31 May 2015

13th Age Session One: Ambushed by Wolves and Slaying Blood Cultists

I played my first session of 13th Age today. As is becoming a sort of standard, it was only 3 hours long [1] but it had some good action.

We were using my old campaign setting, which reduced my workload a little but maybe not as much as I thought. It's all in broad strokes, so they had plenty of room to create new lore, but it also meant that most of the FantasyCraft centered work that I did was unusable. I don't mind; FC wants you to spend a lot of time making sure that all of the thousand options they present is part of your world, and it felt nice not having to deal with it.

The players introduced themselves:
  • Frenk, the halfling barbarian. His entire character sheet is in caps and mostly misspelled, and he has a deep hatred for elves despite not being entirely clear on what they are. He wields a greatsword that is nearly the size of his body, and alternates between oblivious and completely focused. Very mercurial but easy-going.
  • Max Edge, a human ranger who's been cursed to drink elf blood (and only elf blood). He hates elves with a passion (one of his backgrounds is Elf Exterminator) and he spends most of his time talking about how he plans to exterminate all elves. Everybody thinks he's a psychopath and he doesn't mind. He's handy with a bow and completely ruthless.
  • Quillos, a wood elf monk. He impatiently tried to live a pastoral wood elf life and got fed up with it, instead preferring to learn a sword-centric martial art in a secluded monastery where he could get some respect. He was too hedonistic to get far, and left the monastery to participate in the Amsu night life. One particularly lively orgy left him sobering up in front of the Merchant King, who wanted to hear his brilliant plan to exploit the elves, which he is trying to do despite being a little in over his head.
  • Sullen, the human Necromancer. A cosmic accident flung him outside of reality itself, where he spend a timeless moment observing the cycles of Life and Death. He seeks to avoid this cycle completely, and has delved deep into the necromantic arts. Strangely reassuring, though he never means it that way, and stubborn in his knowledge.

They are working for Hudread the Conqueror for their own reasons: Frenk and Max out of vengeance against elves, Quillos to try and insinuate himself into the cogs of power, and Sullen merely because mercenary work means coin, and coin means access to the materials he will ultimately need. They were given a mission by Hudread's lieutenant Arild [2]- retrieve the Blade of Enfron before it is delivered to their enemies.

Turns out, the Protector is giving the High Druid a mighty artifact to help the High Druid defend against Hudread. This is unacceptable- the artifact would do more good to the elves in the hands of Hudread, so they are going to rectify the situation.

They camped out in the shell of Hudread's keep and were awoken [3] by the sounds of an Elven taskmaster shouting and kicking his drudges to work. Might as well set off, they decide. Max fortifies himself with some elf blood and they set off. Frenk has some background as a Tribesman, so he leads the way, tracking the party directly into a Druidic ambush. They battle; the wolves are savage and the Druid is attacking with grasping vines that daze the party, but they ultimately succumb. Frenk and Quillon, as close combatants took some serious damage but have plenty of recoveries so no harm done, ultimately. Combat is fluid and interesting; the monk is shifting through his forms, and the barbarian is nice and simple. Building Rage means that missing provides damage when you eventually do hit, but it's a "daily" [4] so I'm unsure if its use was wise. The flaming skeleton does a bit of work, and Sullen actually manages to do the last bit of damage on every enemy except a single wolf.

They do win out, though, and so they're off again. Frenk manages to track the elfspoor to a deep brook. I decide that he loses the way, though, because I feel like traveling through Druid-infested land should be a little dangerous. Max attempts to seek out the elves using his Elf Exterminator and discovers Quillon! Surprise! Quillon, for his part, attempts to use his monastic knowledge to remember if, perhaps, he has seen this on a map or learned anything useful about the Druids. He fails, so we decide he was too poor of a student to have remembered anything useful.

Sullen, on the other hand, manages to remember a bit of Necromantic lore he's read once, and directs the party to a nearby death shrine the druids have built. Inside, they hear chanting voices and Max discerns that they are speaking Elvish. ELVISH??!?! He goes down the root-stairs and sees five cloaked figures arranged around a skull that sits on top of a deep red cloth covered table. He shouts "We're coming to your grove!" and blasts one with an arrow. He then retreats up the stairs and waits.

