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Picking a “One Unique Thing” To Enable Awesome

Today I’m going to shift from GM advice to player advice, given from a GM perspective.

One of the best parts of 13th Age’s character creation is the One Unique Thing (hereafter called simply a Unique). It is a free form field on the character sheet that lets the player create a bit or a lot about the world in which you will play, and it can make the difference between yet another level one swordsman and an interesting and fun character that everyone will remember. I tell my players that their Uniques are what makes them the main characters of the story and not just the supporting cast.

Before play begins, your Unique is the most important part of defining who your character is and making them interesting enough that things will happen to them instead of merely to the party as a whole (no pressure!). If you want some time in the limelight, you had best pick a good Unique that will let the GM tilt that sucker in your direction. So let’s figure out what makes a good unique.

Be Unique. It’s right there in the name: in my game, your unique is really a one of a kind thing, and no be can take it from you. Make that count.

Go Big. No, bigger. Don’t fill this with a background. You lead a group? That’s noteworthy, and a nice background, but its not Unique material. You founded the group? Unless they’re taking over the Dragon Empire, it’s likely not important enough to skip into this slot. Also, don’t fill this with an icon relationship. You’re the Emperor’s son? That’s a relationship; make yourself the heir (and still, ask if that can be a relationship before eating your Unique!). You are the Priestess’ consort? Relationship; make yourself her True Love. But…

Don’t be an Icon’s kid. We’ve all seen that one (it was my first!), and you can do better. This applies to basically all “X’s Y” Uniques, where X is an icon and Y is a relationship we all know. Yes, “heir” and “True Love” are Ys, and are probably best avoided, because they simply aren’t good story creators1.

Live in the now. Uniques should focus on the part of the game that everyone is interested in: today. Did you get orphaned by an evil icon at a young age? Nice, but that is old news2. How does that make life different in tonight’s session? Similarly, don’t settle for a prophesy of future awesome, especially if the prophecy will mean that your unique is over (after, what are you left with?). Your best bet is to combine: this thing happened, and is still going on. This thing will happen, and here is who knows (and doesn’t). That gives your Unique context. Which brings us to…

Connect to the world. More ties into the world means more places where the GM can pull you into the action, and more times your unique can shine. Your Unique should be a reason that something happens that otherwise wouldn’t: you know that guy from way back, or read that thing, or built this castle, or whatever. It gives you some reason to be more than just another warm body filling out your party’s roster; it makes you a real part of the world, and makes the party seem like they have a history and a future that’s almost as interesting as the current session (but not more, or you’d be playing that session!).

Do a second draft. You can do better by tweaking something. Qualify to make it more specific. Emphasize to make it even bigger. Generalize to make it broader. Name something to make it more pointed.

A good Unique will make your character infinitely more fun to play, because it offers a simple test for every action: ”will this make the story of my Unique cooler?” If the answer is yes, then you should do that thing. A good GM will use this to pull you into a cycle where you do shenanigans to further your Unique and she pulls plots out of said shenanigans. A good party will throw you lots of opportunities to play up your Unique so that no one could possibly forget who you are. And you, the good player, will jump on all those chances, because the games that you remember are the ones where awesome characters did awesome things because it totally made sense for them to do it, and everyone knew it. That’s the goal, so use your Unique as a springboard to get there.

  1. unless you want to be kidnapped and held for random, I guess 

  2. and as such would make a good relationship or background 

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13th Age Prep: The Roller Coaster Method

Knowing how much to prep for a game of 13th Age has been an issue I’ve seen crop up a few places lately, and so I figured I’d write up how I’ve been doing it for my weekly campaign, which has been a pretty fruitful approach. I’ve openly said that I’m liberally stealing ideas from Full Light, Full Steam, Smallville1 and Dungeon World, and tonight I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit on how exactly that works.

Focus on a few rolled Icon relationships; drop the characters into the conflict between them; make the conflict threaten what the characters love

The first thing to realize is that while you may be asking “how much do I prep for a night of 13A“, what you mean is “what part of my prep is necessary to make tonight’s game awesome?”

You know that your table is full of awesome players, and that they will make awesome if you give them the right materials. So focus your prep work on finding the right materials.

The most important material you have is Unfinished Business. Did some baddie just escape? Did someone’s hometown just get invaded? Did the long-held grudge against the Prince of Shadows just get a new clue? Finish up what you need to finish, or return to something that it is time to return to. Make the other stuff fit around that.

The second most important material you have is New Business, and the easiest way to find some is to look at what Icons rolled this session. You are rolling Icons for each session, right? Because take a gander at 13A p179, ”Rolling Relationships at the Start of 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.

The GM uses the results to think ahead about which icons come to the fore this session. Players use the results to start thinking about how their icon relationships might manifest in the story.

This is the opening rule of the “Running the Game” chapter, and so you figure it’s probably important. It states right up front that its intention is to “help everyone get into the spirit of free-form gaming”, so we know that “free-form gaming” is a thing that this system is designed to encourage, and we should embrace that and not fight it. We roll our Icons at the end of a session, so that I can do the prep work detailed below. The Icons are the single most important bit of gaming technology in this entire book, and letting them work for you will let your game work better for your table. So have everyone roll up their Icons.

Lifthills, Turns, and Catapult Launches

Ride of Steel

A good plot is like a roller coaster: it has ups and downs and twists and turns. Most coasters start with a big Lifthill2, which carries the train high into the air, pumping it up with potential energy. The first couple of Icons you pick will be your Lifthill: they set the stage and make it obvious that something big is going down.

You need two or three Icons that play with or against each other. Use this handy map that I made for this purpose:

icon relationship map

This map shows all the connections talked about in 13A Chapter 1. Blue lines are positive, red are negative, gray are ambiguous; dashed lines are weaker connections. This tells you, effectively, the fault lines of the setting as written: these are the places where the world comes together and interesting things happen. It’s where the energy is, and it’s where your adventures should be.

