Dynamically Static Initiative


I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the “roll initiative at the start of combat and then just cycle that order until combat is over” school of initiative that has existed in a lot of games, but most notably D&D from 3e on. In my experience, it makes everything feel very static, and can lead to problems with players getting distracted while they just wait for a turn. In the past, I’ve worked on other solutions to the problem, with my most common being group initiative (based on this Ars Ludi post).

A friend recently linked me to this joke monster:

from http://imgur.com/r/dndnext/H4BrSMH

from here

The Percolating Haste mechanic struck me immediately as a potential solution to the boringness of cyclic initiative; you can just apply it to everyone, to get a much more dynamic combat where high initiative bonus matters past the first round of combat. I’d implement it in the following way:

D&D (All varieties post 3e)

Roll initiative for the first round of combat normally. Each time you end your turn, if subtracting 20 from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract 20 and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative bonus to your current initiative score upon ending your turn (unless you have an initiative penalty, in which case just stay where you are).

Haste-type effects might reduce the subtraction amount (making it easier to go twice in one turn).

Beyond the Wall

Determine initiative for the first round normally (in BtW, this is a fixed initiative total equal to level plus Dex bonus plus 0-2 from class choice). Each time you end your turn, if subtracting (Your Level + 10) from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract (Your Level + 10) and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative total to your current initiative score upon ending your turn. (Very few BtW characters should have an initiative that’s negative, particularly past the first couple of levels even with a very low Dex.)

This method has the subtraction amount scale by level since your initiative bonus scales drastically by level; it should result in high-init characters getting similar amounts of extra actions as they level.

Benefits of the System

To my mind, this system has a couple of major benefits:

  • Due to different initiative bonuses, characters are likely to change order through the course of a fight. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get a turn in the same position every round; that skeleton that went after you this round—but has a higher initiative—might go before you next round. This in itself should make the fight a lot more dynamic-feeling.
  • High-initiative characters, over a long combat, will get to go more often (making up for the fact that the benefits of high initiative tend to become less and less after many rounds in a fixed initiative order, and also compensating for a high initiative but bad roll).

Of course, the system is a little fiddly for a GM to keep track of round to round. One solution is to ask players to track their current initiative score and just do a countdown initiative call, but another is to use the program I threw together to work as an initiative tracker.

Initiative Tracker App

Here is the app.

As usual, this is a simple Windows form app (someday I’m going to get around to learning to make web and mobile apps) that I solemnly promise is not going to do anything bad to your computer. Just put it in a directory and run it.

The Main tab is where most of the functions lie:

  • Once you’ve added characters, you can select them from the combo box and click Add to add them to the current initiative list.
  • Click New to add a new, default character to the current initiative list (and the combo box).
  • Click Remove to remove a character from the initiative list (it remains in the combo box to be added back later).
  • Select a character in the initiative list to see its stats in the text boxes underneath. You can change them and they’ll update on the fly (if you put something that’s not an integer in the non-name boxes, it will default to 0):
    • Name: The character name that will appear in the lists
    • Increase: The amount that will be added to the character’s initiative count after every turn that didn’t result in a second turn (i.e., initiative bonus)
    • Decrease: The amount that will be subtracted from the initiative total to determine if the character goes again
    • Current Init: The character’s current initiative total (overwrite this every combat if the players hand-roll their scores)
  • The Current Character label indicates which character is currently up once you’ve started combat (and stays the same even if you select another character for editing).
  • Click Next Character to move to the next character in the initiative order (and modify the scores of the last character to act). This replaces the Current Character label and selects the character in the list (so you can easily edit it if necessary). If no one has gone yet after starting a new encounter, this selects the first character in the initiative order.
  • Click New Encounter to reset the initiative count to the top of the order (and possibly reset current initiative scores based on Settings).

This doesn’t currently support delaying/holding actions. I’d suggest just moving on and remembering that the character has a floating ability to act; for a delay, you can hand overwrite the character’s current initiative).

The Settings tab allows you to change a few things:

  • Use the radio buttons to select what you want to have happen to everyone’s current initiative scores when you click New Encounter. By default, leaving them unchanged is selected. The first two options reset them to a generic value (either Increase or Increase + 10; the first option is for Beyond the Wall). The third option rolls a d20 and adds Increase (essentially a normal first-round initiative roll if you’re using Increase equal to init bonus).
  • Change the New Character defaults to whatever you want a new character to begin with when you click New on the Main tab.
  • Uncheck Modify Initiative on Advance to turn off all the fancy changing and use this as a normal cyclic initiative tracker.
  • Click Save All Characters to File to create “InitiativeTrackerCharacters.txt” in the same directory as your app executable. This writes all the characters currently in the combo box to the file, and the next time you open the app it will load them all back in from that file.