A tense moment passes. He peeks around the corner and BOOM! An eight foot tall former cultist is in his face, muscles exploding out of his shredded robe, eyes turned to black. The clear leader of the small cult raised his head and revealed a hideous decaying face, eyes ringed with fire. [5] The battle began!

Mad stepped back and fired an arrow into the monster's meat, dealing only miss damage- then he took an arcane curse to the chest. Frenk stepped up to the monster and swung for a pittance. Quillon launched past the monster (whoops) and into the cultists, who panicked and tried to stab the monk, to no avail. He took a foot to the face, though. Sullen's skeleton slipped past the brute and slaughtered a cultist. The monsters were no match for the heroes in the end, although Quillon ended the battle with a scant handful of health, and Sullen had to use one of his mightier spells to dispatch the Cult Leader.

They manage to spare a single cultist goon and calm him down enough to encourage him to spill his beans. He does, and is even willing to tell them that the Sword is on its way to the High Druid instead of being in his sanctum

All in all: Not a bad way to learn a system. I like not having to draw things to 5' grids, and I like how easy movement is. Disengage / intercept means that position sort of matters without having to bog anything down; the real question is "Can you get out of this guy's sword range" and "can you stop the baddie from reaching your back line?" AC was high all around, which was a pain, but I suppose it is also largely due to having to readjust expectations from the way FC worked. I'll work on making battles more "cinematic," and less common than in FC, which has its own sort of expectations about how battles work and who is in them.

I had a good time and I look forwards to next week. I gave them two incremental advances because I'm a nice guy, and I want to have everybody leveling a bit faster than "normal" in my game. One of my players only has a short time to enjoy the game, and that means that I've got to try and squeeze a little bit of extra content in here, if I can.

[1] One of my players started going to church again on Sundays a month or two back; I like the guy and this is the best time slot for everybody, so we just sort of deal with short sessions.

[2] She's a Dragon Priest, which I've decided means that she's a religious Sorcerer in game terms. I doubt that it'll ever come up, but you never know.

[3] Sullen, technically, doesn't sleep, so he occupies himself during the night by keeping some Necromantic rites. I plan on using this information in the future, in some fashion.

[4] In 13th Age, every 4th battle provides you the opportunity to rest. Resting before then incurs a "campaign loss," which is a nice way to provide some immediate forwards pressure straight from the game book. A lot of people don't like tracking rations or torches and so run into this problem where they don't understand that the 15 minute adventuring day has been a solved problem since the 70s. I do like tracking them but I can understand where the game is coming from, and I appreciate them making explicit the link between dawdling and losing some of what you want.

[5] I actually didn't have this encounter planned, because I looked at the next encounter and thought it looked stupid. So technically the giant dude was a Bugbear, the main cultist was a Goblin Shaman, and the goons were Kobold Grand Wizards. Worked out ok enough, despite my multiple tactical mistakes. Note to self: When using a caster, make sure he can actually get behind some goons, and make sure that there are enough goons that they all don't get engaged. A single large defender is not enough to protect anybody- once you're engaged, you cannot intercept anything until you're free again, and staying free from the players is a losing proposition.

30 May 2015

13th Age: Duskmarsh

Since I don't quite know what my players are interesting in doing, I've taken the opportunity to brainstorm a little bit about locations that I'd like to eventually have them encounter. I've had to keep it intentionally vague so I can leave hooks lying around [1] and eventually they can choose to go there if they like. If they don't, that's fine- I'll just reuse and recycle my ideas for later.

Anyways, here it is:


The swamp is actually a nice enough place;  there are some undead there, sure, and probably more stirges than there should be, and yeah, there are actually a lot of carnivorous plants, plus some giant hunting spiders... you know what, let's not go to the swamp.

The thing about the swamp, though, is that there are quite a few rare plants that won't grow anywhere else in the world. There's a dungeon there, too, the ruins of an old outpost from the last age. They both attract different sorts of folks...

