Where There’s a Dungeon…

Sessions Nine to Fifteen

Having been eaten by a carpet, our heroes find themselves in a nice white marble building with a bunch of exhibits in glassteel cases (the better to stop light-fingered adventurers helping themselves to priceless antiques). After a brief explore and discovering the windows may show a nice sunlit lawn but in fact open onto something much more disturbing, they find displaced college girl Lady Kandor (whose name will swap randomly between Kador and Kandor until I finally edit her token for the final battle of this sequence). She has lost her memory due to a brush with something bad, but our heroes are able to restore it with the “missing” poster from last session. She turns out to have been investigating the same mystery the players are, because she is plucky and takes no shit. She’s also a master of arcane magic (in this case, history-and-education themed bardery).

From here they discover they are in the Museum of Past Ages, a temple of Stolas (god of owls, stars, learning, and herbs) that used to stand on the edge of the demon haunted southern lands before it was apparently destroyed during the early thirteenth age. In fact, it was woven into a carpet for safe keeping (because I like to give players what they ask for as often as possible).

Further exploration determines that the heroes are in the “before history” wing of the museum that leads on to the “first age” wing where they bump into some heretic Stolas priests, who unleash demons from rose-crystal spheres because they are Blasphemous Heretics. After the skuffle, in pursuit of one of the priests, they discover that the Museum of Past Ages is full of what might be described as theme-park rides in which you can experience past ages, but that thanks to demons and magical instability, the exhibits have metaphorically come alive and are eating the guests.

A fight with giant skeletons in an exhibition hall morphs into a fight with actual giants during the Fall of Axis, and leaves the players holding a baby Empress before they stumble back into the “real world” of the temple.

From there, they stumble through the ages heading for the thirteenth and home. In the process they encounter an instructive Hall of the Age of Towers where they learn about the Dark Cultist and the Dark Gods (who may be relevant later) via the medium of slotting-tokens-into-statues-logic-puzzles; fight angry elves while magically disguised as dwarves in a version of the Age of Strife; get caught up in a battle between the Grandmaster of Flowers and the Astrologer in the Age of Flowers – where they learn that in true Star Trek holodeck fashion some of the magically recreated figures in the theme park rides are aware of what is going on; escape to a haunted graveyard in the Age of the Bone Crown; and pursue Stolas heretics through a mildly flooded jungle temple in the Age of Far Travellers before having a showdown with the high priest himself in the Age of Baelfire.

Through all this action, they also pick up clues to a wider story. The Stolas heretics are plundering this lost temple-museum for lore including “stealing” the recreation of the Astrologer. Thomas Gadd encounters the lost Icon of the Hooded Woman who preserved the balance between life and death or something. Grenn learns that he is not the first deadly assassin to wield shiv when someone stabs him with it. Calcifer is educated about the creation of the tieflings and the ascension of the ruler of ancient Turath to become Queen of the Heavens. Dorak gets to smack some elves around. Everyone learns how fragile the Dragon Empire is, and there is some rumination about fate.

Bursting out of the last portal from the Museum, lightly singed from an encounter with a shadowy copy of an ancient red dragon horror, they discover the temple of Stolas is being purged by warriors of the Crusader, but the timely intervention of people who hate the Lich King (thanks, Icon relationship dice!) they get to safety with Calcifer clutching the second volume of the Book of the Abyss.

Oh, and they also visited the gift shoppe. I forgot to mention the gift shoppe. It was run by an owl-headed angel and they blew a level-and-a-half’s worth of treasure on the most remarkable tat including “cool looking cloaks”, “stuffed animals”, “an unreliable owl oracle”, and a shield with prior-Icon branding. Because of course they did.

The Museum of Past Ages

After a lot of investigation, I decided to run a bit of a dungeon bash with a somewhat old-school vibe. Rather than map out an underground complex, I went for a “theme park” approach. A series of wings each themed around one of the twelve previous ages of the particular 13th Age world I’m running.

Like any theme park, this meant that there’d be a certain railroady element to the encounters, but I tried to mitigate this by putting in clear decision points where the players could decide where they went next to achieve their final goal of passing through the temple and catching up with the corrupt Stolas priests.

My first port of call was the players; I asked them what kinds of things they’d like to fight and got variously “elves”, “druids and bears”, “a dragon” and I think “undead”. Which was helpful.

Then I hit the Book of Ages, and spent a happy afternoon working out my games’ history using the ages defined there. This gave me a very rough road map for the kinds of encounters I’d be running.

Rather than just running a bunch of high-special-effects fights, I also wanted to do some world building and story telling. Notionally, the first sequence of adventures had been about the present (poking around New Port meeting people). The next sequence would be about the future of New Port and it’s politics, so this arc was going to be about the past – not just the past of the Dragon Empire but also to a degree the pasts of the characters.

I knew I wanted some key beats – to show Grenn that his magic dagger has a long history of killing people, to give Calcifer some context for the urge-to-power of the tiefling people, to introduce Thomas Gadd to the Hooded Woman icon who predated the Lich King as the Icon-about-death and see what he made of her, and to give Dorak a chance to hit elves and maybe introduce some King Under The Mountain backstory.

Finally, I still had a list of interesting treasure the players had mentioned they’d like which I wanted to try and pepper through this arc. Oh, and I knew I had roughly twelve significant encounters to do it in as I wanted the players to level to third after the climax.

Building the Museum

The Book of Ages by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is an excellent resource both in terms of building a broad history for your games, and in presenting a whole load of interesting settings for running them in.

The Museum of Lost Ages needed to feel like a sprawling labyrinth of an enchanted building, without my having to design a massive sprawling labyrinth of a building because who has the time for that? With that in mind I envisioned the adventure as a series of bubbles connected with lines. The player characters would move through this field of bubbles in one direction (toward the twelfth age and the showdown with the Stolas priests) and I wanted them to encounter half-a-dozen ages with a couple of them mandatory and some of them where they could choose their direction.

It’s no substitute for actual exploring, but putting two or three crossroads in where the players could decide where to go should help to support the illusion that they were exploring a structure rather than in a mine-cart being taken past the sights. I’d also reinforce this by making sure there were things within the bubbles for them to interact with and poke that weren’t just fights.

This worked best I think in the Age of Towers themed wing, where I had a logic puzzle involving lost cities, Dark Gods, and the leaders they corrupted. Or possibly when the party visited the gift shoppe for a bit of roleplaying with the buff owl angel running it.

I finished this section off by giving the players a simple graphic showing the “known ages” with easily-identifiable symbols and short summaries of each age. This meant they could make informed choices about things without needing a load of extraneous skill roles, or slowing the action down to explain what each age was.

Setting Up the Fights

Tolman, angelic shopkeeper of Stolas, is alert for signs of One True Wayism and reminds people that this is just a bunch of suggestions explaining how I do things. In an accent that is basically Sean Connery pretending to be Dutch.

With the exception of the Age of Towers puzzle, the gift shoppe pit-stop, and a full heal-up at the camp of the Grandmaster of Flowers and their rebel army, I knew the encounters were going to revolve around fights. We’d chosen 13th Age in part for a chance to have a more “meaty” tactical experience, and I wanted high action and danger to be the theme of this arc. You can absolutely play d20-style fantasy games without a load of fights, but you can also have a huge amount of fun knocking the blocks of bad guys and saving the day with your remarkable combat powers and I was in the mood for some of the latter.

It’s really easy to set up a fight in a game like Dungeons and Dragons or 13th Age. Grab a bunch of monsters from the Monster Manual and have the players hit them. It’s easy, and it can be satisfying, but it quickly gets old. When I’m putting a fight scene together I want more than “players stand toe to toe with monsters alternately rolling to hit and damage” because if I want that I can play Descent instead.

Avoiding Trash Mobs

I don’t use wandering monster tables any more except as inspiration. That isn’t to say I don’t use random encounter tables – but they tend to be weighted more toward “three sinister old women cackle at players” or “a farmer and a fisherman are having an argument” than “1d3 oil beetles attack”. Again YMMV but fights for the sake of fighting leave me cold and unsatisfied. When I’m setting up a fight, the reason that fight is taking place is the first step towards making that fight important and fun.

If you’ve played an MMO, or an old-school D&D module, you’ll probably be familliar with the idea of trash mobs. These are monsters that are just there to be killed, to drop some loot, to pad out the adventure, and to whittle away at player resources. They can be fun. More often, they become frustrating because they just delay you from getting to an actually meaningful encounter.

These days I try never to include encounters with trash mobs. I don’t mean that every fight is a “boss fight” but rather that every fight has a role to play other than just “players fight monsters” in building the world or the story.

As an example I’ll quickly break down the fights from the first arc I ran, where the players fought a sinister rat cult in the sewers.

  • The fight in the pub (rats attack the players in a pub): introduce players to combat, introduce Donder and make him useful, present the fact there is a sinister cult of mask-wearing rat-wielding baddies.
  • The fight in the cellar (rats): closest to trash mobs, but reinforces that the rat cult has kidnapped the Blue Rose, show that there are unnatural forces at work with the mutant acid-spitting rats, warn the players that acid is going to be a damage theme (something they broadly ignored incidentally)
  • The cultists in the sewer: introduce the cult proper, highlight that it is made up of mostly lower-class people, but introduce the university student cultist who will lead into the next arc. Also let people with movement skills show off jumping over sewer channels.
  • The giant two-headed mutant rat horror: more mutations, but also the pile of bodies that shows the cultists are kidnapping people, and introduce the wererats and the Rat King faithful who have been targetted by the cult.
  • The dwarf skeletons: a change of pace, which also shows-not-tells that New Port is build above an ancient ruined dwarvern citadel that has been consumed by Daaaahk Forces.
  • The big showdown: climactic battle against the leader of the demonrat cult, introduce the theme of the cursed books of demon summoning, bring the arc to a close and rescue the Blue Rose.

In every case I try to make sure the players are discovering something during or after each fight. Wherever possible they build on the world lore we’re establishing, and expand on the story we’re telling. In between the fights are other scenes that do the same thing without to-hit rolls or initiative, but every scene in the game has the same basic goal – give the player characters things to explore in a cool way, and move the story we’re creating forward.

An opponent is basically just a stack of hit points until you give them a name and an identity. Nine times out of ten your fights are more memorable if you take the time to give your players’ opponents a name or at least a descriptor then work them into the narrative of the fight.

A rudimentary checklist

The first thing I do when designing a fight or sequence of fights is ask some basic questions.

What’s the story here?

What does this fight tell us about the adventure we’re on, either through the actions of the opposition, or the nature of the place it’s happening.

The giants in the Age of Founding fight were actually somewhat incidental to introducing a throw-away guard who thrusts the baby Empress into the hands of the players and is the spitting image of their erstwhile companion Donder for example. The fight in the Age of the Bone Crown is really about introducing the idea of white dragons as graveyard guardians and offering Thomas Gadd a connection to the Hooded Woman. Even the very first fight with the Stolas paladins and the rat-demons does a bunch of story development – there are heretic priests here and they are using demonic powers.

The fights are still meant to be cool but the fight isn’t an end in itself.

Why is this a fight?

What’s the motivation of the bad-guys and why might the players be keen to engage with them toe-to-toe? It’s okay for the answer to be “the baddies attack the players to try and stop them” as long as the answer isn’t “they’re orcs and heroes kill orcs”.

The reason for the fight shapes how I think about it – and how I want the players to think about it. There’s a difference between “these murderous thugs want to capture one of your friends and imprison them” and “these town guards think you’re murderous thugs and are trying to subdue you to face justice.”

Sometimes, you can have a fight without actually having a fight. The idea of just narrating a fight is kind-of baked in to 13th Age through the use of montages where one player describes an obstacle and another explains how their character used their abilities to overcome it. I used this during the assault on the stronghold of the Astrologer in the Age of Flowers sequence to add some depth without bogging the game down in trashmobs. The players fought badly-disguised ninjas and some kind of small hydra. On one level it was just a bit of a fun distraction – the characters weren’t really in danger – but it made the experience of assaulting the stronghold more interesting than me saying “You get to the Garden of the Sun and Moon for the important encounter.”

You can even do this a bit more mechanically. Describing or narrating a fight, coupled with either skill rolls or an attack against each character to represent superficial wounds, is basically what I did during the chase through the Manor in session nine. It creates “mild peril” compared to the “full peril” of an actual knock-em-down fight.

What’s cool about this fight?

I like a mix of opponents in a fight because its easier to create both challenge and narrative. 4th edition D&D had many flaws, but the elements it borrowed from computer games helped make its fights mobile and memorable and taught me a lot about action encounter design.

What stops it being two lumps of hit points rolling d20s at each other? This is different to the story role of the fight. The story places the fight in the wider context of the campaign, but the fight itself still needs to be cool. Sometimes the story role plays double duty “the characters have a showdown with their murderous robot doubles…” is the story making the encounter extra cool. But you can still add “… on the deck of a burning ship!” and make that fight even more memorable.

Does the opposition have interesting abilities, or is there something interesting about the terrain?

What kind of mood am I trying to evoke – is it a fight with a tide of rats in a cramped space, a fast-moving battle through ruins with skirmishing foes, or is there a frikkin dragon that will fly around breathing fire at people and the characters can take pot shots at it with these siege weapons that have been thoughtfully left lying around the place?

Ideally every fight has something about it that sets it apart form earlier fights. This can be easier with a “stunt” adventure like the Museum of Past Ages, obviously, but it’s worth taking the time to find a unique hook for even a mundane fight.

What can players do to feel cool?

Whatever the in-character purpose of the fight, the out-of-character purpose is always the same. The players have fun and feel like heroes. When I’m designing a fight I look for elements I can include that will make players feel clever, or powerful, when they exploit them.

For example, undead opponents will almost always make Thomas Gadd feel cool because he throws holy damage around and that hurts undead a lot, but also because his character is all about ghosts, life-and-death, and sticking it to the Lich King (the source of most undead in the 13th Age I’m running).

A scene with a lot of scenery to jump on or off gives Grenn the rogue more opportunities to show off his movement abilities, but might also give Calcifer the sorcerer-spy some inspiration for a cool stunt, or let a character knock an opponent into a river.

One trick I’ve started using is that after I’ve done all the other prep work on roll20 to lay out an encounter I’ll quickly write a list of a dozen elements that can be found in the scene that will hopefully inspire players to narrate their actions in a cool way. An obvious example was during the climactic dragon-and-high-heretic fight the fact I’d mentioned there were “stagnant puddles” all over lead to Grenn splashing dirty water into his opponents’ eyes as part of his shadow walk maneuver. From past experience, having a written list is a lot more effective than just describing something in that players can look at the words and think about them between turns for example. I might keep it up when I go back to actual tabletop games (assuming I ever do).

Incidentally this emphasis on making the place the fight takes place be as important as the creatures doing the fighting is another reason I dislike random combat encounters. They rarely give me the opportunity to think about where the fight is happening and whats cool about it.

What could go wrong?

What happens if the player characters are defeated? Am I happy for the campaign to end here or is there some way to continue even after defeat? For example, the evil cultists might put the defeated characters in cages intending to sacrifice them to demons giving them a chance to escape. There should still be a cost for defeat obviously – in the sewer-cult-adventure case I’d kill the Blue Rose. In the Museum of Past Ages I’d have the Stolas priests get a step closer to completing their agenda.

I don’t always have to think about this. I tend to assume the players’ characters will broadly be fine in a normal encounter, but it’s something I give some thought to in a climactic enounter or one I know will be tough.

I might find I’ve overstatted, or given a monster an ability that is proving to be unexpectedly deadly. In this case I might tweak the stats so the monster loses access to that ability when they’re on half-hits or less, or have a limited-use player ability turn out to be more effective than expected. In both cases though I try to make sure these tweaks make sense in the context of the fight, and use them when I’ve fucked up or the players are genuinely being unlucky.

The flip side of respecting to your players actions is that sometimes you need to let them reap the tragic harvest of their mistakes. The illusion of defeat is fine, but I prefer to have my players understand that there is a real chance they might be defeated but that defeat =/= tear up your character sheets.

Am I overcomplicating this?

Once I’ve set up the encounter, sorted by stat blocks, and laid out my terrain I take one last look to see if I’ve overcomplicated it. I’ll often realise I’ve put in too many different types of opponent, and that I don’t really need javelin throwers and archers, or that the second stat-block for the cultist acolytes isn’t adding anything except another complicated status effect to the fight.

I also try and make sure that if there’s any special rules in the fight I can lay them out for the players easily. Again on roll20 I’ll add them to the battlefield either was text or as a little card with a cute border. Too many new or random elements can make a fight confusing for the players so I’ll usually restrict myself to a couple. I’ll often fall back on a standardized way of doing things – during the Museum of Past Ages there were several locations where people could fall off or into things, or change their elevation, and I used a standard “climbing or jumping is an appropriate skill DC 15 as a move, or DC 20 as part of a move” to the table.

Even in physical tabletop I’d regularly write out any special rules on a bit of card and stick them near the battle map so players could see them easily. Having this stuff be transparent helps players grokk what is going on more quickly. It’s why things like D&D have “difficult terrain” as a defacto descriptor for everything from undergrowth to pools of water to tiny hurdles. Everyone knows what is going on and can think about what they are doing without getting bogged down in rules discussions.

