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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The One Ring RPG

I threw in the towel on D&D (3, 3.5 and 4, plus Pathfinder) a couple years ago and switched my roleplaying energies to Gumshoe, a decision I’m quite happy with. But, as is usual with these things, I didn’t bring along all the friends I game with. For players who like the tactical combat, detailed character building, and the die-rolling of D&D or Pathfinder, Gumshoe is not going to be in their wheelhouse.

So I’m always on the lookout for somewhere we can meet in the middle. A game, probably a fantasy game, that has interesting combat with plenty of die-rolling but doesn’t get bogged down in minutia and can be enjoyed more in the quick-playing, systems-light style. Something that has plenty of skills and feat-like-things, but that still taps into the more improvisational RPG aesthetic.The One Ring looked perfect.

Not that I came to that conclusion right away though. I picked it up after it got some buzz from GenCon 2011 despite the fact that Tolkien roleplaying games in general have a rather sorry history, mainly because of my Tolkien fandom and because it was through Sophisticated Games, which has a good track record with licensed products. Unfortunately, The One Ring’s two core books are incoherent: rules presented in almost random order, topics split between sections and between both books and fully explained nowhere, paragraphs that give up their meaning only after intense textual analysis – it’s really terrible. After doing my initial read I shelved it feeling like it was making the right noises, but having little idea what the game was trying to do. It was only once I picked it up again six months later and plowed through it on a mission that I figured out what the game was about.

It’s a nice blend of ideas. The skill check system is straightforward: you roll against target numbers with a single d12 Fate die, plus one regular d6 for each rank you have in the skill. There are a few nuances built in to the custom dice: the d6s have a Tengwar rune for an exceptional success on the 6, and the 1-3 faces are shaded and count for zero if you are weary. The big variance on the Fate die makes it possible for more or less anyone to succeed (albeit rarely) at many things, but it takes skill to get the exceptional successes that trigger bonuses. The probability curve is rather nice and gives you real flexibility as the GM with target numbers; there are big differences between how characters with various ranks in skills will feel about targets of 10, 12, 14, or 16. The rules for Weariness, zeroing out your d6 rolls of 1 through 3, are very clean but impactful, and make tasks a lot harder but don’t make impossible anything you could accomplish when well-rested.

This solid skill check system then works quite well in combat, which is abstract but has good texture. Each combat round you choose how closely you are going to engage, which affects both how easy it will be for you to hit the enemy as well as how easily they hit you. Each range bracket has a special action associated with it (intimidate, rally, protect, aim), and there are other standard combat options (called shots, accepting knockback) which provide some choices and are thematic. Additionally, it’s nice to see attention to workable rules for disengaging and fleeing from combat, a common occurrence in the books. Also nice is that enemies have a Hate rating which both powers their special abilities and is a proxy for morale, giving the GM an explicit cue for when the bad guys break and run away themselves. Still, despite the solid mechanical support here, combat is still pretty abstract and nowhere near as tactically detailed as many would probably like. Gumshoe has always relied on the players to be a little more imaginative than just saying “I shoot him. I’ll spend 2 shooting points. I hit. I do 6 points of damage”. You don’t need involved narration for every combat roll, but it’s in the hands of the players to bring the action to life. The One Ring gives players much more support than Gumshoe does in terms of structure to hang some narration on, but it will still get repetitive and feel flat unless players can engage with it and flesh it out through colorful description.

This is all good and well-designed, but where does the players’ real narrative authority kick in? Characters in The One Ring have Traits (which can be Specialties, which are like backgrounds, or Distinctive Features, which are more like personality traits), which serve some of the same game functions as FATE’s Aspects or Gumshoe’s investigative skills. They are little bits of description that if you can integrate in to what you’re trying to accomplish with a skill, you get a significant bonus – sometimes an auto-success, sometimes an extra experience point. There is no token economy backing this up as in FATE – you can earn the bonus as often as you can do it – and neither is as integral to the system as Trail of Cthulhu’s Drives which have a hard link to a character’s Sanity. It’s more akin to the Technothriller Monologue and similar cherries in Night’s Black Agents. Give a little narration that invokes your trait and pleases the GM and the other players, and you get a bonus. My only complaint is that I think a number of The One Ring’s pre-packaged Traits can be problematic. Some of them are just hard to work into adventuring sorts of actions without straining something (Fishing?). Others, while perhaps thematic, are problematic from a game perspective as they can feed bad group dynamics (Secretive, Suspicious, or Wilful will be grabbed immediately by your player who enjoys hosing the party or abusing the gaming social contract).

