RPG Mechanics Round-Up #12: D&D Again

Time = XP

In D&D and similar experience-driven systems, xp roughly represents time spent playing. This is true when WotC says that Adventure League standards should be about 4 hours to level to 2nd, and then 8 hours to 3rd and the same for 4th, etc. This is what it has always meant, and the way it functions is to incentivize certain behaviors and play styles.

Why not just have XP = time played? This would work equally well for your home game as for organized play, and would work better than every system for leveling in organized play I’ve ever heard of. It would be easy to track across games, including for players and DMs without consistent play-groups.

This system can be hidden behind a milestone leveling system, and just have milestones equal X time played. Honestly, it’s what most DMs and GMs who use a milestone system are doing anyway, and is the thinking behind xp going back to the beginning. In terms of design, experience points are a reward for the player, so why no reward the players for their time? This would also unhitch xp from certain behaviors. So PCs would not need to go out and kill things and take their stuff. They would level just the same for RPing, or shopping in town, or exploring new places, or doing upkeep on their holdings. They can do whatever they find to be fun in game.

Yes, this drifts D&D significantly from its design, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

Using 5E Exhaustion More Often

Exhausting is an interesting mechanic, and almost never gets used in games of D&D 5th Ed I run and in which I play. I think it was used for the fist time in the 10th session of our current home game, and it was funny because I was the only player who even knew about exhaustion rules. So here a few other times to engage the exhaustion rules, imposing a level of exhaustion for each of the following:

  • When you are dropped to zero hp, even if immediate raised back up (i.e. by Healing Word)
  • When you take damage in excess of a threshold (maybe that threshold = 2x your Constitution score) to represent a sudden, significant injury
  • When you roll a 1 on a saving throw
  • When you fail a high-risk skill check, but the DM wants to let you fail forward (you miss an Athletics roll to jump a chasm, so the DM says you cling to the far side and drag yourself up, but it costs a level of exhaustion)

Healing Potions

As written, healing potions in 5E restore 2d4 +2 hit points per level of potion (i.e. 4d4 +4 or 6d4 +6). Why not have a healing potion instead restore 2 hit dice +2 for each level? This would mean that higher-hp classes like Barbarians would benefit more from a healing potion. As it is, past level 1 or 2 a barbarian won’t want to use an action to restore 7 hit points on average, and higher level barbarians who have more powerful potions won’t bother using them either because they’ll make such a small difference.

  • Healing potion: 2 hit dice +2 restored
  • Greater healing potion: 4 hit dice +4 restored
  • Superior healing potion: 6 hit dice +6 restored

Stolen Skill Challenge Idea

This is an idea my friend Brett, who is our current DM, stole from another DM, and I’m stealing it as well. The idea is that for shared skill challenges (like the ubiquitous Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to let the party sneak around), you set a total that they have to hit with their rolls.

  • Relatively easy challenge: 10x number of characters
  • Opposed challenge: passive score x number of characters
    • Ex: if the PCs are all trying to sneak past a guard, and the guard has a passive Perception score of 14, then their Dexterity (Stealth) rolls would have to total more than 14x number of PCs
  • Normal (?) challenge: 12x number of characters
  • Really challenging: 15x number of characters or higher

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: LeBron James

I finished high school in Akron OH, the same city where LeBron James went to high school and graduated, about five years later. I still lived there over the summers while I attended college, and then after for a few years. I remember when my brother Conrad asked me about LeBron James, and I had no idea who he was talking about. This seemed to surprise him, but it shouldn’t have. No one who knows me would assume I know who any athlete is.

