My review of 13th Age

I promised people a review of the 13th Age games at the UKT5 Tweetup, but work and s sister in laws wedding have got in the way, so here it is, a little delayed…

First off, let me say I wasn’t a 13th Age virgin going into UKT5, I’d had a look at the game during the very early playtests, I have the book and pdf, and had read them, and had even played a game or two of it. It’s not that much more than the others at the tweetup, but still…

In the early previews I’ll openly admit that I wasn’t that impressed by it, and even when I first looked at the final pdf it didn’t wow me the same way 4e did when I first looked at it and played it, but 13th Age’s strengths become clear when you actually start digging into its guts, rather than having a superficial read.

For me, this was last August time, planning the tweetup event that I cancelled. I went over the book and pdf several times, writing a what’s different post for this blog, writing a simplified how to play document and writing my own icons for the Forgotten Realms.

In doing this, I got to see how the game tries to tie players into the story and make them more creative, through the use of rules tweaks, beginning with the games Icons; which kinda speak for themselves, they are the ever present tropes of fantasy games – a dwarf king, an orc warlord, an emperor, a super wizard… These icons are at the foundation of the games focus on story, they make the game tick and give you a structure to build characters stories on. You can take an identically built character, and just by changing the positive/negative/conflicted relationships it has with one or two of the games icons, you totally change that characters relationship to the adventure you are playing. I particularly like conflicted relationships, it makes the icons less black and white. In play they are the people whose sole goals you are attempting to achieve, who can ignore you or grant you power, but we’ll come to that later.

Next you have backgrounds and skills. This is another area where the game shines. But rather than have you a list of backgrounds, and a list of skills, the game opens the door and says ‘ok, you tell us what happened to you and how that helps you’. In other words, what you make up here, and your ability to blag it to the dm during a game, totally affects how your character grew up and what your character knows how to do. And the organised play guidelines doc from Gencon that the 13th Age guys sent me (and should really be given to every 13th Age dm) tells you to get inventive. ‘Served in the militia’ as a background tells you that you might have tactical skills, or knowledge of military stuff, or weapon maintenance, maybe some rudimentary healing. But calling it ‘under captain to the dragon knights of the emperors bathhouse (reservists)’ instead is a) so much more flavorsome b) links to the icons, c) adds something to the setting, d) adds knowledge of bathhouses to the militia stuff from earlier…

The final rules tweak to make characters invested is their One Unique Thing. Let’s be honest this is nothing new, and I know that a lot of convention gms and certainly the Pathfinder advice for new dms/players in the society games is to get players to come up with a few buzzwords to describe their character: shifty, energetic, handsome, dumb. What 13th Age does is take this idea, expand it and make it central. Every character has a whole sentence that doesn’t just define the character it also makes them unique from the next fighter with identical stats. It might be ‘I was born in a orc prisoner of war camp, and escaped as a teenager by fashioning lockpicks from the bones they threw us to eat’, or ‘I am a half elf, literally one side is elf, the other is human’ or ‘I’m and elf stuck inside a dwarves body’ or ‘I was tainted by the diabolic and now my skin smoulders with abyssal heat’ or ‘I was a normal elf rogue, wearing black face when I was cursed, turning me into a drow’. It’s amazingly open ended and like the backgrounds, the more flavorsome the better, and it can add to the setting.

Character creation in 13th age is a breeze, very little flipping back and forth between chapters (*cough* unlike D&D Next *cough*) and the rules are what you expect from a OGL based game. The difference of course is that some classes are simpler than the others and some have 4e like ‘powers’. It does some funky things with odds & even dice rolls so you can potentially still do something cool even if you miss, it takes a simple look at ranges and movement (unless you are engaged in base to base combat, you move freely, and range basically doesn’t matter), a simple way of handling critical hits and a simplistic way of handling two weapon fighting.

It handles attacks of opportunity via the engaged rule, which personally I think is hideously over complicated, especially compared to how 4e managed to do opportunity attacks. It has a 4e second wind like action, Rally, to heal in combat, and the other major addition to combat is the Escalation die, a d6 that increases it’s face (from +1 on the second round, upto +6) as the combat drags on. This totally changes combat… in 4e, you basically went nova as early as possible, blowing your encounter powers to deal as much damage as early in the fight as you could, and then falling back on at-will powers. in 13th Age, it’s actually better to hold back, weaken the target with your simpler attacks/spells and then as the escalation dice builds up, let lose with the nastier attacks.

