Review: “13th Age”

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30 Second Summary

13th Age feels like the spiritual successor of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons mixed with the storytelling mechanics of games like Fate and Fiasco. Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet give us a fully refined RPG mixed with a pile of house rules we can drop into any d20 game. While it’s great fun to run, 13th Age’s storytelling system demands much of a GM’s improvisation skills. At $45 plus shipping for the hardcover and PDF package or $25 for the PDF alone, 13th Age isn’t cheap, but you get a whole lot of game in a single beautiful package. If you’re looking for the evolution of D&D mixed with the storytelling of RPGs like Fate, look no further.

Read Donoghue’s Review

Before we begin, Robert Donoghue, co-founder of Evil Hat, wrote a 10,000 word chapter-by-chapter review of 13th Age that is well worth your time to read. Rob has a keen eye on the design of game systems and digs up a lot of nuggets not covered in this review. This review will only skim over topics he spent much time on. If you want to dig deep into 13th Age, give his in-depth articles a good read.

The Rise of Opinionated RPGs

The internet, digital publishing, social media, and crowdfunding gives rise to a new age in RPG publishing. Today, anyone with the skills, talents, desires, and a web browser can publish an RPG. This leads us to focused RPGs for specific audiences with particular tastes that match the tastes of the author. Dungeon World is a clear example. The authors of Dungeon World, Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra have a very particular way they look at traditional D&D games and Dungeon World drips with their opinions on the topic. If you don’t agree with them, there are plenty of other D&D variants out there from which to choose.

I like to refer to this style of product as the “opinionated RPG” to match the rise of opinionated software packages like Ruby on Rails. The opinionated RPG can be identified by a slant towards particular tastes and a clear selection of its intended audience. These aren’t RPGs anyone expects will sit on a shelf in Walmart. The right kind of gamer must seek it out to find it.

13th Age is another clear example of an opinionated RPG. Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet refer to themselves and their style of play all throughout the sourcebook. When the two of them differ in their opinions, they address it directly in the text in a breakout box. It’s as though we all got a copy of the original Microsoft Word document with the comments left on and it’s very endearing. It feels like we’re sitting with the two of them as they bicker about the details of d20 design and gameplay. Most of the time, their opinions line up and we see clearly what they care about and what they don’t. Rob and Jonathan’s opinions on traps (boring time wasters), detailed equipment statistics (let’s just call it heavy armor and move on, shall we?), and money (take 200 gold or a potion of healing) come out clearly throughout the book. 13th Age focuses on the aspects of D&D they love the most such as PC empowerment and character-driven storytelling.

Truly Advanced D&D

13th Age begins with the following first sentence:

We have targeted the game toward experienced gamemasters and players at all levels of roleplaying experience.

This is an important line and, after reading through it and playing it a few times now, they’re not kidding. I’ve run over a thousand D&D games in my life and I struggled to get 13th Age running well at my table. The hardest part, by far, is the Icon system which we’ll talk about more in a bit.

Focusing 13th Age on the existing pool of experienced D20 gamers is an interesting choice. As a component of our larger hobby, 13th Age puts pressure on another game to draw in and build new GMs to the point where they will be comfortable running a game like 13th Age. It assumes, probably correctly, that d20 gamers get to this book through another game system such as Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps it hopes to draw gamers who have become disenchanted with the rules-heavy nature of these larger systems. 13th Age fits a very particular niche between heavy D&D-style mechanics and interactive storytelling of games like Fate.

The Product Itself

Flipping through the 13th Age core book impresses heavily how much material they packed into a single book. Many game systems would have split a book like this into two to five books. The core book contains all the material for nine races, four optional races, nine classes, player rules, GM rules, a monster codex, a brief magic item section, a world sourcebook, and a short adventure packed into 320 pages. It contains everything you need to play in a single book.

I had the opportunity to talk to Rob Heinsoo at Gencon 2013 and I brought this design decision up to him. He said that he and Tweet didn’t build the book to build a business, they built the book they themselves would have wanted. It shows. Rob and Jonathan managed to pack an incredible amount of useful content into this single book. There is certainly room for expansions. The next character sourcebook entitled 13 True Ways is already in production and a new 13th Age Bestiary is also on the way. We don’t need those books though. If you want to dabble in 13th Age for a couple of sessions, you can do so without buying four or five books. If this ends up being the system you want to focus on, there appears to be a good amount of future support.

