Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Golden Puddle of Tollgate Square - Leaving Room for Icons in 13th Age

While I ran the Strangling Sea to start my 13th Age campaign, for the second full session, I ran a homebrew adventure. Previously the party had determined that there were three NPCs who might know a secret worth trading to an Ettercap temple in exchange for information about a 2nd Age Sage who studied the Stone Thief. Those three NPCs were

  • Elizabeth Clawchoke, Lich Baroness residing in Drakkenhall
  • Malaggar Lyme, Dark Elf emissary to the Emperor, currently visiting the court of Drakkenhall.
  • Corgak the Bruiser, Half-Orc thief and thug who killed an agent of the Prince of Shadows and stole a magical key.

After some discussion the PCs choose Corgak, and so headed off to Drakkenhall to locate him.
Now, as GM, I had a few objectives, which were:

  • Leave room to adapt the adventure based on Icon Rolls.
  • Provide a few social interaction encounters.
  • Introduce Tollgate Square as a place, with a distinctive feel, locations and NPCs.
  • Steal shamelessly from Voltron.

So how did I attempt all that? Why is Manneken Pis the image header? Keep reading to find out... (Minor Voltron Legendary Defenders Season 2 spoilers at the end of the post)

So, addressing my objectives in order...

Leave room to adapt the adventure based on Icon Rolls.

This can be one of the hardest things to do as a 13th Age GM, so I try to keep it in mind as I prep/write adventures. Since the players roll their Icon Relationships at the start of a session, you want to leave room, as a GM, to incorporate those results. The base 13th Age rules have some loose guidelines for this, and the excellent 13th Age Resource book that comes with the Game Master's Screen (Pelgrane Press / Drivethru / Amazon) has much more advice, but I've kinda settled into three broad approaches that I go with.

  • Use Icon results to distribute treasure. 
    • This is the approach I used in my Corpse Chewer one shot.
    • This is nice because it gives out visceral rewards to the players, so their PCs get a single use magic item or two with a 5, and a more potent magic item on a 6.
    • Less useful for ongoing campaigns where you want the Icons to be more than distant loot dispensers.
    • Surprisingly easy to do, especially if you grab the fantastic Book of Loot. (Yeah, I really like the 13th Age Supplements. They're well-written and give you plenty to work with). (Pelgrane Press / Drivethru Amazon)
  • Use Icon results to heavily flavor adversaries or other story elements of an adventure.
    • Blood and Lightning (the adventure included in the 13th Age Core rulebook) and the Strangling Sea each illustrate a different approach to this strategy.
      • Blood and Lightning provides customization for the foes based on an adversarial Icon (Diabolist, Lich King, Orc Lord), for instance, here are the look customizations they suggest for some goblins to re-flavor them.
        • (Diabolist) Flesh is torn off of the goblins’ heads in long strips around tattoos of the Diabolist’s symbol.
        • (Lich King) The shaman’s face is tattooed to look like a skull. Some limbs of the goblin grunts are withered and half-mummified, though that doesn’t seem to slow them down.
        • (Orc Lord) The goblins seem far more aggressive than they have any right to be. They talk to each other using orcish slang.
      • Leaving some antagonists as open to serving different icons can be tricky, though 13th Age does a good job of providing ideas for using the same monsters as minions of different icons. Mostly, in my experience, I find it easiest to do as Blood and Lightning does, and pick two or three Icons who adversaries could serve.
      • Though I didn't mention it, I did this with Strangling Sea too, where I just took the generic thugs from the module and had their faces painted like skulls to telegraph that they were working for the Lich King.
    • The Strangling Sea, on the other hand, doesn't have many suggestions for adapting adversaries to show how they're serving a hostile icon, but it does have tons of suggestions for adapting plot points, macguffins and other story elements to different icons.
      • The adventure assumes that its plot is driven by two Icons, a Patron and an Antagonist, but provides nine options for the Patron and six options for the Antagonist.
        • Yes, that's technically 15 icons, but it allows some of the ambiguous Icons, like the Prince of Shadows, to be used either as a Patron or as an Antagonist...
      • Strangling Sea then goes out of its way to make sure a GM has what they need to run the adventure with which ever icons fit, with multiple options for how each Patron Icon could enlist the PCs, backgrounds for why the Antagonist Icon would want to find and capture/end Inigo Sharpe and then ideas for minor macguffin magic items that could be tied to the various icons.
      • I used this approach for this last 13th Age session; once my players decided to go after Corgak, I decided that his key would either go to a chest that was currently with Elizabeth Clawchoke or Malaggar Lyme and prepped a little bit for each, then once the Icon rolls were in, it was clear that Malaggar Lyme better fit those.
      • This approach can be a little more work to prep, as instead of having one set of monster stats with minor alterations or a little evocative description added, the GM needs to be able to adjust larger plot points on the fly (or prep multiple options in advance).
  • Use Icon results to provide information dumps / rumors / background information.
    • This is one of my favorite ways to use Icon relationship rolls, to have the PCs get information filtered through the lens of whatever Icon might have provided it. So if the adventure involves a graveyard then... 
      • the Lich King relationship might provide information about undead that haunt there.
      • the Priestess relationship might tell PCs about a shrine they can visit for luck there.
      • the Three relationship might let PCs know about a white dragon who guards the graveyard and performs the appropriate rites.
    • This also lets me dole out information without having the players make a bunch of knowledge background checks, which can be fine, but its nice to be able to just say "because of your relationship with the High Druid...[infodump]" instead of rolling a bunch of dice and then having players assume they don't know anything because they rolled a 1 or something.
As I said, I mostly went with "Use Icon results to heavily flavor adversaries or other story elements of an adventure" for this last adventure, having the PCs ties to the Elf Queen result in them having to steal the locked chest from Malaggar Lyme once they had the key from Corgak. For the next session, where they travel to the Ettercap Temple to trade in their secret I'll probably lean more on the other two methods.
My players (and readers) are probably tired of this picture, but I'm not... <3 Ettercaps.

