In an article over at a place gracious enough to let me write drivel for them on a weekly basis, there was some discussion of the monk in D&D 5e. One of the more frustrating points of the class – from a DM perspective – is the crowd-control (hitherto known as CC) potential of the class. Stunning Strike is a monk ability that allows the monk to spend 1 ki – a class resource that is equal to the character’s monk level and regenerates on short or long rest – after hitting with a melee attack to force the creature hit to make a Constitution saving throw or become Stunned until the end of the monk’s next turn. The monk can continue to spend ki with each successful attack – which is easier to confirm, as you have advantage on attack rolls against a Stunned creature. This is surefire way to run out of ki in a hurry, but it’s an on-demand, potent CC effect with very little in the way of opportunity or resource cost. Compounding this, if the monk is a Way of the Open Hand disciple – one of the monk archetypes – the monk can force a Dexterity saving throw whenever the monk hits with an attack from Flurry of Blows, knocking the target prone on a failed save. Flurry of Blows costs 1 ki, and grants two attacks as a bonus action. This means if both attacks hit, the DM has to make two saving throws. This is an awful lot of CC – of both the hard and soft variety.
This is particularly problematic when you are attempting to run an encounter with a single creature. A string of failed saves in a row and the players will feel no pressure, and the creature is going to be dead. Sure, the creature might have Legendary Resistance, but that trait is typically capped at three uses. A monk might force you to make 3-4 saves in a single round. This isn’t really meant to single out the monk, but rather highlight the issue on persistent, on-demand CC that is readily available in D&D 5e – and has been across most other editions. After all, a high-level cleric is forcing an awful lot of creatures to make saves or become Paralyzed when it’s dropping hold person or hold monster spells like the Bad News Bears. Paralyze is even worse than Stunned for the creature. Them auto-crits, son. Still, at least it’s generally once per turn. That’s a small consolation, but it’s something. If there is a monk, cleric, and wizard…oh boy. Let’s not even think what happens when you expand the group size to say, five or six and throw bard and sorcerer into the mix. The point is, the CC chains and pressure are very, very real.
Traditional Models of Diminishing Returns
This is hardly a new issue – and not one just found in D&D. Video games have been solving for CC chains for just about as long as they have been around – particularly in competitive multiplayer environments. Being stun-locked by a rogue for 12 seconds while you get absolutely obliterated isn’t compelling or fun game play.
Diminishing returns – hitherto known as DR – should apply across categories of conditions. CC can be separated into two basic categories – hard and soft. Hard CC are conditions like incapacitated, stunned, paralyzed, etc. Soft CC would be grappled, blinded, frightened, etc. Each of the following would be traits available for creatures. They could even be extended to players via items, features, archetypes, etc. They could also just be flat rules for everything. There is flexibility here, and only you know what is right for your game and players. It also stands to mention that of course the easiest options are to just have more creatures, give the solo creatures immunities, or give the environment cleansing effects. These are just alternatives.
Typically, this is handled through each CC effect being subsequently shorter than the last until you become immune – known as DR. The first lasts for 100% of the duration, the second lasts for 50% of the duration, the third lasts for 25% of the duration, and you become immune if targeted with a 4th. There is a window on this immunity and reduction, and it resets after that window ends. In D&D, this model isn’t readily applicable. CC generally lasts for one of three durations: until the end of the attacker’s next turn, until you save successfully, or for 1+ minutes. You could step the duration down a tier – 1+ minutes becomes until you save, until you save becomes end of your next turn, end of your next turn would step down to not being effective. This is a sharp decline in utility and efficacy, to say the least. This isn’t the worst thing in the world to track for a DM – you’d essentially just have CC levels for everything – but it’s hardly lightweight. It’s more boxes to fill in or empty – and that’s a lot of record keeping, no doubt. For a lot of people, this would just absolutely be the wrong option.
Flat Diminishing Returns
Another model applied is after being CC’d you can’t be CC’d again for a set duration. This is instant-DR, though the immunity window is generally less substantial than that of the previous model. Given the round-based nature of D&D combat, an option like this is a much more plug and play. If a creature is stunned and becomes no longer stunned, it is immune to being stunned until the end of it’s next turn. This has the advantage of being straight forward in it’s presentation. That thing was just stunned, that means we can’t stun it yet.
From a DM perspective, I would call it substantially less heavy to track than the previous model. I am not positive it could be referred to as lightweight if there are multiple creatures in a combat that have this trait. It would be a rotating on-off model that would be similar to the 4e combat tracking that was needed – and is still needed to a lesser degree in 5e. Still, the clarity in communication of a binary outcome is nice. It’s clear when they are CC’d and when they are immune. It’s just a lot of back and forth and the general table discussion therein. You know, “wait, are they immune this turn or not?” It’s not the biggest of deals, mind you.
