13th Age Core Book (13th Age)
Disclaimer: I received the hardcover for 13th Age for the purposes of writing an unbiased, critical review. This following review reflects my endeavor to do so. The review is based on the hardcover of the 320 page book – I do not own the Pdf, so I can’t comment on that format. In order to review this book, I have playtested this system, though I did so with the expansion 13 True Ways as well – when appropriate, I will comment on that and yes, said book’s review is coming soon as well.
Without further ado – this is a d20-based system and as such, you will see a lot of familiar AND unfamiliar ground. The basics of a character are the 6 attributes we all know and their modifiers are still calculated by subtracting 10 and then dividing the resulting number by 2. The similarities continue with the action types – standard and move actions, free actions – those retain their nomenclature. Quick actions correspond to swift actions and certain classes can use 1 interrupt action per round, even when it’s not their turn – a better nomenclature and more streamlined take for immediate actions, essentially. Action substitution is more transparent than in comparable systems – standard actions can be downgraded to move/quick actions etc. We basically have free downgrading substitution as a design principle regarding action economy. So far, so similar, right? Well, this is about the time the similarities end.
First of all, levels are grouped in 10s, not 20s (or 30s). The levels have a somewhat unnecessary-seeming tier-nomenclature sticking to them as a 4th edition remnant, with champion-tier occupying levels 5-7, epic tier constituting levels 8 -10 and adventurer-tier spanning the lower levels. Tiers are used essentially as a base-line for the upgrading of e.g. feats, racial powers etc. – in higher tiers, the benefits become more pronounced. I wrote “seeming” here, since the tier essentially acts a prerequisite, but more on that later.
Levels are gained as per the requirements of the story, not as per XP, and as a party – whether this is according to your tastes depends on your group, but personally, I enjoy the move away from XP-values – the CR/etc.-systems never worked well in the first place, anyways, so kudos! On the basic mechanics, we receive fixed HP-values, which are modified by con-mod and then multiplied by a fixed value. The base HP-value etc. is governed by the class you belong to. This has two consequences – One, you do not have unlucky (or lucky!) PCs with fewer (or more!) HP than their companions. Two: You pretty much can guess a level and the average toughness of an adversary, since there is no basic variation in the base HP – whether you like or dislike this pretty much boils down to a matter of taste and preference. On the one hand, it does provide a more mathematically secure base-line for balancing, on the other, it makes things a tad more predictable and potentially, a bit more boring.
Races cover the default races we know and expect from a d20-based game, but also provide unconventional races à la aasimar, tiefling, drow, etc. – each race is characterized by a choice of one of 2 attribute bonuses (or more) of +2 and a racial power, which can be used once per battle. The racial powers themselves are pretty unique and drive home the flair of the races. Here, I go on a little tangent – one design decision that is not per se bad, but which I intensely loathe is the concept of ANY power/ability/spell per battle. Since battles constitute a non-defined time-frame, the system demands to be gamed – “Quick, kill the kobold before reinforcements arrive!” I’ve been vocal and ranty about this in the past and I still stand behind this –for me, this breaks immersion in a nasty way, though the issue in 13th Age is less pronounced than in any comparable game, to the point where I consider it tolerable…NOT good – for me as a person, this is a jarring and constant thorn in my side and makes me cringe, but as a reviewer, it’s not that bad. Why? Well, for once, the whole system is streamlined more towards constant performance and away from bleeding resources dry. Abilities tend to be grouped in at-will, once/combat and once/day and thus, resource-management à la 3.X or PFRPG is severely de-emphasized.
This is also reflected in two design-decisions – one, there are healing surges, here called recovery. While based on your level and class (thus ranging from d6 to d10), they are limited. You usually begin with 8 recoveries and can execute a so-called rally as a standard action – this allows the character to rally his/her reserves and receive the recovery/healing. On an 11+, the character can rally again in that combat. Oh yeah, haven’t mentioned that before – quite a few limited abilities can be executed more often per battle if luck is on the player’s side. The save required for tasks like this is an unmodified d20. While this makes battles more dynamic, it also provides an avenue for lady luck that is pretty hefty. The strategic decisions and action gained from this should not be underestimated – each recovery can literally be your last. If you’re like me and belong into the camp of people who do NOT consider hit points a representation of fighting spirit, the book does suggest as an alternative to drop recovery/rallies – and yes, this is theoretically possible, but only theoretically. Why? Because healing potions and numerous other mechanics also tap into recoveries as a resource and influence it. In my games, though, experimenting with stripping rally/recoveries away did provide somewhat of an issue – but I’ll get back to that.
