13th Age by Cease to Hope
Icons - We Resemble But Are Legally Distinct From The Bahamut GuildOriginal SA post
For no particular reason:
13th Age is a D&D 4th edition-based heartbreaker developed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. It fully embraces D&D 4e's focus on a detailed, tactical wargame, ditching much of the crufty non-combat systems. This half of 13th Age is designed with criticisms of 4e firmly in mind. Outside of combat, it uses narrative-focused, player-GM-collaborative storytelling methods, many of them clearly borrowed from games like FATE and PBTA. The end product appealed only to a subset of 4e fans, who already had the crunchy tactical wargame they wanted, but I do think it contains in it some interesting ideas worth looting. I like 13A, but I can't say I'd ever actually play it.
13th Age's duality is striking right from the beginning: the obligatory "intro to roleplaying" page doesn't have an example of play, but straight up says that you want an experienced GM for this ship. It assumes that you already know what a "d20" game is - and that it's a euphemism for D&D - and similarly alludes to World of Darkness and Exalted as inspirations. They emphasize that this is D&D but with greater player investment in affecting the story, drawing specific comparisons between 13th Age and the third and fourth editions of an unspecified game system.
Before character creation, however, comes the Icons.
Not pictured: the Crusader's closed, spiked gauntlet and the Great Gold Wyrm's downward-pointing arrowhead-shaped dragon head
Icons - We Resemble But Are Legally Distinct From The Bahamut Guild
The thirteen Icons are a mashup of organizations, nations, big-dick canon NPCs, and pantheons; they're the kind of people who get "the" before their name whenever you talk about them. They aren't gods, but they serve the same role that the gods do in, say, Forgotten Realms. They're not unkillable, but they don't have stats in the same way that PCs or monsters do. Each of them is the head of some sort of massive organization, so not only are they individual people, but they're general affiliations. PCs align with or against them at character creation, the same way you'd write "Chaotic Good" on your character sheet in other D&D clones. (More on that later.)
Now, 13th Age introduces the Icons just in vaguely alphabetical order to introduce you to the setting with a bunch of out-of-universe gazeteer material, but since I'm summarizing, I'm going to borrow the organization from later in the book. (More on how these are divided and how the divisions are kinda flexible later.)
The heroic icons are the enthusiastic supporters of the mostly-human Dragon Empire, part of 13th Age's implicit setting. Incidentally these are all the icons that correspond strongly with classes that aren't "rogue".
- The Archmage is holding the Empire together with his magic. By drawing on the ley lines, he's keeping the monsters, the ravages of nature, and his (undead, malevolent) predecessor at bay. That said, he is still a powerful wizard, so he and his underlings tend to delve into Secrets Best Left Undisturbed or just let experiments get out of check. He also isn't on especially good terms with the wilder, nature-inclined icons, or the enemies of the Empire.
- The Emperor mostly benevolently rules the Dragon Empire. Almost all of the other icons are either his lieutenants, allies, or actively trying to overthrow him. He's pretty sketchily described; only thing between civilization and chaos, long line of rulers, yadda yadda. He's just the personification of the empire that covers most of the described world, so the Empire's relations are his relations.
- The Great Gold Wyrm is Bahamut, okay? He's a giant gold dragon who martyred himself by using his body to plug the Abyss, a breach between this world and the one where the demons live. He's technically a god in the traditional D&D sense, but he's also a dragon in a specific place that you can go and meet if you want to (as long as you don't mind that it's in the middle of a demon-infested wasteland). His main role is serving as a patron for good old-fashioned demon-butt-kicking paladins. By the way, he's going to die and when he does the demons are going to invade.
- The Priestess is the face of the Gods of Light. What exactly the gods are and if they even really exist is left deliberately vague in 13th Age; there's no real pantheon. You can make up whatever you want. If you worship the kind of god that lets you cast Protection From Evil 10' Radius, then you're on Team Priestess. She's the prophet of something-or-another, or maybe not, but she's got the shiny clerics on her side and that's almost as good.
The ambiguous icons aren't trying to drown the world in demons or zombies, but they aren't properly on the side of the Empire either. They're non-human and sometimes kind of inhuman, or they're using the power of darkness against the power of worse darkness, or they've got a secret agenda that isn't bad in an obvious what but you kinda never know.
- The Crusader is the icon of Lawful Evil PCs. He's an asshole who fights demons and doesn't really care about anything else, including collateral damage or being nice. He worships the Dark Gods and binds terrible monsters to his service, but he mostly focuses on conquering the breaches between Hell and ordinary reality and slaying demons. He's technically loyal to the Emperor, but nobody actually likes the Crusader and a bunch of icons - including the Priestess and Great Gold Wyrm - despise him.
- The Dwarf King is the king of all of the underground and everything that comes from it. He's the ally of the Emperor - who rules everything aboveground, no real conflict - but Dwarf King claims all treasure found underground regardless of who it belongs to, which might be inconvenient for dungeon-crawling heroes. Grudges, fights under
darkground monsters, shaky truce with the Elf Queen, you know the dwarf cliches.
- The Elf Queen is super mysterious and maintaining a delicate balance between the high elves, wood elves, and dark elves. She's allied to the Emperor but her alliance with her sister and her long-game schemes means she doesn't necessarily get on with all of the Emperor's servants. She's dreamy and mysterious and by the way she's kidnapped the fourth member of the Three. (More on them later.)
- The High Druid protects nature and the balance, and is generally benevolent. That said, she is on the brink of going to war with the Emperor over the expanding colonization efforts of the Empire, and especially over the Archmage tapping into the ley lines of magic to drain their power and tame nature. If this happens, it will not only be a disaster, but also a big problem for her sister, the Elf Queen.
- The Prince of Shadows is the icon of rogues and Chaotic Neutral PCs (but I repeat myself). He's an anarchist with an unspecified agenda, and he likes sneaking around, tricking people, and stealing things. Nobody really much likes him but the Dwarf King especially hates him.
The villainous icons are planning to overthrow the Empire and/or eat anyone who displeases them. They aren't antisocial, but all of them are bad people (at least insofar as they can be called people).
- The Diabolist summons demons and likes demons and and runs demon cults and wants to corrupt people and overrun the world with demons. She's a human - sort of - and basically everyone who is not a demon or a demon cultist hates her. She has some sort of relationship with the Prince of Secrets but it's not exactly clear who is taking advantage of who.
- The Lich King is an icon from a previous age. He was once the Wizard King, but turned himself into a skeleton because that's much more metal I guess, and got himself overthrown by the Emperor's ancestor allied with literally everyone else in the goddamned world because he's a skeleton. He's really mad about it. Also he's Vecna, complete with the magical replacements for his missing eye and hand.
- The Orc Lord wants to overthrow the Emperor and set things on fire. Any order works, really. Nobody likes him, but the Elves especially hate him. That said, this is only the second time the Orc Lord has appeared, and the first Orc Lord helped everyone else overthrow the Lich King.
- The Three are not one person, but rather three dragons: The Blue, the Black, and the Red. Being dragons, their main interests are eating people and owning everything. That's complicated by the fact that the Blue is one of the Emperor's governors, and that governorship comes with a geas that prevents her from acting against the Emperor. Normally, they'd be all-in on trying to worm their way around that geas, but they also have ages-old grudges against the Great Gold Wyrm (for obvious reasons), the Lich King (who killed the White), and the Elf Queen (who has secretly kidnapped the Green). The Three also don't get along with each other especially well.
13th Age uses the icons instead of alignment - there's no supernatural Good or Chaotic tag (and no actual Protection From Evil 10' Radius spell, for that matter). That said, it's a D&D clone, so their one single concession to alignment is an Icon Alignment Chart because you were going to make one anyway.
Next: My One Unique Thing is that I'm Batman
My One Unique Thing is that I'm BatmanOriginal SA post
This isn't actually the logo they went with. The final logo is a square. I can't use a square as a header, c'mon now.
13th Age part 2: My One Unique Thing is that I'm Batman
Now that we know this crucial information about the Icons, it's time to make a character. And man, is the character creation layout a complete clusterfuck. It's fine enough if you've already played a D&D game before: it gets the stuff lifted directly from D&D out of the way and immediately proceeds to the parts that are new or require lots of 13A-specific rules text, but if you haven't played D&D before, it's useless.
Bear in mind that while 13th Age is a D&D clone based heavily on 4th edition, it isn't cross compatible with that edition nor any other, in the way that OSR games often maintain compatibility with Rules Compendium first edition, or in the way that Pathfinder can easily run D&D 3e material. This isn't explicitly stated anywhere but quickly becomes apparent in character creation. 13A is full of things designed to be stripped and added to other editions of D&D, but itself is as different from any edition of D&D as they are from each other.
First you pick a race, which is going to give you +2 to an ability score. There's a list of races: all of the D&D standards, three types of elves, plus maybe your game has aasimar, tieflings, "forgeborn" (dwarf robots), or "dragonics", which is just the worst name for dragon people. Then you pick your class: most of the D&D standards, with the bard and sorcerer present but the druid, monk, and warlock notably absent. (The druid and monk appear in a later book, and the warlock's core mechanical concept is almost exactly identical to the bard's so it doesn't fit.) What does your class do? It gives you +2 to an ability score that is different from the one you got from your race! Anything else is again in a later chapter. And I do mean ANYTHING else: there's no description for the races or classes whatsoever, including what ability score they use or which they can boost. There is, however, room enough for sidebars stating that it's okay to reskin races if you want something not listed here, and a sidebar stating that multiclassing is going to appear in a later book so buy more books.
Next up is ability scores: you can use 4d6 drop low or 3e-style point buy. Again, what's notable here is both what's present and what's absent.
This is one of the first appearances of the "author voice" sidebars, one of 13th Age's little idiosyncrasies. Either Rob Heinsoo (pictured here) or Jonathan Tweet (a stylized J.T) butts in to explain why a rule works this way, how you could modify it, or even explain that a rule may not work very well in some games and how you can fix that. They aren't usually quite as defensive as Heinsoo defending rolling attributes; instead, they lay out clearly why 13A works the way it does and warns people about possible pitfalls before it happens. The tone is that the game is really more a set of guidelines and that it might not work perfectly, and that isn't caused by powergamers or a powertripping GM. The honesty about the game's limitations and the urge to not turn them adversarial is nice.
What isn't nice is that this is the "ability score" section and it doesn't explain what the fuck ability scores actually are. They are the usual six Strength, Intelligence, etc. from D&D, with no goofy renames, but if you don't already know what they are supposed to represent or what class might want which, then you are just shit out of luck. This seems like a major omission when even long-time D&D players tend to be a little vague on what the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom actually is. There's no indication at all whether 13A is the sort of game that favors extreme dumpstatting (like 4E did), whether ability scores are especially important (one, maybe two tops), or what effect ability scores have on tasks that are not murdering people (probably a negligible one). What is clear is that 13A uses the D&D 3e system where your ability scores don’t really mean anything at all, and instead turned into a modifier that (typically) ranged from -1 to +5.
You get about half of the mechanical detail necessary to understand how you translate that modifier into derived stats like Armor Class, Physical and Mental Defense (which are static target numbers, like 4e's non-armor defenses), Initiative, Recoveries, and Hit Points (which are class based and not rolled), but you're not going to learn how your ability scores affect to-hit rolls until you get to the class chapter.
As it turns out, except for hit points (CON is as important as ever) and attack rolls, your ability scores do about fuck all. AC, PD, and MD - and it’s never really clear why there’s a difference between AC and PD - are all derived from your class, plus your middle score from a set of three stats. So AC is (AC from your class) + (the middle of con/dex/wis) + level. PD and MD work similarly, with different ability triplets. This is a whole lot of goofy-assed math in order to always get like either +1 or +2 to your defenses, but if it didn’t exist, ability scores that aren’t used in your class abilities would have no role in combat whatsoever. In theory, this is supposed to prevent people from stacking one stat and using it for everything (along the lines of DEX in many post-3e D&D clones/editions), but it just doesn’t work and it’s a bunch of groggy pointless complexity that is neither fun nor in keeping with the bulk of 13A’s design.
One Unique Idea As Long As Feng Shui Doesn't Count
Wither that perfunctory and wholly incomplete rundown of the mechanical combat bookkeeping out of the way, it’s time to get dramatic. Every character has One Unique Thing. (It isn’t capitalized in the book but dammit, it should be.) Your One Unique Thing can be anything you want, as long as it doesn’t dominate the story too much or have game-mechanical effects. (Astute observers will note that One Unique Thing is almost identical to Melodramatic Hooks from Feng Shui, written by long-time Tweet collaborator Robin Laws.) Within those boundaries, go crazy. The idea is to get the GM to have ideas for how to get your character involved with the story, while also making your character memorable for everyone involved. Not all of the example Unique Things are especially… well… unique; a lot of the examples are "I have access to information about the plot that the GM will dripfeed whenever appropriate" or fishmalky gimmicks like "I'm an elf wizard who likes fire to a worrying degree." There is some good advice about discouraging Unique Things that will disrupt stories without ruining the concept: the examples of what not to do include "I can tell when people are lying" or "I can fly", which get changed to "I see hidden truths in shadows" and "I have wings".
The clear goal of the One Unique Thing is to teach players - presumably D&D players - that they deserve to take a hand in creating the game world instead of ceding that role entirely to the GM. Players are explicitly encouraged to choose Unique Things that aren't just story hooks, but flesh out - or entirely invent - some part of the world they want to explore. Bob Who Always Wants To Be a Ninja is a feature, not a bug; the GM is encouraged to embroider on this. Maybe Bob is always being pursued by ninjas. Maybe there's a whole ninja clan, bubbling under the surface. Maybe Bob will get to found the Dragon Emperor's Secret Hand Clan. It's pretty basic stuff, but placing it in the middle of the stat-heavy, template-heavy character creation chapter sends a significant statement about its importance and focus on player agency.
One Unique Thing is an important statement of intent: not every player option in 13th Age has a specific, rigidly-defined game effect or statistical implementation. This is not an especially new or revolutionary idea, but it's an explicit rejection of an implicit design principle in 3rd and 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons where players were heavily encouraged to only do things that are mechanically supported. 13th Age wants to have its storygame and its tactical wargame, but former D&D players can already be counted on to be invested in the tactical wargame. Gestures like this help keep players interested in both halves of the game.
Skipping slightly ahead - the Icon Relationship system won't fit into this post - is the other freeform character creation rule: Backgrounds. 13th Age doesn't have skills or proficiencies. Rather, every character has Backgrounds, which are free-form skills invented at character creation by the players. Every character gets eight points to invest, and they can be in anything really, although no character can have more than five points in a single background initially. (Again, attentive players will notice that this is basically FATE Core's skill system.) Using Backgrounds works like skill rolls: you roll (GM's choice of an appropriate stat modifier) + Applicable Background + Level, against fixed DCs based on the difficulty of the task and how hardcore the surrounding environment is. (More on that last later.)
To illustrate how this system works - and how it fails - we need players. Let's meet Paul and Fred.
Paul makes an elf wizard, one Dexter Das, who is currently on the outs with the Imperial College of Magic And Regional Affiliate Universities due to inappropriate magical experimentation. Dexter's backgrounds are Inattentive Student of Magic +2, Arcane Lore Humanoids Of All Genders Were Not Meant To Know +2, Arcanoacademic Bureaucracy +3, and Inexplicably Surviving Disaster +1.
Fred loves paladins and adventuring, so he makes human paladin Athena Darkpath, extremely experienced and somewhat world-weary crusader in the name of the Great Golden Wyrm. Athena's backgrounds are Renowned Adventurer +5 and Has Seen Some Shit +3.
Whether a background is applicable to the current task is mostly up to the players, so Fred is going to have Athena roll that +5 on anything he can possibly conceive of being related to "adventuring" or "being famous" - it's hard to imagine many situations that wouldn't fit into one of those two slots. On the other hand, Dexter's best skill is +3; Paul is punished for Dexter dabbling in many different areas of narrow applicability. Paul's skill list is better in the sense that it gives a clearer idea of what Dexter does and does not know how to do, but all it means is that his character can make fewer skill rolls and gets smaller modifiers when he does so.
There's a real incentive for everyone to make one of their backgrounds "Omnicompetence" or "I'm Batman" +5 and never use any other background for anything else. There's also no framework for players to avoid stepping on each others' toes: it's hard to imagine many situations where Unknowable Arcane Lore isn't something that Renowned Adventurer couldn't also handle. There's no good reason to be using skill points in this sort of system at all. It would work just as well if players picked two or three background attributes and just got a fixed modifier on skill checks that somehow fit into those background attributes. Combine that with a discussion on how backgrounds should not be "literally everything" and should be designed with an eye for not overlapping with other players too badly, and this could be a workable system.
Next: Relationship Status: It's Complicated
Relationship Status: It's ComplicatedOriginal SA post
13th Age part 3: Relationship Status: It's Complicated
13th Age's last unique character creation system is its replacement for alignment: Icon Relationships. Relationships represent how likely it is that your relationship with that icon will benefit you. Each PC gets three points to spend, and you can spend them more or less however you want on almost any icon you want, establishing Positive, Ambiguous, or Negative relationships. You can spread out your points or concentrate them in one relationship, whatever you like. Every session, the GM rolls a d6 for each relationship point for each character: every 6 rolled means that relationship benefits that PC somehow, every 5 means that PC benefits but at the cost of some sort of complication. Positive relationships generally mean the icon or their organization helps you out, negative means their enemies help you out, ambiguous could go either way.
Relationships are supposed to represent the likelihood of the relationship mattering, not the depth of your alliance or enmity, but for some reason you can't spend too many points being the ally of an evil icon or the enemy of a heroic one. There's really no reason a hero couldn't be well-connected with the anti-Emperor resistance, or constantly receiving “help” from the Diabolist as part of some scheme only she understands. The justification is that too many positive points with a villain would make you their henchman - but there's no reason such a relationship would necessarily be reciprocal. It's an easy rule to ignore, but the table to explain which relationships have which cap sprawls over an entire page, crammed with of repetitive filler endlessly redefining "positive", "ambiguous", and "negative".
In addition to being a source of story hooks, this is supposed to be a replacement for alignment. However, while alignment does completely suck if you have even a basic understanding of moral philosophy, it's really fast and efficient and easy to communicate, which Icon Relationships are not. "Lawful good" is clear in a way "ambiguous Emperor 2, negative Three 1" is not. Describing this mouthful chews up five pages of rules and charts, jammed ill-fitting into character creation between rolling ability scores and choosing skills. Relationships needed streamlining to make it easier to communicate, both between players and in terms of rules text.
Rolling a One On The Ol’ Craft (Layout) Check
After relationships comes Backgrounds and how to resolve skill checks, which I've already discussed. What I neglected to mention is the lengthy aside about Failing Forward. This is a good guide to using “failure” not as a roadblock but as a reason to introduce further story complications, both to keep the game flowing but also to help avoid d20’s tendency to make everyone fail at routine tasks a significant amount of the time. I can't fault Fail Forward as a principle, but I can fault it for being ANOTHER full page of rules text that does not pertain to character creation before we even learn what a bard does.
Also introduced in passing in the background/skill description is that the game is broken up into Adventurer, Champion, and Epic tiers, and that Champion and Epic environments are a little too hardcore for lower-level heroes. It won't be until the next section that we learn that Champion means levels 5-7, Epic means 8-10, oh and by the way this game only goes up to level 10.
Have I mentioned that I hate 13th Age’s layout? Because man. It sucks a lot.
You get one feat per level and there's 10 levels. Get it? Huh? Get it?
Anyway. Feats are broken up into level-based tiers: champion feats come online at level 5, and epic feats at 8. This section only has the most boring feats, like Improved Initiative or Toughness or Rapid Reload, the inexplicable crossbow feat tax that appears in every D20 game despite the fact that literally everyone houserules it because it's not like you're going to powergame with a crossbow and this game doesn't even have iterative attacks ugh it's so useless and
I seem to have lost track there. In any event, the general feats are the usual pile of uninspired, uninteresting junk, except for Ritual Casting which is absolutely huge (assuming you don't have a PC who gets it for free) because 13A rituals are unfucked compared to 4e. The vast, vast majority of feats are actually modifiers or riders on abilities you get from your class or race, so they aren't listed in detail here; rather, they're listed immediately under the power or talent or spell they modify. Despite this, the feat section has eleven useless pages listing every single feat and its summarized effects, in insufficient detail to make any educated decisions about what feats to take or even what feats you're eligible for.
We still don't know what races or classes do yet!
Guess what's next? It's what you're all waiting for…
someone who is good at the economy please help me budget this
It's the gear tables for no apparent reason!
In particular, 13th Age's somewhat-unusual-for-a-D&D-clone handling of weapons and armor. 13A disposes of Gary Gygax's fetishism for differentiating weapon and armor types; everything is collapsed into general categories, and "special weapon qualities" like Reach or Finesse don't exist at all. This extends to the feats and class abilities: there's no Weapon Focus or other options that encourage people to make their character be the Shortsword-Only Guy (except for Rapid Reload, the inexplicable D20 albatross feat). Weapons and armor are mainly an aesthetic choice, rather than a mechanical one.
All of the weapons are collapsed into size (one-handed or two-handed), complexity (small, light/simple, and heavy/martial), and whether or not they are ranged. There isn't any mechanical difference between a longsword, a broadsword, a battleaxe, flail, or morningstar. Weapon damage is on a d4/d6/d8/d10 scale where each step of increasing size and complexity increases damage a step: a (small, one-handed) dagger or club does d4 damage, while a (two-handed, heavy) greataxe or lucern hammer does d10. There are no special weapon qualities any more; the only time the weapon type matters is damage, and the -2 atk penalty for using a weapon that is too large or complex for your class. (The details of weapon damage aren't actually in this section; they appear - and are repeated - in each class writeup.)
