13th Age is a d20 based role playing game put out by a UK based company, Pelgrane Press. A few famous names from other RPGs, such as Rob Heinsoo and Johnathan Tweet, put a lot of their great homebrew rules from other systems and created this Frankenstein’s monster of a role playing game. Hopefully whoever is GMing your 13th Age game has some experience with the system, because a well-practiced GM can make this role playing game loads of fun and a nice way to break the mold of other d20 systems. Here are some things that new players to the system should know before jumping into the system.
1). It’s familiar but new
13th Age is very similar to most other d20 based role playing games. You have armor class, you roll saves, you have bonuses to hit and do damage using other types of dice. It makes it really easy to slip into the system coming from a similar game like Pathfinder RPG or Dungeons and Dragons. What makes it interesting beyond this are mechanics built into the game such as Backgrounds and Icon relationships. Backgrounds are a mechanic that replace skills, essentially letting you title your own skills how you will and distribute points among them for bonuses to various tasks. What makes this so drastically different from the skills system, however, is that a background is applied to a skill check by you, the player, selling the GM some story about why this particular background helps in the given situation. It’s pretty much a way to help you build two stories at once; what you are currently doing and what you have done in the past. Plus, BSing is just plain fun! The Icon Relationship mechanic ties your character to the world of the Dragon Empire, the standard setting for the game. Icons are political figures that shape the world around you, and relationships with them are used to create interesting plot twists, for good or for ill.
2). It’s very rules light
Not having to assign skill points is a gigantic boon in and of itself for character building. What makes it even better, though, is that there are many rules in the game that are optional. And all rules that aren’t spelled out are simply implied. For instance, the 13th Age core rules don’t explain what you need in order to break into a house. Frankly, they don’t outline it at all, they leave it up to the GM to make the proper call as to what a player needs to roll. Equipment was also a big cumbersome beast to deal with in games like Pathfinder. No more feats or proficiencies for armor or weapons, the two fall into simply categories: Small, Light/Simple, Heavy/Martial. That’s really it. Your character class dictates how well you can use each type of item, and what’s even better is that the system never completely bars you from using something in your class. A mere -2 attack penalty does the trick to highlight that your particular class is doing something weird. As for combat and such, it’s very similar to other d20 games. The difference here is that there’s no stat saves (reflex, will etc.). Instead you have stats, that function much like your armor class, called Physical Defense and Mental Defense. The calculations are equally as simple and make for speeding up the fighting process.
3). It’s okay to make things up!
The Dragon Empire does very much have an established lore. This seems like a contradictory statement but hear me out. In the core rule book, there are many nuggets of knowledge scattered throughout the tome referencing history and events. The kicker is this: Most of the history is presented as rumors. Masterfully created in the spirit of Tolkien-esque writing, this leaves a lot of wiggle room for players and GMs to fill in the blanks. The background mechanic really fits well into the spirit of this idea and allows the players and GM to bounce ideas off of one another to create a more focused image of what the previous ages, or earlier in the current age, had looked like. All of the lore presented in the 13th Age rule book is essentially there to serve as inspiration for creating something amazing.
4). It’s okay to be daring
13th Age is the most unbalanced balanced system there is. The game is designed to make players feel heroic, feel epic, feel accomplished. Disclaimer on this one: don’t get the impression that it’s impossible for you to die. That simply isn’t true. However, if your GM is in the spirit of the system, the math that this game employs allows for some pretty whacky things to happen. To offset this sort of player-centric tilt, skill checks do get harder as you progress through the tiers of player (adventurer, champion and epic). This point also ties into how rules light the system is. Since there’s no written rules for most actions, it encourages your GM to get into the mindset of creating rulings on the spot. There’s no correct way, per se, to jump up on the chandelier and swing from it to kick your adversary in the nose, but man, would that be awesome! Sure, if you fail, you go flying into the wall and probably take some damage. But hey! At least it looked cool and you have seven recoveries left to make up for it.
5). It’s designed for player/GM cooperation
The system overall is designed for the players and the GM to build the story together. Some of you may be shocked and appalled, simply because some other less fortunate games have fallen victim to GMs running the story with a tyrannical fist. Not here, son! As with any system, it is possible for a group to slink back into this dark space of gaming. With 13th Age, the story telling mechanics really help the players cooperate with the GM in creating both an interesting and balanced situation. It keeps everything in check as long as everybody is paying attention to what’s on the page. More often than not, I do find myself enforcing my story in a way that is almost toxic and my players keep me in check by invoking the story telling rules. Bad habits die hard and this is the way to kick them! Go out there, and jump into the 13th Age!
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.