Tuesday, July 23, 2013

13th Age - The Rest of the Game

Last week I waxed on about the Icons and Relationships element of the game and I really liked it. I like some of the other parts of the game as well and thought I would share those too.

  • "One Unique Thing" - players declare one unique aspect of their characters at start. Maybe they are the only Klingon in Star Fleet or the Last Son of Krypton  - well, maybe not those in particular. Anyway the idea is to state something that makes the character unique. Now the old school side of me says "great, another special snowflake thing" but it doesn't really bother me that much. Heck, in the old days the idea that my magic-user wore red robes and was bald was about the only thing that made him different from a friend's magic user that wore blue robes and a pointy hat. Having something codified into the character building process to isn't automatically bad. Also, it comes across like a Fate Aspect, something that can be occasionally tapped in a social situation rather than a combat modifier so the power implications should be minimal. 
  • "Backgrounds" - This is a new take on skills that is more retro than it first appears. Each class has a certain number of points to spend on backgrounds - moisture farmer, bush pilot, desert scout. The number of points spent becomes the skill modifier applied to any roll where that background might be relevant. So if I had 8 points to spend I might put 2 into moisture farmer, 2 into desert scout, and 4 into bush pilot. If I find myself trying to fly a ship later, I can use that bush pilot background for a +4 bonus on my skills to fly it. 
    • This is a nice flavorful way of keeping a "skill check" mechanic in the game that stays away from detailed point management (like 4E did with "trained" or "untrained" skills and then goes beyond that to stay away from detailed skill management altogether. It's much more like the Secondary Skills of AD&D where a character used to be a farmer or hunter or something and could use that when discussing things with the DM. 
    • It also gives the potential for some fun interaction ala Marvel Heroic as players attempt to justify including the bonus from their backgrounds in all kinds of unexpected situations. This on-the-fly development doesn't necessarily show up on the page but it does come out in play. The relevant ability is also something to be determined on the spot and that should add even more fun to the discussion. 
    • The default assumption is a varying number of points per class but there is a note that that's primarily to honor previous editions and that giving all characters the same number of points isn't going to unbalance anything in this version of the game. That's probably the direction I would lean.
    • There is no built-in advancement of the number of background points but there is the option to take a Feat that adds to them, so the option is there for players who want it. Nicely done.
  • Gear is simplified in a lot of ways. Armor is heavy or light, no need to determine exactly what make it is except for flavor. Weapons are divided into a number of types like light/heavy and one or two handed and even that is an abstraction I am prepared to live with - it worked fine for Warhammer so it should be acceptable here. 
  • Classes are less hard-coded as most pick from a menu of class talents and feats to determine their abilities rather than a fixed list. I like what I see though I expect playing would expose some favorites and some potential weaknesses. The designers are straight-up here, noting that a barbarian is much simpler to run than a wizard and describing the differences between each class is a solid way.
  • Combat changes include general simplification, damage adjustments, and the escalation die.
    • There are fewer modifiers, fewer defenses, fewer conditions, no grid requirement, and much less positioning and AoO tracking. Fighting in Spirit is a nice little rule allowing a downed character to throw a +1 on another character, chalking it up to inspiration or the force or past training.
    • Damage is basically 1 die per level. If you use a sword for 1d8 at 1st level, you're doing 5d8 with it at 5th level. Ability modifiers double at 5th to keep them from becoming less relevant. This sounds similar to what Tunnels & Trolls does and I bet it works just fine.
    • The Escalation Die is a mechanic I like - At the beginning of combat it is zero. As of round 2 put out a d6 set to "1" and move it up each round til it maxes at 6. This is a to-hit modifier for the PC's and a few special monsters. The idea is to speed up combat but it has some other interesting effects as well. Players are less likely to open with an alpha strike, instead waiting until hey have a solid bonus to add to their big blast. It also adds some dramatic tension to the fight as I suspect being at 0 or 1 is going to feel "down" to most players after they get used to the system. It also gives a nice mechanic to hook things on (like bloodied did for 4E) and some class abilities do tie in to the escalation die count. Also, there are monsters that can interfere with it as well. I think it has a ton of potential.
  • Incremental advances are a way of smoothing out the leveling process. After each session, players can choose one part of the goodies form gaining a level (there is a list) and apply that to the character. This is a lot like the career advancement scheme from WFRP and I think it's a great idea. I don;t know that there are enough advances to gain one at the recommended rate, but I think it's something each group could figure out fairly quickly. 
  • Monsters have quite a few changes and I like pretty much all of them. There are rules for mook monsters which are somewhere between the swarm rules and the minion rules from 3rd & 4th edition. Damage from monsters is fixed but has some triggered effects based on to hit rolls which keep things interesting. There are also some that key off of the escalation die which is cool too. There is also some interesting adjustment to the usual save or die type attacks that looks like it could work well - something I'd really like to test in play.
  • Setting: I skimmed it. I didn't see anything I hated about it, I'm just not that interested in another fantasy setting when I have so many already. Conversion and adaptation would be the main plan here.
Possible Escalation Die candidate? Especially for a Roman-themed game?

