Do not expect your quest for vengeance against the interstellar arch-criminal Quandos Vorn to be met with universal equanimity. Especially uninterested in the havoc you may wreak while doing so are the Gaean Reach various officials and gatekeepers. Here appear reasons they might give you for dragging their feet or refusing cooperation entirely. Be prepared in advance to refute them.

  1. I recently supplied some information of a like nature and am now being sued. Can you idemnify me against all legal exposure? Do not reply; the question is rhetorical.
  2. By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
  3. Though apparently sound on a practical basis we need to know more about the philosophy underpinning your proposal. Please refer to the attached style sheet for information regarding the format of the required essay.
  4. I’m afraid that your application to hunt Quandos Vorn has been queued for future attention, as many others claim the right to bring about the same result. We must not show favoritism.
  5. Due to mental disability I am unable to remember requests. Though I do not discourage you from making them I am obliged to warn you that all effort shall prove bootless.
  6. I shall attend to your requests with maximum dispatch. To which planet shall I mail the results of my inquiries? What? No, I’m sorry, responses may not be mailed to the planet of request. Labor relations demand strict adherence to this policy.
  7. Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
  8. I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
  9. Lest I be accused of entertaining the receipt of bribes, your request must be heard in the presence of a bureaucratic chaperone. I shall put in a requisition for such services. Typical wait time is four to six weeks.
  10. Quandos Vorn? Incised on the form here it clearly says Quandos Chorn. A common input-output error of the form inciser, but needless to say we must start over.
  11. I will be frank and say that the thought of satisfying your entreaty terrifies me.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.


In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk holy ashes, Mary Sues, a GUMSHOE fallacy and Immanuel Velikovsky.

We’re burning the midnight witch-fires cramming ever more blood into The Dracula Dossier to get ready for the onrushing Kickstarter. (Which has been delayed a bit past the projected October 17th date you might have heard, thanks to the kinds of weird micro-crises that are apparently inevitable once you announce your Kickstarter date. Next time, for sure.) As currently constituted, you may recall, The Dracula Dossier comprises two books: Dracula Unredacted, Bram Stoker’s suppressed after-action report on the 1894 Operation Edom attempt to recruit Dracula as an asset for British Intelligence, further annotated by three generations of MI6 agents and analysts; and the Director’s Handbook, which provides the 54 disreputable NPCs, 16 devious Nodes, and 13 dubious Objects (all those numbers will increase with stretch goals, obviously) to which Dracula Unredacted provides the clues. Each of those entries has three different states (usually some variation of “Innocent, Edom, or Conspiracy”); the 30 dangerous Locations each have two states (“Cool” and “Warm”); so there are a total of 309 different Encounters in the Director’s Handbook alone. And that, like I said, is before we start adding stretch goals, like, oh, the Order of the Golden Dawn, or Iceland, or Elizabeth Bathory. Ooops, I’ve said too much.

VamberyHere’s one (or three) of those Encounters, an NPC, tied both to the novel (Van Helsing’s “friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth”) and to real history. Ármin Vámbéry (1832-1913) was a linguist and scholar, explorer of currently action-packed Central Asia (Uzbekistan is almost as hostile to inquisitive foreigners now as it was in 1863), propagandist, and British spy (against the Russians and Islamic radicals, plus ça change). You don’t have to use Dracula in your game to make use of a Hungarian fixer with mysterious connections all over Europe — “the Hungarian” might be connected to any number of secret vampiric conspiracies. Replace “the 1977 mole hunt” with whatever mysterious event in your campaign’s backstory you want the players to start asking about — when a man in a $10,000 suit says, in a Bela Lugosi accent, “But you must first understand, my friends, that the Munich bombing was none of my affair and I know very little of the details” you have a table of players who have just sworn in their hearts to follow those details to the ends of the earth. Even into Uzbekistan, if they must.

The Hungarian

Name: Ágost Vámbéry

Hungarian names are more correctly written surname-first, i.e., Vámbéry Ágost.

