Hipsters & Dragons

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

Category: New & Improved Rules (Page 1 of 2)

Circle of the Moon Druid. The Unlikely Tank.

One thing I like about 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, as opposed to the 1st and 2nd edition D&D of my youth, is how the designers have broadened the depiction of classic classes to make them far more interesting. A paladin is longer bound to be a pompous holy warrior, clerics can be much more than bland skeleton-turning healers, and you don’t have to dress in a white frock, sickling mistletoe if you want to play a druid.

Hands up if you hate mistletoe!

The fresh, original artwork of the Player’s Handbook and its evocative class description, with intriguing background prompts, pushes you towards a character concept that feels far broader than the frail, old, Stonehenge worshipper you might have played in the late 1980s. And while this evolution is to be applauded, one thing I never expected was for the druid class to become the party’s official ‘tank’.

All the druid needed was a sexy makeover! (Art by Wizards of the Coast).

If you’ve been playing D&D for longer than half an hour, you probably know by now that tank is the phrase players use to describe the member(s) of their party who fight on the front line and soak up enemy hits, enabling more delicate rogues, rangers and wizards to contribute to the fight from a safe distance.

With their disdain of metallic armour and spells like call lightning (a great damage dealer… which gets a bit boring!), the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

…the druid was traditionally filed very much under ‘squishy, ranged damage dealer’ in early editions of the game, but that’s all changed dramatically with the introduction of Wild Shape.

In 5th edition, Circle of the Moon druids can turn into a creature with many more hit points than itself twice in between rests, and deplete all of those hit points, before changing back to its normal form unharmed.

Cool…. but mind-bogglingly imbalanced.

I’m not going to crunch the numbers too much on this, but a level two Circle of the Moon druid, who might naturally have 17 hit points, could easily access 222 extra hit points during the course of an adventuring day, by Wild Shaping six times into a dire wolf with 37 hit points (and that based on a day with just two short rests).

Just let that sink in… and then ask: what the actual fuck!?

That blows any comparable abilities out of the material plane of existence. A fighter’s (the traditional tank!) Second Wind feature, used three times at 2nd level, would get you around 21 extra hp. 😱

And that’s just the hit points.

Erm, should you really be setting fire to that tree?

If I told you I was homebrewing a class that, on top of cleric-level spellcasting abilities, could also climb walls at 2nd level, breathe underwater at 4th level, fly at 8th level, that could shrink to the size of a mouse almost at will, gain darkvision when it wanted, gain advantage on perception rolls, move at 50ft a round, etc. etc. you would think… “this guy is creating the most broken class of all time!” But these are all the added bonuses a druid can take advantage of, in addition to the obscene truckloads of temporary hit points it gains as a result of the Wild Shape ability.

Much as I love the concept, fun and flavour of Wild Shape, this is simply overpowered and unbalancing, especially in the lower levels of the game… (where, incidentally, I play most of my D&D).

One character shouldn’t be 10 times or more harder to kill than the other members of the adventuring party, especially not when you consider how many other powers it picks up by virtue of the same ability.

If like me you believe Wild Shape needs a rethink, let’s consider what we can do to change it.

Wild Shape Fix Number 1

I can’t really understand why the designers pressed the nuclear option when it came to making Circle of the Moon so much tankier than the Circle of the Land. A straight forward fix might be to create a new table that reflects the Circle of Moon’s specialisation, without going completely overboard.

LevelMax CR (C/Land)Max CR (C/Moon)Max CR (C/Moon in RAW)
2nd1/41/21
4th1/211
8th122 (from 6th level)
10th133 (from 9th)
12th144
14th254
16th265 (from 15th)
18th276
20th286

Design Notes: In my experience (so far), the real unbalancing aspect of Wild Shape for Circle of the Moon druids is the excess of hit points at lower levels that makes them virtually unkillable in comparison with their peers, so that’s what I’ve chipped away at in this revised table. While I’ve actually made the Wild Shape better at higher levels, so at 20th level you can turn into a T-Rex… (let’s face it, who doesn’t want to do that at some time in their D&D career!). Plus I’ve thrown Circle of the Land druids a bone, by letting them access CR 2 creatures from 14th level onwards. This table sits better for me, because now the druid has a steadier rate of progression, and I believe players will enjoy more turning into a dire wolf at 4th level if they were restricted to just a normal wolf at 2nd and 3rd level. (At least they will if they hadn’t already read the Player’s Handbook).

Additional Restriction: On further thought, I would add another restriction that will really tidy up this class option for me. I would state that the total sum of the Challenge Ratings of the beasts which the druid Wild Shapes into between long rests cannot exceed the druid’s level. In other words a level 2 druid can transform into two CR 1 creatures during a day, or one CR 1 creature and two CR 1/2 creatures, etc. etc. I like this because it is almost bound to bring more variety and imagination into play, and presents some tough choices for the PC. This ruling also tidies up the extremely problematic 20th level Circle of the Moon ability of unlimited Wild Shapes (ie. unlimited hit points!). Using my rule, the 20th level druid can still Wild Shape into near unlimited small creatures (assuming such beasts have CR 1/8 that would make 160 transformations, so more than enough!), but they can only transform into the mighty T-Rex twice a day (after which they still have some space for other transformations).

Just a couple of druids hanging out…

Wild Shape Fix Number 2

If you are nervous about changing the rules (go on try it!), or your players get the hump at ‘being nerfed’ (note: unless something is seriously damaging play, I recommend only introducing rules changes BEFORE a new campaign starts, not in the middle of one!), then there’s a way to deal with Wild Shape staring up at you from the hallowed pages of the Player’s Handbook itself.

