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.

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The Skip-Combat Dice

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I’ve subscribed to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths since the beginning, and run quite a few of them. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the experience is the accountancy of combats involved in published modules of all stripes: especially since D&D 3.0 set forth the logic of shooting for four-to-five even-CR encounters per day and 13 such encounters to level, the traditional format of modules has been to pad the content with fights that aren’t particularly interesting. Sure, the module authors try to make them interesting, with all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day there can only be so many encounters that are relevant to the story arc, and a bunch of things that are in the way.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if I were more willing to retune encounters to be a more interesting fit for my party, instead of speed bumps. Brandes does a lot of this kind of thing: his games feature fewer, more challenging fights. But, to me, the main virtue of purchasing an adventure path is that most of the crunchy work has been done for me, and if I’m going to adjust all the combats it’s not much of a stretch to just doing the whole thing myself.

A few years ago, a Bioware employee stirred up a controversy about her suggestion that story-focused players in CRPGs be able to skip combat as easily as combat-focused players skip through conversations. At the risk of creating the same flavor of offense, I think this kind of thing could work in D&D as easily as in a CRPG. I’ve actually made a stab at something similar before, aimed more at trash encounters, but it’s not exactly a total solution. This week’s system is simpler and thus easier to remember, but more encompassing. It steps away from trying to convert to resources directly, using modifiers that are optional to convert back into D&D stats.

Because, in general, this is for skipping combat all the time. The vast majority of module fights are foregone conclusions, designed to eat up time at the table and amuse a group that wants to shift between roleplay and tactical skirmish wargame. But my theory is that an adventure path could spend way more time on the things I and many of my players like—roleplay, strategy, and investigation—if combats, possibly all combats, were skippable in a way that seems fair.

Core System

Each player character can be in one of four states:

  • Rested: This is the beginning state, and the state to which most PCs return after plenty of rest. It represents a character with full heath, spells, and abilities.
  • Spent: This state indicates that the character has spent a significant portion of resources, in an abstract way. For a spellcaster or other character type with a lot of per-rest abilities, it indicates most of them have been used. For martial characters, it may actually indicate that health is starting to dwindle and the party’s healers are running low on healing. For certain encounters, it may indicate longer-term negative conditions.
  • Injured: By this point, the character has expended almost all rest-renewable options, and is getting low on health with no easy way to get it back.
  • Incapacitated: A character in this state is out of health or otherwise taken out. In a truly dire fight where the stakes were announced beforehand, the character might be dead.

For each combat, each player rolls a single Fudge/Fate die, and the party totals the results and adds it to their party level (e.g., if you’re 6th level and roll a net +2 on all the dice, you count as 8th level):

  • If the result is equal or greater than the encounter level, the party triumphed with no particular issues and only negligible expenditure of resources (these are the fights where everyone wins initiative and nukes the monster before it even gets to go, barely even using any spells).
  • If the result is less than the encounter level, the difference is resource drain, as described below.

If the fight used up resources:

  • In order of the players whose dice rolled lowest, assess a -1 to the state counter. Do this for one player per point of the difference. For example, if you had a -3 to the encounter level, three PCs expend resources, starting with the ones that rolled -1 (or the ones that rolled 0, if somehow nobody rolled negatives and it still went against you). For ties on the dice, impact the least injured characters first (e.g., if two players rolled -1 and only one needs to expend resources, the one that’s Rested will take the hit if the other one was Spent).
  • If the number is greater than the party size, wrap back around until it’s used up.

The GM, with input from the players, then narrates the results of the fight. If it went very well, describe a flawless victory with the players that rolled +1 doing particularly awesome things and the ones that rolled -1s squeaking by as their mistakes didn’t cost the party. For results of -1 to -4 total, describe a more brutal fight, with the players that lost resources getting the worse end of things and players that rolled +1 doing useful things that swung the fight their way. For results of -5 or worse, it might have actually been a loss, with the GM describing how the PCs had to cut and run to escape foes too mighty for them (this is the “it’s only 10 levels above us and we’re rested, the worst that could happen is a couple of us get incapacitated, but we still win” rule; mild negatives are usually a win, but this isn’t an excuse to take stupid risks).

