[Let’s Study: 13th Age] Part 7 – Conclusions & Review

Posted: September 25, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Let's Study, Reviews, Roleplaying Games
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13th Age takes the OGL d20 foundations and turns it to it’s most photogenic angle and gave it proper lighting. All the things you expect from it are there, but they look and feel better.

13th Age is presented very well, and puts down into writing tricks that many GMs have implemented in their own games. The result of this is that new GMs, or GMs who feel very closely bound by the rules find a new kind of freedom in the story-focused mechanics that were absent from other d20 fantasy games. In some cases, I get the feeling that there are GMs that really feel the need for these things to be found in the Rules As Written in order for it to be valid as to destroy any doubt as to the source of their decision to improvise as opposed to “houseruling” the same ideas.

This doesn’t mean that 13th Age doesn’t bring anything new to the table. There are a few interesting mechanics, such as the Escalation Die, which could be an extra thing to look forward to in combat as a bonus to represent combat momentum is a neat idea.

Given this, it’s impossible to give 13th Age poor marks, but the challenge for it is how it can innovate beyond introducing story elements into d20. The metagame reasons for it’s design are sound, and the Icons are a great idea for helping GMs, but after applying lessons that have been in general circulation in non-d20 games for years I’m having a little bit of trouble finding how else it can come off as better.

That said if you like d20, and are looking to bring in more story elements into your game, then 13th Age is a no brainer. Get it study it and use what you can get out of it. Old hands at story games on the other hand might find 13th Age to be a little bit underwhelming as it feels like a “My First Storygame” manual for D20 fans.

13th Age is available for download in DriveThruRPG for $24.95 or roughly Php 1,075.00

  1. Mechanically you’re correct: it doesn’t bring anything really new to the table that isn’t found in other systems.
    * Relationship Dice works like Shadowrun 4E’s “hits”
    * Backgrounds work like FATE Core’s Aspects
    * Several mechanics (saving throws, non-AC defenses, recoveries, etc.) are easily seen as borrowed from D&D 4E
    * Zones were introduced in at least one other TRPG
    * Mooks were brought in from the Burning Wheel almost wholesale
    * Rituals work like a mix of D&D 4E’s Rituals and Ars Magica’s freeform magic (without the formulaic approach done in either system)
    * One Unique Thing technically can be considered as part of a character’s background in other TRPGs
    * Icons are essentially the NPCs of various campaign settings categorized into archetypes or factions (also found in other TRPGs)
    * A number of game elements are recognizably D&D regardless of edition
    * Failing forward was adapted from the GUMSHOE system found in Pelgrane Press’ other TRPGs

    The only really unique mechanic could be the Escalation Die, but even then that could easily just be the buffs found in other systems simplified into a round counting mechanic.

    HOWEVER, my personal experience with 13th Age is that the innovation in story-gaming and TRPGing isn’t in the mechanics per se, but rather in *how* those individual game elements all come together during actual play. It’s the dynamics of 13th Age when *everything* comes together into one complete session that I feel is innovative, as the mechanics easily fade into the background while providing the feeling that you’re playing “D&D” even though you can’t *really* pinpoint what specific edition you’re playing. The mechanics allow you to fully flesh out a character without even really trying — you don’t need that much creativity in creating a surprisingly deep character, just a bit of sound logic based on a few choice assumptions combined with the aid of your GM — and at the same time both the GM and the player somehow gets to easily slam that character smack dab into the middle of the world’s politics (overtly or covertly) without really having to use the normal route of “throw a couple of plot hooks and hope the characters get interested in one of them”. The characters ARE the plot hook, the campaign IS about them even though they aren’t anywhere *near* the most powerful or influential of characters, and the world is a scary, deadly, beautiful place where the mundane meets the fantastic and eventually elevates the mundane into the fantastic (as even the simplest of backgrounds somehow can be adapted into the most unusual of circumstances when done right).

    Sounds over-hyped? Given that 13th Age is ENWorld’s most anticipated RPG of 2013, with a highly enthusiastic and excited community in Google+ ( https://plus.google.com/communities/105266185948211782098 ), and you did mention that it’s impossible to give a poor score for the system, maybe I’m a bit over-zealous, or maybe it’s really just that good from the perspective of someone who wants some roleplaying as well as rollplaying to his tabletop roleplaying experience, as opposed to being just one or another.

    – – – – –
    For the mechanics buff who loves the likes of Pathfinder, Shadowrun, and other very mechanically heavy RPGs because of the options they bring to the table, 13th Age might come up short for them because of the game elements found in lighter, less mechanically-oriented in RPGs.

    For the storytelling buff who loves the likes of Golden Sky, Dungeon World, and other roleplay-heavy RPGs because of the storytelling mechanics, 13th Age might not be the system for them because it’d really feel more like an attempt of story-fying the normally mechanically-heavy d20 RPG.

    For the “old school” gamer who loves his D&D retroclones because of the mechanics found in D&D, 13th Age might not be the system for them because it does away with a lot of the old rules (including save or die, frail casters and purely daily spells) in favor of more balanced and streamlined mechanics.

    For the “new school” gamer who loves modern RPGs because of the game balance and introduction of new mechanics and game styles, 13th Age might not be the system for them because it adheres to a lot of old school norms, including the inherent imbalance between “simple” classes and “complex” classes (which, during play, doesn’t always come out as imbalanced as some may claim; maybe it’s because of the backgrounds, icon relationships and one unique thing, maybe it’s because magic isn’t necessarily an auto-success [you still need to make an attempt to succeed]).

    But as Ash Law mentioned once, 13th Age is in the middle of the Venn diagram between old school, new school, rollplay and roleplay. Something I feel is a rarity in the history of TRPGs.

  2. Hi there,

    I’m very happy that 13th Age works for you. The gameplay you describe is close to the kind of game that every GM aspires to run: exciting, unpredictable and inclusive of player inputs.

    How we get to that result can take many forms. In your case, you found it with the use of Relationship Dice to randomly trigger when and how something comes up. Others enjoy the Action Deck mechanic from Savage Worlds where you put the unpredictability on yourself by letting players randomly draw from a deck of cards that can turn the tide or mess with the rules once per session.

    Player involvement with the setting is a result of them knowing the setting and having a stake in it. By pitching a game and getting player buy-in from the start, you give them the keys to the setting. The One Unique Thing is a matter of learning to say “Yes, and…” and “Yes, but…” to character concepts with an eye towards maintaining coherence in the campaign.

    Player Agency is something that all GMs should encourage as well. If a GM can’t bring themselves to allow players to make a dent in their setting, then they need to take a good long look at why they’re running to begin with. I’m in complete agreement that Players ARE the Plot hook, but you don’t need dice to tell you this. Neither do you need Icons to make player characters important.

    13th Age elevates the d20 experience to the bare minimum experience that people should have when playing. One that acknowledges that Classes and Races can be changed to fit a group’s vision, one that makes their Characters the center of the game’s focus, and one that allows for factions and influences to matter in the course of a game. This should be the least you should expect from a game as they all contribute to a memorable, and interesting game.

    But meeting expectations doesn’t mean that the game is stellar.

    You don’t hand a guy a gold medal because he crossed the finish line. You do it because he crossed the line first.

    And this is where I tend to look for something that really innovates. 13th Age brings d20 up to the level of many of today’s games, but it doesn’t quite get that edge just yet… and that’s where I’m left wanting.

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