Almost There

NaNoWriMo is almost over, and as soon as it is, I will be back into the weekly swing of blog posts.  I took the month off to focus on writing the first part of my fantasy epic set in my gaming world of Ta’nar.  It has been an amazing journey.  I am 40,000+ words into it and the tracker on the website assures me that if I keep my pace, I will hit the 50,000 word goal by the end of the month.  

I have received great feedback from those who have read it and also have received some very positive responses. It looks like part one will be closer to 55k words when I am done, and once I am finished writing it is off to a number of rounds of editing and review.  But I am thinking of posting the prologue up here to the blog once it is back from first round edits.

I will see you next week, when the weight of this project is complete, and get back to some gaming goodness.  Starting with an article on one of my GM tricks, the consequence list.

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Disclaimer: I purchased this from Petrie’s (my FLGS) and am not being paid to review this product.

Note: For an in-depth look at 13th Age, there are many great bloggers who have covered this material.  Personally I love Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer, whose multi-part review can be found here.  I will be looking at the book in typical Dark God fashion, with a high level chapter by chapter view.  My goal is to give you an overall impression of the book to aid in your decision to check the game out or buy it.

It has been a while since I have posted a review.  In seeking to rectify that, I tackled 13th Age.  However, this took a lot longer than I expected.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the layout of the rules necessitated a second read through.  Not that this was a bad thing, seeing as I am starting a game of this on Sunday.  And the rulebook reads much easier the second time.  It was just confusing and time consuming the first time around.

I can’t imagine you have not heard of 13th Age at this point, but if you haven’t it is the brain child of Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, designers of 3rd and 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons respectively.  If you have played either, or Pathfinder, you will find 13th Age hazily familiar like a half remembered dream.  It is designed to incorporate the best of both games, while being lighter in rules and heavier in story. Personally I feel it cleaves more to the 4th edition rules, but that may just be due to the fact that it was the last iteration of D&D I ran.

Chapter One – Icons

After a brief introduction the book drops the reader into Icons.  Not since the new Arcanis Corebook have I been more confused at the start of a gaming book.  There are some initial overview pieces and the writers do a good job of explaining what an Icon is and that they will be very important to the game.  They just don’t explain how until much later.  This is the issue with the book that I had trouble with; terms are thrown around without a cursory explanation till later chapters.  It makes it hard to understand the whole picture until everything is explained.  Hit the glossary as much as you need to!

The Icons are the primary mortal powers in the world.  They are the Elminster’s, the Raistlin’s, the Sauron’s, the God-Emperor’s of the world.  While descriptions are given for these 13 powers (Archmage, Crusader, Diabolist, Dwarf King, Elf Queen, Emperor, Great Gold Wyrm, High Druid, Lich King, Orc Lord, Priestess, Prince of Shadows, The Three) the text presents them more as roles than characters, allowing you to port them easily into other worlds.  Each Icon is given a standard overview.  This includes a quote, where they can be found, common knowledge, how adventurers might enter their service, allies, enemies, history, and their true danger.  This last bit is basically a campaign hook per icon for GMs to use.

Why they are important to the players and their characters is not readily apparent, but will become clearer as you read.

Chapter Two – Character Rules

This chapter delves into the character creation rules.  It is standard d20 fare aside from three components.  You start with GM input at character creation, and end with the players declaring one unique thing and defining their relationships with the Icons.  Aha, we start to see some semblance of rules interplay.  If you are reading the book for the first time, I promise that the writers do a great job of giving you all the information in time.

Gamemaster input is basically any setting or advice the GM wants players to know about before they start.  While not revolutionary, it is nice to see it codified.  It allows the GM to frontload narrative information before the players sit down to generate characters.  For me, it will be the time where I bring my players up to speed on the world, the races, and how the Icons are interpreted for my world (and what additional Icons are available).  Once the GM gives this overview, we slip briefly into familiar waters.  Players choose Race and Class, generate ability scores either randomly or with point buys, and figure out combat stats.

The final pieces of character creation are narrative but wholly in the hands of the players.  Each player defines one unique thing about their character.  It is their way to say “this is what I want my character to be about.”  It is almost like a belief in Burning Wheel but broader in scope.  They are things like “I am the only civilized Dwarf” “I am a polymorphed dragon unable to return to my true shape” “I am the only child of the Emperor”.  These are powerful narrative choices that can give GM’s lots of potential game ideas.

The last choice the players make is their relationships with the Icons.  Each player has 3 points to spend on relationships and they can be spent for positive, negative or conflicted relationships with the Icons. 

One other interesting thing about 13th Age is their handling of skills.  First of all, all characters can attempt skills with a d20 roll + ability modifier + level.  Which tells you right off the bat that 13th Age characters are very competent even when compared to equivalent DnD characters.  During creation, each character receives 8 background points.  These points are split up far more generally than skills in 3rd or 4th edition.  They are almost lifepath identifiers, or clichés from Risus.  You might have Storm Born Raider +5, Tribesmen of the Far North +2, and Wiley Merchant +1.  Whenever a character can narratively justify that one of their backgrounds applies to the task at hand, they receive their background as a bonus to the roll.  It is a very indie approach to skills and one which simplifies their use at the table.

This chapter also includes the feat and equipment lists.  Feats are broken up, like any other d20 game, into General, Class, and Racial feats.  What stands out about the feats is their concise simplicity.  Aside from the ten general feats, the rest are reprinted next to the power or talent they modify in the Race and Class chapters.  There are no long descriptions of feats either, most are a single sentence of text.  And most of these feats contain multiple entries based off of tier.  Tiers work very similarly to 4th Editions tiers, but are much narrower in level range.  Now, because they are tied to powers and talents, most of the feats don’t mean a whole lot without frames of references.  In fact, with all but the general feats relisted later in context, I would skip this section during your first read through. 

The equipment section rounds out this chapter.  The writers state that in 13th Age, gear is both more and less than it is in other games.  Gear is simplified to a function of your class, but only in vague terms.  This is also the case with weapons. Every character has AC 10 when not wearing armor.  They also have an optimal armor build and a sub-optimal armor build.  The paladin receives AC 12 when she is wearing any light armor, but 16 when in heavy, were as the rogue receives AC 12 in light armor, but only AC 13 in heavy and suffers a -2 attack penalty.  But outside of choosing what type of armor your character wears and what stat bonus it gives you, players are free to define it however they like.  Instead of the barbarian wearing hide armor, he has the petrified shells of turtles sewn onto a leather jerkin, the Dwarven Paladin is not wearing plate but armor crafted from the shed tears of his god, frozen and carved into heavy mail. 

Weapons work very much the same way.  There are a number of categories of weapons, and each class treats them a little different based on the way the class traditionally plays.  For example, for most classes the dagger does a d4, but in the skilled hands of the rogue it does a d8.

Like a lot of 13th Age, what we see here in the feats and gear section is a distilling of the d20 rules to something lighter, simpler, and far more narrative.

Chapter Three – Races

Between the 7 Major Races and the 4 Optional ones presented in this chapter, we have a who’s who of classic 3rd and 4th edition racial choices.  Humans, Dwarves, Half-Orcs, three flavors of Elves, Gnomes, Half-Elves and Halflings make up the Major Races, while the Optional ones consist of Dragonspawn, Aasimar, Forgeborn, and Tieflings.  Each race provides a character with a +2 to one of two different stats and a power (in a couple of cases more than one power).  The power also lists any feats associated with that power, and what they do. 

For example: High Elves receive a +2 to Intelligence or Charisma, and a teleport power very reminiscent of the Eladrin of 4th edition.  They also have a feat they can take that augments that power to deal damage when they teleport.

The writers also give players permission to reskin the races to fit other ideas they might have.  The feeling here is to have just enough mechanics to hang your race idea on.

Chapter Four – Classes

We again have a classic spread of d20 classes: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer and Wizard.  The first thing that grabbed my attention in the classes section was an Ease of Play heading.  It lists the classes not in alphabetical order but in order of complexity.  This is a definite boon for new players.  The barbarian is the simplest class with wizard filling predictably the most complex class role.

Something else that stands out is that with GM permission you can pull powers and talents from other classes to fit your concept.  The example they give is a Paladin with an animal companion.  This is just another example of the narrative focus of 13th Age.

