13th Age

I’ve been fed up with D&D and its many incarnations (basically D&D 2, 3, 3.5, and 4, Pathfinder, and other d20 knock-offs) for some time now. The picayune rules complexity is painful and unwelcome; the generic European medieval fantasy gameworld is bland and uninspiring; its core activity of killing things and taking their stuff is vaguely unsettling; and the constant repetition of the same storytelling tropes has become tiresome. With small-press and indie RPG publishers doing so many interesting things, it’s time to move on. My tastes now run much more towards a game like Arcana Evolved, a game based on the D&D 3.5 rules but one where Monte Cooke’s wonderfully imaginative and well-realized world, driven by a distinctive creative vision, justified the complexity. Or Robin Law’s Ashen Stars, which uses a simple, highly playable and player-driven game system in a terrifically-realized setting. Nonetheless, I was optimistic about 13th Age. The promise of a streamlined game system and higher expectations for player engagement appealed to me, but a d20 game based in a traditional D&D-ish fantasy world makes finding players much easier. Here was the possibility of happy compromise.

If you’ve played D&D4, the rules transition to playing 13th Age is relatively painless (and only somewhat less so, although perhaps a little more fraught, if you’re coming from D&D3 or Pathfinder). Your character sheet will look much simpler, but entirely familiar. You roll d20s for checks. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers define your character. Healing surges, saving throws, and attacks and defenses are all still there. Combat no longer uses a map grid, but otherwise has a similar feel. D&D4 may have had a variety of issues, but it did good work in terms of filing off needless rules complexity and making D&D a more playable game and less about searching for rules exploits. 13th Age pushes even further in this direction.

Although 13th Age races and classes are defined similarly to D&D4, they are clearly homages to incarnations past. They’re all here: Fighters, Wizards, Clerics, Rogues, Bards, and so on. Barbarians are simple to play, have only a few powers to activate even as they go up levels, and just wade into melee and kick ass and take names. Fighters are more sophisticated and have a variety of combat maneuvers that can trigger on every die roll. Rogues and Wizards reclaim their place as the most intricate classes, requiring both the management of lots of abilities and the creative use of strong but situational powers. Notably, Paladins are both playable and interesting, a first for a fantasy d20 game I believe (I can’t personally speak to Bards). Initially I was pleased to see D&D4’s movement towards balanced classes, but I soon realized the fix (giving everything a high degree of symmetry) was as bad as the original problem (the classes no longer felt distinctive). 13th Age gets this right.

So far, this “just” adds up to a more skillfully executed version of D&D. 13th Age brings 3 key new ideas: character backgrounds, icons relationships, and one unique things (there are some other ideas, including a magic item system that promises more than it delivers, but these are the big ones). Some aspects work better than others, and they all highlight both the potential and the pitfalls of the game.

Backgrounds replace D&D skills. Concrete skills (run, jump, diplomacy, etc.) are gone. Instead, you write backgrounds for your character, which can range from the straightforward to the esoteric: “temple guard”, “reformed thief”, and “hellhole commando” are some examples from the book. My last character, a dark elf paladin, had “Emissary of the Court of the Stars” and “The Queen’s Executioner”. If you need to make a skill check, just see if one of your backgrounds applies and use it as a bonus. This is terrific and gives you a lot of interesting leeway to both bring your character to life in a mechanically useful way, and add your creative voice to the setting (who knew the Elf Queen used elite assassins?). More games should do this.

