Category: 13th Age

Running the Game: a DM tutorial series

I’ve got a player eager to take the helm running a D&D game periodically. I’m super excited to see them flip to the other side of the screen and be a DM. They freely admitted struggling some with thinking up an appropriate way to kick off the game, and the decision to dabble in making up their own world or run something pre-made. They also wanted to know if I had any advice. So I pointed them over to Running the Game, a YouTube series about being a DM.

It’s done by Matthew Colville, a writer that also works in the video game industry. The videos he creates run between 15 to 30 minutes and commonly cover a specific RPG topic. Some address a specific issue most DMs will face at the table or when planning out their session. He also has a series that covers his own game more in detail and the problems he occasionally has when playing.

Now a big caveat with the advice is that what he will regularly state the tidbits he throws out are his opinions and how he likes to run his own games. Your mileage might vary with his advice, and he’ll freely admit his approach might not be for everyone. Another point is that much of the series is about running D&D. I think if you were a GM for other game systems a lot of his advice would still be great but you are going to get some chunks of content not quite applicable to a non-D&D game.

This last point touches on a few episodes. One is related to the Deck of Many things (which dragged some for me), and if not playing D&D or including that magic item in your campaign, much of the video will be not helpful. However you might pick up some interesting tips and ideas handling a similar powerful, legendary magical item in your own game. The concept of using a few props to spice up your game is great and I particularly like the idea of a little sleight of hand to make players think they have full agency (when in reality you are guiding events some).

Another ding with the video series is the speed that Matthew speaks. He talks fast. You might want to slow down the playback speed at little. I think especially if English wasn’t your mother tongue you’d have a hard time keeping up. I enjoy his rapid fire dialog and find it engaging and quippish, but keep in mind he speaks at a fair clip.

But these are quibbles. You’ll find his videos a great resource. I especially like that he also talks about things that fall flat at his table. We tend to just spout off the things that work in our sessions and not dwell on the times when things just didn’t work. I agree with his opinion that sharing stuff that failed can also serve as helpful advice.

In the end you have a fantastic introduction to being a DM. Seriously, for the uninitiated wanting to sit down and try their hand at running a game, this is a great series. The first four are especially solid tutorials for DMing your initial adventure. There really are some golden tips covered in them. It’s such a helpful and entertaining bunch of tutorials. I really can’t recommend it enough to new DMs, and if you’re a bit long in the tooth as a GM, give a few videos a watch. You’ll either be nodding your head in agreement or picking up a few good ideas for your own game.

Keeping campaigns organized with blogs and wikis

I’ve been fiddling around with my sci-fi Savage Worlds game getting everything together. Something I’ve been a stalwart supporter for over the years is using online tools as information repositories for current games. I tend to game pretty infrequently, just about every other week. So for long campaigns I need a place to keep track of major events that happen. Another plus is I don’t need to saddle my players with scribbling down the name of every major NPC they come across. The important stuff I can put on up the campaign site for reference later.

Additionally we have about 2-3 different settings going on. I sometimes get a little burnt out GMing a particular setting and like to have an occasional one shot game once in a while. It can be a challenge for my players to keep track of the types of worlds they are playing in. Sometimes they need something to jog their memory on who the major movers and shakers are for that campaign. In these cases having an online wiki or blog is great keeping everything together.

For a long while now I have been using Obsidian Portal for a few of my games. It’s a great tool but lately I’ve migrated towards having more simple sites. I’ve found I don’t usually need the complete functionality of a wiki. I can just keep a running page or two of major NPCs or locations. So currently I’ve been leaning towards using blogs instead.

For my Savage Worlds superhero game it’s been a great means to provide a quick reference for major criminal (and neutral) organizations. Also by adding posts and tagging them, my players can filter out a lot of stuff and skim through past posts looking for specific enemies or topics related to the campaign. I haven’t been keeping a running adventure log going for that, but it could be done.

With my sci-fi game I’ve found this especially helpful. Above all other settings I think players sometimes need a little more information on the game universe. Sci-fi encompasses so many styles and themes, it can be difficult to accurately get across to players the levels of technology or how proliferate alien species are. Having a site that they can navigate to get that information is helpful.

Mind you have to be realistic about how deep players will dig through your site. Some may enjoy it but expect many to be willing to skim through about a paragraph at most. So I try to keep things brief if possible, especially for adventure recaps.

