Monday, December 25, 2017

Getting 13th Age Started

13th Age.

We loved the level 1-10 play of D&D 4th Edition, but this is another one of those games for us that I just can't get off the ground with my group. To be fair, we have had some interest in D&D 5 but that is waning since some of my central players didn't find what they wanted in some of the classes and options. I still have a chance for a D&D 5 game if I can muster some excitement for the rules, but finding something beyond the classic Faerun, Greyhawk, etc, settings revamped just does not feel like it is happening for me.

So 13th Age for me is in a "sit on the bookshelf and read" sort of place, and I would love to dive in. Why this and not an old standby like Pathfinder or even the mildly warm (to my group, not speaking for the game overall because I know a lot of people are super into it) D&D 5?

I would like a game that does a more heroic and story based fantasy experience, honestly, and I would love to revamp our old D&D 4 campaign to come back from the dead and live again in a rules system where the classes and the powers are closer to what our group loved about the old 4th Edition D&D rules, rather than retcon and retool for a more traditional D&D 5 type of experience.

I know, if you have some interest in D&D 5, why not push it and start something? Well, really, honestly, D&D 5 is more of a traditional game, and the premise of our D&D 4 game was that the old ways (3.5 and earlier) were dead and that "equal power" sort of hero championed in D&D 4 was "how things worked" in this new plane of existence. It was a unique, special, and cool sort of place that was more larger than life and epic battled than older versions of the game felt, at least to us. That is, before the imbalances of D&D 4 soured us to the whole game in the later levels and the "turn denial" mechanic reared its ugly head as the path to victory.

So rolling back to a more traditional version of a fantasy game - be it Pathfinder or D&D 5 - is a non starter for that campaign.

13th Age, but the same set of designers and designed along those same heroic story lineages, seems like a great fit for another go-around in that world - at least just for me. It is simple, story based, the classes are similar, the world is one that would fit in that campaign, and the mechanics seem like an evolution of 4th Edition into a strange and exciting direction I have not seen in other fantasy games.

But without player interest there shall be no return to this world. It sucks because there are stories I know I can tell with this better than other games in the genre.

It is one of those things unique to out hobby, you can have a game sit on the shelf for ages until someone finds a spark and it ignites in your group. I am thankful we have the Call of Cthulhu game going as that is getting players around the table these days - if not for just the holidays where people are willing to try new things and hang out in a festive spirit. People expect to have fun this time of year, and it is cool this has taken off and I can referee it in that spirit.

We shall see, I guess. I expect either 5th Edition D&D or 13th Age will take our fantasy game crown at our gaming table in the near future, and that is a big "if" the stars align and that spark of inspiration can be found.

Until then, the Elder horrors lurk in the shadows and we are all in with Chaosium's horror game.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Meet our new favorite horror game. So our group was playing the older 5th edition of this game just as a one-off and we rediscovered the magic to the Call of Cthulhu "BRP" system and decided to check out the newest, 7th edition of the rules system.

If you are a fan of D&D 5 and how they simplified the game's numerical complexity, I feel you will appreciate this system immensely. Chaosium took a elder weed-whacker to the tangle of interlocked d100 rules and charts of previous editions and presented a version that is really pick-up-and-play and streamlined. While part of me misses some of the older complexities, I can say my group appreciated how straightforward everything is in the 7th edition of the game.

A note, we skipped 6th Edition, so our experience is going from 5th to 7th Edition. I know little about about the 6th Edition, except that they did a lot of great work for it and it has a lot of fans as well. Anything Chaosium puts out is great so you can't really go wrong no matter what version you play.

d100 with No Charts?

And they stuck with d100 in this game, which sticks with that easy to understand "what is my chance to do this" sort of ease of play a d100 roll-under system gives us. 80% is good, 40% is not so, and 20% kinda sucks. Easy. They also introduced a bonus-die and penalty-die system that eliminates huge tables of percentile modifiers in one fell swoop and was really appreciated by my group. It works a lot like the D&D 5 advantage/disadvantage die system but instead of rolling 2d20, you roll two of the "tens" d00 dice on your skill roll and use the lower of the two if "advantage" or the higher of the two if "disadvantage." It is simple and it works and my players love it.

For example, you take an easy shot. Roll two tens dice and one ones die. The results are 20, 50, and 6. The roll is a 26 since you are taking the lower tens dice for a "bonus die" roll.

The system expands to actually using more than one bonus or penalty die as well, so you could get a situation where you are rolling two penalty dice and taking the highest. Bonus and penalty dice also cancel each other our one for one, so there is some play with this system where you can make things harder or negate difficulty with referee rulings or situational modifiers. So in a way, the system advances the advantage and disadvantage mechanic and tosses away the long lists of modifier charts we disliked about d100 games. Well done.

