Looking into 13th Age

Unless you already know, 13th Age is a new fantasy RPG from Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, in the d20 mold, from Pelgrane Press. Rob Donoghue has a thorough review which you should read if you’re looking for a review; this is just me rambling.

I pre-ordered it last year and had the playtest documents, but never really had the time to give it a proper look at it until now. (Work has been keeping me busy enough that gaming fell by the wayside for a while — but holidays have finally re-invigorated me, and hence also this blog, at least temporarily.)

In short: I REALLY LIKE IT.

Not really a big surprise: I’m a longtime Jonathan Tweet fan, and Pelgrane Press gets my vote as “possibly the most stand up RPG publisher, ever”. I was initially a bit thrown off by Heinsoo being on the team, actually, since 4E definitely was not my cup of tea, but looking at the exchanges between him and Tweet included in the book, I’m very very glad he was there! (There are several places in the book where both Tweet and Heinsoo explain their takes on a given rule — where they disagree — and their reasoning behind their stances. This is brilliant. It highlights the mutable and subject-to-interpretation nature of RPG rules, and also brings both the shared and conflicting aesthetics of the designers to the limelight.)

The amount of crunch is on par with retroclones, which is about the maximum I can take. Mechanically the rules look more than solid enough, and unlike with 4E I feel they have a nice solid connection to the fiction.

Character death probably doesn’t happen very often in this game, though, and the only optional rule for scarred heroes is pretty wimpy. My OSR games have made me appreciate value of vulnerable characters quite a bit. Still, the characters definitely aren’t invulnerable either, and house rules for lasting scars and effects are a breeze if I decide I want them. I do wish they’d explicitly discussed hit point interpretation a bit more, though. There is a mention that they see them also representing morale and will-to-fight on p. 166, but being more explicit about this would have been nice: this is the only interpretation that makes mid-combat recoveries palatable to me, really. I’m also somewhat on the fence re. full heal-ups, but as they’re explicitly under GM control, it is probably quite easy enough to arrange the tempo of the game to be such that they remain credible.

The “storytelling mechanics” aren’t gimmicky. One Unique Thing and Backgrounds in particular is more of the same tweetesque goodness I know and love from Over The Edge. Icon relationships are solid gold. Last night I made a test-run of chargen with H. She rolled up a High Elf Wizard. Her unique thing is “I’ve done something the Elf Queen will not forgive.” and one of her backgrounds is “Ex-Head Librarian to the Elf Queen.” The game practically writes itself. :)

There are no explicit “personality mechanics” or alignment. There is a strong nod to 3×3 alignment model, and explicit call-outs to Burning Wheel and Over the Edge mechanics with directions to use what you like. Fair enough.

The setting is quite gonzo, but I’m cool with that. If I wanted a realistic or low-key fantasy game I would not be looking at anything resembling d20. The setting presentation is exactly right for me: 15 pages very reminiscent of the Barsaive chapter in Earthdawn. Some entries are mostly about history. Some entries are mostly about present. Some entries are mostly about potential. None of it is bland vanilla gazetteer listing exports and imports. Enough to fire my imagination, enough to give some constraints — not too much canon to bog me down.

I’m only sorry to see the colored art. The playtest documents had at least some of the pencil sketches before they were colored in, and I have to say I found them much move evocative. All that life and nuance is muted in my eyes by the colors. …but I realize I maybe the lone voice in the wilderness here, so enough about that. (Ok, so it’s not all that bad. I like the art as it is, but I really loved the pencils. I wish they’d publish a full resolution portfolio of the pencils…)

My biggest complaint is really same as Rob Donoghue’s: the book assumes you already know quite a bit about d20 systems, and the order of presentation is sometimes odd. This is both understandable, and regrettable. This is not to say it is a hard book to read. It reads quite nicely, actually, but sometimes you go “huh, what’s that?” until you eventually realize that the book is full of forward references.

My biggest like is that it is a single book. While a bestiary is already available for pre-order (and you get the playtest version immediately!), and there is a companion-like thing in the works as well, I don’t feel like I need either of those. The book stands on it’s own quite nicely. (Nits can be picked about missing the druid class, but I don’t really give a damn about that.)

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