Building the opposition

This is what the statblocks for a fight in my 13th Age campaign look like. These stat blocks were intentionally overcomplicated because I fancied a challenge. In the end, this fight was mostly memorable because the Green Sun Monk kept setting fire to himself. Also the Yorkshire accents and headbutting because monks don’t have to be ghastly cultural appropriation.

This piece is already too long, so I’ll probably talk about “statting the monsters” more in the next thing. But broadly when I’m looking at a monster stat box I tend to think in the same terms as the fight checklist.

What’s the story for this creature’s involvement? Would it make more sense if I reskinned it as a giant T-rex-like dimetrodon?

Why are they fighting? What might cause them to run away, or do something other than fight or make an attack? Can players exploit that?

What’s cool about them? Do they have a signature ability I’ll enjoy describing, or a maneuver they’ll use that players will need to change their tactics to deal with?

How will they make players feel cool? What weaknesses do they have that players can exploit? Will one character be particularly effective against them? If one character finds it hard to deal with them what else is going on in the fight that they can do instead?

What could go wrong? Is their AC or damage surprisingly high? Is there an obviously exploitable way to mitigate that advantage? What happens if the characters turtle, or charge straight in against withering lines of fire?

Am I overcomplicating this? Is this statblock easy to use, is all the info I need at my fingertips, and am I confident I can handle this without slowing the game down? Can I strip out some powers without losing the core theme of the creature? Am I actually going to find it fun to run these monks as if they were PC 13th Age monks complete with their wacky opener/flow/finisher rules that mean I am giving them three times as many options as any other monster in this entire campaign for one fight?

Madcap Plans

Jam Rockets

This weekend would be Empire 2020 event four, but it appears this is the Year of No Live Roleplaying so instead… it isn’t. Instead we’re doing what we’ve done the previous three events that haven’t happened and doing a bunch of online content, while encouraging players to do the same.

Initially I’d planned to do a Fighting Fantasy-style interactive-fiction thing but that turned out to be way too much work so instead on Saturday evening I hit on the idea of doing a live table-top roleplaying stream set in the Empire world and for some reason none of the people I spoke to about it told me it was a terrible idea.

(Except my partner, who has met me, and was concerned that trying to put such a thing together in less than a week would drive me insane).

So Sunday I put together a pitch, got the boss to sign it off, and committed to running some sort of murder-mystery-plus-mayhem live tabletop stream.

It’s definitely not going to result in anything catching fire.

Meet the Murder Hobos

Mostly I’m posting this here so I’ve got a non-Facebook page to link to with the details of the players and crew I’ve got for this mad experiment. I got the players to do mini “author biogs” in their own words and results were predictably… well read for yourself.

Christopher Edwards and Tom

Christopher Edwards – Player

Chris is a fat, beardy white bloke with glasses, and hence has excellent camouflage from natural predators at LARPs. He lives in Glasgow with his partner and children (who thankfully take after their mother.) He spends his spare time writing gaming stuff because he Literally Cannot Stop.

Currently he plays Cardinal Onan at Empire.

He also wrote the rules system, the Shadow Factories System, that I’m going to be ripping off to run the game. It’s all about narratively explaining why you get to roll d6s. Plus he’s one of the driving forces behind Tales from the Aletheian Society and if I know anything about streaming tabletop games its that you want as many voice actors who are also comedy writers as possible.

Jude Reid – Player

Dr Reid and Dr Ben

Jude lives in Glasgow and enjoys roleplaying in the gaps between child wrangling, working as a surgeon for the NHS, climbing hills with her dog and writing short fiction.

She plays Lilith of the Chantry at Empire.

Jude is another of the driving forces behind Tales from the Aletheian Society and is way too modest about the bit where she talks about “writing short fiction” is something she enjoys given how prolific an author of both text and audio she is.

Pel Pearcey

Pel Pearcey – Player

Pel has been LARPing for over 15 years in various systems, and also has a wealth of other nerdy, expensive hobbies.

Also a proud LGBTQ+ community member and a soulless marketeer in real life.

Currently playing Empire as Ser Ancél Watcher, in Dawn.

I’d seen Pel on livestream tabletop before and he’s very good which is why I was pleased to have him as part of the gang. He’s one of the more recognisable faces at Empire LRP mostly because he’s just so darn photogenic.

Rhi Swann-Price

Rhi Swann-Price – Player

Rhi enjoys huffing & puffing her way up Scottish hills, just so she can take a selfie at the top with the beauty filter hiding how sweaty she actually is. She’s been LARPing for more than half her life, so probably deserves some sort of ‘long service’ badge that gives her extra hit points. She crams as many tabletop RPGs into her life as possible.

She tries not to tell anybody what she does for a living, because most people hate dentists. Probably rightly so.

Rhi plays Empire as Yarona, a Prosperity priest of Highguard.

Rhi is another of the Tales from the Aletheian Cast and responsible for one of my favourite characters (the Aunt Cressida). I’ve been in games with Rhi before, including playtesting the scifi Blades hack she’s been working on, and she’s a lot of fun to riff off.

Mark Wilkin – Twitch Stream Moderator

Mark Wilkin – Moderator

Moderating the stream during the game will be Mark Wilkin, who’s a veteran of Profound Decisions’ seat-of-the-pants approach to making Twitch content.

Mark is an original Empire fanboy and has been larping for a long, long time (no, longer than that).

In the “real world” he “does something on internet” as his parents understand it.

He currently plays Senator Sea Captain Baal at Empire.

Mark has been a massive help this year, supporting our various flailing attempts at doing live streams on Twitch. He’s one of my oldest friends, and I often feel bad about emotionally blackmailing him into giving up time to moderate streams and wotnot. I still do it, obviously.

Raff. There is no scenario in which he doesn’t end up regretting this.

Andy Raff – Some Kind of Narrator/Storyteller/Cat-herder

Corralling the cats is Andy Raff, who will be performing some sort of role analagous with “narrator” which might be CS, Dreamweaver, Marshall, or Magistrate depending on whether we can come up with a good term that isn’t “game master” by Saturday.

That’s me. I have no idea what I’m doing.

Community Involvement

Our “where are we going?” poll. I named each of the polls after Wintermark Runes because I am extremely pretentious.

Tuesday and Wednesday we did some community involvement by setting up some polls to let the Empire players and crew determine details of the scenario and the character.

Tuesday was “where is it happening, and what’s the backdrop” giving us a cultural event in Varushka. I knew the basic story I had in mind would work in all sorts of different places, but I was still a little surprised the community picked “cultural event” over “wedding” and had to do some quick rejigging.

Then Wednesday was “help us make the characters by picking from these lists” which gave us a ritualist specialising in Winter magic (a curse monger basically), a character driven by the virtue of Ambition, a Changeling, and the fact that one character would be from the League, and one from the Marches.

Today, I shared the real-world people who’ll be making all this happen and this blog post is really about. See above. I’m also planning to throw up some more polls about the actual adventure setting, while the players make their characters. Tomorrow may be another “fine tune these peoples’ characters for drama” day.

Then on Saturday for some mad reason I’ve said we’ll establish some details on the fly with the aid of the chat stream because I am a masochist who hates being happy.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Unless someones laptop explodes (likely) or 2020 drops a one-eyed tentacled death asteroid on us (more likely), the game will be streaming on Profound Decisions Twitch channel on Saturday 12th at around half seven. it’ll probably end up on the PD YouTubes unless it’s truly awful.

Sunday Ramble Through The Sunlit Uplands

Having read this over again, I am very close to deleting it but I think that might be cowardly. I suspect it’s just that 2020 zeitgeist working it’s nasty blue fingers into my tired brain. It’s probably best if you read it from the understanding that while I may appear to be critical of things, what I’m mostly being critical of is myself and the cognitive dissonance created by having to simultaneously believe that I am not a One-True-Way kind of live-roleplaying while also definitely being a One-True-Way kind of live-roleplayer who gets tetchy when people mess with stuff he identifies as his stuff. Arguably.

This morning I am wondering if I am Principal Skinner.

You know the meme, right? “No, it’s the children who are wrong!” That one. After a point you have to look at the weight of evidence and wonder if you’re just… wrong. That everything you thought was real is actually just your jealousy manufacturing a glamour so you can justify your opinions.

Glamours, after all, are cool. Brains love ’em.

It doesn’t help that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) worrying a lot about whether fest live-roleplaying as a concept will survive the pandemic, or if people will finally wake up to the fact that they don’t actually enjoy it. That their brain just convinces them that they do because… I dunno. Sunk cost fallacy? People keep saying it’s cool? Something.

Why do people claim  to enjoy being in a field surrounded by a thousand other people they would not choose to spend time with in any other setting? Why do so many of them seem to get more fun out of complaining about how awful everyone else is than they do out of the activity they participate in with them?

I have a certain view of live-roleplaying, that’s about agency, empowerment, emergent narrative, and sandboxes (ugh. Sandboxes are so hot right now and there’s probably a lesson about not touching with a barge pole the things AAA game companies thing are cool). But constantly at the back of my mind is the nagging suspicion that what people  really want is authoritarian story that has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end that they are lead through, with all the dialogue options colour-coded for Paragon/Renegade so they can build the narrative they want within the narrow confines of the mildly branching path laid out for them. That what people really want is to be tourists in Derkholm, lead confidently through familiar story beats by their Guide who has enough professionalism to let them imagine that their choices are meaningful ones that might change when they meet the Big Bad by as much as an entire chapter!

Looking around me right now, they’re probably not wrong. I spent the hour before bed last night searching ruined houses with a dog for oil cans and I’ve got the nagging suspicion that while Fallout 4 is good training for the future it’s not actually fun. That I am wrong to enjoy it and ought to be doing something more worthy with my time. Experiencing a complex narrative with deep characters and beautiful world building where You Are The Hero, so that I can appreciate the artfulness of the story beats carefully placed along my route for me to enjoy.

Anyway.

“Player lead” is a great buzzphrase, but like “player versus player” or “freedom” I think it’s something only a small number of people who identify as live-roleplayers actually like. And those players are probably psychopaths, who get off on type-two fun to a degree that means they ought to be on a list.

A friend of mine talks about how the best live-roleplaying creates the illusion of threat, as distinct from actual threat. That it is satisfying to believe your character was in danger of death, but then you pull through, wheras just being killed is not satisfying. To be honest it’s hard to argue with that. If I’ve invested in a character, and a game, and all my interactions, and then I have to stop playing that character because the rules say being hit twice and then not healed after three minutes means I’m not allowed to play them any more… I can see how that’s not going to be fun for a lot of sane people.

With that in mind it sometimes seems that the illusion of player lead, and the illusion of player versus player, and the illusion of freedom is what people want.

And I get it. Illusions are great. Phantasmal Force is the most overpowered low level D&D spell ever for a reason.

For the most part though what I do is try to keep my mouth shut and try to be the guy who wants to let people enjoy things.

I get gloomy sometimes, though. So here we are.

I was working on a video last night and I ended up editing out a section in which I ramble a bit about it’s better not to plan out your plot in rigorous detail because that leaves more space for player action to influence its direction. I took it out for a couple of reasons, one of which was that it just felt disrespectful and too openly critical of different ways of playing. The other of which was that I talk a lot in that video and it felt nice to shift the ratio of who is talking more towards m’colleague. But I digress.

People tell themselves stories all the time, which is how emergent narrative works I guess. The neuroscience of free will is disturbing. Our brains are lying to us all the time in the real world, so it’s no surprise they’re lying to us when we actively seek out illusionary worlds.

Increasingly, I feel like I must have been wrong. That the things I think I saw and experienced can’t have happened, that I must be mistaken, that I lack context.

I’m mistaken a lot. My memory is suspect at the best of times.

But when people say something was an example of something I am pretty certain it definitely wasn’t an example of, it messes with my head. You know what I mean? It reminds me of a key moment in early Empire when I wrote a quest involving a ruined fort and a sword because we needed a quest for the Imperial Orcs at very short notice.

This was year one, year two maybe. Still in the scary penumbra of the Cowboy Years is what I am saying.

Previously I’d spent hours on quests, and on setting up plots in general (which often just failed to run because Cowboy Years). This one I wrote in five minutes on the back of a picture of something. It was fanservice crap based on a vague memory of something I’d read in a group background. If it’d had more than one encounter it would have been a shit 90s linear such as I cut my teeth on back in the ancient days.

The players involved reportedly had a great time, obviously.

I realised something I can’t put into words about how pointless a lot of it is. Because people see what they want to see, and remember what they want to remember, and in the end it’s probably all just a massive waste of time. Their brains fix it in post.

It reminded me of another early Empire complaint that the military campaign was broken because PeeDee failed to understand how important it was to make sure satisfying stories happened. That the idea that it all came down to numbers and maybe strategies was not satisfying. That is was objectively bad that we weren’t deciding campaign outcomes based on what would make the “best” story.

(And how I hate that phrase, incidentally. What the fuck does “best story” even mean? Best by whose judgement? The more people you have reading your story, the more people will in fact not like it because they don’t like the genre, or they wanted Daenerys to be the hero and Cersei to be torn apart by wild dogs because she was bad, or… you get the idea. Fucking “best” story can get in the fucking sea.

[Except what that really talks to is that the smaller your game, the more honest you are about what you think makes a good story, the more empowered people are to decide if your presentation is for them or not. Again, arguing for smaller games with greater focus, and more of them.])

Part of me feels like trying to keep consistency and coherency in something nobody else really wants consistency and coherency in, when you can arguably get the same effect from just rolling a d12 for everything, is probably legit madness. I’m reminded constantly of incidents going as far back as the mid 90s where players were legit angry that things that had happened in the past, that they themselves had done in the past, could not simply be rewritten because now they wanted them to be different.

Anyway. That’s my thought for this morning.

Everything is pointless, my bullshit “work” is an illusion nobody really wants, and the idea of fest-level live-roleplaying is stupid and the sooner we all realise that having more than 30 players is a waste of everyone’s time and effort the better.

Or, it’d be a strange world if we all liked the same things and I should stop picking at the scabs and let them heal over, and really this is just a symptom of one too many nights ruined by the earache that is plaguing me at the moment and I should go do something fun for a bit until this blows over. One of the two.

I imagine in a year or so we’ll all look back on this and laugh. One way or another.

Students and Social Justice War

Session Eight : Hogwarts Student-Union Pub Chase

Off in quick pursuit, three-fifths of the party chased student wizard Adric Curran through the shifting labyrinth of the Manor. The pub itself proved to be a warren-like maze full of cozy nooks, walled gardens, portcullises with minimal explanation, moving staircases, illicit duelling clubs, and animated portraits.

Adric managed to stay ahead of the gang, but was forced to expend resources to stay out of their grasp before they finally ran him to ground at a hidden underground wharf.

For their part, our heroes navigated crowded inn rooms, interrupted a guided meditation, had a blazing row with an illegal wizard student duelling club, provided candid political opinions to a debating society who refused to help unless they settled the question of the King Under The Mountain’s attitude to the Dragon Empire, tumbled around magical staircases, got trapped by portcullises, blew up a fluttering golden messenger sphere to prevent their quarry raising an alarm, and answered pretty obvious riddles for a painted boar portrait.

Things turned a lot more serious in the bowel of the Manor when they discovered what was clearly a secret dining room used by the perfidious Red Mask Society, where diabolical music attempted to drive them insane. They managed to overcome the magic, and burst through into a flooded lake cavern where Adric was attempting to make good his escape in a little magic gondola.

After a short fight with bouncer golems, a serpent demon showed up that Adric initially thought was there to protect him but quickly proved to be an assassin sent to silence him before you could reveal anything to the heroes. They managed to save him, and after a tried-and-trusted “tie him up and shout at him” session discovered that their suspicions about the Red Mask Society were correct.

Not only were the Red Mask Society up to no good, but they were working with two other organisations beside the rat-demon cult. The nobles of House Castaigne, and a heretic sect of Stolas God of Knowledge and Stars, each played a part in a wider scheme aimed at the city of New Port. To save his own skin, Adric Curran agreed to take them to the hidden entrance to the home of Professor Eurydice Kiltiras, the secret patron of the diabolic dining club.

After a short gondola ride through the sewers during which everyone resisted the urge to sing opera, they came up into Professor Eurydice’s cellar and from there to a trophy room full of animal heads and stuffed birds.

Just too late, they discovered one of the stuffed birds was actually not a stuffed bird, and as it cried out it’s warning “Don’t touch the carpet!” they touched the carpet and it ate them.

Roll credits.

(Oh! And before I forget they also learned about a missing student, a noble scion named Lady Kador of House Tozer, which was the result of a rumour Steve had written. Remember her. She’ll be relevant later.)

Hogwarts Pub

EightPortraitGallery

Yes, having an animate painting of a winged boar ask a riddle before it lets you into a secure dining room is a bit silly. But so is everything we do at the table, arguably. I thin it was Homer who said “Lean in to the silliness, play it straight, and stop worrying.”

The Manor was one of the locations provided by the players during the homework phase. Essentially a wizard’s pub, frequented by students at the nearby College of Veils, and based vaguely around Hogwarts I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted a chase sequence. I also decided to lean into the Harry Potter-ness of it all, but as always when including something a little humorous, play it entirely straight.

