13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

This is the second half of my report on our playtest of 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. You can see the first half here. I concentrated on character creation in the previous post; this time, I’m going to talk about the actual play of the game.

Our GM, Michael, ran two different adventures for us: the first was a simple investigation into goblin raiders, and the second was a longer quest chasing after a stolen sword. Between the two adventures, we wound up playing three sessions, and it gave us a pretty good view of the entire game. It was a good time.

The goblin raider adventure was designed specifically to showcase combat and give us players a chance to learn the ins and outs of fighting in this new system. It consisted of a simple hook and short trek to get us to the goblins, then a lengthy fight to defeat them and their hobgoblin allies. Along the way, we had the opportunity to try using our backgrounds a few times, but the focus was really on the fight at the end.

Combat is interesting. We ran into some strange math anomalies in some of the stats and a couple of odd corner-cases that the rules didn’t quite cover1, but overall things ran smoothly. There are some intriguing new mechanics to speed combat, including using a d6 – called the Escalation Die – to encourage heroic action by giving the PCs an attack bonus for consecutive rounds of pushing the assault.

The system doesn’t use a battlemap or grid for movement and positioning and, while it didn’t make much difference in our initial combat, we found that in later combats2, our tactics were a little lacking after our long conditioning to the combat grid. That is, we didn’t take care to state that our fighter-types were protecting our squishy wizard3, which led to some good opportunities to test out the dying and recovery rules.

Those work pretty well, thankfully.

I want to stress that this is not a fault in the system; it’s just something you need to keep in mind when you play the game. It’s easy to make this mistake, if you’ve played a lot of D&D; the game feels enough like D&D that you can get tripped up by the little differences. You don’t get the visual cues from the minis to see what lines of assault are open, and who’s exposed to attack, so you need to think about that when you describe your action. There’s a discussion in the playtest document about using minis to show loose, relative positioning, and I think that might have helped alleviate this issue, but we didn’t try it out.

The first adventure went pretty well – we located the goblins’ hideout in a ghost town, managed to not be surprised by the hobgoblins, and even tried to negotiate with them4. When the fight broke out, we managed to tip things in our favour pretty early, though the fight was still pretty tough.

The second adventure was more involved, and featured more non-combat elements of play. It saw us trekking through the Empire to a magical site in order to see a magical sword get enchanted5, then chasing the thief of that sword to a ruined city and finally wresting the blade from him. We ran this adventure over one short evening and one longer evening, mostly because we kept breaking to discuss our impressions of the system and how it was working at any given time. I’m pretty certain we could have crammed the whole thing into a single longer session.

The system showed to pretty good effect overall. It handled us remembering information, making friends6, spotting dangers, navigating, negotiating, figuring stuff out, threatening, working magical rituals, running up and down7 a two-hundred foot tower, standing off a dragon, and fighting assassins, wolves, dragon-men, and the end boss8. There are mechanics in place to encourage pushing on in an adventure rather than falling back to rest and recover, and they work pretty well to keep things active and interesting. Combat can be very suddenly deadly9, but the rules for death saves allows for some heroic and cinematic recoveries, so that’s okay. We even tried the leveling up mechanics, and found them to be surprisingly quick and simple, even for multi-class characters.

There’s a lot of stuff in the game that’s left to GM adjudication. That’s not a complaint, because mostly10 the rules provide enough support with examples and simple general rules that it didn’t seem to slow our GM down much. It allowed more freedom for the players to try interesting stuff, while giving the GM the tools needed to handle it.

The main things I was looking for were a cinematic feel to the action in the game, and for combat not to dominate all the play time. The game delivered on both of these things, in spades, so I count it as a success. Now, there were still some rough edges to the system – including the aforementioned weird math anomalies in combat – but as this is the first round playtest, I fully expect those things to be worked out by the time the game is actually released.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the final version of the game.

  1. All of which has been dutifully reported to the good folks at Pelgrane Press. []
  2. That is, in the next adventure. []
  3. Also known as ME! []
  4. That didn’t work. Goblins are dicks. []
  5. Quick digression here: Apparently, the sword was the standard hook written up in the adventure, which is fine. What’s awesome is that, as my character’s One Unique Feature, I had him receive a sword from a mysterious stranger at his birth, so the GM used that as the sword in question. This is just one example of the ways that the interesting features from character creation that I talked about last time come back to inform and enrich the adventures during play. []
  6. One thing we didn’t wind up trying was using the Icon relationships we had established in character creation. They just didn’t really come up, as I recall. []
  7. And, in two cases, jumping off. []
  8. Not gonna tell you what that was. []
  9. As I found out. Twice. []
  10. It’s still just a playtest draft. []
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2 Responses to 13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

  1. Kyle says:

    Thank you for sharing your playtest with us! I’m growing more and more interested the more I hear about this game. I hadn’t heard anything of this game until your posts on the matter, so you brought it to me first ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the work Pelgrane Press does and i’m excited to see a fantasy game, as are my players. A question for you If I might ask, and you would be allowed to answer, how are the spells generally handled? are they similar to the way a fighter swings their sword? (Sorta like 4th edition dnd) Or do they spark a more different feel? (such as Dresden Files RPG) Also thank you for all your posts and work. I love reading your blog ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Thanks for your kind words; I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

    The way spells work varies somewhat – and keep in mind that, as a first-round playtest, the rules I saw will likely change in large and small ways, so don’t take this stuff as gospel. At present, the core spells for wizards and sorcerers (I can’t really speak to clerics, because I haven’t looked carefully at them, and there wasn’t one in the game, and apparently the cleric got a huge overhaul for the second-round playtest) look like a hybrid of 3e and 4e functionality. Wizards get to pick their spells daily, and can choose some that are usable at will, some that recharge after a short rest, and some that recharge after a long rest. Sorcerers seem to get more spells that recharge after a short rest and fewer that recharge after a long rest, and don’t get to change their spells day by day.

    Now, outside of combat, there is also a light, narrative-style system for ritual spellcasting that has a little bit of the feel of DFRPG, though much less number-heavy. Basically, you choose a spell, make a case to the GM about how you’re using a ritual to twist or enhance an effect, and then make a roll to accomplish it. For example, when tracing my stolen sword, I worked out a ritual based on the Arcane Mark cantrip and the Alarm cantrip to allow me to get some general directions from the Arcane Mark and the Alarm that I had previously cast on the sword. The GM also let the other characters involve themselves in the ritual preparation and casting, so that was fun.

    Hope that helps!

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