There isn’t currently an in-app way to delete characters. You can manually remove them by editing the text file.


D20: A Facing Hack


Facing is admittedly complicated. Third edition D&D removed it, and subsequent editions haven’t seemed to have cause to question that decision. Particularly in the already tactically dense 3e and 4e, tracking facing would be another complication on top of a bunch of other rules that could slow down play.

But Attacks of Opportunity, flanking, and the rules for the Stealth skill are also complicated. I’ve often wondered whether the complexity saved by removing facing really saved much effort after the rules that had to be put in to preserve some level of simulation.

So this is a small hack (mostly for 3.x/Pathfinder) to see whether the cheese can be moved a bit to try to make those other rules a little simpler to allow slightly complex facing rules, as follows:


facingDuring combat, each character is always considered to be facing in a particular direction. On a grid, the facing is always centered in the direction of one of the eight adjacent squares. The character’s total facing is essentially a cone covering the square in the center and the nearest two other adjacent squares (see diagram).

A character making a move action is normally considered to be facing in the direction of travel while moving. If a character wishes to specify facing from square to square while moving (e.g., to keep from turning her back on a target while moving away or past), the character moves at half speed for that move action.

While stationary, on her turn, a character may choose any facing desired (e.g., you can make an attack against a character on one side of you and then make your next attack against someone on the other side). A character must pick a final facing upon ending her turn.

A character may also change facing during any other character’s move action in order to center facing on the moving character (i.e., you can always turn to face someone who’s moving to keep them from moving around behind you). However, you can’t turn when another character takes a non-move action (so be careful if you turn to face a target when that target’s ally is already adjacent to you). You also must be aware of the other character to turn to face her (see Stealth, below).


You can generally only make an attack on a square within your facing (as noted, you can change facing at will on your turn).

Attacks against a target from squares not covered by that target’s facing count as flanking (gaining a +2 bonus and Sneak Attack). This applies whether or not there is another ally involved and works with melee or ranged attacks (do not turn your back on a rogue archer).

You may use an Immediate or Swift action to make a melee attack against anyone that is not facing you, if the attack would otherwise be legal. (This is why you might want to keep facing toward someone and back away: they can use their Immediate to hit you with a melee attack if you turn around completely to run, or just try to go past them.) (Note to GMs: Adjust Combat Reflexes and other sources of AoO as makes sense to you.)


You can use the Stealth skill as if you had concealment if none of your enemies have you within their facing. That is to say, a character using Stealth may use it to move from cover to cover if no enemy is facing in a way that covers her path, and may use Stealth to get behind a target and make a Sneak Attack, even while combat is ongoing.

Enemies that aren’t facing you still get to make a Perception check to become aware of you (and then may turn to face you as you move), but it is possible to make the Stealth check even if you’re out in the open. (It’s up to the GM whether some kind of special tricks are needed to regain the ability to Stealth after enemies become aware of the character the first time; this is mostly so that you can start the fight by sneaking up to make a Sneak Attack in a way that’s logical but is normally extremely complex to pull off in Pathfinder due to the lack of facing.)

Humans as Anchor Race

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There is a long history in D&D (and other games with multiple races/species) of treating humans as the vanilla race, into which new flavors could be mixed to produce other races.

In the early days, humans literally got nothing: other races got bonuses and hopefully flaws that cancelled them out (realistically, this meant that there was probably at least one race that was better than humans for any build; the build could use that race’s bonus but mostly ignore the flaw).

These days, it’s common to try to give them some kind of versatility advantage (e.g., a choice of trait bonus, feat/edge, etc.). That’s mechanically better (there are now often builds for which human is only slightly weaker than the best choice race), but it’s still treating humans as vanilla: there’s nothing much about their racial traits that says anything about them. Every other race is more or less a pre-specialized human, so anything that applied to humans would apply to other races by thematic inheritance.

I’ve noticed some interesting memes over the course of the last couple of years that aim to fix that: what if human capabilities are not universal? Rather than being a chassis onto which other race options add, humans have special abilities that are implicitly removed from other races. If humans are the toughest race in space, what does it mean that every other race is less durable than humans? If they’re the most loyal, what does that say about other races’ social dynamics?

This is a neat way to go, and immediately more interesting than vanilla humans, but it can result in some weirdness. If you give humans a couple of things that they’re paragons at, you can limit your race design conceptually. In particular, while the “humans as space orcs” meme is very neat, it means you can’t make actual space orcs; all your proud warrior race guys wind up squishier than humans (admittedly, Farscape did interesting things with this with the Luxans’ difficulty clotting and Sebaceans’ difficulty regulating body temperature).

