The hook behind 5e, what really makes the edition special, is its emphasis on customization. Instead of the game telling you how to play, it will let you play the way you want, emulating the edition you want. 5e will have “rule modules” that can be used to customize and redefine rules, options that can be dropped into a game or used to build a campaign.
What are the must-have modules? Which optional rules that simple have to be included as soon as possible? Here’s my list:
By Any Other Name
First, I need to get one quick thing off my chest. WotC needs to rename the optional rule packages. The term “modules” is a little confusing, having been already used to describe adventures. Using “module” is a little like using “level”. D&D has a lot of “levels”, which can get a little comedic at times. This isn’t just old man Jester shaking his cane at the youngsters on his lawn. Randall "DeadOrcs" Walker also thinks we need a new name (referenced here).
Let’s skip the inevitable comedy and find a new term.
Modules we need sooner rather than later.
I’m not a fan. I don’t have a tactical mind. I suck so badly that my players walk all over my monsters in a straight fight, so a prefer the veil of the narrative where I can story-fy fights a little more.
But even if I don’t use it all the time, some fights just work better with a tactical chassis. And to many it’s the be-all end-all option. So it needs to be out sooner.
First level characters are unpopular. They’re fragile and have few options. But some people like the gritty low-level style of play, so just making first level characters badasses is a less satisfying response. It should be easy to start at third level or fifth level or tenth level, with clear guidelines for magic and speedy character creation.
The benefits of each level should be explained, and the option of campaigns starting at a higher level should be clearly presented to the DM. This makes it easy for groups that loathe lower levels to skip characters with single digit hitpoints and move right to more heroic characters.
Much like 4e had its three tiers, there should be level bands. These can be little more than design tools for the DM, so they know what levels they can start their campaign to get the feel they most want. Gritty fantasy could be levels 1-5 while more heroic fantasy could be 3-10, high-powered fantasy could be 8-16, super heroic wuxia could be 14-20, and epic could be 19+ (numbers being arbitrary of course and pulled from my sunshineless place). DMs could be encouraged to stick to a level range they want, with advice for ending campaigns at early levels. After all, not every story needs to run from level 1-20.
Similar to the gritty fantasy above but different. Some DMs want higher mortality rates with poor luck leading to character death. Other DMs feel only bad decisions should result in character death. Others want the story to dictate if a character dies.
This is an easy tweak, changing when characters die, how many death saves are needed before death, the DC of stabilization rolls, negative hitpoint thresholds and the like. In the base rules death should be possible at all levels but err on the side of the players. Then death can be made more or less common.
Some DMs want magical healing to be special, and some want healing to be common and easy to really avoid a 5-minute work day.
This could be done by changing starting Hit Dice, adding other ways of healing, or increasing the amount healed through alternate sources of healing. Reducing the amount of healing is tricky, but it would be possible to limit or remove the use of Hit Dice to heal, or tying it to a skill check making it less guaranteed.
Wounds & Scars
Sometimes you just want to maim your PCs.
This works with the idea of a campaign like Star Wars or Kill Bill where magical swords drop limbs like autumn trees shed leaves. Or a pirate campaign, which is not as fun without eye patches, hooks, and peg legs. Likewise, many DMs want healing to be a little slower and devastating injuries to result in slow-healing wounds like broken bones or painful sprains.
While wounds should not be Core, it’s a common house rule so it behoves WotC to produce an official rule to show how it’s done properly. Which, in many ways, is the point of rule modules: give the DM house rules that work and not some poorly executed rule with unforeseen consequences.
Of course, there should also be some commentary and advice aimed at the DM, so they know why the rule is not Core and how it affects the game. For example, most wound systems stack penalties on a character the longer they fight, so parties get weaker as they reach boss fights, which can affect the difficulty level of encounters.
Changing classes is probably something that should be avoided. You don’t want a rule module to have to change class features and options, as that means the module potentially needs to be update to accommodate every new rule book and accessory.
General rules are the easiest way of changing the availability of magic, such as restricting magic using classes, limiting related themes, or attaching a cost or penalty to spellcasting. Because these are non-standard optional rules that do not have mass appeal, these rule modules can be less balanced and less fair to magic using classes. They’re niche rules.
