6/19/2014

Thoughts on... 13th Age

Type of Hobby:  Roleplaying Game
Number of Players: 3+
Authors: Rob Heinsoo, Aaron McConnell, Lee Moyer, Jonathan Tweet
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Price: £29.95 RRP


13th Age is what you get when two industry stalwarts; Jonathan Tweet, lead designer of 3rd Edition D&D; and Rob Heinsoo, lead designer of 4th Edition D&D, team up to create the fantasy roleplaying game that they want to play. Comparisons to D&D are inevitable - this is D&D in everything but name.

D&D players of all editions, but particularly 4th, will find a lot they recognise in 13th Age. Yet, there are several elements that set this game apart from its spiritual predecessors; the icons; one unique things; backgrounds; and the escalation die. Each of these ideas helps bring story to the focus in a game that is still, in its heart of hearts, still a dungeon adventure game in the spirit of D&D. 13th Age tries to be the best of all worlds; perhaps the ultimate fantasy RPG. And largely, it succeeds.

Iconic Fantasy Roleplay

The most important concept in 13th Age is that of the icons. So much so that the first thing in the book is the icons, before character generation and long before any other background is given. These thirteen powerful NPCs represent instantly recognisable archetypes - the High Druid, the Orc Lord, the Dwarf King, to name a few - that every character will tie themselves to. 

Players will often find that the DM has written a wealth of background material; but they find it hard to connect their characters to it and find ways to invest themselves in that world. That can be frustrating for both sides. Icons instead connect players to the world from the start. As a part of character generation assigning which icons your character is allied, or enemies, with immediately invests you in the world and lets the DM know exactly what you, and your character, want from the game. 

This works brilliantly as a storytelling tool - icons give characters motivation, and let's the DM tailor the story to your needs. And as icons are more than just a single NPC - they represent a whole network of power - there are myriad options and opportunities for the DM to get them involved and to shape the game around how the players interact with them. 

Yet even more so than this, there is also a storytelling mechanic at play here. At the beginning of every session the DM calls for the players to make story guidance rolls; one d6 for each point invested in a given icon - and for every five or six on a d6 that icon will be involved. This does require the DM to be confident in improvising, but there is massive leeway in terms of scale. The effect can be as simple as the agents of a heroic icon gifting the player a magic item to help them on their quest - or as complicated as a villainous icon becoming the sessions main antagonist.

Icons could easily have become powerful NPCs that dominate the game and take away from the players - a la the worse aspects of the Forgotten Realms - but instead they facilitate players stories and provide motivation. They're a game changer.

Truly Unique Characters

13th Age's character options will for the most part seem very familiar to fans of D&D. The standard assortment of dwarves, elves, halflings and such are there; along with a few more esoteric optional races for fans of various editions and settings in D&D such as the dragonborn dragonspawn. So far so D&D.

The classes available are also standard D&D fare. Each offers a unique playing experience with its own subtle twist on the mechanics. Rogues strive to keep up momentum, while sorcerers must choose whether or not to spend a turn building up power for more powerful attacks, and fighters are incredibly flexible. Even within these classes there are several options; each class picks at least three talents from a set of options. It is unlikely that two rangers, for example, would be the same in a group. Best of all these choices are nowhere near as restrictive as 4th edition D&D's character builds, meaning that there is a lot of flexibility in building your character. Given all this it's a shame that the druid class is missing from the core book, but it is going to arrive in a coming supplement.

Characters are allotted one feat per level - which means most will have 10 by the end of their careers. 13th Age has very few feats that might be considered traps; there are only a couple that do not play directly off of a spell or talent. There is a move away from a 'feat tax' too; you won't find any feats that simply give a +1 to hit! 

Beyond the mechanics, characters must come up with One Unique Thing. Alongside the icons this is another element of the game that helps flesh out characters from the off. The OUT can be anything, as long as it doesn't give require a mechanical benefit. Examples range from the mundane ('I really like grapes') to world changing ('I am the only paladin in the world'). 

Although it's just a single soundbite about your character these little, or not so little, details are great. They give the DM a vital bit of information that can help him build stories around and involving your character. It also helps the other players build an image of your character in their minds. At a demo game I played at Dragonmeet I was left in no doubt by the time we'd all come up with our Unique Things exactly who my party was. 

13th Age also eschews the traditional skill system for something much freer. Rather than a long list of skills, there are instead backgrounds. A background is a description of an element of your character. Rather than having to painstakingly work out how to allocate your skill points to best represent playing a Blackwater Assassin brought up on the streets by a dwarven scoundrel by the name of Buckfast Monkdrinker, you'd simply give yourself 5 points in Blackwater Assassin and 3 in Brought up by Buckfast Monkdrinker. Done. 

That freedom is incredible, and I fell in love with it at first sight. It does come with a couple of caveats, however; it requires a DM willing to make snap decisions about what a given background can be used for, and some discussion during character creation about what the player intends the background to cover. Even then if a player can justify it and it furthers the story a background should be able to cover a lot more than seems obvious at first. During one session a wizard with the 'library scholar' background justified using it during a stealth check because he was so used to trying not to make any noise while walking around the library!

