Ronin Roundtable: The Lost Citadel: Creating the First Map

Today’s RRT is by guest artist Andrew Law, who decided to share some insight into the process of creating his incredible map artwork for The Lost Citadel! Our Kickstarter has just one week left, if you’re a fan of 5th edition, you should really do yourself a favor and check it out now!

 


 

I’ve created hundreds of images during my professional career as a cartographer, but none excite and terrify more than the opening act: drafting the first map for a new setting.

Y’see, the first map is special. It sets the tone and mood for everything that comes after. It will be referenced, and re-referenced many times over by both the creators of the setting and the consumers, so it stands as an oft-trod gateway into the new world that many will come to know and love.

In short, I’m not just creating a map, I’m also introducing an entire setting with a single image.

No pressure, then.

Fortunately for me, The Lost Citadel has a wonderfully detailed writers’ bible that brings the setting, for all the Dead haunt its every corner, alive. So, there was already a wealth of detail to inspire me. All I had to do was draw it.

With all that in mind, I prepared to draft the first map. To begin, I referred to the design brief and did my best to conceive of something that would fully represent as much of The Lost Citadel as possible.

So, what did I have to create?

 

The Brief

My brief boiled down to three basic requirements:

1) Create a vertical/portrait map with the same dimensions as the Freeport city poster.

2) Depict the outer city of Redoubt, some buildings of the inner city, and point to other important locations off-map.

3) The style should draw from various Middle Ages to Renaissance sources from East to West, but match none exactly, to best represent the artistic style of the current inhabitants of Redoubt.

That all sounded good. In addition, I worked with a fourth design goal of my own in mind, to help channel my creativity:

4) The map will illustrate some of the setting’s core concepts and historical details, in order support the existing world-building and introduce readers to The Lost Citadel.

And, now knowing what was required, I set to work.

Composition

To begin, I first sketched the area to be mapped. It was immediately obvious the city, plus the volcano behind it, would fill a broadly squarish area. This being the case, I’d need extra material to fill the top and bottom of the final image.

The bottom section was easy to resolve — a nice big title plate emblazoned with something like ‘THE CITY OF REDOUBT’ would likely do, perhaps illuminated with some in-game detail — but the top was a little more problematic. What should go there?

 

To answer, I had a good think about the setting, and what would allow me to add some of the details from the writers’ bible directly to the map. Eventually, I went with what I felt was the obvious answer: I decided to continue the map up into the sky, providing an opportunity to draw some of the setting’s celestial details as well as its terrestrial.

So, with that decided, I sketched it all out then began work on the detail.

Map in the Middle

After completing the preliminary sketches, I developed the central area of the image: the map of the city, the volcano, and the extras surrounding these.

The map itself was created in a simple style reminiscent of many Middle Age maps from the East and West, but without some of the goofier attempts at perspective or scaling often on display in such older cartography.  As a nod to these medieval sources, I presented almost all towers and buildings as front elevations, hinting at a simplicity of artistic capability, but drew the surrounding city walls with a little more sophistication to ensure the image didn’t look too abstract. I then set about filling in all the details between, making space for all the outer city’s fields and primary districts. I then drew the inner city, which I presented as a crowded pile, with a small proportion of the many buildings on display. More information concerning the Inner City will come with the next map for The Lost Citadel, one that was unlocked as a poster when the Kickstarter reached its 29K stretch goal, so I wasn’t concerned about the lack of precise detail here.

 

Outside the city walls, it’s all ‘no-man’s land’ and ‘here be dragons’ (well, the Dead). All manner of dead things are drawn beyond the walls, mirroring the sea beasts of ancient ocean maps, and the dragons/monsters from similar land maps. They demonstrate the ignorance of the artist in question as to what actually lies beyond the walls, and the ignorance of people as a whole concerning the Dead and what they are. This ignorance is reinforced by the map depicting nothing beyond the eyesight of those who walk the walls; i.e.: this is a map of all that is left of the known world to the inhabitants of Redoubt, which is pretty bleak given the small area shown.

In addition to these semi-mythical undead creatures, some ruins and basic geographical detail was added. Also, five hands were then depicted pointing to distant locations (at the four corners of the central map and another at the bottom of the image below the title plate).

That all done, it was time to turn to what lay above the city and the volcano: the heavens.

