Tuesday, February 4, 2014

13th Age

I've been fed up with D&D and its many incarnations (basically D&D 2, 3, 3.5, and 4, Pathfinder, and other d20 knock-offs) for some time now. The picayune rules complexity is painful and unwelcome; the generic European medieval fantasy gameworld is bland and uninspiring; its core activity of killing things and taking their stuff is vaguely unsettling; and the constant repetition of the same storytelling tropes has become tiresome. With small-press and indie RPG publishers doing so many interesting things, it's time to move on. My tastes now run much more towards a game like Arcana Evolved, a game based on the D&D 3.5 rules but one where Monte Cooke's wonderfully imaginative and well-realized world, driven by a distinctive creative vision, justified the complexity. Or Robin Law's Ashen Stars, which uses a simple, highly playable and player-driven game system in a terrifically-realized setting. Nonetheless, I was optimistic about 13th Age. The promise of a streamlined game system and higher expectations for player engagement appealed to me, but a d20 game based in a traditional D&D-ish fantasy world makes finding players much easier. Here was the possibility of happy compromise.

If you’ve played D&D4, the rules transition to playing 13th Age is relatively painless (and only somewhat less so, although perhaps a little more fraught, if you’re coming from D&D3 or Pathfinder). Your character sheet will look much simpler, but entirely familiar. You roll d20s for checks. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers define your character. Healing surges, saving throws, and attacks and defenses are all still there. Combat no longer uses a map grid, but otherwise has a similar feel. D&D4 may have had a variety of issues, but it did good work in terms of filing off needless rules complexity and making D&D a more playable game and less about searching for rules exploits. 13th Age pushes even further in this direction.

Although 13th Age races and classes are defined similarly to D&D4, they are clearly homages to incarnations past. They’re all here: Fighters, Wizards, Clerics, Rogues, Bards, and so on. Barbarians are simple to play, have only a few powers to activate even as they go up levels, and just wade into melee and kick ass and take names. Fighters are more sophisticated and have a variety of combat maneuvers that can trigger on every die roll. Rogues and Wizards reclaim their place as the most intricate classes, requiring both the management of lots of abilities and the creative use of strong but situational powers. Notably, Paladins are both playable and interesting, a first for a fantasy d20 game I believe (I can’t personally speak to Bards). Initially I was pleased to see D&D4's movement towards balanced classes, but I soon realized the fix (giving everything a high degree of symmetry) was as bad as the original problem (the classes no longer felt distinctive). 13th Age gets this right.

So far, this “just” adds up to a more skillfully executed version of D&D. 13th Age brings 3 key new ideas: character backgrounds, icons relationships, and one unique things  (there are some other ideas, including a magic item system that promises more than it delivers, but these are the big ones). Some aspects work better than others, and they all highlight both the potential and the pitfalls of the game.

Backgrounds replace D&D skills. Concrete skills (run, jump, diplomacy, etc.) are gone. Instead, you write backgrounds for your character, which can range from the straightforward to the esoteric: "temple guard", "reformed thief", and "hellhole commando" are some examples from the book. My last character, a dark elf paladin, had "Emissary of the Court of the Stars" and "The Queen's Executioner". If you need to make a skill check, just see if one of your backgrounds applies and use it as a bonus. This is terrific and gives you a lot of interesting leeway to both bring your character to life in a mechanically useful way, and add your creative voice to the setting (who knew the Elf Queen used elite assassins?). More games should do this.

Replacing the bizarre pantheon of D&D deities, 13 Age gives us 13 Icons – the mortal but incredibly powerful movers and shakers of the 13th Age world. Some of these are cool and add depth to the setting: The Archmage, The Crusader, The Great Gold Wyrm, and The Three. Some of them are startlingly generic: just the names of The Dwarf King, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, and The Orc Lord tell you most of what there is. All characters start with relationships with a couple of them, either positive, negative, or ambiguous. You roll a die for each of your relationship points at the start of a session, and 5s and 6s create “story hooks” which bring that relationship into that evening’s play. I like this is theory, but unless you’re playing in an extremely improvisational style, in practice it is at best a bit awkward. The throughline of 13th Age is still largely about killing things and taking their stuff, so GMs are going to spec out combat scenes (much easier than any version of D&D, but still some work) and work out the general adventure flow, so these relationship rolls serve mainly to provide riffing possibilities or flavor. Which is OK but not spectacularly interesting, and they also have a big risk: they can significantly damage party cohesion. If one player has picked the Crusader and the GM uses one of her relationship rolls as the hook for the adventure, how does she convince another player whose relationships are with the Elf Queen and the High Druid to come along? These icons have rather different agendas. 13th Age provides no inherent glue to keep parties with relationships to different Icons from coming apart. The first thing you need to figure out as a GM is how you keep your players together and focussed. These relationship rolls are sufficiently awkward that I suspect many GMs will end up looking at their players’ icon relationships and just regard them as story requests, and ignore the die-roll mechanics associated with them.

