Wednesday, 17 September 2014

13th Age - the summing up

Rarity - teller of lost legends
So at last we come to the summing up of our campaign and of the 13th Age games system. IIRC, we reached fourth level in 13th Age, which is the equivalent of eighth level in, say, Pathfinder terms. It may be that we resume the campaign at some point in the future. I hope so.

What follows are my impressions of the game, having played at least 40 to 50 man hours of it. I've done more than crack open the book and look at the shiny pictures! I've earned my stripes, from the depths of the Elf Queen's lizard-haunted forests to the automaton-guarded tunnels of High Rock, floating thousands of feet above Horizon.

The story telling aspects of 13th Age are brilliant. One of my criticisms of Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 were that there were no real role playing mechanics embedded in the rules. Having been exposed to Exalted and Savage Worlds, I felt there was something missing in 4.0 when it first came out. 13th Age addresses this lack of roleplaying mechanics with its system of character backgrounds and its icon relationships.

There are no alignments in 13th Age, so no detect evil. With Pathfinder I increasingly find myself defaulting to Neutral or Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Neutral, as this gives the character the most flexibility outside extremes of behaviour. There is no strict moral code you need to adhere to. Business can be conducted in a nebulous grey area.

For example, we are playing an occasional Pathfinder campaign at home now, and both the PCs are Neutral (one is a Lawful Neutral  War Priest, the other a Neutral Drow Gunslinger). In 13th Age, you define your character's relationships with the Great Powers of the campaign world. This replaces your alignment, and introduces the icon dice as storytelling mechanics you or the GM can bring in during the session. Sure, there were times when I rolled a '6' with one of my icons and simply burned it to find a magic item associated with that icon, but at other times my positive relationship with the Prince of Shadows helped to provide transport (e.g. a crew of smugglers to sail a boat) or information (to enable us to blackmail a magistrate, for instance).

The icons mechanic does sometimes need your GM to stay on his toes and be able to respond to sudden twists in the campaign plot, for example when we decided to help the Blue escape from its geas, making Shadow Port an instant focal point for the next session. This is not a game for rigid plot structures, and I'm not sure whether 13th Age is a game for very localised adventures - it plays more like the sort of epic tale you find in three volumes on the fantasy book shelves at Waterstone's. I feel like I've just reached the end of volume 1. A referee probably needs to be comfortable with 'winging' it from time to time.

The One Unique Thing aspect of your character is inspired, as it forces you to add plot elements into the campaign which the GM can riff from. We had a pirate bard with knowledge of lost treasure, the only red dragonborn, a tiefling barbarian who remembered forgotten legends, a wizard possessed by the devil and a warforged who could see through the fabric of reality. It made for a memorable and colourful combination of characters who were really starting to find their feet by the time we hit 4th level. I'm not even going to discuss the Dragon Empire's semi-pro tavern brawl league, which became setting flavour dreamed up by one or two players.

Each class in 13th Age is like a mini game unto itself, which does make it harder, much harder, to play another player's chatacter when he / she is away. This is also the case with Pathfinder at higher levels (say 12+), to the extent that sometimes the characters of absent players just had to sit out the session, guarding wagons or foraging or somesuch mundane activity. Focus is needed to get the most out of your character. I suspect I failed to make the most of the Swashbuckling feature of the rogue at times.

Speaking for the rogue in the main, but also to an extent for the bard and the barbarian, I felt that some talents were no-brainers; they were powerful, and you really needed to have them, while others were really of less import. Luckily, you can dump talents that you're not using in favour of the more powerful ones you acquire as you level. Having said that, my rogue was still regularly making use of talents at 4th level that he acquired at chargen stage.

The game seemed to avoid some of the silliness of Pathfinder (e.g. the ability to summon rampaging woolly rhinoceri at the wave of a hand, detect evil, detect magic, etc.) We didn't end up 'tooled up' to the extent a typical Pathfinder party would be by 8th level. The game also limits the number of permanent magic items you can carry (something of an articifical constraint). I think more work needs to be done on magic items - the items we recovered were meant to influence our personalities as well, but there are no mechanics for this. In our Pathfinder Carrion Crown story arc, my cleric Veneticus was carrying a powerful magical artefact that was effectively played by another player and on occasion did seek to influence his behaviour (luckily Veneticus' high Will save precluded this). I think mechanics are needed to make 13th Age magic items more personal. I will think on this further, as I feel magic items could add considerably to 13th Age games.

Overall, I really enjoyed 13th Age. It is a vast improvement on 4.0 Dungeons and Dragons, and while Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet claim that it is an amalgamation of the best of 3.0 and 4.0, there is little of the 3.0 I can see in here. It feels more like 'son of 4.0' and very much the Alexander of Macedon to 4.0's Philip II. I really can't see myself ever playing 4.0 again, unless I was looking for a very combat focused solution. I shall, however, keep my 4.0 books for nostalgia's sake, next to my original copy of the Fiend Folio.

13th Age is written in a very engaging style, and contrasts directly with the dense content of Pathfinder, which sometimes felt like the corpus of a European Union directive rather than a game. That's not to say that my kids don't still love Pathfinder and want to play it, which they do, but then they've had little experience of much else. If I were going to run a Dungeons and Dragons style game now, I'd probably reach for 13th Age.

Caveat emptor - we have just started playing 5.0, of which I will write more in a future post, including how I feel it compares with 13th Age. But suffice to say I'm now backing the 13th Age Glorantha Kickstarter, which offers some very interesting synergies indeed! More on that anon...


  1. Yes, magic items are a bit woolly. If anyone did reach their limit I would have done something similar to Venticus' mace but everyone avoided picking up too many items so it never came up. I have a couple of rules changes in mind for when we resume play and magic items will be one of them.

  2. I had assumed the limit was a 'hard' limit, but I guess it would be more fun if you could go over the limit, but risk loss of independent identity or somesuch.

    1. That's exactly how it's supposed to work. Up until the limit you are influenced by the items, but once you go over the limit the items take control.