5th Edition D&D – Rules Clarifications

There are a handful of rules in the 5th edition game that are a little ambiguous. They’ve engendered a fair amount of online discussion and, as is always the case with online discussions, no consensus is ever likely to be reached. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these conundrums, but I do know how I’m going to deal with them in the new campaign. What follows are not house rules, but they are house rulings. These are the rules I think need the most clarification for the table, and I’m hoping to pre-empt any discussions before the campaign starts.

Also included are rules that aren’t ambiguous, but are just different enough to third and fourth edition to trip up veteran players. The fact that these things might have been handled differently in playtesting hasn’t helped! I may come back and revise this post as more things pop up during the campaign, but here’s the list as it stands:


Actions

Over the space of a round, all characters get to take a turn. During that turn they have a number of options, which I’ll go through here. These options are quite different to third edition, Pathfinder and fourth edition so it’s worth taking a moment to absorb this.

In brief, all characters can take one Action and one Move. They might also be able to take a Bonus Action or a Reaction if circumstances allow, but these are by no means assured.

Action: On your turn you can take one Action. The Action is the meat of what you do in a round. You can use it to (deep breath!): make a mêlée or ranged attack, cast a spell, move further, disengage safely from combat, help another character do something, hide yourself, ready an action (more on that below), devote your full attention to search for something, use an item, climb a larger creature, disarm (more on that below, too), shove a foe, overrun your opponent, tumble, mark a foe… Those are just the prescribed actions. Generally you can try anything you like. If it sounds like something that takes a little bit of thought and focus, then it’s an Action. Some actions can involve doing more than one thing. A 5th level fighter gets to attack a foe twice when he uses his Action to attack, for example.

Move: On your turn you can also move your speed in feet. This movement can happen before or after your action, before and after your action, or even during your action. So a 5th level human fighter who can move 30 feet in a round could move 10 feet and attack, more 15 feet and attack someone else, and then move a further 5 feet. If you want to move more than your speed  would usually allow in round you can use your Action to “dash”. This allows you to move your speed again – so a total of sixty feet for a standard human. You can’t move further than that in a round – there’s no distinction between hustling, running and sprinting in 5th edition – you can’t move at ×4 or ×5 speed; all of that has been subsumed into the Dash Action. Please note, your Move is only ever spent moving. There is no concept of a ‘Move-Equivalent action’ in 5th edition. All the move-equivalent actions from third edition are either full Actions or not actions at all. See “Other Activities” for more information.

Bonus Action: These actions represent something else you can do on your turn – something extra beyond the Action and the Move. Whether you’re able to take a Bonus Action or not depends on your circumstances and your abilities. Rogues, for example, get the Cunning Action class feature at level two, that allows them to take a bonus action every round – as long as they use it to do one of three prescribed things. If you’re fighting with a weapon in each hand, the attack with the second weapon counts as a Bonus Action. Your character has no right to a bonus action on his turn. Either he has an ability that says he can take one, or he doesn’t. Regardless of whether you have a Bonus Action available or not, you can never (never ever!) take more than one Bonus Action on your turn.

Reaction: Every character has the potential of taking one reaction in a round in addition to their Action, Move and (possible) Bonus Action. The Reaction is an instant response to a triggering event. It might happen on your turn or on someone else’s turn. So the Reaction could interrupt another character’s Action. The most obvious example of this would be the Opportunity Attack, which I’ll mention below. Once you have taken a Reaction you can’t take another one until the start of your turn on the following round.

Other Activities: There are plenty of other small things you can do in a round, such a picking up a dropped object, drawing a sword, opening a door, conduct a sneering monologue (villains only)… In and of themselves, these things are too insignificant to be Actions. However, if you try to take a number of them in a combat round – drawing or sheathing multiple weapons, unlocking and opening a door… then the DM can quite legitimately ask you to spend your Action on the activity instead. You can try anything in combat. The DM decides whether what you’re doing is an Action or not an action.

Character vs. Class vs. Caster Level

Differentiating between your a character’s total number of levels (his “character level”), his levels in a particular class (his “class level”), and his overall spell-casting power (his “caster level”) is extremely important in third edition and Pathfinder. It’s much less important in 5th edition, to the extent that these terms aren’t used within the rules at all. However, multiclassing muddies the waters slightly in this regard, so it’s worth taking a look at this.

For single class characters Character Level = Class Level = Caster Level. There’s no difference at all. Rangers and Paladins may gain spells more slowly than bards and clerics but they still have what we’d consider full caster levels if we were looking at them through a Pathfinder lens. Equally, any spells you gain from acquiring a feat (such as Magic Initiate) are cast at your full level. A 20th level fighter who knows the Firebolt cantrip because he took the Magic Initiate feat casts a bolt of fire than inflicts 4d10 damage. The same goes for any magic you gained from your choice of race.

When multiclassing, your “caster level” in the way we understand it from previous editions, still continues to be the same as your character level – but it’s a largely meaningless term. The concept of a “caster level” doesn’t jive with the way spells (aside from cantrips) work in 5th edition. Your caster level doesn’t affect the effect, area or duration of spells, or the DC of the saving throws. The important thing for casters is how many spell slots they have available and what level spells they can prepare.

Here the multiclassing rules (PHB p163-165) give us some very specific guidance. Although your levels in individual classes determine the number of spells you know and get to prepare, you only have one pool of spell slots for all your classes. The pool is determined by what is the closest thing 5th edition gets to caster level, but it’s only something you have to reference when gaining levels and has no impact during play.

As for class abilities beyond spell-casting… here multi-classing continues to complicate our lives. The rules tell us exactly how Channel Divinity, Extra Attack and Unarmoured Defence function, but then leave us to make up our own minds about everything else. Honestly, this is something we have to take on a case-by-case basis. My instinct is that “class levels” trump “character levels”, but I know that I’m coming at the problem with an inherent third edition bias. By treating class and character levels as synonymous the multiclassing rules can be used to create overly powerful player options. But there are no firm rules for us here. We just have to use common sense, and a bit of sanity.

Concentration

A significant part of being a spellcaster in third edition or in Pathfinder is making Concentration checks to successfully cast spells in difficult situations. There is no “concentration check” in 5th edition, but the mechanic survives, in part, as a Constitution Saving Throw made in particular circumstances. Here’s how it works:

In 5th edition some spells are labelled as “Concentration Spells”. If you cast such a spell then the game assumes that you have to devote some of your attention to keeping it running for its duration. While your Concentration spell is running you can still fight, read, run, or even cast another spell that is not labelled a Concentration spell; but you do have some limitations. Notably, you cannot cast another spell that is a Cocentration spell. If you try, then the first Concentration spell immediately ends. This is 5th edition’s very effective method of stopping you stacking buffing spells.

(Concentration spells also immediately end if you’re incapacitated or dead – but that seems too obvious to mention)

So where does the saving throw come in? If you take damage while you have a Concentration spell running, you must make a Constitution saving throw at DC 10 or half the damage you receive (whichever is more), or the spell ends prematurely. The DM can also call for a DC 10 Con save if something else happens that might legitimately distract you – such as falling off a wagon, being hit by a large wave, or walking in on two beholders sharing an intimate moment.

Here’s an example: the druid spell Barkskin is a concentration spell. Once cast the recipient enjoys a fairly hefty armour class bonus. A spellcaster can concentrate on the barkskin spell for up to an hour. If at any point during that hour, the caster takes damage from any source then he has to make the above saving throw or the spell immediately ends.

Sorcerers are the only spellcasters who start the game with proficiency in Constitution saving throws. But even if you are able to add your proficiency bonus to your Con saves, the DC doesn’t scale particularly well with level – i.e. your Con save doesn’t keep pace with the damage you receive at high levels. There is a feat called War Caster that gives a caster advantage on Con saves to maintain concentration on a spell… but even that seems small potatoes. Basically if you have a Concentration spell running: don’t get hit. The chances of you keeping it going if you do are not high.

Disarming

A bit of an aberration this one. As a general combat option, and as an advanced feature of the Battlemaster Fighter, it is possible to disarm your foe of his weapon. If successful, the weapon drops to the ground near the feet of your foe. However, the rules state that recovering a weapon from the ground doesn’t take an action, and it won’t provoke an attack of opportunity either. So what’s the point of disarming your foe, except to look a bit flash?

My ruling on this is a simply one: If you disarm an opponent the weapon falls to the ground at their feet. On their turn the opponent can pick it up and continue fighting as if nothing happened, as long as the weapon is still there when it gets around to their turn. There’s a limited number of things that the attacker can do as well as defender – as noted in “other activities” above – to prevent his foe from getting his hands on the weapon.

On his turn the attacker can make a disarm attempt on his foe. If it’s successful the foe is disarmed. For the rest of the attacker’s turn, he can interact with that disarmed weapon. He can pick it up, or kick it away, or toss it in a lake if he wishes. Circumstances affect what is possible, and the DM has the final call, but it seems clear that is the way the rules are designed to work here.

Elven Trance and Long Rests

In 5th edition, elves don’t need to sleep. Instead they can enter a meditative trance during which time they are semi-conscious. Four hours of trance are the equivalent of eight hours sleep, so they only need four hours rest in this fashion to recharge their batteries. The game also states that a Long Rest is eight hours in length. Take these two things together, and it’s implied that elves can take a long rest in just four hours, right? Wrong. I know there’s much disagreement on this topic, but I’m going to rule that a Long Rest is eight hours for an elf in the same way it is for everyone else. The key to this is in the description of what a Long Rest actually is. This is what the PHB says about it:

A long rest is a period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long, during which a character sleeps or performs light activity: reading, talking, eating, or standing watch for no more than 2 hours. If the rest is interrupted by a period of strenuous activity — at least 1 hour of walking, fighting, casting spells, or similar adventuring activity – the characters must begin the rest again to gain any benefit from it.

A Long Rest is not synonymous with sleeping. A human needs to sleep for eight hours per day. A human may also choose to take a Long Rest. He can sleep during his long rest, but he can also take a long rest without sleeping. Of course, if he doesn’t sleep during his long rest, he will have to sleep at another time if he wants to avoid fatigue. It’s the same with elves and their Trance. During a Long Rest an elf can spend four hours in Trance if he wants, but he could do any number of other light activities instead.

Trance is a flavourful element of an elf’s description, but I don’t think it was designed to give them a major mechanical advantage in the game. The same applies to the Living Construct trait of the warforged that let’s them enter an inactive state for four hours per day instead of sleeping – that doesn’t shorten their Long Rests. At best Trance will let the elf get more done during a long rest because if the Long Rest is being used for sleeping (which it probably will be) then the elf has 4 hours more free time than a human does.

Evasive Footwork

Evasive footwork is one of the special combat manoeuvres of the battle-master fighter. It’s come to my attention as it’s one of the abilities of Jack’s character in the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure I’ve been recently running. The ability as written is extremely confusing. This is what the text says:

When you move, you can expend one superiority die, rolling the die and adding the number rolled to your AC until you stop moving.

What does that actually mean? When it says “move” does it mean a Move Action? If it does, why doesn’t it say so? And if you keep moving, does that mean you get the bonus to your AC perpetually? This is a very bad description, because it looks as though it’s couched in rules terms, when actually it isn’t.

So far we’ve been playing it along the lines of: “As long as you spend a Move action every round the benefits of the manoeuvre remain in effect”. I have to think that this is a very liberal way of reading the description. A superiority die in 5th edition starts as a d8, and rises to a d10 at tenth level, and a d12 at twelfth level. So the bonus to armour class is (on average) between +4 and +6 depending on your character level. In 5th edition, that’s a huge bonus.

A 1st level battle-master fighter can roll the die and add up to 8 to his Armour Class, and that can last as long as he keeps moving? Extrapolate that assumption out to a ridiculous extreme: if the fighter heads off across the wilderness to the next village 10 miles away, does he keep that bonus to AC for the entire journey as long as he doesn’t stop moving?

Every other battlemaster manoeuvre prompts the fighter to spend a superiority and initiate a manoeuvre that starts and finishes within one combat round. Spells that grant a comparable bonus to Armour Class (such as the Shield spell) also only grant the bonus for one combat round. I can only imagine that the intention behind evasive footwork was to allow the Battlemaster to race across an area of open ground avoiding attacks.

You don’t just move with a Move Action, of course. Certain bonus actions, and other Actions (such as dash or disengage) are also forms of movement. I can see how the wording could become a bit tricky. So, in order to keep things simple (and pending any official word on this from Wizards) I am going to  rewrite the text of the manoeuvre as follows:

When you move, you can expend one superiority die, rolling the die and adding the number rolled to your AC. The bonus to your AC persists until the start of your next turn.

This brings its power level in line with the rest of the battlemaster’s manoeuvres, and its utility close to that of the shield spell – although the spell is still a little better. I think this is also closer to the intention behind the rules in the first place.

I’d be interested to hear any comments on this – particularly from Jack.

Flanking

There are no flanking rules in 5th edition. Ganging up on a foe doesn’t provide any benefit as it might have done in previous versions of the game, unless you’re a rogue. Scroll down to the section on sneak-attack and you’ll see why the rogue wants to be fighting in tandem with someone while engaging in mêlée combat. The other classes? Not so much.

So don’t expect flanking to give you +2 to hit as it did in third edition, or Advantage or anything else. It’s not the way the game works… so allow me to manage your expectations!

Guidance

Guidance is a cantrip that’s on the Cleric and Druid spell lists. Once cast it lasts for up to a minute, and because it’s a concentration spell the caster can’t have more than one of these spells running at the same time. The recipient of the spell can roll 1d4 to any one ability check of his choice (that includes skills, but not saving throws or attacks) before the spell ends. Because Guidance is a cantrip, the caster can keep casting it indefinitely. This has led to some comment online that a caster could basically have the spell running all the time.

That argument is obviously ridiculous. It only lasts for a minute. No-one’s going to cast the same spell every minute of their waking life! But it does raise the question of how this spell can be used and what it can be used on. To my mind, Guidance has two unspoken limitations.

Firstly, it can only be used on a task that can be accomplished within the time frame of the spell (one minute). You can’t use it to help you win at poker if the game lasts an hour, you can’t use it to follow tracks for half a day across the wilderness. You could use it to shuffle the cards in such a way to cheat to victory, you can use it to find a set of tracks or a secret door. I think it’s obvious that you can’t use this spell for long term projects such as crafting or armour-smithing.

Secondly, there’s a certain degree of planning implied by the spell. The way it’s supposed to work (I am sure) is that the PCs are faced with an obstacle or problem that will call for an ability check. They know the check needs to be attempted, therefore the spell is cast on the least able character. Obviously, this isn’t always going to be the case. You can cast Guidance on the rogue and send her into a dungeon, and she might decide to use the spell to improve her Perception, Stealth or Thieves Tools check as the need arises – as long as the need arises within one minute. But, casting the spell on the off-chance it might useful, isn’t really what the spell seems to be designed for.

Holding your Action

There are times when you don’t want to act on your initiative count in combat. Often you want to wait and see what happens, or wait until another character has acted before doing anything. The rules for doing so have had different names in previous editions. In 5th edition, these rules have been merged with the existing rules for readying an action, which means they play out at the table very differently to what we might expect. This is how they work:

You can’t change your initiative count in 5th edition. What you roll is what you have for the entire combat. If you want to act out of your turn, then you use your Action during a round to Ready. If you Ready you then get to use your Reaction later in the round in a specified manner. It’s clearer with an example:

Amalgaer the dwarven rogue is hidden in the shadows of a dark alley. When the bad guy walks past, he intends to leap out and heroically stab him in the back. However, he has to time this attack correctly. Too soon, and the foe hasn’t arrived yet; too late, and the foe will escape. When initiative is rolled, Amalgaer gets a 20 which is much higher than the poor rube he wants to fillet. Normally, Amalgaer would act long before his unfortunate target.

On Initiative point 20, Amalgaer takes his turn. On his turn he may take a Move and an Action, and because he’s a rogue he also gets a Bonus Action. Amalgaer must take (or choose not to take) his Move and his Bonus Action at initiative point 20. These cannot be delayed. For his Action, he chooses to Ready. He will perform a certain feat in response to an outside stimulus: a trigger. He therefore needs to determine what that trigger will be. Amalgaer chooses: “As soon as the bad guy comes into range, I’m going to leap out of the shadows and backstab him.”

The round continues; other events may happen. On the bad guy’s initiative, he rounds the corner. Amalgaer’s trigger conditions have been met, so he can take his Reaction. He leaps out of the shadows and kills his foe, or misses horribly depending on the die roll. Of course, no character can have more than one Reaction per round, so if something else happened to make Amalgaer use his Reaction, then he can’t do anything else even if the trigger takes place.

If the trigger does not occur, then Amalgaer’s attack never happens. He can’t change his mind and ready something else. He has to wait until his following turn instead. He didn’t do anything with his Action except wait during the round. However, when we start the next round, his Initiative score hasn’t changed. He still acts at Initative point 20.

The Ready rules can be used for spells that have a casting time of one action. But you cast the spell on your Action and hold the charge until the trigger takes place – you need to use your Concentration to hold the charge between when you cast it and when you release it, so you can’t have any other concentration spells running at the same time.

The Ready rules are one of those things that sound more complicated the more you try to explain them! I will leave you with this observation:

In third edition and Pathfinder, the most common use of holding an action was to hold your ground and allow your enemy to come to you. That’s because if you Move during a round in third edition your character can make a full attack action. So it makes sense for higher level mêlée combatants to stay where they are, so they can take all their attacks, and their approaching opponent can only take one. This isn’t a thing in fifth edition at all. You can always move and take all your possible attacks (if you have more than one, which is less likely). So I don’t think that this change to the rules is going to have as profound an effect on play as you might think. But it will take some getting used to.

Knowledge Skills

I wrote a lengthy post on skills in 5th edtion and suggested some variant rules to shore up perceived shortcomings. In the end I think the general agreement was to do nothing with the rules, and see how they panned out in practice. I’m fine with that. However, what still needs some clarification is which Knowledge-based skills in this edition map onto the knowledge skills of editions past. So here are the some 5th edition proficiencies and what I think you could use them for.

