How I Made D&D Cooler Part 1: The Basics

In planning to run my current D&D game, I had a few things in mind.

1. I didn’t want to spend more time preparing for the game than playing the game in a given week.

2. I didn’t want to spend multiple sessions teaching the players how to play their characters effectively.

3. I didn’t want to use a battle mat or miniatures, but wanted action to flow quickly while still retaining some tactical detail.

4. I wanted there to be special abilities for things aside from combat, like movement and social interactions and information-finding (much like we’ve working into Heroes of Karia Vitalus)

In achieving what amount to game-design goals working with the skeleton of D&D, I decided to do a few general things and then work each until the details became clear. The first and most complicated of these was simplification – taking the rules and simplifying them, tossing out the necessity of a battle mat and miniatures, and boiling down the hundred-thousand variations on the rules into a few general principles.

The second, easier process was diversification– taking what I’d simplified down and working on it so that it represented what each of the players wanted to play and do with their characters.

Here’s what I mean.

The first think I decided was that there would be two kinds of abilities: trained and untrained. Trained abilities would be level + attribute modifier + other modifiers, +10 is it was a passive ability and + d20 if it was an active ability. Untrained abilities would be 1/2 level, but the rest would be the same. This counts for spells, saves, defenses, attack rolls, skills, everything.

I dropped Armor Class entirely and just used Reflex Defense in its place, adding 1 for a small shield and 2 for a large shield, and factoring in armor penalties from the 4th Edition PHB. The effect armor would have would be to reduce all incoming damage in the amount of 1/2 the armor’s listed AC bonus + any magic modifier.

I wanted to add character level to all damage rolls as well – I’ve found that in 4th Edition in particular, but in any high-level D&D, characters and monsters can pound on each other for hours while they whittle down Hit Points with no discernible in-game effect.

Healing Surges became just Surges, and they were melded with Action Points (allowing adding 1d6 to a d20 roll). I also added an indie game twist stolen from Mouse Guard – you can spend a Surge to succeed with some kind of consequence chosen by the GM. I’ve gotten a lot of fun and mileage from this already, and like the rule a lot.

I kept At-will, Encounter, Utility and Daily powers from D&D 4E but changed what they meant. At-will powers cost nothing, and include skills, basic weapon attacks and some basic feats. Encounter powers cost 1 Surge to activate and include basic spells, class or racial abilities, second-tier feats (with one pre-requisite, say). Utility powers require 2 Surges to activate and include a lot of movement, social and information-gathering abilities, as well as abilities related to traveling more quickly than usual. Daily powers cost 3 Surges to activate and represent more advanced spells, feats with many pre-requisites, and other powerful abilities.

For abilities I just made up, I used as a rule of thumb 2d6 damage for an Encounter ability and 3d6 for a Daily ability, though I might change this so that it is higher.

Characters start a session with level + 2 Surges and can earn further Surges from the DM by doing interesting things in-game.

I decided to give spells attack rolls like in 4E against the appropriate defense. I also split melee and missile proficiency, since I liked the idea that some classes would be better in one or the other. Fighters, Rangers and Rogues are trained in both melee and missile. Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Paladins and Monks are trained only in melee. I made it so that Bards could choose to be trained in either melee or missile, but not both, and Sorcerers and Wizards are untrained in both. I also added spellcasting as a trained or untrained ability, to represent pure casters and hybrid casters. Paladins and Rangers are untrained but can still cast spells. As usual, Barbarians, Fighters and Rogues cannot cast spells at all. Bards, Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers and Wizards are trained of course. This means that Paladins and Rangers will be able to use support abilities, but won’t be able to make attacks with pure spellcasting most of the time except against weak opponents – this made sense to me.

I gave each character a healing rate (or “stitch” rate for the one undead PC) that is equal to their level + Constitution modifier. This is the amount they heal when they take a “second wind” (which costs 1 Surge) in combat or when they have a night’s rest. They heal double that amount when they have a full-day’s rest (which of course never happens in D&D). Healing spells like Cure Moderate Wounds use this system – Cure Moderate Wounds heals 2x a character’s healing rate + any bonuses the character has to healing spells.

I kept the Bloodied condition because I like the idea, and decided that similar to Vitality and Wounds from Unearthed Arcana 3E, when you became Bloodied you would be Fatigued or, if already Fatigued, Exhausted, until you received some kind of healing (even if it doesn’t bring you back up over Bloodied).

In this particular game, I had a few unusual characters (which is part of what I enjoy). One of them is an intelligent Ghoul. Another is a Ogre Barbarian, and a third is a Human Bard who has a number of social powers but none that are really useful in combat (the kiss of death in most D&D games).

I also had some more “normal” characters like a Halfling mage-thief, an Orc Cleric and a Human Necromancer. These were a lot closer to what you find in the various books and supplements, and were relatively easy to come up with.

The most interesting for me was the Ghoul, and I think that’ll be my first example in this series. Her name is “Mr. Scram” (I’m not sure why this female Ghoul is a “Mr” but oh well) and she is actually the Human Necromancer’s mother – he raised her out of loneliness but she turned out to be more intelligent and willful than he wanted, and now nags him from beyond the grave.

I decided that the Ghoul would be like a zombie from Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later, fast and grabby and bitey and really hard to bring down. It didn’t make sense that she’d wear armor, so I gave her d12 hit dice and a high Cconstitution as well as a trained Fortitude defense and melee attack. I made her claws and infectious bite (3E MM) At-will powers, along with trained Endurance, Intimidation and Stealth. Her Encounter power has been her Paralyzing Stench (3E MM again). Her Utility power is Creep, which I invented. Basically, it lets her crawl along walls and ceilings in a freakish way like critters do in horror movies. Her Daily powers are Devour Flesh, which I invented (she eats living flesh and heals 3 “stitches” as well as cancelling ongoing negative effects) and Bilious Blood, also made up for her (when hit for an encounter, she deals 5 acid damage to her attacker).

Conclusion for Now
This is definitely a way of running D&D that is a lot of fun (more fun than “real” D&D as far as I am concerned, and the players seem to feel similarly) but I couldn’t actually write up in a book or something. This is very much my project achieving my design goals – the best thing these posts can be is a sort of rough blueprint for other people whose friends want to play D&D but who don’t like how much D&D bogs you down.

Next up: Using the Ghoul as an example character and looking at some more details.

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