Saturday, December 13, 2014

Epic Tier 13th Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Plot Points" in 13th Age

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

13th Age Options: The Rogue

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

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

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

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

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

New Rogue Talent

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

3rd Level Rogue Powers

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

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

5th Level Rogue Powers

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

13th Age Options: The Druid

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

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

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

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

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

House Rule Revisions to Base Class

Revised Druid Armor Table

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

Revised Druid Hit Points

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

Revisions to Warrior Druid

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

New Shifter Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

D&D 5th Edition First Play Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 True Ways Initial Thoughts (Part 2)

This is the second part of my 13 True Ways overview.  For part 1, which includes the first two chapters (new classes and multiclassing),  click here.

Chapter 3:  Cities and Courts
This chapter has in-depth descriptions for Axis, the Court of Stars, Drakkenhall, Horizon, and Santa Cora.  These are really flavorful descriptions and like most of the fluff in 13th Age, meant to be taken as suggestions rather than gospel.  There are multiple "takes" on many elements of these places, and each section (minus the Santa Cora write-up, which is brief) has descriptions of important places, themes, NPCs, everyday details, and a list of 13 rumors about the city/court.  In addition, Horizon and Drakkenhall go even further with descriptions of how each Icon is connected to the city.  The best part is that there are several examples for each Icon of how a relationship die result could be used in those cities.  I find these examples to be really useful for gauging how the designers intended Icon results to be used.  The description in the Core Rulebook is fine and all, but using Icons is consistently something discussed in forums and on the Google+ group as being difficult for a lot of GMs and players to grasp.  This chapter adds a lot of additional examples which can be used as-is, or to spark inspiration and/or serve to calibrate the effects of ideas that GMs might come up with.

This chapter and obviously the chapter with all of the new classes were my favorites.  I love having so much new setting information, and it's all the more pertinent since both Drakkenhall and Axis have featured prominently in both of my campaigns.  Interestingly, nothing in these descriptions outright contradicted what my group has established before, but it offers a ton of new ideas that will keep these cities interesting for a long time.  And while my group hasn't explored the Queen's Wood at all yet, the Court of Stars has a very "dangerous fey," fairy tale inspired feel to it which is exactly how I would run it.

Chapter 4:  Monsters
The monster chapter is a good chunk of the page count and offers a lot of new foes for GMs to throw at their players.  The entries follow the example from the 13th Age core rulebook as opposed to the detailed, narrative entries from the Bestiary.  That's ok though, because that's a bit outside the scope of the book.  The stat blocks themselves are excellent and some really fun monsters are included.  Besides that, a lot of space is devoted to devils, and they get their own Bestiary-style fluff chapter so it's actually a mix of the two presentations.  Most devils get a very thematic power called Devil's Due.  It works a bit differently for each type of devil, but the gist is that you basically have to give the devil its due if you want to use the Escalation Die.  If you decide to make the deal, using the Escalation Die carries a nasty negative consequence.

In addition to devils, there are higher level dire animals (boar, tiger, and giant praying mantis), azers, cloud giants, metallic dragons, elementals (which serve as both foes and summoning options for Druids), flowers of unlife (these have a nifty new resurrection mechanic), gnolls (new, nasty, high level gnolls!), mummies (there's an awesome story behind them), pixies, soul flensers (they're mind-flayer levels of nasty), specters, treants, werebeasts, and zombies (including the awesome headless zombies that break the tradition of the normal insta-death headshot crit rules for zombies).

Chapter 5:  Deviltry
This chapter describes many ways in which devils can fit into your campaign.  There's a unique, campaign-defining story associated with each one of the Icons.  Each entry includes a section on Origins and Agenda (this is the meaty part that describes what role devils will play), Hierarchy (which details the role(s) that each unique type of devil plays in this story, usually with Lemures at the bottom of the barrel and Pit Fiends ruling over everything else), and how Other Icons fit into this particular story.  Finally, there's 16 more Icon-neutral (mostly) ideas for using devils.  I found this chapter a bit dull to read straight through, but that's not necessarily the point.  The best way to use this chapter is to pick Icons that play a prominent role in your campaign and brainstorm how devils might fit into that story.  Each description isn't simultaneously true in any given campaign, but rather you'll pick one of the entries or use ideas from two or three of them.  And if you want to focus on devils again in a future campaign, you'll have plenty of ideas at the ready for telling a completely different story.

Chapter 6:  Gamemaster's Grimoire
Whereas the other chapters each have a specific focus, this one is basically a grab bag of miscellaneous stuff.  It starts out by introducing artifacts, which are unsurprisingly just really powerful true magic items.  They work more or less like other magic items, except that they have multiple powers that they can unlock over time.  Honestly, I've already implemented a few multi-power magic items and have also had individual items gain power over time instead of being replaced with more powerful items, so there's nothing really new here for me.  They do list three example artifacts: the feathered crown, the fist wrought of blood, and the gloves of the dark path.

Next we get three lists of 13 things.  There are dungeons/ruins, flying realms, and inns/taverns.  Each one gets about a paragraph of description and they seem to be great for GMs who need a quick idea in a pinch, either because they didn't have much time to prepare, are having a creative block, or when the PCs go off the rails.  I'm not a huge fan of flying realms that the designers seem to enjoy, but I'll admit that the entry for Big Dumb Rock was pretty awesome.  The taverns in particular will be great for adding some color to what otherwise usually ends up being a generic inn just like every other inn that the PCs inevitably end up staying at.  I'll admit that I don't usually think of embellishing on inns aside from a clever/funny name every now and then, but this list should change that, making inns interesting for their own sake.

Next there's more magic items, including some cursed items.  I'm honestly not thrilled with most of the magic items in here or in the core rulebook.  They feel a little too much like 4E D&D magic items, except they're not baked into the game's math and the quirk mechanic makes them more intrinsically interesting.  More than half of the items I've passed out to my players have been custom ones that fit the story, the character, or are just a weird thing I thought of at the time.  In my first campaign I passed out 3 magical daggers that all did different things.  One provided a bonus to rituals, one was able to cut through stone but had a certain number of charges, and the third launched its wielder into the air like a catapult when slashed through the air a certain way (this one had charges too).  I prefer weird powers that PCs can use in creative ways as opposed to having just another combat bonus.

Finally, there's a section on 3 monastic tournaments (which I didn't find particularly inspiring, but hey this is the book with the monk in it), 4 NPC descriptions provided by high-level kickstarter backers, and 2 living dungeons, also provided by kickstarter backers.  The NPC entries don't include stat blocks, but rather advice on how they might fit into your campaign with multiple options provided (including as allies or adversaries).  Each NPC also has a list of 13 rumors about them, which may or may not be true.

