"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Imagine you took a stack of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books, a few of the old school TSR "basic" D&D products, and a heap of indie games like FATE and The Burning Wheel and tossed them all in Seth Brundle's teleport pod from The Fly. Once the smoke cleared, and all the DNA was scrambled up together, you would have a copy of The 13th Age sitting there.

I was a very vocal critic of the d20 system when 3rd Edition D&D first reared its ugly head. Mechanically it was just a rehash of Jonathan Tweet's Ars Magica with all the good stuff taken out and a d20 shoved in. D20 was a love letter to the obsessive rules lawyers I have kept from my gaming table for over thirty years, and with the revised version's insistence on moving miniatures around and counting squares it went from bad to worse. Despite this, I knew the game would succeed because A) it had the D&D name and B) they very cleverly made the rules public so that everyone could adopt it and cash in on the D&D name. When the 4th Edition appeared, it became painfully clear to me Hasbro wanted a miniatures battle game instead of an RPG. The system had migrated as far from the spontaneous, free-wheeling fun of the original game as you could possibly get; everything was options from a menu rather than player contribution.

So when I heard that Tweet (the lead designer of 3e) was teaming up with Rob Heinsoo (the lead designer of 4e), I expected more of the same. Instead, I got a new d20 fantasy RPG that was dead sexy.

Let's be clear; this is another Dungeons & Dragons. There are Clerics and Fighters and Barbarians, there are Chromatic Dragons and Owlbears, there are levels and hit points and feats. And Drow. These days you gotta have Drow. And since this is basically a game that takes 4e, strips it down, and runs with it, I am not going to linger too much on the rules except for what The 13th Age brings to the table.

Let's start with the Icons.

The game has a very loosely described setting (the Dragon Empire) populated by 13 loosely defined uber-NPCs known as Icons. Their names read like a Tarot hand; the Elf Queen, the Archmage, the Prince of Shadows, the Lich King, etc. In a sense, these are the Elminsters and the Gandalfs and the Elrics of the setting. But they aren't...they really aren't. First, they are loosely described so that the GM and the players can define them for the kind of world they want to play in. Your Dragon Empire could be Asian and the Archmage could be Quan Li the Emerald Seer. Or it could be faux Roman with the Archmage as Ipsissimus Magnus. It's your world. Second, the Icons exist solely for the purpose showcasing the player characters and giving them adventures to play in. Here's how;

During character creation, PCs get 3 relationship points to assign to the Icons of their choice. They could assign one point to three Icons, or three points to one, or one to one and two to another. They also get to decide if the relationship is Positive, Negative, or Conflicted. Each point represents a d6, and these relationship dice are rolled at various times to see if the players and Icons cross paths somehow (directly, through influence, or minions). A roll of 1-4 means no interaction, a 5 means an advantageous interaction with some complications, and a 6 is a beneficial interaction. Usually these dice are rolled at the start of a session.

What does this mean? Think of Bilbo in The Hobbit. He starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (aka the Archmage). This relationship exists solely to get Bilbo into adventure. Gandalf isn't there to steal the scenes and be the hero, he's there to make Bilbo the hero. Likewise, Frodo starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (the Archmage), Aragorn (the Emperor), and Sauron (the Lich King) and they all exist solely to propel him through his epic quest. The Icons are plot engines that connect the characters to the world and the story. They tell the GM what kinds of stories they want to play based on the Icons they pick. Do players ally with the Priestess and against the Crusader? The campaign might be a conflict between the gods of light and dark. Do they ally with the High Druid and against the Lich King? A sage of life versus death. With the Emperor and against the Orc Lord? Civilization versus barbarism. The Icons help the players define their tale.

Second, on top of picking a race and a class and all the d20 standards, PCs pick a One Unique Thing. This is something that makes the character special. It can be anything, but if it is a power it has to be something interesting and non-combative. It can even be something that changes the setting. "The stars sing to me and sometimes whisper the future," is an example of an appropriate power. "I have a clockwork heart forged by dwarves," is an interesting feature that may be explored down the road. "I am the last of the Dark Elves" is one that changes the entire setting. This is another way that character creation makes the world the players'.

