First Impressions Preview: “13th Age”

Describing itself as a “love letter to D&D”, 13th Age has quite the pedigree behind it. 13th Age is designed by two accomplished and notable game designers, Jonathan Tweet (Everway, multiple editions of D&D, much more) and Rob Heinsoo (Feng Shui, D&D 4e, much more), and is published by Pelgrane Press, whose design on their GUMSHOE and other lines show that their production values are top notch and often eclipse products put out by bigger companies.

When I started to see some press about 13th Age, I was intrigued but also worried. While I love the creative forces behind it, it’s a very tough sell to me for any kind of D&D-esque gaming right now. “D&D Next” is obviously commanding a lot of attention in that space right now, with excellent alternatives like Dungeon World floating around, along with the simple fact that fantasy adventure gaming is the most overcrowded market there is in RPGs. Would 13th Age have enough to distinguish itself? Even if they designed a game that hit all my sensibilities in that genre, would that be enough to compel me to add another game of the same genre to my shelf?

The answer for me was to get it to the table and try it out. My friend Josh had played a session at Camp Nerdly and so was willing to run a session. We got a group together and tried it out. As I was only a player in a one-shot session with pregenerated characters (in playtest form, no less) I can’t give a complete picture of the game: I didn’t run the game, nor did I create my own character. However, enough seemed to come through to give me a lot of the answers I was looking for. If you’re looking for an indepth review, this isn’t going to be it.

So first, the basics: the game is loosely built on the venerable d20 system chassis, which is to say, most tasks are accomplished by rolling a d20 and adding a number and comparing it to another number. The characters take a few cues, mainly in organization. For example, you have an AC, a physical defense, and a mental defense which are static numbers. Your abilities (and in some cases, attacks that flat out resemble 4e powers) roll vs. those defenses to try and work. Some of these abilities are restricted to at-will, once per battle, etc. though many feature a mechanic by which you can recover them after using or between battles.

One big step towards a specific kind of D&D in 13th Age is a character’s “unique thing.” Our set of pregenerated characters featured everything from a sentient gargoyle to a cursed-to-be-immortal gnome bard to my elven ranger who was a polymorphed falcon. This being core solidly takes it in the direction of D&D as a set of Heroes with all interesting stories (which is my default way of playing) and away from the idea of characters who start out mostly being defined by their race and class and earn their heroic natures later (assuming they survive long enough.) Both styles have history in D&D, but 13th Age solidly veers towards the former.

These “unique things” inform some of your mechanical options as well. Characters have several skills of varying bonuses, but instead of being a set list of skills, are related to your unique thing and how your background helps you in certain situations. To quote from the pregens, my elven ranger had “Former Bird +5,” “Charmingly Unaware of Social Conventions +3,” and “Amateur +2.” So any situation where I’d make a skill check, if I could justify one of those bonuses, I would add it to my skill roll. So any scouting I was doing I could add my Former Bird bonus, whereas trying to repeat some magic words for a ritual I rolled with Amateur as my bonus (my character dated a parrot in college.) The approach reminds me of games like Risus and Tweet’s own Over the Edge, where character concepting becomes a lot more important than figuring out where to assign points.

Additionally, your “unique thing” informs which Icons your character has a connection to. Icons (as previewed in various forms on Pelgrane’s website) are the embodiment of fantasy trope archetypes, and to me is a large part of the “love letter to D&D” aspect of the game. Icons such as the High Druid or the Lich King stand as powerful figures in the default world (though I understand customizable to your heart’s content for your own world) fill in pieces of the campaign just by their name alone without being overbearing. The fact that you can just assume that there’s an Elven Queen prevents there from being a lot of buy-in to get playing quickly. Your character also has attachments to them (for good, bad, or conflicted) which automatically hooks your character into the larger world, while providing another resource to draw on during play that could lead to more stories. Yes, you can call on your relationship to the Diabolist for some needed information, but what price will you pay later?

Aside from character options, there’s a few core rules that also stood out as well. There’s an “Escalation Die” that comes into play during combat which gives a bonus to the heroes’ actions as the rounds in combat pass, making attacks more and more likely to hit and thus keeping play accelerating. This aims directly at controlling combat length, while providing some extra hooks for the rest of the system to work around: being ready for combat can let you start with a higher Escalation Die rating, while some monsters might have abilities that trigger based on the die rating. The other piece that stood out was the assumptions that skill checks “fall forward” meaning that no skill roll just leads to a dead end: like we’ve discussed here with articles on Mouseburning, skill checks generally go from “interesting failure” to “success with complications” to “success.” Lack of this kind of rule is consistently a pet peeve of mine in all editions of D&D, and I was glad it was given front and center attention in this game.

