Avoiding Novas, or, Encouraging Dramatic Escalation in D&D

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I (as you probably know from my previous post and others on this blog) love D&D, and roleplaying games in general. A recent tweet from @dungeonbastard brought up a problem that I'd never consciously noticed before, but now realize that I've been constantly fighting against.

When we play D&D, we pretend it's a narrative game, that we're telling a story. But that's just one layer - the actual mechanics of the game, which drive the story, are descended from wargaming. This creates a conflict of goals during scenes like combat - in stories, combat has a dramatic arc, with an opening, a build-up, and a climax where the characters pull out their strongest abilities; in wargames, action economy rules everything, and you want to minimize overkill, so it's almost always best to blow your strongest moves immediately (the so-called "nova") and then mop-up whatever's left. D&D is about roleplay, but it's also a game, and we play games to win, so this conflict is frustrating.

In the replies people had a lot of suggestions, often based on mechanics from games that explicitly have a stronger narrative focus, and which have crafted their mechanics to support it. One in particular I found extremely compelling, from a game called 13th Age, which was based on D&D but with a stronger focus on getting the mechanics to support the narrative.

The Escalation Die

The basic idea is that there's a special d6, preferably a large, special-looking one, called the Escalation Die. After the first round of combat, assuming it was exciting, you put it on the table turned to 1. Each round thereafter, as long as the combat stays exciting, you turn it to the next number, maxing out at 6. If things get dull (players being safe and defensive instead of pressing the attack), you can leave it at its current value, or even decrease it.

The players, then, get a bonus to all attacks, saves, and checks (and save DCs) equal to the current value of the Escalation Die. To compensate for this added bonus, all enemies get a +2 to their AC, so which is canceled out by round 3 of a combat.

The point of this is that when combat starts, players are less likely to hit, but after a few rounds, they have a substantial bonus. This means their big, flashy attacks are best saved for a few rounds, to maximize their chance of succeeding - instead of nova-ing at the start of battle, you spend the time setting yourself up and beginning the engagement.

To enhance the effect, you can tie the bigger, flashier class abilities to the Escalation Die as well - you can't use your highest level of spells, or your X/day abilities, or what-have-you, until the Escalation Die is at 3+ or something.

While most monsters don't pay attention to the Escalation Die (and thus the combat gets easier as it escalates), "boss" monsters do (so both parties hit more often).

All in all, I just really like this concept. The restrictions ensure that you don't pull out your flashy abilities until later in the fight, which is nice narratively, but it's not all downside - the escalating bonus is just genuinely good, and helps protect against the "everyone misses several times in a row" runs of bad luck that sometimes happens.

I think I'll introduce this to the campaign I'm running for my little brother. He's already shown the power of the Paladin's smites, and so restricting that by the Escalation Die seems like it would be fun. This is also a solo campaign, so his fights will either be solo or with a single companion run by me, and the decreased chance of a bad run of luck later in the battle will be really effective at preventing a bad-luck death.

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