Clip Show Time

Session Six: Plot Exposition Has To Go Somewhere

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

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

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

Not really a clip show

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

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

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

Cold Opening

Countess Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed Scenes

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

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

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

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

I’ll quickly outline each one.

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

The Flashbacks

ClippyFlashbacks

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

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

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

I wanted three things out of these scenes.

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the session

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Other Bits and Bobs

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

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

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

Some Boxed Texts

Introducing Lady Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Watch Captain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

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

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

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

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

What do you do?

Waiting in the Hospital

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

What are you reading?

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

Rats and No Gargoyles

The First Adventure

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

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

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

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

Session One

Session One : A Rough Night at the Salty Mermaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Three

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

Session Three : Shitpipe Oddyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aside About Donder McFlynn

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

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

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

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

Session Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Five

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

Session Five : Gotta Catch Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the demons are based on Pokémon.

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

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

Volume 2

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Icons Work for You

Modding the Icons

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

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

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

A Quick Reminder of the Players’ characters

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

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

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

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

The Imperial Court (More Or Less)

First Image

Empress, Archmage, Hierophant, Crusader

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

The Empress

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

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

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

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

The Archmage

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

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

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

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

The Hierophant

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

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

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

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

The Crusader

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

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

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

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

The Middle Road

Third Image

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

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

The King Under the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Queen of Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Warlord

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

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

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

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

The High Druid

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

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

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

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

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

The (Mostly) Black Hats (Kind Of)

Fourth Image

Shadow Prince, Lich King, Diabolist

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

The Shadow Prince

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

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

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

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

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

The Lich King

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

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

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

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

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

The Diabolist

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

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

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

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

The Dragons

Second Image

Great Gold Wyrm, the Three

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

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

The Great Gold Wyrm

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

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

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

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

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

The Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

Icons and Factions

Superpowerful NPCs are the worst

Elminster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Icons work best for me is –

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

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

The Icons in the Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Be Harder To Remember

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

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

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

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

Ruobhe

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

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

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

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

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

Embigenning your Game

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

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

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

eberron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two: They need an agenda that could cause conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another digression: Cthulhu vs Boromir

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

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

Boromir

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

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

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

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

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

Three: They need a level of ambiguity

Alignment

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

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

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

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

WickerMan

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

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

Four: The Story will be guided by PC Icon relationships

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

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

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

Rejigging the Icons

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

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

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

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

Maybe next time.

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

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.

Air, Earth, Fire, Water… and Heart

Drowned

Tonight was my little gaming group’s second game of Heart, the upcoming tabletop RPG from Rowan, Rook, and Decard. I kickstarted it because I very much enjoyed the Spire game that is a counterpart to this new game. Where Spire is about resisting the oppression of the aelfir in a mile-high city above, Heart is about delving into the crazy red mysteries of the mile-deep city beneath.

We’re playing the quickstart, which uses pregens, a stripped down version of the rules, and a straightforward adventure involving eels. To be honest, they had me at “supernatural seawater ruins festival and floods tunnels” because I am always happy to explore my deep rooted fear of, and fascination with, deep water.

Because we live in Cumbria, London, a slightly different bit of London, and basically London but more rural, we play via the interwebnet. Discord provides our comms because it is simple, and Roll20 provides our virtual tabletop.

Taking a leaf from my mate Wicksey, we don’t try to put maps down or move miniatures about or whatever – the tabletop is a shared space where we use cards and pictures-stolen-from-the-internet to create a bit of atmosphere. It works reasonably well I think as long as I do the prep to make some cards and rip some pictures into shape. Plus you can roll dice on it and I do like dice. Oh, and it has a nice library of sound effects, some of them Spire specific, which are really helpful for covering the awkward silences.

John (Exploring Roll20 interface) “Hey! I’ve just noticed you can draw on this thing!”
Raff: “Well, you’re the artist, John.”
John (gleeful): “I can certainly draw a penis!”
Raff (Sighing)”… you’re so Clive Barker.”
John (gleefuller) “I’ll take it!”

Three Musketeers (Kinda)

Refugees

Or, murder hobos with no life expectancy

It’s a small game – with this kind of improv heavy story game I like a smaller team of people I can riff off. It cuts down on the workload.

