Skip to content

Optimized for Play

At work when I program something I often have to choose which part to optimize: which aspect of this thing is expected to be used most, since that’s the part that should work the simplest, be the quickest, and ground the other pieces of the design. Databases are optimized for reading, because you read more often than you edit. Ruby on Rails is optimized for change, because its the only thing you can count on.

So when I promised to GM the next campaign for my weekly gaming group, I set about to foster a game that’s Optimized for Play, because that’s the part we do most often. I want the experience at the table to be fluid and easy, to let everyone have fun without putting too much burden on anyone.

Our group is coming off of three years spent mostly in a single epic D&D 4E campaign1, where our characters have advanced from level 1 to 15. It is not uncommon lately for our weekly four hour session to be taken up entirely by a single routine encounter, and we were all growing tired of it.

So I’d been floating other systems2. We tried out Dungeon World and had fun, and had dallied pleasantly with Fiasco as well. When we tried 13th Age and everyone seemed to enjoy it, I offered to be the GM of a new campaign, thinking that I could use the system’s unique characteristics to make a more storyful game that we could all enjoy3.

And 13th Age is really well suited for that task: it drops a lot of the complexity of something like 4E and instead gives the players and GM a smaller set of more flexible tools. Among the best of these are the world’s 13 “Icons”— powerful figures whose actions shape the world, and to whom all PCs are related in some way— and the skill-replacing “backgrounds”— catch-all sentences which give you a bundle of things instead of just one— and each character’s “One Unique Thing”— which elevates the everyday heroes of most games into the differentiated lead characters of a good story. Further, 13th Age simplifies combat into a few basic moves with fun augments based on the die roll, which dramatically speeds up that aspect of play and leaves room for everything else. 13th Age optimizes for story by making everything point back to the PC’s connections to the world.

But it still left me holding the bag of doing actual work to prep the game, which I didn’t really want to do. Not because I’m lazy, mind, but because if I start doing prep my mind refuses to prioritize other tasks, and campaign prep work consumes everything else. So I smiled when I found this little paragraph in the core rule book on page 179:

Starting a session: All players roll their PC’s icon relationship dice at the start of each session, and everybody sees the results. By the end of the session, each 6 or 5 should contribute to the story somehow, either at the GM’s or player’s initiative.

This is the tiny seed of a system akin to Full Light, Full Steam‘s Engineering the Situation, which lets you mix bits and pieces of the characters’ back stories into a coherent plot hook4. Given the Icon Relationships thus rolled and the Backgrounds that surround those relationships, it should be easy to make a plot hook. I immediately settled on a system like FLFS’s, where named NPCs and groups would get index cards that we’d use to track our world in a sort of paper wiki, and those characters would return as companions and complications in later hooks.

To test that system out, I took the rough drafts of the level 1 characters I had at the time, figured out all the combinations of two icons that were possible given the relationships we had, and started to jot down plot hooks for each pairing, flavoring them with the characters’ Uniques and Backgrounds. The results all sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a problem: I didn’t want to write a hook for each scenario, because I wanted them to grow with the characters, but I didn’t know which Icons would show up in our first session5.

So I figured that i would write a tiny little narrative to throw the PCs into the action, in such a way that I didn’t assume what was going on but that would force some interpretation to be found quickly. At the table I wanted to use a Dungeon World style where “play to find out” and “ask questions and use the answers” made my job as a GM easier (less planning!) and more enjoyable (always new surprises!). So I came up with a narrative:

You run up the rickety staircase and burst out onto the blinding sunlight of Axis‘s rooftops, just in time to see the shadowy figure you’ve been chasing leap off the far edge of the building, across a ten foot gap and down a twenty foot drop. With a roll and a bounce they’re running again. Arrowin, you have the lead: what do you do?

It’s short and simple and drops them right in the action, just like the Cold Open of a good TV show does. I explicitly patterned it after the kind of Cold Opens that Star Trek: The Next Generation did so well. On a lark, I wrote what would come next if this actually were a TV show: the title sequence:

We start in darkness, but you hear the sound of a crowd having a rather raucous good time. There is a band playing and someone singing, but it joins the din rather than rising above it.

