Rog Dolos: “I am an independent game developer taking a hedonistic approach to game development: I make what I am driven to make and that keeps me happy. I have a strong preference for cooperative / collaborative gameplay.”
I’ve had three choices for my D&D session this week:
Introduce new mechanics for cyberspace-hacking.
Have one of the players take over as DM for a one-shot Halloween party.
Run a Halloween / horror-themed side-quest in our current story.
I picked #2 early on, but that player couldn’t attend last week and we haven’t had much contact, so I’m prepping to take the reins either way. Spoilers: I’m going with #3: Horror side-quest. I’d like to give context for all these choices though. I’ll start with the one likely to be a big deal later:
1. Cyber-Hacking / Cyberspace:
The Norship setting is my attempt to mash together sci-fi with fantasy, in what I hope is a “clever” way. We’ll see if that pans out. There’s a cyberpunk element in the mashup itself: Cybernetic modifications merge tech into bodies in a holistic, transformative way. Individuals (and especially Apparata) become something else through these changes. For some characters they can interface into the setting’s varied computing networks. So cyber-hacking has the potential to be a central element of my game.
I’ve tried to include hacking, first as a sort of mini-game with a series of hack tests which I tossed out after two sessions (too boring and time-consuming). Since then I’ve had players roll skill tests, using “Arcana” in place of a tech-knowledge skill. I asked each player to choose a tech specialty and applied that as a bonus proficiency (only two players chose “hacking” over other technical skills). Rolling skill tests is part of tried-and-true 5E, but I’m not thrilled with the way it plays in this case. Hacking cries out for its own game-mechanics that integrate into the flow of the game, but are also on their own layer.
So I’m working on that. By working I mean brooding. Ultimately this week my own (non-cyber-enchanced) brain was distracted with other plans. I will definitely revisit the hacking topic again soon.
2. Halloween One-Shot:
Following someone else’s plan would be a nice change for me, I’ve been on the DM side of the table for awhile. It would be nice to portray a full player-character. A part of me hopes they keep the one-shot within The Norship setting but that could be awkward: I have kept much of the lore close, releasing details to my players on-a-need-to-know basis (which is a nifty way to reveal a world around the characters, but that’s a whole other topic).
I’d enjoy something classic like Strahd or set in Forgotten Realms or somesuch. Halloween is a perfect time for one-shots.
3. The Horror Side-Quest:
I have a loose system for side-quests, which goes like this:
Introduce a new, unexpected place or goal, right from where the players left last session. It’s the perfect time to pivot the direction. Maybe they find a secret door (I’ve done this) or are approached by a notable NPC with an imperative and immediate quest.
Toss in an all-new temporary big-bad. One that is either adjacent in plot-or-faction to the existing big-bad(s) or has its own entirely unique agenda. A key part: This must be a foe the party can defeat with their current resources, or throughout the course of this session. I already branch my main story, so I wouldn’t want ongoing confusion.
Treat it like a one-shot (even if it ends up lasting more than one session). It’s own bubble, contained.
This formula may seem mind-numbingly obvious, but I was honestly terrible with side-quests until I wrote this down. I should have picked up the natural flow of things as a player, before I started DM’ing last year, but nope. That’s a complement towards my DMs, I got so wrapped up in their stories I never thought to look behind the curtain. It’s rare for me to not think like a designer, but D&D is one of the few games I get so immersed as a player.
I wish modules had better advice for side-quests and that includes some of the 5E officially published adventures. That’s a whole other article and one I’m not sure whether I’ll write unless I start up a module-critique section to this blog. To be fair, I felt like an untalented hack of a DM while running those: I’m just not great at adventures-by-the-book. An aside, I recently took a look at Waterdeep: Dragon Quest and that looks fabulously well-written and designed: I bet that would be an exception.
With my 3-piece plan for side-questing: My big-bad is borrowing elements from a popular homebrew creature with some nasty horror-inducing abilities. I’ll let you in on the details after it plays out.
