With Gencon upon us like an amorous gorilla of fun, here are six precepts that have served me well when running games at conventions.
1. Know The Player Characters
The PCs are the players’ interface with your adventure. If there’s one bit of preparation you can never skimp on, it’s the player characters. You don’t need to memorise everything, but you need to remember any key plot hooks or powers that you can use to bring that character into the action. Point out places where a particular PC might use one of their abilities (“hey, your spy has Traffic Analysis, so you can intercept the bad guys’ radio communications and work out their movements”) and things they need to know (“as a Paladin of the Great Gold Wyrm, you probably know someone in the Imperial Legion. You could try tapping them for information”). You can’t rely on the players to volunteer information like they might in a regular campaign game.
2.Go Around The Table
At a table of six, you’re going to have a mix of players – loud ones, quiet ones, shy ones, dominant ones, rules-lovers and people who don’t care what dice they’re rolling, combat monsters and character actors, hardcore fans of the game, and people who wandered in because there was a free spot at your table. It’s easy to fall into the trap of catering to the really enthusiastic, engaged players at the expense of others. So, always go around the table and make sure all the players have the opportunity to get involved in the action. Suggest ways for them to contribute if necessary.
Also, go physically around the table, especially if it’s a noisy room. If you need to have a one-on-one conversation with a player, don’t shout across the table. Get up and walk around to that player if you can.
3. Observe The Rules
Don’t necessarily obey them, mind, but don’t completely ignore them. Many people play convention games to see how a particular rules system plays. They want to see how the game works, especially the elements that are especially thematic or distinctive. For example, you can run an Aliens-inspired bug hunt mission in any science-fiction rpg, and it’s always a good model for a convention game – but show off the distinctive elements of your game of choice in the bug hunt. An Ashen Stars bug hunt might highlight the use of investigative abilities to find a way to escape the remorseless aliens, while a Gaean Reach bug hunt might spend more time talking about how this is a trap set by the hated Quandos Vorn.
4. Beware of Time Dilation
In a four-hour convention slot, you can assume that the first 30-45 minutes are lost to late arrivals, reading character sheets, introductions, trips to the bathroom and/or snack bar and other administrivia, and you should aim to finish up half an hour before the end of the slot, to give yourself a buffer in case scenes overrun, players need to leave early, and to handle any post-game debriefings. That leaves you with a shade under three hours of actual game time. Expect your first few scenes to take much longer than planned, as players struggle to find their character’s voice and role in the group, and to get to grips with the setting. Expect later scenes to go much more quickly than you’d expect, as convention players take bigger risks and make grander gestures than they might in campaign play.
5. Be Prepared!
Character sheets, dice, pencils, scratch paper (enough for you and the players), copy of your scenario, enthusiasm, quick-reference sheets, a rulebook, bottle of water, more dice because the first lot are going to roll under tables and get lost, more enthusiasm. Phone, set to silent. Throat lozenges, because you’re going to be hoarse after running a few games. Get some sleep and eat some real food if you can manage it.
In extremis, enthusiasm may be simulated with sufficient sugar and caffeine.
6. Let the Game Breathe
Part of your role as a convention GM is to make sure that everyone has a good time at your table. Sometimes that means giving the players things to do by throwing interesting NPCs and mysterious and action scenes at them, but it also involves stepping back when the players are having fun just roleplaying their characters or planning their next move. If everyone’s talking animatedly about events in the game, just step back for a moment. This can be hard to do in the heat of the moment, especially with that remorseless clock ticking down towards the end of the slot, but it’ll pay dividends with a good table players.
Even as I write this, the indefatigable Chris Huth toils into the Canadian night, putting the finishing touches to The Book of Loot, our upcoming compendium of new magic items for 13th Age. The book’s crammed full of wonderful treasures and potent creations of sorcery, along with several items that we ourselves call out as utterly unforgivable puns.
Not every item written made it into the book for one reason or another. Some were cut for thematic reasons, others for balance. Here’s one that fell early on, on grounds of complexity. It’s an Epic-tier item associated primarily with the Emperor icon.
Chessboard of the Ages: There is no mistaking this item; the board of onyx and marble, and the gold and ruby playing pieces are described in songs and sagas from previous ages. However, the pieces are subtly different each time – the pawns change to resemble the allies and enemies of the chessboard’s bearer, while the features of the Icons of the Age appear on the other pieces.
When you first take possession of the chessboard, the GM gives the role of your opponent to some rival, ongoing villain or even an enemy Icon (GM: roll relationship dice if you want). Usually, it’s the Lich King or Orc Lord. You have the opening move. Once per battle, you may ‘move’ by activating one of the chess pieces as a free action. Each piece has a different ability. You may use each ability once per piece (so, you can use the pawn power eight times total in your life, most of the other powers twice ever, and the king and queen powers once each). A piece disappears when used.
Unlike most magic items, the chessboard doesn’t have a recharge value. Once you use a power, you can’t activate any of the chess pieces again until your opponent takes a move (or until your opponent voluntarily forfeits the chance to use a power – see the King, below, for why that might be a good option)
The powers possessed by the chess pieces are:
- Pawn: One nearby ally may take an extra standard action in their next turn or heal using a recovery as a free action.
- Rook: Cast teleport (as the wizard spell) to travel to any stronghold or flee from a battle without incurring a campaign loss
- Knight: Gain three paladin talents with all associated feats until the end of a battle or call a legendary hero to aid you for one battle
- Bishop: Cast any one Divine spell of up to ninth level or automatically succeed at any one skill check, no matter the difficulty
- Queen: Either copy the powers of any other chess piece remaining on your board (other than the king) or sacrifice the queen to remove any one piece possessed by your opponent, other than the king.
- King: You may only use the king’s power if you have at least twice as many pieces left as your opponent, and your opponent has suffered a significant defeat in the real world outside the chess game. When you use it, the chess game ends and the chessboard vanishes. However, your opponent is magically compelled to perform one task for you as a forfeit for losing the game. You may specify the task as you wish, and the opponent must obey.
