13th Age Extended Challenges – Making Meaningful Choices

Carrying on from the last two weeks of talk about Extended Challenges (Introduction and Sharing the Spotlight)

So far we’ve been looking at these skill challenges as a series of checks – yes, ones which fit the characters and can be used to craft a narrative, but still simple stat+background checks that pass or fail. But the choice of what stat+background to use is not generally a meaningful one at this point – you use whatever you’re best at that will help in some way; and avoid repeating yourself once penalties for doing so kick in.

It’s a functional system, but not really inspiring; there’s no difference between taking positive action toward your goal and preparation for such action, and no real meaning to cooperation.

So that’s our next step – differentiating between the many ways you can aid your team in achieving the goal.

  1. Attempts
    This action category serves as the backbone of the whole system. Attempts are how you earn successes, they’re things that you do that get you closer to the goal – whether that be navigating through a few miles of swampland, or persuading one of the elven nobles to support your plan to prevent the apocalypse.
  2. Reaction/Mitigation
    When bad things happen, sometimes it makes more sense to try and prevent the consequences, rather than moving towards your end goal. If you’re running low on rations in the jungle and will lose health due to that, you might choose to spend a turn hunting for food rather than hunting for a path forwards.
  3. Preparation
    Another category is preparation – providing boosts to future rolls. Perhaps you need to cross a desert, but rather than just making survival and navigation rolls as you cross you decide to spend an action or two on finding a town and acquiring survival gear – appropriate clothing, sunscreen, water carriers and such like. These supplies will boost all sorts of rolls later in the adventure, whether they be attempts or reactions.
  4. Aid Another
    This category of action could be put as a subset of Preparation – you’re preparing things for your ally to stand the best chance on their roll – but I’ve split it off because it doesn’t work in the framework we’ve got.

Within the system we discussed last week we’ve got room for the first three of these categories – Attempts are simple; Reactions/Mitigation can be done in response to whatever harm comes with the passage of a round, whether that be guards getting more suspicious or supplies running low; and Preparation can give a bonus to many other players rolls allowing you to gather future successes faster – traditionally a +2 bonus to all future rolls (where it’s applicable) tends to work well – but in 13th Age it may pay to look at the Escalation Die used in combat, and consider whether preparation could add and/or boost said Escalation Die

We don’t, however, have room for the common Aid Another which only benefits one ally’s roll; if it requires you to spend your action for the round you’ll almost always be better off just making your own Attempt action.

We could drop it entirely, have all ways to help your allies fall under the other categories. It’s an elegant option, but in my experience some people like making Aid Another checks.

Instead I’d like to revisit a point from the last post: the idea that the penalties should come from rounds that passed, rather than attempts that failed – while acknowledging that if someone is trying something dangerous it may make more sense for a failed attempt to have negative consequences other than outright failing the Extended Challenge.

I put forward the rule that failures wouldn’t be penalised in place because otherwise you could end up in a situation where your presence actively made things for your team. But if we’re adding Aid Another actions they can still be safe even if the Attempt action isn’t. So perhaps that is the answer: if Aid Another exists failed Attempts can have penalties, but Aid Another cannot – at worst you’re not helpful.

But should all failed Attempts have negative consequences? Or only the ones that are particularly risky (like tightrope walking across a canyon)? And if it’s only the ones that are particularly risky, what makes those worth taking? Are extra successes a suitable enticement?

Perhaps the Aid Another action isn’t needed at all, and adding it just makes the whole system more complicated for a minor gain… it’s going to take a bit of pondering and discussion to work out which way works best!

What do you think? Should I lean towards the more tactical end where it matters whether you take the “risky+fast” or the “slow+safe” option, or keep things smooth and simple?

Takeaway from this step:

  1. There are a lot of complexities that can be layered on – but I’m not yet sure which ones are worth it.

Designing Extended Challenges: Sharing the Spotlight while Maintaining Verisimilitude

This carries on from last week’s post Designing Extended Challenges for 13th Age

I’d like to start by thanking people for their input into this development process – Burn Miller pointed me at their blog where I found out about The One Ring’s Tolerance Test system used for social situations in particular. A number of people on the Forge of the 13th Age brought up various aspects of how they run challenges, including introducing me to Blade in the Dark’s clocks – and shadowsofmind on Reddit pointed me at Matt Colville’s explanation of using Skill Challenges in D&D 5e

———————

In my last post I talked about the goals of our Extended Challenge system, and number one amongst them was that the system must encourage every player to contribute to the scene as a whole.

