Curses & Broken Bones: Negative Backgrounds in 13th Age

Curses & Broken Bones: Negative Backgrounds in 13th Age

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?


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5 Responses

  1. Problem is of course, what’s in it for the player for including these?

    In FATE and Cortex Plus you get Fate Points or Plot Points for including negative …er…aspects for dice rolls.

    But as you’ve observed, this is something that should be in 13th Age, but isn’t.

  2. Yep, actually built a currency system that I’ll detail a little later that this system can work with. I wanted to detail this concept first before introducing it though.

  3. The mention of injuries reminds me of conditions like Angry from Mouse Guard.

  4. Nice. I thought of something similar, but the problem – as has been noted – is… what’s in this for the player?

    A FATE-like currency can be implemented, but to properly shine it must be central to the experience. In 13th Age it just isn’t.

    So another alternative would be extra Background points. In order to limit this, I suggest the following. You can get two minor (-2) or a major (-4) negative background, and in exchange you gain a single background at +1 for minor drawback or +3 for major drawback. You can’t spend any more skill points on these backgrounds unless you take a Further Backgrounding feat. It’s better if you link the drawback and the bonus.

    This does not apply if the negative background is a penalty you gained during the game. Such penalties might be used by (sadic) GMs to punish the worst mistakes of players… but I wouldn’t do it without a very good reason to be honest.

  5. The extra Background points is _a_ way to go, but that usually leads to players taking Negative Backgrounds (or Traits to draw the correlation tighter) JUST to get more points.

    This can work fairly well in systems where Backgrounds/Traits are enumerated as long as the negatives are all roughly equal.

    Since backgrounds are open-ended (players can make their own), players will take the opportunity to abuse the system. I know the GM can mitigate this, but if there’s a better solution (similar to a currency system of some type), I’d opt for it as a designer.