As with Spire, the character classes in Heart are familiar and different at the same time. They’re traditional delvers seen through the askew glass of body horror, madness, despair, and guns. While none of them grab me quite as much as the Spire classes did (Ranger-as-cannibal-priest-with-a-hyena, Rogue-as-masked-functionary-who-can-go-anywhere-as-long-as-they-act-like-a-servant, Alternate-universe-skipping-train-mage and the like), that may well be because we’re dealing with pregens rather than classes as such. The Junk Mage, the Hound (world weary fighter from a lost legion), and the Vermissian Knight (eldritch-train-knight) all have a lot of potential in my opinion.

Our little team is… well it’s a bit dysfunctional if I’m honest.

John is Lynd, a crazy murder-hobo who is also a witch and jumps at every opportunity to unleash her crazy magic to make everything provably worse. He “helped” protect the Festival of Ribbons and Bells at doomed Devisse by turning into a horrible blood-red horror with tentacles and animated entrails and massive claws.

Mark is Ynneth, a junk mage – warlock-as-addict – who occasionally consumes things no sane person should consume and channels the magic of a deadly underwater queen. He mostly pokes things he shouldn’t and enjoys being able to survive underwater while looking for magic items to snort.

Clive is the sane member of the party – Tenacity Malrique, priestess of the weird Moon Beneath that is in no way an unspeakable aberration misunderstood as a goddess. She is definitely not a heretic. She has a special shield and I think may have more than a little “drow Captain America” to her.

The system is straightforward, almost the same as Spire but with some minor twiddles – the Resistance toolbox which involves the widespread “failure and, failure, success but, success” approach. Comparing it to Spire, the player characters (at least the quickstart ones) seem less generally competent – in that they are often rolling fewer dice. They have more wacky powers though so it maybe balances out?

Clive put forward the supposition after our first session that this is because the game is more horror than action – although there is action enough in it. He might be right. It’s certainly got a more horror vibe to it. Dungeons and Dragons plus body horror plus unspeakable weirdness rather than ten-foot corridors and plentiful torches.

Clive: “To be honest, I’m not sure this is the group people would have made if we’d been making characters.”
(Nobody looks at John’s crazy murder hobo blood-and-curses Witch)

Beating Heart

I like the quickstart adventure – I like the way it’s set up. It feels like it’s been pretty obviously built for the pregen party with plenty of obvious episodes for all of them (including the two extras who are not appearing in this three-person mission) to shine.

One of the elements of the game that differs from Spire is how experience works. Each character has a “calling” that represents their reason for being in the underworld (seeking enlightenment, forced to hide out in the dungeon, poking the terrible source of madness and chaos at the heart of the underdark etc etc), and that gives them a list of beats. At the start of each session, each player picks two “beats” from that list and this forms a sort of contract with the GM – I’ll try to get opportunities to follow those beats into the session. If they follow the leads i drop, and “succeed” (for a given value) they get an advance – basically its a dynamic advancement system.

All the beats are aimed towards thematically supporting that calling at the table. It’s very neat

I’ve encountered two problems here, but they are both minor. Because we play two hours at a time, roughly, I’m looking for opportunities to put one of their beats into play every two sessions or so. If we were playing longer games it’d be less of an issue.

There’s also a few problems with how much I’m meant to force them. Clive/Tenacity chose “make a dramatic entrance that is a risky proposition” and I found that a good deal harder to try and set up than “rescue someone from peril”, or Mark/Ynneth’s “find a text that will aid you” or John/Lynd’s “suffer minor Echo fallout” which was basically guaranteed to happen at some point (and resulted in him spewing baby eels everywhere, then learning from the experience).

Two things worked really well about advancement – firstly because “pick an advance” is pretty straightforward the characters “levelled up” as part of playing and chose advances that suited the circumstances of their beats. Clive/Tenacity saves people from the flood and masters the Compel skill (basically the basic social skill). Mark finds walls covered in notes about the area and uses them to master the Delve skill.  John vomits tiny supernatural eels everywhere to the horror of all his companions and through them learns the Endure skill. Stuff like that.

The second thing was that the beats presented for each character all seem to be activities that encourage risky play – whether its inviting fallout (negative repercussions for your character), or flinging open sealed doors to see what’s on the other side, or throwing yourself in harms’ way to protect an injured soldier.