The living dungeons include Underkrakens (tied to the Soul Flensers in the monster chapter) and the Wild Garden (tied to the Flowers of Unlife, also in the monster chapter).  There are multiple options for what Underkrakens might be (vehicles, cities, monsters, or living dungeons), most of which have a Cthulu-like flavor.  There's even an optional rule for "sanity" called Terrible Enlightenment, and Call of Cthulu is straight-up referenced as an inspiration.  The Wild Garden entry is a little more detailed, with a background story for where it came from and then a quick walkthrough of an adventure.  The adventure is pretty bare-bones with a couple of paragraphs for each level of the dungeon and suggestions for what monsters to include (with page number references, but without repeating stat blocks).  Honestly, this is probably more useful to me than a traditionally-written published adventure.  I tend to be pretty bad at running prefab adventures, not least because I hate having to read a long adventure multiple times in preparation for running it, and because referencing them is usually a pain because there's so much text to wade through.  I could see myself running this, though.  A quick description to set the stage and provide a spark of inspiration that I can then expand and improvise upon as we play.  And since it has such a small word count it can be tacked into a "grab-bag" chapter like this without taking up too much space.  Too few adventures are presented this way, and while I'm sure a lot of GMs prefer the more detailed, traditional published adventures something like this works better for more improvisational GMs who like to do a lot of their own world-building and/or collaborative world-building with the players.

So that's 13 True Ways in a nutshell.  It's been a long wait, but it was worth it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

13 True Ways Initial Thoughts (Part 1)

The first announced supplement for 13th Age, 13 True Ways, is finally out in PDF form.  If you preorder the book (which has a projected print release date of August), you'll get the PDF now.  This book is pretty much a grab-bag of everything, with plenty of useful material for both players and GMs.  And with that, I'll just dive right in.

Chapter 1:  Classes
This chapter contains 6 new classes for 13th Age, bringing the total for the system up to 15.  This includes the Druid and Monk, both initially intended for the core rulebook.  They were left out to prevent further delays of the book, because they weren't yet ready.  I'm fully in favor of making sure that a class is done right even if it means getting to it later, so while the wait was agonizing it's worth it to see the classes in their polished form.  Rounding out the list is the Chaos Mage (great for players with a randomness fetish), Commander (13th Age's answer to the 4E Warlord), Necromancer (finally a game gets this archetype right!), and the Occultist (a reality-bending, THE reality bending spellcaster.  There can be only one).

The Chaos Mage takes the wild magic flavor that's hinted at in the Sorcerer and takes it to the extreme.  You get three categories of spells - attack, defense, and Iconic.  When you roll initiative and at the end of each turn you randomly select a category (the default method is drawing colored "stones" from a bag, but there's an alternative that uses dice, though it's a bit clunkier).  On your next turn, you get to choose which spell of that category you want to cast.  You have a limited number of daily and 1/battle spell slots, so you're generally deciding whether you want to use an at-will spell or a limited use spell of some kind.  If you roll Iconic there are spells associated with each Icon (the Icon you use is determined by rolling a d12; the Emperor doesn't mess around with Chaos).  Some Talents allow you to randomly obtain spells from another class (Necromancer, Wizard, Cleric, or Sorcerer), and so this can give you a few extra choices (most of these will be assigned to either attack or defense, depending on what makes sense).  Their other talents are Warp talents, which give you a random benefit whenever you roll a certain spell category (i.e. Attack Warp, Defensive Warp, and Iconic Warp).  Finally, there's a class feature called High Weirdness (as if all of these layers of randomness weren't enough!).  High Weirdness gives you a random effect by rolling on a d% table in certain situations, and the effects aren't always beneficial.  I look forward to seeing this class in play because it looks like a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, this class will only appeal to a subset of players, and I'm not sure if any of them are at my table.  Maybe I'll take it for a spin one of these days, though admittedly I'd probably get burned out on the chaos after more than a few sessions, so I doubt I'd use it for a long-term campaign.

The Commander seems to be able to do much of what a 4E Warlord could, but without using 4E's AEDU system.  Instead Commanders use a mechanic called command points, which are gained during the fight.  You can either gain them by hitting with a melee attack (fight from the front), or by using a standard action to automatically gain command points (weight the odds).  Commanders rely on their interrupt actions, with which they spend command points to trigger Commands on their allies' turns.  They can allow allies to rally, let them re-roll missed attacks, boost their damage, gain movement, etc.  As a Commander, you'll really have to pay attention on everyone's turn to best make use of your abilities.  Commands are at-will, and rely on the flow of command points to limit their use.  Commanders also have Tactics, which are quick action recharge powers.  A major "family" of Tactics lets you use your quick action to grant extra attacks to your allies.  Yep, Warlord fans will enjoy this class, which along with the Monk is one of two new "martial" archetypes that join the Rogue on the complex end of the spectrum.

I'll probably end up doing a more detailed breakdown of the Druid in a future post (it's one of my favorite classes, after all).  Druids have shouldered a lot of different roles in D&D (sometimes simultaneously, if you've ever heard of CoDzilla from 3.x/PF), and the 13th Age design goal for the Druid was to let players build their own Druidic archetype without having to wield an overpowered mess.  Each of the 6 Druid talents encompasses a distinct schtick; you've got Animal Companion, Elemental Caster (which includes summoning), Shifter, Terrain Caster, Warrior Druid, and Wild Healer.  If you spend a single talent slot on a given talent you're an initiate in that sphere, but you also have the option to take a talent for two talent slots, in which case you become an adept.  Each talent lists its benefits for initiates and adepts separately.  As an added bonus, the Ranger gets a revision that makes its Animal Companion talent the same as the Druid's (if they keep it at two talents they gain a list of animal-buffing spells, or they can choose to spend only 1 talent on it and they get the companion every other battle).  Another interesting twist is that the spellcasting talents grants a mini spell list but by default only give you daily powers.  Druids can spend feats to pick up at-will and (with Terrain Caster) 1/battle spells.  The class design really does seem to strike a balance between covering everything that Druids have historically done without having to balance CoDzilla against the other classes.

