13th Age Icons – Old Solar System

January 19, 2022

This week I have been reading some Leigh Brackett planetary romance novels and thinking about the Old Solar System, the one writers imagined before the early space probes confirmed there was no life on Mars of Venus. There are some games out there that use this milieu of canals and crumbling ruins on Mars, and lush jungles teeming with dinosaurs on Venus, such as Rocket Age or Cavaliers of Mars, as well as some modern works of fiction, such as S. M. Stirling’s In the Court of the Crimson Kings.

The inspiration I had for a game, was to drop Atlantis into the Old Solar System mix. Let us just start by saying the universe and the laws of physics were different before the fall of Atlantis, and thus handwave away the boring bits of modern science. Then we drop the players and their characters into this world at the height of Atlantean power, as its empire stretches across the known worlds of the Solar System in an era of glory and shadows. We can add the “missing world” between Mars and Jupiter that people thought might have once been the source of the asteroid belt, a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun, and perhaps a Nemesis counter-Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Jupiter can have a solid surface, an area equal to one hundred Earths to swallow the armies of Atlantis in endless steppes and insectoid mound cities. The unknown worlds beyond Saturn can be a frontier of dark enigma and alien menace.

Now we all know how this story ends – Atlantis in its hubris angers the Gods and is destroyed in a deluge – so the standard D&D5E campaign of heroic defence of the status quo is not a good fit for the spine of the campaign. After all, the status quo is an imperial power that exploits its military might to colonise and exploit the other worlds. So it is easy for Atlantis to be presented in ambiguous our even villainous terms, and for the player characters to be a band of exiles, rebels, and outlaws. At any rate, part of the creative tension for the campaign is the how, when, and why Atlantis eventually falls.

As I often do at the start of planning a potential campaign, I use the Icons framework from the 13th Age roleplaying game to help think about the major personalities, factions, and organisations for the campaign. At the start of the campaign the players define their relationship with the icons, whether positive/allied, negative/adversarial, or complicated/ambiguous. Icons that are not of interest to the players then fade into the background unless needed as a B plot filler. So here is a first draft of icons for the Atlantean Solar System, mixing some ideas from Ancient Greece and planetary romance tales.

The High King

The High King is the ruler of Atlantis, his legitimacy derived from divine descent in an unbroken line of Kings back to the founding of Atlantis. As the embodiment of monarchy he is the ultimate source of order, law, and justice, and high priest to the traditional Gods of Atlantis. The current High King married a daughter of the morning star, a love match contrary to the advice of the oracles. All of the High King’s children are daughters, so he has no male heir to succeed him as High King. The High Queen is believed by many to have been cursed by the Gods, but the High King will not divorce her. In desperation, the proud High King has begun a search for immortality. Meanwhile, plots and conspiracies begin to form around potential marriage alliances with his daughters.

The Council

Nine noble houses share blood ties to the High King, and by ancient law must be consulted by the High King before new laws can be passed, or any of their number executed for treason. The Council is the embodiment of aristocracy, born to rule, with wealth based on land ownership, with no room for merchants or commoners in their ranks. While the long debates of the Council encompass diverse opinions, conservative views and traditional virtues dominate. As the High King grows weaker, unity in the Council fades, as each arrogant House plots to gain control of the succession to the throne of Atlantis.

The Helmsman

The leader of the Fallen Star, a crashed space ship from outside the solar system. He has become a key advisor to the High King, as the lore the Helmsman and his Nepharian crew have shared has increased the technology and sorcery of Atlantis to new heights. To the envy of many, the original Nepharian crew are immortal, though their children born in Atlantis are not. Powerful people are also jealous of the influence that the Helmsman has over the High King. The Nepharians seek to repair their ship, so they can escape the doom that pursues them from across the stars.

The Vril Guild

The wealthiest merchants of the Atlantean Empire, are the Vril Guild, which has a monopoly on mining Vril from the planet Aschanda, which lies between Shalbatana (Mars) and Neberu (Jupiter). Vril is they key power source for the wonders of Atlantis, its cruel war machines, and every new feat of invention and engineering that the merchant princes can devise. Unlike most of the factions in Atlantis, the guild is open to women. The wealth from this monopoly funds every imaginable luxury and decadence, as well as the ability to influence policy through corruption. Despised by the Council and the Myrmidons, the guild knows gold can also buy a path to the throne.