So, now you understand the basics of 13th Age let me tell you about the games at UKT5.

On one table we had Pete/@pedr. Pete is probably the most experienced 13th Age dm I know. He’s been running it since before it came out and is even in a video used by the 13th Age guys to show off the game, where he’s teaching Morrus of Enworld fame how to play it. Pete was also my first 13th Age dm. At the tweetup, Pete was running one of the organised play adventures with a story based around a forgeborn (*cough* warforged… *cough*) love potion. On his table was James/@roguecolonel who posted his review here, and Jay/@breacher18 and her partner Amy/@r_u_d_d_a along with two other I didn’t catch the names of.

Our second table was run by Rich/@richgreen01, publisher of the middle eastern like city source book Parsantium. Indeed, rich’s game was set in his city. On this table was paul/@paulbaalham, my wife Helen/@sleepymrsp, Simon (not of the symatt variety) and his daughter, Dmitri/@feanan, and I think one other. Rich’s game was a murder mystery set in one of the cities bathhouses with the city gangs involved. Theres a more detailed writeup here.
From what my wife has said, she enjoyed it, more so than when she’s played 4e, though she did say the maths involved due to multiple dice and different dice sizes was an issue. Her other complaint was that Rich seemed to spend a lot of time going over the icons for his setting and then the icons didn’t really come into play, though she did like how people’s relationships to them pretty much divided the group into two.

Finally, there was Robin/@greywulf’s game. This is the table I played at, though I’ll admit with having to deal with the door and wanting to be nosy about the other tables, and keeping up with twitter, meant I wasn’t giving the game my full attention. On this table was Simon (of the symatt variety), his brother carl/@gmcarlplus5, and two tweetup newbies Simon and Jay.

I’ve gamed with Robin quite a lot in the last 2 years, as we’ve been heavily involved with the private playtesting if D&D Next. Sometimes he’s been the dm, sometimes I have, sometimes we’ve both had chance to play. I like his play style as it quite laid back and is a lot like mine, in that he’s happy to let people do out of the ordinary stuff with their characters.

I chose a dark elf wizard pregens, level 4. This is massively higher than my previous 13th age experience (both level 2). In reality, all this meant was more hp, an extra spell and my stuff did a bit more damage. Whoever built the pregens had done do in a fairly non combative way – my attack spells basically inflicted conditions on targets rather than hurting them. But I had cantrips, the rather ingenious utility spell, and cantrip mastery, so I decided that was how I was going to play the character, as a hedge mage, someone with a handful of parlour tricks and the occasional uber spell.

Robin had tweeted that his game was going to be called Night of the 10,000 Zombies. He wasn’t far off… using a poster map and tiddlywinks to show a horde of zombies we ended with most of the dock side and the hillside graveyard covered in the little tokens!

Our sorcerer started the fight off with a flashy light show, chain lightning his way through something like 7 zombies and a few hundred points of damage in total. Goodbye docks! That kinda cemented my decision to play it more utility and so I went to town with my cantrips – it wasn’t until my 6th spell that I actually attacked using a proper spell.

To shorten the story, we made no real impact on the hordes and ended up split into two groups, one in a warehouse of alcohol barrels up a hill, and the rest of us still at the dock side. I ended up trampled by a runaway barrel and chewed on by zombies, but made it to the warehouse and snuck into a smugglers tunnel beneath it…

Eventually we ended up noticing a single baddie with a glowing sword (quick note, nothing good ever comes from a 13th Age magic item, they are all evil egotistical despots).

We let loose and killed him (Yay to ongoing damage) and then the sword disappeared, appearing in one of our allies hands…

And then the attitude on the table changed. We role played this to the hilt, allies unsure of what was happening, people backstabbing, me getting dragged my 40 zombies into a burning alcohol warehouse… 4 tense rounds went by without the building exploding, Robin passed me a note; “the trapdoor”. It was my potential escape, so I try and escape, no such luck. It’s another tense explosion roll… it’s down to a 2+ on the roll to explode, not good odds, and robin rolls a 5… He asks me if I want another escape attempt but I shake my head, I’ve already failed to shake myself free from the zombies, I’m down to 6 hp… I take the noble exit and explode… letting the rest of the group finish up the adventure.

