Hipsters & Dragons

Because roleplaying is social, creative, fun… and kinda cool!

Category: New & Improved Rules

Which is Best: Fireball vs. Lightning Bolt

A longterm pet peeve of mine from earlier versions of D&D that still finds grievance in 5th edition is that given the choice between learning fireball or lightning bolt you’d have to be crazy to opt for the latter. Whilst both do the same amount of damage (a hefty 8d6 to anyone in the area of effect, dex. save for half), fireball can be flung up to 150 feet and affects all those in a 20 foot radius (surface area = 1256 ft.). Lightning bolt emanates from your hands extending in a line 100 feet long and 5 feet wide (surface area = 500 ft). Basically, unless you plan on attacking a marching band, fireball is going to fry significantly more bad guys every time.

This for me equates to poor game design. If there’s no real choice to be made between two options then what’s the point in having two options instead of one? Even the major drawback of fireball – the fact that it sets alight flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried, is mimicked by lightning bolt, meaning there’s very few contexts indeed where the latter is more useful (facing creatures who are immune / resistant to fire would be the only really obvious one).

(Image sourced from here).

Evening Up The Score

How do I fix this as a DM and give PCs a real choice to make when choosing to learn / prepare one of the two spells over the other? Well one simple solution would be to reduce the damage of fireball to either 6 or 7d6 damage, a solution I rather like its excessive damage is basically a mistake (it should probably be a 5th or 6th level spell!), that unbalances the game. However it’s a mistake that gamers loved so much that it stuck around (DM David has some interesting related reading on this topic).

If you’re a bit nervous about messing around too much with the damage of the game’s most iconic spell, then what you could do instead is pimp lightning bolt a bit by giving enemies in metal armour disadvantage on their saving throw when struck. A small change that makes a lot of sense in terms of realism and in the right circumstances could make lightning bolt even deadlier than fireball – and therefore a viable choice.

You could also rule that fireball alone sets alight flammable objects, giving lightning bolt two pros to balance the twin cons of a much more limited range and much smaller area of effect.

Like this? I’ve got tonnes of tips for DMs, like how to roll Insight (hint: get your screen ready) or how to fix the Lucky feat, so keep reading. Or go crazy and head to the right sidebar to become my, like, fifth subscriber… it’ll be almost like getting a personal letter from me every time I update the blog!

Group Stealth & Other Ability Checks

Something came up during my last D&D session that got me thinking. We were sneaking around on top of a mountain range, trying to avoid the watchful eye of various baddies and beasties in the vicinity. The DM ruled that my Rogue Assassin (with +14 stealth!) could make one check for the whole party to see if we succeeded, as he reasoned that I’d be able to signal to my companions when to crawl, when to duck down etc. etc.. That was nice him and I certainly didn’t argue, however I did think he was probably being a bit too generous.

A little Googling and revisiting the Player’s Handbook (p.175) reveals that the official rules for Group Checks are that “everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds. Otherwise the group fails.” The handbook explains “in such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t.”

I like it I have to say. It’s quick and easy solution, and if fast gameplay is what you’re all about then I think it’s hard to improve on…

However, before I looked up the rules I already started to consider another option, and I think it’s worth sharing.

Group Ability Checks – Hipsters Variant ‘Take The Lead’ Rule

Considering the game scenario I already alluded to above, the way I think I would DM it would be that I would let the party elect the PC who is most skilled in stealth (or whatever) to take the lead and to roll first. If they are successful in their ability check – provided they are able to communicate with the rest of the party, via hand signs etc. – then they can confer advantage to the other PCs on their own roll. However if one fails the game is up.

In my imagination I can see a sneaky Rogue leading his group through the castle at night. Having already told them to keep their unblackened weapons sheathed and used a bit of cloth to muffle a particularly clanky piece of platemail, he leads them through the quiet courtyard, motioning them to stop and then duck, and cling to the darkest of the shadows. This explains why they get advantage on their check. What he can’t do however is prevent them from kicking a barrel of fish over the cobblestones, or tripping over their own cloak, which is why he can’t make one check on the whole party’s behalf.

I quite like this mechanic because it feels a bit more realistic, and with more individual player agency than with the official rules that lump everyone together and don’t punish failed rolls. There’s a clear benefit from having at least one expert in the party, but overall it’s harder for the party to mask the weaknesses of their companions. It also means that the larger group, the harder it is to move stealthily, whereas in the official rules sneaking around with three people of mixed ability is just as hard or easy as sneaking around in a party of 103.

Does this ‘Take The Lead’ mechanic work for other group skills checks? Maybe. A good climber can lead the way up a steep rocky incline showing those that follow the best hand and footholds, giving them advice / encouragement and generally making their lives easier. It would make sense therefore, if this ‘activity leader’ (for want of a better phrase) could confer advantage to others less skilled. In this case, assuming the climbers aren’t roped together, if one fails it wouldn’t mean they all fail.

It might need some more playtesting but hey, I just put it out there… it’s up to you if you decide if you want to use it in your game! But if you do, let me know in what situation and whether it worked. That’s the comment section right there ‚Üď ūüôā

If you liked this idea maybe you will like my rule on what I call Dungeons and Dragons ‘technical proficiencies‘.

Is Paladins’ Divine Smite Overpowered?

Regular readers of this blog (hypothetical beings of extreme awesomeness) will know that I like to have a little bitch and moan about elements of the game that – in my gaming experience at least – have proved overpowered, creating imbalance in the gameplay.

Under my probing microscope I’ve analysed and dismantled the lucky feat and come up with ways of dealing with problematic spells like banishment and counterspell. In fact I’ve been so efficient in dealing with the peccadillos of 5th edition that I’m surprised Mr. Crawford hasn’t looked me up and offered me a job on the 6e team. It’s duncan@hipstersanddragons.com in case you’re trying to reach me Jeremy.

Today’s topic is a pet peeve of mine: Divine Smite.

