13th Age Playtest – Character Creation

Over the past few weeks, my friend Michael has been running us through the first-round playtest for 13th Age, a new fantasy game from Pelgrane Press. Now that the playtest is over and we’ve submitted our feedback, the NDA allows me to talk1 about the experience. And you know me; I hate to have an unexpressed thought or opinion.

The game is billed as:

13th Age is a love letter to D&D: a rules-light, story-oriented RPG that honors old school values while advancing the OGL art. Players create unique heroes using flexible interpretations of familiar D20 character classes. New indie-style rules connect each character’s story to the Gamemaster’s customized version of the campaign setting.

I think it meets those goals admirably, and has some very nice little bits incorporated into the rules and the character creation that just shine. I’m really looking forward to the final version of the game.

This post is just going to be about the character creation portion. In a few days2, I’ll have another post about the rest of the rules, and the actual play experience.

Character creation looks pretty standard on the face of it, a sort-of mash-up of various versions of D&D to get your stats and pick your class and race. Once you get through picking the normal components of your character, however, you run into a couple of very indie-inspired elements that turn your numbers into something special: Backgrounds, Relationships, and One Unique Feature.

Backgrounds substitute for skills in this system, and are broad categories of experience that show where your character came from and what he or she can do. There isn’t a list of backgrounds to choose from – you are encouraged to create your own. This not only fleshes out your character history and abilities, it also fills in detail about the world. For example, in our little playtest group, our character backgrounds wound up adding the following elements to the setting:

  • A service of Imperial Couriers that rode gryphons to deliver high-priority goods and messages.
  • A rich noble who employed rangers to assist with the maintenance and record keeping in her menagerie.
  • A network of ex-slave gladiators spread throughout the Imperial military.
  • A loose association of arcane scholars called the Fellowship of the Lost Book, dedicated to ferreting out forgotten magical lore.

All these things gave the GM good, solid hooks to draw us into adventures, and provide information. It made the world feel more complete, and it made our characters feel more a part of it. It gave them a place in the grand scheme of things.

This is enhanced by the Relationships. The world of 13th Age has some very powerful – mythically powerful – beings in it called Icons. These Icons are sort of archetypes that different people may fill from time to time3 and represent the powers of the world. These are things like the Archmage, the Elf Queen, the Dwarf King, the Dragon Emperor, the High Druid, and so forth. Each character gets some points to define a few Relationships with these Icons – not necessarily with the Icon itself, but with the Icon’s organization. For example, having a weak, positive relationship with the Elf Queen doesn’t mean she knows you by sight, but means that you’re in good standing with the Court of Stars in general, and can hope to be well-received there should you need a favour. Again, this does a lot to tie you into the world, and give your character a sense of history and place.

While these two elements do a lot to tie your character into the world, One Unique Feature is there to make sure your character stands out. This is something that lets you create something, well, unique for your character. Examples included in the playtest document run the gamut from weird little abilities (a half-orc with a supernaturally compelling voice) to odd bits of character history (a monk who started life as a bear before being transformed into a human) and everything in between. There are no mechanics attached to what you come up with here, so giving your character the Unique Feature of being able to kill with a touch is pretty much off the table, but being able to use your Unique Feature for bonuses or to be able to attempt things that other people wouldn’t seems firmly within scope. But the real advantage of the Unique Feature is that it turns your character from The Wizard4 into the wizard who wields the sword Bitter Understanding.

Together, these three elements really bring the character to life, and make it so that, when you start play at 1st level, your character feels like a hero.

I glossed over race and class, above, to get to the bits of character creation I think are neatest, but you get a standard mix of races  – human, dwarf, half-orc, halfling, three flavours of elf, half-elf, and gnome, plus their version of dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, and warforged – and classes – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid5, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard, along with a system for multiclassing. Each race gets a neat little mechanical benefit, and each class gets an array of features and abilities to choose from.

One nice touch with the classes is that the playtest document has a short section that rates each class according to how difficult/complex it is to play, with barbarian at the low end of complexity and wizard at the high end. There is a note that multiclass characters are going to be more complex than any single class character, and that seemed borne out in our test.

Overall, I think the character creation section of 13th Age is wonderful. There are a few little quirks of math that made me raise my eyebrows, but finding those things is what a playtest is about, and I’ve passed my concerns on to the folks who can do something about it. The only other complaint I had was with the organization of the document, which made it necessary to do a lot of paging back and forth to create a character. This is, again, a product of the fact that this is a playtest – I know the final version of the game is going to be cleaned up and reorganized once it’s complete.

In short, in 13th Age, you wind up with a character that has depth, history, competence, and feels like a hero right out of the gate. That’s a big win for any fantasy game like this. We also managed to create four characters in under two hours, so that’s pretty good considering we’re all just learning the game.

In a few days, I’ll post about the actual play. Watch for it.

  1. Well, write in this case. []
  2. Hopefully. I’ve been pretty lax with my posts here, and am playing catch-up. []
  3. Well, some of them. Some, such as the Three, the Lich King, and the Great Gold Wyrm are more permanent. []
  4. Or even worse, The Other Wizard. []
  5. The druid is listed in the playtest doc, but the actual class was not ready to be distributed for playtest this round. []
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