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

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

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

TTRPGs vs Quarantine

Whew. March and April got away from me. Hence why this article may show up a little late. With the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown of many places around the world, our social gatherings have changed. As a result, our gaming nights have changed. We can no longer gather around the same table, sharing snacks and drinks but are restricted to our computers and kitchen tables. If you’re anything like the Iconic crew, you have been itching to play some games, in any form.

The easiest way to get back into gaming with social distancing is with a conference call and at home supplies. Simply being able to see everyone at the “table” can go a long way to feeling like an adventuring party again. Zoom, Discord, Google Hangouts, and Go-to-Meetings are all platforms I have used to game with friends outside of my home. With each of these, you can have your dice and character sheets on your desk or computer and inform the GM of successes or failures rolled. Many games have basic gameplay and books available for free for the players who don’t own the books. 

What if you want to get a little more fancy? Discord has virtual dice-rollers you can install in your server. Then there are no more fudging dice rolls and an overabundance of natural critical hits. Although I haven’t actually seen that happen in the groups I play with, I understand some GMs want to see their players’ rolls. Go-to-Meeting, Discord, and Zoom allow your GM to share their computer screen. The GM could pull up a map, edit it with a photography program and voila! No more simple theater of the mind. The downside is the cost to use some of these programs, Zoom and Go-to Meeting in particular, if you have more than two people or want to go longer than 40 minutes. Someone has to pay for it. If the group joins together, the cost is reduced, so encourage sharing the financial burden.  Discord, Hangouts, and Jitsi are free for video conferencing. Gimp and Krita are great programs for photo editing or drawing on pictures. 

If that is still not enough for your group, consider Fantasy Grounds or Roll20. You will still need a separate video conferencing platform for Fantasy Grounds, but having character sheets, dice rolls, and maps available to share across the group is often worth the cost. Last month, Nick wrote an article discussing the various virtual tables you can use to enhance player experience. These are great. Using the Fantasy Grounds platform to create encounters and share them with your players is super helpful when theater of the mind is distracting or even difficult. My primary experience is with Fantasy Grounds. The GM has to shoulder the burden of the cost here unless everyone in the group wants to buy a mid-tier version to play together. The full GM version will allow them access to the full program, the ability to create encounters, and the players can get the free version to piggyback off…if they purchase the various games as well. In my personal opinion, unless you are running weekly games and planning to continue to run them through FG, the cost is exorbitant. However, I am always supremely grateful to the GMs who run a game on this platform for me.

In this time of forced isolation, you can still play the games you love. At Iconic, we have turned to the computer and internet to help us run and play games with people a few houses down and across the country. Now is a great time to try something new. If you are interested, the 13th  Age Discord channel has a virtual tabletop channel for options and help. Let us know your favorite ways to still get the gaming goodness. Stay safe, everyone. 

Written by Becca

Technology and Immersion

Among the many things that are different from when RPGs first became a thing, the development of technology has been one thing that has had a dramatic impact on the gaming industry. You no longer need to pull out a suitcase of books to flip through each of them looking for an obscure rule, you can now just run a search through your PDFs to find it. You don’t even need to be near the people you’re playing with; you can play online with others from anywhere in the world! The myriad uses of technology at the table help make connections and improve the overall immersion of the gameplay experience. But technology is a knife’s edge – as helpful as it is, it can very easily have the opposite effect and do more harm than good.

But before we dive into this, I think it’s helpful to define what it is that’s at risk with using technology, and that’s namely player immersion. How I understand player immersion is that it’s the degree to which the player’s imagination is easily evoked. The higher the degree of immersion, the more easily the players can get into character and mentally ‘see’ what’s being described and respond accordingly. But immersion can be like walking on ice, once it’s broken, the whole charade crashes down into the icy waters below, and it can be hard to climb back out.