I once made the mistake of asserting that the Paladin class is overpowered on a large Facebook forum and, whilst a few people heartily concurred with me, the majority shot me down with lots of assumptions about how I was playing the game all wrong, but little in the way of convincing argument. Since then I have detected a massive communal Paladin love-in with both players and game designers alike, which might account for why this class is the only one that has it all in their locker: fighting ability, spellcasting, some of the strongest features/powers in the game and – in the Divine Smite ability – the potential to do mega damage.

Every 5e Paladin ever… (Image from Orclabs.)

The Paladin class in general I’ll bitch about in a separate post, but let’s take a specific look at Divine Smite (p.85 Player’s Handbook). Using a 1st level spell slot you can 2d8 damage extra damage with a melee attack that hits, and an extra d8 on top of that for every spell slot above 1st you are willing to expend.

At first it doesn’t look outrageous. After all you have to sacrifice a spell slot, but why it turns out being too powerful is because it’s a melee attack and spell attack combined. It allows you to effectively cast a high damage spell without expending an extra action and with no saving throw, and in fact once the Paladin gets multiple attacks he can in effect have two melee attacks and cast the equivalent of two spells all in one round. The result is that a Paladin at 9th level attacking with a longsword can do a total of 10d8 damage (+ str modifier doubled) against a baddie in one round with no save (ie. two attacks at 1d8 [longsword] plus 4d8 [3rd level spell slot] each). If his opponent is undead – and who hasn’t fought in a campaigns where every foe was undead? – that goes up to 12d8 total. When the Paladin gets improved Divine Smite at 11th level he could deal 14d8 damage in one round to an undead foe. In all these cases he has to hit with both his melee attacks, but by 9th level that’s pretty likely against most monster ACs.

After that the 9th level Paladin can use up two of his 2nd level spell slots to do another 8d8 (10d8 if undead) the following round, and then back that up with another 7d8 (9d8) in the third round of combat, and then 6d8 (8d8) and still have a spell slot left. Which basically means that one character of the party gets to take down the biggest monster of the day every day, whilst the others twiddle their thumbs. Which is just a bit boring, if you’re not the one playing the Paladin.

The only thing vaguely comparable in the game is the Rogue’s sneak attack, but that can only be dealt once a round, even if the Rogue gets a second attack (which he might if they use their bonus action to attack with an off hand weapon), meaning at 9th level a Rogue is limited to 6d6 damage (1d6 shortsword + 5d6 bonus damage). Of course the Sneak Attack never runs out, unlike spell slots, but unlike smite it does rely on the right circumstances (having advantage, or an ally distracting the target) and is pretty much the only thing the Rogue has going for them vs. the Paladin’s durability and other divine powers and spellcasting options.

Maybe if your Dungeon & Dragoning only consists of waking up in the tavern and then fighting a large and unlikely succession of monsters on the road day after day (so DnD 1.0!) it might not prove to be too overpowered, as the spell slots would get burned up after one or two combats. But if you just fight two or three times in an adventuring day it basically means the Paladin in the party will be deciding the most important battle of the day with Divine Smite every time.

Hipster Rules Fix

Is there an easy fix? I would suggest two or three things that could easily reduce the impact of Divine Smite without Paladin PCs feeling they are getting nerfed.

The first would be limit its use to one time a round, like Sneak Attack. That means they can still do the same damage per spell slot expended but – in the case of fighting one big bad boss – not before at least some of the other PCs have a chance to contribute to the fight, as well as letting the big bad boss actually have a chance to show off his own abilities, making for a tenser, better fight.

It would also mean less dice rolling per round, something that has a negative effect on gameplay as others look at their watches while the Paladin PC finishes calculating the massive damage of their first smite of the round and then gathers up all the d8s on the table for the second… super tedious!

(I’ve just considered the possibility of a Paladin using an off hand weapon as a bonus action and getting a third smite per round… *shudder!*).

I would also suggest that a Paladin should only be able to use a maximum of half their spell slots of any given level to deal Divine Smites, rounding up. So a 9th level Paladin could do 2 x 1st level smites, 2 x 2nd level smites and 1 x 3rd level smite. This has the added benefit of forcing the Paladin PC to be more interesting and use some of their actual spells rather than just turning into a damage dealing machine.

Also you should definitely rule that Divine Smite can only be invoked using Paladin spell slots, something that is not clear from the Player’s Handbook. Unless you’re trying to break the game that is a no brainer, as how could you channel divine power via picking up a spot of sorcery?

I’ve also seen a lot of people on forums mention that they always wait until this score a critical hit to use their smites. As a DM I would rule that Divine Smite damage doesn’t double up on crits… scoring a critical hit is a physical thing, striking the enemy in just the right place at just the right time, and it doesn’t make sense that divine energy would in anyway be reliant on that. In my imagination at least the righteous power of the god is summoned and flows through the Paladin’s weapon in relation to the Paladin’s spiritual power (ie. what spell slot he extended) and it flows in the same strength no matter how sweetly or not the blade strikes. But maybe that’s just me being a spoilsport.

Alternatively you could rule that the PC has to declare if he will use Divine Smite should his attack hit and what spell slot he will expend in that case. This would rule out cynical attempts to do insane damage, but still allow for the fun of a mega critical hit.

Ok hopefully these fixes help balance the game, whilst still keeping your Paladin PC more than potent enough to wreak havoc in the next session.

While you’re here did you check out my post on phobias? It’s a fun way to add some flavour to your PC! And don’t forget never to do these 11 irritating thing as a D&D player!

Is The Lucky Feat Broken?

I’ve prefaced many an article with how well-balanced I think the 5e rules are, and the more I play, the more I realised how spot on WOTC got things… well apart from Counterspell, healing rules, Paladins (more on them another time!), and a few other bits and pieces.

One – inexplicable – thing that blows my mind though is how the Lucky feat survived playtesting. Every single one of the four Dungeon Masters in my group has banned it from the table (the only change to the official rules we all agree on!); and if you do allow it you’ll find that once one player has it, every other player will cotton on how powerful it is and select it too, meaning a highly irritating slew of (unnecessary and overly influential) extra dice rolls during every session.

