Yo what is all this?
is a d20 roleplaying game that was released in 2013 by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Setting wise, it's mostly a standard sword-and-sorcery medieval tabletop RPG, with its own unique twists and gimmicks.
Hey those names sound familiar! Where do I know them from?
Rob Heinsoo was a lead developer for D&D 4th edition and Jonathan Tweet was a lead designer for D&D 3rd edition. They worked together on the D&D Miniatures Game, and were laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2009 and 2008, respectively.
Oh so this is just another D&D-style miniatures RPG?
Not even at all! In fact 13th Age arguably goes further than even D&D 5th edition at de-emphasizing minis and invoking "theater of the mind." Distances and ranges in combat are very vaguely defined (nearby, adjacent, far away, engaged) and while you can use a map in combat, a grid is virtually useless. I'll quote the game itself:
So what do I need to know about?
So the designers worked on 3e and on 4e. How does this compare?
Critics complained that 3E weighed the game down with rules for everything, turning an open-ended roleplaying game into a complicated simulation, arithmetic on a grid. 13th Age is a rules-light, free-form, gridless way to play a story-oriented campaign.
3E took the game forward in terms of player options and universal mechanics, and we have followed suit.
Critics compared 4E to a board game or miniatures game that distanced itself from its roots. 13th Age is about story-oriented campaigns not minis, and it revisits its roots with its setting and rules.
4E took the game forward in terms of balance and game play, and so do we.
For my money, there's three Main Ideas that set 13th Age apart among d20 games
Setting wise, the most unique facet of 13th Age is the presence of the Icons. These are 13th personas that range from notably powerful NPCs (the Emperor, the Elf Queen, the Archmage, the Dwarf King) to potential antagonists (the Crusader, the Orc Lord, the Three, the Lich King) to near god-like entities (the Diabolist, the Priestess, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid). All player characters start with a few (generally 3, sometimes more) Icon Relationship Points
. These are defined by the player at character creation and help feed the story. Relationships can be Positive, Conflicted, or Negative, and are easiest to think of as a low-level reputation system, with the Icons representing either particularly large or particularly powerful factions. Both the Icons and the Relationship Dice exist to help players and GMs set up the story they want to tell.
It should probably be noted that while the Icon Relationship Dice are a really great way to help define how a character is aligned with various factions and NPCs at character creation, in actual play the dice, as designed in the game, can be a bit clunky and sometimes feel irrelevant. It's...tricky, and most GMs end up appropriating the dice in different ways. The game devotes quite a few pages to introducing the Icons, and to explaining what Icon Relationships are, how they translate into dice, and how they can influence the game. Still, the Icons and Relationships with them remain one of the most standout features of 13th Age. You might even say the Icons are the game's One Unique Thing
Hey what about alignment?
What about it!? The short answer is that Alignment doesn't exist in any meaningful way in 13th Age
What's the long answer?
Player Characters don't have any meaningful Alignment in 13th Age. Icons do, though! Well, sort of. More accurately, there's a chart (13th Age core, p 27) that shows the general position of the Icons on the traditional 3x3 alignment grid. This is just a tool to help players better understand where the Icons stand, and doesn't directly influence your character in any way. It doesn't even directly inform how many points you can spend on a given Icon Relationship. That is determined by whether a given Icon is considered to be Heroic, Ambiguous, or Villainous (and the initial listings are only "Usually" and "Possibly" so GMs still have some ability to tailor the game for their story).
So how do Icon Relationships work?
I'm glad you asked!
At character creation, each character has at least 3 Icon Relationship points (some classes have Talents that grant them extra). The GM clarifies which Icons are Heroic, Ambiguous, and Villainous in this story. Players then spend their dice in any of the following ways:
- Up to 3 points on either Positive or Conflicted relationships with either Heroic or Ambiguous Icons
- Up to 2 points on either Conflicted or Negative relationships with Villainous Icons or Negative relationships with Ambiguous Icons
- Up to 1 point on either a Negative relationship with a Heroic Icon or a Positive relationship with a Villainous Icon
These points, in addition to generally giving an outline of how the PC views the world and its movers and shakers (and vice versa), translate directly into Icon Relationship Dice. Here's a couple of splats from the book:
when you’re called on to check your icon relationships, you’ll roll a single d6 for each point of relationship. You roll 1, 2, or 3 (or possibly 4 at epic level) six-sided dice, the same number of dice as the points you spent for the relationship with that icon.
Hope for 6s: If any die is a 6, you get some meaningful advantage from the relationship without having complications. If two or three dice come up 6, that’s even better.
Look out for 5s: If any die is a 5, your connection to the icon is going to work out as well as a 6 would, but with some unexpected complication. If it’s a good icon, you might be drawn into some obligation. If it’s a villainous icon, you might attract unwanted attention.
Both 5s and 6s: Rolling 5s when you also rolled 6s should make life both interesting and advantageous!
