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!


  1. Loving the new look!

    I've been enjoying the 13th Age options, and have a challenge for when you do the rogue: re-design the rogues "cunning" talent (or make up a new talent called Sly). Could the new talent be independent of attribute bonuses.

    Reasoning: Stylistically I really like the cunning "vetanari" style rogue, and while any rogue can be role-played this way I do-not think the Cunning talent is mechanically good, interesting, or achieves making a rogue seem cunning (Charisma to Intelligence effects one power and one other talent... and the other bonuses are negligible).

    The attributelessness part of my request comes from planning to use Page XX's 13th age without attributes article, which I really like. I find attributes mostly redundant.

    I've thought about this myself, but always come up with something akin to swashbuckler, or the rangers "tracker" or lethal hunter.

    Probably a once per day power that allows a "cunning plan" to have a mechanical benefit might be good... Have fun trying!

    1. To be fair, getting rid of attributes does make the talent less worthwhile. I think a big draw of the Talent is making a "know-it-all" Rogue, in which case a few more knowledge-related background points COMBINED with a high Int is critical. The MD-enhancing feats could also be very useful in a campaign that featured things like Mind Flayers, enemy spellcasters, or even enemy Rogues using Shadow Walk, and are quite competitive because bonuses to MD aren't very common, but more importantly Confused is just about the worst Condition out there. Of course the talent looks even better if the campaign also happens to feature frequent traps.

      Obviously this is all situational, but if you're going to be playing a Cunning Rogue you should definitely bring these issues up with the GM. While I agree that it's not the most impressive talent ever, I don't think it's weak enough to merit a re-write assuming your GM actually showcases your strengths somewhat regularly.

      The attribute-less article from Page XX that you referenced; is that the one that talks about using Backgrounds to fill in Attacks, PD, MD, Initiative, HP, and AC? While that might have the advantage of creating a "lite" system, I honestly wasn't a fan. It seems very arbitrary to me to add an unrelated background to a derived statistic; why would a bookworm Wizard with all knowledge-related backgrounds add one of them to PD, AC, HP, or Initiative? I also see it as narrowing the scope of a character's expertise. With attributes, I like that my Fighter can be good at any feat of strength even if he has unrelated backgrounds by virtue of his Str being high. In fact, that frees me up to get creative with my Fighter's backgrounds, breaking free of the pigeonholed skill lists of D&D, while still letting my Fighter be reasonably good at physical activities that someone in good shape (and any Fighter would be) should be reasonably competent at.

      Obviously YMMV, and this is my own opinion on the matter. But if I wanted to make the system more "lite" I would be more likely to just bump up the baseline class value for those derived statistics by +1, 2, or 3. For example, I've found that most non-Dex classes end up with a +2 bonus to AC because it's too costly to get your middle mod higher than that without gimping your attack stat. So why not just say that a Barbarian's (for example) AC is 14+level instead of 12+middle mod+level?

      I was actually planning on addressing that very issue in a future blog post, but more as an educational "here's what you can expect your numbers to be" as opposed to a houserule on how these stats are derived. Again, mostly because I feel that doing away with attributes entirely screws up skill checks. I could see replacing the attribute score with JUST the modifier, but then there's things in the bestiary like the kobold traps that work by rolling over the target's Wis SCORE (and wouldn't it be neat if future supplements incorporated more rules that utilized the raw ability score?).