Quirk: You share your opponent’s dreams while playing.
I may be mad – no, I am mad – but I can count. Eight pieces for good, eight for evil, that makes sixteen. But they say there are but thirteen Icons in the Empire. Who are the other three? Or do some play both sides, like the treacherous harlots they are?
- Erach, crazed preacher
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In all GUMSHOE games, there’s a benefit for having 8 rating points in Athletics – your Hit Threshold rises by 1. Night’s Black Agents expanded this to all General Abilities – if you invest eight of your precious build points in a particular ability, you get a cherry, a special ability that shows off your mastery in that field.
So, for your high-octane Pulp games, here’s a bunch of Cthulhuoid cherries that don’t overlap with the various occupation special abilities.
Conceal: Trap Sense
You may spend Conceal when making a Sense Trouble test if the potential threat is a concealed trap or other hidden environmental peril, like an overgrown pit or impending cave-in.
Disguise: Alternate Identity
You’ve established a whole other life for yourself, complete with friends, possessions, documentation – possibly even a home and family. This alternate persona must have a lower Credit Rating than your main identity (unless you’ve been masquerading as someone else since the start of the campaign). A Disguise rating of 8+ gets you one alternate identity; you can purchase more for 4 experience points each).
Driving: Drive-By Shootout
You’re adept at lining up shots for your passengers when they’re shooting out the window. (We won’t ask which mob outfit you were working for when you learned that trick). You may transfer up to 4 Driving points to your passenger’s Firearms pools at the start of a car chase. Unspent points are lost when the chase ends.
Electrical Repair: Alien Insight
Your intuitive understanding of electricity and magnetism gives you an insight into devices far beyond the paltry technology of humanity. You may spend 4 Electrical Repair to activate an alien device, like a Mi-Go brain cylinder or Yithian lightning gun. You only guess at how to turn the thing on, not what it does or how to properly control it.
Explosives: One Last Stick
You can spend Explosive points on Preparedness tests to obtain dynamite or similar explosives.
Filch: Here’s One I Stole Earlier
With a Filch rating of 8+, once per investigation, you may declare you stole something retroactively from a previous scene. You need to get into the mansion’s boathouse to flee the rampaging shoggoth? Well, it just so happens that you picked the groundkeeper’s pockets earlier on, and here’s the very key you need. You still need to make a Filch test to actually acquire whatever you want to unexpectedly produce.
Firearms: Nerves of Steel
Difficulty numbers for your Firearms tests aren’t affected by being Shaken.
First Aid: Sawbones
A First Aid Rating of 8 or more gives 1 free point in either Medicine or Pharmacy, player’s choice.
Once per adventure, when you fail a Fleeing test or are about to be consumed by some other horror, you may declare that you black out. When you wake up, you’re somewhere safe. You have no idea how you escaped or where you are now, and may have dropped items or abandoned fellow investigators to some horrible fate. But you’re alive, and that’s something.
You may attempt to use hypnotism on subjects who aren’t actively willing to be hypnotized. Your subject must still be somewhat open to your influence – you could hypnotize someone that you’re in conversation with, or the doorman at a club, but you couldn’t hypnotize the mugger who’s about to rob you, or the cultist who’s intent on sacrificing you to some alien god. Increase the Difficulty of any hypnotism tests using this ability by +2 (so, putting someone into a trance without their co-operation is Difficulty 5; planting false memories is Difficulty 7).
Mechanical Repair: Give It A Kick
Once per adventure, you may make a Mechanical Repair roll instantly. You could kick a plane’s engine back to life as it falls from the sky, or unjam a machine gun with one solid whack.
Piloting: There’s Always A Plane
Once per adventure, you may ask the Keeper to introduce an aircraft of some description that you can fly with this ability. Maybe it’s your own plane, and you’ve flew out or had it shipped out. Maybe it’s someone else’s aircraft you can borrow, or a crashed plane that’s repairable. Maybe the cultists have a zeppelin-temple. In any event, there’s always a plane nearby that you can use/borrow/steal over the course of the adventure.
Preparedness: Expedition Planning
If you have time to prepare and pack for any sort of expedition, then you bring enough for everyone. When you succeed at a Preparedness test to obtain an item, you may spend one extra point to have one of those items for everyone in the group. For example, if you use Preparedness to declare you’ve got an electric lamp, then you can spend an extra point to give everyone else a similar lamp too.
A Psychoanalysis Rating of 8 or more gives one free point in Reassurance or Assess Honesty (player’s choice).
Riding: Ride the Flying Polyp
You can ride anything, including Mythos mounts like shantaks. Even better, if a creature is introduced to you as a mount and you only use it for riding, then any Stablility losses for seeing the creature are reduced by 2.
Scuffling: The Old One Two
You may make an extra Scuffling attack per round, as long as you hit with your first attack. Your extra attack costs a number of Scuffling points equal to the result of the damage die (so, if you roll a 2, that’s 2 Scuffling points for another swing).
Sense Trouble: Quick Reflexes
If you overspend on a successful Sense Trouble test, you get those points back as a pool that can only be spent on Athletics, Fleeing, Firearms, Scuffling or Weapons tests in the first round of combat or in tests immediately related to the trouble you sensed. The maximum size of this pool is equal to the number of Sense Trouble points spent. For example, say the Difficulty to sense a lurking Deep One is 5. You spend 3 Sense Trouble and roll a 4, for a total of 7, beating the Difficulty by 2. You get 2 points back that you must spend immediately on attacking or escaping the monster.
If you’d rolled a 6, you’d have beaten the Difficulty by 4, but you’d still only get 3 points back.
Shadowing: In Over Your Head
Whenever you have to make a Sense Trouble roll while shadowing someone, you gain 2 points in a pool that can be spent on Evidence Collection, Locksmith, Disguise, Filch or Stealth. You lose any unspent points in this pool when you stop shadowing the target and turn back, or are discovered.
