Edit: Was reminded on G+ that 13th Age was not actually kickstarted, just good old fashioned pre-ordered. The first supplement was kickstarted, and that’s why I think of it as a kickstarter project.
So, my physical copy of 13th Age arrived a few days ago, and I said some nice things about it on Twitter, which lead to some folks asking if I was going to give it the same treatment I’d given Numenera. I admit, I hadn’t planned on it – Numenera ended up being a lot more work than I’d planned – but the idea has grown on me.
But I do need to lay down a few caveats before I get started.
- So it’s clear, I backed both of these kickstarters, and I’m very happy with the results of that backing. While it’s never entirely fair to compare any two RPGs, I admit that I absolutely have held Numenera and 13th Age up next to each other from time to time. They have enough similarities (Created by rockstar former D&D folks, successful kickstarters, big gorgeous books, each with a strong vein of striking out in its own direction from D&D) that it’s difficult not to. However, it is not going to be my intent to compare the two games directly, at least until I finish giving 13th Age a runthrough.
- I am already largely familiar with the 13th Age rules, and in fact, I have already written about the icons system several times. I have even played it once. This is all possible because 13th Age had a very open playtest period, which has also meant that as I read the book, I can see evidence of how much feedback has improved it. But mostly, it means that I already have a certain amount of system understanding, and while I will try to read with fresh eyes, that will make it more difficult.
- 13th Age is – systemwise – more to my taste than Numenera. This is by no means an assertion that 13th Age is better, rather that both games are developed by people who really understand games well and were looking to solve specific problems (that is, after all, one of the reasons you design a new game). The problems 13th Age solves are closer to the problems I’ve looked to solve than Numenera. The upshot is that I may view things in 13th Age more favorably.
- However, just as I knew Numerera was not as much to my tastes, and I actively sought to find the perspective that it served, I know 13th Age is to my tastes, so I’m probably going to be a little more critical than it deserves to balance that out.
- Most people have been super cool about their responses to my Numenera posts, and I expect that to remain true with 13th Age. This has been a big relief, because there are absolutely corners of the internet where anything between glowing praise and flaming criticism is an invitation to trouble. I am glad my my experience has been very positive. That said, there are always a few folks who feel a misguided need to defend a system or designer they love from a perceived attack. I understand that. I really do. And to them I can only suggest that if I thought that poorly of the game, then I would have much, much better things to do with my time then write about it this much.
Ok, we good? Good.
I genuinely cannot tell if 13th Age starts brilliantly or disastrously.
So, there’s a 2 page spread of “what is this game” that is better than average. It’s a little “blah blah blah” which ends up underplaying its explanations of what Icons are. You get the sense that they’re powerful NPCs and that they drive play, but that seems pretty standard. Largely, the section feels focussed on reassuring players that it might seem weird, but really, this is just friendly old uncle d20 in a new hat with a shave, nothing too much to worry about.
There’s also an explicit call out to 3e and 4e, which is entirely reasonable, as Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo were big figures behind those two games. That D&D genealogy is more or less the elephant in the room, and it’s good to hang a lantern on it. The summary boils down the conventional wisdom that 13th Age is built out of the best of both worlds, which is a pretty bold claim, but what else are they going to say?
And then…Icons. The book launches right into the writeups of the icons.
This is structurally weird enough that it’s hard to explain. The 13 “icons” of the setting are the most important NPCs in the game. Their names are iconic (natch) rather than personal – things like The Archmage or The Emperor. The kind of names where you can hear the Capital Letters. The first real chapter of the game is a brief summary of them all, then a 1 page writeup for each one (which includes a nice illustration).
On one hand, these are very good, very flavorful writeups. There is nary a mechanic in sight, and as befits these character’s iconic status, each can be easily grasped on its own and in relation to others. Their iconography (each icon has a symbol) is not always intuitive but I trust that gets picked up by osmosis.
I specifically want to call out that each icon has a one or two sentence entry on “The True Danger”, which is basically “Everything will be fine, unless X”. For example, the Dwarf King’s is “Everything will be all right provided the Dwarf King does not unseal the Hall of Vengeance and retrieve the legendary Axe of Seven Bloods.”.
This is great game writing. It tells us a lot in very little space, which is a good start, but by doing this with each icon the designers are tacitly saying “Need a campaign seed? Just flip this switch”. It’s really well done.
This is a really weird thing to open up with, and it would not be unreasonable for someone just picking up the book to roll their eyes and think that they’re looking at the dossiers of the Elminsters of the setting, and that these are the people who are doing the cool, interesting stuff that players get to watch. In that situation, hate would be a reasonable response.
Now, I can say with the hindsight of knowing the game that this is not the case, but the game takes a bit of a risk in presenting things this way. It’s definitely non-standard and off putting to see a bunch of NPCs in the place where I’m expecting the basics of the system, or at least some pretty bad fiction. But is does stand up and put a flag on the icons which basically says “THIS RIGHT HERE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BIT”, which I think is true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really communicate why they’re the most important bit
Mind you, I haven’t communicated that yet either, but I have a better excuse.
Anyway, the whole chapter wraps up with a chart that maps the icons on the standard D&D alignment grid, which is nerdy fun, but also communicates “Screw you, Chaotic Good”. I suspect that, like the d20 assurances, this is largely a bit of comfort – superimposing the new with the old (Since 13th Age does not actually use alignments).
So, that’s the opener. We start getting into the actual rules next time, because I guess this is going to be a thing.
- This is, of course, necessary because it is a dirty lie. 13th Age is structurally a d20 game, but it is so essentially different in so many ways that it would potentially be very jarring if things weren’t carefully rooted in familiar d20 patterns. ↩