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Icon inspirations for Cabin Wars!, my GameChef 2013 entry

Wahoo! I lived up to a personal goal and crafted an RPG for GameChef, an annual competition where designers are given a theme & ingredients and are charged with crafting a game out of it. Not unlike the Iron Chef, and hence the name. This year’s offerings took the form of graphic icons, which bothered me a little at first. I’m a words guy, so working with proscribed images felt more limiting.

I got over it though, and made Cabin Wars! A game that is about campers vying for a Camp Cup by winning points, while also being about trying to keep your head above water in a sea of demerits stemming from your vicious prank war. Peering through the entries today, I have to say that while there are a few themes (the bug-in-apple icon seems to have pushed a lot of designers in a certain direction) the field of entries submitted is pretty wide. The icons don’t seem to have been limiting at all.

I put this bit at the end of my game, but as I probably won’t leave it in the game text forever I thought I should post it here, too. So then, for the curious, and a peek behind the curtain, here’s how I used this year’s GameChef ingredients and theme to inspire Cabin Wars!

Theme: An up-and-down arrow with a bespectacled person standing in front of it. I used this as the basis for the idea of points and demerits in tug-of-war with each other. The stylized person is Authority, the force on high that watches as the players rise and fall via points and demerits. In this case, the staff that are watching the campers and judging the games leading up to the Camp Cup.

Ingredient: A big head with a snowflake inside it. To me, this looked more like a big head with a gear inside it. That implied to me plans, plots, schemes within schemes all being hatched out of the mind of this egg-headed person. So, something about making plans… this one didn’t come into focus as planning a prank until I had a good idea from the next ingredient.

Ingredient: A belted tunic covered in a smattering of diamond shapes. This icon fascinated me. I knew I didn’t want to use the bug-apple icon, and this one seemed like it could determine a lot about my game, once I knew what it would be. Then I had it: merit badges! I’d considered something about summer camp once I settled on “points & demerits” from the theme, but this clinched it. Merit badges would be An Important Thing in my game.

Ingredient: A paper lantern in the corner softly illuminates a person’s silhouette. This just played more into the idea of summer camp stuff. Sneaking around at night when you should be in bed in your cabin is a time-honored tradition, and since I already wanted my game to be about the interplay of winning prestige (via points) and breaking rules (earning demerits), a sneaking element was a perfect fit. Since most of the sneaking I did in my summer camp days involved messing with other cabins and pranks, I figured it should be the same in this game. And I liked too how it suggested that trying to pull a prank, which is perhaps the most obviously fun action to take in the game, is a risky action that must be attempted with stealth.

And there you have it! You can see the ingredient I chose to leave out here, it seemed very out of keeping with the form my design was taking. Also, a game is only supposed to use 2-3 of the 4 ingredients anyhow. For now, all that’s left with Cabin Wars! is to leave it be while other GameChef participants comb through it and pass on their reactions.

Free associating GM prep work via player input

I’m running a DungeonWorld one-shot/miniseries for some friends in a week or two, and I’m doing my damnedest to follow the suggestions from the book to keep planning at a minimum for session number one. I don’t want to be completely empty-handed and rudderless for our first adventure, though, so what to do?

A week’s delay for our first session gave me a chance to try something out: a free-association exercise for the GM, created via player questionnaire. The email I sent to my four players had simple instructions to pick one word from each group of three, and send the reply just to me. The list was as follows:

1. desert | forest | island

2. cavern | ruin | tomb

3. castle | village | wilds

4. trade | war | magic

5. cultists | sorcerers | mercenaries

6. stars | stones | sigils

I didn’t give any clues as to what each group meant, though there are some obvious categories at play: setting for #1, baddies for #5, etc. I had ideas in mind of what elements I was addressing with each set of three words, but depending on the results I get back, I’m letting myself stay open to whatever inspirations strike me from the final combination. I’ve received a few already, and each is different, and conjures up a different suggested world and setting with just a simple six words.

(Hopefully, with three choices and four voters, we’ll avoid any ties—who gets the tie-breaker vote should there be any 2/2 splits, I haven’t decided yet.)

I think this method could work nicely for any DungeonWorld game and a lot of traditional D&D games besides. Here’s the six categories I had in mind when creating my list, each of which is relevant to play:

1. Environment/climate

2. Adventure sites

3. Steading/home base

4. Notable local specialty

5. Crafty adversaries

6. Sources of wonder & omens

I think this is a good way to put the GM principles of DungeonWorld to use in a slightly different context. You’ve got the questionnaire for players (ask questions and use the answers) and a free-association for the GM (addressing the draw maps, leave blanks and play to find out what happens precepts). Sending the replies just to me lets me have player input and maintain a sense of mystery, too! Fingers crossed that this makes for a fun set of sessions.

