Monthly Archives: August 2013

Combat in 13th Age

Ye gods, after all those classes I’m not even sure how to read the rest of the book, but I’ll give it a go.

The next section is the Combat rules, and it’s a tricky read. Not because it’s particularly complicated, but because it’s easy to overlook the interesting bits as my eyes glaze over in the face of stuff I’ve read a bazillion times before. Now, to make it clear, this is not a strike against the game – it is good that they have all the rules here, especially since I’ve dinged it for incompleteness elsewhere. This is just one of those sad consequences of d20’s ubiquity.

At it’s heart, the combat rules are vanilla d20[1] with relative positioning. That is, rather than using a grid, things are described in terms of their relative position to one another. So if two people are in a fight, they are engaged while the third person whose close enough to engage but hasn’t yet is nearby and the guy with the bow over there is far away.

While the terminology changes, this is a very common approach to going fast and loose with play. It’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that it is best suited to being a way to eyeball the interaction of miniatures[2]. This is because the model gets sketchy in complicated fights where there are multiple engagements or multiple groups attacking at range, and the question comes up of how close those groups are to one another. Similarly, it gets odd with specific geography – if lava is rising to fill half the room, which half are people on?

This is not to say it requires minis. Most fights – especially the common model of “Party vs. dungeon monster” – will run just fine without reference material, but it’s useful to understand the limits of the model so you know when you need some extra tools. There’s probably no better example for this than disengagement and intercept rules, which need to spend a chunk of explanation on the relatively intuitive idea that “no, you can’t run right past the guy with the sword to hit the guy in the robes”.

Ok, with that baseline out of the way, how is combat different in 13th Age?

A few of the differences are things we’ve seen already – weapon damage increases with levels, most attacks do some damage on a miss and so on. Crits do double damage on a 20, and some effects can expand “crit range”. Flexible attacks allow effects after an attack roll is resolved. All cool stuff.

There are also some elements from 4e pulled into the system, most notably the idea of someone being staggered (at 50% HP or less, the equivalent of 4e’s bloodied). It has a similar list of conditions (Confused, Dazed etc.), albeit a little shorter than the 4e one. Saving throws have moved over to the 4e model of 11+ for everything, made every round. It’s expanded a bit to encompass easy (6+) and hard (16+) saves, but the core idea is still the same. Whether you like that or not will probably depend on how you liked it in 4e. To me, it feels like a good match for 13th Age’s cadence of combat, but that’s a taste judgement. If nothing else, I do like that they’ve incorporated the idea more fully into other mechanics.

One very clever idea pulled forward from 4e is the equivalent to 4e’s Second Wind in the form of Rallying, allowing a character to us an action to use a Recovery.

Recoveries seem like a nice evolution on the healing rules in 4e. Characters get a number of recoveries (probably 8 or 9) and when a character uses a recovery, she rolls XdY + CON dice to regain that many hit points. X is based on level, while Y is based on class (with tougher classes using bigger dice) , so a level 4 Barbarian with a +4 CON modifier recovers 4d10+4 hit points.[3] This is a bit more nuanced than 4e’s healing surge, but it still has the same structural use (like letting minor healing spells allow someone to spend a recovery rather than produce HP from the ether). I particularly like that the rallying action can be taken more than once per fight (though it requires a save to do it after the first time).

Rest and recharging abilities also follows the 4e model, with the idea of a “Quick Rest” and a “Full Heal Up”, which basically equate to a short and long rest. While these were a bit contentious in 4e, as they introduced scene based thinking into what was historically tactical timekeeping, they fit very well into the sensibilities of 13th Age.

The quick rest section has some rules about recharging powers which, in addition to showcasing the snarkiest exchange between the designers, reveals a subtle but awesome thing about recharge powers. If you fail to recharge a power, then it’s not used up for the day, it’s simply used up for the next battle. This is a small thing that I would have totally overlooked if it weren’t for the designer dialog[4] in the text, but I like it. It’s a fun, generous rule, and helps remove the fear of using up powers.

Some of the one-off rules are clever. Unarmed combat does 1d6 damage per two levels, which seemed weird until I realized that it was a way for them to have it (effectively) do half damage without requiring division – always a win.[5] Similarly the two-weapon fighting rules are wonderfully understated – if you’re fighting with two weapons and you miss on a 2, you can reroll the attack. This is a small but real bonus (it’s worth about +.5) but not nearly as overwhelming as the usual extra attacks that two weapons provide. Plus, as a rule of 2, it’s elegant and easy to remember (and as Ash Law commented on my fighter post, it makes it very easy to extrapolate up for monsters with multiple arms).

One fun rule that I worry might be less fun in practice, is the “Fight in Spirit” rule. The idea is fantastic. If your character is not in the fight (for whatever reason) then you still get to act. In lieu of an action, you instead add a bit of colorful backstory or flashback about ways in which you have helped other party members, and you hand out a bonus that lasts a round or two. If I have not emphasized it strongly enough, the underlying idea is brilliant, and I absolutely want to steal it for other things[6] but I worry that the implementation as written could wear thin pretty quickly if its use is anything but rare.

The rules for modifiers are straightforward enough, and boil down the the expressed sentiment of “Don’t sweat modifiers”. If you remember the advice in the 3e PHB[7] fondly, then this will work for you. It’s funny because as I read these rules, it’s clear the writers have as much d20 fatigue as I do, and several sections could very much be marked “RULES WE ARE INCLUDING BECAUSE SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE THINKS THIS IS IMPORTANT THOUGH PERSONALLY WE REALLY DON’T GIVE A CRAP ABOUT”. Best example is the obligatory grappling rules, about which I can only say that they are handled about as well as they could possibly be in the context of d20.

There are other bits made interesting only by designer commentary (resistances and situational weapon use, notably) but that’s the heart of it.

Well, except one thing.

So, this is the chapter where the escalation die finally gets explained, and thank goodness for that.

Mechanically, the escalation die is pretty simple – at the end of the first round (technically, the start of the second round) of a fight, put out a D6 showing a 1. At the start of each subsequent round, increment the die by one (until it gets to 6 – just leave it there then). The number showing on the die is added to all of the player’s attack rolls.

Like the icon relationships, the mechanical simplicity of this rule obscures its profound impact. In and of itself, this is a potent pacing mechanism that serves three purposes.

First, it speeds up fights – the longer a fight goes, the less whiffing you’re going to see, so the sooner it ends.

Second, it makes the arc of hard fights move in favor of the players in a satisfying manner. That is, if a fight starts out very hard, the fact that the players are getting this incremental bonus means they will be doing better later in the fight, making it more likely that they’ll achieve a “Die Hard” sort of victory – bleeding and battered, but still standing. This is awesome.

