Due to popular demand, we’re excited to release the 13th Age Quickstart Rules!

This quickstart document includes the rules and advice you’ll need to run or play a game or three of 13th Age Roleplaying Game. You’ll also need a couple of other things: an introductory adventure, pre-generated characters, and some d20s, d8s, and other dice.

Our adventures Crown of Axis and The Strangling Sea were written with first-time players in mind. Using the rules in this Quick Start, you should have everything you need to run them. If you want to browse other free adventures, the 13th Age Resources page has a number of adventures to choose from. None are as deliberately beginner-friendly as Crown of Axis, but the Free RPG Day adventure Make Your Own Luck by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is intended to be played by newcomers. (Make Your Own Luck also includes a less-polished version of the rules summary in the quickstart. Use the version in the quickstart!)

If you’re inspired to pay a bit more money, there’s a good short intro adventure at the back of the 13th Age core rulebook.

You can choose from a wide variety of low-level pre-generated characters on the 13th Age Resources page.

Download the 13th Age Quickstart Rules now

My usual advice for handling iconic benefits in 13th Age is to push as much of the work as possible onto the players. The GM has enough to do running the game and playing all the monsters and non-player characters without adding the burden of working a random number of iconic associations into the storyline. After all, players want a clear link between their icon relationship rolls and the events of the game – if I get a 6 on my Positive relationship with the Archmage, then I want that to have a tangible effect on the game. I want to find a lost ruin of the Archmage where the party can rest safely, or I want one of the Archmage’s magical servants to show up with a magic item on a silver tray, or I want some NPC to say “ah, you too are a servant of the Archmage – I will aid you.” That also means that iconic benefits need to be roughly comparable – if Bob gets a magic item from the Archmage, then Liz’s roll of a 6 with the Orc Lord should yield roughly the same degree of advantage, right?

Of course, if you’ve got a half-dozen iconic benefits to resolve in a given session, that gets tricky, hence the advice to push the work onto the players. Tell me how the Archmage benefits you – ask for an autosuccess on that skill check, or describe how you overcome some obstacle through your Archmageness. This also satisfies the clear causal link criteria – the player can see how their roll of a 6 translates to an in-game benefit.

Another approach – bring everything back to the Gamesmaster. Roll icon relationship dice behind the screen. The players still know what their icon relationships are, they know they’ve got a 2-point positive relationship with the Archmage and a 1-point Conflicted with the Three and so forth, but they don’t know which icons showed up behind the screen this session.

The virtue of this method is that the Gamemaster can be more subtle with iconic influences. As the players don’t know for sure what’s been changed by the influence of the icons, you don’t need to aim for parity between benefits. It also lets the GM ignore icon rolls that are really awkward to fit into a given session (if the party are in the middle of a desert far from civilisation, it can be tricky to explain how one character’s relationship with the Emperor pays off).

If you do go for this way of handling icons, then it’s worth subtly highlighting when one of those unseen iconic benefits manifests. Instead of telling them directly (“oh, that dragon had a lower armour class because of your negative relationship with the Three”), play up the symbols and thematic associations of the various icons. Have the environment grow chilly or musty, or note that a statue’s missing an eye when the Lich King bends his will upon the party; play up symbols of craft, tradition, beards and beer when the party are until the aegis of the Dwarf King. In this interpretation, the icons become the embodiment of invisible forces clashing behind the world – civilisation against anarchy, life against death, magic against corruption, elfness vs dwarfitude – and the characters are alternately lifted or buffeted by these unseen tides.

Personally, I really enjoy playing 13th Age as an improv-heavy dialogue with the players, and have lots of fun taking their wild ideas for iconic benefits and weaving it into the game, but that does favour a gonzo, anything-goes form of fantasy. If I had a more low-key, intrigue-heavy or mystical campaign in mind, though, unseen icons might be the way to go…


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.

 

The Free RPG Day adventure Make Your Own Luck was the first published 13th Age adventure I ever ran. (Well, not counting The Wreck of Volund’s Glory, which I wrote!) I love how much it does within the confined space of a city under siege, and I come back to it again and again—incorporating it into my ongoing campaign, customizing it for various one-shots, creating siege mechanics for it, and using it for ideas and inspiration.

