D&D Hack: skills

Moving on from my last post: skills.

Pathfinder has a broad selection of skills, but I find the skill point allocation far too fiddly.
5e also has a good selection of skills, which is more concise. But most of my players find the skill proficiency mechanic too limiting.
M20 has far too few skills (4!!!), but I like the idea of overlapping skills that, by default, allow easy picking of the related attribute at the time of skill rolling intriguing.

If I base my skill list off 5e, then I can (for instance) collapse Acrobatics & Athletics into the one skill, and just call for STR or DEX as appropriate. Or CON, in the case of endurance feats.

So, what do I consider the minimum? I’ll use the M20 skills as a base, and build up from there.

Physical: Athletics, Ride/Handle Animal (one skill)
Subterfuge: Stealth, Disable Device, Sleight of Hand. These, I feel, are the core trinity of rogue skills.
Knowledge: this is a tricky one, because some of the skills under this are Knowledge X skills, but there’s also Healing, and perhaps Survival. Crafting? Maybe that can take a leaf out of 5e’s book…
Communication: Persuasion, Deceit, Intimidation. Again, core trinity. But I miss the Gather Information of old, which is just a CHA check in 5e. I’m gonna borrow the Streetwise skill from Savage Worlds: it can cover Gather Information, but also a rogue’s ability to find contacts, or a fighter’s knowledge of his home town’s back alleys. It’s versatile, and that’s what I want.

Here’s my list so far:
-Animal Handling (as in 5e, this covers riding as well as training, etc)
-Crafting (specialties: Poison, Smithing, Carpentry, Masonry, etc)
-Deceit (Ye olde Bluff, but with a more generic name)
-Disable Device
-Intimidation (this doesn’t just have to be CHA based – INT and STR are also options, based on the situation)
-Knowledge (specialties: Arcana, History, Nature, Religion. Streetwise covers K.Local, which I always felt was missing from 5e, and you can take others if you really want to)
-Perception (WIS based for Spot checks, INT based for investigation rolls. This way the rogue doesn’t get shafted by needing another whole new skill)
-Persuasion (like Intimidation, this can be INT based for logical arguments or CHA based for passionate pleas)
-Sleight of Hand (I was just gonna fold this into Stealth, but there’s way more applications than just picking pockets)
-Stealth (ye olde Hide in Shadows and Move Silently)
-Survival (for tracking, foraging, navigating, etc)

I wonder if there’s anything crucial that I’ve missed?

Now, for skill mechanics.

At character creation, you can pick a number of skills (by class: Fighters 2, Casters 4, Rogues 6) to be proficient in. Proficiency bonus is equal to 1/2 level, rounded up (so that 1st-level characters get some bonus). In addition, all characters can (when levelling) choose to gain a skill point to allocate to any skill. Rogues can get 2 skill points instead.

DCs will probably be on the 5e scale, as I don’t really want +20s on any kind of roll.

Thoughts on D&D design

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about RPG design. My goal is mostly towards minimalism. While I appreciate the mechanical elegance in Pathfinder, I found running it to be wearisome (especially with players telling me I was doing things wrong).

We played Labyrinth Lord (with Tomb of Horrors), and it played fast, but it has no mechanical elegance. A lot of people have tried to mesh the simplicity of design with elegance of design. 5e looks really good, but it has a lot of stuff. Certainly nothing close to Pathfinder and its ilk, but sometimes you just want something that’s easy, where all of your character’s stuff fits in your head, etc. 
Microlite has both, and I think it’s great to introduce newbies to the genre (my wife’s uncle took to the game like the proverbial duck last Christmas), but it has too little crunch. I like the mix’n’match feel of the skills, and I plan to use that philosophy — but 4 skills? I don’t think you can create meaningfully diverse PCs at that level. It’s worse than LL.
When I was looking up M20, I rediscovered PocketMod booklets. I have 4 of these, and together they summarise: character creation and gameplay, spells (9th levels for 2 classes), monsters, and a GM’s guide. On 4 pocket-friendly pieces of paper. How great is that?
So, what am I aiming for? Rules that…
–are short enough to fit on a few PocketMods (like, char.gen, combat, spells, GM stuff).
–allow for players to make meaningful choices when designing characters.
–allow players to make solid characters without system mastery or min maxing.
–simple enough that I have basic structure for anything, but room to rule everything if need be.
–can be played without any reference to the rules (with spells as the only possible exception).
Is this possible? I believe so.
Character creation is going to be modelled off Zak S’s post “Since Nobody Asked Me…Here’s My Type V“, and simple combat with structural room for meaningful combat choices will be based on Sly Flourish’s “Guide to Narrative Combat in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.


