OSRing 13th Age

Back to the Old School…
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The 2013 first printing of 13th Age and my much abused vintage 1977 box set of original D&D

What is the OSR? It stands for Old School Renaissance (or Old School Revolution). It is a movement in gaming that focuses on role playing games from around 30-40 years ago. In many ways it is like freeform jazz-funk – it is very 70s/80s, it scares me, and I don’t fully understand it … and among the terrible squealing and hurumphening it produces moments of such sublime beauty and genius that it takes my breath away. Also moog synthesizers might be involved.

In many ways 13th Age is an OSR game (and in many ways definitely not). The OSR as a movement embraces a DIY aesthetic and encourages hacking games to do new and interesting things – and so does 13th Age. The OSR movement is all about playing your favorite game the way you want to play it – and so is 13th Age. The OSR movement is all about creating fun games unencumbered by needless rules – and that is 13th Age in a nutshell.

But 13th Age is also very much not an OSR game. In crafting a game with a classic feel but modern rules it sacrifices a lot of sacred cows. Gone is XP. Gone is gaining advancement for gold. Gone is alignment (though see page 27 for how to put it back in). 13th Age also draws upon the full 40 year history of dungeon-delving dragon-slaying d20-rolling RPGs along with taking design cues from ‘story games’.

So how does one OSRify 13th Age? Well… much can’t be OSRified. But some can. By implementing the hacks below you can make your game feel very old school. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those who really like their dungeons with that 70s ambiance here is your slice of jazz-funk.

I should point out that some of these ideas are not mine. Like much of the OSR these ideas were reappropriated, remixed, and remastered. I have tried to give credit where credit is due.

It’s the little things…
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In a traditional OSR style game how much you can carry actually matters. That is because dungeon-delving is dangerous and the hard choices you make about what you are carrying into a dungeon can spell life or death for your character.

Tables chock full of the exact weight of a 10-foot-pole or a silver mirror littered older editions of games, like doilies in a grandmother’s drawing room. When I was young my brother and I loved doilies because we could throw them like they were crocheted ninja stars. When I got older I realized they were useless folderol. Now I’m older still, and I see the value in perhaps not leaving little ring marks over the furniture. The modern solution is coasters made of circuit boards or coasters created from core samples of rock or doilies 3d printed out of compressed dreams. Cooler than crochet. So what is cooler than adding up the exact weight of each piece of equipment and comparing it to an arbitrary number? What is the coaster-made-from-a-space-shuttle-heat-tile of encumberance?

I first saw this idea in computer games, and then in the old Ghostbusters RPG. Matt Rundle’s Anti-Hammerspace Item tracker is a more modern iteration (with a brilliant adaptation by Lawrence Augustine Mingoa).

Here is my take on it.

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Each character has 24 item ‘boxes’. 6 on the body, 6 on the back, and 6 on each side of the body. Heavy armor takes up a 6×2 block. Light armor or a shield takes up a 2×2 block. Weapons like daggers and saps take up a 1×1 block, swords and axes a 1×2 block, and large weapons like spears or great axes take up a 1×3 block (as does a 10’ pole). Camping gear for the wild (tent, shovel, rope, cook pot, etc) takes up 6 boxes which can be broken down into several 1×2 blocks, but a ranger’s camping gear takes up only two 1×1 boxes. Something big like a small one-person boat takes up six boxes, and a big collection of small things (bag of gold, throwing stars, iron spikes) takes up one box. Most other items (lanterns, oil flasks, a day’s worth of rations) take up just one box. Small characters (gnomes etc) carrying or wearing items intended for larger characters use up double the normal number of boxes doing so. I’ve also included two other 6-box groups: one for a hireling or companion (or animal companion), the other for a steed or pack animal. Needless to say if a steed is stolen or a hireling runs away any equipment on them goes away too. Beyond armor anything that you wear (boots, gloves, hats, amulets) is a freebie that takes up no space.
Characters with strength and constitution modifiers that add up to +3 or higher have 28 boxes (4 sets of 7 boxes), characters with strength and constitution modifiers that add up to +6 or higher have 32 boxes (4 sets of 8).

