First Impressions – Cthulhu Confidential

Cthulhu Confidential is an elaboration of a version of GUMSHOE, an investigative RPG by Pelgrane Press. Let’s untangle this a bit. GUMSHOE is the engine upon which multiple games are built. It’s core idea is as follows: it’s not fun, and therefore shouldn’t be possible, for investigators to fail to solve a mystery because they failed a roll to find the crucial clue. To that end, character abilities are divided into investigative and general ones. Characters are masters of ther investigative fields, and automatically succeed whenever their skills are applicable. In the core GUMSHOE system, there’s a resource/spotlight management element involved, but it is entirely absent in Cthulhu Confidential for reasons which shall become apparent momentarily.

Trail of Cthulhu is one of the games based on GUMSHOE, and portrays, unsurprisingly, investigators of Lovecraftian mysteries. Finally, Cthulhu Confidential is an adaptation of Trail of Cthulhu to a new variant of GUMSHOE, GUMSHOE one-2-one. One GM, one player, all the horrifying mysteries between them.

It is a very light system. The book itself consists of 70 pages of rules, of which 8 are dedicated to a primer on Cthulhu Mythos, followed by 220 pages dedicated to 3 scenarios. I’ve run the first scenario so far, and, as an experiment, have recorded it for my friend and player’s youtube channel. If you so wish, you can follow Dex Raymond, a hardboiled detective, as he tries to solve the mystery of Fathomless Sleep, or listen to our post-game discussion.

How it Runs

The scenario is excellent. Not once did the player get stuck, not knowing what to do next – there was always a clue to follow up on, something else to investigate, all the way to the resolution. Оn the flip side, the scenario made my job as a GM easy as it offered a scene for every thing my player had tried, and an answer for most questions he’s asked. And a good thing, too – this game isn’t meant to be improvised.

The three scenarios in the book are set in three different cities and time periods, following three different detectives, with plenty of setting details and potential story hooks provided for each. Should you decide to continue the adventures of a detective you liked, you’ll find everything you need there.

I found it very interesting (and this is a very slight spoiler) how little supernatural elements there were, at least in Fathomless Sleep. Majority of the time is spent on Dex simply talking to various unsavory characters. When the supernatural does show up, it is all the more efficient.

The book warns of the “intensity” of this game: the player has no one to hide behind, no one to take the spotlight or responsibility from them. They’re it. To mitigate this intensity, the PC can turn to their sources, friendly NPCs offering expertiese in the investigative skill fields not covered by the PC. There is advise on using them to break up the tension a bit, though I’m not sure how practical that is: the player is the one initiating contact with sources, typically when there is something they need help with, and not when pacing would suggest they need a break.

Intensity works both ways. Just as the player is constantly in the spotlight, so is the GM. You don’t get a chance to look up the upcoming scene or plot what comes next while the players argue with one another. And in this game every detail matters, you really don’t want to mess up what clues you give out. As we were recording the game in 30 minute episodes, we had natural breaks which were very convenient. I’d suggest calling for an occasional pause as you play, even if you’re used to running uninterrupted sessions in other games.

How it Works

Scenarios are well and good, but what about the mechanics? In addition to the investigative abilities at which the character simply succeeds, they get a bunch of general abilities, rated at one or two dice. These cover the “action” side of the game: Fighting, Sense Trouble, Shadowing, Stability, etc. Most of the time, these are used in Challenges, which provide branching outcomes to a scene. On the face of it, it’s a standard Success/Success with Complications/Failure mechanic, but there are some fascinating subtleties.

If you haven’t rolled high enough, you can take on a Problem in order to get an extra die. Reaching the “success” value usually grants you an Edge in addition to accomplishing whatever it is you were doing, while failure often saddles you with another Problem. These Edges and Problems are represented by cards detailing how they work. Cards impose penalties or offer benefits on rolls, restrict your options in some way, or merely remind of their existence in the narrative.

While there are generic Problems and Edges in the appendix of the book, scenarios provide their own cards specific to the situations within. This underscores the need for GM preparation: ideally, you’ll have your own tiny decks written up, covering the likely eventualities.

As the GM decides what the outcomes of a Challenge can be, it doesn’t get a chance to derail the game. The PC can’t die due to an unlucky roll, but neither can they beat up an entire mob.

Taken together, the cards and the way the Challenges are framed essentially replace all the other mechanics the game might have had. There’s no damage or sanity system – if you get wounded, you’ll likely have a Problem card that tells you what it means. Why was injury on the table in the first place? Because the Challenge was set up that way. There are no antagonist stats of any kind. It works, and the game flows quite smoothly, but there isn’t even a shade of “simulation” as the result, and it does feel a bit lazy, especially once you find out how the target numbers are assigned – more on that in a moment.

First, some more thoughts on the nuances of this mechanic. Unlike Fate, where you get “karmic credit” by accepting problems that you later spend on overcoming other problems, here the Problem you get is a direct consequence of your actions as you push yourself further in order to succeed, e.g. a pulled back as you dodge a blow. It’s Edges that often act as somewhat specialized fate points, as many of them can be spent for an extra die on a particular kind of a Challenge. But Edges are earned by rolling high, not by choosing to make your life harder.

