Madness and Sanity are not really rules that I have had to worry about too much in the past. Recently however I have taken an interest in the Primeval Thule (sword & sorcery) setting, and horror and madness have the potential to play a more significant role than in my usual DnD games.
So I began searching about for the best sanity/madness rules I could find. By “best” I mean adding the most fun to the game. What I’ve found is that there isn’t a whole lot of madness rules out there to choose from! Or at least not a lot of madness rules that seem very fun to me as a player, or provide much guidance on adjudication as GM.
Gaming Madness. Not real mental health illnesses.
This is a delicate area in some respects, since mental illness can be a very serious issue in real life. But at the dice table, from a purely gaming perspective, when I’m playing DnD or Crypts & Things or Dark Heresy, I want madness rules that add fun to the game, not suck the fun out of it. And I don’t want a list of dry mechanical penalties either. I want madness to be an opportunity to play a fresh and surprising twist to my PC, to facilitate drama and conflict (and probably comedy) that the GM and other players can build upon.
Naturally, I took a look at the DnD 5e madness rules. And the Call of Cthulu rules. And Dark Heresy. And a bunch of other systems. Of what I read, I very much liked the creative roleplaying approach and not identifying specific mental illnesses the player attempts to adhere to. I like the focus on the slow descent into madness, not the final destination.
I don’t like those madness rules which turn the PC into a stunned mess, wrapped up in a foetal position, mid-combat. In my view those kinds of powerful incapacitation effects are best left to magical fear or charm or similar – they are just too immediate and overpowering to be used mid-battle in my opinion (and will tend to lead to dead characters).
So what do I want to see in my ideal madness rules? On balance, it seems to me fun madness rules incorporate the following:
So here it be... Houserule #8: Fun Madness and Sanity Rules. I’ve done my best to meet the five criteria above. I hope they help make madness a more desirable option to consider for your game.
Continuing my recent trend of attempting to redesign 5e classes to better fit the Primeval Thule low magic setting, I've finally decided to tackle the 5e Bard.
The Bard is a particular problem for a conversion to a low magic setting because it is a full caster in 5e, with spells all the way to 9th level. The Bard spell list tends to focus on healing, illusion, charm and sound themes, with a strong dose of utility and a smattering of combat magic. Which is great, but when you take the magic away, what is left of the 5e Bard? Well, in addition to their spells, 5e Bards have great skills, poor to reasonable melee capability, and built in buffing (and possibly debuffing) capabilities.
I'm going to confess straight up that converting a full spell casting class to a non magical variant is not something I think is really possible! Instead, I've decided to make my Bard more of a hybrid Fighter-Bard: a capable and charismatic warrior, who motivates and unifies her party to greater effect through inspiring words, songs and deeds. Possibly with a few extra tricks up her sleeve.
So what particular abilities would make my spell-less Bard a useful addition to a party? Taking away the full suite of spells is a big deal. What can we put back in to substitute to keep the class competitive, balance wise?
For me, the answer to this question is partly tied up with my version of the 5e Warlord. When I designed the Warlord, I went with strong healing, damage mitigation and action enabling abilities. A class that could fight hard but also carry the healer load, as a quasi substitute for the cleric.
I don't want my spell-less Bard to compete with the Warlord by occupying the same design space. I dont want the Bard to fill the same niche, not role wise nor mechanics wise. I want a party to be able to have both a Warlord and Bard in their ranks if they wish, and for each class to be valued and bring it's own special abilities to the table.
So, the version of the spell-less Bard that I've settled on has ended up as much Fighter as Bard. My spell-less variant is a dangerous warrior, with a wide range of arms and armour, who supports his allies by inspiring them to fight longer and harder. He is highly charismatic, well versed in the arts of performance and persuasion, perfectly suited to negotiating with NPCs and entertaining the masses. Additionally, this character is an expert in a wide range of skills, and develops a number of unique abilities based on intimate knowledge of ancient legends and obscure lore.
Reflecting on the wide spectrum of bards from history and fiction alike, I'm not exactly sure where this spell-less Bard fits. I feel like it has a strong warrior aspect, perhaps a skald or warrior-poet like stamp on it, more than the charismatic scoundrel who picks up a bit of everything on her wide ranging travels (though there are certainly aspects of that too).
In any event, what this Bard does not have is magic*, and I hope you can find a use for it (or some of it's mechanics) in your game.
Houserule #7: Spell-less Bard for DnD 5e and Primeval Thule.
*Disclaimer: Spell-less Bard may or may not in fact have a touch of magic, around Level 18!
So I've been thinking more about a potential Primeval Thule game and how low magic affects the capacity to heal in DnD 5e.
For better or worse, the majority of DnD classes in 5e are magic using, and a large proportion of healing comes from spells. This is especially so if your table uses the slow healing optional rules, like I do.
But clerics and druids are supposed to be very rare in Thule, and paladins and bards non-existent. Assuming your players want a more non-magical game and aren't keen on the traditional spell casting healers, what options do they have to keep their PCs from being buried in a shallow grave (or worse)?
Well, there's always the good old healing potion, re-fluffed as a rare and potent herbal concoction. Or the healer feat from PHB... but, there's really not a lot else.
