Saturday, June 28, 2014

13th Age review: Spectacle over Tedium

I've only had the book in my possession for a few days.  Be warned, this is not a playtest but first impression review!  If you want to know how it actually plays, read elsewhere.

If I've done my job, by the end of this review you'll see that 13th Age is filled with too many good ideas well implemented not to buy, even though you may have zero interest in actually running a 13th Age campaign.

Those who try to stay plugged-in to tabletop gamer culture via message boards, google communities, and blogs have probably seen "13th Age" bandied about for the last twelve months, just like you saw Dungeon World heralded around the echo-sphere twelve months before that.  Is so much buzz warranted or has the hype-parade found a new flavor of the month?  When it comes to streamlined, innovative fantasy roleplaying, I can tell you Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet have struck gold.  13th Age is legitimately awesome.  Now let me tell you why...

If you've read other reviews, chances are you encountered the shuddersome combination of number and letter known as 4e.  Yes, I'm an old school gamer with old school tastes.  If there's any sure way of making me not want to play a certain RPG, all one has to do is describe it as being similar to 4th edition D&D.  Yes, 13th Age has similarities to that, 3rd edition, and probably various RPGs from the last decade's d20 avalanche.  Nevertheless, 13th Age is worth the OSR's time.

Let me explain the chief difference between 4e and 13th Age before we get any farther.  4e simplifies granular details of verisimilitude in order to make D&D mechanically efficient, which, as a side-effect, gives it the functionality of a video game.  With 13th Age, mechanical efficiency feels like the hand waving of AD&D or 2nd edition (not rules as written but how many of us ended up playing) because of its constant emphasis on story, fun, and larger than life adventuring.  While this may be more of an aesthetic difference than anything else, it matters.  A lot.  Like the Terminator with and without its coating of flesh.

The system of 13th Age hacks and slashes an important reminder into the forefront of our mind as we read every page: use whatever methods feel right so the game is enjoyable for everyone, rules be damned.  Often, similar words are written in an RPG's introduction and never repeated, let alone infused into the core of its being.  13th Age is different.  It wears customization and Do As Thou Wilt on its sleeve - to the point where it seems like all your wearing is one gigantic sleeve!

Ok, enough preamble.  Here's a quote...

"The Elf Queen wears a crown of three parts: black amethyst and obsidian for the dark elves, green emerald and flowering plants for the wood elves, and diamond and force magic for the high elves.  When the elves were truly unified, they referred to themselves as the three branches of the elves, but since the war with the dwarves it became customary to refer to themselves as the three Shards of the Crown."  pg. 66

On pg. 56, there's an amazing description of coins.  The Seven Cities mint their own coins with the symbol of the Emperor appearing on one side.  There are platinum, gold, silver, and copper coins.  The Blue Dragon (one of the major NPCs of the world) likes to mint his own coins from Drakkenhall... without any imperial artistry.  Dwarven gold pieces are square with grooved edges, stacking like towers.  "To start a fight with a dwarf in a tavern, knock over the tower one of them has stacked beside their ale.  Sometimes that takes some doing; dwarven coins seem to want to stay stacked instead of falling over.  It's not unheard of to find ancient dwarven treasure troves where the coins are still stacked into perfect towers.  Elves joke that it's not the fact that dragons steal dwarven gold that bothers the dwarves so much, but the fact that the dwarves' towers get knocked down and scattered throughout the hoard."  There's a whole lot going on in just the currency.  Little details that paint a picture in the reader's mind.

Speaking of NPCs, 13th Age has something called Icons built into the rules and narrative framework.  Icons are the movers and shakers of the Dragon Empire, they are what's happening in the world.  Want to know why an event, scheme, or conflict is taking place?  Look to Icons' strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, servants, alliances, betrayals, alignments, etc.  It's about relationships.  So, not only does the realm seem inhabited and interesting, the PCs get Icon points to distribute as they like during character creation.  This allows each player to influence the game world and his role within it.

Which leads me to another great innovation: One Unique Thing.  Unknowingly, I came up with pretty much the exact same idea during the last Purple playtest at Gary Con.  I had each player invent something special that made his or her character different than all the other fighters and elves and former slaves, essentially combining the One Unique Thing with character background.  13th Age takes the idea one step further.  It's not what makes your character stand out but what makes him a one of a kind piece of the campaign world.   Instead of a neat idea for a one-off session, the One Unique Thing is a large part of character creation, as well as, defining the realm.  Several pages are devoted to talking about the ins and outs, what worked and what didn't in the authors' home campaigns and convention playtests.

What else do I love?

  • Initiative is a d20 + dex modifier + level. 
  • Damage is scaled progressively by level.
  • Distance is a matter of engaged, nearby, and far away.  No need to remember if the giant spider demon is 20' or 25' away.
  • The escalation die heats up the battle after a few rounds while shortening lengthy combat.
  • Want to rally (retrieve some lost hit points) in the middle of a fight?  Come up with a reason.  Dig deep... what makes you a hero?
  • Flexible attacks allow some maneuvers to be decided after rolling.
  • Plenty of sidebars with GM, player, and campaign advice ranging from the interesting anecdote to game-saving advice.
  • Background points replace skill points which gives PCs more of a history and identity rather than a character sheet full of numbers.

What else is there to talk about?  As rich as the setting is, there are plenty of holes.  Perhaps too many if you like your realm's details filled in before you arrive to the Dragon Empire.  

The layout is good.  Overall, the book has a gorgeous feel and touch, while the art is... interesting.  To me, it's no where near Dungeon Crawl Classics - the epitome of b/w fantasy RPG artwork.  It's like DCC rolled a natural 20 and 13th Age rolled a 1.  The Icons are well depicted.  Some of the monochromatic illustrations are good, if few and far between.  The little silhouette/symbol things in place of actual monsters?  Really bad.  Damn near unforgivable considering the high production values.  

The introductory adventure at the book's end?  It's fine for a beginner.  It acclimates the GM to how Icons could work and showcases a few aspects of the setting.  It's short and nothing stuck out as super-awesome.

Those aforementioned opponents of 4e might be dismayed at all the feats, special abilities, talents, powers, quick actions, swapping one thing for another as characters level, damage on a miss, effects triggered on a 16+ or natural 1 - 5, etc. Like I said, you might not want to run or play 13th Age but there are some great things to borrow from it.  Is that reason enough for old school gamers to take a chance on 13th Age?  Yes, I think so.  The many upsides more than make up for the down.

I don't think I'll ever run a Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle without using the Icons system.  I'll probably be adding character level and monster hit dice (not sure if monster HD in the book or not but that's the way I'm using it) to initiative until I die.  Plus, I'm happy to see my own narrative, player agency, and hand-wavy spectacle over tedium tastes championed instead of the game simply being a combination of cool things from 3rd and 4th edition D&D.

I could just end the review here, but then I wouldn't have the opportunity to mention D&D 5e, would I?  Did 13th Age inspire the upcoming 5th edition?  How close will the two be?  Did 13th Age take a slice or two out of the tabletop fantasy RPG market share before 5e was even released?  Once it comes out, will 13th Age be superior to 5e?  Will 5e's scenario tsunami put 13th Age rue the day it tangled with D&D?  Will the majority of gamers try to use both to create their own ultimate tabletop fantasy RPG?  Ah, so many questions.  Oh, I'm not going to answer any of them.  Asking them was enough. ;)


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