Swimming Rules for 13th Age, Part One

Because tactical movement tends to be abstract, the 13th Age Roleplaying Game takes a light touch toward such fantasy staples as mounted combat, flying, and swimming. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are topics most game designers tackle under duress, because it’s easy to get them wrong—and almost as easy to get them right but make them unfun.

Even though we aren’t under duress, we find our 13th Age characters dumped in the drink often enough to offer these somewhat-sketchy, wholly unofficial swimming and underwater combat rules for 13th Age. Try them out yourselves, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Design Principles

Let’s talk scope. Do we want to cover the entire breadth of life under the sea? Should we model water pressure and ambient light as the PCs dive deeper? Do we want to treat everything from weapon velocity to bleeding wounds to vocalized speech realistically?

Um, no.

Let’s focus on basic rules for the key moments that tend to crop up in typical d20 fantasy gaming:

  1. Character suddenly dropped into the water and must get back out without drowning or being swept away.
  2. Characters forced to fight undersea enemies with no warning.
  3. Characters intentionally exploring an underwater environment on a longer-term basis (beyond just one encounter).

Let’s also also talk depth—rules depth, not water depth. It’s not a game about swimming; it’s a game where you occasionally have to swim your way to the good stuff. So let’s design just enough to make swimming and underwater combat feel different and dangerous, not necessarily realistic.

Swimming

In the first case, we’ll lean on the skill system. We want our rules to model two things: swimming in hazardous waters (ocean swells, swift current, crashing surf, and so on) and holding one’s breath. Not every encounter will feature both. Sometimes you have to swim through the flooded hallway, but the water is still. Sometimes your longboat capsizes near shore, and you’re battered by waves but not drowning.

Swimming under ordinary circumstances is automatic. Yes, even if your character is from the desert or the Elemental Plane of Air or whatever. Forcing rolls for ordinary movement gets old at the table really quick. As for extraordinary circumstances…that’s where the environment DCs in Chapter 6 of the core rulebook come in.

Adventurer Tier Hazard
rolling ocean waves DC 20
Mountain stream current (swift but shallow) DC 20
Champion Tier Hazard
Shore breakers, deep ocean swells DC 25
Swift current, few chances to grasp edge DC 25
Epic tier hazard
Tsunami-level waves DC 30
Pressurized water (geysers, clockwork plumbing apparatus) DC 30

Note that the backgrounds in 13th Age are more specific than just a “swim” skill; as a GM, you’ll need to use your judgment on what does and doesn’t apply. In a pinch, let characters use their Strength modifier in place of a relevant background.

Let’s add one key wrinkle that makes the wizards and sorcerers (probably poor swimmers) happy: a –2 penalty on the check for PCs in light armor and a –4 penalty for PCs in heavy armor. If they don’t like it, let ‘em take a round to disrobe from light armor and two rounds to get out of heavy armor.

Holding Your Breath

Let’s charitably rule that all PCs can hold their breath for a minute, just because we want to enable fun things underwater—however briefly—and realistic breath limits shut off more interesting story moments than they enable.

Unlike many other fantasy d20 games, 13th Age doesn’t have a robust saving throw system where attributes (Constitution in this case) and level are meaningful inputs. But it does have PD, which rewards high Constitution, and we can let hit points stand in for level (mua ha ha ha). After the minute is up, drowning (and asphyxiation if you’re stealing these rules for a dust storm or outer space or whatever) begins to take its toll.

At the start of each round, make an attack against each drowning character’s PD, according to the following table. If the character is fighting or swimming, use the high exertion option:

Tier Attack Bonus Damage
Adventurer tier +5 3d6
Adventurer tier, high exertion +10 3d6
Champion tier (didn’t get a good breath beforehand) +10 4d8
Champion tier, high exertion +15 4d8
Epic tier (enemy is magically trying to force water into you) +15 3d20
Epic tier, high exertion +20 3d20

With these numbers, drowning is a serious risk for everyone, but tougher and higher-level characters can last longer underwater.

Once again, let’s add one wrinkle. In real life, near-fatal drowning has a host of long-term consequences. But in the fantasy fiction that underpins 13th Age, characters often spend a few minutes coughing and spluttering after nearly drowning, and then they’re right as rain. To model this, declare that using recoveries (including healing magic) to restore hit points lost from drowning is twice as efficient; spending one recovery heals twice as much.

If it’s an underwater combat situation where drowning people are also being stabbed/bitten/magicked, you can either track combat damage separately from drowning damage (not a big deal, because it doesn’t come up that often) or just say to heck with it and let all healing in the quick rest after the underwater fight count double (also not a big deal, because you’re a GM and have plenty of ways to take those hit points back later.

With swimming rules and drowning rules in hand, we have everything we need to cover the first use case we outlined above.

For the second use case (an underwater battle) and the third use case (a long-term underwater adventure) we’re going to lean on the damage types already defined in the rules and on some new magic items. Look for those in part two, coming soon!

The Escalated Fighter Now Available

If you’ve been following our Escalation Series for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game and you play a fighter, we’ve got some great news for you. We’ve just released The Escalated Fighter, which has the usual new talents, backgrounds, and one unique things, but you’ll also find new exotic weapon options to make you unlike any other fighter.

If you don’t play a fighter, don’t worry! We’ve already released books for the barbarian, bard, cleric, ranger, and rogue, so go check those out! And remember to check back in often, because we’ve still got the sorcerer, paladin, and wizard yet to come!

