D&D sucks when your turn comes around and nothing happens, either because you whiff on your attack roll or you cast a spell and miss your attack or your target makes their saving throw. Any game sucks when your turn amounts to nothing, but especially a game like D&D where you might have waited 30 minutes for your turn to come back around again in a complex combat encounter.
It’s also tough when you build a spellcaster like an enchanter, or someone who has a lot of spells that allow saving throws, as sometimes you’ll use your magic and nothing will happen. Unlike an attack roll, you’re already using a limited resource – spell slots – and getting nothing for it.
I was also thinking about how to adapt some of what I was enjoying so much about Breath of the Wild to tabletop, and one thing about Breath of the Wild, and most video games in general, is there are no saving throws that negate your abilities, and normally instead of a character skill roll to attack you are relying on player skill. The player skill is harder to attach to a tabletop RPG, and depending on how you do it you get accessibility issues. But that’s a line of thinking for another time.
As a rule, there shouldn’t be a point in a story when a main character takes action and nothing changes. That’s true for PCs in RPGs – when they act, something should change. What prevents that change in D&D are attack rolls and saving throws, so I wondered, how much would I have to change D&D to get rid of those two things?
Turns out, a lot, but not as much as I’d feared.
What follows are my notes so far. Feel free to use them as a starting-point. I need to playtest this idea, but I do think it’s workable. As with the other things I’ve uploaded here in the past, I’ll update this document as I improve on my notes. Enjoy!
One of the classic elements of Dungeons & Dragons, probably across generations, is player-characters getting into fights with the cops. I’ve lost count of the times that the initial antagonists in a campaign, intentionally or not, are the town guards of whatever town the PCs enter. The characters invariably cause trouble, and the town guard or militia shows up to try to deal with them, and of course no one plays D&D to go to jail, so shenanigans ensue.
Usually, the town guard is completely outmatched by the PCs, and sometimes the game then spirals out into a situation where the players are just enjoying acting out and smashing things while being chased ineffectually by the cops. This can be fun and is perfectly fine.
But I was thinking about how scary the cops are in the real world. The first response we have to the cops showing up in force anywhere is fear. That’s true for me and I think that’s true for everyone, and that’s exactly how cops are designed to function. They are built to intimidate, because intimidation is cheaper than violence, right? If you’re too scared to resist a cop, then the cop won’t have to escalate to make you comply.
I’ve also been working on dystopian setting designs that include versions of totalitarianism and authoritarianism – for obvious reasons, living the US. Our stories are going to reflect the world in which we live. And in this case, my stories are going to give players the chance to punch that authoritarianism right in it’s sneering face. One thing these worlds have required, though, are tougher cops.
So what would be a fantasy equivalent of a modern cop?
First, they would need access to far more violence than most citizens. So if people in town can carry weapons openly, then the cops have to carry bigger weapons. There should be no question in most people’s minds that a cop is going to win a fight with a citizen. Maybe they have better armor, minor magical items, and the best-made weaponry available. Maybe they have a significant number of spellcasters. Whatever would cause the feeling of “Oh shit, the cops are here!”
Second, the cops travel around town in a way that is more protected, and obvious, than civilians. So if lots of people have horses in town, then the cops have horses with barding and a magical item that lets them talk to each other without being overheard. Their horse would have extra weapons for when they need them, and some way to amplify the volume of their voice enough to be heard over a riot. Their mode of travel can be blatant, the equivalent of lights flashing, or quiet, the equivalent of hidden lights and low-contrast coloring that US police use to sneak up on people when they decide to.
Third, cops should have more access to information, including information that you’d rather was kept secret. Maybe they can detect traps or read surface thoughts, or have a sending device to check on your records. Maybe they can activate a locate person magical item for the most wanted.
Fourth, D&D cops would have a way to restrain you effectively, even if you have supernatural abilities. With regular people, a pair of handcuffs will make it very hard to resist, but this would have to go farther with a warlock or a paladin or a rogue. But whatever means they would have to restrain you would be effective, because if they weren’t, the cops would get upgrades from the authorities. They need a way to prevent spellcasters from casting most spells, keep rogues from picking the locks on their handcuffs, etc. Unless the PCs are the first elite people the cops have seen, they need to be ready. This can’t be the first rowdy 2nd level wizard they’ve had to deal with.