The Monk is probably the most complex of the "martial" classes, rivaling some of the more complex spellcasters.  Monks use attack forms that consist of an opening attack, a flow attack, and a finishing attack.  Each form consists of a theme, but the fun of playing a Monk is mixing and matching your forms.  Using the opening attack from Dance of the Mantis to quickly get into melee range, following it up with the flow attack from Claws of the Panther to hit multiple guys, and then finishing it up with Three Cunning Tricksters for some defensive retaliation goodness.  You also gain a cumulative +1 bonus to AC after each step in your form, which resets back once you use another opening.  It does a great job of emulating movement while using a very different mechanic than the Rogue's momentum.  Monks also get a pool of Ki that they can use to modify their natural die roll by +/-1 (many forms use natural result triggers, but it's also nice for critting and triggering two weapon fighting), and in addition to that each talent grants an option for using Ki and the forms have feats that use Ki.  So you've got the sequential form-based tactics to think about round-by-round as well as a daily resource in Ki to use when you really need a little extra oomph!  The Monk is a lot of fun to play, and does a great job of emulating wire-fu martial arts.

The Necromancer is a breath of fresh air (except, you know, in the literal sense) because D&D has never done this archetype justice.  13th Age hits it out of the park.  You've got an improvisational talent (Cackling Soliloquist) that calls to mind Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations but with much more awesome flavor, one that lets you speak with the dead, a Redeemer talent that frees the souls of the undead you utilize (releasing a burst of holy energy when they're destroyed), you can gain a skeletal companion much like a Druid or Ranger get an animal companion (except you can set yours on fire with the right feat!), you can kill enemies that are already close to death with a quick action, and finally a talent called Sorta Dead which grants you the benefits of being Undead when it's convenient (or not, if it's not), and lets you roll a save when you die to heal instead.  Largely it's a fairly meat-and-potatoes spellcaster from a mechanical standpoint, with a heavy focus on summoning.  There are some surprising support spells in their list too (Necromancers can heal, but of course they do so by siphoning off someone else's life force!), and transmutation spells that offer various undead forms, and a surprising variety of plays on necromantic energy (things like unholy blasts and rotting curses).  And then there's my personal favorite, a spell that targets mooks by animating their own skeletons and causing them to burst forth from their bodies, granting you a shiny (well, bloody and messy probably) new skeletal minion.

Finally, we have the Occultist.  That's THE Occultist, because the default fluff is that there's only one.  Basically she's a powerful spellcaster that rearranges reality to suit her whims.  Like the Commander, he mostly focuses on interrupt actions.  The gist is that you spend your standard action to gather your Focus, and then you'll spend your Focus on someone else's turn to either make reality more favorable to your allies or make things suck even more for your enemies.  Reality also works a little differently for the Occultist, who recharges spells just a bit differently from normal people (she doesn't necessarily recharge the same spell, but rather that spell slot), and because he tends to send his intellect all manner of places that's not his physical body, he receives magical healing a turn late.  The Occultist sounds like a very interesting support character, with perhaps more of a damage focus than the Commander, and to use 4E roles can be a neat mix of leader (helps allies) and controller (screws over enemies).

Chapter 2:  Multiclassing
As expected, 13th Age multiclassing is not as straightforward as most other mechanics for the system.  The classes are just too diverse for a simple formula, and the designers are (rightly) too concerned with balance to allow a min/max focused solution that would run roughshod over other PCs.  Each class has details for making 1st level multiclassed characters (the new classes have a line for it right in their level progression chart), and otherwise a multiclass character gains spells or other powers one level lower than their current level.  So a 4th level Fighter/Wizard would have the maneuver pool of a 3rd level Fighter and the spells of a 3rd level Wizard.  You get the base AC of whichever class is better for a given armor type (though penalties still exist if, for example, you cast Wizard spells while wearing heavy armor), and you average your base HP (rounding down AFTER you multiply for your level) and recovery die (the die type rounds up).  Your weapon damage die drops UNLESS both of your classes are from a list of "skilled warriors," and the ability score you use is your "key modifier."  There's a big key modifier table for each class combination that ensures each multiclass character has to care about two ability scores.  Your key modifier is the lowest of the two indicated ability scores, and is used in place of either score for the purposes of making attacks and damage.  The math is really well-done for the most part; for example, Fighter/Wizard and Fighter/Sorcerer key modifiers are Dex/Int and Dex/Cha, respectively.  Str certainly would have been more intuitive, but that would result in a character that wants to keep two scores high, neither of which contribute to AC.  As Dex is an AC boosting stat you won't get gimped for these combinations.

Still, multiclassing generally won't get you an overpowered character.  Quite the contrary; the designers flat out state that most of the time a multiclass character will probably have less raw power, but more diversity.  They also advise doing the simple talent swaps from the core rulebook if that fits your concept well enough; multiclasing is mostly for those who have a concept that they just can't achieve any other way.

Part 2 of my overview of 13 True Ways features chapters 3-6.  Yep, that's a lot more chapters than Part 1, but the class chapters are very meaty so I'm cutting this post off here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

13th Age Gnome Illusionist (RAW)

I had a random thought the other day about the lack of illusion spells in 13th Age and the fact that of all the Wizard specialist builds Illusionist has (arguably) been the most popular historically, and yet the only one we've gotten is the Necromancer (thanks to 13 True Ways).  Don't take that as a complaint against the Necromancer; it's never been well done (or even fully realized) in D&D, but 13th Age has knocked it out of the park!

Speaking of which, a review/impressions of 13 True Ways is forthcoming (as a Kickstarter backer I've had the PDF since the 27th), but I'm still reading through it.  Since it doesn't include an Illusionist, and none of the popular fan-made classes have been an Illusionist, I was thinking about how one might approach the archetype in 13th Age.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that you can make one pretty much using the existing material.  Here is one such approach.  I'm leaving out Icons, Backgrounds, and OUT because it's more fun for a player to come up with that stuff on their own.  The point of this post is more to illustrate a concept than to provide a finished character.

Race: Gnome
Class: Bard
Level: 1

Ability Scores (tinker as desired):
Str 8, Dex 16 (class), Con 10, Int 18 (race), Wis 14, Cha 12

AC: 15
PD: 11
MD: 14
HP: 21

Recovery: 1d8+0

Loremaster (replace Cha with Int, choose either of the other two benefits)
Battle Skald
Jack of Spells

Since Illusionists are traditionally Intelligence-based, it seemed appropriate to do the same here despite using the Bard class.  Conveniently, Loremaster ensures that there's no conflict here.  Battle Skald might seem like an odd choice but one of the key concepts of this build is that Battle Chant is going to be flavored as your bread-and-butter at-will illusions.  What exactly the illusion does will depend on the roll, and the damage can represent the loss of morale, growing frustration or fear, or simply the illusion causing the target to open their defenses such that an ally can exploit it.  Part of the fun of playing an Illusionist is letting your creativity run wild; even in D&D where options are usually pretty rigidly defined, illusion spells have always been an oasis of free-form improvisation.