With that in mind I established there were four student cabals – essentially fraternities or houses – themed around colours. The Reds are arrogant and entitled, the Greens are pretty and bitchy, the Blues are educated and pretentious, and the Yellows are laid back compared to the others. Yeah, I’ve got prejudices when it comes to Harry Potter and I did my best to foreground those throughout.

As to the chase itself, I knew I wanted it to be the centerpiece of the session and not just a matter of a few skill rolls – but still with an emphasis on skills rather than pure narrative. I came up with eight specific scenes I wanted to run through, each presenting reasonably open-ended ways for players to overcome them with an emphasis on keeping the tension of chasing the fleeing student up.

I knew I wanted the chase to end at a flooded cavern inspired by Phantom of the Opera, and the 13th Age principle of fail forwards would mean that one way or another the players’ characters would get there. At the same time, I wanted the outcomes of the individual challenges along the way to have an impact on that final fight.

Advantages and Disadvantages

SessionEightTokens

I made tokens for advantages earned and disadvantages accrued, showed them to players, and X’d them out as they were used up. I used the Throne of the Empress for advantages, and the Sigil of the Diabolist for disadvantage, as a subtle reminder of the influence of the Icons. I’m like that.

Thinking about this, I came up with “advantages” and “disadvantages”. When the players succeeded, they’d gain “advantages” for themselves that would help them in the final showdown. When they failed a check, they’d accumulate “disadvantages” which would either harm them or give Adric and his golem allies bonuses in the final encounter.

The first three disadvantages were represented by Adric leading them through dangerous locations – through a busy kitchen where they risked fire damage, through a room being cleaned by unseen servants who Adric could turn against them, and having the diabolic flautist waiting for them in the Red Mask Society dining room. Each of these scenes allowed further opportunities for characters to “do” things, but here they were risking actual damage.

I knew there would be no chance to take a short rest at the end of the chase, so suffering damage during it was a real risk that would weaken them before they faced Adric. The rest of the disadvantages were things like “Adric starts at far away range” or “the enemies have +2 to Initiative” or towards the top end “the escalation die doesn’t increase at the end of the first round”.

The advantages were a little more abstract. They represented things like the ability to catch a breath and spend a recovery or roll a recharge power, or bonuses to initiative, or opportunities to make rerolls, or starting the escalation die at 1.

I also made some little tokens for Advantages and Disadvantages, and gave them names. They started out hidden but as the players earned one I’d make it a visible token to give them a physical sense of how they were doing, and that I wasn’t just arbitrarily throwing busy kitchens at athem. Again, roll20 made this satisfyingly easy to achieve.

As it turned out, the players suffered three disadvantages (letting me use all the slightly slapstick danger encounters), and enough advantages that they were able to face Adric down without too much difficulty. The disadvantage scenes worked better than the advantages which were a bit mechanical – not least because they let people show off their abilities. Mark’s tiefling is resistant to fire so he was able to just dash through the kitchen without worrying for example.

In retrospect I think this way of running a chase was more work than maybe it needed to be, but I think it proved to be fun. I’m not sure I’d do it like this again, but it met my goal of showing off the Manor, and establishing the four student associations in the event we need them later.

It also lead to some fun roleplaying which was kind of the point. Clive’s dwarvern bounty hunter refusing to pander to the Blue association’s demand that he explain Dwarf politics, or John’s pragmatic former-soldier encouraging romance in the Yellow’s meditation session.

There was also some foreshadowing as the Stolas priest who was being very unhelpful turns out later to be *gasp* part of the heretic schism within the faith working with the baddies. I can’t help myself.

The Carpet Thing

NineCarpet

Nice carpet.

The session ends with the party being eaten by a carpet. This was the result of a Fuck Yeah and What Now? from John who is a big fan of late 80s dark fantasy novel Weaveworld by itinerant Scouser Clive Barker. As soon as he mentioned it, I knew I wanted to do an arc as part of this campaign that took place in a magical location woven into a carpet. So I put the carpet in their path, and waited.

I’d initially intended this chase sequence to lead to the leadership of the Red Mask Society, but another Fuck Yeah and What Now? this time from Steve told me that he wanted the Red Masks to be a bigger part of the story than just entitled students. As such I adjusted the conspiracy, keeping the Red Mask in the background but giving the players a chance to find out about the other two participants in the diabolical schemes.

Obviously, because I try not to plan actual sessions too far in advance, I couldn’t be absolutely sure where this one would end. Providing them the key information about the three remaining gangs of conspirators meant that the party could go in any number of directions – they could decide to learn more about the Castaignes, or ignore Adric’s offer to take them to Professor Eurydice’s house because he was an untrustworthy wrong’un, or decide to regroup and plan or whatever.

I had no way of knowing going in to the session if Adric would survive – Steve’s assassin Grenn has a track record of knifing people who he thinks are wrong’uns after all. If they had, then they’d have had no shortcut to the Professor’s house. So while the session itself was pretty straightforwardly linear, it had a (hopefully) clearly signposted crossroads at the end of it.

So that’s alright.

Race and Racial Powers

Ancestry and Culture

I read through Ancestry and Culture by Eugene Marshall and while I didn’t agree with all of it, it was still a useful resource for thinking about this sort of thing (gestures vaguely)

The other thing we did this session was revisit race and racial powers.

First off I’m not a fan of the use of race in fantasy games when people mean “species”. I prefer terms like “kith”, “kindred”, “people” and the like for in-character use. I’m a middle-aged white man so I’m not the best person to talk about why this is an issue but I decided to do something about it even though all my players are also middle-aged white men.

In the end I decided to take the Heart approach. In Heart, whether you are a gnoll, a dark elf, a high elf, or a human is a matter for narrative (and for what you have in your pockets) while the game focuses on what you do (your character class basically). How you were born is just another facet of your character like whether you’re a pirate or a ninja, or what colour your hair is.

13th Age already takes a pretty laid back attitude to your fantasy species. It gives you a +2 bonus to a stat, and a once-per-encounter racial power and the rest of your genetics is about story.

With that in mind, I made two tweaks.

First, instead of having two stats that you had to pick between for your +2, I just said you could add +2 to any stat you wanted but you had to tell me why you were (say) wiser, or more agile, or stronger, or more confident than usual. The already extant rule that you couldn’t add the +2 stat bonus from your class to the same stat as you gained from your “race” prevented unacceptable levels of min-max.

Second, instead of having a racial power shared by all dwarves, orcs, elves, or whatever, you can pick whatever you like from the available pool. But again, you have to explain why you have that ability with reference to your One Unique Thing or your backgrounds.

Three of the party stuck with the special ability they already had – but now instead of just being a dwarf Dorak Lightwalker is a tough son-of-a-bitch bounty hunter who can take a pounding and keep going. Instead of just being a human and so better at stuff, John’s medium explicitly gets constant advice from the dead which helps him respond to surprising situations (initiative bonus) and get the spirits of the departed to translate languages for him. Instead of being a violent orc who is good at hurting people, Steve’s assassin Grenn is… well he’s good at being an assassin.

Mark did change his “racial power”; his tiefling sorcerer and former cultist knows a magical trick that lets him teleport a short distance rather than being able to curse people.

It took us half an hour or so of between-game chatting to rejig this a little. It’s not perfect, but it works with minimal disruption so far.

If I was running more 13th Age games I’d pool together all the racial powers and use them as the base line, working with players to come up with something comparable if they decided that there wasn’t anything particularly working for them. I’m pretty sure it will work, even with people like dragonborn. At first I struggled to get my head around the idea of a dragonborn who might not be able to breathe fire (or whatever) but then I came to the conclusion that there’s no reason “breathe fire” has to be a default ability of all dragonborn given that dragons have more characteristics than breath weapons. If someone wanted to play a dragonborn paladin who was tough, or confident, or whatever I’d work that into the story and the specific iteration of the Age we were playing with.

13th Age is good like that.

In the long run it’s a pretty minor change, but coupled with a bit of work around the idea that people are more defined by their culture and experiences than their magical genetics, it helps soothe some of the unease about the racism arguably baked into fantasy RPGs.

Your mileage may vary.

Legwork, Dubious Astrologers, and the Stabbington Brothers

It;s been a month since my last 13th Age post during which I have been moping, working on work stuff, and writing a couple of horror shorts. I am well behind on writing up our sessions! So here’s the write-up of Session Seven, in which our adventurers fight at least two Disney characters and then go exploring fantasy Oxbridge.

Session Se7en : Beating Shoe Leather

We started the session with a full-on action scene as our heroes were beset by a dwarvern bounty hunter, her drakes, and he hired thugs. The fight did not go well for the assailant, and she quickly paid the ultimate price. Taking advantage of the fact this was a particularly bad part of town, they fled the scene, cleaned up, and went on with their investigations.

Arriving in Scribe’s Ward they were a little surprised to find a gondola waiting for them, waiting for Calcifer in particular, but never one to look a gift-gondola and some fresh fruit-and-wine in the mouth they enjoyed a brief trip along the canals of the college district before fetching up at the door of a discreet Divination Emporium. There they were welcomed by Olver Gress, an old schoolmate of Calcifer’s who was kicked out of wizard college for cheating at cards using his finely honed divination powers. He was able to give them a few leads, and some warnings as well as identify the nature of some of the clues they were carrying around confirming a connection between the rat-demon summoning cultists and students at the College.

From there, they visited the Twisted Skein for lunch, and then resolved to head to the Manor – the best night spot in the ward and a popular hangout for students from the College of Veils.

All signs seemed to be pointing to a suspicious dining club – the Red Mask Society – whose revels had been getting more and more chaotic and disruptive in the preceding months.

(There was also a very brief detour for Thomas Gadd, the ghost-seeing medium and exorcist. A masked figure offered him the aid of the Lich King for as long as he was working to stymie the demon-cults in New Port. After all, it’s not possible for the Lich King to conquer the place if it’s been turned into a hellhole. There were plenty of hints that ol’ one-eye has his own plans for the place and seeing it overrun with demons does not figure highly in it. So Thomas got a magic hourglass that helped him tweak fate a little and there will definitely be no problems with that).

At the Manor, the party is just splitting up to do some investigation, talk to the students, and otherwise nose around when they discover to their surprise that not only do people know the student they are looking for (the young woman they defeated in the sewers while pursuing the rat-demon cult) but her boyfriend is over there. (mimes exagurrated pointing).

Clacifer turns to look over there.

The lad takes one look at him, and at the fellow pointing at him… and makes a run for it like innocent people largely don’t.

“After him!” shouts Calcifer. Then the credits roll.

The Bounty Hunter Fight

Dward Bounty Huner

I had planned for Elsa Vanshaan, of the Forge Vanshaan’s, to become a recurring nemesis but Grenn the assassin, and his assassin’s dagger, had other ideas.

We’d just had a role-playing heavy, action light session, and I knew most of this session was going to likewise be action light, so I sandwiched a fight in. I tied it to Dorak’s background a bit, and we hinted at why the King Under the Mountain (the ruler of all dwarves) wanted him carried back to the Dwarvern capital in a sack.

They never learned her name, but she was intentionally built to mirror Dorak – a doughty female dwarf bounty hunter. I gave her a couple hissing drakes because I like drakes as a go-to d20 combat animal and they’re much cooler than dogs.

I also gave her two hired thugs – the Stabahn Brothers – who were basically the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled. And by “basically” I mean “literally those characters.” We had an excellent outcome from my PoV in that between them Calcifer and Thomas killed one of the brothers but left the other one alive. So we’ll be seeing them again, most likely as a vengeful-thug-plus-undead-brother pairing.

Grenn managed to assassinate the Bounty Hunter as well, which gave me an opportunity to again play out his odd One Unique Thing about his vengeance-hungry dagger but without forcing anything. I gave him a free recovery I was pretty sure he didn’t need. It also meant it was legitimate of me not to let Thomas Gadd call up the spirit of the dead dwarf. I’m being free and loose with letting him use his background to gather information from the dead – except where someone goes out of their way to silence someone.

I tried out three things for this fight:

  • I reference the “law level” of the area the fight was taking place in. This was a fight in city streets – the first the players have had. My plan is to make it clear up-front if there is likely to be repercussions for actions the players take. Twilight Ward, where the fight took place, is a kind of no-man’s-land run by gangs rather than the city law enforcement and as such I tagged it “You can kill people without legal repercussions”. This sets up the way that in future fights I can tag things like “You can fight without legal repercussion but killing will lead to complications” or even “If you fight here at all you risk legal complications”. We’ll see how that plays out in future sessions.
  • I wrote a long list of “props” down the side of the battle map. Rather than try to cover every manhole cover, washing line, or half-full barrel of rainwater I just splurged twenty or so things that were definitely wherever the players wanted them. This helped to build the feel of the location – it’s a broken-bottles-and-dog-shit-and-washing-lines kind of place rather than a nice clean flowers-and-statues-and-hot-dog-carts kind of place – and gave plenty of hooks for Steve’s assassin and Clive’s bounty hunter to use their terrain-related abilities with.
  • Finally, because it was happening in a city, I had a bunch of civilians on the map and at the bottom of the initiative order. When their turn came up I described how they were running, watching, cheering the players on, booing the hated Stabahn brothers – and once they were down taking the opportunity to steal their shoes. Oh, and raising the alarm so I could increase the tension by suggesting that some dreadful street gangs could turn up at any moment and join in. This helped reinforce the idea that this is a fight in city street not a dungeon without needing to track dozens of little civilian miniatures. A real bonus for the way Roll20 works.

SessionStabbington

Adding the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled to the game is a bit silly, but sometimes it’s okay to be a bit silly when you’re among friends. The key for me is to play it completely straight – and the Stabahn brothers were presented as a serious threat with a bad reputation.

Partly this encounter was about breaking up the two roleplaying-heavy sessions, partly it was about drawing attention to someone’s background, and partly it was about letting the players have a “go” at being second level which I always try to do when people level up. Oh! And it let me use one of Dorak’s Icon Relationship results.

Contacts and Investigation

One of the things I always try to do with a city campaign particualrly is build up plenty of contacts, and as much colour as I can manage. Olver Gress started as the result of Mark having rolled a 6 for his Archmage “it’s complicated” Icon Relationship dice, giving me a chance to help them confirm some clues, give some ideas of where to find more, and throw in a consumable magic item for Calcifer to play with.

I am proud of the magic item incidentally – I introduced feather tokens (a familiar D&D magic item) – as a thing wizards use to “store” utility spells in. Because Olver is a diviner, I used the conceit that he’d stored “just the right spell” in it rather than defining the utility spell and let Mark decide what the spell was when he used it. Which worked well partly because it plays to the strengths of the 13th Age Utility spell wizards get. I might well use it again.

Olver also let me introduce a “fun” contact – a bit of a dodgy diviner to complement Mark’s former-cultist sorcerer and I am pleased he went over well with the players. We’ll certainly be seeing him and his glamorous assistant/secretary again.

Treasure for Everyone (Kind Of)

Olver Gress

Olver Gress – drummed out of wizard school for using his magical powers to cheat in casinos. Now doing pretty well for himself serving as personal astrologer to credulous upper class people. Provides basic clues, and the names of some places the heroes may go to look for some more.

The legwork section was also about keying in a few Icon Relationship results and giving the characters a few magical trinkets to play with. I asked them before the session what kind of stuff they thought their characters would like and made notes. This is something I thought worked pretty well in D&D 4th Edition, and also is in keeping with some of the things we discussed back in out session zero about magic items with character and “point” to them. I’m still throwing in items I think are cool, but finding ways to give people things we know their characters will enjoy is no bad thing.

This is one of the reasons Thomas Gadd had a chat with an agent of the Lich King in a hidden sepulchre. It established the presence of that particular Icon in New Port – an Icon that John’s character has an “it’s complicated” relationship with rather than a more traditional “enemy” relationship. It also let me give him a magic item he’d said would be cool – an hourglass necklace that lets him reroll a d20 that comes up odd. But being a Lich King item, it has a tiny downside that every time he uses it, I get one use of a reroll of my own because the Lich King’s idea of what constitutes “good fortune” is a little… complex.

It also let me establish the whole “Lich King has plans, you can be part of them, frenemies” vibe I wanted for Boney. We’ll be seeing more of the Herald of the Lich King character, too.

Making Legwork Fun

Gather Information

A page like this are essentially how I run an investigation for games like this. Wherever possible I try to keep it to one page so I don’t have to flick through notes.

If you haven’t read Trail of Cthulhu (or a similar Gumshoe game), then it’s worth giving it a look if you’re running games where investigation is a thing. Also, read Feng Shui if you’re running games where investigation is a thing but so is over-the-top action. As Feng Shui points out in it’s cheerfully straightforward way, the “point” of investigation and legwork in an action game is to find out where the next fight is and go to it.

 

Trail of Cthulhu, for which the investigation is the bulk of the game, points out that when you’re engaged in legwork the clues are the “point” and putting them together is the game. It uses the concept that in any given investigation scene there is a “core clue” which helps move the investigation along as long as the players work out what it means. Getting the core clue just means interacting with the scene in a way appropriate to the narrative.