You can bolster immersion by bringing technology to the table in the form of playing thematic music, displaying evocative imagery on a screen, messaging secretly with players about character-specific things, having a digital space for notes to be stored and shared, sharing a virtual tabletop with remote players, automating things like dice rolls, modifier adjustments, and HP tracking, and more! Any one of these benefits helps keep the players’ (and your) focus more on the game than on your surroundings, which will lend to deeper immersion, progressing farther in each session, and crafting a more compelling story together.

But as beneficial as any of these things are, each comes with the risk of the technology failing and breaking immersion completely. For example, let’s say you have a music track all queued up to play a musical score to ratchet up the tension as the players step foot into that long-deserted temple. The moment comes, and as you describe the scene, you hit play. But the only thing coming out of the speakers is silence! What usually happens next is that the game gets put on pause while you figure out what’s going on with the music player. When you finally do get it all working, the immersion the players had is now mostly gone and you have to work to everyone back into the flow of the game.

Virtual tabletops typically come with a digital dice roller, and many times it has direct, automated tie-ins into your character sheet. This allows players to look at their sheets less, spend less time crunching numbers, and gives them the mental space to stay focused on the game. But what happens when the player can’t find the right button to click? Or it throws error messages? Or their computer crashes completely? You may end up spending more time working to get the software to work than it would have taken to do things by hand, and by the time you do get it working, you might have forgotten what you were even rolling for!

Technology is a great asset to the gaming experience, but it’s best used when you are very familiar with it and you are prepared for what to do when it fails. As part of your campaign prep, go through the various pieces of how your technology works and get a good understanding of what might go wrong with it. If you’re playing online or using a virtual tabletop, it might be good to use part of your Session 0 or even dedicate an entire session to training everyone on how to use the different pieces of the software, that way everyone knows how to trigger their powers or roll their dice. And before you start each session, test the technology you’re about to use. For example, if you’re going to use some thematic music, be sure to hook it all up and hit play to make sure it works right. And if you’re doing anything over the internet, double check all your camera and microphone connections and your internet stability before getting started.

For my home game, I have four players who are physically present and one who joins us virtually. Over the years, we have tried a number of different technology options trying to find the combination that fits our group the best. And we’ve discovered that using the bare minimum of technology works really well! So even though we use Fantasy Grounds (FG) for a virtual tabletop where we can see scene-setting imagery and the battlemap to tokens around in combat, we still use paper character sheets and roll physical dice. As the GM, I like seeing the entire monster stats, so I’ll usually run the monsters by referencing a PDF or a physical book and rely on FG just to track the monsters’ health. Other than that, we leverage Discord for our text conversations and Zoom for our audio/video connection. Every group is different, but we found that if we use much more technology than that, we start losing that immersion factor.

One of the benefits of our hybrid setup that we have discovered is that we can now be very flexible in accounting for players who can’t physically make it to the game. And we can even switch to playing entirely online for a session or two with very little advance notice. Subsequently, this has allowed us to miss fewer sessions due to player absence than we would otherwise. It adds a bit of extra work for me as the GM to set up and run all of that in addition to the game, but despite the hiccups along the way, it’s been worth it.

It took us a while to settle in on what works, so if you’re wanting to introduce some technology into your gaming group, be patient, and have an open dialogue with your group. There are countless options out there, and I’d love hearing what you’ve found works for you!

Written by Nick

Icons of Ta’nar

To continue our theme of exploring Ta’nar, this month we will introduce the Icons of our setting, set on the continent of Sentali. Like the Dragon Empire, there are thirteen Icons influencing Sentali. They fall within the spectrum of good, neutral, and evil, as commonly seen in fantasy worlds. Some Icons are individuals, both mortal and immortal, and some are groups of like minded beings.

 

Demoloth (evil) – Demoloth is an old name, but one still feared in Sentali. The daemon lord of plague from a previous age, its touch was never truly scrubbed clean from the surface of Ta’nar, and its presence lingers in the dead places of the world and within the bodies of the Pale elves. Dig deep enough into the earth, and Demoloth is there. Summon enough skeletons, and he’s bound to show up, if only to show off. 