The Lifthill is a great place to eat up a couple of the boring 6s that your PCs rolled: the Icon’s agents pointed them to the big Goings On and they’ve gone to it for reasons of their own. Using 5s as the Lifthills is something I’ve done a few times already, and it’s simply not as helpful: it works more like an assignment from on high, and it flavors things differently because it puts the character one more step away from caring about the situation.

Choosing good Lifthill Icons is the difference between a night where the plot makes perfect sense and a night where you stumble around. So let’s find help in choosing by looking to Smallville p64:

Your job is to disrupt the status quo; your cast of thousands and unlimited special effects budget stand ready to assist you… Push the current state of affairs until the conflict… gets resolved, one way or the other.

The Dragon Empire has a lot of flash points, where the current balance could easily erupt into all kinds of bad, and you should let your PCs be the difference between those eruptions occurring or not. Putting them into position to see the eruption coming is a great start to an adventure. Better, start the adventure as the eruption begins, and deal with the fallout or the containment effort. Most important of all, use those Lifthill Icons to pick a venue that will let your players have fun with their characters and shine.

In my game we have a cleric who serves the One True God and has an amicable relationship with the Priestess, and a dwarf who’s spent his life fighting off the Orc Horde. When the Orc Lord and the Priestess rolled, I paired those two up by having the orcs petition to build a temple in Cathedral. Are they allowed? To put the PCs in the center of the action, the orcs’ leader had been left for dead by the dwarf. Now we had two PCs who’d come at the problem from opposite directions.


But our roller coaster currently only goes up and stays there, which is called an escalator. We need some Drops and Turns, which won’t be obvious immediately but will make the ride memorable. These are the unexpected changes that reframe the situation in a new light, pull attention away to secondary objectives, or put pressure on with a time limit or looming danger. Pluck a couple of 5s and complicate matters. The important thing here is that you need to avoid complicating the plot too much: one or two big Turns is enough; we’ll use the rest of the pool next.

Your Drops and Turns are a great way to bring in the Icons that connect to the Lifthills, so refer back up to the map. These Icons are aware of the situation, and seek to influence the outcome one way or the other, and the players are their means of doing so.

Back in our orcs-at-the-cathedral example, another PC had rolled in her conflicted relationship with the Prince of Shadows, and when presented with the orc pilgrims and the materials they had to build their shrine, she was instructed to steal a valuable artifact. This compounded with her 5-rolled connection to the Emperor, who employed her but did not know about her connection to the Prince, and caused her to reexamine her devotion to him and her monastic order.

California Screamin Launch

Now we’ve got a pretty good roller coaster set up, but we’ve likely got a few Icons left. These guys are going to be our Catapult Launches. When our coaster lags, they provide a clue, fling the party speedily into the next thing, and are gone3. These do a fantastic job of devouring the remaining 6s or can easily extract a cost and qualify as a 5.

The danger here is that you let the Icons become a Deus ex Machina, a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card that can spring you from whatever corner you’ve painted yourself into. This is a danger, mostly, because that’s exactly what these guys are, but it’s your job to make it seem like they got stuck in traffic and would have otherwise been here sooner with the 11 foot pole you desperately need. To do so, make your Catapult Launches focus on color and wonder: the Icons are incredibly interesting leaders of vast interesting organizations, and highlighting what makes each unique is the Prestige that hides the trick. Just don’t overdo it and overshadow the player characters; it’s rude.

In another episode, we needed a bit of backstory for an NPC whom everyone was attempting to find, but for no evident reason. Thanks to a rolled 6, a letter from the Dwarf King arrived and claimed the child as his niece, and suddenly all the hubbub made sense.

It might not be immediately obvious what the difference between a Drop or Turn and a Catapult Launch is, since both can easily accommodate 5s or 6s with a little effort. It is not a question of impact but of presentation: you will focus more on the former than the latter, with the Drops and Turns being the subplots of your session, with consequences and followup, while the Catapult Launches could be hidden in a montage if your session was an episode of a TV show, a one-off that can be quickly forgotten afterward.

Showing off

So now that we’ve divvied up the pool into three buckets, let’s walk backwards and explore how those things actually show up at the table. Here’s where the distinctions between 5s and 6s matter a bit less and the actual relation matters more.

For Catapult Launches, you have a lot of options. 6s show up with flashbacks to suddenly-meaningful conversations, odd useless-seeming gifts/spoils, or a simple messenger appearing out of the ether. 5s are almost-forgotten standing orders or a recognized rune from long ago. Basically anything that would be a reason for the character to know a little extra, or have a little extra, right when they need it, will do the trick.

The Drops and Turns and Lifthills are bigger, and should be treated as such. Let’s graduate from stealing Smallville’s methods to stealing its actual rules from p66:

The next step is to put faces on those ideas. Characters are the most compelling tools in [the GM]’s utility belt. Characters have faces, dreams, and relationships, and all of those help the [PCs] care about them. Each conflict needs a character in the story to make it go. Because these characters fuel conflicts, they’re called Wedges.

If you’re smart, connect the Wedge character with a PC’s backstory, to make them have a personal reason to care. Each NPC in my weekly game gets a 3×5 card tossed in the center of the table, upon which we write their name, a one-sentence bio, and a character connection, all written in the color of the connected PC (each PC got a color at the start of the campaign). Not only can the players now remember people’s names, they can also remember why we care about this random person, and since we update the card with new information as needed, we have a stable of NPCs that can return as needed.

Once you’ve got a Wedge, do not be shy about using them for their intended purpose: they get in trouble, are magnets for danger, and exist to pull the PCs into the action. Everything they do should be either furthering that purpose or strengthening the idea that the PCs actually do care about them4. If it’s a character’s younger sister, have her play pranks; if it’s a mentor, play up the lost time and the adaptations the PC has made to their form. Making the transition from “mouthpiece of the adventure” to “actual person” will pull the PCs in and will populate your world with the kind of NPCs that both you and the players will hope to see again in later sessions.

All that said, before a Wedge shows up on stage, don’t get too attached to them: PCs are great at running the opposite direction, and it’s not unusual for one of your planned Wedges to be relegated to deliver a Catapult Launch.