Third, it encourages the use of powers to follow the flow of the fight. The usual D&D model is to open with an “alpha strike” – hit your opponents with your biggest, nastiest spell in hopes of dropping them quickly. There’s still a merit in that, but now there’s a bit more tradeoff – do you want to burn that big spell immediately, or save it for when your chance to hit is a little bit better? You might open with your second strongest spell, and save your whammy for later, or even vice versa. Anything that gives power selection more texture than “use the biggest guns first” is a welcome addition to the game from my perspective.

But note, that is just the benefit of the rule as written. There is another benefit which is regularly hooked into throughout the rules – the value on the escalation die can be used as a measure of the increased tension of a fight and, as such, can be used as a mechanical signifier for other effects. In other words, it allows for all sorts of effects which only work (or are improved) if the escalation die is at a certain level or higher. This is a cool use of ambient information and it reinforces those three benefits of the core mechanic, especially 2 and 3. The longer the fight goes (and by extension, the more beat up the players get) the more likely they are to pull it out in the end.

This even has a subtle effect of bringing defense back into the game. One other element of the alpha strike approach is the implicit idea that defense is a losing proposition. Even if you’re safer for one round, you’re still in just as much trouble when the next round begins. As such, patience is (historically) a sucker’s bet unless you explicitly are laying down poison or the like. But with the escalation die, that choice gets more interesting. There’s still strong benefit in hitting early and hard, but there’s also benefit in taking care and using caution. Instead of being a matter of the right answer, it’s now a function of the answer that works best for you. And that’s pretty cool.

Huh. Ok, maybe I do remember how to read stuff other than character classes.

  1. There’s no way I’m going to re-encapsulate the entirety of d20 combat, but if it’s really unfamiliar to you, then the super high level version is this: Act in order of initiative. On your turn you can make one move, one “Standard action” (Usually an attack), one “quick action” (like drawing a weapons) and an arbitrary number of “free” actions. Every action you can take falls into one or more of those slots, but mostly you’ll just move over to an enemy and attack them, rolling to see if you hit and, if successful, rolling damage. Repeat this process until someone has taken enough damage that they’re out of the fight.  ↩

  2. Or marks on a whiteboard or whatever floats your boat.  ↩

  3. Consistent with one of the underlying rules of the game, the stat bonus on this roll is doubled at level 5 and tripled at level 8 (yes, those are the tier gateways) just as it is with damage.  ↩

  4. Curiously, the designer dialogs are more amusing to me as a GM than as a designer. The design insight is fine and all, but really these tend to be discussions of how the respective designers run their games, with the recurring theme that Tweet emphasizes the creative value of constraints and Heinsoo emphasizes creative freedom. Both positions are solid (no shock, both designers are smart dudes) but it’s worth paying attention to them through the lens of your own GMing tastes (and, in the interest of full disclosure, mine tend to run closer to Tweet’s).  ↩

  5. This is not just a taste thing. From a game design perspective, people are ok at addition, meh at subtraction, can multiply in a pinch, but hate dividing. I don’t make these rules, I just follow them.  ↩

  6. Here is the Fighting In Spirit rule for Fate: Every round that you are out of a scene, you gain 1 FP which must be spent to invoke or compel an aspect in that scene in a colorful fashion. You get that FP at the end of the first “round” and you get a new one at the end of each round so long as you’ve spent the one you have (so it’s use it or lose it). GM’s discretion whether or not this rule is in effect for a given scene – this is not designed to keep everyone in every scene all the time, but to help give a player who is out of a fight or other involved scene (due to injury or situation) an ability to participate. SPECIAL RULE: in general, if only one player is in a fight, then other people shouldn’t be pitching in, because it’s probably a signature moment. HOWEVER, if the fight has appropriate emotional overtones, then every non-present player may get 1 FP to spend at some point during the fight in accordance with the fighting in spirit rules. Because your friends have your back. And, yes, this is a mechanic written almost entirely to allow me to emulate my favorite moment in Final Fantasy IX. Is there a problem with that?  ↩

  7. When it doubt, it’s probably a +2  ↩

A Reason to Hack

Every good rule is created for a reason, either to produce a result or solve a problem.

I consider it the designer’s responsibility to make both parts of that equation as understandable as possible, not just half of it.

I consider it the table’s responsibility to decide if those results or solutions are desirable for their game.

It is with that dynamic that the table can chose games wisely, and change them in accordance to well understood needs.


13th Age – Final Classes

I felt the Sorcerer was a great addition to the D&D Canon in 3e (much the way I feel about the Warlord in 4e). It quickly expanded beyond the core idea into incorporating things like draconic or Fae bloodlines, and I was cool with that as an option. Sorcerer became a nice catchall for a being of power, with the source of that power being a matter of fiction and perhaps a small amount of mechanics.

The 13th Age Sorcerer walks an interesting line with this. In fiction, their power is explicitly tied to an Icon, with the default assumption seeming to be that it’s tied to the the draconic icons by default. The core of this is the breath weapon, one of the class’s several features, so we’ll get to that in a minute.

The class features are Access to wizardry (so the sorcery can use wizard spells of the next step down in lieu of one of their own), Breath weapon (complicated), Chain (if you hit someone with a spell that has the “chain” keyword, on an even roll you can chain the attack onto another target, and keep going as long as you can), Dancing Lights (Dramatic lighting), Gather Power (spend an action to charge up and your next spell is doubly potent, with a randomly generated extra effect) and Random Energy (elemental effects are randomly determined by d4).

Breath weapon is not an ability in and of itself. Rather, it is the rules surrounding casting breath weapon spells that basically boil down to the fact that 25% of the time, using a breath weapon spell doesn’t use up the spell. There are complexities surrounding multiple breath weapons and such, but that’s it. There’s also an important qualifier that a breath weapon need not literally be a breath weapon, which is nice for folks who aren’t interested in the draconic angle.

Ok, admittedly, that’s a lot of stuff, and it has a pretty clear theme of randomness. If the dice get hot for a sorcerer, she’s going to be insanely fierce, but if they run cold, it could really suck. They call out in a sidebar that players with bad dice karma might want to look elsewhere, and I can’t really fault that advice. As much as I might not be a fan of high randomness in character effectiveness, I recognize that the gambling element can make it really fun.[1]

The class talents are kind of interesting. Most of them are “Arcane Heritages” which reflect which icon your power comes from/resonates with/is in some way connected. The existing options are the Archmage, the Three, the Elf Queen, the Diabolist, the Gold Wyrm or the Lich King (and if you want to really double down on one of these, there’s a “Blood Link” talent that gives you an extra relationship point with that icon). Interestingly, these are not mutually exclusive, which suggests all kinds of fun things.

Those heritages are the bulk of talents. The other two get you a familiar and make you better are spellslinging in melee, and since you start with 3 talents, you’re pretty much obliged to get at least one heritage. Obviously, they’re kind of a big deal for a Sorcerer.

