Review: 13th Age

“13th Age is what D&D’s child would be if D&D got really drunk one night and slept with a hot indie game.” – Greywulf

In a Nutshell: 13th Age is a fantasy RPG blending the mechanics and conceits of the last couple of editions of D&D with indie-style storytelling techniques. 325-page PDF from Pelgrane Press, written by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, illustrated by Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell.

CONTENTS

Introduction (2 pages): This explains the purpose of the game, which is essentially to modify the venerable d20 game system so that it intentionally engages the players in the characters and their stories. It does this primarily through iconic NPCs, and the relationships the Player Characters have with them. (Of course, some groups just engage like that naturally, whatever rules are involved.)

It also gives a short chapter by chapter overview of the game. Something I liked here was the paragraph on what can be easily ported to an existing game if you can’t persuade the group to change rules set, which sometimes you can’t.

Chapter One – Icons (16 pages): The setting of 13th Age is defined by thirteen iconic Non-Player Characters of great power; the Archmage, the Crusader, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the Emperor, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Orc Lord, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, and the Three (this last is actually a group of three ancient dragons working together). I immediately thought of the major arcana in a tarot deck.

The conceit of the setting is that there have been at least 12 previous ages, each a couple of centuries long, and that these icons are present in each – sometimes the icon is the same entity throughout, sometimes it’s a kind of job handed on to a successor, and very rarely an icon appears, disappears, or is radically changed – for example, the Lich King used to be the Wizard King until that unpleasantness with the Orc Lord a couple of ages back…

There’s a handy one-page summary of the icons and then a full page writeup for each one, with a soundbite summary, a picture, a quote, their usual location, common knowledge about them, why they hire adventurers, their relationships with the other icons, a bit of history and a true danger related to them, expressed as “Everything will be all right, unless…” – and then a trigger condition for the apocalypse.

(Something that isn’t covered until later is that during character generation each PC spends points on creating a friendly, hostile or conflicted relationship with one or more icons. At certain points during play, you roll a die for each of those points, with each 5 or 6 meaning that icon is involved in today’s scenario somehow – 6 means that is purely positive, while 5 means there is a downside or complication as well. This should lend itself well to improvisational play, especially when combined with the “uniques” mentioned below.)

For those who use the D&D alignment system, there is a grid showing which icons fall where on the good-evil and law-chaos axes.

Chapter Two – Character Rules (34 pages): Character creation follows traditional D&D lines; choose a race, choose a class (more on those two later), generate six abilities by dice rolling or point-buy (this bit works like 3rd Edition), and then we suddenly veer into left field. PCs have an armour class, a physical defence, and a mental defence – AC is much as usual, and the other two replace saving throws. However, they’re calculated by taking the middle value out of three ability modifiers, which has the effect of making it harder to single out an obvious dump stat.

The player then picks one unique thing (“unique”) about his character; something that is only true about him. (Lots of examples are provided.) This goes a long way towards defining the campaign by implication; take the example from a demo game, “I am the only housebroken dwarf,” which has far-reaching impact on that game, since no other dwarf can now be housebroken. Not sure how that would work in a long-running campaign, mind. Another one is “I am invisible to the Archmage,” which is laden with story possibilities. The unique is meant to have no mechanical impact on the game, it is purely a story conceit, thus one of the more portable ideas.

The player also spends 3 points on relationships with various icons, meaning that they are somehow connected to 1-3 of the icons – different PCs in a party can be linked to different icons. These relationships may be positive, negative or conflicted, which is to say, a little of both. There’s a chart showing what the effect is, depending on who the icon is and how well you get on with them. This also affects how you get on with the icon’s minions and the general public. As he advances, your PC will (rarely) get extra points, which can strengthen an existing relationship or start a new one.

Next up, backgrounds and skill checks, which replace the skills of D&D 3rd and 4th edition. You have 8 points to assign to backgrounds; each background must have at least one, and no more than 5, points invested in it. Rather than saying, “my PC has 4 points in Lockpicking”, you say “I put 4 points into making my PC a trusted lieutenant of the Thieves’ Guild in the city of Tenrook”, or whatever other background you fancy. In any situation where that background comes into play, you use your points as if they were a skill level – in the example given, you could potentially get bonuses on rolls to pick a lock, intimidate people, gather information on merchants in Tenrook, and so forth. The point is to create more story hooks for the GM to build adventures around.

