Horror, dread and stress can add a lot of flavor to roleplaying. However, when nosing around, I found that a lot of mechanics (such as Mothership, Call of Cthulhu)…
Take away player agency at one point or another, to represent them losing control. This is a neat idea, but a hard sell in a heroic D&D campaign with a long-standing main cast. Losing a character to stress is not very heroic.
Are solid, but really different from D&D, requiring a lot of separate stats and rolls and saves.
There exist other systems that are more suited for D&D, such as Giffyglyph’s Dread or Sandy Petersen’s Dread/Madness. These either involve tracking a lot of things, or an Exhaustion-like table – which I never found really fun.
So, how do we keep it simple? Here’s what I did:
Stress & Scary Stuff
Hit Points can be considered an abstract representation of life force, health, endurance, luck, and will to live/fight. Hence, psychological stress and damage can be represented as ‘psychic damage‘. When facing intense, scary or stressful situations, the DM might call for a Stress Save. You can choose how you want to make it: INT Save: Explain how you try to rationalize what you’re seeing. WIS Save: Explain how your senses might have tricked you, or how the thing you are perceiving can be interpreted. CHA Save: Explain how you lie to yourself, laugh it off, or pull yourself together. On a failure, you take 1, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8 or 1d10 psychic damage, depending on the situation. This type of damage cannot drop you below 1 HP. If it does bring you down to 1 HP, it means you are basically so stressed out, you can barely defend yourself.
The Underdark is vast and dangerous. To try and map it, is folly. Navigation must be done differently; by using all of your senses. Tunnels twist and turn, and may not lead into the direction you were hoping for.
This system tries to capture the vibe of the Fellowship of the Ring traveling through the Mines of Moria, more specifically, Gandalf wondering which path to take.
“Oh! It’s that way.”
“No, but the air doesn’t smell so foul down here.”
Gandalf & Merry
Just Follow Your Nose
A core pillar of this system is that the party has some idea of where they have to go, based on their senses. This can work several ways:
One of the party members traveled here, a long time ago. They don’t remember individual tunnels, but they do remember what they sensed walking here – cold air followed by the smell of sulfur, etc.
The party has received a cryptic description in an old Dwarven tome, or perhaps Dwarves don’t map out the Underdark at all, and give out sensory directions by default – “climb upwards until you are greeted by the flow of warm air, then turn towards it” is a more practical description than numbering the number of crossroads.
The party has a specific goal inside the Underdark, that has a strong sensory ‘milestone’: The smell of fungus spreading from an underground forest, warm air coming from a subterranean hot spring etc.
5 Senses, Underground
Sensory input in caverns can take the following forms:
Sound. The distant crashing of an underground waterfall, the wind howling through tunnels, or complete lack of sound.
Smell. The smell of rot, fungus, sulfur, salty water.
Sight. Particular mould, discolorations of tunnels, bioluminescence.
Touch. A flow of air from or to a tunnel, air being warm or cold.
Taste. Ew. I guess you could lick rocks to taste them?
Sensory Instructions & How To Follow Them
There are a few ways to play out sensory instructions and how the players interact with them.
Taking Your Time
In all 3 methods mentioned below, the party can also take 2 hoursinstead of a Skill Check to carefully examine every available tunnel at this intersection. This gives them all sensory information about each tunnel, but would significantly slow down their progress (tying into the Noise & Alert system).
Instead of making actual instructions, the players are simply told that they have a set of instructions.
Whenever players arrive at an intersection or crossroads, they can make a relevant check (Perception/Investigation/Survival/Nature etc.) to deduce the right tunnel based on their (abstract) instructions. A DC 10 would represent a forked path, a DC 20 would represent many paths to choose from.
On a failure, the party picks out a path they are sure is the correct one, but isn’t. They wander that path for a while before realizing their mistake and heading back, which takes 1d4 hours.
On a success, they successfully deduce the correct path (“You feel fresh air coming from the left tunnel, which corresponds with the instructions.”). The DM marks a success, with their objective being reached in a certain number of successes.
Here, the players do receive actual instructions; these can look like this, for example:
Follow the sound of crashing water until you reach the underground waterfall. From there, follow the smell of fungus, until you feel a cold wind blow. Walk against this flow of cold air to emerge at your destination.
