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.

Interlude: We Built This City On Homework

World Building in a Collaborative Hobby

Once upon a time, I did all my ttrpg world building by myself alone in my room, sometimes with coloured pencils, occasionally with trousers on.

I’ve always been a bit averse to just running settings out of the box – I’ve done it but I’ve always felt like I’ve been letting myself down. So I tend to write my own settings, or at least tweak and adapt the ones I’m running in the writer-created setting. I don’t bother trying to be original, and it often leads to me spending weeks creating deities, but it’s part of the fun I get out of running a game. But setting writing can be a lot of work, and you sometimes loose sight of the wood because you’re spending too much time painstakingly painting the trees.

As years went on, though, I started getting more collaborative and less obsessive about controlling every detail. One of the first moves I made back in the late 90s and 00s was to introduce the Words Jar, a concept I’d kind of cribbed from Over the Edge rpg. At the start of each session I’d get the players to write words on bits of paper, put them in the jar, and when I had no specific ideas for what was going on I’d draw a word or two out and riff on it.

Later as I continued to mature as a game runner (and arguably a person), I started just flat-out asking players to contribute stuff. It became standard practice about the time I encountered the Powered by the Apocalypse school of gaming, and crystallised when I was running Blades in the Dark. Those games exemplify for me the collaborative model which is so different to the antagonistic/weird-power-dynamic model I mentioned earlier.

Thinking about it for a moment, what it comes down to is that all my experience tells me that players have more fun when they invest in a game, and they invest more in a game that they have helped build. It’s as true in ttrpgs as it is in live-roleplaying games.

So now when I don’t know a detail instead of making it up, or rolling on a random table, I’ll often ask the players a question – albeit often a leading question. “Yes, there is someone watching you! They’re lurking in the alley and they have a distinctive feature that draws your eye – what is it?” or “You’re meeting in a pub, what’s it called?”

That latter was from the first 13th Age session that we played, incidentally. Now we know that there’s a pub in the Docks Ward called The Salty Mermaid that has a stuffed mermaid over the bar; that mermaids in this game as deadly aquatic predators; and that the one-handed owner of the Salty Mermaid is rumoured to be an ex-pirate who allegedly used her ill-gotten gains to buy the tavern and has the remainder hidden in her cellars.

All of which I could theoretically have determined myself, but by inviting players to do it we’ve created something much more memorable, and that arguably is now much more real for them. Rather than listening to me doing exposition, we had a two minute back-and-forth in which we established this place, and the bar owner, and suddenly we all care about it a bit more than we might of if it’d been another off-the-Central-Casting rack Slaughtered Lamb clone.

Building the City

Now for some specifics. I knew by the end of Session Zero that we would be running in New Port (we made some jokes about Newport, obviously, because we are ultimately not very cool people). There are seven great cities in the 13th Age setting, and while six of them are detailed to one degree or another in the books, the city of New Port is (intentionally I think) a blank slate.

We know that some of the people who live there were refugees from another city that fell over thanks to monsters and that currently has a massive Blue Dragon as a governor, and we know that no one Icon (the 13th Age factions, basically) has dominance. Instead, in a way that very much suits the politics-and-espionage feel I like for d20 fantasy games, all the various factions are vying for power.

I knew the rough shape of the campaign I was running, partly due to some ideas I’d jotted down and partly due to the way my players had written their characters. The next stage was to define some more about New Port and I decided to make them do the work of laying the foundations.So I set my players homework.

Digression about homework in an online game

I don’t know the specifics of how you play, but as I’ve mentioned before we only get a couple hours of gaming a week what with work and family. But we also have ten minutes at random points through the week when we aren’t playing. With that in mind, the five of us have a pretty active Facebook chat where we talk bollocks but where we also talk about the game.

It’s all about investment and enthusiasm, and having a channel where we can talk about the game keeps our excitement levels up a bit when we aren’t playing. It also means we aren’t coming to a session and speaking to each other for the first time in a week which can cut down a bit on the non-game Sportsball and Soapoperas segment of the night leaving more time for gaming.

The idea of giving the players homework is about weaponising this additional non-gaming time in which we are still together talking about the game. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has boundless reserves of time, and setting managable goals, but it can be an effective tool to keep your hype up when you’re, I don’t know, teaching someone to shave?

The actual homework can be as simple as “get me a picture of your character” or as potentially involving as “someone write up last session in an in-character report for your boss so we have a record of what’s been going on”. Ask for volunteers, and provide gentle positive support. It pays dividends.

The Rules

With the first homework session I started by laying out some rules, because rules make the fun better by controlling it.

  • I’ve got thirteen questions. I’m going to post them one at a time here, and then when someone answers the questions involved I’ll edit the entry so we all know.
  • Each of the questions defines something or several somethings about the city. They are all multiple-part so answer each part!
  • You will each get to answer three questions total and I’ll answer the last one myself in a way that will cause you as much trouble (fun in-character trouble) as possible.
  • You can’t answer another question until everyone else has had a go, or 24 hours have passed since your last answer. Basically, take it in turns to add details.
  • You have to answer the whole question. You can talk among yourselves on Facebook if you want
  • You can’t refer to something covered by another question until someone has answered it
  • Once we’ve done all these questions, we’ll do one last bit of city building by creating rumours.
  • Finally, once we’ve done all that, everyone will tell me why New Port is important to them.

Then I posted the questions up on Discord, and let them get on with it. As each question was dealt with I edited the appropriate Discord post so that there was a running record of what had been defined about New Port already.

In the interests of providing examples, I’m going to put the questions, and the answers the players gave me, and briefly talk about each one in turn.

One – The Food of New Port

New Port is famous for a particular type of dish or cuisine found everywhere – being sold out of carts on street corners and gracing the tables of the rich and powerful. Other parts of the Dragon Empire may know this food, but the city is recognised as both its originator and it’s master. What is this dish or cuisine? There are two rival groups who both claim their version of it is the best – who are they? Finally, there’s a particular ingredient that is very much in demand for the finest versions of this cuisine – what is it?

Clive answered this question by creating tulsoolo, a dish made of bacon, sausage, beans, and anything else you fancy, often served in bowls made of bread on the street. He created a socio-economic divide, where the dish had started as lower class food and been co-opted by higher class people “with the time to make it” and access to more exotic ingredients. He also created a fundamental divide in New Port society between people who add tomato to tulsoolo and people who don’t.
I didn’t get quite what I was angling for – rival cookhouses – but the status element actually worked out more interesting as the questions were answered and it became clear that one of the background themes my players were interested in was that of urban fantasy class division.

Two – The Unexpected Embassy

Every icon has a presence in New Port, but none really dominates. One icon in particular – one that might otherwise not operate openly – has an embassy in the city. Pick one of the Crusader, the Lich King, the Three, or the Warlord. What’s the name of the ambassador, and what distinctive feature do they have? Give me one rumour that explains why they are able to operate so openly in a nominally Imperial city.

Steve gave me a straightforward Crusader embassy that has unexpected prestige because the Governor’s son allegedly attends the fighting school they operate. It also gave me a space for that Icon to be involved in the city politics – and my ultimate game is to have at least one prominent agent for each of the thirteen Icons if I can.

This school was a boon to me, in a game where I knew religious conflict was going to be a theme thanks to the character creation. The Crusader somewhat ambiguously embodies “ends justify the means” and has the backing of daaaark gods so to see her emissaries operating openly in a city suggested that there was going to be a bit of authoritarian bias in New Port that we might otherwise not have had.

It also gave me a good reason to have a couple of the more wicked faiths operating in plain sight. There was a lot of potential for story hooks here.

Three – The Imperial Governor

The city is technically overseen by an Imperial governor although in practical terms their power is by no means absolute. Who are they? They’ve got a distinctive feature or past history that’s lead to an unkind nickname – what is it? They have an official residence at the heart of the Imperial Ward, but there’s something odd or unexpected about it – what is it?

Mark gave us Imperial Governor Ironmask, who is basically Klytus from Flash Gordon but also a bureaucrat doing a thankless job keeping a wayward Imperial city on the straight-and-narrow. He also told us that the Governor’s official residence is extensively haunted, and that one of the haunts involves the remnants of the previous Governor and their advisors and prominent citizens who were all murdered at an ill-fated party.

He also gave me two interesting mysteries to explore when we mess around with the city politics. Why does the Governor wear a mask all the time and what is he hiding, and who the heck killed the former Governor and all their friends?

I also liked the Baron Azzur overtones, because I am a simple man who still remembers playing Blacksand! with great fondness. Further, given the party had chosen to have a connection to the Empress – who the Governor theoretically represents – they’d almost certainly end up having some face-to-face dealings with him.

Four – A Week is a Long Time in Politics

New Port is a city of the Dragon Empire, and technically overseen by the Imperial governor and the Imperial civil service. Their power is far from absolute however – and there is one person or organisation that opposes the governor in the political arena. Who are they? What distinctive symbol do they use to identify themselves? What’s their current bone-of-contention with the governor?

The award-winning John Haynes did me proud here and gave me The Vision – a loose affiliation of people who want independence from the Dragon Empire, whose figurehead is a charismatic local noble called  Lord Sener Bramwell.

Bramwell has all the markings of a villain, but some of the stuff he and his followers are arguing for is actually just common sense (especially if some of your people are angry that their ancestral home has been given over to barbarians and monsters by the government).

It also let me create a situation where Ironmask is an outsider, and one way the Vision could be mollified would be to remove him and replace him with a local governor, for local people. I think this will play a big part at Champion tier as the politics of New Port get out of hand but it is also something I can use to add complexity to adventurer tier sessions.

Oh! And John mentioned that the Vision like to paint graffiti all over the place so whenever I need to reinforce the New Port setting I can just casually mention some purple eyes slapped on a nearby wall, the paint still damp.

Five – A Centre for Learning

The city has a well-known school, college, academy, or university. What’s it called, and what peculiar creature appears on it’s crest? While it teaches a number of courses, it’s known throughout the Empire for one specific curriculum where it excels. What is it? Finally, while the centre of learning has a great library, there’s some quirk about it that makes consulting the books or the sages there less than straightforward – what is it?

The College of Veils by John is the best University in the eastern Dragon Empire, and especially good at teaching civil servants and the kids of rich nobles. By specifying that its curriculum focuses on politics and economics for the nobles and the wealthy middle classes it helped reinforce the class division theme of our New  Port.

Students often wear veils, because of the college motto about parting veils to reveal knowledge, and they also wear little badges that let them access the carefully guarded library stacks – and both veils and badges are great for leaving at crime scenes or disguising yourself so you can go places you aren’t allowed to be.

