13th Age Playtest – Character Creation

Over the past few weeks, my friend Michael has been running us through the first-round playtest for 13th Age, a new fantasy game from Pelgrane Press. Now that the playtest is over and we’ve submitted our feedback, the NDA allows me to talk ((Well, write in this case.)) about the experience. And you know me; I hate to have an unexpressed thought or opinion.

The game is billed as:

13th Age is a love letter to D&D: a rules-light, story-oriented RPG that honors old school values while advancing the OGL art. Players create unique heroes using flexible interpretations of familiar D20 character classes. New indie-style rules connect each character’s story to the Gamemaster’s customized version of the campaign setting.

I think it meets those goals admirably, and has some very nice little bits incorporated into the rules and the character creation that just shine. I’m really looking forward to the final version of the game.

This post is just going to be about the character creation portion. In a few days ((Hopefully. I’ve been pretty lax with my posts here, and am playing catch-up.)), I’ll have another post about the rest of the rules, and the actual play experience.

Character creation looks pretty standard on the face of it, a sort-of mash-up of various versions of D&D to get your stats and pick your class and race. Once you get through picking the normal components of your character, however, you run into a couple of very indie-inspired elements that turn your numbers into something special: Backgrounds, Relationships, and One Unique Feature.

Backgrounds substitute for skills in this system, and are broad categories of experience that show where your character came from and what he or she can do. There isn’t a list of backgrounds to choose from – you are encouraged to create your own. This not only fleshes out your character history and abilities, it also fills in detail about the world. For example, in our little playtest group, our character backgrounds wound up adding the following elements to the setting:

  • A service of Imperial Couriers that rode gryphons to deliver high-priority goods and messages.
  • A rich noble who employed rangers to assist with the maintenance and record keeping in her menagerie.
  • A network of ex-slave gladiators spread throughout the Imperial military.
  • A loose association of arcane scholars called the Fellowship of the Lost Book, dedicated to ferreting out forgotten magical lore.

All these things gave the GM good, solid hooks to draw us into adventures, and provide information. It made the world feel more complete, and it made our characters feel more a part of it. It gave them a place in the grand scheme of things.

This is enhanced by the Relationships. The world of 13th Age has some very powerful – mythically powerful – beings in it called Icons. These Icons are sort of archetypes that different people may fill from time to time ((Well, some of them. Some, such as the Three, the Lich King, and the Great Gold Wyrm are more permanent.)) and represent the powers of the world. These are things like the Archmage, the Elf Queen, the Dwarf King, the Dragon Emperor, the High Druid, and so forth. Each character gets some points to define a few Relationships with these Icons – not necessarily with the Icon itself, but with the Icon’s organization. For example, having a weak, positive relationship with the Elf Queen doesn’t mean she knows you by sight, but means that you’re in good standing with the Court of Stars in general, and can hope to be well-received there should you need a favour. Again, this does a lot to tie you into the world, and give your character a sense of history and place.

While these two elements do a lot to tie your character into the world, One Unique Feature is there to make sure your character stands out. This is something that lets you create something, well, unique for your character. Examples included in the playtest document run the gamut from weird little abilities (a half-orc with a supernaturally compelling voice) to odd bits of character history (a monk who started life as a bear before being transformed into a human) and everything in between. There are no mechanics attached to what you come up with here, so giving your character the Unique Feature of being able to kill with a touch is pretty much off the table, but being able to use your Unique Feature for bonuses or to be able to attempt things that other people wouldn’t seems firmly within scope. But the real advantage of the Unique Feature is that it turns your character from The Wizard ((Or even worse, The Other Wizard.)) into the wizard who wields the sword Bitter Understanding.

Together, these three elements really bring the character to life, and make it so that, when you start play at 1st level, your character feels like a hero.

I glossed over race and class, above, to get to the bits of character creation I think are neatest, but you get a standard mix of races  – human, dwarf, half-orc, halfling, three flavours of elf, half-elf, and gnome, plus their version of dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, and warforged – and classes – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid ((The druid is listed in the playtest doc, but the actual class was not ready to be distributed for playtest this round.)), fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard, along with a system for multiclassing. Each race gets a neat little mechanical benefit, and each class gets an array of features and abilities to choose from.

One nice touch with the classes is that the playtest document has a short section that rates each class according to how difficult/complex it is to play, with barbarian at the low end of complexity and wizard at the high end. There is a note that multiclass characters are going to be more complex than any single class character, and that seemed borne out in our test.

Overall, I think the character creation section of 13th Age is wonderful. There are a few little quirks of math that made me raise my eyebrows, but finding those things is what a playtest is about, and I’ve passed my concerns on to the folks who can do something about it. The only other complaint I had was with the organization of the document, which made it necessary to do a lot of paging back and forth to create a character. This is, again, a product of the fact that this is a playtest – I know the final version of the game is going to be cleaned up and reorganized once it’s complete.

In short, in 13th Age, you wind up with a character that has depth, history, competence, and feels like a hero right out of the gate. That’s a big win for any fantasy game like this. We also managed to create four characters in under two hours, so that’s pretty good considering we’re all just learning the game.

In a few days, I’ll post about the actual play. Watch for it.

Mucking Around in Middle Earth: The One Ring RPG

Saturday night, I gathered together a group of friends to try out the new The One Ring RPG from Cubicle 7. Over the past couple of weeks, we had created characters, and I had produced a couple of cheat sheets, so when the time came, we were ready to sit down and play through the introductory adventure included in the game.

For those unfamiliar with The One Ring RPG, it’s the latest roleplaying game based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. It comes in a wonderful set of two books ((One for players and one for Loremasters, the game’s special name for GM.)), two maps ((Again, one for players and one for Loremasters.)), and a set of the special dice ((A d12 and 6d6, each with special markings to be used for system quirks.)) needed for the game in an attractive slipcase. It uses a new system developed by Italian game designer Francesco Nepitello that is very straightforward, but has a number of interesting little twists to it that give it surprising depth while not slowing down play. The books and maps are beautiful, as might be expected.

We had a pretty good time, and really enjoyed the game. The rules do a good job of evoking the feel of the world, and reinforcing the kinds of things one sees in the source material. The adventure was paced nicely to wrap up in a single session and offered a sampling of pretty much everything the game has to offer.