And, at its core, the whole thing goes back to roleplaying hooks: turning pieces of the human experience into special abilities is a mechanical way to make players portraying non-humans think of their characters as not humans in funny prosthetics. It’s a piece of your lived experience that you can’t just take for granted for your character.

It also has a neat effect on the overall thematic space of the campaign/setting: by designating a human trait as significant enough to qualify as a racial advantage, you’re saying that trait or its absence is meaningful world context. If humans are extremely loyal, and other races are not, that’s an immediate crux around which to pivot your politics and societies.

I think it’s possible to split the difference between vanilla and paragon and still get a good result.

The trick is to call out 3-5 racial advantages for humans. Near-human races swap out one or two of those advantages for something else. Strange races swap out nearly all of them (but likely keep one just for the ability to run mirror-darkly stories around the one similarity highlighting the differences).

For example, in a D&D 5e game based on the same strengths in the linked memes, I might do something like this (I don’t know if these racial benefits are remotely balanced for 5e; they’re mostly set as illustrations of the concept):

Human Traits

Humans bond deeply to companions, including animals and even inanimate objects, and are happy to risk their own lives to protect these others. But this risk is less than that of many other races: they shake off injuries that would permanently cripple others, and recover quickly (even if the scar tissue isn’t always pretty). The coupling of their short lifespans and bonding results in multiple very different cultures, and mixed parentage that means any human might be born with a natural talent for any given pursuit.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As a bonus action, designate a named target (including inanimate objects) that you have spent enough time with to feel loyal to (GM’s discretion as to how much time this takes). You gain Advantage on attack rolls against subjects that are directly threatening your target and on ability checks made to directly rescue the target from harm (again, GM’s discretion on what “directly” means). You may use the Protection fighting style to benefit your target, even if you are not wielding a shield. While active, you are overly focused on protecting your target and thus have Disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws and all attacks against you are made with Advantage. You can deactivate this or switch targets as another bonus action, and it ends automatically when you are rendered unconscious. You may only maintain one target at a time.
  • Bent but Not Broken: Any time you would be Charmed, Frightened, or Stunned, you may take a level of Exhaustion instead (this requires your reaction). You gain advantage on saving throws against any effect that would apply Poisoned. You gain Advantage on all saving throws if your current hit points are less than half your maximum hit points.
  • Life is Too Short: Any time you would recover hit points, recover +1 HP per die of healing rolled. You recover an additional level of Exhaustion per long rest. If you are suffering from any other detrimental effect that persists through a long rest, you recover from it at twice the normal rate.
  • Endless Variety: You gain two languages of your choices in addition to Common. Increase any ability score by +1, or choose an extra skill proficiency. Increase any ability score (except one you chose to raise by +1) by +2, or choose an extra Feat. (The options in this feat may be pre-selected by particular subrace/culture options.)

Dwarf Traits

Due to their long lives, dwarves do not share the rapid recovery of humans nor the cultural variety: they are more set in their ways, prone to long consideration, and find it hard to adapt their politics to new ideas. However, they do have a similar ability to bond to others (but are more likely to use it on close family than on friends) and an even more significant case of stubborn refusal to submit to injury.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Dwarves are most likely to use this on family/clan members and on inanimate objects that they consider sacred.
  • Bent but Not Broken: As the Human trait; Dwarves are, if anything, more stubborn than Humans.
  • Deep Dweller: Accustomed to living underground, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to the origin of stonework, you are considered proficient in the History skill and add double your proficiency bonus to the check (instead of your normal proficiency bonus).
  • Children of the Smith: Increase your Constitution score by 2 and your Strength or Wisdom score by 1. You have proficiency in all axe and hammer weapons and with one set of artisan’s tools of your choice.

Elf Traits

Elves live extremely long lives, and value their own very highly. They do not share the strong bonds of humans; it takes a long time to gain the full love and trust of an elf, and even then it is hard for her to risk her own life to save yours. Neither do they share the resilience and recovery of the shorter-lived; elves make it a point to use grace, wit, and craft to avoid being injured at all, for wounds may stick with them for uncomfortably long periods. Strangely, they do share in the variety of humanity, seeming to possess a natural tendency to adapt to the environments.

  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Elves are particularly likely to have these choices pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Superior Training: Due to your long life, you’ve picked up several tricks. You have proficiency in the Perception skill and with four martial weapons. Additionally, gain a cantrip or some other special lore (such as increased speed and hiding ability in the wilderness). These choices are likely to be pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Blood of the Ancients: Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, you have advantages on saving throws against being charmed. Magic cannot put you to sleep, and instead of sleeping you enter a meditative trance for four hours a day (gaining the same benefits that a Human does from eight hours of sleep).
  • Subrace: You have a tightly knit family that favors you above outsiders; gain advantage on all Charisma (Persuasion) and Wisdom (Insight) checks when dealing with other members of your subrace. Your particular subrace provides suggested choices for your Endless Variety and Superior Training traits.

