“I’m sorry, Citizen; the flight manual for the Experimental Hypersonic Future-Craft is not available at your security clearance and cannot be downloaded to your cerebral CoreTech. Please report your location upon impact.” –Friend Computer
So recently I wrote an article about Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons™. In the article, I described why I hate the current Initiative system and provided a plethora of alternatives for those like me who wanted nothing to do with it. One such alternative was a homebrew of my own, dubbed the Momentum Initiative. This variant garnered some attention online, and a handful of people asked me what was my inspiration for it. Well, it’s really quite simple. I just asked myself what I hated about the current system, and what I wanted to see out of it that it wasn’t currently providing. After that, coming up with answers to cater to those wants was relatively straightforward. Simple.
Okay, maybe there was a little more to it than that. It began when I tried Mike Mearls’ Greyhawk Initiative. Mearls’ system was great at adding a layer of tactical complexity to your combat decisions in the game while simultaneously generating dynamic excitement in the way turn order shifted from one round to the next. It was a step in the right direction, for sure, but I wasn’t satisfied with Mearl’s system either. What it gave up in exchange for its improvements was ease of understanding for the players and simple implementation for the Dungeon Master. It was too clunky for my tastes but, at this point, I was determined not to give up in my quest for a better Initiative system. So I went back to the drawing board. I latched on to the things about Mearls’ system that worked for me, discarded the things that didn’t, and then I started looking elsewhere to fill in the gaps.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Joshua, you just gave us a whole article on Initiative, we don’t want to read another so soon,” and you’re absolutely right except for the part where you’re not. You see, this article is not about Initiative.
“It’s not?” you ask?
What’s it about, then, you ask? I’m getting to that! Jeez. Impatient. Now, where was I?
Right. Filling in the gaps.
I already knew D&D didn’t have what I wanted, but seeing the innovations of the Greyhawk variant made me wonder if another system did. I started looking at how other role-playing games handled combat Initiative, and there’s some pretty interesting stuff out there! Take for example the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying™ Game, where the Initiative order is determined by choice – at the end of each turn, you decide who gets to go next. As a player, you might think the most tactically sound choice in this seemingly simple system is to choose an ally every time until your whole team has gone, but if you did then the bad guys get to take all of their turns before any of you get to go again. It’s a simple system that has diversity and infinite complexity in how you plan out not just your turn but also whose turn should follow. Another option is the Savage Worlds™ system, which uses a deck of action cards to determine the order of play in combat. It’s pretty cool because it creates a constantly shifting dynamic without the time it takes to reroll every round. Some systems forgo Initiative rules entirely in favour of a more fluid and elegant design, as is the case with Our Last Best Hope™, and other, more storytelling focused RPGs like it. But the system that really inspired me when crafting my mechanic was Shadowrun™. In Shadowrun, you roll for Initiative (using a handful of d6s) to decide who goes first, but the fun doesn’t stop there; your Initiative roll also decides how often you get to act, in addition to how quickly. Basically, every additional 10 points nets you a whole extra turn, but then you re-roll every round. One round you might roll really good and get the jump on your opponents, acting three times while they go once. Next round, your luck might not be so good and the bad guys take control. It’s a system that keeps you on your toes and invested because you never quite know what to expect! It creates a really exciting back-and-forth dynamic to combat that is hard to replicate in other systems. Pretty cool, huh? I thought so too, so I took Mearls’ Greyhawk system and combined it with Shadowrun and, voila – I had my Momentum Initiative variant.
The point I’m trying to make is that I had to look all over the place and at a number of different options before I found the one I was happy with (and even then, it was by combining two different options in an entirely unprecedented way). Which brings us to the topic of today’s discussion.
