D&D Alignment and the “Big Six” Moral Values

This is another of my responses to Saving the Game’s alignment series they are currently producing (and still will be producing when this post drops). I added that link in here so you can find them, and so maybe they see the pingback and read this article 🙂

Briefly, a moral philosopher named Jonathan Haidt is a proponent of what is sometimes known as the “Big Five” moral values as a way to understand why, for example, liberals and conservatives can have strong moral intuitions that do not seem to overlap. It is kind of like D&D alignments, but for actual people. Those Big Five are Authority and Tradition, Care and Compassion, Fairness and Justice, Loyalty, and Purity. To those five some have added a sixth, Liberty, and I’ll be keeping that change, resulting in a Big Six.

There is a lot more to this conversation, and a good place to start is Haidt’s TED Talk about why conservatives and liberals seem to see moral questions so differently:

<div style=”max-width:854px”><div style=”position:relative;height:0;padding-bottom:56.25%”>https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives</div></div>

All that being said, what I would like to do in thinking about alignment in D&D and similar games is to look at the Big Six and see if they can map onto D&D-style alignment in any interesting ways. (If you want to see the Big Six used as an alignment system in an OSR game, check out my own Iron Pax hack on DriveThru) Let’s take a look at how they might map to 5E’s standard alignments:

Authority & Tradition : Lawful

This first one is kind of a gimme. Clearly, if a character values authority and tradition highly, then they are going to lean toward a Lawful alignment of some kind. Of course, this could easily be Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, or Lawful Evil, depending on the traditions in question and how they are interpreted.

Care & Compassion : Good

This one also seems straightforward. If a character values care and compassion for others, it is hard to argue that they would be other than Good in alignment. If they were only concerned for people in their own in-group, then that would coincide with Loyalty. If they were only interested in caring for those who deserved it, that would lean more toward Fairness & Justice.

We can also immediately see how these alignments could be combined. Just from the first two, if someone interprets the Authority & Tradition of their culture in a way that prioritizes Care & Compassion, we could easily call that Lawful Good. Part of my point here is, isn’t it more interesting to take an in-depth look at what these alignments mean, beyond just “Lawful” or “Good”? I think that using more robust moral language is a way to deepen alignment and make it a more interesting rule, or even just a more interesting roleplaying guide. But I’ve said plenty about that before, and I digress.

Fairness & Justice : Lawful or Neutral

I can see Fairness & Justice being interpreted either in terms of legality or impartiality. If someone sees Fairness & Justice as applying the law to everyone equally, I think that this would indicate what we usually mean by Lawful. If, on the other hand, they see this as someone being impartial, that is, judging situations and people on even terms without preference for one group or another, then that would in my mind tend more toward the Neutrality. Is justice judging everything dispassionately on its merits? Or is justice judging everything according to the same laws or standards? The difference isn’t a huge one, but I think it’s noteworthy, in terms of the stance being ‘I am applying these rules to everything’ compared to ‘I consider everything on its own merits.’ I think that both could be interpretations of Fairness & Justice.

Liberty : Chaotic

Liberty was added by others to Haidt’s moral system, and I think it makes a lot of sense as the ‘sixth.’ And connecting Liberty to Chaotic alignments fits with my experience of people who play Chaotic alignments in game – what they seem to want more than anything else is no one telling them what to do. They want to function without an external standard to which they need to adhere. (That’s the best of it, anyway. Certainly there are players who play any given alignment to be jerks, but just don’t game with them)

Normally Chaotic isn’t so much a desire for chaos for its own sake, but rather a desire for freedom, which fits the moral value of Liberty perfectly I think. We can also see how some of these moral values overlap and others do not, or at least not as well. It is harder to imagine someone valuing both Liberty and Authority & Tradition, for example, though not impossible. I suppose that character would end up being a complicated version of Neutral – but I can think if people I’ve met who seem to value both. The classic rural family that has traditional values but also wants to be left to their own devices comes to mind – values/small government voters in the US. For me it is easier to imagine where Liberty and Care & Compassion overlap – I want to care for people, but in my own way and on my own terms. Chaotic Good.