Replacing the bizarre pantheon of D&D deities, 13 Age gives us 13 Icons – the mortal but incredibly powerful movers and shakers of the 13th Age world. Some of these are cool and add depth to the setting: The Archmage, The Crusader, The Great Gold Wyrm, and The Three. Some of them are startlingly generic: just the names of The Dwarf King, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, and The Orc Lord tell you most of what there is. All characters start with relationships with a couple of them, either positive, negative, or ambiguous. You roll a die for each of your relationship points at the start of a session, and 5s and 6s create “story hooks” which bring that relationship into that evening’s play. I like this is theory, but unless you’re playing in an extremely improvisational style, in practice it is at best a bit awkward. The throughline of 13th Age is still largely about killing things and taking their stuff, so GMs are going to spec out combat scenes (much easier than any version of D&D, but still some work) and work out the general adventure flow, so these relationship rolls serve mainly to provide riffing possibilities or flavor. Which is OK but not spectacularly interesting, and they also have a big risk: they can significantly damage party cohesion. If one player has picked the Crusader and the GM uses one of her relationship rolls as the hook for the adventure, how does she convince another player whose relationships are with the Elf Queen and the High Druid to come along? These icons have rather different agendas. 13th Age provides no inherent glue to keep parties with relationships to different Icons from coming apart. The first thing you need to figure out as a GM is how you keep your players together and focussed. These relationship rolls are sufficiently awkward that I suspect many GMs will end up looking at their players’ icon relationships and just regard them as story requests, and ignore the die-roll mechanics associated with them.

Lastly, the One Unique Thing is the simplest but also the most interesting aspect of your character. Usually just one short sentence, it describes what makes your character different from everyone else. The rules and examples give you significant leeway in interpreting just what “unique” means; you can go with “unique in the party” or “unique in the entire game world”. Some of the examples from the book are pretty mundane (“I am a former cultist”? Really?), and my preference is to be aggressive about making your uniques interesting and truly unique (my paladin’s was “I am the only elf who can withdraw from the mystical Elven dream consciousness”). Low-level D&D characters have always had the problem that they are generally incompetent and unremarkable stereotypes. Giving them a unique thing means everyone has a sense of destiny, even at low level (never fear, your one unique thing doesn’t have to be an accident of birth or ancestry, it could also be something earned or experienced prior to the start of play). One way to think about a unique thing is that it can be intriguing but non-specific – perhaps a question you don’t know the answer to that the GM can use as a hook to play off. But, it doesn’t have to say anything about the future; it could be something memorable that you did in the past that can give your character depth. To me, the best ones are the ones that say something about both your character and the world. The game itself doesn’t give what I would consider firm guidance on this though, it gives you a few soft suggestions and lets you figure out how you want to use them.

This I think is an example of where 13th Age, for all its many virtues, falls short because it hedges. It doesn’t have its own premise, its own reason for existence, or if it does it doesn’t go all in. If you pick up Numenéra or Night’s Black Agents, those games are in no doubt about what they are trying to do creatively, and deliver what they promise. 13th Age is instead relying on you to tap into your long history of playing D&D and D&D-like games to bring along the elements of D&D that you like and meld them with the ideas in 13th Age. In terms of tapping into the largest available market of gamers, this is obviously great. In terms of presenting a game with a clear creative vision of its own that might compel you to play it, not so much. This wishy-washiness of how to play the game’s simplest, most important core idea – the uniques – is one way this plays out, but there are other important ways too. The gazetteer of the world is less than 20 pages long (counting art) and consists mostly of tropes and vague descriptions, and is too high level to be of much use once you get down to brass tacks and try to set actual adventures in actual locations. Only a few of the Icons have more than a column of useful text attached to them, while many – The Elf Queen, The Dwarf King – have perhaps two meaningful sentences of description, far too little for them to be useful as anything more than an access point to your repository of bad fantasy tropes regarding Elven Queens or Dwarven Kings (dwarves never being rules by queens, and elves only rarely by kings).

That might be fine, but let’s be honest here, these tropes are boring, predictable, and generally suck. It’s not enough to just do D&D with a better rules set that is more about creative play and less about creative rules exploits. I want to care about the world I’m playing in, to be part of the group not just because they needed a cleric and my character was available at the time.

So I find myself conflicted about 13th Age. The game design is great and is mechanically by far my favorite in the “kill monsters and take their stuff” genre. Not a high bar admittedly, but still! I love the backgrounds and the One Unique Things. I am less enamored of the fact that the gamemaster has to do so much heavy lifting to make the game work: flesh out the details of all the lightly-detailed icons and figure out what they are up to in her world; fill out the too-sparse bestiary; figure out some way to make sure the party is coherent; not just police the inevitable “awesome at everything” backgrounds and “I’m the only person who can fire at-will 10d6 fireballs from my eyes” uniques, but fill in all the guidance that the book lacks on how to corral players and the GM into a coherent campaign style that will produce interesting and useful uniques. Giving players freedom is great, but in order to be productive, that freedom requires constraints. Specifically, it requires the constraints of a setting. 13th Age seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be innovative and give players agency and all that, but it doesn’t want to scare off D&D and Pathfinder players by putting a stake in the ground. So it waffles. There is nothing more deadly to a creative enterprise than waffling.

