Sub-Par Characters

Have you ever had an idea for a character that you knew didn’t quite fit the mold? Perhaps you had an idea for a Fighter who is way past her prime and just can’t quite swing her sword the way she used to. Her One Unique Thing might be ‘Last Survivor of the War of the Stalking Trees.’ Or a Wizard who had an accident and can no longer concentrate on magic the way he needs to; this could have resulted from being the ‘Creator of the Burst of Devouring.’ These sorts of character ideas can end up getting translated onto character sheets with low scores in the attributes that are typically high for the class. So the elderly Fighter might have a STR of 9 or the Wizard an INT of 8 as a result of their backstories. These are ideas of what I like to call ‘sub-par’ characters…..characters whose stats don’t quite line up with the underlying math or expectations of the game.

Alternatively, you could fully embrace the thought that ‘the dice tell a story,’ and fate may create a sub-par character for you, if, after choosing your race/class, you let the dice reveal what your stats are. Start at the top of the list and roll your 4d6 (dropping the lowest), and what you get is what it is….no shuffling the numbers around to make things work optimally for you. Of course, you still get the +2 bonuses from your race/class, but sometimes even that won’t be enough to bring it up to where it’s ‘supposed’ to be.

13th Age makes it easier to run with this sort of idea, because of the narrative flexibility it has in the use of Backgrounds, the fact that even when you miss your attacks, you’re usually dealing some damage, and the Escalation Die gives you a bonus as well. Other things like magic items and other players’ (depending on their class choice) ability to provide bonuses makes it possible to play a sub-par character without being completely ‘worthless.’

Creating a character like this can be a lot of fun as it lets you color a bit outside the lines and forces you to lean more heavily into the role-play than the roll-play. But I must caution you, it can also be quite frustrating, not just for you, but for those you’re playing with….especially if your group is relying on your Fighter to be able to land a hit on that owlbear! When your attack modifier is a +1 instead of a +5, it makes a big difference, and not in a good way! Your attacks are going to be less effective, both to hit and in the amount of damage dealt. The combat system in 13th Age is dialed in pretty tightly, so if you do bring a sub-par character to a fight, the others at your table are going to notice!

Your skill checks will be affected by reduced bonuses too, though this is more likely to resolve itself in narrative form and may not present as much difficulty as combat will. For example, if your Fighter has an STR of 9 but a CHA of 16, chances are you’re going to have her try to coerce the guards to open the portcullis instead of just attempting to lift it by herself. Any skill check that requires STR will certainly be done with a disadvantage, but there is rarely a single path forward. Player creativity will oftentimes balance this limitation on skill checks.

And yet it’s these sorts of skill checks that serve to highlight the underlying idea you have for this sub-par character. Having your Wizard be asked to make an INT check to determine which vial is poison only serves to emphasize that he’s no longer the sharpest knife in the block.

13th Age sets the expectation that the characters players create are heroes who know how to get the job done and who are experienced enough to do just that. Creating sub-par characters messes with this expectation, because your character may not be the hero that everyone thinks they are. While this makes for interesting storytelling and requires creative problem-solving, it does fiddle with many of the underlying assumptions in a 13th Age game. If this is something you want to try, definitely discuss it with your GM and the rest of your group first; doing so will minimize the frustration when it becomes apparent that this washed-up Fighter really can’t hit the broad side of an ogre!

If your GM and gaming group is on board with it, give it a go and lean into the role-play required of having a sub-par character and see what sort of great story comes out of it! But if they’d rather not adjust for such a ‘weak’ party member, remember, you can always roll the idea up into your character’s backstory; perhaps the Fighter in this example used to deftly wield a sword, but in retirement learned how to strum a lute, and now shines as a Bard!

Written by Nick

S4-E09: Live Episode – Part 2

We did a live (video) show with our patrons talking through some of our most memorable campaigns and answering the questions our patrons had submitted. We had a great time, and we will be releasing the recording of that as our next few episodes. You can listen to Part 1 here.

If you would like to participate in future live shows like this, please consider becoming a patron!


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S4-E08: Live Episode – Part 1

We did a live (video) show with our patrons talking through some of our most memorable campaigns and answering the questions our patrons had submitted. We had a great time, and we will be releasing the recording of that as our next few episodes.

