Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Other Genres You can do with the Pacesetter Game Engine

I've been playing a lot of Assassin's Creed II lately, since I happen to really like the series but am way behind the curve on catching up to the most recent release (Black Flag). Assassin's Creed is a great game series because it blends interesting historical fiction with open world environments and endless Machiavellian plotting with a strong, regular dose of ongoing assassinations. Each entry in the series has focused on a different time period, and Ubisoft (the developer) has done a fantastic job in each series of making the video-game version of each time period pop into its own strange life. If you're unfamiliar with the series they have focused on the middle east in the Crusades, Italy in the late 1470-1480's, The United States before and during the revolutionary war, French-owned Louisiana and most recently the turbulent Caribbean during the height of the age of piracy.

For me, right now, the AC series is the antidote to the "Too Many Crew-Cut (possibly Space) Marines" problem that masquerades as character and plot for most video games these days. It's pretty bad when someone who normally enjoys a good space marine game like myself realizes that even he has his limits!

Anyway, playing the series got me to thinking about regular tabletop RPGs (as any truly good CRPG should inspire you to; and I do think of the AC games as being akin to RPGs). Specifically it reminded me that Steve Jackson Games had published two setting books a few years back, one for the Crusades and the other for Renaissance Italy. No coincidence that they chose to focus on those time periods, it was clearly an effort on SJG's part to fill a quick gap for the people centered in the venn diagram of "video gamers who played the AC series" and "video gamers who know what GURPS is," coupled with "gamers who know GURPS isn't dead it's just in that special realm of perpetual PDF online support for the base."

The sourcebooks are both really good, providing a concise overview of the respective time periods with minimal rules fuss, so you could use them with any game system, pretty much. That got me to thinking about just what game system I would use, were I to try and run a historical campaign in one of these time periods. BRP came to mind, of course....but then I realized that I recently reacquainted myself with the perfect system for this sort of thing, and it may even have enough content out that I could run the game with no gaps to fill: The Pacesetter System!

Goblinid's revival of Pacesetter has presented us with (so far) four rule books. The Time Master reprint would be a shoe-in, no doubt, although if you want an authentic non-time-travelling experience you might want to add Majus to the roster of inspiration as well. If you've played the AC series you know that while 99.9% of it is played straight and boils down to a story about two rival factions vying for Illuminati-like control over a long period of history (well, one faction does that and the other tries to kill them a lot), those of you who've actually finished a game or two in the series know that at a certain point the weirdness goes deep and some strange stuff creeps in; don't worry, Pacesetter's got that covered.

In fact, using these source books plus Majus, Time Master and/or Cryptworld is pretty much all you need to run any sort of weird historical game you could want. I think I'm going to try this next.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Two Rules from 13th Age that Every D&D Game Could Use: Backgrounds and Escalation Dice

If you are playing a version of D&D that doesn't have a specific skill system, but you kind of like the idea of skills, then you should take a look at what 13th Age does with Backgrounds.

13th Age Backgrounds are basically skills that are tied to your character's actual history and experience. They are descriptive, usually sounding like job titles or professional labels more than basic skills. Rather than write skills out as carefully defined little sets of data which react in specific ways, 13th Age background skills are flexible, open events which require some measure of negotiation between DM and player to assess.

A character with "Mortician 3" and "Chirurgeon 2" is immediately more exciting than a character with Heal 2 and knowledge (religion) 3, two skills which while mechanically descriptive don't say much about what sort of knowledge the character really has by virtue of background. In the 13th Age example you have a character who has worked with dead bodies to make them pretty before interment, and also worked with the living to mend bones, apply mercury and use leeches like the medieval doctor he truly is. The same skill set in a 3rd edition skill system would be harder to do, because it wouldn't evoke exactly what the skill set by background is, just what the skill set mechanically represents within the limits of the 3.5 scope of design.

Because the concept of Background Skills is so easy to import, all you need to do to use it with an earlier edition of D&D (I'm thinking of B/X D&D for my test case) is to tell the players how many points they get, and what those points mean. 13th Age typically hands out 8 points and those are effectively skill ranks in a D20 roll-high system, but you could apply the same logic to a roll-low mechanic as well. For each background skill you could have one or more attributes that apply toward the use of the skill (mortician, for example, could use INT for lore about the dead or mummification processes, DEX for sewing up the body and WIS for knowing what ritual to use to keep them in the grave). The skill rank becomes a bonus that you either add to the die (for roll high) or subtract (for roll low).

The other cool feature of 13th Age that you absolutely need to steal for your D&D game is the escalation die. It's a crazy thing but it really makes for an interesting enhancement in play. The problem with stealing the escalation die is that it has features which are tied to the way 13th Age works....basically some powers, monster abilities and other features trigger off of the escalation die. As a result if you do port it over it would be useful to figure out a way to make some powers and abilities "pop" when the escalation die hits a certain point. Here's an example for using Escalation Dice with B/X D&D classes:

1. Fighters get a bonus attack every round when the escalation die hits 4 and above
2. Wizards recover a spell slot on an 11+ on a D20 roll when the escalation die is even
3. Clerics may add +1D8 to any healing made on even escalation die numbers
4. Thieves get a percentage skill bonus of +5% multiplied by the escalation die after it hits 3
5. Elves may roll twice on attacks and saves and take the better of the two on even numbers
6. Halflings may stealth on odd numbers as a free extra action in their round
7. dwarves may add the escalation die to either damage or AC instead of attack rolls

Monsters with key abilities that deal three or more dice damage or require saves vs. spells or death recharge those abilities when the escalation die hits 4 (or for kind DMs they recharge when the escalation die hits 4 and must roll 11+ on D20 for the power to recharge).

Some ideas, anyway.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Nook Simpletouch vs. Kindle Paperwhite

It's been a while since I talked about my obsession with tablets and e-readers. When we left off I had picked up a Nook HD+, the big screen version, on their fire sale they had during the summer. Since then I have added a Nook Simpletouch with Glowlight and most recently a Kindle Paperwhite. Yes, I did my tablet buying backwards, getting the big fancy tablets first and regressing to e-ink monochrome readers.

