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*|
*- 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, 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.
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. 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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. ↩
Looking at those races, is it surprising that only one has a Str bonus? Of those, only two might possibly have a Str bonus (Dwarf and Half Orc). I’m curious that you didn’t include the option races, three of which have a Str bonus (Dragonspawn, Forgeborne, and Tiefling). Looking at all the races, the total numbers are as follows: Str 4, Con 4, Dex 5, Int 3, Wis 3, Cha 5. At 4+/-1, this seems like a fairly even distribution.
It is also interesting that some of these races are described as optional. The Diabolist is portrayed as a Tiefling, and they are a natural fit for the setting. I like that the presentation of the Forgeborne seem to take more from Dragon Age than Eberron.
Not surprising, just reflective.
So my question for you, Mr. Donoghue, is this: how would YOU have gone about the paradox that is 13th Age? I’m not asking this as a callout; I’m just curious how you would do this. Or do you think this was done as well as possible?
What I’m referring to, specifically, is 13th Age’s “We’re d20, but we’re not” paradox. I totally agree that it’s a little off-putting that concepts like powers, the escalation die, and recoveries are not explained upfront…but I also see how putting that kind of thing up front may be off-putting by it’s own right. Fate Core puts this stuff up front….but Fate Core is a wildly different game, and its concepts are essential to its understanding of anything else, so it makes sense there. But 13th Age, essentially a mega-hack of d20, has a bit of baggage with it that Fate doesn’t have. To put the differences up front may alienate d20 fans, but written as it is, I could see people new to roleplaying games feeling a little overwhelmed.
So how would you do it? Again, I am neither defending 13th Age nor attacking you; if nothing else, I completely agree with everything you’ve said, and I’m just merely curious, from a designer standpoint, if there was another way to do it.
It’s a really tough question, and I’ll state up front that I don’t think there’s any kind of correct answer, largely because there really are conflicting priorities at work here, and they’re all pretty valid.
One option would have been to write it as a d20 hack but treat it as something free standing, so it really covers the basics (akin to, say, true20). That would have made a more newbie friendly book, but it would have also made for a bigger book (and it’s already pretty huge) and would also reveal that it is perhaps not so much d20 itself which draws the crowd but D&D by any other name.
Another option, as you note, is to build something entirely from scratch. Numenera gives us an interesting insight into the possibilities of that kind of approach. I don’t think that would have been a technical challenge – the 13A team quite demonstrably has the chops to do it – but it would have meant sacrificing the possibility of an existing playerbase, which is pretty damn compelling.
Given those priorities, I think the middle path was the right one, but I think it created unique editorial needs, needs which were exacerbated by the extended playtest. 13th Age’s greatest weakness, as a book, is that once you know the content, it’s benefits are very nearly self-evident. That makes it very, very easy of falling into the trap of making assumptions of knowledge in the text because everyone involved already “gets it”.
Now, full credit where it’s due – thinks like the glossary + Index help offset this, and it is probably a trap I would have fallen into as well, but with the benefit of retrospect, I would have fallen short of a full rewrite, but I would probably have tasked an editor with no system familiarity to do a pass to specifically check for assumptions.
Back in the dark dark ages of my LARPing origins, a friend introduced me to an alternative Vampire LARP rules set. The rule book spent a good deal of time extolling its own virtues as it compared to some other hypothetical vampire game. The problem was that the book assumed that you were quite familiar with that other hypothetical vampire game in order to know anything about vampires as a society.
The book on fallen angels was much much better.
13th Age walks that line, but having seen what it is like when it goes horribly horribly wrong I have zero complaints about adding in some extra details as regards race. It fits in with 13th Age’s general philosophy of the Dragon Empire in general. See the entry on Stardock for more details.
You touch on it a little bit, but I think that it’s important to emphasize that racial stat bonuses in 13th age barely matter, at least in terms of what you’re good at. Any class that would have any real use for a Str bonus can get one through their class; this means that even though, of the main races, only humans and Half-Orcs can have a Str bonus, Humans and half-orcs aren’t really meaningfully better at being a Str-based class than anybody else is. Most fighters will want to have stat bumps to Str/Con, which can be achieved by Half-Orcs, Humans, Half-Elves, Halflings and Dwarves with equal ease; if you accept Str/Dex as also pretty good, you get Dark Elves, Wood Elves and Gnomes in there too. Only High Elves are “stuck” being Str/Int or Str/Cha, and in the terms of most editions of D&D, that’s still okayish for a fighter. (If you include optional races, Aasimar are also stuck with Str/Wis or Str/Cha.) In 4e, having a variety of stat distributions present was pretty important, since mainstat boosts were relatively potent compared to a lot of other racial benefits, but in 13th Age everybody has a mainstat boost, so your race really only determines what secondary stat gets boosted.
Indeed – I really call out the strength thing as more of a curiosity and a reflection of tradition than a real problem due to the many options available to a player.
Did you like the unique interpretations of some of the races: half elves, half orcs, and halflings, in particular…?
This is going to sound super cynical of me, but after enough games like Sovereign Stone, novel or unique interpretations which ultimately serve to deliver the same familiar content don’t do much to move my needle. This isn’t a criticism – It’s not a bad thing by any stretch, and it’s nice that the 13th Age folks at least put some effort into it – the halfling background in particular is a nice, fun bit of color, and I dig it, but it largely didn’t *grab* me.
This isn’t helped by the fact that, really, everyone needs to come up with a better explanation for Half Orcs than the old 1e reason, so those hardly even count anymore.
Or, we just need to get used to playing them as Orcs.
Yes, or that
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