Edit: Formatting, rewording.
I tried to provide a detailed review for those of you looking to purchase this book. I hope you find the write-up useful.
I've enjoyed Drunken n Dragons videos for many years. I've found some of the ideas to be truly great and and inspirational.
This book is a collection of ideas, many of which have been adopted from older versions of D&D, other systems, or video games. Overall, however, I'm quite disappointed with this product. It's an incoherent mess of ideas, many of which are contradictory and not well thought out. I'm shocked any DM worth their salt would give this a five star rating. There are many far more coherent systems that are superior in writing, content, thoroughness and production quality. It's also missing content. The document states there are 2 adventures included on page 19. There are none.
I'm fairly well-convinced this collection of ideas have either never been fully play-tested, or at the least playtested very little.
At the core if it I'm finding difficulty identifying what the core tenets of hardcore mode are.
As near as I can tell, it's these:
- Be fair, but merciless
- Be a Friend of Death
- Prize Intensity over Detail.
I think this is what is meant by those tenets:
- Once rolled, the dice are the final arbitrators of outcome.
- To adventure is to flirt with death at every turn.
- Focus on generating emotion over explicit description.
The first tenet is logical, as 5e includes many mechanics that strongly influence the outcome of dice rolls. So it stands to reason that house rules which favor a simple, unfavored probabilistic outcome would be more "HARDCORE" than not.
The second tenet is also logical, as 5e contains mechanics that are extremely forgiving with regards to character death. Like the prior, rules which no longer favor character survival would be more "HARDCORE" than not.
The last, however, is very system agnostic. I'm not sure what this has to do with D&D 5e specifically.
This document then outlines a "cheat sheet" of what the elements are in HARDCORE MODE. Though in truth, it is less of a cheat sheet and more of an outline for the subsequent sections. Each topic is somewhat varied in scope, breadth and technical depth. It feels almost more like a combination of GMing tips and house rules, which gives the document an inconsistent feel.
I've listed the outline below:
- 3d6 Attributes - Roll 3d6, in order, for stats
- Pure Hit Dice - Always roll for HP
- Simple Skills - Roll 1d20 unless you are proficient at something
- Injured - A new character state that imposes penalties on the character.
- Death - A simplified, harsher set of rules governing death.
- Zymer's Candle - A magical item that acts like a save point in a video game.
- Spells by Level - An adaptation of Dungeon Craw Classics spell system where spell slots are removed.
- Roll to Cast - An adaptation of Dungeon Craw Classics spell system where spell attacks are rolled on a d20.
- Level 10 - Capping level at 10. This is a throwback to Basic D&D and similar clones.
- XP Classic - Varying XP levels to address the inconsistencies of power levels across classes in 5e.
- The Upper Hand - Basically a DM fiat where he declares everyone to be rolling with advantage.
- Modded Monsters - A mechanic which computes a monster's stats based upon it's Challenge Rating, a small set of tips on creating "monster AI", environmental hazards, and groups of monsters.
- GM Style - An encouragement for verisimilitude, abolishing ranges in favor of "here" or "there" locations, rolling initiative
- Zones - Deconstructing areas into zones (This is also listed as part of GM Style, so I'm not sure why it's in the overview)
- Theme - Renamed as "The Darkness" in the later part of the book, talks about making your game dark and intense, and also includes 2 adventures.
My first, biggest gripe is that this clearly has never seen a pass by an editor. And it desperately needs one. The fact that the document claims there are 2 adventures in this pdf and there are 0 is an egregious error. That alone makes this document not fit for publishing. The last 3 sections are sort of jumbled and aren't consistent in title with the overview (aka "cheat sheet") in the document. This would have greatly benefitted from a traditional table of contents.
Second, these rules don't really accomplish the overall desired effect. Some of the rules do. Yet there are many mechanics in 5e that have a significant impact on game 5e difficulty that are not addressed in this document. Not coincidentally, all the mechanics which this document does not address (but I many believe are necessary for a more HARDCORE game) have to deal with reducing the power levels of player characters. I believe this was an intentional omission to avoid upsetting players/buyers. For example, characters with perfect recollection, rangers who can never get lost, or always being able to find food and potable water. Addressing these mechanics are critical to increasing the challenge and verisimilitude of the game. Leaving this out reduces value in the product.
