Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part II

The previous post in this series looked at a few of the underlying concepts of a unified modular D&D system, and also some of the disparate mechanics that would need to be reconciled in the new system:
• Core Mechanic (d20)
• Ability Score Bonuses (Ability Score – 10 / 2)
• Gradual improvement (+1 per level mechanics)

Before I look at Combat, Themes, Feats, and Skills in more detail, there are a couple of general areas that require further investigation:
• Gradual improvement mechanics
• Balancing modular mechanics

Gradual Improvement Mechanics

In the previous post, I looked briefly at the options for how to implement the +1 per level mechanic that is present in each of the editions (but implemented differently in each). At this stage, it’s worth having a closer look at how this mechanic has been implemented in various editions, and how it could be implemented in a unified system.

D&D 4th Edition uses a variant of this system which is both interesting and broken at the same time. The ½ Level bonus in 4th Edition is great because it can be combined with gradually increasing ability scores and magic enhancements to met the assumed +1 per level. However, in practise 4th Edition’s rules mean that the rate of increases in ability scores and magic items is not fast enough, meaning that the edition has increasingly relied on feats to patch the holes in this progression.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition has the following underlying mechanics for the +1 per level progression:
• ½ Level Bonus
• Magic enhancement every 5th level (assumed +1 weapon at level 5, +2 at level 10, etc)
• Ability score modifier increase every 7th or 8th level (via +1 to two ability scores every 4th level and then semi-randomly after that)
• Various feats and proficiencies that are available to the player, but are sometimes not chosen

If you add up the first three of these, you end up with a progression of about +0.85 per level, with the remander (+0.15) coming from various feats. The 4th Edition feats that are used to plug these gaps include:
• Weapon Proficiency (+2 to hit)
• Weapon Focus
• Weapon Talent
• Weapon/Implement Expertise

The problem with these feats is that they are optional for players. So in many cases, casual players will choose non-optimal feats, and their characters will fall behind the expected progression, leading to large mechanical imbalances between optimal and non-optimal characters.

Now a system that doesn’t support feats (or makes them optional), can’t rely on feats to be a key component of the game’s progression and mechanics, so 5th Edition is going to need to satisfy the +1 per level without feats.

As I mentioned, I ‘solved’ this issue in Heroes Against Darkness with the following:
• ½ Level Bonus
• Magic enhancement every 4th level (assumed +1 weapon at level 4, +2 at level 8, etc)
• Ability score modifier increase every 4th level (via +1 to two ability scores every 2nd level starting at level 3)

The combination of these three mechanics gives Heroes Against Darkness the assumed +1 per level progression, without feats. Obviously there’s some variability here, with the GM able to give magic items sooner or later than the assumed level and with the unlikely situation of players choosing to put both of their ability score increases into non-optimal choices.

In my opinion, D&D 5th Edition is going to need to achieve the planned progression rates in a manner close to what I’ve got in Heroes Against Darkness so that the system doesn’t rely on feats (or any other optional element) to shore up its core progression mechanics.

It’s worth asking here whether this +1 per level mechanic is even required in the game at all.

Early editions of D&D had this mechanic through the Character Hit Table, the THAC0 table and the Base Attack Bonuses. While each of these editions generally adhered to +1 per level, there were certain anomalies:
• In all earlier editions, weapon enhancements fell outside of the +1 per level progression, meaning that the character’s actual progression could be significantly higher, depending on the generousity of the DM.
• Early editions (especially Basic and AD&D) had no mechanic for balancing monster difficulty against player character aand overall party power.
• Early editions had no mechanism for gradually increasing the power/difficulty of magic attacks.
• 4th Edition matches the +1 per level progression with approximately +1 per level progression for defenses, and +1 per level to monster attacks and defenses, keeping the whole system consistent.

The only alternative that I can think of is if they somehow removed all of the assumed gradual improvement mechanics, and replaced them with a Relative Level mechanic, where you get +1 for each level lower the enemy is than the character, or -1 for each level higher they are than the character. This would also zero out all of the +1 per level escalation of attacks and defenses, leaving simply ability score modifiers and weapon enhancements or armor as the only progressive elements.

