Changing Horses Pt 3: 13th Age Part 1

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Last night I ran the first of a 2-part session of 13th Age, a game that is a strong favorite to be the system I convert my 4e campaign over to. It didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped but I still have faith.  This system still “feels” like a right fit to me.

13th Age is a d20-based fantasy game. What another one? Yes, but this one is by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, two names with strong game development kung-fu.  Right now the game is in “pre-release” stage; you can pre-order it from the link above and you get a draft pdf. It’s gone through a number of extensive playtesting rounds but its far from finished. Still I couldn’t wait to get my mitts on this game.  It’s closer to 4e than other d20 variants in a number of ways but strips out a lot of the complexity of other versions and replaces it with a shot of indie game narrative control.

For example, where other games present players with a fixed laundry list of Skills, 13th Age uses “Backgrounds”, which are free-form player-created short phrases, much like Distinctions in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game or Tweet’s own Over the Edge.  The result, I think, encourages players to be more creative to solve skill-based problems and requires that they think a little bit about their character background/values.

For this two-shot I statted up characters beforehand but left off the Backgrounds, the Relationships (connections the character has to the 13 most powerful NPCs/factions in the world) and the character’s One Unique Thing.  Every 13th Age character has a Unique Thing about them, and developing these can help to shape the campaign world as well as defining the character and what makes them special.

(more behind the break, but hey you can download the actual audio of our session here! (please please right click and Save Link As instead of just streaming))

Because I wanted these characters to be experienced I made them at 5th level, the start of the Champion tier. This gave them a couple more feats and abilities than a 1st level character but it didn’t take long to pull them together.  The biggest problem I found was that there sometimes weren’t enough Feats to choose from. Unlike other games, most feats in 13th Age are tied directly to a particular spell/talent/special ability, and not every spell has an associated feat. That means your available pool can be pretty small depending on the choices you’ve made. There are a handful of general feats but they’re not terribly exciting.

One of the players had read the rules beforehand but the others had either only skimmed it or had not looked at them at all. I thought that 3 years of playing 4e would have prepared them and that the system would be very familiar. I was surprised at the questions and problems that came up, and I assume a lot of that was from my own bad explanation or poor preparation. In addition to the character sheets, I gave each player a couple of pages that included the descriptions of all their Talents, Spells, Feats, Racial Powers and other special abilities. Even though there were FAR fewer of these than there would be in an equivalent 4e character I think for some of the classes (Bard, Cleric and Monk) the number of options was a bit overwhelming and I didn’t explain or organize the stuff into categories of “this can be used as a Standard Action”, “this is a characteristic that is always in effect” etc.   The other players with the far simpler character classes (Ranger, Rogue, Barbarian) didn’t have as much problem primarily because there were far fewer choices to make each round.

The group liked the simplified tactical combat. You don’t bother with squares and counting out movement and such in 13th Age. Instead you have what I call the Grover System; you are either Near or Far. Or if you are right up in someone’s grill you are “Engaged”, and getting out of their threat zone runs the risk of taking an Opportunity Attack. Nice, neat, clean and abstract. Also allows for more descriptive maneuvers, and anything that pumps up the Awesome is okay with me.

One thing we noticed was that damage was incredibly swingy. Characters and baddies roll a LOT of dice for damage – PCs roll the same number of dice as their level for basic attacks, which means a 5th level character with a longsword is rolling 5d8 plus some amount. Critical hits (when you roll a natural 20) double damage, and there were a LOT of them rolled. One Skeleton archer (7th level, rolling 8d6 damage) critted and dealt 79 points to the party Bard in the first shot, taking him down. Shit gets REAL really fast in 13th Age. A lot of classes have elements that work to expand their critical range so there’s big damage numbers flying around the table at all times.  There was a definite sense of danger and tension from a handful of skeletons and a couple wights.

The rules also use a “mook system” which I like a lot better than 4e’s Minions. They have a limited number of hit points and damage spills over if you do more than enough to take one out. Our Ranger got a crit that finished off three skeleton mooks in the most impressive bank shot since Oswald in Dealey Plaza.

We didn’t get a chance in this session to do a lot of social maneuvering or “skill challenges” so I can’t really judge that. Hopefully that will come in part 2.

I screwed up in a couple ways. I still don’t think I have a great handle on how to use Relationships.  I had everyone with a Relationship to the Elf Queen roll a relationship check when the party entered the Elven Woods to see how they were received, for example. As one of the players pointed out afterward, that’s not really in the spirit of the game as Relationships are supposed to be more personal. I also have a hard time working the chosen Relationships into the game – I think it’s much harder in a one- or two-shot where the story is pretty solidly on the rails but I’m going to try to figure out how to make that work better in the second session.   Two of the players also came up with Backgrounds much more suited to an urban/more social game than I was planning, so I have to see how I can bend what I have in mind to let them take better advantage of that.

Overall I was pretty pleased with how it went and I think only one of my players was unhappy. And that could probably be fixed up by re-organzing his character sheet to make it easier for him to know how and when to use his various abilities (I should note the same player completely redesigned his 4e character sheet in a similar manner, so I think it’s largely about how he approaches this sort of thing).  We’ll run part 2 in I think 3 or 4 weeks due to players being away. I’m threatening to run a Rolemaster one-shot in the interim, but my wife wisely noted that if I’m going to do that I’d best start working on pre-gen characters now if I have any hopes of being done in the next fortnight.

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3 Responses to “Changing Horses Pt 3: 13th Age Part 1”

  1. tobias Says:

    The way I understand it, Relationships are supposed to be resources the players use, not passive qualities the DM calls to roll for. So, for example, if the party entered the Elven Woods and got lost, one of the players might roll their Elf Queen relationship to see if they can track down some elves and convince them to help them to help them out.

  2. Dan Says:

    From my one reading of the rules (via my iPhone), I would agree with Tobias. Also, aren’t there two “auto-throttles” to have players think twice about calling on their relationships left and right: 1. They could roll a five, which is a success but with a funky twist 2. Depending on when you call on this relationship, can’t they be tweaking another relationship (i.e. pissing off the Emperor if they called on their Diabolist relationship in a particular way/place)?

  3. Frylock Says:

    Great summary. Thanks for the information. I’ve been considering that game and was curious how it was structured.

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