We found the shark man washed up on the shore, north of the spot where the Old Wall reaches the sea. The others, eager as always to declare themselves free from the constraints of mercy, would not aid him. I gave him a share of my meager catch and went hungry myself. He ate sparingly; a few hours later he rallied enough to speak. Cursed as I am to question and chronicle, I asked him of life beneath the waves. These are the words, as I marked them down.
“Though I thank you for the food, you should know that I am dreaming now. This waterless surface world, though you might believe it to be real, is but a place we go in nightmares, when the waters grow turbid and sleep eludes us.”
Surely this could not be true, I told him. The might of our 13 icons surely intrudes below the waves, undeniably affecting the lives of air- and water-breathers alike. Yet deny it the shark-man did:
“Your supposed icons are but strange reflections of the 13 true icons, who rule the lightless depths,” he said.
“First among them is the Shark Mother, queen and progenitor of my people, who keeps the waves safe for our hunting and slakes our ceaseless hunger.
“Our greatest enemy is the Lizard King, potentate of the accursed reptile men, who dare to compete with us for cruelty.
“Others, like the Colony, neither oppose our aims or force us to oppose them. The Colony rises from the ocean floor, a vast complex of colorful spires, always building and creating.
“The Vent sends lava and dust into the seas from its deepest trench. She keeps the demons from draining the waters of life-giving air.
“Her daughter, the restless Crab, scours the world for stray demons, yet eats many others in her compulsive quest to clean it all.
“Opposing her is the Shell-Borer and its many drilling minions, who pierce through shells and armor and seek to split the Vent for good.
“The Mermaid rules the sunken cities of men who once breathed air, but now swim with the tails of fishes. Her people fear us, though they are not so good to eat as they assume.
“Kelp Woman protects the vegetation, and the things that are neither plant nor animal. This is good, for without her bounty, the things we eat could not maintain their numbers.
“The Phantom imposes a semblance of order on the revenants of sunken sailors. Some of you dreamlings call him Davy Jones, though I don’t know why.
“Many-Arms waits for us to falter, so that his formless servitors may take our hunting grounds. We fear only the largest of them.
“The Collector fills a palace with the messages from the distant gods, imprinted on the surfaces and mottles of shells. In them he reads omens, from which his ever-changing doctrines grow.
“Sharpjaw aids the weak and darting creatures. Beneath his japes and jests lies deadly intent. Feel the currents and sense his presence.
“Of Leviathan I will not speak. To name him is to summon him, and his wrath is a mountain.”
My companions, who fate had rendered impecunious, chose to take the shark man inland in hopes of selling him to an Imperial official. A few days into the journey his skin dried out, and he piteously died.
Because I breathe air and not water, I have never managed to confirm the truth or fancy of his account. Yet chronicle I must.
13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
The Eyes of the Stone Thief, like the eponymous beast, is a monster. It’s on a par with the Ennie-Award winning Trial of Cthulhu campaign, Eternal Lies, and may well be the largest book we’ve ever published. I was intending for it to be monochrome, as Eternal Lies is, but then I saw the beautiful maps, and the idea of full colour grew on me. By this stage, the art, all monochrome, was pretty much in.
So I broached the subject, gingerly, with my colleagues.
I want colour, I said. Surely the artists could just colour the pictures in? You know, get the crayons out and stay within lines? My ten-year-old can do that.
Gareth Hanrahan was all flappy-handed about it on Skype, though full of “Can Do” as always. I interpreted the flappy hands as “No”. Cat Tobin fixed me with a steely glare and said “this book is ready to lay out.” She also pointed out that “colouring in” is not a technical term artists recognise and I should not mention my ten-year-old’s artistic endeavours in this context. Robin D Laws, in a spirit of compromise suggested we do colour plates. Rob Heinsoo laughed with pleasure at the sheer foolishness of it.
Gar approached each artist and asked them to colour one piece each. The colour art in 13th Age uses washes of colour, which mades colouration slightly less problematic. This is what we got.
This is working, I thought.
All the artists stepped up and promised to colourize their art for the difference in cost between colour and monochrome, and do it by the end of September. To keep us on schedule, Chris Huth is doing the layout in colour and using the monochrome pieces as placeholders, to drop in the colour when we have them. This plan was enough to gain acceptance.
