13th Age isn’t super innovative. Let’s get that out of the way ahead of time. In terms of mechanics, there’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before. The setting is good, but not really anything that we haven’t seen. Where 13th Age succeeds, however, is in its balance of elements. 13th Age is the sort of thing that I love; it takes a game and tears it down to its basics, then reconstructs it. I’m not sure that the d20 system was the best place to apply that, but it’s certainly an interesting take.
I’m not actually that negative about anything in 13th Age. It’s quite possibly the most professional thing I’ve reviewed this year, with over three hundred pages of well-edited and beautiful content. Yes, I do perhaps put too much weight on the appearance of a game, but 13th Age is great. It has a ton of art, and none of it has any major glaring errors. It’s repeated in some cases, but there’s a sufficient quantity that it doesn’t bother me, and most of the repetition is moving an image previously shown in part into a full frame, so it’s even less egregious. 13th Age isn’t the most beautiful or flashy, like L5R or Eclipse Phase, but it’s got enough visuals that for a game that claims that it doesn’t like going into “descriptions about what all the X look like”, it does a pretty good job of communicating that because it has a drawing for almost anything.
The setting is pretty conventional. How it’s handled mechanically a little less so, but it’s still a pretty milquetoast inoffensive generic fantasy, with the occasional epic scene thrown in. It’s cool to roleplay in, and definitely above average, but it’s also nothing like Eclipse Phase that leaves one thinking for years to come on minutiae of the setting, and it’s highly subject to tropes of the fantasy genre. There’s not a whole lot that players won’t understand; the Lich King is, of course, an undead tyrant. Still, it’s worth a read, and there’s some really good stuff for actually playing the game.
As far as the actual systems go, I’m a little more skeptical. I like some of the things they did to move the d20 system toward a more narrative feel; some people accuse it of going toward 4e’s direction in terms of style, but I think that they’re more referring to the fact that 13th Age makes everyone combat effective, rather than the actual combat-focus of the game. Moving away from skills and into backgrounds brings in an “indie game” feel (according to the authors) that is more narrative driven and, in my opinion, more interesting. However, 13th Age sticks with the d20 rules in the exact same ways that give it flaws; it escalates into a modifier fight, and while the game is intentionally designed to accept this it’s still a little bit jarring that a system that progressed so well toward the narrative immediately gets driven back by a heavily limiting mechanical system.
Now, with the caveat being that I’m not a huge fan (critically, not in terms of play) of Pathfinder and 3.5, I can safely say that I prefer 13th Age. However, it’s not anything that couldn’t be houseruled into either of these systems, and while it’s certainly got benefits it has just as many idiosyncrasies that will confuse new or transferring players. It lacks some notable features that one would expect; I’m not going to dock it for lacking a “monk” class as I’ve seen one reviewer do, because, quite frankly, I don’t think that the setting really depends on something like that, but there are certainly places where it fell a little short, despite the fact that it’s remarkably good in others.
If you’re interested in 13th Age, you can get it here on DriveThruRPG.