When you're first goal in a tablet is to find a decent e-reader, it turns out regression could well be the norm. If your goal is a clean, easy reading experience with very, very long battery life then picking up a dedicated e-reader is actually the smartest thing you can do. I've hardly done anything with my Nook HD+ or my Nexus 7 outside of browse the web and play games; the experience of reading (even on the very nice HD screens of both devices) is still not as comfortable and friendly as it is on the e-ink readers. The key exception is with PDFs; the bigger tablets with more processing power are much better for PDF reading; don't even try it with the dedicated e-readers.

Both the Nook and Kindle e-ink readers are small and designed to fit in a pocket. Both have smooth capacitative screens that don't pick up finger smudges easily (a major problem for the regular tablets) and both of the editions I have include backlighting for night time reading. Despite some fairly vocal and angry reviews on Barnes & Noble's Simpletouch with Glowlight page link about some sort of "pinpoint light" problem that sounds like a design flaw, I have experienced no issues at all. Both retail for around $120 although I got the Nook on sale for $79.

Rather than look at each separately, I'll do a comparison of a bunch of key features:

Size/Handling: Both are small, fit in a pocket, and are comfortable to hold and use. They both weigh less than most books.

Cover Options: The official Nook covers are leather with two plastic clips to hold the reader in. Lightweight but not inspiring confidence that they will hold forever. The Kindle's official cover is expensive ($40) but it feels like it could take a bullet. The Kindle Paperwhite's official cover also more than double's the device's weight since it includes some metal in the design.

The View Screens: The Nook's screen is responsive and easy to use. The glowlight is unobtrusive, adjustable, and easy on the eyes. The Kindle's screen is a bit less responsive, and sometimes likes to ignore me or do something other than I intended, but does look a tiny bit crsiper. It's glowlight is adjustable as well and also unobtrusive and easy on the eyes. Both screens are smudge resistant; you need to work to get a finger print on these babies.

The O/S & UIs: As dedicated readers you can think of each of these devices as a single piece of hardware built around just one app...the storefront and library for each reader. You can throw DRM-free books on to them (although I haven't attempted this with the Kindle yet) and the books immediately add to your library. I find the navigation of the B&N interface a tad easier, although it's storefront is less informative and friendly than Kindle; if you have seen Kindle's app on another device, this will look the same; B&N's interface is (as always) slightly less friendly. So in this case: ease of navigation goes to Nook, but the shopping experience goes to Kindle.

Extra Buttons: One extra feature of the Nook that the Kindle doesn't have are five buttons. You have two page turning buttons on both sides of the screen (just slight ridged areas) as well as the signature Nook button at the bottom. You don't need to use the page turner buttons; they're just there for people who don't like swiping and tapping the screen, I guess.

Storage: Nook Simpletouch with Glowlight lets you pop an SSD card into a slot for additional storage. The Kindle has 2 GB of onboard storage but no expansion option. Nook wins this one hands down.

Durability: I haven't had to test this part thankfully, but here's some observations: The Kindle is heavier, and while I bet it can take a hit it also feels like enough force could be damaging. The Nook is lighter and has more plastic in it, but does feel like it will bounce...and also it's so lightweight it doesn't feel like a normal drop would do much. Hopefully I won't get a first-hand experience on testing this issue, though!

Reading Experience: awesome on both. I have found both are very easy on the eyes and the light options both devices offer makes night reading very easy. Both offer you ways to choose font sizes and customize your reading environment, although the Nook have a few more features in this regard (such as font choices) than the Kindle does.

Price Value: Both devices are similarly priced, although the Nook's been on sale recently for about $40 less so that can be a plus. Both Amazon and B&N have stores with the usual range of over-priced books as well as bargains, but on average I have found that the Amazon store has better prices than B&N, which unfortunately means that I usually buy 2-3 Kindle books for every B&N book. Note, however, that B&N has more DRM-free options; they have more publishers in their store who elect not to participate in DRM and therefore more of my B&N purchases are something I can port to other devices or store safely away without fear that an update will remove them for unknown reasons.

Conclusion: both the Kindle Paperwhite and Nook Simpletouch with Glowlight are damned fine e-ink readers and impossible to live without if you are a biblioholic who also likes to save trees and avoid eye-strain. I hardly ever read real books anymore (that aren't game books), as the experience is just not as good as the customizable experience that these readers offer. For conventional paperback reading these readers are painfully superior.

If you could pick only one I'd probably have to default to the Kindle if you're primary interest is in a robust storefront with good prices. However if you're willing to pay a tad extra for the books on average (and have more DRM-free choices), but want a slightly more customizable and user-friendly interface then the Nook Simpletouch wins by a hair.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mind Flayers in 13th Age

What follows is an approximation based on my holistic grasp of monster design in the 13th Age core book; suggestions/tweaks welcome!

Hyshkorrid: The Mind Flayers of Lingusia in 13th Age

Lingusia’s breed of mind flayers are creatures from beyond the stars that crash-landed on the world long ago, their ether engines rendered inert at a time when such devices could not function in the atmosphere of the world. The unique restrictions which prevented the function of ether engines disappeared after the god Etah began his cosmic pilgrimage centuries earlier, but by then the stranded mind flayers had imbedded themselves into the hideous cultures and politics of the Underworld.

Hyshkorrid are known for their obsession with mentally enslaving and feasting on the brains of other species; all other species are lesser species in their minds.  

6th Level Caster
Initiative +8

Mind Blast +10  vs. MD against 1D4 nearby targets; 16 psychic damage and target is stunned. Each round the target can make a Save (11+) to recover from the stun. Attack roll 16+: one target is also dominated. Attack roll natural 20: the mind flayer dominates all targets.

[Special Effect] Domination: this effect lasts until the target makes a save (11+); each round the mind flayer may direct one action of the target (either a move, standard or quick). If the target rolls a 1 on the save the mind flayer may direct two actions instead.

Tentacle maw melee attack; +11 vs. AC; 12 damage and target must make a save (11+) or take an additional 12 psychic damage. This attack is automatic against adjacent helpless/stunned targets.

[Special Trigger] Brain Extraction: +10 vs. PD; damage as follows (special) target must be engaged with the hyshkorrid and helpless/stunned with 0 HPs; as a swift action the hyshkorrid attempts to devour the brain. The victim who fails a Save (11+) has his/her brain extracted. The hyshkorrid gains 10 temporary hit points and the victim dies. If the save succeeds the victim takes 1D6 damage.