Characters also choose one feat at first level, and everyone gets another feat every time they level up. There are ten levels, divided into three tiers: Adventurer (levels 1-4), Champion (levels 5-8), and Epic (levels 9 and 10). Some feats require the character to have reached the Champion or Epic tiers before he can take them. It’s tempting to think of feats as like those in D&D 3rd or 4th edition, but the game is diverging from its roots quite significantly now. Examples are Linguist, which means that if your campaign bothers with languages, you can speak all of the main ones well enough to get by, or Skill Escalation, which allows you to add the escalation die (of which more anon) to skill checks, or Reach Tricks, which means if your PC uses a polearm, once per battle she can do something cool and unexpected with it. There are dozens of feats, some specific to a character class and some not, and many can be taken again at later tiers to improve their effects. Some feats also trigger different effects depending on what you roll to hit in combat or spellcasting, so the feats system is actually quite complex.

Skills are best discussed here. To make a skill check, roll 1d20; add your level, relevant ability modifier and relevant background points, and if that meets or beats a target number set by the GM, you succeed. The target number is based on the general difficulty of the environment, which is set by the GM depending on his view of how nasty that place is. There are no opposed rolls, because NPCs and monsters don’t have skills; those are subsumed in the target numbers. The GM is encouraged to adopt the indie game practice of “failing forward”; even failing a skill check moves the game forward, with plot-developing consequences of failure rather than a flat “no”.

Gear is handled in a very indie, non-D&D way. Normally, you would dice for gold, use that to buy stuff, and the stuff would determine your combat stats (AC, damage etc), meaning you would spend a long time poring over the books to select the optimum weapons and armour for your PC. In 13th Age, your class determines your combat stats and suggested equipment, and if you can persuade the GM that your backstory means you start with something different, good for you, but those are your stats and you narrate what gear you’re using to explain them (“Yes, I do 1d8 damage on a hit. This is the sharpest halfling carving knife ever!”) There is the obligatory pricelist, but it seems to be intended for people who don’t want the story-based approach. There’s also a discussion of coinage, but this is focussed more on story detail (dwarven coins are square, and like being in stacks) than what the exchange rates are.

The chapter finishes with advice to players, which encourages dramatic flair over practicality.

Chapter Three – Races (12 pages): The playable races are like D&D, but slightly broader. There are the usual humans, dwarves, wood elves, high elves, hobbits (sorry, halflings), gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs. Unusually, there are dark elves as well. Optionally, there are also dragonspawn, dwarf-forged (*cough* warforged *cough*), tieflings, and aasimar. My irrational hatred of gnomes rose to the surface here, but I can always rule them unavailable – more than most fantasy RPGs, 13th Age assumes from the start that each GM and group will modify the setting to suit themselves.

Each race has +2 on one of two ability scores; humans get to choose which, everyone else takes one of the government-approved stat boosts. Each race also gets a racial power, and these diverge from D&D tropes; the human power, for instance, is that when combat begins, they roll initiative twice and pick which result they want. These racial powers are not necessarily available to NPCs, but all PCs get them. There’s also a short writeup on each race. Apart from the racial power and stat boost, race isn’t a big thing for 13th Age characters; your halfling fighter does the same damage as a half-orc one, even though his weapon may be half the length.

Chapter Four – Classes (94 pages): Again, the usual standbys, not that there is anything wrong with that. You can be a barbarian, ranger, paladin, fighter, cleric, sorceror, rogue, bard or wizard; that list is ordered by how complex the classes are in play, and the chapter opens with an explanation that if you want to just barge in there and get on with it, you play a barbarian, while if you are experienced and want a mechanically complex PC, you play a wizard with certain options switched on. Other classes, like the druid, are promised for later supplements. Any race can be any class. Your class determines your base hit points, armour class, physical and mental defences, and recovery dice – we’ll come on to those later.

Each class then gets its own section, starting with an overview which elucidates the appropriate play style, what abilities are most important, setting notes, and which icons they are likely to associate with. Then comes their level progression, showing how many hit points, feats, class talents, etc they get by level and what impact their level has on other stats. Next, the standard gear they start with. Then we’re into the bulk of each class, their powers (in the D&D 4th edition sense). There are basic ranged and melee attacks which the class can always access, a feature which the class can use (such as Barbarian Rage), and a list of talents the PC can select from depending on his tier. Like D&D 4E powers, some of these can be used once per battle or once per day, some can be used at will, and some are triggered by events during combat. Some classes have spells, which are also used daily, once per battle, etc. and function much like talents. Like feats, many spells can be taken again at higher experience levels to boost their effects. Vancian magic is alive and well here, though, and level-based spell slots are much in evidence.

