Friday, September 21, 2012

Playing 13th Age at Penny Arcade

I’ve been running some great games of 13thAge lately. This is a long writeup of the game we played at Penny Arcade on Wednesday.

Jerry TYCHO Holkins and Mike GABE Krahulik were joined at the table by two players who are in my usual 13th Age game (Sean and Fehlauer) and another who joined our table later that night (Lane.) I didn’t deliberately import my players. They happened to be there: of the six dangerous stalwarts in my 13th Age game, four of them presently work behind the security doors of the Penny Arcade compound, though mostly not for PA. The extent of the crossover came as a surprise to Jerry and Mike and even as a bit of a shock to me, it’s been one of those progressions where friends gradually accumulate in a workplace.

We played the freeform demo style I’ve been having so much fun with since PAX. I hand out pregen second level characters with most everything filled in but name, one unique thing, backgrounds and icon relationships. Players create the story for their characters without sweating the mechanics. I don’t impose campaign-direction, everyone’s free to create their characters any way they like. Well, I did ask for the PCs to be more-or-less good guys, but as you’ll see, with this group that skewed towards or less. After an hour of character creation, I weave a sensible opening plot out of their diverse histories, something that will lead to combat, soon, we roll icon relationship dice to start the session with story-pointers, and away we go.

All character history notes in what follows are the players’ creations, their contributions to the storyline.

Sean played a dwarf gem salesman/bartender named Gnoff (Son of Grimmt; 14th of Clan Gnoppt) who’d gotten into the cleric business as a consequence of having his severed hand replaced by a holy ruby hand by a great hero. It wasn’t clear if the hero performed this transformational feat to reform Gnoff, reward him, or pay him back.

Lane played Lojan Kinslaver, a half-orc barbarian who was repenting for his previous slaver-ways by serving the High Druid on errands of liberation. Lane opted against creating a unique thing about his character because his backgrounds were already a twisted mess of betrayal, we left it open to be created during the session or to arrive in a hypothetical future.

Mike played a halfling rogue named Finn Dinder who stole the Ever-Burning Flame from the Tower of the Shapechangers. Hold a minute: the Red Tower of the Shapechangers. Not the Blue Tower. That’s entirely different. Finn was disappointed that the Ever-Burning Flame looked like a pretty normal candle. Boring. He sold the Ever-Burning Flame back to the same Red Tower Shapechanger wizards. That act was a perfect expression of his one unique thing; like the Prince of Shadows, Finn passes everything he steals on, it’s not about owning, it’s about thieving. (Dinder rhymes with ken….) So he was a great thief and a good fence. It was the resale activity that had introduced him to Gnoff of the Ruby Hand.

Fehlauer played a French-accented dark elf sorcerer named Henri Blanc who’d been the chief torturer in Drakkenhall. Henri hears pain as music. Henri creeped us all out with well-placed synaesthesia melodics. For example, once, while an adventurer had been performing (ick) for Henri, Henri learned that the Blue dragon was plotting with the Diabolist to unleash demons through the world. That was too much even for Henri, who became something of a traitor to the Three but was still kicking around the Drakkenhall area.

And then there was Jerry’s gnome bard. Jerry explained the basics of character, Maudlin W___. We all nodded. Then Jerry capped the explanation in fine storyteller style with the truth of what was going on and we all said “Ohhh....”in unison. Then I sat and thought about it for a moment. Yes, a character to think about. The great news is that Jerry’s gnome bard is going to be in 13 True Ways thanks to the magic ofKickstarter, so I’m not going to blab about what’s going on with Maudlin. It’s going to be a surprise.

The plot that took shape came as a surprise to me. Which is one thing I love about the way 13th Age has come together, the GM gets to be surprised like the players.

It turned out that the opposition were slavers from the Crusader muscling in on a hellhole north of Drakkenhall. Marching through the forests, the Crusader’s forces had taken slaves to throw against the hellhole’s ablative defenses. That irked Lojan. Earlier, Finn the thief had sold the Crusader slavers a flame-key he’d stolen from someone else. Now Maudlin turned out to need that key for his next, um, mission. (Everyone thought the ‘flame’ that would be needed was going to turn out to the flame that Finn had stolen earlier, but I poo-pooed that notion while half-agreeing…) So with Lojan’s enthusiastic prepwork, the group pitted itself against the slavers in a semi-ambush beside the Crusader camp.