That time you rerolled your charisma check…

Before I complain any further, let’s take a look at it (p.167, Player’s Handbook):

***

Lucky

You have inexplicable luck that seems to kick in at just the right moment.
You have 3 luck points. Whenever you make an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw, you can spend one luck point to roll an additional d20. You can choose to spend one of your luck points after you roll the die, but before the outcome is determined. You choose which of the d20s is used for the attack roll, ability check, or saving throw.

You can also spend one luck point when an attack roll is made against you. Roll a d20, and then choose whether the attack uses the attacker’s roll or yours.
If more than one creature spends a luck point to influence the outcome of a roll, the points cancel each other out; no additional dice are rolled. You regain your expended luck points when you finish a long rest.

***

For newbies at first glance perhaps it doesn’t seem too overpowered… after all there are plenty of great feats, and your other option of course is to add 2 to a key ability score that will get you plenty of extra pluses as you go.

However consider this. Inspiration (p. 125, PH), which gives a PC advantage on a key roll during an adventure, is supposed to represent that magical stroke of luck heroes get during crucial moments. That fortune of the brave that helps ensure when they jump from a burning building with the true-born infant king in their arms they don’t splat onto the floor, but expertly roll with the fall, cradling the babe in their arms. Inspiration is a hard earned reward (p.240, DMG), given sparingly to PCs, usually for true-to-character roleplaying (especially roleplaying that puts one at a disadvantage), major goal achievement or epic heroism. As it’s only really designed to settle that adventure-hinging moment, not consistently influence play, only one inspiration “point” can be “stored” at a time. All-in-all it works perfectly as a game mechanic – it’s a powerful reward, for extraordinary deeds, to be used at a key juncture in your party’s story.

And then in walks Lucky feat… and ruins everything.

To select Lucky feat is to essentially be granted unearned inspiration three times a day, and goes against everything the game designers planned for inspiration itself. In fact it’s several times more powerful than three times inspiration because, unlike with inspiration, which you need to declare you’re using before you roll, with Lucky you can wait until the die is cast to decide if you’re going to force a re-roll. That makes it worth more like 5 or 6 inspiration “points” a day, as you get to use it only when you’re sure you need it.

To select Lucky feat is to essentially be granted unearned inspiration three times a day, and goes against everything the game designers planned for inspiration itself.

The result is that any PC with the Lucky feat dictates their own success all too often, in not just a key juncture, but in three big moments a day, when usually they would have failed, perverting the flow of the game in their favour, and often isolating them from ever having anything bad happen to their character. No one likes failing a crucial saving throw, attack roll or ability check, but failure, and the chance of failure, is also a lot of what makes D&D fun – and how you deal with it as a party is similarly often what makes the game memorable and unpredictable. I probably don’t need to tell you either that the larger your chance to failure, the more fun success is when it happens… something else that gets lost when you try to stack the odds.

The exact extend of how overpowered / broken the feat is does depend a fair bit on how many encounters you tend to have at your table a day. My group tend to favour a more realistic flavour of D&D, meaning just one or two encounters during your average day of adventuring at which point Lucky borders on ridiculous in its ability to define key moments. However even if you play hack and slash dungeons with multiple encounters a day I would vote taking Lucky off the table… aside from being overpowered it doesn’t add any flavour at all – it’s a bland catch all that makes you more powerful in any field at any time – ¬†and is essentially a cop out for players unable to deal with adversity.

Lucky Feat variants

If you want to keep Lucky but fix it somehow, here are some suggestions on how to deal with it.

Option 1.¬†Have the player roll a d4 minus 1 after a long rest to determine how many luck points they have for the day ahead (ie. they roll a 4 they have 3 luck points, a 3 = 2 luck points, a 2 = 1, and roll a 1 and they have zero luck points). This gives them an average of 1.5 luck points a day, instead of 3… and this way you get to test if they really are that lucky!

Option 2. Alternatively, if you are a bit more generous than I am, then you could have them roll a d3 simply, giving them 1-3 luck points a day and an average of 2.

Option 3.¬†The PC still gets 3 luck points a day, but instead of forcing a reroll they have the option, after the dice is rolled (but before outcome is determined) to use a luck point to add 1d4 to their original roll. This means that three times a day the PC can turn a narrow failure into a narrow success – with a bit of luck! This better represents what it means to be lucky in my opinion, and is probably how the rules should have been written. It’s still a massively powerful feat, but it can’t turn extreme failure into victory any more.

 

Right, I actually really love feats in general, and they are an awesome way to power up your character whilst giving them more flavour at the same time… so I’ll be back with some more thoughts on best feats for different classes soon! Stay tuned.

More Realistic Healing Rules (5e D&D)

The more I play 5e D&D the more I feel the designers got a very complex balancing act almost exactly right. Sure a few feats (Luck!), spells (Counterspell) and special abilities (Divine Smite) are overpowered, but considering the task at hand you have to say hats off, great job.

One significant thing that bugs me though are the official rules to do with healing and rests. All too often a character that just moments ago was clobbered to zero hit points by the spiked club of a stone giant, on the cusp of death, can restore themselves to full health by laying down by a grassy knoll for a 60 minute siesta. Quite aside from this assault on our credulity, the overpowered nature of rests also undermines magical healing like Cure Light Wounds and Lay On Hands, an important function of Clerics and Paladins.

What are you doing? I just need a short rest!

After a minor 20 year hiatus from the world of fantasy (during which time I even considered it a bit naff), one of the reasons I got back into Dungeons & Dragons was the sheer awesomeness of Game of Thrones. With its gritty realistic take on the genre and a strong focus on intrigue, war and politics I started to see fantasy through a new lens… it didn’t have to be a cheesy battle of good vs. evil that relied on epic monsters and magical effects to keep its audience entertained. Done well and fantasy could be complex, character-driven and credible – but to do so it has to employ the same techniques used by the best storytellers in every other genre. The fantasy element should be the delicious icing on the spongey goodness of a believable plot line, not the cake itself. Since realising that I’ve tried to inject as much realism into my return to D&D as possible, as both a DM and player. If I’m the DM and I throw a band of goblins at the party then there needs to be a reason for that… why are these goblins in the area? How do these goblins survive? Where do they live? If they ransack every caravan that passes how does trade even continue to exist in the region? I want the worlds I create and play in to make as much sense as possible… just as George R. R. Martin’s Westeros does.