For a sense of comparison, I’ve run both 13th Age and Ashen Stars recently. By virtue of Ashen Stars’ clear premise, strong setting, and clean system, I was able to put together my first story arc and successfully run it with less than an hour of prep time. By contrast, prepping an adventure for 13th Age was a time sink because so much world creation still needs to be done – fleshing out and determining the motives of the icons, figuring out their organizations, building cities, working with players’ varying and sometimes conflicting uniques, and so on. Because 13th Age lacks a Premise, the resulting chaos demands to be sorted.

I have nonetheless enjoyed playing 13th Age as a mild rebuke to the overwrought D&D tradition. The game system is elegant and does reward player creativity. It’s easy to get into and lively. But for me, the bad fantasy genre of D&D-style roleplaying that 13th Age is channeling is not really in my blood, so 13th Age needed to do more than just show up and look cool to win me over. It fills a niche, and it’s a game I’ll probably enjoy playing from time to time, but for where I am in my roleplaying career it’s still not the answer.

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Lord of the Rings: Nazgul Autopsy

Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is Wizkids’ latest boardgame foray into licensed property, after last year’s excellent but badly produced Star Trek: Expeditions. In Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, the players play Sauron’s most notorious servants, fighting the Free Peoples and killing their heroes, all the while angling to become the Top Nazgul. The box says the game is “semi-cooperative”, but make no mistake – like Republic of Rome, there can be only one winner, whether it be one of the players or the game system. All of which sounds intriguing, but the game is an epic fail. It’s not clear what exactly the game is trying to say, it executes badly on its murky vision, it’s not faithful to its source material, it’s boring, and it’s ugly.

In games everything flows from system design, so that’s the easiest thing to look at first. The game takes the view that from the Dark Lord’s perspective, everything is a battle. So far it’s a promising premise. There are three simultaneous series of campaigns: against the Rohirrim, against Gondor, and against the Ringbearer (where the metaphor starts to break down, but never mind). In pursuit of these goals, it turns out that Ringwraiths are the striving middle managers of Middle Earth, building up their departmental fiefdoms with teams of Orcs, Trolls, Mumaks, and other various and sundry resources which they then decide how they wish to commit to the Gantt charts of conquest in service of their personal promotion opportunities.

This brings us to the one clever bit in the game, the battle cup. Once a Ringwraith has chosen which battle to commit himself to, he decides how many of his resources he wishes to risk. They throw a cube in the cup for each (red for Mumak, green for Trolls, and black for Orcs, plus a special Nazgul cube to represent themselves). The game system decides how many Free Peoples to throw in – blue for soldiers and white for heroes. Additionally, the hero cubes are assigned an identity from a deck of 60 named heroes. Sometimes you get the vaunted Aragorn or Gandalf which will mean dizzying special powers, pain, and continued undeath for your troubles; sometimes you get the decidedly less fearsome Gondorian Captain. There doesn’t seem to be much thematic rhyme or reason to how this happens, and the systems are very confusing, so let’s not dwell on it and move on. Once the forces are arrayed, the contents of the cup is settled and fixed. Each Nazgul can then in turn pick cubes (usually 2-4) from the mix based on his tactics rating. Picked cubes do damage to the other side (so if you pick a blue Gondorian foot soldier cube, the Nazgul forces suffer one point of damage; if you pick a special Nazgul cube, you do damage to the good guys equal to your current attack rating). Sometimes you can redraw if you have the right power card. Then, you throw the cubes back in and the next player repeats the process.

