Tag Archives: 13th Age

Divinity in the Eternal Kingdom

ankhOk, this Eternal Icons thing is continuing to buzz in my brain, so I’ve started up some further notes on chargen and play.

It is Known

Characters get two more points for backgrounds, but they must take a reputation at at least +2. Effectively, this is what the other characters (and others) know about the character. It should be true, but if it’s false, then it will be important to communicate the way in which it’s false to the table for reasons which are about to become obvious.

In game, this is a nice hook, but there’s also a meta-purpose for this – it is effectively the summation of the character to be used when bringing players in and out. It is, effectively, a resume. When the player roster shifts, this should say enough about the incoming character to spot any red flags for having the character fit in.

Some tables might want to use classic alignments in this fashion (alignment makes an interesting background[1]) since in many ways it serves a similar purpose. But the bottom line is that it’s a quick sniff test for concept compatibility with a small mechanical hook.

The Divine

The Eternal Kingdom has an official church, rife with ceremony, iconography and appropriate profanity. It is also largely a puppet of the crown, having historically served as a rubber stamp for the King. In his absence, its role may evolve, but that is a matter for your table. In any case, clerics, paladins and the like may absolutely hail from this faith.

It is, however, not the only option. The universe is absolutely littered with gods, ranging from tiny local deities to mighty pantheons. That they exist is not much of a matter of debate, but they are considered rather provincial by the natives of the Eternal Kingdom. Gods tend to be very powerful within their domain, but those domains are usually limited to a single world, and even then, all but the mightiest of them are overshadowed by the Eternal Scions.

Further, gods have a bad habit of thinking themselves the center of the universe, something that doesn’t sit well when the actual center of the universe comes over and punches you in the kidneys. As such, many gods never even try to explore the worlds beyond their own. But there are always exceptions – some travel the worlds for reasons of their own, others seek to spread their influence (always a dicey proposition). Some adapt to their place as small fish in a bigger pond quite adeptly, and there’s a not-insignificant population of gods in the Golden City itself (in both temples and taverns).

Part of this is complicated further by the fact that the line between a god and a being of power is almost entirely ephemeral. One reason that gods are viewed as provincial in the Golden City is that beings of power are so common there that claims of godhood just seem to be putting on airs.

Mind you, there have been gods of sufficient power and scope to demand the attention of the Eternal Kingdom. Many of the stories of the kingdom’s founding include tales of the King casting down and binding various gods, forcing them to bend knee to him. While the details have evolved into legend, this is still an occasional concern, and at time the Eternal Scions have ventured forth to remind a divinity of its place. Of course, as tensions rise within the kingdom, some of these beings may be reconsidering their ambitions.

The Nature of Gods

There is no one answer for what gods are and how they work. Any and all of the possibilities below may be true for some or all gods.

Things that might be true:

  • Gods need power from worshipers, with more powerful gods often being more dependent on that worship while more minor gods can get by without it.
  • Worshippers do not give a god power so much as reach. Expanding worship of a god to a new world can eventually expand that god’s power to encompass that domain.
  • Agents allow a god to act beyond its domain far more effectively than direct action.
  • The power of a god is usually tied to a particular place or set of places (Such as a world, or the local cosmology of a world). Within that domain they may be immensely powerful, but outside of it, their power is greatly diminished.
  • This is a reason that expanding domains is a real motivator for some Gods.
  • Having a foothold in the Eternal Kingdom resonates into power for a god out in the Infinite Worlds, so they are invested in establishing temples, even small ones, in the Golden City and driving traffic to them.
  • This is also the reason that Eternal Scions terrify the Gods, because they are capable of destroying entire worlds. Intractable gods have simply seen their homeworlds split asunder by the passing of a Scion.
  • Gods are not unique in being powerful, but in their ability to share their power through agents. That power is usually drawn from their domains, so the gods personal power may or may not reflect on the power it offers
  • There is nothing that differentiates gods from any other being of power, except the label.

Divine Heroes

Ok, so what does all this mean for clerics? It largely depends on what you want. If, as a player, you just want to serve a remote, abstract power, then you can totally do it. Come up with the name of your god, some trappings, maybe a story of why you’re out in the infinite worlds, and you’re good to go.

But the nature of the Eternal Kingdom allows for another option – in the Eternal Kingdom, there is no reason that gods need to be remote. From a certain perspective, they’re just administrators looking to franchise. It suggests a very different relationship when a cleric needs to drag her god home after a night spent at a dive bar, or when a mercenary paladin is willing to smite in the name of the highest divine bidder. In short, a god may be similar to a patron, with a direct, personal relationship with its cleric, and an agenda to promote.[2]

There’s not a lot of mechanical implications to this, but it’s rich material to draw on one when crafting background or one unique thing.[3] The GM will probably also want to decide which Icons have sway over the God, though this may well be secret.

