Want to heighten dramatic tension or foreshadow a huge battle far beyond what the PCs are accustomed to? Here are a couple of tricks you can do with the escalation die to achieve that. (For a change, I haven’t used either of these tricks yet—I’ve been playing lately instead of GMing. Maybe I can talk my GM into using the “bump it up” mechanic the next time he rolls three crits in a single round!)
A caveat: these mechanics are more effective when you’re GMing for experienced 13th Age players than with newcomers to the game. Experienced players know what to expect from escalation in normal circumstances; so when they see you’re doing something unusual with it, they recognize that something important is about to happen.
Bump It Up
Mid-fight, increase the escalation die by 1 higher than normal—and make sure the players notice. The best time to use this trick is when the stakes have risen, or the tide has suddenly turned against the PCs in a major way. It’s not exactly momentum, like most other increases to the escalation die. It’s more like the PCs have realized that things just got real and they need to kick it up a notch.
This is the opposite of de-escalation, as described on page 162 of the 13th Age core rulebook. De-escalation is an option when you judge that the PCs aren’t doing anything to push the conflict. If they’re dodging and hiding and wimping out, for example, you don’t increase the escalation die the next round.*
In contrast, bumping it up is based on the actions or good fortune of the villains of the fight. I intend to use it when I’m about to give the monsters some mid-combat lucky break that’s the equivalent of a PC’s icon relationship advantage. It’s a good way of invoking the power of enemy icons.
Here are a couple examples of how I might use it.
- The PCs are fighting a nasty group of warriors and spellcasters devoted to the Crusader. One of them, an Ebon Gauntlet inquisitor (Bestiary 2, page 41), points her dagger at the frenzy demon summoned by Skullburn, the party’s demonologist. The inquisitor growls, “By His power you are nothing!” and I tell everyone that I’m rolling an easy save. If the save succeeds, the inquisitor dismisses the frenzy demon. While everyone in my group is yelling at me about being a terrible person, I reach out and increase the escalation die by 1. “Yeah, things just got real. She called on the Crusader, and it looked like he answered,” I say. “That was just a quick action, so now she uses her judgment of the Crusader attack on Skullburn and the occultist.” If the easy save the inquisitor rolled failed, I’d have her curse and keep fighting, and the PCs wouldn’t know what just missed them.
- The escalation die is at 2 and the PCs have a pack of gnolls on the ropes. Our heroes think they’ve got everything under control, when suddenly a second wave arrives! Bump the escalation die up to 3 as the new monsters cycle into the initiative order.
And that brings us to the second trick . . . .
Battle is underway and the enemy forces seem about normal. But then, at the start of the second round, the escalation die you place on the table isn’t the usual six-sider. It’s a d8. No, no, not a d8. Never risk an underdose! It’s a d10. Maybe even a d12!
The players stare at the die in confusion and a touch of fear. Why would a d12 be necessary? There’s still no sign of what’s coming in the second round. Let the tension build.
Turns out, this battle is going to be a big fight. It’s going to be a LONG fight. And the only reason PCs would ever need an escalation die that’s a 10-sider or a 12-sider is if they were fighting monsters that are extremely hard to hit. An easy way to do this without an un-fun TPK is to make the creatures you gradually introduce into the battle much higher level than the PCs. They probably shouldn’t be large or huge creatures, because a higher-than-normal escalation die won’t save the PCs from the mighty wallops delivered by much stronger enemies.
Why “gradually”? Because it probably won’t work very well in terms of combat math to send a whole bunch of higher-level monsters in at once. The Bruce-Lee-vs.-mooks method is probably what you need: sending one or at most two monsters at a time against the PCs. Unlike Bruce, the PCs probably won’t have time to pose and admire the impact of their blows, because the higher-level monsters you’re sending in won’t function like kung fu action movie mooks (even if they are literal 13th Age mooks).
In this scenario, consider giving each PC an option to get the equivalent of a quick rest at some point during the fight. I might handle that by letting one character per round regain hit points and abilities as if they’d gained a short rest right in the middle of combat. They’d probably have to be unengaged to do that, but otherwise it shouldn’t take more than a quick action.
Interactions (or, What Could Possibly Go Wrong With This Method?): Most player character powers that intersect with the escalation die aren’t a problem with the big foreshadowing mechanic. The commander has many abilities that play off of or increase the escalation die, and one even increases the size of the die, but that’s not really a problem for this battle.
On the other hand, the trickster’s Follow Me! No Her! No Me! talent from page 209 of 13th Age Glorantha would seize control of ‘foreshadowing’ and spin the battle into some other dramatic shape. What shape? Impossible to tell. There aren’t many other whacky powers in the game like that, but who knows? PCs are full of surprises.
*In practice, I think I’ve only ever enforced de-escalation once. I’ve threatened it six or seven times, and the threat is nearly always enough to remind some of the PCs that they’re heroes, or people doing a fair impersonation of heroes.
About 13th Age
13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.