D&D 5E Escalating Conflict: a House Rule to curb the amount of death in D&D

BookTenTiger

He / Him
This set of House Rules was inspired by another thread on how the amount of killing and death in D&D can be a little disturbing. This ruleset would be used to encourage characters to try and resolve conflicts without defaulting to killing their enemies.

I don’t see this ruleset being used in a “traditional” hack-n-slash game. And before anyone says “play something other than D&D,” I think one fun aspect of D&D has been its hack-ability. I actively enjoy trying to fit different modes of play onto the ruleset of D&D.

Escalating Conflict is inspired by my very hazy memories of running one or two games of Dogs in the Vineyard. Using this ruleset, conflicts would escalate through one, two, or three phases: Trial, Combat, and Deadly Combat.

Escalating Conflict uses two other House Rules: Morale, and Momentum Dice. Extra Experience Points (or even treasure) can replace Momentum Dice, but because I don’t use XP in my games I’d use Momentum Dice.

Morale: All enemies have a Morale Score of 4, 5, or 6. When an enemy is at half hit-points, they make a Morale Check at the start of their turn, rolling 1d6. If an enemy rolls above their Morale, they are defeated, either surrendering, fleeing, or becoming unconscious. Otherwise, their Morale is reduced by 1.

Momentum Dice: At the end of certain conflicts, all characters will be rewarded a d4 Momentum Die. This die can be used to add to an Attack Roll, Ability Check, or Saving Throw. Once used, the Momentum Die is lost. Characters also lose their Momentum Die during a Long Rest. If a character completes another conflict without using their Momentum Die, it “grows” to the next die size: d4 > d6 > d8 > d10 > d12 > d20 > d20+d4, etc.


Escalating Stages of Conflict

These three stages of conflict describe and set boundaries for how characters engage with their enemies. All conflicts start as a Trial, then can be escalated to Combat and Deadly Combat. Conflicts cannot be de-escalated; even if a Combat becomes a Social Encounter, the consequences still apply.

Stage 1: Trial

All conflicts begin in the Trial Stage. This is usually a time during which the characters are trying to resolve or avoid a conflict without bloodshed, perhaps by sneaking past an enemy, tricking a guard, or intimidating their foes.

During the Trial Stage…
  • Initiative might be rolled, or the characters may be acting out of Initiative Order.
  • All combatants have the option to not deal damage when using attacks, spells, or abilities that deal damage (for example, a spell that knocks enemies prone and deals thunder damage could just knock enemies prone.
  • Enemies might make Morale Checks, if the DM finds it appropriate.

If a conflict resolves during the Trial Stage…
  • All characters gain a Momentum Die.
  • All characters gain the benefits of a Short Rest.

Escalation occurs if…
  • A combatant loses Hit Points due to the purposeful actions of another combatant.

Stage 2: Combat

The Combat Stage involves combatants swinging weapons, casting spells, and using abilities meant to harm their foes. This form of combat, however, is meant to injure or intimidate enemies, not necessarily end their lives.

During the Combat Stage…
  • Initiative is rolled.
  • Combatants who reach 0 Hit Points are unconscious, but not dying or dead.
  • Enemies who are bloodied (at ½ Hit Points) start making Morale Checks at the start of their turns.

If a conflict resolves during the Combat Stage…
  • All characters gain an Escalation Die.

Escalation occurs if…
  • A combatant (or more than one) falls to 0 Hit Points.

Stage 3: Deadly Combat

The Deadly Combat Stage is the most dangerous stage, and often has a quick and bloody resolution. Sometimes characters, or even enemies, may flee or surrender at the start of the Deadly Combat Stage rather than face fatal consequences.

During the Deadly Combat Stage…
  • All damage is doubled.
  • Characters who reach 0 Hit Points are dying.
  • Enemies who reach 0 Hit Points are dead.
  • All enemies make Morale Checks at the start of their turns.


So, as an example...

A group is trying to get through a door guarded by some troglodytes. The encounter starts as a Trial. The characters are encouraged to try stealth, negotiation, deception, intimidation, or trickery. If they have abilities that cause damage, they can choose to cause no damage. If they succeed, they gain a Momentum Die (or bonus XP) and the effects of a Short Rest.

If damage is dealt (by the characters or troglodytes), then the conflict escalates to Combat. Initiative is rolled. When the troglodytes reach half-hit points, they start rolling Morale Checks. If the conflict ends (with the Troglodytes failing Morale Checks, or being frightened off, or hog-tied, or whatever), the adventurers gain a Momentum Die (or bonus XP).

If one of the troglodytes, or one of the characters, falls to 0 HP, that combatant is unconscious (but not dead or dying), and the scene escalates to Deadly Combat. Now if there are no other combatants (for example, all the troglodytes are brought to 0 HP by a Fireball Spell), the conflict has ended and escalation doesn't occur.

During Deadly Combat, all damage dealt is doubled. The Troglodytes make Morale Checks, even if they are not at half hit points. Combatants who reach 0 Hit Points are dead or dying.



