GAME THE GAME: Friday the 13th Age and Beyond

It’s the 13th Age. 13 Icons. There are mentions of prior Ages, and prior Icons, I got to wondering, did the 1st Age have only 1 Icon? Will the 21st Age have 21 Icons?

Icons Who Came Before

The Fool
Grandmaster of Flowers
Grandfather Assassin
The Inquisitor
The Sliding Princess
The Summoner
The Wizard King

Some of these Icons and their brief write-ups greatly intrigue me. When Acts of Geeks ran an extensive playtest of 13th Age, our game ended at Epic Level with the PCs assuming their place as Icons, replacing some of the current Icons!

It was perfect and awesome and beyond Epic (was there a 3.x book that detailed beyond epic?).

But, extrapolating beyond the 14th Age (with potentially 14 Icons), I imagined a far future (isn’t that how Shadowrun came to be) with awesome new Icons, though some of the current Icons would surely still be around.

The Lich King of course. The Emperor.  The Priestess.

But what new Icons would take their place? With forgeborn being a thing, are cybernetics that far behind?

Stealing from my own game, I present:

gg_logoG33k Grrl

If her stories are to be believed, she is all natural. Her ability to interface with technology, that is. And the rest too, get your minds out of the gutters. She is the ultimate information broker. She talks to machines, she jokingly calls herself the computer whisperer, but few would dispute the veracity of her claims. If it is out there, somewhere, she can access it. She is a great friend to have, but she doesn’t make friends too easily.


“Who is buying me drinks? You? Yeah, your husband knows about your girlfriend already, I don’t want to deal with that.”





GAME THE GAME: Friday The 13th Age Monk

The monk has always been anomalous in the inherent, implied setting of D&D. While every other classic character class has a clear high-fantasy analogue, the monk is clearly rooted in eastern traditions. Given the release date of AD&D, I can only imagine that Mr. Gygax was a big fan of the television series Kung-Fu. But, as cool as the idea of the 1e monk was, they were ultimately all the same. Yes, stats might differ, but the abilities would be the same. As game design has moved forward, players were given more choices, and we have seen many different iterations of the monk, some hewing closely to the original, and others changing with the times and edition.

gtgma13th Age, a game written from the ground up to make sense of and integrate all that came before, presents, in my opinion, the coolest, most versatile, fun to play monk yet. My index cards for my character are great fun. I have one card with my opening moves (jab), one card for my flow attacks (punch), and on for my closing (kick). I can easily imagine my monk doing awesome stuff worthy of any martial arts film. If you want to ensure you have the Flurry of Blows prevalent in many previous iterations of D&D, you can do that, but if you want to fire a bow, or do wire-fu, that is there too. One can easily imagine creating multiple schools of monks, each with their own specialties.Shoot fireballs DBZ style? Check! Jackie Chan? Ding! It’s all there, and my monk will be different than your monk.

Intrigued? Interested? Seeking enlightenment? Pick up a copy of 13 True Ways, as always, it is my opinion that you will not be disappointed.

GAME THE GAME: Tell Me About Your Character (Actual Play Edition)

AoG Editor Mike has started up a 13th Age game. AoG columnist Kim is dealing with her impressions , and I thought it’d be a wonderful time to share my thoughts on some big picture gaming stuff, with opinions that might enlighten, anger, or even bore you.

The genre of D&D (yes, it is a genre, it is not Fantasy, it is not Swords and Sorcery, it is D&D) is very firmly rooted in the concept of leveling-up. You start as an inexperienced character, and advance in power and prestige, making the world a better place.

This leveling-up is the most intrinsic part of a D&D game across all iterations.

And, yes, 13th Age is a D&D game, make no mistake.

As I reflect upon our second session, which Kim has detailed her take on here , I wanted to share what I feel are some insights into gaming and leveling-up and D&D in general.

My character (c’mon, it’s a D&D game, it has to include the phrase “my character”) is a monk.

I have run panels on gaming and GMing, and I always encourage folks that less is more. Let the characters develop through play. A character doesn’t need 10 pages of back story, his story is one that is about to be told.

My character was selected by his order to do a job. I have some additional thoughts, but his story is starting with him leaving his monastery and heading out into the Big World to accomplish his goal.

I had some more thoughts about what he was like, but I didn’t necessarily verbalize them.

This article is my reflection on that process, and advice for other gamers and GMs.

Let your character and personality develop through play.

If you have 10 pages of back story, you are focusing on the past.

Focus on the present and the future.

Be surprised by the things your character does.

Old School D&D players will swear by the alignment system. It guides their characters and informs us what we can expect. My character is (imaginary) flesh and blood, he has a moral compass, and he will make choices. And, how many of us, can say that we are the same as when we were in high school, or college. People mellow. People change. Conservatives become liberal. Listening tastes change from Ministry to NPR.

Instead of having your past drive your character and their choices, allow your character to make their own way.

Is it interesting that X happened to your character? Or, is it more interesting when your character responds to something at the table, during the game, in a way that surprises your fellow players, the GM, and yourself.

I had a paladin. He had a daughter. The DM at the time was lamenting the fact that characters never had families. So, I took him up on this “challenge.” Other members of my paladin’s order decided that my daughter was “the one” or some such. They took her from my wife. My wife was upset. This made me upset.

I found my daughter, and took her back, turning my back on the order.

LG on LG violence?!?


This surprised me.

I ran a Star Wars birthday game for a friend. He wanted an alt-reality where Luke joined his father and they united, and thee was all sorts of badness across the universe. And, he wanted to be a dark jedi.

So, it was a dark game.

A game of villains.

Killing those rebel scum.

And then, Luke asked the player, his student, to strike down the weak Lord Vader, so that they might rule together.

And, the player refused.

This wasn’t what his character wanted. He thought he wanted it. I gave him the chance.

And he bowed his head and declined.

And that player surprised himself.

Be in the moment.

In our 13th Age game, there were some orcs. They wanted something. Their army of thousands set up camp outside the town we were in. They were not attacking… yet.

monk01So, while some of my fellow players prepared for war, prepared for a battle we might not win, because these were orcs, and orcs are bad, my character, the monk named Ash, went out to talk to the orcs, accompanied by the tiefling druid.

