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PaizoCon 2016

13th Age Core Rulebook (OGL)

****½ (based on 3 ratings)
PEL13A01DE

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Discover the d20-rolling fantasy roleplaying game from legendary designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo! This bookmarked PDF gives you everything you need to play epic adventures in a world where mighty Icons war and scheme in a tense balance of power. Here, a small band of adventurers could be heroes that save the ancient Dragon Empire—or set in motion the catastrophe that ends the Age.

Designed for experienced GMs and any type of player, 13th Age offers a fresh take on a familiar tabletop experience. Pelgrane Press gave Rob and Jonathan total freedom to create the game they most wanted to play. They brought the best parts of the great d20-rolling fantasy tradition together with innovative new rules, resulting in a game that EN World readers named “2013’s Most Anticipated RPG”.

Play 13th Age as a standalone game, or use it as a source of cool ideas and add-on rules for make your favorite RPG. This 320-page core rulebook features:

  • Character creation that gives your adventurer a place in the world (and the GM dozens of adventure hooks) through Icon relationships and your One Unique Things
  • A simple, flexible skill system through Backgrounds that bring your character’s personal history into the game with every dice roll
  • Streamlined, free-form combat with new rules that make battles fast, fun and dramatic
  • DIY monster and encounter building sections so GMs can create adventures with little or no preparation
  • Notes from Rob and Jonathan on how they approach their own games—and where they disagree

“13th Age RPG delivers an incredible fantasy storytelling experience.” —io9
“One of the best systems I’ve encountered—and I’ve either played or read the rules to countless d20 systems at this point—is 13th Age… It’s fun, fast and accessible.” —Forbes.com

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Product Reviews (3)

Average product rating:

****½ (based on 3 ratings)

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An Endzeitgeist.com review

****( )

Disclaimer: I received the hardcover for 13th Age for the purposes of writing an unbiased, critical review. This following review reflects my endeavor to do so. The review is based on the hardcover of the 320 page book – I do not own the Pdf, so I can’t comment on that format. In order to review this book, I have playtested this system, though I did so with the expansion 13 True Ways as well – when appropriate, I will comment on that and yes, said book’s review is coming soon as well.

Without further ado – this is a d20-based system and as such, you will see a lot of familiar AND unfamiliar ground. The basics of a character are the 6 attributes we all know and their modifiers are still calculated by subtracting 10 and then dividing the resulting number by 2. The similarities continue with the action types – standard and move actions, free actions – those retain their nomenclature. Quick actions correspond to swift actions and certain classes can use 1 interrupt action per round, even when it’s not their turn – a better nomenclature and more streamlined take for immediate actions, essentially. Action substitution is more transparent than in comparable systems – standard actions can be downgraded to move/quick actions etc. We basically have free downgrading substitution as a design principle regarding action economy. So far, so similar, right? Well, this is about the time the similarities end.

First of all, levels are grouped in 10s, not 20s (or 30s). The levels have a somewhat unnecessary-seeming tier-nomenclature sticking to them as a 4th edition remnant, with champion-tier occupying levels 5-7, epic tier constituting levels 8 -10 and adventurer-tier spanning the lower levels. Tiers are used essentially as a base-line for the upgrading of e.g. feats, racial powers etc. – in higher tiers, the benefits become more pronounced. I wrote “seeming” here, since the tier essentially acts a prerequisite, but more on that later.

Levels are gained as per the requirements of the story, not as per XP, and as a party – whether this is according to your tastes depends on your group, but personally, I enjoy the move away from XP-values – the CR/etc.-systems never worked well in the first place, anyways, so kudos! On the basic mechanics, we receive fixed HP-values, which are modified by con-mod and then multiplied by a fixed value. The base HP-value etc. is governed by the class you belong to. This has two consequences – One, you do not have unlucky (or lucky!) PCs with fewer (or more!) HP than their companions. Two: You pretty much can guess a level and the average toughness of an adversary, since there is no basic variation in the base HP – whether you like or dislike this pretty much boils down to a matter of taste and preference. On the one hand, it does provide a more mathematically secure base-line for balancing, on the other, it makes things a tad more predictable and potentially, a bit more boring.

