[RR] The 13th Age

Good start last week. Let’s move on to why I love the 13th Age RPG, which is on the edge of Dungeons and Dragons family. To be certain 13th Age is D&D, but it changes the feel of the game. 13th Age simplifies it and condenses it. On the back of the book Jeff Grubb, of much D&D fame, says 13th Age “was the type of game that OGL was supposed to create”. It’s not just a Pathfinding polish to D&D. It is its own creature.

Character History

In a more general sense, 13th Age seeks to bring a lot more narration to the tabletop. It starts with the character. Instead of an entire character history that usually nobody cares about, 13 Age has the One Unique Thing. This is a short phrase to define why your character is special. I am the only human child of a zombie mother. I have a clockwork heart made by the dwarves. I have a celestial soul trapped in a mortal body. Whatever the case it should be special, and with a good GM (gamemaster) it will drive stories.

Let’s put more dirt on the written character history grave with skills. Instead of fidgeting over the choice of putting points in to Climbing or Animal Ken or Reading the Necronomicon, skills are now descriptive of the character instead of the skill. Outlaw of the Wild WoodFarmhand in the HinterlandsFrom the future. A few of these, usually 2-3 per character should give a good idea of where that character has been. I’ll come back to these in action later on.

Finally, and probably most contentious in reviews I’ve seen, are the Icon relationships. Characters all have ties to the Icons of the 13th Age – the movers and shakers of the world – which are used to flavor each adventure. Perhaps one of the goblins that was just killed spits up an imp because of the Diabolist. Perhaps the players find a cache of pixie dust because of the Archmage. Wolves might guard the campsite overnight or attack the campsite overnight because of the High Druid, and so on. Each session begins with a roll to see if the character’s relationship to the Icon changes something.

Hopefully already you see how much player control there already is within the game.


As a point of contrast, I am converting a Pathfinder campaign (adventure path) to 13th Age (soon to be publicized more publicy, shhhhh) for an upcoming campaign with my group. In one part there is a city recently sacked by a demon army that has since moved on. It says that each time the players travel from one point to another they should have an encounter, such as 2d4 dire rats or 1d6 cultists. Many other D&D games try to show difficulty in a mechanical way. Traps in a dungeon are another good example.

13th Age throws out player-time-consuming events and sticks in montages and obstacles. Say I, the glorious GM, want it to be difficult to navigate the demon-trodden city. It is not just my imagination I am playing with. Montages enlist the players to help add their own ideas. They come up with the challenges, and then they also create solutions, which of course make their characters look cool. The GM gets a nice creativity break too.

The one-shot solution is just to have a challenge. With 4 players against 2d4 dire rats, initiative rolling, combat, XP and loot sharing, etc. etc., a not-insignificant piece of time just got chewed up to show that yes, dire rats own this city, but we own the dire rats. An obstacle is another way to quickly narrate the problem and again let the players narrate the solution while still being bounded by mechanics. If the players mechanically fail the dire rats still can still be used as an attrition device.

Within a challenge the character’s skills come in to play. It’s not just I roll a d20 to beat up the dire rats obstacle. Instead I, the farmhand of the hinterlands, remember the time I found a nest of dire rats in a cave whilst I was looking for my lost goat. It was a bloody affair, what me with my pitchfork, but I remembered how I could corner them before the mortal strike. And so, in this demon roont city, I recall that memory to take out these dire rats.

Can I use my Farmhand of the Hinterlands skill to pick locks? Probably not, but skills can be very, very stretchy. If I was the GM and someone wanted to spin a yarn about how Uncle Batch always was forgetting the key to the barn, and the character had her lucky sheep razor with her always on hand to unlock the barn… I might throw them a bone.

The goal of all this is to add richness to the story. It should not just be the GM’s job to describe the shared story. The player now has many tools to color the world.

Combat in the 4th Dimension

Combat is a large part of the D&D trope. Without an emphasis on combat there are much better role-playing games to use. 13th Age feels like it finally brings D&D out of three-hour combat slogs where they story gets hung up on attacks-of-opportunity and positioning. 13th Age combat is very efficient, but it loses quite a bit of that simulation feel in doing so.

