Content of the article: "Opinion: Most People May Not Enjoy ‘Gritty’ Mechanics"
I see a lot of rules, house rules, homebrew and third-party material to make 5th Edition D&D more 'gritty', more 'deadly', etc.
But I think sometimes people hear about how deadly gameplay is in older editions and other games and think it's just meatgrinder/torture porn – and that's not it at all.
- What are you trying to achieve with these grittier rules?
- What impact do the mechanics actually have?
- Are your players on board with that experience? Are you?
Thesis: Most DMs are better served by altering their description, setting or flavour to achieve a 'grittier' campaign, without modifying mechanics.
1. What are you trying to achieve with these grittier rules?
A D&D campaign can be about anything – four lifelong friends come back together for one last job. A group of strangers come together to fight an ancient evil.
But the mechanics focus on:
- Creating a unique character with interesting abilities
- Using those abilities tactically in combat
- Strategically deciding when to save or spend abilities, knowing they are limited with varying cooldowns
Often, it seems 'grittier' rules aim to be:
- Deadly – in that death is likely, permanent and carries a cost
- About more ordinary people, not superheroes – with average limitations and aptitudes
- About more grounded problems – food, shelter, light, gaining allies,
- More like 'Real Life™' – a broken arm puts you out of combat (you're in too much pain!), 5 lbs of solid gold is a lot of money, sometimes you have to run away from a fight
Last night I played in a Star Trek RPG game – the Star Trek setting is not grimdark.
The rules are different to D&D, obviously. No point going into detail here.
We got into man-to-man combat, four of us, three of them. The entire combat took 15 minutes IRL and lasted two full rounds, with just one character's turn in a third.
We draw phasers, I drop one Romulan, first attack, very first round – another suffers two phaser blasts but the damage isn't quite high enough to automatically drop him.
Next round, one of our players is dealt a single disruptor hit – he's out, unconscious. I miss my shot. My other ally and our NPC friend take out a Romulan between them, but the third one takes down my friend with a single melee attack. It comes back to me in initiative, two allies are down, it's me and this enemy – if I miss, he'll almost certainly take me down when he counterattacks and it's TPK.
I roll, I hit, he's down.
That's it, 15 minutes. 2 rounds, and one final attack.
Star Trek has bonus actions to 'Aim' or 'Prepare' and so on, there are tactical decisions going on, but it all happened fast and it all hinged on a few die rolls.
Yet narratively, the setting is very upbeat – the United Federation of Planets is a great place to live, everyone's happy, has everything they want, etc.
And though my friends' characters went down, they are described as just 'injured' – but injured enough that they're out of the fight. A scan from a doctor and some sci-fi tech could get them back on their feet, a good roll with good equipment could get them back to perfect health.
So narratively it's not dark, but mechanically it's extremely 'unforgiving' – getting shot is like getting shot in real life, you're almost certainly out of the fight.
2. What impact do the mechanics actually have?
So why is Star Trek like that? I don't believe it's trying to be 'gritty', not at all. It's that it's focus is not on combat, instead it's all about making it play a lot like the Star Trek fiction.
The Core Rules (only a little smaller than the Fifth Edition PHB) devote most of its pages to starships, the setting, scanning, negotiating, how to run a starship crew, etc.
Combat is quick, but then combat is not the focus of the game – and I think something that took up 15 minutes of the session shouldn't be considered the main 'play' of the game.
Most of our time was spent trying to talk to a Romulan starship in orbit, to negotiate with them to work with us, then scanning the planet, formulating a plan, etc. Even just bonding as a crew, talking about what we're doing on the ship in between shifts or on the starbase, you get it.
So, in Star Trek, what those so-called 'gritty' rules do is discourage combat. When it occurs, it's a last resort and extremely serious (like it is in Star Trek or its descendants like The Orville). The rest of those rules give players fun, interesting things to do that aren't combat. They're the real 'meat' of the game, not combat.
But as someone else observed in a hugely upvoted post today, combat is 90% of the rules in Fifth Edition.
Sure, you can make combat more 'gritty', there are official rules for that – as well as unofficial, third-party, etc. And you might know what those rules are, but what are they doing to play?
