December 19, 2014

Five Optional Rules for your 5e Game

The 5e DMG is great - I think it might be the best DMG of any edition in terms of DM advice, but I didn't like the optional rules I found in it.

Here are some optional rules I wanted to see.

1. Short Rests are Too Long

Short rests of an hour duration are too long.  An hour is long enough that the DM feels like she needs to figure out what the nearby enemy is up to for that time.  In the DMG, there's an optional rule for short rests being 5 minutes, long rests being 1 hour, and long rests for spellcasters being 8 hours, or some malarky like that.  Instead, just call them short rests.

People know what "enough time to rest, but keep it short" is.  Anyone who smokes, who takes five minutes to check Facebook, who gets home and needs a minute before picking the kid up from daycare, or who plays a sport knows what a "short rest" is.  Why do we need to track it in minutes?  The answer is spell durations, but I'm going to address that below.

Alternate Rule:  Short Rests are Short

A short rest is a short amount of time, from a few minutes to an hour, give or take.  If you don't use the Story Time rule, below, a short rest is long enough for minute/level spells to expire, but not hour/level spells.  If you must have the exact number of minutes, roll 1d6x5.

2. Tracking Duration Stinks

4e and 13th Age gave us durations in story time.  Characters have rounds, days, encounters, short rests, and long rests.  The other duration was "save ends" (which 5e also has) allowing a character to make a save at the end of each turn to end the effect, until the encounter ended.  No duration required tracking!  Nothing was "two hours" or "3 rounds" or "minute per level" - it was one of any of those units.  I'm surprised 5e didn't continue this simple pattern, or at least mention it in the DMG as an option.  Even people who hated 4e didn't complain about simpler effect durations!

The rule below has been tailored to the 5e Tiers, as best as possible.

Alternate Rule:  Duration in Story Time

Rounds and Days use the same definition from the PHB.

Encounters are a new unit of time.  An encounter lasts from when a conflict begins to when the conflict ends.  This can be a combat (from "roll initiative" to the point where one side has been defeated), a chase (see the DMG for rules), a complex puzzle, or a social scene -- or anything that the group feels was a challenge or conflict that the party resolved.  As a rule of thumb, if it's worth XP, treasure, or plot information, it's an encounter; and if the party has to attempt something that they could fail or screw up, it's an encounter.

Track Rounds:  Any effect that has a duration of less than 5 rounds lasts a limited number of rounds as described in the effect.  The DM should not track rounds.  If a PC used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, the player must track the duration.  If the DM used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, even if it was on an NPC or monster, the DM should ask a player to help track those rounds.

Encounter:  Any effect that has a duration in rounds and lasts 5 or more rounds lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that has a duration of 1 minute lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that lasts 10 minutes or less lasts one encounter.

Track Encounters:  Any effect that lasts more than 10 minutes but less than 5 hours lasts one encounter, plus one additional encounter per hour of duration or part thereof.  Ignore time taken for short rests.  These spells end after a long rest.  That is, if I cast a spell that lasts 11 minutes, it lasts two encounters, even if I take a short rest in between.

All Day:  Any effect with a duration of 1 day or more than 4 hours lasts the entire adventuring day or the entire duration of a long rest (depending on when it was cast).

All Day and All Night:  Any effect with a duration of 17 or more hours lasts through the adventuring day and through a long rest that the PCs take after.

But what if you don't want to track rounds or encounters at all?

Alternative Rule:  No Tracking Duration

Any effect with a duration from 2-5 rounds lasts until the end of the encounter.  Any effect with a duration in minutes (even over 10 minutes) only lasts one encounter.  Any effect with a duration in hours lasts for an adventuring day.

Optional Feat

Here's an optional feat you can include in your game, if you track duration in story time.  It encroaches a little on the Sorcerer's Metamagic class feature, but is still useful, even for Sorcerers with that feature.

New Feat:  Lingering Spells
Increase your Intelligence attribute by 1 to a maximum of 20.  In addition, your spells originally of level 5 and below last longer.  You can cast a level 1-5 spell at a higher level, and it still lasts longer.  Spells that are originally spell level 6-9 are not affected by this feat.  Spells affected by this feat last longer, as follows:

  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one minute or one round per level now last an entire encounter.
  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one hour or one minute per level now last through two encounters, even if the PCs take a short rest in between.
  • Spells that would normally last 2 to 10 hours now last all day.
  • Spells that would normally last 11 hours or more now last all day and all night.
  • Spells that would normally last 17 to 24 hours now last two days and two nights.

