Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Random Backgrounds Table!!!

I've put together a table of 100 backgrounds for 13th Age.  Most are examples from the Escalation Edition, but I've also added a fair amount myself.  Yes, 13th Age emphasizes creativity and unique characters, but a list like this can get the creative juices flowing, and may function as a jumping-off point.  Many of these are generic, but there's plenty of room for specialization.

And of course those who prefer an element of randomness in character generation can simply roll a d% to choose their backgrounds. 

Combat Superiority

Yesterday's Legends and Lore article was quite possibly the best news about D&D Next that I've heard in a while.  Feedback from the first playtest packet not surprisingly indicated that the Fighter was boring, and that the class needed its own unique mechanic instead of just having higher damage, HP, AC, etc.  I personally wasn't terribly concerned because I knew that they had a more tactical package for Fighters in the works, though admittedly I wasn't sure how it would relate to the playtest Fighter (namely, what it would give up in order to avoid being flat-out better).

The answer is Combat Superiority.  And boy oh boy is it a good answer.  The basic idea is that a Fighter has a number of Combat Superiority dice that he can use on his turn.  The most simple, basic application of these dice is to just roll them as extra damage.  A more tanky Fighter, on the other hand, might roll them to reduce incoming damage.  Some defender options might be to reduce the amount of damage an ally takes, or to use them to add to an ally's AC (or debuff an enemy's attack).  Note that the dice don't need to represent a rolled value; for example, I can see this as a nifty way of replicating 4E powers on the fly.  The basic model for a 4E power was damage + effect, so 3 different powers might look like this:  3[W] vs 2[W] + prone vs 1[W] + daze, the idea being that you trade out damage dice for effects, with stronger effects costing more dice.

See the potential here?  DMs can be advised how "expensive" certain effects and actions are, using the published maneuvers (like the examples from the article) as a baseline, and they would be ready to deal with any improvisation that a Fighter's player might come up with!

Once the Fighter levels and gains 2+ CS dice the amount of potential choices during a turn could easily satisfy a more tactical player*, with the resolution remaining relatively simple.  There wouldn't be as much choice paralysis as, for example, choosing from several encounter (or daily!) powers that you won't be able to use anymore this battle.  And those who prefer simple "I hit with my sword" Fighters can easily just default to using those CS dice as extra damage.

Mearls and Co. stated that they wanted to have a "dial" built into classes so the level of complexity could be toggled, and on this point they definitely succeeded with the Fighter!

*I'm thinking along the lines of "I use one of my dice for defense, and one for extra damage, vs I'm going all in on damage vs I'm going all in on defense, multiplied by the possibilities that all of the different maneuvers add, and throw in some occasional improvisation for good measure!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

13th Age "Solitaire" Playtest

I ran my first playtest of 13th Age combat, using the characters that I generated here.  For this test I ran a standard 1st level fight pitting 3 kobold warriors and 5 archers (mooks) against the party.  The fight took place in an open cavern where the archers had overturned tables to hide behind for cover.  Tharis (Wood Elf Fighter) and Derndolfin (Dwarf Bard) emerged first into the room, with Beriogelir (Half Elf Ranger) just behind them and Brynna (Human Wizard) bringing up the rear.

General Comments
The most striking revelation was that accuracy in this game is pretty huge, which I'm not sure I like.  The baseline AC for a level 1 monster is 17 (though the kobold warriors had 18).  My characters either had a +4 or +5 attack bonus (depending on whether they started with 16 or 18 post-racial attack stat), which meant that in round 1 they needed a 12 or 13 to hit a baseline monster (and a 13 or 14 to hit the kobold warriors!).  That's...too much.  Even by round 4 when the Escalation Die has a pretty major affect (+3) they still needed a 9 or 10 (10 or 11 to hit the warrior), which is less accurate than the vast majority of current 4E characters without an escalation die.  I say current because accuracy was balanced around 50% when the game was first released, but various fixes (most famously the Expertise feats and Superior Implement Training) boosted that because players didn't like missing so much.  I'd make the same argument again; hitting is more fun than missing, so I'd personally prefer monster AC to be a point or two lower.  As it stands, I fear that maxing your prime stat might become a bit too important, even despite the fact that 3 different ability scores determine each of your defenses.

Of course to keep things challenging monster attack bonuses are higher, while AC for many classes is actually a bit on the low side (Bard, I'm looking at you!).  Baseline is +6 at level 1 according to the monster building table, but the kobolds were more accurate than most (the kobold archers were +7, while the warriors were +8).  This made combat feel really dangerous, especially at the beginning, since enemies were constantly chipping away at your HP while nobody on team PC could seem to land a hit.

Perhaps this is because it was first level, but damage was also a bit on the low side.  Maybe because level 1 HP is tripled?  As levels are gained HP increases by 1 HP factor while damage also increases by 1 die per level, so damage might just seem low at 1st level because of the HP cushion. 

Rounds go by fairly quickly, and this was with me drawing everything out on a paper map as it was happening so I could keep track of everyone.  In an actual game the players would track their own characters, who they're engaged with, etc.  Minis would probably be helpful (not necessarily on a grid, but just so enemies can be "based" with them to show who is engaged with whom). 

