by Rob Heinsoo

When we wrote the 13th Age core book, Jonathan and I traded off writing Chapter 8: The Dragon Empire. I got the chapter rolling with a big rush of ideas I’d always wanted to use in a fantasy campaign. Jonathan added many sections, then I rolled back through to finish the chapter off.

All of that is to explain why I don’t know which of us wrote the following section, which got cut during layout because of space. The phrasing makes me think that it was Jonathan, with me revising; but that may just be a case of how we mimic each other’s style when we write together.

Not only do I not know which one of us wrote it, for years I didn’t remember that we’d cut this piece out of the book! I would have put it into 13 True Ways if I’d realized it had been knocked out of the core book during construction. I’ve told multiple groups the story, thinking that I was just repeating stuff they’d already read.

Touching up the entry for this post, I noticed that “Builder’s Dreams” apparently misplaces its possessive apostrophe—the highway had multiple builders, so why the singular? But I think that was originally intentional: a hint that there may have been a singular builder, one whose dreams are not dreams you want to share.

Builder’s Dreams

Part of the magic of the great Imperial Highways is that no one feels comfortable living too close to them. Inns, towns, and buildings of all sorts (other than temporary shelters from the weather) are almost always constructed at least 100 yards or more from the road.

Travelers who sleep too close to the highways often have problems with dreams. The dreams of the original road builders haunt the highway stones. The dreams won’t touch you if you’re awake. But anyone who sleeps too near the road can count on nightmares, terrible sleep, and a gradual degradation of their faculties.

Such dreams and disrupted sleep isn’t something that has game mechanics effects after a night or a week, but the effects could be a problem after two weeks. People say that the Lich King has no power over these dreams. It might even be true.

The innkeepers near Horizon and Santa Cora show off the strength of their warding spells by setting up closer to the road than inns built in less magically skilled areas.

ROB_tileInspired by the new rune narration mechanics in the upcoming 13th Age in Glorantha book, I’m experimenting with a twist on the icon relationship rules in my Dragon Empire 13th Age campaign.

As before, a roll of a 5 or a 6 on the six-sider gains an icon relationship advantage. But in this campaign, the 5 and the 6 are pretty much the same, and it’s usually up to the player to say they want to use the advantage and suggest how it’s being used.

Instead of 5 always being a complication, I roll for a possible complication when the player uses the icon relationship advantage, normally after the player has said what they’re hoping to get out of it. I roll a d20—on a 1-5, there’s a complication, and I get to tweak the story and make it interesting.

Since I’m using the new icon tiles from Campaign Coins, the players usually keep the green side up in front of them to show they have an icon relationship waiting to be used. If they end up rolling a complication and I feel like hanging on to it, keeping it poised for later use, I tell them to turn the tile over to its red side.

I like this mechanical tweak because the complication comes as a dramatic twist, not as a definite consequence of using the icon relationship advantage. We’ll see how it goes.

ROB_tileWith a sly flourish on Twitter, Michael E. Shea asked how Jonathan Tweet and I ask for skill checks: Attribute? “Choose an appropriate background?”

First Method

There are a couple of ways to call for checks in 13th Age. Jonathan’s is simplest, and he gave it on Twitter (at @JonathanMTweet if you’re not following him yet):

Tweet on skill checks

 

Second Method

But what if the players aren’t entirely certain how they want to solve a problem? Sometimes I’ll say something like, “It sounds like you’ve decided you want to keep the refugees calm about the moon/water spirit in Halgrim’s Well. One of you should give me a skill check. Tell me who, and tell me a little about how you’re going to manage that.”

In that particular case, the player decided to calm the refugees with a Charisma check. With a natural 20, not only did the refugees feel comfortable about the spirit, they started propitiating it!

