chaos symbolWhen you need a new monster in 13th Age, customizing an existing monster is a great option. For this post, we’ll turn an existing monster—the human thug—into a variety of guards from across the Dragon Empire by adding a single, distinctive special ability.

Player characters in 13th Age (and almost every other RPG) tend to go places someone else doesn’t want them to be in. As a result, they often encounter guards. Guards are monsters whose job is to keep watch in a certain area, determine whether or not Waldo the Wizard belongs there, and if not, eliminate Waldo as a problem.

As a city adventure, Crown of Axis—which I’m currently writing—needs more than the usual number of guards. They’re everywhere, from the Palaces to Rabbleward and every neighborhood in between. However, populating the city with only one kind of guard doesn’t feel fun or interesting. My solution was to create baseline humanoid stats for different roles that guards might have in a battle (bumbling mooks, competent leaders, and terrifying brutes), and create special abilities that give them the flavor of whichever part of Axis they’re in. Rabbleward cops fight dirty. Goldring and Upside security forces deliver savage beatdowns that send a message to would-be trespassers. Palace guards know exactly when something’s not quite right along their well-traveled patrol routes.

Normally in adventures we provide icon-themed options for reskinning monsters, and I do that with other monsters in Crown of Axis. But because I see all guard-type monsters in Axis as linked to the Emperor, I decided that the major differences between them would be rooted in their location and function.

For the show-and-tell portion of this blog post, I’ll have a go at reskinning the human thug from the 13th Age core book. Here’s the original writeup:

Human Thug

1st level troop [humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy mace +5 vs. AC—4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming, it’s not a secret.)

AC 17

PD 14    HP 27

MD 12

Getting Started: What’s Your Deal?

The first thing I do when I’m creating or customizing a monster is to figure out what their deal is. Knowing this helps me design abilities that create a distinctive experience for the players when their PCs fight that monster. I’ll ask questions like:

  • What word or short phrase best describes its nature? Loyal? Cowardly? Honorable? Cunning? Cruel? A vessel for a greater power?
  • What’s its purpose? Defend its territory? Protect someone, something, or some place? Keep the peace? Accumulate treasure? Feed?
  • How does it fulfill that purpose successfully?
  • Does it do this for itself, or for someone/something else? Who or what is that?

For example, in my version of Axis:

  • Upside security forces are reliable professionals, tasked by their clients with protecting the property of the upper classes in Axis. They succeed by working as a team to beat the crap out of unwanted outsiders before handing them over to the Imperial Home Guard.
  • Rabbleward cops are corrupt bullies, tasked by the government with keeping the poor and marginalized in the district under control. They succeed through terror, by inflicting horrible pain and injury on their enemies.

This process applies to other kinds of monsters. If I were designing a Martian spider, I might decide it’s a ferocious beast whose purpose is to capture and eat prey, and to protect its hundreds of eggs from predators. It does this by spinning multidimensional webs that can entangle and daze creatures, which it then kills with its mandibles.

Sample guards

Let’s pick a few major spots around the Dragon Empire, and give our human thug special abilities to reflect their location and role. I’ll include my answers to the who, what, why, etc. of the monster, and some notes on how I turned that into an ability. In almost every case I used an existing monster ability, reskinned for the guard.

Shadow Port Thieves’ Guild Sentry

WADE THINKS: “This is a cunning rogue tasked by the Guild to defend its headquarters from intruders. It accomplishes this through stealth and surprise. When I search the core book for the word ‘surprise’, I find the gargoyle’s statues, statues, everywhere ability. Yoinked!”

Softly, softly: Think those guards stationed at the door are the Guild’s first line of defense? Nah, mate. The real guards wait in the shadows to ambush you before you even get close. PCs must make a Wis skill check (DC 20) to avoid being surprised (see 13th Age core book page 164).

Glitterhaegen Bodyguard

WADE THINKS: “This is a grim professional tasked by a client to keep someone safe. It does this by putting its body between whoever it’s protecting and whatever’s attacking. Hmm, maybe I can adapt the skeletal hound’s skilled intercept.”

Protect the client: Once per round as a free action, an engaged bodyguard can automatically pop free from one enemy without taking an attack of opportunity and intercept an enemy who is moving to attack one nearby ally. Other enemies engaged with the bodyguard can take attacks of opportunity.

Frost Range Shrine Guardian

WADE THINKS: “This is a spiritual warrior tasked by the priesthood to protect a sacred place from desecration. It does this by making itself a vessel for the power of the gods of the frozen North. I imagine this power growing like a blizzard or encroaching ice, and the escalation die makes a great timer. If I were doing this for a book, I’d definitely ask a developer to check the math and make sure I haven’t made this monster too fearsome, or not fearsome enough.”

Spirits of the ice: The Frost Range shrine guardian adds cold damage equal to the escalation die to the damage from heavy mace. (This ability replaces the +6 damage that follows a natural even hit or miss.)

Guardian of the Golden Citadel

WADE THINKS: “This is a penitent knight tasked by the Great Gold Wyrm to keep vigil in the ruins of the Golden Citadel, slaying monsters and testing pilgrims in battle. It does this through self-sacrifice. If it’s paying a penalty to access an attack, that attack should be pretty good. Maybe I’ll give this attack an automatic success, like the despoiler mage’s magic missile attack, but keep the amount of damage the same as heavy mace.”

Penitent: The first time the guardian becomes staggered, the guardian can make a Penitenziagite attack on their next turn.

[special trigger] R: Penitenziagite (one nearby or far away enemy)—both the target and the guardian take 4 automatic damage
Limited use: 1/battle

Highdock Ranger

“This is a courageous wilderness fighter tasked by a fellowship of rangers to roam far and wide across the Highdock mountain range—a place that attracts and sometimes spawns flying realms—keeping the peace and repelling invaders. It does this using weapons it’s found while exploring crashed flying realms. Highdock, and flying realms in general, call for weirdness; so I’ll create an ability that uses a random table to generates bonuses, penalties, and special effects.”

Sky realm weapon: Highdock rangers’ weapons are strange items they’ve found in flying realms. In addition to the +6 heavy mace damage that follows a natural even hit or miss, the attack does something unusual. Roll a d6 on the following table:

  1. At the beginning of its next turn, the ranger disappears with a faint pop and the weapon falls to the ground. If the PCs ever journey to Moonwreck, they find the ranger’s skeleton lying on the tundra.
  2. The ranger is surrounded by a glittering halo. Ranged attacks against the ranger get a +1 bonus until the end of the ranger’s next turn.
  3. The air is filled with butterflies made of rainbow light. They have no substance and disappear at the end of the battle.
  4. Dark clouds form in the sky overhead. Participants hear ominous peals of thunder, and see weird lights moving within the clouds. The effects disappear at the end of the battle.
  5. The target is surrounded by a glittering halo. Ranged attacks against the target get a +1 bonus (normal save ends).
  6. The ranger’s weapon emits a deafening chime. All nearby enemies must make a normal save or take a -1 to their attacks until the end of their next turn.

