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The Few, The Proud, The Steves
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The D&D landscape is already a crowded place. Not only do we have the early editions and their retroclones, and the current Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition), but we also have the most prominent variant (Pathfinder Roleplaying Game), and a new edition on the way. And then there are the countless variants – not just other fantasy games, but small and large variations on the same mechanical base, thanks to the OGL.

It can be hard, then, to motivate oneself enough to explore yet another variation. This is the trap into which I fell last summer: when the new 13th Age game was announced last spring, a collaboration between lead D&D 3E designer Jonathan Tweet (also a designer of several other highly respected games spanning a huge range of styles) and 4E designer Rob Heinsoo (also a highly respected designer, though with a more tactical bent), I was initially excited. I pre-ordered, glanced at the beta rules, and then set them aside; I had, I thought, enough d20 variants to wait for the finished product on this one. Surely it would just provide a few exciting new wrinkles, and I’d just return to my bread-and-butter Pathfinder, right?

But, come 2013, I did return to it; I’d read about a few of the new mechanics, and they seemed to move the engine in the same direction my own tastes had been evolving. It seemed worth a try (and the final product had suffered enough delays that simply punting a read-through no longer seemed a viable option).

Now, after plowing through the preview “Escalation Edition,” I can’t believe I waited so long. 13th Age is, hands down, the most exciting modern D&D variant I have encountered. It sits at the nexus not just of 3E and 4E – which has engendered much discussion from D&D fans – but also of the “story games” movement. It brilliantly melds the approaches of these three games into a cohesive, and fascinating, whole.

Then, on top of all that, it adds a new and compelling take on an RPG setting – defined by the game’s 13 icons – that provides dramatic conflict, ample room for GM and player input to the story, and makes the PCs themselves prominent. This treatment turned what seemed (to me) a liability of the game – the baked-in setting – to a strength.

In this review, I aim to describe the ways in which 13th Age achieves these goals. I’ll assume at least a passing familiarity with the d20 approach – as the game also does – and focus mostly on the themes that 13th Age brings out in d20 games.

The Product

Alas, at the moment there isn’t yet a real 13th Age rule book: the real thing is due in June, thanks to some unfortunate delays (including a true “act of God” that burned down the layout designer’s apartment, together with the near-complete layout files and their backups). Most of the final pdf had been delivered, and it looks gorgeous – but we’re still some time from having the game on store shelves.

As such, this review is based on the text-only Escalation Edition released to pre-order customers. The latest iteration (from November 2012) contains the final rules for the game, but it’s just a pdf version of a Word document. That said, the editing is already quite good, and the rules are presented very clearly. I personally love the conversational tone and frequent breaks to offer designer notes and tips on play.

I do want to emphasize one thing: unlike modern versions of D&D (and Pathfinder), 13th Age really is a complete game in one (reasonably-sized) volume. There is a setting (well-defined in many ways, but also open-ended for customization), complete game rules, lots of options for character creation, a bestiary, and even an introductory adventure. While design for the first major supplement, and a supplementary bestiary, are already underway, you can run a complete, and very satisfying, campaign just using the rules in the core book.

The Basics

13th Age is, mechanically speaking, a d20 game, and anybody who has played either D&D 3E or 4E will find most of it very familiar. It is task-based; every task uses a d20; results are binary success/failure rather than degrees of success; and bonuses increase through a level-based advancement system.

In other words, its d20 roots are very clear – and yet it is still one of the most innovative transformations of that basic structure that I have seen.

From the Player’s Chair

13th Age also uses the familiar abilities, races, and classes of D&D. In the core book, you’ll find the classic races (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, and halfling) as well as the barbarian, bard, cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard.

Thus, for the most part, a 13th Age character feels, basically, like a d20 character. But the game reworks this basic structure into something very exciting, even to a rather jaded d20 player like myself.

The characters will feel most familiar to D&D 4E players, as they share many of their features. PCs – even at first level – are very robust, they have recoveries to heal hit points mid-stream, and most classes have specific powers that accumulate with level (though the less-loaded term “talents” is generally used).

