Category Archives: 13th Age

Icons of the Drow: The Spider Queen

Icons of the Drow: The Spider Queen

I’m not cool with the typical dark-skinned, evil matriarch drow society. Just like I did with Lovecraft some time ago, rather than abandon it, I thought I’d build something that I really liked instead. This icon and the description of the drow/spider elves that follow are my attempt to do that.

This represents an alt-history 13th Age, where the Silver Folk don’t exist and the Elf Queen no longer rules all elves. The source of elve’s long life is also made a touch creepier.

I hope you enjoy it!

A bone-white elf with eight long limbs, Lolth is rarely seen, and heard only in the whispers she grants to her progeny. The courts of the high elves record her as being exiled from the lands of Fey, but her followers, insist that Lolth was simply an elf who rejected the corrupt pacts that elves unwittingly live in.

To high elves, Lolth is anathema. She represents the negation of all that is sacred and cherished in elvish culture.

To the spider elves who worship her name and live deep underground, Lolth represents choice, and freedom. She is life and family, the mother of all broods.

No one knows Lolth’s true motives.

Quote

“I am evil? But it is you who’ve come here to kill my brood on some insane crusade. Even if I let you, would our destruction make you any less corrupt?”

Usual Location

Lolth is rarely seen, as she spends most of her time in a pocket dimension that is one giant web. Most refer to this as the Hellweb, but Lolth and the spider elves refer to it as the Lifeweb. It is from her that Lolth typically connects and plants her whispers in every elf she can reach.

Common Knowledge

What most know of Lolth is her patronage of the Drow. She influences the matriarchal society occasionally through telepathic whispers. Interpretation of her will is varied and often contradictory. Many broods claim to speak her true word, but such claims and truths are owned by those with the most power.

It is said that Lolth has the ability to enter any sentient beings mind to converse. The Spider Queen is very persuasive.

Adventurers and the Icon

Though many fear her influence, Lolth can only mindspeak to elves. It is to these adventurers that she might ask for a favor or make a bargain with. She can grant little in the way of divine might, but she can often unlock insights and offer wondrous goods to help an elf pursue her goals.

Lolth delights in getting elves to reject their gods. If she builds rapport with an elf, she will certainly tell the tale of what is wrong with elvish society. She will give example after example of why the elven gods actually serve another power who secretly maneuver elvenkind to fulfill their insidious agenda. Every inconsistency or injustice commited by the elven society finds its way into conversation.

Whether Lolth lies or is truthful, there is enough truth in her words to cause doubt. And where there is doubt…

Enemies

The Elf Queen will not even hear Lolth’s name spoken. Consorting with drow is punishable with exile or death. Some say the Elf Queen hates Lolth, but just as many say the Elf Queen fears the Spider Queen.

No other icons trusts the Spider Queen, but all of them have worked with her on occasion.

History

Lolth was once a high elf. Her relentless curiosity fueled a rapid rise through the ranks of her Houses’ magicians. Lolth’s specialty was portals which allowed her to sate her curiosity by jaunting around the planes of existence. One planar excursion revealed to her a truth about her society. The gods she worshiped actually served another set of masters. She could not look upon their plane for longer than a fraction without risking her sanity, but she knew then that she must find a new path for her people. Frantically searching for answers, she discovered a the Lifeweb, a plane capable of nourishing and feeding elven immortality while reducing their dependence on these strange, cold gods.

Lolth told others. First her peers mocked her. Then they began to fear her. Her once-promising career in shambles, and at the verge of being exiled, Lolth retreated with a few faithful to a place where no star could reach. From the Underworld the Spider Queen began to build an alternative for elves. She built a society of elves free from the alien influences of the Star Gods she glimpsed.

Almost no living being knows this story.

The True Danger

The world will know fear when Lolth reveals the true masters of the elven gods. The world will change forever when Lolth’s true master makes itself known.

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder
Defending the natural order at any cost

Defending the natural order at any cost

(written/created by Rvyen Cedrylle, illustration taken from Ertai’s Lament)

The Marauder is the living embodiment of the world’s inertia, the order of nature given fangs, claws and cunning intelligence. If the Tao were to become violently enraged, it would be the Marauder. Its influence lies as much in what it is credited to have done as what it has actually done. Unexplained murders, tragic accidents and the occasional assassination wind up becoming stories of the Marauder’s grisly hobby. Though it has no true followers to speak of, the brave and the insane alike claim to study and use the Marauder’s tactics. Staged fights between animals or sentients (or both) are held in dark corners of civilization in the Marauder’s name.