One last point though on having a campaign blog or wiki, it’s public. While it’s a way to share your world and ideas with others, it’ll also show how messy your games run including all the lackluster ideas. Just roll with it. Because sometimes you’ll have people mine your stuff for adventure ideas to use in their own games (Hee… or learn about things to avoid if scouring my campaigns). Honestly that alone is a great reason to have your campaign material up on a wiki or blog.


Jumped off the deep end of miniature Kickstarters with Reaper Bones

ReaperBones3I’ve avoided the siren’s call of Reaper Kickstarter campaigns of past. But the temptation to pick up a slew of minis is just too much. Their current Kickstarter campaign wraps up in less than 3 days. As usual, you get a ton of plastic minis. The bonus for me is that you don’t need to prime them.

I prefer to use tokens for my RPG sessions over using minis. But I am pretty deep into miniature gaming and been taking a gander to some different systems as of late. Pulp Alley looks neat and Frostgrave is certainly on my radar for something to pick up. As a back up, there is always Chain Reaction which is generic enough for a variety of light arms skirmish games. Yet, I’ve heard some cool things about Songs of Blades and Heroes too for fantasy melee. Yeah…. guess I’ll have plenty of games to run with these KS goodies.

Litko game tokens as holiday gifts

Say you want a stocking stuffer for your nerdy, significant other, or want to give a small gift to a gamer pal. Litko makes quality plastic acrylic game tokens and other miscellaneous game items, offering a great gift for them. A long while back I made no bones about my preference using tokens and markers around the table. Having a tactile marker to represent a condition, bonus, or temporary status is great over just using pen and paper. So I’ve had a long affair of enjoying Litko products for years now. They’ve got wonderful stuff for just about any gamer you’d like to get a gift for.

The wargamer – They offer tons of sets and individual packs for tokens. From command and casualty markers, to range band and blast templates, Litko offers some fantastic tokens and markers.

The board game fan – Litko has branched out and now provides game token sets for popular board games too. Imagine spicing up your Pandemic game with these tokens…

Not to mention some really wonderful X-Wing token and marker sets…

And I’m certain Netrunner players would enjoy having these on the table…

The RPG player – Litko also offers a lot of sets and tokens for RPG games also. You can find lots of tokens to mark temporary conditions….

and complete sets are also available like this one for Savage Worlds.

They offer some more interesting items like paper figure miniature stands…

or markers for indicating which character miniature is holding a torch…

And other bits for gamers – Litko also makes a variety of bases for miniatures and other really clever items like counter dials….

and a variety of portable dice towers which can be taken apart and thrown in a zip lock bag. Perfect for those gaming tourneys.

So I encourage folks to give them a look. Several online retailers also carry their products. And if you aren’t sure about what they’d really like, well just give them a gift certificate instead. Hope folks enjoy the holidays with family and friends (and get some games in too).

Review: 13th Age

While it’s been available as a pdf for some time, the hardback rules for 13th Age from Pelgrane Press are finally getting to folks. For a long time I was on the fence about this. I was happy with my 4E game but the more I played, the more flaws with the game came up especially as my group leveled up. PC power glut was a big issue and I thought up a few potential tweaks to trim the list down. I even considered consolidating at-will powers and altering the basic attack to make it more attractive as an alternative. It sort of was swept under the rug compared to other at-will attacks for PCs. Lastly, I really wanted some way to give players an option of pouring out the damage, and considered using healing surges as a means to do so.

So last week I decided to take the plunge and pick up 13th Age. As I glanced through the rules, what I found particularly interesting was that most of the beefs I had with 4E seemed to be addressed with 13th Age. It’s not entirely surprising as one of the designers was also involved in creating fourth edition D&D. But I particularly liked how much of the glut of temporary modifiers and ever-expanding power choices in 4E were removed, making the game seem much more fluid and engaging.

13th Age is a high fantasy rule set based on the d20 system. No bones about it, I’ve heard this described as a love letter to 4E and I can totally see the imprint of that in the rules. What makes this stand out however, is how many good things it took from 4E, while dumping the extraneous bits, making for a slimmer, fun ruleset. Those at home with 3.5 will also find some familiar territory here, but I think more of the roots with the game are with 4E.

The game relies on many standard choices for races (dark elves are an option) and classes from past editions of D&D (no monks, druids, or shaman). Multiclassing officially is not part of the ruleset, but certain classes can definitely dabble in other class abilities with feats or domains. There is a bevy of your typical high fantasy monsters and a decent list of magic items.

