Category Archives: 13thAge

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.  ↩

In the Wake of the King

(This is an Icon Set, for 13th Age, with obvious influences. )

The King has been gone for years, and the rumblings of court fear he may never return. For now, the Eternal Kingdom still stands, but enemies gather beyond the horizon, hoping for a sign of weakness. The King’s  children, each a power to be reckoned with, jockey for position. Some hold strong to their bailiwicks within the Eternal Kingdom, others have taken the roads and ways to the infinite worlds beyond the horizon, in search of allies and power, or perhaps to withdraw from the conflict sure to come.

But whatever direction their struggles take them, the world still turns around them, and the thousand dangers and opportunities that underly the Eternal Kingdom churn on.

Adventuring in the Eternal Kingdom

The Icons of the Eternal Kingdom are its scions, the children of the king. Their infighting and struggles take place on a massive scale, yet are profoundly personal. While their infighting could be fuel for a game of its own, it also creates a backdrop for kicking down doors, killing dangerous monsters and other worthwhile pursuits.

One important difference between the Eternal Scions and other Icons is that much of what they do is secret – most NPCs of any note have a thread that connects them to one Icon or another, but even they may not be aware of it.  Some of this is a function of their power – reality itself bends in subtle ways to comply to the will of the Icons – but it it also the nature of their conflicts. Open action invites retribution, so secret proxy fights are the norm.

This, of course, means that people like adventurers are of great use to the icons – effective enough to be useful, but still playing on a smaller chessboard than the Icons themselves (Arrogance is another common trait of the icons). Whether as a direct or indirect patron, the Icons are more than happy to work through adventurers to pursue their own ends, which are just as likely to be far-reaching and subtle as they are to be petty and vindictive..

While the icons may be engaging in their own internal struggles, there’s still a lot of be done.  Monsters roam the wild places, with new threats walking in from the infinite worlds every day.  Ancient ruins dot the mountains and forest.  Mysterious islands fill the seas.  Worlds of danger and treasure can be found in a wrong turn off a royal road, a misread map or an ancient and forgotten road.

For those of a more civilized bent, the many trading partners of the Golden City are all major urban hubs of their own, each of which would be the crown jewel of their world were they not in the shadow of the Golden City.  These cities are in a constant struggle for prominence among themselves, and often within themselves as well.  And, of course, there are dangers aplenty – no crossworld empire can exist with parasites and other dangers. While few of them may have the power to be a threat to the Icons, they still may have substantial power (and sinister agendas) within their own spheres, and their existence is almost certainly a benefit to somebody.

Icon Set: The Eternal Scions

The Scions of the King are beings of incredible power, though their appearance and motivations seem quite human.  Superhumanly strong and durable and seemingly immortal, they are able to traverse the infinite worlds at will, finding treasures and raising armies with no more effort than you or I might take to go find a pair of shoes in our closet.  They shape luck and circumstance to their will, and have thousands of years experience at their chosen pursuits.  And those are only the abilities that everyone knows about.

However, they are also a family, albeit a profoundly dysfunctional one. They may come to blows, but it is rare that they do so with any permanent end in mind. Some of this is tradition – the king would not tolerate such things.  Some is practicality – the death curse of a Scion is a terrible thing indeed. And some is probably sentiment – these are the people they’ve despised for millennia, and old enough hatreds can come close to a sort of affection.

GeneralThe General – Eldest son of the King by the golden queen, he has long since abandoned any claim in the throne in his pursuit of perfection on the battlefield (and with an understanding of how such ambitions lost him his siblings). He has no patience for the squabbles of his family, but at the same time, he figures heavily in all their plans, for none wish to make an enemy of him.


regentThe Regent – Second eldest son of the King by the sliver queen, he would be the perfect heir in every way save that of birth. Born before the marriage of his Mother and Father, his claim to the throne has always been tainted. Despite that he has made himself into a leader, and in the absence of the king, he has been been the administrator (and some say, de factor ruler) of the Eternal Kingdom. It’s common knowledge that the day will come that he seeks to make his claim openly.

LostPrinceThe Lost Prince – Younger Brother of the Regent and ever the Favorite of the King, he is much like his brother, save that in his legitimacy he has always held a place of primacy in their father’s eye. Or he did until he vanished somewhere in the infinite worlds, centuries ago. His body has never been found, and is is the hope or fear of many that he may someday return.

He is never far from the minds of the Kingdom, and whenever events take a strange turn, there will always be those who will take it as a sign of the Lost Prince’s actions, or a portent of his return.

HuntressThe Huntress – Last child of the silver queen, the ambitions of a daughter have been overshadowed by such brothers. But if their sun cast too much light, she has found refuge in the moon. Like her mother, she knows the secrets of the City of the Sky, and like her mother, she keeps them well.


SorceressThe Sorceress – The eldest daughter of the bronze queen, she is a small dainty thing made of fire and razor blades. Her mother’s magic runs strong in her, and in a family of mighty warriors and dashing rogues, her wit and wisdom earn her words  a seemingly disproportionate weight.



RakeThe Rake – A dashing figure of color and light, the son of the bronze queen is the very image of a hero. An accomplished swordsman, skilled sorcerer, able politician and all about man about town, he suffers only from the comparison of those around him. For every way in which he excels, someone in his family overshadows him.

Still, his very obviousness makes him something of an Enigma – it is clear that he has ambitions and an agenda, but his overt actions are so blatant that most assume they are a smokescreen for something else.

ArtistThe Artist – Brilliant, mad or both, the artist is the youngest child of the bronze queen, he abandons and embraces mediums as readily as he creates and destroys work that lesser spirits would call masterpieces. At his best, he is a brilliant, dazzling soul that illuminates the whole kingdom. At his worse, he could very well crack the whole world open.


watcherThe Watcher – A byblow of the king and a queen of the sea, she has remained apart from the workings of her family, more home beneath the waves, watching all through water and mirror. Her ambitions lie outside the Eternal Kingdom, but her secrets are valuable everywhere.


AdmiralThe Admiral – Eldest illegitimate child of the King and the iron queen, a bastard he was born and a bastard he has ever been. He stands out in a family of duplicitous backstabbers as a pirate and a rogue. While he does not wear his loyalties on his sleeve, he carries them on the edge of a knife.