Quote

“Do what you will within the boundaries apportioned to you. Step outside of them and I will take not only your foot, but your leg and your arm as well.”

 

Usual Location

The Marauder constantly wanders the territory between nations. It maintains no single base of operations, but has a lair of sorts in any land where arguing states encroach upon each other. The Marauder does not let itself simply be found; it does the finding.

 

Common Knowledge

The Marauder is known to be a heartless killer and avid hunter. It is claimed to have been encountered in humanoid and animal forms, so rather than attempt to depict the Marauder personally, it is often shown only by a set of large, bestial footprints in the snow. The Marauder is said to be most active in places where communities ‘overstep their bounds’, so nations with dreams of empire lose their best and brightest to the Marauder in its attempt to maintain peace by fear. It also takes scholars, clergy and explorers who unknowingly break the Marauder’s obscure ideas of humility.

Adventurers and the Icon

The business of adventuring is not one the Marauder takes kindly to. There are however far more adventurers than the Marauder can personally deal with, particularly if some bigger threat to the Marauder’s status quo is also identified. All adventurers should assume themselves to be on the Marauder’s hit list. The Marauder will occasionally enlist adventurers for its self-described policing duties with the clear intent that end of the mission, any surviving adventurers will find better things to do.

 

Allies

The Marauder doesn’t see allies so much as “things that are not prey”. It finds the Speaker personally weak, but respects (his? her?) effectiveness. The Twin Serpents have been encroached upon by the humans and deserve their apportioned boundaries back. The Marauder also appreciates the Prisoner’s self-imposed exile and will generally leave his agents alone.

Enemies

The Marauder and the Scrivener hold no love for one another, as the Marauder is constantly attempting to thwart the Scrivener’s plans for learning and progress. The Steam King similarly toys with forces beyond his grasp and should be ended. The Usurper is currently useful given problems with souls moving on to the afterlife, but should the Death God ever come back, the Usurper would provide a welcome challenge to hunt and eliminate.

 

History

The Marauder has existed since before recorded history and likely will continue to exist long after humans meet their end. Legend says that the Marauder was in fact killed once, but apparently death was no excuse to stop working.

 

The True Danger

The Marauder is kept in check largely because it refuses to work with anyone else for very long. A lasting alliance with another Icon would certainly spell disaster.

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker
Does he speak all truths or all lies?

Does he speak all truths or all lies?

(picture from The Gamer Effect.)

Depending on who you ask, the Speaker is the weakest or most influential man the region.  The leader of the dormant Death God’s church, he has kept not only his position but the position of his church in Laeda and even in Kitan prominent and influential.  Lacking real military or divine power to aid his church, the Speaker uses his skill of negotiation and oration to somehow get what he wants and needs.

Quote

“I do not doubt your ability to kill me with your sword.  What I do doubt, however, is your continued desire to do so once you consider the consequences and reflect upon the more appealing actions that you can take instead.”

Usual Location

The Speaker is never in one place for too long.  In part, this keeps him safe from enemies of his ailing religion, but also it allows him to connect with his many allies and partners across Laeda.

Common Knowledge

A common joke about the Speaker maintains that he has more alliances than parishioners, and it is not that far from truth.  Though the Speaker’s god lay dormant, he still performs the rites of passing for the many suffering through the war.  Though he cannot guarantee passage to the afterlife, he still offers comfort and solace to those he meets.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Speaker can use anyone. It is more of a matter of when and how the Speaker can use an adventurer at any given time.  Most adventurers have at least one run-in with the Speaker where they are asked to do one task or another.  Most times, working with the Speaker is beneficial, though are some tales of adventurers not returning from their missions.

Allies

The Speaker has no true allies or many allies, depending on who you ask. Even the Steam King has made an occasional bargain with him.

Enemies

The Speaker has countless enemies or no enemies, depending on who you ask. The Steam King wants his head.

