D&D: Power Surges

I was filling out the D&D Classes Survey from Wizards of the Coat the other day. It is clearly aimed at looking at play experience, since it asks you which classes and subclasses you have played before unlocking the opinion questions about them. One of the things I noticed from my own experience, was that, while I have played a wide number of classes: 1) I have favorite subclasses and not as much experience outside of them, and: 2) I couldn’t offer an opinion on many of the high-level class abilities, because the characters I played never made it to those levels. I have played a lot of D&D, but few, if any, of my campaigns have made it up past 15th level. Many more haven’t even made it past 10th.

That led me to think that it’s unfortunate that many campaigns deny players a chance to experience what are supposed to be the pinnacles of their characters’ potential, which led me to consider the following option:

Power Surge

You have access to one use of a higher-level feature of your class. If this feature is ordinarily permanent or long-lasting, it lasts for a minute once it is invoked. If the feature affects or is performed in a single action or round, then it lasts for only that use. The class feature operates at the level of ability you currently possess or its minimum operational level, if your current level is insufficient, and uses traits (ability scores, bonuses, save DCs, etc.) you currently possess.

So, for examples, a lower-level barbarian might gain one use of a brutal critical or one instance of indomitable might, a fighter might gain an indomitable saving throw or use of a maneuver they don’t normally possess (perhaps even with an increased Superiority Die), a lower-level paladin might gain a minute of aura of courage, a Circle of the Moon druid one use of elemental wild shape, or a spellcaster one use of a spell higher level than they can normally cast (using their highest level spell slot to cast it).

The Cost of a Power Surge

At the end of an encounter where a character performs a power surge, that character gains 1 level of exhaustion, reflecting the strain they have exerted in extending their abilities. At the DM’s discretion, higher level power surges (or ones with a larger difference from the character’s current level) may impose multiple levels of exhaustion, although rarely more than 3.

If you want a harder power surge cost, the resulting exhaustion is half the difference between the character’s current level and the level of the power surge feature, rounded down, which effectively limits a power surge to an 11-level difference (5 levels of exhaustion) since 6 levels would kill the character (although it would be quite a way to go!).

Acquiring a Power Surge

Characters acquire the ability to perform a power surge as a boon granted by the DM, similar in some regards to a charm (see Supernatural Gifts in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). This may come from an in-game agency like a deity, powerful creature, wise mentor, spirit guide, or the like, or simply occur as a story-related event, much like Inspiration. Indeed, a power surge can be thought of as an “advanced” use of Inspiration for giving a particular character a “spotlight moment.”

When a surge is granted, the DM specifies what class feature it grants, or may offer a choice of class features; the surge is not good for whatever higher-level feature the player wants! The feature may be negotiable, based on player input, but the DM has the final say in the matter, taking campaign considerations into account (see Power Surge Considerations, following).

Power Surge Considerations

Naturally, power surges are things the Dungeon Master should permit carefully and sparingly, with an eye towards not disrupting the flow of the game too much. Some higher-level class features may be too powerful as power surges, depending on the current level of the character and the overall conditions of the campaign and adventure.

At least, a power surge should be a rare event, something that doesn’t happen more than once per character level (at most) and probably less often than that. It shouldn’t necessarily be something players can plan around or expect, but that shows up at moments of dramatic importance in the campaign. It’s also an opportunity the DM should spread out amongst the player characters—with no one character getting two or more power surges in a row before the other characters in the party have gotten an opportunity.

The availability of a power surge may require some adjustment to the challenge level of certain encounters, but then a power surge is supposed to be impressive, so it is all right if it happens to make a difficult encounter easier than it would otherwise be. Just be prepared to adjust things behind the scenes if necessary, should a power surge come off as anticlimatic rather than an epic peak or finish to an encounter.

D&D: The Spent Condition

In my blog “Acting to Exhaustion” I played around with the idea of using levels of exhaustion in Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition as an additional resource for limited-use abilities, those that reset following a short or long rest. That got me thinking about about resource management in relationship to rests, and a character’s condition being “spent” in terms of those resources, differentiated from mere exhaustion. Essentially:

Spent

  • A spent creature has no use of abilities that recover following a short or long rest.
  • The condition ends if the creature completes a long rest.

Spent is a condition that can be achieved simply by using up all of a character’s limited use abilities, but it may also be imposed by some conditions or effects. Other effects may also lead characters to becoming spent if they deny them the benefits of completing a rest. Without the opportunity to rest, characters eventually use up their abilities and are spent.