Halfling Traits

Halflings are, in many ways, humans writ small. They share many things in common with their bigger cousins, except for their particular indomitable ruggedness in the face of injury. Instead, they possess their own form of courage and luck.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Halflings are less likely to protect inanimate objects, and more likely to protect dear friends.
  • Life is Too Short: As the Human trait; though they are slightly longer-lived than Humans, Halflings still recover from injury much more quickly than the elder races.
  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Halflings tend to favor Dexterity more highly than Humans, but otherwise have nearly as much variety.
  • Small Body, Giant Heart: You are Small, and your base walking speed is 25 feet, but you may move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours. The courage and luck of larger folk are concentrated within you: you have advantage on saving throws against being frightened, and can reroll any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw when you roll a 1.

Group Skill Checks as Dice Pool


I tried something at my weekend Beyond the Wall game that may need to have a few more iterations before I’m totally happy with it, but seemed to work well enough to mention here.

I’ve never been a fan of using margin of success in D20. For one thing, it makes skills work differently than the other reasons you roll a d20 in the system. When you attack or save, you care about whether you met the target number or not, and often what number the die displays (for auto-miss or crit), but you don’t typically get any benefit from rolling significantly better than the target number. So having to track how much your result exceeded the DC for increased success immediately makes the skill system feel bolted on, like it came from another game.

And, in general, those other games that use margin of success for skill results have some kind of weighting to the roll, such as a dice pool or adding together multiple dice. In those systems, there is usually one level of success that’s much more likely than the others based on how the dice are weighted (e.g., in Fate, you’re very likely to get a margin of success equal to how much your skill exceeds the target, and much less likely to get four higher or four lower than that). But when you use a d20, there’s a 20-point range of margins of success that are equally likely. Particularly for non-iterated checks (like most Knowledge checks), the results can wind up feeling very swingy (e.g., “Sorry, you missed out on getting really useful clues because you rolled low and only just made the DC; you would have gotten much more information if you’d rolled higher.”).

So I was very interested when I noticed (via Shieldhaven using it in his game) that 5e had added* the concept of the group skill check. In the base rules, it’s something you can do when the whole group is trying to accomplish the same thing that requires a skill (e.g., stealth, climbing, etc.). If at least half the party succeeds, everyone succeeds (the higher-skilled individuals are assumed to cover for the lower-skilled).

As written, this is a useful addition that solves a lot of standard issues (such as always having to leave the armor-wearers behind when trying to sneak around). But the variation I tried goes even further:

  • Virtually anything that the whole group could work together on can be a group skill check (e.g., perception, knowledge, persuasion, etc.).
  • Instead of rolling, a character can Help another character, and share the results of that success or failure (in BtW, helping is a specific action that can only be done if you have the skill or spend a Fortune Point, but I don’t think it would break anything if you allowed your D20 variant of choice’s version of helping). You can’t combine helping in this way (i.e., you can’t pile help on the person with the highest skill check to push her to no chance of failure; at least half the party needs to actually roll).
  • Instead of requiring a simple pass/fail based on party size, before the roll the GM has in mind the general spectrum of what it means if no one is successful up to everyone being successful. Very difficult results may require the whole party, easy ones may only require one success, and more successes might grant a better result over the minimum pass.

This essentially winds up splitting the difference between a dice pool roll and a 4e skill challenge. And it allows the GM to give out better results for more successful rolls without any actual roll caring about anything other than pass/fail (and maybe crits, if you use skill crits). Importantly, it doesn’t incentivize low-skill players to avoid participating the way 4e skill challenges did (because each player only gets one roll, so you can’t sit out to let someone else go multiple times, and because helping is as good as succeeding yourself). My players seemed to dig it, so I’ll probably keep experimenting with it. I welcome thoughts on possible improvements in the comments.

* This is the first place I saw it; apologies if it originated somewhere else.

Minor Miscellaneous Items and Fortune-Binding

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This post is especially tailored to Beyond the Wall, and may be less useful if you’re using 5e or Pathfinder. It also starts with an aside to bring in a variation of attunement to the system, to keep characters from hanging on to every single minor miscellaneous item in case it ever proves useful.


Many magic items are “fortune-bound,” and do little or nothing unless the bearer chooses to make them a temporary part of her legend. The bearer must spend a fortune point for one to become tied to her fate (assumed to be spent automatically if kept between adventures, without reducing starting fortune for the next adventure). Each character may only sustain a number of fortune-bound items equal to her maximum fortune points; binding a new item past this limit requires letting another become unbound and inactive.

