I’ve been spending more time this past week getting the Heretical DnD project a bit farther down field.

I went through about three or four different playtest reports and a complete edit of the Adventuring chapter. I have a few things I still need to work out, but by and large, I feel like if I can put this part – which is shorter by far than the rest of the manuscript – D&D5 really is a compact ruleset from an in-play perspective.

The things still to be resolved?

Things that you’ll recognize if you’ve been following either the Heretical posts or some of the other noodlings I’ve done.

I’m undecided on which of a few variants of ranged weapon rules to use. DnD rounds being six seconds gives time to draw, aim, and loose at least one, if not more, arrows per round. The interaction with the existing rules isn’t bad, per se, but it still feels like there’s something missing here.

The grappling rules are getting better and better, and thanks to  good poke about an ancient black dragon fighting Tinkerbell, I think I’ve come up with a pretty elegant way to handle things that deals with the issues of edge cases organically.

I think the new shield rules are good. But they didn’t see any use in the playtests since they were rewritten from the first concept. As noted here in Hit, Miss, Armor, Shield I had originally wanted to have shields giving what would effectively be more hit points – stress points in the concept in the prior post. This worked mechanically very well in playtest! But the narrative unification that I was looking for didn’t. What do you do when you’re down HP after a fight? Re-ready your shield? Does that cost you hit dice? Why not, or why so? Ultimately, having shields be a reserve of hit points worked on a mechanics level but not as a unification of narrative and mechanics. So it had to go. A better brainstorm came up with an alternate concept that I like. It’s elegant and unified, and hopefully it’ll play well – and how it play with the bow rules above is crucial.

Finally, I really want to make use of the expanded critical hit range that I posted about after +Fabio Milito Pagliara inspired me with the concept. Not doing that right away was a miss, but without the rules that I’ve got now, that would just be a spin cycle. With the rules almost settled, adding this in should be friendlier.

There’s still much to do.  I’ve got a lot done on spells – revising them is a huge task, and the amount of editing and formatting that goes into them is not small. I’ve got equipment done, bu there are revisions and concepts that will be added there as well (shields and armor both go there, for example).

I dread adding the monsters. Yeeeargh that’s going to be an ugly edit. So. Much. Reformatting.

And some setting work. I’ve decided what it’s going to be, and now I need to write it. I may wind up soliciting help from the peanut gallery for this. 

The file in MS Word format is 125,000 words long now, over 300 pages. This consolidates down by about 40% when it’s laid out in PDF format with a 2-column layout. I really like the look of what my layout guy has done, too. One day I’ll get him a final draft and then we can start making holes for artwork, and at that point, I have to consider how I take it over the goal-line. Probably Kickstarter, but I’ll have to study how they’ve been used well (and +Erik Tenkar will keep me honest about how they are used badly). 

Until then, this is what is denying me sleep a lot, and when a weekend goes by without a review post or a Friday-Saturday pair of Gaming Ballistic content posts, this is why.

Got in another playtest on the Heretical DnD project.

What did I learn?

  • I need to look a little bit at the grappling rules. There’s a tweak to be made that’s tiny and sensible. It won’t change much, but it’s a good add.
  • There’s a neat use for a reaction on the Protection fighting style that makes tons of sense
  • We didn’t really get to play with the brand-new shield rules, but I like the draft. Need some more hand-to-hand fighting to really try those out. The one time someone got hit with a melee attack, they’d been paralyzed, so it didn’t matter.
  • Need to work out how losing concentration in spells works with the new system.
  • Really needs to be better advice on how to get information about your foes. What can you get with what roll? What skills for what monsters?
  • We resolved how to take care of critters that are resistant to damage with the new rules. It’s not even really a change, but we agreed we liked the not-change.
  • Definitely need to un-tweak the bow aiming rules. They were needed in some of the original drafts, but probably aren’t needed anymore.
  • Spells could be really, really nasty, but when confronted with a Will-o’-Wisp and two mummys in a line, two different spells were “just the ticket” to be a fight-ender. With relatively few spell slots per day, this seemed the right level of “holy crap! lions!” and “can survive.”
  • Armor made the difference between life and death for an NPC hireling; that was cool.
  • The rules for when impairment sets in were tested as a drive-by, and they worked. They gave an excuse to be very parsimonious with healing, and the aforementioned NPC was left wounded but unimpaired. This guy is totally walking around with a bandage on his face.
  • We ruled that the paladin’s ability to locate evil conveyed to others, but at disadvantage. Might revise that, but it helped move things along.
  • A lot of look-ups today, as the draft has grown to 3x the size it was when we last tested (nearly all of that spells, equipment, and feats) and a lot of smallish but critical revisions. A few design decisions I’ve made along the way seem like they’re still the right thing to do.
  • I was reminded a few times of older 5e blog posts I’ve done with nice house rules in them, that I really, really need to go back and mine to see if they belong in the draft.

All in all, I feel like things are going well. There’s lots of work to do, and I really need to be able to sit in front of my machine for eight uninterrupted hours or so…but things are looking good.

I’m also taking the steps that will lead to a viable publishing outcome. This is kind of exciting; never done it before.