Stealth: Stay Here
As long as someone follows your explicit instructions, they can piggyback (as per the rules on page 57) on your Stealth tests even when you’re not present. So, if you tell a fellow investigator to hide in the undergrowth and keep crawling until they reach the road, they can piggyback on your Stealth tests if they do exactly what you told them to do.
Weapons: Favorite Weapon
Pick your favorite melee weapon. You draw strength and courage from its familiar heft in your hand. Once per adventure, you may gain 4 Stability from drawing or brandishing your weapon. With this sword by your side, there’s nothing you can’t handle.
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 him, however, the family mentality had veered away from practical affairs to pure scholarship; so that he had been a notable student of mathematics, astronomy, biology, anthropology, and folklore at the University of Vermont. I had never previously heard of him, and he did not give many autobiographical details in his communications; but from the first I saw he was a man of character, education, and intelligence, albeit a recluse with very little worldly sophistication.
- The Whisperer in Darkness
Lovecraft was a prodigious letter-writer, sending more than 100,000 over the course of his life. No wonder, then, that his protagonists did likewise – Wilmarth in The Whisperer in Darkness and Thurston in The Call of Cthulhu are the two most obvious examples.
Night’s Black Agents introduces a new general ability called Network, which lets you whistle up contacts and allies as needed; you can pull out your burner phone and call up that Iranian arms dealer who owes you a favour, or have an agent in place inside the Smithsonian. In Trail of Cthulhu, with its slower pace of communication and emphasis on creeping horror, Network becomes Correspondence.
You buy Correspondence like any other General Ability; possessing even a point of Correspondence means you’ve got a wide circle of friends and colleagues that you regularly correspond with through letter, telegram, and even the occasional phone call or in-person meeting. You don’t need to specify who these friends are until you call on them in the game.
At any point, you may allocate a point of Correspondence to create a new NPC Correspondent. Each point you spend gives that NPC two points to spend on any Investigative abilities. Note the NPCs’ name and abilities down on your character sheet. Points used to create an NPC stay allocated to that NPC forever – they don’t refresh at the end of the adventure. If you want to keep your Correspondence pool topped up, you’ll need to spend experience points on it.
The NPCs you create are, by default, in some distant city. They’re not around to help you directly, but you can write to them and ask them for their advice (in other words, you can spend their Investigative Abilities to get benefits, but you’ll need to wait some time for their reply to come back).
For example, Willoughby Boothroyd just discovered a curious idol in a cellar, but lacks the Anthropology needed to understand its significance. His player permanently spends two points of Correspondents and declares that Boothroyd’s cousin Cecil is a noted archaeologist and ethnographer. Those two points of Correspondents translate to four investigative ability points for Cecil; he’s now got Anthropology 3 and Archaeology 1. Boothroyd’s player notes ‘Cousin Cecil: Anthropology 3, Archaeology 1’ down as a contact. Boothroyd stuffs the idol into a packing crate and sends it off to Cecil. A few days later, he receives Cecil’s report on the idol, which contain the clues obtainable with a 2-point Anthropology spend.
Your correspondents can be assumed to be trustworthy, reliable people – they might not share your belief in the supernatural, but they won’t dismiss your requests for information out of hand. At the very least, they’ll humour you; more likely, they’ll be drawn into the mystery of the Mythos themselves.
Correspondents & Core Clues
A beneficent Keeper – if such a thing were not a contradiction in terms – might allow a player to get a Core Clue from an ability she doesn’t possess, but one of her Correspondents does.
Martha doesn’t have Physics, but an old friend of hers is now a professor of physics at Cambridge. The symbols scrawled in the witch’s cottage remind her of some diagrams he once showed to her – something about folds in space and time? Perhaps she should contact her old friend and see if he can shed light on the mystery.
In addition to creating contacts with the ability, you may also spend Correspondence points for some extra benefits:
- Spend 1 point to get a reply to a request as fast as is humanly possible (by telegraph, telephone, or return of post).
- Spend 2 points (or 1 point of Correspondence and 1 point from an Interpersonal Ability like Credit Rating or Flattery) to have your Correspondent come to visit you in person and put their skills at your disposal.
- If you’re about to die horribly, you can spend 1 point of Correspondence to retroactively declare that you send a copy of your notes, or your diary, or some other documentation to one of your Correspondents before you went on this last investigation. Your Correspondent becomes your next player character, and starts with a point of Cthulhu Mythos thanks to your final revelation.
Correspondence points spent for benefits refresh at the end of the adventure.
This being Trail of Cthulhu, your Correspondents are going to delve into matters that man was not meant to know and die horribly. If the Keeper eliminates one of your existing Correspondents as a plot hook, then the Correspondence points used to create that NPC are refunded. On the other hand, if you get one of your Correspondents killed (either by bringing them directly into the adventure, or inadvertently sending them a radioactive idol like poor cousin Cecil), then the points are lost permanently, and you lose at least one point of Stability to boot.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning horror roleplaying game set in the 1930s, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system is finely tuned to investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Pick up Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.
Under the glorious new regimen, my articles get upgraded to a column with a running title, which is like an academic getting tenure. Bear with me a moment while I suckle at the pelgrane’s noisome teat.
* * *
Accretion Disk, the Ashen Stars expansion book, continues to live up to its name. More and more motes of text are drawn inexorably into the gravity well of the project folder, and there’s a huge chapter on abilities by the masterful Kevin Kulp that’s about to slam into the existing draft.
Adding detail to the Ashen Stars system and setting opens up the possibility of running other styles of science fiction adventure. Of course, the default setup of ‘licensed freelance problem-solvers’ can bleed into any of these styles.
The PCs are the crew of a small tramp starship, bouncing from system to system taking on whatever cargoes and passengers they can find. One week, they’re delivering terraforming equipment to a new colony; next, it’s a cargo load of cryogenically frozen space cows, or a few hundred metric tons of chemical waste, or just a bunch of mysterious sealed containers. GMs and players with an interest in speculative economics could explore the weirdness of a super-high-tech post-scarcity economy suddenly feeling the bite of scarcity again. Another interesting wrinkle is the change in the characters’ legal standing – they don’t have badges or any legal authority, so they’ll have to be careful about staying on the right sight of the law.
