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.