The build quality of the book is very solid. The pages are thick and glossy. The spine is thread-bound so it won’t come apart after a month. The inside covers have beautiful maps of the campaign world of 13th Age. The art overall is fantastic. It’s wonderful to see a book of this quality come out of a small press.

Characters

13th Age will resonate with players that enjoy both story-focused RPGs and lots of juicy mechanics for their PCs at the table. Many of the abilities of characters in 13th Age feel like powers in 4e. Character classes have feats, features, talents, and spells. There’s a lot of knobs for players who love to tweak. The different classes in 13th Age have a clearly identified sliding scale of complexity. Barbarians are the simplest with an on and off switch for raging while bards have a lot of situational and scaling options.

13th Age only has ten levels, but those ten cover what we would expect from a 20th level game of previous D&D editions. Balors are 13th level while a huge black dragon is level 9. There are rules for incremental improvements if a group would prefer advancement to occur more often or in smaller doses. As it stands, 10 levels is just about perfect for running short-run but highly escalating campaigns.

While characters have a lot of options, the choices don’t get out of control at the table. Even high-level spellcasters only have a hand-full of options available in any particular battle. Decision paralysis isn’t likely to be as much of a problem in later levels.

Many characters have powers or effects that trigger on the outcome of the primary d20 roll. An even roll may result in one effect while an odd roll might result in another. This is somewhat similar to the stunt die in the Dragon Age RPG. It adds options that may not come into effect unless a certain condition is met on the die. This is a nice bit of crunch that doesn’t slow things down at the table.

Because we’re limited to a single sourcebook packed with material, it’s hard to differentiate between two characters of the same class at the lowest tier. There are a lot of potential options as characters progress, thanks in particular to feats built to boost specific powers, but these options are few at the lowest levels. This could be addressed with optional PDF-based class expansions but therein lies the slippery slope until you have D&D 4th Edition’s hundreds of classes and thousands of powers.

The opinionated nature of 13th Age shows up clearly when looking at equipment, magic items, and treasure. Weapons and armor are heavily abstracted. The bonuses and dice they produce are based as much on the class of the character as they are on the equipment. A dagger doesn’t do 1d4 for everyone. Instead a dagger might do 1d4 in the hands of a cleric but 1d8 in the hands of a rogue. This creates some built-in min-maxing directly in character design. Instead of players digging through the book to find the most powerful combinations, the right combinations are covered on the first page of the class profile. For some, this can feel too abstract, particularly if they preferred the more traditional equipment statistics of Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons. For others, that abstraction works just fine because, in practice, it really doesn’t matter.

Combat

Combat in 13th Age is fast and fun. Distances are abstracted to “engaged”, “nearby”, and “far” instead of using squares. It all feels a bit like a Final Fantasy 3 battle with a row of monsters on one side and a row of PCs on the other. At first, one might expect this means we can’t use maps or miniatures, but this turns out not to be true. On the contrary, using miniatures and encounter maps ends up being a lot of fun. Once the players understand they can move anywhere labeled as “nearby” they’re more likely to grab on and run with it, diving up stairwells or zipping across rooms. Arguments about positioning fall away. Players trust the GM to give good judgement and GMs give the benefit to the players so it all works out. It can take some time to get used to but it works really well once it sinks in.

Gaming groups that enjoy 4th Edition D&D should enjoy the refreshing speed of combat in 13th Age. While 13th Age still has minor/swift actions, there aren’t nearly as many options for these actions which means players aren’t chewing up a lot of table time shoehorning in extra actions beyond their move and standard actions. Because 13th Age abstracts movement, it is easy to run combat with or without a battlemap and the speed of the battle doesn’t slow down with either choice. It’s extremely refreshing to see battles run this quickly and still give players a a good handful of options to choose from each round.