Poor Tharis spent so many rounds trying to intercept hits on Derndolfin, but he was often unable to pass the save to do so while engaged.  And of course a Fighter is going to be engaged!  Especially when the Fighter and his squishy ally are both engaged with the same enemy, there needs to be a stronger incentive for that enemy to NOT ignore the Fighter.  The tools for squishy-protection are there, but they aren't terribly effective from what I've seen in play.  I'd love it if Defensive Fighting could be applied to an ally instead, even at the price of an adventurer feat. 

The maneuvers were fun, and I managed to trigger each of them once.  It wasn't even immediately obvious which one I should use (well, that 18 made the choice of Precision Attack over Defensive Fighting pretty easy), especially given the difficulties of intercepting while engaged (which made Shield Bash really attractive).  Unfortunately I never got to use Cleave or Tough as Iron (silly Bard was taking all the hits, and silly Wizard was taking all of the kills).  

The Wood Elf racial ability is a really clever piece of game design.  Every round you roll a die, and try to roll under whatever the Escalation Die is at.  If you do, you get a free standard action.  Each time you get a standard action, the die size increases by 1 (so after your first standard, which you got from rolling a d6, you start to roll a d8, and so on).  Tharis managed to snag 1 free standard in 7 rounds of combat, which seems about right. 

Derndolfin was the only character to go down in this fight, and to be fair I was playing the kobolds really smart and having them "go after the leader."  I also figured that kobolds probably aren't too fond of Dwarves, so there was a bit of that at play as well.  What soon became immediately obvious is that Bards are NOT frontline fighters.  Engaged with 2 enemies for most of the fight, he was never really able to break free from both in order to launch a ranged spell, and I would have loved to use Soundburst or Befuddle.  And yet, since those are daily spells most of the time the Bard will in on the frontline using his battle cries.  With his below average HP and AC.  His attack and damage isn't too hot either, since he has to split points between Strength and Charisma pretty equally in order to be effective with both attacks and spells.

As the target of many attacks, it would be really nice if Pull it Together! could be used on yourself.  Derndolfin watched his HP steadily dwindle, and wasn't able to do much about it aside from using his standard action to rally.  Surprisingly, a few times I wished I'd brought a Cleric to the party instead since they seem to be much sturdier frontliners.  Maybe if the Bard had gotten an opportunity to bust out a daily spell I'd feel differently (they seem to be better than the Cleric's).

This was NOT Beriogelir's day.  He rolled about 5 natural 1's, which probably doesn't give me the best impression of the class's capabilities.   He spent the beginning of the fight taking potshots with his bow, attacking a different enemy each time to try and trigger a crit via First Strike.  Never happened, unfortunately.  I think I was also only applying double attack to even hits at the beginning, when it should have been all even rolls.  Or maybe I was just rolling a lot of odd numbers (coughonecough).  In any case, it wasn't until the later rounds that I was actually throwing 2 attacks around.

Early on Beriogelir teleported behind one of the tables to engage 2 archers at once.  This proved an effective strategy, as the archers lacked a melee attack and didn't risk taking OAs.  They tended to fail their disengagement checks.  It did draw the ire of the remaining archers, who all peppered him with arrows.  Speaking of which, a bunch of mooks is more dangerous than a single monster.  Taking mooks out early to reduce the sheer number of attacks they make is probably a good strategy.

Perhaps this is just because I didn't roll a 17+ the whole battle, but I'm considering replacing First Strike with Two-Weapon Mastery.  This would make melee vs ranged more competitive (Rangers that use Dex for melee attacks still use Str for the damage, making ranged weapons more damaging, but with TWM at least the melee attacks would be more accurate).  Then again, the odds are really stacked against PCs at the beginning of combat, and First Strike is a good way (albeit an unreliable one) of dishing out some alpha strike damage.  Maybe I will keep First Strike since it's a unique tool in Beriogelir's arsenal, and I built him for versatility.  Plus it fits with his geurilla commander background (striking first, fast, and hard). 

Brynna arguably saved the day in this fight, easily landing attacks most reliably.  Yay for Energy Bolt targeting PD!  At first level its damage is pretty impressive, too, although that'll get outstripped at 2nd (and become competitive again at 3rd, when it gets upgraded to a 3rd level spell).  From a visual perspective choosing energy types also made it feel like she had more spells.  That alone makes me favor this over Magic Missile. 

Brynna opened the fight with Blur, when it became pretty obvious that Derndolfin was getting focus-fired.  It prevented 2 or 3 attacks, which is ok I guess, but a 20% miss chance just isn't that much.  My Command spell missed afterwards, too.  I thought about blowing Sleep, but figured it would be unrealistic for a Wizard to blow 2 dailies in a baseline fight against some kobolds. 