Loyalty : Lawful

Here I think of Valerie in the Pathfinder: Kingmaker computer game (which I’m currently playing and is a great game). Her alignment is Lawful Neutral, and I think they did a great job with her character. Her comments on your choices are always in terms of loyalty and duty – not cruel, but not particularly compassionate either. After you become the baron of the Stolen Lands, she is continually reminding you of your duty as a ruler and your duty to your people over everything else. But even when she disagrees with your decisions, her loyalty remains.

When I think of the moral value of Loyalty, I think of the “My country love it or leave it” types in the United States. Patriotism is to a large degree composed of Loyalty. It is a sense that “these are my people”, almost a pack mentality in a way. This is also one of the moral values that I can easily see sliding into Evil, depending on to whom you are loyal, and how you live that loyalty out. Where Care & Compassion as a primary value could just make you vulnerable and idealistic, I could easily see where Loyalty as a primary value could be turned to evil ends.

Purity : Good, or Neutral, or Evil

Purity is interesting – there is a whole sub-category of disgust psychology that I find fascinating. As always, I recommend for Christians the book Unclean by Richard Beck. Really for anyone, but for Christians in particular, as that is his approach.

Disgust is powerful – it comes to mind that pretty much every genocide that has ever occurred has largely been motivated by Purity-style rhetoric and thinking. Even the name we use, “ethnic cleansing” (a term I dislike), has echoes of Purity and cleanliness to it. Think of films like The Purge for another example of how Purity can be bent toward evil quite readily. “Purity culture” is an example of the damaging influence this value can have in Evangelical Christianity, in the United States at least.

Though valuing purity might also motivate a Jain practitioner to adhere to nonviolence and veganism, for example, or a Shinto priest to diligently serve their community, in the real world. It depends on how one defines what, or whom, is unclean. And, basically, if you are defining any person as unclean, you’re flirting with evil right there in my view. That’s why I say that Purity as a value could map to Good (vegan pacifists), Neutral (cleansing ancestral shrines) or Evil (genocide) quite readily.

Alright, this is a first-thought type of post. What do you think? What did I miss? Would you, like me, prefer to use the Big Six in place of the classic D&D alignments?

Sample 10th Level Spells for D&D 5E

A while back I wrote about 10th level spells in theory, and I’ve noticed that that post gets a little bit of steady traffic, so I thought I’d come up with a few examples of what I had in mind in terms of 10th level spells. I’ll put these in basic layout, and of course you can use them in your games. Quick reminder of the principles I came up with for 10th level spells:

  • A 10th level spell can change the setting in some ongoing way.
  • 10th level spells must be found, or researched, or earned as part of a quest.
  • A 10th level spell can be cast only once, and then it is lost.
  • 10th level spells are how you account for magical effects in the setting that aren’t covered by existing spells or magic items.

Cataclysm

10th-level evocation (Cleric, Druid, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 500 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: concentration, up to 1 hour.

You summon a catastrophic combination of energies that are more than enough to level a town or small city. This spell creates horrific, lethal conditions within a 1000 foot diameter circle that extends 200 feet above and, where appropriate, below ground.

Lightning: any creature that comes within 10 feet of a large metal object risks being struck by static electricity. The creature must make a Dexterity save or take 5d10 lightning damage, or half damage with a successful save.

Rain of acid and fire: The entire area is pelted with a fiery, acidic rain. Every round a character begins or ends out of cover, they must make a Constitution saving throw to resist 3d10 acid and 3d10 fire damage, taking half damage on a successful save. Each minute, the rain will burn through six inches of wood or an inch of stone, meaning there will be less and less cover as the cataclysm continues.