Each character typically recovers by one state level when resting overnight.

Additional Options

If you want to model how much an extra PC or two helps out in modules tuned for four-member parties, ignore one -1 on the dice for each additional party member past four. For example, with five members a -1 -1 0 0 +1 result is read as a 0 instead of a -1 total, but a 0 0 0 +1 +1 is still just a +2.

If you want to create more of a death spiral, assess the following penalties at reduced states:

  • Spent: A rolled 0 counts as a -1.
  • Injured: A rolled +1 counts as a 0 (and the effects of Spent).
  • Incapacitated: Automatically contribute a -1 (don’t roll).

To simulate consumable magic items helping a fight, grant items that can be discharged or consumed to allow rerolls/best-of-two (for an individual player or the whole party) or flat out additional pluses to the party effective level.

To encourage strategic play, grant similar bonuses to magic items for advanced preparation that would make a big difference in the fight if you were actually to play it out.

Math Notes

I haven’t done a deep model of the stats on this, but my simple “lots of random results in a spreadsheet” check indicates that this should work fairly close to the four-to-five encounter math, particularly if you assess penalties for worse states. In particular, what should happen is that (assuming mostly even-level fights) there will be a couple of fights that cause no problems whatsoever, a couple with mild resource drain, and maybe one with a larger hit. After a few fights, even if only a couple of members of the party are Spent, they should start weighing the risk of the next fight rolling low enough to knock someone to Injured (which requires another day to recover), and thinking about camping. In situations where you’ve engineered time pressure, it should make the players very nervous about fighting things they don’t need to fight, and whether they should plow deeper into the state tracker to go ahead and get things done.

And, note again, this is all very abstract. I don’t expect you to try to model this back out to the standard trait system. In fact, it’s possible that you could do this whole thing with extremely minimalist stats that gloss the D&D/Pathfinder tropes (“I am a level X Y of race Z”) without needing to fiddle with the math. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom fiddling with the math is a huge part of the fun, but this isn’t really for them… all of D&D is normally for them.

Monster Hunter Hack

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I finally burned through enough of my TV backlog to start watching Supernatural from the beginning. One of the interesting things about the show setup is that most monsters seem more than a match for even the most elite of humans (at least in season 1; I’ve heard there may be a bit of power creep later). Even the guy with the best combat training in the world is screwed going up against any monster, if he doesn’t have tools to exploit their weaknesses. The monster hunters that scare the things that go bump in the night don’t do so because they’re inherently badass, and able to win a straight fight. Instead, competence is defined by knowledge of monster weaknesses, skill at exploiting them, access to materials and rituals, and ability to track them while remaining off the grid.

This is not typical for RPGs.

Normal character advancement, particularly in level-based games but even in skill-based ones, allows an ongoing ramping of combat capability. Something that is a tough fight when you start out becomes a speedbump later on, just based on sheer defense and offense.

This rules hack looks to move the cheese a bit: combat capability becomes directly tied to knowledge of creature weaknesses and ability to exploit them. Importantly, even a highly trained hunter isn’t able to mow through a squad of cops or soldiers, and is also vulnerable to unexpected or unknown monstrous threats. Your power is highly invested in your ability to cheat against the supernatural, not in becoming superhuman yourself.

The system is phrased generically, for a skill-based game with a fairly linear progression of trait ratings to power level. It probably works directly with something like Storyteller or Unisystem, but needs some additional hacking for other systems with different ways of expressing competence. It’s also deliberately simple, so it’s easy to make threats on the fly. If you prize more simulationist outputs, it makes sense to move the benefits into specific things like damage and damage resistance.