The spent condition strips characters down to their essential at-will or constant abilities. It definitely places them under duress, but can be used to reflect characters who have been imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise debilitated to the point where they are spent and need time to recover in order to use their abilities.

For example, in the drow prison of Velkynvelve in Out of the Abyss, characters might be spent as a result of their treatment at the hands of their captors, who prevent them from completing a long rest so they cannot remove the condition. They have to rely largely on their wits and most basic abilities in order to escape. The same might be true of a crew of characters who survive a shipwreck or other disaster: Initially, they are spent, and their challenge is finding the time and opportunity to complete the long rest needed to eliminate that condition.

Note that spent differs from exhaustion and characters can have either condition separately or both together. A spent character might still be perfectly capable otherwise (no exhaustion) but they just don’t have the resources (physical, mental, or mystical) for some of their abilities. An exhausted character may likewise still be able to draw upon their limited use abilities, if they are not spent.

This condition combines in interesting ways with the Acting to Exhaustion option: A spent character’s only means of using their limited-use abilities is by taking levels of exhaustion, giving them a small pool of uses at a cost. In this case, the DM may want to consider adding “with no more than 1 level of exhaustion” to the recovery requirement for spent, meaning characters trade-off extending their spent state (by taking on more exhaustion) for immediate additional uses of certain abilities.

Invigoration

The notion of a spent condition also suggests the possibility of “invigoration” effects that grant characters the benefits of a short or long rest without the need to actually rest. They can range from miraculous blessings and magical charms to a burst of determination or a surge of success. They offer Dungeon Masters a useful tool in managing the pacing and dramatic tension of an adventure: There might, for example, be a series of challenging encounters leading up to a climatic fight, and it’s less interesting if the characters camp-out for a good night’s rest on the villain’s doorstep, but also a less interesting encounter if they come to it nearly spent in terms of their various abilities. So the DM might “invigorate” the characters at the start of the final encounter, either providing a resource that does so, or just telling the players that their characters feel a rush of power and determination as they confront their final foe, letting them recover some or all of their limited use abilities.

D&D: Acting to Exhaustion

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons breaks abilities down into those usable at-will and those which recover their uses after a short or long rest. Naturally, the more powerful the ability, the less frequently characters can use it. A part of game-play is resources management: Should you use your big long rest ability now or wait until a more opportune moment? Do you know when the next opportunity for a short rest will come, or is the next encounter arriving on the heels of the current one, without a break in between?

Ordinarily, if a character is out of uses of an ability that’s it. It is no longer available to them until they have completed the necessary rest. However, there are times when it may be dramatically appropriate for characters to push their abilities beyond their normal limits, when they really need the use of an ability they’ve already expended. Fortunately, the fifth edition system offers a useful resource in that regard: Exhaustion.

Detailed in appendix A: Conditions of the Player’s Handbook, exhaustion is a condition that measures increasing levels of fatigue as characters expend their physical and mental resources. Each level of exhaustion imposes increasing penalties on the character, and finishing a long rest reduces a character’s exhaustion level by 1, conveniently making a level of exhaustion roughly equal to a long rest in “value.” This sets up the potential for the following variant:

Exertion. You draw on inner reserves of strength and determination to accomplish something. As a bonus action, gain 1 level of exhaustion, and choose from either gaining advantage on your next ability check, attack test, or saving throw, or regaining one use of an ability regained by completing a short or long rest. You do not gain any of the other benefits of rest from exertion.

One use of exertion is largely “free” as the character will remove the level of exhaustion after completing their next long rest, although they’ll have to deal with disadvantage on ability checks until then. Uses beyond the first have diminishing returns, since the exhaustion will take multiple long rests to recover. By level 5 exhaustion, the character is spent, speed reduced to 0 and unable to do much more than collapse against something and rest. Exertion past that point to level 6 means death, although the GM should consider delaying that penalty until the end of the character’s turn, allowing them one last glorious effort.

