Sunday, April 20, 2014

2nd Impressions of the 13th Age

Long time readers will recall that I was quite impressed by 13th Age and was keen to play it as soon as I could. That turned out to be almost a year later. Oops.

We have played two sessions so far and it is fair to say that after the first my enthusiasm for the game had been dampened somewhat as the players didn't seem to take to it at all; my hopes for a D&D-like game in the middle ground between the complexity of Pathfinder and the simplicity of OSR-type games that everyone could enjoy seemed to have been dashed. Part of this was because it was a new system and we were all getting used to how it worked but part of it was because I started off by running the adventure included in the rule book; this was perhaps my main mistake.

It is quite linear but I see the wisdom of that as you don't want to drop the players into a wild and unrestricted sandbox from the start; it makes sense that you'd want to become familiar with the game mechanics before you start using them to explore the setting. Fair enough.

The problem is that I think a starting adventure should introduce the players to the game's unique concepts and features and "Blood  Lightning" doesn't do that, being more a series of fights. Every player-character in 13th Age has One Unique Thing, some non-mechanical aspect that sets them apart from everyone else in the setting; in our game we have the only red dragonborn, a tiefling who knows legends that no one else remembers, a former pirate who knows the location of a great treasure, and a wizard who is the reincarnation of the Devil but doesn't know it, although the tiefling probably does! There's no way that the authors could tie this kind of thing into an adventure aimed at everyone and it's a more appropriate job for the individual GM, so again the lack of support for the feature in the adventure is understandable if disappointing.

The game's use of relationship dice -- the other key feature of 13th Age to my mind -- would be much easier to include and support and the authors do so to an extent but it's a bit half-hearted and comes up only twice. The main location for the adventure changes its appearance and occupants depending on which of the Icons is in play but this seems a bit of a soft use of the mechanic -- "Because of your relationship to the Druid, the house is green" -- and only three Icons are used. A good GM could expand this to include all thirteen of the Icons and go further into the effects the Icons have on the adventure but that's asking a lot from someone who has not run the game before.

The first fight of the adventure is against some low-level gribblies and there's an attempt to tie them in with the Icons too but here too there's not enough explanation of this game concept and in effect it boils down to the monsters wearing different costumes depending on who sent them; again this could be expanded by an experienced GM but it's supposed to be an introductory adventure and the authors should be helping the players get a grip on the new concepts.

All that said this isn't supposed to be a review of a ten page adventure and it did have its uses; we got to play with the combat system and the adventure -- for all its lack of support for 13th Age's storytelling mechanics -- has set up the central conflict of the campaign. The second session was much more successful from my perspective; Stuart's thoughts as a player are here. It was more improvisational and there was much more use of the Icon relationships; freed from a strict plot the relationships' utility as story and content generators becomes more apparent and I believe will continue to do so if we carry on playing, as I hope we do.

Although 13th Age is in many ways a refinement of D&D4 it is not as focussed on combat as the latter game and an adventure that is a string of combat encounters is a poor exemplar of what the new system has to offer. The story generation tools are powerful and deserve much greater emphasis; I'm toying with writing an alternate introductory adventure of my own that brings them to the fore if I can find time to do so. For now I'll continue to develop a 13th Age campaign for my group; a couple of them have expressed doubt that it can handle a more freeform sandbox style of play but I think the One Unique Thing and relationship mechanics make such an approach easier if anything, so my current challenge is to prove it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Enemy Complete

Last time the party uncovered the true identity of the Black Hood, the nefarious conspirator who had been causing all sorts of trouble across the Empire, revealing him to be Marcus Baerfaust, war hero and captain of the Averheim Greatswords regiment. Baerfaust claimed to be a hero of the common man, and that his goal was to eject the corrupt aristocracy and put a more democratic system in place; the player-characters decided this was all bobbins and killed him, or would have if some weird blue energy squid hadn't sucked Baerfaust into a magical portal first.

The portal was still open, explained the somewhat erratic wizard Konrad Mauer, and would remain so while Baerfaust remained alive on the other side. The player-characters' mission was to enter the portal, find Baerfaust, and either bring him back or kill him; it was also explained that if any of the party were left behind then the same problem would occur and the same solutions would apply. This did not fill them with enthusiasm.

Luminary Mauer gave them an enchanted gem that would transport the party back to Altdorf when their mission was complete and Friedrich von Kaufman sent along one of his employees, a mysterious halfling who called himself "Harry the Tinker". Mauer used his magic to widen the portal to allow the player-characters to step through and for an agonising moment they felt like they were being pulled in all directions at once. Then with a flash of light they tumbled out on to the cold stone floor of a parapet part of the way up the side of a strange castle constructed from a silverish metal and stones of every colour; a quick peek over the edge revealed that the castle was flying high above a wasteland of jagged black rocks. It appeared that they were no longer in the Empire.

