Wednesday, October 30, 2019

40 Characters Before 2020, #1--13th Age

We start off with one of my favorites--13th Age, but Jonathan Tweet, Rob Heinsoo, and published by Pelgrane Press.  For the rules of this exercise, see here.  Let's go.

Step 1:  Pick a Race.  One of my favorite elements of 13th Age is what they do with the Dark Elves/Drow in the 13th Age Bestiary, so that's what we are going to go with.  Races in 13th Age get a +2 to one of two pre-selected ability scores, and a racial power--in the case of Dark Elves a +2 to either Dex or Cha, and the "Cruel" power, which lets you impose ongoing damage (5xLevel) on a natural even attack roll once per battle.

Step 2:  Pick a Class.  Torn between the Sorcerer and the Rogue.  If I could use the multi-classing rules, I might do both, but that's in the expansion 13 True Ways, and so out.  I think I'll go with Rogue, only because I usually play spellcasters (when I get to play) and so I want to go against type.  Because I am playing Rogue, I will retroactively assign my racial bonus to Dex.

Step 3:  Generate Ability Scores.  The game has two options here--4d6 drop lowest and point buy--that are each endorsed by one of the designers.  Point buy is boring, so let's roll:
  • 17, 6, 13, 10, 14, 12
Not that great, but no big deal.  Applying them to the Attributes leads to:
  • STR: 6 (-2), CON: 10 (0), DEX: 19 (+4), INT: 13 (+1), WIS: 12 (+1), CHA: 14 (+2)
Here, I am doing a little bit of min-maxing, as I know my attacks (both melee and ranged) key of Dex, so my low Strength is basically irrelevant (except for my Physical Defense--see below).  I know, I know--I'm that guy.

Step 4: Combat Stats.  There are essentially all class-based.  First, the basic melee and ranged attacks are Dex bonus plus level, and damage of WEAPON plus Dex.  Speaking of WEAPON, I'm going to use the one-handed weapon, so the right choice is a Light Weapon for 1d8+4 damage, and then a throwing dagger (because of a Rogue Power I am picking, see below) 1d4+4 ranged damage.  I also get a +2 to either Dex or Cha, but since you can't put the bonus into the attribute you added the racial bonus, my Cha is bumped to 16.  My AC is 12 plus level (1) plus the middle bonus for Dex/Con/Wis, which for me is Wis (+1), for a total of 14.  Physical Defense is 12 plus level plus the middle of the physical stats, for a total of 13.  Mental Defense is 10 plus level plus the middle of the mental stats, which totals 12.

Hit Points are (6+Con) times 3, for a total of 18. I get eight recoveries, and the Recoveries are (at 1st level) 1d8.

Step 5:  Class Features, Talents, and Powers.  Rogues get three class features--Momentum, Sneak Attack, and Trap Sense.  Momentum is a mechanic that powers some of the Rogue powers, and is basically an on/off switch--if you make a successful attack, you gain Momentum, if you are hit with an attack, you lose Momentum.  Sneak Attack is what you expect, although it only works for melee attacks (unlike 5e).  And Trap Sense is Trap Sense.

All classes in 13th Age get three class-specific Talents from a list of a half-dozen or so.  The star among Rogue Talents IMO is Shadow Walk--use you Move Action at the beginning of the turn, make a Charisma check against the highest Mental Defense of your opponents, and if you succeed you disappear; on your next turn, your Move action lets you appear anywhere you want, and your attack on that turn does double damage.  That's great, especially because if you blow your Charisma check, you still have your Standard Action to attack or do something useful.  I'm also going to take Improved Sneak Attack, which upgrades the damage die on Sneak Attack by one step (i.e. for 1st level, from 1d4 to 1d6).  That's a little boring, but there is a Feat I want to take that goes with that.  For my third talent, I'm going to go with Murderous, which increases the Crit Range from 20 only to 18-20 if the target is Staggered (i.e. below half HP).  I'm thinking this character is going to be some sort of assassin, so that works.

