Wednesday, May 29, 2013

13 Tips for GMing 13th Age

13th Age is a different beast than other d20 games, and GMing it effectively can take some getting used to.  What follows is a list of tips to help ease the transition.  I don't claim to be a spectacular 13th Age GM by any stretch; indeed, a lot of the items on this list are things that I'd like to strive for myself.

Tip 1:  Get comfortable with improvisation.  But first thing's first - accept the fact that you'll have to improvise if you take advantage of the system's strengths.

Tip 2:  Don't be afraid to lean on your players.  13th Age gives players a lot of narrative power, allowing them to shape the campaign into their own ideal playground.  You're still in charge of the details, but if you're drawing a blank your players will probably have some suggestions.

Tip 3:  Fail forward.  Sure, a lot of games embrace this philosophy, but it just so happens that it's important to 13th Age as well.  As an example from the last session I ran:  the Cleric wanted to identify these glowing lichens and glowing mushrooms in a dungeon passage.  After failing the Intelligence check, the player said "well, I guess I have no clue what they are."  To which I responded "You don't know their specific properties, but they look a lot like something you've heard in the stories of drow.  Drow avoid them."  Failure, and my on-the-spot thinking, actually generated a more interesting answer than if he'd succeeded and I simply told him what the fungi were.

Tip 4:  The Mephistophelean Bargain.  This is one of Rob Heinsoo's trademarks.  It's a variant of the "yes, and..." school of thought.  When a player suggests something, you shouldn't just say "no" because that's not very interesting.  Even if it's something outrageous, you should give them an option to go with that - but with a commensurate price!  This can either be a gambler's bargain, where the rewards for success are great, but failure offers a very severe risk, or it can simply mean accepting consequences along with what is asked for.

Tip 5:  Minis are very helpful.  Yeah, this is a gridless game and you can easily play it theater of the mind style, but minis make it extremely easily to quickly resolve any logistical questions the players might have, and everyone's on the same page in terms of where everyone is.

Tip 6:  Ask leading questions, particularly during character creation.  My players have a tendency to start out with pretty generic backgrounds.  I wish I'd pushed them more to be a bit more creative, but it's starting to get refined out in-play all the same.  The more specific your players get with their narrative mechanics (Backgrounds, One Unique Thing, Icon Relationships), the richer the game experience will be.

Tip 7:  Now that you've encouraged the players to give you a bunch of built-in hooks, use them!  The simplest and most overt example of this is using Icon rolls, but make sure you're weaving in elements from the character's backgrounds and OUTs as well.  If you're ever stuck for ideas, turn to the character details.  Players like when the plot becomes personal, so you can turn a dead end into something interesting.

Tip 8:  Be prepared to house rule.  The game's math is extremely transparent, so take advantage of that fact!  I've had players complain about their classes, and since this is a story-focused game the players need to be invested in their characters.  If there's a change that can be made to improve the experience for them, try it out!  For example, my group found the Barbarian to be too weak so I'm more than happy houseruling it.  Likewise my Cleric is getting bored with having only 1 ranged at-will spell, so I've set him to work homebrewing a new one (pending my approval, of course).  You can directly modify the class mechanics, adjust the experience with significant magic items, or even use story rewards (like 4E's grandmaster training or divine boons).

Tip 9:  Keep monsters interesting by sending them in in waves, having them play differently when staggered, or giving them abilities tied to the Escalation Die.

Tip 10:  Create interesting items for players to spend their gold on.  Ok, so not all campaigns have a big gear focus, but even though I'm one who likes to gloss over gear I still find the consumables list lacking.  Potions (2 kinds), oils, and runes will get old fast.  I've made a larger list of potions, and I'm also going to start keeping my eye open for story-based ways to make the PCs' lives easier if they're willing to shell out some cash.

