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Let’s Read: 13th Age

13th Age is a new tabletop RPG system being written by Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet; whose names you would recognize if you had read the credits of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition D&D. They’ve done some other impressive stuff, but this post isn’t about them.

13th Age is supposed to be a “love letter to D&D”. It has the goals of improving the flaws in both 3rd & 4th, while showing d20 how it can be a story based RPG. Some random commenter has called it “Pathfinder for 4th Edition”, and while I don’t agree with that, I do see his point.

On to my Let’s Read! What follows is my thoughts as I read through a pre-release version (Escalation 1, for those keeping score). I assume you are  familiar with d20 RPGs, and have some idea of the core concepts being introduced by 13th Age.

A lot of this feels like advice for running any game, not just 13th Age. Which is a good thing; they are helping to make the good GMs that certain other systems simply expect to appear magically.

Icons are supposed to be the Iconic Thing about 13th age. The idea looks like a great way to get PC’s involved with the larger world. It has a lot of potential. But I really don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere.

I like the idea of using backgrounds as a basis for skill checks. No longer do we need to play a game of “Wait, does dungeoneering apply if we are exploring the Engine decks of an Imperial Airship?”. (The answer is Yes, of course). The way it works is that you build a background for your character. If you need to make a skill check for something you decide which one of your backgrounds applies, come up with lame reasoning for why your “Grew up Homeless” background means you know stuff about Wine making and which region of the Fertile Basket this specific bottle comes from, your GM agrees, and now you have a clue for your investigations and a more fleshed out character background. 13th Age assumes that GM’s might make a judgement call on how believable your reasoning is but we all know that no GM is going to stall their campaign just because your Bull Shitting skills arn’t up to par. Basically, a skill check becomes “Skill check and character background exposition”. As long as the GM requires some sort of justification that can turn into back story and plot hooks, I think it will work out just fine.

Failing Forward is an amazing concept; part of the “Helping GM’s be Good GMs” I mentioned earlier. My 4E GM has just started doing it. She swears she got the idea from an article on the internet but we know were it really came from. Failing Forward is the idea that just because you fail a skill check, it doesn’t mean you failed the action. Maybe you did fail the action, and have to try another avenue. More likely you succeeded, but it alerted someone, or it caused a complication that will come up later.

Just call it a Healing Surge. I will never understand the need to reinvent terminology for pre-existing concepts.

I’ve never seen races as anything more than basis for fluff; and as I expect my GM’s to come up with their own world I’m going to skip this section. But I do see that races each get a racial feat or power. Things like “You might get extra standard actions each turn” or “Once per battle, as an immediate reaction to being hit, you can use a healing surge. Except healing surges are called Recoveries. So use a Recovery instead.”

I like how they handle weapons and armor. Basically, class determines the AC & dmg of each category of weapon. Example; Rogue simple One-handed weapons do 1d8. Cleric simple one-handed weapons do 1d6. I see this as separation of fluff and mechanics, and is a good thing. Fluff says this is the mace that I took from the skull of my father after he was murdered by the Heretic’s Inquisition. I wield it with furious recklessness as I seek revenge and to reestablish Behaumut as the Realm’s god. Mechanics says its a Heavy Two-Handed weapon. Cleric Heavy Two-Handed weapons do more damage but take a penalty to attack rolls.

This also means that when the party rogue picks up my mace, he is going to do more damage with it because he has higher dice.

Each class looks to be very unique. Not just different powers list, with a preference to range or melee or AOE; but different mechanics of play. Class choice will have a lot to do with how you want to play the game, not just what kind of character you want to play. The Classes chapter opens up with an “Ease of Play” section that discusses the differences so you can help choose a play-style/class that works for you.

Fighter’s abilities are at-wills that trigger off of dice rolls. Things like “Even and a hit”, “16+ and a hit”, “escalation dice greater than +3”, etc etc. Monk’s have forms, with a beginning, middle, and end. Each ability does something different based on where in the Form you use it. Bard’s get songs that are sustainable effects. Each round they have to save to sustain it. When they choose to end it or it is disrupted there is an additional effect.

Remember in 4E how monster abilities could recharge based on the roll of a dice? It’s back. I didn’t look into it, but it looks like it’s a thing for sorcerers.

I play a rogue and a cleric in 4E; so those are the only classes I’m going to look at.

Cleric looks interesting. I especially like how the cleric can change the shape of the battle just by showing up. At the start of battle, the cleric can decide to place an effect over the battle. This effect affects the entire battle, regardless of duration or time.

I think I’ll have to play the Rogue to get a feel for it. If combats are short, then their momentum mechanic could be swingy. If I’m reading it right, as long as the Rogue has hit someone but hasn’t been hit yet, they have more options and can do more damage. Once they get hit, they have to hit someone else to get back momentum. Basically, in some fights I think they will be unstoppable avatars of death; in others they will be punching bags. This isn’t to say I don’t like it; just saying I want to play a rogue (or see it played) a bit before I decide if I like it.

Apparently you get an additional dmg dice each level. So our lvl 5 vengeful cleric of Bahamut is doing 5d10 + Stat dmg on a hit. Thankfully, lvl 10 is max, so you characters will be gods before your local dice shop runs out of dice. And, if you’ve ever played Shadowrun you can just choose a d6 weapon and put that brick you bought to use. If you dislike rolling large amounts of dice, (or, if you are like me and dislike hauling around large amounts of dice) they have plenty of suggestions for using averages to cut down the number of dice. Example: Use the Average damage unless it’s a plot critical moment.

