Thursday, March 7, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 4--13th Age in Glorantha

A quick note before we begin, especially since more folks are reading these reviews (thanks for the retweets, Chaosium!).  Every product that I have reviewed so far on this site, including Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and Heroquest Glorantha is a product that I have purchased.  For 13th Age in Glorantha, I received the product for backing the Kickstarter, so I also paid for it (if in an indirect manner).  To the extent I review a product based on a free or promotional copy in the future, I will note that in the first paragraph of the review; if you don't see such a disclaimer, I am reviewing a product I paid for myself, either directly or via a Kickstarter.

Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, is an exciting re-imagining of an old classic.  But it is a game that has a lot of different interlocking systems, making it at least one standard deviation more complex than the median tabletop RPG.  On the other side of the spectrum, Heroquest Glorantha is a narrative game with very simple systems, but one that might be too narrative and too simple for a lot of folks.  So you might think that 13th Age in Glorantha would be the perfect compromise.  It's a d20 game, so you have some mechanical heft, especially in combat.  But you add in the special sauce of the narrative-inspired mechanics of 13th Age, with things like Backgrounds and One Unique Things.  And then you add in that 13th Age's designers, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, are long-time Glorantha fans with deep familiarity with the material.  It makes perfect sense.

Does it work?  Yes.  But, in doing so, 13G drifts Glorantha, and a game set in Glorantha, to be more in line with with the standard, D&D-based fantasy experience.

What do I mean by drift?  13th Age, like most all d20 games, is a class-based system.  And, to that end, 13G spends a big chunk of its very substantial page-count on a set of bespoke, Glorantha-centric classes.  These classes are interesting and flavorful in the way that 13th Age excels at producing--there is an Earth priestess and a Troll priestess and a trickster and a Storm Bull barbarian and a Paladin-like Humakti avenger and a couple of different Orlanth-focused classes.  The new classes are great.  But you are kinda limited to the character-types represented by the classes in 13G.

Yes, there are conversion notes for the classes in other 13th Age materials, but many of them have to be extensively reworked to fit into Glorantha, to the point where you are close to building them from scratch.  And, yes, you do get eleven fully spec-ed out classes, which is more than you get in the 13th Age corebook.  But since the classes are so specific (many of them being tied to specific cults), I worry that characters with the same class are going to feel similar, especially thematically similar.  Plus, there are some Glorantha staples that do not have class representations--Issaries and Lhankor Mhy cult members come to mind, as well as anything to do with the Lunars.  Again, the stuff that is there is excellent.  But, compared to the wide latitude of character types in Runequest and the complete lack of limits in Heroquest, it feels confining.

There is also a story-focus component.  In a couple of places in the book, Messieurs Heinsoo and Tweet tells us that the the focus of 13G is "heroes fighting against Chaos."  Ostensibly, 13G is set in 1625 ST in the Glorantha timeline (same as Runequest), which is a pretty significant year--the Lunar Empire suffers a massive reversal of fortune at the beginning of the year visa ve their enemies in Dragon Pass.  13G, however, doesn't seem particularly interested in the bigger meta-plot-ish elements, in favor of a more "D&D"-like emphasis on fighting monsters.

I said this in the original Glorantha post, but I think if you are going to set a game in Glorantha you should go "all in," so de-emphasizing some of the most Gloranthan elements is to me a strange choice.  On the other hand, it is easy enough to just ignore this prompt and reincorporate the ongoing metaplot.  In fact, my preference would likely be to start things a few years earlier, when the Lunars are at their apex, and it's far easier to do that with 13G than it is with Runequest (as changing the starting date in Runequest would require the GM to rework the "life path" tables used in character creation). So, while I think the line they take is weird, it's a easy fix.

There also is nothing like the clan creation system in Heroquest or the Sacred Time rules of Runequest that ground characters in the world.  Characters in 13G feel, at least by default, more like the kind of "wandering professional adventures" that are the standard in D&D-esque campaigns.  Again, you can port all of that deeper Glorantha lore stuff in, but it isn't hard-coded into the game in the way it is in the other two games.

None of this, it should be said, is necessarily bad.  There are large swaths of D&D or 13th Age players out there, and for them 13G is a far, far more accessible on-ramp to Glorantha than either Runequest or Heroquest.  Some groups are going to be completely uninterested in how the crops did in a particular village, and far more engaged with being Big Heroes and killing a bunch of Broo.  And for those folks, 13G absolutely nails it.   

