If you are familiar with my show, The Dragon’s Horde, then you will also be familiar with the concept of “the sleepy dragon list.” For those of you not in The Horde, the sleepy dragon list is a bit of an albatross hanging from my dungeon mastering neck. In brief, it is a shorthand list of ideas that I have for items, adventures, NPCs, and such. Items on the list include things like “He thinks he is a werewolf. He is not” or “weird (sexy?) key.” Then there is the infamous “sleepy dragon.” It has dwelt within the list for nigh 4 years now, and I have yet to remember what the heck I wanted to do concerning a sleepy dragon. Despite this, I have continued to expand my sleepy dragon list with tons of narrative seeds to get a story on track. One of the most frequent questions we get on the show is from new DMs asking how to get things started. To this I say, ask no more, friends; Pendragon has 7 adventure introductions to get the creative juices flowing!
1) The Herd
In the city of Sherrack there is a small village nestled within a grassy basin. Here, traders and farm hands amble about their day selling, harvesting, and discussing the recent goings-on over at Gumby’s farm. As of late, the resident octogenarian and shepherd has had quite the ordeal keeping his flock alive. Every day or two several of his flock go mysteriously missing; stranger yet, more sheep emerge from the woods to to fill their place the following day. Little do Gumby’s neighbors know, that he had recently developed an acute fear of his impending mortality and has turned experimenting on his flock to find the secrets of immortality. And little does Gumby know that the Divine have their eye on him and have sent a couple watchdogs his way in the form of sheep whose wool cannot be sheared.
2) Maiden Voyage
The Briny Steed had seen much better days on the sea. Now it rests patiently in harbor, waiting for its next (and probably final) voyage. Through bribery, philandering, and “oh, come on’s” the wannabe captain, Earl Stoutheart has managed to convince the party to commandeer the vessel and sail it across the Scattered Sea. The gang lies in the belly of the ship, waiting for nightfall, but when the time arrives, they emerge to a sight most strange. The ship has already departed on its own accord and seems to be in command of its own heading. It is a ship’s turn to do some commandeering for a change, and the party is along for the ride of a now sentient maritime vessel.
3) Alcohol Poisoning
You haven’t heard of the Drinking Hat?! Why, it’s the finest saloon for miles around. Well, it used to be anyway. Built in the husk of an abandoned grain silo, the proprietors of the bar have converted it into a massive, multi tiered drinking house. Tubes snake their way from the mountain of barrels above down to the respective patron, but I wouldn’t go there if I were you. Recently, a group of thieves guilders met an unfortunate end after having their drinks. They could have chosen any number of barrels to sip from, but the poor sods must have gotten one that had been tampered with. Some say it was just bad luck, but I say differently. I say they were assassinated. On my honor as guild master Roan, those responsible for the death of my men will pay with more than just coins.
The bardic hall in Brint is known nationwide for being the home to more than its fair share of celebrities. The flying Charnelli twins. Finnigan the wondrous. Heck, even Mertick and his performing bear Bathsalts have stopped by on occasion. No one expected a show stopper from Cleopatra though, but a show stopper it was. Everyone assumed she would live and die as a modest tailor until she took the stage to sing. The issue is, no one will ever know how the show actually went, because no one ever left. The morning after her performance, the the owner of the hall found the entire crowd dead in their seats! She has since been arrested for murder, but she says she is innocent and they simply dropped dead in the middle of her act. Cleopatra’s head is on the chopping block, and your party may be the only ones who can prove her innocence.
Let it never be said of Matilda that she was anything but a saint. Known for her meek generosity, Matilda enlists the help of the party to help her with a job a little outside the capabilities of a sweet aged woman. The thing is, locals are tired of the stagnant water of the swamp nearby, and they plan on draining it completely. This is all fine and good for most people, but not ‘ol Matilda. She informs the party that she left a large cache of treasure in a lockbox somewhere within the belly of the marsh. Should they find it, she would be more than happy to give them a cut of the booty. The party drudges around in the murky waters, following Matildas instructions closely, but when they arrive, not only do they find treasure but also a corpse clutching the lockbox. Upon further investigation, it appears that the body is wearing a locket with a picture of Matilda inside. Upon further further investigation, the party hears a group of locals approaching. Upon further further further investigation, the party is discovered by the locals (Matilda included) ripping the lockbox from the arms of a dead man. “That’s Harold!” Matilda shrieks, “And that is my lockbox!” Turns out Harold had mysteriously disappeared a year ago, taking both his and his wife’s savings with him. Matilda weeps in the arms of the closest friendly local, but what’s that? Did she just glance over and smirk?