Exertion and Spell Slots. Exertion specifies “one use” of an ability that recovers after resting. This is incompatible with the recovery of spell slots, all of which recover from a long rest. On the other hand, recovering just one spell slot seems a poor trade-off for a level of exhaustion, so it’s recommended that spellcasters be allowed to recover up to half their class level (rounded down) in spell slots from exertion, with no spell slot greater than 6th level, or recover a single spell slot of 7th level or greater at a cost of 1 level of exhaustion for a 7th-level slot, 2 levels for an 8th-level slot, and 3 levels for a 9th-level slot. This is a version of the Natural Recovery and Arcane Recovery abilities of druids and wizards, respectively, but available to any spell-casting character through exertion (whereas wizards and circle of the land druids can still use it simply by taking a short rest).

Game Masters can fine-tune the requirements of exertion to suit the game, possibly increasing its cost to 2 levels of exhaustion per use, rather than 1, effectively limiting it to two uses (since a third would be 6 levels of exhaustion and death) and eliminating the “free” aspect of one use, since it would take a minimum of two long rests to fully recover from a use of exertion. An even more limited version would require the character to have inspiration in order to use exertion: They expend their inspiration and immediately regain one use of an ability that recovers after a short or long rest. In this case, the GM may or may not also require that the character gain a level of exhaustion. See Acting on Inspiration for more on this notion.

The Power of Three: Innate Magical Abilities

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons tends to place less emphasis on magic items as an expected component of characters’ capabilities. Certainly, there are challenges—such as monsters vulnerable only to magical weapons—that call for such things, but even then there are workarounds in terms of class abilities, spells, and the like, reducing the reliance on an arsenal of arcane items in the party’s possession.

One way the edition trims down on magic items is through the concept of attunement: wherein some magic items require a mystical bond with their wielder. This bond takes some time and effort to forge, and characters can attune to a finite number of items, namely three. (As an aside, world creators can have fun exploring all manner of metaphysical trinities to provide an explanation for the question, “Why three?” but that’s a subject for a different article.)

So, it can be said, from a system perspective, that fifth edition D&D characters have essentially three “potential” magical advantages, which are realized by connecting them with items the characters acquire during their adventures—but what if that wasn’t the only option?

Now, the Dungeon Master’s Guide does talk about some other options, including supernatural gifts, marks of prestige, and epic boons, but none of them draw upon the notion that a maximum of three “magic advantages” is built-in to the characters. They’re all extras layered on top.

Perhaps in addition to magic items, D&D characters can “fill” those attunement slots with innate abilities of different sorts, essentially the equivalent of a magic item the character can’t easily lose, but also can’t easily swap out for another item. The attunement mechanic also works as a starting point for things like:

  • Tattoos or markings, like Eberron’s dragonmarks or the spellscars from the Spellplague era of the Forgotten Realms.
  • Birthrights that are inherent magical abilities, from gifts from the gods to strange abilities caused by magical “mutation” or an unusual heritage or bloodline, such as some of those from the Birthright setting.
  • Gifts similar to the supernatural gifts from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but replicating a wider range of magic item abilities. These gifts might be granted by higher powers, magical rituals, or performing great deeds, to name a few.

Equivalence and Level. The magical ability should be about the equivalent of a magic item requiring attunement, with its level determined by the magic item’s rarity (as given on the Magic Item Rarity table in the DMG). So a magical ability equal to a ring of regeneration, for example, would be 11th level (for a very rare item).

Drawback. The ability may have a drawback that’s roughly equivalent to the potential of losing a magic item or having it taken away, since the ability is not so limited. For example, a magical ability equivalent to an amulet of the planes (let’s call it “planewalking,” shall we?) has, as an additional disadvantage, that when the Intelligence check made to activate it fails, the ability is also rendered unless until the character completes a long rest. On the other hand, the DM may decide that some magical abilities don’t need an additional drawback, such as the equivalent of boots of elvenkind, giving the character advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to move silently at all times.

Acquisition. Acquiring the magical ability is largely at the Dungeon Master’s discretion and can be the result of any number of things, from a god’s blessing to the effects of drinking from an enchanted fountain. The ability may have prerequisites, including a minimum character level (based on item rarity) and class or race requirements similar to magic items. Generally, the character’s player should have the option of refusing the ability, in which case, nothing happens (save, perhaps, for offending a potential patron). If the character accepts, the ability “takes root” and fills one of the character’s attunement slots.

