Recap - Last Session
The last time I posted about my 13th Age campaign the party was still in the middle of a living dungeon. During our session after that they continued onward, at a somewhat slower pace than I'd anticipated. Two encounters away from a full heal up, the party was beat down pretty good. The Barbarian had only a single recovery left, and was right around Staggered. I let the player rebuild him because he was noticeably underpowered (lesson the first - don't use a shield as a Barbarian!), but it was impossible to tell how much that really helped given the disadvantage the character was already at.
Their next fight was really tough; a trap-filled room that could be somewhat circumvented by climbing up 20 foot tall mushrooms and jumping from one cap to the next in order to reach the door out. Unfortunately, an earth elemental fell from the roof onto one of the mushrooms, blocking their way forward. I used a slightly modified re-skinned ogre, which is a tougher opponent than I'd realized for a 1st level party of mostly weapon users (go figure). The environment was against them, multiple people were dropping every round, and the Cleric was funneling his own recoveries into the Barbarian thanks to the Healing Domain feat that he'd snagged for an incremental advance after the last session. Eventually I finally hinted that the players don't necessarily need to kill the elemental to progress, and that they should probably just go for the door. So they did, and survived - barely.
After traveling through some eery tunnels filled with purple tentacles they finally reached the "heart" of the dungeon, but not before their enemy had gotten there first! A dark cleric was "plugged into" the dungeon, connected to tentacles which allowed him to "drive" it. A mage guarded by two knights proclaimed that they were driving the dungeon straight to hell, and then ordered the attack. The Ranger managed to hit the mage with two ranged attacks early on, one of which was a crit, and also applied Cruel. In one round he nearly one-shotted him (but not before the mage got an Acid Arrow off), and the ongoing damage then finished him off two rounds later without anyone else having to attack him. This made the fight significantly easier, and the Barbarian very happy. After killing all of the enemies, the Barbarian stabbed the "heart" of the dungeon, killing it but sending it flying through the earth at breakneck speeds. It shot them out on top of a mountain (the psychic, rune-inscribed door appeared on a cliff on that mountain), along with the Derro that had lived there and the Gnome, Nilku.
Enter Dungeon World
Sort of. No, we didn't play it, but I decided I would test the Fronts mechanic from Dungeon World in my 13th Age game. I used the sample front in the infamous Dungeon World Guide, The Great Wyrm Axtalrath. For such a short write up (6 pages of fairly large print, with half of one page consisting of new races specifically for Dungeon World) there is a LOT of useable information packed in here! I'll probably use Fronts, or a modified version of them, as my GM organizational tool for pretty much every game I run now. Granted, a Front doesn't provide the same level of detail as a pre-made adventure; it doesn't have stat blocks, dungeon maps, etc. But I suck at running published adventures. They're usually a lot of reading relative to the amount of game time I'll get out of them. A Dungeon World Front is minimal reading (with text that's organized VERY well for reference), and you can get many sessions worth of game time out of them. Dozens, in this case, I think.
On overall background summary sets up the premise. A list of points of interest, accompanied by a map, provides enough inspiration for getting a picture of each place in your head, without overwhelming you with details. Fill them in as needed, and leave room for expansion (the Dungeon World mantra "play to find out what happens" fits very well with 13th Age's narrative, icon and background based design). The Dangers provide the main players that might oppose the party. Simple description, short motivation, and some "Grim Portents" which are events that will transpire without any PC intervention. They're basically well-organized plot points that give you some options for where to "go next" when your players are stuck or you've played out a different option. These, of course, can be altered or change depending on what the players do so the whole structure of the narrative is affected by PC actions. Which is how a roleplaying game SHOULD work. The Front is rounded out with some Stakes (miscellaneous questions and handy reminders; I like to think of these as things unrelated to the Dangers that could become major plot points) and a short cast of NPCs. I quite simply assigned each cast member an associated Icon, and then created more NPCs for Icons that didn't yet have any associated with them. I detailed those that PCs had a relationship with more heavily, but given random Icon influence it's helpful to have at least an idea for who might act on behalf of other Icons.
Ultimately, I think Fronts are going to help me improve my improvisational skills by providing just enough of a safety net. There's plenty of room to build upon each and every short description in the front, and there's always a few things going on "in the background" (or just "waiting" to be incorporated later) so that the narrative won't ever really grind to a standstill.