“Starting at 2nd level, you can use your action to magically assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.” (p.66).

To save a lot of hassle arguing over what a character has seen in their long life of adventuring, before the campaign started, I would introduce a simple mechanic. When a player wishes to transform into a beast of CR 1 or over they must succeed on an Nature check to see if they happened to have seen it or not on their travels. I would set the DC as 15 for CR1, DC 20 for CR2, DC 25 for CR3 and DC 30 for CR4 and above. Obviously you can use common sense a bit to adjust them, if the creature is particularly common etc. If the druid passes the check, obviously they don’t have to make it again to transform into the same beast at a later date. If they fail the check, they have not seen the beast in question and cannot transform into said animal unless they encounter it within your adventure, or else go on a beast hunt in their down time. (For a beast hunt, let them choose the creature they wish to observe, and then set a DC for a Survival check based on them spending one week tracking it down in its natural habitat).

(I’ve just realised there is also something about this on p.24 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A list of tables of beasts by terrain type, that you can tie in with your druid’s background to make assumptions about what creatures they might have observed in the wilderness. Note: I like the idea that a druid needs to observe, not just see a beast).

Wild Shape Fix Number 3

Without wanting to get into that timeless old debate about ‘realism in fantasy’ (bangs head on desk!), my imagining of Wild Shape dictates that the druid becomes the creature it transforms into. The fact that said creature can be clawed, chopped, mauled and fireballed to death, and then transform back into a fully fit druid, without a scratch on them, is really immersion breaking for me.

One of the best homebrew rules that another DM in our group introduced onto our table, was that being reduced to 0 hit points gives you two levels of exhaustion. Suddenly dying means something again, and that silly D&D farce of lying broken and unconscious in one round followed by springing up and running full speed into the fray in the next round, having received some healing, was done away with. Now if you went down, if you did manage to get healed, you were operating at half speed with disadvantage on ability checks. Which makes sense (or at least is some small nod to realism).

I would be sorely tempted to introduce something similar for when druids are knocked out of Wild Shape. Two levels might be too harsh, but one level of exhaustion would mean there were consequences for dying in beast form, and make the whole feature feel a lot less like a temporary hit point gimmick and more like a transformation ability that the druid lives through. This would naturally limit how often the druid could take advantage of Wild Shape for combat purposes, no matter how many short rests they got in the day… and that for me would be a good thing.

Conclusion

Overall I’m glad there’s a new tank in town (sometimes it feels like D&D is turning into a game where most classes want to fight from the sidelines rather than actually engage the enemy, which feels somehow very anti-heroic to me), and Wild Shape is such a fun ability with so much creative potential – but I do feel the designers lost their sense of proportion on this one.

Hopefully using one, or even all, of the fixes that I’ve proposed might help certain gaming tables balance this ability and – if the changes are embraced, rather than cried at – I even believe these changes might actually provoke more fun and creativity, by forcing players to have more strategies and more uses for Wild Shape.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. (Note: I publish > 95% of comments, but if you’re particularly obnoxious I may choose to press delete instead!).

More Stuff

Do you, like me, ever get a strong feeling of apathy when choosing your PC’s weapons? There’s essentially no difference between a mace and a spear, or a shortsword and a scimitar, a longsword and a flail, etc. etc, despite these all being very different weapons… well check out my new 5e melee weapon properties for a touch more variety, realism and crunch in combat.

Make Weapons Great Again: New 5e Weapon Properties

Ever felt frustrated that your choice of weapon means next to nothing in 5th edition Dungeon & Dragons?

There’s literally no mechanical difference between wielding a battleaxe or a longsword for example, and only nominal differences between handaxes, maces, spears, quarterstaffs, shortswords and scimitars – despite how different those weapons are in real life.

Longsword, battleaxe, warpick… what difference does it make!?

In many cases weapons have zero advantages over their closest counterparts… why wield a greataxe, when a greatsword does more damage? Or a maul come to think of it.  Mechanically, there’s almost nothing to reflect the martial advantages (and disadvantages) of different types of weapons, except their damage die.

Overall I feel like a potentially fun strategical choice has been taken away from players, by the rather too simplistic weapons table in the Player’s Handbook.

Overall I feel like a potentially fun strategical choice (what weapons to bring with you on an adventure) has been taken away from players, by the rather too simplistic weapons table in the Player’s Handbook.

At least for my taste. (I’m sure there many who will defend its simplicity… but hey, this post is not for those guys and girls! So no need to leave an angry comment about how I’m ruining D&D 😉 ).

For well over a year now, I’ve been thinking about how to add a dash of extra dynamism in the weapons department, in a simple and playable way.

The result of much thought, and a bit of behind the scene sums, is a new product called Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat – which I’ve just released on The DM’s Guild, priced as “Pay What You Want”. (In other words, free, although I’ll be grateful if you grease my palm with a dollar or two if you think they’ll add something significant to your table…).

Get 19 new weapons properties for your game!

In Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat!, I’ve created new rules for weapons that deal bludgeoning and piercing damage, as well as several new properties that bring a bit of extra flavour and mechanical crunch to many of the weapons in the Player’s Handbook.

I’ve also suggested two new rules regarding opportunity attacks, the first of which is fun, the second of which is designed to bring a bit of extra realism to combat (and helps balance the new ‘long’ property I’ve proposed in the same product).

My goals with the product were to:

  • Give players meaningful choices to make regarding which weapons they wield
  • To introduce a touch more realism to combat (or ‘fantasy realism’ as I like to call it… realism based on our perception of fantasy novels, TV and film!)
  • Keep things balanced and fast paced

I’m going to copy and paste the bulk of the content here, so you can see the new properties and rules variants. But you should download the product to see the revised Hipsters & Dragons Weapon Table, and which weapons have which new properties.