Arcana: Allows you to recall lore about magic spells and symbols, traditions and schools of magic, magic items, psionics, the planes of existence and the extraplanar creatures that dwell there. Arcana is also the skill to find out about magical creatures that are native to the Prime Material plane, such as dragons or owlbears. In this way it replaces the Knowledge (Arcana), Knowledge (The Planes) and Spellcraft skills from third edition D&D. It also partially covers Knowledge (Dungeoneering). This skill is largely the same as the 4e Arcana skill, although in fourth edition you used the Religion skill to find out information about the Outer Planes and its denizens, and the Arcana skill for creatures of the elemental, shadow and fey planes.

History: Gives you information on historical events such as ancient kingdoms, legendary figures, and lost civilisations. It also gives you an understanding of wider political and social issues within a country or region, some of which may be current. The location of national boundaries and therefore a reasonable understanding of the position of countries in relation to one another is also implied. If you’re trained in this skill, the DM assumes that your knowledge is predicated toward your own country, continent, or world unless you specify otherwise. You can always make an Intelligence (History) check to see if you know any historical fact, but the DM would increase the DC if he felt it was an area in which your character would have limited expertise. Limited expertise can be overcome. A group of adventurers who are born in the Forgotten Realms and spend 10 years adventuring on Krynn, would find it equally easy to make History checks for either world. This skill covers the same ground as Knowledge (History) and Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) from third edition. In some circumstances (though not all) it can be used as Knowledge (Local)Knowledge (Geography) and Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering). It is extremely close to the 4e version of the History skill in scope.

Investigation: This isn’t really a knowledge skill. It tends to be used for working out problems – doing research with dusty scrolls, deducing the location of a hidden object, or identifying a murder weapon. It’s also good if you’re playing Cluedo. However, a Charisma (Investigation) check can be used in the same way as the 4e Streetwise skill, which aligns it with third edition’s Gather Information and Knowledge (Local).

Nature: This is lore about natural creatures and plants, terrains, habitat, environment and topography. You can use Nature to find out information about ‘natural’ – i.e. non-magical – creatures. This would include all real-world creatures that live or have lived on Earth, but also fictional creatures that have a natural biology and non-planar origin such as a bulette, a carrion crawler, or an aarakocra. There is inevitably some crossover between the Nature and Survival skills when it comes to things such as identifying edible berries or poisonous mushrooms, although Survival is an inherently more practical skill. Knowledge of Nature isn’t limited by terrain type, if you have the skill then you well-versed all types of terrain – although the DM may increase the DC if you find yourself in an entirely alien environment. This skill is the same as Knowledge (Nature) from third edition, and also subsumes some of the elements of Professional (Herbalist) and Knowledge (Dungeoneering) from that edition. Your knowledge of topography might also double for Knowledge (Geography) in certain circumstances. It is similar to the Nature skill in 4e although some of the elements of that skill have devolved out into Survival and Animal Handling.

Religion: This skill allows you to recall information about deities, religious hierarchies, pantheons, rites, prayers, holy symbols, secret cults, theology, prophets and important church figures. It’s also the skill of philosophers, and deals with such matters as life and death, the soul and by extension undead creatures. Where the Arcana skill would give you practical information about the creatures and conditions of the Outer Planes, the Religion skill would tell you about the spiritual challenges of such places. Clerics who worship a particular deity will find it easier to remember lore about their own faith, but a Religion check encompasses all faiths and philosophies – albeit with increasingly difficult DCs. I’ve expanded the remit of this skill in 5th edition to include philosophy and the undead, and now the skill is very similar to Knowledge (Religion) from third edition, and Religion from 4e.

Survival: This skill enables you to live off the land – to hunt, track, set snares and forage for food. Someone skilled in survival knows about game, the weather, can notice signs of predators and avoid natural hazards. You could become trained in the Nature skill without ever leaving a library, but those skilled in survival are used to living in the wilderness. For many, such as druids and rangers, the two skills go hand in hand. There’s obviously some crossover with the Nature skill, but generally Survival sits on its own. Depending on the area, you might use Survival to duplicate the Knowledge (Geography) skill from the third edition, but it most closely resembles the Survival and Wilderness Lore skills of 3.5 and 3.0. In fourth edition, Survival is closest to the Nature skill – although doesn’t assume the comprehensive knowledge of that skill.

Tool Proficiencies: Proficiency in certain tools may also double for knowledge skills in certain circumstances. For example, proficiency in Navigator’s Tools assumes that you know your way around sextants, maps and compasses. You could therefore use this proficiency as a Knowledge (Geography) skill in certain circumstance. Proficiency with the right Artisan’s Tools might lend you an insight into the construction of buildings in the same way as a Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) check may have done in third edition. There are many possibilities here. You just have to think outside the box.

Backgrounds: Remember also that your background can be used as a source for additional talents and ‘skills’. For example, the Sage background gives you an understanding of a particular area of knowledge such as Astronomy or Alchemy. The Outlander background gives you knowledge of Geography. Normally having those backgrounds is enough to simply know something, but if the DM decides a check is required then it’s entirely appropriate (in my opinion) to add your proficiency bonus to any check associated for background knowledge.

Loading Crossbows

In fifth edition, the blowgun, hand crossbow, light crossbow, and heavy crossbow have the “Loading” weapon property. That property is defined as follows:

Because of the time required to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.

This means that a seventeenth level fighter using a crossbow can only make one attack with it using his Action, even though his Extra Attack class feature would normally allow him to make four attacks. Note that the rules do not state that reloading a crossbow takes any particular sort of action, it just states that when you take an action you can only fire it once because of the time it takes to reload.

Reading those rules closely you could argue (rightly in my opinion) that a character could fire a crossbow once with an Action and once with a Bonus Action in the same round, if he were somehow granted a bonus action during the course of the round that he could use to fire a crossbow. Also, if that seventeenth level fighter has four pre-loaded crossbows on a table and front of him he could pick up and fire all four of them as part of one Action because he doesn’t have to worry about reloading them. I don’t think that’s stretching the rules too far at all.

The feat, Crossbow Expert, gives the user of a Crossbow a number of cool abilities. These are the benefits granted by the feat:

1) You ignore the loading quality of crossbows with which you are proficient.
2) Being within 5 feet of a hostile creature doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged attack rolls.
3) When you use the Attack action and attack with a one-handed weapon, you can use a bonus action to attack with a loaded hand crossbow you are holding.

Applying these rules has been the source of some confusion for DMs and players (myself included). So much so, that Wizards recently published a Sage Advice Column addressing this particular feat.

These are the rulings regarding this feat:

Point one. If you have this feat, you can ignore the Loading quality on any crossbow you are proficient in. As far as you are concerned the crossbow no longer has the Loading quality. It operates in the same way as a longbow. The process of loading and cocking the crossbow is considered so trivial that it isn’t worth mentioning. However, the crossbow still has the Ammunition property. This means that although the process of drawing ammunition and loading the weapon is so trivial it no longer incommodes you, you still need to have a free hand with which to draw the ammunition.

Point two, is just seven shades of awesome. I’m all for using missile weapons in mêlée combat. Although originally thought this benefit only applied to crossbows, it’s now been made clear that it applies to all ranged attack rolls – including those made by spells, longbows and throwing knives.

Point three has caused the most problems. What’s the intention behind this rule? Ranged weapons normally can’t be used with the two-weapon fighting rules or the Dual-Wielder feat. Does the Crossbow Expert feat intend you to be holding a mêlée weapon in one hand, and use a hand crossbow in the other? And why use the phrase “loaded hand crossbow”? Surely it doesn’t matter if it’s loaded or not as you now always ignore the loading quality.

Well, it does matter because if you’re holding a weapon in your other hand you don’t have a free hand to reload the crossbow with. So all this feat let’s you do is use your bonus action to attack with a crossbow once, unless you put down the weapon in the other hand to reload it. Now the weapon in the other hand can be another crossbow hand crossbow, so you can get two shots off in one round… but you can’t do this in successive rounds.

What this ruling means is that you can’t use this feat to become a mediaeval Lara Croft, blazing away with dual hand crossbows. Even thought the feat allows you to ignore the Loading property, you’re still stymied by the Ammunition quality. Now there may be ways around that for inventive players – maybe you’re using a special self-loading crossbow of gnomish manufacture, or a repeating crossbow (like the one in the third edition PHB), or maybe you attach each crossbow to your wrists with leather loops so you can ‘drop’ the crossbow in one hand, reload the other crossbow and then snatch the dangling first crossbow up again.

Such approaches are bordering on the impossible, but it’s D&D and one’s tolerance for this sort of thing varies depending on the campaign setting, the group or even the particular character who wants the ability. Dual wielding hand crossbows doesn’t seem any more over-powered to me than dual-wielding any other weapon.

Opportunity Attacks

A perennial ‘favourite’ of mine… 5th edition does not assume the use of miniatures and a battle grid, therefore the rules for opportunity attacks are much simpler than in previous edition. So gone is the laundry list approach of actions that provoke opportunity attacks, it has been replaced with this simple rule:

You can make an opportunity attack when a hostile creature that you can see moves out of your reach. To make the opportunity attack, you use your Reaction to make one mêlée attack against the provoking creature. The attack interrupts the provoking creature’s movement, occurring right before the creature leaves your reach.

You only make opportunity attacks when a hostile foe within the reach of your weapon moves away from you combat. You don’t have to be fighting the target yourself, but they need to be close enough for you to hit. If the foe retreating uses his Action to “Disengage” then you may not make an opportunity attack. And that is it.

So you don’t make opportunity attacks when someone starts casting a spell in your vicinity. You don’t make them if a foe has to rummage through a bag. You don’t make them when people attack you. You don’t make them if someone attempts to punch your with a bare hand, or start a grapple, or disarm you, or trip you up. Mostly everything that provokes an attack of opportunity in third edition or Pathfinder does not apply any more. Unless you have the Polearm Master feat… but more on that below.

And note that the opportunity attack requires you to take a Reaction to make it. Once you use your Reaction you can’t use it again until the beginning of your next turn, so everyone is limited to one opportunity attack per round. And because there are other things you might be doing in a round with your Reaction, you may not be in a position to take advantage of opportunity attacks when they present themselves.

Reach

Reach extends the range of your mêlée attacks. Normally characters have an effective range of 5 ft. with their mêlée weapons. Most weapons with the Reach property add another 5 ft. to this range. Reach isn’t as useful as it was in third edition and Pathfinder. In those editions a character without reach who attacked a character that had reach would provoke an attack opportunity because of how such attacks were determined in the old ruleset. That doesn’t apply any more.

Using a Reach weapon in 5th edition allows you to make opportunity attacks against foes that are further away from you, but only if that foe is moving out of the reach of your weapon. However, there are also plenty of circumstances not covered by specific rules in which using a reach weapon can be advantageous – such as threatening foes, jabbing at out of reach enemies, and keeping your distance from an inherently dangerous monster such as an ooze.

Logically, Reach weapons should also be able to be used to keep a foe at bay. In this (as it many cases, come to think of it) the 5th edition rules the standard options are pretty similar to the house rules we already came up with for Pathfinder. A character with a weapon such as a long spear who wants to keep a foe at bay to can use the Ready action to attack the foe with the spear before he manages to close in and attack. If you want to push the foe back instead of wound them, you just take the Shove option instead.

Alternatively, you can take the Polearm Master feat which means that (as long as you are using a reach weapon) opponents provoke opportunity attacks when they enter your reach. This is the sole exception to the normal rules on opportunity attacks.

Sneak Attack – once per turn?

Okay, this is a bit of a sticky one on-line, but I think I’ve decided how I want to rule it. Before I get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with Sneak Attack itself. This is what it says on p96 of the Player’s Handbook:

Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll… The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon… You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.

The circumstances under which Sneak Attack can be used are pretty clear. It’s also pretty clear that the rogue can only use sneak attack once on his turn, even if he can make more than one attack. So a multiclass rogue/fighter who has the Sneak Attack and the Extra Attack class features, or a rogue fighting with two weapons can only use Sneak Attack once on his turn. That much seems obvious.

Where the confusion lies, is that the rules don’t say that ‘the rogue can only use sneak attack once per round’, or that ‘once he has used sneak attack he can’t use it again until his next turn’… the rules say it can be used “once per turn”. So that’s once on the rogue’s turn, and once again on another character’s turn.

Sneak Attack in and of itself doesn’t grant the rogue any ability to make an attack on someone else’s turn. What the rules say is that if circumstances align and the rogue does happen to get an attack on someone else’s turn, and that attack qualifies as a sneak attack, then the rogue can add their sneak attack dice to damage again.

The most obvious example would be an opportunity attack. If the rogue is fighting side-by-side with an ally against a single foe, and that foe runs away, the rogue can use his Reaction to make an opportunity attack. If successful, then he can add his sneak attack damage to the roll because the attack meets the criteria for sneak attack damage, and it’s also happening on someone else’s turn and not the rogue’s.

All the ways in which combat is designed in 5th edition conspire to limit the number of attacks you can make in a round, and especially the number of attacks you can make when it is not your turn. I can’t think of any way a rogue could add his sneak attack dice to damage more than twice per round, and even then using it more than once would be an unusual event.

Stacking Short Rests

Some character abilities – such as a fighter’s second wind – recharge during a short rest. The default game defines the short rest as an hour, so can characters take multiple short rests in a row, thus enabling them to gain these benefits repeatedly? The answer to this question is definitely NO. This interpretation is definitely at odds with the intention of the rules – you can’t imagine for a moment that the designers would have wanted the game to be played this way. Fortunately, the rules as written also bear this out.

The new Player’s Handbook states (on p186) that a short rest is a “period of downtime, at least 1 hour long” and that a long rest is a “period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long”. It doesn’t give a definite length for these rests, it just says that they to be “at least” this amount of time. So I rule that any rest that lasts between 1 hour and 7 hours 59 minutes is a short rest. Anything 8 hours or more is a long rest. So resting for three hours doesn’t count as three short rests, it still only counts as one.

Variant and Optional Rules in 5th Edition D&D

With about a month or so until the start of the my first ‘proper’ 5th edition campaign, I’d like to spend a moment hammering out the rules we’re going to use to play the game. After more than two years of playtest packets and limited options, the whole breadth of the new PHB and DMG are now at our disposal, along with all the variant content and optional rules modules that the game now offers. By my count there are more than 90 variant rules scattered through the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I’m going to go through every one of them in this post. Some I will just briefly touch upon, while others I will dwell on in more detail. I’m going to list all the variants and optional rules that I’d like to use in the game, and all the ones that I’ve chosen to ignore – and I’m going to explain why. However, this is meant to be a discussion not a monologue – so if you disagree with any of the options I’d like to use, or want to make a case why another variant is really the bee’s knees, then let me know. Here’s a hyperlinked summary:

Optional Rules to Adopt

Optional Rules to Ignore


Alignment (PHB p122)

In D&D 5th edition, Alignment has little mechanical effect on the game. Spells and abilities that mention alignment do so in name only. For example, the paladin’s traditional detect evil ability has been remained “Divine Sense” and doesn’t detect Evil, but instead detects the presence of celestials, fiends or undead creatures. There are a tiny, tiny handful of abilities where alignment does play a role in the rules, and if these do come up in play then we’ll have to muddle through them as best we can.

As Alignment has so little mechanical influence on your character, then you can take it or leave it. It’s entirely up to you. If declaring that your character is one of the nine available alignments helps to define who the character is, and make them easier to roleplay, then by all means use alignment. If you think your character’s back-story, personality traits, ideal, bond and flaw are more than adequate, then you can ignore Alignment entirely.

Of course, all this depends on the campaign.  The general concept of “Alignment” – of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos – may be quite relevent in certain circumstances. If you’re playing in a Planescape campaign then the it’s quite a fundamental thing that the Outer Planes are aligned along moral and ethical lines. Travel to Mount Celestia and you will see a plane that is the personification of Order and Goodness. That plane affects you in different ways depending on your Alignment. If such a thing were ever to come up in a campaign, I think we’d just have to make a ruling on where your character stands. It’s not hard to work out if you are playing a Good or Evil character after all. I’d prefer to do this, than insist everyone defines their character by alignment.

So: ignore Alignment if you want to. If it does come up in play, we can make an adjudication then as to what happens to your character.

Action Options (DMG p271-272)

In ‘Action Options’ I’m grouping together six different optional rules designed to provide more variety to combat at the table. These are all options that would have appeared in the ‘Combat Manoeuvres’ section of the third or fourth edition PHB. I like them all in principle because they feel as though they are things that any character should be able to attempt in battle. However, some may tread on the toes of other abilities already in the rules, so I would like to get your views. This is what is on offer:

Climb onto a bigger creatures: Rules to allow a small or medium character to climb onto a “suitably large” opponent. A contested roll is all that is required for the smaller character to climb onto the larger one and start clambering around him as if the larger creature is difficult terrain. This seems flavourful and is easy to adjudicate.

Disarm: The attacker makes an attack roll that is contested by the defender’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the defender is disarmed and the weapon falls to the defender’s feet. The attacker’s roll is at disadvantage if the defender is holding a weapon in two hands. The defender’s roll is at advantage (if it is larger than its attacker) or disadvantage if it is smaller. Do these rules overlap with the Battlemaster Fighter too much? The Battlemaster can attempt a special disarm by spending a superiority die. The battlemaster attacks and adds the superiority die to the damage he rolls. The foe then makes a Strength saving throw (DC 8 + attacker’s proficiency bonus + attack’s relevent ability score modifier) or be disarmed. The Battlemaster’s ability does damage which the standard disarm attempt does not, and probably has a greater chance of success. I think they can live side-by-side. There are other issues with disarm, but I’ll deal with those in a future blog post.

Mark: When you make a mêlée attack against a foe you can choose to mark the target. The act of marking is not an action. The mark lasts until the end of the attacker’s next turn. An attacker gains advantage of any opportunity attack made against a marked target. While not quite as powerful or useful as it was in fourth edition, this version of Mark does make more practical sense.

Overrun: This option is used when you want to push through a hostile creature’s space. It’s a simple contested check – the larger character getting advantage on the check. This is just a codification of a common-sense ruling.

Shove aside: The ability to shove a creature backwards (and perhaps push them over) is part of the core rules and listed by p195 of the PHB. This option simply allows you to reposition your foe by shoving them in a different direction. It’s perhaps a more useful option if a battle grid is in play, but I guess I can see circumstances where you would like to push a foe out of the way, than backwards. Because it isn’t linked to any class abilities or feats, it costs us nothing to include the option here.