It’s still d20 D&D here. You have levels, 6 ability scores ranked from 3-18, AC, hit points. A nod to 3.5/4E much of the mechanics revolve around rolling a d20 over a set DC value. As with 4E, there are specific defenses for spells and effects where players roll against listed physical or mental defenses. There is initiative and everyone attacks in that order during a typical turn.

Healing is very loose and liberal. As with 4E (and DnDnext) each class has a number of recovery dice that they use to recover HP. And as an action one recovery can be used during combat. Characters have death saving throws, and ample means to heal themselves. Clerics aren’t required, but their abilities definitely supplement the party’s healing potential greatly.

Similar to DnDnext, there isn’t a formal list of skills. Checks are made in a similar fashion, rolling against static DC values for easy, hard, and difficult checks. There are different main tiers, from adventurer, to champion, to epic with resulting DC, defenses, and attack bonuses from monsters and hazards scaling upwards. These are spread out from levels 1-10 however. Correspondingly monsters also have defenses, HP, and attack bonuses that scale up. However you will see certain creature types plateau. So don’t expect to see a variety of kobolds that range from level 1 to 4 like in 4E.

Character progression and advancement are familiar. Players add a level bonus to attack dice, skill checks, and defenses. Hit points increase incrementally, as do ability modifiers (resulting in some changes to defenses). Also a regular advancement of feats and spells are rolled out, resulting in every level bringing something to the player gradually increasing power and abilities. One particular change I like is that many class options don’t necessarily mean a brand new ability, but rather can improve on those they already have. While wizards and clerics can expect a new spell or two as they advance, most other classes will get more utility out of their attacks and abilities.

I’ve covered some things that are similar, now onto things that make 13th Age stand out. There are many aspects of the game that allow for character customization. Skills are not present, rather a player has so many points for backgrounds instead. These PC backgrounds highlight past experiences and history. If the DM thinks it has an application to the task at hand, they provide a bonus. It’s very freeform and supplements the simple ability score checks of the game well. There are a wide variety of feats that confer small bonuses and little tweaks to abilities.

This ties in very well to the abilities (read powers) of the character classes themselves. Many of the game mechanics revolve around the d20 roll. Some situational bonuses come about on a miss, rolling 16+ on the to hit roll, to hits that are an even result. This gives some varying situational benefits to combats. Feats expand on these abilities, giving some even greater effects when they trigger, or possibly adding more predictability to when they do. Because characters start out with a fair number of feats and continually expand on them, they gain a lot of customization. You can end up with two level 3 fighters that have very different abilities.

Another key aspect of combat is the escalation die. After the first round of combat a simple d6 continually goes up from 1 to 6, with the current value granting players a bonus to attacks. Monster abilities also can interfere with this. It’s a nice tool in preventing fights from dragging on and keeping the action moving, encouraging the combatants to be proactive. Combined with situational powers related to attack results, you have combat that is engaging and less about just a hit or miss result with attacks.

Combats are also very much within the theater of the mind. Creatures are either engaged or not. They are either nearby (within a standard move) or far. They are in cover, or not. Attacks of opportunity are there, but with a simple check, players can slip away if needed. Likewise, unengaged creatures can intercept others trying to slip around them. So there is some tactical movement, but nothing rigid requiring a grid to run a melee.

Leveling up is also fast and loose. No experience points are awarded. Rather, GM’s are encouraged to level up the PCs when they feel appropriate. A rule of thumb is after three to four major resting points players should advance a level. Each resting point is after 4 major fights. So after about twelve to sixteen melees, the players should have enough under their belts to level up. The focus of the game is when it’s dramatically appropriate though. So after achieving a major quest is perfectly acceptable too.

Magic items are split into two camps. Your mundane consumables in the manner of oils, potions, and runes that provide a simple mechanical bonus, and that of permanent items. The consumables are made to be your typical one use, throw away items that are actually rather mundane. Magical permanent items however are meant to be special and wondrous, each with a personality. You aren’t going to run into a simple +1 dagger but you will have one that has some history or quirks to it that encourages more story effects in the game.

Two additional points make 13th Age stand out from other RPGs, a player’s one unique thing and icon relationships. Every character will have one unique characteristic that makes them stand out from others in the world. It’s geared towards a background-centric or plot device, rather than some game mechanic benefit. This is decided at character creation and can be a relatively simple concept (they are the 5 times grand world champion of dwarven ale drinking) to something grander in scope (they are the long lost child of the Elf Queen). How this affects the game is something played out as campaign unfolds with input from both PCs and the GM.