History

The divine power the Speaker commanded before Nethane bled to death in Reach was undeniable. He lost all of that personal might when Nethane died, yet seems more powerful than ever. It is rumored that the Speaker knew of The Usurper’s plan to steal Nethane’s shadow, but why he would forsake his power is a mystery.

The True Danger

Everything will be fine until the Speaker’s true master reveals itself.

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener
She guards knowledge

She guards knowledge

(created and written by Mike Hasko, illustration from Dylan Meconis. What is the Schism?)

She has no shrines, for each book is her temple. Her hymns are whispers shared between friends, her prayers state secrets discovered by spies, and her rituals tests given by school master and tribal leaders alike. Some claim her to be the paragon of knowledge, other see her as a shadowy hoarder of secrets.

Offer her something she doesn’t know, however, and she could be your greatest ally.

The Scrivener sees herself as Laeda’s eventual redemption: all history, knowledge, and culture that has been lost and that exists today must be recorded so it may live on forever. Much has been forgotten in the trials of history, and more still will cease to exist if not recorded.

 

Quote

“What you don’t know can kill you. What you do know is of particular interest to me.”

Usual Location

The Scrivener stays where there is some forgotten lore or skill to be learned, moving to the next workshop, ruin, or battlefield as soon as she is done with the current one. Rumors of a new technology or the discovery of an old ancient text are just as likely to summon the attention of the Icon.

Common Knowledge

Though she records and observes much, she gives little to those seeking it in return. Those wanting something from The Scrivener must be willing to offer up a useful fact of equal value in return.

Adventurers and the Icon

Though the Scrivener knows how to fight, it wastes time that could otherwise be spent archiving and cataloging. She often asks for assistance in clearing out old ruins so she may work in safety, or seek out artifacts to assist in her current sphere of study.

Allies

The Scrivener keeps a neutral distance from most of the Icons. Most always have something new for her, but many are jealous of what she knows and desire it for themselves. She is closest with The Muse, who offers much from her travels and requests little in return, and detailing The Steam King’s constant evolving creations fill many a journal.

Enemies

The Scrivener knows what the Prisoner did and she alone has the facts to absolve him of the crime, but also knows this can never be, and does her best to avoid him. The Ursurper’s actions have constantly caused stores of knowledge to be destroyed, something the Scrivener cannot forgive her of.

History

It’s believed that across her studies, The Scrivener has found some way to avoid dying, or even aging. Most of the major historical events of Laeda have had sightings of The Scrivener. Her presence is sometimes thought as an ill omen because of this.

 

The True Danger

Some secrets must remain such for the safety of all sentient life.  The Scrivener is unknowingly close to uncovering one of these facts the universe itself is ashamed of.

 

Icons of the Schism: The Usurper

Icons of the Schism: The Usurper
The queen of shadows...and death

The queen of shadows…and death

It began as all matters that spiral out of control begin: simply. The Usurper wanted to live longer. To prolong her life she discovered then mastered the art of stealing shadows. To steal someone’s shadow accelerates their death, while adding vitality to the thief.  Most lost years of their lives without ever suspecting why. She stole shadows from the rich, from the poor, from the healthy, to the sick. No matter what person she stole from, the value of all shadows was the same.  What if she could steal the shadow of a god?

 

So she stole death’s shadow, and killed it.

 

The woman who killed Nethane now lives in the highest spire of Reach.  Somewhere between god and mortal, she frantically seeks to master Nethane’s energy. She needs to complete her transformation before the Steam King finds her and extracts her secrets forcibly from her.  She sends her shadows to defend and protect the city, and some parts of Laeda.  Reach flickers and shimmers in shadow from the light of her thousands of floating crystal eyes.  She can see anything that happens in Reach, but is she really watching?

 

Will the Usurper reach her full potential before everything she has gained is taken from her?

 

Quote

“Truth is amusing.  I once believed in it, but I now know it’s a matter of whether one stands in light or shadow.”

 

Usual Location

The Usurper is rarely seen, and even more rarely seen in her tower. Most adventurers will be more likely to meet her through communication with a shadow-crystal.  Many question if she can actually leave Reach, but there is no evidence to support or deny this.

 

Common Knowledge

The Usurper killed the god Nethane in the middle of the Dying Day, a ritual where the god’s followers summon him to bow at his feet. Disguised as one of his clergy, she knelt at his feet. She rose to her feet holding the god’s shadow in her hand.