Heavens Above

Drawing the heavens provided an opportunity to depict the two moons of the setting — that’s the moons that are used in the ‘O’ of The Lost Citadel’s logo, if you hadn’t noticed, so I felt it was an important addition. Also, to support one of the central conceits of The Lost Citadel, I associated both moons with the Dead and drew them as skulls. This made sense as the moons are most visible at night, a time of danger, when it’s harder to see the Dead creeping around.

Contrasting with this, I drew the sun rising over the central volcano — and, in turn, the city itself — as a symbol of life and hope, with golden rays reaching out in all directions. This sun hints to the new dawn of civilisation that Redoubt could be should it survive. To strengthen this imagery, I gave the sun a human face as humanity is currently in control of Redoubt, suggesting any potential ‘dawn’ is largely in the hands of the city’s human rulers. Also, for those looking for a bleaker reading here, the sun rising over the volcano also winks at a possible future eruption, which would be cataclysmic in so many ways…

To frame the sun and moons, I drew the heavens as a great arc filled with stars, implying the in-setting artist who created the map knows the world is a globe — or, at the very least, has copied this detail from an earlier source. I chose to do this to show that for all the old civilization has come to an end with the rising of the Dead, some of the high knowledge it gathered still, in some form or another, endures – after all, the time before the Dead rose is still within living memory of some of the city’s eldest inhabitants. So, for all the truth of the world as a sphere surrounded by celestial objects is undoubtedly unimportant to the shoulder-to-shoulder common folk scraping out the barest of survivals within Redoubt’s high walls, older truths are still present in the city’s few examples of art, and such lore is possibly not lost to all scholars.

That done, I added some clouds to the top corners and was ready to move on. Next up, the bottom of the image, and the titles.

Title Below

The title plate was both the easiest and hardest section to create. First, it’s just a few words bunched together, so what could be simpler? But I wanted it to be more than that – to recall the illuminated letters of many Middle Age documents – so I decided to go a little farther. After some thought, I figured depicting one of the key events in the history of Redoubt – when the Dwarfs who built the city were enslaved – was essential, and I also thought it important to weave the Dead directly into the lettering in some fashion. So, I set to work drawing the capital ‘R’ of Redoubt with a whole bunch of extra details.

If you take a look in the hollow of the ‘R’ you will find a small illumination. There I drew a collared Ghûl (the dog-like creature), a crowned Human in purple robes, a servile brown-clad Elf, and a defeated Dwarf being chained. This is an illustration of the aforementioned enslavement of the Dwarfs, and also stands as a quick guide to the four, sentient species inhabiting the city. I then turned to the letter itself, and drew a skeleton turning its back on the life illustrated within the R (and the word Redoubt as a whole), showing how the Dead were antagonistic to the city and life as a whole. Further, I cut the skeleton off at the legs to stand as a metaphor for the city’s ability to stop the Dead in its tracks (no legs, no ability to progress), but not defeat it, for the skeleton’s back is still strong and its ‘eyes’ sharp. Further, the skeleton is incorporated directly into the capital letter to hint the city itself has the Dead within, which is a very real danger that all fear.

 

 

Beneath the text, a brief note to the renaming of the city to ‘Redoubt’ is also marked with the following: ‘Named by the Accord of the Last Redoubt’. This provides a reference to another key historical event for the city, when the old Dwarf name for Redoubt – Elldimek – was abandoned by its new human rulers. Lastly concerning the title, the continent name is also marked for the reader’s information: ‘Last Citadel of Zileska’.

Finishing Touches

That all done, it was time to turn to the image as a whole and finish it off.

Firstly, I drew a border to compliment the central map, and then set to work scuffing it up a little, to give the impression of use and age.

I did this because I presumed the map’s original creator drafted the image a few decades in the past. This allowed the map to be worn, reflecting the recycling of all things in Redoubt, a fact of life in the over-crowded city where every resource is precious. So, I spent some time creating a tired, worn, bloodied, folded-up on itself finish for the whole image, all standing as a metaphor for the people of Redoubt themselves, who are not in the best of shape.

Then I added clouds and skulls to the four corners. These represent the four winds blowing death at the city, reinforcing the idea that the Dead come from all sides, and that the curse of the Dead is everywhere, nicely subverting more typical Breath of Life imagery.

I then revisited the entire map and added extra labels where required. To do this, I used three languages (at least) to show the multiculturalism of the depicted city.

