Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Developing One Unique Things with Rob

I'm not a big fan of Blogger, so I've moved everything over to nagafeathers.com.

The best example of how to develop a One Unique Thing that I've come across so far is quite a funny recording of Rob Heinsoo GMing on the radio. It's hilarious nerdery, and if you've ever wondered how one of the game's designers runs it (it sounds like the other one, Jonathan Tweet, runs it quite differently) then you really should give it a listen. The OUT creation is in the first two episodes (one and two) but the other eight are good fun as well. You can find links to all ten at the bottom of the Pelgrane Press 13th Age resource page.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Religion to believe in

I'm not a big fan of Blogger, so I've moved everything over to nagafeathers.com.

Sometimes you don't want to deal with certain aspects of worldbuilding as a GM, due to lack of knowledge, interest, or whatever. If that's the case, I reckon a certain amount of hand waviness is forgivable, and if your players are like-minded, they surely won't mind you steering them around the hole you've left in your setting.

That being the case, I can't comprehend at all how the Priestess icon and her Cathedral got into the game.

Priestess illustration by Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer.
For anyone who doesn't know 13th Age, the Icons are archetypes that exist in the game world as powerful, usually unseen NPCs, that exert a strong influence on the flow of any story. The Priestess and her Cathedral at 13th Age's nod (albeit a very perfunctory one) to religion. From the core rulebook:
p. 24: The Priestess hears all the Gods of Light and speaks for those who please her. She is part oracle, part mystic, and part metaphysical engineer, since she created the Cathedral, an ever-expanding temple with rooms or entire wings for each of the faiths she favors.

p. 263: The Cathedral represents in stone the Priestess's philosophy of spiritual union. The very shape and layout of the structure channel spiritual energy to generate greater harmony. She has built chapels and sanctuaries devoted to the many "spheres" of the Gods of Light, such as healing, life, truth, childbearing, harvest, strength, and fire. Priests of various gods convene there for shared rituals devoted to one or another of these virtues.
Buh? Really? Maybe I'm just too sensitive to religion and its quirks – I grew up a southern Baptist, was thrown out of religion class in a Catholic boy's school, and have been a practicing Buddhist for the past 16 years – but I'm completely unable to suspend my disbelief here.

Suspension of disbelief means that a fantastic story needs to at least provide a semblance of truth for us to accept the fantastic. Dragons existing isn't believable, but we can suspend our disbelief (temporarily believe) that they exist for the sake of a good story. Dragons flying with huge bat-like wings (a semblance of truth) we can continue to believe. If they fly by means of pulling themselves into the air on ropes hanging from the clouds, well…

Really. Spiritual union… really?

Looking at human history, the truth that fantasy needs to give us a semblance of to keep us believing encompasses three general options for religions:
  • Monotheism: one truth, one God, e.g. Christianity, Islam, etc. More often than not believers follow the kind of convert, control or kill behaviour that has defined a great deal of history.
  • Polytheism: many gods, e.g. Hinduism. Other truths aren't accepted exactly, rather external gods and prophets are absorbed into the pantheon, becoming part of our truth.
  • Not-really-theism: maybe some truths and rituals, but no gods. e.g. Buddhism, Taoism.
Never in the history of humanity have any religions seen each other as equals. You can't believe there's one truth and accept someone else's truth. At best religions have more or less tolerated each other. But subordinating your beliefs to someone outside your religion? Sharing a temple? Performing rituals together? I just failed my save vs. disbelief roll.

by Martin Geupel 

Neither fish, flesh, nor fowl

I'm not saying the world wouldn't be a much better place if we could all just get along, or that it's not extremely desirable. It's just not very believable. And if I can't believe, all I'm left with is a very conscious awareness of the game designers and their desire to just not deal with religion by waving their hands and hoping it goes away. I can't blame them at all for not wanting to deal with messy religion, but I'm confused by them bothering with it at all. No religion? Fine. Religion that's weird as hell, but roughly follows the principles by which religions have always worked. Also fine. But "there's kind of religion but kind of not really, okay?" doesn't fly.

