Monday, July 27, 2015

Looking Under The Hood Of 13th Age

    A little while ago I posted some old work I did looking at the character creation options in Pathfinder.  That got me thinking, what if I took the same look at my current game, 13th Age?  So, here goes...

    13th Age has a much simpler mechanical structure than Pathfinder, one of the things I really like about the game.  I expected that there would be fewer choices and disjointed options than in Pathfinder (which had 3 BAB progressions, 2 save progressions, 4 skill point per level progressions and 8 different numbers of class skills).  In a way I was right, but I was also surprised at how strange some things got.  So let's look at what is nice and simple:
  • All characters get 8 Background (ie, skill) points, max of 5 in any one, and they never get any more (instead the character level and an attribute are added to all checks)
  • All characters get 3 points for Icon Relationships and an extra point at Champion and Epic tiers
  • All characters have 8 Recoveries per day (the fighter gets 9, but through a special Class Feature)
  • All characters get 1 Feat per level, which is primarily used to increase the power/options of an existing Class Talent
  • All Classes give a +2 bonus to one Attribute, but not the same that is increased by the character's Race
  • All characters get 3 Class Talent points to buy extra abilities (though the number of starting ones, and cost, varies)
    This is a good foundation, in my opinion.  I like when all the characters are built on a similar scale, with each having meaningful options, instead of some classes having a lot more to do than others.  I don't think that there needs to be a ton of different progressions, I think it's totally possible that every character chooses 5 things for example, as long as they choose from different useful pools of options and each available choice is meaningful, then there's no reason in my mind that shouldn't work.

    Then it starts getting a little weird.
    Let's look at Armor Class.  In 13th Age your class determines what your AC will be for each type of armor (being either None, Light or Heavy).  So instead of the armor itself having a modifier, the class determines the armor modifier - which seems totally backwards to me, but okay.  Out of the 9 starting classes in the core rulebook, there are 7 different armor values:
    None / Light / Heavy-
        10 / 10 / 11    Sorcerer & Wizard
        10 / 12 / 13    Barbarian & Bard
        11 / 12 / 13    Rogue
        10 / 12 / 14    Cleric
        10 / 12 / 16    Paladin
        10 / 13 / 15    Fighter
        10 / 14 / 15    Ranger
    This baffles me.  None of these progressions seem so distinct that they add anything in their complexity.  I mean, there isn't such a huge jump in the numbers that one class will seem totally different from another class, and thus worth taking (except between the very highest and lowest of course).  And the classes that are best/worst get a little weird too.  The Rogue has the highest AC with no armor, a whole 11 instead of everyone else's 10 - wow, what a big difference.  The best Light Armor classes are the Ranger (at 14) and the Fighter (at 13) - neither of which is that much higher than the norm of 12, or even the default of 10.  The highest Heavy Armor AC is the Paladin (16) with the Fighter (15). 
    Also with AC there is weather or not you take an attack penalty from wearing Heavy armor (and only heavy, nobody has a Light Armor penalty).  6 Classes have a -2 to attack in Heavy armor, including the Ranger who has the 15 AC but loses to the Fighter for second place due to the -2 hit penalty.  Now, if you are a Wizard or Sorcerer, both of whom get an 11 Heavy Armor AC, then taking a -2 to hit is totally not worth it - and even the pathetic +1 AC is not worth it without a penalty.  So why would you ever do so?  Why is it even an option?  This is not a meaningful decision.  The -2 hit for +1 AC (since for everybody the Heavy AC is only 1 higher than the Light AC)(the 12/14 Cleric and 13/15 Fighter and 12/16 Paladin do not have any attack penalties, and thus zero reason to ever wear Light armor) is a crappy trade-off that drops your damage output by a lot for a pathetic increase in survivability.
    Finally we have Shields, which are a +1 AC for every class (so no shield specialists) and every class that takes a Heavy Armor -2 penalty also has a -2 to hit with a shield (making it +2 AC for -4 to hit), except for the Bard, who only has a -1 to hit (why, exactly?).
    Now my question is, what do we gain from this complexity?  What do the players get and what does the GM get from having so many different numbers?  With 7 progressions for 9 classes only the Sorcerer/Wizard duplicate, and the Barbarian/Bard almost duplicate (except the Bard is -1 hit with shields and the Barbarian has no penalty), and everybody else has their own thing.  Do the 1 or 2 point differences really make any meaningful difference in the feel or play-style of each class?  Do we really get any better storytelling from the class having the AC instead of the armor type being the same AC for everybody (a la Pathfinder/D&D)?  Because if so I must be the one strange guy who isn't feeling it.  This is a muddle of numbers that do not seem to make any sense, and do not seem to have any worthwhile choices.  Every class should just have their one best armor type, and wearing anything higher gives a +2 (+4 would be better) AC but a -2 to hit and skill checks (so the extra combat survivability means being less useful across the board).  Or, say that No Armor and Light Armor give your Dex bonus + 1 to AC and Heavy armor gives your Con bonus +1 to AC.  That way light, quick fighters will go lightly armored and brawny fighters will go armored.  You could add a little DR, which 13th Age does not have, into the mix saying that Light Armor is DR 2 and Heavy Armor DR 4 - but again each class takes a -2 to rolls in higher armor than they are meant for.  [Normal 13th Age adds the middle of your Con / Dex / Wis, which means having one really good ability score is not much help for your AC - a fine idea to reduce the min/max'ers out there, but also makes everybody feel the same and means having one noteworthy score that should define your character instead has limited usefulness.]  With DR any tradeoff in reduced hit or skills or whatever means a guaranteed reduction in the damage you take, which is a more worthwhile choice (you may be less effective, but you will live longer).  Really, whatever the means, it seems like there has to be a better way to distinguish the classes - these progressions are all so close that they don't feel very meaningful, and they don't scale so even a +1 AC that might be something at first level will be totally inconsequential at 10th level, and they don't seem to ever offer a reason to choose to wear armor that is not the best for your class.  That looks like a bad design to me.

