Monday, November 25, 2013

The Two Rules from 13th Age that Every D&D Game Could Use: Backgrounds and Escalation Dice

If you are playing a version of D&D that doesn't have a specific skill system, but you kind of like the idea of skills, then you should take a look at what 13th Age does with Backgrounds.

13th Age Backgrounds are basically skills that are tied to your character's actual history and experience. They are descriptive, usually sounding like job titles or professional labels more than basic skills. Rather than write skills out as carefully defined little sets of data which react in specific ways, 13th Age background skills are flexible, open events which require some measure of negotiation between DM and player to assess.

A character with "Mortician 3" and "Chirurgeon 2" is immediately more exciting than a character with Heal 2 and knowledge (religion) 3, two skills which while mechanically descriptive don't say much about what sort of knowledge the character really has by virtue of background. In the 13th Age example you have a character who has worked with dead bodies to make them pretty before interment, and also worked with the living to mend bones, apply mercury and use leeches like the medieval doctor he truly is. The same skill set in a 3rd edition skill system would be harder to do, because it wouldn't evoke exactly what the skill set by background is, just what the skill set mechanically represents within the limits of the 3.5 scope of design.

Because the concept of Background Skills is so easy to import, all you need to do to use it with an earlier edition of D&D (I'm thinking of B/X D&D for my test case) is to tell the players how many points they get, and what those points mean. 13th Age typically hands out 8 points and those are effectively skill ranks in a D20 roll-high system, but you could apply the same logic to a roll-low mechanic as well. For each background skill you could have one or more attributes that apply toward the use of the skill (mortician, for example, could use INT for lore about the dead or mummification processes, DEX for sewing up the body and WIS for knowing what ritual to use to keep them in the grave). The skill rank becomes a bonus that you either add to the die (for roll high) or subtract (for roll low).

The other cool feature of 13th Age that you absolutely need to steal for your D&D game is the escalation die. It's a crazy thing but it really makes for an interesting enhancement in play. The problem with stealing the escalation die is that it has features which are tied to the way 13th Age works....basically some powers, monster abilities and other features trigger off of the escalation die. As a result if you do port it over it would be useful to figure out a way to make some powers and abilities "pop" when the escalation die hits a certain point. Here's an example for using Escalation Dice with B/X D&D classes:

1. Fighters get a bonus attack every round when the escalation die hits 4 and above
2. Wizards recover a spell slot on an 11+ on a D20 roll when the escalation die is even
3. Clerics may add +1D8 to any healing made on even escalation die numbers
4. Thieves get a percentage skill bonus of +5% multiplied by the escalation die after it hits 3
5. Elves may roll twice on attacks and saves and take the better of the two on even numbers
6. Halflings may stealth on odd numbers as a free extra action in their round
7. dwarves may add the escalation die to either damage or AC instead of attack rolls

Monsters with key abilities that deal three or more dice damage or require saves vs. spells or death recharge those abilities when the escalation die hits 4 (or for kind DMs they recharge when the escalation die hits 4 and must roll 11+ on D20 for the power to recharge).

Some ideas, anyway.



  1. For the record, the concept of Backgrounds in this manner existed in Amazing Adventures and Spellcraft & Swordplay before 13th Age was ever conceived, and interestingly, they work almost exactly the same.

    Of course, because 13th Age is by industry "giants," they'll get the credit for this "innovative" mechanic.

    1. I am remiss, as I have Amazing Adventures and didn't even think of that! Thanks for pointing that out. Probably because AA is about pulp action and 13th Age is queued in more as D&D fantasy with a lime twist. Technically, the first system I can recall with this sort of mechanic was Over The Edge, which was practically built on the notion of "mechanics defined by the character," and in fact I'd suggest that even the One True Thing feature is something that existed in OTE as well as having some DNA in Tweet's Everway.

      I don't intend to suggest that the are being inventive or new...I just happen to be into studying this particular system right now and the interesting thing about it is how much of the system feels so modular, from a D&D mix and match perspective.

    2. I'm not actually trying to attack you--I'm just a little bitter about the whole thing, that's all ;-).

      But I actually lifted the Amazing Adventures background system from my other game, Spellcraft & Swordplay, which I published back in 08.

    3. No problem. I really should check out Spellcraft & Swordplay. I really liked what you did with AA, would be keen to see how you handle fantasy as well.