Monthly Archives: August 2012

More Skills

So many good comments on the last post that I really can’t process them, except to note that they resulted in my digesting them, and lead to this.

Ok, let’s start from a premise:  If you roll the dice, you’ll succeed.

The idea behind this is pretty simple – if your character is one who is capable of doing something, then that’s reflected in their skills.  Fighter-guy does not get to roll to pick locks and hope he rolls a 20, and mage guy does not get to try to break down a door and hope the same[1].   So this makes the foundational decision into one of whether or not the player gets to roll.

So, why might you not be able to roll?

First and foremost, you might not have the appropriate skill.  Simple enough.

Second, you might not have enough skill.  Even before we get into the details of what a roll means, there may be some rough tiering of skill levels that says “basic lockpicking is not enough to crack open Loki’s security system – you need Epic lockpicking.”  This could be its own topic, but for the moment, just file away that the possibility exists.

Third, you may be missing a key element.  It might be a physical limitation, like trying to hack a computer you can’t physically access,  or it might be some piece of information, like the language you need to speak.

Fourth, because it might be too trivial to merit a roll.  Sometimes success just happens.

Now, given all that, what does a skill roll mean?  Now that success is not at question, it’s now all about all the other things we talk about that make skill rolls interesting.  These are potentially different for any roll, but a few of the big categories include:

Time – Can this be done quickly or slowly? (QUICKLY/SLOWLY)
Quality – Will this be a well-crafted job, or held together with duct tape and spit? (WELL/POORLY)
Style – How good do you look doing it? (STYLISH/MESSY)[2]
Durability – Is this built to last, or is it just barely going to hold together? (DURABLE/FRAGILE)
Consequences – Situationally, what else might go wrong (or right)?[3]

All of these gain some meaning when you have a clear expectation of how things are going to go – all else being equal, that lock is going to take a few minutes to pick, for example.[4]  And they gain extra meaning from the context – a few minutes may be too long if the guards are on regular patrol.

Now, if we were going pure diceless, then we could view this as a currency swap.  Imagine each of those categories as a switch that could be -, 0 or +.  0 means it’s as expected, + means it does well in that category, – means its less good.  In this case, the  the problem is that the lock needs to be picked QUICKLY, so the player offers a tradeoff, that it will be MESSY (that is to say, it will be obvious upon inspection that the lock has been picked).  That brings things to a net 0 (+1 for QUICKLY, -1 for AWKWARD) which is what the character needs to succeed.

When you add dice into the equation, then the dice become the currency – you need to roll well enough to improve on your base success.

Ok, this is getting abstract, so let me ground this: Let’s take a basic success-counting system like the Storytelling System.  Core mechanic is simple: Roll a bunch of d10s, if any of them shows a success (7+), the roll is a success, with the number of successes coloring the outcome. We’re cheating a bit because this system does have the option of failure, but we can handle that.

In this case, we assume that one success is effectively a “0 point” success, goign exactly as expected.  Extra successes can be “cashed in” to improve the quality and nature of the roll – so, if you roll 3 successes, you might opt to succeed QUICKLY and STYLISHLY.

This gives players a chance to be awesome a lot, but it also introduces an interesting tool into the GM’s arsenal, since the same thinking can be applied to difficulties.  That is, the GM can set a few things at their negative values at the outset – a very fragile lock, for example, is going to be MESSY work, and if the player gets only one success, it’s going to be MESSY.  A second success will be needed to cancel out that (but, importantly, there’s no obligation to do so – if the player is ok with it being MESSY, he might use his successes to be QUICK).[5]

Obviously, this leaves a lot of territory uncovered (conflicts and contests jump to mind, though  I really like the prospect of contests where opponents push on different axes depending on their priorities) but hopefully the idea is reasonably clear.

1 – Is that a skill?  Sure, the same way running or climbing is.  There are a range of tasks that don’t need the skill, but the skill represents that it’s your thing.  You break down doors (or run or talk or whatever) 

2 – This may be the most mechanically toothless category, but humans are vain, and we like looking like we know what we’re doing.

3 – Though, really, EVERYTHING is just a flavor of consequence

4 – Yes, the setting of expectations is powerful mojo, and we’ll be getting to some of the mechanical hooks into that. 

