In which Greywulf says he really likes 13th Age

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!

5 Comments on “In which Greywulf says he really likes 13th Age”

  1. My comments about the session Robin played…

    @Pedr was dm’ing, and outlined the scenario, we’d stumbled into a small village where a mage and a sorcerer were fighting to see who would be the resident magic wielder in the town. They each asked us to find a spiders nest in the nearby forest, collect some eggs and return. though each seemed to have ulterior motives to the quest.

    I took a human sorcerer I built.
    For my one unique thing, I said that my infernal heritage meant that my skin was always on fire – not flames so much, but a smoldering heat that meant by the end of the day my clothes burnt away.
    For my relationships, I initially started with 1 point negative with the diabolist, the icon linked to demons. I changed this to a conflicted, I’m born from demonic heritage, but i’ve turned my back on him, refusing to work for him, or even acknowledge i’m linked to him. I also chose a 2 point positive relationship with the archmage, describing it as having been taken under his wings as a child and taught to be an arcane killer, knowledgeable in the ways of sorcery and magic, and also stealth… In addition, the archmage taught me to harness the natural sparks of electricity in things, to utilize them as offensive and defensive lightning spells, but also how to make little clockwork automatons.
    So my backgrounds were: Arcane Assassin +3, Tinkerer +5, and I got an additional +2 bonus to a magic based background from one of my talents., So Arcane Assassin +5

    Pedr then did some more outlining, and I ended up with a magical necklace from the towns sorcerer, that seemed to collect the fire of my skin, cooling it. Where else do you put such a necklace when you’re always burning up… For blessed relief of crotch burn!

    “We cut a swath through the forest, coming across tons of tiny spiders and covering our selves in the mess of exploration, before entering into a clearing in front of a dark cave entrance, In it’s mouth was a hunting spider, the famed pets of drow war parties, and beyond it the vague outline of something bigger, darker, scarier…

    The hunting spider, on sighting us bursting through the treeline, rose on its front legs, it’s fanged jaw clicking and chittering. The forest behind us responded, with the rustling of leaves as several varieties of spider as big as an ogre’s hand leapt from the tree onto our armour, attempting to drive their fangs in.

    My allies attempt to swipe the small things from their shoulders, hair, shields… But I stood firm, savoring the pain of their fangs piercing my flesh, enjoying the cooling sensation of my blood dripping down my skin, for it made concentrating and chanting the words the Archmage had taught me easier. I lifted my hands, and the smoldering of my skin erupted in a fiery conflagration, incinerating the 3 beasts upon me.

    I patted down the remaining flames, and looked to see where my allies had gone, they’d charged forward, meeting the hunting spider, and Oh Lord, by the Length of the Abyss, what is that thing… A spider, bigger than a horse, nay, bigger than an ogre, had crossed from the cave mouth, trails of webs making its path obvious. It squatted, a revolting churning motion in its abdomen plainly visible to me so far away.

    I considered my options, my tiny licks of flame would barely singe the surface of such a huge beast, and so I paused, letting my mind empty and in my clam and peace, searched the world for the strands of magic that shift and cross the surface, gathering them to me to empower me. And in doing so I felt something inside me ignite, some kind of frenzy.

    My worries about the giant spider were it seems, not unfounded, for with a screech, it opened its maw and a burst of sticky webs shot out, engulfing the paladin and fighter. I screamed at the sight, losing my concentration and crackling lightning shot forth from my outstretched arms, arcing across the clearing to strike the beast fell and true, electricity sheathing it, causing its hairs to raise, before leaping to the hunting spider between it, and then discharging through the thick strands of webbing, the popping noise as the smaller hatchlings ichor bubbled and burst almost sickening. But i’d failed to ground myself in preparation, and I felt the static crawl back into me, the blood from my puncture wounds boiling.

    I could see that the spiders attentions were taking their toll upon my allies, they looked staggered and dazed, but they fought on, using the momentum of the battle, the adrenaline of the fight fueling them to strike again and again, destroying the beasts.”

    So… I took 13 out of 32 hp, used a daily talent and a recharge power (which I didn’t recharge). Thats my resources gone, but I am left with a very nice selection of at-wills. We didn’t get to see backgrounds in play, though there was a cave we could have snuck into.

    The big thing for me, I felt threatened by 3 little spiders, even with 16 ac. despite criting with an empowered spell, I didn’t stagger the big spider which really did worry me. It felt like I would expect a low lever character to feel. I felt like I had enough options to do without falling back to a single I hit it attack, and I felt that if I built the character differently, the character would work totally differently.

    I think we all agreed last night that it has the relationships and one unique thing has the potential to wreck a dm’s campaign plans, but I think it’s a great bridging system between 4e’s tactics and Next’s simplicity/lack of options.

  2. With the benefit of time, I find myself most taken with how much of a Fairy Tale setting 13th Age is vs. D&D’s High Fantasy setting. The one unique thing really seems to push for those fairy tale origins. It could also be that I just love the 13th Age setting… perhaps even more than the rule set.

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