Author Archives: ethanskemp

About ethanskemp

Long-time RPG developer/writer, content designer late of CCP and Xaviant. Mountain folk.

4th Age

Phew. Six months! Things have been happening, just not on this page. New job, a few projects on the side, all that. I think it’s safe to say I’m not much of a blogger by nature. But let’s close out the year with one more bit of tinkering, still 13th Age-related… yet different.

It’s been about a year of play with 13th Age, and so far people are enjoying it. There’s huge amounts of love for the Backgrounds, one unique things, escalation die, mook rules and relationship dice. The downside, though it’s not a huge one, is that the classes and the combat system aren’t quite as toothsome as the D&D 4th edition games we were previously playing. This is not a universal problem. A couple of players do like the slimmed-down rules. But, well, some of the classes in 13th Age aren’t scratching the itch. For instance, the wife rather enjoys the monk (which is a great class), but finds her ranger mechanically dull. This can be a problem if you have players who like more complicated combat and class mechanics but who also like martial archetypes more than spellcasters. And yes… I have players like that.

At this point, a person asks himself “So… how do I transplant the portable stuff from 13th Age into 4e?” I know this because the 13th Age designers encourage that process right in the core. It could be a fairly simple process, but I expect a few quirks to arise. So let’s set out a plan!

Things I Love Best In 13th Age:

  • Leveling System
  • One Unique Things
  • Backgrounds
  • Stat bonuses
  • Relationship points
  • Mooks
  • Monks & Druids

Seems simple enough. With one giant glaring exception, one rather large glaring exception, and some stuff that might have hidden difficulties. So, let’s look at the plan.

Leveling System:

I’ll just get it out of the way: Can’t import the “10 levels, not 30” rule without designing an entirely different game. Which is tragic, because I really love the tighter focus and have never used epic levels in 4e anyway. I’d rather run three 10-level campaigns than one 30-level one. That said, I wasn’t using XP last time I ran 4e anyway. The incremental advances are a possible thing to unpack, if we design specific hybrid character sheets, but I did get the complaint that after three or four incremental advances, getting an actual level felt more like just filling in the rest of the bookkeeping rather than a new height. Not sure on this one.

One Unique Things:

Completely narrative, easy to retain, therefore will retain. We were pretty much doing this anyway, if the “escaped my abductors in the Shadow World”/”devil who escaped Hell”/”rebuilding my tribe” characters we were playing are any indication.


This is also a no-brainer. Moving to more abstract skillsets means no more formal skill challenges that require specific skills for success. However, the big question is whether to allow the granular 13th Age-style +1 to +5 range, or to say “you get X Backgrounds at +5” to serve the existing 4e difficulty charts. I’m leaning toward rewriting the difficulty charts and allowing granular ranges. The 4e approach definitely rewarded skill training, but it discouraged players from trying to roll if they didn’t have that +5.

Not having formal skills will require judgment calls for taking skill powers, skills as prerequisites for paragon paths, and corner cases like whether or not Beguiling Tongue works with “Disreputable Barrister.” Some feats will have to be rewritten, and multiclass feats will probably grant an additional 2 Background points in something appropriate for the class in question and how the player picked it up. All of this seems delightful to me.

Stat Bonuses:

I absolutely want to say “you get one +2 from your class and one from your race.” The bonus you get from your class can come from any of the recommended attributes in a class writeup. It should honestly be so intuitive I don’t need to write down specifics: you’re a tiefling monk and you want to take +2 Dex from your race and +2 Wisdom from your class? Sure, fine, whatever.

Relationship Points:

Pretty much entirely narrative. A good way to orchestrate alternate rewards like boons and special maneuvers, to boot. Not much to say here, other than defining a set of icons for any one campaign is clearly much more work than using the mechanics.


Ah, here’s a problem to be solved. I prefer the mook approach to 4e’s minions because damage rolls matter. This is going to be about testing the right amount of hit points, though; 4e characters don’t throw out the ever-escalating dice pools of damage as they level. It also means that all the 4e powers that do minimal damage (like your attribute modifier) as a rider aren’t automatic minion-killers. I suspect this would be something that would just need to be tested in play. And it’s fun to test things with limitless reserves of mooks, anyway.

Monks & Druids: 

This is just wishful thinking. While we prefer many of the 4e classes to their 13th Age counterparts, I personally think the monk and druid are exceptions. The combo system of the monk reminds me of Street Fighter in all the best ways, and the druid is amazingly customizable with a lot of archetypes covered. But I’m not going to try to build a 30-level class to recapture either one.

So that covers the initial path of thinking. Next up, I need to tinker with the math a little; get those difficulties and mook HP totals into some first draft format. We’ll see if this “best of both worlds” approach works… but it might work for us.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, vol. 3)

Uncle Misha and Gena after Battle of CorshuAt this point, the last polish pass on my Russian-derivative 13th Age icons has taken place. Out of necessity, because it’s taken so long that I’ve actually started running the game. This was a process that happened off-and-on, where I’d write up a possible entry for the icon in Googledocs and then transfer it to the wiki. There were some fun bits of borderline obsessive behavior involved here, such as making sure that I didn’t have too many names starting with the same letters.