A swamp is an explosion of life. All kinds of life. Strange things grow there. Be careful.

6 Monsters

  • Stirges
  • Skeletons
  • Fungaloids
  • Spiders
  • Oozes
  • Carnivorous Plants

 6 Sites

  • The Old Outpost- The surface is an old fort where spiders and stirges make their lair. Underneath is the mouth of a dungeon, where oozes and skeletons roam. 
  • Fungaloid Duchy- Fungus-people have built stone walls and rule over their decaying, marshy realm.
  • Spider's Nest-  A thickly wooded grove infested with the predations of unnaturally huge spiders.
  • Pit of Decay- A tremendous sinkhole in the ground where oozes gather. Carnivorous plants catch prey and the oozes further decompose it, creating a beautiful (if smelly) symbiosis.
  • Overgrown Grotto- A lush cave with a pond. Nest for a bloated Stirge queen.
  • Lake Leomund- Verdant, with a lake island. Forgotten undead lurk there, bound by a curse.

6 Hooks 

  • Stirges have been spreading from the swamp and killing people. The stirges won't stop without the source being removed, so the local authorities are offering a reward for each stirge proboscis, plus a handsome bonus for the corpse of any queen. ~OR~ Somebody's set out to kill the stirges, and the local druids aren't having any of that. Stop the stirge-slayers before they upset the balance!
  • A nobleman from far away has tracked the location of a priceless family heirloom. Its location: Somewhere in the Old Outpost. 
  • An old pirate's dead and one treasure-hunter's got his map. They're pretty sure that the treasure's buried on Leomund Isle, if this map can be trusted. Of course nobody's dared visit that island for decades...
  • The Fungaloid Duke has deigned to expand his territory, much to the chagrin of the local farmers who prefer their lands solid and their hearts beating...
  • A bolting horse carrying a prince's ransom has disappeared into the swamp. The King is despondent that he'll never see his son again; if nobody can recover the random before the next new moon his son will be slain! It turns out that the horse is busy being digested by the Pit of Decay. The inorganic metal coins are intact, but how do you get retrieve them when a three foot thick carpet of ooze layers the place?
  • Somebody from a nearby settlement has been attacked and wrapped in thick silken webs by the spiders. When they capture the person, they are weak and, as it turns out, have been implanted with spider eggs.
6 Hazards [2]
  • The air is thick with gnats and biting flies. Getting a full-heal up here is impossible while the insects swarm.
  • A thick slimy sludge covers the party and its belongings, rendering 1d4 non-magic items useless in the next battle. (Which should be soon, or the party will just pause to clean it.)
  • An unnaturally long leech attaches to one party member (chosen at random). Before it can be discovered and peeled off, it drains 1d4 recoveries.
  • Pockets of swamp gas occasionally erupt with flickering lights, rendering meaningful stealth impossible.
  •  The battle takes place near a breeding pool- every round after the first, a Stirge attacks the party member that's furthest back.
  • There's some sort of forgotten shrine here. If any of the players attempt to pray here, have them roll a die. 1-2: Lose a recovery. 3-4: Roll to recharge a power of their choice. 5-6: Gain a recovery.

[1] If there's any way to describe my GMing style, it's probably "leave lots of hooks lying around." One of my players always asks about rumors, so I keep a nice long list of things that are happening lying around. Usually they don't investigate it, so I just keep track of it and have the rumors of something related happen. One example is that two merchant houses started up some shit with each other; one was smuggling in the others' territory. The players found out, and reported it to the local authorities, who promised they'd do something. Couple of days later, it turns into open skirmishing, and the players happen to be around people fleeing the countryside under the protective aegis of some cavalrymen. Couple of weeks later, they hear that one of the merchant houses has captured an important nobleman from the other house and that they're entering negotiations. Things like these help keep the world moving and, more importantly, remind my beautiful players that the world is in constant flux and that you'll never have enough time to do everything.