For characters, we had a Barding slayer, a Barding treasure-seeker ((Brother and sister.)), a Woodman wanderer, and a Wood-Elf warder. Character creation is a simple templated system: you choose your culture, choose your background, choose your motivation, and then spread around a few discretionary points. It runs quite quickly once you figure out where everything is in the books and how it fits together, but this is a stumbling block that I’ll get to a little later.

There is an actual subsystem for handling the party as a party – what the rules call a Company. It gives the characters each a job to do in the journey system, provides a pool of points to help the characters out, and defines who your most important relationship is with in the group. That was how we started the game, as the characters had been developed independently: defining the Company and fleshing out who the characters were, how they had met, and why they were together.

I’m not going to talk too much about the adventure itself, to avoid spoilers, but here are some general observations:

  • Combat is wonderful. It is fast, cinematic, and deadly. There is a sense of real tactical choice and danger, despite the fact that it doesn’t use minis or battlemaps or anything like that. It abstracts positioning by using stances, where each character decides if they’re fighting on the front line or hanging back and using a missile weapon or something in between. Initiative, chance to hit, and chance to be hit are all determined by choice of stance, and the Loremaster just throws the monsters at the appropriate combatant. It works very nicely, and we all loved it.
  • There is an Encounter system, which is somewhat similar to skill challenges in D&D. It’s used specifically to handle social situations where the characters might or might not impress or offend a person or group. It works fine, but I found the scenes ran just as smoothly through straight roleplaying, taking into account the prejudices of the other party, without making a lot of rolls. I can see mixing it up a bit during ongoing play, but recommend not getting too slaved to the dice rolling.
  • The journey system works well, but it met some resistance in play. Part of this is the fact that I’m not experienced in running it cleanly, so it felt awkward, and part of it is that the roles for the journey were called out in other parts of the game for special tasks. The roles and journey system are there specifically to provide spotlight moments for different characters and to have everyone in the Company contribute to success ((Also to avoid everyone in the group rolling for every single challenge faced by the Company.)), but the rigidity of the roles felt artificial. Running this adventure a second time, I would handle the non-journey system invocation of the journey roles differently, asking who was doing what at a given moment, then asking for the roll.
  • I was very pleased with how easy it was to mix combat with other types of action – such as holding off an attack while escaping. I can’t say too much more about that without spoilers, so…
    …when escaping the cellar while pursued by the Marsh Dwellers, it was easy to switch back and forth between characters involved in different aspects of the escape – fighting off the Marsh Dwellers, hauling the rescued Dwarves, acting as scout or guard, etc. It flowed very nicely, and created a great sense of desperation and urgency.
  • We only had the one set of special dice for the game, and it got a little annoying to share them. According to the Cubicle 7 forums, there will be dice available without buying the rulebooks in the next couple of months, and I plan on picking up a couple of extra sets ((What can I say? I love dice!)), but it was easy enough to use regular d12s and d6s.

There is one big problem with the game, though: the rulebooks are not well-organized. First off, they are split between an Adventurer’s book and a Loremaster’s book, and the split is not clean. As Loremaster, I need to look in both books to run combat, because combat is asymmetrical between PC and monster. The indices in the books are not true indices, but instead just an alphabetical listing of headings. The character creation leads you right through the process very nicely, except for one piece – Virtues and Rewards – which requires you to jump two chapters ahead to find the details. Without a page reference.

Now, the rules are not all that complicated, but it’s still a big stumbling block for the first few sessions, when the players and GM are having to look up a lot of stuff. The lack of proper index and the split between two books makes finding a specific rule mainly a matter of random chance, and that just slows the game down. A lot.

That said, the game ran fairly smoothly, and worked pretty well. We had enough fun that the players want to try another adventure in the system, following on one of the obvious next steps from the intro adventure. I’ve said okay, and given them the go-ahead to revamp their characters based on what we saw during play this time. We may even add a couple of players. And it means I get to figure out how to build an adventure in the system.

But that won’t happen until after I get back from Ireland.

Leverage: The Double-Switch Job

Friday night, I got four players together to run a second playtest of Leverage: The Roleplaying Game. My plan is for this playtest to be somewhat more involved than The Quickstart Job, and includes full character creation with the recruitment job and a job of my own devising. That means two sessions: one for character creation and the recruitment job, and one for the full job. And the first one was, as I said, on Friday.

One of the things I was worried about was the fact that I could only get four players, when the game seems highly optimized for five. I could probably have snagged one more player by expanding the initial invite list, but when I started thinking about that, I realized that it might be a good idea to see how well the game works with fewer players ((Another question becomes how well the game works with more than five players; at some point, I may try and test that.)), so I decided to go with it.

The main issue with having only four players is that there will be one of the five roles ((Theoretically, you could wind up with more than one role going spare if the players double up on primary roles, but the structure of the game seems to encourage diversifying.)) that does not have a primary – a character who has taken a d10 in that role. That means the team has a slightly reduced tool set for completing the job. While that initially bothered me,  I began to think about other strongly role-based games, like D&D 4E, and how they play with one or more of the core roles lacking. They work just fine; it just changes the options the characters have in approaching the various obstacles in the adventure.

The initial phases of character creation went pretty smoothly, with everyone picking their primary and secondary roles, distributing their attributes, and picking a distinction without any problem. We wound up with a Grifter/Thief, Hacker/Hitter, Hitter/Thief, and Mastermind/Thief. I found it interesting that, recognizing that they did not have Thief in a primary role, the group’s approach was to make sure that they had, shall we say, depth of field in Thief as a secondary role. The prevalence of the Thief role in secondary, to me, created a strong theme for the crew ((The fact that the Thief role is secondary to three characters, in my mind, almost overshadows the difference in the primary roles. Strong commonalities often act as a foundation of unity for a group, allowing the differences in the primary roles to shine out. For example, every member of The A-Team had been a soldier; they could all fight, despite the fact that each brought a different skill set to the table, as well.)) – they were, for the most part, stealthy, sneaky, covert types.

Attribute-wise, we had an even split in the group between the generalist and specialized attribute arrays. That says to me that the two options are nicely balanced, each offering something valuable, yet different. Now, that was my assumption, based on the fact that each array essentially gives you 48 die-sides to spread among your attributes, but equal numbers doesn’t always mean the two options are as good as each other. The test, in my mind, is whether people will use both options equally. In this admittedly small statistical sampling, they did.