Certain powerful fortune-bound items may automatically bind to the wielder, forcing lesser items to unbind if it pushes the wielder over the limit, and may even take up more than one “slot” of fortune points. If you put on the One Ring, it’s not going to wait for you to willingly bind it first. But at least they don’t cost fortune points to bind.

Binding an item typically unbinds it to its previous owner, though not in all cases (particularly for powerful items).

In general, weapons, armor, and other such functional items are rarely fortune-bound, but some of their more esoteric abilities might be. Likewise, potions, scrolls, and such consumables also do not require binding: their magic is self-contained and consumed by use. Ultimately, most fortune-bound items are those that provide some kind of selective and intuitive ability: being bound to a wielder’s fortune not only sustains their magic, but allows them to function at the appropriate time (i.e., automatically when the player wants the bonus).

Characters may also take the following new trait:

Signature Item: You have made an item fully part of your own legend. If it is fortune-bound, it does not count against your fortune points (i.e., it’s an “extra” fortune-bound item). If it is lost, it will always find its way back to you. If it is given away, lost without hope of recovery, or broken beyond repair, a replacement of similar utility will eventually make its way to you.

Example Items

Unless otherwise noted:

  • All items below are fortune-bound and charged.
  • The term “reroll” is shorthand for “expend a charge to reroll a failed roll that you just made.”
  • Powers can be activated as a free action when they are appropriate.

The most minor versions of the item can hold one charge, and you can make more powerful versions by allowing them to have more charges. By default, charged items regain all their charges overnight, and may also be recharged by the wielder spending a Fortune Point. Items may, of course, instead regain charges by any mechanism that suits the GM’s whimsy (e.g., a charm of Protection that is only recharged when the wielder suffers the full effects of a critical hit).

The items are presented as form-agnostic powers: since they’re limited to 3-5 per character, body slots don’t particularly matter. If the rogue wants to wear five rings, each with a different power, she should feel free to do so.

  • Animal Friendship: Reroll a Charisma check involving animals and other beasts of limited intelligence.
  • Biting: Expend one or more charges to increase the damage you deal with an attack or spell by +2 per charge (after rolling damage); this can at most double the damage dealt.
  • Blinking: Expend one or more charges as an action. You disappear from this reality into a nearby one. You cannot act while out of reality, but very few things can target you. You return to reality at the start of your turn after a number of turns equal to the charges expended.
  • Cantrips: Reroll a check involving activating a cantrip.
  • Crafting: Reroll a check involving crafting an item.
  • Deception: Reroll a check involving telling a lie, maintaining a disguise, or sneaking.
  • Health: Reroll a saving throw involving resisting a disease.
  • Hunting: Reroll a check involving following tracks, noticing things in the wilderness, surviving in the wilderness, or finding game animals.
  • Leadership: Reroll a Charisma check involving commanding or persuading followers.
  • Manners: Reroll a Charisma check involving etiquette, politics, or otherwise fitting in (either at court or on the streets).
  • Mind Shielding: Automatically expend a charge whenever subjected to a magical effect that would read your mind. That particular instance has no effect on you (e.g., if a spell, it would not work even with a long duration, but could be cast again).
  • Natural Armor: Expend one or more charges as an action (or as a free action simultaneous with taking your first action after the start of a combat). Increase your AC by an amount equal to the expended charges for the next ten minutes.
  • Perception: Reroll a Wisdom check involving noticing sensory data (actively or passively).
  • Persuasion: Reroll a Charisma check involving persuading, intimidating, or seducing an intelligent being.
  • Precision: Expend one or more charges immediately before making an attack roll to increase your result by +2 per charge expended.
  • Presentation: Reroll a check involving a performance.
  • Protection: Expend a charge to step down the success of an attack roll against you by one step (before damage is rolled) or step up the success of a saving throw you’ve made by one step (before the effects are declared) similar to the rules for sacrificing a shield.
  • Recall: Reroll an Intelligence check involving a lore or knowledge.
  • Regeneration: Expend a charge on your turn (maximum of one charge per turn) to heal hit points equal to your total level/hit dice.
  • Resistance, [Energy Type]: Expend a charge to halve a single instance of damage you’re about to take of the particular type, after damage is declared.
  • Rituals: Reroll a check involving casting a ritual.
  • Seeing: Expend a charge to detect all hidden, illusionary, invisible, or out-of-phase things within a 100 square foot area within viewing range (it lasts for a turn and that’s enough for a careful scan of such an area). Depending on the form-factor of the item, this may require looking through it.
  • Springing: Expend a charge to double the height and distance of a single jump.
  • Stoneskin: Activate this item as an action. While active, each time you take damage, halve it and expend a charge. Deactivate the item as a free action on your turn (it deactivates automatically when all charges are expended).
  • Striding: Expend a charge to double the distance you can move in a turn.
  • Sustenance: Expend a charge to act as if you had a single nourishing meal (3 charges/day to go completely without food and water).
  • Thievery: Reroll a Dexterity check involving locks, traps, sleight-of-hand, or sneaking.
  • Vigor: Reroll a Strength or Constitution check involving athleticism or raw physical potence.
  • Warmth: Expend a charge to ignore a single instance of damage to you from cold weather.

