Wednesday, September 4, 2013

13th Age: First Session and Game Remarks (review?)

This Sunday past marks my foray into The 13th Age from the fine folks at Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal Media. I did not begin a new game. I changed from Legend to 13th Age.

Why change?
There are three reasons I switched game systems. The first is that if you are not playing a game centered on combat, party balance is odd. I like having role-play and roll-play characters at the table. I want my players to have their cake and sometimes their ice cream (but never the Cool Whip, that’s for me). I also want my game to be balanced when players are building their characters. Some choices may be more beneficial than others, but I don’t want characters stuck in a position where they (or I) feel punished by their choice of race/class/type. The game rules can take away neat stuff, but it must replace it with other cool stuff. When it comes to races and combat, Legend does not do a good job at this topic. Shorter characters, such as the classic Halfling and gnome, suffer on their ability to do damage and do not gain much in the way of a defense bonus. On top of their weak strength, the system’s rules for armor (attack damage minus armor equals damage taken to hit points) only compound on top of the weak strength for smaller characters. Is there some logic to this? Yes, I can see it. That does not mean I like it.

This directly affected one of the players. As a gnome, she was lucky to be doing a single point of damage to combatants. She had some spell abilities to help her and the rest of the party, but at the end of the day, a seashell dropped by a seagull from ten feet was likely to do more damage than her pounding a knife in a villain’s eye. Crazy comparison, I know.

The second reason I switched games is related to the skills list. The list appears to be a compilation of several different versions of the game run by game masters who had no contact with each other. For whatever reason, I found the skills list to be completely not intuitive. I think this was more a stumbling block for a player or two and not so much for me.

I found the magic to be limiting. I do not think my players found it limiting, but in my mind it was thusly. As the players were not complaining, I do not consider this a reason I wanted to leave Legend to the ancestor spirits. I did, however, begin designing new ways of casting magic and creating spells borrowing heavily from Skyrim.

I could easily house rule the first two complaints. I could rewrite the skills list to include only the skills I wanted and add any I thought were necessary. I could remove the rules constricting wee folks’ physical stats being so low. I could introduce magic items that would overcome this problem. (In fact, I had just done this in the last session.)  However, I do not think I should feel a need to create house rules for a game before the end of character creation. With this game, I did. Nor should I need to add magic items to a low magic item game world, just to balance the rules. If I am going to run a game with house rules from the starting point, I have plenty of other games I could run where the house rules already exist and I am not creating from scratch.

When would I use Legend?
I think Legend is completely usable for a game. I think said game should be more human-centric, as to keep the downgrades away. Or, perhaps a game more akin to high fantasy than my low fantasy worlds. Another way Legend could have worked for my group, is if the wee folk’s player had designed their character as a full-on spell caster. They did not and they should not be put in a position where they would be forced to do so.

If I were running a game similar to my old Unisystem Vikings game, Legend would be fun. If I were running Conan, I could easily use Legend as the rules system. Same for a game based on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

For my low fantasy game set in a mythic Europe style setting, it just was not working.

A new age
While fighting against Legend, I began to hear about a new game in development:  13th Age. Steve and Lowell had mentioned it and I kept running across it due to my interest in another game by the same publisher (Night’s Black Agents). Research showed me the game would have crunchy bits for combat, have the standard d20 rule mechanics, and then have extra stuff for the role-play bits. This last part seemed to be focused on a lack of a skill list and what the game mechanics called “icons.”

In truth, to me it sounded as if the game were a retro-clone based on some of the earliest versions of D&D, not AD&D.

While I was at GenCon, helping Lowell pimp a game he has been developing, we both picked up The 13th Age on our day one. That evening, we both read at least 50% of the book. Before I made it that far into the book, I knew the rules should work better for my game. I skipped over much of the spell lists and the way many of the feats operated. I have played various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, so the concepts were generally known and understood.  So, what made this set of rules stand out as opposed to a version of D&D or Legend?

First, the style of the book in regards to the writing and layout. The book is super easy to view – no super tight columns or excessive white space. The writing style is not akin to stereo instructions. It is very light and flows easily (I think my language instructors would have called it clear and concise).

Second, it removed the need for an excessive skill list defining what a player could or could not do, as well as, what the skill included or did not include. Instead, players have backgrounds and those give bonuses to die rolling. The backgrounds describe the character or the character’s past. An example is, “I was a journeyman blacksmith before being swept up into the direct service of the local baron.” The character starts with eight points to spread over any backgrounds they wish to create. Then, anytime this character would need to make a check and blacksmithing might be a useful skill to help their knowledge base, the player would add those points to the die roll. Need to know the tensile strength of a gate, bonus. Need to know the value of a sword or suit of armor about to be purchased, bonus.