I’ve kind glossed over it, but Robin has us making icon rolls quite frequently to see how our relationships would be affected by us gaining control over the sword etc. It worked, and kept the icons part of the adventure, whereas in the official guidelines you basically roll at the start of an adventure.

EDIT: I’ve expanded this section as the original version was brief and could be viewed as negative…

So, after my 3rd game of it, what do I think of 13th Age…

I like it, and more crucially, I want to play more of it. I want to try the fighter with its odd/even roles, I want to try the rogue with its momentum based stuff. It’s a system that works well to give you combat options along with mechanics for telling and investing in a story, and theese changes to the OGL work!

I do however have a few concerns with it. They don’t stop the system from being great, but they are issues that could effect people’s enjoyment of the game.

1) it requires a dm who can adapt to what the players can bring into the game thru the relationships, backgrounds and unique things.
I don’t think that 13th Age would be a good choice for an inexperienced DM and this is evidenced by the adventure in the core book, which, thanks to the icons the players can choose is vague and detailed at the same time.
The flip side, is that a creative dm can take the default setting and the players tweaks and make something amazing happen.

2) it requires a group who are willing to use those things to alter the story.
I’ve always been quite lucky with the groups I’ve gamed with and getting story into sessions, but I know not all groups are like this. I suspect new players won’t be too phased by something like the one unique thing, and it’s more that middle ground; lapsed gamers, those with only a few games experience etc who will struggle with the story mechanics.
Again though, if the group GETS it, they can do wonders with the system, and derail even a well prepped DM with some fun story tweaks.

3) the rules are nothing special, a hodge podge of 3e and 4e that beyond a few fringe cases, don’t get in the way.
This is a big thing for me. 4e blew me away with inventive mechanics that took what I expected from D&D and threw it out the window (yeah, the rules that most people now say sucked are essentially what made me love gaming again, go figure). And I’m now expecting other systems to do the same. 13th Age brings some very clever things to the table, the story mechanics, the escalation die, the odd/even rolls rules. But at its heart, it’s 3e and that’s now nearly 15 years old.
Like all good systems, the rules don’t get in the way, and I reckon once i’ve played some more, the fringe cases where play has to pause while we check things will be easier to deal with.

4) characters are weak with limited options.
Sure, I’m comparing this to 4e’s big darn heroes style of play, but at level 4 I basically only had 4 different things I could do, and that was with the wizard, one of the more complex classes!
Wade, who is the main community guy for 13th Age (and an awesome bloke) pulled me up on twitter about this, and it bears more detail. Essentially it boils down to my love of  4e, which had a very powerful style of play, and systems that have followed it, such as Next and 13th Age have scaled back the power. This is NOT a bad thing, it’s more that I am very used to having more I can do at level 1 in 4e than I can do at almost mid game levels in other systems.

5) it feels more modern than D&D Next but less of an innovation than 4e was. A very good middle ground.
I wanna look at this in more detail in another blog post, but to quote @paulbaalham; 13th Age is what I wanted D&D Next to be. Whereas D&D Next falls back on 40years of D&D History and panders to the OSR crowd, 13th Age goes ‘it’s 2013, let’s make a game that feels modern’. It isn’t afraid to take things from 4e that worked, and it isn’t afraid to keep things from 3e that worked, and it’s not afraid to try it’s own new things.
I reckon 13th Age will appeal to pathfinder players who want a little more oomph in their games, and for 4e players who want less focus on fights and more focus on story. Like I say, its pretty much the centre point of a Venn diagram of 4e’s combat, 3e’s beloved rules, and story.

6) one unique things should be in every system.
I’m not sure I need to add more detail here. The icons system needs a bit more work, mainly in advice for dm’s on how to use it. Backgrounds are cool, but maybe a little too open ended and vulnerable to abuse. One unique thing on the other hand has an instant benefit and can be added to pretty much every game as a way to describe your character without breaking the system

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One thought on “My review of 13th Age

  1. Interesting write up – thanks for posting!

    Agree about the icons not really coming into my UKT5 game much beyond the magic items the players got at the start – partly I think that was down to the limitations of a one-shot con game but I think I could have tweaked a few things a bit more to involve them. Still, I do think it helped the players come up with more rounded characters and that can only be a good thing 😉

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