13th Age RPG The Black Hack

The 13th Hack – Part 1

In my left hand, the 13th Age SRD.  Or rulebook if you’ve got it.  Big, weighty, gorgeous, full-colour, tome of everything you need to run an RPG in the Dragon Empire and beyond.  It’s my go-to game for fantasy gaming.  Or it was…

In my right hand, The Black Hack.  19 pages long, including the obligatory license page.  Simple. Streamlined. Sweet.  Pares everything down to bare bones and makes gaming on the fly an absolute joy.  Grab the dungeon dice or cards, grab an old module that’s been collecting dust on the shelf, convert as you go along.

It seems somehow logical that left and right should meet…

13th Age is, if approached from a certain direction, the ultimate gaming condiment set, full of tasty morsels that can season and spice whatever game you happen to play.  You don’t have to use all the rules, just the bits and pieces you want to.

The Escalation Die

Get the biggest damn D6 you can comfortably lift.  Round 2 of combat, it goes on the table, 1-up.  Given that TBH is a roll-under system, you subtract that from your d20 rolls in combat.  Criticals now occur on 0 or 1.  20 is still a fumble and if you roll your stat bang-on you trigger a GM Intrusion.  (Okay, so I’m stealing that from Monte Cook’s Cypher system games, basically it’s carte blanche for the GM to introduce something into the game – reinforcements for one side or the other, your weapon breaks, something interesting happens.  And it’s got to keep the story moving forward).

Round 3 the Escalation Die shifts to 2.  Criticals now occur on -1, 0 or 1. Fumble on 20, GMI on rolling your stat exactly before modifying.

Round 4… You’re clever, you get the idea.

Go nuts with this.  Base monster powers off the die.  Is it odd?  Is it even?  Can a nasty special monster also use the Escalation die?

Damage on Miss

Simple.  You fail to hit, you deal your level in damage to the creature you were attacking.  Point is, you’re the Big Damn Heroes and you’re there to kick arse and take names.  Even if you can’t write the names down, don’t have a pen, and couldn’t read them even if you did manage to write them down.  Yes, Barbarians, I’m looking at you here.

You can also play with the attack rolls.  Natural Even Hit, Odd Miss, exact hit…  Base powers off and around things like that.  A magical sword that deals double damage if you roll the exact number you need to hit.  A pair of gloves that grants you an extra action if you miss on a natural even roll.  Index cards come in handy, or post-it notes.


An idea I’ve already seen suggested as a skill system option in TBH elsewhere.  Characters in 13th Age don’t have skills, they’ve got Backgrounds.  Maybe you were the Chief Gardener for the Chef of Ulambril.  Roll with Advantage whenever you can blag a use for that Background.  Oh, and you’ve also introduced the Chef of Ulambril into the game world – what made you leave her service, what did she cook, what did you grow? Where or what is Ulambril?  Interesting enrichment to the game world in a single sentence.  Every Background should add almost as much to the game canon as “The Doctor’s Wife” did.


These are the movers and shakers of the world.  Not gods, but rulers of kingdoms, of guilds, the powers behind the throne perhaps.  13th Age gives you 13 laid out and beautifully illustrated, the SRD gives you 13 more.  And you can find more online or make up your own.

Each player gets to have a relationship with 1 icon at 1st level, gaining another relationship every 4 levels – so 1st (1), 5th (2), 9th (3).  Relationships can be Positive – the icon likes you and wishes to help.  Conflicted – the icon is like a cat, it doesn’t really care if you live or die, it may help you, it may wind itself around your legs when you start to walk down the stairs.  Negative – the icon hates you and will do everything in it’s power to ensure you fail.  Wait, that’s more like a cat.

At the beginning of the session, roll a d6 for each relationship.  On a 1, your icon will exert some influence to assist you (positive or conflicted) or hinder you (negative).  On a 6, the opposite happens and you could find yourself working alongside crack troopers of the Skeleton Lord to steal a rare ingredient from the gardens of Ulambril (no, I still don’t know where they are or what’s growing there).

The 13th Age Icon mechanics are different.  Use them if you like.

Next Time on the 13th Hack…

Character classes! Monsters! Powers! Levelling up!


13th Age Cypher

Instant Backstory – Just Add Imagination

Good morning!  I am the newest member of the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom (aka the Roundtable formerly known as the Cypher System Bloggers), it’s our duty to take a look at role-playing game system mechanics an an inter-system, cross-dimensional kind of way (well, that’s what it says on the name badge).  Specifically the main man himself, +Lex Starwalker, posed the following question:

“What is a favorite mechanic or idea you’ve encountered in an RPG that you think would work well in other games?  Please explain the mechanic/idea, tell us a bit about the game it comes from, and give some ideas of how it could be used in other games.  You can discuss more than one mechanic or idea if you like.”