I also get four Rogue powers.  Flying Blade gives you a 50% chance to apply your Sneak Attack damage to targets you hit by throwing daggers, which is situational but kinda nice.  Roll with It allows you to spend Momentum to halve the damage you take on an attack, and since you are going to lose that Momentum anyway as a result of the attack there's no real downside here.  Tumbling Strike lets you do the 5e Rogue Cunning Action cheese of walking up to the enemy, making an attack, and walk away without being hit, though it's not as good as the 5e version because you have to make a disengage check (albeit with a +5 bonus) to get away.  For the last one, I went back-and-forth for a bit, and decided to go with Sure Cut, that basically lets you do Sneak Attack damage on a missed attack.  Meh.

Finally, I get one Feat.  Feats in 13th Age are mostly "plug ins" to other abilities that upgrade them, and I am going to use the Feat on Improved Sneak Attack.  Now, once per "day" (which, in 13th Age terms, is usually four battles/one game session) I can use Sneak Attack on any target, even if it is not engaged with an ally.  This seems useful in combination with my Shadow Walk to target a boss-type monster that happens to be by him/her/itself.

Step 6:  One Unique Thing.  One Unique Things are some dimension of your character that is truly unique in the world, limited only by the fact that it cannot grant game mechanics bonuses.  It's a chance to really express a creative idea for the character.  For some reason the title "Constant Gardener" has been on the brain for a while. In addition, one of the ways 13th Age presents the Dark Elves is as the folks the Elf Queen and the rest of Elfdom don't really want to talk about but absolutely make use of when things get dicey.  So I am going to go with "the only member of both the Royal Gardening Guild and the Royal Assassins Corps."  Under 13th Age rules, by picking this One Unique Thing, the Elf Queen's Court now has a Royal Gardening Guild and a Royal Assassins Corps.

Step 7:  Icon Relationships.  Each character gets three points to distribute among the 13 Icons--the major movers and shakers of the world.  You can put more than one point into a particular Icon, and you have to decide if the relationship is Positive, Conflicted, or Negative.  At the beginning of each session, the player or GM rolls to see if the particular relationship will impact the story, and then the GM decides how.

The Elf Queen is a no-brainer, based on my One Unique Thing.  I'm going to put 2 points there, and go with Conflicted--I'm "on the payroll," but seen as a loose cannon.  For the other point, I'll go with negative 1 to the Prince of Shadows--professional rivalry with other assassins.

Step 8:  Backgrounds.  Backgrounds take the place of Skills in 13th Age--instead of "Stealth," "Lockpicking," etc., you have more a profession or experience like "Thief" that applies to all checks in which being a former professional thief are helpful.  You get eight total points to distribute to Backgrounds.

Two of these are obvious as a result of my One Unique Thing--"Royal Gardening Guild" and "Royal Assassins Corps."  I am going to put 3 in each of those--assassin-ing pays the bills, but I am also really passionate about gardening, you guys (and, being a master gardener is going to give me information about different sorts of plants, how small villages operate, etc., so it's also useful).  For the last two points, I'm going to go with "Reluctant Courtier"--I know my way around the Elf Queen's Court, but I don't have to like it very much.

Step 9:  Final Details and Name.  I'm terrible at coming up with fantasy names, especially elf names, so I am going to go to the random fantasy name generator.  Looking through my random choices, I like "Omdrail Phrendun."  "Omdrail the Gardener, who also kills people."  Yes, that works.

Hair and eyes are easy--silver hair and black eyes, the standard dark elf look.

