It would be easy to dismiss 13th Age as another D20-based fantasy role-playing game, albeit one with gorgeous art. But underneath that deceptively simple surface there are elegant storytelling gears that move in surprising ways. We talked to the creators about how it works.
13th Age is published by Pelgrane Press, and was co-designed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, both alumni of various Dungeons & Dragons editions. While it is based on the venerable D20 fantasy RPGs that came before it, the designers of 13th Age have stripped away shopworn gaming elements (like lengthy spell lists and combat based on counting squares on a grid) while bringing many of the fantasy genre's tropes to the surface.
The world of 13th Age is populated by 13 powerful NPCs called Icons who represent common archetypes found in virtually all fantasy fiction and gaming. There's the High Druid, the Elf Queen, the Archmage, the Lich King, and more. They also roughly represent factions that players can join, tying them immediately to a web of alliances and ancient grudges.
The goal of 13th Age is to take that familiar D20 system and infuse it with the idea that each session or campaign should be a collaborative storytelling effort between the players and the GM. For instance, you don't select from a menu of skills. Instead, you create background elements for your character, and you derive skills from that background when each situation arises. So if you gave your character a background as a captain of a fishing boat, you could argue that you get a bonus on skill checks involving navigation, tying or untying knots, identifying aquatic species, and leading small groups.
Perhaps the most distinctive part of 13th Age character creation is the "One Unique Thing." You're not playing just any dwarf who goes out on adventures. You're playing the only dwarf in the world with a clockwork heart. Or a warrior with the soul of a dragon. Or a wizards who hears the singing of the stars. Again, there's no list to choose from. You make up your own Unique Thing. The fantastic story that emerges from it is the whole point of 13th Age.
Last year, I was able to play in a 13th Age session GMed by Heinsoo at Gen Con, using an earlier version of the rules. At this year's Gen Con, I sat down with Heinsoo for a wide ranging conversation on the design of 13th Age and the role of storytelling in gaming. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
io9: How was 13th Age born?
Rob Heinsoo: Jonathan [Tweet] and I have…we’ve been gaming together for 13 or 14… how many years is it? 14 years. During that time we’ve been able to work together on many projects. We always really liked it. So the team-up was always really good. When neither of us were working for Wizards [of the Coast], it was like, "Hey, we should do something together." So then the question came, "Well, what is the game that we want to do together?" The answer was: the game that we can play together on Wednesday night. And our Wednesday night game group prefers d20 rolling fantasy games.
io9: Tell me about the creation of the Icons and how people relate to those elements of fantasy storytelling.
RH: We chose them because we know that every world has an elf queen, dwarf king, archmage. So we're cheating in a certain sense because we're using the familiar and we're just putting enough of a twist on it that people feel like, "Oh I knew that already!" And that feeling of "This is also exciting." That feeling of "Isn't this exciting," …that may be almost like the basic emotion that has us excited by fantasy. If you look at why is fantasy is so much more successful than science-fiction from a broad cultural perspective, it could be that science-fiction isn't about telling us what's familiar, science-fiction is telling us a little bit about about what's in the future that’s going to disturb you. Now a lot of people might argue with me about that, but I think that in the broad feeling of how people relate to fantasy that is how it works.
So we leveraged that with the Icons by using names and images that look really familiar and that relate to other games people are playing. Anybody playing the Forgotten Realms is intersecting with at least three or four of those. Oh yeah, HIM! And that was conscious. Because look, all these d20 rolling games, you know, 3.5 to Pathfinder, 4th edition, all the other variants, they're all pretty good. People who are enjoying campaigns with these, the last thing in the world is to say you should not be enjoying your campaign. No no no, screw that. If you're enjoying your campaign, we want to give you a tool box that you can then use to make the thing you're enjoying better.
So the Icons in fact were another conscious example of that. Even if people don’t want to use this whole system it's probably the case that if you started using this Icon thing in the Forgotten Realms you're not gonna be sad. It's actually going to improve the game. So when [gaming journalist] Dave Chalker the other day was writing, "This is how you'd use the Icons system in Neverwinter," I was like, Yes! In Shadowrun, the corporations are the Icons. I think a Shadowrun game probably gets pretty interesting when you use that approach. It abstracts things that people feel they otherwise have to simulate. It turns it into a storytelling experience that can be easily handled by the gamemaster.
io9: Is the divide between traditional RPGs and "modern" or indie style RPGs that emphasize storytelling a false dichotomy?
RH: No, there isn't [a dichotomy]. The fact that original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing came out of wargaming means that a small bit of the adversarial relationship between player and gamemaster sort of survived hidden in the subtext of the game. You will find tables that rely upon the rules to protect [players] from what they see as a predatory GM who will kill their character given the chance. And in those tables the idea that, "No, storytelling together is what this is about" isn't what's happening. You might say, "Oh my god, we managed to tell a great story," but it was all under the guise of a contest.
The gamemaster is in a sense roleplaying a hostile world. But the spirit of storytelling, where you know that the players as well as the gamemaster are helping to create a story together and that both groups can offer things that the other one riffs on, that is a probably more a feature that wasn’t present in the original D&D. If you look at all the early models, like Arduin Grimoire… ha! Are you kidding me? You’re dead! You want to do some improv? In HELL! The indie games, many of them are created as a reaction to that style of play, where they don’t want to ave any trace of that lingering adversarial relationship, but instead want to go ahead and really emphasize shared storytelling.
io9: Do game rules need to simplified to allow storytelling to organically emerge from those mechanics?
RH: I'm pretty sure that there are groups for whom more complex mechanics are not an impediment at all. And so they don’t need things to be simpler. They like it complex and in fact we all know that part of geekdom has been to be smart and to do things that other people can't quite handle. It has been a badge of honor to be able to play and enjoy games that other people say, "I cant quite handle that." And people at the table are like, "We can!" And I'm not going to tell them, "Well, your story ain't good," cause I don't think that’s true.