I’m still not going to say anything about Lebron James as an athlete – I’d honestly just be Googling and repeating things that I read there. I would like to talk about LeBron James as a person, though, and as an example of positive masculinity.  As is often the case, not hard to find a manly picture of Lebron:

Image result for manly picture of lebron james

When you think about it, what LeBron James does is what any multi-millionaire baller could do if they chose. The difference is that LeBron does it where most don’t. In the over-discussed Monomyth of Joseph Campbell, the hero gains the elixir on his adventures and then returns home with the power to heal his community. LeBron’s hero’s journey was to go make a ton of money with his incredible athletic ability, and the elixir he gained was that big pile of money. But he is a hero in his story, instead of just another self-aggrandizing millionaire douchebag, because he puts his elixir to use:

  • The Lebron James Family Foundation has pledged to spend $41 Million to send kids to college through his “I Promise” program, and recently opened its first elementary school
  • He donated $1 Million to his own high school
  • He teamed up with business partner Maverick Carter donated $2.5 Million to Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • He also financially supports After-School All-Stars, The Boys and Girls Club of America (with 1,000 donated computers), and ONEXZONE, among others

When asked, Lebron James uses his powerful platform to tell the truth and help children in need. He’s not afraid to call out Trump’s enabling of racism and cruelty, and to even talk about somewhat taboo things like discomfort in some white spaces. He gives every impression of a very powerful and influential person who is using his power and influence for the betterment of others, and that’s what makes him this week’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #11

Out of Combat Advantage

The scene is that your adventurers are taking a break from danger, hanging out in town. There is some kind of local festival happening, and they decide to enter the various contests. The ranger joins an archery contest. It doesn’t make sense to me that the ranger would roll the same thing that she would when she is in a life-or-death combat situation – I think of studies showing that the most accurate police officers, the NYPD, still miss 2/3 of the time when they use their weapons. These are people who know what they are in for, train regularly, etc., who probably do great when they are at the gun range. So it occurred to me that in a situation where a D&D-style adventurer is using an adventuring skill in a safe environment such as a local fair, she should roll with advantage. This is also a way to let PCs shine in comparison to locals who only shoot at stationary targets and the occasional rabbit or deer.

Fixing Call of Cthulhu Sanity (Again)

There are obviously problems with Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system: all of the problems of any hit points style system for modeling trauma; it can be problematic with regard to real-world mental health; it is hard to get players to act against themselves when suffering a bout of madness; the madness that you suffer might come from a list or a table, and therefore feel arbitrary.

As a way to address three out of these four concerns, I thought that it would be interesting to just treat Sanity as hit points. When you run out you can’t play anymore. But when you lose Sanity, take Sanity ‘damage’, you can choose to ‘soak’ some of that damage by taking on a bout of madness. The player chooses the madness that makes sense, maybe from a list the Keeper provides. This way players who want to power through and keep control of their characters can do so, but they will take big hits to Sanity (and for this rule, I would basically double Sanity damage as written). Otherwise, players get a say in what happens, which hopefully gives them buy-in, which hopefully makes them more likely to actually play the insanity to the hilt.

In systems other than Call of Cthulhu, even like D&D, the idea I would use is to provide XP when a character suffering from madness acts against their own best interests.

This also makes me take a moment to consider my house rule for Hold Person type spells. Hmm…

Social Abilities and Hierarchy

I like the idea that social skills function differently when interacting across a social hierarchy (it’s why I designed Parsec that way). Taking D&D’s social proficiencies as an example (Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion), I might say that all three work best with someone who shares your place in the hierarchy; Deception works when dealing with someone higher than you (“Of course, m’lord”); while Intimidation is the default when dealing with someone beneath you (“You address me as ‘Your Grace'”). If you are using those social skills in other ways, you roll with disadvantage (a pauper Intimidating a Prince, a Prince trying to Persuade a pauper, etc.). I also like what this says about how differences in power shape (corrupt) all social interactions, even when the people in those interactions don’t mean to.

If you don’t buy the Deception rule – when was the last time you were honest with your boss? If you don’t buy the Intimidation rule – how do you feel when a cop pulls you over and starts asking you questions with a hand on his gun?