And there you have it--Omdrail Phrendun (I'm going to go with "Phren-doon" on the pronunciation of the last name), the Dark Elf Rogue, and the first character of the series.  The character sheet can be found here.  One of the things that is so great about 13th Age is that you almost have to intentionally try to make a boring character.  Between Backgrounds and Icons and One Unique Things, if you just work through the process you will come up with something cool.  I also think 13th Age classes are more interesting than 5e classes.  It looks like I'm firing up a 13th Age campaign (in person!) and I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

40 Characters Before 2020--Introduction

I had two revelations this evening.  First, I own a ton of tabletop RPGs--I was casually looking at my bookcase and scrolling through my PDF files, and woo boy, there are a lot of them.  Second, it has been a long time since I sat down and made characters.  In large measure this is because I am the Forever GM, and so rarely have the occasions to do the full PC character creation.  But character creation is fun, and it has occurred to me that I own games that I have never made characters for.  That seems like an injustice, a significant "party foul," as it were.

So, I am going to do a series--40 characters, one for each game I have, before the end of the year.  I was going to do "40 characters in 40 days," but that seemed optimistic to a delusional degree, so I'm going to build in some flexibility.  The idea here is that I will describe the process of making a character under that particular system in a blogpost.  My hope is that it will give you a sense of the game and the sorts of characters that come out of the game, as well as follow along on what is ultimately a pretty goofy exercise.

As I thought about it, I am going to put in place some self-imposed ground rules.  First, I am only going to use core rulebooks of the particular game.  Some of these games have expansion books and some of them don't, so to both simplify things and to keep things on an even playing field, we'll use the core book only.  Along the same lines, I am going to follow what, as best as I can tell, is the default method of character creation--no optional rules, no shortcuts, just the base rules.  Finally, I'm going to alternate between making male and female characters--for no particular reason other than as a creative challenge to come up with character concepts.

With that in mind, here's the game list that I plan to do.  The order is the order that they sit on my shelf and on my hard drive, and so no particular order, really.

1.  13th Age
2.  13th Age in Glorantha
3.  Torchbearer
4.  Ashen Stars
5.  Night's Black Agents
6.  Fall of DELTA GREEN
7.  D&D 5th Edition
8.  AD&D 1st Edition
9.  Adventures in Middle Earth (5e)
10.  Star Trek Adventures
11.  Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of
12.  Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha
13.  Call of Cthulhu (7th Edition)
14.  Numenera
15.  The Strange
16.  7th Sea (2nd Edition)
17.  Monsterhearts (2nd Edition)
18.  Dungeon World
19.  Trail of Cthulhu
20.  Torg: Eternity
21.  Starfinder
22.  Esper Genesis
23.  Free Spacer
24.  Tales from the Loop
25.  Things from the Flood
26.  Apocalypse World (2nd Edition)
27.  Axon Punk
28.  Eclipse Phase (2nd Edition)
29.  Pendragon (5.2 Edition)
30.  Paladin
31.  Pathfinder (1st Edition)
32.  Shadowrun
33.  Swords of the Serpentine (Playtest)
34.  The Sprawl
35.  The Veil
36.  The Yellow King
37.  Heroquest: Glorantha
38.  Fear Itself

Eagle-eyed readers will see that this list is two entries short.  This is because (1) I probably forgot some games that I have; (2) given my purchasing habits, I may end up getting two new games before the end of year, ad (3) if anyone wants to suggest a game to look at, I have space to "work it in" at the end.  So, if you have suggestions, shoot them my way.  At the end, I'll probably gather up all the character sheets into one place, to have a record of this adventure.

First up--13th Age!

Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition Review

[Update:  This review was written based on the PDF version.  I just received the hard cover version, and it is visually spectacular--the most beautiful ttrpg book I have seen, in a way that doesn't really come across in the PDF.  So, that's worth saying.]

Back in 2009, I was living in San Francisco, and from time to time I would pop into the Borders bookstore across from Union Square and just browse.  At the time, I had been out of the tabletop RPG scene since the mid-90s, but every once in a while I would wander over to the RPG section of book stores and see what was new.  In '09, the new thing that I saw at Borders was a glossy, black-spined book called Eclipse Phase.  For whatever reason it caught my eye, so I picked it up and read it for a while.  An hour later, I was at check out buying the book, and pretty soon I was back into the hobby.  There were other games that I picked up and played more--4th Edition D&D, then 13th Age, then Numenera and 5th Edition and basically everything.  But my return to tabletop RPGs really got kicked off by Eclipse Phase, and I have followed their line all the way through.

