Monday, 26 March 2012

High-level D&D Combat: General Escalation

From the comments and my own thinking it seems that the new solutions to the grind of high-level combat break into two categories: escalation of the numbers involved, and giving higher-level characters additional abilities and feats that help make combat faster and more interesting.

In both these classes, a solution should have the following features:

1. If optional, should give some self-evident advantage to the players using it, without mathy thinky gamey time. This rules out things like "you may optionally double your damage if you accept double damage against you," because using that optimally will require you to think in terms of who is likely to do how much damage and have how many hit points.

2. Should balance out the excitement between early and later rounds - either by shortening the number of "early" rounds to get to the crucial rounds (early-combat escalation) or by escalating the later rounds so they get more crucial (late-combat escalation).

3. Should deliver a different feel to the long-lasting high level combats, as compared to the short and deadly low level ones.

Let's consider escalation rules. This was actually on my mind because of the recent discussion of fatigue on A Paladin in Citadel. While most fatigue rules make people less competent as they get tired, that is realistic, boring, and drags out combat even longer rather than speeding and spicing it up.

Here, I'm leaning toward late-combat escalation, because it's a rule you can apply at all levels of play. If that fight against orcs grinds on,  then I guess things get more deadly too ... but it's rare to see that level of combat last for more than six real rounds of action.

Introducing ... the escalation die.

It comes out when the first Escalation Event occurs, set to 1, and goes up by one for each subsequent Escalation Event. What is that, you ask? Just something that happens when one of two numbers is rolled on a d20 in skirmish combat for whatever reason - hit roll, saving throw, ability check.

If you don't have critical hits or fumbles, those two numbers can be 1 or 20. Otherwise, may I suggest lucky 7 and unlucky 13.

The effect is quite simple: the number currently showing on the die is added to all "to hit" rolls and damage rolls while combat is ongoing. The maximum value of the die is the level of the highest level PC in the fight.

For each round of break in the combat with no attempts to hit on either side, reduce the die by one.

Obviously, this shouldn't be used in mass missile fire, so only the PCs and their immediate foes are affected (that is, those fighting them).

Although I've yet to test this system on high-level characters, the good thing about it is that it lets the players get some fair idea of the capabilities of their foes, then tells them exactly how dangerous combat is getting as it goes along.

Next up ... feats.


  1. I like it. Though I don't see why stacking crits and fumbles with escalation events is a bad thing.

    I look forward to your treatment of feats, but it would have to be a pretty light system to strike my fancy the way this particular two-edged sword does

  2. Though if you do tie crits and fumbles to the escalation die, does crits escalate or does fumbles escalate? I'm thinking crits, but there are also good arguments for fumbles.

  3. Well, if interesting things happen on a 1 or 20, you want to load the "neat stuff" onto another number to make the combat more evenly interesting.

    If it's 1 number and you have 5 attacks per round - let's say, 2 vs. 3 in a corridor - escalation happens every 4 rounds. 2 numbers, and it's every other round, or more if the combat gets wild and woolly.

    Or, you could have it so the DM's numbers always escalate, and the PC's escalate by choice.

  4. I was thinking that fumbles and crits both already jack up the tension, because for one or the other opponent the stakes have just gotten higher or they see victory within reach.

    Making both have an additional double-edged effect ramps up the speed, but it also maybe takes the edge off your fumble or the crit you just took if your chances of payback just got better

    I get your point that even a small party versus a like number of opponents will see the die escalating not quite every round, on the average, but the most fun I've had in D&D combats has been as a desperate fool at the end of his rope.

    I guess I figure that if I can make a new character in 15 minutes or less and get him back in the game, then the fun is worth the risk.

    The testing I'd be most interested in seeing is whether it works in low-level play. My guess is they don't last long enough for it to make much of a difference

  5. I'll definitely be trying this rule out. I tend to run really rules-lite games - as in, we sorta-kinda have combat rules which look like D&D, for those times when we need rules. Generally, we want combat to be dramatic, intense, and *short*. This'll do the trick nicely. :)

  6. As I was reading this, and before you introduced the escalation die, I was thinking everyone involved in the combat should start taking damage from fatigue or something like that. I like your idea even more.

    This solution is interesting in many ways. More combatants? Things are more likely to get more deadly more quickly. It scales with the PCs. It doesn't get too deadly, just speeds things up.

  7. Holy shit! ADDED. I'm totally doing this in my game this weekend.

  8. Excellent. This plus Zak's simple crits/fumbles would do it for me - your escalation die lights a fire at the PCs' backs, and electively raising the crit/fumble probabilities allows players to take things into their own hands.

  9. If Saves and Ability checks can increase/decrease the Escalation die then why not have the escalation die affect them as well?

    When the die is increasing your adrenaline is pumping (ability check) and you're in a state of heightened awareness (saves). When it is decreasing you are losing focus (ability) and morale (saves).

  10. If you go with that, you should probably have penalties to saves as the escalation die increases. After all, its all about making the fight more dangerous (and thus over faster) the further it progresses.

  11. That's an interesting question - which way should the die influence saves and checks? I can see arguments for both ways, but in keeping with the general function of the die I'd probably go for escalation modifiers making things harder to do and not easier.

  12. Indeed, when I first proposed it I think a saving throw boost would have been best but I think now I may be on the other side of the fence.

    A saving throw bonus would likely mean the battle would have to be finished with skill in arms. If you make it a penalty then you may have just solved the Save-or-Die problem. Mathematically at the start a SoD would need a very low chance of success but as the battle wore on they would be far more susceptible.

    I look forward to trying it in my game. For playtesting feedback would you prefer I test with a saving throw bonus or penalty?

  13. Maybe I'm a particularly evil GM, but I think I'll just escalate every round, rather than just on a chance. My opinion, completely unsolicited and worth less than 2 cents, is that if you apply it to saves, it should be a penalty. The point is to make actions more effective, and saves counteract that, prolonging the encounter.

  14. So... no mention of 13th Age? None at all? Because I'm pretty sure that is where this mechanic came from. I mean, adapting this for D&D (despite how clumsily you do it) is fine, but at least give credit where it is due.

  15. So... no mention of 13th Age? None at all? Because that is the game this mechanic is from. Adapting this for D&D (despite how clumsily you've done it) is fine, but at least give credit where it is due.

  16. Would you believe I have never heard of let alone seen 13th Age? It doesn't even seem to be available for sale; it's in playtest, sure, but I'm not a part of that.

    My eyestalks don't reach that far ...

  17. Geeze Tobias - you think you could maybe rephrase that to be a little more dickish and condescending? This is the internet after all - we have standards.

    Accusing him of plagiarism and insulting his game design at the same time just isn't going to be enough to get you into the d-bag hall of fame. Adding something disparaging about his masculinity and his mom's promiscuity would be a good effort.