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.  ↩

16 thoughts on “13th Age Classes

  1. Andy

    Hypothesis: spells are called out that way (instead of scaling to level) because of things like other characters being able to grab lower-level spells. So a Sorcerer at Level 5 could grab a Level 3 Wizard spell, but it would only do 3d6 damage. If spells scaled per level, it’d be more confusing, I think.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Excellent point – and by extension it keeps spell effect documentation consistent, which is a non-trivial benefit.

      1. Andy

        Also a good point. (Whenever confronted with an oddity like that, I puzzle myself silly until I can figure out some kind of rationale for it.)

        Great overview, by the way. I love the point that the Barbarian is the first class players will see on a flip-through, and therefore it should be the easiest to grasp (also because it’s an easy concept to grasp, in theory). Usability stuff like that should be baked into more RPGs.

        Something that’d be even more helpful might be a difficulty callout (maybe just an icon?) at the header of every class. Something like General/Advanced/Expert classifications, to give players a guideline of which classes are the simple ones.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          Makes me want to do a table like the ones in the Sentinels of the Multiverse rules (which hero decks are most complicated to play, which villain decks are hardest to beat). It’s one of my favorite features of that game, and something I’d love to see in RPGs.

  2. Ed Gibbs

    I really hope Andy there (or someone else) can puzzle out the point of the armor/weapon rules, because I’m pretty stumped on why they did it the way they did.

    The first idea that came to mind is that they wanted to allow the players to improvise without the GM having to step in. Say, the Barbarian is unarmed, so he picks up a giant tree-branch off the ground. The GM can quickly say “okay, that’s a big branch, so it’s two handed and heavy; it does d10 damage!” But if that were the case, it seems like there are more simple ways to do it (like Dungeon World’s elegant solution of basing damage dice on class, with weapons merely giving a bonus).

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Were I to make a guess, I suspect that at some point in the design process, there was a lot more variability in weapon damage based on class (similar to Dungeon World, in fact, modified by type). If they stepped back from that (possibly because it was ‘to weird’) in favor of greater consistency, then the current presentation would be a relic of that.

      And I note: once they’re parsed, the rules are pretty workable, but the intent is a bit obfuscated.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      A table would help, but I dunno if I can do that in comments, but the weapon rules really are:

      Weapon Category: A weapon is either Crude, Simple or Martial
      A *Crude* weapon is one that is not much of a weapon at all, and might qualify as a tool. Like a knife, staff or simple club.

      A *Simple* weapon is a utilitarian weapon, the kind you might give to infantry. Short swords, maces, banded clubs, simple spears and so on.

      *Martial* weapons are serious business, and are the sort of things a professional warrior (as befits the culture) would carry. Longswords, katanas, flails, fancy polearms.

      The lines between categories are not always crystal clear, and sometimes factors like size can impact things (so crude wooden club might be simple if it’s particularly large or heavy).

      The other consideration whether the weapon is used in 1 or two hands. For some weapons (spears, bastard swords) this may be entirely situational.

      Crude weapons do d4 damage in 1 hand, d6 damage in 2 hands.
      Simple weapons do d6 damage in 1 hand, d8 damage in 2 hands
      Martial weapons do d8 damage in 1 hand, d10 damage in 2 hands

      (actual damage is LdX + mods, where L is character level and X is the die type)

      And that’s pretty much it. Ranged weapons have a similar breakdown but rather than 1 or 2 hands, their distinctions are thrown, bow and crossbow, which matter mostly because there are (technically) no crude bows and no martial thrown weapons, but I can think of counterexamples. In any case, the baseline for missile weapons is similar to 1 handed melee.

      Certain classes have specific penalties or benefits to using certain weapon types. For example

      Barbarians a -5 With crossbows
      Bards: -2 with 2H melee martial, -1 with Martial Crossbows, -2 with Martial Bows
      Clerics: -2 with martial melee, – 1 with martial crossbows, -5 with Martial Bows
      Fighters: No mods
      Paladin: No mods
      Ranger: No mods
      Rogue: All 1H melee do d8, -2 with Martial Melee, -1 Martial crossbow, -2 Martial Bow
      Sorcerer: -2 Martial melee, -1/-3 simple & martial crossbows, -2/-4 SImple and martial bows
      Wizard: -2 Simple melee, -5 Martial Melee, -1 light crossbow, -2 Light thrown and bows, -4 martial crossbow, -5 Martial Bow

      (admittedly, in writing it out the Wizard seems a bit fiddly – the fine gradations of incompetence seem slightly at odds with the overall tone of the rules)

      Anyway, that’s a bit off the cuff, but I *think* that explains it.