In 2017, the designers at Posthuman Studios Kickstarted a 2nd Edition, and they sent out the PDF version of the Corebook (the hardcover is due soon), and that is the version I am reviewing.  It is worth noting that Posthuman releases its products under a Creative Commons License for the PDFs, and so if you want to check out the 1st Edition materials, you can get them legally here

The selling point for Eclipse Phase, or EP, is the setting.  EP is a transhumanist sci-fi role-playing game, with strong elements of conspiracy and horror thrown into the mix.  The best short summary of what it going on in EP comes from the evocative tagline:

Your mind is software. Program it. 
Your body is a shell. Change it. 
Death is a disease. Cure it. 
Extinction is approaching. Fight it. 

Prior to EP, I had very little exposure to transhumanism and transhumanist ideas.  At least in its EP presentation, the technology exists to make copies of the consciousness of a human being, store it as data in a computer system, and then download it into a new body (known in the game as "re-sleeving").  This makes your body a possession that you have (and can change, if you have the means or access), as opposed to a reality you must accept.  These bodies are modified through genetic engineering into a wide variety of optimized forms, or replaced with mechanical forms, or dispensed with altogether in favor of existing in a purely digital form.  There are also uplifted animal forms, allowing you to play, among other things, a giant octopus.  Thus, while there are no playable aliens in EP, there is an enormous variety of character types, and the ability to move from embodiment to embodiment that creates additional options.

Anytime you engage with transhumanism, you are on some level engaging with questions of identity, and EP puts those questions very clearly on the table.  To take one example, in the last few years questions of gender identity, and associated questions relating to changing or conforming one's physical presentation to those identities, have entered the mainstream discourse.  In the world of EP, most people have easy access to tools that allow them to explore a vast array of physical presentations in a non-permanent context.  And this, in turn, raises questions--if I, someone with a male gender identity, could spend a week in the body of a woman "just to see what it is like," would I do that?  Probably.  After all, in the world of EP, that kind of experimentation would likely be considered vanilla, as your options literally include inhabiting a giant octopus.

The "extinction" bit has to do with the threat of the TITANs, a set of ascended AIs that attempted to wipe out the "transhumanity" ten years before the starting point of the game.  At the cusp of achieving its goal, the TITANs disappeared, for completely unknown reasons.  As a result, EP is a post-apocalyptic game, with the Earth mostly uninhabitable and policed by an orbital satellite defense system that no one is willing to take responsibility for setting up.  The inhuman threat of the TITANs also adds a strong horror component.  The default game concept in the 1st edition of the game had players serving as members of "Firewall," a conspiratorial organization dedicated to preventing another extinction-level-event.  Second Edition retains the Firewall campaign option, but broadens the focus--more on that in a bit.

The third major tent-pole of the EP setting is politics/economics.  Roughly speaking, the Inner Solar System (i.e. from Mars inward to the Sun) is controlled by a consortium (called...the Planetary Consortium) of business interests that push a capitalist line.  The Outer System, by contrast, is dominated by anarchist and other non-capitalist economic and political systems (most notably the Nordic Socialism 2.0 of Saturn's moon Titan).  These two sides, as you might expect, don't like each other very much, and are engaged in a system-wide "Cold War."  At the heart of this divide is the fact that nanotechnology allows for something approach a Post-Scarcity economic situation, where a household nanofabricator can "3-D print" anything you might need with some power and a store of bulk matter.  The Outer System is all-in on these ideas, while the Inner System powers strongly regulate the use of nanotechnology, ostensibly for security reasons by also to protect their economic position.

Once again, I had very little familiarity with anarchist political ideas or Post-Scarcity economic theorizing prior to EP, and while the designers are pretty clearly on "Team Outer System" by and large, there is enough there to show off the pros and cons of each system in order to provide a balanced perspective and interesting story material.  For example, anarchist systems run entirely on the "reputation economy" to distribute skilled labor, unique materials, etc., mediated in part through online scoring systems.  In '09 when EP first came out, this seemed (and was presented as) mostly unproblematic; after ten years of social media ubiquity, it's not hard to see how that can be subject to manipulation and grief.

