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Thursday, 30th August, 2012, 05:43 AM #1
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Pre-Release Review of 13th AGE (Part 1) by Pelgrane Press
I think that if there was ever a historian from the future looking back at the long evolution of fantasy role-playing games, and they wanted to find that first crucial node where Dungeons & Dragons became the “mother” of the genre, they would probably focus their attention on the creation of the OGL. The Open Gaming License was, in my opinion, one of those moments in the history of gaming that freed a new generation of game designers in what some called an open gaming movement to publish new games in every genre in the way that the open source movement affected software publishing.
Certainly, not every independent game designer was happy with the OGL, but it has managed to produce a lot of competition within the RPG market. But d20 style games have made a good accounting for themselves among players, as has retro-clones, and other variants. And no one can argue that Paizo’s Pathfinder would not be around today if the OGL had opened the doorway to that creative start-up venture.
Recently back in April, a new OGL game called 13th Age came to the notice of the gaming community via Tweet – we’re not talking Twitter here mind you - but from Jonathan Tweet, lead designer of D&D 3rd Edition rules. Joining forces with 4E game designer Rob Heinsoo, Tweet stated that their “goal with 13th Age is to recapture the free-wheeling style of old-school gaming by creating a game with more soul and fewer technical details.” Obviously, a statement like that was bound to capture the interest of many D&D and Pathfinder fans, and since then, 13th Age has from has been in playtest mode with hundreds of groups and has been making its rounds at various gaming conventions, including GenCon 2012.
And so with these two D&D designers working together, what sort of innovations does 13th Age bring to the OGL d20 model of fantasy gaming that will attract fans away from their current game systems?
- Design: Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet
- Illustrators: Lee Moyer & Aaron McConnell
- Publisher: Pelgrane Press Ltd (under license from Fire Opal Media)
- Year: 2012
- Media: Hardbound (300 pages)
- Retail Price: $44.95 (Pre-Order from Pelgrane Press)
13th Age is a fantasy role-playing game system written by veteran D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. Published under the OGL, this game is a d20 game which, in the words of the authors, is “built to help your campaign generate good stories.” As a game, 13th Age comes complete with everything needed to create characters and run the game. For players, there is all the information on generating characters, including race, class, backgrounds, and their relationships to one or more powerful and mysterious entities called Icons, which play an important role in the storyline of the campaign. There are also rules for handling combat useful for both players and game masters alike. For game masters, there is information on running a 13th Age campaign, a “monster manual”, and details on treasure and magic items to reward the characters. There is also a guide to the Dragon Empire, a setting created for use with the game, and an introductory adventure to get players and game masters jumpstarted into the game quickly and easily.
With a bit of wheedling, I was able to score an advanced copy of the game in PDF format – an Escalation Edtion – which is still being refined before the game’s final release. I had to promise not to publish this review until the very end of August, as the release date and final edition of the rules is still being worked out, although I get the impression that it will likely be fairly soon.
As such, I cannot give a fully accurate assessment of the production quality of 13th Age, as the copy I have is still lacking sidebar information, as well as interior illustrations and artwork. But what I can say so far is that the writing and content of 13th Age is simply excellent, as one would expect from designers of Tweet and Heinsoo’s caliber. The layout and presentation of the content – at least in my version of the Escalation Edition – had a logical flow to it, and was and easy and enjoyable read. I particularly enjoyed the many comments and asides in the text, popping up as “Rob says” or “Jonathan says” which offer insights as to why a particular rule or game concept functions as it does, or as a tip to the game master or player.
While the artwork is not yet in the game document, it can be seen in a few pics I found on the Pelgrane Press website, and you can find more of it there. Lee Moyer & Aaron McConnell have done some superb original illustrations for 13th Age, and the art is vibrant and bold, with a real dramatic flair.
The Game and Its Innovations
Right off I have to say that this review is going to be in two parts – there is so much interesting stuff in 13th Age that needs to be covered, a single 3000 word review is simply not going to cut it. So rather than pummel you all with a super-massive wall of text, the first half of the review process is going to cover the Player side of the rules content, and the second half is going to cover the Game Master side.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assume that most of the gamers on EN World who read my reviews, as well as the folks steered over here from various links, have played some edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Further, I’m going to guess that most of those readers are also familiar with a d20 OGL game in some form. I’m making these assumptions so that I can focus on the new game design features within 13th Age, as well as the innovations the designers have made in order to create a unique playing experience.