Everyone seemed to have a good idea of their first distinction, based on the little bit of backstory they had come up with for their character concept, so that went quick. We wound up with Charming Rogue, Hot Tempered, Tougher Than He Looks, and Bastard. And then we got down to the recruitment job.

This was a little rough. Some of that roughness is my fault for trying to make things a little more elaborate than the way things are described in the rulebook, and some of the roughness is caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook for what will happen during this job.

The part that was my fault was caused by me wanting to inject a little more flavour of the full job into the recruitment job. So, I let the group set the mark and the client, and then I statted them up. They got to determine the plan for the job, within the restrictions that they would each get a spotlight scene. The issue here is that I let things get too elaborate, story-wise, while still keeping the spotlight scene restrictions from the basic recruitment job, meaning the crew had to work things into a very artificial structure. In retrospect, I should have gone all one way or the other: either make it a full job, with none of the restrictions, or stuck with the basic nature of the recruitment job.

The part that was caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook is a little different. See, the assumption that was left with after reading through the character creation session was that the characters would be complete after the recruitment job, with maybe one or two that were missing one or two things that could get filled in during the first job. A little bit of math shows this to be somewhat unreasonable, unless you’re running a full-session job ((Even then, it’s gonna be a tight fit.)).

When you start the recruitment job, each character needs to complete a certain number of things on the rap sheet:

  • Three roles still need dice assigned to them.
  • Each character needs two more distinctions.
  • Each character needs two specialties.
  • Each character needs two talents.

Now, the roles are moderately easy to assign – just try doing something in one of the scenes that uses a role you haven’t assigned. The trick is that, by doing so, you are by definition not playing to your strengths, moving outside of your comfort zone. I like this, because it very nicely puts some interesting stress on the character, revealing more information by how they respond under pressure.

It’s the other three categories that create the problems. Each distinction, specialty, or talent is introduced in play with a flashback. That means, in a four-player game like we had, you need a total of 24 flashbacks during the job in order to cover everything. Each flashback took about five minutes to work through ((Mastery of the system would, of course, reduce this time requirement, but given that the recruitment job is going to be one of the first jobs most groups do, I think it’s fair to say that mastery of the system probably won’t exist in the group at the time of running it.)), with time for the player to come up with a flashback, present it to the group, and incorporate its effects into the character.

That makes for two full hours of flashbacks. Two and a half, if you’ve got a full five-person crew. Considering that our play sessions run about five hours, and the first two hours of the evening were taken up with the first part of character creation and an explanation of the system ((Again, this time requirement would be reduced significantly with mastery of the system.)), that leaves an hour of play devoted to creating and completing the job in the present if you’re going to get everything in. That doesn’t strike me as a reasonable expectation.

It’s important to note here that not everything needs to get taken care of in the recruitment job. The book specifically says that if, at the end of the recruitment job, you still have some blanks on your rap sheet, don’t worry about it, because you can fill those in during play. The problem was that I hadn’t done the math on the time factor needed for all the flashbacks, and had assumed that it was unlikely that there would be anything left to fill in if we ran the recruitment job properly. That meant I was trying to cram everything in during the job, and that made things feel very forced and clunky.

I also think that the requirement of a flashback to introduce distinctions, specialties, and talents is not really necessary. In future, if I run this again ((Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to run this again. I don’t want to start a new campaign right now, but I’m at least going to try another playtest with more than five characters to see how things scale in that direction.)), I’m going to say that you can establish these things after a good character moment – maybe even let the rest of the group pick the moment to establish a distinction for a character. Still allow flashbacks, but not require them. That would speed things along, I think.

Another thing I should have done to speed things along is to have cheat sheets done up of the available talents, to aid the players who hadn’t read through the rules in picking them on the fly. I didn’t do that, and it meant that a lot of times, the players didn’t know what kinds of talents they could pick, and so didn’t try to establish them.

I’m making it sound like the recruitment job was a train wreck, aren’t I? It wasn’t. It was less smooth than I would have liked, and parts of it felt forced, but it still worked and was fun. Considering how smoothly things had gone in The Quickstart Job, I was curious as to why it hadn’t gone that way this time, and so I’ve spent some time analyzing the issues. That’s why I’m talking about problems rather than what went right, here.

The job turned out to be interesting, and showed me very nicely how a good complication can be used as a twist in the job.

The basic set-up was that a real estate developer had a property owner beat up, trying to force him to sell ((Strangely reminiscent of the current storyline in my Feints & Gambits campaign, but only one of the players is in both games, and the set-up wasn’t her idea.)). The crew decided that he was a collector of antique swords, and also skimming off the company profits. The plan was to swap one of his valuable swords with a fake ((An interesting first scene for a group without a Thief primary, I thought. The Hitter/Thief managed it, though.)), then approach him to sell him the real sword. The asking price would be high enough to get him to tap into his offshore accounts for funds, which would let the hacker piggy-back in and copy his financial records for delivery to federal investigators. The money from the sword would then go to the client to cover medical bills and pay off the liens on his property.

Things went pretty much as planned, right up until we got to the end of the scene with the hacker copying the data, and I realized I had three complications that I hadn’t spent. I glommed them all together into one d10 complication, and said, “Huh. According to the financial data, he’s using his development company to launder money for the mob.” Mob Involvement d10.

That changed the objective of the plan to getting him to roll over on the mob, abandoning his luxurious life for witness protection. The Mastermind organized a series of flashbacks where the crew made the mark think that someone in the mob had given him up to the feds, and the mob was going to take him out to prevent him being arrested and testifying, ending up with the asset Worried About The Mob d10 to offset the mob complication. The wrap-up had the mark fleeing into the arms of the FBI ahead of imagined mob assassins, and the money from his cleaned-out accounts going to the client.

The way the complications I had left turned into a twist in the plot worked remarkably well. The rulebook says that, really, all you need to run the game and build jobs are a problem, assets, and complications. This was a perfect illustration of that fact, and one that I need to keep in mind for when I create the full job for the next stage of this playtest.

