Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 In Review

I hope you all had an amazing Christmas.

This was a good year for me, game-wise.  A bunch of new games, and a bunch of expansions.  And some really good ones, too.  It was also a year with some significant changes for me personally.

Let's look back, shall we?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Famous Items

I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the other day.  It was really good. My brain kept shouting at me, "THAT'S NOT HOW IT HAPPENED IN THE BOOK ... but that is kinda cool."

It was an odd feeling. And spoilers follow. Be forewarned.

There is a scene in the film where the heroes are taken hostage by goblins. They are disarmed completely, and are surrounded on all sides by angry armed goblins, including the Great Goblin.

Then one of the goblins pulls one of their blades out of its scabbard, and shrieks, calling the Great Goblin's attention to the weapon. The Great Goblin also shrieks and jumps back.

Why? Because they have recognized the sword in question.  It's Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver. It doesn't matter that none of the nearby dwarves is holding it. It doesn't matter that it's sheathed and lying on the ground. The Goblins are scared of it.

The Great Goblin had previously recognized Thorin Oakenshield. And he wasn't afraid, despite the stories which had surely sprung up around the dwarf.  But he was afraid of an inanimate object. One that may or may not have magic powers of some sort.

It reminded me of Fred Saberhagen's Twelve Swords of Power. I don't know if his books deliberately pulled influence from Tolkien's named swords or if it was coincidental. Either way, you have ordinary people with weapons which are earth-shattering in their power.

But it got me thinking.  And it reminded me of The Arsenal of Heaven. A bit.

And the concept of famous weapons or named weapons goes back, too.  A good long ways.  Roland's sword was Durendal in The Song of Roland. And his wasn't the only named weapon in the poem, either. Of course, everyone thinks of Excalibur and Caliburn (Arthur's swords). Geeks often know the Gae Bolg (Cuchulainn's spear). And, if I keep digging, I'm sure I'll find others.

But the real question is this: How do you make sure that items have this sort of ability to move the story without making the characters secondary? It can be as easy as naming the weapon.  Most of Tolkien's blades seemed to have been named.

13th Age gives each magic item a personality. And, if your character has too many magic items, then they start to take the character over. "Too many," is defined as "more than your current level," so a first level character can have one magic item before they start running into problems.

Dungeons & Dragons gives some items bonuses against certain targets - but that's not quote the same.  At what point do the Goblins recognize the sword and flee rather than face it?  Does a +2 vs Goblins make the blade known among the Goblins? Or do you need a +3 or +4?  And does that +2 blade influence your personality? Is it telling you to kill the Goblins? Because a character with a +2 vs Goblins is going to attack them more than any other available targets ...

But the blade's name isn't "+2 vs Goblins." That's its mechanical effect.  The flavor could (and should) be completely different. You could name it just about anything - but if you want to keep Tolkien's flavor, then it shouldn't be English and it should sound archaic to the characters.

But both games assume your famous weapon is magical.  What if it isn't? What if it's just famous?  You can do that easily in 13th Age through use of your One Unique Thing. "I was chosen to bear the Hammer of Farhaven." Or it could be something earned later through play. "To thank you for saving our town, we grant to you the Medallion of Nearhold."

I'm not suggesting that all famous things should be weapons, either.  Obviously when dealing with medieval (or pseudo-medieval) cultures, your characters should have coats of arms. Provided they are knights, that is.  Or descended from them.  If my great-grandfather was a war hero, and I'm now the head of the family, I'll have his same Coat of Arms. Those should be instantly recognizable.  My little brother will have a differenced version of the same arms.  Roland had a horn as well as his sword. There have been other famous items scattered throughout the history of ... well ... history. Banners and flags and suits of armor. Medallions and signet rings. Scarves and veils.

The fame can add bonuses to non-combat rolls with appropriate people - maybe the merchant they're dealing with does good business or owes a favor to someone in Nearhold, so that Medallion gives them +2 to their negotiations with that merchant. Or a discount with that merchant. It's also possible to give combat bonuses to rolls that aren't to-hit or damage - maybe the bandits who were going to ambush them recognize your grandfather's arms and are more likely to flee (bonuses to an Intimidation check used to end combat or penalties to a morale roll).  And they can grant penalties, too. If your grandfather was a merciless hunter of Orcs, and you're wearing his colors, then any negotiations between the party and the Orcish warlord who claims this land as his are likely to go poorly because they'll mistrust you from the start more than they otherwise would.

Just keep in mind that every single item a PC picks up has a history.  It may be a short as "this river stone was plucked from the river last week for use as a sling stone." But it is there. And every item has potential for fame. Even sling stones.


Hmm. Now I kinda want to run a Pendragon-esque game where the PC's play the various wielders of specific items through several centuries ... that could be interesting. And potentially awesome.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An Odd Week

I threw my back out a week or so ago. It's not something I usually comment on, because it's not unusual for me and it's completely unrelated to my gaming most of the time.

But I apparently threw it out worse than usual.  To the point where it's impacting my ability to sit upright for more than a few minutes at a time, which makes gaming and blogging both difficult.