Core System Elements

  • Supernatural creatures generally have combat dice pools beyond the maximum available to even highly-trained mortals. In a stand-up fight, even the weakest creature has an advantage against a mortal with maxed-out combat traits. The most powerful creatures have somewhere around double the trait total available to mortals (e.g., in Storyteller, creatures generally have combat pools from 11-20).
  • Characters can buy Lore skills for different creature types. These are fairly granular by type: knowing how to fight vampires doesn’t help against witches or ghosts, and may not even help against ghouls. The GM should create these skills based on similarities of in-setting combat capabilities and weaknesses. For things that are similar, but not totally similar, you might allow the player to apply the similar lore at a penalty, or just roll things up into hierarchical groups (e.g., having good ratings in Vampire, Ghoul, and Zombie lore also buys up a Corporeal Undead catchall that applies to a newly encountered undead monster).
  • Characters can also buy gear access traits, which represent having reliable, fast, cheap sources for custom weaponry, ritual components, and other monster-hunting tools. These are broken up by rough classification as makes sense to the GM (e.g., Custom Metal Weapons, Herbs and Oils, Unusual Ammunition, Ritual Tools, etc.; basically anything you might be like, “I know somebody that can probably get us…”). Improving these specific gear access traits should also gradually improve a Standard Loadout trait that represents common monster-hunting tools easy to hand; high ratings represent having highly-customized weapons good against a wide range of threats, and other gear that’s been extremely efficiently arranged to be quick and easy to hand. You might make these a shared expenditure for the whole party.
  • Experience pricing should make it cheap enough to have an extensive assortment of Lores and Gear traits by the end of the campaign, along with a moderate improvement in non-hunting traits.

Fighting Monsters

  • If you are blindsided by a monster and you can barely figure out what you’re dealing with, your combat total is your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout if that’s smaller than your normal combat total. For example, if you’re jumped by a vampire, your normal Dex + Melee 7 is superseded by your Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 4. Monsters go through highly trained combatants with no monster lore just as easily as total bystanders, because they’re all basically limited to trait 0s due to their lack of lore and gear.
  • If you’re going on the offensive with a solid idea of what the target is weak to (or at least have time to set up an intentional defensible position) you can instead add your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout to your total. In the original example, Dex + Melee + Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 11 is used to attack vampires on purpose.
  • If you have a lot of time to prepare, you can replace everyone you equip’s Standard Loadout with a higher total based on acquiring customized exploits (the rolls and costs involved left as an exercise for the GM, based on the world simulation and how a monster’s specific weaknesses work; you may need to combine weapons, ammo, herbs, etc. to get the right mix of exploits).
  • Even neophyte hunters/interested bystanders/potential victims with Lore 0 can be included in the second and third point with a briefing by a character with the right Lore. A non-superstitious combat badass might go down as easily to a vampire as anyone else when blindsided, but becomes a big asset when told, “Those were vampires. Here are the things you need in order to kill them…” (Lore remains relevant, as it covers knowing a lot of very specific tricks and maneuvers beyond just a general weakness overview.)

Other Considerations

For the full Supernatural feel, it’s also worth emphasizing investigative traits and things that let you escape from danger and remain hidden from organized foes until you’re ready to strike. Even a totally clued-in master hunter would prefer to attack from surprise rather than being ambushed.

D&D/Pathfinder: Simplifying Trash Encounters

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Background

The Encounter Level system that was instituted for 3.0 and carries through 3.5 and Pathfinder is based on a very simple concept: an equal level encounter should use up about a fifth of the party’s resources. The first encounter of the day has very little chance of resulting in failure, but each successive one becomes a little bit more dangerous, and five equal level encounters should have ground them down and have a real chance at killing one or more party members.

Of course, judging an encounter level is far less precise in practice, and you can go up and down in difficulty in various ways, but the consequence of the system is that modules tend to include, in MMO parlance, trash encounters. These are fights that are not particularly hard, and have an almost negligible chance of seriously impacting the party, but serve to wear down the party a little bit to make later encounters more of a threat. Even an encounter that doesn’t successfully damage a single PC may have caused one or more players to blow a per day ability or expend some spells, leaving less resources available for later encounters.