What do you think? What would a campaign with this House Rule look like? Do you think it would meet the goal of focusing play on non-deadly combat? What changes would you make? What have you tried in your games?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
This is really cool! Personally, I would definitely use XP instead of momentum dice, but I like that you thought about how to reward resolving violent conflict with minimal bloodshed even if XP isn’t being used. I’m also not a big fan of the free short rest after resolving a combat in phase 1, but again, I could increase the XP further instead. This is definitely something I would consider trying (though I don’t think it would be well suited to my upcoming Ravenloft game).
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
It all seems needlessly complicated, but I do like the idea of bringing in morale checks.

Combat in my games goes the way it goes. If the players are bloodthirsty or slinging fireballs and such like there's no tomorrow, enemies burn. (And sometimes players.) If they are in a more peaceful mood, negotiation can commence forthwith. I don't deliberately steer encounters into combat, but I don't sugarcoat combat when it happens. Usually, in a medieval sort of setting, when the swords come out, someone's gonna get kilt.
 

Stage 3: Deadly Combat

The Deadly Combat Stage is the most dangerous stage, and often has a quick and bloody resolution. Sometimes characters, or even enemies, may flee or surrender at the start of the Deadly Combat Stage rather than face fatal consequences.

During the Deadly Combat Stage…
  • All damage is doubled.
  • Characters who reach 0 Hit Points are dying.
  • Enemies who reach 0 Hit Points are dead.
  • All enemies make Morale Checks at the start of their turns.

Will non-damaging spells become more dangerous somehow?

I have a general issue with morale checks. They don't apply to PCs, and they can be very easily triggered by an "alpha strike" right at the beginning of combat. (It's worse if you can make enemies run away just be defeating their leader.) Morale is important in real life, I just don't think it really suits a small scale combat system. Morale rules in D&D were based on (I believe) Chainmail rules, which were similar to large-scale combat.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
It all seems needlessly complicated, but I do like the idea of bringing in morale checks.

Combat in my games goes the way it goes. If the players are bloodthirsty or slinging fireballs and such like there's no tomorrow, enemies burn. (And sometimes players.) If they are in a more peaceful mood, negotiation can commence forthwith. I don't deliberately steer encounters into combat, but I don't sugarcoat combat when it happens. Usually, in a medieval sort of setting, when the swords come out, someone's gonna get kilt.
I mean, the core idea is, at the start of combat, everyone has the option not to deal damage with their hits. Once someone chooses to do damage, everyone loses that option, but they’re dealing “non-lethal” damage - 0 HP is a knockout instead of a kill. Once someone gets knocked out, 0 HP becomes a kill for the rest of the combat. Award bonus XP or some other appropriate reward for each stage before 3 a combat is in when resolved.

Fundamentally it’s pretty straightforward. The system for morale checks and momentum dice complicates it a bit, but those could easily be streamlined. I’m not even sure either is strictly essential to the system. The real innovation here is the three phases of escalating combat lethality.
 

Argyle King

Legend
The second step mentions "escalation" Dice.

What does that do?

In circumstances where a foe is something (demon, undead, etc) against deadly force is immediately necessary, is it possible to skip to the last stage?
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
The second step mentions "escalation" Dice.

What does that do?

In circumstances where a foe is something (demon, undead, etc) against deadly force is immediately necessary, is it possible to skip to the last stage?
Whoops, that's what I was originally calling Momentum Dice!

I guess you could switch to Deadly Combat, bit I don't imagine games using this House Rule would have those situations.
 

Argyle King

Legend
I like the concept.

I'd be interested in seeing how it works in play.

During stage 3, "all damage" is doubled. Does that include things such as Smite and Sneak Attack?

On a critical, does the doubling of damage occur before or after the crit adds damage?
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
It all seems needlessly complicated, but I do like the idea of bringing in morale checks.

Combat in my games goes the way it goes. If the players are bloodthirsty or slinging fireballs and such like there's no tomorrow, enemies burn. (And sometimes players.) If they are in a more peaceful mood, negotiation can commence forthwith. I don't deliberately steer encounters into combat, but I don't sugarcoat combat when it happens. Usually, in a medieval sort of setting, when the swords come out, someone's gonna get kilt.
If you want a simpler explanation, it would be:

1. Solve a conflict without HP loss, get 2 rewards.

2. Solve a conflict with HP loss but no death, get 1 reward.

3. Solve a problem by killing, get 0 rewards.

Everything else is just rules to help the reward system.

And again, remember this is a concept for a House Rule to support a specific style of play.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I like the concept.

I'd be interested in seeing how it works in play.

During stage 3, "all damage" is doubled. Does that include things such as Smite and Sneak Attack?

On a critical, does the doubling of damage occur before or after the crit adds damage?
That's my First Draft idea.

I figure Deadly Combat is the stage when the two Samurai draw their swords and charge each other. One of them is going to squirt a bunch of blood and fall over, and then combat is pretty much over.
 