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.

Vikings tradingA while back I asked members of the 13th Age Facebook group what they’d like to see from a future 13th Sage column. Longtime community member Antonio Eleuteri asked for suggestions on running a “mythic Viking campaign”, and I’ve been giving that a lot of thought ever since. Today I’m going to take a stab at that topic.

Disclaimers: this is just how I, personally, would start to think about  running a mythic Viking game of 13th Age. It’s not 13th Age: The Viking Supplement! Also, I suspect Antonio is actually more qualified than I am to write about this particular topic, so I apologize in advance if this is a terrible disappointment to him. Not only are there folks out there who know a lot more than I do about the Viking age and Norse mythology, there are those for whom this is their living religion.

Resources

The first thing I’d do, naturally is educate myself about the Viking era and the various forms a mythic Viking 13th Age game could take. Here are a few books I’d check out:

HR1 Vikings Campaign Sourcebook for AD&D 2e

Northlands for Pathfinder 1e

Mythic Iceland for Basic Role Playing

GURPS Vikings

The Mythic North

To me the word “mythic” says that my game will draw upon the folklore, culture, and history of the North Germanic and/or Icelandic peoples of the Early Middle Ages, but it should feel to the players as though their characters live within that culture’s myths—their stories about gods, demigods, monsters, and supernatural heroes. Everything the heroes do should feel larger than life, and part of a larger cosmos where all paths lead eventually to Ragnarok.

The mythic nature of the setting, characters, and events means I’m going to use 13th Age Glorantha heavily, and loosely base the campaign world on the actual historical Viking era. A character might stride into a mead-hall in Sweden and end up arm wrestling a mysterious one-eyed stranger who later reveals himself to be Odin.

Icons, Runes, and Rune Magic

One obvious approach to icons would be to use allegiance to one or more gods as icon relationships. However, instead of icons I think I’d use the rune mechanics from 13th Age Glorantha, perhaps with the 24 Elder Fúþark runes in Mythic Iceland.

During character creation, each player chooses three runes for their character that are deeply significant to them—perhaps related to the god their character is devoted to, an important background, or their One Unique Thing. These three runes, magically embodying concepts such as fire, death, truth, and wealth, aren’t just resources the characters are connected to: they are, in a cosmic sense, the essence of the character.

Whenever heroes take a full heal-up, each of them becomes attuned to one of their runes. To see which rune their character is attuned to that day, they roll a d6. On a 1, 2, or 3, they’re attuned to their first, second, or third rune, respectively. On a 4–6, roll they randomly on a table to see which of the full list of existing runes they’re attuned to, even if it’s not one of their personal three.

Runes are used by narrating them during the game to affect the story in a way that benefits the heroes. For a mythic Viking game,  I might interpret this as heroes using rune magic as described in Mythic Iceland—thus highlighting the fact that these are mythic characters in a mythic world. In that book, each rune has a “narrative magic use” section that can provide inspiration for what the use of that rune looks like in this game.

Rune magic would probably take place outside of combat and its effects would look more like a cantrip or a ritual than a spell. For example:

  • A rogue using the Kaun rune (associated with fire) might cause a spark from a woodfire to set a hall ablaze.
  • A barbarian using the Þurs rune magic to gain protection from enemies might slow the advance of an oncoming army, or diminish their forces by causing them to be attacked by wild creatures along the way.
  • A commander could use the magic of their Yr rune, associated with death, by delivering a thundering speech before a battle against mighty foes, describing how their bodies will lie strewn upon the ground to be food for wolves and ravens. The GM might decide that fulfilling this curse and slaying every enemy on the battlefield grants the heroes an incremental advance at the end of the battle.

The GM rolls a d20 when the character uses rune magic, and on a result of 1-5 adds a complication.

Available PC Races

  • Humans
  • Beastblooded (Book of Ages, p. 77)
  • High elves (known as Ljósálfar or “light elves”) who dwell in Álfheim
  • Dwarves, who dwell deep in the Earth
  • Half-elves and half-orcs, both reskinned as “trollkin”—a term I’m borrowing from Northlands that encompasses the offspring of ogres, trolls, elves, and other fey creatures who’ve taken humans as husbands or wives.

Available PC Classes

  • Any class from 13th Age Glorantha (Troll Warrior becomes Trollkin Warrior)
  • Barbarian
  • Bard (the Battle Skald talent is encouraged!)
  • Commander
  • Fighter
  • Ranger
  • Rogue

The World

Midgard, one of the Nine Worlds, is the realm of mortals, and where most of your adventures will take place. It’s surrounded by a huge, impassable ocean, and encircled by the titanic World Serpent.

Travel to other worlds is possible via Yggsrasil, the World Tree—but travel on the tree is an adventure in itself, due to the monsters and other mythic beings that dwell in it. How one gets onto the path can be the object of a quest in itself: maybe through sacrifices to the proper gods, the acquisition of certain magic rings, or tricking the guardian of a portal.

Magic Items

I would give all true magic items names and a lineage. Who made them (almost always the dwarves), and for whom? What heroes and villains have wielded them in the past? What fate befell them?

I might consider making them all cursed somehow, so that most people avoid them out of fear. But our heroes, who fear nothing, gladly take them up—even though one day, something bad will happen as a result. It’s just a matter of when.

Foes

The giants will fight against the gods at the end of all things, so I suspect they’re recurring and climactic villains. Other foes include dragons, troll raiders, human clans and kingdoms, hostile elves and dwarves, the restless dead, and ravening Grendel-type monsters who emerge from the world’s dark places to prey upon the innocent.

Ben Naylor’s Mythic Viking Campaign

13th Age fan Ben Naylor is currently running a mythic Viking campaign, and has shared some of his notes in the 13th Age Facebook group. Here are a few glimpses he’s provided over time.

Ben’s reskinned classes include:

  • Paladin (Doomsayer of Tyr)
  • Bard  (Galdr, using the mythkenner feat to morph into a runecaster. No songs, just rune casting.)
  • Barbarian (Berserkir, with a bit of Fire Jotun blood, so it has a fire-related talent)
  • Ranger (Fardrengir, a wandering Norse hunter)

The icons are based on gods and monsters: Aesir, Vanir, Fenris, Gorgamund, etc. Characters earn their icon rolls by roleplaying as heroic Vikings performing mighty, courageous deeds as they explore North Norway during the coming of Fimbulwinter.

To make the game more deadly, Ben swapped the recovery mechanic with a rune point economy, where physical runes enable a recovery. It’s so deadly, in fact, that one of the character aims is a heroic death in battle, giving the character a place in Valhalla (or other desired destination in the afterlife). If a player gives their character a good death fighting heroically in battle, their next character will be more favored by the gods. In Ben’s game this means unlocking special backgrounds and PC races.