Mechanically, they’re ok, though the Lich King feats are fun, and eventually involve removing exactly the body parts you might expect. But story wise? I love these. They’re a great example of the potency of the Icons as the tentpoles of setting design and their immediacy to the players. What’s more, the ability to mix and match almost demands interesting stories. Diabolist + Great Gold Wyrm? Destined to decide the fate of the rift to the Abyss. Great Gold Wyrm + The Three? Draconic Champion. Archmage + Lich King? Obviously the next Generation’s magical icon, with a voice on each shoulder. Elf Queen + The Three? Speaker for The Green.

And because of the potency of the One Unique Thing, these ideas are entirely doable in scope of the game. Really, the Sorcerer is the first point where a lot of these ideas that I’ve known are great in 13th Age really come to the surface to dance.

The actual spells are pretty straightforward. They’re largely either at-will minor attacks, or once-per-day-with-possible-recharge big whammies. It is a little interesting to see which spells have miss effects an which don’t – most of the daily spells have miss effects, but the At Wills are more mixed. There are a few utility spells, but nothing to exciting, at least until you get to the high levels. Some of these get kind of fun (like stealing allies powers or getting random demonic boons) and some are kind of “holy Crap”, such as the level 9 “Silver Flame” spell which lets you turn your connection to the Archmage directly into arcane ass kicking.

It’s worth noting that Sorcerers don’t have ritual magic, which we’ll get to later, but it’s not something you really miss if you like the style of the Sorcerer (which is basically to blow the crap out of stuff). My sole complaint is that it’s a tricky class to port to another setting since a lot of material will have to be transposed or replaced, but that’s not too much of a price.

Ok, and now for the big one. The Wizard. People have been speaking about this class in hushed tones, like some great beast just past the horizon, so I admit I’m a little nervous. But let’s see what we find.

The wizard opens interestingly. The color of magic (har har) is cut from classic D&D cloth, with spells that are written down into books, studied and memorized. However, there are explicitly no limits on this in order to avoid bookkeeping hassles. I’m sympathetic to this, but it only works to a certain point – hopefully any future supplements that add more spells will include some manner of check on this.[2] There’s also a note that Wizard effects don’t add their stat to damage. This is interesting, and I suppose it suggests a certain amount of flavor (The spell matters, not the caster) but it’s odd.

The Wizard’s class features don’t seem to daunting, but let’s look through them.
Cantrips – Ok, yes, there’s a lot of fiddly effects, but at this point we all recognize what is an effectively streamlining of the old idea of 0 level spells.

Cyclic Spells – Some spells have a “cyclic” keyword and it means that they’re encounter powers if the escalation die is 0 or odd, and at will if it’s even. That’s definitely a little wonky, and like the fighter’s ability, I don’t 100% visualize the logic, but ok.

Otherworld Advantage – In the otherworld (which is not, as you might think, the astral plane or anything, but is apparently actually the sky above the clouds, thank you index) daily spells gain recharge 16+ (meaning they recharge on a 16+ at the end of a fight).

Ritual Magic – They get ritual magic. THis is a big deal, but we’ll deal with it later in the book.

Ok, so far so good. I expect the pain is coming in the talents, so I’m going to also hit those one by one. This is the wizard. We can’t be too careful.

Abjuration – Get an Ac bonus when you cast a daily spell. Well, ok.

Cantrip Mastery – You’re awesome at Cantrips. Cool.

Evocation – Once per battle, you can maximize a spell, though you have to do this before you roll.

High Arcana – You can double-select a spell, so you can have 2 fireballs. Curiously, if this talent didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have thought that would be a problem, but there it is.

Counter-Magic Once per battle, you can make an attack to cancel a spell as someone casts it.

Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations – This sounds ominous, but is actually simple. First, rename all your spells with properly Vancian[3] names (so your Fireball might become Alucard’s Most Efficacious Vermin Removal. You can even give the same spell multiple names if you like. When you cast the spell, it takes a little bit longer (as you must incant the name) but the GM is encouraged to interpret the spell in a more interesting and colorful way, one which may grant you some extra advantage. Your sleep, er, sorry, Resplendent Repose of Many Colored Dreams spell might literally wrap targets up in blankets and tuck them in. There is no obligation that these outcomes be consistent, only that they be interesting.
This one is very clearly going to weird out some players, either because they’re not used to this kind of flexibility, or because they’re not used to the GM being so critical to the improvisation process. But for players in sync with the GM, this could be a BLAST.

*Wizard’s Familiar – Yep, it gets you a familiar. Pick a critter, it gets some abilities. Easy peasy.

So far so good. Now we get to the actual spells, and we hit a weird divide: the Utility Spell. This is an idea that could probably be presented more clearly (probably as a spell[4]) but it’s straightforward enough. Imagine the “Utility Spell” to be a wildcard spell. You can memorize it at any level (like any other level 1 spell) and when you cast it, you may choose an effect from a list which includes things like disguise self, feather fall, message and so on, limited by what level you cast it at.

While conceptually awkward, this is very practical. Most of the utility spells are of the “just in case” variety. Spells like Feather Fall which, in normal D&D, might not see use for dozens of adventures, can tie up a spell slot because you want to have it on hand when you really need it. Remember how 3e introduced the idea of Clerics being able to rotate in healing spells so they didn’t have to memorize them? This serves a similar purpose for a certain category of wizard spells.

The rest of the spells seem very straightforward and largely familiar. This is mostly the Magic User’s greatest hits.

Which brings us to the end, and I gotta say – I know the wizard is officially the most complicated class, but man, the Bard was much wonkier from my perspective. But I will concede that the Wizard has some problems with presentation that make things a little bit tougher than they need to be. it also helps that we sorted out the whole issue of spell memorization back with the Cleric. So, maybe, if I was coming in blind, the Wizard would be worse, but I doubt it.

And holy crud. Finally done classes.

  1. It also really strongly reminds me of the 4e Sorcerer in terms of randomness.  ↩
  2. The issue also exists for Clerics, but that’s always been a bit more wibbly wobbly in fiction. What worries me, though, is that it also impacts ritual magic for both of these classes. It may be a spurious concern – there’s nothing keeping rituals from being tied to Macguffins to keep this in check, but it’s on my mind.  ↩
  3. As in Jack Vance, spiritual father of the D&D magic system. If you have not read any of his stuff, then your life could be greatly improved by doing so!  ↩
  4. In retrospect, the reason that there is not a “utility spell” with multiple effects (over and above the oddness of it) is probably tied to multiclassing and similar rules. A talent that lets you use a Wizard spell should not let you get the full flexibility of the wizard’s capability with utility spells, and should instead allow a single spell. However, that also reveals how I would rephrase the ability as follows

    Utility Flexibility
    – As a free action, the wizard may replace any memorized spell with the “Utility” keyword with another spell with another utility spell of the same or lower level. So, instead of memorizing a pseudo-spell, they prep a spell as normal (ideally the highest level on they can) and just swap out on the fly  ↩

Apparently I can post Asides, so here’s one

13th Age (and to an extent, Numenera) have left me feeling very strongly aware of the limitations of the term “Story Games”, especially in light of the question of whether these are Story Games.  In the sense that all RPGs are story games, they are.  In the sense of games which give players strong authorial power in play, they are not.

But what’s notable is that both games include rules and structures which do serve towards narrative ideals of focusing on the player’s characters as protagonists of the setting, not merely interesting occupants.  There’s also a non-trivial element of player contribution before play begins.

These are things I like very much, and in fact they are things which I enjoy in play more than authorial power, which I find more of an intellectual exercise than  compelling experience.  This is not a criticism, just an expression of taste, but it highlights something on my mind.   A lot of ideas that were revolutionary in RPGs a decade or more ago have pretty thoroughly permeated the soil, and the terminology of those new ideas makes poorly fitting clothing for the games I see today.

This is not a call for new terminology – I don’t think we actually need more jargon – but it is forcing me to rethink a lot of assumptions.

13th Age – PRR, as it were

Ok, the Paladin may actually be a short entry. Like the Barbarian, this is a super straightforward class to play as it has no powers or spells, only talents. Admittedly, some of the talents are really pseudo-powers, but I’m getting used to that at this point. There’s some nice treatment on the handling of alignment, calling out that Paladin’s tend towards law and good, but that’s not a shackle – there’s even a talent specifically for people playing evil Paladins. I actually wished they’d expanded more on this, since as written the Paladin really works as a warrior of an ideal, whatever that ideal might be, but that’s not a complaint so much as a wish for more. Practically, Paladins are more constrained by their armor selection (go heavy or go home) than their alignment.

Interestingly, there’s only one class feature, Smite Evil (which is notably very fuzzy in its definition of evil). I call this interesting because I think of this as a less iconic ability than Laying on Hands (which is available as a talent). It was probably the right choice – making a talent lets a paladin choose if he wants to put on the healer hat rather than have it expected of him – but it caught my eye.

The talents are all pretty straightforward, and include a heal, clerical spellcasting and a taunt, which covers the required bases. I think my only concern is that there are only 8[1] of them and the Paladin (eventually) gets 5 of them. That’s not a great ratio for diversity, but I suspect it’s also something which can be opened up with further material and hacks.

Chewing on it a bit, I like the open-ended paladin, but it loses something in translation. I wish there was something to give mechanical teeth to the idea that whatever ideal you serve, you really need to stick with it, since that sort of self-imposed limitation is one of the things that makes paladin’s interesting (though the righteous and evil path talents do lean that way)[2]. That said, if you call it something other than a paladin and treat it as sort of a flexible champion of [insert cause here] then it probably holds up.

Rangers are also pretty simple (finding it curious that the fighter is more complicated than the Barbarian, Ranger or Paladin – that’s an inversion) as they also have no powers. Notably they also have no class features, just talents. I was surprised that tracking was not a class feature (since that seems like it should be universal) but figured that maybe it was left out since it’s appropriate to a background. I was wrong. There is a tracking feature and it’s…ok. You get a free background of tracker at +5, and a kind of odd stunt, but compared to the other talents it seems to fall a little short.

I’ve got no testing data to back this up, but I’m not sure why it’s not a Feature. This stands out in contrast to the Paladin who is structurally identical to the Ranger (same number of talents, no powers) but who also has a feature and better AC. Maybe the ranger talents are supposed to be just better enough to make up that gap, but I’m skeptical.

Other features cover classic ranger abilities like favored enemies, spell casting, animal companions and two weapon fighting, though I use “traditional” most loosely on that last[3]. My only real disappointment is that the ranger’s archery talent is way crappier than the fighter’s archery talent.

Notably, this also includes the animal companion rules, which are fairly straightforward. Your companion is one level lower than you, which provides baseline stats, which are modified based on the type of animal (Eagles do less damage, Snakes can inflict poison and so on). There are feats for improving your companion, and all in all it seems like a fairly substantial subsystem with a fairly substantial cost and a fairly substantial reward. If you want to be a beastmaster, it’s got you covered, for at least one big critter (and there’s another feature that can get you a small creature using the wizard’s familiar rules, if you really want)

This run of simplicity breaks with the Rogue, whose powers make her look comparable to the fighter at first glance, but who may actually be a little more involved. The first tip is in the Features – the rogue has 3 class features. Two are as expected – sneak attack and trap detection. No shock there. The third is an idea called “momentum”. It’s not a power, but a state: a rogue gains momentum when he hits someone, and loses it when he’s hit. Many rogue powers only work when the rogue has momentum. Some cost momentum to use, others do not.

This looks really interesting on paper, and I’ll be curious to see it in action. It’s a nicely generalized “setup” mechanic, and you usually only see those in magic systems (summon power), but tying it to action can really drive play in a fight, as you have to take into account whether the choice you make will help you get or maintain momentum.[4]

The talents are interesting, in a mixed sense. A lot of them are straightforward – swap INT for CHA for some powers, Be more brutal in combat and so on, but a couple of them stood out as oddballs.

There is a Thievery talent which is very similar to the Ranger one – you get a “Thief” background at +5 (but no extra bonus, aside from the opportunity to buy feats). I admit I’m not sure why this is a talent and Trap Sense is a feature. It feels like the iron fist of the dungeon at work.

Improved Sneak Attack is something I never like seeing because in every game I’ve seen, it’s basically mandatory, since sneak attack damage is so essential to the overall combat effectiveness of the rogue. This does not seem to break the trend.

The “Smooth Talk” talent is fascinating, and I think people will love or hate it. It hangs a lantern on one of the worst abuses of social play and runs with it. Basically, once per day, if you (the player) can persuade the GM (the person) with your line of bullshit, then you have a 50/50 chance of establishing a temporary relationship with an Icon (which cascades into influencing the situation in play). Historically, player persuasiveness trumping mechanics is something of a bugbear in social interaction design, but explicitly creating a mechanical space for that persuasiveness is….kind of neat. I totally want to see it in action more, esp. because I suspect its value varies from table to table.

Similarly, the “Swashbuckle” talent kind of cuts both ways. It lets you expend momentum to narrate doing something awesome, dramatic and swashbuckly. But my instinctive reaction is “Wait, so I can’t do that normally?” The authors are aware of this, and address it a little, asserting that the talent means you often succeed automatically where others might need to make a difficult skill roll. That feels like half an answer to me, especially because most swashbuckling stuff is a more colorful path to the same end, so the interaction with dice is not always clear. But for a table that does not feel it has the freedom to do these kinds of things, the explicit invitation offered by the talent is pretty cool. So, like Smooth Talk, I’m not sure that works equally well at every table.