So! Let’s see where the icons are now, as opposed to where they were before, and then we can see how the players are using them. I’ll warn you, the Russian stereotypes ahead are egregious.


  • CometHetman Tarska the Slayer. A nomadic champion of the Volyar tribes, who slays monsters for fun and profit. A wanderer whose organization is full of “barbarians” and other rangy folk. I wanted a hardy steppe people subculture, and Aileen was kind of interested in a “bear cavalry” concept, so the Comet embodies the positive side of that culture.
  • KeyGrandmaster Brussenweld Giftgiver. A genial dwarven hermit whose tower is filled with clockwork wonders. He’s inspired by Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker, if you hadn’t guessed. Good source for clockwork characters, and of obvious function as someone who could create highly sought-after things.
  • KnightCommander Anrikka Valyevna. Military commander dedicated to the realm, whose power lies with her oath of loyalty. She isn’t a direct ripoff of any folklore character; she’s more the disciplined and stable counterbalance to the wandering Comet. “Benevolent military” connection, strong theme of guardianship.
  • MoonTsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. One of the Big Three potential candidates for a new Grand Tsar. Her hook is that she’s basically a fairytale heroine: probably a youngest daughter, who mastered the Trump’s power because she’s faithful and clever and pure of heart. She has a kingdom where she overthrew a tyrannical tsar, and she’s accompanied by various adventurers and talking animals who are pushing her to rule.
  • Star – Illyira the Incandescent. A firebird. I knew I wanted a muse for the city of art and culture… and I made it a wise, talking firebird. Probably vain and gossipy, but also a force for beauty and laughter.
  • SunElbeska the Unascended Saint. As expected, this is the big “saintly divine” icon, who protects the Cathedral in the shattered capital. Again, no specific inspirations other than lavishly ornamented religious vestments and temples. An obvious choice for good-aligned divine servant PCs.
  • Vizier – Alsvedun the Magnficent. Yes, a fairly standard spin on the archmage, but with elements of Saint Nicholas to him — kindly but powerful, a bit of a sense of humor, generous in a canny way. Maybe a touch of Dallben of Prydain to him, a bit of Vainamoinen. The sort of archmage who knows a lot of secrets and can exert powerful influence, not the sort who keeps the order by threatening a rain of meteors.


  • BalanceZirzakh the Grandmaster: A dragon, whose goals are restoring law and order to the realm. I wanted a non-evil dragon icon in case players wanted to play dragon templars or draconics or spartoi, and it fit here. The inevitable Russian stereotype is the chessmaster, which plays well off clever, long-lived dragons and also off the Balance’s themes.
  • FatesQueen Norevna. Here I couldn’t resist the ice witch archetype; always liked Snow Queens (even though I still haven’t seen Frozen). So we have a queen in her glacial tower-citadel, full of scrying mirrors. A sorcerous power neither benevolent nor malicious; cool and calculating in the purest sense. She’s not seeking to rule the whole realm, but absolutely sets intrigues in motion to ensure that she is strong enough that she’ll never be ousted by her rivals.
  • FoolKing Svarog. Kept the idea of the ogre king. A nice chaotic brute that could be swayed to help but could also be loosing rampaging ogres on the land. Very loose-knit organization.
  • GemGuildmistress Marcadda Manyrings. Another dwarf, this one our merchant queen. Like Svarog, she comes more out of logistical considerations than pillaging specific Russian references. Could employ anyone at any time for any reason that could turn a profit.
  • JesterThe Jester. Real name unknown. A pure trickster figure, and a wild card I can define only when I have a really good idea (or a player does). Least work necessary!
  • RoguePrince Casivir the Betrayer. I ran with my original idea of a prince who turned on the Mad Tsar, and then fled the capital when chaos erupted. So we have a disgraced prince who runs a sleazy roguish trade city on a major river. Ambiguous for sure: did he act for the good of Lokva, or for selfish reasons? Probably tied into a spy network and likely a criminal enterprise.
  • TalonsUrska Tragoshka. Your High Druid archetype, and to nobody’s surprise she is the Great Bear. (At least I’m not overusing wolves again.) Again, an obvious link for primal-focused characters.
  • ThroneTsar Barakir Torevich Tyurinov. Here’s the second of the Big Three players looking to reunite Lokva under the Grand Tsardom. I needed someone with good blood claim to the throne, and because I’m critical of hereditary rule, he’s an ambiguous figure rather than heroic. This guy would be the foremost survivor of the Mad Tsar’s dynasty (or so I would think — more on that later), though I’d leave it to the players to decide if he’s worth supporting.