Investigative abilities are used to spot business opportunities, to solve problems when delivering cargoes, and to deal with troublesome clients, so stock up on Bargain and Assess Honesty. In this setup, the characters rarely get regularly contracts – they’ve got to support themselves solely with freight or other trading contracts, which means a high Business Affairs to keep gaps between missions to a minimum.
The anarchic nature of the post-war Bleed means the characters are kept busy in the early part of the campaign, bringing supplies and exploiting opportunities to profit from the chaos. As law and order return, the megacorporations expand back out from the Combine. When they seize control of trade routes and contracts, it becomes clear that the small free traders like the PCs are going to be squeezed out of existence. Do the characters try to stay ahead of the megacorporations by running out to the fringes of known space, or do they try to protect their lifestyles by stirring up instability and chaos in the Bleed?
Let’s Be Bad Guys
You could either borrow from Firefly, and have a crew of semi-legitimate traders who occasionally turn to crime, or go all the way and play a gang of specialized thieves (space pirates)! GUMSHOE works great for crime if you flip some of the investigative abilities around so they’re about concealing evidence instead of finding it. So, you now use Holo Surveillance to avoid being picked up by sensors, or Decryption to conceal your transmissions from law enforcement, or Evidence Collection to make sure you collect all the evidence of your intrusion before you leave. (This twist works very well in other GUMSHOE games, like Trail of Cthulhu – bootlegging Boozehounds of Innsmouth, anyone?)
The characters are all soldiers in the Combine’s armed forces. As roleplaying games work best when the players have the freedom to get themselves into horrible trouble, they either start on some sort of detached duty (‘we’re an elite commando unit that lands on enemy-occupied worlds, gathers intelligence, then sabotages the planet’s defences in advance of the landing’) or get separated from their regular chain of command in the first session of the game. Optionally, borrow some Thriller Combat rules from Night’s Black Agents, and Accretion Disk adds plenty of new equipment that becomes military gear when given a coat of reactive camouflage.
And who are they fighting? Bleedist separatists? Nufaith terrorists? Hostile Class-K aliens like the Jaggar, Nanogons or Phyllax? Or hostile galactic powers, like the bizarre Crysolis gestalts or the crumbling tinpot dictatorship of the Galactoid Legionnaires? You could even go back to the Mohilar War, and pit the characters against durugh and Combine turncoats, leading up to a final confrontation with the Mohilar themselves!
Brave New Worlds
Your continuing mission is to take a small scoutship into the unexplored reaches of the Bleed, and survey whatever planets you encounter. You won’t be alone out there – in addition to unscrupulous rival explorers and prospectors, you might run into hostile aliens, refugees who fled the war, durugh fleets who refused to follow their king’s command to switch sides, lost starships, temporal anomalies, and the remains of long-vanished civilisations. On each world, you must assemble a thorough survey report, which means scanning it from orbit, then flying down in your shuttle to gather samples and investigate any indigent cultures or mysterious sensor glitches.
You’re even authorized to make first contact on behalf of the Combine with any newly-discovered intelligent species. Just try not to start the next war…
In The Zalozhniy Quartet, there’s a scene (not really a spoiler) where the PCs are outmatched and are ‘supposed’ to flee, leading into a tense chase. Expecting player characters to take a particular action is always hazardous design – you can set up a situation where there’s only one valid route for the PCs to follow, and they’ll still stall and try a hundred alternate approaches before doing the obvious. In this case, waiting for the players to decide the situation was untenable and choose to retreat wasn’t an option – the scene involves a direct confrontation with… things they’re not equipped to deal with.
In my initial draft, I suggested a bunch of ways for the Director to make it clear to the PCs that running away was their best – indeed, only – option. Sense Trouble rolls. Having the bad guys beat up the PCs with ease. Having the NPCs soldiers accompanying the mission heroically sacrifice themselves, giving the PCs a chance to escape.
The solution, as pointed out by Robin, was to make the overwhelming odds a Core Clue, obtained with Military Science. The player character – a veteran of a hundred black operations and brush wars – instantly sizes up the situation, and realizes that hanging around is suicide. They’ve got to run. Making it a core clue changes the dynamic from “the GM forces the PCs to act” to “the PCs, by dint of their superior skills and experience, fight their way out of a lethal ambush and escape to safety”.
What makes this especially interesting, from a scenario design point of view, is that Military Science isn’t often used passively. It’s the sort of skill that a player brings up when they’re spying on a furtive meeting between two mercenaries, or when they’re trying to bluff their way onto a military base. Writing a scene that takes a skill normally used as an active, ‘I ferret out the clues thusly’ and just handing a clue to the players can produce interesting results.
Esoterrorists – Document Analysis: While paying for take-out at a nearby diner, you spot a cheque in the drawer of the cash register. The handwriting on the check matches that of the author of the Esoterror manifesto you’re in town to find. The check was right on top of the drawer – the target might still be right here in the restaurant.
Recalled Information & Flashbacks
Revealing facts to players as Core Clues (or as a benefit for spending points) is the core of GUMSHOE. A Mutant City Blues player uses Ballistics, and you describe how they work out that the killer must have been standing on the third floor balcony of the building across the street. Searching CCTV camera footage with Data Retrieval gets them a photo of the gunman, and running that through a police database with Research gets them a name.
Or, in Trail of Cthulhu, they use Occult, and learn that the owl sigil they found is associated with the Minervan League, and then use Credit Rating to get an invitation to a League-sponsored lecture.
You can go further than that. A Ballistics clue could equally point the characters towards a roleplaying scene.
“At that range, with the weather that night, it would have been a hell of a shot. You know one guy who could have pulled it off – an old army buddy of yours, an ex-sniper who’s now a shooting instructor. He probably knows all the good marksmen in this region. Maybe he knows the shooter; it’s definitely worth talking to him”
“You’ve seen this symbol before. You remember reading a book in the restricted stacks of the Orne Library, back at good old Miskatonic. The owl sigil is used by a sect called the Minervan league. In fact, you recall that that particular book was donated to the library collection after the death of its previous owner. Thinking about it, he lived near here. Maybe his family know more.”
