grinding the plot to a halt, while the "extra" information will obviously be more useful.  The GM will just give the PC the information, no roll required.  But the PC will have to decide when to spend those limited points, because some information will obviously be more useful than other.

What to Take Away from all of these Systems?

Clearly a case can be made for facilitating the flow of information between GM and PCs that minimizes both the tedium and roadblocks of straight Perception or investigative skill rolls.  Query-based Perception (including that used by the *World games) allows players to steer the details a bit by framing the information they obtain in the form of specific questions.  This works best when combined with a fail-forward philosophy, and a bonus when acting on the information further promotes player engagement and can lead to interesting consequences if the information is wrong or incomplete.  Expanding the idea of such bonuses (or "ephemera") to investigation in general, temporary Backgrounds (13th Age style) in the form of Clues provide a tangible reward above and beyond the information itself, as well as possibly being used as a limited resource ("spending" clues to move toward solving the mystery).  Lorefinder (and GUMSHOE in general) also does a great job of giving players a limited-use investigative resource, and is perhaps the most well-known system for handing out relevant information.

Have I used any of this in my own games?  Not directly, no (aside from general "fail-forward").  But I can see the promise, and I wish something like this were in place for the Pathfinder game I'm playing in.  Having spent much of the last few hours reading up on these various options, I'm not even sure if everything has really sunk in yet.  Using everything would be redundant and, more importantly, overly complex, and I'm not quite sure what would suit my needs best.  If my curiosity gets the best of me and I end up purchasing Lorefinder, I may have more to say on the subject.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The End of the Axtalrath Campaign

I started my 13th Age campaign back in January, as a way to introduce the group to the game.  Eight months later, I found myself surprised how long it actually lasted.  I had intended to run a shorter campaign just to get people used to the system, but the ideas just kept flowing and it took on a life of its own.  With everyone wanting to actually play Edge of the Empire, it seemed like a good time to draw 13th Age to a close, despite the fact that I still had plenty of material floating around in my head.

Finale Summary

We covered a lot of ground throughout this campaign, but the quick and dirty backstory is that there was a recently colonized island in the Midland Sea, where the PCs were residing at the start of the campaign, and about a week (game time) earlier a great red dragon named Axtalrath had taken up residence there.  Somewhere in the middle of the campaign the wood elf Cleric had also freed an imprisoned Dracolich, meaning that there were TWO dragons loose now.  After escaping the island via a portal at the end of a living dungeon, hanging around in Drakkenhall, and getting some magical aid from Arden, the Great Gold Wyrm's silver dragon counterpart (known as the Sea Dragon, she left the empire when the Midland Sea was tamed, and now guards the Sea Wall from the creatures of the Iron Sea), it was time to return to the island and put a stop to Axtalrath.

Now, Axtalrath was a Huge Red Dragon (the level 13 one from the core book), and the party had just hit level 5.  The Dracolich was a Huge 8th level custom creation based on the dragons from the book.  Clearly a face-to-face fight was out of the question.  Fortunately, the magic that Arden gifted the PCs with would allow them to reverse the polarity of the island's sky-metal monolith (which has been drawing magical energy from the ley lines underneath), forcing it to siphon nearby elemental fire instead.  If Axtalrath were nearby, it would destroy her.

With that plan in mind, the PCs began the session in an old cave system where the Dracolich's phylactery was hidden.  The kobold guards were toast (all 30+ of them) after the last battle of the previous session, so after recovering the phylactery the party sought out the Dracolich and threatened to destroy it unless he challenged Axtalrath in single combat, drawing her to the monolith.  After some negotiation which left the Cleric with cursed hands (think Dumbledore's) and cursed eyes (a self-inflicted complication from an Icon roll), the Dracolich grudgingly agreed.

Cue the big epic battle.  The Monk's OUT was that he can climb impossible surfaces, so once Axtalrath was in sight he activated Arden's magic at the top of the monolith while the Fighter did the same at the base.  It took a few rounds to charge up, during which the Dracolich occupied most of Axtalrath's attention, while Axtalrath sent some allies (courtesy of The Blue) after the PCs (a hill giant and several Hobgoblin warcasters).  Just when things were looking dire for the Dracolich, the energy began arcing from the monolith to Axtalrath.  It was then that she knew what was going on, so for 2 rounds before her death she focused her attention on the PCs.  One breath weapon killed the Cleric outright in a single shot, and grievously wounded the others.  The Fighter was unconscious, so I randomly rolled to see whether she would target her death throes on the Paladin or Monk.  Paladin got the unlucky roll, and in a surprising bout of heroism the Monk intercepted, and I let him use Improbably Stunt to use a finishing move as part of the intercept.  After 3 attacks from the dragon (2 of which hit; I think I fumbled the other one) the Monk was outright killed, too.  Axtalrath swallowed him whole, and as the player noted that he'd had 2 vials of poison on his person, the dragon experienced some mild gastric distress before being immolated and siphoned into the monolith.

The Paladin used a magic axe with item-destroying powers to betray the Dracolich by destroying the phylactery anyways.  This axe caused images from the destroyed item's past to be reflected in its blade, and destroying the phylactery therefore replaced the images from the last item the axe destroyed - images that would have implicated the Paladin's political rival and ended his exile, restoring his status in Dwarven society.  A noble sacrifice, to be sure, but not so final as the one that the Cleric and Monk made.  Of course, being inside of Axtalrath when she was consumed allowed the Monk's essence to be sucked into the island's ley lines through the monolith, so he IS the island now.  And the Cleric got to meet the voice behind a mysterious amulet that talked to him - the voice of God.  And the Fighter, well, he made the Great Gold Wyrm proud by defeated two rivals.


