This Game Is a “Love Letter” to D&D!

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Expand your gaming life by trying a new flavor of fantasy role-playing, 13th Age!

Once upon a time, fantasy role-playing games where you rolled a 20 sided-die (called henceforth F20) were the exclusive province of Dungeons & Dragons. However, the creation of the Open Gaming License in 2000 changed all of that, transforming fantasy role-playing into a many-headed beast. There are dozens upon dozens of different kinds of F20 games, each with their own particular shade and following.

One of those games is 13th Age, the F20 game that attempts to blend D&D with the best of the 21st-century indie games movement. The game was designed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, two individuals responsible for both 3rd and 4th edition D&D.

A fantasy game by legendary designers that combines old school and new school mechanics? Yes, you want to know more!

I’m a player who likes what I’m playing right now. Why should I play this?

First off, 13th Age is designed to be a “love letter” to D&D. It shoots for an old school feel with 21st-century mechanics while plucking the best bits from decades of dungeon-delving.

To give a couple examples, there is the famous One Unique Thing and the escalation die.

The One Unique Thing is a feature or trait that “sets your character apart from every other hero.” In play, this decision transforms your characters from faceless, dungeon-diving, goblin-fodder into the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo’s One Unique Thing would have been, “Inherited ring of ultimate evil and eternal temptation from my gluttonous chain-smoking uncle.” Examples from the corebook include, “I am the bastard son of the Emperor,” and, “I hear pain as music. Sweet, sweet music.” The One Unique Thing instantly puts your character on the road to legendary heroism (or villainy).

Jonathan Tweet described the One Unique Thing as the game’s “best feature” because it “can really define your character.”

For players who merely want to wet their axe in the belly of an orc, there is the escalation die.

Starting on the second round of combat, every player character gets a +1 to hit. This increases every round until it reaches +6, and is usually represented at the table by a six-sided die, hence the term escalation die. The escalation die makes players increasingly able to hash their foes into ground gnoll as a combat goes on.

Who doesn’t like the bloody stink of victory?

Oh, and the game’s emphasis on story means that it’s unlikely your whole party will fall into a 20′ pit and starve to death because of one failed roll.

In an interview, creator Jonathan Tweet put it this way:

“If you play D&D, Pathfinder, a retro clone, or some other d20-style game, 13th Age will be an eye-opener. It takes the game you love, livens up combat, and supercharges the story. If you want to keep paying your current game, then 13th Age is full of good combat rules and story rules that you can steal. For other gamers, they should know that 13th Age is designed to let players customize their characters and even the campaign. That means they can turn the campaign into their favorite campaign ever.”

I’m a GM intimidated by change and open spaces. Why should I try this?

No doubt, D&D, and Pathfinder and the like are fine games. But consider the weight of history when you run a game in 5th edition’s house setting, the Forgotten Realms. The first Realms supplement was published in 1987, meaning that when you run in the Realms, there are literally decades of books, modules, novels, and history for you and your players to master.

In my campaign, the Lich King wants to make a suit out of the players’ skins.

13th Age takes the burden of world-building and makes it fun!

This is done with the 13 Icons.

An Icon in 13th Age is a powerful non-player character who has a relationship with the characters. For example, there are the Emperor, the Lich King, and the Prince of Shadows. These Icons have relationships with the player characters, positive or negative, but the background of the Icons is left deliberately misty. Is the Emperor the 39th of his line, or an immortal god-king? Is the Prince of Shadows the master thief responsible for a recent burglary in the state treasury, or nothing more than a bogeyman, a dream of the street kept alive by superstitious criminals?

These details are left to the GM and her players to decide for themselves at the gaming table. This means that you, the GM, get all the story juice these powerful individuals have to offer without having to fret about the burden of memorizing names, dates, and events from thousands of years of history.

Furthermore, the machinations of the Icons matter at the table. Every character has a relationship with a number of Icons, and at the beginning of the session, they roll to see if the Icon plays a role in that game’s events. Icons can send help or hurt the players’ way, and it makes these powerful, often off-screen powerbrokers seem vital and world-changing in the game.

Origin Story

Apparently, every Wednesday the designer of 4th edition D&D plays in a game with the designer of 3rd edition D&D. And it is out of this Wednesday night group that 13th Age was born. Once Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo had both left Wizards of the Coast, the company that publishes Dungeons & Dragons, they decided to work on a game together. But what to make?

In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Heinsoo said, “We decided to make the d20-rolling game we wanted to play together in our Wednesday night group.”

Heinsoo met Simon Rogers, publisher and owner of Pelgrane Press at Gen Con. In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Simon said he was “happy to publish anything Rob suggested” no matter what the game might be. Heinsoo proposed 13th Age.  As Simon is a “huge AD&D fanboy” he was tickled pink by what Heinsoo brought him. Furthermore, he said “13th Age was an incredible opportunity to publish something… which I would enjoy running. Doing a large print run of a huge glossy book was a real risk but one worth taking. I couldn’t turn it down. The real problem I had was converting my 35 year-old AD&D campaign to 13th Age for the annual reunion. There was a lot of suspicion amongst the old crowd, but the game won them over[.]”

And so 13th Age was born.

Okay, you got me. Where do I start with 13th Age?

Well, the corebook. Then there’s 13 True Ways, which is a rules expansion with more monsters, character classes, and locations. The  13th Age Bestiary is the easiest to use monster’s manual I’ve ever encountered.

But the 13th Age product that looks best in a little black dress is definitely  Eyes of the Stone Thief, an epic campaign against a sentient, migratory, dungeon that hates the players, and starts hunting down and destroying all they love. It’s Moby Dick as dungeon crawl, and an eyeball feast of a campaign.

And if you’re reading this on or before May 30th, you can get all that hotness plus six more supplements for less than $36, all in PDF, from Bundle of Holding!

Go forth adventurer!

What’s your best roleplaying memory? Tell us in the comments!

Feature image and other images credit: Pelgrane Press

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points podcast. He is also the liberal voice on Across the Aisle, a podcast where a liberal and conservative work together to solve the 21st century’s problems.

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