Tremors: The area is wracked by tremors, making all terrain difficult terrain and causing buildings to collapse. Each minute, a given building has a 10% chance to collapse, dealing 4d10 bludgeoning damage to all inside if a wooden structure and 8d10 bludgeoning damage to all inside if a stone structure.

Create Demi-Plane

10th-level conjuration (Cleric, Wizard); Casting time: 24 hours; Range: 1 mile; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

This spell consumes a single magical item that creates or interacts with extra-dimensional space, such as a bag of holding, worth at least 10,000gp.

Permanent Polymorph

10th-level transmutation (Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 30 feet; VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

As polymorph, but the change is permanent until it is dispelled by powerful magic.

Permanent Resistance

10th-level abjuration (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 30 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

This spell grants a creature resistance against a single damage type from among: acid, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, poison, radiant; bludgeoning, piercing or slashing from non-magical sources. Casting the spell consumes a single gem representing the damage type (ruby for fire, etc.) worth at least 5,000gp.

Raise Flying Citadel

10th-level transmutation (Cleric, Wizard); Casting time: 24 hours; Range: 1000 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent (until brought down)

This spell is cast by a single powerful cleric or wizard with the support of at least a dozen fellow clerics and wizards. The spell requires 24 hours to complete, and at the end, a stone keep is ripped free of the earth and allowed to float above the earth. It can be guided by a powerful spellcaster (of 12th level or higher) from the inside thereafter. It has a flying speed of 60′, and if not being guided simply hovers in place. This spell obviously requires a material component of one citadel which is not consumed in the casting.

Wish

10th-level conjuration (Sorcerer, Wizard); Casting time: 1 action; Range: self; Components: V; Duration: instantaneous.

This change simply makes the wish spell a 10th level spell so that it can only be cast once, must be found via a quest or deep research, and a DM can be more lenient with the various restrictions on the spell.

Erasure

10th-level illusion (Bard, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: self; Components: VSMgp; Duration: instantaneous.

This spell makes one creature permanently immune to being targeted by divination magic. The spell consumes an ingot of adamantine metal worth at least 5,000gp.

Playing with Gender in D&D

Playing with Gender

This all started with goblins, but ended up being this little brainstorm I had during Save Against Fear. There are little kernels of this idea in D&D already, but I wanted to play out a view of sex and gender for the major intelligent species of D&D that fit with the lore as it is but was more interesting than just assuming two sexes and two genders in every case (which is ridiculous even with humans alone, not to mention every other intelligent species in D&D).

Note: this is not me wishing we could have lots of discussions and arguments about pronouns, multiplied times all of these intelligent species. That does not sound fun for me. He, she and they should cover it for these options in my opinion.

Goblin Gender

Otherwise this will be alphabetical, but I’m starting here because this was the first thought I had that led me along this path. I’ve always wondered about goblinoids: goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. Where do the drastically different body types come from? Do they intermarry? Can they interbreed? In previous editions they were just an outlier – where most intelligent species are ‘humanoid’ they are over there, the ‘goblinoids’, the other.

I realized, wouldn’t it be fun if all goblinoids are the same species, except they have three sexes, and the three types of goblinoids are their three sexes? So one sex is goblin, and one sex is hobgoblin, and one sex is bugbear, and it takes all three to reproduce. They all are born goblin-ish, and then have a big growth spurt if they are going to grow up to be hobgoblins, and then another growth spurt to become bugbears.

If you ask them how they make babies with three sexes, they of course attack you, because that’s an incredibly rude question.

Dragonborn Gender

Dragonborn (and maybe lizardfolk as well) are hermaphroditic with three genders. A dragonborn self-fertilizes when they are ready and lays a clutch of eggs. This is taxing and difficult, and when the dragonborn hatch they are much more helpless than normal for reptiles and require years of care like human infants and children. So the three genders are the One Who Lays, the One Who Guards, and the One Who Gathers. The first one is obvious. The second gender is taken on by a dragonborn who takes responsibility of guardianship for the layer and for the young. The third gender is for the dragonborn who takes responsibility to go out into the world and accomplish what needs to be done to support all three – hunting, gathering, earning gold, whatever.