Racial Powers:
Minor Illusions

Powers and Spells:
Battle Chant
Terror (Necromancer), Blur (Wizard), or Ways of the Dark (Druid)

Stay Strong!, Move It!, We Need You!

So we've already established that Battle Chant will be flavored as your every day illusions.  What else do illusions do mechanically?  Well, they're intrinsically all about confusing your opponents and so any spell that applies the Confused condition is pure gold.  Bards do a lot of this, and Befuddle is your first workhorse.  You've got a few options for Jack of Spells, but Terror does a good job of emulating a terrifying illusion that causes any sane person to flee.  Blur represents an illusion applied to yourself (and could provide a useful defensive boost since this build is pretty squishy), and Ways of the Dark is a good way of creating the illusion that you (the caster) aren't even there.

As far as Battle Cries are concerned, notice that we're not taking the staple Pull It Together!  Illusionists aren't really about healing, so as tempting as it is the pick this up it's not really on-theme.  Illusions can, however, distract an enemy long enough to let an ally disengage or make a save, and Stay Strong! could represent a defensive illusion along the lines of Blur or Mirror Image, or it could also simply be a distracting illusion.

Feats:  Battle Chant

Even if Illusionists are more about control and misdirection, you still want to contribute to damage.  HP are an abstraction anyways, so keep in mind that you're not necessarily dealing physical wounds and play that up.  If you're the one to deal the "killing blow" to an enemy, try to think more along the lines of taking them out of the conflict as opposed to actually knocking them unconscious.  A distracted mind could lead to physical harm, sure, but it can be just as interesting if the enemy flees out of fear, or simply because they're chasing something that's not there!

Level 5

So let's check in with our Gnome Illusionist now that we've achieved Champion tier.  While it doesn't matter quite yet with the array I've chosen (all evens), at level 4 we've boosted INT because it's the primary attack ability of the Loremaster Bard, as well as the Wizard and Necromancer, two highly useful classes to Jack spells from.  It's also probably a good idea to boost WIS (the Cleric and Druid both offer attractive options for Spell-Jacking as well, not to mention that it contributes to AC) and Dex (again, we're thinking about AC here but Initiative is also important, and besides that if you ever need to actually hit something with a melee weapon you can use Dex for that as a Bard).

Now let's see what's changed.

3rd Level Spells:
Vicious Mockery
Song of Spilt Blood

5th Level Spells:
Battle Chant
Terror (Necromancer)
AND/OR Cause Fear (Cleric)
AND/OR Ways of the Dark (Druid)
AND/OR one of the following Wizard spells:
Color Spray

Battle Cries:
Take Heart!
Move It!
Stay Strong!
It's All Yours!

1. Battle Chant (A)
2. Battle Skald (A)
3. It's All Yours! (A)
4. Befuddle (A)
5. Jack of Spells (C)

Note that I've taken the Champion feat for Jack of Spells without first taking the Adventurer feat, as per the optional rule that GMs can allow players to take higher tier feats if they don't build off of the lower tier feat.  I don't consider the "use X ability in place of Y" feats particularly useful since you'll generally only get 1 spell from another class with these Talents, and they're usually Daily options.  Combined with the fact that spells are usually pretty accurate since they target PD or MD, I fail to see how a +2 1/day is that big of a deal (assuming you're trying to boost a WIS spell from the Cleric or Druid).  Not to mention the fact that most Illusionists will probably pick a Necromancer or Wizard spell anyways, and so everything you've got probably uses INT.  Thus, the Adventurer tier feat for Jack of Spells will either do nothing or not much (Jacking Terror from the Necromancer is probably your best bet), and so if your GM insists that you take it before the Champion feat they're just being a jerk.

Level 10

So what does this Illusionist look like at the end game?  Let's find out!

Spells (all 9th Level):
Battle Chant
Vicious Mockery
Song of Spilt Blood
Song of Victory
Song of Destinies
Terror (Necromancer)
Cause Fear (Cleric)
one of the previously mentioned Wizard spells
OR Ways of the Dark (Druid)

By the time you reach Epic tier you should probably have BOTH Terror and Cause Fear because the concept of creating an illusion so frightening that your opponent wets their pants and runs for the hills is just too fun to pass up.  The Wizard offers a ton of strong options that can be flavored as Illusion spells, but if you want an at-will alternative to Battle Chant you'll probably want to pick up Ways of the Dark from the Druid.  Although Color Spray just might be good enough as a cyclic spell, since by now you'll have enough options to keep you pretty busy.

The songs might come across as a bit odd on an Illusionist, but you don't have to literally sing them.  Just say they're illusions that require some concentration to sustain.  Some of these are a bit of a stretch, but ultimately I went with the options that fit the concept best, if not 100% perfectly.  Again, I'll reiterate that even though you're using the Bard class you'll mostly be staying away from healing options.  You might want to just tell your party that you're playing an Illusionist and re-name all of your spells so they don't get false expectations when they hear you say "Bard."

Battle Cries:
Take Heart!
Move It!
Stay Strong!
It's All Yours!
Victory is Ours!
They Fall Before Us!
The Time is Now!

1. Battle Chant (A)
2. Battle Skald (A)
3. It's All Yours! (A)
4. Befuddle (A)
5. Jack of Spells (C)
6. Battle Skald (C)
7. It's All Yours! (C)
8. Jack of Spells (E)
9. They Fall Before Us! (E)
10. Confounding (C)

Obviously feats are where an individual player has the most leeway.  They're designed to allow you to specialize in certain areas, and Bards (especially those with Jack of Spells) tend to have a lot of options that can be improved via feats.  The most important feats are Jack of Spells (because other classes have excellent options that can easily be flavored as Illusions, and having a bunch of stuff that fits well also serves to dilute those options (like some of the songs) that are a bit more borderline) and that first Battle Chant feat (because you'll really want to avoid swinging a melee weapon; an Illusionist is a spellcaster, and you're trying to create the feel of a Wizard more than a duelist Bard!).  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The One Ring Official Updates

As some of you may know, several months ago Cubicle 7 announced that they were printing a revised version of the core rulebook for The One Ring.  Well, pre-orders are now open and the PDF is available right now as well.  Whereas the original printing was a boxed set with two softcover books (an Adventurer's Book and a Loremaster's Book), the new core book is a single hardback volume.  It's not quite a second edition, as it's been mostly re-organized so that the two books are now combined into one, and individual topics are not split up and difficult to find anymore.  Considering that the book's organization and index were the biggest criticisms of the system when it was released, this is a huge improvement.  If anyone has been on the fence about getting into TOR, now is the time to jump on board.

