In the 13th Age Facebook group, a new GM asked for good examples of PC backgrounds. I offered some, but couldn’t help also giving advice on what makes a good background. (It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.) I said that a good background doesn’t just outline your character’s backstory in three or four brief sentences, and provide a bonus you can add to a wide variety of checks—a good background also gives the GM story hooks for an adventure or even an entire campaign.

For this column, I’m going to take an example of a good PC background, and talk about how I’d turn it into an adventure! The background is, “Former sailor on the Imperial frigate Intrepid, which was sunk in battle against the Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet under the command of the lich admiral Vertinor (+4)”.

Before we dive in (ha!) I want to mention that If any part of the background conflicted with a non-negotiable element of my campaign, it would be completely reasonable for me to ask the player to change that detail. For example, if it were important to me that my version of the Dragon Empire strongly resembled ancient Carthage, I would ask the player to change it to something like “the warship Adherbal“.

Breaking Down the Background

I’ll put on my (nautical) GM hat and think about the elements of this background.

The Imperial navy. The game tells us that the Dragon Empire has a navy, but its presence in a PC’s background brings it—and the theme of seafaring adventure—to my table. I can have the heroes explore the Midland Sea, search for sunken or buried treasure, hunt a traitor in the navy’s upper ranks, fight sea battles, battle sea monsters, and more.

The frigate Intrepid.Wikipedia tells me that a frigate is “a lighter galley-type warship with oars, sails and a light armament, built for speed and maneuverability” that originated in the late Middle Ages. This tells me something about the composition of the navy, and the technology level of sailing vessels (and maybe other things) in my campaign world. To help bring the world to life, I can research what other kinds of ships were used in fleets of that era and include them in the game. It also gives me a template for the kinds of names those ships might have.

Sunk in battle. This background cites a specific naval battle that occurred in the past, where the Emperor’s navy was one of the combatants. I ask the player how long ago this happened, and how large the battle was. She says it was a major sea battle that happened about ten years ago. Both sides had heavy casualties, but the Emperor managed to prevail with the help of air support from the dragons of Axis. There’s also a specific sunken wreck somewhere at the bottom of the Midland Sea. Did something valuable go down with it? What monsters might inhabit the wreck? What are the Intrepid‘s survivors up to these days?

The Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet. Okay, so the Lich King has a navy of his own! This is a big change from how he’s presented in the core book: the book describes the island of Necropolis as “dormant” thanks to rituals performed at tombs on the island’s outer ring by the Gravekeepers of the Empire, and it says if those rituals aren’t performed, “the undead swarm through the ocean and emerge onto land all around the Midland Sea.” Giving the Lich King actual ships puts him more on a level with the Emperor as an earthly ruler to be reckoned with. It also raises the possibility of ships crewed by the undead occasionally putting in at Shadowport.

The lich admiral Vertinor. This is fantastic! I now have a villain who one of the PCs hates. He—or his minions—could be recurring foes, showing up anywhere on the coasts of the Midland Sea. Are you headed to the island of Omen in search of an artifact? One of Vertinor’s ships is right behind you—or maybe they got there first. Negotiating a peace treaty with the sahuagin? Vertinor shows up on behalf of the Lich King to offer them a better deal.

I think I want Vertinor to stick around for a while, so I’m going to make him a high-tier monster using the stats for the Lich Count in the 13th Age Bestiary. If the heroes manage to kill him, their next and final target might be the Lich King himself!

The Lich KingThe Lich Admiral Vertinor

Double strength 8th level spoiler (undead)
Initiative: +11

Touch of the grave +13 vs. AC—50 cold damage, and the target is dazed (hard save ends, 16+)

Natural even hit: The target is weakened instead of dazed (hard save ends, 16+)
Miss: 25 cold damage.

R: Shadow rays +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—35 negative energy damage

Natural 16+: The target is encased in shadows (save ends). While under the effect, it’s weakened and takes 10 ongoing cold damage.

R: Empowered fireball +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—35 fire damage, and 10 ongoing fire damage

Natural even hit: The target takes 20 ongoing fire damage instead of 10.
Miss: 15 fire damage, and 5 ongoing fire damage.
Limited use: 2/battle.

C: Look upon your doom +13 vs. MD (up to 3 nearby enemies)—Vertinor gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle

Fear aura: While engaged with this creature, if the target has 48 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

Thank you for the best ten years of your life: When Vertinor scores a critical hit, the target loses a death save until the end of the battle (effectively, it now dies after failing three death saves, and the effect is cumulative). In addition, the crit range of attacks by Vertinor against the target expands by the escalation die and he heals 40 hit points.

Immortality: When Vertinor drops to 0 hit points, his lifeless body turns to seawater but he does not die. He begins to reform near the item that contains his soul—a blue gemstone set in a silver necklace—taking a number of days to regain its full strength equal to his level. If the gemstone has been destroyed, Vertinor dies when he drops to 0 hit points.

AC 24
PD 18
MD 22
HP 240

Let’s Make an Adventure!

I have all the elements of a fun adventure that’s powerfully relevant to one of the PCs; now it’s just a matter of assembling them. Let’s see…a sunken ship connected to the Emperor implies sunken treasure that includes a true magic item connected to the Emperor. Looking at Loot Harder, I think the melee weapon of Imperial Might fits well—let’s make it the Sea Axe of Imperial Might, a weapon wielded by the Intrepid’s captain. A search for sunken treasure suggests fights with various sea-themed monsters, so I’ll go through the books and build appropriate battles. A recurring villain with a connection to the wreck adds urgency and variety if he’s also after the treasure. The villain is undead, which means his minions probably don’t have to breathe, so they can just walk around on the seafloor.