One of the big changes from either 3rd or 4th is that weapon damage dice are rolled per level like spells.  For example if you have a barbarian with a weapon that does a d10, and reach 4th level, you are doing 4d10 on a hit. 

Each class gives you an overview of its play style, a +2 to one of two different stats (that cannot be the same one you receive from your race), what races work well with it, some sample background and icon relations.  Each class gets 1 feat per level, ability score increases at levels 4,7,10, and a selection of starting talents and powers. 

I should point out here that hit points in 13th Age are much closer to their 4th edition values.  Your class provides a base HP value.  That value + Constitution modifier is multiplied by a value that increase per level.  So a Barbarian with a +2 Con has 27 HP at level 1.  Heroic tier sees each level increasing the HP total by the base + Con mod.  In the champion tier (from levels 5-7) each level increases HP by (base + Con mod)x2, and Epic tier is x4 per level.  Interestingly enough, damage from ability bonus also scales up as your character levels.  You class lists your weapons and armor choices as well as what you roll for basic attacks.  Most classes will have a half damage rating equal to the level with their favored attack roll. 

The rest of the class section is very d20.  You have class features to record, defenses to calculate, talents, powers and spells to pick.  What I really liked was how the powers scale with levels.  As a Wizard you start with 5 spells but at 10th level you only have 12.  As you level you do gain more spell/power slots but they level up as well, so you don’t have 30 spells slots to manage.  All of the spells and powers in the game have higher level versions, so that you can keep the spells you like, but at the end of the game, a 9th level magic missile is just as potent as other 9th level spells.  Powers and spells have some keywords that are familiar, like daily and at-will.  But others recharge, which basically gives you a chance to recover it between encounters.

Check out this for a look at each class.  It is a great read if you want to know how a specific class works.

Chapter Four – Combat Rules

If you are familiar with d20 combat you can jump into 13th Age.  There are, however, a couple of subtle changes.   First, you gain your level to Initiative and to hit.  Also, as I said before, weapon damage increases per level.  There are only three defenses in 13th Age, the designers combined Fortitude and Reflex into one save, Physical Defense.  Instead of having one or the better of two ability modifiers contributing to AC, PD, and MD (Mental Defense), you take the middle modifier from three different stats.  For example, AC is based off the middle modifier of Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom. 

Speed has been removed from the game, and the grid system has been completely divorced as well.  Instead you have a positioning system similar to Warhammer 3rd edition, Edge of Empire, or Numenera.  Mini’s can be used to see where you are in position to one another, or to see if you are engaged but there is no square counting.

The most radical addition to combat is the escalation die.  It is a d6 that ticks up each round, starting at round 2 (so it is basically a 0 for the first round).  The value of the die is added to all PC to-hit rolls.  Some classes have features that key off this die, and some monsters mess with it, but it generally represents the party building momentum through the fight.  So there is a benefit to waiting on using your bigger powers till later in the combat when you will get a hefty +5 or +6 to the roll. 

Everyone has the ability to rally once per fight for free, basically a second wind action.  You may attempt it again but you need to roll a normal save (11+) for it to go off.   Speaking of saves, they function as a static target number that the GM sets for the attempt.  Easy saves are 6+, normal are 11+ and hard are 16+.  No modifiers make saves both easier to use and add an element of danger to the roll.

Finally Resistances have been simplified as well in 13th Age.  But it is a well-designed mechanic.  The monster with resistance will have a number associated with its resistance, such as a fire giant’s resist fire 16+.  If the natural roll of the d20 to hit the monster equal or exceeds this resist number, the attack does full damage.  If a character rolls lower than this but still hits, they do half damage.

Chapter Six- Running the Game

This chapter is full of advice on how to handle all of the narrative and Icon elements of the game.  It explains how to use the Icon dice and how to handle interrupting their results. They function to give the GM ways to tie the Icons into each and every adventure.  There is some great advice on how and when to uses these relationships in your game.

13th Age, rather than give a lot of charts about skill DC’s, impromptu damages, and the like, breaks each environment into tiers.  Each tier has set DCs and damage ratings based of things like the difficulty of the task or the number of people taking the damage.  The game cares more about the feel of the situation and environment than verisimilitude.  It makes coming up with DCs and damage much easier on the fly.