Play More Games
I don’t mean play games more often, though you should definitely try to do that if your lifestyle allows. I mean play more kinds of games. Whenever possible you should be giving other role-playing games a try. Is a player unable to make it to your regular game night? Instead of shadowing his character for the session and muddling through with half a party, why not pick up a different system? Most systems these days have some form of quick start rules to get you into the game faster, and some even come with a built-in example adventure to run. Even if the game you choose doesn’t have any of these, as a group you can often get the gist pretty quickly by putting your heads together and giving yourselves a forgivable margin for error. By doing this you can learn and play a new game system in a single night! Other systems will have different mechanics, and be written by different authors with different styles, all of which can help you appreciate and understand the characteristics of your preferred RPG more – and the more different, the better. You never know what playing another game system could inspire you to do with your D&D games. I’m not saying you might find something to replace D&D (though, you could, and that’s alright too); I’m saying you might find something to enhance your D&D playing experience in the pages of another game.
I’ve compiled a list of five fun mechanics (or six if you include Shadowrun‘s Initiative, described previously) from other RPGs which can make for interesting additions to D&D. Try ’em out!
1. Paranoia‘s Team Character Creation
Paranoia™ has been around since 1984 and ever since then it has been entertaining
players gamemasters everywhere with its lethal fun depiction of a dystopian sci-fi future. The game was first published by West End Games, but, following their bankruptcy, it was acquired by Mongoose Publishing. Unlike most other RPGs, the game has never really been one of cooperation. If played as intended, you only cooperate with your fellow troubleshooters long enough to ensure you have someone to throw under the bus when your magnanimous friend, the Computer, wants to blame one of you for the atrocities you committed during your likely failed mission. As the title suggests, Paranoia is all about back-stabbing your friends to get ahead in a world that threatens to crush you at every turn, and in the Official Rebooted Kickstarter Funded Edition™ the betrayal starts right from the start – at character creation.
Here’s how it works. First, each player chooses three positive personality traits for their character (for example, say I choose Brave, Smart, and Social). Then, each player has a turn to choose a skill they want to be good at (chosen from a list of 15 skills), but in doing so you curse the player to your left with a negative value in the same skill. After five rounds around the table, each player has five positive skills, five negative skills, and five neutral skills, on top of burgeoning hatred for the player to their right who screwed them out of some pretty useful skills. Finally, each player gets to take one of the personality traits of the player to their right, whom they now hate, and invert it (for example, Brave becomes Cowardly, Smart becomes Dumb, and Social becomes Anti-social). It’s a pretty neat method for generating characters that gets everyone in the right mood to play the game immediately after. I had a chance to talk to the lead designer, James Wallis, about the character creation system (which he described as his pride and joy of the game’s redesign), and he said that he wanted a system that both encouraged you to not get too attached to your
cannon fodder troubleshooters while also allowing for it to be a fun part of the game itself, rather than the business to be conducted before the game truly begins. A system that would help create the kind of resentment Paranoia wants you to have for your fellow players.
Now, D&D is a cooperative game, so I’m not suggesting you take Paranoia’s character creation methods as-is, that would be crazy. What I am suggesting is you take the principles of what makes Paranoia’s system so great (allowing for group input and encouraging behaviour which reinforces the game’s tone) and apply them to D&D. For example, maybe, after creation, you let each player take a -1 penalty to the ability score of their choice in order to give a +1 bonus to that same ability score for another player. Or maybe you let players take a flaw of some kind (a mechanical flaw, not a personality flaw like the ones in the background section of the Player’s Handbook™), and in exchange, the player to their left gets a bonus feat at first level. Or maybe making mechanical changes is going too far. Maybe it is as simple as coming up with a handful of personality traits and putting them on the table and allowing your players to pick and assign them to each other. Whatever you do make sure you are encouraging players to build each other up as a cooperative group and to create favours among their characters. The result is the opposite of Paranoia’s “betrayal” character creation, instead, you make lasting bonds with your allies and create a team ready to face the fiercest of D&D foes.
And speaking of the Paranoia, Mongoose is back at it again with another Kickstarter. This time, to raise money for publishing their Acute Paranoia: A Box Full of Treasons and Summary Executions™ expansion. Sounds fun, and Fun is Mandatory. Worth a peak!
