In the 13th Age Facebook group, a new GM asked for good examples of PC backgrounds. I offered some, but couldn’t help also giving advice on what makes a good background. (It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.) I said that a good background doesn’t just outline your character’s backstory in three or four brief sentences, and provide a bonus you can add to a wide variety of checks—a good background also gives the GM story hooks for an adventure or even an entire campaign.
For this column, I’m going to take an example of a good PC background, and talk about how I’d turn it into an adventure! The background is, “Former sailor on the Imperial frigate Intrepid, which was sunk in battle against the Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet under the command of the lich admiral Vertinor (+4)”.
Before we dive in (ha!) I want to mention that If any part of the background conflicted with a non-negotiable element of my campaign, it would be completely reasonable for me to ask the player to change that detail. For example, if it were important to me that my version of the Dragon Empire strongly resembled ancient Carthage, I would ask the player to change it to something like “the warship Adherbal“.
Breaking Down the Background
I’ll put on my (nautical) GM hat and think about the elements of this background.
The Imperial navy. The game tells us that the Dragon Empire has a navy, but its presence in a PC’s background brings it—and the theme of seafaring adventure—to my table. I can have the heroes explore the Midland Sea, search for sunken or buried treasure, hunt a traitor in the navy’s upper ranks, fight sea battles, battle sea monsters, and more.
The frigate Intrepid.Wikipedia tells me that a frigate is “a lighter galley-type warship with oars, sails and a light armament, built for speed and maneuverability” that originated in the late Middle Ages. This tells me something about the composition of the navy, and the technology level of sailing vessels (and maybe other things) in my campaign world. To help bring the world to life, I can research what other kinds of ships were used in fleets of that era and include them in the game. It also gives me a template for the kinds of names those ships might have.
Sunk in battle. This background cites a specific naval battle that occurred in the past, where the Emperor’s navy was one of the combatants. I ask the player how long ago this happened, and how large the battle was. She says it was a major sea battle that happened about ten years ago. Both sides had heavy casualties, but the Emperor managed to prevail with the help of air support from the dragons of Axis. There’s also a specific sunken wreck somewhere at the bottom of the Midland Sea. Did something valuable go down with it? What monsters might inhabit the wreck? What are the Intrepid‘s survivors up to these days?
The Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet. Okay, so the Lich King has a navy of his own! This is a big change from how he’s presented in the core book: the book describes the island of Necropolis as “dormant” thanks to rituals performed at tombs on the island’s outer ring by the Gravekeepers of the Empire, and it says if those rituals aren’t performed, “the undead swarm through the ocean and emerge onto land all around the Midland Sea.” Giving the Lich King actual ships puts him more on a level with the Emperor as an earthly ruler to be reckoned with. It also raises the possibility of ships crewed by the undead occasionally putting in at Shadowport.
The lich admiral Vertinor. This is fantastic! I now have a villain who one of the PCs hates. He—or his minions—could be recurring foes, showing up anywhere on the coasts of the Midland Sea. Are you headed to the island of Omen in search of an artifact? One of Vertinor’s ships is right behind you—or maybe they got there first. Negotiating a peace treaty with the sahuagin? Vertinor shows up on behalf of the Lich King to offer them a better deal.
I think I want Vertinor to stick around for a while, so I’m going to make him a high-tier monster using the stats for the Lich Count in the 13th Age Bestiary. If the heroes manage to kill him, their next and final target might be the Lich King himself!
The Lich Admiral Vertinor
Double strength 8th level spoiler (undead)
Touch of the grave +13 vs. AC—50 cold damage, and the target is dazed (hard save ends, 16+)
Natural even hit: The target is weakened instead of dazed (hard save ends, 16+)
Miss: 25 cold damage.
R: Shadow rays +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—35 negative energy damage
Natural 16+: The target is encased in shadows (save ends). While under the effect, it’s weakened and takes 10 ongoing cold damage.
R: Empowered fireball +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—35 fire damage, and 10 ongoing fire damage
Natural even hit: The target takes 20 ongoing fire damage instead of 10.
Miss: 15 fire damage, and 5 ongoing fire damage.
Limited use: 2/battle.
C: Look upon your doom +13 vs. MD (up to 3 nearby enemies)—Vertinor gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle
Fear aura: While engaged with this creature, if the target has 48 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.
Thank you for the best ten years of your life: When Vertinor scores a critical hit, the target loses a death save until the end of the battle (effectively, it now dies after failing three death saves, and the effect is cumulative). In addition, the crit range of attacks by Vertinor against the target expands by the escalation die and he heals 40 hit points.
Immortality: When Vertinor drops to 0 hit points, his lifeless body turns to seawater but he does not die. He begins to reform near the item that contains his soul—a blue gemstone set in a silver necklace—taking a number of days to regain its full strength equal to his level. If the gemstone has been destroyed, Vertinor dies when he drops to 0 hit points.
Let’s Make an Adventure!
I have all the elements of a fun adventure that’s powerfully relevant to one of the PCs; now it’s just a matter of assembling them. Let’s see…a sunken ship connected to the Emperor implies sunken treasure that includes a true magic item connected to the Emperor. Looking at Loot Harder, I think the melee weapon of Imperial Might fits well—let’s make it the Sea Axe of Imperial Might, a weapon wielded by the Intrepid’s captain. A search for sunken treasure suggests fights with various sea-themed monsters, so I’ll go through the books and build appropriate battles. A recurring villain with a connection to the wreck adds urgency and variety if he’s also after the treasure. The villain is undead, which means his minions probably don’t have to breathe, so they can just walk around on the seafloor.
Here are three possible approaches to an adventure based on this one background:
Wreck of the Intrepid: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with a dagger in his back that bears the symbol of the Lich King. In his dying moments he gives the PC a map of the Midland Sea that shows the location of the Intrepid. “He’s after the Sea Axe,” he wheezes before passing away. The GM tells the player what her character knows about the Axe, including that it was a symbol of the Intrepid’s honor, to be kept out of enemy hands at all cost. “He” can only refer to Vertinor. The adventure is a race to get to the Intrepid first, with challenges that include figuring out how to reach the ship, an underwater hazard montage (see Book of the Underworld for hazard montages), and battles with gigantic sea creatures and the undead.
Skulls of Shadowport: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that a group of treasure hunters has located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. The Sea Axe is now in Shadowport, and it already has a buyer—Vertinor is on his way there in the Revenant to purchase it as a trophy of his victory over the Intrepid. The PCs must get to Shadowport and prevent it from falling into the hands of the hated lich admiral! The adventure is a city scenario with challenges that include an investigative montage to learn who has the Sea Axe and where it is (see Crown of Axis for investigative montages), navigating the city’s criminal underworld, and battles with thieves, smugglers, pirates, and the undead—plus other monsters that lurk in Shadowport’s dark alleys and docks.
Reclaim the Sea Axe: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that Vertinor’s minions located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. It now hangs on the lich admiral’s wall as a trophy of his victory. This adventure is a heist caper where the PCs must devise a plan to get the Sea Axe back: either steal it from the lich admiral’s cabin aboard the Revenant, steal it from his manse on Necropolis, or steal it when the lich admiral is traveling, away from the usual protections provided by his ship or Necropolis. Be ready to work up battles and hazards appropriate to the plan! (See this column on how to quickly and easily adapt a monster to a different location or role.)
I could also run this as a series of three adventures, with the Sea Axe continually being snatched from the heroes’ grasp at the last moment until they finally seize it for themselves. Their eventual triumph will be that much sweeter for the delay!
“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.
13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.