The player isn’t rewarded for screwing themselves over in an entertaining fashion, neither are they expected to do so. Instead, they accept Problems as a means to an end, to succeed and hopefully gain Edges. And as Challenges resolve a scene’s worth of conflict, you’re going to need all the Edges you can save up for that last roll or two which decide how it all turns out.

Overall, while it is a narrative system with seeming similarities to Fate, the underlying dynamics are quite different.

As there is only one character, the adventure is custom made for them. Their abilities are known, and so all the Challenge difficulties are set with them in mind. The table for choosing these difficulties is based on how the different outcomes will affect the plot, and comes with two columns, for one or two dice the PC has in the general ability used. So what does having two dice even do for you?

Mainly, it safeguards you from the randomness of dice. Two dice are a tiny bit less likely to screw you over than one, simple as that. Preciously few rolls are made each session, and they are prone to feedback loops: roll poorly once, and you’re saddled with Problems making it harder to roll well next time. Roll well, though, and you have an Edge which may help you get more Edges in the future. Thus even though having 2 dice in a skill doesn’t actually make you better at it, it makes you more reliable at it, and given the feedback loops that is extremely important.

First Impression

Running Cthulhu Confidential is like having a conversation. The rules get out of the way to let the player be engulfed by the story. There’s no bookkeeping, nothing to reference, just the very brief character sheet and the cards you gain. There’s no one to hide behind, either. It is a perfect set up for a horror game. Just you and the mystery.

Terrain Effects in 13th Age

13th Age doesn’t much care for terrain or environmental effects. There’s the Tracker and Swashbucker talents, and a bit on using traps in the core book. The GM Resource book has a solid chapter on using terrain and overcoming the stand-and-hit-each-other problem. Good advice, but no mechanics. So, here are some mechanics. This post is a toolbox more than anything, providing you with a starting point to create the terrain effects that match your situation.

The idea is directly inspired by D&D 5e’s lair actions. But whereas the lair actions are tied to boss monsters controlling their environment, terrain effects are tied to Icons, can appear anywhere, and can be taken over (or even created!) by PCs.

Adding Terrain Effects to Combat

The simplest way to add a terrain effect is to have it be there from the start. A terrain effect is roughly equivalent to a single-strength creature of its level. If the opposition owns it (see below), simply include that in your battle building calculations. If it is neutral, but starts out under the opposition’s control, it’s still worth something. Neutral active terrain effects make life harder for everyone and probably don’t affect the calculations.

There is, however, another option. Players can use one of their 6’s or 5’s on the icon relationship dice to create or conveniently discover a terrain effect. 13th Age is a high magic game, with Icons affecting the world itself with their will. That said, it’s entirely up to your GM (and the group) how often this would happen. The effect, as well as the locaiton, should fit thematically – utilising your relationship with the Lich King at a graveyard to cause zombie arms to pop up from below the ground and grasp at your enemies is cool. Calling on the same zombies to grab your enemies in a royal palace is a bit odd.

A 6 on a relationship die gives you ownership of the terrain effect. It can also give you ownership over a neutral terrain effect already present on the battlefield. A 5 provides a neutral terrain effect.

What does owning a terrain effect mean? Whoever owns the terrain effect chooses who counts as its enemies, simple as that. Neutral terrain hates everyone equally.

Mechanics of Terrain Effects

Terrain effects use the numbers from the Skill Check DCs, Trap/Obstacle Attacks & Impromptu Damage by Environment table on the page 186 of the core book. Depending on how far along in a tier your party is, use the Normal or Hard line. Handwavy, I know, but the convenience of using a single table from the core book beats individual write-ups.

Whenever monsters are forced to do skill checks, they roll a save instead: easy save replaces a normal check, normal save replaces a hard check, and a hard save replaces the ridiculously hard check.

Each terrain effect listed below is abstract, but comes with a number of examples. Modify the effect based on its flavor – change the damage type, the condition it inflicts, the defense it targets, or the skill it requires.

“Zones”

This is another things 13th Age doesn’t normally have. There’s two approaches here: if the terrain has a clear boundary, like ice-covered river, that’s the zone. Otherwise, if it originates from a single point, whether that point actually exists (unholy idol) or doesn’t (cloud of gas), the zone of effect is everything nearby this point.

Whenever a creature is on the edge of a terrain effect zone, a PC engaged with it can use a quick action to make whatever skill check they can get away with, to conclusively move their target into or out of the zone. Likewise, if a PC is on the edge of a terrain effect zone, a creature engaged with them can use a quick action to cause the PC to make a skill check or end up in or out of the zone.

Active terrain

Active terrain is almost a creature in its own right. It acts on its own initiative – give it an initiative modifier as you see fit, much like you would with a custom monster. No need to overthink this, +0 is generally fine.

Painful terrain

Attacks PD of 1d3 random enemies within it, dealing damage.

Examples: lava eruptions (The Three, High Druid, Diabolist, Orc Lord), steam vents (Crusader, Dwarf King, Archmage, Emperor), statue of an angry god (Crusader, Diabolist, Priestess, Lich King), snake pit (High Druid, Prince of Shadows, The Three).

Mobile “terrain”

Moves in a predetermined fashion, attacking PD of everyone it encounters along its path, dealing damage.

Examples: rolling boulder (Orc Lord, Dwarf King), boulder perpetually rolling down a Penrose staircase (Archmage), swinging axe (Dwarf King, Crusader).

