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The Story Behind Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana

The Story Behind Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana

Unless you’ve recently emerged from underneath a rock, you’re probably aware of Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana as the gripping roleplaying show where Wil Wheaton guides a group of players (specifically Hank Green, Alison Haislip, Laura Bailey and Yuri Lowenthal) through the universe he created. Viewers have been asking for the rules so they themselves can explore this science fantasy universe. Luckily for us, as of July 30th the game will be made available for pre-order (printed copies) and download (pdf) from Green Ronin Publishing.

Geek and Sundry had the opportunity to interview Chris Pramas, co-designer and collaborator of Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana and designer of the AGE System (the core rules on which this game and the Dragon Age RPG is based) to pick his brain about the origins of Titansgrave and what players can expect from the game and its system.

Teri for Geek & Sundry: Can you set the stage and describe how Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana came to be?

Chris Pramas: About a year ago Wil called me and told me that he wanted to use AGE as the game system for the RPG show that had been a stretch goal for the Tabletop IndieGoGo campaign. I had not expected that at all, so it was a nice surprise! We met at GenCon and talked it over. Then in the fall Nicole Lindroos and I flew down to Burbank and spent a full day at the Geek & Sundry offices talking over what we wanted to do and sketching out some world building ideas. We then carried on that conversation over email, along with Ryan Wheaton and Adam Lawson (the director of Titansgrave).

Wil, Ryan, and I did most of the world building. By the early part of the year, I commissioned ten writers to work on the adventures. That is a lot of authors, but we were under a pretty severe time constraint (the show started shooting at the end of March) and I thought it would be cool to get different styles of writing and design for the different chapters. They worked off an overall story doc that Wil, Ryan, and I created, but added a lot of great ideas in their execution. Later we brought in Matt Forbeck to flesh out one of the city-states. Our team was thus: Keith Baker, Leonard Balsera, Logan Bonner, Matt Forbeck, Will Hindmarch, Jackson Lanzing, Nicole Lindroos, Robert J. Schwalb, Mike Selinker, Clark Valentine, and Ray Winninger.

Since I was still designing the Fantasy AGE RPG during this period, I handled all the game mechanics, as well as general development. It was still something of a nail biter. During the shoot, I was sitting next to Adam Lawson with my laptop, finalizing the next day’s adventures as Wil was running the game for Laura, Hank, Alison, and Yuri. My Dragon Age developer Jack Norris also helped me out that week, so I would not completely lose my mind.

After the shoot, both Fantasy AGE and Titansgrave had to undergo further development, then editing, illustration, and layout. Since we had arranged last year to share a booth with Geek & Sundry at GenCon this year, we had to make sure the books were done and to print in time to make it there. Thanks to the mad skills of Hal Mangold (layout and art direction), Evan Sass and Jon Leitheusser (editing), Andy Law (cartography), and the rest of my staff, we were able to make it happen. It’s been a busy year!

G&S: Let’s talk a little about the AGE System, which you designed. For people unfamiliar with the system, could you help highlight what makes it so remarkable and playable?

Chris: Sure. I originally designed the Adventure Game Engine to power our Dragon Age RPG. Since I hoped we’d be getting a lot of video gamers to try tabletop, I wanted the game to be approachable for people who had never played a pen & paper RPG before. The basics of the game are simple. To do almost anything, you roll 3 six-sided dice, add an ability (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) and try to meet or beat a target number. That same system is used for everything from knowledge tests to spell casting to making an attack in combat.
The feature that really sets AGE apart though is the stunt system. When you roll your 3d6, one of them must be a different color than the other two. That is known as the Dragon Die in Dragon Age and the Stunt Die in Fantasy AGE. When you make a successful test and you roll doubles (on any of the dice), you stunt. You then get a number of stunt points equal to the result of the Dragon/Stunt Die, which you must spend right away.

There are many different kinds of stunt: stunt, spell, roleplaying, and exploration. Each has a menu of fun things you can spend your stunt points on and you can mix and match. So if you attack an ogre with a sword, hit, and have a 4 on your Dragon/Stunt Die, you can do one 4-point stunt, two 2-point stunts, one 3-point and one 1-point stunt, or even four 1-point stunts. In this instance you might choose to Pierce Armor (a 2-point stunt that lets you cut your opponent’s armor rating in half) and Mighty Blow (which lets you do extra damage). Once you’ve picked your stunts, you then narrate the cool moves you did while pulling them off. Since rolling doubles on 3d6 happens nearly half the time, stunts are not a rarity (like rolling a 20 on a 20-sided die is). Stunts are frequent and fun!