More ambitiously, you can embed scenes inside other scenes, by means of a flashback. Keep flashbacks short, and be prepared to improvise in response to player actions in the ‘past’.
Occult: “You recognise that symbol – it’s the sign of the Minervan League. You know that because in your youth, you were acquainted with a member of the league. You even applied for membership, but weren’t accepted – did an existing member blackball you, or did you back out at the last minute?
Anyway, you remember your friend hinting about the league’s secret purpose. He started to say something about a Great Work… then he fell silent, as if suddenly frightened. What did you do?”
NPCs as Clues
A clue – especially an Interpersonal one – can be incarnated in the form of an NPC from the PCs’ past. Instead of, say, getting information from the waitress at the bar through Flirting, maybe the waitress is an ex-girlfriend of the Flirting player character. She’ll tell you what she overheard – but only if you apologise for what happened the last time she saw you.
If a PC has a high Intimidate, then presumably they’ve intimidated people in the past. So, when the PCs are combing the dark streets of the city, ask who’s got the highest Intimidate – the PC with the second highest rating is the one who gets jumped by the vengeful goons. (Of course they don’t go after the highest rating – that guy’s scary). Beating up the goons yields the next Core Clue.
A Core Clue points the way to another scene. It doesn’t have to be evidence interpreted by the PCs. Anything that opens up a new avenue of investigation works. Mix up the way you present core clues whenever you feel your game is getting repetitive!
Last month, I compared the 13th Age rulebook to my beloved Rules Cyclopedia, and talked about how cool strongholds were and how they’d work in the looser, more narrative Archmage Engine style. This month, it’s Dominions.
There comes a time in every adventurers’ career – sometime between slaying that first dragon, and well before going toe-to-toe with demon kings – that a hero’s thoughts turn to ruling a dominion. Having your own fiefdom has its appeal. Conan had his throne, after all. It’s good to be the king.
Dominions don’t have to be fiefdoms or landholdings, of course. A wizard might prefer a pocket dimension filled with weird experiments, or a private flying realm in the Overworld. A thief might have a merchant shipping fleet that conceals a spy network, or run the thieves’ guild in a prosperous city. A druid’s dominion might be a wild forest where no man dares trespass. In each case, the player character is the acknowledged ruler of that territory, and has to defend it from external threats.
Acquiring a Dominion
Only Champion or Epic-tier characters can have dominions. It’s a matter of tradition, like ghouls with paralyzing touch or clerics with blunt weapons. Ideally, the would-be ruler should also have a stronghold.
There are three routes to a dominion.
First, your character can inherit a dominion. Just take the One Unique Thing ‘Heir to the Duchy of Fullcatch’ and wait for anyone else in the line of succession to drop dead.
Second, a character can carve their own dominion out of the wilderness. There’s plenty of wilderness to be carved, but said wilderness is full of things that may also need carving. There’s gold under the Giantwalk Mountains, but to get it, you’ll need to drive off the giants who live there.
Third, you can beseech the most appropriate Icon for a dominion. Usually, this is the Emperor, unless you have your heart set on a territory within the demesne of Drakenhall, Horizon or Santa Cora, or you’re an Elf in the Queen’s Wood or a Dwarf in the dwarflands (or a Lich in the Lich King’s realm, or planning to live in the Wild Wood, or…). Doing so requires a triple-strength Icon benefit – rolling three fives or sixes on your Friendly or Conflicted relationship with that Icon.
What’s that you say? You don’t have a 3-point relationship with that Icon? Well, you can curry favour by going on quests and performing needful services, or battling that Icon’s enemies. (Or hiring a bard with Balladeer and Storyteller, because they’re favour-currying machines!)
Ruling a dominion has fringe benefits, in the form of a bonus Background. As lord of a small dominion, you’ve got a +1 Background (usually “Baron of such-and-such”); a medium dominion gives a +2 Background, large +3 and huge +4. Normally, this background comes into play when making Charisma checks to represent influence and wealth.
Designing A Dominion
Once you’ve got your dominion, the next step is assigning Resource Dice. Different dominions offer different sorts of resources. A resource can be almost anything – farmland, a gold mine, a market, a seaport, a guild of weavers, a wizard’s school, a magical font of wisdom, a nest of tame dragons, a well of arcane energy, a hellhole (assuming the ‘resource’ you’re interested in is demons), a Imperial Legion camp, tribes of barbaric half-orc mercenaries, the relics of a dead saint, a trade route, Koru Behemoth dung-enriched soil.
A small dominion (Barony) has 3 Resource Dice to allocate. A medium dominion (County) has 4; a really big dominion (Dukedom) has 5 and an Imperial governorship or princedom has 6. You can double up on a resource if you wish; for example, a dwarven barony might have an Iron Mine (1 dice) and a Smith’s Guild (2 dice).
Under normal circumstances, the dominion provides enough income to pay for its own upkeep and running costs, as well as keeping its ruler in a suitable manner in the suitable manor. There are good years and bad, but by and large things even out. Exceptionally good or problematic years are represented by resource benefits.
When the GM allows it (usually between adventures, or once per game year), the player rolls any available Resource Dice for their dominion. These dice work like Icon Relationship dice – a 6 means the player gets a benefit without any problems and a 5 means there’s a benefit with a drawback or cost. For example, in the case of our dwarven barony, rolling a 6 for the Iron Mine means the miners hit an especially rich vein of iron, and produce more raw metal for trade than expected. A 5 means that especially rich vein runs through a monster-infested cave network, or the iron was cursed by a witch and will make cursed weapons. Or maybe the best market for iron right now is all the way across the Midland Sea in Newport, and to get the benefit, the ruler has to find a way to transport the goods safely.
