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Roman Aqueducts, Hell's Bells
greg staples art, diabolical tutor, Magic
Last month Lisa and I and the rest of her family took an amazing vacation through Barcelona and southern France. It was the first non-working vacation I've taken in a dozen years and there were so many splendid moments that attending an actual Barcelona game (vs. Almeria, league minnows) fell out of the top seven joys of the trip. I'll write some of those moments up eventually.

For now, a moment that came a few days after the Pont du Gard photo above was taken.

We were staying at a hotel inside the old walled city of Carcassonne. For ironic effect, Lisa had brought our copy of Carcassonne along in the luggage, but there were better things to do than play boardgames in the hotel, so the box ended up serving as a postcard'n'art storage unit!

Past midnight, Lisa and I decided to go for a walk all around the old city's inner walls, sometimes climbing up on the outer parapets where the floodlights showed the route. The walk alternated between long periods of silence and isolation dotted with bizarre moments of frenetic activity. Once a celebrating rugby team roared past on their own top-speed circuit of the walls. Later a small forest of birds chirped at full volume, fooled as intense spotlights aimed at the inner wall simulated morning.

Before the rugby team and the birds, in the quiet section when it seemed we were alone, we rounded a corner tower and stepped onto the longest straightaway. There was no one else in sight, only bats flitting overhead, weaving out of the towers under the moon. And then power chords started up in the distance. Da Da Da da-da-da Duh Duh DUH. Repeat. I knew the tune. Couldn't place it for another few steps. We were still hundreds of yards from the source but omg it was Hell's Bells, AC-DC.

Another few dozen steps and it was clear it was a live band. Deep bass thumping down from up high on the walls. Two-thirds of the way down the long straightaway we passed beneath the band's hole in the fortifications. Thirty-five yards up the thick inner wall of Carcassonne, blue and green light swirled out of an arrow-slit, accompanied by the best attempts of a French rock'n'roll band to scream Aussie lyrics.

A couple hundred more steps and we'd rounded the final tower of the straightaway and were back in the muted world of midnight between the walls.
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Osprey's New Wings
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This isn't a blog with new news. It's an appreciation.

A few years ago Osprey Publishing started publishing miniatures wargames in book form. This probably shouldn't have been a huge surprise, since Osprey's military history line has long been a huge resource for miniatures painters and historical wargame designers. So far my two favorites in the Osprey wargame line are Lion Rampant--Medieval Wargame Rules, by Daniel Mersey, and Andrea Sfiligoi's A Fistful of Kung Fu--Hong Kong Movie Wargame Rules.

The wargame line has notably moved away from the straight historical treatments that Osprey made its name with. Andrea's book, for example, is a skirmish wargame treatment of the territoryFeng Shui arranges for roleplaying games. And with the launch of the Osprey Adventures line in 2010, Osprey has a full-fledged documentary fantasy project going, with books on everything from Hercules to Zombies to Werewolves and Ken Hite's The Nazi Occult.

The catalog of about-to-be-published Osprey books is a bit like walking into the history section at the bookstore and finding yourself at a gaming convention. Chris Pramas is about to publish Orc Warfare! Phil Masters is coming out with The Wars of Atlantis. Ken is putting together The Cthulhu Wars.

In a week, two friends have Osprey books coming out that I've already pre-ordered. Ryan Miller has a naval wargame, Fighting Sail: Fleet Actions 1775-1815. And Steve Long is publishing Odin: The Viking Allfather. The artist for Odin, a Spanish woman named a-RuMor, does great stuff, and I'm keen to see Steve's treatment of Odin-through-history and Odin-in-myth.

