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.

[AP & Redesign Thoughts] Marquis of Ferrara

Kevin looked at my work, an ashcan of a story game about Renaissance Game of Thrones, and then to me, his eyes sympathetic but unyielding.

“B-but, I need every part! Each rule is so beautiful!” I cried. How could he criticise my work so? How could he not appreciate the elegance of 15 interlocking mechanics and the resultant story they would no doubt produce?

“Looks like a mess, mate” he replied, placing a paternal hand upon my shoulder. “Like you vomited alphabet spaghetti on a Pollock painting”

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Zhang’s Journey

Last Saturday I managed to make it to the London Indiemeet for the first time in 6 months and got to run a playtest of the Alternative Histories idea for a follow up to Intrepid.

I knocked together a map the night before based on the journey described in this reddit comment (and this map) which follows a 2nd century BCE Chinese explorer called Zhang Qian. Here is the map after the game…

Zhangs Journey 1

The game started with this introduction to the world:

“Under the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, c. 139 BCE an emissary named Zhang Qian was dispatched along with 99 men (including a non-Chinese guide) to penetrate the military blockade the Xiongnu Empire. The Emperor had sent him to find a long-lost kingdom called Yuezhi that had become nomadic wanderers after the Xiongnu had displaced them from their ancestral homeland, and convince them to aid the Han military in retaking the area.”

Upon which the players each added a function detail about the world (see World Facts on the map). Only one of the three facts really came into play in any significant way but I don’t think that hurt the game at all, they all helped set the tone.

We then also created 5 characters, giving them a name, trait and relationship… 3 from Zhang Qian’s expedition, one from the Xiongnu and the last form the Yuezhi. While creating these characters in advance felt important, a promise of what’s to come, the actual content (name/trait/relationship) felt a little weak, especially when I played Marquis of Ferrara in the next slot which comes with lots of excellent characters you can still make your own. Something needs to be done here.

The game then proceeded to play out 3 scenes at each stage of the journey (as you can see from the map I removed Kangju to improve the pacing) in a fairly standard pick a character, frame, free narration kind of way. Framing scenes did a lot to flesh out the locations on the journey, which was good and I hope to encourage.

Each scene ended when all players had put a card in the middle of the table, pick one at random to get a good/bad ending for the framing character. Kind of like a cross between Intrepid’s crossroads and Fiasco’s black/white dice. It was serviceable and introduced some reasonable twists into the story. I don’t know yet if I want to to be more or less.

All in all we got a decent story with some unexpected twists and interesting characters. The world building was a little shallow and I think the character setup wasn’t as robust as it could have been so I’ll need to work on those before the next playtest. I’ll probably stick with Zhang to see how different two playthroughs of the same scenario can be, but after that I think Napoleon’s march on Russia will be next.

I may have now played a game of it but it still doesn’t have a name (unsurprisingly).

Intrepid Spinoffs

London 2051 is in a state where it needs a bit more playtesting and then I can release it as a free pamphlet. I had plans for making it bigger but they just aren’t needed.

So I’m looking to my next project, and I think I’ve found some fun directions I could build upon Intrepid. Intrepid is very much heroic fantasy even if the rules look like they could support any setting, that world ends up being filled with heroes on quests.

But we could take the same core idea, building worlds as you go with rules that encourage them in the right direction, and apply it to other types of fiction, although as you’ll see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (both in terms of rules and the types of setting).

Supers

It’s hard not to stand on a UKRPDC and see peoples enthusiasm for superheroes and not feel like I could tap into that myself. My own love for comics ranges from the mid 90s to present day, so while it may eb sensible, I’m not interested in silver age nostalgia.

Instead I have in mind an evolving continuity, where you have multiple heroes (characters) and teams (factions) resolve some plots (quests, probably integrated with characters/teams) that lead up to a big crossover event that wipes the relationship map (no need for a geographical one) clean and you start again, bringing those bits forwards that you like as you need them.