The other major point is the concept of icons and the relationships PCs have with them. There are 13 icons within the game, each being an actual individual in the game world. Consider them the movers and shakers of the world, main factions and seats of powers that employ many agents within the world to do their bidding, and this includes the characters. Players can decide on their relationship with certain icons as being positive, conflicted, or negative. They start with 3 d6 and can allocate them as they will among the many icons.

Some may want a more prominent role within the circles of a particular world power, while they may want to be the bane of a certain 13th Age icon. At the start of the session, each player rolls their relationship dice and results of 5 or 6 (5 means there are more complications along with the boon) ensures that at some point in the game, the player will have assets of that icon at their disposal. That at some point, the icon (or agents on their behalf) will seek out the player and impart some timely advice, offer some resources, or potentially some task or quest for the player. It’s an interesting idea and very much helps drag the players into the world, ensuring they have the ear (or the wrath) of major powers within the game.

The Good – It’s a nice package for D&D. The mechanics are uniform, with enough working parts and customization to make for a fun game. I think it would be very approachable to new players. Elements of the game are familiar with enough small situational conditions to make combats enjoyable and move well. I particularly enjoy how most of the fiddly bits for combats are swept aside and more emphasis is on the players pulling off big moves or big hits. The game encourages the players to engage the GM and be part of the overall story. Best of all, everything needed to play is in a single book.

The Bad – It’s D&D. You have HP, AC, attack bonuses, nothing here that is completely groundbreaking. The aspect of the 13 icons in the world are interesting, but that does add some limitations to the game fluff. Your default setting is high fantasy and revolving around these major world powers. You can totally go off the rails and make your own, but this will take some effort to ensure all the player options fit well with your custom icons.

The biggest damning aspect of the rules is while I think a new player could get the gist of the game very easily, it does require an experienced GM. The icon relationship dice mean as a GM you have to be willing to improvise and be flexible with the story you are telling. While some of the mechanical aspects (skill checks, level appropriate monsters and challenges) are well laid out and understandable, there is a lot more skill needed to running an effective session. This hurdle is recognized in the rules, but I think it also is a major detraction to the game. YMMV with this game as how well a GM can weave in the icon relationships during a session is key.

The Verdict – 13th Age is a good game. I think it’s very much a great introduction to fantasy RPGs and if someone wanted to play ‘D&D’ you could do well with pulling this book out instead. For fans of 4E and 3.5E, both will get a lot of enjoyment out of the rules. It has familiar aspects of play with enough wrinkles to make it enjoyable. If anything, this could certainly be considered for 4E fans a nail in the coffin for starting up another 4E game.

It’s not perfect. There are major default setting choices with the game. It’s one of high fantasy. You have established movers and shakers in the world. It is entirely a game of heroic adventurers (level 1 farmer peasants need not apply). But if you want to play a game where you are big damn heroes, destined for greater things, and well-connected to the pillars of power, 13th Age is for you.

There is a lot here that works. Play and options are streamlined enough to not be overwhelming, but still offer some customization. What I particularly enjoy is that there’s a balance between simple mechanical bonuses and others related more towards the story of the character. You don’t have a simple diplomacy skill, you have a strong background in the Emperor’s royal court. You don’t have a skill in tracking, you were a lead scout for a barbarian warband in the last goblin war. This stuff oozes with story and fodder for adventures. Along with the one unique thing about your character, you have something that stands out from other RPGs, giving a more interesting spin on character creation than what’s seen in other games.

One very strong point about 13th Age is that everything needed to play is covered in one single book. It’s a low entry into RPGs and something akin to Pathfinder. I will say it can be tough to justify buying 13th Age if you are heavily invested in other fantasy RPGs. Nothing here is absolutely groundbreaking and it falls heavily back on a very familiar d20 system. Between the different camps of D&D, I think 4E fans might enjoy this a tad more. As for people into Pathfinder and 3.5, they may very well like the more streamlined character creation, uniform mechanics, and opportunities for dynamic (at times chaotic) combats. There is a strong emphasis for story and weaving the PCs into the world, much more so than in some other systems. But like any RPG, it does come down to the DM and how much they can make the game fun for all involved.

My final take, 13th Age is a good buy. It has some interesting concepts you could lift for your own game, however it might tread a bit too much on the familiar for some. This is a d20 D&D game. For some it could be very well their ONLY D&D game. As a big 4E fan, if I were to jump back into D&D, this would certainly be my game of choice. It’s a tad rigid for the setting and requires a more dynamic approach to planning out your sessions, but there are some fun things in between the pages of the rules to make it worth your time.