Jonathan Tweet Talks 13th Age at EN World

This interview originally appeared on EN World on 17th May 2012 and is reposted here with their kind permission. Jonathan Tweet is co-designer with Rob Heinsoo of the 13th Age fantasy roleplaying game. He has numerous games to his credit including Ars Magica, Over the Edge and 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons®.

Jonathan TweetSo first things first. “13th Age” – presumably the title ties into the setting fiction of the game world; could you share what the title means, and how you decided upon it?

Thirteen is a powerful, ominous number, but there’s more to it than that. In the 13th Age setting, civilization has gone through twelve distinct ages, each one different from the others. This idea plays into a core concept in 13th Age, which is customizability. During the twelve preceding ages, civilization has taken different shapes. In some ages, the dwarves and the elves get along. In others, they are mortal enemies. There is no one right way for the rulers and enemies of civilization to interact. Implicitly, then, the GM or the player is allowed to customize the setting. That’s the way things are “in this age,” different from the norm. No two 13th Age campaigns are the same, or even really can be.

Metaphorically, Rob and I hearken back to roleplaying in an earlier age. You might say we’re returning to the “pre-grid” age.

When you refer to a “free-wheeling style of old-school gaming”, are there any particular games which formed the majority of your inspiration? For example, would it be fair to say that the game is mainly inspired by earlier editions of D&D, or by other game systems?

13th Age is inspired by earlier editions of D&D, where everything wasn’t all spelled out, and you didn’t have to play on a grid. It tries to recapture some of the hobby’s early freshness, when RPGs were less professional but perhaps more genuine. That said, Rob and I draw on a large number of games that we have created, worked on, playtested, or played for fun. Indie games have taught us both a lot of creative approaches designing game rules creatively.

RuneQuest has always been a major influence on my RPG designs, and 13th Age’s icons are direct descendants of RQ’s Gloranthan cults. Like the pagan religions in RuneQuest, the icons ground player-characters in the game world. PCs have distant but useful relationships with the mighty icons, giving them allies, enemies, resources, and obligations.

Rob and I admire a lot of game designers. Personally, Robin Laws has taught me a lot about RPG design over the years. 13th Age, for example, has its own take on the mook rule that Robin introduced in Feng Shui.

Some of your verbiage – particularly phrases like “a toolkit of rules that you can pick and choose from based on the kind of game you want to play” strongly echoes much of the stated design goals of WotC’s 5th Edition D&D. Is this game designed to capture the same market as D&D Next?

With 13th Age, Rob and I have the distinct pleasure of writing for gamers like us: GMs and players who like to make up cool stuff. Fifth edition, like First through Fourth, will be expected to normalize the game experience. That way, a player can take their official D&D character to any official D&D game and play it. Thirteenth Age, on the other hand, is designed to inspire GMs and players to customize their campaigns and characters. Your “wood elf ranger” with the elaborate back story might not fit in the campaign next door, if the GM or players there have defined elves or rangers differently.

We are not 5E. We’re a lot more like Arduin Grimoire by Dave Hargrave. If you want to keep playing Pathfinder or 2E or whatever, you can still lift subsystems out of our game and drop them smoothly into your campaign. Incremental advances give PCs the chance to improve a little from session to session instead of all at once when they level up. The escalation die helps pace combat better. The icon system connects PCs to the game setting. You can use subsystems like these in whatever d20 game you’re playing. Especially ours.

You have a D&D 3E designer and a D&D 4E designer working together – two design approaches which appear to generate more friction with each other than most. What do each of you bring to the table, and how do you resolve fundamentally different design styles?

Rob and I have different styles, but we both have a soft spot for D&D-style coolness. That’s why our publisher calls 13th Age our “love letter” to D&D.

It was easy for us to mesh our different styles because we were creating a new system. Thirteenth Age isn’t halfway between 3E and 4E. Instead, it hearkens back to 1999, before 3E turned D&D into a game you played on a grid. We take the good rules and concepts from 3E, 4E, old-school games, and indie games, and we pump all that goodness into a setting that honors grand old D&D tropes.

Lucky for us, our styles are not just different but complementary. Neither of us could have created 13th Age alone. Rob likes players to have a good time, and I like them to suffer, so together we’ve got it all. In addition, Rob and I have known each other since the 80s and have been gaming together since the 90s. We’ve played all sorts of games together: Everway, Feng Shui, Sorcerer, a parlor larp, Omega World, HeroQuest, several editions of D&D, plus our own experimental systems. We’ve worked together on various card games, board games, and miniatures games, and we’ve played plenty more. We’re a good team.

Could you explain a little more about the “Icons” which seem to feature heavily in the game? From the ad text, I’m getting the sense of a framework similar to that of traditional deities.