But in some cases, how the character has decided to accomplish a task doesn’t sound like the type of check they’ve announced at all. In that case I’ll say something like, “Okay, you’ve said you’re working behind the scenes to figure out what everyone needs, and get it done without them even knowing it. That’s a Wisdom check. What backgrounds do you have that might help you pull off this behind-the-scenes course correction?”

Partial Credit & Failing Sideways

Here’s one trick I enjoy: when it seems like a player is really stretching to apply a background to a particular skill check, I give them partial credit. I ask them to narrate what they think they’re doing, subtract 1 or 2 from their background, and let them roll. If they succeed, hey—turns out that they did know what they were doing, and how it works out may be funnier or a bit different than usual.

Same for failure! Situations like this are probably where my players get the idea that I sometimes turn their fail-forward moments on skill checks into fail-sideways. If the player stretched their background for a skill check, I say thank you, and load extra-fun (for me) complications when they fail forward-ish!

ROB_tileby Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo

When creating characters in a d20-rolling RPG, some of us will always want to roll ability scores. Others hate the randomness, or the risk of rolling up a less-then-competent characters, and opt for point-buy systems. In our games, we let players choose the method they like. When we make our own characters, Rob has always opted for rolling ability scores while Jonathan uses the point-buy system from the core rulebook.

But while we were creating 13th Age in Glorantha, Jonathan came up with an alternative we both like. It creates more diverse characters, it’s simple, and it’s what we have been using lately and suggesting to our players.

Assign these six scores to your abilities: 17, 15, 14, 13, 12, 10.

This alternative array is better than the point-buy arrays on page 309 of 13th Age, but it’s better on the bottom end. Low scores usually get ignored with point-buy systems; but a bit more emphasis on the low end of the scores helps characters in 13th Age because skill checks call on many different abilities, and your defenses are based on multiple ability scores.

Try it, and see if you like the results!

ROB_tileCal Moore created the lightning elemental as part of the newly published High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Four Icons. I tweaked the stats a bit to get them to play more like our other elementals.

High Magic & Low Cunning includes stats for the 7th level version of the lighting elemental. The monster tile Lee Moyer created for the lightning elemental is snazzy, and I’m taking this chance to show it off in color by presenting stats for the other lightning elementals at 3rd, 5th, and 9th level.

Technically, given the standardized sizes we used for elementals in 13 True Ways, we should have called the 7th level lightning elemental in the book the ‘big lightning elemental.’ No harm done, and I’m using the elemental standard in this article. I’m also ever-so-slightly massaging the stats of these new versions, but I can’t imagine you’ll notice!

Bzzzzt!

Small Lightning Elemental

Lightning elementals don’t have natural shapes of their own, unless you count bolts and sparks as shapes. They tend to pulse rapidly between jagged bolts and outlines borrowed from the creatures around them.

3rd level spoiler [elemental]

Initiative: +10

Lightning zap +8 vs. AC—7 lightning damage

Natural odd hit: The target is dazed until the end of its next turn.

R: Lightning strike +8 vs. PD (one nearby enemy)—9 lightning damage

Flight: Lightning elementals zip from place to place about half-as-quick as lightning, hovering above the ground to avoid being grounded.

Metal affinity+: The lightning elemental’s attacks gain a +2 bonus against an enemy wearing metal armor or wielding a metal weapon.

Resist lightning and thunder 16+: When a lightning or thunder attack targets this creature, the attacker must roll a natural 16+ on the attack roll or it only deals half damage.

AC   18

PD    18                 HP 38

MD  11

 

Lightning Elemental

Webs of lightning repeatedly streak in all directions, outlining the form of the creature and then dissipating. Each flash happens so fast, it leaves the thing’s image burned into your eyes.

5th level spoiler [elemental]

Initiative: +12

Lightning zap +10 vs. AC—12 lightning damage

Natural odd hit: The target is dazed until the end of its next turn.