  • DonjonTsar Doryevni Gorinstal. And the third of the Big Three. Gorinstal is the Iron Tsar archetype, the ruthless military leader turned claimant to the Grand Tsar’s throne. He would absolutely be an iron-fisted tyrant if he got it, and he uses his Trump power to enforce absolute loyalty from his branded servants. Maybe he looks a little like Ivan the Terrible? But it’s a very cosmetic parallel. He is his own guy, as are most of the more human icons.
  • EuryaleGrandmother Yedza. From “loose connection” to “outright ripoff/homage,” Yedza is the inevitable Baba Yaga figure. Arguably the Little Grandmother should be more ambiguous, but I’m skewing villainous human-eating monster here — though she’s still a civilized being, and she’ll still keep her word if you can trick her into giving it.
  • FlamesRukvaas the Damned. The grand diabolist, and Team Evil’s resident sorcerous figure. Some nods to Rasputin here, as he’s a hedonist and probably has a great beard. Also a nod to Night on Bald Mountain, and Fantasia‘s wonderful imagery of a demonic Chernobog and his legions.
  • IdiotThe Doomsayer Prophet. A cult worshipping a mad star. Not very Russian, but a nice subversive foe with some interesting brain-horror elements. Not many notes on personality here — it’s not about a single guy, it’s about a creeping, infectious hive mind-like mentality.
  • RuinVilich Valyask Vozmei. I for sure needed a dragon, and a three-headed one at that. Kept this idea right down to the dragon nesting in the ruins of a city it razed. I find triple-V particularly effective because the heads can have different agendas: one runs a dragon-cult with firebreathing priests, one is interested in dark magic, and one is just plain avaricious.
  • Skull – Prince Kulyich the Deathless. The “Deathless” probably gives away immediately that my lord of the undead (every setting needs one!) borrows a bit from Koschei. Which is fine, he’s a great villain. Kulyich is more skeletal, but that doesn’t stop him from falling in “love” with particularly beautiful girls — he is more of a creepy sexless collector than an actual sex offender, which keeps things from getting too tasteless.
  • The VoidThe Kingdom of the Blind. A subterranean menace that schemes to extinguish the sun and moon — not derivative of specific Russian folklore, but hopefully still heady with fairytale otherworld. One of those external threats that has loose-to-no allies among the other icons, but has enough numbers in their own right not to seriously needing them.

That sums up the icons — or rather, the Trumps. I was pretty happy with them. Next step, though, was seeing if they could survive contact with character generation. A couple of character generation sessions (not everyone could make it to one — seriously, 13th Age characters don’t take that long to generate!), and I had my start.

Gennadiy, a traveling author/instructor to noble gentlemen (human fighter). One Unique Thing: He was the one who first held the Knight card, and he passed it on to the current holder. Relationship Dice: The Knight (2 dice, positive); the Donjon (1 die, conflicted).

Gena’s player got interested big-time in icon intrigue. His character carries a torch for the Knight, who in turn is a bit unattainable — her oath sets the realm before any possible suitors. He’s friends, sorta, with the Donjon, and taught the Donjon’s son in happier times. If said Iron Tsar ever finds out that Gena had the Knight card in his hand and gave it to the woman keeping the Donjon from the Grand Tsardom — instead of to, say, the Donjon’s son — it’s gonna be awkward. I expect the doors to open when things move to champion tier and it’s time for another relationship die.

Anfisa, a gamekeeper’s daughter who rides a mysteriously tame bear (human ranger). One Unique Thing: Her father and brother were transformed into bears by a witch; her brother is her animal companion. Relationship Dice: The Comet (1 die, positive); the Euryale (1 die, negative); the Ruin (1 die, negative).

Anfisa’s player wanted to play a bear-riding steppe hardass. She’s a member of the Volyar people, so the Comet, as the heroic Volyar champion, is her aspirational model. (The player would like Anfisa to be the holder of the Comet someday). The Ruin is there as the number one enemy of the Comet, and because fighting dragon-priests is fun. The Baba Yaga witch-figure is, of course, tied into the curse of her transformed relatives, and hence a Euryale die, and a Background of “Witch Hunter.” (She did not run with my suggestion of “Witch Puncher.”)

Mika, a scraggly young priestess of the goddess of cold, undeath and vengeance (human cleric). One Unique Thing: She’s actually the surviving daughter of the Mad Tsar. Relationship Dice: The Fates (1 die, positive); the Rogue (1 die, conflicted); the Donjon (1 die, negative).

Somewhere along the way Mika’s player swapped concepts, originally from “a witch stole my shadow” to “I survived the Disastrous Draw, and am a noble’s child in hiding.” I noted that she could be the daughter of the Mad Tsar himself, and why not? So we have a fairly ruthless and witchy take on the Anastasia legend. The Donjon die indicates that the Iron Tsar has heard… rumors and is investigating them. The Fates die — the player loved the ice witch archetype, and so that’s Mika’s patron. The Rogue also ties into her heritage, and raises the question of whether Prince Casivir might be an ally or not. With both Mika and Gena having a Donjon die, for sure the Iron Tsar is going to play heavily into the game. How long until Tsar Gorinstal learns that Gena not only empowered the Knight — the woman sworn to keep him off the throne — but is also protecting the girl who could make the preeminent blood-claim to the Grand Tsardom?