Dwarf Gender

Dwarves have two sexes and one gender. Every wonder why all the jokes about dwarf women having beards and looking a lot like dwarf men? That’s because dwarves only have one gender. Though males tend to have thicker body and facial hair than females, they all are performing the same gender for all intents and purposes. Perhaps there are nuances there visible only to fellow dwarves.

Elf Gender

Elves have two sexes but are genderfluid over time. When you meet an elf, you are meeting someone on a 700 year long journey of exploration.

Gnome Gender

Ancient gnomes had a very strict system of two sexes and two genders. Modern gnomes are all transgressive about how they perform gender, and often take on aspects of the genders they see around them among other intelligent species. Intersex gnomes are held in high regard, meaning that they now functionally have three sexes.

Half-Elf Gender

Half-elves are normally born to human and elven parents at some point in the elf’s centuries-long life. What they call their parents could be unique to a particular half-elf, and they might very well be born to a mother who later, when the half-elf meets them as an adult, is now a man, and possibly even a father to new children. So half-elves tend to cling to their human side for stability, or embrace the fluidity of their elven side.

Half-Orc Gender

Half-orcs raised with orcs are given their purpose from the gods. Half-orcs raised with humans tend to choose and perform a human gender, though sometimes they encounter orcs later in life and are given a purpose then.

Halfling Gender

Halflings have two sexes and three genders. The three genders for halflings are male, female, and bachelor, in honor of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And, as far as we can tell, Merry and Pippin and Gaffer Gamgee and loads of others. Of course, women can be bachelors too. No self-respecting halfling would call her a bachelorette.

Human Gender

Humans have two sexes and three genders. But you don’t need terminology for this. You just describe men and women and intergender/nonbinary people, and then some of the men happen to be trans men and some of the women happen to be trans women. You have a lot less baked in bigotry, which is fun anyway.

Some Other Thoughts

Kenku Gender

Kenku keep their sexes secret from outsiders, though most assume they have two. In a kenku community, there is the gender of the sitter and the gender of the builder. A sitter is the one who primarily sits on the eggs while they develop, though a group might trade off on this activity, one tends to be primarily. The builder is the one who is responsible for building a nest, initially to garner the interest of potential sitters.

Orc Gender

Until adolescence orcs do not acknowledge gender. At adolescence, an orc goes into the wilderness to commune with the gods (this could be a metaphorical urban wilderness). The gods tell them their purpose and place in society, and that is functionally their gender. Some will have the purpose of parenting, but others won’t, and the part in society they perform is more important than what other species tend to think of as gender.

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Curse of Strahd: Non-Racist Vistani

I haven’t run Curse of Strahd (one of my players hates vampires so I’m not likely to do so any time soon) but I have read through it, and have read about it, and parts of it are racist AF. Here’s a great article that lays out how the depiction of the Vistani and mongrelfolk in particular are deeply racist. I’m going to talk more about the Vistani – the mongrelfolk have been in D&D monster manuals for decades and need their own consideration, in the context of all of the racism that is baked into D&D.

I’m not going to go through all of the problems and questions of Curse of Strahd either – I think there are things that a DM can adjust about the module, and other things that require some more consideration, and which definitely might or might not be good for a particular group; there’s a lot of violence against children baked in that I would have to remove, for example. (Pun intended)

I was thinking about the Vistani and how I would run them, because there are some aspects of them as a story idea that I like. I like that they can travel between worlds, and that they are the only ones who can traverse the Mists of Ravenloft. What struck me is how similar they could be to a carnival or circus – I imagined adolescents of the multiverse running away to join the Vistani, and I had my answer.

The Vistani is a carnival.

