13th Age – Conclusion

Whew. I am afraid to even check to see how much word count has gone into this walkthrough. But for those who really want it all in one place:

Also prior to this readthrough, I wrote a few other things including

And if you just want it all in one place, I’ve used the 13thAge category.

So, if you’ve gotten through any number of those, you have probably come away with two recurring points:

  1. I really like this game
  2. I am frequently frustrated with this book

There is an apparent contradiction between those points. Usually, if the book itself is a problem, then it is rare that you get at the “nut” of the game well enough to decide if you like it or not. And, frankly, it is definitely circumstantial that I dodged that bullet, as I also read some of the playtest drafts and played in some pre-release games.

I’m going to nerd out on the book for a bit, and this is probably going to be my strongest criticism of the game, so I want to frame it with an important qualifier – despite the criticisms I am about to level, I still genuinely think this is a great game, brilliant in parts, and well worth the time and interest of anyone who has ever had fun in the 3e and 4e space. You will find it comfortingly familiar on the surface but delightfully different in its details. More, if you are a rules-enthusiast or designer, I doubly endorse picking this up. There is some seriously state of the art technology in 13th Age, and it’s going to be a hugely influential book.

So with all that out of the way, I will say that all of the reasons that I think this is a great game make the issues with the text all the more frustrating.

The textual issues really come in to categories – one is a design decision which, while frustrating, is defensible. The other is more of a muddle.

The first issue revolved around the question of the role of d20 in the game. Making a d20 based game[1] makes sense on paper – it’s got an existing fanbase, and it is nominally to the designers strengths (given their roles in 3e and 4e). Yet at times it feels tacked on – the changes made, especially in combat, were drastic, and the most important and exciting parts of the system (One Unique Thing, Backgrounds and Icon Relationships) really have nothing to do with d20. Reading the book, it’s hard to shake the sense that it really wanted to be its own system, but they stuck with the familiar d20 framework to keep the game familiar. It would be easy to get all artiste-y and denounce the crash commercialism of such a decision, but that would be a load of crap. If they wanted it to be d20, more power to them, and if they only did it reach an audience, then more power to them for that too. It’s frustrating, but ultimately reasonable.

It does, however, lead into the second and more substantial problem. The book makes a lot of assumptions. A lot. Many of them are tied to the d20 thing, and the book is basically designed to be read by someone who already knows D&D/Pathfinder. Whether that’s a lazy decision or a canny one is yet to be determined, but the fact that it’s not explicitly called out in the text is a strike against.

If it was just that, I could just treat it as an extension of the d20 decision, but it’s symptomatic of a pattern in the text that it’s largely written for a reader who already knows what they’re talking about. This applies to D&D tropes, but also to new ideas. Opening the book with the icons make sense if you realize they’re one of the most exciting thing about the game, but if you don’t know that going in, they’re a weird opener.

I am sympathetic to this problem because it’s one that every writer runs into, and it’s one of those pernicious problems that is often worse for more accomplished writers. As human beings, it is VERY hard to see past our own blind spots, and if something makes sense to us, we will apply that reasoning to an explanation of the thing in such a way that it feels complete to us, even if the actual explanation was incomplete. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I admit I totally fell into it. My first time through the book, I totally just breezed through the stuff I already knew, and did not even stop to really look at what was actually being said. it was only upon consciously slowing down for a deep dive that this pattern emerged.

I don’t bring this up to bust on 13th Age. As noted, it’s a great game. But take the lesson – even a great game by a great design team can fall into this trap. You can too.

Specifically, you can do this by making sure that at least one editor is not someone with system familiarity (or at least is not a contributor). This is not a reflection on the abilities of your editor, but rather an extension of the idea that the hardest person to edit is yourself. If you know how the system works, then you are a poor judge of how the system is explained.

Ok, so if you’ve survived my book nerdery, you probably deserve a little positive feedback, so let me back up some of what I’ve said about this game being awesome.

There are several obvious reasons why 13th Age is pretty cool. Icons, Backgrounds and one unique thing are all mechanically clever, and they’re probably the most obvious things. However, there’s a lot of small-seeming but potent improvements under the hood – scaling damage, miss damage, flexible attacks, scriptable monsters and things like that are real, substantial improvements which are a large part of why it is both accurate but insufficient to say this is the best of 3e and 4e combined.

Those elements would all make this a noteworthy game, but what makes it an exceptional game is that the obvious benefits obscure even deeper benefits. That is, you can play 13th Age straight up, and it will work very well, but if you really dig into the things the tools allow, then it will open up the world. Specifically, 13th Age has provides a set of scalpels in places where players would usually get hammers.