It’s my love of realism that means I take issue with the healing rules in 5th edition D&D, and the short and long rests mechanics. Chilling out for an hour after every combat shouldn’t be enough to mend broken bones, seal critical wounds and have arrow-sized holes in your torso magically clear up – nor should this frequently-taken power nap work better than most healing spells and magic potions. As for the long rest, whilst everybody loves a good night’s sleep, the crazy mechanics that you restore all HP are such you never carry an injury, no matter how severe, into the next day (let alone the rest of your life). It feels like a computer game power bar that charges up the moment you stop taking hits, which might be convenient for a shallow hack’n’slash campaign, but creates friction for those of us who want to try and believe in the worlds our characters inhabit.

The awkward moment your Rage ends…

Of course full realism for wounds and healing (I know there are some smart asses who are going to bring this up) can’t work. If that was the case you’d have to roll for potential infections for every scratch and mighty warriors would soon go the way of the way of Khal Drogo or The Hound, taken down by “flea bites”. And that’s not to mention the tedious accumulation of effects of being injured several times a day that would make gameplay a nightmare.

Official Rules: Optional Healing Variants

Taking a look at the official optional rules for rests etc. (p266 and 277 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide) there are two options that make healing even easier (cue me smashing my head against wall) and two that make it harder, so let’s take a quick look at them. Slow Natural Healing is the method that one or two of the DMs in my group use. Every day you get a full complement of Hit Dice to employ at the end of short or long rests, which is way better than getting all your HP back and full complement of Hit Dice (as per Player Handbook, p186), but still allows you to power back from the edge of death in a jiffy if needed. The Gritty Realism option however then takes thing way too far the other way… a short rest takes 8 hours and a long rest 7 days! That changes the game so radically that it’s not something I really want to even try out. It would also have a major effect on abilities and spellcasting (unless they operate under normal rest rules… it’s not really clear).

Nope, I’m going to have to sort this one out myself…

Hipsters & Dragons’ Healing Rules

To resolve this gameplay issue to my satisfaction I’ve homebrewed these optional healing rules that I believe provide a nice balance of realism and simplicity, giving the PCs something to worry about (“guys, maybe we should parlay this encounter!?”) without hamstringing them. In fact I already playtested them during a recent adventure and I was pleased with the results (the time limitations on short rests meant there were a few grumbles from the fighter in our party when he found out he can’t get all his superiority dice back after every combat anymore…. but I’m also all for PCs having to go into fights without all their powers on occasion).

Let me know your thoughts and if any feedback you might have from playtesting them… I may well fine tune them in future.

General Rules

A character can benefit from a maximum of three rests in a 24 hour period, either one long rest and two short rests, or three short rests (if for some reason there is no time for a long sleep at the end of the day). Rests must be spaced at least four hours apart, if a character is to derive any benefits from them.

Long Rest

At the end of a long rest a character recovers HPs equal to half their hit dice rounding up. Ie. a 9th level character recovers 5 hit dice worth of HP. They must roll each dice.

Short Rest

At the end of a short rest a character may recover one hit dice for every four levels they have. Ie. levels 1-4 = 1 hit dice, levels 5-8 = 2 hit dice, levels 9-12 = 3 hit dice etc. They must roll each dice.

Treating Wounds (adding Constitution Modifier)

A recuperating character may add a positive Con modifier to each hit dice, if they have one, only if their wounds are successfully treated. To be considered treated either they themselves (depending on location of wound, DM to decide) or someone else in their party must make a Wisdom (Medicine) check DC15. If this person employs one use of a healer’s kit (p151 PH), the DC is reduced to 10.

NB: As I consider Medicine ‘a technical proficiency’, non proficient players would get disadvantage on this check… suddenly it pays to actually have someone with Medicine proficiency in the party!

If the character has a minus Con. modifier the same Medicine check can negate it.

Severe Injuries

It also annoys me when characters with 1 HP run around the place as if they have never felt better. Here are a couple more optional rules you might like in order to add a dash more realism to your game.

Critically Injured: Ask your characters to make a note of what 10% of their maximum HP is (or 15% if you want to be tougher on them!) rounding any fraction, no matter how small, upwards (ie. 10% of 11 HP in this case becomes 2 HP). When characters equal or fall below this amount of HP, they automatically suffer the effects of one level of exhaustion and must make a Constitution Saving Throw DC10 to avoid suffering from two levels of exhaustion.

Last Legs: Any PC on 1 HP automatically suffers from two levels of exhaustion and must make a Con Saving Throw DC15 to avoid suffering from three levels of exhaustion.

A Quick & Easy Flanking Optional Rule

So I’m going to be DMing this Sunday, and one thing I want to introduce into combat is a quick and easy flanking rule that conveys some of the danger of being outnumbered in combat. Fifth edition only has an optional rule that conveys advantage, but that can be too strong at times (and not strong enough at others, if someone is surrounded by five foes) and involves another dice roll.

So here we go, here’s my simple rules fix. In a combat between one combatant and multiple opponents, each of the multiple opponent gets a plus modifier equivalent to their number.

Example: Aragorn is fighting two orcs. Each orc gets + 2 to their attack roll. Aragorn is fighting three orcs. Each orc gets +3 to their attack roll. Aragorn is fighting six orcs (probably the max. I’d allow to attack at one time), each orc gets +6 to their attack roll.

Note that I won’t be paying any attention to the direction the single combatant is facing, which I assume to be constantly shifting in battle. So the single combatant will still get their shield and AC bonus – having a shield and being agile would no doubt be useful still, and perhaps more importantly saves additional calculations.