Remember back when I talked about how Fighters have a tough time protecting squishies?  Yeah, Brynna got attacked near the end of the battle, after Derndolfin was down.  Tharis couldn't intercept.  She only took one attack before disengaging and hiding behind Tharis, but a Wizard engaged in melee that can't disengage will crumple like paper in just a round or two.  And Brynna has Toughness!!!  I think the key here will be to use free-form narrative to describe measures taken to set up a "safety net;" duck behind cover, climb a tree or a ledge, or use defensive spells on yourself.  Control spells like Sleep will also ensure that there aren't many "spare" monsters that can go after you.  Unlike 4E, Wizards can't scrounge up decent AC here, and perhaps that's as it should be.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

13th Age Character Generation

Over the last several days I've been slowly working on four 13th Age characters to get a better sense for how the system works.  The mechanical bits that normally comprise most of character generation in other games can be rolled up very quickly.  You buy (or roll) ability scores, and these (along with class) determine most of your combat stats.  Since weapon and armor stats are class-based you don't have to weigh the pros and cons of leather vs studded leather vs hide or a rapier vs a longsword vs a battleaxe.  All light armor and all one handed melee weapons are generally going to be the same statistically (but different based on class; for example, Rogues deal 1D8 damage with daggers, the same amount that Fighters deal with a longsword!).  Then you choose 3 class talents and, if applicable, spells/maneuvers/powers.  Much more time is spent on the "fluff," like your backgrounds, one unique thing, and icon relationships.  To get a game moving quickly with first-timers, you can probably figure most of that stuff out later as the game plays out and everyone gets a better sense of their characters.  Perhaps replace generic backgrounds with more specific, fleshed out options.

I'll go the route of "show, don't tell" and post all 4 of the characters I came up with.  This should give people a good idea for what a 13th Age character actually looks like.  Note:  I house-ruled that everyone gains 8 background points to start out with, instead of the outdated system where they're tied to class.

Beriogelir Celebduin
Male Half-Elf Ranger

One Unique Thing:  Only Half-Elf to ever manifest the Aspects of the Three Shards.  He has a Wood Elf mother (and was raised as a Wood Elf), has the magical abilities of the High Elves (Highblood Teleport as racial power), and has a mystical connection to a Drow Living Sanctum, which most Drow can't even access.

Kirjani Tribesfolk (nomadic) +4
Circle of the Hunting Wolf guerilla commander +4
Sailor +3

Icon Relationships:
Elf Queen 1D conflicted
High Druid 2D positive

Feat:  Further Backgrounding (3 extra background points)

Double Melee Attack (the 13th Age version of Twin Strike)
Double Ranged Attack (as above)
Lethal Hunter - First Strike (high crits the first time you attack any given enemy)

Abilities (in order of Str, Con, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha)
14, 14, 18, 10, 14, 8

Defenses: AC 17, PD 13, MD 10

HP 27, Recovery d8

Escalation 2:  Half-Elves now get their own racial power instead of choosing on the fly between human and elf powers.  I elected to keep Highblood Teleport as Beriogelir's power simply because it fits his One Unique Thing.

Note:  As you can tell based on my choice of talents, I'm going for the flexible generalist Ranger who can mix it up in melee just as well as he can pepper things with arrows.  This is the first system where I haven't felt like I was being punished for going that route.  Yeah, I gave up another talent I could specialize in for one style or the other, but I've arguably added some tactical depth onto what would normally be a pretty simple class.  For example, if I anticipate the need to protect a squishy by intercepting, I can more easily do that if I'm not engaged with another enemy (i.e. shooting stuff).  Once I take the hit for them, I can whip out my swords and kill things pretty much just as well.  It's also interesting from an HP management perspective; do I open myself up to attacks in melee or stay safe?  Do I wade into melee because the Fighter's taking too much damage?  IMO the flexible style offers more meaningful choices than having an animal companion, which is the book's example of a slightly more complex Ranger.

Brynna Farglade
Female Human Wizard

One Unique Thing:  Randomly hears voices of the dead, but cannot control it.

Arcane Academy of Axis Fellow +4
Archaeologist +4

Icon Relationships:
Lich King 2D negative
Archmage 1D conflicted

Feat:  Toughness, Energy Bolt Adventurer feat

Class Features:
Ritual Magic

Cantrip Mastery (cast more cantrips, and as quick action instead of standard)
High Arcana (faster rituals, 1/battle countermagic to cancel and enemy spell as a reaction)
Familiar - Screech Owl (can roam 1/day, grants +2 to perception related checks, can guard while you sleep, if unreliably).

Abilities (in order of Str, Con, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha)
10, 10, 12, 18, 16, 12

Defenses: AC 12, PD 10, MD 15, Saves +1

HP 21, Recovery d6

Energy Bolt (at will)
Acid Arrow
Command (echo spell, so it can only be used after a daily)
either Charm Person, Blur, or Utility, depending on the day

Note:  In EE2 Humans get a bonus feat.

Tharis Evendim
Male Wood Elf Fighter

One Unique Thing: Can transform into a house cat at-will, and leads a network of feline spies in Axis as the Prince of Cats.

Famous Athlete (Kari, which is like soccer in the forest) +3
Cat-like +3
Silverleaf Knight +2

Icon Relationships:
Elf Queen 1D positive
Prince of Shadows 2D conflicted

Feat:  Strong Recovery (can re-roll a recovery die whenever you use a recovery)

Tough as Iron (Rally, which is basically second wind, as a quick action)
Intercept (Fighters are better at it if they choose this)
Cleave (extra attack 1/battle when you drop a non-mook)

Abilities (in order of Str, Con, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha)
16, 14, 16, 10, 12, 12

Defenses: AC 19, PD 13, MD 11

HP 30, Recovery d10

Defensive Fighting (AC bonus on natural even rolls)
Shield Bash (pop target off of you on natural even rolls)
Precision Attack (extra damage equal to Dex mod on hits of natural 16+)

Derndolfin Dwarrowhelm
Male Dwarf Bard

One Unique Thing:  Neither he nor anything he's wearing can get wet (an homage to Tom Bombadil, whom I imagine Derndolfin being similar to in some ways).