Mortal civilization is ruled by several mighty icons, such as the Archmage and the Elf Queen. The fates of these virtual demigods are bound up together. Threatening civilization are the Lich King, the Diabolist, and other villainous icons. The icons define the action in the campaign at the “world” level. The wars or plagues or enigmas of the campaign setting are the business of the icons. These thirteen icons anchor and focus the setting. They are in dynamic tension with each other. The natural forces of the High Druid, for example, strain against the arcane constraints of the Archmage. The Priestess and the Crusader are both allied to the Emperor, but they are opposed to each other. With the icons locked in a complex balance, there’s always the possibility that a stalwart band of heroes could accomplish great deeds and tip the balance one way or another. Such is the stuff of legends—and of 13th Age campaigns.

These iconic NPCs—Archmage, Lich King, etc— are already familiar to your typical roleplayer. When a game setting is familiar, it’s easier to improvise. GMs are expected to play some of the icons at least a little differently from by-the-book. When players create their characters’ back stories, they invent parts of the world to fit. We even kept the titles of the icons pretty generic, to leave more room for GMs and players to define them. This is the game world designed less to show you how cool our ideas are and more to ask you how cool your ideas can be.

Icons are the secret sauce that connects the player characters to the game setting. As part of character creation, you define how your character relates to one or more icons. If you’re a dwarf fighter, maybe your entire clan was exiled by the Dwarf King, while your own personal deeds have brought honor to him. The relationships come into play as relationship dice, which players use to gain advantages in the game world. Relationship dice can get you helpful allies, secret intelligence, divine blessings, arcane knowledge, imperial authority, criminal assistance, and more. Each advantage you gain is something that exists in the game world, not as a bonus on a die roll or that sort of thing. It’s where role-playing meets roll-playing. Relationship dice also sometimes introduce complications into the plot. Being related to a mighty icon can get you out of trouble, but sometimes it gets you into a different sort of trouble at the same time.

If you had to pick one thing, what do you think is the biggest thing which really makes 13th Age stand out from other RPGs in the fantasy genre?

Rob’s class designs are really something else. His class features bring out the exciting and endearing qualities of each class. The class-based attacks, powers, and spells give players plenty of crunchy bits to use in combat. These classes stand out because they’re both crunchy and evocative. On one hand, it’s clear how to use their features mechanically. On the other hand, Rob designs games with a great sense of fun, and there are countless class traits that are a joy to play.

Sometimes a story-oriented RPG leaves out the crunchy bits, but Rob sure hasn’t.

How are you approaching the combat portions of the game? Are they designed to work with tactical battlemaps and miniatures, or are they geared towards the “arena of the mind”? How tactical would you say the combat portion is?

13th Age is story oriented, but fast, fun combat is still a key element of the game. We’ve played a lot of different games together, and we know how important it is for a game like this one to have exciting battles. For one thing, we took combat off the grid to make it looser and more dynamic. Players spend more time imagining the battles in their heads and less time counting squares. In 2000, the 3E design team put D&D on a grid partly to unify game play. With tightly defined combat rules, a player could play any official D&D game anywhere and know how combat worked. With 13th Age, we’re really only concerned with how the game runs for you and your friends in your personal campaign. Some groups will run combat more tactically, other more cinematically. GMs will have house rules, and no two tables will run combat exactly alike. That’s as it should be.

Rob and I put a premium on exciting combat. Player characters have an array of interesting class features, powers, and spells to use in battle. Monsters do, too. Magic items feature powers designed to add fun options to combat. Our escalation die shifts the pace of battle, adding more energy to later rounds, when combat otherwise tends to drag. Without the grid, combat moves faster, packing more action into less table time.

What innovation are you most proud of in 13th Age?

Don’t make me pick a favorite, but our mook rule is pretty sweet. The rule hearkens back to a version of combat popular in the early years of the hobby. Back then, when you attacked monsters in a mob, you just attacked the mob. If you hit, your damage was applied to the first monster, and excess damage spilled over to the second, and so on. You didn’t figure out which orc you were swinging at. You just swung at the orcs. Our mook rule is like that. A “mook” is a low-grade monster, with lower hit points and damage than normal. Against mooks, damage is applied to the mob as a whole. As a GM, it’s nice to have a dozen mooks on the board but only track one hit point score. As a player, it’s fun to take mooks down by twos or threes.

As a side note – the artwork is gorgeous! I love the feel it evokes! Is the artistic style a conscious choice? Are you trying to evoke any particular feel or style in particular? For me, it makes me think about the AD&D 2nd Edition era, for some reason.

The art revealed so far has focused on the icons, so it tends to feel especially… iconic. We are trying to give the D&D fan something they will really like. We’re using familiar archetypes to activate memories and call up associations. We’re trying to evoke a sense of wonder from jaded gamers.

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