Pelgrane Press has a new merchandise store, and soon you’ll be able to buy 13th Age merch there! Hurrah! To celebrate the store’s launch, we’re running a 13th Age t-shirt slogan competition:

  • Email your cleverest, funniest, and/or most badass 13th Age t-shirt slogan ideas to support@pelgranepress.com with the subject line “13th Age t-shirt competition”.
  • Only one entry per person: You can send us as many slogan ideas as you want, but they have to all be in one email.
  • Deadline for entries is 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time (GMT -7) on July 21, 2019
  • Each slogan must be 50 characters or less (not counting spaces).
  • You can submit slogans related to the 13th Age RPG in general, any of the 13 icons in the core book, and the 13th Age Alliance organized play program. Slogans that could be used for any d20-rolling fantasy RPG, not just 13th Age, are much less likely to be chosen as winners. (For example, slogans about traditional character classes and races, classic mechanics such as rolling for initiative, non-living dungeons, the joys of looting treasure, etc.)
  • The actual t-shirt designs only have images and text on the front, but for this contest, you can feel free to send us front-and-back slogans.
  • All entries to this competition become the property of Pelgrane Press.
  • After the July 21st deadline, the judges will evaluate the entries and award prizes as follows:
    • GRAND PRIZE: A $20 credit at the Pelgrane Press merchandise store
    • SECOND PRIZE: A $10 credit at the Pelgrane Press merchandise store
    • THIRD PRIZE: A $5 credit at the Pelgrane Press merchandise store
  • Winners will be announced in the August See Page XX newsletter.

We look forward to seeing your ideas!

 


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.

When I asked the 13th Age Facebook group what they’d like me to write about in this month’s column, the first response was, “Sword & Sorcery for 13th Age! Some ideas for tweaks, reductions and hacking.” My initial reaction was, “No freaking way can I turn a game specifically designed to emulate the heroic fantasy genre into a game that emulates the swords & sorcery genre without a LOT of work.” But my brain just wouldn’t let it go. How would I approach such a project if I limited myself purely to tweaks, reductions, and (minimal) hacking?

And so, that’s the topic of this month’s 13th Sage. These are some ideas on how I as a GM would approach such a campaign, based on my experience with the genre. Others might do it differently, and better.

Let’s go!

Wait, what’s swords & sorcery?

Not familiar with S&S? These design guidelines for Swords of the Serpentine do a good job of capturing the essence of the genre. The classic works of fiction you’ll want to refer to are the Conan and Kull stories by Robert E. Howard, the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber, and the Elric of Melnibone stories by Michael Moorcock.

Customize the Dragon Empire and its icons

Given the nature of the challenge, I think setting the campaign anywhere except the Dragon Empire is cheating. I went back to the Book of Ages for ideas on how to make it feel more like a setting for swords & sorcery adventures. Here are some versions of the Dragon Empire it inspired for me:

  • A single, powerful sorcerer-king reigns over a dark Empire composed of small kingdoms and a handful of city-states.
  • Long ago, a deathless sorcerer commanding an army of the living dead conquered half the Dragon Empire. Until they reach Champion tier, characters will go on adventures in the kingdoms of the living, outside of this realm. A lot of bad guys in this campaign would be necromancers, sorcerers seeking to live forever, death priests, and maybe a vampire or two.
  • Under a weak Emperor, the Seven Cities grow in power, splitting the Empire into seven squabbling city-states.
  • A highly cosmopolitan and powerful Dragon Empire opens maritime trade routes with other lands, and pirates band together to prey on this shipping—growing strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Speaking of which, one could create a decent array of swords & sorcery icons by picking and choosing icons from various ages in Book of Ages. I strongly suspect swords & sorcery doesn’t lend itself well to a setting populated by 13 demigodlike icons. I’d limit myself to seven, looking to the 7 Icon Campaign PDF for inspiration and ideas. I would also give them names instead of just titles.

