Sunday, April 20, 2014

2nd Impressions of the 13th Age

Long time readers will recall that I was quite impressed by 13th Age and was keen to play it as soon as I could. That turned out to be almost a year later. Oops.

We have played two sessions so far and it is fair to say that after the first my enthusiasm for the game had been dampened somewhat as the players didn't seem to take to it at all; my hopes for a D&D-like game in the middle ground between the complexity of Pathfinder and the simplicity of OSR-type games that everyone could enjoy seemed to have been dashed. Part of this was because it was a new system and we were all getting used to how it worked but part of it was because I started off by running the adventure included in the rule book; this was perhaps my main mistake.

It is quite linear but I see the wisdom of that as you don't want to drop the players into a wild and unrestricted sandbox from the start; it makes sense that you'd want to become familiar with the game mechanics before you start using them to explore the setting. Fair enough.

The problem is that I think a starting adventure should introduce the players to the game's unique concepts and features and "Blood  Lightning" doesn't do that, being more a series of fights. Every player-character in 13th Age has One Unique Thing, some non-mechanical aspect that sets them apart from everyone else in the setting; in our game we have the only red dragonborn, a tiefling who knows legends that no one else remembers, a former pirate who knows the location of a great treasure, and a wizard who is the reincarnation of the Devil but doesn't know it, although the tiefling probably does! There's no way that the authors could tie this kind of thing into an adventure aimed at everyone and it's a more appropriate job for the individual GM, so again the lack of support for the feature in the adventure is understandable if disappointing.

The game's use of relationship dice -- the other key feature of 13th Age to my mind -- would be much easier to include and support and the authors do so to an extent but it's a bit half-hearted and comes up only twice. The main location for the adventure changes its appearance and occupants depending on which of the Icons is in play but this seems a bit of a soft use of the mechanic -- "Because of your relationship to the Druid, the house is green" -- and only three Icons are used. A good GM could expand this to include all thirteen of the Icons and go further into the effects the Icons have on the adventure but that's asking a lot from someone who has not run the game before.

The first fight of the adventure is against some low-level gribblies and there's an attempt to tie them in with the Icons too but here too there's not enough explanation of this game concept and in effect it boils down to the monsters wearing different costumes depending on who sent them; again this could be expanded by an experienced GM but it's supposed to be an introductory adventure and the authors should be helping the players get a grip on the new concepts.

All that said this isn't supposed to be a review of a ten page adventure and it did have its uses; we got to play with the combat system and the adventure -- for all its lack of support for 13th Age's storytelling mechanics -- has set up the central conflict of the campaign. The second session was much more successful from my perspective; Stuart's thoughts as a player are here. It was more improvisational and there was much more use of the Icon relationships; freed from a strict plot the relationships' utility as story and content generators becomes more apparent and I believe will continue to do so if we carry on playing, as I hope we do.

Although 13th Age is in many ways a refinement of D&D4 it is not as focussed on combat as the latter game and an adventure that is a string of combat encounters is a poor exemplar of what the new system has to offer. The story generation tools are powerful and deserve much greater emphasis; I'm toying with writing an alternate introductory adventure of my own that brings them to the fore if I can find time to do so. For now I'll continue to develop a 13th Age campaign for my group; a couple of them have expressed doubt that it can handle a more freeform sandbox style of play but I think the One Unique Thing and relationship mechanics make such an approach easier if anything, so my current challenge is to prove it.


  1. Looking forward to more 13th Age El Kel. I guess when 5e is published and there is more support for 13th Age it will be easier to find out how GM and player friendly it is. Decent adventures being written for it, as well as extra critters/ organisations for the setting to make your life easier I guess will help.

    I will certainly be interested from a GM's perspective how much time it takes to prep a 13th Age sandbox style game using the relationship dice.....Not sure how useful these relationships will be in play.... but keen to play some more. So - yeah - please try and prove me wrong!

  2. I would also say that once the players have established their icon relationships, you could probably ignore the other icons for the most part. The more an icon is shared, the more likely they are to crop up in a campaign. We are very heavy on the Prince of Shadows and the Priestess for example. Also, the OUTs can tell a lot to the GM about the sort of campaign / interests the players have. I liked the political element of our last adventure, e.g. the intrigue in the Elf Queen's court.

    1. That's the approach I'm taking. I don't see the Lich King or the Orc Lord having much of an impact on our game, for example, although it does depend on what relationships Ben's warforged sorcerer has!