Monthly Archives: September 2013

My Pickup Play and a 13th Age Trick

Spirit of the Century was created to solve a specific problem – we had a lot of gamers with terrible schedules, so we wanted to facilitate pickup play. So we did a huge chargen session one afternoon, and every game after that was based on who could show up. The baseline model of SOTC (fairly static, highly competent characters in a loose, well-connected organization) was literally custom made for that style of play.

I find myself in a similar position once again, and I’ve been thinking about other ways to solve that same problem. How do you run a satisfying ongoing game with an unpredictably rotating cast?

One answer for this that I’ve chewed on is the Babylon 5/Deep Space 9 model – the game that takes place in a hub where things come too. Expanded, this could just as easily be the model of a city campaign, but the lack of focus in a city is a double edged sword. It might work, but thinking about it revealed to me an interesting 13th Age trick.

One essential element of the B5/DS9 model is that everyone there represents someone else, usually their race/culture in a diplomatic sense, but the idea can be extrapolated. This makes for interesting political play with players as movers and shakers, but also introduces certain structural limits on interaction – players will never truly be on the “same side” (unless they all start on that side, which is a whole other thing).

So I was thinking about how you handle unaffiliated characters in such a setting, and why they might matter, and the simplest reason is that they’re not beholden to anyone. Their actions do not speak for any larger group, and their loyalties are not predictably aligned. They might be associated with a group, but they are not of it.

And this lead to a curious way to think about 13th Age’s Icons. By default, the assumption is that characters are made more interesting because they’re connected to Icons, but what if they’re interesting because they’re connected to multiple icons. That is, what if the default assumption in the setting was that everyone (or nearly everyone) is connected to a single icon.

This has both a subtle and profound impact on the setting. It’s not going to change a lot of day to day behaviors of the people you interact with – they don’t put on uniforms and declare their allegiance to the icon in song.[1] But it makes the expressions of the relationship dice ubiquitous and concrete, because they’re the foundation that people stand on[2].

In this situation, the conflicts of the great powers are predictable and slow, but the people who are not bound to one power or another are unpredictable, valuable and fearsome. They will be under pressure to “come into the fold” of one power or another, but the fact that they do not simply fold to that pressure is part of what makes them so valuable. Icon relationships are a fantastic mechanical way to represent exactly this dynamic.

(alternately, if you do a movers and shakers game, then it’s a great Primary/Secondary relationship model. We all serve the Dragon Emperor (primary) but have different secondary relationships)


So, I may go in that direction. If I do, I may also go with fewer Icons. Another cool thing about the Icons model is that the number that matter to your group will always be a subset of the full load, so it simplifies bookkeeping to a more mind-friendly number (say, 7ish)[3]. In a broad pickup game, there are enough characters total that all available icons will probably see use, which makes individual sessions harder to manage.

Not 100% settled on this model as what I want to run, but whatever I end up with, this will certainly inform my thinking.

  1. Unless it’s Gilbert & Sullivan 13th Age, which would be awesome.  ↩
  2. This includes oppositional definition. The rebel group dedicated to the overthrow of the Dragon Emperor is defined in terms of the Dragon Emperor, but the shadowy secret organization striking down the empire from within may be defined in terms of the Prince of Shadows. Small, but critical difference.  ↩
  3. This, BTW, speaks to a problem and opportunity in 13th Age adventures. Done right, they will hinge off the Icons, but there’s no guarantee that those icons will sync to the icons that matter in your game. But fortunately, that is very easily communicated – slap the impacted icons on the cover of an adventure and, bam, everyone knows if it will work for them.  ↩

D&D Off Ramp – Why These Three?

As we continue to talk about the off ramp from D&D, I want t discuss two ideas.

The first is the difference between leaving a game and abandoning a game. There is a weird paradox in gaming where we interpret the idea of leaving a game as criticism, but celebrate the discovery of new games. The reality is that actual abandonment of games is much rarer than adding another game to the list of those you play, and in that sense, “leaving” a game is a very positive thing. It means you’re trying something new, and more games in the world is a good thing. Yet we still wrestle with that knee jerk sense that these things are zero sum, so I want to call out that when I talk about leaving D&D or pathfinder or d20, I mean it in the positive sense, not in the sense of discarding them.

Second, kind of leads into the point of the piece. When I propose 13th Age, Numenera and Dungeon World as the D&D off ramps, that is not the same thing as saying they are the only good options available out there at the moment. We are living in a golden age of fantastic games, and while the three games I’m discussing are all great, the reasons I have selected them are tangential to their general quality level. They each have a specific thread which, I feel, can be followed from 3.x to end up there.

For a historical perspective, consider Vampire. When it came onto the scene, it was a lot of people’s first game, but lots of other players came across from games like D&D. But other than the fact that they were both games, there was no real natural progression from D&D to Vampire. It was just a jump. And so would it be to go from D&D to Cortex Plus, or Hero, or Savage Worlds or, yes, even Fate[1].

There is also a totally unfair element of timing to this. Green Ronin has two games (Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire) that could legitimately make a case for being potential off ramps based on their content, but they came out to early (and there are other complicating factors as well). It makes me sad because I love both games, but I just don’t think they’re in the mind at the moment.

So speaking of timing, why do I think now is the time? Three factors, and I’ll just own up that the first is intuition. It feels like it’s time, and it feels like D&D Next is about a year behind where it needs to be to catch the wave.

The second is that while Paizo continues to put out great stuff, it’s definitely a very mature line at this point. The Pathfinder RPG is a solid foundation and fanbase, but the things they’re going to be exciting us with over the next year or two are things that progress from that foundation (like, say, Pathfinder Adventures).

The third is that there is clearly energy in the fanbase. Numenera and Dungeon World came out of Kickstarter, and 13th Age’s first supplement was also kickstartered. Importantly, all three saw fan response that indicated a lot of pent up demand. Now, admittedly, this is not strictly limited to these three games, but they definitely ride that wave (and in the case of Numenera, it’s kind of critically telling).

So all that said, why these three games.

Numenera is probably the most and least obvious. Mechanically and stylistically it has the least overlap with D&D – it’s technofuturism with a system whose only overlap with D&D is the use of a d20. How is it an off ramp? And the answer to that it, honestly, Monte Cook. Cook was the first guy to really get the d20 PDFs moving, and he’s steadily and consistently built a fanbase who respond to his particular view of D&D. I don’t want to dismiss his design skills, but they are largely overshadowed by his vision and his ability to share that vision. He is taking the step away from d20, and he’s bringing along several thousand friends.