That’s it. Draw the items in the boxes and away you go. No tracking exact weights or sizes, just draw a picture.

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Taking more stuff with you slows you down. More equipment means more ways to solve problems, but also means that you are more weighted down with cumbersome bulky packs and pouches and clanging clanking pots and pans. For every fully filled 6-box (or 7-box or 8-box) subtract 1 from disengage checks and from all rolls to perform acrobatic maneuvers above lava, rolls to sneak past sleeping goblins, rolls to ride sharks, etc.

Welcome to the Meat Grinder.
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One feature of early game design was the meat-grinder. OSR style games reward clever avoidance of combat, as combat is far deadlier than in more modern games. 13th Age doesn’t really support meatgrinder-style play and opts for a more heroic style of play.

In a recent 13th Age post on Google plus Mike Mearls floated the idea of tying the escalation die to whole encounters rather than to rounds within an encounter.

Thus the dungeon die concept was born.

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The dungeon die works like the escalation die but works for a dungeon and against the players characters.
The dungeon die uses these rules:

  1. Every encounter where the adventurers fight monsters or set off a trap or otherwise create a loud or discoverable presence within the dungeon the dungeon die goes up by one.
  2. Sneaking past a bunch of monsters or avoiding a trap entirely decreases the dungeon die by one.
  3. Using diplomacy to get past monsters or disarming a trap keeps the dungeon die at the same value.
  4. All monsters add the dungeon die to their attack rolls.
  5. All monsters that are escalators (like dragons) add both the escalation die and dungeon die to their attack rolls.
  6. The dungeon die starts as a d6. If the characters go back to town to rest or flee a fight it becomes a d8, then a d10, then a d12, then a d20!

Using these above rules the smarter the player characters are the more likely they are to leave the dungeon alive. Starting fights and setting off traps alerts the rest of the dungeon to their presence and makes fights which follow that much harder. Cleverly sneaking around and checking for traps makes future fights easier as the dungeon returns to a state of quiescence.

Life is cheep, healing is expensive.
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Early games had few options for self-healing in combat. To mimic this any time a character would spend a recovery and gain HP they instead spend a recovery and gain a free basic attack. Only magic such as cleric abilities, paladin abilities, or healing potions can allow a character to spend a recovery and gain healing while in combat. Outside of combat a short rest only allows one recovery to be spent on healing.

Simplicity is beauty.
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The key to early D&D’s style revival in OSR is simplicity. Back in the old days there were very few classes; checking my ‘77 D&D boxed set I find just three: Fighting Man, Magic User, and Cleric.
The way to OSRify 13th Age here is easy. Fighting Man = Fighter, Magic User = Wizard, Cleric = Cleric. All other classes are verboten. You get to play a human, a wood elf, or a dwarf. All other races are a no-no.

Add alignments, shake well.
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13th Age replaces alignments with icon relationships. To OSRify the game don’t remove icon relationships, but use the guidance on page 27 on how to implement alignment.

The effects of alignment are:

  • Alignment languages. You may make an icon relationship roll when encountering somebody of the same alignment to communicate secretly with them. This could be ‘the black tongue of evil’ or ‘speaking orcish’ or ‘thieves cant’ or it might represent characters referring to mutually known events or people or scriptures as a sort of code. A 5 or 6 by either party indicates that secret communication successfully took place.
  • Detect Alignment. Anybody who can cast spells can make an icon relationship roll to see if a magical effect or object (or in some cases a person) is of a similar outlook as them, cosmically speaking. A 5 or 6 indicates that they get a yes/no answer. If the caster sacrifices the use of one daily spell for that day they may detect the exact alignment of an effect, object, or person.
  • Clerics. Magical healing grants +d6 HP if the person being healed is of the exact same alignment as the person healing them, and -d6 HP if they do not share an aspect of alignment at all (true-neutral cleric trying to heal a chaotic-good fighting man would heal d6 HP less). Conversely cleric spells that do damage deal -d6 if the target is of the exact same alignment and +d6 if the target shares no alignment with the cleric.
  • Ward against Evil/Good/Law/Chaos. As a ritual a wizard can cast a spell on an area designed to go off when creatures of a certain alignment enter the area. The spell lasts for [INT mod x level] hours before the ward fades away.

