13th Age: The game system that actually shows how much fun D&D (the good bits edition) could be

Back in 1975, when disco was only a cloud as small as a man’s hand on the horizon, and I was still a junior fangirl making fun of Happy Days while playing Kriegspiel , a friend bribed me to provide an alibi for her romantic rendezvous by finding me an empty seat afterwards at her boyfriend’s table of USC gamers.  One natural twenty and a dead lizardman later, I was hooked enough to endure four editions of D&D

After three recent evenings spent gaming, I have to report that 13th Age (forthcoming soon from Pelgrane Press) distills all those wand-waving and goldpiece-hauling editions down into an easily playable system which supports idiosyncratic character creation without stinting either the dungeons or the dragons.

There’s much here that will be familiar to fans of either of D&D’s third or fourth editions, not surprising since the co-authors were lead designers who retained many of the better bits of each for this, their own house-game system. Any long-time dungeon master will likely admire 13th Ages’s crisp combat mechanics, its clever provisions for smooth character play, and the simple but flexible rules. Even the paragraphs of advice about running a smooth campaign from the authors, wry and genial in turn, are some of the best of their kind.

However, if you’ve always been a little curious about the granddaddy of roleplaying systems but turned away thinking, “too complicated,” or “I want to play a person, not a statistics block trying to kill another statistics block” you should really give 13th Age a try. Every character here begins play  at 1st level already fleshed out by their relationships to its fantasy world’s iconic figures — archetypes like the Emperor, the Great Gold Worm, and the Elven Queen — as well as by the one unique thing distinguishing him, her, or it from all others. As long as you don’t initially gain a dice-rolling advantage, the sky’s the limit. Want to play a mute ranger who shoots poisoned glass darts from a blow-gun, a winged dwarf fated to slay a god,  or a former female pirate captain cursed with the world’s only talking tattoo of a white whale?  This is the system for you. And you can still enjoy the occasional old-school treasure crawl on your way out of a tomb protected by undead while you play through your unique character arc.

The only problems that I randomly encountered in this pre-issue version of 13th Age were a somewhat sparse starting menagerie of monsters, a game book needing more cross-indexing, and the vast fistful s of dice that hit the table during character damage rolls at higher levels. Even then, many of my fellow party members viewed this last, clashingly impressive phenomenon as a feature rather than a bug.

What’s the take-home from this review?  On my super-senior gamer-girl scale, the pre-print version of 13th Age rolled up a seventeen charisma on three six-sided dice: I’d walk uphill in the snow, both ways, to Modern Myths in order to play in a solid campaign based on this system, as long as I’d remembered to bring my mittens. Give it a try. ~Lisa

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