Category Archives: 13thAge

13th Age – C and F

The Cleric was a class that I was very curious to see unfold. The nature of the setting seems to minimize the role of Gods in favor of Icons. In fact, the only mention of gods is in the general sense that the Priestess and the Crusader both have connections to vaguely defined divinities.

The cleric seems to follow this model by leaving the general idea of what being a cleric is up to the player. Want to invent a god? Do it? Want to just sort of generically worship “The Gods”? Go right ahead. The authors suggest a very loose hand with pantheons.

I admit I’m not 100% sure I’m excited by this. I like the player authorship component, but I regret the absence of any real social component. It’s a small complaint though, since a player can pretty freely introduced more elements of organized religion via backgrounds or uniques.

The class feature that all clerics get is the ability to heal – twice per battle allows an ally to spend a recovery, very much in the mode of 4e. This is pretty much a concession to the realities of d20 – clerics are expected to heal, and making healing demand any kind of tradeoff can be cruel.

The three class talents take the form of domains, a familiar enough concept, and their abstraction allows for several talents to have different explanations. For example, the talent which allows striking back when an ally gets hit is considered appropriate to the domain of Justice or Vengeance. While this is a bit of sleight of hand to squeeze in more domains, it’s eminently practical, so i can’t fault it.

Structurally, the talents are composed of an effect and an invocation. The effect is usually passive, but some are reactive or are effectively mini-powers. The invocation is effectively a daily power. Notably, the feats seem to improve the effects, not the invocations, though it’s not immediately clear why that is the case.

I think my favorite is the Illusion/Trickery effect – you roll a d20 at the beginning of the fight, and at some point you hand that to someone else (friend or foe) who was just about to roll. Colorful, flexible, a little unpredictable, and mechanically neat.

In lieu of powers, clerics get spells. Technically we already saw spells with the Bard, but that was mixed in with a bunch of other stuff, so it was hard to get a sense of what spellcasting is supposed to look like. Now’s our chance.

The first and potentially weirdest thing is that the spell progression is hollow. We’ve touched on this before, but it’s interesting to see it in practice – see, 13th Age has spell levels, (1st. 3rd. 5th, 7th and 9th – sync them up with the levels they’re acquired, I suppose) . At level 1, the cleric has 4 level 1 spells. At level 2, she has 5 level 1 spells. But at level 3, she only has 2 first level spells, but she now has 3 level 3 spells. By the time she turns level 5, she will no longer have any level 1 spells.

As someone used to classic d20 spell progression, this is crazypants banana town, but the logic becomes more apparent as you look at the actual spell entries – they actually contain multiple versions of themselves.

That sounds weird, but bear with me. The level 1 spell, grants someone[1] an AC bonus. Easy enough. The 3rd level version of the spell expands the bonus to Physical defense as well as AC. At level 5 it improves the bonus when the target is staggered (whatever that is[2]). At level 7 it also improves mental defense. At level 9, the bonus is improved.

What’s important to note is that this is not a progression – these are effectively 5 different spells. They’re written in a compact way which can lead to a bit of confusion (especially for damage spells – they don’t necessarily have a smooth progression, largely because hit points don’t have a smooth progression). At level 3, more spells show up, and the only difference is that they don’t have level 1 versions.

As noted, this is strange, but I kind of dig it. One big part of this is that it limits the number of spells that a character knows to something between 4 and 9. That greatly simplifies bookkeeping while still allowing for a very wide range of spell choices. There are only 19 spell entries, but in practice, there are 69 clerical spells.[3]

However, as I read this, I have no idea how I’m supposed to use these spells. The spells are actually written like powers, including frequency (daily, at-will or Per battle) so you can figure out how to use a particular spell based on its entry, but what I am not finding is whether or not spells can be swapped out. Clearly they change at level up, but are they then locked in? Are they prayed for on a daily basis? The index fails me. In the absence of any information it seems that they’re locked in, but if so, it seems disingenuous to call them spells rather than powers.

I’m confident that I’m missing something, but I’ve been looking in all manner of odd corners of the book to no avail.

EDIT: I have been informed on Google+ that according to the designers, spells can be re-jiggered when you take a full heal up (basically a long rest).  I re-checked the text under the full heal up rules to see if there’s any mention of this, but there is not.  I fully accept that the correction is accurate, but this is a really glaring example of the text falling short of the quality of the game.  That is not something that should be in errata. 

Further Edit: Hat tip to Ralph Mazza who found the appropriate passage. It’s in the opener of the class chapter (page 76 for those who care) in a section title “Shifting choices as you adventure”.  I’d say it’s a little obscure, but I withdraw most of the criticism and place it on myself for the failure to catch that passage. 

The Fighter looks to be a little bit less of a headache – more complicated than the Barbarian, but still pretty straightforward. The class features improve recovery and give the fighter a taunt ability that makes it hard for enemies to disengage. At some point this became as mandatory as cleric healing, but I’m less copacetic about it. It’s a kludge, and the fact that it’s a kludge that MMO’s have elevated to high art does not reduce that fact. But people dig it, I guess, so I’ll roll with it, but meh. Also, get off my lawn

The fighter class talents are largely what you would expect in a post 3e world, something made pretty clear by the first one being “Cleave”. Once again, a lot of them are effectively powers (once per battle do something cool) and I admit that this blurring is starting to get to me. I sort of get why it’s there – some talents are passive effects and some are pseudo-powers, so the goal is uniform presentation, but I admit I kind of dread tracking that on a character sheet.

That said, some of the talents are pretty cool. Deadeye Archer is fairly badass, and Counter-Attack is interesting. It’s the first effect I’ve noticed where the even-odd state of the escalation die matters rather than its value, which is definitely a little hard to wrap my head around. The idea that the effect isn’t useful at, say, escalation 5 is counterintuitive.

(if you’re confused at what I mean by escalation, that is intentional, because the book hasn’t explained it yet either)

The fighter is also where another mechanic that’s shown up quietly gets brought into the highlight – Miss Damage. In 13th Age, attacks almost always do damage, even on a miss. Miss damage is reduced (usually just equal to character level) but still non-zero. This is a nice trick to keep attacks from feeling wasted, and the fighter in particular has a number of effects that improve miss damage, which seems to make him a reliable damage outputter, which seems right.

This idea is reinforced by the structure of the fighter powers (called “Maneuvers”), the bulk of which are “flexible attacks”, which is to say, they’re effects you trigger after the die is rolled[4] based on the value showing on the die. For example, for a fighter with Heavy Blows, a miss that shows an even number on the die will do extra miss damage.

I mentioned the flexible attacks before because the Bard also has some, but i really want to look at it here because they seem to be the fighter’s bread and butter. I had to go check ahead in the book to consult the rules, where I discovered they can’t be used for opportunity attacks (which seems kind of lame) and you can only use one per attack (which seems totally reasonable).

The net result is that the fighter is going to have a menu of options to consult after the die has been rolled, pretty much every time he attacks. That’s an odd cadence, and I suspect it’s going to be a little bit awkward until the fighter player gets familiar enough with his own triggers to know them by heart. This probably won’t take long, since the number of maneuvers starts at 3 and caps at 8 – like cleric spells, the list of stuff to keep in mind stays reasonably short.

I’m a little torn on missile support for the fighter. There are clearly some cool things if you want to be a missile guy, but the maneuver selection skews heavily towards melee. This is almost certainly working as intended, but I just look a little sad because the archery stuff is cool enough that I want more of it.

One oddity – The fighter section has a very striking image of a victorious gladiator type standing over his fallen foes with a sword in each hand. This is interesting because there’s no fighter talent for dual wielding, so I wondered how that was done. Index took me to the two weapon rules, which are fine, and which said some classes have talents that expand those rules, and so I guess they meant “rangers” (screw you, Drizzt). It’s not a bad thing, but it definitely seems like an odd gap.

And, well, crud. Looks like another 2 class day. More tomorrow.