We had a parlay. I asked what they wanted. They wanted an axe. Ok, what were they willing to give up for the axe? What did we want for the axe? There were some negotiations, communications with the higher-ups (Icons), and it was determined, if we secured the axe, they would deliver the Orc Lord’s head on a platter to the Elf Queen.

This made the Elf Queen happy, as the Orc lord long ago had killed her husband. The Orc Lord didn’t necessarily know this plan, but the orc who orchestrated was seeing a bigger picture.

So, the orcs got the axe named “Elfkiller”, there will be a new Orc Lord, and everyone in the village was safe.

When Ash left the confines of the monastery walls, I had no idea what the world had in store for him. I have a mission. But, along the way, it seems I am going to do some things that surprise me.

Likely, Ash will call himself orc-friend, and this makes the orc-haters mad. But it seemed the honorable thing to do.

Because, maybe we all need to just share a Coke and a smile.

If you are playing (or creating) a game about XP, then your game needs to reflect this.

Awhile back, several of the AoG staffers played some Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

There were some neat things in this game, but after three or four sessions, Black Panther had leveled-up quite a bit due to the XP system, to the point where has significantly more powerful.

So, what you are telling me is that through the over 1600 appearances T’challa had made in comics up to the point when he was statted up and he was being played in this campaign he had achieved X power level, yet in 3-4 sessions, he was not significantly more powerful? That didn’t work for me.

ff01And Johnny Storm? For the over 4,000 issues he has been in he doesn’t even have a d8 in Combat? I can accept that, however, I cannot accept that after 3-4 sessions, now he does, and ultimately, having even a d8 in MHR makes a significant difference.

MHR needed to figure out what is was about as a game? Was it about XP? If so, what did XP promote? What could one do with XP? I appreciated the Milestones, and what they encouraged, but they didn’t synch with the rest of the system.

D&D is a genre about leveling up.

It’s cool that your character has a backstory. Mechanically, does your backstory make sense? With 4 ranks in a specific background or skill, can you accomplish what your backstory proclaims?

Does your system understand this?

If I am a former soldier, possibly even an officer, in a 5e game, why does a single kobold scare me at 1st level? Or rather, why is a single kobold a threat to me? This doesn’t seem to synch either.

In D&D 1st level characters come to the table full of potential, hopes, and dreams. Likely, they haven’t “done” much, their stories are going to unfold through play.

Is your background, be it 10 pages, or 10 sentences, supported by the game system?

Ash had potential, that is what the monks saw in him.

Since our game is not quite an “open-secrets” table (see the Morley-Wick method of gaming) , I’m not quite ready to reveal what that potential is, but it is there, and the mechanics of the system support it.

Game the Game: The 13th Kool-Aid

I have three friends who all like and run D&D.

Friend A loves the Old School Renaissance, has issues with 4e, can tolerate 3.x and is loving 5e so far, even having committed to running 6 sessions of it at a gaming convention. Friend B feels somewhat similarly about 1st and 2nd Editions, enjoyed 3.x well enough, has a deepseated hatred of 4e (as a GM, though he enjoyed playing it as player), and is also enjoying 5e. Friend C liked 4e a lot, like 3e a lot, and thought both were improvements on 1st and 2nd, yet he too is running 5e.

I have shared my love of 13th Age with all of them, Friend B is the only one who has looked into it too much, and didn’t like the way magic worked. Friend C has promised he will take a look, but his job keeps him busy along with his family. Friend A has not as far as I know looked at it.

Why? WHY? I might cry out, clenching my fist, as if I had some financial investment in it. I don’t.

And I think I can answer why. I have discussed before how 13th Age could have been laid out better.

More than that though, the player creation portions of the book are dense.

So, even though these cats are DMs at heart, I don’t think they can get past the character creation.

So, on the off-chance that Jonathan Tweet or Rob Heinsoo or some of the fine folks from Pelgrane stop on by, here is my suggestion: create a book for DMs. Create a book that explains the rules, make some DM Screen inserts, create a book that just explains how to run the game, create a book that has the monsters, create a book explain why the One Cool Thing is awesome, as are the backgrounds, show off the Icons. Let the players for these DMs deal with the character creation chapter. Highlight the good from a DMing standpoint. I think folks get lost, and can’t see past what they see as elements they don’t like. I want all of them to see how the game is run, how much players enjoy their characters, how a campaign isn’t reliant on magic items, how one character has a conflicted relationship with the Elf Queen because of a mispronounced word, and how this is a wonderful thing. Make it thin, make it cheap. Convert the DM, convert the players!

As a DM, my only complaint is that they don’t have a DM Screen or inserts available. That is a minor quibble. It plays beautifully. It allows for DMs to tell the stories they want to tell, to create the conflicts they want to create, to populate their worlds with interesting NPCs. The rules encourage this, not just with words, but with actual game mechanics.

Is this too much to hope for as the holiday season approaches?

A warm fire, some winter themed Mountain Dew, a bowl of Holiday Doritos, and a table of friends to game with?

Game the Game: Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy- Roguish Characters

The Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy Project is a collaboration between Acts of Geek and Worlds Workshop. For more of the Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy, click here


Rogues? Bah! Thieves!

I still have a pin from my first ever gaming convention, held at the Mountain Farms Mall in Hadley: Thieves Do It In Leather!

Thieves were where it was at for me! Assassins were cool, but always seemed like weaker Thieves. And then, there are the Elite Classes: Monks and Bards. And, what about the forgotten Thief-Acrobat?

1e made it easy, too easy. All Thieves were very much the same, their abilities progressed at the same rate. 2e allowed for a degree of customization. 3e and beyond made these skills. But the skill based approach made it so that anyone could be a Thief. Lame.

Thieves need their niche back. And is there room in that niche for Assassins and Acrobats? Let us take a look at the 1e Thief:

  • Pick Pockets
  • Open Locks
  • Find/ Remove Traps
  • Move Silently
  • Hide In Shadows
  • Hear Noise
  • Climb Walls
  • Read Languages
  • Use Magic Items
  • Thieves Cant
  • Backstab

Assassins had the %based Thief abilities, but at a reduced level, as well as:

  • Poison
  • Alignment and Secret Society Languages
  • Disguise
  • Assassination

And the Acrobats, what of the Acrobats, necessary so that the D&D cartoon can be enjoyed to the fullest? Acrobats were really the first Prestige Class. An Acrobat gave up the advancement of some Thief abilities (PP, OL, RM, F/RT) but gained

  • Tightrope Walking
  • Pole Vaulting
  • High Jumping
  • Broad Jumping
  • Tumbling (which was broken down into Attack, Evasion, and Falling)

So, should we allow for all these variants? How different should they be? Is an Assassin different from a Thief?

