In this week’s very special episode, Ken and Robin talk live from Gen Con!


Forgery ColourHave you ever noticed that having one really beautiful set of mechanics next to another really beautiful set of mechanics leads to lots and lots of friction and unforeseen attraction between them? It’s like the set of a CW show up in this Pelgrane design space, sometimes.

Here’s how to take the wonderful Relationship rules from 13th Age (pp. 35-37, 179-183) and use them to add still more behind-the-scenes action and maneuvering to your Night’s Black Agents game.

Relationship Points

At the beginning of the game, each player may spend up to 3 build points (total) on Relationships with … not Icons, exactly, but mighty powers with their own agenda and overweening ego. You know, like the CIA. The Relationships need to be with entities capable of operating at a distance most places in the world, and capable of low-profile, high-power maneuvering: intelligence agencies, multinationals, major NGOs, the Vatican, non-vampire conspiracies, etc. (All right, Icons it is.) All Icons are Ambiguous or Villainous, except in Stakes-mode games, where agencies of the good guys (defined however) can be Heroic. Likewise, the game group’s politics likely determines which are which.

You can put all 3 points in one Relationship, split them up, whatever. (In Mirror mode, you can save them to be “revealed” later.) You then characterize each Relationship, as in 13th Age, as Positive, Conflicted, or Negative. So you might have: CIA (Positive) 1, Mossad (Negative) 1, Royal Dutch Shell Oil 1 (Conflicted). This doesn’t outweigh your Network contacts (or any other spends) with individuals in those agencies; this is a “default” based on your dossier, past, and general rep with the Icon. But a Positive agency asset NPC might be open to Reassurance in a way a Negative agency operator wouldn’t.

Relationship build points come out of the General build point pool.

In Burn-mode games, no Icon Relationship can be Positive.

In Mirror-mode games, starting with a Positive Relationship gives that Icon 2 Trust points from your agent. Each time you get a 6 on a Relationship roll for that Icon, it gets 1 more Trust point from you.

Relationship Rolls

Just like in 13th Age, at the beginning of each session (or if the Director suspects this will introduce too much chaos, at the beginning of each operation), roll one die per Relationship point. 6s and 5s are just like it says in 13th Age: positive boons from the Relationship, or favors with strings very much attached.

However, in the darker world of espionage, you also need to look at 1s. Those mean someone will screw you over — maybe send a wet-worker after you, maybe just rat you out to the locals and raise your Heat (by +1 per 1 rolled), maybe anything the Director’s cruel heart can surmise. And yes, the Director can absolutely save up those 1s for a less propitious time. Who, exactly, is gunning for you depends on your Relationship: If it’s Negative, it’s the Icon or one of its cut-outs; if Conflicted, it might just be extra Heat or unwanted interference; if it’s Positive, it’s not the Icon but its enemies who are griefing you — your CIA (Positive) earns you the enmity of the Chinese MSS or al-Qaeda. (And vice-versa for 6s from Negative Relationships, of course.)

If your Relationship is part of (or has been infiltrated by) the Conspiracy — if, in our example above, Shell Oil is vampire-riddled — that should get some story juice (blood) flowing for sure. Clever players may even be able to guess at such vampiric subversion when a few too many of their Shell favors come with a side of Renfield attacks.

Relationship Spends

You can also spend Relationship points as a dedicated Investigative ability pool for finding things out involving that Icon. You can also spend 1 Relationship pool point to get a +2 on a related General test; e.g., spending 1 pool point of FSB for +2 on an Infiltration test to break into an FSB facility, or on a Surveillance test to shed FSB watchers. Relationship pool points refresh like Investigative pool points, at the end of an operation.

You can also spend Relationship pool points (1 for only +1) on Network contact tests if the contact is either part of that Icon or actively opposing the Icon in that test.

Relationship rolls are based on ratings, not pools, so “spending yourself invisible” is impossible.

Relationship Shifts

While at Heat 6+ your Relationship automatically shifts to Conflicted or stays Negative; it shifts back one session after the Heat dies back down.

The Director may also shift your Relationship negatively if she senses you’ve abused it too much; conversely, she may just have the Icon demand a favor right now at the most inconvenient possible time in order to “balance the books.”

If you are the sort of teacher’s pet agents who go around doing favors for globally powerful entities (or if in a Stakes-mode game you do something unimpeachably heroic) you might be able to shift a Relationship from Conflicted to Positive. Only in the sunniest possible game can you shift a Negative Relationship to Conflicted, much less to Positive.