Races cover the default races we know and expect from a d20-based game, but also provide unconventional races à la aasimar, tiefling, drow, etc. – each race is characterized by a choice of one of 2 attribute bonuses (or more) of +2 and a racial power, which can be used once per battle. The racial powers themselves are pretty unique and drive home the flair of the races. Here, I go on a little tangent – one design decision that is not per se bad, but which I intensely loathe is the concept of ANY power/ability/spell per battle. Since battles constitute a non-defined time-frame, the system demands to be gamed - “Quick, kill the kobold before reinforcements arrive!” I’ve been vocal and ranty about this in the past and I still stand behind this –for me, this breaks immersion in a nasty way, though the issue in 13th Age is less pronounced than in any comparable game, to the point where I consider it tolerable...NOT good - for me as a person, this is a jarring and constant thorn in my side and makes me cringe, but as a reviewer, it's not that bad. Why? Well, for once, the whole system is streamlined more towards constant performance and away from bleeding resources dry. Abilities tend to be grouped in at-will, once/combat and once/day and thus, resource-management à la 3.X or PFRPG is severely de-emphasized.

This is also reflected in two design-decisions – one, there are healing surges, here called recovery. While based on your level and class (thus ranging from d6 to d10), they are limited. You usually begin with 8 recoveries and can execute a so-called rally as a standard action – this allows the character to rally his/her reserves and receive the recovery/healing. On an 11+, the character can rally again in that combat. Oh yeah, haven’t mentioned that before – quite a few limited abilities can be executed more often per battle if luck is on the player’s side. The save required for tasks like this is an unmodified d20. While this makes battles more dynamic, it also provides an avenue for lady luck that is pretty hefty. The strategic decisions and action gained from this should not be underestimated – each recovery can literally be your last. If you’re like me and belong into the camp of people who do NOT consider hit points a representation of fighting spirit, the book does suggest as an alternative to drop recovery/rallies – and yes, this is theoretically possible, but only theoretically. Why? Because healing potions and numerous other mechanics also tap into recoveries as a resource and influence it. In my games, though, experimenting with stripping rally/recoveries away did provide somewhat of an issue – but I’ll get back to that.

Before I went on the recovery-tangent, I mentioned two factors that make the per-battle-mechanics imho work slightly better – the second one would be “healing up” – separated from the traditional 8 hours of rest, recovery of most class-related tricks is no longer tied to a fixed time-frame, but rather to the DM’s judgment. While the suggested array of combats before leveling and healing up respectively felt pretty paltry to me, no one stops the DM from making the game more difficult. I absolutely applaud this countermeasure against the 4.5-encounter/8-minute adventuring-day, but I wished the book had been a tad bit more precise in the base guidelines of when to allow for healing up for groups with different capabilities, if only to avoid conflicting expectations between the DM and players. Not a bad thing, mind you – just a nitpick.

Now where there’s healing, there are defenses – three, in this case. Beyond AC, we also receive MD and PD – mental and physical defense. Each class has a value for these, modified by one value – the AC-modifier, PD modifier and MD modifier, respectively. To determine these, you take a look at 3 of your attributes (Con, Dex and Wis for AC, for example) and ignore the highest and lowest of the three attribute modifiers – the middle one, you add to the value. The values increase by +1 every level. Initiative is still governed only by Dex and also receives further bonuses with the levels gained. I *really* like this concise and easy-to-grasp distinction between different defenses. Especially, since the stacking system is pretty much a no-brainer in its simplicity.

What do I mean by that? Well, essentially, only the highest bonus applies. Same goes for negative conditions. Worst one supersedes other penalties. Ongoing damage stacks – you can burn a little or burn much, be poisoned a little or be poisoned like crazy – these components should elicit grins from every DM who had to witness high-level PCs actually creating full-blown buff-suites (with crazy performance-increases) to speed up game-play – my last 3.X-campaign before switching to PFRPG had one particular insane one that required a spread-sheet. Now while my players love this kind of complexity and engine-tinkering, the simplicity and elegance of the mechanics herein deserve accolades and are absolutely something I wholeheartedly endorse, especially for groups that derive no joy from engine-mastery.