Having delved and fought, the party withdrew, replaced a Ranger with a Fighter, and then re-entered the following day. This time, the rogue approached silently and well, and managed to get the drop on the two kobolds who had brought their mastiffs to guard the entrance after the demise of the guardian hobgoblins the previous day. 

The party stacked in the entrance, and then the rogue kicked off the festivities with an arrow shot, while the others rushed the foul creatures having caught them by surprise. The fight was quickly over, as the benefit of advantage that was pressed by having many-on-one scenarios was too high. Plus, the kobolds and mastiffs had but 5 HP each, so they went down quickly no matter what. Seeing both dogs and his friend killed in quick succession, the final kobold fled, having failed a morale check, only to be pursued and slain by the monk Sho Anuf. 

The fountain was the spring that fed the hill fort. And the next room held a trap (detected and avoided) and with some persistent searching, a large treasure chest was found, the rogue picked the lock, and there was much rejoicing.

The party then continued west, and ran smack into two hobgoblin captains. This was a deliberately overmatched fight – two CR 2 hobgoblins against four 1st level characters. The fight went decidedly against the players, with the two greatsword attacks by the captains too-frequently being paired with critical hits (at least twice). With the rules changes in place, this proved fatal to one fighter, and at least incapacitating, if not fatal, to the other. The monk grappled one of the two into the Restrained condition, which allowed a bit of constructive dogpiling and a good sneak attack or two by the rogue. 

The second was hale and robust, with full stress and no wounds, when the rogue and monk decided to withdraw to the trapped room at a dash, to try and lure the beast under the falling-block trap to his doom. As the captain approached, he hurled a javelin (missed) at the rogue, but was impaled first by the rogue’s arrow, and then by a thrown dart by the monk. This seemingly minor wound turned the tide, as it gave the captain disadvantage on attacks. A few misses later, and some good sneak-attack and other strikes by the fighters, and they stood victorious, but down two companions.

We played for about two hours all told, and got through two combats and some trap and treasure searching. Plus a bunch of what if this, what if that rules tweakage discussions.

I walked away with no fewer than 20 notes about things to tweak and look at, but the overall approach was quite solid, and I won’t be tweaking that part of it – the stress and hit threshold levels – any more. The basic fighting foundation for mundane combat is solid enough that it’s more than playable. 

One thing that came up both times, yesterday and today, was grappling. The new rules work great, and add a nuance to this type of fighting that was a great deal of fun to play.

This is a more deadly game than RAW 5e, which was, to some extent, the point. There’s a bit more that I want to do to the injury rules that should make them less bookkeeping intensive (death checks work because they’re all you get to do; that sort of repetitive re-roll doesn’t work in the middle of a fight).

Armor absorbing damage is the bomb. It’s just more satisfying.

I’ve got a lot of work yet to do, and my playtesters will be busy again reading drafts. But I’m ready to start expanding the page count again, and usefully, too!

Used +Roll20 to run my test playtest, and it was my first time to do this as GM.

It took me about 3-4 hours to generate a random dungeon using the donjon generator, edit the monsters so that they were thematically more unified (all from the very useful list of Hill Monsters from the DMG or Monster Manual), and then populate it.

As far as I can tell, the best way to do this is to completely generate a fully populated character sheet for each type of NPC or boss monster. Then, to create faceless minions, you duplicate the templates over and over. If you don’t do that, you wind up having to edit each critter.

I was not able to make Dynamic Lighting and reveals work. That was just time pressure. 

I was able to use the map layer and GM layer effectively to add color to each room, and the library of free tokens in Roll20 is extensive enough to really make dungeons pop. I also bought six new sets of tokens from +Devin Night in addition to his 20 free sets. I mean, if you’re doing tokens, you need his stuff, and it’s worth paying him, because excellence deserves your support.

One thing I was not able to do was to automate the attacks. The player sheet has very easy tabular entry for attacks. The GM sheet has a more generic set of Actions, which are –  I think – macro driven. The available documentation deliberately assumes that if you’re the GM you’re already an expert, and isn’t much help (seriously: do it that way, but just put an example in there).

I think you can just put a line like “Scimitar” for the name, or “Slash with Scimitar,” and then maybe some text for description, and a macro for effect. I think.
+Samuel Penn noted that a simple simple attack macro might be something like: /as “@{selected|token_name}” swings his morning star hitting AC [[d20  @{BAB}+@{str}+@{selected|bar3}+ 1]], doing [[1d6 +@{str}]] damage

That’s cool, and would help. 

I could always use PC sheets for the bad guys, I guess. 

Had the first full-contact playtest of the Heretical D&D project. Had four playtesters in attendance, and a lot of good back and forth. 

Let’s see what I can say without giving the game away.

Notes and observations in play

In no particular order, I found that there were some gaps in how I account for armor that will come up even at first level in some classes. It’s an easy fix, but needs to be there.

The settings for how hard it is to hit foes got a last-minute tweak yesterday and it worked out very well, or at least well enough that it wasn’t broken. 

When you hit, you hit, and you knew you hit. This drew zero comment, which means that the narrative and the mechanical were unified enough to, well, not draw comment. That’s a win.