DnD 4e however had an excellent option known as the Warlord class: a martial fighting and support class with strong non-magical healing capability, and fun, exciting interrupt and buffing abilities. There were many kinds of Warlords, keying off wisdom, intelligence or charisma, with differing focuses on healing, buffing, debuffing and the action economy.
The version I'm focusing on in this post is an intelligence based variant, with strong healing, damage mitigation and action enabling themes. This is an intentional design decision on my part. I plan on creating a non-magical bard variant based around charisma, temporary hit points, buffing and skills to further expand class options in Thule, and I don't want to clutter the same design space.
Getting back on point, it seems to me the Warlord is the perfect vehicle for a non-magical warrior with strong healing and support options in a low magic setting like Primeval Thule.
So here's my take on the Warlord for 5e and the primeval continent. I hope you can find a use for it, or it's mechanics, somewhere in your game.
Houserule #6: Warlord for DnD 5e and Primeval Thule
Spell-less Ranger for DnD 5e and Primeval Thule
I mentioned in a previous post that I really like the Primeval Thule setting, and in particular its low magic theme.
Rare magic works great for shows and stories like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, but it doesn't mesh quite so well DnD and the classes presented in 5e's Player's Handbook. The issue is the vast majority of the subclasses have some kind of overt magic attached to them.
From memory I can only think of a handful of martial only "mundane" subclasses - one from Barbarian, two from Fighter, and two from Rogue. All of the remaining classes have magic hard coded into them.
Which got me thinking about Rangers and Primeval Thule. It would be great to have an option to play a ranger who doesn't cast spells; a silent hunter particularly skilled in traversing the deadly wilds of the primeval continent.
But what would my ideal spell less ranger look like?
Well, for me (and I appreciate others might take a different view) my ideal ranger for Thule is basically a wilderness commando, with a pet, and some herbalism based spell like abilities.
So I've taken a crack at it below. Note that this is a single class and subclass rolled into one. My spell less ranger comes with a pet baked in, which I know might not be for everyone.
For balance reasons I haven't strayed too far from the Player's Handbook ranger, but I think it provides the mechanics needed to convey that feeling of a wide roaming hunter, accompanied by his loyal beast companion, with a few herbalism based tricks tucked up his or her sleeve, just in case.
House Rule #5: the Spell less (Martial) Ranger
So I’ve been thinking about chase scenes from movies and TV shows, about what makes them fun and entertaining, and how that might translate into mechanics for an RPG.
One of my favourite chases comes from the movie Willow, in an early scene where Mad Mardigan and Willow (carrying the baby princess) flee from a local guard patrol. The shenanigans that follow are terrific. Amoungst other things the duo escape the clutches of an angry husband, scale down a building, steal a chariot and fight off pursuers, before finally making their escape into the forest.
More recently I remember being impressed with the opening parkour chase in Casino Royale, Bourne’s escape from the embassy in The Bourne Identity, Neo’s final chase in the original Matrix, and frankly any Jackie Chan chase involving cluttered streets, fences, crowds and acrobatics!
Reflecting on these kinds of cool escape scenes, it seems to me a great DnD chase ought to have:
I’ve played with the DMG 5e chase rules and … they’re a bit average. They have the environmental antics and some basic surprises that I want. But they're not a good fit for conveying a fast paced atmosphere, imposing quick decision making on the players, or generating fleeting opportunities to confront the opposing party.
For me, the standard DnD chase rules are too similar to standard combat (using rounds, initiative and PC actions every turn) to promote a proper chase feel. It feels like normal combat, everyone's running in the same direction while dodging obstacles. And I don’t like the amount of prep work involved. I don’t want to have to map the chase ahead of time. Or prepare an obstacle table. Chases are the sort of thing that can happen on the fly, and I might need to improvise. Plus I don’t like relying on Stealth checks as the only way the quarry escapes.
So how can I better model some chase mechanics to get the kind of atmosphere I’m after?
Well, first up, the rules need to be flexible enough to drop into any environment, or to cross environments, with zero prep.
Secondly, it needs to convey that fast paced action vibe. I want the impression the PCs are doing all they can just to keep up with their quarry, or keep ahead of their pursuer. Opportunities to confront the enemy directly should be fleeting at best, and when they happen, I want to enforce snap decisions from the players. I want some ebb and flow to the chase, as pursuers gain or lose ground, but I also want to keep the pressure on - that feeling that the quarry could get lucky and escape at any time.
I don't want any slowness creeping in to my chase scene. No initiative, no turn orders. PC's often wont get to act beyond negotiating whatever the chase environment throws at them. The PCs are in a race and reacting to what's happening around them - they are not in control. It's a chase!
Thirdly, obstacles and surprises are a must. I need to be able to improvise chase events in a city, wilderness, dungeon, aerial or any other setting interchangeably. Some obstacles will be straight forward, some more interesting. Some might cause a chase participant to drop out of the race. Maybe even a chance for third party interaction.
Finally, and most important of all, I want the process of the chase itself to be the most fun and exciting part of the encounter, rather than how it ends.
So here it is ... Houserule #4: Fast and Fun Chase Rules for DnD 5e.
I hope they help make memorable chases the norm at your table.
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