Before I went on the recovery-tangent, I mentioned two factors that make the per-battle-mechanics imho work slightly better – the second one would be “healing up” – separated from the traditional 8 hours of rest, recovery of most class-related tricks is no longer tied to a fixed time-frame, but rather to the DM’s judgment. While the suggested array of combats before leveling and healing up respectively felt pretty paltry to me, no one stops the DM from making the game more difficult. I absolutely applaud this countermeasure against the 4.5-encounter/8-minute adventuring-day, but I wished the book had been a tad bit more precise in the base guidelines of when to allow for healing up for groups with different capabilities, if only to avoid conflicting expectations between the DM and players. Not a bad thing, mind you – just a nitpick.
Now where there’s healing, there are defenses – three, in this case. Beyond AC, we also receive MD and PD – mental and physical defense. Each class has a value for these, modified by one value – the AC-modifier, PD modifier and MD modifier, respectively. To determine these, you take a look at 3 of your attributes (Con, Dex and Wis for AC, for example) and ignore the highest and lowest of the three attribute modifiers – the middle one, you add to the value. The values increase by +1 every level. Initiative is still governed only by Dex and also receives further bonuses with the levels gained. I *really* like this concise and easy-to-grasp distinction between different defenses. Especially, since the stacking system is pretty much a no-brainer in its simplicity.
What do I mean by that? Well, essentially, only the highest bonus applies. Same goes for negative conditions. Worst one supersedes other penalties. Ongoing damage stacks – you can burn a little or burn much, be poisoned a little or be poisoned like crazy – these components should elicit grins from every DM who had to witness high-level PCs actually creating full-blown buff-suites (with crazy performance-increases) to speed up game-play – my last 3.X-campaign before switching to PFRPG had one particular insane one that required a spread-sheet. Now while my players love this kind of complexity and engine-tinkering, the simplicity and elegance of the mechanics herein deserve accolades and are absolutely something I wholeheartedly endorse, especially for groups that derive no joy from engine-mastery.
A elegant similar simplicity also can be applied to the damage-types, which cover elemental damage types, negative energy, etc. Resistance and vulnerability also work differently – vulnerability renders the target more prone to being crited, whereas resistance equals half damage, unless the natural d20 roll was higher than e.g. 12+ or even 18+. So yeah, elegant simplicity here as well, not much chances to use tricks and scale up elemental nigh invulnerabilities – which is both a blessing for some and a curse for others. This brings me to the notion of damage as such – weapon damage, for example, has no descriptor – the system does not differentiate between the damage caused by a massive hammer or by an arrow. Whether you like that or not, once again, is up to your personal tastes – I get the rationale, but I really dislike it as a person. Damage calculation is pretty simple and one of the reasons martials and casters are pretty balanced in 13th Age. Damage rolls add an ability modifier and usually see a multiplication – the base weapon damage is multiplied at higher levels. A 1st level fighter wielding a longsword may e.g. deal 1d8 + Str-mod. However, a 4th level fighter would instead deal 4d8+ Str-mod damage with the same weapon. The modifiers are also increased – upon reaching champion-tier, the characters add twice the modifier, thrice upon reaching epic tier. It should be noted that the progression of e.g. weapon-damage is very much class-specific and even weapon damage dice and properties lose some importance – you require less capability/rules-oomph from the weapon if most comes from your PC anyway. The awesome result of this would be a de-emphasis on equipment and a diminished Christmas-tree-syndrome – two thumbs up for that!