6) The Call Of Pazuzu
(I incorporate something similar to the following in each of my campaigns. This cult is kind of like my signature; I would love to know if this inspired an adventure of your own). Your party is headed off for a new adventure in unfamiliar territory. About a day from their destination, a group of naked elves and humans approaches with open arms. They inform the party that they are thrilled to see new faces and are about to, in short, start a celebration. Whether they join the naked folk or not, the party has to pass by the strangers’ camp which has a massive, half finished totem looming overhead. The nudists are busily gathering scrap wood to finish the totem, and they gleefully sing, dance, and try to rope the group into helping. Despite their cordial, unsuspecting nature, these individuals have been waiting a year for that particular night to summon their favorite pestilence demi-god, Pazuzu! An otherwise silver moon slowly begins to shift to a blood red crimson; then, with the totem complete, Pazuzu in all of her pestilent glory animates the statue and chooses it as her personal avatar. Whoops.
7) The Bane Of My Existence
The role of an effective storyteller can be a daunting task, especially since most of the work of a Dungeon Master happens in real time, but having good narrative seeds chock full of possible hooks and intrigue can make the job that much easier. Nothing feels worse than getting to the table and not feeling like you have enough content to work with; veteran and beginner DMs alike know this. Hopefully you can find ways to plant these seeds if you find yourself in a pinch, and maybe you can start crafting a Sleepy Dragon list of your own! A brief aside, if you come up with a cool answer to the Sleepy Dragon conundrum, feel free to tell me about it at TheDragonsHordeCast@gmail.com so we can feature it on the podcast!
Andrew Pendragon is a veteran role player, Dungeon Master, and story teller. His work can be seen featured on outlets like the Chilling Tales for Dark Nights podcast and Youtube channel BlackEyedBlonde, but he takes the most pride in his High Level Games affiliate podcast The Dragon’s Horde where he, alongside his co host, answers listener submitted roleplay questions and weaves them into a false-actual-play adventure!
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/legend13/art/Sleepy-Dragon-s-Teddy-275967993
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If you’ve been playing roleplaying games beyond D&D for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Pelgrane Press. From 13th Age to a wide array of GUMSHOE products featuring the Cthulhu Mythos, vampires fighting super spies, and time-traveling hijinks, Pelgrane has been a force to be reckoned with. Managing Director Cat Tobin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about Pelgrane Press’ fantastic 2017, and what’s shaping up to be an even better 2018.
The past year has been great for Pelgrane Press, with the release of the Bestiary 2 and completion of the Battle Scenes series for 13th Age, Cthulhu Confidential, #Feminism, and a very successful Kickstarter campaign for The Yellow King. What big projects are you excited about for this year?
2017 was a record year for us, and I think 2018 is going to be even bigger for Pelgrane. The reason for that are the two projects I’m most excited about. The first is Fall of Delta Green. This is Kenneth Hite’s 1960s setting, which adapts Arc Dream’s intense thriller Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game for the GUMSHOE system. The 1960s brought us the moon landing, war in Vietnam, and counterculture in Haight-Ashbury, and so this decade offers a wealth of roleplaying opportunities to investigate through the twisted lens of the Delta Green mythos. I knew this was a great match of setting and system when I playtested the game, but it wasn’t until I saw the amazing art and design that Jen McCleary brought to the interior layout that I realised it was going to be one of the best books we’ve ever published on all metrics. I can’t wait for this to be released.
The other project I’m excited about is the delivery of Robin D. Laws’ The Yellow King RPG. This is a four-book core set, featuring the main rules – a streamlined version of GUMSHOE that we’re calling the Quick Shock system – in with the earliest setting, the Belle Epoque Paris featured in Robert W. Chambers’ original short stories. As a four-book set in a slipcase, it’s the most significant core book we’ve done, and Robin’s chosen top artists to illustrate it - Aaron Acevedo, Melissa Gay, Rachel Kahn, and Jessica Lee - so the art is stellar. Robin’s nearly finished the writing now, and most of the art is done, so we’re currently on track to have this to Kickstarter backers before December. Dean Engelhardt, who you might remember designed The Hawkins Papers for the Dracula Dossier for us, has now finished Absinthe in Carcosa, an in-world supplement for The Yellow King RPG. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Dean’s an industry leader at producing realistic aged documents, and he doesn’t disappoint in Absinthe.
Outside of Night’s Black Agents: SOLO, will GUMSHOE One-2-One be expanding to any other properties?
Cthulhu Confidential really scratched an itch for a lot of people who were looking for games to introduce partners to roleplaying, and its two-person format makes it really easy to run games online, too, so it has a lot of potential. The solo protagonist is a classic of both genre and non-genre media, and so the problem we have is too much choice of which setting to adapt next!
I really like Agatha Christie’s work, and I’d love to do something like a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot One-2-One setting. I’m very keen to do a non-genre One-2-One book, so that’s likely up next after Night’s Black Agents: SOLO. Our writers have pitched at least half a dozen other projects for One-2-One, so there’s definitely more settings coming!
