Why mod D&D 5e, isn’t is perfect already?

A lot of people get frustrated with high level D&D and tend to avoid it altogether. Typically there’s 3 reasons for this:

1. Combat is too slow; a turn takes too long.

2. Combat doesn’t feel heroic or epic; high level monsters like Giants and Dragons become just another encounter.

3. Encounter planning requires a substantial amount of prep time from the DM because encounters are often defeated or circumvented by a single ability.

On this page we’re going to walk through the design of a simple, but thorough mod to the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition base games that addresses all these issues. If you’re not interested in the theory behind the design of the mod, skip down to the TLDR section.

High level D&D, it’s sort of like this but slow and less exciting

Goals and theory of modding D&D 5e

I found high level D&D to be a bit of slog. Somewhere between the 20+minute turns and the seemingly never ending combats the feeling of Epic Deeds and Heroic Actions was lost.

Fortunately, many others felt the same way and so the E6 mod for D&D 3.5 was born. This was one of the most popular system mods for D&D 3.5 and I encourage any budding modder to read over it.

Inspired by this mod I set out to modify D&D5e with the goals of:

1. Make combat quicker. This requires:

  a) lower HP caps

  b) less player decision paralysis 

2. Make fighting legendary/epic/truly monstrous foes feel epic. This means that encountering these creatures is:

  a) deadly

  b) not routine

3. Reduce encounter planning time. This means:

  a) DMs can use smaller encounters

  b) DMs do not need hyper-aware monsters that have planned for every contigency

Choosing a cutoff point

At what level high level play begins is a bit contentious. Some say 10, others 6, some even say 12, or 14. The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

The following rules can start at any level you choose, just pick the level that feels right for you and set it as the target level. In this example we’ll be using a target level of 6, in other words, playing the 5eHeroic6 mod.

Capping HP

Capping HP forces encounters to be both short and deadly: either one side runs out of HP first or the other side runs out. We first have to pick a ‘final’ level after which characters will no longer gain HP.

I defined my starting point by deciding on two monsters that I wanted to always be memorable encounters: Beholders and Storm Giants, both CR 13.

Looking at the Beholder, it shoots 3 eye rays per turn. Each of these can have a nasty effect, but the death ray will outright kill a low-HP enemy with its whopping 55 (10d10) damage. 

The Storm Giant on the other hand can make two attacks in a round dealing 30 (6d6+9) damage per hit (60/round).

To keep these as epic battles and not Just Another Encounter they need to be deadly. Two rounds alone with either of these monsters should spell almost certain doom for any single character. Therefore we need HP to cap out around 60.

How encountering a giant should feel.

A fighter gains 10 +CON HP at level one and 6+CON every level after that. With a +3 CON we’re looking at the following:

level 6: 58 HP

level 8: 76 HP

level 10: 94 HP

I chose level 6 after considering that with buffs, healing, and class abilities a front-line fighter will consistently stay up for two or three rounds when fighting either of these monsters and potentially much longer.

Rule 1: After characters reach the target level (6) leveling up no longer increases their maximum HitPoints . Characters continue to gain HitDice as normal.

This has the benefit of gradually reducing characters dependence on magical healing over time, making it trivial to full heal while resting when they are high level.

Removing Decision Paralysis

Players with too many options, even players who are not optimizers, are often overwhelmed when they have too many possibilities during their turn. While the player agonizes over their next course of action, the game grinds to a halt.

To remove the decision paralysis and to keep high level monsters from being “one-shot, walk-over” encounters, it’s important to limit spell progression.

Rule 2: Characters can no longer learn, memorize, or prepare spells above the target spell level (3rd level). 

You should adjust the target spell based on target level i.e. if target level is 8 then the target spell level is 4th level, if target level is 10, then the target spell level is 5th level.

Keep Caster Progression Rewarding

It’s important to note that characters still gain class features, can learn/prepare new spells, and gain spell slots which allow them to upcast spells. However, this rule by itself would make casters frightfully dull to play and make leveling a caster a non-event. Hence the third rule:

Rule 3: When a character would normally gain a new spell above the target spell level (3rd level) i.e. at Wizard or Sorc level 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, or 17. They instead gain a Magus Arcanum.

When a character gains a Magus Arcanum they can choose any spell of any level they would normally learn i.e. a 4th level wizard spell at wizard level 7, a 5th level sorcerer spell at sorcerer level 9, etc… The character learns that spell as a Magus Arcanum.

A Magus Arcanum is cast as a normal spell except that it may only be cast once and it does not use a spell slot; for scaling effects it is treated as being cast at the lowest spell level. All uses of all Magus Arcanums are regained at the end of a long rest.

Now single class casters are rewarded with signature spells via Magus Arcanum, but are not able to spam these spells and negate multiple encounters per day. The DM no longer needs monsters that plan for every contingency because high level magic is now rare and non-spammable.

Reduce Encounter Planning Times – Adjusting CR

One of the immediate benefits of using this method is that DMs can run high level encounters with fewer monsters. The side benefit is that there’s a very easy way to calculate the difficultly of an 5eHeroic encounter.

That confident stride – he’s either really epic, very well prepared, or soon to be very dead.

Up until the level limit (6) encounters are calculated exactly the same for CRs up to the character level. For the level following the level limit, add 1 to the CR of any encounter.

After characters are two or more levels past the target level, take the monster’s CR and add the corresponding proficiency bonus that a character of level equal to the CR would have minus 2 i.e. +2 at level 9, +3 at level 13, +4 at level 17.

TLDR

Rule 1: After characters reach the target level (6) leveling up no longer increases their maximum HitPoints . Characters continue to gain HitDice as normal.

Rule 2: Characters can no longer learn, memorize, or prepare spells above the target spell level (3rd level). Characters continue to gain spells known. Characters continue to gain spell slots above the target spell level.

Rule 3: When a character would normally gain a new spell above the target spell level (3rd level) i.e. at Wizard or Sorc level 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, or 17. They instead gain a Magus Arcanum.

Other than the 3 rules above, characters gain XP and level as normal.

The 5eHeroic mod keeps the game feeling heroic and fun by making combat short, fast, and deadly.

When characters encounter high level monsters it is never just a level appropriate encounter, but a deadly encounter requiring planning, prep, and a good reason. Defeating a Dragon, Beholder, MindFlayer, Aboleth, or Giant feels epic and becomes memorable again.

Meanwhile the DM can reduce encounter size to speed up combat, spend less time crafting mundane encounters, and spend more time focusing on the world and plot for the players.

Final Thoughts

This mod is not for everyone. If you find yourself growing red in the face at the thought of being able to cast disintegrate of teleport only once per long rest, then you will not enjoy this mod.

If you like the idea of a giant, a lich, or a dragon being an epic encounter that cannot be won without a lot of preparation and sacrifice; if you dislike the idea of cleaving through giants on your way to the grocery store, then this mod is for you.