The trick is to do this without simply holding up a copy of 13th Age and saying: “This.  Use this.”


Far back in the dawn of my roleplaying time, I played Traveller.  At the time, it was the only option for science fiction roleplaying unless you wrote up your own system.  At the time it was one of the “Big Three” that dominated the gaming world – you had Advanced Dungeons and Dragons for fantasy gaming, Call of Cthulhu for horror and Traveller for SF.  There were one or two other games around, notably Runequest, but that was really about it.  But I digress.

I had a Scout character, Sam.  Things were going well.  His UPP (Universal Personality Profile, Traveller’s stat bar) was all letters, no numbers at all!  Now in Traveller you’ve got a series of tables you roll on during character creation to see what sort of stuff your character got up to before becoming an adventurer – and one of the rolls you’ve got to make is survival.  He’d successfully made his rolls to join the Scouts, get a ship, been on a number of successful missions…  And then, rolling to see if he’s survived a routine patrol, he died.  We hadn’t even started the first adventure!  The GM, being a fairly standard-issue Traveller GM, shrugged and we started again.  I think it took us 3 attempts before we got a character to survive all the way to the start of the first adventure!

(In later games, we house-ruled that if you died during character creation that was the point you retired.)

So dying during character creation in Traveller isn’t exactly the best thing that could happen to you but up to that point you knew an awful lot about your character, more than you normally do.  You knew how old your character was, what he’d done between signing up and starting their adventuring career, how many times they’d been promoted, what skills they’d picked up along the way.  In short, you had a decent CV and all from a few dice rolls.  It took no longer to make a Traveller character than an AD&D or Call of Cthulhu character but you knew far more about them and you had a good range of options for the GM to link your character to the rest of the group, far more than the usual “You’re all in the tavern/spaceport/University library when…”

And that’s the mechanic I’m looking at here:  Backstory.

Let’s take a look at the party in the 13th Age game I’m running at home:  We’ve a Dark Elf Sorcerer, a High Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and an Elven Cleric (that’s just a standard-issue Elf, not High, Dark, Wood…).  What ties them together? Well, beyond needing to find a way to get back to the future without being turned into skeletal servants by the Undying Pharaoh.  In 13th Age we’ve got the Backgrounds and Icon Relationships.  (See? I knew this would come back to 13th Age. So many good ideas, so many wonderful little mechanics.  Just buy the damn thing!)


This is where 13th Age wins over AD&D (disclaimer: The last edition of AD&D I played was 2nd).  Backgrounds replace skills in 13th Age, they’re broad-brush things that not only flesh out the character they also add detail to the world.  Here we’ve an inkling as to what the characters did before they became adventurers.  The wizard studied at the hands of the Archmage, the cleric was once a landscape gardener and rabbit warren keeper (you’d be amazed how often those skills can come in handy).  So they didn’t spring into the gameworld aged… well, alright, we don’t know how old these characters are but that’s not important right now.  They didn’t just appear fully-formed like amnesiacs – they know how to cast spells, pick locks, breath poisonous gas, they just don’t know how they know.

For those who don’t know about Icon Relationships, characters have 3 points to spend and 13 Icons – basically the movers and shakers of the world – to spend them on.  Relationships can be positive, negative, or conflicted.  A positive relationship indicates you’re on good terms with that Icon and her supporters, a negative relationship just the opposite.  Conflicted relationships are the equivalent of setting your Facebook status to “It’s Complicated”.   Looking across the 4 character sheets in front of me I can see that 2 characters share a relationship with the Archmage – one positive, one conflicted.  So we’ve a former pupil (who left under dubious circumstances – conflicted) and the star pupil from the same class (positive).  Instant backstory, very little work required.  One who hates the Orc Lord, one who has a dubious relationship – basically indicating the Thief will work for anyone prepared to pay him for his services.

What both Backgrounds and Icon Relationships do is provide hooks to tie the PC to the world and give the players a chance to add elements in that they want to explore.  They’re suggestions for the GM to build adventure elements on.  A good group can run an entire campaign based off the ideas that are sparked from these 2 elements.

My new favourite system, Cypher, the engine powering Numenera and The Strange, has connections to the starting adventure and the other characters baked right in to character creation as well – and they depend entirely on what descriptor and focus a player chooses.  A Charming character will have an entirely different set of options to connect to the starting adventure than a Forceful one, a character who Wears a Sheen of Ice will have different links to the other PCs than one who Works the Back Alleys.