And I think he’s cognizant of this. While Numenera’s trappings are very different from D&D, its structural underpinnings are (deliberately, I presume) very similar. Magic is explained differently, but otherwise it’s still very magic, and the entire tone of play feels very close to Gazetteer era D&D. More, the game is basically an argument for trusting GM creativity. The empowered GM can be a contentious idea, but for many people, 4e’s move away from it was one of its more off putting components. all these things combine into a much more natural progression from D&D than may be immediately evident

Dungeon World is somewhat more obvious, since it is in many ways a specific distillation of the “D&D Experience”. It is probably the smallest off ramp of these three because it has no big names associated with it and it’s one of those weird Indie games, but for a certain segment of the populace, those things are benefits, not drawbacks.

Dungeon World is a very disruptive games, with a very different way of handling play, but it frames it all through very familiar D&D tropes. This may be hippie, semi-abstracted narrative-layer translation stuff, but it’s hippie, semi-abstracted narrative layer translation stuff wrapped around hitting orcs with swords. This may not seem like a big thing, but I feel it’s a large part of why Dungeon World often overshadows Apocalypse World, the game it’s based on.

If you’re not familiar with Dungeon World, there’s no way I can explain it fully in the space available, but the big reason I consider it an off ramp is that it provides a very essential D&D experience with a lot of the fat cut out. Some might argue that it got some muscle as well, and the reality is that it’s not a game for everyone. But for the gamer looking to push their boundaries while still fitting in a D&D shaped box, this is probably the way to go.

13th Age shares some characteristics of both of the other two. While Tweet & Heinsoo may not have quite the rock star pull that Cook has, they are definitely names to conjure with. And while 13th Age is not as much of a weird hippy narrative game as Dungeon World, it definitely has parts that drift that way (and honestly, there’s a weird resonance between the 13th Age and Dungeon World classes, though that may just be me.)

So Simon from Pelgrane actually commented the other day, and shared a little bit o 13th Age background, and specifically that it genuinely grew out of the designer’s own d20 game (rather than back-grafting d20 onto the ideas of the game, which is how I thought it felt). I totally believe this, but it does not diminish my sense that 13th Age really has pushed d20 past its bounds and into the realm of something else.

Yet despite that, it still has the familiar patterns of d20. In fact, the text is pretty clearly written as someone’s second game after some D&D. If Numenera is an inobvious off ramp, 13th Age is basically lit with great green neon letters pointing the way. Take your D&D knowledge and use it to do more and different stuff!

I realize this is a weird way to look at games, but I’m going to make the case for why this is useful. As gamers, we have a bad habit of hearing “I like X, what else should I try?” and no matter what X is, we say SAVAGE WORLDS.[2] We are not necessarily very respectful of a path from thing to thing. In this case, I am thinking about these three games as the answers to the question of “I like D&D/Pathfinder, now what?”

And in each case, the answer is a little bit different, but framed similarly.

If you like being the heroes of the setting, moving from place to place, uncovering cool new things while getting more and more badass, and your GM is really awesome and you love him, then try Numenera. (Alternately: Did you buy Ptolus?)

If you really like the experience of D&D – crawling through dungeons, hectic fights, weird magic – but want maybe a little less crunch and you want to try something really new and different[3] then try Dungeon World.

If you really like D&D, but you just want to push your experience a little further, and you really like playing someone who’s a mover and a shaker and really an important part of the setting, then go with 13th Age.

Now, note, those pitches don’t speak to what’s awesome about the games. They speak to what the D&D player resonates with in D&D, and finds a parallel and expansion in the game. And explicitly, none of them are “Do you like FUN? This game is ALSO fun!”

I call this out explicitly because this is the internet, and that means that people have opinions about other off ramps. And I’m open to that. But if you’re going to make a case for one, then I strongly suggest you address the following questions:

1) What is in it that the D&D player is going to resonate to?
2) Is the game currently alive, active, and non-insular enough to catch their eye?
3) Is it different enough from Pathfinder to catch their eye but not so different as to cause whiplash?

If you have good answers to those points, I’m totally open to them, but this is not open season for your favorite game. So, go to – convince me this stool needs another leg! There are no wrong answers!

Except Fate or Savage Worlds.

Those are totally wrong answers.

  1. Though I will admit that for each of those games there are arguably specific products which might be an off ramp from Fate, but that’s a whole other train of thought.  ↩
  2. Insert someone’s favorite game here.  ↩
  3. Yes, “I want something totally out there which is also D&D” seems contradictory, but that doesn’t mean it’s a position no one holds. There plenty of people who use the world D&D in lieu of RPG the way some use Coke in lieu of Soda (Screw pop. We’re not barbarians.).  ↩

D20 and the D&D Off Ramp

In the midsts of my 13th Age writeup, I made a tweet that I promised some follow up on. The gist of it was that Numenera, 13th Age and Dungeon World represent a trifecta of post-d20 gaming. I promised I would elaborate on the thought, and so I shall.

I kind of wish I had the stamina to give Dungeon World a treatment similar to the one I gave 13th Age and Numenera. It’s a great game and deserves the love, but I also feel like a lot of what needs to be said about it has already been said by other people. If you’re curious about 13th Age or Numenera, I’ll shamelessly point to my own posts, but if you need to know more about Dungeon World, I will mostly point you at Google (though suggests for reviews will be welcome in the comments).

So, let me start with a premise: d20 was a big deal. I don’t think anyone would argue with that, but I want to focus on something that gets less spotlight. 3e was much more radical than a simple improvement on 2e, it transformed the game into (and introduced a generation to) a game framework.

To illustrate what that means, it helps to look at how TSR (then WOTC) produced other games, especially back in the days of Boot Hill and Gangbusters. Those games had many conceptual similarities to D&D, but were structurally very different. This is because the rules of D&D were, essentially, non portable. You could technically use them for non-D&D things, but doing so required a lot of closing your eyes and hoping. Similarly, the addition of a new class (or similar) was an almost entirely self contained[1] process because there was no structure to hook into. You’d throw together some stuff and hope it worked right (or, as was more often the case, that it wasn’t grossly overpowered).

With 3e, there was a clear framework that the rules fit into. There was a small set of core rules, and everything expanded on that. If you added a new class, you had a scaffolding to build on, whether it was to expand D&D or to build a game in a whole new genre.

Importantly, it was not a true generic system, in the way that games like GURPS and Hero are[2]. Those were broad flexible systems where the system could be expanded to cover any situation. That is subtly but critically different from the framework model, which sacrificed that breadth in favor of modularity. That is, if I added a space pilot to my D&D game, I have not changed or expanded D&D beyond the self-contained rules of this character. If In GURPS. adding the space pilot would be a subset of adding space rules.