These instructions would play out like this:
At the first 3 crossroads, listen for the sound of water. This is made at DC 20, 15 and 10, as you get closer to the source. Succeeding the check means you perceive the sound and pick the right tunnel, failing the check makes you pick a wrong tunnel and wander around before heading back, taking 1d4 hours.
The cave containing the underground lake and waterfall has 4 tunnels leading elsewhere. A single DC 20 Wisdom (Perception) check captures your best efforts to choose the correct tunnel, a success leading you onwards, a failure costing you 1d4 hours.
For the next 4 crossroads, the players are to be on the lookout for the sensation of cold air. Each of these crossroads feature only a single path splitting off from their current one, so we set the DC relatively low, to 10. Failing means 1d4 hours lost.
Finally, for the home stretch, 2 intersections at which to follow the flow of cool air, at DC 15, with multiple paths to choose from.
The travel time between intersections and crossroads can be measured in minutes, hours or days, depending on the overall scale of the journey. Likewise, a path or tunnel can also include large caverns and a variety of environments – just keep in mind that you keep the navigational choices limited to crossroads.
This is the most elaborate method. It differs from the semi-abstract version in two ways:
The DM has an absolute map of the Underdark. The players do not, but can make one themselves, if they wish. Choosing the wrong path does not result in “1d4 hours lost” – it means that the players are not where they think they are, giving the possibility of them getting horrendously lost.
The instructions are a puzzle in and off themselves. You can make this as complicated as you want (or just use the Semi-Abstract instructions). This means the instructions look something like this:
Always descend, unless the air reeks of sulfur
When presented with two paths of equal size, choose the left one, unless from it a cold wind blows
After going straight for 3 intersections, a left or right must be taken
This is effectively turning navigation into Einstein’s Riddle, making it so that even when the party has all sensory information about the available tunnels, the right choice requires thought.
Back The Way You Came
Backtracking or revisiting previous tracks should be easier than plotting new routes. Implement this by replacing all the sensory deduction with an Intelligence or Wisdom check with Advantage to emulate the memory a character has of the path.
Implement the Noise & Alert system into the Underdark.
Create meaningful decisions surrounding the resource of Time (and indirectly Resources): spending more time in the Underdark is inherently dangerous, leading to an increased chance of encounters (And thus spending Resources such as HP, Hit Die, Spell slots, Rations etc.). Rushing is taking a gamble with your Skills to spend less time navigating, but with the risk of going down the wrong path.
The main vibe I’m going for is the Fellowship of the Ring navigating the Mines of Moria.
Noise & Alerts
The Underdark fits the criteria of the Noise & Alert system to a tee: it’s enormous, too big to ever fully conquer and it houses potentially infinite threats. It’s a dangerous, unwelcome location.
Out in the Open
When carefully considering the next path at the middle of a crossroads, trudging through unlit tunnels or climbing through long-abandoned ruins, the party is considered Out in the Open. To not be Out in the Open, the party can take 2 hours in a suitable location (old ruins, a dead end tunnel etc) to hide their tracks. This means that roaming threats will not find the party, and that they are safe.
Instead of the resource of Time, the party can also make appropriate Skill Checks (Survival, Stealth, Nature etc.). This should be a choice between
Taking 2 hours without Skill Checks and making no Noise
Making a relevant Skill Check to do it faster, but risking making Noise on a failure
“Noise” is the abstract measure of danger. It indicates the general attention the party has drawn so far. Keep in mind that the party is aware of the current Noise at all times; this is the big, threatening countdown clock (or countup clock) that adds tension. Whether it be Drow, wildlife or other dangers, the more noise the party makes (both literally and figuratively), the more trouble will find them.
Noise is gained through the following ways:
For every 2 hours spent Out in the Open, add 1 Noise. This represents moving around, footsteps echoing down tunnels etc. This is not affected by moving quicker or slower; moving slow makes it more likely that some roaming monster stumbles across you, moving quicker makes more noise.
Minor environmental obstacles can add Noise, varying from 1 to 1d6. Making jumps across a ravine causing some pebbles to fall down and splash into a lake deep down below, breaking open an ancient wooden door, or fighting/killing unintelligent wildlife all leave traces of the party’s passage.
Noise can be reduced by spending 8 hours while not Out in the Open, for instance during a Long Rest. At the end of the 8 hour period, Noise is reduced by 1d8.
