The chapter on running the game opens with the all important section on using Icon relationships, with a wonderful sidebar acknowledging that this is new tech, and that it’s worth watching the internet to see what people do with it.
As we mentioned a while back, the mechanics of Icon relationships are straightforward. You have a few points of relationships spread among the icons. When called for, you roll 1d6 for each point. If a 6 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way. If I 5 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way, but there’s a catch. Mechanically, it’s pretty simple.
Conceptually, it’s much more interesting. These rolls are basically the things that are going to provide seeds fro your play, Practically, there are three main times to make a relationship roll.
- When that icon (or its agents) show up in an important way
- At the beginning of every session
- When things have totally gone off the rails.
We’ll get to #1 in a minute. #2 is the real gold (and #3 is, really, just an extension of #2, since it’s very nearly a reboot button). So at the beginning of play, everyone rolls all their relationship dice, and each 5 or 6 is expected to become a plot point in the forthcoming session. Since everyone has at least 3 points, that’s generally going to mean one plot element per player, but it’s subject to the vagaries of the dice. Assuming the GM takes these things seriously, that’s enough elements to really make sure the shape of the adventure conforms to the play.
The idea is a little bit stronger than the support. There are a number of ideas given for how to improvise relationship rolls into play – providing guidance, driving flashbacks, giving goodies and so on. These are fine, but they’re chrome – they’re the way you would use these rolls if you still want to run basically the same dungeon you were going to be running anyway. I get that the examples I want to see (like tying the relationships and, in turn, the PCs directly into the stakes of the day’s adventure) might be a little daunting to someone coming to this fresh faced, but that capability is so awesome that it feels like a wasted opportunity.
It’s with that in mind that I consider rolling relationship dice for dramatic events to be almost incidental, and I admit the writeup doesn’t change my mind. The actual rules for such rolls are pretty thin, and more or less boil down to rolling to see if you grab the spotlight for a given scene (which is a bit weird) with most of the focus on when such rolls are made (short answer – when the GM says so, though players may occasionally force the issue through play).
There’s a nice rule for rolling for random icon influence, but really, that’s it. It’s disappointing. Again, I am crazy about how good the Icons concept is (even if I might be inclined to fiddle with the dice) and I feel like it gets badly undersold in the text.
Next section is on environments and tiers, basically noting that locations are tiered the same way that characters are (Adventurer, champion & epic) and in case that was not clear enough, there’s an actual chard to prove it. Environment tier matters because it sets the baseline difficulty for actions (baseline 15, +5 per tier, +5 per difficulty increments, of which there are 3). So the hardest adventurer tier DC is 25 (2 difficulty increments) while the highest Epic DC is 35 (2 difficulty increments and 2 tiers). This is one of those cases where simplicity was clearly chosen over smooth break points, but the underlying idea is flexible enough (that is, a given dungeon might be largely one tier, but another tier in some places) that it’s not as painful as it could be.
There’s also a kind-of-probably-intentional sliding scale to it, where a Hard Adventurer DC (20) is the same as a Normal Champion DC. This allows for a bit of subjectivity in deciding difficulties, which is almost necessary because there’s a real lack of meaningful difference between the environment tiers besides the level of the characters. There are also default attacks and damage levels for each tier, and it’s all combined into a single table that’s reminiscent of 4e’s famous Page 42.
I was curious to read the section on traps, because the decision for the rogue to have trap sense rather than thievery as a class feature has been sticking in my craw. There’s a nice explanation of why instakill traps are lame, and a kind of thin-seeming explanation of why traps aren’t worth XP (but monsters are) followed by some sample traps and…that’s it.
The section on building encounters is less sparse, but is not much more than functional. Simple formula for coming up with the correct number of enemies without ever actually using terms like “Challenge Rating” Some of it is interesting – Adventurers fight equal level enemies, Champions fight level +1 and Epic fights level +2. I just kind of trust that works out. There’s also some familiar 4e tiering of monsters from Mook to Normal to Large to Huge with Normal as the default. Amusingly, there are guidelines on how to make fights unfair (more, and harder) but not necessarily why you’d do it.
Y’know that thing I keep saying about the assumption that the reader already know what they’re doing? Yeah. That.
The advice on healing up mostly revealed to me that a key concept thad been introduced in the combat chapter without my noticing it. The flee rules note that you can have the party suffer a campaign loss – some sort of in game setback. Turns out that “campaign loss” is actually a game term because you can also take them for resting too often. I’m fine with the rule, but as for the term, this is why god created italics.
The section on leveling up opens up with the big whammy – no XP. Just advance a level every 12–16 battles or so. There’s a list of the benefits of leveling, which is mostly what we’ve seen before, followed by rules for incremental advances to smooth out the progression if anyone needs that.
Wedged in here, for no reason I can really point to, is a section on “Player Picks”, which are a great technique. At the end of the session players can pick fiction elements they want to see recur. It’s a little rule, but a very neat one.
Another nice touch is the “Extraordinary Experience” rule, which basically replaces any formal training system. When you level, you need to have a good story for it, either a transcendent moment or some cool backstory. I dig this in theory, but since everyone levels simultaneously, I wonder if it’s a bit more dull in practice.