Tactics were huge. When it only took a few blows – or even one – to injure or kill, how you faced the bad guys really mattered. Flanking was huge, and funneling the foes down into a narrow doorway (stupid kobolds! no biscuit!) turned it into a meat-grinder for the NPCs. We might even reinforce this, and consider facing as a mandatory thing. 

There are a few fiddly rules bits that require consideration, because there are plenty of times when taking a moment to do something other than the equivalent of “do moar hit points!” was important. So this needs to be clarified.

With armor as a reduction in damage, we need to think about putting multiple layers on. Leather underneath chain? Mail under plate? Stacking damage absorption works from a mental model, but doing so needs to be an issue, or have a cost, somehow. Disadvantage? Reduced move? Can’t Dodge?

So that was the in-play commentary. What about after the bodies had stopped twitching?

Post-play feedback

Everyone agreed that armor absorbing damage just worked, and was super important to the feel. Likewise, shields are a big deal, especially at low levels. Strapping on a shield was decided to be a full-turn action, and the setup of robustness vs injury was harsh enough that not taking that time cost an NPC his life. That being said, some NPC-vs-Boss/PC distinction in how that’s handled was suggested, and will be incorporated. It just makes sense.

Pre-game prep has a few more precalculated values, but once they’re there, the entire character’s guts can be written on a 3×5 card. We are not turning D&D into GURPS here.

There was grappling! And it was useful, but not an “I win” button. The rules for how much effect that a bad guy can deal (or a good guy, for that matter) did not cause an issue. I really liked how it played out: Patrick’s character grappled a hobgoblin and did enough control to make him Restrained (advantage on attacking him), which made short work of the hobgoblin. This seemed very monkish. Need to add the grapple and control maximum to the character sheet, though.

A tweak I made for bows in combat worked out well, and counterbalanced a design element which would have been problematic without it. Yeah, yeah, cryptic. I know.

MAD! – In post discussion, there was a strong vote in favor of DEX always adding to hit, and STR always adding to damage (multiple attribute dependency). Need to figure out what Finesse weapons mean in this context, though.

This was not GURPS, with all the skills and all the fiddle. It was also not 4th or straight-5th edition D&D where you whack away at a giant pile of hit points. Kobolds would go KO in one or two blows – usually one. Hobgoblins, in their armor, were a real threat, and they rolled pretty poorly. 

Overall, this did not seem broken to me. Emphasizing tactics through facing and flanking, and lethality through the importance of armor was all good stuff.

Two more playtest sessions schedule for this weekend, and we’ll see how that goes. Only about 1/3 of my tester pool has actually played the game with me yet, so there’s a lot of room for “this blows!” 

But the initial contact with the enemy shows both the strength of the foundation 5e system as well as the fairly compelling nature of the rules alterations. 

So . . . onward!

Two things are taking my blogging time right now.

First is that +Jeffro Johnson is helping me get acquainted with the PERL script we use to get the GURPSDay thing going. His ownership and authorship of the script was always supposed to be temporary, but he’s just so efficient that we never really completed the knowledge transfer. We got 35 of 37 blogs pulling properly, but two outliers will take more wrestling.

The second piece is the D&D project, on which I made ridiculous progress and then last week hardly any. That’s not a slow-down in intent and commitment – I still know mostly what I want to do with it, and in a few more days, if I don’t hear from one guy, I’ll start with the “what do I do on X and Y” final commits. I’m planning on staging some test fights this weekend, too. Once I settle a few “what do I do” questions, it’s a matter of pounding it out.

I’ve been getting great advice, too. And help with still more. I chose better than I knew when I picked my playtesters, too.

You’re going to be hearing less about this, because I’m in full-on writing mode. I’ve got enough to write up a real set of rules, and thanks to the SRD, this can really be made into something cool.

Where am I?

I’ve got an outline. I’ve got a title for the rules that I don’t think has been used before.

I solicited and received an offer for layout help, and it’s going very well. He’s using the project as an excuse to learn InDesign, and I’m digging the process of getting my head into a D&D product for real. This is going to look like a D&D5e cousin – recognizably from the same gene pool, but definitely not the same direct parents. 

I’ve got about 2,600 words down so far, and the writing is, thus far (and dare I say it?) easy. It helps that I’ve written a bunch of it before, and extending my concepts to the SRD is proving fairly easy.

I’ve got a “productization” strategy in the works, too. I think it’ll please people.

I’ve also got a good group of trusted playtesters, game authors all, who have volunteered to play this when I’m ready. I’m not going to take that long to get to a test, either. A bit more transfer of concept to the page, and we’ll probably start a game and see if the rules survive first contact with the enemy. This is a closed group for now – I can rely on them to play the game “as is” for a while, rather than try and overwrite my authorial intent immediately. That won’t prevent them from saying “I don’t like X, it sucks.” They will let me know this. But they will soldier on and play it as written, and then play it again with tweakage. At some point, I’ll ask for people to try it out with their own groups, because not everyone gets to play the game with the system designer at the table.

But for now, I’m quite pleased. 

Since my original forays into tinkering with the combat and narrative mechanics in D&D5, I’ve written a combat simulator to look at how quickly two combatants can drop each other using my rules assumptions, including for armor.

