What I Learned About 13th Age by Playing With Rob Heinsoo

Although I’ve been helping publicize 13th Age almost since the first playtest was announced, it wasn’t until PAX that I got to experience the game as a player rather than a GM. I was fortunate enough to have Rob Heinsoo as GM, and the experience opened my eyes about why 13th Age is the game that it is, and how it was designed to be run.

My default approach to 13th Age used to be that it was another dungeon-crawling, orc-hitting fantasy roleplaying game—a very good one, but fundamentally designed to be run the same way I’d run other fantasy RPGs. So I was astonished and frankly doubtful when I saw the demo that Rob had prepared for PAX. There was no map, no story, no goal, no NPCs. It included guidelines for improvisation using the 13th Age rules for backgrounds, icon relationships and One Unique Things. It had some magic items that the players might or might not receive at the beginning (!) of the adventure, and several groups of thematically-linked monsters the players might encounter. The GMs were given license to throw all that out the window if they deemed it appropriate. Literally, no two demos of 13th Age would be anything alike.

As Rob ran our adventure, I saw how this worked. After we chose pre-generated character sheets with significant areas left blank, Rob asked us to spend our points for backgrounds and icon relationships. He then had us pick our One Unique Things. In every case, he pushed us to flesh them out more, and told us how he as a GM would take advantage of the opportunities they presented to make life interesting for our characters in a campaign.

My elf wizard Ramadel’s backgrounds indicated that he’d been trained as an assassin for the High Druid. He escaped her service only to become a galley slave on the Midland Sea. A shipwreck left him a prisoner of the Lich King, and after escaping that fate, he made his way to Axis and settled into a job in the Imperial bureaucracy. Rob dubbed him “Ramadel, Slave to Many.”

Ramadel’s One Unique Thing was that he was invisible to the Archmage. Rob informed me that this would make me a person of great interest to every icon, particularly the High Druid and the Archmage himself. It was a powerful One Unique Thing, and I learned that 13th Age GM deals with powerful One Unique Things is to give it equally daunting consequences. If we were playing in a campaign, Rob would make sure that there were agents of the empire’s greatest wizard and its greatest druid hunting for me at all times.

Once our characters were done, Rob asked us to make our icon relationship rolls to see which of the icons would be involved with this short scenario. This is not typically how a GM uses the icon relationship rules, but I immediately saw its usefulness in creating adventures on the fly. Once he saw the results of the rolls, Rob was able to determine that the most likely setting for the adventure was the Wild Wood, that Ramadel was on a mission transporting a powerful magic item (to be determined later) that the Emperor wanted kept secret from the Archmage, and that as we sought to deliver the item to its destination we would face monsters associated with the Three.

He also asked, “Who wants to be a traitor in this adventure?” After a pause, one player raised his hand with a big grin.

Another thing that struck me powerfully about the demo was the degree to which Rob negotiated with the players to move the story in interesting directions—not by railroading them, but by making them aware of the possibilities open to them. When we killed the giant lizardman who led the band of monsters sent by the Three, he turned to player Chris Pramas and said, “Their leader is now dead, leaving a vacuum in their ranks. As someone who has a relationship with the Three, you can communicate with them. You could try and tell them to turn around and flee. Or, you could try and become their leader, and turn on the party.”

Later, when it looked as if we might lose the battle, Rob turned to me and asked if I would be willing to give up the magic item I’d been entrusted with in exchange for my life. I gave it careful consideration before saying no, and mentally dubbed Rob’s style the “Mephistophelean School” of game mastery.

The climax of the adventure was when it all came together, though. Faced with what looked like defeat, I turned to Rob and pointed out that I’d rolled a 5 on my icon relationship roll for the Lich King. That meant he was somehow involved, but with unexpected consequences, and so far he hadn’t turned up at all. I proposed that the Emperor chose Ramadel to transport this magic item for two reasons. The first we already knew: Ramadel was invisible to the Archmage. But the second reason had to do with the nature of the magic item: it was a powerful artifact from the dungeons of the Lich King that could raise the dead as zombie servants. Ramadel, having spent years as the Lich King’s prisoner, would be familiar with how to properly deal with such things.

I said that if Rob bought into that idea, I would like to have Ramadel break his sacred trust and use that item to raise our slain enemies as zombie warriors and save the party.

Rob agreed, but he said the power would come at a price. (There’s that Faustian bargain again.) The complication was this: by wielding the necromantic magic that was the domain of my former captor the Lich King, I became his servant. My relationship with the lord of the undead immediately went from negative to conflicted. After I raised my zombie minions and they began tearing into our foes, our party’s traitor—who was now starting to look like the good guy in this scenario—smashed the artifact. Ramadel had failed his mission and was now a thrall of the dark side with a small army of zombie monsters following him around, slowly rotting away. (This makes him one of two one-shot RPG characters I would love to play again, and I only spent two hours with him.)

None of this happened because Rob had planned it out beforehand. He used 13th Age’s storytelling rules to equip his players with the tools they needed to create compelling twists and turns in the moment.

When I go back to running 13th Age, the first thing I’m going to do is revisit my player’s character backgrounds and One Unique Things, challenging them to build them out in compelling ways that provide rich story hooks. And then I’m going to take the adventure out of my head and put it on the table where we can all have at it. That, I now believe, is the 13th Age way.

Order 13th Age.

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