Once again, rather than work on the Gygax 75 Challenge I decided to watch some YouTube videos for D&D inspiration.
5e Hardcode Mode
After a YouTube review from, yes, Professor Dungeon Master I recently picked up “5e Hardcore Mode”.1 Other, written, reviews are sharply polarized between “this is garbage” and “this is brilliant”. One such criticism is a wall of text on RPG.net. A second, or maybe the same one, is a wall of text on the Giants in the Playground forums.
Criticisms center on how some house rules screw over certain classes or “the math”. That D&D has a “math” that breaks down when you change things is a bug, not a feature. Yes, games have “math”. I am against delicately balanced complex systems that break in unexpected ways when you make a change, e.g. eliminating bonus actions (which make combats more complicated) cripples certain classes.2
Another more absurd objection is to changing combat from 5’ squares to rough distances like Close, Near, Far, and Out of Range. “What about characters who get a movement bonus?” critics ask. Well, they’re S.O.L., aren’t they? That’s one less kewl power in their arsenal, unless the GM wants to rule their vastly increased movement allows them to move Far and attack.
One of PDM’s videos I watched recently noted that WotC’s game designers are not PhDs of Game Design Science. They just have experience. Even they get things wrong, e.g. some recent publications. And they have their own house rules in their home games.
That said, I wonder if people longing for “5e Hard Mode” wouldn’t be better off just playing something else.3
Folk D&D vs. Official D&D
In this reply to a WotC statement that “D&D is under-monetized”, “Questing Beast” (Ben Milton) categorizes players on a continuum from “Official D&D” to “Folk D&D”. The whole thing is worth watching, though.
I’m definitely in the “Folk D&D” camp, to the extent I’m in a D&D camp at all, while most of the 5e Hardcore Mode critics, I suspect, are in the “Official D&D” camp.
As hypothetical readers might have realized, I’m not attached to any version of D&D. As a kid I first picked up a reprint of Original D&D, a.k.a. the White Box, which confused me greatly. Later I got a copy of the Holmes D&D Basic Set, which made much more sense … but everyone wanted to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which made less sense, especially when the DMG wasn’t yet published. In the meantime I also played Traveller, a Star Trek RPG with percentiles which came and went, and RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS in college. Also lots of Champions, which I got sick of, and The Fantasy Trip, which I discovered in high school – or was it grade school? – but couldn’t find players for until college. And many others, none of which were D&D.
Fast forward to the mid 2000s when I played a bit of 3.x (the Midnight setting) which I liked and a brief campaign of 4th Edition which I did not like, almost entirely attributable to the rules. (“Sly Flourish!” “Sly Flourish!” “Sly Flourish!”) Then I found other games again, Warhammer Fantasy and Star Wars D6 (yes, really) and Cypher System among others.
Now I’m starting a 5e game with a bunch of fellow noobs, and already I’m tripping over the “simple rules, many exceptions” philosophy that permeates modern D&D game design. I’ve bought way too many D&D books (8) plus some reference cards to keep my character’s spells straight, but apparently I haven’t been monetized enough. (Joke’s on you, WotC, I have no money.)
If someone asked me what my favorite D&D edition is, I’d say I’m still looking. Maybe it’s DCC RPG or Into the Unknown or Low Fantasy Gaming or Index Card RPG or Mythras Classic Fantasy (if that counts) or maybe even Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy. (Or possibly Shadowdark, if I ever get the full rules.) But definitely not whatever WotC is peddling. And certainly not because it’s a “lifestyle”.
About “The Math”
Speaking of “the math”, another Questing Beast video explains how his radically simplified rule set Knave allows one to play old D&D modules with few if any changes.
I recommend watching the whole thing, but essentially he determined that all those THAC0 tables and modifiers essentially add between +1 and +10 to a d20 roll. The conclusion isn’t surprising – that’s essentially how a d20 works best – but verifying that in old rules is worth major props.
As we all know I figure out game rules partly by working out probability tables, but a single d20 has simple behavior. Yet game designers in order to earn their salaries disguise probabilities so that players have about the same probability of success as they level up, as Professor Dungeon Master reveals.
Better to put the probabilities out in the open, as in Cypher System’s difficulty levels (multiples of 3 on a d20). Same with the games that use 2d6 (e.g. Traveller/Cepheus and Barbarians of Lemuria/Everywhen) if you know the probability curve (triangle) like the back of your hand. D100 is the most straightforard expression of die probabilities (Call of Cthulhu 7th edition’s Advantage/Disadvantage notwitsthanding). Dice pools are trickier, and exploding dice tricker still, but anyone with http://anydice.com or a few Wikipedia articles and their own Lua / Python / whatever interpreter can suss them out. (Hint: most things converge toward a possibly skewed bell curve.)
Ultimately the real point of RPGs is the roleplaying with friends. But it does help if you have a rough idea how likely you are to jump that chasm.
In the same video he reviews Mörk Borg, but its graphic design alone gives me seizures. At least Death in Space had some restraint. ↩︎
Granted, stated like that it does sound like a half-baked idea. I haven’t read “5e Hardcore Mode”, but even if that is the whole “rule”, one could, for example, make exceptions or special rules for classes that need those Bonus Actions, e.g. the Monk’s second strike or the Rogue’s disengage. ↩︎
PDM has a video about “making 5e grittier” where three of the suggestions don’t technically violate the rules: no rests, no Cleric healing spells (?!?), and DMs rolling dice in public. The other two are lower HP and eliminating Death Saves. Despite what he says, though, I can imagine the same players who complain about abstract distances or redoing the action economy mutinying if someone tried to take away their Death Saves, healing spells, or short rests. ↩︎