Conflict, whether physical or social, is the complete epicenter of telling a story and thus playing a role playing game. 13th Age is no different. Social combat is a completely different animal to handle, and heavily depends on how your group does role play. Today is addressing the nitty gritty, building physical battles!
For starters, the core rules has a great section in the back about building battles with a really nifty table. The table includes character tier/level in relation to number of monsters and recommended level. This is only just scratching the surface of building the best 13th Age combat you possibly can. The guidelines stated in the table are for what they call a “worthy fight,” which for the most part is true. As a GM, it’s your job to tinker with things to make them where you want them. Me personally, I find that the table makes things a little easier than I would like. However, I do use this for my standard benchmark for battles. A battle built with the table is one that isn’t too difficult (i.e not a pivotal story point) but isn’t too easy either. After explaining how to gauge how things work, they do talk about unfair encounters, about how monsters with special abilities, nastier specials, overwhelming your PCs with numbers, enemy reinforcements and advantageous terrain can change things a bit. Great segments that give some insight with examples.
But what is missing from this section of the book, although I understand why, is the fact of monster roles. I’m making mention of this because I didn’t put those pieces together until later, when I was trying to figure out why my players were stomping all over all of my encounters. In the monster section, monster roles are briefly, and I mean briefly, talked about. Balancing monster roles in your battle structure is probably THE most important aspect of building your encounter. Each monster has their own “class,” if you will. They are as follows : Archers, Blockers, Casters, Leaders, Mooks, Spoilers, Troops and Wreckers. All are pretty self explanatory except for mooks, which are the shining star of building 13th Age combats and making your players feel annoyed, heroic or even both! But, from my personal experience, the more types incorporated with the table in mind, the better the combat.
Simply as an example; If I am planning a big and important fight with a small-time villain they have been pursuing for a while, I’d probably start with my villain. What kind of creature is my villain? For this example, let’s say my five PC’s are level 4 and I want my villain to be a vampire. The level gap here is huge, the vampire is a 10th level Spoiler. So the job of a Spoiler is to inflict conditions on the PC’s and hinder them from being effective. Even with the level gap, you have to consider action economy. The vampire gets to have a single hit (or some extra damage if the target is successfully confused using Nastier Specials) for their four hits. Pretty rough for him. I had three Paladin characters playing at the time, so it was hard for the vampire to hit them, making this basically a walk in the park for the players. By the table, this one monster accounts for four of my players. But I’m smarter than the table, and I know that because I have three Paladins, it’s going to be a breeze. So here’s what I do: Add some distractions! I took two Iron Ghouls (from the Midgard Bestiary) and slapped them on either side of their vampiric master. Iron Ghouls are actually double-strength 4th level wreckers, thus making this a VERY dangerous fight for the PC’s. The story warranted this, and I felt it was appropriate. The result was a very vicious and brutal encounter, where the PC’s took a lot of hits. But just the two minions of the vampire alone bought him some time to show the PC’s how truly powerful he was. The 13th Age vampire does 50 hp damage in one go, almost killing a PC of 4th level depending on their robustness. But I knew my table, and no chart in a book and replace using that knowledge to your advantage when building an encounter.
Now with this in mind, this makes for a challenging combat, not necessarily a memorable one. Memorable combats are usually made with interesting monster abilities (like the Kobolds with the trapster ability from the Bestiary) or some really epic setting for the fight that usually interferes with the tide of combat.
Setting time limits for interesting things to happen also makes combat more memorable, which is especially where the Escalation Die comes handy. Escalation die 3? Well, guess what, the caretakers of the city’s waste management system (the Gelatinous Cube that you accidentally ran into) is coming to check on it, four Half-orcs come charging around the corner, horrified that you are trying to kill the trash collector. Perhaps at Escalation die 2, if the battle is going poorly for the enemies, the villain tries to make his escape leaving his mooks behind to cover his retreat. It really helps to organize your battle by time frame. In the example above, I didn’t use the escalation die to warrant a retreat from an intelligent enemy because I had something else in mind hinging off of one of the vampire’s abilities. Sadly, I can’t really talk about it because one (or all) of them may be reading this. Stop trying to get one leg up on me, you scoundrels!
Hope this was helpful and as always….
Stay Metal! \m/