Anyone who's read my reviews for the koff years that I've been posting them here knows that one of my big issues with the PDF market is how rarely people use the functionality of electronic publishing to improve the presentation or play of their games. The industry standard for many years was, "we put a PDF version of the print book together and put a price tag on it". Pressure from high-quality PDF publishers have improved this standard - now we expect to have at least semi-optimized files and bookmarks. But these are still baby steps compared to what electronic publishing can do for gaming. Now Terror Thirteen has added something new to the mix - using attachments to deliver the various sheets the game needs right in the same package as the game itself. It's simple, it's effective, and it should absolutely be an industry standard. The game also has the aforementioned bookmarks and good file optimization. Although it's large, it loads fast.
All right, enough of my hobby horse. Let's get to the meat of the game. Terror Thirteen is a horror game, with all that implies, cultists, monsters, and so on. However, it has several innovations that make it stand out in the crowd.
First is the implementation of a fluid Background system. Backgrounds are descriptions of "upbringing, personal development and social status" that are not part of their skills or inherent attributes. Many games have background systems that describe these elements of a character, but T13 is the first one that I'm aware of that makes those Backgrounds very fluid. They can be increased or decreased by 1 (out of 10) as part of an appropriate scene. In addition, even non-advantageous Backgrounds like "Addiction" have advantageous aspects to them - addicts know how to navigate the underworld, find drug dealers, and so on. This means that if you want a game to really be about overcoming some disadvantage (or strongly claiming some advantage), the player has some control over that, by making their character address the Background again and again, increasing its importance to the story and altering the Background rating itself.
Second, T13 emphasizes Bonds - these are relationships or connections that define the character. Some are very dramatic and meaningful, such as a Bond to one's family or lover. Others are more for flavor, such as a Bond to one's trademark hat. What's great about this system is that by creating these Bonds, the player tells the GM (or other players, see below re: narration) exactly where they need to hit in order to get their character hurt and/or motivated. If a guy in a horror movie has a trademark hat, you can bet the monsters are going to knock it off his head or steal it or he'll lose it at some point during the movie. Bonds are a great way to emphasize that.
The resolution system is similar to many story-based resolution systems out there. When a conflict arises, typically between two characters, there's a die roll (or several if there are many parts) and the winner gets to narrate the outcome. Interestingly, the narration-passing permits and encourages the player to steer the plot towards their particular expertise. The scholar of ancient Assyrian's player might determine after an investigatory conflict that the monster has its roots, where else, in ancient Assyria. This is a cool way to get a bit more of the spotlight time (or give it away) if you feel you are being left out of the game.
Failure results in "Bad Things", which is a cool way to keep consequences interesting based on the kind of conflict the character was in. One particular sort is a lasting "Status" that the character must find some way to deal with. Another unusual and innovative mechanic is the Terror Level. The master villain tries to increase it, in order that more drastic monsters can be summoned and unleashed - the player characters try to reduce it.
The work contains, thankfully, a bullet-point analysis and summary of many different sorts of horror stories. This is crucial and many horror games leave it out, or focus obsessively on one sort of horror stories.
Finally, an example of play steps you through the process of the game.
As you can see from my long summary, this is a very meaty game. A lot of work has gone into it and it's highly valuable for the horror gamer. If there was one thing I could improve about it, I would say that the layout needs to be more consistent. For example, in the Character section, there's a brief description of what Skills are, with example Skills actually listed later. Well and good. There's a brief description of what Backgrounds are, with example Backgrounds actually listed later. Fine. But then there's a description of what Bonds are, and the examples are listed right there.
However, this is quibbling. The game is highly effective, is well-detailed and clear, presents many innovations for horror gaming, and deserves high praise. I'm giving it my highest marks.