John: “It could just be fish.”
Mark: “It’s never just fucking fish!”
John (gleeful): “Sharks are fish!”

The Drownening

Flooded1

One of the best things about both Spire and Heart is the Vermissian – the disastrous abandoned subway system that now serves as a conduit for strangeness. And not a metaphor for railroading, hopefully. Choo choo!

If I had a criticism its that the adventure-as-written is a little linear. The mechanism for creating interesting adventures in the underworld is not entirely dissimilar to the old fourth edition skill challenge – or a combat. The characters do things and chip away at the difficulty of the “delve” they are on – delves being journeys between point A and point B whatever they happen to be. Success means they get closer to their destination, failure means they don’t and will ultimately lead to complications.

I worried a bit that the delve we did tonight – guiding a bunch of refugees on makeshift rafts through flooded train tunnels – would have felt railroady but I am assured not. Because it’s not using a strict “here is the dungeon, there are orcs in this room” approach I often had to come up with interesting obstacles, challenges, and descriptions on the fly to stop the game just being a succession of “Delve + Warren” rolls until the party reached their next destination.

There’s a list of suggestions in the adventure, and I threw in some stuff inspired by computer games primarily Fallout (malfunctioning effulgent energy devices sparking under the water that needed turning off or circumventing; crazy writing on tunnel walls; a great sump cavern with some odd things in the depths). Given the area had a feel of “twisting tunnels” and “technology” it seemed to work okay.

I didn’t do as much with the refugees the party were escorting as I could have – treating them as a bunch of  faceless NPCs was inevitable given the temporal constraints of the session. They were alternately enthused by Mark’s dangerous ideas, encouraged by Clive’s conviction, and horrified by whatever batshit occult body horror John was getting up to.

Raff: “So, what are you doing to help people up the rusted ladder, Lynd?”
Clive: “She doesn’t need to do anything. They’re all terrified of her.”
Raff: “A good point, well made. The remaining few refugees scramble up the ladder as fast as they can to get away from the horrible shapechanging cursemonger behind them.”

Summation

Froghemoth

Soon my pretty. Soon.

All things considered I’m enjoying Heart. I don’t know how much longevity it has – I think we’ve got two or maybe three more sessions in this adventure and it’s several months still until the game actually ships.

I’m finding it harder to improvise whole comparatively open-ended dungeon delves than it was to (for example) improvise around a heist in Blades in the Dark but I’m still enjoying it. I’m not quite in the zone yet, but I had great fun with the little meat lilies that John conjured with his “make-everything-worse” power, and with the improvised baby eels fallout that made the visit to Sump #32 even more fraught with danger, and if I could just remember that Mark has a dog more often I’d be pretty ‘appy.

One thing I am certain of is that it is a much better fit for the small party I have; the time constraints; and the fact we are playing over t’internet than Dungeons and Dragons or a more traditional fantasy tabletop game might be. The advantage of games that are just people talking is that they are just people talking so you can be scattered across the whole of England without it causing problems.

My one regret is that just as I was introducing an unspeakable aquatic behemoth to attack the party with I noticed the time and realised it was later than I thought. I suspect it might now follow the party so it can jump out at them at a later date. If anyone asks, it was foreshadowing.

Clive (as Tenacity): “Thank you for taking us in.”
Raff (as Sister Arielle): “Don’t thank me yet. We haven’t discussed the price for our aid… And that’s where we’ll leave it for tonight.”

Having someone feed you the line that lets you end the session on just the right note? Priceless.

 

More Than Five Random Thoughts While Prepping a New D&D Game

Next weekend I have volunteered to run a short game of Dungeons and Dragons (fifth edition) for two friends who are veterans and a ten-year-old novice. I have spent a lot of my life running Dungeons and Dragons, but haven’t as yet touched fifth edition. I actually started a couple of weeks ago, working up a simple campaign story based very loosely in Al-Qadim (a setting I have fond memories of from the 90s), but then I got cold feet and chucked it all in the bin and started again with something a little more accessible but a little less high-fantasy with fewer genies in it. I’m still not sure I made the right decision.