The problem with these things is that 3.x combat is not particularly zippy. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that your players are going to kill the creature in the first round with very little effort, there’s still a chance that it’ll manage to do something before it dies. So you have to set up the map and minis, roll initiative, and have the players start making tactical decisions as if this was a major fight (which, as far as they know, it might be). Even a total rout, thus, takes session time.

Geek Related has a post on experience points that suggests a neat idea: have the players level up on a schedule fixed on real time (where they meet the max level for the campaign in about as much time as you want to run it). If they’re having a hard time with a section, they take it slow and level up earlier than the adventure series expects, thus making it easier to get through difficulties. If they’re having an easy run, they’ll get ahead of the expected level and start having to slow back down as they become increasingly underleveled. But all of this assumes that outleveling something would allow you to “catch back up” due to the ease of encounters, and I think there might be a point where the minimum time to set up and play out even incredibly easy encounters may put you further into the hole than you’d like.

And even if you’re not using a system like that, playing with limited time for a session means that you’d probably like to end on something interesting for the night. I frequently find myself running into “well, we have about half an hour left, and that’s probably not enough time if you start a fight in the next room, so let’s break until next week.” And that’s often due to “wasting time” on trash encounters.

So this is a system that attempts to abstract encounters that are only threatening in the aggregate so they have an effect on the PCs’ resources without taking much time to play out.

The System

As a GM, you can use this system for any combat in a module that you feel would take more time to play out than it justifies. That is, it’s not particularly interesting, doesn’t advance the plot, and/or is little more than a speedbump to the PCs. This uses Encounter Level and treats the entire combat as that single number, rather than using the individual enemies and CRs in the fight (and if the EL isn’t attached to the encounter for you, you’ll need to use your edition’s math for determining the EL from multiple creatures’ CRs). It will usually be used for ELs lower than the Average Party Level (APL), but includes notes for equal or higher ELs (for if the fight is really boring and unlikely to seriously hinder the party).

Subtract the APL from the EL:

  • -4 or worse: 0 checks, no experience points (this isn’t even a speedbump)
  • -3: 1 check, half experience
  • -2: 2 checks
  • -1: 3 checks
  • 0: 4 checks
  • +1: 6 checks
  • +2: 8 checks
  • +3 or greater: You should probably play this out, even if it’s boring

The checks listed are per party member, and represent a chance of that party member taking damage or expending resources.

For most monsters, they’re simple attacks vs. AC, using the EL as the attack bonus. If the attack hits, it does twice the EL in hit point damage. Like normal attacks, it misses automatically on a 1 and automatically hits and has a chance to crit (doing double damage) on a 20 (don’t use expanded critical threat range, as that’s probably paid for somewhere else in the EL).

Before they are rolled, party members can choose to take attack checks due other party members onto themselves. For example, the party tank might choose to just have all the checks rolled against him. The balancing factor is that, in their normal distribution, the checks are usually unlikely to kill any one party member unless already seriously injured, but if you take a bunch of them thinking your high AC and HP will save you, you could still die to a string of lucky rolls.

If there are enemies in the encounter that use spells or abilities that call for saves, you can have one or more of the checks instead be an appropriate saving throw. This is rolled by each player, and is made at a DC equal to 10 + EL. A successful save means only half damage (equal to EL), while a failure is normal damage (double EL). Evasion and similar effects apply normally. Party members may not choose to take one another’s checks for saves (as they often indicate AoEs or ranged attacks that are hard to interpose against).

For both attack checks and save checks, players may choose to expend resources instead of taking the checks:

  • Highly limited per day abilities (such as Smite Evil or Wild Shape), remove one check from all party members.
  • Abilities with many uses per day or rounds per day (e.g., Bardic Music, Rage, Ki Pool, bloodline/school/domain basic attacks) require that the players spend uses/rounds equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Casters may expend total spell levels equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Players can mix and match between these options, each contributing uses, rounds, and spell levels to total up to a certain number of checks removed.
  • If there is a mix between attack and save checks, the players can specify which they’re removing (but have to remove the same ones from all players).

