Monthly Archives: March 2022

7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

Past editions of Dungeons & Dragons include many, many rules that fifth edition drops. No one misses racial level caps, any of the old grappling rules, or the unplayable AD&D initiative system. But old editions also included rules that improved the game, often in subtle ways. Some might have improved the fifth edition. Still, the D&D designers dropped each rule for a reason, but did they make the right choices?

1. Add the bloodied condition

Fourth edition included a bloodied condition triggered when creatures lost half their hit points. The designers likely dropped bloodied because it seemed to offer too little benefit to merit the weight of another condition. Besides, DMs hardly need a rule to describe the status. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.”

But the bloodied condition added more than a sense of progress. The bloodied condition can trigger extra abilities that show a creature’s rage or desperation, adding a useful way to bring a second stage to boss battles. Just as a showdown settles into a familiar pattern, a bloodied monster could gain new powers, transforming to add new excitement. The bloodied trigger proved so irresistible that the D&D designers designed something similar when they gave some high-level monsters the mythic trait. “If you wish to increase a battle’s stakes, though, using a monster’s mythic trait results in some mid-battle twist that changes the way the monster behaves, restores its resources, or provides it with new actions to use.” The bloodied condition could enhance monsters of all levels.

2. Limit hit point increases after 10th level

By the time fifth edition D&D characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Obviously, DMs can still create challenging encounters by adding more and more dangerous monsters, but that solution can prolong battles, turning exciting fights into grinds.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks deal more damage. This adds challenge, but it makes concentration spells much weaker.

What if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points? If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat to high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters typically enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Up to D&D’s third edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classes gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus a constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

In a fifth edition version of this rule, after level 10, barbarians that gain d12 hp per level would only gain 3 hp, d10 classes like fighter would gain 2 hp, d8 classes like cleric would gain 1 hp, and wizards would gain 0 hp. High-level wizards get plenty of goodies to make the difference.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9? For more, see Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?.

3. Award skills for high Intelligence

In modern D&D, Intelligence vies with Strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. See Should PC Intelligence Matter? Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. Unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages, contributing to the attribute’s low value.

The D&D designers found good reasons to stop awarding smart characters more skills. Fifth edition awards skills based on background instead. This emphasizes the importance of a character’s history by pairing it with mechanical benefits. By ignoring Intelligence, the designers let every character gain enough skills to get ample mechanical benefits based on their history. Besides, if Intelligence led to even more skills, wizards would check almost every box and those brainiacs show off enough.

If the game awarded fewer skills based on background, class, and race, and awarded more skills based on Intelligence, then Intelligence would switch from an easy place to dump a score of 8 to a worthwhile choice.

4. Require some recovery period after dropping to 0 hp

In first edition, characters reduced to 0 hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.”

All that rest seems too limiting for a heroic game, but fifth edition not only lacks any consequences for reaching death’s door, the game offers a sort of reward. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the rules will only heal characters when they drop to 0 hp, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

The remedy ranks as one of fifth edition’s most popular house rules: Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Players gain an incentive to heal their allies before anyone drops to 0, losing the incentive to let party members drop and revive in a macabre dance.

5. Require magic ammunition to overcome resistance

When you blog about D&D long enough you gain a limited ability to see the future. So when I post, I can predict many of the comments. For example, if I gripe about an overpowered character feature, some readers will advise countering by giving foes the same capability. As if players would return for a campaign where every monster took the Sharpshooter feat.

If I gripe that the fifth edition rules make archers too effective, readers will remind me that historically, bows do beat swords. Weapons that let you poke holes from a distance always rule. For example, polearms also beat swords. Still, thanks to millennia of promotion by a ruling class of men on horses with swords, we romanticize swords and most D&D players favor them over polearms.

Like punching monks and loincloth-wearing barbarians, D&D gives swords and other melee weapons a boost to make fun but fanciful characters attractive options.