What the world needs now, is another freaking zombie
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This newly arrived 13th Age zombie has two inspirations.
First, I've been reading Jason Sholtis' compilation of The Dungeon Dozen: Random-Tables for Fantasy RPGs. "Reading" may be the wrong word, but I've definitely been picking it up and allowing photons from its pages to slam into my eyeballs.
Second, I like the way one of the zombies in Cal Moore's Shadows of Eldolan adventure randomly ends up with a pumpkin stuck on its head and keeps on fighting, since hey, what does a zombie care? I started wondering if there was another interesting zombie I could insert into a crowded market-scene, and the mook below is the result.
My guess is that the coin zombie is a necromancer's attempt to answer the age-old problem affecting most zombie attacks, which is that normal people start running away when zombies attack, and people run faster than zombies. A small expenditure of coins, an enchantment based on mortal greed, and you've got a zombie that magically convinces its targets to stick around and be eaten.
If your PCs are the type who count every coin, feel free to let them collect coins of various denominations that add up to 1d4 gp per coin zombie after the fight. If innocent bystanders and NPCs ended up getting nabbed by the jackpot or sticking around to pocket coins, subtract a few from the loot. If your PCs are the type to track down every last coin . . . [[insert GM stage-whisper]], curse the coins. They did fall out of a zombie's guts, so they were cursed to begin with.

Coin Zombie

We’re not sure where you got the idea that treasure falling out of dead monsters was a good thing, but it wasn't from this booby-trapped horror.
2nd level mook [undead]
Initiative: +2
Greedy claw +7 vs. AC—3 damage
C: Lethal jackpot +7 vs. MD (1d3 nearby enemies/bystanders)—3 ongoing psychic damage, and if target moves while taking ongoing psychic damage, it can only move to the jangling pile of coins that fell out of the zombie's crumbling body to cause this attack.
 GM: If you're feeling merciful, say that a quick action to pocket some of the coins gives a +2 bonus to the save against the ongoing psychic damage. (This GM message brought to you by Jonathan-Didn't-Write-this-Monster.)
   Limited use: 1/battle per coin zombie, when that coin zombie is dropped to 0 hit points.
Headshot: A critical hit against a coin zombie cancels one mook’s lethal jackpot ability that turn, though if the crit eliminates more than one coin zombie, others will still trigger their own lethal jackpots.
AC      17
PD      12                       HP 8 (mook)
MD     16
Mook: Kill one coin zombie mook for every 8 damage you deal to the mob.

Reaper Bones, broo, and frogfolk
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I've been slowly unpacking my first ever box of Reaper Bones miniatures from Kickstarter. It's the Bonesylvania set.
My first surprise came on day two. I'd pulled out one bag and opened it, taking out a mini or two whenever I needed a mental moment away from typing. I looked in the box for the second bag, pulled it out, and was surprised to find a third bag underneath. Oh! Right. 150+ miniatures, that's a lot.
The other two pleasant surprises wouldn't have surprised me if I'd kept track of the contents. But all these months/years after backing the Kickstarter, I had no idea there were going to be such wonderful broo miniatures, and just in time for us to be working on the second playtest draft of 13th Age in Glorantha! Goat-headed Chaos monsters are just what I need right now.
So far I've found three excellent broo minis in the bags, they're pictured below next to metal Broo minis painted by my buddy Richard Bark. I think I've found my Champion of Ragnaglar at the left. If there are more broos in the bags, don't tell me. I'll find them soon!

And alongside the broos, we've got frogfolk. So far I've found three of them also, perfect for jumping into the Temples of the Frogfolk issue of the 13th Age Monthly by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan released a couple weeks ago. I love the skull helmet on the guy in the middle.

If you're not sure that frogfolk are your thing, here's a review of the piece from someone who was skeptical and then won over. I appreciate his notes about the article giving just enough information to spark the imagination and then stopping and letting the GM/players take over--that's the balance we're aiming for. As of today, Friday the 13th Age, Temples of the Frogfolk is also on sale at Drive-Thru RPG along with the 13th Age soundtrack and the Shadows of Eldolan 1st level adventure at 13% off. Offer expires Saturday the 14th.

Epic Spell Wars: Creatures of the Game Expansion Duel at Mount Tabletop
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No, that's not the actual title of the soon-to-arrive sequel to Epic Spell Wars in the subject line. I don't actually know the title of the expansion yet. That's the kind of detail I'm OK learning as a surprise, and along with most of the card names, it's one of the creative elements Cory Jones adds while he and Cryptozoic are harnessing Nick Edwards' never-risk-an-underdose art.

