Sunday, December 27, 2015

a Moby Dick of a dungeon

There are still a couple of days (well, a little less!) left to get the 13th Age Bundle of Holding that contains so much of what my friends and I have been working on the past few years.

After the bundle's opening trio of the core 13th Age book, the 13 True Ways supplement, and the wonderful 13th Age Soundtrack album by James Semple and friends, the next chunky object in the bundle is Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan's 364 page campaign-masquerading-as-a-mega-dungeon, Eyes of the Stone Thief . 

Here are a few fun things about Eyes of the Stone Thief that may not be common knowledge . . . .

1. whale book

Gareth's initial concept for the adventure was summed up by the project's original slangy name: Moby Dungeon. In a world where dungeons are alive, the dungeon at the center of this story would proactively hunt and kill things the PCs loved. Originally there was a Captain Ahab-style NPC, but that role got taken over by the PCs themselves! Given Gar's original inspiration, it probably shouldn't have been a surprise that the initial short adventure turned into a mega-dungeon with numerous aboveground locations and NPC factions that tie into the dungeon's plotlines.

You can see a trace of the original inspiration on Ben Wooten's cover. The halfling spellcaster has lost a leg and her comrade hefts a harpoon, waiting for the moment to throw at the surfacing dungeon!

2. women
Speaking of the cover art, Eyes of the Stone Thief features an art decision that turned out a bit harder to see than we'd intended. There's a consistent adventuring party used throughout the book, and all members of the adventuring party are women. Heavy armor and some small art means I'm not sure how many people noticed that.

3. colorizing the black and white
Eyes of the Stone Thief was originally a black and white book. Then Simon took stock of the wonderful full color maps Herwin Wielink had created for the book and of what we'd already accomplished with the other full color hardcovers, 13th Age and the Bestiary and 13 True Ways. Simon decided he wanted to take the time and make the effort to convert the book to color.

So Pelgrane ran a test, getting each of the artists to color one of their pieces. It went well and the colorization went forward. Towards the very end of the production process, when Lee Moyer was visiting me in Seattle, he saw the book on screen over my shoulder and asked to look at all the art. Lee is a master of light and shadow and color and he saw where he could strengthen the book. He made a bid to do touch-up work on pieces that weren't as dramatic. Pelgrane accepted and the results were magnificent.

The art process for the book captured how we've been approaching 13th Age work. We're not always as quick as we might be, but we're taking the time to get things right, and Simon and Cat at Pelgrane are wonderfully supportive, even to the extent that they'll make quality-control decisions I'd feel pretty bad about making with someone else's money.

4. but wait, the book isn't ALL in color
Gareth's art direction and vision for the book delivered four pages of truly old-school madness! Four pages of the Quillgate Library, down in the dungeon's epic-tier depths, appear in oldest-school black and white from the earliest days of D&D, the exact style and shade of paper used for the earliest rpg books widely published in the UK (as I understand it, my UK gaming history facts may be slightly off). And Russ Nicholson, famed illustrator of so many UK game books, provided the art, including a full page illustration of the dungeon cresting as a wave!

It's a joke from the old days, so it's not a surprise that the joke was too subtle for some people. Pelgrane sometimes gets complaints about misprinted pages in Eyes of the Stone Thief! "There's something wrong with 4 pages, they're in black and white and they look awful." I love the fact that Gareth, Simon, and Pelgrane buried this chunk of the forgotten module UA3 LOST TREASURY OF THE DWARVES in the middle of Eyes of the Stone Thief.

5. reviews and all that
You can find reviews and details of Eyes of the Stone Thief here and here and many other spots. I'll just close with an anecdote from one of my friends who plays in someone else's 13th Age campaign. The game has always been wonderfully GMed and huge fun, and then it got a little better. At some point my friend noticed that the battles had gone up a notch, full of interesting terrain and strange and memorable situations. A little while later, my friend realized that the GM had gotten hold of Eyes of the Stone Thief and was mining it for encounters, sprinkling its bizarre battles into the flow of the campaign.

Find it along with many other 13th Age goodies in the Bundle, or look for it in print at your local gaming store.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sometimes home base is a tavern named Luckys

Steven Warzeha and I just finished design work on this month's installment of the 13th Age Monthly. It's a surprise issue, added to the mix at the last moment because I was inspired by Steven's take on adding Home Bases to our player character options. Not all campaigns will want to use the mechanics, and many campaigns won't want to use them all the time, but I think they make a lot of sense for handling the 'this is our base' story that surfaces frequently in my own games.

