13th Age: Death to Attribute Scores (Ice Age)

As the first part of my attempt to crowbar 13th Age into a shape more pleasing to me, here are my (potential) rules for determining Attribute Scores and how it effects classes. Note: this is a very alpha first draft that has not been playtested! Should the system work well I hope in the future to reprint it with a generally more professional attitude. For now, you get this author-note ridden mess that very much needs to be divided into other subpages.

Note that everything here assumes for my personal preference for 13th Age, in which it is very much an action/adventure fantasy game with little to no emphasis on long term strategizing or arrow counting nitpickiness from previous editions of D&D and heavy emphasis on PC protagonism.

Death to Attribute Scores

Most people have hit a point where their character concept runs into mechanical snares. You want to be an inspiring and heroic fighter but have no reason to increase charisma. You want your rogue to be more then strong-man thuggish type, but everything is keyed off dexterity. You want to be generally good at everything, but the system pushes for specialization. Attribute scores and their connection to classes can be good for ensuring class thematics, but sometimes you want the opposite of that. There are also problems with how it connects to the greater mechanics of the game as it pertains to backgrounds and the combat system - the charming rogue who abandons constitution and wisdom for charisma and intelligence will end up far weaker in combat then a rogue that pushes for constitution and wisdom.

This isn't the first time people have thought about changing to a system without attribute scores - it's not even the first time it's been done in 13th Age! But where other systems have tied everything to backgrounds, my goal is to standardize things more and to a larger degree turn the combat system into something that does not require trade-offs with the non-combat systems, while cementing in the ability to use your backgrounds in a fight (see: stunt system). Note: this is going to be a very long document as it covers more then just taking out Attribute scores.

Backgrounds

Background Points

To ideally offset the lack of attributes and how they would pertain to basic character capabilities, each character has a budget of 9 background points that can be spent, with a maximum of 4 in any single background; all characters must have at least 3 backgrounds. Most characters are encouraged to go with either 3/3/3 for their backgrounds, or 4/3/2. As for what sort of backgrounds to go with, consider using them to answer the following questions: How does your character interact with other people? What skillset do they make use of when adventuring? What do they do when they're NOT adventuring? What major moments in their past still effect them today? How do they fight? Remember, ALL PCs should be assumed to be two fisted action heroes to some degree! You may not be able to answer all of these questions - that's fine. But they can be very useful when thinking about what kind of backgrounds your characters have! Also remember that backgrounds are just those - backgrounds. Don't answer the question by making your background "I fight with a halberd." Instead, think about where and how they got that ability to fight. "Too Skilled For Militia, Too Stubborn For Palace Guard" is a far better answer!

Difficulty Classes

A simplified list of challenges and their difficulty is as follows:

Non-heroic Heroic Champion Epic Iconic
10 15 20 25 30

Non-heroic challenges are those that simple and ordinary folk would find decently difficult unless they trained for it, had special skills connected to it, or just plain got lucky. For heroic characters - such as player characters - these challenges are much easier, and even unskilled potential heroes have a good chance at succeeding with them. These challenges should include tasks like lockpicking or breaking down a simple peasant's door, knowing a relatively uncommon bit of magical knowledge, sprinting across a busy city street. Heroic challenges are the sort of things that normal folk view as improbably. Most of them won't be able to succeed at it no matter what, and watching a hero do it will be the sort of inspiring thing they tell their friends about. Heroic challenges include tasks such as leaping across the city rooftops while chasing a thief at night and/or in the rain, calming down an angry, pitchfork wielding mob (or inflaming calm people INTO an angry mob!), or quickly finding precisely what you need - and it being the right information - in a long lost library. Champion level tasks are the sort of things people tell their children about years and years after the fact; holding an entire collapsing building up, winning a foot race against a stallion, stalking and hunting a displacer beast pet into it's master's lair in the underground jungle of the Underworld. Epic challenges are the thing of folk-tales, where ill-humored or overly "rational" people roll their eyes and proclaim that it could never happen - playing chess with the boatman and winning your life back, unwraveling the hex that keeps the great flying fortress of the Wizard King from flying once more, or arm-wrestling an entire tribe of cloud giants into accepting you as their chieftainess. Iconic challenges aren't the sort of thing people even need to talk about - if you succeed at these sort of things, everyone is going to know it. It doesn't go into folk tale; it goes into scripture. Demanding the gods accept a forbidden love, breaking into the forge of souls, or yes, stealing the very title of "Icon" from another, these are the sort of things to expect - and it's the sort of things you'll likely only truly see at the highest of levels.

