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 Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days

I was delighted yesterday to read Fat Goblin Games announcement of renewed support for Castle Falkenstein, a long-time favorite of mine. I still fondly recall purchasing it at GenCon and sitting, ensconced, in one of the side halls of the convention center pouring through its contents, losing myself in its graceful, romantic, and magical setting.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian-era alternate history RPGs and generally love my historical roleplaying, but one thing I’ve increasingly grappled with is reconciling the romance of a bygone era with its often harsh realities, particularly with regard to things like gender and sexual equality, colonialism, racism, and the even harsher human brutalities of our shared history. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point about my “spoiling” your enjoyment of a good fictional romp through Steampunk Victorian London, medieval Europe, or the Roman Empire or whatnot, feel free to click the “close” or “back” button and move on. Otherwise, consider with me:

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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.

ICONS: Milestones

Like comic book superhereos, ICONS characters may change and grow over time. If you plan a long-running series, consider the following options for hero improvement.

Adjust the costs as you see fit, increasing them to make improvement slower and more difficult, or lowering them (or providing more for the same cost) to encourage improvement. You can also control the frequency of particular milestones as suits the heroes and the series.

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ICONS: Nonlinear Scale

The opportunity to review the forthcoming ICONS Team-Up from Adamant Entertainment got me thinking about different variants and options again, so here’s another.

As Great Power established with its benchmark table, the various scale levels in ICONS translate into different, often nonlinear, real world terms: Average weight (level 3) is a heavy sack while Supreme (level 10) is a mountain, Fair speed (level 4) is a race car while Amazing speed (level 9) is escape velocity. Why should damage and resistance to the same be any different?

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Re: Animated • Justice League “Secret Origins” – Part 3

jl03

This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Secret Origins” – Part 3

Things are looking bad for our heroes and for the Earth: the invader’s mother ship is on its way, Superman and Hawkgirl are captured, and Batman has fallen. As Green Lantern keenly obverses, “This is not good.”

(Note that the Imperium is the “supreme intelligence” controlling the invaders. We see what you did there, Mr. J’onzz…)

The remaining heroes stage a rescue attempt, with Flash distracting the tripod on guard and luring it into stepping on one of the invaders’ own mines, showing he’s learned something from the previous encounter. J’onn can telepathically sense the captives’ whereabouts, at least in general terms.

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Re: Animated • Justice League “Secret Origins” – Part 2

jl02This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Secret Origins” – Part 2

The aliens (disguised as Army soldiers) open fire on the heroes: Batman pushes J’onn out of the way, Superman is hit and blasted back into an overturned vehicle, falling to the ground, stunned. Batman hurls an explosive batarang that scatters several aliens. J’onn spots others coming up from behind. He phases through Batman and then increases his density, taking the blast, which stuns him. Batman knocks the ambushing alien out with a batarang.

We get our first look at J’onn’s density controlling powers: Note the shimmering blue aura when he goes super-dense (a rarely used ability in the series). We also start to see how Batman’s arsenal has been upgraded a bit to allow him to run with the “big dogs” in terms of super-powers. But then, maybe he doesn’t use exploding batarangs a lot in Gotham just because it would be overkill.

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Re: Animated • Justice League “Secret Origins” – Part 1

jl01So I had a lot of fun with my Avengers Assembled blog looking at the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series with an eye towards superhero gaming. Although the second season of Avengers is in full-swing, I decided to “hop the fence” to Marvel’s Distinguished Competition for a bit and look at a slightly older superhero series—and still one of my favorites—the Justice League animated series. In each installment, I’ll take a look at some moments from a game perspective and talk about some things we might learn in terms of game-design, game-mastering, and game-play from it.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Secret Origins” – Part 1

We start off with the mysterious goings-on following the manned mission to Mars and the people posing as technicians at a deep space monitoring station.

Batman traps two of the aliens with a bolo by surprise. The third rushes him. He blocks two blows, a third clips him, then a fourth nails him hard in the stomach. The alien grabs him and hurls him away. Note that the alien doesn’t throw Batman until after stunning him, and that Bats manages to go hand-to-hand with an alien with super-strength (capable of lifting a heavy bank of computer equipment).

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Re: ICONS #2

More re-think, second-guessing, options, and general tinkering with Icons Superpowered Roleplaying, building on what started here.

