As I was looking at things in 4E to port into 5E I was reminded that there is kind of a 2nd take on 4E in the game 13th Age. 13th Age is a high fantasy RPG released in 2013 from Pelgrane Press and came from Rob Henisoo (D&D 4E) and Jonathan Tweet (Over The Edge, Ars Magica, D&D 3E).
While the game is fairly well supported with supplements and regular pdf releases I feel like the game doesn’t quite get the respect it should. So think of this as a little spotlight on things about the game that make it really something awesome.
The Escalation Die
This is 100% my favorite thing in 13th Age. In essence it’s a modifier to PC (and some monster) attacks that increases by one each round, using a d6 to track it starting on the 2nd round. On the surface it’s simple an automatic bonus each round. It means players aren’t as likely to “alpha strike” a monster with their big attacks right out the gate. There’s tactical decisions since every round all PC attacks have a better chance to hit. If this were all it did…well that’s pretty sweet. However there is more to it. There are class and racial abilities that key off it, there are monster abilities that key off it, it functions as a timing mechanic. It’s simply an excellent mechanic.
Classes that Aren’t Cut and Paste
Each of the classes in 13th Age, while still recognizable from the “standard”, play different from each other. The choice of Wizard or Cleric or Sorcerer isn’t just about spell choices and a couple of abilities. They are very, very different from one another.
Between the core book and the 13 True Ways there are fifteen classes and each of them feels different. A player needs to learn new mechanics for each of the classes (which for me is a plus but for others it may be a turn off). Some of the classes are easier (Barbarian) and some are much more complex (Chaos Mage). Even with that there are differences in how the classes play compared to say D&D or Pathfinder. It’s definitely not cookie cutter.
Monster Types is one area where the 4E roots of 13th Age is most evident. There are eight different roles for monsters and each of them fills a certain place in an encounter. Archers focus on ranged attacks, Blockers protect their allies, Leaders boost their allies etc. So rather than an encounter being against 6 Goblins, it might be against a handful of Goblin Scum (Minions), a few Goblin Grunts (Troops) and a Goblin Shaman (Caster) or a Goblin Bat Mage (Spoiler). It just lends itself to more varied encounters and it was a major misstep for 5E to go back to monsters just being generic sacks of hit points with very few variations between goblin #1 and goblin #2.
Backgrounds are very similar to Professions in Shadow of the Demon Lord in that they include a wide variety of skills and the like under a wide umbrella. There’s no Pick Lock skill but your character may have the background of Guild Thief +3. There’s no Tracking skill but your character might be a Queen’s Wood Range +1 before they became a Pirate Scourge +2. Backgrounds cover things that the player and GM agree would be part of being that background. This does bear some scrutiny from the GM to ensure that players aren’t trying to make a background that does everything and the next time I play I’ll probably make Background suggestions part of the pre-start work.
One Unique Thing
Your character has something unique about them, something that is theirs and theirs alone. A dark haired elf among the pale haired folks. A dwarf who can’t hold their ale. Long lost child of an ancient bloodline. Whatever it is but it is unique to you and you alone. The primary caveat being that it confers no mechanical benefit. GMs and players absolutely need to work this out together and it should be part of the session zero. A One Unique Thing is an opportunity for roleplay and world development as opposed to a way to get more powers. A well worded One Unique Thing can be the driving force for a story arc or even an entire campaign.
The default setting for 13th Age has Icons – powerful NPCs that the impact the world through their actions and their followers, organizations and presence. Not gods but also more than just a “10th level Fighter” or “Ancient Dragon”. So far that’s pretty standard fare but what sets things apart is that each PC will have a relationship with a handful of these Icons. That doesn’t mean that they personally know The Great Gold Wyrm or The Crusader but that the NPC is aware of them. The relationships help to immerse the characters into things from session 1. The player has a small pool of points to spread among the icons and also has to describe if the relationship is Positive, Negative or Conflicted. What relationships the party has and whether they are positive, negative or conflicted can greatly impact the direction of a story or a campaign. Entire campaigns can be about a PC’s quest to become (or replace) an Icon, or the fallout of open warfare between say the Elf Queen and The Three. Of all the elements in 13th Age, this one is one that is hardest to grasp just how it works in play but the time it takes to do so is well worth it.
There is an official 13th Age Soundtrack (available here) and it’s pretty great. I don’t mind hunting down music for a game and putting together playlists but when a game comes with it’s own soundtrack that’s something I appreciate a ton.