Another design-tenet that is reflected and deserves accolades in my book is the notion of “failing forward” – while this is mirrored in how quite a few mechanics are run and in the assumptions regarding the reactions of the DM, one can see it particularly well with melee miss damage. Whereas ranged attacks tend to just miss, melee attacks can deal damage in spite of missing – though considerably less. This can be considered a rather interesting way of balancing the two against another – the increased risk of melee is balanced against a more reliable damage output. Where’s damage, there is bound to be death and indeed, death exists in 13th Age, though only in the most subdued of notions – for one, 7th Sea’s rule of death-only-by-named-NPCs is suggested. (And yes, I uttered an “URGH” while reading that…)
You’re down at 0 Hp, you die upon reaching negative HP equal to half maximum HP. When down, you make death saves (16+) to use recoveries – however, upon the 4th failed death save in a single battle, you die. While the playtest did show that this remains a distinct possibility, it also provides quite a few chances to cheat the reaper. Save-or-suck abilities also offer ONE 16+ save to avoid becoming helpless – upon failing that, a character is restricted to making more of these saves and once again, 4 failed saves mean that whatever unfortunate condition befell you, now hits full force – whether that be paralysis, petrification etc. On the one hand, this does mean that save-or-suck is less of an issue, since statistically, you ought to make one of those saves. On the other hand, this makes abilities like that pretty much less frightening, the game less dangerous. Whether one enjoys this or not, ultimately is up to the respective group, though tinkering with this system is pretty easy and less saves etc. for a more lethal game can easily be implemented. A popular low level save-or-suck-trick, fear, is now based on the hp of the target to be frightened – which makes sense to me. Speaking of “making sense to me” – resurrection and death are things NOT to be trifled with. Each character capable of the feat can resurrect exactly 5 times, with progressively worse repercussions for the caster and the target and final death for the caster looming beyond he last cast. This renders death meaningful and makes casters of that particular miracle a much-sought commodity- story-threads and narrative potential abound. I love it!
Over all, the total impression, which proved to be true, is that combat with this system is somewhat more predictable than with similar d20-based systems – which, of course makes balancing easier. Another rule that rigs the game in favor of the PCs would be the escalation die – in the second round of combat, the die is turned to the 1 – and all PCs receive +1 to attack rolls. This increases by +1 every round, up to +6. Monsters usually do not utilize the escalation die and special attacks and circumstances may decrease the die. Other abilities require a minimum number on the escalation die, while certain spells and effects require an even number on it. Why is the escalation die important? Well, because an attack is executed via d20+level+ability bonus+ magic item. And remember, only 10 levels. This means that either magic item bonuses become exceedingly important, or that AC/PD/MD cap at pretty low levels. And indeed – Balors clock in at AC 29, Red Dragons at 28, with the latter also sporting an MD of 23 and a PD of 27. Notice something? You don’t have to be a genius to realize that hitting these guys is not that hard, even sans the escalation die.
What does this mean? Well, much like comparable d20-based systems, we have an emphasis on relatively short, burst-like battles – attack capacity usually outclasses defensive capacity. Before I forget that later, I feel obliged to mention another factoid that DMs might want to be aware of – the way monsters work. Much like in the CR-system, we are provided with a mechanic to judge how to balance encounters, but this time around, the monster type influences how that works. No, I’m not talking about their race, but rather a grouping into e.g. mooks etc. – not a fan of that, but again, a personal preference, nothing I’d fault the game for. The damage monsters deal is not a regular throw of the dice – rather than that, they deal fixed values of damage with attacks and abilities. This cruise-control DMing considerably speeds up gameplay, yes. On the other hand, much like in other current systems, I was missing something as a DM. I enjoy the elation of the dice, the dread of players seeing me lift a hand full of dice to represent a dragon’s breath about to hit them. I’m aware that my insistence on rolling for monsters slows the game, but it is also a significant source of joy (and excitement) for me and to a lesser extent, my players. 13th Age streamlines that away and makes running the encounters faster, and in my opinion, significantly less exciting for the DM and also more predictable. And yeah, some monsters receive additional attacks/tricks based on the number you rolled on hits and misses – don’t get me wrong, there is excitement to be had here as well. But personally, running the combats on the DM’s side felt less exciting to me. But also significantly faster. Which you prefer, once again, boils down to a matter of taste.