Empress (good)- Reayne of Kardane is the ruler of the largest empire on Sentali. Ensconced to the north of the Desolates in Mo’zanbaal – Kardane’s capital – her eyes and agents are focused southward seeking to ensure the stability of her Empire.

First Born (evil)- The First Born is a presence that forms demonic cults in the wake of its revelation. None know who or what the First Born is, but daemons answer the call of its faithful, prophesy about its birth, and seek to ease its passage into the world. The cult of the First Born existed for many Ages, but only recently came to light. This icon is found in realms and areas of deep despair and desperation. There are enclaves scattered throughout the Desolates where mothers sell their children to the cult and siblings betray each other for the smallest scrap of favor with the enigmatic First Born.

Guild of Falling Leaves (neutral) – The Guild of Falling Leaves is ostentatiously a trading guild with routes that spread like a web through Sentali. However, most harbor the belief that the Guild also trades in contraband products and deeds. There are always people interested in acquiring unique goods and there are always people willing to find those goods for coin. It is only recently that the Guild gathered the power and ability to be an iconic organization, and it will fight to keep this status.

Host (pantheon)(good) – The Pantheons of Sentali contain a myriad of Immortals, Celestials, and Empyreans. Many worship the whole of a pantheon or focus their efforts towards the cult of a single god.

Hystal (evil) – Known as the Grasp of Vengeance, Hystal is more than just first among equals in the hierarchy of the cults of Shadow’s Reach. The high priest is rabid in his devotion to the goddess Ganagal, and will use whatever power, born within this world and without, to assure his mistress’ dominion of Ta’nar. 

Keeper of the Sands (good) – Ullia Stonehoof, is the high druid of the Desolates. The Auxeness seeks to preserve its identity in the face of those who would claim its lands as their own.

Perversions (evil) – Long ago, the High Father, patron God of the city of the Reach, was slain by six of his children. Though they thought they were up to the task of ruling as gods, they were found lacking. Consuming the flesh of their father, the six became Celestial beings, but at a cost. That act of cannibalism perverted their very natures. The six Perversions, full of power, began to gather worshippers to themselves in Shadow’s Reach. The High Father’s other children, the six Panaceas hide themselves aways, afraid to gather too many worshippers for fear of being the main course in yet another family feast. 

  • Ganagal ‐ Perversion of Vengeance 
  • Pat’sum ‐ Perversion of Bondage 
  • Bak’ith ‐ Perversion of Envy 
  • Bak’oth ‐ Perversion of Greed 
  • Oba’sansh ‐ Perversion of Cannibalism 
  • Dren ‐ Perversion of Madness 

Possessed King (neutral) – Bound within Crandoc Hold, the Possessed King can be found within the Capital of Firanolg. KurNokThal is blessed or cursed by the near constant presence of the Dwharven god, Mogondral. The heir to the lost throne of Draggnaul, the Dwharven god‐prince serves as banner and warning to his kin in the Desolates.

Red Alchemist (evil) – The Red Alchemist is a new Icon to Sentali. She is known throughout Ta’nar for creating aberrations and abominations in her labs, and then auctioning them off to the highest bidder as organic weapons. But no one knows where her lab can be found. Her name comes from both the red arrow head she uses as her symbol and the bloody experiments attributed to her. If strange creatures are found in the wastes, then you can be sure that the Red Alchemist had something to do with it.

Rivener (neutral) – The Rivener is a mystery from a previous age. The wight travels about Sentali, seeking out the gnarls of fate that would cause global upheaval and ends all involved with amoral brutality. He has been given undeath as a second chance at redemption and will carve his way through rather than discuss options. None know what the undead warrior seeks, but his bloodstained trail crisscrosses the continent.

Spellqueen (good) – The Spellqueen rules Estalin, the hidden refuge of the Ala-Senti. Aware of all that occurs within her demesne, the Spellqueen senses the encroachment of ancient powers that seek to consume her people in chaos and fire, and plots to end them. As one of the Wild Elves, or Ala-Senti, she has sheltered and led her people in the new lands they sought refuge in.