The Home Bases art above is by Rich Longmore, illustrating the moment when the party's tavern base attracts some heat from thugs loyal to the Crusader! We'll have the issue out in a few days, after layout.

For those of you haven't signed on to the 13th Age Monthly, the current 13th Age Bundle of Holding just added a 20% off coupon to the bundle. The coupon is usable this year, in which case you'll get the past twelve months of issues, starting with Dragon Riding and continuing through Summoning Spells and Echo & Gauntlet. Or wait and use the coupon for next year's subscription, that will start with an article from Jonathan Tweet and me called Rakshasas & Reavers.

Subscribers to the 13th Age Monthly also get the upcoming seasons of our organized play program as a free bonus. So signing onto the Bundle of Holding not only gets you ASH LAW's Diamonds & Shadows,  a revised and expanded version of the earliest months of our organized player program, it can also give you a headstart on the adventures that will be bundled with upcoming issues of the Monthly.

For those of you already inside the subscription base, don't worry, Pelgrane will be taking care of you too!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gamehole Con was fun!

This is an open thank you letter to Gamehole Con, who flew me and many other game designers across the country a couple weeks ago for a sweet and extremely well-organized weekend of gaming.

Personal highlights included. . .
. . . .meeting Tom Wham and watching him demo Feudality, because I’ve played so many hours of his games over the years, and it was wonderful to watch him explain one of his creations.
. . . running a session of 13th Age in Glorantha that rivalled the 6 Feats Under session for sheer manic energy, particularly when the trickster managed to go airborne via a Life-infused Air spirit he’d caught in his bag of mischief.
. . . running another 13th Age in Glorantha session that nearly led to a permanent change in the curve of Humakt’s sword, which is a fancy way of saying that the Lunar Empire nearly Illuminated the PCs’ quest.
. . . a panel about 13th Age and many editions of D&D that Jonathan Tweet and I ran Saturday morning.

The panel centered on a question and answer session. I don’t believe anyone recorded it. I don’t recall all the questions, but I wrote a few of them down. The answers below incorporate some of Jonathan’s answers and most of my own.

Q: Do the icons know they are icons?
A: Jonathan and I assume that the icons know they are icons and that this is a term that means something in the world. Greg Stolze’s The Forgotten Monk novel shows this well, the world and ages of the Dragon Empire make sense when the icons are aware of their own status. It would be possible to run a campaign where the icons weren’t at all certain of their status, but that feels like a different approach than what we’ve chosen as our baseline.

Q: Where do the conversational sidebars come from?
A: Our standard banter. The fact that we don’t always agree, and felt like showing that we sometimes disagree helps free up GMs and tables to play things their own way, since not even the designers entirely agree on all points. And most of all, a desire to use a conversational tone.

Q: Why was the druid missing from the core book?
A: Simply didn’t have a good version of it ready for when the rest of the book was done. Same for the monk, which was on the cover of the core book partly because I was trying to inspire myself to make sure I finished it, but no.

Q: What was the last icon added?
A: I asked the audience to guess. The second guess got it: the Crusader. I realized we needed an icon for evil characters who wanted to be part of the establishment, highly ambiguous heroes.

Q: Were there other icons we did not add?

A: Yes, and I’ll name three. We talked about a Merchant Prince, but went with the Prince of Shadows instead. Jonathan had argued for Tiamat, especially as an evil dragon inspiration of cultists, but I didn’t like that and we gave her stuff to the Diabolist and the Blue of the Three. And finally, I had proposed a Mother of Dungeons, something in the center of the world creating living dungeons and sending them up as eyestalks, and Jonathan shut that down by pointing out that it wasn’t really someone PCs would be able to have a meaningful relationship with, which helped establish our understanding of what it meant to be an icon in the first place. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gamehole Con: Sweet home Wisconsin

Next weekend is Gamehole Con in Madison.

The convention is amazingly well-organized, has a slew of great guests, and a huge number of game sessions in the works.

My official schedule is down below. Saturday's morning 13th Age panel is a) the earliest you'll see me at a game convention, and b) a chance to see whether Jonathan and I are unusually loose-lipped as we're harvesting first-coffee and first-tea of the weekend.