  3. Dion Haubro

    The “confusion” over armor and, later, weapon damage stems from the design choice to make the various classes (and races, I’ll get back to that!) AC gains/Attack penalties (or lack thereof) reflect what they’re meant to do.

    They’re a little bit confusing and a little clumsy to look at when taken as a whole, but when making a char, you just need to look at the table that concerns your class’ weapon damage/penalties/ armor and you’ll be set.

    Another very notable fact that wasn’t mentioned in the review is the fact that the smaller races (hafling/gnome) are not penalized for smaller weapon sizes (nor do they get +1 AC or other such things) like they do in “other” RPG’s.
    I really like this fact, but it takes a little getting used to.

    All of this leads to a sense that there was an explicit design choice to make the classes more even in actual damage output and giving the PC’s more classflavoured ways of doing things.

    Sry for the wall of text.

    TL;DR – Design choices were made, just focus on your own class table, enjoy

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Indeed, it is quite true that there was clearly some design intent behind the decision, and this gives a wonderful opportunity to underscore a point – it is entirely possible for a good idea to be communicated poorly. In this case, the *intent* of the handling of weapons is a good one, but the *expression* of that intent is more complicated than it needs be.

      This is a tricky piece of business, especially when the instinctive response is “but it makes sense to *me*, clearly this objection is nonsensical, perhaps even malicious!” and I am deeply sympathetic to that instinct. Lord knows I have experienced it myself more than a few times. But that reaction also illustrates something that is very dangerous to any kind of instructional writing, which includes RPGs. That is, the better you know something, the worse judge you are likely to be of how it comes across to someone encountering it for the first time. You can consciously adjust for it, but it’s still a gotcha.

      Now, I’m aware that the assertion that this presentation is more complicated than it needs to be is potentially contentious. Why not simply put all the necessary information about the class in the class entry, even if it means repetition? It increases ease of reference, does it not?

      And it does, but there’s a catch. There is a certain amount of zero sum thinking that must go into publishing a book because you only have so much space to work with. If you repeat something that is largely the same multiple times, that’s burning space that might be used for something else – another power, or more world color for example.

      Now, if the character chapters were entirely self contained (in the style of *World playbooks, for example) then it would make a lot of sense to repeat information (and, tellingly, playbooks are designed with electronic distribution in mind) but in 13th Age, that is not the case. There is a need to refer to other parts of the book when making a character, so the argument that it would be onerous to do that for weapons doesn’t carry too much weight.

      I hope this does not come off as dismissive – I get the sense you’re a real Fan of 13th Age, and that’s awesome, because I am too! And as such, I hope it’s clear that this is not in any way saying that the underlying game is a bad one, nor is this simply me trying to pass off my opinion as some sort of fact. It’s my analysis of the rules segment, and what I perceive as a failure of presentation. If one wishes to disagree with my conclusion, then I’m 100% comfortable with that – it is not my job to be right, merely to offer my perspective.

      And that said, excellent point about the small races. I should have mentioned that alongside infravision as some clutter that 13th Age quietly set aside.

  4. Graham

    One of the big reasons for not giving specific weapons specific damage values is to allow you to play the archetype you want without giving up effectiveness. For example, if I want to be a mace-wielding Paladin, because it fits the story and my deity’s tenets or something, then I’m not inadvertently gimping myself, and can just tell the DM I’d like to take maces as a martial weapon.

    Yeah, you can do this in other games, too. But it’s easier when it’s not hard-coded.

    As for spells not scaling by level, if you read into many of the spells, while they scale, it’s not always linearly. Ray of Frost, for example, goes from 3d6 to 10d12. There’s no real way to do that without listing the damage at each level. Daily spells are worse, with Acid Arrow going from 4d10 damage plus 5 ongoing, to 5d4x10 plus 40 ongoing. The varied effects, varied miss effects, and non-linear scaling make it hard to list in any other way.

  5. hvg3

    Something I wanted to point out here was the small details you find on further reading. My favourite has been the write-up of each classes starting gold (under the “Gear” heading). Nicely done, and made me quickly search out the corresponding passages in the other sections 🙂

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