Wanderer (good)- This Icon crops up in the myths and legends of Sentali. Some say it is his lawful guidance that keeps the world from falling into darkness. He often appears as an old man guiding the hero onto their next path. The Wanderer has been around since the beginning of the world, standing against the darkness and chaos of the world.

 

The “good” Icons are the Empress, the Host (pantheon), the Keeper of the Sands, the Spellqueen of Estalin, and the Wanderer.

The “neutral” Icons are the Guild of Falling Leaves, the Possessed King, and the Rivener.

The “evil” Icons are the First Born, the Grasp of Vengeance, the Lord of Undeath, the Perversions, and the Red Alchemist.

 

 

These thirteen Icons can inspire or cause nightmares for your characters. Hopefully you will enjoy interacting with and thwarting the schemes of the movers and shakers of Sentali. 

Written by Mark

Homebrew Monsters

It is hard to believe we are nearing the end of Season 3 and our first Patron Game. Mark and I (J-M) were talking about the next season and game (both are going to be great!) As we chatted, Mark asked for my monster stats for use in Ta’nar. The problem with that is that I always make the monsters the day of, on the fly, scratched out on a piece of paper, which inevitably gets trashed after the game. That is, if I don’t just re-skin another monster for my purposes.

But easy monster design is one of the great things about 13th Age. The advice the designers give in the books (13th Age Core (C) and Bestiary 1 (B1)) make it simple, but if you are new to running the game, you might not think so. We at Iconic chatted about it for a bit and I decided for this month to look at my process for monster creation, in hopes that it will help you. 

 

Concept

Like much of 13th Age, I start monster design with the narrative. What place does the creature serve in the world or the story? To help Mark out, I am writing up one of the Var (a spider-like race from Ta’nar) for this example. Looking at the Var which are unstatted (all of them), I decided on writing up the Var-Nul. My concept at this phase is:

The Var-nul are upper echelon members of the Var society. These Var have dedicated themselves to the study of dark magics which they rain down in corescating waves on valiant heroes.

Simple and to the point. For me, the concept feels like a One Unique Thing for my monster. It should give me or other GMs just enough to figure out what to do with the monster. In this case, they are Var nobility with magic. 

 

Search

The simplest thing to do here is to just find a monster that is close enough and reflavor their abilities. However, when you are looking to design a monster, you can also keep an eye out for abilities to steal for your creatures. I start looking through the Bestiary for powers which feel magical and refined. In this case, I really like the feel of the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast (B1 p. 153) and the Lich’s Shadow Ray (B1 p. 135). They give the GM choices and add some depth to the creatures. Keeping those in mind, I head to the build section.

 

Build

When building, the first thing to consider is the tier of the monster. To me, looking back at my concept, the Var-Nul do not feel like an adventurer or an epic tier monster. They are the nobility of the Var, so they should be more than an adventurer can handle, but in the world of Ta’nar, the Var are not the epic threats of the world. So, these guys are solidly in Champion Tier. 

Looking at the champion tier stats (C p. 254), level 5 feels right. Low enough that the Var-Nul will appear at the end of adventurer tier and a solid choice continuing through the levels. Just picking our level gives us most of what we need, and in a pinch, you can just run with the base stats and still have a great encounter with flavorful descriptions.

But…. I like tweaking. The first thing I do is lower the Var-Nul’s HP from 72 to 65. They are frailer on average than a standard 5th level monster, but they will make up for it with powerful attacks. I keep the AC where it should be, seeing in my mind the Val-Nul wrapped in robes invested with powerful magics, and assign their better defense to MD but drop it by one to increase their PD by one. They are spidery after all. They are also slightly faster than the average monster, so I give their initiative a bit of a bump, setting it to +7.

Right, now to powers. Like all var, the Var-Nul have multiple limbs, so I think they should have two attacks. But as they are casters, I drop their to-hit and damage a bit, to represent that these are not their primary attacks.

