The Peculiar Case of the Owlbear in 13th Age

The owlbear is an iconic D&D monster. As such, it is present in 13th Age, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s sneaky, brutal, and can even tear limbs off:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered* enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

*Its attacks hamper enemies until the end of its next turn, and it does 2 attacks whenever the escalation die is even.

A mechanically simple yet thematic ability, something 13th Age excels at. Without it, the owlbear is a decent if a bit bland monster. With it, though, the owlbear deserves an entire post. Here, then, is a detailed look at all things owlbear.

Gamechanger

The owlbear has its own victory condition, distilled into a single ability and distinct from dealing damage. It even departs as soon as this condition is achieved, leaving the maimed PC behind. The fight really is over at that point, the purpose of the encounter fulfilled, and it’s a lucky coincidence that the mangled PC couldn’t have put up much of a fight anymore. It doesn’t make sense from the in-game point of view, to leave the perfectly edible and weakened prey behind, but it plays out much better this way. The party now has to deal with their bleeding comrade – unless they decide they need the limb to ease reattachment, in which case the fight becomes a chase, a different scene with different goals.

Furthermore, should the owlbear achieve its victory condition, it will have a significant impact on the story. Importantly, you are not in control of this: you can’t choose to have it win by scoring a critical hit. This means you shouldn’t introduce an owlbear into the game unless you’re ready to face either outcome. Which says a lot about our expectations and the nature of D&D, when regular deathly conflict is not expected to change the course of the game.

There is a cop-out, though. The ability text is ambiguous, and it doesn’t have to mean the whole limb was lost. It could be just a flesh wound, a chunk torn off from an otherwise functioning extremity. Just a stun on a crit. How boring that suddenly seems.

Not a monster, a predator

The owlbear changes the typical dynamic between PCs and monsters. Facing an owlbear has consequences. It is not a foe to be thwarted, it is a fellow predator, dangerous beyond the abstractness of hit point loss. Hit points have always had a tenuous relation with actual bodily harm. It is easy to shrug them off. Sudden loss of an arm makes a PC vulnerable in a way having only 5 hp left (or even being killed!) can’t. As such, it can also be uncomfortable and disruptive to the fantasy that is D&D. While many groups wouldn’t care, it is still something to consider before you introduce the creature.

Sometimes the owlbear gets you

Crippling PCs is somewhat mean, one might argue. Fortunately, the dice provide the GM with plausible deniability, absolution through not just rules, but randomness as well. It’s not the GM’s fault the owlbear is so nasty, and it’s really not the GM’s fault it rolled a 20. This is, of course, a lie, but a very convenient lie.

There’s precious little PCs can do to avoid getting maimed, either. Limb loss coincides with damage being dealt, but the two are not directly connected. While PCs spend the whole game interacting with damage and can have various abilities to negate or overcome it, the owlbear really doesn’t care. They can try and disengage any time they get hit, as it’s only the repeat attack that has a chance to tear a limb off. This may even be appropriate, a wolf pack tactics of distraction and flanking. Yet it seems like it won’t necessarily be doable in a given situation, and it certainly won’t be reliable.

No, the only way to assuredly not get your limbs torn off is not to engage the owlbear at all. Therefore, if worst does come to worst, it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t the GM’s fault. It really was the owlbear that got you.

Perceived threat

After all of this talk of limbs torn being torn off, a question naturally arises: does this mean that an owlbear that failed to execute its signature move has failed as a monster, not a predator but a sad bag of hit points, a Chekov’s Gun that never fired? After all, the owlbear is not likely to actually tear a limb off. It needs to score a critical hit against a target it’s hit on the previous turn: even when fighting a couple of owlbears, that’s nowhere near a given. At a glance, this looks like a typical misapplication of goblin dice: a swingy roll with high impact on the game. Multiple rolls throughout the fight improve the situation, making it less of a freak accident if it does happen, but the crucial fact remains: the PCs are the “goblins” whose fate is being decided here.

It is fortunate, then, that the owlbear’s primary contribution to the game is not the loss of limbs. It’s the fear. The “holy shit” moment when the players learn of what the owlbear can do. The tension of every roll. This is what makes it an exceptional monster. The threat is more important than its unlikely fulfillment. The players will pay attention when you put the beast before them.

