13th Age Discussion: A Love Letter to The Best Parts of D&D

Isaac Chalk

Finally, the NDA on the game I've been playtesting has been lifted and the evangelizing can begin.

Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo are two D&D designers who are working on their own independent fantasy game in the d20 tradition. What sets this game apart is what sets Heinsoo and Tweet apart - in addition to D&D, Heinsoo was co-editor of Feng Shui, and Tweet has lent his talents to Over the Edge and Ars Magica. These are non-D&D RPGs and, sadly, don't get a tenth of the audience D&D gets, even though they deserve it.

It's the world beyond D&D that Heinsoo and Tweet are bringing into 13th Age, which has been featured on the front page a couple of times - but thanks to the NDA it's been playtested under, not a lot of details have slipped out. The NDA has been lifted, however, and the game goes on pre-order soon - so now is as good a time as any to start talking about it.

So - what IS 13th Age? Here's what it is not:

- It is not a retroclone. The goal of a retroclone is to evoke the feeling of a particular RPG from Way Back When. My experiences with 13th Age do not evoke this feeling - the game is far less based around what RPG.net calls the murderhobo lifestyle of homeless superhumans poking around in dungeons, beating up the people living there, and taking all their things.

It's a far more story-based game, lending itself just as well to intrigues in a world where an Empire grows stout and its enemies and allies grow wary. This is not to say that there aren't things to kill, or a robust combat system to do it with - but 13th Age has many robust out-of-combat systems that you'll be using on those days when there just isn't a hobgoblin in sight.

- It is not a Fantasy Heartbreaker. The definition of a fantasy heartbreaker is a game clearly written by someone who's never played anything besides D&D, and it shows; the game they come up with is D&D with one or two great ideas, and those great ideas cause the heartbreak because they're in a system that is too much like other systems to get a fair chance.

13th Age is not a heartbreaker. All throughout the system, references to D&D abound - and so do references to FATE, Burning Wheel, 7th Sea, Ars Magica, Over the Edge, Feng Shui and the like. 13th Age draws upon this knowledge and casts an eye towards how D&D might serve its goal through alternate ends. It's so stuffed with great ideas it may as well be called "Every d20 Rule You Didn't Know You Always Wanted."

- It's not the 4E version of Pathfinder. There are a few commonalities with 4th Edition - healing surges, six ability scores, eight classes based around D&D classics, feats, and the like. But 13th Age is less interested in giving you a version of a game you already own, tweaked slightly, and more interested in pushing the design space of D&D into new territory.

Combat can be on a grid, but by default is gridless. Each class has unique approaches, with only some following the AWED paradigm. There is a built-in mechanic that is specifically meant to discourage long combats. Skills are designed to bring out aspects of your character's life at the same time that they either succeed at a task, or fail in an interesting way. 13th Age doesn't play like a game I already own, but like a game I want to own.

So having gone into what 13th Age isn't, what is 13th Age? Well, as Tweet and Heinsoo described it, it's a love letter to D&D.

It's a love letter in that it recalls all the best parts of the object of affection, while ignoring or forgiving all of its shortcomings and flaws. Included in the letter is the time you clawed your way out of a sure defeat, of the time you undid the diabolical schemes of the King of All Liches, that moment of quiet joy when the imaginary person on the piece of paper did something you never expected them to do.

Not included is that time you argued over whether or not you'd packed enough rope. (13th Age doesn't have a Fantasy Accountant subgame - you're presumed to be equipped for the job if you know it's coming.) It doesn't include that time you rolled poorly on a skill check and the game ground to a halt as the GM slowly realized that now you have no way forward. (13th Age skill checks always "fail forward" - if you flub the roll, you still advance, you'll just have some... complications.) It especially doesn't include that time you all argued what the One True Edition is, which is one of 13th Age's biggest draws for me.

D&D has a long and rich history, but that history has a downside - in that there are certain expectations its players have, and they cry foul when those expectations are not met. It's expected that wizards cast spells this way, or that the game be primarily geared towards the dungeon crawl, that we need to keep alignment around even though the first thing done by everyone I know is to pretend it isn't there. All these things are part of the 'brand,' and deviation from the brand is looked upon with suspicion. But deviation encourages innovation, and therefore, it's tough for D&D to truly innovate and still be D&D.

