13th Age of Fate Accelerated – Part 1

13th Age FAE

Before we begin, for those who don’t know, a role-playing game (or RPG) is a way to tell stories as a group – one person sets the scene, the rest have characters described in terms of their attributes, skills, abilities and powers.  One might play a fighter, wielding a magic sword to take down hordes of goblins.  One might play a powerful wizard, hurling fireballs into the fray.  Success and failure is determined by a collection of unusual-shaped dice and how high (or low) you roll.  The grandfather of them all is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), due for an upgrade this July.  However, in the decades since it was released, it has seen hundreds of alternatives hit the shelves…

In my left hand I hold 13th Age.  A beautiful, letter-sized hardback.  Bound, colour-illustrated throughout, it contains the rules and game world for Pelgrane Press’s flagship fantasy roleplaying game.  It’s roots are firmly in D&D – characters are described in terms of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, etc., and have lists of talents, feats, powers, and so on.

13th Age has a number of tweaks that update D&D, streamlining things and involving players and their characters in creating the fine details of the game world.  Many of these elements are modular in nature and can be lifted wholesale and applied to whatever game you’re playing.  It’s also one of the best written RPG books I’ve had the pleasure to read, the conversational tone and frequent interjections by one or other of the developers in sidebars providing examples of how they do things.

I’ve blogged about 13th Age here before:

Problem with 13th Age is it hasn’t moved very far from it’s roots in D&D – 6 attributes, lists of talents and feats, much flicking around in the rulebook when creating characters for the first few times

Fate Accelerated

In my right hand I hold Fate Accelerated Edition.  My right hand has the far easier job.  FAE is A5 or thereabouts, 48 pages long including index and character sheet and, on the virtual scales of balance, you’d need about 200 copies of FAE to balance 1 of 13th Age.  It’s lightweight, story-driven gaming.  Characters are described in terms not of Strength, Dexterity and the like but CarefulCleverFlashyForcefulQuick and Sneaky.  Instantly, on seeing the character sheet, you’ve got a much better idea of what sort of a character this is.  You also have Aspects – puncy sentences that describe the sort of character you’re playing.  “Hard-drinking Dwarf thug from the mines of M’Zark“, would be a decent “High concept” Aspect.  It nicely describes, in a nutshell, what sort of character this is.

For picking up a game quickly and diving in, you don’t get a lot faster than FAE these days.  You used to – the system from the old West End Games’ Ghostbusters International was even simpler and faster than this!

What you don’t get with FAE is a world to play in.   And that’s where 13th Age comes in.  You also need special dice with +, – and blank sides to roll.  But then you need the whole range of dice for 13th Age.  Chances are, as a gamer, you’ve already got both.

By taking elements of both games – the lightning-fast character creation and rule-set of FAE coupled with the world-embedding tweaks of 13th Age (and the general setting itself) you’ve got a near-perfect combination of simple rules and great world.

13th Age FAE

But I’m not quite finished yet.  Bits of Dungeon World appeal to me – playbooks for the characters that stop you having to reference the rulebook so often (not that that’s a big deal with FAE), the way it describes campaigns and gets you to think things through…  Z6 will feed into this little project as well.

That’s the problem with RPGs.  Once you start tweaking it’s very hard to stop.

RPG Cherry-Picking #2 – Magic

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Magic.  It’s the defining feature of most fantasy roleplaying.  Everyone who hears about it, about playing a Wizard in Dungeons and Dragons imagines this:

Gandalf, mighty wizard, harnessing impossible cosmic forces to smite evil.  Long beard, arcane staff, pointy hat (optional).

Unfortunately, everyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons gets something a little different as their starting, Level 1, Wizard:

Perf.  Wizard from JourneyQuest.  Lactomancer.  Or maybe you’d get Rincewind from the Discworld.  Whatever happens, you’ve got the character with the worst combat skills and lowest hit points, unable to use anything bigger and stabbier than a dagger.  Can’t wear armour as that would get in the way of those pesky magical energies.  Oh, and you’ve got 1 spell you can cast.  Once.  Per day.  Yep, you fire off that Magic Missle during round 1 of the first combat of the day and that’s you hiding at the back until you all hole up for the night.