I’ve found out a few things, which have sent me back to . . . not the drawing board, but the tinker board, at least.

Why all this effort? Mostly for fun. I’m not sure I’d run a game this way . . . but I might. And if the rules work out as fun and usable as they appear to be, perhaps there’s a product in the future. Stranger things have happened.

On Your Mark, Set . . . Calculate!

The first thing I did was to start simulating this stuff using Excel as a Monte Carlo engine. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of attacks, looking for the average time it took to drop a foe, relative to the usual way.
As an example, if you take the rules as I noted them in a prior post, with a base stress threshold of 6+DEX Bonus+Proficiency Bonus, so that your Stress Threshold is 10 and your Impact Threshold with a shield is 14, then you wind up having two first-level fighters each take about four attacks to bring each other to zero stress points . . . but the average number of hits you need to kill the foe goes up with my system. So if two first-level guys fight until they start taking wounds, it’ll take about the same time. If they fight until they die, it’ll take longer, with a lot of fighting after the first sword hits flesh.
Here’s the simulator so you can try for yourself. Feel free to suggest modifications.
What about higher level characters? First-level guys are pretty fragile. And they have more stress points by virtue of carrying a shield (20) than they do from their rolled HP+CON bonus (12) assuming STR 16, CON 15, DEX 14.
How about the upper end of the +2 Proficiency tier? How about a Mountain Dwarf 4th level fighter, with STR 18, CON 18, DEX 14 (Tavern Brawler Feat)?

Well, the hits per kill are now within a few tenths of each other – about 13 attacks to fell an equivalent foe by RAW, and just shy of 12 with the new method. So the new rules has fighting to the death about equal, but the defender will take “real” wounds in about half that time. That assumes chain mail and a shield with a 1H weapon like a sword or axe.
Crank it up? Lower end of +5 proficiency – 13th level. Now we add two attribute score increases, bringing both STR and CON up to 20 (!), and the Alert Feat for that lovely +5 to initiative. We’ll ignore magical weapons for the moment, but we will give our dwarf plate armor. We leave DEX alone because it’s capped at +2 DEX bonus because of the heavy armor.
Fighting our prior 4th level character, he’ll be wounded in 5 attacks and dead in 9 in the new system (and 8 in the old). He’ll threaten the 4th level character (cost him stress) every time, threaten an impact 80% of the time, and 82% of his impacts will actually cause wounds once stress is depleted. 
Against an equal foe, by RAW it’ll take about 30 attacks – and with three or four attacks, that’ll be 7-10 turns. With the new rules against a guy with a shield and plate, it will take 16 hits to lower stress enough to wound him, and a further 8 hits to drive him to his wound maximum of 25 (and thus kill him). The skillful fighter will threaten his foe 90% of the time, but strike home only 35% of the time – the double proficiency bonus from weapon and shield (or two weapons, if you allow it) drops the number of “you were good enough to bypass his defenses” hits down by half. 
If the foe puts down his shield, the hits required to wound drops to 12 (reduced by 25%) and the hits to kill down to 18; the impact rate goes up to 60%! Shields matter, as they should. But they don’t dominate the results.
Thus far, I remain pleased with how the combats aren’t that long – or indeed that different at least on equal foes. 
Oh, but what about a 4th level fighter who decides to challenge a 13th level one? 17 hits to wound, and 26 to kill. By RAW, it would take 56 hits to kill, so the playing field is much more level here, but since our 4th level character will be dead in three rounds, our 13th level warrior will have plenty of time to recover his breath. 
Armor Again

The only thing that makes me think a bit more is that even against fairly run-of-the-mill STR values (say a 1st level fighter’s ST 16, with a +3 bonus), you’re looking at 4-11 points of damage, against 1-10 points of armor. That really only protects you a tiny bit, and even with plate blows are not terribly likely to “bounce.” I think that’s as much because my armor is always 1dX rather than (say) 2d(X/2). Or even upping armor values a bit, but honestly, the current system works well enough.
Parting Shot

Like this, but for my rules

I’m sure that I could tweak it up more. But honestly, the values seem to be not-awful and really what it needs now is to be honest-to-goodness playtested. 

The other thing it could probably use is a purpose-built character sheet, which displays the appropriate thresholds and even has some of the key rules, such as an Impact being allowed to be taken as stress if you can absorb 2x the damage roll.
Also, right now, you still have to take the entire damage roll as stress – armor doesn’t mitigate that at all. The point being that “I take the blow on my armor” isn’t really the choice that you make. 
It could be, though! That wouldn’t be hard to re-jigger, merely adding a few other if-then statements so that (for example) you can turn an impact into stress by taking twice the actual injury (so go ahead and roll armor) – but that could get recursive and slow down play. So I think I like it as-is, but would welcome other perspectives or actual play results.
But I think what I’ve got here is a real start at a replacement that makes short and long rests make utter and total sense . . . and wounds be quite serious.
Next up, injury and recovery. 
Because as much as D&D is a resource management game, we need to account for potions and spells. And the assumption that you recover (for example) 10% of your wound maximum every week needs to be reflected in magical spells and potions. 

