The image of a polyhedron-shaped skull has been staring at me for the past month and a half whenever I logged onto Drive-Thru RPG. I found myself shrugging it off at first, but as the weeks went by this book still remained within the top-selling category. The sinister song finally wore me down and out of curiosity I bought it, uneasily unsure of whatever fate awaited me within its pages.
5e: HARDCORE MODE is a collection of 18 alternate rules and 2 mini-adventures designed to simulate a more challenging method of gameplay for 5th Edition D&D. There’s a one-page overview of said rules, a few of which are bound together. Unfortunately they’re a mixed bag: quite a few rules are counterproductive at simulating a lethal and gritty playstyle, and others make unintended changes to the system. There are some that aren’t too shabby, so I’m going to outline said rules for this review, and explain why I think they’re good or bad for the intended gameplay and the system as a whole.3d6 Down the Line:
Taking some clear inspirations from the OSR, the book says that abilities are rolled 3d6 in order from Strength to Charisma. Unlike most OSR and TSR-era D&D games which allow a PC to retire if their highest score is average, HARDCORE MODE says that you’re stuck with the results and that terrible results
can help you role-play better. They even give suggestions on why your PC may suck so much: they’re plague-stricken, a child, a crippled war veteran, and such.
So the reason that so many OSR games can get away with this type of stat generation is that modifiers are more generous. In many the net difference between a 3 and an 18 is a mere 4 gradations (-2 to +2). In 5th Edition every little point matters, and even with bounded accuracy an average PC in this system isn’t going to be as hot as their OSR counterpart.Hit Dice:
You not only roll for hit points at first level, you don’t apply your CON modifier (positive or negative) when rolling and do this for every level thereafter. There are two more means of recovering hit points: every use of non-magical medical supplies grants a free Hit Dice roll, while in combat a PC can make a DC 10 CON ability check to be able to spend 1 Hit Dice to heal.
The book claims that this will encourage tactical play, although in reality it means that many more PCs will be built to avoid taking damage at all and they’ll be bursting at the seams with healer’s kits. Spending Hit Dice to heal still works normally, oddly enough.Skilled and Unskilled
If you are not proficient in something, be it a skill, tool, or type of weapon, you do not add your ability score modifier if positive; negative modifier still hurts. It’s basically a straight d20 in most circumstances.
The book acknowledges that this merely makes your character suck more at things, and claims that it will encourage players to make more complementary builds to shore up each other’s weaknesses. Although I do find it rather immersion-breaking that even a nimble and lithe archer is as bad at balancing as an average Joe, even if said archer didn’t grow up in the circus.Injured!
Whenever you take 10 or more damage from a single effect, you gain the Injured Condition. It prevents any roll with which you are proficient from adding your ability bonus, you lose your DEX bonus to AC, and are unable to roll CON checks to spend Hit Dice in combat. Said condition only goes away when you recover 10 or more hit points from a single spell or effect, or take a long rest.
Combined with the above discussion on rolling for Hit Points, this will also negatively impact Monks and other lightly-armored characters. Furthermore, losing one’s ability bonus on proficient rolls is a very big downgrade, and at middle-to-higher levels virtually every enemy attack will inflict the Injured condition by virtue of the fact that this isn’t an OSR game where 60 HP is a great amount for an end-game level Fighter.You’re Dead:
You only have one death saving throw to make instead of 3. You also die instantly if an effect would reduce you to -10 hit points or you remain at 0 hit points for 3 or more rounds while bleeding out. Said bleeding out cannot stabilize on its own save fron an ally’s intervention.
I’ll admit, this rule is not so bad. It still gives a 1 round window for fellow PCs to act, but makes it so that even on a successful save you are still in danger. Robbing the ability to self-stabilize means that you can’t really knock someone out to interrogate later, given that bleeding out happens when you hit 0 hit points regardless of source. At least this is the case by a literal reading of the rules.Zymer’s Candle:
When the campaign officially starts, an old mage called Zymer the Olde gives the PCs a magical candle. If lit, it can magically call back the PCs by rewinding time to the instant it was lit. The candle’s power can only be invoked while it remains lit.
This is a very blatant save point feature in the vein of Dark Souls. The book says that death is meaningless as a teaching tool if the PCs cannot learn from their mistakes, but...this rule more or less goes against the HARDCORE ethos the book epouses. Additionally, the use of Zymer’s candle imposes no real penalty; in Dark Souls you lost your unspent experience points and got your max health reduced unless you drank a rare potion to restore it to its original value. In base 5th Edition, becoming resurrected imposes penalties on many checks which persist for several long rests. Zymer’s Candle has no price for its use beyond losing anything gained during the post-lit time, which in most cases is going to be external things such as equipment and treasure than inherent parts of the character.Spells, Not Slots:
Divine spellcasters can choose their level + 2 spells to cast during a new day, while arcane casters gain 3 new spells as they level up and can prepare a number of spells equal to their level x 2 every day. When you cast a spell, it is expended and you must wait another day should you wish to regain its use. Spells can only be cast at the current slot equivalent at the time the PC got them, meaning that you can’t raise a spell’s effectiveness via spending higher-level slots. Cantrips remain unchanged.