Possible Role: Fixer or contact in Hungary and Transylvania

Description: mid-40s, high forehead, dark wavy hair, walks with a cane

Innocent: Ágost is a descendant of Ármin Vámbéry (1832-1913), Van Helsing’s “friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth.” He moved to Hungary from New York after getting his MBA from Princeton in 1989 and set up a wildcat investment bank to pour American capital into Eastern Europe … and to launder Russian and former Communist oligarch money pouring into the West. He’s immune to social, political, and physical pressure: he can hire the best hostesses, legislators, and bodyguards available. He flies from city to city and party to party in Europe, Dubai, the Caribbean, and other fleshpots, constantly on the move from five-star hotel to five-star resort. Agents credibly claiming a few billion to invest (High Society, and possibly Accounting and Forgery) can get his attention long enough to have his P.A. hire a researcher to scan his great-grandfather’s correspondence, looking for letters from Van Helsing for “an interested collector.”

Asset: Like his great-grandfather, he keeps a wary eye on the Balkans for British intelligence, especially after the Yugoslavian civil war nearly toppled his fiscal house of cards. Needing liquidity and protection, he expanded his services: he now runs networks in the Balkans for MI6, DGSE, BND, and both the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA. He also does “one-off” favors for FSB agents hunting Chechen and other terrorists. By now aware he’s over his head, his continuous travel is a defensive measure to shake all but the best-funded and most persistent surveillance.

Using Tradecraft sets up a meet; agents who can either swap information (Negotiation) or make a credible offer of secure retirement and protection (Reassurance) can find out what Vámbéry knows about the 1977 mole hunt (a not inconsiderable amount once he shakes his older sources), get access to his great-grandfather’s correspondence with Van Helsing, and possibly find out what Edom is up to in Romania right now. At the Director’s discretion, Vámbéry – like his great-grandfather — may know about vampires (Vampirology notes his precautions at a meet, such as convenient mirrors).

Minion: As Asset, except that Dracula has already gotten to Vámbéry. His travel is a desperate attempt to keep running water between him and the vampire, but in his terrified heart he knows he’s dead when Dracula says he’s dead. When the agents approach him, he provides faked “Van Helsing” letters (Forgery will notice discrepancies) or other bad intel setting them up for an ambush by Dracula’s soldiers or, if things have gotten dire enough, by Dracula himself.

Alternate Names: Laila Vámbéry, János Nagy, Zoltán Hivje [the latter two have access to Van Helsing’s letters for unknown reasons, or just have information about the 1977 mole hunt]

Alternate Descriptions: (1): early 30s, shiny European-tailored suit, no necktie but high collar [Oxford, 1997; MBA Harvard, 1999]

(2): early 60s, thick lips, overweight masked by expert London tailoring, designer eyeglasses [grandson instead of great-grandson; involved directly in 1977 mole hunt]

(3): late 50s, slow and deliberate, sharp chin and nose [grandson instead of great-grandson; involved directly in 1977 mole hunt]

Defining Quirks: (1) conducts all important business in his Jaguar XJR or on his Gulfstream IV; (2) slips in and out of a Hungarian accent; (3) toys with heavy gold ring

Academic and Technical Abilities: Accounting, Bureaucracy, High Society, Human Terrain, Languages, Tradecraft, [Vampirology]

General Abilities: Driving 3, Gambling 6, Network 15, Piloting 3, Preparedness 5

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

ThawCon LogoMy original roleplaying group began 35 years ago. I received the AD&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for my birthday, learned the game from there, and ran it for my friends. People left and joined the group, set in the same campaign, over the years, but none of them ever played in any other game group, and while they tried Traveller for a while, AD&D was it. I didn’t play with anyone I didn’t know until 2001, when we playtested the Dying Earth, and we formed a new game group.

In 2007, after a break of many years, I met one of the old group and they asked to play the original game again, so every year we get together for a weekend to play with their original AD&D characters who have reached the giddy heights of 25th level or higher, destroy huge quantities of food and drink, hoot, yawp, mock and laugh – ThawCon

This year, one of the players, whose son is a big 13th Age fan suggested we play 13th Age instead. I was up for this, no problem, but some of my original group are quite conservative and sceptical, and so began a campaign or gradual persuasion. “Do we still roll d20s to hit?” “Yes.” “If we roll a 20, do special things happen?” “Yes” After a bit of back-and-forth, they agreed to try a single session. I said we could switch back to the original campaign if they weren’t enjoying it.

This is how I gently lured them into it.

The original email pitch:

13th Age

13th Age is a D&D-like game set in the current campaign world. Your existing characters get to be Icons of that  eg The God Assassin, The Viridian Mage, The Dark King, The Wizard of the Interstices, The Renowned Illusionist, An Awesome Name For Whoever the Hell Chris Currently Is, plus some major NPCs.