A player who chooses to give their character a heroic death activates a Heroic Death ability which gives them special powers as they make their last stand: things like refreshing some of their daily powers and granting their allies a bonus by inspiring them to fight harder. If the character somehow fails to die, there’s a cost: maiming, a wound which doesn’t heal, or some advantage given to the kin of their foe.

Image: Calling of Vikings,’ by Viktor Vasnetsov, early 1900s – Credit: WikiPaintings


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 my home campaign, our heroes found themselves transported back in time to the rebellion against the Wizard King—though as they discovered later, they were actually trapped in a living dungeon’s memories of that era. These were some of the foes they encountered: brutal enforcers of the Wizard King’s rule.

It’s possible these miscreants will show up in a future 13th Age supplement. If so, I’ll be interested to see what turn into after a proper development pass. But when I ran them they were fun and challenging to fight!

Note that the Wizard King knight’s defense against non-spell attacks is a hack of the Pearl Legion’s destined not to die ability from Book of Ages. I liked the idea of the Wizard King’s elite knights being nearly unbeatable except by magic. Destined not to die lent itself well to that idea.

Building battles: As befits troops in service to the world’s most powerful wizard, a squad operating in a hostile area typically includes a coursing manticore (from the 13th Age Bestiary) or some other fearsome magical monster for extra intimidation and firepower.

 

Wizard King Grunt

If it weren’t obvious already, the poor equipment issued to these wretches makes it clear that their primary function in battle is to get in the way of attacks.

7th level mook [humanoid]

Initiative: +7

Government issue spear +12 vs. AC18 damage

Natural 1-5: The spear breaks and is unusable for the rest of the battle. Replace with fists, I guess?.

Fists, I guess? +12 vs. AC6 damage

R: Government issue crossbow +12 vs. AC18 damage

Natural 1-5: The crossbow breaks and is unusable for the rest of the battle

AC 23

PD 21                HP 27 (mook)

MD 17

 

Wizard King Stormtrooper

They aren’t too bright, and they aren’t very good shots, but their loyalty to the Wizard King is absolute.

7th level troop [humanoid]

Initiative: +9

Standard issue broadsword +12 vs. AC28 damage

R: Standard issue wand +10 vs. AC20 damage

R: Suppressing fire +12 vs. PD (1d4 nearby or far away targets)target is stuck until the beginning of the Wizard King stormtrooper’s next turn.

Limited use: Only usable when not engaged with an enemy.

Weak-minded: Wizard King stormtroopers are trained to obey those in authority without question, leaving them with a lower than normal Mental Defense.

AC 20

PD 21                HP 100

MD 10

 

Wizard King Captain

Drawn from the ranks of the lesser nobility, the Wizard King gives them access to a fragment of arcane power that makes them and the troops they lead more deadly as the battle rages on.

7th level leader [humanoid]

Initiative: +12

Officer’s longsword +12 vs. AC28 damage, and each nearby Wizard King stormtrooper deals +5 damage with its next attack this battle that hits.

R: Officer’s wand +12 vs. AC28 damage

Defend me! Once per battle when an attack reduces the Wizard King captain to half its hit points or fewer, any Wizard King grunts and Wizard King stormtroopers in the battle may move toward the Wizard King captain as a free action, popping free if they are engaged.

For the Wizard King! The Wizard King captain adds the Escalation Die to their attacks up to a maximum bonus of +3. In addition, Wizard King stormtroopers in the battle add the Escalation Die to their attacks to a maximum bonus of +2.

AC 23

PD 17                HP 108

MD 21

 

Wizard King Knight

In return for their eternal loyalty, the Wizard King made his paladins almost impossible to kill by normal means. They roam the kingdom on their warhorses, performing great and terrible deeds that all may know and fear his name.

8th level wrecker [humanoid]

Initiative: +13

Foe-scattering sword +13 vs. AC—38 damage

Natural even hit: If the Wizard King knight is mounted, its warhorse makes a foe-scattering strike attack as a free action.

[special trigger] Foe-scattering strike +13 vs. AC (all enemies engaged with the Wizard King knight)18 damage, and the target pops free

R: King-given wand +13 vs. AC38 damage of a random energy type (1d4):

  1. Cold
  2. Fire
  3. Lightning
  4. Thunder

For the Wizard King! The Wizard King knight adds the Escalation Die to their attacks.

No earthly weapon can kill me: If a non-spell attack that hits the Wizard King knight would reduce it to 0 hit points, that attack misses instead. The knight still takes non-spell miss damage, and can be killed by non-spell miss damage. Spell attacks kill the knight normally.

AC 24

PD 22                HP 144

MD 18

 

Countess Magdalena the Duelist

The countess is the most feared swordfighter in the kingdom. “The Duelist” is what they call her to her face—behind her back, in whispers, they call her “the Decapitator”. She hears them whisper, and she smiles.

8th level spoiler [humanoid]

Initiative: +15

Unerring blade +14 vs. AC40 damage

Natural 16+: The target is also vulnerable (crit range expands by 2, to 18+)

R: Fire opal ring +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—30 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

R: Sapphire ring +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—30 cold damage

Natural 16+: The target is stuck and takes 10 ongoing cold damage

Limited use: 2/battle.

C: Terrifying demonstration +13 vs. MD—The countess gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle

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

The more foes, the merrier: Enemies engaged with the countess at the end of their turn take damage equal to 5 times the escalation die (0-5-10-15-25-30) if they have not taken damage since the end of their last turn.

You’re too easily distracted: The countess has a +2 bonus to disengage checks.

The secret of the ring: When the countess drops to 0 hp, her body dies but her life force lives on inside the gemstone in her fire opal ring. There, she awaits the day when the Wizard King calls her forth and grants her a new, undying body.

AC 24

PD 18      HP 144

MD 22

 

Lunar wand icon by  under CC BY 3.0


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

staring eyeA lot of us with a long history of d20 fantasy gaming have shiver-inducing memories of the first time a certain grinning, many-eyed monster absolutely demolished our group of adventurers. Sadly, that iconic monster isn’t available under the OGL; but the concept is so compelling that a lot of fantasy RPGs have taken it in interesting, non-copyright-violating directions.

When designing the overseer of the Eye Mother, my guiding principles were:

  • It’s a monster players love to hate and fear
  • Like a sadistic GM it sees everything the PCs do, and punishes them for their actions in highly specific ways designed to neutralize their strengths.
  • It prevents magic from working properly

In a stroke of luck, there were already horrifying eye-themed blasphemies in 13th Age: the fomori Daughters Of Dehothu, the Eye-Mother from the 13th Age Bestiary 2. This monster wouldn’t be powerful enough to be a true-fomori like the Daughters, but could be an intermediary between them and their servants—which fit nicely with the “punishing” concept.

