13th Age Review: Experiencing the Thrill of a Fantasy Narrative

As the first review on this blog, I feel it fitting to write about a game that I have recently fallen in love with. 13th Age, written by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, illustrated by Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer, and published by Pelgrane Press, is a game I’ve really enjoyed running, though I haven’t had the chance to try it as a player. It does a great job at combining narrative and gamist elements without bogging down into bloat. Let’s look at the book itself first.

Organisation

The organisation of the rulebook is clear and written in a jovial, conversational manner. There’s nothing wrong with presenting information in a clear, serious tone, which most other rulebooks that I’ve read do, but the way the rules are relayed in 13th Age suggestively put the game in the player’s hands, rather than dictate the way the game’s meant to be played. This doesn’t mean the rules are unclear — on the contrary, most of the mechanics are solid and understandable. It just means that the GM and/or player(s) can tweak certain rules to their liking.5

The way the rulebook is being organised also makes it easy for readers to follow through. The text and formatting are fine, and while I was initially confused about certain terms (e.g. Powers vs Maneuvers), eventually you pick up on the differences. Plus, the community on Google+ is very active. Rob and Jonathan are also very quick to respond to tweets and messages.

Rules

The rules are clear for the most part, but they do require the reader’s familiarity with d20/RPG conventions. This can go both ways, depending on the audience: for players, whether they’re familiar with RPGs or not, they can probably pick up on the bare minimal rules in an hour or so just by reading the rulebook, to start playing immediately; for GMs, it gets trickier. There are a few fiddly mechanics to take note of — initially. Of such rules there aren’t many, and there are cheat/reference sheets online to help the GM. In fact, just several months ago Pelgrane Press released a GM screen which comes with a nifty resource book (seriously the resource book is an amazing gaming aid even if you’re not interested in 13th Age). After playing with the cheat sheet a few times — switching over to the GM screen in later games — I quickly got the hang of how things were supposed to work, and only referred back on occasion.

But the true difficulty of learning this game lies in the Icons Relationship mechanics. In 13th Age, you have 13 icons — these are the movers and shakers of the Dragon Empire, the setting of 13th Age. Player characters all start off with some form of relationship to specific icons, in three ways: Positive, Negative or Conflicted. A character could have a negative relationship with The Three (the evilest dragons in the world) while sharing a conflicted relationship with the Prince of Shadows. At the start of a session (although the designers advise in the GM’s Resource Book that this can be played around and need not be at the start), players would need to roll 1d6 per Icon Relationship. On a 6, it’s a pure benefit granted to the player. On a 5, it’s a benefit at the cost of a complication. The GM has to improvise a mini-story for the conferring of the benefit(s), and that could be a bit tough on newer GMs, or those who are not used to improv. When I first started out with 13th Age, I experienced this difficulty too. Eventually though, as one picks up on different techniques, Icon Relationships are a breeze to referee. It’s just the initial hurdle that’s tough.2

Icon Relationships are not just window dressing for your character’s history, however. Depending on the kind of relationships players have, it would affect the type of enemies encountered. Got multiple players who are negatively aligned with the Diabolist? Well prepare to have trolls that sprout horns and spew fire. In allying with the Archmage, players may also find themselves on a quest to scour for a magical artifact, rather than, say, crucial blueprints to the Imperial vaults had they allied with the Emperor. This opens up a new degree of pertinence to characters’ histories in relation to the adventure, which makes the characters appear all the more important in the grand scheme of things.

The importance of player characters shouldn’t be understated either. Each PC is an important part of the game’s landscape due to an implement called the One Unique Thing (OUT). OUTs are one-liners or phrases about your character that makes him/her a special snowflake. They don’t confer mechanical benefits, but what they do is give the GM a direction to take the story in that would appeal to your character. Think of it as the protagonist in the cRPG Baldur’s Gate having an OUT of “Unbeknownst to me, I am a god-spawn”. Keeping in line with how Rob and Jonathan’s advocacy of playing the game however you want, the GM could, of course, grant the PCs some benefits later on. In my games, this has the advantage of springing surprising plot twists that are fun, but also remain pertinent to the players’ vested interests in their characters. As GM, you also don’t have to use the OUT if you don’t want to — again, play it the way you like it.

Added to OUTs is another subsystem called Backgrounds. Backgrounds, like OUTs, are phrases and one-liners that describe a part of your character’s history; unlike OUTs, they confer mechanical benefits — usually for non-combat tasks — and are accompanied by a number, e.g. [+2]. In fact, there is no skills list here — backgrounds are the ‘skills’. Example backgrounds could be something as complex as “Former pirate from the Guild of the Red Hand [+2]”, or as simple as “Former pirate [+2]”. The player of a character with this background could use it to add a +2 to his d20 roll when trying to persuade fellow buccaneers, but this wouldn’t work so well when talking to high society members at a ball. One caveat to this is that it could be used as a catch-all e.g. “I’m good at everything [+5]”, and in fact the designers themselves acknowledge this. However, there are also ways for the GM to counteract this — one suggested method from the GM Resource Book is to give players a penalty when they try to shoehorn a background into a situation that doesn’t fit. One would therefore have to be careful about the way they phrase and use their backgrounds.