The Var-Nul’s primary attack is a venom spell, which lances out to envenom their targets. Again, the spell can target two targets, but in the interest of spreading the damage, they cannot target the same two targets. This means that instead of halving the damage they can do in a round, we can afford to up it a bit, as they have to make two attack rolls. Some added ongoing poison damage based off the die roll is always needed, so you can check that out below.

When should you add d20 mechanics to a power? I tend to want to use it when it is the monster’s showcase power. For these venom bolts, it makes sense that they should do ongoing damage, but I want to limit that trigger. Looking at B1 p. 230, the designers give us great guidelines on when and how to use the d20. Looking there, I settled on two effects. One being ongoing damage if the Var-Nul rolls a natural 16+ as a strong hit gets the venom into your system. But I decide to add a miss effect, so that even if some of the venom gets on you, you still take a bit of damage. I don’t want a lot of this type of miss damage, so it only triggers on an even miss (50% of the time) and because it was a miss, I feel like making the save easy makes sense.

I wanted one more attack. These guys are sorcerers, so they should have something else in their repertoire. I want that classic area effect spell but one they can only do once or twice. Looking at the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast power, I like the idea of a chaotic invocation. It works with the Var-Nul and their place in Ta’nar. But I do not want just extra or different damage and decide this power should represent all the myriad ways a spider or spellcaster can incapacitate a foe. This power applies conditions instead of a lot of damage. You can see below which conditions I chose for the power. In my mind, the Var-Nul lets out the chaotic nature of its magic and essence and a lot of strange stuff happens on the battlefield. I limited its use to once per battle. I thought about letting it do it twice, but concluded it downplays what I feel is the main role of the Var-Nul, the envenomed ray. Plus, if you were to field 2 or 3 of these at a time, each with two uses of the power… it would get crazy very quickly.

 

Var-Nul

The spidery-humanoid grins with its mandibled mouth and begins chittering in arcane tones. A pale green light begins to surround it, and you wish you paid more attention in Varthen as a Second Language. 

5th level Caster
Initiative: +7

Surprisingly nimble striker limbs: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 8 damage

Eldritch envenomed ray: +11 vs PD (two different nearby targets) – 15 damage

Natural 16+: 5 ongoing poison damage (save end)
Natural even miss: 5 ongoing poison damage (easy save ends)

Chaotic invocation: +10 vs PD (1d3 nearby targets) – Roll 1d4 against each hit target to determine the effect of this spell

  1. Darkness of the Deeps! – Target is vulnerable and dazed (save ends both effects)
  2. Web – Target is stuck and hampered (save ends both effects)
  3. Chaotic Convulsions – Target takes 15 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)
  4. The Mark of Unlight – Target is vulnerable and takes 8 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)

Limited use: 2/battle

AC 21
PD 16    HP 65
MD 18

 

There you go. That is how I create monsters from scratch. It took longer to write up the process than it took to design the Var-Nul.

Now, I am not usually looking to publish my monsters, so I tend to make them a bit tougher than normal. If you are looking to publish monsters, you need to keep an eye on how they will scale. What works for an equal level encounter (where the monsters are the same level as your PCs) at your table may be wildly unbalanced when another GM fields them en masse against higher level parties. Playtesting is key.

Finally, did you know we are streaming games now? You can check out Becca on Twitch running 13th Age in Ta’nar on Monday nights or get caught up on our YouTube channel. And if you liked this article, let us know. We may do a whole episode on this topic!

My GM Hates Me!

“They only give me problems! We never win, even if we defeat the monster. Everyone I meet in the game is an enemy. I view my GM as someone to beat. My GM hates me!” 

Have you ever thought or even uttered those words? You are not alone! But those thoughts are not necessarily true to life. As a GM, one of my players has told me, “I see you as the person to beat whenever we play games.” Ouch. This statement struck me deeply. A friend and fellow GM heard from their player, “You are always out to get me. You ruin everything.”

