by Rob Heinsoo
A few weeks ago a man in a toga told me that he was considering giving up on 13th Age because it was too complicated. He was two fruity Halloween cocktails away from being staggered, so I pursued quickly to learn what he was having trouble with.
The problem turned out to be the grab rules. “We had a fight the other night and someone got grabbed. We had to page through the book. It was a bit too much. Oh hey, did you write the note afterwards saying ‘you might not want to use grabs?’”
Yes. Yes, I wrote that note. And now I’m going to go a bit further, to explain what I’ve been doing with monster mechanics instead of using grabs, and explain what I’m actually doing in my games when a monster grabs someone. Along the way, we’ll get a vigorous dissent from Jonathan, and you’ll be able to decide which flavor of revision you prefer, if any.
The Sidebar in Question
As a starting point, here’s the important part of the sidebar I wrote on page 173 of the 13th Age rulebook after the rules on the Grabbed condition.
We don’t like using grabs unless it’s the core of what a monster is about, and even then we may opt for different attacks that accomplish something similar. Don’t feel any obligation to allow anyone to make grabs, and don’t use these rules for just any old attempt to hold on to someone. These rules cover serious claw- and tentacle- and pincer-aided holds for monsters that are big enough to pick people up. The rules are more interesting when they are an exception, something that makes some big monsters scary, rather than rules you have to worry about whenever you fight an ogre.
This sidebar wasn’t successful. The one person I’m sure understands it? Me. If you run through 13th Age, the 13th Age Bestiary, and 13 True Ways looking for grabs, you’re going to find around five monsters in each book that use the grab rules. Why so few? Because I was the final developer on these books and I did everything I could to find more interesting things for most of the monsters to do with their attacks.
Meanwhile, otherwise well-designed third-party books that handle 13th Age monsters are pretty much jammed with monsters that grab. Grabbing is such a natural thing for monsters to do! With very few exceptions, third party publishers writing 13th Age-compatible monsters have been using grab mechanics on many monsters.
Maybe that’s not a problem for your games, but I’m sure it’s a problem for some people. This problem is my fault. I used the familiar d20-rolling term “grab,” gave it somewhat over-complicated rules, and followed-up with a qualifying sidebar explaining that I recommend avoiding grabs whenever possible. I was talking out both sides of my mouth there.
I have three approaches worth mentioning.
The first is advice to designers and GMs about how to rephrase grab mechanics as something that’s easier to use.
The second is my still-slightly ticky-tacky rule for how I actually handle monsters that grab in games I’m running.
The third is Jonathan’s rejoinder to my revision.
Design Alternatives to the Grab
Grabbing is one of the most obvious nasty things a monster can do to its enemies. My first question whenever I encounter a monster design that involves grabbing is to ask, “Is grabbing really the most interesting thing this monster can do? Isn’t there something more unique or special that this monster could accomplish that would bypass the need for using the grab mechanics?”
Nowadays, if the answer is still no, I try to find another simple way to get the flavor of a grabby monster without directly using the grab rules.
Here’s a simple example, using the stirge from page 197 of the Bestiary. As originally designed, the stirge grabbed people it was fighting. I did not want to deal with the grab rules for freaking stirges. So the finished stirges don’t say anything about grabbing you. But if you stay engaged with them after they have hit you with their claws, their next attack will be to jab you with a draining proboscis. The result is that you probably want to get away from the stirge, or simply kill it.
A lot of monster attacks that might have involved grabs can be rephrased in this fashion. Write the monster’s attack with an effect that will trigger only if the creature it hits is still engaged with it at the start of the monster’s next turn. If the effect is nasty enough, some weak or wounded PCs will do whatever they can to disengage or teleport away. Others who are better in melee will tough it out. In either case, the extra qualifiers that got loaded onto the grabbed condition, and rules about carrying smaller creatures and et freaking cetera don’t need to apply. The simple question is whether you stayed engaged or moved away.
How I Play Grabs Now
However, this engaged-or-not effect doesn’t make grab mechanics easier to use for monsters that already have them.
For that, if you like, you can use the variant grab rule I’m using in my games.
The way I handle grabbing now uses the rules on pages 172 and 173 of the 13th Age rulebook, but with fewer fiddly bits.
- No more -5 disengage penalty to get away from a grab.
- The grabbing creature doesn’t get a +4 to attack creatures it is grabbing.
- Instead, if a monster has a PC grabbed at the start of the monster’s turn, the monster deals automatic damage to the grabbed PC equal to half the base damage of the attack that resulted in the grab.
- Unless you really care, ignore stuff about not being able to make opportunity attacks.
- And if you feel like making a ranged attack and taking an opportunity attack, well OK, knock yourself out, or let yourself get knocked out.
The big deal, and the rule that matters because it’s what will come up often, is that you’ll suffer automatic damage unless you disengage or find another way to pop free, and we’re ignoring the original rule’s fiddly -5 disengagement penalty.
The +4 attack bonus for the monster that is grabbing is also no longer necessary or desirable because hey, automatic damage! Not many monsters do automatic damage, and in many cases, half the normal attacks’ damage is significant damage that the PC is going to want to avoid. Of course other PCs, who have a lot of hit points, or cunning plans, are going to say, “No, no, I’ve got better things to do with my actions. I’m not even going to try to disengage, I can take it.”
Applying the rule: I’ve looked through most of the monsters that we’ve published in Pelgrane books and the auto-damage variant I use works fine for ankhegs, glabrezou, hezrou, treants, werebears, and pretty much all the other critters with grab attacks we’ve published.
The only grabby monsters that I’ll use the old grab mechanics for are the gelatinous cubes and other monsters that engulf people. The engulf mechanic makes sense to me as something that could use the old mechanics, but really, it’s a corner case and either way would work.
My guess is that most of the grabby creatures in other publishers’ books could also use my variant.
How are we going to handle grabs in books that Jonathan and I are working on together? Like, say, the 13th Age in Glorantha book.
The answer is: I don’t know!
Because Jonathan surprised me. His simple answer to what should happen when you get grabbed is “You can’t take any actions except trying to disengage when you are grabbed.” He might or might not make an exception for something like rallying. He might let you teleport. I don’t know. He’s like an ogre.
Jonathan is all about simple. Jonathan is also not afraid of being harsh on the players. In fact, he thinks it is fan service to make sure that you care deeply about the die rolls you make. Disengage check when you’re grabbed? Oh, you’ll care.
So what we are doing in the future? That’s to be determined. If you playtest either of these variants, feel free to send me your results at 13thAgePlaytest@gmail.com.
This past week, as Jonathan and I bid each other good night after a day of working together in my gaming garage, we used some variation of the following shtick:
Jonathan: “And that’s why the Gloranthan monsters should have real grabs. They grab you and that’s it. You’re grabbed! Escape it you can.”
Me: “Get out. Get out now. Get out of my garage.”
Then we say good night for real or make plans for the next work day.
One way or another, we’ll grab you later.