In any case, the introduction of this idea was a big deal, and paired with the OGL, it was very influential on game design. This idea of not needing to rewrite your game for every new thing while at the same time not needing to have a truly generic game became so common as to be expected.

So, fast forward a bit. 3e matured into 3.5, and then matured further into 3.75 (aka Pathfinder) while WOTC proceeded with 4e. Now, no sleight to 4e – I like it, but it’s not the topic here – but it did not supplant 3e the same way the 3e had 2e. Pick your favorite reason for why this is so, there are lots to choose from, but whatever the cause, a lot of the 3.x fanbase chose not to move on, and instead continued to polish and refine the engine.

Which brings us to where we are today. I feel it is safe to say that at this point in time, the 3e engine is very mature. Not to say there’s nothing left to do with it, but I’d suggest there is less left to do than has been done[3]. Sure, there will always be new content to be excited about, but the body of 3.x is pretty near its final form.

This is not me saying that it’s time to put 3.x out to pasture. That would be obviously nonsensical – Pathfinder continues to rock out. But as it matures, more and more gamers are going to reach a saturation point with it. Maybe they want to try a different game. Maybe they want to simply buy different products. Their reasons will be their own, and their numbers will be subject to debate[4].

However many they are, there are gamers out there looking for an “off ramp” from 3.x (arguably, I might call it an off ramp from D&D, but that’s contentious)[5] – the game to go to next. It’s possible that if D&D Next knocks it out of the park, the off ramp may be an on ramp right back onto DDN, but in the absence of that, the question is what off ramps are available. If I’ve played a lot of 3.x and I’m ready for the “next thing”, what am I going to gravitate towards?

My argument is that the three strongest off ramps are 13th Age, Numenera and Dungeon World. And, interestingly, each offers a meaningfully different kind of off ramps with different focuses and experiences to offer.

So why those three and not something else (like Fate, if I’m feeling self serving)? Well, that’s what we’ll get into tomorrow.

  1. The exception to this is the unsung hero of D&D’s rules engine – the spell lists. Often taken for granted, they are the single most magnificent, versatile and flavorful element of the D&D rules, and the failure to appreciate that is the reason that a lot of D&D knockoffs end up feeling bland and flavorless. It’s not just that their generic spells are dull, it’s that the sheer volume and scope of D&D’s spells is huge foundation for secondary rules elements. This blandness arguably extends to 4e.  ↩

  2. Though, of course, a generic system could be built using d20, as illustrated by things like Green Ronin’s True20, but that’s another kind of beast.  ↩

  3. And by “do” I mean substantially expand, improve and change. We can keep producing new spells into infinity, they just change the body of 3.x less and less with each new iteration.  ↩

  4. Whatever the number, I think it’s growing. This is based on simple math – I think Pathfinder (and 3.x in general) has passed its apex. If you think otherwise, then you will probably think the number is growing much more slowly – there will always be some that are just a function of time, but if Pathfinder is still on the upswing, then it will be pulling in more than passing along. So, do the math in accordance with your own judgement.  ↩

  5. In this analogy, the OSR is going back to a previous off ramp because you don’t like the direction the highway took you. And as with all roads, the side streets connect in many and varied ways.  ↩

13th Age – Conclusion

Whew. I am afraid to even check to see how much word count has gone into this walkthrough. But for those who really want it all in one place:

Also prior to this readthrough, I wrote a few other things including

And if you just want it all in one place, I’ve used the 13thAge category.

So, if you’ve gotten through any number of those, you have probably come away with two recurring points:

  1. I really like this game
  2. I am frequently frustrated with this book

There is an apparent contradiction between those points. Usually, if the book itself is a problem, then it is rare that you get at the “nut” of the game well enough to decide if you like it or not. And, frankly, it is definitely circumstantial that I dodged that bullet, as I also read some of the playtest drafts and played in some pre-release games.

I’m going to nerd out on the book for a bit, and this is probably going to be my strongest criticism of the game, so I want to frame it with an important qualifier – despite the criticisms I am about to level, I still genuinely think this is a great game, brilliant in parts, and well worth the time and interest of anyone who has ever had fun in the 3e and 4e space. You will find it comfortingly familiar on the surface but delightfully different in its details. More, if you are a rules-enthusiast or designer, I doubly endorse picking this up. There is some seriously state of the art technology in 13th Age, and it’s going to be a hugely influential book.

So with all that out of the way, I will say that all of the reasons that I think this is a great game make the issues with the text all the more frustrating.

The textual issues really come in to categories – one is a design decision which, while frustrating, is defensible. The other is more of a muddle.

The first issue revolved around the question of the role of d20 in the game. Making a d20 based game[1] makes sense on paper – it’s got an existing fanbase, and it is nominally to the designers strengths (given their roles in 3e and 4e). Yet at times it feels tacked on – the changes made, especially in combat, were drastic, and the most important and exciting parts of the system (One Unique Thing, Backgrounds and Icon Relationships) really have nothing to do with d20. Reading the book, it’s hard to shake the sense that it really wanted to be its own system, but they stuck with the familiar d20 framework to keep the game familiar. It would be easy to get all artiste-y and denounce the crash commercialism of such a decision, but that would be a load of crap. If they wanted it to be d20, more power to them, and if they only did it reach an audience, then more power to them for that too. It’s frustrating, but ultimately reasonable.

It does, however, lead into the second and more substantial problem. The book makes a lot of assumptions. A lot. Many of them are tied to the d20 thing, and the book is basically designed to be read by someone who already knows D&D/Pathfinder. Whether that’s a lazy decision or a canny one is yet to be determined, but the fact that it’s not explicitly called out in the text is a strike against.

If it was just that, I could just treat it as an extension of the d20 decision, but it’s symptomatic of a pattern in the text that it’s largely written for a reader who already knows what they’re talking about. This applies to D&D tropes, but also to new ideas. Opening the book with the icons make sense if you realize they’re one of the most exciting thing about the game, but if you don’t know that going in, they’re a weird opener.

I am sympathetic to this problem because it’s one that every writer runs into, and it’s one of those pernicious problems that is often worse for more accomplished writers. As human beings, it is VERY hard to see past our own blind spots, and if something makes sense to us, we will apply that reasoning to an explanation of the thing in such a way that it feels complete to us, even if the actual explanation was incomplete. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I admit I totally fell into it. My first time through the book, I totally just breezed through the stuff I already knew, and did not even stop to really look at what was actually being said. it was only upon consciously slowing down for a deep dive that this pattern emerged.

I don’t bring this up to bust on 13th Age. As noted, it’s a great game. But take the lesson – even a great game by a great design team can fall into this trap. You can too.

