Technology and Immersion

Among the many things that are different from when RPGs first became a thing, the development of technology has been one thing that has had a dramatic impact on the gaming industry. You no longer need to pull out a suitcase of books to flip through each of them looking for an obscure rule, you can now just run a search through your PDFs to find it. You don’t even need to be near the people you’re playing with; you can play online with others from anywhere in the world! The myriad uses of technology at the table help make connections and improve the overall immersion of the gameplay experience. But technology is a knife’s edge – as helpful as it is, it can very easily have the opposite effect and do more harm than good.

But before we dive into this, I think it’s helpful to define what it is that’s at risk with using technology, and that’s namely player immersion. How I understand player immersion is that it’s the degree to which the player’s imagination is easily evoked. The higher the degree of immersion, the more easily the players can get into character and mentally ‘see’ what’s being described and respond accordingly. But immersion can be like walking on ice, once it’s broken, the whole charade crashes down into the icy waters below, and it can be hard to climb back out.

You can bolster immersion by bringing technology to the table in the form of playing thematic music, displaying evocative imagery on a screen, messaging secretly with players about character-specific things, having a digital space for notes to be stored and shared, sharing a virtual tabletop with remote players, automating things like dice rolls, modifier adjustments, and HP tracking, and more! Any one of these benefits helps keep the players’ (and your) focus more on the game than on your surroundings, which will lend to deeper immersion, progressing farther in each session, and crafting a more compelling story together.

But as beneficial as any of these things are, each comes with the risk of the technology failing and breaking immersion completely. For example, let’s say you have a music track all queued up to play a musical score to ratchet up the tension as the players step foot into that long-deserted temple. The moment comes, and as you describe the scene, you hit play. But the only thing coming out of the speakers is silence! What usually happens next is that the game gets put on pause while you figure out what’s going on with the music player. When you finally do get it all working, the immersion the players had is now mostly gone and you have to work to everyone back into the flow of the game.

Virtual tabletops typically come with a digital dice roller, and many times it has direct, automated tie-ins into your character sheet. This allows players to look at their sheets less, spend less time crunching numbers, and gives them the mental space to stay focused on the game. But what happens when the player can’t find the right button to click? Or it throws error messages? Or their computer crashes completely? You may end up spending more time working to get the software to work than it would have taken to do things by hand, and by the time you do get it working, you might have forgotten what you were even rolling for!

Technology is a great asset to the gaming experience, but it’s best used when you are very familiar with it and you are prepared for what to do when it fails. As part of your campaign prep, go through the various pieces of how your technology works and get a good understanding of what might go wrong with it. If you’re playing online or using a virtual tabletop, it might be good to use part of your Session 0 or even dedicate an entire session to training everyone on how to use the different pieces of the software, that way everyone knows how to trigger their powers or roll their dice. And before you start each session, test the technology you’re about to use. For example, if you’re going to use some thematic music, be sure to hook it all up and hit play to make sure it works right. And if you’re doing anything over the internet, double check all your camera and microphone connections and your internet stability before getting started.

For my home game, I have four players who are physically present and one who joins us virtually. Over the years, we have tried a number of different technology options trying to find the combination that fits our group the best. And we’ve discovered that using the bare minimum of technology works really well! So even though we use Fantasy Grounds (FG) for a virtual tabletop where we can see scene-setting imagery and the battlemap to tokens around in combat, we still use paper character sheets and roll physical dice. As the GM, I like seeing the entire monster stats, so I’ll usually run the monsters by referencing a PDF or a physical book and rely on FG just to track the monsters’ health. Other than that, we leverage Discord for our text conversations and Zoom for our audio/video connection. Every group is different, but we found that if we use much more technology than that, we start losing that immersion factor.

One of the benefits of our hybrid setup that we have discovered is that we can now be very flexible in accounting for players who can’t physically make it to the game. And we can even switch to playing entirely online for a session or two with very little advance notice. Subsequently, this has allowed us to miss fewer sessions due to player absence than we would otherwise. It adds a bit of extra work for me as the GM to set up and run all of that in addition to the game, but despite the hiccups along the way, it’s been worth it.

