Troupe-Style Secret Identity Supers

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One of my favorite parts of comics and long-form supers stories (e.g., TV series) is the ability to spend a lot of time focused on the personal lives of superheroes, particularly out of costume. This tends to be completely lost in video games, and is hard to include in tabletop RPGs. It’s difficult to lavish a lot of spotlight on the detailed NPC interactions of one member of the team.

I think that a lot of the latest crop of supers media, particularly the Defenders-verse, points at a way to dig into this style of play a little more. You just need your players to be comfortable:

  • Having multiple PCs, most of whom are supporting cast for other players’ superhero PCs
  • Switching characters frequently between scenes (in the style of Fiasco or similar story games)

The possible benefits of this style include:

  • The GM can include plotlines where PCs aren’t just reactive to the problem of the week: investigations and personal life can be much more player-directed
  • Players are much more likely to have a PC they can bring into a scene, even if it’s not their main
  • There’s a much finer-grained level of risk than normal supers plots: it’s much easier to threaten and even kill supporting cast PCs without taking the player out of the game

Practically, this style of play means:

  • Each player has a main (superhero) PC with a full character sheet, and at least one secondary PC for each other player. The secondary characters likely have slimmed down character sheets (either just by virtue of not having powers, or actually stripped down to just their most salient traits for ease of reference; for speed of play, they might even start with just a few salient traits and gradually build to full sheets as they’re played).
  • The secondary PCs are fixtures in their associated main PC’s life. Some of them may know about the character’s heroics. Some may have reasons to be in her life due to strong secret identity ties. All of them are important enough to the main PC to want them around in many circumstances, but who should not just be totally on board with all the hero’s decisions (i.e., there should be tensions to play for conflict, but the secondary PCs will almost always stand by their main PC when it’s important).
  • The GM should switch viewpoints between main PCs living their lives apart from the other main PCs. Each switch to another main PC should be aggressively framed to draw in secondary PCs (e.g., “you’re just getting home from the fight and your wife is waiting up…”). The overall scene framing should probably try to balance out player screen time (e.g., if the first scene is Hero A and her wife, the next scene should be some combination of the players that weren’t playing Hero A or her wife).
  • As in most round-robin style play, I suggest having a strong social contract about metagaming, but allowing everyone to be present to watch scenes where none of their PCs are present (with an eye to letting them jump in if suddenly one of their PCs is relevant).
  • A session’s plots should probably be thematically linked to one another even when they don’t connect, and often should serve to draw the main PCs together (e.g., Hero A and Hero B were working the same case all along). Sessions, or at least story arcs, build up to team-ups of the full super group. Even when just a pair of heroes meet, they could include members of their supporting cast played by the other players.

For character generation:

  • Create a bunch of cards with common relationship tropes (suggestions below).
  • While making characters, have each player take turns to claim a relationship card from the pile for a type of relationship that makes sense for that hero PC (e.g., “I want my hero to have a sibling, a significant other, a police contact, and a mentor”).
  • Put the hero’s name on the card, and slightly customize the role (e.g., Player A takes the “SO” card and labels it “Hero A’s Girlfriend”).
  • Haggle with the other players to see who’s interested in playing which of your roles. Ultimately, each other player should have at least one of your supporting characters. (If you have a strong gender imbalance at your table, try not to force the one guy/girl to play everyone else’s SOs: that’s not cool.)
  • Work out some high level details about the secondary character between the hero player and the holding player so both players are happy with the potential interactions.
  • If it makes sense to all players involved, a player might combine two secondary character cards into one PC (e.g., Player B decides Hero A’s girlfriend doesn’t know about her lover’s alter ego, but is actually Hero C’s spy contact, and it will be a surprise to everyone once those connections and secret jobs come out).
  • Once all relationships are settled, come up with stats for the secondary PCs using whatever method the GM has set up.

Suggested relationship types include:

  • Parental Figure: A parent or guardian makes an excellent foil/support.
  • Dependent: If you have a child or ward, it’s likely a teen old enough to actually be meaningfully onscreen.
  • Sibling: Your brothers and sisters are going to find out you’re a superhero.
  • Crush: This is not someone that doesn’t even know you exist, probably, because the tension is hanging out with feelings left unspoken.
  • SO: Many heroes have the tension of whether they can ever have a committed relationship in the business.
  • Spouse: You’re married, but does your spouse know you’re a hero?
  • Ex-SO: You still interact regularly, so why did you break up and why are you still on good enough terms for screen time?
  • Best Friend: Have you told your best friend? If not, is she really your best friend?
  • Confidant: This may not actually be a good friend, but it’s someone who knows your secret and is, thus, involved.
  • Enabler: This is someone who knows your secret enough to cover for you while you’re heroing.
  • Work Partner: This is either a business partner, police partner, or someone that’s otherwise so close to you at work that your absences definitely affect her.
  • Employee: This may be your personal assistant who’s totally clued in, or one of your many employees that’s closest to you and may know your secret.
  • Boss: Your boss should probably have a little more relevance in your life than work, unless most of your secondary characters and secret identity plots are work-related.
  • The Help: Are you rich enough to have a butler or man/girl Friday? Is that nice?
  • Sidekick: You can certainly have a sidekick, as long as the relationship is such that she doesn’t come along on your big team-up missions for some reason.
  • Mentor: This is likely the retired hero that got you into the business, but may be a more mundane mentor figure that’s not a boss or parent.
  • Friendly Rival: This town may be big enough for another super that you encounter frequently, who you’re grudgingly friendly with and team up with sometimes, but who has no interest in participating in your big team-ups.
  • Tech/Gear Provider: Do you have a costume guy? Do you have a gadget lady? You should get at least one of those. They’re great.
  • Hacker/Operator: For many heroes, it’s useful to have a computer-savvy person in the chair/van that can hack things, research for you, and otherwise provide remote tech support.
  • Handler: If you’re heroing for a (quasi-)government agency or mega-corp, you probably have a handler/liaison.
  • Spy Contact: This friend probably shouldn’t be operating on domestic soil… unless at least one of you isn’t on domestic soil, and you’re friends anyway.
  • Law Enforcement Contact: Every good hero has a friend in the police/FBI to go to for procedural help and the occasional backup.
  • Criminal Contact: Some heroes cultivate a CI or are just bent enough to not mind the small crimes, and that kind of contact can get you useful illicit information, substances, or documentation.
  • Lawyer: Particularly on the street level and/or with a public identity, it’s important to be on good terms with your lawyer.
  • Medical Worker: You really want to be friends with some kind of plucky EMT or doctor that makes house calls and can fight a ninja or two in a pinch.
  • Investigator: If your own skills don’t bend toward investigation, a friendly gumshoe is a great help in finding information.

D&D 5e: Mutant (Rogue Subclass)

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This is primarily intended to provide a Charisma alternate for Arcane Trickster. It’s probably also fairly easy to convert to an alternate Eldritch Knight.

Many individuals with the blood of supernatural creatures in their family trees or who were invested with a surge of chaotic energy become sorcerers, able to unleash titanic magics. Others are less robust in their expression of these powers. They gain a few useful tricks from their magic-infused blood, but not enough to see them through life. They tend to express signs of their powers, either obviously in their appearance or in the inexplicable accidents that happen around them as they grow up. They, in short, are frequently forced out and must turn to a life of crime, or at least an upbringing on the fringes. Adventuring is often the only way they can be accepted in society, for as accepted as adventurers are.


When you reach 3rd level, you gain the ability to cast spells.

Cantrips. You learn three cantrips based upon your mutations (see below). You learn another cantrip at 9th level when you gain your latent mutation (see below).

Spell Slots. You gain spell slots as an Arcane Trickster.

Spells Known of 1st-Level and Higher. You know three 1st-level spells. The Spells Known column of the Arcane Trickster Spellcasting table shows when you learn more spells of 1st level or higher. Each of these spells must be drawn from your personal spell list based upon your mutations (see below) or the spells available to all mutants because they are Hated and Feared (see below).

Whenever you gain a level in this class, you can replace one of the mutant spells you know with another spell of your choice from your personal spell list. The new spell must be of a level for which you have spell slots.

Spellcasting Ability. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for your mutant spells, since they are produced from your innate magical energy. You use your Charisma whenever a spell refers to your spellcasting ability. In addition, you use your Charisma modifier when setting the saving throw DC for a mutant spell you cast and when making an attack roll with one.

Spell save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier

Spell attack modifier = your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier

Primary Mutations

Starting at 3rd level, you gain three mutations. Each mutation grants you a permanent special ability, a cantrip, and a list of spells that you may add to your personal spell list when selecting spells known.

Mutation Special Ability Cantrip Spells (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th)
Ceraunokinitic Resist Thunder Thunderclap (XGE) Thunderwave, Shatter, Thunder Step (XGE), Storm Sphere (XGE)
Clairvoyant Gain Expertise in Investigation, Perception, or Stealth True Strike Detect Magic, Darkvision, Clairvoyance, Locate Creature
Communicative Gain Expertise in Insight or Perception Message Comprehend Languages, Detect Thoughts, Tongues, Divination
Constructive Gain Expertise in all tools with which you are proficient Mending Mage Armor, Enhance Ability, Protection from Energy, Fabricate
Cryokinetic Resist Cold Ray of Frost Ice Knife (XGE), Shatter*, Sleet Storm, Ice Storm
Dimensional Gain Expertise in Deception, Performance, or Sleight of Hand Prestidigitation Feather Fall, Blur, Blink, Banishment
Dominant Gain Expertise in Deception, Intimidate, or Persuasion Friends Charm Person, Suggestion, Enemies Abound (XGE), Charm Monster (XGE)
Electrokinetic Resist Lightning Shocking Grasp Witch Bolt, Misty Step*, Lightning Bolt, Dimension Door*
Entropic Resist Acid Acid Splash Chromatic Orb, Knock, Dispel Magic, Polymorph
Illusory Gain Expertise in Intimidation, Performance, or Stealth Minor Illusion Silent Image, Invisibility, Major Image, Greater Invisibility
Immune Resist Force Blade Ward Shield, Mirror Image, Counterspell, Stoneskin
Luminous Resist Radiant Light Magic Missile, See Invisibility, Daylight, Sickening Radiance (XGE)
Mesmeric Resist Psychic Dancing Lights Color Spray, Hold Person, Hypnotic Pattern, Confusion
Nightmarish Resist Necrotic Chill Touch Ray of Sickness, Blindness/Deafness, Fear, Blight
Pyrokinetic Resist Fire Fire Bolt Burning Hands, Scorching Ray, Fireball, Wall of Fire
Telekinetic Gain Expertise in Athletics or Acrobatics Mage Hand Jump, Levitate, Fly, Freedom of Movement
Turbulent Resist Poison Poison Spray Fog Cloud, Gust of Wind, Stinking Cloud, Vitriolic Sphere (XGE)

* Change the energy type and trappings of these spells to match the overall energy type of the mutation (e.g., Misty Step has you teleport on a line of electricity).