Postscript: I should also add that this is a socially-polite way to be a little selfish, too. This is good! Choosing what words to put on offer is a kind of limit-setting without forcing things, and can guide the direction of your players’ ideas without having to shoot anything down. Tailoring the list of options to your own tastes (in a broad-minded way), before offering choices to your players, can set you up for better GM buy-in from the start.

Inspiration at the brink of empire: Northern Wilds

My newest campaign, tentatively titled “Northern Wilds” in my head, didn’t start out as a 13th Age game. Instead, it was the idea that came to me while I was reviewing the monsters on offer in the Bestiary of the latest D&D Next playtest PDFs. Right now, that playtest only extends to 5th level, so the list has a narrowness that reflects how early along D&D Next is in its design process. With the “Caves of Chaos” adventure as a touchstone for this playtest process, it’s no surprise that the enemies are certainly familiar.

With my options limited, I wanted to maximize the content I’d been given — which looked like it was all the usual suspects for low-level PCs. Goblin, kobolds, orcs, dire animals of various stripes, and a smattering of gnolls & other familiar monstrous races filled the bulk of the rogues gallery. What to do with such a prosaic assortment of baddies? Try a variation on a back-to-basics approach! Something with bit of sword & sorcery, old-school D&D flavor.

The best & longest-lasting D&D campaign I’ve run so far was a very cobbled-together affair. (On the plus side, I made it a sweet logo.) From the outset, I had next to no idea what the story arc of the game would be. Fourth Edition was brand spanking new, and I’d been out of the RPG swing for a while. I ran whatever pre-made adventures I could find and filled in the gaps wherever I could, just so it hung together well enough to keep playing. When the players got fixated on a particular villainous NPC (almost obsessively so) that got away, the story started taking its own turns. After a little while, I took a few DM flourishes the players enjoyed and pretty much made them the crux of the whole affair: an insane-but-not-crazy lich and his evil plan to save the world. Insert some of these: (?) after about every word in that sentence, too.

I think what made that campaign & setting work is that it was the right size for every moment of the story. When the players were low level, all that they & I knew alike was the modest town of Fallcrest. Likewise, when the players started to get their footing, they looked to the horizons and made out for the dwarven city of Hammerfast, ancient and sprawling. Not long after they made their first jaunt to another plane, exploring the towering fortress on the Shadowfell known as Grin-That-Hides-The-Dagger, as they neared the “paragon” tier. At each point, the world was growing along with the characters, and I was shaping it to fit the players themselves. I love creating settings and fluff, but it’s easy to get carried away. And when that happens, the less-engaged players are likely going to get overwhelmed and have a lot less campaign buy-in as a consequence.

So my goal for this new campaign from the outset was to start small. When I was still planning on using D&D Next for the game, I read up on the classic “Keep on the Borderlands” adventure & its suggested setting, and was immediately drawn to the archetype in the title: an outpost at the edge between civilization and wilderness. That’s a great place to start a story. Already we know a large civilization exists, but is far away. This puts the PCs on better ground to be movers & shakers. We also know the wilderness is quite close — just a across a river, through the woods, or over the mountains. Lots of opportunities for exploration and trouble!

I wanted a framework for this little burg, though, and one with a more original idea than just re-hashing a classic D&D module. Settling on 13th Age as a rules system only reinforced that idea. I wanted a source that could feed me ideas, but that dressed up in D&D fantasy tropes would seem almost wholly new. Thankfully, I had the perfect inspiration sitting on my DVD shelf: HBO’s excellent TV series, Deadwood.

Deadwood is superlative TV. It has great dialogue and a cast of characters that all keep your interest, even when — especially when — they’re black-hearted bastards. The real-life town of Deadwood was filled with grey characters, as opposed to the usual black-and-white morality of the Old West. A perfect fit for my style of play! And the city’s history offers a ton of hooks that could find D&D counterparts:

  • The town was only semi-legal, having been built by prospectors & miners on land promised to Sioux Indians by US treaty
  • For understandable reasons, the Sioux staged frequent raids on travelers to and from the town, with the US Cavalry also operating in the area
  • Given its shaky legal standing as a town, shady enterprises and characters of all kinds made an easy home there
  • Massive mineral wealth was close at hand and being pulled up ‘round the clock, making poor men into rich ones overnight
  • A large need for physical laborers brought in immigrants of all kinds, as well as established citizens hoping to start anew or strike it big
  • The US government refused to either recognize or condemn the town, instead undertaking a long process that would eventually see it annexed into an existing US territory.