The final tent-pole of EP are the Pandora Gates--basically star gates that appeared mysteriously after the TITANs left at five places in the Solar System and which allow for instantaneous travel to other systems.  Different entities are exploring and settling these extra-solar worlds, discovering the ruins of other civilizations (though, no living aliens, apart from the slime-mold like Factors who showed up in the Solar System and are basically just "keeping an eye on things").  So, in addition to or as a substitute for Firewall-oriented play, you can play a group of explorers seeking out new worlds in a Very Weird version of Star Trek.  Second Edition also gives more resources for running a Han Solo-style "scum and villainy" criminal focused campaign, which is an interesting choice as it was not front-and-center in any of the 1st Edition materials.

As you might be gathering, the setting of EP is very dense and very rich.  It is a lot to absorb for the newbie, especially as it draws on material from less common ends of the sci-fi pool.  And, perhaps except for a pure Gatecrashing campaign, it would be difficult to run a campaign that doesn't engage with the political and economic ideas of the setting.  EP as written is clearly anti-capitalist, pro-anarchist, and pro-transhumanist, and while they are not going to come to your house and seize your gaming materials if you depart from that, the work needed to re-craft the setting away from those concepts is likely not worth the effort.

Having said that, I love the setting, despite not necessarily sharing all of those ideas personally.  And I think the setting material matured, in the sense of becoming richer and more nuanced, as the line developed.  For example, the original corebook presented the Jovian Republic in a pretty standard left-wing, unflattering characterization of US-style political and religious conservatives.  The Outer System sourcebook, Rimward, didn't so much depart from that as present things from their point of view, allowing you to see why folks would be on-board with a basically fascist state and presenting interesting (if not very nice) factions within that structure to work with for story purposes.

Second Edition keeps all of that good stuff, with the changes limited exclusively to the rules engine.  First Edition was a very crunchy game, especially by 2019 standards, showing off the influences of the designers' previous work on Shadowrun.  The new edition is still comfortably above the median on the crunch scale, but they made some targeted changes to bring it down a bit.

The biggest change has to do with how bodies work.  Remember, your character's body (known as a "morph") is basically a piece of gear in EP, and can be changed and swapped during play.  In 1st Edition, your morph provided bonuses or penalties to your attributes, which in turn affected your skills.  Thus, when you switched morphs, you had to in a sense rebuild your character and recalculate all of your skills.  Second edition morphs, instead of affecting attributes, instead provide points to physical, mental, and social pools that allow you to alter dice rolls or perform other effects.  So, instead of the Olympian morph giving a bonus to your Somatics attribute that effects every test, you get a pool of points to spend on certain tests.

While this does make morphs less relevant to the outcome of the game overall, it greatly simplifies the character management process.  The pools also push the game in a bit of a narrative-game direction, a departure from 1st Edition.  Spending a point from the Insight Pool allows you to automatically find a clue a la the GUMSHOE games, and there is a fourth, "Flex," pool that allows for things like causing a helpful NPC to appear or introduce an element into the environment.  I like these sorts of mechanics, but they are a little bit jarring for a game that is otherwise very simulationist.

The second change is to character creation.  The system in the corebook for 1st Edition was full-on point buy, with all of the time-consuming min-maxing that goes along with that.  It was divided up into packages corresponding to a character's background, but most of it was freeform spends.  Second Edition puts the emphasis on bigger character creation "blocks," with a few bonus point to sprinkle around at the end.  You can still basically build your character however you want, but it moves faster and it is less overwhelming for new players.  In service of this, the number of skills in the game was significantly reduced to 21 plus knowledge skills, which helps.  They also smartly segregate the points used to buy morphs from the rest of the character creation points.  In 1st Edition, buying a tricked-out morph at character creation was a trap option, since many adventures would require you to ditch your morph to move around, causing you to lose those points.  [In EP, the most common way to travel from place to place is to download your consciousness, broadcast it to your destination, and "sleeve" you into a new morph].  Now, you basically build your "ego" (consciousness), and then select a morph separately.

