[Let’s Study: 13th Age] Part 5 – Relationship Dice

Posted: September 20, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Let's Study, Roleplaying Games
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The next section of 13th Age deals with the mechanics used in running the game. Continuing their trend of innovating within the OGL space, the book goes on to reveal the specifics of how the game works for the GM.

We’ve established the presence of Relationship Dice during character creation, and these dice play a role in ever session in a game of 13th Age. Relationship Dice are rolled in three separate instances:

  • At the start of a session
  • During dramatic events directly invovling agents of the Icon
  • Discovery and Surprise

The means by which this is handled is rolling the dice and checking for any 6’s and 5’s. Each time a 6 comes up, the icon provides an unambigious advantage, a 5 also provides an advantage but one balanced with complications that advance the story.

When Relationship Dice are rolled for Dramatic Events any 5’s or 6’s should always introduce a twist that pushes the story onwards even if complications are involved. There’s a nice note here about how GMs and Players should collaborate to come up with what kind of encounter happens. The trigger here is a dramatically appropriate encounter with an agent or minion of the Icon.

I know this sounds vague, but it does assume that the GM should be able to apply these results in a manner that advances the story for the players. Thankfully the book also includes a rather robust discussion of improvisational techniques to help GMs who aren’t used to it.

Overall, Relationship Dice are an interesting mechanic that serves as a Random Encounter Table for Plot. Roll a 5 or 6, and you encounter a plot hook relating to the Icon(s) that your character is related to as defined by the character creation process.

I think Relationship Dice are a neat mechanic to get GMs into the habit of introducing character-relevant plot hooks in each game, but it is one of the mechanics that could quite easily be taken out. What I mean by this is that the rolling aspect is something that could easily be left to the GMs discretion. As long as a GM has the proper mindset to try and entertain all the players equally, they’ll find ways to implement plot hooks that are relevant not only to the factions that the player character is aligned with, but the relationships that player character has in general.

I guess the closest metaphor I can think of is that the Relationship Dice rolling mechanic is like a set of training wheels for a bike. They’re not bad, but after you’ve gotten the lesson that they’re supposed to teach, you can take them off with zero consequences.

This is where I start getting the impression that 13th Age really makes for an interesting transition game for moving from the traditional d20 gaming style to a more story-heavy one. Likewise, it serves as a happy medium to get story-heavy gamers to play d20 without feeling too constrained.

  1. Establishing plot hooks are only the beginning of relationship dice, something I normally utilize at the start of an adventure. The “Discovery and Surprise” aspect of Relationship Dice works in two *very* interesting ways in my opinion:

    1. it allows players the opportunity to steer the plot in a certain direction. In situations where players want something cool and related to their character happen in a certain scene, but ability checks or even their unique thing normally wouldn’t allow it, rather than saying no to that player, I have them roll their relationship dice with an Icon they’re affiliated with. If they get a 6 the story shifts to the direction they want, a 5 there’s a price to pay for that story-shifting (and if the player gets both a 5 and a 6, interesting things start to happen…).

    2. As you mentioned, it can serve as a Random Encounter table, but I find that stating that it’s simply for the plot completely undersells it. I personally use it for creating completely random encounters in the following manner: after determining who are the major Icons involved in a scene, I think of a way to tie that scene with the previous scene(s), and then utilize either the book’s pre-fabricated monsters or create my own monsters on the fly (very easy to do using the monster creation section) if combat is necessary (or use other tools for non-combat scenarios), and viola, Instant combat/puzzle/role-playing scene!

    And in the event that none of the rolls are a 5 or a 6, I get to roll what the book calls a “Random Icon Influence” but I nickname it “the trouble die”, a d12 that establishes who among the Icons interfered with the roll(s) of the PCs; for example, if a player wants to have the Archmage involved somehow — perhaps there’s a flashback where a minion of the Archmage gave you an orb of Invisibility Sphere that, when consumed, envelopes everyone in an aura of invisibility — but fails to roll a 5 or a 6, if my trouble die lands on a **rolls** 2, I could show another flashback where a contingent of soldiers of the Crusader bumped into you while you were talking with said minion and you dropped the orb the resulting chaos, or I could show you a scene where you were so excited to head out that day, you accidentally left the said orb where you last were (the Crusader is a very zealous Icon, and thus it fits in this scenario). If my trouble die lands on a 1 either another minion of the Archmage was jealous of the one who gave the orb to you and magic’ed it away, or you encountered a thief and though the fight was too easy, the orb was stolen (see http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=9059 for additional inspiration). You could easily say it’s purely for flavor, but now there’s a plot hook that the players might want to tackle in the next session, and I didn’t even have to plan that plot hook ahead of time!.

    [ I also have this nasty habit of making encounters harder by adding enemies as a result of the trouble die, but I also tend to treat these new enemies as “third party interlopers”, meaning they aren’t usually allies of the PCs’ enemies at the moment. ]

    This method was inspired by Wade Rockett’s article when he described his experience playing 13th Age under Rob Heinsoo. http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=9061

    It is thanks to the Relationship Dice that I have reduced my prep time for adventures to virtually nil, and rarely allocate more than a few minutes in actually preparing anything for my 13th Age campaigns. At most I refer to my GM Notes as flashbacks to events in past sessions, then use those flashbacks so that coherency is maintained throughout the campaign. And I’ve enjoyed this method of DMing so much that I actually have trouble DMing without the convenience of Relationship Dice and a dash of creativity without the restraints of most mechanics; random encounter tables might work, but that still entails a hefty amount of studying and preparing of materials, most of which would only be reused if the campaign plods along long enough.

