Three Quick Hacks for Holes in 5th Edition
This article will essentially be a collection of small rules adjustments for D&D 5th Edition that are individually too small to each fill up their own massively overblown article, like the multi-thousand-word monstrosities that I usually write. There are some holes, or gaps, or other awkwardnesses in the 5E rules that I’ve had to improvise something to cover, and that’s what you’re getting here. It’s a three for one deal, because I just couldn’t bring myself to write three short pieces instead of one big piece.
First we’ll deal with the problem of lost spellbooks, because a wizard losing his spellbook should be serious enough to matter but not outright fatal to the function of the character. We’ll move on from there to Deception and Persuasion checks, and how they create ridiculous results for liars who happen to be telling the truth. I’ll also run over some issues surrounding darkvision, and then I’ll back up the truck and run over them again.
So, with that, off we go: there are things that are useful and important that don’t need five or six thousand words to talk about, and today you’ll get three of them.
Losing Your Spellbook… and then Keeping Your Wizard
The spellbook as a game mechanic is probably what gives the wizard class its best edge over other spellcasters. Not only do wizards get to choose from the largest list of spells, but the number of spells they can choose from to prepare is also essentially unlimited. They do gain access to additional spells by gaining levels, but so do other classes. What really tips the balance is the spellbook, because wizards can add to their spellbook even without leveling up. They can find or buy spell scrolls to transcribe. They can come into possession of another wizard’s spellbook, honestly or dishonestly, temporarily or permanently, and then copy spells from it into their own spellbook.
But, the spellbook also creates a limit on the wizard’s power, and a danger to the use of that power: if a wizard loses his spellbook, then he’s basically stuck with only the spells he had prepared when the book was lost. The rest of the spells are gone along with the book, and can’t be prepared unless the book is recovered. It is possible to create a copy of one’s spellbook, just in case the original is lost or destroyed, but the copy has to be kept in a safe place. And if the copy is in a safe place, that means that it isn’t ready to hand when you lose your original spellbook and need that replacement right away. If you’re on an adventure which takes you far from the security of civilization, a backup spellbook isn’t very useful at all, and if you only go on adventures within an easy day’s ride from town… well, I hope your town is in constant and varied peril, but only in the best way, because you’re going to find yourself short on adventure if it isn’t. The moral of the story is something like, “wizards, don’t lose your spellbook or else you might as well roll a new character.”
After all, PC’s are always getting captured, or kidnapped, or killed. And when one of those things happens, they generally end up losing all of their gear, either temporarily or permanently. For most characters, losing all of your gear is pretty awful, but it isn’t worth rolling a new character over, because most gear can be replaced. It might be expensive to do, and you might lose magic items or other big-ticket loot, but your character isn’t permanently crippled. You get new gear, and you get on with your life. These things happen, and you just pick yourself up and try to be more careful next time. You might even recover some of that gear at some point, because most gear is pretty durable. Your magic items might make a reappearance, and that’s something to hope for. If you have the kind of DM who puts all of your confiscated gear in an obvious chest that you walk past on your way out of the cellblock, you might not even feel the sting. But, assuming that your lost gear is lost for good, most characters are going to be irritated and inconvenienced at most. And that’s actually a good thing: don’t get captured or kidnapped or killed next time, and you’ll get to keep your gear.
Wizards have a different predicament altogether, and that is because a wizard losing all of his gear means losing his spellbook. Losing your arcane focus at the same time is also inconvenient, but you can buy a new arcane focus to replace the lost one, and they aren’t really that expensive. (Besides, did you know that bat guano is a common material component found in dungeons and caves, which will let you cast fireball spells? I knew there had to be a reason for giving all of those eye-of-newt specific components!) But the spellbook is special in a way that no other item even remotely approaches, because it has quite literally been growing along with the character since first level. Wizards start off with six spells in the spellbook, and then they get two more per level, even if they don’t find additional spells elsewhere. By fourth level, they have a dozen spells. By seventh level, a dozen and a half. By tenth level, two dozen. You get the idea.
But if you lose your spellbook, what do you have left? Let’s assume you have a pretty good Intelligence modifier; we’ll say +4 to be generous, because you really can’t go higher than +5 anyway. At fourth level, when you have a dozen spells in your spellbook, you can prepare 8 of them, which means that if you lose your spellbook, you lose 4 of your spells… permanently, unless you recover your spellbook somehow. At seventh level, you would lose 7 spells permanently. At tenth, you would lose 10 permanently. You get the idea: the higher your wizard level, the more spells are lost along with that spellbook, and the lost spells represent a higher percentage of your total known spells as well. And remember that those numbers are just for wizards who don’t find or buy additional spells, which would also be lost.