Fifth, a D&D cop would have a way to respond when things escalate. What’s listed above is not the equivalent of the SWAT team, or the equivalent of cops in riot gear. They would have military weaponry, whatever that is in your setting, and heavy magical armor that makes them invulnerable to poison gas, and access to that poison gas to use on you, shields that can electrocute and stun you, sonic weapons, etc. They would have the equivalent of snipers (maybe hidden on rooftops with wands of magic missile casting the spell at 5th level) and of surveillance specialists (diviners) and of teams built to smash their way into a barricaded building and kill everyone inside.
What other ideas do you have for D&D cops?
Final Note: I totally understand if you want your D&D cops to be pushovers, or if you don’t want to migrate your fear of cops into your time playing pretend with your friends, or your imaginary world is full of evil criminals and your heroes are the cops (I’m looking at you, paladin). I was just thinking through how to make cops scary, the way they are in the United States, in case we want to engage with that fear through play, or have an imaginary setting that feels a little more familiar, as uncomfortable as that feeling might be.
I caught the bug as I always do, and I rewrote Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition using PbtA. This is not a complete game by any means – it is mostly a huge collection of moves adapted from the mechanics of V5. There aren’t playbooks or anything like that, but the bones are there, and I thought I’d put it out there in case there is any interest or feedback on it.
It also just helps me to put out a version of what I’m working so that I feel more like I can work on something else for a while. Edit: I updated this to a 0.3 version, and will keep updating periodically as I get time to work on it. Let 0.3 represent how far I think this is from a finished draft 🙂Edited: Updated to 0.4 with some changes and the addition of simple coterie moves based on the Vampire Companion’s Coterie Merits. Edited: I updated this to 0.7 over the last few weeks 🙂(VSI) represents the change to Violence, Insight and Subtlety being your three main attributes, instead of Physical, Social and Mental.
Edit: I decided to do this differently. Lately I’ve been much more interested in writing full stand-alone documents than blog posts, so what I am going to do is finish a version of my rules reference document and just put out the PDF. This way I don’t have to write it twice.
Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition came with a lot of asterisks, at least form my point of view. A new team of people; a failed attempt at a MMO; rumblings of issues with the playtest documents, and then issues with the text itself. Further problems with the following Camarilla book that were so bad that it ended up in a complete staff change.
For all of these reasons, I avoided V5 for a while. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t low-key for Nazis (it isn’t). I wanted to see how the shake-ups with staff worked themselves out, and what changes they’d decided they needed to make. I also just didn’t like the aesthetic of the new book – I get what they’re going for, but a fashion-forward coffee-table book was not what I was after here. I liked the grittier art styles of previous editions, and I also thought that a lot of OSR designers were doing much better, more creative work with art and layout. So it wasn’t enough of an art book to get my attention, and it wasn’t enough of a game book to get my attention that way either.
There were things I liked about it, though, based on the playtest documents and reviews that were out there. The Hunger mechanic seemed just right as a replacement for blood pool. I also really like many of the updates to the metaplot, with the Second Inquisition replacing the Sabbat as the main antagonist, and the Beckoning stripping the Camarilla elders out of most cities. I thought, if you’re going to have Vampire the Masquerade in 2020, this is how you need to do it.
Onyx Path’s Chicago by Night sealed the deal. The layout and art are much better than the core rulebook, much more my preference anyway, and I like how they updated the Camarilla’s feature city for modern nights.
Turns out, I have some friends who love Vampire the Masquerade. Two of them are actually two of the first people I ever played VtM with back in the day (the day being 1998). We’re still friends, and we’re still gaming. The D&D campaign I was running was failing to launch, so we all got next-game-itis and I thought, hey, want to play Vampire? Yes. Does this mean I’ll need to buy, read, and almost certainly hack V5? Also yes.