But 13th Age doesn't have this problem. It can stake out any territory it wants. Tweet and Heinsoo can make the game uniquely their own, playing up whatever aspects of D&D they wish to while quietly ignoring the parts that don't work for them. Yet the game has enough familiarity that I'd gotten people interested in it that normally turn their nose up when I wave around my copy of Strands of FATE.

That, more than anything, excites me. It certainly excites me more than going back to the Keep of the Borderlands again.


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Isaac Chalk

So what does 13th Age have? Here's a list:

- Icons: Each character gets a set number of dice to roll in relation with the setting's big movers and shakers. 13th Age comes with its own set of icons, but they're the same sort of Movers and Shakers you'd find in any fantasy universe. Eberron, for example, could have Icons in each Dragonmarked house, each of the religions, each of the Five Nations, the Inspired, the Order of the Emerald Claw, the various druid sects... you get the idea.

Relationships can be positive, negative, or complicated - a positive relationship means you're allied with them, a negative one means you're opposed, a complicated one is just that. These relationships are the game's version of alignment - rather than alignment with abstract philosophical notions, they're alignment with actual organizations and people who have a complex web of relations with each other.

- Backgrounds: There are no skills in 13th Age.

Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. There are skills - but they are very loosely defined, and they come out of your experiences in life. For example, if I was playing a thief-styled character, I would have five background points in Thief. I would roll this every time I needed to do thiefy things.

But if I want to open this up a little, I could say "Trained by the Silver Cloak order of thieves" at +5, which suggests a story or two and also potentially expands what the background can do. Maybe the Silver Cloaks have a specific grift they specialize in - or maybe this background can be applied to skill checks to persuade members of the Silver Cloaks.

Essentially, you create your own skills in 13th Age.

- The Escalation Die: One thing about D&D is that as fights go on, characters get weaker. They accumulate status conditions or run out of powers and the fight starts to drag. Not so with 13th Age which has an escalation die - essentially, the biggest d6 you can find, laid squat in the center of the table, and each round beyond the first, you increment this die by 1, capping at 6. Player characters get this bonus to their attacks.

This represents characters figuring out the holes in the enemy's defenses, fatigue on the enemy's side, adrenaline, getting into the groove... whatever you wish to call it, this ensures that fights hit a point where monsters start dropping and dropping fast. Several class abilities are unlocked by the die - your fighter, for example, may start cleaving through entire squads of enemies once he's got their number, and clerics have a chance to retain spells when the die is over a certain number, to illustrate their gods giving them strength when it's most needed.

- Unique Ways To Fight: The common criticism of 4th Edition was that everyone had at-will/encounter/daily powers which were samey. I don't think they played the same, but with 13th Age it's a moot point. Every class has unique features and ways to clobber those who have it coming.

The bard's songs come to a crescendo and a climax that grants a bonus in the round they end. The rogue's attacks build up a trait called momentum that unlocks more dangerous attacks, built up by attacking without being counter-attacked. The monk uses opening moves, follow-through attacks and finishing combos in the fight. The fighter calls upon a list of tactical maneuvers that allows them to switch up their style - they can be the classic defender, an archer in heavy armor, or a two-handed buttkicker. The sorcerer can super-charge spells by taking extra time to cast them. The wizard can get extra effects out of her spells if she comes up with an awesome, long-winded descriptor of what the spell does.

- One Unique Thing: A feature every character has is something that sets them apart from the other PCs, that has no real combat applicability but allows them to do things that other people could not. This is entirely up to the GM and is one of the best customization options in the game, a catch-all that allows for concepts not explicitly anticipated by the designers.

In my playtest game, one character had Son of a Lich, which meant he traced his bloodline back to the game's Lich King, and he had special insight into their machinations, magical abilities and organization. Another had Star Born, which meant that his character was an avatar created by a far-off star, acting as a font of divine power. Another had Empathy, which meant that he'd catch emotional states and lies that others would miss.