If you would like to participate in future live shows like this, please consider becoming a patron!


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

Character Creation

So you want to play in a 13th Age game, but have no idea where to start.  First, I would talk to your GM to learn about their game if it has already started.  If it’s a new game, then all the players and GM should sit down and discuss what kind of game they want to play.  Next, you should think about what kind of character you want to role play.  A big burly fighter, a quick sly rogue, a mighty wizard, or a pious cleric?  Of course there are also multiclass combos to mix it up.  In the 13th Age core book and supplements, there are many choices to try.  I always ask my players what is their concept for their character before we even choose a class.  This is why you should, if you are able, do character creation together as a group.  Nothing is worse than creating your Sherlock Holmes style sleuth for the city based mystery campaign in your head, when everyone else wants to go off and fight demons in the Red Wastes. If you want to use a third party supplement, always get with your GM to make sure they are OK with the class.

After you decide on what kind of character you want to play, next it’s time to decide on the class. Don’t overwhelm yourself with the most complicated class to play. Both you and the GM will get frustrated.  If you really want to go that route make sure you know the challenge and be prepared to ask for help with rules.  It helps if you have an experienced player who is willing to help you with rules and choices for the character.

Along with class, you need to choose a race. Human, dwarf, and elf have been a standard in F20 games for years. 13th Age allows for a wide variety of humanoid races to play. Again, if it is from a third party supplement, check with your GM to see if they will allow it.

Now that you have decided on class and race, it’s time to generate your abilities.  Some people like to randomly roll, some use a point buy; either works just fine.  Remember what your character concept is and assign your abilities to what you want your character to do. Now this does not mean that you cannot have a smart fighter or a strong wizard.  And there is even the concept of purposely designing a weak character, but that will be covered in another article.  For this, let us put the abilities in the corresponding slots to make our character effective as a fighter/rogue/wizard/cleric. Remember your racial/class bonus to abilities and the limits to what you can add to those bonuses.

Once that is done, or even before, you should come up with backgrounds and your One Unique Thing (OUT). These aspects of 13th Age really set it apart from other F20 games.  You might even come up with these during your discussion about the character concept. In 13th Age, you start with eight points to assign to your backgrounds, no more than five in any one background. These backgrounds replace the traditional set of skills in other games.  Instead of this skill list you have life experiences that have taught you how to climb that wall or disarm the trap or even build a bridge to escape the rampaging horde.  The earlier you work with your GM about those the better.  If you both understand the concept in your head, then when it comes up during play, everyone is happy and entertained. OUTs are unique to 13th Age. Your OUT is what sets you apart from other characters. It should not be a power booster but rather a story booster.  In our campaigns at Iconic, OUTs have driven whole campaigns.  It would take a whole article to cover all the ideas and use, but luckily the core rules have a great section explaining OUTs with some fine examples for players who get stuck coming up with one.

Along with backgrounds and OUT, Icon relationships are unique to 13th Age.  Characters start with three points to spend on relationships.  You not only have to decide which Icons, but also if your relationship is positive, negative, or conflicted.  Again these should be specific to your character and not a way to game the system.  Make the relationships fit with who your character is and you will be surprised how it moves and shapes the story.

Once these choices are made then all there is to do is to select feats/talents/powers particular to your class, determine defenses, and equip your character.  These are found under each class description.

The more you create/play 13th Age characters, the quicker this process becomes.  Oh, I almost forgot.  Select your character’s name and go have fun.

Written by Mark

S4-E07: Nocturne Review

This week’s episode is our review of Savage Mojo’s 13th Age product, “Nocturne.” In addition to fleshing out a gothic horror-themed setting and campaign, there are additional races, classes, and monsters. In our spoiler-free discussion, we talk about the things we liked about this book as well as a couple things we didn’t like.

You can pick up your copy of this product at DriveThruRPG. And there’s a Players’ Guide too!


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S4-E06: Random Encounter – Undead Adventure

This week we are back with another brainstorming session as we look at how to start a campaign that’s focused on the Undead as a core threat. We talk about how to introduce the campaign, what sort of restrictions we may want to have, what sort of threat we’d want to leverage, and how to culminate it into something worthy of transitioning into the Champion Tier.