The Myrmidons

The generals of Atlantis all share views that justify the expansion of the Atlantean empire. While a few see it as the duty of Atlantis to uplift other peoples and bring them the wonders of Atlantis, most Myrmidons see the endless wars as opportunities for glory, loot, and slaves. While excellent soldiers, the Myrmidons tend to be conservative and superstitious, as only the wrath of the Gods can defeat the armies and fleets of Atlantis. The foremost Myrmidon is the governor of the Atlantean possessions on Neberu. As the empire expands and bleeds on the frontiers, demands for conscripts from Atlantis, slave-soldiers from the prison plant of Vulcan, and levies from its tributary states keep growing.

The Tyrant

The most brilliant, charismatic, and treacherous leader from Atlantis now languishes in exile on distant Kayamanu (Saturn). Loved in many quarters for unexpected victories against great odds, they are also hated for their philandering, corruption, and dueling victories against many nobles. The Tyrant indulges in smuggling drugs from the twilight shrouded fungal forests of Kayamanu, designing new superweapons, and annoying distant rivals with multi-layered conspiracies, while awaiting the inevitable recall from exile to deal with some future crisis that threatens Atlantis.

The Orator

The most brilliant, charismatic, and ambitious leader in Atlantis is a rabble rousing hero of the people, and the best admiral in its fleets. Exploiting the decline in the High King’s authority and the divisions in the Council, the Orator offers a vision of a better Atlantis, one where all male citizens can vote for their rulers and their laws, and share equally in the wealth of the empire. Unpopular in the highest circles of Atlantis, but fearing riots if he were to be assassinated, the Orator has been “promoted” to the office of governor of Shalbatana in the hope that the Warlord or the Red Queen will prove his undoing.

The Priest-King

The leader of the ancient Saurian civilisation on Ninsi’anna (Venus), which once had colonies and outposts throughout the Solar System, before abandoning them and withdrawing home in some long forgotten crisis. A tributary state of Atlantis, the Saurian pyramid cities have many wonders and legacies form their Age of Glory. The Priest-King balances sharing some of this lore with Atlantis, against the desires of his people to keep their traditional way of life intact. The Priest-King is also the foremost alchemist of this age, with many elixirs and potions derived from the fecund flora and fauna of the tall forests of dawn star world.

The Amazon Queen

A leader of a hidden city, where women rule. The Amazons once defeated and invaded Atlantis in an ancient war, earning rights of free travel throughout the Solar System. Individual amazon warriors sometimes fight for Atlantis, and sometimes against Atlantis. The Myrmidons would love to find and plunder the secret fortress city of the Amazons, which they believe lies concealed somewhere on the Tellurian Moon. The Amazon Queen has an unmatched reputation for courage, wisdom, and virtue. Like the High King, she also claims divine descent from the Gods. Of late the Queen’s brow is furrowed by dire portents from her oracle.

The Warlord

The leader of the nomad tribes of Shalbatana, the Warlord is the most honourable foe of Atlantis. Pledged to fight until the Atlantean oppressors are removed from the red soil and canal cities of Shalbatna, the Warlord is a dangerous and wily leader of seasonal raiders, professional bandits, and all the dispossessed refugees who have sought refuge from the harsh laws of Atlantis in the untamed dryland deserts. The Warlord faithfully follows the ancient traditions and customs, even when it poses a risk to his cause. His base is usually a wilderness camp or cave system, changing with every passing season.

The Red Witch

The last free Queen of the city states of Shalbatana, the Red Witch is the most implacable foe of Atlantis, seeking vengeance for a family slaughtered by the Myrmidons. The Red Witch uses terror, black magic, torture, assassins, and revolutionaries alike in pursuit of her feud. Some of her followers will occasionally act as mercenaries for other factions, but the Red Witch is unrelenting in her opposition to the works and men of Atlantis. Among the canal people, she is both feared and loved, in the dryland wastes she is considered without honour, but in Atlantis she is feared and hated. Great would be the reward for the hero who can humble her in chains before the High King.

The Storm Wolf

Leader of the pirate clans of the Great Red Storm of Neberu, the Storm Wolf is a fearless, reckless thief. From the safety of storm hidden bases, unassailable to the Atlantean fleets, he raids convoys and cities alike, with swift attacks and rapid retreats. His followers have links to smuggling networks, and other bands of criminals throughout the solar system. The Star Wolf can offer sanctuary to the enemies of Atlantis, for a price, which includes access to the myriad debaucheries of his free city. The Storm Wolf is also infamous for freeing slaves found aboard the ships he plunders, and recruiting them to join his clan.

