Sunday, 23 April 2017

5e: 13th Age Ideas in the 5th Edition Game

13th Age, by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet (two very experienced D&D game designers) is an excellent d20 based fantasy rpg. If you haven't ever played it, I highly recommend it. In some respects, it is the successor to D&D 4th Edition but detractors of that system shouldn't be put off from trying it. Only the very best parts of 4e made the cut, and it has a bunch of slick, streamlined new ideas. 13th Age is a slimline system, and nothing like an MMO. The only aspect of the game I don't like are the Icon Rolls, because I feel that they rob the DM of a lot of creative control. They would suit a more improvised game, but they're not for me. Fortunately, they're easily ignored.

There are some ideas from the 13th Age game which could be very interesting additions to 5e. Luckily, 13th Age has its own System Reference Document, so it is possible to share those ideas with you and to build upon them. 

The Escalation Die

(See the rule on the 13th Age SRD)

Here's how this rule works in 13th Age:
  • The escalation die represents a bonus to attacks as the fight goes on. 
  • At the start of the second round, the GM sets the escalation die at 1. Each PC gains a bonus to attack rolls equal to the current value on the escalation die. Each round, the escalation die advances by +1, to a maximum of +6. 
  • Monsters and NPCs do not add the escalation die bonus to their attacks.
  • 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.
Pretty interesting, right? This rule represents increasing momentum and building teamwork among the heroes, and has the game effect of shortening most battles, making for improved session pacing.

The Escalation Die in 5e

13th Age attack bonuses are higher than those in 5e (due to 5e's bounded accuracy), so while I think this rule can be imported almost as is, my suggestion would be to use a d4 in place of the d6.

It is recommended to use as big a die as possible for the Escalation Die for visibility, but I think it's a lot easier to get massive a d6 than a massive d4. One idea would be to print and construct a large d4 from card. Here's a template I've made which you can use for your tabletop game. Simply print it out, fold along the lines, and stick the tabs in place with glue or tape.

Other Consequences of Escalation

In 13th Age, certain character powers and monster abilities trigger when the Escalation Die reaches a certain number. We can't do that in 5e without a complete overhaul, but we could look at other ways to change up the battle based on the level of Escalation. 

Here's a few ideas that alter how enemies function as the battle proceeds:
  • While the heroes attack with more surety and skill, their enemies react with more desperate and powerful blows. The first time a monster or NPC deals damage on its turn, add a number of additional d4s to the damage equal to the current value of the escalation die. 
  • In response to the increased deadliness of the heroes, their enemies become more wary. Monsters and NPCs have a bonus to their AC equal to half the value of the escalation die, rounded down. 
  • When faced with overwhelming enemies, some monsters push themselves past their perceived physical limits. Monsters and NPCs have a bonus to their movement speed equal to 10 feet times the current value of the escalation die. 
  • Some enemies only become more enraged as the threat level rises, stubbornly pushing through pain and persisting in spite of their wounds. The monster or NPC can roll a number of d4s to reduce damage it takes each round equal to the current value of the escalation die. It can split these dice up as it wishes between attacks.
Monsters shouldn't always have their own escalation features. Save it for significant battles. When you do use these features, remember that a monster only gets one. However, you can give different creatures participating in an encounter different escalation features that best suit their role. Enemy skirmishers may be better off with escalating movement speed, while brutes and archers will be most potent with increasing damage. Monsters whose role is to tie up attacks and soak up damage should increase their AC or gain damage reduction dice.

Attack Miss Damage 

When a 13th Age character misses with their basic melee attack, they deal damage equal to their level (although it is worth noting that the maximum level for 13th Age characters is actually level 10, meaning the miss damage caps at 10, not 20).

I like this rule because a wasted turn can be pretty demoralising, especially if you have an unlucky run of rolls over multiple turns. It can be especially egregious for warrior classes, who may not have many ways to contribute to fights. Without area powers or deadly spells, their attacks are all they have, and to miss with them and utterly waste their turns can be pretty brutal. The rule lets players feel like no turn is wasted, and that they contributed in some small way.

