Advancement Systems In RPG Design


Image result for leveling meme

I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine who is designing a tabletop RPG about what kind of advancement system to use for his game. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of all of the various methods games use for character advancement, mostly in tabletop but also drawing from video games. I thought I would lay out the various options as I saw them and discuss each in turn, both as a way to organize my thoughts a bit further and also to show the wide variety of methods there are out there.

How you use an advancement system for your game is a core question both for game designers and also for those running games. Many advancement systems leave a lot of flexibility based on play style – one D&D game for example might have characters leveling every four or five sessions of play, and another might have them leveling every session. One is a story of slow development where there have to be a lot of rewards that aren’t experience points while the other is a roller-coaster ride to power that won’t leave as much time for character development, since everyone will always be learning and trying out their new abilities. Designers should let GMs know where they think the “sweet spot” is for their game, as this can be a very helpful guide. Trial-and-error also works, but can lead to a lot more frustration among players.

Experience and Leveling (D&D)

Of course, the granddaddy system, the default in most people’s minds, is leveling. You accumulate experiences points doing whatever it is that the game wants to reward, and when you hit a particular break-point you have a sudden increase in your character’s abilities. This is true of many RPGs whether on console or tabletop, and was the method introduced by D&D and many of the very first tabletop RPGs forty years ago.

The important thing here is that the game gives experience points for what you want players and characters to be doing most often. In fact, if you want to know what a game is about, look to what it rewards – and if your game rewards something that you don’t want your game to be about, change your experience system. (This is true for all of the advancement methods I’ll discuss, and also true for any reward system or cycle you have in your game, period.) Reward the behavior you want. Don’t give experience points for killing monsters in your supposed political intrigue game.

You also want to have your level progression lean toward incremental and not be too jarring. Unless it is an intentional aspect of your game, a character shouldn’t be twice as capable after achieving a single level. Not only is it ‘unrealistic’, it is jarring to the fiction. Suddenly, things that were dire threats to you last session are a breeze now because you crossed an arbitrary threshold. Thing through how often you think characters should level – multiple times per session? Every two or three sessions? Every month of play? Etc. And tune your game accordingly.

Incremental Leveling (D&D 4E, D&D Online)

Kind of a subset to the above is something I really liked about Dungeon & Dragons Online, and how it used leveling to make the experience of play more similar to other MMOs (where there tend to be 100 or so levels, each only slightly different from the others). I’ve written about it here in the past, but in brief, DDO took each level in D&D and broke it into 10 mini-levels that were incremental points between. So, for example, instead of being 10% more likely to hit an enemy, you would be 1% more likely at each increment. Instead of 10 hit points, you would get 1. Ten of those increments would add up to a full level that one might recognize from the tabletop version of D&D.

D&D 4th Edition did something similar by making the three tiers of play explicit. First the Heroic tier, from level 1 to 10, then the Paragon tier from 11 to 20, and then the Epic tier from 21 to 30. At each tier different abilities became available, and it was intentional that there be a bigger difference between 10 and 11 than between 9 and 10 for example.

Advancement through Failure (Powered by the Apocalypse games)

When thinking of earning experience or character points or whatever it is that makes a character advance, we often think of achievement. Starting with Apocalypse World, there have been a series of games that root advancement in failure. Generally speaking, in games based on AW, you mark experience or gain experience when you fail in a roll. This is in part so that you can ‘fail forward’, so to speak, and I’ve also found it to be an encouraging aspect of these systems for people who feel like they don’t roll well. It’s also fun to crap out on an important roll, knowing it’ll hurt, but sit back and say, “You know, I learned something today…”

This is really just an example of another type of behavior  you want to reward – specifically, the behavior of taking risks in-game and using abilities you aren’t very good at. However many abilities a game might have, a given character will usually only use maybe a half dozen of them regularly. Characters tend to be specialists in RPGs, and players tend to want their characters to succeed, meaning players will want to only try things their characters are good at. This is doubly true if they only get experience points, or only move toward advancement, when they succeed. Actively rewarding failure is a good way to encourage players to have their characters try new, dangerous, and often entertaining things.