The early morning twilight sent a cool glow through Scout Commander Vek’s tent canvas. He sighed, and gave up on getting any more sleep. Today was the day, and there was no point in putting it off any longer.
Wearily, he pulled on his boots, opened his tent and breathed deeply from the sharp frosty air. A dozen tents stretched before him, with the obelisk towering over them all. It was a spire of black rock, fifty feet tall, carved in the shape of a dragon. Some of the men had debated prying its glittering eyes loose, but Vek had strongly forbidden it. They were three long days’ march from Anembor Fortress, well past the shadow of Fire Mountain. This deep into the moors, the dragons’ territory, Vek didn’t trust anything. The obelisk was the last landmark the Archmage remembered seeing before his spell failed. Somewhere, within a few miles, they would find the battlefield.
“Wake, you sons of dogs!” he bellowed. “Every man up after the sun is on half rations!”
The sun’s first glimmering rays washed over two perfect rows of soldiers. The studs on their armour gleamed. Each one had a bow and quiver on his back, and a short sword at his waist. All of them had seen things, had lost so much in the past month. Their city, their home, had been rent asunder. Friends and families had burned. Today, perhaps, they would finally find some closure.
After briefing his lieutenants, the scouts split into three parties and began ranging over the hills. The ground was dry, with only sparse grass growing in the frost-hard dirt. Along one ridge, down the valley to the next, on and on they went.
“Hard to imagine anyone living here, isn’t it?” Scout Faedro asked of Vek.
Vek nodded, and took out his farglass. It was carefully wrapped in soft felt, for it cost nearly three years’ pay – if he broke or lost it, the Lord General would demand he pay for the replacement himself. Two or three leagues away, nestled in the shadow of a hill, was a structure. A wide stone terrace, two mammoth statues, a cavernous archway. Very distinctive.
“We’ve gone in the wrong direction,” Vek said. “Return to the obelisk, we’ll take stock with the others.”
Lieutenant Gaber’s party never returned; Vek declared them lost to some draconic sorcery, and led the rest north, on Scout Kaeb’s word.
“It was some kind of pit, Commander, but it didn’t look natural,” he said. “And it was the right distance, too.”
“Nothing about this place is natural,” Vek muttered.
When they crossed the last ridge, Vek thought they had dropped into some kind of hell. There was a hole in the landscape, nearly a quarter-mile across, and half that distance deep. Like some kind of crater, the earth had been scorched black, and glassy rivulets ran through the bedrock. Small green flames winked in and out of existence here and there, like malevolent spirits.

“What in Thor’s name could have happened here?” Vek whispered to himself. “What magic caused such destruction…”


The clouds that boiled and raged overhead were red, like the blood of mortal men. Bolts of acid-green lightning struck the barren, wasted plain that lay spread out beneath the rocky ledge where the young man knelt.
His golden robes were torn and stained, and his face bruised. But still he was proud as he looked up at his saviour. This person, who called itself the Kesh, was as unearthly as this plane. Where its head should have been floated a diamond of some strange material, like grey porcelain.  When the Kesh spoke, the words rang clear and alien in the young man’s ear.
“Whaat do you askk of usssss?”
“I seek vengeance,” the young man said. He picked a spot where the Kesh’s eyes might have been, and fixed that spot unwaveringly with his own golden eyes.
“Thiis has no meaning to usssss…” The voice was the same, but now there was another figure, dressed in the same shapeless black cloak, and with a head that was the same but quite different. Where the first’s was smooth and unbroken, this was twisted and bent in impossible, indescribable ways.
“I seek blood.”
“Yyou have sufficient for liiiiiife,” spoke a third. Neat fragments of that strange material orbited around the figure’s shoulders in a perfect dance.
“I seek conquest.”
Silence, but for the thunder.
“Thiis we alllso desire.” The young man got the impression that all three of them had spoken. “Contemplation we requirre. Waiit now. We shall send for you. Go noow.”
The three Kesh raised their hands, and an eerie green light washed over the young man. When it cleared, he found himself lying on cold stone, in a dark cavern. He shrugged, and began counting his coins.

Dragons are nothing if not patient.


