I’m just about to start going through playtest feedback for 13th Age in Glorantha. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in how I process playtest feedback for 13th Age books.
Sometimes I read playtest feedback right away. But usually I wait and read as much of it as possible in a single big batch. Glorantha’s first playtest is going to take the big batch approach.
In either case, I take the good ideas I like out of it, or notes that seem to be identifying major problems, and write them down in my own words in single sentence summaries, sometimes noted as to whose feedback they came from. I keep these notebook pages of possible playtest changes going through the entire process. (I write small so I can fit a lot on a two page spread!)
When I’m ready to implement the changes, I start by reading the whole list of possible changes. After crossing off notes that have proven incorrect, I start in and work through the notebook pages list, crossing notes off as I deal with them or decide they aren’t actually problems. How do I decide when comments aren’t problems? A few ways, but mostly through uncovering that the rest of the feedback supports a feature a couple people found problematic, or discovering that the original comments were in fact inaccurate, or by creating new design elements that sidestep the issue, or by weighing the evidence and judging that what bothered the tester is a feature instead of a bug!
Sometimes I’ll get playtest advice that’s so good, accurate, and important that I want to make changes immediately. That happens most often during playtest feedback on classes, when something sparks that can fix a lingering problem or create a wonderful new dynamic.
In most cases, it’s better to wait a few days or weeks longer and make changes in one thoughtful extended pass, because even small changes can require multiple revisions scattered throughout the document. Revising the same sections multiple times because of repeated changes is not only maddening, it also seems to increase the risk of me screwing up a change that should have rippled out to multiple pages of the book.
I suspect that other designers handle playtest feedback differently. But I admit that I’m not sure. I haven’t asked many other designers how they handle the playtest revision process with RPGs.
Here’s a picture of what a typical page of playtest process looks like in my notebooks. These were notes from last year on Robin’s The Strangling Sea.
Yes, I’m still writing in notebooks. When I’m rolling with design work I’m usually just typing into a computer, but when I’m noodling ideas or writing notes about things I want to think about before acting on, I use a pen.
And while I’m taking photos, here’s the pile of all the notebooks I’ve used for 13th Age design. They’re all from my friend Sara’s company, MakeMyNotebook.com, I love the weight of the paper and their spiral-bound durability as well as the fun covers. I’ve used one full book already for 13th Age in Glorantha (blue robot) and it looks like I’ll use up at least another half (black fish).
The lethal combination of dragon and rider helped create the Dragon Empire. Now unleash the fury on your foes! Full rules for player character dragon riders appear alongside story advice for campaigns looking to add dragon-riding options. Plus, we’ve made it easy to hack the system so you can devise other styles of riding. (Anyone up for tarrasque racing?)
Dragon Riding is the first installment of the 13th Age Monthly subscription. It will be available to buy in the webstore in February. When you subscribe to 13th Age Monthly, you will get all issues of the subscription to date.
When I read the fun Wrath of the Orc Lord organized-play adventure written by ALL CAPS MAN, aka ASH LAW, I decided I’d want another orc variety or two if I was running the adventure myself. For those keeping pace with the 13th Age OP seasons, Wrath of the Orc Lord is just about over. But I suspect a lot of groups will still be experiencing Wrath and (not-really-a-spoiler-alert) ASH says that the Domain of the Dwarf King adventure coming up in a few weeks also features orcs.
So here’s a new 3rd level orc mook that can sub in for 3rd level Cave Orc mooks or used any other way you like.
My thought process designing the monster went like this:
I’ve got some nice orc minis with spears and shields.
What’s an interesting reason orcs would be fighting with spears?
To keep them at a distance from their foes, so that they wouldn’t lapse into bestial bloodlust, throw away their weapons, and fight with their bare hands and teeth.
OK, so the Orc Lord equips these savage grunts with spears and cheap shields because they do fight better with weapons, but when they lose control or things go badly for them they throw away their weapons and shields and revert to scavenger behavior. So they’re not even trained in throwing spears, and the spears are probably deliberately badly-balanced for throwing.