I hope you enjoy the overseer of the Eye-Mother! Thanks to Rob Heinsoo for his feedback on the various drafts, and to the folks who playtested it: Tim Baker, J-M DeFoggi, Kenneth Hite, and the players in my home campaign.

(For his Poikila Hellenistika campaign, Ken reskinned it as as the animated eye and beak of a bas-relief of Ashur, tutelary god of the Assyrian Empire, and came up with the wonderfully evil spell theft nastier special.)

Overseer of the Eye Mother

Overseers of the Eye Mother are lesser true-fomori associated with Dehothu. These monstrous high priests and taskmasters ensure that cultists, unclean-ones, and fomorians do the fomori’s will, and they sadistically punish those who fail. Overseers are highly intelligent, and unlike other true-fomori, do not require a host.

Although the overseer is a large monster for the purposes of stats, there is never more than one overseer present in a battle—unless it’s an apocalyptic, campaign-ending climax where the skies are filled with squadrons of them, which would be frankly terrifying.

Overseer of the Eye-Mother

You hear the creature’s mocking laughter over your companions’ screams, as rays from the giant, glistening eyeballs that orbit its writhing, shapeless body strike them down one after another.

Large 9th level spoiler [aberration]

Initiative: +16

C: Punishing gaze +15 vs. PD75 damage

Eye ray: After an enemy takes all its actions during their turn, they make a normal save (11+). If it fails, the overseer makes an eye ray attack against that enemy as a free action. The overseer can’t use the same eye ray effect twice in a single round. (See example at the end of the writeup.)

[special trigger] R: Eye ray +17 vs. PD (one nearby or far away enemy)

Hit: Choose the eye ray effect from the table below based on the actions of the target during that turn. For example, the overseer might use charm person on an enemy (such as a cleric or commander) that uses powers and spells to benefit their allies. It might use stun against an enemy with strong defenses, and disintegration or petrification against an enemy that’s really pissed it off.

  1. Charm person: the target is confused. It can’t make opportunity attacks or use limited powers, and its next attack action will be a basic or at-will attack against any nearby ally, determined randomly (11+ save ends).
  2. Slow: starting next round, the target goes last in initiative order, and can’t delay or ready an action. On a successful save (11+) the target returns to the previous initiative order.
  3. Fear: the target takes a –4 penalty to attacks and can’t use the escalation die (11+ save ends)
  4. Petrification: the target must start making last gasp saves as it turns to stone. See the 13th Age core book for detailed rules on last gasp saves. (Limited use: once per battle.)
  5. Stun: The target takes a –4 penalty to defenses and can’t take any actions (11+ save ends)
  6. Invisibility purge: If the target is invisible, it turns visible and cannot become invisible again this battle
  7. Transfer enchantment: If the overseer or a nearby ally is suffering from a condition caused by an enemy spell (or spell-like power or ability), the overseer can transfer one condition to the target. If timing is required, interpret the transferred condition as if the overseer had caused it with this attack.
  8. Disintegration: 75 damage, and attacks against the target have their crit range expanded by 2 (save ends). If the attack reduces the target to negative hit points equal to half its maximum hit points, the target is disintegrated along with everything on their person except true magic items. A merciful GM may decide that the target was actually teleported to a “phantom zone” type prison, and might still be rescued by the group—either by killing the overseer, convincing it to release the character, or going wherever the overseer sent that character.
    • Miss: 35 damage

Anti-magic aura: When a nearby or far-away enemy uses a spell attack against the overseer, they must roll twice to attack and use the lower result unless one of the rolls is a critical hit. Anti-magic aura and the sorcerer’s spell frenzy cancel each other out: sorcerers roll a single die to attack.

Hovering flight: The overseer drifts through the air like an enormous soap bubble.

Go for the eyes!: When an enemy makes a critical hit against the overseer, one of its eyes is destroyed and the overseer loses a random eye ray effect. If an enemy declares it is aiming for an eye, a successful hit does not decrease the overseer’s hit point total—instead it destroys the eye, causing the overseer to lose a randomly-chosen eye ray effect. If all its eyes are destroyed, the overseer cannot use eye ray again until it has regrown them after a month or two.

Made of eyes: The overseer can’t be surprised or ambushed, and it has true sight (spells like blur, invisibility, etc. don’t work on it).

Uncanny willpower: If the confused condition is applied to the overseer, the overseer rolls a save at the end of each turn in which it acts, including when it makes an eye rays attack. In addition, the hampered condition does not prevent the overseer from using eye rays.

Nastier Specials

Eye theft: When a nearby or far-away creature (enemy, ally, or bystander) is staggered, it begins to feel as if its eyes are being pulled out by an invisible force. It takes a –1 penalty to hit and damage. Enemies that die in the presence of the overseer do indeed have their eyes sucked out as it absorbs the eyeballs.

Spell theft: As a standard action during its turn, the overseer can cast any failed spell attack made against it as a steal spell attack.

[special trigger] R: Steal spell +15 vs. the defense in the original spell—if the spell does damage, the target takes 75 damage of the type described. If the original spell does ongoing damage, the target takes 10 ongoing damage of the type described. The target suffers any conditions described in the spell description.

 

AC 25

PD 23    HP 360

MD 23

Tactics

The oveseer has zero interest in mixing it up in melee combat with heroes, whom it views as scurrying insects to be tormented for its amusement. It hovers at a distance, letting fomori cultists (unclean-ones, kobolds, troglodytes, orcs, and so forth) to fight and die while it uses punishing gaze and eye ray. The overseer has a strong sense of self-preservation and attempts to leave the battle as soon as it looks like there’s a real chance it might be killed. If possible, it takes an enemy confused by the charm person ray with it as a hostage.

An example of the overseer in combat:

  1. A cleric, a rogue, and a wizard face off against an overseer in a temple ruin. The rogue goes first in order of initiative, and makes a ranged attack against the overseer for 20 damage. At the end of the rogue’s turn, the player rolls a saving throw and fails. The overseer makes a successful eye ray attack against the rogue as a free action. The overseer wants to slow the rogue down, so it uses the slow ray.
  2. The cleric goes next in initiative order and invokes the domain of strength. The cleric then casts javelin of faith and hits the overseer for 30 damage. At the end of the cleric’s turn, that player rolls a saving throw, and fails. The overseer makes an eye ray attack against the cleric (only one, even though the cleric took multiple actions during their turn). The overseer uses its petrification ray to gradually turn the cleric into stone.
  3. The wizard goes next, and casts acid arrow at the overseer. Due to the overseer’s anti-magic aura the wizard rolls twice and uses the lower result. The wizard’s attack misses. At the end of the wizard’s turn the player rolls a saving throw and succeeds. The overseer does not make an eye ray attack against the wizard on that turn.
  4. The overseer goes next. Because this overseer has the nastier special magic theft, it casts the wizard’s failed acid arrow at the rogue. The rogue takes 75 points of damage, and will take 10 ongoing damage on their next turn.
  5. A new round begins. Because of the slow ray’s effect, the rogue goes last instead of first this round.
  6. The cleric moves to engage the overseer and makes a successful hammer of faith attack. It’s a critical hit, and does significant damage. The overseer makes an eye ray attack and, enraged at this affront, chooses disintegration.
  7. The cleric, now staggered and vulnerable, fails their last gasp save and continues to turn into stone.
  8. The players announce that they wish to flee the battle.