This is pretty awful, and it really harms sorcerers and warlocks. The sorcerer cannot take advantage of using sorcery points to replenish spell slots, while the warlocks’ major strength is always casting their spells at the highest-level slot possible for their level.Roll to Cast:
A spellcaster must roll a d20, adding their Intelligence or Wisdom modifier vs DC 10 in order to cast a spell normally. If they fail the spell does nothing and they lose it for the day. If they get a natural 20 they inflict double the effect and retain the spell. A natural 1 forces the caster to roll on the accompanying Volatile Magic Table which has a variety of afflictions (summon 1d12 angry imps, damage yourself for 1d10 damage, spend your next turn stunned, etc) but you do not lose access to the spell oddly enough.
The INT/WIS roll does not specify if it’s limited by class or something the PC can choose at will. Once again this really sucks for sorcerers and warlocks, but paladins too given that Charisma’s their casting stat. In that it sucks for all spellcasters given that it makes every roll a potential critical fumble. At low levels many casters won’t bother with damaging cantrips and instead default to that classic stand-by, the crossbow. Or maybe that was the intent all along...Level 10:
The maximum level cap is 10, given that at higher levels PCs have more hit points and ways of cheating death and overall quite different from starting-level play.
I have no strong feelings on this rule one way or another; a level cap is a legitimate choice, and according to D&D Beyond hardly anyone plays 5th Edition past level 10 anyway.XP Classic:
Hearkening back to the TSR era, every class has a different experience progression. The intent is that the more martial classes and rogues can level up faster, while the spellcasters are slower due to the raw and versatile power of magic. But there’s something wrong with this picture:
It’s not just the missing monk, sorcerer, and warlock entries: the table doesn’t follow its own advice! The bard, a highly magical class, advances on par with a Rogue. Meanwhile the Paladin and Ranger advance more or less at the same rate save at 4th level when the Ranger overtakes the Paladin. But then the Paladin comes in the lead at 5th, then back to the Ranger at 6th and then the Paladin again at 7th! And despite having higher-level magic, the Druid advances faster than the Ranger!The Upper Hand:
Albeit a fan of the advantage/disadvantage system, 5e HARDCORE MODE thinks it doesn’t go far enough. Beyond that imposed by proficiency bonuses and ability scores, rolls never receive modifiers. Instead a net positive modifier imposes advantage, while a net negative imposes disadvantage. In the case of sedentary modifiers like to AC, the situation is reversed on the part of the aggressor.
This has so many implications. It makes magic weapons and armor kick some serious ass. That +1 longsword is instead giving you advantage on all attack rolls now!Real Challenge Rating:
Upon realization that CR is relative, HARDCORE MODE came up with an alternative for grading a monster’s threat level. Several of its core abilities are replaced, centered entirely on its CR. AC is 10 + CR; HP is 10 x CR; all of its checks, attack rolls, and saves are D20 + CR. And the Experience yield is 200 x CR. The remaining features, such as spells, special abilities, movement speed and types, etc remain unchanged.
This made me recall a blog series which cracked open 5th Edition’s underlying mathematical frameworks, Song of the Blade. One of the posts had a similar idea in making “improved monster stats” but derived from the capabilities of PCs.
The conclusions in the post came to a far different one than HARDCORE MODE. This product’s solution is way too uniform, and the PCs will soon gain an intuitive sense of a monster’s capabilities from but a single roll of the die; it also removes potential weaknesses for clever PCs to exploit, as a monster’s low ability scores or saving throws are now universally standardized. Ironically this may mean that monsters can become oddly weak or strong at certain rolls, like a lumbering frost giant becoming incredibly nimble or a high-CR Tiny monster being really good at grappling.Monster AI:
Another explicit ode to Dark Souls, the writers figure that making monsters act more like enemies in a video game would help take the hard work off the DM. As opposed to...well, living breathing beings with agency. The DM checks the number of Actions a monster can take in combat, assigns a number to each, and every round rolls an appropriately-sided die to see what action the monster will take regardless of circumstances.
First off, why? What purpose does this serve? Second off, how does this account for monsters with an odd number of actions? Thirdly, there are things such as individual spells (Spellcasting is usually counted as a single Action type), Reactions, and Legendary/Lair actions which the DM still needs to pick. This removes a bit of the element of “totally random” monster behavior.The Environmental Monster:
This isn’t a new rule so much as a suggestion to make traps, extreme weather, and other forces of artifice and nature more common to show that there’s always danger even when not in battle.Hordes:
5th Edition’s bounded accuracy is interesting in that numbers of weaker monsters still have a shot at putting a damper on even high-level PCs, barring some truly high AC results, AoE spells, etc. HARDCORE MODE encourages not pulling punches, but realizes that really big numbers of combatants can get tedious to track. For hordes they attack all at once. An enemy in the horde makes a single attack, +1 on the relevant attack and damage rolls per horde member beyond 1. For players, they attack the horde all at once, the damage is divided by a DM-assigned “constant” and that number of enemies in the horde are felled.
