Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Death's door part 4: Just-in-time death saves

Go to Part 3

In the previous parts I suggested two new rules to make 0 hit points a bit more dangerous and dynamic in 5e. For those of you who find they add too much complexity, here's one more suggestion for getting back the urgency of a dying PC. This simple rule should stop the party from coldly calculating (metagaming) how long they can dawdle before they have to heal a fallen foe.

Simply hide the information of how many death save successes and failures a character has from the players! You could do this by having the DM roll death saves behind the screen, and revealing the result when the body is checked/healed. But I think there is another much better way that not only adds more tension, but negates even the possibility of the DM being tempted to fudge the roll: just-in-time compilation. In other words, the rolls are not made until such time that their result becomes relevant. Schrödinger's dead PC, essentially.

Variant rule for 5e: Just-in-time death saves

Whenever a character would be called to make a death saving throw, they instead mark a '?' on their character sheet. When the character's body receives magical healing, stabilization is attempted, or the body examined or otherwise interacted with, the player rolls a death saving throw for each '?'. The rolls are made sequentially one at a time, and if they result in the player being stabilized or dying, the rolling is interrupted and all remaining '?' marks erased.

Optional: If you wish to increase the feeling of "discovering what was previously determined", replace the rolls with a standard card deck. Instead of rolling death saves, the player draws a face-down card from a deck. When the body is interacted with, the cards are turned face-up, in order of drawing. A black card is a death save failure, and a red card is a success. With this variant, you can either disregard critical failures/successes, or signify them with black aces/red aces (3.8% chance of each instead of 5%), or the face cards of spades/hearts (5.8% chance of each instead of 5%). Or perhaps you think clubs are more appropriate to signify death than spades, for their crosslike shape - decide for yourself!

Friday, 19 January 2018

Death's door part 3: Dicing with death

Go to Part 2

Variant death rules for 5e: knockout table

When you take damage that reduces you to 0 hit points, the DM rolls a KO roll, which is a d20 minus the amount of damage taken in excess of 0 hit points. For example, if you had 10 HP and take 15 damage, roll 1d20-5. This roll does not benefit from advantage, Luck, or any other bonus. You can not go below 0 hit points.

Knockout rollEffect
-40 or lessDead and dismembered: a body part is lost, or the body partially/totally destroyed, as appropriate. A sword might sever a forearm, while a white dragon's breath might cause you to freeze, fall, and shatter into a thousand pieces.
-39 to -30Dead.
-29 to -20Grievously wounded. Become unconscious and dying, automatically gain two death saving failures, and gain two levels of exhaustion. Gain a nasty scar.
-19 to -10Seriously wounded. Become unconscious and dying, automatically gain one death saving failure, and gain two levels of exhaustion.
-9 to 0Wounded. Become unconscious and dying, and gain one exhaustion.
1 to 5Trauma. Save vs. unconsciousness (Constitution, DC 20). Whether you succeed or fail, you are dying, and you gain one exhaustion.
4 to 9Die standing up. Save vs. unconsciousness (Constitution, DC 10). Whether you succeed or fail, you are dying, and you gain one exhaustion.
10 to 14General anesthesia. Save vs. unconsciousness (Constitution, DC 10). Whether you succeed or fail, you are at 0 hit points but stabilized, and you gain one exhaustion.
15 to 19On the ropes. Regain 1 HP, fall prone, drop anything you are holding in your hands, and lose concentration.
Natural 20Adrenaline surge. Regain 1d6+CON hit points. Gain a cool scar.

Dying: At the start of each of your turns, make a death saving throw (d20, 10+ is a success, 20 counts as two successes, 1 is not special). After three failures, you are dead. You automatically gain one failure whenever you take damage. After three successes, you are stabilized. You are also stabilized automatically if you receive any healing, or are tended to (see below).

Stabilized: Death save tallies are reset to zero. While unconscious and stabilized, at the start each of your turns, make a DC 10 Constitution save. On a success, you regain consciousness. You also regain consciousness if you receive any healing, or are tended to. If you take any damage while stabilized, you are destabilized and start dying (make a new KO roll).

Tending to: Tending to a character’s wounds to improve their status requires you to use your action while within 5 feet. You must either succeed on a DC 10 Medicine check, or spend one use from a healer’s kit (automatic success).