Classes are distilled to be purposeful. One of the complaints though is that it gets harder to distinguish paladin A from paladin B because of this. Each class is fairly distinct from each other so hopefully in a party composition there won’t be much overlap. Still with fewer options each combat rounds the players don’t have to take much time. A few classes still allow for multi-round combos and the like.

Monsters are even more distilled. Again, I feel I must contrast. In Pathfinder, the first mid-session boss in the first level of an adventure path is statted out at nearly 300 words, much of it abbreviated so I would have to look up the ability in another rules text anyway. Here is a fully realized character complete with languages, skills, non-combat gear, and the like, and according to the adventure this dwarf is insane and immediately attacks the party. Once he gets low on hit points he flees in a manner unlikely to be followed by 1st level characters so there will be virtually no non-combat interaction at all with this crazy dwarf.

I converted the character to a fairly standard 13th Age creature: 87 words. The thing is there to be killed. The trick is to give the enemies features that provide a mechanical feel. Skeletons ignore lots of damage. Kobolds are really evasive. Orcs have increased crit range, and so on. From what I’ve seen this works very well.

The goal of all this is to move things along. The GM won’t get tied up in figuring out what abilities to use for an enemy. The players won’t get bogged down in endless options. 13th Age balances the timeshare of the game so that combat no longer dominates. Players get a good challenge and then get back to a good story.

A Different Carrot

13th Age is used to create stories with challenges. It is not for going through a dungeon with a 10-ft pole sticking out ahead of the party to check for traps. It is not for simulating intense combats with enemies that have dozens of spells or abilities each. It is not for divvying up a crazy dwarf’s loot (an additional 77 words on top of the 300)!

In 13th Age, most items are hand-waved. Yes, a paladin has heavy armor. There is no need to go any further. What weapon would the paladin like? One-handed give 1d8 damage and two-handed give 1d10 damage (normally). Tell me about your weapon now. Everything else is mostly hand-waved. This is not a system for players to worry about number of arrows or amount of oil flasks for a lantern.

Magic items do exist, but they are supposed to be special. In fact, characters can only hold the number of magic items equal to their level. Plus magic items affect the way a character behaves with a quirk. My absolute favorite is from the adventure in the core book where the quirk is the character likes to doodle pictures with blood. Hearing that player narrate what his character does after a battle is always amusing. A quirk could be simple as “stubborn” or “flighty” too. There are also one-use magic items, which are basically the only reason for money (gp) in the game.

Leveling up is similar in style. There are no experience points. Instead at each significant point in the story a character can incrementally advance to the next level gaining a fraction of the next level’s power, such as more hit points or a new spell. At more significant points, such as the culmination of an adventure, the GM can level up the group. Nobody levels up ahead of one another for bartering for extra experience.

I feel like the designers constantly asked “does this add to making better stories?” Things that did add to the tabletop narrative were kept or refined. Things that weren’t – what to do with a crazy dwarf’s ratty bedroll and dried fruit – are just hand-waved away.

Going to 14!

13th Age is mostly just starting. The core book will stand alone for a bit longer until a Bestiary finally comes out. The goal of Pelgrane Press for this year is to have at least 3 more books for the system. Thankfully, the system is very easy to fiddle with (creating on-the-fly monsters, so easy). There is also plenty of “official” material that can be gleamed from the Tales of the 13th Age Organized Play. I have found the adventures Ash Law has written to be exceptional tools for learning how to balance story and challenges. The adventures are also great for figuring out small ways to apply Icons to the story. If you buy 13th Age, I would highly recommend signing up for the free Organized Play.

13th Age is a beautiful system. I would recommend it for any tabletop roleplayer to, if nothing else, see the many tricks that can be used to add more story and narration to any roleplaying game. I know I will be using it for years to come.


p.s. If you are a D&D veteran I highly recommend also reading Tweet’s Pathfinder/3.5 Player’s Guide to the 13th Age.

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