Between the two of us, we were devastated. Here’s what you, as a player, need to know about your GM.

  1. Your GM is human. That means we make mistakes and forget the rules. It also means we get to feel all the feelings. If you cast Zone of Truth on city council leaders, we will feel the frustration those leaders feel. In our frustration, we may retaliate and cast a spell upon you as well. Should that happen? Maybe not. But we are creating a world for you to play in and within that world, when people get frustrated, they will react. 
  2. You are a hero, but your PC is not the only hero of the story. Many GMs keep the world moving outside of your group. The Icons can use any of their followers and some of those followers may be better than your PC. NPCs have goals and weaknesses, but they also have strengths. Sometimes your PC is not the smartest person in the room. When that happens, as a player, it is up to you to come up with a creative solution. In some sessions that means a clever bargain and in other sessions, that might mean all you can do is run. 
  3. If all NPCs you are meeting are enemies, take a look at your attitudes. The GM should be creating opportunities for players to find allies and story hooks. They should be encouraging you to use your background and one unique things to conjure up you own side characters and friends. As stated above, your GM will feel the feelings of the NPCs. If you are treating each NPC as an enemy, that is what they will become. In a game of mine, a player talked about her estranged relationship with her father. Another player then took it upon themselves to charm and use Suggestion on the father so the party would get what they wanted. The party was furious when they were barred from returning to the fortress ever again. 
  4. Problems make better stories. Any story that doesn’t have conflict loses meaning. Life has difficulties, which if you are able to overcome, lead you to feel the sweet taste of victory. We remember the moments inevitable doom was averted. No problems mean no victories. 
  5. You need to have a discussion with your GM. This should happen one-on-one and away from the table. Grab a coffee with them and voice your concerns or irritations. Hopefully, your GM will address the concerns you have and together, you will come up with a creative solution. It is important through this process that you keep an open mind. You will need to be able to own up to your own behavior at the table and learn to change.

Role-playing games are great spaces to tell stories with your friends. They are also spaces to discover skills and language of diplomacy and problem-solving. Your GM wants to tell a story with you. They don’t hate you. 

Written by Becca

Adapting 13G Runes into 13A Icon Relationships

When 13th Age Glorantha (13G) was released, Rob and Jonathan made a number of changes to the game’s mechanics to better reflect the world of Glorantha. One of those changes was how to handle rolling for Rune benefits. In one sense, rolling for a Rune is similar to rolling for an Icon Relationship in 13th Age (13A), but in Glorantha, Runes are more than just a person that is a mover and shaker. Runes are the cosmic forces and the core building blocks of the world, magic, and the gods of Glorantha. Having an attuned or empowered Rune is like having a 5 or a 6 with an Icon Relationship. And while it gives a player a similar narrative advantage as an Icon Relationship, it tends to be a bit more powerful in nature and leverages ‘agents’ less frequently; the effect is also a bit more direct instead of indirect.

There are a couple of differences in how 13G handles this narrative mechanic, and I’ll cover them briefly then present a couple of ideas on how to port this into 13A and why you might want to. Here’s a synopsis of how the 13G Rune system works:

You roll for Runes at every heal-up

Instead of rolling for runes at the start of every session the way you do for Icon Relationships in 13A, you roll for Runes at every heal-up. This will always result in you getting a rune you can use, even if it’s one that you weren’t expecting or one that might be very interesting for your character to have a connection to.
(You also get to roll for your Runes at the start of a Heroquest, but we’ll save that topic for another time.)

You roll a d6. If you get a 1-3, you get one of your runes. If it’s a 4-6, roll a d20 for a random rune. If this random rune is one you have, it’s not just attuned, it’s empowered!

During character creation, you will end up with three runes, and those are the ones that you will be attuned to when rolling a 1-3 on the d6. But when you roll a 4-6, you then roll on the random rune table (or this handy die sold by Q-Workshop) and are instead attuned to that rune. But if your random roll comes up with one of your three runes, it’s empowered! An Empowered Rune functions like an Attuned Rune, but you also get the equivalent of a permanent magic item when you narrate it.