Grasping terrain

Attacks PD of 1d3 random enemies within it, those hit become stuck, save ends. If the target is already stuck, the terrain deals damage instead.

Examples: strangling vines (High Druid, Elf Queen), zombie hands (Lich King), sinkhole (Dwarf King).

Passive terrain

Passive terrain affects enemies entering, ending their turn, or trying to do something within it.

Polluted “terrain”

Whenever an enemy ends their turn within this terrain, it attacks their PD. Those hit take damage, or become weakened or confused until the end of their next turn, depending on the polutant.

Examples: aerial poison (The Three, Prince of Shadows, Lich King), room on fire (The Three, Diabolist, Orc Lord, Great Gold Wyrm), spore cloud (High Druid, Elf Queen).

Unstable terrain

Whenever an enemy tries to move within this terrain, it must make a Dex skill check or lose the action.

Examples: patch of ice (High Druid), waist-deep swamp (The Three), tar (Orc Lord).

Dangerous terrain

Enemies are vulnerable while within this terrain.

Examples: blood-soaked fields (Orc Lord, Crusader), sacrificial altar (Lich King, Diabolist).

Protecting terrain

Whenever a non-enemy starts their turn within this terrain, it can make a save against a condition affecting it.

Examples: sanctified ground (Priestess, Great Gold Wyrm), inspiring statue (Emperor, Elf Queen, Dwarf King).

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to see your suggestions on expanding it.

Especially Nasty – Rust Monster Eraser

Rust monsters are not that dangerous, really. Annoying, potentially very expensive to deal with, and often leaving you terminally unprepared for whatever comes next, sure. But not dangerous by themselves. Some eat metal. Others magic. Not this one, though. This one eats your destiny. You’ll survive the encounter, covered in the rusty flakes of your once-great future.

Fatum phages show up at the most unfortunate time. The closer a hero is to fulfilling their destiny, the brighter they shine in the multi-faceted eyes of these beasts. And if said hero’s One Unique Thing has something to do with prophecy or fate, fatum phages would stop at nothing to get them.

Fatum Phage

Level 8 spoiler [ABERRATION]

Initiative +8

Caustic bite +13 vs. MD (one creature with no unspent story-guide icon relationship rolls)—38 damage, and 10 ongoing acid damage

Natural 16+: the target makes a save or permanently loses one of its icon relationships.

Rusting antenna +13 vs. MD (one creature with an unspent story-guide icon relationship roll of 5 or 6)—22 damage, and the target makes a hard save or decrements one of its story-guide icon relationship dice from 6 to 5, or loses a 5 entirely.

Tasty Tasty Fate: A fatum phage can add the escalation die to its attacks whenever it targets a creature that added the escalation die to its attacks last turn.

Rust’s targets: Icon relationships of creatures with 180 hp or more are not affected by the fatum phage’s ability to weaken or destroy them (they still take damage).

Nastier specials:

Rusted Icons: Pull up the Couatl entry of the Bestiary. Each time a fatum phage affects a relationship roll result or the relationship itself with its rusting antenna or caustic bite attack, it gains a corresponding icon-centric ability as if it was an 8th-level couatl. The fatum phage can only have one such ability at a time, so a new ability overwrites the old one; but limits on ability use such as 1/battle are reset when a new ability is gained.

AC 24

PD 18       HP 144

MD 22

Recovering Icon Relationships

The Archmage probably knows a useful ritual. So may the Elf Queen. The Diabolist likely has a deal she can offer. The Prince of Shadows stole everything there was to steal, maybe he knows how to unsteal some things, too. Point is, many icons can help. But why would they waste their time on someone so clearly insignificant as you?

Musings on rules

Once, at the dawn of my roleplaying career, I had convinced a friend to try DMing, letting me be a player for once. It was, naturally, D&D. We had ourselves a decent enough adventure, and fought some robotic wolves at some point. An enjoyable experience. Later, I asked him what stats he used for the monsters. He said he used regular wolves, but wanted to make them tougher, so he didn’t track their hit points. Instead, they died after a few rounds, when he felt like the fight had gone on long enough.

The fight was a lie. The fight was exactly the same. We still stabbed the wolves, were bit in return and prevailed in the end. What changed? While individual rolls were a waste of time, the decision to fight did matter: we could have, perhaps, found a way to sneak past them. The starting point (decision to fight) and the destination (wolves dead) stayed the same, it’s the actual journey in the middle that turned out to have been meaningless. Except even that is not quite true. We still enjoyed rolling the dice, and imagining the hits and misses.

Don’t get me wrong, that was a terrible thing to do, but mainly because it violated the rules of the game that we thought we understood. One can easily imagine a system where a fight (or any other scene) only goes on as long as it’s interesting. In fact, that’s a backup rule or suggestion in many games: wrap things up and move on if players start getting bored. And in systems without such rules, people have invented tools like Combat Out for D&D 4e, ways to end a combat once the victor is determined or a specific condition is met.

Generalizing, many if not most games have the so-called rule zero: ignore the rules if that makes your game better. And on the flip side of that is the illusionism approach: the belief that the GM cannot cheat, and should be free to lie about the dice rolls and other mechanical elements to make the game better. This may involve helping a recurring villain get away, saving the party from an unlucky TPK or engineering one.