WardenThe Warden – Second son of the iron queen, he is the keeper of the forests, hunter of dragons, the Warden in White, riding his mighty steed at the head of his pack of hounds. It is a duty he resents, far from the light and music of the court, but like all the children of iron, is is a duty he would lay down his life fulfilling.


GiantThe Giant – Last son of the iron queen, he is taller and stronger than any in the family, and perhaps that size accounts for a heart that still beats with love and compassion within this den of vipers. A mighty combatant, he is no strategist or courtier, and while easily misdirected, he is a fearsome enemy indeed when riled.


romanticThe Romantic – Daughter of the king and a woman from the infinite worlds, the Romantic is the most beautiful woman in the Eternal Kingdom (though some few give that acclaim to the Huntress). She is well aware of her beauty, and many consider her little more than a vapid creature of the court, Indeed, she does not have the strength of arms or magic of her siblings, but she has chosen a different battlefield, trading swords for salons. Whether this is shallow attention seeking or a cunning agenda is something of an open question.

ScoundrelThe Scoundrel – Youngest child of the king, he is the farthest from the throne and farthest from the considerations of it. He has abandoned ambition in favor of his own entertainments. An accomplished musician and a legendary gambler, there is very little the Scoundrel won’t do, except take on the responsibility that suits a prince.


  • The Children of the iron queen (the Admiral, Warden and Giant) are a tightly knit cabal, and are well known for their loyalty to the Eternal Kingdom over politics.  However, they are also known for their individual passions, which can overcome their better judgement.
  • Similarly, the children of the bronze queen (Sorceress, Rake and Artist) form another cabal, more known for their cunning and general magical aptitude.
  • The Children of the silver Queen were once a cabal as well, but something drove a spike between the Regent and the Lost Prince, and each pressured the Huntress to choose a side.
  • Long ago, before any but the children of gold and silver can remember, there was a similar cabal among the children of gold. Terrifying as it is to contemplate today, the General was the least of his siblings.  However, in their ambition, they became a threat to the King, and that spelled their doom and (presumed) death.  It is said, among those who know,  that the General’s aversion to politics is all that spared his life.
  • The Warden is said to have an inappropriate affection for the Sorceress.
  • The Artist and the Watcher were born at nearly the same time, with the Watcher a little bit older.  This is uncommon in the family, and the two have a close bond as a result, with her viewing him as something of a little brother.
  • The Regent and Admiral are said to be close friends, though given who they are, the question is which one is faking it.
  • The Regent currently holds his power with the support of the Children of Iron and the lack of a strong opposition.  In the absence of the Lost Prince, there are not many who could press a claim for rulership (perhaps the Rake). But at the same time, his position is more tenuous than it seems – the children of iron are traditionalists, and if the Regent overreaches, then he may find his position quickly crumbles.

The Eternal Kingdom

Eternal Kingdom

The Golden City – Crown jewel of the Eternal Kingdom, the Golden City is a true crossroad of worlds, sitting at the hub of trade routes that extend out into the infinite worlds. The whole city is wrapped around a great harbor, and proceeds uphill, overlooked by the Royal Palace.

  • The Admiral and The Giant spend much of their time in the city, and are frequently seen in the harbor area.
  • The Scoundrel tends to leave quite a trail in his wake when he’s in town.
  • The Romantic is a fixture in the better parts of the city.

The Royal Palace – Seat of the king and home of the royal family, it is a masterpiece of architecture and magic, overlooking the Golden city, and by extension, the infinite worlds beyond it. The royal family makes their home there, and it is said that is is rife with their secret playthings and powers.

  • Every Icon (save the Lost Prince) can be found in the Palace at one some time or another, though some are more frequent occupants.
  • The Regent’s seat of power is the palace.
  • When not in the city, The Romantic is almost certain to be found in the Palace
  • The Sorceress makes heavy use of the Palace’s Library, and the Artist has an entire hall dedicated to his work.

The Dragon’s Spine The mountain that holds the Golden City and Royal Palace on its slopes is the southernmost peak of a mountain range that extends far to the north. As old as the golden city is, these mountains are older still, and outside of a few forts and outposts, it is still largely wild country, home to monsters and ancient ruins.

  • The General takes the mountains more seriously than most of the rest of the family (Perhaps knowing something that he has not shared). He maintains an elite team of mountaineers who patrol the mountins to the best of their ability.
  • The Peak of the eternal Mountain is the gateway to the City of the Sky, and as such, it is often frequented by the Huntress.

The Forest Unending – To leave the eternal kingdom by land, you will eventually pass through the forest. All roads pass through it, but the roads are only the smallest fraction of it vastness. Entire kingdoms exist within the forest, never seeing beyond its bounds. And, of course, the oldest and most dangerous creatures can be found in its shadowy depths.

  • The forest is the Warden’s domain, this fact is uncontested. His army of rangers is the largest standing force in the Eternal Kingdom, but they are still spread incredibly thin.
  • The Huntress is no stranger to the Forest, but her presence is not always welcomed by the Warden.
  • The Sorceress also has some secrets in the Forest, and some whisper that she is the leader of a cabal of witches whose influence extends far and wide.

The Boundless Sea – While less obvious than the roads through the Forest Unending, the seas around the Eternal Kingdom are full of ways out into the infinite worlds. The barriers between worlds are rarely obvious, and the result is a vast and shifting sea, full of monsters, mysterious islands and, of course, pirates. The navies of the Eternal Kingdom and her allies keep the trade routes as safe as they can, but there are always new dangers emerging.

  • The Admiral and the Giant lead the Eternal Kingdom’s Northern and Southern Fleet, They spend much of their time at sea.
  • The Watcher’s interest in the City of the Waves keeps her interested in affairs upon the Boundless Sea.
  • The bronze queen came from an island to the south, and the Sorceress, Rake and Artist all spend some time in transit to and from her homeland.

The City of the Waves – Beneath the sea, not far from the coast of the Golden City, stands the Golden City’s sister city. Ancient magic renders the waters around the city breathable, though the natives no longer need such magics. The city’s population is small, but it holds many secrets and unknown magics, and superstition suggests that any disruption in one city will be reflected in the other. Whether true or not, this concern has allowed the two cities a peaceful coexistence without the tensions one might expect of two powers in such close proximity.

