I haven’t posted a session summary or much of anything about the campaign I’ve been running lately, although we’ve been playing pretty much every week. I just haven’t had a lot of time and one of the players has been keeping a log of the sessions that he sends around via email. I really ought to have been posting those — they are funny and concise, and it might be interesting to add the DM’s comments where they are not spoilers.
Anyway, having been swamped with work and stuff around the house and so on, I decided to put the campaign on hiatus for a while and take a break from DMing. In the meantime the group will be trying out a bunch of games, and I hope someone will take over DMing at least for a while until I get my DM mojo back. (Time will go on in the campaign world though so that the player’s various building projects and such can proceed — the bard is building a bardic college, the paladin is starting an orphanage/madrassa, and other PCs will probably come up with other ways to spend their ill-gotten loot.)
So the first game we tried was 13th Age. Some of us were very skeptical when it was first announced (“The people who tried to turn D&D in a CCG or MMO bring you the 13th Age”) but the finished product is actually not so bad. We used pregens made up by John, who DMed, and just had to personalize the characters with the handful of things that are unique to 13th Age: backgrounds, icon relationships, and “the one unique thing about my character” (I am not sure I am calling these by their technical names).
The “Backgrounds” were the thing we liked the most. Instead of a predetermined skill set, you choose 2 or more areas where you have some experiences beyond your race/class stuff and invoke them for rolls that they would be relevant to, by distributing eight “points” (maximum of 5 on any one thing). So if you took (as I did for my wizard character) “Secretary of the Forbidden Lore Club in warlock academy: 3” I might add 3 to any roll where that comes into play — knowing the names/quirks of other wizards who might have been in the club too, knowing stuff they don’t teach you in Wizarding School, knowing about secret cults or curses, finding a school chum who might be willing or able to help the party, etc. The rules encourage something very specific rather than general, as this both makes the skill flexible and fleshes out the campaign world. Old schoolers might see this as an echo of the optional “background skills” from AD&D 1e, but instead of being limited to professions they can be anything. As I said, we really liked this skill-less skill system and will likely steal it for any future D&D type games we play. It is about as simple as you can get while still attaching a number to skills.
The “relationships to icons” (or whatever it is a called) involves selecting up to three of the thirteen gods/demigods/heroes that rule the game world, and deciding if they like you, hate you, or have a conflicted relationship with you. Some of them are “good guys” (The Archmage, the Emporer), some are “bad guys” (the Diabolist, the Orclord), and some are ambiguous (the Elf Queen, the Shadowmaster). This basically takes the place of alignment. In fact it really hearkens back to the origins of “alignment” in D&D, meaning who side you are on, only in this case you might be on more than one side, or opposing one or more sides. I think of Treebeard telling Merry & Pippin that he’s not altogether on anyone’s side…. There are some consequences of this choice in play, and the starter adventure in the book notes that certain information or goals might come up according to whether or not any PCs have relationships with specific icons. We did not delve too deeply into this in our playtest. It looks OK but I see it as a double-edged sword. Either you use the 13 godlings presented or you replace them with your own pantheon, which means you need to decide if you’re buying into the whole game-world or not, and supplements or modules for 13th Age will presumably use these icons as important plot points, so if you decide the “icons” present are not for you, you might have to excise a lot from any future materials. I am not opposed to games with specific settings (MERP and WHFRP are both awesome games IMO) but I do prefer D&Dish games to be more world-neutral. Then again if you don’t rely on extras anyway you won’t have a problem.
The last bit is choosing something unique about your PC. Part of my groans a little because that should be something that develops in play, IMO, but remember the game is catering to new-schoolers too, so I’ll let that pass. Again there are no specific limits (except it can’t be a combat bonus), but the DM should probably treat this a bit like a wish: get too greedy and it will be a mixed blessing. I took “I can understand the language of animals” (but not speak it) which seemed like it could be interesting but not too overpowered; another player took “Everyone believes whatever I say” (which did not actually impact the session, as there was little role-playing). The DM excluded logical impossibilities, and pointed out that it could mean the PC cannot lie at all.
Other than these three areas, the character sheet looks a lot like a stripped down 4e character. There is AC, and a “mental defense” and “physical defense” for avoiding other attacks. Class abilities might be at-will, daily, or “cyclic” — the last meaning once per “battle” or encounter, but possibly rechargeable during a battle as the “escalation die” increases. More on that in a second. Some abilities are “triggered” by certain events or rolls, for example if your roll is even, or you hit last round, or when you miss. This I think is a refinement of something in 4e but I am a little fuzzy on 4e now, having not played it much.
The escalation die is the main mechanical innovation we saw. You use a die as a counter, starting at zero, and increasing by one every round until it hits (and stops at) “6”. This number is added to the PC’s attack and damage rolls as the fight slowly gets more “climactic”. Our DM, who actually read the book and some of the discussion online about this game, thinks the idea is to avoid the “all or nothing” first round of 4e games. It certainly does seem to encourage defensive play in the beginning rounds and it does give the PCs a big advantage later on, if they last! The weird thing though is that it is anti-realistic (in real life you’d be getting fatigued by a fight, not getting stronger like the Hulk), and an example of what you’d still call a “dissociated mechanic” (a thing in the game that does not really make sense within the game-world).
Monsters looked like they were fairly simple stat blocks — HP, AC, MD, PD, and base to hit/damage are all they really need, plus a few notes for any special stuff. BIG IMPROVEMENT here. Move is not really bothered with since there is no “grid” and really no need for minis, which is a big change from WotC D&D, but we still used minis to keep track of the action. We just didn’t need to measure or count squares, and just put them on the bare tabletop. That was nice.
Anyway our consensus was that the game seemed pretty good. It is definitely on the “heroic” side: my 1st level wizard had five spells, and could take three good hits from a goblin before dropping. And yet there is some danger, and our fighter type guy went to zero hp or lower in both fights we played. The combats lasted about half an hour to an hour, which considering that we were learning the rules seemed OK. We worried a little that the escalation mechanic would encourage longer combats generally, but it is still a long way from 4e, where we rarely completed more than one fight in a session. We only played one session, but agreed it was probably enough to get a sense of the game and what we liked about it & didn’t. So caveat emptor there — a longer playtest might reveal more good or bad or more likely both.
Does this game feel like D&D? Yes.
Is it rules-light enough for casual gamers? Maybe.
Is it crunchy enough for engineers? Yes.
Would I play it again? Yes, but it would not be my choice for a campaign.
Would I run it? Well….probably not. There’s still a lot of 4e stuff, and you start out as hero rather than becoming one.
What would I steal from this game? The “backgrounds” skill system for sure.
In a sentence? This is still 4e, but pared down in light of the most common criticisms it faced and with a few improvements actually that make it a better game.