Options_and_House_Rules

Tweaking the Game: Options and House Rules

Tweaking the Game: Options and House Rules

First I want to make clear you in no way need to change the game of D&D. Adjusting the game rules is optional. If you’re a new DM or have a difficult time holding the rules in your head (no judgment, there are a lot) go ahead and stick to the default rules.

Moving Forward!

Here are the official, published Wizards of the Coast options that may affect your worldbuilding.

Backgrounds

This is the number one way to marry your worldbuilding to each PC. Add, alter, and remove background options to align PCs to your game world. Be mindful of custom background features and how they might be over/under powered. You can find guidelines to customizing backgrounds on DMG, 289.

Background Components

  • 1 Feature
  • 2 Skill Proficiencies
  • 2 Language/Tool Proficiencies
  • Equipment Package Related to the Background
 

Downtime Activities

Downtime activities can be a powerful way to emphasize in-game time passing. The downside is most downtime activities take considerable time. You’ll want to slow how fast the threats move in your world to compensate.
 
Downtime activities reinforce options like slow natural healing and gritty realism rests. These time dilating options give characters plenty of time to complete downtime activities.
 
Some options are definitely more potent than others. Consider trimming the list of what options are available by location and by the rules of your world. You can find downtime activity options in the PHB, DMG, and XGE.

Psychological Changes

  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Morale
The core assumption of D&D is heroic fantasy. The player characters are better than average people. At its heart D&D engages power fantasy. And nothing ruins a player’s power fantasy faster than taking that power away.
But, this can be a powerful tool if you’re wanting to run a darker, grittier game. You’ll want to get the players on board with these options before doing the groundwork.
 
You might consider rules system that better focuses on the psychological then D&D.

Feats

Surprise! Feats are an optional rule! You would never know considering how it’s treated in the official D&D publications. It’s the baked-in option and assumed for every game I’ve run across.
 
Consider what feats you want to add, alter, or remove with how it fits in your world. All feats are not created equal. Consider a rogue who has the Dungeon Delver and Observant feats.
  • Advantage on rolls to find secret doors
  • Advantage on saving throws versus traps
  • Resistance to trap damage
  • Travel at normal pace while searching for traps
  • +5 Bonus to passive perception and passive investigation scores
That rogue is going to be a thorn in your side when the party enters a dungeon. The rogue dramatically reduces the impact of dungeon secrets. It may push you towards a combat heavy, meatgrinder combat approach to dungeons.
 
More importantly what’s passive investigation? The idea that pops to my mind is when a bored person (usually a child) starts messing with something as a fidget.

“I’m not really looking for traps on this door, can I use my passive investigation instead?”

Magic Item Availability

The core assumption of Dungeons and Dragons is that magic items are very rare. The most common magic items are consumable like healing potions and spell scrolls. In the DMG the starting equipment doesn’t include a magic item until level five.
 
If you fill your game with magic items the player characters will be more powerful than their level suggests. Powerful magic items may even make some of your challenge’s trivial.
 
Reducing the amount of magic items in your game has much less consequence. Fifth edition continues the assumption that magic items are rare. PCs can’t buy magic swords at the corner store. Fifth edition’s emphasis on flat math downplays the necessity for a PC to have +3 armor at X level.
 
The major challenges of a low magic game:
  • Healing potions for healer-less groups
  • The many monsters resistant to non-magical damage
You’ll need to keep your martial PCs from falling behind in the combat curve. You’ll also want some way to for the PCs heal in combat.
 
Consider a consumable blade oil that can be applied to a weapon or X number of ammunition. The blade oil functions as the Magic Weapon spell.
 
Consider making the Healer feat a function of the healer’s kit. It’s scaling, non-magical healing.

Pro Tip

The Healer feat is WAY more powerful than Cure Wounds and it scales. At 20th level it provides 1d6+24 HP as an action that doesn’t take a spell slot. I’m currently playing a cleric and it is primo. Imagine your cleric using spells for buffing and damage instead of healing.

Rest Alterations

⦁ Epic Heroism
⦁ Gritty Realism
 
Altering the way D&D’s short and long rests work isn’t the worst idea in the world. One of the drawbacks of the 5e rules as written is a short rest is one hour. But any situation the PCs are safe enough to rest for an hour, they’re safe enough to rest for eight hours. This short changes classes that recharge abilities on a short rest.
 
The Epic Heroism has the PCs ready to fight with every conceivable resource every fight. So if you want a game with fewer but more epic set piece battles this works well. But you won’t be able to whittle down the party’s resources over time with small skirmishes.
 
On the other end of the spectrum is the Gritty Realism variant. Non-magical hit points are hard to come by and resting takes a long time. Don’t be surprised when the players are gun shy after a moderate battle. Their abilities, spells, and hit dice are a limited resource. They don’t know when they’ll be able to take an uninterrupted extended rest of one week.
 
Running many, small combat encounters harries the party and makes them feel like they’re always in danger. It will also help your PCs better manage their resources. They’re more likely to rely on cantrips and weapon wielders to pull them through a small fight. Only dipping into spell slots when things turn dire. Fleeing combat is also a more recognizable strategy for the players.