For my wife Lisa and I, this particular convention comes with a huge bonus: we both have relatives all through Wisconsin, so it's not just a game convention trip, it's a chance to connect with aunts and uncles and cousins all across the state.

The last time Lisa was in Wisconsin she bought a pair of lightsaber toys in Baraboo, which soon led to an airport announcement that a TSA representative had waited their entire career to be able to deliver: "Will the woman who left a lightsaber at the Security Check please return to TSA to recover her lightsaber?"

Looking forward to seeing and gaming with many of you in less than a week, with or without lightsabers.

My schedule . . .

Friday, November 6th
10:00AM    13th Age Demo
8:00PM      Shadowrun: Crossfire's Gonna Get You

Saturday, November 7th
8:00AM      13th Age & Other Ages
2:00PM      13th Age: The New Batch

Sunday, November 8th
10:00AM    13th Age: The New Batch

Lisa, lightsaber recovered . . . 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

7 Icon Campaign

[cover by Lee Moyer]

Last week I put the finishing design touches on the next issue of the 13th Age Monthly, due out at the end of August.

7 Icon Campaign is a change of pace for us, and it was great fun to create. It started as a thought experiment: Jonathan wondered how it would work to compress our game's 13 icons into 7. The experiment was a success, and it led to his new campaign. If you already know the 13th Age icons, you can probably figure out who has been combined with who by inspecting Lee's wonderful cover above. 

7 Icon Campaign is based on Jonathan's original campaign notes, and the questionnaires that he handed out to us players before we created our characters. I've elaborated on the original notes with a mix of feats, talents, and spells. They're inspired by the new composite icons but will work fine in any 13th Age game. In just under 6K words, there's a new racial feat for dwarves, a feat for either clerics or wizards, a new necromancer spell, and one new talent apiece for the bard, sorcerer, and paladin. My favorite is probably the necromancer spell, but you may be a nicer person than me and have other preferences. 

You can wait until some time in September to buy the single issue, or pick up a subscription to the full year of 13 issues in the Pelgrane store. Or you can take advantage of the sale that Drive-Thru RPG is running until August 19th, and subscribe at $3 off the usual price, so it's only $21.95. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

GenCon and other news

As a big change of pace, I'm not attending GenCon this year. My family needed me home more than people needed me at GenCon. Given that I experienced the full GenCon prep period but won't have the full GenCon, I'm going to enjoy rounding into my non-GenCon jobs.

Here's a round-up of some of the people from Fire Opal who are attending GenCon, many of whom will frequently be found at the Pelgrane booth among the Pelgranistas.

Cal Moore will be at GenCon, should be on a 13th Age panel or two, and has just had Sharpe Initiatives: Earthgouger come out as this month's installment of 13th Age Monthly. Earthgouger is a tiny taste of the many types of fun that Cal put it into the upcoming Battle Scenes books. I'm developing and writing the art order for the first book in that series, tentatively titled High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Five Icons. Cal has been the editor extraordinaire for all my 13th Age books (including the 13th Age Bestiary that is up for an ENnie) and I'm enjoying turning the developer/editor tables and working on his big books.

ASH ALL FREAKING CAPS ALL THE TIME LAW will be at GenCon, fresh from having put together the final installment of the first season of 13th Age OP, The Battle of Axis, and the first installment of the second season, Race to Starport, that's going to be played often at the con. ASH has been working on other 13th Age things also, those are merely the two adventures I personally developed in the push towards GenCon. He'll be on 13th Age panels. Go, ASH, go!

Wade Rockett will be on every 13th Age panel except the Monster Design Workshop. He will be splitting time between the Pelgrane booth (#609), helping get the 13th Age Alliance started, and the Kobold booth. Which reminds me, I need to arrange a pelgrane vs. kobold deathmatch in the poking-the-Emperor-in-the-eye gladiatorial arena in Drakkenhall, but that probably doesn't have much to do with Wade, who is All About the Owlbears.

Rob Watkins and Jay Schneider will be mostly busy with Shadowrun: Crossfire, the co-op board game we designed for Catalyst that is up for an ENnie in the RPG Related category. Jay is also going to be busy with biz.