For example, the players are fighting a single Gorgon (EL 8) when they are 9th level. It’s -1 to their APL, so they’re owed three checks. The GM decides that two of those are attacks, and one is a Fortitude save from the breath weapon). The paladin expends a Smite Evil* to reduce that to two checks (removing the save check). The bard uses two rounds of music, the barbarian two rounds of rage, and the wizard a 2nd level spell, a 1st level spell, and a use of his school ability to eliminate another check. The party is left with one check each, and the paladin and barbarian each take two attacks, leaving the bard and wizard to take none.

This system may not always make perfect sense on a per-encounter basis (e.g., a monster with only single-target attacks that would probably focus on one target manages to do a little damage to everyone), but it should even out in the long run. The goal is ultimately to provide some kind of structure to: “this is boring but somehow related to the balance of this adventure so we can’t skip it entirely; so lose some resources, gain some experience, and let’s move on.”

* The paladin in your game doesn’t blow his smites reflexively on seeing a scary monster even if it’s not evil? The one in mine does.

D20: Yet Another Wounds System

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Harbinger’s post about his system, his inclusion of wounds similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, and the discussion therein got me thinking about wound systems. I’m generally not a fan of them as a player, but I recognize their use in making a game grittier, and I’ve come up with a version before. This version is a little more based on my dislike of having to choose whether or not to take a wound to reduce damage, but still liking the idea of wounds reducing damage (thus making them less terrible for players than taking full damage and a wound). It’s also got some elements from critical hit tables. This probably works best for grittier games with relatively low HP totals, particularly something like D20 Modern.

Taking Wounds

A character takes a wound whenever hit points would be reduced to 0 or less by incoming damage. Optionally, a wound threshold might exist where any damage over a certain amount (e.g., half hit points or Con total) automatically results in a wound.

When you take a wound, halve the damage that triggered it. For example, if you take 19 points of damage and you have 12 HP remaining, take 9 damage and a wound (leaving you with 3 HP).

If the halved damage is still enough to reduce you to 0 or negative HP, you take the damage (and fall unconscious if you go under 0). However, there is no innate bleed out when at negative HP: if you don’t get a wound that causes bleeding, you are automatically stable at the negative HP total. You’ll still take wounds on any subsequent damage, and die at the normal negative total.

Effects of Wounds

Wounds are rolled on a chart based on damage type as described below. Each entry on the chart has four factors:

  • The descriptive name of the wound
  • The DC for treating and recovering from the wound
  • The effect the wound has until it is treated
  • The effect the wound has until it is fully healed (which stacks with the untreated effect on a fresh wound)

Wounds can have several types of effects:

  • A penalty to one or more traits
  • Bleeding
  • Shock
  • Standard effects (such as Staggered or Nauseated)
  • Instant death

Most of those are self explanatory, but the two new or modified effects are Bleeding and Shock.

Bleeding is additional HP damage per round (which can never trigger additional wounds). Make a Heal check as a Standard action to slow the bleeding (DC at the DC of the wound; +5 for healing yourself) to per minute instead of per round. This is essentially just putting pressure on the wound, and it will resume bleeding at full speed if the character doesn’t Concentrate (giving up a move action to maintain pressure). See below for truly treating the wound. It is up to the GM (and based on how common magic is) to decide whether magical healing ends Bleeding.

Shock means that the character is Staggered and at -4 to all actions. The character takes one Con damage per minute until the condition is treated.

Treating and Recovering from Wounds

Treating a wound is a Heal check that requires an uninterrupted minute of work (the DC is the standard DC of the wound). The character also gets a Fort save against the same DC once every ten minutes if it remains untreated (which may be way too long for Bleeding and Shock, but is allowed if the character makes it ten minutes) to recover naturally.

Once per week, the character gets to try to recover from the lowest DC wound he or she currently has. This is a Fort save against the wound’s DC. If the character is under bed rest with healing, the attending physician can make a Heal check in place of the Fort save. If the character has multiple wounds, only one can be healed per week.

Spells like Restoration essentially give an instant Heal check or Fortitude save to the target (in addition to natural healing), and this overcomes the one-per-week rule (but usually only allows one per spell).

