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Monday, 23 October 2017

Iconic Battles I

High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Five Icons is a supplement for 13th Age, the Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG  with an emphasis on storytelling as well as high action published by Pelgrane Press. It is the first book in the ‘Battle Scenes’ trilogy, each of which presents a series of Icon-themed encounters which can be dropped into an ongoing game with relatively little preparation upon the part of the Game Master. These encounters are battles, built across the three tiers of play—Adventurer, Champion, and Epic—and tied to each one of five Icons. These are the Archmage, the High Druid, the Orc Lord, the Prince of Shadows, and The Three. There are three such encounters per Icon, with three battle scenes per encounter, giving a total of some forty-five or so battles in High Magic & Low Cunning. Further, the supplement comes with a companion Map Folio, which contains maps for each of the volume’s battle locations, so that the Referee can bring the action to the table in full colour.

Besides the 13th Age core rules, the Game Master will also need access to the 13th Age Bestiary, 13 True Ways, and the Book of Loot. Some new magic items are added in High Magic & Low Cunning, but these are not the focus of the supplement, whereas the new monsters it does add, are more the focus of the supplement.

High Magic & Low Cunning is well organised. Each battle series follows the same format. This begins by giving the suggested Level range for the player characters, followed by an introduction, suggested story openings, and alternate Icons. The story openings, typically three or four per battle series provides options for involving the player characters, these varying according to their relationship with the Icon involved. For example, in the first battle series for the Archmage, ‘Moz’s Magnificent Mess’, the story opening for the player character with a positive or conflicted relationship with the Archmage is to have him go clean up Moz’s mess, whereas the story opening for a player character with a conflicted or negative relationship with the Archmage might go to Moz’s aid for favours before the Archmage can or learns of it. Between these two options are two more neutral story openings. Alternate Icons offers other avenues into the battle series via the player characters’ connections with Icons other than the primary one for the series. These typically put a different slant or flavour upon the battle series. A text box, ‘Icons in Play’, discusses which Icon relationships work with the particular battle series and so should be favoured in terms of information and other advantages by the Game Master.

Each battle series consists of three battle scenes. These are come with a map—done in greyscale rather than the full colour of the maps in the High Magic & Low Cunning Map Folio—flavour text and location description, and details of the terrain, traps, monsters, their tactics and loot, how Icon relations will work in the battle, plus monster stats and next steps. The latter helps the Game Master set up the next battle or gives options for outcomes after the last battle in a series. Notes are included on how to scale each battle scene up and down, according to the number of players. Penultimately, each battle series is rounded out with a number of story endings, each one corresponding to a story opening given at the start of each battle series. So for ‘Moz’s Magnificent Mess’, the story ending for the player character with a positive or conflicted relationship with the Archmage and who together with his fellow player characters succeeds in cleaning up Moz’s mess without causing a blemish to the Archmage’s reputation, will Moz’s gratitude and a handful of minor magical items as a reward. Should they fail though, the Archmage and his people will be annoyed with the player characters and his companions and Moz will probably be punished. For the player character with a conflicted or negative relationship with the Archmage who together with his companions help Moz, will gain a favour or two from Moz, but if they fail, the Archmage will send forces after them as punishment! Every battle series comes to a close with some suggested battle scene connections, actually links to other battle series, so that the Game Master could run one series after another. Not all of these occur in High Magic & Low Cunning, so for example, ‘Moz’s Magnificent Mess’, the battle scene connections lead to series involving the Icons, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, and the Lich King, whereas ‘Old Injuries Repaid’, a battle series for the Orc Lord has connections to both the Dwarf Lord and the High Druid. Of these, only the High Druid of these appears in High Magic & Low Cunning, so if the Game Master wants to get the very fullest out of this supplement, he may also want to pick up the other supplements in the ‘Battle Scenes’ trilogy—The Crown Commands: Battle Scenes for Four Icons and Fire & Faith: Battle Scenes for Four Icons. The first of these will include battle scenes for the Dwarf King, Elf Queen, Emperor, and Lich King, whilst the latter will include battle scenes for the Crusader, Diabolist, Great Gold Wyrm, and Priestess. 

So, what does High Magic & Low Cunning offer in terms of adventure? There are more adventures set in the wilderness than set in urban, but the standout urban series, ‘Back-Alley Politics’, involving the Prince of Shadows, ends in a fight across an ever shifting, tilting, trap-laden floor. Other locations are more arcane, such as ‘The Lightning Station’ for the Archmage, which involves a race across the clouds for a lost artefact, and ‘Thief of Dreams’ for the Prince of Shadows, sends the player characters into the lands of dream. The majority though, are set in the wilderness. Of these, the High Druid receives not three separate battle series, but three linked battle series in effect giving nine battle scenes in which the player characters must stop a series of power draining rituals; one Orc Lord series, ‘Rafting Razeredge Gorge’, sends the player characters on a raft down river gorges infested with orcs who swing down on ropes and pepper them with arrows, whilst ‘Conquer & Defend’, also for the Orc Lord, sends then up a mountain pass to recapture and then defend a frontier fortress.

Notably though, the battles and the series escalate from a Level range of First and Second Levels up through to the top tier for 13th Age—Tenth Level. Fittingly, this comes at the end of the book and because 13th Age is a roleplaying game derived from Dungeons & Dragons, it involves the Icon, The Three, and dragons! Or rather one dragon in particular and a big, big battle! It is not really giving away much to say that the player characters will require Potions of Fire Resistance at the very least because this will be a fight against a Red Dragon as big as they come! It brings High Magic & Low Cunning to a rousing and hair-singeing conclusion.

The primary use for High Magic & Low Cunning will be for the Game Master as a source of readymade encounters and mini-adventures to choose from and throw at his players and their characters. This can be done as intended, tying a battle series to the player characters via their Icon relationships, especially when a complication is called for following an Icon relationship roll, but it could be down according to terrain and features of each battle series, depending upon where the player characters are and where the campaign is. A third use of course, is as inspiration for the Game Master when writing scenes and encounters for his own campaign.

Yet High Magic & Low Cunning is not quite perfect. An index would not have gone amiss, even a small one could have listed the battle scenes by Level and by terrain. More problematically, a great many of the battle scenes are double-strength encounters, and so extra challenging. This is made clear in the text, but it could have been made more obvious for the Game Master up front. Physically, High Magic & Low Cunning is a solid softback, done in black and white with some excellent pen and ink artwork. Although the book is well written, by Pelgrane Press’ standards, the editing feels just a little too rushed. The full colour maps of the High Magic & Low Cunning Map Folio though, are very nicely done, and come in marked and unmarked versions so the Game Master can reuse them as necessary.

High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Five Icons takes the idea of the Icon relationships at the heart of 13th Age and builds on them to present a fast and easy means for the Game Master to bring them to the table with a minimum of preparation time. The accompanying options also mean that the Game Master can better tailor the various scenes to the player characters’ Icon relationships, giving him greater flexibility in how and when they can be run, thus serving to give the supplement greater utility. Above all, High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Five Icons—along with its companions in the trilogy—is a volume that the Game Master is going to want to keep to hand, ready for just when he needs it and the players and their characters need the challenge.