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

- Firstly dropping to 0 hp doesn’t mean unconscious. It means a serious wound - a real medical emergency but not completely out. They still take death saves as normal but when on 0 hp characters can’t rise from prone but can take a single bonus action, a single action, or move (but not stand up). Taking any action or move forces them to make an additional death save.

- Secondly, I’ll be using the slow healing rules. Spending HD is the only way to regain wounds, which represent bandaging and rest. No spending 8 hours to wake fresh as a daisy.

- Thirdly, and this is the doozy, I want dropping to 0 hp to cause the Pc to gain 1d6 levels of exhaustion. Yes the PC has a 1/6 chance of dying instantly when dropped to 0 hp. When their head gets lopped off. The exhaustion represents their wound - which they are free to describe as they like. When their exhaustion is gone (through the normal means) their wound is gone.
So, I tried to run a 5e game using my own version of gritty rules, including 1e/2e overnight healing, slow HD recovery rates, use of HD for primary healing, and a modified exhaustion mechanic that still used 6 levels, but had graduated minuses that affected all classes (including spellcasters). I'll try to answer your OP based on what I experienced:

1) zero hp and prone, with one "action": that would make it scary to be in that position, but you'd have to think through the possible "actions" that could be used: attack? spellcast? hide? The additional activity forcing another death save would require some thought on the part of the player, hopefully a cost/benefit analysis.

2) works for me. That's what I used, but it really didn't "slow down healing" very much in my campaign experience as all the players were some form of caster. It did slow down the pace of play, which was what I was going for, but wasn't really "slow" per se. And I also ascribe the one or two encounters in a day, sometimes long stretches without any.

3) Using the 1dnd exhaustion, this could be a big hit at 0hp. It would compound #1, due to every action or move being affected by the minuses in the exhaustion rules. I found in my game that avoiding exhaustion was the driving factor for my players, regardless of where they were with re: to HP. So they would hunker down and take awhile to rest to remove exhaustion (and remember, this was a granular system over 6 level, not standard 5e exhaustion). Now, of course, the scenarios/game/campaign I was running mostly allowed for this, but their slowing down also caused events to unfold that they couldn't then intercept in time.

I agree that the bounce up from zero/bag o' hit points/heal everything overnight is not what I want in a game. But I was also unsatisfied with how it all rolled out in my 5e game. Best bet is to just try it, and roll it back if it doesn't work.

We've been playing OSE lately (less hp, less busy rounds, quicker gameplay), and using Goblin Punch's Death and Dismemberment Table, which gives us enough of a feel of "you don't want to go below zero" balanced against dying instantly at zero, since it combines long term injuries with "fatal wounds" that work like death saves. That could probably be modded to work in 5e.

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Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
The issue for me is that the big bag doesn’t really mean anything when it empties, because folks spring back up like whack-a-mole. So not only is it a resource it doesn’t make much difference when it runs out. By having 0 mean something, now every HP counts.

Oh you mean the PCs are bags of hit points.

I’m used to seeing the term used in reference to monsters, in the sense of every combat feeling the same.


Guide of Modos
So it will be no secret that I have long been looking for a way to make combat more meaningful - instead of the whack-a-mole - sacks of hit points that opponents turn into in 5e. . .
I don't see the at-zero-HP houserules as having any impact on the above problem. It sounds like you'd want rules that come into play during hit point loss, not at the end of it.

This campaign won’t be the typical dungeon crawl hack and slash. Combats will be rarer - one to three per day. With most adventures to have 1-3 combats potentially. It will also mostly be operating at a low-ish level 3-7. What are peoples though, could it work cohesively.
Low level is key to the sack-of-HP problem - it only gets worse at higher levels, with more hit points.

And there is the rub. You are right. But fighting at an optimal level until death does nothing to counter this. The risk of continued fighting being greater than the risk of what will happen when captured is the only way to encourage it.
Does this account for avoidance and fleeing?

All too often I see player X say, well we can’t get away from this fight because player Y is unconscious inside the creatures threatened area. So we might as well carry on. The thought of abandoning one of the team causes players to act irrationally and either the campaign ends or the players win. Every… single… time…
See, I solve this problem by not metagaming. "Steve went down? HE'S DEAD! LEAVE HIM!"

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
I don't see the at-zero-HP houserules as having any impact on the above problem. It sounds like you'd want rules that come into play during hit point loss, not at the end of it.

Yeah, I asked about the same thing. I think they are using "bag of hit points" in a different way.


Victoria Rules
So the two major issues I see here are that D&D 5E doesn't balance damage and particularly doesn't balance people getting "downed" across the party.

Dropping to 0 HP wildly disproportionately happens to the frontliners, who are typically 25-50% of the party. They account for easily 80% of "dropped to 0 HP" incidents.
I'd be interested in seeing some hard data on this for 5e, if anyone has tracked such for their own game.

For my games (which aren't 5e) I don't track near-death but I do track actual deaths*, and the overall death frequency between front-liners, sneaks, and mages isn't all that different. The outlier tends to be Clerics, probably because a) they can cure themselves more easily than they can cure anyone else and b) it's common knowledge that keeping the healer upright is good for everyone.

* - I should note that petrifications counts as deaths for recordkeeping purposes, but those are pretty rare.

You still haven't given an opinion on my idea of reducing available spell slots with each degree of exhaustion, which would seem to answer many of your qualms here.

That would help equaling out the suck, but then you're still left with the system simply encouraging the PCs to abuse the 5MWD to negate the suck (which is bad) or alternatively, sucking (which is not fun).