Tumble: This allows a character to make an opposed Acrobatics check to move through an opponent’s space. The wording seems a bit odd to me, and Tumble doesn’t seem to allow you to avoid opportunity attacks from moving out of an opponent’s threatened area, which doesn’t seem to make it terribly useful. However, I’ll leave it in as an option for the time being. Niggling rules issues will be dealt with in a future post.

Alternatives to Epic Boons (DMG p230)

In fifth edition, 20th level is the highest level your character can attain. There is no level 21. You can’t multiclass or continue to improve your current class at that point. Instead for every 30,000 XP earned past level 20 you get an epic boon. These boons are truly… epic. I love them. You won’t miss gaining levels when you can get these boons instead. Epic Boons are part of fifth edition – they’re not optional. What this variant rule does is allow a character to select a feat or improve an ability score instead of gaining an epic boon. Such a choice may work for some characters, and I’m happy for it to be in the game.

Cleaving Through Creatures (DMG p272)

This optional rule states that if your mêlée attack reduces an undamaged creature to zero hit points in one blow, then any excess damage carries over to another target within reach (as long as the initial attack roll was high enough to hit the second target). For example, a standard goblin has 7 hit points. If three attack the PC barbarian and the barbarian hits one goblin for 18 damage, then that one blow will kill two goblins and inflict 4 damage on the third. This only applies if the foes are unwounded to begin with. You have to make a mighty swing that kills in one blow.

The reason that I don’t want to use this variant, is because 5th edition has been billed as a game where low level monsters remain threats to the PCs into high levels. A bunch of six orcs is still to be taken seriously by a ninth level PC. This optional rule makes it a bit too easy for high level mêlée combatants to despatch numerous low-level foes. I could be wrong, but my gut is telling me to avoid this one. If you want to create a character than can cleave through its opponents you still have the option of taking the Great Weapon Master feat – it’s not quite the same, but it’s thematically similar.

Crafting a Magic Item (DMG p128)

I don’t want to close off options for PCs that have existed in previous editions of the game. As such, I am going to allow you to create your own magic items if you want to do so. The rules that exist in the DMG take up less than half a page, and are fairly easy to implement. The creation of magic items require a certain amount of time, a certain amount of gold and a story-related element that is dependent upon the DM. It’s this last element that makes the process fun. Perhaps the player needs to consult long-lost plans and schematics, or decipher the mad jottings of a githzerai mage. Or maybe the actual process of making the item is easy… it’s where you make it that’s the sticky wicket. Maybe a flame tongue sword can only be forged in a volcano, or deep in the elemental plane of fire. No spells or feats are required in order to make magic items. Technically any spellcaster can do it. But the rules are such that you simply cannot produce healing wands on a production line. Magic items are unique. Making them is a special event. It’s an adventure in itself! I’m more than happy to support PCs who want to go down this road, but be aware that it’s not supposed to be an easy process.

Creating and Modifying Game Elements (DMG p273-289)

I only include this entry for the sake of completeness. The DMG sets aside several pages for advice and guidelines on how to creature new monsters, magic items, class options, races and backgrounds. The official 5th edition D&D stats for the both the aasimar and the eladrin both appear in this section. These are the guidelines I’ll be using to adjudicate whether new material for the game works or not. So this is mainly all for me as DM. However, the section of creating a Background could be useful for players as well, as could guidelines for inventing your own spells.

Customising Ability Scores (PHB p13)

These are the rules for generating ability scores using the point-buy system rather than the standard ‘roll-4d6-and-drop-the-lowest’. In fifth edition particularly, where such weight is placed on the ability scores, adding any truly random elements into character gen seems unwise. A player is only one bad set of rolls away from creating a sub-normal freakshow. The 27-point buy allows you to create the sort of character you want to play, it means you can generate characters autonomously, and it completely levels the playing field between players. I think it’s a no-brainer.

Encumbrance (PHB p176)

The standard carrying capacity rules in 5th edition are very simple, and extremely generous. A standard medium-sized creature can carry equipment that weighs his strength score ×15 in pounds before being incommoded. So an average human with a Strength of 10 can carry 150 lbs with no bother at all. In third edition the maximum light load such a character could carry (before the weight started applying penalties to the character) was 33 lbs. And the maximum that character could possibly carry was 100 lbs. The Encumbrance optional rule complicates carrying capacity introducing a more realistic limit on what characters can carry, and allowing characters to be lightly, partially and heavily encumbered. It’s more much like the third and second edition rules. Personally, I’ve always found the rules for carrying capacity to be a terribly dull exercise in book keeping. A wizard who isn’t strong enough to carry his own spell book is only funny for five minutes. The player has to live the encumbrance rules for the rest of their career. So “no” to Encumbrance. I’ve never been a GM that pays particularly close attention to what your characters are carrying, and the standard rules are good enough for me. However, it’s worth mentioning in case anyone desperately wants to object.

Equipment Sizes (PHB p145)

A common sense optional rule that basically says that armour and clothing that fits one character won’t necessarily fit someone else. Yes, I can’t believe this is a variant rule rather than a default assumption, but there you go. What this means in practice is that if you kill a 7’5″ bugbear and steal his full plate armour, you’re going to need to employ a smith to do some considerable work resizing it for your dwarven paladin.

Fear and Horror (DMG p266)

In certain situations your character may see thinks so vile, or be so overwhelmed by the futility of their predicament that the rules for Fear or Horror come into play. If circumstances call for it (perhaps you’re faced with overwhelming odds, or a foe you know you can’t beat) then the DM could call for Wisdom saving throw: fail it and you gain the Frightened condition. Horror calls for a Charisma saving throw. Fail that and you could gain a Madness (q.v.). I like the rules for Fear and Horror. They are not intrusive, and only need to be wheeled out in specific circumstances. DMs running Ravenloft would certainly use them more, but I see a place for them in most D&D campaigns.

Feats (PHB p165)

Yes, we are going to be using the optional feat rules. No discussion here, I think that they really help to flesh out your character.

Firearms, Explosives and Alien Technology (DMG p267-268)

The DMG very sensibly includes rules for more and futuristic weapons. Alongside the rapier and the great axe, we have rules for muskets, shotguns and antimatter rifles. There have been plenty of games over the years such as d20 Call of Cthulhu or d20 Modern that prove the Dungeons and Dragons system is not entirely incompatible with other eras and genres. Pathfinder incorporates such elements into their Golarion setting after all.

Now when I say I don’t want to adopt these rules, I mean that these rules are largely not compatible with the campaign I am intending to run. I do like having the rules here, and if I was running a world where guns and explosives were common place then I’d turn to these optional rules without hesitation. So no to this for now.

Healer’s Kit Dependency (DMG p266)

Usually during a short rest, a character can expend hit dice to heal himself. Every character has a finite amount of hit dice that get replenished over time. While spending hit dice in this manner keeps the game ticking along, it all seems a bit supernatural for a set of rules that seek to represent the natural healing process. Now, if you’re running a game that is little more than a series of fights and dungeon escapades (as I’ve been doing recently with the Phandelver game) then I can see the value of the core rules, but normally my campaigns aren’t like that.

This variant rule is the same rule we used during playtesting. A character cannot expend hit dice to recover hit points at the end of a short rest until someone expends the use of a healer’s kit. This represents bandaging the wound and applying alchemical salves to the damage. Only one use of the kit is expended regardless of how many hit dice the character chooses to spend. I like this variant. It explains how hit dice work in the context of the game world. There’s a degree of verisimilitude that the normal rules lack. And it gives the healer’s kit a beefier role in the game. I like that to. If a character runs out of hit dice to spend then a healer’s kit can be of no more use to him. This also makes sense to me, because presumably you can only benefit from so much medical attention. Yes, I like this variant a lot. It will take much to persuade me not to use it.

To be clear, I should point out that this variant doesn’t affect the Fighter’s ‘second wind’ ability in any way. That works as printed and doesn’t require the use of a healer’s kit. Magical healing from spells and potions also works without using a healer’s kit.

Healing Surges (DMG p266)

This introduces 4e-style healing surges into the 5th edition game. Characters can spend hit dice in the thick of combat as well as during a short rest. I don’t like this variant, as it effectively gives everyone pseudo-magical healing. It’s not a necessary addition in a game than tends to lean away from combat.

Hero Points (DMG p264)

I’m been going backwards and forwards on the merits of hero points. At the moment, I’m going to include them – but I want to see how they work in play. Unfortunately, by their nature Hero Points don’t work well in one-off or obviously finite games. They only really work in campaigns, so I can’t test them until the new game starts.

Hero Points are there to give the player a little control over how good their die rolls are – to make them more likely to suceed at heroic or dramatically appropriate times. A character has Hero Points equal to 5 + half their level. This total is reset every time a character gains an experience level, so you can’t horde them over the course of many levels. Spending a hero point can have several effects, but usually it’s to add +1d6 to an attack roll, ability check or saving throw. Just enough to turn failure into success.

These are very similar to the rules from the third edition Eberron campaign setting, and they’re also reprinted in the Unearthed Arcana supplement for Eberron which is on the Wizards of the Coast website.

Because you have so few Hero Points you have to ration when you use them, which is generally why they don’t work in one-offs. A well-spent Hero Point can be the difference between death and victory, but I’m sure you can all see how it might easily be wasted.

Hitting Cover (DMG p272)

Cover is granted by any substantial object placed between you and your attacker. The bigger the cover, the larger the bonus you get to your armour class. Half cover gives you a +2 bonus, and three-quarters cover a +5 bonus. If you have total cover you cannot be targeted with an attack. Cover is one of the few elements in fifth edition that grants a specific numerical bonus rather than simply conferring advantage. If you are attacked when you have cover, there is a greater chance of the attack missing. This optional rule asks how did the attack miss.

Neville the swashbuckler is fighting an orc in mêlée combat. Feckless Dave the ranger is trying to shoot the same orc with his longbow. Neville and the orc are battling in such a way that Neville is providing half-cover to the orc. The orc is usually armour class 13, but thanks to Neville, it is actually armour class 15 against Dave’s attack. Dave attacks and hits armour class 14 with his attack roll. He has missed the orc. But the roll would have been good enough to hit the orc had it not been for the cover, so the attack must have hit the cover instead. The DM now compares the Dave’s attack roll with Neville’s armour class. If the roll is good enough to hit Neville then he gets an arrow in the back. If it’s not good enough then it still struck Neville, but didn’t do him any damage.

Rules for hitting allies when firing into mêlée are always fun. I like these rules and will definitely be using them in the game.

Honour (DMG p264)

Like Sanity, the variant rules for Honour gives the player character a seventh ability score. Honour is used to measure their adherence to bushido, or a similar creed. You could make an Honour saving throw to avoid making a courtly faux-pas, or make an Honour ability check to decide on the most honourable course of action. This is all well and good if you’re playing in an Oriental Adventures or a Five Rings game, but it’s not a good fit for every campaign. And it’s not a good fit for the one I’m planning to run.

Initiative Variants (DMG p270)

The DMG offers a few variants to either complicate or simplify the way Initiative is calculated in combat. These include Initiative Score (no-one rolls initiative, but instead uses a passive value); Side Initiative (each side in combat rolls initiative, rather than individual creatures); Speed Factor (you size and the action you attempting affects your initiative).

Speed Factor is name-checked from second edition. With these rules if you are small or using a light weapon you get a bonus to your initiative; larger creatures or those wielding large and heavy weapons act more slowly. Spellcasting also slows down initiative, as does attempting any other complex action. These optional rules make logical sense, and are the only ones of the three I might think of adopting. However, unless anyone objects, I’m going to leave well alone with this. These rules are more hassle than they’re worth, and I think they’ll just serve to bog down combat.

Injuries (DMG p272)

Worried that your character may get though a session with all his limbs intact? Worry no more, the Injury rules are riding to you rescue! I’ve been playing these rules in the Phandelver game over the past couple of sessions, and I like the way they make combat a little more unpredictable. The threat of a major injury from a random roll of the die focuses the mind somewhat.

The way I have been running this variant (and way I intend to continue running it) is to have an injury occur every time a critical hit is rolled. On a critical hit, roll a d20 and consult the table of injuries. A roll of 1, 2 or 3 is pretty bad and requires a regeneration spell to set right. Anything else is either minor or temporary. If I were to take this into a campaign proper, I think I’d want to rewrite the injury table slightly to take into account different shaped creatures, and to offer some further options for specific types of attack: you shouldn’t really be able to sever someone’s leg with a warhammer. The critical hits tables from the old AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Option series might help me in this – but I don’t intend to go into excruciating detail

Inspiration (PHB p125; DMG p240)

This might seem something that’s hardwired into fifth edition, but it is actually an optional rule. DM’s can award a character Inspiration for playing the game well. Quite what this means might differ from table to table, but I think it means roleplaying your character, giving up mechanical benefits to fit your character’s story, being heroic, striving to drive the action onwards, doing something unexpected that leads to some fun encounters and roleplaying for everyone… basically just enriching the session. If you have inspiration you can apply Advantage to any one ability check of your choice. You can only have Inspiration once, so you can’t bank it for six months and then have one glorious session where you roll advantage on everything. I’ve been somewhat remiss in awarding Inspiration in my fifth edition games. Honestly: I forget to do it. When the new game starts, I will endeavour to get my head around the concept. Perhaps putting a “Have You Awarded Inspiration Today?” post-it note on the inside of the DM’s screen.

Level Advancement without XP (DMG p261)

In these rules the DM doesn’t award experience points at all. Instead he simply allows your characters to gain a level at a suitably appropriate point: maybe the end of an adventure, or when you’ve accomplished something significant. I’ve tried running D&D without awarding any experience points in the past (I did it during that 4e campaign) and I didn’t find the results particularly satisfying. It didn’t feel like D&D to me.

If you read my thoughts on Milestone Experience, you can see that I’m intending to simplify how I award XP to your characters. In a way, because I’m only award experience for accomplishing goals I am sort-of using this variant… only you’re still being awarded experience points.

Loyalty (DMG p93)

This is a rule that the DM uses to measure how far NPCs might go to help or hinder a player characters. All NPC are given a loyalty rating between 1 and 20 that is influenced by the most charismatic member of the adventuring party. The DM can see at a glance which NPCs are likely to risk life and limb on the party’s behalf, which regularly spit in their soup, and which are most likely to shank them with a sharpened bar of soap. I can’t imagine ever keeping track of NPCs in such a manner. For one thing, it seems too much work – but more importantly, reducing a (hopefully) three-dimensional character down to an integer just seems largely dissatisfying. It’s a mechanical solution for something that doesn’t need a mechanical situation.

Massive Damage (DMG p273)

Under the rules for Massive Damage, a character who takes more than half their hit points in damage in one blow must make a Constitution saving through at DC 15 or roll on the System Shock table. Anything called “system shock” immediately has my interest, as I remember the old system shock rolls in second edition and how utterly terrifying they were. Of course, these rules are also the product of the general Death from Massive Damage rules that appeared in third edition and were subsequently modified in 3.5 and Pathfinder to take into account a character’s level, size or hit point total.

In fifth edition a roll of the table doesn’t mean instant death. There’s a 3 in 10 chance you’ll be reduced to zero hit points, but not killed out right. Other effects may be stunned, forced to make rolls at disadvantage for a short time and so on. I do like these rules, and I will playtest them very soon, but I’m genuinely in two minds whether I’ll use them exactly as they are written. These are my thoughts:

Firstly, this is pretty brutal for low level characters. They are not likely to make can’t make DC 15 Constitution saving throws in the first place, and the threshold for having to making them is pretty low. At first level, even a barbarian with a Con of 18 would need to make a saving throw every time he takes 8 or more damage in one blow. That’s going to happen fairly often. For a wizard with a Con of 10, they need to make the save when then take 3 or more damage.

I’m also concerned with how this works with the Injury rules. Picture this likely scenario: a character receives a critical hit that does more than half his hit points in one blow. That character takes a lot of damage to his hit points, has to roll on the injury table, and has to make a Constitution saving throw or roll on the massive damage table as well. Makes combat much more brutal, no?

Plus these rules need to apply to the bad guys as well. So as a DM I have a lot more to keep track of, and low level mooks are likely to be having to roll on the system shock table very frequently. I think that it would slow the game down too much.

I’m think maybe a damage threshold would help here. Maybe 20 points of damage in one blow, or half your hit points (whichever is more). That would remove most of my objections. We’ll have to see how it works.

Milestone Experience (DMG p261)

I’m not going to get into a rant about this, but I’ve never liked awarding experience points for killing things in D&D. I’m of the opinion that if you get XP for killing, then it forces the party to become a bunch of killers. Yes, combat has its role in the game, but it’s only one weapon in the party’s arsenal. Clever plans, alliances, roleplaying and tactics can circumvent the need for combat. The important thing for the party is succeeding in its goals.

The Milestone experience rules suggest that the DM give away experience for accomplishing story goals, such as finding information, overcoming obstacles and completing adventures. As written this variant is supposed to sit alongside the rules for awarding XP through combat – but I can see how you can remove the combat XP entirely and advance the party without it.

So in the game you will all earn XP for completing milestones – certain goals scattered through each adventure. Some of this XP will be shared equally among the group, while other XP might be just for your character – if you complete a goal associated with your character’s background, for example. The experience I will award will keep you on target in regard to advancing your character in the same way as it would if I’d using the standard rules. You won’t lose out. However, as a result you might not receive experience every session.

Mixing Potions (DMG p140)

These rules are straight from the AD&D 2nd edition DMG so I am compelled to use them. Quaff a second potion while still under the effect of a first, or mix potions together and consume the results… and something unexpected may happen. Maybe one of the potions will become permanent, maybe you’ll poison yourself, maybe you’ll explode! The dice will decide.

Morale (DMG p273)

The Morale rules offer a mechanical means of adjudicating the whether an opponent flees from combat. It offers a list of potential triggers for a Morale roll – which is a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw by the opponent or the leader of a group of opponents. The rules are solid enough, but I don’t really see the need for them. As a DM I’d prefer to decide whether enemies retreat or flee from players, and not leave it in the hands of a random roll. If I honestly can’t decide I might resort to a Wis save – but I wouldn’t be relying on the Morale rules to do it.