    For me it’s a wonderful tool that is completely underappreciated, and removing it before you can see its true value in both public demos and impromptu campaign design & development is a disservice to yourself.

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    Shouldn’t the Players already have the ability to steer the Plot in the direction of their character? The dice seems to be redundant, imo.

    • There’s a difference between “I the character take an action to steer the plot in the direction I want” and “I the player change the plot in the direction I want”. Ability/skill (background-related) checks and attacks are the former, Relationship Dice are the latter.

      It’s obviously not for everyone, as some groups are in favor of “GM takes the wheel”, but for me I love creating the world alongside the players and be as surprised as the players while they’re traversing the world. It’s easier for me to be the players’ biggest fan, as I get to see and experience the world they’re helping me to build, in a way that isn’t necessarily biased towards them. The fact that they can TRY to change the scene using Relationship Dice means it’s not just the characters participating in the world, but also the players working together with the GM. The fact that they can FAIL in INTERESTING ways means that it’s still a risk, a challenge, that allows things that go right, to go very right, and for things that go wrong to go terribly wrong…

      … but regardless of outcome, the story still flows and is enriched by the attempt.

      • I’d like to think that having an open policy allows for players to ask if they can influence the story towards a certain direction, without the need for dice. All it takes is for players and GM to share a certain comfort and trust in each other to push the enjoyment of the game forward.

        • That’s something I like to see as well, but what I like a lot about the approach done in 13th Age is that the shared decision-making is made into a game, rather than simply being a matter of GM-player trust issues.

          Rather than a consistent assumption that is A) GM always says yes, B) GM sometimes says yes (but usually with a cost), or C) GM says no (as done in other RPGs), the Relationship Dice leaves that sort of decision-making to the roll of of the dice. When combined with the Random Icon Influence die, the mini-game becomes even more engaging because instead of the normal “no you don’t get what you want” that results in nothing, something still takes place because the player took the time to play with the relationship dice, but the result isn’t necessarily something he’d like.

          Yes I can create and run a game where everything the player says goes, but personally I find that play style (as player and GM) boring because one of the primary aesthetics that I look for in a game (challenge) is toned down in favor of a different aesthetic (drama) that, while something I also look for in the game, I don’t see as a core aesthetic of the types of TRPGs I look for; rather, I see it as a by-product of gameplay, or at least an accompaniment of other aesthetics of gameplay.

          The fact that I can’t always get what I want, but the reason involves what I consider as an unbiased arbiter (the dice) instead of an actual person who I may earn enmity against (the GM) makes the Relationship Dice far more powerful a mechanic for me than most other game mechanics in the system — I’d even vote it over the Escalation Die (which took some conditioning on my part before I could remember to keep track of it), and close to the One Unique Thing in “must have”, especially since while the Backgrounds incorporate the character’s past into the world and the story, it’s the Icon Relationships and Relationship Dice that makes the characters and players much more involved in the politics that normally falls in the background of the story. Instead of just being “these guys will help you out at story-appropriate instances” (and the player can establish when ‘story appropriate’ actually takes place), it’s “these guys might be able to help you… if they’re not tied up with their own problems”.

          • Understand that I do know that the challenge aesthetic still can be found in a “GM always says yes” campaign — after all, he has to incorporate into the existing story what the player wants — but the approach is alien to me at best, as the “players always have their way” feels like a disservice to them, because from my perspective as a player, why do we even need to roll dice when everything can be done via roleplay?

            It might work in other RPGs, but as something that’s supposed to have its roots in D&D (in all its forms), I don’t feel that it should work that way. d20 bias perhaps, but it’s something that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.

  3. A part of me wishes that 13th Age was around when I first got into RPGs 12 years ago. It would have certainly made our D&D games much more interesting rather than just another day of grave robbing (wash, rinse, repeat).

    I get the feeling this system would be handy for a lot of newbie GMs as well, and for GMs who don’t have a lot of time for prep work and want a game that’s got a little more story than the usual “go kill things and take their stuff” kind of thing. I can totally see the appeal of the system there.

    But…after that, I don’t. As a long-time player, I tend to play under GMs I’m familiar and trust with (and who in turn trusts me as a player). It allows for a great deal of flexibility, storytelling, and ease of play and subsequent enjoyment for everyone involved. In other words, Trust and playing style compatibility plays a big deal in any successful long term gaming group–at least in my experience. I would never play under a GM whose gaming style/preferences are as different as night and day compared to mine. The GM won’t like how I play, and I won’t like the game. And no gaming is better than bad gaming, I always say.

    I guess it’s a preference issue, but I do not like the Relationship Die. Like I said, useful for newbies or casual gaming, but if you’re looking for something more, I wouldn’t use it. Ultimately, it takes away from me as a player, my character’s background and how I play that character and the relationship he or she forms with the other characters involved (including PCs). It takes away from me as a player, agency of change and choice. For the GM, I can see it as more work when you have to justify why the relationship of player character vs NPC is that way. It’s forced, and ultimately feels unnatural.

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