The challenge is that not only is this a new system I am somewhat unfamiliar with, being very late indeed to the party, but that it’s also the first time I’ve run anything for any of my players. What if they hate my style? Oh I should probably have mentioned that one of the players is my boss, one of the others is his daughter, and the third likely player is m’colleague the company finance director. That’s enough to give anyone the twitches, I reckon.

The Light

I discarded the religion I’d spent two weeks tweaking in which astral demigods protected the world from demons because I couldn’t get twelve of them I liked and lets be honest only someone playing a Cleric cares about this shit anyway. But then I got bogged down for a fucking hour trying to come up with just theright names for the six virtues of the Light and then another hour trying to arrange them in the correct colour order so that none of the ones I liked was stuck being yellow or orange.

What I should be doing is just running something like Lost Mine of Phandelver straight out of the box. Or at least just rubbing the serial numbers off Keep on the Borderlands or Palace of the Silver Princess. Probably the latter, because the former could be mildly problematic. Also not really designed for three players to roleplay as opposed to just hit things with hammers.

In fact, I could just run Eberron… except I know that one of my players is into heroic fantasy and Eberron is a bit specific and also if I’m honest I daren’t run Eberron because if I do I’ll want to run more Eberron and getting three people in the same place at the same time has been challenging enough without trying to run a proper Eberron campaign and… I forget what I was saying.

I’m an emotional wreck, as you can see. Full of D&D themed turmoil. So I decided to take a break from deciding what the main religion looked like and write this instead.

I Feel Like I’m Betraying Fourth Edition…

Cards on the table. I didn’t hate Fourth Edition D&D. No, fuck it, let’s be honest. I enjoyed fourth edition D&D, both running and playing it. Once some of the hard edges had been smoothed out. I mean the Players’ Handbook was a clusterfuck of worthless dailies, and the Monster Manual had no idea of its own maths, but pretty soon it got kicked into shape. I liked that everyone got to do cool things. I even enjoyed paying a non-spellcaster in it. Even in fights. Reader, I did not enjoy playing a non-spellcaster in third edition, second edition, or first edition. Not in any way.

Then Joe Rooney ruined it by pointing out it was basically Descent. But ignore that.

This new system looks okay though. There’s still a little bit too much spellcasting in it, but it looks like the power levels of the various classes are a little tweaked and I could imagine myself playing a fighter or a rogue in fifth edition without feeling utterly useless.

Fewer Stupid Numbers

I’ve obviously not absorbed all the rules but I appreciate what seems to be an emphasis on doing things in different ways rather than just adding numbers to them. Fewer modifiers to remember, basically. I rarely have problems with modifiers, let me be clear. I write everything down neatly so I generally know what my bonus to any given roll is without help. On the other hand, being around players who don’t do this drives me up the fucking wall. I often had to make a real effort to be very calm when saying things like “did you remember your +2 for flanking” or “remember to add +1 damage for your skill” or whatever.

Here that seems less of an issue. You either have advantage/disadvantage or you don’t. The number of numerical bonuses and penalties seems much smaller.  There’s plenty of places where I’ve looked at something and nodded thoughtful – like the fact Expeditious Retreat doesn’t change your movement number it just lets you move normally but as a bonus action. I approve. Letting you do things in a different way is always cooler than just letting you do the thing you could do anyway but with a 10% improvement to efficiency. Likewise, rolling two dice and taking the best (or worst) already feels like its a thousand times better than getting a +2 or a -2 or whatever.

The Problem of Pregens

I worked out early on that I would probably want to do pregens for this session with the understanding that if we continue they can be tweaked. But obviously that also gave me the fear. Pregens have two very solid advantages – you can start playing almost immediately and as GM you know what everyone can do which keeps things fluid.

However it also runs the risk that the players are less attached to them, feel less like they’re playing a character they care about and more like they’re playing a board game, and worst of all have to deal with that disappointed “oh, I was hoping to play a tiefling druid who was also a hermit from the Algarve” thing that happens with pregens.

Plus there’s all the problems around how you lay that information out so it is intuitive for people who are not you to access. I used to do this a lot back in the day – we’d regularly play through short three-encounter games on a Monday evening that were designed to test out new bits of fourth edition for example and I’d have as much fun putting together (say) a dwarf shaman and finding a nice picture as putting the scenarios together. But that was when my printer was in the same postcode as my computer which is sadly not the case at the moment.

