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13th Age Prep: The Roller Coaster Method

Knowing how much to prep for a game of 13th Age has been an issue I’ve seen crop up a few places lately, and so I figured I’d write up how I’ve been doing it for my weekly campaign, which has been a pretty fruitful approach. I’ve openly said that I’m liberally stealing ideas from Full Light, Full Steam, Smallville1 and Dungeon World, and tonight I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit on how exactly that works.

TLDR
Focus on a few rolled Icon relationships; drop the characters into the conflict between them; make the conflict threaten what the characters love

The first thing to realize is that while you may be asking “how much do I prep for a night of 13A“, what you mean is “what part of my prep is necessary to make tonight’s game awesome?”

You know that your table is full of awesome players, and that they will make awesome if you give them the right materials. So focus your prep work on finding the right materials.

The most important material you have is Unfinished Business. Did some baddie just escape? Did someone’s hometown just get invaded? Did the long-held grudge against the Prince of Shadows just get a new clue? Finish up what you need to finish, or return to something that it is time to return to. Make the other stuff fit around that.

The second most important material you have is New Business, and the easiest way to find some is to look at what Icons rolled this session. You are rolling Icons for each session, right? Because take a gander at 13A p179, ”Rolling Relationships at the Start of a Session”:

All players roll their PC’s icon relationship dice at the start of each session, and everybody sees the results. By the end of the session, each 6 or 5 should contribute to the story somehow, either at the GM’s or player’s initiative.

The GM uses the results to think ahead about which icons come to the fore this session. Players use the results to start thinking about how their icon relationships might manifest in the story.

This is the opening rule of the “Running the Game” chapter, and so you figure it’s probably important. It states right up front that its intention is to “help everyone get into the spirit of free-form gaming”, so we know that “free-form gaming” is a thing that this system is designed to encourage, and we should embrace that and not fight it. We roll our Icons at the end of a session, so that I can do the prep work detailed below. The Icons are the single most important bit of gaming technology in this entire book, and letting them work for you will let your game work better for your table. So have everyone roll up their Icons.

Lifthills, Turns, and Catapult Launches

Ride of Steel

A good plot is like a roller coaster: it has ups and downs and twists and turns. Most coasters start with a big Lifthill2, which carries the train high into the air, pumping it up with potential energy. The first couple of Icons you pick will be your Lifthill: they set the stage and make it obvious that something big is going down.

You need two or three Icons that play with or against each other. Use this handy map that I made for this purpose:

icon relationship map

This map shows all the connections talked about in 13A Chapter 1. Blue lines are positive, red are negative, gray are ambiguous; dashed lines are weaker connections. This tells you, effectively, the fault lines of the setting as written: these are the places where the world comes together and interesting things happen. It’s where the energy is, and it’s where your adventures should be.

The Lifthill is a great place to eat up a couple of the boring 6s that your PCs rolled: the Icon’s agents pointed them to the big Goings On and they’ve gone to it for reasons of their own. Using 5s as the Lifthills is something I’ve done a few times already, and it’s simply not as helpful: it works more like an assignment from on high, and it flavors things differently because it puts the character one more step away from caring about the situation.

Choosing good Lifthill Icons is the difference between a night where the plot makes perfect sense and a night where you stumble around. So let’s find help in choosing by looking to Smallville p64:

Your job is to disrupt the status quo; your cast of thousands and unlimited special effects budget stand ready to assist you… Push the current state of affairs until the conflict… gets resolved, one way or the other.

The Dragon Empire has a lot of flash points, where the current balance could easily erupt into all kinds of bad, and you should let your PCs be the difference between those eruptions occurring or not. Putting them into position to see the eruption coming is a great start to an adventure. Better, start the adventure as the eruption begins, and deal with the fallout or the containment effort. Most important of all, use those Lifthill Icons to pick a venue that will let your players have fun with their characters and shine.

In my game we have a cleric who serves the One True God and has an amicable relationship with the Priestess, and a dwarf who’s spent his life fighting off the Orc Horde. When the Orc Lord and the Priestess rolled, I paired those two up by having the orcs petition to build a temple in Cathedral. Are they allowed? To put the PCs in the center of the action, the orcs’ leader had been left for dead by the dwarf. Now we had two PCs who’d come at the problem from opposite directions.

swirl

But our roller coaster currently only goes up and stays there, which is called an escalator. We need some Drops and Turns, which won’t be obvious immediately but will make the ride memorable. These are the unexpected changes that reframe the situation in a new light, pull attention away to secondary objectives, or put pressure on with a time limit or looming danger. Pluck a couple of 5s and complicate matters. The important thing here is that you need to avoid complicating the plot too much: one or two big Turns is enough; we’ll use the rest of the pool next.

