D&D 5E Making Combat Mean Something [+]

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Best way to fix that would be to introduce timeline penalties.
Thing is, for a single adventure that's fine; but in a longer campaign always having timeline penalties and deadlines in every adventure really gets to be both tedious and annoying from the player side; to the point that it quickly becomes very tempting to have the characters just chuck those adventures and go find something else to do in the setting.
 

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jgsugden

Legend
...So the alternative is to make combat a greater challenge. In my case by making it so that at 0 hp while not dead necessarily (as in earlier editions) you are essentially battered. At that point the party must re-evaluate their behavior and come up with another idea or risk death of one or more characters.

I totally take on board @Ruin Explorer and @Flamestrike ’s feeling that this disproportionally affects martials but I think that is lessened by using One D&D playtest and ensuring that the encounter design spreads the pain and makes it harder for one character to easily tank. The role of tank is not a good choice in this kind of campaign essentially.

The alternative is to leave combat as a fairly weak diversion which little consequence, risk or uncertainty - in essence meaningless.
The other alternative is the one I gave - wherein you have alternative failure conditions other than lack of survival. As in the real world, you don't have to have a risk of death to have a serious situation.

Think of comic book characters. You know they're not going to die fighting a bad guy - but there is a chance the bad guy might do something really bad before they get taken down. They might hurt someone the PCs care about, destory something they care about, steal something and get away, or otherwise give the PCs a meaningful setback.

Think about how a battle changes when the PCs are attacking a dragon in the dragon's lair, or when it is attacking their town, or when it has their ally in a claw. A beholder in the dungeon setting is a threat to any PC - but a beholder slipping into town under the cover of dark is a different story. Low level goblin raiders are an easy threat to a group of 7th level PCs ... But what if they're attacking the mounts of the PCs to kill one to claim food? That could slow the PC's travel significantly if they lose a horse. You can ramp up the threat of an encounter by giving it additional stakes without making it more difficult.

An example from a recent game - the PCs were in their town when a dragon that lived nearby attacked. It was a massive dragon a real nasty threat ... especially when the first thing it did was grab an important NPC in one of its claws before taking to the air. The PCs were not just thinking of how to kill the monster, or how to survive its attacks - they were also trying to figure out how to keep their ally alive. That trick would have worked whether the monster was a manticore, a dragon or a flumph.
 

TheSword

Legend
The other alternative is the one I gave - wherein you have alternative failure conditions other than lack of survival. As in the real world, you don't have to have a risk of death to have a serious situation.

Think of comic book characters. You know they're not going to die fighting a bad guy - but there is a chance the bad guy might do something really bad before they get taken down. They might hurt someone the PCs care about, destory something they care about, steal something and get away, or otherwise give the PCs a meaningful setback.

Think about how a battle changes when the PCs are attacking a dragon in the dragon's lair, or when it is attacking their town, or when it has their ally in a claw. A beholder in the dungeon setting is a threat to any PC - but a beholder slipping into town under the cover of dark is a different story. Low level goblin raiders are an easy threat to a group of 7th level PCs ... But what if they're attacking the mounts of the PCs to kill one to claim food? That could slow the PC's travel significantly if they lose a horse. You can ramp up the threat of an encounter by giving it additional stakes without making it more difficult.

An example from a recent game - the PCs were in their town when a dragon that lived nearby attacked. It was a massive dragon a real nasty threat ... especially when the first thing it did was grab an important NPC in one of its claws before taking to the air. The PCs were not just thinking of how to kill the monster, or how to survive its attacks - they were also trying to figure out how to keep their ally alive. That trick would have worked whether the monster was a manticore, a dragon or a flumph.
All those things are very good and should be worked into adventures.

Though I’m a little unsure. Are you saying it’s ok for PCs to be invulnerable, because That is an alternative way of challenging them?

Because I can’t see how the game wouldn’t be better if those conditions you mentioned applied … and the PCs were vulnerable. In otherwise, isn’t Superman far more interesting when people are at risk and Kryptonite is on the cards.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
All those things are very good and should be worked into adventures.

