Kobold Press has recently released a version of the Midgard Bestiary that is compatible with 13th Age, the new d20-style RPG by Rob Heinsoo and me. Wolf Baur and I go back 20 years, and he asked me to explain a little about 13th Age to his audience of Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and 3.5 players.
As the lead designer on D&D 3E, I’m heartened to see people still playing a version of the game system that my team and I developed. I’m especially grateful to my old friend Lisa Stevens and Paizo for Pathfinder, which breathed new life into the system when Wizards of the Coast switched to 4E. I can’t help but be proud and humbled by how well the system has stood up all these years.
So then, why did Rob and I design 13th Age? Because we share a vision of how the well-loved d20-rolling system could work faster and with more emphasis on your character’s story. In light of the 13th-Age-compatible Midgard Bestiary, here’s what you might like to know about the system.
In some ways it represents a continuation of the work I did on 3rd Ed, emphasizing the classic tropes of D&D while streamlining and rationalizing the rules system. In other ways, 13th Age brings a new approach to the system, with more storytelling and customization.
When Wizards of the Coast bought D&D in 1997, Second Edition had moved D&D away from its roots, presenting it as more generic and less fantastic. With 3rd Edition, we consciously moved the game back toward the 1st Ed feel, and the fans responded enthusiastically. Strangely, the next edition, 4E, again moved the game away from its roots. This time it was not toward being more generic but toward a new vision of what the D&D lore could be. While the game offered a number of mechanical improvements, a common reaction was that it didn’t feel like D&D any more. Naturally, the edition didn’t sit well with the fans, and that’s how Pathfinder won out.
Now with 13th Age, Rob and I again hearken back to D&D’s roots. Our publisher calls 13th Age a “love letter to D&D.” The setting in particular showcases classics fantasy RPG tropes and puts them to work for you. What that means for you is that you can incorporate elements from 13th Age into your 3.5 or Pathfinder campaign, and chances are they’ll feel like they fit there.
When we revised the D&D system for 3E, we dropped a lot of particular rules and prohibitions in favor of a more streamlined, open-ended system. We took out percentile 18-Strength scores, different bonus tables for each ability score, ability minimums for races and classes, level caps by race and class, prohibitions on most race/class combinations, limits on multiclassing, weapon speeds, different weapon damage for large monsters, and spellcasting times.
With 13th Age, Rob and I went further, streamlining class features, spell descriptions, monster descriptions, and combat. You might not want to play as fast and loose as we do, but you might find some of our shortcuts attractive.
In 3rd Ed, we changed initiative from rolling once per round to rolling once per battle. It was controversial, but it overcame the objections of the critics because it made combat faster. With that example in mind, Rob and I have streamlined the combat system to make it faster. In particular, we handle movement and position abstractly, without a grid. Like the switch to cyclic initiative, it’s a big change that makes combat go faster.
We also don’t bother with numerous, small bonuses, which have the effect of slowing combat down in order to provide a small increase to tactics and realism. The flanking rules in 3E were a simple abstraction compared to worrying about which direction an enemy was actually facing. As much as I like the 3E flanking rule, we just dropped it in 13th Age, and honestly I haven’t missed it. Rogues can still sneak attack an enemy in battle, provided the enemy is engaged with an ally of the rogue to provide a distraction. Again, even if you don’t want to streamline combat as much as we do, some of the tricks we use to keep combat moving would fit into most 3.5 or Pathfinder campaigns.
A GM’s most interesting roll is a monster’s attack roll, so we often make it more interesting by adding secondary triggers. Basically, some attacks have an additional effect that triggers based on the natural result of the attack roll. If the hellhound’s bite attack roll is even, for example, it can also attack with its fiery breath. Hellhounds each use their fiery breath about half the time, but the GM doesn’t have to track which hellhounds breathed fire last round. This concept and most of the triggered effects in 13th Age can work in any d20-style system. The triggers we invented for our monsters can be dropped straight onto monster attacks in other d20-rolling systems, adding a little extra meat the attack rolls.
One of the worst things that can happen to a combat is that it bogs down. There’s often a point where victory is certain, but everyone has to roll attacks for a several more rounds to conclude the battle. It stops feeling like combat and becomes an exercise in probabilities and attrition.
In 13th Age, we hasten battles to a close with the escalation die. We set monsters’ AC scores about 1 point higher than they should be, and then we give the players a bonus on attacks that starts at +1 on the second round and increases by +1 each round until it maxes out at +6. The beginning of each battle is a little harder and more exciting, and the battles never drag on. The escalation die also rewards players for saving their big spells for later in the battle when they’re more likely to get past the enemies’ defenses. For 3.5 or Pathfinder, this would be a bonus on attacks and on the DCs of your spells or special abilities.
Revised Classes and Feats
Third Ed parted with D&D tradition by allowing a character of any race to adopt any class, a change that the fans embraced whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, ability penalties make lots of race-class combinations weak. When we debuted 3rd Ed at GenCon in 2000, a hall full of fans cheered at the illustration of a half-orc paladin projected on the screen. In reality, the half-orc’s Cha penalty makes one a second-rate paladin. In fact, even a race without a Dex bonus makes a second-rate rogue compared to an elf or halfling.
In 13th Age, we take 3E one further by making it not just legal to play any race-class combination but also practical. Your class gives you a bonus to a core ability score when your race does not, so the half-orc rogue can get the same +2 bonus on Dex that a halfling or wood elf gets. In playtest, for example, I ran a half-orc wizard whose name was Urrug Thon, Orkish for “proof of concept.” Adding ability bonuses by class to your campaign can make more race-class combinations playable.
One problem in the D&D system that we didn’t address with 3E is the disparity between classes whose power is “per day,” such as clerics, and those whose power is “at will,” such as rogues. It’s impossible for a game designer to balance these classes because there’s no way for the game designer to know how many fights the party is going to get into per day. If there are lots of fights, the per-day classes are relatively weaker. If there are few fights per day, the per-day classes automatically get stronger. Spellcasters have to mete out their spells carefully, albeit without knowing how many more fights they’re going to face before recovering their spells. Typically, the spellcasters want to go home and rest before the rest of the party does, and if it’s the cleric that’s out of spells, then the party is in a hard spot. In 3E, we tried balancing the classes with the assumption that the PCs would face about four fights before healing up, which means that the balance is off every time there are fewer than four fights or more than four.
In 13th Age, we address this issue with the rule that the party gets a “reset” of hit points and spells after four standard fights regardless of campaign time. In my last D&D campaign, that was my house rule, and it worked great there, so maybe you’ll want to try it.
One runaway success with Third Ed was feats. Players love them, and you can bet we kept them in 13th Age and innovated on them. Player-character class features, spells, and special abilities have particular feats associated with them, with each feat improving the feature in a particular way. It’s like being able to choose “Weapon Focus” for your barbarian rage or sneak attack ability, except that each feat’s effect is designed to fit the feature rather than being a generic bonus. This concept ports easily into another system, especially if players can negotiate custom feats for their favorite special abilities.
While rules like the escalation die are designed to make combat more exciting, 13th Age also brings a suite of features that help you bring your character to life, with an emphasis on character development and storytelling.
One of the hallmarks of 3E is customizability. The system gives players a large number of details to manipulate in creating a character. In 13th Age, we advance the cause of customization because we think it’s the heart of character creation. Our approach, however, is more open-ended. We offer guidance for how to include player input into the campaign narrative. For example, a player with a dwarf character has some say in what dwarves are like in the campaign. Peter Adkison, the founder of Wizards of the Coast, was playing a wizard, and he said, “Wizards can never be trusted.” He could play a wizard in a world where wizards can never be trusted, something possible only because he had narrative input into the world. Players are also free to invent more localized details, such as their clans and histories. Additionally, character details, backgrounds, unique features, and relationships to the icons (preeminent NPCs) all encourage players to be creative.
When my 3E team saw the first sketch of Krusk, the iconic half-orc barbarian, he was wielding an axe with a stone head and a giant femur as the haft. It looked great, but D&D had special rules for stone weapons that made them worse than steel weapons (as they are in real life). The final version of Krusk shows him with a by-the-book steel-headed, wood-hafted greataxe, just like your typical barbarian PC would have.
In 13th Age, your barbarian can wield a stone-headed ax, no problem. As game designers, Rob and I want the barbarian’s two-handed weapon to deal more damage than the wizard’s staff, but we don’t really care what the two-handed weapon looks like. For us, that’s a personal decision on the player’s part, one that helps the player define their character the way they want. This detail-agnostic approach offers more personalization for groups where mechanical details are secondary to character concepts.
We have skill checks but no skill list. Skill checks tie into your character’s backgrounds, which you invent. Maybe for your ranger you invent the background “Deepwoods Tracker,” and you describe an organization, the Deepwoods Trackers, to go with it. The Deepwoods Trackers, you say, range across the frontier, sniping orcs and monitoring orc movements, as well as undertaking general ranger activity. You assign it 4 points, and you get +4 on all skill checks when you’re doing anything a Deepwoods Ranger would be expected to do. Inventing backgrounds is an important part of determining how your character fits into the world. The modular background system can be dropped into a d20-style game.
Your character’s “unique” is a trait you invent that makes your character different from one that’s built “by the book.” This is your chance to bring something new and interesting to the group. Maybe you’re one of countless bastard sons of the Emperor, and thus endowed with massive good looks that open doors for you. Maybe you’re the last of the Clockwork Warriors. Maybe you once sneaked into the citadel of the Archmage, where you encountered a mystery that has left you forever changed. These free-form features can really define a character and even influence a campaign. “Uniques” port into just about any game, provided the GM sets limits that they’re comfortable dealing with.
The major new concept that 13th Age brings to d20-style RPGs is the icon system. The icons are thirteen leaders and villains of almost godlike power, such as the Archmage, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Emperor, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Priestess, and the Prince of Shadows. Their actions shape the world, and each player-character is connected to one or more of them, either directly or indirectly. Determining your character’s icon relationship is an opportunity to flesh out your character and to invent relevant details for the campaign setting. Depending on dice rolls, your connection to an icon often works to your benefit, although there is sometimes a price. The effects of icons relationships operate on the level of the world and the story rather than mechanically affecting dice rolls. The icon system is modular and works fine with custom icons, so you could drop it into just about any fantasy RPG.
Make It Your Own
Rob and I have played a ton of D&D over the years, and 13th Age is like our bag of tricks for getting more story and action into a campaign. Since the core of the system is still the same as D&D’s, and since the world is designed to play up classic D&D tropes, the concepts, rules, and subsystems in 13th Age port easily to other d20-style games. The Midgard Bestiary provides a window into 13th Age, and the core rulebook is full of stuff that’s good enough to steal.
The system that the 3E design team originally developed has proven to have legs, and I’m happy about that. I hope that some of the people who like the work I did on 3E will also find value in 13th Age, no matter what version of the game they’re actually playing.