5 – Did I just suggest that something might be double or triple QUICK? Why yes, yes I did, though what that means is a whole other topic.

The Fragile Foundation of Skills

This is a rant.  I’m circling an idea, and if you read this, you get to watch.

There’s a truism that gets rolled out from time to time when talking about old school D&D vs newer iterations (and more generally, old vs new games) and that is this: “No one fell off a horse before there was a riding skill.”

Now, the sentiment behind this is couched int he idea of letting the player describe what they are doing, such as riding a horse, unless there’s a good reason otherwise.  In this mode of thinking, the introduction of the skill has created a barrier to play, and is an unwelcome addition to something that exists primarily in the imagination.  Extrapolated, this can be applied to a lot of rules, including things like feats and powers, because without the rules, players were free to do these things anyway, using the descriptive tools at thier disposal.

Now, I admit I’m skeptical of this argument as a whole. It’s not that older games did not allow for this range of action, but there are procedural and presentation differences that tend to get skimmed past in the discussion.  However, I think it’s a great argument for something other than what it’s used for.  See, the problem is not that skill systems intrinsically suck, it’s just that most skill system _implementations_ suck. And I blame the dice.

See, our first thought in terms of what skills mean in an RPG is a value that we roll to succeed or fail.  Can you climb that wall? Can you pick that lock?  Roll the dice and find out.  Because that’s how we handled attacking things, we just extrapolated it into skills.   Because combat was based on a pass-fail (hit/miss) model, skills were built the same way, so the riding skill introduced an option for failure where none had existed before.  That’s an implementation failure, and one we’ve carried with us.

The problem is,  this model sucks so badly that we’ve had to spend years evolving ways to make failure on these rolls is interesting and keeps things moving forward which is a lot of work to solve something that maybe should not have been a problem in the first place.  So I find myself wondering – If we were truly building from scratch, what would a skill really be?

First and foremost, it would be an **opportunity** to act.   Skills determine who does what.  In both real life and fiction, when presented with a challenge, you will more often than not fave a fairly binary question of whether or not this is something that you have the skills for or do not.  In real life, you can drive a car or you can’t. In fiction, either someone knows demolitions or they don’t.  Rather than providing guidance on how we roll the dice, they could provide guidance on _when_ we roll the dice (and one answer would be ‘much less often’).

Now, obviously, there’s some sophistication to this.  Skills are not purely binary, and you need to reflect both very low and very high skills appropriately, but that’s not too great a challenge.  Low skill invites more randomization and crappy successes, no problem.  High skills just require a solid understanding of what the tiering of skills means, but it still can come out in what dice aren’t rolled – effectively, lower tier skill may mean more things you’re “unskilled” at.[1]

Second, when they’re in play, skills are usually one of two axes – it is rarely an interesting question to ask “Will she succeed?” but it is often quite rewarding to ask “Will she succeed (before time runs out | before the guards arrive | in catching the idol without stopping the protective chant| | etc.)?”[2]  This question at least re-introduces a role for uncertainty, but it depends on a different understanding of skills, and it tends to easily fall apart as soon as the GM starts calling for skill rolls without making sure the other Axis is in place.

The third point brings us back to horses, and answers the question of why use skills at all. To me, that one is simple – it’s a strong tool for character differentiator.  Just like the crew in a caper heist, when characters have a thing that they do, that’s an important characteristic.  If one guy is the rider, then he needs some way to be awesome at it, because that’s his thing.[3] It is valuabel to have the game recognize that coolness.

Lastly, if done from scratch, I don’t think skills would be beholden to the mathematical logic of combat which demands that we use a system that _allows_ you to really suck badly at a skill for a long time.  It’s not fun, not dramatic, and not satisfying to anyone (but by god, it’s consistent with combat!).

I dunno. I doubt we can ever really do a full skill system from scratch.  I think the mindpool is already pretty infected, and I haven’t even touched on the dangerous areas like skill granularity, combat skills or the line between skills and powers.   But I think it’s worth thinking about if only to help try to catch our assumptions about how we intuit that skills _should_ work, because if we can bust that, we can make some interesting stuff.