We wrapped up with a postmortem, where we discussed the issues I’ve outlined above, but everyone said that they had had fun. To help address some of the issues, I had gave those who had not completely filled in their rap sheets the option of doing so before the next session, or leaving the blank options to be filled in during play. The one thing I wanted to complete were the distinctions – most of the characters had one distinction still to be filled in. I got the rest of the group to decide on a second distinction for each character based on how they had done things during the job.

And that’s where we left things. In three weeks, I’ll be running this crew through a full job – they’ve already got a taste of how it works, but now they will have no restriction on number of scenes or who’s involved, or the number of flashbacks needed, or anything like that. I think it’ll go a lot smoother ((I’m using the word smooth, and its variants, a lot in this post. That’s because smooth is the best way to describe the system when it’s working well.)). I’ll let you know how it works.

Leverage RPG: The Quickstart Job

I’ve been looking at the Leverage RPG for months now ((I got The Quickstart Job pdf way, way back when it was first released, and preordered the main rulebook immediately after reading through it. When the rulebook went to the printer, the good folks at MWP sent me the pdf, which easily lived up to the promise of the playtest scenario. So, it’s been almost a year since I first looked at the game.)), planning to write a post about it, but I didn’t want to do it until I’d had the opportunity to actually run the playtest scenario, The Quickstart Job. Last night, I got the opportunity to try it out, and it did not disappoint.

As may be implied by the name, The Quickstart Job is a short, simple scenario that introduces the rules and structure of the game, played with the characters from the TV show ((And if, by some chance, you don’t know about the TV show, you can find the details here and here and here. It’s a fun, light caper show.)). The adventure is a quick caper, trying to steal some corporate records at a party, with a nice twist thrown in to force the players to think on their feet. It’s set up to be pretty much a railroad plot, at first glance, obviously intended to be run quickly with people who are unfamiliar with the game system, leading through the steps of the con by the hand.

This is a good thing; it’s what a quickstart adventure should do. It keeps the extraneous complexity and subtlety of the system off-screen, showing off the cool things you can do in the game. And the plot is not as much of a railroad as it first appears, something I didn’t appreciate until I actually ran it ((One reason I’m glad I waited until I had run the game before writing about it.)). The complication mechanic adds a lot of little side action, forcing the characters to rethink the plan right in the middle of things going pear-shaped, just like on the TV show.


Quick overview of the system, which is a heavily ((And beautifully!)) tweaked version of the Cortex system, called Cortex Plus:

  • There are five different roles in the game, representing broad areas of expertise – classes, if you like – shown in the show. They are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief.
  • There are six different attributes, representing the standard raw abilities of the character. They are Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower. Interestingly, each has a strong social function outside the obvious function.
  • Roles and attributes are ranked by die type, d4 to d12 ((In practice, characters have scores from d4 to d10 when starting out)), and rolls are made using the die from the appropriate role and appropriate attribute. Extra dice can be added by introducing something new and interesting to the scene, called an Asset. No matter how big the dice pool gets, though, only the two highest dice are totaled for the result.
  • The GM – Fixer, in this game – rolls the opposition dice pool, representing whatever obstacles the characters are trying to overcome. The Fixer dice pool works roughly the same way, except the Fixer gets Complications instead of Assets.
  • Plot Points can be used to gain Assets or include more dice from your pool in the result of your roll.

There are some subtleties and other mechanical flourishes to the game, but that’s the core of it, and I’m only going to talk about a couple of other parts.

First, in keeping with the source material, the game uses a very nice mechanic for flashbacks, allowing the players to spend Plot Points to retcon some action in a flashback, showing how they set things up for an advantage that they now want to use. I thought this would be a difficult thing to get the players using, but they were all fans of the show, and jumped at the chance to use the idea. It’s really brought out in The Quickstart Job during the wrap-up, and creates a different way of looking at the game: instead of trying to account for every little possibility during the actual play of the game, where things can get bogged down in the minutiae, you can leave the loose ends for the end of the game and tie them up then, when you see what they are.

Second, Complications. Complications are really the heart and soul of the game. The assumption of the game is that the characters are obscenely good at what they do. They are among the top people in their respective fields in the entire world. So, it is expected that, as long as things go according to the plan, they will succeed. Complications are how you inject surprising things that aren’t according to the plan and force the characters to think on their feet to deal with them. Just like the TV show ((I’m saying that a lot in this review, and I personally think that’s entirely appropriate for a licensed game. In fact, I think that’s eminently desirable. If you’re playing a game based on a TV show, it should feel like you’re playing in an episode of the show.)), the drama and interest in the game comes from how the characters handle the problems that pop up to skew the plan.

Complications arise when a player rolls a 1 on any die in his or her dice pool on any roll. It earns them a Plot Point, and lets the Fixer add a trait to scenario rated at d6. This trait gets added to any roll the Fixer makes where it would apply. So, a Complication like Heightened Security d6 would get rolled when a character is trying to sneak into a building ((Or talk his or her way in, or fight his or her way in, or hack his or her way in, or whatever.)). Extra 1s can grant more Complications, or can step up the die type of an existing Complication: d6 to d8 to d10 to d12.

One of the beautiful things about the Complication mechanic is that the Fixer can bank it, and is, in fact, encouraged to do so. So, when a player rolls a Complication, the Fixer can make note of it and not introduce it until a later time, when it would be more fun. This might seem a little prone to abuse, with the possibility of the Fixer saving up the Complications to hit a player at a very vulnerable point with You’re Screwed d12, but it’s really a way to make sure that the interesting, exciting parts of play get used at dramatically appropriate points. And if your Fixer does that, it just means you are more likely to fail at that particular action, not that the job falls apart.

The entire game is engineered towards making the characters show off how cool they are. That means that, in general, failure just means you have to think of a different way to do what your were trying to do. Even failure in a combat simply means that now the bad guys have you prisoner, and the rest of the team has to try and break you out, as well as finish up the job.

The Job

So, how did the playtest go? Really well, I thought, though not quite as I expected. I don’t want to give too much of the adventure away, because I hate spoilers, especially in reviews, but here’s the high-level look at it.

I spent about fifteen minutes at the start of play talking about the system, making sure everyone was up to speed on how to roll, what to roll, how to use Plot Points, and how to get more. Then, I got the players playing Nate and Hardison to read the briefing out loud to the other players, and we jumped right in.