The Death and Dismemberment table is a classic. The linked post lists numerous different versions of this concept, many with a 2d6 and big negative/positive effects at each end of the scale. I prefer the roll to instead be modified by the excess damage the hit deals. I like the idea that a giant's heavy hit is more likely to knock you out than a goblin's little cuts. But many little goblin cuts should still wear you down and make you increasingly less effective at fighting. That's your cue that you are dicing with death, and even if you manage not to fall down dead or unconscious, you'll bleed to death standing up - or perhaps get disarmed of your magic sword. Now do you attempt to grab it, or leave it but escape with your life? Now that's an interesting choice for a player to make!

You won't find many long-lasting injuries on this table. They seem to either make your character as good as dead/retired (I've seen a dwarf PC commit suicide because they were beaten and had their beard cut off), or else take them out of the adventure for weeks. Perhaps your mileage varies, and you have multiple characters per player who can sub in while the one rests their broken leg in town.

While this table has some positive outcomes, it still ups the attrition from the normal 5e rules. Although instant death only happens at massive damage, most of the outcomes give you exhaustion. As a reminder of what exhaustion does in 5e: three levels is disadvantage on all rolls, five levels makes you unable to move, and six means death. I have also made getting back into the fight a little harder, increasing the steps required to two, in comparison to 5e's usual one-step recovery. So that should balance out the fact that hitting a natural 20 can save you even from big hits. It's a reminder that combat to the death is unpredictable and risky, as it should be.

Next time I'll be looking at what can be done about that old chestnut: tracking initiative.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Death's door part 2: Grit your teeth and risk it

Go to Part 1

What I was getting at in Part 1 was that in 5th edition, there is a huge buffer between fighting at full capacity, and being dead. That buffer is unconsciousness and death saves. While the idea of giving them a chance - a window for their allies to run in and patch them up - is appealing, swift and ranged healing spells completely trivialize that.

 "Whilst adding a death save increases the drama of going below zero hit points, in 4E & 5E this is also paired with easily accessable healing, meaning that non lethal unconsciousness is little more than an inconvenience." 
- Death & Dismemberment

If you simply wanted to limit the yo-yo effect, there are several simple things you could do, like not resetting death save failures, or giving exhaustion for falling unconscious. But I wanted to create a replacement rule that allowed players a chance to save their character's hide, while also adding more risk to falling to zero than is currently present in 5e. I ended up with two variants: one that gave the players a bit of narrative control, and one that embraced randomness. Although otherwise completely different mechanically, one thing they both share is making the act of bringing a zero hit-point character back into the fight a two-step process, instead of just one.

In this part, a variant rule for death and dying that puts the choice in the players' hands: either they can go down as normal - or they can suffer an increased risk of death to stay conscious. Perhaps it will be just enough for them to limp away out of danger to bandage their wounds, or to save the day and die a martyr in a blaze of glory?

Variant death rules: Grit your teeth

1) At 0 hit points, instead of healing causing you to instantly wake up, your state improves in steps. If you are dying, any of the following stabilizes you; or if you are stabilized but unconscious, brings you to consciousness at 1 hit point:
  • You receive any healing.
  • A creature tends to you by using an action to either spend one use of a healing kit, or to make a successful DC 10 Medicine check.
  • You gain a total of three death saving successes. (only applicable while dying)

2) Death saving throws are made at the end of a creature’s turn, rather than the start.

3) When taking damage that reduces you to 0 hit points, you can choose to fight unconsciousness while potentially making your injuries worse. If you decide to do so, you remain conscious though dying, and immediately suffer the following effects: you lose concentration, suffer one level of exhaustion, and become weakened. While weakened:
  • You have disadvantage on all rolls, including death saving throws, which you still have to make as usual (at the end of your turns).
  • Any spell you cast has a 1 in 6 chance of failing to take effect. The spell slot is expended, but materials are not consumed. You can still concentrate on spells if you succeed in casting them.
  • At the start of each of your turns, you can decide whether to fight on, or to fall unconscious. If you fall unconscious for any reason while weakened, you are no longer weakened (thus no longer having disadvantage on death saves).
  • Whenever you take damage while weakened, you have to make the choice again, suffering an additional level of exhaustion and losing concentration if you choose to remain conscious.
  • If you become stabilized, you are no longer weakened.

What do you think? How would you choose? In the next part: leaving it up to chance with a random table and variable effects.

Go to Part 3 (soon)

Death's door part 1: The biggest problem with D&D 5e

In D&D 5th edition, there are often tense scenes as a character is bleeding out on the ground, rolling death saving throws. They're potentially just two rolls from dying! However, as a group gains experience, this tension begins to feel hollow and artificial - at least in the case that they have any magical healing (and if they don't, then any of the published adventures is likely to kill them as soon as one of them goes down, unless the DM fudges to allow them to escape).