Healing Changes

  • Lingering Injuries
  • Healer’s Kit Dependency
  • Healing Surges
  • Slow Natural Healing
Only one option presented in the DMG is actually helpful to the players. The Healing Surges variant allows PCs to heal themselves in combat.
 
In fourth edition everyone had access to the 5e Fighter’s second wind ability. It wasn’t good healing, but if your cleric was on the other side of the fight and you didn’t have a healing potion… one hit point was better than unconscious.
 
If you plan to run a game where healing magic is rare and reduced natural healing this would be a good option.
 
Healer’s Kit Dependency is a do-nothing option. It only ensures the group will carry at least one healer’s kit per PC. The cost is negligible once the characters have a few levels under their belt. Unless you’re tracking encumbrance at the granular level it has no effect.
 
Slow Natural Healing is a variant that creates a situation where the party wants to take multiple long rests in a row. The big question from a DM point of view is how do you make that entertaining? Extended rests are a good way to promote role play between player characters.
 
In the variant RAW, Lingering Injuries could be devastating to a game. If you roll a lot of crits behind the screen a PC can be easily hamstrung. Lose a hand and the two-handed melee or ranged focused fighter loses functionality. This variant is brutal when piled on top of being KO’d in a combat encounter.
 
As a consideration many conditions in this variant can only be cured by Regenerate, a 7th level spell. That requires a 13th level cleric. If you’re starting a campaign from level one, avoid it. Or you could spend the time to tweak the variant’s conditions to make them more surmountable at low level.

Advanced Technology

  • Firearms
  • Explosives
  • Alien Technology
Don’t add advanced technology to your world, just don’t. The crossbow expert and sharpshooter feats already push power to ranged combat. Don’t introduce even more powerful ranged combat weaponry into that mess.
 
If you’re deadset on adding one of these options consider a different rules system. It will serve you better in the long run.

Custom Content & House Rules

If you’re looking to involve custom content or house rules in your D&D campaign there are a few things to keep in mind.
  1. Give thought to how changes will affect gameplay.
  2. Is Dungeons & Dragons the best rules system for the game you’re trying to create? D&D is built for heroic fantasy games with a heavy emphasis on combat. There may be a different rules system better suited to the type of game you’re trying to make.
  3. Make your players are aware and understand the houserules BEFORE they make characters.
And don’t forget this golden rule:

Limitations over Limitless

I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”
– Truman Capote

My house rules and variants I’d like to use and why

Language Changes

I’m talking about…
  • No Common
  • Extra Language Profiency for script literacy
  • Custom languages
If you’re going to include Common, I don’t even know why they include languages in RPGs. Also, the implementation of a universal language is silly.
  1. There is no universal language.
  2. Literacy isn’t fundamental. People have to be taught to read and write. PHB, 123 shows what script is used for each language.
  3. You don’t have to search long on the internet to find someone talking about how you should avoid racial monocultures. But we’re supposed to believe that all elves speak the same language? Humans don’t. Language is regional, not racial.

Limited/Custom Backgrounds

Backgrounds are great and they can add a lot to your game. They’re a great way to get player buy-in on your worldbuilding when its married to the PCs right out the gate.
 
I want immediate player buy-in. I want to help my player’s backgrounds to feel grounded in the world.

Always Passive Insight & Perception

Making Insight and Perception a passive defense (like AC or 4e’s saves) helps keep the game flowing.
 
It cuts down on players repeating checks until someone rolls high enough for them to feel certain they aren’t missing anything.

Time Dilation

Different time rules for Dungeon, Travel, Town.

Dungeon

  • Short Rest – 1 hour
  • Long Rest – 8 hours

Travel

  • Short Rest – 8 hours
  • Long Rest – 24 hours

Town

  • Short Rest – 24 hours
  • Long Rest – 1 week
This makes travel more strenuous on the party. They’re less likely to go nova on encounters while traveling or in town.

Downtime Activities

Here’s a quick history lesson, pirates didn’t bury much treasure.
They gained money quickly and spent it just as fast. My assumption is adventurers operate in the same feast or famine mentality. You do a couple adventures, gain a fat purse of coin and live the good life until it runs out.
 
That gives plenty of time for downtime activities and gives the players time to engage with the world and RP with each other.

Travel Alterations

D&D is two thirds combat.
 
For better or worse the system does little to provide mechanics or a framework for the other two tiers of play. As someone who enjoys the outdoors backpacking, canoeing, climbing, and orienteering, it always feels like RPGs are written by people who don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.
 
Exposure and illness are way more likely to kill a traveler than combat. I want to introduce travel and camping duties. I also have a different way of measuring the toll of travel. I’ll explain this in a different blog post.

Resource Die

A less tedious way of doing the book keeping of D&D. I don’t want to hand wave it completely.
 
d10>d8>d6>d4>1>0. It’s useful for tracking
  • Ammunition
  • Food/Water Rations
  • Spell Components
  • Miscellaneous Gear/Items
I’ll dive into this topic more in a different blog post.

Next Time…

I’ll dive into the Worldbuilding Abstract with Gods & Religions.
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City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Communities
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
Alternative
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!

Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend

5e Character Generation pt II

Welcome back for part two of the character generation process. If you haven’t read part 1, hop back to the previous post. This series of posts are developed in conjunction with Ryndaria.com. So jump over there to see the different

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