2. Our Last Best Hope‘s Secrets and Fears
Magpie Games’ Our Last Best Hope is an incredibly entertaining RPG that takes you and up to five players (no gamemaster necessary) through the events of a classic-styled disaster movie. The game can be played in two hours and is perfect for one-night game sessions (it is not as conducive to ongoing campaigns). Like a movie, the game is literally played out in scenes, where each scene advances the plot closer to its established outcome. Obstacles are periodically thrown in the protagonists’ way throughout which determine if your character makes it to the next scene, or, more likely, dies a gruesome death. Where I feel OLBH really shines is in its creative use of character secrets and fears to help tell the story. At character creation, each player writes down their character’s biggest secret on a card and hands it to the player on their left. Then they write down their biggest fear on another card and hand it to the player on their right. As the story progresses, those players can reveal your secrets and fears at an opportune time of their choosing in order to give you a bonus towards a positive outcome of the current scene. The best way to steal this mechanic for our purposes in D&D is to incorporate it into a mechanic that already exists for granting your allies bonuses: Inspiration.
Just have your players come up with some secrets and fears that they can write on cards and pass around the table (I recommend one secret and one fear for each other player). Then, at a time of their choosing, a player can challenge the active player with their secret or fear in order to give them Inspiration to be used in the current scene. You can say that the secret or fear has to apply to the circumstances in some way if you want, or you can just allow players to throw it out there and leave it up to the active player or the DM to decide how it applies. Personally, I think this is a much better way to make use of the inspiration mechanic than the default way of making use of your character’s flaws.
3. Burning Wheel‘s Belief System
I’m going to be honest here; I haven’t actually played The Burning Wheel™ by Luke Crane, but that doesn’t stop me from having some strong opinions about its Belief System. Burning Wheel has one of the most innovative character creation systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG (affectionately called ‘Character Burning’), which has you pick some core beliefs (called ‘lifepaths’) that are then used by your gamemaster to build the story. In Burning Wheel, the gamemaster’s primary job is to challenge a character’s beliefs in interesting and often painful ways to advance the plot. This creates more personal, character-centric adventures, which can often prove to increase engagement and investment from your players in your game.
Conveniently, chapter 4 of the Player’s Handbook already has suggestions for incorporating character beliefs into your game. As a dungeon master, you just have to take things to the next level. If a Ranger has the Folk Hero background, with an ideal (belief) that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, try putting that character in a situation where the party’s patron is a local baron, who is also a tyrant. The party has an important mission to do, but the Ranger is at odds with working for someone who doesn’t treat his people with dignity and respect. That creates good roleplaying opportunities. Now, if you’ve picked up a copy of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything™, you have some other interesting tools to try and replicate Burning Wheel‘s Belief System in D&D. Pages 123 to 125 detail rules for creating rivals for the players. Using these rules in conjunction with the background rules in the Player’s Handbook, you can create a rival for each player that stands for everything that their character opposes. Then all you have to do is put that character and their rival in a situation where they have to work together. See what happens.
The main idea here is that you’re trying to tell stories in which the central conflict is challenging the bonds and ideals of the characters in your game. The best way to do that is to talk to your players about your plans and give them a clear idea what you are expecting. Tell them it is important to choose clear beliefs that matter to them and then work with them to find ways to incorporate those beliefs into plot hooks down the road. As long as you’re always looking for ways to challenge their beliefs, you’ll be on the right track to crafting your character-centric story for your game.
4. Star Wars RPG‘s Vitality/Wounds System
In D&D you have a number of Hit Points based off your total hit dice and your constitution modifiers. The more Hit Points you have, the further away from the dreaded death saving throws you are. So it would stand to reason that the more Hit Points you have the healthier you are, as well. But that would be wrong. In D&D, the difference between having 1 hit point and 100 Hit Points is seldom significant. The only hit point that really matters is that last, all important one; the one where you start knocking on death’s door should you lose it. For most people that’s fine. Most people know that Hit Points are an extrapolation and not a literal measure of how wounded you are, and their suspension of disbelief handles the rest. But for some, that system stands in the way of their suspension of disbelief. For some, the notion that your character can take a direct hit from a fireball spell or repeated attacks from powerful foes without batting an eye, but then fall to a stray, lucky arrow shot by a measly goblin is absurd. Enter the Star Wars Roleplaying Game™, which has a system for handling vitality that addresses all of those concerns.
