In terms of background, our group has been playing a lot of Pathfinder, and we like the system. We have also played 4e Dungeons and Dragons, and were less impressed with that, for a range of reasons. I went into detail on this in my blog post on Pathfinder versus 4e.
With 13th Age I was looking for something with less complexity than Pathfinder and more emphasis on story elements and social interaction than 3e or 4e, which still lean towards a chain of combat to resolve adventures (unless you magic jar the big boss at the end of the campaign, but that's another story).
I'll go into our characters and their backgrounds in more detail in a later post, but here's what I liked about 13th Age:
I loved the icons and the way the characters can interact with these Great Powers of the campaign world. I also like the way the system can demand the GM bring these relationships into the campaign. This smells a bit like the World of Darkness, where clans / tribes played a big role in determining the politics and dynamics of the entire campaign, and players could align their characters with these powers. The same holds true for 13th Age, except you can have negative or ambiguous relationships with icons that can still benefit you.
|The Three - one of the icons in 13th Age.|
I also like the One Unique Thing mechanic in 13th Age, which really forces players to think about why their character is important, what makes him or her different, rather than churning out another bog standard first level rogue...this really adds colour to the characters, and in the case of my PC, quite literally (more on that later). This also replaces the alignment system, which I felt was getting a tad creaky in Pathfinder. Sadly, the alignment system is still integral to Pathfinder, and it would be hard to carve it out and replace it with icons.
I also have to say I like the way the skill system has been dropped in favour of backgrounds, and again, players are encouraged to free-form backgrounds and extrapolate skill bonuses from them. Awesome!
Armour and weapons have also been simplified, so that it feels less like a war game and has taken another step away from war gaming. And many of the nitty gritty intricacies of grid-based battles introduced in 2000 with 3e have been dropped. Fights feel less like chess, although we are still using miniatures in our game.
Finally, the escalation die, which makes it easier for characters to hit the bad dudes the longer a fight goes on, addresses the beef many players had with 4e - i.e. battles could grind down into slug fests that could consume an entire evening (although I didn't notice this personally). In our session we went through two battles, one of which would, I think, have taken much longer to play out with Pathfinder. I reckon in an average 3-4 hour evening's play, you could get through two or three decent armed encounters with these rules, which is pretty good.
Now here's what I don't like:
There is more than a resemblance to 4e here. If you play a character, you need to get to know their various powers REAL well. And running another player's character while he / she is away from the table, as sometimes happens with our group, can be a real headache! Many of the powers are sufficiently detailed that you have to be very familiar with them to get them to work properly. Some of them, are, however, extremely good - e.g. the Shadow Walk talent the Rogue gets access to. It makes it entertaining to play these characters at 1st level, while with Pathfinder you are still struggling to stay alive.
|The Lich King - another icon|
I've no idea how difficult this game is to run, but it strikes me that it could be easier than Pathfinder, or it could be harder, especially if you are running a fight with a number of high level NPCs. I can see that becoming a real headache if one is not careful. Plus, the onus is on the GM to respond quickly to PC involvement with the icons and introduce them as plot elements. This is not a game, I fear, for inexperienced GMs.
13th Age is sitting in a very interesting place in the market right now, where it could potentially poach groups away from both Pathfinder and 4e, and in advance of the arrival of 5e. Whether it could remain a go-to system for gamers post-5e is an open question, but I for one really appreciate many of the story-driven elements that have been introduced here.
13th Age is not Pathfinder. They are quite different games. I feel there are some types of campaign which will still work better with Pathfinder rather than 13th Age (e.g. the mega dungeon). But 13th Age does feel like a better version of 4e. Some of the baggage is still there, but many of the edges have been sanded off.