The first language I used was English. This stands in for the most common language in the city, a tongue of Venmir origin (the Venmir are one of the Human tribes). This is used for the title plate, all the important labels, and the very simple poetry concerning the winds I added to the four corners.

The next language on the map also uses Latin letters, and is presented as a higher/older version of Venmir (from Angati origin – another Human tribe). It is used to show the sunrise at the top of the map – Svitanus: ‘Sunrise’ – and to drop a reference to Elldimek, the old name for Redoubt, at the bottom of the image – Malnova Elldimek ripozas kun la Mortin: ‘Old Elldimek lies with the Dead’.

Lastly, one or more languages are deployed with characters with a strong Eastern influence (Tibetan and similar), with two paragraphs at the bottom of the map beneath the title plate, and several labels elsewhere. The exact meaning of these is left to others to decide.

And, then, after a tweak or two more, it was finished, and I sent the final image over to Green Ronin.

 

Done.

So, after all that, I dearly hope you like the end result. It was a joy to create.

Now I’m looking forward to later in the year, as I’m enormously excited to be drafting the detailed plan map of the inner city of Redoubt.

Until then,

Andrew Law, June 26th, 2017

 

Evan Sass

Evan Sass

Evan got his start in the hobby game industry in 1995, as a co-founder of Rubicon Games. Among other games, he has worked on Cranium, Cranium Hullabaloo, and the Pokémon trading card game. He has been editing and proofreading books for Green Ronin since our first product, Ork! The Roleplaying Game. He has been managing our web sites since about 2002. He co-designed Walk the Plank, our card game of piratical trick taking, and is our in-house Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE editor.
Evan Sass

Six of Swords Blue Rose Adventure Anthology Pre-Order and PDF

We have opened up pre-ordering for Six of Swords, an adventure anthology for Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy. Pre-order the physical book through our Green Ronin Online Store, and we’ll offer you the PDF version for just $5 during checkout.

If you’d rather support your local retailer, you can ask them to sign up for our GR Pre-Order Plus program. When you pre-order through a participating brick-and-mortar retailer, they will give you a coupon code so you can get the PDF from us for just $5.

Six of Swords is an adventure anthology for Blue Rose. Set in the fantastic world of Aldea, these six adventures provide Narrators with ready-to-go scenarios for characters of various levels. They include ruined mansions, masquerade balls, vampiric curses, mysterious masks, sorcerous secrets, ghostly hauntings, lost loves, looming threats, and tragic quests where heroes are called upon to make the right choices. Six of Swords has hours of adventure, excitement, and entertainment for your Blue Rose game. The Kingdom of the Blue Rose needs heroes. Will you answer the call?

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier is the developer for the Mutants & Masterminds Roleplaying Game, as well as a comic book fan, RPG geek, and corgi aficionado. She has played a variety of roles within the tabletop and video game industries, and has lent her talents to companies including Green Ronin, Paizo Publishing, Palladium Books, Onyx Path Publishing, Rogue Genius Games, and Kobold Press.
Crystal Frasier

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Ronin Roundtable: Freedom City as You’ve Never Seen It!

One of my many duties as a developer for Green Ronin is seeing the 3rd edition of the Freedom City campaign setting safely off to print, like a loving mother. And as it turns out, this has been the easiest part of my job, because the book was almost entirely finished when I joined the team. So, like a loving mother who slept through most of her child’s life only to wake up in time to see them leave for college, I feel so proud of this enormous task I had virtually nothing to do with!

Freedom City 3rd Edition is almost entirely Jon Leitheusser’s legacy, following a similar format as the Emerald City campaign setting of several years earlier and building on the setting bones established in books like the Cosmic Handbook and Hero High. Freedom City has grown up and adapted to the turbulent events of the world. Some of your favorite heroes have retired as their years start to catch up with them, while new heroes have appeared to fill important roles. My only real contributions have been some light editing (Jon’s work is, as always, solid, and didn’t need much improving), and arguing with our esteemed production designer (chief art guy) Hal Mangold about the art.

Oh, and such art do we have! FC3E is a treasure trove of new art, bringing the city to life in detail we could only dream of in the past. Hal tracked down some amazing scenery artists to help flesh out the most recognizable city of Earth Prime, and I don’t think anyone will be disappointed to see the city’s superhero museum and the Champions sports bar franchise brought to life!

