RPG Game Master

Performing Mechanics Surgery on Your D&D Game

There comes a point in every Dungeon Master’s experience with Dungeons & Dragons when they think to themselves “I wish fifth edition did X better” or “I wish fifth edition had rules for X”. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, fifth edition D&D is by no means a perfect system. But recognizing that and wanting to remedy it for your specific group are two different viewpoints entirely. You can begrudgingly admit the faults in the mechanics of the system and carry on, all the while realizing what you want to achieve isn’t explicitly written. Or you could work on the problems you see in the context of your individual game and try to fix them.

D&D rules and mechanics work for you

It’s a happy problem to have because at that point, you as the DM have left the island of the rules as written and decided to venture to the mainland: game design. You’ve started to think of the game from a mechanical standpoint as it relates to the narrative at your table, rather than from the perspective of pure mechanics and applications of those mechanics in a broad setting. And when it comes down to it, that’s what the rules are there for: to guide the way the narrative evolves and to shape the range of possible actions to facilitate the narrative.

I think this transition in thought is what differentiates the good DMs from the great DMs. This understanding of the game’s internal mechanics that inform the way the game is played. Consequently, how to devise adjustments to the rules or take mechanics from other systems and integrate them in a relatively seamless fashion is crucial to elevating the quality of the game you run. If you have more tools at your disposal in the underlying mechanics of the game, you can do more with the narrative and create more interesting interactions for players and the world they’re populating.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this article: how to perform surgery on your D&D game and transplant some amazing mechanics from other tabletop RPGs into the core rules without muddying the water too much.

Progress clocks

D&D mechanics
Blades in the Dark is a tabletop role-playing game about a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city.

Fans of John Harper’s Blades in the Dark will be well aware of this mechanic, but for those who aren’t familiar, this is an excellent way to make downtime activities more engaging and more interesting than they are in standard D&D.

Here’s how the rules of Blades in the Dark describe progress clocks:

“A progress clock is a circle divided into segments. Draw a progress clock when you need to track ongoing effort against an obstacle or the approach of impending trouble…Generally the more complex the problem, the more segments in the progress clock…”

Progress clocks allow you as the DM to demonstrate to the players how successful they are at carrying out a task they’ve specified. When the task will take multiple actions, it can be difficult to keep track of where the party is in terms of overall success. But a progress clock gives you a tangible thing to point to and say “You have 3 successes to go before you’ve completed your task” or “You have 2 failures remaining before the alarm sounds in the fortress and you’re discovered.”

Here’s an example of what that might look like. Let’s say you have a wizard who wants to research spells in the arcane library located in the capital city your players are visiting. In standard D&D the player can do this, under the assumption they have the resources at hand, and there might be a check somewhere in the mix to see how well they accomplish this task.

That’s all well and good. But it’s a bit boring. There’s no emphasis on the process. There’s little obligation on the player’s part to roleplay the interactions with the world. And, perhaps more importantly, if the DM thinks there are multiple checks to be made in order for the wizard to successfully carry out their research, there’s no real way of dealing with that short of just saying “Okay, make yet another Arcana roll.”

But if we apply a progress clock to the situation, the DM might say:

“All right, you want to research a spell from the Arcanum’s collection. Let’s put a 6-wedge progress clock on this. You can try to complete wedges of the progress clock any time that the party takes downtime.”

At each stage of the progress clock, you might have a different situation that the player must overcome with either a successful roll or some roleplaying.  

For instance, once the player completes three wedges of the progress clock, you might say the arcane knowledge they’ve acquired begins to weigh heavily on their mind and starts to warp their sanity. So they have to make a Wisdom saving throw or succumb to the madness (thus losing a wedge or two of progress). Or perhaps at the fifth wedge in the progress clock, one of the librarians gets suspicious about the amount of time the wizard is spending in the library. A scene that takes place where the player has to roleplay a conversation to defend themselves and retain access to the tome they’ve been studying.

As you can see, the introduction of a progress clock to the situation has two benefits.

  1. The player has a real representation of how much time the goal they want to accomplish will take.
  2. The DM has a wider range of options at each wedge of the progress clock to influence how the player becomes successful.

Now granted, the DM could just do those things I mentioned above without having the progress clock present in the game. But without it the player has no indication of what that means in the greater context of achieving their goal. And I believe that’s important. As DMs, we want to reinforce the players’ desires to interact with the world, especially those interactions that will be meaningful and take time in the world. Giving them a mechanic to precisely indicate what those interactions require in order to be successful is paramount to increasing their involvement and buy-in.

Social circles

D&D mechanics
Yoon-Suin is a campaign toolbox for fantasy games, giving you the equipment necessary to run a sandbox campaign in your own Yoon-Suin – a region of high adventure shrouded in ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty.

One of the best campaign setting supplements I’ve run across is Yoon Suin. It centers around the fabled Yellow City, located at the mouth of the God River in the Purple Land. The area details are vague and mysterious, leaving much to the DM in terms of worldbuilding and location creation.

It’s supposed to be a sandbox, and these elements contribute to those aspects of creating a sandbox world.

But one of the mechanics featuring heavily in building the world is the generation of social circles for the player characters. The second step the book details after choosing a region to explore is to use the given tables to generate the web of entities and factions the player characters have ties to and local personages the player characters have contact with.

And then there are more tables to generate conflicts those groups might have or rumors surrounding the people the player characters know. This lets you as the DM create a living, vibrant world unique to your version of Yoon Suin.