Some editions rely on skills, and this seems to make the Thief obsolete, excepting Backstab/ Sneak Attack. In 5e, a Rogue’s sneak attack can be almost too powerful.

With the goal being universal appeal and niche protection, let’s see what we can do to codify all these ideas and keep the Thief cool. Rogues are romantic, Thieves are down and dirty. Is there room for both, a dashing rogue, and a sneaky thief?

Fate Accelerated Edition has the following approaches, instead of skills:

  • Careful
  • Clever
  • Flashy
  • Forceful
  • Quick
  • Sneaky

Can we look at these approaches and find some inspiration. Inspired by FATE, but not wanting to subconsciously repeat, I came up with the following:

  • Stealing
  • Sneaking
  • Killing
  • Maneuvering
  • Infiltration
  • Social
  • Connections

My goal is to make Thieves cool again, to make being a Thief mean something, to encourage players to remain Thieves, and to work within a framework that has diminished the Thief to one or more skills.

What stays: Sneak Attack/ Back Stab, call it what you will. It will start at first level, and get better every other level.

This seems easy.

Assassins never seemed to click, I loved the idea of the Assassin, but the implementation has never been as cool as it should be. The 4e Assassin might as well have had “Shark Jumping” as an ability.

As I am banging my head against the wall, thinking about what Thieves were, what they evolved into, and what they can be again, I had a moment of inspiration.

I will remind folks that my design goal is to make something rules-light, rules-easy, with lots of open-endedness, recapturing the  core of the 1e classes and their intention, as well as niche protection.

I have been looking for a way to differentiate Thieves from the Skills based approaches in 3e+. These skill heavy games have marginalized the Thief, and turned the Thief into a  Rogue, and that can be ok, but I would argue the world needs more Thieves!

Then, inspiration came! Thieves are Secret Agents! Thieves are James Bond! So, instead of reinventing the wheel, I turned to other sources, specifically John Wick’s spy game: Wilderness of Mirrors. This game strips out everything but cool spy stuff. There are stats that tell what you do, an even more streamlined approach to the FAE idea, this time focusing on cool spy stuff.

In Mr. Wick’s game, spies have Expertises. Every spy has them to some degree, so every spy can do everything. Spies can:

  • use technology
  • lie
  • kill people
  • be strong
  • steal

There is bit more eloquence to the way Mr. Wick writes up the Expertises, but I want you to buy that game and not get him mad at me for just copying his words.

But I think this can work.

So, I have a bit of a back and forth with Scott, and we come up with the following:

  • Acrobat
  • Arcanic
  • Assassin
  • Swindler
  • Thief
  • Thug

Great, you say to yourself having read this far looking for something interesting, or just killing time at work, what does it all mean, and why, and how does it work?

First, explanation:

Acrobat- tumbling, climbing walls, doing cool movement based stuff, a legacy term for 1e.

Arcanic- using magical items, deciphering ancient scripts, understanding unknown languages, understanding complicated traps. It is derived from Arcane, which yes, in D&D circles means magic not divine, but is being used here to refer to magics as well as mysteries and secrets, and instead of arcanist, which might have specific definitions, arcanic, is a derivative of mechanic, which has both utilitarian and criminal definitions.

Assassin- killing people, poison use.

Swindler- charming people, long cons, short cons, disguise.

Thief- stealing stuff, this would cover disarming locks, sneaking around, breaking into a building listening.

Thug- using force and intimidation, shadowing people, gathering intelligence.

So, how does these bits work? In keeping with my philosophy of avoiding frobt-loading classes and encouraging multiclassing as well as single classing, I offer the following:

At 1st level, and then at every even level, a Rogue (yes, I know, I didn’t like the term, but given that Thief is now an ability…) can assign one point to each of these six abilities. Each ability can be taken three times, so an 8th level rogue, who has 5 picks available [1,2,4,6,8] might have Acrobat- 1, Arcanic- 1, Assassin- 3.

These points may be used for Advantage dice with appropriate rolls. Additionally, some abilities might have additional effects:

Acrobat- a point may be expended for the session to avoid some catastrophic event, by jumping, rolling, falling out of the way.

Arcanic- a point may be expended for a session for a reroll when applying effort to an Arcanic related task.

Assassin- each point increases the base sneak attack dice, they start at a d4, and move up d6, d8, d10. A point may be expended once per session to allow a player to make an attack roll against a target using their Int as their ability and opposed by the targets Int or Wis. If successful, this “attack” does damage equal to the sneak attack damage, it is poison, or a trap. However, expending this point, does effectively reduce the players sneak attack dice appropriately immediately following.

Swindler- a point may be expended for a session to narratively, and retroactively have just the right thing, or to have put in place something unexpected. Think of this as the Leverage ability. The player would announce what they had done, which no one expected or noticed!

Thief- a point may be spent for a session to improvise what they need for a particular action, within reason. Maybe the player describes how they earlier pickpocketed the appropriate something, or truly, how they can make something out of nothing. This is not a chance for a character to avoid having to roll, if a players needs a specific key to open a door, or a wax seal, they will stull need to work for that, this is more when everyone thinks there is no chance a character might have something, they can come up with it: stripped naked, they still have thieves tools.

Thug- a point may be spent for a session to call upon previously unknown contacts for assistance.

Now, if I were given the power of Mike Mearls, and could actually design UD&D from the ground up, there might be more granularity within these abilities, but because I am going for very broad strokes so that UD&D can be a template on top of other rules engines, getting too specific would miss the point.

And when they decide to edit this blogpost down for Reader’s Digest, this will be my gripping conclusion: Rogues, previously known as Thieves, have been twisted and evolved to such a point that the joy of the Thief is missing. With skills being a necessity of later editions of the Dungeons & Dragons, the Rogue has been marginalized, and is known for some mobility and sneak attack, but in so doing, one has taken away the niche and role of the Thief, the player who wanted to be a bastard, who wanted to be sneaky, who wanted to lurk in the shadows with a cloak pulled up obscuring their face. We need to get that back. Later editions of D&D are like Denzel Washington in Book of Eli- white teeth. We need to get back to some differentiation, Thieves were an ugly necessity of an adventuring party, don’t marginalize Bilbo.