Even if it's not a second edition, there have been some errata incorporated into the new printing.  A few specific player options have been re-balanced (i.e. the notoriously underpowered Beorning Cultural Blessing has been given a boost, and the even more notoriously overpowered King's Blade has been hit with the nerf bat, bringing it down to parity with other Rewards and eliminating the "Hobbit uber-swordman" issue).  Preliminary rolls have been simplified into a unified mechanic between the three heroic ventures (Journeys, Combat, and Encounters), which was admittedly a houserule that the game's designer, Francesco Nepitello, had posted on his blog for a while.  Now it's official.  Favored skills are cheaper to upgrade, Fatigue from traveling gear has been increased, and the effects of the Intimidate Foe and Rally Comrades actions have been given a boost, making them more competitive options in combat.  Hazards have been re-worked, as they now trigger when an Eye is rolled on any Fatigue test (succeed or fail), and the consequences have been streamlined into a table that you can then narrate (instead of having dozens of narrative examples scattered everywhere with sometimes similar effects).

All in all, it polishes up what is one of the most well-designed licensed RPGs I've seen.  If you already have the original boxed set and don't plan on purchasing the new core book, never fear!  All of the updates have been posted as a free PDF.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fate Accelerated Edition: Thoughts After Playing

I picked up the PDF for Fate Accelerated Edition a while back, and wrote a "first impressions" review of it.  As I said in the review I couldn't see myself running the game in the near future, largely because I've got so many other things I want to run.  But one of the players in my group was intrigued by it, bought it, and decided to run a three session mini campaign to test drive it.

The setting was a modern day alternate universe where the Cold War never ended, and recently Russian terrorists launched nuclear warheads at many major cities across the globe.  The twist is that it was combined with a bio-weapon, and the resulting disease (called RadPox) wiped out most of the global population.  The PCs began in Missoula, Montana.  We had an interesting array of characters, which is perhaps to be expected from a modern game without a tight thematic focus (i.e. spies, or dungeon delvers, or fringers trying to get by under the radar of the Empire/Alliance, etc.).  My own character was an old man (under description I wrote "current Harrison Ford") with the aspects Retired Border Patrol Ranger - Canadian Border (high concept), I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit (trouble), Sucker For a Pretty Face, Bruce Collins Is My Oldest Friend (refers to an NPC), and My Dead Brother's Shotgun.  The other PCs were a large animal veterinarian and a quirky accordion player (part of a duo with an NPC mandolin player; like I said, quirky).  The premise was that we were leaving Montana because of the imminent onset of winter, headed south to pursue rumors of a "holy land."

Approaches are a great narrative "shortcut," but they definitely have their limitations.  While it's easy to liken them to ability scores in D&D, they feel a bit more like watered down backgrounds in 13th Age.  That is to say, they represent a philosophy or broad thematic archetype much more than a physical trait (and I say "watered down" in that it lacks the specificity and detail of a good 13th Age background, which isn't to say that it's "worse").  So having a high Sneaky approach doesn't just make you the stealthy (Dex) guy, but you're good at tricking people or lying to them in social situations as well.  One big strength is right there in the name: it encourages players to think about different ways to approach a situation.  Different GMs will draw the line differently insofar as how much they'll allow a PC to justify a shaky or borderline approach; it seems like too much leniency can lead to approach-spamming, whereas strict adherence to the GMs vision can stifle creativity.

There are two big issues that I have with approaches in play.  The first is that sometimes (at least once per session) a PC will try something that doesn't neatly fit one of the approaches.  It might not even kind of fit one of them.  At that point you just have to try to shoehorn it into a category, which can feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole.  It's awkward.  It also means that certain approaches (Clever, Careful, and perhaps Forceful) tend to be more useful because it's easier to justify "off" actions as being one of those.  Sneaky and Flashy seemed to be noticeably more limited than the others.  It's worth mentioning that my character's highest approach was Sneaky, and the accordion player's was Flashy, and we both ended up using them less frequently than we would have expected.  In contrast, the vet had Clever at the top and probably used it about half the time.

My second issue is unavoidable given the abstracted, streamlined nature of approaches, and it's simply that sometimes suspension of disbelief can be strained.  Skill systems imply previous experience at a given task, but with approaches your potency with the same task will vary depending on which angle you're coming from.  For example, I ended up using no less than 4 different approaches at different times to shoot a shotgun.  Charging in guns blazing was Forceful, an ambush was Sneaky, a "quick draw" type situation was Quick, and most of the time it was assumed shots were aimed, and so Careful seemed most appropriate.  Now I don't know about you, but I tend to be more accurate when I actually aim.  Problem was, my PC's Careful was only rated at +1, and so I ran into this strange situation where I was more effective making more reckless shots.  Fortunately the GM awarded us a milestone after session 2, and so I boosted Careful to +2.

Aspects and The Fate Point Meta-game
At its heart this game is all about the Fate Point economy.  Oftentimes it would be necessary to invoke multiple Aspects in order to succeed at a roll, and so having more Aspects is useful, even if they're redundant.  Indeed, redundancy can be really useful if the Aspects apply to common situations!  I think more ideally though is that PCs should make judicious use of the Create Advantage action to get more Aspects into play, and while we didn't do that as much as we probably should have it probably becomes habitual the more you play.

The extent of the meta-game, and how players and their characters might have very different goals, really clicked for me in session 3 last night.  The climactic final battle was an EPIC firefight, and I honestly thought it would end up being a TPK.  Anyways, at one point I got shot at and hit for 1 shift, and decided to compel an Aspect against myself to turn it into a 3 shift hit so I could get a Fate Point out of the deal that would help me out with offense later.  Yep, that's right, me as a player wanted my character to get more hurt, and the game actually rewarded me for it.

While a +2 bonus might not seem like much, especially if you come from a d20 background, Aspects (and sometimes Stunts) will determine whether you succeed or fail more often than what you roll on the dice.  The results for a pool of Fate dice ends up being between -2 and 2 most of the time.  We calculated a result of +4 on the dice as happening 1.25% of the time, which is sobering considering a natural 20 on a d20 happens 5% of the time.  Exciting rolls are the exception (such as when I rolled +4 on my attack when the enemy's defense roll was -3), and so you really have to embrace Aspects as your primary "success currency."

What hit home in that third session, when I tried to get my character hurt to give him more Fate Points, is that the player's job is to orchestrate the tempo of their character's story as much as it is to roleplay them.  The player can contribute to deciding when the character gets beat down, all so that they can come back swinging later, when the stakes are higher.  It's an interesting twist, for better or worse, that can really only occur in a game with Fate Points (or Plot Points; hopefully I'll get to play Cortex+ Firefly soon!) as the game's major currency.

