After wrapping up our Rise of the Runelords campaign GMed by my friend Aaron we have now started a 13th Age campaign GMed by me. This is our first time playing 13th Age, and while I will try to write a good review of it later, here are some first impressions after finishing our 2nd adventure.
Simpler Is Better
One thing about transitioning from Pathfinder to 13th Age is how much simpler 13th is by comparison. In 13th Age classes only go up to 10 levels instead of 20, and there are fewer mechanical bits to track. It's a general design philosophy that we have embraced, I don't bother to hand out gold pieces, I just assume that anything reasonable my characters want they have - and my players being reasonable people that works just fine. We also don't do XP. We played out Rise of the Runelords in 14 sessions, going from levels 1 to 18; my friend Aaron thought it would be cool to play 13th Age in 13 sessions going from levels 1 to the cap of 10. So we will be leveling up after about every session, which takes care of the whole XP tracking thing. In general we have streamlined everything from the overly-bloated Pathfinder into a more manageable system, and I love it. Personally I don't feel like we have lost anything, but we only have 3 players of different classes and nobody wanted to try some weird or unusual idea for a character concept - so we haven't needed a lot of archetypes or alternate rules.
Rangers Get Hosed
One bad simplification though is with the Ranger class, which Sara plays in our game. Rangers either take weapon traits and are basically fighters, or they take an animal companion. Seeings how there are only 3 of us, Sara decided to take the companion to have a 4th character and someone who could protect the squishy Wizard (me). Which was cool, and had that Ranger vibe. Except, that was it. You only get 3 Class Talents to start, and taking the Animal Companion takes up 2 - so that companion is pretty much all that's unique/cool about your character. The problem is that they are rather boring. Every companion has the same stats, based on level, and one power based on the type of animal (Sara's Bear gains temporary HP when it hits something) but the stats are fixed and the power never changes. You can add a few extra powers with feats, most of which are either passive one 1/day abilities. Companions do not have attributes, do not have any special attacks or options in combat, and are quite boring to play really. There are very few ways that the Ranger and Companion can interact, something that should be at the heart of that character concept. We did get 13 True Ways, which added a few 1/day spells to use on a companion, but while that is better than nothing it is not an actual fix.
My Wizard and Aaron's Rogue are both cool enough though.
Combat Is Unexpected
Our first fight was 3 1st-level Goblins against the 1st-level Ranger and Rogue characters plus the Bear. Some things are just tradition in D&D or any of its derivatives. I expected the fight to be somewhat tough but doable, since Goblins are usually pushovers. The Bear was knocked unconscious and both players injured before the Goblins were defeated. It was a lot harder fight than I expected. And combat has been like that, hard for me as GM to predict weather it will be easy or a TPK. Part of that is because it is a new system and none of us are used to it yet (including my players knowing how to use their abilities to maximum advantage). Part of that is because with fewer levels the monsters are kind of tougher - a 1st-level 13th age Goblin feels more like a 2nd-to-3rd-level Pathfinder Goblin. It has been good so far, but is definitely taking some getting used to and adding to the burden of being GM (I don't like to kill players, so I hate not being sure just how many of what monsters they can handle).
It's Fun To Be Creative
We last played a canned adventure straight out of the book with RotR, so I've been trying to do something different with 13th Age. Our fist adventure had some fights, but also ways to non-violently end some confrontations and a bad guy who wasn't all bad at the end. The second adventure was a series of riddle-encounters, which turned out to be the longest and hardest since one of my players was sleepy and not at the top of his game. It's nice as GM to be free to make up things, while there is a sketchy outline of an adventure in the core rulebook and another in 13 True Ways, there is not really any kind of solid campaign so I've had to make stuff up. That's also been kind of tricky, since I now have the burden of making stuff up for a game system I don't really know. Overall though it has been good so far.
I have ended up making some character sheets though, the ones in the book are mediocre at best. That has added a lot of time behind Adobe Illustrator on top of writing out ideas.
There's Not A Lot Of Magic Items
Magic Items are much simpler in 13th Age, each type of item having a fixed benefit (like a weapon giving a bonus to hit and damage, armor a bonus to AC, cloaks a bonus to saves) and then having one special property on top of that. The core rulebook has several sample properties, but it is not a great selection. I really wish they had dropped the concrete examples for a chapter on the idea behind magic items, how powerful roughly they should be and what kinds of abilities would be game-balanced. Sara is the bow-wielding Ranger, so she would like a magic bow, but there is only 1 example in the book - the rest are magic ammunition, and the book does not say how many shots would be appropriate (though being Pathfinder-based I'll go with 50). Likewise there are some armor special abilities that let you use your base AC for one of your other defenses (physical or mental, non-weapon stuff) - which is useless for my Wizard since my base AC is my lowest, and was no help for Aaron's Rogue where two of the three are the same number. It's just hard to think of a new magic ability that is not over- or under-powered from the few examples in the book and no clue as to what the designers were thinking/planning for in the system.
Also, the default bonuses are pretty small, a +1 to +3, which while better than nothing is not exactly a game-changer for the character. Now, Pathfinder had to opposite problem of magic items being potentially over-powered, but here they feel not quite powerful enough.
Anyways, there are a few of the things that have stuck out so far. Again, we have only played 2 adventures, so we don't really know the system yet. I have to say though, if I was forced to choose between playing 13th Age or Pathfinder, I think I would go with 13th Age. I'm not really an "old school" player who misses the days of 1st Edition D&D, but I do think that Pathfinder has just gotten too big, too bloated to be fun anymore. 13th Age is a nice middle-ground between 1st and 3rd edition D&D styles of play and I am glad we have started playing it. As a new game it requires some GM work to fill in the blanks, and there are some things about the rules I am not super-fond of, but on the whole it is a good game. Aaron and Sara seem to like it overall too.
I'm still working on my write-up about Rise of the Runelords, and when I finish my 13th Age character sheets I'll post them here as well. Hope everyone has a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays.