Review: 13th Age

While it’s been available as a pdf for some time, the hardback rules for 13th Age from Pelgrane Press are finally getting to folks. For a long time I was on the fence about this. I was happy with my 4E game but the more I played, the more flaws with the game came up especially as my group leveled up. PC power glut was a big issue and I thought up a few potential tweaks to trim the list down. I even considered consolidating at-will powers and altering the basic attack to make it more attractive as an alternative. It sort of was swept under the rug compared to other at-will attacks for PCs. Lastly, I really wanted some way to give players an option of pouring out the damage, and considered using healing surges as a means to do so.

So last week I decided to take the plunge and pick up 13th Age. As I glanced through the rules, what I found particularly interesting was that most of the beefs I had with 4E seemed to be addressed with 13th Age. It’s not entirely surprising as one of the designers was also involved in creating fourth edition D&D. But I particularly liked how much of the glut of temporary modifiers and ever-expanding power choices in 4E were removed, making the game seem much more fluid and engaging.

13th Age is a high fantasy rule set based on the d20 system. No bones about it, I’ve heard this described as a love letter to 4E and I can totally see the imprint of that in the rules. What makes this stand out however, is how many good things it took from 4E, while dumping the extraneous bits, making for a slimmer, fun ruleset. Those at home with 3.5 will also find some familiar territory here, but I think more of the roots with the game are with 4E.

The game relies on many standard choices for races (dark elves are an option) and classes from past editions of D&D (no monks, druids, or shaman). Multiclassing officially is not part of the ruleset, but certain classes can definitely dabble in other class abilities with feats or domains. There is a bevy of your typical high fantasy monsters and a decent list of magic items.

It’s still d20 D&D here. You have levels, 6 ability scores ranked from 3-18, AC, hit points. A nod to 3.5/4E much of the mechanics revolve around rolling a d20 over a set DC value. As with 4E, there are specific defenses for spells and effects where players roll against listed physical or mental defenses. There is initiative and everyone attacks in that order during a typical turn.

Healing is very loose and liberal. As with 4E (and DnDnext) each class has a number of recovery dice that they use to recover HP. And as an action one recovery can be used during combat. Characters have death saving throws, and ample means to heal themselves. Clerics aren’t required, but their abilities definitely supplement the party’s healing potential greatly.

Similar to DnDnext, there isn’t a formal list of skills. Checks are made in a similar fashion, rolling against static DC values for easy, hard, and difficult checks. There are different main tiers, from adventurer, to champion, to epic with resulting DC, defenses, and attack bonuses from monsters and hazards scaling upwards. These are spread out from levels 1-10 however. Correspondingly monsters also have defenses, HP, and attack bonuses that scale up. However you will see certain creature types plateau. So don’t expect to see a variety of kobolds that range from level 1 to 4 like in 4E.

Character progression and advancement are familiar. Players add a level bonus to attack dice, skill checks, and defenses. Hit points increase incrementally, as do ability modifiers (resulting in some changes to defenses). Also a regular advancement of feats and spells are rolled out, resulting in every level bringing something to the player gradually increasing power and abilities. One particular change I like is that many class options don’t necessarily mean a brand new ability, but rather can improve on those they already have. While wizards and clerics can expect a new spell or two as they advance, most other classes will get more utility out of their attacks and abilities.

I’ve covered some things that are similar, now onto things that make 13th Age stand out. There are many aspects of the game that allow for character customization. Skills are not present, rather a player has so many points for backgrounds instead. These PC backgrounds highlight past experiences and history. If the DM thinks it has an application to the task at hand, they provide a bonus. It’s very freeform and supplements the simple ability score checks of the game well. There are a wide variety of feats that confer small bonuses and little tweaks to abilities.

This ties in very well to the abilities (read powers) of the character classes themselves. Many of the game mechanics revolve around the d20 roll. Some situational bonuses come about on a miss, rolling 16+ on the to hit roll, to hits that are an even result. This gives some varying situational benefits to combats. Feats expand on these abilities, giving some even greater effects when they trigger, or possibly adding more predictability to when they do. Because characters start out with a fair number of feats and continually expand on them, they gain a lot of customization. You can end up with two level 3 fighters that have very different abilities.

Another key aspect of combat is the escalation die. After the first round of combat a simple d6 continually goes up from 1 to 6, with the current value granting players a bonus to attacks. Monster abilities also can interfere with this. It’s a nice tool in preventing fights from dragging on and keeping the action moving, encouraging the combatants to be proactive. Combined with situational powers related to attack results, you have combat that is engaging and less about just a hit or miss result with attacks.

Combats are also very much within the theater of the mind. Creatures are either engaged or not. They are either nearby (within a standard move) or far. They are in cover, or not. Attacks of opportunity are there, but with a simple check, players can slip away if needed. Likewise, unengaged creatures can intercept others trying to slip around them. So there is some tactical movement, but nothing rigid requiring a grid to run a melee.

Leveling up is also fast and loose. No experience points are awarded. Rather, GM’s are encouraged to level up the PCs when they feel appropriate. A rule of thumb is after three to four major resting points players should advance a level. Each resting point is after 4 major fights. So after about twelve to sixteen melees, the players should have enough under their belts to level up. The focus of the game is when it’s dramatically appropriate though. So after achieving a major quest is perfectly acceptable too.