 

Nethane died on his own altar, screaming and bleeding before the whole city of Reach.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Usurper likes analytical heroes.  Anyone who seems like they can solve a tough problem might find themselves spoken to by her, as she has no shortage of difficult situations to work though.

 

Allies

The Usurper is allied tenuously with the Lords of Kitani out of necessity. They haven’t asked much of her, yet.  She also is a favored traveller in the Shadowlands. The Prisoner is a useful dog to offer a bone to. The Usurper hopes to open a dialogue with the Twin Serpents one day, but today is not the right time. The Speaker is a fool, but a useful tool if directed properly.

Enemies

The Steam King is everyone’s sworn enemy.  The Speaker is a running joke who the Usurper will surely kill if she can ever get to him. If the Twin Serpents don’t come to terms, they will be dealt with.  The Prisoner might outlive his own usefulness one day, but he does possess a certain charm…

 

History

Tales used to be told of a nomadic cult of people who worshipped shadow. The Laedan church had once declared them heretics to be killed, but it appears that a few survived.

 

The True Danger

If anyone returns Nethane’s shadow to him, the world will learn what true anger is.

Schism: A setting for 13th Age

Schism: A setting for 13th Age

ArchmageEngine

I’ve given many teasers for the setting Schism, which I’ve been working on for some time with Mike Hasko, Ryven Cedrylle and Jeremy Morgan.  What I haven’t done is release the actual content of the settings.  Here is the teaser/setting pitch.  Expect more details of the region and culture in future posts!

Collari: a Reign of Steam and Terror

The Steam King is finally free to conquer all of Collari.  For many years his cruel reign remained constricted to his kingdom of Beltzhoover. He could not bring war to Laeda or Kitan due to the Gray Shield created by the priests of Nethane, the god of death.  The Gray Shield decomposed all undead or re-animated beings from entering Laeda, thereby keeping Beltzhoover’s ruler and his steam-powered necromantic forces.

But Nethane is dead. At a yearly event in Reach where the god took tribute, a master of shadow magic stole Nethane’s shadow.  This unexpectedly killed the god, transferring much of his power to the Usurper at the cost of the divine power once granted to his priests. The Gray Shield fell. The Steam King sensed this almost immediately and began to deploy forces in Laeda and through it, to fight Betlzhoover’s hated Nation of Kitan.

Laeda itself is fractured. For centuries worship of all other gods has been forbidden. With Nethane dead, many hidden cults have now resurfaced, and battle for political control and religious freedom.  The Usurper spends her time mostly in her tower in Reach, trying to figure out how to control and access the powers of the god she slew, and restore the Gray Shield.

It is said that the Orisha that now rule Zimare,  descended from the Heavens to prepare for these troubled times. Zimare trades with Laeda and Kitan still from across the Southern Sea, with ears and eyes out for signs of the event that prophets long said would bring the nation to ruin.

In the midst of this all you play adventurers attempting to heal or further fracture the land as you see fit. Do you want to unite Laeda? Defeat Beltzhoover? Support Kitan? The choice is yours when you enter the world of Schism.

 

Timeline:

(Thanks to Jeremy for setting this up!)

 

Previous Schism posts:

 

Hacking the 13th Age: Places to Start

Hacking the 13th Age: Places to Start

13th AgeThanks for sticking with me so far!  We’ve looked at what 13th Age is and what it isn’t, but now we should look at some patterns for hacking the game.

Quick note: I only hack games that I like.  I hack a game not to express dissatisfaction or to one-up the designers. I hack games because I like to, and I like to peer deep into games I enjoy. So if you interpret these hacks as denoting a lack in 13th Age instead of a love for 13th Age, let me officially sad panda face you right now.

I love 13th Age and I hope these patterns help you do the things you want to with the game.

Everybody else, you good? Great!

 

Backgrounds as Fiction Anchors

You can see in negative backgrounds and ephemera that backgrounds can  anchor states of fiction to your character.  Backgrounds can model injury, emotional state, wealth, experience, memories…the list goes on and on.  If there is anything in your setting or story that you feel is important enough to call out, using a background is a great start.

What you want to from there is figure out  what the duration and rules of use for the background is.  As my general rule, a basic, by-the-rules background is part of the character.  It’s something not easily changed.  Other backgrounds should use their dynamics and duration to show their relationship to the character.  An injury lasts until it heals (maybe you lose a point a day), and can hamper you on any physical roll.  Wealth might last until you spend it.