Fortunately, it was also the lead-up to the US Presidential election, so I had plenty of anxiety to channel toward writing. Sometimes, that even works! Instead of sleeping or fostering grim imaginings of a civil war between QAnon and Antifa (for the record, team Antifa here), I hacked V5 apart and redesigned it. As is my habit, now, I hacked it so that players roll all the dice, and got rid of a number of rules that thought just complicated things (like specifics around blood resonance). I simplified how backgrounds work and combined some redundant skills and…well, you’ll see, because I’ll be posting these hacks on this blog over the next few weeks.
As I started this hack, the goal was not just to chop V5 up (which is fun to do with games on its own) but to change V5 so that we could more easily play online. Fewer dice rolls is an important element here. I like changing system so that players roll all the dice, so I did that to V5 as well.
Stamina, Composure, Resolve
Stamina, Composure and Resolve are resistance-based Attributes brought over from Vampire the Requiem, with Composure replacing Appearance (good call) and Resolve replacing Perception (which folds back into Intelligence and Wits). If the players are rolling all of the dice, however, there’s less need for all three of these, and with an eye toward simplifying, I got rid of them.
I decided that if a character needed to be touch and resilient to resist something, they could just roll Health, and if they needed to resist something socially or mentally, they could just roll Willpower. In that way, the lost Attributes are a bit redundant in the first place. So we have Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, Manipulation, Wits and Intelligence.
To start, I decided that Health would be Strength +3, and then Willpower would be 10 – Health, so that for a starting character before they spend any experience points, their Health + Willpower would equal 10. I’m glad that I have one PC in my current chronicle with a Health of 8 and a Willpower of 2, I think that will be fun.
The way that dice-rolls work for Disciplines in V5 doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes you roll Attribute + Ability, sometimes you roll Attribute + Attribute, and sometimes you roll Attribute + Discipline. This would be fine if there was a consistent way of determining which is which, apart from just memorizing the rules for every Discipline. Reading through the Disciplines, I realized that I would have to change the rolls for many of them in order to make them consistent. I decided to hearken back to Vampire of yore and just make Discipline rolls Attribute + Ability. (Reading through V5’s core Discipline rules, I honestly got the impression of it being a ‘first try’ type system, similar to what Vampire 1st Edition had, and I wish they had taken more from past editions).
And yes, I get the profound irony of rewriting all of the Disciplines for V5 in the supposed spirit of simplifying the system and making my job as Storyteller easier. But doing this kind of thing is clearly a hobby I enjoy. It also helped me avoid thinking about the ongoing attempted coup in the United States, which was a big bonus.
One benefit of players rolling all the dice, NPCs become much simpler to run. What they represent, mechanically, is a small list of difficulties, and then the special abilities that their Disciplines grant them. What I’ve done in the past is to just give NPCs a dice total for Physical, Social and Mental tasks, with a note on what they’d be good at. Turning these in to difficulties wasn’t difficult – just cut them in half. Round them up because NPCs won’t get to roll their own dice (or spend Willpower, etc.) and should pose a problem on average. Currently, my plan is to improvise what the players roll to resist abilities based on what the NPC is doing – I’m fine taking a “rulings over rules” OSR-esque approach, and I like the idea that vampire abilities aren’t perfectly predictable anyway. And I’m limited, because I still just have NPCs as a set of difficulties in the first place.
Speaking of Dice
Coin-toss dice mechanics are a pet peeve of mine, whether they show up in HEX or Mouse Guard (a favorite game) or anywhere else. If I can effectively replace your dice mechanic with flipping coins, the mechanic is a failure in my view. It’s like having a car that is no better than walking. The mechanic in V5 is just one of those coin-tossing mechanics, with the slight variation that 10s are special, if you roll two of them (one 10 is one success and two 10s are four successes which is…weird).
So I also changed the dice mechanic to be a set difficult of 7, with 10s counting as two successes. This will give a very similar success rate, but is more interesting. With Rouse checks being the Beast’s attempts to assert themselves, I left those as a difficulty 7 roll as well, which has the interesting consequence of Hunger increasing 40% of the time instead of 50% of the time. I want to see how that plays out over sessions, but I thought it would be a slight encouragement for the players to use their abilities more often.
The main downside, if any, is that we can’t use the cool-looking dice sets that they have out for V5. But dammit, if I’m going to hack a system, there’s no way I’m leaving a coin-toss dice mechanic intact.