One of the great things about 13th Age is the concept of the Escalation Die. It is basically a bonus to all player dice rolls that goes up by one for each consecutive round of combat. It serves the purpose of accelerating combat in general and limiting the actual length of combat encounters.
The way the mechanic is set up would be better fit by the name Momentum Die, though. The encounters don’t really escalate but rather allow the player characters to pull off actions with more ease the longer the combat lasts – they build momentum so to speak. This is somewhat counter-intuitive to concepts such as fatigue and loss of concentration and simply results in the player characters having higher chances of coming out on top if they only manage to draw out the encounter for long enough – which entirely defeats the point of the exercise.
How to escalate the conflict:
An escalation indicates to me that the odds for both success and failure ramp up over time. Now that might sound paradox at first but here is a way of achieving just this.
Enter critical rolls: Remember, dice rolls result in a binary outcome on the range of 1-20. If a roll is on the extreme end of the spectrum it considered critical, i.e. either an awesome success or an utter failure, both with appropriate impact on the result. Now change the Escalation Die from conferring a bonus to indicating the critical range of rolls. It starts out at 1, meaning the size of the critical range of the spectrum is 1 at each end – namely 1 for critical failure and 20 for critical success. As the conflict escalates this size continues to increase up to a critical range of 6, i.e. critical failure for rolls in the range of 1–6 and critical success in the range of 15–20.
Add to this the interaction with conflict stances and the effect escalation levels 1 to 6 have on them:
- Reckless: 5 -30% critical failure, 5-30% critical success
- Balanced: 0-15% critical failure, 1-21% critical success
- Purposeful: 0-9.26% critical failure, 0-9.26% critical success
Note that escalation level 1 incurs no critical failure chance for the default Balanced stance, and Purposeful is without a critical failure chance for the first 2 escalation levels. This continues in a comparable fashion for higher escalation levels, supporting and reinforcing the stance concept.
When to escalate the conflict:
The remaining question is when to increase the escalation level. The original way of escalating every round is mechanically easy and conceptually sound; it reduces complexity and maintains predictability. Unfortunately it was created in the context of a system that granted each conflict participant only 1 active action per round, i.e. the number of actions between escalations was relatively low. Since this system uses an action pool approach to conflicts the interval between escalations will probably to big to be worth it when only using this method. A second method has been suggested that would cause escalation after certain key events, e.g. a critical roll, the death of a participant, special skills such as spells etc. A combination of both should provide a steady baseline for escalation, while retaining the potential of a situation getting extremely messy and intense within a heartbeat..