Passive and Active Perception (The Investigation vs Perception Problem)

D&D, even RAW, has an Investigation and Perception problem. The problem is that they are used inconsistently in the rules text. It isn’t clear what it means to use Investigation as compared to Perception. Both have a passive score on the character sheet. Both are used for searching. Perception is the far more useful of the two, honestly. In most games, there isn’t much reason to take either Insight or Investigation compared to Perception.

For my own games, if you are actively looking for something, I use Investigation, and when we are rolling to see whether you happen to notice something, it’s Perception. Investigation is something like active senses, and Perception is something like passive senses.

I had the idea to clarify this someday with abilities in a game. For active perception, I’d use Attention, and for passive perception, I’d use Sensitivity.

Bad Trope: Cruelty Is Magic

This is an awful, and common, trope – the idea that cruelty is the way to build the perfect soldier, or to reveal super-powers, or to get to the ultimate truth about a situation. The idea put forward is that cruelty is incredibly effective, like a tool or a weapon just waiting to be deployed, instead of something more realistic, where cruelty is usually the easy way out of a complex situation. I’ll mention a few examples that leapt to mind as I thought about this awful trope, and at the end I have a long list of more, for any of you who are thinking that this trope isn’t that common.

The Borne Identity

One of the things that I like about the Borne movies, especially the first one, is that they make a few attempts to actually deal with how traumatized Jason Borne and the other secret government assassins are. One of my favorite moments is when he is facing off against another assassin in a field, and asks something like “Do you still get the headaches?” At which point the other assassin says he does, with a suddenly pained expression. Its this cool moment of honesty in the midst of a fight.

But the whole premise of the Borne Identity is that the best way to train a super-predator is by traumatizing them. This cruelty gives them preternatural abilities.

Jack from Mass Effect 2

When you do Jack’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you get deep into this experimental Cerberus facility where, basically, children were tortured in order to develop their telekinetic (biotic) abilities. Basically, space-Nazis tortured children in order to create the perfect weapon, Jack. I like how they characterize her, actually – I feel like in a lot of ways she’s a plausible person who would have come from that kind of background. If anything, maybe higher functioning than one would expect. But again, we have the idea that cruelty is, literally in this case, magic.

24 and Torture

I didn’t watch a lot of episodes of 24, but it was obviously a “ticking time bomb” kind of show, and there is an overwhelming mythology in America around the efficacy of torture in a situation like this. Torture is seen as a highly effective way of getting to the truth in a situation, especially when you don’t have the time to do the right thing because so much is at stake or whatever. 24 was out, of course, around the time of Abu Ghraib as well, and revelations about CIA ‘black sites’ used to torture information out of suspected terrorists (in some cases literally children, or random people kidnapped by mercenaries).

The Unsullied

The Unsullied are the ultimate military force of the World of Ice and Fire, and key to their training is horrific trauma inflicted on children. They have to attach to a puppy, and then kill the puppy. They have to go purchase a slave baby, and then murder the slave baby in front of the mother. Only 1 in 4 even survive the training. They are all castrated so that they will never have any desire other than to obey and to kill.

This…would not work. This in no way creates an effective fighting force. If it did, someone would have tried it in the real world, because every civilization ever has tried to find ways to train the best fighting force. Historically and in the present, the most effective fighting forces have been volunteer forces with plenty of quality equipment serving under ingenious leaders.

Abu Ghraib

As I mentioned above, the idea that cruelty is magic has real-world ramifications. I don’t know how much our fiction plays into this, but at the time I couldn’t help but see connections between how torture is portrayed in media and the torture that our government was using in the War on Terror. If you ask professional interrogators, they will tell you that torture does not work, but in fiction it pretty much always does. And we certainly keep returning to that method of truth-seeking.

US Border Policy

Right now United States policy on migration across our southern border boils down to inflicting trauma for no reason other than the belief that if we are cruel enough, it will solve the problems that are sending millions of human beings north. We believe so deeply in the magic of cruelty to solve our problems that we are willing to inflict it on tens of thousands of children, torn from their parents to be starved, sexually abused, given away to new parents; denied soap, toothpaste, medical care, even hugs.