Chapter Five – Combat Rules (20 pages): For the most part, if you’re familiar with any d20 game, you’ll be fine here. Roll 1d20 + modifiers for intiative, act in descending order of initiative, roll 1d20 + modifiers and meet or beat armour class to hit, roll damage dice and deduct the score from the foe’s hit points, and so on.

Damage, healing and movement are where your d20 reflexes will betray you. Hit points have a base value, modified by Constitution, and then multiplied by a level bonus – a barbarian with Str 18 and Con 16, for example, will have 30 hit points at 1st level, and 240 at 10th level. Likewise damage scales with PC level; our barbarian friend might use a longsword, which will inflict 1d8+4 at 1st level, but by the time he reaches 10th level he will dish out an eye-watering 10d8+12 damage per hit. Even when PCs miss, they generally inflict some minor damage on their foes – most monsters don’t do this. Monsters die at 0 hit points, but PCs are made of sterner stuff; they just collapse and start making saving throws against death.

Healing is done by “recoveries”, which are mechanically similar to D&D 4E “healing surges”. Under certain circumstances a PC can spend a recovery; he rolls recovery dice dependent on his class and level, and gets back that many hit points. Typically you can spend a recovery when you use a healing spell or potion; you can also use one once per battle (“rallying”) and as many as you like when you stop to rest between encounters. Roughly every four encounters you get a “full heal-up” which resets all your daily powers and recoveries (so “daily” actually means “every full heal-up”).

Unlike later editions of D&D, 13th Age is not a tactical miniatures game; it explicitly fudges movement and deliberately avoids using map grids, although it does recommend using miniatures. The GM tells you if you’re in melee or not, and who’s fighting whom, and that’s pretty much it; some things you can only do when in melee (like twat somebody with your sword), some you can only do when you’re not (like move freely). You can apply combat options from other d20 games if you like, but they’re just that – options.

I mentioned the escalation die earlier. This is a big d6 that sits on the table, is set to “1” on the second combat round, and counts up by +1 per round after that. The PCs add its current value to their attack rolls, meaning the longer the fight goes on, the more often they hit. (Some, but not all, monsters can do this as well.) If the GM thinks the party is stalling, or if the Big Bad has a suitable special power, the die can count down a notch as well. Finally, some character powers only work when the die shows a certain value. Except for that last point, the escalation die is a mechanic you could easily port to other games.

Another interesting rule is “Flee”. The players can decide to break off combat and flee at any time . There are no mechanical penalties for this – they just get away – but they suffer a narrative setback of the GM’s choosing. Perhaps the damsel they were intent on rescuing is sacrificed to the dark gods, for example.

Combat bonuses are handled in a very abstract way, favouring speed of play over realism. Got a tactical advantage of some sort? +2 to hit, whatever it is. In trouble or at long range? -2 to hit. Drive on. This is something I’m thinking of porting to Savage Worlds, as many of the modifiers there are +2 or -2.

There are a few edge cases, but that’s the guts of it. This chapter closes with an extended combat example.

Chapter Six – Running the Game (20 pages): This talks about how to handle PC relationships with icons, how to set target numbers (sorry, Difficulty Checks), encounters, loot, and so forth. As you may have guessed by now, 13th Age has a lot of GM improvisation; you might know that your scenario revolves around finding a particular McGuffin, but until your PCs roll their icon dice, you don’t really know who sent them after it, who’s trying to stop them, or how much help they’re going to get; and as the session progresses, some PC powers and other events can trigger more icon relationship rolls.

Like PCs, adventuring environments have tiers. 1st-level adventurers are intended to beetle around in typical shallow dungeons, city streets and so on; those are Adventurer tier environments. By 5th level, they should be in Champion tier environments, a deeper dungeon or the camp of an enemy warlord. By 8th, Epic tier environments, typically somewhere one of the icons lives or a really nasty dungeon. This matters because the DCs for skill checks are based on the environmental tier; 15-25 in Adventurer, 20-30 in Champion, 25-35 in Epic; also, the hit probabilities and damage for traps and environmental hazards scale in a similar way.

Traps, incidentally, are downplayed. They either start a battle (by sounding the alarm) or make it more interesting (by being a terrain hazard for both sides), but like most modern games 13th Age considers the old-school hit point tax approach to traps as something boring, and best avoided.

There are no experience points. Every 3-4 full heal-ups, that’s to say every 12-16 serious battles, the PCs crank up a level; assuming that each battle takes about an hour, which looks about right though I haven’t tried it yet, in a combat-heavy game you might level up every 3-5 sessions, so a full campaign would last a couple of years if you play every few weeks. I like that, which is much like the way True20 handles levelling up; but I’m less sure about the incremental advance rule, which essentially says you can take one of the benefits of your next level after each session. I suppose that’s no worse than WFRP3 and its rule of “get one experience per session, spend one experience to advance one component of your PC”, and that works well enough.

Awarding treasure moves away from the D&D trope of looting the bodies for minor treasure after every encounter, towards getting something significant from a climactic battle or as a reward for your efforts from an icon. There are a couple of ways of awarding treasure, but the one I like is the “Optional No-Math System” where you each roll on a table after each session, and get something useful, most often a healing potion (which is basically a chance to use a recovery when you like rather than when the GM says you can). Magic items get their own section later on.

Ritual magic deserves a mention. Most spells are combat spells, but rather than have a long list of ritual-only spells, 13th Age treats rituals as a way to use those spells out of combat to achieve some narrative effect; it’s up to the player to specify how this works, and the GM to say how hard it is and how long it takes. For example, the PCs need to destroy a demonic bow, so the party wizard uses a ritual based on acid arrow to disintegrate it.

The chapter closes with thoughts on gods (not very important in this game), the setting’s broader history (vague and largely unknown), and icons (too powerful to stat).

Chapter Seven – Monsters (58 pages): Monsters have familiar names, and that’s about it. Let’s take a Giant Ant as an example. You get a description (“Your standard rather-be-foraging-than-fighting dungeon-variety giant ant”), generally borderline humourous. You get a level, a type, and an initiative modifier (“0 level troop [beast], Initiative: +0”). You get its attacks and powers, in this case:

“Mandibles +5 vs. AC, 3 damage. Natural 16+: The target also takes 1d3 ongoing acid damage.” That means it rolls 1d20+5 to hit, succeeds if it meets or beats your armour class, and if it hits it always does 3 damage; monsters always do the same damage in this game, only PCs do variable amounts. The bit about the natural 16+ means that if the d20 roll was 16 or more, the target suffers 1d3 damage at the end of each turn until it makes a saving throw.

Then we have any special notes, for example: “Wall-crawler: A giant ant can climb on ceilings and walls as easily as it moves on the ground.”

Finally, the statblock, which is: “AC 14, PD 13, MD 9, HP 20”. That tells you its armour class, physical defence, mental defence, and hit points, as you probably guessed. That’s it, complete monster. I love it.

There are about 120 monsters in this chapter, plus a few pages of rules that only apply to monsters – nothing that will give you trouble – and guidelines for designing your own monsters, especially things NOT to do with them.

Chapter Eight – The Dragon Empire (25 pages): This chapter is deliberately vague, and by now you’ll understand why; the PCs’ uniques and icon relationships drive the game, and change the detail of the setting. Your unique is that you’re the only acrobat ever to escape the Diabolist’s Circus of Pain? Sweet, now we know the Diabolist has one of those. You won’t find it in this chapter, though, because you just added it.

What you will find here is a double-page colour map, looking a bit like a mirror-image of the Mediterranean, showing you where major cities and terrain features are. These are mostly of use in showing you where the various icons hang out. There’s a gazetteer of the main locations, again icon-focussed. There are dungeons (of course), including the enigmatic “living dungeons”, which burrow up from the underworld in the hopes of becoming a permanent surface feature, magnifying a villainous icon’s power, or fulfilling a death wish, and which can be slain by performing a specific deed inside them. There are hellholes, which are big, nasty, demon-infested, and best avoided. There are flying realms created by assorted icons or the more ambitious type of wizard. There’s the migration route of the Koru behemoths, enormous creatures left over from the dawn of the world. And so on.