Your Drops and Turns are a great way to bring in the Icons that connect to the Lifthills, so refer back up to the map. These Icons are aware of the situation, and seek to influence the outcome one way or the other, and the players are their means of doing so.

Back in our orcs-at-the-cathedral example, another PC had rolled in her conflicted relationship with the Prince of Shadows, and when presented with the orc pilgrims and the materials they had to build their shrine, she was instructed to steal a valuable artifact. This compounded with her 5-rolled connection to the Emperor, who employed her but did not know about her connection to the Prince, and caused her to reexamine her devotion to him and her monastic order.

California Screamin Launch

Now we’ve got a pretty good roller coaster set up, but we’ve likely got a few Icons left. These guys are going to be our Catapult Launches. When our coaster lags, they provide a clue, fling the party speedily into the next thing, and are gone3. These do a fantastic job of devouring the remaining 6s or can easily extract a cost and qualify as a 5.

The danger here is that you let the Icons become a Deus ex Machina, a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card that can spring you from whatever corner you’ve painted yourself into. This is a danger, mostly, because that’s exactly what these guys are, but it’s your job to make it seem like they got stuck in traffic and would have otherwise been here sooner with the 11 foot pole you desperately need. To do so, make your Catapult Launches focus on color and wonder: the Icons are incredibly interesting leaders of vast interesting organizations, and highlighting what makes each unique is the Prestige that hides the trick. Just don’t overdo it and overshadow the player characters; it’s rude.

In another episode, we needed a bit of backstory for an NPC whom everyone was attempting to find, but for no evident reason. Thanks to a rolled 6, a letter from the Dwarf King arrived and claimed the child as his niece, and suddenly all the hubbub made sense.

It might not be immediately obvious what the difference between a Drop or Turn and a Catapult Launch is, since both can easily accommodate 5s or 6s with a little effort. It is not a question of impact but of presentation: you will focus more on the former than the latter, with the Drops and Turns being the subplots of your session, with consequences and followup, while the Catapult Launches could be hidden in a montage if your session was an episode of a TV show, a one-off that can be quickly forgotten afterward.

Showing off

So now that we’ve divvied up the pool into three buckets, let’s walk backwards and explore how those things actually show up at the table. Here’s where the distinctions between 5s and 6s matter a bit less and the actual relation matters more.

For Catapult Launches, you have a lot of options. 6s show up with flashbacks to suddenly-meaningful conversations, odd useless-seeming gifts/spoils, or a simple messenger appearing out of the ether. 5s are almost-forgotten standing orders or a recognized rune from long ago. Basically anything that would be a reason for the character to know a little extra, or have a little extra, right when they need it, will do the trick.

The Drops and Turns and Lifthills are bigger, and should be treated as such. Let’s graduate from stealing Smallville’s methods to stealing its actual rules from p66:

The next step is to put faces on those ideas. Characters are the most compelling tools in [the GM]’s utility belt. Characters have faces, dreams, and relationships, and all of those help the [PCs] care about them. Each conflict needs a character in the story to make it go. Because these characters fuel conflicts, they’re called Wedges.

If you’re smart, connect the Wedge character with a PC’s backstory, to make them have a personal reason to care. Each NPC in my weekly game gets a 3×5 card tossed in the center of the table, upon which we write their name, a one-sentence bio, and a character connection, all written in the color of the connected PC (each PC got a color at the start of the campaign). Not only can the players now remember people’s names, they can also remember why we care about this random person, and since we update the card with new information as needed, we have a stable of NPCs that can return as needed.

Once you’ve got a Wedge, do not be shy about using them for their intended purpose: they get in trouble, are magnets for danger, and exist to pull the PCs into the action. Everything they do should be either furthering that purpose or strengthening the idea that the PCs actually do care about them4. If it’s a character’s younger sister, have her play pranks; if it’s a mentor, play up the lost time and the adaptations the PC has made to their form. Making the transition from “mouthpiece of the adventure” to “actual person” will pull the PCs in and will populate your world with the kind of NPCs that both you and the players will hope to see again in later sessions.

All that said, before a Wedge shows up on stage, don’t get too attached to them: PCs are great at running the opposite direction, and it’s not unusual for one of your planned Wedges to be relegated to deliver a Catapult Launch.