Provide a few social interaction encounters.

Going to leave the bulk of this discussion for the next session, as I used my social interaction encounters to set up some of the flavor of Tollgate Square, but making sure I had more than a string of combat encounters was a big part of my planning.

Introduce Tollgate Square as a place, with a distinctive feel, locations and NPCs.

Tollgate Square is from Eyes of the Stone Thief, and I don't I'm spoiling anything with the tidbits I'll be dropping here (I certainly won't be putting anything I wouldn't mind my players to see) but if you really don't want any spoilers, stop reading here.
  • Reading the adventure book for Eyes of the Stone Thief, one of the things I'm looking forward to most is having the PCs return to locations more that once so that when the dungeon devours those locations it will mean more than just another dungeon level (I don't think this is a spoiler at all, as I was pretty up front with my players about this).
  • Tollgate Square is presented in Eyes of the Stone Thief as a sample surface "Target" for the dungeon, a slum district suitable to put in any of the major cities of the Empire. Unsure of what other cities my players would have their PCs visit, I decided to move fast and use it as soon as I could. Better to set it up early than to try and cram it in later. Plus, this way I can maybe get another use out of it before it gets devoured.
  • I put it in Drakkenhall, because I wanted my Ettercap temple in the forest north of Drakkenhall, but strangely the book has the shortest flavor description of all the cities, but it's a delicious doozy, so I'm just going to put it here...
    • Drakkenhall: ‘Toll’ sounds much better than ‘shakedown by a bunch of ogres.’
  • With only that single enticing sentence to guide me, I was able to largely plan Tollgate out how I wanted. Though I did obviously keep the bit about the ogres. In my game they demanded 5 gp per PC because the group looked to be "wulty" though the group didn't haggle or push back so I didn't get to use my prep about how the ogres have a sliding scale and use some of the money to keep the Square in good shape because as they would say... “we right propur bizz men”.
  • With the idea that Drakkenhall is in the ruins of an older city, I made Tollgate Square a former noble estate, with ramshackle building up amidst the ruins of stables, fancy gardens and other things that would evoke a ruined Versailles... which let me put in an evocative tavern that I thought up in the shower inspired by an old postcard of Manneken Pis I got as a child...
    • The Golden Puddle (feel free to steal this tavern for any of your own games)
      • This is an orc and half-orc tavern, a ramshackle building centered around an old fountain which depicts a little human boy pissing, ala Manneken Pis.
      • The patrons of the bar get good luck by putting gold pieces into the fountain, which gives the "puddle" it's golden color.
        • This let me have all the patrons look disapprovingly at a PC when he dared to put a silver coin in instead of a golden one.
      • The tavern game that is most popular with the (at least part) orcish patrons is a drinking game where you arm-wrestle your opponent while drinking a pyramid of tankards of orcish pilsner dry. 
  • I also introduced an inn for the party to return to in the future, the Boiling Pot, where they serve boiled mud bugs (terrestrial lobsters) and where Euphemia recieved a dried rose from an admirer, Mortimer, who I plan to do more with in the future...
  • I also got to introduce the proprietor of the Cattle Pen, Squire Alfred Tuppence, a halfling sized Half-Orc who served as Corgak the Bruiser's fence and who I think made a big impression on PCs...
And that brings me to the **SPOILERIFFIC** section of the post. First there's the mild Voltron Legendary Defender season 2 spoiler I mentioned at the top of my post and after that are some spoilers that my players should avoid.... You've been warned...