Nastier Specials: Dominator
The dominating mind flayer specializes in mind controlling thralls. In place of the Mind Blast the mind flayer can attempt to dominate rather than stun. Any target that becomes subject to its domination effect and fails three saves in a row is totally dominated for the remainder of the day (all actions determined by the mind flayer) and makes a new Save (11+) once per day thereafter. If the thrall fails three daily saves in a row then the saves changes to once per week.

AC: 17
MD: 19                  HP: 72
PD: 13   

Monday, November 18, 2013

13th Age Game One: After-Action Report

Saturday night we did something I rarely get to do: played something that wasn't Pathfinder! I've had chances this year to play some Magic World, a bit of BRP, and now 13th Age. Plus, of course, Pathfinder every danged week!

13th Age was an interesting experience. We generated characters in about an would have taken less time if everyone wasn't new to the game, plus the pregens I had downloaded were all 2nd level it turned out....and I really wanted the game to start from the beginning, as it were. The group ended up with a funny mix:

An aasimar sorceress who was once a cleric of the High Priestess, and had a profound experience which changed her magic to arcane

An aasimar paladin with a unique thing in which anything he cooks becomes edible

A human cleric who find all undead are amicable and polite to her

A dwarf fighter who was cursed by an unknown mage who has made countless clones of himself

Another aasimar (!), this one a ranger who has daddy issues and is ostensibly the only ranger with mental health problems

And a high elf wizard who is the spiritual reincarnation of an old archmage who fell in ancient times

Yes, a lot of aasimar.

I had worked out some details on a setting tailored for 13th Age that I cribbed some notes on....but I also brought my "Empire Era Lingusia" reboot campaign, with some notes on how to integrate the icons into my existing campaign. I had a scenario that I could stick in either setting...and for me, setting matters. I ended up using Lingusia, since it's my venerable campaign and was easier to fill in the story bits on.

To get everyone into the thick of it I dropped them in the middle of a story, so we could get right down to testing the feel and style of the system. The group was working for the Empire (of Hyrkania) to hunt down a rogue dark elf who had commited various war crimes, and after this rogue was exiled from his own homeland for being too extreme and profane (he worshipped devils) he sough refuge with an ogre buddy. The party was hunting him down, for justice...or at least trying to find out where he went. The group started at the entrance to the ogre's cave.

The course of the session involved bartering with some orcs for passage into the area where an old temple to the beast god Wolfon had been taken over by the ogre and his goblin cronies. Then they tried to pass a subterranean river before the temple where a trap dumped them in to a fight with an albino cave alligator (I derived its stats from the bear). Then there was a skirmish with the ogre and his goblins, and the reveal that A: the ogre appeared to have a problem (his sack-like body was full of insects) and B: the drow had moved on...north, to the ruined city of the gods (Corti'Zahn) judging from a map they found.

The group camped in the caves and during the night were ambushed by a party of lizardmen. In the morning they took off, following the map, where they found in the dune sea a partially buried structure that the map called "The White Station," with two fully intact ships on its "ceiling" and one that had fallen to ruin. Suspecting they were old air ships, the group moved in when the ranger, leading the way, felt the earth shake and a massive guardian purple worm appeared between them and their destination. We left it on the cliff-hanger (hint: I'm not expecting them to fight the worm but to learn to circumvent it).

Some observations on play:

Seeing in the Dark: Right off the bat I asked who could see in the total dark of the caves...answer: no one! Apparently night vision, dark vision and all that is simply not a factor in 13th Age. I took that to mean that everyone needed torchlight to see in total darkness, even if we assumed some races had excellent night vision ordinarily. In 13th Age terms I realized this is an environmental detail that I guess can be taken into consideration or ignored according to each tables' tastes.

Not All Classes Are Equal: By which I mean not all classes, at least at first level, have as many funky things to do as you'd expect. Specifically if I had to call out one class which seemed ridiculous simple to run it was the paladin. All classes had generally good combat effectiveness, however.

The Damage on a Miss seemed Small: damage on a miss was a minor deal. On the surface I imagine from a design standpoint it's got some value...I guess...but in actual play it was sort of useless to track that extra point of damage. Maybe it could be relevant at high level, but it's one of the few "tedious book-keeping exceptions" the game keeps.

Infinite Ammo?: the guy playing the ranger was curious about that. I worked out a deal: whenever he rolled a 1 on an attack, he could make an 11+ save; if he failed, he was out of arrows.

Holistic Skill Design: A couple of the hardcore Pathfinder players were at first perplexed at the background system for skills but got the hang of the idea that this was a negotiation system. I think if I had a group as a whole rebel against the background mechanics I'd just solve that by making pick from the Pathfinder skill list, case closed.

Smooth Engagements: in actual place the engament mechanic (and abstract spacing) worked really well, and worked fine with minis and map used as placemarkers to keep track of the action.

Escalation Die Madness: this was a great extra gimmick, and it guaranteed that success of actions ramped up as the turns ticked along. Everyone liked it.

No Buying Magic: This was a shock to a few players who are used to buying stuff. May work out a purchase sheet...we'll see. I explained that loot was generally found in the game, not bought, but to insure that works I have to be a good GM and remember to reward them with stuff, too.

No Magic Item Identification: this became an interesting bone of contention. "We have magic items...a chakra, rune and some how do we determine what they do?" For the moment judicious skill roll use and experimentation. Need to read deeply into the rules to find out if there was a method we were overlooking (ritual, maybe) or what. I was fine with the old school methodology of "mess around with it until you figure it out," but my players are used to Pathfinder's very friendly informatin system via spellcraft and identify.

We can all see playing 13th Age again being a thing, so the plan is to meet once every two weeks now. We're going to do an escalating 10 games/10 levels campaign, so I will plot the storyline around ten levels of escalating mayhem accordingly!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters - when video games, comic books and anachronism collide

This movie came out a few months ago but my wife and I just watched it on Blu-Ray.

What the hell.....sigh. I may be too old for this sort of movie. Something inside me says, "Hey, I liked Evil Dead 2, right? I played a Demon Hunter to completion in Diablo III, right? I read action-filled comic books full of larger-than-life witches, sorcerers, demons and the heroes who hunt them, yeah? So I should like this...unholy travesty of a film...right? Right???"