With all of the simplifications, though, it's still a crunchy game.  The basic mechanic is a percentile dice system using "the Price Is Right" rules--you want to get as high a roll as possible without going over your target number, which is your skill/attribute value modified for difficulty.  In addition to the binary success/failure, a roll of 33 or above that succeeds is a superior success, while a 66 or above that succeeds is a double superior success; likewise, a roll of 66 or below that fails is a superior failure, and a roll of 33 or below that fails is a double superior failure.  On top of that, doubles (i.e. "00," "11," "22," etc.) are criticals, either a critical success if the roll is a success or a critical failure if it is a failure.  This system creates a lot of conceptual space for narrating outcomes from a single roll, and the clean breaks make it pretty easy and quick to interpret a particular roll.  My one concern is that the distinction between superior successes/fails and critical successes/fails is not immediately obvious (though, the rulebook does a good job of providing concrete examples of implementing both), and I suspect it will take a while for GMs to get used to narratively describing all of the different permutations.

Combat wise, everything is an opposed test--attacker rolls to hit, defender rolls to dodge or otherwise defend.  Damage is then applied against a HP-like pool, and attacks that do a certain amount of damage cause more significant wounds.  In keeping with the horror dimension, there is also a parallel mental damage track, as you lose sanity through confronting inhuman horrors (though, in EP, you can go under the psychosurgery "knife" and get that fixed up).  One smart change from 1st Edition was to get rid of Shadowrun-style multiple actions per turn for high initiative results, which slows combat to crawl in my experience.  I haven't done a comprehensive comparison between editions, but it also looks like they paired back the combat modifiers and noodly bits.

Hacking rules are a notorious pain-point in cyberpunk and cyberpunk-adjacent games, and I will confess that I made a point of avoiding the Hacking systems in my previous encounters with EP.  Smartly, 2nd Edition EP follows the trend I've seen in hacking systems generally of moving away from making hacking a separate mini-game and toward a menu of actions that you can take to make the computer do what you want it to do.  This integrates hacking better into the rest of the game.  The rules for cyber-combat (called here "Mesh combat") take up only one page, which suggests that they are not going to be overly burdensome in play.

There are also rules for psychic powers, for transferring your character's brain from body to body, for dealing with different sorts of habitats and a variety of locales throughout the solar system and beyond, for reputation and social networks, and a bunch of other stuff.  There are a lot of systems and material, but there is a lot of stuff in the setting, so I'm not sure what else they could have done to streamline it more than they have already done.  And that really speaks to my overall take on the rules changes--it is markedly simpler than 1st Edition, but it's not really simple.  The streamlining is meaningful as compared to 1st Edition, but it may not be enough for many folks.

So, here's my ultimate conclusion on Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition.  First off, everything that made EP an amazing setting is unchanged, and if you have any interest in these themes and ideas, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  Even if you never play the game, it's worth reading and thinking about as a piece of fiction--it's that good.  As far as the game goes, unless you are a dedicated high-crunch fan or completely allergic to narrativist mechanics, 2nd Edition is clearly the way to go.  As neither of those things, from my perspective 2nd Edition is an improvement on 1st Edition in basically every way.  But it's still crunchy, and it's unavoidably "a lot," as new players and GMs will not only have to take in a multi-faceted setting with concepts that might be unfamiliar, but also a demanding (though, not as demanding as before) set of game mechanics that cover the sprawling setting.

Would I be willing to play or run Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition?  Absolutely, gladly--as long as I had players willing to "dig in" a bit to the lore and the mechanics.  There are stories that EP can tell that I don't think can be told in other settings.  It's worth the effort, and its less effort than before, but it is still going to be effort.