I’ve been using the lockdown for, you guessed it, a lot of tabletop rpg’s. All this time has given me the opportunity to explore more outside of the boundaries of strictly D&D. As I’m about to return to D&D, I want to include mechanics that I’ve fallen in love with from systems such as Dungeon World into D&D without breaking the whole game. Below you’ll find my attempt to do so!
If you’re not interested in my preamble, you’ll find my rules at this point in the page.
Rules versus Fiction
Having experimented with some RPG systems, it seems to me that they exist on a scale from simulation to narrative.
A purely simulation-driven system will use (a lot!) of dice rolls to approach reality: Dice rolls to hit something accounting for forces such as gravity, distance, environmental conditions etc. After that, you might roll for armor penetration, chance to dodge, how many layers of armor get damaged to what degree and so forth. I like certain aspects of these systems, but more from a distance: actually having to roll that many times with so many numbers involved is generally a bit too crunchy for my liking.
A system based on narrative would effectively be a choose-your-own-adventure book: Low on elements generally considered gameplay (and as such, perhaps low on dice rolls/random chance) and more on fiction/narrative impact.
I would put OSR roleplaying games, and for instance Cyberpunk 2020, more on the simulation side of this scale. I haven’t ventured deep into heavy narrative-based games, but it seems to me that Powered By The Apocalypse games are definitively closer to the narrative end: They include mechanics on how to tell a story through dice-rolls: Something that D&D severely lacks, in my opinion. D&D would, by this scale, sit somewhere in the middle.
Rules before Fiction/Fiction before Rules
In that sense, I would define D&D as generally putting Rules Before Fiction: We roll the dice, apply associated rules, and then are free to make up something in-fiction on our own.
Fiction being second to rules is definitely visible in combat: Combat ends to come down to
I attack the goblin. I rolled a 15.
You hit. Roll damage.
I rolled an 8.
The goblin is defeated.
unless consciously dedicated to prevent this from happening. It is possible for a master storyteller to weave those rolls into a narrative, but the rules, by the fundamental workings of the system, always come first.
Is this a bad thing? No, not at all. It’s simply how D&D works, and it can definitely works well enough for a lot of people. However, as I’ve started to realize by playing/looking at different systems, I’m more interested in Fiction before Rules. This puts more pressure on the players and DM to roleplay, as many actions in the game leave narrative hooks and blanks to fill in.
In my experience, many Powered by the Apocalypse games work this way. A ranged attack in Dungeon World is described like this:
When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range, roll+Dex.
On a 10+ you have a clear shot—deal your damage.
On a 7–9, choose one (whichever you choose you deal your damage):
• You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger of the GM’s choice
• You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage
• You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by oneDungeon World
Now, this does not put the fiction before the rules in the strictest sense: After all, there is a literal rule telling you to invoke fiction. What it does do, however, is give clear prompts for fiction. Of the conditions one has to choose when rolling a 7-9, every one of those invites the player or GM to explain more about why this happens – which can then be further integrated into roleplay.
A more clear usage of fiction before rules is found in the usage of Tags: Simple one-word descriptors of weapons, monsters and items that tell you about a property they have. A dragon is frightening – with no extensive explanation on Wisdom saves and the radius of effect. No, the dragon is frightening in fiction – and the system trusts for the GM and players to know what that means.
Why are you telling me this, though?
Yes, good point, I got caught in a bit of a ramble there. My core point is that it’s interesting to find ways to introduce ways to make fiction a bigger part of D&D. Secondarily, I want to keep players engaged – I don’t want combat to feel ‘safe’ in the sense that when it’s not my turn, I don’t need to pay attention. Finally, I’m not really interested in the binary nature of how many skill checks are resolved in D&D: a fail/success mechanic is, to me, not very narratively interesting.
The Homebrew Rules I’m Introducing
1. Defense Rolls
First, I’m going to literally implement Players Make All The Rolls from the Variant Rules of Wizards of the Coast.
The players roll their characters’ attacks as normal, but you don’t roll for their opponents.
Instead, when a character is targeted by an attack, the player makes a defense roll.
A defense roll has a bonus equal to the character’s AC − 10.
The DC for the roll equals the attacker’s attack bonus + 11.
