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Endless Waves in 13th Age

This week’s 13th Age game was a send off to Gabe, one of our players, who is moving out of state and refuses to accept a multi hour commute just to play with us. This particular player is great at the “story” part of our game, and consistently brings us all up a level in making our choices matter and move the world forward, but in his heart he plays tabletop games to kill monsters. He doesn’t even care about taking their stuff.

So for his final night we had to finish up the plot of his character, Vessel, which revolves around his One Unique Thing: Vessel is Moses to the Dragon Empire’s Egypt. He can meet and exceed all the other gods’ signs and wonders, for he and only he can hear the One True God. Throughout our campaign he has demonstrated compassion, fostered understanding, and been forgiving. But at his direction, we’ve learned bit by bit that the One True God is a fake, a bright facade over a dark heart. Indeed, the One True God is mad, having been locked in a chest for a dozen Ages, and thinks himself the True God because he killed and devoured all the other gods that the Wizard King locked in the chest with him. Now, having found the chest, the PCs were taking it back to Omen to put it to rest… when the One True God objected to that plan. How will Vessel react?

But to put that story into play, I wanted to fulfill one of Gabe’s long-ago wishes: he said that he’d be perfectly happy to play a whole night where we fought wave after wave of monsters, with no reason for the waves other than “here come some more”. This poses some challenges to the battle-orientation of a lot of 13th Age, since the PCs’ powers and effects will cascade and run out in weird ways. So I had to figure out a few fiddly bits to make it work.

The Schtick

The basic structure, then, is a succession of almost-full-strength battles. If you make them full-strength you have to fall back to the normal economy, which you do every night anyway. We are changing it up here. So instead I built the battles to be a little easier than normal. This actually meant that I built them according to the normal rules in the rulebook, as I normally overpower to account for the fact that this party is quite adept at taking down baddies. If you find the normal rules suit you, I’d suggest building as if you had one fewer PC, or as if the PCs were one level lower.

The Timing Mechanic

To compensate for the lower-strength battles, I explicitly told the PCs that they were in control of when they got their quick rests. They got three (which in retrospect should have been two), and could use them whenever there were no baddies on the board. When they used them we’d “flip” to a new encounter, and they’d get back all per-battle powers, lose all status effects, drop temporary HP, be able to use recoveries, etc. But as long as they didn’t use the rest, the escalation die would stay out and incrementing, so there was a benefit for them to push themselves. Coming into the night already hurting from a previous battle (one PC was at 4 HP), they smartly chose to use one immediately.

Wave 1: Smoke and Mirrors

The PCs have just escaped last week’s battle by conveniently falling into a pit. It’s dark down here, and dust from the collapse that introduced them to the pit is still hanging in the air. They see four figures on the opposite side of the room…

This was more a puzzle than a combat, involving a magic mirror that reflected attacks back on the PCs. The room was set up symmetrically, with the PCs on one side and the “enemies” on the other side, mirroring the movements of the party (and, if they looked closely, their worst traits).

To make the puzzle work, we played it as if it were a combat, so the PCs rolled initiative and took turns attacking the mysterious figures, and then later in the round I attacked a random PC with the same attack. Whenever an attack crossed the mirror, I recorded the amount of damage and the to-hit roll. The damage dealt back to the PCs started at 1/4th of what they dealt in round 1, then became 1/2 in round 2, 3/4 in round 3… and would gave been full strength after that, but they figured out the trick.

They did so because I had them Roll WIS when they got close to the mirror, and also when particularly flashy ranged attacks happened (a magic arrow, in our case). Our party is pretty WIS-heavy (ranger, wis-commander, cleric, and a WIS 8 sorcerer) so they figured it out pretty quickly. You could easily change the scale to accommodate other parties who might be in the dark longer.

Once they saw the mirror, they could attack it directly: it was stat’ed as a normal monster of their level; no need to draw that out because the trick here is already done, and it’s time to move on to new stuff.