  1. One nice mechanical bit – most cleric spells can either be cast on multiple targets for minor effect or on a single target for greater effect. For example, Shield of faith gives 1 target +2 AC, or 3 targets +1 AC.  ↩
  2. Checked the glossary. Basically means the same as bloodied (under 50% hit points) but since bloodied isn’t in the OGL, they needed a different term.  ↩
  3. And as a callout, Resurrection is interesting, with a steadily escalating cost that is tied to the number of times the spell has been cast, in addition to the number of times the target has been resurrected. It’s a nice balance between keeping resurrection as an option for high level play while including a check to keep it from upending the setting.  ↩
  4. It is not clear in the rules whether this is before or after a hit is declared, but some other statements about transparency of information seem to strongly imply that it’s after the hit is declared.  ↩

13th Age – B Classes

As I noted before, it’s great that the Barbarian is the simplest class in the game, since it makes for the easiest on ramp into a pretty complicated chapter. Basically, all barbarian’s get Rage[1] – the ability to go berserk and kick ass for a while – as a class feature. It’s an interesting power because it reveals some structural elements of the design, specifically:

  • It’s roll 2d20, keep the best one, something which I think has become more common, especially with late 4e and D&DNext designs, but is a nice departure from vanilla d20. Putting a “weird” mechanic up front suggests broad changes to come.
  • It uses a “recharge” mechanic – after a fight you roll d20 and on 16+ it remains usable. This is not a weird mechanic in the same way that 2d20 is, but it does reveal a different sort of bookkeeping priority. It would be entirely possible to make rage something usable N times per day, but they opt for a more fluid system. On its own, I’d question the choice, but it’s nicely supplemented by the feats
  • We finally see the feats which got previewed in the introduction, and it reveals something very interesting – outside of the handful of “core” feats we saw earlier, all the feats are tied to specifics class features and talents and are also tiered. For example, Rage has an Adventurer tier feat, a Champion tier feat and an Epic feat.[2]
  • The feats are pretty cool and unexpected. Rather than decreasing the difficulty of the recharge roll (which would be the obvious path) they make Rage work automatically if the escalation die is high enough. However, I think the reader still has no idea what the escalation die is, so that’s a little rough.
  • The feats for Rage are also sufficiently awesome that they feel like they might be mandatory. That may not be correct – maybe the other stunts are awesome, or that this is simply part of the streamlining of the Barbarian, but it’s now something I’m going to keep my eyes on.

Talents are like class features in that they are permanent rules that affect the character, either in some passive way or by granting a special action. For example, one Barbarian talent gives bigger recovery dice, meaning the character heals more effectively, and the feats tied to that talent make your recovery more efficient. A few of the talents are really pseudo-powers (once per battle you can do something special) but I’m ok with them being set up as talents for simplicity sake.

A starting character gets to pick 3 talents, then gains new ones ate 5th and 8th level. At 5th level, the player has the option to taking a Champion tier talent, and at 8th they may take an Epic tier talent. Again, for the Barbarian, these are pretty straightforward, and largely revolve around hitting things really, really hard. A few of the talents seem only middlingly effective, depending upon feats to being them to maturation, but that may just be my read.

Amusingly, the next class – The Bard is probably the most complicated one, so there’s a bit of whiplash when you turn the page from the barbarian. I don’t normally worry about Primary stats, but I checked the bard’s out of curiosity as to whether this was a bard rooted in 1e D&D or later version. Answer: Charisma & Dexterity says to me that it’s definitely in the mould of the modern Bard.

What really intrigued me, however, is that the image given of the bard does not look like a bard. There’s nary a musical instrument in sight, and the gear (sword, shield and non-trivial armor) looks distinctly martial. It absolutely made me very curious regarding the style of this particular bard. Enough so that I cheated and skipped to the gear section and determined that Bards

  • Get to be badass with 1H melee weapons, and ok with everything else, which suggests things be a little swashbuckler (which I’m always good with)
  • Get to use Dex OR Str for their basic melee attack[3]
  • Favor light armor and, curiously, are mildly discouraged (–1 to attacks) from using shields despite the image

So there’s definitely a bit of an ass kicker vibe there, so with that in mind I took a look at the class features for a bit more of a hint. The two class features are bardic songs (which have effects that continue, and sometimes improve, as you sing) and Battle Cries, which seem to be responsive one shot effects that can be triggered by certain attacks.[4] On top of this bards also gets spells. I was not looking forward to getting my head around this.