More Difficult Magic Item identification (DMG p136)

Under the normal rules you can identify any magic item by handling it and experimenting with it over the course of a short rest. By the end of the short rest, you know all these is to know about the item. I think that’s a bit dull. Magic items are, after all, supposed to be unique items of power in 5th edition. Therefore you’ll need to cast the Identify spell, or embark on some serious empirical research, to learn all there is to learn about a magic item. Some may give up their secrerts easily, others may not.

Multiclassing (PHB p163)

D&D would not be D&D without multiclassing, and I wouldn’t dream of removing this option from the game. However, consider the ramifications before you multiclass as it’s easy to create a mechanically sub-optimal character through multiclassing, and the concept you’re going for might be better reflected with a background or feat. I’m not against multiclassing within the same class to gain the benefits of two different archetypes in principle, as long as the resulting character isn’t an obvious nonsense. However, I think that in practice the resulting character would be pretty weak compared to his companions. We’d have to look at this on a case-by-case basis. So, Multiclassing is an option, but it’s very much buyer-beware.

Only Players Award Inspiration (DMG p241)

As a variant, it is the players rather than the DM that get to award inspiration. They can’t give it to themselves, but they can give it to anyone else at the table. If they award Inspiration more than once, then karma kicks in and the DM gets to give one of his NPCs inspiration as well. This variant is appealing in that it removes Inspiration from the number of the things that I have to think about… but I’m not sure how well this would work at the table. Obviously, some groups would abuse it, but that’s not the reason why I don’t want to use it. I guess I’m too much of a control freak to let go.

Piety (DMG p23)

Piety takes the rules for Renown and applies them to religious faith. A character’s piety is given a numerical value (usually between 1 and 50) that represents how close a character is to the god they worship. It’s not a rule that just applies to clerics: any character can worship a god, and so any character can display faith in that god’s teachings. The more closely you follow the path laid down by your god, the higher your piety becomes. Some magic items (i.e. holy relics) may only function for characters that are suitably pious. While I’m quite keen to embrace the general Renown rules, I don’t have much time for Piety. I think it’s a mechanical step too far. I don’t really think that something like faith should be measured mechanically. I’d rather leave this to how you play your character. I can see that it might work in some campaigns, but for what I have in mind… I think it will be an additional complication rather than a benefit.

Planar Effects (DMG p50-66)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide introduces a number optional effects to bedevil player characters when they visit other planes of existence. These are (take a deep breath): Feywild Magic, Shadowfell Despair, Psychic Dissonance, Blessed Beneficence, Pervasive Goodwill, Overwhelming Joy, Hunter’s Paradise, Beast Transformation, Immortal Wrath, Power of the Mind, Mad Winds, Abyssal Corruption, Prison Plane, Vile Transformation, Cruel Hindrance, Pervasive Evil, Blood Lust, Law of Averages, Imposing Order, and Planar Vitality. So if the player characters happen to go on a jaunt to the Outer Planes, these are the rules I’ll be referring to in the first instance. Of course, second edition AD&D had some pretty interesting rules for planar effects as well, so I’m sure I’d wind up using a combination of both.

Playing on a Grid and Using Miniatures (PHB p192; DMG p250-252)

It should really come as no surprise to anyone that I don’t want to play the game using a battle grid, miniatures or counters. The great thing about 5th edition is that it is not built around the assumption that you will use miniatures, and as such there are no rules hardwired into the system that are difficult to adjudicate without them. If you compare the third, fourth and fifth edition versions of the Opportunity Attack you will see what I mean. I stand by what I said a couple of years ago when we talked about Tactical Combat in Pathfinder. There will be times when a battle is so complex that a visual aid is helpful, but knowing the exact location of your character to within five feet is not required. It’s especially not required in fifth edition, where you actually have to import a number of additional rules to make it a viable and mechanically interesting alternative to gridless play. If we don’t use these rules then (by default) we also do not use the variant rules for Flanking, Diagonals and Facing. It’s probably worth underlining Flanking from this list. Piling on a target to gain a flanking bonus has been a favoured tactic for us since third edition appeared in 2000. Those rules do not exist in 5th edition. There is no numeric bonus for flanking, although double-teaming an enemy can still be advantageous, especially if you’re a rogue.

Plot Points (DMG p269)

These rules take the idea of co-operative storytelling to a new level. Up to once per session, each player can spend a plot point to offer up an event to be incorporated into the session that the other players and the DM must accept as true. This could literally be anything – such as the arrival of a long lost cousin, discovery of a secret door, acquiring a new mission from a patron. Once all PCs have spent a plot point, everyone gets another plot point to spend again. The variant can be extended by calling on a second player to add a twist every time a plot point is spent, or (at the most extreme) run a game where there is no permanent DM at all.

A game like this could be a lot of fun. But it needs to be a special sort of game, with the right group of players. It’s not for my ongoing campaign, but I would like to see game like this work. I’d love to play in one.

Proficiency Check Variants (DMG p263-264)

I’ve devoted a whole blog post to the D&D skills system. In the end I think the consensus was to generally leave it alone and see how things went. Although the DMG did not offer any variants on how to complicate the proficiency rules, I does present us with ways to simplify them. I have no intention to include any of these variants, but for the sake of bring thorough, they are:

The Ability Check Proficiency rule does away with skills entirely. Characters are proficient in one or two of their Ability Scores and add their proficiency bonus to all checks made with that score. The Background Proficiency rules also remove skills from the game. In this variant, the proficiency bonus applies to any check that makes sense from their character’s background. Obviously, all characters would need a fairly extensive background, and the onus is on the player to come up with ways to justify proficiency in a given situation. The Personality Trait Proficiency rules also remove skills. In this variant the proficiency bonus applies to anything relate to the positive personality traits of your character – such as being a bad planner, but good at improvisation.

These are interesting variants… but they’re not for me.

Proficiency Die (DMG p263)

This variant was in several playtest packets. In the standard rules the proficiency bonus is a static modifier. It starts at +2 for first level characters and rises to +6 at level seventeen. These rules replace that static bonus with a rolled die that grows as the character gains levels. So instead of adding a +2 proficiency bonus you instead roll an extra 1d4 and roll it to the total; +3 becomes 1d6; +4 becomes 1d8; +5 becomes 1d10; +6 becomes 1d12. If you have Expertise then the proficiency die is doubled.

So a 1st level fighter trained in Stealth and with a Dexterity modifier of 14 would roll 1d20+1d4+2 to sneak about at first level instead of 1d20+4. A seventeenth level rogue with a dex of 20 and expertise in stealth would roll 1d20+2d12+5 to sneak instead of 1d20+17. These rules would also apply to attack rolls and saving throws.

Personally, I think this is too fiddlesome for the table. There are too many dice being rolled, which takes time and increases random chance playing a role in the combat. Given a choice, I wouldn’t use this variant. And I have a choice, so I won’t.

Renown (DMG p22; 129)

Renown is an optional rule that can be used to track a character’s standing in a particular organisation or faction. Not all PCs join organisations, so it’s not a rule for everyone – but for those who do join, I think this will be very helpful indeed. Renown is expressed as a number than can rise and fall depending on a character’s deeds within the organisation. Characters that reach certain levels of renown may get some special perks or be promoted to positions of authority. Your character can also try to gain renown during ‘Downtime’ in the same way that other characters might be running a business, training for a new skill, or making money by busking. Renown needs to be tailored to each particular organisation, but works well with guilds, mercenary companies, arcane colleges, and religious faiths alike. You may think that it’s a bit of a mechanical crutch for an in-game concept that should be measured by roleplaying, and I appreciate that. However, if you’re planning on running a game where there are a number of different organisations on offer, and each confers different (and sometimes mechanical) benefits on your characters – then an objective way of measuring your standing in that organisation is essential.

Rest Variants (DMG p267)

In the standard rules there are two types of rests: a short rest of at least one hour, and a long rest of at leave eight hours. Other rules lay down everything a character can accomplish during such rests. These variant rules seek to shorten or lengthen the time of the rests. Under Epic Heroism the short rest is 5 minutes and the long rest 1 hour. Under Gritty Realism the short rest is 8 hours, and the long rest is seven days.

Personally I prefer the balance of the standard rules. Combined with the optional rules I intend to use on healing and recovery, I think they work well enough. Both Epic Heroism and Gritty Realism are too extreme for my tastes.

Sanity (DMG p264)

The concept of Madness is an inherent part of D&D 5th edition. The rules for Madness are on p258 of the DMG and I intend to make use of them. They basically state that adventurers might be driven mad by spells or the terrible sights that they see. If such a thing should happen then a Wisdom or Charisma saving throw might be called for. How important Madness is, and how often such saving throws are made, depends on the nature of the campaign or genre. Something like Ravenloft would call for it much more often than Spelljammer, for example.

While I am intending to use the Madness rules, I won’t be using the rules for Sanity. Under the Sanity variant, all characters have a seventh ability score called ‘Sanity’. They are called upon to make Sanity saving throws to avert Madness, and also as the ability score to recall Lore about terrifying non-Euclidian entities from beyond. Sanity ability scores can also fall should a character suffer from a long-term Madness. Anyone who’s ever played Call of Cthulhu will recognise where this has come from. For this to work, you have to be running a very specific type of campaign. While I like using horror elements in my games – and the new campaign will certain have its fair share – I prefer to create scenarios where the characters are empowered to change things for the better. They are able to overcome the odds, strike a blow for justice and come out on top. Horror in roleplaying games relies on disempowering the PCs – weakening them, and then taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. It can be fun to do, but I find it a bit heavy going if I’m in such a campaign for the longhaul. I like to be occasionally creepy, but I find it much trickier to maintain ‘bleak’ and ‘hopeless’ for any length of time.

Scroll Mishaps (DMG p140)

As in 2nd edition there are two general types of scrolls in the new game. There are spell scrolls (that contain a copy of a particular spell). You can only use these if the spell on the scroll appears on your class’s spell list. If it does you can cast the spell automatically if it is of a level you can normally cast. If it’s not a spell you can cast make a check using the your magic ability modifier aiming for DC 10 + the spell level. The second type of scroll can be used by anyone who can read, with no chance of failure. Only one of these is presented in the new DMG, the classic Scroll of Protection. Under this variant rule, if you have to make a roll to use a scroll (probably because the spell on it is too high a level for you) and you fail that roll then you have more to worry about that the spell not going off. You need to make a saving throw or a mishap occurs – this mishap might be annoying, debilitating or deadly. It’s a random die roll.

Skills with Different Abilities (PHB p175)

As I mentioned in the previous post on skills, one of the variant rules allows the player or the DM to suggest using a different ability score when making a proficiency check. For example, swimming is normally a Strength (Athletics) check, but if you’re trying to swim a very long distance the DM might decide that success is more dependent on your endurance than brute force. He might therefore call for a Constitution (Athletics) check instead. It’s a rule to be used sparingly, and players are encouraged to suggest creative uses of their abilities in particular circumstances.

Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267)

The general rules allow PCs to regain all of their hit points at the end of a long rest. Regardless of how wounded they are, eight hours of sleep or playing tiddly-winks is all it takes to knit all wounds and be as good as ever they were. There are types of campaign where this Wolverine-level healing factor is a necessity, but my campaign isn’t going to be one of those. As a DM I would like (on occasion) to put the PCs in a situation where hit points become a valuable commodity. PCs who are wounded and can’t heal just by sitting around become desperate and creative. It’s not something I would want to overdo, but it’s a cool narrative tool in the DM’s arsenal that I don’t wish to discard. Then we have the issue of verisimilitude. If the PCs are humans, and the PCs can heal all their wounds over night, does that mean that all humans are possessed of such miraculous powers? Why are their doctors, or healers or hedge witches? The world begins to break down. I can’t get my head around it.

So, in this variant PCs don’t heal any hit points overnight at all. The only way they can heal themselves is by spending their hit dice during a short or a long rest. PCs only have a number of hit dice equal to their level and (as discussed elsewhere in this post) they’ll need to have a healer’s kit to spend their hit dice at all. As in the standard rules, all PCs get half their hit dice back after each long rest.

There’s just one problem I have with this variant, and it is that under these rules no-one can heal naturally without a healer’s kit. That seems a bit harsh, so I’m going to modify the variant slightly. Any character with 1 or more hit points, that does absolutely nothing but rest for an entire day, regains hit points equal to one hit die + their Con modifier at the end of that day. If they are treated and can spend hit dice they do not get this benefit. This rule is purely designed for characters who are left to get better on their own.

Spell Points (DMG p288)

We’re in the process of play-testing the spell point rules at the moment. My personal bias is toward not using them, which is why these notes appear in the ‘rules to ignore’ section of this post. This may be a bit baffling, considering that I’ve run almost every session of D&D since 1992 with a house-ruled spell point system. Truthfully, I don’t dislike the optional spell point rules at all, and I think I’d be okay playing in or running a game that used them. However, I also like the standard rules for magic and spell-casting. So I’m happy to take the path of least resistance and use the default system. Of course, once I’ve gathered evidence from a few sessions of play I might change my mind.

So how does this work? In the default rules all characters know a certain number of spell slots of each level per day, and use those slots to cast any spell that they have prepared. For example, a fifth level wizard has four 1st level spell slots, three 2nd level spell slots, and two 3rd level spell slots. He spends a spell slot to cast a spell of the same level. The spell point system replaces spell slots with a pool of spell points. A spell costs between 2 and 13 spell points to cast depending on its level: 2 for a 1st level spells, 3 for a second, and 5 for a third. A fifth level wizard using the spell point system has 27 spell points in his pool. This allows the character to cap off the same number of spells per day – [(4×2)+(3×3)+(2×5)=27] – but obviously with much greater versatility. A wizard using the spell point system could cast up to thirteen 1st level spells in a day.

There is a benefit to using the default system over spell points, but not until level nineteen. Under the standard rules wizards pick up a second 6th level spell slot at level nineteen, and a second 7th level spell slot at level twenty. A caster using the spell-point rules can never cast more than one spell from each of the four highest spell levels (6, 7, 8 and 9) per day regardless of how many spell points they have. But considering how likely it is that a character ever reaches nineteenth level, this seems much of balancing factor. The ability to cast significantly more lower level spells (many of which are quite potent) seems too good an option to ignore.

So spell points make spellcasters more versatile and more powerful. There’s no doubt about that. But that’s not why I’m inclined to reject the variant. I honestly think that the system we have works fine. Also the variant rules in the DMG don’t tell us how this change affects all the other rules in the game that reference spell slots – such as the wizard’s Arcane Recovery class ability. Adopting the variant would therefore necessitate creating house rules to make sure it works soundly and consistently throughout the game. That’s too much hassle isn’t it?

I feel I should point out that the rules for spell points in no way mitigate the need for casters to prepare spells in advance. All casters must prepare their level + their magic ability modifier in spells per day. Whether they go on to cast that magic using spell points or spell slots is irrelevant to the process of preparation.

Training to Gain Levels (DMG p131)

As an optional downtime rule, the DM can insist that characters spend time and gold in order to go from one experience level to another. On the whole, I don’t like this. I prefer the conceit that characters simply get better by the experience of adventuring. That said, if a character decides to multiclass into an area that he has no previous experience – a fighter chooses to become a warlock, for example – then I’d find it very hard to wave my hand and say that it’s something that simply happens on the fly. I think I’d view it as a roleplaying opportunity – the fighter needs to gain an eldritch patron to power his new warlock abilities. So I won’t be using this rule, BUT, the story of the campaign trumps the mechanics. If a level gain can easily be explained away within the campaign narrative, then that’s fine and dandy. If it can’t, then we need to pause and assess how a character received these new abilities. How did Quentin the Surprising Erudite (barbarian level 8) pick up a level of wizard during a spelunking expedition on the Rock of Bral? There’s a story there, and it’s always fun to tell stories.

Unearthed Arcana (online)

Generally-speaking I’m happy to adopt and absorb material published in the monthly Unearthed Arcana column on the Wizards of the Coast website. As of writing, there have been two such columns: one focusing on player character options for the Eberron campaign setting, and one looking at mass-battle rules for the 5th edition game. You can see a list of all the Wizards website articles here, although you’ll have to look through to find the Unearthed Arcana content or use the search box.

Obviously some of these articles will be more useful than others, and some of them might be immediately vetoed. The Battlesystem rules for mass combat look fine if I ever did want to semi-accurately simulate two armies having a go at one another – of course, how often such a thing would come up depends on the needs of the campaign. The Eberron material gives rules for warforged, shifters, changelings, dragon-marks and artificers. I’m happy to view this as simply a broadening of the options available to players. 5th edition needs extra player options and I’m not going to turn my back on any.

Variant Backgrounds (PHB p130-136)

As presented in the PHB the backgrounds for Spy, Guild Merchant, Knight (and it’s associated ‘Retainers’ Feature), and Pirate are all optional to the game. As I would encourage players to invent their own backgrounds for their characters I can see no harm in adding these into the mix.

Variant Human Traits (PHB p31)

By default, a human gains +1 to all their ability scores as a racial trait. Optionally, humans can gain +1 to only two of their scores, and also choose one feat and one additional skill. I liked this approach in third edition and I like it here in fifth edition as well. I’m not going to hesitate in adopting this.

Wands that don’t recharge (DMG p141)

Magic wands in fifth edition have a cool new mechanic: each has a finite number of charges for you to use. Every day a few of the expended charges automatically recharge, unless you have expended all the charges in which case there’s a chance the wand crumbles into dust. This variant gives us back the third edition wand that has more charges but is non-rechargeable. I prefer the new rules, so we won’t be using this.

D&D 5th Edition Skills

Let’s consider the skill system in D&D 5th edition.

As you’re aware, after many years of obsessive tinkering I have developed a leave-well-alone approach to house rules, and now I endeavour to keep them to a minimum. However, 5th edition is not like 3rd edition or 4th edition or Pathfinder. While you can tweak those systems to your heart’s content (often with unforeseen results) 5th edition comes preloaded with a metric tonne of optional rules and variant system and dares you to include them in your game. The fundamental approach of this new edition is to present information on how the game is put together, and encourage you to change it to suit your style of play.

