RG House Rules: Dump Everything but Stats!

Today’s post is actually a supplement to my weekly post over at The Rat Hole. If you check out over there, I talked about a possible house rule to deal with what I consider useless Ability Scores in D&D 5e. Here I’m going to talk about a second way of making ability scores useful again.

As I noted in my other article, I love rolling up ability scores for D&D characters. Those scores are the foundation upon which I build the rest of my character. But in 5e, once you’ve generated those scores they don’t do anything. The bonuses that derive from them do a lot of work, bumping up skill checks and saving throws. But the ability scores themselves are static, with no purpose. That’s why, when I saw them sitting lifeless on the page I knew I needed to restore them to usefulness.

My plan to put ability scores back to work is actually pretty simple, just three steps. First, get rid of saving throws and skills. Second, in their place, switch to a “roll under” method of determining success, using the character’s ability scores. If the character has proficiency in that ability, they add the proficiency bonus to the ability score before rolling, and must roll under that number. Sounds a little crazy? Let me explain.

Let’s look at Grognard the Barbarian, who has to make a Constitution saving throw of DC 13. Grognard has a 16 Constitution score, because barbarian.  He’s only first level so he has a proficiency bonus of +2 and an ability bonus of +3, for a +5 to his Constitution saves. That’s pretty good, especially at first level, but there is still a decent chance that Grognard will get knocked flat on his butt; frankly annoying when playing a big, tough character. Using roll under, however, Grognard would need to roll under 18 (Constitution score of 16, plus his proficiency bonus of +2) on a d20. So most of the time, Grognard is going to shrug off any Constitution-based attacks, which for a barbarian is as it should be.

This extends to skill checks as well. You would retain any Skill proficiencies from character creation or other sources, and add that as a bonus to the relevant ability score when making a Skill check that relates to that proficiency. As in the example above, this will allow a character proficient in a particular skill to succeed more often than not. Which, as the hero of your particular story, they should be doing anyway. But it also allows some flexibility in what ability scores to use when making a skill check. Yes, most of the time you’ll use the score commonly associated with that skill, but sometimes your player might make a good case for another ability score to be used. Or you as the DM might switch things up and decide that another ability score better fits the challenge the character is facing.

As a balancing factor, we come to the third step in my “cunning” plan: subtract 10 from the DCs of any skill checks or saving throws, and apply the result as a negative modifier on the character’s ability score for the roll. So in our example above, Grognard may have an effective 18 Constitution because he is a big, tough barbarian. But the poison gas (let’s say) he is trying to resist is a particularly noxious kobold blend, so he takes a -3 penalty (DC 13 – 10 = 3), making his effective Con score a 15. Still a decent chance of success, but enough harder that it will make Grognard think twice about rushing into the cloud if he doesn’t have to.

While the house rule I’m suggesting is for skill checks and saving throws, it could be extended to combat. Simply subtract 10 from the opponent’s AC and apply the result as a negative modifier to the relevant ability check. So an AC of 14 is a -4 modifier, AC 21 is -11, and so on. Positive modifiers would be proficiency bonuses, plus any magical or situational modifiers. So if Grognard is attacking with his mighty 18 Strength, using his new +1 greataxe Helmcleaver, against an opponent with an AC of 15, he’ll roll under 16 in order to hit (18 + 2 + 1 = 21 – 5 = 16). Grognard has a pretty good shot at turning his opponent to mush, but it isn’t guaranteed.

So that’s my suggested house rule in a nutshell. Obviously I would want to play test this before implementing it on a regular basis, because I’m sure there are situations and corner cases where it might need some tweaking. But altogether I think it’s an effective way of making ability scores useful again, and also serves to make the characters a bit more heroic in stature.

But what do you think? Am I crazy? Is it a workable solution, or am I tampering with things nerdkind was not meant to explore? Let me know what you think below. And check out my article over at The Rat Hole for a house rule idea pretty much the opposite of this one.


D&December Postings, and News!

Between work and getting into the swing of things with my seasonal depression, I’ve been away for a bit. That’s all about to change, as I’m taking part in the D&December Art Prompts (seen left) and I’ll be posting every day this month. As is tradition I discovered this just after the beginning of December, so today is catching up.

But first a few pieces of Renaissance Gamer news. First up, if you just can’t get enough of me here, I’m a new weekly contributor over at The Rat Hole, a gaming news and reviews site newly minted by my buddy Dave Chapman. He’s been at the game reviewing biz for a while, and I am shamelessly riding his coat-tails as he begins this new venture. I’ll be posting an article every Monday on topics relating to the role-playing game hobby, starting with a series on getting into the hobby. And even if you’re a RPG veteran, these articles will discuss ways to make our space welcoming to new gamers. And you should go there anyway to read Dave’s reviews and news, because he’s got some good things to say.