A remnant of 4th edition I particularly LOATHED was the bloodied condition – which now also exists as the staggered condition. However, like many other components I do not enjoy that much from the design elements of 4th edition, it has been improved – it is now subservient to the needs of the story. We no longer have a fixed, semi-arbitrarily defined value, but rather a general recommendation on when to consider a creature staggered. There is one particular notion I did really enjoy and feel I should emphasize– the “nastier” specials. These can be considered optional tricks for the monsters to unleash upon the PCs; they are additional, more lethal signature abilities. They are great. First, they let you easily set elites apart. Secondly, they help setting creatures further apart from another by providing signature tricks. And third, much like applying mythic rules to your bosses, they can be considered a kind of “hard(er) mode” for the monsters, one you can tackle on the fly. Nice! While not all creatures receive nastier-tricks, the very notion is something near and dear to me.
I’ve often mentioned the words “4th edition” in this review and for a reason. My intense dislike for 4th edition is no secret. I hate just about all of its design-decisions. However, surprisingly, I found myself almost unanimously less (or not at all!) annoyed by 13th Age’s adaptations of these concepts, mainly due to the changed focus towards a roleplaying game, away from the miniature focus. This is particularly well-represented in what may be one of things I love most about this book. Combat, distances etc. are no longer tier to a particular grid, a particular range, but rather handled in an abstract relation from one another, which still provides concise terminology for what amounts to AoOs, engagement etc. – essentially, you do not need a battlemap for this game and it dauntingly, courageously ignores the tendency for miniature-style tactical movement etc. While, in the long run, this does reduce the amount of options and tactics one can employ, it is also a step towards a focus that is more centered on the narrative potential of a storyline. Even if you do not like the overall of 13th Age-rules, this particular section can easily be pilfered for just about any d20-game. I know I’ll be prone to use it when I don’t have the time to draw complex arenas spanning multiple battlemaps… So yeah, triumphant and damn cool, especially if you do not like the complex AoO/melee/(dis-) engagement rules of similar d20-based systems.
The skill-system, on the other hand, is the ONE component where I absolutely and positively LOATHE 13th Age and can’t bring myself to saying anything positive about it– you receive 8 points upon character generation and more can be gained by certain classes. You assign these points towards backgrounds (like “Imperial Assassin”, “Cat Burglar”, etc.) and roll d20+attribute+ranks versus the environmental DC required, while explaining how your training in xyz helped you with that. URGH. First, there is not much growth potential here. Secondly, this smells of FATE’s issues. Don’t get me wrong, I *like* highly narrative rules that put an emphasis on collective story-telling, where backgrounds and capabilities aren’t carved in stone – I adore Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, for example. However, whenever an RPG-system essentially tells me that a whole, central mechanic is based on BSing the DM in how a particular, phrased (as ambiguous as possible) background/character trait/whatever applies to a given situation, I’m prone to rage-quitting. This already applies in tighter skill systems – this one is BASED on it. And yes, I know the counter-arguments and the samples make it look enticing. In practice, it sooner or later boils down to “Can I BS the DM?” vs. “Should I let the players BS me like this?” – and that is not good game-design in my book. You are, of course, free to have an opposing opinion, but this is pretty much the reason I don’t like FATE and I hate its implementation on a smaller scale herein as well. (As a footnote, the further de-emphasis on languages etc., while still represented in the rules, also kind of rubs me the wrong way, but that pales before aforementioned issue.) So yeah, I really, really dislike the skill-“system”. To the point where it is the one component of the whole system I just can’t get myself to draw any kind of fun from. The one positive thing I can say about the skill system is that its default assumption is that a failure can have negative repercussions, while still yielding results – nowhere near as sophisticated as in the GUMSHOE-system, of course, but still. Here, the design-tenet of forward failure somewhat works.