The Dreamer

In ancient days, the Titans were overthrown by the Gods, and imprisoned in deep and dark places. In recent years one of the imprisoned Titans has begun calling out to people in their dreams. These dreams convey secrets and ways of accessing powers never meant for mortal minds and hands. A hundred cults have secretly bloomed in Atlantis, and elsewhere in the Solar System. Some cultists are content with a few crumbs of power and pleasure, others have become zealots who search for the hidden prison of the Titans.

Hubris

The unifying theme for all the icons is hubris. Nearly all of the icons display elements of excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance, conceit, vanity and similar traits. They all believe that they are right in the views of what should happen, and that compromise is a fatal weakness. Thus are the seeds for tragedy sown.


13th Age Mechanics in Runequest

February 22, 2015

This is post is some thoughts I have been having about applying some of the concepts and mechanics from the 13th Age game system published Pelgrane Press to the Runequest 6 rules from Design Mechanism.  13th Age is a d20 system with mechanics to promote interesting storytelling, while Runequest is the classic d100 system that has realistic grit and crunch (Rolemaster may have more specifically gory criticals and Harnmaster may have the most realistic medieval combat system, but Runequest is my preferred system to design worlds with).

I first heard about 13th Age when I saw the promotion for the 13th Age in Glorantha kickstarter. I was intrigued, and after reading some favourable blog reviews decided it looked worth backing. Having now read the 13th Age rules, I wish I could have included a lot of these big ideas when I was designing my current campaign world (Tarantium: musketeers from flying cities versus agents of evil empires and cults of ancient horror).

One Unique Thing

Every player character has one unique thing about them that separates them from every other individual in the campaign’s universe. This defines both the character and the universe by exclusion. The intent is that it provides a special flavor to the campaign and can assist the GM in determining how your character can interact with characters and story in the campaign. Your character’s unique should not provide general practical value in combat. That is not the intent. The intent is to open up story arcs and fun roleplaying opportunities.

I love the way this empowers the players when they are creating their characters.  I like to say yes when my players have cool character concepts. When I had a go with picking a unique for a character in a one-off D&D 5E game I took the first thing to pop into my head “Raised by ghosts”.  There is a lot of scope for character concepts that are well developed at the start of play (e.g. “I’m the Emperor’s bastard daughter”) and leaving things open to be developed in play (e.g. “I have a mysterious birthmark”).

Not providing an advantage in combat should help with game balance.

In a Runequest game I would allow the unique to override campaign restrictions (e.g. no one in Tarantium has skill with animistic magic), allow people to choose weird and exotic backgrounds, or to play various sentient races that are not usually open to players.  The core of Runequest is the Skill system, so I would also consider any requests for a player to spend Skill points on Skills that would not usually be open to a starting character (e.g. I’m a thief with training in a school of sorcery).

Icons and Relationships

The 13th Age Archmage Engine supports the concept of icons. An icon is a powerful NPC (non-playable character) that has a strong influence on the world outside of your campaign, yet may indeed aid or oppose your character over the course of your campaign, depending on the relationship your character has with the icon. Icons have their own story, alignment, and personality. The general knowledge and history about them may vary in depth and accuracy; they may be well-known or mysterious. They have their own relationships with other icons, too, which may be friendly, tolerable, or acrimonious. Your character may have relationships with certain icons. This relationship, if it exists, can be positive, conflicted, or negative.

The descriptions for icons are usually for very powerful individuals, or a small number of closely aligned and powerful entities.  Most write ups have 13 icons, although I was reminded of the Major Arcana from a Tarot deck a lot when reading . I think icons are useful when world building, as they force you to focus your design on your best ideas (and you should be able to come up with 13 strong ideas for icons). A problem I have in running campaigns, is that while some original ideas fade into the background, the number of NPCs and factions tends to proliferate at a rapid pace, and the campaign can end up a little unwieldy as a result.

Icon relationships can be handled with the Runequest Passion skills. Just to differentiate them, I would call them Icon Passions, and any other passions would be Private Passions.  Roll as per normal at the start of each episode in the campaign, with a critical success giving an unambiguous advantage, and an ordinary success an advantage with some complications. I think I would encourage the party as a whole to have at least one common icon relationship, as this gives them a reason to be together as a group.  I would be tempted to rebuild the character sheet, so that the unique is right in the middle-top of the front page of the character sheet, and then immediately adjacent to the unique description are the character’s icon relationship/passions, and their private passions. Then you can figure out where to put the characteristics and skills. I would then place all of the combat related stuff on a completely separate character sheet.