Another, seemingly minor (but major in my eyes) point - the author has the word VERISIMILITUDE at the top of a page, and suggests the ideal of VERISIMILITUDE is to stay true to the adventure material, even if it proves difficult or impossible for players. That's not verisimilitude - that's just being inflexible. Adventure material is, by its very nature, a detailed guideline that every DM must adapt to his table. The imperative of the DM is not to be true to the adventure material, but the world. To quote E. Gary Gygax, "It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written...if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. ...you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter..." Adventure material is insignificant compared to ensuring the consistency and realism of your world. Verisimilitude is presenting a world that your players feel so invested in that they believe it to be true; or at the very least, also wish it to be true. This is not a matter of opinion; it is in inexorable truth regarding role playing games.
Third, these rules are inconsistent, contradictory and sometimes incorrect with regards to achieving the desired tenets. Let's review each section and talk about whether or not it is aligned with what I think is meant by HARDCORE MODE as well as the merit of the idea itself.
3d6 Attributes - This is what was done in original D&D. Fine.
Pure Hit Dice - This is what was done in original D&D. Fine.
Simple Skills - Somewhat fine. It helps differentiate those skilled from the unskilled. However, there still remains an amount of variability in the outcome that a seasoned DM may not care for. Better options exist such as 3d6/4d6 under your stat, d20 unders stat, Castles & Crusades SIEGE engine rules, or a simple x:6 chance.
Injured - OK-ish, but they make no practical sense. You become injured and now suddenly you lose your proficiency in WISDOM checks? That just comes across as arbitrary, and certainly cuts across the grain of what HP are intended to be, which is an abstraction of your ability to fight, not think.
Death - This is fine. It's a slight variant on older editions of D&D.
Zymer's Candle - This is literally the antithesis of HARDCORE D&D. Giving players a video game "save/restore" point adds unnecessary complexity, is easily abusable, makes things easier and completely destroys any semblance of verisimilitude.
Spells by Level - This by itself does nothing to achieve the goals of HARDCORE MODE.
Roll to Cast - This makes the game more gonzo in style, and makes magic potentially more dangerous to cast. However, a LOT of consideration should be taken for each spell prior to implementing this rule. As-is, I guarantee this rule will cause more grief at the table than do good. (note: and I'm a huge fan of DCC-style spell slinging).
Level 10 - This is fine.
XP Classic - This idea is excellent, and has been used traditionally in older revisions of D&D to improve class balance. However, the tables here are simply wrong. 5e tried to unify the leveling system which would imply there would be a power curve that's somewhat uniform and independent from class. The truth is that 5e completely failed to achieve this. Adjusting XP per class is a great fix. However, the solution here was not thought out, and creates are worse imbalance than before. A proper solution would be to change the XP levels per subclass. DON'T USE THESE TABLES.
The Upper Hand - This is fine.
Modded Monsters - This does nothing to achieve the goals of HARDCORE MODE. Additionally, it's a really, really bad idea to create monsters this way. The "Challenge Rating" system was a number created to characterize creatures, not a number used to create creatures. The idea of using a simple formula to create a creature has been around for ages, but this is NOT IT. Tables already exist for monster stats based upon HD. Use those. Or use an approach like this one here: (https://www.reddit.com/r/DnDO5R/comments/f6q3kl/my_take_on_onedigit_monster_stats/). In short, DONT use CR. Throw CR out the back door, shoot it twice, urinate on it, bury it, salt the grave and put a conrete patio over it. If you want a simple technique for quickly making monsters, use HD. It's a method that's been playtested for 40 years and proven to work well.
GM Style - This will help inject emotion into the game. However, the ideas here will require you to do so much work that it isn't worth it. It leads by telling you to get rid of bonus actions. While it's a good idea at heart, it's REALLY, REALLY difficult to do well in 5e. It also tells you to roll group initiative, similar to what has been done in older editions of D&D. However, it's a little unclear how to do this (though it's easy to come up with an answer). Furthermore, it says to let players roll with modifiers while the GM does not. That flies in the face of one of the presumed tenets of HARDCORE MODE: Be fair, but merciless.
Zones - I don't see how this helps achieve the game's intents.
Theme - Even though the books claims it "contains two adventures to start you (sic) HARDCORE journey", there are only 4 ideas of what could be adventures.
All the good ideas in this booklet are not original and are simply adaptations from previous versions of D&D, or slightly adjusted. The ideas that are new, are nearly all unequivocally bad ideas and I don't recommend you try them in 5e. There was no editing pass and no pass for grammar. It was a "hit F7 and call it done". Content: 1 star.
The art is good, though, so I'll give it an additional star for that. But it's not not worth the $3.50.