I’ve also got another personal thing I want to use investigation for and that’s reinforcing the place the investigation is happening. I want to throw in plenty of local colour, details about the setting and the people there, and as many random characters as seems appropriate. One of the things I like best in tabletop gaming is when five sessions after I first mention them in a throw-away cameo during an investigation someone says “hang on a minute didn’t we meet a stevedore while we were investigating those disappearances? Let’s track her down and see if she knows anything about this smuggling ring!” When a player does that I feel like I’ve succeeded in making the game world more real which is one of my main jobs as a GM.

As such, before this session started, I made a list of “clues” the party could pick up, many of whom pointed to places they could find more clues. I didn’t worry too much where they’d get any specific clue from, but I threw in a few notes about characters or places they might head to that should tell them something useful.

The key elements were that I wanted them to learn about the Red Mask Dining Society, and about it’s rumoured leader Professor Eurydice. As long as that happened, the story of the Diabolist cults loose in New Port would continue. If they didn’t get that information… well I had plenty of options up to and including some guys with guns (crossbows) breaking down the door and shooting at them in proper noir style.

In the end, they skipped much of the investigation and went to the Manor where I had some more action-oriented scenes prepped. That’s not a bad thing – they already had plenty of clues from their visit to Olver Gress and the Twisted Skein restaurant – and I was able to shift some of the other clues into the following session where they were chasing a student through a magical Hogwarts-style pub full of wizardly students which I’ll write about next time.

Using Player Contributions

I’m really enjoying using the player contributions, and this session was full of them. Twilight Ward, where the fight with the bounty hunter took place, was Mark’s suggestion. The Manor, where they ended up, was Steves. The masks-and-veils themes of the main college in New Port was down to John. Throughout the session I referenced various rumours that I’d had the players (separately) write for me, some of which I was able to tie straight into the narrative to shape the story of what is going on – the fact the Dean of the College of Veils was angry about out-of-control student shennanigans for example, or tying the Crusader and her agents to the University library – all gave me an opportunity to flex my creative muscles in new ways.

Well worth the effort.

The way 13th Age works it’s skill checks helps to keep the game focused on the narrative. Having the player explain why his character can use a background, assuming it’s not always obvious, can occasionally feel like they’re trying to bullshit me but that’s still part of the fun because I have almost 0 investment in whether they pass or fail a skill check because my job is to make the outcome, whatever it is, as much as possible. And that’s quite liberating, frankly.

 

My TED Talk, In Which I Whine About Feeling Sad All The Time And How The Patriarchy Is To Blame

This is pretty whiny. While I considered reframing it as a monologue, I just don’t have the heart right now. I advise you not to read it unless you like self-indulgent crap. Normal service will be resumed soon, but right now I’m in a proper sulk and needed to write something before the top of my head came off.

It’s weird talking and thinking about mental health when you’re a man and –

Actually, now I say that, I assume it’s also weird when you’re any other gender but I don’t really have any experience of that so… bleh. I should try a better opening line but I think at least some of my experience is about being a man so I think I’ll leave them in.

I’m second guessing myself. I do that a lot. Anyway.

It’s weird talking and thinking about mental health when you’re a man. I’m probably depressed, if I’m honest with myself (which I rarely am). I’m almost certainly experiencing a degree of burn out, now that I’ve actually looked up what it is and what causes it.

It’s only been about 26 years since I last saw a GP about mental health issues, and I’m very nearly at the point where I am prepared to start thinking about using the D word again rather than a succession of placeholder words that mostly start with G (grumpy, gloomy, grim).

I don’t have any right to be depressed or mentally unwell, obviously. I’m pretty sure there’s no massive trauma lurking in my past to explain why sometimes I struggle to talk, or get out of bed, or do anything other than scroll facebook or kill zombies. As near as I can tell, days when you can’t even are just normal.

Weeks when you can’t even, months when you can’t even… they’re rarer but probably just the sane reaction to the world right now.

(I’ve always got excuses like this incidentally and they form the counterpoint to the regular undercurrent of gloom, grim, and grump.)

I noticed a little while ago that most of my friends are mental, in some capacity. Either there’s something about being a nerd that makes you prone to it, or there’s a quiet pandemic of mental health disaster at work in the world.

Or I make people mentally ill – I am the common denominator in my friends group after all. There’s lots of ways to read the data I guess.

Very few of my friends actually talk about it in public. I mean talk-talk, obviously. For a start most of my friends are men and it’s just not how men are meant to behave. We can talk about how bad that is all we like, waffle on about how the patriarchy oppresses men as well as women, but it doesn’t change anything. I don’t think it sticks. I can’t speak for anyone else but the male role model in my life dealt with his mental health issues by just knuckling down and getting on with it and every time I don’t manage to follow his example I feel like more of a waster. It happens

The CALM campaigns and the mental health awareness stuff help a bit I guess. Not in my case especially, but I guess in general?

But when you do talk we all say “hugs” or “I hear you” or whatever and then move on because powerlessness is part of the whole complex of symptoms.

It feels broadly pointless. You find it helpful for a few minutes but then the next wave hits and you don’t want to give people compassion fatigue by expecting too much from them.

(Given you mostly think you’re weak and lazy, after all. And sometimes when you talk or try to talk about this you get a “I know how you feel because my much worse situation is..” or “You think you’ve got problems my problems are worse because…” or “Think yourself luck that you aren’t….” and that needless to say makes you feel a hundred times worse and plays into the belief you’re just malingering because part of you is genuinely looking for validation that you’re just a whiny prick)

That might just be the gloom talking, of course. And by “you” I mean “I” here but even editing this before I post it on the wordpress it’s hard to get that personal. You provides a safe distance.

Anyway.

One of the reasons I personally struggle to admit I might be depressed and not just gloomy, or grim, or having a bad day, or feeling a bit out of sorts, or struggling to cope a bit, or having a wobble, or feeling under the weather, or being a bit sulky, or not at my best, or a bit low, or in a low mood, or any of the other hundred euphemisms for “I feel worthless and without hope” is the fear of being labelled as someone appropriating genuine mental illness. Or trying to hide their manifest character flaws behind an undeserved self-diagnosis. Or trying to get attention by claiming to “have anxiety” or describing a bit of a wobble as “a panic attack.”

I’d never want someone who is being killed by their own brain to think I was trying to be “cool”. I’d never want to obfuscate things by laying claim to a diagnosis I don’t deserve. Obviously. People who do that are probably cunts.

But at the same time… I don’t talk to medical professionals, obviously.

Both of the two most likely possible outcomes worry me equally. Either the doctor will say “you’re actually just a bit of a whiny prick grow up” or “you’re actually mentally unwell and now we are going to engage in months of trial and error to try and treat it and also you have to talk to a stranger about it once a month and it might well mean you can’t write or function any more because we’re going to just stir up your brain and see where we end up.”

(Or more likely right now: “You’re actually mentally unwell but mental health services are so fucked you’re going on a six month waiting list and also using up resources that should be being used to help someone more deserving.” The modern world everbody!)

The first two diagnoses incidentally are the two I actually had from GPs in my early 20s when I tried to get some sort of explanation for why I was always so low. They were roughly a year apart, and probably explain why I haven’t tried since. This was the 90s obviously but still. It wasn’t that long ago.

So I find myself between two stools. I’ve got quarter century old diagnoses of “maybe depression but probably just malingering” on the one hand, and a fear that I’m just a whiny cunt on the other, and I sort of sit between the two feeling grumpy, and gloomy, and grim.

There’s a weird cognitive dissonance at work as well. My brain simultaneously believes that my gloominess is a result of being weak-willed and lazy but other peoples mental unhealth is real and legitimate (except obviously where I arbitrarily decide they’re doing it for attention – I’m still a prick at heart – but most of those people are strangers so that’s okay).

And that’s where I am today. Same place I was yesterday, same place i was this time last year, same place I was in 2010, and 2000, and arguably 1990 and 1980. Same place I’ll be tomorrow. Just glum, and tired, and with no obvious way out, and whinging into the void.

I’m not sure what the point of writing this is. I feel sometimes like I’m drowning, and that the world and the people who live in it are filling my pockets with rocks.

I write things. I’m allowed to use metaphors.

One thing I struggle to accept is that you probably don’t owe anything to people who are effectively trying to kill (even if they’re not doing it intentionally). But even after seeing someone I know go through literally that I’m still overly cautious to move away from strangers who seem to take perverse joy in relentlessly crushing what little positive feeling I can muster.

I also struggle with the fact that sometimes I feel okay. I can even fake being Upbeat and Positive for days at a time when there’s a need to do so and surely that just makes it more likely I’m faking for attention?

I also remember that I’m not special, and that other people have it worse, and that makes it much easier to just do nothing about it and try and crush it by effort of will.

I’ve not made a serious attempt to kill myself since I was 18 and that was mostly booze stupidity and bubbling-up anger and I didn’t even realise that was what was happening until quite a bit afterwards.

Since then I’ve just mostly got on with it in a way that is almost indistinguishable from being a massive waste of skin. Because that’s what you’re meant to do.

I’m definitely lucky. I have a support network, although that’s pretty much indistinguishable from a bear pit. Sometimes I say the terrible things that are in my heart out loud and I feel better for a bit.

Occasionally I write something like this. Usually I delete it. Occasionally I post it to Facebook because I think it’ll help.

People respond with “hugs”, and “I hear you” and I feel guilty about the undeserved sympathy and then I go quiet for a while, emptying my pockets of rocks as fast as I can, until next time the swells get a bit much and I need to put words down.

I’m Andy Raff and thank you for coming to my TED talk. There’s refreshments in the lobby, and next up we have Mikey Twotrikes the Juggling Murder Clown who I know you’ll enjoy.

Clip Show Time

Session Six: Plot Exposition Has To Go Somewhere

Having disrupted the rat cult’s magical workings and sealed the abyssal breach (more or less), our heroes recover from their adventures in the sewers. The question of the disappearing dock people is answered, their bodies recovered from the cults dumping pool. Leena the sewer officer receives medical treatment and Grenn learns about the wererats of New Port. The team secures the continuing assistance of Donder McFlynn from the Blue Rose, and ascertains that there is certainly at least one loose thread not accounted for. Specifically, the “she” mentioned by one of the rat cultists who is apparently in charge. 

After a lot of discussion, the team decides to head to the Scribe’s Ward to gather information from the students at the College of Veils, with an aim to ending up at the Manor (the Hogwarts-like student pub). 

Unfortunately, an unknown dwarf bounty hunter has other ideas and appears to want to put Dorak Lightalker into a sack and take him away. For some reason.

Not really a clip show

I’d promised my players that after the shitpipe adventure, we’d take some time to establish and reinforce the idea that they were agents of the Empire. With that in mind, I decided to do a kind of 13th Age clip-show.

The best clip shows – the very best ones – don’t just recycle clips of old shows as a way to save money they subvert the concept by filming a load of new content and pretending its clips from previous shows.

Before the session I let the players know that we’d be doing some flashbacks during the session, and laid out some basic rules as to how they would work. Each player would set the scene for one flashback, including one other player’s character, involving their previous work for their patron/employer the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences (the Dangerous Idiots).

Cold Opening

Countess Winter

A lovely picture of Judi Dench I found on the internet that also helped me nail down Lady Winter’s character. The internet is great.

I actually started the session with a bit of boxed text. I’ve recently reevaluated by dislike of boxed text (I wrote about it a bit already in Spire, Boxed Text, and Matt Fucking Mercer). I already knew that I wanted to give the party an ultimate handler who I hoped they would have a positive relationship with, to contrast with the defintiely-going-to-be-strained relationship with the local representative of their organisation (who someone had defined as being harsh on even the slightest failure and someone else had decided was a cruel-and-horribly-pragmatic shadow elf). I cast around for a strong iconic look-and-feel.

Obviously I picked Dame Judi Dench who after all was the best M in the Bond movies. Shut up. No arguments. I found a great picture of her, and then grabbed another for the garden where the scene would take place.

I wrote up a few paragraphs of “cold open”, and then a few more paragraphs of prepared text that could be interspersed with dialogue from the player characters. I reasoned that they’d be more invested in her as a character, in their identity as Imperial agents, and in their specific New Port mission if they had a chance to chat with her like a person.

Then I threw in a second NPC – the Archmage’s Oracle – to serve to key purposes. One, he could provide vague plot exposition that would underline the conceit of the “vague but threatening events” they would be investigating. Two, he would be annoying and the players would bond with Lady Winter (their handler) in their dislike of/annoyance at him. It’s a cheap trick inspired by the terrible jokes you get in Christmas crackers.

I also bullet-pointed some specific bits if dialogue that would both cover the key facts I wanted the characters to have and that reinforces Lady Winter as clever and with a bit of dry wit (and the Archmage’s Oracle as an annoying prick who spoke in riddles). It can sometimes be hard to improvise these sorts of things.

I think it went pretty well all things considered (even if Clive did interrupt me to go wait! is that Judi Dench while I was mid exposition), and helped set up the more talky tone of the session to come. I think the cold open may have gone on a bit too long, but I allow myself a bit of extra indulgence in an opening sequence to a session because it helps delineate the bit where we’re not doing Sportsball & Soapopera any more and are now playing a game.

Framed Scenes

A “city session” which focuses on setting scenes, investigation, and character moments is very different to plan to a dungeon crawl. In a dungeon (whatever form it takes – an overland journey can still look like a dungeon crawl when you get right down to it just with more trees), the walls, doors, floors, and ceilings restrict where the players can go. The draw of the more open plan situation is the freedom the players have to go places you’re not expecting. It can also be a bastard.

This session though I had some “walls and foors” in place – I’d already mentioned the flashbacks but I also had some scenes of my own to throw at the party.

I sketched out three of them in some detail – well technically four but the fourth one was a little different. They related to bridging between the previous adventure and the new arc investigating the demon cult in New Port, as well as the session theme of establishing characters outside of an action context.

A framed scene – I’ve also seen it called a directed scene – isn’t really that different to a normal scene at the table. I set each one up with a bit of boxed test to create the atmosphere and to as much as possible show-not-tell signpost what the scene was “about”.

I’ll quickly outline each one.

  • An Hour before Dawn: Mark had said that he was keen to make sure that the victims of the demon cult that the party had found in session four were appropriately dealt with. I had a spare NPC (the watch captain the party had ducked in session one) and saw an opportunity to introduce two other characters I thought would be useful to establish in the upcoming adventures. As a consequence Mark and Clive were talking to the captain as members of the watch (and their giant spider buddies) respectfully carried the bodies out of the sewers. I also gave them a chance to talk to a reporter, and Mark took the opportunity to complicate things by rabble rousing against hidden demon cults.
  • As the Sun Rises: John had introduced the character of a ghostly fisherman in the sewers, and we’d enjoyed it enough to keep the ghost around. John “woke up” sitting on a wall by the quayside having obviously had a heavy night of drinking under the influence of the spirit of George Carmichael, Captain of the New Port fishing vessel the Bright Breeze. They had a wee chat, and the ghost mentioned their need to find out why they hadn’t gone to fisherman heaven. This was a personal beat rather than anything to do with the wider arc plot, based around the whole Necroscope schtick that John’s character has going on.
  • An Hour after Dawn: Steve’s orc rogue had been instrumental in rescuing the sewer worker Leena and had enjoyed interacting with the wererat fellow in session four. I established he’d taken the injured Leena to a hospital, and he had a chance to chat with her. She asked him to swear his friends to secrecy about the relationship between the Ministry of Gongdelvers, Dunnikindivers, and Filthmancers and the lycanthropes. This was more exposition heavy than the first scene, but I think it worked okay as a bit of back and forth between the character and the NPC.
  • The end of the session: I hadn’t given Clive a specific scene, but in the end it was fine because he easily took part in Mark’s initial scene. What I did instead was made a note to end the session on a cliffhanger as some bounty hunters appear to try and capture Clive’s rebel dwarf ranger. My guess is that this would give him the same feeling of “spotlight time” everyone else was getting.

The Flashbacks

ClippyFlashbacks

Giving some structure with this kind of thing tends to give you a better result than just saying “give us a flashback please” in my experience

I introduced the flashbacks at roughly half hour intervals over the course of the evening. I’d primed people to think about what they were going to do, but I had a very straightforward shape myself. It was clear these weren’t going to be traditional scenes in which characters interact with each other. Rather they were descriptive, creative scenes. The player we had the spotlight on laid out the scene, and who was with them, and then I promtped people to add extra details (to keep everyone involved).

I had a couple questions to shape the flashbacks. How does your buddy use their abilities to help out?,  either What goes wrong? or What’s the unexpected twist? and How will we spot a recurring element form this flashback when it hits the game?

I wanted three things out of these scenes.

  • Continue to establish the characters as agents of the Imperial Throne (and maybe the setting itself).
  • Create some closer links between the characters so they felt more like a team.
  • Get some plot elements I could insert into the actual campaign.

could have done all this during Session Zero, but I think that might have been a mistake. The flashbacks and the creativity that went into them definitely benefitted from the fact we’d been playing for nearly two months and gotten used to the characters by the time we stepped back to look at past events. I’ll quickly run down what we learned.