Lastly, the One Unique Thing is the simplest but also the most interesting aspect of your character. Usually just one short sentence, it describes what makes your character different from everyone else. The rules and examples give you significant leeway in interpreting just what “unique” means; you can go with “unique in the party” or “unique in the entire game world”. Some of the examples from the book are pretty mundane (“I am a former cultist”? Really?), and my preference is to be aggressive about making your uniques interesting and truly unique (my paladin’s was “I am the only elf who can withdraw from the mystical Elven dream consciousness”). Low-level D&D characters have always had the problem that they are generally incompetent and unremarkable stereotypes. Giving them a unique thing means everyone has a sense of destiny, even at low level (never fear, your one unique thing doesn’t have to be an accident of birth or ancestry, it could also be something earned or experienced prior to the start of play). One way to think about a unique thing is that it can be intriguing but non-specific – perhaps a question you don’t know the answer to that the GM can use as a hook to play off. But, it doesn’t have to say anything about the future; it could be something memorable that you did in the past that can give your character depth. To me, the best ones are the ones that say something about both your character and the world. The game itself doesn’t give what I would consider firm guidance on this though, it gives you a few soft suggestions and lets you figure out how you want to use them.

This I think is an example of where 13th Age, for all its many virtues, falls short because it hedges. It doesn’t have its own  premise, its own reason for existence, or if it does it doesn’t go all in. If you pick up Numenéra or Night’s Black Agents, those games are in no doubt about what they are trying to do creatively, and deliver what they promise. 13th Age is instead relying on you to tap into your long history of playing D&D and D&D-like games to bring along the elements of D&D that you like and meld them with the ideas in 13th Age. In terms of tapping into the largest available market of gamers, this is obviously great. In terms of presenting a game with a clear creative vision of its own that might compel you to play it, not so much. This wishy-washiness of how to play the game’s simplest, most important core idea – the uniques – is one way this plays out, but there are other important ways too. The gazetteer of the world is less than 20 pages long (counting art) and consists mostly of tropes and vague descriptions, and is too high level to be of much use once you get down to brass tacks and try to set actual adventures in actual locations. Only a few of the Icons have more than a column of useful text attached to them, while many – The Elf Queen, The Dwarf King – have perhaps two meaningful sentences of description, far too little for them to be useful as anything more than an access point to your repository of bad fantasy tropes regarding Elven Queens or Dwarven Kings (dwarves never being rules by queens, and elves only rarely by kings).

That might be fine, but let’s be honest here, these tropes are boring, predictable, and generally suck. It’s not enough to just do D&D with a better rules set that is more about creative play and less about creative rules exploits. I want to care about the world I’m playing in, to be part of the group not just because they needed a cleric and my character was available at the time.

So I find myself conflicted about 13th Age. The game design is great and is mechanically by far my favorite in the “kill monsters and take their stuff” genre. Not a high bar admittedly, but still! I love the backgrounds and the One Unique Things. I am less enamored of the fact that the gamemaster has to do so much heavy lifting to make the game work: flesh out the details of all the lightly-detailed icons and figure out what they are up to in her world; fill out the too-sparse bestiary; figure out some way to make sure the party is coherent; not just police the inevitable “awesome at everything” backgrounds and “I’m the only person who can fire at-will 10d6 fireballs from my eyes” uniques, but fill in all the guidance that the book lacks on how to corral players and the GM into a coherent campaign style that will produce interesting and useful uniques. Giving players freedom is great, but in order to be productive, that freedom requires constraints. Specifically, it requires the constraints of a setting. 13th Age seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be innovative and give players agency and all that, but it doesn’t want to scare off D&D and Pathfinder players by putting a stake in the ground. So it waffles. There is nothing more deadly to a creative enterprise than waffling.

For a sense of comparison, I’ve run both 13th Age and Ashen Stars recently. By virtue of Ashen Stars’ clear premise, strong setting, and clean system, I was able to put together my first story arc and successfully run it with less than an hour of prep time. By contrast, prepping an adventure for 13th Age was a time sink because so much world creation still needs to be done – fleshing out and determining the motives of the icons, figuring out their organizations, building cities, working with players’ varying and sometimes conflicting uniques, and so on. Because 13th Age lacks a Premise, the resulting chaos demands to be sorted.

I have nonetheless enjoyed playing 13th Age as a mild rebuke to the overwrought D&D tradition. The game system is elegant and does reward player creativity. It's easy to get into and lively. But for me, the bad fantasy genre of D&D-style roleplaying that 13th Age is channeling is not really in my blood, so 13th Age needed to do more than just show up and look cool to win me over. It fills a niche, and it’s a game I’ll probably enjoy playing from time to time, but for where I am in my roleplaying career it’s still not the answer. 

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