If non-human sentient species are rare or non-existent in this campaign, you might reskin the non-human icons as humans that fill the same archetypal role. For example, the Orc Lord could become “Krahsh-Thukult, Warlord of the East” and the Elf Queen “Elidyr, Queen of Lost Lemuria”. A standard in swords & sorcery is that power, especially magical power, is innately dangerous and corrupting. As a result, only one or two icons might be heroic. Most will be ambiguous or villainous, and all of them are a hazard to adventurers’ health. (Just consider how much trouble allegedly friendly gods and wizards cause Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.)

There’s considerable cross-pollination between swords & sorcery and Weird Fiction, and two immensely talented designers have proposed a Dragon Empire where the icons are drawn from the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re interested in taking 13th Age in a swords & sorcery direction, definitely read Kenneth Hite’s article “Call of Chicago: Re-skinning, Genre-Drifting, and Triskaidekasizing” and Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s Eldritch Icons project.

PCs are always, or almost always, humans

Demi-human player characters will probably be rare (or even non-existent), so I’d use the mechanic of human cultural traits found in 13th Age Glorantha to make human PCs more varied.

I might frame demi-humans as being from a certain land. For example, gnomes could be “the people of distant [NAME], who are small of stature and skilled at confounding their enemies in battle.” Elves might be reskinned to be the last remnant of an ancient, mighty civilization that sank beneath the waves, living in seclusion in small numbers and practically a myth now. (See also how Fritz Leiber handles the ghouls of Nehwon. They’re basically human, except for their invisible flesh.)

I’d like to say that there can only be one demi-human PC at most in a group, but I’m not sure how I’d enforce that without feeling like a jerk. So I might disallow them until we’ve been playing for a while, have a better feel for the setting, and want to try something different.

Eliminate or heavily restrict magic-using classes

The use of magic (“sorcery”) is rare in this setting. This is contrary to how most RPGs in the D&D family tree handle magic, so we should figure out an interesting reason for it. Whatever the reason, sorcery in such a campaign will be innately dangerous, unnatural, and corrupting. Here are a few reasons sorcery might be rare in a swords & sorcery 13th Age campaign, several of which could be combined:

  • Sorcery is forbidden by Imperial edict, for any number of very good reasons. (But also because it threatens Imperial power.)
  • Sorcery causes harm (physical, mental, and/or spiritual) to the sorcerer. See the bit about the price of magic below.
  • Sorcery somehow causes harm to the world in the sorcerer’s vicinity. Maybe it’s instantaneous, and one or more living things takes damage or sickens or becomes corrupted. Maybe it’s an effect over time, so that the area around a sorcerer’s lair gradually becomes a corrupted, diseased, underpopulated wasteland.
  • Sorcery is the creation of an ancient, malevolent, intelligent species and is thus taboo. Good candidates include evil dragons, rakshasas, serpent people
  • Sorcerous power comes from a mighty patron, who will require a terrible price. Dragon Empire icons in the 13th Age who would make good patrons include the Three, the Diabolist, a reskinned Elf Queen in villainous or ambiguous mode, and a reskinned Archmage in villainous or ambiguous mode. We might also include a revised, sinister, Prince of Shadows.

There are no clerics, paladins, or wizards. Rangers won’t cast spells, unless perhaps they have limited access to some kind of nature-themed sorcery (such as the ice magic known to the women in Fafhrd’s clan in The Snow Women.) Druids might work, but their magic would be, again, sinister and dangerous. See how Ken and Ruth handle druids and the deep woods in their articles linked above.

If there are any magic-using PC classes in this campaign, they’d probably be the necromancer from 13 True Ways, and the demonologist from  Book of Demons. These are deeply flawed and unpleasant people who are clearly meddling in things best left alone by mortals. It seems weird not to use a class literally named “sorcerer” in a swords & sorcery game, but the spells from that class honestly don’t feel like the type of magic I see in what’s commonly considered S&S fiction.

Magic: summoning, items, backgrounds, and rituals?