And Kazimeer, an astrologer and mage made of strange metal (forgeborn sorcerer). One Unique Thing: A comet appeared over the capital before the Disastrous Draw, and Kazimeer is that comet, now curiously transformed into humanoid form, a herald of a strange prophecy he doesn’t even know. Relationship Dice: The Vizier (2 dice, positive); the Idiot (one die, negative).

Kazimeer’s player decided to go weird, and I encouraged it. The Vizier is clearly interested in the comet thing and determining what it meant, and so he’s keeping an eye on Kazimeer, who has turned out to be a moral enough being. The Idiot is a natural enemy, as the cult is a force of mad astrology doomsaying, only for nihilistic purposes. They make a good “evil opposite.”

So a thing I’ve learned from both this and my Arabian Nights-inspired 13th Age game is that generating icons is immensely rewarding. Lots of work, too, let’s not kid ourselves. But going to the work of designing them means a connection that makes them more fun to use. I don’t know if I could get excited about someone taking dice with the Elf Queen, but when you’re looking at the Queen of Birds or Queen Norevna the Ice Witch, then it’s shifting into archetypes I know I like. The drawback, of course, is that a group of four players can’t take relationship dice with every icon, and that means some of the personalities you devise are going to be left on the back-burner. Always sad when you’re an undead aficionado like myself and nobody wants to mess with your Koschei the Deathless undead master. But it’s a mild ego sting, easily balanced by the knowledge that the players are choosing the things they are most interested in, and that bodes better for enthusiasm in the long run.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 30, 2015 in Uncategorized



Riddles, In the Dark or Otherwise

I think people either strongly agree, or strongly disagree, with the following statement: “I love riddles.” I’m in the strongly agree camp. I’m enamored with them, honestly. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with a thing for puzzles, as well — I’m a particular sucker for cryptic crosswords and other such word games that test something other than raw trivia. I love seeing riddles in literature, even when they’re so unfamiliar I can’t really solve them — I couldn’t get the charades in Emma, for instance. You lop off the last few lines of a classic like “This thing all things devours,” much as Peter Jackson did, and I’m afraid we are no longer friends. And I also like writing riddles for fun.imgres

My coat has iron stitches,
I wear it every day.
It never sees the weather
But it keeps the dirt away.

Naturally, the temptation to use riddles in games is therefore strong for someone like me. And it’s often such a perilous mistake.

Riddles tend to skew toward the more unfair part of game design, scenario scripting or running a tabletop game. Like many other puzzles, the people who excel at solving original riddles are the people who think most like the person writing the riddle. It’s not based on book-learning — it couldn’t be, unless the only riddles used are ones taken from other sources. If you set an original riddle down in front of a batch of players, not many are going to automatically get it unless it’s really easy.

Tell my story to another and slay me
Die with me and I am yours forever.

So how on earth do you use them fairly? First answer: “don’t ever use them.” But that’s not entirely satisfactory. It’s a difficult thing to measure, of course, but there’s often someone who enjoys riddles in a gaming group, and if you’re building an RPG odds are that some of your audience likes them, too. There are a lot of us out there who were affected the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter at an early age. But you don’t want to bring things to a halt when a riddle’s posed because most of your audience just doesn’t enjoy spending time turning over possible solutions in their brains. Riddles are terrible roadblocks.

In the morning she adorns her hair
At noon she brushes it out
In the evening she cuts it all off.

I don’t know that I’ve gotten riddle use down to a science, but I’ve had the most success in using them as bonus content. The players get an advantage or extra loot if they spend time with the riddle, but there is no real penalty for failure. (Maybe a small one, tops — I might offer a riddle in which a failed answer means that the player character becomes an opponent’s target during the fight, but nothing that would give the enemy increased lethality.) Riddles are hard, and punishing failure for what is in some ways a guessing game is basically incentivizing your players not to participate at all. A riddle opens a secret room, but doesn’t block the way to the dungeon boss.

Video games are particularly tricky in that if a player thinks of a good answer that also fits, the code can’t just say “That also works, you pass.” And of course, there’s no way of telling whether any given player or play group has any interest whatsoever. This is where you absolutely want riddles to serve as bonus content. Maybe they’re optional objectives that increase a quest’s payout, but not the heart of the quest.

And with a video game, you generally have to give the player the answer in some fashion. Text entry is the least awesome option — it relies on spelling, possibly punctuation or capitalization — ugh, such a pain. A better solution might be as simple as offering a multiple-choice answer. If retests are allowed, sooner or later everyone will get it right. If they aren’t, it’s easy to work through the choices offered and see which one fits all the criteria — and of course, a multiple-choice format means you can also stack things in the player’s favor. After all, all the incorrect choices can range from “almost, but not quite” to “so obviously wrong.” Another option is to have the riddles themselves provided in the game, complete with answers. There are plenty of games where picking up the right journal or book gives the player the answer necessary to solve the puzzle, whether a combination to a safe or a cipher to translate a coded script. A book of riddles with answers included would serve nicely as a simple “check the journal, find the answer” solution, but also give the Edward Nygmas of the audience ample opportunity to work it through in their heads first.

The warrior-king sinks into red oblivion, and his subjects bespattered by the blood find it beautiful.