Monsters

13th Age monsters feel like the clean refinement of monsters we’ve seen in 4th Edition D&D. Their design is simple and easy to use with very little preparation ahead of time. Monsters have only a few main statistics and use static damage to make them even faster to run at the table. Many powers trigger off of the results of a previous roll, building, as Donoghue refers to it, as a scriptable monster that nearly runs on automatic pilot instead of requiring a lot of strategic thought. Many of the typically debilitating effects PCs might inflict on monsters are limited by hit points. This means big monsters need to be whittled down before they’re likely to be stun-locked into a corner and beaten to death. Higher level monsters look like they will continue to be lethal to higher level PCs. As a GM, monsters are really easy and fun to run.

Icon Relationships and the Lazy Dungeon Master

The icon system is probably the single most interesting feature of 13th Age and also the most demanding on GMs. There are 13 such icons (surprise!) and every PC has between one and three connections to these icons. Connections can be either positive (I love the dwarf king!) or negative (the orc lord is such a jerk!) or complicated (that prince of shadows is dashingly shady). Players assign one to three points for these icons. They might be completely focused on one, split between two with one major and one minor relationship, or split between three equally. At the beginning of each session, players roll 1d6 for each icon point they have assigned. If that roll comes up with a 5 or 6, that relationship will manifest during the session. A 5 represents a complicated but mostly beneficial manifestation while a 6 represents a pure benefit to the PC.

How the GM introduces these manifestations is the hard part. Stealing an idea from Skyrim, we might have some random stranger run up to the PC in the middle of town and say “Hail! On behalf of [hero icon] we’d like to give you this nice random bag full of mundane potions, oils, or rune stones.” That’s a bit simple, though, and I’m betting we GMs can do better.

As a heavy proponent for being a Lazy Dungeon Master, I like that this system forces you to avoid a lot of planning and preparation for a game that hasn’t happened yet. The combination of conflicted relationships with complicated rolls on 5 makes it difficult to know exactly what to do however. When you have two or three such rolls at the beginning of a session, that’s a lot of precarious threads of a web to suddenly weave together into a story.

The adventure included in the book, “Blood and Lighting,” gives you an idea how little preparation you can do up front. It also shows us how hard it can be to write an adventure when we don’t know which icons and motivations might come into play. “Blood and Lightning” leaves a lot more blanks than we would expect of a published adventure. We’re not sure who the main bad guy is. We’re not sure who has asked the PCs to get involved or why. Other than a location and a few suggestions for monsters, we’re left much on our own to determine how things tie together by those iconic rolls. It’s a wild way to write an adventure but it’s very demanding of the gamemaster’s ability to improvise and build out a coherent set of story seeds in a very short time.

The Unearthed Arcana of Our Day

13th Age is an excellent and complete system in a single package. It’s also a huge package of house rules from two very experienced gamed designers we can drop right into our other d20 games. The escalation die is a great way to speed up combat. The icon system can be pulled out and dropped into any current d20 game to build strong relationships between major players in a game world and the PCs. The “one unique thing” is an easy way to build more flavor into any normal d20 PC. The “player picks” idea is a great way to ensure the GM gets continual feedback on the elements of the game the players enjoy the most.

However, these modules aren’t really optional for 13th Age itself. Elements like the escalation die can’t be pulled out since it’s tied directly into the powers of many monsters and PCs. If you ignore the icon system, there are mechanical aspects to the characters that will stop working. This makes it a bit harder to hack these components within 13th Age since you’re not really sure how changing things will affect the balance of PC and monster power.

The Evolution of 4th Edition D&D

Considering the designers and the timing, 13th Age feels very much like the next evolution of 4th edition D&D with an added focus on interactive storytelling. 13th Age addresses many of 4th editions complaints such as combat speed, PC action complexity, a requirement for gridded combat, and a decrease in challenge for higher-level PCs. At the same time, 13th Age uses some of the components of 4th edition that made it work so well such as providing lots of options for PCs at the table, a refined combat system, easy to use monsters, robust healing mechanics, and clerics that are fun to play. It’s going to take time for GMs to get a firm grasp on how to incorporate iconic relationships in each session and the focus on experienced GMs could limit its overall growth. That said, 13th Age makes me worry a lot less about the future of D&D Next. Even if D&D Next doesn’t match the desires of many groups, we always have 13th Age at our side.