Here are three possible approaches to an adventure based on this one background:

Wreck of the Intrepid: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with a dagger in his back that bears the symbol of the Lich King. In his dying moments he gives the PC a map of the Midland Sea that shows the location of the Intrepid. “He’s after the Sea Axe,” he wheezes before passing away. The GM tells the player what her character knows about the Axe, including that it was a symbol of the Intrepid’s honor, to be kept out of enemy hands at all cost. “He” can only refer to Vertinor. The adventure is a race to get to the Intrepid first, with challenges that include figuring out how to reach the ship, an underwater hazard montage (see Book of the Underworld for hazard montages), and battles with gigantic sea creatures and the undead.

Skulls of Shadowport: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that a group of treasure hunters has located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. The Sea Axe is now in Shadowport, and it already has a buyer—Vertinor is on his way there in the Revenant to purchase it as a trophy of his victory over the Intrepid. The PCs must get to Shadowport and prevent it from falling into the hands of the hated lich admiral! The adventure is a city scenario with challenges that include an investigative montage to learn who has the Sea Axe and where it is (see Crown of Axis for investigative montages), navigating the city’s criminal underworld, and battles with thieves, smugglers, pirates, and the undead—plus other monsters that lurk in Shadowport’s dark alleys and docks.

Reclaim the Sea Axe: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that Vertinor’s minions located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. It now hangs on the lich admiral’s wall as a trophy of his victory. This adventure is a heist caper where the PCs must devise a plan to get the Sea Axe back: either steal it from the lich admiral’s cabin aboard the Revenant, steal it from his manse on Necropolis, or steal it when the lich admiral is traveling, away from the usual protections provided by his ship or Necropolis. Be ready to work up battles and hazards appropriate to the plan! (See this column on how to quickly and easily adapt a monster to a different location or role.)

I could also run this as a series of three adventures, with the Sea Axe continually being snatched from the heroes’ grasp at the last moment until they finally seize it for themselves. Their eventual triumph will be that much sweeter for the delay!

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


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. 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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I ran a 13th Age one-shot for some wonderful authors as a part of the online TBRCon (check out the full set of panels), and the fact that it was recorded gives a chance to talk about one of the most important but most ephemeral aspects of rpg play – gamemastering decisions. As a GM, you make dozens of decisions about the plot, the description, the actions of the NPCs, the interpretation of the rules, the interpretation of the scenario, and how to react to and anticipate the actions of the player characters – but it’s all in the moment, and hard to pull out and analyse.

So, in this article, I’m going to try to reconstruct my thinking as I ran the game.

Pregame Thoughts

It’s a 13th Age demo for players who are familiar with D&D, with an audience and a faintly literary vibe. So, I handed out generic pregens (no One Unique Things, Backgrounds, or Icon Relationships) in advance, and sketched out a simple scenario – the player characters are adventurers hired by a local lord, Barismus Quent, to quietly re-murder his long-dead great-grandfather Uther Quent, who’s come back as an undead monster. Lord Barismus fears that his grandfather’s come back to chastise him for marrying a member of the Hale family, the Quents’ long-time rivals. In truth, Uther’s woken up because Barismus’ brother Asfod has stolen Uther’s armour, in the hopes of undermining his brother and rousing a peasant revolt. I statted up Uther and his undead guardians, as well as Asfod and some potential combatants in any such revolt – but I left the scenes after the barrow dungeon crawl very vague. As it was only a three-hour game, I didn’t want to commit to any complex plots that I couldn’t bring to a conclusion in time.

One-shots really benefit from a strong conclusion. That doesn’t necessarily mean a strong ending – the ending of this one-shot was fairly messy – but it’s good to give the players the impression that they played through a coherent and complete story, that what happened at the beginning of the game connects to the middle and leads to the end. If the players come away feeling that the adventure made no sense, then even fun individual scenes can feel like a waste of time. Conversely, an adventure that’s only ok to play through can become more satisfying in retrospect if most of the story elements connect.

Character Creation

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=133 The players introduced their characters.
GR Matthews: Halfling “Merchant” Scrammish Framwell

Anna Stephens: Dwarf Barbarian Bunny Smallbottom, with a large family and an anger problem

Justin Lee Anderson: High Elf Wizard Arian Ravenblood, highly arrogant and inquisitive

Steve McHugh: Wood Elf Ranger Bayn Fangwhisper, rebelling against evil parents

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=341 I told the players they could add backgrounds on the fly during the game. This works really well for one-shots – it reduces the initial complexity as the player doesn’t need to pick backgrounds until they need them, it gives the players a chance to embed their characters in the story, it boosts their chances of succeeding, and because it’s a one-shot, it doesn’t matter if a character ends up with +5 in “Recognising 8th Age Pottery”. I wouldn’t do it as readily in a campaign, as you risk the player investing in something that won’t come up very often.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=385 For Icons, I dropped the number of relationship points to 2, just to speed things up. In other one-shots, I’ve insisted on a common icon (“you all have to have a positive or conflicted relationship with the Priestess” or somesuch). Icons tend to be tricky to work with in one-shots – it’s still fun to work them in, but it requires a lot of luck and mental agility to weave half-a-dozen disparate Icons into a scenario. I do try to hit at least one Icon per player character, although in this game I really only got to use the Prince of Shadows.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=628 Note Steve’s connection to the Three here, which I got to invoke later on.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=663 One Unique Things! Arguably the most distinctive element of 13th Age, and one of the trickest parts of a one-shot. Ideally, you want the game to touch on each player’s OUT, at least a little bit. In a one-shot, it’s enough to just acknowledge the player’s contribution, but often you can drag the game to a satisfactory conclusion by tying whatever plot twist you need to add to a One Unique Thing. (“And because Bob is the Only Halfling Who Can’t Cook, he can poison the dragon with botched Halfling cuisine“).