I expanded on the foundations John had laid with a mention that the school also teaches divination and enchantment magics, giving me hooks for representatives of both the Archmage and the Queen of Stars. I also knew that one of the McGuffins in the early campaign would be a hidden ward that the demons were trying to bring down, making a trip to the College of Veils practically a certaintly.

Six – Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The city has a number of inns and taverns, but one in particular is known to be a good place for a discreet meeting. What’s it called? There’s something unexpected about it that sets it apart from other more traditional watering holes. What is it? The barkeep is known by an odd nickname. What is it?

This prompt was actually bout giving us a starting point for the campaign, and possibly a “home base” for the players. As it turned out, Steve gave me a lovely tavern called The Manor, run by a nonbinary human called Grace, which is the drinking establishment equivalent of Hogwarts. It has moving rooms, a maze of passages, it’s a popular student dive… it’s also crying out to be the scene of a chase sequence.

In the end I decided to save it for later rather than use it as the starting scene – because it deserved more than a fight with rats in the basement. There’ll still be a chance for it to become the party base of operations, but I wanted to make sure I did it justice so for now it’s still in the characters’ future. it also meant we got the Salty Mermaid which also has potential to recur later thanks to some excellent social engagement provided by John the Tiefling.

Seven – The Unexpected District

There are several named districts in the city. They include the Dock Ward; the Scribe’s Ward where the learned people live; the Imperial Ward where all the important civic buildings are; the Temple Ward; the wealthy, middle-class, and lower-class residential districts; the shopping district; the Theatre District; “little Drakkenhall” where the weird nonhuman population live… and one more. What’s that Ward called? How did it get it’s name? What kind of people in particular live there? Why is it sometimes dangerous to visit?

Mark surprised me with the Sky Ward. Our New Port now contains a district that mostly exists on the tops of tall buildings, and columns of rock that jut up here and there across the city. It’s connected together with ziplines, rope bridges, and cable cars. “All sorts of people who want not to be found, want to be left alone and those who wish to worship birds and other spirits of the air live here.” This sounds like another great place to have a chase, and it inspired me to look at some of the “floating island” stuff that is part of the 13th Age setting. There might well be lumps of rock floating over the city as well.

More to the point Mark has told me how to use that district – people who don’t want to be found – and introduced the idea that people who want to worship birds and “spirits of the air” do it in Sky District instead of Temple Ward.

Plus I love the idea of cable cars. I can already see a sequence where the characters need to get somewhere quickly and while the safest way to do it is to run through the streets, the fastest way to do it is to go into Sky Ward and take a cable car. Cable cars are a staple of a certain type of spy fiction after all.

Eight – Those Why Pray

Temple Ward contains several places of worship, but one particularly large and impressive temple dominates the ward – and the religious landscape of New Port. What deity or pantheon does the temple serve? What unique divine quality sets the temple apart? What unexpected and distinctive quality do the priests of the temple share?

Here John gave me Merrirhan, the Lady of Opportunity, who is apparently Helen Mirren crossed with Margaret Thatcher. A goddess of ambition, basically, whose priests help people find opportunities in return for cash. His write-up also cemented the haves-vs-have-nots theme for New Port; the city patron is about pulling yourself up by your boot laces, and while they’re a powerful religion they aren’t aligned with either the forces of the light or the forces of evil.

Even more fun, the symbol of the goddess is a maze, and her temple is laid out like a maze, and the influence of the priests means that the whole Temple Ward is a maze. This not only highlights some of the high fantasy elements of the setting, but also makes the place where most of the religious stories will take place somewhere that is hard to navigate giving ample opportunity for challenges or local colour scenes.

I’m looking forward to sending the characters into the Temple Ward to try and find something and then getting them good and lost. I’m hoping they will be far too proud to ask for directions.

Nine – The Thin Purple Line

The city has a watch, employed by the governor, who are paid to keep the peace and enforce Imperial law. They do the best they can, but they’re only human and they’re often required to do unpopular things. What distinctive piece of kit do they all wear or carry as part of their uniform – and how did that lead to a common name used by the people? Some of the guards are accompanied by trained creatures – what are they? Finally, the guard commander is someone unexpected – who are they, what’s their name, and what’s unexpected about them?

Clive told us that the New Port guard wear a purple gauntlet, probably a reference to their role as enforcers of the Empress’ law, and this has lead to them getting the insulting slang name of “ettercaps.”

I suspect (though Clive wasn’t explicit) that they use trained spiders as police dogs. Their leader is a cipher called Bill Mackey who appears from nowhere and has a powerful unknown patron. It’s interesting because it’s not clear from Clive’s write-up whether he wants the police in New Port to be corrupt or honest, giving me plenty of space to make them both, but he does suggest there is a level of patronage that will prove useful once the players (being players) fall afoul of the law.

Ten – Crime and Criminality

There has been a rash of crime in the city over the last several months, and the guard seem unable to put a stop to it. What is the crime? Two particular details shared by all the crimes mean that they are all clearly connected – what are those elements? Finally, someone important or powerful has been a victim of this crime – who are they and why have they vowed to track down the criminal(s) involved?

This one, Clive crowd sourced from his family and it’s got the potential to really cause trouble for the party. Someone is messing with potions and other magical consumables throughout the city. Given how reliant adventurers are on potions, it’s quite a bold crime to have written in.

Any potion made in the city might turn yellow and do something terrible (or random), and by pure coincidence the first potion the players found in some treasure was yellow… There’s a bounty, and an angry noble whose girlfriend has been mutated by a beauty salve in the mix, and it’s going to be a lot of fun following this thread to where it ends up.

What I particularly like about this one is that my initial purpose in this question was to set up an adventure in which the heroes track down the criminal. By making it something that will almost certainly effect the players directly, it’ll hopefully be a lot easier to hook them in when the time comes.

Eleven – The Estates of the Mighty

The city has several residential districts, one of which is home to the wealthiest citizens. What is this district called? It’ll be something-Ward like the other Wards. The district has a public park – what’s it called and what strange feature does it have that sets it apart from other public parks in the Dragon Empire? Finally, there Is a peculiar law that applies to everyone visiting this district – what is that lore and what historical event lead to it being passed?

John created the Ward of Servants, and claimed that originally the upper classes saw themselves as servants of the Empire and its people… although not so much any more. The twist is that the Ward is walled, and all the gates are really low so that people have to bow down to pass through them. I will run a chase through those gates, and i will give some thought as to how the heck the nobles get horses, crates of cheese, and carriages over (or under) the walls.

He also gave me a garden of lights with magical floating lights that could definitely go wrong and start firing laser beams at people. Or be stolen. Or turn out to have a purpose larger than just floating around being pretty.

The district stuff, incidentally, is a way I commonly use to make running an adventure in a city easier and more fun. It’s not particularly original, but divvying your city up into wards or whatever makes it easier to map it without painstakingly drawing out every street, and gives you a degree of license to give each major area of the urban campaign its own flavour. It’s maybe not entirely realistic that all the merchants live in one district for example, but this is a game with dragons in it so I won’t lose sleep.

Twelve – Down on Skid Row

The poorest people in the city are clustered together in a sprawling residential area. What’s that place called – it’ll be something-Ward like the other Wards in the city. This district is known for a particular type of industry common to the working classes – what is it? There’s a particular grievance that the poorest people have with the rest of the city – what is the nature of that grievance and why hasn’t it been addressed?

Finally, Mark gave me another Ward, this time the Twilight Ward. A dense warren of buildings that reaches up into the sky, and deep below ground. A place where cheap magical charms are made, and where there is a constant risk of wild magic. It’s an irradiated slum, basically, that feels like one of the old London rookeries.

There’s a big question about why the Governor allows that part of the city to exist, especially since the Guard don’t like going there. Mark also defined that “This means it’s often a place where certain members of the the upper classes come to hunt, torture and kill the inhabitants with little consequences” but I need to think about how to play that out. While the city clearly has class issues, I’m not sure I want the nobles riding around murdering the poor so obviously. On the other hand that doesn’t mean that some nobles don’t get up to Bad Shit here. I immediately wondered if maybe New Port has a vampire problem, and its the Twilight Ward that takes the brunt of it.

It sounds ghastly… but it also sounds like a lot of “fun” to visit and try to find out why it is this terrible place is the way it is. I like the way that while this is a slum, it’s a slum where people have magic rather than just being downtrodden. I think our heroes may end up visiting to take advantage of these “magical charms” that have been mentioned, and we’ll see where that goes.

Thirteen – A Cause for Celebration

There are some festivals common to the entire Empire, and some that are observed in only one village, town, or city. New Port is preparing for a big festival of some sort that will happen in the next few weeks. What’s it called? What historical event does it commemorate or honour? What goes on during the festival that makes it a celebration? And what centrepiece activity is intended to bring the whole city together at the climax of the festivities?

This was my question to answer, in the end. I’d put it in because I had clear plan to have  the adventurer-tier culminate in a festival that was being threatened. Some of the adventures leading up to it would involve various interest groups trying to fuck it up for various reasons and players deciding whether to stop them.

On seeing what everyone else had written i decided to create a festival honouring two rival gods – Llyr god of Fishermen and his brother/boyfriend Arawai god of Farmers. Despite both technically being good guys (bringing out the politics theme) the congregations of both gods come together in a yearly festival of “surf and turf” in which they bless the fishing boats and the fields to ensure good harvests (high magic theme). If anything goes wrong with this festival – which honours a great hero who brought the followers of the rival god together to oppose a terrible dragon or something – then its possible New Port will be hit with famine. As well as the shaky detente between the two gods’ followers being broken in a way that leaves lairy fisherfolk and lairy farmers beating each other up in the streets.

I did warn people that whichever question I answered would bring them endless trouble. In fact when I mentioned it during session two as the players were heading to a rendezvous in the dock ward, I think it was Steve referred to it as “Chekov’s festival” and that made me chuckle.

Framing the Questions

In each case, I wrote the questions in a leading way and included elements that told them stuff I’d already decided about the city (like it being split into wards, or that there was political turmoil, or what have you). I did it like this for two reasons – I wanted to make sure that whatever was created I could find a way to make it a cool part of the game, and I also recognised that a blank canvas can be pretty daunting. In a different game I might have just said “tell me three unexpected things about the city of New Port” but we’re going to be playing here for a while (hopefully) so I wanted to provide a skeleton for the initial collaboration rather than just throw all the responsibility onto the players.

It also meant they could read over all the questions, and write their answers with an awareness of what else was going on in the city.