But some Wedges really deserve a moment in the sun, and the only way to ensure that they get it is to put them there before the PCs have a chance to derail things, by putting them in your Cold Open, the first thing that happens in your adventure and that sets up everything that follows.

Cold Opens and Flashbacks

Back to Smallville, p705:

Don’t play coy with opening scenes. Don’t withhold the awesome. You might think, “Let’s start this off slow and light and simple,” and plan to ratchet things up as the episode progresses. More likely, starting slow and light and simple dooms the entire episode to being slow and light and simple. The opening scenes set the tone of the episode—they’re a little microcosm of the whole thing—and the sort of things that happen in the opening are what you can expect to see throughout the rest of the episode.

So start with the awesome. Jump in with brawls and chase scenes. Pick fights between characters… Propose tempting offers; try to convince the Leads of terrible things that might actually be true. Start the episode off with wailing klaxons and explosions. Have fun.

Every story has setup, but you rarely need to show all of it. When did you last see a you-all-meet-in-a-bar scene that was in any way interesting? Jump past it and assume things, witness the awesome, and then jump back to fill in the gaps as needed. Better still, assume things that strain credulity a bit, and then jump back and make your players come up with some reasons why things turned out as you asserted they did.

I structure my Cold Opens so that they show off the Lifthill Icons and the conflict between them. We’ve had the Crusader’s men coming to battle the Diabolist’s latest Hellhole; the Golden Order having found something in the Dwarf King’s realm; and the Orc Lord’s men petitioning for acceptance in the Priestess’ Cathedral. The Cold Open also inserts the PCs into the center of the conflict: they’re already battling the Hellhole (and dislike the Crusader’s methods); they rescued the Golden Order (and work for the Dwarf King); they once fought the lead orc (and have an in with the Cathedral).

The Cold Open is a couple paragraphs, but it sets up the action in a way that the players can’t really ignore it without risking something of value to them. In only one of the three examples have we found it necessary to flash back to find out how we got to the Cold Open, and it was the first session. In the others I think it was good enough to assume that there was a good reason and leave it at that.6

The Cold Open is effectively a Dungeon World-esque Adventure Front: it gives you just enough meat to pull together a few Dangers to the characters and that which they hold dear, and tie that to an Impending Doom that will strike if they do not get their act together, with the Grim Portents that let the characters know that things are going poorly. Incidentally, if you want to level up in GMing, reading the Dungeon World chapter on Fronts is an excellent way to do so.

Finally, and again from Dungeon World, all Cold Opens should end with a callout to a specific character, a summation of what’s going on, and an invitation for them to make the first move. In my campaign this character is that session’s Spotlight7, and they will be the through-line for that session’s story, but even if you’re not doing that particular bit of magic you should rotate the first-mover, as it gives the player tremendous power over how the night’s play will go: will they brazenly attack or lay down arms, demand answers or assume them? Do not underestimate this moment: that player holds tremendous sway.

I’ve never had to do this in practice, but a good Cold Open, should enable you to pull the characters back to the plotline whenever they drift off, by advancing the dangers they saw at the opening. But if you find yourself using this trick with any regularity, it means that the characters are more interested in something else and you should be making that thing the subject of the Cold Open, probably as the thing being threatened.

Riding the Roller Coaster

We’ve been doing this for a half-dozen adventures, now, and it’s worked out brilliantly so far. Our campaign has a distinct travel-the-map, new-port-every-week style, though, which makes this much easier. I’ve also explicitly eschewed a preplanned plot; I’m improving it all as we go, which frees us to pursue this style to its fullest, and to find a metaplot in the aggregation of these smaller steps.

Does this sort of workflow work for your group? Are you doing some other magic to merge rolled icons into a more strict plot structure? Ping me on Twitter or Google+ to let me know!

Follow our campaign over at Obsidian Portal

  1. Not coincidentally, the two games with involved scenario-construction games are by the same author, who happens to be my brother, and who has taken these ideas a step further to make the Vicious Crucible series, which you should check out. They’re free! 

  2. this and other coaster terms can be found in this handy roller coaster glossary 

  3. In improv terms, these are your Canadian Crosses: they enter stage right, do a simple gimmick, and exit stage left 

  4. which makes it more likely that the PCs follow them into the trouble… 

  5. all this stuff is also present in Full Light, Full Steam, but Smallville is a more distilled form, which makes it more quotable 

  6. We do Flashbacks for other things all the time; most characters get two or more per night, usually expounding on why they’re taking the actions that they are. This fits with our tv show style, but it’s a powerful technique and I advise you to find a way to use it. 

  7. which we ruthlessly stole from Primetime Adventures 

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Grandpa Nick

If there was ever anyone in this world that I wanted to be when I grew up it was my grandfather.

My mother’s father, Nick Nickles, was always the host of our family functions. Easter, in my mind, is searching for eggs in his backyard. Independence day is making ice cream on his driveway. The cousins visiting was a chance to eat on his patio. He was The Convener.

I remember many a night at his house playing cards, learning the basic tactics and strategy those games are made of. I grew up around that table playing Contract and Spoons and Golf and then eating the pie my grandmother made.

Grandpa cheated.

It wasn’t mean-spirited; he didn’t cheat to win. Grandpa cheated to play with you. You would go to the bathroom and come back, and the next hand you got would be PERFECT, if you could just get that one card that seemed to be missing… and it’d be missing until someone else won, because Grandpa was holding it. He held it even if that meant he lost, because The Game, at that point, was watching you squirm and watching everyone else try not to give it away. He was The Ringleader.

He was very active in his church, with a group of friends that he grew old with. There was always some new adventure that they were embarking on: a trip to hither or yon, an outing to who-knows-where, an ice cream social or a movie night.

He knew everyone. And if he didn’t know them, he was as friendly as if he did. He had a way with people that I wish I pulled off half as well as he could. He would simply talk to people like they were people, and the waiters and salesmen responded in kind. In my remembrances he knew the names of the kids of the waitress, and I half-believe it even now.