    In addition to armor, 13th Age adds 2 other defenses, Physical Defense (PD) and Mental Defense (MD).  These are like the Fortitude save and Will save of Pathfinder/D&D, and I am glad to see the 13th Age guys choose to make them act just like armor class (roll over by attacker to hit) instead of the strange extra mechanic Pathfinder/D&D used (roll over with different progression to resist).  Here for the 9 classes we have really 4 different progressions:
    10 / 10    Fighter
    11 / 10 or 10 / 11    Barbarian, Bard, Ranger, Sorcerer
    11 / 11    Cleric
    12 / 10 or 10 / 12    Paladin, Rogue, Wizard
    Now, I'm counting the 11 and 10 or 12 and 10 as one line, because weather you have PD higher or MD higher really doesn't matter, you're resistant to one thing more than another.  Again though, is the 1 point difference between the Fighter and the Barbarian/Bard/Ranger/Sorcerer really enough to make an edge case out of them?  And don't Fighters normally get portrayed as being tougher than smart?  Or if you want to say they are tough all over why not make them 11/11's like the Cleric?  Again, with a non-scaling defense do we really get anything out of splitting it this fine?  I'd love to see someone write a computer program to simulate a thousand fights and see if the 1 point difference made a statistically significant difference in the outcome.

    Weapons are a whole 'nother kettle of fish.  On the one had, weapons almost follow a perfect even progression: there are 5 types of weapons, 1-Handed Melee, 2-Handed Melee, Thrown, Crossbows and Bows.  Within each type there are Small, Light/Simple, Heavy/Martial.  Then we get to the exceptions.  Except there are no Heavy/Martial Thrown weapons, and there are no Small Bows (personally, what makes a Small 2-Handed weapon I have a hard time wrapping my head around, but I'll roll with it).
    Now, 1-Handed Melee weapons all do:
        Small:  d4 damage
        Light/Simple:  d6 damage
        Heavy/Martial:  d8 damage
    Except for the Rogue, who gets to do d8 damage with all 1-Handed Melee weapons, and should really have that as a special class talent/feature instead of repeating the weapon table for every class.
    2-Handed Melee weapons all do:
        Small:  d6 damage
        Light/Simple:  d8 damage
        Heavy/Martial:  d10 damage
    These are the same for every class, nice and consistent.  Now, the potentially 2-point difference is not much, again, but damage dice do scale - you roll your level in dice for each hit, so that's a 2 point spread at level 1 but a 20 point spread at level 10, so it might just barely clear the hurdle of being significant.  Barely (since the HP of the monsters also scale, hard to say if it matters much).
    The differences come with that attack penalty, just like with Armor, each class may have a penalty to hit with different weapon types:
        4 classes have no penalties to hit with anything (Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger)
        1 class has a -2 hit with Heavy/Martial 2-Handed weapons only (Bard)
        3 classes have -2 hit with Heavy/Martial 1- and 2-Handed weapons (Cleric, Rogue, Sorcerer)
        1 class has -2 hit with Light/Simple and -5 hit with Heavy/Martial 1- and 2-Handed weapons (Wizard)
    Does the Bard really need to be an edge case?  Do Sorcerer's really need to be better with weapons than the Wizard, given that they have the same AC progression (and Hit Points)?