Victoria Rules
This would mean that, if we take the "there's only about a 25% chance even one person drops to 0 HP per session" thing seriously, the proposed rule would effectively double the lethality of the game. Yes, I think it's a pretty significant change to make the game twice as deadly!
As 5e by both RAW and RAI really isn't all that lethal, doubling the lethality - while sounding grim - might not mean very much in practice.
Okay. So you're cool with the players taking an entirely mercenary view. Your statements weren't the ones I was responding to; TheSword's were. You can't simultaneously seek to incentivize teamwork and other-valuing choices and incentivize personal survival and self-serving choices.
Well, I posit you can incentivize both by having a system where characters have serious weaknesses along with their strengths, thus soft-requiring the presence of other characters such that they fill in each other's gaps. Due to this interdependence, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts, meaning teamwork is often a better path to survival - both of the party and of each character in it - than individualism.

I, personally, very much wanted to encourage characters to act nobly, show compassion, and value people and places inherently, not instrumentally. The proposed rules run directly counter to that; they will almost surely teach players to be murderhobos. I'm a bad fit for a murderhobo game, and told my players as much. As I said in the "endings" thread, I love heroes and happy endings, and I rapidly lose interest in grimdark/"90s antihero"/"Evil vs Evil" type stories, which are lamentably extremely common in fiction today.
Yeah, we're very different: I got bored with the heroes always winning when I was about ten.
We have, together, built conditions for a world where dark things really do happen, but the player characters can fight back and make things actually better. Often incompletely or haltingly; real, lasting change is hard, and usually takes a long time. But you can still make a difference and protect things that matter--and you may need to make great sacrifices along the way.
If that's how you've set the story up, cool. Me, I'll usually have an underlying story or two like that on the go but I'm not married to them; if the players/PCs decide to turn their backs on such a story or to join the enemy or whatever then so be it: that's what I'll run.
I adore actual teamwork games. D&D, with exactly one exception (you know the one), has manifestly failed to actually support real teamwork.
Whcih strikes me as odd, because IMO in-party teamwork's biggest enemy is do-it-all-themselves characters who have no weaknesses (and thus don't need to inter-depend with anyone else) and thus much less need for a party around them; and the exception you refer to was by design the best (worst) of all when it came to making do-it-all characters using the right combinations of multi-classes and feats. The TSR editions, where niche protection was considerably stronger, characters often had glaring weaknesses that couldn't be covered off with feats, and where multi-classing was clearly suboptimal, were IMO far better at promoting teamwork at the design level - even if it didn't always come off that way at the table level.
It supports murderhoboism, however, which can create a fragile facsimile of teamwork that dissolves like cotton candy in water at the first sign of danger.
Which in many ways is fairly realistic. Parties are usually (I hope!) made up of independent free-thinking people, they don't have a coach or a sergeant-major standing over them preaching team unity or regimental honour and telling them to play/fight till they drop; and absent this, when real danger appears self-preservation becomes a primary motivator.


Victoria Rules
A character dying every ten weeks would mean that by the end of the year, you'd have practically a brand new party. (EV: 5.2, SD: 2.16) Heck, there's a better than 25% chance that by the end of the first year, you'll have more than 6 deaths!
Turnover of party membership is very much a thing.

Also, you're forgetting that in a game where revival effects exist, those six deaths might only mean actual turnover of one or two characters; with the rest being revived.
And no, I don't think 2-3 deaths in a year is low. I think it is quite high.
Somehow I don't think you'd like my game very much... :)

It's not common, but I've occasionally seen one character die three times within a year, never mind the rest of the party. :)

There's also a short list of characters who have been killed more than once by the same opponent. Perhaps the best of these was a Dwarf in a fairly powerful party who went up against a Beholder. Dwarf got hit by the thing's death ray and, after all bonuses etc., needed to roll 3 or better to make the save. He rolled a 2, and dropped dead.

Party scoop up his remains, flee, and as they had revival effects available in the field they soon got him back.

Next day they beef themselves up with pre-castings then go back in and meet the same Beholder. By sheer bad luck (I was randomixing which rays targeted which characters until-unless the Beholder learned more about their capabilities) the death ray targets and hits the Dwarf again. This time he saves on a natural 2 - and up comes the 1.

Sometimes, a bad beat is just a bad beat.
Especially since this is 2-3 extra deaths, completely separate from deaths due to failing death saves or other effects that kill characters (that is, petrification, the "chunky salsa" rule, etc.) 2-3 deaths a year means literally any investment I might put into my fellow characters is pointless; either my character will die, and thus nothing they cared about will matter, or most of their friends will die, and thus it won't matter that they were friends. Death is the ultimate investment killer.
Only if the deceased isn't revived; and even then, there's still the investment in the story as a whole, and in the party's part in it.


Victoria Rules
That would help equaling out the suck, but then you're still left with the system simply encouraging the PCs to abuse the 5MWD to negate the suck (which is bad) or alternatively, sucking (which is not fun).
Sometimes sucking - and having to decide whether to carry on while sucking - is just part of the game.

Equalling out the suck is what I'm after: you're quite right in pointing out that the casters largely get off scot-free in the proposed system, and I'm just tossing out some ideas as to how to make casters feel some pain as well.


Random thought for the OP: have you considered introducing a variant of 4e's bloodied mechanic, where being at or below half* h.p. has effects both good (sometimes) and bad (common)? This would get people paying attention to their hit point levels while still well above zero, and could also serve to give martials a balancing boost. It could look like:

Not yet bloodied: everyone functions as normal.
Bloodied: everyone gains some penalties but martials also gain some real benefits.
Zero: everyone gains more penalties but martials are more affected than casters.

Just a thought...

* - or whatever threshold makes sense; I say "half" as that's what the 4e version uses.

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