Divine Villains

This matter-of-fact divinity means that the machinations of gods very easily translate into plots and agendas.  Cults are not abstractly evil – they serve specific gods with specific plans, abilities and goals.   Gods are, by their nature, power brokers, so it’s easy for them to have their hands in many places.

Gods also make good villains because their power (and threat level) makes them dangerous but still likely to act through agents.

Divine Bargains

It is totally worth stealing the “Roll of the Gods”  rules from Questers of the Middle Realms, but in the absence of that, follow the general idea that Gods offer power in return for it being used in their name.  Exactly what they gain from the use (power, influence, weakening barriers, whatever) may be a mystery, but the transaction is very straightforward.   For players, this might be basis for interesting backgrounds, but this idea is more important for explaining NPC motives and powers.

Gods of Darkness and Chaos

Cthulhu doesn’t have anything going for him over other gods besides very good PR.  There are absolutely dark, horrible, sinister gods who would seek to tear apart reality if they could. Thankfully, their influence tends to be limited because they don’t really have a lot to offer to prospective worshippers.  Existential threats that reveal the universe is small and uncaring become much less scary when you jump up the scale a step.  That said, these dark gods can still be a real threat, especially among the Infinite Worlds.

More dangerous are those gods who actively seek to subvert the Eternal Kingdom.  There is something of a loose cabal of divinities who seek to change the status quo throughout the infinite worlds.  Their motives are diverse, but they largely offer their followers a vision of something different and better.   However, they must act with care – overtly working against the Eternal Kingdom tends to end poorly, but secrecy pairs poorly with worship.

A few gods exist in realms so far removed from the Eternal Kingdom that they can act openly, but their distance also makes any action difficult.  For most of the gods of chaos (as they are sometimes called) secrecy is maintained by the assumption of mantles, effectively divine aliases.  There is no “Burion, Lord of Abandon”, only a guise taken on by one or more gods.

Were this not such a secret, then some might wonder how exactly they have managed to maintain their divine connection through the mantle, and one might wonder if there is something about these specific mantles that might make them more than mere theatre.  But there is no one in a position to ask that question.

Except, of course, for the Icon who provided them.




  1. Especially for a game that leans more planescape-y. Huh. Will have to remember that.  ↩
  2. By extension, this relationship also tends to illustrate why the god needs the cleric as much as the cleric needs to the god.  ↩
  3. In fact, there’s no reason a character might actually BE a god. It doesn’t help much from day to day, but it may mean they have a place of power out among the worlds. Or perhaps they don’t any more.  ↩

My Pickup Play and a 13th Age Trick

Spirit of the Century was created to solve a specific problem – we had a lot of gamers with terrible schedules, so we wanted to facilitate pickup play. So we did a huge chargen session one afternoon, and every game after that was based on who could show up. The baseline model of SOTC (fairly static, highly competent characters in a loose, well-connected organization) was literally custom made for that style of play.

I find myself in a similar position once again, and I’ve been thinking about other ways to solve that same problem. How do you run a satisfying ongoing game with an unpredictably rotating cast?

One answer for this that I’ve chewed on is the Babylon 5/Deep Space 9 model – the game that takes place in a hub where things come too. Expanded, this could just as easily be the model of a city campaign, but the lack of focus in a city is a double edged sword. It might work, but thinking about it revealed to me an interesting 13th Age trick.

One essential element of the B5/DS9 model is that everyone there represents someone else, usually their race/culture in a diplomatic sense, but the idea can be extrapolated. This makes for interesting political play with players as movers and shakers, but also introduces certain structural limits on interaction – players will never truly be on the “same side” (unless they all start on that side, which is a whole other thing).

So I was thinking about how you handle unaffiliated characters in such a setting, and why they might matter, and the simplest reason is that they’re not beholden to anyone. Their actions do not speak for any larger group, and their loyalties are not predictably aligned. They might be associated with a group, but they are not of it.

And this lead to a curious way to think about 13th Age’s Icons. By default, the assumption is that characters are made more interesting because they’re connected to Icons, but what if they’re interesting because they’re connected to multiple icons. That is, what if the default assumption in the setting was that everyone (or nearly everyone) is connected to a single icon.

This has both a subtle and profound impact on the setting. It’s not going to change a lot of day to day behaviors of the people you interact with – they don’t put on uniforms and declare their allegiance to the icon in song.[1] But it makes the expressions of the relationship dice ubiquitous and concrete, because they’re the foundation that people stand on[2].

In this situation, the conflicts of the great powers are predictable and slow, but the people who are not bound to one power or another are unpredictable, valuable and fearsome. They will be under pressure to “come into the fold” of one power or another, but the fact that they do not simply fold to that pressure is part of what makes them so valuable. Icon relationships are a fantastic mechanical way to represent exactly this dynamic.

