Monday, September 22, 2014

The Gaming Technology of 13th Age

I've played one session of 5th Edition, but when I sat down to create the character, I found all of my options a little lackluster. 5th Edition starts you off with almost no special powers so you can grow into your character. Now, that's great for newer players. But I wouldn't be surprised if many 5th edition games pull an old school Darksun and start off at 3rd level where you've already picked the path your character will follow.

But what it really meant was I've been looking a lot harder at 13th Age. And man, is there some great stuff in there.

First, the three most widely known aspects of 13th Age are probably the Icons and icon relationships, the escalation die, and One Unique Thing. The icons provide a neat way to bring big NPCs or their factions into play, even if they themselves aren't necessarily seen. The escalation die alters combat so you've got some advantages towards the end. This has two effects. First, combats shouldn't last forever (the 4e grind). Second, defense is a reasonable strategy (wait till your attacks are more potent towards the end of combat). Obviously you can use your big guns right away (a dead enemy can deal no damage) but in some most other games playing defensively is mostly just going to make combats last a lot longer. Since its a mechanic, you can then hang other mechanics off it so an attack might be better or worse if you use it early or late in the battle.

But there's a lot more than that. These aren't all unique to 13th Age (which explicitly calls out the origins of some of these features) but really all add up to make the game more than a simple d20 variant. The best thing is, some of them are more philosophical and easy to port into D&D or another game. Others you could do with minor mechanical tweaks. In general, its easier to export these ideas from 13th Age to your own game than remove the rulesy bits from 13th Age. Removing the Icons would have minimal effects on most classes, but removing the escalation die might be quite a bit broader, for example. Removing One Unique Thing just makes 13th Age less custom, while the backgrounds could be replaced with Gumshoe style skills (perhaps based on Lorefinder?).

Middle of or lower of 2-3 stats. In 13th Age, you use the middle or lower of ability scores to determine your defenses (or attacks for multiclass characters, it seems). This means taking one 18 and dumping the other stats isn't such a great plan. A simple and elegant solution which min-maxers can still try to make use of, but not to the extent as most versions of D&D or Pathfinder. 4th Edition did the reverse of this: higher of dex or int for reflex. This meant you could dump one easily. Median of three or lowest of two means you've got a couple scores that still matter. This might mean, however, that having one or two really low scores (if you apply it even more broadly) might make a character significantly less playable.

Fail Forward. This isn't unique to 13th Age, its more of a philosophy. Missed attacks might still deal some damage (hit points are not equal to meat or specific wounds anyway). A failed climbing check might simply result in damage instead of an insurmountable obstacle (though maybe the cliff does prove insurmountable and you have to go the long or dangerous way around). Ever since one game where I played where my character had virtually no chance of making the required check and the DM wouldn't let us advance without it... This has been my philosophy.

Incremental Advance. Levels are big deals. But you can give out a portion of a level early as a bonus for good RP or just regular attendance. This means you might your next feat or class feature early, which are nice and concrete benefits, and playing 4 sessions between levels should still be rewarding.

Weapon Damage and AC by Class. This seems very DungeonWorld to me, but I kinda like it. A barbarian might always do more damage with a longsword than a bard. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Likewise a paladin wearing full plate might have a better AC than the barbarian. Because that's how the class works.

Class complexity ranking. I'm not necessarily of the opinion that each class needs its own set of special powers to make it play different than another, and I certainly think that (by and large) a set of spells does enough for the wizard without needing fiddly once-per-day non-spell powers or whatnot. But in a game where each class does play quite differently and (in general) has its own unique schtick, the ranking of which classes are great for beginners is precious. Barbarians, paladins, and rangers are easier because most of their stuff is basic attacks. Fighters and clerics are more complex because they have more options in play. Sorcerers and rogues are even more complex, because they've got a lot of different options. Wizards can be the most (or closer to sorcerers and rogues) depending on their choices. The additional classes in 13 True Ways (Chaos mage, Commander, Druid, Monk, Necromancer, Occultist) aren't ranked because they're all at least at the Sorcerer/Rogue level of complexity. They call out that the Chaos Mage and Necromancer might be easy enough for beginning players, but its nice to be able to show a list to people too. 13th Age is a little more "do as thou will" though for that.

