Thursday, February 26, 2015

My playtest feedback process

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,, 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).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Monk & Frogfolk Today, GottaCon in Victoria Friday

Greg Stolze’s TheForgotten Monk 13th Age novel is wrapping up its Kickstarter in a few hours. Jonathan Tweet and I are on deck to write short stories using Greg’s characters and the novel is huge fun for fantasy readers, martial arts fans, and readers who like truly smooth and infuriating villains.

For a different type of villain, check out Temples of the Frogfolk, the second issue of the 13th Age Monthly, out today to subscribers! Author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is also on board to write a short story for The Forgotten Monk. Sign on to the Monthly now and you’ll also get caught up with last month’s installment, Dragon Riding.

A couple days from now, Friday the 27th, Jonathan Tweet and I are among the guests who will be running and talking about games at GottaCon in Victoria. I’m running 13th Age in Glorantha Friday night, Shadowrun: Crossfire Saturday afternoon, and also helping with a Saturday workshop on Crafting Hooks (along with Ryan Macklin and Rodney Thompson, to name the workshoppers I already know) and a Sunday workshop on running Kickstarters. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Where dragon riders came from

 [art by Rich Longmore]
Dragon Riding is the first issue of the 13th Age Monthly subscription that started a couple weeks ago. You can pick up a subscription tothe 13th Age Monthly for the yearly price of $24.95. When you subscribe, you’ll get all the 4000+ word issues you missed so far in the year.
The Monthly’s second installment, Temples of the Frogfolk, will be published toward the end of this month. I’ll say more about the hopping-froggies soon, but for now I'm talking about how Dragon Riding made it into 13th Age. The biggest influences were Anne McCaffrey, Morno, Wade Rockett, and ASH LAW.
Anne McCaffrey because I discovered both D&D and her dragon riders of Pern the same year—1974—while living in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Somehow I got hold of the second of her dragon riders books, Dragonquest, instead of the first. I read it enough times that I had no choice but to include a school for dragons in the first dungeon that I drew on graph paper.
(Confession: the school for dragons was a big blank area in the graph. I had no real idea what the school for dragons was going to be like. It may not have just been luck that my 5th grade brain was never forced to figure it out, because I put the school behind the room that was modeled after the Watcher at the Gates from Tolkien’s Moria. Nobody ever made it past that room. Huh.)
Push forward many years and McCaffrey’s Pern books have had a great deal of influence on fantasy, maybe more than people know. McCaffrey’s depiction of newly hatched dragons impressing on humans to whom they bond as life mates has been used everywhere from Elfquest (elves and wolves) to the Temeraire Napoleonic dragon series by Novik. Maybe I’m wrong about McCaffrey creating that impression, maybe it was already in the wind somewhere, but I think she’s the person responsible.
At one point these 13th Age dragon riding mechanics had a bit of talk about bonding rituals and such-like magical impressionism. But handling it in any detail felt like a story angle that GMs and players should invent for themselves in a personally satisfying way if they’re into that type of thing, and in the end I took it out of the rules.
Morno gets credit because his illustration of dragon riding sold me an aerial dragon combat game once upon a time. As in, I saw Dragonlord, and I bought it. And then I really wanted to play it. I held on to it for years, tinkering with ways to make the game playable. Or perhaps the word would be “fully, enjoyably playable.” I think I still own Dragonlord somewhere in a forgotten game box, but it’s not like it is going to be any more playable now; so it was time to invent a system for dragon riding combat that would work.
Wade Rockett forced my hand by seizing on dragon riding as something cool that was happening in the Dragon Empire and not letting me forget it. I chirped, “Yes, sure!” to Wade’s suggestion of handling the topic in 13 True Ways. So when 13 True Ways grew wild and overpopulated, it was clear that dragon riding was going to have to come later. It’s even somewhat true that creating a dragon riding article pushed us farther on the path toward having a 13th Age Monthly. There’s room for smallchunks of constant fun, and there was a need for a few small pieces on topics that, in hindsight, we should have covered in 13 True Ways.
ASH LAW gets credit as co-author of the piece because when I turned away from the topic, pleading that I had other design tasks to handle, ASH kept designing dragon riding systems, each better than the last. ASH wasn’t going to let it go. He wants to write a 13th Age sourcebook on mounted combat and he was going to push the system through even if I was stuck in the mud of no-that-won’t-work.
So eventually I stopped being a stick-in-the-mud and designed a system we could be happy with. This Dragon Riding piece is going to serve as the basis for how other mounted combat works in the game. It also has notes on how to apply the mechanics to different types of campaigns and notes on how to run and balance battles for PCs who are on dragonback.

