First Impressions: 13th Age

A lot has been said about 13th Age in the last  month or two. It’s the hot new thing (along with Numenera). If you want to find out about it, I recommend an excellent and highly detailed write-up by Rob Donoghue. Instead, I’ll provide just what the title promises: impressions.

It’s D&D

Very much so. Or at least one of its many aspects. More kick-the-door-in, less character optimization. This unmistakable D&D nature of 13th Age is what lead to our group being so excited to play it. We’re the exact target audience for this game: most of us have started with the 3rd edition, moved on to 4th, then branched out in search of narrative fulfillment and different experiences. After half a year of playing indie games, flipping through class descriptions of 13th Age is like coming back home. Remarkable, how imprinted D&D is in our gaming DNA.

We’re also the only target audience. It relies on the understanding of D&D, of its methods, cliches and even terminology, that other players simply won’t have. All the playful commentary designers have put in the book is based on the assumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about. I have no idea if a newbie player will be able to make heads or tails of it. Another fact that can be considered a drawback is that at times 13th Age is unnecessarily D&D-like, reproducing not just the core experience but some of the trappings as well. There is a fine line between nostalgia and repeatedly stepping on the same rakes.

Still, 13th Age offers a number of “fixes” to long-standing D&D issues. They are elegant and, like many other elements of the game, can be stolen. In fact, many feel like someone’s house rules. For instance, PCs only get the benefits of full rest after they’ve had 4 fights (even though spells and the like are still called “daily” abilities, which causes some confusion). Or take resurrection: a cleric can only bring a soul back from the dead a few times over his or her life, with the process getting harder and harder. Similarly, a soul can only be brought back a few times. Suddenly, death matters without removing the option of  coming back to life.

Vigorous handwaving

13th Age puts a lot of trust in its GMs. After 4e, it can come off a bit jarring at times, as there are plenty of abilities with only the barest of guidelines followed by “the GM will make up something appropriate”. These work more often than not. I particularly loved Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations, a wizard talent that lets the player make up long-winded names for their spells in order to gain a thematically fitting benefit. That’s the sort of vancian casting I can get behind. In the very first game we’ve had, hold portal was worded as Empress’s solid rejection. It not only closed the door, but filled whoever tired to open it with feelings of inadequacy and sudden sexual frustration.

Another example would be the game’s approach to monsters. Monsters are balanced in terms of numbers such as defenses and attacks appropriate for their level, but their abilities are left up to the GM: many monsters come with “nastier specials”. Feel like monsters die too quickly? Use them. Or not, up to you.

That’s the strength of the game: it recognizes when the flavor is more important than the rules, or when the rules cannot actually support the flavor and it’s better to vigorously handwave the issue away. It is also a cheap way out.

For the love of d20

13th Age goes out of its way to use the d20, more so than any other d20 system. Many classes have so-called flexible attacks, which trigger if they’ve rolled specific values on the d20. Similarly, many monsters have abilities that trigger on specific rolls. This results in a lot of information being compressed in a single d20 roll, removing some of the analysis paralysis so prevalent in 4e.

The drawback, of course, is that players may feel like they don’t have a choice at all at times, just rolling the die and seeing what happens. While monsters function almost on an auto-pilot, players are somewhat better off. They do get intersecting triggers, as well as the choice of which abilities to take during character creation. The trade-off of choice in-play for speed of play seems to be working out so far for us.

When 4e just came out, the very idea of encounter powers caused some players to do a double-take: “if I know how to do this maneuver, why can’t I just keep doing it?” The correct answer to this particular dilemma was “that’s the way the game works, don’t think too hard about it”. But if you must, imagine the circumstances for the maneuver only occur occasionally in the chaos of battle. It just so happens to be right at the time when you decide to use the encounter power, a retroactive justification. Flexible attacks of 13th Age remove this discrepancy: you do know how to do whatever it is you do, but the flux state of the fight represented by the d20 roll may or may not enable you to use your skills.

Which makes me think of a system taking this idea, d20 as chaotic state of battle, to its logical conclusion. You roll the d20 at the start of your turn, and it dictates what you can do. High rolls are attacks (probably automatically hitting), low rolls are defensive, middle ground is utility. You never waste your turn because you never fail a roll. But you may not be able to do what you really wanted to do, or at least to do it well. Something to ponder later.