I’d love to hear what people think of this glance into my weekly process: juggling my design and my weekly session– but this where I mention I have no comment system on this blog. I do want input and feedback, I’d just rather build a community with tools designed for that. I’m setting up a Discord server which I’ll link soon, plus I’m considering other options (Reddit? MeWe? A Facebook group?). Meanwhile, I am on Twitter and you can reply to my link there for this post “Horror Halloween or Cyberspace”, if you wish.
For reference, here’s the related chart for the 5E version, rendered via AnyDice. Slightly more illustrative than my hand-drawn whiteboard chart (in that previous article). The math is linear, not complex: Each modifier just moves the numbers 5%, a side of the d20:
It’s been put through a few paces with my weekly group: Speeding up combat rounds, even as players are learning how it works.
The chart now changes for Apparata Kitbash, with dice-as-modifiers. I’ll discuss that whole concept in a later post, but basically it means rolling additional dice with the d20, rather than adding numeric modifiers after the roll. Anywhere from a d4 up to 2d8. Here’s the AnyDice chart:
Note: the Success range expanded (to 11-19). That was necessary: random die rolls aren’t nearly as beneficial as guaranteed modifiers. It makes the failure range (1-10) easier for players to track as well.
The mixed-success shaves off some percentage at the higher modifiers. I suppose that shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. High level characters get a big jump from the d12 to 2d8 as well, which I feel is appropriate: I wouldn’t expect players to use a d14 or d16, those dice are too uncommon. I don’t use a d20 modifier-dice because that would be confusing with the primary d20, especially for Advantage / Disadvantage rolls.
I like the variance of dice. I’ve never been comfortable with high-level players achieving “I can never miss” godlike powers to hit or make skill tests. I would rather give them amazing things to do without avoiding the chance of failure.
I have not made up my mind whether this same method will be used towards skill tests, but I am leaning in that direction. This dice-modifier variation has not been tested in combat or otherwise yet, so it’s bound to need some tuning either way.
It’s less granular than 5E’s “bound accuracy” modifiers, but I’m okay with that. I still need to determine the stats / ability numbers that will feed which dice get rolled. I had to determine the system first and now I can work backwards to those numbers from here. So far I assume modifiers will range from 1-to-16 to line up nicely with the dice.
Last week I cryptically posted a whiteboard chart to my social media. Here’s an update to that chart, with an explanation of how I’m using it for 5th Edition (and will adapt it to Apparata Kitbash later):
The concept of a “mixed” or “partial” success dice-rolling system is not new. It’s been popularized with Apocalypse World and continued in a host of games “Powered by the Apocalypse”. They use 2d6 rolls with 10-12 = success, 7-9 = partial-success and 6-or-less = failure. I like how Dungeon World describes it: “7–9 is still a success but it comes with compromises or cost.” In my version for 5E, the cost will give enemies the opportunity to attack back (and otherwise don’t take the usual turns).
d20 Mixed-Success System:
Note: I feel my players react well when I refer to a 20+ total as a “Grand Success” and the 14-19 range simply as “Success”. The psychological shift in terminology is probably effective, yet I still like saying “Mixed-Success”. Regardless, it should be treated as the standard result.
Why? How does this work?
My primary goal is to speed up combat: I’ve removed Initiative. On a player’s mixed-success or failure, enemies make a reactive attack at the end of the player’s turn. Neither side makes any additional rolls to see if they hit, just this player-facing roll of testing for success. AC is no longer used to calculate hits, but instead is used to mitigate damage (more on that below).
In practice, it means a player rolls for success and then immediately rolls for damage or not. The DM may also directly roll for damage appropriately from the enemy (occurs after the player’s completed turn).
I have not (yet) applied mixed-success to skill checks. If I do, I may use a different system because this is tuned for combat encounters.
Standard 5th Edition combat goes something like this:
Combat starts out with each combatant rolling for Initiative. The first on the initiative chart takes a turn. During the first round, anyone caught “surprised” skips their first turn.
The player (or enemy) chooses an action to make. If that action is an attack, they typically roll a d20 and add their appropriate modifier (for a melee attack that is typically STR + Proficiency). They state their total.
The DM checks the total against the enemy’s AC, describes how it hits or misses. If it hits, the DM asks the player to roll for damage.
The player rolls for damage.
The DM subtracts the damage from the enemy’s health and describes what occurs (especially if it dies).