Edit: It was pointed out, correctly, that it is specifically Dungeon World that grants xp for failure, not Apocalypse World.

Ongoing Point-Buy (GURPS, WoD)

Leaving aside “leveling” altogether, there is the system where experience points are points that one can spend to improve specific abilities. This system is easier to customize, and can be less jarring. When a character levels, they often increase a number of different abilities and capacities, but with a point-buy or character point advancement system, the player can choose to improve some abilities and not others.

Often the choice for the player is whether to spend advancement points frequently on minor new abilities, or to save up the advancement points to buy more powerful abilities. In all World of Darkness games, as well as in GURPS, players are presented with this decision at the end of each session. Some players will want to advance a little bit each session, while others will save up for big abilities. Many will alternate between the two based on how they want their characters to develop.

For these and similar systems, the question for game designers becomes one of pricing. Pricing decisions can be a function of demand, how popular an ability is likely to be, as well as impact on the story. Check out what I wrote about frequency and payoff a while back, and think about how low-frequency and/or low-payoff abilities should be cheaper, in a point-buy system, than high-frequency and/or high-payoff abilities.

Advancement as Currency (Shadowrun, sometimes GURPS)

Often a subset of the point-buy system is when the points you use for advancement can also be used as in-game currency. This adds a layer of decision-making for the player, since they can either have the immediate payoff of spending a point in-game, or the quick payoff of spending the point on some small incremental advancement, or the delayed gratification of saving up for a powerful ability.

Shadowrun is the best example of this I could think of with its karma system, where you can spend karma in-game for benefits, but karma is also what you spend on new abilities for your character. GURPS has a version of this, where you can spend character points earned in play (or even left over from character creation) to do something in-game like have a suddenly wind-fall of cash. The big challenge here is human psychology. It is easy to, without thinking about it, use up a lot of your potential for advancement in-game, making up for unlucky rolls or ensuring your character shines in particular scenes. Players who don’t like to trust to luck will also tend to make more use of things like karma than others. This can lead to a discrepancy in advancement over time. Not necessarily a flaw, just something to consider.

Advancement by Use (Torchbearer, Call of Cthulhu, Skyrim)

Some games do away with experience points or character points granted for victories in the story or for certain player behaviors and simply link advancement to skill-use. The two biggest examples of this I could think of from tabletop games are Call of Cthulhu (the percentile versions) and the various games based on Burning Wheel, the most recent of which is Torchbearer. These systems take a bit more tracking than the ones above, but you don’t have to worry as much about pricing abilities or tuning the leveling system.

A system that links advancement to ability use seems to work better for less high-fantasy or high-powered games, at least where tabletop RPGs are concerned. And even in Skyrim, your Shouts are earned by completing the main storyline’s quests, or by exploring dungeons, rather than advancing based on use. In fact, that is probably a limitation on a system like this for a tabletop game – it would add a lot of complexity to do any kind of calculation – i.e., to make some abilities harder to raise than others based on use. I can also see limitations here – what to do about fantasy tropes like wizard spells, or psychic abilities, which are usually much more powerful than other abilities? Should your Cooking ability advance the same way that Fireball does? Maybe, but I can see a problem there.

Another challenge here is going to be ability-spamming. Players are going to be trying to use every conceivable ability as much as possible during a session if ability use is what is rewarded. This can have a similar effect to rewarding failure, mentioned above – it will make players branch out more in what they want their characters to try. It can also get repetitive, as in each session every character takes a moment to make a Photography roll, and then an Academics roll, and then a Gambling roll, or whatever. (I’ve definitely seen this come up in Call of Cthulhu.) A designer can find ways around this spamming issue, like limiting the total number of abilities that are counted in a given session, but it can definitely be a problem. On the other hand, this system does model reality pretty well (you get better at what you practice) and does reward a much more broad list of activities than leveling systems tend to.

Milestones (Fate Core, Parsec)

I’m sure other systems do this, but the example I came up with was Fate Core for a system that rewards characters based on reaching particular points in the story. (I mention Parsec because that game, which I designed, includes a system where players define obstacles and characters advance when those obstacles are faced in-game). A lot of video games do this with the main storyline or main quest-line – do whatever you want, take however much time you want, but you won’t advance until you get to a particular part of the story. This is, of course, significantly easier for a video game where the story is laid out ahead of time by the designers and writers.