He was a very emotional man, and I cannot count the number of times he cried in public when someone said something nice about him at one of the many parties he was a celebrant at. It is a trait that I have inherited, but I found it endearing from the start.

He had many names. The youngest of twelve kids, his parents had run out of names they liked and so they didn’t give him one. His siblings started calling him Billy Bob, and those who’ve known him longest still do, even though the state eventually ordered a christening and he got “Clarence Roger” out of the deal, which he despised and never used. He picked up “Nick” in the army– he is of the generation where no one used their real names– and kept it from then on.

But I always called him “Grandpa” and he seemed to like that, too. The joy that played on his face when he saw his family was a wonder, and I knew that he loved us every time I saw it. I don’t know if my kids recognized it for what it was, but they got it from him, too.

He always seemed to get the best parking spot. Anywhere he went he’d get there just as someone was pulling out, and he’d slide that great big Buick into the prime spot. He was The Lucky One.

He certainly lucked out a number of times: he knew my grandmother in high school, and used to cheat on exams by copying her answers. He served in World War II in Korea, and not, as my mother and the rest of us had thought for some years until quite recently, in the Korean War. He moved out to California to go to a trade school, then stayed when that didn’t pan out but another job did.

The job. He had some job whose outlines I only barely know; that was not the defining characteristic of him as a man. Literally the most I know about what he did was that he worked in the building that gets blown up at the start of Demolition Man. I’m not sure if his work was fulfilling and that let him be Who He Was to me, or if his work was drudgery and Who He Was was an escape from that. Either way, Who He Was was amazing, and deserving of love, and I hope that I gave him enough of it; he certainly gave enough back to me.

Tonight I got a call that I knew– long knew– had been coming. Grandpa’s not been doing well, and everyone knew it, and a bad fall this weekend hastened it. It’s not over, yet, but it’s coming and it’s close.

I will miss that joyous smile terribly, and I will miss that more-gravelly-by-the-year voice, but mostly I will miss the sense of play that he brought to the world, his sense that all this was amazing and interesting and fun.

And I’ll never get that last card that he’ll always be holding on to.


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 

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An Ode to a Hanging Computer

My computer crashed today, and this is what I did while it restarted:

App by app they all locked up,
Cold and dark like some dead pup.
Spinning rainbows sang a sad song
While I did wait, oh so long.

Into Terminal, top -u
But, alas, it gave no clue.
Another tab, ps ax
Nothing there… me: perplex.

Watch the clock; blinking still,
The mouse responds to my will
But then, O then! The cursor stops!
The power button reaps the crops.

A hard restart, feed the Vault,
Wonder who or what’s at fault.
But wait! Again! A panicked kernel!
The chime resounds, a dreary fun’ral.

Will it come back one more time?
Have I heard my last Mac chime?
Again, log in, and wait, and see…
Yes! The Mac’s returned to me!

Apps all open, iTunes starts,
And lo, above the cloud bank parts
As “Tron: Legacy” begins,
Onward! Go! To Epic Wins!


Risking it All

In a post completely unrelated to what I’m going to talk about, the dndnext team mentioned:

On the other hand, risk is what drives excitement in the game. Some of the most memorable moments in D&D come about when you clutch that last hit point and pull off a brilliant idea or a ridiculous set of rolls to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

And with that simple sentence something clicked into place that had been wandering around my brain looking for a home:

I absolutely, positively want my character (when I’m playing) and my players’ characters (when I’m GMing) to feel risk: they should know that their actions have consequences, and they should feel pressure to do well, pick wisely, and overcome great odds to achieve the outcome they want and avoid the outcome they fear.

But I almost never want anyone to die.

Death as “defeat” is a lame end to a story, especially for a hero. Moreover, it has the potential to short-circuit any number of ongoing metaplots, relations, and long-term ideas. We invest somewhere between dozens and hundreds of hours finding out who these fake people are and where they fit into the world-spanning, cinematic plots that we come to the gaming table to build together. An unplanned, accidental death for that character is simply a bummer.

Sure, players leaving your group or itching to try something new might work with the GM to engineer a blaze of glory in which to immolate a character, but that’s a different beast entirely: there’s no risk involved there. It’s a part of the larger goal of crafting a story worth telling, where real sacrifices are made to accomplish what had to be done.

I would much rather risk that my family’s homestead was ravaged by the orcish horde, because I can turn that into fodder for my ongoing play. Or maybe the archmage’s contraptions plow through us and escape, making hunting in the woods impossible and imperiling the town, which now hates us. Perhaps the slavers capture us and we’re transported far from home, requiring an epic journey back. In each of those case defeat has real consequences, but it feeds into who the characters are, enriching the story you’re telling.

But more than that, it makes the players feel the defeat in a real, ongoing way. If your character dies this week you as a player are probably back next week with a new character; you’ve risked, but what you lost was the character and their story, which has now come to an end.

But if your character failed the town that was counting on them, you as a player will not only feel terrible about it, you will suffer the consequences every time your have to deal with that town, or anyone who’s heard of your past failings. If your players are hooked up right, their failings will plague them as forced revisions of who their characters are: does the paladin still think his diety is all that powerful? Is the rogue still so certain of his skills? You’ve risked, and though you lost you’ve (to steal 13th Age’s term) failed forward, into a more interesting, complicated story. Risking your reputation and good name is in some ways more important and more grandiose than merely risking your life.

Because ultimately, there are far too many risks in the world to boil them all down to how many hit points I can lose before I hit the floor.

Dungeon Games

There is a rash of new Dungeon Games coming to market right now: D&D Next is in playtesting, Dungeon World is emerging from a kickstarter, and 13th Age is lurching toward publication. Reading all of them in the past few months has made me realize both how broken Dungeons and Dragons’ Fourth Edition is, and how distant I am from finding a game that does what I want while repairing that brokenness.

We must start this conversation, though, by looking backward. Each of these games is in large part a reaction to Fourth Edition (henceforth ’4E’), and can be defined by its major differentiation from that ruleset and its heritage. As such, a cursory understanding of 4E is a prerequisite for everything that follows.

