Beyond the Wall: Borrowing from 5e

Just mopping up some stray rules for Death comes to Wyverley in preparation for compiling the lot into one document. This one borrows a few things from D&D Fifth Edition and applies them to Beyond the Wall.

Mainstream D&D has never been my thing, but I really admire 5e’s efforts to streamline the system. The elements I’d would import into BtW are

  • Saving throws
  • One-size-fits-all proficiency bonus

Before I get into this, I’ll just say I don’t own the final 5e product so I may well have missed some nuances of how 5e does it — so if anyone reading this would like to set me straight, I’d appreciate it. Now, onward.

Saves

There are alt. rules in BtW to simplify saves D&D3e-style saves. One table for all classes, with Rogues getting better Reflex saves, Fighters getting the advantage with Fortitude and Mages with Will saves.

5e simplifies saves by tying to attributes (both in name and value). That’s good for players without much background in D&D (i.e. most of the people I play with) who would reasonably ask why a Fortitude save isn’t the same thing as a CON check.

(The downside is this takes away some of the evocative weirdness of having dedicated saves against Breath Weapon, Polymorph, etc. — but I’d make the change for simplicity)

For BtW it’s pretty straightforward to give each class advantage in two out of the six rather than one out of the three to emulate 5e’s “saving throw proficiencies” e.g.

  • Fighters get Strength and Constitution
  • Rogues get Dexterity and Charisma
  • Mages get Intelligence and Wisdom

But actually, just mix and match two attributes that make sense for your given playbook (e.g. Novice Templar gets Strength and Wisdom). This should make figuring saving throws for new cross-class playbooks (e.g. demihumans) simpler too — no need to audit the save lists.

I don’t know the official canon regarding what attribute saves as what, but this is my list:

  • Strength: being pushed, restrained, paralysed, bound or denied entry
  • Constitution: poison, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, sickness and death
  • Dexterity: anything that can be dodged, ducked, or leapt away from; alternatively anything that can be snatched, grabbed.
  • Intelligence: resists illusions, trickery and concealment, noticing details
  • Wisdom: magical domination, enchantment, or shapechanging. Represents personal confidence, objectivity, etc.
  • Charisma: maintaining a lie, maintaining (or justifying) alignment, a convincing argument, avoiding social embarassment etc. Ego, force of personality, outward confidence.

To make this work in BtW there’s no need to import the Proficiency Bonus mechanics — you could just use the “Good Save/Poor Save” table in the optional rules. In which case just use the target number in that table, modified by the attribute bonus.

Proficiency by Level

In 5e the same bonus applies for all classes at a given level. What matters is whether you’ve got the proficiency or not. The number varies from +2 to +6 with ascending levels. That would fit nicely with the 10 levels in BtW with a +1 jump every odd level. In terms of BtW the “proficiency” could be

  • saves
  • skills
  • class abilities like casting magic, or even combat

In principle I like this approach — it means players will actively negotiate to get the bonus, and maybe reduces any confusion of which skills apply to which attribute (the answer is “all of them”, i.e. the GM calls the attribute, the player negotiates for the bonus).

There’s a risk of devaluing Rogue characters though. In BtW they get middling combat ability, some nice saves, skills, and Fortune points. But we’ve already simplified saves; now if you say any to-hit bonus is contingent on proficiency, either (a) the Rogue doesn’t have it, and cannot be a useful second-line fighter, or (b) they do have some weapon proficiency, in which case they may devalue the Fighter.

Not that I’m particularly bothered about balancing out the characters (I also have no problem with a game where only fighters get better at fighting i.e. the way LotFP does it). But it does highlight an important difference in expectations between 5e and OSR:

  1. 5e is a point-buy system that assumes players will min-max to get favourable stats for their core activity (e.g. decent Str effectively doubles the Fighter’s attack bonus).
  2. BtW however is random — there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a perfectly average “prime attribute”, e.g. it’s possible to run through the Village Hero playbook and completely dodge all the STR advances (and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature).

(For the record I don’t think the solution is to tweak BtW’s playbooks to provide more advances in “prime attributes”. That would spoil a lot of what is great about the playbooks, producing unexpected features in the characters.)

Anyway, maybe to soften this polarising “all or nothing” approach that the single proficiency bonus will cause, all you need is two bonuses — a major one and a minor one:

Level Major Minor
1 +2 +1
2 +3 +2
3 +4 +2
4 +5 +3
5 +6 +3
6 +7 +4
7 +8 +4
8 +9 +5
9 +10 +5
10 +11 +6

So then all you need to do is decide which skills/talents/class abilities etc. are Major and which are Minor. Suggestions:

  • Combat: major for Fighters and minor for Rogues, nothing for Mages
  • Spells: Mages are Major
  • Skills: everyone starts out as Minor. “Doubling up” on your skill promotes it to Major. Optionally, Rogues start with one of their four skills as Major.

A fighter’s Knacks are separate; however Weapon Specialisation could be required for using unusual weapons (e.g. the way WFRP did specialist weapons vs. common weapons). Or you could limit the Rogue to only using a subset of weapons with their bonus.

Level Caps and Level Drain

Some comments on levels. First, I never got into the zero-to-hero kind of game where we’d play long enough to grow a character from 1st to very high level. A level range of 1-5 is enough for me (and Level 5 was god-like proficiency for the LARP we played years ago, and it was more than enough granularity). So the concept of “level cap” is not something I ever needed to address, and in the table above by 5th level the major and minor bonuses will make the PCs pretty pokey.

Second, I quite like the concept of level drain, and simplifying the per-level bonus makes that easier to book-keep (though still a bit complicated with specific gains at higher levels). Nb. in the alternative healing rules HP are figured as (class base + Con bonus + level), so also easy to figure out.

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