Some things I wasn’t so positive on, and largely, they come from sticking a little too close to the D&D mold. Spell casters once again seem like the thing to play if you like making interesting decisions. Non-combat abilities seemed to entirely reside in the background skills and your connection to the Icons, though this may have been because of playing 1st level characters. While most attacks did a minimal amount of damage on a miss still, it never really took the sting out of strings of bad dice rolls. I also really missed having some kind of resource to spend to do better in a round or guarantee my cool thing worked: unless we just missed it, there were no Action Points/Plot Points/Bennies which means you’re at the whim of the dice to pull everything off. Certainly that’s a more recent addition to D&D, but it’s something that would fit well with the rest of the mechanics. For a game that says it “respects old school values” it certainly seems to have more in common with newer games: I couldn’t see running anything resembling what I would consider an “old school” game in it. One player in our test described 13th Age as like a Pathfinder for D&D 4th edition, an analogy that has some legs.

Overall, there is plenty that I liked about 13th Age. Mechanics like the Escalation Die are both so simple and yet so impactful that I immediately want to steal it. Playing with characters that had “unique things” baked in made jumping into the character immediately more interesting to me, especially in a one-shot, than simply being told I was an elven ranger. The Icons are a fun way to codify and play off of those personalities that seem to exist in every gaming world. 13th Age definitely has both that feeling of being familiar while also incorporating new ideas.

Ultimately, that ends up being the problem for me: there’s lots that I would steal from other games, but not enough to make it my primary game. Stuff like the Escalation Die I could see using as-is in any version of D&D I care to play. I’ve already used various relationship mechanics in D&D, which I could easily replace with the Icons. The skill system is such that I could remove any existing skill system and replace it with the 13th Age version, and just ignore the suggested skills in whatever game I play.

At that point, of course, maybe I’m making my own version of D&D, just like 13th Age is. (And I certainly don’t shy away from it.) That’s just my ultimate take-away: I’m much more impressed by the pieces of 13th Age than the game as a whole. If your tastes are anything like mine, you might feel similarly. Or you might just be turned off by what you’ve already read. Regardless, it’s tough for me to consider 13th Age as the game I’d want to run long term. It is, however, the game I want to buy and steal from.

13th Age is available for pre-order now.

 

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. TheMainEvent says:

    3e:Pathfinder

    4e:13th Age

    Very interesting analogy. There’s a fair number of 4E fans that may really find some solace with that.

  2. The character creation options really sold me on pre ordering. If you get a chance, read through the classes and I think the options presented for each class make them fun and unique. Id love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to check them out.

  3. Hey Dave, great post — thanks for sharing your playtest impressions. One of the game’s design goals is to enable GMs to treat the game as a standalone or as a collection of Rob and Jonathan’s house rules to be used with whatever their game of choice is. So we’re on board with, “buy it and steal from it.”

    However, people who come to 13th Age expecting a Pathfinder for 4e will likely be disappointed. It’s informed by 4e, but it it’s also informed by pre-1999 D&D and story games. The lack of a grid alone may be a deal-breaker for them.

    (Disclosure: I do PR for 13th Age.)

  4. Think this looks really interesting, and possibly a viable alternative to D&D Next. I’m definitely going to buy a copy as there are things here worth stealing even if I don’t run the whole game as is.

  5. I think a read through the rules would be valuable, as well as playing at higher levels. Some of my experiences were fairly different to yours. Our group was part of both playtest rounds (and it should be clear that all gaming so far has been playtests and the game isn’t finalized yet). Each time we played using Temple of Elemental Evil. We were also using ToEE for D&D Next, so it was a fun comparison.

    In any assessment of 13th Age I have to begin with the icons. They are fantastic. Reading through these I wanted to immediately craft a campaign. They are a really cool part of the game and I think many DMs would find it worthwhile to buy 13th Age just for those icons so they can use them in whatever fantasy RPG they like.

    13th Age certainly allowed us to play in a classic old-school style. Converting ToEE was very easy for our DM (there are rules for making monsters on the fly and these were surprisingly good – in fact, most of the monsters he used ended up being his own creations). We had a classic Moathouse experience and it played a lot like AD&D in terms of exploration, theater of the mind, trying fun things, etc. The skill and unique thing portions of PCs helped to do this. In general, those of us who had made our PCs had a better feel for our PCs than with most other fantasy RPGs. It may be that using pregens really waters down this aspect of play because character creation really cements these aspects. I’m not sure, but our experience was pretty different here (we found non-combat to be strong).