There is something in us that desperately wants to believe in the magic of cruelty.

So What?

I suppose this is me asking fellow creative people to stop using this horrible trope. Cruelty doesn’t give you superpowers, and it doesn’t bring out the truth, and it doesn’t create super-soldiers. The pervasiveness of this trope is such that I can only imagine that it is contributing to our comfort with, and even support for, cruelty in the real world. Art mirrors life mirrors art and so on. I’m asking us to tell harder stories that reflect the truth of trauma – it isn’t magic.

Other Examples: (with thanks to my Facebook friends)

  • Artemis and Drizzt from Salvatore’s novels;
  • the Mord-Sith and Richard from the Sword of Truth/Legend of the Seeker series;
  • Hannah – the movie and the show;
  • the Sardaukar of Dune;
  • Carrie;
  • Ender’s Game;
  • the creation of the Orcs in Middle-Earth, as well as Gollum, and the Nazgul;
  • Batman;
  • Deadpool suffocated until his powers activated;
  • Eleven from Stranger Things;
  • the Maze Runner series;
  • Thanos telling Gamora that what he put her through made her strong;
  • the Kushiel series;
  • Asa Drake’s Bloodsong;
  • Cenobites from Hellraiser;
  • Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake;
  • the Wheel of Time’s Seanchan and damane/Egwene; Goetic magic;
  • Magic the Gathering;
  • Aberrant;
  • Divergent’s Dauntless;
  • Jessica Jones;
  • Game of Thrones’ Sansa;
  • Gundam;
  • the Broken Earth series;
  • Harry Potter’s Death Eaters;
  • Bioshock’s Little Sisters
  • Altered Carbon’s Emissary training, torture sims, etc.

 

An Early Decline? Or A Fetish For Novelty

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/

The above article from The Atlantic made the rounds on my social media recently, and I found it to be worth the read. It is about how professional decline comes earlier than one might expect, and the author reflects on what he sees as his own professional decline.

Here, “decline” is how he describes the transition, observed in many cultures, from being someone who solves problems in novel ways (having what the author calls ‘fluid intelligence’) to someone who is primarily a teacher or mentor for others, who has more ‘crystallized intelligence’, or intelligence that is based on what one has already learned. In other cultures, they would call intelligence that comes from accumulated knowledge and experience, which is used to teach and to mentor – wisdom.

After some reflection, it occurred to me how absurd it is to view this process as decline. Absurd, and a little bit horrific (as my culture often is when I think about it carefully). It highlights how maladaptive our culture is, and one of the many ways we value the wrong things.

Fetishizing Novelty

In many areas of life, even in the United States, we acknowledge that something has greater value because it is old. We feel this way about furniture, and architecture, and documents. This is why we have museums and special collections and archives. There is some survivor bias here – the things that have lasted seem like they must be of greater value. They have, in a way, proven themselves over the test of time.

As a materialistic, consumer culture, however, we crave novelty. For human beings, especially women, we view one’s youth as what gives them value, and see that value as diminishing over time. We are driven, by the fruits of billions of dollars of psychological marketing research each year, to crave more things and new things. Our whole society conspires to make us unwell, dissatisfied, and unhappy, because we would otherwise stop consuming. We are taught to fetishize novelty – the new product is valuable because it is new. The new idea is valuable because it is new. New art is valuable because it is new. This is strange because we are one of the only cultures in the history of humankind that thinks this way.

Oh Yeah We Hate Teachers Too

Many Americans treat teachers with contempt. Maybe not face to face, but the way we treat them, pay them, the way we fund schools, the thankless demands we place on them, all reek of contempt. Even lower than teachers are caregivers – people who care for children and the elderly are almost universally treated poorly and poorly paid. Don’t believe me? Go get a job at a nursing home right now, I dare you. It’ll be the hardest, most thankless job you’ve ever had, and you will not be able to live on what you are paid. We assume that people who would lower themselves to care for other human beings must be doing it out of a sense of martyrdom.

