Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Conan meets the Black Company, powered by 2d20

In the last year of gaming I managed to run 2 Dungeon Crawl Classics campaigns (one through Roll20), my first (and unfortunately so far only) 13th Age campaign, a The One Ring mixed with John Wick’s The Flux and – finally – a Conan 2d20 game. Now I’m running Mage 20th and D&D 5th, besides keeping my irregular Dungeon Crawl Classic online table. Considering my scant free time I must admit that that is kind of a miracle.

So, 2d20. This is an amazing system - for me it is a weird mid-ground between d20 and FATE (and thus far the one system where I truly LOVE the way mental/social damage work… Tyrion Lannister would be a completely playable and lethal PC here). The Conan version of 2d20 is excellent, but it really needs an official FAQ (and a revision would help too). I heard that the latest versions of 2d20 - like Star Trek Adventures - are a huge improvement in the system, showing its strengths.


2d20 in a nutshell is a pool system where you roll a minimum of 2d20 (and a maximum of 5d20) and try to score equal or below your Ability Score + Skills. The Conan version of the game is really high-powered and most PCs start with high scores. In fact, in this aspect the RPG is a perfect match to the genre: you can really create a Conan-like PC from start, one that deals vast amounts of damage and cleave through minions, beasts and foes. I was really pleased that the core book offered a less powerful PC option (the ‘Shadows of the Past’ variant).

The hallmarks of 2d20 for me are the Momentum rule and the Doom Pool. Extra successes rolled by a PC generate Momentum, which can be spent to improve a test’s quality, reduce it’s time and other cool stuff. In combat Momentum can be used to generate additional maneuvers, increase damage, restore stress damage etc. The best part is that unspent Momentum can be placed in a party pool and used by other PCs if justified by the narrative. For example: your valiant aquilonian knight rallies the party (a Command check to generate Momentum and fill the party pool), so that the cimmerian barbarian PC that goes next can deal a massive strike against the main enemy. It is really neat.

The Doom Pool is even better! It is a narrative resource used by the Gamemaster to increase the current challenges and generate new complications against the party. It is a rule to increase the stakes and the tension at the right moment of the adventure. A fair warning: the Gamemaster isn’t an enemy of the players and the Doom Pool shouldn’t be used in that way. I see the Doom Pool as a resource to strength Howardian themes and tropes during play. Common uses for the Doom Pool increase a check’s difficulty, bring more enemies (usually minions), allow the Gamemaster to generate new traps and hazards etc. The Doom Pool is generated mainly through Complications (for example: rolling a natural 20), although PCs can buy extra d20s to roll on the their checks by paying Doom to the Gamemaster. Some monsters create Doom by their mere presence. There’s really a lot of potential in this mechanic, although I believe the Conan line could use a revision on the various ways to use and accumulate Doom (as the various supplements seem to follow slightly different guidelines).

But this isn’t a review and I have talked enough. Grab the excellent Quickstart and try it out (and if you don’t like it I recommend that you try the Star Trek or John Carter versions before really deciding you don’t like the 2d20 system).


That said… I used Conan 2d20 to run my long-dreamed Black Company/Malazan Book of the Fallen game. I’m a long fan of both sagas and I quite like using a military structure to run my RPGs. Belonging to an army, company or mercenary band is a simple and effective way of explaining why the party adventures together (it also offers an easy source of new PCs). Another aspect that I’m interested is in exploring is the “grunt” point of view. I didn't want adventurers, paladins, high fantasy mages and such concepts at my table. I wanted PCs that didn’t have a clue about the ways magic and the supernatural work; I wanted to keep both the PCs and their players in the dark about the magical side of the setting (in a very Malazan-like fashion). Conan 2d20 allowed me to do that - its sorcery system is geared toward NPCs and not very player-friendly (and is the part of the game that REALLY needs an overhaul revision). The Hyborian Age was also the perfect setting - the party could easily identify themselves with the tropes and cultures without the need to read anything (and Conan’s own view of the supernatural, in the novels, is a perfect start).

My small campaign (or its 1st Season at least) was located in Shem, in a decadent city-state that I created. Because none at my table have ever read The Black Company or the Malazan novels (heathens!), I stole shamelessly the Beryl arc from the first Black Company novel. The PCs were the sole survivors of a doomed mercenary company with a shady past. They arrived in Ashgar (my not-Beryl) and were promptly recruited by the Red Tigers mercenaries (my not-Black Company).