Beyond the Wall: Criticals and Gear Damage

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Beyond the Wall doesn’t normally have any rules for criticals (success or failure) or for gear damage. But, pursuant to my last couple of posts, I’d like to increase item turnover and adding those seems like a good first step for doing so. These are optional rules for Beyond the Wall (or any other low fantasy d20 game, particularly ones that don’t already have critical rules). They add some extra combat complication, but are likely to be rare enough occurrences (and mostly player-directed) that it shouldn’t slow down play too much to reference them when they do come up.

Critical Results

The Success Hierarchy

Whenever the rules below refer to stepping up or down a level of success, they’re referring to the following progression:

  • Critical Success: Usually has twice the normal level of success
  • Success: A normal successful result
  • Partial Success: Usually has half the normal level of success, or success with consequences
  • Failure: A normal unsuccessful result
  • Critical Failure: A really bad failure

When rolling normally, a partial success is only possible if a result steps up a failure or steps down a success. If you’re using the rules for acting cautiously, it also occurs when one die succeeds and the other fails. Remember that, when acting cautiously, you have to get double 20s or double 1s to trigger a critical result.

According to the normal Beyond the Wall rules, an extreme result automatically succeeds or fails (e.g., 20 always succeeds on attacks and saves, and always fails on ability checks). Under these rules, an extreme result also triggers a critical result, unless there was no chance of success or failure except for the automatic one. For example, if your modified target number for an ability check is 20+, a 20 still fails but is not a critical failure. Similarly, if a low ability and high difficulty modifier have reduced your chance of success to 0 or less, a 1 still succeeds but is not a critical success. This will usually not come up for attacks and saves, but applies if it does.

Critical Success

A critical success usually has twice the normal effect.

  • For ability checks, it has twice the normal effect: either significantly better success, half the normal time, or half the normal materials depending on what makes the most sense to the GM.
  • For saves, not only was the dangerous effect avoided, but the character gains a +2 bonus that can be used within the next round to attack or circumvent the source that triggered the save (e.g., +2 to attack the caster of a spell,  +2 to a check to disarm or bypass a trap, etc.)
  • For attacks, it does double damage (just double the rolled total rather than rolling twice).

Critical Failure

A critical failure may result in something unusually bad happening from a failure.

For ability checks and saves, it presents the GM an opportunity: if the GM offers the failing character a fortune point, and it is accepted, the GM may narrate a particularly bad level of failure. Players may not spend fortune points to reroll after accepting a critical failure opportunity, and are stuck with whatever the GM describes. A player in direct opposition to an NPC may pay one of her own fortune points to trigger an opportunity caused by that NPC (the NPC does not get the fortune point, it is just spent); this will usually only happen when the player does something that forces the NPC to save, or the player is in a contested ability check of some kind with the NPC.

For attacks, a critical failure forces the character to roll for a fumble result. Roll 2d20 as if acting cautiously, attempting to get 11+ for a success, and compare the result to the following chart:

  • Critical Success: You are knocked fortuitously off-balance, and gain a +2 to your next attack against the same target within a round.
  • Success: Your failure is a normal one, with no additional effect.
  • Partial Success: You are knocked off-balance, and take a -2 to all attacks until you spend a round recovering your balance (this is cumulative if you suffer multiple off-balance results before taking time to recover).
  • Failure: You are disarmed. It will take you a full round to recover your weapon (and certain terrain may make this even harder).
  • Critical Failure: Your weapon is broken and useless until repaired.

Other Sources of Gear Damage

Sacrifice Weapon

After rolling an attack (but before rolling damage), you may choose to have your weapon break to increase the level of success by one step (i.e., a failure becomes a partial success, a partial success becomes a full success, or a full success becomes a critical success). The attack does its damage and then the weapon is broken; you are essentially breaking your weapon for additional force or advantage. At the GM’s option, this may not work for weapons harvested from the environment for free (because they’re not brittle enough to shatter, and also because this is a rule designed to actually cost the player something), or weapons that are unbreakable.

