Thursday, July 25, 2013

Masters of the 13th Age

Over at the Tower of Zenopus I left the following comment:

The other major thing you'd have to tweak for your own setting is the Icons. The good thing is that although the game makes heavy use of the Icons, they are themselves referred to in generic terms; the game refers to the "Lich King" but this could be Vecna, Azalin, Nagash, Sauron or Skeletor. It needn't even be a lich king if you didn't want it to be; there's an article on Rob Heinsoo's blog about using 13th Age to run a Shadowrun game and using corporations in place of Icons.

Now I have this bonkers idea -- bonkers because there's no way my group would play it -- to run a Masters of the Universe campaign using 13th Age. There are a couple of approaches one can take with adapting a setting to 13th Age and its Icons; in some cases a straight swap might be possible, but I don't think there's any harm in coming up with new roles if the standard ones don't fit without becoming meaningless.

Skeletor is an easy one, because of course he's the Lich King, a fallen skull-faced wizard desperate to discover the Sorceress' secrets and conquer Eternia. He is allied with or opposed to Hordak depending on the day of the week and has a mysterious connection to the Eternian Royal Family.

The Sorceress is a magician allied with the Royal Family, but is also somewhat aloof and has her own agenda. She could be a straight swap for the Archmage or the Priestess, but I'd probably lean towards the Archmage to make her a bit more unpredictable.

Hordak is a cyborg skeletal pig man with an army of robots and a bat fetish, so isn't a neat fit with any of the existing 13th Age Icons and I'd probably create a new role for him, opposed to the Royal Family and allied -- sometimes -- with Skeletor. He's also stuck on another planet most of the time, and that's an interesting contrast with the more active Icons.

The Eternian Royal Family fit well in the Emperor role, standing for civilisation and order in a chaotic world. As such, King Randor and Queen Marlena have much in common with the Sorceress as they all strive to keep the world safe. As an extra complication, the Queen knows that her son is also the Sorceress' champion He-Man, but Randor does not, because he's a Dad and Dads are rubbish at knowing what's going on with their kids.

King Hiss would seem to be a good fit for the Orc Lord role, an ancient force of chaos and destruction returned to the world and seeking to overturn civilisation. He works with Skeletor or Hordak in rare circumstances but the alliances soon break due to mutual distrust. Although Hiss does not know the Sorceress, her magic is the same as that which banished him aeons ago so he considers her an enemy.

Zodac is another who doesn't fit in with the standard 13th Age Icons as he's concerned with balance and neutrality. The closest 13th Age gets to that is the High Druid, but she's all woodcraft and lentils and Zodac's more ray guns and floating chairs and ripping off Jack Kirby. Neutral alignments can be a bit naff in D&D but I think that the way 13th Age makes alignment more a matter of association with actual personalities gives neutrality more potential; it's difficult to play a character who strives to maintain a balance between abstract moral concepts but it's easier when those concepts are embodied in other characters with their own personalities and goals. So Zodac is in, as an observer and secretive manipulator of the other Icons.

There's one notable omission up there. I've left out He-Man because while he is somewhat iconic -- what with his name being in the title of the cartoon and everything -- he doesn't seem to be much of an independent operator with his own goals; rather he serves either the Sorceress or the Royal Family, or both. I suppose one could create a role for him but it doesn't seem in keeping for Icons to be subservient to each other and as much as he is the most powerful man in the universe, he is also a bit of a lackey. Also, with He-Man off stage it means that there is more for the players to do.

I've also stopped at six Icons, in part because the setting is not quite rich enough to support the full thirteen, but also because I suspect 13th Age's Icon system is flexible enough to work with a lesser number and all this nostalgic waffling is -- in a way -- supposed to be a proof of concept.