Rolling a 1 means the Resource is imperilled in some way, and unless the local ruler takes action, that Resource becomes unavailable for 1-5 years (roll a d6; on a 6, the Resource is lost for good). A 1 for the Iron Mine might mean the miners were attacked by monsters, and can’t go back down there until the monsters are slain. A 1 for the Smith’s Guild might indicate that a thief stole their secrets, and all the current guildmasters consider themselves dishonoured and fit only for stoking fires until those secrets are recovered.
A resource benefit can be:
- Cashed out as gold: one benefit gives around 500 gold pieces on average; more if the resource is especially fungible (it’s a lot easier to cash out ‘Gold Mine’ than it is to cash out ‘Sacred Wilderness of the Druid’).
- Expended to temporarily increase your noble background by +2 until the next time you roll for Resource Benefits.
- Spent to restore another Resource that was imperilled by rolling a 1, assuming the player can justify it with narration.
- Traded to another ruler.
- Used to pay the cost/drawback when rolling a 5 on an Icon benefit roll
- Used by a creative player to overcome some other challenge in the game. Instead of slaying the army of ogres that threaten your western border, spend your Rich Farmland benefits together with a really good Charisma check and hire them as mercenaries. Instead of using that Meteor Storm spell to power a ritual, use your Arcane Wellspring benefit and keep the spell for blowing up bad guys.
An example from my campaign: Findel’s the representative of the Elf Queen in the Priestess’ court in Santa Cora, and through recent political machinations he’s also the spokesman for the elven clergy and the owner of an estate just outside the city. He’s got the Resources Tower of the Stars +1, Wizard’s Guild +1 and Country Estate +1. He’s also got the +1 background Elven Ambassador in addition to his regular backgrounds.
At the start of the next adventure, he rolls his resource dice. He gets a 1 for Tower of the Stars, a 3 for Wizard’s Guide and a 5 for his Country Estate. The 1 means that his control of the high elven temple in town is under threat; he’s been controlling it through a proxy cleric called Aritu, and it looks like Aritu’s no longer loyal. The wizard’s guild is quiet this year, and his Estate is threatened by a pesky flock of owlbears.
Findel calls his adventuring buddies together to go owlbear hunting to secure the resource benefit from his estate. He then uses that to temporarily increase his Elven Ambassador background to +3 – he justifies this in the story by inviting various dignitaries from the Priestess’ court to his country manor, where they admire his fine owlbearskin rugs, and listen to his concerns that the cleric Aritu is working far too hard, and would benefit from a less stressful assignment – say, a temple in peaceful Concord. Why, Findel can run the temple of the stars until they appoint a replacement cleric…
Of course, rolling a 1 might also mean that resource has just been stolen by an ancient, vindictive Living Dungeon – in which case, the only way the ruler is ever going to get that resource back is by hunting down the Stone Thief. Now there is a real test of leadership.
The upcoming Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign pits the player characters against a vengeful Living Dungeon that steals things from the surface. Castles, mostly, but also wizard’s towers, druid circles, enchanted waterfalls, dragon’s lairs, unholy temples, kobold-infested gold mines or unattended oceans. One of the amusing consequences of this is that the GM can throw in almost any sort of encounter in the dungeon; the player characters turn a corner in the dungeon, and find themselves clambering through the branches of a mile-tall oak tree stolen from the heart of the Elf Queen’s lands.
On one of the deeper levels, the Pit of Undigested Ages, the PCs may come across one of the Dwarf King’s treasure vaults, stolen long ago by the dungeon. We’re going to do that particular section as a homage to classic dungeons of yore, complete with compressed monster write-ups (7th level wrecker [Hm]; Init +10, Hammer +12 vs. AC, 30 dmg; nat even hit gain esc. die next round, n/s gain extra att when at ½ hp; AC24 PD20 MD18 HP 110). So when it came time to actually stick some treasure in the treasure vault, I reached for my trusty D&D Rules Cyclopedia (purchased, according to the annotation on the flyleaf, on the 23rd of November, 1991) and rolled up a pile of Treasure Type H.
Looking through the Cyclopedia, I was struck by how it resembled the 13th Age rulebook.
Both are single-volume tomes, covering character creation and class abilities, combat, gear, adventuring, magic, monsters and setting details. (13th Age has a starting adventure, but the Cyclopedia has rules on time-travelling forward to ensure your descendants stay on the throne of the giant empire you create in order to become a god, so we’ll call that a draw.) Parts of the two games are so similar that it’s easy to convert material back and forth – I rolled a Staff of Striking in that Treasure Type H, so there’s a 13th Age version of the staff in there.
Other elements of the game, though, have fallen by the wayside. Dungeon crawls rarely involve hiring dozens of porters, henchmen and hirelings, and it’s no longer common practice for player characters to build strongholds and rule domains.
This makes me sad: I love political games, intrigue, and domain management. More to the point, if the player characters don’t have strongholds and domains, I can’t have the Living Dungeon steal them. This month, let’s look at strongholds in 13th Age.
Barbarian Ring Fort– 2,500 gp
Shrine to the Ancestors in a mountain shaped like a skull – 25,000 gp
(Bards don’t usually build strongholds, but 3,000gp should buy you a luxurious townhouse in Axis or Concord, and 30,000gp gets a palace that’s both sybaritic and acoustically perfect)
Cleric’s Shrine – 5,000 gp
Cathedral to the Gods that attracts pilgrims from across the Empire – 50,000gp
Fighter’s Castle (small keep and wall) - 4,000 gp
Mighty Fortress against whose walls the armies of the Orc Lord might contend in vain – 40,000 gp
Paladin’s Temple – 4,000gp
Great Temple-Fortress of the Order – 40,000gp
Ranger’s Hidden Sanctum – 2,500 gp
Secret Valley in the Mountains blessed by the spirits of nature – 25,000 gp, and it probably has dinosaurs.
Thieves’ (Rogues’) Guildhall – 4,000 gp
Network of secret passages linking half the cellars in a city to the underground kingdom of thieves – 40,000 gp.