It took us a while to settle in on what works, so if you’re wanting to introduce some technology into your gaming group, be patient, and have an open dialogue with your group. There are countless options out there, and I’d love hearing what you’ve found works for you!

Written by Nick

S4-E01: Welcome to Season 4!

It’s hard to believe we’ve completed 3 seasons of the Iconic Podcast, and we’re now headed into Season 4! In this season opener, we review what we had covered last season, as well as what we’re looking forward to in Season 4!

And as a thank you to all our listeners, you can use this code to get a 10% discount off your pre-order of Book of the Underworld! This code is good through June 1, 2020.

Voucher code: POD#ICONUNDERW

S3-E26: Random Encounters: The Planes of Dust and Ash

In the mines below Gatemark, the heroes have followed a dwharven hero from a previous Age to a portal to the Plane of Ash and Dust, which is where we pick things up with our next Random Encounter. In this Epic Tier scene, we brainstorm what players may encounter as they stride through this plane of death on their way to a showdown with the ‘big bad.’

If you want to string all these scenes together, you can listen to the past episodes here:

Episode 12: Monster Fight
Episode 18: Into the Desolates
Episode 19: Into the Tombs
Episode 21: The Mines

The setting we’re using is Ta’nar (which you can hear about in Episode 9, but this could be ported into the Dragon Empire or your own campaign world without too much difficulty.


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S3-E25: Interview with Rob Heinsoo

In this next episode, 13th Age game designer, Rob Heinsoo comes back on the show! We talk a bit about what he’s currently up to gaming-wise, talk about some 3rd party Archmage Engine stuff, then pick his brain about a number of upcoming 13th Age products! Specifically, we talk about the Book of the Underworld, Elven Towers, Crown of Axis, Icon Followers, and Further Adventurers.


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

Icons of Ta’nar

To continue our theme of exploring Ta’nar, this month we will introduce the Icons of our setting, set on the continent of Sentali. Like the Dragon Empire, there are thirteen Icons influencing Sentali. They fall within the spectrum of good, neutral, and evil, as commonly seen in fantasy worlds. Some Icons are individuals, both mortal and immortal, and some are groups of like minded beings.

 

Demoloth (evil) – Demoloth is an old name, but one still feared in Sentali. The daemon lord of plague from a previous age, its touch was never truly scrubbed clean from the surface of Ta’nar, and its presence lingers in the dead places of the world and within the bodies of the Pale elves. Dig deep enough into the earth, and Demoloth is there. Summon enough skeletons, and he’s bound to show up, if only to show off. 

Empress (good)- Reayne of Kardane is the ruler of the largest empire on Sentali. Ensconced to the north of the Desolates in Mo’zanbaal – Kardane’s capital – her eyes and agents are focused southward seeking to ensure the stability of her Empire.

First Born (evil)- The First Born is a presence that forms demonic cults in the wake of its revelation. None know who or what the First Born is, but daemons answer the call of its faithful, prophesy about its birth, and seek to ease its passage into the world. The cult of the First Born existed for many Ages, but only recently came to light. This icon is found in realms and areas of deep despair and desperation. There are enclaves scattered throughout the Desolates where mothers sell their children to the cult and siblings betray each other for the smallest scrap of favor with the enigmatic First Born.

Guild of Falling Leaves (neutral) – The Guild of Falling Leaves is ostentatiously a trading guild with routes that spread like a web through Sentali. However, most harbor the belief that the Guild also trades in contraband products and deeds. There are always people interested in acquiring unique goods and there are always people willing to find those goods for coin. It is only recently that the Guild gathered the power and ability to be an iconic organization, and it will fight to keep this status.

Host (pantheon)(good) – The Pantheons of Sentali contain a myriad of Immortals, Celestials, and Empyreans. Many worship the whole of a pantheon or focus their efforts towards the cult of a single god.