Similarly, armor is collapsed into light armor and heavy armor and shields - and, as, light armor includes rugged adventuring clothing, anyone can wear the former with no penalties. Armor is extremely abstract: basically anything that isn't simple clothing is light armor, and anything with a significant amount of solid metal is heavy armor. As mentioned earlier, AC is based on a combination of your class and your current armor: every (core) class has a base AC of 10 or 11 with no armor and base AC ranging from 10-14 in light armor. Some classes can wear heavy armor without a penalty and get up to base AC 14-16; everyone CAN wear heavy armor, but only get an additional +1 AC over their light armor value (which may be as low as 11) and get -2 to atk. Shields are similarly simple: all shields give you +1 AC, with a -2 atk penalty if you don't properly know how to use one.
This could possibly be simplified even further into making damage and AC purely a matter of your class with situational penalties when you're using something grossly inappropriate or undersized as a weapon or fighting in a loincloth, but it's a good enough level of abstraction given 13A's level of tactical complexity.
spend less on candles
There's pages and pages of this. I should be used to it by now, but I'm not.
What isn't abstracted is the traditional list of medieval (and anachronistic) weapons, armor, sundry goods, and services. Discussing coinage (copper, silver, gold, and platinum, 10:1 to trade up) and sprawling tables chew up three more useless pages. Nearly a full page's worth of this is devoted to specific costs for specific sorts of weapons and armor and they don't even do different things any more. A staff - which is just a sturdy, long stick! - is 1 gp, which is enough to eat for a week. Why does a mace cost more than a morningstar?
There are some cute ideas: every table section also has a list of unique or odd things, like a "large tabby cat in Horizon, guaranteed free of fleas and demonic possession", a "fine for unnecessary violence in Santa Cora", or different prices for a "ferry ride across the Grandfather [River]" depending on whether the bridge is out or not. It's a charming way to spice up these tedious and not especially interesting or useful tables of arbitrary prices.
It's nice that they made the effort, but who gives a shit. I have no idea why this section is here. Not only do we not yet know how much money a character has to spend, or what sorts of items they might want, or what sorts of items they can even use, but it turns out that characters get their weapons and armor free at character creation and won't even care how much they cost. Very few campaigns are ever put players in a situation where they care about the fact that candles cost 1cp per. It's an absolutely baffling layout decision, especially given that 13th Age is often so abstract that a campaign might never need to consult this table for the specific numeric cost of these mundane items.
We are on page 62 and we still don't know what an elf wizard even is or does.
Next: No, Really, It Is Actually A Metaphor For Race
No, Really, It Is Actually A Metaphor For RaceOriginal SA post
13th Age part 4: No, Really, It Is Actually A Metaphor For Race
Fantasy races in 13th Age work similarly to most D&D games, especially 4th Edition: you get a special racial power (similar to entry-level powers you get from your class), a +2 boost to one of two ability scores, and possibly some minor additional effects. Unlike most D&D clones, the +2 boost isn't as important because your class also gives you +2 to one of its ability scores, and you can't stack the two. So a Half-Orc Fighter can get +2 to STR or DEX from being a half-orc and +2 to STR or CON from being a fighter, but can't stack those boosts for a total of +4 to STR.
Racial powers are worth about one standard action per battle under certain conditions per battle. For example, humans reroll initiative and take the best (and get an extra feat to boot), dwarves can use a Recovery (basically Healing Surges from 4e) out of sequence once per battle when they get hit, half-orcs can reroll a to-hit once per battle. Defensive abilities are also common: halflings can force a reroll against them once per battle and apply a penalty to the reroll, gnomes can inflict a -4 to-hit penalty on enemies under certain conditions (and get a weak at-will sound/smell illusion ability). "Smallness" is all but a non-factor: halflings and gnomes use the same gear and weapons as everyone else, and just get a minor AC bonus against opportunity attacks.
Most of the races are loosely sketched, and you can really tell which race Tweet and Heinsoo care about - and that race is elves. There are three different kinds of elves - High Elves, Wood Elves, and Dark Elves - plus half-elves, and each of them has a different and unique racial ability and racial ability modifiers. While, for example dwarves get "you know dwarf cliches, use some of them I guess," elves get a page and a half about various story hooks and their splintering politics a description of their ideal society but also how that society is starting to fray at the edges so the image they project may not actually be how they live any more. Despite all this chatter, I have no idea what the difference between a Wood Elf and a High Elf is. They both live in trees, although I guess wood elves live in trees and high elves live in towers in trees? What I do know is that their racial abilities are bullshit.
Two of the three types of proper elves have completely bullshit racial abilities. High elves, once per battle (which is once per five minutes or so in out-of-combat terms), can teleport anywhere they can see as a move action. This doesn't have a range limit, and there's obvious maximum range. After all the talk about not giving players One Unique Thing that bypasses stories, it seems like a bad idea to give PCs an ability that passes through any opening, over any gap, up or down any structure, etc. There's not even any particular setting justification for it, or any consideration of what it would mean to have a race of teleporting elves in the setting. It was very obviously only considered in terms of its limited combat applications.
Wood elves, on the other hand, have Elven Grace. Elven Grace is a combat-only ability and it is just free actions. Every turn, a wood elf rolls a d6 (or a d4 if they take a feat at level 5, which they will absolutely take because who wouldn't). If they roll equal to under the number of turns that have passed this combat (technically the Escalation Die's score but we'll get to that later), they get an extra standard action this combat. They can keep rolling on subsequent turns, they just use a die of a step larger (so a d8, then a d10, etc.). This will generally mean they get 1-2 extra actions that they can use for anything every combat - and generally 2-3 if they take that feat. You want to be a wood elf. Everyone wants to be a wood elf. There is no reason to be anything but a wood elf.
Wood elves, besides being OP, get to show off their interaction with the Escalation Die, one of 13th Age's new and shiny mechanics. Half-elves, on the other hand, get to interact with 13A's use of raw d20 scores as an additional random number generator. Once per battle, half-elves can subtract one from the raw result of any d20 roll they make. The main reason you'd want to do this is to take advantage of abilities that trigger when you make an odd or even roll, or abilities that trigger when you get a natural roll of a specific number, such as 13A's dual-wielding rules. (Anyone wielding a weapon in each hand can reroll an attack if they roll a natural 2 - and anyone can do this, it's not a feat or class ability.) This isn't an especially good ability, even for the classes that have roll-based triggers, but it is a design that 13A's developers clearly thought was clever enough to stick with despite its limited utility.
Anti-Racist is Code For Anti-Elf
Since 13th Age has half-orcs and half-elves, the obvious topic has to be dealt with. Half-orcs aren't the children of mixed marriage or rape; orcs and humans aren't compatible. Rather, half-orcs are stronger and wilder humans, born different from other humans as part of a High Druid plan to counter the "magical infection" that orcs represent. (Orcs were created by elves as part of a long-ago scheme to accomplish an unspecified goal - and while the Elf Queen considers the existence of the orcs her greatest shame, the first Orc Lord helped overthrow the Lich King.) Half-elves can be born to mixed marriages, but also sometimes when elves and humans cohabit peacefully, elf or human couples will have half-elven children and everyone seems more or less okay with that.
Half-elves are a clumsy metaphor for real-world racial and cultural integration and I don't know how I feel about that. Using magical racial differentiation with regard to humans and elves is a metaphor for culture rather than genetics is a nice departure from the grim eugenics of most D&D clones. Elves and humans can simply assimilate into each other and forget that there was any difference in the first place, in a reasonable facsimile of real-world integration. Humans who live with elves will have half-elven children, who can in turn have elven children. On the other hand, you still have black-skinned elves who are universally talented at murdering people - the Dark Elf racial ability is Cruel! - and Orcs are magically transmuted to be irredeemable killing machines. On top of all of this, race is only a matter of culture with regard to elves and humans: dwarves, halflings, and gnomes don't fit into this at all. It's just a trace of an evocative idea, not fully realized.
We Would Like To Apologize For Including These Options
There are four "optional" races, with shorter writeups and sketchier rules. They're framed as optional because three of the four were fairly controversial when they were introduced in official D&D books: Forgeborn are clearly based on Eberron's Warforged living golems, and Dragonics and Tieflings are based on Dragonborn and Tieflings, both of which were controversial when they appeared in the D&D 4e Player's Handbook. Aasimar are the fourth "optional" race, and are included because of the opposite teacup tempest controversy: while the 4e PHB had fiendish Tieflings, it did not include holy Aasimar.
The main difference between the optional races and the other races is that the implicit 13th Age world doesn't give them a prominent role, so they're easy to drop if someone is a picky grog. "If a player wants to play one of these races, they should have that right, but not necessarily at the expense of the GM’s vision" stands out as the sort of thing 13A rejects in other areas. It makes sense given how much vocal anger there was about Eberron and the 4e PHB's races, but it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of 13A.
For all the furor, they aren't anything special. Dragonics/Dragonspawn are dragon people who have a weak elemental breath weapon (which at least doesn't take up your standard action). Holy Ones/Aasimar are "near human[s]" "touched by the bright gods" and get a weak defensive buff that falls off when they get hit. Forgeborn - aka Dwarf-Forged, because they are dwarf-shaped living golems - get a variation of the dwarf racial ability. Tieflings are "touched by the Diabolist" and get a free-form curse whenever an enemy rolls 5 or less. I guess if you want to run one, you already know what they look like, because none of them get even a cursory physical description!
Tieflings and Forgeborn are also a little half-baked, in a way which is also characteristic of 13th Age. Tieflings' racial ability turns any d20 roll against them of 5 or less into a fumble:
Start with the other racial once-per-battle abilities as a model of how big an impact this power should have... but feel free to go a little beyond, since the timing of the power is out of the tiefling’s control.
A typical curse might lead to the cursed attacker dealing half damage to themselves with their fumbled attack and being dazed [ed: that's -4 to hit, not action loss] until the end of their next turn. But the GM should reward storytelling flair that aims at effects that aren’t just game mechanics and damage with significant outcomes.
If the GM thinks your suggestion is going too far, they can enforce a smaller version of your curse or call for an unmodified d20 roll on which you’d better roll high to get the curse result you’ve suggested.
This isn't the last "make something up I guess" power in 13th Age, and these powers rub me the wrong way. There's not enough to them to justify the page space spent on them. They don't inspire stories, they don't pose a puzzle, and most of them don't really do anything. (This one stands out because it does have a suggested, defined effect.) They take up defined mechanical space - and column inches - but don't fill that space the way a more realized power does.
Contrast with the Forgeborn. Forgeborn are living constructs that don't have to eat or breathe… unless that sounds like a hassle for your game. It's a little underbaked, but there's at least a concession to the fact that Warforged had a lot of rules text and a very alien feel that may not fit into your game, even if you want a stone dwarf golem PC. That said, half of the column on this page is just blank, so they probably could have afforded to spill a little more ink on the consequences of being an inhuman construct and how to properly integrate such a character into your game.
We are now on page 75 (of 320) and have finally gotten to character classes. This book's layout is a trainwreck.
Next: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class strugglesOriginal SA post
13th Age part 5: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles
13th Age classes are based chiefly on 4th edition classes: everyone rolls to hit for everything based on a single stat (all but bards and clerics are "A classes" in 4e charop terms), and all damage scales based on level. (There are exceptions to these rules, of course.) Hit points, defenses, initiative, and recoveries (which are 4e-style healing surges) are all fixed and based on level. Whether you use strength or dexterity for melee attacks is based on your class (although some classes can choose either), and everyone's basic melee attack always does at least their level in damage on a miss (except wizards'). Your class also determines which weapons and armor you can use without a penalty, as well as your weapon damage - although all classes do the same amount of damage with a given sort of weapon in the core book.
Your class also gives you a +2 boost to one of two primary stats, and as mentioned before this doesn't stack with racial boosts. As a result, there isn't the 4e-style pressure to play the Right Race For This Class. You're not permanently behind the curve as a fighter if your race didn't give you +2 STR, for example. It's a good patch on the wonkiness of racial ability scores while retaining them as one of the D&D sacred cows, but it does further contributes to the meaninglessness of ability scores (something I'll discuss in greater detail later).
13th Age only has 10 levels, broken up into Adventurer (1-4), Champion (5-7), and Epic (8-10). I don't have a good place to point this out in a clear way, and neither does this rather poorly-organized book.
Feats are mostly interspersed in the class writeups, reflecting their role in 13th Age. With a few exceptions, 13A has completely abandoned the original D&D 3e design idea that each feat is a particular feat of strength or skill. Rather almost all feats are modifiers to other abilities: broadening them in scope, boosting their effectiveness, or adding additional themed uses for that ability. Many abilities - including individual spells - have their own feat chains, with adventurer/champion/epic feats that must be taken in sequence.
From Each According To Their Abilities
Class abilities are broken up into three categories. (Class abilities isn't an actual term 13th Age uses, but it's a good catchall for "crap you get from your class that isn't a feat or a stat".) Features are things every member of a class has. All barbarians have Barbarian Rage, all fighters are Extra Tough. Class features also often provide a framework to slot their talents or powers into. "Bardic Songs" describes the basics to understand how to use bards' level-based powers.
Talents work much like Pathfinder talents: they're selectable class options, similar to most D20 games' feats, but class-specific and generally more impactful. Rather than the 3e-style fixed schedule of new abilities at certain levels, everything you'd normally see on a level-up list is part of the pool of talents. Players can choose three at level one. Rangers, paladins, and barbarians - the classes that don't normally get spells or powers - get two more from level up, and fighters get one more from level up for some reason. Talents can be as broad as a kit of themed passive and active abilities, or narrow as an X/day power or a modifier for core ability/spell. There's no attempt to balance them internally, either: oftentimes there are clearly "main" talents and "fluff" talents.
A Wizard Did It
Powers are abilities tiered based on (odd) levels, and are written up similarly to 3e spells or 4e powers. In general, magical powers are called spells, can generally only be used once per "full heal-up" (basically daily), and work like 3e cleric spells in that everyone knows all of them and is mainly limited by how many spell slots they have. (If a spell is somehow limited, it's usually tied to a talent.) Spell slot tables look like 3e spell tables but work like 4e power schedules: most classes only have around a half-dozen spell slots, as low-level slots are replaced with higher-level ones. If you want to cast a lower-level spell, you slot it in whatever slots you have and get a scaling effect based on the slot's level.
This is the sorcerer's spell progression table.
Non-magical classes mostly don't have spellcaster-style power progression. When they do, it works in a way particular to that class. Usually, martial powers are at-will but have some sort of conditional trigger or limitation. Mundanes can't choose different powers every full heal-up, but they can switch their powerset around completely with every levelup and whenever they can justify it to the GM with a training montage or something.
Get A Good Night's Rest
An important topic that we won't find out about for another 100 pages is the recharge schedule for powers and recoveries. Things you can do once per fight are recovered after a quick rest, and "unless the GM is being a stick, you can always get a quick rest between battles." If you have a power that recharges on an X+, you can roll to recharge it during every quick rest. You refill your HP, recoveries, and "daily" abilities with a "full heal-up," which happens approximately every four battles. Despite the fact that this may or may not be daily, abilities are still described as "daily." There's no explicit way to game full heal-ups for a 15-minute working day: spells aren't recovered after a strictly-described amount of sleep, for example. Instead, if the party really can't carry on, they can accept a "campaign loss" for an early full heal-up; some story setback happens because they took too much time recovering from wounds and waste. ("Campaign loss" is a term introduced another dozen pages after the rules for full heal-up, of course.)
This Is How We Do
There are three informal categories of 13A classes, based on their main combat action: Basic Mundane classes who mainly use their basic attack and modify it with talents, Spellcasters who mainly cast a spell on their turn, and Power Mundane classes who primarily rely on their power trees. (These are names I made up, for what it's worth. It's just a way to organize these classes into future posts.)
Basic Mundanes - barbarians, paladins, and rangers - are mainly playing 3e. They don't have a list of powers at all: their main combat action is to use their basic attack, buffed by their features and talents. Barbarians are extremely simple by design and thus extremely boring - two of their talents are identifiably Cleave and Whirlwind Attack, for example. Rangers break the action economy by making double attacks and having an animal companion. Paladins are more or less recognizably the 3e paladin, and have a salad of random abilities that don't come together into any coherent theme other than "doing stuff paladins have done in previous editions of D&D".
Spellcasters - sorcerers, wizards, and to a lesser extent clerics and bards - cast spells. Most of them can only be used once daily, although some have a chance to recharge after every fight and other are at-will powers. All spellcasters have at least one at-will ranged attack, even clerics and bards, who can also rely on their mundane basic attacks. Clerics have spells that consume their standard action for a big effect, but most of their spells are quick actions or involve "make a basic attack, and [additional thing happens]."
Power Mundanes - fighters and rogues, and to a lesser extent bards and clerics - rely on basic attacks, but those basic attacks in turn trigger powers from their power tree. Fighters and bards have "flexible attacks" - when they make a mundane attack and roll a certain result, like "odd miss" or "hit on a natural 15+", they can trigger one of their flexible attack powers as an additional rider. Rogues rely on momentum: a rogue gains momentum when they hit with an attack and loses it when they are hit or use an ability that expends their momentum, and most of their abilities can only be used when they have momentum.
Next: I Waste It With My Crossbow
I Waste It With My CrossbowOriginal SA post my april fool joke is the welsh language
13th Age part 6: I Waste It With My Crossbow
The barbarian and paladin are the least engaging and worst-designed of 13A's classes, as they are intentionally designed as a throwback to poorly designed martial classes of previous editions. "I hit it with my axe" just isn't very interesting! The few non-attack-based actions they can take - with the exception of the backgrounds and icon relationships all PCs have - are marginal, limited, and largely included just because those options existed in previous takes on D&D. These problems are also true of the ranger to a lesser degree. The ranger has a stronger theme - hunting a single target and overwhelming it with many attacks - but there's enough space in that theme for more than just statistical buffs to inserting swords into owlbears.
13th Age does away with the bonus accumulation of both 3e and 4e. That means combat and character creation is much more streamlined for these sorts of characters - and that's great! The only downside is that the game mastery and research required to stack up all those bonuses covered up their relative lack of complexity. A 13A barbarian isn't less interesting than a typical 3e fighter or 4e ranger, but the process of making one is less interesting. Eliminating all of the newbie traps and the white noise concealing the good options means that there's no way to trick yourself into thinking that hitting things with an axe really hard is as versatile or interesting as other classes' skill sets. The thinness of 13A's combat is most obvious with these very thin character classes.
Barbarians rage out. Barbarian Rage is their one single daily/recharge 16+ power: rage lasts for an entire fight, and any attacks made while raging are rolled on 2d20. If one die hits, it's a hit. If both dice hit and are 11+ (or if one die is a natural 20, as usual), you crit. (Crits are double damage, and there's no 3e-style threat confirmation roll.) The one tactical decision to make as a barbarian is whether or not to rage, and it's almost always the correct decision to rage. If you find that one decision too taxing, there's a feat chain that causes barbarians to automatically rage for free after a certain number of rounds in combat.
Barbarians don't get much in the way of customization options, either. They have talents, but so do all classes, and barbarians' aren't especially interesting. They can take cleave, or get a little bit of conditional extra damage, or get a free-action recovery (that is wasted if you miss with your attack that turn). It's almost all ticky-tacky little bonuses. Barbarians have special talents that they can only choose at higher levels - this is touted as a special feature of the class - but there are only two talents each at champion and epic to choose from. One of them is +2 to mental defenses one fight per day. Another is "calling on your ancestors to send a spirit army to assist you" - which means for one fight a day you have a chance each turn to get an extra attack.
The barbarian's design seems to be motivated by a common apologetic argument for the design of the D&D 3e fighter: some players actually want their characters to do the same thing every round because they don't find D&D-style tactical combat very interesting. Often as not the example player who isn't interested in combat is a chauvinistic "someone's girlfriend" stereotype. Unfortunately, the barbarian's autoattacking isn't very interesting either - and now the barbarian's player is into a PC that can't ever do anything but melee basic attacks. Left unanswered is why you're bothering to play D&D - or 13th Age - when one of your players clearly does not want to engage with one of the most complex, time-consuming rulesets.
Barbarians aren't offered any real compensation for their narrow focus. Rage is good for hitting people, but it has no described game effect outside of rolling to hit - even though they explicitly mention you might "decide to rage out of combat for dramatic roleplaying effect". You'd expect barbarians to be tough, but their low AC, inexplicably middling HP, and otherwise unremarkable stats place them behind fighters and paladins, and only slightly ahead of bards.
Because Good Is Dumb
While barbarians are boring, paladins are confused. In the Original Edition Handed Down To Us By Gygax, Ayn Rand, and Jesus, Paladins were originally Fighters But Better, as a reward for
13th Age's paladin is clearly based on the 3e paladin, and it's nearly as bland. Smite Evil - a generic [CHA mod]-times-per-fight damage bonus on a basic attack - is back as a core class feature, as are passively excellent defensive stats. Their talents - and paladins don't have any paladin-specific powers except for what they get from talents - are a random selection of features from different editions. Paladins can shrug off debuffs, or Lay Hands On allies to heal them, challenge enemies to a duel, intercept incoming attacks, etc. The only thing saving paladins from being hopeless is that they can use talents to loot cleric domain talents or spells, giving them interesting combat options and thematic elements beyond "hit a dude while being really tough in a passive way".
13th Age does do away with paladin codes of conduct. There's no discussion of codes of conduct whatsoever, and no class in 13A can arbitrarily lose all of their abilities in the way of older D&D classes. Paladins are generally good, but not exclusively so. Evil paladins clearly exist in the setting - one of the icons is a paladin who is literally in league with devils - and they're briefly discussed. Even Smite Evil can be used to smite, you know, whoever, since 13A doesn't use Evil tags or alignment.
