I’ve run a lot of 5E. It’s a fine edition, but I find that mostly it’s getting in my way, and not really helping me run the game. My players seem to like it for the most part, and that’s probably the thing: the character options are fun to play with, but they come together into an unwieldy whole.
I tell my players that they are responsible for their characters’ powers and special rules. I simply do not have capacity to learn them, much less recall them during the game. While that works, it leaves me feeling like I’m operating in the dark as the gamemaster. It’s hard to see how a combat might play out, or what constitutes a reasonable challenge for the players.
It feels like everyone is having their own meal at the table, while I’m responsible for a dinner that makes sense for everyone – the pacing, mood, condiments, and drinks. It’s not just the character options, but they are a big part of it.
Since I’m now committed to running D&D for quite a while as we’re playing through Candlekeep Mysteries, I’m thinking of ways to make it more fun for me as the gamemaster.
How to get the the D&D feeling without being so difficult to manage? My time to study games is very limited these days, and also the palette of games I run is much wider than it used to be – I can’t dedicate myself to really learn a single game. There was a period when my self identity was basically a bag of AD&D 2nd ed books, but that was over thirty years ago.
What about OSR games?
I’ve run some OSR style games, primarily Dungeon Crawl Classics and Mörk Borg. I love them! They are concise enough to keep in my head, and quick to teach to anybody. Their mechanics create play, instead of getting in the way.
But they are not D&D, as both take a path that leads them to a distinct mood. Both have a grunge/metal esthetic that really works for some players – but often not the same players who are drawn to D&D.Enter Shadowdark
I recently read good things about Shadowdark, and got the quickstart this weekend. It does a lot of things I like! Now I’m considering bringing some of them across, difficult as it is to change 5E without messing up the already questionable balance anymore. The game reads so well I’m tempted to run it, too.
Things I want to change
Combat takes forever: I have yet to run Shadowdark, but the action economy alone should speed things up by roughly half – you only do one thing per round. You can’t touch the action economy in 5E without breaking everything. The other thing causing slowdown is too many options for players. That is hard to remedy as long as they have a ton of options.
Missing is a real bummer: when combat takes forever, it might be half an hour until you get to act again. To then roll a single die and miss is nobody’s idea of fun. I’ve houseruled this in my D&D table by giving inspiration to anyone who misses an attack. While not a guaranteed success, the advantage on the next attack makes it likely to connect. Some new games use a minimum damage alternative: even on a miss you do your minimum damage, while hitting lets you roll for damage and apply any special effects. I think I’ll try this next.
Stun effects kill the game for the affected player: I haven’t used any stuns, but as characters are gaining levels, status effects are becoming more important. Sitting out your turn is even worse than rolling to hit and missing. I asked about this on Reddit and I do like some of the proposals: stun becomes exhaustion levels, stun limits actions to one per round (including reactions), stun halves or removes movement. I’m going to try some of these. (Player characters inflicting stun on monsters would work as-is – I don’t care how the monsters feel.)
Saving throws are a dumb mechanic: like the insufferable roll to hit – roll to wound – roll for armor save back and forth in Warhammer, which results in “a hit” meaning nothing at all, saving throws are there only to negate something that already happened in the game. I would like them to go away. While they are hard to extract from 5E, Shadowdark doesn’t have them.
I don’t know what the characters can do: starting with Feats, the characters have so many tricks available to them that I don’t know how to challenge them, or how to enable them to have fun with their tricks. For a new player, it is nigh impossible to know which options make sense for the type of play you want. Overwhelming character options are so core to 5E that I’m not even thinking of touching them, though.
Shadowdark has an advancement table for each class, where you roll at level up to see what you get. I like this a lot: it removes the analysis paralysis and stress from “have I made the right choice”, and levelling becomes about luck and rolling with the punches. The downside, for a D&D 5E player, is that the advancements are rather generic, and there is little in the way of color in the options.
I can’t build an NPC on the fly because characters are so complicated: an outcome of the above, D&D 5E characters are just hard to build. Even if you could do it fast, internalizing what they can do on the fly is impossible for me. My monsters are more dull because of this: because I’m stressed about all the abilities in play, I usually go for simple, hard hitting baddies.
Magic is unfun: I never liked magic in D&D. Spell slots and being stuck with your spell choices for your characters’ lifetime just feels very unmagical to me. It’s like you’re practicing a craft (say, sewing), but only allowed a couple of patterns and no room to improvise or experiment. Again, this is very difficult to separate from 5E.
I’ve tinkering with my own magic system, but bolting it to D&D is next to impossible without rebuilding the whole game.
My favorite published magic system is in Dungeon Crawl Classics, where every spell is a whole table of what might happen – the wizard knows roughly what might happen, but not exactly, until they try it. They can also get more than they bargained for, and failure to cast a spell can have disastrous side effects (which isn’t in-genre for D&D).
Shadowdark does a few things with magic that I like: magic users always roll to cast a spell. If they’re successful, that’s it – no saving throws to negate the win. There are simple failure tables for spell casting failures, and critical successes have a clear mechanical effect on the outcome. The roll outcome also determines if you can use the spell again before next rest or not. All of these things could be brought to 5E without changing other things, and I’m thinking about it. (It also condenses the spell lists to cut a lot of legacy spells which make it difficult to pick spells from the mass.)
No mechanics for exploration: D&D doesn’t really have anything aside from overland movement speed and random encounters to support exploration. We’ve played Ryuutama, a game about traveling in a fantasy world, and since then I’ve really liked thinking about all the challenges that lie in simply getting from A to B on a fantasy map.
I got the D&D Wilderness Kit (2020) to aid with this. It comes with a pretty and useful GM screen, and two pages of additional rules for journeys, more if you count the wilderness chase rules. It’s a little looser than I’d like, but not bad! It doesn’t include some things I’m missing from Ryuutama – the different roles for the characters and preparing for the journey ahead, the importance of the right gear. You probably want to add the random encounter tables from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (2017), as well. Still, this is a marked improvement over the base game, and is recommended.
Since D&D 4E, we’ve used skill challenges a lot in our D&D. I have handled travel with them, but it became too samey with repetition – the skill challenge supposes that the challenge is new, and requires novel ways to overcome. The approach outlined in the Reddit thread is interesting – the risk of failure always being a monster encounter, the difficulty of which is determined by the number of failed rolls in the challenge. I might use that as an experiment.
A mechanic used in Hot Springs Island I’ve since used everywhere: every hex has three aspects – something obvious, something that you can discover by stopping to look, and something hidden, that requires active investigation to uncover. This is trivial to add on top of any other hexcrawling rules.
Shadowdark has simple, robust rules for resting (accounting for what happens when your rest is interrupted) and exploration, including clear rules for how fast you’re going through torches and other resources. Most of these could be brought over as-is.
As exploration is a fairly self-contained part of the 5E rules, I should put together a combination I like.