Welcome to another first for me: My first official review. As explained in my second post I’ve been active over on the Onyx Path forum for Scarred Lands. One of the topics for discussion centred on which system Onyx Path may choose for future product releases and a few suggestions cropped up for a system I’ve never employed before, namely 13th Age. I managed to secure a pdf copy in my quest to find out more about this RPG, and became inspired to share a review on my blog.
13th Age is a d20 roleplaying game system designed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. It is currently published by Pelgrane Press. Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet are experienced gamers, GM’s and game designers. They’ve both been gamers since D&D first began in the ’70’s and have worked on multiple systems including: 3rd and 4th edition D&D, Ars Magica, Everway and Talislanta. Two powerhouses of game design then, with decades in gaming under their belt. How did they do on their first independent collaboration together?
Initial impression is formed by the cover art, which is very reminiscent of the recently deceased D&D 4e. D&D 4e is a whole other subject (and more than likely rant) though, so let’s stay focussed. Artwork is very much a personal opinion and it’s never best to judge a book by it’s cover. What delights or disappointments will 13th Age hold inside?
Throughout the approximately 322 pages of 13th Age are small side notes from either Rob, Jason or both. These give great tips and insight in to how this game developed and can be run, and should be watched out for. The banter between friends is a great personal touch.
The credits and contents are short, concise and well laid out. These lead to the introduction for 13th Age and a pleasant surprise. To quote the first sentence of the second paragraph ’13th Age is an OGL d20- rolling game that’s built to help your campaign generate good stories’. Intriguing. This is preluded though by a disclaimer that the game is targeted at experienced GM’s and players at all levels. It’s clear from the start that if you intend to run a game, make sure you know what you’re doing. Story driven games provide brilliant entertainment, though they’re not for everybody, but the GM must have learned the craft of telling a story. Ideally, grab some new players and start with a fresh, unpolluted perspective, or prep your players to let go of every rule based game they have ever been involved in before. There is an explanation here that 13th Age is an attempt to bridge the gap between d20 and storyteller systems. Let’s find out if it does.
Icons are also introduced here. These are the powerful movers and shakers of your campaign that will help shape and define your story, and are a great concept that can easily be adapted to many other systems. One icon we are introduced to is the High Druid, yet there is no Druid class option for players. This is an odd omission that has been picked up across the community and is cause for a minor grumble, although it is soon to be rectified in the upcoming 13th Age supplement 13 True Ways. There’s also a bit of a rant by the designers concerning D&D and ‘the big corporation’; it’s understandable they have things to get off their chest, but it’s probably best served in a blog or forum.
Character creation is simple yet engrossing. Teamwork between player and GM is the emphasis throughout 13th Age, and this begins here. Character creation initially seems familiar if you’ve played any recent iterations of d20 games, but it’s soon apparent that there are pleasant differences. Character creation is more about character than it is about min/maxing your race, class, feats and skills. Yes, these are still here to some degree, but they are very much story and character driven now; skills are a broad background as opposed to specific picks and will only provide a bonus if the background story fits. The freedom of choice and focus on character over stats is extremely refreshing. Two concepts are raised here: One unique thing and icon relationships. Both of these reinforce the concept of story over stats that forms the basis for 13th Age games; have fun with them and give your GM plenty to work with. Feats are a common theme to any d20 game, with 13th Age being no exception. Instead of a huge list of feats though we are given feats by class, with each feat improving in tiers dependant upon character level. Simples. One formula summed up how this could be sold to power gamers though: Weapon damage progression = (WEAPON damage die x level) + [ability]. The higher your level, the more damage you can dish out. To be fair, this is an inherent mechanic to 13th Age’s aim to provide balance between classes, though I know any player will love yelling out the result of 10d10 + 25 after swinging his mighty blade at the evil villain that has been pulling strings throughout the whole campaign.
The class section is a little more involving but thankfully we are aided in our choice by the ‘Ease of Play’ section. Want to kill things and take it easy? Then opt for barbarian. If you’d like plenty of customization, complexity and ad-libbing, choose wizard. Most standard d20 classes are represented, with the notable exception of the druid. Each class description provides plenty of material for background ideas. Have fun customizing! You’ll find the spells listed under each class rather than in their own chapter, keeping everything under one heading rather than in separate chapters of the book. Class levels range from 1 to 10 and are further broken down into the tiers of adventurer (levels 1-4), champion (5-7) and epic (8-10), with each tier allowing access to greater powers.
Roughly half-way through the book we come to combat. Again, this is a pleasingly refreshing section which maintains the core idea of story over stats. Gone is the need to track speed and movement over a grid in every minute detail. Now you are either nearby, and require one move action to reach somebody, or far away, which requires two move actions. No more chess rounds where each move is analysed down to the last 5′ of detail! At it’s core, we still have the attack, AC and hit point mechanic of d20 systems, but combat is a lot more abstract and less a tactical miniatures wargame. 13th Age pretty much has a guideline for any situation that crops up in combat but keeps it streamlined. One mechanic kept over from D&D 4th (and more than likely borrowed from the Earthdawn system) is recovery. Hit points are a reflection of your skill, physical endurance and stamina as opposed to how much you can actually bleed; recovery allows a character to gain a second wind or dig deep in to their resolve, gaining back hit points. Here also we are introduced to the escalation mechanic, which is an incremental function designed to speed up combat so that characters don’t spend all night fighting one set of enemies.
Following on from combat are the GM’s section, the bestiary and the campaign setting information for 13th Age. The GM and bestiary sections continue to follow the core themes of 13th Age while still providing everything that is needed to run a game. Experience is again simplicity itself; there is no need to track experience points as characters level up after three or four heal-ups (roughly twelve to sixteen combats). There is even a nifty mechanic for players to pick advanced incremental advances before an actual level is gained. The campaign setting information is a rich and story inspiring section that is complemented by a map of The Dragon Empire and descriptions for prominent locations.
The penultimate section deals with something that tugs at the heart of every player. Magic items. Many d20 games degenerate in to a supermarket shopping list affair. 13th Age again keeps things simple yet engaging in the hope of avoiding this. You can hold a number of unique magic items equal to your level. No one magic item is the same and almost all carry quirks. GM and player freedom is encouraged.
The final chapter provides a sample adventure which is designed to introduce icon relationships and combat mechanics for beginning adventurers. This short adventure achieves what it sets out to do and can be played repeatedly to emphasize how the icon relationships and GM/player interaction can influence the direction of the story.
In summary then, 13th Age is a refreshing d20 game that borrows elements from various systems to provide an emphasis on story over stats. The concept harkens back to the days of the original Dungeons & Dragons by the late, great Gary Gygax in its simplicity, yet is engaging and rewarding on levels beyond this earliest of roleplaying games without being bogged down in the mechanics of D&D’s modern counterparts. To be honest, I like the system. It drops all of the miniature position fixation rigmarole and aims to bring in a lot more roleplaying, but it won’t be for everybody. A solid 8/10.