Friday, February 27, 2015

13th Age Monthly

I focus a lot on Pathfinder products on this blog, so I decided I'd try and shake things up with looking at some material from another system: 13th Age.  13th Age is another d20 variant, but one that significantly simplifies the mechanics of the game.  In fact, it won the Silver Ennie for beset new ruleset last year.  Actually, I got turned on to 13th Age after finding Pathfinder.  I like how it emphasizes story over mechanics and I think I'd have just stuck with it as my base system had I known about it before I really bought into Pathfinder whole hog.

Right now, 13th Age has only 3(!) rulebooks.  Their core book and it's follow-on 13 True Ways both contain game mechanics and information about their pre-baked semi-fleshed out world.  There's also a Bestiary.  There's other stuff, both official and player-generated that's also available.

The pre-baked semi-fleshed out world is one of the game's strengths.  Because so much of the game centers around the skills and the conflicts with major forces in game as chosen by the players, the game world can only have so much detail.  Players choose their backgrounds and relationships to 13 different region-spanning forces (called Icons, after their leaders) before you can have a good idea of what themes your players are interested in.  That's a strength though.

Once you know what your players are interested in, you can easily customize the world to fit their interests.  If your players all choose positive relationships with the ancient gold dragon that fights demons, then you know that there's going to be some demon fighting in your campaign.  Similarly, if they are all opposed to the great druid, plan for some civilization v. the wilds conflict.

13th Age significantly cuts back on rules content, leaving much in the hands of the GM.  For gamers who are interested in emphasizing story over mechanics, that's a win.  For gamers that like a lot of rules/gamers that have less trust in their GM (are these categories one and the same?), that's a loss.  Since I like to emphasize story over mechanics, 13th Age seems like a great fit.  At another time, I'll write a post about some of its mechanics and how I feel that they help move the action along.  But, for today, I'd like to spend a little time talking about:

13th Age Monthly

The folks over at Pelgrane Press have decided to go with a monthly release of short PDFs dedicated to 13th Age.  According to Pelgrane's website, "these 4000+ word PDFs offer new rules systems, Bestiary-style monsters, player character options, and more."  The January issue focuses on dragon riding.  February's covers the frogfolk (a race we haven't heard about before) and their mysterious swamp templates.  Finally, March brings a collection of six new single-use magic items.  January's issue is only 8 pages long, but February's goes up to 10 pages, so it appears that the 4,000 word minimum isn't also a target word count.  I like more content for my money, so that's a pro for me!  Each individual copy can be purchased for $2.95 or you can pick up all 12 for $24.95.  Those signing on to the full release late also get full copies of the back issues.

Right now, only the January version has been released.  What's in it?  Well, it's an 8-page long PDF.  Page one/the cover is a full page title page, but featuring some great art of a warrior woman (a dark elf?) riding a dragon.  It's good art and no chainmail bikini.  Page 2 is credits.  That leaves us with 6 pages of content.  That's just under 50 cents a page for those purchasing the individual issue and just over 36 cents for those going in for all 12 issues.  What do we get?

Well, we get what we were promised: rules for riding dragons.  13th Age's setting features an empire founded by good dragons and human beings cooperating with each other and dragon riding knights are mentioned, so we knew this was coming eventually!  Per the PDF, "The goal of our dragon riding rules is to create a fun alternative experience that can fit into champion-tier and epic-tier 13th Age campaigns in which characters fly into battle on dragon back."

One of the most helpful parts of this release is that it considers two options.  In scenario one, the PCs regularly fly into battle on dragons and need to invest in feats to do so.  In scenario two, dragonriding into battle is a less common occurrence and the need to invest in feats is waived.  I like this admission.  If the players want to regularly fly dragons (or, as I like to think of it, force the GM to keep track of as many NPC dragon companions are there are party members), they need to invest in the talent.  If the players hop on dragons to take a critical city in a war or to defend the capital from assaulting forces in a last ditch attempt to stave off civilization's destruction, they shouldn't be penalized by having to use a feat to do so.  They also admit that these mechanics are going.  to.   slow.    the.     game.      down.

This is one area where the system is a little confusing for me.  On one hand, the charm of 13th Age is that it doesn't require the sub-sets upon sub-systems of rules used in a game like Pathfinder.  On the other hand, if you are flying around on dragons without any rules at all, you might as well be playing using Fate Core rules.

The developers then give us eight one-paragraph backstories that could explain why there's dragonriding going on in the campaign at all.  I like these.  Look, dragons are supposed to be (at least in 13th Age and most d20 systems) extremely old, extremely powerful, and extremely intelligent.  They need a very compelling reason to allow someone who is markedly less intelligent, markedly weaker and whose life passes by in the blink of an eye onto their backs.  So, the rationale for doing so is important.

Next come some assumptions that the authors have made.  These also include some tips for campaign management and how to use the rules.  For example, the rules are useful for big, outdoor battles.  They are going to require a significant rework if you want to have "underworld battles riding enslaved dragons."  They also provide the GM with some tricks here that can help mitigate when/if the PCs get a little too good at making use of their dragon mounts.

Here are the mechanics (remember, good readers?  Game mechanics are not subject to copyright!):
- Use the normal flight rules:
     - Exactly like other movement, but can fly over enemies not engaged with and take no opportunity attacks
     - You can be intercepted as you move, but only by other flying creatures
     - When a flyer makes a melee attack against a flying enemy, the flyer can pass on engaging the enemy by taking a -2 penalty to her attack.
     - If flying ends before you land, you are gonna take a lot of falling damage.
- Dragon riding rules (in general, buy the PDF if you want them in detail!):
     - Dragons have their regular stats
     - Average your initiative with your dragon mount and you use the same one
     - Dragon riders lose their move action
     - Dragons lose their quick actions
     - A "mastery" mechanic is added.  Performing certain actions requires players to use up their mastery.  Once used, players must succeed at a mastery check to perform other actions that require mastery.  The most important of these is actually making a mounted attack!  It's pretty easy to retain mastery...if PCs are willing to sacrifice their standard actions.  Not so much if they aren't.

As the PDF notes, these rules also work well for riding other creatures.  I think they'd be useful for smaller flying mounts, like griffins or hippogriffs.  They can also be ported to types of dragons not covered and they have some advice for how exactly that should get done.  Finally, we are treated to some very good advice on building battles.

Dragon Riding Feats
Champion Feat: You gain a +3 bonus to your dragon riding skill checks. In addition, when your dragon attacks and scores a critical hit, you keep mastery automatically.
Epic Feat: Movement and location-based effects that would ordinarily only affect you, like a teleport spell (or power) or the rogue’s shadow walk, may also be able to affect your dragon mount, depending on whether you and the GM can agree on the sanity of the effect. The effect counts as a free action use of mastery, so you’ll have to roll a skill check to maintain mastery after executing the stunt.

Now, I'm not normally a big fan of PCs riding dragons.  But, it might be fun to do from time to time.  Again, I'd like to highlight that the metaplot descriptions at the beginning of the document go a long way to creating some awesome scenarios.  No spoilers here, but the last one is just begging to be tried.  It presents some good "save the world" themes while requiring a level of moral compromise that could really challenge a group of PCs!  Finally, there is some cute art in the piece.  Some of it presents dragons as majestic while others present dragons sharing bonding moments with their riders.

Ultimately, I'm intrigued and ready for February's release.  For this first one, let's say 3.5 stars!

EDIT: February's release happened on February 25, but wasn't available online when I wrote this.