The character building process of 13th Age is not too terribly different from most other d20 based role playing systems. The most noticeable difference is the emphasis on story and narrative that the rules encourage. Oddly enough, this has a lot of bearing on building your character among other things…
1) You have agency over the setting
The backgrounds system aforementioned encourages you to create a robust backstory for your character. Well, do just that! Don’t be afraid to insert your own truths, or in some cases perceived truths, about the Dragon Empire or any other setting your group is playing in. Of course, the GM has the final say in all that is to be had, but shoot for the moon for your first draft. Don’t try to take into consideration what your GM or other players have in mind, unless you’re running a session zero (which could be an entire post on its own). Bounce ideas back and forth, take the liberty thrust into your hands and shape it into something fantastic. In case of a session zero interference, start big and hone it down to something compliant with what everybody else is thinking. Usually, this is the way that everybody can have the major concepts they want work within the everyone else’s vision, including the GM. Compromise does NOT mean sacrifice and can be used to create something beautiful.
2) Details, details, DETAILS!
What brings your character to life is the implementation of the little things. 13th Age does part of that for you, using the One Unique Thing mechanic; a mechanic that makes every player have one, non-combat related quirk such as a strange mutation or an interesting personality trait. But why stop at one?! The One Unique Thing on the sheet may only be your most noticeable trait, but just like real people, player characters should be complex creatures with many layers strewn about them. For example: When we adapted Ravenloft to 13th Age for the first full campaign we played, I had played a drow rogue. Yes, how typical, I know. The kicker was that his One Unique Thing was that he was a 200-year-old aristocrat... And so happened to be a vampire. Usually a vampire mutation would be tied into some sort of feat structure or sub-class or prestige class, but bugger all that for a second. The detail wasn’t intended to be a play on the vampirism fantasy trope, but to be a well-known person with a dark personal trait. A wolf among sheep, a well-known figure with a hidden personal agenda. So no, he didn’t have super strength or speed, he couldn’t levitate, he actually could see himself in a mirror (which he sometimes hated) but damn, was he still an interesting character! Oh, and the detail? He was obsessed with pocket watches; it was kind of his thing. At the conclusion of things, he ended up being buried alive to live an eternity of boredom because Strahd was malcontent with his performance in the mission, but hey, such is Ravenloft.
3) Image over mechanics
Role playing games are based off of imagination, aren’t they? So why force yourself to do something if it doesn’t work effectively within the mechanics? I can hear all the power gamers shuffling their stacks of notes and clicking their PowerPoint files to explain why I’m wrong. If you’re new and still trying to find your groove, give this shred of advice a listen before that. Mechanics are easy, pure imagery is hard. Building your character to do what you want them to look like can sometimes lead to an ineffective character in combat. So long as your character is the interesting piece you want them to be, it doesn’t matter. Your wizard has a great sword? Well, he’s -2 to hit, but that’s freaking badass! 13th Age in particular is very good at not completely barring you from realizing your visions of characters. You don’t have a long list of proficiency feats, you don’t have racial restrictions, you get to do what you want, when you want. Seize that, and take the day!
Sean is a BMW technician by day, the Heavy Metal GM by night, and loves everything about 13th Age. If the game interests you and you want to learn more, check out his 13th Age blog here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.