Example Wound Charts

To generate a result, roll 2d10, keep the lowest die, and add the total number of other wounds the character has (i.e., wounds get nastier the more wounded you already are).

Slashing Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Shallow Cut 10 Bleeding 1 -1 Fort vs. infections and contact poisons
3-5 Leg Wound 15 Bleeding 1, -5 ft. Movement -5 ft. Movement (stacks with Untreated)
6-10 Bleeding Wound 20 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
11+ Severed Arm 25 Bleeding 3 -4 all actions; even when recovered, the character is still missing the arm

Piercing Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Flesh Wound 10 Bleeding 1 -1 Fort vs. infections and contact poisons
3-5 Deep Gouge 15 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
6-10 Torso Puncture 20 Bleeding 2, Shock -3 all actions (from pain)
11+ Heart or Head 25 Bleeding 3, Shock, Instant Death without Fort save at the DC -4 all actions

Bludgeoning Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Bruised 10 -1 all actions (from pain) None (just serves as a wound to recover before more serious wounds)
3-5 Broken Arm 15 -4 all actions (from pain) -2 all actions with broken arm
6-10 Maimed 20 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
11+ Crushed Skull 25 Unconscious until treated, Instant Death without Fort save at the DC -4 all actions

Fantasy Combat Energy Types

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Rob Donoghue had a cool post last week about using different classes of mana to power 4e-style powers. The idea is that your more powerful (“encounter” and “daily”) powers cost mana that’s generated by using your less powerful (“at will”) abilities. In addition to nicely solving the problem with alpha strikes, or just people using up their cool powers and getting bored when they get down to at wills, it also removes a bit of the metaness of such powers. That is, instead of something arbitrarily usable only once per day or per combat, it’s at least now something that has an in-story rationale (even if that rationale is a mostly gamist mana pool).

I haven’t played much Magic, but I’ve been playing a lot of Guild Wars 2 and some Warhammer Fantasy lately. Thus, the following energy categories leaped almost fully formed into my brain.

Fury/Rage/Adrenaline

The purview mostly of heavily armed and armored warriors, this energy is powered by battle lust and adrenaline. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit harder and shrug off pain.

One point is generated whenever the character is hit by an attack (even if the damage is reduced to nothing). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Power Attack (trading attack for damage) and Wild Blow (trading defense for damage).

Momentum/Initiative

Meanwhile, lightly armored physical characters tend to rely on the “energy” of motion and staying ahead of the opponent. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit more easily, maneuver the opponent, stay out of harm’s way, and act sooner in the turn order.

One point is generated whenever the character is missed by an attack (or saves against a spell). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Careful Strike (trading damage for attack) and Combat Expertise (trading attack for defense).

Blood

The province of dark mages, this energy is drawn from the power in blood itself. The types of effects it powers vary based on how evil blood magic is within a given setting, but it is a natural fit for vampiric effects.

One point is generated whenever the character takes slashing damage (possibly of a minimum amount based on level), either dealt by an opponent or self-inflicted. At-will abilities that generate this energy tend to require a bladed melee weapon and cut an opponent to bleed freely.

Life Force

Both forces for good and forces for evil can find great power in the energy of the soul itself. It can power effects that control, heal, or blast with the very force of consciousness.

One point is generated whenever the character willingly expends life energy (in the form of a minimum number of HP). At-will abilities that generate this energy are either psychic drains (for unsavory users) or less effective attacks that nonetheless allow the (more savory) attacker to fan the flames of his or her own soul.

Grace

Harder to come by than life force, the direct energy of a deity is useful to all manner of priests. It can be used to replace any other type of energy in any ability taught by the character’s church.

One point is generated by fulfilling one of the character’s ethos requirements (i.e., a list of deity-specific actions that grant Grace). There are no at-will abilities that grant this energy, but certain abilities powered by other energy types may grant Grace on an exceptional/critical success.

Elemental

Mages and some priests have the ability to absorb and channel the very power of the elements. This energy fuels extremely large and explosive magics.

