Welcome back to the second half of my pre-prelease review of 13th Age by Pelgrane Press! As I mentioned last week, there was far too much material to cover in a single review, and I split the review up to go over the Player Content in Part 1, and the Game Master Content in Part 2.
This game is creating quite a buzz in the role-playing community, and rightly so, being the brain-child of veteran Dungeons & Dragons designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. While I do not have a completed book for this review, and there are a few bits still missing, the authors remind us in the introduction of this version of what is called the Escalation Rules:
This edition is on the threshold. All our art by Aaron and Lee is finished. Classes and systems are in place in broad strokes, development is underway, we’re pushing towards completion.
So without further ado, I hope you enjoy reading the finale of my pre-release review of 13th Age!
- 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 d20 fantasy role-playing game system published by Pelgrane Press, and written by veteran D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. Published under the OGL, 13th Age has many concepts familiar to d20 gamer, but include some elements which 4E gamers might also recognize. The 13th Age Game Manual contains not only player information for creating characters, but also game master material necessary to run a campaign. The authors also include an introductory adventure in the 13th Age Game Manual to allow players and game masters to launch themselves into the game system quickly and easily.
A Quick Note of Correction
Last week, in Part 1 of my review, I mentioned that I very much enjoyed the Monk Class, especially how it evoked the old AD&D Monk in some of its powers, which was a perennial favorite of mine. I might also add that the 13th Age Monk is all about Kung Fu again, and does a better job interpreting those features into the game than AD&D ever did. But sadly, I have been contacted and informed that the Monk has been removed from the base 13th Age game, as has the Druid Class, and Multi-classing rules. I have been sent a revised and updated version of the manuscript to complete my review from, and apologize about any confusion for the Readers of last week’s review.
In the email I received from Wade Rockett regarding 13th Age, he did say that those classes would be back in the game, but in the follow-up expansion being planned once the game is released:
The monk, druid, and multiclassing rules are planned for the first expansion, 13 True Ways, which Rob Heinsoo and co. are Kickstarting now. If funded, the 13-chapter expansion will also include a new chaos shaman class, stats for the icons geared toward a variety of campaign types, tons of maps, and more.
The Game and Innovations (continued)
Last week, I ran through the copious material on Character Creation that 13th Age had to offer gamers, and the departures the authors are making from classic d20/OGL in order to foster more role-play and less roll-play from the players. In fact, character creation accounts for more than 55% of the game manuals page content, which somewhat indicates the emphasis the authors are placing on making good characters.
In this second half of the review, we’ll look at the second half of the book, mainly designed for use by the game master. This includes the combat rules, concepts for running the game, the “monster manual”, a gazetteer of the Dragon Empire setting, and magic items that will be found in 13th Age.
Combat rules are discussed in detail in Chapter 5 of 13th Age, and this chapter falls pretty logically at the end of character creation (the player section) and right before the chapter on running the game (game master’s section). A good bit of the rules resemble d20, but there are some important differences in how combat works from what one would expect in OGL. For instance, there are now three “defenses” in the game, Armor Class (AC), Physical Defense (PD), and Mental Defense (MD). Armor class is a well-known concept, but the others are merely treatments of FRW saves or 4E’s NADs. Physical Defense determines if any purely physical damage like fireballs and poison hit, while Mental Defense covers all mind-effecting attacks from psionics to charms to illusions. Monsters do have vulnerability and resistance ratings against different type of damage, so some types of attacks will affect certain creatures better than others.
Damage is also treated differently, and I already mentioned in the Part 1 how spells actually stage up to higher level versions, like Shocking Grasp which can do 6-60 damage when memorized as a 5th Level spell. Melee attacks also scale, in that ability score modifiers to melee damage double and triple as heroes increase in level, and weapon dice increase for each level a character attains! This last bit does help balance the damage output between classes considerably. And coupled with all classes having either spells or combat maneuvers/powers/abilities, this will allow melee classes to have more combat options than merely swinging at a creature.
Given this damage output, both monsters and player-characters have considerable amounts of hit points, but there is an Escalation Dice to increase the chance to hit for heroes the longer a fight goes on. This dice concept was discussed in the last Kobold Quarterly by Rob Heinsoo, and functions as an increasing bonus to hit, from +1 to +6. Fights should finish fairly quickly despite large amounts of hit points, although characters will need a lot of dice to throw as they get into “end game” play. The authors do offer ways around throwing a fist full of dice, but honestly, I know my own players would love throwing big dice around the table.
The other main convention of 13th Age is using a fast-and-loose combat style that precludes using a map or miniatures. As I mentioned last week, the character class abilities are designed with ranges and areas in their descriptions which allow a free-form “theatre of the mind” approach, and the combat system backs this up. Movement and position are not as important to the rules as whether you’re “free” or “engaged” in the melee combat, or are “far away” and using ranged combat. Characters still have the ability to “intercept” or even “interrupt” each other, but position heavy maneuvers from OGL like charging or opportunity attacks are not used in 13th Age. The authors seem to push toward a more narrative solution for extensive combat activities, and these will be resolved by the game master and player using skill checks and combat rolls.
