When we first encountered the idea of flat damage, my high school gaming group refused to play that way. This was David Hargrave’s streamlined rules system, The Arduin Adventure, back in 1980. The game was a highly modified version of D&D, and no one rolled damage. Damage was flat. Your war hammer dealt 7 damage, hit after hit. How unrealistic! We couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to play with flat damage. Instead, we just used the damage rules we already knew and kept rolling damage for every hit. For 20 years after that, all my RPGs featured randomized damage (if they had the concept of numeric damage at all). But around 10 years ago I started using flat damage for monsters in my home 3E campaign. What Dave Hargrave apparently knew, after all his countless hours of high-level gamemastering, is that flat damage makes the game more fun because combat moves faster. And now monsters in 13th Age deal flat damage, just like they did in my 3E campaign.

I have long been thinking about how to make damage rolls go faster. In a Gamma World campaign in high school, I started rolling the damage dice along with my attack roll. That sped things up. Over the Edge (1992) uses a damage multiplier applied to a hit’s degree of success, rather than a separate damage roll. With Everway (1995), there is no to-hit roll or damage roll, and you can resolve a battle with one card from the Fortune Deck. With 3E, however, we rolled damage. In fact, rolling monster damage turned out to be slower than in previous editions because monster damage always had a bonus attached. Since we were copying RuneQuest and applying ability score modifiers to monster stats, monsters usually had bonuses added to their die rolls. Instead of old-school 3d6, Third Edition offered 2d6+4. The bonus, while realistic, makes the arithmetic one step slower, especially with multiple attacks. In my home campaign after 3E was published, I converted back to rolling just dice for the monsters. No bonus. So a monster’s 2d6+4 became 3d6, and combat went a little bit faster.

The big jump in combat speed, however, came when we stopped rolling damage at all. At low levels, rolling damage is pretty painless, but at high levels it really slows the action down. Watching the wizard’s player count up ten dice is a drag, especially when a high-level wizard casts two spells a round. Fighters didn’t have fireball, but they made multiple attacks round after round. Aside from a few exceptions, I converted my 3E campaign to flat damage, and combat went faster. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it works. Why does it sound crazy but play well? Because rolling damage feels like a really big deal but it’s not. Rolling damage is a lot of arithmetic but it adds little variability. The d20 attack roll contributes more to how much damage you deal than the damage roll itself. The maximum roll on a a die, the best damage you can hope for, is less than twice as much as average. If there’s a big bonus on the roll, it’s a lot less than twice as much damage. Why bother?

I saw a similar effect with fixed initiative, which I championed in 3E. Players disliked fixed initiative when they read it but liked it when they played it. Rolling for initiative every round sounds better in theory, like Communism, but rolling once per battle plays faster. In 3E, players rolled their hit points, but not at 1st level. DMs could roll monsters’ hit points and even ability scores, but by default you used the averages. By 4E, the PCs’ hit points were no longer rolled, nor are they in 13th Age.

Originally, monsters rolled damage in 13th Age just like anybody else. We tried to speed up big damage rolls by converting them to multiples. For example, the GM would roll 1d6 times 10 instead of 10d6. The damage-multiple rule made combat faster, but it made damage too “swingy,” with an uncomfortably large amount of chance. Since the PCs are the odds-on favorites in most fights, swinginess is more dangerous to the PCs than to the monsters, especially if it’s monster damage. When I ran the game, however, monsters dealt flat damage. Rolling damage slowed down my GMing too much, especially after a couple beers.

Eventually, the practical value of flat damage for monsters became clear, and we switched over. Monsters deal flat damage. Rolling for hit point recovery is also optional, with players allowed (if not encouraged) to take an average result instead. Players still roll dice for damage. Rob likes that rule because it’s fun. He can be such a softie. I like players rolling damage because it gives the GM more time to think ahead.

Arduin Grimoire cover13 Age, and especially 13 True Ways, owes a surprisingly large amount to Dave Hargrave. In the 70s, Hargrave wrote the Arduin trilogy, three rulebooks that showed you how to run a high-energy D&D campaign filled with brilliant and over-the-top details. In effect, he was publishing d20 source material before it was strictly legit. Rob Heinsoo and I are both fans of Arduin from way back, and it shows.

13 True Ways is a lot like the Arduin books in that it is a grab bag. It’s not a splatbook, one of countless books composed on the same template and describing a neatly circumscribed section of the game world. It’s more like a highlights reel. It’s the best stuff we can think of for a campaign. That’s what the Arduin trilogy was like. Cool classes, monsters, places, and lists. Yes, even the lists were cool, summarizing notable taverns, famous dungeons, numerous pantheons, and more. If you’ve seen our Kickstarter video, I bet that sounds familiar.

Hargrave also imbued his Arduin rules with his distinct personality. He speaks directly to the reader, explaining how he runs his campaign and why. He takes incidents from actual play as fodder for his GM advice. The “by gamers for gamers” style was pretty common back then. Today, Heinsoo and I wouldn’t want to write our stuff any other way.

The big surprise, however, is how many of the mechanics that 13th Age uses were in Dave Hargrave’s 1980 RPG, The Arduin Adventure. This boxed, beginner RPG was Hargrave’s answer to TSR’s mega-selling “blue box.” It was a d20-style RPG simplified so that a beginner could pick it up. All damage was flat. A warhammer always did 7 plus your  Strength bonus every time you hit. As a teenager, I thought this rule was unbelievably stupid, and we rolled damage instead. In 13th Age, monsters deal flat damage. I’ve learned something over the years. In Arduin Adventure, a character gets bonuses to ability scores by class as well as race, and bonuses are assigned to one ability or another. 13th Age is pretty similar. In Hargrave’s game, a character advances a level after a certain number of game sessions, and a character’s attacks and saves go up by +1 each level. That’s pretty much like 13th Age. Spells that take out their targets have hit point thresholds, much as in 13th Age. Over the years, I have looked back at Arduin Adventure as an inspiration, but it wasn’t until I reread the rules recently that I saw how much we had cribbed from Hargrave.