While there is a truly unwieldy amount of chrome welded on top of it, this is the core idea of the game, and the only real resolution mechanism it has. So what kinds of player decisions does it drive? Since Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is a “semi-cooperative” game, the game system itself is a player. At the level of each battle, the Nazgul players want to win the battle (which grants some VPs to everyone and serves to defeat the game system) and want to kill heroes (which are a more significant source of personal VPs, and your only lever against the other Nazgul present). So, you win the battle by drawing enough friendly cubes to inflict enough damage to wipe out all the defending heroes and soldiers. That damage is absorbed in strict priority order: first the walls, second the soldiers, lastly the heroes from weakest to strongest. So the only real opportunity you have is to be the person who inflicts the right damage at exactly the right time to wipe out heroes. Too early, and you kill soldier blocks, which personally gets you nothing. Too late, and there is nothing left, or only heroes too powerful to kill. Given the inherently chaotic way in which heroes appear and cubes are drawn, this is an extremely tenuous and oblique idea on which to base a game.

Still, at least it’s simple and not too hard to grasp. Throwing cubes into the cup alters the mix is a straightforward way with some subtle implications, and there are a few – not many, but a few – choices in how to go about it. The problem comes in the truly vast infrastructure that is built on top of this. Every turn there are 7 distinct secret-and-simultaneous bids in which your Nazgul fills out his department by adding troops, getting actions cards, calling on the aid of the Witch King, altering turn order, leveling himself up (this is a WizKids game, so it’s got clix figures in it whether it needs them or not – so your Nazgul’s capabilities change over the course of the game), and so on. Every turn a number of side quests pop up with various benefits and costs – often reinforcements that you have to intercept or they will add to the difficulty of a plot line. There are various mechanics for giving the players some control over committing Free Peoples Heroes to battle that are somewhat opaque. All this is far more chrome than the underlying game mechanisms can accept. At the end of the day we’re just choosing a quest to tackle, then adding cubes to a cup and drawing them out. The number of cubes and number of draws rarely gets that large – a truly gargantuan battle might see 25 cubes in the cup with 5 draws of 3 or 4 cubes, but the players have huge incentives to make sure that never happens. More normal, once the game picks up some tempo, is 8-12 cubes with 3 draws of 3. This just isn’t a very large canvas on which to paint. All the stuff on the table weighs the game down with baroque details – especially since the font sizes are again ridiculously small so you can’t actually see anything – without making it interesting or thematic. It’s just tediously repetitive.

The real killer though is that not only is the game boring, it does real violence to the story it is trying to tell, or at least the one it is theoretically based on. The Nazgul were Sauron’s executioners. They did his bidding, killing his enemies, leading his armies, even doing his diplomacy. They were slaves to his will. They didn’t try to undermine each other with inter-office petty politics. Roman senators, yes. American senators, yes. Nazgul, no. When Sauron wanted something done, he sent orcs. When he wanted it done right, he sent men. When he absolutely, positively, had to get something done, he sent his trustiest servants, the Nazgul.  You could perhaps buy that to the extent the Nazgul had free will, they strove to outdo each other – Beowulf style – in Sauron’s service. But the idea that they were constantly actively trying to sabotage each other is ludicrous.

This is just the beginning. Since this is a WizKids game, we get clicks. At the start of the game (pre-Weathertop), the Nazgul are puny, exuding no terror and unable to face down a Gondorian Captain and a couple companies of Soldiers. As the story goes on, they grown in power as they connive for favors from Sauron. I never realized Nazgul were all that interested in personal growth.

And then the details of the various game plotlines … The Nazgul in the game personally take charge of the assault on the Rohirrim, which of course they never did. They command Mumaks, which they never did.Worse than that, the game doesn’t even require them to deal with Minas Tirith at all. Even on the hardest levels, you can knock over Rohan, then hunt down the Ringbearer, and call it a day. Was not Sauron keenly focussed on Gondor, greatly fearing the One Ring might end up there? (UPDATE: it turns out we made a significant rules error. Even after you’ve re-aquired the One Ring, you need to complete all three quests – you just can’t do Mount Doom until you’ve finished off Rohan or Gondor. This still doesn’t make any sense, it just doesn’t make sense in a different way. It also makes the game a lot harder. Good luck. My recommendation: you might want to play 2-3 turns to get the feel for the game, then restart. Because of the oblique nature of the cup resolution system, it’s easy to get critically behind in beating the system in the first turn or two).

