Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The 13th Age

The 13th Age
by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet
Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal
The Archmage Engine
Rating: ★★★★★

Disclosure:  I hate Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.  I hate how it feels more like a table top version of a MMO.  I hate how the game itself approaches the concepts less as a fantasy world and more as a computer game (with the Striker, Support and the like).   I really hated it.

That is admittedly a huge admission I had to make because The 13th Ages is a game that I really love.  Rob Heinsoo was the lead designer of the game I did not like, but with Jonathan Tweet at his side, had come up with an incredible game system which makes me swoon.     In many ways, I would say The 13th Age is the game I wish 4th Edition was instead.

So, tell us how the game works?
While most fantasy role-playing games throw you the setting first then encourage you to come up with your own character to explore the world, this game the Icons are the first things introduced.  Best described as the movers and shakers in the world the players are bound to encounter (directly or indirectly), the Icons are forces in the world that the players will find themselves working for or against in one way or another.  Think of Sauron, for example, in Lord of the Rings, or perhaps Elminster from the Forgotten Realms.  Or even Darth Vader for you non-fantasy rpg fans who might be reading.  The Icons are key characters in the world whose very actions (or inaction) can have great ramifications in the world.

Once the Icons are introduced, the players now have a greater idea of the kind of world they will play in.  This then leads to character creation.  The game's rules are very reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons approach, with characters choosing a race and a class (Bard, Barbarian,Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard), allocating points to build their stats, then rounding these up with some old ideas and some cool new tricks.

Characters will all feature a One Unique Thing which sets them apart from anyone else in the world.  For example, consider Tanis Half-Elven as the only half-elf with a full beard.  Or how Harry Potter was the Boy who Lived (although admittedly, Harry Potter has way too many One Unique Things).  This opens up a lot of fun opportunities!  A player of mine just opted to be a Cleric who constantly has nightmares of how he will cause the end of the world.  Another wants to be a Paladin whose shield is possessed by the spirit of his beloved wife.

Relationship points are then allocated to the desired Icons by the players.  This is basically the players having the freedom to tell the others "I want to be in stories that relate or interact with this Icon."

Skills are nicely eliminated from the game and replaced with a system called Backgrounds.  Much like how Aspects work in Fate, backgrounds act as an umbrella item to determine whether or not you have bonuses to a skill roll.  Someone would have a bonus to her roll to try and poison someone if she had the background Former Assassin of the Guild, for example, compared to the background Loyal Knight Of the Realm.  Since players actually come up with their own Backgrounds, they end up helping the group build the game setting itself!  For example, someone opting to be a Diplomat of the Northern Elves has just established that there are elves in the game, that they have some in the North and some else where, and that they have some troubled relationship with others to the point of needing a diplomat.   And even more, they just established that something had happened to cause him to stop being one.  Pretty smart!  

The game then approaches the system very much like Pathfinder, with Feats (divided to adventurer, champion and epic tiers) Armor Class, and the like.  The mighty d20 is still the die of choice in this game, and the game does dip backwards into some of the less popular aspects of the 4th Edition game (such as Healing being under Recovery dice and "Free Recoveries" rather than just actions/spells you unless, and certain bonuses/skills being usable At Will, Daily, and the like.)  Thankfully, they are presented nicely enough to work with a more established table top direction compared to 4th edition.

Interestingly, damage is approached differently.  Hitting a monster is not really the point of rolling.  Instead, the roll represents whether or not you hit wonderfully.  The game has "miss damage" to represent still inflicting the basic level of injury to the enemy even on a missed one.  Enemies don't roll damage either.  Instead, if they hit, they deal a specific amount of damage.

And finally, you have a bunch of monsters to throw at your players, a nicely shaped setting to explore in, and a cool list of magic and spells to get your fingers dirty in.

The Love Child of What?The 13th Age grabs the best parts of Dungeon World, with shared narrative responsibility, as well as smoother introduction of information and system, with the nice tactical crunch that Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 added.  The players can join in the fun of shaping the world, while the Game Master draws inspiration and ideas from their Backgrounds, Icons and more.  It sounds confusing, but guess what it actually works out very well.

What About the Art, the Look, the PDF?
Top notch.  Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell bring the scenes, rules and character classes to vivid life with wonderful art pieces that capture the thrill and danger of an adventurer's life.  Each page looks gorgeous with the just right amount of color and graphic elements to keep it a tight clean layout.  The page numbers in the index page are hyperlinked to the correct pages, which makes it easy to navigate through the chapters.
There is even a section on how to stat up your own monsters, which is just a new level of awesome since the game has just given the gamers the tools to create more challenges the players can face.  The provided setting has fantastic places and adventure modules such as Drakkenhall, Glitterhaegen, New Port, Santa Cora and more and this just reminds me of the lush setting of the Forgotten Realms.  And finally, the darned Index doubles as a Glossary which really makes the book very approachable even for those not accustomed to role-playing games.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept:  A very well-crafted fantasy world that deserves to be explored.  The Icons are a great way to further invite the players into the world on the onset.  This reminded me of how The Flight Of Dragons movie did the same thing, introducing the four wizards even before expounding on the fantasy world.  And yes, we were hooked!
Crunch:  Incredible in achieving what it sought to.  The game has an almost perfect balance of crunch and narrative sharing  which makes it work well whether for first time gamers, or for old time fogeys who might not be comfortable with shared narrative control.
Layout: This game deserves high marks for the artistic direction it has taken.  The use of "runes stones" is an elegant touch as well and I did find myself envious of how each of them had their own "rune stone" design.  I want one too!
My favorite part: Backgrounds.  They work very much like Aspects yet are a different system of their own given the ranking they have and how they are approached as both story developers and skills.  The closest to this was how Dresden Files approached the Aspects as well (although that game still had skill lists).
What I wish was better:  Healing.  I really just don't like the idea of Recovery dice and Free Recoveries.  Just feels too odd.  Too strange to me.

Time to dive into the 13th Age and see what you have been missing:
Available at Drivethru rpg.

My first attempt to run this lead to a player having a bit of a traumatic moment.  Here's hoping my second stab at it (as part of our upcoming Game Mondays with three other office mates) will have less of the tears and more awesome moments.
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