I will next tackle Monks and Bards, two of the most unique classes that have had varying success in their post 1e iterations.

Game The Game: Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy-Martial Characters, Part Two

The Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy Project is a collaboration between Acts of Geek and Worlds Workshop. For more of the Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy, click here


Q: How many types of human fighter can you be in 5e? 13 backgrounds x 2 Archetypes= 26!

Wow! That is a lot of choices, an outsider might say. I say not. I say the backgrounds idea is neat, but it is incredibly limiting. I say the two archetypes are even more limiting.

When you very clearly define what choices someone has, on a very granular level, you are inherently limiting their choices. When you say what someone can do, you are also saying what someone can’t do.

This is my thesis.

In Part I, the Fighter and Ranger were rebuilt, allowing for some combat choices, a great degree of individual customization, and more significantly, making them each, IMHO, cool again, and providing niche protection.

Now, we move onto the most specialized of fighter-types, the Paladin and the Barbarian.

Originally, Part I was going to cover all martial characters, but the word-count started getting unwieldy, and full disclosure, I was struggling with the Paladin and Barbarian.

But I have them figured out now, and I will explain why I was struggling and my solution.

Returning to the introductory discussion about limiting player choices, this was my undoing. In trying to secure niche protection, I want each class to be able to do cool things that no other class can do, but also want to discourage the willy-nilly amount of nonsensical (non story-driven) multi-classing that happens.

Scott and I were having yet another discussion about the Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy experience, and agreed that many player choices are mechanically driven and not at all story related. And many class features are the same. And, ultimately, where is their corollary in the literature and other inspirational materials? The spiked chain fighter build? Please. That is a child solely of the game mechanics.

So, that brings me, finally to the Paladin and Barbarian. These are what I will call Elite Classes.

What are Elite Classes? Elite Classes are classes that do limit choices. Classes with such a degree of dedication required that committing to them is committing to a lifestyle. A character does not just decide “oh, I want to pick up a level or two of Paladin.” Paladins spend years training, they are vessels for their gods, they are beyond reproach. And Barbarians, it’s not a class it’s a lifestyle. That seems like an ad-campaign, and if I ever decided to publish this, I just realized how fun it would be for each class to have a full page spread ad promoting the class, showing off what it can do, what makes it unique, describing the classes niche protection. One does not simply become a Barbarian, it is what one is born into.

End. Of. Story.

So, these Elite Classes will have special rules, as will other Elite Classes.

But given this article is about the Paladin and Barbarian, both of these Elite Classes have the same rule applied to them:

Paladins and Barbarians are classes that are decided on at first level, and characters cannot multi-class. If a character decides to abandon either class, they lose all the class benefits, and may not get them back.

Call me draconian if you like, but as I dissect these classes, you will see it is a choice, and with that choice comes many benefits.

Sometimes freedom is about what you cannot do.

What were the traits of a 1e Paladin?

Very high Charisma was needed.
Lawful Good.
Detect evil.
Protection from Evil.
Lay on Hands.
Limited amount of treasure.
Bonus to saves.
Immunity to disease.
Able to cure disease.
Turn undead.
Clerical spells at higher levels.

There is a lot here. A lot of very cool stuff. The difficult requirements made being a Paladin something very, very cool. The alignment restrictions made being a Paladin very difficult. Truly, if there was a paladin in your party, everyone showed respect.

I will flat out say this: I am ignoring the war horse. It is cool flavor, but the mechanics of armored combat never really seemed to click with any edition. Keep the flavor, it is awesome, but I am not going to worry about the rules of it.

Lawful Good is a must. There is no room in D&D for the “every kid gets a medal for participating” attitude. LG or go home. Except for the anti-paladins, of course! But, those are NPCs. None of this namby-pamby other aligned paladins.

Detect Evil: At will, as per the spell of whatever edition you are playing.

Protection from Evil: “evil” creatures are at disadvantage against the paladin, and the additional effects as outlined in a Protection From Evil spell. Additionally, those within melee range of a Paladin are also subject to this effect.

Limited amount of treasure. This one is a keeper. Deal with it.

Immune to disease seems pretty easy to keep as is.

Now, we have the bonus to saves, curing disease, turning undead, and cleric spell access to deal with. I will also add smite to this, because although is a newer addition to the Paladin trope, it seems to fit.

The high Charisma should factor in, and as I look at what is left to address as well as various paladin iterations through the years, and also factoring in the tendency to min/max, the picture perhaps becomes more clear.

The Channel Divinity approach to turning undead as well as resolving other cool abilities was really sharp. As editions progressed, turning undead became less of a thing, and was even wasted in many campaigns, so modifying it and allowing it to be used other ways was a clever reinterpretation.

If a Paladin veers from their alignment of religion, the DM has the right to strip away any and or all of their cool abilities.

That has be part of the Paladin. This discourages wanton disregard for the trope of the Paladin, and also discourages becoming a Paladin just for the cool powers and abilities.

Paladins get a bonus to all their saves equal to their Charisma modifier.

Paladins can turn undead as a cleric two levels lower. Turning undead is a thing again in 5e. Let’s keep it that way. Additionally, Paladins are at advantage when attacking undead. And, if you want to expand your definition of undead to include evil creatures from the outer plans, summoned creatures, etc, those are all very appropriate, both for turning and advantage.

Avatar: a Paladin is an Avatar of their Deity. They have a number of Avatar Points equal to their level, per day!

And what can a Paladin do with Avatar Points?

Lay on Hands: Each Point spent heals a number of HP equal to the Paladin’s Charisma modifier.

Smite: Each Point spent allows a Paladin a bonus to Hit or Damage equal to the Paladin’s Charisma modifier.

Spellcasting: Paladin’s can cast Cleric spells. As Avatars, they do not memorize spells, they are able to cast what they need depending on their level. Starting at 6th level, a Paladin may spend Avatar Points to cast 1st level Cleric spells, at a cost of 1 point/ spell level. At 9th level they may cast 2nd level spells. At 12th level they may cast 3rd level spells. And at 15th level they may cast 4th level spells.