    Thrown weapons are a bit easier:
        Small: d4 damage
        Light/Simple: d6 damage
    And nobody has a penalty to hit, oh, no, wait a minute - Wizards, and only Wizards, have a -2 to hit with only Light/Simple Thrown weapons - really?  "Wizards throw like girls," how mature guys.

    Crossbows are supposed to be easier to use than bows, the book says at one point that while they shoot slower they have lower to-hit penalties (though really Heavy Crossbows take a move action to reload, so you have to stand still, and Small and Light Crossbows take a Quick action, which is essentially free, so they are not that much slower):
        Small:  d4 damage
        Light/Simple:  d6 damage
        Heavy/Martial:  d8 damage
    Bows do the same damage, minus the Small category:
        Light/Simple:  d6 damage
        Heavy/Martial:  d8 damage

    When it comes to penalties:
        4 classes have no to hit penalties for any Bow (Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger)
        3 classes have no to hit penalties for any Crossbow (Fighter, Paladin, Ranger)
    Wait, I hear you ask, what happened to the Barbarian?  Well, being a backwards and primitive fool the Barbarian has the highest to hit penalties for any class with a newfangled Crossbow, a -5 to hit with all sizes.  I'm sorry, that's stupid.  The great thing about the crossbow was that it was so easy to use.  Sure, a Barbarian who's never seen one might have a -5 to hit on his or her first shot, but then would realize it is a stupidly simple weapon to operate compared to the bow, and quickly lose that penalty.  Really, guys?

        2 classes have a -2 to hit with a Heavy Bow  (Bard, Rogue)
        3 classes have a -1 to hit with a Heavy Crossbow  (Bard, Cleric, Rogue)

        1 class has a -2 hit with Light and -4 hit with Heavy Bows  (Sorcerer)
        while 2 classes have a -2 hit with Light and -5 hit with Heavy Bows  (Cleric, Wizard)
    Again, do we really need the Sorcerer to be one whole point better with one type of bow?  Why not make him a -2 Light or Heavy and make him significantly better?  Or, the same as the Wizard (again, same AC and HP between them)?

        1 class is -1 hit with Light and -3 hit with Heavy Crossbows  (Sorcerer)
        while 1 class is -1 hit with Light and -4 hit with Heavy Crossbows  (Wizard)
    See comment above.

    Again I ask, are these really that different that they are meaningful?  The Barbarian's whopping -5 to all crossbows is a very meaningful penalty (stupid, but meaningful), but a lot of the others seem to be pretty close to each other.  And is the extra 2 points of damage per level a meaningful trade-off for the +1 AC of a shield?  Or having nothing in the off-hand?  These just feel so close, while they kind of add color they don't really seem to make a lot of difference, or feel from the player's perspective that they are building towards a certain style of fighting.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of reason to take a sub-optimal choice, so why not just print the best choice for each class and forget the rest?  For that one edge case where the party loses all their gear and has to fight with scavenged weapons?  Why not make that situation the default numbers but a -2 hit and damage then?  Two lines instead of a dozen for basically the same thing.

    I'm going to run through the Hit Points since this post is getting long.
    There are 2 parts to Hit Points, the base multiplier that calculates your maximum HP and the size of your Recovery Dice that you roll when you heal, and there are 5 different progressions:
        x6 and d6  (Sorcerer, Wizard)
        x6 and d8  (Rogue)
        x7 and d8  (Bard, Cleric, Ranger)
        x7 and d10  (Barbarian)
        x8 and d10  (Fighter, Paladin)
    Why not drop the Rogue with the Sorc/Wiz and raise the Barb with the Ftr/Pally ?  Let's look at some level 10 characters (no Con mods, raw numbers):
        Fighter and Paladin have 8 x 24 = 192 HP, healing for 10d10 or an average 55 HP (or about 34% of max)
        Barbarian has 7 x 24 = 168 HP, healing for 10d10 or an average of 55 HP (or about 30% of max)
so they heal for about the same and the extra 24 HP might be one more hit, but might not make a difference when the base strike damage in the generic monster table is 135 (the 10th level Iron Golem does 50 damage per attack, and 5d10 damage on a miss, and makes 2 attacks).
    This is what I mean when I ask if there is any statistical difference in the numbers.  Sure, the Fighter and Paladin have bigger raw stats than the Barbarian, but does it really make a difference in play?  Are the players going to feel like they act and react differently from each other?  If not, then why not just use the same numbers for simplicity's sake?

