Curses in 13th Age

Sometimes, characters do something they know they shouldn’t, as they let their greed or boneheadedness get the better of them. Cursing them is a traditional punishment. Here you’ll find a rules variant for doing just that, advice on making up your own curses as well as a few examples which range from silly to deadly.

A fair-y curse

Generally speaking, the PCs should know what they’re doing is wrong, or at least dangerous. It’s not a punishment if it’s unexpected, that’s just you being mean. Stealing magic items from a burial mound is worthy of a curse. So is being rude to a witch. Or an Icon, for that matter. A lot of curses come from fairy tales, and those typically carry some moral lesson.

There’s an important distinction to be made, though: this moral lesson is meant for the characters, not the players. To put it another way, you shouldn’t punish the players for “playing wrong”, punish characters for doing wrong instead. These curses are not a tool for a GM to passive-aggressively correct players’ behavior, they’re meant to make the characters’ lives more interesting.

Iconic interference

Curses hijack the icon relationships characters have, as they fundamentally come from the same source: Icons. Hopefully, you didn’t actually get cursed by an Icon, but the person, spirit, or tradition you wronged had ties to one nonetheless. This immediately poses an interesting question: what sort of behavior would a particular Icon dislike so much their followers could curse you? That which sufficiently annoys the Archmage, the Orc Lord would find amusing.

It doesn’t have to be personally offensive to the Icon, either. You could have a positive relationship with the Elf Queen, but the hag that cursed you is her grand niece, thrice removed. Finally, it doesn’t even have to be a current Icon. Whether fallen or rising, there are stranger quasi-Icons in the world than the thirteen we know. The Gold King and the Forest that Walks are detailed in Bestiary 2, and you of course could invent more. In fact, you could count overcoming a curse as a campaign success against them.

Curses 101

The cursed character gains a special relationship with the Icon that caused their curse, if they don’t have one already. They roll it at the start of every session as they would a regular one, though it grants them no usual benefits. From then on, whenever they roll a 1 or 2 for their cursed relationship, whether they had one before or not, their curse strikes: some time during the session, the GM should conspire to inflict its specific downside on the character. The GM can optionally do the same as the drawback of rolling a 5 on a pre-existing relationship.

This downside is unique to each curse. It shouldn’t be something that removes a character from play, instead making their life interestingly unpleasant for the duration. Some curses offer the cursed character an opportunity to succeed at some task despite the complications it presents, others merely require persevering through it. Each such success helps the character take a step towards overcoming the curse, either providing them with a piece of information they need, or weakening the curse directly. The third success (or simple survival) is enough to break the curse.

Six hexes

Curse of Transformation

Transgression: You’ve needlessly harmed an animal that was dear to an Icon’s servant, or that served an Icon itself.

Associated Icons: High Druid, Priestess, Elf Queen.

When the curse strikes: you transform into a defenseless critter yourself. A frog is somewhat traditional, though a rat works just as well. Your clothing and maybe even your empty skin fall to the ground. Generally speaking, this shouldn’t cause your character to miss fights, instead causing them grief when they try to do something important, or turning an everyday action into something highly inconvenient. The transformation lasts for a scene.

Curse of Restlessness

Transgression: You’ve robbed a tomb.

Associated Icons: Lich King, Dwarf King.

When the curse strikes: Ghosts of the dead you disturbed torment your nights, demanding you perform a service for them, something you can do this session. This may involve avenging a wrong done to them, fulfilling a task they left unfinished, or helping out their still living relative. Until you do, you only regain 4 recoveries whenever you have full heal-up.

Curse of Misfortune

Transgression: You mocked an Icon servant’s poor luck.

Associated Icons: Prince of Shadows, Elf Queen, Diabolist.

When the curse strikes: For the entire session, humiliating coincidences follow you: whenever you roll an odd number on a d20, something minor yet unpleasant happens. Drinks get spilled on you in a tavern, the pit you fall into had been used as a latrine by the dungeon’s denizens, your pants split as you swing your sword, etc..

Curse of Charity

Transgression: You refused to offer help when it was needed.

Associated Icons: Priestess, Great Gold Wurm.

When the curse strikes: This curse is special, in that its effects increase each time it strikes, and don’t go away until it’s done with you. The curse of charity is kinda-sorta a magic item, or at least it counts against the number of magic items you can attune to without them overwhelming you. It starts at one such “slot”, and increases the number by one each time it strikes. The “quirk” it imparts is, unsurprisingly, heedless charity – the character may go as far as giving away their hard-won magic items to those who may need them. While they don’t have to do so, it’s a good way to get back under the limit of magic items they can handle.

It takes three acts of genuine charity to break this curse. These include donating magic items, as well as other significant sacrifices. Giving the items you can no longer use to party members doesn’t count, though.

Curse of Cowardice

Transgression: You fled from battle with the servants of an Icon. This curse could be the campaign loss you incur, affecting the one who convinced everyone to flee.

Associated Icons: Orc Lord, Crusader.