    2. Lets compare Cunning to Loremaster (or Mythkenner) for the bard; they all aim to do the same thing; open up a potential character concept that the statistics of the system do not allow. Both let you use intelligence instead of charisma for class powers. This change opens up 8 bardic spells to the learned bard, and combines with the Balladeer talent as well as the first feat of the Jack-of-spells talent. Cunning opens up 1 rogue power to the crafty rogue, and combines with the Shadow Walk talent as well as the first feat of the Smooth Talk talent. This clearly favours the Loremaster talent; opening up a lot of ‘spells’ to this concept, rather than just one. A rogue/bard would be justified in wanting to be cunning/a loremaster without choosing the other effected talents; in this case Loremaster is still good, while cunning is all but worthless.
      Both Cunning and Loremaster give you a sweet two more points of backgrounds, to be spent on essentially the same things (knowledge-related vs history, bardic lore, or magical knowledge). The Loremaster talent allows you to raise your background upto the usually impossible +6. Cunning does not. Very comparable, but Loremaster is better.
      Lormaster; gain a single relationship point with the Archmage OR Lich King, vs +2 skill bonus when dealing with traps. I think the Relationship dice is much better here; sorcerers must pay an entire talent to gain such a bonus. It feels more character defining and more likely to effect the game than a skill bonus dependent on traps cropping up.
      So as a Talent I feel Cunning is a lot weaker than Loremaster, in every aspect. It does have very nice feats associated with it (while Loremaster has none); but it feels like it does not pull it’s weight other than in opening up those feats
      As for Statless; well that’s a whole other discussion. I don’t think the ‘link’ between being a great lormaster and having more PD should be there – I think of it more as a way of customising your character (balance between abilities) that does not require Stats… briefly I think stats do to little to be worthwhile, and the bonuses they give are almost entirely derivative. I don’t want to simply give standard bonus’ as I like character being able to customise. In my mind you have three pools (1, 2, 3) which you assign variables to (Main attack, AC, HP / PD, MD, Initiative / magic, melee, ranged / background 1, bg 2, bg3) – overall it produces some balance but with interesting choices. I like customising, just not ability scores: they are prominent things that don’t often do much (as we see systems using them often have to use circuitous routes to allow a certain character concept). Still I don’t mind them. Fore Loremaster and Mythkenner in an abilityless system? I’d probably simply double the number of bonus BG points; a talent for 4 Background points and a relationship point is excellent.

      My Ideas for Cunning:

      Option 1: Weaker than Loremaster; but gaining a relationship point is very appealing; plus a feat tree. A) Change references of Charisma to Intelligence, B) 2 additional points of knowledge backgrounds, C) 1 additional point of conflicted relationship, brought about through your cunning. Adventurer feat: +1 mental defence

      Option 2: Here the weakness of option A is offset by the strength of option C… but it’s not that interesting. A) References to Intelligence to Charisma, B) 2 additional points of knowledge backgrounds, C) +1 mental defence.

      Option 3: I like this as the “fix” to the charisma based powers is optional (and could be moved to the other talents, making cunning optional). Now a mechanically strong talent. A) +1 mental Defence, B) 2 additional points of knowledge backgrounds, C) 1 additional point of conflicted relationship, brought about through your cunning. Adventurer feat: Change references of Charisma to Intelligence

      Still an option that showed cunning in an entirely different way would be nice

    3. One big difference between Loremaster and Cunning, however, is that Loremaster forces you to pick 2 of its 3 benefits, whereas Cunning straight up gives you all three. Sure, Rogues get fewer Cha-based abilities to begin with and the trap bonus is probably weaker than a Relationship point, but both of those together are more competitive with the Relationship Point.

      Obviously it's really hard to compare those benefits especially since different GMs use things like traps and Icons differently, but even if Loremaster has the edge out of the gate, the fact that it doesn't have any feats allows Cunning (which has very nice feats) to catch up.

      I agree that the attribute-less issue is another discussion altogether. In brief though, yes the more flexible customization could be an advantage. If I were to go that route, though, I'd much rather choose from a standardized pool like favored attributes in The One Ring (i.e. you get a +1, +3, and +4 to allocate to your derived attributes) instead of having it tied with Backgrounds. For most characters, the link between these attributes and their Backgrounds will likely be weak to non-existent, and if you're conceptually just trying to come up with standardized numbers not linked to anything else about the character, why reference Backgrounds at all?

      We'll have to agree to disagree that attributes do "too little to be worthwhile." Having a basis for the derived stats is, IMO, the least important function of the attribute bonuses. Much more valuable is the ability to say (for example), "I'm strong but not very quick." Such a character is going to be good at breaking down doors, but won't be so great at balancing, irrespective of what Backgrounds they've chosen. If they've chosen a background that would help them break down doors, great! They're naturally strong and trained for the task at hand (even an architectural or dungeoneering background would be appropriate). I just think doing away with attributes entirely is going to force people who want to play a "tough guy" into picking a Background that lets them to Str-related stuff, whereas before having high Str was good enough.

      In that sense, I think the system would hamper freedom of customization instead of facilitating it. And for my money, freedom of Background choice is more important than trying to optimize derived statistics (I was a HUGE proponent of 8 Background points for all classes across the board during the playtest, and this was only achieved just before the book went to layout/print!).

  2. Lol, I completly missed that Loremaster was two of three; in my mind that makes everything a lot simpler. I would use option 1 above. Having an extra conflicted relationship is nice, and will come into play naturally (you could limit it to 2 icons to make it equiv. to Loremaster). +2 Background is weaker than +2 background (max 6), and I think "cha to int" is just very weak; it is now an added perk of a good talent!

