So I talked about one spin-off from Dungeons & Dragons that I love, let’s talk about the other. 13th Age has an interesting pedigree, in that it’s made by the lead designers from D&D3e and D&D4e, and it really shows. If you’re familiar either either edition, you’re going to be able to make yourself at home pretty quickly. Though they do go off in their own direction all the same. In fact it’s hard to not walk away from the game feeling like you’re playing someone’s ideal take on D&D. If you’re like me and this ideal take happens to line up closely with your own, you’re going to love it.
So a few different things stand out about 13th Age. In general we’re taking bits from 3e, 4e, and indie games to get mechanics that work pretty well. We still have most of the D&D staples. The six standard attributes, character classes, levels, and so on. But in many cases there’s a new spin.
In a lot of ways, the game has been condensed, as well as refined to more gamey, but simpler mechanics. There are now 10 character levels total. A far cry from 20 in 3.x and 30 in 4e. Advancement is handled at the DM’s discretion, rather than by accruing XP. Though the suggestion is that players level every 3-4 sessions.
Like 4e we have at-will, encounter, and daily abilities. However daily is now somewhat awkwardly named, as you basically get to use it once between full heal-ups, which are not tied to in game days. Instead it’s suggested to have the PCs get a full-heal up every 3-4 battles. At that time, they’re more or less recharged in every facet. This takes come getting used to, but does feel considerably more heroic, as no longer are the PCs forced to stop the adventure and take a breather in order to survive.
Character no longer have discrete skills, or even a skill list of any sort. Instead they’re free to create backgrounds for their characters, and assign a number of points there. With most skill checks being taking your attribute bonus, background bonus, level, and adding that to a d20 roll. For example if your character has a background of being a blacksmith, he could apply that bonus to any skillcheck that someone with that experience could apply to. Fixing a weapon, appraising the quality of one, perhaps even the history of a particular piece. All of that’s fair game. It’s a good way to get the player to start thinking about who their character is right out the door.
In that vein though, each PC also has their “One Unique Thing.” This is a very open ended statement about what truly sets their character apart in the world. This isn’t meant to give your character any real mechanical benefit, but gives you a chance for a lot of color and story background in just one sentence. For example, let’s look at what the PCs in the game I’m currently running have.
- I am the only male dwarf unable to grow a beard.
- I am the son of a human and a demon.
- I am the great grandson of the Sun Goddess.
- I am the only person to ever escape slave master Issik.
Notice that these can be pretty grand, or somewhat more mundane. But this still says a lot about who they are, and leave the GM with plenty to work with in association to them.
Combat is kept pretty simple, with a power scale that rises rather quickly compared to some versions of D&D. (In fact, that’s why this more or less remains favored by me in conjunction with C&C. They really represent two very different takes on D&D for me.)
Players and opponents have three primary defenses that are targeted by abilities. Armor Class is of course the D&D standard for your regular attacks, Physical Defense for special abilities that would entail agility or toughness defending you, and Mental Defense for things that attack a character’s psyche. Each defense has three attributes associated with it, with players benefiting from the bonus that is neither the highest or the lowest. The damage scale however rises quickly, with your basic attacks often involving rolling as many damage dice as your current level. Players also tend to deal a small bit of damage even on a miss when it comes to their signature abilities. Occasionally abilities can cause ongoing effects, and much like 4e, your saving throw is a flat d20.
Classes often have several possible core abilities called talents the player chooses from at character creation and some times some additional later on depending on the class. These help you define what kind of member of that class you are. For example a Ranger could choose to spend talent points in having an animal companion, or maybe instead focus on talents that favor other traditional aspects of the class like a specialization in two weapon fighting.
The spell lists tend to be somewhat smaller than other D&D variants, however spells also grow over time. You still unlock new and fun spells as you level up, but putting an older spell in a higher level spell slot results in a substantially more impressive spell. (Hence why there’s a single Cure Wounds spell rather than half a dozen iterations of the same basic spell.)
Enemies in combat are also kept simple and to the point. For the most part stat blocks are simple, designating an enemy’s level, HP, AC, MD, PD, and a list of their attacks. Most of which just deal a flat damage value.
Combat also is set apart by two unique mechanics. 13th Age does not depend on a combat grid. Instead you have basic ideas of distance between characters, and abilities designate what valid targets would be. In general someone is either far away, nearby, or engaged. The later being when you’re actually in melee with the opponent. This ends up making gridless combat still feel fairly tactical, which is quite nice.
There is also the matter of the Escalation Die. After the first round of combat the GM pulls out a D6 and sets it facing up to 1. (I’ve got a rather big one for this job.) The PCs get to add this bonus to all of their attacks. Typically, after each round of combat, the die gets moved up a step, as does the bonus. This encourages the players to perhaps hold onto their bigger hitting moves for a few rounds to increase the odds of a hit, and also helps speed the battle along. In general the Escalation Die does not apply to enemies, though there are exceptions to this. Typically bigger, badder, more boss like monsters.
All of this together makes combat pretty fast and exciting. In fact I’d go far as to say this is some of the most enjoyable combat I’ve seen in D&D. 4e perhaps stands out as still having more exciting battles from a tactical standpoint, but those would also move at a glacial pace in comparison.
One last thing I wanted to touch on are the idea behind Icons. In 13th Age, those are basically the most important NPCs in the world. In a lot of respects taking the place of what you might use gods for in other games. These are iconic (har) templates from fantasy typically, that are easy to recognize who and what they are at a glance. The Emperor is the bastion of law and order in the empire. The Priestess is the mortal representative of all the gods of light. The Archmage uses his power to make sure everything is running smoothly and safely. The Orc Lord wants to watch it all burn. You get the idea. There are 13 of these guys. Each PC starts off (and develops) relationships with some of these figures. They get to decide if that relationship is positive, negative, or conflicted. As well as how strong that relationship is. Translating to a number of dice that get rolled at the beginning of each session. They roll a d6 for each point, and every 6 means that they’re going to get something useful out of that relationship. For a 5, they’ll get something useful, but not without some kind of strings attached. This is pretty demanding improv wise on the GM. (In fact it’s suggested alternatively to roll these at the end of a session if you want more time to work them into the story.) I’ve sided with rolling at the start still, and I just try to work things in as I can as my GM style is already pretty improv heavy.
The Icons are nice, in that combined with a PC’s Backgrounds and One Unique Thing. You’ve really got a good idea of who you’re dealing with. (Note that there’s no real alignment system in the game, instead you more know who someone is in what icons they deal with. Though they do provide a standard alignment table with the icons on it to give you an idea of how to take them. However they also provide a range for most icons as there’s still plenty of room for interpretation for the GM here.)
There are other things to love about this game too, but I think I’m done praising it. What I will do however is point out that the game is released entirely under the OGL with SRDs available. The official one being located here. That being said, I do highly recommend picking up the book. At least the PDF which is normally $20 and often on sale for even less. It’s extremely well written, in an almost conversational tone that I really found to make for a nice read. There are even sidebars from the writers letting you know just how they handle things in their own games. The only real criticism I could make about the book is that it does seem to go from the premise that you’re already at least a little familiar with RPGs, d20 RPGs in particular. You’re not going to find a section telling you what an RPG is, or what Strength or Charisma might be used for. But these are minor concerns. And even then I’d still recommend the game to someone just getting into the hobby.