Jonathan Tweet is taking a break from 13th Age in Glorantha to attend the con! He will mostly be found at Peter Adkison's Chaldea booth (#2332) running a Chaldea minigame he designed. He'll also be on the 13th Age in Glorantha panel. The two of us recently talked a bit about that game, and many other 13th Age topics on the recently released "The Future of 13th Age" episode of the Iconic podcast.

And speaking of 13th Age in Glorantha, here are a couple photos from our game last Wednesday. The first photo has Neil Robinson of Moon Design (GenCon booth #2535) on the left, playing Vastorlanth, a Moon-touched Lothario of an Orlanthi rebel. I'm in the dragon shirt enjoying the action with the escalation die cranked to 3. And that's special guest star Jeff Richard of Moon Design on the right, lowing as Mel, the former herdman Storm Bull berserker. The second photo is Jonathan's end of the table, with the glowing ball in the center of the battlefield representing the magical Water feature created by Sean's storm sorcerer when he narrated his Water rune to purify the broo-infected corpse of the Bagnot former headman and rolled a complication. Walktapus tentacle just visible at the bottom of the shot . . . .

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summoning Spells!

We've just cast a Summoning Spells installment of the 13th Age Monthly into subscribers' download accounts.

I had fun writing this one because I've been thinking a lot about how summoning works in 13th Age while working on 13th Age in Glorantha. Wizard and cleric summoning spells don't work the same as the druid and necromancer spells that appeared in 13 True Ways so the article starts with the new rules, part of the reason this is the biggest installment of the Monthly so far.

Highlights of the spells include lantern archons that are better at healing allies who have some trace of intelligence, wisdom, or charisma (healing equal to the highest ability score modifier!), the pentagram halos that float above the heads of demons you otherwise probably shouldn't be summoning, and the laughing demon, a new demon type that's surprisingly easy to control, but that may mean the joke is on you.

You can see the demon-halo and the laughing demon in the wonderful cover illustration by Rich Longmore, shown without logos above. There's more great art by Rich inside the issue, including a beautifully expressive shot of a wizard summoning an earth elemental that influenced the final mechanics.

This isn't the last word on cleric and wizard summoning. We'll follow-up on the subject in later products. Feedback on the spells in the article will also help the things that make it into print later. (And I should mention that the campaign variants mentioned in this issue's original capsule blurb will also show up in later products. I ended up sticking to spells and definite rules instead of outlining all the other options.)

If you've got a subscription, your Pelgrane account box should have the file already. If you'd like a subscription to the 13th Age Monthly, visit the Pelgrane store and you'll also get the previous five issues from this year. Or wait a couple weeks and this issue will be available as a single purchase on both the Pelgrane store and Drive-Thru RPG.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Notes on Eidolons

A few days ago we put out Eidolons byASH LAW, an issue of the 13th Age Monthly that harnesses the full monster description style we used in the 13 True Ways Bestiary. If you helped playtest the Bestiary, you may even recognize these eidolons, because we put out an earlier version as part of the playtest package. Playtesters liked them, I liked them, it was only a matter of time before we were going to publish them.

What follows are developer notes on the article. If you want to see what I'm talking about, pick up a subscription to the 13th Age Monthly and you'll get this issue and the four previous issues as part your subscription. 

Our Focus on the Icons
I pulled eidolons and several other monsters out of the 13th Age Bestiary because the Bestiary was the first major product in the line and I wanted it to keep our focus on the icons. Eidolons are creatures from other realities. They warp the rules, so much that ASH included optional madness rules for PCs forced to deal with other realities. That’s fun stuff for GMs who want it, but in our very first 13th Age support book, I decided to stay closer to mainstream fantasy by not summoning too many non-Euclidean creatures from outside time and space.

As the line developer for 13th Age, the Bestiary taught me that designers needed more guidance about using the icons that are central to 13th Age. The creative streak that leads people to design games and write stories is sometimes a wild streak. When creators see a setting that’s all about something particular, like the icons, the temptation is to veer away from ‘what everybody is doing’ and bring in themes that haven’t been touched yet.  

Obviously that type of invention is a good thing, most of the time. But there’s are several big reasons that most published 13th Age material stays focused on the icons, and one of these reasons that may not be apparent is to allow players, GMs, and individual campaigns to happily riff on everything else! The baseline in rpgs is a line that gets criss-crossed and repurposed by most every game table. By keeping our focus on the icons and everyone who is involved with them, we leave more space for the character who wants their One Unique Thing to be truly unique and the GM who surprises everyone with a campaign idea no one saw coming.