In the D&D DMG, we have the optional 'lingering injuries' rule, where taking a critical hit or dropping to 0hp can cause a 'Lingering Injury' – which impose things like disadvantage on all ranged attacks or a Con save must be passed every turn to do anything in combat. Statuses which are permanent until cured with a 7th level or 6th level spell, in some cases – or weeks of downtime in others.
Now, note that in 6 attacks, you have a 26% chance one will be a crit, and with the amount of enemies often outnumbering PCs, plus the high HP totals of 5e enemies, it's likely they will roll at least 6 attacks against the party in total each combat, it's increasingly likely someone will get a lingering injury.
And so the risk of having your character effectively ruined increases with time – do you really want to play with your main 'thing' being rolled at disadvantage? For me personally, I'd rather be allowed to be 'good' at the thing I want to be good at, even if it meant my last character died, than have to play a character that's now bad at the thing I like. But I also don't want to just abandon the character I liked, that the other player-characters know, that feels like abandoning him.
So effectively, those gritty rules make us want to try to avoid combat as much as we can – we want to use combat as an absolute last resort.
Yet, is that the kind of game you wanted? Where most sessions are spent on everything but combat? Is that what you had in mind as DM? Is that what you signed up for as a player?
Also, are the sessions and adventures going to be such that combat can be avoided? If you have a set narrative and plot in mind, will it break that if the players keep making decisions to avoid combat?
(And is that fun?)
3. Are your players on board with that experience? Are you?
Or maybe you use the gritty long-rest rules. A long rest is a week, a short rest is overnight.
So no one plays a wizard. We all pick 'short-rest' classes that have abilities that refresh on a short rest – is that what you were going for?
Actually, it's about giving us more 'realistic' experience – the DM wants 'normal people,' not 'superheroes.' so we don't do point buy, now we have to roll for stats. Ok, fine. It's 3d6, in order. Ok.
But there's only a 25% chance you roll higher than a 12. In a group of four players, inevitably, someone's going to roll well and someone will roll not as well. But part of the fun of 5th Edition was making whatever character you want – and your stats affect everything about the class, how likely it is your abilities 'work', how likely you are to hit, even how good you are at various skills.
While Grognards from the pre-3rd editions of D&D will tell you they rolled 3d6 down the line, no rearranging, they often don't mention that stats didn't affect how well your spells worked or even how likely you were to hit (in Original D&D) – or even how much damage you did!
They gave you a bonus to XP. Maybe extra languages. Items that granted '17 Strength (!)' were also common, but so was death. The expectation was that if you rolled badly for stats, don't worry, the guy will be dead in 15 minutes anyway – or if he does survive, we can look for those Gauntlets of Ogre Strength.
So my point is this:
What did these players sign up for when you pitched your next D&D campaign? Or they saw your ad looking for players on r/lfg?
What did you have in mind?
Are you prepared to let them avoid combat by talking their way around it, sneaking through, putting poison in the guards' drinking water or forging a note that lets them walk in the front gate?
And conversely, is that what they wanted? When they read this handbook filled with different fantasy classes, spells and weapons? Did they expect that much of their time would be spent on everything but combat?
If you implement these grittier rules, that's the kind of play you're encouraging – and if you don't allow that kind of combat-bypassing, then you're just forcing them into punishing fight after punishing fight until it becomes unwinnable.
Closing Argument (or Final Warning)
That Star Trek game is about a bright, fun, Utopian future – though its combat mechanics are far less forgiving than those we've come to expect in our medieval, feudal Forgotten Realms.
Why? Because though it has combat, it's not focused on combat.
And maybe you do want that for your 5e game, sure. But be sure. And make sure everyone else wants that too.
Final Boss TL;DR
5e combat was made to be fun, fair and satisfying
It wasn't built for 'realistic' damage or healing, because combat in real life is hardly ever fun, fair or satisfying
- I don’t want to DM for these people anymore.
- I’m a very light on rules DM trying to DM for a DM that’s very stuck into the rules. What do I do?
- I just completed Jedi Fallen Order, and I loved it
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