Magic items are split into two camps. Your mundane consumables in the manner of oils, potions, and runes that provide a simple mechanical bonus, and that of permanent items. The consumables are made to be your typical one use, throw away items that are actually rather mundane. Magical permanent items however are meant to be special and wondrous, each with a personality. You aren’t going to run into a simple +1 dagger but you will have one that has some history or quirks to it that encourages more story effects in the game.

Two additional points make 13th Age stand out from other RPGs, a player’s one unique thing and icon relationships. Every character will have one unique characteristic that makes them stand out from others in the world. It’s geared towards a background-centric or plot device, rather than some game mechanic benefit. This is decided at character creation and can be a relatively simple concept (they are the 5 times grand world champion of dwarven ale drinking) to something grander in scope (they are the long lost child of the Elf Queen). How this affects the game is something played out as campaign unfolds with input from both PCs and the GM.

The other major point is the concept of icons and the relationships PCs have with them. There are 13 icons within the game, each being an actual individual in the game world. Consider them the movers and shakers of the world, main factions and seats of powers that employ many agents within the world to do their bidding, and this includes the characters. Players can decide on their relationship with certain icons as being positive, conflicted, or negative. They start with 3 d6 and can allocate them as they will among the many icons.

Some may want a more prominent role within the circles of a particular world power, while they may want to be the bane of a certain 13th Age icon. At the start of the session, each player rolls their relationship dice and results of 5 or 6 (5 means there are more complications along with the boon) ensures that at some point in the game, the player will have assets of that icon at their disposal. That at some point, the icon (or agents on their behalf) will seek out the player and impart some timely advice, offer some resources, or potentially some task or quest for the player. It’s an interesting idea and very much helps drag the players into the world, ensuring they have the ear (or the wrath) of major powers within the game.

The Good – It’s a nice package for D&D. The mechanics are uniform, with enough working parts and customization to make for a fun game. I think it would be very approachable to new players. Elements of the game are familiar with enough small situational conditions to make combats enjoyable and move well. I particularly enjoy how most of the fiddly bits for combats are swept aside and more emphasis is on the players pulling off big moves or big hits. The game encourages the players to engage the GM and be part of the overall story. Best of all, everything needed to play is in a single book.

The Bad – It’s D&D. You have HP, AC, attack bonuses, nothing here that is completely groundbreaking. The aspect of the 13 icons in the world are interesting, but that does add some limitations to the game fluff. Your default setting is high fantasy and revolving around these major world powers. You can totally go off the rails and make your own, but this will take some effort to ensure all the player options fit well with your custom icons.

The biggest damning aspect of the rules is while I think a new player could get the gist of the game very easily, it does require an experienced GM. The icon relationship dice mean as a GM you have to be willing to improvise and be flexible with the story you are telling. While some of the mechanical aspects (skill checks, level appropriate monsters and challenges) are well laid out and understandable, there is a lot more skill needed to running an effective session. This hurdle is recognized in the rules, but I think it also is a major detraction to the game. YMMV with this game as how well a GM can weave in the icon relationships during a session is key.

The Verdict – 13th Age is a good game. I think it’s very much a great introduction to fantasy RPGs and if someone wanted to play ‘D&D’ you could do well with pulling this book out instead. For fans of 4E and 3.5E, both will get a lot of enjoyment out of the rules. It has familiar aspects of play with enough wrinkles to make it enjoyable. If anything, this could certainly be considered for 4E fans a nail in the coffin for starting up another 4E game.

It’s not perfect. There are major default setting choices with the game. It’s one of high fantasy. You have established movers and shakers in the world. It is entirely a game of heroic adventurers (level 1 farmer peasants need not apply). But if you want to play a game where you are big damn heroes, destined for greater things, and well-connected to the pillars of power, 13th Age is for you.

There is a lot here that works. Play and options are streamlined enough to not be overwhelming, but still offer some customization. What I particularly enjoy is that there’s a balance between simple mechanical bonuses and others related more towards the story of the character. You don’t have a simple diplomacy skill, you have a strong background in the Emperor’s royal court. You don’t have a skill in tracking, you were a lead scout for a barbarian warband in the last goblin war. This stuff oozes with story and fodder for adventures. Along with the one unique thing about your character, you have something that stands out from other RPGs, giving a more interesting spin on character creation than what’s seen in other games.

One very strong point about 13th Age is that everything needed to play is covered in one single book. It’s a low entry into RPGs and something akin to Pathfinder. I will say it can be tough to justify buying 13th Age if you are heavily invested in other fantasy RPGs. Nothing here is absolutely groundbreaking and it falls heavily back on a very familiar d20 system. Between the different camps of D&D, I think 4E fans might enjoy this a tad more. As for people into Pathfinder and 3.5, they may very well like the more streamlined character creation, uniform mechanics, and opportunities for dynamic (at times chaotic) combats. There is a strong emphasis for story and weaving the PCs into the world, much more so than in some other systems. But like any RPG, it does come down to the DM and how much they can make the game fun for all involved.

My final take, 13th Age is a good buy. It has some interesting concepts you could lift for your own game, however it might tread a bit too much on the familiar for some. This is a d20 D&D game. For some it could be very well their ONLY D&D game. As a big 4E fan, if I were to jump back into D&D, this would certainly be my game of choice. It’s a tad rigid for the setting and requires a more dynamic approach to planning out your sessions, but there are some fun things in between the pages of the rules to make it worth your time.

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