Turns out that eidolons could also spring some of those surprises. They’re a multi-purpose tool for campaigns that want a new approach to NPCs and monsters that can only temporarily be removed by sword and spell.

The Optional Madness Mechanics
ASH is extremely fond of warped things from the outer colors of the reality palette. He’s wanted madness mechanics for awhile, I think. My sticking point is that madness mechanics have to be fun. This is a game that has to stay enjoyable to play rather than a simulation of what happens to a brain under assault from colors beyond space. Sometimes game mechanics for this type of thing are only enjoyable if you can appreciate the aesthetics of disintegration without caring that you’re now useless. There are good games that take that path, but 13th Age isn’t one of them. People who test these mechanics and send us playtest feedback at will have input on the book that’s underway that will use a version of this madness approach.

A Note on Art
Eidolon appearance can be nearly anything. And yet each of the eidolon illustrations, from Rich Longmore’s wonderful eye-catching cover to the roiling mess that is the eidolon in war form, has the same style of six glowing eyes.

First, this is mostly because I sent Rich a photo I’d taken in art museum of Catalonia in Barcelona as reference. My photo looked like this: 
So Rich gave me what I asked for, albeit with six glowing eyes instead of the seven I just realized are showing on the creature above. 

Second, you don’t have to interpret the art as saying that all eidolons have six glowing eyes. In my case, it's a post-facto explanation, but I think it works: these are all illustrations of the same eidolon!

As ASH said, Each eidolon is different and can assume different forms (as mentioned later in the stats section), but each eidolon also has its own distinct “look” and “voice” that it possesses no matter what shape mortals perceive it to be taking.

This eidolon’s look is that it has six glowing eyes no matter what form it’s in!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Epic Spell Blahs

A funny thing happened on the way to the publication of the second ESW set, Epic Spell Wars: Rumble at Castle Tentakill.

Actually, I wish it was funny, but it’s not, and I’m no longer the target audience.

I handled mechanical design on this set and its Mt. Skullzyfyre predecessor, aided by Matt Hyra’s devteam at Cryptozoic. Cory Jones of Cryptozoic renames the cards and writes the art descriptions and writes the story in the rulebook. What that means is that a large portion of the game’s initial success came from Cory, because I suspect that more people bought the game for its Nick Edwards art and its over-the-top theme than for the mechanics. I’d kinda hoped to shift that equation a little with set 2, because I was really happy with the choices added by the new mechanics, Blood, and creatures.

But I was wrong about thinking that the first set had been pushed to the edge. I didn’t realize that Cryptozoic was going to put an AWESOME MATURE CONTENT AND PROFANITY warning on the box, and I didn’t realize what that would mean.

I saw the cards for the first time last week and I wasn’t amused. There are sexist cards, racist cards, sniggering cards, and just plain ugly cards. It irritated me so much I only got through half the cards the first day.

I’ve discussed the set with Cory and he says he thinks of the ESW property as an Adult Swim cartoon. Huh. I think that’s a category error, and that even if you managed to make an Adult Swim cartoon out of a game, you wouldn’t handle the game as if it were the cartoon.

I’d been thinking of ESW as a game I was happy playing with my female and male friends and at conventions with strangers. But that’s not true anymore, unless I strip out the sexist and racist cards and squint at the rest.

I view this Adult Swim approach as a mistaken rebranding of an already successful game property that had wider appeal. Cory sees it as a minor alteration of an already edgy property.

And maybe he’s right about the minor alteration angle. It looks like I didn’t take the storyline in the first rulebook seriously enough, probably because it ticked me off. Certainly I believed that the game had found its tone the first time out. Turns out I was wrong. If this second set really is only a minor alteration, it turns out that the first set was as far as I was comfortable taking a game meant to be played by people I like. 

So I’m opting out of Epic Spell Wars publicity. I’m not pushing the game or running it at conventions.

Cory has apologized for surprising me with the switch to the NSFW model of the game and has agreed to take my name off the cover of the second printing.