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=689 Justin takes “Eidetic Memory”. This is one of those OUTs that sounds like a really powerful ability, but boils down to “look, GM, instead of taking notes, I’m just going to ask you to describe stuff a second time later on” and generally works in the game’s favour, speeding up investigative play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=698 Anna’s dwarf Bunny is the “youngest of fourteen siblings” – which is a fine OUT for a campaign, but I never had a chance to bring it into play in the one-shot. If I had more presence of mind, I could have turned one of the NPCs into a dwarf and added some family dynamics, but it never came to pass.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=740 GR’s halfling is a penny-pincher. I encouraged the player to exaggerate this trait a little, to make it a bit more unique, and immediately planned to hit the player with a roleplaying dilemma in the barrow-dungeon crawl. Given I already had an adventure based around the consequences of grave-robbing, I knew I’d easily be able to bring this OUT into play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=766 Finally, Bayn can tell when someone’s lying. In a campaign, I’d almost certainly have put some restriction on this – either he has to do something (“I can tell when someone’s lying, but I have to be able to hear their breathing”) or there’s a tell of some sort (“I can tell when someone’s lying, because a giant ghost cat appears on my shoulder and hisses ‘lying’”). For a one-shot, I let it fly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=800 Both Scrammish and Bayn took connections to the Prince of Shadows, so I leapt on that as connective glue for the company. Those two started out travelling together, and the other two joined them. I let the other two players decide who was the long-time travelling companion of the two thieves, and who was the newcomer. Establishing simple relationships and status differentials like that early on gives players a little texture for roleplaying.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1023 Scrammish and Bayn decided they were smugglers, so I leapt on that and asked what they were currently smuggling. This meant that I was deviating from my initial outline (which started with a briefing scene giving the players the dungeon-crawl), but it did mean I could introduce the two feuding factions and give the players a bit more context. The wagon with the boxes of straw was improvised on the spot. A wagon gives the players something to defend and protect, putting the mysterious cargo in boxes defers making a decision about it until later (and gives a nice “what’s in the box” jolt of anticipation) and the straw suggests whatever’s in there is fragile.

Given that the cargo was going to the Hales, and their enemy Asfod Quent had a potential druidic connection, I guessed it was some sort of alchemical defoliant or plague – but I left my options open. (In retrospect, I should possibly have made it a potential _elven_ connection to tie into Bayn and Arian – but, equally, that might have been one level of complexity too much for a short one-shot.)

Gameplay

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1119 Mechanically, there’s absolutely no justification for this Intelligence check – it’s just purely a dice warmup and a super-basic mechanics reminder for the audience.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1313 And the party’s already splitting up…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1354 I wasn’t planning to endanger the wagon at this point anyway, but nothing gives the game away more than asking for marching order for the first time before triggering a trap. So, I started setting precedent that they’d have to worry about the wagon’s security.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1720 I have absurd hands. This is not of any relevance to gamemastering techniques, but it’s really hard to unsee.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1749 My plan here was for Bunny to find evidence of the secret passage that the lord’s treacherous brother was using to sneak in and out of the castle. Her low roll meant that this discovery never happened. I try to bring this subplot into play again later on, and the players fail again. If this subplot had been necessary to the story, I’d have skipped the roll and just had the players find the secret passage (or better – tied it to Bunny’s icon relationship. “This castle is dwarf-built, and you know from your association with the Dwarf King that…”)