Why the d6? Yes, this is a d20-based game. Yes, most of the mechanics that matter use a d20. By using d6s for relationship rolls, we’re singling them out. This is the moment when the story pivots on your possible connection to one of the beings who shape reality. Level, Charisma, a good head-chakra item, none of that helps.
As GMs, we use player characters’ icon relationships three different ways.
Starting a session: All players roll their PC’s icon relationship dice at the start of each session, and everybody sees the results. By the end of the session, each 6 or 5 should contribute to the story somehow, either at the GM’s or player’s initiative.
The GM uses the results to think ahead about which icons come to the fore this session. Players use the results to start thinking about how their icon relationships might manifest in the story.
In-game dramatic events: Players roll all of their relationship dice for a particular icon when their PCs are confronting that icon’s representatives, agents, or minions. The GM decides when an event-based roll is called for. At their best, dramatic event rolls can map a surprising path that you and the players will make sense of via shared storytelling and the game’s other tools.
Discovery & Surprise: At the GM’s option, players may roll icon relationship dice to find out which icons are involved in a plot element, if any. When the characters have slalomed onto paths and adventures you did not anticipate, icon relationship rolls can serve as an idea generator with mechanics that everyone already understands.
There's one other method that's been mentioned/discussed in another thread that I want to mention:
End of level: When the party reaches a new level, before the end of the session, the GM should have all the players roll their Icon Relationship Dice (any newly acquired dice would be rolled along with any previously held dice). The GM notes down who rolled what and with which Icons, and uses these notes to aid in determine how the story develops over the next level. Of course the players, having seen their rolls, will probably have a very general idea of which Icons they may have to deal with (for better or worse), so they're free to offer any ideas, especially if they have any particular story beats they'd like their character to experience.
The One Unique Thing is another significant idea 13th Age brings to the table. The general idea is that PCs are special. Sure there's other fighters or wizards or even monks in the world, but yours has something about them that sets them apart from all the others, and this One Unique Thing is why your character is destined to be a hero in the world. The OUT is a strictly storytelling tool that should have little to no mechanical impact, and is used as a character hook, and the game encourages letting players have a wide berth to determine what their character's OUT is. Examples include "I am a dwarf who was born covered in scales from the egg of a dragon," or "I am the daughter that the Archmage doesn't know he has. Unfortunately, I don't have any proof, but I believe what my late mother told me," to "The stars sing to me. Sometimes they tell me things, and sometimes those things are true," to even "I'm the only human to be called into the dwarven priesthood - Ever." The OUT exists to allow the player a to define the character in a way that numbers on a sheet just can't
, and to help provide GMs some information about who the character is deep down.
While maybe not quite as significant as Icons or OUTs (depending on your game), Backgrounds sort of round out the storytelling trifecta for players in 13th Age. Backgrounds are the skills system, and have both storytelling and mechanical implications on the game. Players generally get 8 points to spend on backgrounds (but a few classes, especially "skillful" ones, can get more), and backgrounds are defined by the player. GMs are again encouraged to give players a lot of leniency in defining their characters' backgrounds. Lots of examples are given in the book, both in a short section under character creation, and in each individual class' write-up. Backgrounds can be pretty much anything you define, but are generally very short phrases such as "traveling caravan guard," or "temple scribe," or one that I've used was "remarkable unremarkable" as a way of showing "this character isn't stealthy per se
, but still sometimes hears or sees things most don't, because people tend to find him beneath their notice or too harmless to worry about" It's a fantasy game, use your imagination!
Okay! So what else?
Well those are probably the three most significant things from a story perspective for the game.
Here's a little blurb about races and classes, which I'll throw in spoilers so it doesn't take up too much more space
On Races and Feats
Races in 13th Age are pretty standard. Humans, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, half elves, half orc, half dragons, and tiefling, and aasimar (demon- and god-touched, respectively). Elves are treated as both three distinct races and one general race, the result of a civil war (literal) ages ago. Drow are not necessarily capital-E Evil but are generally regarded poorly, the other two branches (High and Wood) are regarded about the same as in most games. There are also the Forgeborn or Dwarf-forged, generally Warforged, who are defined as being constructs made by Dwarves and usually kept in the underworld, out of public sight. Forgeborn, Tieflings, Aasimar, and Draconics are all optional races that GMs may exclude from their game. The 13th Age Bestiary also introduced the Twygzog (mushroom people). Each race gives you two different ability scores that you may receive a +2 in (humans can choose any one). You only receive the boost to one of the listed abilities (your other +2 comes from your class, and cannot be to the same ability), and each race also has some sort of racial power
Feats are generally pretty straightforward. You start with one (humans get a bonus feat), and gain a feat at every level. Feats in 13th Age are generally treated as ways to slightly beef up an existing ability, and to this end they are typically listed under the game element that they modify or augment (which is considered as a pre-requisite for the relevant feat). There is a list of feats in the core book, including general feats with no pre-reqs, such as Further Backgrounding (gain more background points), or Improved Initiative (bonus to init checks). There are also several "feat trees" which amount to one feat per tier (Adventurer, Champion, Epic), where you usually must have the lower tier feats to be able to take the higher one. This is vastly less egregious than feat trees in other games for two reasons - you gain a feat every level, and each such tree is only 3 feats deep. Spending feats this way is viewed as focusing the character.
