13th Age‘s implied setting and the rules supporting it (backgrounds, icons and icon relationships) allow adventure styles that go beyond exploring dungeons and playing fantasy superheroes. In my mind, its key narrative mechanics reward and enable roleplaying more than the previous games it grew from.
Yet, while planning my next game session, I realized there was one thing the game didn’t handle directly. You can’t have players roll against a NPC in non-combat contests since they don’t have backgrounds, ability scores or skills.
More specifically for my needs, the game does not have an obvious way to emulate “duel of wits.” I’m aware I could just “roleplay” them or make use of the generic difficulty ratings and “failing forward” concepts. In spite of that, I still felt like something’s missing from my 13th Age GMing toolbox.
For example, if I frame a chase scene, I feel that having a player roll against a flat number makes for a less tense task. The relative competence of antagonists is emulated by values that lead to a 50% chance of success in moderately competent PCs and there’s no room in the RAW for more or less competent opposition.
So how do I address this? I’ve got several ideas.
Cutting to the Chase
First, I could ensure that my adventures don’t feature such contests or I could play by the rules and have players roll vs. a fixed DC. But like I said, I’m not too hot at the idea.
Second, I could still use fixed DCs but tap into the mechanics of the game’s progenitors. I could either break down the DCs into Easy (12), Moderate (15) and Hard (17) target numbers like D&D 4e. Alternatively, I could use GM fiat and provide bonuses or penalties to the players’ rolls based on the situation (the basic +2/-2 rule).
Third, if you really like to roll against players, you could just subtract 10 from the fixed DCs and roll a d20 plus the remaining number. That solves my “GM fingers itching to roll dice” feeling.
But now I feel it doesn’t mesh with the game’s “fast and simple” design philosophy.
I’m bipolar, I change ideas midpost… deal with it.
So let’s dig deeper…
What if we applied some ideas from my Mouseburning post? First, decide if any given contest is the most important, rate-limiting step of the overall challenge. If it isn’t, don’t bother rolling, assume moderate success and move on to the next part of the challenge. If it is, determine how badly the players want to succeed. Are they willing to burn one of their icon relationship 5s or 6s for it? If so, grant a success without rolling. Spending a 5 means success with a price: something goes wrong or something unplanned happens. If they spend a 6, they win and they come out with a clear story/game advantage after the scene.
As I was writing this post, I dimly remembered a forum post from a few years ago about using dungeon exploration to solve non-combat contest… it can be summed up as “Say Yes or Face the Dungeon.” Taking a page from that great post, if you don’t believe characters could conceivably obtain what they want in a social encounter, or if they roll against a fixed difficulty and fail, you could figuratively drop a dungeon on them. Have a NPC, possibly an Icon agent, require the PCs undertake a quest in a dungeon/city/forest/etc in return for obtaining what they seek.
Save vs. Red Tape
Here’s an example that follows one of the hanging plot hooks of my current campaign.
Our intrepid heroes have crucial information they decide to relate to the Emperor, or far more likely, one of his agents. The Paladin uses his contact as an Imperial Guard to obtain an audience with a disinterested minor bureaucrat. I see no need to roll to get there, the paladin’s background and One Unique Thing makes getting there a technicality.
Dealing with the functionary though, THAT is an interesting challenge. I could play up how bureaucracy is slowly neutering the might of the Empire. I would probably either have the level 2 Paladin play against a difficulty of 17 (using my early ideas) or ask the player if he was willing to burn his “Emperor” relationship on it. If he gave me a 5, I’d probably have the bureaucrat imply that a bribe would considerably shorten the 3 month waiting period (success with a price). If he (or any other player) “spent” one of their 6s, the players would get rapid access to one of the Emperor’s junior advisors. We’d all work out how the icon relationship led to such a success.
Had we gone the “roll for it” way and the PC failed, or had the players refused to spend an icon relationship on the task, the bureaucrat would have explained how sorry he was and couldn’t help … unless they did this HUGE favor for him: “acquire” a bottle of the Archmage’s Very Special Cognac from one of the Shadow Prince’s vault-cellars in the city.
“It’s for my daughter’s wedding. You must understand, I need to impress the groom’s father but I just can’t afford it.”
My problem is solved! How would you go at it?