Monster damage in 13th Age

When we first encountered the idea of flat damage, my high school gaming group refused to play that way. This was David Hargrave’s streamlined rules system, The Arduin Adventure, back in 1980. The game was a highly modified version of D&D, and no one rolled damage. Damage was flat. Your war hammer dealt 7 damage, hit after hit. How unrealistic! We couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to play with flat damage. Instead, we just used the damage rules we already knew and kept rolling damage for every hit. For 20 years after that, all my RPGs featured randomized damage (if they had the concept of numeric damage at all). But around 10 years ago I started using flat damage for monsters in my home 3E campaign. What Dave Hargrave apparently knew, after all his countless hours of high-level gamemastering, is that flat damage makes the game more fun because combat moves faster. And now monsters in 13th Age deal flat damage, just like they did in my 3E campaign.

I have long been thinking about how to make damage rolls go faster. In a Gamma World campaign in high school, I started rolling the damage dice along with my attack roll. That sped things up. Over the Edge (1992) uses a damage multiplier applied to a hit’s degree of success, rather than a separate damage roll. With Everway (1995), there is no to-hit roll or damage roll, and you can resolve a battle with one card from the Fortune Deck. With 3E, however, we rolled damage. In fact, rolling monster damage turned out to be slower than in previous editions because monster damage always had a bonus attached. Since we were copying RuneQuest and applying ability score modifiers to monster stats, monsters usually had bonuses added to their die rolls. Instead of old-school 3d6, Third Edition offered 2d6+4. The bonus, while realistic, makes the arithmetic one step slower, especially with multiple attacks. In my home campaign after 3E was published, I converted back to rolling just dice for the monsters. No bonus. So a monster’s 2d6+4 became 3d6, and combat went a little bit faster.

The big jump in combat speed, however, came when we stopped rolling damage at all. At low levels, rolling damage is pretty painless, but at high levels it really slows the action down. Watching the wizard’s player count up ten dice is a drag, especially when a high-level wizard casts two spells a round. Fighters didn’t have fireball, but they made multiple attacks round after round. Aside from a few exceptions, I converted my 3E campaign to flat damage, and combat went faster. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it works. Why does it sound crazy but play well? Because rolling damage feels like a really big deal but it’s not. Rolling damage is a lot of arithmetic but it adds little variability. The d20 attack roll contributes more to how much damage you deal than the damage roll itself. The maximum roll on a a die, the best damage you can hope for, is less than twice as much as average. If there’s a big bonus on the roll, it’s a lot less than twice as much damage. Why bother?

I saw a similar effect with fixed initiative, which I championed in 3E. Players disliked fixed initiative when they read it but liked it when they played it. Rolling for initiative every round sounds better in theory, like Communism, but rolling once per battle plays faster. In 3E, players rolled their hit points, but not at 1st level. DMs could roll monsters’ hit points and even ability scores, but by default you used the averages. By 4E, the PCs’ hit points were no longer rolled, nor are they in 13th Age.

Originally, monsters rolled damage in 13th Age just like anybody else. We tried to speed up big damage rolls by converting them to multiples. For example, the GM would roll 1d6 times 10 instead of 10d6. The damage-multiple rule made combat faster, but it made damage too “swingy,” with an uncomfortably large amount of chance. Since the PCs are the odds-on favorites in most fights, swinginess is more dangerous to the PCs than to the monsters, especially if it’s monster damage. When I ran the game, however, monsters dealt flat damage. Rolling damage slowed down my GMing too much, especially after a couple beers.

Eventually, the practical value of flat damage for monsters became clear, and we switched over. Monsters deal flat damage. Rolling for hit point recovery is also optional, with players allowed (if not encouraged) to take an average result instead. Players still roll dice for damage. Rob likes that rule because it’s fun. He can be such a softie. I like players rolling damage because it gives the GM more time to think ahead.

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