The actual powers themselves are pretty straightforward, with the only real potential confusion coming if you haven’t fully grokked momentum. They reinforce the basic idea of the rogue as a fast moving, mobile fighter with the potential to get off more attacks. They do an interesting job of keeping the effects interesting (and balanced by the need for momentum) so there’s no automatic decision to drop all low level powers in favor of high level ones.

Ok, 3 down, 2 to go. I’ve been warned that the last, the Wizard, is even more complicated than the Bard, so this should be a fun ride.

  1. 2 of them are mutually exclusive, and one can be taken multiple times, so the ratio is a little less straightforward than 8:5.  ↩
  2. The hack I’d do? Relationship based talents. That is, talents demanding a relationship with a certain Icon. Want to be a Dragon Knight and buy the Draconic Fury talent? Have to have a relationship with the Wyrm or the Three. Easy peasy.  ↩
  3. Seriously, it made me crazy when rangers became two weapon dudes because of Drizzt. Yes, there are some other examples (but I can cite many more examples of why rangers should be awesome with the bow, and they’re not) but really, it’s Drizzt, who uses two weapons because he’s a Drow. I accept that it is now baked into D&D canon, but still, rage!  ↩
  4. I’ve fiddled with some Fate hacks that work like this, so I have a bias in favor of the idea.  ↩

13th Age – C and F

The Cleric was a class that I was very curious to see unfold. The nature of the setting seems to minimize the role of Gods in favor of Icons. In fact, the only mention of gods is in the general sense that the Priestess and the Crusader both have connections to vaguely defined divinities.

The cleric seems to follow this model by leaving the general idea of what being a cleric is up to the player. Want to invent a god? Do it? Want to just sort of generically worship “The Gods”? Go right ahead. The authors suggest a very loose hand with pantheons.

I admit I’m not 100% sure I’m excited by this. I like the player authorship component, but I regret the absence of any real social component. It’s a small complaint though, since a player can pretty freely introduced more elements of organized religion via backgrounds or uniques.

The class feature that all clerics get is the ability to heal – twice per battle allows an ally to spend a recovery, very much in the mode of 4e. This is pretty much a concession to the realities of d20 – clerics are expected to heal, and making healing demand any kind of tradeoff can be cruel.

The three class talents take the form of domains, a familiar enough concept, and their abstraction allows for several talents to have different explanations. For example, the talent which allows striking back when an ally gets hit is considered appropriate to the domain of Justice or Vengeance. While this is a bit of sleight of hand to squeeze in more domains, it’s eminently practical, so i can’t fault it.

Structurally, the talents are composed of an effect and an invocation. The effect is usually passive, but some are reactive or are effectively mini-powers. The invocation is effectively a daily power. Notably, the feats seem to improve the effects, not the invocations, though it’s not immediately clear why that is the case.

I think my favorite is the Illusion/Trickery effect – you roll a d20 at the beginning of the fight, and at some point you hand that to someone else (friend or foe) who was just about to roll. Colorful, flexible, a little unpredictable, and mechanically neat.

In lieu of powers, clerics get spells. Technically we already saw spells with the Bard, but that was mixed in with a bunch of other stuff, so it was hard to get a sense of what spellcasting is supposed to look like. Now’s our chance.

The first and potentially weirdest thing is that the spell progression is hollow. We’ve touched on this before, but it’s interesting to see it in practice – see, 13th Age has spell levels, (1st. 3rd. 5th, 7th and 9th – sync them up with the levels they’re acquired, I suppose) . At level 1, the cleric has 4 level 1 spells. At level 2, she has 5 level 1 spells. But at level 3, she only has 2 first level spells, but she now has 3 level 3 spells. By the time she turns level 5, she will no longer have any level 1 spells.

As someone used to classic d20 spell progression, this is crazypants banana town, but the logic becomes more apparent as you look at the actual spell entries – they actually contain multiple versions of themselves.

That sounds weird, but bear with me. The level 1 spell, grants someone[1] an AC bonus. Easy enough. The 3rd level version of the spell expands the bonus to Physical defense as well as AC. At level 5 it improves the bonus when the target is staggered (whatever that is[2]). At level 7 it also improves mental defense. At level 9, the bonus is improved.

What’s important to note is that this is not a progression – these are effectively 5 different spells. They’re written in a compact way which can lead to a bit of confusion (especially for damage spells – they don’t necessarily have a smooth progression, largely because hit points don’t have a smooth progression). At level 3, more spells show up, and the only difference is that they don’t have level 1 versions.

As noted, this is strange, but I kind of dig it. One big part of this is that it limits the number of spells that a character knows to something between 4 and 9. That greatly simplifies bookkeeping while still allowing for a very wide range of spell choices. There are only 19 spell entries, but in practice, there are 69 clerical spells.[3]

However, as I read this, I have no idea how I’m supposed to use these spells. The spells are actually written like powers, including frequency (daily, at-will or Per battle) so you can figure out how to use a particular spell based on its entry, but what I am not finding is whether or not spells can be swapped out. Clearly they change at level up, but are they then locked in? Are they prayed for on a daily basis? The index fails me. In the absence of any information it seems that they’re locked in, but if so, it seems disingenuous to call them spells rather than powers.

I’m confident that I’m missing something, but I’ve been looking in all manner of odd corners of the book to no avail.

EDIT: I have been informed on Google+ that according to the designers, spells can be re-jiggered when you take a full heal up (basically a long rest).  I re-checked the text under the full heal up rules to see if there’s any mention of this, but there is not.  I fully accept that the correction is accurate, but this is a really glaring example of the text falling short of the quality of the game.  That is not something that should be in errata. 

Further Edit: Hat tip to Ralph Mazza who found the appropriate passage. It’s in the opener of the class chapter (page 76 for those who care) in a section title “Shifting choices as you adventure”.  I’d say it’s a little obscure, but I withdraw most of the criticism and place it on myself for the failure to catch that passage. 

The Fighter looks to be a little bit less of a headache – more complicated than the Barbarian, but still pretty straightforward. The class features improve recovery and give the fighter a taunt ability that makes it hard for enemies to disengage. At some point this became as mandatory as cleric healing, but I’m less copacetic about it. It’s a kludge, and the fact that it’s a kludge that MMO’s have elevated to high art does not reduce that fact. But people dig it, I guess, so I’ll roll with it, but meh. Also, get off my lawn

The fighter class talents are largely what you would expect in a post 3e world, something made pretty clear by the first one being “Cleave”. Once again, a lot of them are effectively powers (once per battle do something cool) and I admit that this blurring is starting to get to me. I sort of get why it’s there – some talents are passive effects and some are pseudo-powers, so the goal is uniform presentation, but I admit I kind of dread tracking that on a character sheet.

That said, some of the talents are pretty cool. Deadeye Archer is fairly badass, and Counter-Attack is interesting. It’s the first effect I’ve noticed where the even-odd state of the escalation die matters rather than its value, which is definitely a little hard to wrap my head around. The idea that the effect isn’t useful at, say, escalation 5 is counterintuitive.

(if you’re confused at what I mean by escalation, that is intentional, because the book hasn’t explained it yet either)

The fighter is also where another mechanic that’s shown up quietly gets brought into the highlight – Miss Damage. In 13th Age, attacks almost always do damage, even on a miss. Miss damage is reduced (usually just equal to character level) but still non-zero. This is a nice trick to keep attacks from feeling wasted, and the fighter in particular has a number of effects that improve miss damage, which seems to make him a reliable damage outputter, which seems right.

This idea is reinforced by the structure of the fighter powers (called “Maneuvers”), the bulk of which are “flexible attacks”, which is to say, they’re effects you trigger after the die is rolled[4] based on the value showing on the die. For example, for a fighter with Heavy Blows, a miss that shows an even number on the die will do extra miss damage.

I mentioned the flexible attacks before because the Bard also has some, but i really want to look at it here because they seem to be the fighter’s bread and butter. I had to go check ahead in the book to consult the rules, where I discovered they can’t be used for opportunity attacks (which seems kind of lame) and you can only use one per attack (which seems totally reasonable).

The net result is that the fighter is going to have a menu of options to consult after the die has been rolled, pretty much every time he attacks. That’s an odd cadence, and I suspect it’s going to be a little bit awkward until the fighter player gets familiar enough with his own triggers to know them by heart. This probably won’t take long, since the number of maneuvers starts at 3 and caps at 8 – like cleric spells, the list of stuff to keep in mind stays reasonably short.

I’m a little torn on missile support for the fighter. There are clearly some cool things if you want to be a missile guy, but the maneuver selection skews heavily towards melee. This is almost certainly working as intended, but I just look a little sad because the archery stuff is cool enough that I want more of it.

One oddity – The fighter section has a very striking image of a victorious gladiator type standing over his fallen foes with a sword in each hand. This is interesting because there’s no fighter talent for dual wielding, so I wondered how that was done. Index took me to the two weapon rules, which are fine, and which said some classes have talents that expand those rules, and so I guess they meant “rangers” (screw you, Drizzt). It’s not a bad thing, but it definitely seems like an odd gap.

And, well, crud. Looks like another 2 class day. More tomorrow.

  1. One nice mechanical bit – most cleric spells can either be cast on multiple targets for minor effect or on a single target for greater effect. For example, Shield of faith gives 1 target +2 AC, or 3 targets +1 AC.  ↩
  2. Checked the glossary. Basically means the same as bloodied (under 50% hit points) but since bloodied isn’t in the OGL, they needed a different term.  ↩
  3. And as a callout, Resurrection is interesting, with a steadily escalating cost that is tied to the number of times the spell has been cast, in addition to the number of times the target has been resurrected. It’s a nice balance between keeping resurrection as an option for high level play while including a check to keep it from upending the setting.  ↩
  4. It is not clear in the rules whether this is before or after a hit is declared, but some other statements about transparency of information seem to strongly imply that it’s after the hit is declared.  ↩

13th Age – B Classes

As I noted before, it’s great that the Barbarian is the simplest class in the game, since it makes for the easiest on ramp into a pretty complicated chapter. Basically, all barbarian’s get Rage[1] – the ability to go berserk and kick ass for a while – as a class feature. It’s an interesting power because it reveals some structural elements of the design, specifically:

  • It’s roll 2d20, keep the best one, something which I think has become more common, especially with late 4e and D&DNext designs, but is a nice departure from vanilla d20. Putting a “weird” mechanic up front suggests broad changes to come.
  • It uses a “recharge” mechanic – after a fight you roll d20 and on 16+ it remains usable. This is not a weird mechanic in the same way that 2d20 is, but it does reveal a different sort of bookkeeping priority. It would be entirely possible to make rage something usable N times per day, but they opt for a more fluid system. On its own, I’d question the choice, but it’s nicely supplemented by the feats
  • We finally see the feats which got previewed in the introduction, and it reveals something very interesting – outside of the handful of “core” feats we saw earlier, all the feats are tied to specifics class features and talents and are also tiered. For example, Rage has an Adventurer tier feat, a Champion tier feat and an Epic feat.[2]
  • The feats are pretty cool and unexpected. Rather than decreasing the difficulty of the recharge roll (which would be the obvious path) they make Rage work automatically if the escalation die is high enough. However, I think the reader still has no idea what the escalation die is, so that’s a little rough.
  • The feats for Rage are also sufficiently awesome that they feel like they might be mandatory. That may not be correct – maybe the other stunts are awesome, or that this is simply part of the streamlining of the Barbarian, but it’s now something I’m going to keep my eyes on.

Talents are like class features in that they are permanent rules that affect the character, either in some passive way or by granting a special action. For example, one Barbarian talent gives bigger recovery dice, meaning the character heals more effectively, and the feats tied to that talent make your recovery more efficient. A few of the talents are really pseudo-powers (once per battle you can do something special) but I’m ok with them being set up as talents for simplicity sake.

A starting character gets to pick 3 talents, then gains new ones ate 5th and 8th level. At 5th level, the player has the option to taking a Champion tier talent, and at 8th they may take an Epic tier talent. Again, for the Barbarian, these are pretty straightforward, and largely revolve around hitting things really, really hard. A few of the talents seem only middlingly effective, depending upon feats to being them to maturation, but that may just be my read.

Amusingly, the next class – The Bard is probably the most complicated one, so there’s a bit of whiplash when you turn the page from the barbarian. I don’t normally worry about Primary stats, but I checked the bard’s out of curiosity as to whether this was a bard rooted in 1e D&D or later version. Answer: Charisma & Dexterity says to me that it’s definitely in the mould of the modern Bard.

What really intrigued me, however, is that the image given of the bard does not look like a bard. There’s nary a musical instrument in sight, and the gear (sword, shield and non-trivial armor) looks distinctly martial. It absolutely made me very curious regarding the style of this particular bard. Enough so that I cheated and skipped to the gear section and determined that Bards

  • Get to be badass with 1H melee weapons, and ok with everything else, which suggests things be a little swashbuckler (which I’m always good with)
  • Get to use Dex OR Str for their basic melee attack[3]
  • Favor light armor and, curiously, are mildly discouraged (–1 to attacks) from using shields despite the image

So there’s definitely a bit of an ass kicker vibe there, so with that in mind I took a look at the class features for a bit more of a hint. The two class features are bardic songs (which have effects that continue, and sometimes improve, as you sing) and Battle Cries, which seem to be responsive one shot effects that can be triggered by certain attacks.[4] On top of this bards also gets spells. I was not looking forward to getting my head around this.