Sure, once you get up a few levels you start getting some pretty decent spells you can cast more than once but until then the 2nd job of the rest of the party is “Keep the Wizard alive.”

And while you think about Gandalf, how many times do you see him cast Chain Lightning?  Or Fireball?  Or even something simple like Magic Missile?  3 whole movies and the best you see is one exorcism. He’s a Wizard because he’s got the hat, beard and staff and he’s told everyone he’s a Wizard – and they believed him.

All that aside, magic in gaming falls into 2 broad categories:  Those where the spells are named and listed, and those where the spells are improvised to fit the needs at the time.

Into the first category goes Dungeons and Dragons, 13th Age, Rolemaster, most all of the Old-School variations around today like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Castles & Crusades and the like.  Wizards start of weak and get more powerful in the interests of Game Balance and making sure everyone has fun.  The problem with Game Balance here is that the Fighter doesn’t get to use his sword just once, the Thief can’t pick locks just once in a game day, even the Cleric gets a wider range of powers.  But the Wizard gets 1 spell.  It’s not fair.

Into the second category goes Ars Magica.  In Ars Magica, everyone plays a wizard.  Everyone.   But you also play the whole supporting cast of their tower/mansion/castle/whatever – pick whoever’s best for the situation at hand.  Diplomats, soldiers, blacksmith, the works.

Every gamer should have a copy of Ars Magica.  There’s no excuse not to, really, as the 4th Edition is completely free – I’ll wait while you go to e23 to download a copy.  Sure, there’s a 5th edition out now but the magic chapter is largely the same.  So to add to the Sanity chapter from Call of Cthulhu, I’m going to pick the magic system from Ars Magica – that’s Chapter 5, starting at p102 in the 4th edition.

Most RPGs now break magic down into assorted areas – Illusion, Alteration, Necromancy and the like.  Ars Magica does a similar thing, breaking magic down into Types of Effect (Techniques) and Things to Affect (Forms).  Sure, there are sample spells in the list to give you an idea of what you could do when you combine, say, “Muto” (for changing things) with “Animal” (for living things that aren’t plants or humans), but if you want to give yourself wings you just need the right combination of form and technique (Muto & Corpus).  The flexibility in spellcasting is unrivalled – mix and match form and technique to get the desired effect and away you go.  You’ve got a limited number of points to spend when you create your Wizard, so an idea of what kind of Wizard you’d like to have is good, but a generalist with a few points in each is going to be more flexible than a specialist with lots of points in only 1 or 2 Forms and Techniques.

When you’re choosing your daily spells in D&D you can spend ages studying the spell lists to work out which ones are going to be best for the day ahead.  Or you could just pick “Milk” and “Vague” and hope the circumstances are right.  In Ars Magica you have the full range and flexibility of all your Forms and Techniques.  All day, every day.  A high-level Wizard in Ars Magica is a terrible and wondrous thing to behold.

Balancing such a powerful Wizard off against the other character classes would be tricky.  It would make the Wizard a far more useful and flexible character during the early levels of play.  I’d look to limit the maximum number of Forms and Techniques a character could learn, perhaps make some mutually exclusive – a character specialising in Fire magic couldn’t learn Water magic, for instance – or tie some Forms or Techniques to particular Icons in 13th Age so unless your character has one or more  positive relationship points with the High Druid or the Elf Queen you’re not going to be able to learn the Herbam form and affect plants…

Magic in more modern games is more likely to fall into the Ars Magica style of system.  The “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” RPG had an excellent magic system that will eventually be combined in the all-singing, all-dancing, “Beyond Human”, assuming it ever gets published.  Deliria has a good system, Dresden Files likewise.  But for Fantasy, it’s Ars Magica every time.

Next week…  Interesting Game Mechanics, part 1.