A mismatched hybrid

The owlbear is a ruse, a contradiction, a beak sewn onto a bear. It’s more akin to a Medusa than, Orcus help you, a random encounter. It is an awkward fit for a game about slaughtering monsters without thought or consequence. But just like its strength as a monster to be fought is not in what it does, but what it could do, its strength as a monster to be dissected is not in what it is, but what it represents. Namely, a meaningful, dramatic scene with multiple clear consequences – an owlbear of a scene, if you will.

It doesn’t really live up to its potential. It creates a new victory condition, but doesn’t allow players to affect it. It creates consequences, even if they’re not fitting for the game. And still. Even though all we found was just a bunch of feathers covered in glue, there had been something there, a pair of huge yellow eyes that blinked once and disappeared into the darkness, making us wonder why we’d fight anything else. Isn’t roleplaying, in a way, just chasing owlbears?

First Impressions: 13th Age

A lot has been said about 13th Age in the last  month or two. It’s the hot new thing (along with Numenera). If you want to find out about it, I recommend an excellent and highly detailed write-up by Rob Donoghue. Instead, I’ll provide just what the title promises: impressions.

It’s D&D

Very much so. Or at least one of its many aspects. More kick-the-door-in, less character optimization. This unmistakable D&D nature of 13th Age is what lead to our group being so excited to play it. We’re the exact target audience for this game: most of us have started with the 3rd edition, moved on to 4th, then branched out in search of narrative fulfillment and different experiences. After half a year of playing indie games, flipping through class descriptions of 13th Age is like coming back home. Remarkable, how imprinted D&D is in our gaming DNA.

We’re also the only target audience. It relies on the understanding of D&D, of its methods, cliches and even terminology, that other players simply won’t have. All the playful commentary designers have put in the book is based on the assumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about. I have no idea if a newbie player will be able to make heads or tails of it. Another fact that can be considered a drawback is that at times 13th Age is unnecessarily D&D-like, reproducing not just the core experience but some of the trappings as well. There is a fine line between nostalgia and repeatedly stepping on the same rakes.

Still, 13th Age offers a number of “fixes” to long-standing D&D issues. They are elegant and, like many other elements of the game, can be stolen. In fact, many feel like someone’s house rules. For instance, PCs only get the benefits of full rest after they’ve had 4 fights (even though spells and the like are still called “daily” abilities, which causes some confusion). Or take resurrection: a cleric can only bring a soul back from the dead a few times over his or her life, with the process getting harder and harder. Similarly, a soul can only be brought back a few times. Suddenly, death matters without removing the option of  coming back to life.

Vigorous handwaving

13th Age puts a lot of trust in its GMs. After 4e, it can come off a bit jarring at times, as there are plenty of abilities with only the barest of guidelines followed by “the GM will make up something appropriate”. These work more often than not. I particularly loved Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations, a wizard talent that lets the player make up long-winded names for their spells in order to gain a thematically fitting benefit. That’s the sort of vancian casting I can get behind. In the very first game we’ve had, hold portal was worded as Empress’s solid rejection. It not only closed the door, but filled whoever tired to open it with feelings of inadequacy and sudden sexual frustration.

Another example would be the game’s approach to monsters. Monsters are balanced in terms of numbers such as defenses and attacks appropriate for their level, but their abilities are left up to the GM: many monsters come with “nastier specials”. Feel like monsters die too quickly? Use them. Or not, up to you.

That’s the strength of the game: it recognizes when the flavor is more important than the rules, or when the rules cannot actually support the flavor and it’s better to vigorously handwave the issue away. It is also a cheap way out.

For the love of d20

13th Age goes out of its way to use the d20, more so than any other d20 system. Many classes have so-called flexible attacks, which trigger if they’ve rolled specific values on the d20. Similarly, many monsters have abilities that trigger on specific rolls. This results in a lot of information being compressed in a single d20 roll, removing some of the analysis paralysis so prevalent in 4e.

