My D&D 5E House Rules

I’ve written up a ton of hacks and house rules, and I’ve been given some thought to what house rules I would use if I could use any I like. (Alas, I have to take players’ tolerances into account)

Hard Rest

This is similar to the system for rest used in Adventures in Middle-Earth. Long rest is only available when in civilization, or at least resting someplace safe and comfortable. Ever gotten great sleep on the ground out in the weather? Yeah, me neither.

I also like the system whereby during a long rest, rather than recovering all of your hit points automatically, you are able to roll all of your remaining hit dice to recover hit points. This will recover a lot of hit points, but not necessarily all.

No Cash

Half of my players can’t even be bothered to track their own coinage (my wife in particular) and I never particularly enjoy making sure every monster they defeat erupts into the correct amount of coinage when they die. Instead, I’d like to just use rolls against set difficulties, using the character’s proficiency bonus. If the character is flush with cash, say just back from a dungeon delve, then they roll with advantage. When they are in debt or broke according to the fiction, they roll with disadvantage. Since my players love to haggle, successful haggling doubles your proficiency bonus for the roll, while failed haggling makes you just roll a straight d20.

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 18
  • A legendary magic item: DC 20

Of course, PCs have to put in the work finding rare or expensive (or magical) items before they can make the roll to see if they can afford them. The DM has an option of saying that a character who fails the roll still buys the item, but is strapped for cash. Most of the time, when returning from an adventure, the characters will be flush with cash, and that’ll be the time they want to buy things anyway. So a mid-level character (level 9+) returning from an adventure will have just shy of a 50/50 chance of affording a legendary magic item, and better than 50/50 of affording a very rare magic item. The limitation there will be based on the setting, with this being plausible in Eberron and less likely in another setting, based on availability of magic items overall.

Modified Firearms

I think that the payoff of using historical firearms, rather than a weapon like a longbow, is that it as a slower rate of fire and does a lot more damage. At least, that’s what I’d like to house-rule firearms to do. So as a house rule, I have black powder pistols require two rounds to reload, and black powder rifles require three, and their damage dice are doubled.

10th Level Spells

10th level spells exist, and as one  would expect they are available through scrolls (which are of course artifacts) and for 19th level spellcasters. Such spells can be world-changing, but can only be cast once each by a given spellcaster.

Deeper Backgrounds

When a player selects a background, they should also flesh out the background with all of the NPCs who might be connected, including their immediate family, rivals, mentors and the like. As a rule of thumb, at least a couple of interesting NPCs who might get caught up in the story per background.

Alignment Redefined

I like using alignment, but alignment as written in D&D includes a lot of nonsense and argument-fodder. So what I do is I replace “Good” with another descriptor that defines what “good” will mean in this setting. For example, in my Twilight of the Gods setting, good becomes “Generous.” I replace “Lawful” with an order-oriented, pro-social term from the setting that is morally neutral if possible. In Twilight of the Gods, that becomes “Civilized.” I replace “Chaotic” with a pro-freedom, or maybe individualistic, term; in Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Wild.” And then for “Evil” I do the same as I did for “Good” – choose a more specific or helpful term. In Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Treacherous.” So instead of Chaotic Evil, a character would be Wild and Treacherous. Instead of Lawful Good, a character would be Generous and Civilized. See? Better. Also, a result of this is that “evil” characters are much more viable. One can play a “Selfish” character in Twilight of the Gods more easily than an “Evil” character in a standard D&D setting.

Discount Adventuring Gear

In a game that is using currency, this is just an option to buy adventuring gear at a 50% discount. The associated cost is that with any failed roll, and almost certainly on a roll of “1”, the gear breaks, and can probably only be repaired with the appropriate tool proficiency.

With the above system of going cash-less, maybe a failed roll allows a PC to buy a discount version of what they wanted. So they get what they were after…kind of.

Simplified Paralysis Effect

For any effect that paralyzes, such as hold person or a ghast’s claws, a paralyzed character is shaken free of paralysis the first time an automatic critical hit is scored against them.

…Or Resist Paralysis at Cost

As another option for PCs who are paralyzed, they can choose to take 10 psychic damage for each level of the spell used to paralyze them (or an amount the DM thinks is appropriate for monster abilites that aren’t spells) in order to take an action to break free. So they still lose at least one action, and take the damage, but aren’t standing there doing nothing for round after round. Probably need a house rule that for species that are resistant to psychic damage, like kalashtar, they need to take the full damage to break free. Their resistance doesn’t help them in this one instance.