And it gives me a good reason to dig through old game boxes, because the counters and maps from the Morno Dragonlord game will be perfect for the sessions I run as dragon riding adventures! 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Monk & Thief

There are two great new 13th Age books in different stages of imminence this week.

Greg Stolze’s TheForgotten Monk is the first 13th Age novel! It’s on Kickstarter to be published by Pelgrane’s Stone Skin Press imprint and it has already made its initial target. Now Greg is strettttching and he has been very generous with his early stretch goals, so if you’re a 13th Age player, you can sign on now and you’ll already be receiving stats for monsters and situations from the novel.  

Just as each 13th Age campaign has its own unique plots and interpretations of icons, races, and places, Greg’s novel presents its own reasonable and idiosyncratic interpretations of subjects like elven speech patterns and Imperial law. Unlike fantasy novels connected to some other game worlds, these tropes aren’t part of a canon that other writers now have to use. Each 13th Age novel gets to make its own decisions about the version of the world it’s going to portray.

I love The Forgotten Monk! It’s simultaneously warm and humane and full of lethal violence. That would be a good recipe for a 13th Age campaign and it’s a wonderful mix for a novel. I’m not being descriptive of the contents because you should go look at the Kickstarter page and read about it there. 


In Gar Land, Dungeon Hunt You
The second book is just about to hit retail shelves, and you can already pre-order it from the Pelgrane store. It’s Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s Eyes of the Stone Thief.

A couple words you won’t have heard already about the book: I’m jealous!

Living dungeons are one of my favorite parts of 13th Age and when Gareth pitched the idea of a living dungeon that hunts PCs and their loved ones down instead of waiting to be looted, I not only knew it was going to be special, I also had a strange creator half-remorse feeling that went something like: “That is such the perfect implementation of the idea and now I am never going to come up with it myself.”

Gar started by calling the project Moby Dungeon. It had stronger-Ahab tones early on before it became so seriously its own thing. You can catch an echo of that original starting point from the peg-legged halfling magician on the cover, gathering power as her comrade hefts a harpoon.

All Gar’s ideas were so good that it wasn’t a surprise when the project kept growing and growing and turned into a 360 page book. Calling it a mega-dungeon does it a bit of a disservice. Mega-dungeon is a nice marketing term, I think, but it implies nothing but a claustrophobic delve-and-more-delve underworld experience. Eyes of the Stone Thief takes the time to detail the surface locations that are connected to killing or supporting the dungeon, the cults and warlords who have a stake in the living dungeon’s fate.

The book is one of the most lootable supplements ever (and I’m talking to you, GMs). It’s got quick-and-dirty mass combat rules as part of a slave revolt in an enemy keep. The Cult of the Devourer. Dozens of montsers useful in all piece of the champion tier, things like the swordapus, filth hydras, and a drunken wizard. Glorious 3D maps of each dungeon level which are pure-caffeine for my imagination, even if I’m not using the Stone Thief I’m going to use those locations! And each of those levels could be the basis of its own dungeon. In fact, Gar has already written an article on the Pelgrane web site about how to chop the 13 levels of the dungeon into 13 separate dungeons

So Gareth has done something special. I may have started jealous, but now I’m grateful. This is a campaign fun-box brimming with awesomeness. I don’t know that I would ever personally be capable of writing a 360 page adventure. And now that Gareth has written Eyes of the Stone Thief, I know that I absolutely never have to.

Thanks Gar!