Doing it live

With the questions done, I’ve now got a vibrant city full of cool stuff going on that the players already are invested in because they helped make it. By asking directed questions, I obviously encouraged them to tell me stuff that was going to create conflict or action. Even where I’m not 100% certain how to use something, it’s provided me with themes and background colour I can definitely use.

Hopefully this kind of collaborative approach should also make my players more prepared for improvising details in play – because I’ve telegraphed that I am actively after their ideas about New Port and the world and the people in it and that I’m going to respond positively to what they come up with. I’m hoping that they’ll feel more comfortable saying “I think that there’s a potion shop in the Silver Ward run by a rogue Yeenoghu priest can we go there?” rather than “Is there anywhere we can buy potions?”

The same principles I’ve used here apply when I’m encouraging them to come up with stuff in play – I try not to ask someone “Who is this person?” but rather ask them “Who is this person, and which member of the party do they have a prior connection to?” before asking that named player “Why do they dislike you?” I’ve got an NPC I haven’t had to make copious notes on, and I know that they will bounce off at least one member of the party, and it’s the players who’ve done the lifting and – say it with me – are now much more invested in.

One example from play I’m very pleased of was when Steve asked me if they knew anything more about an apparent underworld fixer called Sandalphon who had hired an assassin to stab up Ed Sheenan during the first session (long story).

I realised I didn’t have anything specific prepared – I’d already provided the “core clue” that they hung around a certain place and served as a go-between. Instead of saying “you don’t know anything” or making something random up, I got him to make a skill roll and when he succeeded asked him to tell me something he’d heard about them.

He improvised that Sandalphon had a sweet tooth, and then I riffed on it, and suddenly we had another place they could catch up with the fixer – a high-class dining establishment specialising in sweet tulsoolo in the Silver Ward where Sandalphon would presumably be at a disadvantage compared to meeting them on their home turf.

One interesting repercussion of this is that I think it makes it more likely players will go and see Sandalphon in the restaurant than meet them in the Garden of Slights I’d originally mentioned, which makes my job more interesting as I think about how to rejig the encounter I had planned for a new location and set of challenges.

Also, you’ll see that in this case I asked for something Steve’s character had heard about Sandalphon. This is a simple safety net when you’re asking a player to improvise something when they don’t have a lot of information to go on. If he’d come up with something that I would struggle to include, then I could riff off it to create an in-game real situation that synched up both with the rumour he’d created and the actual situation. It’s a cheap trick, but it’s one that can help you (as GM) find the level of player contribution to setting you’re comfortable with.

Danger, Will Robinson

All this sounds great but not every player is like my players who are people who’ve been playing ttrpgs for decades and have mostly also run their own games. You need to know your players, and set the level of collaboration where you’re comfortable. You’re still the GM at the end of the day and you need to make all this stuff work as a fun experience.

But even with that said I think it is worth taking a risk and trusting people. If you’ve got a less confident player, or a player who doesn’t really get collaboration and just wants to stab goblins, then easing them into this kind of contributing-to-the-setting stuff can be one way to encourage them to get more creative or to help file off their rough edges.

One tactic that I have made work in the past is to ask not one question but a series, and draw out the cool in their idea even if my initial response has been to roll my eyes. Other players who have more experience at this kind of thing can help with that too.

It’s worth it in the long run, because at the end of the day your game is better if your players are involved in it rather than just consuming it, and your table is more fun if everyone is on the same wavelength.

Conclusion

So that concludes the Raff “how to get players to do your hard work for you” 101. My next step incidentally is going to be to get the players to come up with rumours about things and give them to me privately. I can then decide which rumours are true and which aren’t and feed them back to the players as they explore the city.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

Next, I’m going to talk about the Icons, and some of the changes I made to the standard characters and factions 13th Age presents based both on the kind of game I’m running and on the choices the players have made for their characters.

Shadow of the Rat Session Zero : Part Two

Yesterday I wittered on about Session Zero, and the importance of getting everyone on the same page. Today I’m going to move on to the second part of what we did – character generation

It’s better with friends

I’ve played and run games in which everyone did their character generation separately and just brought their games to the table. My prejudices (and experience) tell me it does not work if you are playing a game with a random element of character creation even if your game doesn’t have a chance of killing your PC if they get greedy for service terms or just get unlucky (thanks, Traveller!)

It works okay for systems with points or choice-based character creation, especially if your players’ characters are not a “group” at the start of the game. Some old school games like Vampire, or more modern stuff like Urban Shadows, might make a virtue of not knowing quite who your fellow characters are and they can be cool – but they create very different experiences to the traditional team-based d20 style fantasy game.

With a game like 13th Age, my preferred method is to have the players talk about what they’re going to be doing and what they want to play and let them fill in the fine details later. It provides a lot of opportunity for other players to suggest cool things, and as long as you remember that ultimately every decision about the character is for the person who will play them to make, that alone can provide a lot of fun.

It also reduces the likelihood of (for example) ending up with a party of four identikit Drow assassin-rangers.

That’s not to say that I demand a group that covers “all the bases” – you don’t need one each of fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief (or tank, healer, striker, controller if you prefer) to have fun. Those iconic roles are iconic for a reason however, and provide a helpful shorthand, so it’s good to be at least aware of them and think about what role your character is going to play when they’re working with the other characters.

Some people will argue that a party of four identikit Drow assassin-rangers could be cool or fun. But I will go out on a limb and predict it will be fun for one or two sessions at most then the campaign will end and you will move on to something else. Assuming it runs at all – in my time I’ve lost count of the number of games I did character creation for and then found an excuse not to play or run because I couldn’t imagine there being any fun in it for me.

At the end of the day, I encourage players to make characters that are different but have some things in common. Having characters with different strength and weaknesses, and different identities, makes it easier to organise the spotlight time (both in and out of combat). Ensuring characters have something in common makes it easier to explain why they are in a group and – more importantly – why they continue to hang out with each other.

I remember one game of 3.5 D&D I ran in which there was both an evil-inclined rogue and a paladin in the party. After the first session, the paladin player retired their character and made a druid instead. It was amicable at the time, and lead to good story, but it underlined one of the problems of having a game with a team-focus (such as D&D) and not actually building your group as a group.

So who are these chumps?

With the general “what kind of game are we playing” discussion out of the way we moved on to the second part of the session. I didn’t need everyone to do the nitty gritty of character creation right now, all the picking of powers and such, but I’m a big fan of working through the broad strokes as a group so that everyone can bounce ideas off each other and refine their ideas so that they’ll have a fun group dynamic.

13th Age has three key tools that play well with that kind of creation – the One Unique Thing, the backgrounds system, and the Icon relationships. I’ll take about Icon relationships later, as it ties in to the work I did tweaking the Icons. Here I’ll talk about the One Unique Thing and the Backgrounds which together provide tools for knowing who your characters are and what kinds of things they’ll find fun to interact with.

One Unique Thing

Every 13th Age player character has a thing that makes them cool and unique. I got each of the party to tell me the one thing that made them unique. I’m going to talk about them each in turn and how they effected the way I was thinking about the game I was going to run.

The point about the One Unique Thing is that it is something that is always true, and that gets to the heart of why this character is interesting. Why they are different to all the notional dark elf assassin-rangers out there in the world. It gives the player an easy hook to hang their character off, and it gives me a license to provide the player with opportunities to do cool shit that ties directly into who they are.

Backgrounds

Wheras many ttrpgs have skill lists of various levels of exhaustiveness, 13th Age takes a much more laid back approach with backgrounds. A background essentially describes a bundle of stuff your character can do. If you need to jump across a gap, you might roll with “Nimble tower jack” or “experienced tomb raider” or “professional athlete”. The decision as to which background you have applies, assuming one does, is part of a quick negotiation we have once I ask you to make a check.

I might talk more about skills later; suffice to say I’m not fussed about the exact nature of a characters background. I want the players to jump over things, or try to interrogate captured spies, or woo the villain. I want them to use their background to create a cool story about why they are the perfect person to do it, even if they really, really aren’t. Or especially because they aren’t.

But what I mostly want is for the players to use the backgrounds to further nail down who they are playing in their own minds, and tell the rest of us.

With this in mind, I asked the players to pick backgrounds that were specific rather than general, and I suggested they consider going for adjective+noun combinations. It wasn’t enough for us to know they were, say, a bounty hunter – I wanted to know what kind of bounty hunter they wre.

Part of the fun of using backgrounds for me is explaining how of course you know how to do something because you are a (whatever). An adjective would also help me frame the descriptions of success and failure – a flamboyant spy and a cunning spy may both have the same kinds of skills but the results of their skill rolls will potentially be very different.

Even in a game that uses more traditional skills, as a GM I want to get a feel for what my players’ characters are good at. At a very basic level, skills tell you what kind of situations they want to encounter. They also tell you what areas that character would expect to shine in – whether its swimming, climbing, fast-talking, or fixing cars. Working in scenes that give them chances to use those skills make your game more fun for those characters – assuming you’re able to make the consequences of failure as fun as the rewards for success of course.

John the Tiefling: The Diabolist’s Greatest Mistake

OneUniqueMarkMark created a Tiefling Sorcerer called “John the Tiefling” – not his real name as he was quick to point out. He had an imp familiar, and he told us that he drew at least some of his power from suspect roots.

The Diabolist is (probably) one of the baddies of the 13th Age, an Icon that seems to be aligned with the demons that want to unmake the world. I had some ideas to refine them a little, and knowing that Mark planned to have a strong connection to them made this easier. I now knew that the diabolist was going to be a key player in the game, which meant demons and demon cults, which also strengthened my gut feeling to avoid Lovecraftian tentacles.

I have no idea what the diabolist’s biggest mistake is, but I know we’ll find out in play, and that Mark’s character –would somehow be it. Oh, and I knew that whatever John’s real name turned out to be that would probably be important too.

Checking his backgrounds, I could see that John the Tiefing was a former cultist and looked forward to finding out just what that meant in play.  I was also interested in what bewitching agitator meant – it presumably gives him a leg-up when talking to crowds and the use of the word agitator had political overtones. Finally, I knew that a big chunk of his character was about being a magical prodigy so opportunities to show off his innate magical powers and knowledge would give him obvious spotlight time.

Thomas Gadd: The Dragon Empire Necroscope 

OneUniqueJohnJohn likes his 90s tropes, did I mention? When he gave me his One Unique Thing  I immediately thought Necroscope… a series with about one-and-a-half good books in it and another dozen not-so-good that arguably is responsible for the bloody Tzimisce clan.

