We were as surprised as anyone that our announcement of 13th Age—a new d20-rolling fantasy RPG by the lead designers of 3rd edition and 4th edition—happened right when Wizards of the Coast announced that 5th edition was on the way. Though part of the same tradition, the games had fundamental differences in approach, and provide very different experiences of the same genre.
So, which one is right for your group? We’ve linked to some forum threads and blog posts on that very topic below!
5e D&D tries to keep some “classic” D&D features, while 13A has more experimentation and innovation. As far as quality goes, I think both options are equally valid.
M. Weasel: I chose to use 5e for my current campaign (a player-driven hex crawl), and had a great time using 13th Age for my previous D&D-type game (investigation/big-damn-heroes action in Eberron). The biggest reason for me was that 5e feels more down-to-earth and traditional, while 13th Age feels like it has that big-damn-heroes style baked into it. That comes from a mix of what powers characters get, how hard characters are to kill, how magic items are designed and capped in each system, etc. Based on that, the feel of 5e was a better match for what I was aiming for with my game (relatively traditional D&D world, little fish in a big pond). Beyond that, I changed groups since my 13th Age campaign – some of my current players are not fond of Backgrounds (which is a pity, since I personally love them), and one of them loves the ol’ D&D-Puzzle-Wizard thing, which 5e does better than 13th Age. That said, I do miss many parts of 13th Age, especially in terms of monster design – it just has so many brilliant monsters.
Lemurion: I want to essentially replicate the AD&D 1e play style with a more modern rule set. From everything I’ve seen, 5E is better at reproducing that kind of gaming experience than 13th Age. …5E is a good compromise for those who prefer modern rules to the Gygaxian prose of 1e, but still want to play in a similar style.
Michael Kailus: In practice, 5E works much better for games where the players roleplaying creativity goes more towards “playing an adventurer” vs. “telling a fun action story.” 5E answers the question “how would I get past the trolls if I was Bilbo Baggins” and 13th Age answers the question “what is the sickest shield kickflip I could do if I was Orlando Bloom Legolas?” …As a GM, this has an interesting effect. GMing 5E is largely about prepping a story and situation and then seeing what the characters do. In 13th Age, meanwhile, you pretty much plan out a series of combat encounters (the actual action) but develop the story behind them collaboratively with the players. You know they’re going to fight five level three monsters before the “third act” of the adventure, but you might not know who hired those monsters or why the players need to stop them. By contrast, in 5E I’d plan out a group of monsters and their leader and the players might not fight them at all.
Martin Killmann: I have a very short explanation for you: The DC cinematic universe runs on 5E, but the Marvel cinematic universe runs on 13th Age. DCU is trying to be serious about conserving the legacy of iconic characters like Superman and Batman, whereas Marvel is like, “here’s a talking raccoon.”
padgettish: 5e added a lot of stuff to up the presence of your character’s character in the mechanics of the game. When it comes down to it, backgrounds and inspiration don’t really stack up against a one true thing and icons. 13th Age will always do a better job at weaving the players into the narrative and empowering them to make their characters narratively important. 5e’s skill system is much less abstracted, though, and its mundane elements feel a lot more grounded in a living setting. If you’re running your typical fantasy story, 13th Age will be a lot better, but 5e will edge it out if you’re playing something like “all the characters are running a guild/merchant cartel” or a sandbox game where touches of minutia and simulation are important.
13th Age‘s combat is much tighter within a single encounter, and there’s a bit more of a game to it. At present, 5e’s design seems built more around one or two characters dropping a spell or ability to drastically change the circumstances of an encounter (at level one Sleep or Dragon Breath can easily wipe out a group of equal level monsters) and tactically mopping up the survivors. In 13th Age I feel you can really stress out the players without relying on tapping out their p/day resources, while thus far 5e seems to focus more on budgeting your resources from one encounter to the next. My group’s been playing through Tyranny of Dragons Rules as Written to get a feel for the “intended game,” and it even goes so far as structuring the story so taking short rests is something you have to budget and can’t just do after every encounter.
wheloc: A lot of groups like to have freeform exploration but tight and tactical combat, and this is what 13th Age offers in spades. The exploration rules, like backgrounds and icons, are very loose and mostly amount to “do whatever seems fun”. Combat is more robust, with specific rules to do combat-stuff, and classes mostly consisting of bundles of combat abilities. It does encourage combat “set-pieces” and “everything looks like a nail” use of combat abilities, but for groups that enjoy this sort of thing this is a feature rather than a bug.
For groups that want more specific exploration rules, and maybe less specific combat rules (or at least different specific combat rules), D&D 5th edition might be a better choice. The classes and backgrounds (at least some of them) are a mix of combat and exploration abilities. Combat isn’t exactly freeform, but there’s more of a broad pool of combat options to draw from, and less of a restrictive list of combat abilities for each class.
Dionysos: In my opinion, as somebody currently running campaigns in both systems, 5th edition is far simpler to play and to run. The rules are easy and straightforward. 13th Age, while much simpler than 3e or 4e, is a strange fusion of traditional adventure game and artsy storygame, and so it will naturally be a little tougher to get your head around. Having said that, 13th Age is the more interesting of the two.
Lesp: For a brand-new, no-experience group, I’d probably say that, while there are pros and cons to each in terms of accessibility, 13th Age is probably a hair easier. 5e has a little more counterintuitive baggage sitting at its core than 13th Age does. However – and this is important – the 5e Core Rulebook is more clearly written. The 13th Age rulebook isn’t bad or anything, but there are definitely places where referring to the FAQ will save you a huge amount of time in trying to understand things, because there are rules that are in very odd places. …Both systems are top notch in terms of ease of play compared to most other D&D-alikes, and I don’t think you can really go wrong with either choice. 13th Age is arguably more demanding on DMs when it comes to thinking on your feet (it has significant improvisation vectors built in on both sides of the screen), while 5e is more demanding of DMs in terms of managing mechanical references and requires more work to produce satisfying combat encounters, but neither game is super demanding in any of those regards.
Extrakun: I believe whether you like 13th Age “background checks” depends on your play-style and the kind of game you like. From my reading of the rules, the game is supposed to be a constant back and forth between GM and players—this is even the style of the organized play scenarios. The GM will outright ask players questions such as, “All right, Jen, you used to run with the Thief’s Guild at Drakkenhall, but were chased out. Why?” …In 13th Age, the authors see “skill checks” as more of a narrative experience than a gameplay one.
neowolf: For running I think they’re about on par. 5e is a little more mechanically complex, 13th Age is a little more improv demanding. So this could depend on what your strengths and weaknesses are as a GM, but overall I don’t think either is much worse than the other to run. For playing, I don’t think either stands out either, however I do think that 13th Age has the advantage and disadvantage of being written in a fairly conversational tone, that assumes this isn’t your first rodeo. A lot of terms go unexplained and there’s no sitting down to explain to you what a roleplaying game is. For an experienced player, I think this is great. It helps it to be a more enjoyable read. For a completely new player, I think it can be a little confusing. Though I think this is mitigated pretty much entirely if you’ve got a group showing you the ropes as well.
Want to see 13th Age in action? Check out this actual play video from Saving Throw: