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:
- Character Creation
- Barbarian and Bard
- Cleric and Fighter
- Paladin, Ranger, Rogue
- Sorcerer and Wizard
- Running the Game
- Magic Items and Sample Adventure
Also prior to this readthrough, I wrote a few other things including
- Icons and d20Tech
- Creating Icons
- Icons and Anchors
- Some Example Icon Models
- Quick Icons of Eberron hack
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:
- I really like this game
- 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 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 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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