13th Age: Gorram Adventurers – Session 1

I guess Firefly references are the new Monty Python -quotes, eh?

Ran my first 13th Age today. Since it was a playtest game for a forthcoming adventure, I’ll hold mum on most of the happenings, and just pull out some impressions on the system, and a couple of isolated incidents I thought were especially amusing – no, make that gorram funny.

Three of the players had characters made up beforehand, and I made a few fill-in-the-blanks -options for K. who was known to be a late arrival. Chargen was smooth and easy, really. Most of the time went into talking about the world, and hashing out Uniques and Backgrounds, and picking Icon Relationships. After choosing race and class almost all of the option-shopping is contained within the class description, so there’s very little need for back-and-forth browsing — which is something I’ve really hated about making characters in some games.

H played a high elf wizard, who has done something the Elf Queen will not forgive (as mentioned in the previous entry.) A bit more fleshing out revealed that while the Head Librarian at the Queen’s Library, she he had browsed the Forbidden Collection and accidentally read some parts of The Gate and The Key out loud. Oops. The library isn’t quite safe anymore, and in addition to “Please Be Quiet”, there is now also a poster that says “DO NOT GO INTO THE STACKS ALONE!”.

M made a forgeborn fighter, who is “A dwarven artefact of a bygone age, discovered in the deep underworld by the drow, now fuelled by drow crystals distilled from the poison of the underworld.” He (it?) is a thing of clockwork and hydraulics, and strongly believes himself a giant — which he indeed is, …by dwarf standards.

T ended up with a human rogue who sees dead people. He was trained as a temple thief in service of the Priestess by his father, a priest of shadows. Unfortunately he was more interested in picking locks and raising hell than theology…

From the options presented K picked a half elf ranger, and determined that she bound the creatures of the Bloodwood into defence of the Wall while in command of rangers in service of the High Druid (there was a unique opportunity involving some ancient spell that came her way, and she took it.) The Druid was not happy.

All the characters kicked some serious butt, and felt very distinctive. Combat was pretty smooth. Wasn’t quite as fast as I might have liked, but part of that was due to a conscious decision to be clear about the rules instead of moving forward at maximum speed. I’m sure it will speed up quite a bit more.

Icon relationship roll handling will need some more thinking on my part, but I was somewhat constrained there by the adventure we were playtesting. Reading people’s comment on Pelgrane Forums, many groups seem to use them for rather straightforward mechanical bonuses a lot of the time, which I find distinctly unappealing. I think I’d rather let them guide my improvisation.

We saw our first ritual in the game. The characters were in need of a dead body, and decided to fake one. The wizard cast Disguise Self as a ritual: she he staged own suicide by hanging herself with the belt of the rogue character’s dead father; this was to induce a long-lasting pseudo-death she he could cancel at will. …and she failed her roll. Failing forward, her his body is now possessed by the aforementioned dead father. OOPS. By the way, this is the same rogue who has the unique “I can see dead people.” Eh-heh. Anyways, the group’s plan can still work just fine. This is just a minor complication. A highly inconvenient and downright hysterical complication, but definitely not a show stopper. :D

I had a blast.

EDIT: Turns out high elfs can be pretty gender-ambiguous.

Looking into 13th Age

Unless you already know, 13th Age is a new fantasy RPG from Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, in the d20 mold, from Pelgrane Press. Rob Donoghue has a thorough review which you should read if you’re looking for a review; this is just me rambling.

I pre-ordered it last year and had the playtest documents, but never really had the time to give it a proper look at it until now. (Work has been keeping me busy enough that gaming fell by the wayside for a while — but holidays have finally re-invigorated me, and hence also this blog, at least temporarily.)


Not really a big surprise: I’m a longtime Jonathan Tweet fan, and Pelgrane Press gets my vote as “possibly the most stand up RPG publisher, ever”. I was initially a bit thrown off by Heinsoo being on the team, actually, since 4E definitely was not my cup of tea, but looking at the exchanges between him and Tweet included in the book, I’m very very glad he was there! (There are several places in the book where both Tweet and Heinsoo explain their takes on a given rule — where they disagree — and their reasoning behind their stances. This is brilliant. It highlights the mutable and subject-to-interpretation nature of RPG rules, and also brings both the shared and conflicting aesthetics of the designers to the limelight.)

The amount of crunch is on par with retroclones, which is about the maximum I can take. Mechanically the rules look more than solid enough, and unlike with 4E I feel they have a nice solid connection to the fiction.

