A few Sundays ago, I had a gaming opportunity that not everybody gets a chance to experience. It was crazy! It had costumes! It had demons! It had possession! It had well-known game designers! It may have been the craziest four hours of role-playing in all of Seattle that weekend! Well, maybe not the craziest role-playing…
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a little bit. A few months ago, I was commenting to Rob D, one of our D&D Encounters DMs, that I should do a 13th Age introductory session sometime. You see, 13th Age is this new fantasy role-playing game by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, two of the mighty lords of modern Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a wild mix of story game, indie RPG, and classic D&D. Thinking nothing of the conversation, I went home thinking about cool ways to promote the game at the store. I was quite surprised to find that DM Rob had emailed Rob Heinsoo personally and suggested my plan to him.
This was my first lesson: You never know who people know.
After getting over the initial shock, I realized this could be an interesting opportunity. I began a dialogue with Rob Heinsoo and the fine folks of Fire Opal Media (the creators of 13th Age). Doing introductory 13th Age events at the Raygun Lounge seemed like a really solid idea. Everything seemed to be going well. During the discussion, Ash Law, the fellow responsible for the 13th Age organized play program, made the following comment: “We have been working on some Gamma Ray Games exclusive stuff for you.”
GAMMA RAY GAMES EXCLUSIVE STUFF?!?! WHOOOOOHOOOOO!
I know that Gamma Ray Games has been “secretly” featured in role-playing games before, but this was officially designed content! At this point, I felt like we’d hit the victory condition. Not only had we decided that we’d be the only folks in town doing intro sessions of 13th Age BEFORE ITS RELEASE but that there would be some sort of game content exclusive to Gamma Ray Games. It’s like that moment of elation when you realize the only positive outcome in Gary Gygax’s classic adventure Dungeonland was to never play at all.
Fast forward a month or two. After some more discussion, the 13th Age organized play coordinator, Ash Law, sent me the Gamma Ray Games exclusive content: Lair of the Ludomancer. Here I had an adventure chalk-full of thoroughly entertaining references to Gamma Ray Games, fully prepared to be unleashed upon players at the Raygun Lounge. But, shortly after sharing it with me, Ash made this comment: “I’d like to pop by GRG and run it for you.” Wade Rockett, the 13th Age social media guy, responded with, “I’ve just confirmed that I’m also free this Sunday, and would love to play.”
At this point in the story, I found myself scheduled for a session of an upcoming fantasy RPG that I am super excited about with two of the people that work on it in an adventure specifically designed for my local gameshop. It’s like a nerd fanboy fantasy. I suppose, at this point, it could only be more exciting if the actual guys who make the game showed up. But, of course, that is ridiculous. Either way, I was ready! I was excited! This was going to be a real thing and I was going to be part of it! WHOOOOOOOOO!
Eventually, the big day arrived. We all gathered around the table. We chose pregenerated characters. Ash looked at each of us and asked what our “One Unique Thing” was. It did not take long for it to get serious. There was the dwarf cleric who was haunted by the demon that killed his necromancer parents. I played the half-elf fighter who had been given a magical clockwork heart after losing his in an unfortunate tavern brawl. There was the dark elf sorcerer that gave him the magical heart, also the runner-up in the ever-popular Mr. Known World competition. Rounding out the group was the human paladin, the last living paladin in this part of the world, and the gnome bard who was on a secret mission for the Elf Queen… but couldn’t remember what it was. After laying some more groundwork, Ash handed out props to some of us.
The adventure commenced as the party proceeded into the Bitterwood. It did not take long for me to realize that we were not actually going to Ray’s Tavern, the popular venue run by Ray and his wife Gemma in the town of East Pine. Yet, it did not bother me. We were pursuing a goal relevant to our characters, and it did not take long for us to come across a pack of vicious gnolls in the night. Well, to be honest, two of us were quite convinced that we were hearing ghosts, but that’s a question up for debate at another time. We had found these gnolls and their repugnant master, a filth demon. Well, more appropriately, a poop demon. An Excremental, if you will. The party engaged these horrible monsters and fought bravely to drive off the vile beasts.
At one point, the cleric blasted the Excremental with his Javelin of Faith. The player, Rob D, had missed, but was close. Ash asked if he’d be willing to make a compromise: the attack would hit and do a lot of damage, but it would hurt another character. He agreed, of course, and the blast was so powerful that it ejected the Excremental’s demonic heart, throwing it across the battlefield and into the face of the brave paladin. Quickly, the demonic heart squirmed its way down the paladin’s throat, beginning a demonic corruption that would spell certain doom for our brave friend.
Another important lesson learned: Keep your mouth shut when fighting poop demons.
As the battle neared its end, a new person approached the table. “Hello, Jonathan!” Wade and Ash seemed to know this new fellow and welcomed him to the table. It did not take long for me to realize… This guy was Jonathan Tweet, one of the creators of 13th Age. He spoke to Ash briefly, offering to take the part of whatever silly-voiced NPC was available. It did not take long for that character to be Werdna, the demon that haunted the dwarven cleric.
The Paladin’s fate required an exorcism, something only the priest could perform. Quickly, the situation descended into madness as Werdna the Demon (as played by Jonathan Tweet) provided nefarious direction. After poor choices by both the sorcerer and the cleric, things had run afoul. Before anybody could realize what had happened, the party had descended into an infernal hellscape, with the demon Werdna now residing within the body of the dark elf sorcerer. Trapped in a hellish arena and surrounded by the spirits of countless lost paladins, the heroes found themselves engaged by flaming demons content to tear them asunder.
The demon Werdna began offering the characters an opportunity to change fate. At the table, this was represented by Jonathan Tweet allowing us to reroll our attacks. Although it was difficult, it did not take long for the battle to end in victory for our adventurers. However, the deal with the demon had a price! We each had to roll a twenty-sided die, hoping to roll a number greater than the number of times we had invoked the demon’s favor. Unfortunately, our sorcerer, who had called upon the demon nineteen times, did not make it. Neither did the dwarf cleric who had tricked him. With the gnome bard gone (Wade’s character, who escaped into the underworld as Wade had to leave slightly early), only the half-elf fighter and the paladin managed to wrench their soul’s from this maniacal hellscape.
From this, several of us at the table learned another important lesson: Jonathan Tweet is our personal demon.
So, that was my 13th Age experience: over-the-top, collaborative storytelling with exciting battles against vicious monsters where the heroes get to truly feel like heroes. Players contribute to the narrative in ways rarely (if ever) seen in popular role-playing games. This is the game that accomplished from the start what took my own Dungeons & Dragons game years to reach. I cannot recommend it enough.