Looks like two different stat blocks, one for fighting with weapons, one for when the Orc Lord’s discipline has been shattered and they’re fighting tooth and claw.
The results follow. Start battles using the orc spear grunt, which are tougher than most other mooks. Their bestial reversion ability means they might turn into savage grunts midway through the battle.
The savage grunts have a strange ability which is me messing around a bit: their feral aversion ability kicks in whenever they start their turn engaged with a non-staggered enemy, you roll a die and you don’t know if the orc is going to use that die roll to attack (standard action) or disengage (move action).
Orc Spear Grunt
3rd level mook [humanoid]
Spear +8 vs. AC—7 damage
Mob of seven: The maximum size of a mob of orc spear grunts is 7 mooks. When you include more than seven orc spear grunts in a battle, use another mob.
Bestial reversion: When an orc spear grunt’s attack drops an enemy to 0 hp or below, or when one or more orc spear grunts drops, roll a single normal save for the orc spear grunt mob, with a bonus to the roll equal to the number of remaining mooks in the mob (for example, 4 mooks left = +4). If the save fails, all the remaining mooks in the mob cast away their weapons and shields and become savage grunts until the end of the battle (use that stat block instead).
PD 16 HP 13 (mook)
Mook: Kill one orc spear grunt for every 13 damage you deal to the mob.
3rd level mook [humanoid]
Claw and teeth +6 vs. AC—5 damage
Feral aversion: When a savage grunt is engaged with a non-staggered target at the start of its turn, roll a d20 that will become either an attack roll or a disengage check!
On a natural even roll, the grunt uses the roll as a claws and teeth attack.
On a natural odd roll, the grunt uses that roll as disengage check that may or may not succeed. If the grunt disengages, it will move to engage and attack a staggered enemy, if possible. If the grunt doesn’t disengage, it will stay and fight.
PD 15 HP 10 (mook)
Mook: Kill one savage grunt for every 10 damage you deal to the mob.
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.
Obskures.derecently interviewed three-fourths of the creative team behind 13th Age. (Aaron McConnell was on deadline and chained to his drawing table that week.) In this installment, co-designer Rob Heinsoo is on the hot seat.
obskures.de: How did you get involved in gaming, and how did you make the leap to becoming a professional?
Rob Heinsoo: I found a Lowry’s Hobbies ad in the back of Boy’s Life magazine when my family lived in Herbornseelbach Germany in the early 70’s. I started ordering and playing wargames: my first was Fight in the Skies, featuring WWI fighter planes. I ordered Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 when we got back to the USA. I ran games for my sixth-grade friends in Kansas using half-understood mechanics, filling in with melee rules from Napoleonic skirmish wargames when we couldn’t understand the combat tables.
I first started meeting gamers whom I hadn’t taught when we moved to Oregon a couple years later. I played most of the early games — my favorites as a kid were probably Bunnies & Burrows, Tunnels & Trolls, Melee/Wizard, Lou Zocchi’s Knights of the Round Table and McEwan Miniatures’ Star Guard, a sci-fi miniatures game.
In high school I got involved with the Alarums & Excursions fanzine put out by Lee Gold, thanks to a mention in the back of the Arduin Grimoire. The games I liked most then, Runequest, Champions, and Arduin, got a lot of attention in A&E. I started contributing and therefore got to know a lot of people who ended up writing games or owning game companies.
I started working professionally in the game industry just about the time the Internet came into common use. Jobs at Daedalus and Chaosium and A-Sharp and Wizards of the Coast followed, along with many periods of freelancing and work on everything from collectible card games about soccer to roleplaying games about Hong Kong action movies and computer games I mostly can’t talk about yet.
obskures.de: What was the first role playing book you owned?
Rob Heinsoo: Brown box original D&D.
obskures.de: What does a typical working day look like? What do you do, when you are not working on 13th Age?
Rob Heinsoo: As the lead designer for Fire Opal Media I’m involved to some extent in all our games, tabletop and electronic. I also still design some games freelance, notably card games like Epic Spell Wars from Cryptozoic. I’ve got at least one other freelanced card game coming out in 2013.
