by Rob Heinsoo
We started a new 13th Age campaign a couple weeks ago with me in the GM-seat. Jonathan lobbied to start at 8th level. I turned down the petition, writing faux-earnest advice text as if lifting from some book that’s not quite 13A:
Although it’s not an evolutionary process, the metaphor of progress, of the capability to advance, is an important part of the F20-gaming experience. Players will try to shortchange themselves by wheedling to gain the benefits of that progress without having put in the work. The answer to the question, “Do we level up, GM?” is “Do you? Did you put in the work to become better, more capable people?”
Of course Jonathan’s response was that yes, the group had put in the work.
Have we leveled up? Have we earned it? I don’t think there’s a game group on the planet that more deserves to level up.
Paul Hughes’ answer was also funny. And half of it was printable:
That is a compelling argument. In fact, I think even at 1st level, I may be shortchanging myself too much. Can I start at negative 8th level? I don’t think I’d be a “player character” per se, just more like an evolutionary antecedent.
Yeah. Well. Fine.
It’s good to find out what type of experience the players are hoping for and run a game at that level. But in practice, we’re just now starting our first-ever 13th Age campaign that’s expressly not a playtesting campaign. I want to try playing all the way up. So I chose to ignore the votes for high level play. I can imagine doing a call-back to the worthy-to-level trope—surely at some point later this campaign, I’ll ask for an honest assessment of whether the player characters have done enough to earn a level.
Maybe I’ll do more than that. I’ve always taken the high volume of our play-group’s bantering desire to level up in the way the group intends me to take it: they’re partly serious but they also enjoy mocking me as a harsh GM who won’t give them the fun toys soon enough. Maybe it’s time to offer incentives. I have a sense of how long and how many good things it takes the party to level up. (I generally go a touch faster than the core book suggests in early levels, then stick to the book when the PCs have reached 3rd.)
So in this campaign I think I’ll mix things up a bit. I’m going to look for ways of telling the PCs that there are great things they can accomplish that will allow them to level up faster. Risky things, perhaps. Or in some cases, time pressure to finish battles in a short number of rounds so that they can prevent some off-stage atrocity.
Instead of keeping “Do we level up now?” as the post-session chorus, I need to set clear expectations, with occasional opportunities for truly heroic accomplishments that will forge true heroes.
Perhaps other GMs do this all the time. Happy to hear examples if that’s true. And I’ll mention some example of how this works out when we’ve engineered some!