I wrote up my first Stunt using the guidelines in Fate Accelerated Edition, but I found that implementation really dull.  Yes, a +2 bonus is a pretty big deal in Fate, but when everything of consequence boils down to "another +2!", my interest starts to wane.  Sure, the game is more about how you use the elements that give you the bonus, but there's already plenty of that with Aspects.  If something is called a "Stunt," I want it to feel cool.  Besides that, I find the "fill in the blank" statements of the FAE stunts to be pretty clunky.  And the +2 modifier makes it feel like part of a skill system tacked onto the more abstract approach-based system.

The easy solution is to port in some of the ideas from Fate Core and the Fate System Toolkit when you're making your Stunts.  Some of these also boil down to a situational +2 bonuses, but at least the wording is more free-form and so the stunts feel more organic.  In addition to the modifier, Fate Core also outlines examples for creating rules exceptions, using balancing mechanisms like "once per session I can..." and for creating Stunt "trees" with effects that build off of each other.  The Fate System Toolkit really goes into detail with Stunt costs, broader Stunts with smaller bonuses, triggered Stunts, combined Stunts, and tying Stunts to Aspects.  Essentially as long as you keep in mind the refresh equivalency you have more flexibility in creating balanced Stunts.  While some of these options might be considered to crunchy for FAE by some, others are just as simple (if not moreso) than the default FAE Stunts.

Final Thoughts
I can see why Fate is so popular, but it definitely requires a different mindset to play than most traditional games (even traditional/narrative hybrids like 13th Age and Edge of the Empire).  We had a bit of a rocky transition period that made me really glad that my GM went with a 3-session arc; the first session was a messy disaster where we struggled to fully use the system (half the group are new to RPGs, having just played one campaign of Edge of the Empire that lasted a few months), the second went fairly smoothly, and in the third session things really started to click.

I don't see Fate becoming my go-to system (I prefer medium crunch, hybrid narrative/traditional games), but it was definitely an interesting change of pace and it makes me excited to try out Firefly (Cortex+ seems very similar to Fate).  This also wasn't the last time I'll play it, though.  In fact, I'll GM the next mini-campaign for this group, and at some point we'll probably have the main group try it out.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Number Inflation in 13th Age

Considering how frequently I write about it on this blog (with the exception of the past couple of months; blame a creative dry spell), it should come as no surprise that 13th Age is one of my favorite RPGs right now.  My first long-term campaign went up to 5th level (barely), but it stretched each level out over a long period of time.  An Incremental Advance every 2-3 sessions.  For our current campaign (which features rotating GMs), we've been awarding an Incremental Advance every session, and after the 3rd one we gain a level.  We've just now reached the same point at which I ended the last campaign - level 5 - but one of the explicit goals has been to experience high level play.

I already dislike it.  Granted I've never preferred high level play in D&D, but 13th Age is especially egregious with its number inflation.  Unfortunately, it's sort of a double-edged sword because the numbers scale the way that they do precisely to maintain an even progression over the course of a PC's adventuring career.  In other words, damage scales at about the same rate as HP.  Since you gain a weapon die for damage every level, HP has to become pretty inflated to keep up.  While I haven't crunched the numbers in detail, my experience seems to be that PCs will drop after suffering around the same number of hits from an appropriately challenging foe regardless of level.  In most editions of D&D it seemed like low-level characters were quite fragile, but at higher levels they could soak up more attacks due to their increasingly-inflating HP (to the point that high-level combat skewed even further toward "rocket tag" of save or die/suck abilities to bypass HP entirely).  This smooth-scaling in 13th Age is desirable to me, but I really wish it could be more tightly bounded (like, and I can't believe I'm saying this, D&D 5E).

So why is this even a big deal?  Well, mostly because when you start dealing with bigger numbers, the math gets just a tad slower.  I've noticed that my PC's turns go a little slower than at low levels (though at least one player doesn't think it's a big deal), but the real annoyance has been GMing.  I've got at least as many monsters to run as there are PCs in the party (and usually more), and I like to get through NPC turns quickly to maintain momentum.  I feel like those few extra seconds per NPC (per turn) starts to add up, and I occasionally find that it distracts me from interesting tactical and narrative embellishments in combat.

A Possible Solution

Obviously I'm not going to stop playing 13th Age because of this.  And as much as I prefer the alternative of "bounded accuracy" espoused by D&D 5E, from what I've seen of 5E so far 13th Age simply hits way more of my other preferences in an RPG.  Besides that, my group has been instictively negative toward 5E despite knowing little to nothing about it.

Thus, I'd like to try to make high-level play in 13th Age more manageable.  Based on the numbers that were being thrown around in last night's session (again, this is at level 5), I'm considering simply rounding monster HP and player damage to the nearest 5.  None of this "always round down in D&D" legacy crap, either.  Standard rounding rules simply make more sense because theoretically you should be rounding up about as often as you round down, and so your rounding would effectively "cancel" each other out.  Obviously results will skew slightly up or down in any given combat, but is this really any different from earlier editions of D&D where monsters got variable HP by rolling Hit Dice?


Barbarian: "I crit for 94 damage" (because that literally happened last night, on the first attack, vs a 200 HP dragon)

GM: mentally rounds that up to 95 and notes that the dragon has 105 HP left

Wizard: "I deal 32 damage with Ray of Frost."

GM: Rounds that down to 30, so the dragon's at 75 now.

Multiples of 5 are easy, because we deal with them every single day.  I have to think for a couple of seconds longer when I subtract 94 from 200, and if I'm starting from a value that's not an easy multiple it takes longer still.  Like, say, subtracting 32 from that dragon that now has 106 HP if tracked by RAW.  In my head I would generally do this in 2 steps by first subtracting 30 from 106, and then subtracting 2 from 76.  Which is tougher if I'm dealing with odd numbers, and tougher still when one or more players is talking (especially if they're correcting their damage, whether that's from math errors or forgotten bonuses.  Sometimes I have to start the mental math over from scratch when that happens).

Some people might be faster at mental math than me, and others still might not be but don't mind the cumulative time lost.  For me though?  Rounding seems like a really promising solution, because those huge numbers are just an unnecessary amount of granularity.

The Gumshoe Precedent

After coming up with this solution, I was reminded of a rule from the Gumshoe game "Night's Black Agents."  To quote from page 215 which is a summary of Hit Threshold Modifiers: "In games using the full range of options and tactical rules, Hit Thresholds can vary widely.  Try to rebalance those values if you can: if one combatant has a Hit Threshold of 7 and one has a Hit Threshold of 9, run their combat as if they had Hit Thresholds of 3 and 5, respectively.  This keeps fights shorter and more dangerous, and therefore more exciting."

