Saturday, 12 April 2014

It was the dawn of the 13th Age?

I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons for over 20 years, starting with some first edition, a lot of second, not much third (wasn't keen) but been a relatively steady player of Fourth since it's release in 2008. Fourth edition of D&D has been the subject of a lot of criticism for aspects of its system, such as it's reliance on miniatures to help resolve combat. For me, I like the structured nature of the system and the ordered way you are able to achieve things, but then when you get over 10th level combat takes an exponential amount of time as you get additional powers and abilities, how this got past playtesting is one of lifes mysteries. But what happens when the lead designer of third edition and the lead designer of fourth edition get together and design a system, 13th Age happens..

During a D&D Next playtesting

Just over a week ago I was able to attend the fifth D&D Tweetup (@dndtweetup) and got chance to play the system and experiance it. The organiser of the Tweetup, Adam Page, has been asking for some comments about the system and here are mine from what I've seen/played so far.

Creating a Character

I used a pre-generated character at the Tweetup but there was still scope for customisation before play began and this philosophy carries from the main sourcebook which puts character background, history and where you slot into the campaign before pretty much everything else. Three pieces of background information are key to beginning your character and also help to differentiate it from any version of D&D I've played, they are: -

  • One unique thing about your character
  • Your relationships to the Icons
  • Background skills

The first two are primarily there to enhance your background and story and instead of picking from a list of skills that you might have done previously, you pick skill titles that fit in with your character background (as tailored in the first two elements) and assign points as appropriate and these are then used at key points in the adventure such as a skill check.


Rolling a 1st level character didn't take that long and was a refreshing change from when I tried to roll up a character for the new version of Shadowrun that I blogged about previously. The core rule book flows well and reminds me a lot of D&D booms of old but remembering the designers backgrounds that's not much of a surprise.



Combat is where fourth edition fell over. Badly. One of the primary complaints is that it turned the role playing game into a board game or a war game of some kind (these people do know where this game descended from, right?). I wasn't one of them, I liked going down to miniature level, it removes ambiguities about location, line of sight, cover, difficult terrain, etc. Where the game fell apart for me was in the character progression and the number of skills/powers gained. The first 10 or so levels are ok-ish but soon after combat can become unwieldy as the number of options open to players begins to overwhelm and ever more intricate plans to try and chain them together eats into combat time. As an experiment we created level 28 characters for a one off game and a single round of 5 players took just over 45 minutes to complete. I believe this is one thing that been fixes in the fifth edition of D&D (also known as D&D Next) but I haven't played enough of the available preview packets to really comment on that.

The nature of the combat is fairly familiar, roll for initiative, add modifiers, roll for attack, add modifiers, roll for damage, add modifiers, etc. one thing that stands out and one thing I wanted to see how it played was the escalation die. This is basically a D6 that in the second round of combat, it shows a 1 and that gets added to players attack roles, this increments every round until getting to 6. This gives players am increasing chance to hit and various powers have better effects depending on what the D6 is showing. I think this works well and gives players a feeling of being suitable heroic the longer a combat goes on for.

We had two significant combats during the Tweetup and both went well and seemed relatively quick. Reading the book character progression seems familiar to 4th edition but as the core sourcebook only covers the first 10 levels of character advancement it's hard to know how this would work when characters get into their teens in terms of levels.

Summing up

I had been wanting to learn more about 13th Age for a while and I can say I wasn't disappointed, there are a lot of good ideas here that seem to want to shift the emphasis of the game from rules to story and that's not a bad thing, mostly. Unlike other, it seems, other people I liked the reliance on miniatures in Fourth Edition, for reasons I've already stated above. 13th Age also sidesteps the problems of character progression above 10th level by only having 10 levels in the sourcebook. It's also keen to keep to overly familiar tropes (such as rolling a D20 to hit) instead of trying something new with dice like Fantasy Flight have done with both Warhammer 3rd Edition and Edge of the Empire. All of this against what is likely to drop at GenCon this year with the probable release of 5th edition as from little I've played a lot of the ideas either had or were planned to be incorporated into it.


Arguably 13th Age is a spiritual successor to the D&D that a lot of us have played, it fixes a lot of things wrong with Fourth edition whilst putting story and roleplay back at the forefront and that's not a bad thing but without the brand recognition that D&D has, can it ever really penetrate the market with much success? With only one expansion on the horizon, a lot is left to the players and DM's imagination and that will carry you so far before you become hungry for more.



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