In the Star Wars RPG, your character has two values which govern your health: Vitality, and Wounds. Both are akin to Hit Points in some ways but represent something very different. Vitality is a larger pool of Hit Points that represents superficial injuries, whereas Wounds are a much smaller pool, the loss of which indicates your character has taken more grievous injuries. Vitality functions much like Hit Points do in D&D, but Wounds are different. Your Wound points are equal to your Constitution score and are lost only if your Vitality has dropped to 0, or when you take a Critical Hit. Taking any amount of damage to your Wounds starts to impact your characters ability to function, first by making them Fatigued (the Star Wars equivalent to Exhaustion), and later by Stunning them several rounds for each additional point of Wound damage they take.
If this is a system that appeals to you, it can be ported to 5th edition fairly easily. Track Hit Points for your characters as normal, but give them a Wound score equal to their Constitution score. Under this system, a character only drops unconscious and starts making Death Saving Throws when they are out of Wounds. Characters take full damage to their Wounds when their Hit Points are at 0, and half of any damage sustained to their Hit Points as a result of a Critical Hit (rounded down). Whenever a character’s Wound score is not at full, treat that character as if they were at one level of Exhaustion higher than they were at prior to taking the Wounds damage. Restoring Wounds can be done in one of two ways, Resting and Magical Healing. At the end of a Short or Long Rest, a character can spend Hit Dice to restore a number of Wounds equal to their Constitution Modifier (minimum of 1). Whenever a character is subjected to Magical Healing (via a Potion, a Spell, or what-have-you), they also restore a number of Wounds equal to their Constitution Modifier (minimum of 1).
This system requires some extra tracking, and it slightly increases the survivability of those who benefit from it. As such I would only bother to use it for player characters, not for monsters and NPCs. If you employ this system, it might be worth also tweaking some of the Feats in the game. For example, the Tough Feat could also increase a characters total Wounds, or it could increase the amount of Wounds a character recovers whenever they Rest. This modification is for people who want to add a bit more realism to the consequences of repeated combat within your games.
5. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Skill Checks
Okay, I’m cheating a little bit here. For this last one, instead of looking to a different game, I’ll be looking to a different edition. The first edition. Let’s go back in time, way, way back, to OG D&D. Or, rather, the advanced rules revision of the original game. Back then, D&D had a way more slick version of what we now understand as ability and/or skill checks. Basically, it worked like this: take 3d6, and roll a number that is lower than your ability score of the most relevant ability. That’s it. Simple. It was a beautifully elegant design because the range of which you could be successful was always measured by your ability score, rather than some arbitrary number the dungeon master decides. The higher the score, the better the odds you can roll under it with 3d6. It’s a system that lets you, as a player, always remain clear as to whether or not you succeed as soon as you’ve rolled, and it makes estimating your chances of success also way easier. If the dungeon master really wants to increase or decrease the difficulty of the check, they can always make you roll a greater or fewer number of d6s. But that’s it. It’s a simple and elegant system that makes handling ability checks a lot easier for players and DMs alike.
But say you like the way skills work in 5th edition D&D just fine. Say you’re not interested in changing it up. That’s fine. Even if you don’t want to use the classic rules for skills in your game, you should still keep this clever mechanic in your DM toolbox because it can come in handy if you ever need a quick way to determine a success or failure for something unusual. Personally, I use it whenever a player wants to do something specific or unorthodox that isn’t covered within the rules. It’s quick, easy, and fun to throw in as a way to mix up the monotonous “roll a d20” for everything. Try it!
Keep Playing More Games
One of the greatest things about the 5th edition of D&D is its modular nature – it is extremely easy to customize elements of the game without significantly impacting the rest of the game’s balance. So don’t be afraid to give these ideas lifted from the pages of other RPGs a shot! You might be surprised by how much fun they can be. And if you find yourself starting to like mixing things up at your D&D table, you don’t have to stop here. Keep on trying new games with an open mind. Always be thinking “what from this system might be fun to borrow,” because you never know where the next best D&D hack might be hiding.
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