Fourth Edition is Epic, but ultimately focuses too much mechanical attention on combat.

I’ve struggled to find a better word for it, but Fourth Edition is epic. Your first-level characters are badasses, and they storm into the fray and do cool things. Every turn you unleash four actions into the world, and with planning you can interrupt other people’s turns, too. You fling around magic items with abandon, fight two battles before breakfast, heal yourself through sheer willpower in the middle of combat, and carry around a checklist of which of the thousands of available monsters you’ve felled. 4E makes you feel like you’re inside the battle scenes of one of those Manga titles where every short-skirted schoolgirl can toss off a dragon punch to passersby.

Which is all awesome, except that it makes 4E an incredibly blunt instrument, extremely suited for the glorious fights but utterly helpless when the scene break occurs and you have to interact with the world in ways that don’t involve rolling for damage. The assumption that you spend all your time in “encounters” pervades the time-keeping mechanisms of the game, making it impossible to have short scenes with any balance. Worse, even when you’re in a combat scene you’re fighting against a system that goes to ridiculous lengths to provide you with large and growing bonuses to everything to make it clear that you’ve leveled up, but then goes to even more ridiculous lengths to balance that growth so that your higher numbers don’t convey greater success at anything, and serve only to make the math harder. To top all that off, new sourcebooks are constantly appearing, giving every player new and just-often-enough slightly-better options, making the chore of actually creating your character– or your adventure, for the DM– into a slog through endless lists looking for the few jewels worth paying attention to.

Everyone seems to have noticed these glaring holes at the same time and decided to do something about it. But the ways that the three new games go about this task show what their underlying goals are, in much the same way that 4E’s goal was to make combat a ton of fun. They all assume 4E and its history, and all steal liberally from the D&D canon, but they all ask different questions about what would make the game better.

D&D Next

Next tries to streamline, but simpler mechanics contrast with more mechanics, and the workload of understanding gets too high

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Next asks “what can we streamline to make the game play quicker, so as to get to more story?” and runs with that. This is the most straightfoward of the three games, because it makes no attempts to radically change the way that D&D has always played: there is a DM telling a story, and players interacting with the story, but the narrative rests in one person’s hands. Again and again Next sluffs off rules and holes where rules could be, and lets that weight land on the DM.

Sometimes this works wonderfully. Advantage is a clever system that is well-suited for a more freeform style of play, where lots of things can give you an edge and the DM can reward you for clever ideas. The race/class/background/_theme__specialty_ quartet is a great way to mix and match parts of a character and end up with something that’s suited for who you want to play.

Sometimes this works much less than wonderfully. The most obvious place this urge to simplify proved crippling was the first release of the fighter class, which had no rules to call his own and was a bore to play. The shattering of 4E’s unified Power structure into a million different mechanics is an annoyance that will only grow as new classes appear. The emphasis shift from skills to ability scores from 4E and then again between the two playtest packets is disconcerting.

Astute readers will not that my tastes have soured somewhat since I last wrote about Next. The main difference here is that I DMed a short game in Next and found the experience wanting. Viewed from the other side of the table, the heroes in Next seemed little and frail, and their actions seems to match. Higher-level play might fix that, but I can’t endorse a game that takes months before you get to the good stuff. And it might be the playtest-grade material speaking, or simply a first-playthrough group, but the DM’s burden of adjucating so many different resource-management systems (learned spells, twice-a-days, hit dice, etc) gets really draining really quick.

Which is ultimately why I think that Next does a poor job answering its question: the design is too busy trying to be clever and make each class distinct that its much-simplified core gets bogged down as soon as it comes into contact with the various classes as they exist right now.

13th Age

13th Age puts the focus on story, but fails to simplify gameplay

Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet’s 13th Age asks “what if we made interacting with the wider (political, cultural, etc) world a basic mechanical part of the game?” and runs with that. This is the kind of question that pushes all the buttons in my story-focused mind, and it does a fantastic job of delivering on this premise.

The focus on story pervades the entire game, and it starts with the principal of Failing Forward: every attempt progresses the narrative forward, no matter what the die roll. You might not get all that you want, or you might get something bad in addition, but you move forward. That rule alone makes up for the fact that, in almost every other respect, 13th Age is an crossbreed between 4E and 3.5E, with its multiple-actions-per-turn, reactions, and complicated action economy.

But a more coherant story is told by 13th Age’s honing of 4E’s powerful level-one characters, which in this game become interesting characters who interact with– and define– the world around them and the adventures to be found there. First among those mechanics is the One Unique Thing, where each player gets to pick something that makes their guy interesting enough to be a character in a story worth telling. Next is the über-flexible “backgrounds” that sit where “skills” were in 4E, giving you little umbrella terms that you can use to cover all manner of abilities, while also baking a personality and a story into your character sheet.

Lastly, the characters become more interesting because of their Icon Relationships, which tug the party into the wider world, giving the GM a ready toolbox to engage the players and bring them into the action. Each character has some connection, good or bad, to a number of the game’s Icons – powerful beings that reside in the world and whose interactions define the conflicts to adventured between. I love how simple they make it to create a world full of interesting places and conflicts, and how easy and obvious it is to customize that world to squirrel away your own story hook deep within the workings.

But I hate the fact that you roll so many freaking dice: your basic attack is one die for each level you’ve got (which go up to 10). I loved the idea of magic items that required a real choice to wield, but the actual magical items are banal and lifeless. Similarly I love the idea of classes being mechanically distinct, but in practice– and as with Next– the actual mechanics fail to live up to the idea; it would be better to pick a good mechanic and use it for everyone, especially for stuff like leveling up. In the same vein, I wish the mechanics for character-to-icon relations was mirrored by some character-to-character relation mechanic that could yield similar fruit.

I’m not yet decided on the Escalation Die, which to my mind seems as likely to delay the big guns from coming into play as it is likely to speed up the end of a battle. I’m also quite undecided on the economy of Feats, which are all tied to 4E-style Powers as little bonuses or exclusions, making them less likely to be abused but also just generally less interesting. Perhaps the worst part about them is that they fall far from the game’s greatest strength: Feats aren’t character-defining; they’re just little benefits that augment something you were already doing, and so they fade into the background too easily.

