Hacking Blood & Lightning for 13th Age RPG

6 Sep

boltstrikeattack_72dpiOver at the RPG Talk Slack 13th Age channel, redman808 asked,  “what do you all think of the starting adventure presented in the core book? Is there anything you all would change about it?”

I’ll share some of my thoughts on hacking Blood & Lightning here, because I suspect plenty of other people wonder the same thing.

Caveats:

  • I’m not second-guessing Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo here, nor am I “fixing” the adventure. 13th Age is designed to be customized for the needs of each group running it, so I’m adjusting it to fit my preferences.
  • I’m not going to do the actual work of hacking the adventure (reskinning monsters, building new battles, writing variant icon text). This is just how I’d approach the task. I hope it helps other GMs think about how they might customize this adventure, and other published 13th Age material, for their tables.

I’m hiding the rest of the post because spoilers.

Okay! First of all, there’s the matter of context. Is it a standalone adventure? The starting point for a campaign? Am I dropping the adventure into an existing campaign? Each requires a different approach. For our purposes, I’ll assume it’s standalone.

Plot Summary

The adventure summary reads:

The PCs journey to a magical location under attack from one villainous icon from without and betrayed from within by an agent of the Three. Eventually they must cope with an insane mutating traitor and a crippled dragon.

Cool. So first, I’m prepared to drop “of the Three” and customize it so that the identity of both antagonistic icons are determined by player choices during character generation. It’s more work for the designer/GM, but I love being able to give players as much of a tailored experience as possible. However, I love the Three to pieces, so I might choose to keep them.

Second, I’m going to drop “crippled dragon”. As I’ve learned the hard way, not everyone is excited to fight and kill a hurt animal! I don’t have any compelling reasons to tell the players why this dragon is capable of being beaten by low-level characters. It just is. However, you might want one of the core facts of your campaign to be that dragons are really powerful. In that case, I’d recommend reskinning it into some other dragon-related thing. Give it two legs, or none, and call it a drake or a wyrm or something.

Boltstrike Pillar and the Icons

The central location of the adventure is a cunningly constructed magical tower garrisoned by magicians and warriors loyal to one of the icons. Ideally, one or more of the PCs will have a positive or conflicted relationship with that icon. Choose a version of Boltstrike Pillar that fits the player characters’ stories and icon relationships or make up another version if none of these three suits your campaign.

This section presents versions of Boltstrike Pillar for three heroic icons. But are these icons really heroic? I’ve run two demos so far in which the players’ interpretations of the icons turned the Elf Queen into a Maleficent-like villain! What’s written in the adventure is good, but I’m prepared to bring in whichever of the 13 icons makes the most sense given player choices during character generation.

In fact, because I’m a devious GM who loves in entangle the PCs in conspiracies and secret plots and backstabbing, I’m going to make Boltstrike Pillar jointly operated by three icons, per an agreement or treaty. Why is it jointly operated?

Maybe it’s simply division of labor—if we use the three icons presented, maybe the Archmage provides magical researchers, the Elf Queen provides warriors, and the High Druid provides support in the form of farmers, hunters, tanners, bakers, and all the other vital roles that aren’t research and fighting.

But of course it’s not simply division of labor. All three icons have their own agendas for Boltstrike Pillar, and their agents are maintaining the facade of cooperation while pursuing those agendas. Maybe they want to kick the other two icons out and control the Pillar completely. Maybe there’s something else they want, and having their agents stationed at the Pillar is part of that. For example, one icon’s agents have been quietly siphoning the Pillar’s power to perform a secret ritual over several months. What does that ritual accomplish? Does it power an artifact in the icon’s possession? Resurrect one of their champions? Imbue an army with the power to drive another icon’s forces into the sea?

Because here’s the deal:

One of the warriors at Boltstrike Pillar will turn out to be a traitor who will shut down the site’s powerful magical defenses at a key moment, allowing agents of the Three to land atop the tower.

That’s a nice, straightforward scenario: bad guy in the service of a master villain is trying to do a bad thing. But if three icons are scheming, this gives each PC more potential reasons for going to Boltstrike Pillar:

  • The Archmage needs you to deliver a package to the wizard Algethane, but do not let anyone in the service of the Elf Queen or the High Druid see it.
  • The High Druid needs you to find a woman wearing a red head wrap who is working in the fields, and whisper these words into her ear: “Egreth suwa atanya eretheria.”
  • The Elf Queen received a warning in a dream that the fragile truce at Boltstrike Pillar is about to be tragically broken. She cannot entirely trust her agents there—go, and be prepared for violence.

It also means the traitor can be an overzealous agent of a heroic icon. Or maybe one of the icons’ secret plans comes to fruition, but with disastrous consequences.

