Ok, now that we’re past the icons, we start getting into the actual rules of the game, starting with character creation. Once again, there are reassurances about what is familiar to d20 players. You get a quick breakdown of the steps of chargen (importantly, starting with GM input) and going through the usual stuff which looks very familiar at first (race, class, stats, derived bonuses, feats and such) but then we get Your one unique thing, Icon relationship and Backgrounds which provide a hint that some unexpected stuff is coming.
It is pretty clear that this is a player-focused chapter, since the elaboration on GM input is basically “Let your GM yammer on, and nod a lot. Listening will let you get away with more” and…well, I can’t really fault that.
This chapter is mostly a high level treatment rather than a drilldown. For example, the available races (basically the d20 greatest hits) are listed, and we’re given some general information about races (like the fact that your race selection is going to give you +2 to a stat). There’s a nice sidebar on custom-creating races which boils down to “Hack something up based on the existing ones”. This is one of the first real flags that there’s a strong hacker ethic in this game.
The class treatment is similar – a list of familiar classes (no Monk, though, despite there being a monk on the cover), a note that your class will give you another (different) +2 to a stat and a sidebar that multiclassing is not supported yet, but it will be in a forthcoming expansion (which should also have the monk). There is some light multiclassing available via feats, but that’s about it for now.
Stats follow a pretty predictable pattern. It’s the core 6 stars, and you can either get them via point buy or roll 4d6, drop 1, arrange as you see fit. If you’ve played D&D in any incarnation, you probably can think of piles of ways to distributed stats. Stat bonuses follow the 3e/4e model (so 12 is +1, 14 is +2, etc.). Normally I would think this goes without saying, but I’ve been playing enough 1e lately to stop taking it for granted. Also, I hope you’ve already got some familiarity with d20, because the Stats themselves don’t get much in the way of actual explanation.
This section also reveals an interesting conceit in the writing. There are two primary authors on 13th Age – Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet – and they do not always agree. Their differences in opinion are explicitly called out in the text, usually in a “Rob handles it this way, Jonathan likes to do this” (in this case, Rob likes rolling stats, Jonathan likes to allow point buy). It’s a little odd, but since the overall tone of the text is fairly informal, it’s not terribly jarring, and it provides a very natural way to offer differing perspectives on often divisive issues.
Combat stats are derived from your other choices – hit points from class + CON and so on) and are both familiar and curious. Hit point amounts are fixed (based on class) and multiplied by 4 at 1st level. I liked this solution in 4e, since it removed the danger of a bag of cats from the game, so I’m happy seeing it in play here. It’s also interesting to note that the range of base hit points is much closer together than classic D&D. The base value for classes is 6, 7 or 8 which is a much tighter spread than the classic d4 to d12 distribution. Net result is that high CON impacts total HP more than class does, and we (hopefully) have no glass cannons.
Initiative is initiative, so whatever. More interesting are defenses. There are 3 of them – Armor class, physical defense and Mental defense, which should look fairly familiar with the qualifier that reflex and Armor class have been mashed together. This is both very reasonable and very weird. Reasonable because dexterity has always been a function of AC anyway, but weird because it’s hard to reconcile lightning reflexes and plate mail working the same way.
However, there’s a complexity here which is not apparently unless you skip ahead to the class section. So, every class has base values for each of these defenses, which is then modified by a stat bonus For physical (aka Fortitude) and mental (aka Will) defense, this is just a fixed value, but for armor class, it depends upon the armor being worn, but not in the way you might think. Basically, the kind of armor (light or heavy) is what matters in a class specific way. Thus, a fighter in heavy armor has a better AC than a barbarian in heavy armor, but not as good as a Paladin in heavy armor.
Yeah, it’s a little weird to think about. But we’ll get back to it when we hit the class section.
There are also recoveries, which I guess are kind of like healing surges, but I’m not sure from reading. Apparently it’s detailed later.
Still so far, this is mostly familiar territory, but that goes out the window with “your one unique thing”, shorthanded as a unique. It is very nearly what it says on the tin – some unique thing about your character. It’s intentionally VERY open ended, and examples range from the mundane (“I’m a former cultist”) to the wacky (“I’m a deathless pirate whose soul is trapped in a gem controlled by the Blue dragon”). There are some rough mechanical guidelines – no combat effects, minimal direct actual powers, but in terms of story significance, the sky is the limit.
Importantly, it only takes about a half a page to explain this idea, but there is then almost 4 pages of guidance on how to use it. if I was reading this with fresh eyes, it might feel like over-explaining, but previous drafts did not explain this idea enough, so I think they erred in the right direction.
In addition to specific advice for implementing uniques, they call out another important element – it opens the door to some very strong player authorship of setting. If a player’s unique thing is that they are the only honest cop in Axis, then they have effectively changed the setting to insure that the police of Axis are thoroughly corrupt.
While it’s obvious that this may require discussion in extreme cases, it’s equally obvious that the designers fully intend to allow players that kind of leeway. This is hinted at in the icon-focused, loosely sketched setting we’ve seen so far, and reinforced in the next section.