But most games have an over-arching storyline of some sort. The DM or GM has come to the table with some kind of plan, much as players love to deviate. And a system like this could be an alternative to railroading, or designing every adventure as a box canyon. You can have more of a sandbox situation, but one that only rewards certain story milestones. Carrot rather than stick, so to speak, or honey rather than vinegar.

A story milestone system can be the way that each of the above systems are handled. The milestone could grant you a level, or character points, or a milestone could even be when the players have used a certain number of abilities in-game. In Fate Core, it functions a bit like leveling, as a milestone is a time you can improve your character as well as move abilities around or change them rather than improving them mechanically. Which brings us to…

Adjustment rather than Advancement (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files)

In some RPGs, you don’t advance in any way that is marked on your character sheet. The story advances, and your character can change over time, but they don’t get better, or gain new abilities. Whether characters advance or not is a matter of taste, and will determine the kinds of games you play. Some games that include advancement can be played without, especially in the short term, and most games played as a one-shot will not include advancement.

Do you have more, or better, examples? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.


Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

D&D Hack: A Scarlet Letter

Image result for scarlet letter M

Previously I posted about adapting D&D so that combat is no longer fatal, which I have yet to test, but I thought of a deeper idea to add to that hack: a scarlet letter. Obviously I’m referring back to the Hawthorne novel, but in this case, a different letter with a different meaning.

First, start with D&D and the additional hack or house rule that combat is no longer fatal. When a character or monster is beaten down to 0 or negative hit points, what it represents is that they are defeated, but not necessarily dead. But in conversation with my friend and collaborator Aric, we thought that this house rule would make it more interesting when a foe or monster did want to fight to the death. It would be all the more threatening in a setting where the players had gotten used to these non-lethal combats as the norm.

Now, the addition. I thought it would be interesting if only monsters who could be killed were able to kill. And I thought it would be interesting if this was marked out on the character sheet somehow. So, for example, if a player wants their character to be able to kill a monster or another NPC, they just wrote “Monster” on the character sheet, or checked the Monster box or something. Then I thought it would be even more interesting if this mark was literal, in the game world itself. The character marks themselves with a red “M.” If a foe or monster is marked with a red “M” then you know ahead of time that this is a fight to the death. Only creatures with a “M” can kill. It’s definitely a meta-game element, something akin to a creature having a red outline in a video game, or some other visual marker that is obvious to the player but not literally part of the fictional world.

I thought this was really interesting. You have to take that step, identify yourself as a monster, in order to kill your enemies, but you are vulnerable to any creature with the ‘scarlet letter.’ Is this too heavy-handed? Maybe. It could be interesting for a convention game, maybe, or a game with kids. I like, as an experiment, that it is a visible distinction that you have to make. It’s a clear choice, and of course, there is probably no way to remove the “M” once it’s in place. (Maybe an atonement spell? That would give that spell a really cool purpose)

How to explain this mark? Maybe the PCs are part of a simulation, or an alien experiment on violent behavior, or inmates in a magical prison. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a weird thing about the world, like aboleths and Vancian magic. I mean, it’s not like D&D makes sense to start with. But I like how this plays with the old D&D trope of some intelligent creatures being “monsters” – having something intrinsic about them that makes them stand out as threats. I like applying this to the PCs and non-“monster” races. I do have to think more about how to implement it, though.

It makes me think of Mist-Robed Gate, an indie rpg by Shreyas Sampat with a mechanic whereby, if you want to try to kill another character, you literally stab their character sheet with a knife. There are other games I’ve read about where you point a knife at a character at the table if you are attacking them, or outwardly mark lethal intent in other ways, but I like the idea of an obvious move that opens up the possibility of lethality when that isn’t the norm. The ‘scarlet letter’ M is just another way to do that.