It is highly suggested that you pick a suite of mutations that point to a particular origin. For example:

  • Aberrant: Communicative, Dominant, Mesmeric, Turbulent
  • Celestial: Communicative, Constructive, Dimensional, Luminous
  • Draconic: Dominant, Immune, Telekinetic, (Cryokinetic, Electrokinetic, Entropic, Pyrokinetic, or Turbulent based on dragon color)
  • Elemental: Ceraunokinetic, Dimensional, Luminous (Constructive, Cryokinetic, Pyrokinetic, or Turbulent based on elemental type)
  • Fey: Constructive, Dimensional, Illusory, Mesmeric
  • Fiendish: Cryokinetic, Electrokinetic, Pyrokinetic, Turbulent
  • Undead: Dimensional, Entropic, Immune, Nightmarish

If your race or other source already grants you a resistance you’d gain from one of these mutation types, work with your DM to replace it with an appropriate expertise.

Hated and Feared

Starting at 3rd level, elements of your mystical heritage become readily apparent. Work with your DM to develop a particular mystical signature or physical stigma that calls attention to you in civilized lands. You have disadvantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks to interact with the superstitious unless you go to great pains to hide your heritage, but you gain advantage on Charisma (Intimidation) checks against the same kind of individuals.

You may also add the following 1st-level spells to your personal spell list from which you can choose Spells Known. They are general magics that all mutants seem to have access to, in order to hide and protect themselves from a world that hates and fears them: Absorb Elements (XGE), Chaos Bolt (XGE), Disguise Self, Expeditious Retreat, False Life.

Latent Mutation

Starting at 9th level, you gain a fourth mutation. You immediately gain the cantrip and special ability of that mutation, and may add its spells to your personal spell list.


At 13th level, your mutation has progressed to the point that your progenitors recognize you as one of them, and you also have standing among the mutant community. You have advantage on Charisma checks when dealing with other mutants, and when dealing with the creature type of your origin. Creature types of your origin will tend to treat you as a peer or relative rather than a threat upon first encounter.

Omega Class

At 17th level, you may use the Empowered Spell and Heightened Spell metamagic abilities of the Sorcerer class. You have sorcery points equal to your Charisma modifier, and you recover to full sorcery points upon taking a long rest.

D&D 5e: Alternate Ways to Be Angry

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This is the previously promised pair of writeups designed to take what I consider to be essential features of Barbarian and port them to becoming subclasses of the more-interesting-to-play Fighter and Ranger (though I’m told that one really should play the Unearthed Arcana ranger rather than the one in the PHB). The goal here was to pack some fairly strong features into the subclasses (which are not usually strong enough to carry another class’ core mechanic). So I’ve made some additional limitations for each to try to expand the “budget” of how awesome they can be.

The Berserker College

Warriors from many cultures and eras have often come to the realization that fury is a useful tool in a fight. Some hone their rage through cultural traditions, while others simply have anger-management issues and low impulse control. Either way, when their blood is up they start to land brutal hits and seem insensate to pain, but give up a great deal of finesse.

Berserker Features

Fighter Level Feature
3rd Frenzy
7th Reckless
10th Instincts
15th Relentless
18th Unstoppable


When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you may enter a Frenzy by expending your Second Wind. Second Wind costs a bonus action normally, and you still make the same roll, but instead of regaining hit points, you gain a “frenzy counter” for each hit point you would have healed. While you have frenzy counters, you gain all the benefits and drawbacks of being in a frenzy.

You may:

  • Spend one frenzy counter at the beginning of your turn to maintain your frenzy. This cannot be performed if you are unconscious. If you cannot or will not spend a frenzy counter at this point, you leave frenzy.
  • Spend frenzy counters up to your proficiency bonus to add damage to a melee weapon attack after confirming it was successful. You can choose to add the amount of counters spent as a flat damage bonus, or instead choose to add a die to the roll with a maximum value equal to twice the counters spent (e.g., d12 for 6 spent counters).
  • Spend one frenzy counter to take half damage from a single source of Bludgeoning, Piercing, or Slashing damage.
  • Spend one frenzy counter to gain advantage on any Strength check or saving throw.
  • Spend one frenzy counter to gain advantage on any saving throw against Enchantment spells or against any effect that would cause you to become Charmed or Frightened on a failure.

Unless otherwise noted, spending frenzy counters does not require an action.