So in 5th edition we don’t need to come up with rules for using spell points as there is already a variant spell point system built into the game; we don’t need to worry about not using a battle grid because the game is designed to work equally well without one as with one. And if you’re not keen on the approach they’ve taken for skills then there are variants (and other options) to try to mitigate that.

I’ve singled out skills particularly because this seems to be an area where most of the discontent in my current group is focused. I’m going to address the perceived problems with the system and either try to convince you why I don’t think they’re actually problems in the first place, or to offer some solutions. The general complaints about the skills system can, I think, be  summarised as follows:

There’s no or little sense of progression
Ability scores are given too much weight in your final skill modifier
There aren’t enough skills to choose from
My character doesn’t get enough skills
You can’t learn new skills as you progress

I’ll take each of these in turn and see what we can can about them. Then at the end I’ll introduce a couple of new variant rules that might make some difference to the skill system.

New Variant Rules

There’s no or little sense of progression

I guess strictly speaking this isn’t solely a complaint about skills. It’s a complaint about the general flatter power curve in 5th edition. Attack rolls and saving throws are also affected by this, but I think the effect is magnified when it comes to skills due to the enormous modifiers characters can be rocking in earlier editions of the game.

Let’s look at the figures:

In third edition and Pathfinder your class skills can go as high as your level +3 plus your relevent ability score modifier plus any additional modifiers you might get from your race, feats, items, or synergy. In fourth edition the skills you’re proficient in equal half your level +5, plus your relevant ability score modifiers and many, many other modifiers you might get from classes, races, feats, items and so on.

It’s a close race as to which edition can grant you the higher skill modifier. I think Pathfinder probably just about manages it, but ability scores can go much higher more quickly in fourth edition so 4e might still have an edge.

In 5th edition the bonus for your trained skills (for want of a better term) equals your Proficiency Bonus + your ability score. And generally you can’t add anything else to it. Some classes have an Expertise feature that makes them better at certain skills, but all the ad hoc modifiers of previous editions have been replaced by the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 and then rises by +1 every four levels to a maximum of +6 level 17. It never gets better than +6. Ever. Ability score modifiers in 5th edition can’t rise above 20 without unusual magical assistance regardless of what race you are.

So assuming that we’re dealing with a skill associated with an ability score you increase as you gain levels, the chances are you character is starting at level one with a +4 in a skill and ending at level 20 with a +11 in a skill. A rogue or bard using a particularly class-related skill would have a likely progression from +6 to +17. Compared to previous editions those numbers are tiny.

Now I’ve not played 5th edition as a player, I’ve only ever GMed it. And while I get that this progression is much slower, perhaps I don’t properly appreciate how it might appear that the your character is getting nowhere as they advance. Four levels worth of adventuring just to get +1 to a skill? That’s derisory. Always rolling a d20 and adding the same number, session after session? That’s boring.

The thing is… and it’s a big thing… there’s not very much that can be done about it. Like it or not, if we’re playing 5th edition then this is something that we just have to live with. The entire game is predicated on a much shallower power curve. That proficiency bonus is also applied to your saving throws and attack rolls, and is mapped carefully against Armour Class, spells, DCs, hit points and damage in a complex web of mathematical flair and interdependent rules that keep the game together. 5th edition offers many options for changing the rules, but some things shouldn’t be messed with. Pick at this thread and the entire game unravels.

Which is not to say that I don’t have sympathy for this point of view. Let me try to soften the blow.

Comparing the progression of a character in 5th edition to one in Pathfinder isn’t comparing like-for-like. Pathfinder depends on all the numbers on your character sheet getting bigger and bigger so you can use them to hit bigger and bigger difficulty targets, and on and on. Progression in 5th edition isn’t as dependent on the numbers, the DCs are lower, and as you advance you get different sorts of options.

So yes, you start with +4 in a skill and by level four you still only have +4 in that skill, and that’s a bummer. But your progression over those four levels are instead in terms of class abilities, or spells. or simply in terms of story. Maybe you’ve gained something that allows you to use that skill at advantage, or you find you can do other cool things in addition to your skills. 5th edition tends to provide you with several abilities rather than letting you ramp up one at the expense of the others.

5th edition is as dice-lite as D&D has ever been. Yes, the dice are there to adjudicate combat or act as a neutral arbiter when the outcome of a situation is doubt, but generally the game jollies along quite well without them. It’s a story telling game first and foremost (at least I think it is). If you play Pathfinder or you play Fourth Edition you have a character sheet full of numbers and modifiers, and it’s impossible to not think of your character as a mathematical problem that you have to solve. And that can be a lot of fun – I’ve learned more about Excel trying to keep track of my Pathfinder characters that I ever have at work. But generally that’s not how 5th edition functions. You don’t need to think about the numbers as much, you don’t have to game the system or min-max the character or even know how to. The system takes care of that for you.

It’s a simpler system in the same way that 2nd edition AD&D was a simpler system. If you open an old 2nd edition PHB, ignore THAC0 and the shonky mechanics, and look at the character class progressions you’ll wonder how we ever played such bland characters. But we did play them. We played them for years, and many of my fondest D&D memories come from 2nd edition games.

5th edition is based on much firmer ground that 2nd, but the feel of the game is quite similar. My sincere opinion is that the shallower power curve and the seeming lack of progression will be something that we’ll simply get used to. The game benefits so much by reining in the arms race between players and DMs that characterised the 3rd and 4th editions of the game, that a lack of progression is probably a price worth paying.

Ability scores are given too much weight in your final skill modifier

This is the opinion that I returned in my response to every 5th edition Playtest packet. It’s the Nature vs Nurture debate – whether skills should be primarily influenced by your innate attributes or by your education and experience.

Over the early levels of 5th edition it’s likely that your ability score modifier will overshadow your proficiency bonus. In fact the proficiency bonus probably won’t eclipse your ability score modifier until about level 9, and maybe not even then.

In our experience, that’s not the way the world works is it? Take two first level characters with a Dex of 18. One is trained in Stealth and one isn’t. The trained character rolls a d20+6 on a Stealth check, the untrained character rolls d20+4. It’s not much of a difference – and the trained character can’t even begin to get better in his chosen specialisation until level five. Shouldn’t training count for more than that?

There are no optional rules to change the way this works, but I guess we could invent some if we thought it necessary. Let me give you some in-game and out-of-game justifications of why we should leave things well alone.

Out-of-game… does it really matter where the modifier comes from? Would it really be worth trying to change anything? We can’t increase the weight placed on training without diminishing the weight of the ability score. The net total skill score can’t go any higher that it does at the moment because (as we’ve already established) that would break the game’s shallower power curve. So what could we do actually do?

If I halved the bonus you gained from ability scores (so a score of 20 only gave you a +2 and not a +5) and then I increased the proficiency bonus so it ran from +2 to +9 over twenty levels instead of from +2 to +6, would that satisfy matters? Would the balance between Nature and Nurture be correct then? And if it is, what’s the net effect on the actual game? Well the effect is zero on those who are trained in the skills. For those that aren’t everything suddenly becomes too difficult. And how does this change affect attack rolls, damage rolls, hit points and saving throws? Is there any point making such a change for the sake of something that better conceptualises our view of reality?

Do you want some in-game justification?

Think about how a human really gets an ability score of 18 or 20. They’re not born with it, surely. Even the burliest teenager doesn’t reach adult hood looking like Charles Atlas without a modicum or effort, or training. Ability scores do not represent just simply the innate tendencies of the human body – presumably the race’s average ability scores represent that. High ability scores need to be worked on.

Why has this human got of Constitution of 16 compared to this one with a Con of 10? Well maybe the former is grew up in a village where he has to walk 15 miles every day to collect water, and he has leg muscles like a mountain goat. This sedentary fellow has spent five years sitting in a library reading books and improving his mind. Isn’t it more likely he’ll have a higher intelligence than someone who has been marooned on a desert island with only coconuts for company?

To my mind the ability score modifier is already a mixture of Nature and Nurture, and it’s impossible to separate the two. Practice, training, good fortune and aptitude go into making ability scores what they are. It’s not just genetics or a fluke of birth.

So what are skills? Skills are specialisations. Skills are all about taking your experience, your training and your aptitude and focusing it in a particular direction. That guy whose spent years in a library finds that he’s trained his mind and is more capable of retaining knowledge than Coconut Jim. If if he makes a study of history or arcana then he’ll get proportionately less benefit because much of the things he is learning, he already knew.

Those two people who have 18 Dex I mentioned earlier? Getting to 18 Dex probably already means they are exceptionally graceful and light on their feet – extremely aware of their surrounding, the antithesis of clumsiness. Perhaps their parents forced them both into ballet at an early age, or maybe they grew up in a deep jungle dodging tigers… whatever the reason they can both already move like human cats. One of the two then decides to take it to the next level to concentrate on what he has to do to move with great stealth. And that makes him a little better than his rival. But only a little, to begin with.

The shallow power curve, the “bounded accuracy” system of 5th edition D&D does not give us much room to play with skill modifiers. We don’t have the mechanical freedom to make ability scores less relevent. But we probably don’t need to. In the same way that hit points get to represent luck, skill and stamina as well as resistance to damage, so can ability scores represent training, experience and practice as well as inherent aptitude. It makes sense to me.

There aren’t enough skills to choose from

A couple of things to mention before going any further. Firstly, I wanted to discuss the terminology used in 5th edition. The new game uses the umbrella term “Proficiency” for a character’s talent with weapons, armour, skills, languages and tools. If you have weapon proficiency then you get to add your proficiency bonus to weapon attacks; if you have armour proficiency then you get the most out of the armour when wearing it (including the casting of spells in armour); if you have language proficiency then you can speak and read a specific language – there aren’t any more indepth rules for languages than that. You either know it or you don’t.

That leaves Skill Proficiencies and Tool Proficiencies. Together these two cover the entire lexicon of what we would consider as “skills” from 4e and 3rd edition D&D (including Pathfinder). The distinction between Skills and Tools is a peculiar one. I think that it’s in the game to encourage characters to take softer, non-mechanical proficiencies. Backgrounds tend to grant two skill proficiencies and two tool proficiencies. If skills and tools were the same thing there aren’t many who would be able to resist taking Perception or Stealth over the ability to play a musical instrument or wood-working.

But it is wrong to think of Tool Proficiencies as generally useless background colour. There are some pretty vital proficiencies in there including the ability to pick a lock, disguise yourself, create antitoxins and potions of healing, use poison, drive a wagon, sail a boat, navigate across a great distance, or forge a signature.

Secondly, I wanted to remind us of the way these proficiencies are supposed to work in play. In general when the GM calls for a roll, he calls for an ability check. It’s up to the player to suggest that he has a proficiency that may be useful to the check at hand. It’s an exercise in lateral thinking. Your character is grabbed by the school bully. You have the Intimidation skill, could you therefore apply your proficiency bonus to your roll to escape the grapple? Maybe in this case the DM rules you can. All bullies are cowards after all. But that won’t work if you’re grabbed by an octopus. No-one can scare an octopus.

After years of running third edition I’m more likely to call for a proficiency check than an ability check. I won’t say “Make a Wisdom check to spot” I’ll just call for a straight Perception roll. However, the burden of creativity is still in the hands of the player. Have fun with it.

So: back on topic. In the following spreadsheet I’ve looked at all the skills presented in D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, and Pathfinder and mapped their equivalent skill and tool proficiencies from D&D 5th Edition. Take a look and then come back to the blog. I’ll wait.

excel

I hope you can see from the list that there aren’t very many things you could do in previous editions that aren’t explicitly available in 5th edition. A few skills have been merged together, although this has been a trend since Pathfinder was published. Frankly I’m very happy that we have Stealth instead of Hide and Move Silently, Perception instead of Spot and Listen, and Acrobatics instead of Balance and Tumble. As in 4e the skills Swim, Jump and Climb have been merged into Athletics, and now Ride and Handle Animal have been merged into the new Animal Handling skill.

You can make an argument that not all great mountaineers are great swimmers (and I think I have made that very argument in the past on this blog) but I don’t think it makes a blind bit of difference at the table. You want your character to be a sportsman then you take Athletics skill and you’re just good at ‘that sort of thing’. I say that makes the most sense. I’ve no problem with any of that.

Knowledge skills are on slightly more dodgy ground. The Arcana skill is now doing overtime as a catch-all all skill for all magical effects, extraplanar creatures and planes of existence. That was split over three skills in previous editions. The history skill is left in the bizarre position of sort of covering Engineering and Geography, although proficiency with the right tools can step in and help us to some extent here. No skill really seems to cover a knowledge of the Undead… I suppose you could shoe-horn it back into Religion, but I never found that particularly satisfactory. Nature now generally covers information about all non-extraplanar beasties – even the magical ones, like dragons and owlbears.

Some proficiencies don’t have any 5th edition equivalent, but these are skills on the edge of the obscure. Use Rope hasn’t had a dedicated skill in D&D for years, Fly is simply a Pathfinder invention, but something like Escape Artist could well be missed. Escapology is a skill, surely – but I guess you could (at a stretch) use Acrobatics instead. Gymnasts have to contort themselves, after all. Perhaps this is another instance where the player can make a case for using a particular skill in a certain situation.

So having looked at the entire list: what do we do? Do you think we need to add any more skills? Would the game be better if there was a Geography skill, or an Escape Artist skill? Should knowledge of the Planes be separate from Arcana? Should knowledge of Nobility return in its own right, or does it make more sense as part of the History skill. And what about the Undead?

My instinct is simply not to bother adding any additional skills, but I can see that a case could be made. If you feel strongly enough then make one!

My character doesn’t get enough skills

Chances are that most characters are picking up two skills from their class and two from their background. If you’re lucky you might squeeze another skill out of your race – but don’t be surprised if you only know four skills at first level. Is this too few? Let’s compare 5th edition to previous versions of D&D:

skill table

The number in parenthesis in the 3.5 and Pathfinder columns is what I would consider the average number of skills available based on the character’s likely ability score. Most people (maybe not us, but most people) who play third edition D&D tend to max out their skill ranks in the skills they want to be best at. So a ranger with an Intelligence of 14 (+2 modifier) effectively knows 8 skills. It’s a bit of an assumption and I know that this lack of freedom is a problem many of you have with the system, but bear with me as it’s the only way to compare amount of granted skills properly.

Where the 5th edition column offers more one figure, it means that certain class archetypes grant additional skills. The A bard of Lore has three skills more than a bard of Valour, for example. The 5th edition column contains the number of skills gained from class and from background, but no other sources are taken into account in any column. So any bonuses skills from your race are not factored in here.

With all that out of the way, what does the table tell us? Well, on the surface it appears that 5th edition characters are getting less skills than their Pathfinder or 3.5 counterparts (although slightly more skills than they had in 4e). Is this a fair conclusion?

Remember 5th edition divides the old third edition skill list into Skill Proficiencies and Tool Proficiencies. We’ve only listed the Skill Proficiencies up there. All backgrounds offer 1-2 additional tool proficiencies, and all classes will give you a few more as well. You can start the game with quite a few of them. Yes, some tool proficiencies don’t seem to have any great mechanical use, but some of them (such as Thieves Tools) replace some extremely important D&D skills: Open Locks and Disable Device.

If we included the Tool Proficiencies in the table above then you need to add at least 3, probably more, to the number of skills available to each character class. And suddenly, 5th edition is offering more skills than any other version of D&D to date.

“But,” you will say, “tool and skill proficiencies aren’t interchangeable. Sure, Thieves Tools are useful, but I don’t want to be proficient in three different gaming sets and a musical instrument. In third edition I could choose not to take useless skills like Profession or Craft. In 5th edition, I’m stuck with them.” And you’d be right. There’s an argument to be had here. Given that there are (almost) as many available proficiencies in 5th ed as there in Pathfinder, and given that we might be considering creating new skills… do we want to give PCs access to more proficiency slots?

We could do it. No problem. It wouldn’t break the game at all. I could wave my hand and say everyone has an extra skill or tool proficiency of their choice at first level, or an extra two proficiencies. Do you want to do that? I guess we should be cautious of duplicating too many skills between two PCs so everyone gets to keep their own schtick… but if I’m mostly running the game for 3-4 players then maybe this is less of a problem. We can play it by ear of course.

Thoughts on amount of skills?

You can’t learn new skills as you progress

In 5th edition your selection of armour, weapon, skill, tool and language proficiencies are set at first level. Most of those proficiencies increase as your ability scores and proficiency bonuses increase, but the ways in which you can gain more skills after first level are not immediately obvious. They are there. Are they enough? Do we need more options?

After first level 5th edition D&D offers four ways in which you can gain new skills:

  • Select a feat. The most obvious is the ‘Skilled’ feat grants you three new skill or tool proficiencies. However, you can gain new languages, weapon and armour proficiencies by selecting feats as well. If one of the various proficiency gaining feats does not appeal, then it’s simplicity to create one that meets your needs.
  • Multiclass. When you select a second class you gain some (but not all) of that class’s proficiencies. If you multiclass into rogue or bard, then you’ll get a skill.
  • Train for a skill. You can use your downtime to pay a trainer to train you in a new language or tool proficiency. I would rule you could train for a new skill proficiency as well. The time it takes to learn a skill is up to the GM. The suggested period is 250 days at 1gp per day, although the DMG suggests that experts can accomplish this much faster (presumably at greater cost or rarity). So you could quest for someone to teach you a new skill.
  • Proficiency in skills, tools or weapons can be treated as treasure. Handed out by the GM in the same way as magic items or cash. This a lot like questing for the master of a particular skill, but the reward for an adventure could be gaining a new skill to add to your character.

Now players who like to min-max might say that some of these options are incompatible. Why would I want to spend a feat to get a skill if I could get one during downtime for free, and spend the feat on something else? Well, it’s all a matter of choice. There is no wrong order to acquire things in 5th edition – you can’t break your character unless the GM lets you break it. If the order in which you choose to acquire game elements creates a sub-optimal results compared to acquiring them in a different order the DM can just wave his hand and consolidate your character’s abilities so you haven’t placed yourself at a disadvantage.