The backgrounds are in some ways more specific than those of the other players. We know he’s a penitent soldier – so he’s got military training but he also has some darkness there that he feels guilty about that we need to find out more about. He’s not just an exorcist and medium but a reluctant one, and I’m interested to see how that goes while also pencilling in calls on his time by common folk who need

necroscope

If anyone tries to get you to read this book, you may enjoy it. If they try to get you to read any of the other Necroscope books, kick them in the crotch and run for it. Trust me.

help with laying their dead ancestors to rest. Finally, thanks to one of his cleric domains he’s a plunderer of the secrets of the dead which suggests both mundane tomb robbing, dubious necromancy, and maybe a bit of an edge to his relationship with the dead.

We both like ghosts, so here was John telling me fairly explicitly he wanted ghosts to be a big part of the game and I was all for it. In a more traditional Dungeons and Dragons game, speaking to the dead would use all sorts of spells and class specific powers, but we quickly talked about the fact that I’d be more than happy for him to speak to the recently dead, or spot ghosts, just using the standard rules for skill checks and his one unique thing.

However… in 13th Age there’s a figure who views the dead as his personal preserve called the Lich King. Everything about Thomas Gadd suggests that the one-eyed former ruler of the Dragon Empire is going to be part of the game, and that his relationship with Thomas Gadd is going to be complicated.

I also put this together with that idea of a cleric who channels the powers of the dead directly rather than worshipping a death god. This “rejection” of the gods could mean some cool stuff with the Priestess and the Crusader, Icons who represent the gods of light and darkness respectively.

Dorak Lightwalker: Dwarf of Mystery

OneUniqueCliveClive fancied a dwarf ranger. I personally like dwarf rangers as a thing. Much more than I like elf rangers, and not just because I tend to be a bit down on elves in d20 fantasy systems.

I’d already mentioned to the gang that I was going to tweak the icons a bit, and so Clive’s decision to be the only dwarf who is not a subject of the Dwarf King, and instead has become an Imperial citizen established some pretty specific things about the game world.

If Dorak Lightwalker is the only one, that implies that all other dwarves in the game are subjects of the Dwarf King, not the Emperor. This sounded to me like the dwarves were a bit insular, a bit standoffish. If that was the case, perhaps their obvious counterparts the elves were a bit distant as well. This might combine to make the Dragon Empire a lot more humancentric, although without necessarily meaning it was necessarily any more racist.

We’d also get to explore why Dorak left the dwarf kingdom and became an Imperial citizen and I thought that could make for some interesting character stuff. It cemented the Dwarf King as an ambiguous, rather than definitely good, figure. Finally, it also suggested the Emperor (or in my game the Empress) would be a key positive figure. Dorak was a “goodie” and while that doesn’t mean the Dwarf King is a baddy it implies that the Empress is one the side of light – for a given value.

The backgrounds are a nice range. We know that Dorak is a relentless bounty hunter so there’s immediately an opportunity to play around with criminals, law enforcement, and the fine line between. As well as sending him to hunt people down, which the urban tracker background supports. We know he’s an interrogator so he’s used to getting information out of people but that he’s subtle about it. and we know that he has a hobby – he likes sleight of hand tricks which can be both useful in the field and give an insight into a dour character’s inner life and wotnot.

We actually had to tweak the ranger a bit to make it work with Clive’s concept. Most of it was easy – changing a reference to “non-urban” to “urban” in the tracking and terrain feat section for example. There’s still a few problems with it though, mostly around some weird restrictions on crossbows which are a great Dwarf weapon. We discussed them as a group and I’m happy where we got to. More on that later maybe.

One of the things I like about 13th Age incidentally is that it encourages you to tweak things much more explicitly than many similar games. I think too many gaming groups get paralysed by the idea that the Game Police will come knock down their door and take away all their dice-and-books if they (for example) remove the move-action reload feature from crossbows.

Grenn Junn: On Her Imperial Majesty’s Secret Service

OneUniqueSteveInitially Steve’s character was called “Junn” which he claimed was orcish for “John” but by the mid point of the second session it became clear having two characters and a player called “John” was getting confusing so he “revealed” that Junn was his surname and his real name was Grenn. This brought to an end the brief period in which this game was notionally subtitled “three Johns and a Dwarf” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Grenn’s one unique thing could have been a problem and I was initially a little cautious because it seemed to be about a thing rather than about the character themselves. We talked a bit, and my concerns were eased. Grenn wields a weird knife that has come into his possession by undisclosed means (flashback time!) and that has the odd property that no matter what he does it always ends up back in his possession.

It’s also very much a knife for killing people, which I played up a little by suggesting that it is terrible for any of the many other things knives are good for. He used it to cut a rope in the second session, and we played up how long it was taking for both comic and  intimidating effect.

While Steve was keen to make clear that he wasn’t after a magic item per se, I know that over the course of the campaign the knife is going to gain power. It’s going to be a key part of Grenn Junn’s character arc. I know that at least once during the campaign the party is going to end up losing all their gear just so Grenn Junn can have his unexpected shiv – which fits in with the espionage theme. And I know that while the dagger is important, it’s only part of the story. The real story is why Grenn Junn has this thing – who is he that he should have this weird dagger and what’s the connection between them and what will we discover about the orc’s destiny, history, or true nature?

Fantasy is full of people who turn out to be significant for some reason. I’m not planning to do a Chosen One story, but I have some ideas about what it is that makes Steve’s character significant that this knife brings out. Which is a dreadful sentence.

The backgrounds subtle infiltratorflamboyant spy, and likable scoundrel all play into the same space but in slightly different ways. It seems clear Steve wants to be a cross between James Bond and Han Solo and my job is to give him chances to show that off.

Putting it together (and a digression about skill checks)

LockedDoor

There’s a very old recurrent joke from my D&D career that goes right back to the days when only thieves had skills. Whenever the party encountered a locked door, and the thief made their Open Locks roll, everyone would cheer “The Adventure Continues!” It was quite funny at the time, when a failed skill roll could easily mean your adventure would now stall completely.

Part of my job now is to put that player-created character stuff together with my own stuff and make as fun an experience for the five of us as I can.

So I’m going to talk about skill checks, obviously.

When someone wants to make a roll on a background, I want them to tell me why and how that background lets them do it. Sometimes it’ll be as obvious as “of course I can do this I’m a bounty hunter” and sometimes it might be a little more complex – like Mark’s character knowing about demons not because he is a magical prodigy but because he is a former cultist.

Obviously, the player will want to roll on their highest stat/skill combo because higher is better. Part of my job is to persuade them to try something else, to make it a story rather than just a dice rolling exercise.  The example of magical prodigy 4 vs former cultist 2 seems to put Mark at a disadvantage if he rolls the lower total, but there’s two tricks I’m able to use to play off that mathematical problem.

First, the flavour of the information will be different. If Mark rolls for magical prodigy, I might tell him the specifics of the rat demons threat and how they gnaw at the laws of reality, but if he rolls the former cultist background he might actually get more information about the practicalities of tracking the rat demon cult and how those cultists might use the rat demons to raise a hellhole.

Second, I try to make sure that the spectre of failure isn’t so heavy that someone feels cheated if they roll the lower skill and fail. With this in mind, if Mark doesn’t make the roll, I still tell him something interesting if not necessarily immediately useful.

The core idea – that rat demons gnaw away the fabric of creation – is something that will make the game cooler if people know it, and make Marks character cooler if he reveals it in-character to his allies. Nobody else is playing the kind of character who would know that by default. So even if Mark fails to get the 15 needed to get a success, I still give him a bit of information. The roll isn’t to see if John the Tiefling knows bout rat demons, it’s to see how much he knows.

I’m much more inclined to be more generous with this if the player picks the suboptimal choice incidentally, because the reward of picking the optimal choice – the higher success chance – is built into the mechanics.

Not rolling to see if someone succeeds but how well they succeed is kind of another way of looking at the Fail Forward! idea that 13th Age makes explicit. I try and use “things go wrong” rather than “PC isn’t good enough” as much as possible, and it’s great advice for any ttrpg that uses skill checks.

Because the GM is the arbiter of “what happens next” (in contrast to the players’ ability to say “what I do about it”) they’ve got the ability to decide what a failure indicates. In my opinion, the result of failure should never be “nothing happens” and should never punish a player for trying to do something.

In the second session Steve had Grenn Junn roll to disable a minor trap that someone had left on a secret panel. He failed, and that gave me a couple of choices.

First, Grenn could realise that disarming the trap was beyond him. This could lead to one of several outcomes – the bane-of-significance-and-fun that is “I try again”; that someone else would have a go and potentially show up the character whose speciality was traps; that the party would simply leave the trapped panel and move on missing out on the minor treasure and plot points it contained; or that they would obsess about the trapped panel and the game would grind to a halt as they spent twenty minutes discussing how to open it.

Second, I could have Grenn set off the trap instead. This feels like a punishment, but I know that the trap isn’t too serious and it’s taking place outside a combat where a few hit points knocked off is not a big thing. This is the result I went with – because it kept the story rolling along.

Grenn got shot with a tiny poison dart because the trap was just that little bit more fiendish in its design than he thought. Steve described the tiny wound to his finger that his orc spy laughed off. John the Tiefling absently thanked his friend for taking a dart to the finger, while grabbing all the documents fro the hidey hole. Everything kept moving.

I’ll talk more about skill checks as this series goes on I suspect. They’re a fascinating bit of any ttrpg design and adjudicating them is a major part of a GMs job.

Next Step

I wrote the One Unique Thing, the backgrounds, and the Icon relationships for each character on an index card. I punched a hole in the cards and strung them together with some ribbon from the RIBBONS AND BITS box that forms part of my Empire office collection.

I can’t stress how useful it is having information like this in front of you when you are running the game and when you are prepping a session. If I’m short of inspiration I just look at it and thing “how would this background make this cooler?” or “how can I give (X) a chance to talk about their One Unique Thing?” or “Which of the Icon relationship (X) haves would make this complicated?”

The next step for the players was sorting out their characters nuts-and-bolts, and the next part for me was prepping the first session which I knew would (for reasons of nostalgia) involve a pub and some giant rats.

We kept in touch via Facebook messenger, because this is the 21st century, and once I’d sketched out a little more… I gave everyone some homework to do. More on that tomorrow.

Next time, I’ll talk about homework and ramble about the benefits of making your players do some of the design work for you.

 

Shadow of the Rat Session Zero: Part One

Gaming Nights

As I’ve mentioned before for the last couple years on-and-off I’ve been running a tabletop roleplaying game (ttrpg) over the internet. We use Roll20 for the tabletop elements, and Discord for the talking. We mostly don’t do video, although that’s slowly changing.

