One of the great features—amongst many—of 13th Age is how it handles characters, making each Player Character unique, emphasising narrative gameplay elements, and upping the action. Published by Pelgrane Press, a wide range of character Classes were presented in both 13th Age and 13 True Ways, but one of the aspects of 13th Age is that Player Characters can only advance to Tenth Level. What this means is that campaigns are relatively short and new campaigns can be begun relatively easily and relatively regularly, so having a wider range in terms of character choice is always useful. Now whilst presenting new Player Character Classes has not been the focus of titles from Pelgrane Press, it does mean that there is scope for other publishers to provide a Game Master and her players with such options. This is exactly what Kinoko Games has done with Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets.
Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets presents six new Classes—the monstrous Abomination, the destiny-shaping Fateweaver, the mind-bending Psion, the berserking Savage, the dashing Swordmage and the dark-souled Warlock. All come with the Class Features and Talents, plus features specific to the Class just as you would expect for a Class for 13th Age. In addition, each is accompanied with notes on the Play Style for the Class, ideas for Backgrounds, the Icons associated with the Class, which of the Dungeons & Dragons-style Races it works with, options for Multi-Class versions, and ‘Riffs and Variations’, essentially extra ideas on how each Class would play. This is not all though, for Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets also includes notes how some of the Classes from the 13th Age core book and 13 True Ways would work with the new half dozen it provides, as well as various new magic items. These are also designed to work with the six Classes in Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets.
The first new Class is the Abomination. This takes the transformed monster of Gothic fiction, horror films, superhero comics, and the like, and brings it into 13th Age as a combat monster! So that could be the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, the Wolf Man of The Wolf Man, and the Incredible Hulk of Marvel comics. Now by default, the Abomination cannot transform, although with the right Talent it is possible, but it could be a failed experiment, a thing which crept out of hell, and so on. It relies upon its natural weapons in combat, which it then augments with an element such as poison or fire which it can spit. As an intimidating, raging combat beast, it can be made dragon-, snake-, and troll-like amongst other flavours, make it harder, and so on, all depending upon the Talents chosen. The Abomination has Maneuvres like a Fighter which trigger on a flexible basis, so the player rolls to attack and then selects the Maneuvre which the roll has triggered rather than selecting the Maneuvre beforehand. The Abomination can be played as a raging, rampaging beast of a monster, but with the appropriate selection, the player gets to do that as well as roleplay out the tragedy of the Abomination’s existence.
In comparison to the Abomination, the Fateweaver is a step up or two in terms of complexity. Fundamentally, the Fateweaver breaks the Fourth Wall in order to manipulate the dice and the narrative. Naturally the Icons take an interest in the Fateweaver, perhaps a wandering fortuneteller or disgraced court jester, because of his ability to manipulate and shape destinies—which is their job after all! To model this, the Fateweaver receives Talents such as ‘Astrologer’, which enables the character to predict the future and if correct, regain a spell or recovery, or increase the Escalation by one; ‘Stage Performer’, which allows the Fateweaver to reroll an attack or action in a scene or battle as long as he has an audience; if the Fateweaver thinks life to be a joke, then ‘Harlequin’ lets him add an extra effect to a spell—as long as the other players (and not the other characters) think it is funny. A Fateweaver can also cast two types of spells, standard spells and Meditations. To use the Fateweaver meditates to enter a state known as Focus to connect to threads of reality, once he has Focus, a Fateweaver expends to both cast a spell and gain the spell’s Focus effect. For example, Reveal What Was Hidden shows the Fateweaver something on the battlefield or nearby that the rest of the party had not seen, or Mantra of Cleansing, which allows the Fateweaver to make a saving throw against an ongoing effect.
Potentially, the Fateweaver is a dynamic support character, but the intricacies of its design mean it is not easy to learn and harder to master. The disruptive nature of the style of play may also mean that the Class may not fit with every single campaign. That though, will come down to what sort of campaign the Game Master wants to run.
Then there is the Psion. Again, this is more complex, but where the Fateweaver feels all new, the Psion is familiar in what it does and how it works. Psions specialise in three of six disciplines—Blaster, Egotist (body alteration), Nomad (teleportation), Seer (clairsentience), Shaper (object creation, including arms, armour, and constructs), and Telepath (including mental control of others). These are fuelled by Psionic Power Points, which are recovered by resting. Every Psion has the base at-will minor powers for all six disciplines, but over time, can learn the greater powers of their selected disciplines. They can also offset the set cost of their powers by selecting certain Talents, but for the more potent powers a player will still need to husband his character’s Power Points throughout a scenario. Whether it is powers like ‘Withering Limbs’ or ‘Stretchable Forms’, there is the feel of superhero or Jedi powers to the Psion’s abilities. In other words, these powers are more obvious in what they are and how they work, but at the same there is a wider range of them, allowing a player to better tailor his character. Some extra notes suggest how the powers might be tied to other sources and mapping them onto the various schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons. For the setting of 13th Age, the Dragon Empire, there are some interesting suggestions as who or what might be a Psion’s patron, since psionics do not actually quite fit the setting.
