13th Age Musings: Of Templates, Uniqueness and Adventure Hooks

LichKing

Those who follow my Twitter antics may have noticed I was bitten hard by the Pelgrane Press 13th Age bug.

If you haven’t heard about this game yet, it is a high fantasy RPG based on simplified D&D 3.5 SRD and D&D 4e mechanics as well as solid roleplaying mechanics inspired by some smaller press games.

I don’t want to derail this post by breaking down into a list of what the game brings to the d20 experience, I’d encourage you to read Mike Shea’s review here.

What I do want to talk about is how much the game talks to me as both a GM and a game designer. As I prepare our upcoming campaign, I find my creative attention pulled in two different directions. On one hand, I’m excited about creating stories, plots, and themes needed to establish the best possible campaign. I know the game provides me with some solid tools to do just that.  On the other hand, I want to fiddle with the very same tools to make them even more useful.

While discussing with Dave, I was struck with a new way to combine some of the story tools of 13th Age with elements from other RPGs and blogposts in such a way as to provide solid, engaging story hooks, plots and themes for players to wonder about.

The Foundation Blocks of the Hack

Before I dive into the jargon, here’s some background and context.

The game’s implied setting, which leaves huge undefined holes for the GM to fill in, rests on a millennial empire on the brink of upheaval. The Dragon Empire features a dozen, unnamed and unstated “movers and shakers” called Icons. For example, there’s the  Emperor, the Archmage, the Orc Lord, the High Druid, The Three (Evil Dragons), The Diabolist, etc. Each are provided with an outlook about the current Age, possible Agendas that may shake the world’s balance and how characters may interact with their minions. In turn, players pick one, two or even three of those icons to establish relationships with. Such relationships then have impact on who’s behind various factions and plots from one adventure to the next.

That leads to adventures where the GM gets surprised as much as the players about where things go and who may be behind this or that event.

Secondly, all 13th Age PCs rest on one core, non mechanical concept: The “One Unique Thing” (OUT). It’s a short sentence that a player comes up with that defines what his or her character is all about. It can be about its origin, background, outlook or special role it is supposed to play in the world. Since it doesn’t comes with any special mechanical advantages (baring some DM-approved exceptions), it mostly serves as a very strong campaign plot hook for the GM.

For instance, here are some of my player’s OUTs:

  • Tiefling Bard: Born of the Diabolist, stolen at birth by the Prince of Shadows, and left at the door of the Priestess orphanage.
  • Half-Elf Fighter: Killed while in the service of the Crusader, only to become an Undead warrior of the Lich King and raised by the Blue (Dragon) of The Three.
  • Half-Orc Paladin: The youngest daughter of the Emperor was murdered. I was unable to save her. She died in my arms.
  • High Elf Sorcerer: Sentient magical guardian of the Prince of Shadows’ treasure hoard, given physical form.

As we created the characters, I realized that some players may have a hard time coming up with flavourful One Unique Things that will be fun and useful.

While riffing with Dave in chat, I stumbled on a way to both help players come up with their OUT and help GMs create adventures and campaign plots with them.

The One Unique Thing Template

Borrowing from Luke Crane and Jared Sorenson’s FreeMarket RPG, I thought about getting all players to template their OUTs like such:

  • Write your OUT as a one sentence declaration.
  • Include at least 3 of the following elements in your OUT (you can pick the same element more than once)
    • An Icon
    • A Place (on the map or one you make up)
    • A Person (other than an Icon)
    • An Item
    • A Time (from way back when, the recent past, the present or the future)
    • An Organization (established or made up on the spot)

Thus you can combine them to create things like what my players did:

  • I was born in the High Druid‘s (Icon) most Scared Grove (Place) during the last double lunar eclipse (Time). My destiny will unfold on at the apex of the next one (Time).
  • I was granted the Sword of Sorrows (Item) by the skeletal hand of my undead father (Person) when our village’s cemetery saw minions of the Lich King (Icon) arise from it.
  • I will be instrumental in the Turning of the Age (Time) when my birthright, The Sword of the Overqueen (Item), will be revealed at the Spire of Infinity (Place).

And so on.

Uniqueness Breeds Unique Plots

Now I could stop here. I think it’s a useful enough hack to make the OUT easier to come with.

But it gets better.

In FreeMarket, a similar template is used to create sets of  memories for each character. The memories serve many purposes in the game, one of them being a tool for the GM to seed the campaign with weird, enticing plot hooks and leads. To do so, the GM does not use each memory as straight plot hooks. Rather,  he or she mixes and matches them to create new statements.

Well, you can totally do so with the characters’ One Unique Things. For instance…

The Spire of Ininity, a living dungeon, broke through in the Sacred Grove, corrupting it. The dungeon can only be slain by the Sword of Sorrows… (bonus) which may turn into the Sword of the Overqueen after the deed.