The implementation and use of riddles is, appropriately enough, an interesting puzzle in its own right. For many people, the ideal option would be “don’t bother” — but I’m always grateful when someone does, even if the riddles are as easy multiple-choice options as the ones given by spirit ravens in Guild Wars 2. (Which themselves count as optional content — they’re one way to fill up the “completion” heart, but you could be out there killing monsters to fill it up instead if you don’t care for the riddle games.) And with the typical ego of a human being, I figure there are probably other people out there like me in this respect — and so I can’t help but figure out how best to make them happy, without inflicting grueling tedium on all the people who aren’t.


Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, Vol. 2)

Last post still fresh? Great. Let’s keep rolling. Bilibin Night

So when we last left off, it was with the basics for an icon setup: 22 icons (a lot, but it’s not like I’d expect the players to internalize all of them), sorted into a neat balance with 7 heroic, 7 villainous and 8 ambiguous. The next step was clearly to give them archetypes, goals and modi operandorum. For instance, it’s always a classic to have a tyrannical warlord with fanatically loyal troops clad in lots of ironmongery, holed up in a thick-walled citadel and extending a steel gauntlet over whatever maps he has close at hand. That sparks lots of conflicts as players decide to defend whatever locales he’s trying to conquer, sabotage his war effort, or even join with him (though my players are usually playing heroic sorts and wouldn’t do the latter). Very useful icon; is there a card for him? Of course.

As I mentioned earlier, I already had my previous notes on what I wanted to do with a deck setting. I’d run through the cards, divvied them up, and attached generic fantasy mover-and-shaker archetypes with an eye toward who the players might want to work for, flee from, thwart, or engage in intrigue. For the sake of the exercise, here’s a summation of what I started work with:


  • Comet – Card power: defeat monster, get reward. Barbarian king, then, someone roaming the borders wrestling monsters all Hercules-style.
  • Key – Card power: gain magic weapon. This seemed to call for an artificer-type, someone crafting weapons and golems and stuff. A good ally, and people could fight over his works.
  • Knight – Card power: gain loyal fighter follower. Between the power and the image, this seemed like a natural for the Defender of the Realm, someone sworn to a vigil of loyalty.
  • Moon – Card power: grants 1d4 wishes. Someone mystical, maybe an elf queen or enchantress or something.
  • Star – Card power: increases an ability score. This seems to speak to inspiration, so maybe a muse-type, someone associated with the bard/artist/swashbuckler archetype?
  • Sun – Card power: gain beneficial magic item. Not inspiring! But it’s the Sun card, so this is probably your requisite priest figure, holy person, saint, what-have-you.
  • Vizier – Card power: gain answer/solution to any problem. This has pretty much got to be the benevolent archmage to the paladin and priest I’ve already queued up.


  • Balance – Card power: Change alignment: good becomes evil, etc. Maybe some sort of judge or magistrate, sending templar/inquisitors out across the land?.
  • Fates – Card power: avert a disaster. Some sort of oracle figure, ambiguous where the Vizier is benevolent.
  • Fool – Card power: lose experience, draw again. Not a lot to go on there. Jotted down the idea of an ogre king, some rash brute force yet not entirely evil.
  • Gem – Card power: gain wealth. Clearly some sort of major mercantile power.
  • Jester – Card power: Gain experience or more draws from the deck. This seemed to imply some sort of wandering trickster figure, sort of like the Prince of Shadows from the core book.
  • Rogue – Card power: A follower betrays you. Immediate thought is some form of Traitor Prince.
  • Talons – Card power: lose your magic items. I knew I wanted this to stand for some uncivilized primal figure, a druid or werebeast archetype.
  • Throne – Card power: Gain charisma and a small keep. Sounds like an authoritarian emperor figure to me.


  • Donjon – Card power: you’re imprisoned. So a tyrant, then, someone iron-fisted.
  • Euryale – Card power: penalty on saving throws. This screams hags and curses, and I always do like using gorgons or hags.
  • Flames – Card power: gain devil’s enmity. Clearly some sort of diabolist villain, a devil or a warlock of some sort.
  • Idiot – Card power: lose intelligence. This tickled thoughts of sanity-blasting horrors, so some sort of nihilistic cult, maybe living in a sunken city beneath the deeps? Sure, could work.
  • Ruin – Card power: lose all your wealth. I immediately thought “dragon,” something curled in the ruins of a city for a nest.
  • Skull – Card power: fight the grim reaper. Every setting needs an undead lord, and here it is.
  • The Void – Card power: soul is trapped somewhere. Reviewing the other cards I’d picked, this seemed like an interesting call-out for an explicitly subterranean menace, some sort of lightless kingdom below.

Now there were two things I wanted to do: assign some Russian archetypes, and create a sketch map of their territories. The reason for the first was obvious: making sure this all fit the setting. The second reason was so that I could properly have zones of conflict mapped out. For example, it seemed likely that the Comet (the wandering monster slayer) and the Ruin (the draconic King of Monsters) would have an instant rivalry, so I wanted their bases of power to border one another, probably on the far reaches of the realm. Similarly, I wouldn’t want the Skull’s deathless army situated so far from the Sun or Knight that either the Grand Priest or the Peerless Paladin would miss out on undead-fighting action. Another consideration was making sure the distribution didn’t mean all the heroic icons were clumped up in one point or all the villains were fighting each other for territory more than anyone else.