Dwarven Drum Corps +4
Well-travelled +4
Quixotic +3

Icon Relationships:
Dwarf King 1D positive
The Three 2D negative

Feat:  Further Backgrounding (3 extra background points)

Jack of Spells (choose a spell from another class)
Spellsinger (choose another song or spell; doesn't count against your normal limit)
Storyteller (1/scene tell a brief story that allows an ally to re-roll their relationship dice).

Abilities (in order of Str, Con, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha)
16, 12, 10, 14, 12, 16

Defenses: AC 14, PD 11, MD 13

HP 24, Recovery d8

Battle Cries:
Break Off! (ally can disengage on your even rolls for a basic attack)
Pull It Together! (natural 11+ 2x/battle ally can heal w/ recovery)

Song of Heroes (grants nearby allies a +1 to attack while it's sustained)

Befuddle (confuse target on a hit, daze on a miss.  Confuse is kinda like 4E's dominate, so it's good).
Soundburst (Area attack that also dazes)
Cure Wounds (Jacked from Cleric, you or an ally can use a recovery.  Don't worry, this is a quick action).

Escalation 2:  Clerics aren't the only healers now!  The second revision of the EE rules added Pull It Together!, which is a battle cry reminiscent of the Cleric's "Heal" class feature.   I'm surprised the designers didn't follow the 4E "2/enc heal" pattern right from the start for all leader-type classes.

On the Genius of Backgrounds
In case it wasn't obvious before, this should give you a good idea of how backgrounds work.  It's completely open-ended, so the player can write down anything they can imagine.  I'm listening to an actual-play podcast right now where the Barbarian's backgrounds are Force is Always the Answer, Disconcertingly Popular, and Right Place, Right Time. 

Basically, if you can justify that an ability (skill) roll can make use of a relevant background, you get the bonus.  So if the party needs some knots tied, Beriogelir can invoke his Sailor background to do it.  Kirjani Tribesfolk would cover all of his Ranger-y skills like survival, natural lore, tracking, etc. since they're nomadic hunter-gatherers, and guerilla commander not only covers things like stealth and battle tactics, but also social checks if he's in charge of anything or in a position to be giving out orders.

Brynna can use Arcane Academy of Axis Fellow for any kind of magical lore, but can also leverage connections by name-dropping for dramatic effect, using their library, etc.  I though archaeology would be cool because it could cover not only dungeoneering type stuff, but also anthropological lore.  I could probably even make a case for pulling some Indiana Jones shenanigans (the game is all about being Big Damn Heroes, after all). 

Tharis' Famous Athlete background can apply to any Cha check where people would recognize him, as well as most physical, kick-in-the-door or endurance type checks.  Cat-like could cover things like stealth, perception, balance, and even certain types of animal lore.  Silverleaf Knight is pretty much the same idea as the "Knight" background in the D&D 5E playtest, so it would provide bonuses to things like animal handling (knights tend to ride horses), diplomacy, heraldic lore, and possibly religious lore.  Specifying that he's a Silverleaf Knight not only provides flavor, but gives him the option of using the specific organization's contacts and/or reputation to his advantage.  This system is so cool!

For Derndolfin, Dwarven Drum Corps provides the all-important musical/performance background that Bards tend to use a lot, but it also incorporates military skills and knowledge.  Well-traveled is a sort of folklore/Bardic knowledge catch-all, but it could also potentially apply to endurance checks to keep moving, or even situations where knowledge of boats, wagons, etc. might be useful.  Quixotic is one that I figure would work like many traits in The One Ring.  You get things like Generous, Gruff, Forthright, etc.; qualities that don't really represent active skills or knowledge, but still affect how you go about doing things nevertheless.  Any time he wants to do something impulsive, irrational, or mildly insane I could justify adding this bonus to any checks he makes.  Imagine a Barbarian with an Anger Management Issues background!  Seriously, there is an infinite amount of fun to be had with this.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More Thoughts on 13th Age

I had a day off today, so I decided to mess around with character generation a little bit to better familiarize myself with the system.  My Fighter (a Wood Elf named Tharis) went pretty much how I expected.  For my second character I decided to finally work up a concept that I've had in my head for a while.  Derndolfin Dwarrowhelm is a Dwarven Bard with a mildly quixotic personality.  He arguably has too high an opinion of himself, but he's jovial, generous, and always has a good story to tell so most people don't mind.  Plus his name just begs to be used in a work of alliterative meter.  He looks fun mechanically, but Bard's are kind of all over the place and I'm not sure how effective he'll be.

In general character optimization (I'm assuming combat optimization here) is not intuitive, and it doesn't seem like there are any "easy answers."  True, like with any game some choices are better than others, but the way abilities work encourages you to spread your points out instead of focusing them on one or two really high abilities.  AC, PD, and MD are all based on the middle of 3 different scores (Con, Dex, and Wis for AC, Str, Con, and Dex for PD, and Int, Wis, and Cha for MD).  While this theoretically makes each score less important and encourages more build variety, those with an eye toward optimization might feel restricted.  Unless your class uses Int or Cha for something, any other score is probably a better choice to invest in.  You could also make the argument that the system doesn't really cater to optimizers in the first place, which is actually fine by me but I can see some people not liking that.