Second piece of news: in January I’ll be hosting the RPG Blog Carnival. Started by Johnn Four over at Roleplaying Tips, the carnival invites one blogger to host each month and provide a topic. Other bloggers then post their own takes on that topic, and comment back on the host site so the links are all in one place. It’s a great way to get myriad perspectives on a subject, as well as being highly entertaining. My January topic, fitting after the holidays have lightened our collective wallets, will be “Roleplaying Games on a Budget”. I know a few things I plan to write and I can’t wait to see what other folks come up with.

But now the main event: D&December!

Day 1: Favourite Race

My favourite race to play in D&D is a plain old vanilla human. I know, I know, all those wonderful races to choose from, I go with the “round ears”. I’ve played other races and enjoyed them. But if I’m going to settle into a character I plan to play a while, I’ll go with human every time. Versatility is certainly one of the reasons, but it isn’t the main one for me. As a player, I want the DM to reveal a world of wonders and terrors, and I want the feeling of exploring that world and discovering those wonders and surviving those terrors. And so I will tend to pick a character which is, well, me. Playing human lets me focus on that experience without also having to juggle the lense of another race. I’m happy to explore that in other games, but for D&D human is how I roll.

Day 2: Favourite Class

I’ve long been a fan of the wizard class, and that hasn’t gone away in D&D 5e. I like the way the school specializations have been handled, and I don’t think there is a “weak” school to choose from, depending on the campaign. My ideal build for my wizard is the “adventuring scholar”; always on the lookout for new spells, spellbooks, scrolls, and other magical gewgaws to enhance his art. The strength of the wizard, for me, comes from the sheer number of spells he can know, and the fact that he can store more situationally useful spells on scrolls while memorizing the more broadly useful ones. For instance, you may not need knock every session, but having it on a scroll gives you an option for when the rogue is all thumbs that day. And once the wizard can lay hands on a Handy Haversack, his scroll game become fierce.

Day 3: Favourite NPC

I wasn’t sure if this meant my favourite type of NPC, or a specific NPC from Dungeons & Dragons. So I’ll touch on both.

My favourite type of NPC is what I call the “web spinner”. This is an NPC which the players, through no fault of their own and possibly without realizing, end up opposing. They work behind a sometimes shifting screen of lieutenants and flunkies, maybe even working as the power behind a fairly Big Baddie to further hide their efforts. I love using them, because done well the big reveal when the party realizes who or what they’ve actually been opposing all along is delicious. Especially if they’ve been interacting with that NPC the entire campaign.

My favourite specific NPC in D&D is Strahd, which should come as no surprise (see above). Strahd is the master manipulator, working behind the scenes to choreograph a monstrous dance, delighting in watching the player struggle to learn the steps. And not because he’s afraid to confront the characters, but because the eventual confrontation will be all the more delightful when they realize to whose tune they’ve been dancing.

Guest Post: The Elven Monk

One of the things I wanted to do for the site this year was get some guest bloggers to contribute, and to do some guest blogging of my own. Jesse C. Cohoon over at Fantasy Roleplaying Planes reached out with a post, and I’m currently working on a post for his site as well. In an earlier article I talked about how I had changed some races to better fit my campaign. So Jesse’s article seemed like a good fit, as an alternate way to look at the Elven people. I hope you enjoy, and take a look over at his site if you have the chance.Brent

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The Elven Monk

Elves are typically presented as aloof, long-lived protectors of the forest, experts in magic, sword, and bow. But this is only one interpretation of what elven culture can be. What would happen if a sect of elves decided to remove themselves from society altogether, abandon their forest homes, seeking instead lives of meditation and quiet contemplation? Elves have a serene quality about them, and due to their longevity if they bend their minds and wills to focus on this, have a wisdom which few can match.

Lands & History

This branch of the Elven people withdrew from the world. They were tired of the constant need to protect the land from invaders. So they found a mountaintop constantly shrouded in blizzards and built a home there, daring anyone to try to take it away from them. They built a community with their temple at the center of it, which they named Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo, translatedto common as “Leap of the storm clouds.” Despite this limiting factor of their location, they seem self-sufficient in getting all they need, having learned how to garden indoors, coaxing vegetables and fruiting plants to grow in what sparse light they have.  They also have a herd of alpacas which they use the meat and wool to weave their simple robes from.