The numbers don’t run exactly right, but you can think of losing your spellbook as rolling back your number of spells available to prepare to the amount appropriate to a character of half your level, give or take. What are your options? If you don’t have a backup copy in a safe place, you have to start a new spellbook, which provides the same selection of spells as a wizard of half your level or less. Essentially a wizard character who loses a spellbook is crippled, and permanently. There are benefits from levels gained that just evaporate, and just getting a new character might be the smartest option.
I generally allow players to level up their backup characters along with the party, which makes things simpler when I kill characters off; it just means we have to find some reason for the backup character to run into the survivors from the party. If I had a player with wizard who lost a spellbook, the best move for that player would be to march their character off the nearest cliff, or spit on the lich, or try to make inappropriate advances on the tarrasque. Screw a “rich roleplaying opportunity”, who wants to limp along playing a character who can no longer keep up with the rest of the party, maybe forever?
Of course, you might recover your spellbook, but that’s far from a guarantee. Liches collect spellbooks, and mostly they need to be killed in order to get a spellbook from their collection, and they don’t like being killed and try to stop you. Spellcasting enemies might rip your spellbook up and distribute its knowledge to the local spellcasters, so the book might now be in a dozen pieces in the hands of a dozen drow mages. Goblins and kobolds might just use your spellbook to start their next campfire. In short, the DM has numerous reasons to never return that spellbook, and precious few to justify serendipitously finding it again.
So, the hack: wizards can recover those lost spells, but it comes with a cost. Following any rest where the wizard recovers spell slots, he can burn a spell slot of the appropriate level in order to regain a lost spell of that level and return it to the spellbook. So, if I wanted to get one of my lost second-level spells back, I would have to deal with not having a second-level spell slot until I could regain it during a rest. Of course, if I wanted to get my lost spells back quickly, I could burn a lot of spell slots in this way, but I would have to deal with not having the ability to cast many spells until my next rest.
In short, the hack lets wizards who lose a spellbook recover it all, but a little at a time, and with a meaningful penalty. They’ll have to balance the benefits of recovering a lost spell against the detriment of losing some firepower that day. They’ll have to prioritize which spells they want to get back first, and which can wait until later. And ultimately, they’ll be back up to their full number of spells… just not right away, and not without sacrifice. But the character is salvageable, and that’s what I’m going for.
Of course, you could conceivably recover all of your lost spells in just a few days if you didn’t have to cast any spells during those days. So if your party gets back to civilization and safety, things go back to normal for your wizard. Essentially this means that wizards kind of get the benefit of having a free backup spellbook already made up, and I’m fine with that. It’s not like copying your spellbook is extremely expensive or time-consuming, it’s just something that players forget to say that they did last time they had some downtime in town. Because, after all, how often do you really lose your spellbook? What kind of sadistic DM would ever do that?
Telling Lies and Speaking Truths
This comes out of a situation that actually happened in my campaign a few weeks back. The party’s rogue, who happened to have proficiency in Deception but not in Persuasion, tried to convince a group of goblins to trust her. She made a truthful statement to persuade them of her good intentions, and I called for a Persuasion check, which came up short of the DC to succeed at getting the goblins to believe her. The player pointed out, though, that if a Deception check had been called for instead, then the goblins would have been convinced: the proficiency bonus was enough to make the difference. That got me thinking, because it seems pretty silly for players to have to concoct lies for their characters to tell in order to use their conversational skills to their greatest advantage. Shouldn’t a character just be able to tell the truth when the situation calls for it, without suffering penalties based on arbitrary skills? Isn’t that good roleplaying, as opposed to telling lies in a metagaming effort to use your best numbers any way you can?
My solution is to get rid of Persuasion and Deception as skills in the usual sense. I’m now using a skill that I’m calling “Convincing”, which covers all situations in which a PC wants to tell an NPC anything, true or false, with the intention of getting that NPC to believe them. In order not to screw up the existing skill system too much, any character who has proficiency in Deception or Persuasion has proficiency in Convincing. The idea is that even if you’re a specialist in telling lies or in speaking the truth, you have a certain amount of skill in rhetoric that applies to the other side as well. Also, anyone can make a Convince check, even without proficiency; normally this would be a charisma check, but it might be better to use intelligence or wisdom depending on who you’re trying to convince.
But, there’s one step further. If you have proficiency in Deception, and you’re trying to Convince an NPC, and the statement you’re making happens to be a lie, you make the check with advantage. The opposite holds true as well, so characters with Persuasion proficiency get advantage when they try to Convince an NPC of something true. This has two beneficial effects.
