Saturday, November 3, 2018

Why 13th Age is a Good Fit for the Nentir Vale Setting – Part 1

13th Age provides a wealth of tools that lend themselves well to the default setting for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the Nentir Vale. When I (Tim) made this statement in a Google+ group several months ago, a member of the community asked me if I’d be willing to share more details. Recently, I gave the topic further consideration and jotted down my thoughts. I found three categories where 13th Age fit the Nentir Vale—also known as Nerath or the “Points of Light” setting: (1) support for the 4e designers’ key conceits for a D&D world, (2) support for the core races and classes of the setting, and (3) the presence of NPCs or factions that fit the role of 13th Age icons. This blog post covers the first topic.

Key Conceits of the Nentir Vale

In Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters, the 4e design team describes the assumed setting for any basic D&D world. Matt Sernett provides a list of 14 key conceits, and 13th Age supports each of these concepts. Some are implicitly supported due to the lack of anything in 13th Age that contradicts a particular conceit. Others are explicitly supported by the system’s rules. As an interesting aside, some—but not all—of these concepts are present in 13th Age’s default setting, The Dragon Empire. I’ll call a few of these out as I go.

The World is More Fantastic: Cultures can be fantastic and don’t need a real-world analog. 13th Age doesn’t have much to say about the cultures of the PCs. There are no 13th Age mechanics that tie character races or classes to a particular place or time on Earth. Even the Dragon Empire is largely silent on the matter. While many GMs are likely to project “standard fantasy” cultures onto the Dragon Empire, the setting could just as easily be run with a different set of assumptions. There’s nothing that prevents 13th Age from being compatible with Nentir Vale’s fantastic cultures.

The World is Ancient: Empires rise and fall, and adventurers are likely to come across relics of ancient civilizations. If an “age” is hundreds or even thousands of years in duration, then a world with 12 previous ages qualifies as ancient. 13th Age explicitly supports the use of former icons—powerful NPCs from prior ages or the remnants of their factions.

The World is Mysterious: There are many wild and unexplored locations in the world. 13th Age is built on the assumption that the setting will be created collaboratively between the GM and the players. While using an established campaign setting is certainly possible, the system itself doesn’t provide mechanics that require a well-defined world.

Monsters Exist All Over: The world is populated with a great variety of monsters. 13th Age provides dozens of monsters in the core book, has published two dedicated bestiaries, and introduces additional monsters in various adventures and supplements. There’s no shortage of monsters for 13th Age.

Creatures Need a Place in the World: Monsters and races should occupy a space of their own. The descriptions of the monsters in the bestiaries are some of the most thorough presentations I’ve come across in any creature book. Not only do the creatures have a place in the world, GMs are given several options and are allowed to tailor their monsters’ niche for their table.

Adventurers are Exceptional: PCs are built with different rules than NPCs, are expected to be the noteworthy characters in the story. This is where 13th Age shines. Each PC has “one unique thing” that sets them apart and informs the players about what makes this character worthy of their own prequel story. Mechanically, PCs are completely different from monsters and NPCs. They also start adventuring as capable heroes and already have ties to the icons of the world.

Magic is not Everyday, but it is Natural: People might see evidence of magic on a regular basis, but it’s not so prevalent as to become ordinary. There’s plenty of magic in 13th Age, from spell-casting classes to monsters with spell-like abilities to magic items. There are no rules for crafting magic items or even creating scrolls, for that matter. By omitting the kinds of systems that would allow for commonplace magic items, 13th Age at least makes it harder to run a game in such a setting.

“Good” and “Evil” Mean More: Heroes fight for what’s right and villains are evil, but you can’t use magic to determine a creature’s alignment. 13th Age doesn’t have an alignment system, but instead allows PCs to associate themselves with icons, who in turn have their own morals. Good icons are often shining beacons of righteousness, whereas evil icons recite cackling soliloquies. With no alignments, there are no spells or abilities that allow characters to magically determine if someone is good or evil.

Remote Gods: Gods are largely distant and detached from the world. 13th Age doesn’t even offer a default pantheon of deities. While gods are mentioned, and clerics still receive their spells from gods, these beings are assumed to be distant.

One Sun, One Moon: With all the unusual elements in a fantasy world, it’s important that there are also familiar elements that players can relate to. 13th Age doesn’t feature any mechanics that require the phases of multiple moons or that assume a world in perpetual darkness.

No Forced Race Relations: There’s no forced hostility between races. Similar to the lack of detail around its cultures, 13th Age doesn’t provide any information about how the cultures interact with one another. There are no tables that provide bonuses and penalties to NPC attitudes based on their race (or anything else, for that matter).

Death Matters Differently: While it’s hard for a PC to die, once they do, it’s not easy for them to be raised from the dead. 13th Age gives even 1st-level characters plenty of ways to avoid death, ranging from generous starting hit points to their access to the Rally action during combat. There’s an optional rule that prevents PCs from being killed by anything but a named monster or NPC. But once a PC has died, resurrection is a 7th-level spell, and can only be cast once per level by a sufficiently powerful cleric, and can only be cast four times by a cleric before the toll becomes fatal.

Fantastic Locations: Adventures aren’t limited to subterranean dungeons, but can span the most interesting parts of the world or even the multiverse. 13th Age supports three environmental tiers that are analogous to the three tiers of play. By Epic Tier, PCs are traveling to the overworld (the outer planes) or delving deep into the underworld, encountering environmental hazards that would be impossible for an Adventurer Tier hero to overcome. The Dragon Empire embodies this key conceit, featuring locations such as Starport, where stars doc for rest and refitting, or the Sea Wall, which holds back the kaijus that the Iron Sea throws at the Empire.

Less Evil Fighting Evil: The focus should be on the conflicts that the PCs can easily take sides in. There’s nothing like the Blood War described in 13th Age. Evil icons aren’t described as fighting one another. Instead, the icons are set up in an uneasy balance, where their agents have the possibility of tipping the scales.

What do you think?  Does 13th Age (the game system, not the default setting) work well with the concepts that Wizards of the Coast used to create the Nentir Vale setting?  Comment below with your thoughts.