Though I’m a little unsure. Are you saying it’s ok for PCs to be invulnerable, because That is an alternative way of challenging them?

Because I can’t see how the game wouldn’t be better if those conditions you mentioned applied … and the PCs were vulnerable. In otherwise, isn’t Superman far more interesting when people are at risk and Kryptonite is on the cards.
The thing to remember with Superman is that he is a godlike being who can basically do anything he wants to. However, he limits himself to not killing if he can avoid it, obeying the law where he can, and not ruling the world openly. It would be far easier for him to rid the world of crime, hunger, and natural disasters if he wasn't so focused on being an example, an ideal, and not a god.

Superman's fail state is breaking these rules, but at the same time, every life he fails to save gnaws at him. This is something I think gets ignored a lot in discussions about "how to challenge D&D characters"- there are more ways to lose than "die in combat".

Ideally, every adventure should have win conditions other than "kill all enemies", and it should be possible to win all fights, and still suffer from a Pyhrric victory.

The comic story "What's so funny about truth, justice & the american way", or the animated adaptation, "Superman vs. the Elite" shows what the Man of Steel could do, if he cast aside his limiters- and that vision is terrifying to behold.

You don't need Kryptonite to challenge the Man of Steel, and, in fact, it's lazy writing to lean on that or his "weakness" to magic.
 

TheSword

Legend
The thing to remember with Superman is that he is a godlike being who can basically do anything he wants to. However, he limits himself to not killing if he can avoid it, obeying the law where he can, and not ruling the world openly. It would be far easier for him to rid the world of crime, hunger, and natural disasters if he wasn't so focused on being an example, an ideal, and not a god.

Superman's fail state is breaking these rules, but at the same time, every life he fails to save gnaws at him. This is something I think gets ignored a lot in discussions about "how to challenge D&D characters"- there are more ways to lose than "die in combat".

Ideally, every adventure should have win conditions other than "kill all enemies", and it should be possible to win all fights, and still suffer from a Pyhrric victory.

The comic story "What's so funny about truth, justice & the american way", or the animated adaptation, "Superman vs. the Elite" shows what the Man of Steel could do, if he cast aside his limiters- and that vision is terrifying to behold.

You don't need Kryptonite to challenge the Man of Steel, and, in fact, it's lazy writing to lean on that or his "weakness" to magic.
Ok. But with all due respect Superman is a character in a script/novel/story where an author has written him that way. You can’t force PCs to care and be eaten up inside by other people dying/being disadvantaged. You can write that into a novel, not so practical in a party of 4 adventurers.

I also think that kind of stuff can be overdone. One or two moral quandaries sure, sounds good. Once it’s your go to method of challenging the PCs then I think you have problems. Not least of which is lack of buy in.

I’m not actually looking for the PCs to fail, I want the challenges to matter though and be significant enough to be worthwhile.

Of course the Superman analogy ignores of course the very real fact that many DMs don’t want to run games for supers and the 5e characters invulnerability is a big turn off for them enjoying the game.

So yes, I like what you’re saying but it can’t be the only thread - taking a little from all options is the way forward. Don’t deal in absolutes. That includes A little PC vulnerability.
 
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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Ok. But with all due respect Superman is a character in a script/novel/story where an author has written him that way. You can’t force PCs to care and be eaten up inside by other people dying/being disadvantaged. You can write that into a novel, not so practical in a party of 4 adventurers.

I also think that kind of stuff can be overdone. One or two moral quandaries sure, sounds good. Once it’s your go to method of challenging the PCs then I think you have problems. Not least of which is lack of buy in.

I’m not actually looking for the PCs to fail, I want the challenges to matter though and be significant enough to be worthwhile.

Of course the Superman analogy ignores of course the very real fact that many DMs don’t want to run games for supers and the 5e characters invulnerability is a big turn off for them enjoying the game.

So yes, I like what you’re saying but it can’t be the only thread - taking a little from all options is the way forward. Don’t deal in absolutes. That includes A little PC vulnerability.
Sorry about the Superman rant; I'm a fan of the Big Blue Boy Scout, and I'm used to defending him to people who don't get what makes him tick.