The authors jump right in by telling the reader about their design goals and ideals in the Introduction, and give a nice summary of what will be found in each chapter of the book. Interestingly, they make it a point to say that the game does pull certain design elements from both 3rd Edition and 4E, such as player options and universal mechanics, and balance and game play, but in a “rules-light, free-form, gridless way to play a story-oriented campaign.” The introduction also contains a Glossary of game concepts and terms, some of which will be familiar to all D&D players, others to 3rd Edition fans, still others to 4E fans, and a few new concepts altogether. For instance, as gamers and D&D players, we all get the idea of a “slot” for a magic item, like a ring or a helm, but in 13th Age these locations are called “chakras”. But as for the concept of an “escalation dice” which is used to increase the ferocity of combat and finish fights faster, well, that’s a new one on me.
Chapter 1 of 13th Age discusses the Icons, thirteen powerful entities which are the movers and shakers of the campaign world, and who can be either ally or enemy of the characters over the course of the campaign. The artwork I’ve included in the review depict three of these entities: the Prince of Shadows, the Great Gold Wyrm, and the Elf Queen. This chapter discusses who and what they are, a bit about their history and motivations, and what being an adventurer allied to them can mean. It also talks about the relationships between the Icons, and who they oppose, which can also have direct effects on the world and the characters who ally with them.
The next chapter in 13th Age focuses on Character Rules, and opens with a character creation checklist. The checklist defines stats, bonuses, and other characteristic mechanics, but I would rather save discussing those for my review on the combat rules, where they will have greater context. The authors give a step-by-step overview of the process, which will be familiar to any D&D or Pathfinder gamer, with a couple exceptions. One is the inclusion of one Unique Feature for your character, meant to be a non-mechanical trait as seen in some indie games, and meant to spur interesting role-playing situations. The other is in the players ability to define relationships with one or more of the Icons as part of your character’s backstory. To me, this feels like a solid mechanic to create more fully developed characters, and to link them to the world and the unfolding history of the campaign. Of course, it might also lead to some interesting interparty contention, particularly if one character’s Icon attempts to thwart that of another character.
In Chapter 2, the Icon selection method has an interesting mechanic where each character has three points to spend on one of or more Icons of their choice. Each player can choose whether to have a Positive, a Conflicted, or a Negative Relationship with an Icon, and drop one, two, or three points into that level of relationship. Icons are divided into Heroic, Ambiguous, and Villainous categories by the authors, with some modifications possible by the Game Master. Each point mechanically grants a d6 that can be used during the adventure to gain information or to move the story onward, so while Positive relationships with Heroic Icons can be fortuitous, even Negative relationships with Villainous Icons has advantages in the campaign and to the overall story.
It is readily apparent that the Icons, these archetype entities, are as an engine to drive some powerful stories in the Dragon Kingdom - much in the way that the Great Emperor, Iuz, and Mordenkainen and the Circle drive stories in Greyhawk, or the way Elminster, Manshoon, and Szass Tam drive stories in the Forgotten Realms.
Chapter 2 also discusses skills and feats in 13th Age, and there is also a very innovative way of handling skill checks using a character’s backgrounds. Instead of individual skills, skill points are spent initially on one or more backgrounds which are really story elements. When a skill check is required, a Game Master will name a relevant ability score, and the check is resolved rolling a d20. But if the character can describe how a particular background is applicable to the check, they can add in the skill points they added to that background. In many respects, I really like this skill resolution method, and I think it is really exciting for players and GMs who focus on story foremost. However, I can see how some simulationist gamers might find this method of skill check to be a bit nebulous, and prefer standard OGL skill point system.
There are also Feats in 13th Age, however, this chapter only contains the very few general ones available to all players. Most Feats are racial and class-based, and so are more specifically tied to an individual characters’ choices in that regard – those feats are also found in the respective chapters on Race and Classes.
The chapter closes with Gear options, which like the characteristic mechanics, will have greater context in the discussion on combat. There is also a nice selection on advice for players, both in character creation and in overall play, which will help both new role-players, as well as veteran role-players, adjust to 13th Age’s unique style.
Chapter 3 discusses Races in 13th Age, and these conform to the expected d20 ones of humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings. In addition, there are some sub-races of elves – half, dark, high, and wood – as well as alternative races in the game. These latter are rarely found among the general population in the Dragon Empire setting, and players can opt to play them but there can be consequences due to their unusual nature. These alternative races include Dragonic/Dragonspawn, Holy Ones/Aasimar, Steelborn/Dwarf-Forged, and Tiefling/Demontouched.
Each race has its own ability score bonus, a +2 applied to one of two scores, a racial ability that can be used once per battle (or encounter – much like 4E), and a Champion Feat, available to characters of that Tier. I should note that there are 3 Tiers, but only 10 Levels in the game, and the Champion Tier is levels 5-7. Levels 1-4 are the Adventurer Tier, and 8-10 is considered the Epic Tier. The racial abilities are pretty awesome overall, and quite evocative of that particular race. For instance, the Half-Orc has a Lethal racial ability which allows them to re-roll a melee attack and take either result.