From where I sit, that’s a rich combination of factors to put through a D&D filter. Our town will be a shady semi-legal outpost, sitting on rich mines at the brink of an empire, with a thorny local history. Right away, I have an image in mind: a second-rate mountain pass overtaken by ne’er-do-wells, with an official imperial crossing within a week’s hard march. Because I can’t resist, I also started drawing up a map in Hexographer:

My next step was to think about the themes & conflicts of Deadwood in light of the icons in 13th Age. Right away, I decided that the Emperor and his Dragon Empire should fill the role the US government did, which was to be the far-off bastion of strength with a mixed view of the illegal town at their border. Since this town will be our starting area, the players have a solid role-playing choice to make right off the bat: Are you an imperial loyalist, or individualist local?

The next step would be to decide what “native” group will be the Dragon Empire’s opposition in the region, drawing on the situation faced by American Indians in the Black Hills area. The first & easiest opposition force/icon would be orcs & the Orc Lord, but I’ve never been too fond of orcs. Plus, one of the major problems the Sioux had with Deadwood & similar mining towns was their placement in the Black Hills that the Sioux held sacred. Gruumsh aside, the tropes around orcs don’t strike me as making them the choice to use for a culture up-in-arms about spiritual offense.

Instead, I’m going to indulge a personal D&D favorite and make hobgoblins be the regional natives. Goblinoids of all kinds, actually, but as the hobgoblins are the get-things-done sort, they can take the credit. Hobgoblins in D&D have always had a strong theme of order and military strength, so they seem the sort to have had an empire of their own that could pose a legitimate threat to the Dragon Empire. Plus, they’ve always struck me as a good fit to follow a martial code of honor, akin to the philosophy of Klingons on Star Trek (particularly Deep Space Nine). Just to lay my own D&D tropes out in the open: the orcs that I dreamt up* for this game are pretty different than anything Tolkien imagined, so I figure you can negotiate and pose a treaty with a hobgoblin a lot more readily than an orc. (This probably owes a lot to the version of hobgoblins in Eberron.) In any case, my soft spot for hobgoblins will help me keep them as compelling adversaries with relatable motivations, instead of the one-note “savage native” motif that orcs are habitually used as.

So right off, I’m also changing the Orc Lord icon into a Goblin King. I’m also using one of the suggestions for an alternate Orc Lord in the 13th Age core book: my Goblin King icon once fought under the banner of the Emperor, helping to put down the legions of the Lich King’s undead army and stop them from laying waste to the Dragon Empire. (The complex web of alliances between colonial powers and native tribes in the French and Indian War is a good real-world history inspiration on this point.) For their honorable efforts, they were granted the lands they had traditionally inhabited as an official territory of their own control by the Emperor himself.

In more recent decades, though, the Dragon Empire is expanding once more. The lands ceded in treaty were re-annexed and the hobgoblins pushed out of the territory, up into the northern wilds — just beyond the range of mountains in which our second-rate pass sits. It’s in this new vacuum of law & order that the pass gets settled by the people of our village, who themselves kick out a hobgoblin tribe living there. To the villagers, that’s ancient history by now. The mines and the meddling Empire are their day-to-day concerns. But that doesn’t mean the Goblin King or his people are resting so easy, in the pine-forested wilderness not so far away…

And there you have it! By taking a rich example from another medium and passing it through the D&D lens, coming up with a compelling setting is much less daunting of a task. Like I hoped for, it’s a setting that starts small, but has suggestions of places to travel and conflicts to arise later on. And if the PCs fall in love with the town, it’ll be replete with plots and schemes all its own, tied to NPCs that can draw from Deadwood’s deep ensemble of compelling characters.

Pulling from TV for inspirations is favorite trick of mine. Unlike a lot fantasy books that might seem like a closer genre fit, a TV series typically has a wider cast of characters kept in the mix and must limit its storytelling time into smaller chunks. Both of those elements make TV shows a good analog for RPG campaigns. And in the times when I have used books or movies for inspiration, it’s usually just as a jumping-off point: use the movie to help forge an element of the setting’s background, but create the story moving forward out of whole cloth. Aiming for an episodic feel that mirrors the longform narrative of a quality cable series like The Wire or Breaking Bad suits most games much better than simply aping epic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, et. al… Then again, my love of using television pacing for RPGs is probably deserving of a blog post all its own.