For example, a rule module might increase the time needed to cast spells, limiting their use to rituals and removing spells in combat. Spellcasting in combat might provoke attacks or give opponents Advantage when making attacks. Spellcasting might require expensive material components or hard to fine tomes.
The reverse is also true, with higher magic campaigns where rituals and permanent enchantments are cheap and every class or character might have a little extra magical *oomf*.
Encumbrance & Wealth
Micromanagement is not something every group or player likes. There needs to be some system of tracking weight carried, if only so parties don’t try and drag the contents of entire dungeons out with them.
In contrast, other DMs want every kilogram tracked, with location being important and different rules for pulling items from a pelt pouch versus a backpack. So a more complicated system with a range of weight penalties on skills and actions might work better for them, and different action costs for retrieving items depending on where they’re stored.
On the other side of the equation, even tracking gold can be a hassle for some groups. Having to manage personal versus party funds is a chore and figuring out the collected wealth of characters including magic items reeks of bookkeeping. Instead, a generic wealth system akin to d20 Modern might work better, with the actual numeration being vague and downplayed.
High/ Low Biological Needs
Similar to tracking gold, some groups will want to track food and rations while others will not. Sometimes, a DM will bring this up for an adventure or arc, such as a desert journey or trip into the Underdark, where the PCs are out of their element and ready access food cannot be assumed. Others will want this to be a larger part of the entire campaign, such as a Dark Sun game.
As such, there can be a simple mechanic (days of food) or a more complicated mechanic (individual rations and water, with so many needed each day depending on size and temperature, with related weight and space requirements, the risk of spoilage, etc).
Likewise, there could be more detailed rules for resting and sleep. Penalties or problems for sleeping outside for extended periods or underground and the like.
Crafting & Professions
Sometimes you just need to know how to make a wagon wheel, or repair a sword.
This is one of those things where not everyone is into crafting. But, that’s the whole point of the edition: making rules that not everyone is into.
Crafting and the like are options that people will use if they have them. You don’t think about it if they’re not in the game (much) but when you have “stoneworking” on your character sheet, suddenly opportunities to work stone will present themselves. Players find uses for options, be they magic items, or skills, or mundane equipment. Uses will be found.
For example, in a 3e game I played, the DM awarded a free 4 skill points to be put in a profession or crafting skill as a “secondary skill”. Someone did take stoneworking, and used it to craft gifts to win affection, to carve a headstone to honour a fallen friend, as a testament of skill to win over dour dwarves, and to assist in building defences for a gnomish tunnel overrun with gnolls.
Wounds & Vitality
This optional rule was introduced in the 3e Unearthed Arcana, still one of my favourite gaming books of all time. The rule saw more play in the first WotC version of Star Wars (original and revision). Basically, wound points represent physical health while vigour represents everything else, rather than hit points being the catchall.
The strength of a wp/vp system is that it satisfies people wanting certain attacks to actually hurt and cause wounds that take longer to heal, while still allowing luck and skill to play a role in health. A character typically has a set number of wound points that rarely increases – so a sword blow to the belly is always going to be as lethal as a sword blow to the belly – but they also have vitality (or vigour) that lets them get better and better at “avoiding” lethal strikes as they climb in level.
The 3e version didn’t work perfectly, but there was an update by Paizo in Ultimate Combat that looks a little smoother. (A rule not working properly in an early edition is a challenge to try harder to make it work, not an excuse to abandon the concept. The to-hit mechanic in 1e and 2e was iffy, but they didn’t just give up on a percentage chance of hitting.)
Generic hit points don’t satisfy everyone, so an alternative is nice.
Damage Reducing Armour
Another common house rule: armour that doesn’t increase your chance of avoiding being hit but instead reduces the damage from a hit. Most role-playing games to the contrary, slapping on heavy plate does not make one harder to hit. Most knights were pretty darn slow and easy to hit.
As it adds a layer of complexity to the game, and is non-traditional, it certainly should not be a Core rule. But it’s a fun option.
Modules we need, but can wait for. This is stuff that can come after people have gotten a feel for the base game and can already play the edition and genre and style they want.