Recently I was asked to run 13th Age for two players, one of whom wasn’t familiar with the game. I knew the player loved the Mechwarrior videogame series, and pictured their heroes searching a forbidding mountain range in the Dragon Empire for a long-lost war machine from a bygone age. Why? To help defend the besieged town of Harrowdale, of course!

See, it hit me that there’s a lot going on around the events of MYOL that could provide the seed for an adventure: heroes of a previous age acquire a powerful artifact and hide it in Harrowdale; Marrowbreath rises to become a powerful general; a villain raises a troll army under Marrowbreath’s command to lay siege to the town; the troll army marches through an inhabited area, leaving devastation in its wake; riders or runners must get word of the siege to the Emperor; the Imperial Legion must get there before the town is overrun.

For this adventure I borrowed the format of Swords Against Hell, a convention adventure by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan:

  • The heroes know that the machine was located near one of a handful of interesting places
  • The players decide which locations they wanted to search
  • Their search reveals clues about where the war machine is
  • The actual location of the machine depends on how the players respond to the information they learn, and the amount of time we have left to play

For enemies, I used the monsters from the free 13th Age 2-Hour Demo on the Resources page.

For the Dragon Walker war machine, I hacked rules from the  Dragon Riding and Mounted Combat PDFs to make a dragon-like vehicle. (I threw it together so quickly that I’m not confident enough in its design to post now, but I might after I’ve tinkered with it more.) The Dragon Walker’s pilot moves and attacks using the machine’s powers rather than their own abilities, and makes DC 20 Control checks when they:

  • become dazed, hampered, or stunned
  • become staggered or drop to 0 hit points
  • are hit by an attack against Mental Defense (MD)

The gunner/navigator makes normal attacks from their seat in the vehicle.

Here’s the framework I used to improvise a fun one-shot for my friends:

Make Your Own Luck: Siege Breaker

A thunderstorm lashes the towering peaks and forbidding cliffs of the Frost Range, in the northlands of the Dragon Empire. Travelers wind their way through the crags and valleys amid the driving rain. A flash of lightning reveals they are [YOUR HEROES].

The area has been rocked by terrible news: an army of trolls, goblins, and worse is laying siege to the town of Harrowdale, where a powerful artifact was hidden by the heroes of a long-ago age. A small band of defenders holds the walls, but just barely—and reinforcements are still days away. Local legend says that an ancient war machine lies somewhere in the area. You are on a mission to find it; and if it still functions, bring it to Harrowdale to aid its defense.

Each of you has a deeply personal reason for taking this dangerous mission. What is it?

The few scraps of information you’ve gleaned suggest the war machine is in one of four places:

North on Frost Giant Glacier, where the icy tower of Avius the Frost Wizard stands. He is said to be fond of turning visitors into ice zombie minions.

East on the volcanic slopes of Mount Whiteplume, where dragonfolk make their home. 

West near the Shrine of Evil Elementals, where none venture.

South near the Chaotic Caves, where the castellan of the nearby keep is said to have been behaving erratically lately.

Clues

  • The war machine is a Dragon Walker—one of many built by followers of the [ICON WITH WHOM AT LEAST ONE PLAYER HAS A RELATIONSHIP] to wreak devastation on the armies of [OTHER ICON]. None survived the conflict, and the secrets of its construction have been lost.
  • My great-great-grandmother told me she saw the Dragon Walker once as a child. She said a [SHAPE OF SOME SORT THAT LATER TURNS OUT TO BE A DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF THE LANDSCAPE] pointed the way to it, but I do not know what she meant by that.
  • You are not the only ones who seek the war machine. A band of [SOME ENEMIES] came through two days ago asking after it. They had an ill look about them and we told them nothing.
  • Many years ago I traveled in a merchant caravan, and I saw the machine of which you speak. It was a lifeless hulk that seemed like a dragon made of iron with seats for riding. A [DWARF, CLERIC, WIZARD, OR SORCERER] traveling with us tried to revive it but could not. They said that one wise in the ways of the [AFOREMENTIONED ICON] might be able to bring it to life and command it in battle. 
  • The war machine is to the [DIRECTION] near [PLACE], but I do know know precisely where.

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.

In the latest episode of their pagoda-protecting podcast, Ken and Robin talk realism in F20, pancake restaurant tomb looting, non-Western narrative traditions, and Theosophy on the Nostromo.