- On a successful defense roll, the attack misses because it was dodged, absorbed by the character’s armor, and so on.
- If a character fails a defense roll, the attack hits.
- If the attacker would normally have advantage on the attack roll, you instead apply disadvantage to the defense roll, and vice versa if the attacker would have disadvantage.
- If the defense roll comes up as a 1 on the d20, then the attack is a critical hit.
- If the attacker would normally score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20, then the attack is a critical hit on a 1 or 2, and so forth for broader critical ranges.
2. Skill Checks, Revamped
Skill checks will have a DC ranging from 13-ish to 20-ish.
Lower DCs will not be used – things you try that would have a DC are assumed to just succeed, as you are all capable adventurers.
Skill checks will be rated in the following way:
- Fail by 4 or more: Something bad happens. It can be that you fail, or that something seemingly disconnected goes wrong. It simply means that I will use my magical DM powers to escalate the situation. Alternatively, I might ask the player in which way their action goes wrong, and roll with what they come up with.
- Fail by 3 or less: You might succeed but at a prize. There might be a hard choice or worse outcome, or you might succeed too good (collateral damage).
- Succeed: You did it, successfully!
I borrow the ‘partial success’ mechanic from Dungeon World, as I think it creates more interesting skill checks. Simply failing isn’t interesting for the story we’re telling together. It slightly muddies current DCs in D&D, but who hasn’t fudged DC rolls when players are really close on an important role, anyways? This method (hopefully) codifies escalation, by which I mean that I try to clearly indicate that I will make bad stuff happen on partial successes. When you almost make a roll, you can basically still choose to succeed, but at a prize – it gives me as DM permission to make something go bad, or escalate.
3. Damage By Players
The following tries to implement the ideas of a partial success on combat rolls. I find simply missing and waiting for your next turn, you guessed it, not very interesting for the story. These rules can of course be tweaked, by making a full hit mean “roll damage dice” and a glancing blow mean “half damage” or “roll two damage dice, pick the lowest result”.
When you roll to hit and…
- Roll a nat 20, you always hit, and deal the max of your damage die + modifier + another max damage die in damage.
- Roll AC or higher, you deal your max damage die in damage (+ modifier).
- Roll AC-3, AC-2 or AC-1, you roll your damage die and add the modifier.
- Roll AC-4 or lower: You miss.
- Roll a nat 1: Critical fail. I make up something fun.
It speeds up combat with less dice rolls to be made, while sticking more to the power fantasy of the class: a Barbarian can more reliably dish out his 12 damage, a Rogue becomes a true assassin. In my ruling, this does not apply to enemies.
Mind that my DM style means that I’m more interested in “a horde of enemies appear! Can you defeat them on time to stop X?” or “But what does it meaaaaan for the story when you kill all these foes?” rather than “You are level 6. A guard appears. Lol you miss”.
4. No Initiative
Currently, rolling initiative can feel arbitrary, and signals that we stop having the regular D&D conversation and start playing the combat mini-game. I want to blur those lines more.
- When combat starts, because either the enemy or you attack, you don’t roll for initiative.
- We keep the conversation structure (DM describes situation > Describe your reaction > Roll if needed), with the party that initiated combat probably going first, unless the story dictates that they don’t.
The orc in front of Maloc draws his weapon. Maloc, what do you do?
The orc who already had his weapon drawn suddenly strikes at Maloc (Resolve attack as usual).
- In combat, you have access to all your combat options. Movement goes by movement speed – you take a regular turn.
- Turn order is decided by both parties: in general, both sides will take turns, and both sides can choose when to take their turn. The fiction can break this however – it’s part of the conversation of play.
- Once everyone had their turn, the ’round’ is done, and everyone gets a turn again.
- No one gets to go twice before everyone had their turn, unless a creature has Legendary Actions etc.
- Initiative bonuses might be used as a tie-breaker when two opposing parties want to act at the same time.
I want turns to feel more dynamic, and this forces you to not just lean back and only pay attention during your turn. It allows for different strategy, as you can choose when to interject. Downside: Initiative modifiers are less important.
What do you think?
Bunch of hogwash? Interesting food for thought? Let me know!