I’ve been asked at panels, on social media and in person about the effect of D&D 5th Edition on 13th Age.  The concern is that 5e will negatively affect 13thD&D Age sales is also averred to in this excellent review of the 13th Age Bestiary over at Geek Native. Won’t the new version of 5th Edition have an impact on your sales? My answer is, I sincerely hope so.

When D&D 5e came out, I held my breath. How good would it be? Would it upset people? Would it divide the market?  D&D has to be vanilla. I mean that in the best possible way – it has to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.  It was an extraordinarily difficult brief, but Mike Mearls and his team did it. It’s a great game, and there is no noticeable division amongst players of previous versions.

Thank goodness.

sD&D is the pioneer, with the sales muscle of a big corporation behind it; it’s the category brand, the market leader, the gateway drug. If D&D succeeds, RPGs succeed. (I’m putting aside the special case of Pathfinder for this article, owlchubwhich I might discuss another time). As the co-founder of ProFantasy Software, I am keenly aware that sales of Campaign Cartographer 3 depend on the size of the roleplaying game market – really – the number of tabletop gamers. And we are all D&D players, from the Forge to the OSR. There may well be some churn between different RPGs, but nothing that affects us. The only table-top RPG non-roleplayers can name is D&D.

But this leaves room, more than room, for the distinctive quirkiness of 13th Age and other similar games in the category. D&D can’t speak in the voice of the individual designers, push ideas to the edge of too far, or even irritate reviewers with informal language. But there is room for games which do.  I do like the idea that 13th Age is, in some way, a serious competitor to D&D. Hah – we are a pimple on the buttock of their enormous sales! The theory assumes we are talking about a static market, and that 5e is taking share from other RPGs – absolutely not.

What a succesful D&D 5e does is increase the number of gamers.

13th Age appeals to a certain percentage of gamers.We hope that it will continue to appeal to a growing percentage of gamers. However, with D&D 5e a big success and the market getting larger – we don’t have to appeal to a growing percentage gamers.  Tiny companies can’t do much to increate market size. Market leaders can. If we appeal to the same percentage of gamers, we will still be selling an increasing number of copies. As it happens, we are doing both.

So in answer to the premise D&D versus 13th Age, who wins?

Gamers win.

We found the shark man washed up on the shore, north of the spot where the Old Wall reaches the sea. The others, eager as always to declare themselves free from the constraints of mercy, would not aid him. I gave him a share of my meager catch and went hungry myself. He ate sparingly; a few hours later he rallied enough to speak. Cursed as I am to question and chronicle, I asked him of life beneath the waves. These are the words, as I marked them down.

“Though I thank you for the food, you should know that I am dreaming now. This waterless surface world, though you might believe it to be real, is but a place we go in nightmares, when the waters grow turbid and sleep eludes us.”

Surely this could not be true, I told him. The might of our 13 icons surely intrudes below the waves, undeniably affecting the lives of air- and water-breathers alike. Yet deny it the shark-man did:

“Your supposed icons are but strange reflections of the 13 true icons, who rule the lightless depths,” he said.

“First among them is the Shark Mother, queen and progenitor of my people, who keeps the waves safe for our hunting and slakes our ceaseless hunger.

“Our greatest enemy is the Lizard King, potentate of the accursed reptile men, who dare to compete with us for cruelty.

“Others, like the Colony, neither oppose our aims or force us to oppose them. The Colony rises from the ocean floor, a vast complex of colorful spires, always building and creating.

“The Vent sends lava and dust into the seas from its deepest trench. She keeps the demons from draining the waters of life-giving air.

“Her daughter, the restless Crab, scours the world for stray demons, yet eats many others in her compulsive quest to clean it all.

“Opposing her is the Shell-Borer and its many drilling minions, who pierce through shells and armor and seek to split the Vent for good.

“The Mermaid rules the sunken cities of men who once breathed air, but now swim with the tails of fishes. Her people fear us, though they are not so good to eat as they assume.

“Kelp Woman protects the vegetation, and the things that are neither plant nor animal. This is good, for without her bounty, the things we eat could not maintain their numbers.

“The Phantom imposes a semblance of order on the revenants of sunken sailors. Some of you dreamlings call him Davy Jones, though I don’t know why.