While I can't say I miss fallen paladin shenanigans, 13th Age doesn't carve out any new replacement niche. Heavily armored holy warriors who support their allies already exist: clerics. The relative paucity of player options in 13th Age means many classes have "take an ability from a different class's list" as an option, which means the paladin is even more obviously derivative and unnecessary than usual.
Frostkiller, Shiny, and my pet Chwerthinllyd
Rangers have a clear, strong concept: they are middling-toughness martial characters who specialize in hunting down a target and taking it down with a flurry of blows. You can choose different murder specialties, different degrees of emphasis on "hunting," "focusing on a target," and "lots of attacks." They're coherently themed in a way most classes are not.
The 13A ranger will be immediately recognizable to anyone who played a 4e ranger. You can choose three talents, and your talents are broken up into two-talent specialties: two talents to dual-wield, two-talents to shoot flurries of arrows, two talents to mark and wreck a target, a single animal companion talent that counts as two talents, and a handful of one-off talents to track prey or poach spells from clerics or sorcerers.
You're obviously meant to pick up either the bow dual-strike or melee dual-wield talent. They don't guarantee a second attack; rather, if you make a natural even attack roll (hit or miss), you get your second attack. (You can take both, but they don't play nicely together: ranger melee attacks can use DEX or STR to hit, but only STR to damage, so you can't run both ranged and melee off of the same main stat.) Once you've got your main attack, you pick your choice of ticky-tacky conditional bonuses or utility powers.
The biggest optional utility power is an Animal Companion, a full-fledged NPC who also attacks on your initiative without costing you any actions, and heals whenever you use a recovery. Pets only have six stats and one "trick," which is usually a conditional modifier on their basic attack. Their stats are pointlessly confusing, however: a pet is considered to be one level lower than the ranger, so a 4th-level ranger uses the "Level 3 Animal Companion" stats, and there are "0th-level pets". Pets stats also almost-but-don't-quite smoothly increase per level: for example, AC goes up by one for each level, except for one level where it goes up by two. It's needlessly fiddly but not overly so, and the end result is that the bear or snake or whatnot grants the ranger an additional attack.
Animal companions are conceptually freeform. Pets get a "trick" based on their species - snakes have poison, wolves get a boost when attacking the same target as the ranger, etc. - but players are encouraged to assign whatever trick they like to whatever species they like if they'd prefer, as long as it makes sense. Pets can become large dire beasts at higher levels or be replaced with more fearsome animals instead of leveling up at higher levels - but there's no game effects attached to any of this. 13th Age abandons the idea that any in-universe difference has to be accompanied by a specific fiddly rule effect.
Animal companions are revised in the second 13th Age Book, 13 True Ways. Rangers and druids with pets get a small pool of spells and a short spell list focused entirely on buffing and healing the pet. They also get the option to spend only one talent on an Animal Companion; such Animal Companion Initiates (as opposed to Adepts, who invested two talents) can only have their companion around for every other fight and can't cast the pet spells.
Rangers get another freeform talent, one with a great concept. If you take Tracker, "you get to say things about the terrain that the GM may not have realized." Tracker lets the ranger's player take advantage of the environment in an improvisational way, by making up some natural feature that was always there, which comes into play on a random (but predictable) turn. Tracker rangers can knock a stalactite on foes, lure them into tripping over something, knocking down a hornet's nest, etc. The problem is that such "terrain stunts" don't have a clearly defined rules effect when the enemy sets off your trap card. The suggested effects, buried in a sidebar, are very weak and don't clearly describe how to implement their effects. It's not clear if there's an attack roll (it's implied that there isn't), nor is their any suggested default effect to help bypass disagreements about what the talent should be able to do. Tracker is a great idea, but it's not so much badly designed as not even fully designed at all.
With a little text introducing basic templates for rangers - a notable omission - they could have been the "simple martial character" for the strawman 3e fighter liker. It's perfectly reasonable to make a ranger who is really good at stabbing and nothing else, but players who get bored with that and want to expand their options or explore more of the games' systems still have the option to do so. Rangers will still be using their basic attacks for the vast majority of their turns for the vast majority of fights, but they're not as bad off as the other basic-attacking mundanes compared to the rest of 13A's cast.
Next: Everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.
Everything seems possible and nothing is what it seemsOriginal SA post
13th Age part 7: Everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems
Spellcasters in 13th Age are immediately recognizable to anyone who played 4e or a spellcaster in 3e: they do a large, flashy effect a couple times a fight and fall back to weaker, low-impact filler for mop-up. Spellcasting is pure Vance: spellcasters have a half-dozen-ish spell slots, and after each full heal-up fill them with the spells of their choice, most of them one-shot "Daily" spells. All of the spellcasters are "prepared" casters in 3e terms: there's no 3e-style sorcerer or psion where the player choose what spells to cast on the fly and can spam the same one-shot spell with all of the spell slots.
That's only true of spells that don't recur on their own, however. 13A differs from many D&D variations in that some spells are on different schedules, including reusable At-Will spells and randomly reusable Recharge spells. For example, a wizard needs to devote a spell slot of at least first level to Magic Missile, an at-will spell, but she can cast it as many times as she'd like. A sorcerer needs to devote a fifth-or-higher-level spell slot to Three Dooms, a Recharge 16+ spell, but once it's used he can roll a d20 after every fight and gets the spell back on a 16+. Daily does mean daily: barring certain talents, there's no way to prepare the same spell multiple times in multiple slots.
Spell levels are sort of synonymous with character levels: there are no second-level spells because spellcasters don't get new spells at level two. Spells do scale upward as the character's level increases, but not automatically like in 3e and 4e; instead, to get the fifth-level effect of Magic Missile, a wizard needs to put it in a fifth-level slot. Offsetting this somewhat is the fact that spell slots aren't a pyramid, as in 3e. A ninth-level sorcerer has nine spell slots: six of them 9th-level, and three of them 7th-level. There's nothing stopping her from using lower-level spells; she just slots them into the higher-level slots and gets higher-level effects from them. The removal of a huge backlog of lower-level slots does a lot to reduce 3e-style caster supremacy: expending a spell slot on a daily spell always feels like a real expense.
Spellcasters can choose to prepare all of the spells in their class (plus possibly some extras from their talents), but this is less of an issue than it is for divine casters in 3e because there are just so few spells listed. A second-level sorcerer can prepare five first-level spells, and there are only six first-level spells, three of which are barely-distinguishable at-will energy bolts. Each class only has two or three 9th-level spells. The spell lists are tiny.
The tiny spell lists reflect the smaller conceptual space for the tactical ruleset. For the most part, spells are focused on in-combat effects. There are a few glaring exceptions: e.g. clerics get a spell to transport the whole party long distances. Exceptions aside, this focus on combat effects is both a product of practicality and design ethos. Not only does this book not have the space to fit in the dozens or hundreds pages of spell/power listings that typically appear in official Dungeons & Dragons Players' Handbooks, but 13A does not generally go in for specific, strictly-defined effects outside of combat.
So, if you ever just want to hang out and chant or call the corners...
Out of combat magic is mostly handled by Ritual Casting, a feat clerics and wizards get for free, but available to any spellcaster (including classes like rangers and paladins if they've gotten spells from a talent). Despite being listed with feats, ritual casting isn't properly described until page 192. It's Background check that takes minutes or hours - or however much time is dramatically appropriate, really - and consumes a prepared spell to create a freeform magic effect. The examples include a wizard destroying an artifact with Acid Arrow, or a wizard putting the guards around their cell to sleep with Sleep.
It's telling that both examples involve a wizard, and it's a step back from 4e's Ritual Casting in that way. While 4e Rituals involved a bunch of bookkeeping and resource expenditure that made them mostly impractical if all of that wasn't houseruled away, any character of any class could take the feat and draw on magic out of combat as long as they had the relevant skills. 13A goes back to the 3e idea that some characters are magic and some just aren't, which is a baffling reversion given the fact that characters may indeed have One Unique Thing or Backgrounds that give them a good reason to have magical abilities that simply aren't useful on a combat timescale. There's nothing stopping a GM from houseruling that Rogues or Fighters can take the Ritual Casting feat and perform rituals, but it involves throwing out everything about the Ritual Casting rules except for making Background checks. At that point, there's no reason to have Ritual Casting as its own system discrete from the Background check rules except for the fact that D&D 4e did it that way.
Next: FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE - Spellcasting Classes
FIRE FIRE FIRE FIREOriginal SA post
13th Age part 8: FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE
Spells in 13A will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has played D&D 4e. Spells roll [the class's caster stat modifier] + level + d20 to hit AC/PD/MD. Spells have a Hit line that only happens on a hit, and an Effect line that always happens. They might also might have a Miss line for a miss, or variations on the theme like Odd Hit or Natural 19+. This means that casting stats are baked into the spells: a Ranger who uses a talent to get a Sorcerer attack spell has to use CHA for hit and damage. It's an intentional design decision as far as I can tell, since there are several talents or feats that boil down to "Use [your main stat] on [other class's] spells."
AOE powers don't have a fixed radius, as in other games. Without getting into 13th Age's highly abstract positioning rules, a spell that would be an explosion or cloud in other editions simply hits "1d4 nearby enemies in a group". Spells that classically murder the party, like Fireball and Meteor Swarm, have that baked into their rules as an inherent effect.
Saving throws work exactly like 4e. At the end of someone's turn - PC or NPC - they roll a d20 for every save-ends effect on them. If they roll an 11+ - or a 6+ for the occasional easy save or 16+ for equally-rare hard saves - the effect ends. Ongoing damage is one sort of common save-ends effect, and it is dealt immediately before the save, so it won't prevent a monster's turn, but the save won't prevent the fire or acid from killing the monster.
I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll deliver a bizarre and out of place rant about Israel
If you're not familiar with more recent editions of D&D, sorcerers are solitary genius one-offs with unique magical powers but no particular skill with weapons or armor. The D&D 3e sorcerer was mostly an excuse to try out a new, non-Vancian magic system, but the concept of a spellcaster who was magic instead of someone who learned magic resonated with players - and appeared in 4e as both the Warlock and, well, the Sorcerer. However, in both games, wizards largely overshadowed sorcerers and warlocks, while struggling to feel different from them in any meaningful way. 13A sorcerers are still wild prodigies as contrasted with the ascetic study of wizards, and their magical abilities draw on the symbolic power of the Icons, possibly aggrandizing or draining them, or maybe just tapping into them in a passive way. This is a neat concept, but in practice you roll a lot of charisma-based attack rolls to make things explode. Sorcerers still can't escape the recurring problem of the limited conceptual difference between themselves and wizards.
Sorcerers' flashiest class feature is Gather Power. A sorcerer can spend a turn to double the effect of her next attack spell by spending a standard action to huff and puff or look menacing or whatever suits her particular idiom. Gathering power also a minor random effect (from a mercifully small table), and it gets double effect out of one of the sorcerer's relatively small pool of spells. This isn't as bad a deal as it would be in other versions of D&D, because the escalation die (oops, haven't talked about that yet!) somewhat discourages frontloading attacks, and because of how AOE works in 13th Age. Unless the party or the enemies explicitly spread out to avoid AOE, there's little reason to need to set up ambushes and frontload casting to maximize AOE powers.
Sorcerers also feature lots of randomness, on top of the inherent randomness of (their relatively few) normal AOE spells. Breath Weapon-tagged spells are daily spells that work once in a combat, then for the rest of the combat the sorcerer checks at the beginning of every turn to see if they can reuse the breath weapon, similar to the "refresh" attacks of both 13A and 4e NPCs. Chain-tagged spells will spread to an additional target on a natural even attack roll, and will keep chaining until you stop rolling evens or run out of new targets you want to hit. This combination of randomness and Gather Power makes sorcerers feel very explosive. Sometimes you'll Gather then drop Three Dooms, which makes all its chain rolls and blows away half the field. Sometimes you'll gather for Breath of the Green, only get one target for the AOE roll, miss that one target, then never refresh the breath. Their variance is capped a little bit by the fact that most of their attacks deal XdY + (charisma modifier) damage, but that little muffler on the statistical variance isn't felt much in practice.
Sorcerers are less cool than Doom Patrol, unfortunately.
As for talents, the 3e theme of "sorcerers get magic from dragons" is blown up into "sorcerers get magic from icons". Most of the sorcerer talents are linked to one of the various magic-themed icons. All sorcerers can poach from the wizard list at a penalty; the Archmage talent lets sorcerers poach a spell without that penalty, and an associated feat allows them to attack with the spell using CHA (instead of the usual INT for wizard powers), the Three and the Great Gold Wyrm talents interact with breath weapons, the Diabolist talent is a spell rage similar to the barbarian's but with a self-damaging kicker, etc. Atypically for a d20 game, these icon-linked talents aren't mutually exclusive: there's no reason a sorcerer can't draw on both the power of the diametrically opposed Archmage and Lich King. There's no actual reason you'd do that, because the Lich King talent is terrible and one of its associated feats is a literal joke that exists for no reason than to hammer home how boring 4e Weapon Expertise is and also that the Lich King is Vecna for anyone who didn't notice, but…
I seem to have lost my train of thought again. Anyway. There's a handful of less flavorful talents, like a Spell Fist talent that makes you less incapable in melee at the cost of needing high CON as well as CHA, a talent to get a familiar if you want a magic pet rat for some reason, and a sucker talent to get an extra point of Icon relationships. But you didn't roll a sorcerer to fuck around with talents!
Sorcerer spells - and remember, every sorcerer knows all of them - have three main qualities. First, there's not a lot of them. All sorcerers can poach a wizard spell as if it were a spell of two levels higher than it actually is, but that's mainly for utility spells, as wizard attack spells are based on INT. And sorcerers will be poaching, because a third-level sorcerer has six spell slots and knows ten spells, five of which are minor variations on "At-Will, do 3dX+Cha damage to some poor bastard." Sorcerers have such a tiny pool of spells that they will be casting the same spells day in and day out until they level up. This is a problem that is going to come back to bite all of the spellcasters.
Second, they almost all do damage, and the ones that don't are kind of insulting. The worst is a 5th-level spell that gives +5 on CHA checks but turns any failed check into a disaster. Another insultingly bad spell gives you another party member's racial ability for one battle. One 9th-level spell is so thinly sketched it can barely be called an ability:
You gain some surprising or bizarre magical effect associated with the power of [a randomly-selected, magic-related] icon to assist you. The effect is entirely up to the GM, though the immediate impact of the spell should always be favorable for you. The long-term consequences of randomly invoking the power of an icon that may be an enemy might not be favorable for you, and should be played for narrative interest by the GM, particularly if the impact of the spell was huge for you. Since this is a daily spell, sizeable impact is fine, but don’t award any extra effect for empowered casting, especially since the spell can be cast effectively out of combat.
Except for the table to roll on, that is the entire text for Calling The Blood's effect. There's no example for what this spell is actually supposed to do. It's one of your three 9th-level spells - and one of the others, Silver Flame, doesn't even work if you don't have any relationship dice with the Archmage! It's confusing why these spells even exist; Ritual Casting already handles out-of-combat magic in a freeform way. If sorcerers had some sort of combat spell that charmed enemies or drew on the power of a random icon - incidentally, they do not - then that could be translated into whatever improvisational ritual effect you needed for the story. It's wasted space due to a lack of focus, and that's a problem particular to sorcerers.
Lastly, sorcerer spells are just better at higher levels. Since basically all of the spells melt someone's face, it's easy to do the math and figure out which spell does the most facemelting. The correct answer is Scorching Ray and whatever your highest level daily attack spells are. It's nice that you're not trapped in the 4e pit of casting Searing Orb from level 5 to 25, but there's not a lot of meaningful difference between Breath of the White and Breath of the Void. Given the narrow design space and limited pagecount, this is inevitable, but still a damper in practice.
This is another one that ran long. Wizards and maybe clerics for the next post.
Next: Dare you enter my magical realm?
13 True Ways kind of sucksOriginal SA post
Are you going to be doing True Ways as well? That book is a mess.
sure. here it is:
13th age 8.5: 13 True Ways kind of sucks
FOOL! Doctor Doom does as he PLEASES!
- the chaos mage is a trainwreck. i get the high concept but there's so much bullshit and table-checking to the class that it's disruptive to play. "gain a random spell from such-and-such class" ugh fuck you
- commanders are a workable if bland take on 4e leaders in 13A terms, but 13A's very abstract combat leaves them little else to do other than give other people extra actions
- the druid is like five classes all jammed together in one and obviously designed that way because it's what they promised in a kickstarter. it's so overbroad that "i'm a druid" is meaningless, i've seen less overcomplicated point-buy games
- monks have a hundred cool ideas (four lost secrets! the grandmaster of flowers! every style is a poem!) but are overcomplicated and fucking terrible, as is typical for monks in D&D
- necromancers are inexplicably the best-designed, most-versatile spellcasters in 13A and it blows my mind - only downside is that they have the worst layout of 13A and that's really saying something
- the occultist has a rad concept but sucks major balls because it's all reactive so you can end up with really unfun dead turns
- i don't give a shit about multiclassing and neither do heinsoo and tweet. it's a ban list of the overpowered combos they thought of, and i've never expended any energy on trying to think of any of my own
- i like their city writeup format but there's not a lot of meat there
- except for drakkenhall, which owns owns owns. drakkenhall is worth ripping out of 13A and using in your own game.
- horizon does a decent job of conveying how the icons are more organizations than individuals but i don't get a feel for horizon as a place and they don't have the room to make it as weird as they obviously want to
- a quarter of this book is monsters which uh okay I guess? i didn't see anything obviously out of line but i also didn't look that closely and probably never will. same for artifacts and magic items and the example npcs that are obvious kickstarter rewards tbh
- there are a loooooooooot of pages about how to use devils in your game. none of it was especially memorable to me but it's a pretty good source for campaign concepts if you really like devils i guess
- the random dungeon idea seed list absolutely rules, as do the example dungeon concepts, and they're usable in any sufficiently weird fantasy setting
Dare you enter my magical realm?Original SA post
13th Age part 9: Dare you enter my magical realm?
13A's wizard and cleric are recognizable to anyone who played either class in 3e or 4e. Both of them were reasonably well-designed and well-liked classes that worked well in a vacuum - they remain so in 13th Age. Their shared problem in previous editions is that they were so versatile and powerful that they overshadowed other, narrower classes, even in those classes' supposed specialties. Most of their versatility was stripped simply by the fact that 13A is not an official edition of D&D. Both classes have much shorter spell lists, no "splat" material from supplemental books, fewer spell slots, and a reduced and 4e-like idea of what a spell should be able to accomplish. Clerics and wizards still have broad-based abilities to affect the setting through Ritual Casting, but they also come with practical advice on how to avoid letting magic bypass stories and challenges in unentertaining ways. They still have their broad, nearly unlimited scope - so much so that when other classes learn a generalist magical knack from a talent, it's almost always "you can use one cleric/wizard spell" - but now other classes also have broadly defined, narrative-shaping powers. Even so, they step on too-similar classes' toes, and have setting-defining powers tucked away in their class-specific lists.
Cease's Incessant Posting
Wizards are...wizards. They're the nerds of magic. Where sorcerers are explosive and random, wizards are consistent and predictable. For example, in contrast to sorcerers' Breath spells, wizards have Cyclic spells, which they can use at-will but only on even-numbered turns. Every spellcaster can cast Rituals if they have the feat - wizards not only have the feat, but can cast them faster. (It's not much of an advantage, since rituals don't normally have a set casting time.)
Wizards also have lots of crease-marks from previous editions of D&D. Their cantrips - minor, non-standard utility spells with no combat impact - are limited to (Int mod) uses per five minutes, because people complained that unlimited use of cantrips in Pathfinder was somehow overpowered. But, other people liked at-will cantrips, so there's a talent to give that back (and allows players to heighten cantrips into larger spells in a freeform way that works just like Ritual Casting but doesn't actually refer to the Ritual rules at any point).
Wizards get another free-form talent, Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations, and like most of the free-form talents, it's a cool idea with a terrible implementation. In return for taking the talent and adding a minor additional action cost, players must rename their spells to Dexter's Ridiculous Designations and get an additional freeform effect from the GM that may or may not be useful or good. The examples include NPCs babbling exposition, being taunted by spirits, or sleeping uncomfortably. There's no real reason players and GMs shouldn't just do this. It's a neat idea but it's out of place in the character building section - this is One Unique Thing territory.
Familiars - technically a wizard talent, but sorcerers and rangers can take them too - aren't full-fledged NPCs in 13th Age. They only contribute meaningfully to the story as separate characters if it's narratively convenient or if you buy an ability to let them do so reliably. In combat, they hide and can't be targeted. They have their own sublist of purchaseable abilities, ranging front crunchy combat buffs (eg +1 to saves, or it poisons enemies when you hit with a melee attack) to loose, narrative abilities (eg flight, speech). The specific, fiddly, mostly combat-focused list of sub-talents seems unnecessary - "you have a rapport with a magical animal that can operate separately from you when necessary" would be fine! It would be a better-designed choice than many of the other open-ended narrative talents.
It's not like wizards lack for open-ended utility, though. They get a special, flexible "Utility Spell" that they can prepare instead of a combat spell. They don't have to pick which utility spell it is until they cast the spell; so the slot could be Hold Portal or it could be Scrying, as needed. (This is a codification of a poorly documented 3e wizard trick: leaving spell slots "blank", to fill them with utility spells later in the day as needed.) This is a neat idea but, again, it's not clear why it's a wizard-specific idea. Why are these spells exclusive to wizards? (Or are they? It's not clear if other classes that can "borrow" wizard spells can use these spells.) Why does this system exist when it fundamentally overlaps with and recreates Ritual Casting? Why is Levitate a utility spell but not Flight? Why is Charm Person a regular spell instead of a utility spell, since it can't be used in combat? Between wizards superficially superior use of Ritual Casting, cantrips, utility spells, and talents like Vance's, the class has too many overlapping, pagechewing variations on "wizards do every magical utility thing you can imagine."