Image by Anna Langova.


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.

Halloween is nigh, so I’m going to stat up some spooky monsters—in this case, pirate ghosts! These restless undead might haunt the Iron Sea coast, the rivers of the Fangs, or the Midland Sea around Necropolis and Omen.

You can find all sorts of ghosts in the 13th Age Bestiary, from the Petulant Never-Was to an Epic Haunting. The monsters below are based on the disgraced legionnaire and major haunting. The dead men tell no tales ability is a modified version of the death marker’s marked for death ability.

Abilities for Most Ghosts

Most ghosts have several or all of the following abilities:

Bound hauntings: Most ghosts are bound to an area, usually the area of their death. This ability won’t come up much in play, but it does make it seem likely that ghosts can be easier to get away from than other monsters. Move far enough fast enough and the ghost returns to the area it’s bound to. Occasionally festivals for the dead or other rituals can call bound ghosts from their hauntings, but those are unusual and temporary circumstances.

Exceptions: There may be ghosts that are bound to people, or events, or phenomena that travel. There might even be ghosts that aren’t bound to anything, but at that stage there are several other questions that surface and odd magical, iconic, or unique intervention seems likely.

Flight: Most ghosts fly, though some may be quite slow, seeming to drift or walking on air. Ghosts that fly in unusual ways will be flagged with their own abilities.

Exceptions: Not all ghosts fly. Some seem constrained to act much like they acted when they were alive, and flying wasn’t part of their life package.

Unnatural touch: Many ghosts can alter the temperature of their environment to more closely match the underworld or afterlife that they’ve so far evaded. Sometimes that’s icy cold, sometimes that’s burning hot, and sometimes it’s just kind of normal, which would go unnoticed unless the ghost is somewhere abnormal!

Exceptions: This is more of a special effect of ghost stories than part of a creature’s combat abilities, and you can safely ignore it unless you find telling moments when it adds to the game.

The Black Spot: A New Ability for Pirate Ghosts

The black spot: If someone has wronged a pirate ghost, either in life or after their death, a ghostly pirate crew member appears before them 1-6 months later (ideally on a dark and stormy night) and presents them with a scrap of paper marked with a black smudge. To resist the magical compulsion to accept the black spot, the target must succeed at a 16+ save. If the save is failed, the target takes the black spot. From then on, the offended pirate ghosts can teleport to the target’s location at will to attack them, and will keep coming until the target is dead.

Pirate Ghost Captain

Come now, surely ye haven’t forgotten yer old shipmates? Why, it feels like it were only yesterday we dangled at at the end of a hangman’s rope, while you went on to live all respectable and proper-like.

Double-strength 6th level wrecker [undead]

Initiative: +12

Vulnerability: holy

Phantom cutlass +13 vs. PD—40 negative energy damage

Natural even hit or miss: The ghost pirate captain can make a dead men tell no tales attack as a free action against a nearby staggered enemy.

C: Dead men tell no tales +11 vs. MD (nearby staggered enemy)—5 ongoing psychic damage (11+ save ends).

Target is hit by a dead men tell no tales attack for the second time this battle: Until the end of the battle, when the target tries to spend a recovery they have to succeed at a save (11+) first. If they fail, they haven’t used their action but can’t spend recoveries that turn.

Target is hit by a dead men tell no tales attack for the third time this battle:The save to spend a recovery is now a hard save (16+).

Target is hit for the fourth time this battle: Until the end of the battle the target cannot spend recoveries.

Ghostly: This creature has resist damage 12+ to all damage except holy damage. A ghost can move through solid objects, but can’t end its turn inside them.

Mark of the Jonah: Each enemy that has a background or One Unique Thing related to sailing or the sea that misses an attack with a natural odd roll takes a -2 penalty to all its defenses until the end of the battle.

Nastier Specials

Fear aura: While engaged with this ghost, if the target has 30 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 to attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

Swarm of pirates: If there are three or more ghost pirate crew member mooks in a battle, the pirate ghost captain’s fear aura ability affects enemies with 60 hp or fewer.

AC 22

PD 19     HP 140

MD 16

 

Pirate Ghost Crew Member

Arrrrr!

6th level mook [undead]

Initiative: +9

Phantom cutlass +10 vs. PD—8 negative energy damage

Mob-based: For every separate mob of ghost pirate crew member mooks in the battle (mobs start with at least four mooks), add a +1 bonus to the ghost pirate crew member’s attacks and +2 to its damage.

Ghostly: This creature has resist damage 14+ to all damage except holy damage. A ghost can move through solid objects, but can’t end its turn inside them.

AC 21

PD 19 .      HP 18 (mook)

MD 16

Mook: Kill one ghost pirate crew member mook for every 18 damage you deal to the mob.


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.

A 13th Age GM recently asked for advice on using Backgrounds in a modern setting. At first I didn’t see the problem—”Former circus performer” should work the same in the modern world as it does in the Dragon Empire, right?

But when I really gave it some thought, I saw the difficulty. “Former circus performer” in the Dragon Empire lets the player do loads of world-building, unconstrained by real-world facts and enhanced by the magic of the setting. Likewise, the GM has complete freedom to use that Background to create adventure and campaign hooks relevant to that character.

However, if your game is set in the modern wold it becomes more difficult, especially if you care about some degree of accuracy, and real-world believability. It’s can be even harder if that Background is connected to a region or a culture you aren’t very familiar with. What, realistically, could a modern-day character with the Background “subsistence farmer” do with it? What if they were a subsistence farmer in New England? Rural Japan? A tiny island near Madagascar? What compelling and believable adventure and campaign hooks could the GM create?

Here’s how I’d handle this.

First, remember that a GM needs to know just enough about a thing to make it believable and entertaining at the table, and no more.

Also, remember that Backgrounds, like other character creation mechanics, exist to generate fun.

Third, recall that 13th Age players and GMs work together to build out the world, and create adventures that are relevant to the characters.

Let’s say I’m running a modern-day campaign set in the United States, where the player characters are a ragtag band of wandering misfits who roam the country, get involved in some local troubles, resolve them, and then head off into the sunset. One player decides that her character, who is Chinese-American, has the Background, “Former circus performer in China”.

For the purposes of gaming at our table we could leave it at that, in which case the player occasionally says something like, “I squeeze through the bars of this jail cell using a trick I learned from the contortionist at the circus.” That’s fine!

However, if that player made the circus Background a +5, that player is telling me she wants this part of her character’s life to be an important element of the game. If it’s connected to a One Unique Thing and/or icon relationships, she might want it to be one of the things that defines the campaign.