First with Seven Wonders in 2016, and more recently with #Feminism in 2017, it seems like Pelgrane is moving more into micro game anthologies. Do you have plans for any this year, and what themes would you like to explore in future anthologies?
That’s a great question. We don’t plan it, but every now and again, one of us come across a game in the experimental/micro-game space that really grabs our interest; for me, Becky Annison’s When the Dark is Gone inspired the Seven Wonders anthology, and when I heard that #Feminism, which I wrote a nano-game for, was looking for a new publishing home, I jumped on it immediately – that’s a project that really resonates with our company goals. Recently, Simon’s played Steve Dempsey’s Da’Zoon, which is a GUMSHOE-lite system which distributes some elements of world creation to the players, and he really likes it, so that might end up on the publishing schedule as part of an anthology or setting collection. Simon and I have both playtested Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s drone, which is a futuristic short game, where three players play controllers of a reanimated drone, played by the fourth player. It’s got a solid core, and we’re likely to end up publishing that in some format, too, although likely not as an anthology.
In terms of actual plans, we’re seriously considering two anthologies featuring our systems; the first, a new anthology of DramaSystem Series Pitches, and the second, an anthology of short GUMSHOE games. These are both longer-term projects, and likely to be next year or the year after, though.
One of the big successes for you last year was The Yellow King. What one big tip can you give to others who may be looking to fund their own projects through Kickstarter?
A thing I always say about Kickstarters is that you have to bring your own audience. Unfunded Kickstarters are often the result of creators who’ve set up a campaign and then sat back, expecting an audience to show up. That’s not how it works! You have to establish a fanbase, and get them really excited about your project, before you Kickstart it. Then once you’re up and running, tell everyone about it. Talk about it on your social media channels. Share previews with reviewers and popular online hangouts for your target market. Which brings me to another point – make it look good. Your video and sample art are the things most likely to get your campaign shared, so make them as professional and slick as you possibly can.
What conventions will Pelgrane Press be making appearances at this year? Can we expect to see any Pelgranistas at HLGCon in October?
We always have a booth at three conventions: Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio; Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Dragonmeet in London, UK. Last year, we also had a booth at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, and we’re likely to be back there again this year. I love going to conventions, and I always try to get to one of the Double Exposure conventions in Morristown, New Jersey. So you never know – I might stop by HLGCon on the way!
Check out Pelgrane Press’ website here, and their DriveThruRPG products here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: http://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/about-us/
Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
As a creator and GM, I find myself constantly chasing that spark of inspiration to start the engine that is my mind. It’s an artist’s duty; to find things in the natural world and turn them into something fantastic. Luckily, with the information age that we live in, we can do this from the comfort of our homes. It never really compares to getting out there and seeing the real world, but for someone strapped for time and money, it suffices. We’re constantly bombarded with pop-culture media, eagerly devouring other people’s creative work. When you lack inspiration, why not just mash some stuff together and change the details? It’s easy to make things look original when you do that. Today we’ll be looking at some, in my opinion, pretty underrated villains that could be used as some inspiration. Shall we?
1) The Lich (Adventure Time)
Though a show intended for kids, Adventure Time has some pretty gripping themes with an incredible plot that hides under the veil of childish silliness. Finn the human is constantly battling evil forces from the past, present, and future all at once whilst trying to find any remnants his species in a world that has been morphed by a catastrophic event called “The Mushroom War.” When a majority of the people you know are talking candy people or animated objects, it’s a wonder how Finn was able to become such a strapping young lad. The big antagonist of the series is a fellow who simply goes by The Lich.
There’s a ridiculous amount of speculation around his background and where he comes from, but everybody can agree on one thing: he’s a complete and total badass. Just to give you an idea, he’s voiced by Ron Perlman in the show. It’s beyond perfect. Basically, The Lich is your cookie cutter “I need to kill everything” type bad guy. There’s something about how he’s animated and his speech pattern that just chills you to the core. Taking some of the speculation around how he came to be, what he’s actually done in the show, and what he may yet do would be a great way to lay the basis for a similar villain. The Lich is simple but an incredibly satisfying villain. Ossen, the big bad necromancer from my Ald Sotha game, was based off him, although given a more concrete goal and terrifying means of interacting with the player characters from afar. Dangerously cunning, immensely powerful, and just outright creepy. Certainly some traits that make for a fantastic undead villain!
2) Sharku (The Lord Of The Rings Films)
Being given no more background information than a sinister look in The Two Towers, Sharku is a surprisingly cool bad guy. This dude was the captain of the warg riders in the second film, and that was one of two scenes he was in. To be fair, he’s a character fabricated by Peter Jackson for the films, so there isn’t any depth to him that can be considered Tolkien canon. Since then, he’s had an appearance in a couple of the video games, but nothing more. For a villain that didn’t do anything besides throw Aragorn off a cliff, gloat, cough, and die a gurgling death, he had a profound impact on me. I had imagined his past as the leader of a largely annoying and harrying force to the free peoples of Middle Earth, a constant problem forced to be reckoned with.
