RPG Mechanics Round-Up #8

Elvish Skill

I have toyed with an idea, which I haven’t used in a (finished) game design yet, that is an attempt to deal with a diminishing return in gaining skill combined with the incredibly long lives of elves. Even D&D’s non-immortal elves live for 700-1000 years. The idea I came up with is to have what amounts to only 3 levels of ability in any given skill (as measured by elves): 1 year, 10 years, and 100 years. (This also echoes the Chinese aphorisms about how it takes 10 weeks to learn the spear, 10 months to learn the dao, and 10 years to learn the jiann). After 100 years, diminishing returns seem like they would be such that measurable improvement would be unlikely. In a setting with elves and non-elves, non-elves would be limited to a skill level of 10 years (about how long it takes to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu if you are working hard at it).

Burnout

I like the idea of having the option of burning out a repeatable ability in one big demonstration. That is, say you can do Ability X three times a day, or once per short rest. If you choose, you can choose some dramatic moment to do something that is equivalent to 5X or even 10X. After that, though, you lose the ability permanently. This could be a lead into a ‘Retire in Safety’ mechanic or another peaceful end for the character, and of course only makes sense for characters who have repeatable, likely supernatural, abilities.

Secrets on Page 1

I wonder what effect it would have to write a secret, or multiple secrets, about the character on the character sheet. (There is a mechanic for this in Parsec) Probably in some groups it would no effect, but in a Vampire the Masquerade group for example, each vampire having to have their secrets written out on their character sheets (preferably on page 1) just might have an interesting, subtle impact at the table. A little layer of suspicion added to any interaction.

Deeper Backgrounds

Here I’m going to take the example of backgrounds in D&D 5E, which are a great addition to the system in my opinion, and could be taken further. Almost every adventurer character ever created is an orphan with no social ties at all when the game begins – that just seems to be a truism at this point. Some systems make a player create a more detailed, interconnected background at character creation for that reason – otherwise very few will. World of Darkness games even added this element to the game itself in the prelude session, during which we see the character in scenes from their life before the supernatural stuff hits the fan.

For the remainder of this round-up, I am going to go through the backgrounds in the 5E PHB and note briefly how they could be expanded to include some family members, friends and social connections in a character’s life. (H/T to Fate and the Fablemaidens for indirectly reminding me to expand this idea and post it)

Acolyte: a criminal or sinner whom you are trying to reform; parents and family whose religious views strongly differ from yours; the gravesite of your mentor which you visit every year to make a small offering to their spirit; a rival member of your religion who believes you lack conviction

Charlatan: a minor local noble whom you embarrassed; a widow who believes you are psychic; a sibling who is always trying to get you on the straight and narrow path; a parent who tsks at what you do but makes sure you aren’t disowned

Criminal: an elderly priest or priestess who fed you when you were down and out; loving parents who believe you are a traveling salesperson; your best friend growing up who is now a recruit in the town guard; the heir of a local noble or wealthy family who has a forbidden crush on you

Entertainer: the amazing performer who inspired you to get started years ago; the leader of your small, but growing, local fan-club; a pen-pal who is always offering to put you up at their place if you make the journey to perform for them; hardworking, dour siblings who don’t understand your art

Folk Hero: the tyrant or corrupt official’s remaining agents in the area; your proud family, including a sibling who looks up to you and wants to be just like you; the person back home who everyone assumed you were going to marry

Guild Artisan: the head of your local guild chapter; your master, now too old to practice the trade; a local merchant or noble who is one of your primary buyers; someone who supplies raw materials whose personality is the opposite of yours

Guild Merchant: your mule, who is smarter than she looks; your family, whose signature business is one you detest; a rival who betrayed you on a key deal; a particular gate guard, with whom you have the best banter; a performer, who gets their best material from stories of your travels

Hermit: the villager who would come each week to bring you fresh supplies and news, in exchange for your wisdom; an extraordinary talking animal that would sometimes visit you in seclusion; your family of origin, who have strong feelings about what you’re doing (good or bad, you choose)