3. Instant Death is Too Harsh (or Not Harsh Enough!)

At low levels, characters can die very, very fast.  Level 1 characters are especially fragile.  If you roll damage, MOST monsters can drop a Level 1 PC in one hit, or kill them on a crit.  And higher level (2+) monsters have a good chance of instantly killing PCs.  In the Starter Set, Klarg has about a one in five chance of outright killing a PC.  You can use an OSR technique like The Funnel for Dungeon Crawl Classics ( to temper this, but it doesn't seem like 5e was built for "throwaway zeroes" -- the low level characters you make in just a few minutes to die in the funnel.  So what do you do?

With very few exceptions, trauma is rarely fatal in under 20 seconds.  A "death blow" might leave a person alive, but dying, for a minute or more.  Modern medicine and healing magic both have miraculous (literally, in D&D's world) effects at preserving the lives of people who suffer mortal wounds.

Alternate Rule:  No One-Hit Kills

Simply remove the rule that says that if a character is reduced to 0 hit points and there's enough damage left over to equal his maximum hit points, he dies.  Now whenever a character takes more damage than she has hit points remaining, she is reduced to 0 HP and begins making death saving throws on each of her turns.  Apply this rule to PCs and any individually named NPCs and monsters.  Nameless, unimportant mooks or everyday monsters are dead at 0 hit points.

Effect:  Characters cannot be instantly killed by combat damage, using this rule.  There is a philosophical effect on the game when the risk of death from a signle blow is gone.  It makes the game more heroic and epic.  It emulates the brash pulp sword and sorcery style more than the gritty old school style.

But what if D&D style death and resurrection are fun for your group?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Tiered Lethality

Apply the "No One-Hit Kills" rule through the Local Heroes tier (levels 1-4), then return to normal.  Let the players know that they should now begin to be worried about one-hit kills.

Effect:  Levels 1-4 are the time when a character is most likely to die from a one-hit kill, which is sad because it's right at the start of the story, rather than in the middle or end.  The PCs also don't have access to spells that bring back the dead until character level 5.  By applying the "No One-Hit Kills" rule ONLY from levels 1-4, you're still conveying a philosophy similar to that rule, but at level 5, you let clerics (PC or NPC) handle the work of preventing permanent character death.

But what if you're a Pathfinder fan?  Or what if you think the instant death rules are not harsh enough?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Pathfinder Style Lethality

Ignore the instant death and death save system in the PHB.  Track negative hit points.  Use the Dying condition from Pathfinder, verbatim:

Effect:  Instant death from a single hit is still possible with this optional rule, but it's less likely at level 1, especially for PCs with fewer maximum hit points.  It's about the same at level 2.  But instant death becomes MORE likely as the PCs gain levels past that.  Luckily, the PCs' access to spells that bring back the dead (through NPCs or PCs) also improves as they gain levels.  The real dangerous point for this optional rule is at levels 3 and 4, when this rule makes instant death more likely, and the PCs don't yet have the ability to cast spells to bring back the dead.  If you like that, stick with it.  If that makes you nervous, give the PCs access to an NPC cleric ally who is willing to cast Raise Dead for them, if they can scrounge up the cost of the material components (a diamond worth at least 500gp) and then start leaving 500gp diamonds as major treasure occasionally, starting around level 3.

4. Item Crafting is a Poor Compromise

Notice how magic item crafting minimum levels aren't based on the Tiers of Play?  Level 3 and 6?  And notice how it takes a half a century to make a high end item?  I think the designers wanted a compromise between the free and easy crafting system of 3rd edition and the lower magic, more DM-controlled "go on a quest" rules from older editions.  OK, fine.  But where are the optional rules to take it all the way to either extreme?  And why does it take so long to craft the items to begin with?

I'm going to give you a revised table and then two variants on the item crafting rules.  One is for low-magic campaigns where a magic item is a big story event, and the other is for high-magic campaigns, like a Sharn-based Eberron game.

First, let's fix the item creation table, setting the rarities at the tiers of play.  Note that in the base system, a Legendary item basically cannot be crafted.  It takes about 55 years to craft a legendary item.  With 10 assistants, it would still take 5 years.  You would need 100 assistants, all of level 17 and up, to do it in under 6 months.  That's basically impossible.