Asghar was a shemite city that invaded by Zingaran exiles a century ago. The Zingaran nobles deposed the local ruling families and took over the city but were slowly absorbed by the shemite culture. They created oppressive laws to keep the former nobles out of power (and petty rules to humiliate them; for example: the old nobles lines couldn’t grow a beard, which is a “right” reserved only to the Zingaran bloodlines). This of course generated a small rebellion. Besides, the Zingarans were always fighting among themselves, with the most hostile faction having converted to the worship of the dreaded shemite patron god of Ashgar.

The PCs were:


Alexus, an aquilonian guard and survivor of a black magic ritual, who now worked with his previous liege (Titus Ritulus, below). The “survivor of a black magic ritual” bit was generated through Conan 2d20’s cool lifepath tables.







Breanne of Cimmeria, a barbarian blacksmith and warrioress, with a criminal past.










Sif, a lone swordsman (and assassin) from Gunderland, trained by a mysterious master.










Titus Rutilus, an exiled aquilonian noble and (perhaps) responsible for the destruction of the previous mercenary outfit in which the PCs served.










Viccenzo of Mitra, an itinerant evangelist educated in the opulent courts of Ophir (and actually zamoran of birth, who runned away from Shadizar due to a scandalous affair).










After being recruited by the Red Tigers (and in true Malazan fashion) the PCs were given nicknames (‘soldier names’). The arrogant and ambitious noble Titus Rutilus became Recruit. Alexus, who had the higher body count in the party, was named Samaritan. Sif, because of his love affairs with the company’s witch, became Castrati (he was always deadly afraid of attracting the attention of other women, because his witch lover was quite jealous and once killed a desert princess just because she wanted to talk alone with Sif). Viccenzo and Breanne unfortunately never got nicknames.

The Red Tigers were the bodyguards of the Autarch, the Zingaran ruler of Asghar. The game was a mix of military missions (invading temples, surviving ambushes and scouting), skirmishes,  intrigue (inside and outside the company) and black sorcery (the company’s spellcasters were mysterious and dangerous even to their allies, and there were other sources of magic in Ashgar).

The 1st Season of the campaign ended with the party leaving Asghar, after an invasion of Asshuri from Askalon, a disastrous summoning of the god Anu (or at least his lovecraftian version) and the betrayal of their patron, the Autarch. To my great delight, the party reached the same conclusion as the Black Company at the end of the Beryl chapter. The cliffhanger for a 2nd Season was the Red Tiger were hired by a new and darker patron; while in the novel we get Soulcatcher, here I used none other than Thoth-Amon himself. We’re having a break from Sword & Sorcery right now and playing some D&D 5E, but I hope I can return to this game.

OK… to end this boring post with something (maybe) more useful: House Rules!

While I love the 2d20 system, I also love to tinker with rules. I used the ‘Shadows of the Past’ variant character rules to create more mortal PCs (thus better reflecting the feel of the Black Company). But that wasn’t enough, so I also used the following:
  • Minions rolled 2d20. In Conan 2d20, a Minion (a nameless NPC) rolls just 1d20 on his actions (which means that they fails most actions with Dif 2 and never pass checks with Dif 3+). Because Minions usually form Mobs, they pool their d20s and thus are able to pose a (pitiful) threat to PCs. Not here. I wanted something more gritty. Thus, even a lowly Minion starts with 2d20 in his pool. When Minions forms Mobs, one of them is chosen as its Leader and follows the normal rules for Mobs with Leaders (a Squad). Ironically, letting all NPCs start with a base pool of 2d20 was easier for me. This rule worked perfectly, letting Minions pose a higher threat and encouraging PCs to fight in Squad mode (which was something I wanted).
  • A New NPC Type: The Horror! Conan 2d20 has 3 types of NPCs - Minions, Toughened and Nemesis. Minions can’t take Harms (lasting injuries) and have very little stress. Toughened can take 2 Harms and have more resilience. Nemesis are full-fledged NPCs, with the same stats and resources of PCs. One of my main criticisms with Conan 2d20 is that monsters (things like frost giants, lovecraftian horrors and dragons) are “just” Nemesis-level adversaries. A frost giant should wreak havoc against an entire party of PCs and not be crushed in 2 or 3 rounds. So I created a new NPC category above Nemesis, the Horror. After a bit of testing, I established a new mechanical trait for them - the Horror Threshold. Besides having bigger and inhuman stats, Horrors also have a special stress threshold that is replenished at the beginning of every round. The Horror faced by the party was the Black Company’s forvalaka (a demon were-leopard). For it, I set my Horror Threshold at 5, with a base difficulty of 1. That means that before the party could inflict ANY mechanical consequence on the forvalaka, they had to remove this special stress track of 5 points. What could reduce the forvalaka’s Horror Threshold? A Command check to strength the party’s spirit against the demon’s fear aura; a Sorcery check to remember it’s weak spots; a Melee check to open the creature’s flank for further attacks; etc. After depleting the Horror Threshold (which fully regenerated EVERY round) the party could start to inflict normal stress, Harms and other consequences on the critter. As a side effect of this rule, the forvalaka could only be fought with Squads (exactly like the novel) and with the party working as a coordinated group. It worked rather nicely at the table.