While in a frenzy:

  • Every time you miss an enemy with a melee attack roll, you gain an additional frenzy counter.
  • Every time you take damage from an enemy’s attack that you don’t spend a frenzy counter to reduce, you gain an additional frenzy counter.
  • Every time you fail a saving throw, you gain an additional frenzy counter.
  • If you are able to cast spells, you can’t cast them or concentrate on them.
  • You suffer disadvantage on ranged attack rolls.
  • You suffer disadvantage on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma checks except for Intimidation.

If frenzy ends while you have frenzy counters remaining, you regain the use of your Second Wind. If you use Second Wind again before your next short or long rest (either for frenzy or for its normal use), instead of rolling, the result is automatically equal to half the frenzy counters you had remaining.


Starting at 7th level, you can choose to attack recklessly before making any attacks on your turn. Doing so gives you advantage on all melee weapon attacks, but all attack rolls against you have advantage against you until your next turn.

Similarly, you may add a bonus die of a size up to twice your proficiency bonus (e.g., d12 at proficiency +6) to any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check, but lose hit points equal to the roll of the bonus die. This generally indicates that you hurt yourself excelling at the physical task.


Starting at 10th level, you gain proficiency with Dexterity saving throws. You also gain advantage on initiative rolls.


Starting at 15th level, while you are in a frenzy, if an attack would reduce you to 0 hit points, you are instead reduced to 1 hit point and any excess damage beyond that necessary to reduce you to 1 hit point is applied to your frenzy counters as if they were temporary hit points. If you are damaged sufficiently to remove all your frenzy counters and reduce you to 0 hit points, you begin dying normally.


Starting at 18th level, while you are in a frenzy, you may spend a frenzy counter as a reaction when you would become Grappled, Paralyzed, Petrified, Prone, Restrained, or Stunned to not suffer that condition. Additionally, you may spend two frenzy counters as part of a move to double your base speed for the rest of your turn.

The Totem Conclave

While many rangers are quite happy to ally themselves with beasts and become a better team, some instead invite the very spirits of the beasts themselves to bond with them. These totem warriors can enter a state where they allow their civilized impulses to be subsumed by the instincts of their animal patron. Unlike lycanthropes or druids, they do not physically transform, but simply channel the strongest aspects of their totem through their mundane forms.

Totem Warrior Features

Ranger Level Feature
3rd Fury, Totem Spirit
5th Bestial Quickness
7th Aspect of the Beast
11th Fangs and Fur
15th Totemic Attunement


Starting at 3rd level, you spend a bonus action and expend a single spell slot to enter a state of fury. The level of spell slot expended gives you a totem die: the die size is equal to a d4 if you expended a 1st level spell slot, and increases a die size for each additional level of spell slot (to a maximum of d12 if you expended a 5th level slot).

While in this state:

  • The first time per turn that you hit a target with a weapon attack, it takes an additional totem die of damage from the weapon.
  • If you deal damage with a weapon attack, you gain temporary hit points equal to the roll of the totem die on your attack (including if it is doubled on a crit).
  • You may add the totem die to all Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throws.
  • You have disadvantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma checks, except Insight, Perception, Survival, and Intimidation.
  • You can’t cast spells or concentrate on them.

This state ends when you become unconscious, take a short or long rest, or choose to take a bonus action to willingly end the state.

Totem Spirit

At 3rd level, when you adopt this conclave, you choose a totem spirit and gain its feature. Your totem spirit remains the same for all subsequent totem abilities gained at later levels. Example totems are below.

  • Totem of Strength (Wolf): While in fury, you have advantage on all Strength checks and saving throws. If you hit a target with a weapon attack while at least one ally is within 5 feet of it, it must make a Strength saving throw (DC equal to 8 + Your Proficiency Bonus + Your Strength Bonus) or fall prone.
  • Totem of Dexterity (Eagle): While in fury, you have advantage on all Dexterity checks and saving throws. Additionally, on any turn in which you move more than five feet, attackers have disadvantage on attacks against you until the beginning of your next turn (including attacks of opportunity for moving).
  • Totem of Constitution (Bear): While in fury, you have advantage on all Constitution checks and saving throws. You also have advantage on death saving throws you make if you were reduced to 0 hit points while in a fury. Additionally, you may use your reaction to gain resistance against any source of damage except Psychic after the damage amount is declared.

Bestial Quickness

At 5th level, while you are in a fury, you can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn. Your speed increases by 10 feet, even when you are not in a fury.

Aspect of the Beast

At 7th level, you gain a magical benefit based on the totem animal of your choice. Use the features for the Barbarian ability of the same name. (Wolf may overlap too much with default ranger abilities?)

Fangs and Fur

At 11th level, you fully embrace the fighting style of your totem, and gain benefits while unarmed or unarmored. When you are not wearing any armor, your AC is equal to the higher of 10 + your proficiency bonus or 13 + your Dexterity bonus. You can roll 1d8 in place of the normal damage of your unarmed strike, and you treat unarmed strikes as finesse weapons.

Totemic Attunement

At 15th level, you gain a magical benefit based on the totem animal of your choice. Use the features for the Barbarian ability of the same name (with “while raging” replaced with “while in a fury”).

Serial Numbers Filed Off: Streaming Sci-Fi

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Exalted Clay

(D&D, Scion, Nobilis, etc.)