Feats have also been streamlined in a rather interesting way – you’ll only find a hand full of general feats – the majority is class-specific. Furthermore, there’s a feat every level…and the prerequisites boil down to class + tier and the d’unh-level pereq that you need to have a particular talent/power to modify it with a feat. Champion tier feats require champion level, epic tier feats epic levels. One feat is gained per level. Simple, concise, no dead levels. A handy table lists the feats and class feats can be found in the entry of the class – simple and elegant…though future expansions should be weary of retaining this ordered structure to avoid the feat-look-up-halt. The feats themselves provide a pretty awesome simplicity that is rather elegant – take reach trick. If you wield a weapon with reach, you can make a reach stunt, with a save of 6+. That’s it. Halberd for pole-jumping? Swiping foes off their feat? Impaling foes? One mechanic, easily modified by the DM. Depending on your own preferences, this design may elicit screams of joy or groans, especially if, as a DM, you’re not confident with complex rules-decisions. While this streamlines the rules required, it also places a burden on the DM to remember past judgments regarding stunts for fairness’ sake. As much as I hate the skill-system, the feats per se and how they’re gained feels pretty nice and fluid to me – in game, the constant progression ensured that each level felt sufficiently different.
Now speaking of classes – usually, I’d give you a break-down of how each class works. However, in the case of this particular review, that would bloat it even more, so in order to maintain at least a semblance of cohesion, I’ll only be touching upon certain things. First – yes, all the classes you’d expect can be found herein, with the exception of monk and druid, which can be found in the imho required 13 True Ways-expansion. Speaking of which – said expansion also revises/expands the slightly problematic base animal companion rules provided herein, so rangers in particular should definitely check out the druid-entry in said book. I’d encourage DMs to apply the limitations and clarifications introduced therein for the ranger as well. Retraining class components is an option that is generally pretty easy to accomplish via these rules. Base Hp range from 6 – 8, base AC from 10 -16 and base physical and mental defense range from 10 – 12. Recovery dice, as mentioned before, range from d6 –d10 per level. The classes themselves require different levels of player-skill, mainly since they play radically different, but overall, none of them should overexert any veteran of 3.X, PFRPG or similar, complex systems. It should also be noted that classes also entail attribute bonuses and e.g. selecting whether melee is governed by Str or Dex and similar choices all have been streamlined into the classes themselves.
Now where the classes, much like those of 4th edition, succeed admirably, is with the general balancing among themselves – not only do they play differently, they do sport numerous, different mechanics – rogues, for example, require a resource called momentum, which they build up and expend over the course of combat. Said resource rewards movement, tactical, surgical strikes etc. – and just is fun. Alas, there is a downside to this balancing, namely that the classes, on their own, do not sport that many choices – talents and the like are anything but copious and you’ll soon stumble across yet another member of class xyz that has exactly the same tricks up his/her sleeve. I may be spoiled by PFRPG, but that rubs me the wrong way and is another reason I’d wholeheartedly endorse you getting as many expansions as possible. Still, once again, while this is a flaw for me, for you it could be a feature.
There are some class features I’m not a fan of – the sorcerer, for example, can spend actions to gather power for minor buffs, unleashing the full spell slower, but more powerful later. This feels to MMORPG-y to me. The ability acknowledges that, apart from the situations where you need a quick spell, it almost universally means that gathering power (and being bored) for one round is the smarter decision. The book flat out states this, but tries to mitigate it via aforementioned argument – which is not valid in my book. When essentially doing nothing/ damage on a level that can be neglected to staggered foes only constitutes a smart move for a class, the goal of “doing something cool/useful/etc.” is not reached. My players got immensely frustrated with the mechanic. On the other side, the wizard-class has one damn stroke of sheer genius – Vance’s polysyllabic verbalizations. Step 1: Invent unique, verbose names for your spells. Step 2: Slightly prolong casting time and proudly declare your magic’s name. Step 3: The spell happens with a non-defined, circumstantial, unpredictable new effect determined by you and the DM. This is an utterly awesome narrative idea and perhaps the coolest rendition of the concept of Spell Thematics I’ve seen so far (in any system that’s not Ars Magica) – and I’m SO stealing it for my games! The relatively easy to grasp and concise magic item rules that do not succumb to the Christmas tree syndrome and does sport suggestions and rules for magic item-death/destruction should also be considered one of the definite plusses of the system.
That being said, if you expect hundreds of pages of spells and choices upon choices, I’ll have to disappoint you – the classes and spell-lists are just as restrictive as the choices of talents. Personally, I also am not a big fan of magic’s neutering in the name of balance – for short durations and the export of longer powers to the wibbly-wobbly concept of out-of-combat rituals make magic feel NOT like the force of unbridled creativity, but rather like a narrowly codified field – again, much like one can see in MMORPGs – which is odd, considering how stunts and cool martial arts-tricks have been so widely opened.