I also tried other house rules, but the two above are the ones I’ll most certainly keep in the future. Please note that the Horror Threshold rule should be tailored and customized to reflect each Horror faced by the party.

At the end of my campaign, I was working in a major rules revision to the system with a fellow Gamemaster (who has a greater understanding of 2d20) - basically, we’re trying to make 2d20 a “pure” d20 system and get rid of those d6s. The official rules uses d6s to generate damage - 1 or 2 are read normally, 3 and 4 are ‘zeros’, 5 and 6 are ‘1 + Effect’. We don’t like very much how the d6s work (the ‘whiff factor’ is too high for our tastes and in our experience the act of rolling a different set of dice, with different rules, was breaking the game’s pace). But I will leave that for another post.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Hero (DCC RPG Class)

Howdy folks!

Here is my last class for DCC RPG: the Hero! The idea behind this came after reading The Phlogiston Books Vol. I and thinking about the idea of "rural fantasy". The Hero Class was thus created to be both a "peasant adventurer" class. Another design goal was to have a "basic" class for new players. For this last purpose, I tried to keep the class as simple as possible.



Finally, inspirations for the Hero are widespread. I recommend checking the awesome Black Hack (for the usage die) and the various OSR blogs for things like the Lucky Number.

Without fruther ado, here is the Hero Class. Edit: Fixed the HD! I'll try to playtest it soon and see how it works at the table.


Monday, July 2, 2018

The "Complete" Gongfarmer's Handbook (or d10 uses for nightsoil)

I friend of mine, fellow DCC Judge and a player at my table once asked me "What the hell am I supposed to do with night soil?". He still regrets making that question to me…




OK, gongfarmers are to DCC what rat-catchers are to Warhammer Fantasy. They just scream DCC all over (there’s a reason we have the brilliant Gongfarmer’s Almanac). Historically, gongfarmers were those responsible in olden times to dug out and removed human excrement from privies and cesspits. Because of public sensitivities, gongfarmers were forced to work usually at night (they’re also known as nightmen, which is awesome). Given their trade’s requirements, is no surprised most would be mad enough to risk their lives for gold and glory. In the DCC mindset, gongfarmers have nothing to lose (kind like rat-catchers, who must waddle through the sewers of the Old World and face skaven and shit).

So, if you look at the Gongfarmer Occupation, you will see that you start a DCC Funnel (i.e. a 0-level adventure) with a trowel and a “sack of night soil”. Night soil is (literally) shit. What can an aspiring adventurer to with night soil? Oh, I’m glad you asked (I’m not chemist, so let’s stick with the basics).

1 - The Trap-Trigger! (just throw it at any place in the dungeon you believe a trap is set. Always work… after all, that sack is heavy).
2 - Throw it at the monster’s face! (the BEST use. This is probably a ranged attack with the intention of blinding the target, breaking a spellcaster’s concentration or just making them throw up… warning: won’t work on otyughs and most un-dead).
3 - Smear it on the ground before an incoming monster (the idea here is to make the critter stumble or fall).
4 - Jam a lock! (OK, it is disgusting… but enough night soil in the lock and most door will have to be open through brute force. That’s 1 or 2 rounds of running for you).
5 - “Tell me where the treasure is or I’ll…” (menacing a bound intelligent humanoid creature with night soil down their throat should work).
6 - FUEL! (use the night soil to rekindle your torch or burn something up! It’s a fertilizer after all and I’m not a chemist).
7 - Your personal “magic” hole (c’mon, think about it: which kind of monster would search through shit to find something?! Hide that precious magic scroll, potion, map or key in the sack!).
8 - Make sure they die… of infection! (if your Judge is a great fan of Morale rules, chances are that some monsters will run. Make sure they don’t came back by smearing your dagger or sword with night soil. It is a dick move, but a Funnel-life is a tough call).
9 - Play dead! (smear the night soil over you and drop to the ground, with luck - if the Judges deems necessary, a Luck check - your gongfarmer might be ignored by most monsters. Warning: probably won’t work against un-dead or intelligent adversaries).
10 - Countermagic! (OK, this one rellies a bit too much on your Judge’s campaign. The idea of sacrifices on DCC for Icon Magic purposes - a.k.a. Divine magic - may allow for a well aimed night soil sack to ruin a ritual (or a cleric’s attempt to remove Disapproval). After wall, all that gold smeared with shit or that poor virgin covered in 💩 will probably ruin most rituals. Please, bear in mind that an angry or desperate cultist might still try to kill the victim… but at least Cthulhu won’t show up).


