To celebrate Friday the 13th Age, we invited the community of 13th Age GMs and players to send us their questions about the game. We chose 13 of them to answer! Our panel today includes:
Rob Heinsoo: 13th Age roleplaying game co-designer and line manager
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan: designer, Eyes of the Stone Thief, Book of Ages, Book of Demons, and much, much more
Simon Rogers: Pelgrane Press co-founder and 13th Age GM
Wade Rockett: co-author, 13th Age Game Master’s Screen and Resource Book; designer, Crown of Axis and Temple of the Sun Cabal
Let’s get to the questions!
1. If you were to remake 13th age today, what would you change or update compared to the original iteration?
Rob: We’d revise the icon relationship rules for clarity and simplicity and effect. I’d probably also provide a link to a resource page with other people’s methods of using icon relationships, since there are some fun alternatives.
I’d upgrade a significant number of the character class talents and powers and spells to make more of them worthwhile and interesting to a broader number of players.
We’d take Jonathan’s original advice and use something other than the word “Races,’ and then we’d provide more options for the various kinds of elves and dwarves and humans because what we originally called racial powers are really hero powers; not every high elf can teleport, not every human is quick to fight.
Other things too, but that’s three examples.
2. Any plans for other versions of the Ranger and Paladin class, much like the alternate Barbarian classes in the Glorantha book?
Rob: Is it too much of a tease to say “Yes” and leave it at that?
Wade: Yes, that would be cruel. Let’s not include this question in the article.
3. How does the staggered condition work with mook pools and/or individual mooks?
Rob: You can’t stagger mooks, either as a group or individually. Their hit points don’t work that way. I will clarify that in the FAQ.
4. How would you encourage or coach players to use icon benefits as story events, not just combat buffs? Or would you encourage me to get over it?
Gar: Set up one or two really obvious opportunities for the players to use an Icon benefit. Even stuff like, “This inn was established for important wizards on their way to the Archmage’s city at Horizon. There’s even an enchanted suite of rooms with, uh, a +2 hot tub and a bottomless minibar. But only friends of the Archmage can stay there.” Stare at player with that Archmage benefit.
Wade: Ha! I love that. “Judging by the overgrown shrines to various forest gods and the charms made from twigs and stones hanging from the doors, you can tell this village follows the Old Ways of the most ancient High Druids. Someone connected to the current High Druid could probably take advantage of that relationship in a pretty significant way here.” Staaaaare.
5. When designing one shots or convention games, how can you balance resource intensive classes (like, say, wizard) against more consistent classes (like the rogue). If running an entire full-heal-ups worth of content isn’t feasible due to the time constraints, how do you stop wizards dominating the show with endless dailies?
Wade: In my experience running 13th Age one-shots and convention games, resource-intensive classes don’t naturally dominate the session. The characters who dominate are the ones whose players actively look for opportunities to do interesting and effective things.
That said, when designing an adventure you do need to take into consideration the fact that some PCs are going to be fighting in melee, some will be sniping from cover, and others will be slinging powerful spells from afar. Make sure there are monsters that pose a direct challenge to resource-intensive PCs, so they have their hands full. Use terrain, hazards, and monster deployment to design battles where everyone has to make tactical choices instead of just fireball solving the problem. (The most basic way to do that is to deploy monsters in waves and have them approach from different directions.)
Finally, always remember that a wizard can use sleep to take out ALL of your mooks with one shot. Plan your battle accordingly.
Simon: I’ve not noticed this to be a problem. It depends to some extent on the experience of players. With newcomers, it really doesn’t matter—they barely notice. For more experienced players, provide sufficiently challenging battles—double strength or more—so that the daily power users are encouraged to blow through them by the last battle. You can tweak the pregens so that the daily powers are still useful and interesting, but aren’t necessarily Evoked Force Salvo.
Gar: Dropping the recoveries is more about giving the impression of danger than anything else. The PCs are still unlikely to get killed by attrition (as opposed to an unexpected crit). You want to have that thrill of danger. Taking away cool dailies, though, doesn’t give a thrill – quite the opposite. So, be a bit more subtle—if you’ve got, say, four fights in your one-shot, make sure that the wizard has only one or two really awesome fight-ending dailies, and fill up the other slots with other spells.
For simplicity’s sake, calibrate your one-shot to last about as long as the gap between full heal-ups, so 4-ish fights, or 3 small fights and one really tough one, or 2 small fights, 1 really tough one, and a bunch of stuff that depletes the PCs’ resources.
6. Have there been any pitches for books or scenarios that were too “out there” for 13th Age?
Rob: Yes. But talking about them is kind of unfair to pitchers who already had their ideas turned down, so I’m not going to give juicy examples.
I can say something about another reason that many pitches are turned down. We frequently get pitches that have little to do with 13th Age or the Dragon Empire as they are currently published. It’s great for a GM/home campaign to design their own version of the 14th Age, or to work out all the details of the lands and oceans beyond the four sides of the map. But when writers pitch that as a product, it indicates that they aren’t comfortable working with the half-designed Dragon Empire. They wanna do their own thing, creating details about their own lands and ages and icons.
Wait, I just realized I can talk about one out-there pitch. I REALLY wanted to do the rock-and-roll campaign where the PCs are traveling musicians competing against other bands. But it veered too far from how the game is normally played to be something that fit into the books we publish. (At least that’s how we’re looking at it for now.) Good news: the author, Ben Feehan, has chapters in Drakkenhall and in the Behemoths book.
Wade: I once pitched a 13th Age product that would be in the spirit of old D&D modules like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and would foreground the game’s offhand mentions of potentially science fictional elements. (A mountain called Starport, references to portals leading to other universes, etc.) If I remember correctly, Rob and Pelgrane decided that devoting an entire book or adventure to this take on the Dragon Empire would change the flavor of the setting too much. Later, Gar handled this approach brilliantly with the Age of the Blazing Meteor in Book of Ages.
7. How can I convert D&D adventures to 13th Age?
Wade: Ken Hite wrote a guide for doing that here: https://pelgranepress.com/2019/12/24/call-of-chicago-the-helm-of-dungeon-switching/
ASH LAW wrote a guide for converting 4e monsters here: https://pelgranepress.com/2014/03/14/how-to-convert-4e-monsters-to-13th-age-by-ash-law/
My short answer: instead of relying on a mathematical formula to port it over, think about what makes the adventure cool and fun. Then recreate it in a way that takes advantage of what 13th Age is good at: collaborative worldbuilding, improvisation, customization via icon relationships, backgrounds, and Uniques, and having random dice results trigger something that forces the players to make interesting choices. It takes more work than a straight conversion, but the experience will be better for it.
8. A natural 1 on an attack has, RAW, “No effect on the target.” Can it still trigger effects not on the target, like a buff to allies or to yourself, or the 2nd attack of the Shifter Druid’s beast form attack?
Rob: I’m amused. I’ve had this come up many times and have always improvised the answer that feels appropriate for the situation, without realizing that it was an actual rules question that needed to be answered.
Reading the rules on Fumbles on page 167, my current answer is that as a rule, it’s the piece of the attack that’s directed against the target that misses entirely and has no effect. If there are other things going on, like a shifter druid’s beast form attack that gets another attack when there’s a miss, sure, those effects that aren’t on the target should probably usually happen.
Another example would be the spirits of the righteous spell on page 98. If you miss with it, it’s supposed to give an AC bonus to the nearby ally with the fewest hit points. I’d let that happen. There won’t be any effect on the enemy that was the target, but the ally gets +2 AC.
(This might be a place where Jonathan would write a sidebar saying ‘NO EFFECT ON A 1, GEEZ STOP BEING SOFT ON PLAYERS’.)
Of course, given that it’s a fumble, my tolerant attitude doesn’t preclude the GM saying that there’s still some embarrassing consequence of fumbling with the natural 1.
9. Any ideas or recommendations for more streamlined multiclassing rules?
Wade: See the customization advice on page 75 of the core book, which is about mixing and matching talents from other classes. That, plus backgrounds and Uniques, gives you a pretty good toolkit for quickly and simply putting two or more classes together to make a unique character. Want a grim, brooding paladin with a vulture animal companion and limited access to sorcery? Trade some paladin stuff for Animal Companion, a couple of spells, and ritual casting. Boom.