The drawback, of course, is that players may feel like they don’t have a choice at all at times, just rolling the die and seeing what happens. While monsters function almost on an auto-pilot, players are somewhat better off. They do get intersecting triggers, as well as the choice of which abilities to take during character creation. The trade-off of choice in-play for speed of play seems to be working out so far for us.

When 4e just came out, the very idea of encounter powers caused some players to do a double-take: “if I know how to do this maneuver, why can’t I just keep doing it?” The correct answer to this particular dilemma was “that’s the way the game works, don’t think too hard about it”. But if you must, imagine the circumstances for the maneuver only occur occasionally in the chaos of battle. It just so happens to be right at the time when you decide to use the encounter power, a retroactive justification. Flexible attacks of 13th Age remove this discrepancy: you do know how to do whatever it is you do, but the flux state of the fight represented by the d20 roll may or may not enable you to use your skills.

Which makes me think of a system taking this idea, d20 as chaotic state of battle, to its logical conclusion. You roll the d20 at the start of your turn, and it dictates what you can do. High rolls are attacks (probably automatically hitting), low rolls are defensive, middle ground is utility. You never waste your turn because you never fail a roll. But you may not be able to do what you really wanted to do, or at least to do it well. Something to ponder later.

Escalation to victory

Another innovative element, the escalation die is fantastic. It is a d6 that at the start of the second round of combat is set to 1, and incremented each round thereafter. It is added to attack rolls of PCs, making sure fights don’t drag on while at the same time providing a disincentive for alpha-striking. But it does more than that. It unlocks some abilities of characters, or makes them more powerful or reusable. Similarly, it can also be used as a pacing mechanism not just for the violence characters inflict, but the state of the encounter. The idea is awesome, but I’m not yet sure just how flexible the single constantly incrementing d6 is, especially considering some abilities can affect it.

There is a more subtle element to it. The escalation die provides a dramatic swing in PCs’ favour as the fight progresses. They may start on the back foot, but, armed with the escalating attack bonus, will bring the fight back around, again and again. A simple yet efficient mechanic.

Icons

Yet another new element, Icons are a different way of interacting with the setting. They give players control over which major NPCs will get involved in the story, thus shaping it with their interests. While the idea is great, the mechanic itself is a bit simplistic: you roll a d6 for each Icon relationship at the start of a sessions, and get a benefit on a 6 or a complicated along with a benefit on a 5, at some point during play. It takes getting used to. So far, we’re just managing to get the Icons (or their organizations) involved, not necessarily deriving benefits from them. It’s certainly a different way of running games. Its purposeful simplicity makes it feel like an add-on, tacked on top of the system.

At the same time, while at a glance this seems like the idea that’s easiest to steal, that may not be the case. It’s set up for a world with 13 major NPCs. Depending on your setting and the scale of your game, you’ll probably want different numbers and, in fact, different definitions of just what an Icon is.

Icons are also prone to the syndrome of goblin dice: the rolls are extremely infrequent, and their influence is potentially massive. If you don’t roll 5+ for a few sessions, your Icons do absolutely nothing – especially unpleasant in a one-shot. And on the other end of the spectrum, if players have rolled too many “successes” at the start of a game, it’s almost impossible to meaningfully incorporate them all. There’s a simple fix I’ll have to try: instead of rolling a die for each relationship, roll a single die, with values on it corresponding to your Icons. Typically, a d8: 1 means no relationships trigger; 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 correspond to your three Icons, even numbers being complicated benefits and odd numbers being just benefits; and 8 lets you roll twice (duplicates rerolled, if you care). For a one off, or if you don’t care to reproduce the full spectrum of possible results, don’t bother with 1 and 8, and instead roll a straightforward d6 with 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 corresponding to Icons. You could further refine this, and perhaps use a d12 once PCs get 4 relationships (10+ being a roll twice result).

Try it!

Overall I’m rather enjoying my foray into the 13th Age. It feels somewhat raw at times, and overly nostalgic at others. But it’s full of charm and quirkiness and energy. It makes you want to roll up a character just to see how a class would play – an almost forgotten feeling. If you liked D&D, any D&D, check it out.