The Savage though is a front rank combatant, able to use Frenzy dice to fuel their powers, heal themselves, or increase damage. These dice increase in size and number as the Savage gains Level. Gained through successful hits, they can be spent on Frenzy Powers. Some of these expend Frenzy dice in return for their effect, such as ‘Frenzied Leap’ which enables the Savage to leap across the battlefield, or ‘Iron Determination’ which grants a reroll on a failed save or death save. Others though, such as ‘Cry for Blood’, which inflicts damage on multiple nearby enemies, and since it is a melee attack, the Savage gains a Frenzy die. The Talents for the Savage add colour as much as a mechanical effect, so ‘Born to the Saddle’ makes the character a skilled rider, especially in combat, whilst ‘Full Metal Berserk’ allows him to wear heavy armour without penalty rather than the standard leather and hides. The background for the Savage in the Dragon Empire, the setting of the 13th Age is also interesting, placing it outside of the empire, their being from beyond civilised lands. The Savage Class is slightly problematic in that it is not dissimilar to the Barbarian Class. This is more thematic than mechanical though.
Where the Psion feels familiar to longtime players of Dungeons & Dragons-style games, the last two Classes will be familiar to more recent players. The first of these is the Swordmage, which as the title suggests combines swordplay and arcane magic. The Swordmage is primarily a defensive Class, placing Sigils on their opponents using the Mark with Sigil spell. What this does is force the enemy so marked to focus on the Swordmage and then punish them when they attack an ally. So a Sigil of Vengeance lets the Swordmage teleport immediately to the marked opponent and attack him if the opponent is attacking someone else. Other Sigils inflict damage or force rerolls on the opponent, and so on. A Swordmage starts off with one Sigil and gains more as he gains Levels. In addition, a Swordmage automatically has Mage Armour and can redirect it with his off hand to increase his Armour Class. Most Swordmage Talents alter how the Swordmage fights and casts spells and sigils, again adding flavour as much as mechanics. Thus ‘Skull Blade’ gives access to Necromancer spells and ‘Twin Blade Style’ grants the ability to fight with two weapons and apply its effects to all spells which deal weapon damage. Most Swordmage spells are colourful blade attacks which do arcane damage. For example, Keen Blade enables a Swordmage player to reroll dice on an attack and take the best, whilst Freezing Strike inflicts cold damage and immoblises the target! Overall, the Swordmage here has a Manga or Martial Arts feel to it.
The sixth and last Class is the Warlock. This will be familiar to various versions of Dungeons & Dragons, but here specialise in blasting spells which inflict damage, curses which have harmful effects, and hexes which have a range of mostly protective effects. Thus Hungry Shadows blasts a target with negative energy—even more if the target is cursed, Burning Retribution both burns and curses the target, and Demon Tongue grants rerolls on Charisma-based rolls. As with versions elsewhere, the Warlock presented here has a Warlock Pact, but being for 13th Age, it is with an Icon rather than something nebulous. So a Divine Pact is with the Priestess, a Knightly Pact is with the Crusader, and so on. This grants the Warlock a minor effect, typically triggered by the Escalation Die, and then essentially provides the flavour for how the Warlock casts his magic. All of the Warlock spells can be cast at-will, so they are not quite as powerful, but they are flashy and fun. Further, the Warlock can have any of the spells and adjust their flavour to his Pact.
Beyond the six Classes it details, Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets gives various Talents for the Classes from 13th Age core book and 13 True Ways. So ‘Lycanthrope’ for the Barbarian will transform the character into the Abomination when the Barbarian rages, and the Eldritch Knight can use the ‘Mark with Sigil’ feature of the Swordmage. Again, these flavour the various Classes slightly, but do not push a Class over into the other. Lastly, Magic Items adds items specific to the six Classes in Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets, and more. Abominations can take severed body parts—poison glands, slappy tails, troll hearts, and more—and add them to his body as Grafts, whilst Crystals, such as Jewel of Storing or Reflecting Bead, are designed to work with the Psion Class. There are lots of magic items given here, all useful for adding a little more flavour and feel to playing 13th Age.
Physically, Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets is tidily presented. The book is decently written, whilst the artwork in the main consists of full colour pieces for each of the six Classes. If there is an issue with the art, it is perhaps that veers too far towards the ‘Chainmail Bikini’ school of art. The art overall, is done in a Manga style.
Fundamentally in coming to Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets, both players and the Game Master has to ask themselves if they want or need extra character Classes for their campaign. None of the half dozen in the supplement are necessary to play 13th Age, but of course they expand the range of options available and in some ways what sort of stories can be told. Obviously the tragedy of the Abomination and the Warlock eventually having to come to terms with the Pact made to gain his powers. Some Classes may be too close to others to have them at the table together, for example the Savage and the Barbarian, so a gaming group may want to be careful in its choice of Classes available. Some of the Classes make you wonder whether the ‘Archmage Engine’ of 13th Age could be used for other genres. For example, take the Abomination Class and do a superhero character like Hulk, and whilst that might be the most obvious, there are Talents scattered throughout Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets which lend themselves to other superheroes or genres.
Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets is solid support for 13th Age. If as a 13th Age Game Master you want more Classes, the Dark Pacts & Ancient Secrets provides a decent range of new Classes and more to bring into her campaign.