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Friday, 27 February 2015

The 13th Age's Companion

Back in August, 2013, I wrote a review entitled ‘What killed Dungeons & Dragons?’. It was a review of 13th Age, Pelgrane Press’ freewheeling redesign of Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying with a focus on action and storytelling. The title of the review proved somewhat controversial, but it was chosen to make a point—that the game changed the way in which Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying is played, more so given that since the publication Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in 2008, the emphasis had been wholly on the action at the expense of any other style of play. Almost two years later and there is a new version of Dungeons & Dragons available, inarguably a better one, one that focuses on roleplaying as well as the action. Even better,  Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition included an actual roleplaying mechanic, and that too, changed how Dungeons & Dragons is played. The point was—and is—that both games made us rethink the standard roleplaying style that has been with us for some four decades.

13th Age is now supported by several supplements, of which 13 True Ways is the second. Funded via Kickstarter, 13 True Ways is a bit of a miscellany of new things for 13th Age that includes six new Classes and new Class rules, descriptions of the Cities and Courts of the 13th Age, a bestiary of new monsters, an examination of devils of 13th Age, and lastly, a chapter of bits and pieces. Not possessing the focus of the 13th Age Bestiary, this then is a companion volume with support for both the players and the GM.

Diving straight in, 13 True Ways gives updated rules for summoning—useful for both the Ranger and the Druid as well as several other Classes—before presenting six new Classes, the Chaos Mage, the Commander, the Druid, the Monk, the Necromancer, and the Occultist. The first of these, the Chaos Mage brings an arch-randomness to spellcasting. Each time a Chaos Mage tries to cast a spell, he initially does not know actually what spell he is going to cast only its type—attack, defense, or Iconic. Ideally the type is determined the round before by drawing stones from a bag, with Iconic spells be rolled for to determine which Icon they are related to. Talents enable a Chaos Mage to use spells from other Classes and grant extra random effects through Warp Talents, whilst the Chaos Mage’s ‘High Weirdness’ can be unleashed on himself, his allies, or the enemy, and the effect may not always be beneficial. This is the very opposite of the Commander which enters battle to earn Command Points which are spent to issue Commands to the other player characters, enabling them to move, rally, reroll attacks, attack an enemy together, and so on. In addition, the Commander can use Tactics that work as quick or interrupt actions that typically grant another character more attacks.  More straightforward than the Chaos Mage, the Commander gives other characters the chance to more effective, but does require that a player keep an eye on the whole of any battlefield.