The class talents do not ease my mind. They’re not bad, and they do some interesting things (like muddle with the icons system) but they also include a couple of mutually exclusive choices (so you can be Battle Skald or a Spellsinger, but not both). And more, two of the mutually exclusive talents (Loremaster and Mythkenner) are themselves talents with multiple abilities that you pick a subset of.

All of which is to say, I really hope the bard is the most complicated class. This is a lot of choices, and I haven’t even hit the powers yet. Which is good, because they did not simplify things..

The battle cries are pretty straightforward – make a roll and if it fulfills some criteria (like an even die result) then you might trigger an effect (like allowing an ally to make a free move). Excepting the occasional sour note (like some which have an additional limitation like the number of times they can be used per battle) they are largely pretty cool, and very reminiscent of the things I liked about the Warlord in 4e. It also suffers a little bit from the Warlord’s problem of it being hard to connect the mechanics to the fiction, but the bard at least has “magic!” as an excuse.

Spells and Songs took a bit more thinking, in large part because they’re grouped together in a way that seems puzzling until you realize that they’re really meant to be interchangeable. You don’t get X songs and Y spells – you get X songs or spells. It’s a little weird, but I suspect the intent is to give a little bit more flexibility to the way the Bard is played. Really, most of the Bard’s decisions have been made based on flexibility, which is (I suspect) also the reason for its complexity. It looks like playing a bard will be perfectly straightforward, but chargen definitely requires more thought.

Oy, ok, so that’s the first class and the most complicated class. Hopefully we’ll rip through the rest of them in the next post.

  1. I know this is basically mandated by d20 familiarity, but it actually makes me kind of sad. Setting aside all of the problematic elements of who is or is not a barbarian, the reality is that my mental image of a Barbarian is almost never norse (I’m partial to desert & steppe nomads) and has a big chunk of Conan. It’s probably easy to swap out Rage in favor of something else, but I wish that were supported in setting.  ↩

  2. For those playing at home, Adventurer is levels 1–4, Champion = 5–7, Epic = 8–10. A lot of mechanics in the game trigger off their tiers, explicitly or implicitly. Also, kudos to the Glossary/Index – I was trying to remember if Adventurer was 1–4 or 1–5, and the answer was under the “Tiers” entry, the first place I looked.  ↩

  3. When I realized that the basic attack writeups supported more than the default stats (STR for melee, DEX for range), I was curious if this really allowed every class to get cool basic attacks. The answer is “no” – basically, the Dex based classes (bard, rogue & Ranger) have the option of using Dex for melee attacks. This may seem unfair, but I actually like it a lot. Previously, these are the classes that were basically obliged to buy a weapon finesse feat to be effective. Anytime an optional thing liek a feat becomes mandatory in practice, I am happy to see it moved to being the default.  ↩

  4. This references another undiscussed concept – flexible attacks – which has not yet been discussed yet. However, no points deducted for it since it’s called out with a page reference to the rules. Short form, a flexible attack is one which can be triggers after you roll, not before.  ↩

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.  ↩

Races of 13th Age

Ok, races.

So, in 13th Age, each race (Human, Dwarf, Dark Elf, High Elf, Wood Elf, Gnome, Half elf, Half orc & Halfling) has two associated stats (for Dwarves, it’s constitution and wisdom, for example) and you get to add a +2 to one of those stats. It’s a nice gimmick, but the chart of races reveals that you get some weird clustering that kind of breaks down as follows

Stat Number of Races*
Strength 1
Constitution 3
Dex 5
Intelligence 2
Wisdom 2
Charisma 3

*- Humans not counted in this, since one of their racial abilities is that they can pick any stat.