I Don’t Like Halflings

I spent several years toward in the early 10s playing a halfling in a fourth edition game. Ulmo Riverrunner, Halfling Rogue and all around good-guy. Always upbeat, cheerful, friendly, and ready to help the needy.

Eberron Halfling

I like Eberron halflings because I like 98% of things about Eberron and 99% of things about dinosaurs. But I don’t want to run Eberron right now and that’s fine. Really it is.

I fucking hate D&D halflings mind. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe I’m just a hipster who enjoys disliking Tolkein. Again don’t misunderstand – I really like Eberron halflings (and not just because Eberron is an incredibly rich and enjoyable D&D setting). I like the dinosaur riders, I like that they are the best healers and run the best inns, and I like that they are the best mafia. Also did I mention the dinosaurs? But the awful pastoral sneak-thieves… maybe I was just badly injured emotionally but that fucking kender at an impressionable age.

I don’t hate Birthright halflings (where they are alien invaders) although I could never quite work out why they were a playable race given there are like 50 of them in the whole world or something.

I didn’t entirely hate Dark Sun halflings either actually, even though I seem to recall that they were a teeny bit cannibal pygmy for my liking. But then I didn’t really like Dark Sun much so there’s also that.

I’m prejudiced against hobbits is what I am saying.

Most likely I will either delete halflings and replace them (probably with Eberron shifters because I like shifters), or reskin them as fucking rat people or something. Or just not mention them because that is also an option; remember you’re building a game that will run maybe two sessions if you are lucky not a three year campaign Raff! FFS!

Encounter Creation is Giving Me the Fear

I like to make encounters. The most fun part of third edition for me was probably statting encounters. So many lovely numbers of play with, most of which would never matter because someone would cast a spell and the encounter would just end (yes I’m bitter and irrational what of it?) I really enjoyed building encounters in fourth edition D&D as well – thinking about the roles of the various creatures, coming up with cool elements to the encounter, working out how to present it and keep it moving and so on.

This new edition… I’m not familiar enough with the flow to be entirely comfortable just winging it so I’m following the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it feels… wrong. It doesn’t help that I’m statting for three combatants – in fact I’m very tempted to break with my usual strategies and send a competent NPC with the group just to push the numbers definitely to four because it feels like the maths here is aimed at four players and falls apart at three. The multipliers it suggests to effective experience point totals for multiple creatures feel… clunky… to me.

It is reminding me of the bad old days of third edition where a “suitable encounter” was one creature that would get whaled on by the party and just die, or a horde of smaller creatures that would hit on a 20 and do pitiful damage before all being annhilated by a single spell. Makes my skin crawl just thinking of it.

Still… the flatter number curves in terms of THAC0 and AC seem to be suggesting that encounters even with lower challenge rating creatures will be less swingy and frustrating. The damage dice being rolled on some of these abilities are worrying me a little.

Nobody wants to run a short game in which everyone dies in the first encounter. Oh well, let’s see how that goes.

I Like the Delicious Flavours and Toothsome Crunch

There’s plenty of flavour here, which is very nice, even if it is a bit Forgotten Realms in places. The Monster Manual in particular makes me happy. I like that they’ve kept some of the concepts from fourth edition (clean, interesting statblocks, where most entries have one or two cool things) but accompanied them with some nicely detailed flavoursome write-ups of what these monsters are and what they are for and what makes them cool.

Still too many spellcasters though, but at least they don’t have ridiculous reams of spells including all the minor little utility things nobody ever cast. I can get behind that.

Look At Its Wiffly Little Tentacles

They’ve come a long way from when I first met them and fell in love with them in 1980-something. Did you know they also come in kaiju flavour?

I like that dragons are no longer giant scaled winged sorcerers by default. That always made encounters feel odd to me. I’m not even going to complain about the inclusion of the metallic dragons at this point (Eberron’s good influence on my thinking again) although I still think the old D&D versions were better (who can tell brass, bronze, and copper apart? Nobody can. Shut up).

I’ve checked out a few of my favourites. I like what they’ve done with wights and shadows. It’s nice to see creatures like ghouls having the “save ends” quality that I enjoyed in fourth edition and stopped fights with creatures like them and carrion crawlers being fucking tedious and awful.

