Combat in 13th Age

Ye gods, after all those classes I’m not even sure how to read the rest of the book, but I’ll give it a go.

The next section is the Combat rules, and it’s a tricky read. Not because it’s particularly complicated, but because it’s easy to overlook the interesting bits as my eyes glaze over in the face of stuff I’ve read a bazillion times before. Now, to make it clear, this is not a strike against the game – it is good that they have all the rules here, especially since I’ve dinged it for incompleteness elsewhere. This is just one of those sad consequences of d20’s ubiquity.

At it’s heart, the combat rules are vanilla d20[1] with relative positioning. That is, rather than using a grid, things are described in terms of their relative position to one another. So if two people are in a fight, they are engaged while the third person whose close enough to engage but hasn’t yet is nearby and the guy with the bow over there is far away.

While the terminology changes, this is a very common approach to going fast and loose with play. It’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that it is best suited to being a way to eyeball the interaction of miniatures[2]. This is because the model gets sketchy in complicated fights where there are multiple engagements or multiple groups attacking at range, and the question comes up of how close those groups are to one another. Similarly, it gets odd with specific geography – if lava is rising to fill half the room, which half are people on?

This is not to say it requires minis. Most fights – especially the common model of “Party vs. dungeon monster” – will run just fine without reference material, but it’s useful to understand the limits of the model so you know when you need some extra tools. There’s probably no better example for this than disengagement and intercept rules, which need to spend a chunk of explanation on the relatively intuitive idea that “no, you can’t run right past the guy with the sword to hit the guy in the robes”.

Ok, with that baseline out of the way, how is combat different in 13th Age?

A few of the differences are things we’ve seen already – weapon damage increases with levels, most attacks do some damage on a miss and so on. Crits do double damage on a 20, and some effects can expand “crit range”. Flexible attacks allow effects after an attack roll is resolved. All cool stuff.

There are also some elements from 4e pulled into the system, most notably the idea of someone being staggered (at 50% HP or less, the equivalent of 4e’s bloodied). It has a similar list of conditions (Confused, Dazed etc.), albeit a little shorter than the 4e one. Saving throws have moved over to the 4e model of 11+ for everything, made every round. It’s expanded a bit to encompass easy (6+) and hard (16+) saves, but the core idea is still the same. Whether you like that or not will probably depend on how you liked it in 4e. To me, it feels like a good match for 13th Age’s cadence of combat, but that’s a taste judgement. If nothing else, I do like that they’ve incorporated the idea more fully into other mechanics.

One very clever idea pulled forward from 4e is the equivalent to 4e’s Second Wind in the form of Rallying, allowing a character to us an action to use a Recovery.

Recoveries seem like a nice evolution on the healing rules in 4e. Characters get a number of recoveries (probably 8 or 9) and when a character uses a recovery, she rolls XdY + CON dice to regain that many hit points. X is based on level, while Y is based on class (with tougher classes using bigger dice) , so a level 4 Barbarian with a +4 CON modifier recovers 4d10+4 hit points.[3] This is a bit more nuanced than 4e’s healing surge, but it still has the same structural use (like letting minor healing spells allow someone to spend a recovery rather than produce HP from the ether). I particularly like that the rallying action can be taken more than once per fight (though it requires a save to do it after the first time).

Rest and recharging abilities also follows the 4e model, with the idea of a “Quick Rest” and a “Full Heal Up”, which basically equate to a short and long rest. While these were a bit contentious in 4e, as they introduced scene based thinking into what was historically tactical timekeeping, they fit very well into the sensibilities of 13th Age.

The quick rest section has some rules about recharging powers which, in addition to showcasing the snarkiest exchange between the designers, reveals a subtle but awesome thing about recharge powers. If you fail to recharge a power, then it’s not used up for the day, it’s simply used up for the next battle. This is a small thing that I would have totally overlooked if it weren’t for the designer dialog[4] in the text, but I like it. It’s a fun, generous rule, and helps remove the fear of using up powers.

Some of the one-off rules are clever. Unarmed combat does 1d6 damage per two levels, which seemed weird until I realized that it was a way for them to have it (effectively) do half damage without requiring division – always a win.[5] Similarly the two-weapon fighting rules are wonderfully understated – if you’re fighting with two weapons and you miss on a 2, you can reroll the attack. This is a small but real bonus (it’s worth about +.5) but not nearly as overwhelming as the usual extra attacks that two weapons provide. Plus, as a rule of 2, it’s elegant and easy to remember (and as Ash Law commented on my fighter post, it makes it very easy to extrapolate up for monsters with multiple arms).