The Elven monks of this community spend their times training their minds and bodies to perfection. Everyone shares in chores alike: men, women, and as they are able to, children. Even though they are a temple, there is a sense of community and commonality for all there. This is not to say they’re not strict about their members adhering to the temple’s standards. If a member violates its rules, they may be asked to leave. For the most part, they do not welcome strangers into their lands with open arms . That is not to say they are inhospitable; if someone stumbles into their temple grounds needing help, they’ll supply them with what is needed: be it food or a guide, and send them on their way.


They are typically lithe men and women who wear simple robes of a single color, oftentimes decorated with a sash of a different colored material to note their status or position within the community. When adventuring, this sash also doubles as storage for anything they’re carrying with them. On their feet they wear simple sandals.

Everyone originally from the community is first encountered bald. Newcomers to the temple for training or to join are required to shave their heads.


This group of Elves are isolationists, preferring not to get involved with the outside world. This is not to say they will not; if the situation arises and someone can convince them that their skills are needed, they will venture out into the world to face and defeat the evil. They’re fearsome foes to those that oppose them. Woe to be the enemy that confronts them in their mountaintop home.

Most of them are soft spoken, and will rarely initiate a conversation, preferring to mind their own business rather than getting involved in outside situations, unless failing to do so would violate their oath.

Weapons & Armor

They don’t typically wear armor, as it interferes with their acrobatic movements, but that’s not to say that they’re defenseless. The monks are trained to use their sash to parry attacks and use it to misdirect attacks from vital areas, sometimes blocking them from hitting completely. They typically carry a long three section staff that has a length of rope coiled onto it. The rope can be uncoiled to reveal a folding grappling hook. This combination is used similarly to the o-kusarigama, and can be used to cross gaps, and trip or entangle foes.

Skills & Powers

Due to their constant exposure to the elements, this branch of Elven monks can ignore the side effects of normal cold weather. If their training is advanced enough, they may be able to shrug off cold damage. They can deliver a chilling Ki attack with their palm strikes. Also, due to their physical training makes them surefooted in all but the most unstable of circumstances. They also are excellent climbers. Unfortunately, due to their social isolation, they aren’t good conversationalists, and despite their serenity, sometimes don’t make a good impression on others.


Elven monks from Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo may be found adventuring if they are seeking more advanced training, coming back home from guiding a lost traveler, or after having fought other evils.

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Jesse Cohoon is a blogger who writes about tabletop gaming. His strength comes from being able to pull his experience from fantasy novels, video games, and real world experiences and combine them into one. His blog can be found at fantasyroleplayingplanes.blogspot.com. Contact him if you want him to do a guest article for your site.

From the Campaign: Tome Guardian

Even though I’m not entirely finished with this creature, I thought I’d share something I pulled together for my home D&D campaign. My party is going to be exploring many places which have not been seen for almost five hundred years or more, and this is one of the creatures they may encounter in their journeys. It isn’t finished, of course. Not only have my players not encountered it, and therefore I don’t want to be posting all of its abilities here, but I also envision this as the “base model”, with adjustments and changes depending on the race which created it and the specific site it was created to guard. But this is enough to be going on with, and I’ll adjust it as it comes into contact with the characters.

Feel free to use it in your own campaign if you are so inclined, as is or modified to fit your needs. If you do modify it, maybe share that with me so I can see to what purposes you put it.

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Tome Guardian
Medium construct, unaligned

Armor Class 18 (natural armor)

Hit Points 55 (5d10 + 25)

Speed 30 ft.

18  (+4) 14  (+2) 20  (+5) 14  (+2) 10  (+0) 1 (-5)

Saving Throws Int +2, Wis +0

Skills Skill +0, Skill +0

Senses Darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 10

Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing

Damage Immunities Force, poison, psychic

Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned

Languages Understands Common and Draconic but can’t speak

5 (1800 XP)

Force Absorption. Whenever the tome guardian is subjected to force damage, it takes no damage and instead regains a number of hit points equal to the force damage dealt.

Immutable Form. The tome guardian is immune to any spell or effect that would alter its form.

Magic Resistance. The tome guardian has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Magic Weapons. The tome guardian’s weapon attacks are magical.

Spellcasting.  Tome Guardian is a 4th-level spellcaster that uses Intelligence as its spellcasting ability (spell save DC 10; +2 bonus with spell attacks). The Tome Guardian has the following spells prepared from the cleric’s and wizard’s spell list:

  • create water
  • prestidigitation


Multiattack. The tome guardian makes two melee attacks.

Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage.

Force Wave (Recharge 5 or 6). The tome guardian sends a wave of force energy from its outstretched hand in a 15-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw, taking 16 (4d6) force damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.