This feels like a much more legacy distribution than I expect it’s intended to be. Classically, A stat bonus in strength is so potent that it’s to be avoided, and only given to otherwise problematic races, like half-orcs. Between the changes to combat, the 3-stat defense model and the class-granted stat bonus, it feels like this should be is less of a concern than it used to be.

Of course, this is a very familiar distribution, so perhaps that accounts for it. As has been noted various times, the game goes out of its way to stay familiar to d20 players.

Mechanically, the races are pretty lightweight. They have the stat modifiers and one unique racial power and one unique feat which improves that power. The mechanics don’t always make sense at this point in the readthrough – this is the first time that reader is going to find mention of the escalation die[1], so feats which interact with it don’t make a lot of sense. Once you understand it, they come together just fine, but it’s another case where the structure of the text gets in the way of the content.[2]

These racial powers are the first window into how 13th age will be handling powers. Most of them are “Once per battle”, structurally similar to 4e’s encounter powers , with an exception for the wood elves who have a kind of fiddly ability to gain some extra actions over the course of a fight, and gnomes who have a minor illusion ability at will.

Beyond the mechanics, you get some color and description abotu the race in question. These are a little thin, with the exception of the elves, since the three elf races (dark, high and wood) are combined into one supersized entry.

The core races are all pretty much as you would expect, and steps have been taken to reinforce certain tropes (humans are super generalists, elves can buy a feat to make them better with swords) but not necessarily others (no intrinsic dual-wielding for dark elves or missile bonuses for halflings).

Most curious? No infravision. Not even mentioned in passing. Now, I’m totally good with this, but I can absolutely see it being a matter of some contention at particular tables.

There are also 4 “optional” races as well, differentiated mostly by having smaller descriptions and being called optional[3]. They are Aasimar, Dragonborn, Warforged (sorry, “forgeborn”, yay copyright) and Tieflings. Interestingly, the Tiefling and Aasimar writeups are sparse enough that they could easily be interpreted as their 2e/3e versions or their 4e version as desired. I am reasonably sure this is not a coincidence.

It’s a solid enough section, though it leans heavily on familiarity with D&D tropes to save itself reams of explanation. And it paves the way for the longest chapter in the book: Classes.

  1. I stopped to look this up when I hit this point, in case I had missed some earlier reference to the escalation die. it took a little bit of work to find the index, since there’s a lot of back matter in the book, but once I did, I found something very clever – the index is also the glossary, so the “Escalation die” entry had a page reference but also had a few sentences of explanation. I had not seen that done before, and it was pretty neat.  ↩
  2. The text actually avoids this issue with the half elf, whose ability can let him subtract 1 from the natural result of a roll. Without context, that seems like a nonsensical ability, but there’s a sidebar that basically says “Yes, we know this seems weird, but when you see how powers work, it will totally make sense. (And for the curious, it’s because some effects might trigger on an even or odd number – being abel to subtract 1 lets the half-elf change their even/odd outcome after the fact, which can be handy)  ↩
  3. The optional races totally change the stat skew, with 3 of them offering strength as a stat bonus option. This kind of reinforces my sense that the main distro is more about tradition than anything else.  ↩

13th Age Chargen

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[1], 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.[2]

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[3] 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.

  1. 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.  ↩
  2. 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.  ↩
  3. 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.  ↩

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.  ↩

Why Feats Fail Me

So, I started actually making up 13th Age characters the other day, just to get my hands dirty.  If nothing else, it’s a pleasantly fast and dirty job.  The skills and one unique thing end up being almost necessary though, because the rest of the mechanics are not quite so grippy.

Not saying they’re bad, but stats, class, talents and feats dont’ tell much of a story.  Some of that I’m ok with – Stats and class are kind of expected to be blandly interchangeable, and it’s overall a good thing that they are, since they’re kind of foundational.

Jury is still out on talents.  I like them mechanically, but I’m not yet sure if they say enough about how my fighter is different from your fights, especially if we can’t otherwise describe that difference in terms of differences in gear.

But feats…man, feats always break my heart.  I really want my feat selection tot ell me something unique and interesting about the character, and it doesn’t.

