I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, April 24, 2015

Death saving throws: a quick house rule for 5e and all editions

This is what D&D Basic (5e) has to say on the subject:

Falling Unconscious
If damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious (see appendix A). This unconsciousness ends if you regain any hit points.

Death Saving Throws
Whenever you start your turn with 0 hit points, you must make a special saving throw, called a death saving throw, to determine whether you creep closer to death or hang onto life. Unlike other saving throws, this one isn’t tied to any ability score. [...]
Roll a d20. If the roll is 10 or higher, you succeed. Otherwise, you fail. A success or failure has no effect by itself. On your third success, you become stable (see below). On your third failure, you die. The successes and failures don’t need to be consecutive; keep track of both until you collect three of a kind. The number of both is reset to zero when you regain any hit points or become stable.
Rolling 1 or 20.When you make a death saving throw and roll a 1 on the d20, it counts as two failures. If you roll a 20 on the d20, you regain 1 hit point.
Damage at 0 Hit Points.If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death.

Well, it is not a bad rule, but not one I am very fond of either. I don't like is the idea that "a success or failure has no effect by itself". which apparently means they don't represent anything other than extra chances to get well. Also, I avoid the whole concept of "roll many times for the same purpose".

Instead, try this idea that I have adapted from my own RPG, Days of the Damned (although I'm sure someone, somewhere, must have thought of this before). If you don't play 5e, "disadvantage" means basically rolling 2d20 and picking the lowest (you can use a -4 penalty instead, or whatever works in your game).

If you are reduced to 0 hit points, make a death saving throw. Failure means you must tick one of three boxes: unconscious, disabled (which means incapacitated, disadvantage to everything, something from 3e, or whatever you like) or dying. When you tick all three, you're dead. Whatever rules you used for immediate death still apply (-10 HP, -CON HP, massive damage, etc).

You make no further death saving throws, unless: a) you are dying, b) you're incapacitated and decide to take any action, or c) you take more damage.

Success in this saving throw has no immediate effect (there are no "success boxes"), failure makes you tick another box. There is no stabilization or gaining 1 HP without healing, although you can heal yourself if conscious, or wake up unconscious (either one taking 1d4 rounds with help). You still take a while to be ok: for 1d4 hours, you have disadvantage in all rolls, including death saving throws.

Alternatively, just leave the ticks until you get decent healing, but they are only in effect when you're at 0 HP.

But what box should I tick first? Choose whatever fits your tastes:
* Choose randomly (1-2: unconscious, 3-4: disabled, 5-6: dying).
* The player chooses.
* Depends on where you were hurt (head: unconscious, limbs: disabled, torso: dying).
* Depends on how you where hurt (concussion/bludgeoning: unconscious, cutting/burning: disabled, poison/piercing: dying).
* Combine two or more (choose randomly, but roll 2d6 and pick lowest if the head is hit, etc).

What's the point?
The idea is providing more variety, giving more options to the characters (that can consciously choose to fight to the death), and, specially, allowing for dramatic "conscious but dying" scenes.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Andre Norton and the 9th Level Fighter

When a Fighter reaches level 9th in some of the "classic" editions of D&D, he may become a leader of men. Here is how Daniel Proctor's Labyrinth Lord puts it:

Reaching 9th Level: At level 9 a fighter may become a great leader of men, taking control of a parcel of land and a leadership rank in his society. A fighter will, assuming money is at hand, build a castle. He may ultimately control several villages and towns, but must be a good, strong leader and provide protection.

That isn't an aspect of D&D I haven't explored much in my games. I think most of my players prefer adventuring over managing parcels of land unless we're playing a "noble families" campaign, and building castles never sounded as much fun as taking them.

Andre Norton's short story The Toads of Grimmerdale, one of the most "D&Dish" things I have read recently (even compared to some other books in appendix N), has this interesting bit:

It is in my mind that Nordendale needs a lord, one to give the people heart, rebuild what man and time have wasted. I have come north seeking a chance to be not just my own man, but to have a holding. I am not like Urre who was born to a hall, and drinks and wenches now to forget what ill tricks fortune plays.

“Who my father was—” he shrugged, “I never heard my mother say. That he was of no common blood, that I knew, though in later years she drudged in a merchant’s house before the coming of the invaders for bread to our mouths and clothing for our backs. When I was yet a boy I knew that the only way I might rise was through this—” he touched the hilt of his sword. “The merchant guild welcome no nameless man, but for a sword and a bow there is always a ready market. So I set about learning the skills of war as thoroughly as any man might. Then came the invasion and I went from Lord to Lord, becoming at last Marshal of Archers. Yet always before me hung the thought that in such a time of upheaval, with the old
families being killed out, this was my chance.