You can see it in the above article, and the mindset that it reflects (which is common and widespread) that one has to lower one’s self, to enter into decline, in order to teach and to mentor others. That is a demotion – we experience it as such, trained and acculturated as we are. A humane, rational society would see teaching and caring for other human beings as one of the most noble and important things one could possibly do. American society is neither humane nor rational.

Ubiquity of Elders

Every single culture on planet Earth developed such that elders were honored. Until very recently (the last few seconds on an evolutionary time-scale) that is a generalization that could be made about any culture, sight unseen. Even in the modern world, many cultures continue to value and honor elders. They are seen as wise, worthwhile, and as key contributors to a community. There is no surviving traditional society we know of that does not honor elders, and there are plenty of societies that have survived into the modern world that continue to do the same.

Now, why would every human culture in known history come to the conclusion that elders were to be valued? Let’s say fetishizing novelty was a good idea – if it was, then cultures that fetishized novelty would have flourished, displacing the ones that did not. Those cultures that honored stodgy elders who have faded away and lost out.

What we see is the exact opposite – cultures that fetishize novelty are committing collective suicide at a rate unseen in Earth’s geological history. We are dying in a conflagration of our own making. The cultures that honor the people that the above article sees as experiencing “decline” persisted for hundreds of thousands of years, and the cultures that ceased to do this are killing themselves and spreading poison and misery to a degree never before seen.

What If Age Is Not Decline?

It is very difficult to change a culture, and much of what changes a culture is surprising and out of anyone’s conscious control. The couple dozen people who read this blog post are not going to be able to get together and change our society so that age is not seen as necessary decline, but rather as a time where there is the potential for wisdom and for being able to share that wisdom.

We don’t value wisdom, as a society. We don’t know how to recognize it or seek it out. We don’t reward it or encourage it or honor it. We value novel solutions to ‘problems’ like “How do we produce more crap more cheaply?” and “How can we get more people to want to buy our crap?” We don’t realize that our solutions merely create more problems until it is basically too late, if ever. The billionaires are shipping consumer goods to our doors and building asinine hyper-loops while the people who are trying to teach and mentor have to take second and third jobs to pay their student loans.

Fetishizing novelty, among other things, is killing us. Predictably so, since every society to come before decided not to do that. But here we are. If we valued wisdom, we probably would be wise enough to see this happening and change.

A Place For Church

Yes, church. That place where we brainwash our kids (OK some of us do) and conspire to strip away basic rights (yes some of us do that too and it’s shitty). Church is also one of the only places in American society, in our novelty-fetishizing society, where old people are valued. Not in every church, but in most churches, and the idea of honoring elders is built into Christianity, and is something we might do well to highlight and feature.

Churches are full of old folks – why? Maybe because churches are a place, in contrast to families and professions and hobbies, where elders are honored. In my own tradition, to be an “elder” is to be an elected leader of the church who runs things and makes decisions. An “elder” does not have to be literally old, but almost all of them are over 55, and it is a position of leadership and worth and work that someone could easily maintain into their 80s.

In every other area of life I can think of, we partition off our elderly and place them in social ghettoes. Elders literally die from feeling useless, and commit suicide because they feel like they are a burden on their loved ones. When we talk about them, it is as a burden on society – how will we pay for all of these Baby Boomers collecting Social Security and living longer? Where will we warehouse them? How can we get them to stop watching Fox News?

Churches obviously have huge problems, but I do think that one way churches can and should be counter-cultural and adaptive is to be places where elders are not only valued, but also integrated with people of other ages and generations. It’s rare to have a group of people who meet every week in the same room, doing the same things, ranging in age from 6 months to 96 years – for my own context, we call that Sunday morning at church.

