Roll Perception Plus Awareness: 13th Age

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.

This time out, we stay near to Dungeons and Dragons as we did last time with Monsters and Magic, taking a look at one of the two big Dungeons and Dragons influenced games coming out this summer¹.

Let me introduce you to a world surrounding a placid inland sea, an Empire run by a powerful Emperor. Powerful forces work within and without the empire. A powerful Lich amasses forces on an island in the Midland sea. A High Priestess seeks to unite all of the worshippers of the Gods of Good together. A Giant Gold Dragon keeps the endless maw of the dark Abyss from spilling its contents onto the world by bodily blocking the entrance. An Elvish Queen rules the elves and listens to their concerns-all the elves, both light and dark. A Dwarf King counts his gold, and old grudges, too, in his Mountain Hall. And there are others, too.

All are seemingly cognizant that the world is on the cusp of change. Big change that the player characters themselves can have a hand in shaping. Massive change to the world is not an unprecedented thing to the Dragon Empire and the lands around it. It has happened 12 times before, you see.

Let me introduce you to the 13th Age.


13th Age was designed by the team of Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet and is published by Pelgrane Press. Rob Heinsoo was a lead designer on the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and Jonathan Tweet was a lead designer on 3rd Edition. If you will cast yourself back to my column on 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, you may immediately wonder how well the designers of radically different flavors of Dungeons and Dragons could possibly work together.

Amazingly well, as it turns out.

Many of the base mechanics are going to be familiar to D&D player of any stripe. Same six stats, most of the classes (Fighters, Clerics, Sorcerers, Rogues, etc.) that you know and love. The races (with a couple of added experimental ones) are the usual humans, elves, dwarves and the like. Powers and abilities of characters work in ways similar to 4th Edition, complete with spells and abilities that work all the time, or once a day, or in between (although 13th Age does it differently than “encounter”). You roll a d20 to hit the bad guys.

However, 13th Age is far from just being a clone. Backgrounds are used in place of skills, and players are encouraged to make non-generic ones to help make them more tied into the world. What sounds more awesome, distinctive and useful as a background: “Sword-fighting” or “Paladin of the High Church of Beigelus”?

Characters have feats and talents that customize their powers and abilities. Want to be a sorcerer who really likes to use her breath weapon spells? You can take a talent that makes those kind of spells more awesome, giving bonuses as well as thereby distinguishing your character. “You know, Johanna, Zandra seems to like to Breathe first and asks questions *after* they’ve defrosted”.

Beyond nuts and bolts mechanics, the real strengths in 13th Age, and the most interesting to those readers of this column more interested in story than rolling dice, are the story-game elements Tweet and Heinsoo have added to the game. I’ve already mentioned backgrounds, but there’s plenty more:

One Unique Thing: Every character has one unique thing about them, something that makes them different from everyone else in the world. This is not typically something that gives a bonus for combat, but instead something for the GM to hook on. In a short campaign I ran of 13th Age, I had player characters that included a reincarnated White Dragon (*The* White Dragon. mind), a Mummy-like employee of the Lich King who had a penchant for making dying enemies into friendly servitor undead, and the only person ever to kill one of the nigh-unkillable behemoths that trample on the edges of the empire. (He was not even trying to kill it, either; It was an experiment gone badly wrong.)

Icons: I’ve alluded to these before. The 13th Age world has 13 movers and shakers, forces that shape, direct and influence the world. From the Emperor of the Dragon Empire to the Orc Lord who might lead the Horde to bring it down, from the Great Dragon that holds the main body of devils of the Abyss at bay to the Diabolist who unleashes creatures from that evil dimension for her own dark purposes. The game has the characters tied to the personage and the organizations around one or more of these icons, a way beyond alignment to show where character sympathies lie. These bonds can be positive, negative, or ambiguous.

The important thing to know about bonds with Icons, and the Characters in general is that this is a heroic, high fantasy game in ways that 4th Edition tried to be but this game is far more effective at. Characters are big deals even at first level, especially with their connections to the movers and shakers of the world, and that is only reinforced as they grow in power. An Escalation Die, which makes characters more effective as a combat goes on, also results in combats that are punchier, shorter and more cinematic rather than long drawn out affairs.

Player character connections to the Icons are important and are two way streets. Got a positive relationship with the Archmage? Oh, yes, one of his lieutenants might lend you that Staff of fireballs, but down the line, you might be asked to drag your party over to deal with a cloud-island that has fallen from the sky. And if you are an enemy of the Orc Lord? Well, that explains why that band of Ogres and Orcs has been following you since Hammer Falls.

And that is the other thing to take away and understand about the world of 13th Age. Its not quite as gonzo as the world of Exalted but the world has plenty for players to interact with. Fancy visiting Cloud islands in the sky (which you can visit), tackling living dungeons that tunnel toward the surface with their payload of monsters, cleansing weak spots in reality where Hell is pushing through (where’s Buffy when you need her?), daring to visit a city of magic users where even the clever walk carefully, taking a missive to a Cathedral whose layout seems as mutable as the religions within it, or even joining the Knights of the Empire who take to the sky on Dragons (what, you thought the Dragon in the Dragon Empire was just a heraldic symbol?)? All that, and much more is within the world of 13th Age. And with such a template and canvas and example, any GM worth her salt can import stuff from anywhere and elsewhere, and the setting makes it feel possible to do. Did I mention I had my players find a ruined city in the Jungle that had, amongst its many inhabitants, a lost band of Martha Wells’ Raksura who accidentally wound up in the 13th Age world?

13th Age is a lot of fun to play and offers a lot to Dungeons and Dragons players who are willing to interject some story elements into their fun, and just want to play in something heroic, bright and adventurous. This is a game for Big Damn Heroes, or those who would become them. Me, I like to see Big Damn Heroes in my game as well as play them. Now how about you?

¹The other big Dungeons and Dragons influenced and derived game coming out, rapidly approaching release at the time of writing, is Monte J Cook’s Numenera. RPPA will have much more to say about the game in a future column.

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