Alternate Rule:  Tiered Item Crafting

This rule changes the item crafting table (not the cost, just the levels) and makes changes to the rules on how long crafting takes.  Here's the modified cost and level table:

  • Common: 50gp, Local Heroes (Level 1-4)
  • Uncommon:  500gp, Heroes of the Realm (Level 5-10)
  • Rare:  5,000gp, Masters of the Realm (Level 11-16)
  • Very Rare: 50,000gp, Masters of the World (Level 17-20)
  • Legendary: 500,000gp, Cannot be Crafted (except with DM permission)

The amount of time it takes to craft an item is based on the creator's level.  This way we don't have to do arithmetic.

  • Common:  One week.  For level 5+ characters, they take one day to create.
  • Uncommon:  One month.  For level 11+ characters, they take one week to create.
  • Rare:  A year.  For level 17+ characters, they take a season (3 months) to create - or less, at the DM's discretion.
  • Very Rare:  A year (12 months)
  • Legendary:  Entirely up to the DM; but it should take at least a year.

If multiple item crafters cooperate, at the DM's discretion, divide the time required by the number of participants.  Feel free to use rough approximations.  For instance, if a PC has recruited a circle of thirteen druids to help craft a Very Rare item, the DM could rule it takes one month to craft.

Next, rules for low magic campaigns:

Alternative Rule:  The Rule of Three for Low-Magic Campaigns

Other than consumable items (e.g. potions and scrolls), any character can create up to three magic items in their whole life.  Consumable items are created according to the normal item creation rules, and there is no limit to how many the character can create.

Character class does not matter under the Rule of Three optional system, as long as the character has a relevant proficiency.  For instance, a character proficient with Smith's Tools might be able to forge a legendary magic sword.  This rule assumes that using magic is more than just casting spells, and everyone can do a little magic, if they follow the right ritual steps provided by the story.

Furthermore, each time a character elects to craft a magic item, they must undertake a quest to complete the task.  The quest can either be its own adventure, or be a sub-plot in an adventure.  Here are some example quests:

The first Vorpal Sword was tempered in the incomparable heat of a gold dragon's breath.  You must explore the Lost Mountains to find the lair of the last gold dragon, then convince him you are worthy to bear a Vorpal Blade.

The Staff of Life and Death requires the wood of a tree called the Ash of Souls that only grows in the Shadowfell.  They grow in groves, and you will need the heart-wood of the trunk of a perfectly straight tree at least three feet in diameter.  Luckily, your next adventure will take you to the Shadowfell.  Watch for any woods and try to convince the party to take a side-trip.

The vision your God sent you instructed you to find the Codex Aeternal, a lost treatise on the afterlife in Her religion.  After embroidering its Seven Truths into the cassock, She will bless the cassock as the Vestment of the Returner Aeternal.

Feel free to change this to the "Rule of One" or to further restrict crafting items to spellcasters if you want even lower magic campaigns!

Next, a rule for high-magic campaigns.  You're going to need this if you're running an Eberron game, for instance.

Alternative Rule:  Easier Crafting for High Magic Campaigns

Crafting enduring magic items requires the investment of a feat and a proficiency, but once you have it, things get easier.

First, characters can only craft consumable magic items (e.g. potions and scrolls) without the Craft Magic Items feat.  Crafting any item (including consumables) requires proficiency at least one type of tools necessary for the item's manufacture (e.g. Scribe's Tools for scrolls or Alchemist's Tools for potions).

Second, change the time required to craft a magic item to the following:

  • Common:  Two days
  • Uncommon:  One week
  • Rare:  One month
  • Very Rare:  One season (3 months)
  • Legendary:  One year, but only with the DM's permission

Optional Feat

If you're using Easier Crafting, above, you need to include this feat as an option for the PCs in your game.  It is up to you whether only spellcasters can craft magic items (and thus take this feat) or not.

New Feat:  Craft Magic Items
First, with this feat, you can craft enduring magic items if you are proficient with at least one type of tools necessary for their manufacture.  Second, this feat provides you a bonus proficiency in your choice of one of the following tools:  Jeweler's Tools, Smith's Tools, Woodcarver's Tools, Tailor's Tools, Alchemist's Tools, or Scribe's Tools.  Third and finally, the time to craft consumable magic items is reduced as if they were one degree of rarity more common.  For example, crafting a Rare potion would take as much time as an Uncommon enduring item.  Normally you cannot craft enduring magic items, and you do not get to create consumable items with a reduced crafting time.

