Bring out the bardic depth charges!

Over the past few months I have been involved in a roughly fortnightly series of adventures to play-test a new RPG, 13th Age. Since play-testing is over and the product is now at a kind of first draft stage, I thought I’d give my thoughts on the system. My thoughts, however, will be heavily tainted by the experience of the group I am gaming with, which consists of an excellent and energetic bunch of players and a brilliant GM, whose achievements I have noted before.

13th Age was co-developed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, I think, two quite famous figures from both inside and outside of D&D. It was billed to me as old school gaming with indie flair, or something along those lines, and is based extremely loosely on the fundamentals of D&D3.5. The blurb on the website says:

Our goal with 13th Age is to recapture the free-wheeling style of old-school gaming by creating a game with more soul and fewer technical details. …13th Age makes the play group’s campaign the center of attention, with a toolkit of rules that you can pick and choose from based on the kind of game you want to play. The mechanics draw from classic games as well as newer, story-based games.

I’m not really convinced that there is a “free-wheeling style of old-school gaming” but to the extent that “free-wheeling” in gaming can be encouraged by the rule system, I think that 13th Age does a very good job, and I think that its simple and flexible rules do encourage a rough and ready approach to gaming that is more adventurous than one would find in Pathfinder or D&D. On the surface it feels like classic d20 D&D, but in actual play it behaves quite differently, for a variety of reasons. It has some mechanisms in place to enable PCs to step outside their niche using skills, but the skill system itself is very light; it has redesigned all characters along the lines of 4th edition powers, but has included more old-school spell rules as well; and it has incorporated some elements into character creation that make it very easy to generate story arcs and plot-based gaming, but in such a way that they can also be jacked for immediate effect outside of plot arcs. This makes the basic rules very flexible. I’ll summarize some of the key changes here.

Character classes are very “4th Edition”: PCs have powers that operate daily, per battle, or at will. They have recoveries (i.e. healing surges) and feats that can be used to enhance specific powers. Interestingly, AC is determined by class + armour type – specific choice of armour is not relevant, only its weight and the character class. Thus some classes are constrained to operate best in specific armour types. Saves are very 4th Edition: roll over 11 or over 16 to save, with no modifiers. Looking at my character sheet, it’s a 4th Edition PC sitting there looking at me.

Background defines skills: At creation, each PC gets 8 points (or is it 10?) to spend on backgrounds of the PCs choice, which can have a maximum rating of +5. There are no skills in this game, and every time a PC attempts an action that requires a skill check they roll d20, add their level and an appropriate stat bonus. Then, if they can convince the GM that one of their backgrounds is relevant, they can add the rating of their background to the roll. So when we need to track someone, our insane Dwarven axeman uses his Tribal Dwarf background to add 3 to the roll; when we need to investigate insane arcane phenomena, my PC (Raucous Rella the Tiefling Bard) calls on the fact that she is the Reincarnation of a Famous Wizard (+5). For lying, cheating and fast-talking we have Raucous Rella’s Wandering Troupe (+5); for stealth we have the halfling’s … halfling-i-ness. And so on. If you can convince the GM that it applies, you get the bonus. This means that instead of having a wide range of specifically applicable skills, the character sheet contains a couple of lines for backgrounds, and that’s that.

Icons and Relationships: Perhaps in something of a nod to Japanese gaming (whether they know it or not), the creators have included a section in the rules for the relationship between the PCs and a set of 12 (I think) powerful figures that vie for supremacy in the world of the 13th Age. These “Icons” are not necessarily gods, but they have great status and power and their machinations in the world play an important role in shaping the destiny of nations. The PCs can have positive, negative or conflicted relationships with icons, and can use these relationships as resources in-game. These relationships may thus play the role simply of contacts or social tools, or they can be hooks and levers to get PCs into complex campaign stories. Over time relationships can change, of course. So far we have only used a relationship once – the rules for this seem to be quite vague and hard to operationalize, but the Icons’ presence in the world has been crucial to our understanding of power plays going on in the background of a couple of adventures, so make for excellent plot hooks. Perhaps in a way they function as a more accessible and temporally influential form of alighnment.

Characters are Heroic: PCs are intended to start as heroic adventurers, and they gain power rapidly as they increase levels. They also (aside from my bard) start off with a fair amount of power, and are intended to be able as a group to take on fairly challenging opponents. Combat intensifies rapidly, and PCs have lots of ways of doing significant amounts of damage in combat. Our rogue and barbarian, particularly, do ferocious amounts of damage. There are also some cute mechanics involving additional effects on dice rolls – if, for example, Raucous Rella rolls an even number and hits she can give off a battlecry that gives one nearby PC a chance to save against one ongoing effect. These kinds of things make for rich combat decisions and avoid reducing every battle to a chain of hit rolls.

These characteristics in total lead to a fast-paced, flexible and free-flowing gaming experience, where all mechanics are aimed at encouraging PCs to jack their characters to handle the situation, and GMs are encouraged to play to the moment. The system, by being designed for flexibility and speed, encourages esoteric choices, stunts and improvisation. In some areas the system is too vague (particularly with the icons and relationships, which sit there on my character sheet seeming mostly pointless) and when it strays too close to D&D it can be frustrating – using d20s to resolve actions really annoys me because of its unrealistic effects, for example, and my bard being able to cast Charm Person only once a day is a classic piece of Vancianism. But it has just enough extra elements to relieve the game of some of D&D’s more stultifying effects, and not to feel like just another flavour of D&D.

If you’re looking for something that feels close enough to D&D to pick up quickly, but has more flavour and incorporates some of the better ideas from outside the world of D&D, and if you like a game that encourages innovation and fast-paced action through its rules, then this is the game for you. If you’re really wedded to a game without daily powers or skills, or if you need a game that doesn’t contain any elements of story and plot development (even if only coded in as options) then I would avoid it. If you need detailed simulationist rules to float your boat, this is also not the game for you, but otherwise I think it can appeal to most players. I think it might be a system best suited to experienced GMs, because its flexibility raises the risk of GMs walking into big mistakes that can damage adventures or campaigns, but if you’ve enough experience to handle those risks (or haul your arse out of the fire after you make the big mistakes) then I strongly recommend giving this system a go to see how well it supports your creativity. It’s a good effort and well worth a go!

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