I started a 13th Age game late this summer. I like the world and I admire the design, so I wanted to try it out. The sessions, however, were quite far apart, which was a clear signal that something wasn’t quite right. I wanted to continue the story of the characters and talked the players into converting them to Fate Core; now, I want to share my observations on how system matters.
13th Age does cool things, but it still feels like a D&D with a twist. It has borrowed stuff from American indie RPGs like fail forward (meaning that a failed roll should take the story somewhere new, instead of signifying “nothing happens”), and some elements take it closer to freeform territory, like freely defined “backgrounds” which replace skills and reduce bookkeeping while adding color. The background called “Trained by the Crimson King” states that there’s something called the Crimson King in the setting (and you get to define some of it), and that whatever it is they do, you get to do as well. They are nice and easy to use.
But all the really cool bits and most time-consuming bits in the game are about fighting monsters. The book assumes that you go around fighting monsters, because that’s what heroes do; the characters’ healing and advancement cycles depend on the number of fights. Sure, it’s easy to fix, but the main point is that all the cool and really innovative stuff in the game is about how the different classes work in a fight. I want to emphasise: they really are well-designed and feel innovative, fresh, and fun to play with. You get to roll lots of dice and the classes feel different mechanically — the overall feeling is variety. All the core book classes look like fun to play, and the ones in the book 13 True Ways are admirably experimental, however you feel about playing them or including them in your campaign. 13th Age has guts. But it gravitates towards fighting monsters.
Moreover, I couldn’t get over the feeling that the game puts mechanics first, fiction second. It’s possible that it’s a matter of taste and habit and skill; my focus does gravitate towards the mechanics when the battles are based on different ways to read dice and rules exceptions — in a word, when the monsters are stat blocks. They are quite fluffy stat blocks, but when I read about them, my focus is still on how they work mechanically, instead of how to portray them in the fiction.
It just didn’t feel like my kind of a game. Fighting just for the sake of fights isn’t my thing, and the rest of the mechanics just didn’t feel like very much. Besides, the level-based approach to characters constrained the story. The story veers towards demon-hunting and there’s a drow gangster (for want of a better word) somehow connected to demons. I introduced those elements in the first session, when the characters were on the first level; the mistake being that there’s no way that first level characters can fight it out with a powerful drow, let alone demons. Maybe it’s my inexperience with D&D talking here, but it just felt like I would’ve had to invent a lot of side-quests to get where I truly wanted to be: the players taking on the drow.
So we switched over to Fate Core.
I’d been wanting to try it out for some years now. But Fate feels a bit difficult to just try out. I does some weird and/or cool things, and it seemed to require a mindset that I wasn’t completely sure I or the players had. It’s felt like a game that requires pre-gens or that everyone at the table has read the book and invests to the character creation. Now I could just convert the 13th Age characters myself and we didn’t need to dedicate a whole session to game creation. I knew my character conversion wasn’t perfect, but they were good enough for a test run.
I had tried out Spirit of the Century six years ago. It was a previous version of Fate and probably my first touch with more narrative games. The trio of sessions was fun at best, but felt somewhat contrived as well, and the mechanics felt like they were in your face all the time. So the big question was: is Fate in your face all the time? Does it feel like you’re just using mechanics and trading Fate points? To me it doesn’t — on the contrary, in fact. I felt the mechanics gave structure, but they felt surprisingly invisible.
If you don’t know Fate, you can find it free here, and for pay-what-you-want here, and in book form probably wherever you buy your RPG books from. It puts characters to the forefront, and stories are centered around them. In addition to skills, characters (and most everything else) in the game have aspects, which are freely worded qualities that have both good and bad sides. “A demon lives in my head”, “I hit the Emperor and lived!”, “Acquainted with shadows” — what works in my table doesn’t necessarily work in yours, but as long as there’s understanding within the players about what the aspects say, you have powerful tools to guide your game. They both get you into trouble and out of it: the barbarian has berserker rage as an aspect, which both gives him terrible strength and terrible, undiscerning fury towards anything in his path.
Skills work with aspects in (at least) two ways. First, you can augment your skill rolls with aspects: when it looks like you’re not going to succeed or not succeed well enough, you can use a Fate point and make it better. But you need to narrate it to fiction as well! I don’t think it’s enough to just state the obvious about why a certain aspect matters (“I’ve been trained by the Crimson King, of course I can augment my skill roll in the court.”), but you need to narrate it as well: what new content does your aspect bring to the game? It all helps bring new, fun stuff to the table. It boosts creativity.