Its position as number one was not accidental – to me it is the most core part of what makes a good challenge subsystem for a cooperative roleplaying game.

The first step in getting everyone to contribute is getting everyone to take part at all. That step, at least, is so intuitive to F20 players that many assumed D&D 4e’s Skill Challenge system had it: Rounds. Each player gets one turn per round, meaning that everyone must act once before anyone takes their second go.

But just having everyone take part isn’t enough to have everyone contribute. Imagine a player character who, during combat, could only throw blunt wooden spoons at their enemies – hitting on a natural 20 for 1 damage. They get a go every round, but that go feels bad because they aren’t actually helping their teammates to defeat the monsters.

The same is true for our reclusive Half-orc Artificer at the elven ball. Sure, you’re making him take a turn now, but if all he’s going to do is add a failure to his team’s count they’d be better off without him.

So how do you let him contribute anyway?

For starters we could ditch the idea that failing at skill rolls is necessarily going to make things worse. When you miss an attack in combat you don’t hurt yourself or your team, you just don’t make anything better – meaning that the baddies have more time to spend stabbing you. Watching the description by Matt Colville put me slightly away from that perspective – in my home games we use penalties such as the idea of blocks falling he explores that don’t contribute to failing the challenge, merely hurt the person making the attempt.

Given as we’ve already implemented rounds, that seems to be the natural place to move the potential of failing the challenge – rather than keeping track of the number of rolls that have been failed instead we will keep track of the number of rounds that have passed. In cases where outright failure of the challenge is a good answer there can be a simple deadline, for instance “get as many successes as you can in three rounds” – while in other cases there could be a smaller penalty for each round that happens.

So the Half-orc Artificer isn’t making things worse for the party, and may even be contributing a little. For 13th age an 8 charisma and no backgrounds means a normal skill check DC has somewhere between a 1 in 6 and 1 in 3 chance of success, depending on level. Not great, but far from nothing – he may not be good at schmoozing, but there’s always a chance of hitting it off.

Still – we can do better. Any game I run becomes somewhat narrativist, it’s just part of how I GM, and 13th Age is very good at supporting that tendency, so we’re going to lean into that: If a player can come up with a way in which a more unusual background could be useful to the situation, they can roll it. 

On a success, that situation they imagined comes to pass and the skill comes in handy; on a failure it either never comes up, or they don’t manage to take advantage – for instance, the Half-Orc Artificer might be rolling Int+ “Official Master Craftsman in the Concord Consortium” to give an epic description of his latest inventions to an interested elf. If successful, the elf is impressed and moved to support the team that contains such a gifted inventor; if unsuccessful the elf they talked the ear off of has no interest in mechanical devices and was just too polite to say so.

In a similarly narrative vein, we like to allow flashbacks during the challenge, especially during the first round – something that they did prior to the challenge that turns out to be helpful now, such as acquiring the right clothing, or tutoring their allies in the niceties of elven dining.

You may notice that this has a lot in common with 13th age’s Montage System, introduced by Ashley Law – though with more of a possibility of failure – this is something of a case of convergent evolution, and I think is a good sign that what is being developed here fits the 13th Age ethos. Perhaps, then, the guidelines for these Extended Challenges should take a little inspiration from Montages – encouraging players to suggest challenges their allies are suited to overcoming.

Takeaways from this step:

  1. Skill challenges happen in rounds
  2. It’s bad for the players to take too many rounds to achieve success
    1. Failed rolls may have penalties, but won’t lead to failing the challenge
  3. Allow unusual approaches if properly justified
    1. Flashbacks can expand the range of justifiable actions, in interesting ways
    2. Players suggesting challenges that their comrades can overcome is fun.

Designing Extended Challenges for 13th Age

Combat in 13th Age is very structured, but outside combat it is a lot looser. Most of the time, I find this flexibility useful, but occasionally it’s useful to provide more structured and defined challenges outside combat.