Ultimately, 5th Edition will need the following:
• +1 per level mechanic for attacks (that does not need feats)
• +1 per level mechanic for primary defense (AC), something smaller for alternate defenses
• +1 per level mechanic for monster attacks
• +1 per level mechanic for monster defenses

Balancing Modular Mechanics

Once you’ve established the core mechanics of the modular and unified system, the next task is to layer in various optional subsystems. For example, D&D 5th Edition could offer the following modules:
• Basic and Tactical combat options
• Feats and Skills
• Combat Powers

Combat is likely, to come in two forms, Basic (i.e. descriptive) combat for ‘old-school’ players alongside Tactical combat that features the grid-based combat seen in 3rd and 4th editions.

When thinking about how Skills and Feats fit into a modular game, there are a few options:
• Feats and Skills become optional modules that either totally absent from the game or can be included if desired
• Feats and Skills are always in the game, but are pre-selected in Basic character creation and customizable in an Advanced character creation module

Finally, the inclusion of Combat Powers in the game could take a number of forms:
• Combat Powers are optional, with Basic Combat only offering ‘basic’ melee and ranged attacks
• Combat Powers are pre-selected for characters by default, and can be customized in an advanced character creation module

Additionally, the Combat Powers themselves could take a number of forms:
• Combat Powers that are always available (gained at specific levels) and take the form of trade-offs (e.g. more hit chance for less damage) or give characters situational (e.g. flanking, etc) or class specific advantages, but do not otherwise escalate from the baseline combat power (Heroes Against Darkness uses this type of combat power system to avoid escalation of power)
• Combat Powers that behave like Vancian magic, where some are only usable on an encounter or daily basis (like 4th Edition)

Some of these possible combat and feat module choices imply lesser or greater degrees of power creep. For example, if the game doesn’t have feats by default but they can be optionally included, then those feats are likely to offer some mechanical advantages when compared to the game run without feats. Furthermore, the inclusion of Vancian combat powers (like the Encounter and Daily powers in 4th Edition) is also more powerful than a combat system that is run with only basic attacks, or one that is run with trade-off and situational attacks.

The important considerations here for a creating a modular game system are:
• Can characters with different levels of complexity exist in the same game (i.e. one character without feats in the same party as someone with feats)?
• Do the optional modules increase the overall power of the characters?
• How does the escalation of power inherent in optional modules impact the overall game balance (e.g. if the party has feats and is using tactical combat, how do you balance this against enemies)?

Ultimately, a modular system needs a mechanism for avoiding or dealing with the inherent power creep of each individual module. Some systems, like GURPS, use a point buy system to balance the power of characters but I can’t see D&D moving to point-buy.

Without a way of balancing the various optional modules, there’s no way for 5th Edition to properly balance the entire game (for example, how would encounters be balanced for Basic or Advanced characters). So here are a few possibilities for a modular system where the power creep is kept under control:
• Tactical combat that only uses trade-offs
• Basic characters have higher ability scores to compensate for their lack of higher-power options
• Basic characters come pre-generated with appropriate feats, while Advanced characters can choose their own feats
• Feats are stripped back to minor enhancements which don’t fundamentally break the balance of the game.

This series continues with part 3:

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part III Combat and HP

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part I

All of the role-playing blogs are weighing in with their thoughts, suggestions, demands and (sometimes) their denunciation of WotC’s plans for the new edition of D&D.

So today I’m going to look at what would be involved in making a unified and modular version of Dungeons & Dragons, with elements that can be bought in (or out), and what the core rules of this system would be.

As a long time role-player, I think that all role-players should hope that the team at Wizards succeed in reuniting the various factions of D&D players, from the Grognards to the 4th Edition players. If Wizards fails, then there’s a great chance that the hobby’s gateway drug (D&D) will die entirely, and that with no new players coming in the hobby itself will wither and die, leaving us all the poorer.

This quote from The Angry DM seems spot-on:

“So, you can bitch and piss and moan and start edition wars and talk about why you hate WotC or D&D or 4E or 3E or whatever. And all that does is piss away the chance you have to constructively help make a new edition you want to play. If you do the bitchy pissy moany thing instead of the honest constructive thing, you’re saying you care more about hating D&D than D&D.”