The last use of backgrounds is an improvisational placeholder.  Is cool and completely unexpected stuff happening?  Do you want to mark it as important mechanically somehow without spending a lot of time making rules? Make it a background and move on.

The Escalation Die is a Timer

The threaten mechanic that Yenee of the Waves uses takes advantage of the fact that the Escalation die makes a great timer.  You can use the escalation die to stage different events.  13th Age doesn’t give you tactical movement but it does give you a timer that you can play with great overall battle effects.  You can stage a fight in a burning building that does increasing fire damage each round based on the escalation score.  You can simulate a fight aboard a ship that’s taking canon fire, having cannon fire effects on odd numbered rounds.

The Escalation die is perfect for hanging events off of, so do that!

Leap into Fiction

Remember when I was talking about the owlbear and how great it was? What made it great was off of one strike it makes a leap directly into the fiction of the game. 13th Age doesn’t model what it means to lose an arm, and it doesn’t try to. So the owlbear yanks off your arm on a critical and then runs off. Holy crap! Are you going to get it back? Are you passing out? What’s happening?

The owlbear is mechanically super-simple, but offers this potentially thrilling and game-changing event that is only modelled in the story.  It’s up to the table to figure out what’s going on and that is awesome.

Yenee’s threaten command has a leap into fiction at the end of it.  Each of her threats is more or less a normal monster until it’s timer is up, and then it gets to run away and mess up your town! On a more extreme level we have Hynd, who gives players and GMs a very interesting way to reveal secrets of the setting.

Relationships of All Sorts

Who doesn’t like Icons? Who doesn’t like having relationships with important characters in the setting?  One thing I’ve not seen hacked quite enough is the relationship die (I’ll uh, change that shortly, just wait). Let’s assume that icons are the most important relationship in terms of your setting. What are lesser relationships that are lower in scope?

I think it’s a mistake to make a lot of different Icons or other relationships at the same “power-level” or scale as Icons.  I think additional relationships should be more specific in scale and effect.   You could have a relationship with an Icon and a Mentor. You could have a relationship with a Faction. You could have a relationship with your own Shadow.

Each of these relationships could use a d6 (I would do this for a number of reasons which I might explain in another post).  What you change is how you use it.  Icons always have an influence on the setting and can be used to make dramatic changes or to help get adventurers unstuck.  Your relationships should do smaller things.  Maybe your Mentor lets you have a +D6 to a die roll in specific situations.  Your Faction might let you get access to certain resources.  The GM might call for a Shadow roll at times to determine what part of your psyche reacts to a situation.

There are many important relationships a character can have.  You don’t want to overwhelm characters (I wouldn’t use more than 1 extra relationship with an Icon if I used any in a game), but you can add extra detail and interest to your game with it.

Your Hacks

Do you have any interesting hacks or patterns that you use for 13th Age?  Now would be the time to share.

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age Is.

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age Is.

13thAge book

So just yesterday I rambled on about what 13th Age is not. It doesn’t have familiar hooks from the two recent forks of D&D, so you should design with that in mind. The natural followup once we’ve defined the borders and gaps of the game has to be “Well, what is the game about?  What is it?

Here are my thoughts.

 

D20 Optimized for Improv

If you come from a model of  prepped plots and semi-linear campaigns, the notion that a player can potentially “call in a marker” to an Icon and blow through a scene.  Or, worse yet, cause a whole other scene to form spontaneously!  What about all the prep you did?

13th Age doesn’t really want you to run that sort of game.  I think Rob and Johnathan designed a game shaped by what your players decide is important to them (see Wishlist below) and by luck and improv.  As a GM, you are there to bring trouble and to plant seeds. It’s a game that want to be at least 50% improv, and if you can raise percentages, it’s even happier.

Why do you think that even the skill system (Backgrounds) is open to interpretation? An open skill system is better for improv. Monsters are kept pretty simple so you can grab them and use them on the fly easily. There’s no tactical movement, so you can sketch up a random map on paper as needed.  If you’re stuck, the game offers a clever Deus Ex Machina in Icon rolls. A game can go wildly different than any prepped plot and that’s what the game wants to do.