A elegant similar simplicity also can be applied to the damage-types, which cover elemental damage types, negative energy, etc. Resistance and vulnerability also work differently – vulnerability renders the target more prone to being crited, whereas resistance equals half damage, unless the natural d20 roll was higher than e.g. 12+ or even 18+. So yeah, elegant simplicity here as well, not much chances to use tricks and scale up elemental nigh invulnerabilities – which is both a blessing for some and a curse for others. This brings me to the notion of damage as such – weapon damage, for example, has no descriptor – the system does not differentiate between the damage caused by a massive hammer or by an arrow. Whether you like that or not, once again, is up to your personal tastes - I get the rationale, but I really dislike it as a person. Damage calculation is pretty simple and one of the reasons martials and casters are pretty balanced in 13th Age. Damage rolls add an ability modifier and usually see a multiplication – the base weapon damage is multiplied at higher levels. A 1st level fighter wielding a longsword may e.g. deal 1d8 + Str-mod. However, a 4th level fighter would instead deal 4d8+ Str-mod damage with the same weapon. The modifiers are also increased – upon reaching champion-tier, the characters add twice the modifier, thrice upon reaching epic tier. It should be noted that the progression of e.g. weapon-damage is very much class-specific and even weapon damage dice and properties lose some importance – you require less capability/rules-oomph from the weapon if most comes from your PC anyway. The awesome result of this would be a de-emphasis on equipment and a diminished Christmas-tree-syndrome - two thumbs up for that!

Another design-tenet that is reflected and deserves accolades in my book is the notion of “failing forward” – while this is mirrored in how quite a few mechanics are run and in the assumptions regarding the reactions of the DM, one can see it particularly well with melee miss damage. Whereas ranged attacks tend to just miss, melee attacks can deal damage in spite of missing – though considerably less. This can be considered a rather interesting way of balancing the two against another – the increased risk of melee is balanced against a more reliable damage output. Where’s damage, there is bound to be death and indeed, death exists in 13th Age, though only in the most subdued of notions – for one, 7th Sea’s rule of death-only-by-named-NPCs is suggested. (And yes, I uttered an “URGH” while reading that…)

You’re down at 0 Hp, you die upon reaching negative HP equal to half maximum HP. When down, you make death saves (16+) to use recoveries – however, upon the 4th failed death save in a single battle, you die. While the playtest did show that this remains a distinct possibility, it also provides quite a few chances to cheat the reaper. Save-or-suck abilities also offer ONE 16+ save to avoid becoming helpless – upon failing that, a character is restricted to making more of these saves and once again, 4 failed saves mean that whatever unfortunate condition befell you, now hits full force – whether that be paralysis, petrification etc. On the one hand, this does mean that save-or-suck is less of an issue, since statistically, you ought to make one of those saves. On the other hand, this makes abilities like that pretty much less frightening, the game less dangerous. Whether one enjoys this or not, ultimately is up to the respective group, though tinkering with this system is pretty easy and less saves etc. for a more lethal game can easily be implemented. A popular low level save-or-suck-trick, fear, is now based on the hp of the target to be frightened – which makes sense to me. Speaking of “making sense to me” – resurrection and death are things NOT to be trifled with. Each character capable of the feat can resurrect exactly 5 times, with progressively worse repercussions for the caster and the target and final death for the caster looming beyond he last cast. This renders death meaningful and makes casters of that particular miracle a much-sought commodity- story-threads and narrative potential abound. I love it!

Over all, the total impression, which proved to be true, is that combat with this system is somewhat more predictable than with similar d20-based systems – which, of course makes balancing easier. Another rule that rigs the game in favor of the PCs would be the escalation die – in the second round of combat, the die is turned to the 1 – and all PCs receive +1 to attack rolls. This increases by +1 every round, up to +6. Monsters usually do not utilize the escalation die and special attacks and circumstances may decrease the die. Other abilities require a minimum number on the escalation die, while certain spells and effects require an even number on it. Why is the escalation die important? Well, because an attack is executed via d20+level+ability bonus+ magic item. And remember, only 10 levels. This means that either magic item bonuses become exceedingly important, or that AC/PD/MD cap at pretty low levels. And indeed – Balors clock in at AC 29, Red Dragons at 28, with the latter also sporting an MD of 23 and a PD of 27. Notice something? You don’t have to be a genius to realize that hitting these guys is not that hard, even sans the escalation die.