“Many-Arms waits for us to falter, so that his formless servitors may take our hunting grounds. We fear only the largest of them.

“The Collector fills a palace with the messages from the distant gods, imprinted on the surfaces and mottles of shells. In them he reads omens, from which his ever-changing doctrines grow.

“Sharpjaw aids the weak and darting creatures. Beneath his japes and jests lies deadly intent. Feel the currents and sense his presence.

“Of Leviathan I will not speak. To name him is to summon him, and his wrath is a mountain.”

My companions, who fate had rendered impecunious, chose to take the shark man inland in hopes of selling him to an Imperial official. A few days into the journey his skin dried out, and he piteously died.

Because I breathe air and not water, I have never managed to confirm the truth or fancy of his account. Yet chronicle I must.


13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The Eyes of the Stone Thief, like the eponymous beast, is a monster. It’s on a par with the Ennie-Award winning Trial of Cthulhu campaign, Eternal Lies, and may well be the largest book we’ve ever published. I was intending for it to be monochrome, as Eternal Lies is, but then I saw the beautiful maps, and the idea of full colour grew on me. By this stage, the art, all monochrome, was pretty much in.

 the_grove_04

So I broached the subject, gingerly, with my colleagues.

I want colour, I said. Surely the artists could just colour the pictures in? You know, get the crayons out and stay within lines? My ten-year-old can do that.

Gareth Hanrahan was all flappy-handed about it on Skype, though full of “Can Do” as always. I interpreted the flappy hands as “No”. Cat Tobin fixed me with a steely glare and said “this book is ready to lay out.” She also pointed out that “colouring in” is not a technical term artists recognise and I should not mention my ten-year-old’s artistic endeavours in this context. Robin D Laws, in a spirit of compromise suggested we do colour plates. Rob Heinsoo laughed with pleasure at the sheer foolishness of it.

Gar approached each artist and asked them to colour one piece each. The colour art in 13th Age uses washes of colour, which mades colouration slightly less problematic. This is what we got.

Rich Longmore

richmaw richmaw colourPat Loboyko

castleonedgefinal

castleonedgecolortestlores Anna Kryczkowska

Godtick

GodTick_project_1

Juha Makkon

http://raide4.com/commissions/pelgranepress/10_1_gamblingskeletons_inks_lores.jpg

http://raide4.com/commissions/pelgranepress/10_1_gamblingskeletons_colors_lores.jpg

This is working, I thought.

All the artists stepped up and promised to colourize their art for the difference in cost between colour and monochrome, and do it by the end of September.  To keep us on schedule, Chris Huth is doing the layout in colour and using the monochrome pieces as placeholders, to drop in the colour when we have them. This plan was enough to gain acceptance.

I hope the scope, ambition and pure fun of this epic adventure is enough to interest our audience. I have no idea if, commercially, colour is the right choice – the book wil certainly be more expensive. In this case, I’m really doing this just because I want to and because I can, and because it made Rob Heinsoo laugh.

 

When the stunning photographs taken by Harry Burton of the Carter expedition’s discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 were recently exhibited at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum, one print was conspicuously not considered for display.

Those of you with high Cthulhu Mythos ratings know that Nitocris, possible last pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, became a ghoul after her death. So perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that Burton, a Metropolitan Museum of Art photographer on loan to Carter, took an image of in which her blurry outline can clearly be seen. She intruded into Burton’s picture of guardian statues in an outer funerary chamber. Burton, engrossed in his composition, saw her only after he developed the picture. His lack of alarm likely saved him from a gruesome fate.

Why was Nitocris prowling around in Tutankhamun’s tomb, you ask. Who do you think administers the ancient curses of the pharaohs against the plunderers of their grave, anyway?

The photograph, the first ever taken of this particularly numinous ghoul, captured a sliver of her spirit essence. Those who gaze too long on the image form an unwitting bond with Nitocris. No matter where they are in the world, the ghoul queen sends her minions. Individuals judged to be valuable to the ghoul community are devoured and excreted as freshly reborn ghouls. (Yes, that’s how the process works. Your other Lovecraftian sources have been too genteel to tell you this.) The rest are marked for later consumption, after they die.