In order to find ways to incorporate this Background into the campaign story arc. I’d ask questions like:

  • How did you come to join the circus?
  • What made that circus different from others?
  • Was it successful? Struggling?
  • How long were you in it?
  • What was your role—your job, but also your place in the society within the circus?
  • What was your relationship with the owners? The performers? Other employees?
  • When did you leave, and how?
  • Why did you leave? Was it on good terms, or bad terms? Were you able to leave freely, or did you escape?

Guided by these answers, I would do some research on circuses, especially ones in China—just enough to create compelling story hooks relevant to that character, ones that would feel believable in play.

Hmm. Wikipedia* has very little on circuses in China. Here’s what I found just now:

  • In the 1800s, a Frenchman named Louis Soullier was one of three early circus owners who introduced the circus to China. He was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus.
  • “Chinese variety art” is the English translation of a Chinese term which covers a wide range of acrobatic acts and other demonstrations of physical skill traditionally performed by a troupe in China. These include plate-spinning, Shaolin monks who resist projectiles thrown or fired at them, kung fu demonstrations, unicycling, balancing on balls, and contorting.
  • “Circus” refers to a Western-style circus, which may include Chinese variety art. The Chinese State Circus is a touring circus presenting these arts to European audiences.
  • Both Eastern and Western circuses have undergone a revival and transformation since the 1970s, with elaborate themed productions, often telling a story through characters which reappear throughout the show. In the Chinese State Circus, this is the figure of the legendary Monkey King.

Whoa. Wait a second. As described in the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King rebelled against the divine Jade Emperor and was imprisoned by the Buddha in a mountain. He was released 500 years later, and atoned for his crimes by protecting the monk Tang Sanzang. The Monkey King does all kinds of amazing feats—the kind you’d see in…a circus featuring Chinese variety art.

Not only do I now have some background information to work with in handling skill checks, I’ve made an important thematic connection in my head. I’m reminded that “circus performer” is more than a set of skills: it’s an archetype, an iconic outsider figure who uses skill, cleverness, unpredictability, and humor to overcome obstacles and enemies (often the forces of law and order).

Here’s what I might challenge this player character with:

  • Physical obstacles that put these skills and qualities to the test, and which resemble the sorts of challenges overcome in Chinese variety arts and circuses.
  • Enemies who are their opposite number: solid, straightforward, and serious.
  • Enemies who are their distorted mirror image: skillful, clever, and unpredictable outsiders. Maybe this includes a recurring villain, someone who’s very much like the PC but with an important difference that puts them at odds.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s fine for circuses, which are fun and interesting. What about the boring Background, ‘I am a former page in the United States Congress’? How do I give that depth, and find story hooks for it?”

Just as we did in the example above, you learn a bit about how it works, ask questions, and find the fun. You might find out he got the highly-coveted job of page because his late father blackmailed a senator who had ties to a powerful Mob boss. If that’s the case, you could run an adventure where the group arrives in a town to discover that the character’s father, who vanished recently, now lives there as part of a witness protection program. And guess who else just figured this out, and sent a car full of hit men?

This works for auto salvage yard owners, tax preparers, homemakers, and every sort of life path.

If a character’s Backgrounds are really just bundles of skills, summarized in a sentence, that’s okay. But if inspiration strikes, your players might be incredibly entertained when a shadowy conspiracy comes after the former tax preparer because the client he helped five years ago was a time traveler from the future, changing history one tax return at a time.

*Wikipedia is sufficient if all I’m doing is running a game for my friends. If I’m turning this into a published adventure or campaign, I’m going to do a lot of thorough research, and take steps to ensure I’m representing real-world cultures accurately and respectfully.


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.

Sebastian Münster’s sea monster chart (1544)

The Iron Sea: this is fine.

The Dragon Empire’s potential for rich stories and adventures isn’t even close to being exhausted—its various regions are left half-finished so GMs and players can have fun filling in the blanks, but we envision it being culturally, ethnically, economically, agriculturally, culinarily, and religiously diverse. Approaching a town on the sunny southern coast you might find gently-sloping green hills, olive groves, wheat fields, and vineyards bursting with grapes. Venture into town and you may come across a busy market with stalls selling food with complex spices, a temple to the sea gods, and an amphitheater that dates back to the age of the Wizard King. Head northwest to Foothold, and you might find tall forests, lumber camps, craggy mountains with dwarven mines, fur traders, rugged fortifications, offerings to placate the dark gods, and hearty stews.

Nevertheless! Some have asked us what lies beyond the map of the Dragon Empire. What place does it occupy in the larger world? For that, I’ll direct you to the Book of Ages and its description of the Age of Corsairs, when the Dragon Empire opened maritime trade routes with other lands beyond the Iron Sea, and the pirates who prayed on this shipping grew strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Here are some of the details of that age from the Book of Ages (which also includes new PC races, monsters, and magic items). Feel free to make the 13th Age an age of sail and trade in your campaign, or have the PCs be the first brave explorers who discover—or rediscover—lands beyond the Dragon Empire. If sail and trade with the outside world are common, the major change to the default setting will be that the Iron Sea’s storms and monsters either haven’t yet made the sea impassable, or have been subdued by one of more icons.

An Age of Sail and Trade

Adventurers and explorers have discovered new lands beyond the Empire, and trade ships now sail through the Koru Straits and out into the Iron Sea!

The wizards of Horizon have developed magical forms of navigation using celestial beacons that enable ships to cross the deeps. This is a marvelous time, especially for the merchants of Highrock and Glitterhaegen who benefit most from this growth in trade. However, dissatisfaction grows in other parts of the Empire, and would-be pirates—aided by ambitious black and green dragons—have built their own ships and begun raiding the trading vessels along the coast. 

Alternate Icons

The icons of the Age of Corsairs reflected the spirit of that age. If you wish, you can replace any of the default icons of the 13th Age with one of the icons below, or merge them. For example, you could replace the Prince of Shadows with the Captain of Corsairs; but you could also decide that the young Orc Lord felt the lure of the sea, and is now a pirate king!

The Captain of Corsairs is the great rival of the Emperor. There have been many different Captains—some were bloodthirsty, brutal thieves, but others were clever diplomats and wise rulers. The Captains rule from the great port city of the Harbor of Gulls.

The Explorer is a famed adventurer who travels the world. She will vanish from the Empire for many years at a time, then return with fabulous treasures and tales of distant lands. Sometimes, she travels by ship; on other occasions, she sets off on foot or through one of the Archmage’s experimental portals. (Other modes of transport employed by the Explorer on occasion: kidnapped by derro, tied to a roc, flung by a catapult, flung by a giant, flung by a giant catapult [along with her twenty companions and their horses], stowed away on a flying castle, eaten by the Stone Thief ).

