Tuesday, August 20, 2013

But what about MY story?

I picked up 13th Age last week and have been perusing it since then.  I had played the game at KantCon and had been reading a bit about it on the internet.  When the game finally showed up at my FLGS, I picked up a copy and got a free pdf version for good measure.

For those who don't know, 13th Age is a pared-down version of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Fewer class-related powers, fewer feats, no grid-based tactical movement.  There's a few odd additions like a d6 die whose number goes up each turn of combat in an encounter, triggering various effects in the PC's and the monsters to accelerate the action.

I've mentioned this before, but there are two aspects of PC creation that bear a bit more detail.  The first is the pre-generated epic-level NPC's who make up the power factions of the world: some good, some bad, some neither.  They are deliberately vague (e.g. the high priestess of the temple of light, the ruler of all the orcs in the land, etc.) so you could easily port them into your own world without too much hassle.  But the PC's get to establish a relationship with up to three of them, and the rules are designed to engage those relationships on odd occasions within the story of the game.  I'm reminded, in a way, of the old "Hunted" disadvantage in Champions, where you, the GM, could suddenly find yourself having to work one or two villainous organizations into the night's plot despite your own plans if you followed the roll of the dice.  That the relationships might be contrary between one PC or another is part of the design, intended to build a little drama into the group dynamic.  In my own playtest of the game, one player found himself instructed to steal the object that the rest of us had been hired to guard.  I can't imagine that working in a campaign setting.

The second is the "One Unique Thing" rule for character creation.  Basically, you can make up one thing about your gnome fighter or half-elf ranger that sets him or her apart from another similar race/class combination.  The unique aspect can not have implications that give him or her a combat advantage, but they can have a dramatic impact on the campaign.  There's a little internal tension within the two game designers about how gonzo these one unique things can be, but notions like "I'm the reincarnation of a fourteenth Icon (the name of the thirteen NPC demi-gods)" or "with my death, the universe ends" all appear to be in-bounds, since they were mentioned as examples.

There's a gaming meme about "snowflakes" out there, mostly about how much leeway you can give to player's when it comes to them nudging into the campaign's story.  The way I see it, the two rules mentioned above do pose some serious challenges to one type of campaign: the sandbox.  When you know who all the major players are, there's less sense of mystery when it comes to exploring your world.  Moreover, players who are clever, greedy, or needing to be the center of attention could easily hijack a campaign with their "one unique thing."  For at least one of the designers, this is no problem.  It helps that he has a "play off the cuff" style with a strong storytelling emphasis.  But I could see this being one of those battlegrounds that exist between players and GM's from time to time.

What's funny is that I read somewhere that 13th Age was to 4th Edition what Castles & Crusades was to 3rd Edition.  Insofar as both are simpler than their comparable editions of D&D, I agree.  But where C&C represented an attempt to bring an edition backwards to an older style of play, 13th Age draws in from the newer aspects of the gaming hobby--call them "narrativist" or "storytelling" or what have you.  It's got more to do with Burning Wheel or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying than BECMI or the like.

What are you feelings about "snowflakes" or players having more control over the campaign's backstory?  Comments welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Usually I prefer when its a bit more organic and/or developed in smaller bites.

    Case in point, my Elves, which many players over the years seem to really like.

    Initially, none of the PCs in the first campaign of my homebrew setting were Elven, so the only information they (and I) had on the Elves were some quick notes I had jotted down. The occasional question about them or encounter with them built on what little the Players knew but since no one was one they didn't know alot.

    This made them seem distant, mysterious, aloof, without my having to do anything to promote that.

    Eventually someone played an Elf, one who was a wanderer and a drifter of mixed heritage (Half-High/Half-Sylvan) and we added a bit to the mythology.

    Many years later when I revived the setting, we had a good number of Elves. As a result, their culture, history and personalities become much more developed, simply because the Player's actions, reactions and ideas added to what had already been established.