    Lastly, the same thing that was hardest to compare in Pathfinder is the hardest thing to compare in 13th Age: the Class Features, fixed for each class, and the Class Talents, which are purchased with the 3 points every character gets.  Just a few observations:
    The default idea seemed to be that each class would have 3 Class Features and 3 Class Talents.  Personally, I like that idea.  The Bard and Rogue follow that pattern.  The Wizard has 4 Class Features listed, but one is a definition of how a type of spells work, and so shouldn't be in the Class Features section, they should be in the Spells section, and so the Wizard follows that pattern even though he doesn't seem to.  The Sorcerer is the same, he has 6 Class Features listed but really 3 are spell types in the wrong place and so only has 3 real Class Features, thus on the default.  So we end up with 4 classes that follow this pattern, the Bard, Rogue, Sorcerer and Wizard.
    The Fighter only has 2 Class Features, but gains a bonus Class Talent at 6th level, so ends up with the default 3/3 but in a delayed fashion.  Why?  How the hell should I know?  Looks like stupid design to me, but YMMV.  Likewise, and doubling down on the concept, the Barbarian and Paladin only get 1 Class Feature, but get 2 bonus Class Talents at levels 5 and 8, delaying them even more than the Fighter and other classes.
    The Cleric gets dumped on, only getting 2 Class Features and never gaining a bonus Talent, leaving him a little under-powered (in a sense, I know it is hard to compare these Features and Talents directly, which I consider to be another sign of bad design).  The Ranger however, gets hosed with no Class Features and but at least the 2 delayed bonus Talents, and so is the weakest overall character class, hands down.

    Now, complicating the above factors is the fact that some Features/Talents increase and some are fixed abilities.  For example, Cleric/ Sorcerer/ Wizard spells all increase in power at 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th levels.  So do the Cries and Spells of the Bard, the Flexible Attacks of the Fighter and the Momentum powers of the Rogue.  This makes things worse though.  While the Fighter, Bard, Rogue, Sorcerer and Wizard all end up with their 6 Features/Talents eventually, they are also gaining power at 4 other levels.  Meanwhile the Barbarian and Paladin eventually gain the 6 Feature/Talents that are fixed, at only 2 levels (5th and 8th), but nothing else increases.  And the Ranger gets next to nothing, 2 delayed levels of advancement, and only gets any kind of increasing ability if they choose to take an Animal Companion (which has a minor, incremental advancement each level).
    Talk about imbalance.

    So, looking over this really long post, what do I want you, gentle reader, to take away from this?
    Well, first off that even though something is simpler than something else, does not make it simple.  13th Age is a simpler system than the Pathfinder we played before, but due to similar structures they are equally hard to modify if you don't agree with the choices they were built upon.
    Second, this is a good example of just how crazy I am and why you don't want to know me in real life.  The hours I've spent looking at these numbers (for Pathfinder and 13th Age) have been enjoyable, quite fun really, and the kind of thing my mind constantly works on.  I like this stuff.  I like pulling apart systems and debating design choices and asking myself, how would I do that differently?  I am a sad and strange little man, give thanks to the deity of your choice (or random chance) that you are not like me.
    Honestly, I don't expect anyone to take anything away from this.  Like I said, this is the kind of stuff I like to think about, and I know that very few other people feel the same way.  In fact, if you've made it through this post diligently reading the whole mess then you should get up and go get yourself a cookie for being dedicated enough to parse my madness.  I'm not sure if there is a point.  Now granted I complain about some choices in the descriptions above, but those are just my opinions.  Given the lack of 13th Age house rules on the 'net (do a Google search of the term) it seems that most people who are playing the game like it just fine.  Again, this is my own madness, shared with very few others.  It does mean trying to house rule the system is difficult, since I want to change things in fundamentally different ways, and eventually house rules become a completely different game from the original if taken too far.
    Which is the hardest thing for me.  No other game out there is quite my game, the way I would do it - and while I've tried writing my own games, and have a few times, I still have not found that particular combination of rules and mechanics that really feel right to me.  That I can embrace.  I'm very apathetic in the edition wars or the old school vs new school because neither of them does what I want in quite the way I want.  I guess on top of being crazy I'm also very hard to please ;)


  1. Very interesting read, thanks for breaking it down. I do disagree with you however on the section about the class features and talents. You have considered each talent and class feature to be equally powerful/useful whereas in reality this changes class to class. For example, the ranger class talents are much more mechanically powerful than the rogue talents, because the rogue has her sneak attack and trap sense to make up for it.

    1. That's very true, and something I should have hit on more (got tried from writing, I'm old). Comparing any game's class abilities is an apples vs oranges situation given how many variables there are.

    2. It's one of the things that makes multiclassing (introduced in 13 True Ways) so difficult to balance