Pathfinder 2nd Edition Thoughts

Pathfinder 2nd Edition’s Core Rulebook is another bullet-stopper, so there’s no way I’ll get through the whole thing with a review. What I thought I would do is share impressions and thoughts as I read through it in three categories: Hell Yes, Ok Whatever, and Please No. TL;DR – I’d play it and probably enjoy it, but it is still hard to learn for new gamers and will have some challenges even for experienced players.

Hell Yes

Hit points from race (culture). I like this idea a lot. I have a similar one as a possible D&D 5E house rule, where you get some hit points from your character background that you choose. (To be clear, you also get hit points from your class, meaning…)

Higher hit points at level 1. Yay. 4th Edition D&D got this exactly right, while 5th Ed is back to being survival horror at lower levels and heroic fantasy only after you’ve survived that long.

The language of race is gone from the character creation rules as far as I can tell. They use ‘ancestry’, which is much preferable, with half-elves and half-orcs as human bloodlines instead of “races.”

No random ability scores. This is fine with me, though they do have alternative rules for rolling ability scores for those who want to do so. Normally this is just OK Whatever, but I put this under Hell Yes because they way you build ability scores is by bonuses (and a penalty) from your background and the feats you choose. I encountered this first through Beyond the Wall, and OSR style game that takes a similar approach of choosing elements of your background and having those determine your starting ability scores.

Class intros. These are really helpful. Each class gives you a list of things to do in combat, exploration, and social encounters, as well as what this class is good at, how others might view you, and why you might see yourself as a member of this class.

Three actions and a reaction. I love that they simplified the way actions work when your turn comes around. I love the flexibility this brings. You get three actions and one reaction per turn, and you can use those actions to move, interact, or activate abilities that cost one or more action to use. So if you just stand there and bang, you can make multiple melee attacks. If you move around a lot, you can make fewer. If you want to charge up a spell or cast a more powerful version of a spell, you spend more actions casting and are less mobile. I loved this in the playtest I played at GenCon last year, and I love it now.

Lots of crits. Why not? Crits are fun. In Pathfinder 2E, a roll is a critical hit when it is 10 or more over the target number, and it is a critical failure when it is 10 or more under the target number. You can critically succeed or fail at saving throws as well. I’m all for this. That being said, the profusion of numerical bonuses and penalties discussed below is going to be a problem here, as players won’t want to be denied a crit, or told they crit fail, and then later remember that they forgot a bonus. Which, with a dozen or more categories to track, is pretty likely.

Safety tools. There’s a whole four pages or so in the GM section about creating a welcoming environment, avoiding “social splash damage” which I kind of like as a term, using the X-card, lines and veils, and so on. There is also a Pathfinder baseline described – violence is OK to describe but not excessive gore; no rape or violence against children or sexual threats or slavery; sex happens offscreen; avoid PCs hitting on each other as it can feel like the players hitting on each other; love it. A section like this should be in every GM section and every GM book for the next 100 years.

OK Whatever

Book design and art. (Originally Hell Yeah, but on further reflection…) Both are good. There is a menu along the outer edge of every page that tells you the section you are currently in, and so flipping through different sections was quite easy with this edition. The art throughout is totally recognizable, generally great-looking, though there are of course a few that are sub-par here and there. The maroon backgrounds on some of the class-example portraits make them harder to see, and I would have gone with a less saturated color or something. But the book is pleasant to read through, at least so far. I think that I prefer the art and design in the original Pathfinder Core Rulebook, but this one is fine.

Max hit points at every level. So, there’s no clear reason not to make this change, except for the fact that without also increasing damage, it will lead to longer combats. Pathfinder will be more of Hit Point Attrition the Game. Rolling hit points is a relic that I’m fine doing away with, I just think it should have been paired with fixed damage. Fixed damage is used in Big Eyes Small Mouth, as well as Mutants and Masterminds and other games, and it works great. You could even roll damage for a glancing blow (barely missed AC) and just double the number for a critical hit (or more than double for extra-critical abilities).