Orc dudes riding around on wargs is no foreign concept to fantasy RPGs by any stretch. Plopping this one down into a campaign could be cool for a long-term villain that pops in and out of the PCs lives every now and again. Alternatively, making him just an episode villain for the night could be interesting. Given the fact that he’s such a minor villain in the films means that, unless you’re playing with LotR nerds, you can probably get away with using the same name, even. Give him the same attitude, a badass group of elite warg riders, and a bit of backstory to have an aesthetically pleasing, simple to build villain.
3) Nemesis (Resident Evil 3)
Everybody who played this game still pees a little when they hear something in the distance grumble, “S.T.A.R.S”. Nemesis was the ultimate killing machine in Resident Evil 3, relentless and stoic. What a lot of people didn’t think of until the film Resident Evil: Apocalypse, (which was terrible, though the special effects were cool) is that Nemesis actually could have a bit of a story to him. The film changes the original story a bit, but it’s generally similar. Nemesis was an offshoot of Umbrella Corporation’s “Tyrant” program, an experiment to create a bio-weapon that was unstoppable and autonomous. The main program worked, but Tyrant was a little lackluster, giving birth to Nemesis. He was intelligent, could follow orders even, but was simply a killing machine that made your heart scream in protest every time he showed up. His orders? Find and destroy any remaining members of Raccoon City’s S.T.A.R.S division, as they’re the ones who uncovered their sinister plot in the original Resident Evil.
The film took an interesting take on the subject, making Nemesis created from one of the main protagonist’s close friends. It gives the creature a little more depth, especially since it can still think, though bound to its creator to a degree. Taking this concept and morphing it into something that fits in a campaign could be a simple yet effective idea.
These are just a few of some villains who are easily swept under the carpet due to their seeming lack of depth. In the case of Sharku, I suppose it’s not just seemingly so, he actually didn’t do much of anything. Man, that poor guy wasn’t around very long. Picking up on the small ticks of seemingly tropey or innocuous villains and injecting that into something you’re creating could add something truly special to a campaign. Post comments about some transformations you’ve given to pre-existing villains!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Picture Reference: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Nemesis_(Resident_Evil)
Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
Read Part 1 Here
Anyone who has read my blog, The Heavy Metal GM, knows that I don’t try to hide that 13th Age is my go-to game. It stimulated my imagination like nothing else had before, and for that reason, I’m hooked. I played for maybe a year before I decided to take a dive into GMing the system. Learning how different it is behind the screen has been a trip, but it’s honestly only deepened my love for the game. Here’s the other six reasons to get into this game, from my side of the screen.
8) Monsters Are Simple (For The Most Part)
Other game systems in the TTRPG genre tend to follow this dice mechanic; roll to determine hit/miss, roll damage. 13th Age doesn’t do that; you roll to hit and monsters have a set amount of damage that they do, some with a few nasty effects added on. This helps speed up the process of laying down the hurt on your players, and I definitely prefer it to rolling damage. That’s just scratching the surface, as this sort of style makes encounter building easy too. You don’t have to consider the “if factor” of your monsters rolling near max damage every time. That pesky d20 could wipe out a party if it’s hot, but better one die than several.
I feel I need to address a valid comment that someone made on the previous post. To paraphrase, the individual had stated that the structures of some effects were a pain to keep track of. Some monsters get abilities that trigger on the Escalation Die, natural rolls (even, odd, natural x+, etc.), player hit points, and the like. It can be tough to remember, and if you’re referencing monsters from different books, laying that out in a manageable manner can a challenge. Here’s what I do: I remember what I can, disregard about what I can’t. Back tracking because you forgot an ability slows everything down. I keep my books open to the page I need, stack them on top of one another, and reference as needed throughout a combat. If you have the means, you could print the pages you need from the pdf if you have it. Maybe if I’m lucky, I can pitch the idea to make monster cards to Pelgrane (pfffft, in my dreams). To remember effects, conditions and ongoing damage, we use soda bottle rings of all different colors to throw onto a miniature. I hope this helps!
9) Halfway Finished
Playing a setting like Eberron (which love) requires someone to reference thousands of years of history, geographical locations, people, and many other things. The Dragon Empire, the stock setting for 13th Age, has a half-finished history. You old-school gamers e may be shocked and appalled at this idea, but it actually comes in handy. It means that every time you play in someone’s 13th Age game, the settings may be similar to one another but it is never the same. Details and rumors will vary from table to table, and man, does this keep the game fresh.
I absolutely adore having the wiggle room to inject my own twisted (I mean fun) ideas into my campaign. This is a very Tolkien-esque philosophy to world building. There’s so many gaps to fill that it captivates the imagination. You can’t be wrong if most of the “facts” are actually rumors, am I right?