(alternately, if you do a movers and shakers game, then it’s a great Primary/Secondary relationship model. We all serve the Dragon Emperor (primary) but have different secondary relationships)


So, I may go in that direction. If I do, I may also go with fewer Icons. Another cool thing about the Icons model is that the number that matter to your group will always be a subset of the full load, so it simplifies bookkeeping to a more mind-friendly number (say, 7ish)[3]. In a broad pickup game, there are enough characters total that all available icons will probably see use, which makes individual sessions harder to manage.

Not 100% settled on this model as what I want to run, but whatever I end up with, this will certainly inform my thinking.

  1. Unless it’s Gilbert & Sullivan 13th Age, which would be awesome.  ↩
  2. This includes oppositional definition. The rebel group dedicated to the overthrow of the Dragon Emperor is defined in terms of the Dragon Emperor, but the shadowy secret organization striking down the empire from within may be defined in terms of the Prince of Shadows. Small, but critical difference.  ↩
  3. This, BTW, speaks to a problem and opportunity in 13th Age adventures. Done right, they will hinge off the Icons, but there’s no guarantee that those icons will sync to the icons that matter in your game. But fortunately, that is very easily communicated – slap the impacted icons on the cover of an adventure and, bam, everyone knows if it will work for them.  ↩

13th Age – Conclusion

Whew. I am afraid to even check to see how much word count has gone into this walkthrough. But for those who really want it all in one place:

Also prior to this readthrough, I wrote a few other things including

And if you just want it all in one place, I’ve used the 13thAge category.

So, if you’ve gotten through any number of those, you have probably come away with two recurring points:

  1. I really like this game
  2. I am frequently frustrated with this book

There is an apparent contradiction between those points. Usually, if the book itself is a problem, then it is rare that you get at the “nut” of the game well enough to decide if you like it or not. And, frankly, it is definitely circumstantial that I dodged that bullet, as I also read some of the playtest drafts and played in some pre-release games.

I’m going to nerd out on the book for a bit, and this is probably going to be my strongest criticism of the game, so I want to frame it with an important qualifier – despite the criticisms I am about to level, I still genuinely think this is a great game, brilliant in parts, and well worth the time and interest of anyone who has ever had fun in the 3e and 4e space. You will find it comfortingly familiar on the surface but delightfully different in its details. More, if you are a rules-enthusiast or designer, I doubly endorse picking this up. There is some seriously state of the art technology in 13th Age, and it’s going to be a hugely influential book.

So with all that out of the way, I will say that all of the reasons that I think this is a great game make the issues with the text all the more frustrating.

The textual issues really come in to categories – one is a design decision which, while frustrating, is defensible. The other is more of a muddle.

The first issue revolved around the question of the role of d20 in the game. Making a d20 based game[1] makes sense on paper – it’s got an existing fanbase, and it is nominally to the designers strengths (given their roles in 3e and 4e). Yet at times it feels tacked on – the changes made, especially in combat, were drastic, and the most important and exciting parts of the system (One Unique Thing, Backgrounds and Icon Relationships) really have nothing to do with d20. Reading the book, it’s hard to shake the sense that it really wanted to be its own system, but they stuck with the familiar d20 framework to keep the game familiar. It would be easy to get all artiste-y and denounce the crash commercialism of such a decision, but that would be a load of crap. If they wanted it to be d20, more power to them, and if they only did it reach an audience, then more power to them for that too. It’s frustrating, but ultimately reasonable.

It does, however, lead into the second and more substantial problem. The book makes a lot of assumptions. A lot. Many of them are tied to the d20 thing, and the book is basically designed to be read by someone who already knows D&D/Pathfinder. Whether that’s a lazy decision or a canny one is yet to be determined, but the fact that it’s not explicitly called out in the text is a strike against.

If it was just that, I could just treat it as an extension of the d20 decision, but it’s symptomatic of a pattern in the text that it’s largely written for a reader who already knows what they’re talking about. This applies to D&D tropes, but also to new ideas. Opening the book with the icons make sense if you realize they’re one of the most exciting thing about the game, but if you don’t know that going in, they’re a weird opener.

I am sympathetic to this problem because it’s one that every writer runs into, and it’s one of those pernicious problems that is often worse for more accomplished writers. As human beings, it is VERY hard to see past our own blind spots, and if something makes sense to us, we will apply that reasoning to an explanation of the thing in such a way that it feels complete to us, even if the actual explanation was incomplete. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I admit I totally fell into it. My first time through the book, I totally just breezed through the stuff I already knew, and did not even stop to really look at what was actually being said. it was only upon consciously slowing down for a deep dive that this pattern emerged.

I don’t bring this up to bust on 13th Age. As noted, it’s a great game. But take the lesson – even a great game by a great design team can fall into this trap. You can too.