So say there was a feat that granted +1 to one ability score and a skill. Say you took that and got trained in Arcana, but then you acquire the Arcana skill from another source. Now you have the skill twice. Well, you can just retrain the feat, or modify the feat to swap in a different skill, or drop the skill aspect of the feat and have a another +1 to ability score instead. Or whatever it takes to realign your character fairly. If it all sounds a bit free an easy then it is. 5th edition isn’t codified like 3rd or 4th. We should celebrate that!

Diversion aside, consider whether the four options above are enough to keep you happy when it comes to getting more skills. If not there are other options. Let’s look at some variant rules I made for the occassion.

New Variant Rules

While there are plenty of variant rules regarding skills in 5th edition D&D, they all set about simplifying the skill system and not making it more complex. If you’re looking for a skill system that is more in line with Pathfinder or third edition, then you’re not going to find it in the DMG. However, the DMG does empower me to offer a couple of variants of my own:

VARIANT: The Dabbler

Whenever a game element grants you a skill proficiency, you instead gain a number of skill ranks equal to your proficiency bonus. Whenever your proficiency bonus increases, you gain skill ranks equal to the number of skill proficiencies that would have been granted to you by the standard rules.

Example: a 1st level elf cleric of the knowledge domain with the acolyte background gains skill proficiency in Perception (from his race), Insight and Religion (from his background), and four other skills from his class – a total of seven skill proficiencies. At 1st level he gets 14 skill ranks, and every time his proficiency bonus increases he gets another 7 skill ranks. If the character later takes the Skilled feat he immediately gains skill ranks equal to 3 × his proficiency bonus. Each time his proficiency bonus increases from now on, he would gain 10 skill ranks instead of 7.

The same principle applies to a character’s tool proficiencies. Whenever a game element grants a tool proficiency, you instead gain a number of tool ranks equal to your proficiency bonus. Whenever your proficiency bonus increases, you gain a number of tool ranks equal to the number of tool proficiencies that would have been granted to you by the standard rules.

Under this variant, the character does not apply his proficiency bonus when he makes an ability check to use a skill or tool he is proficient in. Instead he invests his granted ranks into skills and tools, and adds the number of invested ranks instead. Skill ranks can only be invested in skill proficiencies, and tool ranks can only be invested in tool proficiencies. The minimum number of ranks that can be applied to a proficiency is 1, and the maximum is equal to the character’s proficiency bonus.

Characters with the Expertise class feature (or its equivalent) will double their ranks instead of their proficiency bonus when they make an ability check that uses one of their chosen proficiencies. Characters using this variant have a broader repertoire of skill and tool proficiencies, and are able to pick up new proficiencies much more easily because they only need to invest one rank to acquire them. However, this freedom comes at the price of specialisation – and characters are unable to excel in as large a range of skills, as a character that uses the standard rules.

This is a ‘cost-neutral’ variant, and could therefore be played at the same table as characters who use the standard rules for proficiencies.

Or we could step it up a notch and consider this variant instead:

VARIANT: The Renaissance Man

This variant works in exactly the same way as ‘The Dabbler’ except that characters are granted additional ranks. In addition to all the ranks granted by The Dabbler variant, a 1st level character gains ranks equal to his proficiency bonus. Every time the character’s proficiency bonus increases he gains +1 rank. These ranks can be invested in either Skill or Tool proficiencies, but the maximum number of ranks in any one proficiency can still not exceed the character’s proficiency bonus.

GMs wishing to grant characters even greater access to proficiencies can increase the number of additional ranks granted by this variant. For example, a character might gain an addition 2 × his proficiency bonus in ranks at 1st level, and then an additional +2 ranks each time his proficiency bonus increases.

If this variant is being used at the same table as characters who are using the standard proficiency rules, then those characters need to be granted extra skill or tool proficiencies of their choice at 1st level. Grant such characters one additional proficiency for each multiple of skill ranks granted to characters using this variant. So if a character using The Renaissance Man variant gains 4 × his proficiency bonus in extra ranks at 1st level, then +4 ranks each this his proficiency bonus increases, then a character that uses the standard rules should gain four extra proficiencies at 1st level.

This variant gives characters the freedom to acquire new skills very easily, and also makes it more likely they can excel in a large number of skills as well. Depending on the number of extra skill ranks granted, there is a danger of making these characters a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-all-trades. Consider the balance of skills among party members, and be aware that some characters may feel their skills are redundant.

This variant works well in a small party (where otherwise all skills may not be covered) or in a game where the GM has introduced several new skills (and so there is more to choose from).

Both of the above variants grant the same freedom for obtaining new skills as third edition and Pathfinder. You’re able to apply ranks to whatever skills (or tools) you like, and so you’re able to gain a much broader selection of skills. The above will work, and it won’t break the system or create over-powered characters. It might make some characters feel redundant – no character is likely to be the party’s sole expert in a particular skill.

Talking Point

Right. Now over to you, my 5th edition players. What do you want to do with this? Particularly consider the following:

  1. Do we need to add any new skill or tool proficiencies to the 5th edition game?
  2. Do we need to grant extra proficiencies to characters because we think they don’t have enough?
  3. Are the ways that you can already gain new skills sufficient? If not, can you think of any alternatives?
  4. Are the new variants ‘The Dabbler’ or ‘The Renaissance Man’ something you would want to adopt for the game? Or can you suggest a different variant?

My recommendation as GM is that we do absolutely nothing. We leave the rules as they are and don’t touch them. Yes, you can pick holes in them in theory, but you don’t see those holes in play. I think they’re good enough. What do you think?

The Lost Mine of Phandelver – Session 1

As you may be aware, I’ve started running through the new D&D 5th Edition starter set adventure: The Lost Mine of Phandelver. The first session was back on 6th August and the second is pencilled in for this evening, so I thought a quick synopsis of events was in order. These are the following brave heroes embarking upon this epic adventure:

  • Marc is Sergeant Thorval ‘Sarge’ Hammerfast, dwarf, career soldier and steadfast cleric of Marthammor Duin.
  • Neil is Joe, valiant warrior, bowman and would-be folk hero to his fellow humans of the north.
  • James is Talrik Firebeard, dwarf and curious acolyte of Oghma as well as a full-time pyromaniac wizard.
  • Jack is Birel Buckman, an elven warrior raised by the faithful of Waukeen.

The PCs are made up of a mixture of the pre-gens that came with the set, as well as original creations made using the Basic Rules. Jack couldn’t make it for the first session, so we were down to three player characters. I made no attempt to adjust the difficulty of any combats accordingly…


PART ONE: Goblin Arrows

During their residence in the city of Nerverwinter, the party came into contact with noted dwarven miner, merchant and entrepreneur Gundren Rockseeker.  Together with his brothers Tharden and Nunro, Gundren had his podgy dwarven fingers in numerous schemes that he was convinced would make him exceedingly wealthy. Recently the party had come to suspect all of his efforts had finally born fruit. It was not that Gundren actually told any of them of his plans, but he was behaving in an increasingly exciting and erratic manner. He was dropping heavy hints about future glory, and tapping the side of his nose in a portentous manner.

Then, a few days ago, Gundren announced that he was riding to the obscure frontier town of Phandalin with an ageing knight called Sildar Hallwinter. Sildar is part of an organisation called the Lords Alliance – a group dedicated to keeping the northlands peaceful and safe for its inhabitants. His presence should have told the party that danger lay ahead. Gundren asked the party to follow him to Phandalin with a wagon laden with the supplies he would need. He told them to deliver the wagon to Barthen’s Provisions in Phandalin, where they would be rewarded with 10gp each for their trouble. Gundren was never anything short of generous.

And so it was the session began with the party of four slowly ambling through the wild lands with an oxen-pulled wagon, laden with the assorted paraphenalia that would be required for an extensive mining operation. Birel, who had eaten too much dwarven cheese from the wagon the first day out from the city, was lying in the back with severe stomach cramps. Eventually the group turned to the west, off the main road toward Waterdeep, and headed out along the little-used Triboar Trail that leads to Phandalin and the wilderlands beyond. It was half a day into this journey that all their troubles began.

The group spotted two shapes that could be horses lying in the road up ahead. While Joe held the wagon at a safe distance, Joe sneaked up the path to take a look. The shapes were indeed horses, and they were both peppered with arrows. Black arrows. Black goblin arrows. These were the horses belonging to Gundren and Sildar! Something terrible had obviously befallen them, at which point all hell broke loose.

A couple of vicious and toothful goblins leapt out at the pair of dwarves while a further two loosed arrows toward the wagon. Joe was forced to seek cover from the surprisingly accurate volley, but fortunately Sarge’s fighting arm was up to the task of dispatching the goblins close to him. Talrik enjoyed setting various bushes on fire.

Soon the enemies were dispatched, Sarge detonating the last fleeing goblin with his holy powers. Regrouping at the dead horses, the party now investigated the area more thoroughly. The saddlebags, along with anything of any value had been looted – with the exception of an empty ivory map tube. However, tracks were easy to find in the damp ground. Numerous goblins had been here and two objects (probably Gundren and Sildar) had been dragged away.

Choosing to believe that the dwarf and the knight were still alive, the group left Birel to mind the wagon and followed the tracks. They quickly plunged off the road and into a rough but well-worn trail that snaked away across the wilderness.After several hours, the trail came to run along the side of a fast moving stream. The party followed this route ascending into the foothills until they discovered that the scream was running from the mouth of a dark and ominous cave. On the far side of the stream (that was only about 10 feet wide), the path continued into the cave.

With uncharacteristic caution, Talrik sneaked across the stream and stumbled quickly into a goblin outpost. The two goblins there were quickly put to sleep by the wizard’s powerful magic, and then brutally done-in while they were snoozing. With the guards neutralised, the undetected party entered the cave complex.

The path continued to run up-hill along the right hand side of the stream and it twisted away into darkness. Sounds of snarls and yipping from an antechamber to the right did not move the party’s curiosity sufficiently enough to investigate. As they moved around the corner, the light from the entrance was cut off and Joe became effectively blind. However, he elected to allow himself to be guided by his dwarven companions rather than light a torch and give away his position to the hordes of goblins that were undoubtedly waiting in the shadows.

A little further on Sarge investigated a scrambleway on the opposite side of the stream that led up to a ledge and the to a higher level. However, the stonework looked unsafe to his trained dwarven eyes and he did not recommend traversing it.

The party continued, still undetected, beneath a rope bridge manned by an inattentive goblin sentry. Now the passage swept further to the right, and they could hear the sound of cascading water. Soon they entered a large chamber. The dwarves could see that the stream they had been following entered through a dark tunnel high up on the far side of the chamber. Two artificial pools had been created to catch the water. They were dammed with stones and it looked to the dwarves these stones could easily be knocked away to cause a torrent of water to fill the entrance cave, and presumably flush away any intruders. For that to work, the goblins must keep this room manned at all times.

Carefully climbing up into the chamber they saw the truth of this theory. Three goblin sentries with bows and swords. There were three exits from this chamber: the one through which the entered, an exit behind them that they assumed would ascend and lead back to the rope bridge, and another large exit on the far side of the chamber up rough hewn steps.Battle was soon joined, with Joe throwing down a magical pebble of light so he could see his enemies. Although the heroes were victorious, it was a difficult challenge for them, and they opted to rest in the chamber before moving on.

For one hour they tended to their wounds, and Talrik did his best to speed-read from his spellbook. All the while they could hear the sound of movement in the tunnel complex, and it seemed clear to them that they had been noticed. Toward the end of the hour, the sound of a large force of goblins heading toward them both up the river passage and along the rope bridge was evident. Not wishing to fight upwards of a dozen of the little bleeders, the trio quickly moved up toward the larger passage where they quickly ran into a massive bugbear and an equally massive wolf.

The bugbear announced that he was Klarg – King of all the Cragmaws – and proceeded to discuss his importance, strength and impending violent victory of over the party as he attacked them. The mange-ridden monstrosity was evidently a nutcase, but he was skill nutcase and with a goblin horde approaching from behind things were looking bleak. The wolf went for Joe who was bravely savaged by the beast. Talrik quietly singed the Bugbear king while Sarge (whose ability to cast spells was but a distant memory at this point in the afternoon) proceeded to go to town on him dwarf-style.

Miraculously, they managed to kill Klarg and the wolf just as the goblin horde emerged behind them. Slicing off Klarg’s head Sarge waved it around in an attempt to intimidate the rabble. They all seemed suitably awed except one beefy goblin who identified himself as Yeemik. He declared himself the new king and proceeded to trash-talk the party into surrendering.

Sensing that Yeemik may have the foul charisma required to rally the horde the party quickly fell upon him. Taking all the goblins (but particularly Yeemik) by surprise they quickly killed the would-be king. Utterly terrified, the remaining goblins – of which there were about a dozen – fled the cave complex by the most direct route and scrambled down to the stream to follow the path to safety.

Smiling broadly Sarge ambled over and knocked out the first of the dams. The sound of the raging waters and the death-gurgles of a dozen foul goblins would help him sleep soundly on those cold nights away from the stone.

With their enemies destroyed, the party turned their attention to finding their missing employer. Heading up the steps from which the bugbear king descended, the found a large chamber lit by the glowing embers of a fire pit. There were heaps of sacks boxes across the back of the room emblazoned with the image of a blue lion. Searching through them the party discovered a collection of dry goods, tools and linens. Hidden among the boxes was King Klarg’s secret treasure, stuffed into a battered and broken treasure chest onto which the bugbear had inexpertly carved “K L A R G”. Inside the chest was a heap of coins (600 copper pieces and 110 silver pieces when counted), two vials of a greenish liquid that were likely magical potions and a small jade statuette of a frog with tiny golden orbs for eyes.

With nothing else to find, the group double-backed and headed down a previously unexplored passage. Crossing the rickety rope bridge they entered the largest (and probably last) of the chambers in the complex. This was evidently the living area for the majority of the tribe and the smell of uncured meat, rancid flesh and various goblin secretions lay heavy in the air. There were no goblins here, but there was movement.

Up on a ledge toward the rear of a chamber was a securely bound man. The man had wild white hair, kind eyes and a Kris Kringle beard – in short, he was everyone’s favourite grandfather. The party recognised him as Sildar Hallwinter, and the ageing knight was extraordinary grateful for his timely rescue. He was also extremely impressed that the party had managed to eradicate every single goblin the complex.

Sildar explained that he and Gundren had been ambushed en route to Phandalin. Following the ambush he woke up bound in this cave, and initially he did not know of Gundren’s fate. However, one of the goblins was particularly loose-lipped and he managed to overhear that Klarg had taken the dwarf under orders from his superior – a creature that the goblins in the cave refer to as “The Spider“. Gundren had apparently been delivered to this Spider at “Cragmaw Castle”. However, Sildar hasn’t a clue where this Castle is, and doubts that Cragmaw is its real name. He guesses that someone in Phandalin might know of the location of any abandoned forts in the vicinity.

There are many more questions the party can ask Sildar, but he is tired and wounded and needs to rest. The last thing they ask him is the provenance of the blue lion sigils on the cases in Klark’s chamber. Sildar notes that these denote the property of the Lionshield Coster – a merchant company who have an outpost in Phandalin. Sildar speculates that the Cragmaw goblins must have been terrorising the Triboar Trail for some time to amass so much plunder. He suspects that if they party return the goods to the to the Coster in Phandalin they might get a reward. Of course, they’ll need their wagon for that.

TO BE CONTINUED


I’m not going to get into a deep analysis of how well the session played from the GM’s perspective. It’s not the first session of D&D Next/5th Edition that I’ve run, and if I’m honest the Basic Rules aren’t different enough from the last playtest documents to give me any trouble. It certainly felt as though I was running D&D, and it was a lot of fun. More options for player characters would definitely be welcome – not that the PCs felt particularly bland, but I don’t think Basic D&D has enough different options to properly personalise a PC for the longhaul.

The only thing that struck me as a GM is quite how powerful goblins can be. They have an ability called Nimble Escape which reads: “The goblin can take the Disengage or hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns.” This is pretty much the same ability that PC rogues have. What it means is that goblins can move into mêlée combat from 30 feet away, take their attacks and then retreat 30 feet without provoking an attack of opportunity. I like how this rule represents goblins that continually dash in, attack and retreat… luring PCs away from one another. But in practice against a 1st level party (particularly a party of three), it seemed as though it could be a bit overwhelming. I therefore used the ability sparingly.

Housekeeping

It’s (shockingly) been more than a year since I last posted something to the blog. I can’t attest to doing anything more constructive over the last twelve months than improving my Xbox gamerscore, but there are a few announcements that I wanted to share with you all.

D&D Fifth Edition Launches Tomorrow!

Kinda. As of 3rd July (probably quite late in the day UK time) the first iteration of the new Basic Dungeons & Dragons game will be available to freely download from the Wizards of the Coast website. For those of you who haven’t been following every scrap of information on this topic: Basic D&D is *not* a simplified version of the 5th edition game – it’s the full game, albeit with less options that you’ll eventually find in the new Player’s Handbook.

Tomorrow you’ll find rules for character creation and advancement for the simplest build of the four core classes, as well as rules on how to play, equipment and spells. As more products are released over the coming months so this free version of the game will expand with more content. Expect monsters to appear after the launch of the Monster Manual, for example.

Following the release of Basic D&D the new D&D Starter Set launches in mid-July, followed by the new Player’s Handbook in August, the Monster Manual in late September and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in November. There’s a few adventures in the mix as well. This is a staggered release similar to third edition in 2000, so will be easier on my wallet.

A new 5th Edition mini-campaign, anyone?

I’m very enamoured with the new D&D rules. I think they’re the best version of D&D to date, and I’d like to take them for a test drive. Therefore I’m going to be a running the mini-campaign presented in the D&D Starter Set. It’s set in the Forgotten Realms and designed to take PCs from 1st to 5th level – about eight sessions worth of adventuring (or twenty-eight at the rate we normally play). I don’t have a specific start date in mind, neither have I decided whether I want to run it on a weekly or ad hoc basis. I don’t want it to drag out too long, though. Basically I’ll be guided by player availability.

Which brings me on the subject of players. I need some. Ideally five, which seems a tall order in these uncertain times. I have had some interest, but any of you who a) live within striking distance, b) feel like some new D&D, and c) I’ve actually met, please drop me an email.

Iourn.com has gone AWOL

For those of you keeping track of such things, access to www.iourn.com has been impossible for month or so. I’m not entirely sure why, but as the site hasn’t been updated since January 2009 I’m not in a big hurry to solve the mystery.