The anthropologist in me is curious to see how this plays out. The rest of me is irritated.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Roman Aqueducts, Hell's Bells

Last month Lisa and I and the rest of her family took an amazing vacation through Barcelona and southern France. It was the first non-working vacation I've taken in a dozen years and there were so many splendid moments that attending an actual Barcelona game (vs. Almeria, league minnows) fell out of the top seven joys of the trip. I'll write some of those moments up eventually.

For now, a moment that came a few days after the Pont du Gard photo above was taken.

We were staying at a hotel inside the old walled city of Carcassonne. For ironic effect, Lisa had brought our copy of Carcassonne along in the luggage, but there were better things to do than play boardgames in the hotel, so the box ended up serving as a postcard'n'art storage unit!

Past midnight, Lisa and I decided to go for a walk all around the old city's inner walls, sometimes climbing up on the outer parapets where the floodlights showed the route. The walk alternated between long periods of silence and isolation dotted with bizarre moments of frenetic activity. Once a celebrating rugby team roared past on their own top-speed circuit of the walls. Later a small forest of birds chirped at full volume, fooled as intense spotlights aimed at the inner wall simulated morning.

Before the rugby team and the birds, in the quiet section when it seemed we were alone, we rounded a corner tower and stepped onto the longest straightaway. There was no one else in sight, only bats flitting overhead, weaving out of the towers under the moon. And then power chords started up in the distance. Da Da Da da-da-da Duh Duh DUH. Repeat. I knew the tune. Couldn't place it for another few steps. We were still hundreds of yards from the source but omg it was Hell's Bells, AC-DC.

Another few dozen steps and it was clear it was a live band. Deep bass thumping down from up high on the walls. Two-thirds of the way down the long straightaway we passed beneath the band's hole in the fortifications. Thirty-five yards up the thick inner wall of Carcassonne, blue and green light swirled out of an arrow-slit, accompanied by the best attempts of a French rock'n'roll band to scream Aussie lyrics.

A couple hundred more steps and we'd rounded the final tower of the straightaway and were back in the muted world of midnight between the walls.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Osprey's New Wings

This isn't a blog with new news. It's an appreciation.

A few years ago Osprey Publishing started publishing miniatures wargames in book form. This probably shouldn't have been a huge surprise, since Osprey's military history line has long been a huge resource for miniatures painters and historical wargame designers. So far my two favorites in the Osprey wargame line are Lion Rampant--Medieval Wargame Rules, by Daniel Mersey, and Andrea Sfiligoi's A Fistful of Kung Fu--Hong Kong Movie Wargame Rules.

The wargame line has notably moved away from the straight historical treatments that Osprey made its name with. Andrea's book, for example, is a skirmish wargame treatment of the territory Feng Shui arranges for roleplaying games. And with the launch of the Osprey Adventures line in 2010, Osprey has a full-fledged documentary fantasy project going, with books on everything from Hercules to Zombies to Werewolves and Ken Hite's The Nazi Occult.

The catalog of about-to-be-published Osprey books is a bit like walking into the history section at the bookstore and finding yourself at a gaming convention. Chris Pramas is about to publish Orc Warfare! Phil Masters is coming out with The Wars of Atlantis. Ken is putting together The Cthulhu Wars.

In a week, two friends have Osprey books coming out that I've already pre-ordered. Ryan Miller has a naval wargame, Fighting Sail: Fleet Actions 1775-1815. And Steve Long is publishing Odin: The Viking Allfather. The artist for Odin, a Spanish woman named a-RuMor, does great stuff, and I'm keen to see Steve's treatment of Odin-through-history and Odin-in-myth.


Friday, March 13, 2015

What the world needs now, is another freaking zombie

This newly arrived 13th Age zombie has two inspirations. 

First, I've been reading Jason Sholtis' compilation of The Dungeon Dozen: Random-Tables for Fantasy RPGs. "Reading" may be the wrong word, but I've definitely been picking it up and allowing photons from its pages to slam into my eyeballs. 

Second, I like the way one of the zombies in Cal Moore's Shadows of Eldolan adventure randomly ends up with a pumpkin stuck on its head and keeps on fighting, since hey, what does a zombie care? I started wondering if there was another interesting zombie I could insert into a crowded market-scene, and the mook below is the result. 

My guess is that the coin zombie is a necromancer's attempt to answer the age-old problem affecting most zombie attacks, which is that normal people start running away when zombies attack, and people run faster than zombies. A small expenditure of coins, an enchantment based on mortal greed, and you've got a zombie that magically convinces its targets to stick around and be eaten. 