Escalation to victory

Another innovative element, the escalation die is fantastic. It is a d6 that at the start of the second round of combat is set to 1, and incremented each round thereafter. It is added to attack rolls of PCs, making sure fights don’t drag on while at the same time providing a disincentive for alpha-striking. But it does more than that. It unlocks some abilities of characters, or makes them more powerful or reusable. Similarly, it can also be used as a pacing mechanism not just for the violence characters inflict, but the state of the encounter. The idea is awesome, but I’m not yet sure just how flexible the single constantly incrementing d6 is, especially considering some abilities can affect it.

There is a more subtle element to it. The escalation die provides a dramatic swing in PCs’ favour as the fight progresses. They may start on the back foot, but, armed with the escalating attack bonus, will bring the fight back around, again and again. A simple yet efficient mechanic.

Icons

Yet another new element, Icons are a different way of interacting with the setting. They give players control over which major NPCs will get involved in the story, thus shaping it with their interests. While the idea is great, the mechanic itself is a bit simplistic: you roll a d6 for each Icon relationship at the start of a sessions, and get a benefit on a 6 or a complicated along with a benefit on a 5, at some point during play. It takes getting used to. So far, we’re just managing to get the Icons (or their organizations) involved, not necessarily deriving benefits from them. It’s certainly a different way of running games. Its purposeful simplicity makes it feel like an add-on, tacked on top of the system.

At the same time, while at a glance this seems like the idea that’s easiest to steal, that may not be the case. It’s set up for a world with 13 major NPCs. Depending on your setting and the scale of your game, you’ll probably want different numbers and, in fact, different definitions of just what an Icon is.

Icons are also prone to the syndrome of goblin dice: the rolls are extremely infrequent, and their influence is potentially massive. If you don’t roll 5+ for a few sessions, your Icons do absolutely nothing – especially unpleasant in a one-shot. And on the other end of the spectrum, if players have rolled too many “successes” at the start of a game, it’s almost impossible to meaningfully incorporate them all. There’s a simple fix I’ll have to try: instead of rolling a die for each relationship, roll a single die, with values on it corresponding to your Icons. Typically, a d8: 1 means no relationships trigger; 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 correspond to your three Icons, even numbers being complicated benefits and odd numbers being just benefits; and 8 lets you roll twice (duplicates rerolled, if you care). For a one off, or if you don’t care to reproduce the full spectrum of possible results, don’t bother with 1 and 8, and instead roll a straightforward d6 with 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 corresponding to Icons. You could further refine this, and perhaps use a d12 once PCs get 4 relationships (10+ being a roll twice result).

Try it!

Overall I’m rather enjoying my foray into the 13th Age. It feels somewhat raw at times, and overly nostalgic at others. But it’s full of charm and quirkiness and energy. It makes you want to roll up a character just to see how a class would play – an almost forgotten feeling. If you liked D&D, any D&D, check it out.

First Impressions: Mythender

Mythender is a silly game, let’s just get that out of the way.  It’s also free, that’s important. In it, characters wield utterly ridiculous power to End gods. Individual rationale may vary, but basically “fuck gods” is sufficient. The main conflict, however, is not with the gods, but with the Mythic world itself. Mythenders can draw on as much power as they want, accomplishing the impossible and even refusing to die. But each time they do, they risk losing another bit of their mortal soul, and slide ever closer towards godhood. Gods have been Ended many times before, only to be replaced by their erstwhile enemies, and all the while the Mythic world thrives.

Other games play – Mythender kill

It’s a metal game. It’s metal to such an extent that my players, not into metal at all, specifically requested a metal soundtrack. Mythender drips with flavor. The rulebook even has occasional swearwords in it, something I’m not used to seeing in one. Just reading it will have you grinning at how absurdly over the top the game gets. For instance, there are three tiers of action PCs can freely choose between in combat, with escalating power and risk associated with them. Take Legendary action: the suggested example is kicking over a tree and tossing it at high-flying Valkyries. That’s the lowest tier of actions. See? Grinning.