Glaezentorg

Glaezentorg is a fine but extremely violent +1 magic weapon that the magicians of Boltstrike Pillar want to pass on to someone else. …the promise of receiving Glaezentorg is incentive for the PCs to get to Boltstrike Pillar.

Well, it’s incentive for one PC, but not the whole party unless they’re just happy to tag along. I love Glaezentorg, but I would make sure every other PC has an equally cool reason for the journey. Or, I might make Glaezentorg a cursed (or simply way-too-powerful-for-them) item which the PCs are supposed to deliver somewhere else, but which they might use during the adventure out of desperation.

Setup

In the text, Jonathan suggests handing out adventurer-tier magic items (maybe temporarily) as benefits for icon rolls. I’m fine with that as long as they are a) really cool, and b) consumable. For me, in practice this means making up consumable magic items, usually ones that provide a single use of a spell or spell-like effect. “Hey, fighter, here’s a semi-precious gemstone with a flickering spark in its center. Crush it in your fist and you can hurl a ball of flame at your enemies! Badass or what?”

Mission to Greenstand

As written, the Pillar’s commander asks the PCs to go to Greenstand and see what’s up with the goblins there. Greenstand is “a bit of a joke for the defenders of Boltstrike Pillar” and has been seeded with traps against would-be invaders, which the PCs can activate if they go there. The commander offers to loan the PCs some magic items, and give them healing potions, as incentive to go. If the PCs barter for more stuff, they should be “given the feeling that they’ve erred.” If the PCs decline to go to Greenstand, they’re given dirty looks.

Here’s what I think I’d do, based on my own preferences and the dynamics of my own group:

  • Drop the “bit of a joke” part. The threat is serious, and thus worth the PCs’ attention.
  • If the PCs go to Greenstand, it’s because the players think it’s the best way to handle the situation based on the information they have. The players shouldn’t be made to feel bad about not going! As a GM, it might be nice to have the PCs go somewhere else so that all hell can break loose unimpeded at the Pillar; but it’s not necessary.
  • The Pillar’s defenders did not seed Greenstand with traps: those are the work of others who came before, but the folks at the Pillar can give the PCs a secret map showing the location of each trap. This reinforces the idea that the PCs have knowledge their enemies do not, and will have the opportunity to unleash some fun, nasty surprises.
  • The Pillar’s warriors are needed to defend it against another possible attack, but the PCs shouldn’t worry: the traps will give the PCs enough of an edge against the goblin threat. This should be made absolutely clear.

Late to the Massacre?

As written, when the PCs get to Greenstand there is a grim scene of death and destruction waiting for them. The goblins have been mostly or entirely destroyed by the adventure’s hidden foe, and any remaining traps will be sprung on the PCs.

Why?

At some point during or after the exploration of Greenstand, the PCs may realize that they have been drawn out of position while their enemies move on Boltstrike Pillar. It could come as a moment of cold wisdom, when hearts sink, teeth clench, and resolve pushes heroes onward.

I am 100% on board with villains tricking our heroes! This makes the players hate those villains and want to destroy them by any means necessary, and that is some Grade-A player engagement. On the other hand, the Greenstand battle sounds like it would have been really cool.

So I would do one of the following:

  • Run the fun, exciting, trap-filled fight the players have been led to expect. The traps should, as promised, give the PCs a huge advantage, so that they stay fresh for the upcoming battle.
  • Run “Late to the Massacre” as written, but have the traitor clearly be the one who convinced the PCs to go to Greenstand.
  • Run “Late to the Massacre” as written and have the commander be the one who convinced the PCs to go to Greenstand, but clearly did so on the advice of the traitor. Have the commander pay a terrible price for failing to spot the deception. Maybe they die, or are horribly injured; maybe they just have to live with the devastating realization that they’re responsible for the downfall of Boltstrike Pillar.

Dragon Attack

13A DragonManAs mentioned before: In my take on the adventure, the dragon is not injured. It’s just a not-powerful dragon. Or a full-powered monster which is not a dragon.

As written, the PC’s ultimate foes are agents of the Three. You could reskin them fairly easily to make them relevant to the PCs’ icon relationships! They can still be kobolds and a dragon-man (or woman), but possibly in service to one of the three icons who control the Pillar. They could also serve another icon who discovered one of the three icons’ hidden plans for the Pillar and sabotaged them.

I like that last option a lot. In fact, what I’d probably do is keep the Three as the antagonist. And because the Three are schemers, the reason the attack against the Pillar succeeded was because their agents effectively played the various factions at the Pillar against each other. Everyone realizes at once that they were outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the enemy! And then they all unite against a common foe!

If you’re running Blood & Lightning as the start of a campaign, this path offer a great opportunity to present the Three (or whoever) as a truly formidable opponent who could be hatching plots anywhere. And it presents the servants of the icons as fallible people who need the PCs’ help!

Art by Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell

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