Your new characters have an indirect relationship with one or more of these Icons (you really, really wouldn’t want to actually meet any of them) which can be positive, negative or conflicted. You can make an Icon roll to call upon the knowledge, resources or network of the icon.

It’s AD&D, but with extra options. If you think of how your magic items currently work (especially Andrew’s sword) the characters work like that. So you get multiple choices for you actions which can sometime trigger off die rolls – so 20s can be awesome for example, but every class is different. You can always do a basic attack (what you currently do).

Some are complex to play – some are very simple – all are equally powerful. I am running it for the first time next week to see how it plays Map from CC-DOS Circa 1993out.

Character classes, increasing order of complexity. I’ve played a wizard, and it’s about as complex and has as many options as playing say an 8th level AD&D Wizard. I can give recommendations to suit players. I’ve asked Rob Heinsoo, designer of the game and of the previous version of D&D to come up with an Assassin class or bolt-on if anyone wants one  George?

  [I described each class here, and did recommendations]

Advantages: familiar background, familiar premise, familiar setting, roll d20 to hit and get extra stuff happening on high rolls, reasonably familiar rules, quick combat, characters have lots of choices even at low levels, can survive without a cleric, Steve and Chris know it. I can link the narrative into the main game. Rapid and incremental level advancement (eg you can select a feature of the next level up every now and then). Suits large parties.

Disadvantages: I’m not so familiar with it, requires more effort on my part (don’t mind), it will require some brain work from you to work to learn and take advantage of all the options. Linking to the other campaign might put your new characters in the shadow of the old ones.

I sent them the PDFs, and the details of the One Unique Thing and background and the following reading instructions. You might be able to tell they are quite combat-oriented.

The book is big, but you can miss most of it. Much of it is background specific to the game, which we won’t be using.

The glossary/index is pretty good.

I’d suggest you start with combat, page 159-174.

Then read p29-31 for the character creation overview.

Classes – read p 74-75 then scan through the ones you are interested in. There is all sorts of info elsewhere in the book about feats and all that sort of stuff, but most of it is repeated in each class.
Races follow on from class choice.

I set the game 15 years in the future from the AD&D campaign. This was short enough for familiarity, but distant enough to allow me to make changes.

There original characters had gone missing ten years ago, accused of regicide. I  gave them the option of using their original characters as their icons (you couldn’t chose your own character as an icon). This gave them a link to their characters, without their new characters being dominated by the old ones (dealing with the disadvantage I mentioned above).

Characters

I recommended each of them a class. The most difficult choice was for George, the eponymous Thaw of ThawCon, our host. Originally, I spoke to Rob Heinsoo about doing an assassin character or bolt-on power. He came up with some good ideas, but in the end George (with assistance from Steve Dempsey) built a horribly min-maxed paladin, Gilfyn, with backgrounds which added assassin-like stealth. His Smite is terrifying, and his chose a form of synaesthesia as his One Unique Thing – to see lies and evasions as a cloudy emission. (I treated this like Bullshit Detector in GUMSHOE). He rolled his stats, and his reputation for incredible rolls from previous years continues. He ended up with a 19 Charisma and a couple of other top stats.

histil1To Mark Fulford (of ProFantasy and Noteboard fame) I suggested a wizard. I said “To be the destroyer wizard, choose Evocation and High Arcana as class talents, then throw Acid Arrow (40 damage for an individual) or Shocking Grasp (18 damage for a group). At third level use Force Salvo (40) and Lightning Bolt (56).”

That picqued his interest. He replied the next day “An evoked meteor swarm in a small space does 160 minimum, 640 maximum on 1 to 4 targets. My kind of spell.” Sold. He decided to roll for stats, which I witnessed over Google+.  So Coyote was born – a former slave – and character from the subconscious mind of Tarantino, who sees everything in filmic terms and has a soundtrack. Mark figured out quite how powerful the Wood Elf racial ability is (the potential to earn extra actions), so he took that.

John Scott I know loves his gothic horror. What better than a Necromancer? To prevent him being just unpleasant, he took the Redeemer feature, which meant that his undead minions, when slain, exploded i n burst of holy energy and went to a bad place. He decided to roll his stats, and got the very worst results I have ever seen in a character (in AD&D I do 4d6 relroll 1′s and one stat must be 15 or higher). He got a 6, an 8, and no other stat above 12. Luckily, the Necromancer can take advantage of a very low Constitution using a feat. Beremondo’s mother gave birth while a vampire was feasting on her. Interrupted by his true father, then vampire fled. His mother died, and while his father funded his way through college, he would not speak to him.