Whenever the party does anything that might make the more intelligent and dangerous predators of the Underdark more aware of their presence, roll 2d12+Noise. This is the Alert Check, when all the accumulated Noise is brought to bear on the party.
Actions that might trigger an Alert Check:
Loud actions in combat, such as casting Fireball
Loud actions outside of combat, such as Pippin dropping a bucket down a well in the Mines of Moria
Intelligent enemies sounding alarms. Be sure to telegraph this, so players have time to react (“The Drow is reaching for his horn”).
These actions might also add Noise individually.
The Alert Table
Check the result of the Alert Check on the Alert Table. This is an example of the one I use; it can look different based on the average increase of Noise and dice you roll for your Alert Check.
Easy encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Medium encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Hard encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Deadly encounter in 1d8 minutes.
An example encounter table
For big, multi-day trips, I’d use a table like this:
Easy encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Medium encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Hard encounter in 1d4 minutes.
Deadly encounter in 1d8 minutes.
This makes Deadly encounters the average after 6 days, with the party gaining 24-8-1d8 Noise per day. You could easily make this table way more granular, or play with the randomness by changing the 2d that you roll.
Time is a valuable resource in the Underdark. Bad navigational choices cost time, and time = danger.
Every 2 hours, or whenever the party is noisy, add Noise. Keep this in sight of the players.
Whenever the party is loud, make an Alert Check and resolve the encounter.
The encounters caused by Alert Checks can add more Noise and trigger more Alert Checks, causing a cascade of unfortunate events.
When players come across a book, they’ll probably first want to determine what’s in the book. Let the player roll an IntelligenceCheck.
On a 20+ they know exactly what kind of benefit the book will grant them, if any.
On a 15+, they get a rough idea of what the book is about, and whether it has a benefit or not.
On a 10+ they get a rough idea what the book is about.
On a 5+ they have no idea what the book is about.
On a <4, they think the book is about something completely different.
The DM rolls this in secret and simply tells the player the result. If the roll is a 4 or lower, tell the player that they are convinced that it’s about that specific topic. Now the player has no idea what the book is about, even though they think they do – just like the character.
For every 4 hours of reading, the player makes an Intelligence Check. Multiply this number by 22: That’s the number of pages they’ve read. The player now knows how far along in the book they are:
“I was at page 125 out of 731. I make an Intelligence Check for 4 hours of reading… that’s a 13, plus my Intelligence Modifier… 17!”
“You nestle down with your book and manage to completely lose yourself in its pages. After 4 hours, you look up, realizing you just read 374 pages!”
“Cool, that puts me at page 499!”
Simply tell the player the number of pages they’ve read in that time, so they can update their ‘bookmark’ to the current number of pages read.
Making A Book
Books in this system have a few components:
A number of pages, known to the player
A Target Score, unknown to the player
A hidden benefit (optional)
A witty title (or at least, a title that makes me chuckle) and writer
As an example, I’ll use a book from one of my campaigns:
It’s Hard to Bard
A Guide to The Bardic Arts by Abel of Week’s End
Unbeknownst to the players, this book provides a +1 to Performance when read cover-to-cover. I’d make books with major benefits be brittle and old, or have some other reason why only one player can read them.
The number of pages number will be known to the player and will help them estimate how long it takes to read the book.
The Target Score is the total sum of all Intelligence checks the player will need to make.The Target Score is a leftover of an earlier iteration of the system, and is in fact not needed at all!
I break down the process I use step by step, so it’s easier for you to modify parts of it (or change it entirely).
So, according to Google, an average person reads 250 words per minute, and an average page in a novel contains 250-300 words. For ease of use, we’ll calculate this to a character reading 60 pages per hour. If all goes well.
This means that in 4 hours of reading (the checkpoint for the Intelligence Check), the player reads 240 pages on average.
Assuming normal resting rules, a party takes a long rest of 8 hours once a day, adventures a lot, leaving, say, 4 hoursof reading (assuming they’re not in an actively dangerous environment such as a dungeon) per day.
So, the number of pages according to the math above would be
The desired number of in-universe days is highly subjective. I’ve had occasions of up to 4 sessions to cover a single in-universe day. In those cases, I don’t want the pay-off of a book to be three actual months later, so I might lower the desired number of in-universe days. If I had to generalize, I’d say:
1 in-universe day (so 240 pages) for a joke book
3 in-universe days (so 720 pages) for a book with a minor benefit
7 in-universe days (so 1680 pages) for a book with major benefits
Slightly randomize the page count to prevent identical page counts from popping up all the time.