The gods do not like to speak of the real reason for the punishment of Prometheus. “Giving fire to mankind” was the metaphor for his crime: teaching a collection of demigods and mortals the skills to make themselves a threat to the divine themselves, and selling them on the idea that for mankind to be free, there could be no immortal tyrants upon the mountaintop. The uprising was narrowly defeated, Prometheus bound, and the souls of his Dragon’s Teeth locked away in Tartarus for all eternity.

Or until today.

Someone nearly succeeded in murdering Zeus. He awoke, battered and bloody washed ashore of the river Lethe. He’d lost days of memory. But he was certain that the only explanation was that another god had tried to kill him.

His only choice was to free a handful of Dragon’s Teeth to attempt to solve the crime, with freedom their reward for success. After all, who else could he trust to be impartial, to hunt a murderous god, other than those who were formerly bent upon destroying all of the gods?

And will this hamartia of hubris finally bring low mighty Zeus, as it has so many patriarchs of the past?


D&D 5e: How Will You Rage?

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Colin recently posted a thorough examination of some of the flaws in the 5e barbarian. I agree with most of his points, and have several of my own that I plan to do a writeup on eventually (spoiler: your choices in character build and combat tactics are extremely limited and boring). Since I’ve built my feelings playing a barbarian in Brandes’ game (in which Colin also plays, so I’m one of the data points in his analysis), I’ve been discussing various options with them for how you could make different house rules to improve the class. This post is less about redesigning the barbarian, and more a very specific deep dive on the core issue: how do you build a rage mechanic, and how can you raise or lower its potency for balance concerns?

What Even Is Rage?

I assume there were various rages populated throughout AD&D, but the first major times I saw it was in the form of a power possessed by Minsc the ranger in Baldur’s Gate and in the Barbarian class as designed for 3e. Later iterations in 4e, Pathfinder, and 5e have kept various spins of the core elements of:

  • The state is triggered at will.
  • It only lasts a limited amount of time and is tiring.
  • You can’t really do things during it an angry person couldn’t do (i.e., cast spells or other actions that require concentration and intellect).
  • You get really strong and hit harder with things strong people hit harder with.
  • You get really tough and can take more punishment.
  • You’re more resistant to mental effects because your mind is so focused/unhinged.

Basically, it’s unabashedly modeling a less grandiose version of the Incredible Hulk, or the fears of what individuals are like when hopped up on amphetamines or otherwise having a violent mental episode (so modeling Bane). While that’s arguably not the most culturally appropriate thing (why are we glorifying uncontrollable rage and assuming that’s the hallmark of all tribal warriors?), you probably have to start from trying to keep them all if you’re looking at keeping something that’s inarguably a “rage” mechanic.

How Do You Time It?

The default expression of rage has been a fixed, short period effect which you get more uses of as you level, and which has a small but non-trivial action cost to activate on your turn. Pathfinder made the currency much more granular (a big pool of rounds rather than a small pool of larger blocks of time). Notably, the push seems to be to balance it against the expected number of fights in an adventuring day such that you can probably use it most of the time but not all of the time. Timers with a limited resource make this simple.

Another way to do it would be to tie it to a trigger that’s somewhat out of the PC’s control but is less resource-based: you rage until some ending trigger. Non-D&D games have been more inclined to make this trigger “everyone is dead, including maybe your friends.” This is more common in WoD games, and it’s probably not appropriate to most heroic D&D games to regularly start making the barbarian make hard checks to calm down before hurting people other than the bad guys. But it’s certainly worth considering that you can set triggers for when rage ends instead of a timer if you can find a trigger that makes sense for the setting you want to evoke.

You can also tie it to a resource other than actions and time. 5e‘s timer is already somewhat superfluous, since the rage ends if you stop attacking enemies or taking damage, and if you’re in a fight where you’ve still got enemies and HP after a minute, it’s kind of an unusually hard fight where it’s annoying your rage gives out anyway. The presence of people to attack/sources of damage is the resource involved. You could simplify it to a straight up damage over time effect: you end the rage on purpose whenever you’re tired of slowly bleeding HP.

My favorite rage mechanics from video games are ones that are additive in combat and decay over time. In City of Heroes, brutes gradually built up a fury meter from attacking and taking damage, and it diminished over time such that if you weren’t fighting, you were losing the cool fury abilities, so you were very inclined to risk rushing into the next fight unprepared rather than bleed off fury. World of Warcraft has a more sedate implementation for their warriors: unlike mana-using classes that start full of resources and gradually spend them through the fight faster than they can recover them, warriors start with little or no rage and get more from attacking and taking damage, and spend it on special abilities. Both of these approaches are tough in D&D lifted in a straightforward way, because you don’t usually experience a lot of combat rounds over the course of an adventuring day compared to an MMO. But I’m very enamored of the idea of rage being tied to a resource that starts small, bleeds off per round, but can be recovered faster than it bleeds by dealing and taking damage.

There’s also an outside chance that you could make the resource you’re using up just actions in your action economy. Depending on the utility of a bonus action for the class in question, it might make sense for rage to be something you can turn on or off at will, whenever you’re willing to burn actions on it. This might be a 1:1 (rage on rounds you spend an action, no rage on ones you don’t), or one action may get you multiple rounds of time/resource so your anger is like a fire you only have to stoke every so often. This is probably only worth investigating if the overall build has a big demand on bonus actions from all sides (e.g., presently, all it does is make using a two-handed weapon even more significantly better than two-weapon fighting).