When last we left our heroes, they (me) had first given some stream-of-consciousness thoughts on revamping what hits and misses mean, as well as differentiating between Stress and Wounds, and slapping on Damage Resistance or an Armor Value as the typical last-ditch defense when the wounding threshold is exceeded and a weapon actually hits the target’s body. Only after all of that is injury suffered.

However, looking at the armor values themselves showed that my initial musings would produce results which, on the average, wouldn’t be consistent with the existing Armor Class progression. Is that a show-stopper? No, but if I can avoid it, I should.

In chatting with some friends the other day, I was forced (in order to make my own thoughts clear) to articulate some of the design goals for this project, and one of them was that when all was said and done, the mechanics needed to feel very DnD. To that end, what I want to accomplish here is to get to something that is narratively more satisfying than the existing mechanics . . . but I want to do it by adding no more than one additional die roll.

I might be able to git ‘r done without another roll. But giving myself the leeway and the limit of one more means I won’t wind up in crazy-town.

Note: this doesn’t mean that one can’t roll additional dice. I have already had one – legit – request to ensure whatever I do works with turning proficiency bonuses into dice. But there will be an attack roll, a damage roll, and a roll-to-be-named-later. Maybe. But no more than that!

So, back to mechanics.

Stress and Wounds

Just for heresy’s sake, wounds count up from zero: so zero wounds is ‘unwounded,’ while higher numbers are worse for you. Stress counts down, just like the HP they replace. 

Wound Maximum: CON + STR Bonus. Wound levels from 1 to half the Wound Maximum (round up) threaten the fighter’s capability. Wound levels higher than this, up to the maximum, threaten the warrior’s consciousness and potentially his life. Exceed the wound maximum and you start the death check process as written.

If you take wounds . . . 

  • If you are at less than half your wound maximum, your rolls have Disadvantage.
  • If you are at more than half your wound maximum, make a DC 10 CON check each time you’re wounded (but not every turn). Failure drops you unconscious. Each turn after, make a DC 10 CON check. Three strikes and you die . . . but any success stops the process. You’re KO’d but not dead.
  • If you exceed your wound maximum, start the usual Death Check process. Three fails and you’re dead.

Originally, I had penalties equal to half your wound level. But that got serious fast, and honestly, that made someone with 25 Wound Maximum liable to pass out at a lower percentage of their max than someone with 10 wounds. I could easily see alternate ways of attacking this. You fight, but at a penalty, at up to half your maximum. Or you take -1 to all rolls to a maximum of -5 as you go from 1 wound to half maximum. That sort of thing. I erred for simplicity here.

Stress Maximum: This is the fighter’s normally calculated HP. Hit dice and CON bonus. The “normal rules” way to play will be that so long as your stress total isn’t worn down to zero, you’re at full fighting capacity. If you have a shield, it adds 10 Stress Points per point of proficiency (so if you’re +4 proficiency, you get +40 Stress from the shield).

This is there to address the complaints that legitimately were asked about shields only being good for +2 to armor class.

The Attack Roll

The prior work established two notions. That of a level where rolling lower than this means that you either swing and completely whiff, or never even swing at all due to lack of appropriate openings on your foe (the second one really only works for melee). That was called (in the previous post) the Defense Threshold.

Calling it the Stress Threshold makes more sense.

Why? Because the upper threshold was the Wound Threshold, above which you start to be at risk of having that sword, axe, or arrow actually hit your body. Even so, because to do wounds a blow has to bypass any armor worn, wound threshold will be renamed Impact Threshold.

So we now have Stress Threshold and Impact Threshold.

Again, the prior work showed (well, showed me . . . I didn’t publish this result) that even without rolling to hit at all, certain armors were so tough they more or less dropped the expected damage threshold to nearly zero (or at least zero most of the time) even if you just stood there.

Attack a guy in plate (average protection 7.5 points of damage, or 1d12+1) with a dagger at 1d4+2 and if you don’t roll for armor, only a critical hit (2d4+2) will get through, ever. If you do roll for armor, accounting for crits on a 20, 1d4+2 against 1d12+1 will come up with zero damage 78% of the time, and when there are wounds, will have a median of 2 and an average of 2.12 (and a maximum, of course, of 8).

So just by virtue of the armor itself, that’s roughly the equivalent of an AC of 16 or 17. You don’t even need anything else – defenses, nimble footwork, or whatever – to stand against that.

That’s not a bug, in my mind. Dagger vs. full plate should be a smackdown unless you have an unaware or unresisting or untrained foe. What about the other end? A 1d12+4 weapon? You can get some seriously ugly wounds (up to 26 HP) through the armor, and if a blow strikes, you’ll do at least one wound 70% of the time. So don’t bring a knife to an axe-fight, and you’re OK.

Stress Threshold

Let’s hit some design goals, narratively speaking.

It seems to me that my pre-determined “you miss” results either mean that you do swing and you biff it, or you never really get a chance to strike at all.

Now, all of that assumes two mobile, aware targets. Never get an opening assumes some maneuver and posturing and feints and footwork, yes?