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Variant Human Traits (for d20 mostly)

A friend of mine recently asked for my opinion regarding his new Forgotten Realms campaign for D&D 5E. He had an awesome idea to "reskin" the lore of the Realms, mixing it with Tolkien's Silmarillion. My favorite part was when he created alternative racial traits for the various human ethnicities of the Realms - in particular Chondathans, Calishites, Tethyrians, Damarans and Illuskans.

While I really liked his racial traits, I suggested going for less mechanics and more flavor. Of late I'm a great fan of racial traits that give thematic or flavorful abilities instead of just more modifiers/feats (you can see my last attempt with this approach for Pathfinder here). I was inspired by an excellent thread on RPGNet which suggested that each human "race" should have a unique knack (not just a +1 to Str, but something cool like "can talk with wolves" or "has a living shadow").

Here are my suggestions (because my friend was disregarding the cannon, I was not too worried with the official description of each human nationality). I tried to create Edition Neutral traits. Major inspirations were RPGs PbtA (like Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark), but I can't forget great ideas from 13th Age Glorantha and Frostbitten & Mutilated. I must stress that all traits below were created with PCs in mind - these abilities are extraordinary stuff and shouldn't be taken as "normal" racial traits for every NPC of the same ethnicity.

Calishites


Trait: Brother to Fire
Description: Calishites claim to have the blood of Efreeti, the powerful fire genies born of Smokless Fire. Calishites have indeed a fiery temper and an uncanny affinity with elemental fire. Once each game session (or once per long rest, DM's call), a calishite can summon his elemental affinity. This may be a conscious effort or not (probably a calishite wizard would say a mystic word or two, while a calishite warrior would say "it was luck"). When summoning his elemental affinity (a free action), the calishite can change any non-magical fire in his close proximity. For example:
- make a torch go out;
- keep a torch burning for another round, even if it should have go out;
- rekindle a dying fire;
- declare that a fire source nearby won't reveal his presence (for 1 round only);
- declare that a local fire source won't damage him (for 1 round only).
The DM has the final say. This trait should be adapted to the campaign's flavor - the calishite's affinity can be made to seem like pure coincidence or something clearly supernatural.

Chondathan


Trait: The Gift of Tongues 
Description: Your people traveled the Realms. Some legends say that a god blessed Chondal, the Patriarch, thus enabling his progeny to spread through Faerûn. Once each game session (or once per long rest, DM's call), a chondathan can understand something said by another intelligent creature or they can make themselves understood by another intelligent being (usually something that can be said during 1 round). This trait can be roleplaying intuitively (for a bard or wandering warrior) or as something clearly supernatural (a priest or wizard). If the DM is following a more mythic or high-magic campaign, this trait can be used by a chondathan to understand "words" spoken by beasts, monsters or even special objects (a magical sword) or places (a holy place).

Damaran


Trait: Born under the Scythe
Description: Damarans are said to be brothers of Death (or the Hooded Ones, given that the gods of death are many, like Myrkul or Kelemvor). Their history is a long and sad struggle against overwhelming forces of Darkness - like the Witch-King of Vaasa, the infernal legacy of Narfell, the barbarian Tuigan or the hobgoblin steel of the Red Hand. Damarans forged a civilization in inhospitable lands, living since then under the edge. Fatalists but strong-willed (some damarans are described as "cheerful maniacs"), they learned to live "under the Hooded One's Gaze".  Once each game session (or once per long rest, DM's call), a damaran can walk around a place and feel in his heart the answer to one of the following questions:
- Has someone died here since the last sunset/sunrise?
- Where is the closest place where blood has been shed?
- Has any undead or fiend passed by since the last sunrise/sunset?
Finally, if the DM is willing to play the symbolic/thematic aspects of this trait, any undead/fiend found by the damaran will always know his name or seems to be expecting him/her. The creature will still follow it's nature (probably attacking or devouring the damaran), but the affinity can be explored by the damaran PC to gain valuable information.

Illuskans


Trait: Friends to Crows
Description: the crow is one of the various symbols of the Savage North and was once the heraldry of Luskan itself. Illuskans have a legend that says that a crow can only be killed by one who have killed his kind. Illuskans respect and honor crows, seeing the birds as family. Once each game session (or once per long rest, DM's call), an illuskan can spend a few hours searching for a crow***. After meeting, feeding and befriending the bird, the illuskan can get the answer to one of the following questions (this can be a literal answer from a crow, if the DM likes a more mythical campaign, or it can mean an omen or intuitive knowledge - a gut feeling - from the illuskan):
- Are we being hunted or followed?
- Are there other humanoids closeby?
- Is there any haven nearby that we can reach before sunrise/sunset?
***If the party is any region where a crow can't be found - and the DM is willing to keep this trait thematic aspects - feel free to use other birds (vultures, ravens, falcons etc.).