Ultimately, rage in 5e is usable most of the time but not all of the time (unless you’re having fewer fights per day that still don’t go very long). Changing the timer to let you use it closer to all the time makes it a little more powerful, and making it so it’s available less often makes it a little less powerful. In my opinion, varying how you govern staying in rage is actually more about making the mechanic offer interesting choices and tradeoffs to the player.

How Do You Get Really Strong?

The traditional implementation of the strength boost was, well, a strength boost. In 3e and Baldur’s Gate, the increase to strength was meaningful, but increasingly less relevant at higher levels compared to other sources of damage bonus. 5e opted to just grant a couple of the derived effects of higher strength rather than forcing you to recalculate by granting advantage on strength checks and saves and a damage bonus to strength-based melee. The improvement to offense is really small, even compared to 3e (where at least strength improved your attack bonus, the extra damage could be stretched with two-handed weapons, and got multiplied on a crit).

5e‘s mechanisms for representing angry strength are pretty comprehensive, though. There are only so many ways to represent it in the system, and advantage on strength rolls and extra damage on strength attacks are most of them. You could theoretically give advantage on strength attacks, but that eats into a lot of other mechanics. Otherwise, I’m not sure how else you’d model “I’m even stronger right now.”

The amount and style of the damage bonus are your primary ways of raising or lowering the potency of this aspect of rage. There’s limited room to decrease the bonus, because it’s already +2 for much of your career, but you could switch it to something that’s not always available (e.g., if you’re using a resource-based rage, adding damage to an attack could be something that costs rage resources much like adding a superiority die for battlemasters). As Colin notes, it might feel better to switch it to a die instead of a flat add, even if you didn’t increase the average significantly, because that would at least get multiplied on a crit.

Instead of a damage bonus, you could also just give extra attacks, have some damage splash/cleave onto nearby targets, or make attacks do a certain amount of damage even on a miss.

Another option would be to increase the applicability of the strength. To wit, currently rage is a big help if you’re trying to force open doors or climb walls as part of a fight, but even if you wanted to blow a use out of combat the timing of it makes it difficult (e.g., if you’re climbing a cliff that will take more than a round, your rage will end because you’re not hurting someone or getting hurt). You could improve the utility of rage by coming up with some way to use it for out-of-combat strength checks. It’s probably a stretch to have it last long enough to meaningfully interact with encumbrance, though (“Grog… so angry… about carrying all this heavy treasure back to town. Still… just so angry.”).

How Do You Get Really Tough?

The traditional method of being really tough was just a fairly small pool of extra HP which might even go away at the end of the rage (so you really got no benefit from them at all unless you kept acting while you should be dead, then promptly died). 3e did this through a constitution boost, which also meant you were slightly better at concentration-based checks and saves. The 5e method is just to let you take half damage from most weapons (or from basically everything if you follow the bear totem), which made being tough the most significant aspect of rage.

It’s difficult to look at different strengths of resistance, since 5e has really made it on or off. You take full, half, or no damage from things. There isn’t a granular damage reduction like in 3e. If you wanted to keep resistance but scale it down, you could do like Colin suggested and make it start out only affecting one of the three weapon damage types. If you’re using a more granular resource model, you could make the player spend rage-maintaining resources to activate the resistance for a round or an attack (possibly using up your reaction as well).

Going back to a bonus HP model instead of resistance would provide more granularity. On the one hand, temporary HP aren’t usually typed in what they can be spent on, so they’re more versatile than weapon-damage-type resistance. On the other hand, they don’t stack, so a rage with resistance is more useful if you’re already getting temporary HP from other sources. There are basically two ways to award temporary HP: as a big, up-front pool, or as a smaller amount regenerated every round (like with the Heroism spell).

The big pool is likely to be better than resistance in most cases, except in fights where you almost died even with resistance (i.e., resistance can be thought of as a pool of temporary HP equal to how much damage you ultimately took, because you didn’t take half, so if you have less temporary HP than your total HP, there are some times it will be less good). But on fights where you didn’t get hit a lot, you might not even have exhausted the pool, where resistance means you always take at least some damage, because it only stops half.

Meanwhile, the smaller, regenerating pool is better if you’re taking a little damage every round (i.e., just enough temporary HP to soak it all up without touching your real HP). But it could be much worse against spike damage. A barbarian that gets missed three rounds in a row then takes 40 damage would much rather have resistance than 5 temporary HP per round, even though on average the math says he took 10 HP per round and mitigated half of it.

Where do you even start on the math involved? It’s obviously highly variable. How many monsters are attacking the barbarian each round, and how much damage do they do when they hit? How long could the barbarian sustain that? Without healing, the average raging barbarian can soak up around 20 HP per level before dropping (assuming 7 + 3 HP for most levels and halving the damage). If you do some rough assumptions that the barbarian on a busy and near-deadly day uses half her hit dice to heal plus gets some miscellaneous healing and has six encounters of at least three rounds each, you can assume a worst-case scenario is that she took as much as 40 damage per level over 20 rounds of fighting, for an average of 2 HP per level per round. As noted, this could be a very bad assumption if the damage actually comes in spikes rather than evenly distributed.