Will be playtesting this on Sunday… if you think it might work for your table please try it and let me know your thoughts!

Is Counterspell Overpowered? How To Deal With Counterspell as a DM…

Is Counterspell overpowered? The answer is probably yes. Using just a reaction (ie. you can still use your own action to cast another spell or attack!), and a third level spell slot (minimum), you can negate the effect of any spell of 3rd level or lower cast within 60ft of you, and you have a decent chance of bringing higher level spells to a grinding halt as well.

During a recent encounter our poor Dungeon Master grew quite frustrated as the sorcerer in our party rendered a high level cleric powerless, by negating a succession of dangerous spells that would have put the combat right in the balance, all with just a couple of 3rd level spell slots. Maybe that’s why DM David voted it one of the four most annoying spells in D&D!

Counter this beeactch... (Artwork by Biffno on Deviantart)

Counter this beeatch… (Artwork by Biffno on Deviantart)

As a Dungeon Master the spell carries a double annoyance. It can make it harder to judge how tough to make encounters (if Fire Storm takes effect the party is going to be in a lot of trouble… if it doesn’t it could turn into a cakewalk), and from a story point of view it can replace epic happenings with the empty hiss of arcane magic fizzling out into nothing.

Of course you could simply ban the spell from the table, but that can feel pretty rough on those who consider it a key weapon in their armoury, so let’s look at some ways you can legitimately prevent it from getting overpowered without changing the existing rules.

1. Perception Check
The caster of Counterspell has to be able to see the caster of the spell they are trying to interrupt. But let’s remember that they don’t get a little notification in their inbox saying “someone within 60ft of you is trying to cast a spell, would you like to try and counter it?” Just because it’s possible for character A. to see character B., ie. there is a clear line of sight, doesn’t mean that character A. was looking in that direction at exactly the right moment. Unless the character in question was unquestionably focused on the caster have them roll a Perception check to see if they notice what the hell is going on. On a chaotic battlefield with multiple casters I’d recommend a DC of around 15.

2. Don’t Automatically Reveal What Spell Is Being Cast
If you know one or more of your players has Counterspell up their wizards’ sleeves, then be smart. Don’t declare what spell your NPC is casting. Simply inform your player(s) that they see a creature (if indeed they do see them… see points 1. and 2.) about to cast a spell, and have them roll an Arcana check DC15. If they pass they correctly guess the spell being cast, otherwise they have no idea and have to gamble whether or not to use their spell slot to try and counter the spell on what might just be a magic missile or cantrip. What’s more if the character has never seen the spell cast before give them disadvantage on their Arcana roll (if they have seen it plenty, or frequently cast it themselves, you should probably give them advantage). If you want to be really mean roll for them privately, behind your screen, and feed them misinformation when they fail their roll. This way they never know for sure, because even when they pass the check and you tell them the truth, they don’t know they passed the roll, so can’t be sure to trust their character’s assessment.

3. Make The Players Act Instantly
The uncertainty caused by point 3. will create a lot hesitation… snap your fingers, and if they haven’t decided tell them they’re too late! They just lost their reaction. Better luck next time. (That is if they survive the Lich’s Power Word Kill… mwah ha ha ha!).

4. Get The Rules Right
When the spell being cast is higher than the spell slot being used to interrupt it the Counterspeller must make a DC check of 10 plus the spell level. They can add their spellcasting ability but NOT their proficiency bonus. (I mention this because we got this wrong on our table and indeed our frustrated DM might have got off at least one more spell if we had this clearer! There is actually a skill called Improved Abjuration available to Wizards who follow the School of Abjuration who reach 10th level that enables them to add their proficiency bonuses to this roll [p.115 of the Player’s Handbook]… chances are your players don’t have that!).

5. One Reaction A Turn Max.
Remember the spell does take a reaction. And every character only gets one reaction a round. So if they’ve cast Shield already for example, or indeed another Counterspell, or used Uncanny Dodge to halve some damage (if they are multiclass Rogue), then they’re shit out of luck.

6. Fight Fire(ball Extinguisher) with Fire(ball Extinguisher)
One other very obvious way to fight the power of Counterspell is to arm all your NPCs casters with it as well – a particularly good tactic if you want to persuade magic using characters on your table to drop it from gameplay altogether, as you’ll soon see them get frustrated when their own spells fizzle out and the combat is decided by the fighters in the party. (Do note however, despite some DMs arguing that you can, you can’t Counterspell a Counterspell. Aside from the ridiculousness that would ensue, that would also involve casting two spells simultaneously, which is not only against the rules, but also against common sense. Additionally CS is so fast there’s no way you could react to it… most spells take several seconds to cast, CS takes a split second).

Hipster Rules Fix

If, after applying all these factors to your gameplay, you still feel that the spell is overpowered let me suggest the following rules fix. Instead of setting a DC, the CS caster must contest the original caster each using their spellcasting ability modifier. If one of them is using a higher spell slot than the other, they get +2 modifier per slot higher.

Eg. Gandalf is a wizard with Intelligence 18 (+4 spellcasting modifier) and seeing the dastardly Harry Potter (Intelligence 16, +3 modifier) preparing a nefarious incantation he successfully rolls Arcana to recognise it. It’s the level 7 Finger of Death spell! Gandalf uses his highest spell slot left, a level 6, to try to counter it. He rolls a 15, which becomes 19 with his spellcasting modifier. Harry rolls 13, plus his own spellcasting modifier of 3, and an additional plus 2 as his spell is one level higher than the slot being used to counter it. His total is 18 (a draw would result in the spell being cast). Gandalf succeeds in his counter… just.

In my rules fix there’s also no such thing as an automatic counter, so you should roll/contest if even if you are countering a spell using a higher spell slot, getting +2 on your roll per slot level higher you use. (Otherwise a higher level wizard would systematically destroy a lower one without a chance, which is against the spirit of D&D).