Tethyrians


Trait: Oath of Truth
Description: Tethyrians live (and die) under oaths of vassalage and fellowship. Their entire kingdom is kept by those oaths and there is nothing more sacred than that. It is whispered that a god blessed tethyrian's oaths - probably Helm, Tyr, Torm or even Siamorphe.  Once each game session (or once per long rest, DM's call), a tethyrian can declare an Oath of Truth. Everything said by the tethyrian after the oath will be accepted as truth by all bystanders. The tethyrian must believe in what he/she's saying. Note that this isn't brainwashing - all parties in the scene will know, in their heart, that the tethyrian said the Truth, but they have total freedom to choose who they'll react to that Truth.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Frost One (DCC RPG Class)


The Fiend Folio is such a wondrous trove of the weird that's hard not to return to it from time to time. Lots of OSR blogs already touched on subject. Well, one of the Fiend Folio's critters is the Frost Man (Frost Folk in D&D 3.5 terms). Called by fearful barbarians of "ice demons", these strange humanoids have the power to freeze enemies with a baleful gaze (one of their eyes is a white orb of ice magic). I can't pleace exactly why, but I always found the Frost Man a damn cool monster - they appear to be some kind of proto-sorcerer, whose pact gave them limited (but potent) magic.

Nothing like a classic...


...but I really like the Frostburn art.

OK, how this creature became a DCC class in my campaign? Well, my group is currently in the middle of 'DEATH AQUATIC!' - an adventure that I'm playtesting (and that I hope to share with you in the next year Gongfarmer Almanac). At my table I like to bring elements and references from my favorite works of fantasy/science fantasy/horror... and one of them is the world of the awesome Malazan Book of the Fallen. Well, because this an aquatic themed adventure, I created an encounter where the party meets a Stormrider, one of the most alien and fascinanting races of the world of Wu.

A Stormrider, in this iconic art by Shadaan.

For those that don't know them, Stormriders are beautiful and aquatic (but, it seems, amphibious) humanoids, whose magic is aspected with ice and the "void among the stars". Their way of thinking and their goals are often quoted as "alien" (although other sources conjecture that the Riders may be associated with my all-time favorite malazan race - the Jaghut). They are like alien merfolk with fine and iridescent scales all over their body (but they seem to use ice or crystal-like weapons and armors). Riders get their name from their power of shaping waves in the form of giant serpent/horses. In the malazan setting of Wu, Stormriders are responsible for the most dangerous and gruesome battlefiel of the world - the dreaded Seawall of Korel.

In my adventure, the party (a mix of 1st and 2nd level PCs, besides 8 funnel characters from 2 new players) was devoured by a gargantuam leviathan. Inside the majestic beast, one of the 0-level PCs foound a magic spear that appeared to be made of ice. This weapon belonged to the Stormrider, who was healing from previous wounds inside a luminescent block of ice. The party eventually freed the Rider, reclamed the ice spear and saves the party from a sea witch and her simian minions.

The 0-level PC who freed the Stormrider was really sad for losing the magic spear, so I suggested that the Rider's magic "changed" the lowly mortal. When that PC reached 1st-level I offered to create a new character class, giving him ice-magic. My inspiration came not from the Stormriders, but from the Frost Man above.

Whitout further ado, here's the Frost One. A warning: this class is not playtest (in fact, I hope to first test it tomorrow).

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

13th Age is Old School

...kind of.

I have talked quite a bit about 13th Age in the last year, including some ideas and hacks for using 13th Age’s mechanics on other d20 games (or F20 as 13th Age call them). But if this is your first post about that game, then you either like Old School or 13th Age (or better: both!). 13th Age was created - as you can check by reading Pelgrane Press or a review - as ‘love letter’ to D&D, by luminaries Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. Those authors basically created a game “in the middle ground” between D&D 3rd and 4th Editions (and that’s actually the concept of the game in a nutshell). However, what most people might miss is that 13th Age also draws some excellent principes from Old School games…


...OK, that maybe a bit far fetched, but let me finish it: 13th Age is actually a d20 game with mixes, in a rather interesting and original way, a tactical-heavy (but gridless) combat system with extremely open and improvisational faction/social/skill challenge rules (I’m talking about Icon Relationship rules). And that’s just a small piece of 13th Age’s inner genius… things like Montage deserve a post on their own. As I said, I already posted ideas for using 13th Age’s modular rules on Pathfinder, DCC RPG and D&D 5E in previous posts - like the Escalation Die.