Chris Godden, with the help of his son Jay, built another assassin based on the rogue, Zati. He used the point-buy option for his stats to ensure he got exactly what he wanted. This is a second character whose mother died, this time under mysterious circumstances, possibly assassinated by a rival faction. with an inexplicably good sense of smell. Drow cruelty suited this PC.histil2

Andrew Burnford I thought would suit a fighter or commander. I was nervous about the fighter as a fit for Andrew because of flexible attack options at 1st level, and that the damage to start with appears mediocre compared with the paladin, particulary a min-maxed one.  Histill was a former Master of Fireworks for the King, and with an incredible display he unwittlingly provided cover for the regicide. Andrew rolled for stats, too, despite our best advice, and did not do well. His One Unique Thing has not yet come into play, and I’d best not mention it.

Steve Dempsey, an experienced player, rolled for stats and built a cleric, Sythiros, happy to boost others power subtly, while not dishing out too much damage himself. He is a Keeper of Dead Knowledge and became a cleric when a dying woman whispered his like to him. He took the Knowledge, Death and Anti-Undead domains. He works with the Necromancer only because the Necromancer is a redeemer of the dead.

So how did it go? Tune in next time…

Next Time: Preparing for and Running 13th Age for the new GM

 

In fiction, supporting characters often function as reflections of the protagonists. As we know from DramaSystem, main characters in a dramatic story can be defined as torn between two competing impulses. In the game we call these Dramatic Poles.

In Hamlet, our title character is torn between Action and Contemplation. And wouldn’t you know it, two minor characters exist in relationship to him, each of them expressing one of those poles alone.

Horatio reflects Hamlet’s contemplative side—he is all thought and caution, and thus (spoiler) the one who survives to tell the tale.

Fortinbras marches through seemingly only to prick Hamlet’s guilt about his inaction. Later he also helps provide closure at the end. Tellingly, the last interaction is between the two foils, Horatio and Fortinbras, indicating that Hamlet’s story is done, his story having been fatally resolved in favor of action.

In Casablanca, Rick’s dramatic poles are the ever-popular Selfishness vs. Altruism.

Laszlo (Paul Henried) serves as the foil who is purely altruistic—almost annoyingly so, since we want Ilsa to be available to resume her relationship with Rick.

Claude Rains as Captain Renault reflects the opposite pole, supplying cinema’s most delightful portrayal of pure selfishness. Notably, he too flips to altruism at the end. (Whoops. Another spoiler. Hey, it’s been out for six decades.)

Villains and mentors sometimes also serve as foils. To cite a more nerdly example, you could argue that if Luke’s poles are Light Side vs. Dark Side, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader each represent one of them. (Really Star Wars is a procedural with a few nods to drama, so the analogy breaks down when squinted at too hard.)

As a DramaSystem player, you can give your GM something to work with by inventing and interacting with supporting characters who each embody a single one of your poles.

As a GM, you can conceive of supporting characters as foils, pushing a character toward whatever pole she’s currently neglecting.

So if your Hillfolk game includes a chieftain torn between expediency and mercy, his supporting character foils might be:

  • Hard-Talker, a grim-faced, veteran adviser who always argues for the cruel but effective course
  • Petal, the fresh-faced priestess who speaks up for forgiveness

Often you can retrofit a supporting character created on the spur of the moment to fulfill a need in one scene, adjusting her so that she becomes a long-term foil.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Illustration: Jonathan Wyke

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk creativity rewards, sanity and atrocity, lightning round, and a worse WWI.

Mutant_City_Blues_Cover01Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.

For example, here’s a basic human thug:

13th Age Human Thug 

1st Level troop [Humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy Mace +5 vs AC - 4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)

AC17

PD14    HP 27

MD12

Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)

GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.

Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:

  • Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
  • Natural 1s or 6s
  • 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
  • Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
  • The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo

You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.

All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.

 

Esoterrorist Security Guard

General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,

Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)

Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.

Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.

 

Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)

General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2

Health 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)

Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting

Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.

 

Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)

General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2

Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -0

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)

Armor: -1 vs bullets

Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.

Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.

