Monday, May 26, 2014

They Keep Killing the Dragons

Despite the relative negativity of my previous post about 13th Age my group and I have been playing it each week since then, give or take a couple of breaks due to player absences. The starting adventure is a mess but the central conflict between the Three -- a triumvirate of powerful dragons -- and the Elf Queen -- er, the queen of the elves -- has given us a good spine for the campaign, as the players find themselves embroiled in a cold war between the Icons that may about to tip over into something a bit warmer. This has led to something of a mission-based structure as the player-characters zip about the map on black ops, er, operations for the elves, although the last couple of sessions have seen a bit of a digression as they have been pursuing a plot thread about a treasure buried on a distant island.

The party consists of Jordan Young, a bard and former pirate and the instigator of the treasure quest; Sartheen, knife-chucking rogue and the only red dragonspawn in the world; Rarity, a tiefling barbarian who remembers legends everyone else has forgotten; Ne-0n, a robotic sorcerer who is able to perceive the underlying structure of reality itself; and Amras, an elf wizard who is the reincarnation of the Devil.

The way I've been running the campaign is to use the player-characters' One Unique Things as the ongoing background plots -- Sartheen's background in particular ties in well with the aforementioned cold war -- and in the first few sessions I was using their Icon relationship rolls to give me an idea of what sort of things may occur and which non-player-characters may be involved in each session. I am still doing that but as we've got more used to the game the players are becoming more confident in claiming those Icon rolls themselves and using them to shape the narrative; in our most recent session Sartheen's player Stuart used his Prince of Shadows relationship result to tell us all that Sartheen knew of a smugglers' hideout nearby and that the smugglers there -- being part of the Prince's network -- would be able to assist the party in outfitting a ship with the crew and equipment needed to go sailing after this mysterious treasure.

I don't know if it's necessary to have this kind of thing built into the rules mechanics but it's quite fun being surprised when the players roll their relationship dice and then I have to find a way to involve their Icons in the next session. It's sort of a random encounter roll for the GM and I'm sure it's sharpening my improvisation skills.

Anyway, in the first adventure -- the dodgy one from the rulebook -- the player-characters witnessed an attack on an elven fortress by a blue dragon and other minions of the Three; although the party's cleric was half-eaten during the fight -- and the other half was later consumed by Sartheen as a "sign of respect" -- the party did kill the dragon and they were welcomed into the Elf Queen's court as heroes. A bit of nudging from the Diabolist -- as a result of Amras' relationship roll -- led to the party speaking out in support of retaliation against the Three and so they were sent to a town under the dragons' control to assassinate the mayor, who just happened to be a white dragon.

They laid out an elaborate plan reminiscent of my old Shadowrun days -- and as I don't get to play Shadowrun any more this was quite a welcome piece of nostalgia -- and infiltrated the town, killing the mayor and half of his hobgoblin bodyguards while disguised as undead minions of the Lich King, hoping to implicate Old Boney in the assassination. After that they returned to the elven court and waited around for a bit before deciding to follow up on Jordan's stories of treasure, their first stop a series of elven ruins on the coast and the ships rumoured to be hidden there.

Over the next couple of sessions they found and explored the ruins and the secret underground harbours beneath them, fought some banshees and skeletal dragonspawn and a giant psychic crab, discovered a magical helmet that seems to allow communication with a temple in the Three's capital city, and befriended a gang of sahoowagin sawaugin sahuagin, in a scene that I found familiar.

The player-characters now have an ancient elven ship and a somewhat reluctant crew who will only sail with them into the uncharted east if they can find the infamous Captain Morgan -- oh dear -- to lead the expedition. The only problem with that is that Morgan is said to be under lock and key in Highrock, the Archmage's flying prison island. I hope there are no dragons up there.


  1. Sounds like an interesting game. How's the system play out?

    1. As GM I like it a lot. From my perspective it's about as complicated as Basic D&D, which makes it very easy to run. The players get more options, not as many as D&D4 or Pathfinder but each of the classes uses different mechanics, so there is complexity on that side if you want it. We've been playing for a couple of sessions without two of our players and so the others have been running two characters and I think the different class mechanics has been a bit of a struggle from that perspective.

      We all love the Escalation Die; it's a counter that comes into play in the second round of combat and provides a bonus to hit rolls for the players and a small number of monsters. If the fight continues into a third round the bonus goes up by one and so on up to a maximum of +6. It's a handy way of having long fights without them becoming a slog.

      Skills are based on what your character did before they became an adventurer, so "Fisherman 3" would give your character a +3 bonus to rolls involving tasks in which a fisherman may have experience. I like this a lot.

      The story mechanics have taken the most time to get our heads around. Each character has one or more relationships with the Icons, the powerful NPCs of the setting, and these relationships are expressed as points. At the end of every session we roll dice equal to the number of points the characters have in the relationships and record any results of 5 or 6. For example, Sartheen the Red has a two point positive relationship with the Prince of Shadows, so at the end of a session Stuart will roll 2d6; if he gets a 6 then in the next session Sartheen will receive some sort of benefit as a result of his relationship with the Prince -- some money, a place to hide out, an NPC contact, or even a magic item -- and a 5 would give him a similar benefit but with a drawback. Conflicted or negative relationships add a bit more complexity to the system.

      This aspect of the rules is where I've struggled the most as it's a bit of a new idea and the rulebook could do with more examples. I've been getting the hang of it as we've been playing and I've started to find it a useful tool for preparing the next session. I'm also pleased to see the players starting to use the rolls themselves to shape the story.

      I think a couple of my players miss the accounting-style mechanics of Pathfinder so I don't think 13th Age will ever be our main D&D-like game but they seem happy enough to play it for now.

  2. I've been reading though the rulebook but am only roughly halfway through after taking a long extended break to catch up on some old comics and some non-fiction stuff.

    The main things I like about 13th Age, so far, are the "One Unique Thing" and the Icon relationships, as you've discussed, plus the idea of "fail forward." If there's an important clue in the room that will help the players move onto another part of the campaign, then they should find it regardless of whether they make their "search roll" or not. But if they roll poorly, that should have an impact. I like that a lot.

    And the thing is - from what I've seen so far, all three of these ideas can easily be used in other games, no matter what system you're using. None of them really have any mechanical implications.

    I get what you're saying about the Icons and how that would play out. And I agree it could use a lot more examples, whether in the book or on the 13th Age forums or G+ page or whatever. I keep trying to think of ways to use it in my homebrew campaign by changing the idea of the Icons being "NPCs" and instead having them be "organizations" (a particular church, a cult, a guild, etc.). My campaign is kind of built upon the relationship between a bunch of powerful organizations like that, and since in 13th Age the Icons roll is really more about the "agents" of the Icon that you end up interacting with, I think it could work.

    I really like the setting you briefly described above. I want to learn more about Ne-0n the robotic sorcerer!