10 damage from a fireball? Divide by 2, 5 ghouls are burned to cinders! Adjust your constant for tougher hordes.
Ironically this is more in line with high fantasy than gritty Soulslike fantasy. Less rolls on the part of monsters means less chances for a critical hit, and less chances for damage dice which will most certainly deal more than +1 damage per NPC. While felling lots of weak monsters is definitely doable in 5e (spellcaster!), this Horde rule makes it easier on the part of PCs even if said horde is guaranteed to hit more often.Verisimilitude:
Another “rule” that’s not really a rule, HARDCORE MODE defines this not so much as creating a believable world so much as staying true to the adventure material and that the DM should not adjust things. The players must adapt with whatever cards are dealt to them.
In HARDCORE MODE, the numbers stand above reproach. It is the players who must adapt, not the content. Players can trust, and even celebrate extreme difficulty because it is openly known what they face. This is the gut feeling of verisimilitude.
I cannot claim to speak for all or even a majority of gamers, but this is not what is usually meant in tabletop circles when verisimilitude is discussed. It is usually in response to the actions of people in a setting, as well as said setting’s rules and assumptions, and to what extent the created worlds and plots reflect this. In some discussions verisimilitude debates to what extent inherently unrealistic worlds should adhere to realism, and when it is appropriate to diverge from said realism.
Hewing to a published adventure and never changing it to suit the needs of a game is...well I don’t know what that is, but it’s not verisimilitude!Zones:
This rule is inspired by an optional rule in Shadow of the Demon Lord.
HARDCORE MODE realizes that 5th Edition is not “theater of the mind friendly” despite all of its pretensions. When combat occurs, the DM sets up appropriate Zones representing notable features sufficiently separate from each other that movement to and from them will take some time. A character can transition between zones as part of an action’s movement, and they can attack anything in their Zone with a melee/touch attack or effect. Opportunity attacks are removed entirely, and different levels of ranged weapons are all consolidated into being able to reach any Zone in an encounter provided the shooter has line of sight. Radius-based effects up to 30’ fill up an entire Zone, while even larger radii of 60’ and greater can affect multiple Zones.
I think this rule is passable. Many ranged spells in 5th Edition are limited to 30-120 feet, and in my personal experience it’s rare for combat encounters to involve battles separated by more than 200 feet. It does have some side effects, such as making short-ranged spells and attacks capable of greater effect. I feel that removing Opportunity Attacks makes them and Reach-based builds and monsters suffer. I’d probably still keep them in whenever someone in melee chooses to move to another Zone without Disengaging. This still allows for such builds to have a useful degree of battlefield control.Agreed Initiative:
HARDCORE MODE isn’t fond of individual modifiers and different people going at different times on both sides of the battle. The players choose the best modifier among their number and roll that for initiative, and the GM does the same for the opposing side. Whoever wins acts first as an entire group, and the losers go after them. But it’s not just individual initiative this rule is suggesting to drop. To make combat even more streamlined and HARDCORE the book suggests getting rid of held actions, bonus actions, reactions, and anything else that can make people act out of turn in the initiative order (bonus action doesn’t do this, but oh well).
While I can understand wanting to simplify initiative, this makes combats even more of an all or nothing affair where an entire group getting the drop on the opposition is guaranteed to take down at least one opponent. Although this is in spirit of things being HARDCORE, the removal of bonus actions and reactions is...bad, really bad, and has effects far beyond initiative. Many spells, class features, and other abilities are reliant upon them: a Barbarian’s Rage, Bardic Inspiration, several of a Monk’s Ki abilities, and a Rogue’s Cunning Action to name a few.
The Darkness & Adventures
This section is in two parts. The first discusses how to make the ambience creepier in line with the danger of HARDCORE MODE, notably scenes of loss and decay. We have two mini-adventures making use of the rules in this book. The first, Jar of Flies, details a creepy seaside village who reluctantly made a pact with an eldritch entity to grant them safety in exchange for imprisoning a little girl to contain said entity’s powers. The second, the Rust Plague, details a wizard’s plot to make all metal decay in a kingdom and return civilization to a prehistoric lifestyle as part of a deal with a stone idol of malevolent intellect. There’s less social and mystery elements here and more a classic wilderness exploration/dungeon crawl.
The adventures are but a few pages each, with two pages detailing lists of Zones and monster stat heavily truncated via the “CR is Everything” rule.
Our book has a conclusion extolling how far the hobby has come and that we have no need to hold onto things which denigrate certain styles of play. The author, Hankerin Ferinale, signs his name at the bottom accompanied by an image of a ship at sea sailing over the horizon.Final Thoughts:
I am sad to admit that I found much more to dislike in this book than like. I have nothing against trying for a more lethal “Killer DM” style of gameplay. What I do take issue with are how many rules in this book betray a lack of understanding of the underlying system and thus raise more issues than they solve. That a few are counterproductive to said “Hardcore” vibe shows that this book could use a second pass.Join us next time as we review Five Torches Deep, an OSR/5e hybrid RPG!