Thursday, February 20, 2014

Icons in Action (3)

My group recently started up a new 13th Age campaign, but this one's a bit unusual in that we're alternating GMing duties with each GM running a 3ish session adventure and then passing the baton over to someone else.  I've done this in the past with a different group in D&D 4E (and I posted actual plays on that, using the Red Frogs tag).  The concept is similar, with all of the PCs belonging to an adventurer's guild (which we haven't thought of a good name for yet), and each player having the option of making multiple PCs so that they can choose one from their roster at the beginning of each adventure.  All characters level up at a consistent rate (otherwise the GMs would fall behind!).  These elements strongly encourage a more episodic campaign structure, which will be an interesting departure from my last campaign which was more like one long arc.  The advantage of this is that I think it will be well-suited to improvisational Icon driven play.

As the first GM in the lineup, that's definitely the route I'm going.  A while back there was a random adventure design tool posted in See Page XX (the Pelgrane Press webzine) called 13 Oracles.  Each Icon is given a list of 6 associated places, objects, people, and circumstances and by rolling randomly you can combine those elements to create a random adventure.  I decided to test this premise, and so after my players finished writing up their characters during our world-building session I had everyone roll Icon dice early.  Luckily I had 4 results (one for each category), but with more I could have easily doubled up on one or more categories.  Rolling on the Oracles list in the order that I wrote everyone's results in, I ended up with the following:

Place - 5 with the Archmage: an enchanted lake
Object - 5 with the Dwarf King: gold, gold, gold
People - 6 with the Elf Queen: a bard whose songs come true
Circumstance - 5 with the Elf Queen: under strange stars

To plan the adventure I simply spent 15 minutes or so using these results to come up with a basic plot outline.  The summary version goes like this:

Maulnar, a dwarven vaultkeeper, hires the PCs because the contents of one of his vaults (a big pile of gold owned by the Dwarf King) has gone missing.  This happened the same night that a wandering bard, Quentin Kroft, passed through Forge and sang a comic song at a local tavern about the Dwarf King losing his gold.  The PC's first lead is Quentin's traveling companion, a gladiator in Axis, which was his last known location.  They learn from the gladiator that Quentin was headed to Lake Everfrost, which was the last place he visited before going to Forge and where his songs started coming true.  The land around Lake Everfrost is forever under winter's grip, and as soon as the PCs step onto the frozen lake the day sky goes dark and the sky over the lake is a clear, starlit night, but the stars look unfamiliar.  They see Quentin kicking a rock in the center of the lake, and soon figure out that the lake is a window into another plane called the Land of the Unseelie.  They learn that a drow sorceress (Lithariel) in that realm cursed Quentin when he first ventured onto the lake, using mishaps from his songs for profit (when the gold disappeared from the vault, it went directly to her tower!).  

That actually sounds doable for a single-session adventure, but instead I decided to stretch it over 3 sessions.  I had some ideas for a few adversaries, locales and some set-piece encounters which I weaved into this basic plot outline to flesh it out a little more and fill in the details.

Additional Icon Examples
A few days later (but before running the first session) I decided that some of the connections to the icons weren't terribly obvious.  I also wanted more practice using Icons in-play, so I decided that the rolls for the first session would do double-duty.  How would I have used these results in my previous campaign if I hadn't "counted" using them for the plot outline?

Session 1

Dwarf King 5 - Deldrak (the High Elf Wizard with the Forge prison escapee background) recognized Maulnar as an employee of the Dwarf King; a connection that the vaultkeeper originally kept secret to prevent this mishap from going public (twist - the Dwarf King doesn't even know his gold is missing!).  This was planned before the session.

Elf Queen 5 - Farrah, the Drow Bard, noticed an obviously-stolen bracelet on the wrist of a thieves' guild leader.  Unfortunately, the party couldn't (or wasn't motivated enough) to overcome the complication, and after abandoning a chase never got ahold of the bracelet.  The thief will most likely make a future cameo.  The general idea behind this was planned before the session, but the details were improvised on the spot (crazy PCs didn't do what I expected of them).