  • The Watcher makes her home in the City of the Waves, and while she is not the Queen, her influence is extensive. More, she is also privy to many of the City’s secrets.
  • The Scoundrel has cut an impressive trail through the City, and there is a death sentence waiting for him should he ver return, though the details of why this is so are fuzzy.
  • The silver queen had close ties to the City of the Waves, and her children are welcome there. The regent rarely has time to visit and the Lost Prince is missed, but The Huntress is a regular visitor.
  • The Romantic visits often enough to maintain relations with the city’s elite.
  • The Admiral and Giant have a tense relationship with the City. The people of the Sea are nominally allies to the fleets, but it is usually on their terms.

The City of the Sky – When the moon is full, a ghostly reflection of the golden city appears in the sky above the golden city itself. A silvery staircase rises from the peak of the royal mountain, and the brave (or mad) can travel up those stairs to face the visions that await them and try to return before the city vanishes again. Those who survive the trip report visions of the past and future, and many feel the secrets to be learned are worth the risk

  • It is rare that a full moon comes around and the Huntress does not visit the ghostly city. Given the risk of a stray cloud, it may be safe to assume she knows something the others do not.
  • Some suspect that the Lost Prince is trapped in the city in the Sky, and that the Huntress’s journeys are in search of her brother.

The Infinite Worlds – Beyond the bounds of the Eternal Kingdom are an infinite number of worlds and realities. It is said that the royal family can travel freely among them, but everyone else depends upon the roads and sea lanes laid down by the King and maintained by his children. Worlds of every type exist, but the lanes lead only to ones that are of some use to the Eternal Kingdom, but the worlds the lanes pass through can be less predictable.

  • The Scoundrel and General spend much of their time among the worlds, both looking to avoid the Eternal Kingdom (though neither would appreciate the comparison).
  • Every few decades, the Romantic finds a world that appeals to her sensibilities. She will spend time cultivating artists, philosophers and intellectuals, and eventually she will return to the Eternal Kingdom with the seeds of the latest fashions.
  • It is suspected that the Lost Prince is lost somewhere among the Infinite Worlds, though it difficult to say what could keep him lost against his will.


Mechanical Notes

  • For dice rolling purposes, The Lost Prince serves as the spoiler. In circumstances of unknown and uncertainty, things are often attributed to the Lost Prince.
  • None of the icons are particularly good or evil, so by default, they are all priced as ambiguous. If it is critical for your game to have Heroic and Villainous Icons, then you may assign them as you see fit, but I would lean towards  The General, The Lost Prince and the Giant as Heroic, and the Sorceress, Artist and Admiral as Villainous.
  • A player may choose one or more of their personal Icons to be a secret to them, in which case the GM is free to decide who it is at any point down the line.  There is no particular mechanical advantage to this, but sometimes it’s just fun.

Sorcery in the Eternal Kingdom

Sorcerers do not draw their power directly from the Icons, but rather are indebted to an icon for their power.  The Icons hold many secret sources of power – Founts of flame, bottled lighting and so on – which they share with those they favor (or which may be stolen).  As such, Sorcerous Backgrounds are replaced with Sorcerous Secrets. These secrets are rarely tied to a single Scion, rather, some scions are inclined towards certain secrets.

The Eternal Kingdom equivalents of 13th age Sorcerous backgrounds follow:

  • Arcane Heritage becomes Secrets of the Sun and is tied to the southern isle  and the traditions of the bronze queen.  It may be tied any one of the children of bronze (Sorceress, Rake or Artist).
  • Chromatic Destroyer becomes Secret of the Storms – The character has attuned to the four great storms (Ice, lightning, poison and acid) beyond the bounds of the Eternal Kingdom.  Finding the storms is difficulty enough, and surviving them is something else entirely, but if survived, they are a potent source of power. Any scion could show someone the way to this power, if they had sufficient incentive.
  • Fey Heritage becomes Secrets of the Sea and is the domain of the Watcher
  • Infernal Heritage  becomes Secrets of the Sword.  In a hidden chamber, somewhere in the vicinity of where the Dragon’s Spine meets the Forest Unending lies the tomb of a would be conquerer.  The figure of a giant of a man (easily 12 feet tall) lies in state, clad in black armor and impaled by a great red sword.  None have successfully drawn the sword free, but those who have tried carry away a bit of its power.  The General knows where this chamber is, as does the Warden. The Sorceress and the Regent may also know.  It’s possible that other Scions know, but it’s a well-kept secret.
  • Metallic Protector Heritage becomes Secrets of the Sky – These can only be learned in the City of the Sky, so the Huntress is the most obvious avenue to this power.
  • Undead Remnant Heritage becomes Secrets of Shadow.  These are the vestiges of an enemy of The Eternal Kingdom, long since vanquished, but with necromantic relics still scattered through the Infinite Worlds.  The Scions largely destroy these relics when they find them, but some are kept in back pockets when needed. Of course, some suspect that the use of the power of those relics may suggest that the enemy is not quite so vanquished as all that.



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.  ↩

Monsters of 13th Age

The Monsters chapter is another fun one with lots of great pieces of technology in it. It opens with the information needed to read a monster stat block which reveals two interesting things. First, monsters do fixed damage, something I imagine makes bookkeeping much easier on the GM side. The second (and more interesting) is the presence of triggered abilities, which work like flexible attacks – they’re effects that are triggered by the creature’s roll.

This is an innocuous passage, but it’s implications become obvious as soon as you start looking at the monsters. See, monsters only have a few possible attacks (only one in many cases) and the theory seems to be that you can have special attacks be triggered rather than forcing the GM to make tactical decisions on the fly, especially where very nasty abilities are concerned. In theory, a well designed monster effectively has an implicit “script” to its behaviors based on how it rolls.

For example, the Chimera makes three attacks per round (a lot of monsters have multiple attacks, often with the C abilities providing extras as quick actions[1]) to represent its three heads. But rather than track each head and its special abilities, you can determine that based on the roll. If it rolls a 14–15[2], then you’re dazed from the goat’s headbutt. If it rolls a 16–17 then you take extra damage from the lion’s claws. If it rolls an 18–20, then it makes a fiery breath attack. Now, while this does simplify many things, it does introduce a different sort of bookkeeping, so it may not be to everyone’s taste, but ideally this can greatly simplify running fights with interesting enemies while still allowing for wild and crazy stuff to happen.