[*Regarding orcs: in brief, in this campaign orcs can only be found in places where great atrocities were committed years ago, as the magical nature of the world is such that the psychic stain eventually manifests into a corporeal form. A ruined tower where once dozens of soldiers were betrayed & slayed in the dead of night: a decade later, orcs may rise from the earth there. Still very much “other”, as orcs typically are, but with enough distance from real-world groups to make them more palatable to see in play.]

Easy hacks: re-flavoring chromatic dragons with the MTG color pie

Dragons are pretty great. I mean, who doesn’t like dragons? Tattoos, RPGs, bitching murals air-brushed on vans; it’s a flavor that goes pretty well with everything awesome. So why does the D&D take on dragons bum me out a little?

Simply put: they’re all too damn similar. Of the kinds most likely to end up in a monster manual, the metallic dragons are the worst offenders (explain the differences to me between a brass, copper, and bronze dragon; I dare you to keep me awake). The chromatics, while better, still leave some room for improvement. For my just-started 13th Age campaign, a few players chose The Three as a setting icon to include on their character sheet. The default 13th Age setting includes a Dragon Empire, which I’m keeping around both in name and function, and its Emperor is another of the icons that popped up on my players’ character sheets. Dragons are definitely going to be A Thing in this game!

The Three, as detailed in 13th Age, are the remainder of an original five archetypal dragons. The White was killed by another icon (the Lich King, back when he was just the Wizard King), and the Green is missing — possibly ransomed, possibly dead as well. The Red, Blue, and Black are still up and about, plotting their schemes and generally causing trouble. Of that trio, there’s some good separation. Perhaps wisely, authors Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet killed off the two chromatics that have been given short shrift in D&D.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lesser white and green dragons in the world. It simply means that those two iconic archetypes are now lost. And for the whole gang to fit together, there needs to be a cleaner philosophy explaining what makes a green dragon, or a white dragon, who it is. Plus, chromatic dragons as more-or-less irredeemable villains is boring. Yes, the metallics could be brought in, but as I said before, they’re in an even sorrier state. Working out my problem, I realized a possible answer lay in that other hobby that eats up all my time & money — Magic: the Gathering.

One of the many things Magic has done exceptionally well in its almost 20-year history is define what separates its colors of mana. It’s smart game design and good business sense, too. There are mechanical, philosophical, and lore separations that make each of the five unique, so that each color has a recognizable style. And rather conveniently, its five colors are the same five colors of the most common chromatic dragons in D&D — I want that! So, let’s see how importing that system into the lore of chromatic dragons works out.

For starters, in MTG, dragons as an actual creature type are tied pretty tightly to red; we won’t be including that, of course. Even so, we can use some artistic license to expand the category of “dragon” into something more broad and give each color dragon its own spin. Who says they only come in “St. George versus the Dragon” flavor? Broadening our idea of what a dragon can be can create some interest and unique setting elements to play around with in a campaign.

Magic includes one twist on the dragon concept right off the bat: the terrifyingly huge creatures for green mana aren’t traditional dragons, but “wurms” — burrowing monsters much like the sandworms from Dune. “Wurm” or “wyrm” has been a stand-in for dragons since medieval times, and the green type speak to some key dragon qualities: hunger, brute strength, titanic size. Green mana has associations of growth and nature, so let green dragons be heralded as bringers of these as well. And for the mechanical inner-workings, just borrow mechanics from D&D’s classic purple worm, stick some of them on a dragon, and now you have a working, land-bound dragon! Trying to satisfy expectations without being trapped by them opens up other dragons to shine, too. In this case, the other four colors shine a little brighter by virtue of their being able to fly, whereas the green can’t.

The other dearly departed dragon in 13th Age is the White. White mana, in Magic, is close to your typical good-guy archetype of the paladin variety: order, law, and selflessness. Mechanically, white cards in Magic often include life gain, bind other cards from acting, and support many smaller creatures working together. This “nice streak” sets our white dragon apart from his selfish, avaricious brethren in my eyes, so I want the eyes of player characters to see the difference too. I still want to keep traditional dragons on the scene, so we’ll leave The Three alone as far as looks. So what of the White?