10) Familiar But Fresh
I’ll say this about 13th Age until I’m blue in the face. Being an F20 game, it feels familiar and mimics games like D&D. It makes the transition from one game to another pretty close to seamless. This comes as no surprise, considering Rob Heinsoo is one of the designers. In my opinion, this is a very strong point to jump into this game. You basically don’t even have to learn a new rules system, it’s a painfully simplified version of D&D with some narrative fiddly bits. Said bits may even be easy to grasp, if your style is role-play heavy anyhow. All it does is take your style and apply a couple of simple yet effective mechanics to it.
From the GM standpoint, you have even less rules to learn because the only new thing you directly interact with is the aforementioned Icon Relationship rules. Backgrounds function like skills, the only difference is the negotiation. That only requires you to be a little gracious towards your players’ creativity, something we need more of in this hobby. Players have been doing the One Unique Thing idea since the dawn of role-playing. Rob and Jonathan made the concept mandatory, that’s all.
11) Story Flexibility
The fact that you could start by hunting a pack of orcs and end up in the Archmage’s flying citadel in the same night is a total win for me. All the published adventures hinge on how the player characters are tied to the world through their Icon Relationships. You could play an adventure 15 times over and it won’t ever be the same twice. The other narrative mechanics presented make every session one of a kind, where the details will almost never be the same unless you simply choose to do so. It’s truly a beautiful thing that I’ve grown to love as a GM.
It makes running the same adventure more than once at a convention just as exciting and new as the first time. The experience only gets smoother the more times you do it while maintaining a level of freshness. Even if you’re running your own adventures, that Icon Relationship thing can make it take some unexpected turns. Things can also get exceedingly deep if you have someone in your group that’s a big-time role-player. Chances are, their one unique thing could be a focal point for an entire campaign. Bouncing ideas off of each other as to how to develop it and how their comrades fit into the equation as things go on is an interesting way to experience a narrative. The more players you have like this, the more twists and turns the story takes, giving it a life of its own. Letting the story take its own direction is a blast, this game does it exceedingly well.
12) Heroic Heroes Doing Heroic Things
13th Age is a game of heroes. A first level player character is still a seasoned adventurer, not a farmer that decided to pick up a sword instead of a pitchfork. Though, that could very well be your character’s story, the idea of the game is to not be starting at that transition. Instead, you’re plopped down somewhere in the middle and are supposed to continue that growth that your background hints at. At first level, orcs and kobolds are still scary but you’re not going to get completely destroyed by them. I’ve thrown packs of gnolls at second level characters and they didn’t bat an eye. The combat was riveting, dangerous and interesting but I didn’t once feel that it was too much for them to handle. They felt powerful, they felt important, they felt heroic. Being a badass in the 13th Age is a surprisingly easy thing to do, and it feels good!
As you move through the tiers of play, things do get more difficult but the math increases in such a way that it instills confidence in your abilities as a player. Having double digit math at low levels does have its drawbacks, however. At tenth level, things do get a little silly, but the game doesn’t fall apart in the same way that other games seem to at the epic/paragon tier of play. If your tenth level fighter uses a two-handed great sword, they’re rolling 10d10 damage on a single swing of that bugger. A huge red dragon has 1200 hit points, but that stuff hurts! Thanks to things like the Escalation Die and some of the more frightening baddies, it doesn’t get too bogged down. Combat still runs smooth and fast while feeling like some good ol’ high flying, adventurous fun.
13) Strong Organized Play
Every time I read one of the Tales of the 13th Age adventures, I’m a giddy goat. The organized play structure that these guys developed is very episodic and theatric. It’s all free, and the adventures are done incredibly well by ASH LAW. He has a penchant for all things whacky and weird, making each adventure a truly epic experience. All the adventures can be loosely tied together, but they throw you all over the Dragon Empire, giving you a chance to see how the Icons interact with one another.
The season one Halloween adventure, The Folding of Screamhaunt Castle is great. What was beautiful about that piece in particular, is that it has the potential to be whimsical like Hocus Pocus or it can be a truly terrifying horror story. It’s so easy to change the tone of the adventures, which makes them versatile. Some people like silly adventures, others don’t, and there’s no change in the story substance to run it either way. To put the mechanical frosting on the narrative cake, all the combat encounters come with tables telling you exactly how many of each enemy use depending on headcount. No challenge rating calculations, no guessing, just plug and play.
If this post in tandem with the first one doesn’t make you want to take this game out for a test drive, I don’t believe that anything will. Both tantalizing art, and the beautifully simplistic nature make this game a heavy contender in the world of table-top. I truly hope that you’ll grab your dungeon delving gear and plunge headlong into the fantastical world of the Dragon Empire.