13th Age wants to give the GM and players prompts and guides for unscripted play.  You can start a game with a basic situation and characters, and let the rest of the session spawn off of that.  Trying to put too much ahead of you will force you to ignore the disruptive creative elements (thereby missing the fun of the system) or cause you to throw away a lot of work.  Don’t prep plot!

From a hacking perspective, I think anything that creates new prompts for player and GM input is awesome. Mechanics that establish and create are very welcome to 13th Age’s design.

 

Backgrounds Bend but Don’t Break

I’ve got a whole section just to talk about Backgrounds. Again.  In case you missed earlier rants, here it is:  backgrounds are the true secret sauce of 13th Age.  Icons and One Unique Thing and clever class design bring you to the table, but backgrounds…backgrounds! They are really potent and in my opinion they work way better than skills. A skill gives you rules for interacting with the world.  If your numbers are off, your interactions can become weak or overpowering in the context of the game. You have to strike a fine balance between what skills do and how much power they provide you.

A background, on the other hand, is as much an assertion and worldbuilding tool as it is an input.  When you use a background, you are saying “Because I have this history, role or experience, it has prepared me for this moment in front of me.”  I’ve heard people express concern at the interpretation needed for backgrounds, and worrying about balance.  But 13th Age isn’t that game. Because there aren’t hard-set ways to use backgrounds, the main thing that your group needs to figure out is what sort of game you are running, and does the use of the background make sense in that use? How you use a background asserts all kinds of things about what type of world you play in.

If I have the background “Pirate of the Southern Sea” and try to use that to communicate with dolphins, I’m asserting that :

  • talking with dolphins is a thing that can be done in this setting
  • pirates can talk to dolphins
  • dolphins can be characters you interact with

In other forks you ask “Does this fit the interpretation of the skill use?”. In 13th Age you ask “is my game the kind where this occurs?”  If it is, roll on your merry way.  If it’s not, veto or give partial credit and carry on.

The first time that happens, we’ve done some world-building. The next time you talk to the dolphins, we can add extra flavor and surprises.  We didn’t “break” the skill because the world around it got bigger. When you can creatively assert things, you create space around your assertions.

A lot of your hacking can play with backgrounds.  Backgrounds are a great anchor and middle ground between mechanics and fiction in 13th Age.

Open Door to Fiction

Of the multitude of lens one uses to describe RPGs, I’m most partial to the notion of an RPG as a gateway to fiction.  When an RPG is doing it’s thing, it is helping you create stories with a mixture of conversation and abstract expression.  I talked yesterday about how weak the level of abstract expression is in 13th Age.  The flip side to weakened abstractions is that it makes getting to the fiction easier.

The trick is that you don’t want too direct a route to creating fiction because then you are just in a storytelling process which is great, but always runs the risk of creative fatigue and possibly losing direction.  Too much abstraction and redirection, though, and you get stuck behind the abstraction and mechanics, unable to make your way to the fiction you are creating.  This is where 4e and sometimes 3.5e could get stuck in.  You spend 10 minutes dealing with abstractions to generate a sliver of fiction.

13th Age keeps a d20 skeleton, but deliberately makes concession to fiction.  This occurs in class design at multiple points, but really shows up in monster design.  I want to introduce you to the best monster in the 13th Age book, the Owlbear, and one of its abilities:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a  hampered enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

So there’s a mechanical element (stunned), but then we’ve just leapt right into fiction. It’s a simple but elegant bit of design that can create all sorts of great side stories after it. You’re missing an arm, which the Owlbear is running away with.  Congratulations!

What this means for your hacks is that you want to keep them mechanically simple (with a few triggers), and find elegant ways to leap through the abstraction with a powerful fictional event.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about a few patterns and idioms I like for 13th Age hacks. See you then!

 

 

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age is Not

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age is Not

13thAge book

If you’ve heard the raves about 13th Age, you’ll have heard that it’s a cross between 3rd and 4th edition D&D, with it’s own slice of story-games on top.  This is true! But this truth leaves you in a confusing state when you are trying to hack the game for your own use at the table. In merging the games and cherry-picking pieces, 13th Age leaves out some fundamental parts of both editions.

