Spell and Ability Design in 13th Age

We’re designing some spells and other character abilities for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game, and I’m delighted—and maybe a little surprised—at what fertile ground d20 games continue to be for game designers.

The various branches that form the d20 tree (13th Age, Pathfinder, and oh yeah D&D) have a 15-year history, not counting the design time within WotC prior to 2000. Hundreds of game designers have been making new feats, spells, and other game elements for a decade and a half. Yet we’re still finding new mechanics—new ways to provide some game-structure interest to match the flavor and theme of the spell.

That speaks to how robust the third edition ruleset is. All of us—from indie game designers to the big crew at Paizo—are still happily making stuff up that’s genuinely new, not just retreads of previously explored game-design space. And for indie developers like us, 13th Age is a particularly good environment to explore the d20 tree…for two reasons.

First, there isn’t an overwhelming supply of content out there (as there is with Pathfinder and 3e/4e D&D). To put it in economic terms, the marginal utility of the 12th fireball variant or the 26th Two-Weapon Fighting feat is pretty lousy. 13th Age is still lean enough that you can make up new stuff and not feel like you’re just designing for corner cases.

Second, 13th Age does a good job of managing how often PCs change their game elements—how often they get new spells and feats and whatnot. That’s a hidden virtue of a 10-level game. With a few exceptions (wizard comes to mind), you’re only changing your “abilities loadout” when you milestone or level up. Back in my D&D days, I saw a lot of 3e spellcasters practically buried beneath a dozen different books, trying to figure out which spells to prepare for a given day. The rest of the table impatiently waits (no fun), and the spellcaster essentially plays “lightning-round rules referencing” (no fun). In the abstract, of course everyone says, “I like the flexibility of picking new spells/abilities/whatever each game day.” But in practice, it’s not always fun. And we often forget that what fun there is comes at the expense of bored or impatient friends.

I’m a firm believer in “playtest, then preview,” but soon we’ll have some examples to share.