Noble: the peasant who looks a lot like you, with whom you exchanged places once as kids; the doting nurse who actually raised you while your parents were at court; a younger sibling whom you are always getting out of trouble

Outlander: your folks back home, and perhaps the reason you don’t live there now; a sweetheart from your adolescence who went looking for you; a bird or small animal who just follows you wherever you go; another local wanderer with whom you share news, food and shelter when your paths cross

Sage: your first tutor, now like a parental figure for you; a rival scholar who wants to discredit you; a small-time loan shark who still says you owe her back payments on student loans; your proud family, either many academics, or perhaps you’re the first among them to go for higher education

Sailor: if you have a lover in every port, there’s one of them that feels true; the salty old dog who taught you everything they know; your siblings, who count the days until you return from time at sea; the bartender at your favorite seaside watering hole

Soldier: your drill instructor, who has a new insult for you every time you meet; a comrade who was crippled in battle and had to retire early; the person you’re engaged to marry as soon as you return home; a gruff parent who was also a career soldier; the ghost of the first person you ever killed

Urchin: the kind local noble who would always give you a few spare coins; your best friend who got lucky and married out of the life; a fixer who always has local gossip; the leader of the gang you were in as a kid; the innkeeper who would give you a place to sleep when the weather was bad

A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.

Metagaming Is Good

The question is whether you are metagaming for more fun and drama, or metagaming for an advantage over the other PCs or NPCs.

Metagaming is a perennial topic of discussion among tabletop RPG players and has been, I imagine, from the beginning. What I mean by metagaming is thinking about what to do in a gaming session from your point of view as a player, with the knowledge you have as a player, rather than from solely from the point of view of your character, with the knowledge that your character presumably has.

I hear more people speaking against metagaming than for it. It is in a similar category to min-maxing or power gaming – behaviors that are common but generally frowned upon. In all of those three cases and more, however, I think these behaviors can be a good thing in game. In the case of metagaming, I think it is unavoidable. Given that it is unavoidable, I will give some instances where I think it is good for the game, and then talk about some examples of when it is anything but.

Good Kinds of Metagaming

Thinking about the other players

“That’s what my character would do” is a statement that I have heard many times as justification for something that made the game less fun. Here’s the thing – don’t prioritize the thoughts and feelings of your imaginary person over the thoughts and feelings of the real people at the table with you. Period. We don’t play RPGs because we are stuck for ideas of what characters might do – you can always justify your character doing something interesting.

Thinking about the moment

We’ve all been playing out an encounter or a scene, and have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a particular thing happened right now? Sometimes it is up to us to make that interesting thing happen. Even if it might feel “out of character” for your own character, people do surprising things all the time. Maybe this is a sudden turning point in your character’s life – she dramatically chooses just this moment to show something she hasn’t shown before. Seize the moment, and make the cool thing happen.

Thinking about the story

No matter what kind of story you think RPGs produce, whether Picaresque, or Story Now, or Story Later, or improv comedy, or epic fiction, RPGs allow us to create stories together. And sometimes, it is best to prioritize the story in a given moment. Do we need to move on from this scene? Would this be the best moment for me to reveal my character’s secret? Should we skip this because it’s only interesting to me?

What Makes Metagaming Bad?

Doing it for your advantage as a player

Using your knowledge of the game, or the setting, apart from what your character would know so that you personally can have an advantage over the other players is just being a dick. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but laying out this distinction might be helpful if you need to call someone out for their behavior.

Doing it for your character’s advantage over the other characters

Metagaming to give your character an advantage over the other characters is also clearly a dick move. There are always opportunities for your character to shine if you know more about the setting or the system than the other players, but all of these are better opportunities to make the other characters shine.