The rest of the chapter is on how build battles, level your group up, hand out loot, ritual magic, and how to tailor the Icons.  Battles are designed with 1 monster of roughly the same level per party member being a standard encounter.  One interesting departure from the d20 system is the lack of experience points.  Your group receives a full heal up roughly every four encounters, and they receive a level every four full heal ups.  Loot is handled with much less penny pinching or planning as gear is so fluid and magic items are not for sale.  Over all it is much easier game to run, mechanically. 

Chapter Seven – Monsters

Per the rest of the book, we have a classic smattering of Dungeons and Dragons Monsters.  Stat blocks are very light.  You have their level and role, initiative, attack blocks and their defenses and HP.  Even the dragon stat blocks are compact enough to have three monsters per page.  Each monster also gives the GM Icon queues for how to use them in relation to the major powers of the game.

Monster damage for the most part is fixed, with resistances being tied the players’ rolls, and with fear being a function of PC hit points, running even a large battle with lots of mooks (minions) will be easy to manage for the GM. 

This chapter wraps up with a section on Do-It-Yourself monster creation.  The designers have made this process very simple to generate HP, Damage, and defenses.  They then refer you back to the monster section to pick and choose, modify or create your own powers.  For what I have looked at, it seems like it would be very easy to port most d20 monsters into 13th Age.  The hardest part would be refining the huge stats blocks to just the core and most interesting parts of the monster.

Chapter Eight – The Dragon Empire

This chapter is on the “default” setting for the 13th Age.  You get a great setting that feels like a home for the high fantasy feel of the game.  The maps are gorgeous and the text is filled with opportunities and story ideas.   I feel like it does a great job showcasing how you tie the Icons directly into a world.  Each icon has a seat of power also with adventure ideas. 

One aspect that fascinates me is the idea of the Living dungeons.  These dungeons appear as expressions of tainted magic that thrust up from the ground.  If they are not dealt with, they become a permanent feature of the world.  PC’s must venture in and slay the dungeon to destroy it.

Chapter Nine – Magic Items

13th Age divides magic items into two types.  One use magic items are your healing potions, magic oils and runes.  They provide a short term enhancements or boosts.

True magic items are the ones most gamers will be familiar with.  Magic armor and weapons, wondrous items, wands, etc. Players are limited by their level on the number of true items they can carry.  Magic items, like most of the 13th Age are simplified but still very effective. 

But more interesting is that every magic item is intelligent.  By carrying and using the item, a player starts to manifest the quirks associated with that item.  I cannot wait to see how this plays out at the table.

Chapter Ten – Blood & Lightning

This book finishes with an intro adventure.  It does a great job of introducing players to the feel and rules of 13th Age.  As you might expect with importance placed on the Relationships and Icons, the adventure is very fluid, requiring player influence and fitting their Iconic ties.   This fluidity applies not just to the location but also the antagonists.  If you enjoy it and like living adventures, such as the Pathfinder society, sign up for Tales of the 13th Age!

Conclusion

I had heard the hype about 13th Age, and had read some blogs about it, but I remained skeptical.  My group and I really enjoyed 4th edition and we have played a lot of Pathfinder as well.  Over all though, I have some issues with the core of the d20 system, some of its basic assumptions and rules.  While they are not relevant to this review, they did make me approach 13th Age with ambivalence.  I actually ended up picking it up to review for my FLGS as opposed to any real desire to play it.

Man, I am glad I did.  13th Age, with its simplicity and narrative focus, has jumped to the top of my gaming list.  I immediately pitched it to a group that asked me to run a once a month game.  They have played 3.5 and 4th with me and I feel like this game will be a great fit for them.

Heinsoo and Tweet did an amazing job with this game, and if you are at all on the fence about it, pick it up.  It is well worth the money you will spend on it.

Content: 4/5 – 13th Age is chocked full of great material, it is just a little hard to take in on the first run through.

System: 5/5 – Greywulf of Greywulf’s Lair nailed it.  “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.” 

Aesthetic: 4/5 – The physical layout is clean and easy to read.  The art alternates between full color and monochrome but fits with the feel of the game.