R: Lightning strike +10 vs. PD (one nearby enemy, or far away enemy at -2 attack)—17 lightning damage

Lightning storm transformation: Roll a d10 at the start of each of the lightning elemental’s turns. If you roll less than or equal to the escalation die, it shifts into lightning storm form until the end of the battle. While in this form it gains the following improved attack (and you stop rolling lightning storm transformation checks):

C: Storm strike +10 vs. PD (up to 2 nearby enemies)—14 lightning damage

Natural even roll: The elemental can include an additional target in the attack (requires attack roll) that hasn’t been hit by storm strike this turn, but the attack only deals half damage.

Flight: Lightning elementals zip from place to place about half-as-quick as lightning, hovering above the ground to avoid being grounded.

Metal affinity+: The lightning elemental’s attacks gain a +2 bonus against an enemy wearing metal armor or wielding a metal weapon.

Resist lightning and thunder 16+: When a lightning or thunder attack targets this creature, the attacker must roll a natural 16+ on the attack roll or it only deals half damage.

AC   20

PD    20                 HP 66

MD  13

 

Epic Lightning Elemental

Epic lightning elementals that serve the Archmage have often been forced into somewhat regular forms in order to be able to hold a conversation. Epic lightning elementals associated with the High Druid let their current do the talking.

9th level spoiler [elemental]

Initiative: +16

Lightning zap +14 vs. AC—35 lightning damage

Natural odd hit: The target is dazed until the end of its next turn.

R: Lightning strike +14 vs. PD (one nearby enemy)—45 lightning damage

Lightning storm transformation: Roll a d6 at the start of each of the lightning elemental’s turns. If you roll less than or equal to the escalation die, it shifts into lightning storm form until the end of the battle. While in this form it gains the following improved attack (and you stop rolling lightning storm transformation checks):

C: Storm strike +14 vs. PD (up to 2 nearby enemies)—40 lightning damage

Natural even roll: The elemental can include an additional target in the attack (requires attack roll) that hasn’t been hit by storm strike this turn, but the attack only deals half damage.

Flight: Lightning elementals zip from place to place about half-as-quick as lightning, hovering above the ground to avoid being grounded.

Metal affinity+: The lightning elemental’s attacks gain a +2 bonus against an enemy wearing metal armor or wielding a metal weapon.

Resist lightning and thunder 16+: When a lightning or thunder attack targets this creature, the attacker must roll a natural 16+ on the attack roll or it only deals half damage.

AC   24

PD    24                 HP 164

MD  15

 

ROB_tileThe Icon Riffs series offers inspiration for adventure design and improvisation at the table. The ideas presented aren’t numbered, because numbered lists imply a certain consistency between results. These lists are evocative rather than consistent.

They’re also not thorough. This isn’t an attempt to list all the things that could be associated with the icons. There are huge numbers of worthwhile connections already scattered through our books and through players’ and GM’s websites. Instead of cataloging existing ideas, these notes are a brainstorm touching on ideas we haven’t already presented in detail. Some ideas may feed into future products.

(This month’s riffs created in collaboration with Wade Rockett.)

The Prince of Shadows

13A-Prince-Of-Shadows-tile-colorThe PCs start to notice the Prince’s symbol everywhere: in pipe smoke, bootlace knots, temple carvings, rock formations, sheet music, and more; magical tattoos of the Prince’s symbol that last a week and can only be seen by others with the same tattoo; covert missions to rescue slaves and relocate them with new identities, turning them into fiercely loyal assets to the Prince; a crime ring of anti-theist wizards that hires adventurers to steal from gods and demons; clerics of other gods who secretly worship the Prince as a god of lies and trickery.

Sleeper agents who are loyal to other icons—until they receive the signal and remember their true allegiance; ultra-rare dragons who can change their colors, spying or running long cons in Axis and Drakkenhall; whispers of a treaty between the Emperor and the Prince that grants safe haven to all within the palace grounds, leading to certain nervous retainers never setting foot outside the palace.