Doing it to shut down another player

Niche protection is a thing. Every character hopefully has at least one special thing that they are best at. The street samurai fights in the street. The bard charms and improvises. The hotshot pilot hotshots and pilots. It’s possible, but crappy, to shut another character down where they would normally be strong. You understand the stealth mechanics better, so you out-sneak the rogue. You know the setting’s politics better, so you out-maneuver the courtier. A negative metagamer can shut down other characters, rather than letting them have their opportunity in the spotlight.

Bonus round: your stories

What’s the worst example of negative metagaming that you’ve seen? Or the best example of positive metagaming?

10th Level Spells in D&D 5E

Five D&D Magic Items Every Adventurer Should Own

The Forgotten Realms, of course, has spells up to 12th level in previous setting material – but then again, Faerun is a place where you hire the neighbor kid to shovel the Rods of Wonder out of your driveway every morning (h/t my college friend Courtney). There is plenty of history of spells above the usual limit of 9th level in other settings as well, but it’s always fun to pick on Fogotten Realms. Fun for me at least.

I’ve been thinking about 10th level spells, though, and I think I have an interesting and not too overpowered way to handle them in a D&D game. What I have in mind is a set of design principles for coming up with 10th level spells that I think will balance them out but still make them interesting and valuable as something other than power-creep.

  1. 10th level spells affect the setting in some ongoing way – they are a way for powerful casters to affect the world around them
  2. 10th level spells must be found, or researched, as part of a quest
  3. A 10th level spell can be cast only once, and then it is lost. The capacity is burned out of the caster, or the gods withhold the power, or however you’d like to account for it in game
  4. 10th level spells are the way you account for magical effects in the world that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules.
    1. Examples: the flying citadels in Krynn used during the War of the Lance; casters who create their own demi-planes or shard realms; special, more-powerful animal companions or familiars; the wish spell, without having to worry as much about limitations because it can only ever be cast once by a particular caster; and so on.

I think these principles for 10th level spells will work well, and solve a lot of problems, including what to do with the wish spell. They also provide an explanation for magical effects that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules – not because everything needs a rule, but rather so that players can accomplish the things they see in the world if they become powerful enough.

What are your thoughts on 10th level spells? Is there a better way to address these questions left open in D&D 5E’s design?

Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

“Cursed” Items in D&D

Image result for cursed items d&d

This post arose from a conversation on social media a few weeks ago on the topic of cursed items in D&D. I don’t think I’ve used a cursed item in any of my games for 20 years or more, not since I first started playing AD&D in ancient times. The reason is that I just don’t like how cursed items work in D&D – they’re merely a “gotcha.” They’re a way to ensure that players never experiment with mysterious objects, wondering what they do – they quarantine them until someone can find a 100gp pearl and let the Wizard sit down and identify them.

And that simply isn’t fun, at least not for me.

The cursed items that come to mind for me impose some kind of disadvantage or unwanted change on a character, and are of course always difficult to remove, requiring a remove curse spell or something equivalent. There’s just nothing interesting about that, in the game or in the story. As DM, I have innumerable ways to challenge or inconvenience the PCs without having to resort to a Girdle of Gender Change or a helmet you can’t take off.

So it got me thinking, and talking, and I came up with two categories of cursed items that are interesting: cursed items that tempt, and cursed items for evil characters.

Tempting Cursed Items

Why would an item have a curse on it? Presumably because a powerful evil spellcaster put the curse on it, or because the item was used to do something heinous and this event left a stain of some sort on it. Here I’m thinking of dragon-gold in Middle-Earth causing dragon-sickness, or the Spear of Longinus. In either case, the curse has a purpose aside from inconveniencing and frustrating the person who finds the item.

My favorite example of an item that is cursed in an interesting way is also a trope – the sword that cannot be sheathed until it draws blood. This is a good cursed item because it encourages a certain kind of behavior. You could easily imagine a sword used to betray a brother, for example, that now thirsts for blood. This is interesting to me because it provides a mechanical bonus – it is still a magical sword, and maybe even deals bonus damage – but it also tempts the character to behave in morally questionable ways. Maybe she draws the sword to threaten someone during a tense scene, and then realizes that she now has to wound someone before she can sheathe it.