I’ve yet to play 13th Age, and so I am loath to judge prematurely, but it seems like its best ideas could be stolen and taken to any system, while the rules you work with most– for fighing, social interactions, etc– are nothing special, and in some cases just seem outright broken (really, you want me to roll ten dice on every hit?).

Dungeon World

Dungeon World puts the focus on the characters’ stories, but lacks characters worth caring about

Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel’s Dungeon World asks “what if we focused more on the narrative of the characters themselves?” and runs with that. This game comes at the genre not so much as an augmented version of 4E as a parallel universe– the “indie (aka story) games” movement– intersecting with the D&D genre. As such, this game is also the farthest from the D&D playstyle, actively discouraging the GM from preparing too much of a story, and often repeating mantras like “play to find out” that try to steer the game into a collaborative effort at storytelling and mythos-making. I love this kind of stuff; it’s 13th Age’s story-focus in a tighter beam.

Where Next has simplified the turn to streamline it and 13th Age has simplified the in-character options to streamline the turn, Dungeon World simply does away with the concept. Instead of picking from a list of your attacks, in Dungeon World you instead narrate what your character is doing, and if that thing involves attacking someone, you’ve just initiated a “Hack and Slash” Move. Moves are the basic building block of Dungeon World, and they always flow out of the narration, and their result flows back into the narration to spur on the next Move. My Hack and Slash deals damage to your monster, who might run back into the Dark Portal and insodoing trigger another Move, bringing the Black Temple crashing down around us. Because a Move is such a generic building block, classes become simple lists of “Advanced Moves” that one can pick from. Moreover, because Moves are themselves quite flexible, each class can easily offer a few different builds that emphasize different parts of the adventurer’s life.

Dungeon World’s dice mechanic is built on a slightly-weaker version of Fail Forward wherein you will sometimes get everything you want, often pay dearly for getting what you want, and very rarely outright fail. Every Move is accomplished by rolling 2d6 and adding a bonus from your sheet; a 10+ is an unqualified success; a 7-9 is a success with catches, and a 2-6 (after your bonus, so rare!) is a whiff.

The GM section is fantastic, laying out a simple way to build just enough framework that the table will be able to create an interesting story out of it when they get together. The GM creates Fronts of the “battle” being waged, and for each front creates Dangers that check off a list of Grim Portents as they near an Impending Doom. This system provides enough flavor that you won’t be caught flat-footed as to who’s behind the curtain, but also leaves the actual goings-on very open, to better entwine the characters into the action. Finally, the list of GM Agendas and Principals serve as a great primer for GMs in any game, deftly explaining the role and demonstrating beneficial usage of the awesome powers the role provides.

The selection of Magic Items also contains some amazingly neat stuff full of mystery and possibility, which is odd for a system that explicitly shuns having a worldbook.

But as much as I like Dungeon World, it has some problems. The first is that the book’s layout is very confusing: a glossary at the front contains a number of rules not repeated anywhere else, while there are a few other places where large sections of explanatory text are repeated verbatim elsewhere. There are some sections (I’m looking at you, Debilities, a kind of status effect targetting one of your Ability Scores) that seem to have mechanics that have been orphaned and forgotten about by the rest of the rule set.

Outside of things a good reorg will fix, your choice of class determines your options for race, which limits your character creation options in annoying ways. Your class is also your only source of Advanced Moves, which limits your options when you level up, too. As if that wasn’t enough, your class also proves a couple templates for your Bonds to the other PCs, a fill-in-the-blank relationship to the other guys that sounds like a good idea but falters due to the inanity of the Bonds provided (which, to be fair, you outgrow and replace with freeform text as you progress).

Sadly, I’ve not yet played Dungeon World either, so I reserve the right to change my mind on any of this at a later point in time. But it seems like the Story Game guys took a lot of their neat ideas about making a story in this genre, but then figured that the genre was about these archetypal characters more than anything, and so the least freeform part is the character creation rules, which is one of 4E’s real strengths (after you wade through the bloat of useless options I complained about above).


I think each game’s question is interesting, but I’m not sure any of them are enough for what I want. But before we get to that, let’s just pause for a moment and note that all three games’ questions focus the play more on story and less on combat; that’s 4E echoing down the hobby. I have played and enjoyed many a battle in 4E, and I will be forever nostalgic for some of the magic that the system can work in that format, but ultimately I find it poisonous to playing a real game with a real story that engages the characters and, ultimately, the players at the table.

Because that’s what I want: I want to sit down with my friends every week and see what new heights of awesome we can achieve together. Occasionally that awesome should be a flying piledriver that cracks open a lich’s exposed skull, but there are other things to enjoy, too. I want my character’s goals to be achieved or dashed in epic fashion. I want kingdoms to rise and fall. I want wonderous magics to ravish and revitalize the land. I want Deep Mysteries. I want suspense. I want triumph.

So while Next has a good solid kernel upon which to build a game, it leaves the creation and management of awesome up to only one person at the table, not even helping out with rules that will steer the other players and the game in the right direction. While 13th Age has great rules for drawing the characters into the larger story, it holds on to too many of the clunky mechanics of yestergame, and I fear that its future holds the same death by restrictive rules, level creep, and bloat. And while Dungeon World has great tools for making the campaign center around the characters, it lacks mechanics to make characters worth centering a story around.

The best line in any of these books is from Dungeon World: “Dungeon World isn’t about balancing encounter levels or counting experience points; it’s about telling stories about adventure and death-defying feats!” If it learned to focus more on who was accomplishing those feats and why– if it took a little of 13th Age’s smart ideas about building characters worthy of playing– then I’d have found myself a new system.

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Tools for Recovering a Lost Laptop

A friend of mine had his laptop stolen the other night and called to ask advice. Instead of leaving it in my email sent folder, I figured it’d be best to toss it in a public place in case I needed it again.