Tip 11:  Keep the terrain fresh, and give players a lot of non-standard options during combat.  13th Age doesn't have a robust tactical engine in the sense that, say, D&D 4e did.  The advantages of this is that it's faster, and more flexible.  Use Talents like Swashbuckle, Terrain Stunt, and Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations for inspiration (but make sure these options come with a cost, so as not to make those talents obsolete!).  Players won't take the bait despite your hints?  Have the monsters pull some crazy stunts for a less subtle approach.

Tip 12:  Steal!  Steal ideas from books, movies, tv, whatever.  This is something that Chris Perkins emphasizes all the time, and it's all the more appropriate in a more narrative-centric game like 13th Age (compared with D&D).  The more engaging and rich your story is, the more satisfying all of those story-based player resources will be.  Of course disguise anything your players might be familiar with in a fresh set of clothes.  In other words, don't copy+paste, but use familiar media as a starting point that you can add to.  It can add a lot to the experience if you have a character in mind whenever you're playing an NPC (or an Icon), if nothing else than for consistency in how you portray them.

Tip 13:  Have fun!  Ok, so I started running out of worthwhile ideas, but this list just BEGS to have 13 tips, and having fun is really important (albeit obvious).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Further Thoughts on the 13th Age Barbarian

The final PDF of the 13th Age core book is here, and unfortunately there were no changes made to the Barbarian.  I had my hopes up when they were releasing individual chapters with the completed layout and the Barbarian was the only class conspicuously absent from these "previews," but alas the Barbarian is still underpowered.

I've thought about how to fix this class a lot in the past.  I wrote an article on some options for doing so in the 13th Age Homebrew blog.  I've discussed the issue with others on the Pelgrane Press forums and in the Google+ community.  There were a lot of thoughts on the issue, and I've come to some additional conclusions (subject to refinement, of course).

The Defense Issue

This one's the biggest problem.  Barbarians have absolutely awful AC for a frontline melee fighter, only moderate HP, and will attract a lot of attention given their high damage.  On top of that, a few of their best talents make them bigger targets (Slayer can draw opportunity attacks if used to maximum effect, and Whirlwind lowers their pathetic AC even more).  My previous solution, from the 13th Age Homebrew article, was to introduce a Talent that generated temp. HP when Raging (Berskerk Vitality).  Some commented that it made a simple class potentially too complex, and it admittedly did widen the gulf between a Raging and a non-Raging Barbarian.

One suggestion that I got was to increase the Barbarian's base HP to 9.  I keep coming back to this idea when thinking about how to homebrew the class back into effectiveness, and I think it's probably the best solution.  Rogues make up for their base 12 AC by having Momentum powers (crafty fighting); Barbarians should make up for it by simply shrugging off hits.  While THP does accomplish this it's a little more roundabout than simply giving the guy more HP.  No messing around with new talents, which don't solve the problem of making all Barbarians more survivable anyways.  I'm not sure if the HP increase will be enough on its own, but I think it's a great place to start without diverting too far from the core rules by making up wholesale new mechanics.


This is the signature ability of the class, and the recharge mechanics are a little weird.  You only get 1 recharge roll instead of 1 after each battle, reducing the likelihood of using it later on in the day.  Even if you get to add your Con mod to the roll this is a bad deal.  I still stand behind making it follow the general recharge rules and rolling after each battle (this'll also reduce the chances of players "saving" their Rage; that's not how a Barbarian should look at things!).  This serves the double purpose of making the Rage feats a little less mandatory, since you'll be more likely to Rage in multiple battles per day anyways.