I’d run Blades in the Dark and Spire, and we tried out the Heart and Root quickstarts. After six months of quickstarts, though, I fancied something a bit more polished. We decided to knock Root on the head – mostly the problems of trying to play a game while it was in the middle of being developed were tarnishing the fun a little – and try something a bit more crunchy.

The hankering for something a little more like Dungeons and Dragons had been growing in ma belly for a while, and with Root proving to be enjoyable in spite of the quickstart rules we were playing instead of because of them, and having spent the last couple years playing “softer” more “make it up as you go along” games I fancied a bit of a change.

I also felt we were getting more comfortable with Roll20, and it might be time to get ambitious. I’d “mastered” music, and pictures, and even some light macro making. We’d gotten more comfortable with talking to each other while we played a game at one remove, and so it felt the time was right to dip our toes into something with a few more rules.

After a Facebook straw-poll i pitched 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. It helped that two of the players in my regular group were already fans, and only one was unfamiliar (and they were familiar enough with Dungeons and Dragons it was unlikely to be an issue).

Why 13th Age?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted us to have more tactical action scenes than we’d been having recently. This would likely mean maps and the digital equivalent of little plasticine blobs – that is, tokens created in MS PAINT –  that we’d move about.

I didn’t want grids, though, and while I wanted some rules I didn’t want us to get overwhelmed with minutae. I think there’s a line between using maps as a way to keep track of who is where, and using them to play out a tactical boardgame. I enjoy the latter, but if I’m going to do that kind of thing I want the whole tactile experience of picking up the little figures and bouncing them off the map as I count spaces of movement.

I’d never run 13th Age, but I’d run a lot of dungeons and dragons over the years in all editions. I felt like Age was positioned in an ideal sweet spot on the border between crunch and making-it-up that I was looking for.

If you’re unfamiliar, 13th age is a d20 fantasy tabletop role-playing game designed by Rob Heinsoo (lead designer of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition) and Jonathan Tweet (lead designer of D&D 3rd Edition), and published by Pelgrane Press. If you want to know more you can read this sentence and more on wikipedia here.

I encountered it at just the right time, as Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was losing its lustre for me. I enjoyed 4th Edition incidentally – more than 3 or 3.5 – but I have to admit it had its flaws. A good friend of mine complained at the time that 4th was a bit “soulless” and with a few years retrospect I can’t disagree with that assessment. As another friend suggested, it was a bit too much like Descent in the way it played out. I still think it’s my favourite of the editions, mostly because it was the first one where playing a Fighter or a Rogue was not a complete waste of time and don’t make me fight you.

13th Age has a particular style to it that suggests its written for people who know what Dungeons and Dragons is, and know what they want out of their fantasy ttrpg. It’s a combination of homage and cool new ideas. Several of the latter have intrigued me since  I first read the core book while working on Empire at the Boss’ house. They include the escalation dice that adds a rising-action element to combat, the thirteen Icons that define the factions of the Age, the fascinating way the monsters are designed to remove a load of the heavy lifting from running a fight, and the prevalence of miss damage that means even if your combat maneuver misses you still have a bit of an impact.

The gang were sold, so we moved to the first stage of playing a new game – a session zero.

Why bother with a Session Zero?

When we were younger we didn’t need session zeros. We’d got together round a table, made characters and then just started playing. That was back when a ttrpg could start at ten in the morning and go on until ten at night (or more often six in the evening and go on until three in the morning). In retrospect, character creation often felt like a chore we were racing through so we could get to the cool bit (which often meant surviving the first adventure so you could be second level, or better yet third, but that’s a discussion for another time).

I also remember that it left precious little time for discussing what you were playing. I’ve lost track of the times the what was described as “Vampire, but in London, make your characters, no caitiff.” Any kind of game experience suffers when people don’t know what they are getting into, and boy did a lot of those early Vampire-in-London games suffer.

Arguably worse were the times when what was “Dungeons and Dragons” because for quite a while the idea that there might be more to that what than “roll up a character, you’re in a room with exits on the north, east, and south walls” was completely alien to us.

But I digress.

These days we are all much older than we were in the 90s and we have a much smaller window to do our geekery in – about two hours or so on a Thursday evening – so it was pretty clear our first session was going to involve setting up the game.

I made a few notes about what I wanted to run, and then knocked up a basic Roll20 game page, which had the added advantage of having online character sheets for us to use. We went onto Discord and chatted about what we wanted to do in the coming weeks, with an emphasis on what we were gong to find fun.

Running Online

20Roll

We’ve been using Roll20 for several years. All the tools you need are free. Its my go-to for setting up an in-character tabletop, and while some of the more complex stuff is indeed complicated you don’t need anything outside your comfort zone in order to play, in my experience.

I’ve known the mates I would be running the game for – Clive, John, Mark, and Steve – for a surprising number of years if you add them all together. We’re reasonably comfortable with each other although there can be the odd sharp edge now and again and it’s interesting that only two of us (me and Mark) have ever been in the same face-to-face tabletop group.

It doesn’t need saying, but playing a game online is very different to playing a game face to-face. Taking turns during a discussion is a lot more important. The lack of the visual cues that provide a lot of non-verbal communication context can make everything more challenging. You can end up feeling a bit distanced from what is going on. Nobody can see my making faces and clawing at the air when I’m going “rawr” as a rat monster. Stuff like that.

It’s one reason i think its important to start an online game with ten minutes of catching up – just like we’d spend an hour talking about Neighbours (or whatever) back in the day. I’m trying to resist the urge to start each session ten minutes early specificall to allow for this – because when you only have 120 minutes to play 10 minutes of sportsball banter can feel frustratingly like wasted time but i think it’s an important part of establishing that you are about to have fun rather than perform an obligation.

Most of my ttrpg for the last several years has been online because my friends are scattered around the United Kingdom. The 5th ed D&D game I’d just started before the Fall of Civilisation is probably the first regular actual tabletopping with real people at a real tabletope I’d done in five or six years. And then pandemic. Which is annoying.

I guess a lot of people are learning about the pros and cons of online tabletop gaming right now. People other than the streamers I mean. I’m nt going to get into a digression about people playing tabletop roleplaying games on Twitch and Youtube and what have you, but I will admit to enjoying the Oxventure gang you can find on the YouTubes because their “fun and relaxed” quality feels much more similar to what I experience around a tabletop than some of the more “serious” stuff that is out there.

A digression about adversarial gaming

roleplaying mastery

Word to the wise… with all due respect to Gary Gygax, who co-created the game that kind of started it all, this book is pure poison and if anyone tries to get you to read it you should punch them in the crotch and run. Trust me.

Running a tabletop game can be a chore. For a lot of our hobby’s history the relationship between Game Master (by whatever name) and players has been actively adversarial, and not just in the direction you might expect. Early writing about running a game seemed to have a very “these people are vermin and they will eat your bullshit with a smile and ask for more or you will kill them with falling rocks!” that even when I was twelve felt a bit off.

Perhaps with that in mind its no surprise that I’ve also been at tables where some of the players have felt that they needed to protect themselves from their GM’s implicit malice, refusing to get too involved, keeping their capabilities secret, and doing their level best to either subvert the game or wring what enjoyment they can out of it before the inevitable rockfall.

Other tables have involved players who viewed the GM as their thrall, whose sole job it was to provide them with opportunities to wave their dicks about and show how cool they were, and where any concept of collaboration was quickly kicked to death with steel toed boots and katanas.

None of these situations creates “a fun enviroment” as I recognise it, to put it mildly.  I’m glad we seem to have broadly moved on from that kind of antagonism, and I really don’t miss it.

These days I’m a lot more interested in everyone knowing what they’re signing up for, at least in broad strokes. I’m also a lot less guarded about the setting and the game than I used to be – I’m much happier to let players add details to the game and talk about what they’d like to see and do because I don’t feel the need to protect anyone from abusive behaviour.

Another digression! We’ll easily hit the word target a this rate.

Suffice to say, if none of that preceding paragraph seems familiar to you, you have missed a particularly dark time in the ttrpg hobby and should count yourself lucky. You can probably sum it up by saying “ugh, power fantasies!” and moving on.

Actually getting round to talking about Session Zero

After the Soapopera and Sportsball segment of the session, I took ten minutes to talk roughly about what I thought would be fun to play – a action-orientated cinematic game, reasonably high in fantasy elements rather than low-down and gritty, with both heroic themes and political themes. I’ll just quickly break those down, like I did for the players.

  • By action-oriented cinematic, I meant that it’d be a game with plenty of swash to buckle. That I’d be happy with anyone swinging on chandeliers, trying death defying stunts, or adding descriptive flourish to otherwise boring basic attacks. Implicit in this is that the penalty for failing to do a cool stunt will not be punishing. If you fail to swing on the rope across the stage I won’t cause you to fall fifty feet onto spikes because that would discourage you from making the effort. it’ll also be a game where I’d be happy with players knowingly playing towards cinematic tropes such as romancing the villain, or making a heroic stand to save the orphanage.
  • By high in fantasy elements I mean that there’ll be plenty of weird magic, floating cities, villains who want to destroy the entire city, and opportunities to do over-the-top crazy things as you attempt to wield, explore, or stop them. This won’t be a game where you die of an infected wound, or where you spend a session going through the villains accounts to find a loophole to get them arrested for tax evoison. Rather there’ll be big splashy musical numbers, and most likely a certain level of magic-as-technology.
  • By heroic themes I mean that the players will be heroes rather than protagonists. Their hats may be a bit grubby, but if you dust them off they’re white underneath. The players’ characters will be called on to do heroic things, and they’ll have more fun if they buy in to the idea of being brave, determined, and standing up to evil rather than compromising with it. implicit in this is that your characters will have an impact, and that NPCs will see them as heroes.
  • But at the same time there’ll be political themes which means there will be plots and plans, conspiracies, people motivated by ambition or public service, and chances to have an impact on the game through negotiation and diplomacy. Not every problem will be solved with a fight, and some opponents will not be suitable targets for just stabbing them in the street.

Part of my job in this session, and in the first few sessions of the game, is to bring out these bullet points and make them real for the players. I don’t need to go into them in detail at the start, as long as I at least chat briefly about them and then use a bit of show-not-tell to bring them out.

From a setting point of view, I was pretty sure I wanted an urban game, at least at first. Cities give great opportunities to engage in espionage or crime elements and explore the odd mystery in between the fighting. I think it also helps to focus on one place for a little bit when you start a game, to give the players a familiar backdrop against which to explore who their characters actually are.

