I really like 13th Age.
You want more than that? Oh, ok.
13th Age isn’t D&D. 13th Age is what D&D’s child would be if D&D got really drunk one night and slept with a hot indie game. It’s one DNA strand removed from the d20 system we know and love, with an extra slice of oh-so-light magical storytelling narrative structure that turns it into a whole new creature.
13th Age is a gene-spliced role-playing game done right. What you won’t find here are any particularly new or innovative game mechanics; what you will find are elements and echoes from other game systems slotted, filed and polished in such a way that they work together beautifully. It’s like a Frankenstein’s Jigsaw where all the disparate puzzle pieces somehow fit together to create a stunning mosaic.
Let’s start (finally!) with just the facts.
13th Age is a one-book 320 page role-playing game that costs $44.95/£29.95 from the nice people at Pelgrane Press (or your local hobby retailer). For that price you get both the pdf (to download immediately along with a crapton of additional material) and the physical book. Not a bad deal at all, I reckon.
The book includes 7 Races (Human, Dwarf, Half-Orc, Elf (Dark, High and Wood), Gnome, Half-Elf and Halfling), 4 Optional Races (Dragonspawn, Aasimar, Dwarf-Forged, Tielflings) for use if they suit your campaign, 8 Classes (Barbarian, Bard, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard). The Monk, Druid, Chaos Shaman, Necromancer, Battle Captain and Occultist will be available in the upcoming 13 True Ways expansion, with the Monk playtest doc included in your pdf pack of the 13th Age core rules.
Character Generation (along with Races, Classes, etc) and Combat take up about half the book, with the remainder given over to the GM’s side of the table along with what I’d judge to be a satisfying bestiary of core monsters. You’ll find all the staples here – Dragons, Harpies, Orcs and the like but no monster names will jump out at you and say “Oh! That’s new”.
So far, so D&D. What makes 13th Age different is all that d20-ness takes a step back from feeling or being particularly important. It’s core-rules glue, but the real content shines when you look at Icons, your character’s Backgrounds and their One Unique Thing (their capitals, not mine. But I’d put ’em in capitals too).
Icons are the Big Bad (and Big Good) plot threads in the campaign. These are the iconic movers and shakers which help provide conflict and motivation for the player’s entertainment. Where other campaigns might have the likes of Elminster, Sauron & Gandalf and they have walk on parts where they give out nuggets of information, bestow quests or glower menacingly, the Icons in 13th Age are rivals and allies of each other (sometimes at the same time) and the PCs can quickly become enmeshed in the power-play politics of the age.
While it might sound like the PCs are then just nothing more than puppets on the string of NPCs under the GM’s control, the clever thing about 13th Age is it’s all really in the hands of the players. During character generation they choose which Icons they have positive or negative relations with (and to what degree), and decide what that relationship means to the PC. The GM can then take those threads and conflicts from a whole party and…. well, the stories will pretty much write themselves.
For example, imagine one PC has a Conflicted relationship with the Lich King. The PC is a Wizard who believes that mindless undead could be put to good use in the fields, and is eager to study necromancy for the betterment of mankind. Another PC, a Rogue, is Opposed to the Lich King because her family were killed and turned into zombies before her very eyes. She thwarts the Lich King’s plots wherever she finds them. The Lich King’s minions whisper tales to the Wizard of a research tome in an ancient Necromancer’s lair. Now add in another three PC’s Icons as plot twists where applicable. The GM steps back, the fireworks are lit.
The Icons’ stories become the PC’s stories, with the GM taking cues from the players as to what kind of tales they want to tell. Each PC also has One Unique Thing – something which no other character can lay claim to. This can ideally have no rules effect (though if it does, just swap out a Class or Race Feature for it), but instead help mark the PC as someone significant and important in the world.
My character, Pengwyn Alsarath is a Half-Elf Fighter. He has a Unique Thing that he is literally a half-elf – his left half is elven, his right half is human (yes, he has one pointy ear and one round ear). For his Icons I chose the High Druid (2 positive) and Lich King (1 negative); he is a member of the Gladeguard, honour guards to the Druids. As a result of his unique nature (half of him is immortal, half isn’t), the Lich King’s minions have taken an interest in his biological makeup.
It’s not a big thing, but it marks Pengwyn out in a subtle way and provides plot hook gold for the GM. Another PC in my group (Hi, Adam!) is playing a Sorcerer whose skin continually smoulders and burns, which says something about his ties to the Diabolist. He needs to replace his clothes daily and spends a fortune on bedsheets, and it adds so much more to the character.
But that’s not all. Backgrounds are somewhat like Backgrounds we’re familiar with in D&D and other systems (Farmer, Night Watchman, Member of the 13th Cavalry, Outcast Elf, or whatever else you can imagine) but they’re used like skills in that they provide a bonus to your d20 roll when they apply. You get 8 points to spend, with no more than +5 in one Background. The player makes their own Backgrounds up (with GM permission, of course), and this helps the players to directly enrich and pad out the game world.
Back to my character. His Backgrounds are Soldier of the Gladeguard +5 and Faerie Exile +3. He was banished (and cursed, hence his form) from the Elven Court for unexplained reasons. As far as the Elf Queen is concerned, he is dead to her.
Bam. I’ve just “invented” The Gladeguard, an order of bodyguards responsible for protecting Druids. I’m a player and I’ve just added something to the world. It’s not a New Thing, but it’s a very good thing indeed to be able to (nay, expected to) do this in this way with such a light and easy touch.
There’s a lot more to love about 13th Age, and these are merely my first impressions. Combat is fast and a whole lot of fun; it feels like a finely-balanced cross between the freedom of D&D Next and the structure of Fourth Edition. It certainly doesn’t suffer from the “Power Tunnel Vision” of 4e where the player just looks at their list of Powers to see what then can do on their turn (here’s a hint: you can do anything). Instead it’s very easy to say what you want to do then casually glance to see if any of your abilities apply. In the last session I killed a spider the size of a housecat with a missed blow (it stepped back as I swung, but not far enough and the tip of my blade removed its last remaining hit points) and followed that miss with a Cleave into that larger spider beside it. We killed a lot of spiders that day. Ah, happy times.
Unless you’re a spider, of course.
The obvious question that will be asked is how it compares to D&D Next, to which I reply “you shouldn’t compare role-playing games”. It’s like comparing albums, whether they’re by the same or different artists. I wouldn’t compare, say, a Rolling Stones album to one by Adele, or two different Beatles albums. I can like them all and what I play depends on my mood more than the respective skills of the artists. It is OK to like more than one thing.
That said, 13th Age is a different creature to any edition of D&D. This is a fantasy role-playing game for storytellers. I would suggest (and could happily be wrong) that it’s less suitable for solo play (the Icons concept really requires at least two PCs to get the most out of it). I’d love to see how 13th Age could effortlessly transform a traditional D&D style dungeon crawl into something story-driven through the interplay between the PC’s Icons and Backgrounds.
But back to 13th Age versus D&D. I think there’s a lot to be said for “different system, different mindset”. The challenge with D&D is that it has a set of expectations built into the brand. That’s why I don’t envy Mike, Greg & co’s job at all when it comes to building D&D Next. With every new edition of D&D the task is to try to create something new using a blueprint that has already been drawn.
With other systems (including d20 variants like 13th Age) they don’t have that expectation-of-being-D&D, so can be much looser with their rules and assumptions. Without the constraints of the D&D brand, the designers are free to create their own game, and that can often (13th Age, Pathfinder, Mutants & Masterminds) create a much better game as a result.
Sometimes standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t a good idea. Especially if the giant is really pissed and doesn’t want you there.
Till next time!