So ye seek the lost treasure of Karrag Voraldo, do ye? There’s a tale about Voraldo told in the taverns of Shadow Port that ye should know, then. They say that during the Age of Corsairs he was a trusted lieutenant of the King of Corsairs himself, until greed overcame him. He began lying to the King about the loot he’d won while sailing under the King’s patronage, so he could keep a larger share for himself. When the King discovered this treachery, he laid a curse upon Voraldo: from that moment on, only cursed treasure would find its way to him. If the tales are true, such items are powerful—but they carry a cost. . . .

Cursed Item Rules (from 13 True Ways)

If the magic item’s curse is minor, its default bonus is standard (e.g., +1 at adventurer tier). These cursed weapons and armor are just plain worse than a basic magic item of the same type. A hero might use one if they can’t get their hands on a decent item, or if something terrible happens to their normal weapon and they have to scrounge in the middle of a battle.

If the curse is major, the item has a default bonus as if it were a higher-tier item (e.g., an adventurer-tier sword with a +2 bonus instead of +1). A hero might be interested in using one of these weapons because they see that benefit as being so good.

Wade Says: If I introduced a cursed magic item into my campaign, there’s no way it would simply be worse than a basic item! To me, cursed magic is an opportunity to give players an interesting choice. Is the benefit enticing enough to accept the downside of owning such an item?

Three Cursed Pirate Items

The Cursed Compass: Once per full heal-up, this battered compass points unerringly toward whatever location you wish to travel to—for example, the Dwarf King’s treasure chamber, the Stone Thief’s exit, the lair of the evil wizard you’re supposed to kill. When you use this item, roll 1d20. On a 1-5, sometime in the near future the needle spins wildly with enough speed to make the compass vibrate, and then it comes to a stop. You must go at once in the direction the needle points toward and perform whatever task awaits you there. The task will be obvious due to its strangeness or urgency. It might be dangerous, or completely safe; you might complete it with a single action, or the task might span several game sessions. The task will not be relevant in any way to your current situation: whatever supernatural force controls the compass, these tasks are vitally important to it but not to you. Quirk: Highly suggestible.

Shipmate in a Bottle (wondrous item): A corked glass bottle containing a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. Anyone adjacent to the item hears a guttural voice speaking in a hollow whisper. The voice belongs to “Old Sam”, the ghost of a widely-traveled sailor from a long-ago age. When you attune this item, you gain a bonus +5 background “Shipmate in a bottle” that can be used for skill checks appropriate to a sailor or pirate. Each time you use this background, roll 1d20. On a 1, the bottle shatters and Old Sam emerges as a dybbuk (13th Age Bestiary, p. 63). He will pursue and attack you until either you die or he is destroyed while in his ethereal form. Quirk: You find yourself singing strange sea shanties that cause seasoned sailors to look at you in fear and quickly leave.

Driftwood Cutlass (+2 adventurer, +3 champion, +4 epic): This gnarled wooden blade has a crit range of 18+ when fighting on or within a body of water, and against aquatic monsters in any environment. However, you take a -1 penalty to AC and PD. Quirk: You feel an urge to brag about your exploits, especially in situations where bragging about your exploits would be a bad idea.

Adventure hooks

Topsy Turvy—An icon comes into possession of a cursed magic item from Voraldo’s hoard. It could be an icon the heroes have a relationship with, or one that’s not normally involved in the events of the campaign. When the item is used, a heroic icon temporarily becomes villainous, a villainous icon becomes heroic, and an ambiguous icon swings wildly between both extremes. How much damage they do before they recover their senses depends on the tier and the tone of the campaign. It could be as dire as the Emperor declaring war on the Elf Queen and Dwarf King; or it might be relatively harmless but chaotic, like the Lich King cheerfully showing up in Rabbleward with a legion of zombies and skeletons to help poor families.