As a highest-tier action, titanic, one of my players had split the mountain on which the battle transpired all the way down to the Underworld, sending all combatants plummeting down. Another soon followed it up by picking up what remained and slamming it into the god of war, pinning him down, and then had lightning strike an ore vein and travel all the way down to electrocute said god. By that point the first player was inside the god, tearing out his heart to make a new page in the Book of Life and Death. Mostly Death.

Rules terminology is utilized fully to convey this over-the-top flavor. Terrorizing Mortals for Power; Epic, Badass Feat; Gathering Rage. Those are all actual game terms. Even the lately popular bonds between characters are called “I hesitate to slaughter … because…”

To End a Myth

The game knows what it wants, and it doesn’t waste any time telling you. It’s there in the name. The proposed structure of a session is to fight a lesser myth, optionally interact with mortals (usually to their detriment) and then kill a god. All that build-up and justification you might have used in other games, just getting to the point where PCs might challenge the Divine? “Fuck gods”.

Ten thousand fists

Anything is a Weapon as long as you can figure out a way to be awesome with it. And as you’re fighting gods, it doesn’t have to be a stabbing implement – you could be assaulting their divine essence with sheer symbolism. Each mythender has three Weapons to rely on, intrinsic and inseparable, even if the Weapon is an unholy spear or an army of orphans.

Weapons are character defining, to the point where they are the character: each round you will be using one. Weapons also necessarily determine the scale of conflict. You could have the usual band of “heroes” rampaging through the world, or armies clashing: all it takes is one army as a Weapon.

Mythic Heart

Another character defining element is the god you’re fated to become. As part of character creation, you come up with 3 stages of your progression, 3 ways you look: mortal (yet awesome!), supernatural, and god-like. Each time PCs decide to draw on their Mythic Heart to do something particularly badass, they suffer the risk of corruption and taking another step towards their fate. The choice here is crucial: if you only do Legendary actions, you will remain mortal. On the other hand, there is power to be grasped, and Gifts to be abused, and the gods you face look particularly punchable. Which is, of course, just what the Mythic Heart wants.

Even interactions with mortals are forever tainted. That’s another theme of the game: Mythenders are so powerful, they warp the reality around them, burning out fragile mortal psyche even if they don’t want to. Even if the PCs choose to seek sympathy and healing from a mortal in-between deicide to regain some measure of their own mortality (and lose some power!), there is a very real chance said mortal won’t survive the experience.

Stormbringer

All this talk of fluff and awesomeness of characters, but how does it actually work? Mythender is a tactile and visual game. Describing a vengeful god pick up a mountain and bring it down on the PCs is one thing, but seeing the GM gather 30-odd dice to do so is another thing entirely. You’ll need a lot of d6s. A LOT. 100+. Everything is resolved with handfuls of dice, but there are several steps and thresholds to get to any effect, making sure you won’t be fatally screwed by one terrible roll.

First, there are Lightning dice, of which Mythenders normally have 3. Each success (4+) on them grants a Thunder die. Thunder dice are a direct measure of power: successes on them generate Lightning tokens, used to create effects such as wounding enemies or creating Blights (in a moment), and they are rolled when you’re in turn wounded, with failures discarded. Out of Thunder? Out of luck. Unless you really don’t want to die like a mere mortal, then you can take on some permanent corruption and come back.

Repeatedly getting wounded increases the difficulty of that check, until only 6s are good enough. Getting corrupted through use of Mythic power increases corruption score, which increases the likelihood of getting further corrupted and advances Fate, which eventually introduces and increases the chance of turning into a god after the fight. Speaking of which…

Stone Dead Forever

If you suspect your comrade might be getting too close to becoming a god, it might be the time to End them first. For their own good. PvP is handled in a remarkably brutal fashion. Everything is suspended until the challenge is resolved. Each side gets 3 dice, or 5 if they tear their bond (which is odd – why wouldn’t you?). Whoever rolled the least successes (5+), dies. If both rolled an equal amount, both die. And unlike regular death in combat which only inconveniences Mythenders, this one is permanent. Explaining this rule to your players may get some nervous laughs.

Rise and Fall

But coming back to the regular gameplay. There is a flow to it, a certain rhythm, with build-up and release. Each time you use a Weapon, you either charge it or drain in. Same with Blights – effects inflicted upon the world, like “earthquake” or “hail of burning spears” or even “vengeful cries of the wicked dead”. They are charged for a couple of turns, and then drained for extra power (read: dice). Even the Legendary-Mythic-Titanic actions you will undertake follow this pattern: Mythic actions get you extra Thunder, while Titanic actions get you extra Lightning (and could kill you). So you will spend a couple of turns building up power, then unleash it spectacularly with a bucketful of accumulated dice.