The last thing I'll discuss is the Ranger, with the caveat that I'm looking at the class in a vacuum and there may be other variables that would reveal themselves in play.  This point runs counter to my last point in some ways, because the Ranger (while simple) looks like it will emulate 4E's incarnation in that it's a huge damage monster.  A Ranger with an Animal Companion and either Double Melee Attack or Double Ranged Attack will be pumping out 2 or 3 attacks each round.  The animal companion gets its own attack (either before you or after you, depending on what kind you have), and then on natural even results you get to make a second attack via your Double Attack option.  Given how 13th Age damage scales (each attack deals a number of damage dice equal to your level), this will add up quick.  Especially since the difference between a two-hander and a bow or 1-handed sword is 1d10 vs 1d8, and both of the Ranger's attacks get to add Str/Dex to damage.  Thankfully the Animal Companion's damage is lower, but it's still nothing to sneeze at. 

The Animal Companion also shares healing when you spend a recovery and it's next to you, so combined with it's separate HP pool it's actually a very efficient damage sink as well.  The Ranger's base AC in light armor is also only 1 less than the Fighter's in heavy (14 vs 15), so defensively he's in pretty good shape too.  Things get even sillier when you bring the poor Barbarian into the mix, since he only has a base AC of 12 in light armor (though admittedly he does get to use shields without penalty), doesn't get the damage sink capacity of the animal companion, and for some reason has the same base HP factor as the Ranger (instead of a higher one like the Fighter and Paladin).  At least his recovery die is bigger, but he's still behind the Ranger defensively.  He also gets a talent that lets him use a recovery as a free action when he hits 1/battle, but the Ranger's HP efficiency is still better than this (not guaranteed, because you have to hit) self-heal and it comes with the animal companion's extra attack.  And if you were wondering, no the Barbarian does not make up for it with better damage (as far as I can tell).  They can cleave once per battle (if they're adjacent to a second enemy when they drop the first), compared to the Ranger making a second attack on EVERY even roll.  They also have a few talents that add some damage dice to their attacks situationally, and one that lets them split damage between two foes (but each takes half of the original damage). 

Perhaps Rage (which lets the Barbarian roll 2d20s for his attacks in the battle he uses it, and increases his crit range to boot) gives him enough spike damage to make him worthwhile, but as far as I can tell the class is noticeably weaker than the Ranger.  I'm not sure which class is closer to the baseline of the others in the game (i.e. is the Ranger really strong, or is the Barbarian just weak).  Part of the reason I focused on just these two is that they're the simplest classes in the game, after all.  Perhaps most other classes lie between the two on the class balance spectrum, but it's still a noticeable problem since these two types of characters often have very similar combat niches.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: 13th Age Escalation Edition

13th Age is a new fantasy TTRPG published by Pelgrane Press and co-authored by Rob Heinsoo (of  D&D 4E) and Jonathan Tweet (of D&D 3E).  Described as being a "love letter to D&D," it uses the Open Gaming License (OGL) but contributes a lot of modern, narrative-based mechanics to allow you to play "D&D" with a much different style.  It's much more story-based as opposed to simulationist, meaning that a lot of the "fiddly bits" are simplified or abstracted.  Moreover, it's one of the first games to use such an approach with the d20 system.

Perhaps the biggest distinguishing feature is the game's use of "Icons" to tie the players in with the major players in the game world.  These are left intentionally somewhat generic and customization is highly encouraged.  Examples include The Archmage, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, The Lich King, etc.  The term "Escalation Edition" comes from the Escalation Die, which is a momentum-building mechanic that increases the PC's accuracy as a fight progresses.

The game is currently available for preorder here.  The PDF that you get for preordering is called the Escalation Edition, which is a revised version of the 2nd playtest rules.  As the game becomes more finalized updated PDFs will be provided.  The published form is slated for this fall, but essentially it will be whenever the game is ready, so I'm not expecting a physical book any time soon. 

As a final caveat, I'll note that I haven't actually played this game yet; this review is based entirely on my read-through of the PDF.

Summary of the System
Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons before will find a lot that they're already familiar with.  The core mechanic is that you roll a d20 and add relevant modifiers + level to resolve tasks.  Characters roll or buy values in the 6 standard ability scores (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha) and choose an archetypal character class (Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard, and, at an unspecified later date, Druid).  Balance is emphasized but without a single unifying structure (i.e. 4E's AEDU power structure).  Members of the same class can be customized by choosing different Talents, which can have a major impact on what kind of Bard, Fighter, etc. you are.  Combat stats are fairly streamlined, with the familiar HP, AC, and initiative being joined by PD (physical defense) and MD (mental defense).  Fans of 4th Edition will find Recoveries familiar (they work much like Healing Surges).  Skills are abstracted into Backgrounds, so instead of gaining ranks in open lock, move silently, hide, etc. you take the "Thief" background and get a bonus in whatever task a Thief might be good at (otherwise you roll straight ability scores).  Which is awesome.  Story-based mechanics are always nice.  Attacks, feats, spells, and powers work much like they have in previous editions. 

