cOSRatic Dialogue

Magician: Greetings, wise one. I have long since observed you, and read some of your writing. Yet I confess, the essence of your teachings eludes me.

cOSRates: My lessons are not some great mystery, but the original and most natural way to play. It does, however, require clearing your head of all the clutter of modernity, as it is forged out of false assumptions. Only once your mind is unpolluted can you see the simplicity and elegance of the old ways.

Magician: Simplicity is the right word. That’s the part that’s always been a stumbling block for me. I like rules. They can guide and shape the experience. Yet you preach ascetism when it comes to game mechanics. Your game systems are so simple they are interchangeable.

cOSRates: I have nothing against rules, either. But they should serve a puprose, to fairly arbitrate situations that frequently come up. Why would you want to learn rules you may never use? Why would you trust a distant game designer to judge a unique situation at your table better than your own GM can?

Magician: That’s the issue, isn’t it. Trust. I trust a distant game designer to know how their game works, and to foresee complications I may not consider when they create the rules, even rules that won’t see frequent use. I don’t know if I trust myself, much less a GM I may have only just met, to do the same. You mentioned fairness. That’s what I want, too.

cOSRates: Without trust, how can you play? If you can’t rely on your GM to be impartial and fair, no amount of rules will save you. Why look to guidance in rules, when advice on running a game is so easy to find in plain text? Why put shackles on the GM and on the game itself on the off chance they will fail you? You spoke of knock-on effects of rulings. Those only really are an issue in complex games. That is some of the clutter I mentioned. Simplify. Free yourself. And if a ruling does become a problem, it’s still not a rule. Change it, change the situation, adapt. You are the GM, that’s how the game works. Nothing is written in stone, it’s not even written on paper.

Magician: It does seem like the old school way of playing fosters an antagonistic relationship between players and GM, though. There certainly are plenty of horror stories of power-tripping GMs, or players who pulled a fast one on the GM. The latter, predictably, are hailed as heroic, further reinforcing the antagonism. And that’s before we get to the perhaps more common situations where neither side is actively trying to screw the other, but have different ideas on how things should work, or what they find fun. With rules to guide them, it’d be easier to find common ground. Still, I take your point that trust is foundational.

cOSRates: You mention “fun”. I suspect we’d have different definitions. In my eyes, overcoming adversity is fun. Outsmarting the enemy is fun. Beating, truly beating the dungeon is fun. For the victory to be meaningful, there has to be a real chance of defeat. If you go into my game expecting to be a hero, you may well be disappointed. Which isn’t to say there aren’t power-tripping GMs or antagonistic players, of course there are. But we’ve had a long time to figure out and perfect the playstyle. If they deviate from it, that’s on them.

Magician: But why would you want to play a character that doesn’t end up the hero of the story? Our hobby immitates the stories we love, lets us live them. It’s not much of the story if the protagonists die at the hands of random orcs. It’s not satisfying.

cOSRates: You say death at the hands of random orcs is not satisfying, I say guaranteed victory over the random orcs is not satisfying. Our hobby is inspired by stories, yes, but it doesn’t immitate them. Unlike stories, roleplaying games are interactive. It may not be much of a story if characters die stupidly, but it surely is a game. And that’s another thing. A bad roll or two can kill a character, that’s true, but the character had to do something to get into this position. It was the player’s decision that got them killed, not the roll.

Magician: I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me. Yes, I don’t think heroes should die to random orcs. But that doesn’t mean their victory should be guaranteed, either. How they win, what they have to give up, what consequences this victory causes, that’s what’s interesting to me in a random fight. Should the characters lose the fight, I’d be more interested in seeing them captured, to find out how they proceed from there. And to your latter point, granted, characters had to make a decision or three to get to the point of rolling dice – but why make them dread rolling dice in the first place? The game is about fighting monsters in dungeons, is it not? Then why make the actual fighting undesireable?

cOSRates: And now it’s you who misunderstands. The game most certainly is not about “fighting monsters”. It is about overcoming the dungeon by whatever means necessary. The players know combat is deadly. They know a trap can kill their character at any moment. It is a test of their skill, not of the numbers on their character sheet. If they win through brute force – great. If they die – too bad, better luck next time, hope you learned your lesson.

