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.
I’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.
Far to the southeast lie the Edgeworld mountains. The furthest range east, south of the gap claimed by the Karagan-Shale dwarven clan is the Gormthal Peaks. This harsh landscape of stone and lava has long been a home to both fire and storm giants alike. For centuries, the giant clans held a loose alliance against the stalwart dwarves that clung to old holds at the base of the mountain range.
However, such a tepid alliance was sundered when the widowed king of the fire giants stole away the storm giant king’s eldest daughter. Such a brazen act, without consul from the father for a blessing (and more importantly, a sizable dowry) was deemed an irreverent insult to the storm giant clans. A great war was taken up that raged on for years. Decades later it still goes on, but no longer are great battles fought. Instead small skirmishes continually break out among their borders, primarily from young giants seeking to make a name fighting their enemy kin.
Such a war among these great beings has taken a severe toll on the landscape. Gormthal Peaks was always dappled with volcanic rock. However now the mountain stone is gouged with deep burning slashes and lava exploding into surrounding soot-choked air. As an answer to the continual gouts of flame and lava, ever rolling dark clouds billow above, arcing lightning and expelling frequent bouts of acrid rain.
What forced the fire giant king to do such a reckless act? None can state with any authority. Some claim that the storm giant princess was claimed without her consent and is still a prisoner within his fiery halls.
Other more bardic tales weave one of forbidden love. The princess knew that her father would never bless their marriage and no dowry would ever satisfy her father’s greed, so she herself spirited away to her lover. So enraged was the storm giant king, that he struck out at the fire giants, claiming he was wronged. Better to fight a war than admit the wounding of his pride, that his very daughter sought true love over family honor.
With war brings opportunities for some. Those willing to make the long trek and face the harsh wilds teeming with vile monsters may find some employ among the giants. Each side is always in dire need of reports of troop movements and activities among the respective war councils. Such efforts of espionage is best done with smaller folk and outsiders. While wary employers, known for wicked deceitfulness, some mercenaries with more neutral philosophies have found work aligning themselves with one giant faction.
Such open employment is looked down on very harshly from the neighboring dwarven clans. However the dwarves have been known to also recruit outsiders to play the part of mercenaries for the giants. Adopting this facade some have done greater acts of subterfuge within the giant holds, most secretly pass information to the Karagan-Shale clan on the activities of their giant enemies. This work is a dangerous game, not only risking the perilous wildlife within the mountains, but also the wrath of the giants if such a betrayal is discovered.
This always seems to happen. You’ve got a NPC refusing to offer some assistance or key information. Then a player grabs a d20 and tells you they are cuffing the guy across the face and demanding something, rolling off using their intimidation skill. It’s at a point like this where I might turn the NPC into a gibbering heap, spouting snot, tears, and nonsense, completely worthless for offering any help. That demonstration of physical force and the threat of more has rendered the person panicked in utter fear, unable to act. Or alternately, I might even push an NPC into responding with violence as they feel they have no doubt the player means them harm.
I always viewed intimidation as more than just physical threats against someone. I see intimidation almost like insight, but keyed in on sensing weakness. They are able to read that weakness and then use it as a tool to force someone to their whims.
It can certainly be a physical aspect but it doesn’t have to just be a warrior hefting a weapon threateningly. It could be a stare or a physical presence that instills doubt. We’ve likely all experienced this before. You’ve met someone that just carries themselves in a way that projects threat.
Take the crime drama, Knockaround Guys. There is a scene where Vin Diesel gives a beat down on a local thug in a bar. His dialog at the start of that scene is great. It’s just him talking about wanting to be a tough guy and figuring as a kid 500 fights was the number needed. He describes his reasoning and simply starts taking off his jacket. You can see the steam and ego of his opponent just deflate. The local thug has overstepped the line. In front of him is a legitimate tough and all of this is achieved through words and an imposing physical presence.
Intimidation is the key ability to know what threats will work and what will sting the most. It’s an ability to read the social standing of someone, and likely what they hold near and dear. Threats don’t have to be physical. They can target a NPC’s character and their standing with the law, or maybe a threat to dishonor them in society or to family (think Francis Urquhart/Underwood from House of Cards).
Someone with a high skill in intimidation can also likely read when a threat is serious or not. It’s staring right through a facade of a violent display and recognizing it for being just chest thumping and bluster. So PCs with this skill could read certain threats and certain social situations much like insight would.