Now, there are plenty of stereotypes about “carnies” as well, though they tend to have more to do with social status than race, as with the Roma on whom the Vistani are obviously based. The advantage of a Vistani carnival, however, is that it can divorce the idea of the Vistani from race or species entirely. They are bound together not by ethnicity or even culture, but by sub-culture and profession. They are entertainers who wander from place to place.

I think that this retains a lot of what’s potentially interesting about the Vistani while getting rid of most of what’s problematic. You can still have a fortune teller – she can even be “Madam Eva”, a changeling playing up to tropes and stereotypes about fortune tellers at carnivals. Some of them can still be shifty thieves, since people who wander from place to place are more likely to take a loose view to the laws and customs of any place in particular. They can be insular, secretive, and highly loyal to one another; they can be exotic and play to tropes if they want because they are entertainers. They can even keep the reputation for stealing children, coming from young people running away to join them periodically. They can retain their dramatic, colorful dress, as I can see them taking on articles of clothing and jewelry (and magic items) from the various places they travel as a way to mark how long they have been part of the carnival and how far they’ve traveled.

The key is that none of this is linked to a real-world ethnic group, or even an imaginary one. None of these traits are intrinsic to them, and you can just as easily find honest, forthcoming, or even boring Vistani, because Vistani just means something like Circque du Soleil or Ringling Brothers. Oh, the Vistani are in town! That’s so fun! Also, the Vistani are in town, so watch your coins.

Given this idea, I think it would be cool if the Vistani kept showing up in all kinds of campaigns. You need some random group of people to give the PCs some cryptic hints or sell them some magic items? Hey, look, the Vistani. And so what if these particular Vistani happen to all be kenku and loxodon with a fire genasi ringleader? Now something racist has become something cooler, more interesting, more versatile, and more fun.

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RPG Setting Round-Up #3: Villains by Necessity

Villains by Necessity is a novel by Eve Forward, and reading it was the start of my ongoing ideas about running a D&D style campaign where evil PCs save the world despite themselves. I start from the germ of her idea, which is very D&D-esque, and have built outward from there. I’ve run what I call, uncreatively, “The Evil Campaign” three times so far, and it has been consistently really fun for me and for the players. For one of those run-throughs, we handed off DMing so I also got to play in a version of it. The premise is pretty simple, I can just bullet-point it:

  • The Last Battle against evil has happened, and good won. The Dark Lord or Lady or Whomever was cast down in ruin, their towering iron fortress leveled (or recycled), and their armies scattered.
  • In the aftermath, the forces of good deal with the question of how to handle all of the leftover ‘evil’ people and races (yes, this campaign takes racial alignment starting at face-value, as a way to criticize it – it is an assumption of many in the world that is false). Basically, Sauron is defeated, so what do we do with all of these Orcs, Easterlings, and Haradrim?
  • Rehabilitation Camps are opened, where evil creatures are redeemed through calisthenics, encouraging mantras, re-education, and of course some quiet slave labor.
  • 100 years pass, and the PCs are the last evil people they know in the whole world. They find out that there is a scheme to magically eliminate evil forever, and they grudgingly come together for mutual survival and to stop that scheme.

To me this is a fun campaign idea that addresses some of the problems that evil campaigns run into, and I encourage you to spin it off and run your own. Here are some notes and ideas I have for my next one.

D&D Roadside Attractions

DnD needs more roadside attractions as PCs travel around. They could be related to the rise of the Heroes of Legend, or to things that used to exist, like a theme park that is modeled after an orc village, where you can buy “authentic handmade orc crafts” and drink “traditional orc blood-mead.” The kinds of roadside attractions you create would be a great way to tell the players what people think their history is, what they value, and even what they have forgotten. A 1st level adventure could clearly be the PCs coming across a mysterious roadside attraction. Someone is charging admission, but they go further in than they’re supposed to, and find out this “ruin” is still active.

So, google some real-world roadside attractions, and then create D&D versions of those. A giant concrete dragon advertising a caravanserai. The world’s largest ball of hemp rope, the very rope that was once given to adventurers 50 feet at a time! A library named after a famous barbarian princess and decorated with taxidermy monsters.