Just check out a few quick previews:

 

Domenico Neziti

Brian Hagan

Brian Hagan

Domenico Neziti

There’s a lot more to come, giving a reality to the creepily delightful Ocean Heights Amusement Park, the slums of the Fens, and the Hanover Institute of Technology cloaked in its mantle of mid-century modernism. Fans can finally SEE Freedom City as well as imagine it, and Gamemasters now have images to share when the heroes arrive, itching for a fight, so instead of screaming “I punch Dr. Simian,” they can yell “I punch Dr. Simian into the reflecting pool!”

And really, isn’t that what superhero games are all about? Punching apes into landmarks?

Evan Sass

Evan Sass

Evan got his start in the hobby game industry in 1995, as a co-founder of Rubicon Games. Among other games, he has worked on Cranium, Cranium Hullabaloo, and the Pokémon trading card game. He has been editing and proofreading books for Green Ronin since our first product, Ork! The Roleplaying Game. He has been managing our web sites since about 2002. He co-designed Walk the Plank, our card game of piratical trick taking, and is our in-house Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE editor.
Evan Sass

The Lost Citadel Q&A Video

Jaym Gates, Nicole Lindroos, and CA Suleiman sat down together at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, and talked about The Lost Citadel, answering some questions backers have posted to the Kickstarter project page while they were at it. Hal Mangold caught it all on video, so we can all watch and enjoy.

In other news from the City of Redoubt, we have unlocked the Double-Sided Poster Map stretch goal, and are on our way to achieving System Hack: AGE, in which we hire Gary Astleford to create a system conversion document so you can adventure in The Lost Citadel using our Adventure Game Engine as featured in Fantasy AGE, Dragon Age, Titansgrave, and more!

If you’d like to learn more about The Lost Citadel before (or after) backing, check out these free previews!

As always, thank you so much to all our backers (and future backers)!

The Lost Citadel—Apocalyptic Fantasy Roleplaying

Evan Sass

Evan Sass

Evan got his start in the hobby game industry in 1995, as a co-founder of Rubicon Games. Among other games, he has worked on Cranium, Cranium Hullabaloo, and the Pokémon trading card game. He has been editing and proofreading books for Green Ronin since our first product, Ork! The Roleplaying Game. He has been managing our web sites since about 2002. He co-designed Walk the Plank, our card game of piratical trick taking, and is our in-house Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE editor.
Evan Sass

Charitable Giving: Support the NRDC, Save Money!

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG: Game of Thrones EditionMost people in Westeros are more concerned about not dying than they are concerned about the planet not dying. Samwell Tarly cares about everything. And there’s also… Well, maybe nobody else in Westeros, but the planet has you!

For a limited time, you can get A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, A Game of Thrones Edition for just $35 as a full-color hardback, and just $15 in full-color PDF format, through our Green Ronin Online Store. For each of these two products sold at this discount, Green Ronin Publishing will donate $10 to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

NRDC “combine[s] the power of more than two million members and online activists with the expertise of some 500 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild.”

Sam Tarly likes nice people, and books, and the world. Be nice like Sam, get books at a discount, and help NRDC save the world!

Evan Sass

Evan Sass

Evan got his start in the hobby game industry in 1995, as a co-founder of Rubicon Games. Among other games, he has worked on Cranium, Cranium Hullabaloo, and the Pokémon trading card game. He has been editing and proofreading books for Green Ronin since our first product, Ork! The Roleplaying Game. He has been managing our web sites since about 2002. He co-designed Walk the Plank, our card game of piratical trick taking, and is our in-house Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE editor.
Evan Sass

Fiction of The Lost Citadel: Two Free Stories!

Sometimes, as we juggle our various projects, we mention several things at once, and sometimes one link doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. In case you missed it, you can download two really great short stories from Tales of the Lost Citadel for free, and get a glimpse into the setting of our current Kickstarter campaign, The Lost Citadel RPG.

And in case you’ve missed this, too, please check out our Kickstarter campaign for The Lost Citadel RPG, and consider backing.

Malcolm Sheppard

Malcolm Sheppard

After writing and designing games as a freelancer from 2000 on, Malcolm Sheppard is pleased to join Green Ronin as developer at large: the one who works on any number of games, from the Adventure Gaming Engine to Ork! Malcolm’s experience before Green Ronin includes Exalted, Mage: The Ascension, Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness and Scion lines, as well as Shadowrun and Eclipse Phase. Outside game design, Malcolm’s worked in community development and education, and as a professional historical re-enactor, where he gave large metal swords to children. (They were blunt!) Malcolm lives in semi-rural Ontario, Canada.
Malcolm Sheppard

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Ronin Roundtable: Enter the Modern AGE!