So, we know the number of pages. Now, we need the Target Score.
The Target Score
An average Intelligence Attribute is, by definition, 10 (+0 modifier). That means that an average Intelligence roll is the average of a D20: 11. Thus:
The Magic Number
We’re almost there! In 1 day of reading (or 4 hours) we read 240 pages on average, assuming a roll of 11 (which is also an average). 240 divided by 11 is 21,81818182. That’s not very handy. Let’s round that number:
To sum it all up: Players can make an Intelligence Check to scan a book and figure out its contents. Based on the result, this leads to good information, vague information or wrong information. The DM decides how much in-game time they want a character to read the book for. For every 4 hours of desired reading, the book has 240 pages. For every 4 hours of reading, the book’s Target Score increases by 11. For every 4 hours spent reading, the player makes an Intelligence Check. Multiply the result by 22 – that’s the number of pages they’ve read. Players keep track of their ‘bookmarks’ themselves.
The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons 5e means that it’s really attractive to produce content and tools for the game. This creates a self-propagating cycle of sorts; it’s the most popular because there’s so much tools and tutorials available, causing more people to get into it etc.
Over the years, I’ve gathered a lot of resources and links, and I figured I’d collect some of them here. If they’re of any use to you, all the better!
Notion.so is a really neat, minimalist wiki-like system that can be used for both DM-side organizing and player-side presentation.
Kanka.io is an amazing campaign wiki/organizing system. There are many others, of course, but I find that Kanka’s way of focusing on the basic features and doing those well suits me way better than some campaign organizers that have more options.
Encounters & Ideas
Kobold Fight Club’s Encounter Builder is really helpful. If you add all the various sources under Set Sources, it can also lead you to cool new sourcebooks you might not have thought of previously!
Giffyglyph’s Monster Maker – Forget the DM’s guide rules for creating monsters. This makes the process easy and fun, and the standard traits add so much versatility. Be sure to read the full book as well – it goes into so much depth about how to make a good monster.
Auto Roll Tables – So many cool tables. The results can be a bit rough (or clearly feel ‘random’), but they’re always good for inspiration.
DMHeroes – Creates really cool and quirky NPC’s – with portraits!
Myra is a kind-hearted 6th-level Human Cleric of Finrimbel, God of the Sun, with a problem. She just arrived in Khobai, the City of a Thousand Sins, and the people here don’t really worship Finrimbel. Apparently, daytime temperatures of +40 Celsius make a people unlikely to see ‘sunlight’ as a positive. Good thing she has a plan: She’ll convert these sinners, one way or another.
I’m using this generic character sheet as Myra’s sheet, and we’ll see how far she gets with the 200 gold she has left over from her journey here.
Keep in mind that this example focuses purely on the Religion system – in an actual campaign, such a clear, uninterrupted focus on building a cult is unlikely due to all the other goings-on in the campaign world! The timeline of events is one more likely for an entire campaign instead of the quick succession of events mentioned here.
1. Spreading The Word
Myra gets to work. She spends one day spreading flyers, spending 2 gold and attracting 4 (1d6) Interested Followers.
The next day, she spends another day putting up posters, for another 2 gold down and 3 Interested Followers.
Motivated by this moderate success, she decides to spend a day standing on one of the larger markets of Khobai, proclaiming the glory of the sun. Time to make a Persuasion Check, DC is 25-6 (her level). With a total of 8, it’s a humiliating experience – she just lost 3 Reputation.
Deciding to take a more subtle approach and start her movement from the ground up, she spends 2 days helping the poor and downtrodden, making sure to tell them about Finrimbel while she’s at it. This costs 6×2 gp, and gains her 5 (2d4) followers and 2 Reputation.
2. Reach out…
Happy with her “helping the poor” strategy, Myra spends 3 more days helping the poor. After this 18 gp investment, she’s at 6 more Interested followers and a Reputation increase of 3.
She takes 2 days off her holy mission, chasing down leads for bigger quests.
Returning to her calling all revitalized, she decides to give public speaking another go. This time, her roll of 20 beats the DC of 19. She gains a whopping 11 Interested Followers (2d6).