  • Dorak Lightwalker (Clive) was assigned to infiltrate a dwarf overland-smuggling ring with the aid of Grenn (Steves Orc Rogue). At a key moment, a rogue bullette erupted out of the ground and a confusing three-way fight took place. The recurrent element was the leader of the dwarf smugglers whose body was never recovered after being knocked off a cliff by the bulette. We’ll apparently recognise him because he’s missing an eye, most of his hair, and half his beard. Cheers people, I said ironically as this was established. That’ll be a super easy picture to source.
  • Grenn was intercepting a handover between foreign agents with the help of Thomas (John’s necrocleric). The agent they were spying on was a paladin of the Crusader, meeting with a shadowy figure who turned out to be necromancer affiliated with the Lich King. Gasp! The Paladin was actually an infiltrator for Old Boney! I let the players pick which one of the two escaped and they chose the Paladin. This was great news for me because a secret agent of the Lich King masquerading as a paladin of the Crusader would play very will with stuff we’d already established.
  • Calcifer was given a job to infiltrate a sinister cult with the aid of Thomas, and we started with our heroes tied to stakes about to be sacrificed. They traded quips because of course they did. The cult itself seemed to be about killing people to steal their power – which Calcifer felt marked them as Diabolist pawns. The twist was that the player characters had been set up by an agent of the Lich King and that while they took out the cult, the Lich King managed to claim the ghosts the baddies had been creating. I liked this one because it had a nice feel of Indiana Jones or the campier Bond movies.
  • Finally, Thomas and Dorak were involved in trying to stop an assassin in the (a) Imperial Palace. Someone had killed a guard and taken their place, and with the aid of the ghost our heroes were trying to catch the would-be assassin. It ended with the villain detonating their alchemical explosive and blowing themselves apart. Their final words were the intriguing “For the great worm!” or possibly “for the great wyrm!” There was some humour around asking the fellow how it was spelled so they could work out who their enemy was.

Two things went slightly awry with the flashbacks. First, we missed that Thomas was in three of them and consequently Mark as only in one. Second, one of the players’ suggestions cancelled something someone else had already established and that caused my brain to stall out for a moment – we managed to deal with it and keep the flashback on track but its something we’ll need to watch in future.

Regardless, I think the flashbacks achieved their aim. The players had a feel for their characters as secret agents and I had two nemesises, a secret conspiracy involving a great worm/great wyrm, and a solidly established villain in the form of the Lich King.

The rest of the session

The bulk of the planning for this session was writing ideas and boxed text, but it was also important to think about how time would work here. One of the drawbacks of the framed scenes is that the players of the character who isn’t the focal point have nothing to do but listen so I wanted to make sure they didn’t drag on. Unlike the flashbacks, it was going to be a one-on-one which I’ve never really tried over the internet before. This meant I wanted to make sure the rest of the session was as group-oriented as possible.

We play in two hour sessions, and one of the first things I did was roughly plot out the “shape” of the session. I reasoned the initial establishing sequence with Lady Winter would take about half an hour. I had four flashbacks to get in, call that ten minutes or so each, and a note to do them at roughly half hour intervals. The three framed scenes should take about the same amount of time. That left me roughly twenty minutes free.

I knew that the main other thing the players would want to do would be to have a scene with the Blue Rose (their rescued handler), and the main thing I wanted was them to decide what their next move was going to be following up on the demon cult.

This was actually pretty straightforward – once the initial framed scenes and flashback were done I dropped the characters into their hideout. I say hideout – by the end of the framed scenes half the NPCs who have appeared in the campaign so far knew where it was. I was then able to drop the rest of the flashbacks in as they discussed where they were going to go with their investigations.

With a nod to Blades in the Dark we had another flashback at the same time in which the players talked to the Blue Rose and got a feel for the situation around the demon cult. It seemed pretty clear they were not going to get along with their local contact.

We overran slightly – by about fifteen/twenty minutes – but on the whole the session was successful.

A Few Other Bits and Bobs

I also used the opportunity of a city session to drag out some of the rumours the players had given me a few weeks previously – using a variety of delivery methods. It turned out the party hanger-on Donder had a friend who had worked at the magical Hogwarts-style pub in the university district and had some stories relevant to the investigation for example.

I’m really enjoying this method of making the game richer incidentally. The serendipitous cool that comes from incorporating the player material stretches my creative muscles in a way that just running a straightforward “this is my game and you’re along for the ride” approach generally doesn’t. Answering questions like why agents of the Crusader have been hassling the librarian for example, or whether there’s any truth to the story that the tulsoolo served at the Manor has kobold meat in it have the potential to take the campaign off into unexpected directions.

And that’s making planning a session more fun, and less of a chore.

Some Boxed Texts

Introducing Lady Winter

There is a woman. She wears a severe dress of a style that never goes out of fashion, even if it is not always fashionable. She walks with purpose, striding through the cool corridors of her mansion. As she passes, servants bow or bob quick curtseys and she acknowledges each with a quick nod of the head but her progress never slows.

She stops suddenly in front of a doorway, and it as if she has never moved at all – her stillness so profound the very idea that she might move is inconceivable. She takes a single deep breath to centre herself and then once again she is in motion.

Beyond the door is a garden at twilight. She knows every flower, every tree, practically every blade of grass. Every quietly flapping banner, every gently flickering torch. Everything. Each is in its place, and a place for everything.

She has guests. Four of them stand together talking in low whispers. The man with a bitter past. The agent wish so much to prove. The exile with nowhere else to go. The dangerously useful renegade.

As she approaches the little group, their conversation falls silent. A scruffy little dog stands up, wagging its stumpy little tail, it’s ears cocked. She stops briefly to scratch it between the ears, her face betraying a moment of joy that she quickly locks away again behind her impassive facade.

She takes another breath, holds it, quickly appraising each of her guests.

“Gentlemen,” she says. “I imagine you are wondering why I have called you here today.”

It is a little less than a month ago and you have been called to the estate of Countess de Morlay, in Axis for a private meeting with your boss.

Her official title is Countess de Morlay, and if she has a first name you have never learned it. As far as you know she is the head of the operations arm of the Imperial Intelligence Service. She reports directly to the Throne, and has served under three Empresses – first as an agent, later as an analyst, and now as the head of the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences – the Dangerous Idiots.

The Countess has been married three times – two of them ending in divorce and one in the tragic death of her spouse at the hands of agents of the Lich King for whom she has an abiding… distaste? She is far too professional to give in to hate, after all.

She is your boss. Do you know anything else about her?

The Watch Captain

You’re surrounded by a low hubbub of conversation. It’s maybe an hour before full dawn, but the sky is just pale enough that you know its coming. It’s raining just a little bit – not enough to get you wet but enough to let you know that might change later.

Another body is manhandled up out of the sewer grate. The labourers are being as gentle as they can, but it’s still difficult work. It’d be quicker if they just tied ropes round them and hoisted them out like sacks of grain but… nobody has suggested that for some reason. Instead the dead are bound in thick shrouds of spider silk by one of the watchspiders, working under careful supervision of their bonded partner. It makes it… easier… while still remaining respectful.

The crowd is quiet, respectful, but there’s smatterings of anger here as well. People want answers. They want to know why these citizens are dead, and why they are in the sewers. Most of the people here are local but there’s a couple who stand out as different.

A smartly dressed halfling woman who is making notes in a notebook – likely a correspondent for one of the papers. A white-scaled dragonic, given a wide berth by the other citizens unsurprisingly, who has been watching the scene since the first bodies were brought out. The watch captain. Yourself.

As the next corpse is brought up there’s a commotion in the crowd – an older man with snow-white hair suddenly starts to wail and sob. The young man whose body has just been removed from the sewer is his grandson. The people near him try to comfort him, but he tries to push forward. The watch hold him back.

Watch Captain Coraline takes a deep mouthful of strong coffee from her battered tin mug, and offers you some.

“So,” she says in a tired voice. “Tell me again what happened to these people?”

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

The first thing you’re aware of is the sound of gulls screaming abuse at each other, then the gentle hubbub of people going about their business (interspersed with the sound of them screaming abuse at each other). Then the strong salt tang of the sea attacks your nostrils, along with the almost overwhelming stench of tar and fish guts.

You’re sat on a low wall overlooking the docks, your feet dangling over a twenty-foot drop into the cool black waters of the Middle Sea. As you shift there’s a clink. Theres an empty bottle of rum in your pocket and another one next to you.

Sitting beside you is George Carmichael, Captain of the New Port fishing vessel the Bright Breeze. He looks gloomy.

“I divvent kna what I was doing in the sewers. I divvent kna why the gulls of Llyr haven’t come to take me to fish the endless waters. Has he turned his bck on me? Why would he do that? If only I could remember….”

What do you do?

Waiting in the Hospital

The air is heavy with the smell of herbs and that peculiar alchemical tang that orcs find particularly overwhelming. It’s shortly after sunrise, and you’re sat in the bed next to the patient. One of the healers glides past, a human man who’s clearly grown a beard to try and hide how young he is. He glances over, gives you a tight smile, and keeps walking. The medicine smell gusts around him and follows in his wake.

What are you reading?

As you can hopefully see, I made them shorter as I went on. I also made sure to end each bit of pre-written text with it’s focus on the players. Both of these are essentially tricks to make the players resent the boxed text less and hopefully to absorb some of the details.

Rats and No Gargoyles

The First Adventure

Actually, before I get to that I’m just going to talk briefly about how I plan an “adventure”. Different games have different demands when it comes to prepping an actual session. Some involve a lot more improv than others. With a game like 13th Age, however, I’m going to be doing a fair amount of pre-session prep. Once you add the playing-online element that prep becomes even more importance. It isn’t a huge amount of work but grabbing a map and some tokens to represent monsters is a little more time consuming than it is when you’re playing face-to-face. One of the consequences of this format is that I’m a little less flexible about action scenes.

Mostly when I’m planning adventures I think about a couple of scenes I think would be cool to run, then think about how they could be linked together. For this first adventure, I noted down a couple of bullet points.

  • Evil demon rat cult – rats gnaw away at foundation of reality
  • Showdown with cult trying to create hellhole
  • Shitpipe ambush with rickety bridges
  • Rats in tavern cellar
  • Giant bloated two-headed rat horror
  • Remember people are the real monsters

That was basically it. I looked at the characters, and thought about the game concept of borderline-secret-agent-troubleshooters and took it from there.

Session One

Session One : A Rough Night at the Salty Mermaid

Our heroes – four agents of the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences (better known as The Dangerous Idiots to their detractors) on their first visit to New Port have arranged to meet up with local handler the Blue Rose at a pub in the Docks Ward called the Salty Mermaid.

Their contact fails to turn up – instead a red-headed man in a tatty patchwork coat stammers the passphrase and then gets attacked by an assassin just as a swarm of giant rats comes boiling out of the pantry and kitchen area attacking the patrons. Lurking behind them is a sinister little rat-man who later turns out to be a halfling in a makeshift rat mask with a knotted rope tied round his waist to make him look like a rat-man.

Our heroes had a bit of trouble with the rats, but doughty Dorak knocks the would-be assassin unconscious while John the Tiefling and Thomas Gadd manage to stop the rat-man fleeing by knocking him down the stairs into the cellar and breaking his neck.

13th Age represented a change-of-pace for my Thursday game, a shift from more directly narrative games to one with battle-maps, tactical placement. and lots of dice rolls in combat. As a consequence, I knew I wanted to start with a combat-heavy encounter to let people try out their powers.

I liked the conceit of meeting in a tavern, a stranger blundering in looking for adventurers, and the traditional first-level adventure of “giant rats are a problem please sort them out” but shook it up a little. The players are agents there to meet a contact, but the wrong person turns up. Who are they? Why does an assassin immediately try to kill them? Why does the Shadow Prince want to keep them alive (as John the Tiefling discovered thanks to an Icon relationship role)? What’s going on with these rats? Why the hell is there a halfling rat-man cosplayer here using abyssal magics? And so on.

The obvious intention here is to hook the characters and players into the action. The fight went a little differently to the way I’d expected – I’d underestimated how bad mooks could be and missed the suggestion that you use three mooks rather than five for each player. So it nearly got a little messy.

Oh, and I’d taken the precaution of putting a couple of NPCs in position to complicate the situation – giving the heroes people to rescue but having established (with player assistance) that the bar owner was probably a competent pirate I had a fall-back to help out the characters if I’d screwed up the statting for the encounter. In the end I didn’t need it.

Nobody important died; conflicted-about-religion Grenn had a character moment in which he protected a fallen civilian rather than run off to chase the fleeing villain, and I think it broadly went okay.

Session Two

This is from the gateway screen on Roll20, which is where we hang out when we’re not fighting something. On the right is the murder board – which is a reasonably new addition but all the best espionage-style games have them I understand.

Session Two : When You’ve Got Them Tied To A Chair You’ve Got Their Full Attention

With a narrow window before the city watch and their attack spiders turn up, our heroes quickly interrogate the captured assassin… and Thomas Gadd interrogates the fading ghost of the halfling rat cultist. It seems the two incidents were unconnected… or at least the assassin was as surprised to see giant rats as our heroes were. A professional killer, the heroes are able to talk the assassin round to explaining how he was hired – through the sinister fixer known as Sandalphon – mostly by playing on the perception that his employer had set him up.

To the surprise of many, rather than handing the assassin over to the guards, Grenn actually gives him some money and suggests he leave town. There’s a good chance we might see this assassin again…

At the same time Thomas Gadd, freelance agnostic medium, is chatting with the ghost of a dead halfling who gives all the signs of being part of a demonic cult dedicated to the downfall of civilisation… before the spirit is torn apart by thousands of tiny little biting mouths.

Rather than hang round to discuss things with the city watch, our heroes peg it out the back with the approval of the bar owner and regroup at their safe house high in the attics of a tottering tenement. The red-headed man they’ve rescued turns out to be an agent of the Blue Rose – an enthusiastic fellow named Donder McFlynn – who tells our heroes that their contact has disappeared.

Following some leads, the party end up at one of the Blue Rose’s safe houses, and investigations leads to an obvious struggle, a hole in the cellar leading into the sewers, and more giant rats – some of them infused with daemonic energy.

Without pause, the heroes push into the sewers to try and track the Blue Rose and their kidnappers.

In an obvious example of good rolls shifting the adventure slightly, the heroes got some very good social-skill rolls coupled with some gifts and personal-interaction effort. They surprised me by ducking out before the watch turned up – meaning they didn’t meet one of their potential allies I’d written in. Never mind, she can turn up later.

They also avoided going down into the cellars under the pub which I was a little surprised by. Not to worry – they naturally followed up on the whereabouts of the Blue Rose. I used Donder to deliver some of the plot exposition about the disappearances of people in the Docks Ward instead. To be honest, the party seemed less interested in disappearing civilians than their disappearing contact – not entirely unsurprising.

Not rushing straight into the sewers allowed for a legitimate “full rest up”. Normally in 13th Age you get a full rest once every four encounters or so, but having discussed it with the other players we did a long rest before the start of the session. This fitted with the plan for the first session, that it be as much a tutorial in the characters’ abilities as owt else.

On the whole, the first half of the session was good fun roleplaying with some skill rolls, and a chance to start establishing the city.

The fight in the cellar was probably unnecessary, if I’m honest. It was okay but it lacked focus. Steve inadvertently encapsulated  the problem when he mentioned he hadn’t used his special swashbuckle power because he couldn’t think of any interesting terrain to interact with in the process.

Session Three

I’m a sucker for sewer adventures especially at low level. Water and disease? Sign me up!

Session Three : Shitpipe Oddyssey

Dorak Lightwalker is an expert tracker, especially in urban environments. People may not think about them much, but a sewer is just a street that’s half flooded with filthy “water”. With the help of his trusty little dog Snouter, he leads the heroes through the horrible, horrible passages in pursuit of whoever has kidnapped the Blue Rose.

With the aid of a quick visit to the sewer offices of the Imperial Ministry of Gongdelvers, Dunnikindivers, and Filthmancers, the heroes make good time. John the Tiefling takes an opportunity to examine one of the Archmage’s wards – or at least a remote booster station for the same – and there’s also a dead horse. And an ambush.

Being professionals, the heroes are not taken in by the ambush and turn the tables on their attackers. A vicious fight around the filthy sewer tunnels rages back and forth with two of the rat-cult disciples wielding nasty magic against our brave heroes.

In the end they’re victorious and find another clue. One of their assailants bears a badge that marks her out as a student at the College of Veils, marking her as a cut above the frothing sewer-dwellers who seem to make up the bulk of the cult.

Finally, our party emerges into a great circular table with a massive dripping pipe on one wall… in the depths of which twinkle the mad glowing eyes of something unspeakable.

This was the first session where I’d started to get to grips properly with the party Icon relationships. The side trip to the Imperial Ministry of Gongdelvers, Dunnikindivers, and Filthmancers was inspired by John (actual John not John-the-Tiefling) rolling a good result with the Empress – which represents the government.

The office allowed me to offer a solution to the obvious problems of being in a sewer (the smell) as well as a chance to add some character and let the heroes equip themselves with items that would help in their pursuit of the cultists without having to leave and go shopping. I also took the opportunity to establish the presence of Leena and her two fellow employees of the IMGDF who were checking “on something” because I can’t resist foreshadowing.