However, the classes are much more heterogeneous than those in 4E. There is no “attack-encounter-daily” structure for the classes to follow: although all have powers, each class has its own style in which those powers operate. For example, the fighter has “flexible attacks” that activate based on the attack roll – some on an even result, some on an odd result, while the barbarian is built around basic attacks augmented by (essentially) encounter powers chosen before each attack. Wizards have the expected flexibility with spells, while sorcerers have the ability to augment their spells through focus, and a suite of breath weapon spells that recharge like a dragons’. The flavor of each individual class is expressed more clearly in 13th Age than in either D&D 3.5E or 4E.

There is a great deal of customization, both with selecting powers/spells/talents/attacks and with feats. In fact, many powers have a set of feats associated with them that enhance or modify the base power – allowing PCs to specialize in the aspects of the character they most enjoy. There are a metric ton of options, but because they cascade pretty cleanly, they should be easy to sort through.

The overall scaling with level feels almost the same as usual – but with one crucial difference: damage. Weapon damage is not a flat 1d8 for a long sword. Rather, a character will roll one damage die per character level. That’s a lot of damage at higher levels!

There are some other key differences in character backgrounds and story elements, but I’ll get to those later.


The Lich King, one of the 13 icons. Art credit: Aaron McConnell; uploaded by waderockett

Under the GM’s Hood

From the GM’s perspective, 13th Age will also feel much like D&D 4E – which is great, at least to me, as that edition introduced a number of fantastic tools to simplify the GM’s job.

Like 4E, an adventurer’s career is divided into tiers – here, adventurer (levels 1-4), champion (levels 5-7), and epic (levels 8-10). That’s right: there are only 10 levels to this game! Tiers are useful to GMs because they also correspond to environments: PCs at the adventurer tier typically – but not always – explore adventurer environments (relatively prosaic). The game then defines skill check difficulties, typical damage, and trap or hazard attacks based on these environments (with options for normal, hard, and ridiculously hard within each environment). That means the GM only needs one table to respond to pretty much anything the PCs do. That’s very similar to 4E, but this is much less fine-grained – and, by shifting difficulties every few levels (rather than every level) makes a nod toward letting the PCs feel that they are progressing.

Designing battles also feels much like the 4E version. Every monster has a level, and there’s a handy table showing how to estimate a good challenge for a group of PCs based on the monster levels (and a couple of other qualities). Monster statblocks are a breeze to read and use. There are mooks (instead of minions) for throwing hordes of monsters at your players. And there are easy rules for designing your own monsters (and upgrading or re-skinning the existing ones) that amount to looking up the baseline numbers on a table, fiddling a bit if you want, and adding a special ability or two.

Abstraction

As I’ve explained it so far, 13th Age amounts to a very well done d20 game. There are, however, some extremely important exceptions to the usual d20 expectations, and it is these new elements that actually excite me the most. In the remainder of this review, I’ll highlight some of the themes evoked by these elements, and in the process explain some other systems.

The most obvious is a sense of abstraction that goes well beyond expectations for a d20-based system. We’ve already seen some of this – abstracting environments into three tiers, for example – but there’s a great deal more:

Most importantly, combat is vastly simplified – it doesn’t even assume a grid! There are tactics – a rough map will be very useful – but there’s no counting squares. You basically need to know the ordering of creatures (who’s behind who), roughly how far apart everyone is (you can think in terms of zones), and who is actively engaged in melee combat with each other. For me, that’s about the perfect level of detail these days – it is how I try to run Pathfinder, for example, but the level of rules detail sometimes makes it difficult. Similarly, the combat system has a streamlined set of possible actions, and while it retains some conditions,

Weapons and armor are also abstracted: simple categories of each exist, with identical statistics for all – statistics that actually depend upon the character using or wearing them. So a fighter will be more effective with a two-handed sword than a wizard.