And, while 13G feels like a different take on Glorantha than Runequest or Heroquest, it is still very recognizably Glorantha.  The basic "tone" of 13th Age is a perfect fit to at least one dimension of the Glorantha--high powered fantasy.  Glorantha lore consists of a parade of over-the-top heroes that do truly amazing and world-shaking deeds--Argrath, Sheng Seleris, Jar-eel the Razoress, Harrek the Berserker, etc.  13th Age is a game that is all about over the top heroes that do truly amazing and world-shaking deeds, so there is a natural marriage there.  In fact, one of the concerns I have with Runequest, with its gritty and deadly combat and incremental advancement system, is that it is difficult to imagine how you would stat out someone like Argrath, or how a Runequest character could ever get up to a remotely comparable power level in some reasonable time horizon.  There is no such difficulty with 13G--the high level 13th Age play is referred to as "Epic Tier" for a reason.  If you wanted to run a campaign where the PCs were the major players in the events of the Hero Wars, 13G is perfectly set up for that kind of play, perhaps better than Runequest.

In addition, the implementation of the Runes in 13G is very well done.  The Runes basically replace the Icons--you pick three Runes that define your character, and at the beginning of the session each character rolls to "attune" one of the Runes.  Depending on the roll, it might be one of your basic Runes, or it could be a random Rune (including possibly Chaos!), and that Rune functions like an Icon boon in standard 13th Age.  Like in RQG, it expands the Runes beyond simply a character ability to an element of personality and a locus of story content.  It gets to it in a different way than RQG does, and I think it is going to produce a different feel than the system in RQG (it's more random and unpredictable, for one), but it does a great job of embodying setting elements in rules terms.  The Runes matter in 13G, just like they matter in RQG, and that's a good thing for a Glorantha game.

Plus, it's awesome to see all of those weird Glorantha monsters expressed in d20 terms.  And, yes, there are stats for the Crimson Bat, and it is as OP and insane as you imagine it would be (for those who are not up on the Bat--it is a bat the size of a 747 airliner that shoots Chaotic blood that dispels magic from it multitude of eyes and carries man-sized ticks in its fur, among other attacks).  13G really shows off the strength of 13th Age's monster design "chassis," in that the focus is squarely on the cool things that different monsters can do.  Reading a 13th Age monster stat block, you know immediately what the monster does and how it is going to "feel" in a fight, and porting this over to 13G really makes the weird Gloranthan creatures come alive.  And all of the Gloranthan staples are in the core book, so everything you need is right there.

Beyond Glorantha specifically, and this might seem a small point but I think it matters, 13G is just a joy to read.  Most well written ttrpg rule books do their job in communicating the information they need to communicate effectively, but are not necessarily fun reads.  13th Age books, including 13G, are actually fun.  Heinsoo and Tweet clearly love Glorantha, as it bleeds through on every page.  And, like the rest of the 13th Age line, the 13G is written in a casual, conversational style, as opposed to the textbook approach of most ttrpg books (especially core books).  13G is a big book, but I got through it in one sitting, and enjoyed every bit of it. 

Finally, 13th Age is such a great implementation of the d20 system, and all of that goodness ports over to 13G.  I'm running a 5e campaign right now, and we are having a ton of fun, but every once in a while I notice a small quirk or kink in the rules where I think "you know, 13th Age does this better."  5e is not bad and 13th Age is not radically different, and thus 13th Age can't be orders of magnitude better than 5e, but 13th Age is better, and consistently better.  At least, I think so.  By pairing the world of Glorantha with 13th Age, 13G puts forward what I think is the best possible implementation of a d20 Glorantha game.

But, at the end of the day, 13G is still a d20 game, and it is going to feel like a d20 game.  Again, that's not a bad thing, and it may even be a very good thing.  But it is a different thing.  A game of 13G is going to feel very different from a game of Runequest--the power level will be higher, the character options will be more restrictive and more siloed, combat will be faster but less detailed and less deadly.  And it is going to feel very different from Heroquest--while 13th Age has narrative game DNA, it's still a d20, fight the bad guy game at its heart.

So, if you are a D&D player (or, especially, a 13th Age player), and you want an accessible way to get into Glorantha that is going to give you a play experience that is familiar, 13G is right in your wheelhouse.  If you think Glorantha would be a cool world to play RPGs in, but find the lore and the metaplot and the small details of other presentations to be off-putting, 13G is a more accessible on-ramp to the world.  But if you are an old-school, die-hard Runequest player, or a Heroquest player, you may find 13G to be confining and limiting, tacking back too much in the direction of the style of game that Runequest and Heroquest (in different ways) intentionally try to get away from.