Reaction. 4 (1d8) bludgeoning damage.

Built to guard libraries and other locations storing knowledge or artifacts, tome guardians are able protectors of both the location and the objects within. Imbued with minor abilities which allow them to care for the books and artifacts they guard, tome guardians also act as research assistants, as they are programmed with a catalogue of the items under their care. Tome guardians are unfailingly polite until one seeks to endanger a book or artifact they are charged to protect. They then go on the offensive quickly and decisively.

DnDtober the 31st: Tarrasque

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThe tarrasque is meant to be a legendary destructive force in any campaign, a monster so terrible that it can’t be destroyed by mere mortal ability, even mortals as powerful as the adventurers. The characters must acquire something special to deal with this impending threat, whether divine (or infernal) intervention, artifact-level magic items, or simply finding the tarrasque’s favourite snuggy which will help it fall dormant once more. Even with this aid the creature often can’t be destroyed, simply forced back into dormancy until the time is right for it to wake again.

All of which sounds amazing, right? But too often the tarrasque is used as just another bag of hit points for the characters to face. Or worse, the DM throws it in as some sort of weird prize/punishment for reaching high character levels. But used properly, the tarrasque can be the lynch pin of your campaign. Here are three suggestions for including this awesome force of nature in your game.

1) Knowledge is Power – Decide how much information is available to the average person about the tarrasque. Will the party have to research in hidden libraries full of ancient tomes, or simply consult the latest edition of the Tarrasquenomicon? In most campaigns the tarrasque is a recurring threat, appearing over and over throughout history. Obviously it would be a big enough event for someone to write it down, but that doesn’t mean an unbroken string of information exists. Books molder or go missing, libraries can burn, and even if an ancient account survives to get in front of the characters, it may be damaged or just poorly written. Also keep in mind, the people best suited to comment on the tarrasque and its abilities are the people who fought it. More often than not, though, they aren’t around after the fight. This leaves the characters with second- and even third-hand accounts, with all the inaccuracies that implies.

Maybe this is the tarrasque’s first appearance in your campaign world, and there simply aren’t any historical accounts to pull from. This doesn’t mean there is no information about the creature. But it does mean the characters will have to go further afield for their knowledge, travelling to other planes or summoning planar allies for a study session.

2) Scary is in the Eye of the Beholder – The “classic” tarrasque is an enormous beast, all teeth, horns, and claws. But that doesn’t mean your tarrasque has to look that way. Maybe your tarrasque always takes a different form, depending on the circumstances of its summoning/wakening. You could borrow a page (film frame?) from Ghostbusters, and have the tarrasque appear in the first form someone thinks of as it appears. Imagine the scene: the party waits near the site of the tarrasque’s awakening, weapons at the ready. As the time draws near a voice barks a demand in the minds of the characters, “Choose the form of the Destroyer!” Without thinking, a character’s thoughts flash back to his youth, and the voice bellows, “DONE!”  In a flash of lightning and fire, the horrible creature appears…as a twelve-year-old boy. One of the characters instantly recognizes the boy as Genry, his bullying tormentor from school…

For that to work, of course, the final form of the tarrasque should have little to no effect on the creature’s abilities. Genry, for example, should hit just as hard as the stock tarrasque and be just as hard to damage. If you’re like me, the thought of taking the characters apart with a middle-schooler should fill you with warm fuzzy feelings.

3) Don’t Hold Back – There are times, as a dungeon master, when it is right and correct to adjust the encounter currently facing the players. We want to challenge our players, after all, without murdering them at every turn.

This is not one of those times.

The tarrasque is a terrible and epic threat in your campaign world. The players should have been given every opportunity to have their characters prepare for the tarrasque’s arrival and you should take the effect of those preparations into account. But once the creature is awake, it shouldn’t pull any punches. It needs to be just as scary as promised, if not scarier, or the players are going to feel cheated. They’ll feel doubly cheated if they actually catch you fudging things. So don’t do it. This should be the ultimate fight of their adventuring careers to this point. Characters may, and likely will, die. So be it. If you’ve done a good enough job of building toward the fight, the players should feel immensely satisfied if their victory results in character death. What better way for an adventurer to go, after all.

How do you run the tarrasque in your campaign? Let me know in the comments.

DnDtober the 22nd: Rust Monster

prehistoricanimalssOne of the things I love about the early days of D&D are the stories about how creatures like the rust monster and the bulette were created. As the story goes, the early TSR crew had a bag of odd plastic toys, and they would snag one of these creatures and make up a monster to fit it (if you check out this video by Dorks of Yore you can hear Tim Kask talk about that and much more). That fits so well with my own early experience of D&D, where we made things up on the fly, or used things from sci-fi and fantasy culture as inspiration. Like most people who came to D&D in my generation, I certainly played a number of wizards named Gandalf and halfling thieves name Bilbo. And of course their associates, Gundalf and Balbo. I was super-creative when I was eleven years old, guys!

