5th Edition D&D is a game that starts off as survival horror, where anything you encounter can murder you and you are scraping for basic supplies, and very quickly becomes a game where it is very difficult to die and gold has no meaning. That initial curve is a steep one, and sometimes I find the change to be jarring between level 1 and the 3-5 range. I have been reflecting on some simple ways we can add some ‘grit’ to D&D 5E, without having to rewrite the rules, or just throw up our hands and play a different game. When I say ‘grit’, I mean that the game remains a bit tougher for longer, and the high fantasy takes longer to overshadow everything. A 5th level character is still going to be nigh-unkillable, and gold will not matter for much longer, but there are a few changes one can easily make, including some things suggested by the DMG.
The Long Rest
As written, a long rest is kind of like clicking the “rest” icon in a video game and watching everyone’s health bars reset to full. Which is fine – that’s the kind of game that 5E is, and it’s fun. But it is in no way gritty. The DMG suggests that you make a short rest 8 hours and require a week for a long rest – in thinking this through, however, I feel like on an adventure this would strongly preference classes whose abilities refresh on a short rest (i.e. monks, warlocks, etc.) and be punishing for classes who need a long rest to refresh abilities (clerics, fighters, especially wizards).
Another option is to restrict long rests to places where the PCs are safe and comfortable. Out in the wild, they can take a long rest to recover abilities that require that time, but they don’t get to refresh hit dice or refill hit points unless they are somewhere that provides sanctuary – an inn, a safe and comfortable campsite, etc. The idea is similar to that of Sanctuaries in The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-Earth, TOR using 5E rules. You don’t really get that deep, revitalizing sleep unless you are someplace safe. Instead, when out in the wild taking a long rest, you can roll hit dice not nothing else, and if you are out of hit dice, you have to depend on other abilities like a bard’s Song of Rest and healing spells or potions to recover. I think this would be enough of a limit without being punishing for classes that require a long rest to reset abilities.
Another rules hack to add some grit is to take all instances of darkvision as a racial ability and replace it with low-light vision, enabling those species to see twice as far in bright and dim light, but no one can see in absolute darkness. What this does is force the PCs to manage light sources, and this alone will add an element of mystery and tension to exploration. If half the party can’t see 60′ in every direction, but rather they have to decide who is brave enough to hold the light sources and who will be scouting at the edge of that circle of precious light – it’s a different feel that is simple to accomplish. For added tension, let monsters keep their darkvision.
For the literal grit that reinforces the metaphorical, thematic grit, I think the prestidigitation spell has to be nerfed. As written, it is a cantrip that enables everyone to be constantly clean, fine-smelling, and eating delicious food. It’s a ‘reset’ button you can hit at the end of every encounter, and ironically even though it is just a cantrip it is sometimes one of the most jarring things about 5E for me as a player and DM.
Thematic, metaphorical grit requires some level of literal grit. PCs should come back to town with scrapes, smudges, and dried blood on their clothes. Slogging through mud all day exploring should leave you sweaty and caked in filth. Germaphobic characters should have to beg others to carry them through bogs, or use magic to hover, or something.
So in this gritty hack, prestidigitation allows a caster to recreate simple sleight-of-hand magic only. They can pull a temporary flower out of a sleeve, or make a single coin disappear or reappear. This requires no roll, but shouldn’t overlap too much with the Sleight-of-Hand Proficiency either. This is the equivalent of druidcraft or thaumaturgy – little elements of detail and color that the caster can add to her roleplaying that reflects who she is without also doing the party’s laundry.
Pretty much every group I’ve ever played with has ignored encumbrance rules, except when playing Torchbearer, since encumbrance rules are central to that game. I think that encumbrance adds an element of grit to D&D. Before a fight, everyone has to drop what they’re carrying or else suffer penalties. If you flee, or there is some disaster (like a flood or fire), you might lose your precious equipment, made even more precious by a lack of darkvision. Imagine kobolds attacking the PCs, who drop their gear and fight. Then the kobolds retreat, and the PCs find that others have snuck in behind them and stolen what they were carrying. They know they are days from the surface, and have no food or water or light sources except for what they can produce with magic. Suddenly those kobold bastards are the scariest thing down here.
Magical Food and Water
In theory, an adventuring party could live off of goodberry or create food and water long-term. Create food and water requires a 3rd level spell slot, which is nothing to sneeze at (you could also fly around, or incinerate a room-full of people at that point), as well as the presence of a cleric or paladin. Goodberry of course requires a druid or ranger, but is only 1st level. The way I would hack goodberry is just to have it provide the listed 10hp of healing (which is a lot at level 1) but not actually sustain a person. I see it kind of like fairy-food – it has a magical effect on you, but doesn’t actually nourish you. Maybe you don’t feel hungry, but your body isn’t actually being fed, so you’ll incur exhaustion over time if you don’t also eat some real food.
What house rules or hacks would you use to make for a grittier 5E D&D game?