Difficulty Settings for Advanced Players

OB1

Jedi Master
I got to thinking about how most modern video games have several difficulty settings that players can choose to up the challenge for skilled players. For myself, I feel pretty good when I beat a game on normal, but have dropped down to easy/story mode when I just don't want to put the time in to master the mechanics of a particular game (because I spend most of my free time playing D&D these days :) ) So, I began to wonder if a few easy to implement tweaks to the 5e ruleset could provide the Hard and Legendary experiences of video games to give a new challenge to those who feel they have mastered 5e.

The below is my first draft of this. These rules would need to be applied globally to a group, and are meant to be used with WotC pre-gens as written (since a DM in a home brew can always adjust difficulty for a particular group). The purpose is to increase the need for CharOp, Party Synergy and individual and group tactics in encounters.

Interested to hear from the community if these rules would result in the desired effect and whether you would consider using them. Suggestions for changes are appreciated, just keep in mind that any additions or changes should be very easy to implement in play. I'm not looking to bog down the flow of play with these, just make every decision more consequential.

Hard Mode
Ability Scores - Players must take the following standard Array. Additionally, 18 becomes the top score for an ability via ASI.
6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13

Monster HP - All monsters gain an additional 20% to their HP

Death Saves - In addition to the regular rules for death saves, you make a death save when you drop to 0 HP at DC 10 or the Damage Taken in the attack (whichever is higher). A Failed Death Save requires 1 hour of rest (with nothing more than light activity) followed by a successful DC 15 heal check to be removed. Lesser Restoration can also remove a failed death save. You cannot benefit from a short or long rest while you have a failed death save. You add your con mod to the number of failed death saves you can have before dying.

Legendary Mode
Ability Scores - Players must take the following standard Array. Additionally, 16 becomes the top score for an ability via ASI.
6, 8, 10, 10, 10, 11

Monster HP - All monsters are set to their maximum HP.

Death Saves - In addition to the regular rules for death saves, you makeake a death save when you drop to 0 HP at DC 10 or the Damage Taken in the attack (whichever is higher). A Failed Death Save requires 8 hours of rest (with nothing more than light activity) followed by a successful DC 15 heal check to be removed. Greater Restoration can also remove a failed death save. You cannot benefit from a short or long rest while you have a failed death save. You add your con mod to the number of failed death saves you can have before dying.
 

Larrin

Entropic Good
Needing to rest to clear the failed death saves has the side effect of not only perhaps making the game harder, but also making it more boring. "Because this game is hard you need to spend more time doing literally nothing" is not a line of text many players want to see. I see what you're trying to do, death fails not going away but stacking up more will definitely make combat more deadly, but I think "All failed death saves are only cleared after a short rest" and "all death saves are only cleared after a long rest" would be less annoying to play with, though even then you're motivating you players to take more rests. Is that what you want hard mode to be? One fight, 1 death save failed, everyone stops for 8 hours. Not the intent in design, but a potential reaction the players will have.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Is that what you want hard mode to be? One fight, 1 death save failed, everyone stops for 8 hours. Not the intent in design, but a potential reaction the players will have.
That's a major thing to consider with role playing games - for any rules change that includes restriction of resources, management of those resources will become a priority. And the basic way D&D manages resources is with time spent inactive, which is't a whole lot of fun.

You might find pressing on resources from the other side to have fewer inducements to inactivity - make the fights harder, rather than change how the PCs regain resources.
 

dave2008

Hero
I like the idea, but I would go about it differently.

1) Cap ability scores: 18 max (I do this + racial bonus in my games).
2) Reduce hit points: Keep level 1 the same, but every level after only gets rolled HP or average HP (no con bonus).
3) Death saves: take a page from PF2e and each time you need to make a death save it gives you the wounded condition. The effect being it reduces the number of death saves you get moving forward (tied into whatever rest or healing mechanic you prefer). So first time to 0 you get 3 saves. 2nd time to 0 you get 2 saves. 3rd time to 0 you get one save. 4th time to 0 = death.

