RPG Review – 13 True Ways (13th Age)
Disclaimer: I received the hardcover of this book for the purposes of an unbiased, critical review, which I hereby provide. This review is based on the 256-page hardcover and not on the pdf –hence, I can’t judge electronic qualities etc. The material herein underwent playtsting for the purposes of this review.
13 True Ways, much like the 13th Age Core-rule-book, is a combination of crunch-book and setting material, though this one is focused slightly more on the setting aspect. I have already discussed in length and depth my stance on just about all rules-decisions of 13th Age in my review of the core book, so this review will NOT focus on those; Instead, I will analyze this book for what it brings to the table and assume you are already familiar and have an opinion on whether you like basic decisions of the system or not.
Without further ado, let’s begin! In my review of the core book, I mentioned that both monk and druid would be in this book and indeed, there was much ado about their absence in the base book. The druid especially is a rather interesting class, mainly, because its design-tenets, more so than the base key-attribute switching in e.g. the bard-class, provides deeper customization options than the core-classes. The class differs in that is chooses whether it gains many abilities at initiate-level or less at adept level, changing just about all base assumptions you may have and allowing for wildly diverging focuses. Animal companions for initiates cannot participate in every combat, which provides a nice source of basic, very limited resource-management, for example. Adepts can still have their companion around all the time. Death for companions is ridiculously lenient – one combat -1 level, then back to full strength, no repercussions. Disarm the trap, Fifi! Sarcasm aside, the plus-side here is that the companions get used more and less carefully. Once again, we’re at a matter of opinions whether this is a bug or a feature. The class itself can be pretty much pictured as a druid with a significant array of archetypes rolled into it – elemental casting, wildshape, terrain casting – all here, with the nod towards the vast Koru Behemoths being one of my favorite crunch/fluff-cross-over glimpses into the fascinating world. The most elegant rules-decision here would be the scout form, which allows the druid to assume the shape of a harmless animal, which, while distinctly unearthly, makes scouting via wildshape less broken – and it also provides pretty easy to grasp repercussions that limit the utility without crippling it. All in all, a very nice and modular class.
Now almost every group has this one player that just loves the rod of wonders – and anything like it. For these players, allegedly, the Chaos Mage was made. With the options to wilder in other spell-lists, defensive high weirdness effects and icon-specific tricks, the chaos mage is an unreliable caster, yes. A fun, unreliable caster. But also one that is not *that* chaotic – with e.g. less than 50 high weirdness effects, the class falls somewhat short of what I’d expect from the concept -but then again, perhaps I’m just spoiled by having read too many takes on the chaos magic concept. It’s not a bad class, mind you – just a tad bit too predictable for the concept. Commanders are very much physical fighters that can help allies via interrupt actions with the flexible resource of command points. I do enjoy that said resource is tied to their own performance in combat, thus requiring active participation in order to enhance their allies. Tactics would be the second resource, and these would be active and non-interrupt based. All in all, the commander is a solid alternative to e.g. the bard’s capabilities. I’ve read a lot of takes on the trope and this definitely is one of the better ones.
Monks in their 13th Age iteration utilize quite a few of my favorite concepts – they know three types of unarmed attacks with different effects, which I really like, as anyone who has read my review of Little Red Goblin Games’ Dragon Tiger Ox knows. Monks attack with so-called forms – they could be likened to styles, but instead of breaking up a style over various feats, each form sports an opening attack, a flow attack and a finishing attack. Some of you may recall my constant gushing for Dreadfox Games’ Swordmaster with its opener/sequitur/finisher mechanics, so it should come as no surprise that I like this choice – especially since you can switch freely between forms you know, only having to adhere to the opener/flow/finisher-sequence, not the sequence of the respective flow. Basic class features à la flurry of blows (here reimagined as one of the basic Seven Deadly Secrets) and talents further complement this pretty modular class well alongside a nice ki-based resource-management – the monk is one of the most fun melee-centric classes herein, though also one that most suffers from 13th Age’s issues with Acrobatics and skill-use.