It's your world, so do what you want!

Although it tweaks my laziness – it's nice to be served copious, coherent setting detail on a platter – this is one of my favourite aspects of game: 13th Age's designers Rob and Jonathan repeatedly tell us that the world's a sketch, there are many holes, and we should not only fill them in, but also change whatever we want.

Keeping that in mind, one day when I'm ready to run a campaign, it'll probably start with an attack on the Cathedral by fanatical monotheists who'll slaughter piles of infidels, dramatically execute the Priestess, and take over the Cathedral, establishing their singular, war-like god as an Icon. Watch this space…

Update: +Clark Olson-Smith posted a thoughtful reply to my rant on his blog.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Many Unique Things

"Paladin" by Ben Wootten
I'm not a big fan of Blogger, so I've moved everything over to nagafeathers.com.

As I'm generating some 13th Age characters, there's lots to like, but the coolest bit by far is the One Unique Thing. But coming up with a good one is hard. It really requires some thought to come up with one that really hits what I think are the requirements:
  • Adds significant spice to your past.
  • Lastingly impacts who & what your character is.
  • Makes you ask more questions than it answers, i.e. it dangles juicy hooks that will make your future exciting.
  • As it says on the tin, it should actually be unique in the whole of the Dragon Empire.

How hard it is to really kick ass creating uniques is made apparent by many of the uniques out there. "I'm the [Icon]'s ex / child / sibling / parent" or "I used to be a [animal]" are both popular, but what could be less unique than being a relative or an animal? Think harder and get yourself a +3 relationship with that icon or buy a pet. "I beat [Icon] in a card game / drinking contest / whatever" also seems to pop up a lot, and while these can be "cool", they're also more or less dead ends; singular past events that don't sound like they have too much impact on the PC.

As an inspiration for our future characters, I collected some of the best (by my reckoning) uniques I could find. I found these in the G+ Community, the Pelgrane forums, the Vault and Twitter, or in the rulebook, and wrote a couple of them myself. As I discover and create more, I'll add them here. Enjoy!
"I hear the voices telling me I am destined to rule, and believe they are my ancestors instructing me."

"My shadow was stolen and is now hunting me."

"The Prince of Shadows has given me five hidden hypnotic trigger words. I am not aware of this fact."

"I'm the oldest elf alive."

"I am one of the Archmage's homunculi."

"I befriended a Koru Behemoth."

"I'm a half-orc orphan adopted and raised by Dwarven  nobility."

"The stars sing to me."

"I wasn't born; I arrived fully grown in a flash of light on the steps of the Cathedral."

"Eating my flesh gives euphoric delight."

"I'm a dwarf who was born covered in scales from the egg of a dragon."

"Since birth I dream the dreams of The Three every night."

"I spent 10 years living as an animal after being cursed by a druid."

"I'm full of demons."

"I am the only acrobat who performed their way out of the Diabolist's Circus of Hell."

"I literally die every night when I lie down, and am raised at dawn."

"There are more of me, but I am the strongest."

"I cannot die until I return what I stole."

"My first memory is waking up naked on top of Starport."

"As a child I swallowed a scale of the Great Gold Wyrm, and it's still inside me."

"My reflection is an owlbear. I don't know why, and it terrifies me."

"I'm the only Forgeborn with a biological heart, a heart that remembers that its previous owner owes the Dwarf King his life."

"I am a paladin of the Golden Order. Before throwing itself into the Abyss to save the world, the Great Gold Wyrm spoke its last words to me."

Update May 19, 2014: In the comments, +Clark Olson-Smith pointed me at the Chatty DM's article on uniques, "Of Templates, Uniqueness and Adventure Hooks", which is awesome.

Update May 20, 2014: +Andre Comtois also gave me an interesting link: "Picking a One Unique Thing” To Enable Awesome". Thanks!