Elf Queen 6 - Kalder, the High Elf Sorcerer with the traveling merchant background, passed a colleague on the way to Lake Everfrost.  This colleague happened to owe him some money, and paid back the debt with two healing potions and a +1 rune.  This was planned before the session.

Archmage 5 - I kept this as a "floating" Icon roll, and I ended up invoking it when the PCs were in the pit barracks talking with the gladiators after being pursued by a squadron of town guards.  Deldrak used Hold Portal to keep the guards off the party long enough for the conversation to take place.  Unfortunately, that door was the only way out of the room (except for a sewer drain that the sorcerer opted to escape through, but nobody else did).  Deldrak's One Unique Thing is that ever since his testing at the School of Imperial Wizardry, he's had to cast a spell every single round (usually he's constantly casting light as a quick action; each footstep he takes lights up the ground) or some random magical effect occurs.  When the Hold Portal spell ended, he simply said he stopped casting light.  I had sparks erupt from the ceiling, creating a lot of smoke that blinded everyone in the room and the incoming guards, allowing Deldrak to escape through the door (unfortunately, everyone else had to talk their way out of the situation once the smoke cleared, which they did just fine).

Session 2

These Icon rolls were made at the beginning of the session, so none were planned ahead of time.

Archmage 5 - After looting the bodies of some redcaps, Kalder (the sorcerer) found a bundle of mushrooms and a pouch of yellow powder.  I initially wasn't sure what use they'd be, but after trading a minor secret to Ungol (see The Three, below) he learned that the powder is a spider repellent.  I also used the mushrooms as part of another one of Deldrak's random magical effects from his OUT, which actually ended up being a nice complication.

Emperor 5 - This is an unused roll that will carry over to the next session.

The Three 2 - This was from the cursed dice of Balladeer.  The party found themselves in the lair of Ungol, an ettercap who trades in secrets.  Their goal was to learn the secret of who cursed Quentin, but such information doesn't come cheap.  The PCs had to tell Ungol secrets of their own first.  I wasn't sure what to do with this cursed die result until the players were at somewhat of a loss when asked to divulge their secrets (eventually they came up with some juicy stuff).  So I told Seamus Stonystones, the Dwarf Bard who made the Balladeer check, to come up with a secret that would anger followers of The Three.  He established that he was the writer of a limerick that had gone viral throughout the land, "Three Heads; Might as Well Be One."

Session 3

Emperor 5 (from last session) & Archmage 6 - The Emperor had sent Jeras, a former schoolmate of Deldrak, to aid the group after learning of their mission (he didn't want to compromise his alliance with the Dwarf King).  Unfortunately, he got captured by redcaps and used as bait to lure the party into another battle, this time as revenge for their previous victory against redcaps (this was the complication).  Point of interest, the "bad word" was literally a bad word that the group can't help but unconsciously utter when things go wrong, so even when they figured it out it still got triggered several more times.  I love redcaps.  In the first fight, the "bad word" was "attack," and the players never figured it out.  Jeras gave the party several +1 Runes, a couple of potions, and some practical advice on the defenses of Lithariel's tower.  Specifically, he told them not to touch the water in the stream that effectively acted as a moat from the side they approached.  Note: I planned this general idea before the session using the Emperor 5 result, and decided to simply increase the magnitude of the benefit by combining the Archmage 6 result with Jeras (in short, he had more stuff for the party).

Dwarf King 6 - The haunted bagpipes of Seamus the Dwarven Bard warn him to steer clear of the disturbed earth around Lithariel's tower.  The ghosts can sense other undead - zombies! - and the party avoids a trap/fight.  While everyone loves a good zombie horde, I'm not sure how long it would take my party to realize that the zombies were effectively infinite (it was the site of a mass grave from a battle).  Thus, this would have really been quite dangerous.

Great Gold Wyrm 5 - carried over to next session (see notes below).

Emperor 6 - carried over to next session but never used.