Lost and Damned

And then there are Gifts, powered by Might. The closer you are to godhood, the more Gifts you have. To get Might you either charge your Weapons or do Titanic actions, which brings you closer to godhood. It’s a nice cycle. Gifts themselves are probably the element I like the least: they allow you to cheat a bit by succeeding on 3+ this round, or rerolling failures, or gaining Lightning for each Thunder die lost to wounds. They are decent in and of themselves, but require constantly looking up, as a Mythender can have up to 9, and gods even more. Even though some of those slots can be filled with upgrades to other Gifts, it’s still a sizeable number to keep in one’s head. Sure, there aren’t that many Gifts altogether, and after a few games everyone will memorize them… Except the game is supposed to be good for one-shots, and it certainly can’t sustain a long campaign.

Another thing to dislike about the Gifts is that they don’t have any physical representation on the board. Unlike the pile of dice in front of you, they’re just a line on the character sheet.

The character sheet itself deserves a mention, though. It’s good. Really good. Other than the aforementioned gifts, there isn’t much you’d need that’s not on it. As you become wounded or corrupted, you check off boxes that tell you the relevant numbers. As your corruption grows and you fill out a row of those boxes, you change to the next form described on that row. As your fate progresses and you check off those boxes, you not only get Gift slots on one side, but Apotheosis number on another. Apotheosis number is what you need to roll to become a god after the fight. Single die. There’s that nervous laughter again.

Mythmaster

There are a bunch of gods in the book, with some explanation of how they differ in play (great!), and advice on reskinning them from their Nordic origins by replacing their Weapons and keeping the rest the same (makes sense). In addition to their gifts selection, they differ in their Wound Number progressions, how much Lightning, Thunder and Might they start with, how much Might they gain each turn, and what they do at the end of each round. Oh, yeah, gods cheat like that, creating Blights, wounding Mythenders or killing them outright at the end of 5th round. Cue nervous laughter.

Here’s what’s troubling me about these mechanics. There is no explanation as to the value of these small differences. Is it better to have higher Might recharge rate or slower Wound Number progression? How does an extra hit at the end of each round measure up against those? Thought and experimentation has probably been put into this, but we are not privy to it. And I can’t help but feel many of these differences should have been modeled by Gifts, so we could estimate the difficulty of gods.

It also doesn’t scale very well. The book is adamant against having 5 players, with 4 being the target number. We had 2, and followed the scaling guidelines to the letter. Granted, the party had made a mistake of underutilizing Blights, and was somewhat corrupted by the time they got to fight their god. They won in the end, on the last possible action, with one player killing himself off through dodgy reading of the rules, and another ascending. Not exactly a victory. It’s not at all bad that they’ve lost, but it didn’t feel like the dice were against them. No, they just were outclassed. Hopefully, the 4-player game behaves better.

And Then There Was Silence

Strong interesting flavor, workable mechanics, does that mean I like the game? Weeeell… Its biggest problem is that these two parts don’t actually connect all that much. And when they do, it’s not always for the best. Take Weapons. 3 cool things your character does, 3 ways they can answer to any narrative threat. Except you’re best off charging a single Weapon fully in the first 3 rounds and draining it on the 4th (given there’s no Gift shenanigans or other effects). The combat lasts at most 5. So the mechanics strongly suggest you spend 4 of them using only one of your 3 Weapons.

But even so. On your turn you will describe being awesome with a chosen Weapon and a chosen Blight if there is one. In our game Blights ended up always being incidental to the main description: “I leap through the air, tearing into the god’s flesh with my claws. Oh, also, that river of lava totally flows somewhere below and burns him some more”. Then you will take all of your dice and roll them. If you’re using Gifts, you’re supposed to add extra flavor to your descriptions, for instance making them particularly gruesome if its Grievous Harm. But when wouldn’t you describe it in the most gruesome way possible? No sense in stabbing gods in the face halfheartedly. Then, if you have enough Lightning, you can actually wound them. You always succeed at what you do, it just doesn’t achieve much unless you pay Lightning.  Everything else is fluff and busywork. Whatever you describe, you’ll roll your dice. As long as you’ve made use of a Weapon you’ll charge or drain it, same with Blight. Gifts are a purely metagame mechanic.