Additionally, because Paladins are martyrs personified, they may call upon their inner reserves for Martyr Points. A Paladin may, once per day, take HP damage up to their Cha modifier X their level, to gain Marytr Points equal to their level. Martyr Points are used the same way as Avatar Points, but their effectiveness is equal to the modifier amount +1. For example, a 7th level Paladin with an 18 Charisma calls upon his Martyr Points, he doesn’t have a lot of HP left, so he only wants to take a modifier of +2, so he will take 2×7= 14 damage, and gains 7 Martyr Points, each with a modifier equal to 2+1= 3, and needing that awesome amazing attack, uses 1 point to increase his chance to hit (+3 to hit) and the other 6 points to add to damage (+18 damage).
The damage taken by the Paladin does not affect the Paladin until the end of the following round, and this damage may not be healed until the end of the following day.

Avatar Points can be spent singly, or all at once.

Thus, a 5th level Paladin with a Charisma modifier of +3, has 5 Avatar Points.

Fighting the Big Bad, the party is not doing so well, so the Paladin spends one Avatar Point as a +3 bonus to Hit, and after hitting spends the remaining points as 12 points of bonus damage.

And, finally, the Barbarian!

What did the 1e Barbarian look like:

Lots of HP
Detest/ distrust of Magic
Ability to overcome defenses that require magic to affect
Bonus to poison saves, and poor saves against magic
Climbing cliffs and trees
Hiding in natural surroundings
Back protection
Leaping and springing
Detect illusion
Detect magic
First aid
Outdoor craft
Animal handling
Long distance signaling
Small craft, paddled
Small craft, rowed
Sound imitation
Snare building
Native territory

That is a lot of abilities. Now, keep in mind that 1e was skill-less, and they wanted to outline what a Barbarian could do, but the language in the text itself gave them several outs, so all of these abilities had to do with a barbarian in surroundings that were familiar to them, etc.

For the purposes of UD&D, we will also add Rage, and attempt to distill all this flavor down to rules that are simple, easy to understand, and allow for maximum flavor meets fun!

A Barbarian has to have a lot of HP. This is a must.

Many of the Barbarian abilities can be simplified, but because we are trying to make something system independent, we will not address specific skills, rather, we will try to codify everything and make it somewhat universal:

Survival: Barbarians have advantage when in the wild, whether it is attempting to secure dinner for the party, climb a cliff, jump across a chasm, or set up an ambush.

Heightened Senses: Barbarians have advantage for rolls involving their innate senses, be it for surprise, finding something out of the ordinary, examining a corpse. These are all their senses, sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Barbarians are almost feral in their ways, sniffing, making quick small movements, touching, even tasting.

Heightened Physical Prowess: Because they come from a culture not as dependent on the comforts of magic, Barbarians have learned to make do. Any check involving Str or Con is treated as if the character’s modifier is one point higher, and all of these checks are made with advantage. Additionally, their carrying capacity is as if their Strength was 4 points higher.

Movement: Barbarians are faster than other characters. Because we are trying to make this system independent, instead of arbitrarily assigning them an increased rate of speed, Barbarians get two movement actions, and may use their full rate of speed with both.

Savage Points: A Barbarian gets one Savage Point per level per day. A Savage Point can be spent for Rage and First Aid.
Rage: Barbarians can enter a Rage. This lasts for an entire combat or scene. When Raging, a Barbarians is at disadvantage when being attacked, advantage against magic effects, and each Savage Point spent gives the Barbarian an extra attack or a temporary +2 to Str and Con. Additionally, while Raging, a Barbarian can overcome any magical defenses that require +X magic items to hit.
First Aid: A Savage Point can be spent for First Aid. First Aid gives a character advantage on a Save, or allows the barbarian to heal one HD. So, if a Barbarian is using First Aid on a character with d4 HD, they would heal d4 HP. If a Barbarian used it on a character with d10 HD, they would heal d10 HP.

Magic: This one is difficult, as I appreciate the idea behind Barbarians being removed from magic, at the same time, it is very hard to make this a fun reality in an RPG without limiting the player enjoyment, or having a player manipulate their way out of the restrictions. A Barbarian should be limited in what they keep in terms of magic equipment. What exactly does this mean? They should have less magical stuff than other party members, their magical inventory should be sparse. I don’t know what your campaign is like, so I will not give a number. This is up to the DM. How do you enforce it? You are the DM, you can make anything you want happen. Maybe take away their stuff. Describe it narratively “oh, that sword, you threw it away, it had bad mojo.”

Uncivilized Ways: Barbarians should be restricted to how much they embrace “modern” technology. But, instead of offering a list of what they can and cannot do, how about we say that their uncivilized ways should always be apparent. So, can they wear heavy armor, or metal armor? Sure, but they might throw away the sleeves to the armor, and use just the chest plate. Barbarians are not dumb, they are just more in touch with where they come from. Do they have to be illiterate, no? Should a DM restrict the amount of modern items they have? Perhaps. But more to the point, if you, the DM feel that the player is abusing the loosey-goosey nature of this “rule” put them at a disadvantage. “yes, you can wear the elaborate magical plate armor, but you will be at disadvantage when doing so, and enemies will be at advantage attacking you.” And, because you are the DM you can decide that these Uncivilized disadvantage dice trump all (meaning determine advantage and disadvantage as normal, and then apply disadvantage, so that no matter what a Barbarian does, they are at disadvantage).. Additionally, you can take away their Heightened Senses to some degree, or their increased movement. Do so subtly, or overtly. You have my permission to screw with your players. And maybe you don’t tell them until a most crucial moment.

Are the Paladin and Barbarian overpowered? Yes, the Barbarian could rage at 20th level and get an extra 20 attacks, that is pretty bad-ass, right? Yes, but that is some serious front loading, so, who cares. What can a wizard at that level do? Well, we will find out when we get to the spellcasting classes. Next up will be the roguish classes: The Thief, Assassin, and possibly the Bard and Monk, though the latter two are in some ways even more elite than the Paladin or Barbarian.

Game The Game: The Dice of Our Lives

There are many essays, and even whole websites devoted to discussions of game design, I am going to add to it, in my own way, but instead of delving into the realm of GNS, I want instead to talk about dice.

Dice are cool.

Dice are fun.