3. …and touch faith
There’s a murmur going on about Myra’s effort – not a loud one, but, as they say, the fire rises. She decides to focus intently on a select few in an effort to convert them. Her Reputation makes the DC of a Sermon quite a risk (25-2), and paying 20gp for a single convert is a bit pricey for her current budget.
With a roll of 13, she adds her Insight bonus (+4 Wisdom +3 proficiency) to truly understand her 2 (1d4) students in a way they never felt understood before, beating the DC of 20. This gains her 2 Believers.
With the “Once every 14 days” deadline coming up, she decides to spend 2 more days helping the poor, for 6 more Interested followers.
We first resolve all the positive benefits. Myra’s Reputation is now 4 (+2). 2 Interested Followers are now Believers. She also gains 4 new Interested Followers due to her Reputation. She loses 1 Reputation due to the passage of time, and Reputation slowly balancing out at 0.
4. Respect Is Everything
Now realizing the power of Reputation, Myra gets to work in the next 2 days and…
…completes a bounty on a dangerous criminal. This nets her 100 gold. The DM deems it a ‘minor good deed’, granting her 3 Reputation.
…donates the 100 gold to Druids Without Borders, which grants her an additional 10Reputation.
Capitalizing on this newfound fame, she organizes a Sermon on Finrimbel. Her current Reputation being 3+3+10 = 16, the DC is now a mere 9 (25-Reputation). She spends the 10gp to put the word out and secure a nice spot in a luxurious private garden. She attracts Reputation-d6 guests (44, 13d6), which simply means all of her 31 Interested Followers show up.
She once again shows her endless Insight, rolling a 5+7, beating the DC. She now rolls the same 13d6 (56) and thus converts all 31 Interested Followers into Believers.
5. Here Comes The Sun
With 33 Believers and a good Reputation, Myra decides to solidify her grasp. She organizes an intense 3 days of meditation and prayer, inviting 6 (her Level) Believers to join her.
She spends the 20 gp setting things up and decides to dazzle them with displays of Strength, Insight andCharisma.
Her feat of strength leaves the believes unimpressed. Her wisdom, however, proves insightful as always. Her persuasion makes them believe that the Sun is, indeed, all-powerful and finally she tries her strength again, this time succeeding with the rays of the Sun watching over her.
She has just gained 6 Devotees and spends the next day in a local brothel celebrating.
6. Always Be Investing
Myra knows that if she can raise more Devotees, they will start to self-propagate, which definitely serves her agenda of “overthrowing the heretics”. Secondly, if she can keep up her reputation, she will keep attracting more Interested followers without any effort.
She spends two days personally helping the poor for 12gp cost and 7 new Interested followers. She gains +2 Reputation.
She orders her Devotees to spread joy and kindness. The rules for Devotee commands aren’t set in stone and open to interpretation; in this case, the DM rules that having a bunch of Devotees spreading the love halts the decay of Reputation at the 14-day-mark.
Finally, Myra goes on a big quest in the interest of the city (it’s D&D, after all). She ascends to Level 7 and gains +4 Reputation for stopping the Serpent Lords of Nhak-Ta during her 3 day crawl through the sewers.
Emerging from the sewers, she speaks publicly once more, about how the Sun was the only way she was able to survive. She succeeds the Persuasion check with a (lowered) DC of 18, and thus gains 6 new followers.
On the last day before the 14-day mark, she takes a well-deserved rest.
Myra gains 6 gold from her Devotees. She gained 13Interested Followers due to her own efforts, and 19 from her Reputation. From these 32, 2 Interested Followers are converted into Believers. Her Reputation does not decay thanks to her Devotees.
7. The Wheels of Faith
Time to get this religion going on its own. Myra hosts a Sermon for 10gp, which attracts 19d6 of her Interested Followers (78) – more than enough to attract all of them. She displays a simple card trick at a DC of 6 and converts 19d6 of them (81) – so all in attendance. She now has 59 Believers.
She must break the crucial 10-Devotee barrier, and invests 20 gp and 3 days. She manages the skill checks – barely – and thus converts 7 Believers into Devotees.
Myra takes some money from her personal account, as her religion’s coffers currently sit at 88 gp, and once again donates to charity. She pays this half out of her own pockets, leaving the vault at 38 gp.