So, at the beginning of May, we announced we’re going to produce the World of Lazarus, a guide to roleplaying in Greg Rucka’s SF-feudal Lazarus comic series. We noted it would be a setting for the Modern AGE roleplaying game.

Yes, this means we’re making a Modern AGE game. We said so in a sort of soft, sneaky way, but today, we’re going to dig into what that means.

 

 

Modern AGE?

Modern AGE uses the Adventure Game Engine to power stories set in the “modern era,” a period we’ve designated as running from the 18th or 19th century, through the present day, and into the near future. That means guns and computers, transoceanic empires and raucous democracies, and the Cold War and beyond, into the great geopolitical realignments of our time. But it also means urban fantasy, psychic powers, conspiracies and all the speculative and strange sources that fuel modern stories.

The Adventure Game Engine is the system you first saw in the Dragon Age roleplaying game. You witnessed its evolution into Fantasy AGE with Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave setting, and into Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy. Modern AGE might be thought of as a counterpart to Fantasy AGE, but if you’re familiar with one of these games, the rest will come easily. Modern AGE adds some new things to the system, and revises a few solid concepts to make them easier to use.

Developing the game, it’s been important to me to stick with the A.G.E. system’s core concepts: ease of play, strong tools for character development, and most of all, stunts.

Stunts and Areas of Interest

Stunts are the system’s “killer app;” where other games often struggle to integrate special actions and exceptional results, the A.G.E. system uses stunts to make them emerge during play. Modern AGE introduces some new stunts, but we also recognize the decision paralysis that can happen when doubles hit the table. That’s why we’ve designated go-to core stunts and places stunts into shorter, focused lists.

Putting stunts into categories means thinking about what characters do during the game. Accordingly, we’ve mapped out three core areas of interest: action, exploration and social play. Action encompasses combat, chases and other physical challenges. Exploration combines its counterpart in Fantasy AGE with investigation. Social play develops the “roleplaying” category, acknowledging that modern games often require heroes to present themselves properly in all the scenarios thrown up by complex contemporary cultures.

The three areas of interest act as a focus throughout Modern AGE’s design, not just stunts. Heroes with abilities covering all three can take on nearly any challenge the GM cares to throw at them.

Character and Genre Modes

Fantasy AGE presents broad classes, archetypes in that genre, and provides advancement options that allow you to lock in more specific elements over time. Modern era games don’t have the same archetypes, however, and don’t need the same niche protection vital to the feel of fantasy adventure gaming. So, we’ve gone classless. After developing a background, a profession and a drive that pushes your hero out of obscurity and into the story, you’ll select ability advancements, talents and specializations freely.

In some games, a private eye is someone who uses a car, camera and laptop to find evidence for divorces and lawsuits, while in others, they’re a two-fisted, iron-chinned stalwart with a talent for getting tangled in murders. The difference? Genre. Not all modern games feature the same degree of realism, so we’ve included specific rules modes to fit the stories you want to play through. The three basic modes are gritty, for stories where violence is unforgiving, pulp, where a battered hero can, say, claw their way out of danger, and cinematic, where protagonists achieve the competence often reserves for fantasy heroes and the most outrageous action games. These modes affect character toughness and stunt access, and guide advice you’ll read throughout the book.

And Beyond

In upcoming columns, I’ll talk more about Modern AGE’s design foundations, and the details that make them work. Until then, let me ask you something: What clicks for you about the Adventure Game Engine RPGs you’ve played? What do you want to see down the line? I’m developing it even as we speak, and things are getting locked in, but I’d love to read your conversations–and ever so sneakily, have you spread the word that Modern AGE is coming . . .

And in a Further Manipulative Move

. . . oh wait. It’s not all about me. While you should indeed talk about Modern AGE until it’s a breakfast cereal, I have been reminded that our Kickstarter for The Lost Citadel — Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Roleplaying is in full swing. I was actually one of the authors in the short story collection that inaugurated this shared world, which we’re transforming into a setting for 5th Edition roleplaying. But if you’re an Adventure Game Engine fan, know this: If we hit $32,500, we’ll unlock the A.G.E System Hack, which converts the Dead-bound Zileska setting to A.G.E family games.