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2367 One of the key skills for a GM – shutting up when the players are riffing. It’s especially tricky in online play, where table crosstalk is harder to achieve.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2543 If the players evince interest in something, like talking to the lord’s wife or visiting the local library, run with it – but think about how it can lead back to the main plot! Often, you’ll have some key plot elements you want to foreshadow, and any form of foreshadowing works. If they’d asked to look at a portrait of the dead ancestor, or talked to the kitchen scullion, they’d also have learned about Uther’s shiny armour, but the information would have been presented differently, and in a way that suggested the player had asked a very clever question indeed.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2710 Justifying the failed roll on external factors (you don’t speak this language) instead of suggesting that the genius elf is at fault.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2889 This scene with Lady Hale sets up the intended use of the cargo in the wagon, by showing her interest in the forest between the two domains. The cost was less time with Hargul, who I enjoyed playing – but as the players couldn’t understand his exaggerated gravelly grim dark voice, that’s for the best.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3269 I wanted to give Geoff a bit of spotlight time, and to hint at intrigue and disputes. The second Intelligence test would have spotted the same secret passage that Bunny missed earlier…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3468 An hour into the game, and we’re through scene one…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3511 This is a good example of giving the players a choice where both options are consequential but not entirely clear. Do they endanger the wagon by leaving it behind, or keep it with them and risk arriving at the haunted barrow by night? If the choice was “take the wagon with you or leave it behind”, it’s a lot easier for the players to default to the safest (or, rather, most controlled) option of taking it.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3660 When you say “don’t roll a 1”, players will roll a 1. My intent for this roll was just to remind the players that the wagon’s contents are perilous and fragile, but Anna’s roll of a 1 forced me to nail down the contents of the box.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3755 To a degree “the box contains an egg” is basically “the box contains another, smaller, box”, but it is forward progress. Also, it gave me a chance to use an icon relationship – specificially, Bayn’s connection to the Three – to explain the nature of the egg. And because a Red, Blue and Black Dragon comprise the Three, it makes thematic sense for the egg to either go fiery-boom, weird-magic-boom, or acid-poisony-boom as needed. Later on, for example, the players contemplate blowing up the barrow with an egg. If they’d done that, I’d probably have decided that the eggs contained a poisonous vapour that didn’t affect the undead.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4341 As Bunny examines the tomb, she spots some religious paraphernalia. I’d originally planned to have a subplot where the players meet a sympathetic cleric who tried to exorcise the haunting of the barrow, but ended up dropping this and focussing on the druidic connection.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4521 The fight here – a bunch of low-damage mook skeletons who grab on and reduce their foe’s armour class, and two tougher skeletons with a high-damage attack that has a big attack penalty. So, if the players don’t deal with the mooks, the big guys can hit them with big swords. I made the mechanics of the fight very clear, and took things easy on the players until they go to grips with their abilities.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4849 Another natural 1! Especially in a one-shot, it’s always good to make a fuss of memorable rolls, hence Scrammish gets used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight. Note that this didn’t really penalise Scrammish that much – he was effectively Stuck but could still fight perfectly well – but it’s a memorable visual and a fun scene.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5517 It’s always a good idea to tie elements in a fight scene back to the overall story – when the dice come out and the conversation becomes all about attack bonuses and hit points, the plot can get forgotten unless you keep bringing it up. Hence, the detail that the mook skeletons are dead Hales.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5884 Technically, this shouldn’t have been a crit, but I wanted to get moving with the fight and the wizard wasn’t yet breaking out area-clearing acid arrows…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6035 And yes, this wasn’t even a hit – but timing takes precedence over rules in a one-shot.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6135 I gave each player character 4 recoveries – a full complement of 8 is too much for a one-shot, as there’s almost no chance of burning through all of them. Similarly, when running a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, I tend to drop Network and Cover scores to half their normal values.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6514 Letting players narrate kills is always fun.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6832 TFW you realise that none of the player characters have a single healing ability other than the barbarian.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7744 As soon as I made it clear that they could walk away from this encounter, the dynamic changed immediately.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7935 Arguably, this should have been an autosuccess to spot the plot, ala GUMSHOE. Then again, in 13th Age, the plot tends to be a lot more wobbly and changeable.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8153 The temporary confusion of Margot Hale with the druid is an interesting point – in a short adventure like this one, the players are going to reasonably assume that any mysterious shadowy figure is connected to established plotlines or characters.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8299 And Bayn’s Bullshit Detector ability pays off nicely here, letting the players eliminate suspects and move along smoothly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8664 Here, I use Lady Hale to draw all (fair enough, both) plotlines together – the players can use the weapons they’re smuggling for the Prince to blow up the barrow.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8739 And as we’re into the last 30 minutes of the timeslot, it’s time to bring everyone and everything together by having the druid show up.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8817 I really wish I’d brought Asfod “on-screen” earlier, as it’s really bad writing to have the villain of the piece show up only in the last scene. Oh well – that’s the nature of roleplaying games. You can’t neatly script satisfying and coherent plots. You’ve got to roll for and with it…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8948 I’m fascinated by the potential of audience input during live online games…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9378 This ability also had a cool hook into the potential peasant revolt, but again, you can’t always be sure how a scene will turn out.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9447 It’s always great when players come up with scenario-ending moves for you – and a player-generated plan should always take precedence over a GM’s solution to a problem.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9526 Hargul does deserve to be hit, to be fair.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9769 With only a few minutes left in the slot, and knowing that I needed to move towards an ending, we abandon the regular rules and move towards a looser, more narrative approach to the mechanics. You still want the uncertainty and fun of dice, so “roll high and cool stuff happens.”

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=10097 Technically, yes, the bad guys won, but it’s still a satisfying end for the players.

Crown of Axis

The arena officially opens in a month! In the next Page XX, you’ll have the opportunity to purchase Wade Rockett’s PDF-only intro adventure. It’s in the middle of layout now and has been slotted into the schedule as Pelgrane’s March 1st release.

Until then we leave you with Simone Bannach’s illo of spirit-aided oratory from a noble of House Emberhill, dedicated to restoring Axis’ glory one decaying arena at a time.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters

Art is complete. I’d say design is complete except that J-M DeFoggi and Liz Argall came up with some new monsters to add while J-M is finishing development work on other chapters. J-M is working on his last development pass, the next step will be teaming up with me to handle final math and storytelling questions. We aim to turn the Drakkenhall sourcebook over to the editor the first week of March. I’m not sure when it will be out of editing and into layout.

Simone Bannach gets the art preview again, this time from a couple of the citizen-monsters who give the city its epithet.

Gareth’s New Book

Cat has turned Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan loose to work on his new 13th Age adventure. We’ve learned that when Gareth is unleashed, he soon returns home with a thick manuscript held between his jaws. So we’re not entirely certain that this wicked new adventure will be slipping into the schedule in this position, but we wouldn’t be surprised. Nor would we be upset, because it would be nice to publish an adventure in between two sourcebooks.

Behemoths: Paths of the Koru

Authors are working on their second drafts. Art hasn’t been commissioned and development hasn’t begun, so this sourcebook is still a ways off. We’ll find out soon whether it moves up the schedule or down.

Icon Followers

I’ve done less work on Icon Followers than expected, which sees it moving to later in the year. Playtesting of the pieces that are finished has gone well, and regular contributors including Cal Moore, J-M DeFoggi, and Liz Argall have been adding exciting bits, so I expect to announce this Bestiary of NPCs’ next steps later this year.