Magician: Fine. Perhaps I turly am too accustomed to the modern interpretations of D&D, I cut my teeth on the 3rd edition, after all, and I know it’s not to your liking. To be honest, it’s no longer to my liking, either, though probably for different reasons. Anyway, let us go back a bit. You say there is no expectation of PCs being heroes in your game. That you’re not trying to tell a story at all, but play an interactive game, governed by players as opposed to storytelling rules. You talk of outwitting the enemies, of picking and choosing your battles. I suspect you may be fooling yourself. It is a story, just not necessarily a story of heroes saving the world a dungeon at a time. It’s a story of foolhardy people in dangerous circumstances. They may become the world-saving heroes, but they will probably die in a gelatinous cube long before that. The narrative conventions are different, but they are still obeyed. And it’s a fine story to tell, no better or worse than the story of heroes actually saving the world, or any other. Which is why proclaiming it to be the best and only true way of roleplaying is mystifying to me.

cOSRates: Some of my disciples do get overzealous, it’s true. That’s on them. Though, of course, we receive just as much of inane criticism as we dish out. Regardless. If you wish to call it a story, if that helps you wrap your mind around the concept, go ahead. It’s not the point of the game, not how I see it. Still, if it’s story you’re after, riddle me this. You talk of heroes, but what makes them heroes? How can they be heroes if their victory is preordained? You play to find out if their victory will be Pyrrhic, to see what they would do to reach their goal. “Roll 2d6, on 10+ you are awesome, on 7-9 a puppy dies but you’re still awesome, on 6- you get kicked around, then roll again.” I play to see if they can manage to be heroes, to be victorious. Which game is more heroic?

Magician: I think I get it now. You see the game as a collection of problems to overcome. That’s what dungeons are. Players have to earn their victories, earn their meaning, or they become yet another object lesson decorating the dungeon walls. And I’ll admit I see the allure. At the same time, I now realise “heroism” was the wrong angle for this discussion. “Interesting” would have been better. Many of the modern games, like the Apocalypse World you mock, have identified what they find interesting, and actively create such circumstances. For instance, ammunition is only interesting if it runs out, so there’s no need to track it, you can instead have a rule to say when it runs out. You talk of earning victories. But you have to earn interesting events in your games, too.

cOSRates: Damn right, you have to earn them. I won’t even address the ridiculousness of having a special rule for ammunition running out. I create volatile circumstances and put PCs right in the middle. Interesting things can’t help but occur, that’s how the game is set up. You just… cheat. Cheat and proclaim an interesting thing has happened. It’s hollow.

Magician: And that’s where we differ. I want different stories, not just the one you tell. I want interesting events, and I’m happy to “cheat” to get them.

Especially Nasty – Illiphant

Illithids are plotting, secretive, inscrutable, psychically potent yet physically frail creatures. They are also “product identity” of D&D, so no official version exists in 13th Age. Fortunately, an illiphant is none of these things. It owes its existence to a mural made by Alexis Diaz, though the artist can hardly be blamed for the name, or the ensuing silliness.


Whether an illithid experiment or the result of escaped illithid tadpoles latching on to a poor creature, this monstrosity is highly territorial, exceptionally intelligent, and holds a grudge. If bodies of massive creatures with enormous holes in their skulls littered throughout the area were not enough to deter you, you better hope you merely get trampled to death. Illiphants do so like the taste of terror mixed with despair. 

Level 7 Huge wrecker [ABERRANT]

Initiative +9

Trample +11 vs PD, 42 damage.

Natural even attack roll: the target may choose to pop free. If it does, the illiphant moves to a nearby enemy it hasn’t attacked this turn yet and repeats the attack. If the target chooses not to pop free, the illiphant repeats the attack against it instead.

Natural odd roll: the illiphant makes a tentacle grab attack against the same target as a free action.

Tentacle grab +11 vs PD, the target is grabbed. An illiphant can have up to four creatures grabbed. This is the ability it usually uses for oppoprtunity attacks.

Squeeze the brains out +13 vs PD (all creatures grabbed by the illiphant), 84 damage.

Nastier Specials:

Cacophanous trumpetting. The illiphant has fear aura (fear threshold 36hp). In addition, its tentacle grab attack can target either MD or PD, whichever is lower.

An illiphant is never forgotten. The creature that strikes the killing blow against an illiphant never truly escapes the encounter. Their wounds may heal, but fear lingers. The (hopefully) irrational fear of being followed by an illiphant bent on revenge. Of its massive bulk hiding in the shadows. Observing. Biding its time. Bringing about their inevitable downfall. A hulking gray eminence out to get them.

Clearly, the only way to rid yourself of this fear is to confront it. Hunt down and kill the illiphant hunting you. Or at least any illiphant you can find. Just be sure it’s you who lands the killing blow again, or the paranoia will spread.