That’s the theory at least. The actual monsters themselves are a bit more uneven. Most every monster has a default melee attack, but some have other options. They might have a ranged attack (Noted with an R) which is reasonably self explanatory, but they may also have a close attack (noted with a C) which seems to kind of be a wildcard, with the qualifier that using it does not trigger an opportunity attack. Since the C abilities tend to be weird and potent, it tends to introduce its own complexities that undercut the elegance of the triggered abilities. It’s not a bad thing, just kind of a shame because I admit I really dug the scripting idea (and, in fairness, lots of monsters do script just fine, just not all of them).

The C actions end up feeling like a catchall, the bucket that all weird things end up in. On one hand, that simplifies the monster entries by keeping the weirdness largely penned in, but on the other hand it makes for a lot of exceptions. But, to devil’s advocate myself, many of the C abilities have very clear cadences to how they’re supposed to be used, enough so that even if it’s not truly scripted, it’s still fairly close to automated (but that does make the exceptions stand out all the more)

Ok, so before we hop back into the monsters themselves, lets jump back to the surrounding rules. This section explains how mooks work (1/5 HP, damage spills from one mook in a mb to the next) and has the good taste to explicitly nod to Feng Shui for the naming convention. There are also Large and Huge creature which explicitly call out why so many spells are tied to the target’s hit points – it’s to keep you from being able to cheese the big ’uns.

And then there are burrowing rules because I guess they had to go somewhere.

There are fewer sections on Monster special abilities than one might expect. There’s an interesting bit on “last Gasp” saves, which are basically the PC’s chance to avoid instakill effects, which are moderately generous. There are also rules for fear auras, which are keyed to hit points. I actually dig this, though it’s pretty nasty – it means Fear aura don’t matter much when the fight starts, but they become more important if things go badly.

After that are guidelines on how to read a monster’s statblock. It’s largely self-explanatory, but there are a few interesting tricks.

First, there aren’t much in the way of monster illustrations. Instead, the monsters have tile art which evokes a particular icon’s tile art. This suggests a relationship, though the details vary and may be elaborated in the monster’s text. There’s not much mechanical heft to this, but it’s interesting, and resonates interestingly with player’s icon relationships. It is, however, another area where the game leans heavily on the reader’s previous exposure to monster art.

Second, there are often options for nastier versions of the creatures, though this is not particularly reflected in the rules for building battles (which are conveniently/redundantly repeated here for reference).

The actual monsters themselves are exactly what you would expect them to be – it’s the d20’s greatest hits. I went through and checked a few touchpoints – Kobolds are suitably annoying, Dragons are suitably scary and the Medusa has great mechanical clarity(this last is a real triumph). It’s a good spread, and much like 4e Monsters, every monster has some manner of schtick that keeps it feeling unique, so Orcs feel different from Gnolls feels different from Kobolds.

Finally, there are guidelines for creating your own monsters as well as levelling up existing monsters. These are practical and clearly presented in a series of charts, and they seem pretty workable. Most importantly, there is a section on what abilities to avoid in designing a monster, especially calling out the need to take care with defensive abilities as they tend to slow fights down without much return.

All in all, the monsters chapter is a lot of fun. The triggering attack mechanic definitely gets the biggest workout of the lot, but there’s a fair balance between clarity and diversity which – I believe – does the job well.

  1. And it’s super important to remember that these are quick actions, not free actions. I had that moment of confusion early on and it felt like monsters got SO MANY attacks.  ↩
  2. One mechanical bit – per the description, triggered abilities are triggered by the roll, not necessarily the hit (and some actually specific a hit with the qualifiers listed). A lot of the ones that are 14+ or higher seem to assume that the roll corresponds to a hit, but I’m not sure that’s always going to be the case. To use the chimera as an example, if it rolled a 14 (headbutt) and missed, I wonder if the intent is that the headbutt hits anyway. That feels wrong to me, I admit, and I’d probably still require a hit. It’s an edge case – high rolls will usually be hits – but just struck me as odd.  ↩

13th Age – Running the Game

The chapter on running the game opens with the all important section on using Icon relationships, with a wonderful sidebar acknowledging that this is new tech, and that it’s worth watching the internet to see what people do with it.

As we mentioned a while back, the mechanics of Icon relationships are straightforward. You have a few points of relationships spread among the icons. When called for, you roll 1d6 for each point. If a 6 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way. If I 5 comes up, the relationship matters in a useful way, but there’s a catch. Mechanically, it’s pretty simple.

Conceptually, it’s much more interesting. These rolls are basically the things that are going to provide seeds fro your play, Practically, there are three main times to make a relationship roll.

  1. When that icon (or its agents) show up in an important way
  2. At the beginning of every session[1]
  3. When things have totally gone off the rails.

We’ll get to #1 in a minute. #2 is the real gold (and #3 is, really, just an extension of #2, since it’s very nearly a reboot button). So at the beginning of play, everyone rolls all their relationship dice, and each 5 or 6 is expected to become a plot point in the forthcoming session. Since everyone has at least 3 points, that’s generally going to mean one plot element per player, but it’s subject to the vagaries of the dice[2]. Assuming the GM takes these things seriously, that’s enough elements to really make sure the shape of the adventure conforms to the play.

The idea is a little bit stronger than the support. There are a number of ideas given for how to improvise relationship rolls into play – providing guidance, driving flashbacks, giving goodies and so on. These are fine, but they’re chrome – they’re the way you would use these rolls if you still want to run basically the same dungeon you were going to be running anyway. I get that the examples I want to see (like tying the relationships and, in turn, the PCs directly into the stakes of the day’s adventure) might be a little daunting to someone coming to this fresh faced, but that capability is so awesome that it feels like a wasted opportunity.

It’s with that in mind that I consider rolling relationship dice for dramatic events to be almost incidental, and I admit the writeup doesn’t change my mind. The actual rules for such rolls are pretty thin, and more or less boil down to rolling to see if you grab the spotlight for a given scene (which is a bit weird) with most of the focus on when such rolls are made (short answer – when the GM says so, though players may occasionally force the issue through play).