Slash, Stab, Hack, Repeat!

Melee and ranged weapons that deal bludgeoning or piercing damage enjoy the following benefits:

Bludgeoning weapons

When attacking with a melee weapon that deals bludgeoning damage, if you miss by 1, you hit instead, dealing half the normal damage to the target. You cannot deal sneak attack damage on the hit.

Piercing weapons

Weapons that deal piercing damage are capable of particularly grievous wounds, impaling their victims and rupturing vital organs. When you score a critical hit roll a d6. On a 4, 5 or 6, triple the weapon’s damage dice instead of doubling them.

 New Weapon Properties

A list of new weapon properties.

Charge.  This weapon can be used to deal lethal damage on a charge. If you move at least 20 feet in a straight line before engaging an opponent, you may choose to take a -4 modifier on your first attack roll against that creature. If you hit with that attack, you roll an additional damage die, equal to that of the weapon’s usual damage die.

Handy. You have advantage on attack rolls against a creature you are grappling, as well as against creatures that are grappling you.

Long. While you are wielding a long weapon, any creature that is not wielding a long weapon (or natural weapon of 10 feet reach) provokes an opportunity attack from you when they enter your reach. If you have the Polearm Master feat, you gain advantage on this roll. You have disadvantage to hit an opponent that is grappling you, or grappled by you, when you attack with a long weapon.

Long (defence). Weapons with the long (defence) property have the same benefits and disadvantages of those with the long property, but with one additional benefit. If you hit a creature with an opportunity attack as they enter your reach, you reduce their speed to zero.

Parry. When you are wielding a weapon with the parry property and a creature you can see hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to add 1 to your AC for that attack, potentially causing the attack to miss you. You must have a Dexterity score of 13 or higher to take advantage of this feature, which can be used in conjunction with the Defensive Duelist feat.

Parry (versatile). A weapon with the parry (versatile) property may be used to parry normally with one hand (see above), or using two hands, in which case the wielder may add 2 to their AC.

Riposte. The speed of this weapon allows you to turn defence into attack. Whenever using the parry property of your weapon causes an attack to miss you, as part of the same reaction you make make a retaliatory melee attack, using your Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls.

Savage. Savage weapons combine speed, weight and penetration, enabling them to deal decisive blows in combat. When you roll a 19 on an attack roll, roll an additional d6. If you roll the number given in parentheses next to the weapon, or higher, you score a critical hit. If the weapon has the versatile property reduce the number in the parentheses by 1, when it is wielded in two hands. If there is no number in parentheses, no need to roll a d6, a 19 is an automatic critical hit.

Shield-wrap. You gain a +1 to attack rolls against opponents wielding a shield.

Short. See special (dagger dual wield), below.

Smash. Weapons with the smash property offer their wielders a bonus to Strength (Athletics) checks to knock down wooden doors. The bonus is +2 for one-handed weapons, and +5 for both two-handed weapons and versatile weapons used with two hands.

Sneaky. This weapon is deadly against a distracted foe. When you deal sneak attack damage you may reroll any 1s on the damage dice, taking the new roll instead.

Spear. This multi-purpose weapon possesses the benefits of the spear’s charge and long properties. Attacks using these properties deal 1d8 piercing damage, instead of the weapon’s usual damage.

Special (bludgeoning). When you miss by 1 with this weapon, you deal half damage instead. Additionally, you may choose to deal bludgeoning damage against creatures with vulnerability to this damage type.

Special (dagger dual wield). You may dual wield with this weapon, providing your second weapon has the short property.

Two-handed (revised). When you score a critical hit with a two-handed weapon (or versatile weapon used with two hands) you may double your Strength damage modifier, as well as the damage dice.

Unwieldy. This weapon is impractical to use in a skirmish. You have disadvantage to hit creatures at close range, and your speed is halved. If mounted, your mount’s speed is not affected. Any one-handed weapon with the unwieldy quality needs to be used two-handed when not mounted.

My revised Weapons table, with new properties. Buy here.

Unarmed Strikes (Monks)

A monk’s unarmed strikes have the parry and riposte properties. However a monk cannot use the parry property against certain weapons, such as swords, unless they invest in some funky arm guards!

Opportunity Attacks (Rules Variants)

– Opportunity attacks made with thrown weapons have advantage, provided the attacker is already carrying the weapon (i.e. doesn’t have to draw it).

– Whenever you make an opportunity attack against a creature, you provoke an opportunity attack from all other hostile creatures within reach of you.

Design Notes

The latter of these two rules is designed to prevent outnumbered foes making opportunity attacks with impunity. Effectively it allows creatures to cover an ally’s retreat via numerical advantage. It also means creatures with long weapons, already engaged in combat, pay a price to attack new combatants as they enter their reach. (Alternatively you could rule that only creatures not engaged in combat can take advantage of the opportunity attacks granted by the long property / Polearm Master feat).

The former offers a cool advantage to those carrying throwable weapons, and reflects the ease of aiming at an unguarded rear, without having to get close enough to strike with a melee attack.

Critical Misses

Some while ago I gave critical misses a similar treatment, so if you want to grab my Fumbles Tables from the DMs Guild, that’s also a Pay What You Want product… I’ve been using them for a while and I think they work pretty well. Reviews ain’t bad either.

Magical Weapons

Like yourself some arcane booty? Here are ten free magical weapons for your table… for another hundred or so, plus a funky ‘Magic Weapon Generator’ with 1000s of combinations of properties check out Esquiel’s Guide to Magic Weapons.

How To Run a Chase in 5e D&D…. Step by Step Rules!