Speaking of announcements/heralds, that’s the flute and quill symbol of the Axis Bardic College, a touch added by ASH LAW and illustrated by Aaron McConnell.

[[Crown of Axis cover by Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer, Drakkenhall cover by Roena I. Rosenberger]]

In part one I described how Crown of Axis began with an invitation to write the next big introductory adventure for 13th Age, and my idea to set it in the Emperor’s city of Axis. I just had to convince Rob Heinsoo this was a good idea!

First, I read everything ever written about Axis in 13th Age. The game’s “your Dragon Empire will vary” approach meant that I was free to present one possible interpretation of the city, but I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of, and feel for, what had come before. I was also aware that a GM might not have 13 True Ways (which contains the most extensive writeup of Axis to date), so I would need to figure out what background information was important enough to include within my limited page count. Brief descriptions of the various neighborhoods were vital: PCs might travel anywhere in the city, and I had to equip the GM with enough information to handle the basics. Some of it was important to making players feel like Axis is a place: the tastes, the sounds, the smells, and how people there live their lives. I wanted to invite players to sample the street foods, play wargames in the taverns of Garrison, and cheer on gladiators in the arenas.

I wrote a detailed, bulleted outline with a rough map of a key adventuring location and sent it to Rob and J-M DeFoggi, the project’s developer, for review. I knew they would come back with incisive questions, as well as comments about things I may have overlooked or not fully thought through.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll share some issues (large and small) that I needed to work through before the outline was approved:

  • The outline included real-world historical people and institutions as placeholders for fictional ones, and the longer those placeholders stick around the harder it will be to create the fictional versions.
  • Nothing prevents the PCs from going straight from the situation in the beginning of the adventure to the final battle, ignoring everything in between.
  • Why doesn’t [BAD GUY] simply do [OBVIOUS THING]?
  • The design needs to account for the possibility that the PCs will fail in the end.
  • Some players will want their characters to fight in the arenas as gladiators, so the GM needs tools to handle that.
  • The PCs spend much of the adventure solving a mystery, and there aren’t investigative rules in 13th Age. It would be great if there were an elegant mechanic to handle those parts that feels like it belongs in 13th Age.

In the end, I wrote eight drafts of the outline before Rob gave me the go-ahead to write the adventure. This was great because even though plenty of details would change during the design phase, my foundation was rock-solid. However, I struggled at the beginning: this was the biggest RPG writing project I’d ever taken on, and my anxious perfectionist brain became overwhelmed. The solution was to schedule weekly Skype discussions with J-M where I’d share the status of the draft and we’d work together to solve any design and plot problems that came up. That’s where most of the solutions to the challenges above came from. It’s the closest I’ve ever worked with a developer on an RPG project, and it was incredibly helpful.

The final draft kicked off the development phase, a back-and-forth process where J-M ensured that my design matched the desired play experience, and he checked my math and mechanics. He also asked me to write a handful of art orders: descriptions of people, items, or locations for an artist to illustrate. From there it went to the editor, Trisha DeFoggi, and from there to layout. Which is where we are as of this writing!

I hope these posts are helpful to anyone who’s interested in becoming an RPG designer, or just wants to know how the RPG sausage gets made—and I hope you enjoy playing Crown of Axis when it comes out!

 

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


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. 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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Fight off the creepy menace of the Shambler and its fungus-encrusted rot elves; join the Scavenger’s Parade to four magical markets in the far corners of the Empire; climb Skyveil’s spiral shell up into the overworld; or ride the massive behemoth, Dolphin, as it transitions between its land-form and its undead-haunted nightside-form in the depths of the Iron Sea.

Behemoths: Paths of the Koru is a 13th Age sourcebook for GMs running champion- or epic-tier campaigns.

Just as no two 13th Age campaigns take place in identical versions of the Dragon Empire, the Behemoths authors were not required to treat previously published material—or each other’s ideas—as canon. Each author created cults, parasites, behemoth barrows, and creatures of legend to unleash on their own campaigns. Whether you decide to use one or several, Behemoths’ eight chapters explore what the Koru behemoths might mean to 13th Age heroes . . . and how the behemoths might interact with each of the 13 icons in their struggle to remake the world.

Unleash the behemoths!

Authors: Liz Argall, Elizabeth Chaipraditkul, Benjamin Feehan, Julian Kay, Martin Killmann, Rebecca Lauffenburger, Jennie Morris, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Developers: John-Matthew DeFoggi, Rob Heinsoo

Status: In development

[[behemoths in the mist art by Aaron McConnell]]

 

With Crown of Axis out of its design and development phases and currently with the editor, I thought See Page XX readers might be interested in hearing how the adventure came about—a behind-the-scenes look at how one adventure came to be, for aspiring RPG designers or anyone who likes to hear how the sausage gets made.

It began with Rob Heinsoo emailing to tell me that Pelgrane wanted a new 1st level introductory adventure for 13th Age. Shadows of Eldolan and The Strangling Sea are both excellent, but they’d been out for a while and it would be good to have something fresh to offer. Would I be willing and able to write:

  • A 44(ish) page adventure for level 1 characters
  • Introducing GMs and players to 13th Age, its distinctive mechanics, and its approach to F20 roleplaying
  • With different types of antagonists than the other intro adventures (e.g. not undead)
  • As soon as possible?