When the curse strikes: For one fight during the session, all enemies gain fear aura (see p200 of the core book) that only affects you. You make progress towards overcoming the curse only if you display bravery during the fight, which is left up to the GM to determine – this may be standing and fighting despite the fear penalties, but could involve some other act of heroism as well.

Curse of the Labyrinth

Transgression: You’ve stolen from an Icon’s servant.

Associated Icons: Archmage, Emperor, Golden King, The Three.

When the curse strikes: At the start of one fight during the session, walls rise up that only you can see, separating you from everyone else. To others, it looks like you’re needlessly zigzagging through the battlefield, avoiding the opposition. To escape this illusory labyrinth, you have to get to the other side of the battlefield. Once you do, the illusion fades.

You can’t see or engage any enemies, as you perceive labyrinthine walls between you, so you have to move around them. They can, however, attack or engage you, seemingly leaping through false walls or acting as triggered traps. The curse makes any enemy that engages you look like a minotaur. In addition, such enemies gain the following trait:

Lost in the maze: Whenever the cursed target disengages from the “minotaur”, it loses the sense of direction – or, as it’s all an illusion, the exit shifts. The GM secretly rolls a d4 to determine on which side of the battlefiled the new exit is located. It takes a move action and a hard skill check to learn where to go. Alternatively, the cursed character can try their luck and pick a direction.

If the battle ends while you’re still trapped in the maze, it fades away. However, this doesn’t count as progressing towards dealing with the curse.

Go forth and curse

As you can see, the mechanical framework is very simple, yet allows for a great variety of curses. Much like the Icon relationships they parasitize on, curses are what you make them to be. And if you do make up your own, feel free to post them in the comments!

Odds & Ends

I’ve done it. I’ve finished my long-running 4e campaign. 140 or so gaming sessions, 3.5 years. I feel I’ve squeezed every last drop out of the system, done everything I could have with it. I won’t be GMing it anymore, which means I won’t be writing about it anymore. That is, after I make a couple more final posts about everything I’ve learned. But worry not, my 10 or so regular readers, I have plans for this blog.

Now, then. Several small ideas, not worthy of a blog post on their own, presented to you in bulk. Continue reading

A Fistful of Gold Pieces

Come in son, take a seat. Lets talk about money. “Money” is an incredibly complex idea, one that permeates our society and influences many aspects of our life. Its roles are many, its mechanics are arcane, its biases are poorly understood by most of us. Generally, we accept that the more of it you have the better, and stop there. Its no wonder money and wealth in our games, being simplified representations of some aspects of real world money, are complex matters as well.

Let us look at the roles money play in roleplaying games. Just as with its real-world counterpart, we tend to accept it at face value in whatever system we use, which means we accept whatever the game designers assumed its purpose would be – not necessarily something we want to do! This is particularly true of go-to systems like D&D, which suffer a bit from being “generic” (not to mention a certain Generic system here): they have a particular purpose behind them, yet they get used for all sorts of applications, to which they may not be well suited. So, what is money? What are the categories of its usage in games? Continue reading

Dragon Tipping

This idea was brought on by recent discussions of save-or-die, as well as omnipresent lamentation of the way solo monsters get brought down by status effects in 4e, and finally something I have touched upon in a past post: intuitively, it should be harder to trip a dragon than it is to trip a goblin. But how, and why?

Because a dragon is a solo monster. This suggests that it should be tougher, not to mention more dignified than to spend half the battle on its back. A spell that would stop a goblin’s heart should merely give it hiccups. See the common thread? Status effects inflicted upon solo monsters should be inherently weaker. This is what the +5 bonus to saves tried to achieve, but we all know how that fared. This is tangentially related to the thought that power is different from level, and that solo/elite/standard/minion actually describe the difference in tiers between a monster and the PCs. Now, what can we do?

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4eLite

Following is a substantial mod of 4e, an attempt to cut away many of its unnecessary complications by getting rid of legacy elements and any attempts at simulation. Pure gamism & narrativism. No Red Queen’s races, no sacred cows. At the same time, the goal was to keep most of the original material viable and functioning essentially the same way. Not many explanations as to why certain elements are removed are provided – that’d take too long, and this post focuses on actual rules you can play with. Feel free to ask, though.

As I was writing this, one concern kept creeping up: would it still feel like D&D? I get rid of some of its essential elements, after all. But having run several sessions with this rule set, I can confidently say it hasn’t diminished our enjoyment of the game in the slightest. Your mileage may vary, obviously – let me know if you try it.

Why bother?

4e tries very hard to be balanced. It knows it works best with all the numbers within a certain range of one another. It shouldn’t be too hard to hit your opponent, just as it shouldn’t be too hard for the opponent to hit you. Attempting a task reasonable for your character should result in success more often than failure, but still not be guaranteed. With that in mind it goes out of its way to make sure that no matter how far you advance and what abilities you take, you won’t jump off the track. Naturally, this approach presents all sorts of constraints on characters and monsters, most of which are entirely unnecessary. Instead of moving the target along with projected average character progression, it’s much easier to set the critical values to what we want them to say, bolt them down and move on. Which is where this mod comes in.