One fun rule that I worry might be less fun in practice, is the “Fight in Spirit” rule. The idea is fantastic. If your character is not in the fight (for whatever reason) then you still get to act. In lieu of an action, you instead add a bit of colorful backstory or flashback about ways in which you have helped other party members, and you hand out a bonus that lasts a round or two. If I have not emphasized it strongly enough, the underlying idea is brilliant, and I absolutely want to steal it for other things[6] but I worry that the implementation as written could wear thin pretty quickly if its use is anything but rare.

The rules for modifiers are straightforward enough, and boil down the the expressed sentiment of “Don’t sweat modifiers”. If you remember the advice in the 3e PHB[7] fondly, then this will work for you. It’s funny because as I read these rules, it’s clear the writers have as much d20 fatigue as I do, and several sections could very much be marked “RULES WE ARE INCLUDING BECAUSE SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE THINKS THIS IS IMPORTANT THOUGH PERSONALLY WE REALLY DON’T GIVE A CRAP ABOUT”. Best example is the obligatory grappling rules, about which I can only say that they are handled about as well as they could possibly be in the context of d20.

There are other bits made interesting only by designer commentary (resistances and situational weapon use, notably) but that’s the heart of it.

Well, except one thing.

So, this is the chapter where the escalation die finally gets explained, and thank goodness for that.

Mechanically, the escalation die is pretty simple – at the end of the first round (technically, the start of the second round) of a fight, put out a D6 showing a 1. At the start of each subsequent round, increment the die by one (until it gets to 6 – just leave it there then). The number showing on the die is added to all of the player’s attack rolls.

Like the icon relationships, the mechanical simplicity of this rule obscures its profound impact. In and of itself, this is a potent pacing mechanism that serves three purposes.

First, it speeds up fights – the longer a fight goes, the less whiffing you’re going to see, so the sooner it ends.

Second, it makes the arc of hard fights move in favor of the players in a satisfying manner. That is, if a fight starts out very hard, the fact that the players are getting this incremental bonus means they will be doing better later in the fight, making it more likely that they’ll achieve a “Die Hard” sort of victory – bleeding and battered, but still standing. This is awesome.

Third, it encourages the use of powers to follow the flow of the fight. The usual D&D model is to open with an “alpha strike” – hit your opponents with your biggest, nastiest spell in hopes of dropping them quickly. There’s still a merit in that, but now there’s a bit more tradeoff – do you want to burn that big spell immediately, or save it for when your chance to hit is a little bit better? You might open with your second strongest spell, and save your whammy for later, or even vice versa. Anything that gives power selection more texture than “use the biggest guns first” is a welcome addition to the game from my perspective.

But note, that is just the benefit of the rule as written. There is another benefit which is regularly hooked into throughout the rules – the value on the escalation die can be used as a measure of the increased tension of a fight and, as such, can be used as a mechanical signifier for other effects. In other words, it allows for all sorts of effects which only work (or are improved) if the escalation die is at a certain level or higher. This is a cool use of ambient information and it reinforces those three benefits of the core mechanic, especially 2 and 3. The longer the fight goes (and by extension, the more beat up the players get) the more likely they are to pull it out in the end.

This even has a subtle effect of bringing defense back into the game. One other element of the alpha strike approach is the implicit idea that defense is a losing proposition. Even if you’re safer for one round, you’re still in just as much trouble when the next round begins. As such, patience is (historically) a sucker’s bet unless you explicitly are laying down poison or the like. But with the escalation die, that choice gets more interesting. There’s still strong benefit in hitting early and hard, but there’s also benefit in taking care and using caution. Instead of being a matter of the right answer, it’s now a function of the answer that works best for you. And that’s pretty cool.

Huh. Ok, maybe I do remember how to read stuff other than character classes.