Session 4

Bonus session!  This was a short session, and just a quick wrap-up since things ran longer than anticipated.  The party fought Lithariel, "killed" her (she dissipated into smoke, and a successful knowledge check revealed that she'd regenerate later since the kill shot wasn't from a cold iron weapon).  I used the Great Gold Wyrm roll from Seamus' Balladeer to have the toll-collected dragon brood be off chasing some merchants who were singing his anti-Three limerick ("Three Heads; Might As Well Be One").  The complication being that they'll probably kill those merchants, but perhaps not before learning who wrote the song (wink, wink).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dicey Stunts Reference Cards

In an effort to remind my players about the option for Dicey Stunts I printed out these cards and taped them to the cardboard from an old cereal box with packing tape (improvised laminated cardstock).  Or if you've got cardstock you can of course just print it on that.  It worked!  Having a physical object on the table served as a reminder, and saved time since nobody had to dig out a sheet or pull up a screen to look up examples.

If you're familiar with the sub-system then you'll probably only need the Example Stunts cards out for the players, but in this new campaign that my group has started out we're rotating GMing duties after each 3-4 session episodic adventure.  I'm the only one who has actually GMed 13th Age before, so having the "Using Dicey Stunts" and "Risks" cards for the other GMs should make it easier for them to adjudicate stunts.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Musings on Icon Rolls - Alternatives and the Default Rule

There was a recent post on the Pelgrane Press forums about how to best utilize Icon rolls, with one of the complaints being that despite the fail-forward philosophy of the system as a whole, why should failing a roll connected to one of the most influential PCs in the game world (the Icon system being a major innovation of 13th Age) do nothing?  Two posts down Guurzak responded that he'd changed Icon rolls to a single d6 to determine which of your Icons is involved.

The Single Die Icon Roll
The rationale for this is pretty simple - if you're hoping for a 5 or 6 (odds are 1/3) but you're rolling 3d6, on average each PC will benefit  from one Icon relationship per session.  For example, your first relationship triggers on a roll of 1 or 2, with 1 being the equivalent of 5 and 2 being the equivalent of 6 (and so on).  The advantage to this system is that every PC gets some benefit from one of their Icons every single session, preserving the fail-forward feel of the system.  This does, however, restrict possible combinations since a single PC with two different relationships can never see both of them come up in a single session.  Likewise, a PC with 3 points in a single Icon will force that Icon to come into play every single session.  I can see this getting repetitive pretty quickly.

An extra wrinkle is the fact that some talents grant additional relationship points, and as a PC levels they gain an additional point at each tier transition.  There are two possible solutions for dealing with this.  One is to increase the die size, having someone with 4 relationship points rolling a d8.  This keeps the number of Icons being triggered consistent, but makes each individual relationship less potent.  This may be ok with some groups, especially if the GM is trying to keep from getting overwhelmed by too many Icons.  It does invalidate the idea that PCs become more influential as they move up a tier, though.

The second solution is to roll the first 3 Icons with one die, but use individual dice for any additional Icons, hoping for a 5 or 6 as per RAW.  While this is no longer a single-die system, it does preserve the relative strengths of each relationship point and continues to guarantee that each PC will benefit from at least one relationship per session.

Another potential problem with this system is that it messes with talents like the Bard's Storyteller.  Using the Icon rules as written, this talent is valuable for re-rolling a relationship that came up dry, but using just a single die you're merely swapping out Icons.

The New Art Sidebar
I've actually seen this single-die solution offered before online (though I can't remember where or when), as well as some other alternative mechanics that I can't quite remember.  Clearly this is the type of thing that the "New Art" sidebar on p. 179 of the core rulebook is talking about:

Often, when an RPG introduces a new mechanic, such as our icon dice, soon enough the fans figure out how to use that mechanic better than the designers ever did.  Designers are too close to their own creations to get it 100% right.  Check the internet for the latest advice on using icon relationship dice.