If your PCs are the type who count every coin, feel free to let them collect coins of various denominations that add up to 1d4 gp per coin zombie after the fight. If innocent bystanders and NPCs ended up getting nabbed by the jackpot or sticking around to pocket coins, subtract a few from the loot. If your PCs are the type to track down every last coin . . . [[insert GM stage-whisper]], curse the coins. They did fall out of a zombie's guts, so they were cursed to begin with.  

Coin Zombie

We’re not sure where you got the idea that treasure falling out of dead monsters was a good thing, but it wasn't from this booby-trapped horror.

2nd level mook [undead]
Initiative: +2

Greedy claw +7 vs. AC—3 damage

C: Lethal jackpot +7 vs. MD (1d3 nearby enemies/bystanders)—3 ongoing psychic damage, and if target moves while taking ongoing psychic damage, it can only move to the jangling pile of coins that fell out of the zombie's crumbling body to cause this attack. 
     GM: If you're feeling merciful, say that a quick action to pocket some of the coins gives a +2 bonus to the save against the ongoing psychic damage. (This GM message brought to you by Jonathan-Didn't-Write-this-Monster.)
     Limited use: 1/battle per coin zombie, when that coin zombie is dropped to 0 hit points.

Headshot: A critical hit against a coin zombie cancels one mook’s lethal jackpot ability that turn, though if the crit eliminates more than one coin zombie, others will still trigger their own lethal jackpots.

AC      17
PD      12                       HP 8 (mook)
MD     16
Mook: Kill one coin zombie mook for every 8 damage you deal to the mob. 

Reaper Bones, broos, and frogfolk

I've been slowly unpacking my first ever box of Reaper Bones miniatures from Kickstarter. It's the Bonesylvania set. 

My first surprise came on day two. I'd pulled out one bag and opened it, taking out a mini or two whenever I needed a mental moment away from typing. I looked in the box for the second bag, pulled it out, and was surprised to find a third bag underneath. Oh! Right. 150+ miniatures, that's a lot. 

The other two pleasant surprises wouldn't have surprised me if I'd kept track of the contents. But all these months/years after backing the Kickstarter, I had no idea there were going to be such wonderful broo miniatures, and just in time for us to be working on the second playtest draft of 13th Age in Glorantha! Goat-headed Chaos monsters are just what I need right now.

So far I've found three excellent broo minis in the bags, they're pictured below next to metal Broo minis painted by my buddy Richard Bark. I think I've found my Champion of Ragnaglar at the left. If there are more broos in the bags, don't tell me. I'll find them soon!

And alongside the broos, we've got frogfolk. So far I've found three of them also, perfect for jumping into the Temples of the Frogfolk issue of the 13th Age Monthly by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan released a couple weeks ago. I love the skull helmet on the guy in the middle.

If you're not sure that frogfolk are your thing, here's a review of the piece from someone who was skeptical and then won over. I appreciate his notes about the article giving just enough information to spark the imagination and then stopping and letting the GM/players take over--that's the balance we're aiming for. As of today, Friday the 13th Age, Temples of the Frogfolk is also on sale at Drive-Thru RPG along with the 13th Age soundtrack and the Shadows of Eldolan 1st level adventure at 13% off. Offer expires Saturday the 14th. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Epic Spell Wars: Creatures of the Game Expansion Duel at Mount Tabletop

No, that's not the actual title of the soon-to-arrive sequel to Epic Spell Wars in the subject line. I don't actually know the title of the expansion yet. That's the kind of detail I'm OK learning as a surprise, and along with most of the card names, it's one of the creative elements Cory Jones adds while he and Cryptozoic are harnessing Nick Edwards' never-risk-an-underdose art.

Nick's art was a big hit on last week's episode of Tabletop. Wil Wheaton and friends (thanks, Boyan!) taunted, cackled, and romped through one Epic Spell Wars battle. It was a hilarious episode and perfectly captured the spirit in which the game is meant to be played.

I don't think we've released much information about Epic Spell Wars II yet, to the extent that this may be the first that some people know it's in the works. In the spirit of the game, here are Eight Fact-Like Factoids about Epic Spell Wars II. Unlike the Fact-Like Facts from Scott Bateman's Disalmanac, more than half of these ESW factoids are true. Five of eight truths, to be precise.