G&S: For a new GM or player picking up the Fantasy AGE rulebook and the Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana companion, what sort of things will they find to help them get started?

Chris: Fantasy AGE was designed with new people in mind. It includes a lot of advice on how to be a player and especially on how to be a Game Master. The GM’s job is the hardest and requires the most explanation. It’s more than just being a referee and the book gets into that. Fantasy AGE also includes a starting adventure and a local setting designed by Joe Carriker, so GMs have something to work with right away. If you are having trouble conceptualizing what play is like or you are unclear what exactly a GM does in the game, you can watch Titansgrave, of course, or the two Tabletop episodes in which I ran the Dragon Age RPG (those were in Season 1). If you watch both, you’ll see that Wil and I have different GM styles and that’s totally cool. There’s no one way to do it.

G&S: What things do you suggest players and GMs have ready themselves to get rolling?

Chris: Players have it pretty easy. They need a character sheet (which they can download from, 3d6, and a pencil. Maybe a miniature if your GM plans to use them. GMs need pencil and paper, dice, and the adventure they are going to run. This can be something the GM designs themselves or something pre-written. The Titansgrave book includes all the adventures that were played on the show—along with extra encounters and other options that let GMs customize them—so that is a great place to start if you like science fantasy!

G&S:I happen to love the AGE System’s use of D6s. Is there a particular reason this design decision was made?

Chris: There is! I picked 3d6 because of the bell curve. Basically, when you roll 3d6, extreme results are statistically less common. This lets your characters be more consistently competent and less subject to swingy die rolls. Many other RPGs use d20s for task resolution (we even publish some, like our superhero RPG Mutants & Masterminds). You have a straight 5% chance of rolling any particular number on a d20, which means you are as likely to roll a 1 as a 20. Now you can get poor results on 3d6 (just look at Yuri on Titansgrave!) but the bell curve works in your favor.

titansgrave map

G&S: Fans have grown more familiar with the world of Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana as they’ve been watching the weekly episodes. Could you give us an inkling of how much more of the world will be available to GMs and players with the book?

Chris: The Titansgrave book provides a broad overview of the setting and then info on how to modify the Fantasy AGE rules for adventuring in Valkana. Those are the first two chapters of the book. The remaining eight chapters are the adventures. So there is certainly world information in Titangrave, but the focus is on the adventures.

G&S: Are there any interesting elements within the game that a seasoned GM, player or avid viewer of the show would be surprised and excited to see in the Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana companion? Could you tease us with an example?

Chris: We certainly hope so! When I was developing the book, I tried to be aware of the fact that people may have watched the show before playing the adventures. It was always the plan to have extra encounters that were not played on the show but I also tried to call out other ways GMs can customize the adventures to make them their own. There’s an alternate ending, for example, so players who have watched the whole show and think they know what’s coming may be surprised!

As for a teaser, one very cool thing the book features that was not on the show is a puzzle by Mike Selinker. Mike is a well-known game designer and puzzle maker who recently released the Maze of Games, an “interactive puzzle novel” (that’s a first). He and I worked together recently on a whole series of Dragon Age themed puzzles for BioWare that were run at a conventions over the course of a full year. It was great to get a contribution from Mike for Titansgrave.

G&S:. Might we be seeing additional Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana add-ons in the future?

Chris: We’d like to do a proper world book. If the show gets a Season 2, we could do another adventure book to go along with it. The first season needs to finish though and then we need to have some talks with Geek & Sundry about the future. Right now we are madly preparing for GenCon, at which both Fantasy AGE and Titansgrave will debut. After that things should calm down a bit and then we can make more plans.

Are you excited about Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana? Are you a fan of the show? Let us know in the comments below. You can pick up your copy of Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana at the Green Ronin Store.


For more content from Teri, check out her YouTube Channel for videos about tabletop and miniature wargaming.

Follow Teri on Social Media:
Twitter: @thatterigirl


Image Credits: Green Ronin Publishing

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