Sorcerers in this genre rarely cast what we think of as “spells” in fantasy RPGs. But summoning a giant serpent, or a fire elemental? Entirely appropriate. Summoning is central to the aforementioned demonologist and necromancer classes; but we could also say, “no magic-using classes, period” and make summoning available to any PC who’s willing to pay the price. You’ll want to use 13 True Ways, Book of Demons, Summoning Spells, and Sorcerer Summoning.

A lot of “sorcery” in this type of fiction relies on what we call “consumable magic items” in the game. I’d make potions, oils, and runes readily available to heroes who know where to find such things. Just…don’t ask who made them, or how.

Want to be able to close a door, blow out a candle, or perform some other normal, minor action using magic? Maybe spend points in a Background called something like “Minor magic” and make a skill roll using Int or Cha.

Want to create a fog that hides your fleet of warships? A storm that lashes your enemy’s forces? A fire that consumes a village? That sounds like ritual magic, something that takes time and costs you something significant. This might only be available to a magic-using class, or it could be available to any PC who has the right knowledge or resources (an ancient scroll, forbidden tome, enchanted amulet, etc.)

Set a terrible price for sorcery

I’ve been talking about prices and costs, so let’s address what that could look like. If it’s a mechanical cost, a PC might spend recoveries or take damage in order to perform minor sorcery—or maybe there’s a chance one of the other PC’s in the group will take the loss. Major workings might require the permanent loss of recoveries or hit points. We could instead impose a narrative cost. For example, the demon you petition for help will take something important from you sometime in the future. Maybe a PC doesn’t know what the price will be, only that it’s something unpleasant and cumulative. The GM could keep track of a PC’s use of sorcery, then at an opportune time, have something awful happen such as an attack hitting an ally  instead.

As mentioned earlier, this also lends itself to an externalized cost: using sorcery hurts other people, and the natural world. Perhaps sorcerers have the choice to either pay the cost themselves or have others pay it, and most of them prefer the second option. I recommend checking out the Corruption rules in Swords of the Serpentine for details on this approach. (That game includes a useful Effect of Corruption on Locations table.)

Another take on the cost of magic worth considering in an “all, or most, magic is summoning magic” approach is an increased likelihood that whatever they summon into the world will break free of their control and do something extremely bad. This could be handled mechanically by hacking the dismissal rules, or narratively by letting summoners know that the more they summon creatures, the more likely it becomes that I, the GM, will decide it’s time to pay the piper.

Make magic items dangerous

I’ve talked about consumable magic items, but what about true magic items, such as magical weapons, cloaks, amulets, and so on? My suggestion: they are all cursed. Every one of them. They’re quite powerful, more powerful than the non-cursed items presented in the books; but they will screw you over somehow. Just ask Elric. Cursed items are introduced to the game in 13 True Ways, and Loot Harder contains several (like the Wizard’s Skull) that would be fantastic for a swords & sorcery game.

I’d give  true magic items a major curse, and let the characters know about the curse along with the item’s powers. That way, they will have to make an interesting choice: take the item and become more powerful, but suffer the effects of the curse? Or reject cursed sorcery, and trust in steel and their wits?

Monsters: natural, unnatural, and aberrant

Who will out heroes fight? I’m thinking that they’ll most often be challenged by foes I’d categorize as “natural”, and less frequently by foes I’d call “unnatural”. Rarest of all are foes I’ll call “aberrant”. Here’s what that looks like:

Natural: “normal” creatures such as humans, apes, wolves, bears, and boars. Especially large and tough animals will usually fall into this category.

Unnatural: creatures such as degenerate beast-men, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, serpent people, and animals that are supernaturally large and deadly or strangely-behaved (see Leiber’s sword-wielding squid in “When the Sea-King’s Away”) due to sorcery or demonic influence. Also, most sorcerers, necromancers, evil priests, and frenzied cultists.

Aberrant: these will probably be the foes PCs face in the climactic battle of the adventure—the sorcerer, priest or necromancer whose power has made them inhuman; the tentacled horror in the forbidden ruins; the giant serpent in the temple’s inner sanctum; the mechanical warrior from a long-ago age. To ensure the element of surprise, I might use the 13th Age DIY rules to convert a lot of monsters from Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos into unnatural or aberrant foes.

