13th Age Escalation Die

escalation-edition-badge-6

One of the popularly praised attributes of the new 13th Age game is the Escalation Die. It’s so popular, in fact, that people are trying to find ways to house-rule it into other systems, such as Pathfinder and D&D.

In a nutshell, the Escalation Die in 13th Age is a “round” tracker that starts at 0, and goes up one each round, as represented by a D6 for tracking.  The PCs may add the escalation die number to their die rolls in combat, while (most) enemies may not.  The idea is to make the beginning of combats scarier, but to help end combats sooner and make the “mop up” phase of the battle wrap up more quickly.  In addition, various race and class powers can only be used, or have different effects, when the escalation die goes above a certain threshold, and some monster powers mess with the escalation die (like resetting it to 0).  Maybe I could be convinced otherwise, but in my limited play experience, I don’t really like it:

  1. Artificially tips things to the players with a meta game mechanic
  2. Rewards playing slow and safe since they’ll want to avoid the combat until they escalation die has swung in their favor
  3. Adds an ever-changing modifier to every die roll to keep track of (different every round of combat!)
  4. Completely Dissociated from anything “real” in the game

Now, there are some legitimate benefits as well, so to be fair:

1. Does seem like it would speed up encounters since there will be more net “hitting” in the combat (although, this isn’t necessarily the case, as the math of the game could have just “assumed” an escalation at all times).  If nothing else, it does help speed the “mop up” phase of most battles.

2. Encourages players to use climactic powers later in the combat.  I think this is the biggest benefit.

3. Gives the designer a new mechanic to play with for powers, including triggers for players and monsters.

Still, I don’t think those benefits are enough for me to want to use the escalation die.  It’s just too invasive with nothing to associate it with while playing.  I think encounter speed could be increased simply by changing the underlying math and health levels.  I think good encounter design, or even another mechanic entirely (such as low health) could be used for triggers for players and monsters to have climactic powers later in an encounter.

Any thoughts on this mechanic?  Does the cinematic benefit seem worth it to you?

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8 thoughts on “13th Age Escalation Die

  1. Wade Rockett

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on the mechanic. One correction: The escalation die doesn’t reward playing slow and safe. From the description on page 190: “The escalation die represents increasing momentum in the battle. If the GM judges that the characters are avoiding conflict rather than bringing the fight to the bad guys, the escalation die doesn’t advance. If combat virtually ceases, the escalation die resets to 0.”

    In my own experience, my players don’t have trouble keeping track of the ever-changing modifier; but your mileage may vary.

    Reply
    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Thanks for the clarification. It’s a good change, although it seems as though the mechanic is naturally going to reward cautious early behavior. I can see a table crying foul pretty fast if the GM doesn’t bump the escalation die because they are playing early rounds safe. This may work for a given group, maybe even for my group, but I’d rather not have to feel like I’m babysitting it or sorting out the gray area of the natural game tendencies it seems to reward.

      I also think, with my limited experience (one game at a convention), nobody at the table was used to the modifier, so it felt like an extra moving target to keep track of. It is small, so if the mechanical benefit was high, it would certainly be worth it.

      Sounds like you are playing 13th Age. What do you like/dislike about the escalation die?

      Reply
      1. Wade Rockett

        Bear in mind that I do Community Relations for 13th Age, so I’m not an impartial observer! However, I do run a regular campaign and here’s what I’ve seen at my table that I like:

        The escalation die adds an element of excitement just by being in play. When we hit round two and the die goes to 1, there’s a sense that the battle is fully joined.

        I have one very cautious player in my group. To everyone’s surprise — including his — the presence of the escalation die has made him more bold in combat, not less. He knows that if he can hang on for a few rounds, the escalation die will start to turn the battle in his favor. But that’s a big enough “if” to still be suspenseful.

        My players are delighted when the escalation die hits a number that enables one of their class abilities, and they enjoy telling the group what badass thing they can now do.

        When the die hits 5 and then 6, they are incredibly happy, because now it’s payback time for the beating they’ve taken over the past several rounds. It’s also a reward for not turning tail and fleeing — which, in 13th Age, you can do without taking any combat penalty but you do take a campaign setback. (Because you fled combat, the gnolls have a chance to call in reinforcements. Or move their hideout. Or deliver the kidnapped heir to an even worse foe.)

        The one downside: because I am not awesome at multitasking, I sometimes forget to turn the die over. But my players, who get the bonus, always remind me.

  2. Andy

    This sounds like the exact kind of disassociated mechanic that we are trying to avoid. Why do I gain benefits as the fight goes on? I’m already a buffing machine the first round or two. I can only imagine this would increase buffing which I know is one of your personal

    Reply
    1. Andy

      Pet peeves. Posting on phone… Doing a mediocre job of it.

      If we’re going for a gritty low magic world I don’t really buy the idea that I get an “adrenaline surge” at the end of a fight but the bad guys do not. I just don’t think it fits with where we are going thematically.

      Reply
      1. JackOfHearts Post author

        So yeah, I think we’re looking for something a little less cinematic, but it has some benefits that are hard to ignore. Should try playing some 13th Age at Gen Con maybe?

        1. Delay “climactic” powers from all being used in the first couple of rounds, and then grinding the rest of the way (powers triggered by escalation die #)
        2. Start out with things looking grim for the heroes, and then sliding to the heroes favor (better cinematic/thematic balancing)
        3. Acceleration of the end of combat as “mop-up” phase doesn’t drag out into “miss miss miss”
        4. A mechanic to hang various powers and enemy interactions on

        The disadvantages for us seem to outweigh though:

        1. Disassociated from roleplaying
        2. Constantly changing modifier
        3. Mechanically rewards slowing down combats
        4. Shifts the “world’ to favoring the players, which is a nice warm-fuzzy thing for the players, but spoils a little bit of the “players overcome long odds” feel – since the math is designed to do that for them.

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  4. Andy

    I’d definitely give 13th age a go at gencon. It sounds like it has a lot of interesting mechanics. Like any other system, the success (i.e. how fun it is) probably depends 90% on the players and GM in the given game.

    Reply

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