The class talents do not ease my mind. They’re not bad, and they do some interesting things (like muddle with the icons system) but they also include a couple of mutually exclusive choices (so you can be Battle Skald or a Spellsinger, but not both). And more, two of the mutually exclusive talents (Loremaster and Mythkenner) are themselves talents with multiple abilities that you pick a subset of.

All of which is to say, I really hope the bard is the most complicated class. This is a lot of choices, and I haven’t even hit the powers yet. Which is good, because they did not simplify things..

The battle cries are pretty straightforward – make a roll and if it fulfills some criteria (like an even die result) then you might trigger an effect (like allowing an ally to make a free move). Excepting the occasional sour note (like some which have an additional limitation like the number of times they can be used per battle) they are largely pretty cool, and very reminiscent of the things I liked about the Warlord in 4e. It also suffers a little bit from the Warlord’s problem of it being hard to connect the mechanics to the fiction, but the bard at least has “magic!” as an excuse.

Spells and Songs took a bit more thinking, in large part because they’re grouped together in a way that seems puzzling until you realize that they’re really meant to be interchangeable. You don’t get X songs and Y spells – you get X songs or spells. It’s a little weird, but I suspect the intent is to give a little bit more flexibility to the way the Bard is played. Really, most of the Bard’s decisions have been made based on flexibility, which is (I suspect) also the reason for its complexity. It looks like playing a bard will be perfectly straightforward, but chargen definitely requires more thought.

Oy, ok, so that’s the first class and the most complicated class. Hopefully we’ll rip through the rest of them in the next post.

  1. I know this is basically mandated by d20 familiarity, but it actually makes me kind of sad. Setting aside all of the problematic elements of who is or is not a barbarian, the reality is that my mental image of a Barbarian is almost never norse (I’m partial to desert & steppe nomads) and has a big chunk of Conan. It’s probably easy to swap out Rage in favor of something else, but I wish that were supported in setting.  ↩

  2. For those playing at home, Adventurer is levels 1–4, Champion = 5–7, Epic = 8–10. A lot of mechanics in the game trigger off their tiers, explicitly or implicitly. Also, kudos to the Glossary/Index – I was trying to remember if Adventurer was 1–4 or 1–5, and the answer was under the “Tiers” entry, the first place I looked.  ↩

  3. When I realized that the basic attack writeups supported more than the default stats (STR for melee, DEX for range), I was curious if this really allowed every class to get cool basic attacks. The answer is “no” – basically, the Dex based classes (bard, rogue & Ranger) have the option of using Dex for melee attacks. This may seem unfair, but I actually like it a lot. Previously, these are the classes that were basically obliged to buy a weapon finesse feat to be effective. Anytime an optional thing liek a feat becomes mandatory in practice, I am happy to see it moved to being the default.  ↩

  4. This references another undiscussed concept – flexible attacks – which has not yet been discussed yet. However, no points deducted for it since it’s called out with a page reference to the rules. Short form, a flexible attack is one which can be triggers after you roll, not before.  ↩

13th Age Classes

Before we get to the classes, I just want to call out that 13th Age does some very good, very stylish art reuse. Each chapter opens with a full page painting of an Icon – they’re universally gorgeous and they are also the images used (cropped) for the icon writeups at the very beginning of the game. It’s potent reincorporation which feels intentional and drives home the importance of the icons. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice touch.

Right off the bat, the class chapter earns some affection from me by including a section about the ease of play of each class, with the classes listed in order of complexity with a note on how each one plays. Super practical, super useful. it also reveals that the game dodges a common bullet – in d20, Barbarian is almost always the first class, and its usually fiddly enough to be off-putting. In 13th Age, it’s the simplest class, which also means it’s the best introduction, which is exactly what you want the first class to be.

Int he general treatment of classes, there’s a curious callout about spells – rather than growing more powerful, they get replaced with more powerful versions. That is, rather than a fireball doing xd6 damage where X equals level, there is a level 3 version of fireball that does 3d6, a level 5 version that does 5d6 and so on.

This seems like an arbitrary change until you get to the next section where it’s revealed that weapon damage is per level. so if your sword does d8 damage and you’re level 4, you do 4d8+stat damage.

Yeah, that’s a bit of a thing to just stumble across.

One one hand it’s kind of cool, in that it means that everyone gets to get in on the thunder of dice (though it helps that the level cap is 10) but it seems to challenge a classic dynamic. If everyone puts out level-scaled damage, then what distinguishes spellcasters? if the answer is going to be “not much” then that might suck, but if the answer is going to be “more interesting things than damage” then that grabs me. (Thankfully, the answer does seem to be the latter).

Structurally, 13th Age does something which may be familiar from games like 4e and Dungeon World. The core rules are fairly simple, and the bulk of complexity (and rules) are actually put into the character classes as abilities. This is a pretty robust model – so much so that I look askance at any class-based game that doesn’t do this.

Anyway, the classes (Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer & Wizard) are easily recognizable, but are mechanically very distinctive. They’re structured along similar lines – each class has an overview which discusses playstyle, race, icons and background stuff. You also get a section on gear, basic attacks and a table summarizing level progression and derived stats.

That gear and basic attacks section reveals something we swung by earlier, and I guess now is the time to talk about it.

In short, armor and weapons have almost no intrinsic value in combat, and rather have a stylistic value.

This is easiest to illustrate with armor. Mechanically, armor has only a few moving parts. There are two armor types (light and heavy). There’s a further modification for whether or not you have a shield, and potentially an attack penalty.

Setting aside the shield, every class basically has an optimal armor class based on the way that class should operate. That is, Rogues should be in light armor, so the most cost effective option for them is “light armor, no shield”. Paladins are supposed to be decked out in plate, so their most effective option is to do that. Fighters can wear anything, so they’re the most flexible.

It’s not totally narrative. The rogue technically has a better AC in heavy armor or using a shield, but he’s also taking substantial penalties to his attacks. This is what I mean by “most effective” option. There is also a class component to it – all else being equal, Paladins are going to have the highest AC of any class, because Paladins are armored dudes.

Conveniently, the “usual” AC for each class is conveniently laid out in a table at the start of the chapter. The best is paladins (16) and the worst are wizards and sorcerers (10 each). The spread seems reasonable, but I admit that my gut worries a little bit that rogues and barbarians (both 12) are a little bit on the low side, since the triple-stat element[1] of defenses, especially compared to the stylistically similar Ranger, who’s at 14. Hopefully, the actual class entries address this concern.