Sacrifice Shield

After an attack is rolled against you (but before damage is rolled), you may choose to have your shield break to decrease the level of success by a number of steps equal to the shield’s AC bonus (e.g., a +2 AC reinforced shield turns a critical success into a partial success and a partial success into a critical failure, while a regular +1 AC shield only reduces a critical success to a regular success or a partial success into a failure). The GM may choose to have this not work against certain attacks that would bypass the shield

You may also use this option on saves made against a source that could logically be blocked by a shield (e.g., breath weapons, traps, etc.). In that case, step up your save’s level of success by the shield’s AC bonus.

Sacrifice Armor

After an attack deals damage to you, you may choose to have your armor break to reduce the damage. Divide the dealt damage by the AC bonus of your armor (e.g., by two for +2 leather armor, by four for +4 chain, etc.). You lose the armor’s AC bonus for subsequent attacks until the armor is repaired.

Attack to Strike a Weapon

As a combat option, you may make an attack to strike your opponent’s weapon instead of the opponent. Make an attack against the target’s Strength or Dexterity (whichever is higher). Use the opposite of the fumble chart for your result (i.e., fumble gives the target a bonus, failure has no effect, partial success knocks the target off balance, success disarms the target, and critical success breaks the target’s weapon). If your weapon’s damage die is smaller than the target’s, reduce your success by one step (it’s hard to disarm or break a sword with a dagger). If you’re wielding your weapon in two hands and the target is not, increase your success by one step (it’s easy to disarm or break a dagger with a greatsword).

The “Fragile” Quality

Some weapons may be considered “fragile.” This is common for primitive materials like glass, bone, and stone. Treat all “disarmed” results on fragile weapons as “broken.”

Nonsensical Results

Some results may not make sense for certain weapons. If a target has claws or other natural weapons, a disarm result doesn’t make sense. If the target’s weapon has the unbreakable ability, a break result doesn’t make sense. In these and similar cases, step down the result to the first result that does make sense.

Repairing and Refitting Gear


Weapons can only be repaired in the field if it makes logical sense (such as for hafted weapons in a forest with available woodworking tools).

Shields cannot be repaired in the field if broken.

Armor can be partially repaired in the field with an Intelligence (Smithing) check; in this case, it regains half its normal AC bonus. If the wearer chooses to sacrifice it again, it can only be repaired up to half that AC bonus, and so on (e.g., you can sacrifice a +4 AC chain armor twice in the field before it’s down to only +1 AC after repair and no longer worth sacrificing).

In town, a broken weapon, armor, or shield costs about half its normal value to repair (possibly less with a friendly smith or if the character has the skill and tools to try to repair it herself).


Found weapons and shields are generally usable by anyone (unless they are sized for particularly small or large creatures). Armor, however, is generally customized for an individual. Unless the GM decides that the armor was fitted to someone with almost exactly the same proportions as the character using it, treat it as broken when found (this is particularly true if it was looted from a slain opponent, who probably took some hits to it in the fight). As normal, the character may make an Intelligence (Smithing) check to try to “repair” it in the field (adjusting it so it can be worn with some benefit), and it costs half its base value to refit it in town.

Minor Weapons


Related to last week’s post, one of the big issues with item loss is that 3.x created very attractive magic items that had bonuses that could be worked directly into the sheet. When you have a +3, Flaming weapon, everything about that is permanently incorporated into your weapon block. It feels like a part of your character. Taking it away feels like losing stats.

In addition, it creates an impetus to price every magical effect (exacerbated by 3.x‘s formalized item economy), and there are definite winners and losers when you do that. Interesting but highly situational effects get comparison-shopped out of use. You’d only deliberately create a Ghost Touch weapon if you were fighting a ton of incorporeal creatures, and you might use it on a weapon that you got as treasure, but each time you have a downtime you’re going to think about selling it to get something with a more consistently useful bonus.

So for my upcoming Beyond the Wall campaign, I’m thinking about placing a flat moratorium on enhancement bonuses and any item abilities that provide some other kind of reliable bonus (of the kind that can easily be tagged to a stat line such as +1d6 fire). Instead, items will hopefully be completely focused on their abilities, and a cool item with an ability you like might be something you hang onto throughout your career (meanwhile, items you use less often won’t cause emotional pain when they’re lost).

Below is some tinkering with how this will work for weapons.