Where the Commander was straightforward, the Druid is a complex Class that has to encompass a lot of options. Essentially, a player designs the type of Druid he wants to play by selecting a Talent from a set of six—Animal Companion, Elemental Caster, Shifter, Terrain Caster, Warrior Druid, and Wild Healer. He could pick three of these and be an Initiate in all three, but he could instead pick two of them, becoming an Initiate in one, and by picking the same Talent twice, becoming an Adept in a second. Adepts are more powerful than Initiates. For example, an Animal Companion Initiate can only call his companion every other battle, but an Adept gets a companion that he can cast spells on and enhance. Every Druid has some features in common—being able to talk to plants and wilderness survival, and so on—but what this means that no Druid is likely to be the same as another and it means that a player can customise his Druid to fit his conception of the Class. The Monk is also similarly complex, bringing flavour and feel to unarmed combat as well as making it effective. The Class’ core concept is that whether armed or unarmed, a Monk uses forms in combat that consist of an opening attack, a flow attack, and a finishing attack. So a Monk can follow the Claws of the Panther form from start to finish, but should he know other forms, he can freely switch between as the situation dictates. So for example, a Wizard has been set upon by a pair of orcs and his Monk comes to his aid by using  ‘One must be Free’ from the ‘Dutiful Guardian’ forms as his opening attack to deliver a jab and help his ally—the Wizard—disengage from one of the orcs, then switches to to the ‘Cats cut between Hounds’ flow attack from the ‘Claws from the Panther’ form in order to punch both orcs, before ending with the ‘General slays the Hordes’ finishing attack from the ‘Way of the Metallic Dragon’ form to deliver a kick to one target and a punch to another. The Monk can back these attacks up with Ki points, spent either to adjust attack rolls or activate Ki powers such as ‘Leaf on Wind’ to gain flight for a turn or ‘Diamond Focus’ to gain a save against being dazed, stunned, or weakened. Clearly the Monk has been designed to emulate the Wuxia style, which may not necessarily quite fit the setting of the 13th Age. Fortunately some notes are included to help the Gamemaster decide the role of the Monk in  his game.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Necromancer has never really worked as a playable Class, but the version presented in 13 True Ways certainly is and it can be so because 13th Age eschews the binary absolutes of Dungeons & Dragons’ Alignment system. Having been replaced by a character’s relationships with the Icons of the setting and to an extent by a character’s One Unique Thing, the how and why of a character Necromancer becomes a story in itself, though of course, every Necromancer has some kind of relationship with the Lich King. Further every Necromancer is wasting away, so here the Necromancer with a positive Constitution modifier has that as a penalty against his casting spells, whilst a negative Constitution modifier has the potential to act as a bonus. A Necromancer’s Talents are delightfully thematic, such as ‘Cackling Soliloquist’ that grants an extra benefit to a daily spell and the chance of a recharge to that spell if the Necromancer spends extra time maniacally cackling and soliloquising about his plans and the weakness of his enemies; kill and suck the life force from enemy  to heal with ‘Deathknell’; or summon undead to fight for him, but release their spirits afterwards in a burst of holy energy with ‘Redeemer’. A Necromancer can also have his own skeleton minion and comes with a selection of spells to summon the undead. As written the Necromancer makes a great NPC villain, but at the same time there are options that shift it away from the archetypal skeletal summoner and the story of a Necromancer's redemption—whether as player character or NPC—has the potential to be interesting, if not great, in the telling. The last of the six Classes in 13 True Ways is the Occultist, a very singular Class in that there can only be one in the 13th Age, which of course be addressed by the character’s One Unique Thing. As a spellcaster, the Occultist peers through reality to warp to the benefit of his allies and the detriment of enemies. For example, an Occultist with the ‘Otherworld Shadow’ Talent has a shadow self that will take the damage and effects from an enemy once per day, whilst the ‘Icon Envoy’ Talent lets him set one of his ally’s relationship dice and so gain the benefit from it. The Occultist is the least straightforward Class in 13 True Ways, being slightly off centre and arguably not immediately obvious as to what it can do. Definitely a Class for the experienced player.

If the Druid and Monk were missed by their absence from 13th Age, then equally as missed were rules for Multiclassing, but 13 True Ways addresses this by essentially offering an option for dual-classing. Simply combining one Class with another would make a very powerful character, so instead 13 True Ways goes for a diversity rather than potency in terms of abilities by a making multiclassing character effectively one Level lower than his actual Level. For example, a Second Level Ranger/Druid would have the powers and abilities of a First Level Ranger and the powers and abilities of a First Level Druid. In addition, a multiclassing character will also have a reduced Armour Class, reduced Hit Points, and so on. Further, what this means is that a First Level multiclassing character is sort of between Zero-Level and First Level character, though not necessarily a weak one. Still, plenty of combinations present themselves with these rules. Monk/Fighter or Monk/Rogue for even more wuxia or ninja-style action, a Paladin/Necromancer seeking redemption, the Barbarian/Commander at the head of a horde, and so on. Plus the 13 True Ways also discusses how each of the game’s Classes works for Multiclassing, which should spur further character concepts and ideas.

Almost half of the book is taken up by the new Classes, but there is still plenty for the DM to get his teeth into, starting with detailed descriptions of five of the ‘Cities & Courts’ of the 13th Age—Axis, the Court of Stars, Drakkenhall, Horizon, and Santa Cora. Much of the description given is not set in stone, presenting the Gamemaster with plenty of choices, and this is in addition to the thirteen rumours for each location. Of the five, Horizon—home to the Arch Mage and high, high magic, and Drakkenhall—the domain of the Blue Dragon and a city of ‘orderly-ish’ monsters receive the most attention, detailing how each of the Icons is connected to the two cities and how the adventurers can become involved when they roll for their Icon influence from one session to the next. All five of these locations are nicely done, full of ideas and details that the DM can add to his campaign to bring it to life.