Options #2 + #3 really makes for a more difficult game. The beauty is you just need to adjust player HP, not every monster.

EDIT: Personally I would still probably bump monster damage, but i'm wicked that way.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
What if instead of tracking number of failed death saves, failing a death save just gives you a level of exhaustion on hard mode, or two levels on legendary. You could also have an easy mode or story mode where a character that falls to 0 is stable and only accumulates death save failures if they take damage while at 0.
 

dave2008

Hero
What if instead of tracking number of failed death saves, failing a death save just gives you a level of exhaustion on hard mode,...
I like that idea, but I would couple that with a reduced number of saves as done in PF2e for "legendary" mode. Alternately, legendary mode could make the death save be a DC 15 check with failure adding a level of exhaustion.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
What if instead of tracking number of failed death saves, failing a death save just gives you a level of exhaustion on hard mode, or two levels on legendary. You could also have an easy mode or story mode where a character that falls to 0 is stable and only accumulates death save failures if they take damage while at 0.
I kind of like this idea even in "normal" mode. A failed death save could result in a level of exhaustion, a natural 1 would be 2 levels of exhaustion, and a natural 20 would remove a level of exhaustion as well as stabilizing the character.

Maybe characters don't die at three failures, but instead continue until 6 levels (normal death through exhaustion) or stabilize.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Maybe characters don't die at three failures, but instead continue until 6 levels (normal death through exhaustion) or stabilize.
Yeah, I figured this would be the case to help balance out the fact that this rule would give death saves a lingering effect.


I kind of like this idea even in "normal" mode. A failed death save could result in a level of exhaustion, a natural 1 would be 2 levels of exhaustion, and a natural 20 would remove a level of exhaustion as well as stabilizing the character.
I would hesitate to use it in “normal mode” because it creates a pretty hardcore death spiral effect. Because exhaustion levels are so difficult to remove, this would make dropping to 0 in a dungeon or other place where taking a long rest is a big risk a slow death sentence. Of course, you could combat this by making potions of vitality much more plentiful.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I like that idea, but I would couple that with a reduced number of saves as done in PF2e for "legendary" mode. Alternately, legendary mode could make the death save be a DC 15 check with failure adding a level of exhaustion.
Oh, I like the idea of adjusting the death save DC much better than adjusting the number of exhaustion levels gained upon failure! Good suggestion!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The Meat Grinder mode in ToA had it where PCs would earn +10% XP/GP, but death saving throws were a success on a 15 or higher instead of 10.
 

OB1

Jedi Master
I kind of like this idea even in "normal" mode. A failed death save could result in a level of exhaustion, a natural 1 would be 2 levels of exhaustion, and a natural 20 would remove a level of exhaustion as well as stabilizing the character.

Maybe characters don't die at three failures, but instead continue until 6 levels (normal death through exhaustion) or stabilize.
The problem with this is it tends to lead to a death spiral, but ultimately it does do the same thing as the non cleared death saves. That is, it makes dropping to 0 HP a major issue. The idea is that your party should work hard to make sure no one ever drops to 0 HP, meaning spending healing resources earlier or fleeing from fights once you are below 50% hp. This completely changes approach to combat and also can change the way the party approaches exploration and social pillars.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
No sure it will produce fun play.
It will produce single ability glass canon that die frequently.
Simply remove ASI from standard game may have a better impact. Or force feat choice at level 4 and 6.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
Yeah, I figured this would be the case to help balance out the fact that this rule would give death saves a lingering effect.

I would hesitate to use it in “normal mode” because it creates a pretty hardcore death spiral effect. Because exhaustion levels are so difficult to remove, this would make dropping to 0 in a dungeon or other place where taking a long rest is a big risk a slow death sentence. Of course, you could combat this by making potions of vitality much more plentiful.
In normal mode it would make a big difference at lower levels, but at the point we're at (roughly 10th), characters rarely ever drop to 0 hp--maybe once or twice (maybe!) a session, if that. In fact, I know yesterday it never happened at all.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
I think the better way to produce "hard mode" is simply through putting in tougher challenges.