So, “tactical-heavy combat” and “narrative mechanics” have practically nothing to do with Old School games (and especially the OSR). But there’s a place where I sincerely believe that 13th Age is a shining example of Old School goodness - it’s implied main setting, the Dragon Empire.

The Dragon Empire is a high-fantasy, high octanate setting, where the PCs usually play as free agents of powerful NPCs - movers & shakers called Icons. These Icons include the human emperor, his royal wizard, the high-priestess etc. Like many other things about the Dragon Empire, the Icons are actually a thematic approach to famous fantasy concepts (the villainous Lich King, the Orc Lord, the arrogant and probably mad Archmage, the virtuous Oracle, the greedy Dwarf King, the mysterious Elf Queen etc.). The Icons are a really clever way of using powerful NPCs not to trample or overshine the PCs, but as pinpoints for faction-based games (you can easily change the Icons to organizations if you want).

Icons are described in setting-neutral terms (the Archmage, not Mordenkainen or Elminster) because the game assumes that each GM will tailor the Dragon Empire and its NPCs to his needs (or throw the Dragon Empire way and use his homemade or third party setting, with the local high-level NPCs acting as Icons… if using Forgotten Realms, you could use Elminster and Szass Tam, or the Zhentarim, as Icons).

Now, the cool thing about the Dragon Empire is that the entire setting is described in the same thematic and succinct way: you have a mountain range where giants and their flying castles usually can be found, an abyssal rift that leads to demonic realms, the shining capital of the human empire (with gladiatorial arenas and all), the elven woods, the lost realm of the dwarves etc. What makes it all rather unique is its high fantasy approach to classic concepts: remember the abyssal rift? Well, it starts most campaigns sealed. You can go there and enter the Abyss, but most demons can’t leave the rift (just the weaker and pathetic ones), because there’s a giant gold dragon keeping the place magically locked with his presence - Great Gold Wyrm (an Icon), who sacrificed himself centuries ago to seal the Abyss. Theoretically he’s biggest and stronger dragon of the setting. This explains why such powerful force of good isn’t running around dealing with Evil (that’s the PCs’ job); and it also explains why the demons are “digging” for other entries in the Dragon Empire (generation Hellholes, another awesome feature of the setting).

What I mean so far is that the Dragon Empire doesn’t burden you with names (there’s no High Wizard Zordax, Chosen of the Gods of Magic and Precept of the Ivory Tower), dates, long descriptions and metaplots. It just throw lots of high fantasy concepts at you in almost bullet point fashion. All that without becoming a kitchen sink setting like Pathfinder’s Golarion (or Forgotten Realms by the time the 3rd and 4th Editions came up).

One of the defining traits which make the Dragon Empire so cool and GM-friendly is something that I really talked about a few ago, in my “mythic” version of Golarion. The Dragon Empire may have liches, but there’s only ONE Lich King. You have “The” Orc Lord, who is a menace to the entire civilized world, instead of dozens of humanoid cliches, each one plaguing a different region in the exact same way. In the Dragon Empire, the entire concept of a great wyrm is unique to each dragon race. You don’t have gold great wyrms, but the Great Gold Wyrm. By making these powerful concepts unique, the Dragon Empire gains a lot in flavor and mythological depth (not surprising, giving that both of 13th Age’s authors love Glorantha and in fact even published a supplement for it). The combination of short setting descriptions and unique/thematic threats remind me of the first versions of Greyhawk and other fantasy settings, where you knew where the most badass evil fighter (the Crusader in 13th Age) and dragon (definitely the Red in 13th Age) were located on the map.

And that is why I think that the Dragon Empire makes such wonderful example of Old School principles in regard to campaign settings applied to a modern game. Actually, although 13th Age was designed for heroic and high-level style of play, the Dragon Empire can be used perfectly in other D&D/d20 editions. Because the setting is so open and iconic, you can play low-level OD&D/AD&D (1st-3rd) in lots of places like the Queen Woods, the Midland Sea, New Port, Concord and the halfling hills. When you reach higher levels (7th+) there’s plenty of action to be had at monstrous Drakenhall, the Demon Coast, Underhome, Axis, Hell Marsh and the warfronts against the orcs and maybe the High Druid. With places like the Sea Wall, Giantwalk, sinister Throne Point and Omen, and not forgetting First Triumph and the Abyss, you also have plenty of epic-level landescapes for 11th+ games. In fact, if you like the Dragon Empire’s heroic feel but don’t want 13th Age’s heavily tactical combat, you could easily use OSR games like Exemplars & Eidolons or Scarlet Heroes to simulate powerful PCs since 1st level (in D&D 3rd Edition you could play with Gestalt PCs, but I actually find it crunchier than 13th Age’s standard rules).