Unlike diplomacy, that seeks a common ground and tries to build cooperation through good will, Intimidation is all about manipulating people through threats (real or perceived). Not all of these threats have to be physical. When you look at intimidation as a means of seeing weakness in someone, and being able to capitalize on that, you open the door for a lot more opportunities and a variety of means to use the skill. Consider letting your PCs explore intimidation being more than just the ability to get answers from someone by knocking out teeth.
The Pomdarians were an ancient race of lizard folk that created a great empire of arcane marvels. Thousands of years since their demise many of their mysterious monuments still litter the southern jungles. Some legends say that they fell into warring factions, wielding powerful magics that resulted in the destruction of their race.
Other legends speak of a great religious movement which rebelled against their affinity of the arcane, choosing instead to worship primal gods. This divergence in philosophy was so pronounced it actually split the lineage of the Pomdarians into two races, the primal lizardmen and the magic-touched dragonborn (although few historians would be foolish enough to bring up such a topic in earshot of either race).
Still others claim that the great network of portals created by the Pomdarians lead to their downfall. Use of these portals weakened the normal boundaries of the physical world and that of the great beyond. Horrible aberrations slipped into the known world and brought down their great civilization, likely explaining the origins of many monstrous creatures in the world today.
No one can state the real reason for the fall of the Pomdarian empire. What cannot be refuted is that this grand civilization reached an epoch, and in the matter of a few years slid into obscurity, utterly wiped from world existence. One part that remains of their enigmatic past is the sparse number of standing portal gates scattered among the deep jungles.
Many times there have been attempts to map and categorize the portal doors by the League of Imperial Arcanists. Still to this day their efforts have been in vain. One simply knows that you enter the gateway, and emerge from another random portal gate. Most of the gates have been discovered and are within the boundaries of many towns or cities, however the discovery of another portal ruin is not unknown. What compounds the complexity of categorizing these portals is the inexplicable length of time one can enter another gateway. Once a person enters, they cannot reenter a portal gate for up to a week. And when they can do so, it inevitably will lead them to another location.
A few steely merchants are willing to make use of these portals. The gamble is that such merchants will not know where they land and what are the desires of their potential customers. Hence, usually they ply staple goods that will sell in just about any city. What makes this journey even of more risk is that some gates lead to ruins deep within the wilderness. Even darker tales circulate of merchants that enter the portals never to be seen again. Either they arrive at some other gate buried in some deep cavernous ruins, surrounded by foul monsters, or they slip out of this world entirely.
Such rumors are fodder for many companies of adventurers. Stout hearted heroes willing to step into the shimmering ruin gateways in hopes of landing at some undiscovered location. If one found lost ruins of the Pomdarians at some previously unknown destination, clearly there could be riches, or at least find the League of Imperial Arcanists willing to pay handsomely for any maps and proof of such ruins existing.
My wife is Korean. Last year there was a death in the family and I was unable to travel to another city for the funeral. Late at night my wife returned and from the parking lot downstairs she called me, ‘Come downstairs and bring the salt.’ No clue why she wanted it but I comply with the wishes of my CO. As I come to her car she steps out and grabs a palmful of salt tossing it over herself and then tossed some over the top of her car. Walking up to our apartment she called back over her shoulder, ‘To ward off evil spirits.’
Four is a big no no over here. Four is a number aligned with the same word for death and loss so it’s avoided. Giving cash gifts (a common practice) you never give away increments of 4. 30,000 and 50,000 won is okay, but 40,000 is an insult. It’s so pervasive you can’t even find an option to take out 40,000 or 400,000 from ATM machines.
Now as an American I sometimes roll my eyes at stuff like this, but I realize Americans do similar things too. Next time you are in an elevator for a highrise office building, see if you can find a button for floor 13. Once when it was pouring here in Korea I walked in with a dripping wet umbrella. My coworker took it from my hands and opened it up out in the hallway. For a brief instant I thought about bad luck, then I realized how clever it was to allow the umbrella to dry quickly exposing more surface area (rather than being bunched up when it is closed). Cultures have superstitions, and it’s amazing how pervasive they are.