I’ve made a note on my world notes to remove the aberration class of creature. It’s not because I dislike them, but because I want to try something different and it is too easy for me to slide into Bad Habits when it comes to tentacles. Carrion crawlers and rust monsters appear to be monstrosities these days, which is nice.

Plus I’m going to keep the genies. Just reskin them and change their names and… Dammit Raff! Stop trying to build a campaign setting and prep a scenario!

I Can’t Help Myself

I’m running one session as a taster. I’ve plotted out the basic scenario – it will involve a magical boat and a frozen lock because apparently Zomboat has crept into my subconscious and laid eggs there. If it works out, and we play again, I’ll cannibalise the first scenario idea I had (basically The Diamond Throne but with genies).

I just need a scenario with a handful of encounters; a couple of roleplaying scenes, a puzzle or investigation, maybe three total fights.

I do not need half a dozen well-fleshed out religions designed to promote conflict, a sweeping political landscape, a dozen slightly tweaked races and classes designed to highlight certain niches, a detailed explanation as to where these genies have come from and why undead exist, a decision about whether the Evil Empire is run by hobgoblins or tieflings (and whether I flip the elemental association of devils to cold to make them fit better with the slightly Norse-ish flavour I’m playing with in my head), nor to worry about exactly how many dwarvern noble families there are in the Fundindelve given nobody is going to reach the fucking place until at least the second scenario.

For fucks sake Raff! Have a word with yourself!

Fundindelve

I’ve spent too much time thinking about this place, given that the first scenario is supposed to end without the characters ever having seen it.

The Jim Banks Mythos

Award Winning Tosser More Like

Some of you may remember the award-winning John Haynes from such games as “Empire”, “Green Cloaks”, “the Forest”, “Jurassica”, and “HADES : Don’t Look Back”. He’s also written a few things that I’ve posted up here – in fact I have another of his Empire themed pieces primed and ready to go once I’ve sorted out his atrocious punctuation.

Where Have All The Hipster Gamers Gone?

Banks2

The most throught provoking and the most depressing of White Wolf’s original five games. I find it virtually unplayable.

In 2016, John ran his first “HADES” game – a dark game with a small player base based around the idea that everyone was a newly-awakened ghost exploring a dark and turbulent underworld. It makes more than passing nod to 90s classic tabletop roleplaying game Wraith : The Oblivion (to put it mildly).

That’s one of the things I like about John – we share a complicated love-hate relationship with the original five games White Wolf brought out in the 90s (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling) which were oh-so-nineties. Or in my case a hate-(love)-hate relationship.

It’s easy to mock the original White Wolf games now with 20+ years hindsight. Also fun. We should do that more.

On the other hand, they were also hugely influential on my development as a writer and a game organiser.

Banks3

It’s really weird when you look at the Wikipedia page and realise that White Wolf no longer really exists. It’s like when TSR disappeared, only somehow more profoundly unsettling. Sun rise, sun set. Cats in the cradle. Etc etc.

They were games rich with social conflict, politics, grey-areas, no-win situations, horror, weird empowerment, and even the occasional deep philosophical question about the nature of free will, humanity, and the cosmos. Basically, they were like starter homes for hipster roleplayers.

Sorry, where as I.

Oh yes. It’s easy to mock them now, but when they first came out they were groundbreaking. I’ve probably run and played more hours of White Wolf games than anything else except maybe the various iterations of Dungeons and Dragons.

Educating While They Entertain

So when John started talking about HADES I jumped at the chance to be involved, albeit in a very minor capacity. Obviously, I didn’t actually turn up to crew – I’m too lazy for that – but instead I wrote some stuff for him. Created paper props, really, based on a design bible he shared with me and a handful of idea-showers over Facebook.

My job, such as it was, was to bring out elements of the game and setting through papers the players might find scattered around. I suggested creating typewritten pages from fictional novels by a fictional writer – inspired partly by the old System Shock documents and audio-files, and by a sub-thread in an excellent Delta Green scenario called “The Night Floors” by Dennis Detwiller.