This is particularly useful to keep in mind in Night's Black Agents because the die that you use to resolve actions is a d6.  The principle isn't as mechanically necessary in 13th Age, but it sure helps to simplify that math.  You're effectively treating each increment of 5 as a value of 1, turning a 100 HP creature into one with effectively 20 HP.  That 30 damage attack becomes 6 damage.  14 out of 20 is the exact same ratio as 70 out of 100.

Once you get into Epic tier and the numbers get higher still, it will become practical to mentally round to the nearest 10.  I'm not quite sure where the best cut off points will be (I haven't playtested this yet), but I'm thinking it will probably feel pretty intuitive once you start dealing with numbers of a certain size.

Also worth noting is that you don't have to necessarily institute a sweeping house rule for this.  You don't even have to tell your players you're doing it.  Just do the conversion to simplify the math, and they may never be the wiser.  It's the best of both worlds, actually:  your players get to feel uber powerful by throwing around high damage attacks, but by rounding the values you don't have to deal with the mathematical challenges of quickly adding and subtracting high value numbers to the nearest one.

Magic Item Vault

Here are a handful of magic items that I worked up for the PCs in my game.

Champion Tier Magic Items

Dwarven Cloak
+2 to PD

You can enter stone and walk in it as if it were a very thick fluid, but you can't "swim."

Quirk: You season your food with sand and small bits of stone.

Lifedrinker (sword)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: When you kill the target the blade absorbs its soul, which you can use to either heal using a recovery, or you can animate a corpse* that you touch.

Quirk: Your beverage of choice: blood.

*When you animate a corpse you create a zombie mook of the same level as the original creature.

Level  Attack  Damage  HP  AC  PD  MD
1          +5           3          10    14    12    8
2          +6           4          12    15    13    9
3          +7           5          15    16    14    10
4          +8           6          18    17    15    11
5          +9           8          23    18    16    12
6          +10         10        28    19    17    13
7          +11         16        33    20    18    14
8          +12         20        42    21    19    15
9          +13         18        52    22    20    16
10        +14         34        61    23    21    17

Demonbane Axe  (axe)
+2 to attack and damage

Always: The axe blade glows red when demons are nearby, and its surface depicts a compass that points to the nearest hellhole.

1/battle: +4 to attack and +1d12 damage (hit or miss) when attacking a demon.

Quirk: You talk to fire.

Deflection Staff  (staff)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 16+: When you're hit with an attack, take half damage and the attacker takes half.  If the attack inflicts a condition, roll a normal save; on a success, the attacker suffers it instead of you.

Quirk: You constantly admire yourself in mirrors.

Coatl Ring

Recharge 6+: At the start of your turn roll a save against one effect.

Always: When falling from a great distance, you float to the ground unharmed.

Quirk: You adorn yourself in bright feathers.

Iron's Will (Hammer)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: As a quick action you can magnetize the hammer and pull a metal weapon out of a foe's hand, or pull and enemy wearing metal armor into engagement.

Quirk: you like to grab objects out of people's hands.

Captain Crow's Glaive (2-handed reach weapon)
+2 to attack and damage

The first time you roll a natural even miss each battle make a magi's lightning chain attack:  +11 vs PD - 15 lightning damage and each natural even attack lets you target an additional creature.

Quirk: The glaive wants to be returned to the hands of an ogre mage...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Musings on Turning 13th Age into a 2d10 System

I was once again thinking about how one might add more of a bell curve to a d20 system, and specifically the problems associated with doing so for 13th Age.  I often mentally reference two articles from the Gaming Security Agency when I'm thinking such thoughts - Die, d20 die! and Extreme Makeover, d20ish Edition.  If these sound familiar, it's because I referenced them in a previous post about revising d20, a post that specifically addressed the problems associated with increasing the maximum value via large modifiers, especially in Pathfinder where such modifiers get really out of hand (and where skills you don't invest resources into don't automatically advance, increasing the "skill disparity" even more as you level).

While the comments of that post did touch on whether or not this is as much of a problem in 13th Age (compared with Pathfinder, it's not), there's still a lot to be said for trading in the uniform distribution of a d20 for the bell curve of 2d10.  But in 13th Age this makes characters with flexible attacks, like Fighters and Bards, problematic.  Even if you don't have those classes in your game, the GM will still have to worry about this issue since most monsters have triggers based on the natural result of the d20 roll.  So how can you get around this?

The solution I came up with (which is very much theoretical) requires differentiated d10s.  Different color dice will work, but considering that your standard set of dice already includes differentiated d10s to be used as percentile dice, it's not much of an issue.  You designate one d10 as the primary die, and the other as the secondary.  The primary die alone can handle a lot of the more common natural die roll triggers.  A natural even or odd result works just fine with the same probability as a d20 roll.  But what about a natural 16+, which has a 25% chance of occurring on a d20 roll?  Or for that matter, critical hits that normally have a 5% chance of triggering (usually on a natural 20)?  Critical hits are important for some classes, like Fighters (most of which pick up Carve an Opening since it's a rare odd-roll trigger) and Rangers.

I think a viable solution for such scenarios that would preserve their relative probabilities would be to combine the result on the primary d10 with a high/low (coin flip) on the secondary die.  In other words, a result of 10 on the primary die would count as a natural 20 if the secondary die is 6 or greater, or a 19 if the secondary die is less than 6.  A natural 9 would count as an 18 if the secondary die is greater than 6, and so on.  Of course the secondary die doesn't necessarily have to use a high/low dichotomy (evens or odds would work just fine, too).

To use another example, a natural 16+ would include a natural 9 or 10 on the primary die, but also a natural 8 if the secondary die is "high."  Therefore while you're totaling 2d10 for the purposes of determining success/failure, any given roll can also generate natural result triggers in 5% increments just like a d20 roll.  Granted it's not the most elegant or intuitive fix, but for those who dislike the probability of a d20 roll and would prefer a dice pool mechanic to get more of a bell curve, it might be a tradeoff worth making without changing how specific options in the system work.