1 – It’s also a genre consideration.  In many genres, certain skills are universal (everyone can fight, everyone knows how to kick a pocket and so on) and those establish a baseline.  In that case, a character is noteworthy for either excelling in that arena, or having less-than-baseline capability. This consideration should totally have been applied to the riding skill – it would have saved us years of headaches.

2 – It’s a little telling that I had to think hard to come up with a qualifier other than “before”.  Makes me onder if the simplest change to any skill system is to do what we do with research in SOTC – the roll is nto to see if you succeed, the roll is to see how long it take syou to succeed.

3 – The cheap way to do this is to make everyoen else suck at it.  This is roughly akin to writng a character as smart by making everyone around them stupid.  It is a TERRIBLE trick, and best never used ever.

Moving Pieces

This started out as another 13th Age post, but I ended up tabling it as a bigger issue came up in discussion which, I think, crystallized a few thoughts about games, how they’re run and how they’re played.
Now, here’s the caveat up front: I’m speaking in broad generalizations here, not making assertions about anyone’s experience. 
Ok, so with that out of the way, I have been thinking a bit about some of the divergence in assumptions that emerges over time with play.  When we start out, there’s often a lot of similarity, if only because there’s a certain commonality to inexperience.  As GM’s, we stick to the script, and as players we take our cues from what’s going on and try not to push things further until we are a lot more comfortable with all these weird lines and numbers.  Speaking broadly, the GM is offering static content and players are largely reactive.[1]  
This is, assuming everyone is well intentioned, a very safe space to play in.  It’s a great opportunity for both sides to learn the ropes, and with time, it allows the group to start pushing boundaries that interest them (whether mechanical, narrative or otherwise).  It also suits fairly constrained play, whether that’s a dungeon crawl or an adventure on rails. 
Now, if the GM starts getting a little bit more dynamic in her gameplay, things shift.  Functionally, this is the point where NPCs stop having scripts and start having agendas, and their interplay and actions provide a backdrop for play. Even if players are still reactive, they have a lot more that they can react to, and they can forge alliances, foil plots and generally make heroic nuisances of themselves.  This is good fun, and it really makes a world feel more alive because there are clear reactions to player actions.
This also ends up being very useful for larger games (including many LARPS) because agendas are easier to play and communicate than bombarding people with raw data.  However, this also highlights a potential weakness of this approach – it’s not hard for it to turn into a puppet show, where players just get to watch cool people do cool things. 
In the other direction, if the GM still pretty much just responds to the player’s needs but the player’s start taking the bull by the horns and deciding what they want to do and how they’re going to go about it,  the nature of play changes similarly.  The GM is no longer plopping adventures in front of the players, and instead play is emerging naturally from the things the players are trying to do.[2]  This is also pretty awesome because, presumably, the players are interested in what it is they’re doing.[3]
And, of course, if you have both a dynamic setting and proactive players, then it’s pretty much non-stop action, provided you can keep all the balls in the air.
Ok, so this is all well and good, but I want to call something out here: the purpose of this map is not to suggest some sort of path of improvement or Gartner style best performers.  Each quadrant of this offers the opportunity for awesome (or crappy) play, and the boundaries between them get absolutely fuzzy.  The purpose of these quadrants is not to suggest that you should seek your fun elsewhere, but rather, to offer insight on where other people find their fun.
Why is this important?  I occasionally talk to GMs who are running good games who wonder if they’re doing something wrong because they’re not doing X or Y.  Usually, X or Y is something that totally works in another quadrant, and which will only bring them pain if they try it as is (or leads to “we tried it and it sucked” stories).  The quadrants hopefully can remind a GM that they want to solve their problems, not someone else’s (and maybe illustrate why someone else is having fun with something you’d never enjoy).
Now, yes, obviously, there’s also the element that if your current quadrant isn’t working for you, it’s good to know that others exist in case you’re looking for direction for other things to try.  But it’s important to note that this is the difference between understanding the options and evangelizing one option over another. 
I’ve played in all 4 quadrants, and I’ve had an awesome time in each one (sometimes within the same game). I’m very resistant to static/reactive unless I know that’s the deal going in, at which point I’ll buy in whole hog.  Dynamic/reactive requires a lot of trust on my part, but I love it when it works.  Static/proactive allows for great games, but its often more work than I’m really inclined towards as player a lot of the time.  Dynamic/Proactive is awesome, but tricky to sustain.   All of which is to underscore – this is not a grading system, it’s just a way to maybe get a grasp on what other people enjoy rocking out to.
1 – While this was the historical entry point for RPGs, that’s no longer a safe assumption.  Nowadays, there’s a lot of entry from other corners, especially the upper left.  Mostly, that just underscores that there’s no right progression through this, it’s just a yardstick for taste.  But it also tends to assume a novice entering an experienced group, which has always been a vector of entry.  Obviously, if a player enters with a existing group, they’ll be drawn to whatever space that group occupies. The lower left is a natural direction if no one has experience.