I hope the scope, ambition and pure fun of this epic adventure is enough to interest our audience. I have no idea if, commercially, colour is the right choice – the book wil certainly be more expensive. In this case, I’m really doing this just because I want to and because I can, and because it made Rob Heinsoo laugh.
When the stunning photographs taken by Harry Burton of the Carter expedition’s discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 were recently exhibited at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum, one print was conspicuously not considered for display.
Those of you with high Cthulhu Mythos ratings know that Nitocris, possible last pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, became a ghoul after her death. So perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that Burton, a Metropolitan Museum of Art photographer on loan to Carter, took an image of in which her blurry outline can clearly be seen. She intruded into Burton’s picture of guardian statues in an outer funerary chamber. Burton, engrossed in his composition, saw her only after he developed the picture. His lack of alarm likely saved him from a gruesome fate.
Why was Nitocris prowling around in Tutankhamun’s tomb, you ask. Who do you think administers the ancient curses of the pharaohs against the plunderers of their grave, anyway?
The photograph, the first ever taken of this particularly numinous ghoul, captured a sliver of her spirit essence. Those who gaze too long on the image form an unwitting bond with Nitocris. No matter where they are in the world, the ghoul queen sends her minions. Individuals judged to be valuable to the ghoul community are devoured and excreted as freshly reborn ghouls. (Yes, that’s how the process works. Your other Lovecraftian sources have been too genteel to tell you this.) The rest are marked for later consumption, after they die.
Flash back to the time of your series, in the 1930s. Renegade NYU Egyptology professor Nathaniel Stonebridge has stumbled onto the secret of the photograph. Driven by a heedless thirst for knowledge, he wants to be the first mortal to witness and document the hideous rebirthing ceremony by which Nitocris brings new ghouls into her flock. To this end he gained access to the suppressed Burton image, normally housed in the Metropolitan’s securest vault. By threatening Metropolitan archivist Norman Lanning with the revelation of certain details of his unsavory private life, Stonebridge got him to strike new prints of the negative. These Stonebridge has been circulating to his many enemies in occult academia, in hopes that Nitocris will choose one of them, and he can watch it all happen.
Since letting Stonebridge strike new prints from the negative, Lanning has vanished. His superiors, afraid that the Nitocris image has fallen into the wrong hands, approach the investigators to find out just what has happened to him.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.
In the latest episode their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk one-shots, the battle of Poltava, GUMSHOE scenario design and Sarah Helen Whitman.
Coming to you live…
Well, obviously not live live – while I may be writing this from a hotel room in Indianapolis, it won’t be up on the Pelgrane site for a week. And for that matter, I’m hardly alive either, after the arguably best but very definitely longest four days in gaming.
Let us start again. That seems to be a wise move.
I ran two or three 13th Age demos each day of GenCon, using pregenerated characters that had basic mechanics but no Icon, backgrounds or OUTs, and a very simple intro scenario that can be summarised as “something bad is happening in Glitterhaegen that is neatly resolved in an hour with two quick fight scenes and a skill roll”. While all the demos (bar one) followed that basic story, bringing in elements from the players’ contributions meant every game felt radically different.
I’ll use the last demo I ran, late on the Sunday afternoon as an example. Even though five people had signed up, only one actually showed (every other demo had between three and six players) – a lovely chap named Edgar, and I hope he doesn’t mind being used in this article. With only one player, Edgar asked for a halfling rogue pregen, so after running through the basic mechanics, we started on what makes 13th Age different from other F20 games and such a joy to run.
I gave all the demo characters a 1-point Positive relationship with the Emperor, mainly so I could use “you’re all working for the Emperor” as a fallback story if nothing else suggested itself. I then showed Edgar the full list of Icons, and asked him to pick one more.
Negative with the Elf Queen, says he, picking an unexpected Icon relationship. I asked him to go into a little more detail on this, and he describes how he was the only thief to successfully steal from the Queen’s court, coming up with his One Unique Thing at the same time.
I told him to leave Backgrounds blank for now – in a one-shot demo, or even in a campaign for that matter, it’s often more fun to fill in backgrounds when they’re needed in play. As there was only one player, I added a GMPC, a half-elf paladin of the Crusader (OUT: On Fire).