Narrating a rune, and rolling for complications (d20. 1-5 a complication is presented)

Narrating a rune affects the story in much the same way that narrating an Icon Relationship does. You are able to find something you were looking for, travel long distances quickly, gather more information, or do something incredible.

In my 13G game, one of my players narrated an Empowered Water Rune to purify a creature they had captured that was infected by Chaos, and was thereby able to gather more information than they would have otherwise. In doing so, they also established a grateful NPC who may make future appearances in the campaign. The player also received a Runic Gift that will, for the rest of the game, give him an extra power and a bonus to one of his stats.

Once a player narrates a rune, the GM rolls a d20 to see if a complication arose. On a 6-20, no complication comes up, but it does on a 1-5! The GM gets to narrate what that is, and it could happen immediately or come into play in a later session.

Narrating a Rune is explicitly prohibited in combat

Narrating runes is only to affect the story, not the game. What I mean by that is that Runes are not to serve as a power, and they cannot be used to affect combat. If your idea for narrating a rune seems to be touching on the game mechanics at all, then it’s best to think of how you might tweak it a bit so it steers away from that.

Those are the basics of how Runes work in 13G, and I’m sure you can see the similarities and differences to how Icon Relationships operate in 13A. There are enough differences though that it’s worth considering porting them into your 13A game.

The main downside I see in porting the new rules over would be the Random Icon and how you’d narrate that. As in 13G, you’d roll a d6, and you’d get one of your Icons on a 1-3, but instead of rolling a d20 for the random rune, you’d roll a d12 (or use the Icon Die from Campaign Coins). But 13A Icon Relationships have two aspects to them – one is the Icon and the other is the Relationship (Positive, Conflicted, and Negative). Rolling a d6 and getting one of you selected Icons is simple enough, but how do you characterize your relationship with the one that comes up randomly on the d12? The two options I see are to randomize the relationship as well through an extra d6 roll (1-2 Negative, 3-4 Conflicted, 5-6 Positive) or chart out your relationship with all the Icons during character creation.

That latter option appeals to me, even if you don’t port the rest of the 13G Rune system over. The points you assign with the Icons is a reflection of how tangibly useful that relationship is, but it makes sense that your character would at least have an opinion on the rest of the Icons too. I can also see everyone giving their entire list to the GM being very helpful in crafting a campaign world! But if tasking your players to define their character’s opinion on all 13 Icons seems like too much, running a 7-Icon campaign would simplify things considerably. If you don’t chart this out in advance and the relationship is determined randomly, then it would create some very interesting story hooks if a particular Icon kept coming up but the relationship changed each time.

Alternatively, you could eliminate the Random Icon entirely and have your roll result in one of the Icons you have selected. For example, at Adventurer Tiers, you’d roll a d6 and have 1-2 be your first Icon, 2-3 be your second, and 3-4 be your third. At higher tiers when you gain additional Icon Relationships, you can simply increase your die size to accommodate the additional Icons; roll a d8 as you’d have 4 Icons and a d10 as you’d have 5.

The Random Icon and its relationship is really the only downside that I see to porting the 13G Rune system into 13A as a replacement for handling Icon Relationships. A couple of advantages to it is that everyone is guaranteed to have a Relationship to leverage each full heal-up, and because it’s determined at a full heal-up, you’ll be less likely to have to come up with something on the fly on how to use them. Guaranteeing that each person has one prevents those sessions where nobody rolls a 5 or a 6 as well as those sessions when everyone is rolling 5s or 6s; it can get wearisome whether you’re having to juggle too many Relationships or too few. The 13G method evens all that out.

You also won’t have to deal with complications nearly as frequently. With the 13A method, whenever a Relationship is available to leverage, there’s a 50/50 chance it’ll bring about a complication, and players frequently hesitate before using a 5 for fear of what the complication will be. The 13G method gives only a 25% chance of a complication, and the determination of whether or not one exists comes after the player has narrated the effect, not before.