 

Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn

General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3

Health 30

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -3

Damage Modifier: +6

Armor: -3

Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling

Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.

Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage

Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.

Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                     ROB_tile

by Rob Heinsoo     

Jonathan and I had two overarching goals when we designed 13th Age. First, we wanted to create the game we wanted to play together, and hoped that other people would want to play it too. Second, we intended to give people who were already busy playing other games new tools they could use to improve their games. Examples of the new tools include the escalation die, the One Unique Thing, and icon relationships.

What may not be readily apparent about the upcoming 13th Age in Glorantha supplement (presently in Kickstarter mode)  is that it maintains both of our original goals for 13th Age. First, 13th Age in Glorantha (13G) is our ticket to enjoy Gloranthan gaming in our preferred d20-rolling/indie-storytelling style. Second, some parts of 13G will be phrased as notions that people playing other games could loot. Glorantha is very much its own world, and the focus will be on presenting Glorantha, but there are aspects of Glorantha that other games could have figured out how to loot a long time ago, and somehow didn’t.

This article takes one of the key elements of Gloranthan adventure, the forays into the world of myth known as heroquests, and explains how heroquests can play a role in 13th Age games played in the core setting of the Dragon Empire . . . . and by extension, any 13th Age games played with their own unique icons.

 

When in Glorantha . . . . .

In Glorantha, heroquesting takes you across to the Other Side, the timeless world of the gods, the Godtime in which the world was created and nearly destroyed. When things are going right, you tap into a story in which your god (or perhaps just an ancient Godtime heroine) gains power, or wisdom, or accomplishes some great thing for the world, or at least for your clan or for your river valley or maybe just for the magic shield you discovered in a ruin that you think might be connected to a story of the great guardian god Elmal! (When things are going wrong, you aren’t quick or powerful or knowledgeable enough and some aspect of the heroquest kicks your ass and punts you out of the Godtime damaged or disturbed or dead.)

 

. . . and in the Dragon Empire

The Gloranthan version of heroquesting doesn’t translate directly to the core setting of the Dragon Empire. We deliberately set the gods far away from the world to make room for the icons. No gods in the Dragon Empire heroquests then—but the icons work perfectly as the central characters in the stories that will supply the Dragon Empire’s heroquests.

There were two reasons we chose the 13th age as the setting for our game. The first, of course, is that 13 is ominous, 13 is the number that tells you that the player characters’ lives will be complicated.  The second reason is that setting our game in the 13th age of the world gives gamemasters and players almost unlimited freedom to invent stories about what happened in the world’s past.

Heroquesting in the Dragon Empire isn’t about intersecting with stories of the gods. Heroquesting in the Dragon Empire is about using the power of an icon you are involved with to cross over into legends involving the earlier incarnations of your icon. In the world of legend, you interact with the stories that shaped the icon’s power, you participate in battles that shaped the world. As in the bizarre environments of our setting’s living dungeons, heroquests don’t always follow the logic that governs the rest of the world.

I suspect that Dragon Empire heroquesting usually involves performing a ritual at a location tied to the original legend you are trying to quest into. The location requirement is important to the GM, because it sets up plots in which the characters need to travel to specific locations, clean them out, and keep them secure long enough to perform the ritual. Heroquests may occur in the world of legend, but you’ve got to set them up specific locations in the land, the underworld, or the overworld, wherever the legend holds its power. (Gloranthan heroquests have similar geographic variables that may require dangerous adventuring before you can even cross into the dangerous world of the myths.)

This isn’t the place for a heroquest system. That’s coming in 13th Age in Glorantha. For now, here is one outline of the type of fun heroquesting will add to Dragon Empire campaigns that want to cross over there.

 

The Emperor’s Winter

In some campaigns, the strongest imperial legends concern the Blessed Emperor, who threw down the Wizard King and who tamed the Midland Sea. In other campaigns every Emperor’s reign is notable for the legends he emphasizes to reinforce the power of his rule.

Here’s an example of a powerful legend from the middle centuries of the Empire, a story from the 7th Age known as The Emperor’s Winter.

 

Sometime in the 7th Age, the frost giants invaded the Empire by freezing all the rivers that came down from the mountains. The giants followed their new roads of ice, advancing ever closer to the Midland Sea. The Empire fought back but was defeated again and again by the frost giants on the rivers the giants had transformed into glaciers.