Is it just me, or do chases not really work in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons?

Mapping a chase out as an extension of combat quickly turns into a farce, as either the fleeing party is faster and the pursuer has zero chance of catching up, or the pursuer is the same speed or faster, leading to them wearing down their quarry with a tedious series of opportunity attacks.

Sometimes it’s better to run…. (Artwork by Grosnez).

The Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to come to the rescue (p.252), and while it does introduce some fun “chase complications”, it forgets to give us any mechanics to determine the chase’s outcome, other than a) waiting for one side to drop dead of exhaustion or b) having the quarry make a successful Stealth contest to hide, and thereby escape. Which would be fine, but (as the authors themselves state) the quarry can only do when they are out of sight… and how they gain enough ground to get out of sight is not covered. 🤔

Shall we have a go at fixing this mess!?

Hell, why not…

Running a Chase: Hipster’s Rules Variant

In my revised rules, I’m going to run chases as a series of contests between participants. A success for the quarry over any given pursuer represents putting one level of separation (henceforth know as ‘gaps’) between the two of them. A success for a pursuer means the quarry is not able to open up any distance between them, while a success by 5 means that the pursuer actually closes 1 gap on the quarry.

[Note: depending on how testing goes, it may that the the quarry should have to win by 5 to open up a gap. A draw being a contest in which neither party is able to win by 5].

Here is a crib sheet for how to run this variant:

1) Establish that a chase has started.

A chase starts when a creature uses both its move action and the dash action to flee, and at least one other creature decides to pursue it, using both their move and the dash action in an attempt to keep up (in order to be on an even footing, it should do so before the start of the fleeing party’s next turn). When that happens the pursuer triggers a chase contest, and both the quarry and the pursuer roll. Any further pursuers also partake in the contest, following initiative order, comparing their roll to the quarry’s original roll.

2) Establish the appropriate skill for the contest

As the DM, determine which skill you want to use as the base of the chase contest. I suggest Strength (Athletics) for a chase taking place in relatively open terrain, like a field or hilltop, or Dexterity (Acrobatics) for a chase in obstacle-rich terrain, such as dense forest or winding/crowded city streets.

(If you don’t want to punish NPCs and monsters who don’t tend to have as many proficiencies as PCs you could opt for a straight Strength / Dexterity contest. And if you want something between Strength and Dexterity you could opt for a crossover skills check… Dexterity (Athletics), for example).

3) Establish each creature’s chase modifier

We need to reflect the fact that some creatures are faster than others, and some – like rogues with their cunning action ability – have added mobility. We can do this by applying additional “chase modifiers” to the contest.

For every 5 feet of movement above 30 feet a creature has add +4 to their chase contest modifier, for every 5 feet less, use a -4 modifier. (In other words a creature with a speed of 40 feet adds +8 to their chase contest, while a creature with 25 feet speed has a -4 modifier).

Creatures who use an ability, such as the rogue’s cunning action, to take the dash action twice in one round, gain advantage on their chase contest roll.

4) Determine the success of any pursuers

Determine if a pursuer loses 1 gap, maintains distance, or closes 1 gap on the quarry, by comparing their rolls to that of the quarry.

Any pursuer that ends their turn with zero gaps between them and the quarry may take an Attack action directed at the quarry (hint: they may want to select grapple in a bid to end the chase).

As with the rules in the DMG, we are doing away with opportunity attacks once the chase is underway, so if the quarry is still alive, and not grappled, it may continue running away without provoking further attacks.

5) Escaping / Ending the Chase

When the chase begins, as the DM, determine how many gaps the quarry must open up between itself and its closest pursuer to escape and finish the chase. I would suggest between 3 or 4 gaps for an urban chase, or 4 or 5 for a more open chase.

As an option you could give the quarry a chance to end the chase 1 gap earlier than the gaps required to outrun the pursuers, by contesting a Dexterity (Stealth) check against the Wisdom (Perception) of any pursuers. On a success they have outfoxed their hunters, finding a hiding place, or slipping away under cover. On a failure, as the DM, you will have to decide if the quarry is now cornered or in a position to dart off and start the chase again.

You can run, and you can hide… (Artwork by Czepeku).

Those 5 steps should give you a solid outline of a useable chase mechanic.

A few more things to bear in mind…

More Chase Mechanics…

6) Measuring Distances / Variable Starting Points

One gap is not meant to represent an exact distance, but, when you need to, you can consider a gap as around 30 feet. That means when a creature starts 60 feet away from an adversary which turns and flees, the chase starts with 2 gaps between the quarry and its pursuer, even before the first contest is rolled.

In the scenario when one creature flees in combat, and is pursued by not only the creature it was fighting, but by a second creature who was slightly further away on the combat grid, then the second creature suffers a -2 modifier for every 5 feet it was away from the quarry (before the quarry fled) on its initial chase contest. Obviously if it was 30 feet away simply start with 1 gap between them, before the first contest begins. (If it was 40 feet, start with 1 gap and a -4 modifier on the first contest roll).

Optional Rule: If someone wants to chase and still use their action (to cast a spell etc.), then you can let them automatically lose 1 gap on the quarry and roll the usual contest to potentially lose a second. In this case remove the chance of closing one gap, even if they roll 5 above the quarry in the chase contest.

Someone that uses neither their move, nor their action to dash, automatically loses 2 gaps on the quarry. (This might occur if someone chooses to do something first before entering the chase).

7) Consider Introducing Exhaustion

I wouldn’t bother introducing exhaustion checks within chases to begin with, as they will slow the whole scene down further, which is about the last thing you want during a high speed chase. But once you’ve got a good handle on these mechanics, I think there’s some realism and merit to the rules in the DMG (p.252).