And if you’re curious about the setting and stories of The Lost Citadel, we have a sample short story available for FREE on our website. Check out Requiem, In Bells, by Ari Marmell.

Nicole Lindroos

Nicole Lindroos

Nicole Lindroos entered the game industry in 1989. In that time, she co-founded Adventures Unlimited magazine, served on the board of the Game Manufacturers Association and as the chair of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Art and Design, volunteered both on the advisory committee and as the head of the Origins Awards, and has been an active freelancer for large and small companies alike. Since the year 2000 she has been co-owner and General Manager of Green Ronin Publishing. Her recent projects include contributions to the Dragon Age Tabletop Roleplaying Game and Titansgrave: Ashes of Valakana.

She's also the sweetest person you never want to piss off.
Nicole Lindroos

Lost Citadel Talent Search Winners

When CA Suleiman and I discussed running a talent search in the lead-up to this project, we had high hopes for the number and quality of the submissions we would get and even though reading and evaluating those submissions in the couple of weeks between the submissions period and the Kickstarter itself was no small amount of extra work it was totally worth it!

As I said to everyone who submitted to our search: It was an absolute honor to be on the receiving end of such creative and lovingly crafted submissions. I was thrilled to see submissions coming in from around the world, from people with writing experience as journalists, novelists, comics writers, and narrative designers. We saw submissions from students of game design, hobbyists, GMs, LARPer, and roleplayers. It was a rich and competitive field and making the choice for who would be finalists was truly difficult.

After stripping the submissions and doing blind readings of the material, we narrowed the list down to five finalists before we moved on to choosing our winner. Or, in this case, WINNERS because when we got down to the final two our judges literally could not choose one over the other… which is what led us to choose TWO winners to put on the Lost Citadel project: Kate Baker and Anna Landin.

When we asked Kate what her reaction to the announcement was, she said, “I couldn’t believe it when the results were announced; I had to keep refreshing the page to make sure my name was really on there! With the first few people I messaged about it, all that I could manage to say was, ‘Eeeeee!’ I have since regained the ability to put coherent words together, but I am still incredibly excited to get to be a part of this project.”

Anna’s response was similar. “I was overwhelmed—and overjoyed!—to find out that I’d won. It’s an incredible honour to be chosen, knowing how much greatness there is to be found in the tabletop community. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I mean to do my best to rise to the challenge.”

Make no mistake, folks, the fact that you have backed this project with so much enthusiasm from day one is the factor that allows us to make this move, to have this property we’re launching that in turn requires an adventure (and the authors to design it). I look forward to seeing how far we can take The Lost Citadel and I doubly look forward to getting down to work with Anna and Kate.

Kate Baker played her first tabletop RPG about five years ago, and immediately fell in love with the hobby. Now she loves introducing new people to gaming! She got interested in writing her own RPG content about a year and a half ago. By day, she’s a mild-mannered engineer. She lives with her husband and a very silly hound dog.

Anna Landin is a Swedish comic artist, illustrator, storyteller, and builder of imaginary worlds. Currently engaged as the artist for the Rusty Quill Gaming Podcast, her work has also been published in the Enough Space for Everyone Else anthology, and can be found on covers for the horror-fantasy webcomic I, Necromancer. When not day-dreaming about the imaginary geography of unreal worlds and drinking more tea than any one person rightly should, she can be found collecting dice, drawing witches, or working on her own webcomic, Grassblades.

Evan Sass

Evan Sass

Evan got his start in the hobby game industry in 1995, as a co-founder of Rubicon Games. Among other games, he has worked on Cranium, Cranium Hullabaloo, and the Pokémon trading card game. He has been editing and proofreading books for Green Ronin since our first product, Ork! The Roleplaying Game. He has been managing our web sites since about 2002. He co-designed Walk the Plank, our card game of piratical trick taking, and is our in-house Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE editor.
Evan Sass

Now Kickstarting: The Lost Citadel Post-Apocalyptic RPG

Please back The Lost Citadel on Kickstarter

Now funding on Kickstarter, The Lost Citadel is a roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic fantasy, with rules adapted from the Fifth Edition of the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game. We would appreciate it if you’d check out the campaign and back it if you’re so inclined, and we’d love it if you were to share the above image, and a link to the campaign, on your social media pages.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/504269797/the-lost-citadel-post-apocalyptic-fantasy-roleplay/

