I tend to run games pretty close to Rules as Written. Part of that is because I like many different kinds of games, and I like to see the ways in which their design translates into the play experience. But the bigger part of it is that I'm not incredibly interested in being a game designer, and I don't feel like that should be part of my job description as a GM/DM--I'm paying you for this game so I don't have to do the design work.
The exception to this seems to be D&D 5e. I don't view myself as a 5e Hater. I like a lot of what the game does. But there are a handful of things that really bug me about the rules, things that reflect some (I think) weird and kinda inexplicable design choices. But because I like the game, I want to try to fix what I see as problems, without throwing up my hands and going down the road of "5e Bad."
To that end, I figured I would put out some of my house rules for 5e that I have been working on, along with a explanation of my thought process. There are four of them--the Rest rules, XP, low levels, and Inspiration.
Let's lay out the basic problem with the rest mechanics as written in the Players Handbook. PCs can take a Short Rest or a Long Rest, and every class ability in the game that requires a recharge refreshes on either a Short Rest or a Long Rest. Because the Short/Long Rest system is so deeply grounded in all player-facing mechanics, it is extremely difficult to change around the actual mechanic itself without rebuilding the class mechanics completely. For example, if you have a Warlock in the party, the effectiveness of the Warlock visa ve the other classes is heavily dependent on there being opportunities for Short Rests, as the Warlock's more limited spell selection is balanced around the idea that spell slots refresh on a Short Rest as opposed to a Long Rest for the other spellcasting classes. Meanwhile, we are told that encounters are balanced around the idea of six to eight "medium" difficulty encounters between Long Rest, and two encounters between Short Rest (so encounter, encounter, Short Rest, encounter, encounter, Short Rest, encounter, encounter, Long Rest). To activate a Short Rest, the PCs must take one hour of in-game time to rest, while a Long Rest requires eight hours of sleep by the PCs in-game.
The interface between the last two elements means that there is an expectation that PCs will engage with six to eight encounters in a 24 hour period. That makes some sense in a pure dungeon crawl scenario, but its hard to justify in most other story contexts. In an urban exploration scenario or a wilderness travel scenario, it's pretty easy for the PCs to take rests between every encounter (at least Short Rests), which means that the PCs will be at or near full strength for every encounter. Which requires the DM to throw tougher challenges at the PCs, which makes combat more swingy, more unpredictable, and more of that "rocket tag" phenomenon that was a big issue in previous editions.
So, what do you do to solve this problem? One idea is to borrow from the rest mechanics for 13th Age. Whereas 5e requires you to take a particular amount of time to rest (one hour/eight hours of sleep) to trigger the recovery, 13th Age ties recovery directly to the number of encounters completed. In 13th Age, this is balanced around the idea of a Quick Rest (the 13th Age version of a Short Rest) after every encounter and a Full Heal Up (i.e. Long Rest) after three to four encounters. This way, the PCs never get out of sync with the encounter balance guidelines built into the game. If you were to import this over the 5e, you would simply say that PCs get a Short Rest after every two encounters (no matter how much time passes in between encounters) and a Long Rest after six.
The objection to this approach is that it makes rests an entirely dissociated mechanic. You are keeping the rest economy consistent with the gamist encounter design principles, but there is no consistent thing happening in the world that is triggering the recovery of PC resources--no consistent amount of time passing, no consistent PC action. The degree to which this bothers you is a matter of personal taste. It never really bothered me running 13th Age, but I see why people object to it on principle. It also removes any sort of tactical thinking on the part of the players with regard to rests, as they just happen automatically.
On the other side, there is the "gritty realism" approach described in the Dungeon Masters Guide, which requires eight hours of sleep for a Short Rest and 7 days of rest for a Long Rest. My problem here is with the 7 days for a Long Rest, as I think it creates a new set of pacing problems for stories. If the PCs have to stop cold their adventuring for an entire week to heal up, it's hard to maintain any sense of tension and urgency. And if you as the DM contrive to prevent the PCs from taking Long Rests in the name of maintaining tension and urgency, I think players will eventually become resentful, as at the end of the day 5e is about using your cool character abilities.
The final approach I've seen is in Cubicle 7's wonderful (but, at least for now, out of print) Adventures in Middle Earth, which is built on the 5e chassis. AiME keeps the basic time lengths for rests, but adds the restriction that a Long Rest can only occur in places where the PCs have "safety, comfort, and tranquility." In other words, no Long Rests in the wilderness, or in dungeons, because those environments are unsafe/uncomfortable/disturbing. In other words, you can basically only take a Long Rest in a protected place like an inn, or (in Middle Earth terms) some place like Rivendell or Lothlorien. I like this a lot, and it makes perfect sense (and is very thematic) for Middle Earth stories, but I think it is also a little too punishing for most standard 5e campaigns to say no long rests at all during wilderness journeys.
So, taking all of that together, here are my Rest rules.
- A Short Rest is eight hours of sleep, as per the gritty realism rules;
- A Long Rest requires:
- 48 hours of uninterrupted rest or
- 24 hours of uninterrupted rest if the PCs are in a place with "safety, comfort, and tranquility" as per AiME--their homes, an inn, a castle of a friendly noble, etc.
Experience PointsThere are two basic problems with XP in 5e. First, RAW, the only thing you get XP for is killing things, which strongly incentivizes "murder hobo" play and disincentivizes the other "pillars of play" that are much talked about in 5e but not really mechanically supported. Second, while 5e is better about this than previous editions, counting out XP from different enemies defeated by the PCs is a pain in the ass for the DM, with little obvious upside to anyone.
On the flip side, many folks (including the Adventurer's League, 5e's organized play campaign) have abandoned XP altogether and have gone with a story milestone approach, in which PCs gain levels after progressing through a pre-set amount of story content (FWIW, 13th Age works this way as well). Story milestones are, in my opinion, lazy design, as they don't really reward anything other than showing up to play the game.
So, here I would borrow some ideas from other fantasy games. This particular scheme is based on Dungeon World via Adam Koebel, and it happens to be similar to the approach used in Forbidden Lands (which I reviewed here). At the end of the session, the DM asks each player six questions about what their PC did during the session. For every question that the player answers "yes," the PC gets 1 XP. The questions are:
- Did you overcome a challenging enemy?
- Did you gain a magic item or other significant treasure?
- Did you discover a new location, secret, or piece of interesting lore?
- Did you gain a valuable NPC ally?
- Did you express a unique element of your Race, Class, or Background?
- Did you express your Bonds, Flaws, Ideals, or Alignment in a way that complicated your life?