Well, first some pros about the movie:

Famke Jannsen makes a great witch in this movie. She's got the look down with all the makeup and the creepy blue eyes....she does a great job. Kept me watching, sorta.

The troll was cool, a very well done creature effect., and I always did want to see what a Diablo III movie might look like in live action.

Outside of that....well, I don't think this movie is bad, but it's just not what I would have wanted it to be, I guess. The anachronistic dialogue, devices and general "Kinda sorta fantasy Europe with modern anachronisms played for laughs" setting just doesn't click for me at all. The wire-fu witches and excessively badass Hansel and Gretel don't work for me here....but I suspect they may work well for someone else, maybe about two decades younger and less jaded by the MTV vibe in this movie than I am. This was an MTV Movie production, I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised.

I will concede that the pacing and action-magic in this movie is probably about how combat with magic in 3rd or 4th edition D&D would look if filmed. The witches' blue-paint-bolts are a pretty good estimation of what a magic missile might look like in D&D, I suppose.

I think this movie annoys me most of all because I feel like it could have been absolutely awesome if it had just tried to take itself...and its location....and its plot...a little more earnestly...or consistently; or both. Either get rid of the anachronistic elements, for example...or explicitly make it a real "Not England." Something. I can't quite put my finger on it....the movie needed to be something less....extreme, hip, and derivative all at the same time. At least for me.

My wife liked it....not "pay full price in the theater" like as she put it, but in a sort of "that was cute fun" sort of way.

I'll rate this a D- with the caveat that I am only rating it for my particular demographic (42 year old men who are recovering from the flu and a bit jaded about Extreme Derivative Anachronstic Pseudo-Historical Fantasies with Way Too Much Wire-Fu and Ridiculous Exploding Body Parts); everyone else might find this a decent C+.'m sticking with the D-....watching the "white witch with a holy gatling canon vs. horde of witches" scene...and...oh good grief, I can feel my intellect diminishing....this movie is what happens when you take all the "awesomesauce" crap moments people claim would be amazing on the internet and try to make a movie out of it.

It's like fanfic for Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Famke is still cool as the witch, though!

Next Day Afterthought: Hansel & Gretel are in the same basic universe and thematic genre mash as Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing from a few years back. I didn't really like that movie, either, so I guess there's just something about Over The Top Anachronistically-powered pseudo-period action films that rub me the wrong way. Just keep in mind that if you did like Van Helsing, you will probably also enjoy Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On the Joy of Not Caring About New Consoles

One of the nice things about having a diversity of interest is that no single thing necessarily dominates one's attention. In my case I've been far more excited about discovering 13th Age than I am about the imminent arrival of the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One. Given that I just bought a PS3 earlier this year that makes a bit of sense; I have 20+ games in my shelf backlog on that machine that I hardly have time to get to; the prospect of paying $400 right now for a PS4 just to play the new Killzone doesn't sound like a smart move...and all the other titles coming out are almost all cross-platform, including PC, which makes for very little incentive to pick up one of these consoles Day One.

Given that the 1st release of new consoles also comes with hideous uncertainties like fatal design flaws and unforeseen errors and other problems, it's sometimes a miracle that they can get such a high rate of adoption early on.  Still....a lot of people out there use the console as their primary gaming bread and butter, so I imagine there must be households out there where having one of these machines is both a necessity and a sign of prestige.

So in the midst of this consumer chaos I have opted out. I'm going to keep prepping for my 13th Age game (we're running one this Saturday!) while I enjoy my recently acquired Kindle Paperwhite (more about that later). And speaking of big spectacles, the recent World of Warcraft "Warlords of Draenor" announcement was enough to push me over the edge....after two years I have decided, shockingly, to not only resubscribe to WoW but to even get the Mists of Pandaria expansion....! So what did did I do with this return? Why, roll up a brand new level 1 human fighter, of course! I'll suffer through a pandaren later....but not a monk. I'll make something else a monk.

I don't know if it's nostalgia or just the video game equivalent of comfort food, but it is nice to return to WoW again. In the world of MMOs there's something rather pleasant and addictive about the way WoW does it's "thing" that the endless competitors keep missing. I'll play it for a while, probably lose interest eventually and then be ready for when the rather impressive sounding Warlords of Draenor finally arrives.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Slender: The Arrival

I just wanted to point out that Slender: The Arrival is over on Steam and has been for a few weeks now. I finally got a chance to play it, and for the few hours I crawled around in a dark wooded area filled with abandoned houses, park service leavings and other oddities I was seriously taken in.

The gradually developing mystery and ominous sense of dread builds with an even pace. The first appearance of the Slender Man is hard to forget, and by the time he gets you you'll be thoroughly nerve-wracked. The whole tale is seen through the lens of your avatar's camera, which itself goes on the fritz when Slender Man gets too close.


Excellent developing atmosphere and sense of dread; nice graphics.

Part of the "helpless survivor" horror genre in which you cannot engage in combat and can only survive by escaping. Stay away if you don't like this style of horror, though.

Lots of interesting and weird little clues to find, leading up to the famous eight pages which you must find in the woods while Slender Man stalks you.


Too short, in that it's possible to run through it in short order, less than an hour. If you like to explore it will last a lot longer, however; my first play-through lasted a little over two hours before I bought the farm.

Not enough replayability, although I could see breaking this out and reloading for fun every Halloween.

If you'd like to check out one of the better examples of indie horror RPGs in the morbid flesh then go grab Slender: The Arrival. The price on Steam is only $10 and in my opinion I definitely got my money's worth out of it.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Bundle of Holding Presents The Hero System

This is far too good a deal to pass up: the new Champions Complete (Hero 6E rules in a single, easy to digest rulebook that won't stop a bullet but will let you learn the game without reading 600+ pages of content), along with the 6E Equipment Guide, and a Toolkit which while for 5E is still full of useful stuff. Then there's the bonus items which you can get for roughly $16 total as of this writing: the Star Hero 6E, Fantasy Hero 6E and Pulp Hero 5E books. The only books missing to have an ideal set for Hero System gaming are Dark Champions and Post-Apocalyptic Hero (well, for me anyway!). This is a great deal....ends in about 5 and a half days as of this writing, though, so get on it!

