Unlike the last treasure I reviewed, "Hunters of Dragons", 13th Age is a product that was on many people's "hot list" for this year. According to some sources, 13th Age was the most highly anticipated RPG for 2013. Let's look at why:
Just to lay this out on the table for starters: 13th Age is a d20 based system - essentially it's a modified form of D&D. This is no surprise since the designers of this game Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet were the lead designers for 4E and 3E respectively. So, the first things that might pop into your head are "Great, another lame-ass D&D variant that recycles stale ideas" or "I hate X edition of D&D and one those guys was responsible for it" or "Why bother with this? If I want to play D&D then I'll play D&D not some ripoff." STOP!!! This game isn't what you think. I admit that I was skeptical at first when I learned this was a d20 variant, but then I opened the book.
First, Pelgrane Press has produced a beautiful product here. 13th Age is a 320 page hardcover that is printed in full color. The $44.95 cover price makes this one of the most reasonably priced RPG products on the market. Full color maps of the Dragon Empire (the default campaign setting for 13th Age) adorn the inside front and back covers.
Second, The very first chapter is "Icons." There are no mechanics here. There is an overview of the 13 Icons in 13th Age (hmmm, what a coincidence). Each Icon has a page dedicated to it that provides their symbol, a quote, common knowledge of the Icon, allies & enemies, history, and the Icon's relationship with Adventurers. The Icons are the major movers and shakers in the world, people such as the Archmage, the Lich King, the High Druid, and the Prince of Shadows. They represent some fairly common fantasy archetypes. Player characters have both positive and negative relationships with various Icons, and these relationships help provide opportunities for story development. The great thing is that the descriptions are generic enough that you can customize them for your game and can even port them into other campaign worlds with ease. Also, you can come up with your own Icons. There are mechanics that are associated with Icon relationships, but these are explained later in brief. It is also handy that these mechanics could easily be ported to just about any fantasy RPG. The fact that the designers lead off with this chapter on Icons heralds that this is probably not a game that is going to focus on "crunch" and min-maxing.
Next, we move on to character creation. It begins with pretty stock d20 stuff: pick your race, pick your class, generate ability scores, etc. Then it starts to veer off course, but in a good way. Every player chooses "One Unique Thing" (their "Unique" for short) about their character. These aren't mechanics focused, but story focused. Examples given: "I am the bastard son of the Emperor", "I see dead people", "I am the incarnation of a hero who lived ages ago, and I'm sure that Destiny has brought me back for a reason", etc. These are items that provide the GM and players an opportunity to build a story, not add bonuses to combat rolls.
Icon Relationships come next. Players spend points to establish their relationships, both positive and negative, with the various Icons. At the start of each play session, players will roll Icon Relationship dice to help generate some very general story elements for the session. These act as a guide for both the GM and players. The rules actually encourage players to offer suggestions and take the initiative in playing out these story elements - essentially players can briefly take some narrative control of the adventure (with GM permission).
Backgrounds are handled next. Rather than have a rigid skill system, players put points into "backgrounds." Each point represents a die roll bonus for any skill checks related to the background. The backgrounds are very flexible as are the skill checks. You could have backgrounds such as actor, acrobat, soldier, cook, smith, farmer, etc. - anything you can think of. Then it is up to the player to justify using that background on a skill check during play: "I have some knowledge of X because I used to have to do that sort of thing all the time when I was a farmer (or sailor, or whatever). The rules encourage players to be creative in justifying the use of their backgrounds, but not in cheesy ways.
Feats are almost all class specific. In 13th Age, feats are one way you customize your Fighter, Cleric, Bard, etc. The other way you customize your character is through class talents. For example, a 1st level Fighter chooses 3 of the following talents: Cleave, Comeback Strike, Counter-Attack, Deadeye Archer, Heavy Warrior, Power Attack, Skilled Intercept, or Tough as Iron. The character classes are designed to be fun to play not perfectly balanced in terms of mechanics.