This was the first time I’d actually been asked to write an adventure instead of volunteering myself. Wreck of Volund’s Glory began as a homebrew adventure I wrote to run at Gen Con, and I pitched it to Kobold Press as a product after a few successful sessions. The general outline of Temple of the Sun Cabal took shape at the 13th Age Adventure Workshop panel at Gen Con, and I offered to write it up as a full adventure for 13th Age Monthly.

This project would also be the longest and most complex RPG project I’d ever tackled. I love a good writing challenge (and seeing my name on the covers of things), so I said yes. Rob asked me to send him a pitch and a proposed outline.

I thought about the adventures that most excited me when I was new to RPGs, playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager back in the early 80s. As a huge fan of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, I loved city adventures—ones where armed and dangerous rogues wander through bustling markets filled with exotic goods, fight duels, chase pickpockets, evade the city watch, and become embroiled in the sinister schemes of the wealthy and powerful. A lot of introductory adventures are set in the kinds of places Fafhrd and the Mouser left behind in order begin their careers—for this one, the heroes would follow their example and head for the big city.

For a long-form creative project I find it useful to have a one-sentence summary of what this thing is and what it needs to accomplish, so I can refer back to it throughout the process in order to keep myself on track.  For this project it was, “An introductory 13th Age adventure in which the PCs are new adventurers seeking their fortune in a wealthy and powerful city, and which will inspire the same feelings of wonder and excitement I experienced when I encountered City-State of the Invincible Overlord as a teenager.”

And where would such an adventure be set but in Axis, the seat of Empire?

I immediately realized what I’d be getting myself into if I set this adventure in Axis. Writing an adventure to introduce brand-new players and GMs to a game is a heavy responsibility already, but to set it in arguably the single most important city in the game? What on earth was I thinking? But the idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go: our heroes would test their mettle in the legendary City of Swords itself.

But only if Rob agreed.

NEXT: In Which The Author Adds Meat to These Bones, Researching Axis, Brainstorming Adventure Elements, and Constructing an Outline to Present for Rob’s Stern Judgment

 


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. 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.

Fire Opal Media Inc. 13th Age Roleplaying Game Community Use Policy

Last updated April 21st, 2016

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We at Fire Opal Media would like to note a special thanks to Lisa Stevens and Paizo Publishing LLC for allowing us to leverage their excellent policy!

By Julian Kay

In the early days of our hobby, before players learned to yearn for lofty quests, adventurers’ motivation was simple: treasure was what we needed. Using wealth to draw enemies towards a trap is a standard real-world and literary trope, but early fantasy games went a step further, turning the wealth into a monster! And few such monsters are more iconic than the mimic, an ambulatory chest filled with more teeth than treasure.

The mimic’s problem is that it’s become too iconic. The only reason a mimic might surprise your players is that it hasn’t appeared in 13th Age—yet. Even so, describing a treasure chest in too much detail will give the game away and encourage a round of chest-thumping.

And so, this version of the mimic is about more than the trap. If your PCs have grown accustomed to modern sensibilities after opening dozens of normal treasure chests, and you can get the old chest-ambush trick to work, the surprise rules (13A pg. 164) and the mimic’s abilities will give you plenty to chortle about. But our focus is on playing on adventurers’ greed in a different way, providing an encounter that forces them to choose between their well-being and the call of that sweet, sweet loot . . . .

Backstories of a Box

The mimic seems like such a strange concept that it begs for an explanation. Some may feel an answer ruins its surreal appeal, so it’ll be up to you to decide whether you’re interested in one of these possibilities.

  • Blame a wizard: The Archmage, the Wizard King, one of their agents—somebody wanted an all-in-one guardian and container. Maybe it was more voracious or fecund than its creator expected, or maybe the mimics outlived the icon that created them. While the surface world eventually eliminates such pests, some mimics found ancient caches and deep caves where they hibernate, slowly digesting any enchanted valuables they can get their maws on.
  • Blame a dungeon: Mimics could easily be part of the strange ecology of living dungeons. And if a dungeon has a constant influx of adventurers, it could be a form of adaptation. Or maybe a living dungeon is canny enough to cook up these living traps. Worse, it’s easy to imagine delvers carrying one out, unaware of its tightly “locked” contents until it was too late, leaving the Dragon Empire to deal with the occasional hungry chest.
  • Blame a curse: Mimics could be part of a curse laid on a particularly greedy soul, perhaps by the Elf Queen or Diabolist, as an object lesson on the practice of hoarding. If you have the 13th Age Bestiary 2, perhaps those slain by a mimic become coin zombies (13B2 pg. 32). Alternately, it’d be fitting to involve the Gold King (13B2 pg. 112)—perhaps mimics are what’s left of his treasury’s guards, taking on an accursed role as eternal treasure-bearers.
  • Blame a demon: A mimic could be another fiend dragged out of hell. This version would titter and scream a lot more as it sinks its teeth into a delver’s arm.

Deathly Digestion

Whatever their origin, one thing we’re going with is that a mimic’s death destroys or digests any treasure they might be holding. GMs may want to inform a character with the appropriate background of that fact once the conflict starts, or keep it as a surprise.

While in hibernation, mimics digest treasure slowly, feeding on the magic, minerals, or both. Over time, some treasure can become runes within a mimic (13A pg. 284), something like pearls forming in oysters. But when they’re active, mimics burn though loot a lot faster, and their dying spasms push their metabolism to boil up whatever they’re holding. Or maybe they’re magical gates to dimensional caches that collapse upon their death. The exact mechanism isn’t too important.

Why get finicky about this timing? If adventurers can just kill mimics and take their loot, they become a novel monster concept, but not a novel encounter. Instead, adventurers will have to choose between seeking treasure and doing damage. Generous GMs might let PCs snatch a piece of loot from the maw of a dying mimic, but the rest of their hoard goes with them.