“Cursed” Items for Evil Characters

This kind of cursed item simply comes from a reversal of assumptions, using the same principle above. An evil blackguard finds a healing potion that refills itself, but only when he makes a donation and receives a blessing at a shrine of the God of Healing. Or maybe he finds a shield that makes him impervious to arrows, but only if he has no weapon in his hand and deals no damage.

In this case, the magic item is still useful, which is key, but the ‘cost’ of using it is engaging in benevolent, or at least restrained, behavior. These could even be holy artifacts never meant to be carried by the evil folks who now have them, and so the beneficial effects built into the items are glitches for their new owner. From the examples above, the shield could have originally been the Shield of Reconciliation, created to enable diplomats and negotiators to safely cross a battlefield without being shot so that they could try to end the battle with diplomacy.

At Cross Purposes

As a thought experiment to get you mind running, imagine holy artifacts and benevolent magic items that would cause problems when used by evil characters. Perhaps the item only grants a benefit when defending someone else, or it has to be recharged by some benevolent action. Think of something that would be useful for a good person, but limit an evil person’s choices.

From the other side, imagine evil artifacts that would cause moral quandaries for a wielder who is neutral or good. Perhaps a weapon that always deals bonus poison damage, but therefore cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage, or a bow that always seeks out a target’s vitals, meaning if the archer critically fails, she’s likely to shoot an ally in the heart.

Feel free to comment with your ideas for “cursed” items in D&D. 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #5: All D&D

Dungeons and Dragons – C’era una volta.. Il Bardo, il ...

This post will include some repeats from the previous RPG Mechanic Round-Ups, but then again, very few people read those, so I imagine it’ll all be like new! Anyway, these are all of the little notes for house rules and hacks that I have for D&D:

Simplified Hirelings

Instead of having hirelings that the PCs then try to manipulate into walking ahead to set off traps or walk into ambushes, PCs simply hire them to eliminate a single kind of challenge. For example, PCs could hire a locksmith to bypass all locks during their adventure, or a guide to ensure that they find good camp sites each night, or are able to forage food as they travel. They could even hire a trap-springer to walk into traps for them if that’s what they want. In exchange for this help from the hireling, the PCs take a percentage reduction from their XP for that adventure, or maybe just miss out on the XP they would get from disarming those traps themselves.

Druid Circle of Rust

New D&D Druid circle: Circle of Rust. Rusting grasp, shatter, etc. Focused on conquering technology and civilization. (This is something I want to put the work into later)

Mystery Monsters

When you first encounter a monster in combat, especially in an ambush, you only get two or three descriptors for the monster. Then each round, you get one more descriptor, unless you take a moment to stand back and assess the situation. Otherwise, it’s a whirl of claws and teeth and blood and panic, and you’re just not seeing details. This is only for new monsters – monsters you’ve already encountered you’ll recognize.

Get Saved

I had the idea to add save points to D&D. I’m not sure if anyone would even want this. But have the PCs go to a temple and have a priest “save” them – for a large donation of course! Then if they die, they can come back to live at the temple with maybe a little loss of the XP you earned – 10% or so.

Bleeding Wounds

When a creature takes piercing or slashing damage, they begin to bleed 1 hit point each round on their turn. This is halted if they receive any magical healing, or after combat with a DC 10 Medicine check. This rule would also lead to cool scenes like tracking your opponent overland after they flee battle and try to regroup, following the dollops of monster blood on the ground. (Or monsters doing the same to chase the PCs down) Of course, this rule will make low-level adventuring even more brutal, but that’s the point.

Effects by Damage Type

I like adding special effects for the three types of physical damage. With a called shot made at disadvantage, a bludgeoning attack can deal damage and destroy one piece of armor; a piercing attack can deal double damage; and a slashing attack can deal normal damage and sever a limb.