The Merchant Princess‘ wealth is said to rival even that of the Dwarf King. Her trading fleets sail out of Glitterhaegen and Highrock, and return laden with gold and silver from distant lands. Money buys power, and the influence of the Princess easily eclipses that of the Archmage and the Great Gold Wyrm in the imperial court.

The Serpent is a green dragon whose power is second only to his ambition; he desires to become the new Green, upgrading the Three to the Four and obtaining the strength and respect (and treasure hoard) due to one of the great dragons. He has allied with the Captain of Corsairs to bring down his rivals, and some suspect he has bewitched the High Druid.

The King Below is the ruler of the sahuagin. Under the coral crown and bloody banner of the king, the freshwater sahuagin of the Fangs join with their salt-water cousins in a war against the surface. At times the Captain of Corsairs has been able to ally with the sea-folk, but for the most part, the sahuagin recognize no difference between one ship crammed with prospective slavemeat and another.

Lands Beyond

Book of Ages lists 13 lands that might exist beyond the storms and ship-eating monsters—though if you prefer, they could be reachable by land travel. Here are some samples:

Far Eld: A grim, rainy land of small, grim, damp villages and grimmer, damper fishermen. Lots of monks, hermits and druids. Eld’s not entirely in this world—parts of it phase in and out of some faerie realm, and only the locals know when these gates open and close.

The Edgelands: The atoll of the Edgelands surrounds a huge hellhole. It’s a barter town, a devil’s market where traders can buy goods from the infernal realms in exchange for coin and souls.

The Archipelago: Like the Dragon Empire, the lands of the Archipelago have their own icons. Here, there are a hundred minor icons, each one ruling a different island. Over time, the islands have come to reflect the nature and desires of their rulers, so each one is radically different to its neighbors across the straits.

Fortuna: In Fortuna, magic items rule. Humans are seen as soulless meat golems unless ensouled by the vibrant spirits of magic, and are only considered really alive when loaded down with enough items to have their ‘animal instincts’ overridden (in other words, more magic items than one’s level allows). Fortuna’s awash with magic items, but they’re not for sale—taking them is a crime tantamount to kidnapping.

Eiswyn: Eiswyn is a glacial realm of ice and snow, of barbarians and furry monsters. The ruins of an ancient civilization lie frozen in the glacier, so when the barbarians aren’t off raiding warmer lands in the summer, they spend their winters cutting into the ice to excavate treasures and dangers from a past age.

Get the Book of Ages by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan here.


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.

Some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had have come from running DramaSystem games. Starting with the Hillfolk roleplaying game, and continuing with Blood on the Snow and Series Pitch of the Month, DramaSystem offers a wealth of setting options for players to inhabit, and create compelling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional drama. You might choose to play in 1930s Shanghai, a steam-powered flying city, a post-scarcity future of art and murder, a magical alternate-history Russia…even humanity’s universal unconscious.

However, DramaSystem is primarily designed for campaign play. What if you want to run a game at a convention? The challenges are significant. You have limited time to create an engaging story; you probably don’t know your players (and they probably don’t know each other); and it’s entirely possible they signed up for your session, not because they’re dying to play emotionally-charged dramatic scenes with strangers, but because they had time to kill and the setting sounded interesting.

Here are some tips that I, and other GMs and players, have learned during convention play.

Tell the players up front that this game is about character conflict, and player conflict

The most challenging DramaSystem game I’ve ever run was the one in which the players were too darn nice. Nobody wanted to be a jerk, so they never made strong demands, never used drama tokens to take away someone else’s narrative power, and never withheld anything that was asked of them.

Emphasize again and again that this is a game about interpersonal drama, conflict, and powerful emotions. Beyond that, make sure your players understand that DramaSystem is a game of player antagonism. Unlike other games they’re used to, they won’t be cooperating against some outside threat, or working together to achieve some external goal. They’ll be trying to get each others’ characters to grant emotional concessions—things like love, respect, forgiveness, friendship. Things those characters don’t want to concede.

Offer a manageable number of roles and dramatic poles

My series pitch The Secret of Warlock Mountain lists more than 20 possible roles the players could take in the game, from “ship’s captain” to “dream-haunted oracle”. You can certainly let the players choose from a long list, but I like to take six to eight roles and create very simple playbooks for them. (To see examples, download the playbooks for Hillfolk and Secret of Warlock Mountain on the DramaSystem Resources page.) This helps avoid players becoming paralyzed by too many choices, and also helps me run the game—I know that a given convention game of Warlock Mountain will involve some configuration of Captain, Doctor, Scientist, Elder, Comic Relief, Teenager, Criminal, and Soldier. This gives me a good idea of what kinds of relationships and stories I’ll be facilitating as the GM.

Likewise, there are a vast number of dramatic poles that a player character might have. I like to fill in each playbook with three dramatic poles per character—the players can either choose from those options, or come up with their own.

Max out the number of “I want from them/they want from me” relationships

DramaSystem character generation normally continues until every character is the object of at least two other characters’ wants. This is fine! However, I’ve found that it can enhance play at a convention to keep going around the table until every character wants something from every other character, and is the object of a want from every other character.

This approach gives players more flexibility, because now every character is a potential source of drama (and drama tokens) for every other character. Callers feel more freedom to include anyone they wish in a scene, because no character is “wasted” due to a lack of dramatic conflict with the other participants. It also gives every player something interesting to do in every scene: nobody is there in a purely supporting role.

Ignore or minimize the procedural rules

Whatever the setting, DramaSystem game sessions should stay laser-focused on the tensions and conflicts within a small, tightly-knit group of player characters. These characters might at some point fight orcs, sabotage a bridge, or plan a daring heist; but all of that is just background to their drama.

The goal of a convention game is to show your players a good time, and give them a sense of what makes the game fun and distinctive. With DramaSystem, that’s collaborative storytelling, player-vs-player conflict, and the drama token economy—not the rare instances where characters engage in procedural scenes.

You can keep the session drama-focused by ignoring or minimizing the game’s procedural rules. Instead, encourage the players to handle procedural scenes as dramatic scenes. Maybe their group of soldiers is trying to break out of a World War II prison camp, but what’s really going on in that scene is the boiling tension between the wealthy Bostonian Lt Thorndike and Sgt O’Malley, whose father was murdered by Thorndike’s uncle. You can give such scenes a procedural feel by asking questions and introducing threats. (“Up ahead you see something you didn’t expect, that will make the escape harder. What is is? How do you deal with it?”)

Other options include:

  1. Using the 13th Age RPG montage mechanic, where every player has the opportunity to narrate a challenge and a solution.
  2. Using one of the stripped-down procedural resolution methods.

Nurture the drama token economy

Drama tokens are the currency of DramaSystem. Make sure the players understand that an important part of the game is amassing enough tokens that their character has the power to influence what happens in the story. With enough tokens, their character can crash scenes where they aren’t wanted, duck out of scenes they don’t want to be in, force other player characters to do what they want, and resist being forced. This game is working when drama tokens are changing hands, passing from one player to another. If the players don’t push each other or resist being pushed, that won’t happen, and the game will remain drama-free and un-fun.