There’s a nice rule for rolling for random icon influence, but really, that’s it. It’s disappointing. Again, I am crazy about how good the Icons concept is (even if I might be inclined to fiddle with the dice) and I feel like it gets badly undersold in the text.

Next section is on environments and tiers, basically noting that locations are tiered the same way that characters are (Adventurer, champion & epic) and in case that was not clear enough, there’s an actual chard to prove it. Environment tier matters because it sets the baseline difficulty for actions (baseline 15, +5 per tier, +5 per difficulty increments, of which there are 3). So the hardest adventurer tier DC is 25 (2 difficulty increments) while the highest Epic DC is 35 (2 difficulty increments and 2 tiers). This is one of those cases where simplicity was clearly chosen over smooth break points, but the underlying idea is flexible enough (that is, a given dungeon might be largely one tier, but another tier in some places) that it’s not as painful as it could be.

There’s also a kind-of-probably-intentional sliding scale to it, where a Hard Adventurer DC (20) is the same as a Normal Champion DC. This allows for a bit of subjectivity in deciding difficulties, which is almost necessary because there’s a real lack of meaningful difference between the environment tiers besides the level of the characters. There are also default attacks and damage levels for each tier, and it’s all combined into a single table that’s reminiscent of 4e’s famous Page 42.

I was curious to read the section on traps, because the decision for the rogue to have trap sense rather than thievery as a class feature has been sticking in my craw. There’s a nice explanation of why instakill traps are lame, and a kind of thin-seeming explanation of why traps aren’t worth XP (but monsters are) followed by some sample traps and…that’s it.

The section on building encounters is less sparse, but is not much more than functional. Simple formula for coming up with the correct number of enemies without ever actually using terms like “Challenge Rating” Some of it is interesting – Adventurers fight equal level enemies, Champions fight level +1 and Epic fights level +2. I just kind of trust that works out. There’s also some familiar 4e tiering of monsters from Mook to Normal to Large to Huge with Normal as the default. Amusingly, there are guidelines on how to make fights unfair (more, and harder) but not necessarily why you’d do it.

Y’know that thing I keep saying about the assumption that the reader already know what they’re doing? Yeah. That.

The advice on healing up mostly revealed to me that a key concept thad been introduced in the combat chapter without my noticing it. The flee rules note that you can have the party suffer a campaign loss – some sort of in game setback. Turns out that “campaign loss” is actually a game term because you can also take them for resting too often. I’m fine with the rule, but as for the term, this is why god created italics.

The section on leveling up opens up with the big whammy – no XP. Just advance a level every 12–16 battles or so. There’s a list of the benefits of leveling, which is mostly what we’ve seen before, followed by rules for incremental advances to smooth out the progression if anyone needs that.

Wedged in here, for no reason I can really point to, is a section on “Player Picks”, which are a great technique. At the end of the session players can pick fiction elements they want to see recur. It’s a little rule, but a very neat one.

Another nice touch is the “Extraordinary Experience” rule, which basically replaces any formal training system. When you level, you need to have a good story for it, either a transcendent moment or some cool backstory. I dig this in theory, but since everyone levels simultaneously, I wonder if it’s a bit more dull in practice.

Then, as a wrap up comes the 10 levels in 10 session campaign variant, which is just a fun idea.

So, ok, if there’s no XP, then what about loot? Well, yes, there’s loot, though it’s a little abstracted. Basically, rather than accruing per encounter, gold accrues per rest( sorry, full heal-up) which is supposed to be roughly every 4 battles. All of this is predicated on an idea that, really, money isn’t useful for anything but buying potions and minor magic (and it even includes an alternate system to skip the middleman and just pay out in potions and runes).

I admit, I’m a big fan of abstract wealth systems, but this one manages to take me aback a little as even more abstract than I’m comfortable with (and, for context, I’m totally ok with resources being a skill). Thinking about it, I think the issue is twofold. First, I like broke heroes. If I’m going to use cash as a motivator, then it should be motivating, dammit. This is predicated on an assumption of blithe wealth, which totally makes sense if you accept that everyone is sufficiently important that little things like money don’t matter any more. The second point is an extension of that – the idea that money isn’t useful for anything else strikes me a so self-referentially dungeoneering-centric as to actively hurt my sense of setting. If I can’t lose my money betting on the dire badger races, then something is just wrong with the world.

There are also guidelines for handing out magic items, but the actual items are in a future chapter.

The next section in what I might describe as a somewhat haphazard order is ritual magic, and this is another fun, exciting thing. Rituals basically take existing spells and let you use them as the basis for a larger effect. The player pitches that to the GM, who determines how long it will take (1d4 minutes, quarter hours or hours) then call for a skill check.

As a baseline, this is a pretty neat system, and a great way to introduce very open-ended, “magical” activities into the game. More, the examples make it pretty clear that the extent of the improvisation and interpretation allowed is extensive enough that the core spells are only a loose limitation (which is good, since there is no not-having a class spell at the moment).[3]

However, it could use about another page of explanation. Free form magic is cool as heck on the page, but it very quickly runs into issues of scale, drama and repetition.

Scale can be illustrated pretty simply, let’s say I want to put a whole town to sleep – the base spell is pretty easy (sleep) but how should I adjudicate the rest? And how will that differ if I want to just put a building to sleep? What about a whole city? Rituals can allow stuff like this, and that’s cool, but guidance would help. Similarly – can I use a ritual version of blink to teleport my party somewhere? By the ritual rules it totally makes sense, but there is actually a level 9 teleport spell, so it this cheating?

Once the door to a ritual gets opened, you can bet that players will keep using it. It will become part of their regular arsenal of effect, and that means that you run a strong chance of having something that seemed cool in the moment to become a precedent for something you didn’t intend.

There is a little bit of guidance for Drama, in that the GM can declare what is required to cast a particular ritual, and that’s a good baseline. In theory, the GM can answer question of scale by scaling the requirements for various effects (so, yes, you can put the city to sleep, but the required components are MUCH harder to get). That’s awesome in and of itself, but it should just be the tip of the iceberg. If it’s just components, that encourages a scavenger hunt mentality, but when viewed as “when X, then Y” it’s revealed that this is actually a powerful tool of setting design. To come back to the teleport question – if low level teleporting is allowed to specific places (teleport circles or whatnot) then you have just added teleport circles to the world. That’s a thing.

