I am a big fan of 13th Age, and this isn’t a new game. But for a while now, we’ve had only the core book, unless you had preordered the Bestiary or backed 13 True Ways. But with the world book for Dragon Kings out in the wild and the Primal Thule traveler’s book, it is a good time to focus on this newer system before I start reviewing these other things.
What is 13th Age? On the surface, it’s your basic d20 game along the lines of D&D, which is to be expected since two of the minds behind 3rd and 4th editions of D&D, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, created the game. Attributes are the same, modifiers, etc… but then we reach a bit further and find the differences almost right away in the Icons. Icons are grand NPCs locked in a struggle, unable to gain ascendancy over the others on their own and so rely on heroes grand and foul. They are common fantasy archetypes, tied to every hero with strings of desire and threats. The relationship can be positive, conflicted, or negative, and your connection to them might not be to them personally but instead their organizations they lead. Perhaps the Icon likes you, but their followers are more unsure of your loyalty, representing a conflicted relationship. With a negative relationship, their followers oppose you, but their enemies are your allies commonly. You start with three dice here that get rolled regularly, both to help the GM decide plot and players do things that might not be in their character’s normal skill set elsewhere (As an example, I had a player who used his High Druid to have once learned from a druid how to talk to cats).
Skills, as they were in D&D, are a thing of the past, to be replaced with player designed Backgrounds. Your background isn’t just a skill set, but also should tell something about who you are and were. These can be as broad or narrow as GM and players can agree on. This (along with letting the players choose Icon Relationships) shows a very different sort of game, one that’s less antagonistic between GM and players by default, and instead far more collaborative. In the official organized play adventures, montages are a common tool, where players tell how each character helped or hindered the situation.
The Backgrounds are helped along by every PC having an OUT, or One Unique Thing. This can be anything from being the betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter, to being the only human five-time champion of the dwarven beer-drinking competition, to being heir to an Icon. This is at its simplest, a hook the player offers the GM; but with greater complexity allows, with feats, you can add utility to the story implications.
Combat is actually the place where the GM will likely find the game easiest to run, as enemies have a built in sort of AI based on the results of the raw d20 roll for them. What occurs on that can allow or make it possible to use secondary special abilities. Perhaps a creature uses claws, but on an even roll, it can also bite. There are a few places in the core where it’s a bit more complex than it needs to be (such as referencing their last turn’s attack roll), but overall it’s an elegant use of the d20. Similarly, Bards and Fighters have Flexible attacks which run off a similar allowance system. I’m quite fond really of this, as they are the ones who most often benefit from the raising of the Escalation Die, as some Flexible Attacks become more likely (in one case, rather than requiring a natural 20, 18+ will do when the battle has progressed enough).
Combat can be amazingly simple, but I advise you to have a VERY LARGE d6 if you’re playing at home or in public, as you’ll need an Escalation Die. Basically, as combat wears on, the heroes (and rarely some monsters) learn their foe’s style and compensate by being better able to hit them, gaining the die as a bonus to all attacks (and for some classes, unlocking more powerful abilities). Usually, as long as the PCs don’t let off on the attack, this will raise by 1 each turn past the first.
Magic is, for the most part, focused on combat. But, with the ability to cast ritual magic and a Background roll, you can easily replicate many results, with the understanding that ritual magic works well towards a single result once… and after that the returns diminish significantly unless you change what the intended end point is. So ritual magic is a way to supercharge and/or flex the usefulness of your spells away from combat into a more narrative result. Good if you’ve got a creative player.
Which leads to the question, how hard of a game is it to play? Honestly, quite simple, but it’s very difficult to run if you aren’t experienced or aren’t very good at improvisation. If you are, I highly suggest it because it’s a game that almost encourages you to let the players help decide the story. The little touches they add can be amazing. I had a player who wanted to play a frost giant, and we brainstormed out not just their nature, mechanics-wise, but also a lot about their biology, history, and such. Races (or as I prefer, kin) simply give you a +2 to one of two attributes, and an ability or two. As a bit of insurance against bad rolls during character creation, each Class gives another two choices of Attributes to raise by +2 (which can not be the same as your previous choice for Kin). Classes are varied in difficulty, though I will admit I find Rangers, and especially Paladins, lackluster.
Overall, a lot of the system is suggestions and guidelines (with a number of sidebars where the creators showcase their contrasting styles) letting GM and players eyeball it to their own needs. The most important (to me) bit of advice is to Fail Forward, that is unless failing will be very fun and interesting, a failed roll is not lack of success, but instead unintended consequences. Give them what they want, but with complications. It’s basic, but also something we could see more often in game advice. Similarly, the world is left with lots of black canvas for the GM and players to make the world into their own. This might infuriate some, but if you like world building, this is the answer to a prayer. Also, the community is amazingly creative and strong.
Overall, if you and your players enjoy improvisation and world building, and one of you is an experienced GM, this might just be the game for you.