I didn’t really document the evolution of the sketch map, so you’ll just have to take it for granted that I crossed the finish line and had a distribution that I was happy with. (Though my favorite part of it was using those physical cards to lay out potential configurations on the dining room table before I started sketching terrain features.) The conflicts, though — now those are more easily shown in terms of progression.

Succession Struggle: We know that the previous Grand Tsar destroyed the capital (possible block-by-block adventure to come out of that) when he made the disastrous draw, and he went with it. I liked the thought of three rival tsars, one from each “alignment,” each making a bid to be the next Grand Tsar. I already had use for a tyrant attached to the Donjon card, so he became the Iron Tsar — a former nobleman and veteran commander who proclaims himself the only one strong enough to reunite the realm. There would have to be someone with a blood claim, and that sounded right for the Throne — the Golden Tsar, scion of the recently fallen dynasty. Who would my heroic tsar be? All of the heroic icons seemed married to other “day jobs” except the Moon — and I wasn’t really wild about the elf queen/enchantress approach anyway, so it seemed like something to adapt. I’d muse on this one for a while. At any rate, they’d need to be in three separate sections of the map.

Internal Threats: I also knew I wanted some classic villains that came from within the realm. That led to some quick notes like “Skull = Koschei the Deathless,” “Flames = mad monk?”, “Euryale = Baba Yaga”, and so on. These would be distributed a bit more closer to the center, and the fallen capital.

External Threats: And there needed to be things chewing at the borders. The Fool as an ogre king seemed to hold up; so did the Void as lurkers below, though both would need customization. The Ruin as a dragon — yes, that worked very well with Zmey Gorynich as a source of inspiration (and characters like Tugarin resembling its minions). They’d be distributed more around the borders, farther from the capital — except the Void, who could pop up anywhere

At this point I probably had enough to run something about as detailed as a default 13th Age game, but some of the archetypes weren’t quite clicking yet — I wasn’t sure about the Balance, I kind of wanted a heroic or ambiguous dragon, and, the Moon was still eluding me. I think where I was would be enough for anyone to run a fairly standard-feel D&Dish fantasy campaign. But it wasn’t Lokvan yet.

Also, I’d made the disastrous draw central to why Lokva was now a hotbed of adventure and intrigue. I’d wrecked the capital for a reclamation campaign possibility, and clearly pinned the responsible power on the deck. I’d emphasized that the cards made the icons (or rather, the Trumps), and it was clear that they didn’t give literal D&D powers — the holder of the Euryale, for instance, needed to be a mistress of curses, not someone vulnerable to them. So what did the cards do?

Ultimately, it came down to considering each Trump in the context of mix-and-matching a possible card power interpretation with an archetype. So, for instance, when I knew that the Ruin card would go to a three-headed dragon of great cunning and rapacity, it made sense to call the card’s power “Unmaker,” and tie it to bringing down the walls of the now-ruined city where it lairs.

Not all of them would be quite that easy. This is where a lot of the work would go — to say nothing of the fact that now it was time to start naming people and places…

1 Comment

Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Russian Fantasy, vol. 1)

A quick recap: I am formally insane. I am on the cusp of starting two 13th Age campaigns, and I made up a setting and set of icons for each one. For the desert fantasy game, I just started with the out-of-the-box icons, modified heavily, added a couple. For the other game… I’m going more high-concept. And doing more work.

One of the things about icons is that if you’re building your own, you can base them on all kinds of existing sets of archetypes. Some of them might be based on existing fantasy worlds — doing the factions of Planescape, for instance. But they could be any sort of sufficiently diverse set of archetypes. For example, a game where they represent the houses of the Zodiac — Western or Chinese, either one would be interesting, really. The Major Arcana of the Tarot would be challenging but interesting. The major requirement in such things is that you pick a set that can engender conflicts. A Zodiacal 13th Age game would require each House to feud with the others, possibly picking some as heroic and some as villainous (good luck not being one of the bad ones, Scorpio), possibly just saying they’re all ambiguous.

Where I went crazy was when I picked the deck of many things. This is probably a familiar set to anyone who’s ever owned a DMG, or been a campaign that got upended when one came into play. It suits a lot of the same purposes of the Major Arcana, but it’s got that classic D&D vibe. It also has a clear mix of positive and negative images, “beneficial and baneful” being the titular many things. Added bonus: I own a physical deck that came with the 4e adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey, illustrated by the very excellent William O’Connor. This gives me one extra randomizer to play with beyond relationship dice: if I need a random icon (or Trump, as I wound up calling them), I can just draw a card.


Originally I’d thought of just making a straight-up new setting with no real cultural influence other than “sword and sorcery.” The basic idea was that each of the major powers was a person or monster that held a card of the Deck, and gained extra power from it. But Aileen, wise as she often is, recommended that I could just fuse this idea with another setting pitch I was interested in — Russian-influenced fantasy, a realm of bogatyrs and rusalka and chicken-legged houses and firebirds and vodyanoi and such. Two birds, one stone. Done!