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Beyond that, there are 3 more aspects to take note of when it comes to character building: Talents, Powers/Spells and Songs/Battle Cries/Maneuvers and Feats.

Talents, as mentioned before, are class-specific special qualities that PCs start with and can tap on in the course of the game to make themselves better at what they can already do. The talents differ from one another; for example, the Fighter has Cleave, while the Barbarian has Barbaric Cleave (the former can be used on mooks, but the latter doesn’t).

Powers, Spells, Songs, Battle Cries and Maneuvers are race- and class-specific moves to better adapt to certain combat situations — Powers, used by Rogues, are special moves that border on the magical, Spells and Songs are employed by the Bard, Cleric, Wizard, and Sorceror, Battle Cries are for the Bards, and Maneuvers are used by the Fighter. At first glance they might all seem like spells being rebranded under different names, but mechanically they’re quite different across the categories. Unlike Songs and Spells, Powers are mostly attacks and special moves that are physical in nature; unlike Powers, Maneuvers are often flexible and used to adapt to new situations, synergising with varying circumstances to gain even more benefits. Battle Cries are mostly ‘buffs’.

Feats are modifiers which alter your talents and powers, though there are a few general Feats. Some grant flat bonuses, but others open up interesting possibilities by enabling additional features e.g. being able to get a free move after dropping an enemy with Barbaric Cleave if there’s no enemy nearby.

In the character building department, 13th Age fares terrifically. The different components synergise very nicely with one another, and I’ve actually had surprising combinations that I didn’t expect. Let me illustrate this with an example: in one session, one of my players had a Fighter with Comeback Strike and Power Attack as his Talents, and Grim Intent as a Maneuver. Comeback Strike allowed another attack at a -2 penalty upon a miss, Power Attack granted him an additional 1d6 damage and Grim Intent let him add additional damage dice on a miss after the initial trigger. What happened was, he first made a basic attack, which missed, but then declared he was going to use Comeback Strike and throw in Power Attack to the mix. Not only did he hit the orc bandit with this attack, but because of the initial miss, it also triggered Grim Intent, which let him deal additional damage on the next round when he missed.

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In all honesty I was really impressed. While 13th Age does the social and exploration aspects well, it shines just as brightly in combat. The level of synergy that’s had between the different subsystems is amazing. I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering with possible builds. While it might seem to have a lot of bloat, what with triggering effects, flexible attacks and what have you, it doesn’t take long to get familiar with them. It’s just so much fun looking through the different mechanics to see how they can effectively relate to one another.

If this optimisation process sounds like min-maxing, it’s not. You could, say, create a characters with non-correlating Talents that could still perform well. This is because the rules make it hard to min-max. Case in point: AC, PD (Physical Defense, to ward off fire, ice, etc) and MD (Mental Defense) are based off median modifier scores. In the case of AC, it takes the median of CON, DEX and WIS, so tough luck getting high AC if you max out DEX and neglect CON and WIS. There are many more of such little touches to 13th Age’s rules that I like, as they make the game balanced while making every character feel different.

There’s no getting away from combat in 13th Age. As mentioned above, character builds make combat really fun, but there’s another mechanic called the Escalation Die which expedites combat and cranks up the ferocity of fights. Essentially the Escalation Die is a giant d6. You don’t roll it, but instead put it on the table, showing the ‘1’ to everybody when combat reaches its 2nd round. This ‘1’ is a +1 bonus to all attacks by the PCs. Moreover, certain monsters and PC’ abilities get triggered off the Escalation Die; terrain also can get affected as the die goes up. In one battle, the earth opened up and swallowed a large chunk of the building. Fights become faster, yes, but they’re also a lot more uncertain and, as a consequence, intense.

Uncertainty has thus far been a big part of what makes 13th Age tick, from the way Icons affect the storyline down to the Escalation Die. Even monsters can be prepped by the GM in a way that players wouldn’t expect. I’ll admit, statting out monsters has never been my favourite pastime, but in 13th Age, it’s actually fun. There’s a flexible, yet simple, set of guidelines on how to create your own adversaries, and they sure can take on multiple roles. Mooks are enemies that have a shared HP pool but attack individually, making them dangerous but very satisfying to kill;  Wreckers are the equivalent of mini bosses. The guidelines are quite accurate in determining the power level of the enemy to avoid making encounters too hard or easy, and there’s a whole bunch of monsters in the Monsters section to grab and modify or draw reference from. It’s great.