Designing Magic Items for 13th Age

13th Age Roleplaying GameWhen DASTOW does the design work on a book in the Escalation Series, we generally start with the talents and powers—the core of the book, both literally and conceptually—then work forward (toward the backgrounds and One Unique Things) and backward (toward the magic items and NPCs). The NPCs are by necessity done last; we need to know what all the options are before we build those characters.

That order of operations means we save one of the most fun parts of the design for the end: the magic items. Each Escalated book has roughly a dozen magic items, generally one for each “chakra” body slot, some utility items, and an extra weapon or two. They’re basically like dessert for the designer. [Editor’s Note: They’re really more like cilantro, where Dave loves it and Stacey hates it. Your mileage may vary.]

Here’s what’s on our minds as we do the initial design:

Know what each chakra does. Because 13th Age shares a lot of DNA with 4th edition D&D, the key chakras are those that add to attack rolls or increase your defensive stats. That means armor, weapon/staff, cloak, and helmet. Those magic items don’t need to do a lot, because the inherent bonuses are so good. They’re a good place for simple, situational, or otherwise minor-league effects.

Go broader, not deeper. Magic items can show up in a campaign at any given moment. Other forms of character advancement happen only at the moment a character levels up. That means magic items are a great way for characters to cover a gap in their arsenal based on the more permanent changes they’ve made. For example, you might have a champion-tier fighter who hasn’t picked a maneuver that can be used with ranged attacks. A simple magic spear or throwing axe is perfect, because it broadens the fighter’s repertoire. Conversely, keep a close eye on items that deepen an existing specialty. The number-one place where characters go off the rails is when similar benefits stack to game-breaking levels.

Word the quirks carefully. The vast majority of quirks are mental/behavioral, and theoretically they evoke something of the item’s nature. But phrases like “always picks fights” or “cannot say no to a drink” are recipes for disaster when given to a literal-minded player. Trust the player to do the roleplaying and provide a direction, not a straitjacket. The idea behind a quirk is that it’s a constraint, and it’s occasionally annoying. They did bring this on themselves by wearing too many magic items, after all. If quirks seem like they’ll continuously frustrate other people at the table, though, dial them back.

Make sure you’ve got the GM’s back. Magic items are more freeform than talents, spells, and other class-based abilities. Unlike other games with a d20 heritage, there aren’t economic guidelines or level-based benchmarks to fence you in. That freedom is great, but it means that you have to be extra careful to specify frequency of use and duration of effect because there’s no default answer elsewhere in the system. Whenever you make a magic item, imagine your likely user triggering it as often as possible. How often is that? How long does it last? Is there a cost? Questions like that are best answered in the design process, not in the fourth round of a battle against the Headless Cyclops King.

Finally, break the rules once in a while. Magic items are the least constrained game element in the 13th Age Roleplaying Game. (One Unique Things are unconstrained in method, sure, but their scope is constrained and you get exactly one, period, at the beginning of the character’s life.) The GM has total control of when (and if) a magic item shows up in a game—and a big say in how long it sticks around. If you want to experiment with a game mechanic or cool effect, a magic item is the place to do it.

After all, any GM worth her dice can think of a dozen ways to separate PCs from their loot.

The Escalated Rogue Available Now

The Escalated RogueGreat news for rogue fans! We’re excited to announce our first new release since our hiatus: The Escalated Rogue offers new talents and new backgrounds, new uniques and new magic items. Go all-in with high-risk, high-reward powers or finish with a flourish with these great new options.

Don’t play a rogue? Check out the other releases in this series: The Escalated Barbarian, The Escalated Bard, The Escalated Cleric, and The Escalated Ranger. Also keep an eye out next month for The Escalated Fighter!

Full Steam Ahead

Hello friends!

We at DASTOW Games would like to express our gratitude for your bearing with us over the last several months. We’ve worked through the individual issues, and as a company we’re ready to come back strong! Not only is the Escalation Series for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game ready to get back on track (look for the next book in the next week or two!), but you can also expect to see some adventures coming up for fifth edition D&D.

In addition to these upcoming products, you can look forward to a lot more blog posts from us as we start rolling out a few new series. If all goes well, we’ll start updating here two to three times a week, so check back often for our take on design, game systems, and the industry in general.

We’re really excited about this next phase of our development, and thanks to everyone for your patience. Cheers!

Escalation Series Delayed

We’d like to issue a quick apology for the delay in the next Escalation Series book. Half the company (me) has been working through a family crisis (my mother had nine heart attacks in late July, was waiting on a heart transplant, and then passed at the end of October).

Not to worry, though. We’ll be back to our regular production schedule soon! Thanks for bearing with us during this time.

—Your Friends at DASTOW Games

The Escalated Ranger is Available Now

The Escalated Ranger

Cover art and design by Liz Green

Range far and wide! With The Escalated Ranger for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game, your character gets new talents, backgrounds, and uniques. But that’s not all. You’ll also see a new subset of the class—the wildron ranger.

What’s special about wildron rangers? They can imbue arrows and blades with mighty magic. You’ll get a quiverful of magic items to equip your ranger and new, exotic animal companions to fight and explore at your side.

Whether you’re a dual-wielding dervish of destruction, a laconic sniper, or a grizzled traveler, this book takes your ranger into uncharted territory!

Don’t play a ranger? Take a look at the other books in the Escalation Series, including The Escalated Barbarian, The Escalated Bard, and The Escalated Cleric.