I also used John the Tiefling’s Archmage relationship to present another setting element – the Archmage wards. Not the full ward, but part of the network of wards that crisscross the Dragon Empire and keep the people safe. I also gave Mark the opportunity to “attune” to the ward – essentially getting himself a magic item that involved drawing magical marks on a part of his body based on what kind of power he wanted. I was quite pleased by that element to be honest. It gave him a chance to both play up the fact he is not above nicking power from the archmage, to demonstrate his Magical prodigy credentials, and incidentally he’s now attuned to the protective wards that mean if I want to I can use that to drag the party into future adventures. Oh! And he discovered that a lot of the power of the ward was focused downwards allowing me to foreshadow the suggestion there is something dangerous under New Port.

I actually did more prep for this sequence than I needed, and there were three spare encounters that I didn’t end up using. One of the reasons I did this is that I treated the pursuit of the Blue Rose’s kidnappers as a skill challenge – adapting the old rules from 4th edition D&D but representing them using a set of Blades in the Dark clocks.

The basic idea was that any failed roll would result in a negative encounter of some sort, while a successful roll would give the party a more positive encounter. While Clive’s dwarvern ranger was leading the way, I used these encounters and a bit of poking to get everyone else to take a role in the pursuit sequence whether it was keeping an eye out for danger or talking to the ghost of a drowned fisherman.

The ambush was okay – it wasn’t especially inspired encounter but again it was a chance for people to feel around their abilities, let the heroes fight some more of the cultists to establish the cult a bit more, and do a bit of plot exposition.

It also achieved it’s goal of giving the heroes a chance to present their characters and interact with each other (and with Donder McFlynn a little).

An Aside About Donder McFlynn

This was the first session where I ran Donder McFlynn as a party member. He’s designed to be a supporter – to fill in an area where the party is otherwise a little weak on paper. I built him as a commander because with this sort of character I prefer to help the players do stuff rather than have an NPC do stuff themselves.

I’ve used this kind of character before, especially with smaller parties, most notably in 4th Edition. At a very basic level it gives me an in-character voice to talk to the party with when there’s no other people around. Donder can drop information about the setting, or ask questions, or be impressed by how cool the player characters are. He can also pick things up and throw them to the party, or get into trouble to add a bit of drama to a sequence, or help with mundane tasks. Oh, and it means I can stat encounters as if there were five people in the party rather than four. Don’t judge me.

I’d got the note that if he survived, Donder would become one of the party’s contacts, potentially replacing the Blue Rose if the party failed to save them. Having a character like this that the players have gone adventuring with, who’s helped them out when they need it, makes it easier to hook later adventures.

One thing I always do with this kind of character is make sure they don’t overshadow the players characters. Donder is well-meaning, but a little naive and a little overconfident. Riffing with the other players, we also established that he was quite clumsy, and played a little for comic relief.

Session Four

The Giant Mutant Two-headed Rat Horror was actually a lightly reskinned ankheg but don’t tell anyone.

Session Four : (Dwarf) Dungeons and Giant Mutant Two-headed Rat Horrors

With only a moment to prepare, the horror that was lurking in the big pipe emerges and reveals itself to be an immense, bloated, mutant two-headed rat horror that drools acid. Most likely some sort of cult guardian. A desperate fight ensures, made more complicated by the intervention of a Sinister Flautist Who Might Be A Ghost who summoned a swarm of rats to try and take advantage of the chaos.

With the giant mutant two-headed rat horror defeated and the swarm dispersed, Grenn notes that the fight has taken place in a defiled shrine of some sort. he quickly identifies that it is dedicated to the Rat King – an unaligned god of cities, sewers, rats, and beggars. He takes a few moments to restore part of the shrine while the rest of the party explore a pile of corpses – clearly victims of the rat demon cult.

Perhaps reassured by Grenn’s actions, a wererat emerges from the shadows to talk to the orc rogue. There’s a bit of back and forth, and our heroes learn a little more about the diabolic rat cult. The newcomer offers to show them a way to get into the heart of the rat cult territory via a secret, dangerous route. Our heroes agree. Grenn makes such a good impression the wererat gives him his boots.

The secret route takes the heroes down below the sewers into the upper reaches of what turns out to be an ancient dwarvern ruin. There are skeletons. Thomas Gadd and John the Tiefling between them fuck the skeletons up very badly while Dorak and Grenn keep them occupied, their weapons of minimal use against the animated bony horrors.

Treasure! Ancient dwarf jewels and also a much more recent dwarf body with a magic hat. When Dorak claims the hat he experiences a frightening out-of-body experience in which he sees… something… horrible. “Staar naar mijn werken, o machtige, en wanhoop” he grates as he returns to his senses. it’s all very exciting.

Our heroes take the opportunity to rest and recover – with Dorak’s dwarvern presence the ruined chamber seems particularly welcoming. They then climb the hidden stair back up into the sewer-level and find themselves at the threshold of the cult ritual chamber just as the deranged cultists are reaching the climax of some sinister ceremony.

The fight with the giant mutant two-headed rat horror was surprisingly fun. It also involved some plot exposition, including the introduction of a dwarvern conspiracy element.

The encounter with the “friendly” wererat went well – and represented a potential fork where the players could explore some more of the hidden secrets beneath New Port or press on to the heart of the demonic rat cult operations.

One of the things the party had requested was that magic items have some story to them – and 13th Age often links magic items to Icon relationship roles. As such, I left an opportunity for Grenn to get some nice magic boots if he made an effort to get along with the wererat guide. He did a cracking job, and now has a set of boots that he had been urged to pass on in his turn when someone does him a big favour.

Something similar happened with the magic circlet that Dorak found – inspired by his poor relations with the King Under the Mountain. I also very much enjoyed the fight with the skeletons – I’d mentioned early on that I’d be making skeletons a bit less 1-hit-dice cannon fodder and a bit more Ray Harryhausen. In the end, thanks to a misreading of the rules, Thomas Gadd blasted them apart without too much difficulty but it still gave John (the player) a great moment to feel big and powerful.

It also inspired a discussion about the fun of having fights where different tactics are needed, or where different people get a chance to shrine (what with skeletons being very resistant to weapon attacks). Oh, and it was also interesting to run with a different tactical layout – instead of a battle map I used an image of a dwarf ruin and we moved tokens around on that to show relative positions rather than precise locations.

Session Five

Cultists! Evil electrical rat demons! One character assuming the answer to evil eldritch circles is to piss on them!

Session Five : Gotta Catch Them All

Taking a moment to prepare, and spotting both the Blue Rose and what looked like the captain of the Imperial Ministry of Gongdelvers, Dunnikindivers, and Filthmancers team on the far side of the chamber, our heroes burst in to interrupt the demonic rat cult in the middle of their vile ceremony.

Too late to save two of the IMGDF workers, the heroes showed no quarter to the cult. The leader of the cult proved to be an actual wererat, and also a diabolist with a terrible stormvermin familiar.

The fight was extremely savage, with John the Tiefling taking the brunt of the demonpawn malice. The stormvermin familiar proved to be particularly tenacious, as did the two sewer workers driven to berserk frensy by the demonic power with which they were infused.

Our heroes prevailed – just – but the danger was not over. The magical circles the cult were creating were slowly wearing away at the fabric of reality creating a weak spot within the Archmages wards that would allow demons to manifest in the sewers and begin preparing to call more of their brethren.

Working together, and with the aid of a magical book recovered from the cult leader (?) the heroes were able to dismantle the magic circles and (mostly) close the crack in the cosmos before the demons were able to force their way through.

With Leena – the only surviving member of the IMGDF team – and the unconscious Blue Rose our heroes returned to the streets of New Port. They’d been successful but still had plenty of questions – particularly how a demon cult had come into possession of a sinister grimoire that should not have been removed from the restricted stacks of the College of Veils library…

This session was basically a fight followed by a quick skill challenge. The party had just had a long rest, so I tweaked the encounter a little to make it more dangerous. It was, indeed, quite dangerous.

My particular high-point was when the players double-checked that the cult leader was definitely just a guy in a mask and not a rat-human hybrid… which he technically was. But he was also a wererat so when his mask was destroyed (the heroes had gotten used to destroying the masks of the rat-person cosplayer cultists when they became staggered) he immediately shifted to wererat form and proceeded to chew up Thomas Gadd quite a bit.

There was a good amount of back-and-forth here, which is one of the things I enjoy about d20 fantasy games. Also plenty of terrain for the ranger and the rogue to mess with. The one lesson I took away from this was that a surprise round can actually be problematic – it meant that Mark’s tiefling sorceror was left quite exposed after his initial ambush attack largely due to the vagaries of initiative rolls.

This was also my first chance to try out an actual demon – and to introduce the players to one of the crazy ideas I’d had.

All the demons are based on Pokémon.

I’d come up with the idea while musing on one of the Fuck Yeah and What Now comments from the earlier session where players had said how much they enjoyed poking around with resistances and vulnerabilities. I started considering how to make the demons distinct, and give them each some kind of elemental association. From that it was a short step to making them like pokémon… and so the demonic familiar of the rat cult leader was reworked as a dog-sized rat-thing with lightning powers. The demons pushing through the weak spot became giant purple rat-horrors and a massive serpent (or, in pokemon terms, a gang of rattata and an ekans).

While the premise is silly, I’m playing it straight. These are still demons – the agents of uncreation. I’ve no idea if this will continue to be entertaining or not, but John (the player) did want demons to be “scary” and “weird” and I think I’ve hit that beat. It also means that the demons aren’t just “big men with some animal features and horns” – I like them as being broadly nonhumanoid and monstrous. It makes a nice change.

Volume 2

I had a lot of fun detailing the Book of the Abyss : Volume Three. I could probably have been less obvious with the hint that there’s at least two more of these books out there but it rarely pays to be too subtle when doing this kind of thing.

Final Thoughts

The first adventure sequence has been intentionally a little linear, to let people try stuff out and to keep the amount of prep reasonable. It seems to have worked so far.

One thing I’ve been careful about is to try and do only one sessions prep at a time rather than try to write an entire adventure in one go. I use a similar approach to writing Empire plot – have a broad strokes of things that are going on but focus as much as possible on the current event rather than the future. I find this makes it a lot easier to respond to what players do – to allow them to go off on tangents or work in stuff they’re more interested in without having to throw out potentially hours of careful planning.

I’ve also been enjoying using the handout facility on Roll 20. On more than one occasion, I was able to knock up a handout and make it visible to only one player. The two best examples of this were John the Tiefling examining the Archmages ward, and Dorak having a spooky vision. While I ran the session, the player was able to read through some stuff and then communicate it to the rest of the party through rrrrroleplaying. Given the limitations of the online game environment, it means a player can be doing something solo while I continue to talk to the rest of the party. I’ll need to be careful to not overdo it -reading is not as cool as roleplaying obviously – but it’s a tool that works.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it can be very confusing to have a player called John, and a character called John who is played by someone else. Thankfully, Mark has chosen to change his character’s codename to something else so that might make things a bit easier going forward.

The two-hour gaming window is a little restrictive, but I’m getting used to it. We broadly managed two “things” each session – with a “thing” being either a legwork sequence or a fight – and that feels about right.

Next, the party are going to be investigating the university and finding out whether there’s more to the demon problem than just a bunch of rat-nutters in the sewers (spoiler: there is). I’ve promised the group a roleplaying-heavy session with some flashbacks to help establish who exactly the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences are, so I anticipate a bunch of legwork and setting-exposition.

I’m also pleased to have (reasonably organically) seeded a bunch of other hooks I can expand on if I need to – especially the “dwarf shennanigans” thread that builds on Clive’s One Unique Thing and to have ticked most of the boxes for “things we’d like to see” from the Session Zero.

“The thing with the Archmage and her equivalents is that for the last twelve-and-a-half ages whenever they couldn’t deal with an unspeakable horror they just did the magical equivalent of putting an upturned beer glass over it and then just went on with their lives in the assumption nobody would ever knock it over.”

Making the Icons Work for You

Modding the Icons

Tweaking a world is a lot easier (usually) than making one from scratch. With 13th Age one of the core setting elements are the Icons who I’ve spoken about before. Once I’d finished Session Zero, I set to work tweaking them to fit the campaign I thought I was going to run.

I won’t go into exhaustive detail here. I tried that last night and hooo boy was it dense and largely uninteresting to people who aren’t playing in the actual 13th Age campaign I’m running. So here’s a quick rundown of who the thirteen Big Factions in the Shadow of the Rat campaign are, with an emphasis on talking about why I’ve made the tweaks I have to serve the campaign I’m running and the characters who’ll be running rough shod over it.

The earlier thing I wrote served as the foundation for the rejig, obviously. As I read the 13th Age treatment of each Icon I asked myself the questions that would help me make them servants of my game. How would they interact with players? How will their agendas cause conflict for the players’ characters? How can I make them ambiguous so that interactions with them are less straightforward? How will the player character Icon relationships shape the story?

A Quick Reminder of the Players’ characters

Keeping the players’ characters’ chosen relationships at the forefront of what I’m doing makes it easier for me to make sure that I create situations players are interested in. I hope.

  • Grenn the Orc Rogue (Steve): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant, Negative relationship with the Lich King.
  • John the Tiefling Sorcerer (Mark): Positive relationship with the Shadow Prince, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Archmage, Negative relationship with the Diabolist and a One Unique Thing “I am the diabolist’s greatest mistake”.
  • Thomas the Human Cleric (John): Positive relationship with the Empress, “It’s Complicated” relationship with the Hierophant and the Lich King.
  • Turok the Dwarf Ranger (Clive): Positive relationship with the Empress, Negative relationship with the King Under the Mountain (2 dice), and One Unique THing “The only dwarf who left their people to live in the Empire.”

In theory I could ignore the Icons the players haven’t taken relationships with. However, story and conflict don’t just come from the factions the party have relationships with, but who those icons own opposition. The enemies of my frenemies are… actually I’m not sure but you take my point.

For example. two of the party have complicated Hierophant relationships so that means I can look at scenarios where the Crusader – who also has a complicated relationship with the Hierophant – is a player. The Crusader also opposes the Diabolist and kind-of supports the Empress so while nobody has a direct relationship with her (yet) it makes sense that she be a presence in the game. Plus the players contributed the idea of the Crusader embassy being an unexpectedly important presence in the city, which makes it even more likely she and her supporters will be major players.

The Imperial Court (More Or Less)

First Image

Empress, Archmage, Hierophant, Crusader

The human dominated Dragon Empire underpins the entire campaign. The game is set in one part of it – the city of New Port – and that’s where most of our world building is going to take place. But the larger Dragon Empire gives context to what happens in New Port, and being able to reference the forces that exist in the wider world makes the bit we’re actually playing in feel more real. Four Icons essentially help define the Dragon Empire, and I’m calling them the Imperial Court.

The Empress

The Empress rules the Dragon Empire, the greatest human kingdom ever known.

Every Empire has someone who sits on the throne and wears the big hat. The Empress is the icon that represents the authorities, but also the world that is safe and known. I knew she’d be a constant (if distant) presence since the heroes were agents of the Empire (albeit slightly dodgy ones). Most of the work I did on the Empress was actually about defining the Dragon Empire, because having some broad strokes on how that worked would be relevant to the game especially since the players had introduced a conspiracy fighting for independence from it.

I knew I wanted the authorities to be a little unstable, so I said that the current Empress was relatively new to the role. This also let me seed conflict between a new progressive leader and an entrenched traditional ideas of governance. I noted that while the Empress is reasonably forward-thinking, she’s also a political figure and that means she can’t always follow the course of action that she would like. The Empress – and thus the Dragon Empire – is just a little lower fantasy than might be suggested for the ruler of an Empire where knights ride metallic dragons.

I also made a note that one of the ways the Empress and the Empire would interact with the characters was through the complex Imperial Bureaucracy. I’ve already introduced the Imperial Ministry of Gongwranglers, Dunnikindivers, and Guttermancers who maintained a small “office” in the actual sewers and I plan to do a lot more of that kind of thing.

The Archmage

The Archmage is the premiere arcane spellcaster in the Dragon Empire. She preserves and defends humanity, and explores the outer reaches of deep and dangerous magics.

In 13th Age, generations of Archmages have woven powerful magical wards over the Dragon Empire that keep out all sorts of dangerous creatures, and encourage prosperity. These wards might not be entirely positive – they probably have a stifling effect on creativity and innovation because they are maintaining harmony.

Where there are wards there are people trying to take those wards down so they can unleash hell. Early on I threw out the idea that for twelve-and-a-half ages whenever the Archmage or their equivalent had encountered an evil they couldn’t deal with they did the magical equivalent of putting an upturned pint glass over it. The players got the point immediately.

One of the ways to present the Archmage is as a megalomaniac lunatic who does all kinds of ridiculous magical experiments and is basically juggling ticking time bombs. I decided to go with a slightly more positive interpretation of a paramount wizard with the best of intentions who is basically so busy patching the holes in a sinking ship she doesn’t have time to deal with the fact the deck is on fire and also there are deep ones with hammers knocking holes in the side of the boat.

The Hierophant

The Hierophant hears the voices of all the gods, but he heeds only those of the powers of light and mercy.