Skills are also abstracted – in fact, they no longer exist! Instead, each character gets a set of free-form backgrounds that describe their past history. They could be anything from barmaid to dragonrider prodigy. Whenever a task can benefit from a background, the PC can add its bonus – for a barmaid, that could be a Dexterity check to carry a stack of glasses, an Intelligence check to make up a new drink, or a Charisma check to flirt. There’s no association with abilities: these really are free-form elements. Obviously, the background system can be gamed – because only one background bonus ever applies, you just need to write something terribly broad and you’ll always get the bonus. But, provided your group can set that aside, the openness is wonderfully refreshing.

Focus

The second element I will emphasize is focus in two senses – mechanics that support the heroic style of play, and streamlining to reduce the overhead of other mechanics.

One element of this is reducing the range of levels from 1-10. The point of the game is to play out the rise of a hero – so why make that rise take years of real time?

The classes also do a very nice job of focusing on their interesting aspects – which serves also to differentiate them from each other.

The focus emerges in combat as well. A good example is the escalation die. This is a d6 that the GM sets to “1” at the beginning of round 2. For that round, the players (and particularly important bad guys) receive a +1 bonus to attack rolls. The GM then turns the die to the next number each round, increasing the PCs’ bonus. This is supposed to represent the PCs’ improving tactics through the fight…but really it serves to reduce grind and focus combat on the few interesting things each monster can do. It also adds a layer to the question of when to blow your big attacks: early on, when they may end things quickly, or later, when you have a better chance of hitting?

At the same time, despite the many options available to PCs (and the GM, through monsters), in-combat decision making is (usually) streamlined. This is accomplished through dice tricks: many powers can only activate on an odd or even roll, or on an exceptionally good roll. So, for many classes (like the fighter) as well as for monsters, you have lots of options, but the attack roll narrows down the options without any work from the player. (Other classes, like the wizard, remain complex – allowing for a range of play styles.)

Story

A huge focus of the game – and something likely to be new to D&D and Pathfinder players – is the mechanical focus on story generation. 13th Age adds several new systems that engage the players in narrative elements rather than quantitative bonuses (although some of them cross over into both).

I’ve already mentioned the free-form backgrounds, which replace skills.

Each PC also has One Unique Thing about them, a specific trait that separates them not only from the other players but from everybody else in the world. These can be relatively prosaic (I am the only halfling knight of the Dragon Emperor) or gonzo (I have a clockwork heart made by the dwarves). But they cannot provide combat powers – or really any specific powers, though they can obviously have important story implications. They give the players some implicit authority to define the world as well as emphasize their special status in the world.

Magic items are still there. They still provide static bonuses, though they also all have interesting powers. But, more importantly, they also have personality. Every magic item is at least semi-intelligent, and every one imposes a quirk on its bearer (things like being unable to refuse a dwarven ale or being fastidious about clothing). These are usually just role-playing suggestions (even so, they mean that there’s a built-in reminder of what your magic items are), but if you carry too many of them, they can take over and drive your decisions! (Too many is more than one per level.) I find that a great and evocative way to keep a lid on a glut of magic items – and, also, a sneaky way for the GM to give some role-playing direction to players.

Perhaps the most important way in which story is represented is through the icon relationships. The world of 13th Age revolves around 13 icons – archetypal NPCs who control nations, magic, the Abyss, etc. Some are heroic, some are villainous, some are ambiguous. (To be fair, the PCs can rise to challenge them at high levels – but that depends on how you want to run your campaign.) At creation, each PC assigns three points to relationships with specific icons. They can be positive, negative, or conflicted relations (with no restriction on heroism or villainy – it is perfectly plausible for a good hero to have a negative relationship with a heroic icon).

The relationships are directly relevant to the stories: at the beginning of each session, each player rolls one die for each relationship point. Any die that comes up a 6 means the icon will provide an advantage to the character; any 5 provides an advantage with a balancing complication. (The type of relationship doesn’t affect the result here, though it does affect how that result might manifest.) These rolls basically determine which icons will come into play in a session – yes, that’s improvisation built into your d20 game! Fortunately, there’s a solid section of advice to cope with improvisation.