As mentioned previously, the scenes are set up in a very basic, linear, hand-holding style. That didn’t survive encounter with my players. They’re all experienced gamers, and all of them are fans of the show, so they took what they had and ran with it. The first scene was pretty basic, with three of the characters scoping things out at a party, and we went through that as written, with them making their notice rolls and getting – or not getting, in Nate’s case – the information they needed. The second scene involved an actual objective to achieve, and that’s where they went to town.

In seconds, there was an elaborate scam involving a cake, fake e-mail, a surprise speech, and the preemptive removal of a couple of security guards. The scenario gives three options to accomplish the objective, and they’re probably very useful for groups who haven’t gamed as much, or watched as much Leverage; my group came up with a strange mish-mash of all three, with some extra bits thrown in, involving four out of five of the characters.

I hadn’t actually expected there to be that much flexibility in the scenario, so I was a little caught off-guard, and panicked a bit. My first instinct, being less secure in the system and scenario than I might have liked, was to try and force them back onto the tracks, but then the wiser part of me said, “Nah. It’s a playtest. If it all goes to hell, it doesn’t really matter. Relax and go with it.” So, I took a minute or two to think ((Also, a convenient bathroom break, but that’s not all that relevant.)), and ran with it.

That was the moment when the game started to shine. Everyone was trying crazy things, everyone was throwing around Plot Points for Assets ((Which, for most of the evening, I kept calling Aspects. What can I say? Mechanically, they’re similar, and I’d just run Feints & Gambits the previous evening. But it was confusing for the poor players.)) and flashbacks, and I was layering on the Complications.

The game rolled along, and I nudged them past some points where they were getting bogged down by things that could better be handled in the wrap-up through flashbacks, and kept the pace going fairly well. Not quite as well as I would have liked, because I had to scramble a couple of times to figure out how to handle something, but that can be addressed by familiarity with the rules.

All in all, the game took about two and a quarter hours, and ended nicely ((Although, Eliot got pretty beat up at one point – no matter what the system, a sucky roll is a sucky roll.)) for the group. They achieved the objective, and helped a little old lady keep her home, and sent the scumbags who were threatening it to prison for a long time.

Afterward, as I like to do with playtests, we had a postmortem to talk about the system, and what worked and what didn’t. Then we called it an evening.


I really like the system. It does what it promises to do, and it does it with style and flair. I have not seen a system that handles caper and heist play nearly as well, ever. Some specific thoughts:

  • The Quickstart Job seems to use an earlier iteration of the rules than what finally got published in the rulebook. Specifically, the rules for acquiring Assets and for Contested Actions are different. The ones in the rulebook are, in my opinion, cleaner and more fun.
  • Once the game jumped the rails of the plot, I really began regretting that there wasn’t a complete set of traits for the Mark – the main villain of the piece. And for the locale. It was easy enough to improvise things, but the addition of a couple of stat lines would have been very useful, especially in an introductory product like this.
  • The idea about using post-it notes to track Assets and Complications on p115 of the rulebook is solid gold. Even in this short game, there were about ten Assets created, and five Complications (some of which got stepped up as high as d12). That’s a lot for everyone to keep track of, and the notes were a life-saver.
  • No one in the playtest used their Distinctions ((These are another thing kind of like Aspects in FATE. They let characters either get bonuses to their dice pool or to get an extra Plot Point.)) to generate Plot Points, only for bonuses. This is, I think, the product of the short adventure and the larger-than-normal starting Plot Points for the characters. In campaign play, I think the characters would be more hungry for Plot Points, and use the Distinctions more to get them.
  • The game is really focused on doing one thing, and doing it well. By default, the situations for the adventures are going to be rather formulaic, just like in the TV show. That said, there are a number of hacks for the system to work in different types of settings and genres already on the net. For a start, check out Rob Donoghue’s blog on the subject. His Two Guys With Swords set-up makes me really want to run a short Fafhrd/Grey Mouser campaign.
  • The playtest scenario leaves out a couple of the coolest parts of the system in the interests of brevity. Character creation is wonderful and collaborative, and the basic assumption of play is that the group is going to plan the job at the session. And there’s great advice in the book for handling both of these things.
  • The game has a situation generator, which lets you randomly roll up the client, problem, mark, etc. for a job. It’s tremendous fun to play with, even if you don’t end up using the results strictly as rolled.
  • I messed up the fight action a little in the game, due to lack of rules familiarity. That was part of the reason Eliot took such a beating, though his abysmal dice luck was a larger contributing factor. Again, this will be addressed by more familiarity with the system, and was exacerbated by the difference in rules between the playtest booklet and the final rulebook. The two systems were warring in my head.
  • The game is optimized for five players. Fewer players, and you’ll have one role that’s not covered in a primary position; more players, and you’ve got some double primary roles. Now, in theory, either of these – or both – could happen even with five players, but the system makes it sub-optimal. It’s far from game-breaking, but could change the dynamic of play significantly.

So, yeah. Leverage RPG is a very fun game. It’s got me looking at the slot on the game calender that opened up with the demise of Fearful Symmetries and thinking.

Thinking hard.

But I think I will hold off on starting a new campaign for now. I think I’ll wait at least until the two splatbooks come out this summer. I’ve already got them pre-ordered.

I think I may run another playtest, though, with a job of my own devising and full character creation. Just to see how it goes ((Honestly. I can quit any time.)).

We’ll see.

***Super Important Edit***

I forgot to say thanks to my players for taking part in this playtest. I hope you had as much fun as I did. So, thanks to:

  • Penny – Sophie
  • Michael – Hardison
  • Sandy – Parker
  • Kieran – Nate
  • Aleksander – Eliot

Hunter Redux: One Year Later

Last Friday, I ran my second of two playtests for Hunter: The Vigil. You can read about the previous playtest here.

We used the One Year Later quickstart adventure available for free at DriveThruRPG.com. This used the same characters as the previous playtest we did (The Hunt), with some experience applied. We all liked this, because it meant that the players were able to grab the same character as last time and have a great deal of familiarity with it.