Could a player go crazy with this and try to overpower their character? Yes, but as a game master, it is your responsibility to recognize these situations and help the player work through them. No, you cannot have, “Former personal bodyguard to the king, trained in the ways of sword fighting, creating poisons, and casting high born magic.” You could be the former bodyguard for the king as a sword user, a crafter of poisons, and a student of magic. However, those are three different backgrounds.

Unlike most fantasy roleplaying games, The 13th Age does not include a list of deities and demigods. Instead, the game introduces the concept of “icons.” Icons represent different ideals and factions within the game. They could be thought of as invisible totems, influencing and being influenced by the characters in the setting. In the book, the icons strike me more as high powered NPCs who make the world go round. They include personalities such as the Emperor, High Druid, and the Lich King. Players start with three points to use with the various icons. The players also choose whether their relation with the icons is positive, negative, or conflicted. These relationships help the game master create stories for the game world. I know I am not doing a great job as describing the icons and how they work, but the book does a great job of it.

For my game world, the icons represent ideals. I have removed the core book’s icons and replaced them with my own. Others have begun doing such things with the Neverwinter Nights, Eberron, and Iron Kingdoms settings. This works very well in my game, as I created it to have a different feel in each barony. The baronies were originally named for their physical features, mist, southern coast, mountains, etc. I also gave each barony its own leader and personal style. The southern coast baron is more laid back and informal. The mists baron is more formal and brutal in leadership. The leaders of the elves are hands off and reserved, but still holding to tradition whenever possible.

I was able to assign a different icon for each of the baronies and the major areas experienced by the players so far. I may eventually have some cross-over, but that is not a problem. Two areas with the baron as an icon could be allies or could have different secondary icons as influencers.

The feats and spells were different than I expected. The spells list is smaller than what I remember from 1st or 3rd edition D&D. This is not a bad thing. I do not need ten different spells causing 1d4 damage. The feats are more expansive and gimmicky than I am accustomed to using in 3rd edition. I, honestly, did not do enough reading on this section and I need to go back through it and re-read it. I need to make sure I understand the players’ abilities, so I know what to throw at them to make a challenge. I helped the newest player make her character and thus I was able to make sure she did everything she could to be a kick ass barbarian. Everyone else, though, not so much.

Whose age is this?
The 13th Age is not a book for new players. Nor, is it a book for players who want the crunch delivered by games such as Pathfinder or 4th edition D&D.

In my opinion, basic assumptions exist in the writing.  There are no racial descriptions involving dark sight and the like. The only racial bonuses come in the way of feats. In converting from Legend, I simply kept those I had implemented. There is also a feel to the writing suggesting if you are not familiar with the core mechanics of the d20 SRD or games such as Pathfinder or 4th edition D&D, you could be missing out on things. These are not necessarily bad things to have in the book. However, I occasional feel like I am missing something, but in conferring with the other players, discover I am not.

Three of my players and I are what I would consider seasoned veterans of roleplaying games. We probably have over 80 years of experience between us. Our fourth, and my wife, has less than three. For her, the game is a struggle. I have always thought d20 rules were bad for starting players and I now have witnessed them as such. It is nothing against The 13th Age; it is a simple fact of too much going on during combat for a new person to experience.

Taking the horse home
Our first session when well:  I had planned for a combat that did not occur, I had to improvise a combat I was completely unprepared for, and then move through social interactions both expected and unexpected.

We ended the last session with the players having cleared the Tomb of the Manticore, except for the Room of the Sarcophagi. I did not expect the group to trigger the trap in the room, but they did. I had expected a retreat to the surface to seal the tomb and move on to the related social interactions. Therefore, I had not gone back and reconfigured the stats for the NPCs in the room.

What I did have, were print outs of second level characters. Some were from the Pelgrane Press website, some were my own. The player characters were all second level. I also had a manticore in the core book. I ran with it. We busted out the battle map, figs, and got right to it.

The fight was awesome for a first time of playing the game. There were many hiccups and referencing of rules. However, it went smoothly. We were able to help each other stay on top of what could be accomplished. We talked through the different feats and maneuvers for the characters. I used feats with the NPCs and talked through what those feats were and how I was using them.

Four players, a barbarian, a ranger, a wizard, and a bard. NPCs, six with sword and shield and four with pole arms. The players worked together and forced the NPCs to come at them in a manner that allowed the players to control the board. I also set up several situations that played into the player character feats. In a sense, I set them up to win.

Still, I did all of that off the cuff. No planning, no muss, no fuss, and the only mess was the battle map.

The rest of the session involved role-play and not roll-play. We had opportunities to perform skill checks and were able to show how Backgrounds come in to play.

I think the rule system will do what I want it to do. We did not put a lot of focus on the Icons and in truth, I do not think I will put as much emphasis on them as the book puts on them. I view the Icons as a means to help guide a game master on what they should or could include as storylines in a game. I already have those items in motion. However, I did go through and line the Icons up with game world. I have two prior posts about my icons here and here