1.      Creatures that roll well for Power will stay around and fight for you again next turn.
2.      Food cards heal you and are even more powerful if you physically spill food or drink on them at the table.
3.      Game mechanics experiments with victory points didn't work out, but those mechanics morphed into a blood point system that add choices by providing a resource that can power up some spells. 
4.      The cardboard Standee included in the box now has gameplay relevance that may change your plans for a turn.
5.      The cardboard Standee in this set flies like a helicopter if you hold it upside-down and spin it real fast.
6.      This is a full stand-alone game, with spell cards and treasures and Dead Wizard cards and all the rest, but it can also be added seamlessly to the existing cards for Epic Epic Spell Wars.
7.      The physical rulebook is supplemented by an audiofile New Rules Summary read by Wil Wheaton in the voice of Krazztar the Blood'o'Mancer.

8.      The game is due out in May!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hillfolk won't wait

I don't think you can go wrong paying $6.95 at the Bundle of Holding to get hold of Robin D. Laws' Hillfolk and diverse series pitches from a weighty proportion of the skilled rpg writers in the world.

But you can go wrong if you wait more than twenty hours to take advantage of the offer. It ends tomorrow.

If you've been following Robin's games from The Dying Earth through Heroquest and Skullduggery, you know he's been on a quest for narrative roleplaying mechanics. Hillfolk is the culmination of the quest. Its expectations aren't like the procedural games I usually design and run, it's focused on stories about who wants what from whom and what the dramatic consequences will be, not who can slay who using which spells. It's certainly been good for my thinking to be involved with the game and its dramatic cousins, so if you've held off from dipping into Hillfolk because it's not the style of game you usually play, now is a good moment to experiment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hooray for GottaCon!

GottaCon in Victoria, the first weekend of March, is a wonderfully balanced gaming convention I recommend to anyone in the Pacific Northwest.

By balanced, I mean that the convention manages to make roleplaying gamers, miniatures gamers, board gamers, and digital gamers feel that the convention is about them. Throw in a well-thought-out emphasis on diversity and a slate of fun panels and it's a convention I'm headed back to next year.

I said "yes" to attending as a guest before my current March Deadline-March for the 13th Age in Glorantha book became clear to me. I've had to turn down other convention appearances because I need these weekends for work. 

But I've got no regrets about GottaCon other than that Lisa couldn't come along to enjoy the boardgaming and the great room at the Empress. I made new friends, had some great talks with Seattle people I haven't seen much in Seattle, got a demonstration of Ryan Macklin's upcoming Backstory cards, ran a hugely fun session of 13th Age in Glorantha, and for maybe the first time in two years got to play a new boardgame without being the person who already knew the rules. 

The boardgame was King of New York. I'd played the early and final versions of King of Tokyo but wasn't entirely happy with the mechanical disincentives for doing the things that should have been the coolest monster stunts to pull off. I'm thrilled that King of New York fixes my qualms about gameplay in King of Tokyo. King of New York is a great game I'm looking forward to picking up soon. 

I'm not saying much about the 13th Age in Glorantha playtest session because it was the playtest scenario, and we're not talking much about the playtest in public while it's running. But I will mention one of the early scenes, when the character who was the greatest poet in the world wanted to try out his new poem at the toughest tavern in Alda-Chur. Alda-Chur is pretty much a war zone, and it's not the typical fantasy world with taverns everywhere, so the toughest spot in town turned out to be a Storm Bull bonfire where they'd unearthed a hidden cache of Lunar wine. The poet did his best (failing forward quite memorably), the trickster got the snot kicked out of him, and the players who were new to Glorantha (which was to say, nearly all of them) lamented that it would be extremely hard to be a successful poet in a world in which you couldn't write romantic lines about the moonlight (what with the moonlight being Red and Chaotic). 

A few pieces of GottaCon were recorded. I'm not sure yet about the Kickstarter panel Jonathan Tweet and I were on. Judged by how much I learned from the other panelists, Jordan Stratford (of the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency), Joanna Gaskell (of Standard Action), and Kyle Elliott (of too many successful Kickstarters to name), the Kickstarter panel was good. The earlier Creating Hooks 101 panel/workshop was also ton of fun and that recording is already available for your ear buds.  

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!