Flash back to the time of your series, in the 1930s. Renegade NYU Egyptology professor Nathaniel Stonebridge has stumbled onto the secret of the photograph. Driven by a heedless thirst for knowledge, he wants to be the first mortal to witness and document the hideous rebirthing ceremony by which Nitocris brings new ghouls into her flock. To this end he gained access to the suppressed Burton image, normally housed in the Metropolitan’s securest vault. By threatening Metropolitan archivist Norman Lanning with the revelation of certain details of his unsavory private life, Stonebridge got him to strike new prints of the negative. These Stonebridge has been circulating to his many enemies in occult academia, in hopes that Nitocris will choose one of them, and he can watch it all happen.

Since letting Stonebridge strike new prints from the negative, Lanning has vanished. His superiors, afraid that the Nitocris image has fallen into the wrong hands, approach the investigators to find out just what has happened to him.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk one-shots, the battle of Poltava, GUMSHOE scenario design and Sarah Helen Whitman.

GenCon logo_websiteComing to you live…

Well, obviously not live live – while I may be writing this from a hotel room in Indianapolis, it won’t be up on the Pelgrane site for a week. And for that matter, I’m hardly alive either, after the arguably best but very definitely longest four days in gaming.

Let us start again. That seems to be a wise move.

I ran two or three 13th Age demos each day of GenCon, using pregenerated characters that had basic mechanics but no Icon, backgrounds or OUTs, and a very simple intro scenario that can be summarised as “something bad is happening in Glitterhaegen that is neatly resolved in an hour with two quick fight scenes and a skill roll”. While all the demos (bar one) followed that basic story, bringing in elements from the players’ contributions meant every game felt radically different.

I’ll use the last demo I ran, late on the Sunday afternoon as an example. Even though five people had signed up, only one actually showed (every other demo had between three and six players) – a lovely chap named Edgar, and I hope he doesn’t mind being used in this article. With only one player, Edgar asked for a halfling rogue pregen, so after running through the basic mechanics, we started on what makes 13th Age different from other F20 games and such a joy to run.

I gave all the demo characters a 1-point Positive relationship with the Emperor, mainly so I could use “you’re all working for the Emperor” as a fallback story if nothing else suggested itself. I then showed Edgar the full list of Icons, and asked him to pick one more.

Negative with the Elf Queen, says he, picking an unexpected Icon relationship. I asked him to go into a little more detail on this, and he describes how he was the only thief to successfully steal from the Queen’s court, coming up with his One Unique Thing at the same time.

I told him to leave Backgrounds blank for now – in a one-shot demo, or even in a campaign for that matter, it’s often more fun to fill in backgrounds when they’re needed in play. As there was only one player, I added a GMPC, a half-elf paladin of the Crusader (OUT: On Fire).

I had three different variations of my simple little plot based around three different Icons – a soul-stealing merchant for the Diabolist, a grave-robbing necromancer for the Lich King, and a pirate plotting to take advantage of an impending Orc Lord attack. I could have just said “because you’re servants of the Emperor, you’re called upon to help Glitterhaegen” and introduced any of the three variations or used my GMPC paladin’s Crusader relationship to bring the PCs in to investigate the soul thief, but instead I changed ‘Orc Lord invasion’ to ‘demonic elves out of the Bitterwood’ and brought in Edgar’s antipathy towards the Elf Queen. I always try to tie plots to the player characters; even if the connection is a bit tenuous, it’s worth it to be able to go “because of this thing about you, in particular, you’re involved in this adventure.”

Next, we rolled Icon relationships; Edgar’s Emperor came up with a 6, and I gave him a belt of the city (from the Book of Loot) to help with the investigation.

Actual play time! I described how the city was under threat of invasion by dangerous, isolationist elves who considered humans to be usurpers. While the Imperial Legion manned the walls, there were rumours of elven commando units sneaking into the city, and traitors were said to be in league with the elves. The PCs had traced one such traitor to the grand bazaar, a huge, crowded open-air market in Glitterhaegen.

I planned to set my first fight scene in the market. My original notes called for an attack by a band of illusory orcs, but I could use disguised elves just as easily. I then asked Edgar a few questions about the market.

  • The grand bazaar’s dominated by a structure or monument of some sort. What is it?”
  • “Something’s happening in the market that’s going to make your investigation harder – what is it?”

By asking these questions after I’d set the initial parameters of the scene, I gave Edgar control over specific details of the scene while retaining overall control. No matter what he came up with, I could still use my attacking elves. It gave him a sense of engagement with the setting, which is great. It also forced me to stay awake and keep thinking on my feet – setting up situations where the GM gets surprised is super valuable, especially when you’re running a bunch of convention demos in a row. If there’s no challenge for the GM, it gets boring and the players pick up on that boredom. Finding tools to keep your own energy and enthusiasm up is a good habit for a GM to cultivate.