Bards Rock

Bards have never really gained a bonus, or any kind of benefit, for using their musical instrument in combat. I like the idea of a bard being able to use their abilities more effectively if they focus on their music alone (much like bards in Everquest, honestly). I would want to work out specifics with the bard player, assuming they were interested, but here are the options I’d have in mind:

  1. The bard counts as two levels higher than normal, and has access to more powerful spells
  2. The bard’s spells are power potent, adding 1 or 2 to their spell attack bonus and to the DC for saves against their magic
  3. They don’t lose spell slots – they can keep casting indefinitely, or maybe they have one extra spell slot per level that can only be used when they are using their instrument in combat (since indefinite spells is pretty powerful)
  4. There is an ongoing bonus effect – an aura of courage like a paladin has, or an aura of bonus hit points for her comrades, or something similar
  5. Her other bardic inspiration dice go up one die type, so from d6 to d8 and so on

Area of Effect

The heading is a link to the full table that I posted a while back, but for theater of the mind I like a system where you roll randomly to see how many creatures are caught in an area of effect spell. Just assume that the character is doing all they can to maximize the spell’s effectiveness and avoid hitting their friends. I would have to adjust this system for an evocation specialist wizard who could sculpt their spells to hit their foes and avoid their friends, but that’s easy enough to hand-wave (add a bonus to the AoE roll or something).

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #8

Elvish Skill

I have toyed with an idea, which I haven’t used in a (finished) game design yet, that is an attempt to deal with a diminishing return in gaining skill combined with the incredibly long lives of elves. Even D&D’s non-immortal elves live for 700-1000 years. The idea I came up with is to have what amounts to only 3 levels of ability in any given skill (as measured by elves): 1 year, 10 years, and 100 years. (This also echoes the Chinese aphorisms about how it takes 10 weeks to learn the spear, 10 months to learn the dao, and 10 years to learn the jiann). After 100 years, diminishing returns seem like they would be such that measurable improvement would be unlikely. In a setting with elves and non-elves, non-elves would be limited to a skill level of 10 years (about how long it takes to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu if you are working hard at it).

Burnout

I like the idea of having the option of burning out a repeatable ability in one big demonstration. That is, say you can do Ability X three times a day, or once per short rest. If you choose, you can choose some dramatic moment to do something that is equivalent to 5X or even 10X. After that, though, you lose the ability permanently. This could be a lead into a ‘Retire in Safety’ mechanic or another peaceful end for the character, and of course only makes sense for characters who have repeatable, likely supernatural, abilities.

Secrets on Page 1

I wonder what effect it would have to write a secret, or multiple secrets, about the character on the character sheet. (There is a mechanic for this in Parsec) Probably in some groups it would no effect, but in a Vampire the Masquerade group for example, each vampire having to have their secrets written out on their character sheets (preferably on page 1) just might have an interesting, subtle impact at the table. A little layer of suspicion added to any interaction.

Deeper Backgrounds

Here I’m going to take the example of backgrounds in D&D 5E, which are a great addition to the system in my opinion, and could be taken further. Almost every adventurer character ever created is an orphan with no social ties at all when the game begins – that just seems to be a truism at this point. Some systems make a player create a more detailed, interconnected background at character creation for that reason – otherwise very few will. World of Darkness games even added this element to the game itself in the prelude session, during which we see the character in scenes from their life before the supernatural stuff hits the fan.

For the remainder of this round-up, I am going to go through the backgrounds in the 5E PHB and note briefly how they could be expanded to include some family members, friends and social connections in a character’s life. (H/T to Fate and the Fablemaidens for indirectly reminding me to expand this idea and post it)

Acolyte: a criminal or sinner whom you are trying to reform; parents and family whose religious views strongly differ from yours; the gravesite of your mentor which you visit every year to make a small offering to their spirit; a rival member of your religion who believes you lack conviction

Charlatan: a minor local noble whom you embarrassed; a widow who believes you are psychic; a sibling who is always trying to get you on the straight and narrow path; a parent who tsks at what you do but makes sure you aren’t disowned

Criminal: an elderly priest or priestess who fed you when you were down and out; loving parents who believe you are a traveling salesperson; your best friend growing up who is now a recruit in the town guard; the heir of a local noble or wealthy family who has a forbidden crush on you

Entertainer: the amazing performer who inspired you to get started years ago; the leader of your small, but growing, local fan-club; a pen-pal who is always offering to put you up at their place if you make the journey to perform for them; hardworking, dour siblings who don’t understand your art

Folk Hero: the tyrant or corrupt official’s remaining agents in the area; your proud family, including a sibling who looks up to you and wants to be just like you; the person back home who everyone assumed you were going to marry

Guild Artisan: the head of your local guild chapter; your master, now too old to practice the trade; a local merchant or noble who is one of your primary buyers; someone who supplies raw materials whose personality is the opposite of yours

Guild Merchant: your mule, who is smarter than she looks; your family, whose signature business is one you detest; a rival who betrayed you on a key deal; a particular gate guard, with whom you have the best banter; a performer, who gets their best material from stories of your travels

Hermit: the villager who would come each week to bring you fresh supplies and news, in exchange for your wisdom; an extraordinary talking animal that would sometimes visit you in seclusion; your family of origin, who have strong feelings about what you’re doing (good or bad, you choose)

