First Impressions: 13th Age

A lot has been said about 13th Age in the last  month or two. It’s the hot new thing (along with Numenera). If you want to find out about it, I recommend an excellent and highly detailed write-up by Rob Donoghue. Instead, I’ll provide just what the title promises: impressions.

It’s D&D

Very much so. Or at least one of its many aspects. More kick-the-door-in, less character optimization. This unmistakable D&D nature of 13th Age is what lead to our group being so excited to play it. We’re the exact target audience for this game: most of us have started with the 3rd edition, moved on to 4th, then branched out in search of narrative fulfillment and different experiences. After half a year of playing indie games, flipping through class descriptions of 13th Age is like coming back home. Remarkable, how imprinted D&D is in our gaming DNA.

We’re also the only target audience. It relies on the understanding of D&D, of its methods, cliches and even terminology, that other players simply won’t have. All the playful commentary designers have put in the book is based on the assumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about. I have no idea if a newbie player will be able to make heads or tails of it. Another fact that can be considered a drawback is that at times 13th Age is unnecessarily D&D-like, reproducing not just the core experience but some of the trappings as well. There is a fine line between nostalgia and repeatedly stepping on the same rakes.

Still, 13th Age offers a number of “fixes” to long-standing D&D issues. They are elegant and, like many other elements of the game, can be stolen. In fact, many feel like someone’s house rules. For instance, PCs only get the benefits of full rest after they’ve had 4 fights (even though spells and the like are still called “daily” abilities, which causes some confusion). Or take resurrection: a cleric can only bring a soul back from the dead a few times over his or her life, with the process getting harder and harder. Similarly, a soul can only be brought back a few times. Suddenly, death matters without removing the option of  coming back to life.

Vigorous handwaving

13th Age puts a lot of trust in its GMs. After 4e, it can come off a bit jarring at times, as there are plenty of abilities with only the barest of guidelines followed by “the GM will make up something appropriate”. These work more often than not. I particularly loved Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations, a wizard talent that lets the player make up long-winded names for their spells in order to gain a thematically fitting benefit. That’s the sort of vancian casting I can get behind. In the very first game we’ve had, hold portal was worded as Empress’s solid rejection. It not only closed the door, but filled whoever tired to open it with feelings of inadequacy and sudden sexual frustration.

Another example would be the game’s approach to monsters. Monsters are balanced in terms of numbers such as defenses and attacks appropriate for their level, but their abilities are left up to the GM: many monsters come with “nastier specials”. Feel like monsters die too quickly? Use them. Or not, up to you.

That’s the strength of the game: it recognizes when the flavor is more important than the rules, or when the rules cannot actually support the flavor and it’s better to vigorously handwave the issue away. It is also a cheap way out.

For the love of d20

13th Age goes out of its way to use the d20, more so than any other d20 system. Many classes have so-called flexible attacks, which trigger if they’ve rolled specific values on the d20. Similarly, many monsters have abilities that trigger on specific rolls. This results in a lot of information being compressed in a single d20 roll, removing some of the analysis paralysis so prevalent in 4e.

The drawback, of course, is that players may feel like they don’t have a choice at all at times, just rolling the die and seeing what happens. While monsters function almost on an auto-pilot, players are somewhat better off. They do get intersecting triggers, as well as the choice of which abilities to take during character creation. The trade-off of choice in-play for speed of play seems to be working out so far for us.

When 4e just came out, the very idea of encounter powers caused some players to do a double-take: “if I know how to do this maneuver, why can’t I just keep doing it?” The correct answer to this particular dilemma was “that’s the way the game works, don’t think too hard about it”. But if you must, imagine the circumstances for the maneuver only occur occasionally in the chaos of battle. It just so happens to be right at the time when you decide to use the encounter power, a retroactive justification. Flexible attacks of 13th Age remove this discrepancy: you do know how to do whatever it is you do, but the flux state of the fight represented by the d20 roll may or may not enable you to use your skills.