The player may also use a bonus action and interaction, then it moves onto the next turn (back to step 2) on the Initiative list, including the enemies on the list.
Revised Mixed-Success combat goes like this:
There are no Initiative rolls. Players take their turns in their already determined “marching order”. The DM may determine enemies to have “surprise” advantage and begin with related attacks, but otherwise enemies only act reactively, at the end of individual player turns.
The player chooses an action. They may make a d20 attack roll, adding their modifiers and stating their total as normal. The player then knows whether they hit or not, using the chart. Any success is a hit. If they get a “Grand Success” then they have blocked the enemies from taking any reactive actions. If they hit in the mixed-success range, they still hit, but an enemy (usually the one they are attacking) will get a turn following theirs.
The player may use a bonus action, interaction and end their turn.
An enemy may take a turn only If the player’s attack roll resulted in mixed-success or failure AND there is an enemy with a turn left this round (one turn per combatant per round). Usually the DM chooses the enemy the player had attacked, but they don’t have to. After that it moves to the next player’s turn.
It may not seem like many less steps, but I’ve found that removing the back-and-forth on AC checks speeds things up considerable. There are other cool implications and I also I intend to take it further with Apparata Kitbash by reducing player-hesitations while adding modifiers (more on that in a future article).
If the player does not make any sort of attack roll, mixed-success is the default for their turn. Players cannot avoid enemy actions by only using spells or abilities that automatically hit or otherwise take no attack rolls.
I love the the potential for players to inherently strategize some crowd-control over their enemies.
A basic example:
In a normal 5E combat first-round, Mirri might run up and melee-attack an Orc. Then Oula gets the next turn in the Initiative order and shoots her bow at the same Orc, with a crit for massive damage. A natural DM response for the Orcs eventual turn: The Orc throws an axe at Oula because she did so much damage and upset them.
Mirri runs up and melee-attacks the Orc. The Orc immediately and reactively hits Mirri back. Now she has its full attention. Oula then shoots her bow at the same Orc, but her crit causes a Grand Success, so enemies don’t return-attack right now (plus that Orc has had its turn already).
Imagine how the players can manipulate the battlefield this way. Plus crits have a good, solid additional oomph to them!
Speaking of monsters: If a creature has legendary actions, those can still apply, or a DM can give that creature an additional turn per round after the players.
Armor Class doesn’t go away with this system. Make an easy conversion for AC to mitigate damage instead of being the to-hit target. For each player and monster, calculate an AC-bonus the same way you would a stat bonus : With every even number above 10, add a bonus point. For example, an AC of 16 would be an AC-bonus of +3 and an AC of 18 would be a +4.
The AC-bonus is used to subtract incoming damage. Simple mitigation.
I admit I haven’t done hard testing on AC-mitigation for creature balance just yet. I may change it outright to whatever is above 10 (so 18 becomes 8) or use a multiplier (AC-bonus x 1.5 ??) to tweak it. For the most part I feel CR ratings on 5E monsters are pretty loosely calculated as it is. Defining encounter difficulty is an inexact science. The point is it should feel fair to your players.
With Apocalypse World’s 2d6 rolls, the base chance rates are 16.67% for good success, 41.67% for partial success and also 41.67% for failure. Rates change with modifiers and these numbers make sense for PbtA games. Note that in either system: partial / mixed-success stays at a static rate throughout in the middle, the modifiers just expand the greater success and crunch down the failures.
With 5E, modifiers ramp up quickly with initial character stats and then crawl upwards with level gains. I decided on a distribution that resulted in 10% failure at a max of +11 (best possible stat bonus + proficiency). The numbers may seem harsh at their base: Just 5% for Grand Success, 30% for Mixed-Success and a whopping 65% Failure. I like the psychological effect of this, because players feel like they are beating the odds (with their modifiers doing the heavy lifting). Grand Success isn’t as hard as it seems. Even a poorly rolled level 1 character in 5E is likely to be using an attack roll with a modifier of +3 or more.
I also adjusted my players down a notch in proficiency, but this is not necessary. As a DM, play around with the proficiency bonuses if you want to mess with difficulty in your campaign.