“Now there are masterless men in plenty, too restless after years of killing to settle back behind any plough. Some will turn outlaw readily, but with a half dozen of such at my back, I can take a dale which lies vacant of rule, such as this Nordendale. The people there need a leader, I am depriving none of lawful inheritance, but will keep the peace and defend it against outlaws—for there will be many such now. There are men here, passing through Grimmerdale, willing to be hired for such a purpose. Enough so I can pick and choose at will.”

By the way, if you haven't read Andre Norton yet, you probably should. Her stories have everything: old ruins, ancient alien gods, clerics of lawful religions, dark pacts (with nefarious consequences), saving throws, war, tragedy, adventure, multidimensional characters... and many things that might make you eager to play a 9th level fighter, or any number of different characters.

Of Rules and Halberds

There are many reasons to like old school D&D, including the oft-cited “simplicity”. Even though it isn't one of my first criteria to find out if a game caters to my tastes, I do appreciate some of the perceived simplicity of older editions.

For example, I have a hard time wrapping my head around big lists of skills, specially in D&D. I like 3rd edition, but every time I read “Use Rope” on a character sheet I remember why I probably will never play it RAW again. GURPS and Burning Wheel, two games I appreciate, have the exact same problem for me.

Feats are even worse - like the concept, hate the sheer number of options with all the complexity they bring. I get bored before I can read a dozen of them. Repetitive ones with little difference from each others are the worse. Even spells, which are meant to be awesome, can become dull lists of numbers, specially in in some editions (Wiz 3, 400 ft. + 40 ft./level, 20-ft.-radius, 1d6 per level, just to mention a famous one).

But the original game is not that simple, either. For example, I am not a fan of calculating XP, specially if I must add 10% for prime ability and then multiply it by 5/8 because my character is an 8th level wizard fighting a 5th level monster. I understand the idea behind traditional XP rules, but I think it could be made simpler without losing much utility.

And earlier editions could be astonishing complex, sometimes even more than later ones. The first supplement to D&D, Greyhawk, differentiates weapons by efficiency against armor, damage, damage against large opponents, space required, and so on. Because of Gary Gygax's well-known appreciation for polearms, first edition would have about a dozen of slightly different ones.

First edition weapons table.

So maybe early D&D isn't the place to go looking for simplicity. But that's ok; my own tastes are not that minimalist as well.

For example, I do like monsters. Lots of them. Reading about new, well-written monsters is always a pleasure to me. And unique characters, bizarre laws, strange customs, forgotten deities, mysterious religions and crazy factions.

I also happen to love medieval weapons. And armor. And how weapons interact with armor. And how fast, strong, and versatile each weapon is (even though 1e gets too complex for my tastes). Specially swords - I'm not a fan of having too many polearms, to be honest.

That's why I think that “rules light” and “rules heavy” aren't the best terms to describe my favorite playstyle. The games that I like the most are often both too simple and too complex at the same time, so I have to change them until I make them my own.

Detail should be where the heart is; the rest is often uninteresting.

That's also why I think I'll never be able to stop reading (and writing) new games, new house rules, new blogs and so on. I'm just too interested in new ideas for roleplaying games. And if you love polearms, there is no such thing as too many of them.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Brainstorm in a Jar: Dynamic d10 Initiative

Here's is my new post, it's just like the old post… but using d10s instead of playing cards. I've decide to reproduce most of the material to to make reading it and referencing it easier. To save you the trouble of reading it all again, I've put the most important of the “new stuff” in italics. So, if you want to see the whole picture, read it all. If you've read the previous article, you might want to read the italics only.

The idea behind this system is that every combatant is trying to find a good moment to attack (or act), and faster characters get better opportunities. The goal is making things unpredictable, dynamic, and tactical.

In the begging of each round, each player rolls a d10. Rounds last for about 10-15 and are divided in 10 segments, each one lasting about a second. Characters who roll a 1 act on segment 1, and so on. Every action has a duration in segments, usually 4.

Immediately after taking your action, roll another d10. If the new number is equal or higher than your number card plus the duration of your action, you can take an extra action in this round (when the segment corresponding the new number comes up). If it isn't, you can keep the new number for next round, if you wish. For example, if you played a 4, and took an action with a duration of 5 segments, you can act again if you draw a 9 or 10. 

If you roll the exact same number of the segment you're in (another 4, in our example), you can choose the result you want. Manually set the new dice to the chosen segment - segment 9, for example.

No more than three actions can be taken each round, which can be managed by looking on the number of dice in front of each player (so, everyone should set apart three d10s for this sole purpose) .