Changing the gameplay itself chsnges a lot more about how you play than its difficulty?

As for penalties on reaching zero hp, reaching zero hp in my experience is more commonly due to lucky crits at key times or other characters not doing stuff, making poor choices. Punishing the one who hut zero seems rather arbitrary.
 

snickersnax

Explorer
What if instead of tracking number of failed death saves, failing a death save just gives you a level of exhaustion on hard mode, or two levels on legendary. You could also have an easy mode or story mode where a character that falls to 0 is stable and only accumulates death save failures if they take damage while at 0.
I do +1 point of exhaustion every time you roll a death save regardless of success.
 

snickersnax

Explorer
Make Monsters Tougher:
Use HD instead of CR to determine proficiency bonus.
Let monsters be proficient in all saves. (that way you don't have too look them up and wonder why isn't this monster proficient in ____ save???)
 

dnd4vr

Hero
Make Monsters Tougher:
Use HD instead of CR to determine proficiency bonus.
Let monsters be proficient in all saves. (that way you don't have too look them up and wonder why isn't this monster proficient in ____ save???)
So true! Monsters aren't proficient in half the saves they should be.
 

aco175

Adventurer
It seems that 5e already has easy mode with basic rules in the box sets. Then you get the PHB and can choose more options for a more normal mode. Prior editions had an advanced PHB or more difficult mode where you had more options and I could see something like this for 5e to give those that played for many years some options, but I would like to leave the other books alone. Monsters are easy to scale and I mostly add 25% HP already and this is an easy change to make things harder.

I'm not sure on making the PCs weaker makes the game funner. I think most people would rather go the other way and just make the monsters harder. If you wish to play meatgrinder mode then you get the same PC, but the goblins now have 2 attacks and orcs do 2d10 damage.
 
I'm not looking to bog down the flow of play with these, just make every decision more consequential.
I think you're missing some factors...

Hard Mode
Spell save DCs are 6+CasterSTATmod+Slot Level.
Casting a spell requires Concentration and provokes an opportunity attack.
Wizards Clerics & Druids prep spells directly into slots.
Rituals still consume a slot, but it can be a slot with a different spell prepped into it, and performing a ritual does not require concentration.

Legendary Mode
In addition to the above.
Using a cantrip costs a slot, but you can use the cantrip at-will until you recover the slot. Cantrips that scale work at the level at which you first gained the slot used.
While Concentrating, all attacks have advantage on you, you have disadvantage on all rolls not related to the spell being cast or maintained.
Spells have a casting time equal to their level. They are completed on your initiative count less casting time. This means a readied attack can interrupt a non-cantrip spell, and enemies close to you in initiative might move or attack you while you're casting.
Slots at each spell level are halved for all casters.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
There are a lot of tweaks that can be done to set the game to hard or legendary mode, and obviously you'd want player buy-in before doing so. There are two ways you can do this: adjusting the encounters or adjusting the player rules. Adjusting the encounters is a lot easier, since the players may not even be aware of it, while changing player rules will have an obvious and immediate impact. My normal game runs on Hard mode, because I design adventures in the AD&D style of "how the world would be," rather then the modern "encounters" setup, pretty much ignoring the encounter guidelines.

My Hard Mode suggestions:
  • Monsters have 75% HP instead of 50% HP
  • Resting has timeline consequences, making future encounters harder as enemies adjust
  • Use more monsters, rather than a few powerful ones (ignore the xp multiplier from the DMG)
  • Average Encounter is Hard difficulty, with up to x2 Deadly as an option
  • Monsters use tactics and optimize terrain when possible

My Legendary Mode Suggestions:
  • Monsters have 100% HP
  • Resting has timeline consequences, making future encounters harder as enemies adjust
  • Use lots more monsters, rather than a few powerful ones (ignore the xp multiplier from the DMG)
  • Average Encounter is Deadly difficulty, with up to x3 Deadly as an option
  • Monsters use tactics, optimize terrain when possible, and focus fire on 1 PC at a time
 
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