Many gamers have fond memories of rolling a d20, and hoping against hope for a natural 20.

It is an incredible feeling, getting that 20 at just the right moment.

The newest version of that game many of us hold fondly in our hearts has recently been released, and it uses a d20. However, unlike (most) previous iterations of this game, the dice can do fun things. Instead of having to add in modifiers, positive and negative (and waiting for Alan to add them all up, or for some Madden math [defined as announcing your total several times, each time adding in yet another positive modifier: “I rolled a 10, plus my BAB of 3, 13! Plus my weapon bonus of +2… 15! Pause Plus my flanking bonus… 17! And so on.]) The 5th edition of D&D asks players to sometimes roll two d20s, and depending on the situation, keep the highest or lowest. This is their Advantage/ Disadvantage system.

Discussion of it being too subject to GM fiat and player manipulation is neither hear nor there, it is a change. Cool(er) things can happen now, less reliant on the math, and speeding things up.

The game I wrote, does some similar things (and for those keeping track at home, predates this innovation). In my game, players may roll multiple dice, and keep the best (if they are doing well) or worst. And, if the get a natural 12 (yes, the game uses d12 instead of d20s, and I didn’t want to assume everyone would understand what a nat12 was), even cooler things happen, mainly that their final total will be bumped up quite a bit, depending on the level of the Trait they are using. The more powerful the Trait, the more significant the increase. In play, it is always fun and exciting when this happens, big numbers are exciting and dramatic.

So, feeling the crunch of an AoG deadline, I thought I would briefly go over my top three systems for dice mechanics, and one honorable mention!

13th Age, a favorite here at AoG uses that one d20 roll, but often has cool abilities that kick in at different points, perhaps if the natural die result is greater than 15, perhaps an odd number greater that 11, all sorts of coolness. Now, take the Advantage/ Disadvantage system from that 5e game, and you have the super awesomest FRP ever!

Brave New World, one of my favorite systems for awesome excitement, where the drama of a dice roll directly influences the drama of the action that follows. Roll a number of d6s, natural 6s explode, every 5 points above a target number, one can activate tricks, which means your action does super awesome cool stuff. I love it! This is what I wish a lot of systems did, although the narrative isn’t as dramatic as an Exalted roll where one announces their attack (perhaps by standing on a chair, gathering up 24 dive, and rolling them with authority), what sucks in that system is if you miss. I like that success determines the effect! Not declared effect and then roll for success.

Monsterhearts, a child of the Apocalypse World phenomenon, is, IME and IMHO, the most elegant spinoff “Powered by the Apocalypse.” Why? Not because of the subject matter, but because of the simplicity of every action being defined in a very small number of ways, and the die roll for that action having very specific outcomes. It forces the players into a very rigid way of thinking, which is so rigid as to be freeing. I do love this game, and not (necessarily) because of the content matter or implied setting, but because of the real sense of danger every die roll brings, because of the simplicity in executing the result of those die rolls. There is no escaping danger in Monster Hearts, no dump stat.

The One Roll Engine, used in several different games, there is a beautiful piece of design here, one roll determines where you go in the initiative order, where you hit, and how well you hit. It is a really bold idea and execution. However, with Hard Dice, every attack is a head shot, which makes it very deadly. Granted, that makes game play have a very distinct feel, but isn’t 100% there for me, but it is a lot of fun, and very innovative.

Now, having my words out there for all internet eternity, I try and be careful. Are there dice systems I don’t like? Sure, of course. This makes me human. And can I write long dissertations on why I do not like them? Yes. But, I won’t, because, in life, we can be positive, or we can be negative, and I am going to focus on the positive. Maybe you like a system I do not, and maybe we could have a long “discussion” about the merits and flaws of said system. I do enjoy these discussions as long as they are positive and contain civil discourse. But, for now, I am going to focus on the positive. And, at the end of the day, when you sit down to roll dice, the system you like is the best system for you, and I will always support you for that. Because, I always try and remember, the most important part of RPGs is that G, it stands for Game, and a Game is supposed to be fun, and no one should tell you how to have fun!

Game the Game: Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy-Martial Characters, Part One

The Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy Project is a collaboration between Acts of Geek and Worlds Workshop. For more of the Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy, click here


Martial characters. This is a much more elegant way of saying fighter types. Fighter types (fighter, ranger, paladin, barbarian) are interesting, as they have evolved quiet a bit from 3e on, and I wonder if all that evolution is a good thing. I used to comment that, when the party is sitting around the campfire, the ranger is off playing in the woods, the paladin is praying, and the fighter is sharpening a sword. This should be the difference, and should be reinforced by the mechanics.

Looking at the rogues gallery, there are many different fighter archetypes represented, and I would posit that the current edition of D&D discourages this. In 5e, one picks a background (limited choices, mean not true freedom), and then picks a martial archetype, of which there are two, both of which are very specific. This seems to be very, very limiting, and is one Champion that different from another Champion? And Battle Masters seemingly have some choices they can make in battle, but do any of these choices do much mechanically.

The Fighter has frequently suffered from having limited combat options other than “I roll to hit” and many editions penalize players for not buffing up with the best armor and weapon choices. 3e and 4e allowed for some customization with weapon selections and the like, but there were indeed choices that were more optimal.

If the goal is to create a system that allows for any option you can imagine, how is this helping?

I am going to start with the Fighter, and hopefully the other classes will fall into place.

Fighters should maintain their rate of multiple attacks per specific edition.

Fighters always have advantage attacking in combat.

Each level of Fighter, gives one Combat Edge point. Combat Edge points do the following:
– at the beginning of each round, the number of Combat Edge points refreshes.
– they trump advantage, so expending 1 will give a Fighter advantage, even if the Fighter had no advantage prior, this Combat Edge advantage can only be negated by an opposing Fighter.
– Combat Edge points can be rolled more than one at a time, so a 3rd level fighter, who has three Combat Edge points/ round might decide to spend them all on one attack, and would therefore roll 4 dice for the attack, and would keep the best result.
– Combat Edge points can be used for defense, and work as advantage, but a character can also expend more than one.
– Saves or checks can add extra advantage dice to a roll.
– Damage: a character can reroll damage with the use of one Combat Edge point.