I deliberately didn’t ask open-ended questions, like “where do you find the traitor?” Some players freeze when given that much freedom of choice – for that matter, I wouldn’t be completely confident about my ability to improvise a scene that would still work within the constraints of a demo if the player came up with something completely unexpected (“I find the traitor in a dragon’s lair under the city!”).

Edgar proposed a giant statue of a former admiral, blowing a horn, and a street preacher, both of which worked perfectly with my intended plot. I decided that the street preacher was the traitor in disguise, trying to convince people to abandon Glitterhaegen and flee on the waiting ships – which his pirate fleet would then capture and despoil. The giant statue was a great image and focal point for the fight. (Previous demos gave answers like “a huge crystal gazebo”, “a temple to Mammon”, or “an elven graveyard” and “a children’s festival” or “a funeral procession”).

Edgar’s halfling went off to listen to the preacher, so I got to ambush him with my fake demon elves who attacked the gathered crowds. Cue a quick fight scene. I used the orc stats I’d prepared earlier for my elves instead, hastily reskinning them. If any of them had critted, I’d have described their expanded-crit-range ability as a blast of magical hellfire or something suitably infernal.

Afterwards, I didn’t bother to make him to roll to see if his rogue noticed that these elves were common wood elves, not the fabled demon elves that threatened to attack Glitterhaegen. Instead, GUMSHOE-style, I just told him that because of his experience in the elven court (his OUT of “I stole from the Elf Queen”), he recognised these elves for what they were, and he quickly deduced that they were deliberately trying to whip up terror and dismay in the city. The flipside of the ‘fail forward’ principle is that if failure is boring, don’t ask for a roll. He quickly deduced that the elves and the street preacher were in league, and scampered up the statue to confront the traitor.

Instead of attacking, he launched into his own speech, rebutting the traitor’s tales of gloom and doom. I asked Edgar to roll, and he decided to create a background on the spot to give him a bonus. He was, he announced, the former mayor of a Halfling town, and so was experienced in public speaking. Defining backgrounds in play often generates surprising juxtapositions like that – if I’d insisted that he fill in all his backgrounds during the brief character creation phase at the start of the demo instead of leaving them blank, he’d probably have gone for something like “burglar” or “forester” to fit in with his One Unique Thing of having stolen from the Elf Queen, not “ex-mayor”.

Between his not-bad Charisma, his belt of the city, his background and a good roll, Edgar’s Halfling convinced the people of Glitterhaegen to rally to the defence of the city instead of fleeing on board the waiting ships. The frustrated preacher revealed himself to be the treacherous pirate, dropping his act and acquiring an outrageous accent – YARR! – in the process. While my original notes called for the player characters to encounter the traitor on board a ship, a swashbuckling fight on the shoulders and head of a giant statue worked just as well.

Fight scene, players win, demo ends. Huzzah!

One could argue – and in certain moods, I’d agree with this – that 13th Age is a game of two halves. There’s the relatively detailed and balanced combat engine, and the considerably looser and fuzzier story-generating mash of backgrounds, Icons and OUTs. Certainly, in a simple 45-minute demo like this one, I was able to use that divide to my advantage by warping the mutable story-side elements around the player’s choices and answers, while leaving the mechanical side unchanged.

Interestingly, one of the take-aways from the 13th Age adventure design panel seminar was that people preferred using adventures for inspiration and pre-prepared encounters to use in their own games instead of running the adventures as written in the book. While we’re unlikely to go so far as to publish a book that’s half stats, half fuzzy ideas on how to put those stats into context, that flexibility is one strength of 13th Age that we’ll build on as we look towards GenCon 2015.

 

 

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk Gen Con, Gen Con, and more Gen Con.

Page XX logo

The latest edition of See Page XX is out now, featuring new products Mythos Expeditions available to pre-order, Xeno-archaeology!, the Series Pitch of the Month – a sideways view of DEN in Terminal X,  by Hal Mangold – and a new Stone Skin Press pre-order, Letters to Lovecraft.

There’s also a Gen Con review from Simon Rogers in the View from the Pelgrane’s Nest, notes, recordings and video of some of our Gen Con seminars, as well as a host of inspiring articles.

 

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