Monday, January 19, 2015

101 Not So Simple Monster Templates

I like this recent 13thAge-compatible DIY monster tool from Rite Publishing. The book has a not so simple origin story. It first came out in 2011 as a Pathfinder sourcebook written by Steven D. Russell. Step forward a few years and Patryk Adamski approached Steven and Rite Publishing with a reworked 13th Age compatible version. The mechanics are new, the art is new. Like Kobold Press’ and ASH LAW’s Deep Magic volume that's compatible with 13th Age, 101 Not So Simple Monster Templates is a book that is inspired by the previous Pathfinder RPG edition rather than a straight conversion which is confined to the original mechanics.

What you get from this Rite Publishing book is an alphabetical list of 101 conversion templates for customizing monsters on the fly. Many of the templates add a level to the monster, so that the impact of the template’s new abilities and powers get offset by lower stats. A few of the templates, like Burned Out Creature or Unhinged Creature, go the other way and reduce the creature’s effective level.

There are a couple niggling problems. A few of the templates use language that’s different from standard 13th Age terminology, but not so different that it’s difficult to figure out. A few other templates almost certainly err on the side of being too nasty. Resilient, for example, has got to be missing its level adjustment.

But balance issues are minor, particularly in a system that advises GMs to regularly make battles unfair! If you’ve been running 13th Age, you’re going to be able to recognize the few too-nasty templates easily, they’re not subtle.

I’m especially happy with 101 Not So Simple Monster Templates because its text is all published under the OGL. As a designer, I’m not likely to borrow a full template and the template approach, but there are several creative mechanics here that I’ve already borrowed or revised as elements in new monsters headed into 13th Age in Glorantha and future installments of the 13th Age Monthly. So I’ll be adding this to the list of OGL books in the licensing section of an upcoming product or three. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Soon you will fly on dragon back!

I'm celebrating the imminent launch of the 13th Age Monthly!

I'm also celebrating what may be my favorite cover ever, painted by Lee Moyer as an upgrade of the Feathered Crown illustration he and Aaron McConnell originally created for 13 True Ways.

Those of you who backed the 13 True Ways Kickstarter will be getting this first installment of the Monthly for free, since dragon riding was part of that book's original flight plan.

Pelgrane will be announcing the rest of the business details for 13M in the next few days.  The model will be similar to Pelgrane's splendid Ken Writes About Stuff subscription.

I was going to type out more details about the project. Then I remembered that I'd already watched Wade Rockett copy-write the basic description of the Monthly for the upcoming web announcement. So here's Wade's text. You'll be seeing it again soon on the Pelgrane site along with a listing of the first three months of articles:

Subscribe to The 13th Age Monthly and you’ll receive all-new 13th Age RPG goodness for GMs and players every month for a full year. These 4000+ word PDFs offer new rules systems, Bestiary-style monsters, player character options, and more.

The 13th Age Monthly is overseen and developed by Rob Heinsoo, with a stellar list of contributors that includes Jonathan Tweet, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (Book of Loot, Eyes of the Stone Thief), ASH LAW (Tales of the 13th Age) and Cal Moore (Shadows of Eldolan).

It's going to be a great ride!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Six Kobolds walk into a bookstore. . . .

Kobold Guide to Combat (Print Preorder) - Click Image to Close

I'm used to getting together with friends for gaming on Wednesday night. But this Wednesday is different, with a different set of friends, and we'll be on a panel at a bookstore talking about games instead of playing.

Kobold Press is publishing the Kobold Guide to Combat. Editor Janna Silverstein has brought together a few of us Seattle-area contributors for a panel/reading/minotaurshit session (if you have to ask, that's triple the experience point value of a bullshit session) at the University Bookstore at 7 p.m. That's the main UW bookstore at 4236 University Way NE and of course it's a free event. (Some early reports showed the event at 6 p.m. Ignore that disinformation campaign by jealous hobgoblins. 7 p.m. is the hour.)

The panel will be huge fun. With Chris Pramas and Jeff Grubb and Steve Winter and Wolf Baur and novelist John A. Pitts, Janna is going to have her wrangling-facilitator hands full.

Come by to say hello, roll a couple dice (I'll bring them!), buy a copy of the new book, and acquire autographs for handwriting analysis.