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5E Dragonlance: Finale

A few months ago, we ended my Dragonlance campaign. We had to end nowhere near the ending of the Age of Despair storyline (the original module storyline from the early 90s and the Chronicles trilogy) because of life stuff, but I’m finally getting around to writing a bit about the ending and the experience overall.

Timing: Exactly as Advertised for DL1-DL4

I ran a flexible version of the first four modules from the original Dragonlance series published by TSR back in the 90s: DL1 through DL4. Once thing I noticed, which was interesting, is that the number of sessions it took to get through those modules, even though at times I changed them, skipped parts, or added to them based on the players’ in put, was exactly what they predicted: 24 sessions. I just thought it was interesting that the estimate was so close, even going from AD&D to 5th Edition.

No Kender, Gully Dwarves or Gnomes

Krynn is famously ridiculous for the number of comic-relief races they have in the setting: kender, gully dwarves and gnomes all serve as different kinds of comic relief in the setting and stories, and all three of those races have some profoundly annoying features. Kender basically beg players to steal from each other, behave randomly and completely sabotage any attempts at gravity in the story. Gully dwarves are offensively stupid, and an excuse for all other races to have a race that they treat with contempt at every turn. Gnomes are supposed to talk so fast that their words string together into huge run-ons without pauses, and while this can be funny a couple of times in a book it is beyond annoying to have at the actual table in play. Additionally, they are zany inventors who are steampunk when everything around them is pseudo-medieval fantasy. None of their inventions work, but they are obsessed with them anyway, and so on.

This campaign had no kender, no gully dwarves, and no gnomes, and no one missed them. The few gully dwarves who come up in the original modules I altered to make into goblins, who were not necessarily stupid but spoke in simple sentences because they didn’t have a strong grasp of Common most of the time. They were even sometimes empathetic characters because they were either living on their own in tribes or were beaten and intimidated into service by the Dragon Highlords. It worked fine, and you still had your Sestun and your Bupu and so on.


Because we had to end early, we ended with an epilogue for each of the characters. This was probably more than our two players who were kids could really manage – they were upset that we had to end the game because of Grownup Stuff, and didn’t really get the idea of an epilogue (one was 9 and one was 13 at the end of the campaign, having started at 8 and 12). Still, it was the best I could do. I feel like if you have to end early, the least you can do is try to provide some closure. Not easy at the end of the 4th out of 14 D&D modules, but there you have it.


Backgrounds as 0-Level Classes

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In AD&D 2nd edition as well as 3E, there were rules for characters who were lower than 1st level. These “0-level” characters were like pre-adventurers, meant to symbolize children or apprentices. I’ve played in a couple of games that began with us playing zero-level characters who would then develop into 1st level characters. For my taste, 1st level characters are already incredibly weak, famously vulnerable to the attack of a house cat in some editions.

But I was thinking of a way to address some of that vulnerability. In 5E, of course, every character chooses a background which grants them proficiencies, equipment, and often some kind of story-based ability. I realized that it would be a logical step to let the background also provide a hit die.

Most of the sample basic NPCs in the MM have two or three hit dice, making them slightly tougher than some first level player-characters. And the impression I’ve always had of D&D is that characters aren’t really adults until around 3rd level. This is reinforced by the fact that in 5E, you usually don’t choose an archetype until 3rd level.

One option here is to just let each background grant the d8 hit die that medium-sized creatures get, or a d6 in the case of a small-sized PC. I kind of like the idea that the d10 is reserved for mighty heroes, fighter-types, and that the d12 is the boss die. Possibly even bawss. But, if you don’t want to just use a d8, here are suggestions ranging from d4 to d8, based on how tough I think a given background would make you.

Acolyte: d4

Charlatan: d6

Criminal: d6

Entertainer: d4

Folk Hero: d8

Guild Artisan: d6

Hermit: d6

Noble: d4

Outlander: d8

Sage: d4

Sailor: d6

Soldier: d8

Urchin: d6

These hit dice, whether variable or d8s, should function the same way that normal hit dice do. As to whether you roll them, or take the average, or take the maximum, just do what you’d normally do. If you want PCs to have lots of hit points at the beginning, take the maximum. Otherwise, roll or average as usual.