Lojan’s prepwork included Lane throwing terrain all over the table! And then taking a photo of it...

Highlights of the battle were probably the moments when Maudlin the gnome bard sang the Song of Heroes while holding off two armored warriors on a boulder pile, singing about an earlier doughty hero of the Great Gold Wyrm who fought off an ogre (?). Maudlin made it so by casting spells while engaged, disregarding their feeble opportunity attacks to score critical hits with a spell he’d jacked from the sorcerer. Then he finished the job with his sword… and thanks to a successful storyline roll with the Great Gold Wyrm, Maudlin got a golden-spirit trace on the pouch of the warrior he took down, showing him that the key he needed was there.

Meanwhile the enemy’s spellcasting chanter made the huge mistake of approaching Henri the drow sorcerer where the sorcerer was perched in a tree. (If you squint, you can see Henri at the top of the right-hand tree in the photo!) The Crusader’s magician said something like, “Hello, fellow spellcaster,” and hit Henri with a set-up spell that did 3 points of damage. Henri had spent his previous turn in the tree gathering power. I don’t remember what Henri said in reply, but I know he sneered. He used his drow cruel ability to turn his lightning fork’s natural even attack into a crit and the enemy chanter exploded, starting with his armored Crusader gauntlet and sparking through his torso. Then Henri’s spell forked all over the battlefield (rolling and rolling even) and fried the two other strongest Crusader warriors, both of whom had been softened up already by the falchion/dagger/hammer of the barbarian/rogue/cleric.

I rule that the spell had been so powerful that Henri blew the tree apart underneath him. Fehlauer said that was a bullshit call and he was may have been right, I was roleplaying being sore about his ridiculous dice luck and the fact that I’d forgotten to bring more archers but really I was just impressed and wanted his sorcerer to blow things up even more. Especially since he’d started out by saying that he was ‘gathering power stealthily,’ which I happily pointed out was the opposite of anything he got to do as a flashbang sorcerer, particularly when he was gathering power by damaging his wounded enemies, drawing lines of power from them to his non-hiding spot up the tree.

So when the symphony of pain was finished, the remaining Crusader thugs put up minimal resistance. The highlight here was that I had inadvertently screwed Mike’s halfling rogue by failing to print out the improved version of the Shadowalk rules, so he had failed every time he tried to slip into shadows. I made a story angle out of the failure by saying that he was screwing up because the Ever Burning Flame of the Red Tower of the Shapechangers was back and burning over his head, serving as a beacon every time he tried to get away!

The group finished the battle with several of its members realizing that the icons pulling Maudlin’s strings weren’t who they claimed to be… and that the key they’d obtained from the Crusader was in fact a key to the hidden gate of the hellhole the Crusaders were attacking… and that Maudlin’s next mission involved the mistress of the balor who ruled the hellhole.

With just a bit more time I would have been able to pull off a mask to show what happens when you steal from Shapechangers, but Finn was already have enough trouble coming to terms with the candle burning over his head and there was a limit to the torture that could be brought to bear in an hour and fifteen minutes of play, even if that torture played out like a sweet-flowing Song of Heroes. 


  1. Thanks, Rob. Definitely inspirational to me as my friends and I get ready to try this out (with me as GM, natch)

  2. I'm loving seeing how these characters manifest distinctly in each group.

  3. Paul, the key element of recent games that I am writing up for the rules is rolling icon relationship dice at the start of every session. Use the results, if any, as a guide to whose story might be most active and who will have story connections functioning during the session, and with which icons. // Jeb, yeah, that's a fun way to look at it. Your halfling rogue was the deathless pirate with the soul trapped in a pearl... and your group's drow sorcerer was the god severed from their own plane (who turned out to be the traitor).

  4. I wish you guys had made a podcast of that. Or is that one of the kickstarter goals? ;)