In ages past, the ancient dragon known as Karalor the Gold came to the northern continent, and subjugated the ice dragons who laired in the northern moors. Here he built the great city Ilmyntra, and fathered several great houses of noble dragons.
In time, humans followed Karalor’s path north. Over decades they moved further and further inland, into territory claimed by the dragons. At first, the humans were humble and accepted the tyranny of the dragons. But, inevitably, they grew bolder and sparked conflict. The town of Ravolox became their bastion; it grew into a city and was fortified. Tower fortress were built along the moor border. Three hundred years ago, Ravolox was declared as the northern capital of the human kingdom, and the Rule of Ravolox was declared against the tyranny of the dragons.
The wars were fought for many years, back and forth: the tides of conflict turned for nearly a century. Near the end, Ravolox sent an army of fifty thousand – shielded by many magicks – through the moors and laid waste to Ilmyntra and its environs. For some time, Karalor had been in deep sleep. But with the destruction of his favourite brood-Houses, he woke and became a terrible force to behold. The army that had razed Ilmyntra was burned by him alone. He gathered what dragons had survived, and awoke all the sleeping dragons. All of them – wyrms and drakelings alike – flew south into the territory of men.
Ravolox was defended by knights who rode on griffins, and by many shields of magic. Without this, the city would have fallen. As it was, the city paid a terrible price for staving off defeat. Almost all of the sky-knights and half the wizards were killed – most of them by Karalor himself. Of Karalor’s twenty followers, ten died that week.

As soon as Karalor broke the siege, Ravolox put all of their remaining wizards towards destroying his army. The Archmage Zaedis was a master of scrying; he stayed in his tower, directing the other twenty-five survivors of the guild. Once the battle with Karalor was joined, Zaedis’ spell failed.  

Reimagining HP for D&D 5e

(Aside: if you want to read the version of this I wrote at midnight after a session, it’s on my Tumblr, here.)

I’ve always disliked tracking hit points for monsters, and I know that it irks my players sometimes. I’ve tried various methods, like poker chips or using percentile dice; but high-level characters & monsters have so many hp, and dice are liable to be knocked around. So, a solution, inspired by the Wound system from Savage Worlds.

Everyone (PC, NPC or monster) has a Wound Threshold, which is equal the average roll of your hit die and add your CON modifier (and any effects that increase your maximum hit points with level, as from the Toughness feat). Now, whenever you take damage, round it to the nearest multiple of that number. If it’s x1, take 1 Wound. If it’s x3, take 3 Wounds. When you take Wounds equal to your level (or number of hit dice), you start saving vs. death.

Healing works the same way. Round the number of hp healed that the cure wounds gives you, and heal that many wounds. If you take a short rest, you can heal a number of wounds; you have “healing surges” equal to your level, and regain half that number after a long rest. If you get hit by a wight, and fail the saving throw, the number of wounds you can take is reduced by the same number as you were hit for, etc.

Now, the practical effect of this is that it averages out damage taken. A solid fighter is likely to have a Wound Threshold of 8. So, if they take 4 damage, nothing happens. If they take damage between 5 and 12, they take a wound, and so on. In 5e, I’ve found that damage outputs are fairly high, and everyone is throwing around damage between 4 and 13 most of the time. Most monsters and most PCs have WTs in this region, so it all balances out in the long run. But wizards and sorcerers are more likely to take a couple Wounds at once, and fighters and barbarians are only rarely going to take more than one in a single hit.

To adjust the lethality of damage (because, I think, it’s a bit swingier like this), you can fiddle with how you round damage. Up, down, or Swiss-style; my personal backup if Swiss doesn’t work is if the damage is one or two below the Threshold, I’ll round up, otherwise I’ll round down. This keeps foes with piddly damage averages from constantly wounding fighters with 5 damage, while keeping wizards fragile. It’ll take a bit of play-testing, I think. I mean, Ancient Dragons have d20’s for hit points, so that’s a WT of, like, 15, so they’re going to require a LOT of HARD hits. But, then, that’s kinda the point of a dragon encounter, right?

Summoner – A Sorcerous Origin for 5e

I haven’t been on here in a while. My gaming passions have changed – my systems of preference are 5e and Savage Worlds. But having played Pathfinder recently, I’ve still got the flavour of a couple of classes in my mind. I always appreciated the neatness of Pathfinder, especially in its improvements over 3.5. But after playing it for a few months, the complexity got to me. 5e turned up at just the right time for me, and it seemed like a veritable god-send. Savage Worlds is my catch-all for any games I want to play that aren’t D&D-like.

Anyway, to the point of this post. In the wake of the release of the 5e PHB, wrathofzombie posted a whole bunch of 5e sub-class options. One of those was the Oracle. Flavour-wise, I always liked the Oracle. I also liked the Summoner. Those two, I think, are the two flavour-ful classes that aren’t really represented in 5e. So, with the Oracle in good hands, I decided to hack the Summoner for 5e. Here we go.

