Two years ago I bought 13th Age, the roleplaying game by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet dubbed a “love letter” to the classic fantasy game.
Twice before I have tried to read the core rules but been thwarted by the presentation of the thirteen “Icons” – fantastically powered non-player characters at the heart of the narrative in the game. Frankly, I didn’t see the point… until yesterday.
They say that the third time is the charm. This was true for me with 13th Age: having posted to G+ (a useful tactic for me to gain encouragement to try something new), I was encouraged to skip Chapter 1 (Icons) and just read the Classes section. From there, as they say, I was hooked.
Entering the Premise
My initial problem with 13th Age, and the reason why I resisted the charm for two years and change, lies in the chosen premise of fantasy roleplaying.
For me, entering the hobby in the late 1970s / early 80s, fantasy gaming was about the Gygaxian premise. That is to say, challenges within the Dungeons & Dragons game were dangerous and deadly; the life of the adventurer was usually short or, if not, extended only through a combination of player skill and dumb luck. In short, I’m pretty old school about this stuff. Even today, running newbies through D&D with the latest edition, the style is Gygaxian… and they love it, by the way.
13th Age isn’t Gygaxian… or, at least, that emphasis is not as apparent. This game blends modern indie narrative gaming with old school d20-rolling heroic adventure. 13th Age is amped. It’s full on!
Imagine your D&D character began at around Level 5. Give them powerful and prominent place in your setting, not as mewling troubleshooters desperately scraping survival in the first dungeon but as capable heroes who are going to make a mark – and a big mark – on the world. Strip the complexity of the d20 SRD (what was D&D 3rd Edition) and blend it with the power shticks of the 4th Edition (initially, I shuddered as I realised that this game draws on 4e). On first appearance, you have my first impression of 13th Age. I was not sure.
But read on.
Here’s the genius of the 13th Age premise, drawn from the back cover blurb:
“13th Age is a d20-rolling fantasy game of battle, treasure, group storytelling, and heroic adventure.”
“Forge heroes. Shape the world. Be legendary.”
And it’s the tools 13th Age provides that turn it from the horror of skirmish battling that was 3.5/4th Edition to a really engaging game: it’s about Legends!
One Unique Thing
Here’s a game mechanic to steal and use in your fantasy gaming: your character has One Unique Thing about them. You choose it, then you roleplay it.
“Each character should have one unique feature you invent for him or her when you create the character. Your one unique thing is an unusual trait that sets your character apart from every other hero. The moment when all the players sit down together with the GM to create their characters’ one unique thing is often the moment when a campaign comes to life.”
“The intent is to hint at a unique story that you and the GM will take advantage of and learn more about in the course of the campaign.”
Frankly, this was one of those “why didn’t I think of that 30 years ago” moments.
Yesterday, in my usual manner, I decided to create a character for the game. When I got to this step in the process I was initially stumped because I’d never really had to do this “adding uniqueness” to a character before. But when I did, drawing on the history of my own gaming, I smiled inside.
Yes, I re-created Goriel Swiftfoot. Here’s what I wrote:
“I am the reincarnation of a hero who slayed a greater demon during the Fall.”
In truth, this is still something I’m not 100% sold on. Yet, given the pedigree of the writers and the above notes about the power premise of 13th Age, this needs to be said: THERE IS NO GRID!
That said, miniatures are mentioned and encouraged… but “theatre of the mind” is hard-written into the rules with miniatures giving a visual cue for general positioning without all the square-counting horror of 4e.
To be fair, I like tactical combat with grids (even though I’d prefer hexes) because I am from the wargaming tradition that Gygax and friends hailed from. Yet, in truth, 13th Age manages to get the balance about right… I think.
I need to play it some to be sure. Yet, narrative gaming rules in 13th Age… and that means no grid necessary.
Tiers of Play
You’ve got three tiers of play, running from Level 1 to Level 10. The first three Levels are “Adventurer” tier – amped street-level or low-powered dungeon stuff. Next comes the “Champion” tier. You end with the “Epic” tier.
I like this because it communicates the premise of the game well: you’re going to start out as a competent Adventurer; you’re going to progress to being a Champion; if you survive, you’ll become Epic! It’s movie-time roleplaying in the fantasy realms of old.
It looks fun!
10 Things I Love
Because there are too many cool things to get into detail reviewing, here’s the 10 remaining things I love about 13th Age:
- Permanent Magic Items have personalities which, if you have too many items, can cause you to behave in bizarre and amusing ways. You can control one item per level.
- Monster stats are simple to use and there’s an easy process for creating new ones.
- Setting up battles is easy, using a simple rule-of-thumb for setting the level of challenge that you want.
- You can Level-up incrementally, taking a part of the next Level’s upgrades as you play.
- The rules are stripped and simpler than most d20 games, especially in relation to combat.
- The reason for each of the rules variations is hard-written into the text, making the rationale explicit.
- While the Classes are seemingly “balanced” to each other, they are not the same nor are they equal.
- Even though the game resonates with 4e-style powers, there are actually some spells.
- The provided setting is loose and unfinished… deliberately encouraging you to play this your way.
- The system actually encourages roleplaying a unique character because it’s focused on your character’s relationships to others, like the Icons.
I said at the start that the Icons threw me at first. They were a barrier.
At the end of reading the rules, I now feel that am ready to deal with the Icons. I am prepared to customise them and make them fit my vision of the fantasy world.
The Icons are intended to drive the story from the Game Master’s side of the table. They are faction leaders who provide conflict, and with whom each character has a relationship – positive, conflicted, or negative. You choose those relationships and the Game Master uses them. Each game session starts with finding out which Icon relationships will influence the action.
In the end, I found it easiest thinking about the Icons in terms of my fantasy city, Whitegrave: how would I fit them into that setting? In short, very easily because they are a flexible concept. Icons are what good Game Masters use anyway; 13th Age just makes that explicit and places it front and centre.
My one complaint with the game is that the Icons are in Chapter 1. That said, I understand why the writers did that.
The Icons are what give your character a purpose in the world.