What I Like About 13th Age – The Escalation Die
While it is not my favorite part of the game the more I play 13th Age the more I appreciate what the Escalation Die offers. For those that aren’t familiar with the game the Escalation Die is a D6 that starts at 1 on the 2nd turn of an encounter and increments by one each turn thereafter until it reaches 6. When making attacks PCs add the value of the Escalation Die to their rolls. At the very surface this looks like a smart way to speed up combat. Each turn it becomes easier and easier for the players to hit their opponents. This, however, isn’t the only benefit, just the most obvious. Recently I’ve been thinking about other ways in which the Escalation Die changes the game.
Encounter and Daily Powers
In the 13th Age corebook the game’s designers mention that players should hold their powers until later in an encounter in order to maximize their chances of hitting. It can be very frustrating to unleash the power you’ve been saving only to have the attack whiff and miss your opportunity. Only recently did I realize how this changes the tactical choices a player has during a combat.
First we should look at the what life is like without the Escalation Die. Game theory says to do as much damage as fast as you can to a single opponent. The more enemies you kill the less damage you will take. In Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition players would unleash their powerful attacks as soon as they found a suitable target and then, having expended their powers, settled in to rolling basic attacks until the encounter was over.
With the Escalation Die there is a reason to hold on to your attacks, but how long should you wait? The longer you wait the more likely you are to hit, but the longer your opponent will be dishing out damage to you and your allies. Let’s say that you like to wait until the Escalation Die hits 3. However, the opponent you are engaged with is already severely hurt and the next normal attack should be sufficient to finish the job. Maybe what you should do is hold on until you finish off the weak opponent you are fighting and then use your power on the next one.
The difference the Escalation Die makes is that now there are more places where a player can make a decision which will effect the fight. Instead of just blowing encounter powers on the first worthwhile target there player can push his luck, potentially taking more damage, to make sure the attack hits.
Manuevering in Combat
I find that giving my players a reason to use their move action makes a big difference in how interesting an encounter feels. Many fights result in adversaries trading blows until one of them falls. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. Likely most real combats looked like this as warriors attacked the target in front of them. Movies, on the other hand, like to show a back and forth as combatants jockey for an advantageous position. When the Man in Black duels Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride their duel roams the entire battlefield. Somewhere in-between should elevate a standard RPG encounter.
With the Escalation Die mechanic the players are at a disadvantage during the first few turns of combat compared to their position in later turns. Instead of taking hits in the first few turns it would be a good idea to remain unengaged until the Escalation Die starts ticking upwards. Players who try this tactic must be careful, however. The Escalation Die may not tick upwards if they are too passive and may even fall if they avoid all danger.
Introducing The Players
I’ve only been playing 13th Age for a couple of months now and have only now understood how the Escalation Die effects the game beyond the most obvious to-hit bonus. My players have not made this connection and I’m not sure if they ever will on their own. I want to introduce the idea but I don’t want to spell out exactly how they should fight their battles. There is a certain enjoyment to be had for discovering new things. For example, if one of my players comes up with the plan to start the attack at range with difficult terrain between themselves and their enemies because by the time their melee heavy-hitters come into play the Escalation Die will already be in full effect I’m sure the moment will be triumphal.
I’ve already mentioned holding encounter powers for the Escalation Die but I don’t think it’s taken hold. This is something that I think can just be told to the players, especially when they’ve whiffed on their power attack.
I don’t think I can spell out stall tactics and maneuvering to my players without ruining some of their own fun. Instead I’ll just call attention to the fact that the Escalation Die starts them on equal footing with their enemies and that means combat is easier later in the turn.
What do you think of the Escalation Die? I think that shortening encounters alone makes it a worth-while addition to many games. Leave me a comment below or reach out to me on Google+ or Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe for more.
One point. You say, ‘the Escalation Die starts them on equal footing with their enemies and that means combat is easier later in the turn.’ This isn’t quite right. The escalation die reaches equal footing at about +3. The system is weighted so that at the beginning of combat the fight is in the monster’s favour. The players have to fight uphill to get equality.
Is this in the core book and I accidentally skimmed over it, or is this just something known to veterans of the game based on something the designer said? When I’m reading a game which is similar to other games I tend to skim more than I should. I can believe that encounters are balanced to even up over 6 turns, with 3 turns hard followed by 3 turns easy.