13th Age: The Best RPG I’ve Never Played (Review)

Back in January, there was an exceptionally good-value Megabundle for 13th Age where I picked up 19 PDFs for less than $40 (£34). It’s a game I’ve known about (and admired) for some time but never really devoted much attention to. Following the OGL debacle, I’ve been keen to diversify the RPGs I play and run, and 13th Age is now right at the top of what I want to try next.

A brief overview

13th Age is nearly ten years old, and a second edition is due later this year. There are some real industry titans in its DNA: Jonathan Tweet was lead designer of 3rd edition and Rob Heinsoo was lead designer of 4th, and the introduction provides a neat summary of how the game takes the best bits of both:

Critics complained that 3E weighed the game down with rules for everything, turning an open-ended roleplaying game into a complicated simulation, arithmetic on a grid. 13th Age is a ruleslight, free-form, gridless way to play a story-oriented campaign.

3E took the game forward in terms of player options and universal mechanics, and we have followed suit.

Critics compared 4E to a board game or miniatures game that distanced itself from its roots. 13th Age is about story-oriented campaigns not minis, and it revisits its roots with its setting and rules.

4E took the game forward in terms of balance and game play, and so do we.

Before I dive into mechanical differences, one of the things I really love about the core book is the frequent asides from the writers. It creates the impression that the rules are meant to be a living thing that you adapt for your own table and your own narrative purposes. For example, at one point, Heinsoo might write ‘Jonathan doesn’t use this rule’ or ‘Players who roll their ability scores and then wish they had used the point-buy system are missing the point’; Tweet might use a sidebar to say, ‘In my game, monsters win ties’ or ‘I now agree with Rob enough that I wrote the glossary entry for recharge and used Rob’s rule.’ It’s a refreshing, liberating, and endearing, approach. The core book is not an instruction manual, and it’s better for it.

13th Age to Get New Edition in 2023

Key features

Much of the game will be extremely familiar to you if you’ve played D&D: the same six stats, the same races and classes (more or less), the same basic mechanic (roll a d20 to see what happens), and many of the same monsters. If D&D is your RPG comfort food, 13th Age won’t upset your appetite. So how is it different to 5e, and why would you switch? Let’s go through some of the key mechanics.

The icons. The default setting of 13th Age features 13 key NPCs who shape the world and the story: ‘the Lich King’, ‘the Dwarf King’, ‘the Archmage’ and so on. They are generic enough that you can make them your own, but developed enough that they still have a character. Every character has a relationship to one or more of the icons, and this relationship has an influence on the story of the campaign. In fact, you start the session by rolling d6s to see how the icons are going to influence the game. It’s a really cool idea.

One unique thing. Not so much a mechanic as a storytelling tool. Maybe you are ‘the bastard son of the Emperor’ or ‘fated to destroy the Lich King’. Great adventure fuel for a GM! It’s a way of signalling to the players that creating dramatic stories is absolutely integral to the game.

Backgrounds and skill checks. I have real gripes about the 5th edition skill system, and I don’t think 3rd or 4th edition was much better. 13th Age takes a looser, narrative-driven approach where your background determines what you are good at. Thus, you might have 2 points in ‘travelling acrobat’ and 4 points in ‘cat burglar’, and you add these bonuses to your skill checks whenever they apply.

Simplified starting gear. 13th Age doesn’t get too fussy about mundane equipment. If you want your paladin to start with a greatsword and full plate, that’s cool. You don’t have proficiency tables or subtle differences between weapons – you pick what’s cool and move on.

Abstract combat. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but personally, I love it. 13th Age does away with the five-foot grid and pedantic movement rules and embraces the storytelling potential of freeform narrative combat. 5e also claims to be theatre of the mind of course, but the crucial difference is that with 13th Age it’s baked into the system: distances are loosely described as ‘far away’, ‘nearby’ and so on, and you even see this with spell descriptions. By contrast, D&D retains the vestiges of a miniature war game, any many groups find theatre of the mind frustrating because the rules don’t properly support it.

The escalation die. This is a really neat idea. Essentially, you get a fat d6 and put it on the table in the second round of combat with the ‘1’ face up. The players now have a +1 on all their attack rolls. In the third round, they get a +2, and in the fourth round, a +3. And so on. But what’s really cool is how the escalation die triggers your character’s powers. For example, a barbarian might be able to rage for free when the escalation die is 4 or higher. A dwarf can heal as a free action every battle if the escalation die is less than 2. Often these abilities are based on feat choices, which gives you a nice way to meaningfully customize your character.

New monster design. There are lots of things I really like about the way 13th Age handles monsters. First, the stat blocks are so much less cluttered. D&D has probably improved on this with every new edition, but 13th Age is positively minimalist. Second, they are easy to modify. You can apply quick templates like ‘oaf’ or ‘scrapper’ to tweak their stats, or you can bump up their level by making them tougher, more accurate, or harder to hit. Many monsters even have the option of being ‘nastier specials’. For example, an iron golem might spring a gas leak, while a zombie might be a brain-eater. The encounter-building system is also considerably more straightforward – a huge gripe for long-term DMs of 5e.

High-action adventure where the story comes first

13th Age feels like the sort of game I want to run when I’m running 5e. To read, it feels action-packed, story-driven, fantastical, imaginative, fun, and full of heart. If you like crunchy combat with miniatures, flanking, and 5-ft adjustments, 5e or Pathfinder might be a better fit. But if you’re constantly wishing 5e would loosen up a little and put more emphasis on the story, 13th Age might just be the game for you.

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One thought on “13th Age: The Best RPG I’ve Never Played (Review)

  1. The setting name derives from the current day being after 12 previous Ages, each defined by certain epic fantasy tropes until their epic fantasy trope conclus-a-catalism. To help flesh those out, they wrote a work of System-Blind genius, The Book of Ages.
    Describing 20ish Age scenarios, each Age features both a global conflict scenario (Undead Army, warring Wizard Cities, Pirate fleets) and Icons from previous Ages who are driving said Age. Consequently, there wrote dozens of alternate Icons to have waiting in the wings, taunting PCs using stone chiseled centuries before, littering the land with lairs and loot….
    Aside: Archetypal worldbuilding/PC integration is so effective I am surprised it hasn’t been modified into a way to quickstart court intrigue or other social-intensive campaigns.

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