The Church of the Holy Sun, one month in
8. Plot Happens
Myra gets called away from Khobai for important plot matters. Good thing she automated her religion! Her quest has her gone for 30 days. Let’s see what happens to the church in the meantime:
The next 14-day marker happens at day 42. On this day:
The coffers gain 13 gold.
29 new Interested followers arrive due to Reputation.
5 new Believers are converted.
1 new Devotee is converted.
Her Devotees prevent Reputation decay.
Another 14-day marker occurs at day 56.
9. The Future, and Beyond
Upon her return, Myra adds further Reputation due to her grand deeds, and fills the coffers with money. She focuses more on gaining Devotees, knowing that they will allow the cult running in her absence. If enemies arise, she can wield these Devotees against them.
She can keep growing the religion until at least 70 Devotees before risking a schism.
I wrote an extensive example of this system in use, if you’re curious!
What This System Tries To Do
Provide possibility for emergent storytelling through progress. Starting a real-life religion is probably pretty tricky (I never tried it), but just as Adventurers are capable in combat, I’m assuming that player characters setting out to spread the good word are also remarkably capable. I find it far more interesting that their efforts to start/spread a religion fail (and grow out of control?) rather than fizzle out.
Integrating gameplay decisions (resources, skills, luck) into the system. Skill helps, choices help, money certainly helps, but at some point, you’re gonna need that prophet-like charisma.
Gain interested followers, convert them to believers and into devotees for profit and fun, all while managing your reputation.
Reputation is good for your religion. It generates new Interested followers, but ‘decays’ over time when left alone.
Interested followers don’t really do anything for you. They’re just kind of there, ready to be drawn in deeper.
Believers partially self-propogate, generating new Believers over time.
Devotees grant you gold and more Devotees.
Reputation of Belief
The player(s) promoting a particular belief are tied to the reputation of the belief they promote. Grand deeds done by the players will reflect positively on the religion, bad acts done by the players will reflect negatively on the religion. However, the positive societal influence of a religion will rub off on those proclaiming it, too.
Timed Elements of Reputation
Every 14 days you gain or lose a number of Interested followers equal to your Reputation. Every 14 days your Reputation adjusts by 1 in the direction of 0.
Reputation is the wheel that keeps your religion spinning, or grinds it to a halt.
People tend to forget your Reputation over time – for better or worse.
Reputation can be gained through charity or completing quests in the name of your religion.
A small good deed gains you 1 Reputation.
Completing a major good deed for your religion gains you 5 Reputation.
Charity: 100 gp donated to a charity of your choice gains you 10 Reputation.
Reputation is lost through embarrassing public activities, crime, violence and failure connected to the religion.
An awkward public display removes 1 Reputation.
A big public failure removes 5 Reputation.
Spreading the Word
To get people Interested, you’ll need to spread the word somehow.
For 2gp a day, you can spread posters and flyers proclaiming the good word. This leads to 1d6 new Interested people per day.
Get on that soap box! Publicly evangelizing your religion is a good way to get people to notice your religion – for better or worse. For every 8 hours of speaking, make a Persuasion Check. The DC is 25 – Player Level.
On a success, you gain 2d6 Interested followers.
On a failure, you lose 1d4 Reputation.
Aiding the Poor
For 6gp a day, you provide help to the city’s poor and downtrodden. This grants you 1d4 Interested followers and +1 Reputation.
Now I’m A Believer
To convert those Interested into Believers, you’ll need to organize events and gatherings.
Timed Elements of Believers
Every 14 days, 10 Believers convert 1 Interested follower into a Believer– unless you have a negative Reputation. Every 14 days,you lose 1d6 Believersfor every 10 negative Reputation (-10 = 1d6, -20 = 2d6 etc.)
For 10 gp, you can organize a gathering at a local park, plaza or bar. A Sermon will attract 1d6 or Xd6 (X being your current Reputation)Interested followers, whichever is higher.
During a Sermon, you display the glory of your religion through an impressive feat. This can be done through a skill check of choice – player creativity is encouraged! The DC is 25-Reputation.
On a success, you convert 1d6 (if your Reputation is equal or smaller than 1) or Xd6 (X being your Reputation) Interestedfollowers to Believers.
On a failure, you lose 1d6 (if your Reputation is equal or smaller than 1) or Xd6 (X being your Reputation) Interested followers. You also lose 1d6 Reputation.