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, Join the conversation.
You thought this was gonna be something else, didn’t you? While I may, or may not, write a piece on handling suicide in your media (tl;dr version: don’t consult psychologists on how to handle it and then proceed to do the exact opposite of what they say won’t be harmful) eventually, today is not that day. Today, I have the first half of 13 reasons why 13th Age is the coolest game from a player’s perspective. The other half will be from the GM’s side of things by the Heavy Metal GM because ya girl bird has never GM’d a thing in her life.
1) BSing Your Backgrounds
13th Age was my first ever TTRPG, but I’ve spent a few nights playing 1st and 3.5th editions of D&D. The thing that stuck out to me most as a difference between them was the lack of flexibility in other games. If my friend has a limb ripped off by an errant owlbear and they’re taking 20 ongoing you-just-had-your-arm-forcibly-removed-from-you damage, I can at least try to tie a tourniquet around their arm to staunch some of that until we can get them to a qualified healer, even if I don’t have a background specifically in healing. In D&D, my party member bleeds out because I didn’t take the first-aid skill and “press down on a wound” is just soooooo far out of my range of capability as an adventuring person. If you can sell it to the GM and the dice are on your side, you can do anything. Or at least try and have some hilarious stories to tell about crit fails. Backgrounds in this game are a little more loosey-goosey than others, the freedom of which is quite refreshing; and as long as you can sell why your background might apply to the GM, you can add it for a bonus to skill checks. “Former court jester for the Emperor” might help you with anything from diplomacy checks to feats of acrobatics; the possibilities are endless until the GM decides to rein you in. ;)
2) Cool Combats, Even for Clerics!
My other big beef with older versions of D&D (I have yet to play 5E) was that as a cleric, I got to do absolutely nothing interesting in combat. My friends would get the snot beat out of them, I would say “I heal stuff” and then my turn was over. In 13th Age, you get three types of actions; standard, move, and quick, and you can downgrade one type for more of the other. Healing spells are usually a quick action, which means your shank-happy girl gets to give life and take it away in the same turn. >:D The other nice thing about this is that if you’ve split the party (bad idea, do not recommend), you can downgrade your standard action to get two move actions and put a meat shield between your squishies and whatever eldritch horror they’ve irked in one turn, rather than having to revive them after they take that 50 points of tentacle damage.
3) GET SOME CLASS!
The class system in 13th Age is really diverse, and even within classes, it’s possible to come up with completely different builds. We had two clerics in my Tuesday group and we couldn’t have been more different functionally, and we never felt like we were stepping on each other’s toes. Side-note: HIGHLY recommend playing a bard; they’re a lot of fun and I feel like are the best example of being able to build vastly different characters within the same class. Bonus: you can take a spell called “vicious mockery” which basically means sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never --- oh dear, I’m dead.
4) Make Your Own Gods
13th Age allows players to come up with their own set of gods and there aren’t set rules as to how a follower of so-and-so needs to behave, something that, you guessed it, rankled me as a player in 3.5; which, to be fair, may have just been the GM at the time. Gods also aren’t explicit movers and shakers within the 13th Age universe, although GMs can certainly choose to make this the case. Instead of having gods meddling with the affairs with mortals, 13th Age encourages the use of the icon system, my next point.
5) The Icon System
The Icons are 13 power-players in the world of 13th Age and are (mostly) mortal. They’re people who can be killed, but it’s not recommended for players to attempt to do so before 10th level. Each player takes relationship points with different icons and rolls a d6 for each at the beginning of the session. 5’s and 6’s will allow a player to do a thing they are normally not capable of, if they can sell why their relationship/affinity for an icon would allow them to do the thing. As an example: if I’m out of heal spells and my friend is dying from that vicious owlbear attack and I want to re-attach their arm, I can spend a 5 or a 6 with the Priestess to do so because she’s a pillar of strength and healing, and that has inspired me to find an extra reserve of magic. Fives come at a cost determined by the GM, so for this example I might be draining my own HP to complete this ritual, whereas sixes are just straight up boons without major consequences.
6) Finding an OUT
OUT, in this case, stands for “one unique thing.” Pelgrane Press forces you to come up with a fun, non-combat related quirk for your character. Sometimes they’re silly, other times they’re central to your character’s development/arc in the plot. They can range from ,“I have a mouse companion that swaps out all of my gear to something equivalent when I’m not looking” to “I am destined to kill the Orc Lord” to “I am an animated suit of armor with the previous (deceased) user still inside it” to “I know when I will die, but not how.” Whether your character shares their OUT with the rest of the party makes for interesting player dynamics.
7) Magic Items!