In practice, while Traits are simple, work, and I like them, nonetheless they didn’t exert much pull on the imaginations of my fellow-players. Perhaps the off-the-shelf ones were too vague and not generally useful enough, or the benefits of using them are not as crisp and clear as FATE’s Fate points. I suspect a combination. If you have a group that likes and has some experience with these sorts of player narrative hooks I’m sure it’ll be fine, but I suspect for groups trying to make the switch form D&D, GURPS, or Call of Cthulhu there might not be enough direction here.

More practical and useful I think are a few conventions and pointers for GMs. One key bit is that skill checks are resolved in a somewhat non-traditional way: first, as a player state what you are trying to accomplish; second, roll the dice; and finally, narrate your character’s actions and the outcome, maybe with the help of the GM. This is a simple thing but makes for a much more satisfactory narrative, especially for social skills. How often have you framed, say, a Diplomacy check by narrating a suave approach and a persuasive argument only to fumble the die roll? It becomes hard to climb down at that point and narrate an interesting and plausible failure. This is a good habit to get into with any game I think, but The One Ring’s easy skill check details for extraordinary successes and fumbles supports it especially well. It also allows the characters more narrative control over both how they succeed and how they fail, which can be fun. Watch out though for the players who are too possessive and have a hard time narrating failure for their characters, instead trying to twist a failed die roll into an uncomplicated narrative success, but I suspect we can agree not to blame the system for that.

Beyond these core ideas, The One Ring provides a lot of mechanical support for adventuring in Tolkien’s world. There is a nice journeying sub-game for long trips which folds into the weariness system and provides a good way to hook in “random” encounters along the way when players blow rolls. Hope gives a way for characters to boost rolls, but spend too much Hope and you may gain a Shadow-Weaknesses, a Trait that works more to your disadvantage. The mix of wounds, weariness, and loss of hope inflicted by combat is much more thematic and interesting than just tracking hit points. The advancement system is point-buy, but the way experience points are awarded is quite clever – you get them for skill checks, but you can’t rack them up for using a single strong skill, you need to use a range of skills of different types. While the game is definitely what I’d consider lightweight, there is some detail to it. Unfortunately, I have to come back to the wretched books which make the game seem far more complicated than it really is. The first time we played, we were frequently flipping pages (and thrashing with the useless index) to find simple concepts. I ended up having to read both books cover to cover a third time, taking notes, to build up a reference card with a summary of all the systems just to make the game playable. It was only one page front and back in a large-ish font – this is a simple game with a truly terrible ruleset.

The last thing to talk about is the inherent difficulty associated with gaming in the worlds of J R R Tolkien. I think The One Ring has done a good job in hewing to the feel of the books, and I think focusing on the period and style of The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings is the right choice. The Hobbit makes more fertile ground for lighter, fun, action-adventure games, while The Lord of the Rings is complicated by its truly epic scale and the fact that anything you might do is vastly less important than whatever the Fellowship is up to. Still, even focusing on The Hobbit, the problem is that like the Cthulhu Mythos every reader finds something different in Tolkien and decades of bad knock-offs have polluted the environment, so it can be hard for everyone to be on the same page style-wise. How many battles do the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings actually initiate? None as far as I can remember – they’re all defensive engagements, or running battles with the heroes trying to escape. But a million D&D set-pieces where dwarves and elves and men take the battle to the bad guys (and loot their stuff) makes balancing expectations complicated. I really enjoy reading the parts of the Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents rules where Robin Laws and Kenneth Hite talk quite specifically about how stories are structured in their game worlds, what the themes are and how to keep the characters moving. Something along these lines for The One Ring would have been hugely helpful, as the modules provided in the rulebook and the Tales from Wilderland sourcebook are mediocre. Tolkien is not about escorting hapless two-bit merchants through Mirkwood for a flat fee. Perhaps an equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos’ “purist” vs. “pulp” would be helpful here.

