Previously: Alternity, Star Wars, Mage, Transhuman Space, Adventure!, Feng Shui, Fate Core
Before I start, a bit of a confession. I do not care much for the tropes of the games that led to the creation of this game. It just fails to appeal, mostly. That said I have played a lot of the previous games, as I am sure you have too. Hard to avoid it really. That said I rather enjoy this incarnation of the tropes and the mechanics just sing. So without further ado...
So yeah, I do not normally care much for the tropes of D&D and I don't much like it in general. I like a lot of the stuff that came out of it, but by and large D&D just kind of fell flat for me for years. I think this has to do with my love of playing fighting men and D&D's steadfast refusal to make that a choice worth making. So for years and years I avoided D&D mostly. I would play here and there, because it could not be avoided and I didn't hate the game completely. Then came 4th Edition. I was one of those people who did not hate 4th edition, in fact I was one of those people who loved it. finally the game was trying to balance all the classes and levels, so that tenth level meant tenth level no matter what class you had. That said I got what people did not like about the game, the class powers did tend to have a sameness to them and skill challenges were very poorly described. Anyway I moved on to other games and never gave it much thought again. Then along came 13th Age and here was a game that had something like balance, while also making each class feel completely different in play and having different values for leveling up. My favorite character was my sorcerer who practiced martial arts and would use his spells in melee. I based him off of Goku from Dragon Ball Z. It was a hoot. But lets get to the review, yeah?
This book is just beautiful. High gloss medium weight pages of full color art and side bars. It reuses the art, but it is done in a genius way. The images of the Icons are used in the icon descriptions and as the intro art for the chapters. The pictures are beautiful, even the sketchy images used in some of the chapters. In the bestiary section the monsters do not have full illustrations but have specific diagrams that represent that creature in a unique way and could easily be made into tokens for the table to show distances and numbers. Not sure if that fully works, but it is an interesting idea and a good way to stretch an art budget. It is well indexed and referenced, I have had little trouble finding what I need in play.
Have you played D&D 3.x or 4? OK then you get the basics of how the game rules work. You roll a d20 and compare to a target number either set by the GM or the defense of the monsters you are fighting. There are loads of sections explaining how to set up appropriate difficulties that would best apply to the level of the characters. In fact the book is chock full of advice from top to bottom. The game is really set up for ease of play on all levels, but especially for GMs, and I love that. If there is one thing I hate, it is a game that fails to help the GM do their job. So some of the best new additions to the mechanics? There are no skills. Instead there are backgrounds which are rated like skills and apply whenever it would be appropriate. These backgrounds are created by the players during character creation, though there are loads of examples throughout the various classes and such. These can add a bunch to the world and how your character fits in it. Another new addition is the One Unique Thing, which is something every player character has and is truly unique to them. That means that if a player take something as their one unique thing then that is true. If they are the last elf to be born, then that means no more elves can be born after them. That is a lot of control and there is a lot of advice given on how to build and use these in play. I love the One Unique Thing. It is such a simple thing, yet it makes the game world special and interesting.
Finally there are Icons. Icons are the movers and shakers in the world. They are the most important beings that the players can(and do) interact with. Basically when you make a character you set up you relationship with one or more Icons as either Beneficial, Detrimental, and conflicted. At the beginning of most sessions(and sometimes at other times) you roll a number of six sided dice equal to your relationship with the icon(relationships max at three). if you roll a five or a six you check the chart for your relationship type and see what happens. Basically this acts as an adventure generator and a way to gain neat benefits for interacting with the Icon or the groups they represent. Gonna be honest here, I don't mush like the Icons system. I don't hate it or anything, but I have yet to see it used super well in games I have played. that may just be how things go in my games though, so I will continue to try and use the system.
Finally there is the escalation die, which is my favorite rule. At the end of the first round of combat a d6 is set down on the table showing one pip. In the next turn it is turned to two, and so on up to six in the seventh round. What this does is adds that number you your players' attack rolls. There are also a bunch of abilities that players can get that allow them to manipulate and use the escalation die for a bunch of stuff. This speeds up combat while still allowing for challenge. Also some of the big scary monsters, like dragons, get funky abilities that manipulate or use the escalation die for various effects, It is such a simple addition to the rules and yet it adds a whole new layer of tactical thought to the game.
The setting is every generic fantasy trope ever. Except remove all the boring bits and make everything an adventure. Remove everything that is not. It is set in the Dragon Empire in the 13th Age(I know, right?! what a shocker). The world has all sorts of interesting things going on in it. Like the Behemoths that are these massive creatures(much bigger than a tarrasque) that migrate constnatly across the land. They are so big that some people live on them and are nomads with a constant home. Then there is the overworld, which is made of the clouds and you can get to it by climbing the clouds. and then there are also floating islands, an underdark type place, a bunch of enchanted forests, my favorite being the elf queens court. It s so cool because it has all three elf types in it. The wood elves live among the trees, the high elves live in the tops of trees and in towers and such, and the drow live in tunnels and caves among the roots of the trees. See it all sounds boring and silly when I describe it, but it really does work well in the book and in play. Like I said everything is player facing and designed for GM convenience. Everything is sitting on a knifes edge and there are loads of adventure hooks. I enjoy the setting most though, because it will be different every time you play it. Characters' One Unique Thing and backgrounds will let the GM know all sorts of interesting things about the setting and what the players want to do with it. The setting really is a love letter to GMs who have run games in the standard dungeon fantasy for years.