Bonus Content: The Dragons of the Dragon Empire!


The Dragon Empire gets its name from the major human power currently running the Midland Sea region. In the settings’ minimalist background, the 1st Dragon Emperor formed an alliance with the dwarves and elves (and bronze dragons) to defeat the tyrannical Wizard King about 13 ages ago (hence the game’s name). The Wizard King eventually returned from the grave as the feared Lich King and has since then tried to retake “his empire”. And that’s it.

As I said, the Dragon Empire is described in a just few pages, but because it’s such a simple and evocative high fantasy it leaves you wanting more. The good thing is that Pelgrane Press keeps feeding 13th Age fans with new and interesting tidbits about the Dragon Empire. And they do that without publishing boring regional supplements or stuff like that. No sir, 13th Age enrich it’s lore in true Old School fashion - indirectly. Usually, by reading the game’s Bestiaries (2 so far) and expansions, we get scattered bits of (optional) lore about the Dragon Empire. Take, for example, my favorite part: the dragons. The Bestiaries give amazing bullet point facts about dragons, like:
-       Black dragons claim to be the first, original, species of dragons and are actually quite arrogants about it.
-       Red dragons can actually hear their treasure hoards singing to them, and that’s why they know when even a small coin is missing.
-       The Great White Wyrm was killed ages ago by the Lich King and because of that white dragons usually HATE him and his undeads (some white dragons even act as guardians in imperial cemeteries, which creates all kind of troubles with local authorities).

In the setting, as I said, each great wyrm appears to be a unique individual (and there’s only for each dragon species). In other words: ‘great wyrm’ isn’t an age category in 13th Age but an NPC. In the corebook we get to meet those great wyrms that work as Icons in the setting - the aforementioned Great Gold Wyrm and the Three.


The Great Gold Wyrm is greatest gold dragon, the creature responsible for keeping Armageddon back by sealing the Abyss with his presence (and inspiring lots and lots of paladins).


The Three are actually the Blue, the Black and the Red great wyrms. They decided (for a very temporarily time) to join forces. At the beginning, I think they did that to find a way to beat the Gold. Later, the deal with Lich King for killing the White. And finally, to find a way to release the Green, who is trapped by the Elf Queen.

Each of the Three has its own basic personality. The Black is an old and deadly beast, the mistress of assassins and various sects of reptilian races devoted to ritual killing. Imagine the Assassins and Thuggee combined, but replace their religious beliefs with a living ancestral black dragon, and fill their ranks with all kind of lizardfolk and kobolds. Finally, make them scary and deadly. That’s the nice people who work for the Black. The Red is simple - he’s basically Smaug on steroids. When he shows up, nations tend to suffer massive exodus. The Red hasn’t attacked the Empire for a while, but he’s an unpredictable and vain being, more a natural force than a creature. And finally we have the Blue, the mastermind of the trio. The Blue controls an entire city in the Dragon Empire. By finding a loophole in imperial law, she managed to place herself as the Potentate of the monstrous ruins of Highport, thus creating Drakkenhall. As long as the Blue doesn’t attack other imperial cities and keep its monster population (usually humanoids) in check, she’s a legitimate imperial ruler.

That’s basically the information in the corebook. By reading the Bestiary 1 and the supplement 13 True Ways (with brings new class and monsters) we discover that the Great Silver Wyrm is actually a hostage and political prisoner in Drakkenhall. She’s siphoned by the Blue to control the storms around Drakkenhall, though some in the Dragon Empire suspects that the Silver may be trying to redeem or spy on the Blue.

As far I as have read I couldn’t locate the other great wyrms. Because my last 13th Age was all about the plans of the Three, I eventually came up with locations for all great metalic wyrms that were missing - Bronze, Copper and Brass.

Because bronze dragons in 13th Age are those that usually (but only usually) accept a rider (and yet more rarely, take orders from him/her), I decided to link the Bronze’s fate with the Dragon Empire. When the 1st human Dragon Emperor forged his alliance against the Wizard King, he managed this by winning a series of quests for the Great Bronze Wyrm. In exchange, for as long as the Dragon Emperor kept their virtues and promises, the Bronze would serve. To symbolize this, the Bronze became the Holy Throne of Rubies and Scales, the seat of every worthy emperor since the 1st Age (theoretically, each Dragon Emperor is the Bronze’s rider). If an unworthy emperor sits on the Holy Throne of Rubies and Scales - or so say the traditions - the Bronze will awake and the truce between dragons and humans will be broken. And that’s why when, through the ages, a weak or vile emperor shows up (and they did), the Imperial Bureaucracy did everything in its power to stop their liege from sitting on the Holy Throne of Rubies and Scales. They won’t jeopardize the imperial bloodline… but everything else is fair game. And that’s how it works in my version of the setting.