In the F20 family of games I first encountered this kind of structure in D&D’s 4th Edition – but it felt half-baked, and often functioned poorly in our games. So, inspired by that game’s Skill Challenges we developed our own style of Extended Challenge for home use; and now we’re developing it further in order to use it in future 13th Age work.

Our home system is a simple skeleton that gets fleshed out arbitrarily for any RPG we’re playing (from buffy to fate): Gameplay proceeds in rounds so that everyone is involved. How many rounds you took to reach your goal is likely to matter; repeating the same action over and over results in an increased DC, or is impossible if there’s no fiction justification; there’s no set list of skills that contribute – if the player has a good explanation for how their action aids the party then it can work; there are more options than just “roll to move towards victory” – ways to boost other players and mitigate downsides.

But that skeleton is held together by a set of assumptions that we’ve never written down, so rather than trying to work backward from that I’m here starting from scratch again over the course of these blogs – so as to ensure that the final product holds together in the wild, rather than relying on quirks of my own GMing style.

So here are the explicit goals that I’m going to work toward when creating the Extended Challenges system: 

  1. Sharing the Spotlight:
    In combat every player takes part regularly. In more loose-weave situations it’s common for one or more player characters to end up uninvolved – for instance when socialising with elves the mechanical genius half-orc probably won’t have much to say.
    When big stakes are in play it’s nice to make sure everyone gets some level of input into the outcome. 4th Edition’s skill challenges often punished you for doing so – if the half-orc made a skill check they would make the team more likely to fail, and so their best bet was to stay quiet so there was no chance they’d be called upon to roll.
  2. Verisimilitude
    If the Half-orc Artificer with 8 charisma and no diplomatic background contributes to your elven ball by charming the nobles, things start to feel out of place. It’s important for each character’s contributions to feel like they come from that character.
  3. Meaningful Choices
    At its most basic, combat is a constant repetition of “roll to attack the thing in front of you with your best attack” until either it falls over or you do. If you’re a 13th Age player that’s almost certainly not your preferred flavour of fun – even the simplest class has significantly more going on than that.
    At its most basic a skill challenge would consist of rolling your best background+ability combination repeatedly until you either succeed or fail. That’s no more fun outside of combat than it is in combat, so we need something more to play with.
  4. Non-binary Stakes
    Pass/fail is acceptable for a single roll, but when you’re going to be devoting a meaningful portion of your session to something it’s nice to have some middle ground – some possibility of an expensive victory where the resources expended (spells, powers, recoveries, etc.) put a significant crimp in your ability to move forward, or of a partial victory where you only achieve some of what you were aiming for – for instance, avoiding the guard patrol on your way into the archvillain’s castle, but not making it all the way to his bedchambers before the alarm is raised.
  5. Fitting the Game
    Different games have different feels, themes and mechanical underpinnings. While a skeleton of a system can exist outside of the game in which it is to be used – and indeed, if you follow this series of blog posts I’ll start by building such a skeleton – fleshing it out such that it belongs as part of the game is a vital step. And it’s a step that is far easier if you keep it in mind throughout the process.

Those are the goals, but how can we go about achieving them? I’ve got a few more blog posts coming talking about our approach, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on how to approach such a challenge. Let us know here, or on Facebook.

Fudge – Expanded Situational Roll

One of the GM tools in Fudge is the Situational Roll. This a way to randomly determine aspects of a situation that aren’t based on any character or haven’t been already established by the fiction like “Is it raining?” or “Is there a gas station nearby?”. It all there in the Fudge SRD if anyone is interest.

The following expands on the concept, taking into account the of the event likelihood of the event while still leaving it to chance. After all. the odds to the question “Is it raining?” being “yes” might vary depending if the setting is Seattle or Dubai.

The way this is done is by arranging a set of probabilities as if they were Fudge ranks as in the table below.

Virtually
Impossible
(0)

Unlikely

(1)

Doubtful

(2)

Possible

(3)

Plausible

(4)

Likely

(5)

Almost
Certain
(6)

To make a situational roll, make a quick judgement on the base likelihood, roll 4dF and the result to the chosen likelihood. If the result is Possible or better (Green) the answer is “yes”, otherwise it is “no”.

So for instance, if a player asked “Is there a gas station nearby?”, the GM might mike an initial judgement that it is Doubtful. The GM roll 4dF and gets +1 which is enough to turn Doubtful into Possible. The player character is in luck!