AC 24

PD 21    HP 324

MD 19

Building up an Adventure

Last week, two of the players in our group couldn’t make it, so the regular game was cancelled. I seized upon the opportunity to try out something different, namely Shadow of the Demon Lord. It wasn’t enough to write a First Impressions post, however the experience of rewriting the adventure was perhaps noteworthy enough. Because the starting adventure I picked, A Year Without Rain, was just a tad disappointing.

Note, this isn’t really a review of the adventure, nor is it a rewrite you can easily use to run it yourself. Instead, I hope you’ll find the process itself useful. And if it wasn’t apparent, there will be detailed spoilers of the adventure.

The premise held promise: a village affected by a lenghty drought, then stricken by people suddenly drying up, their corpses all but turning to dust. Investigation leads the party into the well, where a demon to blame for it all resides. Cool. The lone review on DTRPG warns of the adventure’s deadliness, and it isn’t exagerrating.

However, the main issue I immediately had with it is it’s just a dungeoncrawl. And not a very engaging one, either. Once the PCs dive into the well, it’s just a series of rooms with monsters popping up to attack them. The demon herself simply wanders the halls, appearing at any moment. Kill it and you win, the end. This isn’t to say there aren’t any interesting elements scattered there. The Goblet of Tears, a magic item that produces 10 gallons of salt water each day, and has a 1-in-20 chance of not stopping for a year is quite cool. As a side note, the party immediately triggered this hidden drawback, and the survivors intend to build themselves a salt-selling business.

The initial investigative stage is straightforward but serviceable. One moment that’s not very well thought-out: the Laughter in the Well, the demon to blame for all the deaths and the drought, has apparently been killing people for a year now. It’s also seemingly been dragging their dessicated corpses into its lair as it’s strewn with dust left from their bodies. How come it’s only been noticed a week ago for the first time? There is even a dedicated well-watcher in the village! The demon can scry on the surrounding area and teleport there, picking off lone travellers, and I guess teleporting back with their bodies. A week ago its modus operandi changes. Now it floats out of the well, asks lone passers-by for a kiss, and just lets them walk off and die.

Perhaps it has gradually recovered its strengths, growing bolder. The Shadow of the Demon Lord looming ever closer probably had an effect, too. This isn’t something PCs are likely to discover, but it helps to give the adventure urgency. As written, if the PCs do nothing the demon eats a villager each night until eventually the inquisition is called in and presumably deals with the threat. Not all that exciting. Instead, let’s say the demon goes out of its way to kill any messengers sent to alert the authorities, after which the villagers figure they should start sacrificing people to it, doing it with proper respect. Malery, one of the few NPCs players are likely to have a positive interaction with, makes for a good first victim. Outsider PCs work, too.

Overall plot sorted, lets move on to mechanics. Now, I’m new to SotDL. However, it seems like actual fighting is not it’s goal or source of fun. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’re meant to be doing for the majority of the session, unlike, say, in D&D 4e. The rulebook even warns new players to avoid conflict, calling it “last resort.” At the same time, the strength of the system seems to lie in the flexibility of its boons and banes, allowing for quick adjucation of novel approaches. A somewhat OSR attitude.

With that in mind, what opportunities for avoiding combat and novel approaches does the adventure offer? There’s a whole bunch of monsters in that dungeon. The tiny demon hiding in the sand pool and the golem masquarading as a magic circle are seemingly there to punish PCs for poking around too much – a strange lesson to teach as there aren’t any warning signs of their presence. In contrast to that, the large spider in a coffin, while seemingly doing the same, actually rewards confronting it – if not dealt with, it’ll pop up later when PCs are most vulnerable.

Inconsistent lessons aside, many of these monsters also don’t make sense. What is the spider eating in this dry-as-a-bone dungeon, how did it get there, why hasn’t it been destroyed by the traps or demons? Whose coffins are those? Why are animated corpses in the other room animated and not drained until they’re sand like everything else here? What’s with the magic circle/golem room: why are doors blown off its hinges, why is the golem even there? “Some great explosion had
occurred here long ago.” Great. Very interesting.

Too much of the adventure feels like it’s just filling up rooms with monsters, filling up the session with combat. Time to cut. I’ve kept the sand pool demon, to act as an intro to combat rules, and it dropped one of the PCs in two rounds. Deadly, indeed. The PCs had brought multiple waterskins into the dungeon, reasoning it’d come in handy against something that drains people dry, and I let them splash it on the demon (Agility vs Agility, 1d6 damage).

While I didn’t quite mean to, I literally forgot the spider room even being there. No big loss. The magic circle is just a magic circle. The ghoul musician is amusing enough, though this gag encounter being as tough as the actual demon is a bit ridiculous. Still, if the PCs fail to appease it, they can run back through the trap tunnel, softening it up. Which means the trap tunnel needs some more definition. Let’s go with standard raised bricks that trigger the blades popping up.