Please don’t worry that we’ve lost any content. I have the entire site backed up in various places. If any of you want a full copy of the site for your reference then send me an email and I’ll endeavour to get one over to you.

My longer term plan is to recreate the old site (including all its content) in WordPress. It would make it easier for me to maintain and update it, although I’d need to think long and hard about the format, navigation, theme etc. WordPress also has the advantage of being equally legible on a variety of different devices, which can only be a good thing in this post-PC world.

D&D Third Edition (Pathfinder) Campaigns

My weekly Iourn campaign, Prophet and Loss, is currently on hiatus due to player availability. I’m in no hurry to start running it again, and am happy to wait until everyone has the time and energy to continue the campaign. I still have all my notes and we can pick up where we left off fairly easily.

The ongoing adventures of the Chosen of Narramac that began back in 2000 will continue with a third campaign, To End All Wars, starting in August. This time our high level heroes are sharing the limelight with a new collection of first level PCs.

The Conversion Catalogue

I did threaten to use this blog as a venue for thrashing out rules for the conversion of old 3.5 material into Pathfinder. I’m shortly going to make good on that threat with an exploration of the third edition Warlock. I have need for warlocks in my ongoing game, and would like to throw out some ideas.

The 3.5 warlock is a bit too focused to stand against other Pathfinder classes. By taking a leaf out of fourth edition I think we can introduce different class abilities based on pacts (Fey and Star as well as the default Infernal); the Warlock’s Curse from 4e is also something worth exploring, I think. I’m also of a mind to make Hexblades and (possibly) Binders archetypes of the Warlock.

Watch this space for more information.

D&D Next Playtest – Session 1

With the second D&D Next playtest session just a week away, it’s time to have a look at the first. If you recall from the last post on character generation, this is the motley crew of adventurers I have on my hands:

  • James: “Renko Silverbeard” – hill dwarf sorcerer, bounty hunter background, survivor speciality
  • Malcolm: “Adric Hummerstone” – hill dwarf rogue, charlatan and thug backgrounds, jack-of-all trades speciality
  • Marc: “Lord Wilhelm Cryton” – human warlock, noble background, necromancer speciality
  • Neil: “Erannis” – high elf fighter (slayer), bounty hunter background, survivor speciality

Without further ado, here is the synopsis of the session from 29 August 2012:

The barony of Penhaligon is on the verge of much strife. Since his rescue from the Caves of Chaos five years ago, the Honorable Percival Penhaligon has made no secret of his desire to be baron and wrest control of the land from his elder sister, Arteris. Recently he has gained some political support, and there are also rumours of Percival courting darker allies. There are those who link a growth in the cult of Tharizdum with Percival’s aggrandisement. Civil war seems all but inevitable.

The party are summoned to a clandestine meeting at the Red Raven tavern in the river district of Penhaligon. Upon arriving they discover the mark of Tharizdum has been scratched into the door of the tavern, although Erannis points out that an effort has been made to sand it away. They enter to discover the tavern deserted save for an out-of-work bard, her dwarven minder and the innkeeper Tom. Between them the bard and the innkeeper tell tales of the foul events that have become commonplace in the town over the last few weeks. A flower-girl was recovered from the river only yesterday with the mark of Tharizdum scrawled on her back, and Tom is very suspicious that all cats and dogs have disappeared from the town.

Upon hearing a noise downstairs, Adric fears betrayal and punches Tom in the face. Renko is quick to calm things down (using a charm person spell) and the party are soon in the cellar meeting with their mysterious patron: Baroness Arteris Penhaligon. She tells the party that years ago her father, Pevarry, defeated a dragon that was terrorising the northlands. Rather than kill the dragon, Pevarry extracted a promise from it. In return for its life, the dragon promised to help Penhaligon in its time of need. The baroness wants the party to take a token and find this dragon (named Red Shemeska) and convince it to make good on its oath. The only problem is that her brother has also sent agents to court the dragon. It’s essential the party get there first and deny Percival this terrible prize.

Despite being a rainy Autumn night, the PCs leave immediately. They ride all night and come to rest at a waystation around dawn. Here they meet other travellers just starting their day’s journey. They are fleeing Penhaligon before war breaks out.

The party settles down to rest, and all is uneventful until the Renko’s watch around midday. He sees a figure climbing over the back wall of the waystation, undoubtedly with larceny in mind. He shoots him with a ray of frost. The would-be thief is flash-frozen and totters back down the far side of the wall. Renko hears him shatter. The noise awakes Erannis. Renko tells him to stay in camp while he goes and checks out the body. However, Renko is ambushed by a club-wielding maniac and rendered unconscious. Erannis awakens Adric and Cryton and runs to help his friend.

Before Erannis can engage the club wielder he is attacked by two trained dire rats. Fortunately, his martial training keeps the monters at bay. Cryton become ethereal and steps through the wall of the waystation, quickly ripping the souls from the bodies of those who fall to Erannis’s longsword. Adric creeps up behind the leader with the club, but is seen and therefore does not land a telling blow. Reinforcements arrive from the woods and the battle looks all but lost when Adric falls.

Fortunately, Cryton’s spectral appearance unnerves the assailants and they do not attack him directly. This enables him to bring down the leader with his eldritch blast. With two of their number, their leader and both rats dead the remaining brigands flee into the woods. Erannis then unfastens his healing kit and does what he can to revive the two dwarves.

General Thoughts

As the first session of an extended adventure, we devoted a fair amount of time to character generation and exposition. The result of this is that we only had time for one combat encounter. That would be absolutely fine in a regular campaign, but it’s a shame that we got to so little of the business-end of the system in this playtest session. The next session should have a lot more sword-swinging and spell-tossing. Promise.

I’ll write more in a separate post about encounter building and design. Suffice to say that for the purposes of this adventure, I’ve planned out all the encounters in advance and balanced them against the number of PCs in the party, and the level I think they’ll be when they reach that point in the story. This worked against me in the first session, as I had four PCs and not five as I’d originally thought. The encounter was therefore a little harder than it probably should have been – and not helped by the tactics the PCs employed.

However, what I will say is that this felt like D&D. This really felt like D&D. It took me back to running the second edition game. I’m not sure I can put my finger on quite what is, but D&D Next seems to have that indefinable something that 4e lacked. At least for me!

Skills and Checks

I’m going to keep mentioning this. The skills system that exists in the game is inadequate. PCs don’t have enough skills, and there isn’t sufficient differentiation between low-skilled characters and highly skilled characters. Also for my money, the ability score plays too large a role when making checks. This is the one thing in D&D Next I really hate.

Now it’s not all bad news. The skill list has been extended. There are 25 listed skills in the playtest packet compared to only 17 in fourth edition. It’s a step in the right direction, but the skills still need more breadth. After all there currently aren’t any skills in Acrobatics, Athletics, Climb, Ride or Swim. I’d like to see those added to the list.

I am very pleased to see all the Lore skills listed there. During the course of the first session we used Societal Lore and Heraldic Lore. A nice strong skill list is required. The game suffers from not having one, yet.

Also: what’s wrong with “Perception” as the name of a skill? Calling it “Spot” is terribly misleading. In real life (and in most roleplaying games) you do not expect to spot something with your ears. If you’re having one skill to encompass all senses – which is probably a good idea – then a more general term such as Perception is far better. Certainly, I was calling the skill Perception all the way through the playtest, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone there.

The last thing I’ll say regarding checks is about the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. It’s one of those things you think should work well in principle, but doesn’t seem to live up to its promise in practice. The way that it seems to working at present is that Advantage is pretty much a guaranteed success. The very term “Advantage” tells me that it should give players an edge – it should be comparable to the floating +2 bonus that GMs could award in 3rd edition and 4th edition. However, guaranteeing success goes far beyond an ‘edge’. Does more work need to be done on this?

Healing

There are two rest durations in D&D Next. The short rest lasts 10 minutes, and the long rest lasts for 8 hours. You can’t do anything strenuous during these periods to take advantage of the benefits conferred by resting. As far as healing concerned, the base rules state this:

Certain abilities and items, such as a healer’s kit, allow you to spend one or more of your Hit Dice during a short rest, up to your maximum number of Hit Dice. For each Hit Die you spend in this way, roll the die and add to it your Constitution modifier. You regain hit points equal to the total. You can decide to spend additional Hit Dice after each roll. Once you have spent all your Hit Dice, you must take a long rest to regain them. You must have at least 1 hit point to take a long rest. At the end of the rest, you regain all your hit points and Hit Dice. You cannot take more than one long rest in a 24- hour period.

For us as a group that smacked a little too much like fourth edition. The characters were a little too superhuman for our liking. The rules recognise that this form of healing may not be everyone’s cup of tea and gives the GM three options that further limits or rations the supply of healing. As a group we felt that regaining all hit points with a long rest was our largest bone of contention, so we opted for the “Slower Hit Point Recovery” option. That’s defined in the rules thusly:

At the end of a long rest, you regain no hit points, but you do regain all your Hit Dice and can spend any number of them without using a healer’s kit.

In hindsight, we didn’t quite use this variant. We ruled that you still needed to use a healer’s kit in order to use your hit dice. This was a genuine mistake on my part when I read the variant rule, but it’s a mistake I’m glad I made. I really like the concept of the healer’s kit. It actually gives a justifiable in-game reason for the excessive healing. A character pops open his healer’s kit and takes out a few alchemical poultices, and some foul-smelling medicinal concoction…. It also makes sense that a character can only benefit from such healing so much in the space of one day.

On the whole, I’m very happy with that. I think I could run a campaign with those rules for healing.

Of course, on top of all the healer’s kit/hit dice healing is magical healing. Or it would be if this party had any access to it. There is no cleric in the party, and none of the PCs bothered to obtain any healing potions before commencing the adventure. An oversight perhaps, but a welcome one as it enables us to see how the game functions with no healing magic at all.

In the one combat (which I’ll get to in a moment) two PCs were taken down by the bad guys. Renko before he could do anything at all. With only healer’s kits to hand, Renko had no choice but to stay out of the fight. If there was a cleric in the party, or if one of the other PCs could have got to him and administered a healing potion, then Renko could have been on his feet again.

As a GM, I think I’m happy with that level of healing but we’ll have to see how it goes. At the end of the session, after the PCs were victorious, both Renko and Adric were revived and they spent all their hit dice to restore their hit points. They are both close to maximum hit points now… but it’s only just the beginning of the adventuring day. More encounters are to come and neither can benefit from any more non-magical healing until after their next long rest.

This will make the rest of the day very interesting for the two dwarves.

The Encounter

It’s probably fair to say that this wasn’t the party’s finest hour. Assaulting the enemy one at a time is a tactic usually reserved for henchmen in a Bond movie, not a savvy group of adventurers. If we allow metagaming to enter our minds, I sure that Renko would have thought that his 20 hit points would have made him fairly resilient to any level-appropriate threat. At least for a round or two. Seems like a fair assumption. I was pretty surprised when the villain who burst out of the bushes downed him in one blow.

The problem was that this villain (whose name was Sarn) was not a monster from Bestiary. He was a second level human rogue, built with exactly the same rules as the PCs. A second level villain is within the bounds of acceptability for a 1st level party, and in fact this was only an Average encounter for a party of five – which made it somewhere between Average and Hard for a party of four.

The ease in which Sarn took Renko down started alarm bells ringing for me. Not because Sarn could kill off the entire party (although he probably could), but because it highlighted a discrepancy in the rules: PCs and Monsters are not equal. It’s not as blatant as in fourth edition: on paper they look equal. The Bestiary-built opponents (the dire rates and the human commoners who were acting as brigands for this encounter) have an armour class and a hit point total that is comparable to the PCs. The difference comes in how often the PCs hit, and how much damage they do.

PCs tend to have higher ability scores than Monsters of the same level. They also deal more damage. Looking at the opponents the party faced: the commoners had +0 to hit, and did 1d4 damage; the dire rats had +2 to hit and did 1d6+2 damage; Sarn had +6 to hit and did 1d8+4 damage (with an extra 3d6 if he had advantage). 1d8 + 3d6 + 4 is a lot of damage, and far too much for a 1st level character of any class to absorb. When you take into account that attack is delivered with Advantage, then such an attack is unlikely to ever miss.

And it’s not just sneak attack that seems overpowered in this way. The warlock’s eldritch blast inflicts 3d6 damage flat at 1st level. An average of 11 points of damage. Also enough to bring down most 1st level player characters. Now, I guess this might be a low-level problem. 1st level PCs are always a bit binary in D&D. It might be something that evens out by level 3 or 4. If it doesn’t…

A lack of verisimilitude would kill D&D Next for me. For me to able to invent a campaign setting, and write adventures using this rules-set I need to have a consistant world. I need my PCs and my NPCs (and my Monsters) to use the same rules and the same conventions. NPCs don’t need to be as complex as PCs – their abilities, feats and skills could be thinned out for sake of brevity – but they need to work the same way. This is the tremendous strength of third edition and Pathfinder. If D&D Next doesn’t have it, then I can’t see myself using it as a system of choice.

So, Renko is taken down by Sarn. Poor Renko. Let’s move on.

The elven fighter Erannis then runs around the side of the waystation and is attacked by two dire rats. I feared that Erannis would have been completely torn apart (and so did Neil, I think)… but this is where the fighter’s Combat Superiority came into play. And it worked wonderfully.

Never before in D&D have fighters really seemed like the masters of melee to me. They were all about damage. You couldn’t have a complex duel between two master swordsmen because the D&D rules didn’t work that way. Whoever won initiative would probably win the battle, it was all about number of attacks and how much damage you can do. Combat Superiority changes that. As Erannis desperately spent his expertise die to reduce the damage inflicted by the dire rats, I could really imagine him parrying the little bleeders. This simple mechanic gives the fighter so much versatility… and it reflects the core theme of the character class.

As Erannis was dealing with the rats, Adric tried to get the drop on Sarn and give him a taste of his own medicine.  Now as it happened I rolled very high for Sarn’s Perception check (sorry, ‘Spot’ check) and so Adric’s successful hit wasn’t a sneak attack. If it had been Sarn would probably have been killed. As it was he was still on his feet and his return attack was enough to take Adric down. Now as a large bunch of thugs and Sarn headed over to attack Erannis, things were looking pretty bleak. And as a GM, I was worried that I was on the verge of killing the entire party.

Enter the warlock. Now, Cryton is the least physically adept of the party. I think he has about 6 hit points max. A butterfly’s sneeze is probably strong enough to fracture his tibia. However, he has some incredibly potent magical powers that let him punch far above his weight.

The warlock invocation Ethereal Stride allowed Cryton to walk through the solid wall and appear on the other side as an indistinct ghostly figure. As he’s also a necromancer, Cryton has the Aura of Souls ability that lets him snatch the soul of a recently dead creature and turn it into a spirit that floats next to him. He can then destroy that spirit to give him advantage on an attack roll with a necromancy spell.

Now, I have to confess to being a little kind here. Because of Cryton’s spectral appearance and the fact that he had apparently ripped the soul from a dead body, I ruled that the remaining brigands would prefer to gang up on Erannis than attack him. If I hadn’t ruled in that way, both Erannis and Cryton would surely have died. I also allowed Cryton to use his Aura of Souls power to fuel eldritch blast. That shouldn’t have worked as eldritch blast is not a necromancy spell.

I’ll have to decide how I rule on that in the future. It certainly seems (from the way it is written) that Aura of Souls only provides a benefit to wizards, clerics and sorcerers who can cast necromancy spells, and not to warlocks. The third level ability of the necromancer Speciality, Animate Servant definitely does work for warlocks so being a necromancer isn’t entirely useless.

In any case it was a bit of touch and go. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Sarn missed Erannis when he engaged him in combat (a highly unlikely turn of events) then the elf would have been killed in that round. As it was he was still standing when Cryton killed Sarn, and it seemed appropriate to have the remainder of the rabble flee. The PCs really only won the day through the skin of their teeth.

So what lessons am I to learn from this combat?

As the rules stand, I should be wary about using foes generated with the PC rules. I have to say that Sarn is not the last such adversary I have planned in this adventure, so it will be interesting in seeing how future encounters pan out.

Secondly, I should read the ‘death and dying’ rules again as I completely forgot all about death saving throws for Renko and Adric.

Thirdly, I need to decide what happens with Aura of Souls as it seems quite useless for a warlock as it’s written. I also need to properly get my head around how it works. Technically it’s an action to use use this ability, which means you can’t wrench a soul from a body and cast a spell to take advantage of it in the same round. The upshot of this was is that Cryton was more impressive in the combat than he probably should have been – but that’s my fault. It’s a learning curve for all of us.

The Bottom Line

I really enjoyed running the session. There was roleplaying, there was combats, there were laughs… and unlike fourth edition the rules weren’t getting in the way of me telling a story. I like D&D Next a lot. I’d certainly use it over 4e, but I don’t think I’d use it over Pathfinder. I would like a clean break from third edition for my next campaign though, so I’m hoping that that problems are addressed.

I am really looking forward to running this again. And I’m determined to keep Renko standing for at least one round so I can see what the sorcerer is capable of.

D&D Next Playtest – Character Generation

As promised, the blog is steering away from Pathfinder for the time being to dwell on the D&D Next Playtest. I ran an aborted attempt at the Caves of Chaos back in May, but this time I’m taking a more serious stab at it. I recently ran the first session of a short campaign designed to get the PCs from 1st to 5th level. I’m not using any of the published adventures, instead setting the game in an amateurish mash-up of Mystara and Greyhawk (apologies to anyone who has any affection for those settings).

I’ve thought a little about how best to present these blog-posts. I have a great deal to say, but there doesn’t seem much mileage in posting something 20,000 words long to a blog. So I’m going to split things up a bit. This post deal with character generation; the next post will focus on how the first session went, and then I’ve got some other more thematic posts up my sleeve. The second playtest session will be on 26 September, so hopefully I’ll have a few posts under my belt by then.

All these comments are based on the second playtest packet released by Wizards of the Coast on 17 August 2012.


