by Mike Shea
We live in a marvelous time for tabletop roleplaying games. Over the past ten years we’ve seen an explosion of wonderful game systems, each bringing a unique take to this hobby we love. We gamemasters can learn a lot by reading, and even playing, as many different RPGs as we can. We can find all sorts of ideas to bring back to our RPG of choice and—who knows—might even find ourselves regularly playing a variety of systems instead of just one. While most RPG players are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, these other systems bring a unique take on the worlds they help us create.
13th Age is one such system. Its designers took their own vast experience building previous versions of D&D, and refined them into a system they thought would bring the most fun to the game.
Their philosophy diverged from the philosophy of the designers of the fifth edition of D&D, which carries the torch of a 40-year history. 13th Age is not bound by any such history, and thus Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo were free to build the d20 system of their dreams: their love letter to D&D.
With the increasing popularity of 5th edition, more new players and GMs are entering the hobby. This article delves into the ways 13th Age differs from 5e, and the distinctive features that 13th Age brings to the table. These features include:
- A focus on superheroic fantasy
- Character relationships with the Icons—the great powers of the world
- Open backgrounds and “one unique things” that tie characters to the world
- Escalating power across 10 levels of play
- Two-dimensional monster design
- Abstract combat mechanics which are perfect for narrative battles
As GMs, we grow by taking in new experiences and adding them to our previous knowledge. Trying out new game systems is one way to engage in these new experiences. We have no edition wars here: We play no favorites. With such a wide and rich variety of RPGs, we can try many of them out, learn from each of them, steal features we like, and focus on the one that best fits our needs.
So what can 5th edition DMs and players expect from 13th Age? Let’s have a look.
At lower levels, D&D 5e focuses on the gritty and realistic feeling of local heroes growing up. Adventurers begin as careful explorers of a large and dangerous world. As they gain experience, their power grows—but not until the highest levels do they begin to change the world around them.
In 13th Age, the characters are powerful and unique beings at the moment of their creation. They aren’t just heroes, they’re superheroes. We can see this both in the mechanics of the game (such as a character’s high initial hit points) and in the flavor of the game (such as defining each character by their One Unique Thing that defines them in the world). As 13th Age characters gain levels, their power grows steeply. They become even more superheroic, roaring across the lands and venturing into the depths of living dungeons.
The world in 13th Age, the Dragon Empire, is as superheroic as the characters. The world is a flat disk, with the overworld of flying cities above and the Abyss below. The lands are scarred by hellholes, and trod by beasts as big as cities.
From the very beginning, 13th Age dives into the deep end of high adventure.
Most fantasy RPG settings have higher powers, whose agendas and conflicts provide the background for adventures. In D&D, this usually takes the form of a pantheon of gods and demigods, either good or evil (or a bit of both). 13th Age focuses instead on the icons.
These powerful beings, such as the Prince of Shadows, the Elf Queen, the Orc Lord, and the Crusader, rule over the Dragon Empire. They are the movers and shakers in the world. Though mortal, they are rarely threatened in battle. They’re not boss monsters: they’re the moving pillars of the world. The web that lies between the Icons (there are 13 of them in the Dragon Empire) binds the world and weaves the player characters into it, for good and ill.
During character creation, the players decide which icons their character is connected to and whether those connections are positive, negative, or conflicted. The characters may not be powerful at 1st level, but they are important. They are are significant players in, and help define, the larger power struggles of the world.
In addition to signaling to the GM what the players want from the campaign (Lots of magic? Battles with orcs? Heists and intrigue?), the icon mechanics help drive the improvisational aspects of 13th Age, something that the game heavily embraces. At the beginning of each session, the players roll 1d6 for each icon relationship. 1 to 4 mean nothing. 6s offer some advantage to the character based on that relationship. 5s also give an advantage but with some complication.
Backgrounds and the One Unique Thing
In the 5th edition of D&D, characters are defined by their race, class, background, traits, and skills. Race and class selections in 13th Age will feel familiar, but 13th Age combines the aspects of skills and backgrounds into a larger character background feature.
Players create their characters’ backgrounds themselves: there is no pre-existing list of backgrounds to choose from. These backgrounds further define and refine the character and their place in the world. A player invents a number of relevant backgrounds for their character (usually two or three) and assigns eight points among them, with no more than five in any one background.
Whenever a character in 13th Age attempts something that would require a skill check, the player rolls and adds their attribute bonus. If they have a background relevant to the situation, they can add the points they have allocated to that background.
The open-ended nature of these backgrounds help players define their characters’ role in the world. Instead of “Sage”, a player may define part of the world with a background like “former sage of the Crusader’s inquisition, now on the run”.
Example: A paladin with the +3 background “Student in the Hidden Monastery of the Great Gold Wyrm” has to cross a tightrope across a pit. The paladin’s player says to the GM, “The monastery I trained in as a youth sits on a mountain cliffside, and all the buildings are only connected by tightropes. So I’m really good at walking tightropes.” The GM agrees that the +3 bonus applies to this skill check, and quietly writes a note to herself, “Future adventure: party goes to the hidden monastery, has awesome battle on tightropes.”