I want to plant a flag here in that this is one of the things people are going to be most excited (and sometimes confused) about in 13th Age. It will seem counterintuitive to players who are used to open ended game systems where everything about a character is potentially “unique thing” – what’s the big deal? Is it just traditionalists getting drunk on a taste of freedom?
Well, there might be some of that, but there’s more to it. Specifically, by making it a single unique thing, this basically makes it the point of the wedge – it’s implicitly signified importance. For Fate players, consider it akin to having only one aspect – it might seem limited, but it would be incentive to make that one aspect a really awesome, play-driving one. Think of the unique like that. Paired with the authority over setting this gives the player, it makes for a great combination of interesting and fun while still being manageable – you have one of these per player, so it’s possible to keep them all in mind as you play (it also avoids the problem where a more expressive player ends up defining the setting by producing any more contributions than anyone else).
The only reason the uniques are not clearly the thing which stands out as the signature mechanic of 13th age is this next section – Icon Relationships. Mechanically, this is super simple: You have 3 points, which you can invest in relationships with up to 3 icons (so 3 1 point relationships, 1 3 point or whatever). You designate the relationships as Positive, negative or conflicted. There are some rules that restrict positive relationships with villains or negative relationships with good guys, but they’re loose (and it’s explicitly called out that they should be inverted for a villainous game).
The points in a relationship turn into a number of d6 that you can roll in situations where that icon may be relevant. Every 6 is a benefit with no strings attached. Every 5 is a benefit with a complication. And that’s pretty much it.
If you followed the links to my previous writing about 13th age, you may have noticed that I wrote a LOT about the icons and the relationship mechanic, and if you only get this far, you’re may quite reasonably wonder what the big deal is. It’s an interesting mechanic, sure, but not really a big deal.
And just reading the book, I’d agree with you. Which makes me crazy, because I know it’s a HUGE deal. And, in fairness, there’s another two pages of talking about it, but it’s largely structural advice. I’m not sure anything in it really makes the idea explode off the page as it should.
But I just checked the table of contents, and there’s more to say about it later, so we’ll absolutely be back to this. For now, as a player, the thing this should reveal to you is that you are closely tied to these powers of the setting, even if it’s not totally clear what the significance of that really is.
Next section is Backgrounds, but you would not be off base to think of it as skills. Basically, each character gets 8 background points to distribute among what are effectively freeform skills, with a cap of 5 on any single background. These points translate into your skill bonus, used in a Skill + Stat + Level + d20 roll method.
Freeform skills are always a bit of a double-edged sword, especially because there are always skills like ninja or knight which potential encompass such a wide range of activities as to effectively render them uber-skills. There’s no explicit check against that in this system, but there is an interesting implicit one.
Because these are backgrounds, not just skills, they also represent the character’s history (and also give another avenue for player impact on the setting, albeit to a lesser extent than uniques) so there is some implicit advantage in spreading around the points a little bit, as it can also represent contacts and knowledge. But that’s definitely a weak check, and I think a GM will have to take an active hand in discussing backgrounds (though I would suggest helping ‘bring up’ weaker backgrounds than cutting down more useful ones, unless they’re really egregious)
As an aside, backgrounds can also play into the very loose language system, but there’s an explicit callout that language should only matter in the game as much as everyone wants it too, which is nice.
In another structural oddity, we get a bit more detail on diced resolution in the chargen section, including rules for natural 20s and fumbles, and a whole section on failing forward (that is, not letting failed rolls stop the action). Now, it’s an idea I’m a big proponent of, but I genuinely have no idea what it’s doing – with extensive examples – in the chargen chapter.
Similarly jarring is the next section on feats. I expected a similar brief treatment, akin to class and race, but there is rather more detail, including all the generic feats and the master table of all the feats in the game. I guess most of the feats are class specific, and are thus under their respective class sections, so there’s no “feat chapter” to put this information in. I’m sympathetic to that, but at the same time, this feels out of place.
I’m more forgiving of the last section – Gear – having tons of tables. It opens with a treatment of weapons and armor which explicitly calls out the very rough granularity hinted at earlier. Armor comes in two categories – light and heavy, while weapons come in 6 melee categories and 7 ranged categories which are rather simpler than they sound . The significance of this is still unclear, and many readers will be wondering where the hell the damage table is. After all, there are extensive shopping list tables (which are, it turns out, totally optional), so why no damage? Well, this will get answered in the class writeups, but this is not super clear in the text.
The whole thing ends with two pieces of advice to players: create dramatic stories and telegraph your intent. The former is kind of squishy and well intentioned as advice goes, but the latter is both concrete and useful.
And that’s chargen, or at least the bones of it. Races come next.
- The first thing that strikes me as odd is that race and class are selected before stats are generated. Lots of rulesets present this in the reverse, but I admit that this order is closer to reality as I know it, so that’s nice. ↩
- As a GM, this also lets me normalize damage a bit. When fighters and wizards have drastically different hit points, it can get hard to figure out what the right damage output for a monster is. I would imagine this makes that math easier, and I look forward to getting to the monster section to see if I’m right. ↩
- Curiously, rather than there being one stat tied to each defense, there are actually 3, and you use the middle one. The sound you hear is a thousand 20 dexterity rogues crying out in pain. And I’m ok with that. ↩