What Is The Core of D&D

First, Maldoor at The Mule Abides notes in his blog post:

“The bare-bones game includes the DNA of D&D – six attributes, experience and level progress, three or four base classes, d20 combat, saving throws, simple d6 initiative, and a basic selection of classic spells and monsters.”

Mike Mearls himself broke this down in his Legends & Lore article titled Essential D&D Mechanics as:
“• The six ability scores—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—as the categories for measuring a character’s abilities.
• Armor Class as the basic representation of a character’s defense.
• Alignment (Law v. Chaos, Good v. Evil) as a personal ethos and a force in the universe.
• Attack rolls made using a d20, with higher rolls better than lower ones.
• Classes as the basic framework for what a character can do.
• Damage rolls to determine how badly a spell or attack hurts you.
• Gold pieces as the standard currency for treasure.
• Hit dice or level as the basic measure of a monster’s power.
• Hit points as a measure of your ability to absorb punishment, with more powerful characters and creatures gaining more of them.
• Levels and experience points as a measure of power and a mechanic that lets characters become more powerful over time.
• Magic items such as +1 swords as a desirable form of treasure.
• Rolling initiative at the start of a battle to determine who acts first.
• Saving throws as a mechanic for evading danger.
• ‘Fire-and-forget’ magic, with spellcasters expending a spell when casting it.”

Based on Mike’s post, and D&D’s move towards a unified core-mechanic in 3rd and 4th editions, I think that we can imagine that in its most basic form, D&D 5th Edition will have:
• Six ability scores
• Armor Class
• Race
• Alignment?
• Classes
• HP
• Levels
• Initiative
• Saving Throws
• Fire-and-forget Vancian magic (or something like it)

Regardless of that, where does this leave us with all of the following mechanics in the game (and how do these then get layered on top of a ‘modular’ game?):
• Action Economy
• Kits, Backgrounds, Themes
• Prestige Classes
• Skills (also previously known as Non-Weapon Proficiencies)
• Proficiencies (Usable Weapons and Armor)
• Martial Powers
• Feats
• AEUD (At Will, Encounter, Utility, Daily) Powers
• Rituals
• Saving Throws to remove ongoing effects (4th Edition)
• Healing for all classes (e.g. Healing Surges)

Universal Underlying Mechanics

These universal underlying mechanics are the numbers and the dice rolls on which all other elements of the game are built. These have changed over time, and any attempt at making a unified system will have to reconcile the various mechanics that D&D has employed through its development.

Core Mechanic

Until 3rd Edition, D&D didn’t have a core mechanic. 3rd Edition bought with it the unifying mechanic of the d20 System, with all skill rolls and attack rolls being made with the same dice, and where higher rolls are always better. This contrasts with earlier editions which had many different mechanics for different parts of the game:

• Initiative: d6
• Searching: d6
• Wandering Monsters: d6
• Saving Throws: d20
• Attacks: d20
• Turning Undead: d20
• Thieves Skills: d100

It’s hard to imagine 5th Edition abandoning the core mechanic of the d20 system, so I assume that this would be adopted.

Ability Score Bonuses

Ability Score Mechanics have varied through the course of D&D’s editions. In Basic and AD&D, each of the ability scores had a different set of associated Bonuses that kicked in at higher (or lower) scores. In 3rd Edition, these were unified to use the same formula for all:

Ability Score Bonus = (Ability Score – 10)/2

5th Edition should see the unified Ability Score Bonus mechanics of 3rd and 4th Edition to simplify all of the disparate (but similar) bonus calculations of the earlier editions.

Gradual Improvement

As with the Ability Score Mechanics, each of the editions of D&D has had a mechanism for gradually increasing the power of characters as they gain levels.

In Basic and AD&D, this was represented through the Character To Hit tables that gradually decreased the roll that a character would need to hit a specific armor class.

In 2nd Edition, the Character To Hit tables were replaced with the THAC0 table, which presented the same information more simply, but also required more maths from the players (rather than looking up every Armor Class and the roll required.

In 3rd Edition, the THAC0 tables were replaced with the gradually increasing Base Attack Bonus (+1/level for fighters, less for others).

In 4th Edition, the Base Attack Bonus was replaced with the ½ Level mechanic. The advantage of 4th Edition’s mechanics is that it applies to all ability scores, whereas the mechanism in previous editions only applied to melee attacks and ranged attacks, not magic attacks.