(Interestingly there’s a link to the PDF of that scenario I found while sorting the link for this paragraph. You can find it here. It also plays a part in the new campaign IMPOSSIBLE LANDSCAPES which it the time of writing is slowly shambling from Kickstarter toward Bethlehem to be born. From everything I have seen looks ace if you like the King in Yellow, unreliable narrators, and the Solomonic demons. I digress again).

Jim Banks and James Herbert

Banks4

James Herbert (1943-2013). He may not have written deathless literature but he wrote books that were fun to read which is aaaaarguably a much rarer talent.

We had a further chat or two, and in the end I settled on the persona of Jim Banks (named incidentally after a long-running tabletop character from a KULT game I played in in the 90s). An enigmatic weirdo who looked a lot like John Haynes, in fact. I based his writing style on my memories of the classic books of James Herbert – a writer I grew up with who I always associate with a certain pulpy horror style.

I don’t entirely rate his later books if I’m honest – everything after Creed really. But I still have fond memories of his earlier work, which had quite a significant influence on me as a young man. The more John chatted about some of the elements of his game – especially the idea that the main enemies would be spectral Nazis – the more I felt a Herbert vibe. I had a very strong memory of The Spear and it’s cheerful plundering of Nazi occultism and a whole load of myths and conspiracies.

If you’ve never read any James Herbert, I heartily recommend them. They are of their time, obviously, and probably problematic. They’re fine pulpy horror stories, sometimes with quite cinematic elements, that I always felt were clamouring to be made into movies. You may even have seen one – the in-my-memory excellent Survivor with Robert “Jesus” Powell and Jenny “Sexual Awakening” Agutter is based on a Herbert book.

Herbert gets lumped in with a bunch of what I think are weaker writers, especially Guy N. Smith (whose books I really don’t like), but for a time in the late 80s I would describe him to classmates as “the British Stephen King” with a straight face. Because I was a pretentious fucker as a youth.

I think in hindsight it would be fairer to have called him “the British Dean R. Koontz” but nobody reads Dean R. Koontz.

Nobody.

The books are schlocky, they have some cringeworthy sex scenes, and they’re a bit dated but they are also in my opinion fun. Especially if you are a lonely fifteen year old with too much time on your hands.

He also takes an incredible amount of glee introducing characters, sketching their tragic lives, making you mildly care about them, and then having them eaten by giant rats. I’ll admit to ripping off loads of stuff from his books over the years. There’s a specific trope I encountered in the second Rats book that I especially like to revisit in which someone heroically sacrifices themselves thinking they are saving their friends from the rats… but they aren’t. I love it. I think it’s a shame more people don’t rip Herbert off.

The underworld of HADES itself is made up of islands separated by tempestuous seas crossed by ferrymen.  Part of the metaphysic of the game involve the idea that things that are destroyed turn up in the Underworld (which supported my conceit of typewritten pages from an unseen author’s typewriter). So with all that in mind I settled down and churned out some very intentionally pulpy, slightly over-the-top fragments of fiction each one of which had hidden in its text a hint or clue about the nature of the Underworld.

Two Dimensional Nazis

I was reasonably pleased how they turned out, while at the same time cringing at some of the more obvious stereotyping. To this day I still wince a bit at how obviously interchangable and two-dimensional the characters all are and hope the players recognised the tropes enough to realise it was intentional. Whatever else you can say about James Herbert, his lantern-jawed heroes and sexy heroines were pretty much all identical.

I built up the Jim Banks mythos a little. I had a fanzine excerpt, for example, and a couple of letters between Banks and his agent. I also created a fake 90s roleplaying game based on Banks fictional works and had great fun parodying the style of the original White Wolf source books (and hiding a bunch of in-game information about hauntings and stuff that the players apparently deciphered while keeping a straight face). It culminated for the last event in a piece in the form of the walkthrough for a 90s computer game drawing heavily on the imagery of Clive Barker’s Jericho because I know Haynes has a hard-on for Barker.

Anyway. I’m going to slap up the texts of the first half dozen or so Jim Banks pieces over the next few days. I hope you find them as entertaining to read as I found them to write.

Oh – before I forget. There’s going to be a lot of awfully two-dimensional Nazis over the next week or so who owe a lot more to British war movies and Delta Green‘s Karotechia to anything actually researched. I apologise in advance.

The original post from which this one is extrapolated first appeared on my Patreon on May 24th