Use FileVault

The first thing you should really, really make sure you do is upgrade to Lion or later and turn on FileVault in System Preferences > Security. It’s drive-level encryption, which means none of your data can be accessed without your password, even if they plug your drive into another machine. There’s a performance hit so negligible I’ve not noticed it since I started using it last year.

Running Commands Remotely

The more proactive steps you can take assume you have some way of running commands on the system even after it’s been taken. He does, but you might not. I don’t have any particular recommendations on setting such a system up, other than that you need to make sure it lets you connect interactively, or that it can pull down new instructions as needed. I don’t actually have such a system set up right now, but when I do so I’ll post on this blog.


I compiled clicl from this gist.

It works great, but the first time you run it, it pops up a dialog asking permission to access your location, which means you will probably want to read the next paragraph and do that instead, as it’s much less intrusive. You can still download it for curiosity’s sake, if you like.

Much less of a hassle is to depend on their geoIP:

curl > whereami.html

Or, run remotely:

ssh user@machine curl > whereami.html

iSight Camera

ImageSnap is a little tool I found on Sourceforge.

Just download it, plop it somewhere, and run it; it’ll output a snapshot.jpg in the current directory.

Or you can run it on a remote system and plop the file locally:

ssh user@machine /tmp/clicl/imagesnap - > snapshot.jpg


There’s also a $49 tool that bundles these kind of things together. No idea if you need to set it up first, but I’ve heard good things about it.

D&D Next

diceI played AD&D once. Maybe twice. Mine was a Palladium group, and I grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas and Superspies. From there we graduated to GURPS, where we spent many a happy campaign, and from the GURPS supplements we transitioned into the World of Darkness, eventually taking our show online to a host of MUSHes, some of which we ran ourselves.

We didn’t venture over into the worlds of D&D. We didn’t want to be tied down into classes and levels and such. We were above that.

Fast forward a few years, a few jobs, a few kids. I’ve still got lots of sourcebooks but they come out of the closet only semiannually, when we can foist our responsibilities on others for a lazy Saturday. Most of my “gaming” is board games on holidays and other family events, with the occasional convention for spice.

Then two years ago my younger brother mentioned idly that he was starting a group for a weekly game. They were going to play D&D.

I’m in.

I’d heard the Penny Arcade podcasts and I recognized in their banter the pure delight that gaming can be. I’d been yearning for it. And their experience with D&D’s new “Fourth Edition” seemed like some game designer had actually sat down and fixed most of what I remember laughing at years before. I crashed through the rules and made a character, and we began having a tremendous amount of fun, week after week. I learned the boundaries of the system, pushed the limits of the rules, found a few secret walls. I took a turn as Dungeon Master.

But eventually I began to get annoyed with what’s still broken in 4E. Its focus on combat skews the table time away from role playing. Its character generation rules leave you penalized if you try to do anything interesting. It relies too heavily on archetype and assumes that all characters hew closely to the preconceived choices inherent in the system. I still hate levels. Everything takes too long, and an endless march of new supplements is constantly making everything take longer.

We actually took a shot at fixing these shortcomings, with houserules to speed up combat and houserules to make non-combat situations interesting. They are mostly successful, but the railroading character creation is still a problem, and combat speed makes it impossible to get enough done.

When D&D Next was announced I was hopeful that they had come to the same conclusions that I had: 4E did a good job of streamlining the system and unifying the mechanics of the game, but spent too much of its attention where game time and table time are slowest: when swords and blood are drawn.

They agreed with me on half of that.

After the announcement the news dripped onto the Internet bit by bit, and none of it seemed good for the 4E fans. Powers were gone. Things would be more deadly. Skills seemed to be close to the chopping block. It sounded like the design team was taking all the editions but the most recent into consideration.

But I wanted to withhold judgment until I sat around a table and played the game. I read the playtest packet when I could finally download it, and on Saturday at Strategicon I arrived for a 9am table.

The Setup

We had five players and a DM, so we got to see all the pregenerated character bounding about. We did half our session at level one and half at level three to check out how different that felt. We ran the included dungeon, with a “fast forward” montage in the middle when we jumped levels. As such, we didn’t engage the rest mechanics; when we ran out of healing we skipped ahead a year and two levels.

The Good

By far, the biggest improvement in this material over existing 4E is the sheer speed at which the game runs. I played the halfling rogue, where one of the major tactics is hiding. The rogue does this– literally– every other turn, in order to gain advantage and sneak attack and earn his keep. So half my turns consisted of me saying “I’m hiding behind the cart/table/dwarf” and pushing a token on the map. But since my next turn was about two minutes away, I had no problem forgoing the quick hit and was happy to get the bigger bang for the buck I could get with patience. The player who ran the fighter, whose sheet is half as long as everyone else’s, reported that his turn was a simple matter of seeing where to run, and hitting a thing over there. But the simplicity meant that he got to do that a lot of times, and the combined effect was that his guy was plowing through enemies, a fearless warrior dispatching his foes and aiding his friends. You did smaller things but you felt more heroic, since you got so much stuff done.

The speed is accomplished in a number of ways. First, you have fewer choices both in number of possible attacks and ways those attacks “hit” the bad guy (only AC, but some spells require a savings throw instead). Second, fewer dice and smaller modifiers means that the math is quicker, which lets you do less work once you’ve chosen (or when weighing choices, which I do a lot). Finally, Advantage and Disadvantage is a simple mechanic that takes the place of a host of temporary modifiers while also being a ton of fun to do.

The At-Will Spells let the magic-users play up their thematic role without hurting their ability to meaningfully contribute to the game for long stretches of time. This is a definite 4E influence that I was glad to see carried over, even if the existing spells might be a tad overpowered.

Speaking of the magic-users, all the Characters did a good job of being different to play without being obnoxiously overbalanced. I really like the Slayer and Guardian themes and the mechanics they use. The two clerics do a fantastic job of showing how important the other big choices on your sheet are. Making sure that all remains true when the characters aren’t included in the box is another feat entirely, though.