Hystal (evil) – Known as the Grasp of Vengeance, Hystal is more than just first among equals in the hierarchy of the cults of Shadow’s Reach. The high priest is rabid in his devotion to the goddess Ganagal, and will use whatever power, born within this world and without, to assure his mistress’ dominion of Ta’nar. 

Keeper of the Sands (good) – Ullia Stonehoof, is the high druid of the Desolates. The Auxeness seeks to preserve its identity in the face of those who would claim its lands as their own.

Perversions (evil) – Long ago, the High Father, patron God of the city of the Reach, was slain by six of his children. Though they thought they were up to the task of ruling as gods, they were found lacking. Consuming the flesh of their father, the six became Celestial beings, but at a cost. That act of cannibalism perverted their very natures. The six Perversions, full of power, began to gather worshippers to themselves in Shadow’s Reach. The High Father’s other children, the six Panaceas hide themselves aways, afraid to gather too many worshippers for fear of being the main course in yet another family feast. 

  • Ganagal ‐ Perversion of Vengeance 
  • Pat’sum ‐ Perversion of Bondage 
  • Bak’ith ‐ Perversion of Envy 
  • Bak’oth ‐ Perversion of Greed 
  • Oba’sansh ‐ Perversion of Cannibalism 
  • Dren ‐ Perversion of Madness 

Possessed King (neutral) – Bound within Crandoc Hold, the Possessed King can be found within the Capital of Firanolg. KurNokThal is blessed or cursed by the near constant presence of the Dwharven god, Mogondral. The heir to the lost throne of Draggnaul, the Dwharven god‐prince serves as banner and warning to his kin in the Desolates.

Red Alchemist (evil) – The Red Alchemist is a new Icon to Sentali. She is known throughout Ta’nar for creating aberrations and abominations in her labs, and then auctioning them off to the highest bidder as organic weapons. But no one knows where her lab can be found. Her name comes from both the red arrow head she uses as her symbol and the bloody experiments attributed to her. If strange creatures are found in the wastes, then you can be sure that the Red Alchemist had something to do with it.

Rivener (neutral) – The Rivener is a mystery from a previous age. The wight travels about Sentali, seeking out the gnarls of fate that would cause global upheaval and ends all involved with amoral brutality. He has been given undeath as a second chance at redemption and will carve his way through rather than discuss options. None know what the undead warrior seeks, but his bloodstained trail crisscrosses the continent.

Spellqueen (good) – The Spellqueen rules Estalin, the hidden refuge of the Ala-Senti. Aware of all that occurs within her demesne, the Spellqueen senses the encroachment of ancient powers that seek to consume her people in chaos and fire, and plots to end them. As one of the Wild Elves, or Ala-Senti, she has sheltered and led her people in the new lands they sought refuge in.

Wanderer (good)- This Icon crops up in the myths and legends of Sentali. Some say it is his lawful guidance that keeps the world from falling into darkness. He often appears as an old man guiding the hero onto their next path. The Wanderer has been around since the beginning of the world, standing against the darkness and chaos of the world.

 

The “good” Icons are the Empress, the Host (pantheon), the Keeper of the Sands, the Spellqueen of Estalin, and the Wanderer.

The “neutral” Icons are the Guild of Falling Leaves, the Possessed King, and the Rivener.

The “evil” Icons are the First Born, the Grasp of Vengeance, the Lord of Undeath, the Perversions, and the Red Alchemist.

 

 

These thirteen Icons can inspire or cause nightmares for your characters. Hopefully you will enjoy interacting with and thwarting the schemes of the movers and shakers of Sentali. 

Written by Mark

S3-E24: Dark Alleys & Twisted Paths Review

Last episode we had Martin Killmann on to talk about his 13th Age books, and this week we give our Iconic Review of his latest book, “Dark Alleys & Twisted Paths.” Spoiler – it’s a great book, and you should check it out!

Be sure to pick up the book using the link above, and join in the 13th Age Discord server Martin hosts!