For RPGs, superstitions are a great way to add some local color to a city or people. Further it’s something that can go beyond religious beliefs, being part of the culture for a group. Maybe every doorway holds a simple wind chime to ward off spirits. Maybe for every cup of ale one drinks in the local tavern, you dip in your thumb and press it on the table while you take the first draught. These small details can bring a lot of life to the fantasy world you create and even better, allow for some local flavor from town to town rather than it being another nondescript village.
Superstitions are also ripe for adventure fodder. In a world of fantastic creatures maybe there is a hint of truth to every dark superstition. It’s quite possible that a village hovel that doesn’t mark its doorway with a sigil might have some foul creature come at nightfall. Maybe players failing to follow a superstitious ritual are shunned, or given dire warnings (with ghostly consequences if they don’t follow a local custom). Not all superstitions have to be in place to ward off evil but could be done to avoid mischievous spirits.
Special events can also provide a backdrop for adventures. Festivals and a customary dinner revolving around a ritual can work too. While the players might be included as friendly participants, maybe they are considered outsiders and not welcome as part of the festivities. Maybe petty jealousies among villagers could lead to one fouling an offering or superstitious ward of a neighbor, bringing about some unforeseen horrible fate. Consider our Halloween and the Jack-O’-Lantern. What if a rival decided to smash his neighbor’s pumpkin in spite to bestow a bit of bad luck? Instead of some slight misfortune, the neighbor’s child is spirited away to the Fey. This could be a great setup for a one-shot adventure.
So the next time you describe a small village, consider looking at superstitions. They can offer an easy means to add some interesting detail to the locale and people, breathing a small amount of life into your world. They might even be a great source for a session’s adventure.
I occasionally get this being thrown around in different gaming conversations with how folks lament that skills are just awful in D&D. That it’s so much better just sticking with ability scores. That skills ‘limit’ roleplaying and finding solutions. I consider it poppycock and have been a champion for skills in D&D.
Skills and life experience just make sense, they help add another realistic layer to resolving tasks. Take a theoretical physicist. I’d garner that would translate to an above average INT score in D&D terms. Then take a normal Joe that graduated from high school (regular INT score) that works construction doing welding. Now give them a task of cutting through a locked metal door. Both could very well get the job done eventually.
Now throw them into a sinking ship and give them that same task of cutting through a locked metal door (much like what would model a typical RPG scenario). I think that regular Joe would get through the door in record time, while the physicist would be sleeping with the fishes. It’s not just raw abilities, we also make the use of skills and life experience all the time and even more so in pressure situations.
What also blows my mind is that 4E (and 3E before it) already does this! Skills are based on ability scores. So right off the bat that high charisma PC would likely have a silver tongue, and their diplomacy is above some regular person. It’s not a complete dissociation of ability scores and skills, but rather skill training that compliments natural ability.
I love this idea. It allows for greater flexibility with characters. You are not just a pile of raw ability stats, you can branch out and be good at other things. You can reach beyond just relying on how strong or smart your PC is. If you want to be a learned barbarian with knowledge in the arcana, you can do that and not be saddled if your intelligence score is somewhat average.
Not all skills fit the situation, however I liked the trend that 4E took with making skills be applicable in a broad number of situations. As a DM I think it’s better to remember the importance of pairing up a skill depending on the ability type it’s based on.
As an example in a Gamma World game I had a player trying to focus one of his ranged mutant powers in gravity to pop open an exploding barrel of goop. It was a tricky shot, something as a gut check I would say be based on dexterity, so I called out for an acrobatics check. I got this blank look for a moment. It didn’t register that acrobatics was a skill based on DEX. A dexterity check alone could have worked, but if a player had additional acrobatics skill they could get a bonus. If anything, it was a potential boon to the character depending on where their skill training lay.
I never saw this as a problem in the game. If anything it would encourage players to try different things and round out their character more than dumping everything into a skill or two. The broader the applications a skill could have, the more adept they would be at handling different situations. If anything, they were more confident of trying things rather than sitting back and letting the high charisma player do all the talking.
I’ll admit skills are not perfect for all systems. Savage Worlds has a big divergence between skills and traits. While it’s easier to pick up skills if you have a high strength, you actually need training in fighting to be good at it. However this isn’t seen in D&D.
In 4E particularly, the constant level bonus is sort of silly. Especially as the DCs are continually shifted up. I never quite liked that and felt it better to have just stuck with the idea of paragon and epic penalties that were in the DMG. If I run 4E games in the future, likely I’ll just have a bonus every 4 levels and keep all DC’s at level 1 (with appropriate tier penalties).