2 – This illustrates one particular subtlety about sandbox play – letting players do anything is easy. Letting players do anything and making sure it stays interesting takes work. 

3 – Additional bit of fun – this quadrant contains a lot of narrative games as well as hard core old school sandbox play. The commonality is that players are the ones calling the tune.


Sometime after I finished this post, I ended up expanding the diagram into a 3×3 beast, which I now present without comment:

Iconic Examples

So, here are a few specific tricks you might want to consider to build an interesting Icon set:

The Icon Deck
One interesting thing about the existing 13 Icons is that they’re not hard to map to half of the greater arcana of the Tarot deck. Some of that is probably intentional, but it’s also almost inescapable because fortune-telling and iconic characters use the same kind of broad, recognizable strokes that it’s easy to map from one to the other.

So, given that, pick the method of your choice: Tarot Cards, Viking Runes, the I-Ching – whatever floats your boat, and assign the existing Icons to it.   Then, look at the unassigned elements, and start creating Icons based on those, using some of the guidelines I talked about yesterday (specifically, put some thought into the places each one suggests).  I like Tarot for this, but that’s just me.[1]

When you’re done, you’ll have more Icons than you can use, and that’s great.  Now pick 13 of them at random, and figure out what kind of world that creates.  Or if you want some collaboration, have each player pick one, then select the rest at random.  The idea is to create unexpected combinations and see if they ignite the spark of creation.

The Family
One of the first things that struck me about the Icons model was how easily it mapped to the Amber DRPG.  For the unfamiliar, characters in Amber are the children of the Princes and Princesses of Amber, all of whom are potent, iconic characters in their own right.  Amber is very nearly the definitive “characters as setting” game, since almost everything else outside the characters is subject to redefinition.  Now, while a lot of the strength of Zelazny’s character’s came from his ability to sketch with a few bold strokes, there’s nothing that says you can’t attempt to steal his thunder a bit. A game where the Icons are a fairly tightly knit group (like a family) can have a really strong interpersonal dynamic.

Curiously, with just a small tweak, this applies just as easily to supers.  It would not be hard to pick 13 Icons from DC or Marvel and use them as the basis for a game.  Obviously, which 13 you pick will say a lot about your game,  but that’s half the fun of it.

The Old Ones
When 3e came out, White Wolf released a very interesting setting called The Scarred Lands.  One of its core conceits was that the defeat of the Titans by the gods was not terribly long ago, and the dead or bound titans cast a huge shadow across the setting. For example, one’s heart had been ripped out and he’d been chained at the bottom of the sea. Because the wound bled constantly, that whole area of ocean was red with it, and tainted with his essence.

If you were to model this with Icons, you would have a very interesting arrangement because these Icons would explicitly not be active, but they would still have factions surrounding them (lingering worshippers, those tainted and so on).  What’s more, it would be a very lopsided set of icons, since the real story is how the world manages to move forward while still bearing the burden of these things.  By making them the icons (rather than making them SOME of the icons, but also putting icons at odds with them) then you make them central to play, but often in an unwelcome way.

Turned up a notch or two, this is also a great way to use Icons in a horror context.  If all the Icons in your game are Great Old Ones or Lords of Ravenloft, then it’s pretty clear the odds are stacked way the hell against you.  The bulk of play is in opposition to these forces, but the sheer scope of them means that maybe it’s worth risking a complicated (or even positive) relationship with a perceived “lesser evil” in order to fight on.