Specifically, you can do this by making sure that at least one editor is not someone with system familiarity (or at least is not a contributor). This is not a reflection on the abilities of your editor, but rather an extension of the idea that the hardest person to edit is yourself. If you know how the system works, then you are a poor judge of how the system is explained.

Ok, so if you’ve survived my book nerdery, you probably deserve a little positive feedback, so let me back up some of what I’ve said about this game being awesome.

There are several obvious reasons why 13th Age is pretty cool. Icons, Backgrounds and one unique thing are all mechanically clever, and they’re probably the most obvious things. However, there’s a lot of small-seeming but potent improvements under the hood – scaling damage, miss damage, flexible attacks, scriptable monsters and things like that are real, substantial improvements which are a large part of why it is both accurate but insufficient to say this is the best of 3e and 4e combined.

Those elements would all make this a noteworthy game, but what makes it an exceptional game is that the obvious benefits obscure even deeper benefits. That is, you can play 13th Age straight up, and it will work very well, but if you really dig into the things the tools allow, then it will open up the world. Specifically, 13th Age has provides a set of scalpels in places where players would usually get hammers.

I’m a big fan of very free-form, open ended games (like Fate, obviously) and if looked at from that perspective, 13th Age still seems restrictive. Sure, there are token bits of player authorship in the one unique thing, but that’s such a small subset of material that it hardly counts. That is, however, the wrong way to look at it.

One issue you will run into with open ended games is that some players will be daunted by them – not because the players are uncreative, but because they are facing a blank page[2] or because it’s just more work than they want to do. 13th Age addresses that by saying “no, you don’t need to do all that, just these few things over here, and more, these things are designed in such a way that if you don’t want to help shape the game, you don’t have to.” That is smart, powerful and liberating. It removes the necessity to “perform” while still providing the tools for when the player chooses to engage. And, importantly, the text does not stigmatize either approach.[3]

This is not a unique thing – there have been other games that have given players specific avenues of contribution to the game which gave them influence in proportion to their interest in doing so. My first exposure to this was with the Amber DRPG’s contributions, and other games have done similar things since. However, I cannot think of another game that so effectively puts it right in the path of the gaming mainstream without making it “weird”. That’s a huge accomplishment.

I feel like Icons are almost as big an accomplishment on the GM side. I talk a lot about how adventure and setting design don’t get the same rigorous attention that rules do, so I’m always impressed when someone moves those technologies forward. Icons are absolutely some super useful setting technology. They’re a great lens to build a solid setting in fewer strokes than usual. Icons are a bit more muddled though – not to say they’re not great, but I think we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg with them. I think there are years of new ideas and best practices awaiting us in this space.

All of which is a long way to come back to the point at the beginning of this post. The book frustrated me, but I love the game.

  1. Technically you don’t call it that because the d20 license was actually a different license than the 3.x OGL, but at this point I think we all know what we mean.  ↩
  2. And if you think blank page paralysis correlates to a lack of creativity, then you probably should talk to more people who experience it. The problem is not no ideas, it’s too many of them.  ↩
  3. This is, I should add, why I’m more sympathetic to the content problems than I would be in another game. They choose to walk a very hard hybrid path, and there’s no obvious right way to do a lot of what they set out to accomplish.  ↩

13th Age – The Magic Item At The End Of The Book

Been running slow due to work, but let’s see if we can wrap this bad boy up.

Magic items – on the surface, this is a very straightforward chapter. Not that the magic items themselves aren’t interesting (they are, to varying degrees) but structurally they’re very predictable. You have one shot items (potions, oils and runes) and then “real” magic items. There’s some fictional handwaving about “chakras” to basically address that this is ultimately a slot system, familiar to MMO and 4e players everywhere (though in fairness, slots are just an explicit version of implicit rules that have been around forever. A magic item has a bonus based on its tier (usually +1-+3) which usually applies to something based on its slot (Waist increases number of recoveries recoveries, headgear increases mental defense). It will also have some sort of keyworded additional capability (Armor of Stone Flesh applies its bonus to PD, a Bloodthirsty weapon does extra damage after a crit). There are exceptions for things like rings, gloves and miscellaneous items, but that’s the general shape of it.

Structurally, it’s kind of bloodless, but the actual abilities are kind of colorful which offsets that some. But more important than color is the question – given the similarities to 4e, does slot-driven, item-powers model run the same dangers that 4e encountered with magic items effectively being their own minigame and chargen?

Yes and no.

A key premise of magic item sin 13th Age is that they really are magical, rare and special. Most fantasy RPGs say this right before they start handing out enchanted swords n cereal boxes, but we’ll take it on good faith for 13th Age. They try to back it up with a few mechanics – as noted, every magic item has some distinctive power, so there’s no “generic” +2 sword, which is nice. But more importantly, every magic item has a personality in a very literal sense. In the spirit of D&D’s old intelligent swords, every magic item wants something and has some sort of behavior quirk.