Once you set aside the open-ended utility powers, wizards work more or less like sorcerers. They still have too few spells to fill up all their slots, they still slot a few large dailies and an at-will to fill up the rest of their actions. (Edition watchers will note that Magic Missile autohits, Sleep is not a first-level spell, and Invisibility lasts until attacking because lasting invisibility is specifically called out as a gamebreaker). Wizards still have save-or-die spells like Sleep and Hold Monster, but they only work on enemies with HP below a certain level-based threshold and allow a hard (16+) save after each round to break them. (Charm Person also works like this, but can't be used on creatures in combat.) Where wizards differ from sorcerers is that even their combat spells tend to be more varied in effect, so low-level spells aren't overshadowed by higher-level ones.
While randomness is a sorcerer theme, wizards have spells that can be cast recklessly, out of of tradition. Fireball is an AOE spell that can cast extra enemies at the cost of hitting d4 allies in melee with those enemies. Meteor Swarm automatically does reduced damage to any allies in melee with its (many) targets. Also as a matter of tradition, wizard blasts do pure XdX damage, not XdX+(INT mod) damage like most classes' powers.
This contributes to a problem with Evocation. Evocation is a wizard talent based on 3e's popular (if suboptimal) Maximize Spell feat. Once per battle, instead of rolling dice, a spell just does max damage. This means wizards do pretty ridiculous damage with their one big spell. It would probably be fine if it weren't for Force Salvo, a daily spell that shoots (1+INT mod) missiles at different targets and does fairly high damage. An Evocated Force Salvo hit just about one-shots any at-level or weaker enemy. Combine this with a Force Salvo feat that allows you to shoot missiles at a target until you hit it, the High Arcana talent which allows the wizard prepare a particular wizard spell in two slots (instead of every slot needing to be a unique spell), and the wizard ability to recharge daily spells when cast outside above ground - things get very silly very fast. Heinsoo issued a wishy-washy not-quite-an-errata for it. It's a classic situation of envelope-pushing options intersecting - Evocation and Force Salvo aren't quite gamebreakers on their own.
With the exception of the curvebreaking Evocation/Force Salvo combo, there's nothing about wizards in and of themselves that is bad. The problem, as usual, is the constant need to reassure everyone that wizards can use magic as a one-stop-shop to solve every possible problem, and doing so by adding dozens of examples of specific problems magic can solve. It's obviously in response to criticism that the 4e wizard was too limited - but Backgrounds and Ritual Casting already fixed that.
Someone here has to play one and it's not going to be me
Clerics heal and buff the party and are super unexciting. They are similar to 4e clerics in that healing or buffing is not the main thing you spend your turn doing - you buff the group and also move around and attack like anyone else, all in the same turn. Like 4e clerics, they specialize in either bashing faces or shooting holy
As I mentioned with the icons, the gods are a largely abstract presence in 13A by default. Cleric talents are domains that grant one-daily abilities and occasionally some other miscellaneous benefit. Domains returning for 13A is no surprise, since they're are the template for every class-specific customization option in D&D since 3e, but unlike other D&D games, domains aren't tied to specific deities. Domains aren't even tied to specific concepts: almost all of them have two, like "Life OR Death" and "Justice OR Vengeance". This helps somewhat to solve the problem with puppykicker domains: for example, 4e's Tyranny domain, which never quite made it clear why a penalty to saving throws or extra damage on attacks against enemies below half HP was something only evil gods granted. While you can always "refluff" these domains for a related concept - and 13th Age repeatedly encourages you to do so! - it helps that 13A avoids naming an ability "Domain: Impaling Babies On Spikes."
To talk about clerics means you need to talk about healing. 13A has Recoveries, which are 4e's Healing Surges. X times per day, a character can take a standard action to heal Y HP. Both variables are based on your class, CON mod, and level. On top of this, the end of a game day - which may not be an actual 24 hours period - grants a full heal-up, which restores all HP. Clerics initially make recoveries more action efficient - all clerics can, twice a battle, let someone make a recovery without taking an action, and this Heal ability doesn't count against their limit of spells. At higher levels, clerics can cast spells that give people "free" recoveries that don't count against their daily limit, boost the effects of recoveries, etc. In 4e terms, cleric daily spells can give "surgeless" healing, but not a lot of it. Clerics aren't necessary to maintain the party against regular attrition.
This pushes clerics into a sort of passive support role: they're capable holy warriors who inspire (read: buff and heal) allies with their holy presence. Most of their spells are buffs that can be cast "for power" - a large buff on a single ally that is not the cleric - or "for broad effect" - a smaller buff on several allies, which can include the cleric. While most of their spells are these split buffs, clerics have the tools to make spellcasting their main combat strategy in addition to the minor action heals and buffs: they have an at-will ranged magic attack (which uses WIS for to-hit rolls and damage), an at-will melee attack that grants someone an additional saving throw, and a handful of wizard-style magical blasts that also buff someone as a side effect. The biggest flaw is one imported from 4e: blasting and mixing it up in melee rely on different stats, so clerics are better off specializing in one or the other - and that's painful with such a narrow spell list.
The rules for resurrecting the dead are crammed into a cleric spell, even though it's implied that more than just clerics can do this. Resurrection isn't hard and isn't risky, but it is limited: the spell can only be cast once per level, which means each cleric can only do it four times. Each time, the resurrection is tougher for both the cleric and the resurrected: if a cleric casts it a fifth time, they die. Everyone also has a similar quota of how many times they can be resurrected. This is a neat story idea, but the only reason that this is tied to the cleric is to maintain scarcity in a party - and it's not clear if leveling up without using up your rez quota wastes those resurrections. It's an explanation for why resurrection is rare in the setting: a common 3e criticism, where rich person should be unkillable. There's no discussion of alternate setting-based ideas of how resurrection works, however, and it doesn't mesh well with the earlier statement that not all people level up using PC-style classes. It also sucks that this extremely limited plot device is only one of two 7th level cleric spells!
Clerics have outlived their strict necessity, but still work because people do want to play crusading holy warriors. Deus vult and whatnot. 13A lifts the 4e cleric, warts and all, and it works well enough. Beside the stat split between muscle and blaster clerics, their biggest problem is that they do everything paladins do, leaving them no conceptual room whatsoever. Like wizards and sorcerers, clerics suck up so much conceptual oxygen that paladins have no room to breathe.
Next: I haven't had the occasion to practice this one.
I haven't had the occasion to practice this one.Original SA post
13th Age part 10: I haven't had the occasion to practice this one.
Fighters and rogues are original 13th Age creations, insofar as any retread of those two hoary D&D standbys can be original. Rather than using a basic attack and stacking bonuses on it, as barbarians and rangers do, or having a set schedule for powers chosen from a list, as spellcasters, their powers are situational. They can only be used when the conditions are right.
Rogues are loosely inspired by Psionic Focus, a concept first introduced in Expanded Psionics Handbook, the D&D 3.5e psi book. Rogues choose their powers from a list and can change those powers at level-up, similar to 4e rogues. However, instead of managing power slot usage like spellcasters, they can only use some of their powers while they have Momentum. All but one power can be used as long as the conditions are right, addressing the common 4e criticism that there's no good reason why martial characters should be limited to using their powers once per day.
Fighters are also designed with this criticism of 4e in mind. However, instead of having a resource to manage, fighter attacks are Flexible. A flexible attack (which more or less means "an attack the fighter makes on their turn") has a chance to trigger a fighter Maneuver, based on the raw unmodified d20 roll. Maneuvers tend to have conditions like "Any natural odd miss" or "Any natural 16+ hit", and you can only use one maneuver per attack.
Bards also have maneuvers, on top of their songs, which are special spells that do not technically count as spells but do take up spell slots, and regular old spells. In keeping with their reinvention for D&D 3e, they do a little bit of everything, but are mostly spellcasters. I've just lumped them in here with the fighter and rogue because maneuvers are the fighter's signature shtick; they're just borrowing them.
I'll get into the specifics with each class, but rogues and fighters don't work. Rogues don't feel like sneaky ambushers because momentum is dumb, and fighters don't feel like tacticians or martial artists because maneuvers are too random and have relatively little impact. Both classes have more to do in combat than their 3e counterparts, but those things are unreliable and underwhelming even when they do work.
This is what I call Character Level Three.
Rogues are in a tough place. Their traditional niches of "open locks and spring traps" and "miscellaneous skill-user" are completely subsumed into the Background system, available to characters from any class. 13th Age makes the good decision that sneakiness is its own kind of magic with the Prince of Shadows, but that idea is barely touched. Even the niche 3e carved out for the rogue - stabbing people - is overshadowed by 13A's 4e-inspired ranger. 13th Age tries to expand that shrinking niche by making rogues supernaturally tricky, but it gets precious little support.
Rogues are still stabby. They have Sneak Attack, extra dice of damage on melee attacks against an enemy engaged with an ally. (There's no flanking in 13A's abstract combat system.) With feats or power selections, this can be applied to enemies who are surprised or otherwise disadvantaged, but it can't reliably be used on ranged attacks until higher levels. Rogues have to deal with all sorts of conditional triggers when it comes to sniping people or throwing daggers.
Their talents mostly make them better at stabbing, or give them extra Backgrounds or points for Backgrounds. One notable exception is Shadow Walk, a talent which grants a power that is basically Ninja Vanish. A rogue can use basically their whole turn to Shadow Walk. If it succeeds, they disappear until their next turn, reappearing somewhere they could have moved in the interim, and do double damage on their next attack to make up for burning a turn. This is not only a very useful ability almost all rogues will want because of how Momentum works, it's an evocative ability that doesn't get bogged down in what is "realistic" or not. (Because Shadow Walk counts as an attack, so it generates Momentum. In fact, it's guaranteed Momentum for whatever it is that you're planning to do next turn, because you are disappeared for the interim.)
Every rogue will want some strategy to avoid getting stuck in melee because many rogue powers require Momentum. Rogues gain Momentum when they hit an enemy with an attack, and lose Momentum when they are hit by an attack or spend their Momentum on a power. Momentum isn't very interesting or fun. Momentum powers are wimpy and situational, and mostly involve avoiding or cushioning the effect of being hit by an attack. A ninth-level power, True Targeting, lets a rogue prevent an ambush from an unseen or invisible attacker, but only if that rogue spends their momentum, presumably earned from already fighting someone else in the same ongoing fight. Momentum powers also don't make rogues feel like ambushers: they're all dead weight at the beginning of a fight. Momentum powers can also make rogue players feel unfairly picked on by the GM when enemies target the rogue over someone else - this not only does damage, but also shuts down a chunk of the rogue's tricks.
The one well-designed use for Momentum is Swashbuckling, a rogue talent and the best of the freeform improv talents. Rogues with Swashbuckling can expend their momentum to automatically do something outrageous and exciting, like stunting off of the environment or making up some sort of situational advantage on the fly. There are specific examples with game effects included, and the text even reminds us that while anyone can do these things with a Background check, this talent gives the rogue the ability to do them and automatically succeed. The only bad part of this talent is that momentum hangs around its neck like an anchor, so swashbuckling isn't something you can do out of combat or at the start of a combat or in many perfectly reasonable combat situations.
Rogue powers that aren't based on momentum are almost all deathly dull. Almost all of them are at-will powers that are nothing more than minor variations on basic melee attacks, adding a bleed or extra damage on a miss or your STR mod to your to-hit roll (against enemies under half health only, of course). 13th Age's abstract combat means that there's just not very much to put after "Stab a guy and…" Inexplicably, there's one single daily rogue power, but without its corresponding feat it's so bad that there's little reason to ever bother with it at the level you get it. The one interesting standout is Thief's Strike, a "stab and…" at-will power that lets you steal things from people you've stabbed. With an additional talent and feats, this turns into a freeform, improvisational power. At high levels, you can "steal something with a successful thief’s strike that you would ordinarily not be able to steal, but the Prince of Shadows could," like a memory or an opportunity.
The idea that "being sneaky" is a character role that is actually on par with "studying magic" is the sole good idea in the 13th Age rogue. Heinsoo and Tweet do their best to give rogues the "shadow dancer" or "arcane trickster" theme by default, instead of every rogue just being a talented but mundane acrobat. This concept mostly doesn't translate mechanically, however: most of the class is a mess of conditional combat modifiers, boring abilities, and the terrible idea that is the Momentum system. 13A rogues definitely have enough conceptual and thematic juice to carry a class, but it isn't this class.
Next: It's more of a gesture
It's more of a gestureOriginal SA post
13th Age part 11: It's more of a gesture
I should've mentioned this with clerics, but it pops up with fighters as well.
Fighters and clerics - and only fighters and clerics - get a brief introduction to possible starting "builds," to help make sense of their talents and powers pulling in every different direction. It's not a bad idea, although I'm not sure why it's limited to just those two classes. The Ranger, Paladin, and Bard could all benefit from a primer for their their varied, often non-synergistic build options. The only reason I can think of is that Fighters and Clerics are classes people feel compelled to play to fill out a party - but they aren't necessary in 13th Age.
Since I'm talking about fighters, it's important to also talk about tanking in 13A. Without getting too far out into the weeds of describing combat, any character (both PCs and NPCs) who isn't currently engaged in melee can step up to intercept an enemy moving into melee with one of the character's allies. This isn't a thing you have to roll for, you just do it automatically as long as you aren't specifically obstructed from doing so. Because it's automatic, anyone can do it equally well. Characters like fighters and paladins aren't any better intercepting enemies by default; they're just happier being in single melee combat than most other classes. There isn't even any way to avoid being intercepted, either - you can't just eat an attack to bypass someone, you have to stop. Barring surprise or superior numbers, the melee characters will automatically find themselves facing off with other melee characters. This makes tanking, MMO style, a thing someone can actually do in 13th Age - but only one enemy at a time.
Lists of powers grow out of the point of a sword
This is a full-page illustration of a fighter in 13th Age. Naturally, 13A fighters are terrible at dual-wielding.
The illustration is by Aaron McConnell, one of two artists given front-page credit alongside Heinsoo and Tweet.
Fighters deck themselves out in heavy armor, arm themselves to the teeth, and apply metal to faces, point-first. Conceptually, there's not much separating them from a particularly stabby or shooty ranger other than being slightly tougher and stickier. Fighters get one more recovery per day than any other class. (For some reason this is written up as a proper class feature, whereas the paladin's higher AC is just on the usual chart for combat statistics.) It's just a little harder to disengage from melee from a fighter. Fighters can be archers, but it's fairly obvious that they're mainly intended to mix things up in melee.
Fighter talents are utility encounter powers in 4e terms. The majority of them are "Once per battle, under such-and-such conditions, you [do a thing]." (The odd man out is a talent that brings archer fighters close enough to archer rangers that I'd need to do a bunch of boring math to see which is better.) They're all statistically-driven combat buffs with no particular theme other than "being tough" and "hitting a dude" - you could probably switch them with any of the barbarian talents and nobody would notice.
What makes fighters different is that their basic attack is "flexible" - a fighter can attach one of their half-dozen or so Maneuver powers to it. Any attack that a fighter makes on their turn has a chance to activate a maneuver, based on the circumstances, the fighter's current armament, whether it hit or missed, and on the raw die roll. An even hit can trigger Deadly Assault, allowing the fighter to reroll 1s on damage dice. (You get [level] dice of a type determined by your weapon on a hit, so this is a bigger deal than most D&D-likes.) A miss while wielding two weapons can trigger Two Weapon Pressure, giving the fighter +2 to hit against that target next turn. (As this is literally the only dual-wielding ability fighters get, fighters should not dual wield.) All of the maneuvers are at-will, as long as their conditions are met.
Fighters are only weakly pigeonholed into a particular fighting style, although melee is more or less a default assumption. There are only a couple talents that require a shield, none that require a two-handed weapon or a particular sort of weapon, and enough "melee or ranged attack" maneuvers that a fighter who mainly uses a greataxe won't feel completely useless with a longbow. The only fighting style pigeonhole is ranged combat: bow fighters - crossbows still don't work with certain maneuvers for no good reason - will find themselves taking ranged-only maneuvers, which inexplicably run out after level 5. It's easy enough to simply remove "melee" from the requirements of some or all of the higher level talents, because there's no good reason to have limited them to melee in the first place.
13A fighters are cleverly designed in that their abilities are a mechanical extension of the cruder ones of the ranger and barbarian. A raging barbarian is looking for an 11+ on both dice. A ranger is looking for an even roll to trigger a second attack. The problem is that fighter maneuvers are not only individually less reliable than those, they're also significantly less impactful. "I hit the orc a little harder" doesn't have the emotional impact of "I hit the orc a second time." A fighter will execute a maneuver more often than a ranger gets a second attack, but that reliability is more than offset by the low impact and generally boring concept of maneuvers.
Fighters are still conceptually limited to strong or agile mundanes who swing a sword or string a bow. Combine this with the largely abstract nature of combat in 13A (by D&D standards), and their maneuvers don't have much space to explore. Out of 20 powers, five of them are "on a miss, do more damage this or next turn". Another example is Sword of Destiny, a 7th-level maneuver doesn't live up to the hype at all: it just gives some free healing when you roll a natural 20 on a melee attack. Even given this limited design space, there isn't anything as over-the-top as 4e's Storm of Blades or Rain of Blows. None of these are especially exciting - they're just a table of bonuses that may or may not trigger on any given turn. All of a fighter's interesting decisions are made at character generation and level-up - and they're not that interesting to begin with.
Next: One, two, three four five
One, two, three four fiveOriginal SA post
13th Age part 12: One, two, three four five
We are in the home stretch for these rambly-assed class descriptions, folks.
Since I'm moving on to actual rules next, I'll need some sample characters to walk through character creation and play examples. In F&F tradition, does anyone want to suggest any character concepts? In particular, I need a class and One Unique Thing - I can handle the rest.
Loot & Lutes
Bards do everything and completely own.
Bards are party-supporting, lore-spouting generalists. While most players are going to naturally tend towards some sort of specialty, bards' build options are intentionally broad to reinforce the somewhat illusory jack-of-all-trades feeling. For example, depending on how they're built, they can rely mainly on dexterity for physical attacks, strength for melee attacks (why), or any one of the three mental stats (CHA by default) for spellcasting. Bards reinforce this generalism by packing lots of different effects into single talents. For example, the talents that switch CHA-based effects to INT or WIS also grant extra background points (and let them exceed the normal cap by one if it's a bard-y background), and add extra icon relation points. The talents that do only do one thing tend to be open-ended interactions with icon relation rolls, or an additional slot that can be filled with a variety of options.
This table is great, even if the associated talent isn't.
Bards have a lot of options to manage, too, with three main class features: spells, songs, and battle cries. Spells and songs share slots, while battle cries have their own separate slots. Spells are just spells, like any other class's - and bards can jack spells from any other spellcasting class with a talent to supplement them. (The talent is literally called Jack of Spells.) Both spells and songs are all daily or recharge X+ abilities, with one exception. Their spells aren't weaker or smaller as in some other D&D takes, but bards do get about half as many spell slots as most other spellcasting classes.
Besides actual spells, bards can use songs, which work somewhat similarly to Sustain spells in D&D 4e or Concentration-duration spells in 5e. A song grants some sort of ongoing effect, usually a buff for the whole party, and can be maintained as long as the bard spends a quick action and succeeds on a sustain roll to maintain it. When they fail - or the bard stops maintaining the song for whatever reason, it triggers the song's Final Verse, a one-shot effect. For example, one song grants temporary HP to an ally each turn it's sustained, then grants an actual heal to one of the allies so buffed when it ends. Bards can fight, cast regular spells, or do anything else they like while sustaining a song, but can only maintain one song at a time.
Bards also have battle cries, which are conditional at-will triggered effects, similar to fighter maneuvers. They are used exactly the same way: when the bard rolls a certain value on a melee attack under certain conditions, they can trigger a battle cry. Unlike fighter maneuvers, they grant a benefit to an ally - and only an ally, never the bard themself - but they are still limited to strictly mundane effects. The higher-level effects are allowed to be a bit flashier than maneuvers: the single 9th-level battle cry restores expended daily powers. Battle cries don't mix well with spells or archery, though. They can only be triggered by melee attacks or one single weak at-will ranged attack spell. This does lead to a bit of a 4e-V-class-style split: a bard needs STR or DEX to fight effectively in melee, but all of the spell attacks are instead based on a mental stat. Spells have a greater impact than a bard's unremarkable melee abilities, but bards get so few of them and the at-will spell is so anemic.
I'm not fond of bards in general, but I like 13A's. The simplification of combat and class abilities is kind to them, making sampling many different disparate abilities more effective than in other D&D games that reward deep specialization. Drawing from several different pools of resources feels right, even if it is more paperwork than most classes. The only failing is the reliance on both DEX and CHA to use the full range of bard abilities well. This was a known problem with 4e, and one that was mostly solved in later-designed classes, and it's frustrating to see it reappear here.
Next: First, roll 3d6 six times...
First, roll 3d6 six times...Original SA post
unfortunately I'm not getting a Masters in Vampire Studies.
13th Age part 13: First, roll 3d6 six times...
Let's look at character creation, top to bottom, to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of 13th Age's character design process in practice.
Since I'm moving on to actual rules next, I'll need some sample characters to walk through character creation and play examples. In F&F tradition, does anyone want to suggest any character concepts? In particular, I need a class and One Unique Thing - I can handle the rest.