Then why even have rules? Why do we bother with mechanics if they inevitably get in the way of the experience we wish to have? Some people quite happily play freeform, after all. Others avoid using any rules for the majority of their game time, e.g. playing a social intrigue D&D game. In no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustively, rules provide impartiality, surprise, structure, and fun.

The fun part is the easiest to explain: by most definitions, you can’t have a game without rules. And we like games. We like to roll dice, to demonstrate our mastery of the rules and be rewarded for it. Then again, I already mentioned freeform games here, and I’m not particularly interested in declaring something Not A Roleplaying Game. A different kind of enjoyment can undoubtedly be had even without rules.

Rules allow players and GM alike to anticipate likely outcomes of their actions. They make it harder for a GM to play favorites with their players, and make it easier to be consistent. Rules also take on the blame. It wasn’t the GM that killed you, it were the dice. Rules make sure the game is fair. This is where the desire for game balance comes from: it is a problem if the players perceive, whether correctly or not, the game itself to not be fair.

Then again, there are entire playstyles dedicated to the idea of GM knowing best, like the aforementioned illusionism. “Rulings, not rules.” Indeed, some players reject the idea of rules governing some of their activities, such as social interactions or exploration.

By and large, the impartiality of rules is an illusion anyway, though a useful one. In all but the most restrictive games, the GM has leeway to interpret an event in a variety of ways, and to decide whether to apply mechanics at all. Fate is particularly noteworthy here: its rules govern narrative circumstances rather than the in-game situation. Meaning the GM (hopefully with cooperation of the players) chooses which rules to apply. Not to mention the ability to set up any kind of situation in the first place. It’s not against the rules to throw a tarrasque against a 1st level party, just not advised. Declaring that Rocks Fall, Everyone Die is legit, too.

Related to impartiality is the capacity of a game to surprise us, to choose the outcome for us. More than that, true surprise comes from unexpected outcomes rules can provide. Not just path A or B, but an entirely unforeseen path C opened up by a (un)lucky critical hit. 13th Age’s owlbear exemplifies this: most of the time it’s just a monster to be fought, but it could rip your arm off, forcing the story in a new, bloody, direction. Then again, the GM can certainly surprise players without any rules, and players are notorious for doing the same to the GM.

So far, everything the rules do, we can achieve otherwise. The last element left is structure, and this is, I believe, the main benefit mechanics provide. Roleplaying games are an interactive medium. A group creates their own game every time they sit down to play. We breathe life into it, use our imagination to create and live out stories of our characters. And while we do so, we have the rules, the mechanics, to fall back on. Any time we don’t know what to do, what to choose, we can lean on them. If you’ll forgive me waxing metaphorical for a moment, if a roleplaying game is a plant, its rules are the structure around which it entwines as it grows, as we play it. And just as a structure can offer support, it can be stifling.

We don’t need the rules. But with them, we can reach higher, go to places we wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Constraints breed creativity, being forced to grow in a certain direction gives the plant a shape. Just be sure you picked the right rules for the game you wish to play.

Especially Nasty – Trollflesh Golem

Flesh golems are stitched together from the bodies of many different creatures. They are disturbing in their own right, but what if it wasn’t made up of just any old dead creatures? What if the parts weren’t dead at all?

Trollflesh Golem

Huge 4th level wrecker

Initiative: +7

Sweeping claws +9 vs AC (2 attacks) – 21 damage

Patchwork regeneration 15: While a trollflesh golem is damaged, it heals 15 hit points at the start of the golem’s turn.

When the golem is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, or suffers a critical hit, its regeneration is permanently reduced by 5 as stitches come undone and a large chunk of its body falls off. It grows rapidly if haphazardly, becoming a spasming trollflesh – roll initiative as it joins the fight.

Dropping a trollflesh golem to 0 hp doesn’t kill it.

Ignore this ability once the trollflesh golem’s patchwork regeneration is reduced to 0.

Stitched together: a trollflesh golem is vulnerable to weapon attacks.

Energy magnet: Whenever a spell that causes cold, fire, force, lightning, or negative energy damage targets one of the flesh golem’s nearby allies, the trollflesh golem has a 50% chance of becoming the main target instead. Therefore, spells that affect groups would spread out from the trollflesh golem.

Weakness of the flesh: Unlike other golems, troll flesh golems are not immune to effects and can be affected by the fears and madness of mortals.

AC 18

PD 17      HP 150

MD 13

Nastier specials:

Something had to keep the trolls from regenerating all this time. You’re about to find out what it was.

Exposed necrotic core: Whenever a creature engaged with a trollflesh golem makes a natural odd hit or miss against it, the attacker suffers necrotic damage equal to 15 minus the golem’s regeneration.

Spasming Trollflesh

It’s a jumble of claws and muscle trying desperately to regrow, but it’s forgotten what it used to be. It doesn’t even have a head. Unfortunately, attacking everything around it seems to be in muscle memory.

4th level wrecker

Initiative: +8

Frantic Spasms +9 vs AC – 7 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: The spasming trollflesh pops free, moves to a random nearby creature and repeats the attack against it.

Maddened regeneration: spasming trollflesh heals to full health at the start of its turn. Reducing it to 0 hp kills it. When the trollflesh is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, it can’t regenerate during its next turn.