I can’t stress enough how important it is when you’re running a game to communicate what you want to run to the people who’ll be playing with you, and to listen to what they want to play. Back in the day, especially with groups I didn’t know as well as I know the people I play with today, I’d feel the need to be very prescriptive in terms of what could be played and what the setting would be, partly due to lack of experience and partly due to that whole adversarial thing I just wasted a bunch of paragraphs on.

A tabletop game is meant to be fun for everyone and that includes the person running it. You don’t “owe” people a game except in some very specific and weird circumstances. You’re there to have fun as well. It’s incidentally another reason I’m a great believer in the idea that a ttrpg group needs to have a complementary approach to their games. It’s fine for people to get different things out of the game, and enjoy different types of content, but if (for example) one of your group won’t play anything except a Drizzt Do Urden clone no matter what game it is that is being run, your game is probably doomed.

I finished my bit by mentioning a couple of world-design points I’d already settled on – half-orcs would be orcs, and there’d be no half-elves. I’d sort something specific if I really needed to. This is pretty much a general rule when I run fantasy d20 games. I don’t like the resonance that hangs round hybrid player species and unless I’m running Eberron (the only place I’ve ever really seen them handled well), they’re not welcome. Likewise, there’d be no “species determines alignment” bullshit. And indeed, no alignment bullshit.

Oh, and I explicitly called out that we’d be taking the “pilot show” approach which is one we usually use – that you have carte blanche to shake up your character for the first session or two if it turns out you don’t like some element of it. The conceit is that the first few sessions are a pilot after which a character might get “recast” while staying the same character.

Then I asked the players what sort of stuff they wanted from a fantasy ttrpg, and the one we were about to play specifically.

Collaboration makes the fun more fun

monica

In some ttrpg circles I’m a monster because I agree with Monica Gellar that rules help control the fun and make it better. Like rules, this kind of discussion is important for me because it helps to get everyone into the same shared head space as to what we’re going to be doing together while pretending to be undercover agents of the Dragon Empress. I want people to know how their abilities work and keep that consistent so they are able to make better decisions, and its the same with the wider questions about the game like the themes and the level of action-vs-realism and wotnot.

Each of the players had a chance to talk about what they wanted from the game, and what they wanted to play. I made notes about it. Everyone else was involved in the discussion as well, but as ringmaster my job at this stage was to make sure everyone got a chance to speak. That’s an often underestimated skill every game runner needs, incidentally. With the best will in the world, peoples’ enthusiasms can get away from them and you need to make space for the less extrovert players to make their voices heard – doubly so in an online environment.

As to the specifics…

Mark has always wanted to do a dungeon crawl, apparently. I reassured him that would be a thing. He’d looked at the 13th Age book and fancied a sorcerer with a connection to the Diabolist. That fitted neatly with the stuff I’d already sketched for the first session.

Steve didn’t want a gang of murder hobos. I was entirely behind that – when I run fantastic action games I prefer the group to be broadly on the side of the good guys. I like a bit of ambiguity, obviously, but I’m not interested in running a game in which the characters are murderous cannibals. You can blame too much White Wolf in the 90s if you like. Because it’s to blame.

He wanted to protect something – which I suggested could be the town/city the game would take place in – and he wanted to keep the Icons at arms length rather than have them appear in person. Something that I was also happy with as the last thing I wanted was superpowered NPCs turning up to overshadow the player characters.

He’d decided to play a rogue. Initially he wanted to play a halfling, but in the end settled on an orc – possibly because I may have given the only slightly correct impression I wasn’t a fan of halflings.

John was easy. We discussed gritty low levels, corruption, rat people, and human evil. John and I like a lot of the same tropes, so I already knew I’d want to throw a bit of body horror, possibly some spiky chained demons, and a leavening of 90s tropes into the mix. He had an idea for a nonstandard cleric which I thought was interesting and easily fitted into 13th Age’s very laid back attitude to priests and gods.

Clive was also easy, at least on the surface, and a bit more interested in the methods of play than the setting. He was keen for the occasional in-depth tactical positioning fight, but also keen that we didn’t get tied up in knots over maps and miniatures. Shaking things up a bit from time to time with the odd narrative combat, for example. Again this suited me, as it meant I could vary the amount of prep that was requiried. He was interested in a dwarf bounty hunter ranger. We actually needed to do some tweaking to make this work, once we started to drill down into the ranger class, but I’ll talk about that more later.

Money, treasure, and gear

We talked money – whether we wanted to track it or not. In most Dungeons and Dragons inspired games, I find that money is only really relevant for two things. Buying equipment at low level and buying magic items. After that it;s just a way of keeping score.

But at the same time, players like finding treasure. They like levering the gemstone eyes out of demon statues, or filling their backpacks with gold coins, or stealing all the pricless paintings from the villains mansion. Treasure is more than just a way of keeping score, or buying healing potions.

Likewise, in some games equipment can be a source of fun in itself, but it’s often polarising. I love having an exhaustive equipment list myself with everything assigned a weight and a note of which bag it is in, but this is very polarising. For every party member that likes a good shopping spree, loves to squander their cash on stylish clothes for the Goernor’s ball, or has decades long brand loyalty to the Ares Predator, theres another player who hates shopping, hates wasting money that could be used to buy a +2 sword, and hates encumbrance restrictions.

There’s a few sliders already built into 13th Age – money is mostly a way for the party to get hold of consumable items like potions and magic runes that temporarily enhance their weapons and armour.

With a bit of a nod to Blades in the Dark, we agreed we’d not bother about trivial expenditure or exactly how many feet of rope someone had in their backpack. Instead we’d use WEALTH, a shared party resource that reflected their ability to make Significant Purchases. After a quick look through the book, I made a mental note that one WEALTH would be about 50gp purchasing power. I very nearly called it GOLD BARS in reference to Birthright, but resisted the urge. For now. 50Gp incidentally is about the amount it costs to buy a standard healing potion going by the rules.

We also talked briefly about a great skill from the Gumshoe line, also by Pelgrane, called Preparedness. It’s a skill you use to see if you have the thing you need. My plan is to use skill rolls and equipment together, rather than ask people to keep track of every 10 foot pole or bag of caltrops, and let flashbacks and common sense rule the day. Because in my opinion the question “do I have a (mundane item)?” is almost always one where I want to say “yes, what do you want to do with it?”

I want to enable players to do things, and as long as everyone trusts everyone else, letting them have the incidental bits of crap they need to (for example) jury rig a rope bridge or spike a portcullis or tie up a brigand is always worth more than making them try and predict every eventuality. Anotehr thing I thank Blades in the Dark for making explicit.

Magic Items

Sometimes magic items and special bits of kit are great, and sometimes they are really, really dull. I’ve long since favoured moving away from the “its a +1 sword” style of play to “it’s Erkenbrand, the silver-etched runesword of the elven hero Mumford. If you wield it in combat you get +1 to hit and damage, and the runes glow in the presence of elven undead.” Magic items should feel magical, basically. They don’t need to dominate, but this isn’t a looter-shooter like Borderlands. If your heroes are constantly discarding unique items to “upgrade” their kit you’re a bit far over to the Diablo side of the fence for my liking.

So as part of Session Zero we talked around it a bit, and the party were largely keen on at least some of their special items being “cool” or “iconic”. Steve mentioned Earthdawn, and the way that the cool items there have their own stories and gain power as you use them to do interesting things. I like named items myself – I want everyone to find all their magic items cool rather than having the old golf bag of magic swords for every occasion as I’ve already mentioned.

13th Age already makes magic items kind of a big deal. They have quirks – roleplaying effects almost – that get stronger the more items you have in close proximity to the point where if you have too many (more than one per level) they can take you over for a short time and make you pursue their agenda.

I’m still pondering whether I want to have the players give me a “wish list” of the kind of items they’d find cool, or trust my own instincts once I’ve seen how they play their characters. Two of the players gave me a clear indication of what their first important magic items should be when we got to the One Unique Thing stage of character creation but more of that later.

The tentacle question

cthulhu

It took me a while to realise it, but not every game needs cosmic horror in it. It’s a hard truth to recognise, but there it is. That said there are some good fantasy treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos out there such as this one by Sandy Peterson for 5e D&D. But it probably has no place in this 13th Age game. Or at least if it does it better be wearing a pretty good disguise.

Then I asked the tentacle question. I feel like I have to ask it whenever I run a game.

I have a problem you see. I like a bit of what for a better word you’d call “Lovecraftian” or cosmic horror theme in my games. I wanted to know where the players wanted the tentacle slider. After a bit of discussion we settled on “occasional tentacles, wee bit of cosmic horror, demons are better.”

The default 13th Age setting posits that the Dragon Empire is under attack by demons who boil out of places called hellholes, and several of the Icons directly relate to exploiting or opposing demonic powers. I had a chat with myself, and decided that I was going to do my best to run a game without any overt tentacles – instead of aberrations being the source of my cosmic horror I’d use demons who want to unmake creation. It skirted a little close to the D&D 5th edition game I’d started up just before the Collapse of Civilisation, but I was confident I could make it different.

With the idea that the Outside Evil in the game would definitely be demons, coupled with John having mentioned Warhammer Fantasy earlier in the session, I told the players the campaign would be “Rise of the Rat” or “Shadow of the Rat” and made a mental note to reskin the low-level demons as the kind of rat horrors who gnaw away at the foundations of reality to make it easier for their fellow demons to push through into the world.

Lines and Veils

One of the nice things about the ttrpg hobby growing up a bit is that there’s a lot of good resources for helping your game stay fun for everyone. God knows there was times back in the day where I wanted to take a GM or a player aside and say “enough, that is not on, let’s get back to killing goblins/caitiff please.”

One tool that is very useful is lines and veils, and if you’re not familiar you can read about them here. The short version is that you establish with your players lines that you’re not going to cross, and veils where you can include the themes but you “draw a veil” over the action in the manner of a novelist using an ellipsis. Sex, for example, is often the subject of a veil-out and maybe a line of “you spend a delightful night in carnal excess and awaken the next morning tired but happy” before we move on.

I actually don’t make as much use of them as maybe I ought, because I mostly run games for people I know who I trust to speak up if something is upsetting them. But it’s dangerous to be complacent. Once we’re past the initial honeymoon “sewer tunnels and giant rats” stage I’ll probably discreetly ask if there’s any topics people would rather avoid.

I’m not including it in the Session Zero because I think that lines and veils can be awkward, and make people feel uncomfortable. They can also feel negative – even though making sure nobody at the table is going to be made to feel uncomfortable is innately positive in the context of a collaborative experience.

