First things first – 13th Age is pretty much the greatest D20 system ever written, and it’s good because a) it’s written by Heinsoo and Tweet, two mechanical geniuses and b) it stands on the shoulders of giants, namely D&D 3.5 and D&D 4e, both of which I enjoyed for largely different reasons.
A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF RELATIONSHIP DICE WHICH YOU CAN SKIP IF YOU KNOW WHAT THEY ARE ALREADY
13th Age uses something called Relationship dice, a concept that I’d never seen before, and at first glance they’re find of hard to interpret. To sum them up: the world is “run,” for the want of a better word, by 13 icons: The Emperor, The High Druid, The Orc Lord, The Lich King, etc. Yer standard fantasy tropes.
They’re the movers and shakers, and they’re defined both clearly (there are 13 of them, they influence the world in X ways) and broadly (they exist almost outside of reality, and their goals and motivations are often vague). They bake into the system, and the setting, that there isn’t enough stuff to go around in the world, and the folk in charge are about five minutes away from knocking each other’s teeth out over the imbalance at any one time.
Players pick three relationship dice for their character at creation. When you choose which icons you’re bound to, you say two things:
ONE. Here is my history, and here’s where I’m going.
TWO. Here is what I want the game to be about.
The dice are rolled at the start of every session. On a 5, something good happens to the character in relationship to the icon, but there’s a difficulty attached. On a 6, something unequivocally good happens thanks to that icon relationship. The core book doesn’t go into a lot of detail on precisely what those good things are, which is kind of a fault – because there’s the temptation to ignore them, as they might feel tacked on.
The “good things” are loans of magical items, or secret information, or assistance from a party. (And the complications might be “But the item only works when you jab in the heart of a Black Orc” or “Of course, I need to know your movements for our records” or “But your new friends get into a fight and need rescuing” and so on) They don’t… ping, immediately. They’re not very rulesy, but they’re definitely rules.
They’re GM curveballs. They say: “Oh, you’ve written this adventure about Elves? Well quick, give the ranger something positive but difficult thanks to his long-standing emnity for the Dwarf King,” and that can be so challenging that often you just end up skipping it entirely. You need to open your mind, and your story, to the idea that there are events outside of your direct control behind the scenes.
ANYWAY, ON TO THE IDEAS
But once you grok ’em, they’re great. The core messages outlined above still work with the following ideas, because they act as whacking great signposts to interesting story diversions. In a way, most of these are aide mémoires – and you could achieve similar things by just using the basic system and a solid notebook. But they focus the broad spotlight of the current system into something more directed, and that’s useful sometimes.
And the great thing about relationship dice (and, by extension, these hacks) is that they fit seamlessly into other games. Steal them. Stick them in your game of Pathfinder, or World of Darkness, or Fate, or whatever, and see if the challenge to improvise solutions to challenges doesn’t make you a better GM, and doesn’t make for a better game.
IDEA ONE: LOCAL HEROES
13th Age is, by default, a game about world-changing events. There are only 10 levels. You start off badass and get more badass until the badass is leaking out of you like beer out of a too-full pint glass when you try to carry it back to your seat.
The icons reflect that. But what if you want to tell a story about a single town? About a group of monster-hunters defending a village? Or embittered police officers trying to stamp out crime syndicates in a fantasy Untouchables?
Make the icons smaller. As is stands, you almost never meet them directly – you don’t find the Lich King, you find a cultist who reports to a ghost who has an audience with him once every seven years. But if you focus instead on the cult, or the ghost, you get a smaller scope. Instead of the Lich King, you’ve got The Children of Yesterday, an ancestor worshipping cult who are trying to raise the dead in the catacombs under the city. Players can choose how they’ve interacted with them in the past, and how interested they are in seeing how they develop over the course of the campaign.
To re-use my own advice, maybe get your players to make up the groups when they make their characters in the first session – that way they’ll feel invested right from the word go.
IDEA TWO: THE PAST ECHOES TO THE FUTURE
What if events, rather than people, shaped your characters? What if they’re the hero of some recently-crushed tribe, and they fought off the invaders long enough for refugees to flee to a neighbouring country? What if they saw something long ago that they want to forget?
Or what if they started a fire in the Wizard’s college last week and they’re worried that their actions are going to come back and bite them on the arse any day soon?
This is a good way to put events on the back-burner for a while, or to establish a Sword of Damocles that hangs over the characters. When something monumental happens, but you’re not sure what to do with it, turn it into a Relationship dice. The player rolls it at the start of the session, along with all the others, and you interpret it as normal.
This lets you say “Hey, this is important, and interesting, and I’m not done with it just yet.” When it’s resolved? Scrap the dice. If there’s an event on a character sheet that no-one cares about any more, just rub it out.
IDEA THREE: FLOATING BOONS
I’m stealing this idea; it’s not mine. (The Prince of Shadows would be proud.) I can’t recall where from, but if and when I find it, I’ll link in.
With this, you keep the icons as normal, but you decide what benefits they grant at the start of the session. Instead, you write down “COMPLICATED BENEFIT FROM THE PRIESTESS” on an index card and slide it over to the player who rolled it, and now it’s up to both of you to work it in.
Say you’ve rolled that complicated benefit, and the players are trapped in… I dunno, some tombs. Players seem to get trapped in tombs a lot. You’re not offering them any way out (because you’re keen to see what they can come up with). Then the player with the benefit says:
“Okay, um, there’s a hidden chamber. In a previous Age, disciples of the God of… Hidden Paths? Yeah. The God of Hidden Paths. Anyway, his disciples built escape routes into the temples in this city, which we’re currently in, and I think there’s one through this sepulchre.”
And you say, “…but it’s a complicated benefit. Hm. Okay, so there are paths, and to make sure that only the pure of heart use them, there are a variety of blocks and trials and curses to overcome on the way out. Hope you’re all pure of heart, you thieving murderers!”
And the cleric grins, and the rogue starts getting worried, and you’ve got another little story happening there.
IDEA FOUR: CURSES AND ALTERNATE IDENTITIES
That wolf that bit you? It wasn’t a normal wolf. The ancient pyramid curse you absorbed “safely?” Looks like that’s having some after-effects. Your mysterious on-again, off-again girlfriend? When she’s not with you, she’s hanging out with her besties in the Faerie Realm. That alchemical potion you take to control your moods? It’s working, but not how you’d like. Your dad? Turns out he was a dragon. (Bloody dragons.)
Stick “Werewolf” (or whatever) on a the player’s sheet. On a six, they’ve managed to channel the feral energy into something useful this session. On a five, they still get something cool… but it’s the sort of cool thing you find clutched to your chest when you make up covered in blood miles from your house on the morning after the full moon.
If you don’t want a player’s alternative side to be a constant factor in gameplay, this is a good way of pacing it out. You could also consider having that, on a 1, something awful happens to the character. But you can do that whenever you want anyway, so don’t fret too much over it.