The DMG’s Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating chart paints a much spikier picture of the potential damage output from monsters. How much of the encounter’s monster budget will the barbarian have trying to hit her at any given moment? An 8th level barbarian tanking three characters’ worth of medium budget is facing 2,700 XP of monsters: is that one CR 7 dealing up to 50 damage on the average round it hits, or is that six CR 2s who are much less likely to all hit on the same round, but deal 120 points if they manage it? Either way, does the barbarian need significantly more than 16 HP (8th level x 2 HP) per round to get anywhere near the mitigation provided by straight resistance, or are spikes likely to be weird aberrations and a more conservative number is fine most of the time?

I’d want to playtest the hell out of it, but my gut says 3-4 temporary HP per level per round is likely to be as good or better than resistance under most circumstances. You might want to backstop it with some additional ways to emergency mitigate a spike from a crit or high-rolling spell, but barbarians already do have the best HP totals, so if a spike is so bad it ruins the barbarian’s day even without rage, it would have potentially killed anyone else in the party. The important thing is that if you go with temporary HP on this schedule, it’s pretty easy to reduce them to make rage’s toughness weaker and increase them to make it more powerful.

Finally, you could also show toughness by granting advantage on constitution-based saves, particularly against things like exhaustion and poison. But, like strength, these are more likely to come up when you aren’t in combat, so you’d have to have a way to stretch the effects of rage outside of a fight.

How Do You Model the Enraged Mind?

The biggest fear of the 5e barbarian is anything that requires an intelligence, wisdom, or charisma saving throw. In Baldur’s Gate, Minsc is outright immune to a lot of mind-affecting spells while berserk, and 3e barbarians at least got a small bonus to saves. In 5e, only one primal path gets anything near that benefit, and the tradeoff is that they become exhausted after their frenzy (and that exhaustion is way worse than the short fatigued state that hit 3e barbarians). Also, 5e barbarians can’t cast spells while raging or get any benefit to dexterity or ranged attacks, which prevents many nonstandard builds.

There’s a lot of system tweaking you can do to model what it means to be in a rage, that could make it more or less powerful, or more or less interesting.

Does the rage provide some kind of protection against mind-affecting spells, or do you want that to remain the barbarian’s kryptonite?

Is the rage controlled enough that you’ll allow it to benefit attacks other than strength melee and not lock out spellcasting, or do you like that they’re like bulls seeing red and can do little besides go beat on people? Do you want to balance it by making the barbarian’s tunnel vision even worse and limit her tactical options while in a rage (e.g., “you must attack the nearest enemy”)?

Is exhaustion/fatigue a reasonable cost to add to weaken rage/free up more “budget” to make other parts of it stronger? Is there something you can do to model that without relying on 5e‘s exhaustion track (which is a pretty major limit on how often you could rage, since it’s a short death spiral)?

Are there more interesting psychological aspects of how you want rage to work that suggest mechanics other than the aforementioned?

Putting It Into Practice

Continue through to a fighter college and ranger conclave that provide key barbarian elements in a more interesting class shell.

D20: The Three-Raise Dice Pool

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The System

When calling for an important challenge that would normally be a single roll, instead have the player make three rolls. The first is at normal difficulty, the second is at a -5 penalty, and the third is at a -10 penalty. Count each successful roll for a results range of 0-3*, and use those for the result rather than a single roll’s margin of success.

* or 0-6, if you’re having critical results count double

The Design Reasoning

I sort of arbitrarily generated this dice mechanic for my Beyond the Wall game and have been using it ever since because it worked out so well. The initial inspiration for it was simply that the party’s extremely charismatic fighter was haggling with a succession of highly-skilled merchants. BtW is a roll-under system, so the PC was trying to roll under 21 (i.e., would be automatic except 20s always fail) and the merchants were trying to make targets in the high teens. Essentially, it was very likely that they’d both just succeed, and if I applied a penalty to a single roll the swing of the dice would still likely drown out the difference in skill.

I tend to find this to be a huge problem with contested challenges in D20 in general: when there are two rolls and you’re just going for a simple highest result, there’s a lot of space in the 400 results for the lower-skilled individual to win. There’s nothing quite like your master thief regularly failing stealth rolls against unskilled opposition because you rolled low and they rolled high.

So the system is primarily for contested checks, but also serves as a decent system for knowledge checks and other rolls where you’d normally expect the results to be presented in a tiered table (e.g., “If she rolls 10, she learns… If she rolls 15, she learns…”). Similar to contests, those types of checks can result in annoyance when highly skilled characters roll low. The math on the tiers are weird anyway: your skill total impacts the chance of learning the minimum result, but each higher result is just a 25% chance because of the flat results on a d20.

Ultimately, this system is doing two things:

  • It’s adding in some normalization and curving so the swinginess of a d20 doesn’t have an outsized effect on an important challenge. Three rolls will have a much higher chance of providing a more average spread of results, so a single good or bad roll at the wrong moment doesn’t overwhelm the character’s skill.
  • It’s putting in some raises to pull apart the difference between highly skilled and exceptional. It’s particularly meaningful in a roll-under system like BtW, where scores above 19 only matter if you’re suffering a penalty. But it can also matter to highly-skilled characters in a roll-over system, where a really high bonus isn’t that different from a decent bonus at low DCs.