It’s not just about the obvious things, incidentally. I’ve run games in which I’ve needed to be aware that some of the players really don’t want there to be any child endangerment for example, or don’t want to have to fight giant spiders, or be confined in small spaces or whatever. I’ve known GMs who ignore this kind of thing and they are pricks. Each and every one of them.

With all that dealt with and half our Session Zero over, we moved on to the real meat of the session – characters and what they tell us about the world we’re going to play in – which I’ll talk about in more detail next time.

Next time, the second part (and roughly the second hour) of Session Zero involves creating characters together and firming up some more details about our game world.

Half An Hour To Write; A Prose Poem or Something

Right now, everything I do is taking about half an hour. Everything.

Its like trying to drive somewhere in Shadowrun Seattle.

Player: “We go the Barrens”

GM: “It takes about half an hour.”

Or

Player: “We leave Fort Lewis and go to Everett and see if our target is there.”

GM: “It takes about half an hour.”

This isn’t every significant task, you understand. Earlier today it took me half an hour to go for a piss. Sure it involved two flights of stairs but even so. I think what added the extra twenty-five minutes was sitting halfway up the first (or second depending which way you’re going) flight of stairs and checking Facebook to see if anything interesting had happened before going back to my desk.

As to the significant tasks, it’s all gone a bit Xeno’s Paradox. Every task is breaking down into a series of sub-tasks each of which takes about half an hour regardless of how long it ought to take.

Some of those subtasks are things like writing three sentences. Writing thirty words took me half an hour earlier. They weren’t even good words, about half of them were copy-pasted from a different paragraph somewhere else. I spent about a minute on each sentence, and then five minutes staring at them, and then twenty minutes or so trying to find the cotton buds so I could wiggle at the itch in my ear like a crazy person.

Occasionally I need to check something on the internet and then whoops! I’m on the internet and appear to have just spent twenty-five minutes on Twitter scrolling down a thread of people typing angry abuse at someone for something. Half an hour gone and I can candidly say it has not enriched my life.

Now I want a cuppa. No point starting anything until the water has boiled and also I’ve just somehow managed to spill coffee granules everywhere better clean them up and now whoops I’ve smacked myself in the eye with the hoover and I’ve still got the jar of coffee in my hand for some reason I really should have put it down before I got the hoover but I forgot and now its ten minutes later and I can’t remember where I put the jar of coffee and this wouldn’t even have been funny if I was watching Rowan Atkinson do it and there goes another half hour better have a coffee to cheer myself up and now I need a piss.

Don’t even get me started on how easy it is right now to sit down at your computer and then suddenly decide right now is the precise best time to sort out the plastic bags from yesterday’s ASDA delivery because I can see them in my peripheral vision and they could be a bit neater.

Right now, I should be prepping for a meeting. Two meetings, in fact.

Instead I’m writing this.

It’s taken me about half an hour.

I guess what I’m trying to say is “Happy Mental Health Awareness Week everyone, and I don’t think I have ever been more aware of my mental health and it’s still only Monday!”

Stay Alert

When I were a lad, in the dim and distant past of the ancient days of the 1980s, I was a consumer of childrens’ television programming. I would often watch the BBC. I make no apologies for this; a lot of my peers did the same and we turned out mostly fine. Apart from being conditioned to believe that any childrens’ television programming produced after 1999 was automatically a little bit disappointing.

One of the programs I remember watching was Captain Zep – Space Detective. Some dreadfully serious actors in truly awful futuristic clothing would stand in front of green screens and mug, while animated aliens thundered at them. The kids in the audience would likewise be wearing dreadful space clothing and would participate in solving the crimes committed on alien planets.

Captain Zep

That’s an alien on the right. They all looked like that. In my head at least. I think the ones that stick with me most were the ones that looked like super-tall lamps. Like that robot from the dreadful second series of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. You know the one.

The art was weird. Looking at it now it feels like that style I randomly call “French” – which is a catch-all unprofessional adjective I use for animation where people are weirdly long and thin. Because of Ulysees 31 and that film where it turns out the old guy was the kid all along. You know the one I mean.

It was actually not that bad, as these things go. Having a look over some of the stills and video pieces from the show it’s still pretty okay stuff.

(I keep using the word animation, but rewatching a couple episodes on the YouTubes makes me feel that my brain has remembered it being significantly more active than it actually was. It’d be more “animated” if they jiggled the stationary picture of the alien to show they were speaking.)

There were only twelve episodes, but like a lot of television from the time it remains etched into my memory as a thing that happened and that I willingly and knowingly subjected myself to.

You could write in at the end – this was in the olden days you see and we had to write letters because that was the style of the time – and win a badge. I never wrote in. I’m not very good at puzzles, and I was even less good at them as an eleven year old (maybe ten, actually).

Meme

Even at ten (eleven? twelve?) I got a sense that the kids appearing as part of the studio audience definitely got a whole different level of bullying presented to them in the days after their episodes aired. Those poor kids.

Oh. And Captain Zep – Space Detective also had a ridiculous theme tune. If you’ve not heard the Captain Zep theme tune you can find it on YouTube here. I’m relieved to say I never owned the record myself.

I cannot stress enough how seriously this ridiculous program took itself, even when delivering lines about robotic fish, and how much I lapped it up. I was eleven (and then twelve).

Anyway. It was scifi, from the golden age of childrens’ television scifi which started in about 1977 with Children of the Stones and was finally killed off for good by the Tribe in 1999. Arguably.

I think we were in Cosford at the time, but I could be wrong. We’d have just come back from the Netherlands probably. My memory is shaky. I have a distinct memory – which might be one I’ve made up but go with it – that my dad would get back from work around the same time Captain Zep – Space Detective was on the television. He’d come in, and he’d sit on the sofa. I’d probably be sat on the floor nearer the television than was wise because eleven (or twelve).

At the end of each episode, Captain Zep would sign off with his catchphrase. It was a very 80s childrens’ BBC catchphrase. He would look directly into the camera and without fail each week he would tell us what next week’s episode would be called and then say “See you then. And remember… stay alert!

He would say it with a dreadfully straight face. As if at any moment we viewing kids might be called on to solve the murder of a space president by rebels.

Lerts

I never did find out what a lert was. Or what a loof was for that matter.

And, without fail, my dad would laugh and say “no, stay aloof. Britain’s got enough lerts.”

Every time. Without fail.

Id ask him what a lert was, and he’d laugh and for quite a while I was convinced “lert” was a rude word. Because of cause I was.

And this, your honour, is why the governments’ new COVID-19 advice is almost useless to me. Because every time I see it, I think “No, stay aloof. Britain’s got enough lerts.”

Which now I think about it, works pretty well as a bit of advice.

So there you go.

You can read a much more serious article about Captain Zep that isn’t trying to score cheap political points written by Tim Worthington here.

A Year Ago In A Field

Last year during the events I made a series of short video diaries for m’Patreon. The first one was less a video diary and more me looking very tired at the camera. I did however write up the event as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek rambling blog post. Given we’re not able to run event one this year due to, you know, the collapse of civilisation, I thought I’d post it up here for people to have a read through.

Wednesday 24th – The Great Van Fiasco

Graeme Jamieson – Vice President in charge of Finance and Numbers – picked me up in his wee car around one-ish and we drove down to Preston. There were complex travel plans. He had already been on the road for something like eight hours (or however long it is it takes to get to Preston from The Back of Beyond). We did some minor prep work but mostly talked shite because its always a toss-up with a long car journey whether you’re going to be in the mood for work.

We got to site reasonably early, but unfortunately the other half of our “convoy” – Matt and Sam – did not. Instead the van that they were traveling in decided to break down in Bolton. Luckily all my bedding and such like were in the back of the car, because in the end Matt and a second van reached sight at around seven in the morning on Thursday.

Sam sensibly declined to wait up for the van, slept on a sofa, and got the train to Banbury instead. Because she is sensible like that.

The worst part of all this (from my point of view) was that the reason they were in Bolton was to pick up the new Bourse notes from the printer but thanks to an oversight the Weirwood and White Granite notes had had their leaf transposed. So while mithril was fine, the other two weren’t usable. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the upshot is that we’ll need to launch the lovely new notes during Spring Equinox.

I also had no electricity, no internet, and no servers. So we got not further work done and had an early night.

Thursday 25th – Writing! So Much Writing!

Electricity was piped in nice and early – sparkies are excellent at their job. Server access soon followed. I then spent Thursday roughly the same way I’d spent the previous three weeks. Typing like a crazy man.

We’re very variable how we manage with finishing writing work before events. This time round a last-minute rewrite of something meant we lost a week we should have spent on Winds of Fortune, meaning they ran on an extra week, meaning that I was still writing in the field. It’s been a while since I had to do that and it is not fun.

Thursday was dedicated to pack stuff – responses to Winged Messengers, a massive ritual-text-come-plot-exposition-document, final details for curses and meta-effects, stuff like that.

In between all that additional writing there was an amount of talking to people I’ve not seen in eight months, “adding value” to other peoples’ tasks, and piling stuff up so I could find it when the event started.

Throughout the day I had several sudden attacks of “OMG ITS NEARLY TIME IN” because I am not used to being on site working on a Thursday  – previously its always been my travel day. That was fun.

I was also a bit disappointed to discover we’d not gone with the Crew t-shirt slogan I thought we’d agreed on. We do a new crew t-shirt each year – a tradition that stretches back to Maelstrom and Odyssey days – and for Empire they have inspirational quotes about politics that also work for Empire roleplayers.

I’d been keen to have a quote from a non-man (we do a lot of Thomas Payne) and had persuaded Matt to use a quote from philosopher and philanthropist D. Parton (“Find our who you are and then do it on purpose”) following a very long discussion in which the ethics of making crew wear a t-shirt with an Ayn Rynd quote on (“Ask not who is going to let me do it, ask who is going to stop me”) were examined.

In the end we’d ended up with another Payne – which is fine – but a bit disappointed. There had been cold feet about whether some of our critics would be unhappy that our first quote from a woman in a while was from Dolly Parton rather than Simone de Beauvoir or someone similar. I think we made the wrong choice, but I’m not the one has to answer the angry e-mails.

There’s always next year.

We were a little late to bed because we had a final pass through Arcane Projections to do. As it always does it involved some last-minute changes to the status of certain projections. Most of the work here was Graeme and Matt – Matt in particular is called on to write the text a player receives if their arcane projection is a failure – but I still need to add value from time to time by writing rolepalying effects, or arguing finer points of the magic game design.

Bed around two.

Friday 26th – Ambassadors and Oh My God It’s Time In

I normally try to make sure the Ambassador briefs are done in plenty of time, but this time round – what with extensive imperial diplomatic stuff going on – they had to wait until late in the writing cycle. Meaning I was still putting finishing touches to them on Friday. This is never ideal.