You can make your own with the help of the GM! HOW COOL IS THAT?! The standard ones in the core rulebook are pretty sweet, with each type of item granting a standard bonus (e.g. armor gives a +1 to AC and PD) and then typically a funsy on top of that (e.g. being able to see around corners). The Book of Loot contains magic items that are tied to specific Icons (e.g. a ring that will transport you to The Elf Queen’s chambers each night when you go to sleep) which have some really fun story implications. Another fun element from Pelgrane is that if your number of magic items exceeds your current level, you begin to exhibit the “quirk” denoted under each entry for a specific magic item, such as “exhibits a strong taste for rare meat” or “remembers poetry from obscure 11th Age authors” – offering players a unique roleplaying opportunity and a nice ice-breaker for those new to the role-playing scene.
After three years of playing this system and little else (Gumshoe & Star Wars being the exceptions), I’m not tired of it, and having something that remains entertaining and accessible for newbies and old hats alike is pretty awesome in my book. With that, I’ll turn it over to the Heavy Metal GM (in a few weeks), who will tell you why 13th Age is the bee’s (metal) knees from the GM’s perspective.
FancyDuckie is a 20-something researcher by daylight, and mahou shoujo cosplayer by moonlight! She’s also known to play murder hobo elven clerics with a penchant for shanking twice a week. Also known as “science girlfriend” of The Heavy Metal GM. When she’s not chained to her sewing machine or doing other nerdy stuff, she enjoys watching ballet, musical theatre, pro hockey, and playing with any critter that will tolerate her presence. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, Cospix, ACParadise, Facebook, Instagram, & Wordpress, all under the same convenient handle.
With a title like that, I have to spill the beans. I’m only 22 years old, which apparently make me pretty young in the gaming community. This fact makes me proud to be a part of the hobby’s growth and development but makes me the butt-end of many jokes. Considering my upbringing, it just kind of rolls off, my family was awful like that. Two out of my three groups are with “older” gamers. To most people my age, it seems rather weird that I game with people ten or twenty years older than me. The way I see it; people are people and if you can look past that, there’s a lot to gain, learn and enjoy. More than most would think, there’s plenty of good stuff you can get from gamers outside of your age bracket.
Most obvious of all, gamers who have been in the hobby for a while have a good grip on what’s going on. The internet is spattered with GM advice, player advice, homebrew rules/settings etc. etc. What’s great about being involved with a game group of folks older than you: they did all that before the internet existed. This means that everything they’re hashing out has been honed by many nights spent in a terrible setting run in a terrible way that ultimately lead to a polished mindset of game design and development. Moreover, things tend to be less stereotypical with experienced gamers. People who have been around the block more than a few times tend to be bored with the slaughtering of kobolds for their gold and tend to think outside the box. For me, it often delivers a more intriguing, deep and unique story that makes you think and question the world.
Perhaps stating it that way makes it seem a little more dramatic than it actually is, but the gaming experience does tend to be more rich. Experience doesn’t only shine in a well thought out world, though. Techniques for foreshadowing, table management, characterization, plot building and every other aspect of the game simply tends to be better. If the other players are of the same ilk, I find that things also can run very smoothly. It’s really taught me how to be a good contributor on both sides of the screen.
2). Rigid schedules
My Saturday group struggles to get together regularly as opposed to my Tuesday one. This could be for a multitude of reasons, but the one that’s most obvious to me is the difference in personal lives. The Tuesday crew is my elderly group (not really, oh, are they going to love reading that!) and tends to meet far more regularly. That group also has a lot more people, which likely has a huge amount of relevance. However, upon pondering the subject, it makes sense. People with families and full time jobs tend to have a lot more predictable lives in regards to scheduling.
Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s easier to set aside one day for something a week when every other day is spoken for already by a family or job. Maybe being younger and having a lot more free time makes people prone to doing other stuff or getting distracted. Who knows? The point stands. On the other hand, those with kids can be absent for a long time due to extracurricular activities. I would assume that’s why my Tuesday group has seven players with a minimum of four to play a game.
But wait… I have a predictable schedule and a full time career. What does that make me?
3). No longer embarrassed
Role-playing games are a bunch of people sitting around a table playing pretend. It sounds foolish in that light, but honestly, what would you call it? When I describe it to people outside of the hobby I call it “collective storytelling,” but that’s just because I don’t want to sound strange. Hundreds of times over, I’ve brought somebody into this hobby and they can’t get into the game because they’re embarrassed about playing pretend. To be fair, it does take some time getting used to, but it can get a little frustrating, too. Playing with the Grognards is amazing because nobody cares. Everybody just says/does whatever they think would be relevant for the character, without a care in the world.
It’s such a liberating feeling to be sitting around a table with that kind of atmosphere. When everybody has that level of investment in what they’re doing, it helps make the game immersive and rich with imagery. Even better, when things are less serious, the comedic element is all that more potent.