DnDnext has some nifty ideas. Most task resolutions revolve around ability scores, but there’s a bonus if trying to do certain tasks based on a skill mastery. It’s pretty close to what is in 4E right now. Still I wish skills were more prominent in DnDnext, but I guess that label of skills chafes at people.
So I encourage folks to not get mired down with terminology. Instead look at the mechanics underlying checks. It’s all based on ability scores you just have the added bonus of being able to train in specific skill sets. Allow that in your game. It’ll give the players freedom to work out a PC that is more unique than a set of six stats.
It seemed that controllers always had a hard time finding a place around the 4E table for most folks. As an archetype, it was a bit at odds with the other combat roles. Defenders had tools to soak up damage. Leaders were able to crank out the buffs and heals. Strikers poured out the damage. All three of these roles worked in just about any combat encounter.
The controller required other factors to shine, unfortunately meaning certain environmental layouts and monsters were needed to show their effectiveness. Sure they could get a few heavy hitting attacks, but smaller bursts of AoE damage were more common. Even more so, with slows and obfuscating/hindering terrain effects, they needed the space and the right positioning of creatures to really strut their stuff.
I expect that was part of the reason wizards always seemed to under-perform. It’s just that other class types could do things in combat that would work in just about any type of fight. Meanwhile, the wizard was more situational. Sadly, that meant they were really dependent on the DM to provide opportunities to allow them a chance to fully express their abilities and powers. So what are a few things a DM could provide in a fight for a wizard in the party?
Lots of minions – A core aspect of many controller powers are area of effect attacks that do a small pip of damage. Having plenty of targets and more importantly, some clustered up a little, is a decent boon to your party controller. While I don’t use lots of minions in every fight, sometimes it’s good to really fill out the ranks and give that controller plenty of targets to pop.
I try to play the opposition smart, but having those minion types more keen on keeping ranks than spreading out is something I also employ once in awhile. Usually I’ll give that third minion a chance to stick with another creature when I move them around by rolling a d6, just a simple 2 in 6 chance to have a few cluster up. So a few encounters with lots of minions (and the occasional gang of baddies clumping up) is a decent way to give a nod to the party’s controller.
Foes coming in different directions – Having simple battle lines where players can close ranks can make for some solid tactics. But continually allowing this can quickly mean the players can easily manage the engagement and the use of a controller diminishes. When you’ve got multiple monsters piling in from different directions, it’s a great opportunity for that controller type to hinder movement of some targets, giving the other party members time to engage one side first.
Creatures needing to close in – I usually like to mix in ranged attackers in most of my combats. I like to ramp up the threat so that folks not in hand-to-hand still need to worry some. However I lean towards making the melee monsters the more resilient types. And when rolling out creatures in waves, I make sure it’s those melee monsters needing a turn or so to move into the fight. It’s a means to allow the controller to do their stuff and hinder movement of creatures charging in. By tying up one or two targets the group can focus on other monsters first. The group plays smart and everyone has a chance to do something cool.
Traps and hazards that affect both foes and friends – Layering on a wall effect, or some area power hindering movement can add to it’s effectiveness if plopped down next to a few squares of hazardous terrain. Effectively you are adding another 2-3 squares of area under a wizard’s control effects. Give them a chance to do so. A small burst area with flanked by a spiked pit now provides a larger area that’s been locked down.
Sometimes it might lead to monsters preferring to chance a hazard over a spell effect. Does the goblin jump off an elevated platform risking a serious injury? Or do they sit by and let a flaming sphere roll over them? Likely they’ll take the 20’ jump and take their chances. Either way it’s a win/win for the controller.
Take a peek at the PC’s character sheet – Give a look over their powers. Think of some environment that would show off that power. Knowing the abilities of your players can allow you to occasionally craft some fights that allow these powers to be used effectively.
Not every fight has to utilize there tips, but I’d seriously consider giving at least one encounter in a typical delve a few of these characteristics if you’ve got a controller-type in your group. Controllers really need a few wrinkles in your typical encounter makeup to shine. So once in awhile, try to oblige and allow them to enjoy that choice they made playing the wizard.