Specifically, you can do this by making sure that at least one editor is not someone with system familiarity (or at least is not a contributor). This is not a reflection on the abilities of your editor, but rather an extension of the idea that the hardest person to edit is yourself. If you know how the system works, then you are a poor judge of how the system is explained.

Ok, so if you’ve survived my book nerdery, you probably deserve a little positive feedback, so let me back up some of what I’ve said about this game being awesome.

There are several obvious reasons why 13th Age is pretty cool. Icons, Backgrounds and one unique thing are all mechanically clever, and they’re probably the most obvious things. However, there’s a lot of small-seeming but potent improvements under the hood – scaling damage, miss damage, flexible attacks, scriptable monsters and things like that are real, substantial improvements which are a large part of why it is both accurate but insufficient to say this is the best of 3e and 4e combined.

Those elements would all make this a noteworthy game, but what makes it an exceptional game is that the obvious benefits obscure even deeper benefits. That is, you can play 13th Age straight up, and it will work very well, but if you really dig into the things the tools allow, then it will open up the world. Specifically, 13th Age has provides a set of scalpels in places where players would usually get hammers.

I’m a big fan of very free-form, open ended games (like Fate, obviously) and if looked at from that perspective, 13th Age still seems restrictive. Sure, there are token bits of player authorship in the one unique thing, but that’s such a small subset of material that it hardly counts. That is, however, the wrong way to look at it.

One issue you will run into with open ended games is that some players will be daunted by them – not because the players are uncreative, but because they are facing a blank page[2] or because it’s just more work than they want to do. 13th Age addresses that by saying “no, you don’t need to do all that, just these few things over here, and more, these things are designed in such a way that if you don’t want to help shape the game, you don’t have to.” That is smart, powerful and liberating. It removes the necessity to “perform” while still providing the tools for when the player chooses to engage. And, importantly, the text does not stigmatize either approach.[3]

This is not a unique thing – there have been other games that have given players specific avenues of contribution to the game which gave them influence in proportion to their interest in doing so. My first exposure to this was with the Amber DRPG’s contributions, and other games have done similar things since. However, I cannot think of another game that so effectively puts it right in the path of the gaming mainstream without making it “weird”. That’s a huge accomplishment.

I feel like Icons are almost as big an accomplishment on the GM side. I talk a lot about how adventure and setting design don’t get the same rigorous attention that rules do, so I’m always impressed when someone moves those technologies forward. Icons are absolutely some super useful setting technology. They’re a great lens to build a solid setting in fewer strokes than usual. Icons are a bit more muddled though – not to say they’re not great, but I think we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg with them. I think there are years of new ideas and best practices awaiting us in this space.

All of which is a long way to come back to the point at the beginning of this post. The book frustrated me, but I love the game.

  1. Technically you don’t call it that because the d20 license was actually a different license than the 3.x OGL, but at this point I think we all know what we mean.  ↩
  2. And if you think blank page paralysis correlates to a lack of creativity, then you probably should talk to more people who experience it. The problem is not no ideas, it’s too many of them.  ↩
  3. This is, I should add, why I’m more sympathetic to the content problems than I would be in another game. They choose to walk a very hard hybrid path, and there’s no obvious right way to do a lot of what they set out to accomplish.  ↩

13th Age – The Magic Item At The End Of The Book

Been running slow due to work, but let’s see if we can wrap this bad boy up.

Magic items – on the surface, this is a very straightforward chapter. Not that the magic items themselves aren’t interesting (they are, to varying degrees) but structurally they’re very predictable. You have one shot items (potions, oils and runes) and then “real” magic items. There’s some fictional handwaving about “chakras” to basically address that this is ultimately a slot system, familiar to MMO and 4e players everywhere (though in fairness, slots are just an explicit version of implicit rules that have been around forever. A magic item has a bonus based on its tier (usually +1-+3) which usually applies to something based on its slot (Waist increases number of recoveries recoveries, headgear increases mental defense). It will also have some sort of keyworded additional capability (Armor of Stone Flesh applies its bonus to PD, a Bloodthirsty weapon does extra damage after a crit). There are exceptions for things like rings, gloves and miscellaneous items, but that’s the general shape of it.

Structurally, it’s kind of bloodless, but the actual abilities are kind of colorful which offsets that some. But more important than color is the question – given the similarities to 4e, does slot-driven, item-powers model run the same dangers that 4e encountered with magic items effectively being their own minigame and chargen?

Yes and no.

A key premise of magic item sin 13th Age is that they really are magical, rare and special. Most fantasy RPGs say this right before they start handing out enchanted swords n cereal boxes, but we’ll take it on good faith for 13th Age. They try to back it up with a few mechanics – as noted, every magic item has some distinctive power, so there’s no “generic” +2 sword, which is nice. But more importantly, every magic item has a personality in a very literal sense. In the spirit of D&D’s old intelligent swords, every magic item wants something and has some sort of behavior quirk.

This is colorful, but it also plays into the item creep rules. Basically, if you have a number of slotted items[1] equal to your level or less, then you’re fine. Your item quirks might be annoying or RP-hooky, but you’re in control. If you have more items than that (with higher tier items counting extra) then the inmates are running the prison, and you are now getting jerked around by the cacophony of quirks.

I like this model, but with reservations. The idea makes sense – scale magic items with level, so that it’s not really a bookkeeping concern until you’re high enough level that it maybe feels right. Yes, a level 10 character has 10 items to keep track of[2], and that still seems excessive, but I acknowledge it could be worse.

I worry a little more about the enforcement mechanism. There is (as a sidebar notes) a category of player who is going to respond to the idea that too many magic items means they’re obliged to play a lot of crazy random quirks with attention-seeking enthusiasm. The suggested method of dealing with this – letting them die – is probably not as practical as all that. If you don’t have any players who fall into this, then the limiter is probably fine, but if you do, you might want to consider a different set of teeth (like, magic items don’t get along, and it takes a strong personality to keep them in line – if you have too many, you can’t do so, and they bicker and sulk. Once you use an item in a scene, none of your other items work for the duration).

In the end, I dunno – this chapter feels kind of obligatory. 13th Age characters feel powerful and competent in and of themselves, and if there were not d20 trappings to deal with, I might have suggested a more Earthdawn-y system with fewer items that are more important to the character. But if they must do a 3e/4e magic item system, this is a pretty good version of that, alternately detailed and fast and loose in the right places.

Son long as we’re here, let’s wrap up. There’s an adventure which follows, and I’m not going to talk too much about it because I am largely indifferent to adventures in core books. However, I did look through it to see how the encounters were structured.

