13th Age – Setting

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 10.00.59 AMOk, the setting chapter. I probably read this one more thoroughly than any other one, simply for my own entertainment, which has lead me to conclude that it’s ok.

Not really knocking you over with praise here, so let me back up a minute.

There are lots of ways to write a setting, but there are three big ones[1] that I would call out as the most common.

The first is the comprehensive setting, usually written in an atlas and encyclopedia style, as if the place in question was real, and the purpose of the game was to document it thoroughly. This is the classic setting book (or, with less detail, gazetteer) and it’s a very hit or miss proposition. If well written, it can be a fun read, but the structure itself offers no real help when it comes to play. It’s frustrating to use unless you enjoy the setting mastery element of play, where it all comes together once you’ve stuffed it into your head.

The second is the dynamic setting, which is sparser on details, but what details there are are strongly connected to the other details in the setting, so there is a focus on a coherent whole. A lot of these are faction or personality driven settings, where the interactions of those groups drive play[2] and at first blush this would seem like a natural fit for 13th Age, but it’s not. It depends too strongly on defining elements (like motives and desires) which 13th Age explicitly leaves open ended.

The last is the fun bucket, which is probably the most game-focused of the three. It forgoes details and dynamics in favor of easily accessible content. In effect, it offers setting as a loose container of playable material on the basis that any backend disconnects can either be ignored, handwaved or backfilled.

13th Age falls firmly into the third category, and I must admit that it is not a category that is entirely to my taste, so there is absolutely some bias there. But there’s a bit more going on.

So, first and foremost, I want to call out that the the setting chapter is a fun read. Lots of interesting, gameable elements. It’s all very loosely sketched (and in the case of Starport, not even that) and any given element can easily be seized upon to do kind of interesting things. That’s fun, but doing that requires walking a pretty fine line between accessibility and detail, and 13th age definitely runs thin on the detail. Yes, the theory is that this is all stuff for you to fill in for your own campaign, but a GM can also do that from scratch – the setting needs to bring enough to the table to be a useful part of the conversation. In some places (especially places with clear and obvious overlap with the icons) it does the job. In other places there is not much more than a name and perhaps a gimmick.

So it works in bits and pieces, but it’s hard to take as a whole, for several reasons.

One issues if that this is a weird world. In some ways really, really weird. The Sea has opinions. Dungeons are actually giant living creatures swimming up from the depths. Clouds are solid. Kaiju emerge from the ocean with such regularity that hundreds of miles of walls have been erected to stop them. Portals to hell dot the landscape, including one the size of the grand canyon, not to far from the petrified face of a demon lord pushing his way out of the ground who is large enough that you can see his features on the map.

It’s all presented in a very generic fantasy tone, but this is actually a pretty freaking gonzo setting. And the reasoning is clear – the setting is largely designed as a dungeon delivery mechanism. Most of the weirder decisions are in support of one classic D&D trope or another – weird dungeons, floating dungeons, abstract dungeons, hellscape dungeons – it’s all in there. And if what you really want is a setting where you get to have lots of dungeon crawls without feeling like they’re out of place, this totally delivers. But if not, it’s going to be a bit weird.

The setting also stumbles a bit in communicating scale. At times, the setting feels very large, and at others it seems fairly insular[3], which has a weird effect regarding the nature and role of the icons. As written, the actual setting chapter ends up making the icons feel like the more traditional elminster-style NPCs that would be kind of off-putting. Similarly, the setting also seems very static. Events of a few centuries ago are still “new”, and it seems that things are basically as they have always been.

Now, are these problems? It depends on what you want out of the setting. All these concerns about scale and tone can be dismissed by simply pointing out that the purpose of the setting is to drive play towards the next adventure, and the rest is just details. But if the setting is something you want to give those adventures context outside of themselves, then it’s a bit more complicated.

It should be obvious by now that I’m in the latter camp. I found it a fun setting to read, but the seams were simply far too visible for it really grab me, and the necessity of leaving the Icons undetailed ended up making them seem almost cartoonishly simple. Worse, because that’s true across the board, I feel like trying to fix it for my own campaign would create a vast cascade of “well, now THIS doesn’t make any sense” and that leaves me more inclined to just start from scratch.

But that’s me, and hopefully I’ve elaborated why well enough that you can look and say “well, that stuff doesn’t bother me” and know what will work for you.