This session was interesting because I hadn't planned on having the PCs roll their Relationship Dice until the last minute.  The final confrontation was pretty much set without much wiggle room if we were to finish in one session, and I'd had a 6 with the Emperor and a 5 and 6 with the Orc Lord banked from last session.  But I figured I'd let them roll one last time, and got more results than usual.  Three more 6's and three more 5's, to be precise.  Even more surprising was that all of them got used except one of the 5's (for the Emperor).

So how'd I pull it off?  Well, I decided to burn the Orc Lord relationship by making the Dracolich's phylactery a shrunken head - that happened to be an orc.  No shame in having an Icon roll result in some interesting aesthetic detail.  Were it not the last session, something like that could have taken on greater significance later.  A 5 with The Three meant that a pair of kobold scouts happened to be discovering the massacre of their fellow guards just as the PCs exited the cave, and they were able to capture one of them and force him to take them to the Dracolich's camp.  A 5 for the Priestess let the Cleric (by his suggestion) discover the ritual to destroy the phylactery by studying the various runes carved into the scarified face, but at the expense of getting cursed eyes (a negative background; too bad he didn't live long enough for it to come into play).  The Fighter used a 6 with the Great Gold Wyrm (by his suggestion) to convince the Dracolich during negotiations that Arden had provided them with the means to destroy his phylactery (this was before the Cleric discovered its secrets), and the name-dropping also leant much weight to the plan to destroy Axtalrath.  The Dracolich was, after all, very much outmatched in that fight.  A 6 for the Emperor revealed that an old ally (Lord Taramos) was in residence at the Wizard tower beside the monolith, and being the most powerful wizard on the island he was able to aid them by animating the crystalline walls surrounding the compound during the fight.  Rolls for the Dwarf King and Orc Lord determined the allies sent by The Blue through the portal (this is one that I'd actually planned on using BEFORE the session, even jotting down a list of possible allies associated with each Icon in the party).

And that about covered it.  It turned out to be perhaps the most Icon-heavy session in the campaign, despite the fact that the plot was pretty much "set."  I guess the moral of the story here is GMs shouldn't be afraid to stack the odds against the PCs, and let Icon rolls determine whatever little advantages they can eke out to level the playing field a little bit.  It's usually pretty easy to come up with story-guidance results as a GM, but until that sub-plot resolves itself sometimes it's tough to interpret Icon rolls.  But that's cool, because if you just increase the pressure on the PCs they might just come up with clever ways to leverage their connections with the Icons.  In some ways I don't think that the player-input facet of the Icons hit its stride until later in the campaign, which makes me really excited for the next campaign now that the players know the ropes!

Monday, August 19, 2013

13th Age Mechanics in Pathfinder

Well, I did something I never thought I would do again - I started playing in a Pathfinder game.  Largely because one of the players from my 13th Age campaign is GMing it, and he's incorporating some 13th Age mechanics into the game, outlined below.

  • Icons.  The published list is used as a base, though several of them have been changed to some degree or another.  Also, there's only 10 or 11 of them.  Icon relationships in the party include the High Druid, the General (sort of a combination of the Emperor and the Crusader, but not evil), the Prince of Shadows, the Archmage, the Great Gold Wyrm, and The Holy Mother (a slightly modified Priestess).  
  • One Unique Thing.  This is used as-is, though some of the players have elected to keep theirs a secret.  My character's OUT is "stolen" from Angel (The Buffy spinoff), as he can read someone's destiny when they sing (like Lorne, though the character is human, and even though he's a Bard he doesn't sing himself).  Interesting, one of the other players completely independently said that his character's OUT is that he knows that his fate is death, but doesn't yet know how he'll die.
  • The Escalation Die is in, but the GM is capping it at 4 to keep the bonuses from getting out of hand (not sure how long fights will last; many of the PCs are more social/exploration oriented as opposed to strong combatants).  
  • Backgrounds, much to my dismay, are NOT in.  Yep, still have to deal with that long, fiddly skill list (one of the things I like least about Pathfinder).  Oh well, I'll live.
  • The GM has let me swap out Bardic Performance (like I said, my Bard doesn't sing) for the Storyteller talent from 13th Age.  It's already come into play beautifully.  As we were searching through the house of a murder (and theft, but at that point does it really matter?) victim my Bard mentioned that the Rogue really looked like he knew his stuff when it comes to breaking and entering, and asked if he recognized any patterns or anything about the way the place was searched (only very specific things were stolen).  The Rogue got to re-roll his story-guide relationship with the Prince of Shadows, and got a 6!  So we got some info, confirming the killer as belonging to his old guild.
While the fiddly bits and rules look-ups are still annoying, I've built my character to mostly avoid a lot of that stuff.  Case in point, before I thought of swapping in Storyteller, I'd flat-out stated that I was going to ignore Bardic Performance because it was too much bookkeeping and too convoluted.  The OUTs are already making for an interesting group, and the increased narrative focus is just generally making the system more tolerable.  These 13th Age mechanics mesh well with Pathfinder, despite the two systems sharing COMPLETELY different philosophies.  I'm looking forward to seeing how it all progresses.

On a related note, this week I'm wrapping up my current 13th Age campaign.  I've been driving the plot to its conclusion for the last few sessions more quickly than I'd initially intended, with a ton of cool ideas still floating around in my head.  But I'm itching to try Edge of the Empire, and so is the rest of the group, and I'm also a bit burnt out on GMing (this Pathfinder campaign aside, I haven't played a PC for about a year and a half).  It's been going 8 months strong, but I look forward to the next game when everyone has a better idea of what to expect from the character classes (for example, my Paladin player hates his class).

Expect me to focus a bit more on Star Wars and a bit less on 13th Age coming up soon, but I'm sure I'll get another 13th Age game up and running after 13 True Ways is released.