To summarise: a creature can use the dash action in a successive numbers of rounds a number of times equal to 3 plus their Constitution modifier. After that they must make a DC 10 Constitution check or suffer one level of exhaustion. (Exhaustion levels gained during the chase can be removed by a simple short rest).

8) Obstacles / Complications

Navigating obstacles is baked into this chase rules variant system, in that success and or failure in the chase contest rolls is effectively about how well or badly a creature deals with things like low hanging branches, tree roots, divots, ditches, or in an urban chase, crowds, carriages, tight corners, piles of detritus etc…

However there’s nothing to stop you adding in the flavourful chase complications from the DMG (p.254), once you’ve got the basic mechanics running smoothly. Just use common sense to adjust the result for this system. If the quarry slips and falls prone for example, every pursuer might gain 1 gap automatically (if they themselves do not fall prey to the same obstacle!).

Another way you could handle obstacles or changing scenery in a chase would be to switch the skill used for the contest for one round. For example, if you’ve been using Dexterity (Acrobatics) to contest a chase through the narrow back allies of Waterdeep, you could switch to Strength (Athletics) when the chase opens out onto a long stretch of main road. This is also a bit quicker than consulting a table, which can slow things down.

Narrating A Chase

It’s all too easy for a potentially breathtaking chase in Dungeons & Dragons to turn into a slog of tedious dice rolls, whether you’re using my system, or the RAW (Rules As Written).

A die roll to establish or close a gap, without any descriptive context, is yawn-inspiringly dry and dull. A die roll to determine how deftly a PC manages to leap over falling barrels and then skirt around a sharp corner is immersive and fun.

In other words, the success of a chase scene in D&D is more down to how you describe it than the mechanics, so give yourself plenty of permission to improvise and have fun.

Bring the players in on it too, by describing the scenery of the chase but having them narrate how their character navigates the stacked chicken coops, tumbling barrels of oil, panicky flock of sheep etc., using their dice roll to narrate the appropriate amount of success.

So there you go! I’m looking forward to giving these a go in my next Dragon Heist session (until now I’ve been a bit lost in chase situations, so this is my concerted attempt to fix that!)… let me know how you get on with them in the comments section if you choose to try them out.

I’m going to leave you with probably the best foot chase in cinematic history for a bit of inspiration…

Call Lightning is Really Boring… Here’s How To Fix It!

My second ever 5e character was a tempest cleric called Jaxx Storm. Safely floating to shore in a barrel as a baby, after his boat was shipwrecked, he believed himself to be the son of Shaundakul, and had an attitude to match his (self-declared) demi-god status. I had a lot of fun playing him, as he was pretty versatile. I could switch between being pretty handy in melee (I enjoyed knocking people over with my shield – using Shieldmaster feat – and then smashing them with my morning star) and casting utility spells, and I never tired of unleashing wrath of the storm (p.62, Player’s Handbook) on my opponents.

However, as I played through levels 1-4, what I was really looking forward to was reaching 5th level and getting my hands on call lightning. When that happened my PC became a lot more powerful, as I had expected, but sadly he also became a lot less fun to play…

Call Lightning

3rd level conjuration

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes

A storm cloud appears in the shape of a cylinder that is 10 feet tall with a 60-foot radius, centered on a point you can see 100 feet directly above you. The spell fails if you can’t see a point in the air where the storm cloud could appear (for example, if you are in a room that can’t accommodate the cloud).

When you cast the spell, choose a point you can see within range. A bolt of lightning flashes down from the cloud to that point. Each creature within 5 feet of that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A creature takes 3d10 lightning damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. On each of your turns until the spell ends, you can use your action to call down lightning in this way again, targeting the same point or a different one.

If you are outdoors in stormy conditions when you cast this spell, the spell gives you control over the existing storm instead of creating a new one. Under such conditions, the spell’s damage increases by 1d10.

At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher level, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 3rd.

Bring the storm!

Looks Great… So What’s The Problem?

The problem with this spell is that a) it’s too good – it does significantly more damage than a cleric’s melee attacks and other spell options at 5th level, and b) it goes on forever. The result was that I ended up using call lightning every time we entered a major combat. And so, instead of getting involved in the fight, I just hung around at the back of the battle doing the same thing every turn… another 3d10 damage. This, it turns out, is really f*cking boring!

Given that you could theoretically keep on casting call lightning for 100 turns of combat, hitting maybe two foes on average, you could potentially end up doing around 600 x d10 (3300) hit points of damage using just one third level spell slot. In practice this is rarely going to happen, but a cleric of the tempest or a druid taking cover behind a battlement could swing a long battle single-handedly with just this one spell, making it ridiculously overpowered in certain circumstances.

That’s another reason why I’m tempted to tinker with this one…

Hipster’s Fix

How can we solve these issues neatly, without nerfing the spell? My suggestion is that after initially casting the spell and calling down your first bolt, at the start of each subsequent turn you must roll a d6. On a 5 or 6, the storm cloud you have conjured has recharged and you can unleash another bolt on your foes. On a 1-4 it keeps brewing, meaning you can’t use it this turn – however for each turn the storm brews you can add an extra d10 damage when you next are able to call down a bolt.

This adds a really fun random twist to proceedings. In two out of three rounds you’ll have to find something else to do, maybe joining melee or casting another (non concentration) spell. But when the 5 or 6 turns up the fun factor of bringing down another lightning bolt returns… especially fun if it has charged up to 4, 5, 6 or god knows how many d10s of damage.