This is not 13th Age’s fault – this is a problem I’ve had with pretty much every incarnation of feats from 3e on.  And it’s a problem with two big roots.

First off, there’s something of a historical divide within feats that demands that they can have meaning in the setting or be mechanically potent, but not both.  There are a handful of exceptions, but by and large if a feat ties you into the setting, the reward is probably a (non-stackable) +2 to two skills.

There’s a good reason for this. The more mechanically desirable a feat is, the fewer constraints you want to put on it. So many different types of characters are going to want to use two weapon fighting that you don’t want to limit it in any way, so it’s built to be generic.[1]

Second, feats tend to be a little bit too small.  Feat _chains_ (usually 2 or 3 feats) often tell a story (even if that story is ‘I’m a two weapon fighter’) but a given feat usually just teases at what it could be.  Again, there’s a good reason for this – small rewards can come more frequently which is fun for players.

Intellectually, I acknowledge the good reasons for the way feats are, but they always result in some disappointment on my part.  I always want them to be a little bit more.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Lots of different ways. But that’s it’s own post, and one that may wait until we see the 13th Age SRD.

1 – Most exceptions to this are racial, and that’s true in 13th Age as well.  That’s a serious bit of D&D legacy which is, I think, almost habitual by now. It’s also a tacit acknowledgment that it’s hard to make races awesome and balanced at the same time, so a lot of racial awesome gets offloaded to feats.

Quick 13th Age thought

The obvious hack for 13th Age + Eberron is to make the 13 Dragonmarked houses into the icons.  Yeah, sure, you’ll want some feats for Dragonmarks[1], blah blah blah, but that’s the easy part.  I’m more curious what happens when you refocus Icons in this fashion.

The most self-evident change may be the least important. Yes, replacing the Icons as individuals with organizations removes the possibility of a personal relationship, but as I’ve noted before, Icons are also their organization, and that organization is the part players will usually interact with. With the switch to houses, that part remains the same.  Now, you’ll probably need to populate the houses in a way that interests your players (since names and faces are still critical) but that’s a good practice anyway.

What intrigues me is that in doing this you are explicitly *not* encompassing the world with the Icons.  The Dragonmarked houses are just one axis of the setting, and using them (rather than, say, the various kings and such) makes a statement about what kind of game this will be.  That is, it is a game that is going to center around the intrigues, conflicts and alliances of the great houses. The other setting elements still exist, but they will be encountered through this lens.

This fascinates me.  It takes the broad, kitchen sink nature of the average setting, and pare it down to a thematic core.  Want to use the setting again for a different type of game?  Use a different set of icons!

Now, there’s something similar that happens when you look solely at the subset of icons that players choose, and one might argue that you could offer any number of icons in a setting, then focus on using only the ones that players choose. This definitely makes for a strongly player-directed game, but I don’t like it quite as much as the great houses approach because it produces too clean a dataset.  There’s nothing thematically tying the players interests together, and there are no rough edges of things that are important to the game, but not personal to the players.

Why does that matter?  It provides a necessary contrast.  When a setting revolves too strongly around players, it can start to ring false.  One good safeguard against that is to make sure that the setting has elements that are important, but not personal to the PCs.  Not too many, of course, but enough to make the world feel alive.

Anyway, I keep thinking of other ways to apply the Icons model, and for some reason, Eberron popped into my mind today, and I figured I’d capture it.

1 – And while we’re at it, make them cool. Dragonmarks were always much more interesting as described than as mechanically implemented.

Iconic Examples

So, here are a few specific tricks you might want to consider to build an interesting Icon set:

The Icon Deck
One interesting thing about the existing 13 Icons is that they’re not hard to map to half of the greater arcana of the Tarot deck. Some of that is probably intentional, but it’s also almost inescapable because fortune-telling and iconic characters use the same kind of broad, recognizable strokes that it’s easy to map from one to the other.