That seems like Proficiency should play a role, then. More experienced fighters should be harder to force into a position where a strike is even possible. OK, the minimum bonus for proficiency for Level 1 characters is +2. Goes up to +6. Good to keep in mind.

What about DEX? Should natural nimbleness make it harder to put you into a position where a strike is possible? If you say “yes,” then for PCs you’re looking at a usual range of about DEX 8 (lowest number in the standard array) to DEX 20 (usual maximum), or -1 to +5.

If you say that dancing about is stressful (or exhausting), and that any use of proficiency involves motion and skill, then all fights have the same target number for a miss. That doesn’t seem quite right, though it’s defensible, I suppose.

On the other hand, the range of both DEX and Proficiency goes from +1 to +11. That could mean that if you’re adding that to a base of (say) 10, that you won’t even cause stress (which are basically HP, renamed, with some slight contextual differences) unless you can roll 11 or higher (50% chance per turn of either no-strike or swing and a miss) on the novice end, or as high as 21 (!) on the high end. You can’t even lay a figurative glove on this character even with his high-leveledness weaponless and shieldless.

The stress threshold implies that below this figure, you’re not even trying hard enough to exhaust skill or luck or stamina. You just don’t bother, effectively.

I’d think this number should be low. Maybe very low, at least for low-level characters with poor stats. I was going to work through various possibilities, but I think I’ll just cut to the chase: Use a base value of 6.

Base value 6

A base value this low means that Joe Average, Level 1 PC with all stats of 10 (+2 proficiency and nothing else), or wearing armor that neutralizes a DEX bonus, will have a Stress Threshold of 8. 65% of the time, he’ll have to react to a foe rolling 1d20+0, and against a fighter who’s purpose-built at first level (STR 16, for 1d20+5) will only be save 10% of the time. That seems legit. 

The worst-possible category will be a net -5 bonus (STR 0 or STR 1, no proficiency) which means you can still miss by rolling a natural 1. That puts the “always miss rolling a 1” and “what’s the worst could happen?” as congruent, which pleases my sense of symmetry and ‘no special cases.’

That might be pretty easy, but then, proficiency-only and crappy stats isn’t a credible fighter – so maybe that’s OK. Our notional beginner fighter with DEX 14 (+2) and 1st level proficiency (again +2) will wind up with a Stress Threshold of 10 in up to medium armor. Again, a 6th level fighter (+3) with STR 18 (+4) will only fail to stress this guy by rolling a 1 or 2.

So two first-level guys in medium armor going after each other will be 1d20+5 vs. a Stress Threshold of 10. Eight times in ten, an attack will cause the other guy to suffer stress. 

What about the high end? DEX 18 and a +4 proficiency in light armor means your Stress Threshold is 6+4+4 = 14. A non-combatant (1d20+2) will threaten this guy 45% of the time, and a decent fighter (1d20+5) will threaten him 70% of the time. 

What we’re really dealing with here is Base + DEX + Proficiency on defense, and 1d20+ STR/DEX + Proficiency on the attack. For equal-level fighters, this will tend to favor the attack by 1-2 points, and the odds of having to not do anything other than footwork are low. Basically 1d20 vs an effective target of 4 or 5, or about a 15-20% chance of a total whiff.

DEX  Bonus and Proficiency Bonus Considerations

The DEX bonus is conditional in vanilla 5e – if you wear certain armor you are capped at a max of 2, or don’t even get the bonus. 

On the other hand, you must be proficient to even wear armor. Proficient. You could certainly have someone strap plate armor on to you, and assuming you are strong enough to move the weight of the armor, it will certainly protect you from blows. 

If I hold to the DEX bonuses from the Player’s Handbook, that means that a fairly expert fighter (say, Proficiency of +4) in plate (no DEX bonus allowed) will have a Stress Threshold of 10. A Rogue in studded leather (full DEX bonus allowed) of the same proficiency may well have a Stress Threshold of 15. Harder to hit, but if you do hit, much less protected.

Impact Threshold

Above the Impact Threshold, an attack will bypass defenses of any sort and strike home. Such a strike, whether rolled naturally (attack roll exceeds impact threshold) or as a result of whittling down the foe’s Stress Points, results in an Impact. Protecting against such is skill-based, so it means proficiency.

Anything that raises Armor Class that feels like defense and active skill needs to show up somewhere. Things that make sense to defend against blows, such as shields and off-hand weapons, need to show up somewhere. Martial prowess from the Monk’s martial arts abilities need to show up.

I’m going to start by saying that you get your proficiency bonus for each weapon or shield (up to two) that is capable of defending against blows. A beginner sword-and-board guy? That’s +2 for the sword, and +2 for the shield. Impact Threshold would thus be 4 higher than the Stress Threshold. The same would go for a guy with a rapier in one hand, and a shortsword or main-gauche in the other.

Two-handed weapon users – greatswords, great axes, and polearms, would only get the single bonus. 

Bows and crossbows? Lacking some sort of close-combat expert Feat, you get no boost over your Stress Threshold for these.

This means that a fighter with sword and shield in Medium armor with DEX 14 (+2) and a +5 proficiency bonus will be looking at a Stress Threshold of 13 (6+2+5) and a Impact Threshold of 23 (13+5+5). Assuming that same fighter has STR 18 or 20, he’ll be attacked at a minimum of 1d20+9, maybe even +11 or +12 if he’s managed to put his hands on a magical weapon. So a high-level fighter has a reasonable chance of bypassing his rival’s defenses and laying his weapon on his foe’s body.

The Impact Threshold is equal to 6+DEX Bonus+3*Proficiency for the most heavily defended fighters. This will be countered by 1d20+STR/DEX Bonus + Proficiency.

The DEX bonus will tend to be lower than the attacking bonus (not always; Rogues and archers will have high DEX, but this will often be countered with lightweight armor). Still, you’re looking at 6+DEX+2*Proficiency vs 1d20+STR/DEX (uncapped).

This favors the defender a tetch. Let’s assume two 20th level characters (hah!) with STR and DEX both of 20 (hah, maybe?) and no magical weapons or armor (dubious, but we’ll see). Stress Threshold will range from a low of 6+0 (armor DEX bonus capped)+6 = 12 to a higher of 6+5+6 = 17 (no armor cap at all). Impact Threshold can be as low as 12 (heavy armor shooting a bow) and as high as 29 (studded leather and two rapiers).

On the attack, our notional 20th level character will roll 1d20+11. This still has a 15% chance of overwhelming the highest possible rapier-dancer Impact Threshold, and will only fail to strike home against a heavily-armored guy with a bow if he rolls a natural 1.

A 1st-level fighter attacking the same two foes (1d20+5) will have a decent chance of causing stress on both of them, but will be unlikely to fight past the foe I’m calling the rapier dancer, but could also represent a viking type with axe, shield, and studded leather armor. Again, this doesn’t strike me as instantly broken.

That which doesn’t seem broken may actually still be broken in play. I’ll later on work out how many turns one would expect to spend getting various foes unconscious given various inputs, and see if it works out more or less satisfying than the current rules. Even if the results are different, it might still work out if one doesn’t take a trip into crazy-town.

Critical Hits and Desperate Defenses

There’s a temptation to look at a natural 20 as an automatic strike at your foe’s body, but I’m going to resist that. Instead, leave the rules as they are, and simply apply these two principles:

  • A critical hit (natural 20) doubles rolled damage dice. This subtracts first from stress, and when stress is gone, is applied as an Impact. It is possible – even likely – that a natural 20 (plus attack modifiers) also exceeds the Impact Threshold, in which case the full damage roll – including doubled dice – will be applied as an Impact.
  • All is not lost! If you have the stress to spare, you can declare a desperate defense, and absorb double the rolled damage (including any adds) as Stress. If you can’t absorb that increased damage fully (and that might be doubled!), you cannot select this option. 

This is to avoid “take damage rolled, double it, subtract that from stress, and then as stress hits zero, halve the remainder and apply it to wounds. That’s a lot of fiddle. Doable . . . but fiddly.

Example: A natural 20 on 1d8+3 would roll 2d8+3 for damage, for 5-19 points of damage. A desperate defense could be declared if you have the stress remaining to absorb 10-38 points. Otherwise, you suffer a 5-19 point Impact.

Impact Resolution

Once you have made an Impact on your foe, you take the damage and subtract armor from it. If using the highly-suggested random die roll for armor, take any hits that impact the foe, subtract armor, and take the rest as wounds.

Parting Shot

The upshot is that one will pre-calculate some basic figures as characters are generated, and other than tracking Stress and Wounds, most actual play should be pretty straight-forward. Roll to hit normally. Compare to Stress and Impact thresholds. If the Stress Threshold is exceeded, roll damage. If an Impact is scored, subtract armor and take the rest as wounds.

The only extra roll is the armor roll, so my original design goal has been achieved. It would not be insane to treat any instances of the Proficiency Bonus as dice – even on the defense. Since that number varies from 2 to 6, double it as usual and roll that die type. 1d4 for Proficiency +2 up to 1d12 for Proficiency of +6. That puts some luck in play, while still more-or-less retaining the same results.

Here are some mundane Examples, simply presenting three Champion Fighters of various levels. No Feats, just attribute bonuses, emphasizing CON and STR because it’s assumed that the initial armor is chain mail, so DEX bonuses are lost anyway.

There are, of course, other types of characters that are challenging here, and Barbarians and Monks come to mind instantly. Still, if the system breaks for the bog-standard DEX-based and STR-based combatants, there’s not much point in proceeding. Nothing above instantly looks crazed, though the addition of shield-based Stress Points pushes those totals higher, the lower Stress Thresholds mean you will take “HP of damage” more frequently. 