Well, no, not done. Just getting started.

But I had the basics of a structure. I knew that I wanted my fantasy realm (hereafter called Lokva) to be divided in a time of turmoil, and you’d have feuding tsars trying to unify it. I picked out a story of a mad tsar who invoked the power of the deck at a time of crisis, demolishing the capital and scattering the cards — each one of which found a new host. Among these hosts (the Trumps) there would be the feuding tsars — one heroic, one ambiguous, one villainous, just to keep it balanced — and a lot of other influences.

At that point the work began. 13 icons is already a lot to design. The deck of many things has either “13 cards, or more rarely, 22” — but let’s face it, I was going to use all the cards. The first step would be making sure that I had a nice mix of heroic, villainous and ambiguous Trumps for optimal player choice. The cards are generally already divided into beneficial and baneful, so some of each would have to become more neutral in tone — or at least go to ambiguous holders. I spent a lot of time with pad and paper making lists, crossing things out, and shifting items from one column to the next. In the end, I had something like this:

Heroic: Comet, Key, Knight, Moon, Star, Sun, Vizier

Ambiguous: Balance, Fates, Fool, Gem, Jester, Rogue, Talons, Throne

Villainous: Donjon, Euryale, Flames, Idiot, Ruin, Skull, the Void

That looked about right! I had already had some notes from the first setting approach as to what they might represent: the Donjon a tyrant, the Talons a druid, the Knight a paladin, things like that. That could still be usable. But now the challenge was making them all feel like they’d fit in Lokva. Which is to say, mock-Russian cultural references were about to abound…

1 Comment

Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Uncategorized


Haunted by Borges

I dream about labyrinths sometimes.

Not just labyrinthine structures. There are those, too, in particular the strange amalgam of my high school and my elementary school that eventually became a recurring enough structure that I could almost map it. Of course, the closer I got to understanding its architecture and recognizing it, the less I kept dreaming it. It’s been a long time.

One is right on the cusp between labyrinth in the traditional sense and labyrinthine structure. It’s a horrible old house, dark as pitch, evil as fuck, creaky and infinite. It’s like trying to pick your way through an image folder of ruined buildings, only it’s mostly a terrible old mansion with only a bit of visible light at any time. Everything is old and worn and silent, and there’s something in there that hates me. The door to that house could crop up anywhere. I started to recognize it sometimes — I’d be picking my way through the washed-out ruins of an antebellum garden, and remembering that there’s a door just over to the left, and then I’d think, “oh, this is one of those visits to that place.” My brain would even replay some of the initial rooms, sort of like a video game in which you see how far you can get this time. I see it less often these days, too, probably because I’m getting close to mapping it again. Once it’s mapped, it stops being a labyrinth.

There’s another one, though. The labyrinth, one divided into fantastic worlds or zones or “levels” if you will. A typical dream involves pushing through one section into the next, making progress and realizing there’s still a ways to go. Again, some places I revisit and become familiar. I’m not sure if it’s a single entity — it feels like it — or if my half-conscious brain files various other dream-settings into it as I’m waking up. “That was a section of the labyrinth.” Either way is probably true, at least when you’re defining truths about dream labyrinths.

I was napping on the couch when I last visited the place. Just now. It’s easy to fall asleep in mid-afternoon with a warm dog pressed up against you, and the couch is after all very comfortable even for a long tall thing like me. And eventually, I was there. At the moment of emerging into a new zone, basically. I remember a little of the old clockwork in darkness of the previous zone, but that wasn’t what the dream was about; it was about emergence into this sunlit field, with deep amber pasture all around and a riding-court, and people walking around chatting like in an Edwardian novel. There was a house on a hill, and I suspected that it was probably a gateway into that house, and given time I might have to go forward though that to escape the maze. But it was sunny and nice here.

And I recognized two border collies out playing. Sam and Jack — both of them dead, but now running and playing with Dan, my father’s still-living border collie. Well, sort of playing — more attending to business, running low, giving other animals the Eye. But I thought “they’re dead.”

That’s when I saw Aileen. She was, uncharacteristic for her, wearing an old-school Victorian-ish dress that looked like a tapestry stitched out of autumns, all deep browns and golds, strolling along behind the border collies. She had long hair, also uncharacteristic, though it was behaving nicely around her neck and looked lovely. I walked over to her, and fell into step, and we watched the dogs a bit. Then I said “It’s Sam and Jack. They’re dead.”

She said, “No, they’re not. You’re just confused because it’s dark.”

“It’s not dark,” I replied.

“Yes it is,” she said, and turned to me, and her eyes were shut — not just shut, but the line between her eyelids was a squiggle, like the edges of jigsaw pieces locked together. “It’s dark, and you can’t see things right.”

It wasn’t dark. It was sunny. But her eyes! Were my eyes welded shut, too? Was this vision playing on the inside of my eyelids? If I opened them would see something else? I started to panic. I willed myself to open my eyes as hard as I could.