For me, the battles in a typical swords & sorcery 13th Age adventure would probably progress in this order: the heroes fight natural foes first, then progress to unnatural foes, and finally face off against aberrant enemies.

That’s all I can think of off the top of my head! I’m sure this column will lead to a lot of discussion in the various 13th Age groups, forums, and subreddits, and I look forward to seeing your ideas.


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 just finished the final pass on the “page XX” references for Shards of the Broken Sky. Some designers dislike this type of finicky work, but I sort of love it. Partly it’s a great moment in the lifecycle of a book—it’s actually about to be finished! Partly you get to take a last look at things; and when you’re working with a great layout artist like Jen McCleary, it’s a calm look at things that are very much where they should be.

So a couple days later, I’m thinking about the finished adventure and asking myself: what isn’t in Shards that could have been? My first thought is that it would be interesting to think about how specific character classes could find special uses or unique stories in a Shards campaign. We generally don’t tailor elements of our adventures to individual classes; from a design perspective it’s usually better to avoid spending too much time on ideas that only apply to some characters. But a quick blog post is just about right!

Shards was first conceived of before 13 True Ways was released, so the default adventuring group at the time consisted of classes from the core book. Here are some ideas for how players whose characters’ classes come from 13TW might experience the adventure differently.

  • Chaos Mage: There is a whole lot of chaos in Shards of the Broken Sky. So much chaos that a chaos mage player character is either going to feel supremely at home OR feel a bit resentful that the world has barged in and taken over their party trick. Maybe this will be a chance for the chaos mage to develop in a new direction, towards taming some of the weirdness-from-on-high that fell to earth with Vantage.
  • Commander: For an early approach to the post-Fall chaos, a commander PC might be the imperial legionnaire who is ostensibly next in command after the disaster. But with no soldiers to command and a catastrophe in progress, maybe an adventuring party of misfits will do!
  • Druid: If I ever play in a Shards campaign, I’m going to play a druid with the Terrain Caster talent; and then I’m going to have SO MUCH FUN with the smashed and scattered terrain across Redfield Valley.
  • Monk: None of the big secrets in Shards directly relate to the monk class or its themes, so if I were running it with a monk character in the group, I’d start by changing that. In this campaign, the secret of the death/disappearance/status of the Grand Master of Flowers can be found in Redfields.
  • Necromancer: Unlike the monk, the necromancer gets LOTS of love in Shards. Indirect love, in the sense that the valley is full of ancient quasi-living battlefields, but that’s love a necromancer understands. 
  • The Occultist: Vantage falls, the Occultist rises from the wreckage. 

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

The wicker golem appears in Shards of the Broken Sky, where it’s one of several golems performing various magical maintenance functions. But its inspiration, of course, is the 1973 British horror film The Wicker Man—making it a great monster for a creepy adventure set deep in the High Druid’s woods, where the people still hold fast to the Old Ways…

Pre-order Shards of the Broken Sky and download the PDF right away!

Wicker Golem

It burns well, you’d just better hope you are not inside it at the time. Some use wicker golems as a means of capturing rather than killing, others to sacrifice their enemies mid-battle.

Huge 0 level wrecker [CONSTRUCT]Initiative: +4
Vulnerability: fire

Wicker hands +5 vs. AC (two attacks)—5 damage. If at least one attack hits a target, the target is grabbed.

Entrap: If a grabbed target does not escape the grab by the end of its next turn, the golem stuffs the target into its body cavity. Once a target is in the golem’s body cavity, it moves with the golem until it escapes and is stuck, dazed, and unable to affect anything except the wicker golem. The target also takes any fire damage the wicker golem takes. If the target deals 5 or more damage with an attack, the golem’s body cavity briefly pops open and the target can make a disengage check to try to escape.

Golem immunity: Wicker golems are immune to effects. They can’t be dazed, weakened, confused, made vulnerable, or touched by ongoing damage (except fire damage).