It’s one of the things I appreciate about the roll-out of 5e. They’ve kept things very simple and left a lot of the creation in the hands of the DMs and players. Looking at the long list of offerings available on Dungeon Master’s Guild, it seems many have taken the opportunity to do just that. I know my home-brew campaign setting of Cotterell wouldn’t have come about without 5e. Nothing in the books directly inspired my setting; instead, it was almost like the dearth of material for the game gave me permission to create some of my own. Of course no one needed to give me permission to create, and I could have made up material for any of the games I play. But when you have games with very well stocked setting material (Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, and so on), it can be difficult to overcome the inertia of those settings. I mean, I love Pathfinder’s Golarion setting. It has replaced the Forgotten Realms as my favourite published campaign world, and I wasn’t sure that would ever be possible. But aside from a bit of tweaking and adjusting to make the adventures better fit my players, there isn’t a lot for me to do to Golarion.

With D&D 5e, though, the field is wide open. While WotC has settled back in to the Forgotten Realms as their default setting, they seemed to have learned from the past and refrained from publishing a glut of Realms sourcebooks. So while it’s an option, it isn’t the overwhelming option. And for the first time in a long time I felt like I could maybe build something from scratch, put it in front of players, and see how that went. Cotterell is definitely a work in progress, but I’m very much enjoying the way it’s building itself out through player interaction. I feel like I get a chance to make my figurative rust monster again, and I like it.

DnDtober the 21st: Demons

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgIn my home-brew campaign setting of Cotterell, the barrier between it and the other planes and dimensions is severely weakened due to a magical cataclysm. In addition to the explosive influx of magic causing a sharp increase in aberrant monsters, there are now weak points scattered across the land which allow easier travel between the planes. Not all of these spontaneous gates lead somewhere dangerous or threatening. But enough of them do to cause most folk to stear well clear of them, when discovered.

Arguably worse than these are the places where the veil between worlds has worn thin, but not yet thin enough to allow a breach. All it will take, though, is something to push the veil to the breaking point to cause the worn spot to rupture. Powerful magic used indiscriminately, perhaps even a build-up of negative energy or emotion, and that point will rupture into another opening between the planes, often with horrible consequence. Unfortunately these weakened points are hard to detect. At least from our side of the barrier.

On the other side, the demons watch.

For whatever reason these weak points, all but invisible in the lands of Cotterell, are not only visible but stand out as dark flares across the abyssal realms. Demons are drawn to them, searching for ways to weaken them enough to gain entry to the world. If you pictured a demon or demons on the other side of a weak point, pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Luckily, most of a demon’s powers cannot cross into our world at these points, and so the demon’s influence has to be more subtle.

How much the demon can influence things on the other side depends on the size of the weak point itself. If the point is small, about the size of a dinner plate, the demon may only be able to affect an area about the size of a small home. Larger weak points, however, allow a demon or demons to influence things over larger areas; pity the village unknowingly settled in a lake-sized weak point.

So what can demons actually do through these weak points? First, their mere presence at the weak point for prolonged periods affects the emotions of whoever is within range on the other side. This can manifest in many ways, but is generally seen as an overall sense of hopelessness. Negative emotions become heightened and positive ones are diminished. Staying in the area for longer than a day will cause a character or NPC to take disadvantage on their Wisdom checks and saving throws. Second, while the demons cannot directly speak to a person when they are awake, they can whisper to that person’s subconscious while they sleep. These dark whispers make promises and try to push the recipient to fell deeds, all ultimately designed to weaken the veil enough to allow the demon to cross over.

It does take longer for the effects of this to take hold, however. A demon must whisper to a particular person for at least a week, continuously, before they can gain any influence at all. After a week of constant nightly dark whisperings, the person must make a DC 12 Wisdom saving throw (with disadvantage, of course) to avoid the demonic influence. If they succeed the influence is staved off temporarily. On subsequent nights, however, the subject must make more Wisdom saving throws, with the DC increasing by one each evening. Eventually the subject fails, and the demon is able to take hold in the victim’s mind. Now the demon can begin influencing the victim’s waking actions as well. These actions will vary, but generally work their bloody way toward the goal of opening the veil between worlds. The victim rarely survives this result.

That’s one example of demonic influence in my campaign. How do you handle it in yours? Let me know in the comments.