AC 18

PD 17       HP 28

MD 13

Why are narrative games so hard to grok?

Nice clickbaity headline, well done. But it’s true – narrative, “modern” games like Fate or Dungeon World are seemingly much harder to run, or even play, correctly, as compared to the more “traditional” games like D&D. By “running the game correctly” I mean using the rules to their full potential and in a manner articulated by the game’s authors. Are the narrative games terrible at explaining themselves, are they inherently unintuitive, is there a problem at all?

The titular observation is based on personal experience (though backed by the prevalence of answers on Fate or DW questions on RPG.SE amounting to “you’re doing it wrong, no really”), so some discussion of said personal experience is warranted. I’d started running RPGs with the release of the preview of D&D 3.0, some sort of quickstart pdf with 1st level characters and a fight against skeletons. As is fairly common, I was the only person in the group dedicated enough to read all the rules, so I ended up running the games. We worked our way through the free adventures WotC had put up on ther website. They were straightforward hack-n-slash affairs, or maybe that was the best I could manage at the time. I wasn’t a good GM, far from it. That took years of practice, of very gradually expanding my range, of trying different approaches, of arguing on an Internet forum (hi, Rolemancer/GameForums), of learning from other GMs (it took moving to a different country to find them).

Through it all, I’ve never felt I was running D&D incorrectly. Sometimes I would misunderstand the way a rule worked – mistakes happened. Often I would not get the experience I expected. I didn’t necessarily have great mastery of D&D 3.5 – not on the level of character optimization boards. As mentioned, the games frequently wouldn’t be any good, just an unsatisfying sequence of fights. And of course I’d get mired in plenty of online arguments about superiority of particular playstyles – but that’s just what they were, playstyles. “Roleplaying vs rollplaying”. I never had a feeling that I’m just not getting how to run D&D, though, only that I wasn’t getting how to be a good GM.

With well over a decade of GMing experience (oh boy), I finally decided to get out of the comfort blanket that is D&D. The tag “First Impressions” documents the more noteworthy of my forays. There were a few smaller games which we tried to play and simply couldn’t get to work for us – they didn’t make it onto the blog. Even in the games that did, a common theme would emerge: I’d read the book, and be uncertain I could actually run the game well. I’d read it again. Then I’d go online and look for existing discussion, easily finding other people with same concerns, which hardly dissuaded my fears.

This was particularly notable with Fate: the entire first campaign I ran in it was essentially a learning experience, both for myself and my players – seasoned roleplayers, all. I still don’t use compels very well. I “cheat” in Apocalypse Engine games I run – I rarely think in terms of GM moves, simply running it as any other game. That’s, pretty explicitly, against the rules.

But weren’t narrative games meant to more naturally emulate the storytelling process we all grow up with? Dungeon World was once described as “D&D you always thought you were playing”. What gives? Why are narrative games so damn hard to grock?

A part of it is due to the “narrative game vocabulary” still being developed. Roleplaying itself is still a relatively new hobby. Within it, certain playstyles have had decades longer and a whole bunch more games to grow, to figure out how to articulate their concepts. Again, take Fate as an example: it’s gotten so much clearer over the years. It’s progressed both in weeding out the unnecessary clutter from its rules, and in how it explains these rules. This process will undoubtedly continue.

But the main reason narrative games are hard to run the way they’re meant to be is due to narrative games codifying how they’re meant to be run. Narrative games have Opinions. Unlike traditional games, which give you tools to resolve situations that come up in typical scenarios of the game, narrative games also give you tools for creating these scenarios. Fail to use those well, and you fail to play the game well.

Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in D&D? You have a quest to get a MacGuffin, who cares, roll Initiative. Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in Dungeon World? The party had rolled a 3 on their Carouse move, choosing to gain useful information but letting things get really out of hand and getting entangled in the process. GM offered them an opportunity: they can get out of jail if they promise to go deal with goblins who’ve been robbing caravans. They can even keep whatever’s already been stolen. Quest, MacGuffin, etc. But they flow directly from the game rules.

Naturally, you can, even should, have the exact same sequence of events in a traditional game. It’s not like narrative games invented cause and effect. You don’t need the rules to have a satisfying story. It is, however, telling how eager we are to adapt these narrative shaping structures to other games – e.g. Dungeon World Fronts in D&D by Sly Flourish.

And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. A traditional game doesn’t care if you have a satisfying story. It has some opinions on what stories should occur within it, and its mechanics do have an effect on these stories – even such seemingly minor rules elements as hit points matter. But, because D&D doesn’t exist, a sequence of fights in 5×5 rooms is just as much a proper D&D game as a game of courtly intrigue and noble duels. As long as you roll a d20 + attack bonus and compare it to the AC of the target, you’re good.

In contrast, narrative games have story bits and GMing practices “hardcoded” into their rules. Failure to compel PCs in Fate means failure to involve them in the plot. Failure to come up with an interesting consequence to a bad roll in DW calls into question the necessity of that roll in the first place. By making these narrative elements explicit, narrative games make our failures to implement them explicit.

And finally, if the group isn’t after the narrative elements the game wants them to employ, or if the mechanics are not well written or well explained, making it hard to reconcile the rules-mandated narrative element with the rest of the story, it comes off as clunky. A failure to use an unwieldy tool the purpose of which you don’t quite understand.