So, why Combat Edge points? It gives fighters something a bit more interesting to do aside from declaring that they roll to hit. Yes, that is likely still all they will be doing, but they will be hitting frequently, and avoiding damage as much as possible, this allows for a player to represent their character any number of ways, allowing the dice to support their narrative.

The other major component is that Fighters should be mook-killers. For the sake of this article, mooks will be considered any opponent who has less HD or a lower CR than the levels of Fighter the character has. A Fighter can attack multiple times, the total number of attacks being the difference between the Fighter level and the (HD or CR) +1, so a 9th level fighter against CR 8 monsters could attack [(9-8)+1] times (2, the answer to that equation is 2!) The same 9th level Fighter against a CR 6 monster would have [(9-6)+1]= 4 attacks! These extra attacks can only be used against those opponents.

My Ultimate Fighter thus is a mook-killer, and has some mechanical options in combat, that are not confined to any specific system, but that let the character be the best at what they do.

Does this make the Fighter less dull? I hope so. Does it allow for more flavor and customization, without having to resort to specialization? Yes. Want your Fighter to be a foppish dandy clad only a silk shirt unbuttoned just ever-so much, armed only with a rapier and his cunning wit? You can do that! Swashbuckle away. And if that same fighter decides to pick up a crossbow, they can fire that as well!

Now, what about Rangers?

Rangers have become the Episodes I-III Jedi. The essence of what they were meant to be has been lost and bastardized and accepted. It’s too bad, we need to get the Ranger back to being cool, and simple and not just a Drizz’t clone.

1e Rangers were not at all like the Rangers of today, their primary cool abilities were: tracking, surprise, and a bonus against “giant” class creatures, and at higher levels, some low-level druidic and magic-user spell-casting ability. They were generally lightly armored, but this did not have to be the case, they were always good aligned, and the coolest feature, they had 2 HD at 1st level.

The whole two weapon fighting or bow specialization is a construct of later editions.

So, what to keep, what to revise, and what to add?

I appreciate the Good aligned aspect, but think it is unreasonable. Similarly, the bonus against the “giant” class was cool, but Rangers should be able to have all sorts of enemies. In 1e and 2e, Tracking was a thing, a special thing, a Ranger thing.

We need to get that back.

Trackers: Rangers are skilled in the art of tracking, primarily outdoors, but their uncanny abilities transcend the natural boundaries. For a game that purports to encourage Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat, the rules for the first two seem to be lacking, and the first is an area in which the Ranger should excel! There are already skills in many games, and there are rules for those. So, we will instead be making a new ability, called Observation. It is an ability available only to Rangers. The bonus to their roll is equal to their Wis modifier plus their ranger level. The difficulty for any check is equal to the CR+10. Simple? Yes. But, what about tracking through difficult terrain, a lot of monsters, only a couple monsters who are disguising their passing, or too much time has elapsed, or of the Ranger has a special affinity for monsters of this ilk? Apply advantage and disadvantage as needed. No need for a chart breaking things down, because, what happens in an attempt to quantify, you clearly state what can be done, but also, by exclusion, what cannot be done.

Observation allows a Ranger to track, ambush, gather information on, be sneaky when doing all these things. All sorts of fun stuff. So, sure, you want to min/ max cheese it out, grab 1 level of Ranger for the ability, but your higher level Ranger will indeed be so much better.

Surprise. Rangers don’t get surprised. This makes them perfect for taking point or bringing up the rear in a party. Allow them to always have advantage on surprise and initiative rolls.

Designating an enemy. At first level, a Ranger will designate an enemy, or group of enemies. But how can this not be abused? Perhaps Orks are a Ranger’s enemies. When the players learn the Orks are tied to the cult of Vecna, well, that broadens things. When they come riding down on war elephants, this also qualifies. What if a Ranger is enemies with all the giant-kin that reside in the hills tormenting their homeland? This works too. This point is to give the Ranger enemies that can grow with them, and are not just limited to one race or sub-race. But, what happens when the Ranger learns and grows and finds new enemies? Well, they can designate those enemies as well.


Similar to the Fighter, who gain Combat Edge points, Rangers gain Enemy points. They gain one per level. If they decide to broaden their group of enemies, or add a new enemy, they must consult their DM. On a character sheet, the levels will be noted. Example: Levels 1-5, The Orks and Giant-kin of The Mordish Hills. Levels 6-9, Cultists of Reynion. Levels 10-17, Undead and the followers of the Dread God of Death.

So, what do Enemy points do?

– the number of Enemy points available to a character refreshes at the beginning of every round, depending on the enemies being engaged. So, the above Ranger, against the enemies of the Mordish Hills would have 5 Enemy points.
– Enemy points can be spent to gain advantage on any roll against an enemy in combat.
– embracing the most recent interpretation of the Ranger, an Enemy point can be spent for an extra attack. But this attack is at disadvantage. Per the above, a 5th level Ranger with 5 Enemy points could get two extra attacks, and negate the disadvantage of both, and still have 1 point left over.
– Enemy points can be use to give an enemy disadvantage on a roll.

Spell-casting. Because we are not reinventing the wheel, keep this as is per your specific edition. Personally, I loved the flavor of the 1e Ranger and their spell-casting.

I’m over 1,500 words, so I’m going to finish in another blog-post, where I will attempt to tackle the Paladin and Barbarian.

Game the Game: Horror Gaming

The set-up: Characters are in a house, there is a axe-wielding psychopath on the looking to chop them all up. The characters hear a noise on the other side of the door.

Traditional RPG style of play:

Players draw their weapons, assume a defensive stance, cast buff spells, check their HP, etc.

Is this fun? Sure, it can be.

Is it scary?

I would argue no.

Sending an unbeatable foe against the PCs in a game where success or failure is very granular is easy to do. The party is 5th level, put them up against a 10th level threat. A 12the level threat.

Sure, that can be done.

But is it scary? Is it balanced? Is it fun?

As a GM if I want to stack the deck in my favor and “win” that is always easy to do.

But, horror gaming, gaming that can legitimately scare your players and their characters demands a different style of play.

As a GM, I can admit my shortcomings. Bringing a sense of doom to the table might not be one of them. This is not to say that I have not had success, but it can be difficult. There has to be buy-in from the players and GM, everyone has to commit to the conceits of horror gaming.

On those special occasions when I want to run a very special horror game, I tend to cheat.

