So, I've been reading 13th Age a lot lately, and have even signed up for the Organized Play program, so I decided to go ahead and take the time to review it...because why not?
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The print version of 13th Age retails for $44.95, you can get the PDF for $19.95, and there's a free SRD online here. This review is of the 320 page hardcover. 13th Age is heavily D&D inspired, an attempt at combining the customization options of 3rd edition, with some of the gameplay conceits of 4th edition, while stepping back from the minis-heavy combat.
This being D&D inspired, you get the normal race and class options: Elf (Wood, High and Dark), Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc and Human. One thing worth noting is that Half-Orcs eschew the "rape" trope that Half-Orcs are usually saddled with, instead implying that Half-Orcs are a supernatural "correction" to the rise of the Orcs. Each race gets +2 to an ability score (standard array: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha), with a choice provided by race (Humans can take +2 to any ability score). Each race also gets a Racial Power (like Humans rolling Initiative twice and taking the better of them, or Dark Elves inflicting ongoing damage after striking a foe, attempting to bleed them out). Dragonspawn, Holy Ones, Forgeborn and Demontouched are also included, with less book space, matching up with Dragonborn, Aasimar, Warforged and Tieflings.
The available classes are Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer and Wizard. The book ranks them in complexity, intended to allow for simpler options for more casual players, escalating to more complicate (with Barbarian and Wizard being on opposite ends and Cleric being the sweet spot). There are no alignments, so there are few restrictions here...Paladins can be "good" or "evil", for instance, so long as they have a cause to believe in. You also gain ability bonuses based off of class.
The advancement runs on a 10 level scale, divided into the Adventurer, Champion and Epic Tiers, and it really gets epic. Even the "simple" Barbarian goes from Talents that let him add damage to his attacks out of frustration from missing, to summoning the spirits of his ancestors to fight alongside him when he reaches the Epic tier! Rogues start off as typical, backstabbing thieves, but later potentially gain the ability to use shadows to functionally teleport, or see invisible attackers moving in! Wizards get a selection of Cantrips that they can cast as needed (though a set amount per day), Utility Spells (non combat spells that they can prepare in lieu of combat magic, including things like Feather Fall, Scrying or Levitate), and then the combat magic (like Acid Arrow, Magic Missile, Fireball, Haste or Disintegrate). Interestingly, you can often take higher versions of spells, rather than them automatically increasing per level.
There is a small list of generalize Feats, but most of them are Racial or Class Feats, usually used to modify your relevant Talents or Powers, making them stronger.
The other important elements of your characters, and the biggest departures from D&D as we know it, are the One Unique Thing, Backgrounds and your relationship to the Icons.
First, the Icons. These are the 13 iconic beings in the setting, and everything is connected to them, class, race and monster. The Dragon Emperor is the human leader, The Elf Queen is the enigmatic leader of her people, The Lich King was once The Wizard King, The Orc Lord is gathering the Orcs around him, The Great Gold Wyrm is holding the demons in the Abyss and nobody knows what The Prince of Shadows is up to. Each Icon has an agenda, and the actions of the PCs intersect with, and define, those agendas. This is accomplished by rolling the dice you assigned for your Icons at the start of the session, with 5s or 6s meaning the Icons will make their presence felt, for good or ill.
Backgrounds replace skills. Rather than have a skill list, which are broader and more descriptive, like Pirate Hunter, Campfire Chef or Falsely Accused Outlaw...and whenever those backgrounds would come into play, you add the relevant background to the relevant stat bonus and roll.
Last, the One Unique Thing, is the thing that sets your character apart from any others. Perhaps your Dwarven Paladin's One Unique Thing is My Shadow Ran Away In Terror In The Face of The Red, or I Can Never Laugh Because It Would Set The Cackling Devil Free...(and your hero MAY want to do that...when he feels strong enough to destroy The Cackling Devil).
Combat is influenced by multiple factors, some of which are outside of PC control, like their available attacks being based off of rolling even or odd attack rolls, or a thing called The Escalation Die. The Escalation Die is a 6 sided die that starts at "1" on the 2nd round and adds to the PC's attack rolls. However, some Talents behave differently the higher the Escalation die, and some monsters are even affected by it as well (like Fire Giants adding the Escalation Die to their attacks if their opponent has caught fire).
Monsters are almost all D&D classics, and the bestiary are pretty straight forward, providing a description, the creature's defensive stats (Armor Class, Physical Defense and Mental Defense), hit points, special attacks, (sometimes) options for making them nastier and their relationship to Icons. An example: Phase Spider's can bite you and, on an even attack roll (or if you are at half or fewer hit points), attempt to steal a magic item from you, and perhaps utilize a phasing ability.
Speaking of magic items...if you load up on more magic items than you have levels, you run the risk of being taken over by their personality quirks...and if you take on an item that's too strong, it could overwhelm you as well. Additionally, items are divided into groups (or Chakras), and you can only have one item per Chakra (aside from rings, you get two, and wondrous items). No carrying an arsenal of magical melee weapons...you have one that you use until you reject it in favor of another.
As noted above, levels are on a 1-10 scale, and there are no experience points. Indeed, 13th Age neither directly rewards you for killing monsters, nor for acquiring treasure. The designers recommend that you use incremental advances, like allowing PCs to take a Feat at the end of one session, gain more hit points after the next, and so on. A quicker variant levels them up once per session, culminating in a quick, tight story.
The Dragon Empire setting is painted in broad strokes, and hits a lot of archetypal fantasy notes, but has some interesting embellishments, like Living Dungeons that sometimes surface (and sometimes from other worlds, serving as an excuse for you to unleash whatever you want on folks), and the Hellholes, which are literal pockets of Hell on Earth.
The writing is very fresh, informative and conversational, with a number of sidebars by the designers, explaining their design conceits and even how they disagree on the implementation of certain rules and elements.
WHAT WORKS: No cumbersome skill system, no Prestige Classes, no pre-planning your character from level 1. Monsters stat blocks are short, sweet, flavorful and easy to customize. The magic item system is one of my favorites I've ever read, and many of the Icons are very, very interesting. The broad strokes setting is very handy, providing ample detail to help you along, but giving you room to customize as desired. The rules are deliberately designed for free-wheeling, on the fly gameplay, with even combat modifiers left to the GM's discretion.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The art is generally very good, but the bestiary is largely full of symbols and silhouettes, which detract from the flavor.
CONCLUSION: I stopped running Dungeons & Dragons a long, long time ago, and some D&D fans would tell you I ran it wrong all along. I didn't want to run games about killing monsters and taking their stuff, I wanted to run games about fantasy heroes with great destinies who did amazing things and thwarted evil. I tried to emulate the D&D of fiction in my games and found it fell short (in AD&D2e) or found it to be too cumbersome (in 3/.5). 13th Age, from reading, sure seems like it's scratching the itch I wanted out of D&D but never found, and I feel strongly enough about it that I signed up for the Organized Play program (which has some fantastic adventure support). It definitely feels like the designers wrote the game I was trying to run 20 years ago, and I dearly look forward to bringing it to my table (virtual or otherwise) and seeing if it truly scratches that heroic fantasy itch.