One thing to note is that in 13th Age the rule doesn't extend to ranged weapons, which on the one hand I think is a good thing because it gives melee weapons an advantage that ranged weapons don't. On the other, ranged fighters will still feel the sting of a miss. A good compromise might be to have miss damage for ranged attacks deal only half the damage compared to melee attacks.

Melee and Ranged Attack Miss Damage in 5e

13th Age characters have 10 levels, meaning the maximum bonus to damage on any attack will cap at +10. Additionally, 13th Age characters generally make only one attack per turn, though certain powers may allow a secondary attack too. It's possible for a 5e character to attack three or four times. We need to account for both facts.

Melee Lethality

All characters possess a melee lethality score. Your melee lethality is equal to 1⁄2 your character level (rounded down, to a minimum of 1).

On any turn on which you miss with every melee attack you make, or when your combined damage from any attacks that hit is less than your melee lethality, you can deal damage equal to your melee lethality to a single creature you targeted with one or more melee attacks this turn.

You can only deal melee or ranged lethality on your turn, never both.

Ranged Lethality

All characters possess a ranged lethality score. Your ranged lethality score is equal to 1⁄4 your character level (rounded down).

On any turn on which you miss with every ranged attack you make, or when your combined damage from any attacks that hit is less than your ranged lethality, you can deal damage equal to your ranged lethality to a single creature you targeted with one or more ranged attacks this turn.

You can only deal melee or ranged lethality on your turn, never both.

You need to decide whether the game impact of this additional damage is an issue for your game or not. As stands, it will slightly increase the overall damage output of your party, meaning that fights could theoretically end more quickly (not necessarily a bad thing). In practice, it should be triggered fairly rarely, though expect it to be more common at low levels when the characters have less attacks that might hit. If you're happy for fights to end faster, make no changes to your monsters. If you want players to feel empowered but keep your monster on par, bump up the monster's hit points by 2 or 3 times the current melee lethality score of your party members. You'll probably always want to do this for legendary and other solo monsters, too.

Lethality by Level

The following table provides an easy reference for your character's Melee and Ranged Lethality.

Melee and Ranged Lethality Scores

Character Level Melee Ranged
1 1 0
2 1 0
3 1 0
4 2 1
5 2 1
6 3 1
7 3 1
8 4 2
9 4 2
10 5 2
11 5 2
12 6 3
13 6 3
14 7 3
15 7 3
16 8 4
17 8 4
18 9 4
19 9 4
20 10 5

Fight in Spirit

(See the rule on the 13th Age SRD)

Is there anything worse than your character being knocked unconscious? Not only is there a possibility that your character will die, you also can't take part in the game for three turns save for rolling your death saving throw.

Well, being stabilised might actually be worse. Now you don't even get to make a roll!

13th Age has a solution for players of characters who are out for the count, under the effect of a hold person, currently banished, or otherwise incapable of contributing normally to the fight.

Fight in Spirit is a special combat action that you can take when you are out of the fight altogether. Once a round you can specify how your character is still there ‘fighting in spirit’ alongside the other party members. Come up with some story about what your character has done that could boost party morale. The GM may grant any ally a +1 bonus to attacks, Armor Class, Physical Defense, or Mental Defense. The first time each battle that someone fights in spirit may be a +2 bonus. 

The bonus lasts one to two rounds. If the fight is still on and you have something else to add to the story, sell it to the GM.

If you’re still (even partly) in the fight, then you can’t fight in spirit.

In effect, you make up a memory of your character for one of the other PCs.Perhaps it was a rousing speech, an illustrative tale told round the campfire, or a maneuver you made in the past that the other hero might have learned from. Once you do, the GM translates it into a +1 bonus for that PC (or a +2 bonus if it's the first time anyone has used Fight in Spirit during the encounter).

Fight in Spirit in 5e

Although it will technically make this ability more powerful, I think we should make use of the advantage mechanic rather than applying fiddly +1 bonuses. Besides, +1 isn't usually going to amount to a very big deal anyway, so in the spirit of giving the incapacitated hero's player a worthwhile turn, upping the potency a bit seems worthwhile. In any case this action should be used rarely enough that this isn't too big deal.  We also need to adjust the list of things to which the bonus can apply.

