13th Age Seminar at GenCon

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Friend of the Blog and general sexy beast Dan went to GenCon last weekend and files this report…

My time at GenCon was very limited this year, so I was reduced to the following two humble hopes:

  1. Leave GenCon with the same exact number of diseases as I had when I walked in (CON CRUD!!)
  2. A better understanding of 13th Age

The jury is still out on #1, but my understanding of 13th Age is much, much better after I sat in on a seminar, and then subsequently played in a demo run by Rob Heinsoo.

First, the seminar. It was sparsely attended, with only about 20 attendees. That really shocked me. Jonathan Tweet? Rob Heinsoo? They should draw at least 40, even for an indie type of release. This was booked into a “double” hall which holds seating for around 120. Factor in the recent Kickstarter that they have just started for the follow up book, and you would figure that there should have been plenty of juice behind this to get up to at least 40. Pelgrane marketing, I think you fumbled your skill check on this one.

The seminar itself was engaging, and it was great to hear the passion of the creators. But the subject matter was all over the place. This is where my professional life has broken me; I expected a professional delivery of a seminar that was designed to inform and excite the attendees about their new game. What we got was an entertaining meandering of thoughts, information, and retelling of gaming experiences.

Yes, even game designers want to tell you about their games and characters.

They started off by covering the basics for those who are unfamiliar with the system (which was about half of the attendees). For those who are unfamiliar with 13th Age, think of it as “old school D&D meets indie gaming sensibilities.” Crazy, right? For me and my group, this fits right into the sweet spot between what some want out of role playing and what the other half want out of roll playing.

Rob and Jonathan summed it up by saying that they wanted to make a game that they’d like to play, without any corporate oversight.

Sadly no overhead projector was provided/brought (MARKETING TEAM!!!! ::fist shake::), so as we moved from the overview portion over to the new art we had to huddle around Rob’s laptop. From what I could see they have an excellent direction. Each icon has its own style, and these will be brought through to the appropriate monsters, items, etc. Ferinstance, the Dwarven Lord symbol looks like it was stamped out of metal. The Elf Queen looks like a faint spider outline on an opal. I had trouble seeing details from where I was, but it all looked fabulous from 20 feet. Hopeful.

More home-game stories followed. Amusing to be certain, but not a lot of information was shared if I’m being honest.

Between the late start, the overview, stories, and sharing of art, the time flew. We were winding down when they opened it up to the floor, and some excellent questions arose, leading to a more meaningful discussion on several topics.

I asked, ”How will they remove all of the punitive bits of D&D and keep things moving forward quickly and freely?” They were very keen on getting to this one as it seems to be one of the pillars of this new game. Here’s a short laundry list: elimination of squares and going with “near/far” distances, taking average damage at higher levels and rolling a smaller subset of that dice to add flavor and variation, monsters doing set damage and having specials triggered by the die roll, and the escalation dice. Their mantra, which I heard several times, “A battle that took you 2 ½ hours in 4e shouldn’t take you more than an hour in 13th Age.”

If you know anything about 13th Age you already know that this is one of their pitch lines. But I can assure you that in practice… they work. I will get into this with my 13th Age demo write up. And yes, I will tell you ALL about my character. That’ll drive up the hit counter and revisits!

“How will this differentiate classes as this is something 4e just didn’t do?”

My buddy Billy asked this question near the end, and Rob very enthusiastically tried to answer it as best he could, but we ran out of time. However, Rob took the time post-game demo to delve deeper with us. In summary, Rob didn’t want anyone to feel useless at any level in 4e. To Rob, fighters became less useful at higher levels in 3e, and wizards always started out slowly in D&D (“Someone wake up the wizard; she needs to use her daily magic missile/sleep…”). Rob won that battle in 4e, and then the dev team turned their attention to making these more generic, but useful, classes more unique. But before they could make any headway in this area, work was stopped as they had to go to press. Essentially business needs ran that decision, and Rob is sad about this.

(Note: the irony of the fact that they have to release the core rule book sans monk and druid due to business needs is not lost upon this observer.)

With that in mind, the team of 13th Age is doing their best to make sure that not only are all classes relevant at all levels, but they are unique in how they feel. Add to that the icon relationships, backgrounds, and the aptly named “My One Unique Thing” and I don’t believe that this will be an issue for this system.