Now all I need is for someone to play it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

You've Been Framed

There have been plenty of computer games based on comics properties over the years but not too many that have emulated the comics medium itself. 1988's Batman: The Caped Crusader is one notable exception:

Sega's Comix Zone for the Mega Drive is a more sophisticated version of what Batman was getting at:

Perhaps we were waiting for the right technology to come along; 2013 will see the release of Framed from Loveshack Entertainment. What's most interesting to me about Framed is that unlike the earlier games, the medium of comics isn't only a stylistic element but is fundamental to the core game mechanics:

From the look of it, Framed seems to be a sort of action-puzzle hybrid in a similar vein to the original Lemmings titles, but the parameters of the game are not yet clear; there's no time limit shown in the concept video, nor is there any indication of whether the player can only work with what's there at the start or if they can bring in new panels. It may turn out that Framed is going to be a stylish but casual amusement rather than a true brain-busting puzzler but even if that turns out to be the case, as a fan of comics and computer games I applaud the concept and I'm keen to see more as the game develops.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beautiful Destruction

I have been excited about seeing Pacific Rim since it was first announced, and after what has seemed like an endless wait I saw it yesterday.

The short review is that I loved it and it lived up to almost all of my high and unreasonable expectations. It is probably going to bomb at the box office and that's an injustice so I recommend that you go and see it.

It's not a perfect film -- this is the longer review now, by the way -- but my quibbles were few. The lead actors are a bit flat; they often are in action films but in Pacific Rim it's exacerbated by a bunch of supporting actors who have far more charisma. It's no accident that they put Idris Elba in the trailers.

I was also a bit disappointed that the climax of the film is almost identical to that of one of the biggest titles of last year. Pacific Rim has been in production for so long that the similarity was perhaps unavoidable, and it's not a bad climax, but it is a bit of a shame as the comparisons probably won't be in the newer film's favour.

That's it for the things I didn't like, and one of them isn't really a problem with the film itself.

Pacific Rim's greatest strength -- and alas, I think the source of most of the complaints from other reviewers -- is that it is not pretentious. The trailers promised giant robots punching giant monsters and that's just what the film delivers. It would be easy to get this wrong -- the recent Transformers films are an excellent example -- but Guillermo Del Toro and his team work hard to make this the best robots-punching-monsters film they can.

The characters are simple, yes, but they are believable, as a result of good use of archetypes. The awkward English scientist, the brash Australian, and the dour Russians are all action movie clichés but that's all they need to be to make the story work. You could add a bunch of wrinkles to them but they'd be just as unnecessary as they would have been in Aliens and if you're going to argue that Aliens is a bad action film then you're some kind of dangerous lunatic.

That said, a good action movie gets away with thin characterisation because the action sequences carry the film and that's true of Pacific Rim. Del Toro has always had a good eye for a combat sequence -- Blade II may have had its problems but the fights were spectacular -- and he brings that approach to the all important monster-punching bits, with excellent choreography and pacing; every fight has a twist or revelation that gives it a bit of a kick and transforms -- pun intended -- the battle. There were a handful of moments where I wanted to cheer at the audacity of what was happening on screen.

Also important is a sense of scale, something that both Cloverfield and the American Godzilla fumbled and Pacific Rim gets spot on. I have heard that the 3D version mucks this up, in effect growing the viewer to the size of the monsters and robots and robbing the film of some of its more striking visuals. I saw it in the more sensible format -- as Del Toro intended -- and it was gorgeous; the Hong Kong sequence is a particular highlight, all neon and lashing rain and titans battling in the middle of it all. There's an odd sort of elegance to the film, a sense of beautiful destruction.

The design work is excellent. The artists have taken a simple approach, resulting in clear, almost iconic shapes; each monster and robot has a clean and distinctive silhouette and I could draw a reasonable likeness of the larger members of the Pacific Rim cast from memory right now but I'd struggle to do the same with the spiky jumbles of the Transformers films, and those are characters I've been following for decades. I suppose one positive aspect of the film's potential failure is that the action figures will soon be heading for the clearance shelves and I can pick them all up for half price.

There have been some indifferent and even negative reviews of the film but I think those reviewers are perhaps looking for too much. Right from the start Pacific Rim set out what it was going to be about and more than lives up to that initial promise. It's a very honest film and I don't think it's been given enough credit for that honesty. Of course it's okay to want more from one's entertainment -- I have often been a critic of products that play it safe and in its own way the film does push boundaries, at least in the sense that no one in the West has made a film like it before -- but there's also something to be said for unpretentious quality and Pacific Rim has heaps of that. You might pooh-pooh the broad idea of a giant monster movie but you can't say that Pacific Rim isn't an excellent example of the genre.

