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Swashbuckling in the 13th Age!

There are two blog posts coming out of the first session of the Arabian 13th Age campaign, this was supposed to be the second one, but since I’m being hassled for them, and this one doesn’t involve a bit of image editing, it has hit the web first.

One of the more difficult decisions for those playing Rogues in 13th Age is choosing class talents. They are all pretty, damned good except for Shadow Walk, which seems a bit lame considering the speed of 13th Age fights. It doesn’t help that the abilities are quite varied as well.

The big debate for me was whether to take Swashbuckle. I liked the sound of it but it fell into a fiddly sweet spot due to the rules and the general conventions at the table. In terms of the rules, Swashbuckle is one of the vague ones, or at least it seems to be at first, but I suspect it’s a bit clearer if you accept a certain intent that might not be communicated in the best way. The other problem was we tend to have a cinematic table anyway, so a talent that seems to give you permission to be cinematic seems a bit superfluous.

Having had a single session now, so Swashbuckle has hit the table, the odd Twitter discussion, and a bit of time figuring out improvisational effects I think I have a perspective on the designers’ intent. It’s my take anyway. As I say though, there is enough vagueness in the whole thing for it to be a bit frustrating.

The key seems to be it empowers the player to make up improvisational effects, but I’ll get back to that. Which seem to be an idea lacking just a bit of clarity or pulling together of ideas spread throughout the book.

First, it is a class talent, so it needs to stack up in terms of utility with class talents such as improved sneak attack, which turns out significant damage, especially in the champion tier. Not only that, improved sneak attack works all the time, on every attack if the simple engaged criteria apply. It’s ridiculously good. Swashbuckle costs momentum to use and you can’t even spend your momentum freely to do it on demand as it’s essentially a per encounter power. On this basis it needs to deliver when it kicks in as it has a high opportunity cost and has medium rationing (albeit it’s got great action economy). Whatever you do with Swashbuckle it’s only happening once per encounter and at the cost of the few times the Rogue may have momentum!

Now back to improvisational effects.

It seems the sweet spot 13th Age is trying to hit between offering structure while remaining narratively flexible can sometimes leave it all a bit vague between the two, but examples do seem to be woven throughout the book.

The use of improvisational effects suggests it is perfectly acceptable to cause a ‘rule’ effect of some kind. This seems to be a strange mixture of an actual, recognisable rules effect (such as dazing a target) or something akin to applying an aspect (sword stuck in tree) without the actual rule representation. It’s not just about doing something cinematically cool in a descriptive sense, such as wall running across a chasm. The cool example in the book involves administering a status effect of dazed by cutting open bags of flower. In a similar way, spread across the book, improvisational effects with suitable narrative permissions include slowing characters down, status effects and environmental damage, restricting enemy actions, etc. It seems delivering status effects and impromptu environmental delivered damage (there is even a table for this to control it per tier) are the order of the day.

The other way I’m finding I am looking at it is it’s a bit like an improvisational spell per encounter, but the permission isn’t a spell but narrative circumstance and description.

On this basis it’s going to be interesting and fun to use in play. It does allow you to do something awesome and flexible once per encounter. When looked at in this way it does seem to have a level of utility when compared to other talents, especially since you make no roll to succeed at the improvisational effect (making the rationing and use of momentum more understandable) and you can throw in the general visual awesome of epic parkour, aerial gymnastics and balancing stuff (or using my air djinn heritage as a the narrative permission, etc).

About Ian O'Rourke

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