Equipment is also extremely streamlined - characters don't purchase equipment during creation and simply choose what they want to wield from very broad categories. Some classes, such as the wizard, will find penalties if they're using a more martial weapon but what small weapon they choose to wield is up to them (although the book suggests a dagger) - they're still only doing 1d4 damage with it! (what are you doing trying to stab him? Zap him with a spell, you fool!) That same dagger, in the hands of a rogue, is going to do 1d8! While I think a lot of players will miss equipment lists, I've often felt before that they've really held back character concepts at the conceit of realism. No longer are warhammers the black sheep of the weapon options (1d4+1? What?) and no longer will a rogue feel he has to eschew the dagger in favour of the short sword to do more damage! 13th Age wants you to play the character you want to play. That's brilliant.

Just 10 Levels, But No XP

There are only ten levels in 13th Age, instead of the twenty or thirty of other d20 fantasy games. At first this might seem like sacrilege but in reality it fixes problems present in both 3rd and 4th edition D&D. 4th edition in particular suffered from severe options bloat - even by 15th level characters had pages of powers, and that's not including ones granted by magic items. 13th Age deftly avoids this by keeping the number of levels to 10. There is always just enough options, but never so many that you're overwhelmed by choice.

There are the three tiers of play, first introduced formally by 4th Edition D&D. Paragon tier has been renamed 'Champion' tier, though. These as much thematic as they are mechanical, and I think they're still a useful tool for the DM to let him know roughly what the scale of threats and types of locales should be.

13th Age also puts when you level up squarely into the DM's hands. Many DMs over the years have chosen to simply level up when it seems appropriate to the story and 13th Age embraces this philosophy. XP might have been a sacred cow for some but in reality it was just another number for players to keep track of; in my experience, only a couple ever did accurately anyway. I don't miss it and I am grateful for the ability to control the speed of advancement in my game to something that suits the pace of the story.

With only ten levels and advancement at speed of DM, there is potential for stagnation, particularly if the DM favours a slow progression through the levels to better simulate the length of a traditional D&D campaign. 13th Age allows the DM to avoid this through incremental advances, little bits of your characters next level! Go on, take a spell, or a feat, or those hit-points; they're good for you!

The Grid is Gone!

Combat in 13th Age is everything I wished it was in 4th Edition D&D. It's fast, engaging, not a headache for the DM or the players, and you never sit there clock-watching hoping a monster will drop while everyone throws at-will powers at it ad nauseam. And yes, the grid is gone! And it's fine!

No grid doesn't have to mean no miniatures though - in fact I think I'd still recommend using them for clarity if you have more than a couple of players - but there's no more measuring things out in 5' increments or worrying whether a diagonal should count as one move or one and a half. There is of course maneuvering to worry about - you don't want to risk being intercepted when you charge in - but it feels much looser, more free form and actually, more realistic because of it. With imaginative players combat in 13th Age is very fun indeed.

Combat also showcases another of 13th Age's real innovations, something that solves problems that D&D has always had - the escalation die. This is a cumulative modifier that represents the heroes building up momentum and wearing their enemies down. Gaining an ever increasing bonus to hit every round means that combats avoid dragging on and on - by round seven you're getting the maximum +6 to hit. That makes a huge difference! It also helps discourage the alpha-strike - players are more inclined to hold off on their showy once a battle or day powers if they think they can get a better chance to hit later on! This helps the latter half of battles feel more climatic, rather than the drudge of simple attacks that was often the scourge of D&D. Most monsters don't get this bonus either - and players should certainly fear the ones that do! (Dragons do. Of course dragons do!)

Plenty of abilities play with it as well - some abilities become easier to use if you use them later, for example. I really like the escalation dice, but I think that some players might find the fact it's purely mechanical a bit of a drawback; there's no reason that it isn't mechanical for its existence, it exists purely outside the game world. However, the problems it solves and the fun ways you can play with it make it a worthwhile addition.

Monsters take a lot of inspiration from the stat blocks of 4th Edition D&D, which is great. They're vastly improved too, running almost on auto-pilot; the dice-roll itself tends to determine exactly what the monster is doing. For example, if a drider hits with its lightning bolt spell and the dice roll is even, it makes another attack as the lightning arcs from one enemy to another! This means the DM can concentrate more on what's happening in the combat and filling it with awesome descriptions and heroism, rather than worrying about exactly what his monsters are going to be doing. Anything that frees up my brainspace at the table is valued by me!

It's Not All Perfect

There are some things in 13th Age that either don't quite work for me. Full heal-ups are one of them. While simply saying you get all your stuff back every four encounters solves the problem of wizards with powerful daily powers being better than characters who do more consistent damage, I've found players often given me an odd look when I tell them they can't have their powers/recoveries back after an eight hour rest. As written, the rule works, and it encourages the players to keep pressing on rather than stopping and resting, but every so often it can break verisimilitude.

Monsters are tied to levels too, which is fine as a balancing mechanic and it's just as useful to be able to quickly select some and expect a roughly fair encounter, there's still the worry that players will expect battles to be fair, which shouldn't always be the case. I found that in 4th ed D&D a lot. Thankfully, the game is explicit that some monsters, dragons particularly, just aren't fair to fight so hopefully my players won't fall into this trap of thinking again.