Enough to tempt and inspire, but not enough to drown you in detail.

Chapter Nine – Magic Items (14 pages): Magic items come in two flavours; one-use items like potions, which you can buy, and true magic items, which you can’t buy and which have personalities of their own. So long as you have no more permanent magic items than your level, you’re in control; sure, your dwarven mail gives you a craving for beer, but you can handle it. Overload yourself, though, and the quirks take over; you’ll start drinking like a dwarf, and doing whatever the other magic items like to do. Magic items are proud, and jealous, so you can only have (say) one pair of magic boots at a time; if they’re not your favourite boots, they’ll refuse to work for you.

There’s quite a list of items, but that follows a basic overview of item types and default bonuses. This makes it easy to create more if you want to do so.

Overall, magic items are more like simple-minded NPCs with personalities focussed on their main quirk than dumb objects. And they really want to be used.

Chapter Ten – Blood and Lightning (12 pages): This is an introductory scenario for 3-7 beginning PCs, in which they visit Boltstrike Pillar, a magical tower with a garrison loyal to one of the icons. As befits a 13th Age adventure, exactly which icon, who the PCs work for, and what they have to do there depends on the character’s icon relationships. There are some common elements which the players will encounter regardless, and some (such as their mission) which change depending on which icons they are aligned with. There’s an example of one likely route through the adventure, and notes to handle other approaches…

…and we close with the obligatory character sheet, quick reference sheets, index and glossary.

FORMAT

Colour covers, two-column black on white text with restrained use of colour in the page background, sepia, blue tone or full-colour illustrations every few pages. Boxouts with tips for players (green boxes), tips for GMs (brown boxes), or explanations of the setting (blue boxes).

Tasteful and easy to read.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would prefer the ability to suppress the colour layers in the PDF for easier printing.

Character generation is going to be quite long and complex, especially the first time, so some stock PCs to pick up and play would be welcome. To be fair, there are some pregenerated 2nd level PCs available on the game’s website.

CONCLUSIONS

From the website writeups, I’d expected character creation to be faster and easier than it is, and a game that was mechanically rules-light. 13th Age is rules-light only by comparison to the later editions of D&D and similar RPGs, not by comparison to (say) Savage Worlds or Castles & Crusades, and character creation will take some time and some familiarity with the setting.

This is a game that will lend itself best to improvisation based on very little preparation by the GM. Railroad-style adventures are going to be difficult to set up, because you don’t know which good and bad guys are involved, or what they want and offer, until the players roll their icon relationship dice at the start of the session; you’d have to craft multiple paths through the story and select one at run time depending on the icon dice outcomes.

I think I need to play this solo for a while before I unleash my players on it, so that I understand the nuances of the system. It looks enough like D&D that I’m tempted to just dive in, but enough unlike it that I suspect my conditioned reflexes would lead me astray.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. While I was reading this, I got the urge to call my group together Right Now and start generating characters. Only the fact that most of them are away from home this week saved them. That urge has abated somewhat, but I definitely see 13th Age in our gaming future. It was the icons what done it, officer.

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5 thoughts on “Review: 13th Age

  1. I am not a fantasy RPGer but you review even wanted me to go out and buy this and attempt a session! So good work on the review.

  2. There is one thing of D20 RPG that always drive me off: characters increase their hit points in levels, and this sooner or later, has bad effects: what sense is having a Lvl 10 Fighter having 240 HP if his damage is 10d8+10?

    • Yes, what usually puts me off d20 is having to track the hit points for everything. They make no sense, but they are very, very easy to explain and use. To answer your question, though, it means that (a) fighters of equal level can kill one another in 3-4 blows, (b) they do similar amounts of damage to spellcasters of the same level, and (c) fights finish quickly even at high character levels. Of course, there are other ways to achieve those ends… 😉

  3. This year I am playing a play-by-email campaign of Das Schwarze Auge, italian ’80 edition (yes, I go old style sometimes :)) and I find the same problem. Characters start with 30 HP and gain 1d6/level. It isn’t steep as D20, but it matters: a sword blow deals 1d6+4 HP, a dagger 1d6+2 and so on. Armors reduce damage (from 1 to 6).
    I am thinking of hacking the game giving characters a fixed number of HPs: something like Strength+Agility (in DSA they go from 8 to 13 and characters bump up a Stat point per level).

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