Which makes me think of a system taking this idea, d20 as chaotic state of battle, to its logical conclusion. You roll the d20 at the start of your turn, and it dictates what you can do. High rolls are attacks (probably automatically hitting), low rolls are defensive, middle ground is utility. You never waste your turn because you never fail a roll. But you may not be able to do what you really wanted to do, or at least to do it well. Something to ponder later.

Escalation to victory

Another innovative element, the escalation die is fantastic. It is a d6 that at the start of the second round of combat is set to 1, and incremented each round thereafter. It is added to attack rolls of PCs, making sure fights don’t drag on while at the same time providing a disincentive for alpha-striking. But it does more than that. It unlocks some abilities of characters, or makes them more powerful or reusable. Similarly, it can also be used as a pacing mechanism not just for the violence characters inflict, but the state of the encounter. The idea is awesome, but I’m not yet sure just how flexible the single constantly incrementing d6 is, especially considering some abilities can affect it.

There is a more subtle element to it. The escalation die provides a dramatic swing in PCs’ favour as the fight progresses. They may start on the back foot, but, armed with the escalating attack bonus, will bring the fight back around, again and again. A simple yet efficient mechanic.

Icons

Yet another new element, Icons are a different way of interacting with the setting. They give players control over which major NPCs will get involved in the story, thus shaping it with their interests. While the idea is great, the mechanic itself is a bit simplistic: you roll a d6 for each Icon relationship at the start of a sessions, and get a benefit on a 6 or a complicated along with a benefit on a 5, at some point during play. It takes getting used to. So far, we’re just managing to get the Icons (or their organizations) involved, not necessarily deriving benefits from them. It’s certainly a different way of running games. Its purposeful simplicity makes it feel like an add-on, tacked on top of the system.

At the same time, while at a glance this seems like the idea that’s easiest to steal, that may not be the case. It’s set up for a world with 13 major NPCs. Depending on your setting and the scale of your game, you’ll probably want different numbers and, in fact, different definitions of just what an Icon is.

Icons are also prone to the syndrome of goblin dice: the rolls are extremely infrequent, and their influence is potentially massive. If you don’t roll 5+ for a few sessions, your Icons do absolutely nothing – especially unpleasant in a one-shot. And on the other end of the spectrum, if players have rolled too many “successes” at the start of a game, it’s almost impossible to meaningfully incorporate them all. There’s a simple fix I’ll have to try: instead of rolling a die for each relationship, roll a single die, with values on it corresponding to your Icons. Typically, a d8: 1 means no relationships trigger; 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 correspond to your three Icons, even numbers being complicated benefits and odd numbers being just benefits; and 8 lets you roll twice (duplicates rerolled, if you care). For a one off, or if you don’t care to reproduce the full spectrum of possible results, don’t bother with 1 and 8, and instead roll a straightforward d6 with 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 corresponding to Icons. You could further refine this, and perhaps use a d12 once PCs get 4 relationships (10+ being a roll twice result).

Try it!

Overall I’m rather enjoying my foray into the 13th Age. It feels somewhat raw at times, and overly nostalgic at others. But it’s full of charm and quirkiness and energy. It makes you want to roll up a character just to see how a class would play – an almost forgotten feeling. If you liked D&D, any D&D, check it out.

3 thoughts on “First Impressions: 13th Age

  1. What strikes me as holding 13th Age back the most is the Icons. For the exact reasons you say it would be difficult to insert custom icons and because they’re made to be mechanically important to the way the game plays. By design 13th Age demands you to play in the default setting without an easy way to play otherwise (besides completely dropping icons).

    I’m not sure marrying the rules system to a brand new published world setting was the greatest idea. Not a deal breaker but definitely seems to hobble it as a general use rules system.

    • True. The Icon rules could have used a bit more fleshing out, a bit more examples. We play in our own setting, and basically had to pick Icons based on what the game will be about. In a different corner of the world, they would be entirely different.

  2. I really like the alternative d8 Icon mechanic! Not only does it make it more likely that each PC’s relationship comes into play, but it eliminates situations where one player might get 2 or 3 results for the session; probably more than can be used.

    Of course those situational, “you enter Drakkenhall, so anyone with a relationship with The Three can roll them” rolls are still better suited to the standard d6. More experienced players shouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with 2 different mechanics, though.

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