Another interesting mechanic can be drawn from the D&D Next playtest.  Barbarians have the option of making a "Reckless Attack" when they're not Raging, which gives them the offensive punch of Rage but at a serious cost in defense.  I'd LOVE to see this tacked onto the 13th Age Barbarian's Rage, though it might be a little "much" in combination with the Rage feats that already exist.  This might actually be a good avenue to explore via a new Talent (again, trying to avoid messing with the core Rage rules as much as possible).  Here's a draft:

Wild Swing
When you're not Raging you can make a basic melee attack as if you were in a Rage (that is, you'll roll 2d20 taking the better result and critting if both are 11+), but you take a -4 penalty to AC and PD until the start of your next turn.  This action cannot be taken during the same turn that you use Whirlwind.
Adventurer Feat:  Once per battle an enemy you hit with this attack is Vulnerable to your attacks until the end of your next turn.
Champion Feat:  Once per battle if you hit with this attack the target is Dazed, in addition to being Vulnerable.
Daily Feat:  Once per battle if the attack hits you can heal using a Recovery.  This can be a different use of Wild Attack than the one that triggers the Adventurer/Champion feats.

Other Suggestions - More Damage

Another popular house rule I saw suggested was to give Barbarians a d12 damage die with big two-handed weapons.  In combination with the other boosts I think this might start to be too much.  Feedback I've heard from other groups indicated that Barbarians already deal a ton of damage.  The reason that I never saw this in my group was because the Barbarian player kept rolling low (missing with both d20s even while Raging surprisingly often), and because he kept getting knocked out.  With more typical dice rolling, rolling Rage recharges after each battle, and the boost to base HP 9 the Barbarian should be improved enough to be competitive.  If you try these out and still find the class lacking, increasing the damage die is a really easy fix that doesn't introduce any additional complexity.  For those that want more variety in Talent choice, Wild Swing or Berserk Vitality might be good options to tinker with.

Summary for Houseruling the Barbarian

Start with bumping his base HP up to 9.  Additionally, let him make his Rage recharge after every battle (as per the general recharge rules).

If this doesn't sufficiently improve the class to parity, boost their 2-handed damage die to a d12.  You might also offer players the option of taking the Wild Swing and/or Berserk Vitality homebrewed talents.

Expanding on 13th Age Backgrounds

This week's See Page XX was a really good one!  In addition to the Age of Camelot setting we also get a superb article on the flexibility of 13th Age backgrounds!  There's honestly not much I have to add to this other than simply linking to it.  The beauty of it is that it can fit virtually any situation, and is going to be campaign and character specific by its very nature.  I especially love how re-writing backgrounds highlights character development (both narratively and mechanically), and how negative temporary backgrounds can be used to inflict longer term conditions than the standard "save ends" or "last until the end of your next turn" stuff that already shows up in combat.  It's also a more elegant "lasting wound" rule than the option suggested in the rules!

An Example of a 13 Age/Archmage Engine Setting

In the latest edition of See Page XX (the monthly newsletter of Pelgrane Press) there's an article detailing an overview of The 13th Age of Camelot.  While I'm not terribly familiar with the details of the Arthurian Legend (outside of the general knowledge stuff), this setting looks absolutely amazing!  (And I do have several Arthurian books on my to-read list, but it's a pretty long list).

I especially like the variation of the Icon system, which become Chivalric Aspects.  What I DON'T like is how restrictive the class choices are (especially considering the heavy use of the Ranger class, which doesn't offer a whole lot of options).  But that could probably be altered to suit a given group's needs.

On an unrelated note, I can't believe it's been over a month since I've posted here!!!  I've been busier with work, and there hasn't been very much in the way of news (it's pretty much a waiting game for both 13th Age and Edge of the Empire, my two most "active" systems at the present time, to get printed).

The 13th Age campaign has been going well, though.  I'm currently in something of a transition phase where the players are getting off of Crescent Isle to branch away from the Axtalrath setting a bit.  They'll almost certainly be back, but the island's been pretty thoroughly explored, the main adversaries are either effectively neutralized (aside from some loose ends) or out of the PCs' league, and perhaps most importantly I've got a lot of ideas swimming around in my head that happen off of the island.  Axtalrath is a cool setting, but I've recently found it somewhat constricting, especially in terms of utilizing Icon rolls effectively.