Converting Pathfinder APs to 5e

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I’ve been reading through the Angry GM’s stuff, particular his megadungeon series, and couldn’t help but think about how his spreadsheets for encounters per level per dungeon section might line up with the various Pathfinder adventure paths. That led me down a thrilling couple of hours banging away at a giant spreadsheet of my own comparing the encounters in an AP to the various XP and wealth progressions. I’ll start off with the rules of thumb, and get into some wonkery explaining my work afterward.

Converting Modules

First off, the bad news: there’s no 1:1 enemy conversion available.

There’s no way that 5e, with one Monster Manual, Volo’s, and a few other sources could approach the mass of opponent options in (at current count) six bestiaries, bonus monsters in every AP volume, multiple guides with NPCs, and the ability to attach class levels and templates to things. But even if they could, the math of 5e is just different for encounters than Pathfinder. For example, Pathfinder considers 12 zombies a level 6 encounter, while 5e considers them a level 5 encounter (and awards XP like a level 3 encounter, because 5e adds a difficulty premium for lots of monsters taking actions).

So you’re going to have to basically rebuild every encounter in the AP with the closest equivalents (of existing monsters or ones you custom make) that meet a new XP target.

But at least the math for doing so is relatively straightforward, since the expected encounters per level in Pathfinder is not that far off from the expectation in 5e.

Most Pathfinder adventure path modules include a target CR at the start of every room or encounter, which may be made up of multiple enemies of lower CRs within the text itself. Simply rebuild the room as a medium encounter of that level. Remember to apply the correct multiplier for multiple opponents.

For treasure awards:

  • Convert most magic items to their cash value (possibly as art) or consumables.
  • Grant half of all of the cash (including that from converted items). For example, if the encounter has printed loot of 100 gp, 300 sp, and a 500 gp value item, it instead gives 50 gp, 150 sp, and a 250 gp value art object (or consumables).
  • Only the most interesting magic items get converted to 5e equivalents. For those, try to give them a value equal to half their Pathfinder value based on the rarity values on page 135 of the 5e DMG. For example, a +3 equivalent shield is worth around 9,000 gp in Pathfinder, so gets translated to a strong Rare item or a weak Very Rare item in 5e (which, in this instance, checks out).

Expected Equivalencies

While the XP awards keep 5e characters within spitting distance of Pathfinder characters, it’s not perfect. In particular, 5e‘s first two levels go by much faster than Pathfinder‘s, while fifth level lasts much longer.

You can expect that:

  • Player characters will hit 2nd level significantly sooner than the AP intends, and will hit 3rd level around the time the AP planned for them to hit 2nd level.
  • They’ll be around a level ahead at all times until the module expects them to hit 5th level.
  • At that point, it starts to swing a little bit, but the PCs will usually be a few encounters behind where the AP expects them to be until 12th level.
  • They hit 12th level at pretty close to the exact right spot, then are close to in sync for the next couple of levels.
  • They pull ahead at 15th, and will pull further and further ahead as time goes on, to the point of hitting 20th level when a Pathfinder character would be early in 18th level. For most APs this won’t matter much, but you might want to pull back encounter budgets further past 15th level (or feel more free to skip non-plot-critical encounters).

The Wonkery

I made a long sheet with every encounter from the Mummy’s Mask AP, with a running total of XP per party member (for a four member-party) and a level lookup to make sure that the awards tracked where the modules suggested they should be. They did, and were usually pretty damned precise (almost as if the APs are created by carving up each level as an XP budget for each section of each module…).

Initially, I looked at just handing out 2/3 of the Pathfinder budget for each encounter, and that tracked as well or better until 10th level, when the XP charts diverge too much. Converting the encounter’s CR from the module to an equivalent 5e encounter somewhere between Easy and Medium created the best correspondence with the easiest-to-remember and process rule of thumb. By just targeting Medium, but assuming that there will be an overall loss of XP because of the difficulty multiplier for multiple enemies, it should be easy to remember how to convert without having to do any averaging yourself.

For treasure, I did a much less thorough comparison, and just looked at the stated Pathfinder wealth by level compared to the expected cash equivalent 5e income derived in this thread. I noted the suggested starting magic items for higher-level characters on page 38 of the DMG, and assumed those were relatively close to what you’d be expected to find in play, adding their value to the cash totals (it winds up only counting for about 15%).

The comparison of Pathfinder to 5e wealth has a ton of swing in it, but it gets pretty close to 50% for the last two tiers. Functionally, for the first tier the PCs will find a lot more wealth than the DMG expects (since Pathfinder frontloads more treasure), but there shouldn’t be a big enough difference by 7th level to justify a more complicated method of recalculating the AP’s treasure. It’s already going to be annoying enough to look up the value of minor magic items to turn them into cash prizes. Since I didn’t look super deeply at how the APs award magic items, I imagine that figuring out what to convert to cash and what to replace with a 5e equivalent will be more art than science.

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