Still, the boost falls short. The rules make ranged weapons far better than swords, axes, and such. This imbalance weakens the game. Players choosing swords and spears for their characters must accept weaker characters. Also ranged combat usually proves less fun. Movement and terrain disappears. Instead, characters stand at the door and shoot, tallying damage until the battle ends. I could list more consequences, but I already did.

Fifth edition skips a few rules that made ranged attacks a bit less attractive in past editions.

  • Arrows shot into melee used to suffer a chance of hitting allies.
  • Ranged attacks used to lack a damage bonus based on Dexterity to match the damage bonus melee attacks gained from Strength.
  • To overcome resistance to magic weapons, attackers used to need magic ammunition rather than a magic bow.

The first rule deserves to stay on the scrap heap. Hitting allies hardly feels heroic and the risk creates bad feelings between archers and melee attackers. No one wants to shut down their ranger once the barbarian reaches melee.

As for the second rule, D&D’s math rests on damage bonuses based on Strength or Dexterity. Removing the Dexterity plus for ranged weapon damage would crack the game’s foundation.

The third rule boasts potential. In D&D, ranged martial attacks gain their biggest edge because no one bothers tracking arrows or crossbow bolts. Even if a DM required the chore, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Some gamers recommend using toothpicks to track arrows. That’s a lot of toothpicks. But what if only magic ammunition overcame resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks?

Such a rule makes sense; after all, the silver arrow hurts the werewolf, not the silver bow. Even if DMs give out more magic ammo, magic arrows merit counting. At low levels the lack of magic arrows would hardly matter, but as levels rose and more foes brought resistance, a demand for magic arrows would create interesting and realistic resource management choices.

6. Use healing surges or hit dice as a limit to healing

In early D&D editions, limited healing challenged players to carefully manage their hit points and healing spells. Except for days of bed rest, the game offered no easy substitutes for healing spells. Players faced thorny decisions over how to best use their healing resources. Should the party delve deeper into the dungeon toward greater rewards despite the risk of running low on hit points and healing?

Third edition erased that resource management strategy. Even 2nd-level characters could afford enough wands of cure light wounds to completely heal between fights without using a single spell. In modern D&D, inexpensive healing potions create the same effect.

The fourth edition designers aimed to return some of the old resource management strategy to the game. The edition added healing surges to limit the healing characters could use between encounters. Characters had a set number of healing surges. During a short rest, players could spend surges to restore lost hit points, so healing surges worked much like fifth edition’s hit dice. But healing surges also capped the magical healing available to characters. In battle, spells and healing magic like potions let characters trade surges for hit points without stopping to rest. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

Without a limit like healing surges, fifth edition campaigns can’t recapture the slow loss of healing resources and the strategy that limit created.

For a house rule that turns hit dice into a resource more like healing surges, see D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.

7. Add the dazed condition

The stunned condition brings a harsh penalty. Stunned shuts down a player for a turn or more. A stunned monster can’t take actions, turning a potentially fun battle against a legendary evil into a quick beatdown of a helpless opponent. I’ll roll my damage in advance and go make a snack. The most common source of the stunned condition comes from the monk’s Stunning Strike ability, a power that can turn every boss into a piñata and that tempts DMs to “cheat.” Well-designed monks stun frequently enough to diminish the fun. Other players wind up beating helpless foes while the DM just counts damage and runs monsters with cartoon stars circling their heads.

A redesigned monk that remains fun to play calls for a condition that counts as half stunned, something like fourth edition’s dazed condition. Attacks against dazed creatures gained advantage. On a dazed creature’s turn, they could choose between moving, taking an action, or taking a bonus action. A more fun Stunning Strike ability could daze first and then stun if the dazed creature took a second strike. Such an adjustment would bring Stunning Strike down to the power of the monk’s other abilities that cost ki points. This lesser stunning strike would weaken the monk class, but a bigger allotment of ki points could make up for the change.

Of course, returning the dazed creatures could improve more than the monk. The dazed condition would add flexibility, allowing new character and monster abilities that just won’t work with a condition as punishing as stunned.

Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

In the real world, battles end when one side loses morale and surrenders or runs. Fights to the last warrior become legend because they come so rarely. In most Dungeons & Dragons games, fights routinely end with one side wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale.

If you want a D&D game where sensible monsters try to save their lives through escape or surrender, then how do you, as DM, decide when morale breaks?

Usually, DMs decide by roleplaying the monsters. The second edition Player’s Handbook touts that option. “The first (and best) way to handle morale is to determine without rolling any dice or consulting any tables. This gives the biggest range of choices and prevents illogical things from happening. To decide what a creature does, think about its goals and reasons for fighting.”

This roleplaying approach marked a break from D&D’s roots. In the wargames that led to D&D, competitors used arcane formula and impartial rolls to decide when morale broke. The fifth edition rules acknowledges this tradition by including optional rules for morale rolls. But why bother rolling? The latest edition gives no reasons.

Second edition offers a weak reason to roll. “Sometimes there are just too many things going on to keep track of all the motivations and reactions of the participants.”

Merric Blackman offers something better. “One of the big reasons to use morale rules is to provide some unpredictability. As a DM, it’s very easy to fall into patterns of thinking; morale rules allow monsters to react in ways you didn’t expect.” In D&D, the dice add an impartial element of surprise.

DMs who want morale rolls should skip fifth edition’s optional rule. The rule’s designer dutifully recognized D&D’s wargaming tradition using the game’s modern mechanics, but the result often makes no sense. “To determine whether a creature or group of creatures flees, make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw for the creature or the group’s leader.” This works based on Wisdom as a measure of courage and resolve, but if Wisdom also works as a measure of wisdom, then a successful check would often make someone run from a bloodthirsty band of treasure-hunting killers. D&D’s Wisdom score bundles an awkward set of traits.

The 1991 Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia featured the best morale rule to appear in a D&D game. Each monster has a morale score. Abject cowards start at 2. Mindless undead, constructs, and fanatics top the scale at 12.

The book’s Morale Scores Table (p.103) suggests scores.

Morale Scores Table
Type of Personality Morale Score Range
Abjectly cowardly 2
Always frightened or very cautious 3-5
Unmotivated 6
Disinterested 7
Normal 8
Brave, determined, or stubborn 9-11
Suicidally brave or berserk 12

To make a morale check, roll 2d6. If the roll is higher than the monster’s morale, the creature either runs or surrenders. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, monsters with a morale of 12 always fight and never check morale.

This simple method adds unpredictability without weighing the game with calculations that only benefit simulation games. Usually though, just roleplay the monsters based on their goals and temperaments.

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Monsters That Run or Surrender Raise so Many Problems. How to Cope

Page 1 of the Dungeons & Dragons strategy book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing sets a 100% true principle that usually makes running fun games harder for dungeon masters.

Author Keith Ammann writes, “With only a small number of exceptions (mostly constructs and undead), every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. Seriously wounded creatures will try to flee, unless they’re fanatics or intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.” Plenty of other writers see the value of surviving. Game Designer Robert Schwalb writes, “I can imagine most monsters, once they’ve lost about half their numbers, will say screw it and run away. It just makes sense. Evil doesn’t usually place a lot of stock in honor and fighting to protect their fellows.”

When monsters run, players almost always chase them. Rob Schwalb writes, “Even when fleeing seems like a good thing to do, I’m reluctant to have that happen since I know my players will chase down the offending humanoids and put them to the sword.”

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea says, “Players hate it when the monsters run away. When a monster gets away, it’s a big downward beat.”

While fleeing makes perfect sense for most creatures facing adventurers, monsters that run away or surrender can make D&D less fun. I wish that wasn’t so, but fights to the death usually play better. Still, with the right techniques, DMs can cope with monsters that retreat or surrender. Sometimes these answers even lead to a better game.