Don’t Roll Perception

I’m really enjoying the One Shot podcast, which, if you don’t know, is an actual play RPG podcast that records one-off scenarios with a wide variety of games. If nothing else, it’s really helpful to have entertaining people play through a game session using a system I’m curious about. Their one-shot of Tenra Bansho Zero was so good it convinced me to buy the PDF, actually.

I’m listening to their backlog, and recently was listening to their Rogue Trader one-shot, as I’m curious about the setting and the system. I was also kind of interested in how this group would approach a setting like Warhammer 40k, since I hadn’t seen any other grim-dark games on their feed and thought it would be out of character for them, so to speak.

It wasn’t very far into the game until, for the first of many times, the players started getting frustrated with perception checks they were called upon to roll. The frustration got to be enough that some of the responses were even a little passive-aggressive, and it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in games: players frustrated that they have to roll to see things their characters are looking at. At one point, the GM sort of told them that because it is a tabletop RPG, they just have to make perception rolls. That’s how games are, after all. And most of the time, that’s true.

This is easy to avoid, though, even in games that are designed to call for ongoing perception rolls. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about times when you are rolling to find a hidden trap, or rolling to target an invisible enemy in combat. Rather, these are just the knee-jerk perception checks that GMs and DMs so often call for. Roll to see whether you see anything.

Don’t do that. Instead, what I’d recommend, and what I try to do in my own games, is to just tell the players the interesting things they see. If they take time looking, they automatically find the clue, or the stowaway, or whatever, because that is the interesting result. These are, presumably, highly competent and skilled adventurers. Even a level 1 D&D character is tougher and more competent than a level 1 NPC.

Rather, call for a perception-style check when there is something secret but non-necessary to the story – some extra treasure, or a clue that would let the PCs skip the next dangerous trap, etc. In brief, passing the perception check should give the PC an advantage or a bonus, and not just let them continue in the story or notice something that’s readily apparent. And when you do call for a perception check, I’d make it clear what’s going on. “There’s a secret here – roll to see if your character finds it.”

(I know I am far from the first person to propose this, but it’s a house rule that I think makes sense in every game, including ones that are not written to include it.)

I think that the passive perception/insight score in D&D 4E and 5E is a great thing for this reason. Instead of calling for constant perception rolls, your perception is like a passive defense that protects you from being ambushed or lied to.

Same With Knowledge Rolls

Yeah, don’t do these either. Tell the player the interesting thing about your setting, or the snippet of ancient lore that adds color to the world. Only call for knowledge rolls when a success would give the PC a distinct advantage: reveal a weakness in a foe, for example, or recommend a solution to a puzzle. If a character is trained, or the equivalent, in a given knowledge skill, just tell them things pertinent to that knowledge when they come up. It’s never interesting not to know something. Then, whenever you do call for a knowledge roll, the player knows that this is a chance for their knowledgeable character to shine, granting themselves and possibly the party some real advantage that might save their lives.


A Simple Hack: Non-Lethal D&D


I was recently listening to an episode of Saving the Game, in which they described an issue they had with their Pugmire play group. Normally in D&D, there is tons of violence and killing, and that is the norm. The majority of problems are solved with weapon attacks and abilities that deal damage, or make it easier for your allies to deal damage. D&D is designed to be played this way – and of course individual groups will have more or less violence in play, but you go down into Dungeons to fight monsters and you face Dragons to kill them and take their treasure. That’s the game, at its core, and always has been.

The issue in this case is that, in Pugmire, the protagonists and antagonists are mostly dogs and cats, and one player was really disturbed by dogs and cats, even anthropomorphic ones, being killed the way goblins and orcs tend to be in other D&D settings. It had increased emotional impact, the way that the death of a dog can be in a movie where there are innumerable human deaths (just ask John Wick).

Hit Points become Morale

I’d like to draw on an MMO I used to play regularly, Lord of the Rings Online, to recommend a simple hack of D&D that retains almost all of the mechanics but enables combat to be non-lethal a majority of the time, while still giving the lethal option if you want one. Basically, cross out “Hit Points” and write in “Morale.”