The Escalation Die is a great idea for speeding up combat. It’s also a great use for that novelty D6 the size of a house cat that your college girlfriend bought you. Basically, starting with the 2nd round of combat, add +1 for each round of combat that has passed this battle to attack and damage rolls. Caps at +6. Some abilities get better with the Escalation Die.

Gridless Combat looks cool. I think it’ll work and that most groups will pick it up quickly.

They have this thing called “Fighting In Spirit” which is a way for non-present party members to contribute to the fight and still be involved. It isn’t game breaking, it’s just a nod to the party member whose character is passed out drunk from wenching all weekend. Or just took a crit to the head and is bleeding out. That’s right, the party get’s a bonus when your dying.

They have very generous rules for fleeing. “If the party decides to Flee, they do, and they take all their fallen comrades with them. But they suffer a campaign loss”. I don’t think I have /ever/ seen a group flee from battle. Even if they knew it was going to be TPK. I don’t know if this rule will see use but it’s existence might cause some parties to live longer.

Second Wind is being renamed “Rally” cause common nomenclature is lame. I get that there might be legal issues with using 4E terminology, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

OK, I think it is great that this system is so flexible, but when every rule could be run either this way or that way what ever you like yes I’ll sleep with you please call me in the morning please… it feels less like a rule set and more like a desperate date. Tell me what you think is best. Should Crits be double damage, or should I roll twice the dmg dice? If I don’t like it I’ll change it. I don’t need your permission, I need you to stand up for yourself and show some personality. Are you 13th Age or are you 5E?

Extended Rest every four battles is the way to do it. I did it in my 4E campaign recently, and while I got a lot of push back from players who value verisimilitude over story; in my opinion it lead to better fights. Tying Extended Rest to your characters sleep cycle only works in a campaign that is constantly fighting every day, and even then it can lead to the 5 minute work day. I’m glad to see 13th Age getting rid of that trope. And, of course, the players can choose to take an Extended Rest early, at the cost of a campaign failure which will only make the story more interesting.

Oh hey, a section on Skill checks. DC’s aren’t based on Character level, they are based on “Environment”. There are three levels of Environment. Basically, if your adventurers are sneaking into the Inquisitions Fortress of Truth; they get the DC’s for highest tier, regardless of their level. Just because they may do something doesn’t mean they can. Perhaps they should get more experience in the world, and then come back.

The Environment system looks like it will help ease GM’ing, allowing parties to wander off into undefined areas.

Impromptu damage table! Why doesn’t every RPG have this? Your party cause the tunnel to collapse? No more looking for the “Cave Collapse” trap in one of those Monster Manuals (or was it in the DMG? Oh, Robert says it’s in DMG2… does someone have that?). Just look up the Impromptu Damage for the appropriate environment, roll some dice, move on. Seriously, this thing needs to be printed on place mats for every player and GM. I think it will be that useful.

No 13th Age; don’t get all wibbly on me. Don’t say that Extended Rest rules are optional and that if I really want to tie things to a 24hour clock then I can. Stand up for yourself dammit.

Leveling up happens at GM fiat. No more tracking XP. Just level up after 12 to 16 encounters or when it feels right for the story. And the entire party levels up together. This is one time I think GM Fiat is excellent. Tracking XP is a chore and never leads to interesting character choices. If you think your under leveled ranger demanding a special session so they can grind woodland creatures to play catch up is interesting… it isn’t.

Leveling up happens less often but the power jump is pretty significant. More dmg dice, feats, increased tohit and defense, more HP, more powers and spells… every level. Every.

Of course, wibby-wobbly 13th Age has an option if you think that waiting too long to level up isn’t good enough for you.

Magic Items in 13th Age are rare and powerful. Just like every other RPG that took a look at Torchlight and said “Man, I want loot like that”. Actually; that isn’t true. At all. Magic Items are rare, and 13th Age gives personalities to each of their magical items. Equip too many and their personalities start to influence your own actions. This will require a strong GM but it creates a story mechanic for limiting the number of magical items a player has.

They also have rules for “No, you can only have one Magical Sword. There are many like it, but this one is yours”.

You want to make a magic item? 13th Age has rules for that. “Roleplay it bitch”. That’s it. And 13th Age is standing up for itself and not backing down. You want to make up crazy rules for it? Fine; but you are cheating on 13th Age. She understands though, because this is an open relationship and she just wants you to be happy. But she (and I) don’t understand how anyone could want complex rules for item creation.

Annnd that’s it for rules. It has a couple of sections of Advice for players and GMs. The GM’s section includes “How to build an encounter” which looks fairly straight forward; it is simpler than 4E’s XP Budget system. There is also a chapter on Monsters, which I didn’t read. But it does include rules for building your own monster from scratch; in case you wanted to know how challenging a Swarm for fire breathing ants the size of small cars would be for your party. (Disclaimer; I didn’t see Swarm Rules. But then, I didn’t look)

There is also a chapter on the Fluff of the world. As I said earlier, I expect my GM’s to build their own worlds so I skipped it.

So, that’s it. There are a couple of introductory adventures. One is a quick single session “Hi, my name is 13th Age” speed date kinda thing. The other will involve a few dates, some awkward moments introducing 13th age to your friends, perhaps a few late night phone calls, and a weekend ‘vacation’.

So, that’s my read through of the 13th Age Escalation Pre-Release edition. Over all, I like what I saw. I think it’s a good stepping stone from d20 systems to more story based systems. Any group that plays this and moves on will have some solid tools for any system they choose play.

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