So, 5th Edition needs a mechanism to increase a character’s primary attack bonus (melee, ranged, maybe even magic) by +1 per level (in line with all earlier editions). Here are a some ways to achieve this:

1. Fixed +1 per level to ‘prime ability’, such as strength for fighters, dexterity for rangers, etc. Possibly some smaller bonus (+1 per 2 levels) for other abilities (Basic, AD&D, 2nd and 3rd Editions use variations of this system)
2. ½ Level bonus applied to all rolls, combined with magic or feat enhancements, or more frequent ability score increases which combine to +1 per level (4th Edition uses this and Heroes Against Darkness uses a variation of this method, with less magic enhancements and with more ability score increases).
3. All ability scores increase by +2 each level, giving +1 across the board bonuses each level (pretty unlikely).

The advantage of the 2nd option, is that it can also be applied to the Saving Throw mechanic to gradually increase the character’s saving throws as well.

Irreconcilable Differences

Ascending vs Descending Armor Class

Many of the OSR stalwarts swear by the descending armor class (starting from 10 and going down) of Basic and AD&D.

However, from 3rd Edition the descending AC has been replaced with ascending AC (starting from 10 and going up), which is (arguably) easier to use, allows greater range than the 10 to -10 of early editions, and also maintains a consistency of higher numbers being better.

Descending AC is one of the badges of honor of OSR, and it’s hard to see a way of easily reconciling the two systems. It is possible to represent both in a single system (Castles & Crusades does this, IIRC), but it would be unwieldy.

Ultimately, I think that for simplicity and consistency 5th Edition will settle on ascending AC, as this system fits more neatly into the rest of a unified system. I’m sure this will cause some consternation, but hopefully it won’t prove to be a deal-breaker.

Saving Throws Versus Defenses

Mike Mearls refers specifically to “Saving Throws as a mechanic for evading danger,” however, the mechanic of active player saving throws is the opposite of 4th Edition’s passive defenses (that monsters attack). Based on this, perhaps 5th Edition will fall back to active player rolled Saving Throws as opposed to passive defenses that the opponent attacks.

In the case of active player-rolled Saving Throws, the Saving Throws would have to be presented like 3rd edition’s Saving Throws, much like an attack bonus (such as a relevant Ability Score Bonus + a scaling bonus for higher levels). The complication with this system (as opposed to the one used in 4th Edition), is that it involves an extra calculation step, which is the DM’s calculation of the DC that the player is trying to beat with their saving throw roll. This calculation needs to be scaled for tougher monsters, so there’s some calculation involved for the DM to calculate every saving throw DC.

Combat and the Action Economy

Another seemingly irreconcilable difference between the early and later variants of D&D is the expansion and codification of the action economy in combat in 3rd and 4th Editions.

The action economy is basically the things that each character can attempt in a round of combat:
• Basic, AD&D: Move/Attack/Spell per 1 minute round
• 2nd Edition: Move/Attack/Spell + Minor Action (shout, drop something, or swap weapons) per 1 minute round
• 3rd Edition: Full Action or Standard Action + Move Action + Free Action (and Partial Actions as well) per 6 second round
• 4th Edition: Standard Action + Move Action + Minor Action + Free Action per 6 second round

The 1 minute rounds of the first few editions allowed characters the freedom to describe various actions, including movement and attacks. The freedom of the earlier editions has become progressively more codified, peaking with the huge crunch of 3rd Edition, and then simplified slightly in the 4th Edition.

The other question is whether 5th Edition presents different flavors of combat rules, with a simple system allowing flexible descriptive combat, and a tactical system that has a more codified action economy like 3rd or 4th Edition and supporting minis and a battle grid.

So, where does this leave us with the action economy? Will the Grognards accept a combat system with a codified Standard Action and a Move Action in a single round or will the playtests result in two different combat systems?

Part II continues with the following:
• Kits, Backgrounds, Themes
• Feats
• Skills and Non-Weapon Proficiencies

This series continues with part 2:

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part II

Of course, everyone already knows that this is the future of role-playing games: Heroes Against Darkness. 🙂

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition coming

Wizards have just announced that they’re working on a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and they’re putting it into an extensive playtest.