Campaign Planning – 13th Age – Bring on the Elves.

An introduction to  roleplaying games for the uninitiated:  A group of people getting together to tell a story within a world they’ve all agreed on.  It could be one they’ve created themselves, it could be one someone else has created – Tolkein, for example, or Stephen Moffat.  Like all games, there are rules that help the story along by saying what characters in the story can and cannot do, how tough particular challenges are, how big and nasty the monsters are.  One player takes the role of the narrator (or Dungeon Master, Games Master, etc. etc.) and guides the group through the adventure, the other players take the role of the main protagonists in the story.  I can explain further if you like…

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Right.  So.  13th Age is a new fantasy roleplaying game from Pelgrane Press.  It’s written by two giants of the roleplaying industry and brings together ideas from years of playing those games, fusing them into a single, wonderful, free-flowing game.  Or it will when it’s published.  At the moment, if you pre-order the game you get access to the “Escalation Edition” of the rules, currently in their 4th incarnation, and you can get on with the adventuring without being encumbered by such things as detailed layout and gorgeous artwork.

Fantasy roleplaying games are numerous – from the grandfather of them all, Dungeons and Dragons, the previously mentioned Castles and Crusades, relative newcomers like The One Ring and Dungeon World.  Each brings something different to the table.  What the current incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons brings is incredible complexity and a reliance on miniatures and battlemats.  What makes 13th Age the game to go to?

  • Icons.  These are the powers of the game world – the Archmage, the Dwarven King Under the Mountain, the High Druid, the Prince of Shadows.  Characters are tied to the Icons by relationships – guaranteed adventure hooks, potentials for help and hindrance.  Take a 3 point negative relationship with The Diabolist and give the GM free reign to make your character’s life “interesting”.
  • The Escalation Die.  Keeping combat interesting, fast and fun.  Find the biggest six-sider you can and start counting up with each round of combat after the first.
  • Backgrounds.  No skills lists to keep track of, just a CV of previous experience.  High Druid’s Ranger 4, for example, or Battle Poet 2…  Any time you can persuade the GM that experience would come in handy, add your rating as a bonus to the dice roll.
  • Flat damage.  A sword will always do x damage (plus bonuses, etc.), a goblin’s bite will always do y damage.  Why is this better?  Well, it’s faster. It keeps things moving. It takes away some of the random crap dice rolls you can get and it means that when you’re down to your last 3 hit points you really don’t want to get bitten – it won’t just be a scratch, it will take your leg off.  And when you get to the higher levels do you really want to spend your time doing the maths having found 15 d10 for fireball damage when you could just slay everything and move on?
  • One Unique Thing.  When creating characters you have to come up with something that’s unique about that character…  This is an excellent opportunity to give your GM some plot ideas.  For example…

Characters were rolled up a couple of weeks ago.  3 players, 1 GM.  2 of the players wanted to play elven rangers, so naturally they’re twins, separated at birth and only recently reunited.  My daughter, playing one of the elves, was reading through the background in the book and declared “I want to be on the run from something.”

A few minutes of bashing this idea around and her character is on the run from the Diabolist because of something she knows.  She doesn’t know what it is she knows, only that the Diabolist mustn’t get her hands on the information.  What she doesn’t know is that one of the other characters is on very friendly terms with the Diabolist…

Last night, the latest Escalation Edition was distributed, expanding sections on spell lists, backgrounds, monsters and more (I haven’t had a chance to go through it yet).

Some of the artwork for the final release has been put up on Pelgrane Press’s website, along with the fully laid out chapter describing the Icons giving a taster of what the book’s going to look like when it hits the shelves early in 2013.  I have a number of Pelgrane’s other games and they have incredibly high production values.

To sum up.  Everything you need to start playing in 1 book, PDF available now. Much good stuff planned for release in 2013.  An open license for the rules system that allows other companies to make compatible product.

Go here: http://www.pelgranepress.com/shop/

It’s the first item in the shop.  Just buy it.