As part of our discussion, we referenced the Mass Combat article that was posted by Wade Rockett a few years back. You can find that article here.


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

GM Resources

How did you learn to be a GM? If you are like me you either learned from someone else or stumbled your way through it because you wanted to play a game and were the only one who had the books. You honed your craft by trial and error and observation. You copied and stole everything from books to movies. Most “GM books” were mechanically focused, not really focusing on the art of gamemastery.

You may not know this, there are a ton of great resources out there for GMs. We are in a golden age of meta-reflection on the art of GMing. People have been running games for decades and are sharing their wisdom and techniques. If you want to hone your craft, you have the resources. And in this article, I want to highlight some of them. (Note: These are all J-M’s recommendations from experience. None of these recommendations are sponsored).

Play Dirty

There are two of these books (Here Here). Play Dirty, written by John Wick of L5R & 7th Sea fame, are perhaps the two most influential books on GMing for me. He walks through how to be a dirty GM, not a killer one. Basically, a dirty GM uses every trick in the game and outside it to ramp up the intensity of the game for the players. Your players will crawl over broken glass barefoot to win, but when they do, the payoff is sweet. If you want nastier options that are narrative and not mechanically based, check these out.

Running the Game

Matt Coville has been taking the RPG sphere by storm. With two great novels, two great F20 supplements, and the Chain actual play, Matt has a lot of content. His ‘Running the Game’ series on YouTube is a fantastic way to learn more about the craft of GMing. His initial goal for the channel was to get people running D&D RIGHT NOW. I think those early videos are a great introduction to how to GM, and the series continues to evolve and grow deeper. If you are just starting out, and video is your medium of choice, check him out.

Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastery

This is an oldie but a goodie. Found here, this small book looks at why players play RPGs. It defines several categories of players and what their motivations are for playing. As the GM your job is to hit those motivations, and Robin gives you some great advice on how to do so. It is only about 30 pages and well worth the cost.

Engine Publishing

Engine Publishing (found here) has a great series of books on being a GM. Their books spun out of the Gnome Stew blog (also a great resource). Their books cover topics like: running sessions, improvisation, and campaign prep. Each of these books cover one topic from a variety of angles and include articles by industry veterans. I have all of them and they are fantastic. If you want to learn new techniques and ways to hone specific aspects of your games, these are a great route.

Kobold’s Guides

The Kobold’s guides are dense. Found Here, the topics are deep. They are a series of articles by big name industry professionals. I have the Gamemastering, the Plots and Campaigns, and the Combat one. They also cover worldbuilding, game design, and magic. These are dense–I mentioned that earlier–they delve deep into their topics and often attempt to explain the abstract components of gaming in concrete terms. But, if you want a course in a class on GMing, these books would be on the syllabus.

Arbiter of Worlds

Arbiter of Worlds is a gamemastery guide for a specific type of game. Found Here, it gives advice on world building, adjudicating rules, and using abductive reasoning. (Yes, it is a real thing!) It does focus less on the narrative aspect of GMing and more of the creation of a world where narratives can form and develop. It may seem like a strange distinction, but it is essentially the difference between a story focused GM and a sandbox GM. 

So there they are, my list of GMing resources. If you have used any of these resources or have any I missed, please let us know!

Written by JM

S4-E05: Book of the Underworld Review

This week we take a look at the now-available-for-pre-order Book of the Underworld! We give our usual Iconic Review, giving a fly-by of what’s in the book that we especially liked, while trying to spoil as little as possible.

And remember, if you pre-order the book now, you can get the PDF of it immediately!

And as a thank you to all our listeners, you can use this code to get a 10% discount off your pre-order of Book of the Underworld! This code is good through June 1, 2020.

Voucher code: POD#ICONUNDERW


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!

S4-E04: Undead

Somewhat related to our last episode on the Necromancer, this week we focus our discussion on the Undead. What are they, why would you want to use them in a session or campaign, and which of the many 13th Age Undead monsters catch our attention?

And as a thank you to all our listeners, you can use this code to get a 10% discount off your pre-order of Book of the Underworld! This code is good through June 1, 2020.

Voucher code: POD#ICONUNDERW


If you enjoy listening to the Iconic Podcast, please consider supporting us by becoming a patron!

And a special thank you to all of our awesome Patrons!