Pelgrane have a short blog on creating new icons. This puts emphasis four things about icons:

  • Connections: all icons are social by nature (Dragon under a mountain is not an icon, Dragon overlord of a city state surrounded by zombies is an icon)
  • Goals: all icons want something, and pursue it by any means available
  • Geography: most icons have a centre of power somewhere, and this may reflect the campaign scale (a game based in a single city state will be very different from a game involving 1,000 star systems)
  • Falvour: does it help make the game interesting?

Magic item quirks

Every magic item in is alive, in a sense, and possesses a personality you have to interact with when you start using the item, establishing and maintaining a rapport with it. What that rapport means varies from item to item and is usually controlled by the GM. Some items talk with their user. Others communicate in bursts of emotion or slight motion. Each item has a personality that is largely defined by its quirk. What you can count on as a default is that nearly all magic items want to be used and used well.

A feature of roleplaying campaigns, is that players tend to always accumulate more stuff. So much stuff that when you cast Detect Magic at them, they glow like a Christmas tree. The quirk system essentially says, if you rely too much on magic items, then you sacrifice some control over your character.

This is also relatively easy to work into Runequest using the Passion system. So your magic bonus can be directly linked to the level of Passion you have for that magic item (i.e. if you have adopted your Magic Sword’s Passion for “Kill all sorcerers” at 60% then you can augment your Combat Style Sword by +12%, but at the tail end of the fight you need to make a Willpower check not to start attacking the party’s own sorcerers). I have noticed that most of the players in my campaign have sunk a lot of skill points into having a good Willpower skill. So I think that rather than doing a straight Willpower versus Passion check in conflicting situations, you can make the Willpower check Easy for people with just one magic item, and then increase the difficulty grade by one for each additional magic item carried. If playing at a high campaign tier (100% skills, Mastery and Infinity rules, then increasing the number of magic items allowed before the difficulty grade is increased makes sense).

Escalation die

The escalation die represents a bonus to attacks as the fight goes on. At the start of the second round, the GM sets the escalation die at 1. Each PC gains a bonus to attack rolls equal to the current value on the escalation die. Each round, the escalation die advances by +1, to a maximum of +6. Monsters and NPCs do not add the escalation die bonus to their attacks. If the GM judges that the characters are avoiding conflict rather than bringing the fight to the bad guys, the escalation die doesn’t advance. If combat virtually ceases, the escalation die resets to 0.

The escalation die is an explicit cinematic bonus for the PCs as a fight progresses, unlike the karmic death spiral of attrition to Hit Points and expenditure of luck points as a Runequest fight plays out.  It might be something to try, but its not going to fit every Runequest campaign.  A lot of other feats and special abilities in 13th Age are also tied into the escalation die reaching a certain level.  So you could rework various Runequest Gifts and special powers to tie in with the Escalation die, but it would be a lot of work.

A +1 in a d20 game is equal to +5% in a d100 game. Tracking 5% modifiers is a bit fiddly, but an eventual bonus of 30% is huge in Runequest, as not only will characters hit more often, but those attacks are more likely to overcome the target’s defences.

Stuff that does not translate so well

A lot of the combat abstraction for armour and weapons, levels and hitpoints, simply won’t go into a Runequest system without changing it into something unrecogniseable. Some of the various feats, race and class abilities can be retweaked into the Gift system (which Runequest is more sparing with in allowing characters access to, as they usually come with a concomitant geas, passion or other roleplaying limit).  The minimum damage rule, where any miss results in damage to the enemy equal to character level, makes a lot of sense in a D&D style mountain of hit points boss fight, but not so much in Runequest where both PCs and NPCs are likely to have very similar hit point totals.


Gaming Kickstarters/crowdsourcing I have backed

October 13, 2014

Draft-Map1

I’m watching the last few hours of the 13th Age in Glorantha Kickstarter. I was not familiar with the 13th Age system until last week, but I found a comprehensive review of many of its mechanics (Icons and the One Unique Thing look really cool), and it sounded well suited to Glorantha’s mythic level of power, and better for my own old school style of gaming than Heroquest.

It met most of my criteria for backing something:

  1. Already something I am a fan of (Glorantha, especially that rework of the classic RQ 2 map)
  2. A product I am reasonably sure will finish (from a company that already has published stuff)
  3. Involves someone I respect from previous work (Jonathan Tweet et. al.)
  4. Looks like it will be fun!
  5. Nothing too risky (which is pretty much every computer game I have looked at). Shipping seems to be an area where things go horribly wrong and costs exceed the initial budget.
  6. Affordable (just, the shipping to New Zealand for a couple of books increases the cost by around 40%).
  7. Learning about it before the Kickstarter ended (curse you Pathfinder miniatures!)