One Unique Thing becomes a catch-all rule that can accomodate things that aren't explicit, and in turn, are a symbol of 13th Age's design ethos, which encourages unique campaigns, unique characters, and for the players and GM to collaborate on the adventure they'll be sharing.

- Truly Special Magic Items: There are two grades of magic items in 13th Age: consumables, such as potions, runes and oils, and true magic items. Consumables can be bought fairly easily, but a true magic item is priceless.

There are no +1 swords. Every item has a unique history and a unique personality quirk. For example, the Sickle & Star would be a pair of weapons that would encourage teamwork and would occasionally give off the impression that the player character should consider more Five Year Plans and controlled economies. These urges can be ignored or indulged as the player wishes...

... unless they wind up with more magic items than their level, at which point they are essentially taken over by the personalities of their items, and our friend up top with the Sickle and Star would start plotting the overthrow of the Dragon Emperor and planning a system where the workers shall control the means of production.

Magic items you choose to keep are going to be staying with you your entire career - no trading in Magic Sword for Even Better Magic Sword, an aspect of D&D I felt cheapened the magic of magic items.

- Tone: Not a game feature, but a writing feature. Heinsoo and Tweet write this game as less a pair of scribes handing down the Holy Writ From On High, but as a couple of people who know you'll get jokes about gazebos. Their writing is from the GM and player's perspectives of "how does this actually work in a game?" They give advice, suggest alternative house rules, and talk about the design ethos of the game. It's refreshingly transparent.

- What Else? A lot. Soon you'll be able to preorder it and find out yourself - or talk to other playtesters, myself included, who will be happy to talk about the game.

Find out more about 13th Age here.

Their pre-order page is here as well, with advance PDFs of the rules available for download soon.

13th Age is on the Twitters here.

Adam Drey at Legendary.org goes over his experiences with the game here.

THIS is the proper size of escalation die. (Hat Tip to datainadequate)
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First Post
Nice posts; very informative. Thanks for taking the time to type them up. I am very much interested in this game and have some friends that are too. Sounds like it will be a refreshing change from some of the elements of our D&D games that can get stale (same old, same old kind of thing).


First Post
So what does 13th Age have? Here's a list:

I was also involved in the second Playtest. I pretty much support everything that Isaac said.

One thing that I'd add is that the game is deliberately designed so that it is quite straight forward to mix and match this with other games, especially other D20 games. It would be quite possible to use just the setting or to completely ignore the setting. While the game is most definitely playable just using the book it would also be of great value as a source of ideas to be incorporated into other worlds or other systems and/or as an interesting game world.

In fact, that is probably what I'll be doing. Take a modified version of the setting together with some modified rules.

One target market is definitely experienced players who are comfortable with making adjustments and house rules. While it is a complete game I'm not sure how good a fit it would be for brand new players. For example, the skills are very open ended and probably work a lot better with an experienced GM who is willing to say both yes and no where appropriate. In fairness, the playtest rules really didn't address brand new players while the final rules presumably will do so to a greater extent.

Personally, if I was introducing brand new players to the hobby I'd start with the Pathfinder beginner box and then move to 13th Age.


First Post
It'd be all fine and dandy but the whole piece sounds too much like a marketing piece and not enough like a gamer honestly telling me what he thinks about the game. I don't usually come to ENWorld expecting promotional flyers. I want someone who really had it in his hands and can tell me how it played, not how it was directed for him to write down.

Also. No skills, eight traditional classes, lots of "robust systems" for non-combat stuff... Sounds like another game that worries itself too much with creating sub-systems for every little thing, instead of unifying all rules under an umbrella simple to understand for everyone. Good luck there.


I'm completely content to sit here and play with my 4e stuff, especially considering how DDN seems to be shaping up. Originally I was going to just pass up 13th Age, but this sounds /very good/. Where before I'd have just ignored it, now I am going to give it a serious look.

IOW, color me interested.


I might play this

until DDN comes out, or even beyond! sounds uber cool. hope the "surge" aspect isn't sucky, though, but that's a minor quibble if the rest of the rules as a neat-o as they appear in this preview.

me want to read this
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