10. How would you run a session zero for 13th Age?
Gar: Cough Book of Ages cough
Simon: I wrote articles about it:
Another approach for session zero which suits a more improvised campaign is to do character generation together first. Then use the backgrounds and unique things to ask further questions about the players goals and adjust the setting. For example:
- Tell me one thing about [your race] most people don’t know.
- Tell me more about
- Tell me about a time you beat a foe against great odds, or just escaped with your life..
Dig down a little into their OUT and one icon relationship of their choice.
As always, if players don’t want to or can’t come up with stuff—that’s fine. You can fill in.
Finally, decide why they are getting together. Give them some choices, or just allow them to come up with the whole thing.
Then I’d run a montage for each character reaching the location where they are to meet. End with an establishing scene where the party get together and run a simple combat. For this, I use a suitable Battle Scenes adventure which I tweak to reflect what we’d decided. From this session, I can plan the next session.
11. When running one shots or convention games, how can you modify icon rolls to be as meaningful as they are in a longer game? I often give people a 6 with one icon of their choice instead of having them roll. In long campaigns my players are happy investing in relationships with NPCs, cultivating their public images, learning and creating lore about the world etc. But in one shots they tend to find this harder, and resort to using icons as combat chips that they can turn in for buffs.
Wade: This is indeed the challenge of running one-shots and convention games! Honestly, under those circumstances I consider it a win if they use icon advantages at all; but when I’m GMing I emphasize to the players that using icon advantages is a big, game-bending deal, and I ask them to think bigger than just adding a +1 to an attack roll. Let’s say the party is exploring a cursed forest, and the ranger wants to use their icon advantage with the High Druid to add a bonus to an attack. I might counter with a reminder that invoking the High Druid in a forest might be the most powerful single action they can take in the game, and ask them to aim higher than an attack bonus. Working with them (yes-and, no-but) we could end up with the ranger compelling a powerful enemy to negotiate rather than fight, or weakening the curse in a way that significantly changes the adventure. Asking this much creative work from players who aren’t familiar with this kind of play can be hard, but the reward is almost always worth it.
I like your idea of giving each player an icon advantage with the icon of their choice, and I would probably also have them roll for the other two (if they have more than one icon relationship). I personally give players an icon advantage on a roll of 5 or 6. When they use the advantage, they roll a d20 and a result of 1-5 triggers a complication.
Simon: Literally give them some concrete examples of stuff they can do with their icon tokens and prompt them for icon use wherever it might be fun until they get the hang of it. Giving them a free icon token and rolling for the rest is a great idea.
Gar: Not all Icon benefits are equal. Sometimes, a player cashes in a benefit at the right moment and gets to shape the whole future of the campaign. Sometimes, they get a free drink at the Dwarf King Bar and Grill—and that’s fine. It evens out over the whole campaign.
In a one-shot—honestly, just using everyone’s icon relationships is an accomplishment. You’ve got a limited amount of time and a lot of stuff to do, so don’t sweat making the benefits of equal value or pushing uninspired players away from easy solutions like combat buffs.
12. Do you think Gumshoe investigation mechanics can easily be added to 13th Age?
Wade: I tried to do that in Crown of Axis, and found it a struggle. Eventually I decided that rather than shoehorn in mechanics from another system, I’d identify an existing 13th Age mechanic that works well and find a way to use it that achieves the same goal GUMSHOE does. My solution was the investigative montage.
Simon: It depends how full GUMSHOE you want to go. The simplest case is that background rolls for information always get you what you need to move forward. There is then an incentive to have more backgrounds rather than always specialize. I’d add that you can also use your class and race as backgrounds for this purpose. They could use icon tokens to generate a natural 20 on investigative checks.
You could do the full Lorefinder and do a hybrid system with a range of investigative abilities plus the class and race ones, and assign points to them.
13. In retrospect and from player feedback and online tales, did the Icon relation/dice mechanics work out as intended in the eyes of the designers?
Rob: As intended? Not precisely. I suspect we had an inkling of that when we wrote the sidebar on page 179 of the 13th Age core rulebook. The good news is that everyone knows that the icons matter, and that the PCs are involved with them from the first session of first level. But I’ve seen a great many tables playing very fun games using different interpretations of the rules. That’s a clear sign that the rules as written didn’t work as intended. Another clear sign: Jonathan and I don’t use the icon rules as written anymore in our own games. So yeah, we owe the world some revisions!
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.