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Marvelous initiative

New Marvel RPG came out a few days ago to general praise of various roleplaying blogs. I haven’t read it yet, though it’s quickly making its way to the top of the “to play” list. In the  meantime, this post caught my attention. It describes the way initiative works in MRPG (is that the official abbreviation?), as well as some reasoning behind it. And it’s trivial to adapt to most other games with minimal changes. Here’s how I’d use it in 4e. I’m assuming you’ve read the post or the game itself, so won’t describe it in unnecessary detail.

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Tactful tactics

The old dungeon crawl philosophy of going from room to room, kicking down doors and dealing with whatever’s inside one encounter at a time is very prevalent in the design of 4e. In some ways, it is even more pronounced. Whereas in older editions, to successfully overcome a particular encounter you might have needed something prepared beforehand – ropes, candles, 10-foot poles, particular spell, etc. (I’m speculating here, as I started playing with the release of D&D 3.0), in 4e pretty much any challenge PCs encounter they are expected to be able to overcome with just their innate abilities. Being perfectly spherical in nature as they are, they don’t need to bring holy water to a fight with a vampire. What happens if they do? Continue reading

I kick sand in his face!

In the previous post I’ve discussed a method to make environmental effects and terrain powers more engaging to the players, making the battlefield itself matter. Still, those are somewhat big things, and it’s not always easy to come up with an appropriate terrain effect to a given encounter. And not every encounter needs them. All too often, a battlefield doesn’t have any major features to it: it’s just a forest clearing or a tavern or what have you. Sure, there are moss-covered stones on which people could slip or furniture to be thrown around, but it just doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant a terrain feature. The DM has enough to work on as it is, so if a terrain feature doesn’t immediately spring to mind, they’re probably better off concentrating on something else.

Why not let players bring the scene to life? It’s a roleplaying game after all, shouldn’t they do their part in making terrain interactive by, well, interacting with it? Unfortunately, while every now and then someone at the table comes up with a flavourful explanation of how a particular power worked out in particular surroundings, most of the time everyone’s too preoccupied with what the game says matters: mechanics. It doesn’t really matter how you managed to achieve a given effect, as long as you have a power to do it. Tactical combat is complicated and enjoyable enough, and with no reward for thinking about anything other than powers and positioning inherent in the game, we prioritize. Battlefield becomes decoration.

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Death and Danger in D&D

This topic has been preying on my mind lately. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to resurrect this blog. Not even blog death is permanent! The question I’ve been asking myself is this: what purpose does death play in RPGs, and D&D4e specifically?

1. Excitement
D&D is a game about heroic combat. Kill monsters and take their stuff. Sure, there’s roleplaying, complicated plots, moral quandaries, loves and betrayals and all that good stuff. But eventually there comes a time when you have to kill monsters. And take their stuff. Which is fine, tactical combat is fun, and I wouldn’t be running D&D if I didn’t want it to be a big part of my game.

When you regularly fight and kill monsters, sometimes they get to kill you. It’s only natural. If they could never beat you, the thrill would be gone. The threat of death makes combat exciting. It is this constant threat of death that makes easy resurrection necessary.
TPKs as a result of a string of bad rolls and poor tactical choices is the extreme example of this.

2. Consequences
More often than not, character death comes as a direct result of their choices. Heroes choose to defend the village from the orcs. Potential death is the price they’re willing to pay for the safety of the villagers. It’s what makes them heroes.

An ultimate case of this is final sacrifice. Someone has to stay and guard the bomb until it explodes. “I’m taking you bastards down with me”. Certain death for the cause.

3. Utter Failure
Sometimes characters fail completely and irredeemably through faulty planning and diverging mental pictures of the DM and players (this is a topic for another post). “You said what to the lich-king?”. In this case, death could even become a cut-scene, where the character is unable to oppose the greatly superior force that munches on him or her. Once the story gets to this point, the logic and consistency of the world demands for the character(s) to die. It is a penalty for failure.

4. End of a Story
Death can be a logical end to a character’s path. He has gained revenge on the archenemy, and now can be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. 3.5’s Complete Divine, I believe, had a very interesting note on resurrection requiring not merely agreement from the dead, but drive and willpower to make the journey back, too. Afterlife, even a ghastly one, brings peace and a sense of belonging. Only those with unfinished business in the mortal realm and great motivation (i.e. PCs) can break away from it.

5. Start of Another One
Depending on the cosmology of your setting and the circumstances of the death, resurrecting the character may require an adventure in itself. Free their soul from the clutches of the evil god in whose temple the character died; help the soul escape the Underworld.

Of these roles death plays in RPGs (and feel free to suggest more in the comments), 4 is entirely in player’s hands, just as 5 is in DM’s. 3 is up to them both. These points don’t really require system’s intervention. Which leaves 1 and 2, excitement and consequences. Continue reading