Then, as a wrap up comes the 10 levels in 10 session campaign variant, which is just a fun idea.
So, ok, if there’s no XP, then what about loot? Well, yes, there’s loot, though it’s a little abstracted. Basically, rather than accruing per encounter, gold accrues per rest( sorry, full heal-up) which is supposed to be roughly every 4 battles. All of this is predicated on an idea that, really, money isn’t useful for anything but buying potions and minor magic (and it even includes an alternate system to skip the middleman and just pay out in potions and runes).
I admit, I’m a big fan of abstract wealth systems, but this one manages to take me aback a little as even more abstract than I’m comfortable with (and, for context, I’m totally ok with resources being a skill). Thinking about it, I think the issue is twofold. First, I like broke heroes. If I’m going to use cash as a motivator, then it should be motivating, dammit. This is predicated on an assumption of blithe wealth, which totally makes sense if you accept that everyone is sufficiently important that little things like money don’t matter any more. The second point is an extension of that – the idea that money isn’t useful for anything else strikes me a so self-referentially dungeoneering-centric as to actively hurt my sense of setting. If I can’t lose my money betting on the dire badger races, then something is just wrong with the world.
There are also guidelines for handing out magic items, but the actual items are in a future chapter.
The next section in what I might describe as a somewhat haphazard order is ritual magic, and this is another fun, exciting thing. Rituals basically take existing spells and let you use them as the basis for a larger effect. The player pitches that to the GM, who determines how long it will take (1d4 minutes, quarter hours or hours) then call for a skill check.
As a baseline, this is a pretty neat system, and a great way to introduce very open-ended, “magical” activities into the game. More, the examples make it pretty clear that the extent of the improvisation and interpretation allowed is extensive enough that the core spells are only a loose limitation (which is good, since there is no not-having a class spell at the moment).
However, it could use about another page of explanation. Free form magic is cool as heck on the page, but it very quickly runs into issues of scale, drama and repetition.
Scale can be illustrated pretty simply, let’s say I want to put a whole town to sleep – the base spell is pretty easy (sleep) but how should I adjudicate the rest? And how will that differ if I want to just put a building to sleep? What about a whole city? Rituals can allow stuff like this, and that’s cool, but guidance would help. Similarly – can I use a ritual version of blink to teleport my party somewhere? By the ritual rules it totally makes sense, but there is actually a level 9 teleport spell, so it this cheating?
Once the door to a ritual gets opened, you can bet that players will keep using it. It will become part of their regular arsenal of effect, and that means that you run a strong chance of having something that seemed cool in the moment to become a precedent for something you didn’t intend.
There is a little bit of guidance for Drama, in that the GM can declare what is required to cast a particular ritual, and that’s a good baseline. In theory, the GM can answer question of scale by scaling the requirements for various effects (so, yes, you can put the city to sleep, but the required components are MUCH harder to get). That’s awesome in and of itself, but it should just be the tip of the iceberg. If it’s just components, that encourages a scavenger hunt mentality, but when viewed as “when X, then Y” it’s revealed that this is actually a powerful tool of setting design. To come back to the teleport question – if low level teleporting is allowed to specific places (teleport circles or whatnot) then you have just added teleport circles to the world. That’s a thing.
All of which is to say, Rituals are great, but could use more meat
There’s another section on icons which follows that includes a brief history of the setting through the lens of icons and a little bit of discussion regarding how Icons might be change in name or nature. It includes an explanation of why the icons don’t have stats (yay) and why they will someday (less yay) and a chunk on insanity that I don’t quite get the relevance of. There’s also a specific callout to the various ways that visitors from other worlds (which we all understand to mean other games) can enter 13th Age.
The final section deal with Gods. and specifically how 13th Age has shuffled gods into the background with the focus on icons. This minimization makes it trivial to rotate in whatever pantheons you want without substantially changing the game. There’s a sidebar on how Tweet just sort of aggregates it all into “the gods” for day to day purposes, and it’s workable (as is the guidance regarding the Icons that some might worship as gods) but…
So, I get why this is the way it is. The icons are a big deal, and a Forgotten Realms style pantheon would really detract from that. But it feels a bit like a punt. The sense it conveys is that they’d really like to minimize the role of religion in the setting, but don’t want to come out and say as much. I dunno. Interpreted generously, it’s leaving a big question to be answered at your table , but interpreted less generously it’s kind of flat.
Anyway, this is obviously a pretty long chapter, and a few key pieces come together in it and really help sketch out the shape of how play is expected to unfold. It’s a little frustrating because some of the biggest and best ideas (icon relationships and rituals in particular) seem to get a little bit of short shrift, but it’s possible that entire books could be committed to those topics, so perhaps that is unfair of me.
More importantly, it paints more of a picture of the shape of play outside of fights, and it definitely has a specific kind of flavor, one that is pretty clearly not intended to be particularly gritty or detail-oriented. I get the sense that this is intended as sort of a natural consequence of being player-focused, and while I’m not sure I totally agree, it’s at least consistent.