[2] I mean environmental hazards; things you can use to slow down your party if you think it'd be interesting. Thinking of these ahead of time is pretty difficult- usually everybody else will inform me about the sorts of things they're worried about or thinking about, and then I riff off of that. You know, basic "Be careful in the water! There could be snakes or alligators!" says one player. Hey, good idea- I'll keep that in mind, especially if a paranoid player asks for some sort of perception roll.

28 May 2015

The Age After 12

In an effort to shake free of my FC-induced drudgery [1], I've decided to attempt to inflict 13th Age on my standard gaming group.

The timing, as it turns out, is pretty good; one of them is going to be out of town (and without reliable internet access) for a month, and another one is going to be leaving in about a month to get some job training. [2] I knew about the job training in advance but the out of town is a bit of a surprise, and our Skype chat is a lot more lonesome without him.

Anyways, though, there's a lot that I like about 13th Age, including the part where I'm allowed and encouraged to make things up again. And so is everybody! The players all have their backgrounds and Unique Things (which can be anything), which means that the campaign is exactly as high or low fantasy as everybody at the table agrees. Like any game where everybody is coming together to make things up, you kind of need to set a baseline of what sort of game you're interested in playing, and I imagine that explicitly saying what it is sort of wrecks the "illusion," [3] but honestly this is exactly the way I like to run my games anyways. It's nice to read through a PDF and think to yourself, "Oh, exactly! This is exactly a thing I've always wanted to try!"

Plus the designer's notes. Oh man, do I love those designer's notes. They lay out exactly where they disagree on things and sometimes both of the designers don't even play by the rules they wrote down for you to try out, instead telling you where the baseline should probably be and then both running in opposite directions. It's really freeing, and nice to see a "standard" fantasy game treat itself like a set of suggestions instead of The One True Law. This philosophy carries into every description of every class, and in every monster's writeup. They give you some ideas and then let you pick any of them, all of them, or none at all and there's not even a hint that there's a "right way" to do your fluff. It's great. 

The closest the game comes to having a One True Way is in the description of the Icons, which are technically not necessary but if you don't use them then you're sort of going against the spirit of what they're writing. The Icons are written into a lot of the fluff and, as I'm finding out, if you want to do away with them, you have to invent your own and they're probably going to be kind of similar. You can't quite create them in pairs, but you do need your Icons to tell a certain story about your world. It's a bigger task than it seems, but I can't blame the designers for wanting to include their new idea strongly into the world. It's just that if the Icons don't fit into your idea of the world, you've got a bit of work ahead of you.

Still, though, I'm excited. Maybe more excited than I should be, given that one of my group apparently doesn't want to play but is too polite to bring it up. I'm sure he'll be passive-aggressive but I really don't have time for passive-aggression...

[1] The way that I've found FantasyCraft most tolerable is if I ignore wide swaths of the rules in favor of running games more or less the way I usually play them. The longer I play the system, the creakier it feels, and I can only slap so many patches on it before I wonder what the point was.

[2] And then one of them doesn't want to play, which is whatever. Your loss, man. He doesn't seem to want to play anything that isn't FantasyCraft so I'll have to look for a new player soon, I imagine.

[3] I used to be more tolerant of this sort of thing, to be honest, but long years reading the uninformed and ignorant opinions of random internet strangers has soured me on this sort of thing. If you rely on some sort of illusion of "realism" to get your jollies in games, then you are reveling in ignorance and I can't take that any more seriously than I can take somebody who thinks that movie critics are "ruining things they liked" by pointing out flaws. Things you like can have flaws, and your group can (and should!) have frank discussions where you explicitly lay out what your expectations are for this game and what kind of themes you like. It's like pulling teeth from my players (many of whom are uninformed and a little ignorant) [4] but then when they tell me that they don't care, I just look at the character sheets they hand me as implicitly informing me as to what kind of game they want to run.

[4] There's nothing wrong with being uninformed or ignorant, to be honest with you, it's just people that think they're informed and urbane that rub me the wrong way. I remember reading from person on Reddit sagely declaring that a game mechanic was bad because it was "immersion-breaking," as though looking at your character sheet and rolling dice to beat a target number provided by another human being in front of you narrating a situation could possibly be "immersive." Ugh, please.