A perfect opportunity to introduce a more Asiatic influence on dragonkind, I’d say. I love the look of the character Haku from the film Spirited Away, when he reveals his dragon form. Where are the wings, you ask? Is this kind flightless too? Not at all! When Haku flies, it just looks like this. There’s a poetry to that, and it just feels right for a white dragon. How would it work from a flavor perspective? Glad you asked!

Time to pull in some ideas from another favorite universe of mine to polish a few rough edges — Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I hope I don’t have to defend loving a kid’s show, because it’s one of the best animated shows around!) What I have a mind to steal is the idea that manipulating the element of “air” can allow someone to fly. I can see this working wonderfully for dragons. Call it something else in the setting, but if dragons can “bend” their given element, we also have a nice fit for our green dragons being land-bound — they’re tied to the earth element, of course.

Extending that idea, blue dragons get water and reds gets fire. Simple, and somewhat in line with the original Magic color wheel idea, too. Both can still fly, and look much as the 3.5 D&D Monster Manual depicts. As suggested by the setting details of 13th Age, the Blue dragon icon is a sorceress and her brood are masters of magic. The Red, I think, should be the one to stick closest to the medieval/Tolkien-esque dragon archetype: lusting for treasures, quick to anger, and woefully terrible in strength.

Where does this leave black? I have a couple ideas, and this is the one I’m running with in my home game: there’s a fifth element, as is often the case with “classic elements” outside of Greece. You see it in JRPGs all the time: “void”, “soul”, “spirit”; something like that. I think it can work great for black dragons with the right lore context. Combining the concepts of void and soul sounds a lot like the death bailiwick that black mana and black dragons are often connected to. Recast them as the bleak, baleful gate-keepers of the underworld, secluding themselves in places that fit their sullen temperament (like the swamps mentioned D&D’s monster manuals, and forgotten graveyards, too). Now they, too, have a place in the world that isn’t pure evil.

If you’ve gotten this far, but you’re not familiar with the MTG color wheel, here are some key concepts in each color:

  • White: Order, civilization, law, light, healing, stubbornness
  • Blue: Knowledge, intellect, time, ice, water, illusion, wizardry
  • Black: Selfishness, death, decay, isolation, darkness, stealth
  • Red: Passion, chaos, fire, quickness, recklessness, greed
  • Green: Nature, growth, slowness, brute force, earth, life

Put that list to good use! This is just the sketch of an idea, understand. There are things I haven’t worked out yet (what is a black dragon’s breath weapon like? Was killing the White iconic dragon, with its healing association, a key to unlocking lichdom for the Wizard King? How does 13th Age’s metallic-seeming Great Gold Wyrm icon fit into all this?), but rather  than me puzzle those things out and present this concept fully-realized, grab your own inspiration! From Magic: the Gathering or elsewhere, fill in those gaps in a way that makes sense. One facet of 13th Age that I really like it that it presents the bones of a setting, and invites player groups to flesh them out (this is one area where I think I sense the influence Eberron-creator Keith Baker, who’s thanked in the credits). As I continue to refine my world, I’ll share more places where I’ve molded outside inspiration into something that’s my own.

One last side note: my MTG concept has also led me to realize the remaining dragons in The Three make up a Grixis-shard trio… Just the thought of what that could mean for my players fills my heart with sadistic glee.

D&D, by any other name, would smell as sweet

As a gaming experience, Dungeons & Dragons is just too iconic for me to let go. There are plenty of other games that are tighter, more modern, or have a host of other benefits, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t even the first game I touched! That would be the d20 Star Wars Roleplaying Game, while I was in high school — yes, I’m a youngun. So, I can’t precisely say why I’ve taken such an interest in “recreating” a flavor and experience I’m not sure I’ve ever had.

I played a bit of D&D 3.5 in college, and liked it fairly well. I think that had more to do with the GM and his setting than the rules themselves, which I always found too fiddly. “Use Rope” as a skill always seemed out of place to me in a game about adventuring heroes, and I think my group in the day had similar qualms. We played a lot more of Savage Worlds, for one, than we ever did of 3.5 D&D. One guy was even intent on developing a wholly homebrewed d6-based generic system to run any game that struck his fancy, and had the monster Word file drafts to prove it.