But I'm not convinced such solutions are "better," or that there even really is a "better."  If the published rules lack consistency session-to-session it's because they're an improvisational story tool, and stories shouldn't be repetitious from session to session.  Sometimes a PC will get shoved into the spotlight by 2 or 3 Icon results, while another PC gets nothing.  But being in the spotlight for story-driven reasons and being in the spotlight because you're given the opportunity to act are very different things.  Bob can still make decisions and take actions in response to the current situation even if they're in the situation because of Jane.  And over the course of a moderate to long campaign, everything should average out in the end.  In the end, I think the published rules work really well, and in practice I think they allow for more organic results than any of the alternatives I've seen online.

An exception worth pointing out is convention games and one-shots.  In such scenarios a single-die Icon roll is absolutely appropriate because there's only one session to get spotlight time in, so every PC's relationships should come up at some point.

Mechanical Benefits
Another alternative rule for Icons that I've seen posted online is for results of 5 or 6 to grant some kind of one time use mechanical benefit.  The player can invoke their positive result for a re-roll, a -5 reduction to the DC of a skill check, or something of that nature.  This has cropped up a few times in the inevitable "how do I use Icon results?" threads on various forums, and while there's certainly precedent for it (the suggestion that Icon rolls can grant magic items is, after all, a mechanical benefit), I'm not sure if that's necessarily a good use for the mechanic.

Essentially, such an add-on is trying to fit a plot currency device like Bennies (from Savage Worlds), Fate points (from Fate), or Destiny Points (from Edge of the Empire) into the Icon framework, but to me this seems like a square peg in a round hole.  I have nothing against Fate Points, Destiny Points, etc., but they're pretty easy to add onto most systems as-is, and if you want them in your 13th Age game you should just do that.  Using Icon rolls as the vehicle for "bennies" disassociates them from the fiction unless you can come up with an explanation for exactly why the PC gets a mechanical benefit from their relationship every single time, and in an interesting, unique way.  Ultimately they work really well as an improvisational story tool, but they become less flexible if you have to inject story into a routine mechanical benefit, and the narrative impact is probably reduced as well.  And then when you have a really good story-driven use for an Icon roll, will a player feel cheated if you use that instead of giving them a mechanical benefit like the other guy whose Icon roll you didn't have an obvious use for got?  In other words, sometimes using them as a narrative tool and sometimes using them for a mechanical benefit might seem to lighten the load, but it could also mess with the expectations of the players and cause some friction.

While Icons as more of a GM's tool vs something that a player can invoke will vary from group to group, ideally the end result will be some narrative element.  The location of the upcoming adventure is somehow tied to a PC's icon, NPCs that are tied to a PC will come into play, etc.  A PC might be able to use a 5 or 6 as leverage during the adventure, but reducing that to something as simple as a re-roll seems like both a cop-out and forgettable.  It's far less memorable than telling one of the players "ok, so these guys that outnumber and outgun you, you recognize one of their faces.  You remember him from the Emperor's court; remember the Emperor giving him orders to infiltrate this group and act as a double agent.  You lock eyes with the spy, and with a simple nod you see his crossbow go from pointing directly at you to pointing at his leader's throat."  That provides the PC with a concrete link to the campaign world, and in my opinion that's the primary function of the Icon relationship dice in the first place.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Night's Black Agents (First Impression)

I've been intrigued by Gumshoe, an investigative system by well-known designer Robin D. Laws, for a while now.  The system offers a variety of setting-specific games, and before the announcement of Edge of the Empire I was considering Ashen Stars for a sci-fi game.  After I started playing EotE I wanted a completely different type of game to test the investigative waters with, and so my gaze turned toward Trail of Cthulu.  Unfortunately, I couldn't really see my group getting into a horror game, and likewise the lack of action and combat support probably wouldn't go over so well with them either.  Then I stumbled upon Night's Black Agents, and it appeared to be the perfect compromise between "I want to try out an investigative game" and "something my group might actually play."