New to the D&D tradition is your One Unique Thing, which can be whatever you want but shouldn't have a mechanical benefit unless you trade out a racial power for it.  It is, however, a narrative resource and can be called upon if it would give you an advantage in a situation.  Some examples include a character exuding a holy aura which can be felt by some, a Wizard who is a reincarnation of an ancestor, a monk who was originally a bear but was transformed into a human by the High Druid, or "the only halfling knight of the Emperor."  A lot of potential here, but it's intentionally open-ended so get creative!

Perhaps the most significant new mechanic is your Icon Relationship dice.  Each character gains 3 relationship points to spend on a positive, conflicted, or negative relationship with an icon.  For each point you have you can roll a d6 when you're trying to leverage your connection with that icon.  Now, icons are typically not typical NPCs, but rather distant forces in the world who attract a lot of followers (and enemies!), with whom they may or may not take personal interest in.  You'll probably meet an icon or 2 in the Epic tier, but for most of your career you'll be dealing with the dean of an Arcane Academy instead of the Archmage himself (for example).  In any case, rolling a 6 means you succeed and gain some benefit, whereas a 5 means you succeed but it comes with some sort of complication.

Consistent with the game's narrative approach is the concept of "failing forward."  What this means is that when you roll a skill or ability check, outright failures are discouraged (although sometimes they make sense and can be used).  Instead, you might accomplish the task but suffer some complication or setback.  Instead of failing to pick a lock outright, you take so long that a monster patrol stumbles upon the party, triggering a fight.  Stuff like that.  In this way the action never stalls, but things still don't always turn out the way the players want. 

Resource management in 13th Age is an interesting twist on the traditional approach.  Some classes have daily resources (and all classes have recoveries), but the "day" isn't defined in the same way as in past versions of D&D.  Instead of "resetting" whenever you rest for the night, your "healup" occurs after every fourth battle (open to adjustment; really tough battles might count as two, trivial battles might count as partial battles, or not count at all).  You can still rest up before that occurs, but you suffer some sort of "campaign loss."  The intent here is to encourage heroes to press forward, as well as solve the 5 minute workday problem.  The game definitely caters to a "big damn heroes" playstyle more than gritty realism.  For those that consider this too gamist, it's pointed out that you can run the game in the traditional manner just as easily; any imbalances will be stuff that you've already experienced in previous editions. 

The default assumption is that the game will be played in a Theater of the Mind style, i.e. without a grid and minis.  While such play aids can certainly be used if you want, you won't get the precise tactical options of 3E and (especially) 4E D&D.  That's not to say that combat isn't interesting or tactical, but it's less of an emphasis.  I suspect that combat will be quick and exciting.  As far as positioning is concerned, everything is zone based.  You're either engaged (in melee), nearby (within a single move action), or far away (further than a single move action).  It's assumed that everyone nearby can reach anyone else.  You can still specify relative positions and that will affect what the other combatants can do.  If you say "I'm staying behind the Paladin and shooting my bow" then enemies who attempt to engage you will probably be intercepted or suffer OAs from the Paladin.  Engaged combatants can avoid taking OAs from moving if they pass a Disengange check, but failing means you've eaten up your move action.

Monsters seem fairly well-designed with a streamlined presentation and transparent math.  This makes them very easy to create (ample rules for which are given) and run.  Most monsters have at least one special ability, some have a few.  A lot of times these are situationally triggered, like on certain natural results on the attack roll.  This reduces decision-paralysis for the DM (who has a lot to keep track of already) but still allows monsters to do cool, unique things and "feel" different.  Perhaps not as tactically robust as 4E, but 13th Age is also a gridless system so that much is a given. 

Magic items are assumed to be rare, and not something you can just pick up at a magic item shop.  The exception is minor consumables like potions, oils, and runes (oils and runes enhance equipment temporarily).  True magic items are sentient and bond with their wielder, bestowing quirks and offering up suggestions (either overtly or subtly).  A PC can safely wield a number of magic items equal to their level.  If they exceed this limit, they lose control and succumb to the will of their items.  An example given is that while Dwarven armor might make its wearer more likely to want to drink beer whenever he's in civilization, if he's not in control the item essentially forces him to drink beer even if his body can't handle it.  Also, because of the bond you share with your sentient items you can only carry one per "chakra."  In other words, your sword gets jealous and stops working if you cheat on it with another sword.  It's an interesting take on magic items, complete with roleplaying hooks.  While magic items often grant numerical bonuses, they only range from +1 to +3, which is reasonable I suppose (I'm not a fan of item bonuses personally).

Positive (The Good)
  • Incremental Advances.  The general idea is that you get one "feature" from your next level (increased HP, a new spell, a new feat, etc.) at the end of a session if you've made significant campaign progress.  So instead of getting everything at once when you level, you can cherry pick your next level's goodies depending on what you want to play with early.  
  • Backgrounds.  I love having a creative, narrative-based means to gain mechanical benefits. 
  • Intercepting.  Nice defender feature as a universal maneuver (assuming you're not engaged).  Fighters are even better at it.
  • An optional lasting wound rule, though I might houserule that a wound lasts 1D4 days instead of until your next heal-up (rest).  
  • Flexible Attacks.  These are attacks that you choose to use after you roll, sometimes triggering off of different natural results of the die.  They're mostly for Fighters and Bards, though. Both of those classes look very awesome in general, too.
  • Rituals.  They're very open-ended and resolved narratively, but basically you can take longer and expend components to cast a better version of any of your spells.  These typically don't have combat applications (mostly because they almost always take at least several minutes, if not several hours, to cast). 