    I like your ideas for having them further removed from backgrounds. I envisaged no story connection between backgrounds and the derived bonuses, so taking another step back is great.

    I agree that being able to describe your character (strong but clumsy) is cool; but id do not like stats for doing this. And not being a simulationist I am happy with things not necessarily being modelled by the game. I want the game to promote a cool and interesting story. My "fix" (which I didn't mention before because we weren't going into it) was to give every character a daily power "I'm great at this!"... you can use it to get +2 to a skill roll (and similar skill rolls) for the rest of the day; so our strong fighter, when kicking in the door could use it to be great at "feats of strength" for the day. :)

    Obviously there is room for interpretation (what smiler checks means), and I'd be playing it that it had to be in character (you couldn't shore up a weakness that was out of your known character with it) but I'd be fine with that; and at the end of the day +2 to a skill check here and there isn't going to break anything :) I'm sure there is a lot more design space here to play around with. One ring style traits that could be applied?

    Thinking of fantasy litritue only SOME attributes stand out for a given character; Gandalf is wise, Elron is learned, Conan is strong etc. But the rest can be there in characterisation or not; I don't feel it needs to be modelled

    PS loving the conversation :), and THANK YOU for being a proponent of 8 Backgrounds each - it's one of the best changes in my mind (although all the changes opposed to 3.5 and 4th are awesome to me).

    1. Hmm, the Daily power fix might work, but it would probably be easier to just assume a +2 "class background" that stacks with any other background. Or if you wanted something narrower in scope (or more detached from class), you COULD turn "wise," "learned," "strong," etc. into a TOR-style Trait/Background (again, letting it stack with other backgrounds).

      Overall though, I think TOR Traits already occupy a very similar niche as Backgrounds, even if they're mechanically different. Besides, I'd be hesitant to pile on too many narrative mechanics from different systems (Fate Aspects, TOR Traits, EotE Obligation/Motivation, 13th Age Backgrounds, Dungeon World bonds, etc.). Even though they're individually pretty simple, the lines between when to use which ones would get blurred really fast, especially since you'd need to adapt most of them when porting them into a different system.

      In any case, it's definitely a stylistic preference. I'm by no means a simulationist myself, but I suspect that I lie a little further toward that end of the spectrum than you (but still closer to narrative!).

      From a game design perspective, attributes provide a -1 to +4 (at least starting out) adjustment to ALL skill checks, with the average for a given PC probably being +2 or +3 (most PCs will favor using the types of skills supported by their primary or secondary attribute). Even with a class, trait, or daily power bonus a lot of checks they make will lack this bonus that's assumed by the game's math. There are a few approaches to dealing with this.

      1. Provide a fix for SOME of these issues with the aforementioned class/trait/daily bonuses, which emphasizes a characters strengths and weaknesses more by widening the gap between their good and bad skills (albeit it still wouldn't be NEARLY as wide as the gap in 3.x/PF).

      2. Lower DCs or increase all skill checks to level +2 +background across the board to preserve a PC's average success rate, while still "clearing the chaff" of attributes.

      3. Accept that PCs will fail more often. Without adjusting your GMing style this will make things slightly "grittier" (though perhaps that's not quite the right word), or you can balance that by keeping them in lower-tier environments for slightly longer than usual. More interestingly, just be more generous with fail-forward mechanics.

  3. Lots of good ideas :)! And I think you are right – having to many narrative mechanics may end up with some being left by the wayside! I prefer TOR style over “class based” as it could let someone be a strong sorcerer etc

    A combination that could work: taking your point 2 (lowering DC’s) and having a daily “I’m great at this!” which gives a further +2 to one specific skill check; and you call out a character trait. So you can use it for any check (once per day), but a character who repeatedly uses it for the same stick will get known for that stick. Simple; but character reinforcing if you want it to be…

    Although I really like all three of your suggestions, but yes to much narrative might make things to convoluted. There is still some gap; between good / bad / no backgrounds. I also enjoy gritty. Gah! There is no right answer :).

    Hum, yes I see that lowering DC’s (etc.) makes all characters closer to vanilla. We could split the 2 point difference; lower all DC’s by one*, give the characters 3 more background points (and allow BG’s to go to 6)… this should help differentiate the characters more, as the Background bonuses will be more important.
    *for mildly more gritty you could forgo this.