By both reducing the number of times it can be used, and by increasing the likelihood of the caster losing concentration (as they won’t want to spend their time taking cover and doing nothing on the rounds it doesn’t recharge), this fix also balances the spell quite nicely, I believe.

Sadly Jaxx Storm is in retirement right now, so please get back to me if you have a chance to implement this fix in your game… just leave a comment below!

For more spell discussions check out these posts on why hypnotic pattern is too good, why fireball is so much better than lightning bolt, and dealing with banishment. There’s usually some good reader comments as well.

Great Weapon Master Feat… OP’ed or not?

There are three feats that the vast majority of Dungeon Masters consider broken, according to this survey by Think DM.

One of them is Lucky, the only feat to get banned on my table and one which I discussed previously on this blog (and which in turn generated scores of conflicting comments, with many people rushing to its defense. I’ll let you read their reasons yourselves). Another is Sharp Shooter, which perhaps I’ll talk about another time. The third, and today’s topic, is Great Weapon Master.

It’s an interesting feat for sure… the Player’s Handbook states:

Great Weapon Master

You’ve learned to put the weight of a weapon to your advantage, letting its momentum empower your strikes. You gain the following benefits:

  • On your turn, when you score a critical hit with a melee weapon or reduce a creature to 0 hit points with one, you can make one melee weapon attack as a bonus action.
  • Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon that you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.

The concept is simple. You’re a big brave brute who has sacrificed a shield (and an ability modifier to take this feat), in order to do maximum possible damage with each swing of your blade.

The first of the two benefits raises few eyebrows… critical hits are pretty rare after all, as is reducing a creature to zero hit points.

The second benefit is where the controversy comes in. An additional 10 damage is massive. If you consider a greatsword does on average 7 damage, it’s kind of crazy that there’s a feat that allows you to do another 143% of that damage as part of the same attack. Everything hinges on that -5 modifier… but in a game of low ACs and high bonuses to hit, not to mention various potential ways to get advantage on your attacks, is that enough of a penalty to justify that huge damage haul?

Ready to do serious damage…

Some Maths…

I’m not going to go super nerdy on this one… this is Hipsters & Dragons remember! I’ve got some art house movies to watch with a locally brewed IPA later tonight (ok, the next episode of Vikings, with some cheap Spanish wine…), but let’s do some simplified sums. I’m doing this on the fly… in other words I haven’t drawn a definitive conclusion about the feat myself yet. Plus the maths might be shoddy, so stay sharp.

Taking a 5th level fighter as an example, let’s see how much damage he does using this feat in three rounds of combat against an opponent with AC 15, versus how much he does without using it. Let’s say he’s got 18 Strength, and a +1 sword by now. His name is Ted.

For simplicity sake I will discount how critical hits effect the maths, and assume there is no advantage on these rolls for now.

Without the feat (5th level fighter)

Ted has a to hit bonus of +8, meaning he needs a 7 to hit AC 15 (70% chance). He does 2d6 +5 damage per hit (12) and has 6 attacks in three rounds. Therefore he does 0.7 x 12 x 6 = 50.4 damage in total.

With the feat (5th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has only a +3 bonus, meaning he needs a 12 to hit (45%). He does 2d6 + 15 damage per hit (22) times the 6 attacks. Therefore he does 0.45 x 22 x 6 = 59.4 damage total.

Hmmmm, it’s not too strong. Just 9 hit points difference, and if you chose to increase your Strength by 2, instead of choosing this feat, you would have dealt an extra 4.5 hit points in those six attacks. That said, I feel that the damage outputs should be closer, if not even. With outputs like this it just means you will opt to use the power nearly every time, and reliably come out on top…

Anyway let’s run the same example with a 10th level fighter, and assume this time that Ted has advantage on his attack rolls for one of the three rounds. Being 10th level, Ted now has a +2 sword.

Without the feat (10th level fighter)

Ted has to a hit bonus of +10, meaning he needs a 5 to hit AC 15 (80% chance), with advantage 96% chance. He does 2d6 + 6 (13) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.8 x 13 x 4 = 41.6, and in the final round 0.96 x 13 x 2 = 24.96. So a grand total = 66.56 damage

With the feat (10th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has a hit bonus of +5, meaning he needs a 10 to hit AC 15 (55% chance), and with advantage (79.75%). He does 2d6 +16 (23) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.55 x 23 x 4 = 50.6, and in the final round 0.7975 x 23 x 2 = 36.685. So a grand total = 87.285 damage.

Ok now I’m beginning to see what people are complaining about. That’s pretty big gains over just three rounds. This feat is definitely going to start unbalancing the game at higher levels, especially if it’s being paired with other skills like the barbarian’s reckless attack feature to get advantage more frequently.

In general I like the concept… take a risk, and get a reward… I probably wouldn’t go far to say the feat is broken, but with 5th edition’s low AC monsters and its frequently employed advantage mechanic, the risk / reward dynamic doesn’t feel quite right, and it does come over as overpowered.

Hipster’s Fix

The first part of the feat works just fine in my experience, and is especially fun when mopping up low level mooks in a fight. I am happy to leave that well alone. As for the second part, here are my suggestions…

Option 1

The simplest way to fix the problematic part of this feat would be to keep the same risk, but reduce the reward. In general the flat 10 extra damage doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too dull, and too guaranteed, and it doesn’t scale on a critical (annoying from a player’s perspective!). So I would simply substitute the +10, for 2d6 extra damage, which is a) more fun and b) a bit less powerful, ie. more balanced.

When you bear in mind that most characters using Great Weapon Master feat will also have selected the Greater Weapon Fighting Style that allows you to reroll 1s and 2s, then the average damage is actually 8.33 (not 7), so only slightly nerfed from 10. Especially as between 5 and 10% of the time (ie. when you get critical hits) you will be doing 16.67, which will bring the average up some more.