So what kind of setting is Night's Black Agents anyways?  The short answer is that it's a modern spy thriller with vampires.  To go into a little more depth, the default assumption is that there's a vampire conspiracy, and the PCs are rogue agents trying to get to the bottom of it and stop the vampires (with the first mission usually being the one where the PCs discover the existence of vampires).  The GM outlines the campaign structure using a "Conspiramid," which is a pyramidal graphic that shows different nodes of the conspiracy from "street level" at the bottom (gangs, drug runners, etc. that might not even know they're working for vampires) all the way to the big guys with pointy teeth at the top.  Maybe pointy teeth, anyways.  There's a whole chapter on vampires - over 40 pages - and its dedicated almost entirely to creating your vampires.  The term "vampire" is used really loosely here, and it's mostly up to the GM how they want to portray their vampires.  There are 4 main categories which include Supernatural (based on various vampire mythologies from cultures around the world), Damned (your typical cross-fearing, burned-by-holy-water vampires), Alien (could be anything, even sanity-draining sentient meteor rocks), and Mutant (this category's vampiric viruses and similar ilk will provide a very different experience).  The book does an excellent job of outlining different elements of what might pass for vampire lore, and guiding GMs in combining it together to create essentially a stat block.

And so a concept like "vampires" (which, let's face it is pretty overdone these days) is actually a lot less specific than it sounds.  But also worth mentioning is that there's an alternative "mode" that the game can be played in that leaves vampires out entirely; it's perfectly reasonable to run a more traditional spy thriller using these rules.  You'll just have less supernatural weirdness, and the guys at the top of your Conspyramid will be regular old human bastards.

Speaking of "modes," the no vampires variant (Martini, Straight Up) is presented near the end of the book along with The Dunwich Sanction (a more Lovecraftian version of the game that basically combines Night's Black Agents with Trail of Cthulu) and Special Assets (the agents themselves have psionic/super powers).  But at the very beginning of the book are 4 modes designed to tweak gameplay within the parameters of the default setting (vampire spy thriller).  Each mode has an associated symbol, and when you come across that symbol in the main body of the book it means that particular rule is designed for use in that mode.  Modes can be mixed and matched to customize the flavor that the GM is going for.  These modes are Burn (which highlights character development and the psychological damage that these missions have on the agents and those around them), Dust (for a grittier, less cinematic espionage game), Mirror (a socially complex labyrinth where everyone has a hidden agenda, betrayal and corruption are rampant, and your NPC allies or even other PCs might not be entirely trustworthy), and Stakes (higher-stakes campaigns where ethics and a PC's drives are at the forefront).  This is one of my favorite features of the game, for its straightforward transparency and useful advice for helping a GM choose specific rules elements that alter the "feel" of the game that they have in mind.
Now I'd like to shift gears a little bit.  I'm not trying to do an exhaustive review of the game's mechanics, but a brief overview of what a PC looks like is probably useful.  This game might have the longest skill list of any that I've read or played, and that's usually a negative for me.  However, the skills are split into General Skills and three categories of Investigative abilities (Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical).  The General skills are those active abilities that typically show up in a skill list (Athletics, Digital Intrusion, Explosives, Driving, Hand to Hand, etc.).  This skill list isn't actually that long.  Gumshoe might be described as a point-spend system, in that you give your skills a rating which determines your pool of points that you can spend when rolling for that skill.  Task resolution is a simple d6, and each point you spend from your pool on a roll grants you a +1 bonus to that result.  So if you spend 1 point when your difficulty is 4, you'll succeed by rolling a 3 or higher.  Your pool refreshes at the end of an operation, or sometimes you'll gain partial refreshes through special abilities or from tactical fact-finding benefits (player-driven in-game advantages).  Your pool only represents your PC's physical proficiency at a given skill indirectly; the primary goal is to model "spotlight time," and usually the better you are at something the more spotlight time you'll want your agent to get with that task.  The default assumption is that PCs are experienced spies, and they all start out pretty badass.