Burning man: Whenever the wicker golem takes fire damage, it also takes 5 ongoing fire damage. While the wicker golem takes ongoing fire damage, a natural even hit with wicker hands does the same amount of ongoing fire damage to its target.

Deliberate conflagration: If the golem has an enemy trapped inside, it may set itself on fire (5 ongoing fire damage) at any time.

Blood sacrifice: If a non-mook creature is reduced to 0 hp while within the golem’s body cavity, the golem immediately heals to 55 hp.

AC 14
PD 14 HP 55
MD 10


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

We’re happy to announce we’re once again taking part in Free RPG Day 2019 on Saturday, June 15th, and this year’s free Pelgrane giveaway features adventures for the forthcoming The Yellow King RPG and 13th Age.

The Yellow King RPG – The Doors to Heaven

Behind Iron Doors, a Gateway to Doom!

Paris, 1895. A sensation-seeking band of art students confronts supernatural invasion from an alien realm. A play called The King in Yellow circulates in the city’s secret, decadent circles, twisting the ordinary and corrupting the sacred. In the students’ latest case, a fellow student’s disappearance draws them to the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Legend claims that its iron doors were sculpted through a pact with the devil. Behind this tale the investigators uncover a stranger truth, replete with hooded figures, an unearthly plague, and the terrifying creatures that inspired the gargoyles.

 

13th Age RPG – Assault on the Dungeon of the Pogonomancer

The renegade dwarf wizard has returned from exile, and now his army of thralls lays siege to the fortress of his ancestors. Doom and kinstrife threaten the lands of the dwarves! There’s but one chance – if a small band of heroic adventurers can brave the passage of the Underworld, they could strike at the wizard’s secret sanctum where he plots with his mysterious allies from the depths!

Battle through the tunnels of the world below! Navigate weird perils! Face fiendish horrors! It’s a race against time – if you tarry, the dwarves on the surface will most certainly perish!

Above all, don’t get entangled – for the dungeon of the Pogonomancer is certainly one hairy situation…

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

If you’ve ever played a 13th Age demo with me, it might be obvious that I love miniatures. It’s less obvious that I like miniatures so much that I also love cardboard miniatures, the kind you print out and glue onto cardboard or have sold to you in helpful cardboard packs.

These days my favorite cardboard miniatures are made by my favorite fantasy cartoonist, Rich Burlew. In an art style you’ll recognize from his Order of the Stick comics, Burlew has published four sets of wonderful cardboard minis. The sets are called A Monster for Every Season and they’re for sale at Gumroad. Autumn is probably my favorite. They’re all great.

Earlier today, while working on 13th Age design, I realized I could draft one of Rich’s critters for this column. From the Summer set, here’s the front of what Rich called a magma para-elemental, used with his permission. (Of course all his monsters and heroes have both a front and a back, but for that, buy the set.)

In 13th-Age-world, I’m in the midst of creating adversary groups for an upcoming book. One group is a mix of demons and elementals surfacing from a magically suppressed volcano. Here are stats for one of the critters who embodies a self-destructive collision of demon and elemental.

Twisted Magma Elemental

Fire elementals weren’t meant to spend centuries trapped in a demonic volcano.

4th level archer [ELEMENTAL]

Initiative: +7

Fiery smash +8 vs. AC—10 damage

Natural even hit: 5 ongoing fire damage.

R: Flying magma +8 vs. PD (one nearby or far away enemy)—8 damage to a far away target, or 12 damage to a nearby target

Natural even hit: 5 ongoing fire damage.

C: Local eruption +8 vs. PD (1d4 + 1 nearby enemies)—15 fire damage

Limited use: 1/battle when the escalation die is even. Magma elemental deals 4d6 damage to itself when it uses this ability, and won’t hesitate to blow itself up!

Conditional escalator: The magma elemental adds the escalation die to its attacks when it attacks an enemy that did not move on its previous turn or is delaying or holding a readied action.