Conflicted (The Neutral)
  • Monsters don't have ability scores.  While this simplifies things, it does eliminate the possibility of opposed checks.  Advice is also given in the "Speed" section of the combat chapter for things like opposed ability checks, but as the rules are currently written that would only be valid for 2 PCs.  My tentative houserule for monster ability checks is to take their Physical/Mental Defense, subtract 10, and then adjust modifiers by +/- 1-3 to represent different ability scores.  For example, a nimble kobold might use PD-10+2 for a Dex check, whereas a sluggish ogre might use PD-10-3 for Dex.  Scaling should stay consistent because +level is added to pretty much everything, but ultimately I haven't tested this so I don't know if it screws with the system math at all.
  • Armor and weapon stats are all class-based.  Which certainly simplifies things and ensures that players don't min/max against archetype, but it's a bit of a stretch that a Wizard's base AC in heavy armor is 11, whereas the Fighter's is 15.  Training won't help you that much, and besides you're still encased in metal so you should be fairly well protected.  You also suffer an attack penalty to boot. 
  • Interestingly, the game only goes up to level 10.  Levels 1-4 are the Adventurer tier, levels 5-7 are the Champion tier, and levels 8-10 are the Epic tier. 
  • Mooks are a group of monsters that share HP.  They're kind of like minions in that they go down quickly; each chunk of "damage to kill" that is subtracted from the total HP kills 1 mook.  For example, if a group of 5 has 25 HP then every 5 damage dealt kills a mook.  A 4 damage attack wouldn't take any out, but if the Fighter slices through the group for 12 damage afterwards he'd take out 3 of them.  The fact that you can sometimes take out multiple individuals is neat, but it seems so much easier to just use 4E's minion rules (which would translate really well) and not have to track HP at all. 
  • "Don't Sweat the Modifiers."  There aren't any modifiers for flanking/ganging up, firing at distant targets, cover, etc.  The advice given is that if you have to use something, use no more than a +2, and negative modifiers should almost always be a -1.  While this definitely speeds up play and keeps things simple for Theater of the Mind combat, it eliminates a lot of tactical choices.  After all, -1 vs -5 for heavy cover is a pretty big difference!  I'm considering porting the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic from D&D Next over to preserve play speed but make modifiers meaningful.  I'm not sure how it would work out in play if ganging up = advantage, but leaving enemies disengaged would definitely leave the squishies more open to attacks (in addition to the possibility of disengaged creatures ganging up on PCs using the same tactic!) so there would theoretically be a tradeoff there.  Will require playtesting.

Negative (The Bad)
  • From the looks of it, the Druid class will not be in the core book (but it will be made available later; apparently its design was too ambitious to get done on time).  That's a bummer, since it's my favorite class.
  • Rangers (another of my favorite classes) seem kind of boring.  I get the sense that they didn't try too hard when they designed them, and it's not just because they're a more "simple" class because the Barbarian doesn't give me that feeling.
  • Backgrounds (which are analogous to skills in D&D) are class-based by default (though providing a standard number for each class is discussed as an alternative rule).  The authors admit that it's a legacy thing for aesthetics, and I just can't help but feel that the more balanced and fair version should be the default even if it strays from the status quo.  After all, "per day" resources are replaced by "every four encounters" by default.  Seems like a similar issue that they went the opposite way on.
  • AC vs PD/MD.  Specifically, as far as I can tell there's no proficiency bonus for weapon attacks, yet AC is almost always better than PD/MD (sometimes significantly so).  It seems like spellcasters will be way more accurate, but perhaps I'm missing something in the math.
  • Seems like accuracy might be a bit low in general, though depending on how quick combat rounds are the escalation die might ameliorate this.

Concluding Thoughts and Overall Impression
With D&D Next's design goal of modularity and making a flexible game that can adapt to many different styles, it's interesting to see 13th Age taking the opposite approach.  To be fair, many critics doubt that D&DN will be successful in its endeavor, with the end result being a game which has some parts that appeal to pretty much everyone, but a whole that doesn't do a particular style as well as X edition or game.  It's a valid point, I think.  13th Age doesn't try to do everything, but it does cater to a specific playstyle and aesthetic and it does its thing really well.  It's not for everyone, but it doesn't try to be.  That said, it is versatile in its own ways.  Alternative rules are pointed out in the text, as well as explanations for why the authors use a certain rule (which lets you make informed decisions about whether you want to use or modify it yourself).  Transparency is important here (and hopefully D&DN takes the same approach with its modules).  The setting is also intentionally generic, as well as the mechanics that go along with it.  Relationships work the same way whether your "Emperor" is akin to Palpatine, Aragorn, Cornelius Fudge, or of your own creation.  The title isn't necessarily meant to be used literally, but rather to represent the major ruler of a powerful kingdom.  Every 13th Age campaign is supposed to be unique despite the strong ties of the core mechanic with the setting.  I think that's quite admirable, for what it's worth.