Secret doors to the “treasure room” also need an actual description. An idential carving of the demon in its beautiful guise will do, offering an obvious hint that something’s there. And seeing how it’s so focused on kissing people to death, lets say the doors are opened by touching the carving’s lips.

What to do with the demon itself? Beating it to death is hardly satisfying. Not to mention it’s very likely to one-shot a PC each round, and I only have 3. No, we need a “puzzle” element, a way to weaken it to a more manageable state. The scrying orb is a natural fit to give a hint. As it’s written, it gives non-essential and fairly bland backstory. Instead, lets say it shows how the demon was first defeated. It’s “portfolio” is lust and drought, a strange combination. Perhaps even its “priests” had a love/hate relationship with it. Kiss, draining all liquid, death, betrayal, sacrifice. Salt. Got it.

The vision shows five priests do a simple ritual over the Goblet of Tears, drinking the cursed salt water from it, then kissing the demon one after another. As they die, so does the demon. Oh, and look at that, there are five animated corpses for some reason entombed with the demon, how convenient. So there we have it. Get the vision, the goblet, the unholy symbol from the priests, do the ritual, fool the demon into drinking one of you. Don’t want to sacrifice yourself? Perhaps there’s another way. The first victim of the demon was a real jerk named Braidon. Let’s not kill him, skipping straight to the second victim and making up more if we have to. Want to save yourself? Sacrifice Braidon instead. Get a point of corruption, welcome to dark fantasy.

Once the demon drinks the cursed salt water from someone, it starts falling apart, clump by clump turning to dust itself. Here’s where boons and banes come in handy: for each “sip” it takes, it gains one bane to everything, and those attacking it gain one boon. You still have to fight it, but at least now the PCs stand a chance.

And finally, how do they meet it? Lets say it reconstitutes itself out of dust in the dungeon each night, assembling its body on the burial slab. As PCs spend time in the tomb, they notice dust streaming towards that room of its own accord. Functionally like a vampire waking up at night, but with a different flavor of growing tension.

With all these changes, why even use a pre-written adventure? It offered a starting point. Especially for a system you’re not familiar with, seeing how you’re “meant” to run it is useful. And it wasn’t all bad: the antagonist, the goblet of tears, the human dust-strewn dungeon, those are all evocative elements. It offered a foundation, upon which I could build a satisfying game. It would have been nice not to have to do that, to just run it as is, but hopefully with this post as an example, you’ll be able to do something similar yourself.

Especially Nasty – Raggamummy

It shambles towards you, more pitiful than menacing. The stench of rotting flesh is barely contained by its dirty bandages. It is not a very impressive mummy. As you notice the bandages sway in the non-existent wind, you realise, way too late, it is not a mummy at all.


Without a creature to wrap around, the raggamummy is just a pile of animated bandages. Everything changes when it finds a victim – the bandages snake over them, wrapping tighter and tighter.

Level 2 spoiler

Initiative +2

C Entangle (one nearby non-mummified creature) +7 vs PD, 7 damage and the target is hampered and mummified.

Mummification. The mummified creature suffers 5 ongoing damage for as long as it remains mummified, and starts making last gasp saves, except it retains its full set of actions – see below. Success allows the mummified creature to throw the raggamummy off. On the fourth failed save, the raggamummy reaches inside the creature’s head, pulling out its brain through its nose. Some of the bandages coil up inside the now empty head, and the raggamummy takes full control of the body. Treat it as permanently hampered pseudo-undead.

While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it doesn’t act on its turn. Instead, it controls the mummified creature’s actions.

Natural even save: the mummified creature has control over its standard action this round.

Natural odd save: the mummified creature has control over its move action this round.

Only the regular last gasp saves can trigger these effects, saves granted by other creatures or abilities do not.

Close to the skin. While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it takes only half damage from any source, with the mummified creature taking the other half. It takes full damage from fire instead (the mummified creature still takes half).

Nastier Specials

Death by a thousand papercuts. The more you struggle, the deeper the bandages cut. The mummified creature’s ongoing damage increases by 5 each time it makes a last gasp save. It can voluntarily fail last gasp saves without making a roll.

AC 18

PD 12      HP 30

MD 16

The raggamummy starts the encounter as a “mummy”, wrapped around a corpse – use zombie shuffler stats (level 1 mook, 13A p251). Whenever a creature hits this “mummy” with a melee attack, the raggamummy makes an entangle attack against it. If successful, it leaves the body which drops dead.

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.


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.