Which brings me to the example, where the at times slightly schizoid duality of 13th Age’s rules becomes readily apparent. And no, I’m not talking about the opinionated differences between the authors and the constant addressing of the reader via them. On the one hand, 13th Age very much enforces the idea of story-telling, of creativity trumping rules. Of easier and streamlined gameplay. And it succeeds in that regard. At the same time, though, stunts with weapons and acrobatics and the like remain relatively ill-defined and leave you hanging in the air without much clues. Similarly, it neuters magic down to a power-source, which, in the narrative frame, can do just about anything – unless it’s in the hands of any character/actual gameplay, when it suddenly adheres to the restrictive array provided for the respective classes.
In no other component is this duality as pronounced as in the Icons. The Icons represent both a central mechanic and a unique selling point of the implicit setting. Instead of named divinities or movers and shakers like Tar-Baphon, Strahd or Elminster, we have these titles – the icons represent essentially very dualistic demigod-level movers and shakers, which keep the world in a kind of equilibrium. Liked Dancer from the Malazan Book of the Fallen? Well, there’s The Prince of Shadows for you. There is The Lich-King. The Diabolist. The Dwarf-King. The Queen of Elves. The Priestess. You get the idea. These all but archetypical beings govern pretty much the fate of the world and your PCs receive relationship points with them. These points represent a dice each and are rolled at the beginning of a session or its end, influencing what happens in a positive way on a 6 on a d6, in one that has a downside on a 5. This requires some serious improvisation-skills on parts of the DM, but also ties the players to the world and its powerful beings – perhaps via the one unique thing you chose at character creation that sets you apart. (A good idea, imho, though the examples partially had me cringe…)
So what’s my beef with these archetypes (term used in the traditional, non-3.X/PFRPG-way)? Generally, I love their concepts – the Archmage that tries to domesticate the nature of the WORLD with magic and his weather-control-towers, arcano-science par excellence, versus e.g. the High Druid’s rise of the wild and savage – that can make for great narrative twists. The way in which they influence the setting can also be considered genius: How cool is the notion of an entire OCEAN being mad at anything remotely resembling civilization? What about the rather nasty Crusader, who seeks to close hellholes and erect strongholds there – everyone is glad he battles the demonic incursions and prays he doesn’t turn his ambition elsewhere. These icons are firmly tied in with the world – which makes transporting them to another setting problematic. Furthermore, they at once want to facilitate story-telling by being opaque, while also having pretty clear agendas – and I get why. But, even when taking the setting-information( with its partially downright inspired world-building) into account, they, as characters, remain bland cardboard cutouts. They are tropes. The empire, whose health reflects the emperor? Warhammer 40K minus grit, anyone?
As much as I loved the small tidbits interspersed through the setting-information, the icons left me terribly bored. They don’t know whether they want to be story-facilitators or actual characters. No names, no history, no tradition. This, to my knowledge, ought to be the rule-book with a short gazetteer on the implied word, but the interconnections between the fluff and crunch here can provide a significant detriment towards the storytelling should choose to not utilize the default setting. What if I wanted to use 13th Age-rules with Dark Sun? Ravenloft? Midgard? Golarion? I’d have to find substitutes, refurbish them and, bafflingly, there is no advice for that here.
The setting, the world, does sport several glorious tidbits – like dwarven coins being stackable and quadratic and similar absolutely awesome ideas that had me grin from ear to ear. At the same time, box upon box tells me that xyz (for example, issues with language interaction) is not fun or can be neglected. And quite often, at least in the fluff-department, I caught myself thinking “NO, that is NOT something that can be neglected!”. You may not mind, I did. This does not make the book bad, but it also points towards one thing I’ll further elaborate in the conclusion.
The book does feature an excellent glossary and index and a starter module – and said module is by far, no matter where you stand on each individual rules-decision, the weakest part of the book.
