As I mentioned last time, among my gripes with 5th Edition D&D is the lack of variety within – or focus on – low-level play. Every group I’ve played in, excepting the very first time we played 5E, has started at level 3 at least. I’ve also had games start at level 5 and in one case all the way up at level 10 (that game was… not fun, largely because the DM was antagonistic towards the party and played to “win” at D&D – I will gladly share DM horror stories if anyone’s interested).
But why do you care about low-level play so much?
I’m so glad that I asked myself that question on your behalf, dear reader! The short version is “if something isn’t fun to play, why is it in the game?”
If most, or even a large-ish portion, of D&D groups start at level 3 or 5 or really anything beyond level 1 because “level 1 isn’t fun” then the game should just start at level 3. Level 3 should become the new level 1 and everything adjust from there.
You could find ways to make low-level play fun, and ideally fun in a different way than mid- or high-level play. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but I feel like low-level play should be different from the rest of the game, and not just because you don’t have magic items or your bonuses aren’t as high. I’m talking in the game mechanics themselves.
And specifically, I mean having mechanics in low-level play that the players eventually “grow out of” as they become less relevant (and are replaced by new mechanics that characters in turn “grow into”). What mechanics would these be? I’m glad you asked again!
Okay, So What Mechanics Would Low-Level Play Have?
For starters, let’s look at equipment in 5th Edition. Starting characters in 5E gain their equipment either by picking them off a list in the Class section of the Player’s Handbook OR by choosing to go with starting gold, rolling for that gold, and then buying their equipment piecemeal. After that… equipment tends to not matter quite as much. You’ll likely have the same weapons until you pick up magical weapons, the same armor until finding magical armor (with some exceptions, like Fighters working their way up to affording Plate), and the non-combat-oriented equipment just kind of exists and gets used or forgotten about as play continues.
What if equipment choices were more important? What if low-level play emphasized taking care of your equipment and using it wisely, instead of “pick one of these really similar options and just use it until your DM throws a magic version at you?” What if weapons and armor could be damaged or destroyed in play?
Now, the idea of equipment degradation/damage isn’t something I came up with. I’ve seen a bunch of interpretations of it from Last Gasp to 1d30 to Goblin Punch (I know it’s there but I can’t find it..) to.. well other blogs. You get the point. And I’m not saying that I’m coming up with anything new or super innovative – I’m likely just tagging off of what came before me and changing it a little to fit 5E (and eventually my own game, whenever that’s finished).
Now I know some of you are saying “why is equipment degradation important?” and the answer is – it’s not important in the sense of every game must have it, but it’s important to me. I’m a big fan of survival games, and a big part of those is equipment falling apart and having to scavenge new items or repair the ones you have currently. And I think a system akin to those can work in a tabletop RPG as long as the rules don’t add too much additional bookkeeping. The best way to do this is to tie the system into existing systems – tie it to the existing attack or damage roll, for example. An easy system is “every time you roll a 1 on an attack, your weapon takes a point of damage and each point of damage reduces the damage by 1; when the damage reduction equals the damage die, the weapon is broken and cannot be used.”
That system is easy to remember – rolling a 1 already prompts something else in 5th Edition (critical fail effects), and this is just a knock-on effect (or possibly could replace existing critical fail rules, if the DM wants to). It also makes sense in-world – a roll of 1 means you fumbled your swing/thrust/etc big time, and it makes sense you could do it in a way that would damage your weapon.
But what about repairing those weapons? Easy peasy, in my eyes. It costs 10% of the weapons base cost to repair 1 ‘damage’ (one -1 or one die size decrease, whichever ends up being used) by a blacksmith or armorsmith or bowyer or whichever artisan is appropriate. Characters who are skilled in weapon or armor repair (determined in a manner I haven’t decided yet – if we’re looking at 5E I’d say it’s being skilled in the appropriate Tool BUT Fighters can always repair weapons/armor due to their familiarity) can also perform these repairs given time and access to the needed tools (whetstone to sharpen up a bladed weapon, small hammer to knock out dings in metal armor, etc.). They can also perform repairs during short rests in the dungeon (limited to repairing one item in a short rest for 1 ‘damage’; this will require a limit on short rests otherwise parties could just take multiple short rests to repair everything up – that’s another issue to discuss another day).
This is an example of a mechanic that characters ‘grow out of’ – as they gain power, they get higher quality items that are harder to damage or magical weapons that can’t be damaged (except in extreme circumstances). It fits the early levels of the game, when players are new adventurers trying to get by with whatever they find but isn’t really needed for high-level play when characters are running around with artifact-level weapons and armor.
This one is going to need a full write-up in the future, but another system that can evolve over time is magic itself. 5th Edition’s magic system doesn’t really support something like this with it’s spell slots and preparation system, but I plan on throwing that out entirely in favor of… well, I don’t know yet. Something else, but I don’t know what that something is.