The investigative abilities work a little differently, and they're at the heart of the Gumshoe system.  They're also point-based, but the point values are much smaller (typically 1-3).  If you're trained with a given skill (i.e. you have a rating of at least 1) then you're automatically given any core clues in the investigation.  Core clues are clues needed for the plot to advance.  As an example, when an agent Interrogates (an interpersonal investigative ability) a captive they'll automatically be granted any core clues that the captive has knowledge of; that much success is assumed.  If the agent spends a point (or two) from Interrogation, they'll force the captive to divulge additional information that will provide the PCs with an advantage later, or supplemental clues that might flesh out the investigation and make things easier.  The point of this mechanic is to avoid the classic issue (I'll pick on D&D here) of "I roll my Intimidate check; oh crap, rolled a 3, that's a failure" and then the party hits a dead end.  While some games with pass/fail mechanics use a "fail forward" philosophy to avoid this, Gumshoe's method puts that assumption front-and-center so it's crystal-clear to the PCs that they'll discover all of the essentials that are within their sphere of expertise.  Ultimately the more interesting thing in an investigative game is not whether or not the PCs discover a clue, but what they do with that information.

Night's Black Agents is supposedly one of the more "action heavy" Gumshoe games, and its Thriller Combat and Thriller Chase rules do indeed have a level of crunch that will probably satisfy my players.  Personally I prefer crunch-medium games, and I'd say this falls at the lower end of that category.  Things like Called Shots, Jumping In, Support Moves, Mook Shields, etc. provide PCs with enough meaningful choices in combat to keep things exciting and to offer plenty of tactical opportunities.  That said, fire fights are quite dangerous, and this isn't a game where you can just run up to someone pointing a gun at you and expect to survive the experience (there is a specific rule that covers that situation, and it's a nasty one!).  You'll have to fight smart, rely on stealth when possible, and know when to run.  By default it still favors high action though (though Dust mode is less forgiving), and the rules are generally pretty abstracted.  You won't find fiddly rules for equipment and vehicles here.  Much like 13th Age has a die size for general weapon groups (1 vs 2 handed weapons, martial vs simple vs light weapons), in Night's Black Agents damage will be a d6, with damage modifiers ranging from -2 (for a kick or punch) to +2 (for heavy firearms).  Likewise vehicles simply have an abstract Speed, Maneuverability, and possibly notes (such as whether it's an off-road vehicle, or whether it has special armor).

Because this a core book that combines what in D&D would be the PHB, DMG, and MM, there's a wealth of GMing advice in it.  Some of it is just generally valuable for running an investigative game and can be system-neutral (if, for example, you're running an investigative adventure as part of a larger campaign in a different system).  Most of the prep work involves figuring out what kind of vampires you want, at least filling out part of a Conspyramid, and writing up a quick city background or two.  It seems to be very front-loaded, which makes sense since laying out clues would be very difficult if you didn't have a good idea of who was at the higher levels of your Conspyramid.  There's also a generic "Vampyramid" that details vague responses that your conspiracy might have as your PCs start acting against the different nodes and levels of the Conspyramid (these responses are general enough that the Vampyramid doesn't need to be custom-built; a low-level response like "frame agent" can be adapted to a vast array of specific situations, so the pre-built Vampyramid can apply to virtually any campaign even if it lacks vampires).  The combination of Conspyramid and Vampyramid reminded me of the functionality of Fronts from Dungeon World (a game that I'd recommend for its GMing advice alone).  It was interesting to see a take on that concept presented in such a drastically different way, specialized so heavily to a specific niche (a game where the PCs investigate a huge conspiracy).

Another highlight of this book for me is that it has a section titled Advice to Players, which is a subject often neglected in tabletop RPGs.  This is fully outside of the character building and rules chapters.  It's meta-game advice that gets players thinking about the game's play style and what's expected of them to keep the game moving.  A lot of it is specific to what's expected of PCs in an investigative game, how to respond if you're "stuck," and how to manage the game's pacing.  I love transparency in games, and explicit meta-game advice is a great way to let everyone know how the game was designed to be played (that's not meant to imply it's restrictive; knowing why something is designed the way it is makes it much easier to house-rule things to better suit your specific group).

While I have no idea when I'll have time to actually play this game, I'd say it was a good purchase.  It fills a niche that can't easily be replicated by any other game that I own, and has enough unique pieces of game design that it proved an interesting read independent of whether or not I'll be playing it in the near future.