There is no problem in finishing an action on segments greater than 10 (this "extra segments" are somewhat abstract), and it doesn't affect next round, but your last action cannot finish in a segment greater than your first dice plus 12. Thus, if the first number you rolled is a 3, you cannot start an action in segment 10 that takes more than 5 segments.

When a new round begins, everybody rolls a new dice (the ones who kept a dice from the last round may chose which one to keep), and so on.

Although this looks like a "second-by-second" breakdown of the encounter, it involves quite a bit of abstraction to make things run smoothly. Because of that, you resolve each action on the segment it begins, although it can be interrupted in the middle.

And… that is it, basically. You can use or ignore the optional rules below, depending on the system you're using or the effects you're looking for.


Movement: 2 segments for a 5-feet step, 4 segments for a half move, 8 for a full move, 12 for a double move.

Weapons: 4 segments for a "medium speed" weapon, 2-6 for other weapons (2 if unarmed, or if you have a longer weapon than your opponent and hasn't been hit by him yet). Bows twice the time to draw and shoot, crossbows take half the time to shoot and twice to draw.

Spells: equals to spell level+2.

The GM will decide on the duration of other actions.

You can add a simple, quick action, such as taking a single move or drawing a blade, to other, more complex, actions. Just add the durations. The GM has the final word, but the idea is that if no dice are rolled because of your action you don't need to use an additional card. For example, you can move and attack, although you have a good chance of being interrupted in the process (see below).


To delay an action, when your segment comes up say you'll wait for something to happen - an attack on yourself or an ally, a move by an specific opponent, etc. If that happens, you can act on any given segment after that. If you rolled a 2, and act on segment 7, for example, you action may end on segment 11. If you don't want to declare your action right now, you can roll and extra die, as if you had just taken a 1-segment action.

Likewise, actions can be changed at any time before they are finished, but the change takes one segment (so, if you change your mind on segment 6, you can act on segment 7, without rolling an extra die).


You can interrupt an enemy if you can finish an action before him. You must declare this the moment the opponent declares his action. For example, if he attacks you on segment 4 with a two-handed axe (speed 6), he will hit you on segment 10. If you act on segment 5, you can hit him with a knife before that. Even if he survives the attack, enough damage (let's say, 10% or more) can cause an ill effect. Some suggestions: spell interruption, -2 penalty to a roll, movement is halted, etc.

You can use you interruption to defend yourself or an ally. This depends on the system you're using. One example: a parry grants +2 AC.

Interrupting is about disrupting your enemy's action. You cannot simply walk away in the middle of an attack.

Optional rule: if you want to interrupt an opponent but your dice doesn't allow it (and its segment is yet to come), you can trade your number, rolling again, but the new die MUST be used to interrupt. If the new die doesn't allow it, you cannot use it.


If it matters at all, give them to whoever started the action first (in the event of interruptions), or flip a coin.


Surprised characters roll no dice in the first round.


DEX mods apply only to the first die you play. If you have DEX +2 and your first roll is a 5, manually adjust it to a 3. If you roll a 1, the bonus is useless unless you use the option below.

Another option is to let players roll one extra die for each +1 in the beginning of the round, choosing the best and discarding the rest.


If a character has multiple attacks, he may take all his attacks in his turn. Depending on the edition you are using, you can use special cards or specific suits to represent additional attacks instead, although exact balance becomes difficult.


When using playing cards, we suggested adding some special effects to specific cards. If you like the idea, you can assign special effects when two identical number are rolled. The first effect, as we've said before, is allowing you to act in any segment. Other effects that can be chosen randomly or by the player are:

1 - Allow you to act on segment 0 (only applies in the beginning of the round).
2 - Any hit is a critical hit.
3 - Take an action using two segments less than it usually takes.
4 - Get a +2 bonus to your action.
5 - Immediately get an extra attack.
6 - Get a +2 bonus to AC if you defend.

And so on.


Because the best course of actions depends on the d10, circumstances change from round to round. This forces you to be a bit creative instead of using the same attack round after round. Some of the effects I expect to achieve:

- With the dice on the table, initiative is easy to track.
- Everybody can act every round, and some people will act more than once in some rounds, but not too often.
- No additional rules needed for fighting with two weapons, opportunity attacks, etc.
- Things such as kicking an opponent before striking with your sword, throwing a dagger at a wizard in order to stop his mighty spell (because otherwise you cannot reach him in time), moving cautiously toward an enemy, using low-levels spell at high levels, waiting for your adversary to act first, and trading defense for offense become viable tactics.


There is no big difference between the systems. The d10 makes it easier to physically adjust the segments, but I think playing cards make things easier to track and avoids accidents (such as one die bouncing on another). Since many people would object to adding playing cards to D&D, I've adapted that system to a more traditional d10 system, reminiscent of AD&D - that is where I got my inspiration in the first place.
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