Option 2

Another way of approaching a fix, would be to say, you can only land these killer +10 blows when you have advantage on the attack roll. Only when you’ve snuck up on your opponent unseen, or they’re rolling about prone on the floor, do you have the time to put your full force into the blow and have any hope of hitting. This means you don’t get to use it so often, but when you do, it tends to pay off big.

Option 3

A third idea I had would be to simply say… whenever you have advantage on a melee attack roll with a heavy weapon you deal an extra 1d6 damage. No penalty to hit. Simple and situational, this saves on any maths and also indecision that sometimes accompanies this feat (“shall I take the penalty or not? Erm, err.”) which can eat up valuable game time.

Option 4

Just thought of a fourth option. You could make dealing the extra damage reliant on a using a bonus action as well. This seems to have some logic… such a powerful blow might take a little extra time to work up to, as you adjust your stance and wind up for the kill. This is perhaps the best way to keep GWM on the table as written, but preventing it from getting out of hand, as it would limit its use to once per turn. This same solution works well for limiting the burst damage of divine smite. Hmmm, it does however screw with the first part of the feat, whereby you get to make a free melee attack as a bonus action, if you kill / crit a creature. You could however give extra attack as a free action on those occasions.

Option 5

A simply fix you might like has arrived in the comments section.

There you go! How have you got on with Great Weapon Master feat on your table? Have you come up with a fix that works for you? Please comment below, and feel free to pull me up on my tired, probably incorrect maths, obvious things I forgot to take into consideration and anything else. Just keep it polite, as you normally do.

Oh by the way, did you check these 5e magic weapons I homebrewed? They are free for use in your game.

Do Paladins’ Auras of Protection Stack?

Yes, but they definitely shouldn’t. Aura of protection is hardly 5e D&D’s most glamorous ability, but gameplay shows it be one of the most powerful tools in the game (….as if the paladin doesn’t have enough of those already, with the insanely overpowered (IMHO) divine smite and lay on hands).

One aura of protection already provides a massive boost to a party in almost every combat, but once you’ve got two paladins in your party things get insane. Just by staying tight, the whole party could constantly be benefiting from +6 on every saving throw! 

And it’s not just an adventuring consideration. What happens if the PCs need to take out a cadre of four evil paladins? Provided the bad guys stayed close to one another, they could easily be getting +12 on their saving throws… I wouldn’t want to be a caster charged with facing them!

Anyway, you probably don’t need any convincing… you’ve already experienced it for yourself, and that’s why you’re here. Well here’s a little house rule you can use to lessen the effect.

  1. Multiple auras of protections don’t stack if the paladins worship different gods. The creature in question can benefit from just the strongest aura.
  2. Where two or more auras of protection of paladins who worship the same god overlap, a creature benefits from the strongest aura, with an additional +1 bonus for every extra aura they are overlapped by.

Hypnotic Pattern is Broken. Here’s How You Fix It!

So you’ve been playing some Dungeons and Dragons and one of your PCs keeps deciding the encounters before they’ve even started by pulling out a glowing stick from their components pouch and weaving the 3rd level illusion hypnotic pattern. Suddenly half the bad guys are standing limp-limbed and drooling on the battlefield, completely helpless as their buddies are butchered with ease by the adventuring party. The bad news for them is they’re next!

Hypnotic Pattern vs Fireball

Fireball is one of D&D’s most powerful spells relative to the spell slot required (…so powerful that some argue that the whole structure of player advancement in 5e is based around it. Every player class gets something awesome at 5th level to balance the wizard’s newfound access to this orc-incinerating fan fave), but against any challenge 2 level baddie or beyond, hypnotic pattern is considerably more powerful. Both are third level spells, but whilst shaving hit points off an ogre is all well and good, incapacitating them for an entire minute is several notches better. Fireball does have a slightly better range – 150 feet plays 120 feet, whilst its superior area of effect, a circle with 20 feet radius (1256 square feet area of effect), vs hypnotic pattern‘s 30 feet cube (900 square feet surface area), means that fireball is still the weapon of choice for mopping up mooks. However, where fireball starts to fade against tougher foes, hypnotic pattern is just as deadly to high level monsters as low level ones. Do you want to do 28 damage (14 on a save) to four giants or incapacitate two or three of them for a minute? It’s a no brainer.

More dangerous than fireball…

Hypnotic Pattern vs. Other Incapacitating Spells

We can find further proof that hypnotic pattern is an overpowered game design error when we look at it against similar ‘incapacitators’ that make up the 5e wizard’s spellbook… so let’s do that.

Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1st level)

An underrated little spell, it affects one creature and confers both the prone and incapacitated conditions on a failed Wisdom saving throw. Its power is kept well in check by the fact that it requires concentration, and that the target can repeat its saving throw at the end of each of its turns. Interestingly the effects do not end automatically when the creature takes damage, but every time it takes a hit it can make an additional saving throw with advantage, so more or less they do in fact end when it takes a hit. Range is 30 ft.

Blindness / Deafness (2nd level)

A bit of damp squib, this is barely better than tasha’s hideous haughter, if at all. On a failed Constitution saving throw, it confers blindness on one creature within 30ft. The condition of blindness however still allows the opponent to attack (albeit with disadvantage) although the one major pro it has over THL is that damaging the creature doesn’t provoke an additional saving throw, meaning its open season for attack rolls. The victim however does get a repeat saving throw at the end of each turn though, meaning it’s unlikely to work for more than one or two rounds, making the duration of one minute more or less irrelevant. A minor pro is that it doesn’t require concentration. It could also be used creatively to intimidate someone, trick an troll into walking off a bridge or whatever… provided you can do so in 0-12 seconds.