I had three different variations of my simple little plot based around three different Icons – a soul-stealing merchant for the Diabolist, a grave-robbing necromancer for the Lich King, and a pirate plotting to take advantage of an impending Orc Lord attack. I could have just said “because you’re servants of the Emperor, you’re called upon to help Glitterhaegen” and introduced any of the three variations or used my GMPC paladin’s Crusader relationship to bring the PCs in to investigate the soul thief, but instead I changed ‘Orc Lord invasion’ to ‘demonic elves out of the Bitterwood’ and brought in Edgar’s antipathy towards the Elf Queen. I always try to tie plots to the player characters; even if the connection is a bit tenuous, it’s worth it to be able to go “because of this thing about you, in particular, you’re involved in this adventure.”
Next, we rolled Icon relationships; Edgar’s Emperor came up with a 6, and I gave him a belt of the city (from the Book of Loot) to help with the investigation.
Actual play time! I described how the city was under threat of invasion by dangerous, isolationist elves who considered humans to be usurpers. While the Imperial Legion manned the walls, there were rumours of elven commando units sneaking into the city, and traitors were said to be in league with the elves. The PCs had traced one such traitor to the grand bazaar, a huge, crowded open-air market in Glitterhaegen.
I planned to set my first fight scene in the market. My original notes called for an attack by a band of illusory orcs, but I could use disguised elves just as easily. I then asked Edgar a few questions about the market.
- “The grand bazaar’s dominated by a structure or monument of some sort. What is it?”
- “Something’s happening in the market that’s going to make your investigation harder – what is it?”
By asking these questions after I’d set the initial parameters of the scene, I gave Edgar control over specific details of the scene while retaining overall control. No matter what he came up with, I could still use my attacking elves. It gave him a sense of engagement with the setting, which is great. It also forced me to stay awake and keep thinking on my feet – setting up situations where the GM gets surprised is super valuable, especially when you’re running a bunch of convention demos in a row. If there’s no challenge for the GM, it gets boring and the players pick up on that boredom. Finding tools to keep your own energy and enthusiasm up is a good habit for a GM to cultivate.
I deliberately didn’t ask open-ended questions, like “where do you find the traitor?” Some players freeze when given that much freedom of choice – for that matter, I wouldn’t be completely confident about my ability to improvise a scene that would still work within the constraints of a demo if the player came up with something completely unexpected (“I find the traitor in a dragon’s lair under the city!”).
Edgar proposed a giant statue of a former admiral, blowing a horn, and a street preacher, both of which worked perfectly with my intended plot. I decided that the street preacher was the traitor in disguise, trying to convince people to abandon Glitterhaegen and flee on the waiting ships – which his pirate fleet would then capture and despoil. The giant statue was a great image and focal point for the fight. (Previous demos gave answers like “a huge crystal gazebo”, “a temple to Mammon”, or “an elven graveyard” and “a children’s festival” or “a funeral procession”).
Edgar’s halfling went off to listen to the preacher, so I got to ambush him with my fake demon elves who attacked the gathered crowds. Cue a quick fight scene. I used the orc stats I’d prepared earlier for my elves instead, hastily reskinning them. If any of them had critted, I’d have described their expanded-crit-range ability as a blast of magical hellfire or something suitably infernal.
Afterwards, I didn’t bother to make him to roll to see if his rogue noticed that these elves were common wood elves, not the fabled demon elves that threatened to attack Glitterhaegen. Instead, GUMSHOE-style, I just told him that because of his experience in the elven court (his OUT of “I stole from the Elf Queen”), he recognised these elves for what they were, and he quickly deduced that they were deliberately trying to whip up terror and dismay in the city. The flipside of the ‘fail forward’ principle is that if failure is boring, don’t ask for a roll. He quickly deduced that the elves and the street preacher were in league, and scampered up the statue to confront the traitor.
Instead of attacking, he launched into his own speech, rebutting the traitor’s tales of gloom and doom. I asked Edgar to roll, and he decided to create a background on the spot to give him a bonus. He was, he announced, the former mayor of a Halfling town, and so was experienced in public speaking. Defining backgrounds in play often generates surprising juxtapositions like that – if I’d insisted that he fill in all his backgrounds during the brief character creation phase at the start of the demo instead of leaving them blank, he’d probably have gone for something like “burglar” or “forester” to fit in with his One Unique Thing of having stolen from the Elf Queen, not “ex-mayor”.
Between his not-bad Charisma, his belt of the city, his background and a good roll, Edgar’s Halfling convinced the people of Glitterhaegen to rally to the defence of the city instead of fleeing on board the waiting ships. The frustrated preacher revealed himself to be the treacherous pirate, dropping his act and acquiring an outrageous accent – YARR! – in the process. While my original notes called for the player characters to encounter the traitor on board a ship, a swashbuckling fight on the shoulders and head of a giant statue worked just as well.
Fight scene, players win, demo ends. Huzzah!
One could argue – and in certain moods, I’d agree with this – that 13th Age is a game of two halves. There’s the relatively detailed and balanced combat engine, and the considerably looser and fuzzier story-generating mash of backgrounds, Icons and OUTs. Certainly, in a simple 45-minute demo like this one, I was able to use that divide to my advantage by warping the mutable story-side elements around the player’s choices and answers, while leaving the mechanical side unchanged.
Interestingly, one of the take-aways from the 13th Age adventure design panel seminar was that people preferred using adventures for inspiration and pre-prepared encounters to use in their own games instead of running the adventures as written in the book. While we’re unlikely to go so far as to publish a book that’s half stats, half fuzzy ideas on how to put those stats into context, that flexibility is one strength of 13th Age that we’ll build on as we look towards GenCon 2015.
In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk Gen Con, Gen Con, and more Gen Con.
The latest edition of See Page XX is out now, featuring new products Mythos Expeditions available to pre-order, Xeno-archaeology!, the Series Pitch of the Month – a sideways view of DEN in Terminal X, by Hal Mangold – and a new Stone Skin Press pre-order, Letters to Lovecraft.
There’s also a Gen Con review from Simon Rogers in the View from the Pelgrane’s Nest, notes, recordings and video of some of our Gen Con seminars, as well as a host of inspiring articles.
When you watch the typical serial cable drama that DramaSystem, the game engine underlying Hillfolk, in large part emulates, you’ll note that the scenes tend to be short. Occasionally you get a change of pace episode structured more like a one act play. Mostly you see a large number of two-hander scenes in which the petition is presented, the granter plays various facets of the argument, the petitioner responds, and resolution occurs. DramaSystem players often like to get into the scene and pull every possible nugget of interaction out of it. However if you’re willing to engage in the occasional quickie scene, that provides a variety of pace that benefits everyone.
In DramaSystem the granter dictates the length of the scene more than the petitioner. As granter you can shorten a scene by allowing your resistance to be overcome in the tighter time frame you’d seen in the compressed medium of television or fiction. (Really every medium is more compressed than roleplaying, which is only fair since we’re making it up as we go along without aid of later editing.)
Another potential-rich way to keep a scene snappy is to leave the petition unresolved. In TV writing you’ll see that this happens all the time. The petitioner makes the request but the grantor does not tip her hand as to which way she’s going to go. In DramaSystem terms, a non-response constitutes a refusal. But it also leaves this conflict open to be furthered in a later scene, either to the advantage or detriment of the petitioner. This creates suspense, leaving a question hanging over the proceedings. Which way are you, as granter, going to jump?
As granter, a non-response response does cost you a drama token. At the same time, though, it heightens your character’s emotional power by leaving that narrative hook hanging out there. So although you may be tempted to end each interaction on a definitive yes or no to the petition, consider the occasional power of an unresolved scene conclusion. Just say, “I walk away without answering.” You may find it the coldest rebuff of all.
Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk obstacle anatomy, Dracula’s castles, floppy civilization and the Oak Island Holy Grail.
We shipped 13 True Ways to Kickstarter backers before GenCon straight from the printers, and it turns out they weren’t packaged according to my wishes, and so some of them were damaged. I am very sorry about this. It seems like a lot of copies even though it’s a small proportion of the total.
You are welcome to keep the damaged copy for yourself or pass it on to a friend.
Please email support with your details and we’ll get you out a replacement. It really helps us with the printer if you send a photo of the damage, but you are not obliged at all. Because Indie Press Revolution is shipping them out and they have post-GenCon decompression and Burning Man to contend with, this won’t be for a while – provisionally the end of next week.
At that stage all unshipped US and Canada True Ways and other Pelgrane pre-orders will be shipped.
For rest of world customers (including the Pelgrane office!) we are waiting to get tracking on books shipped to the UK for onward shipment. I’ll post when we have this information.