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?

 

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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.