Tuesday, 18 March 2014

13th Age

Sorry – no game development stuff.  Giant stone head I’ve stopped work on and coffeehouse is going nowhere at the moment.  Maybe I’m more of a game design consultant or critic then a game designer?  That would be depressing….

Anyway – so I’m going to talk about a role-playing game because that is what is currently taking up most of my game related brain power.  Warning we’ve had two a bit sessions so far – so my opinions around session 10 might be very different.

13th Age

It’s been a while since I ran any RPG – and I keep looking at indy games and somehow I just find myself not wanting to run them.  The setting grates, or the rule are odd, or the rules are to complicated and I would need to do the heavy lifting. 

Then a chance comment made me look at reviews of 13th age which turned into flicking through a copy in Travelling Man which turned into buying it which turned into looking forwards to running it which turned into actually running it.

 The best description of 13th Age is that it is the unholy love child of D&D 4th Edition and a story focused indie RPG that wants to recreate the very best of the D&D games you played in your youth but with a games system designed to make that happen as opposed to one you can make work if you work around a lot of the rules.

So it’s very D&D based in that it provides the classic stats, levels, hit points, and rolling a d20 to hit and a bunch of dice for damage.  It takes its main inspiration from 4th edition with characters picking from a list of class talents, feats and powers that have clear game effects.  In fact the whole things is  gamist rather then simulationist – the question ‘is this realistic’ is not important.  However in my opinion it avoids the most common complaint about 4thEdition D&D (it’s a board game) not least by removing the gridded map and counting out movement portion.  So combat was crunchy but reasonably swift with a touch of “I’ll just roll to attack” but just a touch and that might be low level. 
The result leaves a game of decent tactical weight and rules crunch  that  so far has done a good job of providing challenging and interesting fights which is what you want for old school D&D.  It’s an attritional system – fights are about whittling down the players making them use up there recoveries and there one shot abilities so that the challenge creeps upwards and upwards as they head towards a confrontation…...

That what it has taken from its 4th Edition parent – but it’s also taken a lot from its indie game roots.

It’s created a lovely simple mechanic that means your players start off on the back foot but build towards success – just like big damn hero’s should.  The escalation dice – starts at 0 and at the end of turn 1 it hits the table with a value of 1.  The players add that to all there hit roles – which is why the bad guys have pretty impressive resistance – so you might want to save that big spell till things look desperate and the dice is high.  It’s a lovely idea with the rule book outlining how you can play with the concept to create effects in your players for example renforcements arrive – players start losing – drop the dice back down again!

Gone are a clumsy set of skills that never felt quite right for D&D and they have been replaced back backgrounds. Just describe bits of your characters background and spend some of your eight points and your away.  No looking anything up – just a player explaining why that background is the right one for solving this problem.  This immediately starts making your character feel like a character and not a set of sets.

You need to define “one unique thing” about your character.  Something about you that is true about you – and so turns out to be true about the world.  The first chapter in your heroic story is how they describe it.  Some of them are big things and some of them are little things – but again they make you come alive.  But they also make the background come alive – because the background is designed to be vague – open with opportunities but actually missing a lot of detail.  As you play those details get decided – a process that starts with your backgrounds and your one unique thing.
And one final big story telling touch – there are 13 big powerful NPC’s called Icons who represent the movers and shakers of the world from the Archmage to the Prince of Shadows to the Litch King.  Players align themselves with or against these forces and then at the start of the game roll some dice to see what Icons are making an appearance in this story……  Is it the three or the ork lord you’ll be opposing?  Will the arch druid or the Priestess assist you?  And just how will your terrible relationship with the elf queen complicate your life this week…..  This has the prospect of being great but it’s the bit of the game I’m struggling to insert in the way I’d like.  If the great golden wyrm links you up with the other players – is that really you getting an advantage or the GM just making it all work?  And making your interactions ‘positive but complicating’ I’m finding hard to make work.  However I’m hopeful……

The rule book is also written in an open style which manages to give you permission to change and amend the rules in a way that other games don’t.  I mean other games say you can but by having the two writers explain the different rules they use for this – it really make it comes home.
For me at least this system has a lot of potential – it’s got a system that provides tactical crunch so fights matter – it’s got improv so there is no point planning to much – it’s got story telling elements that encourage your players to make the world feel alive – and most of all it allows you and your players to set your tone.  I mean the arrival of an ‘intimate entertainer of unknown gender of the two sided coin’ in my game already means the world stranger then I suspect.  And were still not sure what exactly the two sided coin is…….