One point is generated whenever the character takes elemental damage. At-will abilities that generate the energy are cantrips with limited effect and targets.

Note: Some settings may track each elemental type separately, with some in opposition. For example, unleashing an at-will Cold attack may create heat energy that the character can use to launch a Fire attack.

Arcane

The rarest of energy types, arcane power is the pure, unspecialized energy of the cosmos. This energy can replace any other type in a mage’s abilities, and can also be used to enchant items.

It is only generated by willingly destroying a magic item or having access to a rare, naturally occurring source of power.

Willpower/Chi

Certain martial artists and psions can deliberately expend their own personal mental energy. This energy can be used for a wide variety of physical and psychic effects.

It is generated by meditation. Unlike other forms of energy, a character will often start a battle with several points of it, but be unable to generate more easily during the fight.

Other Notes

I envision this as generally following a couple of simple rules. If you have more of any energy type than your level, you lose a point of each overfull type per round. If you have less than or equal to your level, you lose a point per minute (and generally won’t have to start counting until out of combat). So a fifth level character with 7 Fury and 6 Momentum loses one point of each on the next round and one point of Fury the round after.

Too many types of energy could be prohibitive to keep track of, particularly for the GM. Most characters will only have abilities that use and generate a couple of types, so can disregard the others. For example, a wizard hit by an attack is technically owed a point of Fury, but if he doesn’t have any relevant abilities, he doesn’t need to track it. Meanwhile, NPCs should probably by eyeballed by the GM rather than tracked precisely, unless you’re up for the bookkeeping.

I really like Rob’s suggestion that “utility” spells are just a quicker version of a ritual that you use in combat. The energy types above would probably phrase the long-term casting of such a power differently for different sources. That is, a Fury, Momentum, Elemental, Willpower, or Grace ritual may simply have a level requirement with the assumption that the character can typically generate the requisite energy easily in non-combat rounds and only the size of the personal “battery” is important. Meanwhile, a Blood, Life Force, or Arcane ritual might have very specific energy costs, as those energy types tend to require a sacrifice in items, personal health… or the blood or energy of others.

The Raid: Pre-Chosen Stunts

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One of the interesting things about The Raid: Redemption is its cavalier attitude toward weapons. Our hero does a half dozen cool things with his tonfa, is disarmed, than then totally refuses to pick it back up again when he has plenty of time after the fight. Obviously, he’s done all the cool things there are to do with it, and it’s done. That got me thinking about traditional stunt systems, which are all about trying to describe doing something cool with your attacks in the moment. In my experience, this is neat at first, but inevitably leads to repeats as the session goes on, because most players are going to want to stick with their best attack. What if it was flipped, The Raid-style?

In this system, each weapon, scene, and fighting style can have a short list of stunts associated with it. These are chosen before the session by the GM and/or group collaboration, and focus on being as different as possible.

When anyone, player or NPC, uses the stunt during play, it’s marked off. Others can do that stunt again, but it won’t grant a bonus. The list refreshes each session or at the beginning of a new scenario.

In systems that give a large advantage for specializing in a weapon, the stunt bonus should be attractive enough to tempt the player to try something different that isn’t used up (perhaps giving out a Fate/Hero/Action point instead of a direct bonus on the attack).

The goal is to get the players switching up their action style regularly both to get a bonus and deny that bonus to their enemies.

Examples:

Pistol

  • Pistol-whip to the throat
  • Spin and shoot from behind the back
  • Dive and shoot in midair
  • Shoot following up a melee attack
  • Roll along the ground and shoot from a sitting stance
  • Pistol-whip to the joints

Tonfa

  • Incapacitating strike with the back end
  • Block a barrage of attacks
  • Hook target behind the neck and smash into something solid
  • Hook leg to trip
  • Spin out the long end for a sudden attack
  • Throw across the room

Narrow Corridor

  • Run up one wall and tackle into the other
  • Throw someone to smash through a door
  • Hide in the ceiling and drop attack target
  • Dodge flanking opponents so they attack one another
  • Impale someone on shattered props/environment
  • Fill the hall to keep someone from getting past

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