Damage Bonus for Melee and Missile

Sometimes higher-level combats take too long, as the characters whittle down a monster’s hit points, and sometimes a higher-level character isn’t as dangerous as they should be, apart from having more hit points. A solution I’ve always had for this problem is to simply let all characters add their level to the damage they deal with melee or missile attacks.

Level Up Your Community

This idea has come up in a few tweets and posts lately, and I was also reminded of it playing through the Thieve’s Guild storyline in Skyrim. The idea is that as the character’s level, their community also levels. This can happen automatically, as their fame spreads, or can be something they pay into with all of that spare gold they accumulate. This system could also help tie them more deeply to a community – rather than leave for a larger city that has a better magic item store, through their heroics they build up their little village until it has a great magic item store of its own.

Simplified: Hit Dice Power Everything

When you have a special ability that is only available in a particular situation, like sneak attack perhaps, or with any limited special ability, make it so that the ability is powered by hit dice instead. The player describes how the conditions are met, spends the hit die, and the ability can be used. So, for example, the player playing the rogue says how her character feints to throw the monster off-balance for a moment, spends a hit die, and rolls the extra damage dice. I haven’t worked it out yet, but I think this can be adapted for most limited-use or situational-use PC abilities.

 

Hit-Point Hack

Low-level D&D can be grueling in a way that isn’t fun, especially in later versions of the game that are less meant to be meat-grinders. At the same time, when high-level characters have loads of hit points, it can be more difficult to challenge them without just arbitrarily increasing monster damage. My solution for this is for characters to begin with three hit dice instead of one hit die, and for their first hit die to continue to give maximum hit points. So a 1st level fighter, for example, would have 10 hit points, plus 2d10 hit points, plus 3 times her Constitution modifier.

At the upper end, I like the idea of lower hit points at higher levels, so I would say that a character stops gaining new hit dice with level 10. At 11th level and onward, she still gets any special abilities or spells as normal, but no new hit points. Technically, with the low-level hit point hack above, she would have the same hit points at level 10 that she would normally have at level 12, so I think it balances out well.

Buy Used

Settings like Forgotten Realms and Eberron are teeming with adventuring parties, and this would have to mean that there is a hot market for used adventuring gear. This used gear has a starting price that is equal to one half what the PHB or other sourcebook lists, with the caveat that when the player-character rolls a 1 using the equipment, or a monster rolls a critical hit (if it is armor) then it is damaged and useless until the character pays to have it repaired. Used weapons break on a 1, used armor breaks on a monster’s 20, and used equipment of any other kind also breaks on a 1.

No Overnight Healing

Healing is just rolling your remaining hit dice, rather than recovering all hit points.On the one hand, this will somewhat punish characters that had to use their hit dice to heal during short rests. On the other hand, it softens the “video game” effect of healing completely overnight.

Bullseye (Random Scatter)

Roll a d8 for random directional scatter, and then another die for distance from the intended target in concentric circles like a bullseye. On the d8, 1 is north, above, or away from the DM, and 5 is south, below, or toward the DM. The second die could be feet, or squares, or even inches in the given direction.

So, for example, a mirror golem deflects a lightning bolt in a random direction. You roll a 5 on the d8, so it is deflected toward the DM on the battle mat, and you roll a 4 on a d6, meaning it extends for 4 squares in that direction, electrocuting everyone along that line.

Disarm Feat

Grappling is famously bad in RPGs. I’m not sure how many players take the Grappler feat in D&D 5E, but I’m assuming that few do. In real-world martial arts, you often have to make someone miss in order to disarm them, and I thought it would be interesting to add an effect like that to the Grappler feat. Once per round, when an opponent misses an attack against you, you can use your reaction to try to disarm them with an opposed Strength roll. If you beat your opponent by 10 or more, you can grab their weapon for yourself.