I got some good answers to this, although everyone wanted to play a wizard so I'll have to be picky. Meet our cast.
One Unique Thing
"Stone Cold" Stogo Appleshire. His OUT is a profound mastery of beer, or possibly the crowd.
Kilroy the wizard, whose OUT is that he is a giant robot. (I may have played this character.)
Rudy the Wizard, his OUT is "Wishes he were a fighter" e: this is going to change a little
Ability scores come before One Unique Thing, but we're skipping them for now. There's no good way to know what ability scores you'll want until you pick a class.
Stone Cold Stogo works just fine. Before getting into adventuring, his roving displays of physical prowess earned him fans - and his cheekily blasphemous gimmick earned him a few haters, too. His One Unique Thing is "Appleshire 3:16".
Kilroy's player wants to be a giant robot. His player ALWAYS wants to have a giant robot. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), we're not playing Dragonmech. The OUT section does help us with this - just let people be whatever they want, and only clip it down when it would get in the way of the story. A giant robot is probably too much, but how about a robot who is a giant? Kilroy is okay with being a seven-foot tall Forgeborn. Kilroy can be Large-sized, too. It doesn't have any default game effect for him to be large, so he is, what the hell. The top of his head is always scuffed. Kilroy's One Unique Thing is "Robot Giant".
Rudy The Wizard's player wants a wizard who wishes he were a fighter. This would be a perfectly workable OUT, as long as Rudy doesn't get too suicidal, but I need a non-wizard for character building examples, so let's push Rudy a little further down his aspiration path. Rudy The Wizard - that's what everyone calls him - has succeeded in his initial ambition. Rudy The Wizard is a fighter, and his OUT is "former wizard, thankyouverymuch". ("Magical academy dropout" isn't unique enough to be One Unique Thing. )
If everyone involved was new and didn't know what they were doing, this would still be a very bad time for figuring out ability scores. However, 13th Age does introduce itself as intended for GMs who are already experienced with other D&D or D&D-like games, who know the D20 basics and can walk any new players through character creation. It makes putting ability scores up near the top a little more defensible - it's traditional - although we won't need to know what they are for quite a while in any case.
13th Age suggest 4d6 drop low (ahahahahano) or standard 3e-style point buy, with 28 points. Unfortunately, there's just the point buy chart.
FWIW, the book does indeed have stat arrays. They're at the end of the book in an appendix, right where you wouldn't think to look for them during character creation.
e: Apparently I'm an idiot and missed where it says, "See page 309 in the appendix for sample point-buy arrays."
It's several chapters before we get to modifiers for race and class, but let's incorporate those now because, realistically? People are going to do point buy with that in mind, and incorporate the stats immediately. Also, they're all even numbers because, like 3e, raw ability scores mean nothing: all that matters is your modifier, which is (STAT-10)/2.
Stone Cold Stogo is going to be a halfling barbarian. (He slams a beer when he rages out, or rages out at the lack of beer, either/or.) He's strong, not as agile as you'd expect because of a lingering neck injury, and not all the brightest dude but not totally unlikeable. He's taking the STR from being a barbarian and the CON from being a halfling.
STR 20 DEX 10 CON 16 INT 8 WIS 8 CHA 12
Kilroy is a forgeborn wizard, because it's the class that gets
STR 12 DEX 12 CON 14 INT 20 WIS 8 CHA 8
Rudy the Wizard is a wood elf fighter. He just wasn't cut out for magical instruction - it was mostly a thing his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents pushed him into. Imagine how overbearing your family would be if you had multiple hundreds of years of relations alive at one time! He'll want the STR from being a fighter and the WIS from being a wood elf. (Trust me on this second one.)
STR 20 DEX 8 CON 14 INT 12 WIS 12 CHA 8
This fits in well here. Understanding how your character fits into the world might work a little better if it came after Backgrounds, but either way works.
Stone Cold Stogo made his rep on good old-fashioned traveling
Kilroy doesn't have a great grasp on where he came from or what he was doing before he got into this adventuring business. What he doesn't know yet (but his player does) is that rumors of the wandering magical giant have made it to the ears of the Archmage (1pt conflicted), Dwarf King (1pt conflicted), and Lich King (1pt conflicted), all of whom would like to know more about this oddity.
Rudy The Wizard (who is a fighter) is technically on an extended leave from his magical studies at an imperial magical academy (1pt positive with the Archmage), but more importantly, he has an extended elfish family that is Very Concerned About Him but doesn't yet know he's basically dropped out (2pt conflicted with the Elf Queen).
There is no way to get around the fact that the correct way to spend your eight background points is on two backgrounds. A +5 and a +3 or two +4s are always going to be better than a bunch of points scattered randomly. It's just how the system works. As a result, everyone is going to pick a Main Thing and a Secondary Thing, or two equal Things, with the idea that those things are what you apply whenever you want to do a task your character reasonably could do. So, while Dexter's single point in Inexplicably Surviving Disaster was amusing, we're not going to be doing that and I recommend you don't either.
Stone Cold Stogo has Famous Exhibition Wrestler +5. He can impress people with his ale-consuming and bodyslamming prowess, work a crowd make a hit look like it hurts a lot more or less than it actually does, and sometimes just pull off "Don't you know who I am?" He also has Working Carnie +3 - when he lets his persona down, he can handle pack animals, put up or tear down all sorts of temporary buildings, and say "kayfabe" without sounding like a total moron.
Kilroy has an intimate and inexplicable understanding of Multidimensional Travel +4: he isn't 100% clear why, but he has an excellent knowledge of creatures who don't belong on this world, and feels instantly more comfortable when it comes to portals and teleportation and realms beyond this one. He also has an innate affinity for Arcanomechanics +4. He's more comfortable with magical machines - especially when reproducing magical documents - than he is with other people.
Rudy The Wizard (who is a fighter) is a rabid fan of Heroic Sagas of Past Ages +5, from which he learned everything he knows about swordplay, adventuring, climbing to the tops of mountains, and slaying the giants in their halls. He also wasn't that bad a Magical Undergrad +3 - he understands magic on an academic level, and can do magical things when presented with academic bureaucracy. (They haven't even technically noticed he's on leave yet.)
We're skipping feats and gear because you need to know your class before you even know which you can take. That's sixteen pages (plus a few pages of general RP advice and a few pages of art) that get totally skipped until much later in the process. It's not well laid out!
Similarly, this section has a bunch of info on races - but they're things you'd probably want to know before picking your ability scores, One Unique Thing, and backgrounds. The icon descriptions help somewhat, but there's a ton of obvious character hook material here.
Stogo got +2 DEX from being a halfling, as well as an ability to dodge an enemy's blow to force them to reroll. For him, it's less "Evasive" and more "No Sell". Being a halfling comes with all sorts of annoying BS about which weapons you can use in other D&D/D20 games, but not here: Stogo is technically Small, but all that does is give him a small AC boost against opportunity attacks. Halflings make completely awesome barbarians.
Kilroy gets +2 CON from being forgeborn, and we're going to say he needs air intake to function and food - if sometimes weird food - to power whatever alchemical process it is that powers him. You could probably tell he isn't particularly large bugbear or a smallish ogre in heavy armor if you had him take off all his clothes. He's used to the attention - there's nobody else quite like Kilroy. He also gets Never Say Die, which might let him use a recovery as a free action if he's taken out.
Rudy The Wizard (who is a fighter) is a wood elf, and got +2 WIS from it for reasons I'll get into later. This is in part because Rudy's thinks that a family of long-lived overbearing relatives is hilarious, and in part because Elven Grace is some totally overpowered bullshit and he can't miss out on that.
Stone Cold Stogo is a barbarian. I'm not going to go fully into his stats, but I will note his high CHA is basically useless. The only stat it could affect is his Mental Defense, which uses the middle stat of INT, WIS, and CHA. The only benefit he's ever going to get from it is on background checks. We maxed out his STR because his melee attacks are all based on it, so that's +5 to hit and damage on every attack forever. Like 4e, there's no reason not to start with an 18, 19, or 20 in your main attacking stat. Also like 4e, he's utterly incompetent at ranged attacks, because they are entirely DEX-based.
He can Barbarian Rage, of course. The feats for it are really good at higher levels, less so right now. So, he's going to take the Building Frenzy talent, for an extra damage-boosting rage that stacks with normal rage, and the Adventurer feat to improve it. For the other two, I guess we go with Strongheart to help make up for his bad defenses, and Slayer because it's the least situational of the super situational junk talents. Barbarian talents don't have a lot of choices!
Kilroy has maxed INT for his spells, and surprisingly balanced defenses. Unless he busts out the whacking stick, he's going to be swinging INT at everything at every range. His talents are Evocation and High Arcana because they both rule, and Wizard's Familiar because detaching bits of himself to use as a scout seems funny. Wizards get absolute shit for adventurer feats, especially since he's using Magic Missile over Ray of Frost (use Ray of Frost), but the Color Spray feat is okayish so let's go with that.
Rudy the Wizard (who is a fighter) illustrates one non-obvious trick: you can safely dump dex as a martial character, as long as you don't care about ranged attacks. AC uses the middle of CON/DEX/WIS, and physical defense uses the middle of STR/CON/DEX - so you can shift from DEX to WIS to help with your mental defense (which is based on INT/WIS/CHA). This is quietly a large help to clerics, who will tend to have better-than-expected defenses across the board. Also, since nobody has any other mechanical reason to pump two mental stats, very few characters have good mental defenses - except for wizards and paladins because of their higher base MD before stat modifiers.
For talents, we're taking Power Attack for some occasional extra damage, Skilled Intercept because it blunts a lot of damage and helps keep enemies in melee, and Comeback Strike. I like Comeback Strike a lot: it's not a reroll on a miss, but a second attack, which means it lets you get a miss maneuver then make another attack that could also trigger a maneuver. For maneuvers, let's go with Carve an Opening, Deadly Assault, and Heavy Blows - with that set, any attack always triggers a maneuver. He probably calls them Rudy's Inexorable Advance, Rudy's Gruesome Evisceration, and Rudy's Overwhelming Force. As for a feat…
Rudy The Wizard Isn't A Wizard
What we want here for Rudy The Wizard (who is a fighter) is Ritual Casting. Both of his backgrounds can theoretically use it, his OUT justified why he'd use it, and it's not impinging on the other characters for him to use magic out of combat. In fact, he'll grudgingly be using his backgrounds to do magical things all of the time, it's part of his whole concept. The problem is that Ritual Casting requires you to expend spells, and he doesn't have any.
Ritual Casting uses your class concept, rather than your character concept, to take part in the freeform, non-combat portions of the game, and it's one of the few rulesets to do so. Not only are you expending spells as a resource to power rituals, but you're also using your spell list as a rough approximation of what sorts of things you can do. As a result, barbarians, fighters, and rogues just can't participate in this part of the game. There's no conceptual reason they shouldn't be able to: barbarians can pray to their ancestors as a class talent, rogues are so tricky they're basically magic with a couple different abilities, and while fighters aren't magic they could certainly have magic backgrounds or OUTs. There's just no ruleset for it: their Ritual Casting resources are zero and their powerset is undefined.
This is a step backwards from 4e. In 4e, anyone with the proper skills could learn and cast a ritual. Certain classes favored them because of their skill lists, but that wasn't a straitjacket. Granted, 4e rituals were impractically expensive, because any money spent on one-time ritual expenses came at the cost of permanent magic item boosts, but lots of GMs just houseruled these costs away or handled them narratively. 13th Age's rules are more practical, but they also bring class into a part of the game where class doesn't usually matter, with no clear way to fix that.
There's lots of possible house rules here, but it's the first time we're going to see the crunchy combat half of the game get in the way of the loose story-driven one. Rudy's not going to rely on house rules to open his brain to the maelstrom. Instead, he's going to take the Deadly Assault adventurer feat, for an extra .35 damage per level on half of his hits. Yeehaw.
We already did feats! Everyone's gear is given to them free by their class, and they can spend 25gp on whatever if you care but I do not! We're done! Using the a fillable character sheet PDF made by an official forums poster:
Next: If you do it, roll a d20 to see if you do it
If you do it, roll a d20 to see if you do itOriginal SA post
did you miss me
man we are getting into the heavy rules and the layout is a jungle. these updates are a lot harder to write because i can't just lean on their writing as a template for laying out how this game works.
13th Age part 14: If you do it, roll a d20 to see if you do it
Because 13th Age is Dungeons & Dragons, the next section of the book is about combat. D&D is a game about killing the orc and taking the pie. This is still D&D, so we still have 18ish pages about how to handle combat, damage, healing, and so on. 13A is consciously designed to involve less fiddling in combat, especially with positioning and conditions. The positioning rules work well and could probably be stolen for other games! Some of the other efforts to streamline the math and dierolling, not so much.
As 13th Age is based on D&D 4e which is in turn based on 3e, you probably already know the basics. In case you don't:
D&D combat is a round robin, with the turn order determined by an initiative roll (d20+[DEX mod+level for PCs). Every turn, everyone gets a standard action which is usually used to attack, a self-explanatory move action, and a quick action for miscellaneous things you should only be able to do once a turn but don't stop you from moving an attacking. You can take your actions in any order you like on your turn. Mostly, you're trying to beat the stuffing out of the orcs or owlbears or whatnot, draining their hit points with your attacks, before they beat you down.
Two Minus Three Equals Negative Fun
In general, combat rolls are d20+[attribute modifier]+level versus Armor Class (or some other relevant defense), or roll 11+ to save against (and end) an ongoing effect or avoid some sort of negative consequence. The main departure is that there's much, much less that modifies the numbers. Class abilities can but generally do not add pluses or minuses to hit, magic items are a bit more streamlined, and there's no table of common situational modifiers like flanking, charging, etc. A natural 20 is an automatic critical hit and does double damage (and some effects can increase crit range), a natural 1 always misses and "at the GM’s discretion, rolling a 1 while in a precarious position might entail some other bad result" because I guess. The only specifically described example of a fumble on a natural 1 is shooting an ally in the back when shooting into melee - there are otherwise no penalties for shooting into melee.
All attacks in 13th Age roll to hit, a 4e innovation. If an attack isn't an actual weapon, it will target Physical Defense if it primarily affects the body - this is a combination of both Fortitude and Reflex from 3e/4e - or Mental Defense if it targets the mind. Saving throws in 13A also work like 4e. Instead of being used to avoid the initial effects of a magical ability (or trap), they're used to end ongoing effects from an attack. You roll a saving throw at the end of each turn if you've been set on fire, terrified by a dragon, demoralized by a bard's insult, etc.
They tried to get away from the blizzard of ticky-tacky modifiers, some of which stack and some of which don't, that dominated previous editions of D&D. Feats don't give numeric bonuses any more, magic items are greatly streamlined, and situational modifiers are mostly gone.. It...sort of worked. It's significantly less minor addition and modifier tracking than, say, 4e and Pathfinder or other versions of D&D that relish their little +1/-1 mods.
Where math is much simpler is damage: in general, you roll [level]d[weapon]+stat for damage. For example, a third-level fighter with 20 strength (+5 mod) with a longsword (d8) damage does 3d8+5 damage to an orc. Spells don't work exactly like this - they have fixed die rolls based on the spell slot - but they end up in more or less the same place. You might have another couple of points from a magic weapon, but if you get a large amount of extra damage from something, it usually comes as a major class ability (like a rogue's Sneak Attack) and it's usually dice. Things don't get as upside-down as 3e or 4e: the dice matter as much or more in 13th Age than the mods.
Instead of attacking, a PC can use their standard action to rally, spending one of their recoveries to heal damage based on their class and CON. They're healing surges from 4e, and they do have the effect of making clerics optional. It's a good decision - and the sidebar explaining it more or less just says "suck it up, grognards" and points out that they explicitly intend hit points to be the will to keep on fighting, not ablative layers of meat. Players are encouraged to focus on what makes their character so determined to ignore their wounds and continue on fighting.
Ongoing damage effects stack, temporary HP (regardless of the source) doesn't.
The Escalation Die
This gets a non-silly header because it's a simple but very useful innovation: the escalation die. At the end of the first turn, put a big ugly die on the table, showing 1. At the end of every turn, increase the counter by 1. PCs - and certain special NPCs - get a bonus to hit equal to the escalation die. Character abilities are also based on the escalation die. For example, barbarians can take a feat to rage when the die reaches a certain number, and wizard cyclic spells are at-will on even-numbered turns.
The escalation die addresses two concerns about 4e combat: you had a strong incentive to spend daily and encounter powers right away to diminish enemies ASAP, and combat would drag on and on and on. The escalation die does a decent job of alleviating both problems, although its advantage is mainly psychological. Rather than shortening combat, it makes 13A's relatively longer combats feel less punishing because of the emotional reward of large bonuses when things run long.
Here, There, and Everywhere
The biggest departure from other editions of D&D is that 13th Age doesn't need miniatures and a grid. For real this time. There's no reference whatsoever to 5' squares or specific ranges or facing or anything like that. It codifies the loosely abstract positioning rules that are one of the most common houserule sets of previous editions of D&D, especially for those people who can't or don't care to use hex paper, grid maps, or character miniatures.
This change is addressing a common criticism of 4e, which is that it "needed miniatures to play". Now, people will point out that 3e (and 5e) also assumed you had miniatures and dealt with specific spacing, but it did not consider "move this enemy exactly 10' in a direction of your choice" to be a significant ability. All of the mainline editions of D&D are miniatures wargames that can be house-ruled into something else, while 4th Edition was a consciously designed miniatures wargame. 13th Age goes completely in a different direction.
Positioning is entirely abstract: there's engaged, in a group, nearby, and far away. Engaged is in melee: you can't leave it without rolling to disengage (11+ on a d20, failing wastes your move but not your turn) or eating an opportunity attack (a basic attack). (Some effects also cause someone to "pop free" and escape being stuck in melee.) Similarly, if you shoot at someone who isn't engaged with you while you're engaged, or try to cast a spell that isn't tagged "close quarters", you eat an opportunity attack.
Opportunity attacks are a single basic melee attack (without any flexible shenanigans), and you (or a monster) can do as many as they get opportunities. Note that using a bow in melee is perfectly reasonable as long as you're shooting the enemy in melee with you, but spellcasting without a close quarters spell can be painful.
If you're not engaged in melee with an enemy, then you're probably nearby your allies and enemies. "Nearby" is the default range for any non-melee ability, and is about as far as someone can move in one turn. "Far away" is twice as far as that or more, and you probably can't use most of your abilities from that range. In one turn, you can move from nearby to engaged or nearby to far away or vice versa, either before or after you attack. When an effect refers to "a group", it just means enemies or allies who are nearby each other and not obviously separated somehow. Yes, you can hit all of those orcs with that fireball, but maybe not if the party is surrounded.
You can't just engage anyone, though. If a character wants to move to engage someone, one of their allies can intercept, and and the would-be attacker ends up in melee with the interceptor instead. This doesn't involve a roll, it isn't dictated by initiative, it just happens. A character generally can't avoid being intercepted unless it's with a special ability (this is why the high elf teleport is kind of bullshit). It's a codified version of the often unstated assumption that the melee beaters fight the melee beaters. Again, this is something that can be defeated with superior positioning in a narrative way: maybe if you ambush the orcs, you can get the drop on the skinny one in the dress.
It's the notes that they don't play
There's no movespeed or running or charging. There's no special maneuvers, like tumbling to avoid opportunity attacks or grappling or tripping or bull rushing. There's no threatened areas or reach. Initiative fiddling like holding and readying actions is relegated to a sidebar that you can use "if you like, but don't feel obliged." Fighting with two weapons only allows you one attack that you can reroll on a natural 2. Any special combat maneuvers or actions are specific listings from your race or class, or specific monster abilities.
The only specifically called-out special maneuver is a coup de grace: if you take a whole turn to target a helpless enemy at melee range (even if the attack is a ranged or AOE attack) and make an attack that draws opportunity attacks, you automatically crit. This implies that you can't attack downed PCs - it specifically says that this rule exists to protect downed PCs - but that isn't actually stated anywhere.
In fact, Helpless is one listing on the drastically reduced Condition list. In general, conditions take away some or all of your actions and/or give you -4 to your defenses or to hit. There are oddballs, like Fear removing your ability to use the escalation die and Vulnerable increasing crit range against you, but the effects are very inclusive and have very clear effects - and multiple effects of the same type do not stack. There's no prone, there's no condition tracks (eg the fear and nausea tracks of other D&D editions). Notably, there's no ability damage/drain or level drain, either.
13th Age's authors make the occasionally-confusing choice of reusing terms from other editions of D&D for dissimilar effects. In 3e and 4e, Dazed means you lose some or all of your actions. In 13A, it means you have -4 to attack. Similarly, Weakened in 13A is -4 to both attacks/defenses, while in 4e it's half damage on all attacks with a to-hit roll. (Staggered, a condition from previous editions, exists in 13A but not even as a proper Condition - it's just the quality of being under half HP and has no inherent penalties. What was wrong with 4e's "bloodied"?) I realize these are common English words, but conditions are used without explanation in race and class entries, and not actually explained until page 172. It's not obvious that the gnome racial daze ability is an attack debuff, not a hugely debilitating stun.
Vulnerability makes a little more sense when paired with the Resistance rules. You're more likely to crit a white dragon with a fireball, because they are vulnerable to fire. On the other hand, a white dragon has Resist Cold 16+. Unless you roll a natural 16 or higher when you hit a white dragon with a cold attack, it does half damage. The way these mirror each other is neat as a design principle, although it isn't clear why vulnerability is in with the conditions while resistance is its own separate section, two pages later.
