(Hi everyone! The name’s Bryce, and I’m the newest writer here at GaymerConnect! Expect reviews, news, and editorials mostly concerning tabletop RPGs and board games from me, with the odd piece for video games thrown in as well.)
Here’s a question that nobody has the right answer for: what makes the perfect tabletop RPG? Obviously this is a matter of opinion. Some people love the thrill of combat and want a system that accentuates that. Others want to tell a story with their characters as the protagonists. Maybe you want a system that allows you to build a unique character that nobody else would be able to build. The perfect RPG may mean something completely different from person to person.
Well. I’m not here to tell you about the second coming of RPG Jesus, unfortunately. However, I am here to tell you about a brand new RPG coming out that has me very excited. It’s called 13th Age. It’s made by Johnathan Tweet (the lead developer for D&D, 3rd Edition) and Rob Heinsoo (the lead developer for D&D, 4th Edition), and this is the game they wanted to play. A mixture of old-school dungeon-crawling with new-school story-telling, 13th Age hopes to have a mixture of everything for the aspiring adventurer or dungeon master (or game master, if you prefer that nomenclature).
So what makes 13th Age special? A lot of it has to do with the character creation system. It’s mostly basic D&D affair: select your race and class, get your ability scores, figure out what kind of weapon you’re swinging, that sort of thing. After the usual stuff, though, you start picking things that flesh out your character. The first thing is your character’s One Unique Thing. What makes your character unique? And by unique, they mean unique to everyone else. Perhaps you are the reincarnation of a god but you don’t know it. Maybe you’re an atheist Cleric who casts spells using his faith in nothing. Hell, you could be a talking bear! After that, you choose your background, abstract points that may help you in skill checks (one of my characters can use his expertise as a village shaman to help him brew potions or tend wounds, for instance, or his stint as a Templar could help him detect religious iconography).
Then you choose your character’s relationships with a small handful of the thirteen Icons that rule the world of 13th Age. This beginning choice already ties your character to the events that will shape the world in your campaign and insures that they will have some sort of personal investment in what is going on. You can choose to have a positive relationship with the Emperor, for instance, whose forces raised you as an orphan. Maybe your family was killed by the Lich King, and now you have a personal vendetta to destroy him, giving you a negative relationship. Additionally, you were given a strange gift sometime during your life by the Diabolist, normally a force of evil and chaos, netting you a conflicted relationship with her as you wonder what plans she has in store for you. These relationships have a mechanical impact, allowing you to roll your relationship dice in an attempt to curry favor with or against your relationships. They also have a story impact, as DM’s should try to focus the story around the Icons that the characters have an affinity or particular hatred toward. In my campaign, at the end of each session, I have my players roll their relationship dice to see what Icons will pop up next time. You can also try to have the players roll their dice at the beginning of each session if you think you can improv the results well enough!
The actual game system works very well. Many of the more minute details are abstracted down to reduce downtime and looking up rules. The system encourages a more open-ended method of playing the game. Rules for jumping, swimming, or climbing are not there. Just roll, compare it to a basic difficulty check depending on what kind of adventuring tier you’re at, and see what happens. The system also encourages a clever “fail-forward” style of advancement. If you fail to find that secret door leading on, then the game doesn’t just grind to a halt. Perhaps they find it but it took longer than expected or they had to take an alternate route, allowing the forces of the Diabolist to further their ritual. The system tries hard to make sure that the story and game keep going, despite any snags that the players could get hung up on. There’s no experience points! Characters simply level up when they hit an appropriate point in the story (I’ve been doing a level up at the end of every other session). This is great! I always felt like I had to cram needless encounters into 4E when I DM’ed the game so that my players would be getting enough experience along the way. Now that’s not a problem!
The book itself is fantastic as well, and a joy to read. Normally I flip through game books to get to the sections I need to reference, but the 13th Age book is written so well that I actually took the time to read the whole time. It’s written in a conversational, lighthearted tone that draws you in and makes you want to learn about this game and the world it exists in. It’s also ~$50 for basically a Player’s Guide, DM Guide, and Monster Manual in one, so that’s a fantastic bargain.
Now for the complaints. The biggest complaint I have is that some of the character classes have a lack of options. The Bard, for instance, gets access to attacks that can trigger off of a die roll, songs, and various spells…while the Barbarian doesn’t get much beyond “hit mans, make them fall down.” I can understand playing a more simple class while learning the system so as not to be overwhelmed, but I feel like by level 3 or 4 I’d be wanting something a bit more complex. Barbarians, Paladins, and Rangers seem to be somewhat shafted in this regard. In another instance, Sorcerers get a lot of spells…but most of them only seem to do more damage. Wizards get a host of “utility spells” that can be applied to out of combat situations, but Sorcerers don’t really get anything like that. There is a “Ritual” system in place that allows a character to expend one of their spells to create a ritual to get past a story-related obstacle. My party has only done that once, however, so I’m not sure how much of a solution that is, and like much of this game, those effects are restricted by the players’ imaginations.
For the most part, I am definitely a fan of this game, though. There’s a lot I haven’t touched on, like the fact that magic items all have their own personality quirks that can influence the players, or that monsters are stupidly easy to make on the fly, or the fleshed-out world of Axis, but I urge you to check out the game if you’re interested. If you’re not happy with the base world or classes, there is also a definite push to let players do what they want. Reskin your Sorcerer as a psychic-using class. Make your own world populated with your own Icons (which I might be attempting!). The important thing is to have fun, and fun is definitely the main draw of 13th Age.
As a note, 13th Age is not yet released (the current tentative release date is June-ish). You can, however, pre-order the game from Pelgrane Press’ website. Do so and you’ll get a PDF of the rules to use right now, then they will ship you the physical book once it is released. I for one can’t wait to get the physical copy in my hands!
As a second note, the makers of 13th Age recently just held a successful Kickstarter for an additional book called 13 True Ways. The new book is going to have new classes, rules for multiclassing, more in-depth maps and descriptions of the major cities of Axis, new monsters, and lots of other neat stuff. It’s not available for pre-order yet, but it’s something else to look forward to!