13th Age characters are further defined by their “one unique thing”. This trait sets their character apart from everyone else in the world. This can be something relatively personal like, “is guided by three ghost witches only she can see” or something larger in scope like, “is the only person in the world who can hear the laments of the Koru”. Like backgrounds, these unique features help the player define parts of the world beyond the bounds of the character sheet.
Though we can play the fifth edition of D&D without a map or miniatures, the distances, ranges, and areas of effect in D&D are defined in five foot increments. For this reason, many players and GMs choose to play D&D on a gridded battle map, with each square accounting for five feet of distance.
13th Age ignores fixed distances and instead talks about distances in abstract terms such as “nearby”, “far away”, “grouped”, and “engaged”. While we can play 13th Age with physical maps and miniatures, these abstract distances let us ignore individual squares and focus on the big movements and motions of the characters. These abstract distances still have mechanical effects in the game, such as a fireball being able to hit 1d3 nearby enemies in a group (or 2d3 enemies if you’re willing to hit your friends!).
Because of these abstracted distances, it’s as easy to run a 13th Age battle completely in the “theater of the mind” as it is with miniatures and a map. It also means we don’t have to worry about the small details of things like positioning and specific movement, and can focus on the high fantasy and superheroic action that’s central to 13th Age. Players and GMs who enjoy a map and miniatures can still use them with 13th Age, but we are no longer bound to the squares on those maps. Only relative distances matter.
For players and GMs used to running games on a gridded battle map, this can take some getting used to but it’s worth the effort. Battles in 13th Age feel less like chess and more like an explosive action movie.
Flat Versus Escalating Math
13th Age embraces the drive of superheroic fantasy in the game’s mechanics as well as its story. Those familiar with D&D 5e’s character growth recognize that the statistics of characters grow on a shallow curve (often called “flat math”). Armor classes are set by the armor of the character and don’t increase with the character’s level. A character’s attack bonus does go up with level, but slowly.
In 13th Age, a character’s power grows steeply from level to level. 13th Age only has ten levels but each level feels like two levels of growth in D&D. A 10th level character in 13th Age is roughly equivalent to a 20th level character in D&D 5e.
Not only do attack bonuses, saving throws, and armor classes go up as a character levels but the amount of damage dice a character uses on attacks also increases. Fifth level fighters roll five dice worth of damage on each attack. High level characters roll huge handfuls of dice on attacks, dishing out triple digits of damage. (Although at higher levels of play, to speed things up the rulebook recommends averaging some or all of the damage dice instead of rolling all of them.)
This steep curve once again reinforces the superheroic feeling of 13th Age.
Two Dimensional Monster Design
The monster design in 13th Age follows a design similar to the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons (but don’t let that scare you away if you weren’t a fan of 4e). Monsters not only have levels, but also sizes or strengths independent of level. These sizes and strengths include mooks, normal monsters, double strength (or large monsters), and triple strength (or huge monsters). These sizes and strengths mean that a level 4 triple strength monster is roughly equivalent to three level 4 characters. This two-dimensional monster design makes it much easier to build “balanced” encounters to challenge a group. A simple chart gives us a gauge of how many monsters of what types will balance well for a party at a given level.
Monsters in 13th Age use static damage instead of rolling dice, which may seem odd at first but becomes totally natural. Like characters, they also scale significantly in power as they level. The balor, for example, dishes out a whopping 160 damage on a single hit with its lightning sword.
Nearly all monsters also have attacks or powers that are triggered by dice results and other circumstances in the battle. For example, here are the balor’s attacks:
Abyssal blade +18 vs. AC—160 damage
Natural even hit: The balor deals +1d20 lightning damage to the target and to one other nearby enemy of the balor’s choice. Then repeat that damage roll against the targets once for each point on the escalation die (so if it’s 4, that’s four more d20 rolls)
Natural even miss: 80 damage.
C: Flaming whip +18 vs. PD (one nearby enemy)—50 fire damage, and the target is pulled to the balor, who engages it.
Natural even miss: 25 fire damage.
Limited use: 1/round, as a quick action.
Because each monster is “scripted” to take action on random die results, they’re capable of surprising both the players and the GM.
A Differentiated Game of High Fantasy
Unbound from the need to embrace the elements of traditional fantasy RPGs, 13th Age gives us an RPG that thrusts us deep into high fantasy. Our characters are big and bold. They’re unique actors in a unique world torn by the forces who rule over it. 13th Age is a world of hellholes and living dungeons. It is a world of floating cities and underground labyrinths. The game system itself embraces this superheroic fantasy with bold mechanics that handwave common wargaming details and thrusts its players into the actions of our limitless imaginations.
I love 13th Age. I also love 5th edition D&D. These games are not mutually exclusive. We can love many roleplaying game systems and each one gives us things we can use in the others. In a single volume, 13th Age gives us a beautiful system of high fantasy roleplaying that every GM should try. Whatever system you prefer, you’re sure to find ideas in 13th Age you can use in any system. And who knows? It just might become your system of choice.
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 The Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations. Mike lives in Vienna, Virginia with his gamer wife Michelle and their dire worg Jebu.