The lights come up and we see a wooden sign, upon which is gold lettering, sparkling with a minor charm that all the first year magicians learn in Enchantments. “The Dragon and the Duck”, it says, and there is a rather poor picture of both creatures, ales in hand.

We pan down and see the door to the establishment just as a rather drunk Half Orc stumbles out, giggling slightly to himself. We follow a hooded figure through the door, where we see Arroway and Vessel sitting at a table laughing at the act on stage. Törk approaches, a pair of flagons in each hand, and as he slides the drinks across the table the view spins, and we see that our hooded figure is Nameless, who unfurls a map as she slaps it down, and we zoom in and see the Dragon Empire fill our view.

Words fade in, white against the map: Adventures in the 13th Age.

This, as soon as I wrote it, caused everything to click: our game was a TV show, and we were writing the events that took place in the show. As a framing device for the play style I wanted to foster, it worked perfectly: story would be prioritized, characters would be important, entire stories would be told in episode-sized chunks, and it would be a ton of fun playing up all the crazy stuff that happened “on screen” and describing the subtitles and establishing shots and whatnot.

I had heard of but never read, at this point, Primetime Adventures, which takes this conceit and makes the entire game about that. I went out and bought the PDF6, read it quickly, and ruthlessly stole everything I could port over into the mechanics of the 13th Age system my players and I were already excited about. Our sessions immediately became episodes, we’d hand out Fan Mail when people were awesome, and give bonuses (aka Fan Service) when players cashed them in7, and we’d do Spotlight Episodes where one character’s story took center stage and they were mechanically empowered to be extra awesome8.

As a bonus, this played perfectly with another thing I’d wanted to do. I had been fearful that the character’s backgrounds wouldn’t be visible to the other players, who’d just see their effects (I can jump!) and not their reason (I grew up in a travelling circus!). To counteract that, I had always planned to use flashbacks to bring those aspects to the table and make them explicit, and the TV show framing device made that seem like the most natural thing in the world.

So to sum up, we’ve got characters from 13th Age and a GM from Dungeon World using a technique from Full Light Full Steam to put on a Primetime Adventures show.

We took this hybrid out for its first test drive this week, and it worked out far better than I could have hoped. When the players sat down, they knew nothing beyond the 13th Age rules, but when I read the tile sequence and explained the TV show trope, they immediately took to describing our action in terms of a show9. Our plot line blossomed from one call of “where is the girl?!” into a chase to rescue a lost niece of the Dwarf King and return her to her uncle, but not before one of the PCs secretly let the Prince of Shadows steal the poor lost girl’s heart, in a very literal way. My favorite bits were when we’d discuss what needed to happen next, so that the audience would be able to follow the story and empathize with the characters.

To make my job even easier, we ended our night by rolling the Icon Relationships for our next episode, and then using that to do a Primetime Adventures-esque “Next Time” sequence showing what crazy trouble we’re in for then.

And since all I had to do to prep was write the first part of one scene, I can say that I’m totally ready and totally looking forward to seeing what’s next.

Follow our campaign over at Obsidian Portal

  1. Fourth Edition is the most recently published edition. DnDNext is in open playtest but not for purchase yet 

  2. I previously reviewed 13th Age, Dungeon World and DnDNext; all have since been revised, and I plan on updating that review at some point 

  3. We have at least one player who open says “I’d always like more combat”, and I’m as yet unsure how he’ll take to the new way of doing things. I promised him at least one combat a night, and in our first night we got two. I explicitly asked how the balance felt for him and the above quote was his response. This is, I think, my biggest unknown going forward. 

  4. Full disclosure: this game is written by my brother Josh, but it’s awesome so you should totally buy it and play it and love it. 

  5. Why didn’t I just make one up when I needed it? Good idea, but I didn’t have it then. Not having the obvious thought led me down this other road, though, and that road ended somwhere awesome 

  6. It’s rather hard to find a way to buy PTA, whose Second Edition is out but whose Third Edition is under playtest. I eventually found a copy at IPR 

  7. Our bonus is a flat +2 to a d20 roll, but you must cash in before the roll, and it’s only one per roll 

  8. I plan on giving out three Fan Mail to that character at the start of their Spotlight Episode 

  9. We even had a lively debate about which network our show would run on, and what we could past the resulting network censors