As for the adventure itself, it was about as good as the previous one. Looking at my original post, it seems I was quite hard on that adventure, and that wasn’t my real intention. Both The Hunt and One Year Later are written for very specific purposes, and they fulfill these admirably. They are good introductions to the kinds of things that you do in the game, they provide interesting and challenging scenes with a range of activities, and they show you how the rules work. And they are designed to run in a limited time.

The main problem we had with the scenarios was that we weren’t under the time constraints assumed in the writing. We had a whole evening to play, rather than just two or three hours. That made the adventures seem sparse and linear, lacking in opportunity to follow player choices in unusual directions. They are very much designed as demo scenarios, or convention scenarios, pulling in a bunch of people with minimal preparation and completing an adventure in a very tight time-frame.

One Year Later continued this trend, and it worked just as well. Sure, I had to tapdance a little bit when my players asked how they got the information that led them to the guy they’re following at the start of the adventure, or when they killed the only vector in the adventure for a critical piece of information, or when they decided to completely break away from the way the final encounter was scripted, but that’s fine. I was able to adapt and deal with that.

On the whole, my players liked the adventures, liked the pregenerated characters, liked the game. After the game, I asked them what they thought, and they were all pretty positive about the experience. Then I asked them if they would be interested in starting a new campaign.

They gave me a qualified yes.

See, we’ve already got a large number of campaigns running. Pretty much any given weekend, I’m either running or playing in one or two games. But they’re all Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing wrong with D&D, but nothing wrong with mixing it up, either. A little variety, like a modern horror game, is just the thing.

But scheduling is tough. We’re all adults, with family and work commitments. We’re already scheduled pretty tight.

So the suggestion (from Sandy) was to make it an episodic thing, more a series of mini-campaigns. Each episode would be three or four sessions, then we take a break while I build a new one and run that one in a couple of months.

That seemed a popular choice.

I sent out an e-mail message to the five players containing a number of questions I want them to answer, the first question being, “Are you in for the game?” Other questions cover things like setting of the campaign, level of lethality, level of supernatural, level of conspiracy, how much combat, etc. This should give me a solid basis to start constructing a campaign.

On my end, on the advice of one of the folks who commented on the last post*, I picked up some non-free .pdfs for Hunter. I got pretty much everything on this page, and I’ve been working through it, mining it for ideas. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself until I get the responses back from the questions I sent to the prospective players, but I’ve got some ideas percolating.

Oh, yeah. And I bought these dice, because I’m a great big geek.

I’ll let you know how things go.

*Named, suspiciously, Chuck. Could it be…?

First the Blood, Then the Fire

Looks like the second round of the Dresden Files RPG playtest is about to get underway. While the first round was the Bleeding Alpha, this one is the Burning Alpha, and it’s got a new graphic:

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

[EDIT: I am a moron. I haven’t been able to figure out how to put a graphic in this post yet.]
[EDIT: Got it. I think.]

We who were involved in the Bleeding Alpha are getting to see the files and try them out, and still talk about them, but the focus on this round is really on new folks trying out the game. The canny Evil Hat contingent is setting up a special mailing list for the Burners, while still encouraging us Bleeders to use our list.

So, what does that mean for me?

I don’t know that I can get the old gang together for another extensive playtest – it’s summer, now, and people are scattering. Also, I’ve run some number of one-shots and short adventures in the past several months, and people are starting to push me to do a longer campaign again. I don’t want to start a campaign using a test ruleset, so…

Besides, I’m still trying to find the time to do a test run of Mutant City Blues.

Still, I’m going to be reading the revised rules, and I’ll probably talk about some of the changes here. I may even revisit some of the play reports and characters, to show how they would change in the new rules.

Also, I encourage the new playtesters, you Burners out there, to send me a link to anything you post about the game. I’ll put it up here, and we can help keep people up to date on what’s happening.

The blood has been spilled. Now, the fire will purify.

Keep on the Shadowfell – After Play Musings

Last night I got together a few folks from my regular gaming group to run through the first few bits of Keep on the Shadowfell in preparation for running demos today. We had fun; the new system works nicely, the fights were pretty interesting, and people liked the things their characters could do. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but some might creep in, so be warned.

The group numbered three, and the characters were the halfling rogue, the dragonborn paladin, and the tiefling warlord. We ran through the initial encounter, got the party to the village, and had them head out on a mission. I skipped the next encounter in the adventure, because it was very similar to the first one, and I wanted a chance to try out something more varied – we only had time for two encounters. That meant I encouraged the party to follow up the dragon grave plot thread, and they complied.

So, how did things go?