Personally I quite like Counterspell, probably because I currently play as a multi-class Fighter / Rogue / Wizard, and it gives me a chance at least to avoid seriously nasty spells of magic users before engaging them in melee, where I have the upper hand. As someone with a long history of failing saving throws I really enjoy getting a second chance to avoid some excruciatingly annoying effect that is going to take my character out of the game for the rest of the encounter…

Plus this guy has some good advice on making it fun!

Critical Fumble Tables for 5e D&D

What happens when you roll a 1 for an attack roll in Dungeons & Dragons? Well according to the official 5th Edition rules, not too much.

“If the d20 roll for an attack is a 1, the attack misses regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC.” (p194 of the Player’s Handbook).

So you automatically miss, no matter what your attack roll modifier is and no matter how easy a target your opponent is, but nothing bad happens to mirror the powerful effects of scoring a critical hit when you roll a 20 (when you do double damage to your foe, and – at the DM’s discretion – also roll on the Lingering Injuries table – p272 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

a “critical fumble” blasts open the door of opportunity for something funny, unexpected or challenging to happen to both PCs and NPCs/Monsters

That’s a bit boring frankly speaking! As far as I’m concerned¬†a “critical fumble” blasts open the door of opportunity for something funny, unexpected or challenging to happen to both PCs and NPCs/Monsters, and every DM worth his salt will want to seize this opportunity to spice up a combat. Making up details on the fly can be challenging (a DM has plenty to think about as it is!) and can even make PCs feel victimised if they bear the brunt of an ad hoc ruling – leading to tedious¬†arguments and/or an unhappy player. But, by having a clear table that applies to 1s rolled on attacks by¬†both players and monsters, not only can you depend on some interesting outcomes for your D&D combats… but hey you can blame it all on the dice!

Dammit, not again...

Dammit, not again…

So without further ado, here is Hipsters & Dragons very own homebrew critical fumbles chart for melee weapons (with separate charts for both thrown and fired range weapons underneath). Just buy me a beer sometime!

UPDATE. I’ve polished up these tables, added charts for natural weapons and spell attacks and published on the DMs Guild in a lovely printable PDF. If you’d like to donate a dollar to the cause, even better!

Critical Fumbles Table (Melee Weapons)

Roll a d20…

1-2. Weapon Break. The force of your blow, or parrying that of your opponent’s, causes your weapon to snap in two. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

3-4. Goodbye Fair Blade! Roll an Strength / Athletics check DC 15, or your weapon flies d12 feet out of your hand in a random direction. If you have any movement and a bonus action left you can go and pick it up. In doing so you provoke an opportunity attack from anyone in the area, starting with your most immediate opponent. (Otherwise you could simply draw a second weapon, if you have one, using a bonus action).

5-6. Wild Swing. You overextend yourself going for the kill. Your opponent gains advantage on their next attack roll.

7. Stuck Weapon. Your weapon gets stuck in your opponent’s shield, armour, hide, or else in a tree or wall, or the ground. Roll a Strength check to see if you can free it using a bonus action. The DC is 8 + your strength modifier.

8. Ooops! You hit an unintended foe in combat. Randomise all combatants within 5 feet and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target. (Discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

9. Self Inflicted wound. You manage to slice yourself with your own blade, roll normal damage and half it. (Applies to combatants using slashing weapons and flails only. Other weapon types roll again. Discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

10-14. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics check (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

15. Pulled Muscle (Arms). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

16. Pulled Muscle (Legs). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of combat causes you to pull a muscle in your leg. Your movement is halved, and you lose your dex modifier to AC and initiative, and you have disadvantage on any ability checks that require lower body strength, until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

17-18. Loss of Nerve.¬†Man your opponent looks tough. Make a Wisdom Saving Throw with a base DC of 10 modified by +2 for every hit dice higher than you your opponent has (or -2 for every hit dice less). On a fail you are frightened (see p292 of Player’s Handbook). After one turn you can attempt the saving throw again.

19. Broken Item. In the hurly burly of combat, something fragile – like a magic potion – you’re carrying breaks. Randomise fragile objects you have¬†in your¬†possession and roll to determine which. (Note, better to do this when the combat is over).

20. A Little Accident. Either through fear, excitement or simply needing to go, you soil yourself. 75% chance it’s only pee.

Critical Misses Table (Shooting Range Weapons)

Roll a d20…

1-2. Weapon Break. Your bow shaft or a mechanism in your crossbow breaks and is now useless. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

3-5. String Break. Your bowstring snaps. It takes 15 minutes to restring it.

6-8. Loose String. Your string comes loose. You lose this attack. Starting next turn you can make a sleight of hand check DC15 to fix it. Each attempt takes one turn.

9-16. Ooops! You hit an unintended random target. Randomise all combatants within 10 feet (for a short range attack, or 30 feet for a long range attack) and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target (discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

17-18. Ammo Accident. Your quiver spills (50% strap broken, 50% you tilt it over by accident), and the remainder of your arrows / bolts fall to the floor. If you remain still you can use a bonus action to pick up one a round and still fire using your action. Otherwise you can use an action to pick up 2d8 and put them back in your quiver.

19. Pulled Muscle (Upper Body). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

20. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

Critical Misses Table (Thrown Range Weapons)

Roll a d10

1. Weapon Break. The impact of your weapon hitting a tree, the ground, a shield etc. causes it to break. It is now useless. (For magical weapons roll an additional d10, on a 1 they break).

2. Pulled Muscle (Arms). Roll a Constitution Saving Throw DC15 or the strain of your attack causes you to pull a muscle in your upper body. You have disadvantage in attack rolls and ability checks requiring upper body strength until you have completed three long rests, or received magical healing.

3-4. Slip Up. You lose your footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics (DC15) or fall prone. Your turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone).

5-9. Ooops! You hit an unintended random target. Randomise all combatants within 10 feet (for a short range attack, or 30 feet for a long range attack) and roll a second attack roll, if you beat their armour class roll damage as if they were your intended target (discount sneak attack damage for Rogues).