I managed to get the last one finished and edited by Matt at about seven, which is an hour after time in obviously. It also left my nerves twanging like an evil banjo.

Irritatingly it was about this time we discovered we were very short on visions for Signs and Portents. The issue appears to have been that we changed how we collected them at some point during the run up to the event and then failed to disseminate that information sufficiently. It happens. Next event will be better.

I also had to brief the refs on the Wacky Circumstances for this event – specifically some options with magic and rituals we’d outlined in Winds of Fortune. About halfway through explaining one of them I realised Id made it far too complicated and felt bad. It passed, and the refs managed, but hopefully next time I’ll avoid the mistake I’d made there (too many nested effects tied to player identity and skill picks). And instead make a different one, obviously.

Writing out of the way, I helped with some briefing for one of the big encounters – big in terms of impact and prep work needed rather than numbers of crew involved. It meant helping to set up the four Ambassadors who were there for the anti-slavery summit to go to their cheese-and-golden-chocolate-balls meet-n-greet. I’d been fretting about this particular set of Non-player characters since around E3 last year but in the end we had four extremely solid crew – Stephen Kirkbride as Sarcophan (a role he was born to play), Bex Waring as the Commonwealth (she is a master of that rare non-player character skill of saying “no” and is excellent at in-character negotiations), veteran Tarantula/Flembic Jon Cole as the Sumaah (he is very good at having a kind of rock-hard confidence that players’ demands for mutuality just bounce off), and Sam Sutton for the little-dog-among-big-dogs from Axos (because she does a good line in opportunistic necromancers).

They went out to meet the players. We got a feel for how the next day’s summit might go. We chatted a lot about different approaches, red-lines, and how best to draw the player characters out so that it felt like a negotiation.

In between all that I did the two roles I needed to play that evening. Two plenipotentiaries in fact. Ira Harrah’s herald, and the Vizier of the Cassinean Empire for Basileus Flint. These were pretty much “talky” encounters – which is just as a well. Plenipotentiary parleys can sometimes be tech-heavy (tech here meaning magic items, boons, scrolls, and the like which are offered as boons). I quite enjoyed them in spite of myself even though I discovered that not only was I having an allergic reaction to the fur on my Vizier outfit, but also to one of the big pieces of cloth I had over my head for the Ira Harrah herald.

I got to bed about half one after some last-minute discussion regarding some of the encounters that were due the next day.

Saturday 27th – Running Around A Bit and Then Standing Still

Full day of encounters – organising the remaining three plenipotentiaries, consulting on a few of Matt’s encounters, offering assistance where required, handling the odd bit of on-the-spot writing and things like that. A typical Saturday during an event, basically.

Saturday starts with the field character meeting at nine o’clock when the egregores, civil service and plot writers all get together to give quick updates on how things are going. They take place in the Plot tent, and they’re usually a lot of fun. Clare Evans (its her department) pioneered them and runs them with a ruthless iron fist. It’s a good way for me to get a feel for how things are going, and lets the people who have all the player-character face time bring up concerns, share cool snippets with one another, and give an overview of what’s happening in their area. I make unhelpful jokes and answer questions where I can.

We had our first test of the new Swim Leviathan’s Depths rules, and it seemed to go well. I’m comfortable where we’ve ended up there  – I think its good both for me and the players to know when they can talk to the Cosmic Party Whale.

The other big job I make time for through the day is variously called Constitutional Court or Scrutiny. This is when me, Matt, Graeme, and chief magistrate Jon Creek get together with one of the Senate civil servants (Harry or Amy) to go over submitted motions and do a spot evaluation to check for problems or answer questions. Due to Amy unfortunately being very ill indeed and having to go home, we had Harry for this which is always a nuanced pleasure.  I can’t remember any blips.

The bulk of the day was supporting other plots. I’d rostered a chunk of the day off in case I needed to fill in for one of the ambassadors but there as no need, so around seven I kitted up and headed for Conclave.

Its Own Pocket Dimension Outside Space and Time

Conclave was good. It as also four hours and ten minutes long (James, the civil servant who runs it, counted every minute).

Earlier in the day the Hall of Worlds – where Conclave takes place – had been knocked over by the wind. The red cap team had it back up in a couple hours because they are heroes, but it meant it was about half the size it normally is. This meant it was a little cozy – but not painfully so.

The worst bit about it was, as always, the lack of seating. It’s better than it was, but as a fat man who will not see 40 again, standing for two hours was a challenge. I eventually managed to perch on the edge of a bench which improved things dramatically for the last two hours.

One of the reasons I was keen to be there was that after last event I’d made a few tweaks to how the discussion ran and wanted to see how they worked. I was broadly happy – the Candidacy discussions were still a little drawn out, but once they were out of the way the actual meat-and-veg business of conclave was extremely cool.

Conclave takes a long time, but I never felt that anything that was going on was a waste of time. There were all sorts of serious, in-character debates about all sorts of topics – the purpose of the sorcery declaration for example, or the potential threats of the eternals, or the controversies surrounding other parts of the Imperial machine’s involvement with foreign powers and the like. It was genuinely fascinating.

I imagine I had a different experience because I knew what was going on with 78% of what was happening, but it was pure politics.

Conclave, as I have said more than once, is my jam. If I were a player I would be rolling around in that jam like a giant wasp who is also a jam miner and has an unfortunate addiction to jam. It’s got a reasonably egalitarian feel – one magician one vote – and anyone with a bit of mana can add things to the agenda or get a grandmaster’s attention to speak on a topic.

The drama was even better than event one, with excellent theatrical grandstanding from Paul Fraine as the Spring Archmage, Solomon of the Shattered Tower (I think it was), Andre Tcherepnine as the deeply concerned Grandmaster of the Sevenfold Path, and adroit political points from what I think was Izzy Treveliane as the Grandmaster of the Celestial Arch and her order. Plus Phil Prior as Gregor, the Grandmaster of the Shuttered Lantern, giving a kind of subdued performance that would not have been out of place in a courtroom drama.

My jam, like I said.

Then there was some serious drama involving an Archmage, a virtue inquisitor, a very important document, and a major question of ethics. Not that that was allowed to interfere with the flow of Conclave. Nothing short of an attack by spider demons stops conclave these days.

It was, in short ace. For four hours, the tent set aside for Conclave became its own little microcosm of the game and I am very glad I went. I’m not saying that at some points I couldn’t remember a time I wasn’t in Conclave, but I’m still glad I went.

Next event however I will bring my own chair, something to drink, and some food. And maybe a radio, dammit.

After Conclave

Arrived back just in time to find out what had happened with the anti-slavery summit. There was a fascinating situation where the big anti-slaving-nations trade pact had definitely been formed but the Empire were not technically in it yet because the treaty had not been ratified. Potential for excitement next day was discussed, and we also looked over all the clauses with an eye towards how they could make game, whether there would be constitutional or legal issues, stuff like that.

Got to bed around two.

Sunday 27th – Ending on a High

Sunday started with the field characters meeting. Then knowing I had no Leviathan – because there were no outstanding questions on the system – meant I had plenty of extra time for last minute stuff.

I briefed up and sent out my last proper encounter of the event (Morgan and Bex as Faraden traders) and pegged it across the field to be tried for a crime I definitely committed.

Almoin Ostikis, the Asavean Architect was on trial for idolatry. He started out as a wind of fortune opportunity, then went into play as a person during the Summer Solstice event in 2018. He was basically me with an outrageous accent and 30-year-old GCSE French.

It was all quite civilised for criminal proceedings and the first time I’ve been involved as a non-player character in that area of the game. I caught the magistrates eating breakfast in a moment of unexpected verisimilitude. We then had a quiet trial – myself, the magistrate, and the prosecuting priest (Mike Kilburn). There was an outcome.

I enjoyed the experience, and got to see a magistrate operating. I’m glad we went the route we did right back at the start, in having non-player characters enforce a functioning (for live roleplaying) legal system. It involves lots of nuance it seems.

Then back across the field for scrutiny (via a surprise mini-encounter with a Joe-shaped priest of the League that made it very hard to keep my grumpy face as I stomped off site as Almodin). Then into my Leontes the Scribe kit again to make the final Senate session of the event.

Senate was great fun – Harry as the Speaker is always a joy to watch working the room. I read a newspaper in character and tried not to let on too obviously when I spotted a Senator lying, misrepresenting, or incorrectly stating things based on stuff I had written.

There was politics, and drama, and a Home for Goodest Doggoes, and then the big motion that I was interested in – the ratification of the anti-slavery treaty. Everyone was moved.

Then time out, and I left the field feeling good.

It never lasts – once the event is over the thousand-and-one things that didn’t work, or ruined peoples’ events, or just went less well than they might have begin to mount up and quickly leech any sense of achievement. But for a couple hours it was aaaaaall good.

Back to the Matt Cave, and nail down the barbarian orders. We’re always careful with this – its a job Matt, Graeme and I do in sketch form before the event then lock-in after time out in case anything has changed in the campaign since the start (normally battle outcomes). It normally falls to Matt and I, as Graeme knows what the players are doing by this point because he has their orders. This time Matt had accidentally learnt something about one of the fronts that meant I had to do them solo which is always a bit of a pain because I tend to swing wildly between CRUSH THEM ALL and WE CANNOT POSSIBLY WIN RUN AWAY depending entirely on my mood. But we managed it, then discussed likely outcomes for the various theatres based on Graeme’s subsequent overview of player action.

Depending on how takedown is going we either start writing up senate motion, synod judgements and conclave declarations or just hang out and talk shit. This time we lost the server early so it was the latter. Hearing stories about cool things people did or saw during the event, getting caught up on the battles, and planning follow-ons for next event.

Then the crew party and the obligatory bit where Matt tells everyone how great they are. I fell asleep immediately after tea and went to bed at around ten.

Monday 29th – Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig

Now we’re back in the North, and getting a lift with Graeme, we leave early. I tore my office apart and threw it in bags and then we were off site by half nine or so which is definitely a new experience.

We stopped off to have lunch and watch a superhero movie (I cried) and arrived back in Cumbria around six or seven, ready for a day or two relaxing (and writing a brilliant quality short story in 24 hours for someone because of course I am) and then start prepping for the next event which is in … about 65 thousand hours as I write this.

That’s plenty of time, right?

The video – which I hope worked – was made immediately after Conclave as I got back to my desk in an empty office. I hope it works, I’m struggling with YouTube settings because luddite.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon on April 30th 2019.