The map is your friend.
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13th Age prefers to cut to the chase and get to the fun parts, but for some the minutiae of the journey is just as important as the denouement at the destination. Because the old school style of play is deadlier every aspect of the dungeon that can be used to your advantage is vital.

In normal 13th Age if you wanted to backflip off a wall over the head of an ogre to reach the lever that raises the portcullis you’d just tell the GM that you are doing it and the GM lets you know what you need to roll to succeed in the way that you envision. In classic old-school games you need to know just how many feet the wall is from the portcullis, exactly how tall is that ogre, where exactly is the lever positioned, and so on. 13th Age eschews ticky-tacky square-and-foot-counting in favor of heroic fantasy and putting that level of detail back in defeats the point of 13th Age.

However… I do miss the old trope of mapping out a dungeon. Tedious and time-consuming (and occasionally frustrating) as it was there was something deeply satisfying about grid-paper full of corridors and rooms, a record of exploration.

Here is my take on how to put it back in.

The party nominates a player to map. That player draws a map or makes some other record of the exploration of a dungeon or area. The map doesn’t have to be accurate, just accurate enough. Once per battle or scene that player may grant themselves +1 to a roll or another +2 to a roll (if they can justify it using the record of the dungeon that they have created).
“Wait – you get +2 because we can go back to that S-shaped corridor and use the spikes from that pit trap to help you climb the wall. Look – HERE on the map.”
“I grant myself +1 to my roll to disengage because my armor is still slick from the oil pit we found HERE on the map.”
“You get +2 to hit the goblin archer because according to my map we are right over the Well of Darkness HERE and the rumbling sound from below will probably unnerve the goblin.”

Hirelings and Henchmen.
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Just as what you take into a dungeon is important so is who you take. The Hirelings and Henchmen feat presents a way for characters to bring along extra help when delving. Fighters can trade in 3 background points to get the feat for free. You may take the feat multiple times but benefits from having lots of one type of henchman or hireling do not stack, so it is best to pick a different type of hireling or henchman each time.

Each time you pick the feat choose one of the following:

  • SHIELD MAIDEN (battle brother, fanatic). Grants +1 AC in combat. Bonus rises to +2 at Champion tier and +3 at Epic tier. COST: New shield (and possibly bandages) plus wages = 50 GP after every battle (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If cost is not payed she provides no combat bonus until she is re-equipped, healed, and payed. SKILL: May have a 3-point fighting-related skill applicable outside of combat.
  • APPRENTICE (young enchantress, elderly seer, illusionist, gnomish tome-carrier). Grants +1 to hit with spells. Bonus rises to +2 at Champion tier and +3 at Epic tier. COST: Spell components and replacing burnt robes and broken wands = 50 GP after every battle (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If cost is not payed the apprentice provides no combat bonus until they are resupplied. SKILL: May have a 3-point magic-related skill applicable outside of combat, maybe aiding in ritual casting.
  • PRIEST (prophet, hermit, wise-woman, etc). Grants +1 to all healing from recoveries. Bonus rises to +2 at Champion tier and +3 at Epic tier. COST: Tithes to their faith = 50 GP after every battle (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If cost is not paid the priest provides no healing bonus until they are satisfied. SKILL: May have a 3-point religion-related skill applicable outside of combat.
  • SQUIRE (armorer, manservant, maid, etc). Grants +1 to hit with melee attacks. Bonus rises to +2 at Champion tier and +3 at Epic tier. COST: Equipment, food, lodging, horses, and training = 50 GP after every battle (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If cost is not paid the squire provides no bonus because they do not have the funds to properly care for their master’s equipment and well-being. SKILL: May have a 3-point skill applicable outside of combat, usually related to a peasant background.
  • FLETCHER (spear-carrier, flintknapper, smith, bowyer, etc). Grants +1 to hit with non-magical ranged attacks. Bonus rises to +2 at Champion tier and +3 at Epic tier. COST: Provisions, tools, and raw materials = 50 GP after every battle (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If cost is not paid the fletcher can provide no bonus. SKILL: May have a 3-point skill applicable outside of combat, usually related to a peasant background.
  • GOONS (villagers, arrow-sheaths, meat-shields, etc). These are three foolish and bumbling idiots to whom you have given poles to prod at traps with. If you would need to roll a save or make a skill check to avoid a trap or avoid falling or other environmental woes you can choose to sacrifice a goon instead. You can also sacrifice a goon to give yourself +1 to your defenses against a single attack (+2 at Champion, +3 at Epic). Once all three goons are gone you need to hire new goons. A trio of goons costs 50 GP to hire (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic), mostly because you need to buy half the tavern drinks before you’ll find somebody willing to come along with you. At the end of every session roll a save for your goons – if you fail then one of the goons dies (they walk out of camp in the night to relieve themselves and are eaten by a grue, they eat a poisonous mushroom, they trip over and fall on a sword they were cleaning for you, etc). If you are down to your last goon and it survives three further sessions you may graduate the goon to another type of hireling, switching the type of hireling that your Hirelings and Henchman feat grants you.
  • HERALD (cheerleader, musician, poet, scribe, trumpeter, etc). +4 to initiative rolls and +4 to rolls to impress others. COST = 50 GP every time you enter a large city to buy them nicer clothes and lodging (100 at Champion, 150 at Epic). If you do not pay the cost they’ll still sing songs about you but the songs will not be as flattering. SKILL: May have a 3 point skill in something completely unrelated to adventuring.