A final way character creation empowers players is the abandonment of skills from a list in favor of Backgrounds. Players don't put points in Athletics or Stealth or History, but create backgrounds they can assign points to. A Fighter with "Emperor's Elite Guard +3" would be able to use that bonus for a range of things, from etiquette to area knowledge of the capital city. A Rogue with "Iron Sea Pirate +5" knows how to sail, but also uses his bonus in dealing with other buccaneers. The players create and name these backgrounds, and again shape the world. Did we know the Emperor had an elite guard? Now we do. Were pirates common on the Iron Sea before? They are now.

This flexibility runs throughout the entire game. The setting is left vague, waiting to be filled in. The races and classes have mechanical functions but are again left open to be fleshed out. There are Clerics, but we know nothing about the gods. There are Dark Elves and Wood Elves and High Elves, but we don't know what separated the races (or in a strange twist, why they still all bow before the Elf Queen). All this waits for you to decide.

I don't want to get into classes too much, but I should point out that every effort has been made to step back away from 4e, where every class was essentially the same, with at-will, once per battle, and once daily powers. Elements of this remain, but now playing a Barbarian is a very different experience from playing a Wizard. Every class has feats, but they also have unique features and mechanical differences that set them apart. I mention the Barbarian and the Wizard specifically because they are at opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. Barbarians have talents that enhance their ability to do and take damage, Wizards have spells and cantrips that cover a wide range of possibilities, and these are flexible enough that they can be tinkered with or altered on the fly. Play a Wizard if you want a wide range of choices in combat and like improvisation. Play a Barbarian if you just want to hit things. Each and every class has a unique "thing" or two, a clear rejection of 4e's design philosophy.

Combat is also retooled. The grid is gone and minis are optional. It's a role playing game again, not Warhammer Fantasy Battle. You are now engaged or far away, intercepting, in front, or behind, the way D&D used to be. There are still 4e elements, like being "staggered" (bloodied) at half your hit points and having "recoveries" (healing surges), but battle is faster and more fluid. In part this is because player's do more damage; weapon damage now scales up (a d8 weapon does 3d8 damage in the hands of a 3rd level character and 8d8 in the hands of an 8th level). But the real cause for joy is the escalation die.

The escalation die is a d6. It is set on the table during the second round of combat, showing a "1." That one is added to all the attack rolls of the players (only the most powerful and lethal monsters, like dragons, receive a bonus from it). Each round it goes up by one, so that in round seven forward players receive +6 to attack rolls. This does all sorts of things. For example, casters who opened up early with the big guns like "fireball" in older d20 games might now play for time to get the bonus. Second, the way monsters are now weighted they start with the advantage at the start of the battle, and the heroes slowly rise to the challenge. There are all sorts of powers--on both sides--that old get activated by certain numbers on the escalation die. It adds a dramatic arc to the game.

Speaking of monsters, there have been innovations there too. The game now includes mooks, a bit like 4e minions. Basically the mook version of a monster is now a swarm of five. For example, a Dire Wolf has 80 hit points; the mook version is a pack of five Dire Wolfs with a combined total of 80 hit points. Every sixteen points of damage kills one off. Another innovation for the GM is that special monster attacks are "triggered" by the attack roll, rather than being chosen. Take the Chimera, for example. The Chimera has a fang, claw, and horn attack that does a certain amount of damage, but on an attack roll of 14-15 the target is also dazed by a head butt from the goat head; on a 16-17 extra ongoing damage is inflicted (bleeding) by the lion's raking claws; on an 18-20 it gets an additional fiery breath attack from the dragon head. GMs don't have to chose tactics, and the monsters play themselves.

A final point to be made is how The 13th Age handles experience. Experience is a potent tool because it motivates player behavior like nothing else. In D&D variants were most XP comes from treasure, players will practically crawl over each other's bodies for a gold piece. In versions were most experience comes from killing things, player characters will pick any fight they can. Numenera, Monte Cook's latest RPG, rewards XP for discovering relics of lost worlds, making exploration the focus of the game. The 13th Age has a novel approach as well; it doesn't offer experience. There are no experience points in the game. Players level up automatically after completing stories, or reaching a dramatic pause in an ongoing tale. 

This is very much in keeping with the spirit of the game. Players are free to pursue their own agendas and stories without having to focus on killing things or grabbing treasure. A character can do these things, but a PC can be a Cleric or Monk with a vow of poverty or even pacifism if he or she wishes and still level up. 

So in closing, if you had asked me awhile back what I would think of about a game designed by Heinsoo and Tweet, "sexy" would not have been my response.

But hot damn it is now.