PCs arrive at Archmage’s control tower (not mapped), interact with people (no read-aloud boxes), go forth, kill a bunch of goblins, find a massacre, realize there’s a traitor in the tower, get back and KILL A WOUNDED DRAGON. At level 1. Urgh. I’m aware that this is a personal gripe, but I hate, hate, hate level 1-dragonkilling. Even if the dragon is wounded. It just feels terribly wrong to me and takes away what should be a climactic moment and waters it down. “Oh yeah, dragon killing? Pf, did that at first level…” Traitor may or may not escape. That’s it. Nigh no meaningful choices to be made, no cool twist, interesting combat-influences or fluxes and it contributes to the disposable dragon syndrome. Boring and bland – apart from the backdrop of the tower, nothing good here. My players were terribly bored with this as well.
Editing and formatting are top-notch. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the book comes on nice, glossy paper with great artworks. Alas, the monsters in the monster-section do not receive fluff or proper visual representations apart from some glyph-like representations and a couple of mugshots for demons. The organization of the rules is pretty concise and the cartography is glorious.
Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet are both talented designers that have created a highly functional game here. 13th Age is imho the game 4th edition tried to be and superior to it. However, at least in my opinion, it is not the end-all super-system it’s hyped up to be. Beyond personal preferences, the system as such suffers from the issues with its adaptability and versatility, at least in direct comparison. In 3.X or PFRPG I can easily rip bits and pieces out of context, scavenge parts. In 13th Age, this is significantly harder and while it generates the impression that it is as customizable, it’s not. The book behaves as if taking away recoveries were a valid choice, when playtest pretty much showed that this is not the case – these is too much highly likely/unavoidable damage to take the component out and the numerous connections make scavenging hard – which becomes problematic with the icons. Yes, they can be extracted, changed, etc., but if you take their impact on the world away, you have to change their agendas and the same goes for the establishment of new icons. And this reflects the rules-aesthetic of a lot of rules herein. Change one part, change a lot.
The icons also have another impact – they, along the shorter level-progression, point you towards a particular playstyle. One with significant consequences from the get-go. While I’m not saying that this is bad, I can’t really picture the rules of 13th Age properly supporting more subdued gameplay, darker and grittier narratives or truly long campaigns or ones that take the PCs from sucker to super-hero. The quicker escalation of character development via relationship rules, fast level-up suggestions etc. all point towards the system being geared primarily for short, intense and distinctly high-magic campaigns. That’s not bad, mind you – the system does its own style of campaign very well. But in other contexts, it is not that smooth.
What do I mean by this? I’m going to say something that contradicts just about every review of 13th Age I’ve read: I think this system is simple.
It is not an “advanced” system – it is very easy to grasp and, had the rule-book included a tighter introduction for new players, more basic explanations for concepts, I’d praise this as a great beginner’s d20-RPG. It is really a pretty simple game, as far as anything d20-based is concerned.
The rules are easy, the math simple, there is not much to be overwhelmed by. The danger the PCs face is subdued as well – I’ve scarcely seen a d20-game with some many failsafes that ensure a precious PC doesn’t bite the dust, in spite of the limit on resurrection. This is a very player-friendly RPG – if CoC is Dark Souls, 13th Age is more like WoW. This is NOT meant as a barb, but rather as an observation. If impending doom, omnipresent threats, old-school level gameplay, harsh, unrelenting difficulty and overcoming the odds is what you’re looking for, then 13th Age may not be for you – this game is pretty much rigged in favor of your PCs. If you want a vast plethora of selections at your disposal, significant variety within each class and rewards for optimization, then there are better systems out there – though that changes with the addition of more supplements.
13th Age excels in its chosen field, though – for short-burst, combat-centric high-fantasy campaigns in the very much captivating setting with its neat ideas, it provided more fun in my playtests than 4th edition ever accomplished. Research et al. is something better left to GUMSHOE, as are most skill-based interactions, so yes, the central issue of the rules is and remains the implied playstyle the book enforces. The step towards a narrative focus is great, but it is kept from reaching its full realization by aforementioned choices of, paradoxically, not emphasizing the rules required for complex non-combat scenarios.