Check it out here.

I've really wanted a copy of this in PDF. Much as I love print, it's a lot easier to get away with reading a PDF on my Nook while on break.

Looking at the 13th Age

A Look at 13th Age

13th Age is an interesting beast. It’s a collaborative design by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Rob Heinsoo was a major force behind 4th edition D&D, and Tweet of course was one of the developers behind 3rd edition D&D as well as other notable games like Everway and Ars Magica. So…an interesting pedigree.

13th Age is definitely a D&D-like, in that it has all the trappings of a “game about emulating a style of D&D without calling it that” going for it. That means the race options, class options, leveling mechanics, six attributes, roster of spells and monsters and general feel of the game are all steeped in D&D OGL-style. Unlike most D&D-likes however, 13th Age doesn’t set out to emulate or expand upon editions  1 through 3. Nope….13th Age is a “5th edition” or 4E D&D.

The mere association of 4E might put some people off, but look at it like this: 13th Age is all about fixing key issues with 4th edition’s style of play, expanding the scope of the game’s ability to do more than beg for comparisons to board games and World of Warcraft. As such, 13th Age succeeds admirably. What’s more interesting about 13th Age is the little, subtle stuff it keeps in the core mechanics, things which were all but implicit in 4th edition D&D are now made standard and normal in 13th Age.

Examples? Here are a few:

Backgrounds: 13th Age uses a background mechanic  to build skills. The skill system is now effectively an abstracted process; you still assign skill (background) points and make rolls and such, but your skill set can look like this: “guard captain, swordswoman, crusty old sailor, navigator, professional damsel in distress, etc.”  Almost more a list of jobs and experiences than a typical skill set. This solves the 4E problem of a narrowly defined range of skill into which everything under the sun must fit.

Horse Before the Cart: There are some things which have always been sacred in D&D: armor begets armor class, for example. In character generation you now pick your AC, and then from that match it to the armor you would be wearing to reflect it. Put another way: in 4E when you played a certain class it was inevitable from design that you’d choose certain types of armor to best work with your class. 13th Age makes this explicit by going right to your choice of AC, and then indicating that based on the AC you’d be wearing armor appropriate as such. It’s a funny way of looking at it, but fits the interesting implied “metadesign” process buried in 13th Age’s core assumptions. Wizards, as another example, get X spells to cast. What can they choose from? Anything on the list, of course! It’s some interesting design choices like this that are aimed more at an experience and less on a book-keeping process.

Less Resource Management: I’m still reading through, but I’ll bet when it comes to arrows you don’t count those, either. It’s not in the spirit of 13th Age to quibble with such minutiae. Ironic that even as D&D 5th edition moves back to a more traditional system which very carefully makes sure you count your ammo (and even offers rules for retrieving ammo that can be reused) 13th Age goes the opposite direction, to the domain where ammo is just something you have, something that is there, because you were born epic.

More Focus on Triggers/Maneuvers: I haven’t playtested it yet, but I plan to. Even without a playtest from character designs I can tell that a great deal of what goes on in play is trigger-dependent. A fighter’s abilities, for example, have a lot of conditionals….a talent or maneuver will change according to what the die rolls (even, odd) or doesn’t, as the case may be. The game is built under the expectation that the player will mine for synergies, and work out ways to exploit them.

Level Up in Ten: 13th Age is built around a fast progression of ten levels, and in the space of ten levels you can go from peon to godlike in short order. Leveling is everything; it’s a multiplier for damage, and nets you a feat and other increases every new level. You can do incremental advancement too, picking one new level feature awarded by your GM at the end of each game until you have all of them, and are now effectively the next level. The game also provides a model for a “ten games, ten levels” style of lighting-round campaign play. It’s a really cool concept, one I would be tempted to try out. Just as easily a GM can dole out one incremental advancement per session, which means you could see characters take 40-60 sessions to fully level up. Throughout this process there is no XP system; this is a very “modern” take for the modern hipster gamer. I say that only because I know of no “hipster” gamers out there that endorse an XP system….it seems to be a very “in thing” to eschew XP as tedious book-keeping….and 13th Age, once again, is all about slaying tedious book-keeping.

As an aside, the advancement of power over ten levels strikes me as roughly equivalent to twenty levels of advancement in 4E, but with a power curve and expectations that are smoother for purposes of 13th Age’s ten-level range. You get a lot crammed into every level, so leveling up in 13th Age is serious business (unless you dole out the rewards incrementally).

No More Boardgame Comparisons: 13th Age is in many ways exactly what 4E would look like if it had been designed for narrative, abstract play. You can run 13th Age with a board and minis, but it’s very fast and loose (Very, very fast from what I’ve seen messing around with it so far). This fixes two huge issues 4E had: board-and-minis requirement and glacial combat pace.

13th age has a bunch of stuff that is unique to it, but one of the most unusual additions is the notion of the icons, thirteen great figures of power which embody the core personalities/entities/deities of the Epic Fantasy Realm which 13th Age is built around. There’s actually not a lot about the 13th Age setting in the book that ties the rules to it….you can run the game as-is in any setting you want, but the icons are a unique deal, and its hard to imagine running 13th Age without figuring out some way to incorporate their concept. The upside of the icons is they keep the campaign heavily focused….lightning rod focused…..on the iconic fantasy realm’s concepts. The downside is that trying to make them fit into a more nuanced, complex world could be trouble. Either way, the relationship to these icons is effectively 13th Age’s alignment system, albeit with a fantastic level of immediate world immersion built in, structured in a way that hammers home the idea that this is all about epic fantasy.

So who is 13th Age for?

In many ways I and some of my cohorts who liked 4E but found its flaws to be too overwhelming in the end will enjoy 13th Age. It takes many design principles from the 4E plate and runs with them to logical conclusions. So…if you were in the “I like 4E but….” Camp, 13th Age is worth checking out.

I don’t know if an OSR advocate is going to get much more than a sense of puzzlement out of 13th Age. If you’re open and receptive to new ideas and games then you might be able to approach 13th Age from a fresh viewpoint, and you may well find it’s got a very tempting approach to D&D. I can’t deny that there was something really distinct about how 4E played that I liked, and 13th Age seems to capture that in a more accessible package.

