GenCon 2012 – 13th Age Review

One of the events I participated in at GenCon 2012 was the Indie Games On Demand, a chance to choose from a list of available games and jump right into a session.  I was fortunate to have an actual ticket for this event as the line was pretty long, so this allowed me to go to the front, just in time to snatch up some seats in the 13th Age.  Even better, we moved the game to a neighboring room which was much quieter than the main area.

If you haven’t heard of 13th Age, it is a new fantasy roleplaying game (preorder only), designed by Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of Dungeons & Dragons third edition, and Rob Heinsoon the lead designer of the fourth edition of D&D and is published by Pelgrane Press.

In the 13th Age, players adventure in the Dragon Empire where 13 “icons” are pursuing their own interests, creating turmoil in the world.  You as a player decide which of these icons your character has a positive,  negative or even conflicted relationship with.  Choose carefully because these relationships will have an affect on your adventures in the world of 13th Age.

I played a paladin in our short adventure which was provided by the GM (thus I unfortunately can’t give many details into those mechanics), who had also carefully selected my character’s icons.  I was allied with the Priestess and The Great Gold Wyrm but despised the Lich King.  13th Age uses the D20 system, so most things players wish to accomplish in game are done rolling a d20 and adding some sort of modifier. All the traditional character stats are there and like 4th Edition D&D, players have a bloodied value – half their HP.  However, unlike 4th edition, instead of having 2nd wind players have Recoveries which allow you to roll a designated die and add your Constitution bonus to rejuvenate hit points.

Here is where the game became interesting for me.  Most everyone has played D&D and may have had a GM that required character backgrounds everybody before the players begin a campaign.  I always enjoyed this, spending hours or even days developing my character’s story, trying to create a tale that linked him to the campaign setting we were starting.  More often than not however, once the campaign began my character’s story faded into oblivion and I received little, if any, reward for my hard work.  In 13th Age, not only does your background influence your character, it is constantly being developed and growing with your character.

In the background area of my 13th Age character sheet, my paladin pregen already had “Vessel of the Priestess +2” and “Veteran of the Cloud Wars +1”.  I understood these bonuses came from one of my Icons which was a positive relationship with The Priestess.  I also had a blank area labeled “One Unique Thing”, which the GM explained is for me to enter something about my character that makes him unique in the land such as, “Maltor is the only Gnome to serve as a personal guard of the Lich King”.  This Unique Thing could potentially factor into an encounter, either to benefit or harm the character in his efforts.

As an example of how your background can continue to develop, during game play our party was attempting to sneak past a group of guards to enter a church that possibly contained an item we were looking for.  Everyone had pretty stealthy characters except me, but in order to gain a bonus to my roll I took an opportunity to further developed my background.  Focusing on the “Veteran of the Cloud Wars +1” bonus, I explained that during the Cloud Wars my Paladin was part of a unit that primarily infiltrated enemy lines to do covert operations.  The GM accepted the addition and allowed me to apply a bonus to my stealth roll while also further shaping my character through expanding his history.

In addition to the background mechanic, another unique mechanic was introduced during combat – the “Escalation Die”.  The GM explained that it comes into play during combat and grants a bonus to player actions as combat drags on, making attacks more likely to hit which keeps the fight moving.  Not only does this help control the length of combat, it also adds some triggers for abilities; surprising the enemy may let you start with a higher Escalation Die rating or some monsters may have actions that trigger once the Escalation Die reaches a certain number.  Our game unfortunately didn’t allow us much opportunity to experience this mechanic, since our session was limited to just 2 hours.

13th Age does not appear to have any kind of mechanic that allows you a 2nd chance or opportunity to insure an ability worked, like Action Points in 4th Edition.  This may have just been something we weren’t exposed to during our short demonstration.  However, attacks did have “Miss” damage, so even when you have as lousy rolls as I traditionally do, you still manage to assist the group even if the miss damage is minimal.

In the end, after our 2 hours were up, when asked to give my feedback I wasted no time complaing, “It was too short!”  My comment was quickly supported by the rest of the players at the table, it seemed we were just starting to get into the feel of the game and the mechanics were just surfacing.  Understandable as well the need for the GM to limit the sessions and necessity to keep their timelines on track.

There was plenty I liked about 13th Age. I absolutely loved the background aspect, that it isn’t something you work on and then it just becomes a forgotten part of your character.  The “Unique Thing” also was a nice way to make my character stand out from any other Paladin I may encounter in the game, making it much more interesting.  Although we didn’t have much of a chance to fully see the mechanic in action, the Escalation Die seemed like a great way to impact encounters.  The Icons provided not only motivation for our characters but also influenced our interaction with NPCs or situations in the game, which made the world of 13th Age more alive.

The big question in the end;  Does the 13th Age offer enough deviation from D&D or similar fantasy systems to be able to carve out its own piece of the pie?  I honestly don’t know based on my limited game play.  I could answer both ways based on my experience; No, other than the background elements and Escalation Die it is essentially D&D, or Yes, because I was having a great time and really enjoying the game play and left the table wanting much more!  I really do wish I could have had another hour or two playing through the game, at least to get more exposure to the new mechanics so I could provide more insight into 13th Age.  It did end up being one of my favorite play sessions of this year’s GenCon and I am watching Pelgrane Press for news related to 13th Age, contemplating Pre-Order to make this the latest addition to my library.

13th Age Website:
Pre-Order 13th Age:

One Response to “GenCon 2012 – 13th Age Review”

  1. waderockett says:

    Thanks for the review! I hope you’ll decide to pre-order the game, or have the chance to play a longer session to see how the mechanics really kick in.

    If you’re coming to PAX Prime, we’ll be on the 2nd floor of the Convention Center and will have GMs in the Games On Demand area running a new adventure. Rob Heinsoo will also be on a panel with the Dungeon World designers.

    And we have a Kickstarter going to design and illustrate 13 True Ways, the first expansion book:

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