All of which is to say, Rituals are great, but could use more meat

There’s another section on icons which follows that includes a brief history of the setting through the lens of icons and a little bit of discussion regarding how Icons might be change in name or nature. It includes an explanation of why the icons don’t have stats (yay) and why they will someday (less yay) and a chunk on insanity that I don’t quite get the relevance of. There’s also a specific callout to the various ways that visitors from other worlds (which we all understand to mean other games) can enter 13th Age.

The final section deal with Gods. and specifically how 13th Age has shuffled gods into the background with the focus on icons. This minimization makes it trivial to rotate in whatever pantheons you want without substantially changing the game. There’s a sidebar on how Tweet just sort of aggregates it all into “the gods” for day to day purposes, and it’s workable (as is the guidance regarding the Icons that some might worship as gods) but…

So, I get why this is the way it is. The icons are a big deal, and a Forgotten Realms style pantheon would really detract from that. But it feels a bit like a punt. The sense it conveys is that they’d really like to minimize the role of religion in the setting, but don’t want to come out and say as much. I dunno. Interpreted generously, it’s leaving a big question to be answered at your table , but interpreted less generously it’s kind of flat.

Anyway, this is obviously a pretty long chapter, and a few key pieces come together in it and really help sketch out the shape of how play is expected to unfold. It’s a little frustrating because some of the biggest and best ideas (icon relationships and rituals in particular) seem to get a little bit of short shrift, but it’s possible that entire books could be committed to those topics, so perhaps that is unfair of me.

More importantly, it paints more of a picture of the shape of play outside of fights, and it definitely has a specific kind of flavor, one that is pretty clearly not intended to be particularly gritty or detail-oriented. I get the sense that this is intended as sort of a natural consequence of being player-focused, and while I’m not sure I totally agree, it’s at least consistent.

  1. Or, if you’re less strong on the improv, then at the end of the previous session.  ↩

  2. This is a weakness of the system, but they acknowledge that a little.  ↩

  3. This is another area where the weirdness of the Utility spell comes up. If the utility spell is really a spell, then it could probably be the basis of any ritual at all, which leaves me continuing to think that treating it as a spell is not such a great idea.  ↩

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 – Final Classes

I felt the Sorcerer was a great addition to the D&D Canon in 3e (much the way I feel about the Warlord in 4e). It quickly expanded beyond the core idea into incorporating things like draconic or Fae bloodlines, and I was cool with that as an option. Sorcerer became a nice catchall for a being of power, with the source of that power being a matter of fiction and perhaps a small amount of mechanics.

The 13th Age Sorcerer walks an interesting line with this. In fiction, their power is explicitly tied to an Icon, with the default assumption seeming to be that it’s tied to the the draconic icons by default. The core of this is the breath weapon, one of the class’s several features, so we’ll get to that in a minute.

The class features are Access to wizardry (so the sorcery can use wizard spells of the next step down in lieu of one of their own), Breath weapon (complicated), Chain (if you hit someone with a spell that has the “chain” keyword, on an even roll you can chain the attack onto another target, and keep going as long as you can), Dancing Lights (Dramatic lighting), Gather Power (spend an action to charge up and your next spell is doubly potent, with a randomly generated extra effect) and Random Energy (elemental effects are randomly determined by d4).

Breath weapon is not an ability in and of itself. Rather, it is the rules surrounding casting breath weapon spells that basically boil down to the fact that 25% of the time, using a breath weapon spell doesn’t use up the spell. There are complexities surrounding multiple breath weapons and such, but that’s it. There’s also an important qualifier that a breath weapon need not literally be a breath weapon, which is nice for folks who aren’t interested in the draconic angle.

Ok, admittedly, that’s a lot of stuff, and it has a pretty clear theme of randomness. If the dice get hot for a sorcerer, she’s going to be insanely fierce, but if they run cold, it could really suck. They call out in a sidebar that players with bad dice karma might want to look elsewhere, and I can’t really fault that advice. As much as I might not be a fan of high randomness in character effectiveness, I recognize that the gambling element can make it really fun.[1]

The class talents are kind of interesting. Most of them are “Arcane Heritages” which reflect which icon your power comes from/resonates with/is in some way connected. The existing options are the Archmage, the Three, the Elf Queen, the Diabolist, the Gold Wyrm or the Lich King (and if you want to really double down on one of these, there’s a “Blood Link” talent that gives you an extra relationship point with that icon). Interestingly, these are not mutually exclusive, which suggests all kinds of fun things.

Those heritages are the bulk of talents. The other two get you a familiar and make you better are spellslinging in melee, and since you start with 3 talents, you’re pretty much obliged to get at least one heritage. Obviously, they’re kind of a big deal for a Sorcerer.

Mechanically, they’re ok, though the Lich King feats are fun, and eventually involve removing exactly the body parts you might expect. But story wise? I love these. They’re a great example of the potency of the Icons as the tentpoles of setting design and their immediacy to the players. What’s more, the ability to mix and match almost demands interesting stories. Diabolist + Great Gold Wyrm? Destined to decide the fate of the rift to the Abyss. Great Gold Wyrm + The Three? Draconic Champion. Archmage + Lich King? Obviously the next Generation’s magical icon, with a voice on each shoulder. Elf Queen + The Three? Speaker for The Green.

And because of the potency of the One Unique Thing, these ideas are entirely doable in scope of the game. Really, the Sorcerer is the first point where a lot of these ideas that I’ve known are great in 13th Age really come to the surface to dance.

The actual spells are pretty straightforward. They’re largely either at-will minor attacks, or once-per-day-with-possible-recharge big whammies. It is a little interesting to see which spells have miss effects an which don’t – most of the daily spells have miss effects, but the At Wills are more mixed. There are a few utility spells, but nothing to exciting, at least until you get to the high levels. Some of these get kind of fun (like stealing allies powers or getting random demonic boons) and some are kind of “holy Crap”, such as the level 9 “Silver Flame” spell which lets you turn your connection to the Archmage directly into arcane ass kicking.

It’s worth noting that Sorcerers don’t have ritual magic, which we’ll get to later, but it’s not something you really miss if you like the style of the Sorcerer (which is basically to blow the crap out of stuff). My sole complaint is that it’s a tricky class to port to another setting since a lot of material will have to be transposed or replaced, but that’s not too much of a price.