Here’s an example from the text:

“The DM decides that the PCs have connections to 5 social groups. He rolls a d12 five times and consults the ‘Group Type’ table, generating a Noble House, two Shrines, a Philosophical Society, and an Exploring Guild…”

The author goes on to give more examples of what conflicts and rumors there are regarding each of those groups and how they interact with the characters’ contacts in the region. Overall it’s an amazing system. And the best part is it interacts mechanically with the rest of the rules if you decide to port it over to your D&D campaign. Downtime activities can be spent with these groups or individuals. They can be quest-givers, or adventure hooks in and of themselves.

Okay so this is a good system, but how does it differ from the one already present in the basic set of rules for D&D?

Put plainly, sheer depth. The mechanics for worldbuilding available to the DM in D&D are pretty superficial and they constitute generic fantasy tropes you can insert into your game. There’s a host of tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to help you craft people and places within your world, but there’s very little in the way of helping you integrate them with your PCs or create meaningful ties to your players via these entities.

The rules in Yoon Suin are based on tables, just like the DM’s Guide, but they delve deeper and encourage you as the DM to probe further into the groups’ histories to flesh them out. The mechanics are predicated on the assumption the players are involved somehow with these groups and people. And they afford you the opportunity to present your players with a list of the groups they have contact with up front. This expedites the process of giving them a reason to be playing in the first place. Some players need that for a sandbox environment.

The faction turn

D&D mechanics
Stars Without Number: Revised Edition is an old-school-inspired game of sci-fi adventure, one built from the ground up to encourage sandbox play and simplify a GM’s job in providing it.

Chances are, in any tabletop RPG setting, there will be factions. Religions, militaries, governments, cults, mercenaries, traders and merchants, universities, monster hunters, arcane guilds, etc. You get the point. In any setting, published or homebrewe, the core aspect making them feel alive are the people and the groups they belong to. D&D makes this explicit but it doesn’t give any mechanical reasons why they’re important or how they behave in the world as established.

One of the things I value the most at the table as a player or as a DM is feeling like time marches external to the actions the player characters take. Contrary to popular belief, the player characters are not the center of the universe (of course they can become the center of the universe if they want to follow that path). There should be people in the world who have never heard of the PCs, don’t care about the PCs, or act on their own to further their own goals and desires without supposed “knowledge of the PCs.”

Stars Without Number handles this brilliantly and it has a system in place that can be integrated easily into your D&D campaign. By default, the setting of a Stars Without Number game is a science fiction setting, so wherever possible, I’ll provide the fantasy analogue to each of the aspects geared toward sci-fi specifically.

Factions in Stars Without Number have six statistics:

  • Hit points (cohesion, morale, unity)
  • Force rating (martial aptitude, physical violence)
  • Cunning rating (espionage, infiltration, covert actions)
  • Wealth rating (commercial, scientific, industrial resources)
    • For D&D, you could also include a separate rating for magical/divine resources
  • FacCreds (general wealth and resources, used to buy assets)
    • D&D would use ‘gold’ here
  • Experience points, which can be used to improve one of the ratings above

Factions also have a homeworld (which could be repurposed as a home region, or country in your fantasy setting), and one or more tags, special traits related to the faction’s abilities or their perspectives in the game world. In addition, there are various assets each faction can purchase to assist them with their goals and actions.

Then comes the beautiful mechanic of “The Faction Turn.” Once you’ve assembled the list of factions and their various stats and assets, after a month of in-game time or after an adventure the players have completed, the factions get to act (e.g. to attack, to buy an asset, to change regions, to expand their influence, etc.). This Faction Turn takes place in the DM’s prep time for the next session. These actions occur in accordance with their goals (e.g. military conquest, commercial expansion, maintain peace, spread religion, etc.) and they are governed in much the same way as player actions are: dice rolls and stat modifiers. Each faction gets an initiative ordering and each faction acts once per Turn.

Then, once the turn is over, you write up a short summary of the events that have occurred and you present it to your players as rumors or pieces of news circulating in their current region.

This, to me, is brilliant. It’s an underlying mechanic that breathes life into a world and motivates the DM to keep the progression of time separate from the progression of the players. You can come up with your own unique Tags for each faction and unique Assets to a fantasy universe and then make those aspects matter in a mechanical way, in addition to being interesting for story purposes. Rather than narratively saying the Order of Heaven’s Light is a group of expert fortune tellers, give them the “Oracular” tag to gives them advantage on gathering intelligence about their enemies during the Faction Turn. (Note: SWN doesn’t have the ‘Oracular’ tag, I just made it up.)

If you really want to take things further, and if you trust your players not to metagame too hard, you can carry out the Faction Turn as a group activity. Give them control of a faction (that doesn’t carry over into the main game) and let the players make choices for the factions and influence the various landscapes of the setting as the campaign progresses. This adds a whole other dimension to the tabletop RPG experience that feels like playing a 4X strategy game or something like it

Concluding remarks

Obviously there are plenty of other systems out there, each with their own unique mechanics. I’ve only sampled a few here and maybe I’ll explore more in the future. But if you’re looking for ways to spice up your D&D experience without breaking the game too much with homebrew rules and additions, these are excellent go-tos.

One final remark is you shouldn’t be afraid to introduce new mechanics into the base rules. Even homebrewing your own mechanics to help to bolster systems in the standard rules that don’t feel as satisfying to you as others can be an instructive process to get you to think about the structure of the game and how the rules govern the way we think about it at the table. If your new mechanics don’t work the way you want them to, or if they negatively influence the course of the game, who cares? Admit they’re not working and keep thinking about it!

And as I said before, once you start doing that, you may have moved into the realm of a great DM.

If you explore any of the other great games mentioned above that are available on DriveThruRPG or other OneBookShelf sites like DM’s Guild or RPG Now, make sure you use Nerdarchy’s exclusive coupon code DTRPG-Nerdarchy for a one-time 10 percent discount on digital product orders $10 or more.

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Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.

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Follow Austin Rodgers:
Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.

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