Appreciation of 13th Age’s features comes in waves. Icons smack in you the face. They’re brilliant. They make your setting more about characters and less about a wall of setting elements. Icons make the game personal as well as epic.
Next, you get to groove on the class design, a gridless, 4e/3.5 mashup that retains only some of the negatives (I still hate to-hit rolls but that’s another post).
Let me tell you what I think the underappreciated superstar in 13th Age is: Backgrounds. What’s so great about backgrounds? Well, backgrounds “thingify” experience, replacing the big skill list of other games with a mapping of your character’s experience to what they do now.
I know it doesn’t seem all that special or all that great, but to me Backgrounds tell you so much. having intimidate at +4 tells you something but not that much. It’s a measure of effectiveness, but it doesn’t describe mannerism or development. Red Sea Pirate +4 on the other hand, can tell you quite a bit when you use it for intimidation. In fact, it has to tell you something to even be used. What about being a Red Sea Pirate allows you to intimidate someone effectively. Is it a general skill, or do you know this person in particular will be terrified by your affiliation? Mapping your Background to your skill check in this way reinforces your fiction. In essence it makes each skill check a mini-flashback to show what you’ve learned. If you’re ever confused with how to use Backgrounds, just ask yourself (or better yet, share out loud): when did I do this before in my Background?
A Background sits somewhere between a skill and an Aspect (for you FATE junkies ) and/or a distinction (for the Cortex+ faithful). Because of what Backgrounds describe and do, I started contemplating how a Background can describe negative experience.
Say you anger a powerful sorceror. Before you leave, he places a curse on you for your insolence, a spell that makes you talk with snake like speech. You’re intelligible but you sound pretty weird to anyone listening. There are a few ways to express such a curse, but I really like just making it a Background. “Simon’s Slithering Speech -2” just fits. Now, rather than describing the list of ways and circumstances in which the spell operates, whenever the curse would affect you, the GM (por you, be honest!) can bring that into the roll. Negative Backgrounds should always be used on top of normal Backgrounds because there is a conflict of experience potentially that exists. Having the Slithering Speech would be counteracted by Entrovian Diplomat, so just combine the two and take the net bonus or minus to the check.
You can also use negative backgrounds for injuries. A few different ways to implement this (if you want something more in-depth, holler and I’ll write it up!), but I’ll go with one.
Before making your first death save, you can accept a minor or major injury for a bonus to your death save rolls. If you accept a minor injury you get a +2 to your roll and if you accept a major injury you get a +4 to the roll. If you make your death save, you take an injury background, chosen by the GM, as a -2 (minor injury) or -4 (major injury). The GM can put on something like Concussion -2 or Lame leg -4. Injuries can be recovered by making an injury save, which is a hard save. A minor injury can be made at the first rest, but a major injury can only make saves after at least two rest periods have passed.
This is just a start to how to use negative Backgrounds in your game. Tell us what you think! Have you already tried using negative Backgrounds in your 13th Age games?