With mixed success (hah), narrative games describe tools, constraints, and practices they believe will lead to the game being played not just correctly, but well. Narrative games are hard to grok, because being a good GM is hard to grok. And it may be even harder to grok what the game considers to be a good GM.

Especially Nasty – Wereowlbear

Wereowlbear

Were. Owl. Bear.

Large level 6 troop [BEAST]

Initiative +10

Rip and Peck (hybrid form only) + 11 vs AC, 22 damage, and the target is hampered while engaged with the wereowlbear.

    Vicious hybrid: If the escalation die is even, make another rip and peck attack.

Owldropbear (one enemy below the wereowlbear) (owl form only). +11 vs PD, 33 damage and the target is grabbed and hampered while engaged with the werowlbear. The wereowlbear transforms into its hybrid form as it plummets from up high, pinning its unfortunate victim down. It’s very hard to intercept a plummeting wereowlbear.

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs, likely in its owl form. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn. Does a wereowlbear have cubs? Are they werecubs? Does it just feed a den of bears in a misguided maternal instinct? We may never know.

Bestial fury (hybrid form only): Wereowlbears gain a bonus to damage equal to double the escalation die.

Resilient shifting (all three forms): As described in 13 True Ways, a werebeast can shift forms once per round as a quick action. When a werebeast shifts, it can roll a save against one save ends effect.

Silent hunter: Owlbears are nearly silent until they strike. Checks to hear them approaching take a -5 penalty. The penalty increases to -10 if it is in the owl form.

Nastier specials:

Moon bloodlust: Expand the wereowlbear’s critical range by the escalation die if it is fighting under the moonlight. E.g. if the escalation die is at 4, the wereowlbear crits on 16+. Note: very likely to result in loss of limb and life. Run.

Cursed bite (hybrid or bear form only): Unlike other werebeasts, wereowlbears do not spread their curse to humanoids, as they never were one to begin with. It’s not even clear if it’s a curse at all, or the true origin of owlbears, or the next stage in the evolution of the ferocious hybrid.

However, they may be able to infect other animals they bite, such as ranger’s animal companion or a pack mule. Unless blessed, purged, or otherwise cured, the bitten creature will turn into a werebeast on the night of the next full moon.

If the beast was land-based, it becomes a wereowl. If it was aerial, it becomes a werebear. What that actually means is left up the GM and/or ranger.

AC 21

PD 20          HP 140

MD 15

Bear, Owl, and Hybrid forms

The wereowlbear is not likely to fight in the bear or owl form. It’s quite happy to start the fight in the owl form, though, and it’ll transform into an owl to reposition and perform the owldropbear attack whenever no one’s engaged with it. In the rare instance when PCs somehow manage to attack it in the owl form, decrease its AC and PD by 2 and call it a day.

Corruption in 13th Age

Corruption. Taint. Insanity. Mutation. Warping. The idea that some threats are so horrible, so alien, that dealing with them permanently changes the heroes is very compelling. It’s the cornerstone of Call of Cthulhu games. But whereas in CoC it is an inexorable march toward damnation, it was Heroes of Horror, an excellent D&D 3.5 book, that introduced the rules for taint that really gripped me. In it, taint was horrendous, but also a source of power. Heroes were still sliding towards damnation, but they were damn cool on their way there.

Since reading that book, corruption has been a staple in my D&D games, and the fight against it is one of the foundational concepts of my setting (and my as-yet unfinished novel set in it). Here, then, are my rules for corruption in 13th Age. I tried to capture the playfulness of the system, its unconventional uses of d20. While specific abilities presented utilize 13A concepts, the core mechanics can probably be ported to any other D&D game without any issue. Finally, this version of corruption is written with aberrations as its main source in mind. But it’s trivial to modify or extend it to demons, undead, or some other source of taint, too.


PCs have permanent corruption, which ranges from 0 to 20, and current corruption which starts off equal to the permanent corruption, can never go below it, but can go beyond 20. Unless desired otherwise, new characters start with 0 permanent corruption. 

Enemies and other threats that may cause corruption have a corruption rating: d6 for Adventurer-tier sources, d12 for Champion and d20 for Epic; one die for regular monsters, two for double-strength or Large monsters, and three for triple-strength or Huge monsters. Thus a Large Champion-tier monster would have a corruption rating of 2d12.

Whenever an effect causes a PC to risk corruption, they roll the corruption rating of the source of the effect. For each die higher than the PC’s current corruption they increase it by 1. Then, if rolling more than one die, add up all the dice rolled. If the sum is greater than their current corruption, increase it by 1 as well.

At the end of a full heal-up, current corruption becomes the new permanent corruption – heal it before that happens!

Corrupting Abilities

Following traits modify appropriate monsters or their abilities. They can be roughly broken into two categories: abilities that tempt PCs to risk corruption (always a choice), and abilities that hit you harder if you’re corrupted.

A Thing That Shouldn’t Be

(Apply to gibbering mouthers and the like – utterly aberrant)

To apply the escalation die to an attack against this creature, you must first risk corruption. Each. Time.