Now apart from the druid’s summoning, there is another class herein that requires the use of the concise and pretty conservative summoning rules introduced in the very beginning of the book. That second class would be the Necromancer. And the necromancer is a pretty great example of designs I enjoy within 13th Age – the class has a built-in mechanic for being frail, yet incredibly hard to kill, for having weird and skewed alliances and the spells and minions do support that – one of my favorite crunch-pieces herein! The final new class would be THE Occultist. Yes, THE. As in iconic. As in “there is only one” – and generally, this concept is pretty much awesome – a class all of your own, now if that does not say “epic” from the get-go, what does? The Occultist is very much a caster with a focus on destiny, karma and truly odd options – like The Occultist’s shadow jumping forth to absorb the attacks of foes. Mechanically, the interesting component would be a focus, somewhat akin to what one knows as the psionic focus, which usually is expended upon casting the reality-warping spells of The Occultist. It should be noted, though, that the class does sport options that work only while unfocused. The relative ease with which you can deal psychic damage can also be noted here. On the downside, much like other casters, there is not that much to choose from regarding spells…and the class, while sporting some of the most awesome spells I’ve seen in 13th Age, does feel like its mechanics do not necessarily require it to be THE ONE. While easily remedied, this would be an example where the seemingly implied importance of being the one occultist is subsumed under the need for balance…and for once, ladies and gentlemen, mark this on your calendar, I would have loved the class to be less balanced. Yeah, bet you that you never thought I’d say, right?
Now after these new classes, we delve into the multiclassing rules. These essentially treat multiclassing not as advancement in two distinct classes, but rather as an amalgam, at least at 1st level. The general rules do allow for later multiclassing, but if you do use that, the generally pretty streamlined options tend to become a bit messy and work. That being said, a handy table of key ability-modifier interaction and class-by-class multiclassing advice that also sports new feats to help mitigate the implied power-loss. Now I do *get* why 13th Age utilizes this approach to multiclassing as opposed to the “take a level here, take a level there”-approach – the base system, with its HP-calculations etc. simply would not work with the stacking web of crunch that is the base assumption of 13th Age character advancement. Still, this did feel somewhat like a return to 2nd edition multiclass characters, which may or may not be to your liking. Rest assured, though, that this analogue only extends to the concept and the dreaded efficiency-loss in said classic edition has not found its way into 13th Age – multiclassing does not cripple the character and very much renders the character much more flexible.
This concludes the crunchy bits of the book – and over all, they are more varied and imho, cooler than the options provided in the core book – I know that quite a few of players tended to concur. The crunch herein is more varied and fun and should be considered a must-own supplement for that alone – on the level of e.g. the APG. That is – a must-own book for any 13th Age table.
But that is NOT where this book ends. Instead, we delve into the chapter on cities and courts – from Axis to the Elven Queen’s Court of Stars to the Three’s Drakkenhall and The Archmage’s Horizon or the Priestess’s Santa Cora, the chapter can be considered as an inspired gazetteer for these centers of power – with massive two-page spread artworks/maps, various iconic relationships and 13 rumors for most (though e.g. not for Santa Cora), these provide inspiring glimpses at a world that should have its own, massive, rules-agnostic setting-book, mainly because they manage to evoke beautiful imagery and inspired ideas in my mind.
The book also does sport a massive section of new monsters – which includes dire animals and quite an assortment of deadly adversaries. Among them, there are quite a few that stand out – for example the illithid-inspired soul flensers or the class of flowers of unlife, which managed to really creep me out – so yeah, neat chapter, though once again, only a specific array of creatures receive full-color artworks – those that do receive artworks, though, rock. This chapter also ties in with hands down my favorite chapter in the whole book, one I maintain that can be of extreme use even to games that do not use 13th Age rules – the chapter on a beloved creature type conspicuously absent from the original book – devils.