Noble: the peasant who looks a lot like you, with whom you exchanged places once as kids; the doting nurse who actually raised you while your parents were at court; a younger sibling whom you are always getting out of trouble

Outlander: your folks back home, and perhaps the reason you don’t live there now; a sweetheart from your adolescence who went looking for you; a bird or small animal who just follows you wherever you go; another local wanderer with whom you share news, food and shelter when your paths cross

Sage: your first tutor, now like a parental figure for you; a rival scholar who wants to discredit you; a small-time loan shark who still says you owe her back payments on student loans; your proud family, either many academics, or perhaps you’re the first among them to go for higher education

Sailor: if you have a lover in every port, there’s one of them that feels true; the salty old dog who taught you everything they know; your siblings, who count the days until you return from time at sea; the bartender at your favorite seaside watering hole

Soldier: your drill instructor, who has a new insult for you every time you meet; a comrade who was crippled in battle and had to retire early; the person you’re engaged to marry as soon as you return home; a gruff parent who was also a career soldier; the ghost of the first person you ever killed

Urchin: the kind local noble who would always give you a few spare coins; your best friend who got lucky and married out of the life; a fixer who always has local gossip; the leader of the gang you were in as a kid; the innkeeper who would give you a place to sleep when the weather was bad

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Bassem Youssef

I haven’t done one of these in way too long, but one name has been at the forefront for a while now: Bassem Youssef. The snapshot – he was wanted for arrest by the authorities in an authoritarian regime (Egypt) for wearing a hat mocking the President, and when he turned himself in, he was wearing the hat.

Baller.

Before we continue, here is a manly picture of Bassem:

Image result for bassem youssef

Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian and political commentator as well as writer, producer, physician and freaking surgeon. He’s like Jon Stewart, if Jon was born in a dictatorship, smarter and more accomplished, while also facing threats to his life as a matter of course throughout his career. (And I love Jon Stewart. But for real.)

Lots of racists and ideologues in the US like to whine about “free speech” and “censorship” whenever someone calls them out for their shitty ideas, but Youssef has had to deal with actual threats to his freedom of speech and actual censorship. In response to this, he has remained relentless funny.

It’s one thing to respond to a violent, repressive regime with violence. It’s another thing entirely to respond to a violent, repressive regime with jokes on television. One thing that Youssef highlights to me is the emptiness of what so many comedians in the United States complain about in terms of ‘political correctness’, whining about how hard it is to do their jobs now because they can’t make as many trans-phobic or ableist jokes or whatever. I look at someone like Bassem Youssef, in all of his manly glory, and it puts those complaints in an entirely different light.

It makes me wonder whether actual humor (and not just vapid alt-right trolling, or mere snark) can insulate us against being radicalized, or reverting to nativism, or falling under the sway of demagogues.

For his combination of courage, intelligence, and humor, Bassem Youssef is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

For more information, you can start with this interview through The Economist from last year:

 

D&D 5E Hack: No Cash

I understand what the designers and developers were thinking when they changed how gold and magic items interact in 5th Edition. Magic items are supposed to be special, and having them available at any old magic item shop makes them less so. They just become another way you level up, a steady incline of power the way that class abilities are, which makes them redundant. I get it.

The problem is that 100% of D&D gaming groups I have ever played with have wanted to go shopping for magic items with their gold. Every single one, to varying degrees, particular starting with 3rd Edition. What this has meant in practice is that the DMG was missing something when it was missing magic item prices, something players would almost immediately demand, and so along comes Xanathar’s Guide to Everything with it’s downtime option of purchasing magic items. It is OK, I’ve used it, but it leaves something to be desired.

So I came up with a simple hack of 5E where you can get rid of cash altogether.

When a character wants to buy something beyond the incidental – drinks, simple rooms at the inn, meals, etc., they roll using their flat Proficiency bonus. On a success, they can find what they want to buy and can afford it. On a failure, either they can’t find it, or they can’t afford it, or they get the item but go into debt. Debt is like disadvantage, you can only do it once. Once you’re in debt, you can’t go further into debt. While in debt, your Proficiency score rolls to buy things are at disadvantage.

Sometimes, a PC will be Flush With Cash. This means they just went through a dungeon or pulled of a heist or found buried treasure. When Flush With Cash, characters roll their Proficiency bonus to buy things with advantage. The DM decides when the cash runs out, or you can say that the first time you fail a roll, you’re out of the extra cash and back to your usual means.

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 20

Of course DMs can fell free to not allow players to roll for things that aren’t available. Also, I’d use the normal downtime rules for looking to buy a magic item, and make the PC spend a week looking. Often in a game, time is more valuable than gold anyway.

Oh, and all 1st level characters start the game in debt unless they have the Noble Background 🙂

A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.