So, given that, pick the method of your choice: Tarot Cards, Viking Runes, the I-Ching – whatever floats your boat, and assign the existing Icons to it.   Then, look at the unassigned elements, and start creating Icons based on those, using some of the guidelines I talked about yesterday (specifically, put some thought into the places each one suggests).  I like Tarot for this, but that’s just me.[1]

When you’re done, you’ll have more Icons than you can use, and that’s great.  Now pick 13 of them at random, and figure out what kind of world that creates.  Or if you want some collaboration, have each player pick one, then select the rest at random.  The idea is to create unexpected combinations and see if they ignite the spark of creation.

The Family
One of the first things that struck me about the Icons model was how easily it mapped to the Amber DRPG.  For the unfamiliar, characters in Amber are the children of the Princes and Princesses of Amber, all of whom are potent, iconic characters in their own right.  Amber is very nearly the definitive “characters as setting” game, since almost everything else outside the characters is subject to redefinition.  Now, while a lot of the strength of Zelazny’s character’s came from his ability to sketch with a few bold strokes, there’s nothing that says you can’t attempt to steal his thunder a bit. A game where the Icons are a fairly tightly knit group (like a family) can have a really strong interpersonal dynamic.

Curiously, with just a small tweak, this applies just as easily to supers.  It would not be hard to pick 13 Icons from DC or Marvel and use them as the basis for a game.  Obviously, which 13 you pick will say a lot about your game,  but that’s half the fun of it.

The Old Ones
When 3e came out, White Wolf released a very interesting setting called The Scarred Lands.  One of its core conceits was that the defeat of the Titans by the gods was not terribly long ago, and the dead or bound titans cast a huge shadow across the setting. For example, one’s heart had been ripped out and he’d been chained at the bottom of the sea. Because the wound bled constantly, that whole area of ocean was red with it, and tainted with his essence.

If you were to model this with Icons, you would have a very interesting arrangement because these Icons would explicitly not be active, but they would still have factions surrounding them (lingering worshippers, those tainted and so on).  What’s more, it would be a very lopsided set of icons, since the real story is how the world manages to move forward while still bearing the burden of these things.  By making them the icons (rather than making them SOME of the icons, but also putting icons at odds with them) then you make them central to play, but often in an unwelcome way.

Turned up a notch or two, this is also a great way to use Icons in a horror context.  If all the Icons in your game are Great Old Ones or Lords of Ravenloft, then it’s pretty clear the odds are stacked way the hell against you.  The bulk of play is in opposition to these forces, but the sheer scope of them means that maybe it’s worth risking a complicated (or even positive) relationship with a perceived “lesser evil” in order to fight on.

Hidden Icons
Suppose not all the Icons are known to the players at the outset of the game.  They will be revealed over time and as a result of events in play, and it’s expected that player’s relationships will change or evolve over time.   This is particularly useful for two sorts of game.

First, this is a great way to model a world in flux, such as is the case in the classic Dragonlance adventures.  The existing Icons are in a rough sort of stasis, but the introduction of new Icons throws everything into disarray.

Second, it’s a good way to model characters whose eyes are opened to a deeper, secret world, as is appropriate for many conspiracy or espionage focused games.

It should go without saying, but in both of these cases, players should know what’s up.  Even if they don’t know what new Icons wil be revealed (though many players can handled that out of character knowledge quite well) they should know what the GM has planned in broad strokes.  You’re trying to make for a cool experience, not trick the players.

One other subtrick for this – you can occasionally use a proxy icon when you have a mystery threat, where the apparent Icon is actually the servant of the Real Icon.  If one Icon is the main villain or threat of your game, this basically allows you to treat that icon as a procession of bosses, which might be cool, especially if you’re feeling kind of video-gamey. And speaking of which…

The Crew
So, I was thinking about Mass Effect, and what Icons I would use for that.  A few obvious ones jumped out – Harbinger, Hacket, The Shadow Broker, The Illusive Man, The Council and such, but I eventually petered out.  And that lead to the weird realization that I would probably round out the list with Garrus, Liara, Tali, Wrex and the others, and that suggested something weird.