Failing and dying
Death is fairly generous: PCs are unconscious at 0 HP, and dead at negative HP equal to half their usual HP total. Each turn while you're down, you roll a hard save, and if you make this "last gasp" save, you revert to 0 HP then spend a recovery to heal and you're back in the fight. On a natural 20, you even get to take your turn normally after a heroic recovery. Four failed last gasp saves means death, but stabilizing allies so they don't risk dying is an easy skill check, and any sort of healing heals the PC up from zero HP, not their current negative total. A brief sidebar even namechecks 7th Sea and suggests using the rule from that game that nameless monsters can't kill PCs, just knock them out of the fight.
On top of this, the party can flee from any combat. They should expect to be successful in doing so unless they were warned beforehand that this isn't a fight you can flee from! If they do, all of them escape - including collecting downed allies - but suffer a "campaign loss". A campaign loss is some sort of narrative setback: the villain wins, the disaster isn't averted, etc. This is an excellent idea that can be ported to any game, but there's no good examples of how to play this at the table, only examples of what sort of consequences a campaign loss would entail. It would have been nice to illustrate both some ideas for how PCs make their uncanny escape from dire circumstances.
13th Age uses the same encounter/daily model as D&D 4e. After every fight, you get a "quick rest": you can spend your recoveries to heal yourself, you get all of your "once per encounter" abilities back, and you roll to see if you get any recharge powers back. Like I mentioned before, after every roughly every four battles, you get a full heal-up. A full heal-up restores all of your daily abilities, recoveries, and HP. The overtly stated intent of this rule is to prevent 15 minute working days where parties only fight once a day to maximize the use of their daily powers. The party can rest at any time, but at the cost of a campaign loss. (More on that below.)
The layout is bad, and even worse than my (IMO not great) attempt to sort them here. There's no rhyme or reason to what goes where. The actual outline is something like:
- Rolling to hit and damage
- Damage types (fire, cold, thunder, etc.)
- An explanation of various combat stats that aren't to-hit and damage
- Bonuses and penalties stack unless they are magic items, conditions, or the same effect twice
- The escalation die (which is a to-hit bonus, remember)
- Action types
- Positioning and movement - technically separate sections but intertangled visually because of art
- Splash art page
- Special actions that aren't attacks, including rallying and fleeing combat and sidebars justifying them. Campaign losses are mentioned here, as part of fleeing
- More rules on attacks, including who you can attack and when, crits, damage on miss, and flexible attacks
- More rules on damage, including being staggered, knocked out, and dying
- Resting and recharging. Campaign losses are mentioned here again.
- Combat modifiers. Mostly a note that you shouldn't sweat them, but this section includes shooting into melee and invisibility
- Special attacks, including: conditions, coups de grace, the (extremely simple) monster grappling rules, ongoing damage, saving throws, resistance to damage types, a half-baked idea about certain weapons getting a damage boost in certain vaguely-described situations, teleportation, and temporary HP
- A two and a half page example of combat
The next section is the GM's guide to running campaigns, and it's even worse. As a result, I need to go a bit off the FATAL & Friends script and give a whole update to how bad this salad of random ideas is, then critique the actual concepts within it in following updates.
Next: The Dungeon Master's Pile
The Dungeon Master's PileOriginal SA post
you can really feel how this is the chapter where they gave up and just stuck everything that didn't have an obvious home
13th Age part 15: The Dungeon Master's Pile
It is impossible to exaggerate how scattered "Chapter 6: Running The Game" is. This is the introduction:
This chapter covers what you need to know to run fun 13th Age campaigns. The first section discusses ways of using icon relations. The next few sections are directed to the GM and provide rules for setting DCs, creating traps, building balanced (and unbalanced!) encounters, and advice on party healing and game pacing. The leveling up section speaks more to players and introduces the incremental advance rules. Finally, there’s more advice to GMs on rituals, how the icons and gods fit into the world, and how much loot and magic to give PCs.
As such, this chapter will need two passes: once to introduce its ideas and talk about how scattershot it is, and another to talk about the playstyle it describes and contrast it with most D&D games. It's a shame, because this chapter has the bulk of 13th Age's most interesting design decisions and they're extremely difficult to pull out of this absolute mess.
Friends in High Places
The first section is about incorporating icon relationships into your game. On the simplest level, every player rolls a d6 for every point of every icon relationship they have at the beginning of every single session. Every 6 means that the relationship should benefit the corresponding PC in an unambiguous way. Every 5 means that the relationship is beneficial, but with a cost or entanglement or obligation attached.
There's a lot of discussion of what benefits should entail. Story advice, beneficial flashbacks, magic items, direct assistance from supporters/opponents of the icon, etc. Players are encouraged to take an active role in suggesting how their icon rolls benefit their character this session. They're both a narrative tool to help keep things open ended, and a "hero point" system, similar to using FATE's Fate Points to declare a story detail. Complications aren't as clearly described, however - there's no good advice on how to make a benefit with strings attached still desirable.
There's no much troubleshooting advice here in general. What do you do with icon relation rolls that don't get used in a game? How do you accommodate a player who wants something disruptive from their icon rolls? How do you draw out a player who doesn't speak up for themselves? This is a new and challenging concept for anyone more comfortable with the relatively passive and reactive role of players in traditional D&D, and it would have helped to have more specific advice on getting players involved.
Halfway through, there's a lot of very confusing and vague discussion about rolling icon relationships again because of a dramatic event or because the players have decided to hare off in a random direction. What dice are you supposed to roll? What do they mean? It's never clear to me, so all of the advice ends up as a hopeless muddle. There's a vague idea in here that you should roll icon dice to see if a dramatic event is successful, but little on how to interpret them.
The section break is three-quarters the way down the page, with a sudden change of topic.
You're not high enough level for this section
As soon as that section ends, it's time to talk about tiers of play. Whenever players are confronted with environmental challenges, the GM should ask themself if the environment is an adventurer-, champion-, or epic-tier environment, and set DCs (target numbers for skill rolls) and, if necessary, damage rolls based on that. The environmental tiers roughly correspond to the leveling tiers, spanning 1-4, 5-7, and 8-10.
GMs are encouraged to address areas to the players in these terms:
13th Age posted:
As GM, you can tell players of adventurer-tier PCs something like, “You wouldn’t want to fall into that crevasse, it’s a champion-tier environment. And if the demons in the crevasse happen to be off-gassing? Then it’s epic tier.” And if they get caught in the crevasse anyway, you’ve got the champion and epic tier DCs and damage numbers to draw on from the chart below.
I applaud the transparency, but that does feel a bit game-y and intrusive to me.
The unified table of skill DC targets and enviromental damage numbers is extremely handy. It's explicitly intended for dungeon-style challenges, like locked doors or rigged traps, but it can effectively serve for any situation where the players need to accomplish a skill task to succeed, or take damage from the environment.
I note the lack of any discussion of failing forward here, despite the fact that it was mentioned in the Backgrounds section that initially introduced skills.
Three goblin henchmen, two savage orcs, and a roper disguised as a tree
That useful table is a third of a page that is otherwise dedicated to advice on building encounters. Challenge rating is back, in the form of "monster level". Initially, PCs are expected to fight four encounters of equal-sized enemy groups of the same level "per day". A kobald is a level 1 enemy, so a party of four heroes should typically face four kobalds. (Contrast with D&D 3e, where a single CR 1 enemy is an intended fair challenge for four level 1 PCs.) There's a bunch of arithmetic involved to see how much a monster of a given level "counts" for, and some monsters - especially larger ones - count as multiple enemies at once.
13th Age tunes CR low and offers a bunch of dials to ramp up the difficulty if players are bored. There's some discussion of this here, but it's easier to talk about at the same time as the actual monsters, which are in the next chapter.
Staying at the inn is 5g
The next section, a half-page, is about the design philosophy behind full heal-ups. They should happen every four fights, but it can be fewer if the fights were really hard. This is all general GM advice: try to give a narrative rest at the same time as the mechanical rest, some discussion on what a campaign loss should entail, etc. Again, they justify their decision to divorce "daily" powers from narrative 24-hour periods, but do not explain why the powers are still called "daily" in that case.
Boil An Anthill: Gain One Level
13th Age doesn't use XP because it's a bunch of bullshit to track if you don't have a computer. Really. That is their actual reason.
13th Age posted:
We both presided over editions of the d20 game that tracked experience using experience points. In practice, we think that XP systems are better left to computer games.
PCs gain a level every four full heal-ups, although GMs are encouraged to hurry them through first level. After every full heal-up, PCs also gain an "incremental advance": one of the benefits of leveling up, which will be subsumed into their next level-up. For example, a PC could gain a feat, or +1 to hit, a power, or a level's worth of HP. I understand the appeal of having constant little gains, and this does also address the common criticism of level-based games that large lumps of sudden progression feel out of place. However, it's a lot of paperwork to keep track of and properly remove your incremental advances every time you level up, and the net benefits from them are tiny. It turns out there's a reason for leveling up all at once: it's much easier.
Players are encouraged to give an in-universe reason why their character reached a transcendent point in their pursuit of excellence. Rather than paying for level-ups with piles of gold like older editions of D&D (this comparison is explicitly invoked), players should pay for them with story hooks to incorporate in the game. It's a neat idea, to get players to develop their character or reminisce about previous game moments they thought were cool, and in any event it isn't something with even a hint of "do this or else."
There's also a brief discussion of adapting 13th Age to have a level up after every session. Interesting but inessential.
The full monty haul
This is their joke, don't blame me.
Characters kill things and get money. There's some discussion about whether loot should come largely from rolling defeated enemies or as rewards for accomplishing things; Tweet and Heinsoo clearly favor the latter. It's not heavily emphasized because it's not super important. Money can't be used for anything with any concrete rule effect other than buying consumable magic items, like potions and runes. There's even a table for appropriate loot amounts in a game that doesn't bother to track money at all
"True" magic items aren't for sale. While magic items grant a small numeric bonus based on their tier, they mainly function as plot devices and supporting characters. All magic items are intelligent items in 13th Age. They may not be especially intelligent or outspoken, but they all have a personality, and try to get their owners to do things. There's a brief mention of just giving PCs +1 to everything per tier if you don't want to play with magic items, and that a magic item heroically sacrificing itself is a good example of a campaign loss.
Magic items, like monsters, get their own whole chapter later.
She probably doesn't have any powers anyway
This is the actual writeup about ritual casting. I've already talked about it a bit before.
Out of combat magic is mostly handled by Ritual Casting, a feat clerics and wizards get for free, but available to any spellcaster (including classes like rangers and paladins if they've gotten spells from a talent). Despite being listed with feats, ritual casting isn't properly described until page 192. It's Background check that takes minutes or hours - or however much time is dramatically appropriate, really - and consumes a prepared spell to create a freeform magic effect. The examples include a wizard destroying an artifact with Acid Arrow, or a wizard putting the guards around their cell to sleep with Sleep.
It's telling that both examples involve a wizard, and it's a step back from 4e's Ritual Casting in that way. While 4e Rituals involved a bunch of bookkeeping and resource expenditure that made them mostly impractical if all of that wasn't houseruled away, any character of any class could take the feat and draw on magic out of combat as long as they had the relevant skills. 13A goes back to the 3e idea that some characters are magic and some just aren't, which is a baffling reversion given the fact that characters may indeed have One Unique Thing or Backgrounds that give them a good reason to have magical abilities that simply aren't useful on a combat timescale. There's nothing stopping a GM from houseruling that Rogues or Fighters can take the Ritual Casting feat and perform rituals, but it involves throwing out everything about the Ritual Casting rules except for making Background checks. At that point, there's no reason to have Ritual Casting as its own system discrete from the Background check rules except for the fact that D&D 4e did it that way.
An inexplicable preview of chapter 8
This section, "The World & its Icons", is another pile of random stuff as a subheader for an already scattered chapter. Most of it is covered in greater detail in chapter 8, which covers the world. There's some discussion of the fact that "13th Age" means there were 12 preceding ages. They talk a little about customizing the icons and why they don't have stats (it's so you can't murder them).
Speaking of bad mental health discourse in RPGs, they intentionally designed the world to be low-key so you could make it "insane" yourself:
13th Age's 'Oh the Insanity' subhed posted:
We’ve kept our core setting somewhat sane so that individual campaigns can spiral into madness. Depending on your predilections, the 13th Age could be the age where one or more of the icons lose their freaking minds.
The Blue might be so wracked by magic that it’s no longer sane in any language. The Diabolist might establish a secret cult whose members go progressively insane and who can spread insanity to others. The Orc Lord’s advancing armies might spawn an echo-plague of homicidal insanity and cannibalism. The Archmage’s grasp on what the little people call reality may become so Olympian that this world snaps as his wards enforce an “order” inherited from a higher plane. Pile on more of that action and the PCs may end up needing a Sanity stat.
On a better note, this world isn't the only one, and 13th Age has flying dungeons and living subterranean dungeons that are crawling their way to the surface and these completely rule but they're in a later chapter and also in a later book and
I love 13th Age's living dungeons, okay?
Anyway. There's an Abyss where demons come from and go back to when you beat them. There are gods, they don't matter much by default but if you want them to matter, you can make some up. Maybe the icons could be gods? They aren't though if you don't want them to be.
The end, that's chapter 6! I wanted to give you an idea of how scattershot this is, before going into how these design ideas actually translate into making 13th Age the game it is. After that is three chapters of mostly GM-facing stuff to put into the world, and the obligatory one-shot newbie adventure.
Next: Actually Running The Game
13th Age's One Unique ThingOriginal SA post
bringing this one on home
13th Age part 16: 13th Age's One Unique Thing
13th Age is Dungeons and Dragons. The default assumption is that the PCs are largely rootless adventurers who mainly go to dangerous places such as dungeons and kill the dangerous occupants, for example dragons. Where it differs is that it has a little bit of "storygame" in it. Players load their characters with hooks beyond their race and class, and are explicitly encouraged to take an active role in developing the world, detailing their surroundings, and deciding what happens. 13th Age actively pushes back against strict GM control.
This starts with a PC's One Unique Thing. The OUT, introduced in chapter 2, is chosen by the player in collaboration with the GM. Players are explicitly encouraged to create chunks of the setting for themselves with the OUT: several examples are "I am from [place/organization] that I just made up specifically for this character." There's no requirement that players engage in this interaction: "a pyromaniac elf wizard" is given as an example of One Unique Thing that signals to the GM that the player isn't interested in taking center stage in designing the premise of the game. If players do, GMs are encouraged to not only accommodate fantastical OUTs - and similar requests, such as choosing one of the oddball races in chapter 3 - but elaborate upon them and incorporate them into play.
"Telegraph your intent", a part of a brief section in chapter 2 wedged between the charts for buying crap and the rules for being a dwarf, makes this design philosophy explicit.
In some campaigns, the players are even careful not to let the GM know their intent so that the GM can’t foresee the player’s plan and block it. If the PC can talk to animals, for example, the player might ask a number of leading questions about the surroundings hoping to corner the GM into saying that there are animals around so that the player can spring a means of talking to animals on the unsuspecting GM. We encourage you to take just the opposite approach. Explain to the GM what you hope the answer will be and why so that they can take that into account when inventing an answer.
For example, you ask, “Just how far away is this enchanted glade where the magical boars were killed?” The GM might invent an answer based on what seems to fit the fictional world. Maybe the GM says, “A couple days’ travel inland.” If, however, you first say, “I wish I could see the place where the boars were killed and try to glean some clues from the arcane signatures left behind by the killer,” then the GM might invent an answer that helps your character do something interesting. Maybe the GM says, “The glade is actually just outside the city, but it’s magically hidden so most people hardly know it’s there. If you can persuade the local druids, you might be able to gain access.”
Players can also take a number of codified class abilities which fill in a bit of the surroundings in a way favorable to their PC. For example, a ranger with Tracker always has a branch to knock down on enemies, or a root to trip them, or a startled badger to distract them. This ability gives the ranger's player the ability to dictate the environment, based on the idea that the ranger is good at choosing to fight in places that they can take advantage of. Even when this isn't an explicit class ability, players are constantly encouraged to not only take a hand in dictating the narrative, but also offer feedback on what they want to happen. "Player Picks", a section crammed into the rules for leveling up in chapter 6, instructs the GM to ask the players what they'd like to see again after every session, and make an effort to incorporate their favorites into future sessions. This debrief is a great idea, although I don't have any idea what it has to do with gaining levels.
Rather than the GM's role being to stymie and challenge the players, the GM's role is to facilitate and elaborate. This is clearly illustrated in how Backgrounds are used for skill checks (still chapter 2). Not only are players given a mechanical incentive to bullshit their way into explaining how Magical Undergrad +3 should be allowed to let his fighter somehow impress this guard, the GM is instructed to Fail Forward. If Rudy the Wizard (who is a fighter) does not impress the guard, his failure should still somehow allow the PCs to move towards their goals, just with more complications or setbacks along the way. Perhaps the shouting match gets the attention of the (now quite annoyed) noble they wanted to talk to anyway, or Rudy's boring rambling is enough of a distraction for the party to sneak by - as long as Rudy doesn't come with.
Rituals (jumping to chapter 6) expand the bullshit-and-run-with-it system to cover out of combat magic. I have talked about how the decision to make some classes magical and some not creeps into the ritual rules, and how wizards get their own special explicitly codified non-combat spells. Even with those throwback qualities, putting magic mostly into the same ruleset that everyone uses to solve problems, spellcasters don't leave mundanes feeling quite as badly as they do in 3e, Pathfinder, or 5e. There's no reason Backgrounds can't be used to do fantastic things, and every class except the fighter is at least hinted at being a little bit magical.
Icon relationships are another way players can directly affect the story in a way other than their PCs' direct reaction to events narrated to the players by the GM. (These rules are split between chapter 2 and 6.) Every session, someone is likely to have some 5s or 6s on relationship rolls, and those are guaranteed positive developments from the PCs' connections to the ruling powers. Of course, 5s come with strings attached, but those strings are attached to story hooks, so it's not so bad. If the GM doesn't invoke successful icon rolls, the PCs are encouraged to, involving the icons' supporters or enemies to somehow intervene on the PCs' behalf or otherwise support the PCs, even in a retroactive way. 5s and 6s can be thought of as chips the players turn in for goodies, support, magic items, or the ability to change their circumstances for the better.
Icon relationship rolls can also be used on the fly in "icon events" to do... something. It's not clear what an icon event is or or how you resolve one. On top of this, a number of class abilities - particularly for the hard, rogue, and sorcerer - interact with this icon event non-system of using icon relationship rolls midsession. Icon relationship rules are already frustratingly unclear before you take on this muddled, utterly useless icon event non-ruleset. It's perfectly possible to play 13th Age without ever rolling for icon relationships except at the beginning of a session - you'll just need to adapt any class abilities that interact with icon relationship rolls to either retcon this session's rolls or affect the next session's.
13th Age can be a slog. Its layout is not great at all, and one of the hallmark systems, icon interaction, is confusing and half-baked. Push through, however, and you'll find the everpresent idea that players deserve as much narrative control as the GM. It never goes as far as Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel in giving players ways to dictate the narrative, but it positions players as co-creators of the circumstances their PCs react to. To my mind, this design principle stands in direct opposition to the Gygaxian principle that the GM plays the antagonist in the form of both enemies and environment, and is 13th Age's most unique feature as a variation on D&D.
The next chapter is about a monster that can rip off your arm and eat it.
Next: That was my second favorite arm!
That was my second favorite arm!Original SA post
part 16 was the bulk of what i had to say about 13th age, and its most interesting idea. the rest is lists of Stuff.
13th Age part 17: That was my second favorite arm!
13th Age is all in one book, so next up is 47 pages of monsters bracketed on either side by a combined total of 10 pages of supporting rules. 13th Age's monsters should be immediately familiar to anyone who's played D&D 4e: the blocks are streamlined, heavily templated, and involve a minimum of rolling beyond the monster's to-hit rolls. Unlike other editions of D&D, the stat blocks are boiled down to combat stats only. If the players want to try sneaking past or negotiating with or outwitting a monster, that's what the Background rules and tier-based difficulty numbers are for. These are strictly rules for the tactical wargame part of 13th Age.
Monsters have levels, which work like CR in WOTC D&D editions. In general, monsters are balanced to be a fair 1:1 challenge for PCs of the same level. Four orc warriors (a boring level 1 monster) are a good challenge for a party of four level 1 PCs. This changes as PCs level up: champion PCs (level 5-7) should be facing their level+1, and epic PCs (level 8-10) should face enemies of their level+2. This seems needlessly complicated - why isn't this arithmetic already incorporated into monster levels?
Not all monsters of a given level are the same weight. Large and huge monsters - and some medium-sized but "double-" or "triple-strength" monsters - count as multiple monsters at once for balancing purposes. These monsters aren't higher level, but they usually have multiple actions, AOE attacks, or otherwise have an outsized presence that allows them to function against multiple party members at once. While a higher-level monster already technically counts as multiple lower-level monsters for the purpose of balancing encounters, these wider monsters are designed specifically to do so. On the other hand, there are mooks, which count as fractions of a full monster. Mooks are designed specifically to work in large homogenous groups, and all of the mooks in a fight share an HP pool. You do not under any circumstances track the individual HP of individual mooks. If you hit a dire rat hard enough to kill it three times over, you kill three dire rats (presumably laughing as you charge into the pack, slaughtering as you go). This makes AOE spells doubly effective against mooks, because not only can you hit multiple mooks with one AOE, any overkill damage is carried over into the whole pack. Fireballs are extremely effective against packs of goblins!