Canonically, the Priestess is one of the “new icons” of the 13th Age. I decided to keep that element. I flipped her to male because there’s something about the force of good, peace, light, and mercy being a lady that makes my eye twitch a bit. That’s my problem though.

I wanted to add a little bit of an edge so defined the Hierophant as someone, who hears the voices of all the gods but chooses to ignore the gods of wickedness and selfishness. That will probably come to nothing but I know canonically that one of the most obvious goodies in the setting spends a lot of time actively resisting the temptations of the forces of darkness.

Arguably, gods aren’t very interesting; its the religions they inspire and the faithful who follow them that are interesting. So I made a big deal of the Hierophant’s syncreistic efforts to unite the followers of all the gods of light, and those unaligned gods that aren’t actively malicious, into a single pantheon of goodness. I wanted to hint that he’s Up To Something, but looking at the fact the party have two “it’s complicated” relationship dice with him, they’ll probably do my job for me.

The Crusader

The Crusader is the armoured fist of the dark gods, turning their wrath against the demons that would unmake a creation her patrons would much rather see brought under their own dominion.

The Crusader isn’t really part of the Imperial Court, but thanks to some suggestions from the players when defining New Port, I decided to make her more ambiguous. She represents a faction committed to destroying the demonic invaders that threaten the whole of reality by any means necessary. One of the tools she uses is the favour of the Dark Gods who represent the worst of human nature, because their methods work.

Her followers are militaristic arseholes, but arseholes who also spend most of their time fighting demons and incidentally protecting villages from bandits. They just don’t balk at sacrificing one village to save two others, which makes them villains. Espionage tales often play with themes of expediency vs idealism, or doing bad things for good reasons, and she’s an obvious place where I can let that theme take centre stage.

She’s clearly got a larger agenda – probably world domination – but she’s taking it one step at a time. I also know thanks to the players that her followers have a surprisingly prominent position in New Port.

The Middle Road

Third Image

King Under the Mountain, Queen of Stars, Warlord, High Druid

This gang of Icons are mostly ambiguous in nature – they’re not necessarily goodies or baddies in player terms. They’re also all outside the Dragon Empire to one degree or another. It’s probably no coincidence that they are clearly representing non-human agendas as well.

The King Under the Mountain

The King Under the Mountain is the ruler of the dwarvern people and claims everything beneath the earth as his domain.

The Dwarf King in 13th Age bundles up all the stereotypes of dwarves and puts a hat on them. I already knew from Clive that there were no other dwarvern citizens of the Dragon Empire so I decided to play that up.

The King Under the Mountain is technically allied to the Empress, but in practice is more interested in the security of his own nation and there’s the hanging threat that if things get too bad on the surface the dwarves will just withdraw into their mountain fastnesses and lock the doors behind them.

The history of the dwarves is that they used to live far underground but were forced to move to the surface by Terrors in the Deep, and that for many of them their ultimate goal is to return to the deeps. They also protect people from things – the horrors of the Underworld and the ongoing invasion of the Warlord (more about him in a moment).

I positioned dwarves as merchants and mercenaries, comparatively technologically advanced, masters of the use of magical runes. I’d done something similar with the dwarves in my 5th edition D&D game so it was all pretty straightforward.

Finally, I decided that while the Dwarf Lord wouldn’t be an active antagonist (unless things go very strange) he’d also not be an ally of the party. There’s something a bit authoritarian about him, and that might end up creating some interesting conflicts for the players if it comes into play.

The Queen of Stars

The immortal Queen of Stars represents the united spirit of a divided people.

I’m not a big fan of elves. I shall say no more on that beyond mentioning that the ttrpg Spire has gone some way towards mollifying that dislike in recent years.

There’s an obvious contrast between the dwarves and the elves, and I decided to play that up. I’ve not detailed a lot of it because nobody in the party is an elf or elf-adjacent but I think the historical origin of the elves is the Overworld – the bright and shiny counterpart to the Underworld that the dwarves came from. They’re literally otherworldly, but rather than being from Fairyland they’re from the Moon. Kind of. They either fell or sauntered vaguely downwards and now they’re part of the same world as everyone else and can’t or won’t go home.

With a nod to Spire, elf skin-colours range from pitch black through ash grey to ivory white and that some of them glow or have stars moving beneath their skin. I’ll keep the high elf/wood elf/dark elf split but make it one of tradition rather than race, but there’s some quality of the elves means that anyone who can see them can instinctively tell what tradition they belong to.

Having made that decision, I made the Queen of Stars an impossible-to-predict, mysterious Icon who embodies the spirit of the elves, wears masks and over-the-top costumes, and is an immortal mistress of divination and enchantment magic who takes an impossibly long view of everything but is probably benign. And almost certainly not Yog Sothoth because minimal tentacles.

Also unlike the dwarves there’s a lot more than just elves in her Court of Stars. Medusa, aranea, driders, pixies, sprites, satyrs and the like all hang out with her and maybe it’ll turn out that they’re all really just elves with different outfits on. I dunno how much of this will come out in play, but New Port isn’t that far from the Queen’s wood, but my gut feeling is that most of this “elves are weird” stuff will be for my amusement and the odd peculiar encounter rather than anything front-and-centre so I won’t spend too much time on it.

The Warlord

The Warlord leads the numberless hosts of the goblin nations, and for the first time since the fall of the Wizard King has turned his attention to the Dragon Empire.

I switched the Orc Lord to the Warlord, and basically recast the entire Icon and his followers as the ghaal’dar from Eberron. Instead of an obvious team-evil invading army of savage orcs, the Warlord leads an alliance of goblins and any others I fancy who are here to claim a Dragon Empire they believe is rightfully theirs. In the histories, the first Warlord killed the Lich King, and was then betrayed in some fashion by some or all of the Empress, Archmage, the King Under the Mountain, and the Queen of Stars.

Invasions give you someone to fight, sure, but if they’re only things to fight you’re missing out on so much. So instead of ravening savages, the invading force are sophisticated and relatively civilised. This means they can send diplomats and spies to places their armies can’t reach, and they can fill the roll of an antagonistic neighbouring nation that threatens the stability of the Dragon Empire.

I could have done that with orcs, but I already knew I had an orc player character and that cemented my initial feelings about making the invaders goblins. I had a different role in mind for orcs anyway.

The High Druid

The High Druid is the champion of the resurgent Wild, and his coming threatens to shake the Empire to its very roots.

I made the High Druid an orc, and I ripped off Eberron again by making the orcs an elder race equivalent in some ways to the elves and dwarves. Then I played up the legitimate concerns of the druidic community about the way the Dragon Empire and the Archmage in particular have yoked the natural world to the will of humanity in a deeply unnatural way.

Rebalancing the scales before everything catches fire and falls into the sea probably means destroying a couple of cities, tearing down the powerful magical wards that keep all sorts of elder evils at bay, and replacing all the nice gardens and farms with trees. But in the long run if you don’t do that what happens instead will be worse. So say the druids, anyway.

Unlike the King Under the Mountain and the Queen of Stars however the High Druid is not an orc-rights fellow. He’s the figurehead of the Nature First movement, and most of the orcs the party meets will be fellow Imperial citizens.

Given the proximity of the High Druid’s place of power to New Port, the druidic faction is likely to play a significant role in the campaign. And by that I mean I definitely want to use him, his druids, and a bunch of shapechanging animal terrorists to make life difficult for the players.

The (Mostly) Black Hats (Kind Of)

Fourth Image

Shadow Prince, Lich King, Diabolist

As I’ve said before I’m never very interested in obvious, uncontentious evil. There are three icons who are quite dubious, but one of the things I wanted to do was find ways to make them ambiguous. To give players reasons they might want to cooperate with them against their own better instincts. While still leaving them space to be a bit villaionous.

The Shadow Prince

The Shadow Prince is a trickster whose exploits are more about shaping the politics of the world through the careful revelation of secrets than they are about redistributing its wealth. Although, that said, they still put a lot of effort into redistributing its wealth.

The Prince of Shadows in standard 13th Age is a bit of a cipher. A (possibly) romantic but slightly annoying trickster-thief figure who maybe runs all the thieves’ guilds. With the power to steal anything, any criminal anywhere might be one of their buddies.

Running a campaign with a theme of espionage, I knew the Prince was going to be significant. Two of the party took positive relationship dice with them, and that meant their faction would be relevant to any given plot as a supporter about a quarter of the time (maybe? I can’t be arsed doing the maths so I’m just going to double down on quarter).

For this campaign, the Shadow Prince has their finger in many pies. They’re involved with thieves, sure, but where their real interest lies is in information. They run independent espionage operations, and sell information to the highest bidder. They may also be selling information to people specifically to push an agenda of their own but nobody knows what that is.

I kind of envision the Shadow Prince as being Tzeentch from Warhammer but without the over-the-top daemon world-destroying agendas. Or the mutants. Or the blue-and-pink horrors or the flamethrowers or … actually not much like Tzeentch. But also like.

The Lich King

The Lich king is the lord of the undead, the fallen tyrant who intends to conquer the Dragon Empire and restore his ancient kingdom.

The actual 13th Age Lich King is a bit Vecna, complete with missing eye and hand. He often seems to be presented as a somewhat vaudevillian cackling evil villain. That’s fair enough, and I certainly don’t want to make him sympathetic. But I also want him to be a bit more interesting than two-dimensional evil, not least because that makes it easier to see how the party relationships will work.

So this Lich King is a plotter and a schemer, who actually has some grounds for being pissed off given he was pretty much the rightful ruler of the Dragon Empire before a bunch of traitors stabbed him in the back. He’s the master of necromancy, and he’s kind of subsumed the power of the gods of the dead which will bring him into conflict (?) with John’s medium/Necroscope character. Steve also has a relationship die with him, which means he’ll turn up involved in plots at least as often as the Shadow Prince and the Empress.

The immediate “point of agreement” with the players will be that the Lich King wants to rule the Empire, so he’ll oppose anyone who wants to stop him doing that. This means that whenever the party is opposing the High Druid, the Warlord, and the demons they’ll be on the same side (technically) as the lord of the undead.

Given John’s themes and ghosts and wotnot, I’ll also be foregrounding the idea that Imperial citizens need to propitiate the Lich King, or he can legitimately extend his power to take over cemetaries and graveyards. Having an uneasy relationship with the sinister master of necromancy will be fun!

The Diabolist

The Diabolist wields magic perhaps best left unwielded, and binds the forces of chaos and uncreation to her whim.

The 13th Age Diabolist could be a villain or she could be more ambiguous. I know she’s going to be a marked presence in the campaign thanks to Mark’s One Unique Thing (the diabolist’s greatest mistake), and my interest in doing some stuff with demons. I rejigged her a little, stealing some of the conceptual ground from the Prince of Shadows in the process.

In this campaign, the Diabolist uses demons, but she explicitly does so because what she’s really about is power and freedom. her power, Her freedom. She wants to be powerful for… reasons… and she won’t let anyone tell her what she can and can’t do. She encourages other people to ignore rules and do what they really want to. I have a vague feeling she probably reads Ayn Rand from time to time and has a good chuckle.

She’s the personification of selfishness in the campaign, and she’ll alternate between being an antagonist and an uneasy ally if the party are prepared to accept her double-edged boons. She’ll be acting through cultists and agents, but she will probably make at least one personal appearance to talk to Mark about… stuff.

The Dragons

Second Image

Great Gold Wyrm, the Three

The last two icons are both dragons. I have an ambivalent relationship with the alignment-and-colour-coded dragons. There’s way too many of them for a start – who needs ten different types of dragon? One would arguably be sufficient, but I’ll grant you that in d20 fantasy games the five-dragons-with-five-breath-types is cool.

By which I mean the five chromatics are a lot more interesting than the five metallics and you could run a perfectly servicable campaign with just them.

The Great Gold Wyrm

The Great Gold Wyrm is the world’s protector. Although his physical body seals the gap that prevents the Abyss from erupting into the world, his dreams and agents still move through the world helping those who will fight and die for what is right.

I nearly cut the Great Gold Wyrm for being dull – he feels a bit one-note compared to some of the other Icons – but I was talked out of it. In the end I kept him, but decided to focus on the fact he’s trapped in the Abyss, and  that his sacrifice is holding back the demons and stopping everything getting much, much worse.

I’ve also leavened him with quite a large helping of Eberron mysticism which I will not say too much about – he was very nearly replaced with the couatl but that was just too obvious. I did not that there are no other gold dragons anywhere in the world, however. There may have been some once, but there are none now. For some reason which may not come up in play but makes me happy to think about.

The way he will make an appearance will be through his followers, who will mostly be paladins and will be tired all the time because being a hero as your day job sucks. I want at least one recurrent character who does the right thing all the time, and to whom the players feel the need to justify why they sometimes have to do the wrong thing for the greater good or what have you.

(If I were starting again, I might well remove the Great Gold Wyrm and replace him with the Shining Silver Wyrm, the Great Gold Wyrm’s best mate who spends a lot of time telling people what they think the GGW would have done and shaming people for not being better after the sacrifice Goldie made for them. It’d make for a very different type of paladin for a start, although I don’t think the Path of Passive Aggression will catch on.)

The Three

The Three were among the first dragons to walk the world. Once they were the Five, but now their power is greatly reduced. On the other hand, they are still ancient dragons and smaller creatures underestimate them at their peril.

Together the Three are a bit of a wild card, and they’re one of the Icons I like the most. They’re also all over the history of the default setting as they dwindle from Five to Three. The White is dead at the hands of the Lich King, and the Green is the prisoner of the Queen of Stars. So they have some specific other icons they automatically oppose, one of whom is also the enemy of the players’ characters.

The Blue is incidentally a powerful sorceress who rules one of the seven cities as Imperial Governor – a city that incidentally the ancestors of a bunch of the people of New Port used to live in before it was overrun by monsters. The Black and the Red are cool, but it’s the Blue who will representing their weird trine in this game.

I did nearly make one change – I was very tempted to have the Red dead at the hands of the Lich King, and rework the White as the engine of unstoppable destruction mostly because I think white dragons get a bad deal. Then i would make the Black the prisoner of the Queen of Stars (potentially giving the Queen a slightly different feel as well), and the Green the subtle infiltrator of the Three.

In the end I decided not to make the change, because it needed a bit more work than I wanted to do, and because I was sold on a particular interpretation of White Dragons that I wanted to play about with. Although… I dunno. I have until they first make an actual appearance to make that decision and I do like white dragons and green dragons.

Bloody colour coded dragons, making me think about stuff. It’s not right.

Epilogue

This actually started off as a “short” article about world building but as I wittered on about icebergs, and Chekov, and Marie Kondo, it got longer and longer and it felt less like an introduction to the Icon tweaking and more like an entirely seperate bit of writing. So I cut it off and will tidy it up a bit and you’ve now got that to look forward to.

Icons and Factions

Superpowerful NPCs are the worst

Elminster

I was influenced profoundly and fundamentally by some very bad games of Forgotten Realms D&D back around about 2nd edition in which superpowerful NPCs, many of them literal deities, pushed my player character around for their own amusement and replaced my agency with their bullshit stories. I’m working through it and I’m sure I’ll eventually get over it. One day. Maybe.

One of the things that 13th Age puts front-and-center are the Icons. As the intro says to the first chapter of the Core book says “Most d20 games have powerful NPCs who shape the world behind the scenes. 13th Age brings them forward, making these thirteen powerful NPCs into icons the PCs will aid or oppose over the course of each campaign.

Superpowerful NPCs would normally set off all sorts of alarm bells, obviously. Anyone who remembers good old Samuel Haight from the heady days of early White Wolf until the Wraith team saved us all by turning him into an ashtray knows wherof I speak. Likewise anyone who ever played tabletop Vampire:The Masquerade with its endless parade of souped-up elders. Or Changeling: The Dreaming and all those damn sidhe or …

White Wolf has a lot to answer for is what I am saying.

Also E*******r. Fucking E*******r.

Ahem. My bees are outwith my hat again. Where was I?

Oh yes! Superpowerful NPCs who push the players around or solve their problems so they don’t have to. No thanks, Satan!

Where the Icons work best for me is –

 – crap I’ve just remembered fucking Fizban from Dragonlance as well and now I’m sad again

Where the Icons work best for me is as the easily identifiable face for a political faction within the setting. Having a diverse set of politically active factions is an easy and fun way to make your game world feel bigger and more complex than it actually is; makes building interesting stories easier; provides an easy avenue to reflect the impact of player character action; and helps your players really, really hate whoever their nemesis turns out to be.

The Icons in the Game

In the conceit of 13th Age, the Icons are people but they are also both factions and symbols. They exemplify the core conflicts of the Age, just as they and their predecessors exemplified the conflicts of the twelve previous ages. They’re simultaneously agendas-made-flesh and people, and both of these things make them stronger than yer archetypal superpowerful NPC.

As agendas-made-flesh they provide easy hooks to hang the conflicts of my game on. Each one has a handful of things they are “about”, a set of goals, and a common approach to achieving that goal. They have overlapping spheres of interest, and they are constantly supporting and opposing each other in a way which Creates Game for my player characters.