13A-Dwarf-King-tile-colorThe Dwarf King

A game using rune-carved stone tokens that predates the 1st Age, and which legend says was created by the first Dwarf King as a powerful magic ritual; an annual ceremony where the Dwarf King and every dwarf in the Empire strike the ground with their hammers at exactly the same time—maybe in remembrance, maybe to ensure something happens, or maybe to prevent something from happening; a top-secret program to create and control living dungeons as weapons of war against the drow.

Dwarf-forged cultists who await the coming of the Dwarf-Forged King, an icon  made of metal, fire and magic; negotiations between the Dwarf King and the Crusader over mining rights to a type of metal that’s found only in hellholes; a secret envoy from the Black to the Dwarf King, offering her assassins to help bring down the Prince of Shadows—for a price; rumors that every spring the Dwarf King sends a caravan laden with wondrous items and beautiful, exotic creatures to the Elf Queen.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

ROB_tileWhen many people give you the same feedback about your game for years, it’s got to have some truth in it. Today’s probable truth: “The combination of the wizard’s Evocation talent and the force salvo spell is broken.”

Some GMs even report that the combo skews their thinking as they set up battles, since they know the wizard is capable of using the combo and dealing an ungodly amount of damage. That’s unfortunate, since there isn’t a problem with the rest of the wizard’s spells or Evocation as it applies to those other spells.

Rob’s Solution to Salvos

Here’s how I handle force salvo when it’s combined with Evocation in my game. I’m not calling this errata. Yet. It’s advice. If you personally haven’t had a problem with the spell and the combo, you don’t have to think about it. But if you want to adjust the spell’s power level in your game, two changes should suffice. 

1. Replace force salvo’s adventurer-tier feat.

The first thing you can do to make an Evoked force salvo less terrifying is to remove the spell’s original adventurer-tier feat, and replace it with this one:

Adventurer Feat: When you miss all targets with the spell, it gains recharge 11+ after battle.

Force salvo becomes a much more balanced spell when it can only target each enemy once. It can still take out or severely damage a number of middling enemies, but it can’t be used to demolish a single powerful foe. If your attack roll against a specific enemy misses, you’re out of luck.

The champion-tier feat provides some consolation by letting you deal damage equal to your level, but each attack roll now matters; so you’re a lot more likely to save force salvo until the escalation die has risen, which makes the spell’s use much more interesting.

2. Strictly limit force salvo’s use to once every four battles.

Yes, it’s already a daily spell—but the rules give GMs some room to interpret what “daily” means, and this daily spell is a bit more powerful than others. I run a lot of double-strength and even triple-strength battles in my game, but that doesn’t mean I want to see this spell used every two or three battles.

For this one spell, turn the rule that “daily” averages out to once every four battles into a strict limitation: Once a wizard casts force salvo, make them wait another three battles before they can cast it again—even if the PCs get a long rest, or otherwise restore their daily powers. (Don’t let the wizard recharge force salvo using any of the various “recharge a daily spell” options scattered through the game.) Make the wizard choose a different spell until the last battle is completed, then let them switch to force salvo if they wish once the new “day” begins.

13th Age wizardBreak This Rule For Dramatic Awesomeness

Limiting force salvo in this way gives GMs an obvious icon relationship advantage to grant wizard PCs. In a situation where the PCs face certain doom, a 5 or 6 roll result could grant the wizard the ability to cast force salvo using the original adventurer tier feat—the way the mighty wizards of earlier ages cast the spell! Or perhaps the icon’s benefit enables the wizard to recover the spell just before the campaign’s climactic battle. If the icon roll result is a 5, there’s a price to be paid for such power…

Using icon relationships to give a wizard PC access to the unfettered version of force salvo as a once-or-twice-in-a-campaign event can turn the combo of force salvo and Evocation into a dramatic story moment, instead of a nettling reminder that game mechanics don’t always play out the way they should!