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

AC   21

PD    17                 HP 50

MD  14

 

Want to heighten dramatic tension or foreshadow a huge battle far beyond what the PCs are accustomed to? Here are a couple of tricks you can do with the escalation die to achieve that. (For a change, I haven’t used either of these tricks yet—I’ve been playing lately instead of GMing. Maybe I can talk my GM into using the “bump it up” mechanic the next time he rolls three crits in a single round!)

A caveat: these mechanics are more effective when you’re GMing for experienced 13th Age players than with newcomers to the game. Experienced players know what to expect from escalation in normal circumstances; so when they see you’re doing something unusual with it, they recognize that something important is about to happen.

Bump It Up

Mid-fight, increase the escalation die by 1 higher than normal—and make sure the players notice. The best time to use this trick is when the stakes have risen, or the tide has suddenly turned against the PCs in a major way. It’s not exactly momentum, like most other increases to the escalation die. It’s more like the PCs have realized that things just got real and they need to kick it up a notch.

This is the opposite of de-escalation, as described on page 162 of the 13th Age core rulebook. De-escalation is an option when you judge that the PCs aren’t doing anything to push the conflict. If they’re dodging and hiding and wimping out, for example, you don’t increase the escalation die the next round.*

In contrast, bumping it up is based on the actions or good fortune of the villains of the fight. I intend to use it when I’m about to give the monsters some mid-combat lucky break that’s the equivalent of a PC’s icon relationship advantage. It’s a good way of invoking the power of enemy icons.

Here are a couple examples of how I might use it.

  1. The PCs are fighting a nasty group of warriors and spellcasters devoted to the Crusader. One of them, an Ebon Gauntlet inquisitor (Bestiary 2, page 41), points her dagger at the frenzy demon summoned by Skullburn, the party’s demonologist. The inquisitor growls, “By His power you are nothing!” and I tell everyone that I’m rolling an easy save. If the save succeeds, the inquisitor dismisses the frenzy demon. While everyone in my group is yelling at me about being a terrible person, I reach out and increase the escalation die by 1. “Yeah, things just got real. She called on the Crusader, and it looked like he answered,” I say. “That was just a quick action, so now she uses her judgment of the Crusader attack on Skullburn and the occultist.” If the easy save the inquisitor rolled failed, I’d have her curse and keep fighting, and the PCs wouldn’t know what just missed them.
  2. The escalation die is at 2 and the PCs have a pack of gnolls on the ropes. Our heroes think they’ve got everything under control, when suddenly a second wave arrives! Bump the escalation die up to 3 as the new monsters cycle into the initiative order.

And that brings us to the second trick . . . .

Big Foreshadowing

Battle is underway and the enemy forces seem about normal. But then, at the start of the second round, the escalation die you place on the table isn’t the usual six-sider. It’s a d8. No, no, not a d8. Never risk an underdose! It’s a d10. Maybe even a d12!

The players stare at the die in confusion and a touch of fear. Why would a d12 be necessary? There’s still no sign of what’s coming in the second round. Let the tension build.

Turns out, this battle is going to be a big fight. It’s going to be a LONG fight. And the only reason PCs would ever need an escalation die that’s a 10-sider or a 12-sider is if they were fighting monsters that are extremely hard to hit. An easy way to do this without an un-fun TPK is to make the creatures you gradually introduce into the battle much higher level than the PCs. They probably shouldn’t be large or huge creatures, because a higher-than-normal escalation die won’t save the PCs from the mighty wallops delivered by much stronger enemies.

Why “gradually”? Because it probably won’t work very well in terms of combat math to send a whole bunch of higher-level monsters in at once. The Bruce-Lee-vs.-mooks method is probably what you need: sending one or at most two monsters at a time against the PCs. Unlike Bruce, the PCs probably won’t have time to pose and admire the impact of their blows, because the higher-level monsters you’re sending in won’t function like kung fu action movie mooks (even if they are literal 13th Age mooks).