I do sometimes wonder, if I am backing something to reach stretch goals for content that should have been included in the standard product. More money for more artwork seems reasonable. Money for vanity stuff, like having your name or myth included, sure, if its optional its not my money. Money for extra monsters or enemy organisations … I’m not so sure about that. Money for extra gaming products to go with it, sure that sounds good.  This is something I think about, as its possible I will try and crowdsource funding for a boardgame design, so collecting a few ideas for cool stretch goals could be handy.

I backed Sprawl. Not that I really need a cyberpunk system right now, but it is fun to back something your friends have started, and the Dungeon World style is good for paring things down to the basic tropes.  This makes it good for convention games … where the sheer complexity of the options in something like Runequest just drowns the story out.

I backed Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. In part this was due to the sheer nostalgia for the epic campaign Shane Murphy run almost 25 years ago, which had a major influence on my life at the time. Its almost complete, and I should have my hands on the leather bound hardcover books before Christmas. I only glanced at the PDF proof of the rules that came through (buying various Bundles of Holding has given me a long backlog of RPG books to read through), but it all seems on track for delivery.  I used the quick play version of the rules for Asterix and the Deep Ones, but it was almost too complicated for a 3-4 hour convention game.

Call of Cthulhu has built up a lot of mythos related stuff over the years, so the Kickstarter was able to offer reskins of classic RPG products, t-shirts, hats, fake coins, coffee mugs, pins, cards, dice … having a vast plethora of addons from stretch goals certainly gives people something to watch as the Kickstarter progresses.

The Old Ones got even more money pledged from me for Cthulhu Wars. From the fun game point of view, this was powerfully attractive for the promise of insanely asymmetric faction powers, something I loved in the classic Dune boardgame. I am hoping to have the main game in my hands before Christmas and I intend to bring it to Big Gaming week in Christchurch. It looks like all the supplements will come through in the new year sometime. Probably good for my customs bill that it gets split up like this.  I like the look of the rules and have borrowed from them for the next iteration of Housewar.  One reason for backing it at a “get one of everything” level was the sheer number of miniatures on offer. I will always have something to pull out for a crawling chaos horror at the FRPG gaming tables.

HeroForge – is now in beta and I had a play with the alpha, building an elf in musketeer style clothing. My feedback was that it needed an “undo” button. Its fine if you have a limited menu of choices, but once you have a large list trying to reselect back to what you just changed out of will be a pain.  An option to easily share the images you generate to social media would also be nice.

By way of comparison I took a quick look at Figureprints which has been making World of Warcraft figurines for a while. The price there is US$130 plus shipping for one painted miniature, with a limited menu of options (items earned in game, and still stored on the account, or from a small list of classic weapons and armour).  So for HeroForge I am getting six unpainted miniatures for $160, or around $27 each, but I have free range to design what each miniature looks like. HeroForge is something I backed because in part I thought, this is a service the gaming world needs.

One thought I had about 3-D printing of game miniatures. When the price drops, and printers become more available, where does the market for Games Workshop’s expensive propriety miniatures go?

I also backed the Runequest 6 Collectors Edition through crowdsourcing. This was pretty straightforward, no extra kitsch to worry about, just good artwork and packaging. I’m such a fan I got multiple copies, for fear of disasters with cups of coffee.

I have not backed everything I have seen appear on crowdsourcing platforms.

  • Cthulhu Invictus modules – I was not actually all that impressed at the quality of the other Cthulhu Invictus modules/scenarios – far too much physical combat, and calling for reinforcements from the local Legion fortress
  • Boardgames that just had themes which didn’t appeal to me
  • Glorantha world maps at a 5k per hex detail, and Glorantha coffee table books, at the time I was interested in other things and had less spare cash to take a punt with
  • OGRE, from Steve Jackson Games, what was on offer was a game that was goldplated and full of a thousand addons that would have broken me for shipping and customs – it simply grew too far away from the simple ten minute game I used to play with friends in the high school library.

I will have to do more research on how these things work, both what helps a project succeed, and what can lead to them failing. I suspect trying to get a boardgame with big plastic space dreadnought miniatures off the ground, without an established reputation, will be a hard slog.