13th Age: The Strangling Sea
This review is by Jeremy Wong, my game master, and the the other half of the Explorers reviewers.
Here’s what you need to know…
An adventure for 13th Age!
Inigo Sharpe is a strange and eccentric inventor, and he’s done gone and gone missing. Following his trail, the heroes arrive at The Strangelsea, and contend with the various shipwrecked factions as they search for Sharpe amid growing danger.
40 pg. PDF (Out of Print)
About the system…
13th Age is basically Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition mixed with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition but also if it was written in 2014 and is filled with all the good tidbits and advancements that GMs have made the past few decades.
Running it is like playing someone’s very detailed hacked-apart D&D clone, except the person who wrote it is in the room with you. Maybe he’s inside you. Maybe, beneath your human-mask, you were always Rob Heinsoo.
The game has classes, dungeons, dragons, and crawls of the both of them. Its execution is definitely closer to a story-first indie RPG than the others, though; it feels like it was written by and for people who enjoy D&D but no longer have time for the combat grind - and even if they did have time, they’d rather make it a bit more exciting for their tired brains.
For example: skills aren’t “Climbing” or “Arcana,” they’re your jobs - like “Acrobat” or “Wizard’s Apprentice.” It gives you a lot of definition over your character.
Spellcasters have spells cleanly grouped into “at-will” and “Daily” spell attacks, much like D&D’s fourth edition. Gear is unique, front, and center with loads of customization options. Higher-level magic focuses on its interesting story power; Teleport, doesn’t worry about 3rd Edition’s caster levels or Pathfinder’s heaps of modifiers or 4th Edition’s “ritual” powers. It simply lets you teleport “ to any location in the world, underworld, or overworld that you have previously visited,” except on a one, when something has gone wrong.
This isn’t a review of 13th Age (which I’ll admit I enjoy,) but keep it in mind for acquiring The Strangling Sea. You’ll find plot hooks and ideas and combat and non-combat in it, but you won’t find a new spell or prestige class in the adventure.
Now, we’re deep in the weeds of the spoiler zone (so if you’re a player, turn away now!) but weirdly, the adventure doesn’t start out in the weeds at all. It could take an hour or more of gameplay - maybe even an entire session! - before the heroes get there.
The adventure is made for Level 1 player characters, which is fine - remember that 13th Age only goes to Level 10, and Level 1 isn't nearly as weak as it is in older fantasy role-playing games. That means that this serves as much as a way to get the heroes together as it does to give them things to do.
From the first pages, you’re bombarded (in a good way) with the mechanics and rules of 13th Age. The game has helpful reminders about how to use the rules, like using the Icons - a system of built-in patrons and plot threads - to tie your players to the world at large.
It also has some lovely “directing” advice, like suggesting a travel montage and walking you through how you might use it to speed up traveling over a boring area.
Once the players do some first-level garbage (beating up thugs, talking to a gnome, making some silly jokes) they get an enchanted swan-boat that’s powered by secrets. It’s a lovely idea, a small one, and one that is sure to make the players giggle with delight, even if they can’t quite improv a truly hilarious secret admission.
Once they get there, they’re on the Weed-Mat in the Stranglesea, and the adventure opens up. It’s a somewhat non-linear exploration through several miniature dungeons, each of which is inhabited by the residents of the Stranglesea, each of which could have their macguffin (Inigo Sharpe), and each of which positively hates the others.
The Dwarves have a big, blocky steamship that they’re trying (fruitlessly) to repair. The sea goblins are adapting - slowly and creepily - to life at sea. The wreck rats are a bunch of assholes. There are, of course, plenty of other smaller encounters to throw at the heroes. Combat encounters are offered a-plenty, since this is still a D&D-like game, and combat is the main engine by which the plot moves. If combat’s not your style, the heroes can do lots of negotiation between the factions, looking for Sharpe.
This isn’t going to be a bad, necessarily. So take it as you will. But the adventure is extremely modular, and that’s not everyone’s style.