Simplified Character Design

While I love my odd, quirky 3d6 low IQ accountant characters that the older systems created, the score allocation design system for the 7th edition won us over quickly. I am a real fan of character design systems where I can give everyone a character sheet and then do an "all at once" design session by announcing the "next thing to do." We made this a "group participation game" and it went wonderfully. For us, it went like this:

"Look at your ability scores and put an 80% in your character's best score."

"Now, put a 70% in your character's second best...."

And so on down to the worst ability scores. And this was the same way for skills. Pick an "in name only" occupation, and then pick eight skills that define that job. Put an 80% in your character's best skill and so on down the line. Same for the four +20% hobby skills you get. Finally, we all calculated secondary statistics together as a group. I go through each person and ask them, as a member of occupation X, what equipment would you have on hand? Write that down. Now everyone come up with a backstory for your character and then share that with the group.

And eight characters were done in about 15 minutes, as a group, as a part of the game, and we were ready to go on the first night of play. I can't say how beautiful this type of character generation is for us, having wasted one group's entire first 4-hour session on character creation back in D&D 4. In that game we got to start playing the next week, and that is a huge waste of time and energy for a group that large. The game also plays very well from off the character sheet alone, which is a huge plus for us.

When you lose your investigator to the gaping maw of some elder god, a botched skill roll jumping over a pit of spikes, or the padded rooms of the Arkham Asylum, you will appreciate simplified character design greatly. This is a horror game and characters should drop like flies, and the horror shouldn't come from the time spent wading through the character design system.

Get the Quick Start Rules!

Yes, this is another book to buy (for eight bucks), or you could download this (for free) and print it out, but make sure you have a copy of this on hand! You can play the entire game (for the most part) with this book alone, and the game's rules are condensed down into the first 14 pages of this book - including character creation, skill checks, sanity, combat, dicing, and most every rules question a new player would have. I would print these first 14 pages out to hand out as a rules-primer to every new player, and they are that useful.

I reference the quick start rules and the handy reference booklet included with the referee's screen (or the screen itself), and I rarely have to open the main rulebook. Yes, I know, this is another purchase, but one I felt was well worth it in that I could run the game like a professional keeper and not have to be constantly flipping through the rulebook like a noob while my players waited. It saved me a lot of time and made me look smart and well-versed in the rules on my first night refereeing, so I am calling this purchase as a good call for me.

With eight players you get a lot of questions! Each one of those eats up time, either in me or them checking the rule book, me looking up a rule or a chart, or them wanting to know something about the rules. If everyone has a copy of the free quick start rules that answers half of their questions. If I can not open the book and either check my copy of quick start rules or the charts or booklet that came with the referee's screen that covers most of the other questions.

Do you have players in any game that use magic and spells? That is a time and cost investment, but more on the referee's side because the spells are supposed to be more on the "secrets of the game" side rather than a D&D style laundry list of character options. No spells are included in the Investigator's Handbook either, so that is another difference between this and more traditional style fantasy games.

Optional: The Investigator's Handbook

There is an optional player-focused book you can buy that contains all of the player-focused information from the main rulebook. You do not need this to play, and the quick start rules are really all you need here for player reference.

If you have players who wonder where their cell phones are in a 1920's universe, or their eyes are somehow allergic to old black and white films, this may be a good book to get to explain things. There's no Internet and there is no Google, all phones are landlines, maps are large folded pieces of paper, and even things like radios are not in cars until after the period in 1930.

Two-way radios in police cars? Not until 1933. Walkie talkies? About 1937. Telephones, telegraphs, and teletypes (telephone connected typewriters) were about it, and the latter were really only in use with larger businesses, railroads, and telegraph companies. You didn't really have one of these in your corner office. Even direct dial long distance wasn't a thing until the 1950's, so you had to go through a living, breathing operator to make a connection.

No Internet. No Interstate highways. No television. No recorded radio programs (other than playing a record to a microphone and broadcasting that), and most all radio programs were done "live" in a studio. Talking films weren't until the end of the 1920's with the Jazz Singer, and before that it was mostly playing a silent film while a phonograph record (or live music) was played alongside. Vinyl records weren't until the 1930's, so the older (and more fragile) shellac style records were about all that were in use.

Oh, and be prepared to hit the library, newspaper archives, and public (and private) records a lot. A lot a lot. If one of the characters plays a researcher or secretary type all the better, and this person will be seen as the 'star' of the group. Kind of like a healer in an MMO, and someone who makes the group a whole lot more efficient and fun. Just handle a lot of the boring library work as off-board activities and get that player back into the action quickly and you will be great.

Or better yet, break everyone in the group up into smaller task-based groups while the researchers do their thing and get a lot done in a little time. Mr. Fix It, fix the car. Sneaky gal, follow the stranger in town around. Doctor guy, heal up Mr. Muscles. You two go to town hall and check real estate records and me and her will hit the library and check birth and death notices. Now...break!