An Angel for Every Town

Every city has its own angel. And the angels should be freaky, like Bible angels and mythical ones more than D&D ones. The angel will become the theme of the city – angel of rivers, angel of trees, angel of iron, etc. This angel should be a constant presence while you are in the city. It could be the reason there isn’t much of a police force, and not many soldiers guarding a city. What would make this more interesting is to have the angel maintaining its own priorities that are not understood by the mortal populace, who assume the angel is there on behalf of their religion, and the angel lets them think that in order to accomplish what it wants to accomplish.

I like this as a call-back to Revelation, where there are messages for each of the angels of seven early churches.

Goblin Dimorphism (Trimorphism?)

Hobgoblins are just female goblins, kind of like the etymology of names for female humans in many languages (man/woman, ish/ishah). Maybe bugbears are a third gender, but goblins won’t explain how it all works to non-goblins. Humans took to calling them bugbears from folklore, and because they didn’t have a word for a third gender. So goblins are just three genders, and if you ask them how reproduction works for them, they tend to kill you in your sleep. Maybe goblin children all look similar, but then grow up and hit puberty and some grow larger to become hobgoblins, or larger and hairier to become bugbears.

Arcanotech Religious Interface

This would also work for a religion in a setting like the Ninth World – I’m imagining an arcano-technological interface that lets you select from a number of gods with which to make contact. Contacting the deity is like talking to Alexa or Siri. Clergy charge for access, a one-question amount, or by the minute like a phone-sex line, and they keep timekeeping devices handy to make sure you don’t go over your minutes. Addicts show up, wanting the experience of talking to a deity again and again. Are these really gods, or AIs, or demons, or complex algorithms telling people what they want to hear? Cold-readers in another room with remote access?

Truly the Darkest Timeline?

The defeat of the Dark One caused a rift in the multiverse, and there is an alternate world where the Dark One won, which is demonstrably worse than the default setting for the evil campaign (which is far from perfect). It is like the Midnight setting, a place of widespread misery, repression, and necromancy. In part, this is just my reaction to the vapid morality of “good and evil are just two sides of the same coin”, which is of course absurd. Good-intentioned people can create a dystopia, which is what the evil campaign is about, but good and evil aren’t both somehow needed for “balance.”

In part this comes from my own daydreams about an alternate universe where Al Gore was declared President by the Supreme Court, climate change was mitigated, and we’re all in self-driving electric cars enjoying our socialized medicine, there never was an Iraq War, etc.

Have you ever run an evil campaign? It’s tricky. How did yours go?

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? 

My D&D 5E House Rules

Updated a bit, so this is a re-post. Yay!

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.

This house rule does give somewhat of an advantage to classes that can partially recover their abilities with a short rest, like Warlocks or Monks. I would have to playtest this house rule to figure out whether it is too unbalancing.

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 coins, gems and art objects 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. (Maybe the haggling DCs are just the buying DCs, +2)

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. In essence, they will function as powerful first-shot weapons, and I think that this fits their historical use pretty well.

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. The heading is a link to my full post on 10th level spells.

Deeper Backgrounds, and Backgrounds as Level 0

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. I also linked my post about treating Backgrounds as 0-level classes, adding a bit of survive-ability to first-level characters.

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).

Prestidigitation and Animate Object

I just personally dislike Prestidigitation as it works in 5E – it takes me out of what’s going on every time to have someone doing magical laundry every day. House rule is that it allows you to perform sleight of hand tricks like a stage magician and that’s pretty much it. Still can be used creatively, but isn’t the cure-all for discomfort.

In the case of Animate Object, it’s simply broken if used to animate 10 daggers, so I would say that you have to animate objects one at a time. Otherwise you get a ‘cloud of daggers’ effect that deals a potential 10d4 +40 damage every round.