Let's check the math: As it stands, any given PC, regardless of skill, has at least a 50/50 chance at succeeding at a non-heroic challenge. Characters who have specialized at a skill (ie; background is at 4) will take that even further - non-heroic challenges for their background are incredibly easy with a 75% success rate even at level 1, and likewise heroic challenges are something they can meaningfully try to tackle. This math gets harder for characters as they level, because it's assumed that higher level characters will have boons or items or other implements to assist them; at level 5, the start of Champion level, a particularly skilled character (again, background is at 4) will have a 5% less chance of success then they did at level 1 with heroic challenges - however, by level 5, that character by all accounts should have some manner of divine blessing, arcane implement, or maybe simple specialized training to make up it. The difference is even more severe for epic challenges, where that same player without any help would now have a 35% chance of success without any assistance or tools. As players level up, make sure to give them bonuses!

If these seem too challenging, remember - you are a group. PCs should always try to work together, and part of that is ensuring the GM builds challenges that require them working together. There are two major ways to build this situation. The first is a singular challenge with more then one solution, so that players can engage with multiple solutions simultaniously. While trying to get an angry mob to calm down, the warrior could glare at them menacingly from behind and slightly to the left of the cleric urging them to put their anger elsewhere. The second is to give an overarching challenge with multiple steps. "Sneak into the duke's castle" for a heroic game might be the sort of thing a single low level rogue can't quite do on their own, so you break it into steps where the other PCs add their capabilities and build up the rogue's check. A good rule here is to choose a single PC that will make the primary roll, and to add either +1 or +2 to that check for each other player contributing, depending on the level of contribution.

Of course, this can end up leading to odd situations where every PC tries to throw their own set of skills into the ring, even in situations where they might not all work - and in situations where not all PCs even want to be involved! The pressure to do something to increase the party's chances of success might become greater then a player is comfortable with. To that end, an idea might be to limit how many players can attempt to solve a problem at once. In the case of calming an angry mob, maybe state outright that only one other PC can help before things get overly crowded and you start tripping over each other. In far more difficult situations, the team HAS to band together, so everyone can get involved. There's no hard rule here - you'll have to play a bit by ear, but a good general suggestion is to allow one player to help at base level, and add an additional helper for each tier higher the challenge is, except for Iconic, which should always involve the entire party working together.

Let's check the math: By allowing aid another actions, the math gets substantially easier for PCs. When the natural maximum bonus to skill checks is +14, a +1 makes a big difference! This ideally encourages players to pool their resources together to accomplish major tasks. Note the listed suggestions on how many players can help - this is to ensure equal level challenges remain challenging, while higher level challenges both require and allow for greater teamwork. A level 10 character attempting an Iconic challenge has an average baseline of +13 - meaning they need a whopping 17 or higher just to succeed! Now, add a boon to their skill, and it's +14 - they still need a 16 or higher, but it's still technically do-able. Suddenly, the rest of the team gets involved. With a (generally) average 4 person team, suddenly they're rolling with anything from +18 to +20, meaning that, while they still have a good chance at failure, with the team working together, the impossible is now very much possible!