Many “indy games” put some story or plot manipulation in the hands of players, letting them partially design the story or manipulate events, possibly toying with the linear series of events.
I say “indy games” but, really, the entire RPG hobby is pretty darn niche and anything that isn’t D&D, Pathfinder, or World of Darkness is likely considered indy.
There’s a number of different ways the mechanic could be implemented, but the strength of modules means WotC can put out a couple and see what works. They could even introduce them in an issue of Dragon, telling people to playtest away, and them publishing the best received versions.
While many people are complaining about WotC looking backwards for inspiration, pulling ideas and rules from indy games is the best way for D&D to “move forward” as an RPG.
Early on players should be focused on learning the basic rules and sticking to the Core equipment, but eventually other levels of technology and eras of play need to be introduces.
Alternate eras are easy, as they just require a few alternate equipment lists, changing the price of established goods. For example, heavier plate armour might become more expensive in an earlier or later era. Metal armours might provide less of a bonus as the armour is made of bronze (or the base numbers remain the same while “iron” armour in a Bronze Age game is better). Or advanced equipment might not exist at all, being replaced by hide and bone clubs.
Alternatively, there could be rules for guns, laser weapons, and the like. If only for updating Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the common (yet still fun) adventure that mixes the real world with fantasy, either adventurers travelling to our world or people from reality travelling to a magical realms.
Likewise, some campaign worlds (*cough* Ravenloft *cough*) feature slightly higher technology, and have early, crude firearms, which also need to be represented. If you want to run a game that’s more Soloman Kane than Conan you need a flintlock and rapier and not a longsword and plate.
This one is a no-brainer being tied to WotC’s various campaign settings. Ravenloft needs mechanics for fear, horror, and madness as well as corruption by the Dark Powers. Dark Sun needs defiling and deserts. Eberron needs its dragonmarks and dragon shards. Dragonlance needs moon magic, dragon mounts, and some kind of chivalric honour system.
Some of these are fairly small. Most of the Eberron sub-systems could be handled through a single Dragon article, and that setting could just be updated online. Others, like Dark Sun and Ravenloft might be a little longer and serve as a nice place to put other related mechanics and variant rules. A Dark Sun book would be a good place to put more in-depth desert and heat hazard rules, more detailed food and survival rules, as well as some optional rule systems for weapon breakage, improvised weapons, and weapons & armour made of alternate materials.
Alternatively, 5e could not re-release new campaign setting books but simply publish related rule modules and have lists of “campaign packs“; i.e. Dark Sun would have the “biological needs”, “magical defiling”, “wild talents”, “desert hazard”, “weapon breakage”, and “crude technology” rule modules. The actual world and setting information could cheaply be handled by releasing PDFs of old products.
Now, when I say “world-specific mechanics” I don’t just mean “mechanics specific to campaign settings”. The term also applies to various mechanics specific to various campaigns. You can’t run a pirate campaign without good ship and vehicle rules. You can’t run a sea-based campaign without aquatic rules and solid swimming and 3D options. You can’t run an Arabian Nights campaign without flying carpets, wishes, and enslaved jinn. You can’t have a medieval European game without jousting and tournaments. You can’t have an investigative Lovecraftian campaign without the risk of madness.
This is a tad tricky as WotC likes producing content for the majority, and this is especially the case for Dragon where an article has to reach the broadest majority. While an article on “mental diseases and insanity” might be perfect for many campaigns not everyone will want to drive their party insane, and not every player will positively respond to the loss of Sanity. But I think 4e has shown that some content needs to be produced for everyone, not just the largest minority.
While the big nine alignments are Core, a 4e morality system would be a nice option. Or something even more simple where people choose “good” or “evil”.
There could also be a more complicated version where players choose the order of their alignment: are they Lawful Good or Good Lawful, deciding if the law comes first or goodness trumps legality. Or an allegiance system akin to d20 Modern.
And while mechanic-based alignments should not be Core, they are a nice option, with penalties for changing alignments or rules for alignment changes. Penalties or complications for acting against your alignment and the like.
There are also related options, such as honour, reputation, or corruption.
A really good honour system would be nice for Oriental Adventures or Dragonlance. Sometimes it is more important than alignment.