Now the chapter on devils is not simply a lame assortment of traits, feats etc. – instead, we essentially receive whole hierarchies and original stories for devils – each of which can easily carry a whole campaign…or more. Know what’s even better? Each is thematically tied to one of the iconics – whether the devils are the agents of the cosmic machinery, loathe the elf queen’s beauty, have been freed by the Dwarf King – each take on devils can essentially be considered its own glorious origin myth, an inspiring mini-ecology that breathes the very awesomeness that good fluff can evoke. Reading this chapter made me come up with so many ideas, it is absolutely stunning and once again validates my claim that we need more fluff for this cool world – especially if the fluff can maintain this specific peculiarity while not becoming prescriptive.
After the downright glorious reading experience of the former chapter, we dive into the GM’s chapter, wherein artifacts like the feathered crown or the First Wrought of Blood await – and yes, they increase in potency with tiers. Beyond these, the DM also receives e.g. 13 flying realms, 13 taverns and inns, 13 dungeons and ruins etc. – though all of these tend to come as a pretty short fluff-only blurb, so expect a short inspiring hook here rather than a fully-depicted adventure locale. There also are guidelines for magic item creation by chakra and 3 fluff-only monastic tournaments (just as brief) follow up.
On the completely opposite side, detail-wise, 4 characters are provided in lavish detail with extensive background stories and 13 hooks (!!) EACH as well as guideline for diverging uses of the characters as allies or antagonists. But that is not where the book ends- instead, we get what amounts to two campaign seeds, each with various extremely evocative suggestions that should be considered downright inspiring: One deals with the advent of the underkrakens, burrowing/planar shifting mountain-sized krakens that invade – perhaps as living dungeons or siege weapons, perhaps as the instrument of destruction engineered by the dread soul flensers. The second is no less inspired, focusing on an inverted, flying ziggurat spawning nigh-unkillable undead/mutated flowers of utter corruption. Yeah. Awesome. I wish that one were a mega-adventure with fully detailed maps etc.
Beyond this high note, we also get an index/glossary.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful, easy to read two-column full color standard. The artworks are gorgeous and the book per se comes with high-quality, glossy paper.
Rob Heinsoo, Jonathan Tweet and Robin D. Laws have created what amounts to the absolutely required APG of 13th Age – beyond the inspired classes, which indeed can be considered superior in the playing experience, not in power, to the core classes, it is the second half of the book that just made my day. The fluff, the inspired ideas herein, even beyond the mechanical rules, must be considered absolutely top-notch and inspired – and they constitute the one gripe I have with this book – I wish it were two distinct books, one for crunch and one for fluff.
The NPCs herein show a glimpse of the awesomeness that can be made with this setting and quite frankly, while reading just about any section, I was left wanting more – I wanted the full-blown underkraken campaign; I wanted a fully mapped Drakkenhall, with all details. I wanted Santa Cora in all its details, with hundreds of festivals and taboos. The material herein managed to do what the fluff in the core-book failed to achieve – thoroughly captivate my imagination. While my criticisms still remain, this is exactly what 13th Age needs to prosper – a detailed, awesome, evocative world that is tailor-made to support the high-fantasy, high-impact playstyle suggested by 13th Age’s rules.
So yes, this is an inspired book that provided quite an array of cool ideas I will most definitely use, including using one of the devil myths in my current campaign. For 13th Age-groups, this is a glorious supplement, a must-have purchase and even if you only are remotely interested in the world or the concepts I mentioned, this may very well be worth it for the idea-scavenging alone. I really wished it were two books, with more support for each class and the core classes in one, more fluff/campaign setting info – but that remains my only true gripe with this book. If you like the system, you need to have it – it one-ups the core book with imho more interesting classes and glorious fluff. It won’t convert you if you don’t like the system, but even f you loathe it, you may still draw tons of inspiration from these pages. My final verdict will hence clock in at a full 5 stars.
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