A Final Look In Gloriously Simplified Bullet Form

The Good

  • A single beautiful book containing player material, GM material, a monster manual, a campaign gazetteer, and a playable adventure.
  • Powerful PCs with a lot of crunchy options.
  • Simple but powerful monsters.
  • A very interesting high fantasy game world.
  • Excellent mechanical system for tying PCs to the world’s icons.
  • Many plug-in-play components to use in other d20 games.
  • A clear successor to 4th Edition D&D that fixes many of the core complaints while hanging onto the parts that worked well.

The Bad

  • It’s targeted to experienced GMs which puts the burden on other games to bring in new GMs.
  • The Icon mechanics can be tough to incorporate even for experienced GMs. It requires excellent improvisation skills.
  • It’s harder to hack the components within the game itself like the escalation die without breaking something else tied to it.
  • There are few choosable options at first level. Two first level rogues are likely to be a lot alike.
  • As an opinionated RPG, it may vex you if it doesn’t match your own opinions.

The Verdict

If you like 4th Edition D&D but prefer faster combat, a more story-focused flow, and a refinement for some more esoteric rules, this is your game. 13th Age is available in hardcopy and PDF at Pelgrane Press or PDF only at Drive Thru RPG.

Comments

  1. I thought the Icon relationships were something the player chooses to invoke, almost like a divine favor when things look dire; did that change in the final text?

    • I think that changed. Versions I played at Gencon this year had something like that. You rolled and if it was good you got some free shit. This version, I interpret, has more of a pull on the direction of the game itself. The GM is, of course, free to use it or not as they will, but to dismiss it or put too little energy behind it removes the power it can have on the game. The more authority you give the relationships, though, the harder it is to focus the game.

      In my own game, I think I’m going to limit the number of available icons so every icon can have a bigger pre-determined role in the focus of the campaign.

  2. Excellent review. As an alternative, the book suggests that players can roll their Icon relationships at the end of the session for the next one. This lets you incorporate the results in your game planning.

    @Null: The Icon Relationship can be used in various ways, but IIRC the text sells it as a GM triggered advantage, mostly as a way to deliver Magic Items to players through agents of the icons.

    • As far as I can tell, the rules for invoking icons did change between the earlier playtests Nullzone and I played and the published book (which seems a bit more abstract about it, and I think I prefer the earlier version.)

    • I have the problem they describe in the book that I never know which players will be available for any one game so rolling at the end of the last session doesn’t always help. Also, I like being forced to not know how things will go even though it puts a lot of stress on improvisation skills at the table.

  3. I’ve got my hardcover copy of 13th Age and it’s both beautifully made and packed with very interesting ideas. I’m looking forward to running a session, but we probably won’t get there until 2014, as we’re just starting up a new Star Wars game.

    • I think that’s going to be the biggest limitation on all of these new games coming out. It’s still really hard to get a group of people together to game regularly. I’m swamped with about six games a month and I still can’t play all the systems I want to.

      Attention, not money, has become the limited commodity of the internet age.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Back in the day, we gamed weekly at a minimum, but now that we’re all “mature” gamers, with kids and lives and such, our group is doing very well if we can get together every couple of weeks, and it usually ends up being every three. Maintaining any momentum at all can be a chore with that kind of schedule.

        Add in all the hot new games that we’re eager to try, and it starts to look like we’ll have to wait for retirement before we’ll be able to fit everything in.

  4. richgreen01 says:

    Great review. I think you’re right about icon relationships being the biggest challenge to the DM’s improvisation skills, but they also represent one of the game’s key strengths by putting the characters’ backgrounds and allegiances at the heart of the story. I’ve got a year more of my 4e Parsantium campaign to run, but I think we may well use 13th Age for the next one.

  5. As a note, I’m running a game with two Sorcerers, and I’d always felt like classes can feel very different, and this game I’m running supports such. Basically, you need to focus more on Talents than a difference in powers/spells for the first few levels. But those talents can produce very different feels.

    For example, one sorcerer likes to be decently away and blast without being in swing range. The other as a spell fist likes to be right up in their face, using her custom hooked chains spell on them.

Trackbacks

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