In general, PCs just know what monsters are, generally what they do, and whether their particular schtick will work on this monster or not. "Monster knowledge" rolls are a hallmark of WOTC D&D, but 13th Age explicitly rejects them. Bards know they can't debuff an ooze (although they can insult it to death); they don't have to waste a turn and a spell to find that out. Wizards inherently know that a monster's HP is too high to be affected by a spell that only affects creatures under a certain HP total. With a handful of exceptions that specifically have their exceptional unknown (and usually randomized) qualities highlighted in specific stat blocks, 13th Age does not bother with Bear Lore-style skill rolls to figure out what a monster is and does.
Monsters also generally aren't immune to things. You can charm zombies. You can scare a giant scorpion. You can crit and sneak attack a ghoul. PCs already have such limited combat toolkits that it isn't fun or interesting to have half of your abilities turn off because you're facing the wrong sorts of enemies. There are specific monsters with specific immunities: for example, hydras turn most debuffs into a small amount of damage, and golems and oozes are immune to almost everything that isn't damage. These immunities aren't nearly as ubiquitous as in other editions of D&D, and, combined with the assumed ability of PCs to already be aware of the basic qualities of monsters they face, means they are much less frustrating.
I can't come up with some clever shit for the stat block header, fuck you
There's no art! To fit two or more monsters onto every single page, they've cut down the art to little abstract symbols that might work as counters for a tabletop game. Supposedly, this somehow shows each monster's connection to the icons. The symbols do vaguely resemble the icons' own iconic symbols, but not to such a degree that you can tell at a glance which monster is connected to who, and this is something you'd want to fudge in your own game anyway. There's a shortage of physical description in general to boot: for example, you'd need to already know that sahuagin are gilled humanoids with the features of particularly fierce-looking predatory fish or sharks. I'm gonna belabor this, because lots of monsters get some sort of cutesy joke in their description in lieu of any actual idea what that monster is supposed to look like.
Monsters have loose classes that describe their combat roles. Monsters can be archers, leaders, wreckers, spoilers, etc. The roles are fairly self-explanatory, although the difference between troops - well-rounded generalists who mainly do HP damage - and wreckers - well-rounded generalists who "bring the pain" - isn't clear to me. There's no game rules attached to any of these except mooks. They just exist to help a GM look at the stat block and determine what a monster does and how to play it at a glance.
Monsters can have multiple attacks, and unless their attacks trigger each other - which is extremely common - they generally can only use one of their attack lines per turn. One attack from the first line (even if it usually involves multiple attacks) is what the monster uses for opportunity attacks. R: means it's a ranged attack that draws opportunity attacks from enemies in melee. C: means it isn't a melee attack, but doesn't draw opportunity attacks when used. To be honest, I am only 95% sure monsters can only use one of their attack lines per turn, since I can't find where it's made explicit, or where you would even find that rule. Did I mention this isn't a very well organized book?
Monsters have fixed damage on their attacks. It's faster and less swingy that way. If a monster is intentionally designed to be swingy, it has triggered or conditional attacks that only happen on a certain attack roll. Lots of monsters have "natural even hit" or "natural odd roll" as a trigger for an extra attack, extra damage, etc.
Thematically related monsters have shared thematic rules. Sahuagin are connected to demons, so they share the demonic schtick of making use of the escalation die and sometimes having unexpected abilities that the players won't know about until they're used. Orcs all score critical hits much more often until they are staggered. This is a good idea to import from 4e, but, due to 13A's relatively simpler combat and shorter monster writeups, it isn't as pronounced. On top of this, as in 4e, themed monster abilities don't mesh well with 13th Age's occasional exhortation to reskin monsters to make up for its relative lack of written-up monsters.
Monsters are intentionally tuned on the easy end, so GMs can go all out and probably not murder the players with a properly designed encounter. That said, for fights that turn out to be too easy, any monster more interesting than a goblin mook has a "nastier special" section. "Actually, this monster can…" reroll an attack, burst into flames, survive another round, isn't even in its final form, etc. Nastier specials are almost all designed to be revealed midfight, to punch up an encounter that would otherwise be a wet fart.
13th Age is What OSaRen't
13th Age does not have monsters that are the result of bestiality or interbreeding. There are no monsters that appear to be beguiling women that lure men to their death, or vice versa. No monster has a taste for virgin sacrifices. Rape is never used as a synonym for plunder. 13th Age's core book, as well as the expansion book 13 True Ways, are 100% free of sexual peril as a monster gimmick. This doesn't just set it apart from obvious fetish bait or weird sexual horror like Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Even mainline D&D and Pathfinder indulge in these, and it's refreshing to see 13th Age drop that unnecessary baggage in the same trash can that the "slovenly trull" tables went into.
That said, it's not a line-wide thing. 13th Age Bestiary has half-demons, red dragons who relish the blood of virgins, and beautiful women (and men, but they don't get an illustration) who are actually predatory spiders. Maybe it's because this book has different authors, maybe it's a coincidence, who knows.
83 Lines about 83 Monsters
A list of monsters!
Animals are a grab bag of basic bruisers, spanning level 1 mooks and 0-level normals to level 4 large. Giant rats, giant bugs, wolves and bears in both normal and dire varieties. Dire animals get a table of random special abilities! You probably shouldn't use that table with dire rats, which are pretty hardcore for a level 1 party. So much so that they're probably the reason mooks have (very easily forgotten) special rules back in chapter 6 for counting as only one-third of a monster at levels 1 and 2, instead of the usual one-fifth.
Ankhegs are large, acid-spitting cockroaches that live in tunnels. They hunt small humanoids - they can't grab medium-sized creatures - and try to drag them back to their lairs. They have a weird story hook about possibly being named after a disgraced noble family, but otherwise they're dumb beasts that try to eat you.
Bulettes have no physical description whatsoever! They're large ambush predator land sharks, same deal as always. They pick at the party with little claw attacks until they hit twice in one round, which activates their huge bite attack for the next round. Their weakness, easily forgotten because it isn't in their stat block (although it is page referenced), is the fact that burrowers can't automatically go underground from aboveground - they have to make a save, depending on the hardness of the terrain. Sometimes the PCs will get to pound on a bulette that fails its burrow check.
Chimeras are a hybrid of lion, dragon, and goat. Their attacks are just lumped into one mass of attacks that can trigger a goat, lion, or dragon kicker, depending on the roll. They're also surprisingly hardcore. Level 9 large puts them near the top of the heap, as opposed to the mid-level challenge they usually pose in other versions of D&D.
Demons are a whole family! Their shared schtick is that any given demon may or may not have a random secret ability - eg resistance to certain damage types or turning invisible at half health - the PCs don't find out about until it's too late. Demons also tend to screw around with the escalation die, although mostly at higher levels and not always. Demons start at 3rd-level mooks and go all the way up to the level 13 large balor as one of the nastiest enemies in 13A. All of the demons are lifted from previous editions of D&D except Despoilers, androgynous goat-faced confusion demons that are obvious replacements for succubi. They all do the 3e-style dual names - eg Hezrou (toad demon) - but the lack of illustrations and scanty physical descriptions can make it hard to tell what it is they even look like. The entire description for the hezrou is, "A hezrou smells like your own body putrefying. Or perhaps your mother’s." So it's a toad demon, but has a face that looks more like a frilled lizard and has "meaty, clawed hands" because that's its attack. Beyond that, you're on your own!
Derro are evil dwarves corrupted by something terrible deep in the earth, so they're all insane () and have a bunch of attacks based on babbling manic nonsense. Also they have confusing rules about confusion:
Confusion effects only affect derro if they secretly want to murder one of their own companions, a not uncommon condition.
So does confusion work on derro or not?
Dragons are dragons! They breath elemental blasts (and are color-coded based on that element) and fly, like D&D dragons usually do. Since dragons are almost always unique and special characters , they get a to-hit bonus from the escalation die and have a special ability from a table of special abilities. How is this different from demons? Well, the table is slightly different! In combat, dragons fight like most large monsters: they have a couple of weak-ish attacks which randomly trigger some nastier kicker. Sometimes that's their breath weapon, sometimes the breath weapon is a separate attack they can use on its own.
Dragons range from the level 2 medium white to the level 13 huge red dragon, fifteen stat blocks in all. We also find out in this writeup that 13th Age's explanation for why white dragons all kind of suck is because the White, the progenitor of their species and the white dragon counterpart to the blue, black, and red triumvirate icon The Three, was killed in a previous age by the Lich King. (This is as opposed to the real world explanation for why white dragons in D&D suck: so you have dragons to fight at low levels.) There's also a little bit about how green dragons tend to be iconoclastic weirdos because the Green disappeared in a previous age. (It's not mentioned here, but the Green is kept captive by the Elf Queen.)
Driders are drow cursed to be half-spider centaurs.
Most driders owe allegiance to dark gods, particularly a drow spider goddess whose name elves are loath to pronounce.
They can shoot lightning bolts and shoot webs and sometimes have a poisonous bite, which I guess means they don't look like D&D driders usually do. In addition to the noticeably deficient physical description, it mentions that they're often found with drow, but there are no writeups for normal drow NPCs in this book. (You'll need 13th Age Bestiary for that.) Whoops!
Ettins are big dumb idiots. Oh and they're two-headed giants that knock people out of melee with them and stagger around from combatant to combatant. The way that they shove people around makes them more like two ogres taped together than a giant that attacks twice.
Gargoyles are really tough and get triple attacks half the time. They get a sidebar explaining the design process behind this. I guess they had space to fill.
Ghouls are smart zombies, and ghoul paralysis is nowhere in sight. Instead, the ghoul schtick is that their attacks can make you vulnerable to (more prone to being crit by) attacks from undead creatures, including themselves. They come in both regular and mook varieties.
Giants are large, throw rocks, and often but don't always have an associated elemental theme. 13th Age just covers the classics: hill(billies), frost, stone, fire, and storm, ranging from level 6 large to level 10 huge. Most of the giants are unremarkable, if high-level, brutes, but hill giants are a special exception.
Hill giants are an overtuned spoiler monster because of where they fit into damage scaling. Most big boss monsters in 13A subscribe to the 4e school of design where their attacks are AOEs, or they have many small attacks, or they somehow have an outsized presence rather than concentrating all of their damage into one single murderous hit that they can use all the time. Hill giants are designed like 3e monsters, so they just fuckbarrel one single target a turn. A hill giant is supposedly a reasonable challenge for a party of four level 4 characters, but even frontline characters at that level will have something like 60-70 HP and a hill giant hits for 45 with half damage on most misses. A crit will take a significant number of PCs from full health to stone dead. Level 5 or 6 large creatures tend to have this problem a lot, although most of them tie up most of their damage in a conditional or random triggered attack.
Gnolls are boring humanoids that, again, don't have any description of their appearance. Judging from their icon art, they're wolf men of some sort. They're wimps that do miss damage if they've ganged up on someone. There's just enough gnolls for a varied group: troops, archers, and leaders.
Goblins also don't have any physical description or even an icon that gives you half an idea of what they look like. This isn't so much a problem with goblins - you probably have an idea of what you want goblins to look like - but bugbears and hobgoblins are also lumped under this same header. Bugbears get little more than "goblin giants" (but aren't game-terms Large), and hobgoblins have a "warrior culture" and fight in legions. Goblins are good at disengaging from fights - which is funny but hard to actually apply as a combat schtick, bugbears do miss damage if the target is ganged up on (which does a good job of making them feel like giants but not really goblins), and hobgoblins ignore attacks against AC if there are lots of them, which is by far the most obnoxious evil humanoid ability in 13th Age. Goblins rank from level 1 mooks - noticeably less hardcore than dire rats - to level 4 and 5 leader and warmage hobgoblins.
Golems are all large bruisers with a gimmick, and a shit-ton of immunities. Flesh golems have a special attack that heals them that they can only use when they are staggered and their target is staggered, and they're magnets for fireballs. (Elemental damage gets redirected to them, and if it's an AOE and they're in melee, welp.) Clay golems ignore any attack roll under 11 and anyone they hit can't be healed above half health until after the fight. At level 6 large, Clay golems are a good contrast with hill giants, since their lower damage (36) with a gimmick means that they're less prone to two-shotting PCs. Stone golems hit staggered targets really, really goddamned hard but punt them out of melee. Iron golems have a tendency to go beserk, which increases their damage but makes them spread out their attacks among different, random targets. (This is a great way to make a monster feel scarier than it actually is in practice.) They're all large and range from 4th to 10th level.
Half-orcs are their own thing, and don't share combat gimmicks with humans or orcs. Instead, they seems like they're intended to be show-off-y individuals mixed in with other evil humanoids - the standard half-orc legionnaire has a full set of odd hit/even hit/odd miss/even miss abilities, including odd miss ability that turns a hit on the next turn into a crit, and an even hit ability that increases its defense for a turn. That's a lot of tracking in 13A terms, probably too much hassle to run en masse. But as a level 4 NPC with showy gimmicks to spice up a (mostly level 2) hobgobin or (mostly level 1-2) orc group? Sure, that works.
The fact that the basic half orcs are overcomplicated leave the level 5 champion (who is simpler than the lower-level legionnaire) and the level 8 commander twisting in the breeze. The commander and the champion synergize - the champion gets extra crits, the commander gives extra saves when an underling crits - but the commander also wants mooks to lead and there aren't any appropriate-level mooks. Mooks go from level 3 demon dretches to level 7 orc ragers with nothing in between. The ragers might be appropriate, but they'd overshadow the level 5 champions. A quarter of this page is blank, and it would have really helped to be filled in with, say, level 4-6-ish half-orc barbarian mooks.
Harpies sing the song of unmaking. No mention that they are creepy bird-women, although the icon is a little more illustrative than most. On the other hand, they also aren't woman monsters who lure men to their doom, the WOTC D&D editions and Pathfinder all indulge in. In combat, they fly and sing you to death, to introduce the fact that champion-tier monsters are going to expect you to either fly or be able to fight at range.
Hellhounds breath fire, are fire, and… are curiously less hardcore than dire wolves, huh. It doesn't say so but they're right at the right level to add some variety to a hobgoblin warband, or serve as straightforward frontline bruisers for a despoiler demon.
Owning people who complained about the 4e Monster Manual aside, there's a boring grunt and then there's a guy with a demon bow eating his goddamned arm. I love the imagery, although the downside is that his demon bug bow is worked into his stats in a way that requires you to remake his statblock if you just want a reasonably hardcore humanoid archer who is not symbiotically attached to a evil bow bug.
Hungry Stars are a 13th Age original, although they fill in for the sort of aberrations that WOTC didn't release into the sort-of-public-domain in the SRD. They're floating tentacled orbs that get nastier when there's more of them. They're low level (only level 3), but you need a whole swarm of them to be any sort of threat and I don't think that's clearly communicated in their description. Half of it is "their AOE attack (which they can only use once per two stars) has a 25% chance to apply some sort of debuff along with the damage" and it's just too easy for them to whiff the special kicker and never pose any real challenge. They'd make sense as low-level grunts to serve some sort of aboleth or mind flayer expy, but there's nothing like that in this book, or anything even vaguely similar that would work well with them. They're just weird one-offs.
Hydras have a lot of attacks - one for each of their five heads - and have such long necks that they can randomly make melee attacks at range. You should do this as a GM, because they're kind of absurdly deadly if they focus their fire on one target in melee. Their main schtick besides having many heads is that they grow more heads as the fight goes on. It serves a similar combat niche at the same basic level as a hill giant (level 5 huge is comparable to level 6 large), but splitting its attacks into many smaller attacks makes it significantly less swingy, with fewer instadeath crits. Hydras also come in a level 7 huge seven-headed variety, although that's less of a big deal because it's the same monster with larger numbers (but a relatively smaller increase in effectiveness as it gains heads), at a level when PCs have more tools to deal with it.
Kobalds aren't clearly reptilian or doglike, but they are the "shameful spawn of corrupt dragons" so probably the former. They're low-level (the champion is level 2) goons who can break free of melee if they hit with their melee attack. They have a slightly greater emphasis on breaking out of melee to use ranged attacks, contrasted with goblins' plan of breaking out of melee to gang up on single targets, but they're still quite similar to each other.
Lizardmen are low-level berserkers. If they hit you with their spear, they can bite as a second attack that turn. If that bite hits, they can make three attacks next turn. They designed to reward players who take pop-free or disengage abilities, but the "frenzy" isn't especially fearsome so whatever.
Manticores are mid-level large bruisers who shoot poison spikes then close to melee to make buffed attacks against poisoned enemies. Manticores aren't especially interesting mechanically - they're similar to bulettes and mid-level dragons in that they pick at the party until triggering a huge and scary attack under certain conditions - but they have a great backstory. Manticores are convinced that at some point, they entered into a contract with a previous Emperor that gave them somewhat vaguely defined hunting rights that may or may not include people. It's a neat story hook that you could hang on any suitably bizarre human-intelligence carnivore.
Medusas are one of only two save-or-die monsters in 13th Age (you probably can't predict the other one), and the first double-strength monsters. (They work like large monsters for constructing an encounter, but aren't properly large-sized.) They come in two forms, level 6 medusa outlaws, who are generic medusas, and level 11 medusa nobles, who are pretty clearly intended to be the Medusa, of Sarpedon. (No wings, though.) Either way, they have poisonous melee or some sort of unremarkable ranged attacks.
The medusas' gaze isn't their main attack. It's implied that PCs are going to be smart enough to not just look a medusa in the eyes and immediately succumb. Instead, the gaze is triggered - if the medusa rolls well on an attack, or a PC rolls poorly, or the fight just goes on too long, someone catches the medusa's eye. If the gaze attack (which works like any attack, beside being a triggered free action) hits, the victim can only take one action per turn and has to start making "last gasp" saves, similar to the rules for avoiding death at low HP, or else turn into a statue. In practice, this is a coinflip for dying or not dying, but it only comes after a randomly-triggered attack that still has to hit. Plus, allies can help other PCs still rolling saves shake off the effect, during or after combat.
Minotaurs are melee bruisers who do a ton of damage when they move into combat before attacking, but also do extra damage against enemies with low health. They're a neat little tactical challenge of keeping them engaged while covering for the escape of anyone who needs a breather.
okay that's a lot of monsters
I'm taking a break here at the halfway point. Anyone want to guess what the other save-or-die monster is? No cheating.
Next: Oh man, that was my first favorite arm!
Oh man, that was my first favorite arm!Original SA post
13th Age part 18: Oh man, that was my first favorite arm!
Monsters in 13th Age kill you or they don't. There's no disease, lingering poison, ability damage or drain, level drain, etc. This doesn't mean there aren't monsters that can inflict permanent setbacks that aren't death - we'll get to a couple of those in a few - but there's only one HP track. 4e started down this road by reducing non-HP damage and lingering effects, and 13th Age takes it to its logical conclusion. This not only an attempt to reign in bullshit-feeling attacks and the need to manage damage and healing along multiple tracks, but it's also part of a general simplification of combat.
Monsters don't do very many different things in 13A. The Huge Red Dragon, one of the toughest monsters in the game and one of D&D's traditional capstone monsters, has a stat block that fits on one quarter page. Two of the most complicated monsters in 13A, the noble medusa and the cloud giant, have two attacks, which in turn sometimes trigger one of two other attacks. This isn't the result of heavy keywording or dense stat block design. Rather, monsters that make lots of attack rolls tend to have all of those attacks condensed into one attack line - eg the medusa noble's "Snakes and swords +17 vs. AC (3 attacks)" - and situational gimmicks are kept down to one or two at most, with extras going in "Nastier specials".
The platonic ideal 13th Age monster is the lizardman. The lizardman pokes you with a spear, and if he rolls high enough, he then gets a bite attack. If the bite attack hits, next turn he has a special "ripping frenzy" line where he tries to tear you apart with tooth and claw. Each piece of this chain constantly reappears in monster statblocks. If a medusa rolls a high roll on her attacks, she uses her gaze immediately. If a kobald hits with an attack, it "pops free" so it can run away. If a wyvern rolls an even hit with its bite, it can use its poisonous stinger next turn. The bulk of 13th Age monsters are made of these if-then statements, to eliminate both repetitive attack spam and also streamline 4e's recharge rolls and uses-per-encounter tracking.
On to the rest of the monsters!
Ogres are big clumsy oafs, and feel like they barrel through the party with sheer mass. On even numbered turns, they get a free, weak attack that knocks PCs out of melee with them, so any fight with an ogre has people constantly getting knocked clear and charging back into the fight. It makes a fight that is really just trading hits feel much more dynamic, within the limitations of 13A's abstract combat rules.
Ogre mages are a mess. Not only do we not really get an idea of what they look like (and I hope you know what a naginata is offhand), but they're one of the few monsters that gets the full smorgaboard of mismatched features from previous editions. If I had to guess, it's because nobody really has a clear idea of the main features of an ogre mage, so it keeps this agglomeration of random crap because someone will object to removing any part of it. So it's a flying, invisible ogre in samurai armor that shoots cone of cold exactly once and resists non-at-will abilities. Sure, why not.
Oozes are large and immune to everything but damage. Black puddings and ochre jellies aren't as annoying as they are in other D&D editions, since ongoing damage is more typical in 13A and they don't have the array of immunities to damage types. Black puddings resist weapons about 60% of the time, which is annoying, and ochre jellies split if you hit them too hard, but they're mostly boring blobs.
Gelatinous cubes, on the other hand are unexpectedly one of the most complicated and obnoxious creatures in 13th Age. Their main attack engulfs you - it's a grab where you automatically take 30 damage every turn until you escape (a hard disengage save unless you hit the cube first, then it's a normal disengage save). However, if you're engulfed and under half health - and you've already taken 30 damage from the first attack and 30 more from a turn engulfed, so you probably are at this level - you start making last gasp saves. Not only do last gasp saves mean you're rolling to save or die, but also it means you can only make one action a turn, so you can't hit the cube for a disengage bonus then try to disengage. Surprise! Not only are gelatinous cubes the nastiest grappler in 13A, they're also the other save-or-die monster!