The monsters in 13 True Ways are a mix of the old—Cloud Giants, Metallic Dragons, Gnolls, Mummies, and so on, and the new—Bat Demons or ‘squishies’ that mob single targets, the tentacular Soul Flensers that steal powers from its targets, and the Flowers of Unlife that never seem to die. Like any Dungeons & Dragons-style game, more monsters are always welcome and these are useful additions, but like the 13th Age core rules, many of these creature are underwritten in terms of description and background. Others though, get fuller treatment elsewhere in 13 True Ways. So the nature of the Devils described in the bestiary gets a full description in a chapter of its own, the powers of many Devils revolving around an ability called ‘Devil’s Due’. This forces a player character to make a choice when attacking a Devil: does he take the bonus granted from the Escalation Die when he rolls to hit or not? If he does, there are dues to be paid, all negative and  all different from one Devil type to another. For example, using the Escalation Die against an Ice Devil causes an adventurer to be stuck, whilst that of a Horned Devil causes him to be weakened. The origins, purpose, and hierarchy of Deviltry is discussed in its own chapter and there is not one answer, but twenty-nine. Unsurprisingly, thirteen of these are tied into the Icons, the others being Icon neutral. With so many options available there is potential here to add Devils to one campaign with an option or two and still come back to them in a wholly separate or different campaign.

13 True Ways is rounded out with its own miscellany, the ‘Gamemasters’ Grimoire’. There are artefacts whose abilities are unlocked the longer they are worn or wielded and magic items—the cursed items being perhaps the most interesting here, plus thirteen dungeons and ruins, thirteen flying realms, and thirteen taverns and inns. Not all of the locations are immediately useful, the dungeons and flying realms most likely requiring development, but the taverns and inns are of course, easy to drop into a game. There are also three monastic tournaments, specifically for use with the Monk Class, and lastly a set of six entries provided by Kickstarter backers of 13 True Ways. These include four NPCs described in detail that are designed to be scaled to the player characters, as contacts, allies, rivals, or even enemies. To that end, each of the four will need stats created by the Gamemaster,  but the four are each accompanied by a set of thirteen facts about each NPC, which of course, may or may not be true. The fifth and sixth entries are descriptions of two living dungeons—Underkrakens and the Wild Garden. Both are home to creatures described in the Monsters chapter, the Soul Flensers in Underkrakens and the Flowers of Unlife in the Wild Garden. Underkrakens might be city-sized creatures, vehicles, or colonies from beyond and learning what might have dark consequences for the soul of too inquisitive an adventurer. Call of Cthulhu is a direct nod here with rules for Terrible Enlightenment that send a 13th Age campaign into the horror genre. Where Underkrakens is mostly an unknown, the Wild Garden is more of a known quantity, a sunlit temple that was assaulted by the forces of the Lich King, but fell into the hands of a recently undead druid. The description of the Wild Garden is much of that of a dungeon write-up, but both of these living dungeons will need much more development upon the part of the Gamemaster. They are intriguing, but not quite fully formed.

Physically, 13 True Ways is a lovely looking hardback. The artwork is all good quality and the writing is engaging, full of detail and flavour that the Gamemaster can bring to his game.  Like the core rules, it comes with a good index and glossary. It is difficult to really find fault with the supplement, but there are perhaps two. One would be the underwritten monster descriptions which are disappointing after the fulsome write-ups given in the 13th Age Bestiary. The other is the difficulty of the new Classes. Now assuredly, they are the highlight of 13 True Ways—well, five of the six anyway. Two of these—the Druid and the Monk—seemed oddly absent from 13th Age, so their inclusion is more than welcome. These new Classes may well not be suited for all, the randomness of the Chaos Mage may be annoying to other players; the Commander has to keep an eye on his fellow player characters to be truly effective rather; and a group may not want the Necromancer as one of their number because anyone who summons the undead must be ‘evil’; and well, as to the sixth, the Occultist is just odd and unlikely to work in the hands of very player. They are undoubtedly as much complex and as they are flavoursome and are in a way, ‘advanced’ Classes that will fare better in the hands of the more experienced player and with a more experienced Gamemaster.

So, five good, new Classes. Setting descriptions and options. New monsters and over a dozen options for one new monster type. Magic items, artefacts, dungeons, and more. 13 True Ways packs an awful lot of new material into its pages. Whilst the new Classes are its highlight, the material for the Gamemaster is almost as good if not all of it is actually true—until the Gamemaster chooses an option or two and makes it true.