How Two D&D Veterans Created Their Own Fantasy Game, ’13th Age’

Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo helped create the last few editions of venerable roleplaying game “Dungeons and Dragons.” And now they have authored their own fantasy RPG, “13th Age.” We spoke to them about how their created the game and its emphasis on storytelling.

“Dungeons and Dragons” has gone through several editions over the years. Jonathan Tweet was the lead designer on third edition and Rob Heinsoo was lead on the fourth edition. Both eventually left “D&D” publisher Wizards of the Coast. And now this pair of friends could create something together. Heinsoo said, “A couple years ago I cofounded a game design company named Fire Opal Media. Jonathan and I have gamed together for years and we wanted to work together again, so we decided to create the game we wanted to play together.”

The result was “13th Age“, a game that shares some DNA with “D&D”, but has some unique features that make it stand out. Every character has a power or skill that is unique to them, and they each have relationships with the most important characters in the game’s fantasy setting, thus helping shape how their Game Master runs the game.

“In some ways, it’s familiar: go on adventures, hit monsters, loot their stuff. But in recent years the independent roleplaying game scene has done some great things with the idea that a group of people can create great stories together,” said Heinsoo. “’13th Age’ takes that to heart, putting twists on familiar mechanics that allow players to add to the story of the campaign during character creation, skill use, and even combat. The point of starting with what’s familiar is to help people feel comfortable with a game that asks them to be cocreators.”

Such collaboration can lead to a more cohesive fantasy adventure. Jonathan Tweet said, “When your party of wizards, fighters, and rogues faces orcs in an underground vault, the reason you’re fighting orcs isn’t handed down to you from your GM or from us. It comes from a backstory that you all created together that’s based on your characters’ relationships with the powerful people and factions in the game world, your personal histories, and the one unique thing that makes each player character distinctive.”

Before “13th Age” was published last month by Pelgrane Press, it had built quite a buzz as a great alternative to mainstay fantasy RPGs like “D&D” and “Pathfinder”. Tweet and Heinsoo capitalized on that with a Kickstarter project for “13 True Ways“, an expansion for “13th Age” — a game that wasn’t even out yet.

“That was a tough sell to a lot of people, and the first two weeks were a struggle. It succeeded because we listened to our community. For example, the fact that very few people had even heard of the game was a big problem. So we created a ’try before you buy’ option, where if you pledged $50 or more, you got the current draft of the game as a PDF. If you read it and decided that ’13th Age’ wasn’t for you, you could withdraw your pledge guilt-free. We saw a huge surge in backers when we did that, and very few of those people withdrew their pledges,” said Heinsoo.

The Kickstarter project for “13 True Ways” ultimately raised $70k, more than double the goal. Tweet attributes the attention the game has gotten to the underlying principle behind it’s design. “People who play roleplaying games like to make up cool stuff. All RPGs support that to a greater or lesser extent, but with ’13th Age,’ it’s the focus of the design,” said Tweet. “Players can add to the world and its history with a line on a character sheet like, ’I am the only halfling knight in service to the Emperor.’ The game is designed to inspire GMs and players to customize their campaigns and characters, so that no two games are going to be exactly the same.”

And the creators hope that the game’s successful launch is only the start. Heinsoo said, “I hope the game will be played by both scattered groups of people who enjoy it any way they like, and a central community of players and GMs who have helped shape the game’s creative path. The excitement of shared creation at the table and in the publishing process should turn out to be huge fun.”

[Images courtesy of Fire Opal Media]