Healing and resting is much more like 4E than OGL, and draws upon recoveries (healing surges?) to heal up after a fight, and three “death saves” before a character expires. Unlike 4E however, recoveries are rolled, so can have a high or low result, although the authors recommend using an average dice result at higher levels to avoid too much dice rolling. Certain “daily” abilities have a recovery chance, and during a “quick” rest between battles, players are allowed to determine if they gain a re-use of an expended ability. The sidebar suggests the authors are not in agreement about “recovered” powers like that, and it appears that Jonathan is fairly conservative on recovering powers compared to Rob. Wounds exist in 13th Age, similar to the “bloodied” condition of 4E, which can be exploited by some monsters. Lasting wounds is a variant which can cause a reduction in hit points for a time, until complete rest can be taken.
Conditions and ongoing damage also exist in 13th Age, although a bit different from 4E rules in this regard. There are far fewer conditions for one thing, and ongoing damage stacks requiring a saving throw to stop the effects. Resistances to damage types combine the OGL spell resistance check and the 4E damage resistance. The overall effect makes some creature take half damage from effects, but only part of the time.
Overall, I like the combat of 13th Age, as it strikes me as a nice balance between OGL/d20 and 4E. But then, as a fan of 4E, I find a certain comfort level in the combat concepts that I know some 3.5/Pathfinder gamers often find “un-D&D”. Still, the ability of getting both d20 and 4E combats playable without a battle map is fairly impressive, and the FLWQ problem plaguing older D&D editions has been nicely solved here.
In Chapter 6, game masters are given some instructions on how to run a 13th Age campaign. The authors start off with leveling up characters and give a list of benefits of gaining a new level:
When you level up, you get these benefits:
But what is different is that heroes increase without experience points – in other words, the party levels up after a certain number of “serious battles” occur. This might be a bit slower progress than many players are used to but with only 10 Levels in the game, it makes a certain sense that leveling up takes longer. However, the authors solve this by giving out some of these benefits as incremental advances for the characters as they progress through a level. It’s a nice idea really, as it makes character progression and development a smoother process instead of a series of big upward jumps in power.
- +1 to attacks, defenses, and skill checks.
- An additional die of damage with weapon attacks.
- More hit points (by class).
- An additional feat. Choose any feat whose prerequisites your character satisfies. Feats are classed as adventurer (can be chosen at any level), champion (can be chosen at level 5+), and epic (can be chosen at level 8+).
- The ability to wield an additional magic item (see page XX).
- At 4th level, 7th level, and 10th level, you add +1 to three different ability scores.
- Possibly more powers and spells, and possibly an increase in their strength. The rules for acquiring or improving powers and spells vary from class to class. See character classes in Chapter 4 for details. In general, characters have a moderate number of attacks and spells. All the classes have some, but no single class has a large selection—that’s for multiclass characters, who have lots of powers and spells.
But beyond mere mechanics, 13th Age has an interesting take on character advancement which is meant to make the leveling experience and ongoing campaign more role-play than a mechanics moment. I don’t want to give away any “trade-secrets” here, but the authors have a very interesting role-playing device in the leveling process which not only defines how characters gained new powers, but also gives feedback to the game master as to where they would like to see the story go. Honestly, I’m probably going to be using the device it in my own campaigns, regardless of what system I am playing!
The authors also have a decent format for building traps, obstacles, and environmental effects for the three tiers of play in 13th Age, and provide a table that is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of the 4E DC and Damage by Level table in the DMG. It shows DCs for skills checks, the level of attack capability of a trap or obstacle, and the amount of “impromptu” damage that should be inflicted. The authors also provide a sample of traps and obstacles for the game master to use as templates and ideas for how to use the table.
Obviously, encounter building is a big part of any system for creating adventure, and 13th Age uses a system which is more like the d20 challenge rating method, but with inclusion of scaled up monsters – Large and Huge ones – as well as a class of monster called mooks, which come in packs of 5, and have a shared hit point pool. It’s a nice way to make masses of smaller and weaker monsters add in to a combat without the necessity of worrying about each individuals’ hit points.
Since the Icons are a major part of the history and setting in 13th Age, as well as playing an important part of character development, the authors discuss their use in the campaign in considerable detail here. There are plenty of ways to customize the Icons for different play styles, and there are plenty of ideas here how to use the Icons to best suit a game master’s vision for their campaign. Gods are also discussed in Chapter 6, although they are far more remote entities than the Icons are – some Icons are worshipped as gods, according to the authors, but they are not truly deities in the classic fantasy sense.
The authors close this chapter discussing magic Rituals and average monetary wealth gained per level. I particularly enjoyed the idea of Rituals being an open design concept, allowing the player to have their character cast spells, but altered to have out-of-combat effects. Deciding how a Ritual will work becomes a creative endeavor for both player and game master, and it once again seems to stress the story-telling and role-play aspects of a game mechanic quite well.