  1. As with all such categorizations, these are neither comprehensive nor uniform. Most actual setting draw something from each column, and the categories are really more about the general tendency of the setting than any kind of straightjacket.  ↩
  2. Though the dynamic focus maybe something else, perhaps even an adventure, in the case of the Savage Worlds Plot Point books, which are brilliant. This is also a good model for “real world” games, where there’s no need to restate a lot of the “setting material”.  ↩
  3. Per the map scale, it’s bigger than a european country but smaller than Europe. For context. the Midlands sea seems to be about the same size as The Black Sea.  ↩

17 thoughts on “13th Age – Setting

  1. Andy

    Wow, I need to reread the setting material. I got the bit about living dungeons rising from the Abyss, but I missed the bit where it went all kaiju-awesome. (Pacific Rim + 13th Age = ??) There’s obviously a lot in there I skimmed over because they didn’t call out the super-gonzo awesome stuff.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, the level of gonzo totally eluded me on a skim, but became apparent in the seams as I drilled down. The Kaiju bit is in the entry on the Sea Wall – Tarrasques, Krakens and similarly sized beasts (as well as more normal aquatic threats) emerge from the souther part of the Iron Sea, and over time have pushed the wall back further and further, until now it’s back as far as it can go, since if it backed up any further, it would intersect with the migration path of the Koru Behemoths.

      1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

        I missed the Kaiju…but yeah, there’s a whole campaign there to be had with it.

        I did want more detail (Starport, dammit) and my sense of scale is off–I thought the inner sea was more Mediterranean than Black Sea sized, but the scale suggests you are correct.

  2. Bill

    I’ve been wanting something truly gonzo for a while and the level of just plain weird here is where I fell in love. Most games that come with a setting are find and whatever but I’d really rather just make my own world. 13th Age is the first game in a while where I’ve really wanted to play in the default setting.

  3. WolfSamurai

    I actually really like it as is, mostly because it *is* a bucket of crazy ideas that I can use and fill in all the mundane details around it to my needs and wants (which you can see here, if anybody is interested: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/forgottensagas-13thage) . Plus, and maybe this is just me, but once I started filing in those details the gonzo stuff didn’t seem so crazy. Probably because at that point, the really out there materials weren’t the ~only~ materials to base the setting on.

  4. Rob Donoghue Post author

    Totally want to emphasize. the fact that it’s not *my* bag is in no means a criticism of it’s ability to be someone else’s bag!

  5. Ed Gibbs

    THIS is why I have been following your critique. Like all the best critics out there, you’re able to say what worked for you, what didn’t work for you, and why. You largely ignore and contain the urge to grandstand your opinions for the sake of ego and bloated page count. Kudos, good sir.

    Anyways, I find this bit on setting quite interesting. Assessing my own taste, I would definitely put myself in the “almanac/gazeteer” camp. However, one of my biggest problems with the dungeon fantasy genre is the lack of context for the PC’s actions. Earthdawn did it the best by far IMO, but with that franchise in a sort of stagnation, I’ve been looking for an heir apparent and haven’t been able to find one. Perhaps I’ll have to give 13th Age a closer look, after all.

  6. Marty Lund

    I’m in love with 13th Age as a system, and I fancy it as a quick-and-dirty base setting for jumping into dungeons, fantastic city-scapes, or some sort of epic frontier conflict.

    The base setting doesn’t handle any sort of international-scale of conflicts like Greyhawk does, and that’s perfectly OK. I’m more of a plot-and-plan DM when it comes to a dedicated campaign, so I’m immediately pulled towards lifting the core frameworks to another setting. It works beautifully.

    Heck, I even had a fancy to port this over to the Clan Wars setting for Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings) – just need to work out a quick-and-dirty way to handle Iaijutsu Duels. Any setting that’s rich with RP opportunities and a hefty load of competing Clans / Guilds / Faiths / Kings / Dragonlords / whatever benefits from the Icon-Background-Classes framework 13th Age can frame around them – from the wahoo of the Dragon Empire or Spelljammer down to Oerth.

  7. Rob Barrett

    Regarding motives and desires in campaign setting model 2 . . . I do feel like the description of the Icons that opens the book gives pretty clear drives and goals for the Icons even if we don’t know that the Archmage’s name is Fred and that he was beaten as a child. We know the Orc Lord is trying to get into the Empire and destroy the Lich King, that the Dwarf King is trying to get all his treasure back, that the Priestess has come out of nowhere to put a wrench into things, that the Crusader is massing his forces, and so on. So there’s a definite direction thrown down there even if many of the specifics are left to individual groups.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Agreed, and it works well for the icon chapters alone, especially because broad strokes motivations hold up very well in their context. The problem is that in the setting chapter I expect (perhaps wrongly) more of a concrete expression of those motives and their intersection with things, and it’s not there, and it feels liek the Icons are just doing things because reasons.