Unless otherwise stated henchmen and hirelings act like familiars in that they are not valid targets in combat. Enemies recognize that the heroes are the true threat, not their lackeys. Should a henchman or hireling die the hero with the Hirelings and Henchman feet can gain another at the next largish village they visit.

Of course you can reflavor your henchmen… your shieldmaiden could be an animated construct that acts like a loyal dog snatching arrows out of the air but needs to be repaired after every battle, or your apprentice could be an imp that whispers dark secrets to you and demands you spend money on tithes to dark gods in return. Up to you.

In some ways henchmen work a bit like potions and oils and runes – you get a bonus in exchange for gold spent. In a way they are like background points. However, there are downsides. Henchmen can die (though they can not be targeted in combat), be frightened off, or separated from you – and so while they are in some ways better than magic they are also in certain ways worse.

Travelling around with hirelings and henchmen poses one further downside that travelling with a pouch of magical potions does not … for every henchman or hireling in your group subtract 1 from all rolls whenever the group tries to sneak about, move stealthily, or leave no tracks.

… and when your character dies (the dungeon dice brings the deadliness of 13th Age to near OSR levels) you can always have your new character be your old henchman.

Sprinkling for flavor…
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You might not want to incorporate each of these ideas into your game. The dungeon dice can be added to a regular 13th Age game to create an especially deadly living dungeon. The equipment tracker can be used if your group cares about encumbrance rules. The mapping idea encourages note-taking and helps players tie their character’s stories to the narrative of the wider world.

… and of course if you have an OSRian in your group these rules hacks are a great way to ease them into a new game while they show you what is fun about the way they like to play. And if you are an OSRian – hey, its time to for you to teach the new dogs some old tricks.

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Our director of organized play for 13th Age, when she isn’t busy avoiding Jazz-Funk Goblins ASH LAW enjoys cups of tea, running 13th Age, and slaying dragons.

2 Responses to “OSRing 13th Age”

  1. Emerikol says:

    I know you tried to be respectful but your disdain still came through for a lot of things. It’s kind of why I don’t like 13th Age at all. They believe stuff about gaming that isn’t true for me.

  2. Fjw70 says:

    One way to make 13th Age more OSR would be to start at zero level with no spells (besides cantrips), talents, or maneuvers. HP would be the base for the class (e.g. 8 for fighter) plus Con modifier. Then just do incremental increases until you are ready for 1st level.

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