On the whole, I like the character generation process. It is simple, quick and intuitive. I think it’s fair to say that Neil sat down fairly blind to the system but had a functional fighter up and running in about 45 minutes. The combination of Race, Class, Background and Speciality seem to come together very well for new players. I also think that experienced players would like the freedom to be able to dispense with Background and Speciality and select their own skills and feats accordingly.  Taking things in order from the playtest packet:

Determining Ability Scores

Three out of the four players decided to go old-school and roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die, assigning stats as they wished. Neil grumbled about this, due to his amazing lack of dice rolling skill and sure enough, the elf he generated had obviously been repeatedly dropped on its head as a baby. Taking pity on him, I let me use the standard array (15, 13, 14, 12, 10, 8)  instead.

Herein lies a bit of a problem. D&D Next is a system that is incredibly reliant on ability scores. Skills, base attack bonuses and the like are proportionately much less important to a character. The in-game explanation is that a character’s ability scores represent both inate ability and training. However, it boils down to the fact that a fighter with a high strength and little skill is going to be a better at using a sword than a highly-skilled character with low strength.

I don’t like that at all, but I don’t want to get into a dicussion about the short-comings of the skill system here. My point is that if D&D Next is going to put ability scores front and centre like this, then there needs to be an equitable method of creating those scores. Rolling dice can’t be the default, as its dependence on luck is inherently unfair. There is simply too large a discrepancy between player characters.

A point-buy system similar to 4e or Pathfinder is probably the way to go here. DMs should have the option the use different methods of determining ability scores if they wish: but don’t make that the core assumption.

My second issue with the ability scores is a similar issue to one I have with Pathfinder. High ability scores make characters disproportionately good at everything at first level. Starting characters with very high ability scores find it very easy to punch above their weight. I don’t really want to see a starting character with an ability score of 20, but I got one on the shape of Marc’s warlock. It will be interesting to see how that pans out once we have a few more fights under our collective belts.

A score of 20 is the highest a player character is permitted regardless of race or level. Although I appreciate that much flatter power cure in D&D Next requires bonuses not to rise above a certain point, this strikes me as terribly artificial. PCs have various ways and means to increase their ability scores as they advance in level. Let them. Just set the bar lower for first level characters.

Race

A lot of work has been put into these races: not just in terms of the mechanics, but also in terms of the description and story-related material. This is head and shoulders above the “Play this race if you want to be…” boxes that appear in the fourth edition books. I’m grateful that Wizards has realised that D&D players should be treated as intelligent readers who have moved on from Floppy Phonics.

The new mechanics are also highly flavourful. I’m really pleased to see the return of the sub-races, as it adds a degree of needed variety. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings really feel like Elves, Dwarves and Halflings… both in how they have been traditionally portrayed in D&D over the years, and also in the wider Tolkien-esque sense of the races. The intrinsic racial characteristics we’ve seen in the past have been turned up to 11, which not only makes the mechanics simpler, but also gives the player an awesome trait they can hang their character on.

Elves now have immuuity to sleep and charm; dwarves have immunity to poison. The rules don’t pussyfoot around with trifling bonuses to this and that – which I am grateful for. The dwarf’s immunities led to a quick discussion among the group on the ramifications of poison immunity to a society. Is dwarven food inherently poisonous to other races? Do they use arsenic instead of salt because it tastes better? Surely Dwarven cuisine is something to be feared! A little extrapolation, and suddenly we’re distancing dwarves from other races. We’re making them less human, and better defined. It’s little things like this that get you imagination firing – something that was sadly lacking from 4e.

Elves enjoy Advantage with all Perception-related checks. I think that’s appropriate in principle. The only issue I have with it is that because of the flatter progression of characters, and the low DCs, the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is pretty powerful. In practice in the sessions I’ve run elves never fail perception checks. Which is all right if you’re playing Legolas, but surely not all elves need to be played that way.

The Stout halfling’s Fearless ability should be singled out for praise. It has a wonderful “Pull-yourself-together-Samwise-Gamgee,-Master-Frodo-needs-you-and-no-mistake” feel to it. I like that.

Also, I like mechanic for increasing the hit dice of weapons. However, I’m not convinced that increasing 1d12 to 2d6 for dwarven axes is a good deal. Marc assures me it’s mathematically sound, but it nags at me. Sure the dwarf will do more average damage with his axe, but he’ll have less chance of doing maximum damage than an non-dwarf using the same weapon. That strikes me as wrong. Why not increase the die from 1d12 to 2d8? That would suit me better.

And finally: humans. We’re definitely following on from the third edition convention that humans are both the blandest and most desirable PC race – at least from a mechanical perspective. They get +1 to every ability score except for the one which they get +2 in. That’s a massive, massive advantage in D&D Next. Just look at the rules as you’ll see how massive. When Marc generated his character, all the naked die rolls were odd. Make the character human gave him +1 to absolutely everything. Fortunately, I don’t think this mechanical advatantage overshadows the flavour of the other races. So I only have one human at the table.

Classes

I don’t want to go too much into the mechanics of each class here. It seems more appropriate to discuss them in play. Therefore, I’ll just give a quick overview of each one as they appear to me on paper.

Clerics

What I’m looking for in a cleric is a class that is versatile enough to represent the followers of numerous different gods. I want my cleric of the God of Fire to be completely different to my cleric of the God of Trade: different abilities, different spells and different skills. The very best example of this in published D&D are the Clerics of Specific Mythoi from 2nd edition. Second edition enjoyed all cleric spells being divided into Spheres, and each cleric having access to a limited number of different Spheres. Combine this with unique and flavourful powers at different levels, and two clerics who worshipped different gods didn’t even ressemble the same class. This is what I want to see captured in D&D Next.

The cleric isn’t quite there yet. The Domains are promising, but they are not creating quite the divergence between clerics of different gods that I would like to see. I approve of Channel Divinity, and I definitely like the fact that Turn Undead is now a spell and not something common to all clerics. Improvements to the cleric would generally come from improvements to the description, presentation and classification of spells (which I’ll come to below).

However, none of my players even considered playing a cleric. James had played one back in May so maybe he just didn’t want to repeat himself… but no-one else seemed at all inclined. There’s nothing that makes the cleric more mechanically undesirable than any other class, so is this  a prejudice against clerics themselves? I don’t think a party needs a cleric at all: the healing in D&D Next is well handled, and as long as a party has a healing kit or some potions they should be fine. There’s no need for a healing class like the 4e Warlord. But it does raise an interesting point: how does Wizards of the Coast make the cleric sexy again?

Fighter

The big news here is the inclusion of Combat Superiority: the die the fighter gets that he can use the inflict extra damage, mitigate damage, and perform some interesting combat manoeuvres. The fighter selects a fighting style, and that lists the combat manoeuvres that the fighter will master as he gains levels. On paper I thought this was fantastic, and during the session I thought it was fantastic too.

I have two slight comments/worries about the system. Firstly, there needs to be more freedom of choice. Fighting Styles should be suggestions and not straight-jackets. If I want my fighter to have Protect, Precise Shot and Cleave then I should. Secondly, I’m concerned about other characters trying out the fighter’s signature manoeuvres.

At the moment, there are no rules in the game for what third edition would refer to as “actions in combat”. There are no rules for pushing, tripping, barging, throwing or even grappling (despite it being mentioned elsewhere in the rules). Now I know that of lot of these manoeuvres would need rewriting from their 3rd or 4th edition versions to work in a game sans battle grid. But they still need to be there.

Push, Tumble and Knock Down are among the fighter’s repetoire of combat manouevres. Arguably anyone can attempt to do those things, not just a fighter. The Combat Superiority mechanic makes the fighter better at it, and more likely to succeed, but naked common sense says that even a wizard can try to push an orc over. At the moment this aspect of the game is too woolly and needs firming up.

Rogue

Quite a few issues here. Skill Mastery is simply too good. “When you determine the bonus for each of your skills, you use your associated ability modifier, or +3, whichever is higher”. Why? Because some people moaned that a rogue needed to be stealthy to sneak about, but also wise to spot traps. Well, boo hoo. Even rogues can be bad at things! Any character is as much defined by what they can’t do as what they can. And by assuming all ability score modifiers are +3 and then layering on a Take 10 ability (rising to Take 11 at level five), you’re simply making the character too good across the board.

This is one of the problems of making the ability score count for more than skill ranks. In third edition a character could work to overcome the drawback of a poor ability score in some skills. In D&D Next (or 4e) that’s never really possible.

The Rogue Scheme grants a number of abilities (fine) but also gives the Rogue a second background. What’s the point in that? If you want to give the rogue more skills then simply give him more skills. Don’t use the background rules to do it, especially when backgrounds might be optional to all other classes. Plus Thief and Thug are already backgrounds. So any rogue that takes the Thief background also gets Thug, and any rogue that takes Thug also gets Thief… making most rogues functionally identical.

Sneak Attack does too much damage. If you have an NPC rogue with this ability, he will be able to kill a PC of the same level with one blow. And don’t tell me that I shouldn’t be using PC character creation rules to invent adversaries for the party. Of course I want to do this. As do many GMs. Separating PCs and NPCs/Monsters into different rules was the worse thing about 4e and made it impossible for me to run the game. I can’t be alone in this. A third edition rogue gets +1d6 sneak attack every other level. Why is it 1d6 + 1d6/level in D&D Next. That’s an enormous increase in potency.

The Knack ability doesn’t make any sense at all. “Twice per day you can give yourself advantage on one check”. How? Why? It’s an ability that can’t be explained in the real world. And I don’t want to hear that the rogue picks his moment to strike and only gets a couple of opportunities each day: that’s a load of old rubbish. This is the reason the martial powers made zero sense in 4e. The text says you smack your foe on the head to daze him. You can only do that once per day because…. because… well actually there’s no reason at all except for “game balance” which is a pretty poor reason.

Knack is just like that. It can’t be explained from a story perspective, and everything must be explained from a story perspective.  Why not simply have Knack introduce new ways in which a rogue can set up Advantage, and then it’s up to the player to try and take advantage of those options whenever he can? It makes much more sense. This stops the rogue being able to automatically turn Sneak Attack on twice per day, like a TV remote with faulty batteries.

Wizard

No wizard in the party this time either, but I think that stems more from a desire to try out the warlock or the sorcerer. I’ve not much to say except to point out how much I like the idea for rituals. Vancian casting actually makes sense. It normally takes minutes to cast a spell. A wizard can “pre-cast” magic and hold it in his mind, but he can only hold a certain number of such spells per day, or at any one time. Of course, that understanding would mean that all spells would require a ritual version.

Sorcerer

New blood! I do like the new sorcerer. He seems properly different from the wizard, and the Sorcerous Origin provides a series of abilities that will differentiate sorcerers from one another. Of course, we only have one to look at right now: the Draconic Heritage. I love the spell point system for casting magic, and also like the fact that the more Willpower you spend the more likely you are to lose control, and your sorcerous aspect is to assert itself.

So although you can activate spells and draconic powers by spending Willpower, you get natty draconic abilities for free each day as your willpower diminishes. So once you’ve spent 3 willpower you get claws, once you’ve spent 10 you get scales and so it. This creates an interesting dichotomy in the character in that you’re a half spellcaster and half warrior quite literally: a spellcaster in the morning, and a warrior in the afternoon.

My one observation is that in campaigns with less combat (like many of mine) it’s possible that some days the sorcerer may never get to the point at which his draconic heritage manifests. Which is a shame if it means a whole suite of abilities is always unavailable to the character.

Warlock

This looks excellent. The Warlock pact gives you specific powers at certain levels. The first thing I thought when I read it was why not develop the cleric along similar lines? I like it that warlock invocations are separate from the normal spell list, but I then ask why wizards, sorcerers and clerics are sharing the same list. A greater separation of spell lists (either by class or power source) would help to differentiate the other spellcasters as well as the warlock.

Eldritch blast seems very powerful. More so even than the rogue’s sneak attack at low levels – although it looks as though Sneak Attack over takes it by level four. The other invocations are solid, and I like the way that simply knowing a spell granted by the patron changes the warlock in some way. Where were all these good ideas in 4e?

The rules for favours is interesting. Warlocks are effectively limited to two spells and/or patron abilties per encounter (they are restored by a short rest). There’s no indication that the number of available favours increase as the warlock gains levels, and this might be the one thing that saves the wizard from always being in the warlock’s shadow, expecially as the walock also (rightly) has access to ritual magic.

Backgrounds

My feelings to backgrounds are mixed. I’ve always asked players to give me backgrounds for their characters and I’ve been lucky enough to have players that have always wanted to create a rich back story for their characters. From those backgrounds we’ve worked together to create important allies, enemies and story threads that can be woven into the wider campaign. I know there are some D&D groups that don’t do this, and I guess that Backgrounds provide a novel way to flesh out a character for those players. Otherwise, I think they’re a bit of a waste of time.

I actively dislike most of the traits that are listed. Here’s what it says for the thug: “No matter where you go, people are afraid of you due to your connections to the dangerous criminal underworld or your history of violence. When you are in a place of civilization, you can get away with minor criminal offenses, such as refusing to pay for food at the tavern or breaking down doors at a local shop, since most people will not report your activity to the authorities.”

Or the one for the sage: “When you attempt to learn or recall a piece of lore, if you do not know that information, you always know where and from whom you can obtain that information. Usually, this information comes from a library, scriptorium, university, or a sage or other learned person or creature.”

I can’t see abilities such as these fitting into the campaigns I run. Each action must have consequences. If a player decides to stiff the innkeeper then it’s up to me decide whether the innkeeper is the sort of man who would have an issue with it. If the players wants to hammer home his point then let him make an Intimidate check (which would presumably be fairly high with his character concept). Obtaining lore and other information is crucial to any game I’ve ever run. Giving anyone with the sage background carte blanche to find out anything is ridiculous.

The trouble is that once these points are enshrined in a rulebook they become very hard to avoid.  A player might point to that fact that he has a trait that says he has contacts that find out any fact for him. It’s only a matter of time before one of them delivers him Orcus’s true name, so it might as well be something that’s done between sessions. Worse: backgrounds may limit player creativity. Rather than coming up with something truly original, the player just looks through a list of pregenerated choices and picks one that has the most advantageous mechanical benefits.

What I do like is that the new system divorces skills from character classes. There’s no reason why a fighter can’t be skilled in Religion and Perception, or a Wizard can’t be a great swimmer. This is a good decision. However, if I were to GM a proper campaign with these rules, I think I’d just instruct the players to choose three skills and come up with their own character background. I wouldn’t touch the background traits at all in their current form. They’re too limiting.

During  character generation Malcolm felt that characters didn’t get enough skills. This was a universally agreed on point, as was the fact that the skill system itself is largely rubbish. I won’t dwell on this here because I have a nice tirade on fifth edition skills to post at a later date. However, three skills for one character is clearly not enough. The skill list needs to be longer, and characters need more versatility. Third edition had a great skill system, fourth edition did not.

In D&D Next, Backgrounds are optional: therefore skills are optional. If skills are going to be an optional part of the game anyway, then you might as well make an attempt to create something a little more meaningful for the people who want to use them. The third edition skill system should be their base model.

Specialities

Okay, so Specialities are effectively feat-trees telling players what feats they should be choosing at levels 1, 3, 6, 9 and every three levels thereafter. There’s nothing more to them than that. They are a shorthand approach to character generation. You don’t need to wade through a hundred sourcebooks looking for the perfect feat: just pick a speciality at character generation and the job is done.

Of course, I would expect to be able to ignore this restriction and tell players that they get a feat at levels 1, 3 and 6 and they can choose any feat for which they qualify. I haven’t done that for the playtest, but it is probably the way I’d handle a proper campaign.

Looking at the feats themselves, it’s worth point out that an effort has been made to make each feat unique, desirable and cool. All of the boring and bland mechanical benefits (+1 to hit with weapon X, +1 to AC when the moon is full, your special ability does +1d6 extra damage etc.) from 4e is gone. These feats are even more outlandish than third edition, just look at the necromancer speciality for examples. But I think I like this. D&D Next makes feats awesome again. It’s about time.

Now the party of four that we wound up with at the end of the process had two Survivors… so I think it’s worth noting that the Toughness feat is pretty desirable in its current form.

Magic and Spells

Just a quick note on this.  The arcane triumverate (Wizard/Warlock/Sorcerer) present three different magic systems. The other spellcaster in the game (the Cleric) shares the same magic system as the Wizard – more or less. The cleric is a little more versatile. If this is the way the game is going, then I think I could get on board. Yes, I could run this as a campaign without changing the magic rules.

I think I’d prefer an official option that allows me to use a different spell system for Wizards and Clerics, but if that doesn’t materialise I think I would be happy with the actual casting mechanics in my game world (no, not Iourn).

What I’m not happy with is the spell list. The spells need greater classification. Let’s see spell lists for individual classes or for the wider ‘power sources’: i.e. Arcane spells, and Divine spells. Let’s see a cleric’s spells subdivivded into Spheres. Let’s see descriptors. All these things make it easier to manipulate and reference magic.

The wordier presentation of the spells is 10,000% better than the boring descriptions in the 4e books. However, I would like to see a little more scaling in terms of spell-power. I’d likely to see more spells that last for 1 round per level, or inflict 1d6 damage per level rather than inflicting a set amount of damage, or lasting until “the end of your next turn”. I want things with a good beefy duration, and spells that continue to improve for at least five levels over their minimum caster level.

There’s been a lot of talk about making fighters feel like fighters. Well, wizards have to feel like wizards too.

Wounds and Healing

The last thing we decided during character generation was which healing variant we’d use. The group felt that getting all your hit points back after a long rest was unrealistic, so they opted for the “Slower Hit Point recovery” variant. This was quite a brave decision with no cleric in the party, but we all agreed it was the way to go. Generally, we like the Hit Dice mechanic for healing, so this seemed to be the best option.

The Final Party

After all of that, these were the four PCs that were created:

  • James: “Renko Silverbeard” – hill dwarf sorcerer, bounty hunter background, survivor speciality
  • Malcolm: “Adric Hummerstone” – hill dwarf rogue, charlatan and thug backgrounds, jack-of-all trades speciality
  • Marc: “Lord Wilhelm Cryton” – human warlock, noble background, necromancer speciality
  • Neil: “Erannis” – high elf fighter (slayer), bounty hunter background, survivor speciality

Next time, we’ll look at how the first session went.