Impressive Feats of Faith
Effectively every skill can be used to display the glory of your faith. For example: Athletics can show the strength granted by your faith. Constitution can show the supernatural fortitude granted by your faith. Insight can show the degree to which your faith understands the problems plaguing your followers. History can place the importance of your faith in an historical context.
You can spend a day with 1d4 Interestedfollowers, discussing your religion in-depth. Make a DC 20 Persuasion, Insight or Deception check.
On a success, the Interested followers become Believers.
On a failure, you lose the Interested followers.
You can spend 20 gp to straight up “convert”an Interested follower into a Believer.
A sermon is a risk for your reputation, but a quick way to convert the masses. Debates are a more personal approach and more likely to succeed, and far less public if they fail. Simply giving someone a heap of cash is likely for them to see the benefits of your religion.
This is the level where followers are truly on your side, willing to fight and die for you.
Timed Elements of Devotees
Every 14 days, you gain 1gp per Devotee. You can demand more, but for every 1gp you raise the tithe, you lose in Reputation per two weeks. The Faith of the One has 20 Devotees. They donate 1 gp each per week, for a total of 20 gp total per week. The Grand Master demands they pay 5 gp per week instead – this raises the income to 20*5=100 gp per week, but creates a Reputation loss of 4 per week. Every 14 days, 10 Devotees convert 1 Believer into a Devotee.
Converting a Believer into a Devotee is an intense process. You host a session of intense debate, meditation and prayer that lasts 3 continuous days. This costs 20 gp to organize. You can invite a number of Believers equal to your level. It takes 3 successful skill checks before you reach 2 failures. The nature of these skill checks are up to the player; see Impressive Feats of Faith. The DC here is a flat 20. This is about gaining true devotees – your reputation won’t help you now. Failing twice results in the Believers leaving your religion/cult due to lack of faith and -1 Reputation per lost Believer.
Go Forth, and (insert command)
Your Devotees will follow your commands.
Charitable and kind commands (“help the poor”) can contribute a positive Reputation over time.
Slightly disruptive commands (in the realm of protests or civil disobedience) require a DC 15 Persuasion Check to ‘spin’ to the outside world, losing some Reputation as a consequence.
Violent or criminal commands will cause a penalty to Reputation of -10 per Devotee that gets arrested, -20 per Devotee that gets killed and -30 per person killed by Devotees.
The End Game
How does this all end?
Reputation decays over time when left alone, causingyour source of Interested Followers to dry up and your Believers to run out of Interested Followers to convert. Your Believers are relatively passive, only leaving your faith if your Reputation gets really bad.
Devotees effectively passed the point of no return. They will not leave the religion unless arrested or dead. Someone with ill intent could grow their religion to contain a sizeable amount of Devotees, to then unleash a wave of terror on the city or country.
The law might come hard on religions with particularly low Reputation.
A special type of endgame is the religious schism. When your number of Devotees is larger than your Level x10, one of your Devotees will argue that they are the leaders of the true faith, and split off. They’ll take 2d4*10 percent of your Believers and Devotees with them and go do crusade stuff.
Cover: Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
Gold has a bit of a weird role in D&D – it is generally expected to be desired, yet a default out-of-the-box D&D campaign does not provide a lot of things to do with it. An option of investing is sometimes mentioned, which gave me the idea of adding a living macro economy to my setting.
What This System Does
Basically, we’re going to generate a table for stock prices of past and future. Players simply buy a stock for the current market price, and can sell it at some point in the future for the new market price.
This system takes type of stock, volatility and general market tendency into consideration. Theoretically, seasonal influences could be added as well, but I won’t go into that in this introduction. The system works on a monthly basis, to prevent players getting obsessed with daily fluctuations.
Disclaimer: I am no economist. I made this as a fun way to effectively gamble (and yes, that’s how I see real-life stock markets).
Type of Stock & Volatility
I’ve abstracted stocks into sectors of industry. You could easily do this for factions/corporations in your setting, as well.
I took a broad selection of stores and gave each a base value. In my case, my market simulation starts 4 years before present campaign time. Players could perhaps purchase this market data for a small fee. This base value is the start-off point.
After that, I added volatility. This is basically a percentual modifier. A volatility of 10 means that stocks could dip or rise 10% each month, compared to previous month.
