I spent a couple of days working on a couple of posts following on from the below, then realised I could answer what I wanted with more or less one line – bring back skill challenges and hexcrawls. I tweeted about it, but here’s a bit more of my thinking about everything. I tried to pull stuff together from those different psts, so let’s see if this turns into a mish-mash or reads clearly.
After listening to the WebDM podcast on Game Structures (unlocked from their Patreon and now free to listen), I had a few ideas for different structures in 5e that could use some more tweaking.
The basic premise of the podcast is that, if D&D is a game made up of combat, social interaction and exploration, then why are the structures outside of combat either lacking or generally structured in a similar way? The death of the dungeon turn and the hex crawl from earlier editions were examples of the lost exploration mechanics that could be, and a comparison with the feasting mechanics of Pendragon didn’t leave D&D in a favourable light.
There’s a really quick way to fix these things, and it’s bringing back things from older editions that stood out as examples of mechanics for exploration and social interaction that aren’t just reskinning of combat, or a simple skill roll.
From 4e, we pull back skill challenges, and from 1e we bring back hexcrawls (and the dungeon turn, if you’re so inclined. I’m not, really).
I can’t be the only person thinking this way. Just this month, the Alexandrian ran a post about hexcrawls in 5e, and skill challenges have been a thing for years, with this post from Critical Hits, not to mention plenty of products on DMsGuild (and I can thoroughly recommend Challenge Accepted and its sequel).
So, what’s the big pull for these things?
Well, with the skill challenge, instead of the simple one-off pass/fail roll for some skill checks, we get the entire party of adventurers involved. Yes, the wizard might be terrible at physical challenges like Athletics rolls to climb cliffs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use their raw Intelligence to help in a methodical planning way, or use their familiar and some clever Investigation checks to find useful handholds.
Since the check is for an entire group, the target difficulty goes upwards, but with everyone pulling their weight and thinking about different ways to solve problems, the players move further into their character roles and it puts group cohesion into the mechanics.
Let’s think of the social interaction example I wanted to put more emphasis on. The group is at a party, and needs to make a series of rolls not only to avoid embarrassing themselves but also ingratiate themselves with the hosts. But the barbarian took Charisma as a dump stat, so what do we do here to make sure everyone has their time to shine? Using Intimidation to ensure private conversations remain private, or their knowledge of Animal Handling to speak on the topic of falconry, they’re not the dud of the party. If they took Totem of the Bear, maybe they can even help out the bard and the rogue with their tumbling act by lifting them high into the air!
As for hexcrawls, as the Alexandrian points out, the rules for exploration in 5e are hit and miss, contradictory across different books, and generally lacking when collected together. Plus, they’re actually in use for all kinds of things currently, from West Marches-style games to the Tomb of Annihilation itself.
I was probably introduced to it properly when I played the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder almost a decade ago. I’d built a lot of maps back in the days of 2e but never really used them (as an extremely green DM at the time!) so travelling across and interacting with a real, useful map was a joy.
Bringing back a well-regarded rule for exploration, even as an option for travel, was a strange omission for a game claiming it took the best from all previous editions, and the fact they can’t keep exploration rules consistent in the last few years isn’t great.
I’m not going in to the dungeon turn right now, since I have no experience of it or much of a desire to use it. I like to keep dungeon action fast-paced, rather than crawling in search of traps with a ten-foot pole and mapping a complex, but I can see the appeal for some people, and a couple of ways the rules could be used with hexcrawls too.
Are there any other rules I should be going back to?