Every dramatic scene ends with an exchange of one or more drama tokens. If the petition is willingly granted, the granter earns a drama token—from the petitioner if he has one, or from the kitty if not. If the granter refuses, the petitioner gains the token— from the granter if she has one, or from the kitty if not.

In a convention game, I recommend letting players take drama tokens from the kitty for a longer period of time than you would in a campaign session. If, early in the game, Joan grants Jeff’s petition, and Jeff has a token, ask Joan to take her token from the kitty instead of from Jeff. This method increases the number of tokens in play more quickly, which heightens the suspense and raises the stakes. Pointing out to the group that a couple of players have two or three tokens in front of them causes everyone to realize that those characters now have more narrative power than the others. This creates an incentive for the other players to make difficult concessions or challenging demands, so they can take tokens away from those players and use them to push their own agendas.

Remember that the GM calls scenes too

It’s easy to get so caught up in the story the players are creating that you forget the GM takes a turn as well! You can use your scene to tighten the screws, or bring together characters who haven’t yet played out a dramatic scene. You can also mix things up by bringing characters together in a different combination than previously—if the rebellious daughter is never alone in a scene with her mother, throw them together in a stressful situation, and see what happens.

Further reading

Want more tips? Blood on the Snow includes a chapter of advice on running DramaSystem one-shots, including agreeing on a story outline beforehand, and stronger GM control over the narrative.

Good luck running your next DramaSystem con game, and have fun!

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Work on the Yellow King Roleplaying Game has been chugging along since the Kickstarter closed in July. A master document containing the elements of Absinthe in Carcosa is now in the hands of hand-out artist extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt. In the months ahead he’ll be transforming them into a unique and stunning presentation of the setting sourcebook format. Art direction is well underway for the four books that comprise the core game.

The first playtest round, focused on Paris, is now in progress, with actual play reports beginning to filter out into places like the GUMSHOE Facebook community.

With Absinthe turned over to Dean, I’ve turned my attention back to completing the core game. This task entails both the three remaining introductory scenarios and the many stretch goals crowdfunded by you (or gamers like you.)

Here’s a taste of the latter—a few of the GMC profiles from the Occultists of the Belle Epoque stretch goal.

Did you miss the Kickstarter? The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Pre-Order exists just for you.

Camille Flammarion

Astronomer and Science Fiction Writer

53, 1842-1925

The polymathic Camille Flammarion crosses not only the streams of science and spiritism, but throws the arts in for good measure. He believes both in evolution and the transmigration of souls, continually improving as they find new incarnations throughout the universe. His science fiction titles, such as Lumen and Imaginary Worlds, envision alien life from a naturalist’s perspective. Like Albert de Rochas he applies the scientific method to parapsychological research. Since souls go to other planets after death, he reasons, manifestations at séances must emanate from the extra-sensory powers of the mediums who conjure them. Always ready to write a foreword or appear at an occult talk, he might be found in the corners of any event held by any other figure in this chapter.

Physically his mane of white hair, incisively cocked eyebrows and flowing Van Dyke underline his grand old man persona.

As a Patron: Flammarion might recruit the heroes to round up copies of the book, drawing on his contacts in the scientific and occult communities.

Alexandre Saint-Yves

Synarchist

53, 1842-1909

Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, the Marquis d’Alveydre, invented the term synarchy to refer to the secret rule of mankind by occult masters. He believes that Abraham and the Hindu deity Ram are really the same figure, a primordial lawmaker and father of all peoples. Though the surface world has lost touch with the truth, millions dwell in Agarttha, a subterranean realm benevolently overseen by a trinity of rulers: a Brahatmah (God-soul), Mahatma (Great Soul) and Mahanga (Great Path.) It relocated underground, far below the plateaus of Tibet, during the Hindu dark age three thousand years ago, protecting its people and advanced technology from encroaching disaster. He knows this because he communicates with Agartthan officials telepathically.

The Marquis claims the power of astral travel. When characters ask about it, he proves notably stingy with the details.

He writes the popular Mission series of books in which various groups are issued instructions for bringing about the synarchy on the surface world: Mission to the Sovereigns, Mission to the Jews, and so on. When not occupied with synarchy he studies possible commercial applications for seaweed.

Saint-Yves became independently wealthy through marriage and was granted his title fifteen years ago by the Republic of San Marino. Describe him as a dour-looking man with a thick, pensive mustache.

Charles Richet

Physiologist and Parapsychologist

45, 1850-1930

A gaunt man with searching eyes, the physiologist Charles Richet studies a range of medical subjects and is destined to win the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. His interests range from aviation to theatrical writing. The investigators however will care most about his role as a scientific psychic investigator. Last year he coined the term “ectoplasm” to describe the strange material mediums produce during séances. He believes that paranormal powers exist but will all be rationally explained through scientific inquiry, without the need to invoke spirits or an afterlife. In our reality, he falls for, and in at least one case helps to cover up, hoaxes perpetrated by mediums. In the universe of the Yellow King, he might instead fail to see the supernatural causes behind their effects.

Richet dedicates himself to pacifism, eugenics and hardcore racism, especially against blacks. Calibrate the way you deal with these last two according to your group’s desired level of unsavory social realism.

Léo Taxil (Gabriel Jogand-Pagès)

Conspiracy-Promulgating Con Artist

41, 1854-1907

Setting a pattern unknown to our own innocent age, pundit Léo Taxil (real name Gabriel Jogand-Pagès) masterminds a convoluted series of hoaxes, in which he appears to ricochet between extreme ideologies, selling books and calling attention to himself all along the way. He started as an anti-clerical rabble-rouser, writing books that mock Biblical inconsistencies or depict Catholic ecclesiastics engaged in Sadean debauchery. He infiltrated occult circles, convincing Jules Doinel (above) and others that he was one of them.

Ten years ago he staged a public conversion to Catholicism, tarring Freemasonry with similar sensational slanders. Taxil is the one who took Levi’s famous image of Baphomet and forever associated it with Satanism. He described a global conspiracy, the Palladium, led by a Masonic worthy of Charleston, South Carolina named Albert Pike. Three years ago he published the best-selling The Devil in the 19th Century, introducing to the world the reformed Satanist arch-priestess Diana Vaughan. Anecdotes include her encounters with incarnate demons, including a crocodilian specimen that plays the piano. He is now writing her first-person book of prayers and confessions.

Two years from now he will announce a press conference with Vaughan, at which he instead reveals that it was all a hoax. Reverting to his original persona, he says he has been showing the stupidity of the Church’s fear of Freemasonry.

But that’s the historical timeline. Might the ambient madness of Carcosa cause thoughtforms of the demons described in Taxil’s books to realize themselves?

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