Minor Abilities

Most 3.x weapon abilities that don’t provide a flat bonus to attack or damage are probably directly useful, particularly Brilliant Energy, Dancing, Distance, Ghost Touch, Keen, Returning, Seeking, Spell Storing, and Throwing. New abilities could include:

  • Bane: This ability is usually contingent. Creatures damaged by the weapon suffer a penalty of 2 to all d20 rolls the subsequent round (this penalty stacks from multiple hits from bane weapons). If the weapon is held to a creature’s skin (or a contingent creature tries to wield it), the penalty is ongoing and the creature takes one point of damage per minute.
  • Blessed: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to holy items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons.
  • Elemental: This weapon sheds an energy of some type (e.g., fire, cold, electricity). Its damage is treated as that type against creatures vulnerable to it, and it may, at the GM’s option, deal more damage than a normal weapon against creatures resistant to physical damage (e.g., a cold steel sword may do nearly as well as a silver sword against lycanthropes, but does nothing extra against a winter fae). The wielder may also use the energy for utility purposes (e.g., a fire weapon emits light and ignites things like a torch, a cold weapon can be used to slowly make ice, and an electricity weapon could be used to power ancient mechanisms).
  • Functional: This weapon is especially useful for a named function as a tool. A slashing weapon may be especially good at cutting underbrush or felling trees, while a bludgeoning one may be particularly good at smashing through obstructions. It grants a +2 bonus to skill checks to perform the task when the GM doesn’t let it succeed automatically.
  • Life-Drinking: A creature slain by this weapon heals the wielder a number of HP equal to the creature’s hit dice or level.
  • Lightweight: This weapon can be wielded far more easily than its form-factor implies. Two-handed weapons can be wielded in one hand, and one-handed weapons can be treated as light (sufficiently to be used by smaller characters or easily off-handed).
  • Magic: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to magic items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons. Unless an item specifically references this ability, possession of other abilities does not imply that it is sufficiently magic for bypassing resistances.
  • Puncturing: This ability is usually contingent. The weapon’s attacks ignore the target’s bonus from worn or natural armor (but not from a dexterity or other bonuses to AC; i.e., make a touch attack in 3.x parlance).
  • Slaying: This ability is usually contingent. After rolling damage against a target, if double that amount of damage would drop the creature to 0 or fewer HP, the creature immediately dies; if it would not, the rolled damage is applied normally. For example, against a target with 10 HP remaining, attacks that deal 4 or less damage work normally, while attacks that deal 5 or more damage kill the target.
  • Unbreakable: When wielded in combat, this weapon cannot be broken (by directed attacks or misfortune). It is up to the GM whether this effect can be used for utility purposes (e.g., bracing something to keep it closed or otherwise stuck).
  • Warning: This ability is usually contingent upon type. The weapon glows or otherwise does something to notify the wielder of nearby threats.


Many abilities are contingent on something. A weapon can have different contingencies for different abilities.

  • Charged: The weapon must be charged through some action, and retains the ability for a certain period afterward and/or until a certain action expends the charge.
  • Code: The ability only functions while the wielder maintains a code relevant to the creation of the weapon.
  • Desperation: The ability only functions when the wielder has been reduced to half or fewer HP.
  • Environment: The ability only functions in a specific terrain (e.g., forest) or other environmental condition (e.g., outside in a storm).
  • Inherited: The ability only functions if the wielder is of a particular race or specific lineage (possibly including being trained in particular class or order rather than bloodline).
  • Situational: The ability only functions under some other quantifiable situation (e.g., during the day, against an oathbreaker, etc.).
  • Type: The ability only functions against a particular race or other specific description of target type. If the target is usually only vulnerable to a particular material, the weapon is almost always made of that material (e.g., lycanthrope-bane weapons are almost always made of silver).
  • Unbowed: The ability only functions when the wielder is unwounded/at full HP.

Example Weapons

  • Blood Drinker: This weapon (usually a sword or dagger) may be charged by the wielder taking damage as a free action (cutting oneself on the blade). While charged, it is slaying and life-drinking until it has slain a target or the blood dries. The damage taken by the wielder starts at one HP, and increases by one for each time it is used in a day.
  • Coffin Nail: This iron dagger may be charged by leaving it buried under a crossroads during the night of the full moon. While charged, it is bane, ghost touch, magic, and slaying against undead. The charge ends after a full cycle of the moon or once it has slain a single undead. Due to its bane property, undead that cannot be permanently slain can at least be buried under a crossroads with the nail in their hearts (the ongoing damage of the weapon keeping them quiescent).
  • Commoner’s Holdout: This small, concealable weapon is slaying and puncturing when the wielder is suffering desperation.
  • Family Weapon: This weapon is unbreakable while the wielder maintains the family code, magic when wielded by an inheritor of the family, and may also have other powers related to the family’s history.
  • Hedgecutter: This functional weapon (a sword or axe) is extremely good at cutting through vines, thorns, and other undergrowth to harvest them or forge a trail. It is bane and puncturing against plant creatures.
  • Sidhe Sword: This silver blade was forged for fae nobility. It is unbreakable against any situation other than cold iron. When wielded by an inheritor with fae blood, it often displays other powers.
  • Siegebreaker: This large mace or mattock is functional at destroying doors, walls, and other fortifications. It is slaying and puncturing against construct creatures. Some say it is lightweight for those that follow the right code.

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