D&D Home Brew: The Escalation Die

When it comes to RPGs and gaming, everyone has a favorite system. For us, it’s Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It’s where we started with RPGs and we have the best command of the various iterations and intricacies of that system. Yet inspiration and innovation can come from many places, so when we find a mechanic we like in other systems we always like to think of how we home brew a version for D&D.

The “Escalation Die”

Where we found it: This is a mechanic that exists in a few other RPGs, but most notably 13th Age which is an RPG developed by a few of the lead designers on D&D 3rd and 4th editions.

What is it: A mechanic aimed at speeding up combat by giving ever increasing bonuses to attack rolls as combat rounds progress. Enemies become easier to attack, meaning characters get “stronger” the longer a fight goes on. It starts at +1 and increases each round toward a max of +6.

Why is it important: Combat takes a long time in D&D. This was especially true in 4th edition, and while D&D Next has some specific changes that address that issue, combat can still be a real grind sometimes. After enough rounds it just degenerates into players aimlessly hacking away at monsters till they die, and that’s if the players are rolling well. The Escalation die reduces and improves combat by increasing the chance that players will hit, and effectively encouraging risky or fun actions because of the attack bonus.

While the escalation die itself is a great idea, we weren’t so keen on just giving the players a discreet bonus that increased every round. For one, we wanted it to feel more organic and in line with what was going on in the game, and more importantly, we wanted to prevent the party from just playing very conservatively and waiting for the escalation die to reach a high level and allow them to steamroll through the encounter. So, with a few modifications from 13th Age’s initial construction, we present the D&D Escalation Die.

The D&D Escalation Die

We’ve kept the basic rule of the escalation die in place. The bonus still only applies to attack rolls, but we’ve modified the bonus and progression structure. Instead of just giving out discreet bonuses, the escalation die starts at zero and increases to d3, d4, and finally d6. Players will roll and add the escalation die to their attacks on their turn. The Escalation Die is only applied to attacks, and does not impact damage, saving throws, or skill checks. Moving to a dice system allows the players to realize a bonus each turn, but not rely on it necessarily being a game breaker. It retains the fun factor and tension that comes with having to roll out an extra die to try and get that last bit of advantage in a battle.

The escalation die also no longer increases automatically every turn. Instead, it will only increase when certain events occur. We decided on four events and choose them specifically so that the escalation die wasn’t some mini-game within combat and so that it wasn’t just some hand wavy “you impressed the DM…ESCALATION DIE INCREASES!” thing.

The four events that increase the  escalation die are:

  1. Any Critical Hits
  2. The first time a non-minion monster is killed
  3. The first time a player becomes bloodied.
  4. The the first time a player uses an action point.

(Note: While “bloodied” is currently not a true condition in D&D Next, it can still be used. Just remember that bloodied means a player has lost half their hit points.)

You’ll notice that other than number four, players can’t instantly activate these events. Sure, a player could wade into danger in hopes of getting bloodied quickly, but that’s a risk. Players could also gang attack a specific monster to kill it, but that’s a tactical trade-off. In general, the escalation die adjusts due to the natural flow of combat and highlights specific important moments that might turn the tide of battle. It’s always a part of a combat encounter, but never the central focus.

Something else to note is that while there are four events, the die can only increase 3 times. So, if the die is at d6 and another event would trigger an increase, it does not happen.

Here’s an example of the escalation die in action (using made up stats): Jesse wants to attack a goblin and rolls his d20. He gets a 7, plus bonuses of 5 would give him 12. This is not enough to hit, however the escalation die is at d4. So, Jesse rolls a d4 and adds the result (in this case a 3) to his previous total of 12. Hooray! He got a 15 and clobbers the goblin.

This means a few things. 1) Battles will be shorter, because as they progress it’ll be easier for you to hit things, thus increasing the chances of damage and death. 2) It rewards you for trying cool things, using your powers and generally having fun. As we’ve stated, this mechanic is not meant to become a “mini game” within the encounters. Players aren’t supposed to be planning specifically to game the system and raise the escalation die before attacking. To that end, we recommend not telling the players how the escalation die increases, though they will probably figure it out after the first few encounters.

When using this new mechanic in your game, there are a couple things that DMs should keep in mind to ensure smooth play.

  • There is the slight chance of a player maxing the escalation die in a single turn. In one of my games someone used an action point, critical hit on her attack, and then killed the first non-minion monster with that attack. This was in round 1. While this is a really rare circumstance, it was amazing and awesome and should be rewarded, not worried over.
  • Once the escalation die reaches d4 and especially d6, you’ll notice that it will begin to mitigate a lot of status effects that cause an attack penalty. In these cases, a roll of 4-6 on a die will render that penalty almost irrelevant. DMs should be cognizant and adjust their monster choices or encounter building accordingly. You don’t necessarily have to phase out those abilities entirely, but if you build an encounter around trying to give the party penalties to attack, that’s going to be a terrible encounter.
  • Since the escalation die allows players to reach attack levels that they otherwise couldn’t at their level, you might use this as an opportunity to create a bit more challenge. Perhaps players could take on a slightly more difficult opponent, or  a larger mob. I’m not talking about a drastic increase in difficulty, but even one additional monster level will expand your options when designing encounters.