Sorcerer’s Tower – 5,000 gp
Tower that channels the fury of the elements through your wild soul – 50,000 gp
Wizard’s Tower – 6,000 gp
Wizard’s Academy – 60,000 gp
Barracks – 500gp
Cellars, fully stocked for a siege – 1,000gp
Chapel – 500gp
Gatehouse & Drawbridge – 500gp
Library – 500gp
Luxurious Furnishings – 500gp
Moat – 200gp
Ornamental Gardens -200gp
Servant’s Quarters – 200gp
Arcane laboratory – 5,000 gp
Barracks of elite Crusader-trained warriors – 2,500gp
Dungeon full of interesting monsters – 5,000gp
Chapel blessed by the Priestess – 1,500 gp
Flying Fortress – 25,000gp
Magical wards and spell-guards – 2,500 gp
Library of Blasphemous and Forbidden Lore – one soul, payable to the Diabolist
Library of Arcane Secrets and Erudite Tomes – 5,000 gp, more if you get into a bidding war with the Archmage.
The finest luxuries in the Empire – 10,000gp, and you owe the Prince a favour.
Skymoat – 2,500gp
Ornamental and Carnivorous Gardens – 1,000gp or a favour for the High Druid
Hunting Forest That Wasn’t There Yesterday – 2,000gp, payable in elven triunes only
Servants Quarter’s, Unseen – 1,000gp
Smithy, Dwarven Masters – 2,000gp
Stables, Dragon – 2,000gp (riding dragon not included)
In addition to these costs, assume annual running costs of between 5% and 20% of the building price, depending on circumstances and numbers of staff. That’s a lot of money – in fact, more than most adventures can afford. If you want the prestige of having a stronghold, then you’ll need to either rob richer tombs, or have another source of income…
Benefits of a Stronghold
Lording it over your neighbours and living in luxury isn’t enough? Depending on the campaign…:
- Your stronghold is a place of refuge. If you take a quick rest there, you get to recharge all expended powers automatically, and your companions get to automatically succeed on one recharge roll each. The stronghold also absorbs one campaign loss per level – you can take a full heal-up there when you need it, regardless of circumstances.
- When you’re at home in your stronghold, you get an extra ‘wild’ relationship die. Each time you roll your relationships, choose which Icon that die is for. You can only choose Icons you have a normal relationship with, unless you can come up with a good reason why agents of another Icon might visit your stronghold.
- Your stronghold has a bevy of servants and guards. They’re too low-level to go adventuring on your tier, but they can run errands and gather information for you. They’re also generally loyal and trustworthy, which is more than you can say for a mercenary off the streets of Shadowport.
Next month – domains!
by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Most cultures mark the deepest darkness of the winter and the turning of the year with feasts and rituals. Festivals often spread from one culture to another when peoples engage in trade, though the celebrations may lose their original meaning and acquire new ones in the transmission.
By the time humans went to the stars in the 2130s, Christmas was a largely secular celebration marked by consumption of all manner of luxuries. Humanity’s client species and trading partners adopted their own versions of the holidays – as the humans took the last week of their year off, those whose businesses involved regular dealings with humanity had a good excuse to kick back and relax themselves.
The final defeat of the mynatid wasps on December 31st, 2261 and the ensuing foundation of the Combine solidified the week leading up to January 1st as the major festive holiday across all the Seven Peoples. Founding Day – January 1st, the anniversary of the Combine – is still the biggest day of celebration across the Bleed. Official ceremonies as well as parties and wild carousing go on into the small hours of every January 2nd. On many worlds, ships chase the fall of night around the planet, prolonging Founding Day to give passengers more hours to party.
Before the Mohilar War, Founding Day was strongly associated with cultural exchange and integration, and was a favourite day for xenoweddings. During the war, ceremonies acquired a distinctly militaristic tone and, by the late 2450s, commemorations of the war dead dominated the once-joyous anniversary. Now the Combine uses Founding Day as a reminder of the strength and unity of the shattered polity, which means pro-Bleed factions attack the celebration as a day of cultural hegemony. Most of these attacks are restricted to speeches and counter-celebrations; terror attacks on Founding Day are rare – at least so far.
The run-up to Founding Day is marked in different ways by different peoples and cultures in the Combine. The human Christmas is the most widely celebrated of these festivals. In fact, several synthcultures elevate Christmas to the core of their philosophy. Yuleworld, for example, celebrates Christmas almost year-round, breaking only for the seasonal Gastric Repair Days. Other human worlds, influenced by the resurgence of spiritual belief across the Combine, hold that the religious meaning of Christmas must be extricated from the secular morass of commercialism. This is taken to an extreme on Briareus, where the holiday is a time of solemn prayer, and any merrymaking – even laughter – is forbidden on penalty of exile.
The kch-thk adopted Christmas during the brief Syndicate period of the 2230s. The Primal Mass attempted to reassure the humans that their new insectoid allies were not so different, and so kch-thk clans competed to be as ostentatiously human as possible. Christmas was especially suited for this purpose – if there’s one thing the kch-thk can do, it’s eat. Trillions of clone-turkeys perished in the name of diplomacy in the 2230s. The kch-thk kept the festival even after the collapse of that alliance. To this day, ‘having a traditional kch-thk Christmas dinner’ is a euphemism for grotesquely excessive gluttony.
The boisterous raconids also adopted Christmas from the humans, on the grounds that anything the humans can do, the raconids can do better, faster and louder. Raconid Christmas parties are notoriously debauched, often lasting four or five days before the participants collapse or get kicked off the planet by local authorities. To avoid such problems, many raconids take to the party fleets for the holiday season. These fleets are each composed of a dozen or so ships, each one packed to the gills with food and drink. They land only when the stocks are exhausted; allegations of party fleets turning to piracy to prolong the festivities are unproved but entirely plausible.