Very much focusing on evolving relationships between heroes/villains. I also have ideas for time travel and alternative realities which is pretty much required. Also crossroads should be replaced with a system for talking out your differences while hurling tanks at one another.

Space Opera

Obviously this for Star Trek/Firefly/BSG/B5/etc. style settings.

You have a persistent core of a ship and characters, then a more episodic structure as you flesh out this week’s corner of the galaxy and play with it. Probably have a much looser idea about what goes on the maps, so you can integrate doodles and major events and make it a more vibrant record of your adventures but anything more permanent goes on the ship map.

Cyberpunk City

Kind of expanding on the ideas in London 2051, you have a city map, evil corporations and downtrodden protagonists. Quests become corporate agenda which the characters get wrapped up in. Mechanically it would flip the proactive protagonists of Intrepid on their head.

I’m still enamoured by Shadowrun though, so I can’t shake the feeling any cyberpunk game I write should be able to support a heist.

Alternative Histories

Inspired by this map of Napoleon’s fateful march into Russia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard#mediaviewer/File:Minard.png

Possibly by favourite idea of the moment, it’s more one-shot/con focused and would need a series of maps that integrate physical and timeline features. So you take historical events and then amend them in play, playing with the same core idea but putting your own spin on it: Maybe Russia is a nation of Tzarist Elves and Napoleon’s engineers have invented steampunk tech, or play on the same map but instead Rome never fell and they are marching against the Mongols.

I’m not sure on the range of maps that could be made though, military campaigns are easy, as are mass migrations and explorer’s  journeys (there are some interesting Chinese explorers you could map the journeys of). I also though a series killer’s rampage could make for a good map. I’d probably want at least one more type of map and then have 1-3 of each to play with.

 

I’d be very interested in questions/suggestions as I’m still very much brainstorming ideas.

Big games

I’ve been a bit quiet here lately, Intrepid’s out, doing well and doesn’t have any news to speak of, while London 2051 has been stuck in a creative rut it’s only now starting to climb out of.

So rather than that I thought I’d write about is another project of mine ‘Athesia Reborn’ a game ran twice annually for the Essex University Roleplay Game Society. It’s been running for 7 years, usually hosts ~25 players, lasts from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon and has recently transitioned from using D&D 4E to a system of our own devising.

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Intrepid – Post Mortem

Now that Intrepid is done and been on sale for about 3 weeks I feel like it is worthwhile looking back over how it all went, from start to finish, so this post is kind of long.

Intrepid started out being called Quest and it came as a direct result of me finally saying goodbye to GM’d games, including D&D. There have been plenty of games harking back to old school D&D but my ‘golden-era’ was in the 90s; when TSR were cranking out large elaborate campaign settings like Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun and Planescape: adventuring was part heroic quest and part magical mystery tour.

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Playing with form factor

When producing our works, a lot of games designers limit their ideas of how a game can be presented.  Most games fall somewhere on the normal book size scales. Sure there are differences, and you get the occasional, slightly funky-sized books, like In a Wicked Age or Annalise.

Form factor can be so much more than that. The original edition of Ribbon Drive was one of the most expensive experiments in terms of how much copies of the game ended up costing, but that DVD case with its CD and Booklet in it, really made the whole game an experience.

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War Alpha

Feeling good about my progress with War Stories at the moment. I was getting tied up with layout and flavour when I didn’t actually have the core mechanics nailed down. I set to writing up a skeletal rules document this weekend. Having it bare bones helped me to see a few things that were obscured before. I’m now confident of where I’m headed and how to get there.

Recent revelations?

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Initiative thoughts

The very concept of initiative seems to be hard coded into gaming. To play a game without it feels unusual. I like it, and want to see it used in my War game, but I also want to keep bookkeeping for the GM to an absolute minimum.

To do this I’ve started experimenting with using different systems in my regular fantasy game. This is perhaps the simplest hack I’ve ever been able to pull off. The initiative roll sits quietly in the mechanics, and with the increasing prevalence of cyclic initiative (you do it once and keep the results all the way through the conflict) it’s almost invisible in the game as a whole.

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