Divestment. Similarly, it’s up to the DM whether or not characters can shed or rid themselves of magical abilities. It should be difficult, since that is one of the primary drawbacks of abilities versus magic items, and might involve conditions similar to acquiring the ability, or the use of spells like remove curse to “uncouple” the ability and clear the attunement slot it occupies. Some abilities, like birthrights, might be things you cannot get rid of. Alternately, perhaps you can “overwrite” the ability by attuning a magic item and “filling” its slot, but the ability is no longer available (and might be lost permanently, even if you lose your attunement to the item that replaced it).

Leveling. It’s possibly for magical abilities to “level,” either along with the character, gaining the powers or properties of more effective items as the character grows in level, or filling additional attunement slots, essentially adding the benefits of additional items as the ability grows. This is particularly good for magic item abilities that have multiple levels of rarity and power.

Sample Magical Abilities

Here are just a few potential magical abilities using this concept.

Arcane Aegis

Surrounded by an unseen arcane aegis of protection, you have resistance to force damage and immunity to damage from the magic missile spell. Prerequisite: None.

Chaos Magic

You can call upon powerful, chaotic, magical forces. Use an action to choose a target within 120 feet of you: a creature, object, or even a point in space. Roll d100 an consult the wand of wonder effect table to see what happens. The effect is otherwise like that of a wand of wonder. You can use this ability 1d6 times per day, but the DM rolls each day at dawn and you only know you have expended all of your daily uses when you attempt to invoke your chaos magic and nothing happens. Prerequisite: spellcaster, 5th level.

Dragon Slayer

Any melee weapon you wield against a creature with the dragon type gains a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls and inflicts an extra 3d6 damage of the weapon’s type to the creature. However, true dragons can tell you have this ability by seeing or smelling you with a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check. Prerequisite: 5th level.

Illusory Guise

You can use an action to cast the disguise self spell at will. Prerequisite: None.

Planeswalker

You can use an action to make a DC 15 Intelligence check. On a successful check, you cast the plane shift spell. On a failure, you and each creature within 15 feet of you travel to a random destination and you are unable to use this ability until you complete a long rest. Roll d100. On a 1–60, you travel to a random location on the plane you named. On a 61–100, you travel to a randomly determined plane of existence. Prerequisite: 11th level.

Spell Resistance

You have advantage on all saving throws against spells. Prerequisite: 5th level.

Swift

You can use a bonus action to activate this ability. When you do, double your walking speed, and any creature that makes an opportunity attack against you has disadvantage on the attack roll. When you have used this ability for a total of 10 minutes, you must complete a long rest in order to use it again. Prerequisite: 5th level.

The Hidden Potential of Wild Shape

The recently released D&D Monsters by Type document from Wizards of the Coast points out some interesting potential wrinkles in the druid’s wild shape ability in the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s take a look.

The description of wild shape says: “…you can use your action to assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.” Note that “beast” is a specific creature type in D&D 5e. The druid’s level sets limits on the type of beast form assumed: A maximum challenge rating (CR) of 1/4 and no flying or swimming speed at 2nd level, max. CR of 1/2 and no flying speed at 4th level, and a max. CR of 1 and no movement limits at 8th level. The Circle of the Moon druid archetype increases the CR limits to druid level divided by 3 and rounded down (minimum of 1).

Given these guidelines and taking a look at the Beast table of D&D Monsters by Type, what do we note…? Continue reading

D&D: Acting on Inspiration

It’s D&D game night, and the characters are trapped by their vile foes, thrown in irons, and imprisoned in the deepest dungeon.

“I want to break my chains!” says the player of the brawny fighter.

Having already made note of the “Manacles” section from chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook, the DM says, “Roll a Strength check.”

… and the die comes up a 1.

Now what? Does Brawny Fighter get to try again? The section on “Ability Checks” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide—specifically “Multiple Ability Checks”—presents two options:

  1. If the character can try again, taking about ten times the usual time to do something ensures success. However, no amount of trying again allows a character to turn an impossible task into a successful one.
  2. In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.

So, which is this? Neither option is particularly appealing: If the strong character can’t break his chains, he can never succeed? On the other hand, it’s a bit anticlimactic to say that just taking a minute (10 rounds) is enough for him to break the chains automatically. “You can try again later” is a perfectly valid answer from the Dungeon Master—who gets the decide when “later” is—but is there a game-system middle ground for this kind of situation? Turns out there is: inspiration.

