Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cinematic Fights: a 5e Hack

EDIT: the mechanics in this post have been revised and expanded, with an additional extended example, here:


D&D combat is abstract, but it doesn't have to be.

See, we're going to change it up.***

It's going to require some close reading, because the heavy lifting here is for (of course) you, the GM. It's not difficult, but it requires you to say certain things and certain times and specifically refrain from saying other things at other times.

And not only will your fight be pleasantly/disgustingly choreographed when you get to the bloody end, but it will reward players who can use the fictional environment to their advantage. So come on and sit down right here on this old tree stump and have a listen.


I was reading the details below, and I thought "people are going to freak out and think this is no fun because you wrote this like a textbook."

So, first, let me try to sell you on it.

What This Does

  • Every hit or miss corresponds to something visible in the fiction
  • Savvy players can use the environment to their advantage
  • Savvy players can use fictional positioning re: particular configurations of armor and particular modes of attack to their advantage
  • It makes fights scarier by accruing death save failures before PCs reach 0 hp
  • It incorporates lasting injuries
  • It has definite ideas about what hit points, hit point damage, and hit point healing means
  • It makes gaining fictional advantage, which translates to the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, hugely important
  • It makes missing even more scary, such that, if you don't have the advantage, it's probably a better idea not to engage at all unless you seriously outclass your opponent
  • It makes fighting multiple opponents a very bad idea
  • It makes fights brutal and visceral as part of the process and not some tedious and unnecessary add-on that just slows things down and is boring and embarrassing

Rules Summary

Whenever you attack a creature, before you roll, say what specifically you are trying to do: choreograph your intent. 

When you miss, your opponent seizes advantage over you; you mark a death slash (1/2 a death save failure—a whole death save failure is two slashes, an X), and the GM escalates the brutality of the fight. 

When you hit a creature, roll and apply damage as normal. 

When you hit without advantage, you may seize advantage against them, providing you can think of some way in the fiction to do so that doesn't render the creates incapable of fighting.  

When you hit with advantage or reduce a creature to 0 hp, what you intended to do to them happens.

When a creature attacks you, the GM makes it act against you at the current level of brutality (determined by the number of your death slashes). This is before any attack roll from the GM. 

When a creature misses you, the GM will ask how you seize advantage against the creature. 

When a creature hits you, you lose hp as normal, mark a death slash, and the GM escalates the brutality of the fight. 

When a creature hits you with advantage, you lose hp as normal and mark a death save failure (two death slashes), and the GM escalates the brutality of the fight. 

When you hit zero hp, you fall, and we are agnostic about your fate (as long as you have less than 3 death save failures). The normal death save mechanic kicks in. 

To Illustrate

Cato, our level 1 fighter, has 19 AC (shield 2 + chain 16 + class feature 1) and attacks at +5 with his sword for 1d8+3 damage.

He's in a filthy cave and steps too loudly in a puddle, and there's the goblin, gnawing on the meat of the kid he was supposed to rescue.

Cato drops his torch and his pack and readies his shield.

The goblin grabs the cleaver he used to chop the boy up and rushes Cato [monster has initiative, moves to Cato, misses attack], leaping up to bring the cleaver down on Cato's head, but Cato [seizing advantage] plants himself into the ground and bashes the thing out of the air with his shield.

He follows it as it rolls on the ground, and [attacking] thrusts down at its neck, but [misses] it rolls away [marking a death slash], grabs Cato's leg and pulls it out from under him and his head bashes against the ground, face submerged in a shallow puddle [seizing advantage at the / level of brutality—battered].

Now the goblin climbs up Cato's back, grabs his hair, and forces his face back into the water to drown him [acting at the current level of brutality]. Goblin makes an opposed Strength check with advantage and succeeds. Cato takes damage but still has hp. Marks two more death slashes. The brutality level is now /// or 3 or or X/ or 1.5 death save failures—screaming. The GM has the goblin in full control, pushing Cato's face deeper into the mud.

