13th Age RPG is a Roiling Broth of Intrigue

On the surface, Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG looks like a slightly tweaked D&D rule set with a world populated by classic fantasy archetypes. You might think, “Why bother?” I did, at first. But then I had a chance to play it at Gen Con, with co-designer Rob Heinsoo as DM. That’s when I discovered there’s a lot more going on with 13th Age than first impressions might suggest.

The system

The mechanics in 13th Age will be very familiar to D&D players. There are some key differences, like the spell system, which uses rolls to recharge spells you’ve used. Combat is not grid-based, instead using simple range increments to keep things fluid, yet still allowing tactical options. The escalation die ramps up combat round by round. But for the most part, it’s a straightforward D20 system. That’s great, because this game wants the mechanics to stay out of the way, hands in pockets, only emerging when needed. For that, a system 90 percent of RPGers are familiar with is perfect.

The world

The 13th Age world is where things get interesting. There’s a pretty cool geography, with an inner sea that’s safe for sailing and an outer sea that’s desperately dangerous to travel on. Sure, but the reason that inner sea is so safe? Long ago all the monsters were ordered out of it by the emperor. So the sea is calm. The coastline is wracked with perpetual monster attacks and the law of unintended consequences.

Upon this world tread 13 demigods known as icons or iconics. Each is an archetypical fantasy trope, like the Lich King, the Elf Queen (pictured) and the High Druid. Every character has a built-in relationship with a few of these demigods, which can be either positive, negative or conflicted. During encounters, you roll to see how your relationship with an iconic is going to affect your day. It might determine the type of monster that shows up, or how your attempt at diplomacy goes, and might even grant you a magic item.

Characters

My favorite part of this game is the skill system. There’s no menu of skills or ranks to be purchased. Instead, you create a character background. It can be anything — the example Mr. Heinsoo (who shares design duties with Jonathan Tweet) used was “Former member of the Purple Assassin’s guild.” You get a number of bonus points to split between your backgrounds, so you could put +3 in that one, then +2 in something else. When a situation arises and you want to do something skill-based, you just decide if something in your background suggests you know that skill. Picking a lock seems like something a member of the Purple Assassin’s guild would learn, so you can use your +3 bonus on that.

I wanted my demo character, a drow sorcerer, to be good at finding hidden lore, knowing arcane secrets and translating lost languages, so I gave him the background, “Seeker of lost pages from the Delirian Codex.” I also gave him “Astronomer,” thinking it might be useful for navigation or even prognostication (unfortunately, I didn’t get to test those out in the demo session).

Not only does this make character creation more fun and skill use much more intuitive, it builds new pieces into the game world. Now the DM knows that there’s an assassin’s guild or a lost codex, and can create stories or adventure hooks based on that.

Each player also gets to create “One Unique Thing” about his or her character. You’ll never be yet another cookie-cutter fighter in 13th Age. From the beginning, you’re creating a character who has a special place in the world. Stories, conflicts, hooks and ideas are built right in. My demo character’s One Unique Thing was, “He’s a deity from another universe who is powerless in this universe.” Another player had a half-orc who’d cut his own arm off to prove his toughness, and used a two-handed weapon one-handed.

The combination of a streamlined D&D system with fun and unique character creation and an interesting high fantasy world have completely won me over. There’s a lot more info at the publisher’s blog, including how to get your hands on a pdf of some beta rules. Of course there’s a Kickstarter, this is for the game’s first supplement, 13 True Ways.