On the other hand, OSR purists are probably going to despise 13th Age as it is emblematic of just about everything there is to hate in modern gaming. It’s its own flavor of D&D, but one which the old guard may not find to their liking at all, even with 13th Age being a cleaner, dolled up version that does cater to a broader range of play styles than it’s spiritual predecessor.

I’ll be writing more about 13th Age as I go along, but I wanted to throw out some discussion on it right away, to sort of provide a head’s up that this thing has caught my fancy….! 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pacesetter Action Table Cards

I've been thoroughly immersed in the revival of Pacesetter that Goblinoid Games has spearheaded. In addition to Cryptworld and Rotworld GG also has Majus out, which I secured a copy of recently through rpgnow. I plan to do a formal review soon, but Majus is a different take on the weird occult genre, with some nice historical twists. On top of that I finally ordered Timemaster's reprint with Lulu's recent 40% off sale. Eager to check out the classic, which I haven't seen in close to thirty years!

In addition to the actual games there are the Action Table Cards, which are available in four flavors, one for each game. I just got mine in the mail today, and wanted to give you a quick review on what they are and how they work:

Short version, these are glossy full-color card-stock cards, about 8"X10" in size, featuring the game cover of choice on one side and the full color action table on the other side. If you have one card that's technically all you need, but you can get a different card for each game for $1.00 each, so they're very reasonably priced. I picked up one for each Pacesetter title currently out, but I may pick up more to serve as player utilities, too. I plan on running some Pacesetter games, and soon, actually! May even get some scenario material up on the blog soon when time permits.

If you like the Pacesetter games and what they offer, the cards are a cheap addition and make the colorized action tables easy and accessible. Well worth picking up if you plan on running Cryptworld, Majus, Timemaster or Rotworld anytime soon! Not quite as versatile as a CM (Crypt Master) screen, I admit, but the fact that rpgnow offers this sort of product gives me hope they'll expand into screens eventually, too.

Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection

When it comes to the comic reviews (as I get around to them) you may notice a trend: I have a fondness for the old Wildstorm characters, and the broader Batman Mini-Universe that DC likes to keep expanding on. It's getting hefty with costumed vigilantes, from old staples like Batman himself and Nightwing to the new younger Robin, Red Hood, Batwoman and...after roughly 24 years' absence (or presence, as Oracle) the return of Batgirl.

Barbara Gordon's stint as Batgirl ended in 1988 with the landmark The Killing Joke, DC's first effort at wedding the vile Joker seen from the Dark Knight Returns with the then-current era Batman comics, making Joker something more menacing and psychopathic than he had really been portrayed as, previously. Not that Joker wasn't psychotic, evil and demented already, mind you; but The Killing Joke was his first real damaging tale of villainy against the Bat-family, in which Barbara Gordon, alias Batgirl and daughter of Comissioner Jim Gordon, is shot by the Joker in a calculated act of violence. If I recall the Joker did it primarily to get at Gordon and his family, and was unaware of Barbara's role as Batgirl.

Barbara Gordon recovered, but was paralyzed from the waist down for the next twenty four odd years,* taking on the role of the shadowy Oracle, a behind-the-scenes information broker for the vigilantes of Gotham and sometimes beyond. It was a remarkable move on DC's part, because it kept her character interesting without ever retconning or negating The Killing Joke. Until now, that is...

There are two reasons to forgive the DC writers for fixing Barbara Gordon and letting her walk again. First: Barbara was the first but far from the last DC hero to get a broken back, she's just been unforunate enough not to get a lengthy plot arc for redemption and recovery (i.e. Batman). Second, her return in the hands of writer Gail Simone is extremely well done, and worth every moment; it's really nice to see the fragile but determined Batgirl return to action once more.

The Darkest Reflection is Volume I in the collected TPBs of the New 52 series featuring issues 1 to 6 of the new comic. It takes off right from the thick of it, with Batgirl's recovery something that happened previously (it may have been documented in another collection, not really sure). Batgirl starts off dealing with the Mirror, a fellow determined to kill those who have been fortunate enough to survive unpleasant fates under miraculous circumstances....including Barbara Gordon. Following the Mirror we have Gretel, a once good wannabe reporter turned victim, psychotic and psychic mind controller. Amidst this we get to see Batgirl reconnect with Nightwing (hint: it's awkward) and Batman himself (hint: it's rather touching). She deals with a new roommate as she moves out of her father's house (hard to sneak around as Batgirl when you're living with the Police Comissioner) and takes up room and board with a seemingly ordinary anarchist/professional cook, who also is happy to be her confidant...if Barbara wasn't consumed with the heroic secrecy bug, of course!

With great art, excellent writing and Simone's keen sense of meaningful dialogue it's a lot of fun to see Batgirl back in action. If you're addicted to Gotham vigilante stories Batgirl is well worth a look-see.


*Fun fact: the first chapter in TGN establishes that The Killing Joke took place 3 years prior to issue 1 in the new 52 timeline, which means all of Oracle's activities over 24 years (minus retcons and "never happened" plots) were crammed into roughly 36 months....or about 1 year every 1.5 months.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Grell in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

Despite a fairly robust playtest bestiary D&D 5th Edition is still missing a large number of iconic creatures from D&D (presumably they’ll be making their official appearance down the road). One of my favorite iconics, first appearing in AD&D 1st edition’s Fiend Folio, is the Grell. What follows is my adaptation of the Grell in D&D 5th edition terminology, based primarily on the 3rd edition version of the Grell introduced in the 3E Monster Manual II, to serve as a placeholder until the “real” grell makes its official appearance.

Medium Aberration
Armor Class 16
Hit Points  32 (5D8+10)
Speed 5 ft, fly 30 ft
Senses Blindsight 60 feet
STR 12 (+1), DEX 15 (+2), CON 14 (+2), INT 10, WIS 11, CHA 9 (-1)
Alignment neutral evil
Languages common, undercommon


Stealthy-grell are ambush predators and gain a +5 bonus to Dexterity (stealth) checks.

Blindsight-grell do not have normal eyesight, “seeing” instead by means of scent, vibrations and air patterns around it for sixty feet. Grell do not need to make wisdom (perception) checks to detect anyone moving within this range, even if those individuals are stealthed, unless that creature is incorporeal or can otherwise move without disturbing the air or causing even the slightest vibrations.