This isn’t a problem until you try to port or express some concept from either game into 13th Age. It took a fair amount of thinking to port Worldbreakers from 4e to 13th Age. A lot concepts and idioms that made Worldbreakers tick in 4e just don’t exist in 13th Age. Ultimately, what you get in return more than makes up for it, but you have to acknowledge what you can’t really do in 13th Age to appreciate what you can do.

A disclaimer.  Some of these might seem like criticisms at first (especially before you see what I say what 13th Age is), but please keep in mind that 13th Age is the only d20 game that I play or plan to play. I like this game a lot. All I’m doing is trying to describe it’s shape and boundaries for fellow hackers like myself.

Weak Abstract Expression

So here is a thing that, depending on who you are, you really liked or hated:

“Your paladin takes a hit from Etherkai, and is hurled across the field…take 30 damage and push you 5 squares. You’re taking 10 ongoing damage from blood loss.”

I don’t want to spend a lot of time arguing the value of this, but I personally liked it because you could use the abstract state to demonstrate on the board the fictional happenings. It was possible in 4e to get too abstract and as such lose that connection, but as long as you kept those linked, you supplemented your narration with demonstrable effect.

Movement, a critical aspect of 4e, is a non-factor in 13th Age. Terrain doesn’t mean a whole lot as a result. You don’t get a laundry list of keywords or states to describe what’s happening to your character. Pushing and sliding have zero game for expressing what’s happening.  We are working abstractly in the game, but we are working on loose abstraction, where there is as much explicitly undefined as there is defined.

Abstract states, keywords and precise movement also kept you grounded in a game of incremental advantage.  You could see round by round who had the upper hand, who was in trouble, etc. 3rd edition has this to a lesser extent, but 13th Age has very little of this.

What you should avoid in 13th Age is trying to model a simple back and forth of giving and taking advantage. 4e did a great job of utilizing its tools for state management and expression to simulate swings and comebacks. In 13th Age you should remember the Escalation die. If a fight starts strong, as long as players can act, they are going to get stronger. As a fight goes longer, our characters become more effective. Because of this, don’t try to model swing, and don’t try to use mechanics to express what’s happening. 13th Age cares most about dynamics (more on this later) and fictional change. Of all the monsters in the core book, the Owlbear is the best monster for this reason. More on that in later posts.

 

Loosely Defined Fictional Inputs & Outputs

I think the easy term for this is “a skill system”.  If you think about a skill system, it is providing a precise way for your character to interact with the world.  When skills are tightly defined, they will provide your character with capabilities and mechanical advantages and options aplenty.  3.5E is clearly the most defined of the editions in this manner. 4e is much looser, and 13th Age, again…is non-existent.

Seriously, there are no skills!

What we get are backgrounds.  Backgrounds are incredible! But they perform incredibly different from a skill system.  First we acknowledge that a skill system defines the parameters of interacting with the world, whereas Backgrounds are border-defining.  Saying I have Hide +10 means that I can conceal myself given certain conditions.  Having a Leader of the Red Hands +5 says that there is a group of thiefs called the Red Hands that I happen to lead.  The background defines many possible interactions while the skill describes only a few.

Both the background and the skill can be considered “inputs” into the fictional world, but the skill is more rigidly defined and system-directed. The background is more loose and player-directed in its use. A skill tells a player how to interact in the world where a background indicates how a player would like to interact with the world.

What this means for 13th Age hacking is you want to stay away from building rigid defined inputs to your game world.  13th Age is at its best when it is providing hooks for improv-heavy gameplay.

These two things are what I think you need to unlearn when you are hacking 13th Age from older d20 games.  Next article I’ll highlight what I feel are defining patterns and characteristics for 13th Age, and discuss what some cool patterns and idioms for hacking are.

Worldbreakers of the Schism: Yenee of the Waves

Worldbreakers of the Schism: Yenee of the Waves
Yenee in her human form.

Yenee in her human form.

Off the shores of Laeda, Kitani, and Beltzhoover, the Merking is known as a nuisance player vying for a foothold in the region. In Zimare he is a major player who controls a fair amount of the seaborn trade that they engage in. He terrorizes the coastal towns, demanding tribute in drowned children each year. It is a cruel and terrible practice by which he builds an army of re-animated children to bolster his raiding forces with magic.