The second way aspects and skills work together is that you can use skills to create new aspects and benefit from them (or just benefit from existing ones). And you need to narrate it as well.
I think there’s an important distinction to be made with aspects: you need to narrate them, not justify their use. Justifying means rationalizing a mechanical benefit, after which you’re pretty much free to forget it ever happened. I used to hear a lot of criticism towards these freely defined elements, whatever the system: if you just leave it open enough, you can justify using it whenever, and the game becames an exercise in mental acrobatics where you’re trying to think up ways to fit your stuff anywhere. I agree: if you do it that way, it does feel forced. But you’re supposed to narrate those elements into the story. Instead of using the story as a justification for a mechanical benefit, you use the mechanics to create more story.
In practice, creating advantages worked really well. The fiction and the mechanics meshed. Given the right skill, there’s no end to what you can treat as an advantage (except the limits you set yourselves). Let’s say you want to talk to an NPC; and I mean, just talk in a friendly manner. With the skill Empathy, you can get to know them better and find out an aspect about them, or get a mechanical benefit from their existing aspect: “Worried about their child”. Or with the skill Rapport, you can make a good impression on them: “Good first impression about the cleric.” Or let’s say you want to give the conversation a more sinister vibe: you talk all friendly-like, but you use the skill Provoke (i.e. being a jerk) and give them a negative emotion: “Really worried about their child’s safety.”
In other words, the mechanics give the scenes structure, subtext, and possibly dramatic irony.
Creating advantages gave everyone something to do. Even though our session climaxed with the barbarian facing a giant spider alone in a dueling ring, the ranger could just observe the spider and use her drow beastmaster’s knowledge to confer information to the barbarian. And in social scenes, it felt like there was always something to do, something to show what the characters were like. With the 13th Age system, I always felt pulled toward the next battle; with Fate, I always felt like there was something cool to do with these characters right now.
In battle, creating advantages didn’t necessarily differ from straightforward attacks rolls. The barbarian faced a giant spider and although he narrated his action as an attack at the spider’s legs, mechanically it didn’t do damage but created an advantage for the barbarian. The player’s colorful description made it easy to put the aspect into words, and it also served as a springboard from which to continue the description and take the fight into new directions.
Mechanically, the fight was based on rolling the same opposed skill rolls over and over again, but it didn’t feel like it. First, the aspects modified the skill rolls, and second, the aspects pushed us towards creating good, captivating fiction, which made me forget that we were basically just rolling the same skill rolls over and over again. It was never a series of “I hit it”, nor did the narration feel superfluous or just “color” that separates Good Roleplayers from Sucky Rollplayers. The narration and the aspects were elemental to making the game work. The barbarian faced the spider, got trampled underfoot, used that position to his advantage, was caught between the beast’s mandibles (or whatever they’re called), and escaped them with his red-hot barbarian rage. All of those steps felt significant and dramatic and most importantly, they made the situation vivid in our imaginations so that we found it easy to narrate more cool stuff. While I feared that the constant use of aspects would distance me from the fiction, it actually helped me focus on the fiction and produce new content. And the content doesn’t need to be “original” to be entertaining and immersive: it’s the attention to detail that matters. Aspects help and remind me to create detail.
To conclude this piece, Fate has a Golden Rule: “Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.” Fiction first. It’s always about what the characters do, what they want to accomplish, and so on; and the rules are flexible enough to bend to several different situations, and they all feel equally crunchy and fun to play with. For example, the barbarian’s fight against the spider used the full conflict mechanics, but when he had defeated the beast in a red-hot rage, and five nameless NPCs came to stop him from killing it, I felt one roll was enough: either the NPCs stop the barbarian, or they become the next victim of his uncontrollable rage. It’s not about ignoring some rules to have fun, but selecting the best rules to enable the best sort of fun.
In summary, my experience here confirms that for me, system does matter. 13th Age makes me focus on things I don’t want as much in the game and does little to support what I want from an RPG, whereas the way Fate works guides my concentration to things I like. Of course I could bend any system to do whatever I want to, but I’d rather save the trouble and actually use my mental energy to do stuff I want, instead of avoiding things I don’t.
Yay for Fate!