I know there are other games out there that do this.  One of the versions of Cyberpunk, memory fails me as to which one, had the Lifepath (actually that was an R Talsorian speciality, IIRC).  Achtung! Cthulhu gets you to play out little vignettes from your character’s past, adding in interactions with other characters – picture these as flashbacks in your favourite TV show where you find out just how 2 characters know each other and why they’re acting all hostile.

Traveller’s tables are probably overkill, spawned from a game that needed a degree in mathematics or some serious calculator-fu to do planetary system generation or the more in-depth ship building from High Guard.  But the 13th Age Backgrounds approach can be brought to other games pretty easily…  Those high-level skills a character has.  Get them to write a 1 or 2 word note for how they picked them up.  That skill they’ve only got 5% in? Why. Why does the character have that?  What did they do that gave them “Guitar, 5%” – maybe their old music teacher is about to call them for help…

This is one of those mechanics you don’t really need to get a game going – and for a one-shot you probably wouldn’t use it (except for the 13th Age ones.  You should always use them).  But for longer games?  Essential.

Now. Time to send you off to read epistles from greater minds than mine.  Or at least different minds.  Other minds.  The rest of the Roundtable:

13th Age FAE

13th Age of Fate Accelerated – Part 1

Before we begin, for those who don’t know, a role-playing game (or RPG) is a way to tell stories as a group – one person sets the scene, the rest have characters described in terms of their attributes, skills, abilities and powers.  One might play a fighter, wielding a magic sword to take down hordes of goblins.  One might play a powerful wizard, hurling fireballs into the fray.  Success and failure is determined by a collection of unusual-shaped dice and how high (or low) you roll.  The grandfather of them all is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), due for an upgrade this July.  However, in the decades since it was released, it has seen hundreds of alternatives hit the shelves…

In my left hand I hold 13th Age.  A beautiful, letter-sized hardback.  Bound, colour-illustrated throughout, it contains the rules and game world for Pelgrane Press’s flagship fantasy roleplaying game.  It’s roots are firmly in D&D – characters are described in terms of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, etc., and have lists of talents, feats, powers, and so on.

13th Age has a number of tweaks that update D&D, streamlining things and involving players and their characters in creating the fine details of the game world.  Many of these elements are modular in nature and can be lifted wholesale and applied to whatever game you’re playing.  It’s also one of the best written RPG books I’ve had the pleasure to read, the conversational tone and frequent interjections by one or other of the developers in sidebars providing examples of how they do things.

I’ve blogged about 13th Age here before:

Problem with 13th Age is it hasn’t moved very far from it’s roots in D&D – 6 attributes, lists of talents and feats, much flicking around in the rulebook when creating characters for the first few times

Fate Accelerated

In my right hand I hold Fate Accelerated Edition.  My right hand has the far easier job.  FAE is A5 or thereabouts, 48 pages long including index and character sheet and, on the virtual scales of balance, you’d need about 200 copies of FAE to balance 1 of 13th Age.  It’s lightweight, story-driven gaming.  Characters are described in terms not of Strength, Dexterity and the like but CarefulCleverFlashyForcefulQuick and Sneaky.  Instantly, on seeing the character sheet, you’ve got a much better idea of what sort of a character this is.  You also have Aspects – puncy sentences that describe the sort of character you’re playing.  “Hard-drinking Dwarf thug from the mines of M’Zark“, would be a decent “High concept” Aspect.  It nicely describes, in a nutshell, what sort of character this is.

For picking up a game quickly and diving in, you don’t get a lot faster than FAE these days.  You used to – the system from the old West End Games’ Ghostbusters International was even simpler and faster than this!

What you don’t get with FAE is a world to play in.   And that’s where 13th Age comes in.  You also need special dice with +, – and blank sides to roll.  But then you need the whole range of dice for 13th Age.  Chances are, as a gamer, you’ve already got both.

By taking elements of both games – the lightning-fast character creation and rule-set of FAE coupled with the world-embedding tweaks of 13th Age (and the general setting itself) you’ve got a near-perfect combination of simple rules and great world.

13th Age FAE

But I’m not quite finished yet.  Bits of Dungeon World appeal to me – playbooks for the characters that stop you having to reference the rulebook so often (not that that’s a big deal with FAE), the way it describes campaigns and gets you to think things through…  Z6 will feed into this little project as well.

That’s the problem with RPGs.  Once you start tweaking it’s very hard to stop.