One of the hardest things to achieve in Gamemastery is tone and atmosphere. It’s especially hard when the tone you’re trying to achieve doesn’t mesh properly with the system. It’d be difficult, for example, to run a gritty Call of Cthulu adventure using Savage Worlds due to its explosive and pulpy play. When running systems like 3.5 and Pathfinder, two systems known for powergaming even by accident, it was especially difficult to capture a low-power horror when you can just obliterate everything.
D&D 5th achieves a nice middle ground of adventure, calling to medium-to-high fantasy with ease, but can struggle to hit low-fantasy grit outside of the first four levels.
I believe that tone and atmosphere start with the mechanics and that the Campaign Rules you set at the beginning of the adventure will have an incredibly powerful effect on the game. Here are my proposed set of rules for Curse of Strahd and why you should adopt them.
- HP Average. Players take half HD instead of rolling hp.
- Player Loses OR Defender Wins. Concerning matching AC.
- Quickslot. Players can set 1 item to use as a bonus action.
- Exhaustive Effort. On failure, players can succeed anyways for 1-2 levels of exhaustion.
- For the Watch. During a long rest, 1-2 players only get the benefit of a short rest.
No one likes supremely low HP as it requires you to lower damage totals overall; extraordinarily high HP requires the DM to improve the monsters to match with higher than usual hit dice. When you have a group of players with wildly varying hit points it makes balance difficult to capture. It makes the experience non-diegetic. With average hit dice, it allows finer balance controls.
Normally HP Average makes d8 = 5hp, but for a slightly gritty twist, just lower it a touch, so d6 = 3hp, d10 = 5hp. Lower thresholds to get hurt can create tension as a whole.
Player Loses // Defender Wins
When it comes to AC ties everyone has their own variety, be it attacker or defender wins. While it seems easy to write off, that extra number is a whole 5% probability of success/player.
Defender Wins encourage more defensive and careful play than rushing in blindly. For games that emphasize tactics and allow advantage on flanking, this is critical to success. Player Loses mean that an enemy just has to match the player’s AC, but the player will miss on a match. It creates an environment of even more tension and sometimes tells players that the best way to handle a fight is just to run.
For games I often allow players to set an item in their ‘quickslot’ that they can access as a bonus action. For higher fantasy games there’s anywhere from 2 or 3, but for a gritty game, give them 1. Placing a dagger in a quickslot allows players(in my games) to access two-weapon fighting. Even in gritty games, you need to hold onto hope that you can succeed, and quickslots do just that and rewards players that prepare well.
Another one of my own personal rules, but when a player would otherwise miss or fail a roll, be it an attack roll, an ability check, or saving throw, they can simply just succeed anyways by taking 1-2 levels in Exhaustion. How many levels is up to DM discretion. Exhaustion is a really interesting system that I don’t feel gets used enough in the game. Remember that Long Rests only remove 1 level of Exhaustion, so it practically becomes a resource to manage and weight properly. I often allow resting in towns to remove 2 levels of Exhaustion instead.
By including reward/increased risk systems you once again give hope to these players. Thrillers only work when the viewers believe the main characters actually have a chance. They need to hold onto hope that this game is survivable even when everything seems stacked against them.
For the Watch
As part of taking watch at night, 1-2 players, depending on the size of the group, can only benefit from a Short Rest. As for anyone on watch, they get the benefit of responding first if an encounter occurs, but they won’t be able to reduce Exhaustion as usual. I feel those two systems really synergize here and can really add value to towns/inns where there was none.
For the GM’s running Curse of Strahd out there, I hope this spurred some ideas in you and gave you an idea how to really make the players capture all that Ravenloft has to offer. I see the land as grim-dark, gloomy and gritty, and Strahd, as one of the greatest villains D&D ever had to offer, deserves a good performance.
-Di, signing out