It is possible for a game to stray from the strict parameters of its source material if it can remain true to the story’s emotional content. We won’t get too worked up about quirky details if the big picture is clear. For example, we know from Tolkien’s description of Weathertop that Gandalf alone could hold off all 9 Ringwraiths, at least for a time, and that Glorfindel was terrifying enough to cause them to retreat into the flood. We would forgive the game if, in the interest of giving the players some hope to feed their desperation, it made Gandalf somewhat less fearsome. But Lord of the Rings: Nazgul can’t deliver the emotional punch, so we are left to look at this stuff.

Finally, I’ll just say a few words on presentation. The Nazgul’s sculpts are hard to distinguish (in the game’s one concession to theme that perhaps should have raised questions about the wisdom of this entire endeavor), which leads to both significant playability problems and an inability to form an emotional connection as everyone is constantly trying to figure out which piece is theirs. The clix serves to make game-critical information much to hard to see. Font sizes are too small. The cards are not of high quality and the image grabs seem oddly murky. The board is a mess, with the quest tracks hard to identify and follow in addition to being just plain physically unattractive. All it all, it’s not quite the disaster Star Trek: Expeditions was in the presentation department, but if that’s your standard, that’s bad.

As you may be able to tell, this game really bothered me. It’s complete amateur hour. It strikes me as a version of a game which might have just emerged from its first playable playtest. It’s nowhere near to being publication worthy. It needed more play testing just to figure out what it was trying to do – I don’t think it’s even ready to enter the phase of cleanup, polishing, and pruning.

Warriors of God

I think all of Multiman Publishing’s International Game Series games (Fire in the Sky, A Victory Lost, Red Star Rising) would be far more appealing if they could cut several hours off of their playing time (or, in the case of Red Star Rising, if it had some year- or campaign-length scenarios to go with the toys and monsters). All of these are clever, well designed games that just go on for way too long to ever get much, or indeed any, table time. So for me anyway, Warriors of God was as much about answering the question, “is this whole series doomed to excessive play time?”, as it was about finding out if the game itself was any good. Because if it carried on the series’ tradition in this respect, I could walk away from the whole IGS thing.

The short answer is, it isn’t, and I can’t. Warriors of God was pretty fun, and while it still is unquestionably a bit too long for the game that it is, the magnitude of the problem is far less than it has been in previous IGS games. Warriors of God runs about 3-4 hours when 2-3 would be more appropriate, given that it’s chaotic and can become somewhat repetitive. Fire in the Sky ran like 10-12 hours but started getting tedious at around 6. Fire in the Sky’s length problem was a show-stopper. Warriors of God’s is not.

The basic idea of the game is that you play either the French or the English in the various wars in the 12th through 15th centuries. The main attraction is the Hundred Years War, but there is also a Lion in Winter covering the earlier period surrounding Richard the Lionheart. The tools you will use to win are the leaders the two nations have at their disposal, from the bad (a bunch of guys named some variation of John and/or Jean) to the legendary (Henry V, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, to pick a few). Leaders are rated for their rank, which limits how many troops they can command and who will be in charge when leaders fight together; the number of troops they can wield in battle, which limits the number of dice you can roll in combat; and how valorously they can lead them. The last is quite important as an advantage in valor gives a to-hit bonus to the possessing side, and since the basic hit number is a 6 on a 6-sided die, even just a +1 doubles the effectiveness of your troops.

The flow of the game is driven by the arrival and departure of these leaders. Every turn 6 show up (2 French, 2 English, and 2 neutrals, the last of which the players draft), and everyone who is already there checks to see if they croak. Basically, every leader in play rolls a die, and if the die roll plus that leader’s arrival turn is less than the current turn, that leader dies (or retires or whatever). Anyone who is left musters troops and campaigns against the enemy.