Other gaming includes an upcoming sci-fi spaceship campaign I’ll get to play in instead of running. Miniatures games I’m always fond of, but don’t play enough. My favorites are DBA and the newer SAGA skirmish game from Studio Tomahawk.
I read, write stories, socialize, play on two soccer teams, and blog at robheinsoo.blogspot.com, sometimes about 13th Age.
obskures.de: Why did you use Kickstarter for 13 True Ways but not for 13th Age?
Rob Heinsoo: Our publisher, Pelgrane Press, asked us not to use Kickstarter for 13th Age, mainly because they’d been burnt by a Kickstarter project that never surfaced. Once we’d pushed 13th Age firmly into the ‘actually almost finished’ column, Pelgrane felt better about getting associated with another Kickstarter project. And in fact they have followed up with two Kickstarter campaigns of their own.
obskures.de: What is your favorite role playing game?
Rob Heinsoo: For mechanics, I lean toward D&D and d20-rolling fantasy. For the RPG world I like thinking about Glorantha, the world used by RuneQuest and HeroQuest.
obskures.de: Who is your favorite game designer and/or game artist?
Rob Heinsoo: Roleplaying designer? Robin Laws. Current boardgame designer? Chad Jensen has been doing things I’ve greatly enjoyed for GMT. And Eric Lang has done a couple of the games I’ve enjoyed playing most in recent years.
obskures.de: What do you think about the recent projects by your ex-colleagues at Wizards, such as Numenera by Monte Cook? I really thought 13 True Ways would be more successful than Numenera, but I was wrong.
Rob Heinsoo: I backed the Numenera Kickstarter. The game is like a birthday present I can anticipate but I don’t have to do anything more to receive.
As to your original guess about relative Kickstarter performance, I don’t know of any alternate worlds in which a 13 True Ways Kickstarter could have out-performed a Numenera Kickstarter.
obskures.de: What do you plan next for 13th Age, and in general?
Rob Heinsoo: Shards of the Broken Sky, an adventure book. 13 True Ways. A bestiary produced by Pelgrane. Some surprising organized play. And maybe other surprises.
obskures.de: Finally, some fun and quick questions. We start with: Role playing is …
Rob Heinsoo: …a wonderful way of life.
obskures.de: Fighter, Cleric, Rogue or Wizard?
Rob Heinsoo: It occurs to me that from a roleplaying perspective, I tend to play fighters as if they were rogues, rogues as if they were sorcerers and wizards as if they were clerics.
obskures.de: Gamemaster or player?
Rob Heinsoo: Gamemaster. It took me longer to become a good player: there are GMs in the world that I still owe apologies to.
obskures.de: Your favorite game product you worked on (aside from 13th Age)?
Rob Heinsoo: Shadowfist for Daedalus. King of Dragon Pass for A-Sharp. D&D Miniatures for WotC. And a game that isn’t public yet from Fire Opal Media. In truth, however, 13th Age IS my favorite above all of these. Just saying.
obskures.de: I get the best ideas for my games when … or I am most creative when …?
Rob Heinsoo: My goal, and my entire work-style, is to avoid having just one answer to that question.
The designers and developer did a seminar at Gen Con introducing 13th Age to an audience that had, up until then, only known of it through rumor and hearsay. We got this short video clip, and wanted to share:
You can hear more about 13th Age this weekend at PAX, where Rob Heinsoo will appear on the panel “13th Age, Dungeon World and More: Old School RPGs With Modern Design” with Logan Bonner, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel. Also, Rob H. and Rob W. will be running 13th Age in the Indie Tabletop Games on Demand room, and you can stop by our table on the 2nd floor of the convention center.
For those of you who didn’t see the first playtest draft, welcome aboard for Round Two. And a big thank you to returning playtesters who sent feedback already.
I’m happy with many elements of the current draft. It’s not done, but the pieces that aren’t in the official manuscript yet are taking shape.