I fall back on rules systems that force the players to be scared.

New-fangled RPG style of play:

Dread is an RPG that strips away pretty much everything that other RPGs have: stats, skills, etc, they do not matter. What matters in Dread is building tension, and that sense of impending death with any action.

How does it do it?


Build a Jenga block, any time a character is doing something potentially dangerous, the player must draw a Jenga block.

I ran a session of this, and added an on-the-fly house rule. When moments were building to a head, when time was of the essence, I instituted speed Jenga.

“Ok, you want to make it down to the docks in time to catch up to the ferry? I need 4 successful draws in one minute. Go!”

Jenga demands quiet.

It demands concentration.

And it brings with it a sense of… wait for it…. Dread.


Players might want to try and find an old AK-47 in Old Man Johnston’s house. Fine, let them. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t increase their odds of survival.

Jared Sorenson’s Squeam does things a bit differently, the setup of Squeam is designed to emulate a horror film.

The coolest part of it is that, when the characters hear that noise on the other side of the door, one of them may very well open it.


Because that character failed their Curious roll.

And if that isn’t just like a horror movie, I don’t know what is.

Yes, it takes autonomy and free-will away from the players, but the end result is that it forces the players and their characters to do the things that make horror films fun!

I have run this several times for very-special episodes of my long-running campaign, and it is a blast. Darken the room, light a candle or two, appreciate the silence and darkness, and have a ton of jump-scare fun.

I tend to use a variant of the Scooby Doo rules set, and I could see the Cthulhu variant also being fun.

There are of course plenty of other games designed to scare, Spectrum Games (for whom I work) has Slasher Flick and Macabre Tales, the latter designed for 1-1 Lovecraftian play, the former designed for troupe style Slasher Flick play, and of course there is the grand-daddy of them all, Call of Cthulhu.

There are GMs out there who can make any system scary. My hat is off to them.

Me? I cheat.

I pick a game that has been designed to make the experience scary.

Game the Game: Building a Better Dungeon, Part 0: Foreword-A Competitive Exercise in Game Design

So, one of the folks in my gaming circle was one of the setting finalists in the Wizards of the Coast setting competition from years ago.

I will admit, he joined my gaming circle after he was a finalist, but that is the way of things. He was looking for a gaming circle, and my gaming group was looking for a member, so, we made Chuck Woolery proud.

End back-story

So, Scott and I were discussing D&D, not just 5e, but all editions of D&D.

I will tangent again. I was recently visiting my friend Chris, whose 9th grade age son (what is that 13? 14? Is he driving yet? Old enough to get married?) is getting into gaming, I was thrilled to see a 1st Edition PHB and DMG on his bedroom floor, but Chris said that his son was playing some sort of custom, streamlined, bastardized version, that his son’s friend had taught him.

This started me thinking. Thinking about D&D. Thinking about how for so many people D&D was something they discovered when they were that age, maybe a tad younger, maybe a tad older.

But then, the “game designer” in me asked this scholarly question “What is stopping this upstanding young man from playing the game with the Rules As Written (RAW)?”

And then I thought: Imagine If: there was a version of D&D simple enough for a bunch of young men to play, but robust enough that older folks could play as well, enjoying some creative freedom, without feeling like they are playing the “kiddie” version of the game.

And, this brings me back to Scott. He and I were discussing this. He has certain opinions about what he wants out of a fantasy game, and I have certain ideas as well. Some may be the same, some may be different.

And, Scott, suggested, instead of a collaboration (because as much as Scott is a super smart, awesome guy, our design philosophies are a bit different), that we each design what we think could go into this ideal version of XXXXX D&D.

So, this is the start of it, we are hoping to be done by the end of November.

As this is my first entry, I will start off brainstorming:

In 1st Edition (and 2nd to somewhat, though kits complicated things), it is my argument that at the end of a day of adventuring, when the party is hanging out by the fire, the Ranger is off playing in the woods, the Paladin is praying, and the Fighter is sharpening his sword. My first challenge is to make being a Fighter cool again, but simple. Scott and I both agree that the 4e fighter was a ton of fun to play, due to the many options available, beyond “I roll to hit” each and /every/ round. So, I think I will attempt to tackle this first, and it is my hope that this will help many of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Some other design considerations:

Unified XP: This started with 3e, and one could make the argument in 1st and 2nd this is also what separated the Fighter from the Ranger and Paladin. I would not disagree, but when everyone was the same level, or close, the two classes should feel different, flavor-wise, and mechanically. But, having just one table for XP that all classes use is something I want to keep.

gtgUltimate01Multi-classing: To someone who played D&D from 1st Edition on, who fondly recalls (and still has) a copy of the Rogues Gallery (favorite character: Lassiviren the Dark), multi-classing is something that needs to be included, I want something nice and simple and elegant and not subject to… abuse. There, I said it.

Spells: Scott wants to attempt to rewrite the spells. I don’t think I have the right kind of creative energy to do that. I could try. I would posit that Magic Missile and Fireball and other iconic spells are intrinsic and should be part of D&D.

Mechanics: there will need to be a d20.

Inspirations (aka Thievery roll): I am going to look at Castles and Crusades as well as 13th Age, as well as D&D and lots of other games, drawing upon what they do well, what could do better, and possibly what their intent is.

Why D&D? It is a common language that most RPG nerds speak. We can share stories, praise what we like, and bitch about what don’t we like(4e made Scott cringe as a DM, I really liked a lot of it, but will admit it had some flaws). It is the game every other game must acknowledge. My friend’s son isn’t interested in Dungeon World, or something akin. He wants to play D&D. He doesn’t want to be the kid with the Atari: Jaguar, he just wants a Nintendo like every other kid.

I am not expecting to create something that will necessarily be publishable, but who knows-I want to try and see what I can come up with. This is my challenge to myself.

I would love to be able to hand Chris’ son a set of rules that worked with his 1st Edition books and amplified his fun, I’d love to hand a similar set of rules to a 5e player, and have them say “hey, that’s really cool!”

So, in a way, I am reinventing the wheel.

What can I break, what can I rebuild, and how can I do it so that D&D is still D&D?

This is my personal challenge.

I am excited to see what Scott comes up with, I am excited to be part of his process and have him be part of mine. I will surely comment on his posts, and hope he will do the same.

Let the games (design) begin!