Wave 2: The Assassins

The same cave-in that brought the PCs into the temple also brought two Cambion Sickles (5th level) who had been chasing them, and now it turned out they were behind the mirror, gating in a Cambion Katar (6th level) ally to make the battle more balanced.

This could have just been a hack and slash, but instead I employed some of Mike Shea’s excellent environment effects to populate the temple with some fun. In particular I laid down two evil runes (which also worked for Vessel, since it’s his god’s temple) and a sniper’s perch for our ranger.

This was a nice quick wave, but the PCs were pretty beat up by the end of it. They contemplated taking a rest here, and I described the roar of dragons above, but they decided to press on to take advantage of that escalation die, already sitting at 6.

Wave 3: Gorge Dragons

You see their mistake, here: dragons in 13th Age also get to take advantage of that escalation die. They figure that out as soon as I landed a near-miss with the breath of the first dragon (there were 2; large 5th levels).

This wave went poorly for the PCs, with two of them hitting 0 HP. The cleric managed to use his last two heals to bring them back, but this was the darkest moment. That’s not in any way a problem: this was supposed to be a brutal night of combat, and getting them this close to a TPK meant that this felt like a real challenge.

After this was when the party took their well deserved rest.

Wave 4: Triggered Wave

This one was another wrinkle, because I wanted there to be a random event that could trigger extra badness. I set up a few triggers (a cursed magic item one PC is wearing, a complicated icon roll, and a backstory callback), just to make sure this wave would happen some time, and it turned out that it waited all the way until the final wave.

The wave itself consisted of four Orc shamans who sprang fully-formed from the walls, Captain Eo style. Due to their timing, it turned out that they flanked the party and hit the squishies, which was a better use than I expected to get from them.

This wave actually had two parts: if it had triggered earlier, I had a never-ending mook mechanic set up, so that each round a few more low-level orcs could crawl out of the walls and make positioning more and more difficult. But as they came out during wave 5 when I already had a ton of mooks, I decided to skip that bit. Sad, because endless mooks are one of my favorite schticks: they give a great mow-through-baddies feel while also putting a real time pressure on the group and giving the crowd-control powers a time to shine.

Wave 5: Big Boss

Finally, after all this, the God of the Temple shows up and lays down the hurt. Surrounded by the forgotten gods he has destroyed (re-skinned Kobold Shadow Warriors, 4th level mooks, which meant I should have used 3/.15=20, but I only used 10), the God makes himself seen as a vain Eye (a re-skinned Drow Spider Sorceress with a ton extra HP, so somewhat above 6th level).

As it happens the party’s cleric, Gabe’s PC, gave into the evil god, and for his troubles was summarily killed by another PC, whose One Unique Thing is that he purges evil from the world. So now the group is down one man and it’s their healer (who fought in spirit for this wave). Predictably, the sorcerer broke out her crazy big guns and they tried to just burn their way through.

This wave featured the trigger for the optional wave, as well as the now-you-see-me-now-you-dont kobolds, but the party focused all fire on the Eye, hoping it’d all end when that thing fell. It did, but only after the sorcerer was again bleeding out on the ground.

This wave was probably the one that felt least interesting, to be honest. The story was taking a lot of attention, so I don’t think anyone was disappointed, but the Eye should have been a bigger threat (hitting multiple enemies would have accomplished that) and the Kobolds just seemed like a nameless mass of guys who missed (higher level and fewer would have been better, but rolling well was their biggest problem).

Retrospective

The basic structure of multiple weak battles interspersed with player-picked quick rests worked fantastically well. The individual battles worked when they changed the norm in some way: the trick mirror, the environmental effects, the dragons getting the escalation die. But in the quick succession of battles all taking place in one room, it felt flat when it was just more bodies to stab. Luckily, the “boring” waves coincided with the story getting heavier, which might have been for the better in any case.

The next time you want to hunker down and just get some murder hobo action going, consider changing up your norm with an “endless wave” night. Just remember to tone it down a notch and give each wave a little something to make it different than the one before it. And if you do try it, I’d love to hear how it goes!