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S3-E23: Interview with Martin Killmann

We finally got our schedules aligned to get Martin Killmann onto the show to talk general gaming stuff (he’s a fan of The Dark Eye! Who knew?!?) as well his 13th Age books “Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets” (reviewed in Episode S2-E25) and “Dark Alleys & Twisted Paths.”

Be sure to check out his great books using the links above, and join in the 13th Age Discord server he hosts!


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

Homebrew Monsters

It is hard to believe we are nearing the end of Season 3 and our first Patron Game. Mark and I (J-M) were talking about the next season and game (both are going to be great!) As we chatted, Mark asked for my monster stats for use in Ta’nar. The problem with that is that I always make the monsters the day of, on the fly, scratched out on a piece of paper, which inevitably gets trashed after the game. That is, if I don’t just re-skin another monster for my purposes.

But easy monster design is one of the great things about 13th Age. The advice the designers give in the books (13th Age Core (C) and Bestiary 1 (B1)) make it simple, but if you are new to running the game, you might not think so. We at Iconic chatted about it for a bit and I decided for this month to look at my process for monster creation, in hopes that it will help you. 

 

Concept

Like much of 13th Age, I start monster design with the narrative. What place does the creature serve in the world or the story? To help Mark out, I am writing up one of the Var (a spider-like race from Ta’nar) for this example. Looking at the Var which are unstatted (all of them), I decided on writing up the Var-Nul. My concept at this phase is:

The Var-nul are upper echelon members of the Var society. These Var have dedicated themselves to the study of dark magics which they rain down in corescating waves on valiant heroes.

Simple and to the point. For me, the concept feels like a One Unique Thing for my monster. It should give me or other GMs just enough to figure out what to do with the monster. In this case, they are Var nobility with magic. 

 

Search

The simplest thing to do here is to just find a monster that is close enough and reflavor their abilities. However, when you are looking to design a monster, you can also keep an eye out for abilities to steal for your creatures. I start looking through the Bestiary for powers which feel magical and refined. In this case, I really like the feel of the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast (B1 p. 153) and the Lich’s Shadow Ray (B1 p. 135). They give the GM choices and add some depth to the creatures. Keeping those in mind, I head to the build section.

 

Build

When building, the first thing to consider is the tier of the monster. To me, looking back at my concept, the Var-Nul do not feel like an adventurer or an epic tier monster. They are the nobility of the Var, so they should be more than an adventurer can handle, but in the world of Ta’nar, the Var are not the epic threats of the world. So, these guys are solidly in Champion Tier. 

Looking at the champion tier stats (C p. 254), level 5 feels right. Low enough that the Var-Nul will appear at the end of adventurer tier and a solid choice continuing through the levels. Just picking our level gives us most of what we need, and in a pinch, you can just run with the base stats and still have a great encounter with flavorful descriptions.

But…. I like tweaking. The first thing I do is lower the Var-Nul’s HP from 72 to 65. They are frailer on average than a standard 5th level monster, but they will make up for it with powerful attacks. I keep the AC where it should be, seeing in my mind the Val-Nul wrapped in robes invested with powerful magics, and assign their better defense to MD but drop it by one to increase their PD by one. They are spidery after all. They are also slightly faster than the average monster, so I give their initiative a bit of a bump, setting it to +7.

Right, now to powers. Like all var, the Var-Nul have multiple limbs, so I think they should have two attacks. But as they are casters, I drop their to-hit and damage a bit, to represent that these are not their primary attacks.

The Var-Nul’s primary attack is a venom spell, which lances out to envenom their targets. Again, the spell can target two targets, but in the interest of spreading the damage, they cannot target the same two targets. This means that instead of halving the damage they can do in a round, we can afford to up it a bit, as they have to make two attack rolls. Some added ongoing poison damage based off the die roll is always needed, so you can check that out below.