Boom, near instant campaign plan…

Pushing It to the Next Level: Memories, Unique Things, and Prophecy

While useful in itself, creating new, exciting and mysterious plots out of the characters’ One Unique Things is limited by the scarceness of the material to work with. At best, you’ll have 3-7 OUTs to pick and choose from that will inspire you instantly. But maybe all you’ll get is a few, widely disparate sentences that you can’t work with. Having more, regardless of the number of players, would increase your chance of providing inspiring material for the campaign.

Once again borrowing from FreeMarket, where each character has 3 memories to create, you could ask each player to come up with three different statements using the template. Ask for one of each of:

  • A Unique Thing
  • A memory from the recent or distant past
  • A Prophecy-like fragment (a full sentence)

For example:

  • I’m the first Blood Sorcerer of the Green (dragon) to appear since it’s disappearance. (Organization, Icon (tangential), Time)
  • When last I visited Drakenhall, I was ambushed by Kobolds of the Red Claw Clan. I woke up, scared all over my body, in a ruined Shrine of the Golden Wyrm. (Places, Organization, Icon)
  • I will be the harbinger of the War that will see the birth of the Next Five Great Dragons. (Event (I’m cheating a bit here), (Future) Icon)

(Yeah, you could add “Event” to the Template)

It’s more work for the players, but if you make a character generation session, you can all work together to create them at the same time. The GM collects them all to create a bank of statements that can be mixed and matched freely to create adventure hooks.

A very enterprising GM could even mix and match them to create five different plotlines and lay the groundwork for a full 5X5 campaign!

Now wouldn’t that be something?

Stuff to Think About: Backgrounds

As Dave and I discussed these hacks, Dave suggested that the template could also serve as player inspiration for backgrounds. You could combining 2 or more elements of the template to create unique, evocative backgrounds like:

  • Former Sheriff of the human settlement of Dagger’s Pass. (Time, Place)
  • Blessed Soprano of the Priestess Angelic Choir at the Cathedral (Icon, Organization, Place)
  • Staff Sargent of the Crusader’s Hell Raisers (Icon, Organization)

Of course you could (and should) combine those to your mix and matching to create plotlines.

Don’t forget that while all these hacks are there to help players create their unique things and background and you to create your plotlines, they do intersect at one very interesting point. By picking plot ideas directly from players-generated elements, you directly acknowledge their interests and will unfailingly cater to them. When they see some of their unique Things and background pop up in the campaign’s story, they’ll be excited and more likely to invest themselves into the story. And if you manage to mix and match elements from more than one player in ways they can’t fathom, you’ll have a whole table working out trying to figure them out.

I’ll try this system with my friends this week and see how it helps. I’ll keep you posted as I’d like to start writing my campaign journal again.

Bonus Content: Help Me Out

So I had a flash for an adventure setting for the campaign’s 1st Act. The name came to me as I was doing free association last night, trying to go to sleep.

While doing further free association, and urged by my friend Sersa from SVD Press, I came up with the following concept:

Skullforge Keep: A flying fortress on a geolithe. A forgotten remnant of the Great War that brought the Lich King down.

My thoughts is to have this location a recurring one. Maybe have the PCs visit it two or three times during the campaign.

  • First visit to recover something or someone from it at 1st level.
  • Champion Level: Confront a faction using it to bring doom and destruction on part of the world the PCs care about.
  • Epic Level: Bring it down or conquer it.

I’m open to ideas about it, what it could contain or how it could feature as a dynamic part of the world.

Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. Recurring places or character is something we don’t use enough. Your idea is a very good one. Thing is, the second time you’ll bring to PCs to it, you’ll have to find a convincing reason why they should not conquer or destroy it immediately.

    One of the ideas that you could use is that once the person who controls it dies, it begins to tremble as though it will shatter. All it does, is that it phases out to move somewhere else. You can then give I dunno 10 rounds for the players to exit before it transfers.

    They’ll be convinced the fortress is destroyed only to discover later on that not only does it still exists, it’s for the taking of anyone who’ll have it. Just a little idea.

  2. Ah yes, the old “Load Bearing Boss” Trope. I like it. Thanks!

  3. I like the idea of having a template that can assist players in developing an OUT. Some players have no trouble at all coming up with a great OUT, some players have good ideas that just need a little polish and tweaking with prompts from the GM (i.e. suggesting Icons and places), some players could benefit from having a template to work through. Generally, OUTs are stronger with specific ties to Icons, placed, and groups.

    Your suggestions for memories are great, but would seem to better fit in developing backgrounds than in adding a new thing.

  4. Excellent ideas. I like the idea of how the template can guide backgrounds and One Unique Things to be more interesting. Across gaming groups I’ve seen a wide disparity in the 1UT, with some being amazing and some being really more of a background. This is a game to push that 1UT into something really evocative.

  5. I think your recurring location idea is a great one. It gives the players a way to see just how powerful they’ve become since the first/second time they went through there. I love it, and I will be stealing it in the future.