Now it's Cato's turn again. Before he rolls, he choreographs. This step, even if the attack misses, is essential because:

  • it tells the GM how to respond in the fiction
  • it gives the GM the information necessary to determine if advantage or disadvantage is warranted
Cato will reach back with both arms, grab the goblin's head, and slam him on his back onto the ground in front of him.

GM doesn't rule for advantage or disadvantage on this, and he succeeds. Damage applied to goblin as normal, but the goblin still has some hp left.

It's the goblin's turn. He crawls over to his machete while Cato is gasping for breath, swings at Cato until he cuts into his thigh [enforcing the current level of brutality], then takes a big swing for the neck: miss.

GM asks Cato's player how he seizes advantage: grabs his own sword of the ground, parries the machete, grabs the goblin's neck and bashes its head on the ground. 

Cato's turn, attacking with advantage since he's on top of the goblin with his hands around its neck and head. The choreography: break its head open. Rolls with advantage, hits: so that's what happens. Even if the goblin had hp left (doubtful), this would kill it. 

So, at the end of the fight, Cato's face is covered in grime and blood; he's bleeding from a deep cut in this thigh, and he probably swallowed some parasite while the goblin was on his back drowning him in the cave puddle.

Now Then For the Details

This comes with some rules changes baked in; so here we go. 

Death Saves
  • You can mark death save failures while you still have hp remaining
  • You can mark partial death save failures
    • a partial failure is indicated by a slash in the death save failure circle
    • a full failure is indicated by an X in the death save failure circle
    • adding one slash to an existing slash makes an X
  • The number/type of death save failures you have marked is significant; here are the categories
    • —: pressure/threat
    • /: battered
    • X: bleeding
    • X/: screaming
    • XX: broken / torn
    • XX/: maimed / disfigured
    • XXX: dying / dead 
When You Reach 0 HP
  • You are down
  • Make death saves as normal to see how bad it is 
When You Take a Short Rest (Or: When the Fight is Definitely Over)
  • Erase all death save failures and successes as normal 
  • Any wounds or injuries remain until healed
  • Healing hp damage does not reflect healing serious wounds
  • So a cure wounds spell doesn't really have visible physical effects; it's more like a prayer for preservation, and potions of healing are like drugs
  • To heal an actual injury, when the time comes at which the injury could significantly improve or worsen, a Wisdom/Intelligence (Medicine) check must be made vs DC 15:
  • Disadvantage if not proficient. 
  • Advantage if properly cared for by someone proficient in the proper environment 
  • The one primarily treating the wound should make the check
    • Miss: gets worse; eventually you'll just die
    • Hit: gets better
HP Damage
  • For PCs, "damage" is more like "threat". A high damage monster isn't actually hitting you with that acid spit each time; its higher "damage" output reflects its higher threat to the PC
  • For human and demihuman NPCs, the same
  • For monsters, damage that doesn't take the monster to 0 hp can be actual damage: lopped off arms, arterial spray, whatever. Monsters can take serious meat damage and just keep going. 
Saving Throws
  • To succeed on a saving throw, you must identify the way, fictionally, that you are avoiding the threat
  • If you can't do that, you suffer the full effects regardless; no need to roll the save
  • Suffering hp damage even when you take cover from the dragon's breath isn't problematic; the damage just represents the ticking time-bomb threat of the monster
  • Similarly, if something that would kill you (getting caught in dragon fire) is written not as save-or-die but instead as, say, 6d6 damage, save for half, then, even on a failed save, you must say how you're actually avoiding getting consumed by the fire. A failed save in this instance would just represent more narrowly escaping the immediate threat than you would have been the case had you made the save. 
  • When you receive an injury, write it down
  • DM will adjudicate effects of injury and tell you them; write them down


I like monsters-go-first initiative, but do as you please. 