Orcs actually get a physical description - although it's more of a choose-your-own-orc from a list of ideas - and a little bit of biology. Sometimes they aren't born, they just appear in devastated areas. Orcs are cannibals and the ones who eat adventurers are especially hardcore. There's a subtext that orcs are a supernatural menace that it's 100% okay to kill, and if you want orcs who are actually people, that's what half-orcs are for. (Remember, half-orcs aren't crossbreeds - they are children of two human or two orc parents who've been magically or culturally influenced by the other species.)
Orcs come in two basic sorts: low-level one-off soldiers, at level 1 and 2, and high-level filler mooks for epic fights. Orc ragers are level 7 mooks, and the Great Fang Cadre - the aforementioned killer canibal orcs - are level 10 mooks. Both high level and low level orcs share the same gimmick: as long as they (or their mook pack) is over half health, their crit range is expanded by 3. The 4e orc gimmick of orcs getting a free attack when they die is a special ability of the level 7 mooks, but other orcs don't get it.
Otyughs actually get an illustration that gives you an idea of what they are: a chompy trash monster with a bunch of feeler tentacles. They grab you with tentacles and bite someone they have grabbed. (Remember, being grabbed in 13A mostly just means you're stuck in melee and it's a bit harder to escape.) It's not an especially complicated monster.
Owlbears are owls who are also bears. They're boring melee bruisers that get a second attack on even-numbered turns. However, if they get a crit, they rip off a limb and attempt to run away with it.. This is incredibly goofy and divisive, and how I first heard about 13th Age. A large part of why this is goofy is that there aren't any codified rules for growing back a severed limb, and the sidebar suggests that you could improvise with a cleric's healing ritual or buy 13 True Ways to get the druid class. I don't mind the owlbear tearing off limbs, but the sidebar is a grade A fuckup: 13 True Ways just says that druids can also perform rituals to heal severed limbs. All they had to do was reassure players that a ritual can indeed regenerate an arm; all this "maybe clerics, but definitely druids" nonsense is an obnoxious gimmick that feels like it's meant to sell books.
Phase spiders are teleporting spiders from another dimension, a recurring monster from previous editions of D&D. 13th Age repurposes them as the Obligatory Monster That Fucks With Your Stuff. They have a triggered attack that can steal magic items, and if the fight goes on too long, a phase spider that has successfully stolen a magic item can teleport away back to its lair with the item(s) it stole. There's a sidebar about how this was necessary to make the monster interesting and how to avoid being a dick as a GM, but does anyone remember the Obligatory Monster That Fucks With Your Stuff fondly in any game ever?
Rakshasas again, don't get a good description. They have tiger faces, some sort of claws, and are "entirely evil shapeshifters" that can "change its form to that of any humanoid, or back to its own shape." What is its own shape? For all of the talk about their vaguely-described plots, they're just mildly tricky spellcasters that could easily be reskinned to be anything you want.
Sahuagin are demon-summoning evil fish people. They have a kind of neat interaction where their crits increase the escalation die (benefiting the party), but they in turn they themselves can make use of the escalation die under half health. Again, the description here is so deficient that it doesn't even mention that they're humanoid and not, say, fish with arms or something.
Skeletons are low-level troops and mooks that resist the shit out of weapon damage. They come in various skeleton soldier forms, ranging from level 1 mooks to level 4 elite warriors. There's a minor skeleton theme, with the elite warriors and the skeletal hounds, of screwing with initiative and punishing enemies with lower initiative. The skeletal hound also borrows the zombie gimmick of doing extra damage at the cost of taking extra damage because it's falling apart.
Troglodytes are lizardmen who stink. Hopefully you already know they look like lizard people, because this description forgets to mention it entirely. That stink gives a penalty between -1 and -4 to hit, on top of the trogs own chameleon skin that gives another -4 to hit for ranged attacks in their usual environments. You can eventually save against the stink penalty, but a -7-ish to hit is pretty punishing! Luckily, that's really all they do, and their damage is fairly low compared to similar level 2-3 evil humanoids. Trogs also come in level 8 mook form, although there's a shortage of appropriate masters for them at that level.
Trolls are mundane bruisers who heal every turn that they aren't hit with fire or acid. They aren't unkillable without their weakness, nor are they especially fearsome melee combatants either way.
Vampires come in two varieties: a level 10 boss monster clearly meant to evoke Dracula, and level 6 generic dudes and level 10 mooks who are clearly footsoldiers meant to be mowed down Buffy-style. Both the grunt and boss vampires apply debuffs with their attacks, based on different roll triggers, but those differences are largely level-based and cosmetic. The boss vampire - annoyingly just named "vampire" - has a life-draining touch that targets PD instead of AC. It's the traditional D&D vampire life drain touch, but rather than draining levels, it drains uses of daily abilities. There's also some talk about "how do you truly kill a vampire," with a grab-bag of random ideas.
I hope you already know what a Wight is because beyond telling you it's an undead creature, 13th Age offers no detail whatsoever. They're undead, intelligent, and have a life-draining sword. The rest is up to your imagination.
Wraiths are screaming ghosts who also have a sword, but they teleport around and can fly through things. They also resist basically every sort of attack, although you can certainly just beat them to re-death at half damage, due to their low HP.
Wyverns are another shitty spoiler monster. They have the same problem as the hill giant: the chart says a single level 5 large creature an appropriate challenge for a party of third-level characters. A wyvern can't be intercepted because it flies, and does 35 damage with its basic bite attack. Coincidentally a third-level rogue, sorcerer, or wizard with 12 CON - or any non-fighter/paladin PC with 10 CON - has 35 HP. (Even a 18 CON fighter or paladin only has 60 HP at that level.) It can also sometimes sting with its tail instead of biting, but since the average damage it will deal between the sting and the poison is about 35-38 (it's an ongoing poison effect with hard saves), there's no real reason for a wyvern not to just bite instead. This is less overall damage potential than the bulette, which is also level 5 large, but a wyvern can just bite the head off of whoever it wants, whenever it wants.
Zombies are dumb slow zombies, and there's a hint here that a zombie plague happened one time. (I forget where it was detailed, but a zombie plague caused by the Diabolist ended the 12th age.) Zombies are falling apart, so they sometimes do extra damage but also do that damage to themselves, and they're susceptible to crits, which autokill single zombies and do triple damage to mook packs. Zombies come as level 1 mooks and level 2 singletons, and level 4 large singletons and level 9 large mooks (which count as two mooks).
Filling in the gaps
This monster list feels incomplete when you go to assemble an encounter. I suppose it can't be helped, due to space considerations, but champion tier is especially bad. There are three normal-strength level 6 monsters, for example, and two of them are debuff-focused "spoilers" (vampire spawn and vrocks) and one of them is the medium red dragon. There are no mooks between level 3 and level 7.
For a game so heavily focused on the icons, there wasn't a lot of consideration given for building encounters from 1-10 out of the box for half of the villains. The Diabolist and Three are well-served: there are a lot of different kinds of demons and dragons, and enough filler servants to cover any gaps. On the other hand, a campaign focused on the Orc Lord or Crusader is spoiled for evil humanoids from levels 1-4, but left scrambling looking for soldiers after that. You're going to be reskinning the Gargoyle, Frenzy Demon, Half-Orc Tribal Champion, and the demon bug human archer for something like a third of your campaign. The Lich King has the opposite problem: while there are plenty of undead grunts - champion tier still has a gap, although vampire spawn pick up some slack - there's no necromancers or liches, and only the blackamber skeletons (level 4), wights (level 5), and vampires (level 10) for tricky melee undead. There's no reason you can't reskin some of the various spellcaster enemies, but those spellcaster enemies - the drider, medusa, and rakshasa in particular - don't have any obvious uses except as weird singletons or monsters that exist specifically to be retooled into whatever villain you need.
I'm not going to pretend to have looked closely enough at 13 True Ways or 13th Age Bestiary to tell you if they help with this problem. Pelgrane has a comprehensive list of monsters by level, if you're curious what's in those books.
You can homebrew to cover the gaps. You'll need to. There's two basic approaches. The first, and my preferred plan, is to reskin and remix existing monsters. Look at the monsters as vague lumps of stats of a given level, and figure out which ones can easily be remolded into whatever you need. The relative simplicity of 13th Age monsters makes this even easier than 4e, and worlds easier than 3e, 5e, or Pathfinder. There's some decent advice for single level adjustments and potentially problematic abilities in the rules for brewing up your own monsters from scratch.
However. If you try to use the tables for brewing monsters from scratch - especially at levels 5-7, where the monster list is weakest - you will make absolute murderers. All of the advice is focused on adjusting existing monsters. There are two pages of numbers for making your own monsters from scratch, but they are a trap. Simply using them as-is, especially at champion tier, won't work at all. Monsters that do average damage all the time, as one big package of damage, are the deadliest sort of monsters in 13A. There's no advice for turning the listed average damage into a stat line more like a lizardman's than a hill giant's. As a result, those charts are helpful as benchmarks, but there just isn't room in this book for comprehensive, useful advice.
Next: Something rotten in the state
Something rotten in the stateOriginal SA post
short one for today
13th Age part 19: Something rotten in the state
Chapter 8 is a brief encyclopedia of the Dragon Empire, a kingdom about the size of Denmark on an unnamed world. The map includes key features like the main cities of the Dragon Empire, the homes of the icons, and a number of places to explore. The intent is clear: this is where you live, this is where the monsters live, and in between is a bunch of space for the GM to fill however they'd like.
The Dragon Empire is vaguely radial, with seven cities all arranged on the coast of the relatively tame Midland Sea. The Midland Sea connects the core of the Empire: while traveling the 100 miles between Axis, the capital, and First Triumph, the "tame" hellhole fortress home of the Crusader, is an adventure, riding a ship more than five times that distance from Axis on one end of the sea to New Port on the other is something that can be easily handwaved. Aside from a pair of dangerous islands in the center, adventuring in the Dragon Empire involves leaving the relatively safety of the coasts. Moving inland means things get more dangerous and mysterious as you go.
Underneath and above the land of the Dragon Empire are the Underworld, nominally the realm of the Dwarf King, and the Overworld, which is too fractious and full of danger to be properly claimed by anyone. The Underworld is a series of ever-shifting tunnels and caverns, while the Overworld is an archipelago of solid clouds and mountaintops. The Underworld and Overworld are canonically vague: they change too often and are too full of solid rock or empty void to be properly mapped.
There's a lot of canonical vagueness, even on the land. Many of the features described in this chapter are temporary or mobile, or just outlines of the kinds of things you'll find when you go off the map. Even though it affects the same sort of gazetteer presentation as, say, Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, this is less an exhaustive treatment of a setting and more a series of random campaign ideas and adventure hooks. This is the entire writeup of Horizon, a magical city and home to the Archmage:
Horizon, City of Wonders
Horizon is a magical city heavily influenced by the Archmage. It holds unparalleled libraries of arcane lore, wizards busy with mysterious tasks, rival arcane guilds competing in all ways, and, of course, many opportunities for the PCs to be recognized as exceptional individuals who can accomplish what the NPC wizards cannot.
While Concord has the high towers of the elves, Horizon depends much more on flying buildings and floating force ramps. Such constructs are probably a creation of the Archmage, and possibly channel tremendous magical energy originally harnessed by the Wizard King.
The home of each icon gets at least a cursory writeup, in frustrating inverse proportion to how interesting it is. Axis, the vaguely Roman city and seat of the Emperor's throne, gets nearly a full page several subheadings, going all the way down into detail on the local entertainment and hobbies. The Cathedral, home of the Priestess, gets a similar treatment, plus a brief writeup of Santa Cora, the surrounding city. On the other hand, Concord and the Elf Queen's Court get less than a half page combined despite being called out as one of the "weird and wonderful places", and get scarcely more detail than that elves live there. The Wild Wood, a sprawling forest and home to the Great Druid, which has a lot of potential both as home base and adventuring destination, gets a single sentence noting that it has lots of trees.
The most developed idea in this chapter is that interesting places have a tendency to move around or spontaneously appear. Landmarks have a tendency to get up and move. The ancient ruins are hard to map because they grow back. Hellholes - chaotic pits that lead directly to the demons' prison beneath the Underworld - erupt spontaneously. Omen, a bizarre magical island of pre-Dragon Empire ruins and runaway magical overgrowth in the middle of the Midland Sea, has a tendency to spew fragments into the air, which float away and crash-land unpredictably.
Some places are actually living beings. Living dungeons, ruled by bizarre magical biology and urges nobody understands, dig their way up through the Underworld, headed for the surface, unless someone stops them. The Koru behemoths, creatures too unfathomably large to be seen all at once from up close, migrate around the Dragon Empire, carrying nomads and the occasional rough-and-ready settlement lashed to their sides. Clock Land, a floating island, is full of bizarre clockwork beings that build and rebuild themselves and their home.
Next: +1 listy burst chapter and our conclusion
+1 List Burst Chapter, and The End of Our TaleOriginal SA post
13th Age part 20: +1 List Burst Chapter, and The End of Our Tale
Magic items in 13th Age come in two varieties: True Magic Items, and consumables. True magic items all have permanent magical abilities, a generic numeric boost based on their tier (adventurer/champion/epic, as with levels) and "chakra" (item slot), and personalities. Consumables, on the other hand, are what PCs spend their money on: one-shot effects that they get out for the really hard fights.
Magic swords and armor enjoy being enhanced with magic oil
Consumables come in four sorts: healing potions, resistance potions, oils, and runes. By consuming a healing potion instead of simply rallying, you heal an extra d8 damage per tier. Resistance potions give you resist 16+ to attacks of the corresponding type. Oils, when applied to an item, give you the equivalent of a true magic item's numeric bonus to that item for the rest of that fight. For example, a champion sword would give you +2 to hit and damage on top of unique magical effect, but you could apply a champion oil to a mundane sword to get that same +2 bonus. Runes have the same effect as oils when applied to an item, but also add a random additional enhancement.
Consumables, like the inexplicably bloated equipment chapter, are a vestigial remnant of TSR D&D/AD&D's obsession with logistics and preparedness. They don't add very much to 13A, and could probably safely be ignored, especially in games where players have magical gear or have inherent bonuses to offset their lack of magical gear. D&D 4e couldn't figure out what to do with healing potions, and 13A doesn't have any good ideas either.
When you acquire a magic item, it’s yours in a personal way. You probably dream about it.
True magic items are magic swords and boots and hats and such. True magic items aren't for sale. There's no 4e-style magic item shops, and no wish lists. Players aren't expected to pick what they want, but have much less need to do so, since magic items don't enable full character builds in the way that they do in 4e. Similarly, the difference between having on-level magical gear and not having it is much smaller in 13A - and to some degree oils and runes or inherent bonus houserules can cover the gap.
Magic items have personalities, which is the justification for basically all of the rules on how they work. You can't wear two magic hats because one will get jealous and won't work. Magic items aren't for sale because they choose their owners. Some magic items level up with you and some don't because it only happens if a magic items really likes you. Some of these in-universe justifications for out-of-universe balance decisions are The Explanation and some of them are A Possible Explanation. Heinsoo and Tweet really like their idea that magic items are alive, and come back to it often.
These personalities manifest chiefly as quirks. Magic items push their wearers to do things or act in a certain way. It's strictly optional, and there's no mechanical incentive to play along. If you want to act out your magic gear's quirks, you can, if not, whatever. Quirks do have mechanical teeth if you try to use too many magic items simultaneously, however: anyone who is wearing more than their level in magic items starts to be overwhelmed by the personality quirks, and has to live out the quirks. This is not a great idea, although it is presented in a light-hearted way, suggesting that this should only be allowed if "you’re some type of seriously trustworthy semi-masochistic method actor".
A sidebar with Rob Heinsoo's goofy little rune thing that I have to look up every single goddamned time posted:
Don’t be surprised if one player turns out to love playing with too many items a little too much. Getting everyone else to put your character on center stage and then kick you is a form of attention. Parties with that type of player-dynamic should feel no obligation to keep their over-quirked ally alive.
I don't understand why they suggest this fishmalk trap rule, then immediately and correctly suggest you not use it. It's doubly baffling because the next section, on "chakras", says that you just can't wear two different sets of magic boots because they won't get along, and that's that.
Most magic items grant the wearer a flat numeric bonus, based on their tier and the sort of item they are. Adventurer items are +1, champion +2, and epic +3. The enhanced stat corresponds to the slot: weapons and magic implements increase to-hit and damage, clothes or armor increase AC, shields increase HP (with the boost applying per level), etc. There's no such thing as a vanilla +1 sword, however: instead, magic items all have an ability. Magic item abilities are mostly continuous or conditional, and thematically linked to the item's quirk. A necklace of protection applies a penalty to hit to any enemy in melee with you that tries to target one of your allies, and its wearer tends to be overly familiar with people. A sword of abandon applies its damage bonus to the first hit, every single fight, and its wielder tends to blurt out obscenities. When an ability is a single-use power, it's almost always a recharge power, similar to recharge powers from class abilities.
Annoyingly, recharge magic item powers don't work like recharge class abilities. You roll to recharge all of your expended recharge class abilities after every single fight, regardless of whether you used that ability last fight. On the other hand, magic items only get a recharge check after the fight in which they were used. This appears to be an editing error: the magic item style of recharge is explicitly discussed and rejected in a sidebar on recharge class abilities. This section is filled with editing errors that appear to be leftovers from earlier iterations of the rules. For example, it's suggested that sorcerers and wizards would prefer "magic shirts", even though they can wear the same light armor as most classes.
13th Age only has magic items because it's D&D and it's supposed to. Tracking all of the various little powers that magic items give you is the exact sort of annoying recordkeeping that every other system in 13A stripped away. Tier-based bonuses are boring +1 sword paperwork hassle that screws up the math curve, and could easily have been disposed of. Magic item powers are all focused on specifically game-mechanical effects rather than broader magical tools - there isn't anything as interesting and weird as the Immovable Rod, or even rules for a sword that lights on fire. Bad rules, bad ideas, boring items - this entire chapter feels like some second-rate 3PP magic item collection PDF that is perpetually 80% off its $2.50 list price on DriveThruRPG.
Introductory Adventure At Introduction Tower
There's a brief one-shot introductory adventure that I'd rather not spoil for anyone who does want to try it. It has some neat ideas, like adapting the adventure to emphasize different icons, but it's mostly a series of combat encounters set up to show off both combat rules and encounter building rules. It doesn't offer very much advice for the GM if the players get an idea of the plot and try to shortcut it, or if the players just wander off. The latter is a significant problem, because the PCs are most likely to figure out what's actually going on at the point where they can most easily just skip town. I suppose that's to be expected of an adventure nine pages long including stat blocks plus a couple pages of art, but it's disappointing that it's just a series of fights.
After that is the index and game term glossary, a series of appendices with common tables, the Open Game License legal block, and a reminder of who each icon is and what it is they do.
13th Age occupies an odd niche. It incorporates lots of storygame swine ideas into a stripped down tactical wargame mechanical chassis based on WOTC D&D. It's the perfect game for people who like WOTC D&D editions in spite of their rules, rather than because of them. Heinsoo and Tweet have successfully broken out of the D20 trap of strict mechanic-focused design, where each new ability restricts the design space as much as it expands it.
That said, 13th Age is reactionary, and doesn't have much to offer people who are not already interested in a variation on WOTC D&D. Character creation is too involved to allow for the easy-die-easy-reroll playstyle of TSR D&D (or successful imitators like many OSR games and WHFRP 2e). Combat is simplified, but still so complex that all characters must be able and willing to fight or else find themselves left out of the most complex, time-consuming conflict resolution system. 13th Age has plenty of WOTC D&D sacred cows it could easily do away with - ability scores, feats - but doesn't, and they can't be easily stripped from the game with houserules. It permanently lives in the shadow of the games it responds to. 13A can never have as much crap in it as D&D 3e, Pathfinder, 4e, and 5e do. If you want more monsters, more items, more feats, more classes, more character options - if you like WOTC D&D for what it is rather than simply because it's all you know - then 13th Age has relatively little to offer you. Its combat is stripped down to the bare bones, and its other conflict resolution systems are heavily reliant on a negotiation between the player and GM rather than clearly defined game mechanical effects.
13th Age also lives in the shadow of Strike and Dungeon World, both of which live in its exact same niche of WOTC D&D-inspired games for the would-be storygamer set. Strike is much more flexible, isn't tied down to heroic swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and focuses more on what made 4e unique than what defines WOTC D&D in general. Dungeon World overlays an abstraction of D&D combat onto Apocalypse World's playbook/move structure. Like 13th Age, those games are also somewhat creaky hybrids, but they both have a clearer vision of what they are and what they want to do than 13th Age does.
A large part of what makes Heinsoo's and Tweet's vision so unclear is how jumbled and poorly edited this book is. Key ideas like failing forward on skill checks are introduced once and never dealt with again. Icon relationships, a flagship feature, have incredibly muddled rules that don't interact with the rest of the game in a clear way. 13th Age is a looser D&D that allows players to more directly control the narrative beyond specifically-articulated abilities from skill lists and class powers, but it's difficult to figure out how and why without carefully rereading and cross-referencing.
13th Age is a heartbreaker. It's a fascinating response to criticism of D&D 3e (and its successors, Pathfinder and 5e) and D&D 4e. It takes those lessons and uses them as a guide to strip down the WOTC D&D framework to its bare skeleton, using ideas from games that cede more narrative control to the players to flesh out the body afterward. As a result, it's a lot more inspired and interesting than most D&D-but-different games, but the poor writing, editing, and layout sabotage it. 13th Age - the book, as opposed to the game it describes - just isn't clear enough to explain itself to anyone who isn't already predisposed to play the way it wants players to play.
Next: Horrible Adventures