It is noteworthy how loosely it is constructed, with large elements of the plot able to be swapped out based on which icon the GM wants to hook into. As an extension of this, the adventure is explicitly structured as “one likely path” through the events of the adventure. Effectively it’s composed of a setup, 4 scenes (fight, social, investigate, fight) and an aftermath. The fact that the scenes could be mixed around seems mostly hypothetical (though they can probably be skipped). The setup, however, is an interesting bit since it speaks directly to things to be done with success on relationship rolls.

I am curious as to people’s experience with the adventure, since there seems to be a weird cadence to the climax. It actually has two big fights (and an expectation that characters level up between the two fights, which is nice to see explicitly addressed), but as the situation is described, it seems like the fights would happen in reverse order form how they’re presented. There’s also a little bit of shameless GM force in there, for better or for worse.

The rest of the book is Appendices and indexes. I’ve noted before, but will reiterate – combining the index and the glossary is super clever. There’s also a sub-index of things that relate to the icons, which is something I could see getting some practical use out of when brainstorming on how to handle Icon actions. We get the OGL (though I’m unclear if any new art in 13th Age is itself getting opened up) and wrap up useful reference charts – Icon summaries, conditions, skill check DCs and so on.

It is, I should take this moment to note, a lovely book. It is very clear that a lot of thought and care went into the layout and art direction, and that shines through.

And that’s the book. Stayed tuned tomorrow (I hope) where we see about a bit of wrap up.

  1. I am not 100% clear how things like books and ammunition are treated in this regard. They don’t have slots per se, but they’re not explicitly miscellaneous either. Ammo doesn’t have quirks, but books do.  ↩

  2. It is theoretically possible that someone will carry less than their maximum number of magic items but….I doubt it.  ↩

13th Age – Setting

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 10.00.59 AMOk, the setting chapter. I probably read this one more thoroughly than any other one, simply for my own entertainment, which has lead me to conclude that it’s ok.

Not really knocking you over with praise here, so let me back up a minute.

There are lots of ways to write a setting, but there are three big ones[1] that I would call out as the most common.

The first is the comprehensive setting, usually written in an atlas and encyclopedia style, as if the place in question was real, and the purpose of the game was to document it thoroughly. This is the classic setting book (or, with less detail, gazetteer) and it’s a very hit or miss proposition. If well written, it can be a fun read, but the structure itself offers no real help when it comes to play. It’s frustrating to use unless you enjoy the setting mastery element of play, where it all comes together once you’ve stuffed it into your head.

The second is the dynamic setting, which is sparser on details, but what details there are are strongly connected to the other details in the setting, so there is a focus on a coherent whole. A lot of these are faction or personality driven settings, where the interactions of those groups drive play[2] and at first blush this would seem like a natural fit for 13th Age, but it’s not. It depends too strongly on defining elements (like motives and desires) which 13th Age explicitly leaves open ended.

The last is the fun bucket, which is probably the most game-focused of the three. It forgoes details and dynamics in favor of easily accessible content. In effect, it offers setting as a loose container of playable material on the basis that any backend disconnects can either be ignored, handwaved or backfilled.

13th Age falls firmly into the third category, and I must admit that it is not a category that is entirely to my taste, so there is absolutely some bias there. But there’s a bit more going on.

So, first and foremost, I want to call out that the the setting chapter is a fun read. Lots of interesting, gameable elements. It’s all very loosely sketched (and in the case of Starport, not even that) and any given element can easily be seized upon to do kind of interesting things. That’s fun, but doing that requires walking a pretty fine line between accessibility and detail, and 13th age definitely runs thin on the detail. Yes, the theory is that this is all stuff for you to fill in for your own campaign, but a GM can also do that from scratch – the setting needs to bring enough to the table to be a useful part of the conversation. In some places (especially places with clear and obvious overlap with the icons) it does the job. In other places there is not much more than a name and perhaps a gimmick.

So it works in bits and pieces, but it’s hard to take as a whole, for several reasons.

One issues if that this is a weird world. In some ways really, really weird. The Sea has opinions. Dungeons are actually giant living creatures swimming up from the depths. Clouds are solid. Kaiju emerge from the ocean with such regularity that hundreds of miles of walls have been erected to stop them. Portals to hell dot the landscape, including one the size of the grand canyon, not to far from the petrified face of a demon lord pushing his way out of the ground who is large enough that you can see his features on the map.

It’s all presented in a very generic fantasy tone, but this is actually a pretty freaking gonzo setting. And the reasoning is clear – the setting is largely designed as a dungeon delivery mechanism. Most of the weirder decisions are in support of one classic D&D trope or another – weird dungeons, floating dungeons, abstract dungeons, hellscape dungeons – it’s all in there. And if what you really want is a setting where you get to have lots of dungeon crawls without feeling like they’re out of place, this totally delivers. But if not, it’s going to be a bit weird.

The setting also stumbles a bit in communicating scale. At times, the setting feels very large, and at others it seems fairly insular[3], which has a weird effect regarding the nature and role of the icons. As written, the actual setting chapter ends up making the icons feel like the more traditional elminster-style NPCs that would be kind of off-putting. Similarly, the setting also seems very static. Events of a few centuries ago are still “new”, and it seems that things are basically as they have always been.

Now, are these problems? It depends on what you want out of the setting. All these concerns about scale and tone can be dismissed by simply pointing out that the purpose of the setting is to drive play towards the next adventure, and the rest is just details. But if the setting is something you want to give those adventures context outside of themselves, then it’s a bit more complicated.

It should be obvious by now that I’m in the latter camp. I found it a fun setting to read, but the seams were simply far too visible for it really grab me, and the necessity of leaving the Icons undetailed ended up making them seem almost cartoonishly simple. Worse, because that’s true across the board, I feel like trying to fix it for my own campaign would create a vast cascade of “well, now THIS doesn’t make any sense” and that leaves me more inclined to just start from scratch.

But that’s me, and hopefully I’ve elaborated why well enough that you can look and say “well, that stuff doesn’t bother me” and know what will work for you.

  1. As with all such categorizations, these are neither comprehensive nor uniform. Most actual setting draw something from each column, and the categories are really more about the general tendency of the setting than any kind of straightjacket.  ↩
  2. Though the dynamic focus maybe something else, perhaps even an adventure, in the case of the Savage Worlds Plot Point books, which are brilliant. This is also a good model for “real world” games, where there’s no need to restate a lot of the “setting material”.  ↩
  3. Per the map scale, it’s bigger than a european country but smaller than Europe. For context. the Midlands sea seems to be about the same size as The Black Sea.  ↩

Monsters of 13th Age

The Monsters chapter is another fun one with lots of great pieces of technology in it. It opens with the information needed to read a monster stat block which reveals two interesting things. First, monsters do fixed damage, something I imagine makes bookkeeping much easier on the GM side. The second (and more interesting) is the presence of triggered abilities, which work like flexible attacks – they’re effects that are triggered by the creature’s roll.