The D&D rules handle retreat badly. Unless monsters can fly, pass through walls, or otherwise go places the characters can’t follow, running from a D&D fight just means getting killed without a chance to attack back. This stems from how D&D divides 6 seconds into turns. When a fleeing creature’s turn ends, any pursuers can catch up and sometimes even attack. Then if the fleeing creature continues running, it suffers opportunity attacks. The pattern repeats until everyone running dies. Even speedy creatures rarely outpace rogues with their cunning actions. Such chases just prolong battles the players have already won.

To give retreat some chance of success, switch out of strict initiative and use some other method to resolve the escape. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes chase rules, but in these situations, I favor a house rule from Merric Blackman. “In a pursuit situation, movement occurs simultaneously at the beginning of the round. If a creature or vehicle wishes to spend its action dashing or some other maneuver that affects movement, then those actions are resolved before any further action.”

Such house rules clearly help monsters escape, and that means players may protest. The house rule feels like the DM favors the monsters—at least until the rare fight the party chooses to flee.

Players chasing monsters can get characters killed. In a dungeon or stronghold, letting monsters escape poses a grave risk because even a single escaping goblin can rally defenders to prepare for intruders. “The retreating goblins will go get help and turn what was a manageable fight into a TPK,” Rob Schwalb writes.

Players know the risk of total party kills too, so such situations raise questions that add tension. Can the monsters reach help? Should the characters dare to chase blindly into the dungeon and toward whatever threats wait? When players face dilemmas like these, it leads to excitement. But as a DM, consider the chance of luring the characters into more trouble than they can overcome. Don’t be too careful. Players can run too. Please remind them of your generous house rule for retreat.

Retreat and surrender makes running dungeons harder. When fleeing monsters bring reinforcements, an extra burden lands on the DM. Typically DMs can run dungeons without remembering the details of every room because usually only the delve’s current location matters. That one-location focus makes dungeons easy for DMs. But a fleeing monster raises questions that demand a broad mastery of the dungeon. Justin Alexander lists a sampling of those questions: “Where are they running to? What are they going to do there? If they’re looking for help or trying to summon reinforcements, where are the other enemies located? If they reach those enemies, what do those enemies do?” As word of intruders ripples through the stronghold, the DM suddenly needs to know every room.

To prepare for these situations, make a copy of the dungeon map and write the number of monsters in each location. Now you can see where fleeing monsters will reach allies and how the reinforcements might react to intruders. See To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map.

If you lack such preparation, call for a break and take a few minutes to review the dungeon. A monster’s escape creates a tense moment that offers an excellent cliffhanger.

A surrender can also test a DM’s memory of the whole dungeon. Players will question captives about treasure, traps, and foes. If the captives talk, the DM needs to provide answers, and a marked up dungeon map can help. If the captives refuse to talk, the situation creates ugly new problems.

Captives lead to troubling scenes of torture and murder. In my games, I consider torture scenes off limits. Author Oren Ashkenazi agrees. “Deliberately inflicting pain on someone who’s at your mercy is a horrible thing, and it’s not something we should be doing around the RPG table, for our own mental health if nothing else.” I typically make captives cooperative because they’re typically evil and willing to betray their allies.

After the questioning, comes the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Typically, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. I like moral dilemmas that reveal character, but disputes over murdering helpless captives are best skipped. To avoid such scenes, have NPCs around who can take captives to proper authorities. How convenient!

Chases and surrenders can still drag the game. Despite these techniques for making the best of fleeing and surrendering monsters, monsters who fight to the death often make for a quicker game and fewer hassles.

Why would monsters fight to the end?

  • Adventurers bring such a reputation for blood lust that monsters choose to die fighting.
  • In D&D worlds, the plain truth of gods and the afterlife inspires foes and leads them to seek their god’s approval in death.
  • Supernatural evil or chaos drives monsters to behave differently than natural, evolved creatures in our world.

D&D asks gamers to accept some outrageously unrealistic assumptions that make the game more fun. Those premises include hit points and the notion that characters can get 8 hours of restful sleep anywhere, anytime. Add the uncanny courage of monsters to that list.