Grell Tentacles-each grell tentacle is deadly, equipped with poisonous barbs that can paralyze prey.  A grell has ten such tentacles; striking at one tentacle and dealing 10 points of damage will severe the tentacle, but the attacker must be grappled to do this. Damage dealt toward a tentacle like this does not get applied to the grell’s total hit points. The grell can regrow a severed tentacle in 24 hours.

Immunities-grell are immune to electricity and paralysis effects.

Grell Flight-grell fly as if they have the Fly spell permanently in effect. They also act as if they have feather fall in effect, and cannot take falling damage even if unconscious.


Multiattack-the grell can make as many attacks as it has tentacles.

Melee Attack-Tentacle: +4 to hit (reach 10 ft; one creature). Hit 3 (1D4+1) piercing damage plus paralyzation (see below).

Paralyzation: any creature struck by a grell’s tentacle attacks must make a Constitution save vs. Paralyzation DC 12 or become paralyzed for 4 rounds.

Grapple Attack: a grell which attacks and hits a creature one size smaller (or more) than it is immediately subject to a free grapple attack from the grell. Each round the grell retains the grapple the creature automatically takes tentacle damage and must save vs. paralysis.

Melee Attack-Beak Bite: +3 to hit (reach 5 feet; one creature). Hit 5 (2D4) piercing damage. Grell don’t usually bite unless desperate or if they are eating paralyzed prey.

Encounter Building:
Level 5, XP 340

Friday, November 8, 2013

Star Wars Non-Retcons Part 5: Boba Fett Was Just a Loser Who Got Eaten

This one is touchy ground for some, including my wife who likes to do Boba Fett cosplay....

From the original movies alone we know the following about Boba Fett: he could track effectively, and he was good at getting other people to do his work for him. Also, he was a real good barfly/lounge lizard…..although in fairness we never did see where he inserted the drinking straw into his helmet, so….

Boba Fett wore cool armor bristling with weapons, sure….but he didn’t have a lot else going for him. He looked reasonably clever in the initial movie, tracking the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City, then bringing in the Empire to help cement his nabbing Han Solo without lifting a finger. So in this sense he seemed rather clever. Then we get to Return of the Jedi, and apparently he’d been slumming at Jabba’s for months, and drinking a bit too much because he was ignominiously defeated and fed to the Sarlacc in short order.

Fett has survived for decades afterward in the EU timeline after shooting his way out of the Sarlacc and then resuming life as the badass he was spiritually intended to be; that’s another tale entirely, for most of it makes assumptions about a Boba Fett who was more competent than the films actually showed….and who knows, maybe in RotJ he was having a really bad helmet hair day and had drunk too much. What matters is that for all intents and purposes he did not show his worth, and suffered one of* the more ignominious defeats of all the SW villains.

I suppose I wouldn’t be unhappy to see him get a formal return in one of the planned Star Wars movies, or maybe a chance to show off his actual worth pre-Sarlacc-digestion…..but preferably in a prequel film; let the Sarlacc enjoy its meal in peace.

*most embarassing/ironic/amusing death award can go to any number of other contestants: Jabba, that hapless gamorrean snack, the stormtroopers who are pelted to death by ewoks, any Imperial officer strangled by Vader for even mild incompetence, the stormtrooper who falls to his death on Cloud City when his buddies nudge him off the bridge....okay before you start re-watching the films I did make that last one up!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Golem Sale at Paizo

Lot of stuff on sale through December 1st now at Paizo right here. Debating whether I should fill out my Pathfinder collection this way...hmmm....there's a lot of older stuff too worth checking out at the Paizo site, and some of it is on sale as well. A couple years back they acquired all the product from American Eagle games and hobby store...which was, when I was in Seattle, the de facto game store for old and out of print material in new condition thanks to the fact that the founding owner had a penchant for massively over-ordering product.

Star Wars Non-Retcons Part 4: Imperial Armor Really Does Suck

Imperial Armor Really Does Suck

Anyone who’s into the 501st cosplay may disagree, but the fact is, Imperial Armor doesn’t do squat against blaster technology in the Star Wars universe. There’s no disputing this: they have no decent targeting system (or we’d see more confirmed kills, more often), their tactics are only slight better than subpar AI in a video game and usually one or two blaster hits smokes your average Stormtrooper.(EDIT: Stu Rat pointed out yesterday the stormtrooper armor is basically "second chance" armor, and that's certainly fact it got me to thinking that for all we know most stormtroopers we see drop may only be stunned, wounded and unconscious, unless they also fell off a bridge when they were hit!)

It didn’t always work like this, however. Clearly the Clone Troopers of the prequel series were on average more competent; highly trained soldiers bred from birth to kill, and obey unerringly (i.e. Order 66), and there is evidence throughout the prequels that their armor is a bit more tactical and effective than their descendants. So what changed?

There’s an obvious reason for this, one which is never addressed in the movies but which can readily be implied: storm troopers are trained (or bred) and outfitted by the lowest cost contractors with an emphasis on numbers over competence. Palpatine needed competent troops in the Clone era because he had plans to exterminate the Jedi. Later on he needed a wopping huge volumes of thugs….everyone under the sun who could serve in any sort of militia working for him and not any seditionists in the Empire era. He needed the appearance of endless armies, essentially….and who cares if they can shoot straight or take a blaster hit when you’ve got billions of trained soldiers at your command?

We'll save the whole ewoks vs. stormtroopers debate for another day....

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Star Wars Non-Retcons Part 3: The Empire Really Was That Incompetent

The Empire Really Was That Incompetent

A big deal has been made about how the Emperor must have been in control through the force of the Imperial Fleet around Endor’s moon, due to the fact that they seem to fall apart when he dies; I think this retcon goes back to Kevin Anderson’s writings. When you actually watch the original film (RotJ), ignoring the EU explanations for this, what you see is a series of fortuitous events all happen at once: Emperor dies, and a lone pilot slams into the flagship of the fleet (The Executioner) and downs it in one fell swoop….the Executioner falls into the Death Star II’s gravity well and blows up real good; also, ewoks and an exploding shield generator. Things suddenly go horribly south for the Imperial Fleet, and they are rapidly routed.

