Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Looking at the 13th Age

A Look at 13th Age

13th Age is an interesting beast. It’s a collaborative design by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Rob Heinsoo was a major force behind 4th edition D&D, and Tweet of course was one of the developers behind 3rd edition D&D as well as other notable games like Everway and Ars Magica. So…an interesting pedigree.

13th Age is definitely a D&D-like, in that it has all the trappings of a “game about emulating a style of D&D without calling it that” going for it. That means the race options, class options, leveling mechanics, six attributes, roster of spells and monsters and general feel of the game are all steeped in D&D OGL-style. Unlike most D&D-likes however, 13th Age doesn’t set out to emulate or expand upon editions  1 through 3. Nope….13th Age is a “5th edition” or 4E D&D.

The mere association of 4E might put some people off, but look at it like this: 13th Age is all about fixing key issues with 4th edition’s style of play, expanding the scope of the game’s ability to do more than beg for comparisons to board games and World of Warcraft. As such, 13th Age succeeds admirably. What’s more interesting about 13th Age is the little, subtle stuff it keeps in the core mechanics, things which were all but implicit in 4th edition D&D are now made standard and normal in 13th Age.

Examples? Here are a few:

Backgrounds: 13th Age uses a background mechanic  to build skills. The skill system is now effectively an abstracted process; you still assign skill (background) points and make rolls and such, but your skill set can look like this: “guard captain, swordswoman, crusty old sailor, navigator, professional damsel in distress, etc.”  Almost more a list of jobs and experiences than a typical skill set. This solves the 4E problem of a narrowly defined range of skill into which everything under the sun must fit.

Horse Before the Cart: There are some things which have always been sacred in D&D: armor begets armor class, for example. In character generation you now pick your AC, and then from that match it to the armor you would be wearing to reflect it. Put another way: in 4E when you played a certain class it was inevitable from design that you’d choose certain types of armor to best work with your class. 13th Age makes this explicit by going right to your choice of AC, and then indicating that based on the AC you’d be wearing armor appropriate as such. It’s a funny way of looking at it, but fits the interesting implied “metadesign” process buried in 13th Age’s core assumptions. Wizards, as another example, get X spells to cast. What can they choose from? Anything on the list, of course! It’s some interesting design choices like this that are aimed more at an experience and less on a book-keeping process.

Less Resource Management: I’m still reading through, but I’ll bet when it comes to arrows you don’t count those, either. It’s not in the spirit of 13th Age to quibble with such minutiae. Ironic that even as D&D 5th edition moves back to a more traditional system which very carefully makes sure you count your ammo (and even offers rules for retrieving ammo that can be reused) 13th Age goes the opposite direction, to the domain where ammo is just something you have, something that is there, because you were born epic.

More Focus on Triggers/Maneuvers: I haven’t playtested it yet, but I plan to. Even without a playtest from character designs I can tell that a great deal of what goes on in play is trigger-dependent. A fighter’s abilities, for example, have a lot of conditionals….a talent or maneuver will change according to what the die rolls (even, odd) or doesn’t, as the case may be. The game is built under the expectation that the player will mine for synergies, and work out ways to exploit them.

Level Up in Ten: 13th Age is built around a fast progression of ten levels, and in the space of ten levels you can go from peon to godlike in short order. Leveling is everything; it’s a multiplier for damage, and nets you a feat and other increases every new level. You can do incremental advancement too, picking one new level feature awarded by your GM at the end of each game until you have all of them, and are now effectively the next level. The game also provides a model for a “ten games, ten levels” style of lighting-round campaign play. It’s a really cool concept, one I would be tempted to try out. Just as easily a GM can dole out one incremental advancement per session, which means you could see characters take 40-60 sessions to fully level up. Throughout this process there is no XP system; this is a very “modern” take for the modern hipster gamer. I say that only because I know of no “hipster” gamers out there that endorse an XP system….it seems to be a very “in thing” to eschew XP as tedious book-keeping….and 13th Age, once again, is all about slaying tedious book-keeping.

As an aside, the advancement of power over ten levels strikes me as roughly equivalent to twenty levels of advancement in 4E, but with a power curve and expectations that are smoother for purposes of 13th Age’s ten-level range. You get a lot crammed into every level, so leveling up in 13th Age is serious business (unless you dole out the rewards incrementally).

No More Boardgame Comparisons: 13th Age is in many ways exactly what 4E would look like if it had been designed for narrative, abstract play. You can run 13th Age with a board and minis, but it’s very fast and loose (Very, very fast from what I’ve seen messing around with it so far). This fixes two huge issues 4E had: board-and-minis requirement and glacial combat pace.

13th age has a bunch of stuff that is unique to it, but one of the most unusual additions is the notion of the icons, thirteen great figures of power which embody the core personalities/entities/deities of the Epic Fantasy Realm which 13th Age is built around. There’s actually not a lot about the 13th Age setting in the book that ties the rules to it….you can run the game as-is in any setting you want, but the icons are a unique deal, and its hard to imagine running 13th Age without figuring out some way to incorporate their concept. The upside of the icons is they keep the campaign heavily focused….lightning rod focused…..on the iconic fantasy realm’s concepts. The downside is that trying to make them fit into a more nuanced, complex world could be trouble. Either way, the relationship to these icons is effectively 13th Age’s alignment system, albeit with a fantastic level of immediate world immersion built in, structured in a way that hammers home the idea that this is all about epic fantasy.

So who is 13th Age for?

In many ways I and some of my cohorts who liked 4E but found its flaws to be too overwhelming in the end will enjoy 13th Age. It takes many design principles from the 4E plate and runs with them to logical conclusions. So…if you were in the “I like 4E but….” Camp, 13th Age is worth checking out.

I don’t know if an OSR advocate is going to get much more than a sense of puzzlement out of 13th Age. If you’re open and receptive to new ideas and games then you might be able to approach 13th Age from a fresh viewpoint, and you may well find it’s got a very tempting approach to D&D. I can’t deny that there was something really distinct about how 4E played that I liked, and 13th Age seems to capture that in a more accessible package.

On the other hand, OSR purists are probably going to despise 13th Age as it is emblematic of just about everything there is to hate in modern gaming. It’s its own flavor of D&D, but one which the old guard may not find to their liking at all, even with 13th Age being a cleaner, dolled up version that does cater to a broader range of play styles than it’s spiritual predecessor.

I’ll be writing more about 13th Age as I go along, but I wanted to throw out some discussion on it right away, to sort of provide a head’s up that this thing has caught my fancy….! 


  1. I've been curious about this game for quite some time. After reading this post, I am sold!

    1. Glad to assist! I've got a bunch of stuff I'm working on for 13th Age, so more discussion soon, including char gen examples, a module and some rules ideas I've already got. I really like this system, it's definitely got "fun and interesting" baked into it.