They’re also people – with the weaknesses and strengths that people have. It’s hard to imagine the Order of Holy Priests “doubting” but it is really easy to imagine the Hierophant having a crisis of faith and how that might effect his followers if it came to life. It’s hard to imagine the Gang of Nasty Bootboys falling in love, but it’s easy to imagine the Crusader having a moment where she has to choose between love and conquest. Shit like that.

Your mileage on this latter pont may vary on this one, obviously, but at the end of the day even when sending parties of d20 fantasy thugs into dungeons to kick doors in I like to have a “human” element to my campaigns. You can take the boy out of the 90s emogaming but…

The other big advantage I think the Icons have over more familiar political factions is that they are easy to remember. There’s a baker’s dozen of them and they all have easy-to-remember names written in English.

While I’m here, I’m going to talk about that a bit. It’s a digression, obviously, and I’m sorry but it won’t be the last.

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Be Harder To Remember

Players are only human (as I understand it) and they have only so much space in their meat brains for remembering details about a made up world. This is as true for ttrpg as it is for live-roleplaying games (and incidentally one reason we went out of our way when writing Empire to keep the number of bullshit made-up words to a minimum but that’s a story for another time).

I want the names of important things in the game world to be as memorable as possible. A game where I call the place-where-all-the-priests-hand-out “Temple Ward” is a bit less realistic (arguably) but it’s also about a thousand times easier for the players to remember where they can go to find clerics than if I called it “New Downuptownstreet Plaza”. Or worse some random collection of syllables like “Tref Offeiriad.”

Your players have only so much brainspace to use up on made-up bullshit and you need to respect that as much as possible. It’s just maths (Biology? Something? You know what I mean).

Use familiar words for things, is what I am saying.

Ruobhe

I’m being unfair to Birthright by dissing the Gheallie sidhe actually. It may be a made-up bullshit term but in context it’s still pretty evocative. My point is that while players can remember made-up bullshit they only have limited brainfolder space and you shouldn’t waste it. Also, if you look at Birthright right it’s got some pretty Iconic NPC faction-leaders and… NO! BAD RAFF! ONE GAME AT A TIME!

So for example, if I call my faction of elk-mounted elf-supremacists the Wild Hunt (or the Elf Liberation Front if I am going for cheap laughs) I can do so with some confidence that my players will remember who they are and what they are about much easier than if I call them the Gheallie Sidhe. I can still remember the Orc Rights Commission from Shadowrun in the very early 90s wheras I would be hard pressed to name any of the corporations or other factions with the possible exception of Ares Macrotech.

It all mounts up – every element of your game is something that players need to remember. Players love to write stuff down, it’s true, but every time they need to reference their notes to remember who someone is or what something is called they eat into your playing time just a little. And they send you the secret message that the faction (or NPC, or lost ruin, or ancient civilisation) you made up does not have a memorable name, and you cry a little inside.

Whenever I name something in a game I remember my experience with an Ars Magica-based live roleplaying game called NWO in the 00s which had a vast cast of characters with complicated names drawn from across medieval Europe. But rather than expecting everyone to remember all these di Lorenzos and von Dunkelhaffers each character had a cognomen (“an extra personal name given to an ancient Roman citizen, functioning rather like a nickname” thank you Google) which was a word or two in English that also served as a hook for remembering what they were about. “the Toad” or “the Black Badger” are a lot easier to remember than Grand Primus Gabriella di Russana di Frustivan or Lorenzo von Matterhorn.

So the Icons, by having names like “the Crusader” or “the Empress” rather than “General Volkstad van Derbinken” or “Empress Maraschino the Velour” are memorable, easy to pronounce, and leave free valuable mental and imaginary real estate for remembering the names of a few actual NPCs appearing in this game.

Embigenning your Game

Player characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum. I mean they can if you like – it can be a lot of fun just doing a dungeon bash in which the only thorny moral problems are whether to fireball the faceless orc mooks guarding the treasure chest or to use lightning bolts on them. It depends what you want from your game.

While I started talking about Iconic NPCs, what I’m really talking about here is factions. For me a faction is a generally NPC special-interest group that interacts in some fashion with player characters with the in-character aim of achieving one or more goals, and the out-of-character aim of fucking with the characters as much as possible.

As an aside, if what you want is to suggest a deeper game world then factions are your friend. 13th Age maybe has a few too many. There’s a solid frame by Cat Tobin for running a campaign in which the existing Icons are merged to form a 7 Icons setting that I very nearly used myself – but in the end I decided I was confident enough to run the full 13 albeit with some tweaks because I can’t help myself.

eberron

Actually, if Eberron has a weakness it might be that it has too many factions. Every game I’ve run or played we’ve naturally ended up having only a fraction of them involved in the campaign. Because there’s like a dozen corporations; at least as many nations, each with their own subfactions; half a dozen or more prominent religions; dragons; elves; demons… it can all get a bit overwhelming. But it also has warforged and halfling dinosaur riders so… argument invalid.

They idea of factions is nothing new. The new 5th edition D&D does a great job of highlighting the traditional forgotten realms factions as patrons/supporters/opponents of PC groups, and if you’re familiar with Eberron that’s a setting that’s absolutely swimming in competing factions all falling over each other to make the lives of your heroes just absolute hell.

Likewise I spent a lot of time playing World of Darkness games, and each one has at least five often cookie-cutter factions for each type of supernatural, and regularly foregrounds complex conflicts both between player character factions themselves (such as the excellently argumentative Atlantean Orders internal struggle portrayed in Mage: The Awakening) and between different philosophies of how-to-do-supernatural (the iconic Camarilla/Sabbat/Anarch fight that serves the foundation of the politics of Vampire: The Masquerade).

Factions provide easy levers and tools to present the imaginary game world and more importantly reflect the impact your players’ characters have on it. Beating the bandits is fun and all, but knowing that by doing so you’ll be throwing a wrench into the Evil Sheriff’s plans to overthrow the Good Prince and seize the throne adds an extra level of enjoyment to everyone. It’s a way to show that the players’ actions – and perhaps more importantly the choices they made before they took those actions – matter. That they mean something beyond the immediate moment.

They’re also a powerful storytelling tool for you as GM to actually build story frameworks. If the innkeeper with the rat problem is associated with an Icon (or a faction) then everything about that traditional story becomes more interesting. Why does the retired paladin of the Golden Order with the giant two-handed sword over the bar need the help of wet-behind-the-ears adventurers to clear out rats from her cellar? What do the players do with the knowledge that the biggest Mutant Death Rat has a dog-collar with the name “Pookie” on one side and the sigil of the Archmage on the other? What will it mean for the city that the vigilante paladins now have a secure cellar to meet in while they plot their borderline terrorist strike against the Department of Goeticism at the university? How much more memorable were those incidental sewer-dwelling bandits now that we know their flayed faces mark them out as cultists of the Lich King? And so on.

With all that in mind, and with the knowledge that my particular game is going to be set in a city where lots of different icons – and by extension factions – are vying for power I put together a mental checklist of things I wanted from each of the Icons.

One: They need a reason to interact with the player characters

Aaarguably, the only thing that is “real” in a ttrpg is the stuff that happens around the table as you present situations and things for your players’ characters interact with, fight, steal, intimidate, kidnap, argue about, or fuck. Everything else is icing at best or an annoying distraction at worst.

So each Icon needs to have a reason that players would interact with it. The followers of the Icon might be allies, they might be enemies, they might provide an incidental complication, or they might be all three at the same time. If it doesn’t somehow present opportunities for players’ characters to want to do something differently it’s not worth including.

Two: They need an agenda that could cause conflict

I’m a pretty straightforward guy and I think that action and excitement come from conflict. There are ttrpgs that foreground cooperation and collaboration, but when I’m running a game with handfuls of d20s I want people to argue with each other. Delicious, delicious disagreement is the fertile soil from which stories explode.

The main source of conflict is people. In a d20 fantasy game the world “people” can end up doing a lot of work what with the floating balls of eyes, flying saurian weapons-of-mass-destruction, and sapient trees. But it’s as good a term as any. Fundamentally conflict (and thus fun) arises from people interacting with each other.

People, even imaginary people in made-up worlds, want things. They might want something specific and immediate– to remove the Governor and replace him with one of their members for example. They might want something more far-reaching and long-term – to seal the Abyss and protect the world from demons.

My players want things to – to have fun, to socialise, to hang out and have a laugh. But their characters also want things – to fight evil, to find true love, to have enough gold in their pockets that they need to pay people to help hold their trousers up.

By defining what the Icons want, I also want to make sure I create pressure points where those agendas will potentially conflict with each other, but also with the players’ characters’ agendas. Their desires may or may not be obvious, but I want to know what they are so I can find ways to use the Icon and their faction in service of my first point about interacting with characters.

I also want to make sure that their agenda is relevant to the specific game I am playing – so at least one of their agenda points should be about New Port.

Once I know what their wider agenda is, I can think about what they want to achieve in the area where your game is set and how they might go about it, always with one eye on what this means for the players’ characters. How are the Golden Paladins fighting demons in your backwater village? Is there an evil here they want to destroy? Where did that evil come from? Why do the Golden Paladins need the help of the player characters to deal with it?

Sometimes it’s appropriate to build complex lists of strengths and weaknesses, but you often don’t need to do that and I definitely am not going down this rabbithole. For most d20 fantasy worlds you ideally want to be able to sum up an entire faction in half a dozen bullet points, and the more factions you have the less time you have to spend on each one.

(If I were running a different kind game – one with a single opposing faction rather than lots of competing factions – I’d totally mosey over to Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press and check out the Conspyramid which presents a fascinating little tool for keeping track of an enemy conspiracy without needing to write an entire sourcebook about it. It’s worth taking a look at if you can find it and haven’t encountered it already)

Another digression: Cthulhu vs Boromir

My Boss talks about the Cthulhu Problem from time to time. No, it’s not racism at least not in this specific regard. His argument is that ultimately Cthulhu is boring because he wants to destroy the world. There’s not much question about whether 99% of people should do about Cthulhu. They have to oppose him because he will eat them and knock down all the Greggs.

Obviously it’s a bit simplistic an attitude, and understandably given my boss doesn’t really get the whole cults-and-tentacles genre, but it underlines one of the problems about Eeeeeevil in yer average ttrpg. For most people the only choice when faced with a Cthulhu cult that wants to destroy the town is how to stop them not whether to stop them.

Boromir

Why not use this Ring? Long has my father, the Steward of Gondor, kept the forces of Mordor at bay. By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe! Give Gondor the weapon of the enemy. Let us use it against him!” which I quote as a man whose first Shadowrun game involved giving a similar speech about why I was the best person to look after a horrifically tainted statuette that soon became one of my fondest ttrpg memories. Also Boromir was a find PC hero and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

The One Ring Conundrum, incidentally, is often presented as a counterpoint to the Cthulhu Problem. The ring is dangerous, but it is also powerful. It may be innately evil, or it may just be that it is connected to an evil entity. A mortal could use the ring to gain magical power to fight evil and save their people, and even if the ring were to corrupt them a bit how much corruption would they need to suffer before they were a danger to their people? Could someone step in before that happened and then destroy the ring? The bad people in this scenario are the people who want to throw the ring that could save the people of Gondor into a volcano because elves and wizards are scared of it. The ring is much cooler than Cthulhu because the danger it represents is ambiguous. It’s an archetypally interesting dangerous magic item. If you look at it the right way.

When it comes to a d20 fantasy ttrpg, I am much more interested in the One Ring Conundrum than I am in the Cthulhu Problem. That’s not to say you can’t have Eeeeevil forces to punch because (I understand) it is enjoyable to punch Nazis in your imaginary gamespaces. But if I want to have cool stories unfold from my tabletop, I don’t want to foreground people who are absolutely good or absolutely evil.

I’m using all my willpower not to go off on a rant about two-axis alignment right now.

I will finish by mentioning that you can absolutely solve the Cthulhu Problem (again, not the racism one) by focusing on the humans and not the Tentacles MacGuffin. Delta Green does a great job in its various incarnations of making the real enemy be the humans, and the tentacled-space-fungus-argh-the-angles fuckers the tool humans use to screw each other over.

Three: They need a level of ambiguity

Alignment

I made an infographic to provide a short hand for where each of the Icons was politically. Kind of. It also indicated that some of the symbols used for the Icons did not resonate with my players so I changed some of them. Honestly, having the symbol for the ruler of the human Empire be a dragon was just one dragon too many. You’ll note that while I am still resisting ranting about two-axis alignment I’m presenting a two-axis alignment chart here. I might talk about that later. 

Bearing in mind the Cthulhu vs Boromir thing… while my players and their characters will knee-jerk support or oppose some of the Icons by default, I want to shade each of them with a little ambiguity. Each of the “heroic” icons needs to have a thing that players might not like. Each of the “villainous” icons needs to have a quality that at least intellectually my players’ characters might be in favour of.

In my game, the Great Gold Wyrm wants to save the world from demons, which is great. But he also wants people to live selfless lives dedicated to saving the world from demons, putting all other considerations to one side, serving their fellow humans, and also eradicating all those colour coded dragons because they are innately evil and the GGW is a tiny bit racist. He’s a nightmare incarnation of that Lawful Good paladin who won’t let you torture the captured goblin for information because torture is bad. It’s simplistic, but I guarantee there is nothing more likely to make a group of heroes gnash their teeth than a faction who specialise in being not-angry-but-disappointed and don’t think the ends justify the means. I may be projecting a little there, but it’s not a surprise to me that there are Empire players who hate the honourable Jotun more than they hate the blatantly-wearing-an-”I’m Evil”-t-shirt Druj..

Likewise, the High Druid thinks that people should be more responsible with their magic and not unleash terrible hybrid abominations to eat people. The Diabolist doesn’t think The Man should be pushing people around and telling them what to do and shaming them for – for example – having an affair with their neighbour’s hot husband. The Lich King was betrayed and murdered and part of his agenda is to get back what was stolen from him from an Empress who arguably isn’t actually that much better than he is and also immortality. And so on.

WickerMan

One of the things to bear in mind is that from a certain point of view, The Wicker Man is a feelgood movie in which everyone gets a happy ending. If you squint. Obviously I mean the original 1973 movie. Nobody gets a happy ending from the 2006 movie with a similar name. Nobody.

I want my players to look at a faction and have one of two responses. Either “These people are clearly wrong about the demon binding thing but they talk a lot of sense about the state not interfering in peoples’ private lives” or “These people are definitely on the right track apart from the bit where they want to destroy all the cities and outlaw comfortable indoor toilets.”

Four: The Story will be guided by PC Icon relationships

Part of character creation in 13th Age involves the players splitting three points between their Icon relationships. Those relationships can be positive, negative, or what John dubbed “it’s complicated”. Each session (although to be fair I’m still finding the rhythm for this so it might not be each session) they’ll roll some d6 to see if their Icon relationships will offer them any assistance during the coming session. Even when the dice don’t say there’ll be a concrete impact of a relationship, I’ll bear them in mind and sometimes throw out a bit of colour or a minor benefit or disadvantage related to them.

I also know that some of the Icons are going to be more important than others in the game and I should spend a bit of time working on what that means. I also know that both Clive and Mark’s One Unique Thing mean that two of the icons will have an even deeper impact.

But one thing I’m also going to bear in mind is that there’s a couple of Icons I find particularly interesting myself, and I want to have them turn up from time to time even in the absence of the players having preexisting relationships with them. I really like the Crusader and the Three, and fortunately between the players’ collaborative city building and the defined history of New Port as having a connection to the city now dominated by the Blue, I’ve got excuses to build those two Icons into the game for my own amusement.

Rejigging the Icons

With my four bullet points in place, I went through the Icons in turn and thought about what I wanted from the game. One of the reasons they’re iconic is that they represent tropes common to anyone who’s played a bit of d20 – the dangerous inhuman army, the all-powerful wizard, the religious zealots, the queen of the elves and so on.

Obviously I have slightly different takes on some of those tropes, and different ways I like to use them. I don’t want to use the Orc Lord because the demonisation of orcs annoys me and I want to step away from that. I don’t like elves particularly (outside of Spire where I think they are ace), so my take on the Queen of the Elves is going to be a bit different. I have opinions about d20 fantasy religions, so the Priestess and the Crusader are going to need some tweaking before I’m happy with them. Stuff like that.

This stage is one I’d do regardless of what game I am running, incidentally. I’ve mentioned the fact that I rarely run anything “out of the box” and I urge anyone thinking of running a ttrpg to look at the factions, the politics, and the movers-and-shakers of their setting and tweak them so that they’re happier running them. Make some notes, talk to your players about it, and then make sure that you’re running things in a way that makes you happy.

I looked over some of the other treatments of the Icons – I mentioned the Seven Icons setting earlier but I also looked as ASH LAW’s gender-flipped icons, considered the dark universe Icons of Aaron Roudabush, reviewed the very different take on icons presented as runes in 13th Age Glorantha, and enjoyed the eldritch icons project to the degree that the Lich King very nearly ended up as the Ghoul King but then I remembered I was trying to minimize my tentacles this game.

Maybe next time.

Next I’ll take a look at the actual Icons, and talk about how I tweaked them and why I wanted them in the game, and what I think they’ll bring to the table.