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Sunday, 8 May 2016

The 13th Age Starts Here

Shadows of Eldolan is the first scenario published for use with 13th Age, the Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG with an emphasis on storytelling as well as high action published by Pelgrane Press. An investigative and combat orientated adventure written for use with five or six characters of First Level, it is designed to ease the GM into running 13th Age—in particular the use of the RPG’s Icons to bring in story elements—and thus perhaps lay foundations for a campaign. 

Shadows of Eldolan comes as a seventy-two page greyscale book that contains both the adventure and a description of the town of Eldolan. This description is not of the whole town, only those parts which are pertinent to the adventure, although an overview of the town is given. Eldolan itself is a small port along the coast from the city of Horizon, located in a flat gap between the cliffs. The town is best known for its wizard academies and guilds, their strong influence upon the town’s politics and the fact that much of the town is kept lit at night by network of magical street lights maintained by the Lamplighters’ Guild. The player characters come to Eldolan for a meeting with someone connected to their Icon relationships, but before they get to the meeting, its location is attacked by zombies! The question is, who in a town dominated by wizards—and thus where the Archmage is an important Icon—would be creating zombies, a task more associated with the Lich King?

Answering this question lies at the heart of Shadows of Eldolan. There are four clues to investigate, each of which leads the adventurers down certain plotlines. These are are designed so that getting to the end of one can lead to another and so on and so on until the player characters can find the clues that will lead it on to the revelations that lead to the climax of the scenario. The four can be played in any order, there being notes for the GM as to what clue to use to send the player characters onto the next plot thread and then eventually onto the final clues and subsequent showdown.

The scenario has a reasonable balance between combat and investigative encounters. Some effort has gone into making the combat encounters exciting and a little different, for example, the pumpkin-throwing zombie in the first encounter and the use of stage scenery in a later encounter. The party will also face a good mix of monsters and combatants, nicely showcasing the capabilities of the antagonists in 13th Age in just a few lines in each case that make them ever so easy to use. That said, some of the combat encounter set-ups are repetitive, such as the adventurers being ambushed from both ahead and behind them at the same time. Notably, the scenario makes great use of having the party ‘fail it forward’, that is, when the party fails to find a clue or undertake an action with any degree of success, have them actually succeed, but with subsequent consequences, such as having to face more foes in a later combat.

The 13th Age RPG brings two particular elements to Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying that actively work to engage the player characters in the story and the setting—Icons and ‘One Unique Thing’. The former are archetypal beings or personalities that mold part of the world, driving and directing it. They include the Archmage, the Diabolist, the Emperor, and others, and each player will have a relationship with one, two, or three of these. The latter is what makes each player character stand out in the world of the 13th Age. Now the scenario cannot make much use of the ‘One Unique Thing’ element of each character, because there are just too many for both the author and the publisher of the scenario to take account of. What they can do though, is bring in each of the characters’ Icon relationships. Each session the player roll their ‘relationship’ dice, with any result of ‘6’ granting a player a boon and any result of ‘5’ granting a player both a boon and a complication. What the GM has to do here is create or improvise what these boons and complications might be. Now this will not be an issue for the experienced GM, and whilst there are notes on involving the player characters’ Icon relationships at certain points—particularly when it comes to finding clues, but for the less experienced GM, a few more suggestions might not have gone amiss.

There is also no doubt that Shadows of Eldolan needs these Icon relationships. They serve to pull the player characters into the scenario and involve them further in the plot and hunt for clues. Without them and the input of the GM, the adventure does otherwise feel slightly flat and bland in places. Further, although Shadows of Eldolan is well-plotted and there is plenty of advice on handling its plot, there is one plot point that may annoy the players. The problem is that the villain gets away at the end—and this is built into the plot. Of course, this lends itself to the villain’s reappearance later as a recurring villain and that is no bad thing. Nevertheless, there will be some playing groups that will find this dissatisfying, despite 13th Age being much about storytelling and action as opposed to just the action...

Physically Shadows of Eldolan is slightly disappointing. It is not a bad looking book, but it does need another edit. Although there are stylistic issues, the real problem lies with the adventure’s maps and their descriptions. The maps are decent enough—no surprise given that Pelgrane Press’ sister company is ProFantasy Software—and whilst it would have been nice of them to have been in colour, that they are in greyscale is understandable—though colour maps are available to download for all purchasers, the problem is that they are unnumbered. Although the maps are not necessarily difficult to read, their accompanying descriptions do not readily or easily match the maps. This is disappointing and it does make the adventure just ever slightly harder to run.

Although Shadows of Eldolan takes place in what a ‘high fantasy, high magic’ town, the plot of the scenario takes the adventurers some way away from the bright lights of the well lit town. It is a self-contained affair, with plenty of room for both combat (or not, depending upon the player characters’ actions) and investigation, and if it feels a little flat in places, then there means are still there to make it a more memorable adventure by involving the Icons and their relationship with the player characters. Overall, Shadows of Eldolan is a solid first adventure for players new to 13th Age with the GM being accorded good advice on running it.