Powers and Abilities (well, Abilities anyway…)

The six abilities in Icons are ripped off from an homage to Marvel Super-Heroes, minus the somewhat superfluous Endurance (the “E” in FASERIP), which got combined with Strength, so you’ve got Prowess (Fighting), Coordination (Agility), Strength (duh… Strength), Intellect (Reason), Awareness (Intuition) and Willpower (Psyche). But was Endurance the only superfluous ability to remove from the mix? Maybe, maybe not.

The Prowess/Coordination split largely de-emphasizes Coordination as the sole ability for physical actions, but Prowess is the ability voted Most Liked to Be Considered a Skill. Mutants & Masterminds 3e has a somewhat similar split (between Agility and Dexterity) but both are more raw “abilities” with combat skill for either handled by… well, combat skills. Prowess does allow for the higher-Prowess, lower-Coordination character, but so do the appropriate combat specialties. Are there many characters likely to have more than three levels of difference (a Master bonus) between their Coordination and fighting ability? There’s certainly a case to be made for taking Prowess out of the mix and folding its uses into Coordination.

Coordination and Strength are pretty safe: one is the overall physical “action” ability and the other is the overall physical “effect” ability.

Likewise, Intellect and Willpower are pretty safe. Sure, you could collapse all of the mental abilities into a single one like “Mind” (and some systems do) but there seems to be some benefit to differentiating between a character’s smarts and force of personality. Some have more of one than the other, while others have both.

Awareness exists largely to divorce a character’s ability to notice things from either Intellect or (even less obviously) Willpower. One of the oddities of the Marvel Superhero Adventure Game (aka “Marvel SAGA”) was assigning sensory powers and tests to the Willpower ability. Personally, I blame Mr. Fantastic, who is often portrayed as the classic absent-minded professor: brilliant, but somewhat oblivious. However, while Reed Richards might not pick up of a lot of social cues, he’s plenty sharp when it comes to noticing things where it counts. Likewise, Brainiac 5 of the Legion of Super-Heroes tends to get wrapped up in his thoughts (and ignores some social niceties) but he still sees patterns and clues well enough. Do we need Awareness, or is Intellect—modified by specialties and occasionally limited by challenges—enough?

For that matter, do we need abilities at all? A number of RPGs—including many versions of FATE, A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying—do away with traditional “ability scores”. Characters have ratings in certain things they are notably good or bad at but, otherwise, a kind of background default is assumed (and left unspecified). Icons could likewise skip assigning any abilities at all unless they’re notably above or below average, like a scale of 1, 5, 7, and 9, for example (or 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, for slightly more options).

Speaking of the scale, some find the 3–6 range of “normal human” too limiting (technically, it’s 1–6 for normal human, including both of the below average levels). Is three levels for the full range of human achievement above “average” sufficient? For a superhero RPG, probably, since most super-types who are “above average” are often way above average. If anything, three levels may be too many in that regard.

Of course, we have to keep in mind two things: First, that many “normal humans” in the comics do have superhuman abilities. Chances are good that Reed Richard’s Intellect and Hal Jordan’s Willpower are higher than 6 in Icons terms.

Second, even if that’s not the case, specialties even things out. Batman may (arguably) have “only” a 6 Intellect, but he’s also a Criminology Master, raising his ability to the high superhuman range even before his “Dark Knight Detective” quality comes into play. Captain America may “only” have a 6 Prowess, but he’s a Martial Arts Master, making him a superhuman fighter. In fact, the Determination system is set up to reward characters like this, since specialties are not included into the calculations for starting Determination. A hero with “only” human-maximum abilities and a lot of specialties can also have more Determination, as the aforementioned characters do.

Paring down the Icons abilities to just four (Coordination, Strength, Intellect, and Willpower) does have some appeal: a nice 2-by-2 “grid” of Physical and Mental abilities (Coordination & Strength/Intellect & Willpower) and Action and Effect abilities (Coordination & Intellect/Strength & Willpower). Plus it is a rip off of an homage to the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game. On the other hand, we lose having the same number of abilities as sides on the die, which made some things easier (largely on the random tables).

Got a take on abilities in Icons? Feel free to drop me a line and tell me about it!