Ok, and now for the big one. The Wizard. People have been speaking about this class in hushed tones, like some great beast just past the horizon, so I admit I’m a little nervous. But let’s see what we find.

The wizard opens interestingly. The color of magic (har har) is cut from classic D&D cloth, with spells that are written down into books, studied and memorized. However, there are explicitly no limits on this in order to avoid bookkeeping hassles. I’m sympathetic to this, but it only works to a certain point – hopefully any future supplements that add more spells will include some manner of check on this.[2] There’s also a note that Wizard effects don’t add their stat to damage. This is interesting, and I suppose it suggests a certain amount of flavor (The spell matters, not the caster) but it’s odd.

The Wizard’s class features don’t seem to daunting, but let’s look through them.
Cantrips – Ok, yes, there’s a lot of fiddly effects, but at this point we all recognize what is an effectively streamlining of the old idea of 0 level spells.

Cyclic Spells – Some spells have a “cyclic” keyword and it means that they’re encounter powers if the escalation die is 0 or odd, and at will if it’s even. That’s definitely a little wonky, and like the fighter’s ability, I don’t 100% visualize the logic, but ok.

Otherworld Advantage – In the otherworld (which is not, as you might think, the astral plane or anything, but is apparently actually the sky above the clouds, thank you index) daily spells gain recharge 16+ (meaning they recharge on a 16+ at the end of a fight).

Ritual Magic – They get ritual magic. THis is a big deal, but we’ll deal with it later in the book.

Ok, so far so good. I expect the pain is coming in the talents, so I’m going to also hit those one by one. This is the wizard. We can’t be too careful.

Abjuration – Get an Ac bonus when you cast a daily spell. Well, ok.

Cantrip Mastery – You’re awesome at Cantrips. Cool.

Evocation – Once per battle, you can maximize a spell, though you have to do this before you roll.

High Arcana – You can double-select a spell, so you can have 2 fireballs. Curiously, if this talent didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have thought that would be a problem, but there it is.

Counter-Magic Once per battle, you can make an attack to cancel a spell as someone casts it.

Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations – This sounds ominous, but is actually simple. First, rename all your spells with properly Vancian[3] names (so your Fireball might become Alucard’s Most Efficacious Vermin Removal. You can even give the same spell multiple names if you like. When you cast the spell, it takes a little bit longer (as you must incant the name) but the GM is encouraged to interpret the spell in a more interesting and colorful way, one which may grant you some extra advantage. Your sleep, er, sorry, Resplendent Repose of Many Colored Dreams spell might literally wrap targets up in blankets and tuck them in. There is no obligation that these outcomes be consistent, only that they be interesting.
This one is very clearly going to weird out some players, either because they’re not used to this kind of flexibility, or because they’re not used to the GM being so critical to the improvisation process. But for players in sync with the GM, this could be a BLAST.

*Wizard’s Familiar – Yep, it gets you a familiar. Pick a critter, it gets some abilities. Easy peasy.

So far so good. Now we get to the actual spells, and we hit a weird divide: the Utility Spell. This is an idea that could probably be presented more clearly (probably as a spell[4]) but it’s straightforward enough. Imagine the “Utility Spell” to be a wildcard spell. You can memorize it at any level (like any other level 1 spell) and when you cast it, you may choose an effect from a list which includes things like disguise self, feather fall, message and so on, limited by what level you cast it at.

While conceptually awkward, this is very practical. Most of the utility spells are of the “just in case” variety. Spells like Feather Fall which, in normal D&D, might not see use for dozens of adventures, can tie up a spell slot because you want to have it on hand when you really need it. Remember how 3e introduced the idea of Clerics being able to rotate in healing spells so they didn’t have to memorize them? This serves a similar purpose for a certain category of wizard spells.

The rest of the spells seem very straightforward and largely familiar. This is mostly the Magic User’s greatest hits.

Which brings us to the end, and I gotta say – I know the wizard is officially the most complicated class, but man, the Bard was much wonkier from my perspective. But I will concede that the Wizard has some problems with presentation that make things a little bit tougher than they need to be. it also helps that we sorted out the whole issue of spell memorization back with the Cleric. So, maybe, if I was coming in blind, the Wizard would be worse, but I doubt it.

And holy crud. Finally done classes.

  1. It also really strongly reminds me of the 4e Sorcerer in terms of randomness.  ↩
  2. The issue also exists for Clerics, but that’s always been a bit more wibbly wobbly in fiction. What worries me, though, is that it also impacts ritual magic for both of these classes. It may be a spurious concern – there’s nothing keeping rituals from being tied to Macguffins to keep this in check, but it’s on my mind.  ↩
  3. As in Jack Vance, spiritual father of the D&D magic system. If you have not read any of his stuff, then your life could be greatly improved by doing so!  ↩
  4. In retrospect, the reason that there is not a “utility spell” with multiple effects (over and above the oddness of it) is probably tied to multiclassing and similar rules. A talent that lets you use a Wizard spell should not let you get the full flexibility of the wizard’s capability with utility spells, and should instead allow a single spell. However, that also reveals how I would rephrase the ability as follows

    Utility Flexibility
    – As a free action, the wizard may replace any memorized spell with the “Utility” keyword with another spell with another utility spell of the same or lower level. So, instead of memorizing a pseudo-spell, they prep a spell as normal (ideally the highest level on they can) and just swap out on the fly  ↩

13th Age – PRR, as it were

Ok, the Paladin may actually be a short entry. Like the Barbarian, this is a super straightforward class to play as it has no powers or spells, only talents. Admittedly, some of the talents are really pseudo-powers, but I’m getting used to that at this point. There’s some nice treatment on the handling of alignment, calling out that Paladin’s tend towards law and good, but that’s not a shackle – there’s even a talent specifically for people playing evil Paladins. I actually wished they’d expanded more on this, since as written the Paladin really works as a warrior of an ideal, whatever that ideal might be, but that’s not a complaint so much as a wish for more. Practically, Paladins are more constrained by their armor selection (go heavy or go home) than their alignment.

