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!