Hidden Icons
Suppose not all the Icons are known to the players at the outset of the game.  They will be revealed over time and as a result of events in play, and it’s expected that player’s relationships will change or evolve over time.   This is particularly useful for two sorts of game.

First, this is a great way to model a world in flux, such as is the case in the classic Dragonlance adventures.  The existing Icons are in a rough sort of stasis, but the introduction of new Icons throws everything into disarray.

Second, it’s a good way to model characters whose eyes are opened to a deeper, secret world, as is appropriate for many conspiracy or espionage focused games.

It should go without saying, but in both of these cases, players should know what’s up.  Even if they don’t know what new Icons wil be revealed (though many players can handled that out of character knowledge quite well) they should know what the GM has planned in broad strokes.  You’re trying to make for a cool experience, not trick the players.

One other subtrick for this – you can occasionally use a proxy icon when you have a mystery threat, where the apparent Icon is actually the servant of the Real Icon.  If one Icon is the main villain or threat of your game, this basically allows you to treat that icon as a procession of bosses, which might be cool, especially if you’re feeling kind of video-gamey. And speaking of which…

The Crew
So, I was thinking about Mass Effect, and what Icons I would use for that.  A few obvious ones jumped out – Harbinger, Hacket, The Shadow Broker, The Illusive Man, The Council and such, but I eventually petered out.  And that lead to the weird realization that I would probably round out the list with Garrus, Liara, Tali, Wrex and the others, and that suggested something weird.

It’s almost an inversion of the Old Ones model, but imagine if the Icons (or more aptly, Anchors) for your game were those people closest to you. It upends the relationship, putting the hero in the primary position, and making the Anchors primarily responsive/reactive.  It’s a really weird idea, unless you’ve played any Bioware RPGs, in which case you’re pretty comfortable with the idea that your relationships with the NPCs around you is one of the major avenues of play.

So, yeah, this is kind of a weird, one, and maybe not a great match, but I want to call it out because it has me thinking.


I may have one more 13th Age post in me. We’ll see after I’ve gotten some sleep.

1 – If you have a real dedication to this, using an Everway fortune deck would be three kinds of awesomesauce. 

Icons and Anchors

So, one fun thing to do with the Icons system from 13th Age is to start mapping it onto fiction and game settings you like.  I’ve done it several times, and I encounter an interesting pattern  – the first few Icons of any setting tend to be very easy to come up with, but somewhere before the half-dozen mark, I run out and start grasping at straws.

At first blush, this seems like a problem with the model and that maybe 13 Icons is too many, but I suspect there’s a bit of a trick to that:  if, say, 3-4 is the “normal” number of Icon-equivalents in fictions, then each character has enough for their own story to be complete, and there’s a big enough pool to make sure that every player has a distinct combination.[1]  Still, even with that in mind, I found myself bumping against a limit in using the Icons model for certain sorts of setting, but still wanting to use the model.

See, the thing that sets the Icons model apart from other approaches is the implicit importance of the Icons.  As I noted yesterday, they’re definitive of the setting, and they have implicit infrastructure surrounding them which the characters hook into. Icon creation _is_ setting creation, and that’s really awesome.

But it’s big.  And while big and sweeping can totally rock at times, sometimes you want a little bit less scope, and in such a case, I would use Anchors.[2]  That is to say, suppose that rather than picking 13 people who defined the world, you simply picked 13 people?  The connection to them does not necessarily bring with it great scope, but it does open the doors to more personal connections.  If one of the 13 is your mom, but also someone else’s romantic conquest, then you have a dynamic right there.

Anchors also work if you want to take the Icons idea down to a smaller scale – the idea that I am perhaps most excited to do is to use the model to build a single city.  Rather than being the movers and shakers of the world, consider the important folks of the city: Merchants, crime bosses, mayors and mercenaries. Like Icons, they create implicit infrastructure and put faces on the factions of the city (sooooooper important) but they do so on a much smaller scale.