There is a pretty well-stocked monster manual built into 13th Age, and Chapter 7 includes more than 50 well-known OGL monsters which any D&D or fantasy fan is likely to recognize. The authors discuss monster mechanics and reading the stat block – which is more streamlined than either d20 or 4E use – as well as making monsters into Large and Huge versions which have greater hit points and damage output. Regrettably, not all the monsters were complete in the document I was given – about a third lacked stat blocks – but there was enough there at a wide range of levels to give me a fairly good understanding here.
Monsters do have roles, similar to those used in 4E, to help define its behavior in a fight. I should also note that monsters also have special effects which can kill a character outright, but the authors employ a three save mechanic, like the death saves if a character drops to no hit points, before a monster’s deadly attack wipes them out. There is a full section on DIY monsters (Do-It-Yourself), giving game masters full autonomy to create stats for any sort of creature they might dream up or borrow from other sources. As a veteran monster maker since AD&D days, I really love that the authors chose to include a section like this in their game.
Chapter 8 details the world setting devised for 13th Age – The Dragon Empire. Like so many other “fluff” parts of this game, the authors offer advice and encouragement to alter their content to make it match the game style of the players in the campaign. There is a fairly solid score of pages concerning the various points of interest in the world, major cities and land masses, as well as locations of ruins and dangerous locales. The map detailing The Dragon Empire is lush and well detailed, and shows the location of each of the Icons and where they might be found. The authors also have some familiar features to a fantasy setting, such as an Underworld not unlike the Underdark and an Overworld consisting of cloud castles and islands where heroes can visit. But there are also unique features to 13th Age setting such as a hell-holes where towns have been overrun by demons, a permanent rift opening to the Abyss, and “living dungeons” which boil up from beneath the world which can actually be “killed” before they surface and unleash evil magic and monsters on the surface!
The final chapter of 13th Age details magic items, and here we have yet another good push toward role-playing over game mechanics. The authors of 13th Age have decided to keep magic rare and wondrous, and further, a character can possess no more “true” magic items than he has levels. By true magic items, the game refers to permanent items but not potions, oils, or runes which are one-shot expendable items. In 13th Age, true magic items have quirks such as emotions, slight movements, and even voices which must be dealt with by the heroes who use them. Gaining “rapport” with one’s magic sword and armor is a challenge, and therefore too much magic can actually overwhelm a character if they are too low level. For instance, gaining an Elven Cloak might suddenly give a character the urge to prefer elven made objects as the “finest things in life”; or a holy Symbol of Dodging Doom which has a wildly optimistic personality.
As previously mentioned, 13th Age does include an introductory adventure to start players and game masters out using the system. Blood & Lightning is a solid starting adventure, albeit a bit linear in nature, and provides a variety of activities including combats, exploration, and role-playing, and involves an agent of an Icon (surprise!), as well as opportunities for characters to invoke their own Icon patrons. In addition, the authors include a combat primer sidetrek which can be used, where neophyte heroes face down goblins, and game masters can insert whatever fluff they want to create a story around the event. Put together, these adventures can easily be used to weld heroes into a party, and give them their first triumphs along their path to glory in 13th Age.
Overall Score: 3.92 out of 5.0
I have to admit there is a lot to like about 13th Age, and I can see many 4E fans meeting Pathfinder/OGL fans on common ground with this game. While it has some mechanics which are reminiscent of both d20 and 4E, it strives very hard to favor story-telling and role-playing over that of rules crunching, and has some innovations to get players to develop strong and unique characters for a campaign. And it quite surprised me in finding ways to retain a decent amount of complexity in combat and game play without requiring maps and minis, and it still leaves flexibility for game masters to adjudicate and improvise.
On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed that the copy I reviewed was not a finished product, and is still a draft with sidebars, art, and even some monster and magic item entries still unfinished. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a playtest document, but a fairly polished game system, but still lacking the details that would make it a finished book.
But even still, 13th Age has a solid design for it engine, for both players and game masters, and offers some really unique innovations to inspire role-playing and story-telling as the authors promise in their introduction. And being a “complete” game system, with everything one needs as a player or a game master to run a 13th Age campaign, all in one book, makes the price of the pre-order well worth it for all you get in the package!
FYI: I have it from my source at Pelgrane Press that 13th Age is due out this fall, and will be a 2012 release. More than that, I cannot say, but it does give new fans time to decide if they want to pre-order the game and support the Kickstarter for the first expansion book!
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Editor’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the unfinished game manual from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 3.0
- - Design: 3.0 (Superb writing; logical progression of content; sadly missing some sidebars/entries)
- - Illustrations: NA (None in my review copy; 4.5 score if the art on the website gets in there!)
- Content: 4.25
- - Crunch: 4.5 (Massively crunchy; improves on OGL and 4E concepts and innovates from there!)
- - Fluff: 4.0 (Solid fluff content; would have liked to see more on the Dragon Empire setting)
- Value: 4.5 (Excellent price for a combo player book, monster manual, game master guide, and adventure module!)