First, and more obviously, it accounts for the fact that some people are just very smooth liars, and they come across as more convincing when they are able to fabricate information. There are also people who get really fervent when they’re telling the truth, and are going to get tears of conviction springing to their eyes when they’re really trying to persuade someone about something they believe in deeply.
The more subtle of the two effects is this: because you don’t roll the second d20 if you don’t have advantage, you never have to know whether a lie would have worked better than the truth, or vice versa. Sure, it’s a bit of a psychological trick, but the character skilled in Deception who is trying to Convince about something true will never need to find out whether a lie would have worked better, because that die was never cast.
The finishing touch that’s needed is how to deal with rogues who get double proficiency in a skill, because rolling 3d20 for “triple advantage” is something that only people who don’t understand statistics think is a good idea. I happen to have married a mathematician, and it turns out that granting advantage is somewhere around a +3 to +5 bonus if you were just going to add a number. Why there’s a range of bonus amounts is more math than I care to pretend to know how to explain, but for the present question it’s sufficient to say that you can give your rogues with double proficiency in Deception the option to roll with advantage and then add 4 to the higher number whenever they’re trying to Convince with a lie. It’s a little clunky, but the Expertise class feature is just one feature of one class, and I’m willing to let the Convince mechanic be a little less elegant in that particular case.
There’s Nothing to Fear in the Dark
I’ve been wrestling with the darkvision racial trait for a while, and I’ve been gradually nerfing it for a few months now. The problem with darkvision is that it’s one of the most overpowered things in 5E that nobody ever notices. Although, to be fair to 5E, darkvision was overpowered in 3E as well. I never played 4E, but I bet darkvision was overpowered there too. I would take a cheap shot at 4E here, but I never played it enough to know how to insult it effectively (gotcha, 4E).
Vocabulary lesson, for those of you who either don’t play video games or don’t play sports (or don’t play either, if that’s an option). To “nerf” something means to make it less effective. We say it because of Nerf sports equipment, which looks like normal sports equipment, but is either made of or covered with soft foam.
You can’t throw a Nerf baseball hard enough to hurt someone, and you can’t give anyone a concussion with a Nerf bat. They even had Nerf guns that fired soft foam darts, although I don’t know if they let kids play with pretend guns anymore. So let’s get back to talking about pretend elves and how well they can see in the dark. Class dismissed.
So, what’s wrong with darkvision? It comes down to two problems: darkvision lets you see in the dark, and darkvision lets you not be seen in the dark. Add that to the fact that most of the D&D races have darkvision, and you have a tactical problem that cuts both ways.
The first part of the problem is that darkvision is too effective as written. Races with darkvision can see in complete darkness just fine within 60 feet. Yes, I know that the PHB specifically says that they can see in complete darkness as if it were dim light, but what does that even mean? It means that for them the area counts as “lightly obscured”. And what does that mean? Almost nothing. Lightly obscured means you take disadvantage on Perception checks involving sight. That might mean you miss something that’s hiding from you, or that you’ll miss spotting a trap or secret door… if there were such a thing as Passive Perception With Disadvantage. There isn’t, but because I’m a helpful DM married to a mathematician, you might remember from earlier that you could just subtract 4 from the Passive Perception and it would come out mostly the same. Not that it matters in the slightest, because DM’s don’t actually bother to think about darkvision giving the benefit of dim light instead of bright light. I had to look it up to be sure, because darkvision is generally handled as either on or off: if you have it, you can see in the dark, and if you don’t have it, you can’t. I actually like it better that way, so dim light is actually darkness. You could have dim light actually be bright light, if you preferred. Or you could just loosen up the mechanics and go on the fly… this is Chaotic Neutral Dungeon Mastery, after all.
And that brings us to the first tactical cutting edge of darkvision: if you have characters with normal darkvision (and don’t even start me on drow darkvision, which is twice as powerful), nothing can hide from them in the dark. No long, dark hallways that you can’t see the end of. No high, dark ceilings where you can’t see all the way to the roof. In other words, enemies who could take advantage of darkness to hide, escape, set an ambush, or attack from a distance without being seen… can’t. There aren’t an overwhelming number of hallways in D&D maps that are significantly longer than 60 feet end to end (that’s 12 squares for you grid users, or anyone with published adventure maps, although on some of the newer maps it would only be 6 squares), and there are almost no ceilings high enough to pass muster.