In this scenario, consider giving each PC an option to get the equivalent of a quick rest at some point during the fight. I might handle that by letting one character per round regain hit points and abilities as if they’d gained a short rest right in the middle of combat. They’d probably have to be unengaged to do that, but otherwise it shouldn’t take more than a quick action.

Interactions (or, What Could Possibly Go Wrong With This Method?): Most player character powers that intersect with the escalation die aren’t a problem with the big foreshadowing mechanic. The commander has many abilities that play off of or increase the escalation die, and one even increases the size of the die, but that’s not really a problem for this battle.

On the other hand, the trickster’s Follow Me! No Her! No Me! talent from page 209 of 13th Age Glorantha would seize control of ‘foreshadowing’ and spin the battle into some other dramatic shape. What shape? Impossible to tell. There aren’t many other whacky powers in the game like that, but who knows? PCs are full of surprises.

 

*In practice, I think I’ve only ever enforced de-escalation once. I’ve threatened it six or seven times, and the threat is nearly always enough to remind some of the PCs that they’re heroes, or people doing a fair impersonation of heroes.

 

About 13th Age

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

Here’s what I love about the giant shark bowl ooze from Tome of Beasts 2: Creature Codex by Kobold Press: it’s a perfect over-the-top addition to a master villain’s lair in 13th Age. Spy movie masterminds often have tanks full of sharks, alligators, piranhas, and other menaces in their headquarters. These remind everyone who they’re dealing with, and are also handy ways to dispose of intruding heroes and unlucky henchmen.

The giant shark bowl ooze does them one better—not only is the shark deadly, the aquarium itself is a monster.

The original is designed for 5th Edition under the OGL, and as soon as I saw it, I sat down and statted it for 13th Age. (Many thanks to Rob Heinsoo for giving it a development pass before posting.) Whereas the original is treated as one monster, my version treats it as two. The ooze is a variant of the gelatinous dodecahedron, and the shark is a non-mook version of the Iron Sea shark, both from the 13th Age Bestiary.

Giant Shark Bowl Ooze

A giant shark swims within a huge fishbowl, circling above a sandy floor strewn with seashells, a small castle, and a treasure chest. While you’re figuring out how to kill the shark and get the treasure, the bowl lashes out with a gelatinous pseudopod and engulfs you.

Huge 7th level blocker [ooze]

Initiative: +7

Shlup’n’schlorp +13 vs. PD—30 damage, and the giant shark bowl ooze engulfs the target if it’s smaller than the ooze.

Miss: The ooze can make a spasms attack as a free action.

[Special trigger] C: Spasms +13 vs. AC (up to 2 attacks, each against a different nearby enemy)—20 damage

Engulf and suffocate: Engulfed targets automatically take 20 damage at the start of the ooze’s turn, and are consider nearby to (and soon to be engaged with!) the giant shark swimming inside the ooze. The shark acts after the ooze’s turn, and can engage any engulfed targets. The shark cannot attack targets outside the ooze (unless it moves out of the ooze, see its stats below). Engulfed targets can escape the ooze with a successful disengage check at a -5 penalty.

Instinctive actions: Gelatinous creatures have no brains, sometimes they just do things. When the escalation die is odd, instead of making an attack or moving, roll a d8 to see what the giant shark bowl ooze does. If an option is not available (you roll a 1 but there are no nearby enemies), reroll until you get a valid option.

  1. The giant shark bowl ooze makes a squash attack against 1d4 nearby enemies as it rolls and shlorps around the area. Any enemies already engulfed by the giant shark bowl ooze take 10 thunder damage.

C: Squash +10 vs. PD (1d4 nearby enemies)—20 damage, and the target is stunned (easy save ends, 6+)

  1. The giant shark bowl ooze throws out whip-like tendrils and makes a sudden orifice attack against each enemy engaged with it. Then it pulls each nearby enemy next to it and engages that creature.