D&D’s Fourth Edition came out during the summer after my senior year when I moved back from Spokane, and after a long dry spell for me when it came to tabletop gaming. Parts of my old college group had graduated or moved away, and getting folks together reliably had been hard. Being back in my hometown of Portland and having access to some solid friends combined with the promise of a newly streamlined version of the RPG genre I loved was a sweet promise. I bought the 3-book set on a whim from my local gaming store on the day it released, and in my giddy excitement managed to rope a couple friends into rolling up new characters post-midnight — on a weeknight! Ah, those were halcyon days. We had a blast for a while (years, really), but the constant rollout of content led to feature-bleed between classes, and ruined some of the magic once we began to see all the raw math at work, repeated in every new power. We had grown as gamers, too, and had tried indie games that did fascinating social & storytelling things that made D&D seem lacking.

In my head, though, I was always on the lookout for a system that could be the D&D I wanted. I toyed with Savage Worlds for a time, as it’s a favorite for generic pulp roleplaying, but I found its social mechanics even less developed than D&D of any stripe. Running a Deadlands: Reloaded game with Savage Worlds also turned me off the system for D&D, as its feel wasn’t quite what I wanted in the end. Our group played a fantastic run of the Dresden Files RPG, set in an urban fantasy version of our own city (before it was cool enough for TV!), and for a while I was sure I had my winner. Even now, if I was going to try a story-focused game in a D&D style world, FATE and the DFRPG would probably be my starting point. It has a universal system for combat, skills, and social encounters that makes sense for each of those uses, which is impressive as hell.

It was playing DungeonWorld, based on Vince Baker’s ApocalypseWorld, that proved to be the real watershed moment. This, this was the ticket. A solid 90% at least of what that game is doing is what I want, and I’ll be psyched to see what the game looks like in its finished form. Its philosophy of interesting success & failure is one that more games should employ.

So DungeonWorld had a lot going for it. It was dead simple to play. It was fun. It was class-based, and those classes felt really cool in different ways. It did genius things with turning gear into a storytelling resource (the Adventurer’s Kit with spendable uses for undending purposes was a favorite). It pointed the way to the D&D I wanted to play… but it didn’t give me enough. A campaign with those rules, and I’d run out of room for players to advance pretty quick. Monsters were thin on the ground. And I still wasn’t totally happy with the social end of things. A near miss, but I was hopeful.

And then… I heard the rumblings. The blogosphere was disturbed. Could it be true, so soon? Wizards of the Coast soliciting player input for the next edition of D&D? Was this rumor, or fact? To my surprise, it was real. To my further surprise — I liked a lot of what I was hearing.

Whether by design of Wizards or by player demand, D&D Next is shaping up to be something a lot more like my ideal D&D than any previous version. Its classes remind me of that feeling I got looking at DungeonWorld class booklets. It has a skill system that seems both stripped down and versatile. It’s got modular systems to add complexity where your game might want it, but doesn’t lump it in by default. It encourages more free-form play. It weights non-combat mechanics evenly with combat ones (best shown in the excellent background benefits). It restores interesting-ness to mundane equipment, and special-ness to magic items. As of this writing, the math for some things still seems a bit off, but they’re still in early stages of the design & development process. I kind of like how bumpy and unpolished the experience is thus far, though — it gives a genuine sense of seeing a game designed in real time, and with your feedback helping guide that evolution. I have high hopes for the finished product it becomes.

Someday, I need to run Primetime Adventures, and see how good a fit that might be for a D&D game. I tend to conceptualize my games as TV series or movies to begin with, so using a system meant for that is something I really need to do. Alas, the original version is out of print and the new one is still in a limited playtest (last I checked).

Right now, and somewhat ironically, there’s another take on D&D influenced by modern indie games, and that’s the one I’ve chosen to kick off a new campaign this month: 13th Age, being designed by former Wizards honchos Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. It too is still in playtest, though it is an order of magnitude closer to being published, as is the expansion book currently being Kickstarted (three more days — get in on that!). Heinsoo helped design D&D 4e, Jonathan Tweet did 3.0/3.5, and the game feels like a smart hybrid of what each version did well. It also incorporates some baked-in social roleplaying & storytelling elements to give players & GMs more hooks from the get-go.

Why start my campaign with 13th Age and not D&D Next? Frankly, from a pure numbers standpoint, it has a load more finished classes & monsters for me to use in my game. I’ll let D&D Next continue to percolate and evolve in the meantime. I’m still very new to the 13th Age system, as is my group, but so far we’re definitely enjoying the game it offers. It has a nice mix of the familiar and the new. How close will that mix be to my ideal D&D? I don’t know. Between 13th Age and D&D Next, I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and only time will tell. You can certainly expect to see more information about how 13th Age is panning out, as our campaign develops.