I guess the most important question is, do I see myself playing this game?  I'm not ready to give up on 4E completely, D&D Next intrigues me, and I just might consider The One Ring to be my favorite system (interestingly, like 13th Age it's also very niche in its play experience).  13th Age definitely offers a playstyle unlike those other systems and for that reason it's worth having around, but ultimately it's going to boil down to whether I have the time and whether my group(s) have any interest in playing it.  I guess that question can really only be answered after I actually play the game.  I'll reserve "final" judgement until then, but I predict that it will offer a fun experience in play.  It certainly hits my current interest in RPGs (somewhat realized, or at least strengthened, when I started playing TOR), which are 1) a simple core system and minimum of subsystems, 2) open-ended character traits, and 3) a narrative focus with mechanical ties to the game world.

If nothing else, the game offers a lot of mechanics that can be implemented in other games.  In fact, the authors openly advocate it.  Because of the similarities in the system I can easily see various types of 13th Age/4E hybrids being playable.  The Escalation Die, One Unique Thing, Icons/Relationships, and Backgrounds can easily be ported over to other systems with minimal effort.  The heal-up mechanic can even be a balancing tool in previous editions that use per-day resources (I'd already considered implementing something similar in 4E, though it was never a priority because my group doesn't try to abuse the 5 minute workday in the first place). 

After spending several days digesting everything I see the game as a worthy addition to the hobby, and I'm looking forward to seeing the more revised and cleaned up rules (as well as getting the physical book!). 

Humans in Fantasy RPGs (or RPGs in general)

I don't claim this to be any more than a personal anecdote, but I thought it was interesting the other day that while perusing the Races section of 13th Age I had absolutely no interest in reading about humans.  Similarly, more often than not I tend to avoid humans while building characters for D&D as well.  Now, this was interesting because just a few days earlier I was working on a character for The One Ring, and I found that I was drawn most strongly to the human cultures (Bardings, Beornings, and Woodmen).  Granted, I'd also LOVE to play a Hobbit in that game, but I digress.

Perhaps the broader issue is a desire to have tangible ties to the greater world in the game.  The human cultures in TOR exemplify this beautifully, not surprisingly, as they're all very much a part of Middle Earth.  They're all human, yes, but they all have different mechanical bits to distinguish them from each other (which also happens to fit their flavor exceptionally well).

In D&D, 13th Age, and most fantasy RPGs for that matter humans are typically generic.  Their schtick usually seems to be "they're diverse and adaptable," and while this opens you up to a lot of different possibilities it also gives you absolutely nothing to go on.  You're starting from scratch, as it were, which is fine if you have a very specific concept in mind, but that starting point is sometimes quite useful.  If I decide to play a Wood Elf I know that I'll likely be a sneaky, perceptive guy who lives harmoniously with nature and is either very long-lived or outright immortal.  If I'm playing a Dwarf I'm an ale-swilling tough guy with a Scottish accent who is really proud of his beard.  Etc.  Even if you decide to play against type to create an interesting and memorable character the fact still remains that the stereotype is a starting point.

What it boils down to is as soon as someone says they're an Elf I have an immediate image in my mind of the culture that that character comes from.  Same with a Dwarf, and same with a Beorning, Barding, or Woodman.  But a generic Human?  Not so much.  For a genre that's so heavily influenced by archetypes, this is significant (whether that's a good or bad thing will depend on the player, though!).

Monday, July 9, 2012

13th Age Preorder

Soooo I preordered the game on a whim.  You get a PDF of the most recent playtest version (revised), which will be further updated as the game continues to be tweaked.  Most of the playtest reviews and impressions I read were glowing, so I figured "what the hell, why not give it a shot?"  I haven't gotten all that far into it (haven't even read any of the classes), but I'm sort of wondering whether the preorder was such a good idea.

One can't help but compare it to D&D Next, since the game is described by its designers as "a love letter to D&D," and especially since those designers are Rob Heinsoo (of 4th Edition) and Jonathon Tweet (of 3rd Edition).  The game heavily emphasizes story and narrative priority, but it seems like it might have gone a bit too far in that direction.  Overall the style of game that can be run seems like it will be a bit niche (at first glance), as opposed to D&D Next's goal of appealing to as broad an audience as possible with modularity.  In short, the system seems less flexible than I'd hoped, though I may be wrong on that.  The writing does transparently advocate house rules, alternative rules, etc. 

Another letdown is that I've become very excited by the prospect of bounded accuracy, which is not in 13th Age.  While the escalation die is a good idea, the relatively low-accuracy of PCs seems like a step backwards (to un-errata'd 4E), but perhaps quicker combat rounds will rectify that. 

I do like the skill system, which is even more open-ended than D&D Next, but unfortunately defaults to certain classes getting more skills than others (that's getting house-ruled right away!). 

The biggest disappointment is that it seems like the Druid might not appear in the core book, ostensibly because of design difficulties.  I'd rather the thing be delayed and actually get a core Druid, especially since the PDF will be updated as the game gets more finalized anyways. 

More thoughts to come as I continue to read the PDF.