  • You seem to fight more monsters per encounter in this system – the designers have been saying that all along, but it’s nice to actually see it in action. I like this; it’s always seemed somewhat less-than-heroic to me to have a gang of four adventurers mobbing a single humanoid creature. Having the party outnumbered – both encounters featured eight creatures – appealed to me, thematically. And it made the players feel that their characters were more threatened.
  • The fights seemed to last about twice the number of rounds as in 3.5. This is just an impression based on what I saw in those two encounters, but the first fight, when everyone was still trying to figure out what their powers could do, ran 11 rounds, and the second fight, when everyone started working together in a tight, effective group, ran 8. I like this, too; it gives more time for both the heroes and the monsters to do more interesting things. Nothing worse than having a creature with a ton of neat abilities go down before it can use even a quarter of them.
  • In real time, the fights lasted about as long as in 3.5, with a little more time spent on the first one as people were getting used to what they could do. I think that, with practice and familiarity getting folks past the learning curve, fights will probably run half to three-quarters as long as in 3.5. I like this, too, because it means you can fit more into an evening of play.
  • There is a learning curve on the powers and the system. Never doubt it. But it’s not as steep as it might have been. By the second fight, the players were looking at different ways their powers could interact, and how to tactically support each other with them. Still, it’s going to take some time to completely leave behind 3.5 assumptions; people were slow to start using their healing surges, for example, and opportunity attacks work a little differently, and a stack of powers can be hard to sort through, when you come in cold.
  • The monsters are fun to run. Every one, right down the kobold minions, had a little something interesting and special that they could do that made fighting them different from fighting other things. And the things they could do were not terribly complex or tough to keep track of; just little things like kobolds being able to shift five feet as a minor action rather than as a move action, or the guard drakes being able to do more damage if they’ve got an ally nearby. It changed the flavour of the encounters nicely.
  • The battlemaps with the adventure are very nice. I understand that some are recycled from other products, but they still make nice additions, and the fact that you get three double-sided ones in the adventure is particularly nice.
  • The tactics of battle seem at least as deep, rich, and varied as in 3.5, but they are different. The three flavours of action resources, the different kinds of movement, the ability to use powers to move your opponents or allies, the way combat modifiers work, the way different powers interact – it all lends itself to fun tactical play in combat, but you have different tools, and different effects than in 3.5. Again, there’s going to be a learning curve.
  • Tactically, the fights had more shifting and jockeying for advantageous position and less stick-and-hit than 3.5. Most of the moves were small, creating a sort of revolving, swirling kind of scrum where the paladin anchored the enemy, the warlord backed him up and supported him, and the rogue looked for the best spot to dole out the pain. This may change at higher levels or in different set-ups (both encounters had natural choke-points that the characters rushed to hold), but that’s the way it was in our test.
  • With the emphasis on character roles, there are some real shifts from 3.5 in the basic assumptions. The rogue was consistently doing the most damage, not the bigger, burlier dragonborn paladin, for example. Again, I’m a little concerned that the roles may be more restricting than I like on the various classes – can I build a fighter that concentrates more on dishing out damage than on soaking it up? Can I build a utility wizard, with more non-combat powers and less “blow stuff up” emphasis? Basically, can I build a class against role and still come up with a viable, playable character? I really hope so; if the roles are too restricted, I can see it producing a glut of core classes, each of which varies just a little, to allow players to create their ideal – very similar to the prestige class glut of 3.0/3.5. I don’t want to see that happen, mainly for aesthetic reasons. It appeals to my sense of elegant design to have fewer, more customizable classes than many very specific classes.
  • And, just as in any dice-based game, nothing can save you if you can’t roll for crap. This afflicted one of the players and two of the most threatening (on paper) monsters in the game last night, and brings home the old adage, “Systems come and systems go, but a crappy roll is a crappy roll.”

There were a lot of questions that came up during play that we couldn’t answer with the quick-start rules. Things like delaying or holding actions, the details of which dice get maximized in the case of a critical and which don’t, the cost of items, options for fighting defensively or all-out defense, etc. Of course, we all assume that this will be covered in the main rules, but the adventure did a good job of making us want the books now, now, NOW!

The acid test? One of the players is very new to gaming – she started in my Dresden Files RPG playtest, carried on in my Brockford House CoC one-shot, and now this 4th Edition teaser. She picked up the basics quickly, had fun, and wants to play again.

Seems like a positive sign to me.

Deep Gratitude

Now that our Bleeding Alpha Playtest phase is winding down, I want to thank my players for their dedication, willingness to try new things, good feedback, and just being great, creative players.

  • Thanks to Sandy, and Anne Carriere’s iron filing packed snowballs.
  • Thanks to Kieran, and Lucky Firth’s eagerness to sell his mortality to the Bramble King.
  • Thanks to Chris, and Paul Roman’s surly and world-weary acceptance of all the crap he had to go through.
  • Thanks to Clint, and to Christian Manger’s tug-of-war conversations with Madelein de la Neige.
  • Thanks to Penny, and Rowan Aurelian’s willingness to blow up her own head to make the magic work.
  • Thanks to Vickie, and Elaine de la Roche’s remorse over using the shotgun on the Mad Cowz.
  • Thanks to Fera, and Gerhardt Rothman’s trick with the car antennae.
  • Thanks to Tom, and Elias “Legion” Thorne’s willingness to throw himself into any physical threat he could find.

It wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun without all of you.

Thank you all.

Game On VI: The Final Friday Game


We rejoin our intrepid heroes outside the Legislature, having followed their now-functioning magical compass to the building after leaving Mad Cowz territory. The compass has stopped working again, and is just spinning in circles*, so they can’t get a good pinpoint on their quarry, the warlock Demissie. There follows some discussion about whether to go in immediately, or to wait until after nightfall, when the civilians will have cleared out.

In the end, they decide that it’s too dangerous to wait, and need to go in now. But how to bring all their hardware with them past the metal detectors and sheriff’s deputies guarding the entry? After significant debate, they decide that Rowan will veil herself and carry the weapons in, after the other three have already entered. This works fine, but shorts out the metal detectors and crashes the computer at the security station because of the magical interference. Not a huge deal, but enough to make the characters nervous.

They meet down in the washrooms in the basement, near the cafeteria, and gear up. Rowan tells them that the building was constructed according to mystical principles, and lays out a few of the big ones – the giant statue to Hermes on roof, the sacrificial star pit, the main stairs with three sets of thirteen risers, the statues of Hermaphroditus, the use of the golden ratio in the structure, the statue of Moses with horns…** They decide, based on what they know of Demissie and his flavour of magic, that the most likely place to find him is in the star chamber with the Hermaphroditic pillars at the bottom of the sacrifice pit.

They don’t find any sign of him down there, but Gerhardt notices that the urns by the pillars have been moved slightly, and people seem to avoid walking through the centre of the star. They do some more investigating, but don’t find anything else of note, and start attracting the attention of one of the security guards when Rowan starts moving the urns around.

Faced with this, Rowan decides to risk using the Sight. She finds a bench near the wall, sits down, and opens her third eye. She sees the place as an ancient temple to the power of Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-Great God of Magic, and manifesting the union of the male and female, divine and mortal, in the form of Hermaphroditus. She also sees a tortured ghost, wrapped in barbed chains, bound to each of the twelve pillars in the place, and magic gathering at a bloodstained altar in the centre of the star, presided over by a dark, malevolent shadow.

She closes her third eye and blasts at the centre of the star, deducing that the black shadow she saw was Demissie. Unfortunately, her blast isn’t powerful enough to break the veil and ward that have been set up. Demissie responds with a mental attack, sending the shrieking ghosts he has slain into her head, and rattling her a fair bit.

Taking his cue from Rowan’s attack, Legion launches himself at the middle of the star, but is blocked by the ward, formed out of tortured, bound spirits, which wrenches at his brain. Gerhardt uses his kinetomancy to smash all the urns, thinking to break the circle that way, and Elaine starts clearing the civilians and security guards from the room.