A system for tracking reputation or trust with a group or location would be neat, ala the various reputation systems for Warcraft. I needed something a while back when running a classic Dragonlance adventure, when the party was escorting a group of refugees overland and had to earn respect and convince opposing factions to ally or vote with them.
And then there’s corruption. WotC tried this with “Taint” in 3e and TSR had the various corruption mechanics from Ravenloft. This could also be used for magical corruption, such as the madness males suffer in the Wheel of Time books when using the One Power. Or it could be a stain on the soul from evil actions, or being in an evil place.
Sometimes you just need to pit an army of 10,000 orcs against your PCs at the head of a rag-tag army. The “easy way” is having the players be a strike team performing missions and accruing Victory Points or some such thing, and that’s an option that should be included. But sometimes victory should come down to who can defend the wall or besiege the castle better, along with luck and the skill of forces.
Some people want diplomacy and the like handled through role-playing. Others are happy with opposed Charisma checks (or Cha vs. Wis). But sometimes you want a little more.
This is the “diplomacy skill challenge” type of rules module, a mini game where you have a verbal combat of point/counterpoint. The battle of wills over a fancy meal, with veiled threats, hints of half-known secrets, and verbal posturing.
Modules we want, but should be fine-tuned, polished, and don’t really need the first year.
Eventually we’ll need some epic love. Eventually.
Really, there’s no reason to have a cap on play. Why can’t you keep playing and having adventures? Levelling might slow or have limited bonuses, but there could be alternate benefits or bonuses.
Capping play always bugged me. Why would the brave heroes just stop saving the world? There’s always room for more stories with the heroes coming out of retirement for “one last adventure”.
The “let’s be bad guys” module. While the default game should probably assume heroes, sometimes the party will want a little role reversal. In my experience, this is especially prominent among rookie players (often when young), where the freedom to “do anything” leads to atrocities. Not everyone wants to play the shining knight or noble hero, as shown by the continued popularity of the Grant Theft Auto games. Most sandbox games make some allowance for going naughty, and D&D is the biggest, freest, and most open sandbox game going.
This includes semi-villains such as pirates and Vikings but also bandits, Underdark raiders, orc warbands, Athasian slavers, members of a thieves guild, or cultists of Vecna.
There not only needs to be rule options (powers, classes, themes, backgrounds, etc) tied to evil options, but also advice for DMs running evil groups: suggestions for how to manage competing characters as well as advice for getting evil groups to work together.
Not every campaign needs to be a complete level 1-20+ marathon. Sometimes you can have a shorter game, a palate cleanser or miniseries. And evil games can be fun for that. Between epic length campaigns of world saving champions, sometimes groups will just want to play Cthulu cultists trying to bring about the end days for a couple sessions.
Related to the above, sometimes you just want to play a noble misguided orc, a party of manic goblins, a pack of kobolds defending their warren from adventurers, or some unusual race. It’s always fun to run a couple sessions as a reverse dungeon crawl, where the players build, and manage their dungeon then have to defend it against marauding humans.
Monster PC races are a must!
After writing this blog for over two and a half years (three come August) I've really learned that there is very little common ground between what I want from a game and what many other gamers want from a game. I'll write something about "the best thing ever" (!) and someone will fire of a "meh" reply, which cannot be because it's "the best thing ever" (!!) So many gamers play a very different game.
I'm sure there any many examples above that people will read and say "ewwww, I don't want that at my table. I don't even want that touching my game." And that's fine. Because it's optional and they don't need it! They can just ignore that module/ section/ chapter/ book/ five-volume series. Because someone will see that exact same rule and say "OMMFGOAFB that is the 'best thing ever' (!!!), I cannot give WotC my money fast enough!"
More than anything else, the idea of rule modules gets me excited for 5th Edition. I'm a big Paizo fan – being a fan of the company's attitude and relationship with its fans more than the actual products – and when I first started hearing the rumours of 5e my early thoughts were "well, I guess this might be the edition where I stop buy D&D books". But, so far, WotC has me hooked. I'm psyched.
< Insert your preferred "Philip J. Fry holding cash" GIF here. >