My solution to this is to make darkvision just as good as a torch. Let’s face it, when you look at the adventuring gear that creates light, the torch is the basic unit. There are candles and various lamps and lanterns, but torches are cheap and plentiful. And decent for creating light: you get 20 feet of bright light, and 20 more of dim. That is, of course, only 20 feet less of dim light than standard darkvision, but 20 feet of hallway or ceiling clearance is a very big difference. In a hallway, 20 feet is the difference between taking the Dash action instead of the Attack action when combat starts. For ceilings, 20 feet is generally either double the height or else half over again, which is a meaningful difference. The nerfed version of darkvision still has a benefit, which is that you don’t have to use one of your hands to hold a torch, which is a definite advantage when using bows, crossbows, versatile weapons, great weapons, dual wielding, or carrying a shield.
Which leads us into the second tactical cutting edge of darkvision: characters with darkvision do not need to carry around torches. No, I don’t care about beancounting when the party will run out of torches, or how much they weigh, or how much they cost, or how difficult it is to light them or put them out. None of that matters, and if it bothers you, give the party some sticks of wood with continual flame spells on them. They don’t burn down, go out, create heat, or need air, so characters can basically stuff them in a pocket when they aren’t using them and pull them out when it gets dark. Continual flame is a second-level spell with a 50gp casting cost, so as magic items go these sticks should be easy and cheap to find. They could even make their own.
The thing that matters about holding a torch is that people holding torches are very obvious, especially when it’s dark. If you have a torch in your hand, you are by necessity in “bright light”, which means distance in the dark does not matter to your enemies. Even enemies with no darkvision at all can still shoot at you just fine from 150 feet out with a longbow. You won’t see them, but you’ll make a very tempting target all lit up. There’s also a significant element of uncertainty here: with enemies attacking from complete darkness at a range of 150 feet, most characters will need to Dash for two entire rounds before getting close enough to make a melee attack, and would only find out at the end of the second round what sort of enemies they’ve been charging pell-mell towards, and how many there are. And, even beyond longbow range, anyone carrying a light source should still show up very nicely in the darkness, even if it’s just as a moving bit of flame, and longbows can attack with disadvantage out to 600 feet, which means ten whole rounds of taking fire while dashing into unknown peril. And that’s the other problem with darkvision, and the reason why the races which get it need to be limited: darkvision lets you move around in the dark without painting a huge flaming target across your chest.
Just to be absolutely clear, I think that even my nerfed version of darkvision is too powerful. Looking at that list of weapons that you can’t really use if your off hand is tied up holding a torch should make it pretty obvious that characters with darkvision are the only ones who can fight effectively in a dark area. The best that those without darkvision can do is to throw their torch down and free up that hand, and hope that a clever enemy doesn’t just stomp it out or pick it up and throw it away from the battle. And if that’s not enough, the inherent level of stealth granted by not having to carry around a position-indicating light source is massive. If you have to carry a torch, any dark environment is rife with possibilities for ambush. I would love to get rid of darkvision altogether, or find some way to nerf it even more. Unfortunately, darkvision has been part of D&D from the beginning, and it won’t be going away. And I honestly can’t think of anything more that could be done to level the field for non-darkvision characters.
The best that can really be done is to strictly limit which D&D races should have access to darkvision. In 5th Edition, most of the D&D races have darkvision, and most of them shouldn’t. Your mileage may vary on this, but my position is that there are only two races and one sub-race that should have darkvision across the board. Dwarves should have it, because they live primarily underground where there is no natural light. Tieflings should have it, because they have that infernal origin, and seeing in the dark goes along with that nicely. Finally, deep gnomes should have it. Not all gnomes, but just the ones who are native to the Underdark, because it’s Dark Under there. I would consider elves as a possibility, but then again, elves don’t mostly live in caves, and when they do, they like to have lots of artificial light (which is common knowledge about elves, in case you were wondering). Again, different DM’s are going to conceptualize this differently, but what it comes down to is that there should be two or three races that have darkvision instead of two or three that don’t.
This means your party gets to make a choice: is it better to have members who are completely blind moving through the Dungeons in which the Dragons live, or to have everybody lit up and moving around for all and sundry to see? I don’t know, and I don’t need to know, because I’m the DM, and my job is to set up ambushes in the dark for players to walk into. Let the players figure out how to be proactive without light. I would probably have everyone walk around holding a rope so that the few characters with darkvision could lead them without anyone getting lost. Oh, and getting lost in the dark is also something that can happen if you don’t have darkvision. Troubles never seem to cease.
The Shortest Conclusion I Have Yet Written
Well, there you have it. Three miniature rules hacks for your game, specially designed to remove three stupid problems that cripple characters, promote the toxic variety of metagaming, and steal a tactical edge from poor goblins and kobolds who need all the help they can get.
So go ahead and let your lying wizard get killed in the dark. It’ll be okay. Really.