This is colorful, but it also plays into the item creep rules. Basically, if you have a number of slotted items[1] equal to your level or less, then you’re fine. Your item quirks might be annoying or RP-hooky, but you’re in control. If you have more items than that (with higher tier items counting extra) then the inmates are running the prison, and you are now getting jerked around by the cacophony of quirks.

I like this model, but with reservations. The idea makes sense – scale magic items with level, so that it’s not really a bookkeeping concern until you’re high enough level that it maybe feels right. Yes, a level 10 character has 10 items to keep track of[2], and that still seems excessive, but I acknowledge it could be worse.

I worry a little more about the enforcement mechanism. There is (as a sidebar notes) a category of player who is going to respond to the idea that too many magic items means they’re obliged to play a lot of crazy random quirks with attention-seeking enthusiasm. The suggested method of dealing with this – letting them die – is probably not as practical as all that. If you don’t have any players who fall into this, then the limiter is probably fine, but if you do, you might want to consider a different set of teeth (like, magic items don’t get along, and it takes a strong personality to keep them in line – if you have too many, you can’t do so, and they bicker and sulk. Once you use an item in a scene, none of your other items work for the duration).

In the end, I dunno – this chapter feels kind of obligatory. 13th Age characters feel powerful and competent in and of themselves, and if there were not d20 trappings to deal with, I might have suggested a more Earthdawn-y system with fewer items that are more important to the character. But if they must do a 3e/4e magic item system, this is a pretty good version of that, alternately detailed and fast and loose in the right places.

Son long as we’re here, let’s wrap up. There’s an adventure which follows, and I’m not going to talk too much about it because I am largely indifferent to adventures in core books. However, I did look through it to see how the encounters were structured.

It is noteworthy how loosely it is constructed, with large elements of the plot able to be swapped out based on which icon the GM wants to hook into. As an extension of this, the adventure is explicitly structured as “one likely path” through the events of the adventure. Effectively it’s composed of a setup, 4 scenes (fight, social, investigate, fight) and an aftermath. The fact that the scenes could be mixed around seems mostly hypothetical (though they can probably be skipped). The setup, however, is an interesting bit since it speaks directly to things to be done with success on relationship rolls.

I am curious as to people’s experience with the adventure, since there seems to be a weird cadence to the climax. It actually has two big fights (and an expectation that characters level up between the two fights, which is nice to see explicitly addressed), but as the situation is described, it seems like the fights would happen in reverse order form how they’re presented. There’s also a little bit of shameless GM force in there, for better or for worse.

The rest of the book is Appendices and indexes. I’ve noted before, but will reiterate – combining the index and the glossary is super clever. There’s also a sub-index of things that relate to the icons, which is something I could see getting some practical use out of when brainstorming on how to handle Icon actions. We get the OGL (though I’m unclear if any new art in 13th Age is itself getting opened up) and wrap up useful reference charts – Icon summaries, conditions, skill check DCs and so on.

It is, I should take this moment to note, a lovely book. It is very clear that a lot of thought and care went into the layout and art direction, and that shines through.

And that’s the book. Stayed tuned tomorrow (I hope) where we see about a bit of wrap up.

  1. I am not 100% clear how things like books and ammunition are treated in this regard. They don’t have slots per se, but they’re not explicitly miscellaneous either. Ammo doesn’t have quirks, but books do.  ↩

  2. It is theoretically possible that someone will carry less than their maximum number of magic items but….I doubt it.  ↩

13th Age – Setting

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 10.00.59 AMOk, the setting chapter. I probably read this one more thoroughly than any other one, simply for my own entertainment, which has lead me to conclude that it’s ok.

Not really knocking you over with praise here, so let me back up a minute.

There are lots of ways to write a setting, but there are three big ones[1] that I would call out as the most common.

The first is the comprehensive setting, usually written in an atlas and encyclopedia style, as if the place in question was real, and the purpose of the game was to document it thoroughly. This is the classic setting book (or, with less detail, gazetteer) and it’s a very hit or miss proposition. If well written, it can be a fun read, but the structure itself offers no real help when it comes to play. It’s frustrating to use unless you enjoy the setting mastery element of play, where it all comes together once you’ve stuffed it into your head.

The second is the dynamic setting, which is sparser on details, but what details there are are strongly connected to the other details in the setting, so there is a focus on a coherent whole. A lot of these are faction or personality driven settings, where the interactions of those groups drive play[2] and at first blush this would seem like a natural fit for 13th Age, but it’s not. It depends too strongly on defining elements (like motives and desires) which 13th Age explicitly leaves open ended.

The last is the fun bucket, which is probably the most game-focused of the three. It forgoes details and dynamics in favor of easily accessible content. In effect, it offers setting as a loose container of playable material on the basis that any backend disconnects can either be ignored, handwaved or backfilled.