Business with large transactions get a larger base price – there’s simply less money in barbering than in shipping. However, I’ve made shipping quite volatile – storms, pirates and outside influences can have a big impact on shipping stock prices. Alchemists rely on rare resources, while jewelry is basically always in fashion.
This is a simple base modifier, that signifies overall market health. I started it at 100 in year 1 month 1. Each month after that randomly picks a number between -2 and +3, meaning the market will overall increase in value over time.
Putting It Together
This is a little tricky – I made the model in Google Sheets, and it takes a bit of tinkering, but once it’s there, it doesn’t really need any modifications and simply becomes a look-up table.
On the vertical axis, I add the years and months and the Market Tendency. On the horizontal axis at the top, I add every type of stock.
In the cells, I add a formula that does the following:
The following is not my own, original idea – it describes the excellent Panic mechanics as featured in the amazing Mothership RPG, and more specifically, Gradient Descent.
The Purpose Of These Mechanics
From time to time, the plot of one of my D&D campaigns leads me to enormous, abstract locations that are so large in scope, they are almost a region of the overworld. These locations are too big for traditional battle maps, and will usually feature random encounters to keep things exciting.
Some examples include infinite magical libraries, city-sized castles, endless underground labyrinths, and the like.
The following system is a way to make the oppressive threat of enemy presence in this location a constant factor in exploration.
It needs 2 things to work:
The aforementioned enormous location, too big to ever fully conquer. You are here on a raid, a quick in-and-out. You are not welcome.
An infinite threat. The reason you are here on a quick raid, is because you stand no chance against the forces working against you. The library is infinite and has infinite Librarians, the castle has more guards than you could ever handle etc.
I will use the example of the Infinite Library to illustrate the system.
Alert Levels & Alert Checks
Whenever the party acts in a way that is detectable to the threat, the Alert Level goes up. In our example, making noise will alert the Librarians.
The players need to have a grasp on the impact of their actions so that they can make informed decisions in managing the risk.
If they notice a chest behind a gate with iron bars and they make the effort to inspect the gate, inform them that opening the gate might make noise. Searching a room for valuable books might require an Investigation check, and failure might still yield books, but also generate noise.
Depending on the actions of the players, you can either add a flat value or let them roll a dice (1d6 noise added). The Alert Level should always be visible to the players.
The Alert Level symbolizes the ‘suspicion’ that the guardians of a location have of player presence. Leaving traces of your passage (a broken lock, a knocked out guard) can also raise the Alert Level.
Alert Checks are triggered by loud, overt actions. In our example of the Library, this might take the form of
Tripping a magical alarm
Causing loud noises, such as an enormous bookcase falling over
A Librarian spotting you and letting out an alarming screech
Using loud magic in combat
and so forth.
To make an Alert Check, the players roll 2d6.
Depending on the size of your table, it can also be 2d10 and 2d8 – that’s up to you. We use two dice to get a nice spread of probability. You add the current Alert Level to the dice roll.
This is where the DM checks the Alert Table. This might look something like this:
No response. Lucky!
You hear a Librarian approach.
3 Librarians approach.
5 Librarians rush in.
5 Librarians rush in, led by the fearsome Head Librarian.
This means that if the players are quiet, there’s a chance that no Librarians show up. However, if the Alert Level is at least 3, there will always be some response.
This is where the fun begins
The fun part of this system is that the response caused by the Alert Check is likely to increase the Alert Level. If one Librarian shows up, it is in the party’s best interest to hide – because a fight is likely to make noise. If it manages to screech, it could trigger another Alert Check instantly, with perhaps 1d6 Alert Level added (in this case, be sure to telegraph the screech, so the players can stop it, if they’re quick).
Modifying This System
The tables and rolls allow for a lot of customization – perhaps there’s only a single monster roaming a labyrinth, which shows up on an Alert Check of 25, and you roll 2d10 to make the check. See what works for you!
The system can also be used in different ways.
Perhaps the party is climbing an enormous unstable tower, and small movements and climbs add to the Alert Level as ‘instability’, and major jumps across the broken floor trigger Alert Checks and falling debris.
Magic might be unstable in the current area, and every spell adds to the Alert Level in the form of ‘Arcane Charge’, with the Alert Check causing an ‘Arcane Discharge’.
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:
Volley 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 one
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 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!