by Mike Shea
For many of us, the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was an excellent refinement of the tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) we’ve enjoyed for 30 years. For some of us, it was our first exposure to D&D in any form. If 4th Edition wasn’t your bag, there are probably other reviews of 13th Age that will serve you better. Today we’re going to talk in particular about what 13th Age means for a 4th Edition D&D player and dungeon master.
Like 4th Editon, 13th Age is a tabletop fantasy roleplaying game by Rob Heinsoo, one of the developers of 4th Edition D&D, and Jonathan Tweet, one of the developers of the 3rd Edition of D&D. 13th Age is their love letter to the game they (and many of us) love dearly.
The world of tabletop RPGs has changed greatly over the past couple of years. With D&D Next on the horizon and Kickstarter giving birth to loads of new high quality RPGs, we have a whole new landscape of game systems and worlds to explore. For a 4th Edition player, however, 13th Age brings the most familiar elements of the game we love while smoothing out the rough edges. If you loved 4th Edition, you’ll definitely want to take a look at 13th Age.
Here are a few reasons why a 4th edition player might enjoy 13th Age.
Empowered Characters with Lots of Options
As a 4e player or GM, much of 13th Age will feel familiar to you. As in 4e, characters in 13th Age begin as empowered heroes, even at level 1. Level 1 characters are tough. They represent the heroes of the world, not just farmers with swords. Level 1 characters have a good amount of choices to make, many of which feel like your traditional 4th edition character powers. Unlike the core set of 4th Edition classes, character classes in 13th Age won’t feel similar. The classes in 13th Age follow a track of complexity from the simple and straightforward barbarian to the detailed and complicated bard. The complexity of your preferred play style will dictate which classes you’re likely to want to play.
Like 4th Edition, 13th Age includes a robust list of feats which will feel familiar to you —with one exception. Many of your feat choices focus directly on specific powers so you can improve the parts of your character you use and enjoy the most.
The level spread in 13th Age will seem quite different from what you’re used to seeing in 4th Edition. There are only ten levels in 13th Age, but these levels span the full range of power you’d expect in a PC. A level 10 13th Age character will feel a lot like a mid-epic character in 4th Edition. This has the effect of matching spell levels to character levels and ensures that characters get a lot of interesting new things every time they level.
Backgrounds, Not Skills
4e players will find 13th Age’s background system to be a bit different from the rigid skill lists we’re used to in D&D. In 13th Age, skills are abstracted into large pools that form a character’s background. For example, the “Advisor of the Royal Court of the Dragon Emperor” background would bundle up a bunch of potential skills such as history and diplomacy while also tying the PC closer to the game world. These backgrounds serve both to define your character and as an open-ended skill system. It’s a refreshing difference.
Tactical Combat and Distance Abstraction
With 4e’s focus on combat, 13th Age’s combat system will be one of the biggest aspects on which 4e players will focus. The basic mechanics of combat in 13th Age will be very familiar to 4e players: Roll a 20, add a modifier, check it against a defense. The defenses in 13th Age are simplified to AC, Physical Defense, and Mental Defense but act the same as AC, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses. Attack and defense modifiers go up every level instead of every other level, which fits the power growth of PCs in 13th Age across its ten character levels.
You’ll notice that damage scales up quite a bit in 13th Age as well. Melee attacks add an additional die of damage every level and lower level spells can be memorized at higher levels to increase their damage and effectiveness. This spell progression will look odd to many D&D players since you lose lower level spell slots as you gain higher level ones. It makes sense as soon as you see that Magic Missile can be memorized at level 9 for a whopping 10d6 damage.
Unlike 4e’s focus on gridded tabletop combat, 13th Age is designed to be played with or without maps and miniatures. 13th Age abstracts distances instead of using squares or feet for movement and ranges. Instead of “5 squares,” 13th age uses terms like “nearby,” “far away,” “grouped,” and “engaged” to describe distance. Spells and effects use these same terms. Effects that hit more than one creature usually use a term such as “1d3 nearby enemies” so you don’t have to worry about exact positioning.
On the surface, one might think that 13th Age’s distance abstraction would make it a poor choice for maps and miniatures. It turns out that’s not true at all. 13th Age is a fantastic system for playing with maps, minis, and terrain. One could certainly not use the adjective “tactical” to describe such combat but the freeform abstract nature of 13th Age combat ends up opening up a lot of fun possibilities. If a player wants to use a large miniature to represent “the largest woman in the world,” doing so doesn’t hose up combat. Who cares how big a miniature is when squares aren’t important? Want to use that gargantuan black dragon “miniature” to represent the dragon who’s only “large?” Go for it!
There’s one other mechanical component of 13th Age combat worth noting — the escalation die. 4e battles can take 60 to 90 minutes to run, and this was well known by Rob and Jonathan when they wrote 13th Age. The escalation die helps ensure that battles speed up the more rounds go by. Every round after the first, all PCs get +1 to attack on all attacks. This is represented by a six-sided die on the one position. Every additional round, the die and the bonus increases by one. This increase ends up ensuring PCs begin to hit more and more as the battle goes on. It’s a built in system for speeding up fights the longer they go on. Some PC powers and even powerful monsters trigger interesting effects based on the escalation die as well.
All of these refinements to the tactical combat we found and loved in 4th edition end up making 13th Age combat fast, furious, and fun.
Icon Relationships and the One Unique Thing
13th Age adds quite a few other features to catch our eye including icon relationships and each PC’s one-unique-thing. There really isn’t a similar construct in 4th edition to compare these to. Rather than describe these features here, take a look at Rob Donohue’s 13th Age review and my own 13th Age review on Critical Hits to learn more about them.
For the Game Master
So far we’ve covered much of what a 4e player will find interesting in 13th Age but there is a lot of love for game masters as well. 13th Age follows 4th Edition’s approach of treating monsters completely differently from PCs. 13th Age monsters have simple stat blocks designed to make them easy to run at the table. 13th Age also includes easy-to-use tables for improvised damage and quick monster math, something those of us who fell in love with page 42 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide are sure to use.
Because 13th Age abstracts many of the game elements we’re used to seeing well refined in 4th Edition D&D, a GM running 13th Age is given much more authority and responsibility to make rulings instead of following codified rules. How far is “far away?” Can a PC use that particular background for that particular scene? How will an icon relationship manifest in tonight’s adventure? The GM must adjudicate each of these questions directly and must wield that responsibility well to ensure the game is fun for everyone.
Using 13th Age to Houserule 4e
Beyond being a full game system, 13th Age can also act as a set of well-designed house rules you can drop right into your 4th edition game. Want battles to go a little faster? Add the escalation die. Want to abstract the skill system? Add in 13th Age’s backgrounds. Want to tie PCs closer to the main NPC drivers of your campaign? Add in the icon system. Any of these components plug right into 4e with hardly any core changes to 4e.
A Refinement of the Game We Love
It’s clear that Rob and Jonathan love D&D as much as we do. They poured that love into a game that showcases the parts of 4th edition D&D we loved the most and helps polish down the rough edges. While 4e’s combat encounters ended up monopolizing much of the time we played, 13th Age slims combat down without removing PC empowerment and adds in story elements sure to entertain us for years to come.
Even if you have no intent of leaving your 4e games behind, 13th Age has a lot to offer. Give it a try.
About The Author
Mike Shea is a writer, gamer, technologist, and webmaster for the D&D website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and wrote the books Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and The Lazy Dungeon Master. Mike lives in Vienna, Virginia with his gamer wife Michelle and their gamer dog Jebu.