Character death probably doesn’t happen very often in this game, though, and the only optional rule for scarred heroes is pretty wimpy. My OSR games have made me appreciate value of vulnerable characters quite a bit. Still, the characters definitely aren’t invulnerable either, and house rules for lasting scars and effects are a breeze if I decide I want them. I do wish they’d explicitly discussed hit point interpretation a bit more, though. There is a mention that they see them also representing morale and will-to-fight on p. 166, but being more explicit about this would have been nice: this is the only interpretation that makes mid-combat recoveries palatable to me, really. I’m also somewhat on the fence re. full heal-ups, but as they’re explicitly under GM control, it is probably quite easy enough to arrange the tempo of the game to be such that they remain credible.

The “storytelling mechanics” aren’t gimmicky. One Unique Thing and Backgrounds in particular is more of the same tweetesque goodness I know and love from Over The Edge. Icon relationships are solid gold. Last night I made a test-run of chargen with H. She rolled up a High Elf Wizard. Her unique thing is “I’ve done something the Elf Queen will not forgive.” and one of her backgrounds is “Ex-Head Librarian to the Elf Queen.” The game practically writes itself. :)

There are no explicit “personality mechanics” or alignment. There is a strong nod to 3×3 alignment model, and explicit call-outs to Burning Wheel and Over the Edge mechanics with directions to use what you like. Fair enough.

The setting is quite gonzo, but I’m cool with that. If I wanted a realistic or low-key fantasy game I would not be looking at anything resembling d20. The setting presentation is exactly right for me: 15 pages very reminiscent of the Barsaive chapter in Earthdawn. Some entries are mostly about history. Some entries are mostly about present. Some entries are mostly about potential. None of it is bland vanilla gazetteer listing exports and imports. Enough to fire my imagination, enough to give some constraints — not too much canon to bog me down.

I’m only sorry to see the colored art. The playtest documents had at least some of the pencil sketches before they were colored in, and I have to say I found them much move evocative. All that life and nuance is muted in my eyes by the colors. …but I realize I maybe the lone voice in the wilderness here, so enough about that. (Ok, so it’s not all that bad. I like the art as it is, but I really loved the pencils. I wish they’d publish a full resolution portfolio of the pencils…)

My biggest complaint is really same as Rob Donoghue’s: the book assumes you already know quite a bit about d20 systems, and the order of presentation is sometimes odd. This is both understandable, and regrettable. This is not to say it is a hard book to read. It reads quite nicely, actually, but sometimes you go “huh, what’s that?” until you eventually realize that the book is full of forward references.

My biggest like is that it is a single book. While a bestiary is already available for pre-order (and you get the playtest version immediately!), and there is a companion-like thing in the works as well, I don’t feel like I need either of those. The book stands on it’s own quite nicely. (Nits can be picked about missing the druid class, but I don’t really give a damn about that.)

Spontaneous Sorcery in ACKS

In Fight On! #1 there’s a neat little system which provides additional flexibility for Vancian spellcasters.

Basically the idea is that you can cast a watered down version of a prepared spell without losing it. Making someone yawn when you have Sleep prepared, etc.

I dig this.

However, the game I’m running right now is ACKS, which doesn’t actually use Vancian magic. Spellcasters have the same number of spell levels they can cast per day as in classic D&D, but they don’t need to prepare them. To balance this out the number of spells you can know is limited. (You can switch spells in and out of your repertoire so you don’t get stuck with a sucky spell forever, but it takes some time and money.)

So, I’m playing with the idea of allowing spellcasters in ACKS to “leave a spell hanging”, or “partially cast”. The idea is that if you have an unused spell slot left, by reserving it for a specific spell you can access the watered down cantrip version.

Ie. if you have at least one first level spell left for the day and you know Sleep, you can make someone yawn by almost casting Sleep. This reserves that spell slot for Sleep for the rest of the day, but you can make use of the yawn-inducement effect at will until you actually finish casting Sleep.

Some possible cantrips associated with 1st level spells:

  • Sleep: Make someone yawn or feel a bit tired.
  • Magic Missile: Zing someone for 0hp. Elementalists with fiery magic missiles can probably light candles with this.
  • Shield: Protection from rain or wind — about as good as an umbrella.
  • Floating Disk: Hold up a drink or a book.
  • Read languages: Change the apparent language in a book to another, as long as you know both.
  • Charm Person: Politeness grants you a fresh reaction roll.