Nick's art was a big hit on last week's episode of Tabletop. Wil Wheaton and friends (thanks, Boyan!) taunted, cackled, and romped through one Epic Spell Wars battle. It was a hilarious episode and perfectly captured the spirit in which the game is meant to be played.

I don't think we've released much information about Epic Spell Wars II yet, to the extent that this may be the first that some people know it's in the works. In the spirit of the game, here are Eight Fact-Like Factoids about Epic Spell Wars II. Unlike the Fact-Like Facts from Scott Bateman's Disalmanac, more than half of these ESW factoids are true. Five of eight truths, to be precise.

1.      Creatures that roll well for Power will stay around and fight for you again next turn.
2.      Food cards heal you and are even more powerful if you physically spill food or drink on them at the table.
3.      Game mechanics experiments with victory points didn't work out, but those mechanics morphed into a blood point system that add choices by providing a resource that can power up some spells.
4.      The cardboard Standee included in the box now has gameplay relevance that may change your plans for a turn.
5.      The cardboard Standee in this set flies like a helicopter if you hold it upside-down and spin it real fast.
6.      This is a full stand-alone game, with spell cards and treasures and Dead Wizard cards and all the rest, but it can also be added seamlessly to the existing cards for Epic Epic Spell Wars.
7.      The physical rulebook is supplemented by an audiofile New Rules Summary read by Wil Wheaton in the voice of Krazztar the Blood'o'Mancer.

8.      The game is due out in May!

Hillfolk won't wait
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I don't think you can go wrong paying $6.95 at the Bundle of Holding to get hold of Robin D. Laws' Hillfolk and diverse series pitches from a weighty proportion of the skilled rpg writers in the world.

But you can go wrong if you wait more than fifteen hours to take advantage of the offer. It ends tomorrow.

If you've been following Robin's games from The Dying Earth through Heroquest andSkullduggery, you know he's been on a quest for narrative roleplaying mechanics. Hillfolk is the culmination of the quest. Its expectations aren't like the procedural games I usually design and run, it's focused on stories about who wants what from whom and what the dramatic consequences will be, not who can slay who using which spells. It's certainly been good for my thinking to be involved with the game and its dramatic cousins, so if you've held off from dipping into Hillfolk because it's not the style of game you usually play, now is a good moment to experiment.

Hooray for GottaCon!
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GottaCon in Victoria, the first weekend of March, is a wonderfully balanced gaming convention I recommend to anyone in the Pacific Northwest.
By balanced, I mean that the convention manages to make roleplaying gamers, miniatures gamers, board gamers, and digital gamers feel that the convention is about them. Throw in a well-thought-out emphasis on diversity and a slate of fun panels and it's a convention I'm headed back to next year.
I said "yes" to attending as a guest before my current March Deadline-March for the 13th Age in Glorantha book became clear to me. I've had to turn down other convention appearances because I need these weekends for work.
But I've got no regrets about GottaCon other than that Lisa couldn't come along to enjoy the boardgaming and the great room at the Empress. I made new friends, had some great talks with Seattle people I haven't seen much in Seattle, got a demonstration of Ryan Macklin's upcoming Backstory cards, ran a hugely fun session of 13th Age in Glorantha, and for maybe the first time in two years got to play a new boardgame without being the person who already knew the rules.
The boardgame was King of New York. I'd played the early and final versions of King of Tokyo but wasn't entirely happy with the mechanical disincentives for doing the things that should have been the coolest monster stunts to pull off. I'm thrilled that King of New York fixes my qualms about gameplay in King of Tokyo. King of New York is a great game I'm looking forward to picking up soon.
I'm not saying much about the 13th Age in Glorantha playtest session because it was the playtest scenario, and we're not talking much about the playtest in public while it's running. But I will mention one of the early scenes, when the character who was the greatest poet in the world wanted to try out his new poem at the toughest tavern in Alda-Chur. Alda-Chur is pretty much a war zone, and it's not the typical fantasy world with taverns everywhere, so the toughest spot in town turned out to be a Storm Bull bonfire where they'd unearthed a hidden cache of Lunar wine. The poet did his best (failing forward quite memorably), the trickster got the snot kicked out of him, and the players who were new to Glorantha (which was to say, nearly all of them) lamented that it would be extremely hard to be a successful poet in a world in which you couldn't write romantic lines about the moonlight (what with the moonlight being Red and Chaotic).
A few pieces of GottaCon were recorded. I'm not sure yet about the Kickstarter panel Jonathan Tweet and I were on. Judged by how much I learned from the other panelists, Jordan Stratford (of the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency), Joanna Gaskell (of Standard Action), and Kyle Elliott (of too many successful Kickstarters to name), the Kickstarter panel was good. The earlier Creating Hooks 101 panel/workshop was also ton of fun and that recording is already available for your ear buds.

