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