Players also roll the relationship dice when called for by the story – such as when you interact with an icon’s underlings. Here they play the roll of social checks, except it’s automatically a focal event with potential for advantages and consequences. In the book’s words, “a shorthand guide to the dramatic results of the situation.”

Finally, another strength of the icon connection systems is that it plants the PCs firmly in the middle of the world’s great conflicts. Their story cannot be small: everything they do connects to the power centers of the world.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

You may have sensed a bunch of squishy rules here: what do the magic item quirks mean, what is a viable background, how do you play the One Unique Thing? That’s a feature of 13th Age that distinguishes it from your typical d20 game. The book freely acknowledges this; for example, “The one unique thing feature deliberately dances along the line between solid rules and improvisational storytelling.”

In general, the rules imply that this is okay: the game isn’t so tightly balanced that rigorous attention to detail is necessary. On the player side, there are no rules for multiclassing in the core book (they are promised for a supplement). But it does explain that exchanging a power with one from another class is probably okay, so long as it isn’t done for naked optimization. On the GM side, there are rules of thumb for encounter building, but they are clearly guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. How well such guidelines work – whether they are closer to the (straightforward) 4E XP system or the (challenging) 3E CR system is difficult to gauge and will require some play.

On the other hand, most of the loose/free-form components apply to non-combat situations, where d20 has traditionally been lighter. 13th Age offers more tools to define the story, but it is still a very rules-light game in that regard – most of those tools are loose narrative constructions.


The High Druid, another of the 13 icons. Art credit: Lee Moyers, uploaded by waderockett

Setting

To be honest, one of the things that delayed my first reading of 13th Age for months was the mere fact that it had a baked-in setting. I’m one of those GMs who prefers, for the most part, to homebrew. But as I read the book, I discovered that 13th Age does an exceptional job of presenting a framework of a setting, with more than enough openness to let the GM tell their own stories.

The most important component to this are the aforementioned icons – in fact, the first substantive chapter of the book describes these icons, rather than the game rules or history of the setting. The icons – though they have elements of personalities – are more of a framework for conflict than a setting in the traditional sense. I don’t know what the original motivation for having 13 icons was, but in that number the designers manage to capture a huge fraction of the archetypal epic fantasy tropes. I’m sure it’s possible to come up with character concepts that don’t fit somewhere within this framework, but most people are going to have to work very hard at it – certainly there are a ton of story ideas to fit within this conflict.

The icons, though rooted in the assumed setting, are also generic enough that they could slot in fairly easily to a homebrew. The High Druid, the Orc Lord, the Archmage, the Lich King – it’s not hard to find a place for these, or at least close analogs. Thus you certainly can homebrew, so long as it is built around the conflicts of the icons. In fact, there’s little enough definition here that some element of homebrewing will be required, even in the default setting.

One more note: although the icons do encompass nearly all of the famous fantasy gaming tropes, they do not count amongst their number an icon bent on the destruction of the entire world. Rather, all of these icons are firmly rooted within the world. So there’s even room for the story of how the Lich King and Priestess band together to save the world from something even worse….

One of the final chapters in the book does provide a gazetteer for the setting (the Dragon Empire), with capsule descriptions of interesting locales. As it turns out, this setting is very well-tuned for my personal tastes: a bit over-the-top, inclusive of many different fantasy tropes, with a vast number of interesting adventure locales. There’s a lot of magic and a lot of danger, but the world manages to make sense in a weird and wonderful way. It’s sketched broadly enough, though, that the GM will have lots of freedom to add elements. Anyway, it’s a strong and interesting enough setting so long as you enjoy high magic. And I don’t mean “lots of powerful people running around” high magic, I mean lots of strange magical locations ripe for exploration.

The Bottom Line

13th Age is, hands down, the most exciting d20 variant I have seen. It retains the strength of that system – a rich tactical landscape with vast space for character customization – but adds more freedom, and a well-designed toolbox, to add narration to the game. Toss in an exciting new style of setting design – centered around conflicts rather than places – and some simplification and abstraction to the combat mechanics, and the result is a beautiful game almost perfectly matched to my tastes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it will match your tastes. What might you beware of?