NY Times: Players Roll the Dice for Dungeons & Dragons Remake

Wizards: Charting the Course for D&D

My goal for Heroes Against Darkness is to strip D&D 4th Edition down to its playable core, while maintaining modern balance and playability.

Grab the Alpha version from the downloads page to see for yourself whether it’s succeeded: Heroes Against Darkness.

Roadmap to Beta

The next major release of Heroes Against Darkness is Beta.

There’s plenty of work to do between now and then, including some of these areas:
• More monsters from the extended list on page 35 of Beasts and Bastards
• Further development of the On Magic section on page 18 of the Game Master’s Guide to determine the Anima cost of each component of a spell
• Refinement of the magi class spell lists, including Anima costs and scaling costs of multiple target and longer duration spells
• Additional combat powers for martial and specialist classes
• Update to combat rules to clarify allowable movement directions
• More market costs for scrolls, potions and wands
• More magic artifacts

The current version of the rules can always be found here: Heroes Against Darkness – Game Rules.

Alpha Heroes Against Darkness

The current release of Heroes Against Darkness is Alpha, which means that it has reached a point in its development where the game is feature complete and playable.

The Alpha version of Heroes Against Darkness has the following features in the Player’s Guide:
• Three martial classes (Warrior, Barbarian, Berserker) with powers up to level 10
• Two specialist classes (Hunter, Rogue) with powers up to level 10
• One cross-class (Hospiter) with powers up to level 10
• Five magi classes (Warlock, Healer, Canonate, Necromancer, Mystic) with powers up to level 6-10
• Character creation rules
• Combat rules
• Movement and encumbrance rules
• Weapons, armor and equipment lists
• Character sheet

And these features in the Game Master’s Guide:
• Combat encounter setup
• Ability test instructions
• Experience and character progress
• Tuning and modding the system
• Comprehensive world-building toolkit

Finally, the Beasts and Bastards section has:
• Instructions for building a monster
• Breakdown of the monster stat block
• List of common monster powers
• 75 monsters
• Templates for each of the monster roles up to Level 10
• Monster stat summaries for the busy GM

Head to the downloads page for a gander at the Alpha version of Heroes Against Darkness.

Introducing Heroes Against Darkness

Welcome to the home of the indie RPG Heroes Against Darkness.

As it says up there in the header, Heroes Against Darkness (HAD) is a modern RPG that aims to provide a simple and deep game experience without becoming slow, cumbersome or complicated.

This section provides a brief overview of these core elements of the game:

• Races
• Classes
• Magic and Anima
• Combat Powers

The complexity in Heroes Against Darkness is back-loaded in the character’s Magic and Combat Powers, rather than front-loaded in the racial and class features. This means that the definition of a race and a class is relatively simple, but the list of Combat Powers and Magic Spells is more extensive. The goal of this focus is to streamline the character creation process, to reduce complexity power creep (and homogenization of classes), but to still give characters meaningful tactical choices in combat situations.


Heroes Against Darkness races have these characteristics:

• Ability score adjustments to several scores when creating characters
• Starting languages
• Special features, such as low-light vision

In terms of actual gameplay, most of the characteristics of the races are categorized as ‘role-playing’ rather than ‘roll-playing’.  This means that the racial characteristics of each of the races manifest themselves most often in interactions with other game characters, rather than through a series of codified advantages and disadvantages.

The races are broadly categorized as Allies, Outcasts and Enemies:

• Human
• Elf
• Dwarf

• Half-Elf
• Half-Orc
• Tartarean

• Drow
• Orc


HAD uses a simple class definition system.  Each class has the following characteristics:

• Class Health Points value
• Usable Melee Weapons
• Usable Ranged Weapons
• Usable Armor
• Unique list of Combat Powers and/or Spell Powers

The bulk of each Class’s depth and gameplay differentiation comes from their unique powers, which are described below.

The classes in the first release of the game are:

Melee Fighters
• Warrior: Skilled melee fighters
• Barbarian: Durable melee fighters
• Berserker: Ferocious melee fighters

Specialist Fighters
• Hunter: Ranged combat specialists
• Rogue: Ranged and sneak attack specialists

Magical Fighters
• Hospiter: Melee combat and healing magic

• Warlock: Destructive physical magic
• Healer: Healing and physiological magic
• Canonate: Protective and divine magic
• Necromancer: Dark necrotic magic
• Mystic: Controlling and perceptive magic

Magic and Anima

The use of magic is one of the areas where HAD’s unique differences are most visible.