Simplified Paralysis Effects

Paralysis effects are not fun. Really, any effect where you just lose your turn is not fun, in any game. A way to fix paralysis effects like hold person is for them to simply allow a single critical hit. Basically, they hold you paralyzed until you’re shocked back into action by a damaging strike. I think that this would provide enough bang for the proverbial buck.

XP for Conditions and Disadvantages

Another way to handle conditions and disadvantages, stolen from Chronicles of Darkness. You get XP when a condition affects you adversely, and it is up to the player to choose when these conditions will come up. This means that they don’t miss the character-defining d20 roll because they’re poisoned, but at the same time are rewarded for causing their characters trouble. This idea can be expanded to disadvantages as well. It would be up to the DM how much XP to award, and also what counts as enough of a problem caused to warrant it.

Simplified Conditions

Another way to handle conditions is to have each of them impose disadvantage once and then be cleared. This is much simpler and less punitive than the RAW, but some groups would prefer that. Another possibility is for some conditions to impose disadvantage more than once if they are more severe.

Equipment and Encumbrance by Kit

I have not enjoyed, or even been very interested in, tracking encumbrance for many years now. The system I use with another game I’ve designed is to have a character simply choose a “kit” that represents their equipment. (This also represents the idea that even adventurers aren’t always in full armor lugging their worldly possessions around with them)

Some examples could be war kit, travel kit, hunting kit, town/city kit, etc. It could also be simplified to light, medium and heavy. These kits could work as ‘presets’ for equipment, as exist in a lot of video games, and could also be a way to abstract out what exactly a character is carrying. For example, hunting kit would assume the character isn’t wearing armor, since they would be focusing on stealth and mobility, whereas war kit would include all of their combat gear but none of their other gear, since no one wants to fight with a huge pack on their back.

Historical Bows

This is just a historical tweak for bow terminology in D&D beyond short versus long. A hunting bow would be smaller and more maneuverable, and would deal d6 damage (around 40-50 pounds draw). a horse bow would be heavier than a hunting bow, meant to go through armor and shoot at long range in combat, but still small enough to use from horseback, dealing d8 damage (60-100 pounds draw). A war bow would be huge and heavy, requiring years of training to learn how to draw fully, but would deal perhaps d10 damage (100+ pounds draw).

Critical Options

I like the Paizo Critial Deck(s) and having other options for critical hits. I even kind of liked the Rolemaster/MERP critical hit tables. I like having options for critical hits beyond double damage, and here are some that I like to use I my games:

  1. Automatically deal max damage (similar to double damage rolled, but more predictable)
  2. Deal normal damage and knock your opponent prone
  3. Deal normal damage and blind your opponent until your next turn
  4. Deal normal damage and disarm your opponent (weapon falls at their feet)
  5. Deal normal damage and destroy your opponent’s shield
  6. Deal normal damage and stagger your opponent, cutting their movement in half until your next turn

Automatic Downtime

I need to revisit this idea in light of Xanathar’s Guid eto Everything and how it expands downtime rules, but the idea here is for things to happen over downtime automatically, based on a character’s class and possibly background. A guild artisan slowly rises up in their guild hierarchy; a fighter builds a reputation that draws other warriors to her banner; a cleric receives donations and tithes and puts them toward building a shrine or temple in the area; and so on. Wizards slowly create scrolls; warlocks are shown occult secrets in dreams. This is to replace more complex systems that require rolling and saving up gold pieces, but on the other hand keeps the development of the characters and the world around them front and center during downtime.

Bards Rock

In D&D, there is absolutely no reason for a bard to ever play a musical instrument unless they are out of combat, or they are using some kind of artifact item. I’ve always thought that bards should get a bonus of some kind for only using an instrument and their music in combat.

I have a few ideas for this one, none of which I’ve tried in 5E, for when a bard uses a musical instrument in combat:

  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

 

Some of these will be full posts when I have time to flesh them out and add details, but ideas are cheap. Steal and enjoy!