Now, functionally, isn’t that the same as Icons?  Yes, kind of, but the issue of scale is not entirely sleight of hand.  Icons are more or less untouchable – impacting or changing them redefines the game.  Anchors are closer to the ground (and, well, a bit less iconic) and while they may be powerful or important, they’re not untouchable.  They also may or may not be essential to their faction.  If an Icon dies, it should devastate the group it represents.  If an anchor dies (depending on circumstances) they may simply be replaced.

Hell, you can mix and match if you want – If you ran a Waterdeep game with 12 Anchors and 1 Icon (say, Khelben Blackstaff), it could work fine so long as the icon is at rough parity within the scope of Waterdeep (this model probably applies to most of the Forgotten Realms, as I think about it).

Also, it’s not necessary that the anchors be even locally powerful.  All that really matters is that they be tied into the story/setting at hand.  Hell, there’s no reason you could not use Anchors as the basis for adventure design, depending on much more disposable relationships and characters.

So, this is me shamelessly stealing the ease-of-explanation of the Icons model to use it for some other approaches to setting and adventure design I dig.  It’s not the only hack the model supports, but it’s definitely the first one in my mind.  And tomorrow, we’ll start breaking out some more concrete hacks.

1- If they want to. One obvious bit of game setup foo is, of course, the question of overlapping Icons. I suspect the number of overlapping Icons has a very concrete impact on a game, and mandating certain connections (like, each player must have 1 Icon in common) can build certain types of relationships and games (much the same way you could, in 3e, have everyone have 1 level of the same class to represent some common background)

2 – Yeah, there’s hubris in naming it, but it makes it easier to talk about. 

Personal Icons

Ok, so now that you’ve got the idea of icons, what can you do?

First and foremost, you can use them.  The 13 in the rules are rock solid, and the text provides lots of interesting guidelines on customizing them.  As is the nature of iconic characters, you have a lot of leeway around the core concept that can let you do a whole hell of a lot with the tools on the table.

But for many of us, the urge to create is too strong, and the first and most straightforward thing to do is to roll your own.  This may be because you want to translate the ideas to a familiar setting, and there are existing NPCs who seem like they could fill the Icon’s roles, or it may be just because you want to create something new from scratch.

If you’re doing this for a setting you already know and love, I don’t have a lot of advice.  You presumably are already invested enough in the setting that you have a good sense of what you want to see out of your icons. My only piece of advice is to really buy into the Icon model (or at least into Anchors). A lot of settings have very well fleshed out factions, and your job as a GM is to replace the faction with its Icon.  This can sometimes require doing a little bit of violence to the concept of the faction, since most are usually written up with the idea first and the leader second, but so long as you really buy into it, you can do it.

Similarly, don’t hesitate to prune a bit. Many really interesting setting have more factions and potential icons than you really want to have in play all at once.  13 is a good number, and I’d be careful going too far afield from it.[1] Not every faction necessarily needs to have an icon, especially if the factions themselves are major subgroups.  For example, I’m very fond of Fading Suns, a wonderful dark sci-fi game. By memory, it has an emperor, 5 noble houses, 5 merchant guilds, 5 church factions, 2 major friendly alien races, 1 major unfriendly alien race, 1 not friend/not enemy alien race, plus diabolists and two flavors of barbarian. That would be over twenty icons, which would just be crazy.

In that situation, figure out how to aggregate a few of them, and take advantage of the multiple factions to underscore the politics of things – if you have 2 Icons who are nobles, then you have implicitly created the lines along which the nobles have lined up.  If you have one Icon for The Church, that encompasses all the sub-factions, but if you pop out one sub-faction (say, the Inquisition) then you’e just highlighted what will be important in your game.  Don’t intend Barbarians to come up much in your game? Don’t bother giving them an Icon at all.  As you make these choices, you are answering questions of what your game is going to be about.

If you’re doing it from scratch consider a few of the subtleties that went into the existing icons.

First, each one has a concrete, pursuable agenda (or, barring that, a very active modus operandi).  This means that while it’s important what Icons are, what they do is even more important. Why is this important to designing a new Icon?  Because it means you don’t need to sit down and calculate some kind of sophisticated relationship map to make sure all your Icons interact properly.  If they are driven, then the points of overlap and conflict will make themselves apparent, and that dynamism will evolve organically.