Death, or rather the lack of it, is becoming my least-favourite part of 5e. It's the one part of the system that I wish would be given a long hard look by WotC in any edition to follow, whether it's 5.5e or 6th edition. But before that happens, I have to try to hack at it and fix the rules myself.

In this first part of a series, I will examine (in excruciating detail) why I think this hollow feel arises from the mechanics of 5e. I will outline some design goals for any hacks that would attempt to solve this problem. And in the next parts, I will present a couple different hacks of variant death rules that might accomplish that.

How does zero HP work in 5e and what's wrong with it?

  • (1) You’re knocked unconscious at zero HP. Zero HP is very easy to reach because of low character toughness relative to the encounters presented in the books, and also because of the swinginess of the d20.
  • (2) You’re very easy to get back up to consciousness - any magical healing will do this instantly.
  • Because of (1) and (2), magical healing is essentially a must-have.
  • Because of (1) and (2), there is a yo-yo effect: characters are bobbing up and down in any tough fight, even though the fight is winnable. While this can make fights tense at the table, they make them ridiculous in-universe.
  • Because of (1), being unable to act, there is no way to escape once you’re at zero HP. A character could, in theory, carry their unconscious comrade away, or a wizard could block the enemy off with a spell to cover their retreat. But most of the time, the best option is to double down and keep fighting. (Having bonus action healing spells that allow healers to still attack on their turn enforces this.) There are also no dramatic last words, desperate last stands, or characters going down in a blaze of glory, aware of certain death, giving their friends time to escape.
  • While being knocked out is easy, dying is actually quite hard. Healing allies has no urgency, because savvy players know there is at least two or three rounds to heal someone before they die, unless they are threatened by a coup-de-grâce. (In my opinion, this introduces dissociation.) Death save failure tallies are reset on receiving healing. All this introduces the "need" (real or imagined) for DMs to employ disintegration, lava pools and acid pits.
  • Because of the last two points, there is an assumption that any encounter the DM presents to the players is winnable, thus causing players to rarely consider retreat as an option, reducing the potential for strategic play, scouting etc.

What should any fix to these rules achieve?

  • It must be harder for characters to become unable to act, whether by making it harder to fall to zero HP (not my preference), or (more interestingly) by giving them a chance to continue acting past zero HP. Their actions may be less effective or restricted in this bleeding-out state, but at the very minimum they should be able to attempt an escape from an enemy they realize is too powerful. Killing things should be harder than normal, but running (limping) away should be possible.
  • To compensate for the increased action economy, the fix must make zero HP more dangerous. Death must come easier, and not be essentially nullified simply by receiving any healing within three rounds, or there must be some added risk in acting while bleeding out.
  • The fix must make dramatic scenes more possible.
  • OPTIONAL: Since there are other mechanics in 5e like class features that interact with death saving throws, the fix may include death saving throws as not to obsolete these.
  • OPTIONAL: The fix may make pre-emptive healing more worthwhile (healing before someone reaches zero HP), as it is currently worthless.
  • OPTIONAL: The fix may make the Medicine skill and healer’s kits more worthwhile.
  • OPTIONAL: The fix may include injury charts, and may give the players some control over when these happen. (Personally, I would avoid long-lasting injuries, because limping away from a battle is dramatic, but limping for the rest of your life means retirement from adventuring.)
There are a couple different ways to implement PCs pushing on to avoid unconsciousness. One is to leave the choice to the player (with associated risk of course), and the other is leaving it up to random chance. In the next part, I will present some simple rule changes that give players the choice.

Go to Part 2

Monday, 15 January 2018

I was converted to OSR by "Fifth Edition Funnel"

A couple months ago I played the Fifth Edition Funnel (by Ten Red Crows Press, available at https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/186076/Fifth-Edition-Funnel, pay what you want), first as a player and then as a DM, and I liked it. I started thinking about what exactly I liked about it, which lead me to researching OSR games - and now I’m pretty much a convert, prepping for my first OSR campaign. So if you’re looking for a gateway drug to get yourself or someone you know from 5e into old school gaming, I can recommend using these rules.