Steal shamelessly from Voltron.

So, ever since I saw episode 7 of season two of Voltron Legendary Defender, "Space Mall", I've had a dream. If you've seen the episode, you can probably guess what that dream is, if you haven't, you should probably stop reading and go watch some Voltron, I'll wait.

Yep, just like V:LD, I wanted the PCs of my 13th Age game to get a free cow with purchase. This worked well to have Squire Alfred Tuppence talk the party through how in order to avoid paying taxes he'd have to sell them one thing and then he'd give them what they were really buying for free... and so as they bought some generic dungeon crawl equipment and adventuring gear and a mystery potion, they got all that for "free" are really bought "Tessie", a cow that they immediately renamed "Bessie"...

So.. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! So what's ahead? Well, my players should stop reading here.

Now that my players aren't reading (right, guys?) I can dish, Carlyle, the druid of the group, decided that since he's struggling with bestial urges and devoured Tessie (Bessie) in the stable of the Boiling Pot after the party returned from slaying Malaggar. Which, fine, player agency and all that. But I don't want the cow to be a single shot, throw away joke, so I had Grawl find Tessie alive but surrounded by blood and viscera when he went to fetch her in the morning. My plan is that the cow can't die easily, I haven't really decided on what/how/why this will all work, but I figure the next step is that the party will abandon her somewhere (she is a slow cow, after all) and then she'll reappear someplace they are another four or five sessions down the road. Mostly, I want to make sure that Tessie ends up down in the Stone Thief at some point and has a chance to play a pivotal role in the campaign.

One thing I realized I didn't do in Drakkenhall, was to introduce the Cult of the Devourer, so when I have the party leaving Drakkenhall with their box of secrets to trade with the Ettercaps I'll make sure to pop in the Shouter. He'll be on the corner with his carved staff shouting about the "glorious coming of the Devourer who shall sweep away the decadent and corrupt empire and usher in a glorious third age" and see if any of my players pick up on that.

In the end, my players found a nice juicy secret, stolen from Malaggar Lyme, a box of love letters from the Lich King (when he was still the Wizard King) to the Elf Queen, which thoroughly embarrassed Euphemia. Because of information they got from Squire Alfred Tuppence they got in and out of Malaggar's mansion without setting off any alarms, but I had him surprise them as he returned in a spider drawn carriage. Then, much to my surprise the party decided to attack instead of fleeing. Fortunately, I had encounters for all three of the "secret keepers" prepped so the big setpiece battle was against the dark elves and spiders instead of against goons sent by the Prince of Shadows to steal the magic key back.

So, what do I have planned for the next session?
  • Travel Montages!
  • Stirges!
  • Whispery Ettercap voices!
  • A descent into a strange web filled temple of traps! Generated at least partly with one of the packs of random dungeon cards that I've gotten.
  • Setting the stage for "Make your Own Luck" the next published adventure I'll be using.

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