10. WTF? You launch a comically bad projectile attack nowhere near your intended¬†opponent – it flies into a huge empty space (or at DM’s discretion a distant unintended target) taking your self confidence with it. Roll wisdom saving throw DC15, or suffer disadvantage to attack rolls until you next score a hit on an opponent.

Critical Fumbles for High Level Characters. Once your PCs have two or three attacks a round, they might start rolling an incongruous number of fumbles, especially for heroes of their ability. Whilst being a higher level should also make passing some saving throws / skills checks easier, as well as reduce the chance of weapon breaks (as most high level characters fight with magical weapons), if you feel it’s necessary you could bring in a new rule. Starting at Level 5 you could¬†give them a fumble saving throw where if they roll their level or below on a d20 they suffer no adverse effects. That way extremely high level characters will rarely fumble. Or you could rule that only if they roll a 1 on their first attack of their round do they have to consult this table. Rolling a 1 on any other attack and¬†it’s just an automatic miss.

Like this? I’ve got a few other homebrew rules that you might like as well. If you have a chance to play test any of them do let me know in the comments. Would love to hear from you…

Update, what happens when a monster with natural weapons, such as bite, claw or tail attack, rolls a 1? Here we go….

Critical Misses Table (Natural Weapons)

Roll a d10.

1-2. Ouch! The attacker snaps one or several teeth / claws on its target’s weapon or armour, or nearby surface. They receive 1d3hp of damage, and furthermore they must subtract the result of the same d3 roll from damage done from this attack from now on. (Ignore for tail attacks).

3-5. Wild Swing. The attacker overextends itself going for the kill. Their intended target gains advantage on their next attack roll.

6-7. Slip Up. The attacker loses its footing. Roll Dexterity / Acrobatics check (DC15) or fall prone. Their turn has ended and melee attacks have advantage on you (see p292 of PH for conditions of being prone). Creatures with more than two legs are immune to this effect.

8-10. Loss of Nerve.¬†The attacker is scared. They must make a Wisdom Saving Throw with a base DC of 10 modified by +2 for every hit dice higher the target of the attack has vs. the attacker (or -2 for every hit dice less). On a fail they are frightened (see p292 of Player’s Handbook). After one turn they can attempt the saving throw again. Creatures that inspire fear are immune to this effect (unless their target also inspires fear).

Now available on the DMs Guild…

>>> Download these tables in a handy and printable PDF form <<<

Using Skills Without Proficiency (5e D&D)

Can I use a skill that I’m not proficient in?

According to the letter of the rules, yes you can. Page 174 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook states:

“Proficiency in a skill means an individual can add his or her proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill. Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check [adding just their ability modifier].”

Remember your proficiency bonus is the one that goes up as you gain levels. It starts at +2 at level one and is added to all skills checks your proficient in, as well as to attack rolls with weapons you’re proficient in. Check p15 of the Player’s Handbook for a table that shows proficiency bonuses next to character levels.

Your ability modifiers are the bonus (or minus) you get depending on your ability scores in strength, dexterity, intelligence etc. They are added to every ability/skill check you make.

To be 100% clear two first level Rogues, Vince and Howard, are walking across a tightrope above a yawning precipice. They both have dexterity 16 giving them an ability modifier of +3 each. But furthermore Vince has the acrobatics proficiency, meaning he can add a further +2 to his roll to make a total modifier of +5. Whilst Howard, who isn’t proficient, will have to hope +3 is all he requires!

skills and proficiencies

I’ll be fine with just my ability modifier Vince

This rule works pretty well for skills that most people could reasonably attempt at least, like climbing and jumping (athletics), riding a horse (animal handling), foraging for food (survival) or telling an outrageous lie whilst looking someone right in the eye (deception)… however for me it falls down when we talk about more technical skills, or ones that require specialist knowledge.

For that reason, I’ve created this small rules fix which declares several of the D&D skills as “technical skills / proficiencies”. When attempting to use these skills non-proficient characters not only don’t add their proficiency bonus but they attempt any checks at disadvantage.

Hipsters & Dragons list of “Technical Skills”

  • Arcana
  • Religion
  • Medicine
  • Thieves Toolkit
  • Disguise Kit
  • Poison Kit

All of these skills require a degree of specialist training and knowledge that, for me, need to be reflected in terms of probability when a non-proficient character uses them, and which I do by imposing disadvantage. The average fighter is not going to have a clue about arcane or religious rituals, not does he have the anatomical knowledge or herbal lore to have any realistic chance of performing any healing (medicine) on anyone other than bandaging wounds. (In fact I think it would be justified under many circumstances if the DM gives a non proficient no chance at all in tests of these skills). I will also place on the list:

  • Performance

With the caveat that non proficient characters can still have a decent bash at singing, storytelling or delivering a great speech… however they can’t just pick up a harp at a royal wedding and expect to impress the princess. (Most players will instinctively know this and roleplay accordingly anyhow… but hey show them this post if they disagree!).

Finally I will add that within the non-technical skills, as a DM I would still consider giving disadvantage to non proficient players for some more specialist skill tests. In fact my tightrope example above is a good one in this regard… whilst it makes sense that every character can attempt to forward roll over a tavern table without proficiency in acrobatics, walking a tightrope is a very technical skill, so a tough-but-fair DM (my favourite type) could easily justify imposing disdvantage. Similarly if you attempt to Crocodile Dundee a Buffalo and you’re not proficient in animal handling, I’m going to give you disadvantage (on top of a very high Difficulty Class… p.174 Player’s Handbook).

Improved Grappling Rules for 5th Edition

So here’s a question for any Dungeon Masters out there… have you ever pit your adventurers against an awesome and powerful foe and looked forward to the epic battle that was going to ensure between them… only for one of the characters to shout out on round one of the combat “I’m going to grapple him!”

One lucky roll later and your supposedly awe-inspiring NPC is restrained by a weedy 1st level halfling rogue whilst the others rain blows on his motionless ass, making short work of him.

(Image by Janus on ddemotivators).

(Image by Janus on ddemotivators).