What does this mean? Well, much like comparable d20-based systems, we have an emphasis on relatively short, burst-like battles – attack capacity usually outclasses defensive capacity. Before I forget that later, I feel obliged to mention another factoid that DMs might want to be aware of – the way monsters work. Much like in the CR-system, we are provided with a mechanic to judge how to balance encounters, but this time around, the monster type influences how that works. No, I’m not talking about their race, but rather a grouping into e.g. mooks etc. - not a fan of that, but again, a personal preference, nothing I’d fault the game for. The damage monsters deal is not a regular throw of the dice – rather than that, they deal fixed values of damage with attacks and abilities. This cruise-control DMing considerably speeds up gameplay, yes. On the other hand, much like in other current systems, I was missing something as a DM. I enjoy the elation of the dice, the dread of players seeing me lift a hand full of dice to represent a dragon’s breath about to hit them. I’m aware that my insistence on rolling for monsters slows the game, but it is also a significant source of joy (and excitement) for me and to a lesser extent, my players. 13th Age streamlines that away and makes running the encounters faster, and in my opinion, significantly less exciting for the DM and also more predictable. And yeah, some monsters receive additional attacks/tricks based on the number you rolled on hits and misses – don't get me wrong, there is excitement to be had here as well. But personally, running the combats on the DM’s side felt less exciting to me. But also significantly faster. Which you prefer, once again, boils down to a matter of taste.

Part II of my review is in the product discussion, Post 16. See you there!


Wonderful blend of past and future

*****

When I first saw the Kickstarter for 13th Age, I was intrigued. But I didn't purchase. I don't tend to try new systems outside of D&D (put Pathfinder under that umbrella as well). When I do, I rarely (re: never) like them.

This book is quite different.

The format is well-laid out and clean. It jumps straight into the book and forsakes the "What is roleplaying" introductions some RPGs contain. They assume experienced or at least mildly experienced gamers.

The game uses the basic six stats used in D&D, but does a good job of encouraging spread out points. Armor, magical and physical defenses are calculated by taking a mid-point. For example, for mental defense you take the middle value of Charisma, Wisdom and Intelligence. A wizard may cast using intelligence, but will be basing their magical defense off of charisma or wisdom, depending on which is higher.

The core book contains the fighter, cleric, ranger, rogue, wizard, sorcerer, barbarian and bard. Each class plays significantly different from one another. Fighters have an interesting mechanic giving them various buffs or effects based on their die roll. Wizards gain daily, at-will and cyclic powers that are usable at different times. Rangers rely mainly on talents, but can be made more complex by picking up limited spellcasting and animal companions. I could go on. Essentially, each class is designed differently. The magic system does avoid the Vancian casting that is common in D&D and its derivatives while not conforming to the At-will/Encounter/Daily repetition that is 4th edition D&D.

Feats, instead of providing numerical bonuses, often exist to open up options. You pick up feats to alter the way certain abilities work or to open up more options with those abilities.

The game uses Backgrounds as its skill system. Backgrounds are a very open way of allocating points to specific concepts. For example, your wizard may have three points in "Member of the Thule Necromantic School." At first, I was somewhat skeptical of this. However, after over 6+ sessions of play, I am a huge fan. Rather than asking for a knowledge (nobility) check, I would ask for an intelligence check using any backgrounds that relate to nobility or history. This might include being the bastard son of a noble, the ambassador to a foreign court or the legitimate heir of a minor banner house.

Many others point to the One Unique Thing as a key element of 13th age as well. The OUT is something about your PC that is relatively unique in the world. Perhaps you are a daughter of Baba Yaga or the reincarnation of an ancient hero. These are designed to make PC's feel special and unique and can be slowly developed during play.

The best part of this system is the ease of play and DMing. No more do you spend 20+ minutes creating a level 5+ NPC or monster. No more do you have vague CR values that give ranges as opposed to expected statistical values. 13th Age makes creating monsters a breeze. Check the chart, grab the AC/Magic defense/ physical defense and then (if desired) apply one or more keywords that modify those stats. For example, a Brute may gain a % in hp but lose 1 or 2 from its defenses.

Overall, I was tentative about 13th Age but can't imagine running any other game. The ease of Dming this system combined with how much fun the combat is makes it ideal for my style of game.


A good blend of 3rd Ed & 4th Ed. concepts

*****

I really enjoyed this book. We've only play tested 3 combats so far, just to get a feel for the mechanics, but seems promising.
If nothing else, there are MANY GREAT ideas to steal for other game systems.



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