When should you add d20 mechanics to a power? I tend to want to use it when it is the monster’s showcase power. For these venom bolts, it makes sense that they should do ongoing damage, but I want to limit that trigger. Looking at B1 p. 230, the designers give us great guidelines on when and how to use the d20. Looking there, I settled on two effects. One being ongoing damage if the Var-Nul rolls a natural 16+ as a strong hit gets the venom into your system. But I decide to add a miss effect, so that even if some of the venom gets on you, you still take a bit of damage. I don’t want a lot of this type of miss damage, so it only triggers on an even miss (50% of the time) and because it was a miss, I feel like making the save easy makes sense.

I wanted one more attack. These guys are sorcerers, so they should have something else in their repertoire. I want that classic area effect spell but one they can only do once or twice. Looking at the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast power, I like the idea of a chaotic invocation. It works with the Var-Nul and their place in Ta’nar. But I do not want just extra or different damage and decide this power should represent all the myriad ways a spider or spellcaster can incapacitate a foe. This power applies conditions instead of a lot of damage. You can see below which conditions I chose for the power. In my mind, the Var-Nul lets out the chaotic nature of its magic and essence and a lot of strange stuff happens on the battlefield. I limited its use to once per battle. I thought about letting it do it twice, but concluded it downplays what I feel is the main role of the Var-Nul, the envenomed ray. Plus, if you were to field 2 or 3 of these at a time, each with two uses of the power… it would get crazy very quickly.

 

Var-Nul

The spidery-humanoid grins with its mandibled mouth and begins chittering in arcane tones. A pale green light begins to surround it, and you wish you paid more attention in Varthen as a Second Language. 

5th level Caster
Initiative: +7

Surprisingly nimble striker limbs: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 8 damage

Eldritch envenomed ray: +11 vs PD (two different nearby targets) – 15 damage

Natural 16+: 5 ongoing poison damage (save end)
Natural even miss: 5 ongoing poison damage (easy save ends)

Chaotic invocation: +10 vs PD (1d3 nearby targets) – Roll 1d4 against each hit target to determine the effect of this spell

  1. Darkness of the Deeps! – Target is vulnerable and dazed (save ends both effects)
  2. Web – Target is stuck and hampered (save ends both effects)
  3. Chaotic Convulsions – Target takes 15 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)
  4. The Mark of Unlight – Target is vulnerable and takes 8 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)

Limited use: 2/battle

AC 21
PD 16    HP 65
MD 18

 

There you go. That is how I create monsters from scratch. It took longer to write up the process than it took to design the Var-Nul.

Now, I am not usually looking to publish my monsters, so I tend to make them a bit tougher than normal. If you are looking to publish monsters, you need to keep an eye on how they will scale. What works for an equal level encounter (where the monsters are the same level as your PCs) at your table may be wildly unbalanced when another GM fields them en masse against higher level parties. Playtesting is key.

Finally, did you know we are streaming games now? You can check out Becca on Twitch running 13th Age in Ta’nar on Monday nights or get caught up on our YouTube channel. And if you liked this article, let us know. We may do a whole episode on this topic!

S3-E22: Interview with Wade Rockett

In this episode, Wade Rockett graces us again with his presence (he was on the show back in S1-B07). He catches us up on what he’s been doing gaming-wise then we dive into a discussion about some of his 13A products, specifically Wreck of Volund’s Glory (which we reviewed in S1-E15) and his upcoming Crown of Axis.

As mentioned in the show, be sure to check out his Soldiers of the Wizard King article, and shortly after we recorded, Kobold Press released its 13th Age Midgard Icons article.


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S3-E21: Random Encounters: The Mines

This week we pick up from where things were left off in Episode 19 and head into the Dwarven city of Gatekeep and the mines it connects to. For deep in the mines, a portal to the Planes of Dust and Ash awaits. What will the party encounter along the way? Who will they interact with? What are some unique features of the area? We hash out these questions and more!

The setting we’re using is Ta’nar (which you can hear about in Episode 9, but this could be ported into the Dragon Empire or your own campaign world without too much difficulty.


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!