Fight in Spirit is a special combat action that you can take when you are out of the fight altogether. Once a round, after an ally makes an attack roll or saving throw, or has an attack roll made against them, but before the result of that roll is declared, you can specify how your character is still there ‘fighting in spirit’ alongside them. Come up with some story about what your character has done that could boost the target character's morale.

If your DM accepts your story, your ally can roll an additional d20 on their attack roll or saving throw, taking the best of the results. If your Fight in Spirit action was in response to an attack targeting the ally, the enemy creature must roll an additional d20, taking the worst of the results.

If you’re still (even partly) in the fight, then you can’t fight in spirit.


(See the rule on the 13th Age SRD)

Flee is an optional rule in 13th Age that empowers the party to take greater risks, knowing they have a narrative out if things go South fast. It can also save the party's bacon if they are being defeated by a monster that, on paper, they couldn't possibly escape from due to high movement speeds.
Fleeing is a party action. On any PC’s turn, any player can propose that all the characters flee the fight. If all players agree, they successfully retreat, carrying any fallen heroes away with them. The party suffers a campaign loss. The point of this rule is to encourage daring attacks and to make retreating interesting on the level of story rather than tactics.

Flee in 5e

We don't need to make any changes to this rule, really. A campaign loss is any significant negative consequence that will not block the story, but will alter it. If the party flee from orcs in an old keep's guardhouse, the orcs may be able to fortify that entrance, meaning the heroes will have to find another way in. If they flee from an adventure's villain, the villain probably escapes to become a recurring thorn in their side. Maybe the wounded monsters drink the potions of cure wounds that were supposed to be part of the treasure? Or an enraged dragon, in its fury at the party's escape, might accidentally trample some of the valuable items in its hoard.

Backgrounds in place of Skills

(See the rule on the 13th Age SRD)

In 13th Age, characters don't have skills. Instead, they have backgrounds. They are considered proficient in any skill that makes sense given those backgrounds.

This is something we can do in 5e, and it works very well (I actually use this as a houserule in my tabletop game). The only thing we need to consider is that the 5e game already has backgrounds, so maybe we shouldn't call these skill replacements that. How about "Training"? Here's how I handle it:

  • A Training proficiency is a a short statement of the player’s invention which illustrates a key aspect of the character’s past and skillset.
  • Whenever an ability check comes up, you can add your Proficiency bonus to your roll as long as it is clear or you can justify how one or more of your areas of Training can help you. A Training proficiency can be anything but when creating them apply your common sense and write a Training proficiency statement that is useful in many situations but that also has reasonable limitations. Training should never allow you to add your Proficiency to every ability check, or even most ability checks. For instance: "Cat burglar", "Rogue with a heart of gold", or "Child of a merchant family" might all be suitable Training proficiencies. "Unparalleled prodigy at everything he tries" would be very unsuitable.
  • A character's Race, their Class, and their Background all act as Training proficiencies which the character receives automatically.
  • A character selects a number of additional Training proficiencies determined by their class:
    • Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Fighters, Monks, Paladins, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards may select one additional Training proficiency.
    • Bards and Rangers may select two.
    • Rogues may select three.
  • Variant Humans do not get an extra Training proficiency, and nor do Half-Elves or any other race which normally adds one or more skill proficiency. However, they get to select a single skill expertise (see Expertise) for every skill proficiency they would normally receive. This replaces their previous skill proficiency feature.


Whenever a Bard or Rogue gains the Expertise feature, they select two skills, tool, or tasks with which their character is especially accomplished.

Some races also grant expertise. For instance, a Variant Human character may select one skill, tool, or task. A Half-Elf may select two.

You might for instance select a "core rules style" skill, eg. Acrobatics, Stealth, or Perception. You might select Thieves Tools, or a Poisoner's Kit. You might just as easily select something else, as long as it is a single area of knowledge or ability like "ropework", "animal handling", or "parkour".

You may only select an expertise that would normally be an area with which you would be proficient due to the competencies granted by one (or possibly more) of your Training proficiencies. For instance, if none of your Training suggests you would be competent at using poisons, it would make no sense if you were expert as a "Poisoner".

Whenever your expertise is relevant during an ability check you may add double your Proficiency bonus, instead of your Proficiency bonus.

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