Really, that’s about all you need to know about the game. There is some solid period chrome, from rules about longbows to gunners and sieges, but like Britannia, the real flavor of the game is in the flow of these leaders, good and bad. Sometimes you’ve got a great leader like Henry V and you need to make maximum use of him before he dies. Sometimes you’ve got nothing and you just need to hold out until someone competent shows up. This dynamic is fun, albeit fraught with chaos; some games Henry V will show up and promptly die, while some games you may get him for the full 6 turns. Obviously, being able to use the most awesome piece in the game for 6 turns vs. 1 is just a little bit game-altering. The uncertainty is obviously an important element of the game. But those leader death checks are some pretty high-stakes die rolls.

In general, the game doesn’t make you pick up the die unless you’re rolling for something really important. Sieges which decide the fates of armies are resolved on a single die roll, typically a 1:6 or 1:3 roll. The initiative die roll will dictate whether the turn has 3 or 8 impulses, and so how much time you have to utilize your just-received awesome leader. And you can only gain control of provinces at all on a 1:2 or 1:3 die roll.

This last thing actually is really the only thing that sort of bugged me about the game. Controlling provinces is the key both to winning, and to forming some sort of territorial coherency for your kingdom and therefore managing troop mustering and getting some sense of strategy beyond raw opportunism, and the difficulty of gaining control of provinces is kind of odd. You can only roll once per turn, which represents ten years, so it’s possible to send a leader milling around somewhere for 30 or 40 years (assuming he lives) and never actually be able to control the region. For me personally, this was almost a die roll too far. I could live with the huge chaos involved in the leaders, battles, and sieges, because I felt like they added texture and the frustration they served up was at least in service of something historical and flavorful. But having to make further high-stakes die rolls every turn just to take control of provinces – even when the enemy was nowhere within a hundred miles – seemed gratuitous.

But the bottom line on Warriors of God was that I enjoyed it. I wish it were shorter; it’s a very chaotic game, and although I think it’s chaotic in a fun way, the buffeting winds of fate do tend to wear one out after a couple hours, and so I can’t exactly see it getting a ton of table time. But it is flavorful, and fun, and unusual, and has that “epic sweep” flavor of Britannia as players enter and exit the stage. In sharp contrast to the route taken by most euros, a lot of the best wargames are about managing chaos, about looking for opportunities in apparently unpromising situations or rolling with the punches, and I felt Warriors of God managed to find a generally good spot there, giving you an unpredictable situation to deal with as well as the tools to try to cope with it. There aren’t a lot of these low-end wargames that I like very much, and while it’s true Warriors of God didn’t exactly blow me away, I did enjoy it, and feel like it fills a niche in my collection for the time anyway.

Appendix I:

As a historical game, I feel Warriors of God does suffer a bit from being a “complete information” game, sort of like Fire in the Sky did. Everyone can see everything and know exactly how good the leaders are and how effective longbows are going to be, so some historical events just can’t happen. Being fully aware of the power of the longbow, the effectiveness of Henry V, and the ineffectiveness of their own leaders, the French are just going to run away at Agincourt, which seems rather wrong. Obviously, all wargames suffer from this to some degree. But Warriors of God, in which leaders play such a crucial role, could benefit from uncertainty or asymmetrical information as to leaders’ capabilities. The game as it is is still a good game, but the way leaders come and go could be seen to have the dual properties of being both hugely chaotic (because of the death rolls) as well as highly scripted (because we all know when Henry V is going to get here and exactly how good he’s going to be) in a way that is almost reinforcing, when usually a game introduces some scripting to reduce the chaos, or vice versa.

Appendix II:

Generally I cut MMP some slack on their rules-writing given that compared to their primary competition, GMT, they tend to have far less errata and more coherent rules in general. But recently I’ve been frustrated and annoyed with a number of their rules sets. Warriors of God isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either for such a simple game (the use of the term “contested area” is extremely non-standard and confusing, the rules for mustering units are confusing, the rules for placing leaders are easy to misplay, and there is already errata), and after struggling with the extremely problematic rules for Fire in the Sky and The Devil’s Cauldron recently, I think maybe it’s time for MMP to re-think their rules-writing process for their non-ASL games.