It’s almost an inversion of the Old Ones model, but imagine if the Icons (or more aptly, Anchors) for your game were those people closest to you. It upends the relationship, putting the hero in the primary position, and making the Anchors primarily responsive/reactive.  It’s a really weird idea, unless you’ve played any Bioware RPGs, in which case you’re pretty comfortable with the idea that your relationships with the NPCs around you is one of the major avenues of play.

So, yeah, this is kind of a weird, one, and maybe not a great match, but I want to call it out because it has me thinking.


I may have one more 13th Age post in me. We’ll see after I’ve gotten some sleep.

1 – If you have a real dedication to this, using an Everway fortune deck would be three kinds of awesomesauce. 

Icons and Anchors

So, one fun thing to do with the Icons system from 13th Age is to start mapping it onto fiction and game settings you like.  I’ve done it several times, and I encounter an interesting pattern  – the first few Icons of any setting tend to be very easy to come up with, but somewhere before the half-dozen mark, I run out and start grasping at straws.

At first blush, this seems like a problem with the model and that maybe 13 Icons is too many, but I suspect there’s a bit of a trick to that:  if, say, 3-4 is the “normal” number of Icon-equivalents in fictions, then each character has enough for their own story to be complete, and there’s a big enough pool to make sure that every player has a distinct combination.[1]  Still, even with that in mind, I found myself bumping against a limit in using the Icons model for certain sorts of setting, but still wanting to use the model.

See, the thing that sets the Icons model apart from other approaches is the implicit importance of the Icons.  As I noted yesterday, they’re definitive of the setting, and they have implicit infrastructure surrounding them which the characters hook into. Icon creation _is_ setting creation, and that’s really awesome.

But it’s big.  And while big and sweeping can totally rock at times, sometimes you want a little bit less scope, and in such a case, I would use Anchors.[2]  That is to say, suppose that rather than picking 13 people who defined the world, you simply picked 13 people?  The connection to them does not necessarily bring with it great scope, but it does open the doors to more personal connections.  If one of the 13 is your mom, but also someone else’s romantic conquest, then you have a dynamic right there.

Anchors also work if you want to take the Icons idea down to a smaller scale – the idea that I am perhaps most excited to do is to use the model to build a single city.  Rather than being the movers and shakers of the world, consider the important folks of the city: Merchants, crime bosses, mayors and mercenaries. Like Icons, they create implicit infrastructure and put faces on the factions of the city (sooooooper important) but they do so on a much smaller scale.

Now, functionally, isn’t that the same as Icons?  Yes, kind of, but the issue of scale is not entirely sleight of hand.  Icons are more or less untouchable – impacting or changing them redefines the game.  Anchors are closer to the ground (and, well, a bit less iconic) and while they may be powerful or important, they’re not untouchable.  They also may or may not be essential to their faction.  If an Icon dies, it should devastate the group it represents.  If an anchor dies (depending on circumstances) they may simply be replaced.

Hell, you can mix and match if you want – If you ran a Waterdeep game with 12 Anchors and 1 Icon (say, Khelben Blackstaff), it could work fine so long as the icon is at rough parity within the scope of Waterdeep (this model probably applies to most of the Forgotten Realms, as I think about it).

Also, it’s not necessary that the anchors be even locally powerful.  All that really matters is that they be tied into the story/setting at hand.  Hell, there’s no reason you could not use Anchors as the basis for adventure design, depending on much more disposable relationships and characters.

So, this is me shamelessly stealing the ease-of-explanation of the Icons model to use it for some other approaches to setting and adventure design I dig.  It’s not the only hack the model supports, but it’s definitely the first one in my mind.  And tomorrow, we’ll start breaking out some more concrete hacks.

1- If they want to. One obvious bit of game setup foo is, of course, the question of overlapping Icons. I suspect the number of overlapping Icons has a very concrete impact on a game, and mandating certain connections (like, each player must have 1 Icon in common) can build certain types of relationships and games (much the same way you could, in 3e, have everyone have 1 level of the same class to represent some common background)

2 – Yeah, there’s hubris in naming it, but it makes it easier to talk about.