In Praise of They

I’m from Finland, and English is my second language. The Finnish tongue has only a neutral third pronoun: there is zero differentiation between he/she, his/her.

This used to drive me nuts when writing English. AARGH. Why do I need to specify the sex of the person here? Why should it matter? Why is this bloody language so obsessed with gender? Why should I have to underline the inconsequentiality of gender by using “he or she”-style constructions?

Recently I’ve been liberated, though, as I finally learned about singular they. Chigago Manual of Style may disagree, but that’s their prerogative. (Amusingly their 1993 version actually recommended using the singular they… so change in that direction seems pretty inevitable if slow.)

Here’s what the Grammar Girl has to say:

I will state for the record that I am a firm believer that someday “they” will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English currently lacks a word that fits the bill, and many people are already either mistakenly or purposely using “they” as a singular generic personal pronoun; so it seems logical that rules will eventually move in that direction.

Nevertheless, it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use “they” with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people’s blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use “they.”

The thing is, if you are a respected editor in charge of writing a style guide for your entire organization, you can get away with making it acceptable to use “they” with a singular antecedent. I would even encourage you to do so, and there are a variety of credible references that will back you up including the Random House Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. You would be in the company of revered authors such as Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare.

Bold, confident, even reckless — that’s me!

On Maneuvers

In ACKS most special combat maneuvers incur a -4 to your Attack Throw, which is nice and consistent. I’m not sure the balance of risk and reward is right, though, especially as in some cases the defender gets a saving throw to boot. (I’m not really concerned with realism aspects: as long as something doesn’t strike me as egregiously wrong, it’s fine.)

When would I like to see combat maneuvers?

  • When there are tactical considerations in play: pushing someone into lava, avoiding being pushed into lava, keeping a larger force behind a chokepoint, forcing your way past a chokepoint, gaining high ground for a clear line of fire, etc. I think Force Back, especially if combined with Charge, is reasonably functional for this sort of thing, but I’m less convinced about Overrun.
  • When there are strategic considerations in play: getting to someone before they can pull a lever, capturing someone alive, etc. I think Disarm, Sunder, and non-lethal damage systems are mostly fine for this purpose. Wrestling… maybe.
  • When fighting an opponent with a superior AC, that you have a hard time hitting otherwise. Currently that’s not the way it works — if hitting someone is hard, pulling a maneuver is even harder.
  • When fighting an opponent that you need to take down fast, even if it requires pulling off something incredibly dangerous. Eg. when fighting someone who’s killing one PC per turn. Wrestling might work here as written.
  • Sometimes just for color.

Let’s see what I can cook up.

Closing In. You can use Closing In in lieu of normal Force Back, Overrun or Wrestling rules. When Closing In you suffer a -4 penalty to your AC till your next action. Additionally, you must succeed in an unmodified melee attack throw against your opponent. If they’ve yet to act this round they can attack you as you close in, even if their initiative is lower than yours. A successful attack on their part does normal damage and aborts your attempt to close in. You cannot Close In on someone who has already hit your this round. If you successfully close in, you’ve either overrun your opponent, forced them back, or have them in a wrestling hold. Massive size differences are factored in as penalties or bonuses to your initial attack roll.

Wrestling. In addition to the options listed in the core book, the dominant wrestler can automatically strike the held wrestler with a short weapon such as a dagger.

Opportune Maneuvers. Having thrown a natural 20 on an attack throw, roll a d6 and consult the following chart:

1 Disarm
2 Force Back
3 Knock Down
4 Overrun
5 Sunder
6 Wrestling

You’re presented with an opportune moment for that maneuver, and can choose to perform it instead of doing damage. The required attack throw is already considered to have succeeded, though the opponent is still entitled to save versus paralysis. In case of overrun, if you haven’t yet moved you can move past your opponent and attack another.

MAYBE! This is all untested as of yet. Still:

Opportune Maneuvers seems like a harmless injection of color and variation — I’m pretty confident it’s not a problem.

Allowing stabbity-stabbity with Wrestling suits me fine as well.

In Closing In AC -4 neatly mirrors -4 penalty to attack throw, and makes these maneuvers easier but riskier: currently they just have an opportunity cost. Replacing saving throw with attack throw makes fighters better at resisting this shit than mages, which also seems right.

So in principle I think they should be OK…