Jack Norris

A writer and game designer since the mid 1990s, Jack Norris has worked on numerous award winning and critically acclaimed publications over the last two decades, including products for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, DC Adventures, Scion, Mutants and Masterminds, and Feng Shui.He is currently working at Green Ronin developing Dragon Age, as well as co-developing other projects such as Blue Rose. Outside of his work for Green Ronin and others, Jack also designs and writes Tianxia, his own line of wu xia/kung fu action rpg products published through Vigilance Press. When not writing and designing, Jack is an attorney and consultant at the Vidar Law Group, a small Chicago-based litigation firm.

Jack also hates writing bios...

Ronin Roundtable: Examining Specializations

As I am working to finish the Specializations chapter for the upcoming Fantasy AGE Companion, I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about specializations.  Namely I wanted to take a look at how specializations are generally built and why they are built that way.

First and foremost it’s important to realize that specializations aren’t prestige classes or sub-classes you see in some other games.  There simply isn’t enough mechanical “oomph” in a single three tiered ability tree to cover various character elements the way a multi-level class overlay or substitution used in games like Pathfinder or D&D does.

And really? That’s okay. Because what Fantasy AGE specializations allow players to do is to combine them with talents, focuses, and other specializations to create highly customized characters.

So a specialization that makes you an expert axe-fighter, no matter how cool it is, won’t substitute for having the Axes focus. Or various talents to better swing, throw, and fight with your chosen weapon in various ways.  You will still want all of those things. And as the character advances if you decide you want to be an expert axe-fighter who is also adept at hunting down renegade sorcerers and evil mages? Well, you’re going to want to invest in the Mage Hunter specialization when you get a chance—likely customized to use Axes instead of Black Powder Weapons with its Novice rank.  Such combinations are how you build your “prestige class” for your character in Fantasy AGE, often making particular combinations of character abilities that are very distinctive and unique to most other characters around.

With these limitations and advantages to the system in mind, when designing specializations, it’s important to add mechanical elements that push a character upwards or sideways from other talents, class abilities, and the like, avoiding those things which simply replace an existing ability.  Don’t add a Novice specialization rank that takes another talent and makes it useless. On the other hand, don’t create an ability so overpowered when combined with another talent that it becomes a singular optimal build.  Neither one is particularly satisfying, and will result in specializations that are either too weak or too inflexible to be useful beyond a specific type of character.  So to use our axe-fighter example again, it’s cool to add a rank that lets you do certain stunts easier if you’re using an axe.  But don’t offer discounts on stunts that are already made easier by other talents.  That’s not a unique cool ability, its redundancy.  Likewise, don’t make an ability that’s pretty useless unless your character is dual-wielding axes, as this shuts out the character who uses two-handed, single weapon and shield, or single weapons.  This forces everyone with the specialization into basically the same or very similar builds.

Of course sometimes these rules are broken.  A specialization might be crafted with only single weapon fighting in mind or a talent ability might combine to make an expensive stunt cheap as part of a specialization’s core concept.  But in most cases, you’re better off with diverse powers and abilities that complement each other and provide neat options, instead of mere substitutions and numerical upgrades.

Also, when designing your own specializations as GMs or as players (with GM approval and aid), remember to treat specializations generally. Designing a specialization just for your PC might seem like a great idea, but it’s actually a really easy way to unbalance your character and not always in your favor!  For example, it might seem like a great idea to craft a warrior specialization that requires every strength and aptitude your PC already possesses and stacks potent abilities on top of talents and class abilities you’re already using.  But what happens if in a few levels you realize that more powerful monsters, more cunning foes, and more dangerous threats don’t fall to your “killer combos” as easily as their lower-level predecessors did.  Often, designing for more general utility within a theme is more useful and its certainly easier to apply to multiple characters in a campaign.

Azadrumoda

So with all that said, let’s look at how to build a specialization.  We talked about the Axe-fighter, so let’s give them a try.  I’m envisioning a specialized warrior, perhaps hailing from particular cultures, who are devoted to mastery of the axe in its various forms.

