One-Shot Unique Things

The redoubtable Tim Baker asks over at the Piazza forum for some tips and tricks for integrating One Unique Things into convention games. One of the delights of running 13th Age is the high-wire act of taking the players’, ah, interesting ideas and working them into your scenario, so here’s how I do it. Before we get into actually using One Unique Things, though, let’s look at introducing the concept to new players.
  • At a con, my usual spiel runs something like this: All 13th Age Player Characters have One Unique Thing – something distinctive that’s true about that character and only that character. It’s usually not something that affects combat, but it can be anything else. Examples might be “I’m the Tallest Dwarf in the world” or “I’m the child of the demon king” or “I’m destined to slay the Emperor” or “I’m the best baker in the land” – any thing that makes your character, well, unique.
  • I introduce the concept along with Icon Relationships and Backgrounds, and generally do Icon Relationships and Backgrounds first, to give players a chance to think about their OUTs.
  • Then I ask if any of the players have ideas for One Unique Things. Usually, at least one or two players has some sort of suggestion. I (very briefly) workshop them with the players. I might ask the player how their OUT manifests play, or what the restrictions are on it. Sometimes, the OUT suggests very strange things about the universe (I’m the only wizard) and I’ll discuss that with the group. Often, the challenge is making the OUT more relevant to the game at hand – I try to steer players towards stuff that will come up in play.
  • Then I go around the table to the remaining players. Usually, most players have gotten the idea and can come up with a concept. Some players do go blank when confronted with something as open-ended as an OUT; for them, I keep a list of suggestions. I try to suggest a few that’ll be really handy in the adventure I’m running.
Once everyone has their OUTs, I write them down and consider the following:

1. Remember Your Priorities

First, It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the stress of juggling six wildly different One Unique Things (OUTs) henceforth, or to go down a rabbit hole chasing one particularly weird OUT (“how do I integrate I’m the only dwarf who can navigate the Tunnel of Fire that connects Forge to the Underworld into my small-scale scenario about sheep stealing in Newport?”). Remember that your goal when running a 13th Age one-shot is to have fun – and OUTs are supposed to be part of the fun, not an obstacle.
Second, keep your adventure in mind. If a player comes up with something that’s going to blow up your planned plot completely (“I can talk to the dead at will” in a murder mystery, then either encourage the player to come up with something else, or put enough limitations on the power that it won’t cause havoc. Abilities that play into your adventures are great; abilities that steamroll every obstacle aren’t.
Third, in a one-shot, all you need to do is acknowledge the One Unique Thing. It needs to show up as part of the game at some point – you want to recognise the player’s creative contribution – but that doesn’t mean it needs to be absolutely pivotal to the story. A quick encounter or obstacle that plays off the OUT, or even just a jokey aside, works perfectly well. All you need to do is include the player’s idea at some point, in some way.
Not all OUTs will get the same amount of attention in a one-shot (or a regular game session, for that matter). Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and a One Unique Thing will fit so perfectly (“your OUT is ‘I’m a secret weresheep’ and the scenario is about sheep-stealing? Awesome!”) that it’s easy to work it in to every scene. Others you may only be able to work in once at most. That’s fine, as long as each player gets a nod.
Rarely, a player manages to come up with such an outré OUT that you just can’t fit in (or the scene you planned to spotlight that OUT goes in an unexpected direction). In such a case, just make sure you give that player a different spotlight moment, keyed off their class abilities or backgrounds or icon relationships.

2. Categorise the One Unique Things

Here’s how I mentally categorise One Unique Things as the players come up with them.
  • There are always-active OUTs, which usually give the character an unusual descriptive trait or ability (I’m made of living crystal!). These are the easiest to deal with – they’re obvious to on-lookers, and I can work them in whenever opportunity arises. I can have an NPC say “my word! You’re made of living crystal”. I might say “ah, there’s a fight with a medusa later on – and this character will be immune to her flesh-to-stone attacks. I’ll make a note to fudge the dice rolls so that the character definitely gets hit by that attack so they can show off their immunity”.
  • Then there are conditional OUTs, which require some external factor, some trigger.. “I can talk to sheep” means there needs be a sheep around to talk to.  “I can see magic” means there needs to be some magic around to see. “I never lose a card game” requires a card game. Conditional OUTs can be easy or hard. It’s easy to include magic in a 13th Age adventure; a sheep might a bit harder. Something like “I’m the secret half-human child of the Giant-King of the Frost Mountains, and it’s prophesied that I shall slay my father” is even harder to work in, especially if the scenario has nothing to do with giants, mountains or patricide.
Always-active OUTs don’t require me to adapt the adventure. Conditional ones do.
These categories aren’t hard-and-fast – they’re just mental buckets for that particular adventure and that set of characters. For example, if my scenario is an urban intrigue adventure set in Axis, then the OUT “I’m the daughter of the richest duke in the land” is basically an always-active one, as it’ll come up a lot and I just need to pick the right time to highlight it. In a scenario that’s just a dungeon crawl far from civilisation, then that same OUT is going to be a lot harder to use.

3. Do A Quick Mental Run-Through

Next step – run through the scenario in my head and look for easy wins: places where I can trivially adapt the scenario to work in a One Unique Thing. This might involve:
  • Changing the location of a scene (instead of meeting at an inn, the characters meet at a crossroads near a sheep farm – and it’s the wise old sheep in the corner of the field who tells them about the dungeon)
  • Changing a monster or hazard (ok, one character grew up in the swamp of Fangs – so I’ll change the haunted forest around the dungeon to a haunted swamp, and let that character auto-pass the skill check to overcome that obstacle)
  • Spotting a place to add a new hazard or short scene that can showcase an OUT. (“Instead of fighting the guards at the bandit lair, maybe they’re playing cards and that ‘I never lose at cards’ OUT can come into play there.”)
  • Making a note to work a One Unique Thing into a particular scene (In the fight with the wizard and the crystals, instead of the magic being visible, only tell the player with the ‘I see magic OUT’ that the wizard is drawing power from the crystals and let her tell the others)
Don’t delay the game to do this – you’re looking for obvious, easy wins here. Usually, I manage to check off two or three OUTs by mentally running through my planned scenes and spotting places I can use them, and another two or three will be always-active OUTs. The remaining troublesome ones become a problem I’ll think about as I run the game.
The other thing to do while running this mental checklist is to look for scenario-breaking OUTs. If the scenario hook is “you’re all desperately penniless and need quick money”, then the OUT “I’m the daughter of the richest duke in the land” will break the game unless you deal with it. Usually, it’s easy to ‘yes-but’ problems away (“yes, you’re rich – but you’ve got gambling debts, and your father hates gambling. You’ve got to pay off this debt without drawing on family funds”), or you can ask the player to explain the problem away (“yes, you’re rich, you don’t need the money – but there’s a secret reason you’re going on this quest. You tell me what it is.”)

4. Keep the remaining OUTs in Mind

As I said, when running a one-shot game, I keep a list of the characters’ OUTs in front of me (along with icon relationships and background) and tick them off as they get spotlighted. Later in the game, especially if the time left in the slot is running out, you can drop in more absurd co-incidences and connections out of the blue to cover any unused OUTS – if players have less time to pick at the logic of the game, you can throw in wilder stuff…
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