When I look at a high-level 5e character, I don't see someone who is invulnerable. I've got, by design, 4 (3 with a Feat) useless saves, and, at least until D&D ONE (not a .5, not a new edition, we promise!) comes out, you can't even succeed on a 20.

So there's tons of effects that can completely render a character helpless. The problem of course is that there are tons of effects that can completely render a character helpless. As a DM, I've realized that punting players out of being able to actually play the game isn't fun or challenging, and someone who has been exiled to another dimension for 10 rounds, turned to stone, or feebleminded into being unable to properly play their character is going to start reaching for social media and disengage from the proceedings.

To me, the real issue is, that's the entirety of D&D's game play loop. You're either playing or not playing (or at the very least, not playing effectively, if you're buried under a hefty debuff). You can be reduced to the "not playing" state by things you have no control over, like rolling low on a save, or an enemy rolling well on attacks.

Effects that allow you to make choices and engage with your defenses are fairly limited (you have one reaction, Shield takes a slot, Defensive Duelist takes a feat and requires you to build around it), and at the same time, tend to be reviled by some DM's ("He turned a hit into a miss! How dare he manipulate my sacred die rolls! /hyperbole).

DM's are perfectly able to bring the hammer down on any party; they have access to all the enemies, all the spells. Of course, a DM who doesn't use these tools with responsibility might find themselves without players, so many of us have realized that there are tactics technically available to us, but that need to be employed sparingly.

And that's a rough position to be in. You want to feel like your players are challenged, but the game's settings are finicky. Too little, the players joke about your encounters being a snore fest. Too much, and suddenly there's a real risk of the adventure being over.

An example of this is Healing Word. In most encounters, there's multiple enemies. Legendary creatures can have out of turn actions. The whole "knocked him down and they bring him up with 1 hit point" loop would be absolutely laughable if another enemy just knocks you down again before anyone has a chance to throw another heal at you, or the dragon responds to the Healing Word with a tail swipe or something.

DM's could totally do this, but we know what happens if we don't. Not just dead characters, but players rightly irate because their options to prevent this sort of thing are limited. You can't even say "haha, you should have used a good heal" because most of the time, there isn't a good heal!

I know, when I DM, I can stop any smack talking optimizer in his tracks, but I know if I do that often, I won't have players and people will call me a "killer DM" (hell, I've had people say that when I'm not even going out of my way to challenge people!).

Half the time, players in my games get their butts kicked because they actually seem to think they are invincible, and it's their own stupid play decisions that has them hoping to make their death saves. The other half of the time, they have some "I win" card that I would have to literally go out of my way to negate, which annoys me because if I go to that effort, then everyone knows I did it!
 

Having played in a game using very similar rules, my experience is that the death spiral sucks. Once you have got to 0 HP once, your character is so penalised that it is almost certain you will get to 0 HP again, and again.

The practical effect at the table was that as soon as any of our characters got to 0 HP in a combat, that character was essentially out of the combat and whoever was playing them usually tuned out and surfed the web on their smartphone.

Additionally, as soon as that combat was over, we all left the dungeon and went back to town to rest. There was no point in continuing with one or more party members down.

In summary, this rule made the 5-minute workday worse and caused players to check out in the middle of combat.

Seriously, the exhaustion rules in 5E are brutal, especially the recovery process.
 

jgsugden

Legend
...Though I’m a little unsure. Are you saying it’s ok for PCs to be invulnerable, because That is an alternative way of challenging them?
It wasn't my message, but I do believe that you can tell good stories with invulnerable PCs. In comics, the PCs are essentially invulnerable, right? you have the occasional perm death, and a few too many temp deaths ... but for the most part, nobody believes the hero will actually die - yet people like those comics.
Because I can’t see how the game wouldn’t be better if those conditions you mentioned applied … and the PCs were vulnerable. In otherwise, isn’t Superman far more interesting when people are at risk and Kryptonite is on the cards.
If the drama comes from the non-vulnerable storyline aspects - why does it matter if PCs are at risk of death? If the PCs have to figure out how to set off 12 triggers in different parts of a castle in 10 rounds of action - what does it matter if they're going to risk death along the way? The race is the story. I'd argue that introducing a risk of death makes the story worse by distracting from the core drama - like an action movie that throws in fights that do not serve the story and seem random.