    Combat was fun. 13th Age certainly has a lot of 4E inspiration with at-wills, dailies, and a variation on Encounters where you have a chance to get them back. Our PCs felt like they had a lot of choices. At level 7 I would call my bard complex, which I liked and wanted. Classes do have varying complexity by design.

    I liked the Escalation die a great deal, though we found defenses too high on monsters. We felt like the escalation die needed to reach 2+ before we were hitting at an ok rate. That was true at both 1st and 7th levels.

    For some players in our group, 13th Age is a better blend of old school and 4E than the current version of D&D Next. I don’t feel that way myself, but I did like the game. And I do think there are other players that will like this hybrid for its stronger 4E PC build feel.

    While I too had issues with various aspects, I liked it enough that I’ve already pre-purchased the game and I would recommend it to others (even before seeing the final version that integrates the last playtest changes).

  6. I saw 13th Age, read a little bit, and passed it over. I think I need to go back and read some more.

    As soon as you mentioned the “Unique Thing”, it was set in my mind. This may not be the game I ultimately choose to play, but I think I will have to pick it up. If nothing else, I already have two things I want to steal from it, and probably will find more.

    Thanks Dave! You’re getting me excited about something D&D again. With my home game stagnating, and the D&D Next playtest being “meh” to me for now (though that may change), it’s something I need right now.

  7. To the 4E pathfinder comment, I do feel one of the major issues for people with 4E was that it was very difficult to play without a tactical map. I mean, very difficult. I think if it had been a little bit more flexible, we likely wouldn’t be seeing dndnext so soon and just expanded support for 4E.

    13th Age doesn’t have rigid tactical rules but it also does have some good positioning rules for mapless play. Unlike 4E, however, I think it is well positioned to allow maps and more tactical combat very easily with few modifications. In fact, having looked at both playtests, I get the feel that 13th age will play to a map game more easily than dndnext.

  8. Wade,
    I think you need to give Dave a kickback. 🙂 I’m one of those gamers who just needs a good version of D&D (or now Pathfinder) and doesn’t care the least for trying different games. It’s just not in my gaer DNA. However, the way he describes it, it definitely sounds like some fun mechanics to, if nothing else, loot for my game. So Dave’s article got me from absolutely zero interest to pre-ordering!

  9. Ken,

    That’s excellent! Thank you for your order, and I definitely owe Dave a beer at Gen Con. Or an espresso. Or a hug.

  10. Re: 4e comparisons, part of the disconnect is that I don’t see the battle grid as an essential part of the 4e D&D experience, though I may be in the minority. However, I actually find the 13th Age system to be superior in that it doesn’t specify exact distances, and instead relies on “close by” “far away” “1d3 targets close to each other” etc.

    Thanks to Alphastream and Ian of Going Last, I’ve uploaded a few more sample characters of varying levels if you need more of an idea. You can download a zip file with the examples here: http://www.critical-hits.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/13thagecharacters.zip

  11. I do have to say I don’t really like 1d3… maybe I’m a minority but it just feels odd to me. I get the math might balance out, but I do hope there’s some alterations there before final.

    To balance out with dndnext comment, I hate they use “feet” to measure and manage actions. The latest post from Wizards about reactions was great in that it was talking about simplifying things and speeding things along, but then talked about reliance on feet and how certain actions might reduce the number of feet you can move. 13th age got it right in that respect – I feel the movement system lets you do what you need to and focus on the good stuff.

  12. I also preordered the escalation edition and can’t wait to take a read through. I’ve not read one word of it but only pre-ordered based on my reading of their main site. I was a big fan of much of 4E but found just as much about it to be problematic. Not the least of which was the fact that playing without a grid was next to impossible. I have yet to see it done effectively and we’ve tried for dozens of hours to get it to work and feel good. It just doesn’t. If they made a gridless 4E module, I’d buy it immediately. I’m hoping that 13th age is a game that has some of those core elegances of 4E without all the grid based design. It sounds like it might be very servicable. I’m also currently playtesting DnDNext with my current group and we’re loving it. We played the first few sessions using a grid because we were transitioning from 4E. Last night was the first session where we went totally gridless and everyone loved it. The one guy who was most worried about leaving the grid actually commented at the end of the night that he didn’t even notice that it had happened because the gameplay was so seamless.

  13. Josh Hall says:

    A few months ago after playing a cortex+ game, the idea of implementing the doom pool into 4th ed really struck me as a great idea – I fiddled around with it a bit, but never really got around to trying it out. Seeing that 13th Age has snagged a similar mechanic really is tempting to pick up it just to steal it.

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