Our Hero can’t try to break the chains, or figure out the maze, or overcome the obstacle without a breakthrough, without being inspired. Inspiration draws on your character’s personality traits, the things the character cares about. It represents when your character is truly motivated. It’s also a great benchmark for those times when your character has the gumption to try again, and succeed this time, since the added effect of inspiration is you can now make the roll with advantage!

In fact, you can even extend the idea of “acting on inspiration” to include all forms of advantage. Essentially, it’s the shift from being at a disadvantage, under normal conditions, or having advantage that opens up a new opportunity. So if a character who is at a disadvantage tries something and fails, the character can try again when no longer at a disadvantage. The situation has changed. Likewise, a character who fails under normal conditions, gets to try again upon gaining advantage, with a better chance of success. In this case, inspiration just represents one way of gaining advantage to change the conditions of the test and try again.

The best part of acting on inspiration is it is a matter of motivation. In order to get the needed inspiration, players need to look to their characters’ personality traits and play to them. What is going to motivate our brawny fighter to really try to escape? Is it a threat to a loved one, duty to a sword liege, revenge, or simply proving that nothing and no one can hold him prisoner? Likewise, going with advantage as an opportunity to try again encourages the players to pro-actively change the situation, rather than just waiting the appointed time to make another die-roll.

If at first you don’t succeed in your next D&D game, consider acting on inspiration.

D&D: Narrative Equipment

Here’s a new one you can add to the already substantial “Dungeon Master’s Workshop” in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, further simplifying even the starting class and background equipment packages of the game:

Narrative Equipment

Rather than tracking weapons, armor, and other equipment, adventurers are simply assumed to be adequately equipped, and armed and armored according to their capabilities, as follows:

  • Simple Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d6 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d8 damage. Use your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls. You must use the same modifier for both rolls. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Martial Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d8 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d10 damage. Use your Strength for the attack and damage rolls of melee attacks and Dexterity for the attack and damage rolls of ranged attacks. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Light Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 12 + your Dexterity modifier.
  • Medium Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 14 + your Dexterity modifier (to a maximum of +2). Under this system, druids should be limited to light armor proficiency for simplicity.
  • Heavy Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 15 + your Strength modifier (to a maximum of +3).
  • Shield Proficiency: You gain a +2 bonus to your Armor Class, but have only one free hand and cannot make two-handed attacks.

Characters can choose to use “lower” proficiencies, if they wish. For example, a character proficient in both simple and martial weapons may choose to use simple weapons for the benefit of finesse, while a character proficient in heavy armor may choose to use medium or light armor for the Dexterity bonus, and characters proficient with shields can choose to use or not use one.

Otherwise, characters are assumed to have all of the tools and other items with which they are proficient and necessary personal, survival, and adventuring gear. If it ever becomes a question as to whether or not a character has a particular item, roll a DC 10 Wisdom check, adding the character’s proficiency bonus if the item is appropriate to the character’s class or background. On a success, the character happens to have that item. Players can spend inspiration to have advantage on this check.

The Dungeon Master can create circumstances where characters are unarmed, unarmored, or do not have access to their usual equipment. In these cases, characters regain the benefits of their equipment once they are able to recover it, or take a rest in an area where they can conceivably re-equip themselves, such as a settlement.

Save vs. Pelvic Sorcery

(Because … well, it kind of justifies itself…)

Sorcerous Origin: Pelvic

Your innate magic comes from the motion of the ocean and the swaying of your hips, the forceful thrust, and the slow roll – in short, pelvic sorcery. Perhaps you were born with this potential, apparent even before you fully tapped its power, or you might come from a long line with this ability, one ensured to continue on and on (and on…).

Roguish Charm

When you choose this origin at 1st level you gain a potent roguish charm. By standing next to a creature and interacting for at least 30 seconds, you can attempt to charm that creature as if casting the charm person spell, without expending spell slots or spell points.

Come and Get Your Love

At 1st level, you add expeditious retreat and jump to your list of known spells. You can cast them without components, but they affect only you.

Dance-Off

Starting at 6th level, you can cast Otto’s irresistible dance on a creature you can see that can see and interact with you, without expending spell points to do so. Once you have done this, you must complete a short rest before you can do so again.

Hooked on a Feeling

At 14th level, you can charm any creature by interacting with it. The creature makes a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC and is charmed for one hour if it fails.

Awesome Mix

At 18th level, if you are exposed to and make a saving throw against an effect at the same time as any of your allies, both you and your allies have advantage on the saving throw and resistance to any damage caused by the effect.