The Combat Modifiers section on page 171 of the core book suggests giving +2 to attacks that have “advantageous circumstances” and -2 to attacks from adverse circumstances. The bonus can come from a particularly clever use of the terrain or a surprising combat maneuver. A bonus might also come from some special circumstance of the battle, such as a dwarf fighting in the ancient dwarven Hall of Blood). The GM is also encouraged to make free use of conditions such as dazed and weakened.
This means that as the GM, you can seed your battles with opportunities for the PCs to gain a +2 bonus, or for the monsters to take a -2 penalty—or a debilitating condition—through terrain features and thematic elements. It also means that the reverse can apply, and the monsters can take similar advantage of terrain (and very bad player rolls.)
As an example, let’s look at a battle between Amanirenas, a level 1 fighter, and an orc. At that level Amanirenas doesn’t yet have a ton of maneuvers, and has a relatively low chance of hitting her enemy until the escalation die really kicks in. Here are some ways the character can get an edge over her opponent:
- Amanirenas uses a move action to change the direction the orc is facing, so the sun is in his eyes. (Amanirenas gains a +2 bonus to attack)
- Amanirenas asks if she can use her next attack to force the orc backward into a knee-deep marsh. The GM rules that she can, in exchange for doing slightly less damage on a hit that turn. (The orc has the stuck condition, easy save ends.)
- Amanirenas asks whether the clash of weapons and smell of blood has agitated the cattle in a nearby pen, which the orc is guarding. The GM says yes. With her next attack Amanirenas throws her throwing axe at the rope holding the gate closed. The orc gets an opportunity attack against Amanirenas, but the resulting stampede confuses and panics him. (The orc has the dazed condition, normal save ends.)
- The GM mentioned at the start of the battle that there’s an ancient, crumbling shrine to a god of Light nearby. Amanirenas, who has a positive icon relationship with the Priestess and the background “former acolyte in the Cathedral”, uses a quick action to offer up a prayer to the shrine’s god, asking it to shield her from harm. (The orc’s next attack against AC takes a -2 penalty.)
- Amanirenas’ stalwart companion Bungle* uses a move action to perform an acrobatic maneuver that will knock the orc off a small cliff. Bungle rolls a natural 1 and goes sailing off the edge of the cliff. (Bungle takes falling damage and has the sunned condition. However, following the “fail forward” principle, the orc is now laughing so hard that the GM gives Amanirenas a +2 to her next attack.)
Confession time: thinking tactically doesn’t come easily to me as a player or as a GM unless the system offers some hand-holding. For example, when playing D&D 4e, I was very concerned about flanking and being prone; and when playing Night’s Black Agents, I use Thriller Combat options to set myself and my fellow Agents up for success. So, how does someone like me take advantage of the free-form flexibility of 13th Age? I recommend asking each player in turn to describe one interesting, dangerous, and/or potentially useful feature of the environment before the battle begins. Book of the Underworld‘s “Creating Underworld Environments” section has loads of great questions you can ask about illumination, terrain, and more. For example:
- What’s unusual about the stone here? Why does it catch your eye?
- There’s a large, physical barrier in the middle of the cave— what is it?
- Something here is unstable or prone to collapse—what is it?
- The cave is broken into several sections, some higher than others. How steep are the divides? How can you get up to those raised platforms?
- The cave has plenty of places to seek cover—what and where are they? Why might you hesitate to take cover there?
- If—hypothetically speaking—a gigantic chunk of rock were going to fall down and squash someone in the middle of this fight, where’s the most likely spot for such a collapse?
Not only does this lighten the GM’s burden of describing the scene, it gets the players invested in the bits they’ve described—and more likely to make interesting choices about how to use them.
* a gnome rogue with the One Unique Thing “I am without doubt the worst rogue you’ve ever heard of, but you have heard of me.”
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. 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.