Insidious Violation

(Apply to attacks that inflict an effect with normal save, like mind flayer’s daze on mind blast)

Change the difficulty of the save to hard. Before making the save, a PC can choose to make the difficulty easy instead by risking corruption.

Maddening Visage

(Apply to boss-like monsters)

This creature gains a Fear Aura (no hp threshold), which can be ignored for a turn by risking corruption.

Unclean

(Apply to attacks that inflict a borderline unfair effect with a save. Give your boss a borderline unfair effect.)

Change the difficulty of the save to the target’s current corruption+.

Impossible Geometries

(Apply to attacks that are changed by the natural roll)

Change the natural roll trigger to “Natural roll equal or lower than the target’s corruption”.

Tainted Ground

(Environmental effect, think radioactive desert)

Spending an hour in this terrain causes a character to risk corruption. This check is repeated every 12 hours for as long as the character remains within the tainted ground. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the environment, and always uses 1 die.

Tear in Reality

(Environmental effect, an object on the battlefield: a ritual site, eldritch idol, etc)

Ending a turn nearby a tear in reality causes a character to risk corruption. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the source of corruption, and uses 1 die. Ending a turn engaged with the tear in reality (necessary to undo the ritual, study the eldritch idol, close the tear) increases the number of dice in the corruption rating to 2.

Effects of Corruption

Permanent corruption is broken up into several tiers:

0 – pure, good for you.

1-5 – mild corruption, cosmetic effects, can take corrupted feats.

6-11 – moderate corruption, this is really noticeable, but you get a free corrupted feat.

12-19 – severe corruption, really unpleasant effects. Have another corrupted feat as recompense.

20 – You’re an aberration now, time to make another character.

What are the actual effects of corruption? In a word, unsettling. Tentacles sprouting, eyes multiplying, transparent skin, shadow gaining a will of its own: all this and more. There are plenty of random mutation tables out there, and the boundary between gross and gross-yet-cool is very individual. You don’t want corruption to be so disgusting no one would ever wish to risk it. Damnation should be darkly alluring. All the mechanics have been written to tempt players into becoming corrupted, don’t let your description of its effects stop them. Work with the player to come up with a satisfactory description. It may be derived from the source of their corruption, or could manifest in entirely unexpected ways – corruption knows no rules (other than the ones written here).

Healing Corruption

Spend a recovery immediately after the scene where you became corrupted to reduce the current corruption by 1d4 points at the adventurer tier, 2d4 at the champion tier, and 3d4 at the epic tier, but never below the permanent corruption.

To reduce current corruption post factum, but before it becomes permanent, requires a costly ritual: material components cost 100gp if the target is Adventurer tier, 200gp if they are Champion, and 400gp if they are Epic. This ritual allows its target to heal current corruption as if they had just gained it. These components may not be readily available, however, especially in tainted ground.

Reducing permanent corruption is extremely hard, and likely requires a quest on its own.

Corrupted Feats

Regular feats, such as Reach Trick, can be reflavored to fit the corruption theme.

Whenever corrupted feats cause you to risk corruption, the corruption rating is determined by the tier of your corruption: d6 if it is mild, d12 if moderate, and d20 if severe; while the number of dice is equal to the number of times you’ve used this ability since the last full heal-up.

Forbidden Lore

You gain a new aberrant-related background, with 1 point in it if you have mild corruption, 2 if it is moderate and 4 if it is severe.

Unnatural Toughness

Risk corruption to gain temporary hit points equal to your current corruption.

Out of Sync with Reality

Once per round, risk corruption to roll a special save against any condition, even one you cannot normally save against. You succeed on this save if you roll less than or equal to your current corruption.

Vile Devastation

Risk corruption to increase the damage of your attack by your corruption. The target is probably corrupted as the result, too, not that you care. You monster.

New Regular Feats

These abilities could easily be granted by magic items, too. That’s probably a better idea if corruption is not the focus of your campaign.

Pure Soul

When you heal corruption, roll d6s instead of d4s.

Azure Flame Halo

When you risk corruption, add the escalation die to your current corruption.

Nature’s Rage

Once per battle when you hit a creature with a corruption rating, you may add the corruption rating to the damage you deal.

Corruption is a Choice

This is crucial, the main thing I’ve learned from using corruption in one way or another for years. That’s what these rules were written to reinforce. Often, it is a desperate choice between survival and damnation. But that’s what makes it meaningful, an effective horror element in an otherwise heroic game. It’s a permanent, or at least very long-term, consequence of player choice. Take away the choice, though, and you may ruin your players’ characters. Not everyone wants to have tentacles coming out of their character’s eye sockets. But sometimes you have to damn yourself to save the world.

Götterdämmerung

You are great heroes, or even gods. Tonight you die.

Describe yourself and your greatest feat. Players on your left and right each name a power you have based on it. Name the third one.

Every player writes a prophecy of death. Be poetic. Draw one randomly. Accept it, reject it, rage against it, it is your doom.

Every player takes a token, called an omen.

Whatever you attempt, you succeed. To resolve a scene:

  1. For each of your powers used, take a d6.
  2. Each player starting with you can describe a different way in which the situation is like your doom and hand you one of their omens. If you agree, discard it and take a d20. Otherwise, keep it.
  3. Roll your dice. If any show ‘1’, or you take another omen, there are no nasty complications. Add 2 to the roll for each omen you have. If the total is 20 or greater, describe your death.
  4. Discard the dice.