The castle's interior was even stranger, a knot of staircases and passageways that twisted and turned in impossible angles in no way at all like Jareth's castle in Labyrinth. As they fought off vertigo and searched for Baerfaust they found a prison cell containing a blue-haired man who claimed to know them -- thinking he was Tzeentch himself in disguise they left him to rot -- and got trapped for a while in an infinite library in which Harry was attacked by flying books and was told off by a spectral librarian nothing at all like the one from Ghostbusters.

After a good deal more wandering but with fewer 1980's film references the party heard an unsettling mix of agonised screaming and high-pitched giggling; the source of the odd cacophony was a small and windowless stone room in which a group of the horrific pink daemons the party had faced in the temple of Sigmar seemed to be operating on or torturing -- or both -- Marcus Baerfaust, slicing parts of his flesh away, reshaping them, then reattaching them to his squirming, screaming form.

The daemons did not last long against a liberal application of steel and spell but Baerfaust's predicament was more of a puzzle. It seemed that he could not be killed while chained to the crude operating table -- Harry tested this by setting fire to the good captain -- but Magnar was reluctant to free him, suspecting that he would prove to be a threat if they did so. As they pondered the problem the castle exploded.

The player-characters woke to find themselves floating in a blue void, surrounded by the remains of the castle also hanging in space. Nearby was Marcus Baerfaust, freed from his bonds but unconscious, but before anyone could grab him an inhuman and deafening screech filled the party with dread and a huge winged form swooped down amongst them.

I don't have a Lord of Change miniature -- and at £36 I'm not going to be buying one! -- and for some reason Fantasy Flight neglected to include a cardboard figure in the campaign box, even though there's one for Ludwig Schwarzhelm and he plays no significant part in the campaign. So I made my own. Yeah, DIY D&D! Except Warhammer. Or something.

The party thought they had no chance against the greater daemon of Tzeentch so attempted to gather around Magnar -- who held the magic gem they needed to return home in one hand and had the other around Baerfaust's neck -- but the lack of gravity made even the most basic of movements tricky, let alone a panicked rout in the face of superior opposition. Somehow they managed to all tumble into more or less the right space, all except their faithful friend Poddo the halfling surgeon. He was dazed and immobile some distance away with the daemon between him and the party; unwilling to risk leaving the portal open with a the Lord of Change on the other side, Aelric the elven mutant elven wizard unleashed a lightning bolt -- boosted in power due to their location -- and the loyal retainer exploded into wet bloody chunks.

Magnar activated the gem and the party were whisked back to Altdorf before they could be pecked to death by a giant vulture monster. They arrived to a hero's welcome as the cheering crowd carried them to the palace of the Emperor, where they discovered that his condition had deteriorated and he was near death; Mauer and von Kaufman suggested that one of the party end the Emperor's suffering and take control of the government. They promised the support and resources of the nobility and the wizards and Aelric and Magnar were almost swayed by the offer but some in the party had suspicions that all was not as it seemed; Aelric concentrated for a moment, saw magic all around them, and concluded that they were trapped in some sort of illusion.

With that realisation, Tzeentch's final trick was revealed and the party were transported once more to Altdorf, this time the real thing as far as they could tell. Magnar executed Baerfaust before any more eldritch shenanigans could occur and while no adoring crowd greeted the returning heroes this time, a couple of Sigmarite priests ushered them towards the Emperor's palace. This version of Karl Franz was as well as could be expected for a man who had been at death's door a week or so before but he was strong enough to receive the player-characters' reports on what they had seen and done. Pleased with their efforts the Emperor rewarded them with wealth and titles -- and for Magnar a promise to put in a personal word on the disgraced dwarf's behalf with the dwarven holds -- and made them an offer. Theodosius von Tuchtenhagen had been killed in the incident at the temple of Sigmar and so there was a vacancy in the ranks of the nobility; how would Aelric like to be the lord of Black Fire Pass?

So ended The Enemy Within II: The Secret of the Ooze. It took a while for the campaign to get going but I think we all had fun with it, and a big part of that is because Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a great game; if you ever get the chance to play it then grab it with every hand you have. I think we will return to it soon -- as the last paragraph above suggests, I have some ideas for a follow-up -- but for now we'll take a bit of a rest from WFRP and celebrate finishing another campaign. Expect some more WFRP content here before the sequel happens, as I am planning a post about the campaign as a whole and my experiences of running it using the wrong ruleset.

Oh, and there was cake, because what's the end of a campaign without cake?