13th Age falls firmly into the third category, and I must admit that it is not a category that is entirely to my taste, so there is absolutely some bias there. But there’s a bit more going on.

So, first and foremost, I want to call out that the the setting chapter is a fun read. Lots of interesting, gameable elements. It’s all very loosely sketched (and in the case of Starport, not even that) and any given element can easily be seized upon to do kind of interesting things. That’s fun, but doing that requires walking a pretty fine line between accessibility and detail, and 13th age definitely runs thin on the detail. Yes, the theory is that this is all stuff for you to fill in for your own campaign, but a GM can also do that from scratch – the setting needs to bring enough to the table to be a useful part of the conversation. In some places (especially places with clear and obvious overlap with the icons) it does the job. In other places there is not much more than a name and perhaps a gimmick.

So it works in bits and pieces, but it’s hard to take as a whole, for several reasons.

One issues if that this is a weird world. In some ways really, really weird. The Sea has opinions. Dungeons are actually giant living creatures swimming up from the depths. Clouds are solid. Kaiju emerge from the ocean with such regularity that hundreds of miles of walls have been erected to stop them. Portals to hell dot the landscape, including one the size of the grand canyon, not to far from the petrified face of a demon lord pushing his way out of the ground who is large enough that you can see his features on the map.

It’s all presented in a very generic fantasy tone, but this is actually a pretty freaking gonzo setting. And the reasoning is clear – the setting is largely designed as a dungeon delivery mechanism. Most of the weirder decisions are in support of one classic D&D trope or another – weird dungeons, floating dungeons, abstract dungeons, hellscape dungeons – it’s all in there. And if what you really want is a setting where you get to have lots of dungeon crawls without feeling like they’re out of place, this totally delivers. But if not, it’s going to be a bit weird.

The setting also stumbles a bit in communicating scale. At times, the setting feels very large, and at others it seems fairly insular[3], which has a weird effect regarding the nature and role of the icons. As written, the actual setting chapter ends up making the icons feel like the more traditional elminster-style NPCs that would be kind of off-putting. Similarly, the setting also seems very static. Events of a few centuries ago are still “new”, and it seems that things are basically as they have always been.

Now, are these problems? It depends on what you want out of the setting. All these concerns about scale and tone can be dismissed by simply pointing out that the purpose of the setting is to drive play towards the next adventure, and the rest is just details. But if the setting is something you want to give those adventures context outside of themselves, then it’s a bit more complicated.

It should be obvious by now that I’m in the latter camp. I found it a fun setting to read, but the seams were simply far too visible for it really grab me, and the necessity of leaving the Icons undetailed ended up making them seem almost cartoonishly simple. Worse, because that’s true across the board, I feel like trying to fix it for my own campaign would create a vast cascade of “well, now THIS doesn’t make any sense” and that leaves me more inclined to just start from scratch.

But that’s me, and hopefully I’ve elaborated why well enough that you can look and say “well, that stuff doesn’t bother me” and know what will work for you.

  1. As with all such categorizations, these are neither comprehensive nor uniform. Most actual setting draw something from each column, and the categories are really more about the general tendency of the setting than any kind of straightjacket.  ↩
  2. Though the dynamic focus maybe something else, perhaps even an adventure, in the case of the Savage Worlds Plot Point books, which are brilliant. This is also a good model for “real world” games, where there’s no need to restate a lot of the “setting material”.  ↩
  3. Per the map scale, it’s bigger than a european country but smaller than Europe. For context. the Midlands sea seems to be about the same size as The Black Sea.  ↩

Combat in 13th Age

Ye gods, after all those classes I’m not even sure how to read the rest of the book, but I’ll give it a go.

The next section is the Combat rules, and it’s a tricky read. Not because it’s particularly complicated, but because it’s easy to overlook the interesting bits as my eyes glaze over in the face of stuff I’ve read a bazillion times before. Now, to make it clear, this is not a strike against the game – it is good that they have all the rules here, especially since I’ve dinged it for incompleteness elsewhere. This is just one of those sad consequences of d20’s ubiquity.

At it’s heart, the combat rules are vanilla d20[1] with relative positioning. That is, rather than using a grid, things are described in terms of their relative position to one another. So if two people are in a fight, they are engaged while the third person whose close enough to engage but hasn’t yet is nearby and the guy with the bow over there is far away.

While the terminology changes, this is a very common approach to going fast and loose with play. It’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that it is best suited to being a way to eyeball the interaction of miniatures[2]. This is because the model gets sketchy in complicated fights where there are multiple engagements or multiple groups attacking at range, and the question comes up of how close those groups are to one another. Similarly, it gets odd with specific geography – if lava is rising to fill half the room, which half are people on?