Once dead, you have unlimited omens to give.

When you clash with other players, the greater total wins. Reroll ties.

This is your last tale. How do you end? Play until every character is dead.

Attached comment: d20s work great as omens, as long as you don’t get confused between them and dice to be rolled. Vaguely inspired by Don’t Rest Your Head and Mythender


This was my entry into the 200 Word RPG Challenge. While it didn’t get picked by the judges, I’m quite fond of it.

Originally, I wasn’t intending to participate. 200 word RPGs are a neat exercise, but hardly anyone, myself included, wishes to play them. Then I saw Grant Howitt’s MECHANICAL ORYX, which ended up being one of the three winners this year. It was brimming with flavor and had actual mechanics at the same time. It inspired me, and you can undoubtedly see traces of it in my game.

Götterdämmerung isn’t all it could have been. The character generation is bog-standard. The main/only game mechanic took up most of the wordcount, forcing me to discard the majority of the thematic fluff and all of the suggestions on what the game could be about or any kind of structure. 200 words is not a lot of words! Still, within those limits are doomed heroes, a reason for players to hasten the doom of others, massive risk taking, a choice to hasten your own doom to not ruin everything you hold dear, and an implied soundtrack by Amon Amarth. It’ll do.

Running an RPG for kids

I ran a “Dungeons and Dragons” event at a public library last week, with six 10-or-so year old kids showing up to my table. It went well, but boy was it a challenge.

How do you prepare to run a game for kids you’ve never met? The system obviously needs to be both simple and quick to teach. And while “D&D” in the event name was used as a generic term for roleplaying games, having PCs be heroes fighting some evil threat seemed like a good idea. I picked Dungeon World, but even that turned out to be too much. Bonds, weight, deities, high level spells, it was all a bit overwhelming and either was ignored during the game, or distracted from it. The “legacy” aspects of DW, such as stats being two numbers only one of which actually mattered for most of the game, provided unnecessary confusion as well.

Next time I’d choose something even simpler. Maybe Roll For Shoes. FAE is another contender, though I’m not certain I could explain aspects well enough. Time is a big constraint: 3 hours for everything! And as it’s a one-off event, you can’t even build system mastery over several sessions. I’m aware of RPGs made specifically for kids, that’s obviously worth investigating as well.

But back to game preparation. Unambiguity of opposition’s evil seemed important. Leave challenging morality questions like “is it ok to kill goblins” to teenagers. Stick with robots, zombies and dinosaurs. Turns out, undead are cooler than robots. Who knew. I prepared a basic adventure: start at the entrance to the dungeon with a task to retrieve a macguffin from within. Inside await a fight or two, depending on how fast the game goes, a couple of opportunities to be smart and avoid traps, a guardian spirit to interact with and a choice at the end.

I was particularly fond of the first room, a dining hall of a mansion whose owner has seemingly perished, still staffed by robot butlers. They do their best to maintain it, while everything including themselves succumbs to rot. Very “There Will Come Soft Rains”. And if the adventurers decide to break things, or steal the silver cutlery, they get their first fight. That was the plan. Here’s how it went in practice: the fighter (named Darth Vader, naturally) went in first, saw creaking figures in the darkness, and attacked the closest one.

Lesson learned: don’t bother with subtlety. It’s not that kids can’t appreciate it, I’m sure some could. It’s just that one of them will inevitably smash it with a flail. For that matter, having a logical and consistent dungeon didn’t seem to matter to them much, either. Again, not surprising: they’re experiencing a sensory overload as it is.

Another lesson learned: placing a puzzle-like scene near the end of the adventure was a mistake. Kids get tired, their attention wanders, and placing them into a situation with no immediately obvious solution leads to them drifting away. An extra consideration for structuring the adventure.

The toughest part about running the game was managing the group. Six players was definitely too many. Rotating the spotlight and making sure loud players don’t dominate the session is tricky even with adults. With kids it’s an order of magnitude harder. Loud players literally jump up and down demanding attention, while quiet players are content to sit and not say a word unless directly drawn into the action. I had expected the flexible nature of DW to help out in this, but I suspect a rigid initiative system may have worked better. In part because it makes sure everyone has to participate, and knows roughly when it’ll be their turn. But also because putting a kid on the spot, one of the GM moves of DW and a great tool otherwise, has a risk of simply not working if the kid quietly says “I dunno”.

Another element of DW that didn’t always work was the fact that often enough PCs simply don’t trigger a move with their actions, leaving the GM to decide what happens. Normally, that’s fine. But when a kid tries to use a dagger to jimmy open a blast door that just slammed shut, saying “no, that just doesn’t work” leaves them stumped. The remedy to both of these problems, I think, would be to replace the traditional “what do you do?” with “do you do this, that, or something else?”

Something that surprised me a bit: most of the kids had simply shown up because it was a summer holiday activity, not because they were already interested in fantasy gaming. They hadn’t previously played anything remotely similar, digital or otherwise, and none of them had read or seen Lord of the Rings. Establishing common cultural tropes was tricky at times.

Despite these difficulties, I had fun, and so did the kids. A special shout out goes to the girl who played the cleric, and came up with an ingenious use for the light spell: cast it on the eyes of enemies to blind them.