So using Occam’s razor for our fictional process, what’s the simplest solution: that the Emperor was able to mind-control thousands of Imperial ships into an effective cooperative organizational structure, and that when he died they suddenly all got stupid….or that they were already basically a highly autocratic military organization built on a regimented approach to using straight up overwhelming force, and when they simultaneously lose their coordinating flagship and also have said ship plow into their partially completed space station the regimented military structure suffers a complete and total breakdown?

Seriously….this is a no-brainer. It also explains why the original Death Star had such a glaring design flaw; anyone who’s worked on design by committee or in a bureaucracy heavy environment knows how this works. Even introducing the notion of “force tactics mind control” into the mix was basically denying all the evidence of gross incompetence with the Empire in the prior two films.

The Empire are the English Red Coats, you see; being mercilessly gunned down as they operate on their strict and time-honored drill habits while the Rebels pick them off from the treeline. Case closed.

Also: watch Troops. It explains everything.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Star Wars Non-Retcons Part 2: Han Solo Really Did Refer to Parsecs as if they were a measure of time and not distance

Han Solo Really Did Refer to Parsecs as if they were a measure of time and not distance

The Scene: Han Solo brags to Luke and Ben about making the "Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs." Did not bother me as a kid, but when you get older and realize it's a measure of distance, not time then it becomes something of a head-scatcher. This, of course, was bampow sci fi dialogue from an era when technical consultants were not the norm, and audiences were not sophisticated enough to concern themselves with stuff like this.

As the years drew by however this became a bone of contention for many a fan, and the retcons have been frequent, usually centering around the official EU notion that the Kessel Run is something that happens in a black-hole rich region and doing it in the shortest distance is considered extremely impressive.

Let’s face facts, though: Han didn’t know what he was talking about, and may never have done the Kessel Run in any measure of parsecs or time worth bragging about. Occam’s razor suggests not that he was referring to some complicated distance-based space stretch but rather that he was talking out of his ass to some local yokels and impressing them with some garbage that he made up to sound cool to Luke, to put him in his place. But we know from the very same movie that Han is terrible at coming up with lies on the spur of the moment (witness the Prison Cell Block scene for proof) so it makes more sense that he was just grabbing stuff out of the air...badly.

But….Han’s an accomplished pilot and so must also be a decent navigator, right? Well sure, maybe he is; but he’s still terrible at coming up with stuff on the spot. Also, he may just leave a lot of that to Chewbacca, or even the Millenium Falcon’s computer….so navigational terms may be a thing he prefers not to pay close attention to. One does get the impression that in the Star Wars universe the ability to fly is strongly divorced from the need to understand the underlying physics of that process, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the basic principles of stellar navigation are actually unnecessary to a pilot so long as he’s got a computer or a co-pilot who does understand that stuff for him.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Star Wars Non-Retcons: Problems that go away if the EU Stops Being Canon

I was reading about some of the developments and rumors on the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII recently, and last night sat down to watch a bit of Return of the Jedi with my son. He’s too young to fully be into Star Wars right now….but he does have a toy lightsaber, and I thought it would be fun to let him see where it comes from (and so now at 23 months he knows the word “lightsaber” as well).

Incidentally when you’re two, and obsessed with airplanes, cars and robots everything falls into one of those three categories; so tie fighters? Airplanes. Sand crawler? Car. R2D2 and C3P0? Robots! One out of three isn’t bad.

So while watching Return of the Jedi with my son I realized that, from all I’ve read, the next movie isn’t going to assume any of the continuity of the Expanded Universe (EU) has happened….or at least, if it does make any assumptions about the EU it may be to borrow broad concepts or specific characters (if there’s a Thrawn or Mara Jade in Episode VII it will be pure fan service, for example). Not taking the EU into account also means that certain “fridge logic retcon moments” (look up fridge logic on TV Tropes) that have become so typical for the last few decades are no longer necessarily valid.

What are these retcon moments? Glad you asked! There are a few obvious bits in the original trilogy that for whatever reason people couldn’t just take at face value….and as a result, the ever expanding content of EU material through game and fiction has made consistent fundamental assumptions about the why’s and how’s of the Star Wars universe in such a fashion that the original movies lose some of their original specialness because of the retconing nitpickery.

Examples? Why yes I do have a few! In each of the following cases I present this week we have an ordinary event, character or scene in which something innocuous in the movie that could at best be explained away as “it made for a good moment “ and on its own merits needed no real alteration, was instead the springboard for an elaborate and lingering retcon. Each of these are fairly notable, and by no means inclusive….but they do reflect ones I've always thought were handled rather….oddly….in the EU canon. Here goes:

Leia Really Did Strangle Jabba With Her Own Muscle Power

The Scene: In RotJ Leia strangles Jabba with her own slave chains. It's a nice "poetic justice" scene and allowed Leia a little payback for Jabba's nasty BDSM xenophilia.

I forget the exact way this one turned into a retcon, but I seem to recall it started with Timothy Zahn concluding that Jabba’s flabby neck was too thick and stubborn to be properly strangled by Leia on the Slave Barge. The solution? She was using latent force powers to enhance her strength! Problem apparently solved.

This is actually a writer’s equivalent to Occam’s Razor. Apparently it is predicated on the assumption that:
1.       Leia is not strong enough (even though she’s probably about 24 years old in the scene and in very good physical shape) to pull the chain sufficiently tight to cut off Jabba’s flow of oxygen
2.       Jabba is assumed to have some sort of physiology that is not susceptible to the sort of strangling he experiences, nor is it assumed that his health is dubious enough to make the job easier (despite the fact that Jabba seems positively sickly in his scenes)

So what happened was EU authors worked out a retcon implying that Leia used magic to do it. Mhmm.

What makes more sense? Well, let’s start with an easy premise, that what was on screen was all it took. Leia was strong enough, and Jabba unhealthy enough that the job was fairly easy. She didn’t even need to kill him….all he needed was to pass out, after all; the exploding barge took care of the rest! Thus….no need for the force to enhance Leia’s musculature despite a lack of training or understanding.

This gets rid of a big bugaboo I’ve always had with the various Star Wars retcons: that Leia was too delicate a woman to do the job of polishing off Jabba.

I'll present another one of these "non-rectons" each day this week.....