Swords and sorcery is the standard trope for Dungeons and Dragons, but a few rule changes can turn the game into a grittier, more “realistic” experience.
A while ago, I posted a video excerpt from The Princess Bride and broke it down as a combat encounter in Dungeons and Dragons 4e. There is a good deal of fighting, but at the end of the combat, very little meaningful damage is done to the hero. Contrast that with the gritty, dangerous combat found in Game of Thrones.
Settings like that found in Game of Thrones are a very different beast from what we normally find in D&D. In the above fight scene, Jory Cassel, captain of the guard of Winterfell and (in game terms) a fighter with a few levels under his belt, dies from a single well placed stab from Jamie Lannister. This is a world where any mook with a sword is a real threat to the heroes, regardless of level. Combat is lethal, and drawing a sword means someone is likely to die.
Some games do a great job of making combat something truly frightening. DragonQuest is a great fantasy example of this style and Traveller is a common science-fiction choice. Is combat in 4e terribly frightening? I’d argue that it’s not really that scary at all. A hero with a few levels is no longer threatened by the city guard, and it becomes something of a wonder that mid-paragon characters bother adventuring at all when they are practically invincible when compared to the common man. There is nothing wrong with this trope, but it is a fact of the common D&D world.
Can D&D 4e even support a play style where combat is quick, deadly, and a thing to be avoided? You bet your sweet bippy it can with only a few minor tweaks to the existing rules. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:
Deadly Dungeons and Dragons
The Premise: A Man Ain’t Nothing but a Man
Experience counts for a great deal, but heroes are still limited by natural constraints. No amount of experience can make you jump ridiculous distances, climb walls of sheer ice like a ladder, or become so convincing that no person can ever resist your glib words. Experience in combat does make one a better warrior, but a man with a knife is always a threat, and many men with knifes is likely to be lethal. Some men and women do live and die by the blade, but far more do the latter than the former.
For 4th edition to become a more gritty game, use the following rule changes. They are designed to be used together and work best as a comprehensive set.
Experience isn’t Everything
Characters do not add 1/2 their level to anything. This means that attack rolls, defenses, and skill checks remain fairly constant. Similarly, when using monsters, subtract 1/2 their level from all attack rolls, defenses, and skill checks. With just this simple change, the city guard is suddenly a real threat to the heroes. A higher-level hero has more powers, feats, and better equipment, but he or she is not invincible.
Wounds Really Hurt
Characters still gain hit points as they normally do – experience with adversity does make one able to shoulder a greater burden. In addition to hit points, characters now also gain another type of wound: vitality.
Changes to Hit Points
Under this rules change, hit points represent a character’s general ability to withstand being “roughed up”. Losing all of your hit points signifies that you have taken enough abuse to be knocked out, but otherwise the damage is not particularly lasting. All attacks do their full damage to hit points, just like they normally do. Resistances and similar traits do not change, and healing is also unchanged. When a character reaches zero hit points, he or she is knocked unconscious from the trauma. There is no reason to keep track of hit points below zero, since reaching your negative bloodied value does not kill you. Having zero hit points does not force death saving throws. Being bloodied is no longer related to your hit point total.
Vitality is a representation of how much physical harm a body can receive before it dies. If damage to hit points are bruises, sore muscles, and fatigue, then damage to vitality is internal bleeding, broken bones, and ruptured organs. Every character and creature has vitality equal to its constitution score – this value does not increase with level. If your vitality drops to exactly zero, you fall unconscious and must begin making death saving throws as you “bleed out”. If your vitality drops below zero, you die. A character with any vitality damage is considered bloodied.
Armor, shields, and generally better defenses lessen how much vitality damage is done by an attack. When a character is hit (not on a miss or as an effect), he or she takes vitality damage equal to the damage of the attack, lessened by ten less than the targeted defense:
Vitality damage = damage from hit – (targeted defense – 10)
A coup de grâce deals its full damage to vitality.
Healing hit points remains unchanged from the standard rules. Vitality heals much, much slower. A character receiving proper medical care (a DC 15 heal check) may heal one vitality after each extended rest, with a new skill check required for each extended rest. A character that fails to receive proper medical care must make a saving throw after each extended rest. Passing the saving throw means the character heals one vitality. Failing the saving throw by less than five means no vitality is healed. If the character fails his or her saving throw by more than five, then the character’s condition degrades and he or she loses one vitality.
In addition to their standard effects, leader classes may, twice per day, use their Healing Word style power to heal one vitality in addition to hit points. This increases to four times a day at paragon tier and six times a day at epic tier.
How This Affects Play
Using these rule changes brings the adventure from a world of heroes to a world of people. Experience gives the heroes a leg-up on their opponents, but it is far from the standard invincibility found in most games. The heroes need to think about drawing their swords, because initiating combat could quickly prove deadly – a lucky shot means even the greatest could fall to the humble.
In terms of running games with this rules set, it is imperative that the DM remember how lethal combat can be. It is important to strongly consider providing avenues for success that do not necessarily require combat. When a fight does break out, remember that the NPCs probably do not want to die either, and are likely to retreat or give up after receiving a solid flesh wound, or even after the heroes prove their superiority of skill. Remind the players as well that their characters need not fight to the death. Campaigns based on intrigue, exploration, and the dangers of the unknown could all benefit from this style of play.
These changes do affect game balance. Feats that increase defenses and attack bonuses are highly beneficial for combat, but going first might be a better deal. Feats that improve initiative increase the chances of going first in combat, and thus increase the chances of doing mortal damage to the enemy before he or she even has a chance to unsheathe his or her sword. With combat stakes so high, it could easily be tempting to optimize for surviving combat. That is completely doable, but this sort of campaign is likely to place a greater emphasis on skills on a routine basis. Having a broad base for stats and taking feats that provide skill check bonuses can make a character more generally useful.
While this could easily be too lethal and lacking in epicness for most people’s taste in a standard campaign, this system can really shine in a one-shot. Brutal, quick combats combined with many skill challenges could make a great break from the norm for many gaming groups. If you are looking for a change of pace for your table, you do not necessarily need to learn a new system. A few tweaks can give D&D a new feel.
What do you think about increasing the “realism” of a Dungeons and Dragons game? How would you structure an adventure or a full campaign to take advantage of this change to the rules? What other rules might you change to give the game a more “gritty” feel?