In other games the build-up of tension and tactics that allows to strike the deciding blow is handled through narrative and/or mechanical positioning. In Dungeon World, you may need to get on top of the enemy (proving you can do so with dice), and only then you can actually try and kill it. In D&D 4e you might try and get Combat Advantage as well as any other bonuses before unleashing your daily attack; which sounds mechanical, but also involves running around the battlefield and cooperating with actions of other PCs. In Mythender you will do your massive attack on turn 3 or 4, no matter what’s happening in the narrative. As long as you can use your charged Weapon (and given the freedom a Titanic action grants, you always can), you’ll be fine.

This is not to say there aren’t tactical choices in the game. When to use which Gifts, which Weapon bonus to charge first (in case you decide to drain it before it’s fully charged), whether to risk a Titanic action or if a Mythic one will be enough. But that’s exactly the thing: you use a dangerous, corrupting, desperate Titanic action not because narratively you’re down and beaten and a vile god is about to incinerate your loved ones. You use it because your Fate is not too far gone and you’d like some more Lightning tokens. It doesn’t click together. As much as the game encourages you to be inventive and awesome, there’s no traction between the description and the mechanics. You’re playing two separate games: in one you talk of leaping over the raised spears of the legions of undead to gut their goddess, in another you roll a bunch of dice and consider which of the abilities will maximize your output. Corruption is the only proper link between the two.

Still, those games aren’t bad, and we’ve had two fun evenings telling ridiculous stories. We may get together again once we’ve recruited 2 more players to End the ascended goddess of Fate who used to be a Mythender. She has it coming.

First Impressions: tremulus

Continuing my tour of roleplaying systems that started with the previous post, today I look at tremulus. You may have heard of it’s progenitor, Apocalypse World, or of its sibling, Dungeon World. tremulus is a “storytelling game of lovecraftian horror”, and is, from what I understand, a fairly straightforward hack of AW, with some bits screwed on top. The result is called “haiku”, and is said to also draw from FATE and Fiasco.

Still, much of what I’ll be saying here likely applies to AW as well. Perhaps I’ll get around to playing it on its own one day. As for my experiences with tremulus, we’ve played a 5-session game, that was initially meant to finish in 3. And it was amazing, one of the best games I’ve been a part of. But how much of that was due to the game itself? I am, as ever, dubious. Lets dig in.

Quick note first: I don’t think you can currently buy the game, as it was a result of successful kickstarter. But as the finalized pdf was recently made available, it’ll probably be up for sale soon enough.

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First Impressions: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

As long-time readers may remember (and new readers would not care), I’ve recently finished a massive D&D campaign that lasted several years. Having done that, I’ve set out on an odyssey, to try out some of the other systems out there. My attempt at combining Don’t Rest Your Head with Portal is an example of what I’ve been up to. But I’ve been neglectful of this blog lately, and the reason is simple enough. As I only spend a few sessions on each system I’m trying out, I don’t build up enough system mastery to write the in-depths posts I tend to. But staying quiet for so long is bad for my writing skills, and defeats the point of the whole exercise: to learn and analyse new games.

Hence, a different approach: I’ll document my first impressions. Immediately, a very important caveat, and one that I want to avoid typing every other sentence. With experience, a gaming group would learn to mitigate many of the issues I’ll be raising, whether through tricks, rules interpretations or not thinking about them too much. And of course, some of them may not even be issues, but rather demonstrations of my limited understanding. With that in mind, I’ll call ’em as I see ’em. I can criticize other games, not just D&D! So. Not an essay, not a review, just my thoughts.

And what game best to start with, but the one that’s no longer in production. Perfect timing. Yes, sadly, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not being published anymore, and all the announced supplements won’t be released. They don’t even appear to be selling the pdfs anymore, which confuses me to no end. It’s not like the ones out there will magically disappear; only the ability to actually pay for them has done so. But hopefully this is a temporary snag while the licensing details are being worked out, and the books will be sold again soon. Continue reading