Saving Throw
Thirteenth Age 2013
Do you hear the thunder raging in the sky? Premonition of a shattered world that's gonna die.

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Overall Review
published by Pelgrane Press reviewed by Scott Wachter
320 pages, 2013, Hardcover+PDF Bundle $44.95
Game Setting 4
Art 5
Character Generation 4.5
Game Rules 4
Intelligibility 5
Review Scoring

13th Age is a brand new d20-based game that plays the Standard Fantasy Setting Tv Tropes Page to the very hilt. On paper, this belongs to a very broad category of average samey games that have been cluttering up game store shelves since the early part of this century. This volume, however, distinguishes itself from the herd of 3rd Edition imitators with aplomb. Sprung from the shared brain-space of Jonathan Tweet (former lead designer of D&D 3rd edition) and Rob Heinsoo (former lead designer of D&D 4th edition) it feels like an edition of Dungeons & Dragons from a parallel universe, where the game balance took a backseat to a streamlined mechanical design and player-oriented narrative approach.

Mechanically, the game should feel very familiar to any gamer who has rolled dice in the past two decades, roll a twenty-sided die, add a number, meet or exceed a target to succeed is the familiar order of the day, but with a laundry list of shortcuts, improvements and story game elements thrown into the mix. Skill lists as long as an arm have been dropped in favour of players assigning ranks to careers or backgrounds that encompass physical abilities, knowledge-bases and contacts. So that a character with a few ranks in 'assassin' can use the ability to skulk about, identify a poison or call in a few favours from the local criminal underworld. This a question of personal preference more than game design quality, but it works well and encourages the whole group to apply their abilities creatively rather than shut down the moment they feel that the character is out of their element.

Combat has been taken off the grid, abstracting ability ranges into a shorthand of engaged, close, nearby, or far away. That's not to say all the fiddly bits of d20-style combat have disappeared, just shifted from positioning to character abilities. Each class comes with a range of unique powers that have their own feel. Whether it be spells, managing momentum for tricky combat maneuvers, or paying attention to die results to activate battle cries, there is always something to watch out for during combat. A new addition to the paradigm is the escalation die, beginning on the second round of combat a d6 with the '1' face up is set down on the table increasing the results of all d20 rolls by players by one, every round afterward the die and the bonus is increased. It keeps combat from becoming a slog, where it's clear who has won the fight and its just a matter of time and resources until the last hit points a chipped away. The die also plays into how some player abilities activate, for example a barbarian can launch into a berserker rage once per day, but can do it for free after the escalation die hits '4' or higher. There's a great tension in this idea; great power comes at a great cost or when it may be far less effective than it could have been. It's a great adaptation and set of additions to a stale combat engine.

The character classes aren't as finely balanced as they were in 4th Edition D&D, but each one brings their own style of play that not only feels fresh, but also powerful. Even at first level all the classes have a trick or two that leaves players feeling badass. Though not every class has made the transition, monks and their oriental flavours have been left by the wayside along with the druid and specialized wizards, though they will see play in an upcoming supplement. Small apologies to anyone particularly attached to those classes.

The last piece of creating a character is deciding the one thing that makes them unique. This is an entirely narrative-based power; it can be very broad and in the right hands makes for great story opportunities. Characters also have relationships (friendly, antagonistic or conflicted) with the major players in the setting, that can come up as a story element in any session at the roll of the dice. These are a biggest shift in gameplay from a player standpoint, but there is a lot of material about how Rob or Jonathan run their home home games, so this feels like they've actually codified their play style into the rules with this section of the character sheet. It does lend an epic feel to characters without amping up the power levels. The premise is that the player characters will become world movers by the end of a campaign and these elements sell that very well.

The setting of 13th Age revolves around the Dragon Empire and the thirteen Icons that are the major power players of the world. They fall into fairly familiar fantasy archetypes: the Archmage, the Orc Lord, the High Priestess and so on. Every one of them is presented with a history with the world and the other Icons, their own agenda, and a statement starting with the words "Everything will be fine unless…" which describes how their place in the status quo is oh so precarious. Grab any two of those ideas, mix in player Icon relationships and unique things and Game Masters have a plot halfway outlined.

The setting itself is similarly half-constructed. The basic details of the Dragon Empire are presented, but with a great many spots intentionally left blank or with just enough dangling plot threads to ignite the imagination. There's a good blend of tried and true fantasy tropes, and new twists to keep Professor Tolkien's imitations feeling fresh.

The book itself is gorgeous. The art is amazing, using blending a few different styles for character art that keep the images popping off the page. Interestingly, they art direction opts for representations and stand-in icons whenever possible. The bestiary section doesn't use typical monster art, but rather crests, tokens or reliefs to stand-in for the creature. The same is also true when the book is elaborating on organizations or regions. It furthers that non-specificity of the setting, and forces the imagination to fill-in what an orc is rather than reverting to the stock art. It creates an idea that these NPCs and creatures are much more than a single creature in a tattered loincloth with rusty weapons. In terms of layout and organization, Pelgrane Press produces some of the very best pages when it comes to cleanness and readability, but here the team has exceeded even my expectations with this book.

The game mastering chapter features the bog standard advice for running games, nothing gamers haven't heard before but still worth being reminded of every now and again. There are few strongly recommended ideas that could just as easily have been codified into the rules at character creation. For example, the authors think it's a neat idea for the group to create characters together and then define each other's relationships and group goals. I'm sitting an ever growing pile of small press games that at worst have it on the character sheet and at best feature it as a major game mechanic. This game could put in at least some effort.

There are a lot of fantasy games on the shelves and even more d20 System hacks in the wild. 13th Age is special in that field. It feels like two very good game masters have sat down and codified most of their play style into a much improved take on the WoTC-style of D&D, this book comes very highly recommended.

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