This is not to say it requires minis. Most fights – especially the common model of “Party vs. dungeon monster” – will run just fine without reference material, but it’s useful to understand the limits of the model so you know when you need some extra tools. There’s probably no better example for this than disengagement and intercept rules, which need to spend a chunk of explanation on the relatively intuitive idea that “no, you can’t run right past the guy with the sword to hit the guy in the robes”.

Ok, with that baseline out of the way, how is combat different in 13th Age?

A few of the differences are things we’ve seen already – weapon damage increases with levels, most attacks do some damage on a miss and so on. Crits do double damage on a 20, and some effects can expand “crit range”. Flexible attacks allow effects after an attack roll is resolved. All cool stuff.

There are also some elements from 4e pulled into the system, most notably the idea of someone being staggered (at 50% HP or less, the equivalent of 4e’s bloodied). It has a similar list of conditions (Confused, Dazed etc.), albeit a little shorter than the 4e one. Saving throws have moved over to the 4e model of 11+ for everything, made every round. It’s expanded a bit to encompass easy (6+) and hard (16+) saves, but the core idea is still the same. Whether you like that or not will probably depend on how you liked it in 4e. To me, it feels like a good match for 13th Age’s cadence of combat, but that’s a taste judgement. If nothing else, I do like that they’ve incorporated the idea more fully into other mechanics.

One very clever idea pulled forward from 4e is the equivalent to 4e’s Second Wind in the form of Rallying, allowing a character to us an action to use a Recovery.

Recoveries seem like a nice evolution on the healing rules in 4e. Characters get a number of recoveries (probably 8 or 9) and when a character uses a recovery, she rolls XdY + CON dice to regain that many hit points. X is based on level, while Y is based on class (with tougher classes using bigger dice) , so a level 4 Barbarian with a +4 CON modifier recovers 4d10+4 hit points.[3] This is a bit more nuanced than 4e’s healing surge, but it still has the same structural use (like letting minor healing spells allow someone to spend a recovery rather than produce HP from the ether). I particularly like that the rallying action can be taken more than once per fight (though it requires a save to do it after the first time).

Rest and recharging abilities also follows the 4e model, with the idea of a “Quick Rest” and a “Full Heal Up”, which basically equate to a short and long rest. While these were a bit contentious in 4e, as they introduced scene based thinking into what was historically tactical timekeeping, they fit very well into the sensibilities of 13th Age.

The quick rest section has some rules about recharging powers which, in addition to showcasing the snarkiest exchange between the designers, reveals a subtle but awesome thing about recharge powers. If you fail to recharge a power, then it’s not used up for the day, it’s simply used up for the next battle. This is a small thing that I would have totally overlooked if it weren’t for the designer dialog[4] in the text, but I like it. It’s a fun, generous rule, and helps remove the fear of using up powers.

Some of the one-off rules are clever. Unarmed combat does 1d6 damage per two levels, which seemed weird until I realized that it was a way for them to have it (effectively) do half damage without requiring division – always a win.[5] Similarly the two-weapon fighting rules are wonderfully understated – if you’re fighting with two weapons and you miss on a 2, you can reroll the attack. This is a small but real bonus (it’s worth about +.5) but not nearly as overwhelming as the usual extra attacks that two weapons provide. Plus, as a rule of 2, it’s elegant and easy to remember (and as Ash Law commented on my fighter post, it makes it very easy to extrapolate up for monsters with multiple arms).

One fun rule that I worry might be less fun in practice, is the “Fight in Spirit” rule. The idea is fantastic. If your character is not in the fight (for whatever reason) then you still get to act. In lieu of an action, you instead add a bit of colorful backstory or flashback about ways in which you have helped other party members, and you hand out a bonus that lasts a round or two. If I have not emphasized it strongly enough, the underlying idea is brilliant, and I absolutely want to steal it for other things[6] but I worry that the implementation as written could wear thin pretty quickly if its use is anything but rare.

The rules for modifiers are straightforward enough, and boil down the the expressed sentiment of “Don’t sweat modifiers”. If you remember the advice in the 3e PHB[7] fondly, then this will work for you. It’s funny because as I read these rules, it’s clear the writers have as much d20 fatigue as I do, and several sections could very much be marked “RULES WE ARE INCLUDING BECAUSE SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE THINKS THIS IS IMPORTANT THOUGH PERSONALLY WE REALLY DON’T GIVE A CRAP ABOUT”. Best example is the obligatory grappling rules, about which I can only say that they are handled about as well as they could possibly be in the context of d20.

There are other bits made interesting only by designer commentary (resistances and situational weapon use, notably) but that’s the heart of it.

Well, except one thing.

So, this is the chapter where the escalation die finally gets explained, and thank goodness for that.