I’m a big fan of very free-form, open ended games (like Fate, obviously) and if looked at from that perspective, 13th Age still seems restrictive. Sure, there are token bits of player authorship in the one unique thing, but that’s such a small subset of material that it hardly counts. That is, however, the wrong way to look at it.

One issue you will run into with open ended games is that some players will be daunted by them – not because the players are uncreative, but because they are facing a blank page[2] or because it’s just more work than they want to do. 13th Age addresses that by saying “no, you don’t need to do all that, just these few things over here, and more, these things are designed in such a way that if you don’t want to help shape the game, you don’t have to.” That is smart, powerful and liberating. It removes the necessity to “perform” while still providing the tools for when the player chooses to engage. And, importantly, the text does not stigmatize either approach.[3]

This is not a unique thing – there have been other games that have given players specific avenues of contribution to the game which gave them influence in proportion to their interest in doing so. My first exposure to this was with the Amber DRPG’s contributions, and other games have done similar things since. However, I cannot think of another game that so effectively puts it right in the path of the gaming mainstream without making it “weird”. That’s a huge accomplishment.

I feel like Icons are almost as big an accomplishment on the GM side. I talk a lot about how adventure and setting design don’t get the same rigorous attention that rules do, so I’m always impressed when someone moves those technologies forward. Icons are absolutely some super useful setting technology. They’re a great lens to build a solid setting in fewer strokes than usual. Icons are a bit more muddled though – not to say they’re not great, but I think we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg with them. I think there are years of new ideas and best practices awaiting us in this space.

All of which is a long way to come back to the point at the beginning of this post. The book frustrated me, but I love the game.


  1. Technically you don’t call it that because the d20 license was actually a different license than the 3.x OGL, but at this point I think we all know what we mean.  ↩
  2. And if you think blank page paralysis correlates to a lack of creativity, then you probably should talk to more people who experience it. The problem is not no ideas, it’s too many of them.  ↩
  3. This is, I should add, why I’m more sympathetic to the content problems than I would be in another game. They choose to walk a very hard hybrid path, and there’s no obvious right way to do a lot of what they set out to accomplish.  ↩

17 thoughts on “13th Age – Conclusion

  1. Arashinomoui

    The issue you note with open ended games is exactly why I’ve bought heavily into 13th Age, my table generally runs a large range of comfort with player authorship, so this lets people play around and be comfortable with as much, or as little, as they see fit.

    Reply
  2. Ed Gibbs

    I, too, have seen the vast potential and paralyzing freedom of open-ended game design. I’ve run a lot of Fate and D&D in the last several months, and I’ve been shocked by the amount of frustration that some games of Fate have brought and vast amounts of joy that some games of D&D have brought. On paper, I thought the reverse would always be true. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why I’m extremely curious about 13th Age; constraint is often an incredible tool for the fostering of creativity, and 13th Age offers that constraint…but it also shows you how to break free of those constraints if you need to.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Probably nearly perfectly so – it is very much “D&D, but Better” (where “better” means closer to a particular vision) in much the same way that, say, Pathfinder is.

      Reply
  3. Jake Olbert

    I agree with the idea, expressed here and earlier in the posts, that 13th Age is very much the perfect 2nd RPG for someone whose first was 3E or 4E. I’m wondering if, after 13th Age, something like Fate Core is a good 3rd game. In other words, does 13th Age, with its limited improvisational aspects and player-oriented narrative control elements (I swear I’m not trying to be jargony here, but that’s what’s happening) prepare a player for something like Fate, which opens it up even more beyond what 13th Age does from 3E/4E? Or is there a 3rd step between 13th Age and Fate?

    I’m not enough widely read enough to answer the question (and I’m not trying to posit that every RPG fits somewhere neatly on one line) I’m just sort of spitballing.

    Beyond that, thanks for these write-ups; they’re really amazing, and obviously time-consuming, and it’s awesome that you did them.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I’ve got no simple answer to that, but I’ve been thinking about that question too (a fact that Monday’s post will probably illustrate)

      Reply
    2. Graham Wills

      I am currently running two campaigns; 13th Age and FATE. I have one player in common between the two groups. So far they are both a ton of fun, but definitely play very differently. 13th Age feels like a traditional game, but made very much better; it does not feel like it tries to be Indie, but is constrained by the need to be d20. The strong feel I have is that it is a game designed by d20 players who saw a whole lot of cool stuff in other systems, but still wanted to play d20 because they actively liked it.