Nine player classes are detailed in the 13th Age core book, with another six added in the 13 True Ways supplement. One openly acknowledged fact of classes in 13th Age is that all classes do not operate the same way at all. There is an intentional discrepancy in the complexity with which each class works. On one end are classes that are designed to be simple and straightforward, like the Barbarian, Ranger, and Paladin, who operate more or less in standard ways (basic attacks only, with class features/talents that modify how these attacks work and the damage they do). Toward the middle are classes like the Fighter, Rogue, and Monk, that are still fairly standard, but have a bit more choice and flexibility in what they can do round to round and some variance in how they build and use combat abilities. Spellcasters like the Cleric, Wizard, Necromancer, and Sorcerer are a bit more advanced, with a slightly more complicated mix of class features, and spells that can be at-will, Daily, or a range of options in between. Then there are classes like the Commander or The Occultist who are just plain weird, with a focus on off-turn actions, these classes typically require a more experienced player who can pay close attention round-to-round, to make sure they jump in at the right time.
Now, all that said, classes are still very well balanced. Over the course of the game's 10 levels, no one class is going to clearly and obviously always be better than any others. Some may be more useful in certain situations, but those cases will generally vary with the group, and a great amount of care is taken to make sure that there are no huge power creeps. Each class, like each race, offers two ability scores to choose between for another +2, with the same caveat that both +2s cannot go to the same score. Classes also determine starting defenses (Armor Class, Physical Defense, Mental Defense), which get bonuses based on your ability scores.
Multiclassing was introduced in 13 True Ways and is more correctly a system for Dual Classing. You pick two classes, apply the requisite benefits and advantages of the MC system, and you level up both classes simultaneously as you go. The biggest disadvantage is that you will always effectively be one level behind with respect to gaining class-based combat abilities, feats, and talents.
13th Age, core rulebook, p 75, lists the 9 classes by how they rate the ease/complexity of play -
The barbarian is designed for the player who wants to roll dice and slay without worrying too much about the rules.
Like the barbarian, the ranger relies on base attacks augmented by class talents instead of a power list.
The paladin also relies on a short list of class talents instead of powers. Like the ranger, it can be slightly more complex if you choose its more involved talents.
The fighter is simple to play but asks you to make interesting choices between flexible attacks before and during combat.
The cleric is probably the easiest of the spellcasters. It requires a touch of patience.
The sorcerer is probably more complex than the cleric because of variant spells and the option to cast spells for double the effect in two rounds. Not a decision that new players may feel comfortable with.
The rogue can be more complex than other classes because you are tracking whether or not you have momentum, constantly disengaging, and trying to use your Sneak Attack damage effectively.
The bard has a variety of options that include battle cries, spells, and songs. Figuring out how to use these options in combat and during roleplaying is probably best for a confident player.
The wizard is the most complex class if you choose all the options that allow improvisation and ad-libbing; without those free-form talents, it’s no more difficult than the sorcerer.
13 True Ways introduces more classes, outlining them on p 12 -
Chaos mage: It might be simple to play because its randomness offers a small number of choices. The choices matter, but a beginning player might not feel pressured about them.
Commander: Classes that are all about acquiring resources to boss their allies around aren’t usually great for beginners. The commander wants to pay attention at all times and figure out when to interject with a command.
Druid: This class sits at the very top limit of options and spells available to one class. The design goal was to enable players to create the variety of druid they want to play, and there have been many over the years. There’s a lot of options to explore.
Monk: They’re fun for people who want to jump around and fight with a blend of old-time monk abilities and Hong Kong action movie styles. Unlike the druid, the monk isn’t designed with an eye toward pleasing multiple demographics.
Necromancer: A somewhat straightforward nasty spellcaster that uses undead allies to good effect.
The Occultist: Rarity of rarities, a class designed to be a singular individual! The occultist is a highly powerful manipulator of reality who needs to pay attention during everyone else’s turn. It’s also somewhat crocked. It’s not a class likely to appeal to everyone . . . and it’s not meant to. Just you, the one person for whom the class was designed.
I'll likely do another big post later today, with more info. But for more information you can check out The 13th Age System Reference Document online here
as well as The 13th Age FAQ here
Also there are currently only four books in the 13th Age Line: 13th Age (the core rulebook), 13 True Ways (which adds additional 6 additional classes and multiclassing rules, and adds lots of new story and GM content), 13th Age Bestiary (which introduces one new race, the Twyzgog, and otherwise has lots of new monsters), and the 13th Age Book of Loot (which has loads of new magic items, flavored to different icons).