First this new specialization needs requirements.  These are usually relatively easy to reach, but not a foregone conclusion.  They also tend to include at least one ability score that best reflects a natural aptitude or particular physical or mental training.  In this case a few requirements are obvious. Given the concept and weapon involved, it seems like this would be a warrior-based specialization.  Also Weapon Group Axes would be required.  A focus with axes is so useful it’s hard to imagine most pursuing this specialization without it, but I’m leaving it off since it isn’t strictly required…just recommended.  To these obvious requirements I add a Strength of 2 or greater—it takes a lot of power to get and keep this sort of weapon moving effectively, especially the bigger ones.

With requirements out of the way, you need a Novice, Journeyman, and Master rank abilities.  These should match up roughly with talents or other specializations already in existence in Fantasy AGE.  For example, an ability that allowed a reduction in the cost of a stunt is roughly the same as many other talents.  A stunt cost reduction that only works in certain conditions might be a bit weak by itself, suggesting such abilities should allow for reductions in multiple stunts.  Balancing these is a bit of art and science, but with some practice it becomes fairly easy.

In the case of the axe-fighter specialization, it makes sense that even Novices would learn to always ready an axe with a free action.  However, this makes the novice level Quick Reflexes talent and Journeyman rank Thrown Weapon Style talents less useful.  So instead, let’s design an ability that reflects the ability of the fighter to throw an opponent off guard and seize an opportunity with a flurry of axe strikes.  Thus let’s say that as long as they’re using an axe on an attack, a novice rank axe-fighter can use the Seize Initiative stunt for 2 SP instead of 4.  Note: This is identical to the Scouting Journeyman talent.  But that’s a rogue talent…so it’s not rendered redundant by this warrior-only specialization.  Also, since it only works with axe attacks, it’s a bit weaker than the Scouting talent, which means making it novice rank specialization seems appropriate.

Now for the Journeyman rank.  It seems that axes are often considered to be scary because they can be used to deliver nasty blows and even glancing blows can be serious. Nobody wants to get hit by an axe and those skilled in its use are aware of this. So how to translate that into a Journeyman ability? You could give a discount on the Threaten stunt but we’ve already done a SP reduction so let’s consider an alternative tact. A Defense bonus might work, but that’s very similar to the Single-Weapon Style Talent. So instead let’s take this another way: the reason people are scared of axes is because getting hit by one is freaking horrible. Even if you armor stops most of it? It still hurts. So it makes sense Axe-Fighters can do serious damage with their axes. Again we might do a discount on Mighty Blow here that’s a Two-Handed Style rank. So instead let’s step sideways from those talents and provide a non SP discount bonus to Mighty (and Lethal) Blow and give an extra 1d6 damage when using Mighty Blow with an axe. Nasty to be sure, but it requires a particular weapon and a stunt at full cost, balancing out the effect.

Finally we have Master. Master rank Specialization qualities are at the core of the Specialization and can be quite nasty. So what’s the core of an expert axe-fighter? Striking hard and fast, keeping a foe on the defensive, and battering past armor and shields all apply here and what does that suggest? It suggests opening up a foe and finishing them off.  So what Master ability represents this? There are many options, but I’m going to go with two “lesser” abilities. First is the ability to use variant of the Disarm stunt to “hook” or bash aside a shield. This eliminates the shield bonus of a character until they take a Ready action to restore it.  The shield isn’t tossed aside like a Disarm against a weapon, but it is rendered useless for a time.   That’s pretty cool, but it only affects shields, so we should add something else. Let’s examine that against opponents who don’t have a shield to hide behind? A skilled axe fighter is very dangerous to attack as they’ve got a heavy, sharp weapon swinging about. So against unshielded foes? Axe-Fighters gain a Defense bonus, let’s say +2 because of the Master rank and limited use.

So there we have it. Your very own Axe-Fighter Specialization:

Requirements: Strength 2, Axes Weapons Focus Group

Novice: You may use the Seize the Initiative stunt for 2 SP instead of 4 when wielding an axe.

Journeyman: When using the Mighty or Lethal Blow stunts with an axe, add an additional d6 damage.

Master: You can use Disarm to “hook” shields, removing the shield bonus until the shield-user takes a ready action. You also gain +2 to your own Defense when fighting unshielded opponents.

Nasty, scary, tough, and yet pretty much useless without its chosen weapon, which provides some nice balance.

That’s just an example, but it shows the process of creating new Specializations in Fantasy AGE and is a preview of the process and types of things you’ll see in the upcoming Fantasy AGE Companion.