D&D is an RPG - a role playing game. Characters play a role in a story. the game is at its best when there is a well constructed story that has good tempo, well set character choices that have impact, and thrills. Violence can provide some of that - and it isn't wise to neglect the strategy game part of D&D - but you don't want to be a one trick pony throwing deadly encounters at the PCs time after time. If every encounter is deadly, a 5th level PC feels as helpless as a low level PC, and so does an 11th or 17th level PC.

In my experience, a hallmark of a really darn tooting great DM is pulling players into the story and getting them excited when the threat is not deadly - but the stakes are high nonetheless. These DMs put the storyline first - and the insanely good ones can do it on the fly so as to allow the PC choices, especially the unexpected ones, to drive the overall storyline in ways that may be unexpected, but still tell that great story.
 

rmcoen

Adventurer
@TheSword , sorry for the late response, but wanted to jump in with a couple other ideas. This is what we do in my and my friend's campaigns: (this is "summarized" as best I can)

1) No-one reveals HP, PCs or monsters. "Fine", "Bruised" (75% or less), "Bloodied" (50% or less), "Battered" (25% or less), and "Crippled" (10% or less).
---- 1b) Death Saves and Dying status are hidden. You don't know until you check.

2) Current health (see #1) matters. At Bloodied, all attacks and actions are -1; Battered is -2, and Crippled is -3. (No defense impairment, or movement loss, for reasons.)

3) Hitting 0hp = gain 1 level of Exhaustion immediately. No matter how many times you hit 0.

4) Injuries: Take 25% (or more) of your MAX HP in a single strike, or a critical hit (cumulative), take a generic Wound. This impairs any magical healing you get (1 per Wound, per application) or HD you spend ("disadvantage" on the HD rolled), and impairs Exhaustion. 25pts of magical healing in one delivery removes 1 Wound (in addition to other effects). (If Wounds > HD... well, we nixed those rules.)

5) Long Rests are weaker. [Extended Rest or Safe Rest provides better results]
5a) Exhaustion recovery requires a CON save DC 8, DC 12 if you have any Wounds. One chance per Long Rest, recover 1 level.
5b) Wound recovery requires a CON save DC 10+#Wounds. One chance per Long Rest, recover 1 Wound.
5c) Healing received is equal to rolling your max HD; remember, 1 HD per Wound is impaired! You can then spend HD for more healing if you choose.

6) Bad luck sucks. Some times RNGesus hates you, and "grittier" systems emphasize those nights. I mitigate all these rules by giving each PC one Fate Point per level. A Fate Point can change a storyline, super-charge a power/spell/action, or be a "Get Out of Death Free" card - the killing blow is expertly avoided, or knocks you clear of the fight, or whatever. You can always rejoin the fight... but max 1 Fate Point per encounter, so if RNGesus really has it out for you, watch out!

[I will be adding Exhaustion impacts to spellcasting: target has advantage on the save. I've seen that suggestion before, and this thread has solidified my opinion on that to be firmly "yes". I have pondered taking away spell slots due to exhaustion, but decided I didn't want to do that at this time. I am thinking of a spell failure chance, though, for spells that have no attack roll or spell save - like flat 25% chance.]

So whack-a-mole results in exhausted characters. Performance declines as damage accumulates, on both sides of the battle; most "unmotivated" foes begin to consider fleeing at Bloodied. A rough battle can take the PCs days to recover - especially when the Exhaustion level hits 3, and the recovery saves are now at disadvantage!

Combat is pretty frequent in my games. And I don't balance it to the PCs, I balance it to the story and world. The party is 7th level (just made 8th last session, actually). They have fought armies, giant war bands, purple worms, ancient iron golems... and also still regularly face goblins/hobgoblins/bugbears (the default not-evil-but-enemies in my game, because Story). A great plan and insane good luck achieved victory over the purple worm and its brood -- but the wizard was out of action for 5 days, and the cleric for 6. In the recent commando assault on an enemy town, the cleric died, spent his Fate Point, reentered combat, and died. The rogue would have died, but spent a Fate Point to acrobatically leap over the ballista bolt that would have killed her - and kept going. The ranger was so badly messed up that a week later he still has 3 Wounds and 2 levels of Exhaustion.