This is an innocuous passage, but it’s implications become obvious as soon as you start looking at the monsters. See, monsters only have a few possible attacks (only one in many cases) and the theory seems to be that you can have special attacks be triggered rather than forcing the GM to make tactical decisions on the fly, especially where very nasty abilities are concerned. In theory, a well designed monster effectively has an implicit “script” to its behaviors based on how it rolls.

For example, the Chimera makes three attacks per round (a lot of monsters have multiple attacks, often with the C abilities providing extras as quick actions[1]) to represent its three heads. But rather than track each head and its special abilities, you can determine that based on the roll. If it rolls a 14–15[2], then you’re dazed from the goat’s headbutt. If it rolls a 16–17 then you take extra damage from the lion’s claws. If it rolls an 18–20, then it makes a fiery breath attack. Now, while this does simplify many things, it does introduce a different sort of bookkeeping, so it may not be to everyone’s taste, but ideally this can greatly simplify running fights with interesting enemies while still allowing for wild and crazy stuff to happen.

That’s the theory at least. The actual monsters themselves are a bit more uneven. Most every monster has a default melee attack, but some have other options. They might have a ranged attack (Noted with an R) which is reasonably self explanatory, but they may also have a close attack (noted with a C) which seems to kind of be a wildcard, with the qualifier that using it does not trigger an opportunity attack. Since the C abilities tend to be weird and potent, it tends to introduce its own complexities that undercut the elegance of the triggered abilities. It’s not a bad thing, just kind of a shame because I admit I really dug the scripting idea (and, in fairness, lots of monsters do script just fine, just not all of them).

The C actions end up feeling like a catchall, the bucket that all weird things end up in. On one hand, that simplifies the monster entries by keeping the weirdness largely penned in, but on the other hand it makes for a lot of exceptions. But, to devil’s advocate myself, many of the C abilities have very clear cadences to how they’re supposed to be used, enough so that even if it’s not truly scripted, it’s still fairly close to automated (but that does make the exceptions stand out all the more)

Ok, so before we hop back into the monsters themselves, lets jump back to the surrounding rules. This section explains how mooks work (1/5 HP, damage spills from one mook in a mb to the next) and has the good taste to explicitly nod to Feng Shui for the naming convention. There are also Large and Huge creature which explicitly call out why so many spells are tied to the target’s hit points – it’s to keep you from being able to cheese the big ’uns.

And then there are burrowing rules because I guess they had to go somewhere.

There are fewer sections on Monster special abilities than one might expect. There’s an interesting bit on “last Gasp” saves, which are basically the PC’s chance to avoid instakill effects, which are moderately generous. There are also rules for fear auras, which are keyed to hit points. I actually dig this, though it’s pretty nasty – it means Fear aura don’t matter much when the fight starts, but they become more important if things go badly.

After that are guidelines on how to read a monster’s statblock. It’s largely self-explanatory, but there are a few interesting tricks.

First, there aren’t much in the way of monster illustrations. Instead, the monsters have tile art which evokes a particular icon’s tile art. This suggests a relationship, though the details vary and may be elaborated in the monster’s text. There’s not much mechanical heft to this, but it’s interesting, and resonates interestingly with player’s icon relationships. It is, however, another area where the game leans heavily on the reader’s previous exposure to monster art.

Second, there are often options for nastier versions of the creatures, though this is not particularly reflected in the rules for building battles (which are conveniently/redundantly repeated here for reference).

The actual monsters themselves are exactly what you would expect them to be – it’s the d20’s greatest hits. I went through and checked a few touchpoints – Kobolds are suitably annoying, Dragons are suitably scary and the Medusa has great mechanical clarity(this last is a real triumph). It’s a good spread, and much like 4e Monsters, every monster has some manner of schtick that keeps it feeling unique, so Orcs feel different from Gnolls feels different from Kobolds.

Finally, there are guidelines for creating your own monsters as well as levelling up existing monsters. These are practical and clearly presented in a series of charts, and they seem pretty workable. Most importantly, there is a section on what abilities to avoid in designing a monster, especially calling out the need to take care with defensive abilities as they tend to slow fights down without much return.

All in all, the monsters chapter is a lot of fun. The triggering attack mechanic definitely gets the biggest workout of the lot, but there’s a fair balance between clarity and diversity which – I believe – does the job well.

  1. And it’s super important to remember that these are quick actions, not free actions. I had that moment of confusion early on and it felt like monsters got SO MANY attacks.  ↩
  2. One mechanical bit – per the description, triggered abilities are triggered by the roll, not necessarily the hit (and some actually specific a hit with the qualifiers listed). A lot of the ones that are 14+ or higher seem to assume that the roll corresponds to a hit, but I’m not sure that’s always going to be the case. To use the chimera as an example, if it rolled a 14 (headbutt) and missed, I wonder if the intent is that the headbutt hits anyway. That feels wrong to me, I admit, and I’d probably still require a hit. It’s an edge case – high rolls will usually be hits – but just struck me as odd.  ↩

13th Age – Running the Game

The chapter on running the game opens with the all important section on using Icon relationships, with a wonderful sidebar acknowledging that this is new tech, and that it’s worth watching the internet to see what people do with it.

As we mentioned a while back, the mechanics of Icon relationships are straightforward. You have a few points of relationships spread among the icons. When called for, you roll 1d6 for each point. If a 6 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way. If I 5 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way, but there’s a catch. Mechanically, it’s pretty simple.

Conceptually, it’s much more interesting. These rolls are basically the things that are going to provide seeds fro your play, Practically, there are three main times to make a relationship roll.

  1. When that icon (or its agents) show up in an important way
  2. At the beginning of every session[1]
  3. When things have totally gone off the rails.

We’ll get to #1 in a minute. #2 is the real gold (and #3 is, really, just an extension of #2, since it’s very nearly a reboot button). So at the beginning of play, everyone rolls all their relationship dice, and each 5 or 6 is expected to become a plot point in the forthcoming session. Since everyone has at least 3 points, that’s generally going to mean one plot element per player, but it’s subject to the vagaries of the dice[2]. Assuming the GM takes these things seriously, that’s enough elements to really make sure the shape of the adventure conforms to the play.