    When a monster or group of monsters attacks a PC:
    • Before the roll, enforce the current level of brutality. 
      • If the PC has no death slashes yet, just threaten harm against them; put pressure on them
      • If the PC has, say, three death slashes, that's screaming-level brutality. Even without a roll, you're permitted to do things to them that would make them scream. 
      • And that's just the setup to your actual attack. 
      • And this brutality-enforcement can come from any appropriate source. Let's say it's Goblin A's turn, but we know there are goblin archers within line of sight. You can enforce brutality by having the PC get an arrow in the shoulder before the goblin even makes his attack.
      • Make it feel real and unpleasant. 
    • There are two options here regarding monster initiative-groups:
      • Option 1: all monsters in an initiative group are treated as a single unit for the purpose of death slashes. If a fighter is facing 3 goblins, make all the attacks for the goblins at once, and consider the fighter to have sustained a hit if at least one of the goblins hit; otherwise consider the monsters to have missed. 
      • Option 2: treat each monster as a separate unit. This one is much less friendly to the PCs. 
    • Hit: roll and apply damage as normal.
      • Option 1: Tell the player make a death save failure slash / death slash / whatever you want to call it, and ask how many the player has now (if you're not already keeping track).
      • Option 2: keep track beside the name of each PC how many slashes and Xs they have. You mark another slash yourself beside the PC's name. 
    • Hit and taken to 0 hp: narrate at the new brutality level what the monster(s) do(es) to the PC, and end with the PC "down."
      • If the PC has 3 Xs, obviously there's no reason to make death saving throws. Otherwise, PC will make them on PC's turn like normal.
      • If they accrue failures, when the PC dies or is stabilized we will see that the damage is worse than it appeared.
      • For instance, PC went down with 1 X (bleeding), has a death save failure for 2Xs total (broken/torn), and, upon stabilization, we "discover" that his shin is sticking through his skin. 
    • Hit with hp remaining: mark a death slash, and apply the new level of brutality to the PC, seizing advantage if possible
    • Miss: describe what the monster or gaggle of monsters was trying or about to do, and ask how the PC seizes advantage.
      • It may be that the player cannot think of a way to seize advantage. That's fine: simply avoiding or deflecting is okay too.
      • But, if they can't think of a way to do even that, treat it as a hit after all. 
    When a PC attacks a creature:
    • Ask how they are attacking, what specifically they are tying to do or are aiming for; give them disadvantage if it is weak and/or boring
    • Have them roll, and note if they have advantage or not
    • Hit with advantage:
      • What they player intended happens
      • If this takes the creature out, that's what happens
      • Otherwise, say what happens and subtract hp from the creature as normal
    • Hit without advantage:
      • subtract hp from the target creature(s) as normal
      • ask how they seize the advantage vs the enemy
      • it's possible there's no way to do so, given the circumstances—or, if there is, it's possible the player can't think of a way—and that's fine
    • Hit that takes enemy to 0 hp: if what they intended to do would not kill them, ask how they finish off the creature (this is important because, if the creature has an unknown weakness or whatever, they may not be able to finish off the creature!)


    That was tedious to write up and feels more complex than it is. 

    This really benefits from a richly described environment, or at least an environment that becomes richly described. Like, if a PC says, I grab a rock and bash his head in, and you haven't specifically said there are rocks just lying around for the bashing, you should probably say sure, okay (1) because that's great and (2) because then you can bash him right back. 

    Extra points for unstable columns to push over on people, fountains to drown people in, ledges to push people off of, all that action movie stuff.

    Go watch some action movies or some fight scenes on YouTube. Soak in it for a while, and it shouldn't be hard to come up with interesting things to say when enforcing brutality levels or seizing advantage. 


    If I haven't been clear on the procedures and output here. I'm afraid that I haven't been and that none of it makes any sense, but I also feel that it's great and makes total sense. 

    So who knows what's what. 

    I can give more examples of course, but they take way longer to write up than they do to narrate in the moment.

    ***However, if you don't want to change it up, I think really abstract is the way to go. Just blow through it until someone drops. 

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