Voraldo’s Ghost—The scroll that marks the location of the cursed treasure also says the King of Corsairs gave Voraldo a way to free himself—and his treasure—from the curse. What the King required was so intolerable to Voraldo that he couldn’t bring himself to do it in life. If the heroes can find Voraldo’s bones and summon his ghost, maybe they can persuade him to do it in undeath. Possible complications include:

  • Voraldo tells the heroes that to lift the curse he has to apologize to the King. Now the heroes have to find the King’s bones and summon his ghost in Voraldo’s presence. If they succeed, how does that conversation go?
  • If the group lacks a necromancer, does the one they enlist to help have an agenda of their own?
  • Once he’s freed from the curse, will Voraldo let the heroes keep his newly non-cursed treasure? Or will his greed once again overcome his sense of honor?
  • Multiple icons might consider Voraldo’s treasure rightfully theirs. Can the heroes prevent a diplomatic incident, or even war? More importantly, can they figure out how to make the icons happy while keeping the treasure for themselves?
  • Once summoned, can Voraldo’s ghost be put down again? Maybe he feel like exploring the world and raising hell on the high seas again!
  • Is this whole thing a trick? Is that really Voraldo they’re summoning, or someone much more dangerous?

 


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.

 

The Free RPG Day adventure Make Your Own Luck (get it here!) begins with an army of trolls and goblins besieging the town of Harrowdale. As written, the siege is a jumping-off point that gives the events in the adventure context. If you want to explore the ongoing tension and danger of defending a town under siege, one possible mechanic is a twist on the escalation die called the siege die.

Using the siege die

  1. Just as you do with the escalation die, place a special d6 on the table so it’s visible to the players. This is your siege die. Make sure the two dice look different, so you don’t confuse them!
  2. Using a sheet of paper or other note-taking method, divide each in-game 24-hour period into periods of Day and Night. (I’m cribbing from the fantastic heist RPG Dusk City Outlaws here.)
  3. On the first Day period, set the siege die to 1 and roll a d6.
    • If the result is greater than the current number on the siege die, the status of the siege is unchanged. At the beginning of the following time period, increase the die to 2 and roll your d6 again. Keep increasing the siege die by 1 and rolling a d6 until you roll equal to or less than the number on the siege die.
    • When the result of your d6 roll is equal to or less than the current number on the siege die, roll on the Siege Table below or choose some new action by the enemy that requires the heroes to take action.
  4. The first time you activate the siege die by rolling equal to or less than its number, reset the die to 1 and start over. The next time it happens, reset the die to 2; then 3, then 4, and so on. This represents that the enemy is slowly building toward total victory—if things continue this way, eventually the siege die reaches a permanent 6 and the enemy assault becomes relentless..
  5. The players can lower the siege die in a number of ways. They could describe how they’re expending a class or item ability that reduces the escalation die to lower the siege die instead. They could find a clever use of skill checks, or run a montage scene describing how they’re strengthening the town’s defenses and improving defenders’ morale. When they do this, have them roll a d6—feel free to give them a bonus if they did something especially cool or hilarious. Reduce the siege die by that amount, to a minimum of 1. This keeps them engaged with the current status of the siege, and lets the heroes influence how the larger battle is going.

There are a few ways you can adjust the pacing of the siege with this approach. You could have the siege die escalate at a different rate—for example, it might go up once per 24-hour period, or every three hours, or every six. You could also reset the siege die to 2 instead of 1 the first time it triggers, or roll a larger die (d8? d12?) against the siege die.

Siege table (d6)

Make Your Own Luck cover

  1. The enemy launches a major attack, one with sufficient strength that it requires the PCs to expends significant resources (such as daily spells).
  2. The enemy successfully destroys one of the city’s important defenses: a tower, a section of wall, a magical defense, etc. The heroes must help rebuild it, or find some other way to shore up the defenses in its absence.
  3. Saboteurs inside the city wreak havoc in some way: arson, poisoning the water supply, setting off a bomb, toppling a structure. The heroes must save the victims and identify and defeat the saboteurs.
  4. The enemy strikes a blow against the townspeople’s morale: targeting a beloved landmark, capturing or killing a town official or other pillar of the community, stealing something symbolically important to the town, spreading rumors that the rescuing army was defeated, etc. The heroes must either undo what the enemy has done, or counteract it in some way with a morale-boosting display.
  5. A group of assassins sneak into the town during an attack, and try to kill the PCs later that Day/Night.
  6. The enemy seizes part of the town—it must either be recaptured, or defenses quickly set up to keep them from advancing further.

For another fun escalation die hack, check out the investigative montage rules in Crown of Axis, a new introductory 13th Age adventure for level 1 characters!


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.

 

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.

 

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.


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.

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.

.

 

 

Previous Entries