Interestingly, there’s only one class feature, Smite Evil (which is notably very fuzzy in its definition of evil). I call this interesting because I think of this as a less iconic ability than Laying on Hands (which is available as a talent). It was probably the right choice – making a talent lets a paladin choose if he wants to put on the healer hat rather than have it expected of him – but it caught my eye.

The talents are all pretty straightforward, and include a heal, clerical spellcasting and a taunt, which covers the required bases. I think my only concern is that there are only 8[1] of them and the Paladin (eventually) gets 5 of them. That’s not a great ratio for diversity, but I suspect it’s also something which can be opened up with further material and hacks.

Chewing on it a bit, I like the open-ended paladin, but it loses something in translation. I wish there was something to give mechanical teeth to the idea that whatever ideal you serve, you really need to stick with it, since that sort of self-imposed limitation is one of the things that makes paladin’s interesting (though the righteous and evil path talents do lean that way)[2]. That said, if you call it something other than a paladin and treat it as sort of a flexible champion of [insert cause here] then it probably holds up.

Rangers are also pretty simple (finding it curious that the fighter is more complicated than the Barbarian, Ranger or Paladin – that’s an inversion) as they also have no powers. Notably they also have no class features, just talents. I was surprised that tracking was not a class feature (since that seems like it should be universal) but figured that maybe it was left out since it’s appropriate to a background. I was wrong. There is a tracking feature and it’s…ok. You get a free background of tracker at +5, and a kind of odd stunt, but compared to the other talents it seems to fall a little short.

I’ve got no testing data to back this up, but I’m not sure why it’s not a Feature. This stands out in contrast to the Paladin who is structurally identical to the Ranger (same number of talents, no powers) but who also has a feature and better AC. Maybe the ranger talents are supposed to be just better enough to make up that gap, but I’m skeptical.

Other features cover classic ranger abilities like favored enemies, spell casting, animal companions and two weapon fighting, though I use “traditional” most loosely on that last[3]. My only real disappointment is that the ranger’s archery talent is way crappier than the fighter’s archery talent.

Notably, this also includes the animal companion rules, which are fairly straightforward. Your companion is one level lower than you, which provides baseline stats, which are modified based on the type of animal (Eagles do less damage, Snakes can inflict poison and so on). There are feats for improving your companion, and all in all it seems like a fairly substantial subsystem with a fairly substantial cost and a fairly substantial reward. If you want to be a beastmaster, it’s got you covered, for at least one big critter (and there’s another feature that can get you a small creature using the wizard’s familiar rules, if you really want)

This run of simplicity breaks with the Rogue, whose powers make her look comparable to the fighter at first glance, but who may actually be a little more involved. The first tip is in the Features – the rogue has 3 class features. Two are as expected – sneak attack and trap detection. No shock there. The third is an idea called “momentum”. It’s not a power, but a state: a rogue gains momentum when he hits someone, and loses it when he’s hit. Many rogue powers only work when the rogue has momentum. Some cost momentum to use, others do not.

This looks really interesting on paper, and I’ll be curious to see it in action. It’s a nicely generalized “setup” mechanic, and you usually only see those in magic systems (summon power), but tying it to action can really drive play in a fight, as you have to take into account whether the choice you make will help you get or maintain momentum.[4]

The talents are interesting, in a mixed sense. A lot of them are straightforward – swap INT for CHA for some powers, Be more brutal in combat and so on, but a couple of them stood out as oddballs.

There is a Thievery talent which is very similar to the Ranger one – you get a “Thief” background at +5 (but no extra bonus, aside from the opportunity to buy feats). I admit I’m not sure why this is a talent and Trap Sense is a feature. It feels like the iron fist of the dungeon at work.

Improved Sneak Attack is something I never like seeing because in every game I’ve seen, it’s basically mandatory, since sneak attack damage is so essential to the overall combat effectiveness of the rogue. This does not seem to break the trend.

The “Smooth Talk” talent is fascinating, and I think people will love or hate it. It hangs a lantern on one of the worst abuses of social play and runs with it. Basically, once per day, if you (the player) can persuade the GM (the person) with your line of bullshit, then you have a 50/50 chance of establishing a temporary relationship with an Icon (which cascades into influencing the situation in play). Historically, player persuasiveness trumping mechanics is something of a bugbear in social interaction design, but explicitly creating a mechanical space for that persuasiveness is….kind of neat. I totally want to see it in action more, esp. because I suspect its value varies from table to table.

Similarly, the “Swashbuckle” talent kind of cuts both ways. It lets you expend momentum to narrate doing something awesome, dramatic and swashbuckly. But my instinctive reaction is “Wait, so I can’t do that normally?” The authors are aware of this, and address it a little, asserting that the talent means you often succeed automatically where others might need to make a difficult skill roll. That feels like half an answer to me, especially because most swashbuckling stuff is a more colorful path to the same end, so the interaction with dice is not always clear. But for a table that does not feel it has the freedom to do these kinds of things, the explicit invitation offered by the talent is pretty cool. So, like Smooth Talk, I’m not sure that works equally well at every table.

The actual powers themselves are pretty straightforward, with the only real potential confusion coming if you haven’t fully grokked momentum. They reinforce the basic idea of the rogue as a fast moving, mobile fighter with the potential to get off more attacks. They do an interesting job of keeping the effects interesting (and balanced by the need for momentum) so there’s no automatic decision to drop all low level powers in favor of high level ones.

Ok, 3 down, 2 to go. I’ve been warned that the last, the Wizard, is even more complicated than the Bard, so this should be a fun ride.

  1. 2 of them are mutually exclusive, and one can be taken multiple times, so the ratio is a little less straightforward than 8:5.  ↩
  2. The hack I’d do? Relationship based talents. That is, talents demanding a relationship with a certain Icon. Want to be a Dragon Knight and buy the Draconic Fury talent? Have to have a relationship with the Wyrm or the Three. Easy peasy.  ↩
  3. Seriously, it made me crazy when rangers became two weapon dudes because of Drizzt. Yes, there are some other examples (but I can cite many more examples of why rangers should be awesome with the bow, and they’re not) but really, it’s Drizzt, who uses two weapons because he’s a Drow. I accept that it is now baked into D&D canon, but still, rage!  ↩
  4. I’ve fiddled with some Fate hacks that work like this, so I have a bias in favor of the idea.  ↩