Backgrounds as Skills. This is one of the the skill systems I actually like. I think I like the Gumshoe system too, but this one I do like. In 13th Age, you use nifty backgrounds as your skills. So if I'm a 'Shaman for a tribe of ancestor worshippers who were wiped out in gnoll attack', I might use that background for tribal etiquette, knowledge of rival tribes, shamanic practices, or gnoll tactics. Min-maxers might be stumped with these and try for a "jack of all trades +5" background, but a crafty GM will just hook them into the plot more. Plus, your class stuff doesn't really interfere or modify backgrounds much, so there's nothing for min-maxers to do but create an intricate background for their character.

Fight in Spirit. This apparently comes from Fate, or so the interwebs claimed. When you're out of a fight, you pull a Final Fantasy where your character might be praying for their allies, or otherwise inspire people and grant a minor bonus. Helps keep people involved even if they've just been irrevocable slain.

Technology of the d20. Critical hits and fumbles have been around for a long time on 20s and 1s, and at least by late second edition we started seeing what resembles today's expanded crit range (On a hit of 18-20...). But 13th Age really brings this all out by having some powers (flexible attacks, lots with the bard, fighter, and sorcerer but also some on the druid and monk iirc plus monsters galore!) activate on a natural even or odd, on a natural high-ish number (16+), on a lower number (two-weapon fighting lets you reroll on a 2), a bad miss (1-5), etc.

Player Pics. An easy to miss section, but it just says let your players (or one of them each session or after a big milestone) pick one element that's been in the game to highlight. A villain, a cult which was sorta forgotten about 2 sessions ago, etc. Then you try to work it in.

Mooks. Obviously we saw these in 4e, but these rules are nice.

Nastier specials. Many monsters have additional optional attacks which can be used to spice things up or if the encounter is significantly weaker than you expected. It also easily lets you make a stronger leader figure for the group of enemies.

Death Attacks and the last gasp save. Death attacks done pretty well. The medusa in the basic rule book is a really nice example of how these save-or-die mechanics can be threatening but not overwhelming (and based one one or two bad rolls).

Conditional spell lists. This is a strange one from 13 True Ways, but the Chaos Mage and the Druids with the terrain magic talent have a set of spells which changed from encounter to encounter. The Chaos Mage (predictably) randomly has a small set of options on any given turn in combat, while the terrain magic talent of the druid gives you different spells depending on what type of terrain you're in (broadly construed). I love this idea so much that the druid can have a nice geomancer feel. (Druids are a super versatile class and can really take a major and minor talent --like terrain magic, an animal companion, healing, or shapeshifting--or go for breadth with three different minor talents for versatility.)

I might have missed one or two, by the way.

Its not really fair to compare this directly to D&D. Obviously 5th edition has some of its own new tech (the double roll for advantage all over the place, one proficiency bonus for lots of things) and other implementations of similar tech (bounded accuracy or a lower range of bonuses over the game). Some of these are also in 13th Age: bounded accuracy because the game only goes up to level 10 (so a +1 per level has a hard cap), some classes like the Barbarian's rage gets the double rolls (and crits if you hit and both dice are 11+), etc. Also, 13th Age had all of previous D&D to draw from, in addition to more indie and opinionated games. I'm not sure how the timeline of 13th Age and DungeonWorld match up, one or both of them could have drawn from the other if they were in progress around summer 2012, but I think its fair to say that 13th Age makes D&D much more like an indie game in the vein of DungeonWorld but quite a bit crunchier in terms of mechanics and rolling.

Now I just gotta herd some nerds into my living room to give this baby the testing it deserves.

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