But since I’m still thinking through what magic should be in this system I’m building, I can throw out the ideas that relate to low-level play. In my mind, arcane magic should be chaotic and hard to control – it’s regular people trying to touch and sculpt the forces of creation and the universe and all that other highfalutin nonsense. It should be HARD to do and there should be consequences for screwing it up. I’ve seen several homebrew magic systems that use dice rolls to determine success or failure (again, Last Gasp comes to mind first – everything Logan does there is gold) and I like the idea of having success/failure/catastrophe determined by a roll of the dice (like it is with everything else in a tabletop RPG) but I’ve been fooling around with a dice pool system for magic. I won’t get into the specifics of it (largely because it’s still an unformed mish-mash of ideas), but essentially mages gain Casting Dice (think of them as mana) as they gain levels and skill in magic and can throw down as many as they want to cast a spell to ensure success BUT they run the risk of burning out mana as they roll (currently I’m looking at a system of any 1 rolled, that mana/Casting Dice is exhausted and gone until a long rest is taken to regain it).
This kind of system would inherently have more risk at low-level, when you simply have fewer Casting Dice to throw out. If you really want to ensure you fuck up that ogre, you can throw all 4 casting dice, but you’re running a higher chance of rolling a 1 (or more than just one) and losing that dice. I’m also looking at having doubles and triples cause some sort of additional affect – that’s something that I’ve just started thinking about, so unfortunately I don’t really have anything concrete here. I think rolling doubles/triples would be both a benefit and a disadvantage – you’d have increased effect on the spell cast, BUT you automatically exhaust 1 or 2 dice (for a double or triple, respectively). This increases the risk/reward aspect of magic at low level when, again, you have fewer dice to work with and don’t want to burn them all out at the beginning of the day. I will have to carefully look at probability over the different dice sizes (because along with gaining more casting dice, the casting dice also increases in size as the characters become more skilled – I’ll throw up a post in the near future with my ideas about this magic system later).
But what about divine magic? I’m glad you asked, brain-as-proxy-for-readers! As I mentioned last time, I think that divine and arcane magic should use different mechanics/systems to help make the classes using them feel and play differently. My current system for divine magic is called ‘Faith and Favor’.
In its current incarnation, divine magic users have Faith dice and their patron Deity has a Favor score. When trying to ‘cast’ a divine spell, the player rolls their Faith dice and each die that is equal to or less than the deities Favor is a success – tougher spells require more successes to cast, and having more successes than needed will allow bonus knock-on effects. That’s the basic mechanic.
“Okay,” I can hear you say, “but that’s not super interesting, it’s just a dice pool mechanic and so is the arcane magic system you half-ass told us about.”
“Hey, words hurt,” I say in return, “and also, there’s more!”
Every time you cast a divine magic spell and succeed, the deity’s Favor drops by 1 which makes it a little harder to cast a spell (since you need to roll equal to or less than that Favor score). Essentially you used a little of the deity’s power, and they’re a little less likely to allow it next time. If you manage to cast enough spells, their Favor will bottom out at 0 and you can’t cast anything anymore – you’ve tapped the well too many times and they have cut you off. If you cast a spell and fail, nothing happens. Favor doesn’t drop or rise, you just don’t get the spell effect you were looking for. I’m not a super huge fan of this, to be honest – ‘nothing happens’ is always boring to me, but it’s what I’m rolling with for now.
An additional wrinkle that I’m going to playtest is having Favor be a die or dice pool instead of a static number, and different deities would have a different Favor die/pool that kind of reflects how likely they are to actively help their followers. For example – Loki, the god of mischief, changes his whims and wants on a daily basis. His Favor die is a straight d20 – he might roll a 19 and be super open to helping out one day, and roll a 2 the next and be very unlikely to help. Meanwhile Odin, the god of wisdom (and battle, and other things I likely forgot about), has a fairly easy 3d6 pool. His Favor could be between 3 and 18, but is most likely to fall between 9 and 12. He’s pretty consistently okay with helping his followers for awhile, but will get annoyed if you bother him too much.
I see this as an interesting way to differentiate deities in the system – instead of Clerics following a Domain for mechanics (and the deity doesn’t matter mechanics-wise), the Deity determines their Favor as well as their spell effects (which is something for another time). But this kind of system is also more limiting at low levels due to the smaller number of Faith dice and therefore the lower chance of getting enough successes to pull off more powerful effects.
Wrap It Up Already
Alright, I’m about 2000 words into this (and I’m not sure at what point I lose people’s attention) so I’m going to get to a good stopping point here. In short, I want to build mechanics into play that are emphasized in low-level play and slowly phased out and replaced with different mechanics. This means that gameplay is always changing and players have to learn and interact with new systems as they gain power.
Maybe this isn’t important to anyone but me, but I like the idea of the game changing as you play it. I think it makes for a more interesting game over the current system of “all the mechanics and systems are up front, you just get better at them” that I see in Dungeons & Dragons. After you hit level 5, you don’t really gain any new systems so much as you gain refinements on your ability to interact with those systems. Both methods are perfectly valid and functional and I’m not in any way saying “D&D is bad” – I love D&D and will continue to play it because it’s fun.
But maybe this other method that I’m thinking of can work to.