Also, Kanye West liked it and if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

(2022: Crikey, the Kanye West thing didn't age well, did it? I still like Pacific Rim, whatever the racist says.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I love this:

My PSN name is kelvingreen should you fancy some cooperative Castle Crashing.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

1st Impressions of the 13th Age

I was aware of role-playing games as a child -- I'd played the multiplayer version of Fighting Fantasy once or twice, I'd seen mentions of more complex games in magazines, and adverts for the 1983 Dungeons and Dragons red box were omnipresent in the Marvel UK comics I devoured each week -- but my proper introduction to the hobby came in the mid-90's when a friend -- noting my interest in the orcs-with-guns of Warhammer 40,000 -- suggested that I might like Shadowrun. For the next few years I played all sorts of games and was introduced to those that remain my favourites to this day, but for whatever reason we played D&D itself only once or twice.

After a brief break during which I got a useless degree and moved to Minnesota, I returned to the land of my birth and -- remembering a thriving gaming culture in Brighton -- got in touch with the local gamers. There I met new friends and formed a new group, one that still meets to play once a week -- well, almost -- and that gave me my first proper experience of D&D. At the time The Game had just appeared in a brand spanking new fourth edition so we played that until we realised it was rubbish and moved on to other things; we settled on Pathfinder and aside from short breaks to play the odd bit of Call of Cthulhu or Cold City it's been the group's main game, so I've gone from almost never playing D&D to playing one version of it to the near exclusion of everything else.

It's fine. I quite like the idea of D&D and we do have fun, which is the point after all, but Pathfinder is far from my favourite iteration of the venerable role-playing game. It's a bit too complicated for my liking, with rules for almost everything, and I prefer a looser, lighter system; something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example. The problem is that for some members of the group games like LotFP are a bit too simple, too much of an overcompensation; what we need is something in the middle, not too complex but with enough moving parts to keep everyone interested.

All of which brings me at long last to 13th Age.

Bear in mind that I've not played it yet -- I've been waiting for my printed copy to arrive before I do that -- but I have spent the past couple of days reading the pdf and I like it a lot, which is odd as it has much in common with D&D4 and I hated that.

D&D4 seemed to be all about combat so there were lots of rules and mechanics for hitting things, and while there was an attempt to deal with other aspects of play it all seemed a bit of an afterthought. There was also a sense that while packed with options, the combat rules were not designed as well as they seemed, as fights were interminable trials that went on almost as long as the three introductory paragraphs at the start of this review. 13th Age takes a similar approach but does it better; there's an admission that combat is an important part of the game so there are lots of tricks and tweaks, but there's also an acknowledgement that stabbing monsters should be fun so those tricks and tweaks are diverse and interesting and no two work in the same way. 13th Age also introduces the Escalation Die -- although I'm certain I saw an almost identical idea cropping up on one of the old-school gaming blogs a couple of years ago -- a simple way of emulating the increasing tension of battle, sort of like the Limit Breaks of the Final Fantasy games.

A 13th Age fight starts just like any other fight in any other d20 game, but with the second round the six-sided Escalation Die comes into play. It starts at 1 and the player-characters -- and some opponents -- get to add 1 to their attack rolls; if the fight continues into another round then the Die is turned to 2, the bonuses increase to match and so it goes until the Die gets to 6. If the player-characters dawdle or are too cautious then there's a chance that the Die might reset to 0, and some abilities are triggered by the Die's current value, all of which results in a combat system that rewards action and avoids a sense of grinding. It's a fun and elegant mechanic with lots of potential -- I'd also use it to trigger reinforcements or for environmental effects like lightning strikes during a rain-soaked rooftop battle -- and I'm keen to try it out.

13th Age has good rules for sticking sharp things into the soft bits of one's enemies but the authors haven't forgotten that there is more to role-playing games -- even D&D derivatives -- than violence and have taken an interesting approach by more or less bolting an abstract story game on to the side. I must admit that it's not the smoothest join and it does feel a bit like two very different games rubbing together, but it's a better approach than trying to squash the non-combat aspects of the game into combat-based mechanics as D&D4 did. It does mean that players have to make a mental switch between Fighting Mode and Story Mode but that's not a bad thing; unified mechanics can be convenient, but they are not a good in themselves.