Hypnotic Pattern (3rd level)

After a balanced first level spell and an underwhelming second level spell we make the jump to super-fucking-overpowered third level spell… from a range of 30 feet we suddenly rocket up to 120 feet, and from affecting just one creature we go to affecting anyone in a 30 foot cube. If you’re using a tabletop grid of 5 ft squares that’s 36 squares and up to 36 medium-sized creatures. But that’s not even the most overpowered part… the worst is that creatures affected by this spell get no repeat saving throw (Wisdom) at the end of their turn. They are incapacitated and charmed (sidenote: I’m not really sure how these two conditions are supposed to work in combination! The spell describes a ‘stupor’ and I wonder if the charm aspect is more aesthetic – creatures lulled into hypnosis – than a condition) and therefore can’t do anything for the spell’s duration, ie. one minute or 10 turns of combat. There is the proviso that a creature that takes damage is then freed from the spell’s effects, and that another creature can use an action to shake the creature out of their stupor… and finally the spell does require concentration, but still… this is not balanced.

You could say but a third level spell is supposed to be a lot more powerful than a 2nd level one, but then again you can cast blindness as a third level spell and you get to affect one extra person… not up to 35 more as with HP, and you’d still have the crappy range and repeated saving throws.

Meanwhile we’ll see further proof of unbalance when we look at the 4th level ‘incapacitator’ confusion.

Confusion (4th level)

We’ve just gone up a level in terms of spell slots but already the range has gone down to 90 feet, whilst the area of effect is now a 10 foot radius which equates to a surface area of effect of 314.16 square feet… so just a little more than one third of that of hypnotic pattern. That’s a massive downsize, when we should be expecting a massive upsize. Something’s wrong! Once more the effects hinge on a Wisdom saving throw. If failed the victim rolls a d10 to determine what random stuff it gets up to. I simplify but it basically has about 80% chance of losing its turn and 20% chance of being able to act normally (despite having just failed its saving throw). The duration of the spell is one minute, but again that’s irrelevant as the creature can make a repeat saving throw at the end of each of its turns.

In each of range, area of effect, power of effect and duration of effect confusion is an inferior spell to hypnotic pattern… and a massively inferior one at that. And by the way, confusion is not a bad spell at all! I would personally get rid of the table result where the creature behaves as normal (easily done, just roll a d8 on the table instead of a d10!), otherwise it feels pretty well balanced. Hypnotic pattern should probably be a 5th or spell as it stands, and even then it would be considerably more powerful than the 5th level hold monster .

Playing By The Rules

If, despite the irrefutable proof I’ve just given you that the spell is broken (which would be like believing The Force Awakens is a good film after reading my article on why it most definitely isn’t. I’m linking to it now because I’ve just been tortured by The Last Jedi… new film, same problems), isn’t enough for you to remove it from the the table you could try to deal with it via pedantic interpretation and/or enemy strategy. Starting with the former, the spell description says: You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 30-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw.

It might depend on the circumstances but on a chaotic battlefield for example it would be fairly reasonable to judge that any creature in the area of effect might simply be looking the wrong way at the wrong ‘moment’. Roll for each creature and on a 5 or 6 they don’t even see the pattern and don’t have to roll a saving throw.

The enemy strategy approach would be to rain blows down on the spellcaster every time they cast it so that they lose concentration and the spell ends. If a PC is constantly using hypnotic pattern spread your bad guys apart and make sure they have spells and ranged weapons.

Hipster’s Rule Fix

How should hypnotic pattern work… here is my revised version.

Hypnotic Pattern (hipster remix)

3rd level illusion

Casting time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: S, M (a glowing stick of incense or a crystal vial filled with phosphorescent material)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 20-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature becomes charmed for the duration. While charmed by this spell, the creature is incapacitated and has a speed of 0.

At the end of each of its turns, an affected target can make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, this effect ends for that target. The spell also ends for an affected creature if it takes any damage or if someone else uses an action to shake the creature out of its stupor.

****

It’s still probably more powerful than confusion, and you might want to use my ‘pedantic interpretation’ above and rule that creatures in the area of effect who roll a 5 or 6 on a d6 are lucky enough not to see this momentary hypnotic weaving pattern.

Anyway hope that helps. If you love spells stay tuned because you’re going to love the next post, where I review Elminster’s Guide to Magic.

By the way I also homebrewed some spells you might like. They are part of a spellbook that in turn will form part of an adventure I intend to publish soon. Do follow on Facebook or subscribe to keep in touch…

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 as the spell’s 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 ↓ 🙂

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 they will use Divine Smite should their attack hit and what spell slot they 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.

*UPDATE: Definitive Hipsters Rules Fix*

So, taking the cue from one of the commentators below and the already existing mechanics of the thunderous smite, searing smite and banishing smite spells – and gleefully ignoring all the paladin fanboys’ tantrums and tears – I’m turning Divine Smite into a spell, which is what it should have been all along.

Divine Smite

1st-level evocation
Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: Self
Components: V
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
Appealing to your god’s anger, you channel their divine wrath into your weapon. The first time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack during this spell’s duration your attack deals an extra 2d8 radiant damage to the target. The damage increases by 1d8 if the target is an undead or a fiend.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the extra damage dealt by the attack increases by 1d8 for each slot above 1st level.

So there you go, using WOTC mechanics to fix WOTC mechanics… this works in a way that is both balanced and familiar, and also means it’s occasionally worth actually using thunderous smite, which is a really fun and flavourful spell that never gets used normally.

More Dungeons & Dragoning….

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!

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