Over the whole campaign, there have been 5 total character deaths. The Warlock, twice, despite Fate Points (he tends to go off by himself, spend the Fate Point to survive, and then push on to finish the task...). The Cleric, twice - but once was after becoming an NPC (player's work schedule changed). The NPC Wizard, once (knocked down in battle with burrowing undead, who then proceeded to eat him = automatic double-death-save hits).

There's a lot of travel in my game, and most fights tend to be the only one for the day. Forced March rules come into play frequently. Exhaustion and Wounds have been the thing that makes even a quick fight with "just some wolves" have lasting consequences, even if the group can nova. In my friend's game, my 9th level paladin is currently rocking 6 fricking Wounds that mostly did no damage (weak critical hits, mitigated by Temp HP and Heavy Armor master) that nevertheless are impairing his combat functionality (magical healing is at -6! First 6 HD I roll are impaired!) without breaking or removing limbs. Damn penguins! (confidently ignored the stupid birds, DM got lucky, I took 4 critical hits from the flock, even though each "critical hit" did 0 or 1 damage through my defenses)


I will say that the party makeup is "caster-light", though. Rogue 5 / Druid 2 (because story), Warlock 7, Bard 7 (who acts like a swashbuckler most of the time), Fighter 3 / TricksterRogue 4. Oh, and the new guy, Ranger 5. (Cleric was 7, war domain, but as mentioned, left the group due to schedule conflicts.) The warlock is loathe to use his spells, and was spec'd for a city/intrigue game, so of course the majority of the game has been out in the wilds! So there isn't a lot of magical healing, most fights are resolved through martial skill. The Fighter/Rogue does a lot of "I taunt them; I Dodge." In my friend's game, we've got a Battlemaster 9, a Warlock 9 (replaced the Artificer), a Paladin 6 / Tomelock 3 (replaced the Sorcerer), and now a Druid 9 and a Swashbuckler 9. (had an NPC cleric up to level 5, and a PC Bearbarian up to level 7). Only my sorcerer has died (auto-damage from an aura while at 0hp; he was revivified). We rarely even hit 0hp. Even with these rules. We're careful about battles, we spend healing when someone hits Bloodied, and work together as a team. Because even penguins can F you up with these rules! :)


Hope some of these ideas are helpful. I've recorded pages and pages of people's house rules and ideas on injuries and death/dying. I'm pondering some of this thread's suggestions on Remaining Conscious. But mostly... I reluctantly agree with what has been said several times - D&D 5e isn't the right system for the level of "combat is deadly!" rules I prefer. So my house rules reflect a compromise position in that regard. And so far, over 2.5 years, my players have agreed with the "makes it interesting, without overburdening" factor. [We did scale back a couple ideas, and have tweaked the rules twice.]


As an adjunct rule set - we also use the following house rules:
1) base damage from a crit is maxed, but bonus damage is still rolled. So the paladin's longsword crit + divine smite = 8 (sword) + 4 (str) + +1d8 (bonus sword damage) + 2d8 (smite) + 2d8 (bonus smite damage).
2) you can forgo bonus crit damage to instead do a Stunt. (DM adjudication, but "weak" effects like prone or knockback are auto-successful, while strong effects like stun or blind get saves up front and every turn.)
3) if you hit by 10+, you get a minor bonus effect based on the attack's type. Slashing causes a 2pt bleeding wound, firebolt sets the target on fire for 1d4, etc.
4) Spells with attack rolls are attacks, and follow the normal rules. Spells with saves do MAX damage on a nat1, or MIN damage on a Nat20. So Nat1 on a Fireball is 48 damage; Nat20 is 4 (min 8, save for half). Nat1 or Nat20 also provides advantage/disadvantage on any other impacts of the spell for the spell's duration (like slipping in Grease or Ice Storm, or coughing in a Stinking Cloud).
 

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