Beast or Barter?

Mimics may be intelligent, depending on the origin you’ve settled on (or not) and how you want to play them. If they’re just animals, they just want to gobble up anybody who thinks wearing a lot of magic morsels is a great idea.

But an alternative tradition, borrowed from their earliest origins, is for them to be both sapient and talkative. If so, they can offer information on the underworld or dungeons they’re found in exchange for treasure, or offer to trade items in their gullet. Since an item’s worth to a mimic may be based on its momentary value, its material, or just some aspect of its taste (”gotta get them sweet sapphires!”), it’s possible PCs may not even be trading down from a practical perspective. If you’re looking to get a bothersome item out of a PC’s hands, it can be a means to perform equitable exchange both in-character and out-of-character.

Intelligent mimics could offer alternative goals when delving. Perhaps a mimic is willing to ignore the tasty treats PCs are wearing if they’ll help it to a particular delicacy. Maybe it has an ancient grudge with a talking stalagmite. It could yearn for a lost drow song that once echoed through its cave. Either way, you’ll have to decide what a talking box wants.

Mimic

This voracious chest feeds on enchanted treasure, but humanoids make tasty side dishes.

Double-strength 3rd-level wrecker [ABERRATION]

Initiative: +8

 

Trap jaw +8 vs. AC—20 damage

Natural even hit: The mimic grabs the target. While the mimic is grabbing a target, it cannot use trap jaw, but does 10 acid damage to the target each turn they remain grabbed.

Miss: The mimic may make an inexplicable limbs attack as a free action.

 

C: Inexplicable limbs +8 vs. AC—12 damage, and the target becomes vulnerable until the end of their next turn.

 

Living trap: When a mimic starts a battle with a surprise attack, the escalation die does not increment to +1 until the start of the second full round. Anybody who suffers a surprise attack from a mimic is vulnerable until the end of their next turn.

 

Loot-filled innards: The mimic contains a few magical items of the GM’s choice, with the exact number based on the preponderance of magical items in the campaign and the size of your group. Some of these will be runes, but there should be one true magic item in there. Any character can attempt to snatch a piece of loot from inside a mimic’s maw during combat unless the mimic has someone grabbed; this requires a standard action while engaged with the mimic. (GMs should inform them of this option.) If the mimic is grabbing a target, only the grabbed character may attempt to snatch loot from inside the chest. When reaching for mimic loot, the character either rolls a normal save or attempts a DC 20 Dexterity check, their choice! On a success, they retrieve a random item from the creature’s innards. If they fail, the mimic makes a wicked maw attack against them as a free action. Once the mimic is reduced to 0 HP, all treasure it holds is lost.

 

Nastier Specials

Greedy glutton: The mimic adds +2 to trap jaw attacks against the foe with the most magic items (if any). If there is a tie, it gets a +1 bonus against all tied foes instead.

Sticky saliva: Any disengage check performed while engaged with a mimic has a -5 penalty.

 

AC   20

PD    18                 HP 82

MD  16

 


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. 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.

Usage Dice are an F20 innovation for tracking consumables. The short version: a particular resource, like arrows in a quiver or burning torches, are rated by die size. When you use that resource, you roll the die – on a 1-2, the die drops one dice size. Roll a 1-2 on a d4, and you’re out of that resource. It’s a handy little mechanic that reduces book-keeping while adding excitement.

13th Age cares even less about tracking minor resources. Above 1st or 2nd level, I’ve certainly never bothered noting how many arrows my archer has, or how many days worth of iron rations the characters have in their packs. There are games where managing logistics and balancing the weight and cost vs the utility of a particular item is part of the fun; 13th Age is not normally one of those games.

In fact, 13th Age goes further, making gold and non-magical treasure virtually unimportant. So, let’s take the whole question of resources, and abstract it out!

Resource Saves

A Resource save is a regular saving throw, succeeding on an 11+. If you succeed, you have the item required. If you fail, you don’t have that item to hand.

There are two possible triggers for a resource save:

The GM can call for a resource save where the adventurers are at risk of running out of a particular type of resource (arrows after a long battle with lots of archery, food and water while lost in a dungeon). If the save fails, the adventurers are out of that particular consumable.

Players can also call for a resource save to determine if they have a particular unusual item. Do you have a healing potion to hand? Resource save! A weapon oil or rune? Resource save!

Each time you make a Resource save, make a note. You get a -2 penalty to Resource saves for each previous Resource save. To get rid of this penalty, see Refreshes, below.

Wealth saves

Wealth saves work the same way, covering the character’s cash on hand. Can you afford to stay in this pricy inn? Make a Wealth save. Can you bribe the guard? Wealth save! If you fail a Wealth save, you’re out of coin.

Failing a Wealth save doesn’t necessarily mean you simply don’t have enough coin. Maybe you got gouged by a greedy merchant, or your coin-purse got robbed, or you have a secret gambling problem, or you donated a portion of cash to the temple. Maybe, in the tradition of wandering adventurers, you squandered it all on ale and feasting, or weird arcane supplies. Look, if you were a prudent, fiscally sensible sort you probably wouldn’t be adventuring in the first places.

Again, each time you make a Wealth save, make a note. Take a -2 penalty to Wealth saves for each previous Wealth saves, successful or not.

Refreshes

You can refresh your Resources by visiting a market, a town or some other bastion of commerce and making a successful Wealth save to buy what you need. You can also refresh your Resources if you find a supply cache or armoury in a dungeon. When you refresh, erase all the penalties to your Resource save.