ROB_tileJonathan and I usually agree on the mechanics of 13th Age, but our memories don’t always agree when it comes to how key mechanics were created.* The escalation die is a prime example.

I remember using the escalation die in a bizarro 4e game, fighting minions of Torog, back before we started work on 13th Age. Jonathan remembers coming up with the mechanic on his own, as part of a system he ran for a couple of months that I…er…never showed up for. Both those memories may be accurate; but recently I discovered that the true origins of the escalation die lay elsewhere.

During a period when Jonathan and I weren’t GMing, Mike Fehlauer manned the captain’s/GM’s chair and took us on a 4e cruise through the Savage Tide. Mike’s excellent campaign benefited from a lot of mechanical experiments, and here’s one that he recently unearthed from an ancient email thread:

Another idea I had for speedy play was to put a card for “end of round” into the initiative deck. Each time that card comes up, all combatants (including monsters) add +1 to all their attacks. Second time it comes up, everyone starts adding +2 to all their attacks. And so on.

The pacing isn’t right, but the general idea is that as time goes on, the combat’s pace toward resolution increases. Sort of like how the blind keeps increasing in poker.

Maybe a better pace is “when a monster or character is bloodied, the ‘combat blind’ goes up by 1. All monsters and characters add the ‘combat blind’ to all their attacks.”

Hmm. Instead of “combat blind”, let’s call it “Savage Tide”. That way, as the Tide rises, things get more deadly. I like the sound of that. :)

Jonathan said that the idEscalation_Die_LKEea was interesting, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to track it. Paul Hughes commented that you could just use a die to keep track.

Jonathan and I both went off and used our own versions of the escalation mechanic in our games, giving the escalating bonus to the player characters but not the monsters. As a result, by the time we decided to design 13th Age together, we were both locked in with using something like the escalation die at the table.

Turns out that it’s really important to have a good gaming group!

*To be honest, Jonathan and I don’t particularly care which of us created specific mechanics, or how—the topic only comes up when other people ask.


 

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

ROB_tileThe Icon Riffs series offers inspiration for adventure design and improvisation at the table. The ideas presented aren’t numbered, because numbered lists imply a certain consistency between results. These lists are evocative rather than consistent.

They’re also not thorough. This isn’t an attempt to list all the things that could be associated with the icons. There are huge numbers of worthwhile connections already scattered through our books and through players’ and GM’s websites. Instead of cataloging existing ideas, these notes are a brainstorm touching on ideas we haven’t already presented in detail. Some ideas may feed into future products.

The Crusader

13th Age Crusader colorTemples where demons are destroyed permanently in rituals that siphon their power away to the Crusader’s gods; ‘airships’ powered by winds that blow only from hellhole to hellhole, so that the Crusader’s armies can float between hellholes when the ‘winds’ are right—or wrong, depending on what’s actually going on here; bridges built where bridges are most required that can be freely used by the populace, so long as everyone crossing provides their true name (lies are often detected) and their intentions for this travel.

Occasional ‘high cullings,’ in which the temples and worshippers of the weakest of the dark gods—at that time—are destroyed and sacrificed or driven away so that the strongest gods get stronger—and so that the strongest gods are careful to make sure they never become weak. Public-minded pension programs that provide additional assistance to widows and families of Imperial veterans, so long as those families send one daughter or son to join the Crusader’s armies; literacy initiatives that create generations of readers with an extremely dark vocabulary.

Knights or warriors in full plate who ride forth to accomplish their mission and then seem to freeze, and when someone finally dares to investigate the motionless armor, it’s empty—at least for now; likewise, walls and fortifications that appear to be patrolled by dozens or hundreds of warriors, but it’s difficult to say which armor is occupied and which is not, especially since the unoccupied armor sometimes moves.

Renamed holidays and festivals, so that every worthwhile celebration is named after a past or present general or mighty crusader, with new ‘traditions’ playing off the original traditions in ways that sometimes get adopted by people who otherwise oppose everything the Crusader stands for; unpredictable amnesties for crimes that do not support the Diabolist or (generally) damage the Emperor.