Who has Sharpe is completely up to the GM, and that’s good - and bad. It means that it’s never going to be as satisfying as if there was a real story already written, with clues and hints about where Sharpe is. As-is, it’s more about pacing than realism. That’s fine. Just not for me.
Also, this adventure is short. It could be played in 2 sessions, maybe one if you hand-wave combat encounters. It’s probably too short for three, and a lot of it feels like it’s supposed to be longer. I get that you always want to keep your audience wanting more, but it just feels a bit short.
This adventure is fascinating from start to finish. Everything is visually interesting, degenerate, gross, salty, brackish, fungus-possessed, and briney - without ever going too far into the realm of schlock horror. And all of this strangeness isn’t resolved through some DC 20 Con check every hour, but by some fairly interesting relationship mechanics and lots of above-board table talk.
“After the heroes’ first encounter in the Stranglesea, the curse starts to work on them. Call for normal (DC 15) Wis checks. Those who fail realize that a part of them wants to stay here on the weeds. Forever. This doesn’t affect their behavior, unless the players choose to embrace these weird thoughts and make decisions as if their characters are succumbing to them. Instead, describe it as a second set of alien thoughts suddenly intruding on normal consciousness…
...After a second encounter, call for another round of Wis checks. Suggest that the player with the worst Wis result, even if it would normally be successful, roleplay a slight loss of mental control. If the cursed PC has relationship points with more than one icon, ask them which icon they feel distant from here on the mat.
Temporarily remove one icon relationship point with that icon, or with the PC’s only icon, if they have only one icon, and replace it with a temporary relationship point with the Stranglesea! Ignore any 5s or 6s that die rolls; instead, if it comes up as a 1, the PC is going to do something during the session that seems pretty insane, like drinking things they shouldn’t, slapping a weird mutant sea star onto their face, or feeding one of their fingers to the crabs. You get the picture. On a 2, the PC talks about doing this type of thing but will only go through with it if the other PCs ignore them or can’t talk them out of it.
….In ascending order of Wis checks results, have one player per subsequent session follow suit. Cursing a character every battle is too harsh, but if the PCs dawdle too many sessions on the Stranglesea, they’ll all be cursed at least a little.”
I really want to harp on this, because it’s what sets 13th Age above and beyond its competition. It’s written in a casual tone in a way that’s meant to be used, and not just read. The game’s writing and verbage drips with practical GM advice and honesty. This isn’t a corporation telling you how to play a game - it’s a writer, older, wiser, and with lots of experience trying his damndest how to make your game fun. Not by instruction or demand, but by clear and actionable suggestions on how to make roleplaying a loss of agency interesting and fun.
Inigo Sharpe is dead. But not totally dead. He’s been reduced to a talking clockwork head. That means he can be stolen. After the players have “completed the quest,” there’s more to be done as icon rolls and player backstories established at the start of the session come into play.
My game ended with a full rugby scrum over Sharpe’s talking head. And I think that’s intentional.
Buy or not buy?
This is the best fantasy adventure for $7. Now, there might be better ones for $12 or $5, but this is the best $7 adventure out there.
It’s not much to look at; black-and-white on the inside, eminently readable with illustrations that are full of character, if not detail.
If you are thinking about running a high-fantasy D&D campaign or you’re planning to run 13th Age, then this is an absolute 100% Must-Buy. The ideas in it are not groundbreaking and it’s not an item to pull off your shelf every month, but it has a fascinating little world and a great story. The options are copious and it teaches you all about the game. It could be ported over to a more popular role-playing game with minimal effort and you’d even get to keep a lot of the best bits, like the weird setting and the combat encounters.
It’s a joy to read, it’s creative and effective. Robin D. Laws didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he managed a real feat - he took a weird concept, fleshed it out, and made it usable.
If you’re looking for a great adventure to use in your fantasy game, then buy it, read it, and run it. And don’t try to swim under the weed-mat.
Buy this product at Pelgrane Press or DriveThruRPG…
Clayton uses his cut to shotgun nitro coffee.