I’m unhappy that I wasn’t able to process all the playtest comments before finishing this draft. I got through half of the early feedback and only a core sample of feedback after Simon’s prompt for feedback. So there are a few existing aspects of the design that playtesters have already convinced us need to be fixed. The fixes aren’t in. I’m going to finish going through all the playtesting feedback when I’m back from vacation. There are surely more tweaks to come.
Let’s start with what we need most now from this round of playtesting…
1. The cleric and the sorcerer and wizard have had their core concepts tightened up. We got a lot of playtest feedback from unhappy cleric players. Going back to the class I had to agree, it hadn’t claimed any magic as its own. This draft changes that, partially with a new cleric feature called divine intercession, partly with an entirely redesigned spell list. So the cleric is wholly revised, and the sorcerer and wizard substantially modified. These classes need testing at both low levels and also above fifth level with the spells and upgraded spells that are new to this draft.
2. None of the classes have been played above fifth level except in the playtest game Jonathan Tweet and I have been running. Tests with higher-level PCs would be welcome.
3. We need feedback on whether the new phrasing of the icon relationships works for players and GMs. Some playtesters liked the previous version, others were disappointed. We’ve revised them for simplicity and to emphasize the utility of the relationship with the icon rather than rating the relationship’s strength.
4. We’ve received relatively little feedback about the bard. If someone wants to run a few sessions of a bards’ school campaign, well, I’m mostly ears. (This couldn’t possibly backfire.)
5. We’ve got work to do on character sheets and play-aids. People have started sharing cool things on-line and I’m excited to see it.
6. Problems that people have trying to set up and run their own games will be extremely helpful to hear.
7. In the first playtest I said that people should stick to the rules as written. But playtest feedback from people customizing the game has been wonderful. The game is designed to be customized so I can’t be surprised that this is what’s working for people. So if you want to customize your campaign, go for it. Playtest feedback will probably be more useful if you stick to the mechanics as written, or tell me what was broken and how you fixed it on the fly.
What you shouldn’t worry about testing….
1. The monk is a clever concept but the execution is not on target yet. First round playtesting pointed out the problems. Unlike other classes in this file, the monk didn’t get the attention it needed to improve. I’m going to be running a dedicated playtest for the monk so at the moment, for second round playtesters, I’d say that the monk is not worth testing. It needs rebalancing to nail the dynamic between opening moves/flow moves/finishing attacks. (If you’re playing a monk and want to keep on playing and don’t think it’s broken, well, feel free to tell me that, but hah. It’s going to change.) (And yes, the druid is also headed for a special playtesting campaign.)
2. Multiclassing should be getting a remake. I wouldn’t suggest that you waste your time testing the current multiclassing rules because the playtest feedback is that it needs to be improved. And the solution that’s in the works is different enough that more feedback on the current system won’t help much.
Here’s a look at what’s in this draft and notes on pieces that Jonathan and I are still adding.
Finished classes: For this current playtest packet we’ve got the barbarian, bard, cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, and wizard playable to 10th level. There are playtest adjustments to come, more feats, a few more spells, and more polished and complete introductory/explanatory text. But you should be able to play these classes to 10th level. (And in case you’re wondering, the final manuscript will discuss the manner in which class progression stops at 10th.)
Close to done: The sorcerer is also playable to 10th level but is missing a few 7th and 9th level spells. First round playtesters will note that the sorcerer has changed most thanks to a feature called gather power.
Editing: Chapters 1, 2 and 3 have had a first editing pass. Chapter 5 is mostly edited. Other chapters are rougher text, still.
Monsters: There are more monsters coming in the final manuscript. I left a few in-progress monsters in this file. The black ooze, ogre mage, chimera and vampire aren’t as polished as the rest of the monsters, but they’re pretty much usable so I left them in. The monster file will also be organized differently, but hopefully it’s useable for now.
Magic items: We’re not done with the magic item lists. Use what we’ve got. The plan is to do a few items for every chakra.
The Dragon Empire: We’re adding little bits to the setting and smoothing its sloppier sections, but the geography and background pieces are close to finished. Like other pieces, they may be reorganized for the final product.
It’s going to be a fun push. We hope your games go well. And if they don’t, tell us about it.