You refresh your Wealth by looting treasure. Simple as that. (Or finding some other source of wealth – going home to your rich family, collecting taxes from your domain, collecting a bounty on that ogre bandit, honest work, stealing from the guilds of Glitterhaegen…)

Character Tiers

Obviously, what counts as a common expense to a beginning adventurer is very different to a common expense to a mighty hero of the Empire or dimension-sundering master sorcerer. If you make a Hard save instead of a regular one, you get access to the benefits from the next tier up instead. Conversely, if you ask for an Easy save instead of a regular one, you get the benefit of the lower tier.

So, if you’re a Champion-tier character, you can make an 11+ Resource test for a Champion-tier potion, a 16+ save for an Epic potion, or a 6+ save for a bog-standard Adventurer potion.

New Feats: Wealthy & Well-Equipped

Wealthy: Once per level, reset your Wealth save penalty to 0.

Well-Equipped: Once per level, reset your Resource save penalty to 0.

 


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. 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.

Esteemed Patreon backer Simon… wait, no, strike that out. Correct that.

Esteemed Pelgrane co-owner Simon Rogers asks: “I have an idea for a Page XX column which by pure coincidence would help me for my game in a week’s time. I would like (Champion tier) stats for Grendel, and Grendel’s Mother, plus suggestions for reskins of existing creatures for Norse ones.” So, by pure co-incidence, here’s a take on Beowulf for 13th Age parties. (And by even purer co-incidence, it lets me do some research for my stretch goal adventure for another Beowulf game…)

Grendel on his own is a match for a party of 7th-level adventurers; Grendel’s Mother isn’t quite as fearsome, but she’s accompanied by a host of nicors.

Grendel

march-riever mighty, in moorland living,

in fen and fastness; fief of the giants

the hapless wight a while had kept

since the Creator his exile doomed.

9th level triple-strength wrecker [Giant]

Initiative: +13

Grim and Greedy Grasp +14 vs. AC (3 attacks)—80 damage

Natural 16+: Grendel grabs the target and throws him over his shoulder. The target is Stuck (but moves with Grendel) and Hampered while in Grendel’s clutches (save ends both).

Ruthless Murder +14 vs. AC – 120 damage, and 20 ongoing damage (save ends). Grendel can only make a Ruthless Murder attack if he has no grabbed victims.

The Hall-Thane’s Hate: Grendel automatically ambushes (getting a free round of attacks) if he’s attacking characters who have just taken a Quick Rest or Full Heal-up. He gets a bonus to his attacks in that ambush round equal to the number of Recoveries expended in that rest.

Safe from sword of battle: When Grendel’s hit by an attack, reduce the size of the damage dice by two steps before rolling. So, if Grendel’s hit by an attack that would normally deal 7d8+10 damage, the damage dice by two steps (d8->d6->d4), so the attack now deals 7d4+10 damage instead.

Hot Blood: If Grendel’s struck by a critical hit from a melee weapon, the attacker must make a save (11+) or the weapon’s destroyed at the end of combat.

Far and Fast The Fiend Outran: When the initiative dice is even, if Grendel is not engaged with any foes, he may withdraw from combat, escaping across the moors and fens. Any grasped characters may make one final Hard save to escape; any characters who fail this last save are devoured.

Leave Hand Behind In Pledge: If Grendel is unable to disengage, he may choose to pop free by sacrificing one of his limbs. Grendel may also choose to automatically succeed at a save by the same method. Grendel’s number of Grim and Greedy Grasp attacks is permanently reduced by 1.

After Wassail Was Wail Uplifted: Grendel hates music and song. When a bard song is in effect, the singer becomes Vulnerable to Grendel’s attacks.

AC   24

PD   23                 HP 555

MD  19

 

Grendel’s Mother

the livelong time

after that grim fight, Grendel’s mother,

monster of women, mourned her woe.

She was doomed to dwell in the dreary waters,

cold sea-courses

9th level Double-strength spoiler [Giant]

Initiative: +13

Grisly Claws +14 vs. AC (2 attacks)—60 damage

Natural 16+: Grendel’s Mother may make a loath to bite attack as a free action.

Broad and Brown-Edged Short Sword +14 vs. AC – 100 damage.

Avenge the Bairn: Any character who damaged Beowulf is Vulnerable to this attack

C: Loath to Bite +14 vs. MD – 40 psychic damage, and that character can only inflict miss damage on Grendel’s Mother on a hit (hard save ends).

Fangs of Flood: Grendel’s Mother is surrounded by an aura of drowning water. Any character who starts their turn nearby her must make a save (11+). Those who fail begin to drown (become Weakened and start making Last Gasp saves). Disengaging from Grendel’s Mother ends this effect.

Place of Fear: The lair of Grendel’s Mother is foul and strange. A character who rolls a 1-5 on any d20 roll becomes affected by fear (-4 to attacks and cannot use the escalation die) until the end of their next turn.

AC   23

PD   19                 HP 333

MD  25

 

Nicor

sea-beasts many

tried with fierce tusks to tear his mail

9th level mook [beast]

Initiative: +13

Fierce Tusk +14 vs. AC—30 damage

AC   25

PD   23                 HP 45 (mook)

MD  19

Mook: Kill one nicor for every 45 damage you deal to the swarm.

 

Norse Monsters

Obviously, lots of giants and trolls work really well. Drow always get trotted out as svartalfir. Death Knights (Bestiary 2, p. 249) could be reskinned as draugr-wights. Norse dragons are more commonly sea-monsters or serpents, so reskin dragon breath weapons as a venomous bite or sudden furious assault.

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