My playtest feedback process
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I'm just about to start going through playtest feedback for 13th Age in Glorantha. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in how I process playtest feedback for 13th Age books.

Sometimes I read playtest feedback right away. But usually I wait and read as much of it as possible in a single big batch. Glorantha's first playtest is going to take the big batch approach.
In either case, I take the good ideas I like out of it, or notes that seem to be identifying major problems, and write them down in my own words in single sentence summaries, sometimes noted as to whose feedback they came from. I keep these notebook pages of possible playtest changes going through the entire process. (I write small so I can fit a lot on a two page spread!)
When I'm ready to implement the changes, I start by reading the whole list of possible changes. After crossing off notes that have proven incorrect, I start in and work through the notebook pages list, crossing notes off as I deal with them or decide they aren't actually problems. How do I decide when comments aren't problems? A few ways, but mostly through uncovering that the rest of the feedback supports a feature a couple people found problematic, or discovering that the original comments were in fact inaccurate, or by creating new design elements that sidestep the issue, or by weighing the evidence and judging that what bothered the tester is a feature instead of a bug!
Sometimes I'll get playtest advice that's so good, accurate, and important that I want to make changes immediately. That happens most often during playtest feedback on classes, when something sparks that can fix a lingering problem or create a wonderful new dynamic.
In most cases, it's better to wait a few days or weeks longer and make changes in one thoughtful extended pass, because even small changes can require multiple revisions scattered throughout the document. Revising the same sections multiple times because of repeated changes is not only maddening, it also seems to increase the risk of me screwing up a change that should have rippled out to multiple pages of the book.

I suspect that other designers handle playtest feedback differently. But I admit that I'm not sure. I haven't asked many other designers how they handle the playtest revision process with RPGs.

Here's a picture of what a typical page of playtest process looks like in my notebooks. These were notes from last year on Robin's The Strangling Sea.

Yes, I'm still writing in notebooks. When I'm rolling with design work I'm usually just typing into a computer, but when I'm noodling ideas or writing notes about things I want to think about before acting on, I use a pen.

And while I'm taking photos, here's the pile of all the notebooks I've used for 13th Age design. They're all from my friend Sara's company, MakeMyNotebook.com, I love the weight of the paper and their spiral-bound durability as well as the fun covers. I've used one full book already for 13th Age in Glorantha (blue robot) and it looks like I'll use up at least another half (black fish).

Monk & Frogfolk Today, GottaCon in Victoria Friday
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Greg Stolze’s TheForgotten Monk 13th Age novel is wrapping up its Kickstarter in a few hours. Jonathan Tweet and I are on deck to write short stories using Greg’s characters and the novel is huge fun for fantasy readers, martial arts fans, and readers who like truly smooth and infuriating villains.

For a different type of villain, check out Temples of the Frogfolk, the second issue of the 13th Age Monthly, out today to subscribers! Author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is also on board to write a short story for The Forgotten Monk. Sign on to the Monthly now and you’ll also get caught up with last month’s installment, Dragon Riding.