Fail Forward

The party gathers around the massive stone threshold and the locked oak door leading into the vault. They've fought off some of the guards, ensured no alarm, and snuck down into the deepest parts of the keep. Now, it is the only obstacle standing between them and the duke's ill-gotten goods. Outside the city walls, the people of the village keep voices hushed in fear of giving anything away, speaking only to pray for the success of their heroes. The rogue of the group, brandishing both lockpick and grin, gives a saucy wink to the sorcerer as she skillfully brings the tool into the door's keyhole, maneuvering it carefully…but not carefully enough! With a remarkable absence of a click, the lockpick slides out of the door.

The player looks at the GM first, then the rest of the group, hesitates, and shrugs. 'Uh…I roll again?'

Fail forward is in reality two design ideals at once. The first is simple: the action doesn't stop. A failed check doesn't mean "nothing happens," because "nothing happens" is typically the most boring result possible. Instead, every failure should STILL move the story forward. If the players hit up the village to look for clues to where the ancient crypt is, they never find "nothing," because finding nothing inspires little more then "we roll again." But it's second design ideal is a bit more subtle: failures have consequences. Again, a failed check doesn't just mean "nothing happens," it means something you probably didn't want to happen happens. Put together, you have a design choice where every roll matters, and every roll continues the action and tension.

Broadly speaking, this mostly boils down rather simply to "only roll when both success AND failure leads to an interesting event." In the example above, a failure to pick the lock could mean several things beyond just "you fail." Perhaps the lockpick breaks, and the GM rules that the rogue doesn't have another, so now they have to get the key. Perhaps the lock itself gets jammed, and now the only way forward is to give up on stealth and batter the door down and hope no alarm is sounded. Perhaps instead of a failed roll meaning the door isn't opened, it means the door IS opened - and a trap on the door is triggered. Or perhaps the door swings wide open without any trouble - and the vault is empty save a single taunting note. Either way, nothing ever just fails to happen - the story always moves on. In the case of searching for information, a catastrophic failure could mean the party is told quite easily where the cave of monsters is - but the villagers are sure it's inhabited by insane gnomes. When the party finds the incredible sculptures around the cavern are the work of a certain snake-haired woman, they find they are suddenly far more unprepared then they would've wanted to be!

Now, this isn't a mandate for all actions. There are times where "you simply fail" IS the best (and potentially most interesting) answer. There are also times where background rolls can be simple meaningless fun - seeing how the players fit in when at a high falutin' upper class party doesn't need to be a matter of life and death, it can simply be something for the group to laugh at when the scraggly and dark-humored barbarian accidentally manages to woo the whole shindig through sheer animal magnetism despite only speaking in grunts, while the rogue embarrassingly devours the entire platter of hors d'oeuvres right in front of everyone. In these cases, don't worry too much about failing forward - after all, there really isn't much to fail in this case, it's just simple roleplaying fun.

Crafting a Challenge

With the absence of attribute scores, challenges can be far more robust and abstract. Get out of the mindset of each challenge being a singular action. Instead, think of challenges or tasks as just that - overarching challenges or tasks. Unless you want it to be the main pinnacle of a session, sneaking into the duke's manor shouldn't involve each individual task as it's own roll. The rogue shouldn't be rolling to climb up the walls, then rolling to sneak past the guards, then rolling for each locked door, etc, etc. Remember - every roll should matter and should be exciting, and if the rogue is just rolling the same background over and over again, it's very hard to keep things tense. Familiarity will drain a scene's tension. Worse, the more rolls you ask for, the more chances of failure you have; at a certain point you have already decided the rogue is going to fail, and now you're just trying to find out when, and that's no fun for anyone involved. Instead, "sneak into the duke's manor" could be a singular background challenge in of itself - remember, each background potentially covers a VERY wide array of skills! On top of that, doing so turns the entire game into something only the rogue gets to interact with.