The Summoner – A Sorcerous Origin for 5e. (PDF, hosted on Google)

What happens while the PCs are on watch

Whenever my PCs stop for camp, they always organise a watch roster. Magic-users and clerics usually take the last watch, and the person with the most hit points takes the middle. There’s usually some negotiation to stop the thief from being on watch alone (or at all). It’s all very organised these days.

Behind the screen, I’m really just making stuff up. If I’m not planning on an encounter, nothing happens. If I am, I’ll fiddle with some dice until I make up my mind whether or not to spring it on them. But after a session today (with newbies – they were so much fun!), I’ve finally come up with a table to determine whether or not something interesting happens in the night.

Roll 1d4 if the party is camped in quiet or peaceful territory, 1d6 if it’s normal territory, 1d8 if it’s rough country, and 1d10 (or higher…) in the deep wilderness.

Night Watch Encounters

  • 1-3: nothing to report.
  • 4-5: minor disturbance (heavy rustling, lights, bats, etc.)
  • 6-7: minor encounter
  • 8+: major encounter
Roll separately for each watch (if you’re feeling nasty), or if you roll something, roll 1d6 to determine which watch it occurs on (1-2: first, 3-4: middle, 5-6: last).

[This is the first post I’ve made in a while here… Not that anyone reads this blog anyway, apart from one of my players.]

The Siege of Barros!

Finally! I’m back to DMing. As much as I enjoy playing, I really love being behind the screen. So, in celebration of my first game in some time, I decided to make a solid attempt to kill the entire party. By declaring war.

Today’s Cast:

  • Calorath, a pious cleric. (missed the end of Session 1)
  • Fain, a murderer and worker of shadows.
  • Acuâmaân, Elvish sell-sword.
  • Cedric Kain, a powerful veteran. (Session 2)
  • Flynn Rider, a troubled ranger. (Session 2)
  • Devan Bast, wanderer and sorcerer. (mine, relegated now to NPC)

Our heroes woke to strange sounds, and found that the docks of the city were burning, a dragon was breaking the bridges, and a strange ward had been placed around the wizard’s guild. Without a clue as to what was going on,our heroes immediately attempted to free the wizards. The ward, it was determined, badly damaged whatever was thrown through it. Acuâmaân tried to use his helm of blinking to jump through the ward, but he was repelled, and chilled to the bone. They realised that they would need more resources than they had available, and so went to find them, and to do a little reconaissance.

From Devan’s flying carpet, they could see that the city was surrounded: a massive host, with humongous beasts, had camped to the north. To the south was a smaller host: not much of a threat, in itself, but enough to prevent any evacuation. Enemy forces were also trying to dam the river below the city, evidently trying to provide passage for the greater host.

Before they could do anything else, a flight of wyverns approached from the north. Wasting no time, our heroes decided to go into action, and engage them. Fain jumped onto the back of one wyvern, and wrestled with one of its gnoll riders to sieze control of the box it was clutching. Cedric leapt onto another wyvern, and began murdering its riders. Acuâmaân, wielding a bow against the riders, was attacked by the wyverns, and suffered great wounds. Fain kicked the gnoll from the back of the wyvern, and returned to the carpet with his prize. Cedric, on the other hand, found that his now-riderless wyvern was veering away. He tried once more to kill it, but decided to take his chances and jump when it got close to the ground. The crew on the carpet picked him up, and rejoined Calorath on the ground near the temple.

Here, it was announced that Lord Sayle was holding an open meeting of strategy. Our heroes made their way to the Lord’s island fortress where the court was being held. Lord Sayle announced that he had been issued an ultimatum: the city was to surrender by noon, or it, and all its inhabitants, would be razed. So Lord Sayle appointed the party as the city’s general-purpose first-strike team. Their mission was: to free the wizards, to take out the dam (to stop the southern host from being reinforced), to remove the southern host (to allow evacuations), and finally to help Lord Sayle lead the charge against the northern troops and their ferocious beasts.

Highlights of the session included:

  • Acuâmaân knocking himself out while trying to shoot a gnoll.
  • The southern host was easy enough that the party could probably have killed them all by themselves.
  • Fain and Acuâmaân managed to get themselves on the back of the red dragon, and stabbing it in mid-air, and then slitting its throat. Acuâmaân had his helm of blinking… Fain was not so lucky. And he lost his +3 dagger because, well, dragon blood is hot.
  • Calorath’s player finally made a saving throw versus a fear spell!
  • Dinosaurs are tough to kill. Lots of hid dice.
  • In the final fight with Lord Ishtuar, a gold/red dragon hybrid, a few characters came very close to death (especially Acuâmaân). But none of them actually died. So, in that respect, I failed.
  • Lots of XP from monsters and loot. Everyone levelled up, except Cedric, who levelled a session or two ago.