      In my 13th Age group, I have players who prefer 4e, 3.5 and AD&D; I have a player who does not like complexity (barbarian) and a couple who love complexity (wizard, ranger). It is significantly exciting to see all of them play and enjoy the same game.

      FATE Core, in contrast, seems like it comes the other way; my players there are coming for a background of Dogs in the Vineyard, Fiasco, and other indie games. What makes FATE a delight is that it takes a lot of those “good ideas” and makes it into a more structured framework — 13th Age makes traditional feel indie. To a large extent FATE CORE takes an Indie game and adds structure that makes it much easier to grok from a traditionalist point of view, and I think strengthens the game too

      Reply
  4. Eirik

    Thanks for all your effort and this info on 13th age. I’ve read it all with great interest. 🙂

    But I’m now unsure if this is the next rpg I should buy. You see, I haven’t played any d20 before. I’ve been gm’ing Shadowrun and Gurps back in the day, so I don’t really have a problem with rules. But now after some years pause I want to come back to the hobby, and 13th age really grabbed me. But the way you write, and me having no (particular) d20 experience, I’m wondering. You say there are alot of assumtions, but are there actual omissions? Are all the rules explained? Are there things I won’t understand unless I read 4e (i.e.) first? What would be my challenges in running the game?

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Good question! A lot of what’s left out is basic D&D lore – what the stats are, monsters, races, stuff like that.

      I actually think you’re in a unique position to enjoy 13th Age. Having broad tabletop experience but not D20 experience may mean a small number of rough spots in the text, but nothing deal-breaking (because you don’t need guidance on how to play RPGs in general, which is also where it’s weak.). And on the upside, you’d go in unshackled by assumptions, which could be REALLY cool.

      So, lack of D20 experience will be largely but not entirely offset by other tabletop experience, enough so that I think the game will be worth it.

      Reply
    2. Blue

      I think 13th Age is a great fit if the base concepts are already grabbing you. Worst case to deal with organizational concepts in the book is to give it a quick read to grab all the concepts, then go over parts again in more depth to understand how they all go together.

      One bonus you’ll have not coming from a 3.x or 4e background is that you won’t need to unlearn anything. For example 3.x was very comprehensive in simulating a realistic world at the cost of heavy rules and slowing things down. You won’t need to unlearn things like different shadings of cover or concealment. 13th Age just gives the GM and players the tools /and permission/ to do it themselves.

      From the 13th Age G+, biggest omission I’ve seen is: not really explaining that a feat is a thing (“advancement currency”) a character gets every level to customize their character either generically or one of their talents/powers/spells. It’s separate from other class advancement, such as talents.

      Reply
  5. Simon Rogers

    This is a thoughtful analysis of the game, thank you.

    In answer to a couple of points:
    “The first issue revolved around the question of the role of d20 in the game. Making a d20 based game[1] makes sense on paper – it’s got an existing fanbase, and it is nominally to the designers strengths (given their roles in 3e and 4e). Yet at times it feels tacked on – the changes made, especially in combat, were drastic, and the most important and exciting parts of the system (One Unique Thing, Backgrounds and Icon Relationships) really have nothing to do with d20. Reading the book, it’s hard to shake the sense that it really wanted to be its own system, but they stuck with the familiar d20 framework to keep the game familiar. It would be easy to get all artiste-y and denounce the crash commercialism of such a decision, but that would be a load of crap. If they wanted it to be d20, more power to them, and if they only did it reach an audience, then more power to them for that too. It’s frustrating, but ultimately reasonable.”

    This makes a number of quite reasonable assumptions, the first of which that this game arose as a result of a commercial decision to appeal to market. As it happens, in this case it did not. It arose because it’s the game JT and RH wrote for their home campaign, not for release. It’s an extension of everything they know, and I think it fits entirely comfortably within the constraints of d20, rather than itching to jump out of it. Second, that there is an issue with different systems for different purposes – this is of course what GUMSHOE is all about, for example. The story and combat side interact, but this is more a d20 game with story elements than the other way round from my perspective, and it’s that which makes it special.

    “It does, however, lead into the second and more substantial problem. The book makes a lot of assumptions. A lot. Many of them are tied to the d20 thing, and the book is basically designed to be read by someone who already knows D&D/Pathfinder. Whether that’s a lazy decision or a canny one is yet to be determined, but the fact that it’s not explicitly called out in the text is a strike against.”

    It does pretty much make these assumptions deliberately and calls them out as clear as day on the first page. There are a number of good reasons for this, and the primary one from my point of view is that the book is at the edge of the size it can be. With that constraint, spending page after page explaining something that the vast majority of the audience already know would be wasted text. We can do outreach later, perhaps!

    Reply
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