What Do I Know About Reviews? 5e Hardcore Mode (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)

Sometimes, you just want to pick up a product that is all about tinkering with rules and rules assumptions, and that’s where I found myself when I picked up 5e Hardcore Mode from Runehammer Games (producers of the Index Card RPG).

This product was pitched as an option for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition games when your group has started to get set in their ways.

Hardcore Designs

5e Hardcore Mode is a 23-page PDF. Interestingly, um, there isn’t an OGL statement in this product. Maybe that’s an intentional challenge, maybe it’s an omission. Not sure about that.

I really like the formatting of this product. It uses public domain artwork, but there is some nice use of red and black color schemes and stylized sidebars with bold headers, arranged in two column style.

Contents

The product is arranged with the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Heroes
  • The Enemy
  • A GM Style
  • The Darkness

Right off the bat, it is interesting that the assumption that this product is based on is that this product is for a group that has been playing 5e for a while, and that the tactical challenges of 5e aren’t satisfactory anymore. That’s an interesting assumption for me, and it hearkens to a wide range of opinions I have heard about 5e over the years. I know there is a contingent of people that have always felt that 5e was more forgiving than other editions. This hasn’t been my experience, but at the same time, I’m not arguing one way or the other, just framing that some of this product’s assumptions may not be speaking to me.

There is a summary page that also serves as a handout for players that are going to adopt “Hardcore Mode,” that shows the rules that are being introduced in this book.

Heroes

This section details how Hardcore Mode modifies player characters. The assumption here is that you will be using 3d6 in order for ability scores, rolling for hit points with no constitution bonus, that non-proficiency rolls will not only not receive a proficiency bonus, but also won’t receive an ability score bonus.

It also introduces the injured condition, and the assumptions surrounding death, which include only making a single death save, and introducing the idea that even if your PC is at zero and makes their death save, if they don’t get up to 1 or more hit points after three rounds, they die.

Hardcore Mode also includes the concept of a candle that creates a fixed point in time, so long as it keeps burning, which allows a group to start over at that spot, even if they all get wiped out. Because it’s a fixed point in time, everything will unfold the way it would otherwise have unfolded, with the only variable being the player’s actions. It’s literally a save point.

There are alternate spellcasting rules that introduce (reintroduce?) the concept that you only get X number of slots per level when you get a new level of spells, and also introduces an optional rule that requires an ability check to cast any spell, with an accompanying mercurial magic table. It also suggests that in order to keep spellcasters from taking too long in play, all spells can only be cast at their native level, which at least to me, really guts the flexibility of 5e spellcasting, and speaks to an issue I haven’t seen in play often (I’ve seen players not know what spell to cast, but not what level to cast that spell at).

There is a section discussion using advantage and disadvantage to model “the upper hand,” which is essentially a way of modeling a whole range of circumstances that might favor one side of the conflict over another. The group might always be rolling with advantage because they have “the upper hand” because they brought a lot of hirelings with them, rather than keeping track of those hirelings, as an example.

Finally, do you miss older editions variable experience points for different classes to level? This introduces a chart that reintroduces this concept, up to 10th level (which is the cap of Hardcore Mode play).

So, that’s a lot to jump into. I think, overall, what is weird to me with all of this is how much of it is bolting on the assumptions from previous editions of D&D rather than tinkering with the framework of 5e itself. I’ll be honest, I’d be a bigger fan of lowering the points to buy ability scores, raising the DC of death saves, and changing options and assumptions that already exist in the game. Given how much this section harkens back to previous editions, this feels less like keeping 5e fresh, and more that it’s making 5e into another edition because it was never a good fit for the table.

The variable XP by class is a good example of this. First, it skips warlocks and sorcerers, because they didn’t exist when variable XP by class was a thing. Second, it’s running with assumptions that aren’t in evidence in the game any longer. Bards are full casters now, but progress faster than any other full casters. Rangers and paladins need more XP than fighters and barbarians, I guess because eventually they get spells? But if that’s the case, what about a fighter that takes the eldritch knight subclass? Other than saying “remember when this was a thing,” I’m not really sure what the logic is on this particular rules module.

Probably the most intriguing bit, to me, is the introduction of the “save point” candle. It is definitely a video game concession, but the flavor bits around it remind me specifically of a Dark Souls style game, and it also introduces the nasty concept of what might happen if you find another adventurer’s candle left burning in an area. I may need to play with this concept a bit.

I really like the simplified concept of injuries versus the more granular, possibly more narrative version in the Dungeon Master’s guide. I’m not sure I would have it trigger at the same point the text suggests, but instead using it in conjunction with critical hits or dropping to zero hit points.

The Enemy

This section introduces the concept that all monsters of a given challenge rating should have set AC, hit points, and bonuses. It also introduces an alternate XP value based directly on CR rather than relative encounter difficulty.