The 5e D&D grappling rules have a lot to be desired in my opinion, and are also pretty vague. For a start the condition of being grappled (p290 in Player’s Handbook) states only that the subject cannot move, however most players will expect some kind of advantage over an NPC they have successfully wrestled with. It would make more sense if the conditions of being restrained (p292 PH) were also applied to the grappled subject.

In short, I’ve come up with what I think are improved rules, which effectively reduce your chances to grapple in armed combat, when such circumstances would realistically make this very difficult indeed, but do make grappling well worthwhile in the right circumstances. I also made some slight tweaks, for example whilst it makes sense that you can avoid being grappled using Dexterity / Acrobatics, once grappled it makes sense that only Strength / Athletics will set you free (you can hardly cartwheel out of danger if someone is holding your ankles). These rules are a little more complicated than Wizard of the Coast’s but I am confident that they will improve your gameplay and help you create realistic scenarios that your players will understand.

IMPROVED GRAPPLING RULES (5e DnD)

When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action this attack replaces one of them.

The target of your grapple must be within your reach and can be the same size as you, one size larger than you (in which case you suffer disadvantage), one size smaller (you gain advantage), or two sizes smaller (disadvantage… it’s hard to grab a rabbit!).

You can choose to use one hand (at disadvantage), or two hands. You must drop anything in these hands in order to grapple. If your target is armed you provoke an opportunity of attack from your opponent. If this attack is successful you take damage and the grapple automatically fails.

If the creature is unarmed and / or they fail on their attack of opportunity you make an Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target may choose which). If you succeed you subject the target to the restrained condition.

Escaping A Grapple

A grappled creature can use its action to escape. To do it must contest a Strength (Athletics) check with its opponent. Note that the original contest would count at the victim’s reaction, so if they have not used their action this round (ie. they were after their attacker in the initiative sequence) they may use it in the same round to try and escape. Alternatively they may try to attack (with disadvantage, see conditions for being restrained). If they hit their target (who cannot add their dex modifier to their AC), the grappler must make a Strength check with DC 10 + damage of the attack to maintain the grapple.

If the victim of a grapple fails to escape for three turns, including the turn they were grappled in, then they are considered to be incapacitated (can speak only).

Moving a Grappled Creature

When you move you can drag or carry the grappled creature with you but your speed is halved, unless the creature is two or more sizes smaller than you.

RESTRAINED (GRAPPLED)

(Modified from Player’s Handbook p292).

  • A restrained creature’s speed become 0.
  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage (also they can’t add their dex modifier to their AC), and the creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage.
  • The creature has disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.
  • Spellcasters must roll DC 15 (modified by spellcasting ability) to cast spells that include more than verbal components (spells with only verbal components can be cast as normal).

Further Notes

Note that monsters with a different physiognomy to humans that naturally grapple in their attacks, such as giant scorpions, do not provoke an opportunity attack when trying to grapple.

Once a creature is grappled, a second person, with at least one free hand, can use their action to confer advantage on keeping the subject grappled, provided he moves before the victim in the initiative chain. (The DM may rule that a third person renders the victim incapacitated provided they are of the same size as the one being grappled).

A grappler may use their bonus action to attack their victim (with advantage, as per the conditions of being restrained) either with an unarmed strike or a weapon (in the latter only if they succeeded in grappling with one hand… which remember they do with disadvantage). This means however, if they were not already, that they are now grappling with one hand, and so contest any escape attempt in this round at disadvantage.

The person who is being grappled normally has disadvantage on their attack rolls (see restrained condition above), however if they attack their grappler with unarmed strike or short weapon (dagger or smaller) they can lose that disadvantage. The DM may rule that they need to make a sleight of hand check to be able to draw a dagger if they were not already carrying it. Suggested DC10.

EXAMPLE OF NEW RULES IN PLAY

Nada a 4th level fighter / rogue PC with strength 14 is speaking with Xenia (a 4th level rogue assassin with strength 10, dex 18), a mysterious half elf with a scarred face, in The Thirsty Goat Tavern. She decides she can’t trust Xenia and without warning jumps across the table to grab her. Xenia is alert so Nada doesn’t get a surprise, but the DM gives Nada first initiative for the round without rolling. She rolls 12 for her attempted grapple and has proficiency in athletics making a total of 16, but Xenia has proficiency in acrobatics +4 dex modifier rolls 11 and gets a total of 17, ducking aside as Nada goes flying over the tabletop, sending two flagons of ale flying. Xenia promptly draws her shortsword, stabs Nada (who the DM rules is prone) and then uses her move turn to run out of the tavern door. Here she runs into Grunder a half orc paladin PC who was guarding the door. He drops his sword and also tries to grapple her, using both his hands. Xenia now is armed though, so he provokes an opportunity attack – which unfortunately for Xenia pings off his plate mail, allowing him to go through with the grapple. Grunder has strength 18 and rolls a 15 (+2 +4 = 21)… Xenia rolls a 3 (+2 +4 = 9). She is grappled and subjected to conditions of being restrained. They roll for initiative and Xenia wins. She has a choice… contest the grapple using strength (athletics), as she can no longer use acrobatics. Or make an attack at disadvantage that might force Grunder to let go of her. As she isn’t proficient in athletics, she prefers her chances at making an attack at disadvantage. She has +6 to hit AC18 and luckily rolls a 12 and a 19. She deals Grunder a meaty 9 hp damage, meaning he has to make DC 19 to maintain the grapple. The lucky half orc rolls 13, which with his proficiency and str bonus is just enough. Xenia is still grappled. It’s then Nada’s turn to act and she leaps to her feet and attacks Xenia with her longsword with advantage dealing 10hp damage. Grunder then uses his bonus action to punch Xenia, again at advantage, dealing 5hp damage. Realising she’s in a bind, Xenia begs for mercy.

For an in depth discussion on grappling check this conversation out on Facebook that these rules prompted (I should add that many defended the original rules for their simplicity, and stressed that grappling is just for reducing the movement of your opponent). If you’ve had any issues with grappling or playtested my rules please leave a comment below.

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