13th Age High Druid colorThe High Druid

Ancient magical stones that have been allowed to weather; holy stones that have not been carved upon but instead gradually grown into somehow organic shapes; menhirs sprouting living trees; plinths covered in flowers, in patterns that reveal problems in the forest.

Great monsters that break through the Sea Wall, but somehow subside and find a hole to burrow into deep within the Wild Wood; great subterranean creatures that more or less follow the Koru behemoths; great creatures never seen on the surface, that have occasionally been known to swallow an entire living dungeon; beasts that used to live in the Midland Sea but now sleep somewhere upriver, waiting for the day when the wizardry that tames the Midland Sea falls shattered; rangers or druids or monster killers or manipulative wizards who take it upon themselves to uncover and learn about the giant creatures that live just beyond the Empire.

Forests with canopies shorter than humans, cultivated or guarded by gnomes, pixies, or halflings; traveling human raft communities that convert to lake towns on pole houses when they reach their magically prepared seasonal moorings; human tribes who reincarnate into the local otter population and then back again into the human clans, so that the two groups have distantly understood kinships and fur hunting will get you killed either way; animals that talk to people but only at specific phases of the moon, which makes it the beasts’ equivalent of lycanthropy, a blessing to some and horrible disease to others.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

ROB_tileAn interviewer once asked us, “If someone has never played a tabletop RPG, why would 13th Age be a good game for them to try?”

Well, that interview never ran, so we’re going to share our answers here. We designed 13th Age for experienced GMs, but it can be a great entry point into the hobby for new players. Here’s why:

Jonathan: Number one: creativity. When new players try a tabletop RPG, they often get excited about the creativity and imagination that go into creating their characters. They’ll say things like, “I want to have a pet fire lizard like one from the Pern books,” or “I want to be a princess.” In other games, you can try to make these unusual features work somehow, but in 13th Age inventing unique traits for your character is built right into the rules. The system is flexible enough to accommodate oddball ideas without having to make them fit some pre-existing character template.

These days, computer games make it easy to create characters “by the book,” but only tabletop games really give you free-form, creative flexibility, and we really dialed up the creativity with 13th Age. A beginner will see right away that this isn’t just a computer game on paper.

Rob: The character’s “One Unique Thing” really goes over well with young players. “I’m the only person who can talk with birds,” said a 7-year old in a friend’s game. “I’m the Last of the Clockwork Knights,” said another friend’s 12-year old, who decided that 13th Age would be the first game his father would run for the family. Instead of telling new players, “No, that’s not what this game is about,” 13th Age starts with a half-designed world that asks players to help start the stories and background ideas that matter to them. The character who talks with birds ends up getting messages from the Game Master that couldn’t be delivered to anyone else. The clockwork knight turns out to be the last of the mechanical people we called forgeborn, but in this world they’re going to be called clockwork knights.

(Actually I’m not going to run games for beginners again without using the One Unique Thing, and I mean any game, not just 13th Age. To get new players seriously involved in a tabletop RPG quickly, check out our implementation of the One Unique Thing and apply it when you are running other games.)

Another great reason to start with 13th Age is that the game is grounded in the traditions of fantasy gaming and fantasy fiction. By providing players with the comfort of the familiar, along with various twists that inspire them to take things a step further, the game frees them to create exciting new stories.

A third reason to start with 13th Age is that we tried not to waste the reader’s time. Playing tabletop RPGs is the opposite of boring, but even some of the best RPGs have boring sections. If you take the time to read a page in 13th Age, we aimed to provide ideas, sentences, and small surprises that would make that time well spent. For examples of what I mean, look at the price list, the example of play, or the index. Even I feel silly saying that—who wants to look at those sections?  But we found ways to make even those pieces worthwhile.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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