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!). 


  1. I like the Icon Mechanic: it seems to me a good way to implement one of D&D's biggest problem (aka Alignment).

    I think Icons are closer to Alignment's original concept (heavily inspired by Three Hearts and Three Lions and Stormbringer) than all that crappy tyrant/crusader/destroyer stuff we usually read on D&D's PHBs.

    1. That's a really good point. The worst part about alignment is the accusations that a character is playing "against alignment," as if real people are so one-dimensional and black-and-white. Wait, no, it's worse that there are mechanics to punish such behavior!

      The Icon mechanic is a better realization of the concept; the way you relate to the different icons says a lot about your system of morality, and yet it's expected that relationships between people are complex, and no two people agree completely. Nobody necessarily expects you to emulate the icons like you would "play your alignment," and that's a good thing! It encourages more interesting characters with shades of grey, conflicting opinions, and ultimately more psychological depth overall.