13th Age – useful tools and subsystems

I’ve been running through a quick playtest of 13th Age with one of my groups, whilst we are down a player for a few sessions in our ongoing campaign. These are my thoughts so far on the ideas that 13th Age brings to the table.

Escalation
The escalation die is a brilliant concept, and I’ve previously incorporated it into other games. The idea is that PCs (and significant monsters) get an incremental bonus to their attacks after the first round of the fight (+1 on the first round, +2 on the third round, up to +6 on the seventh and subsequent rounds), and the obvious way to track this is on a nicely visible d6. I run it that the bonus applies to both attack rolls and damage, although I can’t recall off the top of my head whether that is by the book or a house-rule.
This escalation mechanic stops fights from dragging on, and it also adds a tactical element that dissuades PCs from ‘going nova’ and blowing everything that they have in round one (because if they wait a bit before using their most potent attacks, they have a greater chance of hitting). This emulates the escalation that often occurs over the course of a fight in film.

Recharge Powers
13th Age has a number of powers and abilities which are replenished when a particular number (e.g. 16+) is rolled on the d20 during a short rest. This reduces the bookkeeping of tracking resources that can be used a few times a day, and creates an interesting tactical decision about when to use powers/spells. It means that there is a chance that a power may return before the next battle, which I think adds a pinch of excitement that just counting down a couple of uses of a spell doesn’t offer. It’s a small thing, but it is an interesting idea.

Flexible Moves
Similar to the recharging of abilities, flexible moves are a way to add a touch of excitement with minimal bookkeeping overhead, based on a d20 roll. Essentially, certain powers within the game (such as fighter manoeuvres) activate when the number that you roll meets certain conditions, such as being a hit and an odd number. One of my players has taken several flexible attacks for his fighter, some that activate on even numbers, some that activate on odd numbers, and some that activate on a miss; and now whatever number he rolls on the d20, something cool happens.
These sorts of mechanical tools appeal to me greatly: they are simple and elegant, and add a fun element to the game that doesn’t need much effort to track (and consequently doesn’t impose too much cognitive load).

Monster Stats and Scripting Behaviour
The monster stat blocks in 13th Age are beautiful – they are extremely simple and easy to run.
You are given the monster type & level, the attacks, initiative, AC (Armour Class), PD (Physical Defence), MD (Mental Defence), the HP, and a short snippet of flavour text. That’s pretty much it – take a look: http://www.13thagesrd.com/monsters/
The monsters are also very easy to run, due to the way that their attacks and typical behaviours are effectively scripted into their d20 roll. This works much like the flexible moves mentioned above, so for example a monster may use one attack if you roll an even number, or another if you roll odd. This reduces the amount of thinking that you need to do when running the monster, which is nice.

Icons
The Icons of 13th Age are the pivotal NPCs/factions/demigods which help to define the setting. They have easy-to-grok names such as “The Archmage” or “the Dwarf Lord”, and they represent the major forces that shape the default 13th Age setting.
The PCs allocate points to their relationships with these Icons, be they allies, adversaries, or something more complicated. At the start of each session these relationships are used to produce potential plot ideas, which is a nice touch. However, I think that their greatest utility is simply in being a tool to define the world. Pretty much every NPC of importance is going to know who most of the Icons are, and is going to have views upon then and relationships with them (usually not directly, but for example by working with one of the organisations that are aligned with them). The mechanical support for these relationships helps to keep them focused over the course of play.

Magic Items
The magic items in 13th age fall into two categories: the single-use minor items and the permanent major items. The minor items (e.g. potions) give you a small bonus (+1 to +3, based on your level); the major items give permanent bonuses and various useful abilities. The interesting thing about 13th age is how it handles these powerful magic items – if you have too many (i.e. more than your level) then you develop entertaining/inconvenient personality quirks. This is because the true magic items are somewhat sentient, and if you have too many then you can get a bit overwhelmed as their personalities begin to bleed into yours. They begin to wield you, rather than the other way around. This is a simple and entertaining method of preventing PCs from lugging around a golf bag of magic swords, and many of the quirks amuse me (such as “Constantly checking self out and flexing, and seems to want to be caught doing that”, or “Develops a love of elegant elven poetry”).

Recoveries & Heal-Ups
13th Age PCs gets “recoveries”, which are functionally similar to the “healing surges” of 4E, in that they are additional bundles of hit points that you can use to replenish your health. These mostly serve to somewhat free up the cleric from being called upon to do nothing but heal people, and as such have my approval. They don’t make all that much sense in-universe, but then again neither to Hit Points.
Full heal-ups are similar to resting for the night in other versions of D&D/F20 (replenishing powers and HP), except that in a bold twist the designers have decided to de-couple this from sleeping. Instead, you get a full heal-up after around 4 combat encounters. This removes the 5-minute workday problem, at the cost of not really making a great deal of in-universe sense. I’m not sure how I feel about that; it bothers me slightly, but I can’t think of a more simple and effective way to resolve the issue.

 

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