Some Thoughts
(1) Dragons are really hard to use in encounters. Their breath weapon, whether you use straight-hp, or a number of dice, is almost guaranteed to produce a character death. But if you give a few characters the chance to properly melee them for a few rounds, it’s all over for the dragon (as it is for most any monsters).
(2) We had a lot of awesome moments in these two sessions. Most of them involved flying things. I should use flying things more often.
(3) I had some nice NPCs all prepared that never showed up. I’ll have to make sure they turn up later.

Undead, and more Undead!

Today’s Cast

  • Fain, a shadowy stalker of the night (Illusionist/Assassin)
  • An as-yet-unnamed cleric from the Barros temple
  • Flynn Rider, a ranger with a troubled past

 This session, the players went deeper into the tombs (for the map, check out Dyson Logos’ Medusa’s Chasm [SPOILERS FOR MY PLAYERS]). Last week, they were standing in a room littered with bones (almost knee-high). This week, the bones began to rise up and attack as skeletons, so the PCs moved on. Still avoiding the room full of skeletal scorpions, they dealt with some zombies, scared away a wraith, and a massive super-zombie with gold plate and a +2 greatsword.

After very cautiously crossing the rickety bridge over the chasm, the party found their way to a large chamber with huge zombie pits. A vampire (dubbed “Many”, for reasons I’ve forgotten) demanded that the party surrendered. Predictably, there was a massive fight, with many hp and XP lost, and temporary negative levels given (a la 3.5, as we’ve all gotten sick of PCs actually losing levels). Eventually, the party beheaded and staked Many, and found the treasure under his coffin. It was a good haul, and Flynn finally levelled up.

My house rule for new characters is that they come in at the bottom of the party’s lowest level (with multi-classed characters having the total XP of an equivalent fighter split between the classes). After over a year of scraping along at level 6, the party has finally all made it to level 7, to much joy and happiness.

On the down side, nearly two years of weekly DMing has worn at me. Once the Horn of Tirea is found, we’re going to take a break from this campaign, and try something new. I offered to GM some sci-fi, but one of the players has taken an interest in Star Wars: Edge of Empire from FFG, so he’s going to take us through the beginning adventures, and we’ll see where that goes.

[EDIT: the following was in my drafts folder for AGES, so I decided I would add it here, to the previous session report, rather than make a new post over a year later.]

We’ve had the last session of the Dragon Hunters campaign for at least the next few months. The party also came as close as they ever have to a TPK.

First, on the bridges over the pit, they encountered a pair of DOOMBATS!!!! (which I’ve been dying to use to a while). Next, they took some time to finish off one section of the dungeon (the skeletal scorpions hanging out around the vampire’s den). Then it was time for the moment they’d all been dreading: facing the demon.

They spent a good half-an-hour discussing exactly what they were going to do. The cleric steadfastly kept out of the conversation, mostly on religious grounds. Then it was mostly back-and-forth between the others for a while over who would get to turn the key and claim the demon’s prize. Eventually, Fain (assassin/illusionist) just went and did it. Everyone waited with baited breath, fearing that the demon would go back on his word (he is a demon, after all), but, being bound by an archon, he had no choice. Fain got his Cloak of Night, the demon was free to go his evil way, and the party was pointed in the direction of the Horn (the secret door was beneath the placewhere the demon was chained, so there was no way they could find it without dealing with the demon in some way).

The steps below the arena led deep, deep, deep. It took the party about 4 hours to get to the bottom, leading them to wonder if the demon hadn’t screwed them over anyway. But eventually, they found the bottom: an ancient complex, half-flooded with dank water, that led out into the Roots of the World, and thereafter the Sea of Night (as per the clues they’d found). Making their way through the complex, the party got attacked by tentacle-eye monsters. As they sailed through the Roots of the World, their boat was ambushed by the big-daddy version. In this fight, all manner of bad things happened. The d12 damage from each of the four tentacles, combined with the paralysis effect, and general bad rolling from the party, led to one character unconscious and bleeding, two paralysed, and one on exactly 1hp (and that after almost dropping his +2 greatsword over the side). But they found the Horn of Tirea, guarded by some (strangely dormant) devil archons, and escaped the dungeon alive.