Now, again, this is only for when "sneaking into the duke's manor" is not meant to be the crescendo of the session. If sneaking in is meant to be something they've been working towards doing for awhile, you can turn it into it's own event entirely. Again, you should avoid making it into a series of one player rolling the same background again and again. Instead, think up of several situations and tense moments that could happen while the group as a whole sneaks in. Remember - every roll needs to matter!

This can, of course, be magnified. What if the overarching goal is not "sneak into the duke's castle," but instead "eliminate the duke." Now you can take the entire sneaking part and put it into a single background check for the rogue, so that they can dig up dirt on the duke or get a layout of the manor. Meanwhile, the bard is riling the village against their cruel leader, the wizard is fixing up a powerful hex, and the fighter is training the villagers for the upcoming fight. One good thing about removing attribute scores is that you no longer need to wonder what attribute any of these match up with. The Fighter no longer needs to ask if he can use strength to train the peasants instead of charisma, because as a fighter he needs to have high strength. The rogue no longer requires a specific attribute to be sneaky and conniving.

Class Functions

Every class makes use of attribute scores - it's deeply ingrained in the combat system. So what do you do when they're gone?

General Combat Functions

The easiest answer is simply "take four."

By and large, 13th Age is loosely built around the idea that players will have an 18 in their primary attributes, or a +4. For the sake of keeping things simple for the time being, the best way to convert over is to assume you have a +4 in your attack/damage attribute.

For defenses it gets a bit trickier. For defenses, act as though you have a +4,, two +3's, and a +2 as your budget to divvy amongst your AC, your PD, your MD, and your general endurance (which is to say, HP and recovery bonuses). This means that yes, you can make a wizard with incredibly high MD as most tend to have with attribute scores, or instead decide to sink your MD and put your +4 into AC and laugh at those puny archers who try to snipe you. Likewise a fighter can decide to be near invulnerable in AC, only to be easily confused and wreck havoc as she begins dicing through her own allies.

Specific Class Functions

Many classes have more then one prime attribute. In these cases, it's still a good idea to consider the "take four" philosophy. Typically, players who took less then +4 to their secondary attribute did so by sacrificing not combat strength in another area, but instead by giving up their non-combat capabilities - exactly what we're trying to avoid! However, if a class makes use of yet another prime attribute, this one SHOULD be lower. No character actually walks in with 18 in every stat! In this case, the third attribute should be considered at +2. For example, a bard starts off normally needing dexterity and charisma. If that bard should then take Jack of Spells without it's heroic feat, and took a wizard spell, they would act as if their Intelligence were at +2.

Stunts

Now that we have our class features that we use in combat, and we have our backgrounds that we use when NOT in combat, how do we combine them? With stunts. Stunts are risky but quick actions the PCs can make in a fight. First, the general outline. Stunts are Quick Actions intended to be used alongside your usual action for that round, and work to either give the PC a brief advantage or to give the enemy a disadvantage. Both last until the end of the PC's next turn (which typically means giving the enemy a disadvantage is stronger as the party can take advantage of it). Stunts performed to increase their own capabilities should generally be rolled against a flat DC, while stunts made against an enemy should be rolled against their PD or MD (which in turn means stunts meant to improve the PC will typically be easier)