OK, Bronze done. Where’s the Brass? The Dragon Empire’s east frontier is the feared Sea Wall. A massive natural formation (or built wall, that’s open to the GM) that protects the Empire against the Iron Sea, an ocean hellbent on destroying everything west of it. The main route of transportation in the Dragon Empire is the Midland Sea, which is a complete calm and (99% of time) predictable body of water. Monsters are rare to nonexistent in the Midland Sea and the major seven imperial cities are all built around it. That’s because the Wizard King (or the 1st Emperor, I can’t remember which) placed a powerful spell in the region, taming the inner sea (as a side effect, all the local monsters and evil stuff fled to the imperial rivers, which are very dangerous). That feat enraged the Iron Sea (i.e. the Ocean) in such a way, that since the 1st Age it has tried to destroy the Dragon Empire and reunite itself with the tamed Midland Sea. How does an ocean attacks? I don’t know. Maybe with tsunamis first and giant monster (kaiju!) later; besides lots of evil aquatic creatures like sahuagin, krakens, sea serpents etc.

Another day in the Sea Wall

The Sea Wall is an imposing formation, already far from the original coastline (the Iron Sea has been slowly winning this war). It forms the most deadly and constant warfront in the Dragon Empire’s history. Why haven’t it fallen? In part due to the sacrifice of various heros during the ages, but also because of the Brass and its metallic dragons. That’s their spot (or at least the adopted one). The Brass is a unique mix of warrior fatalism and comic nihilism. She appreciates seeing tiny and puny mortal creatures facing an entire angry ocean that likes to throw castle-sized monsters against them. The humans and their allies keep dying and the Wall receding… but they keep fighting. They laugh at death and the inevitable. They’re soldiers in an eternal trench war and a soldier’s dark humor is often a disturbing melange of gritty acceptance of reality and irrational bravery. The soldiers of the Wall don’t fight anymore for the Empire, they fight for themselves. The Brass saw that and she couldn't leave them alone. Maybe she isn’t even the original Brass anymore - the Sea Wall is hard even for dragons.

And, finally, the Copper. This one got the spotlight (together with the Green) in my last campaign. Basically, one of the seven main cities of the Dragon Empire isn’t ruled by humans: Concord. Concord is governed by elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes. It’s a political utopia, a perfect blend of those races’ best traits. In other words, it shouldn’t exist. People suspect that there’s an enchantment working over the city, keeping things running. Most accusing finger fall on the Elf Queen. But in my campaign they’re wrong: the culprit is the Cooper. I established that metallic dragons hoard not exactly treasures, but virtues (they hoard lots of precious things, but they must reflect their personal virtues). The Gold, for example, favors sacrifice, purity and innocence. He literally hoard those virtues - in other words, he “collects” paladins (who sacrifice their lives against demons and necromancers), things that represent purity (like gold, diamond, virgin princesses etc.) and innocence (yes, the greatest Lawful Good being in the setting may have a hidden palace in the clouds where he keeps the most beautiful and innocent children, preserved eternally young… 13th Age likes to play with classical tropes). The Brass hoards honor, courage and monsters… which is why she loves the Sea Wall. Well, the Copper values lore, mercy and concord. It is her presence that keeps the city of Concord in balance between elves, dwarves and similar races*. During my campaign, the PCs were manipulated into attacking the Copper’s virtues**, weakening her enchantment over Concord and almost provoking a war between the Dragon Emperor, the Dwarf King and the Elf Queen. In the end, the PCs got things under control and even rode copper dragons into battle against evil dark elves from the Moon, but that’s for another post.

I hope you liked this weird post about how a totally non-OSR game produced an amazing OSR-like setting and how, by making traditional D&D monsters unique, you can enliven your settings (if you still doubt it just read the first World of Greyhawk, the green books of AD&D 2nd or the amazing Birthright campaign setting, also for AD&D 2nd).

*There’s a great piece of lore in the Dragon Empire about the halfling hills mentioning that the place is untouchable by the woes of the world. Your exemplar Shire from Tolkien. Well, in my campaign that’s where the Copper stored the greatest part of her hoard.
**To best run the city, the Cooper invested her virtues in chosen NPCs, who were her proxies. At my campaign the party witnessed the murder of 2 of those Virtues and were manipulated into betraying the 3rd Virtue.