Yenee’s tribute bore an unusual and powerful fruit. Everyone in her village and beyond knew the girl as a talented dowser. When the Merking found out, he had to have her. Rather than let the village choose their tribute, he demanded Yenee. Her village could not refuse.

When the Merking began his ritual of drowning and bonding the child with water spirits, something unexpected happened. Yenee disappeared completely into the water, merging with it and taking control of the spirit completely. In a release of power, she became a series of living waves that battered and almost destroyed her village.

The Merking used the most clever of his glamours and tricks to calm her down, though none of his magic could control her. Yenee became a little girl once more, aghast at what she had done to her village. The Merking threatened to finish off whoever remained unless Yenee brought similar destruction to other villages along the Zimare coast.

Her love for her village turned Yenee into the Merking’s slave. She does his destruction with a heavy heart, but hopes one day to free herself and her people.

All Zimare recognize and know Yenee as the Merking’s harbinger of destruction. People hide and prepare to give the Merking what he wants they see her enter the village. In Laeda, she is just a little girl…

Yenee of the Waves

3rd level medium summoner {human spirit}
Initiative +8
Vulnerability: cold

AC 19
PD 17 HP 90
MD 13

Liquid Spears +8 vs PD (targets up to 3 far enemies), 15 damage.
    Natural 16+: 15 extra damage is taken.

Aquatic Aegis. Whenever Yenee is hit with a melee attack, she makes a Swallow the Sea attack against the attacker.

Swallow the Sea, +8 vs PD, target is is dazed and takes 10 ongoing drowning damage (save ends both). Can only be used as a result of Aquatic Aegis
    Miss: Target is dazed.

Liquid Form. Yenee can disengage without provoking attacks of opportunity.

Escalator: Yenee adds the Escalation die to her attacks.

Worldbreaker. Yenee is a Worldbreaker. She has several powers that trigger when the escalation die hits a certain number. Each ability stays into play unless dispelled. If the number on the escalation die comes back to a certain number, abilities are not used again.

Yenee creates threats that actually attack the village or town that the adventurers are in. If these threats are not taken care of in time, they move off the map and kidnap/destroy/seize something important in the area. Anything with the threaten X ability will leave do this after it is on the board for that many turns. Declare what the creature/item with threaten is attacking when you bring it into play. Each threat can attack players that engage, but all seek to move off the map and attack their target.

Track threats with dice on the table. Threats rise with the Escalation die. If a Threaten die is at it’s value at the end of a round, it leaves the map to attack it’s target.
Worldbreaker: Gifts from the Sea. Starting when the Escalation die is 1, tidal waves start bringing in different threats. Summon a Gift for each adventurer fighting. Each round after this, roll a 1d6 at the beginning of the round. On a 4+ you add another threat to the board. All gifts act on Yenee’s turn.

Gifts

Merfolk Raiders (12 raiders)

The Merking’s agents splash ashore and look for plunder.
2nd level merfolk
Initiative n/a

AC 18
PD 16 HP 9 (kills one raider)
MD 17

Threaten 3. The Merfolks kidnap and kill villagers, and steal loot at the end of any turn when their die is 3 or greater.

Trident Rake, +7 vs AC, 3 damage.

Children of the Sea (5 children)

Though they resemble children, all innocence has been drained from them long ago. They are more spirit than child now, bound to the Merking’s wishes.
3rd level water spirit
Initiative n/a
Vulnerability cold

AC 19
PD 17 HP 11 (kills one)
MD 13

Threaten 2. The Children look for more children to join them or look to sieze a strategic target at the end of any turn when their die is 2 or greater.

Undine Fury, +8 vs PD, 6 damage and the target is weakened.

Crushing Wave

A crushing wave rises so high it blots the sun. Nothing it touches will survive.

3rd level wave
Initiative n/a
Vulnerability magic, fortifications

AC 15
PD 15 HP 90
MD –

Threaten 4. The Crushing Wave destroys any structure or person it hits at the end of any turn when it’s threaten die is 4 or greater.

Menacing. The Crushing Wave has a fear threshold of 15.

Bigger than Swords. The Crushing Wave cannot be engaged and never provokes attacks of opportunity. It takes half damage from melee attacks.

Obliteration. Crushing Wave has no attack, but if a character is at the site of attack when the threaten timer goes off, she must make a save or be reduced to zero hit points immediately.