Fair go for the Forgeborn

I'm not a big fan of Blogger, so I've moved everything over to nagafeathers.com.

If I was Forgeborn, I’d be pretty pissed.

On p. 72 of the 13th Age book, the Forgeborn get the shortest race description there is, not even enough to fill half the column. For the most exciting race there is, it’s wholly unsatisfactory.

To be fair to Rob and Jonathan, 13th Age’s creators, they’re obviously depending on us being familiar with many things simply because they’re renamed D&D standards – not the case for me since my D&D experience started and ended with 1e AD&D, and I completely missed the Warforged, but most of you probably fill in the blanks unconsciously without even noticing. Rob’s also stated numerous times that they very intentionally left a lot of holes in the Dragon Empire setting to allow players (as in ‘people who play’, i.e. GMs and Players alike) everywhere to latch onto whatever they’re excited by and fill in the blanks however they want.

Did he say really “most exciting race”?

Indeed I did. How could anyone not be totally excited by the Forgeborn? They’re the only race that wasn’t born (despite the name), that doesn’t feel pain or bleed (probably), doesn’t need to eat, drink or sleep (maybe?), isn’t even really a race technically, and, well, um… we don’t really know much about them at all, now do we? Even with the briefest of descriptions, they fill my head with interesting ideas for uniques, backgrounds, feats and story hooks, and I immediately wanted to play one. But as I started creating a character, I had more questions than anything else. So I’ll take a stab here at bringing the Forgeborn into focus.

Why forge a Forgeborn?

If you’re including Forgeborn in your campaign, you’ve got to be aware that they are the most amazing thing the dwarves have ever created. I mean think about it: walking, talking, thinking magic machines. In the dwarven smithery books, that’s got to be knocking it well out of the park compared to a quirky magic axe, don’t you think?

If Forgeborn exist in a campaign, that fact automatically gives their creators the dwarves a different, and not particularly pleasant, flavour. Why would a dwarven smith forge a Forgeborn? Perhaps the very first creator did it for the sheer delight of creating something so crazy complex, but the only reason that occurs to me to repeatedly produce them is slave labour. Dwarves have a basically greedy nature, so they’re not likely to expend the immense time and resources needed to bring a sentient being into the world for the hell of it, are they?

This makes Forgeborn a pretty cool NPC race, but if you decide to play one as a PC, you should probably think about how your character won her freedom. If you can’t get a kickass unique out of that, there’s no helping you.

by Viktor Titov

It’s alive!

Everything else about the Forgeborn more or less grows out of answering this question: how the hell are they made? I can easily imagine a skilled Dwarven smith banging together some metal and other bits, infusing it all with some serious magic, and making a simulacrum of a human (or any other species for that matter), basically a moving but relatively stupid robot. But if we’re going to play Forgeborn PCs, they’ve got to at least be sentient right? How does even a total rockstar smith manage that? Isn’t that kind of stepping on the toes of the gods?

I won’t start a massive metaphysical discussion right now, but I generally assume that in fantasy settings with real good and evil and magic, living beings also have souls, if for no other reason than it just seems to fit, or is it just me? And creating a soul has go to be a Big Deal, yeah? So if we have Forgeborn with souls in our campaigns, here’s my favourite explanation of how the souls get in there:
The dungeons of the dwarves are deep, unquestionably secure, and populated by those foolish enough to get caught stealing from them. They’d just as soon kill them, but the thieves can still be put to good use. The last step for a smith working on a Forgeborn is to imprison a thief's soul in a fist sized rough cut gemstone, killing the thief of course. When the stone is planted in the Forgeborn's chest, her eyes open for the first time, glowing the colour of her gemheart.
Endless hooks for GM stories and PC backgrounds & uniques there. Go to town.