The idea is a little bit stronger than the support. There are a number of ideas given for how to improvise relationship rolls into play – providing guidance, driving flashbacks, giving goodies and so on. These are fine, but they’re chrome – they’re the way you would use these rolls if you still want to run basically the same dungeon you were going to be running anyway. I get that the examples I want to see (like tying the relationships and, in turn, the PCs directly into the stakes of the day’s adventure) might be a little daunting to someone coming to this fresh faced, but that capability is so awesome that it feels like a wasted opportunity.

It’s with that in mind that I consider rolling relationship dice for dramatic events to be almost incidental, and I admit the writeup doesn’t change my mind. The actual rules for such rolls are pretty thin, and more or less boil down to rolling to see if you grab the spotlight for a given scene (which is a bit weird) with most of the focus on when such rolls are made (short answer – when the GM says so, though players may occasionally force the issue through play).

There’s a nice rule for rolling for random icon influence, but really, that’s it. It’s disappointing. Again, I am crazy about how good the Icons concept is (even if I might be inclined to fiddle with the dice) and I feel like it gets badly undersold in the text.

Next section is on environments and tiers, basically noting that locations are tiered the same way that characters are (Adventurer, champion & epic) and in case that was not clear enough, there’s an actual chard to prove it. Environment tier matters because it sets the baseline difficulty for actions (baseline 15, +5 per tier, +5 per difficulty increments, of which there are 3). So the hardest adventurer tier DC is 25 (2 difficulty increments) while the highest Epic DC is 35 (2 difficulty increments and 2 tiers). This is one of those cases where simplicity was clearly chosen over smooth break points, but the underlying idea is flexible enough (that is, a given dungeon might be largely one tier, but another tier in some places) that it’s not as painful as it could be.

There’s also a kind-of-probably-intentional sliding scale to it, where a Hard Adventurer DC (20) is the same as a Normal Champion DC. This allows for a bit of subjectivity in deciding difficulties, which is almost necessary because there’s a real lack of meaningful difference between the environment tiers besides the level of the characters. There are also default attacks and damage levels for each tier, and it’s all combined into a single table that’s reminiscent of 4e’s famous Page 42.

I was curious to read the section on traps, because the decision for the rogue to have trap sense rather than thievery as a class feature has been sticking in my craw. There’s a nice explanation of why instakill traps are lame, and a kind of thin-seeming explanation of why traps aren’t worth XP (but monsters are) followed by some sample traps and…that’s it.

The section on building encounters is less sparse, but is not much more than functional. Simple formula for coming up with the correct number of enemies without ever actually using terms like “Challenge Rating” Some of it is interesting – Adventurers fight equal level enemies, Champions fight level +1 and Epic fights level +2. I just kind of trust that works out. There’s also some familiar 4e tiering of monsters from Mook to Normal to Large to Huge with Normal as the default. Amusingly, there are guidelines on how to make fights unfair (more, and harder) but not necessarily why you’d do it.

Y’know that thing I keep saying about the assumption that the reader already know what they’re doing? Yeah. That.

The advice on healing up mostly revealed to me that a key concept thad been introduced in the combat chapter without my noticing it. The flee rules note that you can have the party suffer a campaign loss – some sort of in game setback. Turns out that “campaign loss” is actually a game term because you can also take them for resting too often. I’m fine with the rule, but as for the term, this is why god created italics.

The section on leveling up opens up with the big whammy – no XP. Just advance a level every 12–16 battles or so. There’s a list of the benefits of leveling, which is mostly what we’ve seen before, followed by rules for incremental advances to smooth out the progression if anyone needs that.

Wedged in here, for no reason I can really point to, is a section on “Player Picks”, which are a great technique. At the end of the session players can pick fiction elements they want to see recur. It’s a little rule, but a very neat one.

Another nice touch is the “Extraordinary Experience” rule, which basically replaces any formal training system. When you level, you need to have a good story for it, either a transcendent moment or some cool backstory. I dig this in theory, but since everyone levels simultaneously, I wonder if it’s a bit more dull in practice.

Then, as a wrap up comes the 10 levels in 10 session campaign variant, which is just a fun idea.

So, ok, if there’s no XP, then what about loot? Well, yes, there’s loot, though it’s a little abstracted. Basically, rather than accruing per encounter, gold accrues per rest( sorry, full heal-up) which is supposed to be roughly every 4 battles. All of this is predicated on an idea that, really, money isn’t useful for anything but buying potions and minor magic (and it even includes an alternate system to skip the middleman and just pay out in potions and runes).

I admit, I’m a big fan of abstract wealth systems, but this one manages to take me aback a little as even more abstract than I’m comfortable with (and, for context, I’m totally ok with resources being a skill). Thinking about it, I think the issue is twofold. First, I like broke heroes. If I’m going to use cash as a motivator, then it should be motivating, dammit. This is predicated on an assumption of blithe wealth, which totally makes sense if you accept that everyone is sufficiently important that little things like money don’t matter any more. The second point is an extension of that – the idea that money isn’t useful for anything else strikes me a so self-referentially dungeoneering-centric as to actively hurt my sense of setting. If I can’t lose my money betting on the dire badger races, then something is just wrong with the world.

There are also guidelines for handing out magic items, but the actual items are in a future chapter.

The next section in what I might describe as a somewhat haphazard order is ritual magic, and this is another fun, exciting thing. Rituals basically take existing spells and let you use them as the basis for a larger effect. The player pitches that to the GM, who determines how long it will take (1d4 minutes, quarter hours or hours) then call for a skill check.

As a baseline, this is a pretty neat system, and a great way to introduce very open-ended, “magical” activities into the game. More, the examples make it pretty clear that the extent of the improvisation and interpretation allowed is extensive enough that the core spells are only a loose limitation (which is good, since there is no not-having a class spell at the moment).[3]

However, it could use about another page of explanation. Free form magic is cool as heck on the page, but it very quickly runs into issues of scale, drama and repetition.

Scale can be illustrated pretty simply, let’s say I want to put a whole town to sleep – the base spell is pretty easy (sleep) but how should I adjudicate the rest? And how will that differ if I want to just put a building to sleep? What about a whole city? Rituals can allow stuff like this, and that’s cool, but guidance would help. Similarly – can I use a ritual version of blink to teleport my party somewhere? By the ritual rules it totally makes sense, but there is actually a level 9 teleport spell, so it this cheating?

Once the door to a ritual gets opened, you can bet that players will keep using it. It will become part of their regular arsenal of effect, and that means that you run a strong chance of having something that seemed cool in the moment to become a precedent for something you didn’t intend.