While combat is really beefy, as can be seen in the wall of text above, much of the game is streamlined to minimise bookkeeping. Movement and ranges are abstracted. Rather than tracking distance through inches or grids, your characters are engaged, nearby or far away from enemies. Damage also scales with level and varies from class to class — a Rogue actually does more damage with a dagger than with a greatsword. I’ll admit I didn’t like this at first. I was more used to traditional weapon damages, and this method of calculation was a bit too gamey. In practice though, it blends in seamlessly. A lot of abilities also work by being triggered on odd or even numbers. Some may like this, others may hate it, but I found that at the end of the day, combat was still highly tactical.

On a final note, magic items are great fun, both for players to toy around with and for GMs to experimentally stat out. As with monsters, they’re easy to create. You can only carry the number of magic items equivalent to your level without a penalty. If you do carry beyond that, the items have personality quirks that can make life for everyone much more interesting. 😉

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Setting

The Dragon Empire too is a loosely constructed place, and is left to the GM to mold and shape as he pleases. I’ll admit, I didn’t really delve into the intricacies of the setting. There are some neat places like Axis and Shadow Port, but I mostly improvised on the details.

I have to say, though, that I really like the toolbox approach, though I can understand why many wouldn’t. As a GM used to improvising, I like to come up with my own backgrounds and histories, especially when the players’ characters themselves are made up of diverse OUTs and Backgrounds.

Art

The artwork is alright. It’s nothing supremely impressive, but it has its distinctive style. What’s disappointing, though, is that monsters don’t have illustrations, and are instead just drawn as tokens. I would have liked to have full illustrations of monsters for use with my character tokens that replace miniatures.

RPGs and Learning

I know that the review has thus far only been talking about 13th Age, so pardon me if this comes across as abrupt. To me, 13th Age stands as a fantastic tool to teach various concepts. I especially liked using the OUTs and Backgrounds to get my students to think about connecting the dots to form a bigger picture. They don’t know it yet, but I’ve got several plot twists in mind relating to their OUTs.

Furthermore, I love how the dice tell the story in 13th Age. Icon Relationship rolls are flexible and can be used by the GM in multiple ways. They encourage the creative thinker to come up with background stories to the Icons — a task that’s no mean feat for younger audiences. There’s a lot of narrative improv thanks to Background rolls, and I’d be really keen to see whether any of the kids can continue to flesh out their characters on their own. Even the combat rolls are unusually vivid due to the mind’s connection of abstract mechanics e.g. the Escalation Die and triggered rolls.

Conclusion

13th Age is something I’d been looking for in the fantasy genre. Some of the concepts seem a bit heavy-handed at first, but when you get past the moderate learning curve, they become very easily internalised. I’ve read comments online that there aren’t many viable character builds. Personally I haven’t run into that problem yet, so we’ll see. In any case, if you’re looking for a game with excellent combat and a powerful narrative system, 13th Age is worth taking a look at.

Happy gaming!

-Jim

3 thoughts on “13th Age Review: Experiencing the Thrill of a Fantasy Narrative

  1. Jim – great review on a game I’m super curious about. One question for you though. Some games like Dungeon World give most classes non-combat abilities that are still interesting.

    When you mention that this game does social and exploration aspects well, could you go into that a bit more? How does that compare to the combat? In my crazy perfect world, both would be equally mechanically interesting.

    Like

    1. Both social and exploration tasks can be resolved in a few ways. Firstly, it’s important to note the subsystems that will come into play here, namely the Backgrounds, OUTs and Icon Relationships.

      With Backgrounds, it’s a straightforward affair. Suppose you have “Well-known Martial Artist of Shadowport +4” as a background. Now this Background could give you a +4 bonus when talking to fellow martial artists, or trying to pass off as a judge at a martial arts contest. Likewise, when scouring Shadowport to seek information, especially amongst pugilists, you can make use of this.

      Now OUTs are a bit of a different story. Mechanically, they don’t offer an advantage. However, what the GM can do is to look at your OUTs, and tweak the story to your advantage. Let’s say your OUT is “The only martial artist who knows the Phoenix Claw move”. Now mechanically, you don’t get an advantage — we shall just assume Phoenix Claw is only special in a thematic sense. However, let’s say you meet a guy who mutters something about wanting to find someone who’d actually know something about Phoenix Claw. You could let it slide — but why would you? The most fun to be had is to step up, declare, “I know Phoenix Claw, good sir!” and see what happens from there.

      Finally, you have Icon Relationships. As mentioned, the rules for Icon Relationships are highly flexible, and can be used in multiple ways. A player who’s Positively aligned with the Prince of Shadows could use his +6 benefit to negotiate a quick way out of the trapped catacombs.

      I find social and exploration just as interesting as combat, but in different strokes. Combat is governed by rigid rules — you either still have Barbarian Rage or you don’t. You can’t negotiate that. The non-combat side requires working things out with the GM, which makes things more interesting not just for you, but for everyone else — because you’re reinforcing your character’s identity at the table, thereby putting the role-play before the roll-play. And that’s what makes the social aspect great IMHO, because while I like to have some character stats, the extra space for negotiation serves to further highlight your character’s traits.

      Hope this sheds more light on your queries!

      Like

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