The perfect slave

Soul or no soul, as mechanical and magical creations, Forgeborn can't possibly be allowed to walk around with free will, especially considering that most of them are built to fight and are therefore pretty dangerous. If I was a dwarf smith, I'd be sure to whack in at least one of the following safeguards, to keep my Forgeborn from running amok:

  • A second gemheart, kept locked away by their master, is attuned to that of the Forgeborn, and can be used to track the creature. Should worse come to worst, smashing the gemheart will smash the other.
  • Each Forgeborn is imprinted with three words of power: Stop, Kill, and Die. The conditioning is so deep that if their master says any of the words as a command, they must obey instantly.
  • Three smaller stones are implanted around the gemheart, influencing Forgeborn behaviour. Each stone contains one of Izak Anvilstrike's three laws: first, a Forgeborn may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Secondly...

For example...

I'll come back to riff off this some more soon, but to wrap it up for now here’s how character conception has gone so far:
Elaine was forged to be a bodyguard for the Archmage, insisted upon and paid for by the Emperor. At that time her name was simply 'Guard'. After years fulfilling her function at the Archmage's side, she discovered that her soul was that of an executed thief, a fact that disturbed her to the point of cracking her gemheart. She fled the Archmage and returned to confront her creator. He was so impressed with her unexpected moral judgement and "humanity" that he vowed to help free her. No Forgeborn with a gemheart can ever truly be free, so he underwent a risky procedure and exchanged hearts with her, setting her free. Her unique is "I am the only Forgeborn with a biological heart. My heart remembers that it's owner owes the Dwarf King his life."

More to come…

More than anything, I've just been thinking out loud, but I'm circling around some ideas that I'd like to write up into a real race profile to share with anyone who's interested. You can help! What's your experience with Forgeborn in your games? Could the ideas above work for you? As I said above, the Forgeborn are crazy exciting, but the whole "sentient magic robots walking around free and everyone's totes cool with that" story is all just a bit flat for me.

Friday, May 16, 2014


I'm not a big fan of Blogger, so I've moved everything over to nagafeathers.com.

There was a time when I was an avid gamer. About seventeen years ago. As you'd expect, this was back when life was simple: I lived in one place for a prolonged period of time, I had nerd friends around me, and life was relatively relaxed so I had time, too.

Then I "grew up."

"Uhtred of Bebbanburg" by Caio Monteiro

Let me take a moment here to strenuously object to that crap phrase. There is a prevalent attitude in our society that certain things are inappropriate beyond a certain age, and that responsible adults should give up those things in exchange for regular pay, family, and soul-crushing monotony. The things we're expected to give up seem to include creativity, humour (beyond what you'll find on sitcoms), and weirdness.

Mostly my absence from the creative, funny, weird world of gaming was due to international moving, a lack of nerd friends, business busy-ness and all the usual suspects, but I have to admit there was also a bit of "I'm grown up now" stupidity in there too.

Right now I'm in between things in my life. I live in Germany but I'm moving to Denmark soon. I've been sporadically freelancing for a year, but really need to focus on work again after the move. I've been very involved in some personal projects, but they've mostly calmed down for now. So I unexpectedly have quite a bit of time on my hands.

In this time, I read a post on my old friend Joel's blog, An Abominable Fancy. My brain was obviously pretty damn dry after seventeen years without gaming, because the spark that Joel's blog threw set my mind on fire.

Now I've literally spent the last few days catching up on what the hell's been happening in the roleplaying game scene, discovering long lost friends who stayed nerds, learning opaque jargon (OSR, OGL, SRD anyone?) and searching for a game to sink my teeth into. I've settled on 13th Age for starters. I read all of Rob's mammoth review (yes, I'm quite proud of that), and it sounds like the right mix of comprehensible rules and emphasis on (or at least encouragement of) collaborative storytelling, which should be a good fit. The hefty book arrived in the post today.

The whirlwind of excitement and hunger for info and play that's been spinning my head around for the last few days makes it clear to me that I've missed this nerd tribe. Reeeally missed it. It's good to feel creative, funny and weird again. It's good to be home. I missed you guys.