I see no one mentioned it yet, but The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an adventure written to be fully played without combat or death. So it may have some systems you can use for yours.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I see no one mentioned it yet, but The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an adventure written to be fully played without combat or death. So it may have some systems you can use for yours.
I've got to admit, I just love creating my own systems.

I'm not sure I would even use Escalating Conflict, but there's a part of me that hears of a challenge and then starts coming up with new systems to solve it.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I like the concept.

I'd be interested in seeing how it works in play.

During stage 3, "all damage" is doubled. Does that include things such as Smite and Sneak Attack?

On a critical, does the doubling of damage occur before or after the crit adds damage?
Yeah, it would be fun to run something classic like Sunless Citadel using this, just see how it plays out differently.
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
I mean, the core idea is, at the start of combat, everyone has the option not to deal damage with their hits. Once someone chooses to do damage, everyone loses that option, but they’re dealing “non-lethal” damage - 0 HP is a knockout instead of a kill. Once someone gets knocked out, 0 HP becomes a kill for the rest of the combat. Award bonus XP or some other appropriate reward for each stage before 3 a combat is in when resolved.

Fundamentally it’s pretty straightforward. The system for morale checks and momentum dice complicates it a bit, but those could easily be streamlined. I’m not even sure either is strictly essential to the system. The real innovation here is the three phases of escalating combat lethality.
If I'm not mistaken, you can do 'real' damage for an entire fight and then opt for a non-killing blow at the end, so this seems like an unnecessary addon. The reason I remembered that is because I house ruled it a long time ago to account for any non-martial class character accidentally killing (misjudging the knockout) if they fail a DC 8 save on that final hit. Martials don't have to make the save- they're trained fighters and can measure the focus of a blow properly.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
If I'm not mistaken, you can do 'real' damage for an entire fight and then opt for a non-killing blow at the end, so this seems like an unnecessary addon. The reason I remembered that is because I house ruled it a long time ago to account for any non-martial class character accidentally killing (misjudging the knockout) if they fail a DC 8 save on that final hit. Martials don't have to make the save- they're trained fighters and can measure the focus of a blow properly.
With this house rule, there are slightly different rules for damage in each stage:

Trial: you have the option to deal damage or not (for abilities that have an effect as well as damage)

Combat: Deal damage as normal, and the first combatant to reach 0 hp is unconscious

Deadly Combat: all damage is doubled

So the idea is that even in the Combat stage you are trying to find options other than killing your foes, because once the first enemy is reduced to 0 hp things become really deadly.
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
With this house rule, there are slightly different rules for damage in each stage:

Trial: you have the option to deal damage or not (for abilities that have an effect as well as damage)

Combat: Deal damage as normal, and the first combatant to reach 0 hp is unconscious

Deadly Combat: all damage is doubled

So the idea is that even in the Combat stage you are trying to find options other than killing your foes, because once the first enemy is reduced to 0 hp things become really deadly.

I get it- you are looking for alternatives to reduce in-game carnage. It's cool.
 


Li Shenron

Legend
I think it's an interesting system, worth elaborating further.

I'm not sure I'd like morale checks every round after reaching half HP, if that's the case. I'd prefer at least to limit them when being hit, although in many cases it might still mean every round.

I have a general issue with morale checks. They don't apply to PCs
The typical difficulty of morale checks is that failing them result in fleeing or surrendering at DM's choice, and players often don't like being told what their PC have to do.

To make it work for PCs, I would establish specific conditions, the most obvious of which is "frightened". It has a very different feeling being told "your PC is now frightened" versus "your PC flees/surrender". But being frightened means you will be ineffective and implicitly suggests that ending combat might be best.

Actually in 5e when frightened you can't even move towards the source of fright. If this is too much when the condition is not forced by magic, we can consider a new condition specific for having failed a morale check, "frightened" is just the first idea and the point is using a technical condition instead of a forced behaviour.
 

TheSword

Legend
I think it’s a very interesting idea.

When it comes to morale checks I wonder how that impacts on the rest of the game.

Let’s say you’re fighting those trogs and three or four of them decide to run. Are they now fleeing for their lives, or just until they get to a place where they aren’t under immediate threat. Do you envision them joining other encounters or fleeing for the hills never to be seen again. Or worst of all does every combat now turn into a chase scene… dragging combat out even longer than it already is? Or perhaps they surrender, but how do you decided if something surrenders or decides to run?
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I think it’s a very interesting idea.

When it comes to morale checks I wonder how that impacts on the rest of the game.

Let’s say you’re fighting those trogs and three or four of them decide to run. Are they now fleeing for their lives, or just until they get to a place where they aren’t under immediate threat. Do you envision them joining other encounters or fleeing for the hills never to be seen again. Or worst of all does every combat now turn into a chase scene… dragging combat out even longer than it already is? Or perhaps they surrender, but how do you decided if something surrenders or decides to run?
In this sort of game, I imagine there would have to be some sort of Defeated condition. Enemies that are Defeated are no longer encountered, and no longer threaten the community.
 

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top