Second, and perhaps most obviously, no Icons exist in a vacuum. They have agents, followers, servants or the like – they are the faces of the most important factions of the world.  When you think about an Icon, think about the people that surrounds it (and by extension, why the icon would want to interact with adventurer types).

Last (and this is a great trick) notice that Icons built the map in 13th Age.  Most of the Icons are tied into one or more locations, and when you introduce an Icon, you’re going to want to think about the impact on geography.  At the very least, most Icons have a seat of power, but many Icons also imply locations by their existence. The Dwarf King, for example, implies the existence of the lost dwarven kingdoms as well as his current city.   Sometimes the locations aren’t locations s much as features – the Archmage is tied to the system of geomantic wards, for example, but the idea holds.

Note that the locations are not all unique.  Both the Emperor and the Lich King suggest an empire. The Elf Queen (via dark elves) and the Dwarf King both suggest an underdark.  The Diabolist and the Great Gold Wyrm both suggest the Abyss.  Bear this in mind when you remove or add an Icon – what locations are you removing ties to, what new locations are you introducing, and what existing locations are you changing the dynamic on?  Consider, for example, how the Abyss changes if you keep the Diabolist but remove the Great Golden Wyrm.

Anyway, those are things to keep in mind if you just want to hack the existing 13th age model.  Tomorrow, we’re going to hack it a little further with the idea of Anchors.

1 – I say to you right now, the one concept I will cheerfully accept 16 Icons for is this: Plansecape. One for each faction, plus the Lady of Pain herself.  I have no words for how well that could work.

Icons and d20Tech

So, please take it as a given that 13th Age is going to be a great game.  It’s got some great minds behind it, and it really feels like it takes d20, combines a few of the good lessons from 4e, and makes a “good parts version” of d20.  The last d20 game that made me stand up and take notice to this extent was Blue Rose (the precursor to the excellent True20 line from Green Ronin).[1]

So, given that, it’s still curious that the most powerful idea in it has very little to do with the rules, and that is Icons.   You can read more about them at Pelgrane’s site (and in other place – it’s a popular topic) and I want to draw a circle around it as an important idea that’s going to see a lot of emulation down the line.

The Icon model is a logical extension of the idea of NPCs as setting.  This is not a new idea, but it’s a very clever implementation of it which presents the idea so clearly that I suspect it will become the common parlance for the concept.  In short, there are 13 powerful, iconic being in the setting and each PC is connected to at least two of them (for good or ill).   These icons are tightly tied to the setting – so much so that the setting itself can be sketched rather thinly around them.  They are not remote beings or gods – they are tightly tied to the day to day world, and the tie to the PCs means that PCs are similarly close to the centers of power.

At first glance, this is interesting, but maybe not compelling. However, there are some subtleties baked into this that really flesh it out.

The first, and probably most subtle, is the fact that the connection does not always manifest directly.  This is backed by the mechanics (you can call upon a connection in situations where the icon would never just show up) but the concept is straightforward – that connection implicitly includes a connection to the entirety of that Icon’s “faction” – whatever organization, allies or otherwise they may have. And note, those factions are loosely sketched at best – they’re an avenue for GM and player creativity, which is a nice bonus.

Now, in the hands of a lame GM, this could be an excuse to undercut the whole connection mechanic, by perpetually keeping PCs at arms length from the Icon in the worst traditions of clan-based play, but the risk of misuse is the price you pay for any good tool.  As presented, it is a means to flesh out the setting in line with player needs AND to draw the player into the world.

The second thing is that it drives a very interesting choice: the game does not guarantee that PCs will be powerful, but it does guarantee that they will be prominent. Not to say they can’t also be powerful, but by necessity, they will be drawn into matters of grave import, as absolutely suits the particular flavor of fiction that 13th Age embraces.  This is an upshot of the icon-centric setting design, and it’s pretty powerful mojo.

Now, I mean no sleight to the specific Icons of the 13th Age setting, but I know that my very first instinct is to build my own setting around a different set of Icons, and I suspect that impulse is far from uncommon.  In addition to building an interesting, playable world, 13th Age is presenting a tool for setting design which – to my mind – pushes setting technology forward dramatically.  Other games (Dresden Files, Burning Empires) have made similar pushes, but 13th Age has managed to do it in a way that is easy to illustrate, explain and (most importantly), re-use.  That is a big deal, and I am duly impressed.