LOTRO uses morale as the hit-point system, and for an MMO set in Middle-Earth it was a very intelligent fix to the problem of handling the constant death and resurrection that is a mainstay of pretty much every MMO out there. There is no fictional support in Middle-Earth as a setting for a party going on a raid to attack a boss, getting killed, resurrecting themselves and jumping back in. As much as that is goofy and makes no sense, it is necessary to how MMOs are currently designed. In order to make this system make sense, hit points were changed to morale. This changes the fiction of what healing and resurrecting are, without changing the mechanics at all. In LOTRO, when you drop to 0 morale, your character flees the battle to a safe point nearby. Then, when she calms down, you can meet up with the rest of your group or run back into the dungeon or combat. Minstrels are healers in LOTRO, bolstering their comrades morale without having to supernaturally heal them, another element common to MMOs that would not make much sense in Middle-Earth.

So, back to D&D. If we change hit points to morale, and leave it at that, the game functions in a similar way. Healing spells become magical encouragement spells. Long rests where you recover all of your hit points make more sense, not less. Melee attacks beat down an opponent’s will to fight, and spells terrify and demoralize. All of these things can also injure your opponents, but the injuries are non-fatal. Bruises and fractures and cuts and burns, but nothing life-threatening.

With the classes as written, hit points can be morale. Fighting classes will have more morale, with the most going to the barbarian. This makes perfect sense – the barbarian is basically frothing at the mouth, full of rage, and really hard to bring down. In contrast, a wizard is more cool and collected, and probably easier to take out of a fight. They’d be less willing to risk losing a finger or an eye, or receiving a brain injury, than a fighter type. Again, it makes sense.

Dropping to Zero

The big difference with this hack is what happens when a creature reaches 0 or fewer morale. Obviously, there are no death saves. What I imagine happening is the creature tries desperately to flee or, if that is impossible, collapses in exhaustion and surrenders. The defeat should be total – weapons thrown down, cowering, etc. In theory, the PC group now gets what they wanted – defeating their foes, or being able to take their treasure, or exacting an oath that they will never trouble these lands again. Whatever it is that the violence was supposed to solve. I’d also make sure that whatever happened leaves marks on your foes. They don’t come through this unscathed. They are physically and psychologically unable to fight – however that looks based on what has happened.

Coup de Grace

This hack still leaves the opening for the coup-de-grace, of course. Once you’ve beaten down your foe, you can still finish her off. I find this interesting because you are given a moment in between in which you can choose not to. In military terms, your opponent is a casualty but has not been killed, since a casualty is just a soldier who is taken out of a fight.

The Truly Monstrous

Some monsters are not intelligent, or cannot be negotiated with. There are implacable aberrations driven by hunger alone, or undead animated by necromancy, or constructs who follow their creator’s commands until destroyed. In these cases, I don’t see nearly as much of a problem with morale meaning something much more like hit points. But I think this is something that the DM and players can easily decide ahead of time, and it opens up new roleplaying possibilities.

The D&D Prisoner Problem

One significant problem I can see with this hack in a D&D game is the prisoner problem. When D&D characters take prisoners, at least in my observation and experience, there is always a big debate. The Paladin wants to chain them up and transport them to the nearest magistrate for a full trial. The Fighter wants to beat them up for information. The Rogue wants to slit their throats and take their gold. (Or however this plays out at your table) I think that to use this hack and make it work, you have to just agree on a meta-game level that when reduced to 0 or fewer morale, your foe is done. They aren’t going to lie to you and then go off and rejoin your enemies so you have to fight them again. They are terrified and beaten and at your mercy, and if you let them go they will limp away someplace else and try to take up a different life. If you meet them later, they will just run away or beg for mercy. I think that if this is understood as just how the game will work, most problems should be easy to solve.

Gaming with Kids

As we gamers get older and have little proto-gamers of our own, it can be hard to introduce D&D to them, at least for some of us, because it is such a bloodbath. But with this simple hack, you can still, I think, have all of the swashbuckling adventure without all of the killing.


Share what you think of this hack. Add your own nuances or modifications. Have you tried anything like this in a D&D game? How did it go?