      Is that bad? Maybe not. They’re icons, so it’s reasonable they be iconic, even if that can cross the line into caricature. If you’re indifferent to *why* the icons do XYZ. because what really matters to play is that they *do* XYZ, then it’s probably less of an issue.

      1. Bill

        I feel like in 4e, there were aspects of the game (I’m looking at Skill challenges) that were supposed to get filled in with extra detail in order to give them life but then the majority of people took the rules as written and it became a “Like video games” arguement.

        The Icons are more favorably viewed but they are similar. The player who chooses the Archemage as their relationship gets to fill in the gaps… is he Gandalf, Elminster, Mordenkeinen, Merlin, or Bogglesworth the Weird? The elves get to decide the specifics of Galadriel or whatever they want to name her.

        I could be misinterpreting of course… the book doesn’t really spell it out.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          No, I think you have accurately outlined one of the great strengths of the Icon system. Unfortunately (as is often the case) the book falls short of the potency of the idea.

  8. Andy Gibson

    I think the key difference in the setting types is between those where the idea is that the GM is custodian of all the detail, and the players’ get to explore the world as a given, and where what the setting poses is (as much as anything) questions. In the latter, the questions are there to be answered, not by the GM, but by the whole group, during play time (rather than downtime).

    One issue is that those for whom “the way RPG is done” is the first way (GM is custodian of all setting “facts”) can, if they are the GM, go ahead and detail everything. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit of a shame if they do it, not by deliberate choice, but because they don’t realise/can’t conceive that an alternative exists.

  9. Blue

    My impression was that it was a world outlined in broad strokes for each table to flesh out. Just character backgrounds and One Unique Thing could impact into something more heavily detailed. On the other hand, in order to make a world without that level of detail not be “Generic Fantasy Medieval Europe” or “Greyhawk clone #4”, they needed to put in unique details large enough to match the scale of those big strokes.

    I like it and find it inspiring, but I can easily see wanting a different world as well. You’re not getting a pirates on the open sea campaign. If you want multiple kingdom politics or intrigue you have mostly Empire, Elves and Dwarves, with the outside menace of the Orc Lord, and that may not float everyone’s boat.

    1. Bill

      There are always exceptions.

      Captain Shadow-Cutlass the Dark Elf Sorcerer
      One Unique Thing: Captain of the Jolly Root-Rammer, a living pirate ship terrorizing the inland sea.
      Relationships: Favorable: The Prince of Shadows, Antagonistic: The Emperor, Conflicted: The Lich King
      Backgrounds: Pirate Captain +5, Former Street Thug, +3

    2. Grunt's Ghosts

      I know this is nearly 3 years ago to comment on, but the Iron Sea can lead to some crazy pirate adventures. On Penny Arcade, I’ve started (nearly a year ago, but just started in play by post terms) a game about how on the other side of the Iron Sea is the Phoenix Kingdom, which before the Wizard (Lich) King cursed the waters, the Dragon Empire and the Phoenix Kingdom where allies. Now, ages later, the Dragon Emperor wants to unite the nations by wedding his oldest son to the Phoenix King’s only daughter, but to do so the groom’s family has to pay a wedding tribute equal to the bride’s family for the bride’s worth, as is Phoenix Kingdom traditions. So the Emperor pays the Dwarf King and his people to build a ship that can withstand the Iron Sea, fill it with gold and try to get it to the Phoenix Kingdom. The ship, called the Dragon’s Hoard, goes missing and now everyone is on a gold rush to find the ship, for the Emperor or their own pockets. My group is a group of thieves from a thieves guild now turned pirates who are looking for the Dragon’s Hoard. I even got a talented artist from the forums make a map of the Iron Sea (and the island chain called the Iron Line).

      Thread here: http://forums.penny-arcade.com/discussion/199596/pbp-13th-age-dragons-hoard-act-1-pleased-to-meet-you-hope-you-guessed-my-name/p1

  10. Baz King Stevens

    I found the setting utterly inspirational and aspirational. So much so that it prompted me to write up my own supplement detailing a corner of the Dragon Empire. I tried to adopt a similar tone, that of being generic on the surface but with concise little twists and nuggets of plot just under that. Very little in the way of answers, but some interesting questions.


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