A couple days from now, Friday the 27th, Jonathan Tweet and I are among the guests who will be running and talking about games at GottaCon in Victoria. I’m running 13th Age in Glorantha Friday night, Shadowrun: Crossfire Saturday afternoon, and also helping with a Saturday workshop on Crafting Hooks (along with Ryan Macklin and Rodney Thompson, to name the workshoppers I already know) and a Sunday workshop on running Kickstarters.

Where dragon riders came from
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[art by Rich Longmore]
Dragon Riding is the first issue of the 13th Age Monthly subscription that started a couple weeks ago. You can pick up a subscription tothe 13th Age Monthly for the yearly price of $24.95. When you subscribe, you’ll get all the 4000+ word issues you missed so far in the year.
The Monthly’s second installment, Temples of the Frogfolk, will be published toward the end of this month. I’ll say more about the hopping-froggies soon, but for now I'm talking about howDragon Riding made it into 13th Age. The biggest influences were Anne McCaffrey, Morno, Wade Rockett, and ASH LAW.
Anne McCaffrey because I discovered both D&D and her dragon riders of Pern the same year—1974—while living in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Somehow I got hold of the second of her dragon riders books, Dragonquest, instead of the first. I read it enough times that I had no choice but to include a school for dragons in the first dungeon that I drew on graph paper.
(Confession: the school for dragons was a big blank area in the graph. I had no real idea what the school for dragons was going to be like. It may not have just been luck that my 5th grade brain was never forced to figure it out, because I put the school behind the room that was modeled after the Watcher at the Gates from Tolkien’s Moria. Nobody ever made it past that room. Huh.)
Push forward many years and McCaffrey’s Pern books have had a great deal of influence on fantasy, maybe more than people know. McCaffrey’s depiction of newly hatched dragons impressing on humans to whom they bond as life mates has been used everywhere from Elfquest (elves and wolves) to the Temeraire Napoleonic dragon series by Novik. Maybe I’m wrong about McCaffrey creating that impression, maybe it was already in the wind somewhere, but I think she’s the person responsible.
At one point these 13th Age dragon riding mechanics had a bit of talk about bonding rituals and such-like magical impressionism. But handling it in any detail felt like a story angle that GMs and players should invent for themselves in a personally satisfying way if they’re into that type of thing, and in the end I took it out of the rules.
Morno gets credit because his illustration of dragon riding sold me an aerial dragon combat game once upon a time. As in, I saw Dragonlord, and I bought it. And then I really wanted to play it. I held on to it for years, tinkering with ways to make the game playable. Or perhaps the word would be “fully, enjoyably playable.” I think I still own Dragonlord somewhere in a forgotten game box, but it’s not like it is going to be any more playable now; so it was time to invent a system for dragon riding combat that would work.
Wade Rockett forced my hand by seizing on dragon riding as something cool that was happening in the Dragon Empire and not letting me forget it. I chirped, “Yes, sure!” to Wade’s suggestion of handling the topic in 13 True Ways. So when 13 True Ways grew wild and overpopulated, it was clear that dragon riding was going to have to come later. It’s even somewhat true that creating a dragon riding article pushed us farther on the path toward having a 13th Age Monthly. There’s room for smallchunks of constant fun, and there was a need for a few small pieces on topics that, in hindsight, we should have covered in 13 True Ways.
ASH LAW gets credit as co-author of the piece because when I turned away from the topic, pleading that I had other design tasks to handle, ASH kept designing dragon riding systems, each better than the last. ASH wasn’t going to let it go. He wants to write a 13th Age sourcebook on mounted combat and he was going to push the system through even if I was stuck in the mud ofno-that-won’t-work.
So eventually I stopped being a stick-in-the-mud and designed a system we could be happy with. This Dragon Riding piece is going to serve as the basis for how other mounted combat works in the game. It also has notes on how to apply the mechanics to different types of campaigns and notes on how to run and balance battles for PCs who are on dragonback.

And it gives me a good reason to dig through old game boxes, because the counters and maps from the Morno Dragonlord game will be perfect for the sessions I run as dragon riding adventures!

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