I am most fond of the One Unique Thing and Backgrounds concepts. The former is something that's chosen in character generation and is an aspect of the character that sets them apart from every other character in the world; it's the kind of freeform idea I like and because it should have no mechanical benefit it should remain more or less immune to abuse. Backgrounds are 13th Age's replacement for skill lists and are also quite loose and liberal; a character might have "Soldier +3" as a background, so they could get a +3 bonus to anything a soldier might be good at, from devising battlefield tactics to polishing boots to a bright shine. Perhaps the player might be more specific and go for "Veteran of the Dwarf Wars +3" and so their character could also get a bonus when talking to other veterans of the conflict or remembering the name of a particular dwarven officer. I can imagine that some players might find the background system a bit too loose and woolly to be comfortable but I like the flexibility of it.

I am not so sure about 13th Age's other big innovation, the Icons, but I think that's because I've not yet seen how they work in play. Instead of fitting into a traditional alignment system 13th Age characters are associated with one or more of the powerful non-player-characters of the setting. These NPCs are sketched out in vague terms so that they can be developed to fit individual campaigns -- home-made or published; the Lich King, for example, could be Bob the Necromancer or he could be Vecna -- but there's enough detail on their goals, status, and relationships with each other that a network is formed and then the player-characters fit into that network depending on how they spend points at character generation. One player-character might have a close, positive relationship to the Orc Lord, and would thus lean towards supporting barbarism and chaos but with none of the baggage associated with writing "Chaotic Neutral" at the top of their sheet. This part I like, if only because it should stop endless arguments about whether Lawful Good characters can butcher orc children; the bit I have some difficulty with is the mechanical aspect in which a character's relationship to an Icon is turned into a roll for various story effects.

I'm quite happy with the idea of rolling Icon dice at the end of a session as a sort of impromptu scenario generator for next time, but I'm not sure about some of the other uses, such as rolling during the game to see if the random assassin who just stabbed you might have been sent by the Dwarf King; I'm all for emergent story in my games and I love a bit of swingy randomness but even so this approach seems a bit too arbitrary at first glance. All that said, I'm not sure I've understood the subtleties of the system and I suspect that it might work better in play.

13th Age does lots of other things that I like. Monster statistics are condensed to an almost Basic D&D bareness while still offering plenty of tactical options. The game's approach to magic items is wondrous -- pun intended -- with items having a sort of communal ego so that the more enchanted objects a character carries the more those objects will be able to exert control over the character's actions. The authors have also improved on D&D4's lacklustre ritual system by making combat magic the instant-gratification poor cousin of more powerful sorcery; acid arrow is a short, focussed burst of damage suitable for those occasions when an orc is trying to eat one's face, but given the luxury of time a ritual magician can get creative with the acid to burn through locks or poison a water supply or anything else they can imagine. Experience points have been dumped in favour of an encounter-based progression system in which characters can claim small improvements as they rise to the next level; it's similar in some ways to how Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay handles character growth, and as I love WFRP that's a thumbs-up. 13th Age is full of little treasures like this and so it ticks a lot of boxes for me.

The book looks quite good, or at least the electronic version does. The layout is clear and the art is attractive, if a bit generic, but then 13th Age is competing with D&D and Pathfinder as a generic fantasy role-playing game so that's fitting in a way that an idiosyncratic Planescape-type approach to the visuals perhaps would not. The writing is at times unclear, as if the authors assume that the audience is familiar with some of the new concepts already -- it took me a while to figure out how feats worked, for example, and I'm still not sure I've got it right -- but it's also light-hearted and witty, with plenty of friendly sidebars explaining the thinking behind the rules. I'm a firm believer in moving away from the dry textbook approach and making game books interesting and fun to read -- everyone should read Small But Vicious Dog as soon as possible, even if they never play it -- so it's good to see that in something as high profile as 13th Age.

I don't know if 13th Age is the version of D&D that everyone in my group will like, and I won't know until we've put it through its paces, but from what I've read it looks promising. It's not so complicated that it makes my brain hurt but it is full of options that should make games fun and unpredictable. I have high hopes.