13th Age

Posted 03 Feb 2022 to Fantasy

A heroic RPG born of D&D4e, which innovates in several clever ways.


XP Card

Sessions GM'd: 12
Sessions as Player: 0

I Used

322 page physical book. I used only the Core book, and all races and classes for our group were taken from here. I did later purchase PDFs of the Bestiary 1 and 2, which was really handy and presented a variety of different kinds of monsters that I reskinned. I ran using Foundry as our platform, and the SRD was a big help in easily importing monsters (and then reskinning them).


Anytime I find a thread online where someone is asking for recommendations of games to try, 13th Age gets mentioned. It's a few years old now, being published in 2013 and was written by big-shots in the game-design industry. Here was a game created by people who designed two editions of D&D, and then went away and used their experience to make their own fantasy rpg, now free from loyalty to the D&D brand.

I had heard this game included a number of clever innovations, which later writers included. The Advantage mechanic, which is touted as one of the great features of D&D5e, was actually first seen here. I had heard it had combat which was just *fun* and encouraged teamwork.


The Good

  • Heroic tone. The PCs, right from level one, feel like heroes. They kick ass and take names. In our opening battle, our level 1 cleric ran forward to fight the sahuagin (fish people) and cast a spell. It did 19 damage and took out 3 of them in one blow. This was the opening action of our campaign and I could tell everyone at the table paused a moment to absorb what just happened. Usually your level 1 character is not nearly that heroic. This makes the game just fun. When creating a character, you also invent a One Unique Thing about them, which sets them apart from the rest of the world. This is an invitation to make your character *special*. You are not merely "an assassin". You are "the only assassin to have escaped the Crimson Edge".
  • Players are invited to create. The One Unique Thing (above) is the first way that players are invited to step up and declare truths about their character and the world. It should be done with the GM, for consistency, I guess, but I love that permission is given for the player to invent stuff about the world and their character. When you define your character's skills by spending your background points, you are again invited to flesh out details about the world and your character's backstory. Your background is not merely, "animal training" but rather "head ostrich wrangler for the Silkie Circus". These subtle touches matter and really help give permission and space for players to get creative.
  • Abstracted details. Where other games have detailed weapon tables, with variable damage and speed stats, 13th Age just abstracts it. D&D has a multitude of polearms which are all very similar, and other games list different kinds of armour and various sizes of shield. In 13th Age, there are no detailed equipment tables. The damage your character does, and their armour class is determined by their class. Done. All fighters do 1d8 damage with martial weapons, or 1d10 with two handed. The player can freely describe what that weapon is, without worrying that their damage output might be affected. I love this. I don't need a realistic armoury in my game. Let's just assign a number and move on.

    Also, in combat, there are no 5ft squares but just abstracted "engaged, nearby, far" zones. These work well for me, and it was easy to invent a dynamic combat environment on the fly.
  • Meta-gamey. There are several aspects of the game that are mechanised because they make a fun game, and not because they make in-fiction logical sense. For example, you can heal after 4 fights. It doesn't matter if you spend a week in rest at a safe inn. You only get your spent spells and hit points back after 4 fights. It was jarring at first. Then I didn't mind it. In fact, it's a breath of fresh air for an RPG to acknowledge that it is a game, and not a simulation. This particular rule fixes the D&D problem of the short adventuring day, where players want to rest after every fight. Now, in 13th Age, there is no point in resting after a fight - you know you have got to get through 4 fights. This means players carefully consider when they are going to use their big nova abilities - because they might not come back for a while. It definitely makes the game more fun.
  • One book with everything. We had a great time, and we only used the Core book and the SRD. This makes the game cheap to pick up, and less intimidating for players. The quality of the glossy paper is terrific.

The Not-So-Good

  • A bit complicated for beginners. One of our players had no experience with 5e or other D&D. She wanted to play a rogue. Now rogue is (understandably) a popular choice, and in 13th Age it's one of the more complicated classes in the game. It was a lot to take in. In 5e, when you start at level 1, your character can do one thing. Then at level 2, you learn to do one additional thing. And so on. It's gradual. But in 13th Age, our level 1 rogue had 12 feats, powers, class features and talents. It's a lot.
  • Focused on heroic combat. The game is unapologetic - the main fun activity in 13th Age is combat. All of your character's abilities are for combat. I can count on one hand the spells, like Charm Person, that are not combat spells. No other sub-systems are provided, such as a negotiation sub-system or a lock-picking sub-system, or mechanics for investigations. All of that stuff is handled with a simple skill check. Characters heal themselves very easily with a 10 minute rest (limited by a count of your Recoveries, which reset after 4 fights). This works fine for a kick-in-the-door action game of epic adventure. Don't try to run another kind of game with this system, like gritty fantasy or something.
  • I don't get Icons. The factions of the world are called Icons, and they are presented in the default setting as archetypes that you are expected to rename and reflavour. For example, the Lich King Icon in the core book might be named "Skeletor" in your game. Each PC has a relationship with up to 3 icons, and each session they roll dice to see whether their icons will influence the story. It's quite freeform and the GM is expected to be quite improvisational. I found it really difficult to just make up a way that the Dwarf King might influence the story when the party was lost in the jungle far from civilization. I did invent my own Icons, to suit the Eberron setting and I tried Sly Flourish's tips for clearly defining how players can use them (Link). I also took some great guidance from the Escalation Magazine (Link). The guidelines in the 13th Age book for using Icons were not great for me. I was inclined to just scrap them, but I needed to try them because they are one of the big unique selling points of 13th Age.
  • Monsters chapter artwork. I like the general art style used for most of the images in the book, but one section stands out as weird to me - the Monsters chapter. This section has the stat blocks for more than 100 creatures. Handy stuff, very important. Each monster is accompanied by a big image that looks kinda like a stone or pebble with an icon or symbol on it. No art of the actual monster. I found it downright bizarre. The symbol is supposed to indicate which Icon the monster commonly serves, but that could be accomplished with a small icon - instead of this prominent art, sometimes taking up a quarter of a page. They're not unattractive. I just don't understand the choice to use page space on them.



I had a great time playing this game, and would be happy to return to it. There are a number of fun settings which would be a good match with 13th Age. Anything heroic would be good. I'm tempted to try Earthdawn or Exalted.



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