There is a little bit of guidance for Drama, in that the GM can declare what is required to cast a particular ritual, and that’s a good baseline. In theory, the GM can answer question of scale by scaling the requirements for various effects (so, yes, you can put the city to sleep, but the required components are MUCH harder to get). That’s awesome in and of itself, but it should just be the tip of the iceberg. If it’s just components, that encourages a scavenger hunt mentality, but when viewed as “when X, then Y” it’s revealed that this is actually a powerful tool of setting design. To come back to the teleport question – if low level teleporting is allowed to specific places (teleport circles or whatnot) then you have just added teleport circles to the world. That’s a thing.

All of which is to say, Rituals are great, but could use more meat

There’s another section on icons which follows that includes a brief history of the setting through the lens of icons and a little bit of discussion regarding how Icons might be change in name or nature. It includes an explanation of why the icons don’t have stats (yay) and why they will someday (less yay) and a chunk on insanity that I don’t quite get the relevance of. There’s also a specific callout to the various ways that visitors from other worlds (which we all understand to mean other games) can enter 13th Age.

The final section deal with Gods. and specifically how 13th Age has shuffled gods into the background with the focus on icons. This minimization makes it trivial to rotate in whatever pantheons you want without substantially changing the game. There’s a sidebar on how Tweet just sort of aggregates it all into “the gods” for day to day purposes, and it’s workable (as is the guidance regarding the Icons that some might worship as gods) but…

So, I get why this is the way it is. The icons are a big deal, and a Forgotten Realms style pantheon would really detract from that. But it feels a bit like a punt. The sense it conveys is that they’d really like to minimize the role of religion in the setting, but don’t want to come out and say as much. I dunno. Interpreted generously, it’s leaving a big question to be answered at your table , but interpreted less generously it’s kind of flat.

Anyway, this is obviously a pretty long chapter, and a few key pieces come together in it and really help sketch out the shape of how play is expected to unfold. It’s a little frustrating because some of the biggest and best ideas (icon relationships and rituals in particular) seem to get a little bit of short shrift, but it’s possible that entire books could be committed to those topics, so perhaps that is unfair of me.

More importantly, it paints more of a picture of the shape of play outside of fights, and it definitely has a specific kind of flavor, one that is pretty clearly not intended to be particularly gritty or detail-oriented. I get the sense that this is intended as sort of a natural consequence of being player-focused, and while I’m not sure I totally agree, it’s at least consistent.

  1. Or, if you’re less strong on the improv, then at the end of the previous session.  ↩

  2. This is a weakness of the system, but they acknowledge that a little.  ↩

  3. This is another area where the weirdness of the Utility spell comes up. If the utility spell is really a spell, then it could probably be the basis of any ritual at all, which leaves me continuing to think that treating it as a spell is not such a great idea.  ↩

An RPG Writing Cheat

It’s Labor day, and I wan’t sure whether or not to pick up the next section of 13th Age on a holiday. I ultimately decided against it, so I’m going to riff on something that’s been bugging me.

It should be clear by now that I like 13th Age and Numenera enough that I’m willing to write a crapton about them. As I take a moment here to talk about something they both do purely from the perspective of a writer of games, I want it to be clear that this is not a criticism of either game, but rather an observation of a particular phenomena.

Both games cheat.

Specifically, both games have player defined skills (whether they call them that or not). There are many positive elements to do this, but from the perspective of writing, this vastly simplifies a lot of rules writing. Handling skills (or, more specifically, handling the things that one does with skills) is something that often ends up eating a lot of page count in RPGs, especially RPGs that aren’t entirely combat focused. By dropping skill lists, you drop a lot of that verbiage.

There is a cynical practicality to this, because there is a correlation between how contentious an action is to how many words it burns. Which is a polite way to say that if you have some weird ideas about how perception or social interaction should be handled, then they’re going to take a lot of explaining and they’re going to hit a lot of resistance. By simply not addressing those issues, the designers[1] implicitly say “use whatever conventions your table is comfortable with to address those issues.”

This is not a terrible solution. If you like Gumshoe inspired clue handling or don’t like rolling for social skills in favor of letting players talk then you can just do that thing. Rather than challenging player assumptions at every turn, the designer can focus on those core ideas that he or she considers worth pushing the player on and makes sure that those get the focus they need.

But it’s still a cheat.

Now, take this with a grain of salt. You should know by now that I’m pretty verbose, and my instincts tend towards complete explanations. The ultimate expression of this was probably Spirit of the Century’s handling of skills[2], which was as comprehensive and play-focused as I can imagine skill writeups to be and was also too damn long.

So it’s possible that the cheat is the right answer. I’m not totally convinced of that, and my instinct is that either game would benefit from at least some general guidelines on skill building (perhaps some Structured Skills in the spirit of Feng Shui and Bulldogs!, paired with some Rich Skill thinking). In fact, it was thinking about such guidelines that highlighted to me the power of the cheat. Even if I were to present some guidelines for these make-your-own skill lists, they would only be as compelling as people want them to be.

And that’s good. I’m a big fan of rules or techniques needing to be exciting enough to make you WANT to use them.

Which only leaves the question of the novice player, the one looking to learn from the game. I’ve said many times that an RPG needs to be 3 things – an instruction manual, a reference book and a good read. The problem is that it’s impossible to be all 3, so you decide where to make you’re tradeoffs. I think that 13th Age and Numenera have both jettisoned #1 in favor of #2 and #3. It’s an interesting choice that strengthens both books in many ways, but also demands that the game either be your second (or subsequent) RPG or that it will be taught personally. I think both games really feel like they’re written to be someone’s second RPG (probably after D&D/Pathfinder/D20). This definitely creates some weirdness, but the more I think about it, the more it feels like it might be a very smart play. So we’ll see.

  1. And to be clear, these are far from the first games to pull this cheat. It is one of the oldest cheats in RPG design.  ↩
  2. SOTC is a large book – offputtingly large to some – and a big part of that is the handling of skills. There are, effectively, 3 skill chapters. One is stunts, so whatever, but the other two are basically the Player and GM chapters. They’ve very extensive because each skill was written up as if this skill was the most important skill in the game, with a player section focused on all the awesome things you could do with the skill and a GM section dedicated t how you make cool adventures for a character with that particular skill. Do this for every skill on the list and it runs long.

    To this day, I still think this is a really useful approach, but the simple reality is that, based on feedback, readers don’t dig it so much. I can’t blame them. Even if it’s super useful for the one or two skills that you’re interested in, that’s offset by the apparent noise of the stuff that doesn’t grab you. The problem is that if that material doesn’t go in core rules, I’m not sure where it does go.

    Maybe on blogs.  ↩