20 May 2015

Android: Netrunner

I've been playing Netrunner with a good friend of mine and I have to say: I can see why people are so fanatical about it.

I'm not a stranger to card games; I played Pokemon throughout grade school, Magic the Gathering from when I was probably 10. I own two Dominion sets, a Resident Evil deckbuilder, and the core Lord of the Rings LCG. I've played a dozen rounds of Fluxx and (bleh) Cards against Humanity. I even tried the lackluster DC Comics Deck Builder, and the bizarrely fiddly Legendary from Marvel comics. Add to it Space Hulk: Death Angel and Warhammer Invasion and Warhammer Fantasy's Battle for Atluma- I've played a whole lot of card games.

Android: Netrunner might be better than all of them.

It's good enough that I'm not working at all on my FC campaign or even looking through systems to switch to when the campaign is over. I'm just looking through these NBN cards, trying to figure out exactly how much tracing is enough tracing  and how many bioroids I should be running in this Haas-Bioroid deck I'm considering. [1] I'm peeking at Shaper cards to steal for my Anarch deck, which I'm hoping will set enough fires that any corp I face will collapse.

Compared to Magic the Gathering, A:N is elegant and creative. In MtG, most of the challenge is in deckbuilding and sideboarding; deck archetypes are strong or weak to each other in varying arrays and there's nothing you can do about it in-game. You have to sideboard in or out cards after losing, and you're still playing pretty much the same deck and so are they.

In A:N, though, you don't really sideboard anything, and you're not expected to. Decks are flexible and play differently every time, because the game puts a massive focus on deception and reading your opponent.

I distinctly remember playing MtG once: I was playing monored aggro and he was playing some sort of white midrange. [2] The dude across from me had been holding back these two cards from the beginning of the game. I recognized that they were probably Wrath of God and then either Akroma or Serra's Angel, so I played around it by pretending I didn't notice but not playing any more cards. Predictably, he wrathed, so next turn I played another hasted creature. He played his angel (I forget which) but it didn't matter because in response to that I just used my last burn spell. I win, dickhead. [3]

Anyways, every round in A:N is like that because the Corp is playing most of its cards face down and the more dynamic and reactive Runner has a plethora of options available to them. Every single turn you are asked "Do you feel lucky?" as you gauge what level of risk you're willing to put on the table. Every single turn your opponent has to decide if you're playing real threats, if you're feinting, or if it's a feint within a feint. It is a turn-based fighting game, and reading your opponent (and reading their reads of you) is essential to overcoming them.

It's a very good game. I hope that I can continue playing it and that my gaming partner will continue to show interest in it! [4]

[1]Answers: "There's no such thing as too much tracing," and "As many as you can reasonably justify, plus two more for good luck."

[2] I usually played a goblin deck. Onslaught block had only recently started, so there were a lot of neat things going on with the tribal subtype. We played kitchen sink casual magic, which is basically Legacy. But without the banlist. Nobody had money enough to buy Black Lotus or anything with Mox in its name, and we only had a vague understanding of things like mana curve or efficiency, so it ended up generally being a good-spirited rumble. My opponent in this story was a smug, tubby, tall dude who always had really fancy sleeves and occasionally used a foil-heavy combo deck he was really proud of, even though it didn't go off half the time because I was just playing aggro and if you needed more than a handful of turns to win, I'd have battered you to death with fast, efficient goblins like always. He was ok, but had sort of a Dennis from Always Sunny vibe; you could tell he thought he was better than everybody else for some reason and I guess he thought everybody admired him or something but nobody really liked him and we only hung out with him when we were playing Magic. Ah, memories.

[3] I've never been one for gloating, or basking in my glory. Win or lose, I just want to improve my play. That's the kind of guy I am; stubborn and self-critical. A lot of things in my life are like that, now that I think about it.

[4] I only play with the one person right now, and online, but I imagine that I can find some more people who are tolerant of newcomers and won't tease me when I make staggeringly stupid mistakes!

Looking Back

They say that if you don't look back at who who were from a year ago and cringe that you haven't grown enough. What if I look back f...