The rules of the Funnel

Fifth Edition Funnel is a "death funnel" style mini-supplement that uses the familiar rules of 5e, but strips the system down to bare essentials. Each player has multiple characters, who are “0th level” commoners - they have no class, no skill or weapon proficiencies, have a base HP of 4, and get no death saving throws. In other words, almost any hit is lethal to them, hence the multiple characters per player. Stats are rolled 3d6 in order - however, as a fun addition, each character has a bond with one other character that increases one stat by +1. This introduces a bit of cooperative storytelling and lets players flesh out the characters before sending them to the slaughter. Another great addition is a random medieval profession that substitutes for skills, and gives each PC some mundane items, which may be useful to a clever player.

Side notes: We did not use the included adventure, nor have I read it, so I cannot give that my endorsal. But if you're interested, Bryce Lynch at tenfootpole.org found it unappealing. In our self-made funnels, our death rate was lower than the stated expectation of 50-75%, so I would recommend no more than two characters per player. I also don’t like the race table in the Funnel, which uses all the 5e PHB core races, so I replaced it with my own.

The benefits of the Funnel

  • Easier introduction for people new to RPGs. No class features means faster character creation (particularly together with randomization), obviously, but also far less stuff to explain to newcomers upfront, and less of an information overload on the character sheet. 
  • Faster play. Just roll a d20 + ability modifier for everything. As with character creation: there's no skill bonuses or class features to consider, so the game doesn't get bogged down in rules minutiae and option paralysis. Instead of figuring out the intricacies of action economy, the players were Doing Stuff, and that's what I cared about the most. 
  • Character death is fun! When I found my character in a desperate situation of impending death, that was the most fun and memorable part of the session! Players can get a sort of horror-film enjoyment of seeing their characters in terrible predicaments. The lethality of the funnel can get them out of the “my precious character” mindset and the “nothing bad can happen to me so why not do dumb shit all the time” mindset, and into the "losing is fun" mindset.

I don’t remember who said it first, but: “a scared player is a thinking player”. Player inattention can be a problem, but when they realize their character’s life is on the line, you can be sure everyone perks up and starts thinking of ways to survive, even running away (or using those mundane items from their profession). This doesn’t happen as much in plot-based games where players get used to expecting that the DM can’t TPK them because that would end the story.

Generally speaking, the most exciting outcome of any adventure/encounter is “they just barely made it”, like what happens in the movies. And fudging rolls can help deliver that knife's-edge balance. But if there’s no variance and every encounter is “people got knocked out but nobody died and we eked out a victory”, or if players catch on to the DM’s fudging, then it becomes boring. To some extent, I think 5e’s mechanics create a prevalence of this kind of constant, hollow tension (and I plan to talk about those mechanics in detail in a later blog).

Where this experiment led me

Thinking and talking about this with people, I became aware at some point that all the things I had found appealing - fast setup, newbie-friendliness, rules getting out of the way of interaction (call it a lack of bloat, or a shift from tactical to strategic focus, or whatever), and lethality developing tension and player cleverness - were a big thing in Old-School Revival (OSR) games, that is, the pre-WotC editions of D&D and their retroclones. I found myself going from browsing these games, to buying and reading one, to finally making the decision to change systems for my planned next campaign.

I know that the mentioned phenomena arising in old-school play is an oft-repeated point, from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (a document that's apparently 10 years old, my gods...) to author interviews and daily comments on the forums/reddits and so on, and I'm probably not adding anything original there. But I guess I just had to experience it myself to have that epiphany. All it took was playing a one-shot death funnel.

Is there any reason to use Fifth Edition Funnel instead of a Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel or even an actual old system? Probably not, but it’s one way to get a foot in the door for 5e players, as only the character creation rules are overwritten, everything else being familiar. It tricks them into thinking they're not learning a new system, while in fact teaching them an entirely new style of gaming.

- munc

Blog Introduction

Predicting the future is risky, but here's what I expect this blog to be about:

Journaling one RPG player's process of being converted from 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons into Old-School Renaissance games, which is ongoing. There will be accounts of game experiences - perhaps these will be useful to the acolytes who follow this path after me, or interesting to the OSR sages who have come before? Being a hobbyist game designer and compulsive homebrewer, I will definitely also include homebrewed content, houserules, and hacks. After all, the great thing about this hobby is making it your own.

I would not have been moved to create a blog (and would likely have persisted slinging homebrew on comfortably secluded corners of the internet) without some excellently thought-provoking reads on RPG blogs, some of which have been ongoing for more than a decade. These include The Alexandrian, Playing D&D With Pornstars, and probably others I'm forgetting at the moment.

- munc

P.S. Reading Blogspot on a mobile browser is absolute torment, I know. I'm sorry for all who have to experience it, as I have.