Part of being a great referee in this game is keeping everybody busy with important tasks...before the terror of the horrible creature ruins everyone's well-laid plans. Then, while they are questioning their sanity? Give them more things to do. Trust me, they will be coming up with their own 'things to do' pretty quickly to figure out the mystery (or just figure out how to survive), and they will be happily coming up with all sots of crazy plans and ideas.

The 1920's is a Fantasy World

The 1920's is more closer to a "fantasy world" than it is the modern day in many regards, which is what makes it so fun. Once you know a couple ground rules like this, and get some of the style of movies during the time, you are all set. Although, the 1920's still had trains, cars, guns, ships, and early planes - so a lot of what makes modern games fun is still here. A lot of what makes modern life convenient is not here, and this adds an element of fun that puts us closer to fantasy games. Although some fantasy games take the easy way out and replicate cell-phones and long-distance travel with common magic spells and we are back to square one.

You will get a special thrill when you figure out how to do something without a computer or cell phone and just crafty and smart use of your character's skills and the limited resources available. This makes skills important, and puts a lot of heroic emphasis on figuring out how to do (and know) the impossible.

That said, the Investigator's Handbook is a great summary of what it was to live in these times and recommended for those who may only be casually knowledgeable of the times. Bet yes, treat this as a fantasy world more than a modern one and you will start to discover the charm of these times.

Face to face interactions matter. Trust matters. Getting physical access to places you shouldn't be is a challenge. Being sneaky matters. Being smart matters. Following the clues is a key to success. Sometimes you have to lie to people or rough a few up. Figuring things out early is the path to victory. Being strong in mind and body helps mitigate threats. Taking risks can lead to big rewards. You can't rely on magic or technology all the time. Great threats to the world exist and are out there.

These are all classic almost Tolkien-esque fantasy ideals, and they apply to the world of the 1920's in a strong sense as well.

You Can Play Modern Too!

Yes, this version out of the book supports playing in the modern era, and all you need are different character sheets. We prefer the 1920's setting though, just because the Elder Gods don't have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I kid, but you know...that gives me an idea.

On that note, if we did play in the modern era? Give supernatural creatures the ability to disrupt technology, mess with video feeds, make electronic devices go haywire, stop cars, turn off a building's power (or flicker all the lights at once), cut off Internet access, crash cell phones, put images on digital cameras, play strange chanting and screeching noises on the radio, put evil and disturbing images on television, and generally take away all the wonders of the modern world when the big nasty gets close.

I'd be extra mean and let the big bad ones 'see' though web and cell phone cameras and listen in through microphones. We really don't know how that 'other world' works, now do we? They don't play by our rules, and they can 'get at' us through the things we trust. If maybe only, they can access technology through our minds without us knowing how they do it....

That? That is true fear in today's world. That in which you rely and trust can be messed with, used against you, and easily taken away. Now, you can go insane, but you will have to rely on your raw survival skills to live through the night. Go nuts.

Cons? Division by Two and Five

I think the only downside to this edition is there is a lot of work filling in half and fifth boxes on the character sheet. You need these for success levels, but they are a bit of a fun-tax on character creation needed to get the d100 system working smoothly and avoiding the dreaded math during play. If you do all the "division by two" ones first and then the "divide by five" ones all together, you will speed this up, but still it left some players with a sense of heavy math-ness after the end of character generation.

The half and fifth numbers were used though during play, frequently, so this is a little bit of early pain for a lot of later speed of play gains, so we all felt it was worth the effort at the beginning to do early.

Some of us did cheat a little and fill half and fifth values in skills as we used them. It didn't break anything, and once you fill them out that is the end of calculations. This is a small price to get a d100 system working with varying success levels, but it is worth noting.

Earlier Editions? Still Great.

You don't need the 7th Edition to play, and we could have happily played with the 5th Edition - no problems. Though I feel the newest edition has simplifications that a lot of players coming from D&D will like, and some mechanics that are a bit more familiar. That 'ease of use' and familiarity goes a long way from making a game something interesting to something I am really excited to play. It is like using an older cell-phone, you can still get things done, but the newer models are so simple and familiar they create that instant desire to pick them up and play. Simplification is the ease of access, and it also gets a lot of cruft and chart work out of the way so players can look at their sheets, listen to the referee, and figure out what they want to do next.

As D&D 5 has proved, you can create a lot of interest in simplifying things down to their core and essential elements. That is the Seventh Edition to us, still the core rules and play of the original game, with a lot of the older baggage removed and the great and classic experience preserved.


A great edition, just like all the others, but targeted towards simplification and streamlining for today's players and expectations. This still sticks with the classic d100 system, and eliminates cumbersome modifier charts so common to d100 games. A very approachable, modern, and easy to use horror game with a classic and iconic setting.