Next month I’ll be trying my hand at running one of 5th Edition’s new adventure modules, Out of the Abyss, as a test for when Ravenloft appears on my shelf. In preparation for that, I’ve embarked upon reading Elaine Cunningham’s Daughter of the Drow (which I finished today) and considering the complaint of one of my players on the abrupt shift in paradigm combat has been for her. Nominally, my players find their ease in Fate and in Dungeon World, and this one in particular has never played any edition of D&D before, so the shift jarred. To be honest, it jarred me as well, and so we’ve embarked upon learning more about the new systems at play to find avenues through which narrative play can have a command over the mechanics, and how the mechanics inform the narration. I’m really not sure how long we’ll stay with 5e given how many other games there are out there these days, but nostalgia, familiarity, and the usefulness of the system as a gateway for new RPers means I’ll at least keep looking for ways to make it work for my table for a while yet.
Here are some of my musings and decisions for how I’ll likely hack it.
Hit Points as Stress or Shock, not Measure of Wounds.
David McGrogan remarks upon the new way hit points are represented (compared to older editions) by highlighting how numerous they are and how quickly they replenish. The latter, in particular, makes it difficult to consider hit points as a measure of real wounds as then we’d have to accept deep wounds, like a knife in the gut, as naturally healing in a matter of hours. This just doesn’t make sense, so I’ve initially decided to view hit points as a measure of stress or system shock — one’s ability to withstand the fatigue of battle and continue fighting. However, this opens two major considerations:
1) How do I represent the inevitable wounding and death-by-combat that can occur mechanically if hit points are no longer a measure of wounds but 0 HP (or the negatives values) still represents a potential end to life?
On this, I’ve decided that a possible solution may be to assume that all combat produces the cuts, grazes, and bruises that comes with jostling in melee, and that 0 HP is the body finally succumbing, buckling under all the strain of bleeding and pounding hearts. It may be elegant to simply assume that, even at full HP, a character isn’t necessarily fully recovered or healed from the deeper cuts, that they are always bandaged somewhere in games of copious combat. Magical healing in this instance is primarily focused, then, on the regaining of one’s wind, with closure of those smaller cuts a happy side effect instead of the main effect. That may work.
2) If hit points are not wounds, how should I track actual wounds?
Let’s face it, players like to strike others in ways that last. For the player, the idea is to bypass ridiculous amounts of HP buffer; for the GM, it is to threaten something permanent, and thus valuable, on a character. Nary a combat session goes by wherein someone isn’t seeking to kneecap, hamstring, blind, or cripple someone forever, so how do we deal with that in 5e? Here I flounder a little because of the strange inclusion of Feats (the nominal human advantage) — particularly the presence of the Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter feats which stipulate that the feat owner can make a called shot to deal +10 additional damage at the cost of ~25% accuracy (-5 to hit). Even with those, bypassing the HP buffer still isn’t possible, and play still seems wrapped around the idea of striking the monster pinata until it goes down. The fair solution here without adding systems bloat seems to be to lock real wounds, and the idea of called shots, behind the luck of scoring a critical hit. My reasoning here is that the idea behind lasting wounds is skewed in that the most likely to suffer longest from them are the players, not the short-lived creatures the party encounters. This seems more a GM fiat/story issue, one I’ll have to be upfront about with my table to control expectations among my more zealous maimers.
Combat as More than Just a Race to 0HP.
This is where combat really sucks. There are many things you can do in combat, like help your friend land a hit, knock an enemy prone to make it easier to land a hit, move into a narrower space to make it harder for your enemy to land a hit, or land a hit. Everything, from gaining Advantage and inflicting Disadvantages, rolls back to a single mechanical conclusion — drive that opponent to 0 HP! This, coupled with how I’m already refusing to add called shots to the rules (I know my maimers well), will rankle at my narrative players if I choose to limit myself to mechanics alone, so how do we deal with this?
The Angry DM has my favourite viewpoints and workarounds on this in that he focuses on scenario design and intent as the true culprits in battles that bog. I highly recommend you read that, then come back as it says pretty much everything I have to say about letting the narrative override the need to even use the combat system. Especially because I’ll be running modules and settings which seek to highlight strangeness and alteration in atmospheres, it becomes all the more important to my purpose that I delineate the shift between role-playing and the separate mini-game that is combat. Eschewing the initiative order ala Dungeon World? I can do that until initiative is absolutely essential. Abstracting combat against lesser foes or because simulating it wouldn’t add to the story? More than pleased to.
The other really big requirement is to never stop thinking from the perspective of the NPCs or monsters. Always give them a reason, a goal. They, like the party, are only in battle because their goals are achievable or more expedient through murder. Combat and the resolution of combat should never be the goal of the scenario because that just doesn’t make sense. People and monsters need something to put their lives on the line for, particularly if they’re prepared to go all the way to 0 HP. If not, they should be open to other resolutions or, barring that, be able to make a judgment call on when it is time to boogie out or surrender. Do the odds look grim? Get out. Does it look like we can still win? Push! Same choices players make every round should go to the enemy. That’s nothing new for me as an NPC-focused GM, but worth codifying.
Other than this, it may be worth being more liberal with the Advantages and Disadvantages to keep everyone thinking about using the terrain and fiction. There’s a base list I found on reddit, but I think it is a little thin and can be expanded in play.
What’s up with Inspiration?
Inspiration is an odd duck. First of all, it’s divided into two categories: the inspiration you receive from Bards and the one you get from acting according to your ideals and bonds. Bard inspiration is toolkit and affects your next action because, hey, the Bard used brilliant pathos to convince you that this action is something you should be awesome at. Regular inspiration comes from doing what’s right by you, but rather than directly affect the action in which you fulfil the tenets of your personal beliefs, it pools on your sheet and is available for use on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to what inspired you.
It can also be used by the GM to bribe a player into complicating their situation. This concept I know — I use it in Fate all the time! However, what’s different again is that the point can then be spent on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to any of your bonds or ideals, while in Fate, you can only use the bribe to support an action directly related to those aspects.
This just doesn’t jive with me.
Ideals, Bonds, and Inspiration are all tools meant to push the narrative aspect of the game, but they only seem to go half-way at supporting the fiction. Thankfully, this is the easiest fix so far, particularly for Fate players. I’ll keep the bribe, but I’ll stipulate that Inspiration can only be used when directly supporting an Ideal, Bond, or Flaw. What this means is that players can declare their actions and, on the side, point out to me that this action is in keeping with their character’s narrative matrix, in which case I can adjudicate if it earns the Advantage roll boost of an inspired action. This may be expanded to actions in which a character also plays directly into their niche.
EDIT: Actually, I’ll have to think about this one some more. What is most likely to happen is that I will accept when players declare actions pointed out to directly relate to their ideals/bonds/flaws and boost those rolls while allowing the bribe point to only be spent on niche actions (their role in the party) or acts of digging themselves out of the trouble caused by the bribe (meaning I’ve paid them to get into trouble for the story, but give them a chip to get out). This sounds cleaner.
Bardic Inspiration is fine as is, so no changes necessary.