To perform a stunt, think about the action you want to make as it would exist in the fiction first, then consider how this would help or hinder things. If you can't think of a good benefit this would give you, it might be best to use it as a description of your attack rather then commit to attempting a stunt. Otherwise, once you have a good idea of what you want to attempt and what it would effect, make the suggestion to the GM. A good general guideline on stunts is that they should usually be small bonus; +1 to an attack, +2 to a single defense, +1 to disengage checks, that sort of thing. Likewise for stunts intended to be used against enemies; the rogue who describes himself as leaping onto the enemy with knives drawn and hanging off their back could describe it as a supplementary stunt to give the dragon a penalty to disengage from the rogue. Sometimes, you want stunts to be even more special - and that's fine! In these cases, you should talk to your GM about what you want to do. There are times where a stunt is an attack in of itself; in such situations, consider what the stunt would add that a normal attack would lack. It might be best to, again, treat it as a normal attack and describe it to the situation. Otherwise, depending on the class, consider having them treat it as an attack roll insofar as damage goes, using either the normal damage die for that class, or a step below for a stunt with truly stupendous other effects. Lastly, stunts should not immediately end in the death of other enemies. As tempting as it is to throw down a stunt to knock an enemy off the side of the airship, that's the sort of thing that should be left to death descriptions - at most, if the GM is enjoying the flow of things, something done to a mook. Major enemies generally don't Wilhelm scream into railing kills. On the other hand, knocking the baddie so they have to cling to the side, opening them up to your attacks, is both entirely in-flavor and well balanced. Lastly, stunts can be used to alter movement. The Circus Boy Wonder doesn't need the stairs - they leap across the candelabra and land right in front of the sinister necromancer while the rest of the party fends with his armored skeletal guards (that would normally be so ready to intercept!)

Stunts can also cover good ground for GMs who want to introduce new and interesting enemies with particular attacks or defenses. Perhaps the evil warlock has a talisman that grants a great shield around him that must be stolen or cut off or in some way removed before he can be injured. Maybe a player needs to entangle the legs of a supernaturally fast moving swordsman to stop them from bouncing from one PC to the next. In the example above of the rogue, consider making things even more exciting - the dragon doesn't stay engaged with the rogue, the rogue stays engaged with the dragon, even as the dragon begins to fly away! Obviously, in cases such as this, the GM should always tell the player what's going to happen and give them a chance to slide off the dragons back first!

Like many things, familiarity can breed contempt. Stunts should generally be a 1/fight deal for each player. Furthermore, stunts generally should not go hand in hand with daily attacks or spells - those are flashy and powerful enough as is! Save it for the other turns! In truly momentous fights between PCs and sworn enemies, especially if you have a one on one fight, this can (and perhaps should!) be waved away, so that the two fighters are constantly engaging in general heroism and swashbucklery. It's their big time to shine after all - let them soak in the spotlight!

This can interact with certain class features. Consider: the rogue already has an ability that does similar to this. Perhaps make it so that Swashbuckler gives them a single stunt use with an automatic success.

Optional Rules

Weaknesses

Sometimes, what a character is bad at is just as noteworthy as what they're good at. One thing GMs might push for is to give players a single skill at a negative 3 for them to decide on. The priestess who Always Falls For A Pretty Face. The fighter with No Sense Of Direction. The rogue who's Just Plain Illiterate. The wizard who Gets Winded After A Light Jog. Now, the downside to weaknesses is twofold. One, you could end up with players who try to avoid their weaknesses ever actually coming into play (which could mean giving themselves a particularly toothless weakness - and this is a case where there is no rule to help, you're going to have to actually talk to them). And two, they might not even intentionally do this, but simple find their weakness isn't much of one. After all, the benefit of traveling in a group is to make up for those weaknesses! As such, weaknesses mean that the GM has to work a bit harder to put PCs in situations where their weaknesses have an effect. Feed the party bad information by having the femme fatale approach the cleric when separated from the others. Other ways to have them come into play could be putting a negative spotlight on them using overarching background checks; trying to jog through the middle of the untamed jungle? Make the wizard be the one who makes the actual background check, and let the other PCs scramble and figure out how to help them survive.

Gaining Additional Backgrounds

Depending on how long the game goes on for, a very large number of things could happen in the PCs lives before they're done. As the skills system is largely disconnected from combat in DtAS: Ice Age, reward players when they gain a new tier by giving more background points broadly free of charge - they just have to spend them on a background that they've gained since the game started. At level 1 the wood elf barbarian wasn't much, but now he's Worshiped By The Birds. The wizard Sealed The Book Of Ophidian Nightmares, with all the expertise in dark magic and the occult that could come with that.