Which is, of course, no reason not to hack it some more. But that’s another post.

1 – D20 evolution has an interesting cycle which I will grossly generalize as follows: A small number of games push the boundaries of what the game is, and a larger number of them expand and refine on the model.  Games like Blue Rose and 13th Age push things, and things like Pathfinder refine them.  This does not make the “push” games better – refinement and expansion is also essential – but it does make for a difference in what to expect from the game.  It also invites debate regarding which games push and which ones refine, and there’s a good chance that the ones that a given player think push are the ones the like best, but that’s neither here nor there.  The bottom line is that I feel that 13th Age pushes d20 forward, and (assuming they feed back into the OGL) improves the technology for everyone.

The Storyteller’s Tools

One essential part of storytelling is that the teller knows the story.  This seems self evident, but it’s worth calling out because of what it means to the process – because the tell knows what’s going to happen, she knows *how* to tell the story.  She knwo when to lower her voice, when to pause for effect, when to make a humorous aside and when to pitch her tone to reflect that now is when things get *really* interesting.

This is noteworthy to hold up in comparison to GMing.  Even in the case of a game creating a story, it’s not a story that the GM already knows.  In fact, the more oriented the game is towards generating a story, the less the GM is likely to know.  Less story oriented games are more likely to to benefit from greater GM knowledge (or in some cases, railroading) which can allow the GM to “get ahead” of the story.

Now, what’s interesting is that the lack of knowledge does not completely remove these tools, but it definitely changes the relationship with them.  For example, an experienced GM may be able to read the room, so to speak, and make good guesses regarding what’s going to happen.  And even in the absence of that read, the tools at the GM’s disposal often tie directly to changes in the narrative – the moments when storytelling tools are most useful.  For example, if the GM us about to unleash ninjas upon the party, she can absolutely start describing things in a way that inspires and escalation of tension.

It’s not always reliable, of course.  Players can derail things (can’t they always), or the emotional note of the event can be out of tune with the buildup.  And making it work requires the GM shuck and jive a lot, which can get exhausting.

Now, in theory, the idea can be turned on it’s head with a bit of improvisational thinking – the cues can be predictive rather than descriptive.  That is, if someone lowers their voice into the “Something horrible is about to happen” tone, then that could effectively be a declaration that the next thing to happen will be horrible.  It’s an intriguing thought, especially if you ave a table that’s narratively in sync, but I suspect it’s a flawed model.  We are too drawn to the twist – the unexpected outcome – and that instinct would result in overuse.  It takes a lot of work and discipline to not beat that horse to death.[1]

Now, for me, these storyteller tools are well worn and well loved. A lot of things that might be discussed in terms of design theory are – for me – simply tricks to try to reclaim their use in the medium of play.   This is something I’ve always instinctively known, but I’ve never really conciously thought about it’s interaction with play.  It’s always been a dirty little thing I do on the side which ends up being a sign of disrespect for, well, everythign in gaming that is not happening at my table right then.  I’m ok with that, but it makes  certain part of play hard to discuss in theoretical terms, and it’s a reason I really like to focus GM advice on eliciting a reaction from players.  Get them mad, get them angry, get them engaged.

Rules can help with that, but I find them a poor substitute.   But rules are a LOT easier to write about.  So I guess my question to myself is how to better talk about that.  Of all things, I think this may be a good reason to pull down Amber Diceless again, just to look at.  Among its many virtues, it was really written with an eye on the idea that the game exists to engage the players (often in bastardly fashion) and that everything else was in service to that.  It’s ass backwards from most modern game design, but I am just now realizing that it’s maybe one of the reasons it never leave my heart.


1 – For evidence of this, read any collection of super-short stories – the 50-100 word kind. They’re fun snack food for a while, until yous tart noticing that 95%[2] of them follow the exact same pattern of spending most of their words establishing an expectation before revealing the unexpected twist.  Once you see this pattern, they start reading more like bad knock knock jokes than flash fiction.

2 – The remaining 5%? Pretty awesome. Flash fiction is like Haiku – it’s easy to master the form, and easier to use it to produce junk.