But some Wedges really deserve a moment in the sun, and the only way to ensure that they get it is to put them there before the PCs have a chance to derail things, by putting them in your Cold Open, the first thing that happens in your adventure and that sets up everything that follows.

Cold Opens and Flashbacks

Back to Smallville, p705:

Don’t play coy with opening scenes. Don’t withhold the awesome. You might think, “Let’s start this off slow and light and simple,” and plan to ratchet things up as the episode progresses. More likely, starting slow and light and simple dooms the entire episode to being slow and light and simple. The opening scenes set the tone of the episode—they’re a little microcosm of the whole thing—and the sort of things that happen in the opening are what you can expect to see throughout the rest of the episode.

So start with the awesome. Jump in with brawls and chase scenes. Pick fights between characters… Propose tempting offers; try to convince the Leads of terrible things that might actually be true. Start the episode off with wailing klaxons and explosions. Have fun.

Every story has setup, but you rarely need to show all of it. When did you last see a you-all-meet-in-a-bar scene that was in any way interesting? Jump past it and assume things, witness the awesome, and then jump back to fill in the gaps as needed. Better still, assume things that strain credulity a bit, and then jump back and make your players come up with some reasons why things turned out as you asserted they did.

I structure my Cold Opens so that they show off the Lifthill Icons and the conflict between them. We’ve had the Crusader’s men coming to battle the Diabolist’s latest Hellhole; the Golden Order having found something in the Dwarf King’s realm; and the Orc Lord’s men petitioning for acceptance in the Priestess’ Cathedral. The Cold Open also inserts the PCs into the center of the conflict: they’re already battling the Hellhole (and dislike the Crusader’s methods); they rescued the Golden Order (and work for the Dwarf King); they once fought the lead orc (and have an in with the Cathedral).

The Cold Open is a couple paragraphs, but it sets up the action in a way that the players can’t really ignore it without risking something of value to them. In only one of the three examples have we found it necessary to flash back to find out how we got to the Cold Open, and it was the first session. In the others I think it was good enough to assume that there was a good reason and leave it at that.6

The Cold Open is effectively a Dungeon World-esque Adventure Front: it gives you just enough meat to pull together a few Dangers to the characters and that which they hold dear, and tie that to an Impending Doom that will strike if they do not get their act together, with the Grim Portents that let the characters know that things are going poorly. Incidentally, if you want to level up in GMing, reading the Dungeon World chapter on Fronts is an excellent way to do so.

Finally, and again from Dungeon World, all Cold Opens should end with a callout to a specific character, a summation of what’s going on, and an invitation for them to make the first move. In my campaign this character is that session’s Spotlight7, and they will be the through-line for that session’s story, but even if you’re not doing that particular bit of magic you should rotate the first-mover, as it gives the player tremendous power over how the night’s play will go: will they brazenly attack or lay down arms, demand answers or assume them? Do not underestimate this moment: that player holds tremendous sway.

I’ve never had to do this in practice, but a good Cold Open, should enable you to pull the characters back to the plotline whenever they drift off, by advancing the dangers they saw at the opening. But if you find yourself using this trick with any regularity, it means that the characters are more interested in something else and you should be making that thing the subject of the Cold Open, probably as the thing being threatened.

Riding the Roller Coaster

We’ve been doing this for a half-dozen adventures, now, and it’s worked out brilliantly so far. Our campaign has a distinct travel-the-map, new-port-every-week style, though, which makes this much easier. I’ve also explicitly eschewed a preplanned plot; I’m improving it all as we go, which frees us to pursue this style to its fullest, and to find a metaplot in the aggregation of these smaller steps.

Does this sort of workflow work for your group? Are you doing some other magic to merge rolled icons into a more strict plot structure? Ping me on Twitter or Google+ to let me know!

Follow our campaign over at Obsidian Portal


  1. Not coincidentally, the two games with involved scenario-construction games are by the same author, who happens to be my brother, and who has taken these ideas a step further to make the Vicious Crucible series, which you should check out. They’re free! 

  2. this and other coaster terms can be found in this handy roller coaster glossary 

  3. In improv terms, these are your Canadian Crosses: they enter stage right, do a simple gimmick, and exit stage left 

  4. which makes it more likely that the PCs follow them into the trouble… 

  5. all this stuff is also present in Full Light, Full Steam, but Smallville is a more distilled form, which makes it more quotable 

  6. We do Flashbacks for other things all the time; most characters get two or more per night, usually expounding on why they’re taking the actions that they are. This fits with our tv show style, but it’s a powerful technique and I advise you to find a way to use it. 

  7. which we ruthlessly stole from Primetime Adventures