Ok, so if you’ve got that idea in mind, now let’s start fiddling with weapons. Weapons are judged on a couple axes: 1handed vs 2 handed, Light vs Heavy (which is also Simple vs Martial, which is a little confusing), with the additional category of “Small” weapons which are a little puzzling, since they can include “Small, two handed” weapons, which include “Big club” and “Scythe”. So, I totally get the idea of the difference between simple and martial weapons, but I have no idea what small, two handed is supposed to mean.

Missile weapons are similarly broken down, though the categories are a little bit different. There are three range categories, and then a general distinction between thrown, bow and crossbow, with bow and crossbow further divided into simple and martial.

I get that the goal here is to abstract weapons out into general categories, but I admit, I’m kind of wishing for a weapon table at this point. This could be clearer, and if I wasn’t going into this with an existing d20 understanding of simple vs. martial weapons, this would be utterly baffling.

Beneath the confusing language is a simple system – weapons are either crappy, ok or good, and then are either 1 or 2 handed. Simple as that. This feel like an area where the attempt to stick to familiar d20 terminology ended up building a camel rather than a horse.

Anyway, all of this becomes relevant because, in theory, weapons are like armor. They do damage based on class rather than any intrinsic value. I say in theory because in practice, they basically do have simple values.

So, for a Barbarian using a 1 handed weapon, a crappy weapon (aka, small) does d4, an ok one (Light or simple) does d6 and a good one (heavy or martial) does d8. For 2 handed weapons, the progression is d6/d8/d10. I’m not going to try to replicate the ranged chart, but it’s basically the same as 1-handing with thrown weapons or bows, and has serious penalties with crossbows. As such, the underlying message is “Barbarians should use the biggest weapon they can, and not use crossbows”

The d4/d6/d8 (d6/d8/d10) progression is used for every class but one, though some classes have attack bonuses with certain weapon types. Wizards, for example, get a –2 with simple weapons and –5 with martial ones (and basically reveals that the whole reason for 2 handed, small is to have a category for staff). The exception, rogues do d8 with every 1 handed weapon, which mostly lets them be super stabby, and free with the knives.

This makes the whole weapon system feel a lot more byzantine than it needs to be. If there was a lot of variation between classes in terms of how much damage they did with specific weapons (like, if Barbarians did d12 with heavy two handers, in order to encourage that in the same way heavy armor is encouraged for paladins) then it would make sense. As is, I’m not seeing the benefit of putting this particular rule onto the character classes, since it basically means repeating the same information multiple times rather than just stating one rule, then noting exceptions in the classes.

Anyway, beyond the combat stuff, the core components of each class are its features (abilities that all members of the class has), Talents (like features, but you pick a subset of them) and Powers or Spells.. The shape and structure of these varies a lot from class to class, in a way which may seem confusing at first, but has the potential upshot of allowing the different classes to feel very different, which is an admirable goal, and we;ll start getting into those individual classes in the next post.

  1. AC bonus is the middle bonus of Dex, Con and Wis.  ↩

Races of 13th Age

Ok, races.

So, in 13th Age, each race (Human, Dwarf, Dark Elf, High Elf, Wood Elf, Gnome, Half elf, Half orc & Halfling) has two associated stats (for Dwarves, it’s constitution and wisdom, for example) and you get to add a +2 to one of those stats. It’s a nice gimmick, but the chart of races reveals that you get some weird clustering that kind of breaks down as follows

Stat Number of Races*
Strength 1
Constitution 3
Dex 5
Intelligence 2
Wisdom 2
Charisma 3

*- Humans not counted in this, since one of their racial abilities is that they can pick any stat.

This feels like a much more legacy distribution than I expect it’s intended to be. Classically, A stat bonus in strength is so potent that it’s to be avoided, and only given to otherwise problematic races, like half-orcs. Between the changes to combat, the 3-stat defense model and the class-granted stat bonus, it feels like this should be is less of a concern than it used to be.

Of course, this is a very familiar distribution, so perhaps that accounts for it. As has been noted various times, the game goes out of its way to stay familiar to d20 players.

Mechanically, the races are pretty lightweight. They have the stat modifiers and one unique racial power and one unique feat which improves that power. The mechanics don’t always make sense at this point in the readthrough – this is the first time that reader is going to find mention of the escalation die[1], so feats which interact with it don’t make a lot of sense. Once you understand it, they come together just fine, but it’s another case where the structure of the text gets in the way of the content.[2]

These racial powers are the first window into how 13th age will be handling powers. Most of them are “Once per battle”, structurally similar to 4e’s encounter powers , with an exception for the wood elves who have a kind of fiddly ability to gain some extra actions over the course of a fight, and gnomes who have a minor illusion ability at will.

Beyond the mechanics, you get some color and description abotu the race in question. These are a little thin, with the exception of the elves, since the three elf races (dark, high and wood) are combined into one supersized entry.

The core races are all pretty much as you would expect, and steps have been taken to reinforce certain tropes (humans are super generalists, elves can buy a feat to make them better with swords) but not necessarily others (no intrinsic dual-wielding for dark elves or missile bonuses for halflings).

Most curious? No infravision. Not even mentioned in passing. Now, I’m totally good with this, but I can absolutely see it being a matter of some contention at particular tables.

There are also 4 “optional” races as well, differentiated mostly by having smaller descriptions and being called optional[3]. They are Aasimar, Dragonborn, Warforged (sorry, “forgeborn”, yay copyright) and Tieflings. Interestingly, the Tiefling and Aasimar writeups are sparse enough that they could easily be interpreted as their 2e/3e versions or their 4e version as desired. I am reasonably sure this is not a coincidence.

It’s a solid enough section, though it leans heavily on familiarity with D&D tropes to save itself reams of explanation. And it paves the way for the longest chapter in the book: Classes.

  1. I stopped to look this up when I hit this point, in case I had missed some earlier reference to the escalation die. it took a little bit of work to find the index, since there’s a lot of back matter in the book, but once I did, I found something very clever – the index is also the glossary, so the “Escalation die” entry had a page reference but also had a few sentences of explanation. I had not seen that done before, and it was pretty neat.  ↩
  2. The text actually avoids this issue with the half elf, whose ability can let him subtract 1 from the natural result of a roll. Without context, that seems like a nonsensical ability, but there’s a sidebar that basically says “Yes, we know this seems weird, but when you see how powers work, it will totally make sense. (And for the curious, it’s because some effects might trigger on an even or odd number – being abel to subtract 1 lets the half-elf change their even/odd outcome after the fact, which can be handy)  ↩
  3. The optional races totally change the stat skew, with 3 of them offering strength as a stat bonus option. This kind of reinforces my sense that the main distro is more about tradition than anything else.  ↩