I’ve already mentioned that this is not as tight a ruleset as D&D 4E, or as explicitly balanced, and there’s a good deal of abstraction. If you are just after a compelling combat engine, this probably isn’t ideal.

If you want detailed non-combat task resolution, as in D&D 3.5E or Pathfinder, you won’t find that here. You might even be offended by the wide open space of backgrounds.

If you are wary of “indie” game mechanics, you’ll find a healthy dose of them here – and even more of the advice draws from that well. I think that’s great – the goals of indie games focus on driving story, which complements the mechanical richness of d20.

If you follow ascribe to the principles of the OSR, this probably won't appeal to you either. Characters are very well-defined in combat - as well as 4E - and though the game is lighter than 3.5E and 4E, there are still a lot of rules. On the other hand, if you sympathize with the OSR but like the technology of modern games, 13th Age may just fit like a glove.

The default assumption is quite high magic, with a goal of telling epic stories. If you like gritty and dangerous, this definitely isn’t for you.

There’s a potential here for the game to seem like something a lot less than it is – with the melding of D&D 3.5E, D&D 4E, and “story game” elements, could this be the ultimate fantasy heartbreaker? It does, after all, borrow mechanics and advice from any number of others. Nevertheless, it is not a heartbreaker. Despite its wide and diverse source materials, 13th Age has a clear and powerful purpose: to tell dramatic high-fantasy stories about powerful, unique characters advancing toward massive power in a world of iconic powers. The mechanics support that, and none feel thrown in just because they are “cool.”

So, those are some things to watch for. But…even if they alert your danger sense, I would urge anybody running a d20 system to check this game out. Many of the rules additions are modular: they are easy to strip off and apply to Pathfinder, 4E, or their ilk. The escalation die is a great example, if you are looking to sharpen combat, as is the “iconic” setting. There’s so much to love here that, even if it isn’t your game of choice, you’ll find some great ideas for improving your own game.
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DMSamuel
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Fantastic review Steve! Not that I expected any different from you

My friend Aaron runs a 13th age game and he loves the system and has told me enough about it that I had already decided to pick it up when it hits stores. Your review just made that decision so much stronger.

If anyone wants to check out how 13th Age plays, I recommend going to Aaron's Obsidian Portal 13th Age campaign page - it was the featured campaign a couple of months ago and he has links to the google hangout video recordings of the sessions. I'll be honest and say I haven't watched any of them due to lack of time, so I can't attest to the sound quality or anything like that, but if you are curious how it plays, this would be a good example of it.
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Lowell Francis
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So if someone wants to get into this right now, what can they buy/what should they do?
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The Few, The Proud, The Steves
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Sam - thanks for the kind words and the link!

edige23 wrote:
So if someone wants to get into this right now, what can they buy/what should they do?


You can go to the Pelgrane Online store and pre-order it - you'll get the same pdf I have been using, and the semi-complete final pdf immediately.
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David Kaehler
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Great review! 13th Age is by far my favorite RPG that I have played. It takes a lot of the good things from 4e and melds it with other ideas to become something unique and engaging.

vestige wrote:
The default assumption is quite high magic, with a goal of telling epic stories. If you like gritty and dangerous, this definitely isn’t for you.


I do want to say that I disagree with this sentiment however. I ran a very gritty campaign using 13th Age and it was a lot of fun. Because 13th Age uses a lot of abstraction, it was easy to reflavor things to get the tone you want.
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Bruce McGeorge
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Damn you Steve.

In a good way.