The balla find the raucous nature of many informal celebrations to be disconcertingly emotional, and prefer to remain aloof from them. They do mark the holiday season with mor-abol, a ritual in which members of a Balla family (or, for spacefarers far from home, the local balla community) gather together. At the start of the three-day ritual, one balla is chosen at random to be the abol-jin. The others prepare and fortify themselves with meditation and psychic exercises. After three days, the abol-jin is permitted to ‘speak from the heart’ on any topic important to them. They may even show emotion during this outpouring, as the other balla have prepared and shielded themselves against any contagion of feelings. Rarely, a balla may call upon non-balla to join in mor-abol. This expresses astounding trust and intimacy with any non-balla so favoured.
Being mildly radioactive, ndoalites can never be wholly comfortable socialising (as the saying goes, they’re the half-life of the party). Ever practical, though, they’ve turned their inability to participate in the social gatherings of the festive season into an advantage. Every year, ndoalites take on extra shifts at work or swap assignments to give their co-workers more free time. Ndoalites keep the Combine running over the holidays. It’s become a badge of honour for a ndoalite to bear extra burdens at this time of year and they refer to it as [happy work].
Alone among the major species, the tavak do not celebrate any festival in the run-up to Founding Day. Historically, this was due to the fact that many tavak hibernated through the darkest part of their winters until the spring when the insects became plentiful again. These days, though, the tavak eschew the holiday season out of sheer stubbornness, and get tetchy when anyone tries to draw them into the celebrations.
By contrast, the durugh took one of their minor holidays, the previously obscure King’s Gift, and made it into a huge celebration as it happens to fall on December 27th by the Combine calendar. Just as the kch-thk adopted Christmas to assimilate with human culture, the durugh used King’s Gift to assimilate into the Combine. On King’s Gift, each durugh is expected to pay tribute to the king. In modern times, this ‘gift’ usually takes the form of community service or investment, or even charity to the poor. The office of havrash, or ‘tribute co-ordinator’, is now highly sought-after, as the havrash of a large city or planet has control over all the money given by the durugh population and almost complete discretion on how this money is spent, as long as it somehow glorifies the king’s name.
Ironically, the durugh gave rise to another celebration that takes place around Founding Day. It was on December 26th, 2110 that the durugh made first contact with the primitive cloddhucks. Today, most cloddhucks still celebrate the Day of the Grey Gods, although they use it as an excuse for feasting and downplay their previous state as servants and footsoldiers for the durugh. Radicalised cloddhucks see the Day of Grey Gods as the day when their species was enslaved, and use it as an excuse to start trouble in any durugh neighbourhoods.
The haydross have little concept of seasons but were keen observers of the stars before they discovered space travel. Therefore, the solstice of great importance to them, and is marked by the recital of long equation-songs and the chanting of sagas. Haydross tend to be nervous in social situations and mask this nervousness by defaulting to their traditions. Pity the poor soul who gets trapped next to a haydross at a party and gets treated to the full seven-hour Song of the Fundamental Forces.
Icti also find some social gatherings difficult, but for very different reasons. For the first few years after a union, the icti must explain its changed status to every casual acquaintance of its host. Even the most entertaining party becomes a chore when one has to keep repeating the explanation of how you died, then got brought back to life by joining with an alien crab. Family gatherings are especially awkward.
For the newest additions to the Combine the holiday season is fraught with uncertainty. As they were created to fight for the Combine, many cybes have strong feelings about Founding Day so the run-up to that anniversary can be volatile. It really doesn’t help that two of the memory donors associated with the Cybe’s neural rewiring ability have powerful connections to Christmas. Professor Greenwater hated Christmas while Krk-krt absolutely adored the holiday, especially its cheesiest and most commercialised elements.
Verpid culture is even younger than that of the cybes, and they don’t have any references inherited from humanity to guide them. Verpids tend to use the holiday period as a platform to raise awareness of the plight of their nascent species, and encourage others to give the gift of genetic freedom by contributing to the Verpid Foundation. Pledge today!
Finally, most vas mal react to religious ceremonies the same way they react to philosophers and physicists – by giggling and muttering ‘wrong! Wrong! Close, but oh so wrong!’ They do enjoy dressing up as Father Christmas. After all, they once possessed cosmic omniscience, and know who’s been naughty or nice.
Call me Bargle.
Eyes of the Stone Thief started out under the working title of Moby Dungeon, which rather gives the game away. It’s inspired by Moby Dick, with the whale swapped for a dungeon full of traps and monsters. The characters must hunt the living dungeon as it swims through the Underworld. When it surfaces to feed, they’ve a limited time to delve into it and find a way to destroy it.
They won’t succeed the first time they try. It’s a campaign, not an adventure, so the player characters will return to the dungeon several times. Each expedition brings them deeper into the Stone Thief. The dungeon can rearrange its layout, so the player characters won’t often find themselves going through familiar areas – and when they do, it’s probably because the dungeon has restocked those levels with new traps and dangers. The shifting labyrinth fits with the 13th Age ethos, too – it’s not a dungeon crawl, it’s a dungeon stride boldly forward and don’t worry about mapping every 20′ x 20′ room.
The campaign also takes place outside the dungeon. Factions within the Stone Thief have agents on the surface, clues found in the dungeon point to other adventures, and of course, the Icons have their own schemes and agendas involving the Stone Thief. Also, the dungeon can eat places and turn them into new levels. That wizard’s tower you just visited? That city where you grew up? That castle the Emperor just granted you as a reward? They’re all targets for the Stone Thief. Think of it as a rampaging, power-hungry, city-eating monster that happens to be shaped like a dungeon.
Currently, I’m working my way down through the levels, cramming each one full of the nastiest traps and fights I can manage, while preparing notes on the surface side of the campaign. I’ve got my list of inspirations and aspirations beside me as I write, covering everything from Piranesi’s drawings of Carceri to House of Leaves and Gormenghast to photographs of abandoned buildings in Detroit to classic dungeons like Undermountain and the Tomb of Horrors to Knightmare.
And back again to Moby Dick. If the dungeon’s the White Whale, then the player characters risk becoming a band of crazed, vengeance-seeking Ahabs…