(Station One: Ice Rivers is a ritual that must be performed on a frozen river, preferably in the mountains. You and your allies slip into the world of legend and fight an ever-escalating battle down advancing ice-rivers against frost giants and their allies. The legend expects you to lose this battle, so even death in this battle doesn’t harm you much so long as you give a good account of yourself and slow the giants.)

 

All seemed lost, but the Emperor (some versions of the story say it was actually the Emperor’s champion, a bastard son who’d entered the legions as a paladin) donned magic shoes created for him by the Archmage and skated up the worst of the rivers of ice, catching the frost giant king (who has many diverse names, often depending on local encounters with frost giants) in the midst of a great feast in which he was dividing the sections of the empire between the strange members of his own court.

(Station Two: The Magic Shoes can follow immediately after station one or be started later at the mouth of any river that spills into the Midland Sea except the Bronze River that runs past Axis, because everyone knows the Emperor had to travel to get to the worst of the frozen rivers. Everyone knows that the magic shoes are in fact ice skates, but any participant in the ritual who misses a chance to talk about the magic shoes or slips up by using the word ‘skates’ greatly endangers the quest (increasing DCs by 5 and all defenses by 3). Note also that trying to use magic shoes/skates in the first station of the heroquest ruins the quest completely. This station of the quest is a sort of obstacle and endurance and evasion course. The central actor representing the Emperor must wear heavy armor as they move (skate!) up the frozen river of legend. Everyone else can wear what they like, except that all heroquesters must wear ‘magic shoes,’ and anyone flying generally also spoils the effect of the quest.)

 

One of the Emperor’s traveling companions used magic, or tricks, or god-gifts, to make the frost giants think that the Emperor and his party were also frost giants, come from far away to join the feast. After initial greetings and toasts, the Emperor asked if he might also have a share in the spoils of the Empire. The frost giant king grew churlish and refused him, saying that the victory was his alone. The Emperor dropped the magic concealing his identity and replied that the giant was no true monarch, but that it was just as well that he had not dared to try to make a gift of something he did not own to the land’s true owner. They fought and the Emperor slew the frost giant king and most of the giant’s followers. The rivers of ice melted and until the end of the age, the Emperor could summon or banish winter as he wished.

(Station Three: Winter’s True Ruler must follow immediately after station two. Its first passages require trickery and illusion. No one likes to mention it to the current Emperor, but it’s likely that followers of the Prince of Shadows are extremely helpful in this portion of the heroquest. They might have been around from the beginning. The finale is a perilous frost giant battle enlivened with ice party extravaganzas, and characters who take a moment to loot instead of fighting with every breath can sometimes find treasures that the frost giants never meant for tiny mortals.)

 

Succeed with the quest and you increase the Emperor’s power over giants and the natural or supernatural forces of winter. Fail and relationships that should have remained strong grow cold, both in your lives and and between pieces of the Empire that should have remained in contact.

Why might the quest of The Emperor’s Winter come to matter in your campaign? Perhaps it’s simply that the Archmage’s failing wards against the worst of what nature has to offer need help. Or perhaps the PCs have taken a campaign loss, allowing the frost giants to complete a great magic spell that ushers in yearlong winter. Or perhaps the icon/dragon known as the White has resurfaced in Moonwreck and something has to be done to put a stop to the great icesheets creeping down from the north.

 

Back in Glorantha

In the 13th Age in Glorantha book, heroquests like The Emperor’s Winter will appear complete with playable stats, variants, rewards, navigation challenges for performing the stations of the myth out of order, and the myriad surprises and special wrinkles that make each myth special.

Some Gloranthan quests will translate easily to the Dragon Empire. Many others won’t translate so smoothly. But every Gloranthan heroquest will contain elements that could be used inside quests or adventures of your own composition. You can use 13th Age in Glorantha as a key to open your version of a wonderful game world, or you can use even Glorantha’s unique heroquesting as a toolbox to tinker with your own campaigns and worlds.

 

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk assassins, breaking into game design, contrivances and synarchy.

logogumshoeSee P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?

When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.

If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.

But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.

Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.

One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.

Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.

Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.

In Response to Specific Questions

A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:

  • He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
  • He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
  • It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
  • The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
  • He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
  • It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.

I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:

This serves several purposes.

One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.

Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.

I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.

No Need to Squeeze the Rind

The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.

In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.

In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.

But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.

By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.

The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.

Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.

A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.

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