The GSA articles also suggest adding dice to your pool instead of piling on static modifiers, keeping the highest 2 results for your total.  This results in skilled characters tending to get results at the high end of the distribution and getting fewer low results (the bell curve shifts to the right), but without increasing their maximum results.  In other words, skilled characters succeed more reliably than unskilled characters, but don't hit DCs that are unreachable for unskilled characters.  One possible way to integrate this into the 13th Age background system while still allowing some flexibility when designing backgrounds would be to assign each character 4 background dice.  While this results in less granularity than 8 background points distributed as you see fit, most PCs typically have between 4 and 2 unique backgrounds, with 3 being quite common.  Having 4 background dice allows you to have 4 single-die backgrounds, 2 backgrounds that would add 2d10 to your pool (again, keeping only the highest 2 results to total), or 1 background with 2 dice and 2 backgrounds with 1 die.  This roughly parallels having four 2 point backgrounds, two 4 point backgrounds, or three backgrounds with two at 3 points and one at 2 points (odd that a 3 background character will have 1 good background with the dice pool system vs 2 good backgrounds with the point system, but it's not a deal breaker).  Further Backgrounding would give you 1 background die (as would any talent or other ability that grants you 2 background points), while the higher-valued background talents like the Ranger's "Tracker" would give you a 2d10 background.

Obviously once you start rolling more than 2d10 it becomes a lot tougher to model the natural d20 result triggers, but such triggers don't come up on skill checks.  If for some reason you were to add one or more dice to an attack roll that has triggers, you'd simply need to complicate things a little more.  You'd need 3 or 4 unique, individually identifiable d10s and you'd need to rank them.  Then whichever two dice came up with the highest result, you'd use the higher-ranked die as the primary and the lower one as the secondary.  For example, I have a light blue percentile set and a dark blue percentile set, so the dark 10s die could be ranked highest, and then in descending order would be the dark 1s die, the light 10s die, and light 1s die.  For "roll twice" effects like Barbarian Rage I'd simply keep the two light dice together as equivalent to one d20 roll, and the two dark dice as the second roll.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Improvised Chases (System Neutral)

For gamers coming from a D&D background, chase scenes are often overlooked.  Many D&D players simply don't run chases, or when they do they resort to speed comparisons, or counting squares while taking potshots with ranged attacks or spells.  Many powerful control spells will outright end a chase by immobilizing one side or slowing them down.  In other words, when chases do come up they are dry and soulless affairs.

Granted, this might not be everyone's experience, but these are the solutions that make the most obvious use of the rules of the more recent editions of D&D.  I'm sure plenty of GM's ignore the square counting and go for a more skill-challenge type solution.  But skill challenges (as presented in 4E D&D) have their own set of problems, namely that the strict number of failures vs number of successes doesn't necessarily match the narrative description of the scene.  If a skill should end the challenge even if the requisite number of successes hasn't been reached, the GM will usually either fudge it and say that the players succeed, or you'll get frustrated players who don't feel like their specific actions mean anything more than "checking a box."

I know I never really had many chases in my games, but recently I've been sprinkling them in.  In general, I've been using a modified version of the Thriller Chase rules of the Gumshoe game "Night's Black Agents."  The framework works really well for virtually any system, ignoring of course the Gumshoe-specific rules.  The result is a narrative, fast-paced system for resolving chases with skill checks.

  • First, create a chase track.  I like to have the PCs start at a value of 0, and track lead by going up or down on the track.  A good default is to cap the track at +/-5.  If one or more PC gets to 5, they win.  If all PCs get to -5, they lose.  This works regardless of whether they're pursuing or pursued (just inject whatever narrative description fits the scene).  
  • Most importantly, describe a dynamic environment and let the PCs react to it.  Picture each round as a leg of the chase that takes place in a discrete scene.  Running through a busy city street, a pursuing NPC might make a check to convince guards/police (or upstanding citizens) to stop the PCs.  The key here is to not let the chase devolve into "I sprint," "ok, roll Athletics," etc.  That's the equivalent of fighting generic orcs in a featureless 30x30 room.  As a GM, you'll probably have to play the NPC as a proactive party, actively creating problems/opposition that the PCs are forced to react to.  
  • Each "leg" or point of lead is a narrative unit; it doesn't have to equal a specific number of feet or squares.  The chase is broken up into units of "interesting scenes," and each scene should be summarized with a single skill check for all parties involved.
  • As a baseline, a successful skill check will bring the PC up 1 step on the chase track.  A failure will drop them down 1 step.  Conversely, a success by the NPC (or group of NPCs) might bring all PCs down 1 step, and a failure bring all PCs up 1 step.  Depending on the narrative, multiple NPCs might only effect one or some PCs.  
  • If the difficulty of a check is going to be harder than typical (i.e. the action is riskier), reward that by letting a success increase the lead by 2.  Don't get too generous with this option, and typically only use it if there is an easier alternative and the contrast between the options is noticeable.  A failure doesn't necessarily have to drop the PC down by 2, though.  Equally interesting is a penalty to their next skill check, or even a penalty to an ally's check.  Feel free to adjust the "pacing" of the track if the chase stalls or seems to look like it's going to be a back-and-forth for a long time.  
  • The option of increasing/decreasing lead by multiple increments could also be used if the system has a "degrees of success" mechanic, even if it's as simple as a "crit" (natural 20) in a d20 system.  Things like succeeding with style in Fate, great/extraordinary successes in TOR, or getting a raise in Savage Worlds would apply here.
  • If the system uses a resource-management mechanic (like Vancian spells), feel free to grant an auto-success for the expenditure of resources, or at least force the NPC to make a difficult skill check that can benefit the party (will increase their position), but won't set them back if the NPC succeeds.
These rules/guidelines don't necessarily have to represent an obvious chase.  In an Edge of the Empire game that I ran, I had the PCs racing to a base along a fortified ridge top so that they could grab a ship and escape the planet they were on.  Meanwhile, moving up the canyon below them was a battalion of Imperial walkers that would surely destroy the base if they got their first.  The PCs were being tracked by a large native cat-like creature, and had to contend with turrets and patrols on the way to the base (the PCs were a "third party" in this conflict; in other words, both groups were out to get them!).  Then once they were inside, they had to fight their way to the hangar as the walkers got there!  For some scenes (or "legs" of the chase) a quick combat encounter took the place of skill checks.

So give it a try next time you have to run a chase scene.  If it's completely on-the-fly, consider dropping the chase track down to +/-4, or even 3, because that will keep the number of scenes that you'll need to come up with to a minimum.  Note that a +/-3 could be resolved in as few as 2 "rounds," but if there's more back and forth it might take longer.  If you need to adjust the pace, make the next scene harder if the PCs are doing better that you anticipated, or easier if they're floundering (especially the latter!).  If it starts to get repetitive or you run out of scenes, better to end the chase in an exciting way (some sort of complication?) than slog through the chase track just for the sake of finishing it.  This isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast resolution system; it's more of a tool for the GM to ballpark their pacing.