Rowan, already very taxed by the magic she’s been throwing around, pulls out all the stops and tears away the wards and barriers around Demissie, revealing him and his small table of ritual implements in the middle of the room. He responds by loosing the twelve bound ghosts and sending him at the heroes. Gerhardt tries to topple the pillars of the room to break up the magical flows, but loses control of his kinetomancy, sending a destructive pulse of force out in a broad splash rather than a focused blast. This topples a couple fo the pillars, splits the marble floor, and tosses everyone around a bit.

Legion and Elaine make short work of Demissie once his defenses are down, and Rowan drives herself almost to collapse banishing the ghosts. The threat ended, our valiant heroes run for the hills before the security guards get it together enough to detain them.

And they all lived happily ever after, because it’s just a playtest.


  • While there are detailed rules in the playtest package for hexing equipment, they’re pretty involved. The author suggests instead to just wing it, which I did, and it worked fine.
  • After three sessions, the two spellcasters were getting pretty good at figuring out how to do off-the-cuff magic, including tapping into the power of the Hermetic Temple to power their stuff.
  • The minion system from Spirit of the Century works nicely for things like the twelve ghosts attacking our heroes in a very cinematic vein, but I’m not sure it’s got the entirely right feel for the books. Then again, I sure wouldn’t want to run the final battle from Summer Knight or the zombie-stomp from Dead Beat without it.

So, those are the six playtest sessions done. I’m taking a bit of a break from Dresden Files now; just writing up a report for Evil Hat, and then taking a breather. Six sessions over three weeks is a lot, and I need to put it aside to avoid burnout. Besides, I’ve been pushing a number of other games in our group off the schedule for this one, and we need to get back to them.

Having said that, my group has expressed interest in a continuing game, so we will be back again.

And I’m probably going to start talking about the other games I run or play in on this blog, so you may find something of interest.

Don’t be strangers.


*Thanks to Demissie sensing the destruction of the decoy doll and throwing up a veil.

** All of which are real.

Game On V: The Last Monday Game


We pick up back in Assiniboine Forest, just after nightfall, in the killing cold, after killing another ogre. Christian and Paul have a heart-to-heart about how Christian’s a FRIGGIN’ GHOUL! While this is going on, Anne spots shapes moving in the shadows, surrounding our heroes.

Paul conjures some light, catching all the wyldfae in their furs, feathers, and beads stalking through the dark winter forest. They freeze for a moment, then Crazy Tomcomes in and extends the invitation of the Bramble King to join him at his court for an audience, as Christian had requested. They agree, and follow the fae company to a mound of brush in the middle of the forest, and through a stone doorway into the Bramble King’s hall. Along the way, Anne warns the others about the dangers of faerie food and drink, and how fae cannot lie or break a promise.

It’s a cross between a faerie mound and a native lodge, with a huge central fire-pit and blankets and tapestries hanging on the wall. There are scores of fae inside, dancing, drinking, and eating, and they all go silent when the characters enter. Crazy Tom announces them to the Bramble King, a two-foot-tall, porcupine-like little man seated on an antler throne on a little dais carried around by a troll. He invites them to sit with him around a sumptuous feast, which none of them touch.

The war council doesn’t go very well. None of the four wish to pledge themselves to serve the Bramble King (except Lucky, but he doesn’t want to swear anything until he hears the reciprocal pledge), and the Bramble King doesn’t seem to want to offer anything unless the oaths are made. He even tempts Anne with a cure for her sister, but she doesn’t trust him enough to bite. Finally, the Bramble King sees that he’s not getting anywhere, calls them all cowards, and vanishes along with his court and hall, leaving our heroes sitting in the snow and dark.

Now they’re pissed.

They retire to Archangel Fireworks to talk about their options and to load up on supplies. They decide that they’re not going to walk away from a battle between the faeries, internal matter or no, and that they really want to show up the Bramble King. So, they go off to First Folio to see if Artemis Black has a copy of the Unseelie Accords and the Covenant of the Consecration of the Two Waters. The Unseelie Accords fill roughly a hundred volumes, too much for them to get through in one night, so they go looking through the Covenant to see if they can find a loophole.

And find it they do. The actions of the Winter Court constitute an external invasion against the Assiniboine Ramble, one of the protected powers of the Consecration of the Two Waters, and the mortal casualties show that the engagement is spilling over onto other protected parties. With the proper invocation and sacrifice, it is possible to gain the blessing of the Two Waters to act as champions and intercede in the matter.

With that idea, everyone goes and gets some money for the sacrifice, warm clothes, and weapons, and they all meet at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. Out on the ice at the confluence, Paul conducts the ritual sacrifice and asks for the blessing of the spirits. He gets it, and uses his Sight to confirm that the Two Waters spirits are pleased.

Then it’s back once more to Assiniboine Forest in the cold and dark, to the closed portal to the Nevernever. Paul tears it open with only minor problems for him and his companions, and they troop through into the stronghold of the Winter Court noble leading the attack. After a desperate run through the snow while being chased by rimehounds, they get to the lodge of the noble, and demand entry. When the doormen are a bit too slow to respond, Christian takes the decision out of their hands, and the door off its hinges.

Inside, after a little conversation, they are faced by a very angry Sidhe noble and his two ogre guardsmen. Things go rapidly to hell, and Lucky winds up putting a bullet through the noble’s forehead with the single shot he manages to get off before his gun stops working*. In the ensuing astonished pause, Christian pops the head off one of the ogres, and Paul demands that the Winter Court leave off its invasion in the name of the spirits of the Two Waters.

With the fae thus cowed, our heroes beat a hasty retreat back to the mortal world and warmth. The cold snap breaks, and each of them receive an amulet from the Bramble King. Three of them reject the gift, but Lucky seeks out the Bramble King and pledges himself to his service**.

And everyone lived happily ever after***.


  • It is incredibly fun to GM conversations with the fae. I made it a game to see how few of their questions I could answer, shifting the topic, responding with questions, and turning to new people to speak to. Throw in a few straight answers to keep ’em guessing, and it’s a hoot.
  • Nothing moves a story forward like a pissed-off PC.

* I believe he spent five Fate Points on that little trick.

**No mechanics on that, because it happened essentially out of game.

***But only because this was the last playtest session.