This is exactly the type of game that I try to avoid purchasing since my buddy has dibs on Fantasy RPGs, but now I really want 13th Age.
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Jim Patching
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Nice review, I'd never heard of this game before. Not really sure how this would go down with my group. We play a lot of different RPGs and story-oriented games are fine but when we play D&D (or Pathfinder) we kinda play it for the whole munchkin number crunching, statty, detailed miniature based combat stuff.
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Matt H
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lorddillon wrote:
If anyone wants to check out how 13th Age plays, I recommend going to Aaron's Obsidian Portal 13th Age campaign page - it was the featured campaign a couple of months ago and he has links to the google hangout video recordings of the sessions. I'll be honest and say I haven't watched any of them due to lack of time, so I can't attest to the sound quality or anything like that, but if you are curious how it plays, this would be a good example of it.


I'm a player in that game, and it's a fantastic time. I play Tormach, for those interested. The system is fun, and I enjoy it.
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Thomas Denmark
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Very nicely written review. A lot of good ideas, and I had some interest in 13th age. But then

"...13th Age will also feel much like D&D 4E"

That is where I lost interest. I could never get into 4E as much as I tried. Too many crunchy mechanics without enough payoff for the work and study it requires to play it.
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Well that's where the interesting part is, it feels 4e without the crunchiness.
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Matt H
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Boards of Games wrote:
Well that's where the interesting part is, it feels 4e without the crunchiness.


Yes, very much so. I started playing rpg's with 4e, and I always felt overwhelmed by the system. It never fully clicked with me. 13th Age feels like 4e in many ways, but it lacks the mechanical bloat that many take issue with. I strongly recommend 13th Age to anyone looking for a 4e style game minus the crunch.
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Aaron
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tldenmark wrote:
Very nicely written review. A lot of good ideas, and I had some interest in 13th age. But then

"...13th Age will also feel much like D&D 4E"

That is where I lost interest. I could never get into 4E as much as I tried. Too many crunchy mechanics without enough payoff for the work and study it requires to play it.


It is a considerably lighter and more streamlined system than 4e, really. It's got the feel of 4e in some ways, but it's not as mechanically complex. Either from the GM standpoint or the player's standpoint. Combat tends to have enough tactical options and complexity to keep people interested and focused without being overloaded.
Status effects exist, but there aren't many of them and they're pretty straight forward. Character classes are similarly balanced on that edge where they have enough powers, options, and abilities to be interesting and distinct from one another without being excessive and inducing decision paralysis, though some classes are unquestionably more crunchy or complex than others. It's worth noting that the Fighter, which is often kind of held up as the gold standard for kind of plain and vanilla (and boring) character classes in D&D is not the simplest class in the game.

Monsters... I'm torn on. Because most monster stat blocks in 13th Age are exceedingly simple, which makes them easy to create and even easier to use in combat. But sometimes they feel a bit stale unless you really work the flavor/fluff. Bigger and nastier monsters have more default options and they feel a bit more interesting because of it. So monsters are one of the cases where crunchy mechanics IMO were streamlined maybe a bit too much. Thankfully there's some acknowledgement of this, since many monsters have a "nastier specials" option in the main book and since monsters are so easy to design, it's easy to swap things around and add another ability or two to an existing creature.
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Wonderful review that makes me want to pick up the game and have a look. Thanks Steve.
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DMSamuel
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By the way, Steve, did you notice that this review got highlighted on the Pelgrane Press Blog on April 24th? Good Job!
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Derek Pickell
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Funnily enough, our group is getting tired of munchkin crunching and agonizing over each square of movement. Especially me as GM... I get bored while they debate who is going to teleport where this turn.

Something looser sounds great to me. Different strokes!
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Dan Conley
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Oh, boy. Another RPG to tempt me? Thank you...but not from my wallet.
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Nice review that let's me know this is probably not for me.
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Brian M
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This sounds like about an even mix of "that sounds incredibly awesome" and "ugh, I would hate that".
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Great review. I wholeheartedly agree with everything mentioned here. Plus props to Steve for mentioning all the mechanics that distinguish 13th Age from other d20 games out there. It was a joy reading through the rulebook, and I found a lot of times where I just thought to myself, "What a fantastic idea!" in particular when reading through the Escalation die and One Unique Thing sections. I'll be running a few games over the next few weeks to test it out. Really excited for the first session.
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