Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The REAL 13th Age Review

This, my friends, is my DnD.

13th Age is a game written by the lead designers of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, who decided to make their "love letter" to DnD. They took the flexibility of 3rd, combined it with the balance of 4th, and threw in some cool elements from Burning Wheel and a few other indy RPGs. The result is a light and fun game that sets the standard for d20 games across the board. Yes, I do mean the standard.

The vast majority of the game is a good mish-mash of 3rd and 4th edition, which I'm not going to cover here. Enough typing has been done on both editions, and better writing then I can do here. You get the at-wills, encounter, and daily abilities of 4th edition, wrapped in a 3rd edition package where not everyone gets the same thing, but is balanced against each other and given a difference emphasis. I've played about six sessions, with a variety of classes, and didn't see any obvious over-powered-ness between spellcasters and non-spellcasters. What I did see was that spellcasters were usually better at taking out groups, but non-spellcasters owned at one-on-one combat.

There's one stand-out combat mechanic: the escalation die. At round two of every combat, the GM brings out a giant d6 and sets it to 1, putting it up by one every round thereafter. This number is added to all the players' attack rolls. It's assumed that the players are pushing as hard as they can in each round: if they start to run away, the escalation die decreases in response. Most monsters don't add this escalation die to their attack rolls, but when they do it's a terrifying thing to behold. When the players realize that the dragon is getting as accurate as they are, there's a real sort of fear that's a bit... um... invigorating. And it's because these monsters are the exception, not the rule, that makes the escalation die so good. I can't recommend stealing this mechanic enough. It is tension in a bottle for boss fights, and general awesomeness for the players on a normal fight.

The mechanics of the combat aren't really where the game stands out, however. It's the storytelling mechanics that really matter, and 13th Age has two. The first storytelling element is The One Unique Thing. The player gets to choose a story element to his character that is wholly unique to him. It can be anything, anything at all, and that's the beauty of that. These things can vary from "I was saved by the Great Gold Wyrm from the curse of a witch and am now immune to fire as a consequence" to "I'm an undead half-angel whose mind hasn't been changed by becoming undead". If your player picks something that has a mechanical consequence you have to give up some of your class talents (a bunch of features you can choose a few from) to do it. This helps the GM guide the story in a direction you, the player, want.

The other storytelling element is the backgrounds/skills system. The players get eight points that they get to spread acrost as many backgrounds as they so wish. Again, these backgrounds can be anything you so wish, and the more detailed the better. Whenever you make a skill roll you choose a stat (standard 6) and one applicable background, adding that background's bonus to your check. It's an incredibly flexible system, one that reminds me of DnDN's not-so-inspired system of backgrounds. That's actually a comparison that I'll get back to in a bit.

Both of these mechanics define the setting for the GM, allowing him to set up a story that flows from these setting elements. I can't begin to say how cool this is, since the party is effectively defining the setting and what sorta seeds should be followed up on. I suggest to all who are playing this game to pick backgrounds that interest you, the player: it'll mean that the story can involve things that interest you. So with both those mechanics in place the story can revolve around whatever the players wish. This puts the GM in the more directorial chair, akin to Burning Wheel, a spot that I think is best for the GM, period.

Speaking of GMs, the GMing section is awesome. It is the toolbox of 4th edition perfected. Gone is the crappy math, and the need to define encounters ahead of time. The advice for using the story mechanics is a bit sparse, but this is something that the authors acknowledge openly and so I can hardly fault them since they don't attempt to conceal the weakness of their advice. Heck, I'll probably put up some advice pretty soon.

Earlier in the review I brought up that some elements of the game reminded me of DnDNext, but in the sense that all the things that DnDN tries to do, 13th Age does. I know that DnDN is in playtest mode, but given the stuff they haven't changed, I think it's a fair thing to say that this is the next edition of DnD. You keep the high action and systems of all the previous editions of DnD with actual story elements that allow you to put the story around your players without the railroading of previous editions. It's an amalgamation of what made earlier editions of DnD great, while adding it's own thing. That's what a new edition is supposed to be, right?