Alright so there are a lot of parts I liked. What would I do with it?

If I was starting up a new D&D type campaign in August or later I would give it a serious look. Maybe take an existing D&D adventure, do some light conversion work, run it and see how things went and whether my players liked it.

As a DM running an existing 4E game ... well, there are parts I could take but I'm not going to scrap my current rules for these unless my players suddenly mutinied and demanded it, and even then scaling down from 30 levels to 10 would be pretty tricky. I could layer the icons and relationships over 4E if I wanted to, and the escalation die might be fun but without monster abilities triggering off of that it might not be quite as complete. I'm going to think about it.

The main thing I worry about with a game like this is that although it's getting a ton of attention now where will it be in a year or two? Castles and Crusades was a big deal when it came out as a lighter, more old school flavor of 3E and how active is out for it now beyond occasional adventures? How many groups are playing it? I loved Arcana Unearthed and later Arcana Evolved and they had a good run for maybe 4 years and now there's not much support at all. Book of Iron Might was the same way. With everything from Numenera next month to the ramping up of "next" over the next year to the ongoing Pathfinder juggernaut, I'm not sure how well or how long it's going to be supported. Maybe in the age of the kickstarter this is no longer the problem it once was but I'm leery of buying into a game that's a new flavor of D&D without actually being D&D. Sure it worked for Pathfinder but I'm not sure we're going to see the same thing here. There's a cost there, partly financial and partly not, and I may wait awhile to see if it's worth going all-in. One bright side: at least there's no licensing issue like there was with MWP and Marvel.


David Larkins said...

I'm definitely thinking of giving this a close look. I'd also be looking to use the rules for my own settings (or adapting existing settings). How easy would you say it is to customize or create new races and classes? How about the magic system? How distinct is its flavor, and how open is it to tweaking?

Kelvin Green said...

Although there is a suggested setting, 13th Age does seem to be intended as a D&D alternative and as such could be used to run anything that D&D could run.

It includes all the standard D&D races, and also gives rules for warforged, tieflings, aasimar and dragonborn; one could extrapolate new races from those with a little work.

New classes would be more difficult, as the game hardwires a lot of rules into the individual classes; it's sort of like how in older versions of D&D a wizard and a thief's unique abilities operate under different rules, only more complex.

As such, the magic system may be difficult to tweak, because the wizard magic system is different to the bard magic system, which is different to the sorcerer magic system, and so on. On the other hand, that gives you lots of material from which to extrapolate something new, although it might be hard work.

The other major thing you'd have to tweak for your own setting is the Icons. The good thing is that although the game makes heavy use of the Icons, they are themselves referred to in generic terms; the game refers to the "Lich King" but this could be Vecna, Azalin, Nagash, Sauron or Skeletor. It needn't even be a lich king if you didn't want it to be; there's an article on Rob Heinsoo's blog about using 13th Age to run a Shadowrun game and using corporations in place of Icons.

My intention, should my players like the game, is to use it to run a campaign in my own setting.

Blacksteel said...

I agree with the above - races would be easy enough but classes look like some work. For magic you'd probably be better off using one of the existing systems with some tweaks rather than trying a ground-up build of something new, at least until you've had some time in the system as-is.

David Larkins said...

I'm getting the impression that one could meld 13th Age and Planescape pretty effectively.

WQRobb said...

Is gear handled fairly normally, like you find equipment and can just add it to your PC if you're proficient in it?