Bottom line for me: as a person intrigued by game systems and how they tweak players and enable different play styles, I liked The One Ring a lot and it overcame my inherent skepticism about the gameability of Tolkien. The dice system is terrific, the combat system is light-ish but thematic and interesting and with some subtlety, and the game is faithful to the books. Unfortunately the supports for the good game mechanics are not very good. The books are atrociously put together. The adventures are at best OK. The vital Traits are a mixed bag. There is little help for the GM in terms of the nitty-gritty of designing adventures, and crucially little practical guidance on the complicated questions of style and how to game Tolkien in a way that’s fun. As good as the game system is, and as I much as I hope The One Ring can find a niche in my roleplaying rotation, these practical obstacles are significant and I fear I need to keep looking for something reliable to fill the gap between D&D and Gumshoe. Maybe 13th Age will fill the bill.

D&D: Questing in Krandia

The thrilling conclusion to the quest for the Tears of the Gods was finished off today, with a slightly reduced compliment (Billy the Burgler was absent, as was Nobby the Halfling Fighter/Barbarian – Sean and I covered the characters to give enough firepower to get through the encounters). The main highlight was the climactic discovery in which the party realized the Tears of the God crystal was slightly larger than your usual crystal, and larger than we had expected – about 1.5 metres across and half a ton in weight. This made extraction something of a chore.

Shay has done some really neat stuff with this module, and overall I think it was quite successful. There were a few issues; mainly length, this ended up being some 4 sessions instead of the expected 2-3. As I mentioned last time, this is an ongoing issue our group needs to work with though. Also, Shay had put in some nice subtle touches that were, I think, just too subtle. This is something I now remember from my old Traveller GMing days, if you (the GM) think it’s subtle, most likely the players will miss it entirely.

Next up is either a module I will run over Thanksgiving, or Sean will start running a multi-session adventure starting in early December. Sean offered us a choice between a T20 (Traveller d20) or D&D game, and it looks like the group will go for D&D, an adventure set in Kim’s Pame’a setting (with the T20 game possibly at a later time). I could have gone either way; I’d like to play more of the other d20 settings – I’ve been running some 1:1 games of Star Wars d20 for Kim, and I like that take on d20 better than D&D. d20 has issues (mainly, the odd probabilities involved in skill checks), but the tremendous portability is a huge plus.

D&D: Questing in Krandia

Mentaku (me) and Melana (Kim) continued their quest, along with a couple of extraneous haflings, for the Blood of the Gods today with some mixed success. This is Shay’s setting and adventure, with some unusual elements: metal breaks down somehow on the island, leading the natives to rely on a variety of nonmetal items for currency, weapons, armor, etc., that generally makes combat less lethal. In an attempt to circumvent the high power of mage spells, arcane spells have increasingly high chances of failure as their level increases. This latter feature is a reasonable attempt to solve one of D&Ds major problems, but somehow D&D without the Wizards & Sorcerers …

My character is a “legitimate businessman” Rogue, and I had a blast going around making business deals and generally being haughty and condescending towards the fighter-type NPCs and talking my way out of stuff … a very nice change from hack & slash. Also a nice and enjoyable change for me from the more disciplined characters I am usually attracted to, and have played up until now (like my Monk Makai). On the other hand, one of the things our group is working on is getting adventure times down. Like boardgame designers, authors, and other creative types, it’s a huge temptation to throw every good idea you have into a given adventure, but it seems vital to know what to take out, stick to the essentials. I haven’t yet DMed for this group, although my slot will be coming up before too long, but Kim has DMed a lot and I work with her to deal with some of these issues.

Bottom line, though, I’ve enjoyed the roleplaying we’ve been doing quite a bit, to the point I’ve even felt I should be scaling back my euro games in order to pick up another RPG session or two a month. It’s good fun, and really flexes some creative muscles in a way boardgaming doesn’t. I’m currently working on an adventure for Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG which I hope to be able to rope some of the local LotR fanatics into.