4). Amazing stories
Our hobby is almost infamous for creating memorable moments. Even if you’re new to gaming, there’s bound to be some sort of memorable story for you to talk about in the future. As with most things, more time invested means more conversation points. Playing with Grognards really accentuates that fact. My favorite role-playing story actually comes from my Tuesday group in the Eberron campaign setting. It pretty much hashed out the way that the classic Gazeebo story does, but instead we faced a stone elephant statue. The main difference was, instead of actually dying, they had to fight it and be shamed into running away.
Don’t you love it when inanimate objects turn into monsters? But anyhow, before the game, sometimes the group gets wrapped into a reminiscing session about epic moments in previous games. It’s a total blast to listen to, kind of like listening to a war veteran talk about their experiences. Okay, that comparison might be a bit of a stretch, but the sense of wonder and amazement can be similar.
On the short hand, for you tl;dr type people; go find yourself a group outside of your age bracket. It’ll probably be the best thing you ever do and help improve your understanding of role playing.
Sean is a BMW technician by day, the Heavy Metal GM by night, and loves everything about 13th Age. If the game interests you and you want to learn more, check out his 13th Age blog here.
I have to admit, sometimes I am a lazy role-player, and more recently I am the laziest role-player. I expect to turn up at the latest session -ready for fun- with little-to-no time in preparation.
I haven’t always been this way. I have done the GMing stuff where there is more work involved, but at this point in my life I want a gaming experience that takes me away into the mythical world and away from the drudgery of laundry and lesson planning. However, my foray back into regular gaming was not my easy, comfortable sweater that I expected and wanted to slip on. No, it was shiny new settings and games, and I had a lot to learn. As lazy as I am, I am glad for it.
1 . New games make you read
I know it sounds like a boring reading comprehension test, but with new systems and settings comes new ideas and ways of looking at role-playing. And every rule/adventure book has its own feel that you become immersed in. Now, I’m not talking about just skimming the pages until you see numbers underneath the class/race/occupation/skills that make your eyes light up (but you do need to do that as well). I am talking about reading about the world that has been lovingly crafted for you to explore or being consumed into a new culture through someone’s words. These can be the clearest depiction that gives each person the same sense of what is going on or they can be an outline that make you develop those places and people together. Often a completely new setting will spark your imagination and energise your play.
Furthest to the south is the sandy and inhospitable lands of the Owl Clan, who share strange and arcane secrets with the emptiness of the desert. They are known for consorting with spirits that often spell ill to their "mistresses."
From a stone-age fantasy D&D 5E setting created by VP Quinn
2 . New games make you think and role-play differently
We all fall into a bit of a routine with role-playing. Even those with a streak of interesting, dynamic characters often use similar techniques to get information, to engage in combat, or even to interact with NPCs and PCs. There are vastly different games each with their own idea of these interactions. They force you to think differently. As an investigator in the Cthulhu world, I started by looking into one thing at a time at one place… like some sort of linear path. What I learned was that sometimes a scattershot of searching sometimes works best. It is a small thing, but it is a skill I will use in other games.
Also, with my first jump into the Cthulhu world being just a few months ago, the simple words from the first handout are a callback to an unending exploration of how I role-play and how fear can motivate action.
A landlord, Mr. Knott, asks you to examine an
old house in central Boston, known as the Corbitt
House. The former tenants, the Macario family,
were involved in a tragedy and the owner wishes
to understand the mysterious happenings at the
house and set matters straight. Mr. Knott been
unable to rent the house out since the tragedy
and hopes that you can clear things up and restore
its good name. He offers to reimburse you
for your time and trouble. The landlord gives you
the keys, the address and $25 cash in advance.
Call of Cthulhu, The Haunting
What could go wrong?
3 . New games remind you of some of the awesome things you used to do
Remember that one time, you put that clever twist on your gaming experience. No, not that one, the other one. Nope, not that either. I think you did it around 2005…. What do you mean you don’t remember that far back?
Often, we remember the epic battles and the clever encounters from years back. We have told and retold them with great fervor. But sometimes it was the little things that added more interest to the group and kept things going. Often a new game will remind you of such experiences and rekindle the love of the minute details.
Though my jump into 13th Age was only one session, I was enamored with their idea of the “One Unique Thing.” Often, I had characters with that extra trait that set them apart, but often as time went on those clever ideas were left behind in the process. This forced me to look at that critically at the beginning of character creation. It is now in the forefront of my mind as I am in the midst of making a new character right now.
4 . You have a chance to use different dice
Seriously, I have some under utilized dice in my pack. I look forward to dusting off some d6s for this wade into the Star Wars 3E universe.(Editor’s note, Star Wars’ games seem to like using odd or specific dice. The fantasy flight version of SW has its own dice which are cool, but it also requires you buy their specific dice. It’s a marketing ploy only a big game can get away with.)
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches middle school science, math, art, and other random subjects. She loves new teenagers in action. They make her laugh and shake her head and her world is much better with laughter. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games