I need to spend some time talking about Rob and Jonathan – to know more about the designers is to know more about their game. I spent time with Rob, and what a great guy. Pleasant, he’s attentive, he’s very quick-witted, and you can tell he knows he won the “job” lottery. I am happier having met him and spent time with him. Jonathan I didn’t chat with much, but he was very accommodating, insightful, and interested in what everyone was asking and saying. Having a few beers and sitting in on one of their sessions has to be a blast.

They have a fan in me, and I will absolutely support their efforts.

As I thought about the seminar over a beer or four at Scotty’s the following thought hit me: that grizzly looking server dude looks hilarious in his Teletubby costume, and Jonathan and Rob are old school in their gaming DNA. They still speak about killing party members as if it’s a victory for the GM – granted this is tongue in cheek, but it’s a trope they all buy into. Also, GMs making things tough on players also brings them delight. Distilled to its core, there is still the “GM vs. Player” dynamic somewhere in their hearts. Once again, I will be a bit of a plot tease as I will go into details on an example in my follow up.

But for this game I think that’s right. Yes, my favorite recent game is Apocalypse World, and I hate the GM vs. Player dynamic. But Rob and Jonathan also love that system. What they are undertaking is not a small task: creating a chimera of new school gaming and old school D&D. And we all know D&D has several major failings, so you need to have someone who understands those failings, who has embraced those failings, if you want them to bridge some of that gap between it and modern gaming ideals.

A great example of how they are trying to do just that came in a response to a question from the group: “Back story is a throw away for my group. How can I fix that in 13th Age?” Jonathan said (and I paraphrase) that, “It now matters in 13th Age because it’s part of the system. It has material value beyond “story” and flavor text.” Now story might be enough for some, but for those who like rolling and getting shiny swords, this now gives them a tangible tool and benefit to walking down that path.

In some perverse way, it’s almost as if they have created a rule set to protect themselves (and old-school D&D players) from some of their predispositions and old habits. It’s a weird dichotomy in some regards, but I give them full marks for doing so.

All in all, a fairly useful hour spent at the Con. I learned more about the designers than I did the game, but in the end that was very important. More structure and a shared agenda would have helped shape the discussion and keep it efficient, but it really did add value to my upcoming game demo.

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4 Responses to “13th Age Seminar at GenCon”

  1. Wade Rockett Says:

    Thanks for coming to the seminar, and writing a recap.I’m very glad you like the game, and appreciate your support.

    I think the attendance was due to the fact that fewer people at the con knew about 13th Age than I expected. Because we didn’t know the lineup of the panel till the last minute, I was hesitant to list the designers’ names in the program, which would have been a big draw. In hindsight I should have just said that Heinsoo and Tweet would be there, and eaten crow if they weren’t.

    Rob sort of…caught me by surprise by showing art on his laptop, hence the lack of a projector. Sorry you had to huddle around to see it.

  2. Dan Says:

    Thanks for the insight, Wade. So that means Rob went rogue and we got to see the art before it was supposed to be shared?

    Cool! 🙂

    I should have the demo write up completed in the next few days. Spoiler alert: I liked it loads. And I have Chris (the big owlbear behind Claw Claw Peck) to thank for getting this on my radar. It’s awesome what one can discover deep into a night of libations.

    Good luck on the Kickstarter!

  3. Wade Rockett Says:

    Excellent, I look forward to it. And thanks for the luck!

    Heh. There were a few moments in that seminar where one designer or another went rogue. Which sort of ties into your “entertaining meandering” comment. They are certainly capable of delivering a tight, focused discussion of their game – listen to Jonathan’s appearance on Geek in Review: http://girpodcast.podomatic.com/entry/2012-07-14T13_43_03-07_00

    But together at Gen Con, it was two best friends who happen to be some of the top designers in the industry, shooting the breeze about their new game. Which might normally drive me up the wall as a PR person, except that 13th Age is indeed Rob and Jonathan’s home campaigns turned into an RPG product, and that’s how it reads a lot of the time. It’s full of anecdotes like the ones you heard. So if it wasn’t as focused as someone seeking information about the game might want, it conveyed the feeling of the game. If you like hanging out with them, you’ll probably like their game.

    VERY interesting observation on their bloodthirstiness, by the way. There are some jokes in the game about Jonathan being a sadistic DM, and Rob being much less so. One of my favorites:

    “Theoretically, certain magical effects that sap a character’s will to fight could prevent a character from rallying. But you would have to be cruel and abusive—or Jonathan Tweet—to set up a situation in which the heroes can’t rally.”

  4. A couple more 13th Age things « Claw/Claw/Peck Says:

    […] Dan – you remember Dan? From the last post? – played a demo at GenCon. Here’s his […]

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