5. The Morale Rules Need to be Player-Facing

The DMG's morale rules aren't bad, but they require the DM to do all the work, and don't let the players cause monsters to flee or surrender except by surprising them or hurting them.  This optional rule replaces the morale rules in the DMG with a player-facing system -- meaning the players initiate the action of and use the rule.

Alternate Rule:  Player-Facing Morale

Under this system, the player characters can attempt to scare off their enemies or force them to surrender to them.  Use these rules when the PCs try these actions, not when NPCs try these actions on each other or on the PCs.  If the NPCs or monsters are threatening each other, just decide how it works out.  If the NPCs threaten the PCs, explain or roleplay what they say and do, and let the players decide what their characters do.

As a Bonus Action, a character proficient in Intimidate can attempt to force opponents that can see or hear the character to flee or surrender.  Forcing opponents to surrender only works on creatures that can understand the character's language.

The character makes an Intimidate check against DC 20.  The DM should consider drastically reducing this DC in a combat encounter that seems to be almost over anyway, or even let the character automatically succeed.

If the character succeeds, and the DM wants to randomly determine how the enemy reacts, the target should make a Wisdom save, with a DC based on how many hit points it currently has.  (Note that enemies with more hit points tend to have better Wisdom and are more likely to have proficiency in various saves.  But also note that even very high level PCs often fight much lower level monsters in this edition; so Hill Giants may still be a threat at level 15 -- it would just be lots of Hill Giants.)

Here are the Wisdom save DCs:

  • Under 20hp:  DC 20
  • 20-99hp:  DC 15
  • 100-399hp:  DC 10
  • 400+hp:  DC 5

As a Standard action, the character can attempt to force all of the creatures that can see or hear the character to flee.  Make Wisdom saves individually for each monster.  If the enemies have a leader, start with that creature, then roll for the rest in any order you want.  If the leader flees or surrenders, the DM should decide if the leader orders their subordinates to flee or surrender as well.  Lawful leaders will usually do so.  Chaotic leaders will rarely do so.

Enemies that flee gain the Frightened condition and usually try to escape combat.  They usually use the Disengage action and then move away quickly.  Creatures immune to the Frightened condition cannot be forced to flee, except with a creative idea, at the DM's discretion (waving a burning brand at a flesh golem is a classic).  The Frightened condition persists until they have gotten to a safe place, far from the intimidating character (as they perceive it).  They do not usually return to their masters or allies, or try to attack the PCs or their allies again.  If they return to their masters, it's usually the last thing they do.  Among evil creatures, that kind of cowardice is punishable by death.

Enemies that are forced to surrender drop their weapons and lie prone on the ground, protecting themselves but not otherwise engaging in the combat.  After the combat, they expect fair treatment.  If the PCs interrogate them, they expect something in return for their cooperation.  If the

If a character forces the last active opponents in a combat encounter to flee or surrender, the DM should end the combat immediately, narrating the rest.  There's no need to make disengage actions, continue in initiative order, et cetera.

Some situations might modify the enemy's saves.  Here are some suggested modifiers for the enemy's Wisdom saves for morale.  You can probably think of others:

  • The enemy is in its lair:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender; will not Flee.
  • The enemy is a Legendary creature:  Will not flee or surrender (DM's discretion)
  • The enemy is a major, named villain or evil mastermind:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender.  Almost always happy to run away to fight again another day, regardless of their Wisdom save result vs. Flee
  • Enemy is a Lawful Celestial or Fiend:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee.
  • The PCs have a reputation for killing their prisoners:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • The PCs have a reputation for stabbing or shooting fleeing enemies in the back:  Advantage on sves vs. Flee for enemies who know the reputation
  • The PC is using Barbarian Rage or Druidic Wild Shape:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender or Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the PC is of a religion that violently opposes theirs:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender, Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the local authorities will execute them if they are brought to justice:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • There are more conscious enemies than conscious PCs (and their allies) in the fight:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The enemies are all larger than the PCs:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one PC is incapacitated:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one enemy is incapacitated:  Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The target's leader is present, not incapacitated, and not fleeing or surrendered:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender (the leader does not gain this advantage).
  • The target has already surrendered:  Automatically fails saves vs. Flee on subsequent rounds