The most important element here is the use of Anima to cast spells.  Anima is a measure of the magi’s individual magical power.  All spells have an Anima cost, which must be paid for the spell to resolve.

This important change gives player of a magi character a pool of magic power to use at their discretion, so they can choose to use large amounts of Anima on powerful spells or stick with ‘cheaper’ and less powerful spells to prolong their Anima supplies.

The amount of Anima that a character has is based on a simple calculation:

Anima = ½ Wisdom Score + Level

In dire circumstances when they have depleted their reserves of Anima, magi can over-spend Anima to cast spells.  This Blood Anima costs the character 4 Health Points for each point of Anima spent.  The only restriction in the use of Blood Anima is that it cannot be used to cast Healing Spells due to fatal feedback effects.

Spell Powers

Each of the magi classes and spell-casting cross-classes (such as Hospiters) have a unique list of spell powers from which they draw their spells.

Mystic Spell: Boon (3 Anima)

Effect Increases target’s attacks by +2
Target Single target
Duration Magic Bonus rounds
Range 10′ + 10′ per caster level

Warlock Spell: Burning Ray (1 Anima + X Anima)

Attack d20 + Magic Bonus
Cost 1 Anima + 1 Anima per d8 of damage
Against Armor Defense
Damage Xd8 + Magic Bonus
Target Single target
Range 10′ + 10′ per caster level

Combat Powers

Unlike Spell Powers which have Anima costs that must be paid, Combat Powers can be used any time that their conditions are met.

The most basic Combat Powers simply require a target within melee or ranged combat range.

Melee Attack

Condition Target in melee range
Attack d20 + Melee Bonus
Against Armor Defense
Damage Weapon Damage + Melee Bonus

Ranged Attack

Condition Target within ranged weapon range
Attack d20 + Ranged Bonus
Against Armor Defense
Damage Weapon Damage + Ranged Bonus

As characters gain levels, the power of their Combat Powers increases. Depending on the character’s class, they gain access to these improved attacks earlier or later:

Superior Melee Attack

Condition Target in melee range
Attack d20 + Melee Bonus
Against Armor Defense
Damage 2d Weapon Damage + Melee Bonus

Superior Ranged Attack

Condition Target within ranged weapon range
Attack d20 + Ranged Bonus
Against Armor Defense
Damage 2d Weapon Damage + Ranged Bonus

In addition to basic melee and ranged attacks, all non-magi classes have a variety of Combat Powers that represent their unique abilities or advantages in combat situations, or allow them to trade off different aspects of the attack for other aspects (such as reducing their attack bonus to deal more damage).

The Warrior’s Level 3 melee power Feinting Swing allows the player to choose trade off some of their character’s attack effectiveness to put their target off-balance, reducing that target’s attack effectiveness.

Feinting Swing

Condition Target in melee range
Attack d20 + Melee Bonus – 2
Against Armor Defense
Damage Weapon Damage + Melee Bonus
Effect Target -2 hit until end of next round

However, some of the powers of each Class have unique situational conditions. For example, the Barbarian’s Enraged Attack (Level 2) gives the character additional attack bonuses when their Health is low:

Enraged Attack

Condition Target in melee range.
Character health less than 50%.
Attack d20 + Melee Bonus + 2
Against Armor Defense
Damage Weapon Damage + Melee Bonus

Another example is the Rogue’s Opening Attack (Level 1), which gives the character an attack bonus when attacking targets that are engaged in combat with another character:

Opening Attack

Condition Target in melee range.
Target engaged by other character.
Attack d20 + Melee Bonus + 2
Against Armor Defense
Damage Weapon Damage + Melee Bonus

That’s a quick overview of the core elements of HAD, but there’s plenty more to talk about in the game, including combat healing, the different spells of each of the Magi classes, Character Sheets, Monster Cards, Attack Bonuses, Defenses, Ability Modifiers and Bonuses and Ability Tests.

Take a trip over to the downloads page to grab yourself a copy of the Alpha version of the Heroes Against Darkness – Game Rules.

Feedback and comments below.