The Skills system is very freeform, with new skills intended to jump in as needed. I like the flexibility that this provides the design, but I fear that the skills introduced later will obviate the ones present now. Worse, the backgrounds present now won’t ever include the skills introduced later so those will atrophy as well. I’d urge them to push just a little farther and make skills more like FATE’s Aspects, each encompassing a feeling more than a specific action. They’ll have more staying power if the rogue’s skills are “Keen Eyed” and “Intruder”.

And while the Feel was a lot less tactical than 4E can (sometimes gloriously, and sometimes laboriously) be, it was certainly heroic, with our little troupe venturing forth to do Great Things and making a fine show of it.

The Bad

So now let’s talk about what isn’t so great.

The major loss I mourn is the lack of a unifying ability mechanic, a la 4E’s powers. Powers have major shortcomings, chief among them their insistence that the Encounter is the smallest meaningful block of time and the pernicious effect that has on everything, making small skirmishes impossible and large battles deadly. 4E thus ends up with a constant parade of perfectly-sized almost-dangers. But without such a refresh mechanic you cannot give players middle-powered tools, and you end up with a smattering of “twice a day”s and “once a session”s and othersuches all over the sheet, with no useful way to tell how “tired” any given character is.

The other big problem I foresee is that the mundane healing is simply puny relative to 4E’s stock. I realize that this is a deliberate effort on the part of the designers to make the game more “realistic” and dangerous, but if I wanted realistic dangers I’d go play in traffic. My fantasy heroes should take a licking and keep on ticking; hit dice should start somewhere closer to 3d and scale up from there.

Related, the damage output of the existing characters seems a little off. The dwarf fighter can do almost as much damage as the rogue, even when the rogue is doing a lot of hiding and sneak attacking. The laser cleric can at-will to do almost twice the damage of the wizard’s magic missile. These are all just slightly off from where I’d like them to be.

I will miss the customizability you get with feats, but I like the effortless mix-and-match that the race/class/background/theme accomplishes. There is talk of allowing for multiple themes for the fighter, and I would support that for everyone: it lets me pick a couple of ingredients and see how they taste together, which lets me make characters that are more interesting and varied than 4E’s rigid roles and classes allow. I still dislike levels, but those aren’t going away.

The bit about AC being the only defense is a great simplifier, but it leads to an imbalance between AC attacks–where the offense’s target number is 10 + attribute bonus + armor bonuses + other bonuses–and spells–where the defenses’ target number is 10 + attribute bonus. That who rolls changes is slightly odd, but that the one has so many more modifiers is more odd. This may simply be a case where we don’t have the “+2 when saving vs poison” items yet, but it’s a weird little wrinkle.

Another weird little wrinkle is how the playtest material speaks of checks and saves. I can make a check to push a rock… or I can make a save to do so. I’m not sure when I’d want to do one or the other. They should clarify, or– better yet– drop one wording and use the other.

Other things they need to clarify: does the Rogue’s Skill Mastery protect him from critical failures (we ruled it does)? How often do you get a Reaction (once a round)? Why would you ever want to be a human (do they get attribute bonuses)?

Finally, the Caves of Chaos is a sad little module with no plot and no characters, which is a terrible vehicle to show off the new system that allows you to play up those aspects of the game. And while the characters themselves offer a good groundsoil to role-play in, their construction leaves something to be desired: the rogue is terrible at scouting, the wizard has an abnormally high constitution, and no one in the party knows how to speak to the denizens of the elaborate cave network they’re venturing in to.


I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. My major remaining concerns are those that cannot be quelled by the material at hand: does the heroic pace of mostly mundane actions keep things interesting long-term? Can the paucity of healing available sustain the party during a good-sized dungeon delve? Can they maintain balance when the doors of character creation are flung open?

All that remains to be seen. And while I will miss the tactics of a clever 4E battle, I am much more excited about Next than I was last week.

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Reading is a Skill

There has been a lively debate about video games, art, production and consumption in the last few episodes of Hypercritical. John Siracusa has been avoiding the “are games art?” question and instead making the point that, if they are, they’re an odd form of art that requires some skill not just to produce, but to consume. Seeing a painting or listening to a song doesn’t require anything of the sort: although experience and knowledge can enhance your enjoyment of those art forms, no skills are required of the consumer. But playing games is different, John says, precisely because the consumer of the content must have the skills of a game player just to do the consuming.

I agree with John that this is a distinguishing feature of games, but it’s not a unique feature, and you’re proving it right now, because reading is a skill.

I suspect that John’s first reaction will be that reading may indeed be a skill, but that it’s a common enough skill that it “doesn’t count” for his argument. First I’d say that this is moving the goalposts, but moreover I would say that this is simply incorrect. Reading is not something that is common “in the wild”; no one naturally figures out reading on their own. Instead, it is drilled into you from an early age. We send our kids to classes where they diagram sentences, struggle with reading comprehension, and identify themes and motifs. They learn essay structure (or a sad parody thereof), and they practice reading from Dick and Jane to Charles Dickens. Even after all of this a lot of people aren’t good enough at it that they’ll do it except when necessary. But we spend an inordinate amount of time on it because we, as a society, have decided that this is a skill that’s important.

Why is it important? Because words are everywhere in the modern world, with varying levels of benefit. Streets and shops are labeled, which helps you navigate the world, but you could go by landmarks if you don’t need speed. Menus and instructions are written, but you could ask for help if you don’t need autonomy. Magazines and newspapers are words all over, but you could watch the news if you don’t need depth or quality. Poetry and novels and the internet are almost pure streams of words, but you can give them up if you don’t want to participate in our cultural society.

The written word is the fuel that an information society runs on.

So, is gaming as important as the written word? Not yet, surely. But the skills that gaming requires are that important: persistent successive attempts to approximate success, creative use of resources to solve complicated problems, probing complex systems to attain an understanding of the underlying rules, projecting yourself into a virtual world and interacting there with people different than yourself. These are the skills that a society of tomorrow may find of utmost importance, because they’re the skills you will need to survive in a highly dynamic, heavily networked world. Games may be the fuel that that society runs on.

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