For most gamers, the races are pretty standard D&D-ish, although there are some minor alterations based upon how they fit into the Dragon Empire setting. For instance, Dark Elves are not all evil, and have a place in the Elf Queen’s court, although they have spawned many villains in the world. Half-orcs are not actually the result of interbreeding with orcs, but is some sort of magical evolutionary response to human offspring when orcs are too prevalent – tougher kids mean greater survival. Each race has descriptions to give the players information and help further create their character’s backgrounds.
Classes are detailed in Chapter 4 of 13th Age, and there are currently 11 possible choices without multi-classing. The authors recommend that multi-classing a character should be something that is done by more advanced 13th Age players – i.e. don’t try it unless you’ve played the game a couple times. The character classes include Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, and Wizard.
Each has an Overview discussion of the nature of the class, and a unique advancement table showing when hit point increases, total feats, number of class talents/spells/powers, increases to ability scores, and damage from ability score bonuses. Damage from ability scores increase to x2 and x3 over the process of leveling giving higher level characters more bang for their bonuses.
From a layout stand point, there is a lot to take in with each character class, particularly with the spell-casting classes. Each class has its own unique set of talents/spells/powers, and it’s a lot of information to take in. Class feats are listed underneath the talent/spell/power that they will affect, and most have feats for all three tiers. I can see new gamers being quickly overwhelmed by the class building options here, and even advanced players might have to read through a class more than one time to truly understand the nuances.
On the other hand, the structure of the classes does allow players to customize their character exceptionally well, and no two characters with the same class need ever be identical to each other. Pathfinder achieves a similar effect with Archetype builds, and 4E does similarly with power selection, but 13th Age handles the process a bit differently, but the effect is overall the same.
As for listing how the mechanics of each class differ from 3rd Edition or 4E, well that would take me another several thousand words, and I probably would not have scratched the surface adequately. But thankfully, the authors have a quick class overview, which has some of the key elements of the play-style expected with each class:
From the simplest character class to the most complex, the classes go like so:I will say that I really impressed with the Bard, as it offers a very cool mix of melee (with battle Cries), spells, and songs that make it versatile as heck in a combat. Players who favor the Wizard should have no complaints here, as many spells are quite recognizable as d20 favorites – but the advancement table allows for more potency in casting level and spells stage up to higher and more powerful versions. For example, the old stand-by Magic Missile does 10d6 when used as a 9th level spell! And the Monk is definitely worth checking out, as it reminds me of the old AD&D Monk without being a complete worthless mess at love levels.
- The barbarian is designed for the player who wants to roll dice and slay without worrying too much about the rules.
- Like the barbarian, the ranger relies on base attacks augmented by class talents instead of a power list.
- The paladin also relies on a short list of class talents instead of powers. Like the ranger, it can be slightly more complex if you choose its more involved talents.
- The fighter is simple to play but asks you to make interesting choices between flexible attacks before and during combat.
- The cleric is probably the easiest of the spellcasters. It requires a touch of patience.
- The sorcerer is probably more complex than the cleric because of variant spells and the option to cast spells for double the effect in two rounds. Not a decision that new players may feel comfortable with.
- The monk is a deliberate departure from previous play styles. New options offer interesting decisions during play but aren’t that complex.
- The rogue can be more complex than other classes because you are tracking whether or not you have momentum, constantly disengaging, and trying to use your sneak attack damage effectively.
- The bard has a variety of options that include commands, spells, and songs. Figuring out how to best use those options both in combat and during roleplaying is probably best for a confident player.
- The wizard is the most complex class if you choose all the options that allow improvisation and ad-libbing; without those freeform talents it’s no more difficult than the sorcerer.
Conclusions… so far
As far as the Character Class design of 13th Age, I am quite impressed so far. I feel that the authors have managed to achieve a very positive blend of 3rd Edition and 4E concepts, but with some really interesting and thoughtful innovations to make the game more role-playing than roll-playing. Detractors from early editions have often been heard to say that once 3rd Edition was released, the game became to mechanic heavy, and that 4E was too much a board game. I think the authors have done a great job of cherry-picking some potent elements from both games, and have increased the story aspects without losing too much in the details.
And as a preview for Part 2 of the review: the combat system actually handles “theatre of the mind” in a way that I wouldn’t mind going back to it from 4E – and that’s saying quite a bit from a hardcore 4E fan!
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This author received a complimentary copy of this product for use in writing the above review.
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