Mechanically, the escalation die is pretty simple – at the end of the first round (technically, the start of the second round) of a fight, put out a D6 showing a 1. At the start of each subsequent round, increment the die by one (until it gets to 6 – just leave it there then). The number showing on the die is added to all of the player’s attack rolls.

Like the icon relationships, the mechanical simplicity of this rule obscures its profound impact. In and of itself, this is a potent pacing mechanism that serves three purposes.

First, it speeds up fights – the longer a fight goes, the less whiffing you’re going to see, so the sooner it ends.

Second, it makes the arc of hard fights move in favor of the players in a satisfying manner. That is, if a fight starts out very hard, the fact that the players are getting this incremental bonus means they will be doing better later in the fight, making it more likely that they’ll achieve a “Die Hard” sort of victory – bleeding and battered, but still standing. This is awesome.

Third, it encourages the use of powers to follow the flow of the fight. The usual D&D model is to open with an “alpha strike” – hit your opponents with your biggest, nastiest spell in hopes of dropping them quickly. There’s still a merit in that, but now there’s a bit more tradeoff – do you want to burn that big spell immediately, or save it for when your chance to hit is a little bit better? You might open with your second strongest spell, and save your whammy for later, or even vice versa. Anything that gives power selection more texture than “use the biggest guns first” is a welcome addition to the game from my perspective.

But note, that is just the benefit of the rule as written. There is another benefit which is regularly hooked into throughout the rules – the value on the escalation die can be used as a measure of the increased tension of a fight and, as such, can be used as a mechanical signifier for other effects. In other words, it allows for all sorts of effects which only work (or are improved) if the escalation die is at a certain level or higher. This is a cool use of ambient information and it reinforces those three benefits of the core mechanic, especially 2 and 3. The longer the fight goes (and by extension, the more beat up the players get) the more likely they are to pull it out in the end.

This even has a subtle effect of bringing defense back into the game. One other element of the alpha strike approach is the implicit idea that defense is a losing proposition. Even if you’re safer for one round, you’re still in just as much trouble when the next round begins. As such, patience is (historically) a sucker’s bet unless you explicitly are laying down poison or the like. But with the escalation die, that choice gets more interesting. There’s still strong benefit in hitting early and hard, but there’s also benefit in taking care and using caution. Instead of being a matter of the right answer, it’s now a function of the answer that works best for you. And that’s pretty cool.

Huh. Ok, maybe I do remember how to read stuff other than character classes.

  1. There’s no way I’m going to re-encapsulate the entirety of d20 combat, but if it’s really unfamiliar to you, then the super high level version is this: Act in order of initiative. On your turn you can make one move, one “Standard action” (Usually an attack), one “quick action” (like drawing a weapons) and an arbitrary number of “free” actions. Every action you can take falls into one or more of those slots, but mostly you’ll just move over to an enemy and attack them, rolling to see if you hit and, if successful, rolling damage. Repeat this process until someone has taken enough damage that they’re out of the fight.  ↩

  2. Or marks on a whiteboard or whatever floats your boat.  ↩

  3. Consistent with one of the underlying rules of the game, the stat bonus on this roll is doubled at level 5 and tripled at level 8 (yes, those are the tier gateways) just as it is with damage.  ↩

  4. Curiously, the designer dialogs are more amusing to me as a GM than as a designer. The design insight is fine and all, but really these tend to be discussions of how the respective designers run their games, with the recurring theme that Tweet emphasizes the creative value of constraints and Heinsoo emphasizes creative freedom. Both positions are solid (no shock, both designers are smart dudes) but it’s worth paying attention to them through the lens of your own GMing tastes (and, in the interest of full disclosure, mine tend to run closer to Tweet’s).  ↩

  5. This is not just a taste thing. From a game design perspective, people are ok at addition, meh at subtraction, can multiply in a pinch, but hate dividing. I don’t make these rules, I just follow them.  ↩

  6. Here is the Fighting In Spirit rule for Fate: Every round that you are out of a scene, you gain 1 FP which must be spent to invoke or compel an aspect in that scene in a colorful fashion. You get that FP at the end of the first “round” and you get a new one at the end of each round so long as you’ve spent the one you have (so it’s use it or lose it). GM’s discretion whether or not this rule is in effect for a given scene – this is not designed to keep everyone in every scene all the time, but to help give a player who is out of a fight or other involved scene (due to injury or situation) an ability to participate. SPECIAL RULE: in general, if only one player is in a fight, then other people shouldn’t be pitching in, because it’s probably a signature moment. HOWEVER, if the fight has appropriate emotional overtones, then every non-present player may get 1 FP to spend at some point during the fight in accordance with the fighting in spirit rules. Because your friends have your back. And, yes, this is a mechanic written almost entirely to allow me to emulate my favorite moment in Final Fantasy IX. Is there a problem with that?  ↩

  7. When it doubt, it’s probably a +2  ↩

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.  ↩