PS: Hargrave’s plug of Alarums & Excursions in the Arduin trilogy got Rob to subscribe, and that’s how we met. The rest, as they say, is history.

Arduin Grimoire

Dave Hargrave’s seminal Arduin Grimoire

For the ancient Hebrews, the most powerful living men virtually ranked among the gods. Thanks to Plato, today we think of God as infinite, something beyond human scope. But ancient people hadn’t been taught about infinity, and they viewed their gods as finite. Their gods were immortal, but they were not all powerful or all knowing. A mortal could never be divine, but a mighty ruler could be godlike. The ancient Hebrew Psalms praise King David as the son of God, in language that would later be applied to Jesus. Ancient Hebrew judges were sometimes known as “elohim,” the mighty ones. “Elohim” also means “the gods” or “God.”  Hadad the Edomite, on the other hand, was a “satan,” or adversary. Yahweh called him up to challenge King Solomon. Today, “Satan” is a spirit, but that tradition is later, starting in the Book of Job. For the earlier authors of the Bible, satans were mortal enemies of Israel. They were flesh and blood. And it wasn’t just the Hebrews who saw the mightiest mortals as nearly gods. Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas all had their god-emperors. Mighty mortals ruled the world, if not as gods then nearly so.

A modern reading of history might agree. The world was and is ruled by mortals. The mighty judges of the earth—people like Alexander, Caesar, Jesus, Confucius, Muhammad, Jefferson, Lincoln, Stalin, and Hitler—were flesh and blood. They were born, they changed the world, they bled, and they died.

For that matter, original D&D had precious little to say about the gods. The powerful beings that ruled the campaign map were mortals: lords, wizards, and patriarchs (or evil high priests). Top-level PCs could build strongholds, and the mightiest creatures in the land were top-level NPCs in strongholds of their own. The setting was dominated by powerful, archetypal mortals. The gods were implied but not named. Even clerics needed no connection to any particular deity or pantheon.

13th Age has consciously followed suit, basing the game world on mortals rather than on deities. (The Lich King isn’t strictly mortal, but he’s within striking distance.) The interactions of the mortal icons help create dynamic tension in the campaign. Their precarious balance is a ready source of conflict and change. Mortals work as campaign elements better than gods do. The icons can have normal human motives and weaknesses. Most of them are fated to die, just as many icons have done before them. As mortals, they are closer to the player characters than gods would be. They’re more present and more real. Maybe some day you could even have lunch with one.

The gods in 13th Age, on the other hand, are indeterminate and free-form, as they were in original D&D. If there are particular gods you want your character to worship, there’s room for those gods in the campaign. If the GM needs to invent this or that god for some nefarious purpose, there’s room in the setting for it. The gods don’t define the campaign; the campaign defines the gods.

D&D 4E caused a lot of controversy with its self-healing rules. Thirteenth Age has its own self-healing rules. Here’s my take on the topic.

My first self-healing rules were in 1992, in Over the Edge. It’s a modern-day RPG with no built-in healer class, so the characters needed to be able to heal up some on their own. My rule was that after every fight you’d get back half the damage you took in that fight. The rule reflected both real life and fiction, in which people who get beat up in a fight can  bounce back without magic.

Unlike Over the Edge, D&D 3E didn’t need self-healing. Instead, it had amped-up cleric healing. Spontaneous healing and wands of cure light wounds meant there was always plenty of healing available. But in 2002, when I wrote Omega World, player-characters again needed some self-healing capability. The characters were postapocalyptic mutants, and there were no healing spells. I thought about re-using the Over the Edge “half-damage” rules, but I instead came up with a mathematically similar system, called reserves. With reserves, you have a number of self-healing points equal to your hit points, and you can use them up on a one-to-one basis to heal hit points. Since Omega World was under the OGL, Mike Mearls picked up reserves in his Iron Heroes book, published by Monte Cook. Self-healing was later a major new feature of D&D 4E. I’m happy to include our own version of hit-point-recovery in 13th Age. PCs in 13th Age are heroes, the very sort of people who can pick themselves up after getting beaten down, with or without magic.

One virtue of self-healing is that it takes a load off the cleric. The traditional d20 cleric is inherently too powerful because it provides the party’s ability to heal up. In 3E, a party of four clerics kicks ass in a way that no other single-class party can. The spontaneous healing rules gave clerics more options, but they also made an already powerful class even more powerful. In 13th Age, clerics still heal their allies, but the PCs are in some sense responsible for most of their own hit point recovery. Recovery rules distribute the party’s ability to heal up among the party members, rather than concentrating it in one class’s portfolio. The party isn’t dependent on a cleric, and the cleric is free from the task for measuring out the party’s healing.

 

GenCon 1987

Jonathan Tweet (left) and Mark Rein*Hagen at GenCon, 1987.

This year at GenCon, my best friend and I are promoting 13th Age, our new fantasy RPG for people who want more story and more open-ended rules. Twelve years ago at GenCon 2000, some new friends and I were promoting D&D 3E, my corporation’s fantasy RPG. At GenCon twelve years before that, in 1988, my best friend I were promoting Ars Magica, our new fantasy RPG for people who wanted more story and more open-ended rules. I’m not exactly in a rut, but maybe I’m going around in circles.