Now, I feel obliged to mention one more bit – this book is interspersed with designer’s comments and suggestions. More often than not, they oscillate between extremes and I do like the option for every DM to choose from a design philosophy/opinion and adhere to it. However, at least partially, I considered these segments (said, often casual, voice(s) also can be found in the rules-text where they do *not* belong) belittling and sometimes, grating. Most of the time, I didn’t mind, but one of my players was extremely annoyed by this tendency to the point where he (usually one of my rules-savvy guys who truly enjoys reading the rules) told the table to give him the quick run-down, since it annoyed him to the extent where he didn’t want to read on. One man’s bug is another man’s feature, I guess. Personally, I would have enjoyed less opinion, more options here – and especially, less judging. What one person may not consider fun, another does and I honestly was annoyed at some boxes stating that some fixtures in my tables were “not fun.”
In the end, 13th Age is a very player-friendly roleplaying game with some hints of greatness and cool ideas, but also one that is bound to polarize. Would I exchange PFRPG’s complexity and class-power-asymmetry for 13th Age’s quick and streamlined cruise-control DMing and balance? No. Because I *like* a lot of the things this book changes and dismisses as “not fun”– I like fragile first level PCs and casters. I like extremely complex high-level encounters. I like rolling monster-dice. I prefer my movers and shakers named and well-defined, my skills set in stone. I love optimization-tricks, a nigh-infinite array of options for each character. The bugs this book eliminates, in one sentence, are, alas, often my features, the things I look for in a roleplaying game. Now, before you loyal 13th Age fans out there get the pitchforks ready – I still consider this a good and more importantly, FUN, game and one that does A LOT right -from the quick engagement rules to the balancing of martials and ranged vs. melee, this has a plethora of cool food for thought for any DM of a d20-based system, whether one elects to use 13th Age as a system or not. While, as a person, it hits many of the notes of game-design I do NOT necessarily look for (I love e.g. Dark Souls, dislike just about every “easy” RPG, including MMORPGs), as a reviewer and aesthete, I really could appreciate the streamlined elegance of a lot of the choices that went into this system and for certain types of games, I will use this.
Furthermore, let me make that very explicit, there are quiet a bunch of rules I love and will scavenge and retool for my own games and as a system; for what it tries to do, 13th Age tends to succeed at. Had this been 4th edition, I probably wouldn’t have looked for PFRPG in the first place. Its elegance, streamlined and fast gameplay, the very undemanding, easy, low-preparation DMing, the concise rules – all that are signs of a good game and you may very well consider that fixed HP-values, less fluctuations in power and no-damage-rolling on the DM’s side glorious and I get why. This game system is a good system. It just isn’t as versatile as I prefer it to be and not 100% made for the playstyle I prefer.
Still, I will, once in a while, crank out this system and use it. But I can’t consider this book, as a stand-alone publication, more than good, can’t bring myself to consider it great. There are too many things I can’t do with the basic rules, there is not enough variety within the base classes and magic to keep my interest long-term without significant expansion. Note that all of this pertains to the Core-book as an isolated entity – I do not compare this to an established system with x books, but only to the variety it offers as a stand-alone book when compared to similar systems.
One more thing some reviewers have observed, would be a so-called HP-bloat. This is bogus. Since the damage PCs inflict scales up quite massively (and more reliably than in 3.X and PFRPG), my own playtest experience was that most combats did not pass the 3rd or 4th round. I only reached the 6th round once in the playtests I ran (with a rigged encounter specifically designed to last long) and my math supports this impression. So in that regard, 13th Age is absolved in my book. Indeed, in my experience, monsters tended to fall pretty swiftly to the PC’s onslaught.
How to rate this, then? As mentioned above, grognards and fans of brutally hard roleplaying and hardcore rules-fetishists and complexity-advocates may want to steer clear; conversely, newcomers with a veteran who can help explain the rules, people fed up with extreme optimization, groups that loathe frequent PC-death, people hoping for a streamlined D&D 4.75, people looking for symmetrical class balancing and 4th edition fans who wish for a return to a more character-story-driven gameplay should definitely consider picking up 13th Age. For you all, this game was made and I think, you will not rue getting it and draw a lot of joy from these pages.
Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars – a good roleplaying system for what it tries to do and its target demographic.
P.s.: And yes, the PFRPG Core-rules wouldn’t score higher – invert most of my criticisms of 13th Age and you have what I’d have to say about that book as an isolated entity. 😉