Combat is fairly streamlined. Roll a d20 and add your bonuses then meet or beat the enemies defense (AC, Physical Defense, or Mental Defense) - standard D&D stuff. No combat grids or maps, no worries about character movement, no tactical board game elements. Players only worry about general position in combat: are they nearby, behind, far away, or engaged. You can use minis but only to show relative position (OMG!!! No tactical encounter maps!! What will we do?!!) You have a standard,a move, and a quick action that you take each round. There are some special things that you can do in combat: haracters usually have special class-based maneuvers for instance. Of course, you also have mainstays of D&D such as criticals, fumbles, two weapon fighting, saves, shooting into melee, etc. However, there are two elements of combat that I think are particularly noteworthy: the "Escalation Die" and "Fight in Spirit" rules.
The Escalation die mechanic is designed to help speed up combat. 13th Age is not about 1-2 hour combat encounters. The GM sits a d6 out at the start of the 2nd round with the "1" showing. All PCs get to add +1 to their attack rolls for that round. Then at the beginning of the 3rd round the GM escalates the die to the "2" and all PCs get +2 to their attack rolls. This process continues until it caps out at the "6". Some players have special maneuvers that are linked to the escalation dice, either a minimum number or whether it is odd/even. Also, if PCs sit back and avoid conflict then the GM doesn't advance the die and he might even deescalate it. Some monsters can lower the die. 13th Age combat is designed to be fast and cinematic, not a simulation (simulationists would be particularly horrified with how 13th Age handles weapons and armor).
The Fight in Spirit rule is a great way to keep those players who are out of the action engaged in the game. Maybe they are paralyzed or maybe they went off to question someone at the inn. Meanwhile, the rest of the party has gotten into a combat. Rather than sit by and watch the other players have fun, the Fight in Spirit rule says that these other players can actively help their allies by providing a bonus of some sort each round. However, they have to come up with some story element to justify it. Maybe one character has been showing another some new defensive moves, so they can get a +1 to their AC that round. The key here is that it keeps people in the game and thinking about the story.
Character advancement is different too in 13th Age as compared with D&D and other d20 systems. First, there are no experience points (The horror!). How do you know when to level up? The GM simply decides. Now, there are some general guidelines to help out. After 2-4 good fights characters should get a "full heal-up" (basically, a rest). After about 3-4 full heal-ups characters should gain a level. This is all very loose. Different GMs may set the standard for leveling up however they like. Definitely more art than science.
13th Age also employs "Incremental Advance" rules. Basically, at each full heal-up characters get to choose a benefit or power that they would gain as a result up leveling up. Your character gradually improves over several encounters rather than all in one giant lump. I think this is a great idea that is a definite departure from the standard way in which D&D/d20 games have traditionally handled leveling up.
I could go on, but I think I've covered the high points. Those who want a lot of crunch and realism will probably not like 13th Age. Rules lawyers will not like 13th Age. Those who must have a combat grid will not like 13th Age. Min-maxers will not like 13th Age.
Those who are looking for epic story potential, fast combats, fun characters, and some collaborative storytelling WILL like this game. I think it strikes a fine balance in many respects. It has the simplicity of rules that old school D&D embraces. It has the characters as extraordinary individuals in epic stories that the new school D&D embraces. It has some elements that storytelling games embrace. It also has several new mechanics. I'm actually very excited to try out this game as it looks like a lot of fun. They already have organized play with their "Tales of the 13th Age" program, which is free to join. Also, several expansions are already slated for release. I think it is definitely worth owning a copy, because even if you decide not to play 13th Age it has several ideas that can be ported to other d20 systems. I can't be certain until I give it a whirl but 13th Age might just give D&D Next a run for its money (especially since Next is probably a year away from release), and it just might draw some interest from Pathfinder players. I highly encourage you to check it out.
You can find out more at www.13thAGE.com
p.s. - If your FLGS participates in the bits-and-mortar program, then you can get a free PDF of the game when you buy a hardcopy from them. If your FLGS doesn't participate, then they can sign up for free at www.bits-and-mortar.com
Avid gamer, historian, teacher, organizer of the MAG Con gaming convention, and owner of Ettin Games and Hobbies.