And I woke up.


Postscript: Sometimes when I wake up I will dive directly back into a dream, because then the power of lucid dreaming is with me and I can suddenly win the fight or slay the nightmare or whatever, and I exult in that revenge. I dove back in to this one, trying to warn Aileen. It’s not dark — your eyes are closed! “This is the labyrinth, and you have to wake up!”

I woke up the second time, realizing I was calling that last bit aloud. I blinked a bit on the couch, suddenly embarrassed, though the dog was still curled up and snoozing. I wondered if Aileen had heard me.

She hadn’t. She was napping, too. She still is.

I hope she gets out okay.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 2, 2015 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Arabian Fantasy, Vol. 4)

So I said I had solidified my icons for that 13th Age game after a test-run.

…yeah. That was probably the wrong thing to say. It means they’re sure to change.

In a conversation with Aileen, she revealed that she was disappointed that the Ascending Flame, those wizards conspiring to turn the land into a magocracy, were ambiguous. She had rather thought of them as villainous, and upon reflection, they do kind of work better that way. The distinctive robes of an Ascendant are interesting if they provoke an “oh crap!” reaction in players, although that doesn’t mean they can’t still be civilized and diplomatic and appearing in friendly courts.

Making that change of course breaks the pattern of 4 heroic, 5 ambiguous and 4 villainous — and to balance that, either I would have to shift an icon from villainous to ambiguous (the Brotherhood of Vipers or possibly the Ogre Khan), or add in more icons.

Well, much as I miss the symbolic number of 13, I took the latter option. Part of this is because I’d talked about establishing Fate as an icon, and Aileen was strongly for that idea. Not Fate as in an individual, or even a deity — the force of Fate, anthropomorphized mostly in the heads of those affected by her vicissitudes. Ambiguous as the day is long, obviously — a “positive” or “negative” relationship would just represent being particularly lucky or unlucky, as it were. There isn’t really an associated organization with Fate, because anything could be its agent.

(Here I pause for a minute and note that I seem to do some non-standard things with the icons all the time. I am clearly fond of organizations and loosely affiliated forces in the world rather than everyone being A Very Powerful Guy. It feels pretty organic to me to have some of each. Designer commentary makes it clear that the icons were influenced by things like Vampire clans anyway, so I feel like I’m not losing any functionality.)

That puts me at 4/5/5. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the idea of a setting where villainy has a numbers edge on heroism, but again, the icons are a game device. It makes sense to add a heroic one for the sake of having another potential ally for PCs. I muse about it for a while, and think that I could use something more explicitly martial. The idea of a martial brotherhood scattered and broken, like Jedi or something, appeals. An old tradition of guardianship, there to help out PCs who are trying to preserve civilization. With some kicking around, I think I get it.

The Sentinels of the Broken Wall: The scattered descendants of the royal guard of a fallen city, the Sentinels dedicate their skills to ensuring no more cities meet their homeland’s fate. They are few in numbers, but strong and dedicated champions who possess many secret martial techniques. To call them “Sentinels on the Broken Wall” is an insult, for it implies they hold to a useless vigil. Far from it.

That seems to work. Ascending Flame to villainous, Fate to replace it, and the Sentinels to add to heroic. Balanced again. And as one more note, Aileen noted that I should probably change the City of Brass to something that reflects all the genies. If you’re playing a water genasi, for instance, it might be nice to have relationship dice with the marids. It pains me not to have “City of Brass” as an icon, but it does fix that redundancy with City of Thieves…

So! Here’s the set as it probably will be once it’s time to fire up the game again:


  • The Enlightened Caliph: Wise and pious ruler of a grand city.
  • The Immortal Sage: Reclusive archmage who keeps the keys to a thousand bindings.
  • The Prophetess: Enigmatic seer who guides the land to a peaceful vision.
  • The Serpent Emirs: Benevolent fey lords who favor the honest and kind.
  • The Sentinels of the Broken Wall: A scattered clan of champions holding to an ancient oath.


  • Fate: The force of coincidence and happenstance that governs all.
  • The Beasts of Stone: Primal beast-spirits tied to ancient idols.
  • The City of Thieves: Secretive and eccentric criminal organization.
  • The Queen of Birds: Fey monarch of talking birds and things of the air.
  • The Sultanates of the Jinn: The City of Brass and its three counterparts.


  • The Ascending Flame: Ambitious wizards who wish to bring Khavayin under mages’ rule.
  • The Brotherhood of Vipers: Snake-blooded assassin cult.
  • The Ghul Queen: Horrible cannibalistic calipha of the undead.
  • The Ogre Khan: Monstrous warlord from the borders with a hundred offspring.
  • The Slumbering King: Buried shaitan and the cult who venerates him and his court.

Boom. That should do just fine.

Of course, I’m also looking at a 13th Age game set in a Russian-inspired setting, and these icons just won’t do at all for that. Nor will the out-of-box ones. Hope you’re not sick of all this icon talk, because I think I’m gonna lay into that batch next time.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Uncategorized