Sudden orifice +15 vs. PD (each enemy engaged with it)—The giant shark bowl ooze engulfs the target if it’s smaller than the giant shark bowl ooze

  1. Hundreds of finger-size slimes slither out from the interior of the giant shark bowl ooze and begin worming their way across the bodies of each of its enemies in the battle. Until the end of the battle, when a non-ooze creature takes any damage besides ongoing acid damage, it also takes 10 acid damage.
  2. The giant shark bowl ooze produces spikes. It gains a +4 bonus to all defenses until the end of the battle.
  3. The giant shark bowl ooze makes a spasms attack. If it misses with either attack roll, after the attacks, it can make a stretch and engulf attack as a free action.C: Stretch and engulf +13 vs. PD (one nearby or far away enemy)—30 thunder damage, and the giant shark bowl ooze engulfs the target if it’s smaller than the ooze
  4. C: Pseudopod slaps +13 vs. AC (one nearby enemy)—40 thunder damage

    Natural odd hit: The target pops free from the giant shark bowl ooze and is knocked far away, and the ooze makes the attack again against a different nearby enemy as a free action.

    Natural even hit: The giant shark bowl ooze engulfs the target if it’s smaller than the giant shark bowl ooze.

AC 21

PD 19     HP 400

MD 16

 

Giant Shark

Double-strength 5th level wrecker [beast]

Initiative: +7 (but don’t roll for the giant shark, it acts immediately after the giant shark bowl ooze)

Massive jaws +10 vs. AC—36 damage

Miss: 18 damage.

Frenzy: While staggered, if the giant shark is unengaged at the start of its turn, it must roll an easy save (6+). On a failure, the giant shark must move and attack a random nearby enemy that’s staggered, or a random nearby non-ooze creature if there are no staggered enemies. Yes, this means the giant shark might propel itself torpedo-like out of the ooze at a target.

Shredder: When an enemy misses with a melee attack against the giant shark and rolls a natural 1–5, the attacker takes 18 damage.

In a bowl, yo: As mentioned above in the its ooze bowl’s stats, the giant shark can’t attack enemies unless they’re in the ooze with it; the ooze was reduced to 0 hp and has dissolved; a PC thought that getting the shark out of its bowl would somehow be a good idea; or the shark has erupted from the ooze during frenzy. Likewise, thanks to the ooze’s protection, very few attacks from outside the bowl can affect the giant shark. If you decide that a particularly powerful or clever attack from outside the bowl can choose the shark as a target, the shark gets a +5 to all its defenses against that attack.

Last, dying thrash: If the giant shark is outside of its bowl, the shark takes 25 damage at the end of its turns. When it reaches 0 hit points and dies, roll this attack against all nearby non-ooze creatures: +12 vs. PD—18 damage

AC 22

PD 19     HP 140

MD 14

 

About 13th Age

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

If you use background music in your 13thAge games – such as the wonderful 13thAge soundtrack – you can replace the regular rules for icon relationships with a more improvisational approach. Here’s how it works.

  1. Players choose their icon relationships as normal during character creation.
  2. The GM creates a playlist, mixing in the songs for each players’ icons plus a few more suitably atmospheric tracks. The playlist should be longer than the expected length of the game session. Play it on random shuffle.
  3. Instead of rolling relationship dice, whenever an icon’s song comes up, the first player to invoke that song gets to call on it for a suitable story-based benefit, or a +d6 bonus to an attack roll or background check.
  4. More than one player can invoke the same icon at the same time, but that’s the equivalent of rolling a 5 on a regular icon die – it’s a benefit with strings attached. There’ll be an icon-related complication later on.

The trick here is that the songs act as immediate prompts. Players who freeze at the question “how might your relationship with the Priestess help you in this session?” have far less trouble with the question “how might the Priestess help you right now, in the middle of this conversation you’re in?” It’s an approach better suited to a free-wheeling, anarchic, anything-goes campaign than a carefully plotted one.

Possible variants

  • Bardic balladeers get to add songs to the playlist.
  • The GM adds hostile icons to the mix – badness gets triggered when they play
  • Hit next whenever anyone gets a crit
  • Hit next whenever the escalation die increases
  • Players can add their personal theme songs as well as their icon relationships

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

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