There is a section on randomizing monster AI for their abilities, the environment as an enemy, and how to simulate hordes of monsters using the CR based stats introduced in this section.

I’m not sure I’m on board with overriding an existing monster’s stats with this new assumption, but I do really like the idea of having an even quicker means of generating generic monster stats than looking up the assumption by level table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, although this method doesn’t really address damage assumptions by level.

I’m also interested to see how well this method of creating a horde holds up to actual play. It’s a pretty simple trick, but I’m also not sure how well it plays with the actual math of the system (+1 on checks, and +1 on damage for each additional version of the monster in the horde). It does have the same limitation that mobs in the Genesys system have, i.e. if the base monster doesn’t have multi-attack, apparently everyone in the horde is attacking the same person.

A GM Style

This section introduces rules for movement, zones, and “agreed initiative.”

Movement is not entirely unlike 13th Age’s means of tracking movement, with characters either here or there (as opposed to 13th Age’s near or far). Zones adopt the concept from Fate that different immediate areas are just zones where a character can move to that might have a different descriptive bent to them.

The movement and zone section also assumes you are going to be doing away with opportunity attacks and counting everything in an area as being in range. There isn’t any discussion of how all of this interacts with area of effect (although the Dungeon Master’s Guide does have a section on just this sort of thing).

Agreed Initiative is another way of saying “side-based initiative,” with all of PCs going in whatever order they wish on their turn, and all the DM’s characters going in whatever order they wish on their turn. There is a brief mention of the PCs using their initiative bonus, but it’s never explicitly stated who gets to add what to this roll. My assumption would be that each side is using their most advantageous roll. This section mentions that this initiative system will cut down on held actions, reactions, and bonus actions slowing down play, but it really only eliminates held actions, unless the implication is to disallow reactions and bonus actions as part of this procedure as well.

This section is meant to be a means of streamlining the game, but it still feels like there are some bits that could use some more explanation. Do monks that end up with double the movement speed of other PCs just not get any benefit from that ability? If you do away with reactions, do all the class abilities that rely on those just not function? Is any of this meant to interact with rules that halve your movement rate, like standing up from prone? I get that this is meant to streamline combat, but it almost feels too streamlined at this point.

I am a huge fan of using zones to emulate areas, and the example areas they give in the zones section are fun and evocative, using just a few bullet points. I like the quick and dirty estimation that a zone is 30’ x 30’, but after introducing this concept, that useful shorthand isn’t utilized.

The Darkness

Outside of the conclusion, the final section of this product is the The Darkness, a section that describes the feel that this set of rules is trying to convey. Remember when I thought the candle reminded me of Dark Souls? While it’s not explicitly stated, a lot of what this section describes seems to be going for that Dark Souls vibe.

In addition to describing the feel that these rules seek to emulate, there are four paragraph long summaries of adventures to convey the feeling of a game using these rules. Three out of four of these seem to involve the undead (and four might, depending on how you interpret the predator described).

We Have the Upper Hand!

This product looks great and is very easy to follow. There are a ton of ideas presented that get you thinking about what levers you can pull and what dials you can turn in a D&D 5e game in order to produce different results. I love ideas like the save point candle, zones, and CR benchmarked monsters.

We Lost the Upper Hand!

Some of these ideas feel like they need just a little bit more added to them to really make them go from conceptual to fully implemented. A lot of them feel like they are fighting against the established system of 5e, instead of working within it to achieve very similar results. In some cases, I wish there had been more discussion of what a rules element was seeking to achieve, beyond just making things more difficult. That’s not meant as a jab, I was just intrigued enough by some of the concepts that I wanted more on the thought process behind them.

Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

There are a lot of evocative ideas in this book, but many of them feel like they need just a little nudge, a little more fleshing out to make them feel like they are playing with the 5e rules, instead of fighting against them. If you want to get some ideas for where to tinker with the rules, it’s a fun product, but I’m not sure it’s a great candidate for 1 to 1 adoption in a game.
What I am thinking is that these options, coupled with something like the streamlined rules in something like Five Torches Deep, may make for a more satisfying synergy.

2 comments

  • Enjoyed reading your review. Personally, I liked the rules a lot. I can see your point about them not really being 5e anymore, but that depends on what you consider to be the most central aspects of 5e. An alternative position would be that what sets 5e apart from other D&Ds is:1 skills and attack rolls with bounded accuracy2 dis/advantageboth of which are retained. As for the OGL, I think it is very much on purpose. Unless one is explicitly interested in being part of the WotC ecosystem (like DM Guild), it doesn't really add anything to a product.

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  • It had a 7 page preview on DriveThru which is nice and it was cheap. I'll be giving it a run but obviously not too many pampered millennial gamers will. A one page addendum covering sub-classes and cantrips would be idea. Also under Theme in the introduction it claims to include 2 adventures to get you started but actually has 4 adventure ideas, probably a rush to press error due to his cross continental migration.

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