Opening Up 13th Age

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.[1]

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.

  1. 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.  ↩

18 thoughts on “Opening Up 13th Age

  1. Bryant

    Huh. Interesting that I haven’t actually seen anyone react that way; I wonder why? I see two options off the top of my head:

    1. “CHAPTER 1: ICONS details the icons who are the heart of the 13th Age story . . . at least until the PCs arrive with their own stories.”

    2. People want big NPCs.

    I sort of think it’s the second. It really helps that each Icon has a section which explicitly calls out how the Icon needs adventurers, but mostly I think big NPCs are generally OK with players. You want to know who your enemies are. I start to think that the Elminster Problem isn’t a generalized problem; it’s a specific manifestation of the Linear Fighter Quadratic Wizard problem.

    Also, there’s one Elminster who is clearly able to handle all the problems that come up. This is pretty different than having 13 powerful beings who can’t defeat each other.

    Or maybe we’ll see more bad reactions to this as the book releases wider.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      What’s proving very interesting to me as I go through this is a *lot* of the things which I’m finding to be problems with the book are things which entirely escaped my notice in previous readings, because they are almost all structural. In previous swings at the game, I suspect that I have either just skipped around a bit more or (more likely) picked up a lot of how things work from osmosis and discussion.

      And there’s nothing wrong with that – I think 13th Age is going to be a fantastic game for teaching and sharing because the ideas are very compelling. And since most backers were introduced to the ideas of the game in advance of the text, I think that for a lot of people, the learning experience has been bigger than just the book. Mine totally was.

      Which is why going back and looking at *just* the book has been really eye opening.

    2. Lawrence Augustine R. Mingoa

      Personally I’d really prefer to have Icons as the first chapter for four reasons:

      1. Before I start making a character, I want to know what I’m getting into. And because the system is all about having stories that can be adapted to any setting, it makes sense to me that, at the very least, the base concept of Icons would have to be introduced.

      I’d like to think of Icons as a more complex version of alignment, where instead of your characters aligning to three, five or nine alignments, you have 13 major organizations in the world that are headed by iconic persons, where everything has become a stalemate, and it’s the actions of the PCs that can change the fate of the entire world.

      2. It’s the first of many stories that can be.
      Player Side: Wouldn’t *you* want to be the next Dragon Emperor? Wouldn’t *you* want to be the one to finally capture the Prince of Shadows? Wouldn’t *you* want to be the one to slay the Orc Lord? Wouldn’t *you* want to be the one to assassinate the Priestess?

      DM Side: What is known about these world-changing NPCs? What makes them a valuable ally? What makes them a meaningful threat? What do these NPCs fear the most? Why would these NPCs need the PCs?

      3. Relationship Dice is the second most-powerful player-based storytelling mechanic in the game, bested only by the One Unique Thing. How can you fully comprehend this mechanic if you don’t have the Icons before character creation?

      4. The lore of certain mechanics revolves around them. Sorcerers in particular are directly tied to Icons, as well as Rogues with the Prince of Shadows, Wizards with the Archmage, and Elves with the Elf Queen. To place Icons after classes or even races can be confusing and would force people to flip back and forth between pages just to look for information on the Icons.

      – – – – –
      The first chapter is typically dedicated to the Introduction, and I think introducing Icons, from whom almost all the stories — from backgrounds to story plots — spawn from, is the most appropriate for this chapter, alongside other game basics.

      1. Rob Donoghue Post author

        So, here’s the thing – I disagree with none of those sentiments. Icons are a big deal, and are awesome in many many ways. I fully agree that they deserve a place of prominence, and that it makes sense to open the book with them.


        The fact that it’s the right content does not mean it’s the right presentation. If you’re going to open with the Icons, you don’t want to just talk *about* the Icons, because that is the least interesting thing about them.

  2. Bill

    I’m going to get out my major complaint right here so I can force myself to stop repeating it. “Unlike in other d20 games…” I’d like to go through the text and count how many times variations of that phrase come up. It fits the conversational tone of the book but I really wish the game wanted to stand on its own more than just as a comparison to other games.

    It took me a while of reading through to wrap my head around the idea that the Icons were supposed to be NPCs in a more concrete sense. The Archmage for instance could be Elminster but given the background information we do get, it is more likely he is Mordenkainen. The Elf Queen is the hardest one for me though because she is an ‘Elf’ without any real reference to which of the 3 subraces she is.. if any.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      What’s weird with 13th Age is that there’s also a huge amount of “JUST LIKE THE d20 YOU KNOW AND LOVE!” copy that’s pretty clearly meant to be reassuring to people finding themselves in this strange space.

    2. Blake

      I counted for you. It happens zero times. It references other games about ten times, 4 of them in one paragraph, while explaining the similarities and differences for people already familiar with d20 games. None of them seem unnecessary.

      Dunno, I think you should complain about problems that exist, rather than this stuff that doesn’t.

      1. fredhicks

        This sentiment could be conveyed without coming off as a patronizing twerp. Please be more civil next time. 🙁

      2. Bill

        Page 29: “13th Age is less restrictive than other d20 games”
        Page 40: “Instead of assigning points to skills as with other d20 games”

        Ultimately for me it is a tone issue. I’d prefer it if references to other games had been kept to sidebars and that the main text had been about what the rules are. I can understand why the designers did it, I just feel that it makes what should be a Core rulebook read more like a supplement or world guide.

  3. Ed Gibbs

    I too found the references to d20 obnoxious, in places, to the point where the text was starting to read like one of those 30-minute commercials:

    “Unlike other, messy d20 systems, 13th Age is elegant and clean, leaving your adventures looking SPOTLESS!”

    I’m surprised the Sham-Wow! guy isn’t one of the Icons. OR IS HE?

    1. Wade Rockett

      As 13th Age’s Community Relations guy I’m going to keep my big fat agenda out of these comment threads; but this is something that might need addressing.

      The in-text comparison isn’t meant to snark on other games, or convince you that those elements are bad and 13th Age is NEWER! BETTER! As Rob D. says in his post, this game is clearly a descendant of D&D, Tweet and Heinsoo were lead designers on previous editions of D&D, and in today’s gaming landscape people have a lot of options for scratching that d20-rolling itch. So pointing out where 13th Age is different serves a potential purchaser’s need (“Is this different enough from Pathfinder or 4e to be worth my attention?”) and a purchaser’s need (“I can’t take for granted that familiar-looking mechanics will work exactly the same in this game, so it would be helpful to flag those things.”) Rob and Jonathan are not the type to hype their games or crap on other games. If those passages don’t communicate that, we’re sorry.

      1. Ed Gibbs

        Thank you for the response! Maybe it’s my own hubris, but I DO feel a little like Rob and Jonathan carry this “this game is the best d20 game, others are inferior” tone that I find a little off-putting. Not off-putting enough to put the book down or not play it, but off-putting because these two guys are rockstar designers and they’ve already earned my respect; they don’t need to convince me that their game is worth a look! Again, though, I understand the intent and fully concede that I could be in the minority, here.

  4. Dave Chalker

    My favorite part of the intro, no joke, was the “if you’re into roleplaying” vs “if you’re into rollplaying.” None of this BS judgment about suggesting one playstyle is inferior to another: just a list of what you might enjoy for each.

  5. Ben

    I had forgotten my original confusion about the Icons when reading the book because my first read-through was over a year ago.

    I agree that it can be jarring.

    I’m looking forward to your take on the actual Icon relationship mechanics. Because I love the Icons, I love the world, and I enjoy the game, but I find the mechanical ways to include them in the story very lackluster.

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