There’s a thematic difference between the Dragon Empire and Glorantha, and each system’s unique mechanic does a good job handling that difference. But there is room for bringing the newer 13G method into core 13A. The longer my 13G campaign goes, the more I am liking the way the Runes work. When I pick up my next 13A game, I’ll be trying out some of these porting techniques. If you have any other suggestions or advice on this topic, leave a comment below!

Written by Nick

Monster Design the Easy Way – Reskinning Monsters

Since the beginning of D&D, monsters have been a staple of the game.  Dragons, orcs, trolls, and other beasts of myth and legend. Owlbears, black pudding, and other things from Gygax’s mind have filled the days and nights of gamers’ minds for years.  Books are filled with many fine examples to throw at your game group, but what if they are just not quite what you are looking for? Tired of the band of orcs led by an Ogre mage? Not thrilled about the blue dragon about to descend upon the brave adventurers?  Let me help you out. Now I am not an expert or all knowing game designer, but I have run a game or two and sometimes you just need to shake things up. I don’t think I have ever come up with a truly NEW monster to challenge my players. I have taken ideas from novels and movies or just “re-skinned” an old monster into something new.  I first got this idea from an old 2e adventure where the heroes went after a white dragon that turned out to be an albino red. WOW that was great fun as they had potions of frost resistance and fire spells all prepared. Needless to say I got cussed out that night, but the players really enjoyed the challenge of overcoming that foe on the fly.  It spiced up the game night. Now you don’t have to change every monster every time, but it does help when the group becomes jaded and has memorized the whole list of monsters.

Re-skinning a monster or coming up with your own really is not that hard. 13A does a great job of giving guidance for building battles (page 186 core rules) that helps that fight be challenging without becoming too easy or too hard.  Chapter Seven (Monsters) gives great advice on how to spice up monsters by borrowing “bits and pieces” from other monsters. This is a great very quick way to a wrinkle to that same old kobold.  If you want to start from scratch, use the baseline stats on page 254 to get started.

When I want to reskin a monster, I try and figure out what do I want this “new” monster to be able to do. Fly? Spit acid? Be really tough? After I know what I want it to do I peruse the monster listings and find similar powers.  I figure the guys at Pelgrane have already done the heavy lifting for me and play tested it. In the Bestiary 2 Appendix, there is a list of monsters by level, which is great when you need to scale the monster you are looking for. You might need to look at a higher level monster and tone down the damage or ability so look at lower level monsters with similar abilities and adjust accordingly.  You can also look at higher level monsters and “level up” your 1st level kobold wizard into something truly terrifying! After I have re-skinned my kobold (I love kobolds) I try it out on one of my old PC characters to see if it works like I want. Is it too weak? Too powerful? I run a few combats just to make it’s not the dice. 

Now a word of warning.  It’s Ok to come up with a power/ability to counter something the PCs can do, just don’t do it for every fight.  Otherwise the players will get frustrated. Once in a while it is good to make the group squirm a little as they need to come up with new and interesting ways to slay your beasties when the tried and true is not available.  Just don’t overdo it.

So I want to use some kobolds in a future encounter.  The kobolds in the bestiary are too weak and my group would just mop the floor with them.  Mmmm, what to do? Looking at page 237 and the kobold warrior, I notice just next to the listing, Lizardman Savage.  Oh look it has a special trigger that gives it a nasty bite. Perfect! I will level up my kobold troop to a wrecker and give them that ability.  See! it’s that easy. Give them a better attack, a few more hit points and a new ability and presto chango a new type of kobold that can add just a bit of new flavor to an old “monster” and keep my jaded players on their toes.

Also look in the 13 Age Bestiary 1, page 228. It covers reskinning, tweaking and creating new monsters.

I hope this inspires you to dig out your favorite novel or movie and “create” a new monster for your players to fight.  Or talk to. Or get eaten by. Your choice.

Written by Mark