  1. There’s no way I’m going to re-encapsulate the entirety of d20 combat, but if it’s really unfamiliar to you, then the super high level version is this: Act in order of initiative. On your turn you can make one move, one “Standard action” (Usually an attack), one “quick action” (like drawing a weapons) and an arbitrary number of “free” actions. Every action you can take falls into one or more of those slots, but mostly you’ll just move over to an enemy and attack them, rolling to see if you hit and, if successful, rolling damage. Repeat this process until someone has taken enough damage that they’re out of the fight.  ↩

  2. Or marks on a whiteboard or whatever floats your boat.  ↩

  3. Consistent with one of the underlying rules of the game, the stat bonus on this roll is doubled at level 5 and tripled at level 8 (yes, those are the tier gateways) just as it is with damage.  ↩

  4. Curiously, the designer dialogs are more amusing to me as a GM than as a designer. The design insight is fine and all, but really these tend to be discussions of how the respective designers run their games, with the recurring theme that Tweet emphasizes the creative value of constraints and Heinsoo emphasizes creative freedom. Both positions are solid (no shock, both designers are smart dudes) but it’s worth paying attention to them through the lens of your own GMing tastes (and, in the interest of full disclosure, mine tend to run closer to Tweet’s).  ↩

  5. This is not just a taste thing. From a game design perspective, people are ok at addition, meh at subtraction, can multiply in a pinch, but hate dividing. I don’t make these rules, I just follow them.  ↩

  6. Here is the Fighting In Spirit rule for Fate: Every round that you are out of a scene, you gain 1 FP which must be spent to invoke or compel an aspect in that scene in a colorful fashion. You get that FP at the end of the first “round” and you get a new one at the end of each round so long as you’ve spent the one you have (so it’s use it or lose it). GM’s discretion whether or not this rule is in effect for a given scene – this is not designed to keep everyone in every scene all the time, but to help give a player who is out of a fight or other involved scene (due to injury or situation) an ability to participate. SPECIAL RULE: in general, if only one player is in a fight, then other people shouldn’t be pitching in, because it’s probably a signature moment. HOWEVER, if the fight has appropriate emotional overtones, then every non-present player may get 1 FP to spend at some point during the fight in accordance with the fighting in spirit rules. Because your friends have your back. And, yes, this is a mechanic written almost entirely to allow me to emulate my favorite moment in Final Fantasy IX. Is there a problem with that?  ↩

  7. When it doubt, it’s probably a +2  ↩

9 thoughts on “Combat in 13th Age

  1. WolfSamurai

    The escalation die can also be used to kind of… reflect the current situation in a way that feels natural and realistic as well (if you assume that the escalation die represents morale or willpower or whatever, as I frequently do). If the players ambush bad guys? Start the escalation die higher. The bad guys get reinforcements mid-battle? Drop that escalation die down (or don’t raise it at the top of the next round). As a GM it’s a fun tool, albeit one that you won’t be using ~all~ the time.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Indeed, my sense is that there’s a whole language to the escalation die that I want to see in action.

      Reply
      1. Wade Rockett

        My favorite use of the escalation die in play is the cleric ability to increase the die by one. When the cleric in my group compels me, the GM, to pick that big d6 up and set it down again with a higher number, it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling the magic that’s being performed. The character has literally tilted reality in the party’s favor.

        Reply
        1. Jackard

          Starting up a game for players unfamiliar with the system… one of them chose that ability for his Paladin (through Divine Domain) without any prompting for me. Looking forward to seeing it in use.

          Reply
  2. Dave Chalker

    I want to point to why I like 13th Age’s solution to the grid/”theater of the mind” so much. Instead of it just being completely arbitrary, it hooks into the powers/spells system of classes in a way that works how you want D&D to work but has always struggled with. Instead of Fireball being exactly a 30′ diameter (and it either being precise when used with minis or up to DM interpretation when done entirely non-visually), the 13th Age Fireball targets 1d3 enemies nearby in a group, AND you can target an additional random number of enemies by also possibly exposing your allies.

    Fate, of course, is another one that walks a good line in between, but Fate’s areas of crunch (generally Stunts) don’t usually key off relative positioning as much, which is why 13th Age’s excites me so much. That system, and the Escalation Die, seem like things I would always want to hack into other d20 and similar games.

    Reply
  3. Anders Gabrielsson

    Maybe I’m crazy, but now I want to see a game that uses multiple escalation dice. One for the players, one for the bad guys (that could go in the opposite direction and count as DR or the equivalent – start them out tough and dangerous, but make them weaker as the fight goes on), one that works similar to the 4E milestone mechanic and counts up for each encounter… So many possibilities.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: 13th Age – Conclusion | The Walking Mind

  5. Trent Boyd

    Something worth note, Is that certain abilities trigger or gain bonus when used when the escalation dice is a particular number or higher

    so the cleric’s heal might be more effective at 3+ on the escalation dice.

    Reply

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