In my bid to design an OSR/modern low fantasy hybrid RPG, I have become very interested in improvised combat actions and how they could make the game more fun.
In particular, I want to know why we see so few improvised actions in 5e games? I mean, improvised action is written right into the list of actions in PHB. Why don't they get used more? They could be so much fun with a bit of creativity - couldn't they?
I think one of the factors in 5e (and many other RPGs) that detracts from improvised actions is - funnily enough - the list of specified actions! By providing a detailed list of choices the player can draw from, the lists of their own accord tend to discourage choices outside the list, or perhaps it is more correct to say they encourage choices from the list, and improvised actions fall by the wayside? There's no need to get the GM involved then, it keeps things simple and avoids any potential arguments, and players know what their odds are up front. It's easier.
A compounding factor, I believe, is that many RPGs require the PC to make a choice between causing damage or going for the improvised effect. And often times, going for the improvised effect has some kind of other penalty stacked on top, reducing the probability of pulling it off. So a player can either do damage with a good chance, or attempt an improvised attack doing no damage and with a poorer chance of success. These two factors are a major hurdle to improvised action use.
So what is the solution? I think a good improvised combat framework needs:
Full disclosure - in order to make exploits possible, I've harnessed the ubiquitous "Luck" attribute, which I set at 10 + half level (round up). In order to make a successful luck check, the player must roll equal to or under the PC's Luck score, which reduces by one every time the character makes a successful luck check, until the end of the adventure. The Luck mechanic serves to indicate to the player their ballpark odds of success, creates meaningful opportunity cost (since Luck could be used for things other than exploits), and puts a practical cap on the number of possible major exploits (not minor, which are always available) over an adventure (of course, if per adventure is too stingy for your tastes, it's easy to make Luck regenerate or reset sooner, for example replenishing 1 every short rest or fully after a long rest).
So here it is; my take on encouraging more improvised combat actions... Houserule #10: Martial Exploits for OSR and 5e. Enjoy!
I've been reading a lot of different OSR games recently and noticed that the Crypts & Things Remastered Edition (not yet released) is going to make use of some kind of Luck mechanic in substitution of saving throws (from what I can piece together, I don't have access to the backer's PDF, alas, I didnt know about this product until recently).
As I understand it the Crypts & Things Luck mechanic was inspired by the old Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy books, which used an oscillating Luck score as the adventure book progressed.
I think this is a VERY interesting idea that has the potential to add some great twists to traditional DnD and other roleplaying games.
Currently I'm working on a Low Fantasy OSR/d20 hybrid game system (working title "Low Fantasy Gaming" or LFG), and the Luck mechanic is a critical enabler for a number of design options. Some ideas that I'm experimenting with are:
The above are just some Luck dependent ideas I'm tinkering with for LFG. I hope they might inspire you to consider using a Luck mechanic of some variation in your own game. If you have any ideas on how we can use Luck in a DnD like game, by all means let me know!
Do you like the above ideas? Hate them? I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts.
So I've been reading a lot of the OSR ("Old School Revival" amongst others) DnD games lately, as well as settings that might be characterised as "Low Fantasy".
By low fantasy, I mean settings which tend to have the following features:
In my ideal "low fantasy" DnD ruleset, I would have only a single type of spell caster, most similar to something like a warlock or wizard from 5e (but with healing magic as part of the spell list). Which means no clerics. And if I remove clerics, the wisdom ability score becomes much less important. Which presents an opportunity to revise the classic six attributes.
So here are my revised attributes to better suit a "low fantasy" OSR game rule set:
As you can see from the above list, wisdom is no more, narrowed instead to Willpower, critical for any PC that does not want to easily succumb to fear, charm or madness (common threats in many Sword & Sorcery games), not to mention Hold Person and similar OSR spells. Perceptiveness gets wrapped into Intelligence, making it much less of a "dump stat" for any PC. Finally, Charisma is also narrowed somewhat, the sense of self aspect rolled into Willpower, clarifying Charisma as the ability to influence others.
Houserule #9: Variant ability scores for OSR Low Fantasy
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.
In past editions of DnD, when a party faced off against a lone BBEG (Big Bad End Guy), the poor beastie was typically overwhelmed by the sheer number of actions or turns the party would take compared to the monster. Which tended to make for some anti-climatic final battles.
Happily things have improved over the years, and the DnD 5e Monster Manual provides a very respectable system to give solo type monsters a fighting chance by giving them “Legendary” abilities.
To summarise, Legendary monsters get a small number of points every round to spend on off turn actions in between PC turns (more powerful abilities cost more points to use). Legendary monsters also have access to a limited number of automatic saves (usually three), and “Lair” abilities and actions that generally occur on a set initiative count (independent of the monster itself).
In combination these are great ideas and go a long way to making a fight with a lone BBEG scary and memorable. Unfortunately the Monster Manual includes very few Legendary Creatures, and they all tend to be high level monsters of “legendary” renown.
So where's the problem? Well, what if you want to make a BBEG out of an Orc boss? Or a Cult Fanatic? Or some other low or mid level monster for a 3rd level party? The problem is if you're playing low or mid level, the Legendary mechanics aren't really available to your monsters. You can hardly throw a CR 16 Legendary Mummy Lord against them.
So what can you do? Thrown down House Rule #3: Solo Enemy Template of course!
I like DnD 5e a lot. It's why I put stuff up on here. But one thing I don't like are the Death and Dying rules and how they interact with short action ranged healing magic.
To summarize, it's waaaay too hard for a PC to die in 5e. Generally speaking the buffer of three failed death saves and ranged healing magic via a short action gives the party ample time to get their fallen comrade back in the fight with no significant opportunity cost. This is not a good thing for me. It reduces my feeling that combat is dangerous and takes some of the fun out of fighting.
And then there's the "whack-a-mole" effect. Because the standard rules don't track negative hit points, and because dying is highly improbable, being reduced to zero HP is just a temporary inconvenience for my PC. It has no lasting downside. In fact it has an upside! It turns out to be more efficient, both healing wise and action wise, to wait until my PC reaches zero hit points before popping him or her back up into the fight with short action ranged healing magic.
I don't want combats that don't feel dangerous. And I certainly don't want there to be an inherent advantage in postponing healing until my PC is unconscious and bleeding out.
So how can this be improved? I suggest creating the possibility of longer lasting injuries (and even death) and other setbacks when a PC is reduced to zero hit points. This added layer of risk reinforces the feeling that combat is dangerous, that even victory might come at real cost, and also discourages the kooky whack-a-mole effect.
Which hopefully increases the fun for everyone.
Houserule #2: Injuries and Setbacks Table for DnD 5e
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