13th Age Mechanics in Runequest

This is post is some thoughts I have been having about applying some of the concepts and mechanics from the 13th Age game system published Pelgrane Press to the Runequest 6 rules from Design Mechanism.  13th Age is a d20 system with mechanics to promote interesting storytelling, while Runequest is the classic d100 system that has realistic grit and crunch (Rolemaster may have more specifically gory criticals and Harnmaster may have the most realistic medieval combat system, but Runequest is my preferred system to design worlds with).

I first heard about 13th Age when I saw the promotion for the 13th Age in Glorantha kickstarter. I was intrigued, and after reading some favourable blog reviews decided it looked worth backing. Having now read the 13th Age rules, I wish I could have included a lot of these big ideas when I was designing my current campaign world (Tarantium: musketeers from flying cities versus agents of evil empires and cults of ancient horror).

One Unique Thing

Every player character has one unique thing about them that separates them from every other individual in the campaign’s universe. This defines both the character and the universe by exclusion. The intent is that it provides a special flavor to the campaign and can assist the GM in determining how your character can interact with characters and story in the campaign. Your character’s unique should not provide general practical value in combat. That is not the intent. The intent is to open up story arcs and fun roleplaying opportunities.

I love the way this empowers the players when they are creating their characters.  I like to say yes when my players have cool character concepts. When I had a go with picking a unique for a character in a one-off D&D 5E game I took the first thing to pop into my head “Raised by ghosts”.  There is a lot of scope for character concepts that are well developed at the start of play (e.g. “I’m the Emperor’s bastard daughter”) and leaving things open to be developed in play (e.g. “I have a mysterious birthmark”).

Not providing an advantage in combat should help with game balance.

In a Runequest game I would allow the unique to override campaign restrictions (e.g. no one in Tarantium has skill with animistic magic), allow people to choose weird and exotic backgrounds, or to play various sentient races that are not usually open to players.  The core of Runequest is the Skill system, so I would also consider any requests for a player to spend Skill points on Skills that would not usually be open to a starting character (e.g. I’m a thief with training in a school of sorcery).

Icons and Relationships

The 13th Age Archmage Engine supports the concept of icons. An icon is a powerful NPC (non-playable character) that has a strong influence on the world outside of your campaign, yet may indeed aid or oppose your character over the course of your campaign, depending on the relationship your character has with the icon. Icons have their own story, alignment, and personality. The general knowledge and history about them may vary in depth and accuracy; they may be well-known or mysterious. They have their own relationships with other icons, too, which may be friendly, tolerable, or acrimonious. Your character may have relationships with certain icons. This relationship, if it exists, can be positive, conflicted, or negative.

The descriptions for icons are usually for very powerful individuals, or a small number of closely aligned and powerful entities.  Most write ups have 13 icons, although I was reminded of the Major Arcana from a Tarot deck a lot when reading . I think icons are useful when world building, as they force you to focus your design on your best ideas (and you should be able to come up with 13 strong ideas for icons). A problem I have in running campaigns, is that while some original ideas fade into the background, the number of NPCs and factions tends to proliferate at a rapid pace, and the campaign can end up a little unwieldy as a result.

Icon relationships can be handled with the Runequest Passion skills. Just to differentiate them, I would call them Icon Passions, and any other passions would be Private Passions.  Roll as per normal at the start of each episode in the campaign, with a critical success giving an unambiguous advantage, and an ordinary success an advantage with some complications. I think I would encourage the party as a whole to have at least one common icon relationship, as this gives them a reason to be together as a group.  I would be tempted to rebuild the character sheet, so that the unique is right in the middle-top of the front page of the character sheet, and then immediately adjacent to the unique description are the character’s icon relationship/passions, and their private passions. Then you can figure out where to put the characteristics and skills. I would then place all of the combat related stuff on a completely separate character sheet.

Pelgrane have a short blog on creating new icons. This puts emphasis four things about icons:

  • Connections: all icons are social by nature (Dragon under a mountain is not an icon, Dragon overlord of a city state surrounded by zombies is an icon)
  • Goals: all icons want something, and pursue it by any means available
  • Geography: most icons have a centre of power somewhere, and this may reflect the campaign scale (a game based in a single city state will be very different from a game involving 1,000 star systems)
  • Falvour: does it help make the game interesting?

Magic item quirks

Every magic item in is alive, in a sense, and possesses a personality you have to interact with when you start using the item, establishing and maintaining a rapport with it. What that rapport means varies from item to item and is usually controlled by the GM. Some items talk with their user. Others communicate in bursts of emotion or slight motion. Each item has a personality that is largely defined by its quirk. What you can count on as a default is that nearly all magic items want to be used and used well.

A feature of roleplaying campaigns, is that players tend to always accumulate more stuff. So much stuff that when you cast Detect Magic at them, they glow like a Christmas tree. The quirk system essentially says, if you rely too much on magic items, then you sacrifice some control over your character.

This is also relatively easy to work into Runequest using the Passion system. So your magic bonus can be directly linked to the level of Passion you have for that magic item (i.e. if you have adopted your Magic Sword’s Passion for “Kill all sorcerers” at 60% then you can augment your Combat Style Sword by +12%, but at the tail end of the fight you need to make a Willpower check not to start attacking the party’s own sorcerers). I have noticed that most of the players in my campaign have sunk a lot of skill points into having a good Willpower skill. So I think that rather than doing a straight Willpower versus Passion check in conflicting situations, you can make the Willpower check Easy for people with just one magic item, and then increase the difficulty grade by one for each additional magic item carried. If playing at a high campaign tier (100% skills, Mastery and Infinity rules, then increasing the number of magic items allowed before the difficulty grade is increased makes sense).

Escalation die

The escalation die represents a bonus to attacks as the fight goes on. At the start of the second round, the GM sets the escalation die at 1. Each PC gains a bonus to attack rolls equal to the current value on the escalation die. Each round, the escalation die advances by +1, to a maximum of +6. Monsters and NPCs do not add the escalation die bonus to their attacks. If the GM judges that the characters are avoiding conflict rather than bringing the fight to the bad guys, the escalation die doesn’t advance. If combat virtually ceases, the escalation die resets to 0.

The escalation die is an explicit cinematic bonus for the PCs as a fight progresses, unlike the karmic death spiral of attrition to Hit Points and expenditure of luck points as a Runequest fight plays out.  It might be something to try, but its not going to fit every Runequest campaign.  A lot of other feats and special abilities in 13th Age are also tied into the escalation die reaching a certain level.  So you could rework various Runequest Gifts and special powers to tie in with the Escalation die, but it would be a lot of work.

A +1 in a d20 game is equal to +5% in a d100 game. Tracking 5% modifiers is a bit fiddly, but an eventual bonus of 30% is huge in Runequest, as not only will characters hit more often, but those attacks are more likely to overcome the target’s defences.

Stuff that does not translate so well

A lot of the combat abstraction for armour and weapons, levels and hitpoints, simply won’t go into a Runequest system without changing it into something unrecogniseable. Some of the various feats, race and class abilities can be retweaked into the Gift system (which Runequest is more sparing with in allowing characters access to, as they usually come with a concomitant geas, passion or other roleplaying limit).  The minimum damage rule, where any miss results in damage to the enemy equal to character level, makes a lot of sense in a D&D style mountain of hit points boss fight, but not so much in Runequest where both PCs and NPCs are likely to have very similar hit point totals.

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