3rd Level Sword-and-Board; Chain mail

STR 16 (+3); DEX 14 (+2); CON 15 (+2); Proficiency +2
Melee Attack: 1d20+5; Melee Damage 1d8+3
Wound Maximum: 18
Stress Points: 28 (hit dice and CON) + 20 (shield) = 48
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+2 (Proficiency) = 8
Wound Threshold: 8 (Stress Threshold) + 2 (Weapon) +2 (Shield) = 12
Armor Value: 1d10

9th Level Sword-and-Board; Plate armor

STR 20 (+5); DEX 14 (+2); CON 16 (+3); Proficiency +4
Melee Attack: 1d20+9; Melee Damage 1d8+5
Wound Maximum: 21
Stress Points: 85 (HD and CON) + 40 (Shield) = 125
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+4 (Proficiency) = 10
Wound Threshold: 10 (Stress Threshold) + 4 (Weapon) +4 (Shield) = 18
Armor Value: 1d12+1

15th Level Sword-and-Board; Plate armor

STR 20 (+5); DEX 14 (+2); CON 20 (+5); Proficiency +5
Melee Attack: 1d20+10; Melee Damage 1d8+5
Wound Maximum: 25
Stress Points: 169 (HD and CON) + 50 (Shield) = 219
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+5 (Proficiency) = 11
Wound Threshold: 11 (Stress Threshold) + 5 (Weapon) +5 (Shield) = 21
Armor Value: 1d12+1

Just looking at the high-level guy, his former AC would have been 20. Attacked by his equal and opposite, he’ll be hit 55% of the time for 1d8+5, but he’ll crit 10% of the time. It’ll take about 29 attacks to bring him to 0 HP (neglecting Second Wind).

With the newer system, it’s more lethal. The rate-limit on survival is wounds, not stress, and the “take double stress instead of wounds” rule will come up reasonably frequently – it seems only 10 attacks are required, more or less (my spreadsheet isn’t quite right yet) instead of 29 without that rule.

So more lethal for equal fighters, despite armor as DR. I need to work this more, but my biggest worry was the system would prolong combat, and I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

I’ll run more scenarios and get better numbers, but I think things got more interesting rather than less.

In my pondering of heretical D&D concepts from the other day, one of the thoughts that I had was:

Wow, rolling vs. a “Defense Target” of 10+DEX Modifier is going to make even very experienced fighters get hit an awful lot. On the other hand, armor subtracts from damage. How does that balance out?

Guess it’s time to break out Excel. First thing that leaped out at me was that the armor was wonky.

The Armor Progressions Don’t Line Up

I’m not going to show my work here, but the armor progressions for DR don’t work as I wrote them. The short version is that the AC progression sets the value of armor a certain way, and that means that each successive armor that gets a bonus should have some level of improved protection over the next one.

The progression I have, while elegant, creates artifacts that don’t increment well with the AC table.

Consider the table again. 1d4+1 is supposed to be AC 5 based on the maximum roll. That’s all well and good, but when I simulated the dice rolls 250,000 times, it was clear that I made the wrong call here. You need to treat average damage resistance, not the maximum. 1d4+1 averages 3.5 Damage Resistance. So does 1d6. But 1d6 is supposed to be the better armor. So phooey, that doesn’t work.

Now, if I instead treat the current AC bonus as, say, a half-point less damage than what the dice should roll, that gives padded armor an expected resistance of 1.5 points . . . or 1d4-1. Plate, with an expected resistance of a whopping 8.5 points, might be 1d12+2. Let’s keep only 1d rolling no matter the die size, and look at options for appropriate averages that work with the Armor Class scale.

In order to get to plate, we need 1d12+2. That’s a lot of damage. It means a great axe or greatsword wielded by a strong person will still wind up getting “bounced” frequently. Plus (and again, not showing my work), some of the armor values mean that you’re going to need to hit several to dozens of times more frequently in order to get the same HP of damage through. That will make fights last a really, really long time.

So even before we start, let’s give padded (AC 11, or bonus of +1) an expected protection of 0.5 instead of 1.5. If we disallow any bonus more than +1 or penalty more than -2 (and prefer -1 to +1), we get the possibilities for armor dice to the right.

That shows we have a lot of choices, which is nice. I’ve color-coded the light/medium/heavy proficiencies to see if there’s something logical we can eke out of it. Turns out there is.

We can restrict the light armors to rolling d4, and the medums to d6. Heavy armor gets d8 through d12, with d12 reserved for the suit of plate armor, because it’s more awesome that way. Choosing it that way, and re-ordering the table by proficiency then AC (like it is in the PHB) we get a fairly satisfying table:

The only potential problem children are the -2s for Padded, Leather, and Hide, which for the first two means you have a 50% chance that your armor provides no protection whatsoever, while Hide is a 33% chance. That actually helps Hide armor, because on the straight-stat level, Hide kinda sucks. Sure, it’s only 10gp instead of the 45 for studded leather, but it’s basically the same weight, AC, and Hide hits you with a maximum bonus of +2 to DEX.

Parting Shot

This table is more consistent with the Armor Class values given in the PHB, so you won’t get strange results like I did when I calculated armor values based on the maximum protection and allowed 2d4 as the base roll. That had cases where the superior armor in-game was no longer better protection, and while I suppose that could be considered a design feature, keeping the same relative protection values for the armors listed seemed like it would be worth doing. Alternately, there’s no good reason to change it, and it’s easy to preserver.

I like how it wound up. Light armors are d4, medium are d6, and heavy armor is “higher than d6,” with the very inexpensive ring mail (less expensive than studded leather!) having a chance of zero protection. Better buy smaller rings.