So how did all of this work out in play? Beware that there are SPOILERS for the Great Wyrm Axtalrath in this section, though because of the flexible, sandbox-y nature of the Fronts you can probably play through the whole thing and have an entirely different experience.
Well, the first major issue was the Derro. The PCs destroyed their home, and even though they convinced the Derro that this was better than plunging into hell, they still demanded reparations. The party led them down the mountain, left them under the canopy of the trees (since it was daylight, which they hate), and went into the town of Rockbreak. Being midday, most of the citizens were either working in the mine or logging, but the Cleric found the local temple and they had a nice chat with the priest there. He gave them all of the background info that they'd need to know (dragon destroyed all the roads, all the boats, but left the townspeople alive, Monolith glows every quarter moon, etc.), and seemed concerned about the prospect of a whole village of Derro refugees looking for a new place to settle.
In pure reckless fashion, the potionless PCs didn't bother to look for any shops or anything, but returned to the Derro, who demanded the PCs scout out some possible caves (they'd do the same after nightfall). Their first lead was a bust, but they noticed fires approaching from the coast. They investigated, and I invoked the Grim Portent "Magmin appear on the western coasts," thanks to a roll of 5 for the Diabolist last session. The party didn't attempt to ambush them and didn't make use of any good tactics whatsoever. My homebrew Magmin beat the snot out of them (to be fair, auto-damaging fire auras were more powerful than I'd anticipated). They only attacks that they landed were on minions (they destroyed 2 of 4), and the Cleric went down early removing the party's only source of healing. PCs were dropping and hoping for death saves to bring them back up. Nobody ever rallied, though the Barbarian used his Dwarf racial power. I advised them to use the Retreat rule several times but they didn't. Eventually after being VERY generous with the results of the Ranger's Terrain Stunt power I had the Magmin simply move on after everyone in the party was knocked out. The Fighter rolled high on his death save just before the Barbarian was about to fail his last one, and he was able to stabilize him. The party then fled toward Port Taramos, and I had no choice but to advance to the next Grim Portent under the Magmin danger (to be fair I would have given the PCs one last chance to beat back the Magmin, since they had a river to cross before reaching Rockbreak).
A botched direction-finding roll from the Ranger (a fumble) led the party right into the swamps. They were ambushed by Lizardmen, but got very lucky (in that I couldn't seem to roll higher than a 9, and Lizardmen get really nasty if you have a string of good rolls in a row). After 2 of the 5 were killed, one of them told his allies to stand down, and demanded to know why the party broke the truce (here the party learned about the truce, obviously). The Lizardman had his allies back away slowly, and eventually they swam off, and the leader asked the party to leave him gold and leave the swamp immediately. Otherwise, they wouldn't leave the swamp alive. The party cheaped out (left 1 gp each), which may come back to bite them in the ass later.
They arrived in Port Taramos, learned of the Dragon Cultists, and bought some potions. The Fighter (who had pocketed some gems back in the dungeon which melted - around all of his coins!) sought out an alchemist to help free his coins from the block of gem-glue (attempts to smash it earlier were met with the realization that the glue had seeped into the gold, making it impure and brittle). And with that, the session ended.
Most of my attempts at running more sandbox-style games with this group have failed in the past. The players just don't seem to want to take the initiative to go out and explore on their own; they simply wait for my next obvious hook. When they've taken turns at the GM seat, they've very much resisted any attempts by me (as a player) to "go off the rails." Well, this Front kind of forces them to do stuff, especially with the added pressure of the Derro refugees at the beginning. They all want to get off of the island, but they recognize that there's no way they're facing down that dragon. They're very interested in the Monolith, and they need some cash really badly, so there's two possible directions that they can take things next time. I'll also need to remember to throw some fights their way that they're likely to win, to boost morale a bit and give them a shot at some loot. I think they learned their lesson about dismissing basic tactics, so hopefully I see some smart playing in the future.
In other news, I'm starting up a game of 13th Age with my other gaming group as well. And I'm starting a game of Edge of the Empire with this current 13th Age group, starting with the Beginner Box. So stay tuned for developments on those fronts!