Everything is feats. This is fine. They just took all of the words for class abilities and race abilities from previous games and call it all feats.

Alchemists and goblins are core. No problem here. Alchemists are an interesting class, and they do things that other classes don’t with throwing bombs and mutagens. Goblins are awesome, though their Paizo-style super-monstrous appearance seems out of place among the other winsome species.

Arcane, divine, occult and primal spell lists. I like this change, as it simplifies how the spellcasting classes work a bit. This is one of many elements that seem drawn from D&D 4E, honestly, and I don’t mean that as a criticism, just an observation. (D&D 5E dropped a lot of good things that were in 4E, and that’s too bad) It’s odd to have occult on the list, and I noticed that the bard is an occult spellcaster. The description of what occult means seems very similar to what arcane means, but I get the impression that maybe Pathfinder’s occult classes were really popular and they wanted room for them. (All this being said, while there are down to only four spell lists, there is a lot of added spellcasting complexity in PF2)

Please No

The character sheet. It is so bad. This has already been commented upon when it was released ahead of time, but bears repeating. I just…don’t understand. It is both ugly and hard to follow, being overly-busy, at least to my untrained eye. But even Paizo can’t knock it out of the park every time.

Numerical modifiers abound. In the Gamer’s Table podcast review of the new rules, I believe they identified 14 different categories of numerical modifier that could apply to a single roll. This is a problem that the advantage/disadvantage system in D&D 5E honestly did fix. Cognitive load before a dice-roll should really be minimal, but Paizo doubled down on numerical modifiers.

A bafflement of riches. To my eye and taste, the core rulebook has too many options. Pathfinder 2nd Edition Core Rulebook includes 20 or so backgrounds, 6 species, and 13 classes, each class also gets 3-6 sub-class options on top of all of that (somewhere between 40 and 70 class options, without counting). Let’s be conservative and say around 5,000 combinations. On reading through, I had the strong feeling that I need an app for this. And I’m saying this as someone who played Pathfinder, ran Pathfinder, and has been playing RPGs for a long time. (For an example of doing something similar but a bit simpler and much better, you have Adventures in Middle-Earth from Cubicle 7, the 5th Ed D&D version of The One Ring, with backgrounds, cultures, and classes presented in a way that is much less overwhelming but seems to have comparable options) This just feels like too much to throw into character creation – not only inaccessible for a new gamer, but it’ll take some processing for experienced gamers to get their heads around as well. To be fair, D&D 5E probably has a comparable number of combinations with their longer list of core races and three sub-classes for each class, but the presentation and pacing of character creation decisions didn’t lead to the same feeling of overload.

Too much categorization of spells. You have four spell lists: arcane, divine, occult and primal (still not clear exactly what separates arcane and occult); you also have the usual schools of magic from previous editions; you also have categories of Matter, Mind, Life and Spirit for things that spells affect; you also have spells divided into common, uncommon, etc. like WoW drops; then there are spells that use spell slots and other spells that use focus points; there’s just way too much here.

Only humans have ethnicity. Dammit, Paizo. It’s stupid when the Forgotten Realms does this, and it was stupid when Golarion did this in Pathfinder’s 1st Edition. You were doing well, too, so far.

Would I Play This?

Definitely. But I would need a group of experienced gamers who wanted to really dig into a crunchy system. I would not hand this game to a new player, where I might actually hand them Pathfinder, with some guidance of course. Pathfinder 2E is better thought out, better designed, more interested (at least in the core rulebook), but more complicated as well, and the complexity comes in with character creation, which can be really daunting.

House Rules Already

If nothing else, I would use fixed damage for basic weapon attacks equal to the maximum that could be rolled on the dice. I haven’t had the time to read through how spells work damage-wise to see if it would be necessary there. If so, though, I’d be fine using fixed damage for all of it.

Add Some Grit To Your 5E D&D

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.

Darkvision

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.

Prestidigitation

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.

Encumbrance

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?