This means that this week's post may be a bit more scattered and/or disjointed than usual, as I'm writing a sentence or two, and then lying back down for my back.

This is the second year in a row I've served as a double-blind for someone's Secret Santa. Basically, he tells me what to buy his target, and then I make the appropriate arrangements and he sends me the money. It works pretty well, and I enjoy it. I am actually considering setting myself up as a double-blind for all comers.

I can't believe it's the holiday season already!  Time to start the New Year's Eve planning ...

I've also been asked by Asmodee to write an article for Game Trade Magazine.  It's a new one for me, because I'm used to setting my own deadlines and policing my own word count.  Which, admittedly, has led to some mediocre posts from time to time and some long rambling posts from time to time.  Even better: I was asked to write about a game that won't be out in the US until February. So they had to ship a copy to me. From France.

It's a huge deal for me - I've always been connected to Asmodee in a more-or-less unofficial manner. I help them out with their translations, and, in exchange, I get trips to GenCon and free games.  This is a task that normally a full-time employee of the company would handle.  So it's very strange for me to be writing it.  Thankfully, I have a solid support network, including one friend who has written things for GTM previously and has agreed to look over my article before I send it in.  Which is a HUGE relief.

And I keep getting translation projects.  Mostly info sheets.  You know those one-page "here's info about this game!" things?  Someone has to write those. And translate those. And clean up the translations.

I've seen some other interesting things, too.  But I don't know if I can discuss them, yet. All I'm going to say is that Good Things Are In Sight.  And 2013 is going to be a good year for gaming.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A New Game! 13th Age

The next few weeks are going to be chaotic and hectic in my Real World, so it's possible that I will have late and/or short posts.  I'm sorry in advance.

This week, however, is neither.  See, a friend just started running a 13th Age game - and, one session into actual play, I'm really enjoying it. Enough that if we hadn't already pre-ordered the game, we would be doing so now.

13th Age is a d20 variant or derivative - but don't let that scare you off.  Because it's brilliant. Yes, it's a class-based system at heart. And yes, it's still level-based. But there is so much going on.

To start with, there is no set list of skills.  None at all.  Much like Over The Edge, you choose "skills" that reflect your character's background. My character, for example, has three Backgrounds that tell you quite a bit about him - Orphan Street Thug, Cloistered Historian, and Imperial Inquisitor. But I could have as easily gone with High Street Busker, Baker, and Highway Bandit.  Any time you would roll a skill, choose an appropriate Background. "There is an excellent ambush point six miles up the road."  "Imperial Law says his possessions are forfeit to the Crown." "Actually, this sword is likely much older than that - the Numanian Dynasty dates from the Fifth Age," and so on.

A good Background not only tells the GM what you want from the game, it also tells them something about the setting. In fact, there is an aspect of world-building in your backgrounds.  Was there an Imperial Inquisition before I chose that background for Hochnor? No. My GM hadn't even considered the possibility.  But then I dropped it right in front of him - and, in so doing, forced him to deal with it in some way. I have a hunch other players have done similar things.

Each character in 13th Age also has One Unique Thing about them. It's not usually something with a mechanical benefit. Or, rather, I don't believe it should have a mechanical benefit. I guess your DM could give you a benefit.  I decided to use it to add motivation to Hochnor - as we are now living in the 13th Age of the World, Hochnor wanted to know what caused the other 12 Ages to end. In fact, he sacrificed two of his fingers for that knowledge. And now he is trying to stop this age from ending.

And yes - it's another world-building thing.  If I'm the Only Orc Paladin, then there are no other Orc Paladins anywhere in the world.  If I'm the Diabolist's Secret Apprentice, then he doesn't have any other apprentices out there.  I could be the World's Tallest Dwarf or the Elven Ambassador to the City of Fillintheblank - all of these things change the setting in some way.

Oh - and one more thing that a lot of games miss: The characters' connection to the world at large.  13th Age does this with Icons.  There are 13 Iconic Characters, and you will have a relationship with at least one of them.  You don't need to define it - just rate it (1-3 at start), and decide if it's positive, negative, or conflicted. This gives your character a tie to the real movers and shakers in the world. And, ideally, invests you in the world just a bit more.

They also tweaked the level progression for the game - there are only ten levels of play. And you can get partial progression between levels - as in, "I'm Level 1, but I have one or more benefits of being Level 2,"  Depending on your class, this could be a number of things. Extra Hit Points, new Spells, new Class abilities.

And you know how much it sucks to fail a critical roll?  13th Age has you covered there, too.  They call it "Fail Forward," - if you blow a roll, you don't necessarily fail at what you were attempting. You probably still succeed, only with a complication. Maybe it took extra time.  Maybe you were undetected, but you moved one of the roof tiles slightly and now rain is falling into the house and someone will notice sooner rather than later.

All in all, it's a very well-put-together package that takes the best parts of D&D and packs them all together in a modular way.

Oh - did I not mention?  Each of these three things?  Since the game is d20-based, you can easily tweak most of its new ideas and put them into your Pathfinder game. Very easily.

I'll keep you in the loop on how the game is going.  So far, however, I'm really loving it. And I don't see that changing any time in the near future.