I also wish there was a more robust system for treasure, and equipment in general. Treasure is just a flat system of x gold per player per full heal-up. I understand why they felt the need to move focus away from looting but it just feels tacked on  - and I miss treasure tables! Even the optional system only rewards potions and consumables, of which their are only a measly four different types to chose from! Earning money and having nothing to spend it on has been a problem for me in all editions of D&D and I'm really disappointed to see it made even worse here when the rest of the game is so imaginative.

These are all minor niggles though, ultimately, and I'm hopeful the community will come up with more treasure and that some more potions and consumables will appear in later supplements.

Too Hung-Up on the Dragon Empire

The book comes bundled with its own core setting, the Dragon Empire, from which the icons and all the background is derived. It's an interesting enough setting - I've enjoyed running in it - but quite deliberately generic. Honestly, I wish it wasn't there. I usually play in my groups homebrew setting and while the majority of the rules can easily be separated from the Dragon Empire some elements are much trickier; anything to do with the icons in particular. Irritatingly, this also impacts on some class powers, especially those of the bard and sorcerer. When I write my own icons I need to make sure that it's going to be simple to just switch the names around or I'm going to have to do some real work to make sure they still function.

If you're not running the Dragon Empire most of the description in the book is completely useless and just dead space.

I wish that the space devoted to the Empire had instead been filled with advice for DMs, as there's very little in the book. It would be really helpful if there was a section on creating your own icons, describing the core archetypes, offering alternate ones and how to mix the icons up and still keep the classes working. The icons are so utterly core to the game I think they deserved a section like this. The lack of this kind of information might make it somewhat off-putting for some DMs wishing to use different settings, especially those moving on from D&D to 13th Age. 

Having said that, the Dragon Empire does have a lot to recommend it. It's full of lots of hooks that are just vague enough for the DM to do whatever they like with them. It's clearly a setting designed for collaborative world-building and that fits the game perfectly. It's very well done, with some really interesting ideas, like the migrating behemoths that wander the land and living dungeons (which are a great way to fit in the utterly nonsensical dungeons that D&D is prone to!)

This 'do what you want' philosophy does hurt the section on monsters in the book though; most of them get barely a couple of sentences of description, and none of them have illustrations. That's probably the poorest area in the book. I think there's a lot of assumed knowledge there, which a new DM isn't going to have.

Magic - Rare, but not That Rare

It wouldn't be fantasy roleplay without some sort of magic items and this is very true in 13th Age as well. They are described as rare and precious and usually unique. Which is awesome! That's just what I want from my fantasy - the ten a penny magic items of 4th edition D&D were not for me. Unfortunately they're mechanically required and this mechanical requirement seems incompatible with the idea of magic items being rare. This is just a personal taste thing, however; it fits with the standard fantasy assumptions quite well.

Despite this though, I really like everything else about magic items in 13th Age. The default assumption is that they're all sentient, even if they can't directly communicate with you. Further, if you possess too many the whims and quirks of these items will overwhelm you, manifesting in often bizarre personality traits unique to the item. This is a great, and fun, way of preventing your players loading up on too many items! There is potential for hilarity when a greedy player, taking all the items meant for other players, suddenly finds those players describing his characters new, and often undesirable, traits! 

Something brilliantly freeform is how ritual casting is handled in 13th Age. Characters can use their spells to perform any logical effect - from using a fire spell to start a bonfire to using a hold portal spell to trap a demon inside a vessel. There are of course complications; the more complex the effect, the harder it is to do and the harder the components will be to find and the longer it will take! Particularly campaign changing rituals could even inspire subquests all of their own. I really like this; it lets spell-casters be as flexible as they probably should be, but the DM can rein them back in to make sure they can't simply solve any problem with a clever, outside the box, use of a spell, making everyone else look pointless and silly. Rituals can't be used in combat either (they take too long to cast, this doesn't mean a combat can't happen while you're performing one!), which limits their use somewhat and goes a long way to stopping spellcasters overshadowing anyone else. In combat the wizard is no more or less valuable than anyone else, which is how it should be.

I Hope the 13th Age isn't the Last

13th Age is a game that tries very hard to please everyone, but particularly players who want a more story focused game, rather than a complex tactical exercise. This suits my tastes perfectly, and I think there is enough depth in the mechanics for most players to get their teeth stuck into, if they want it. The game takes D&D away from simple dungeon crawling, killing monsters and taking their stuff, and acknowledges what most of us knew all along; these games are about the story, first and foremost.

I wish 13th Age wasn't so tied to the Dragon Empire, and I wish there were more options for treasure. It's not suitable for the beginning DM either (although it is very, very suitable for beginning players!), and it does openly acknowledge this. The focus on characters and story though is superb - this game gives DMs and players so much to work with in terms of creating a collaborative story and world. Icons mean the DM is never going to be frustrated that characters aren't engaged with the world again! One Unique Things will inspire some truly unique characters! 

13th Age is my fantasy game of choice for now. It's certainly going to be my favoured 'edition' of D&D for some time. I can't wait to see where it goes.