Deep within the western forests was the famed city of Gymynda. Carved from the wilderness from pioneering humans, it established itself as a trading hub for the many tribes of the forest elves. A wary peace was struck long ago from the great elven chiefdom of Aldarianna Moonlight. Her wisdom and patience with the human settlement fostered a long relationship of mutual benefit and trade. At times relationships were strained, especially when some industrious humans of Gymynda struck out too deep within the territories claimed by elves, but her steadfast resolve for peace usually silenced any voices of violent reprisals.
Many claim it was her passing which sealed the fate of Gymynda. For many generations of cityfolk, the elven tribes were seen as good neighbors, even allies in times of need. However the Grand Chief Aldarianna Moonlight’s health began to wane from a mysterious illness. Despite the efforts of elven shaman and learned human healers of Gymynda, she slid further and further into a drifting malaise, as if her very life was being siphoned away. Within years she eventually succumbed and fell into a deep sleep and in days she had slipped from her mortal husk.
The death of their great leader was a time of long mourning within the elven tribes. The lead council of Gymynda also decreed a month of mourning among its citizens, but while the Grand Chief was respected, many of the folk within Gymynda did not hold the same reverence for her as those of her elven followers. Within a week mourning dress among the city dwellers began to lift and in short time life went back to normal. After all, many felt there was still coin to be made with trade, trapping, and farming, and some even felt it an ideal time to claim untapped ranges of forest for logging.
No one knows what caused the great growth. Some would claim it was a wicked curse brought about by elven shaman, to inflict their wrath on the humans that failed to show proper respect during the passing of their leader. Others say it was great magics wielded by the elven tribes to stifle the further expansion of Gymynda. Some state these elves knew with Grand Chief Moonlight now gone, the city would begin rampant expansion within their borders.
However a far more sinister tale is sometimes spoken. One of dark magics brought on by avarice from some within Gymynda, quite possibly a dark pact with demons to inflict a curse on Moonlight that would sap her very life force. A horrible spell with terrifying unseen repercussions.
For over a decade Gymynda prospered. The city grew and industry thrived. Great logging guilds reached deep within the thick woods. As the city developed, so did their men-at-arms and militia. The elven chiefdom broke apart as individual tribes had squabbled among themselves. Some sought peace, while many were willing to aid Gymynda in expanding into the lands of rival tribes if it meant keeping their holdings untouched. The wealth and affluence of the trading merchants and craftsmen guilds swelled within Gymynda. Gone were the days of hearty pioneers as opulent ways were adopted among the more wealthier citizens.
Then, on the sixth full moon of a new year, the cursed growth sprung up within Gymynda. Its citizens woke in horror to find buildings overgrown in thick vines. Young trees and grasses burst forth among cobbled stone streets. More terrifying was that some were found entombed in thick vines, suffocated and serving as a morbid bed of blood red flowers which covered their corpses. Efforts to hack away at the vines and trees were a herculean task. A man would go through several steel axe heads and only manage to make a paltry clearing. On the next morn they would find their efforts worthless, as new verdant growth would replace any cleared areas.
However all of these events paled to what soon followed. The denizens of Gymynda soon found themselves to be growing like the land around them. Patches of skin became covered in thick moss. Blood red flowers emerged from ears, eyes, and mouths. Bodies stiffened as their very limbs began to sprout tendrils of thick roots and vines.
Panicked people fled from Gymynda. Those that sought refuge with the elves were turned away or slain, the elves burning the bodies that remained with ritualized magics. The forest elves knew that dark primal magic was at play. Those that were afflicted could spread the sickness to others and they had to be held at bay through any means. Word of this spread to neighboring kingdoms, and when similar afflictions were seen among villagers that interacted with the stricken people of Gymynda, these lords also decreed to slay any that appeared from the forest.
A century later, some say the ruins of Gymynda can still be made out among the clinging wild of vines and trees. Some have claimed to have explored such ruins, but few can be believed. As to this day a shambling figure can occasionally be seen shuffling out of the forest edge towards neighboring villages, horrid creatures bent on engulfing large animals and man alike in tendrils of writhing vines.
Some village leaders adopt a proactive stance, encouraging adventurers to make expeditions within the deep forests and clear out any cursed beings that they may find. Some are even willing to pay coin for those that do. All the while, one can always manage to hear tales spoken after several pints in these village taverns. Tales of how sudden was the overgrowth that choked the life out Gymynda and its wealth would likely still be there, hidden under a carpet of moss and vines. All of it just waiting to be plucked up by those brave enough to enter within the cursed ruins.
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.