A variant of this option is to lower the DC of any CC each time it is used. Whenever a stun is used, the DC of the next stun to hit the creature is lowered by 1 (or 2 or whatever is appropriate, hell, creatures could have a value.) This isn’t easier or harder than the duration reduction, simply a different way to track something to more or less the same results. Instead of protecting you instantly, it protects gradually and consistently throughout the combat. As with anything, if you have a lot of creatures with this, it gets tricky to track.
Alright, so this one is actually one of my favorite PvE mechanics in a video game of all time. Guild Wars 2 – and probably other games, but this was my first experience with it – implemented a mechanic that was a risk vs. reward mechanic. Bosses had a bar that decreased every time a hard CC was applied to them. While the bar was still active, the bosses were immune. However, when the bar was broken, the boss took extra damage or instant damage or were CC’d AND took extra damage. In most cases, this presents a burst window for players to act – with the bar recharging after that time. Sometimes the bar is permanently broken instead, and sometimes the bar continues to recharge before it is expended – forcing players to co-ordinate. This might not seem all that appealing, but a few characters sacrificing a turn or two across several rounds to force the creature to become CC’d AND have vulnerability? That’s quite worth it.
While this is quite obviously more tracking effort than Flat DR, it is probably on par with – or is easier than – Percentage-Based DR. It’s easier in that it includes no stepping down of effects, and you’d be tracking against a set number rather than applying the methodology separately to effects based on duration – which might actually change depending on source etc. It’s more difficult in that it requires a bit more front-end leg work in establishing a base value for the bar, and how the various effects interact with it. From a flexibility perspective, it allows each creature with the trait to behave slightly uniquely in a way that keeps the overall purpose of the trait, but can be tailored to the individual. A dragon might take extra damage from a broken bar, but a Fey Knight might get stunned, knocked prone, and take extra damage. The idea that this is a trait that has strong, flexible theme capabilities is important – to me, at any rate.
Break Bar – Values
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome would be to assign values to the respective CCs. The most straight forward method would be one point per spell slot expended – features that allow a spell to be cast count as the level of the spell slot as stated in the feature – and one point for non-spells. This would allow casters to have a bigger impact, while classes and archetypes that have built-in CC features would still get value from them. The non-spell CC might need to be tweaked to two instead of one – I haven’t done extensive testing on the numbers and system at this juncture.
The values for the bars need to take three things into account:
- Is the bar perma-break or breaks and then regenerates?
- Does the bar regenerate while unbroken?
- What is the challenge you are trying to convey?
In general, perma-break bars can be of a higher value because it’s one and done. One that breaks and then regenerates should be lower – taking into account how long the down time is, and the lowest should be the one that regenerates while not broken – after all, the value is actually higher over time. The base value for all of these can be taken from the challenge rating, and then further modified by what type of encounter you are trying to run. Some modifiers would be:
- For every five challenge levels, reduce the break bar value by one for the “breaks and regenerates” bars
- Reduce this value by two if the bar regenerates while unbroken
- For easy encounters, cut the value of the challenge in half to determine the bar.
- For hard encounters, add an additional half of the challenge value to the bar value.
- For bars that regenerate while unbroken, the value of the regeneration is 1d6 per round, but drops to 1d4 for easy encounters and increases 1d8 for hard encounters.
- For solo encounters, add an additional one to the value per player.
Let’s look at the values of Erru, the Great Phoenix.
The base challenge for the encounter is 14. This is meant to be a difficult encounter, setting the value at hard. It is likely to fill the niche of a dragon, and be run as a solo encounter. Erru is likely to have a bar that breaks and regenerates, due to the fact Erru is a phoenix. The bar value would look something like:
- 14 (challenge level) – 3 (1 per 5 challenge levels) + 7 (hard) + 5 (# of players)
That would place the final break bar value at 23. That sounds high, but that’s only 2-3 rounds of co-ordination to trigger the break effect, really. At challenge 14, players will have 6-7th level spells, after all. So that isn’t too bad, in my opinion.
Break Bars – Broken Bars
Bars that regenerate should regenerate to full on initiative 1 after a set number of rounds without it. This should generally be either at the end of the next round or after 1d4 rounds. The effect while broken should determine how fast it regenerates. If it allows CC immunity to be broken, then the end of the next turn is totally fine – allowing for the fact that the bar does not regenerate while CC’d. If it’s vulnerability, having a random number determined is fine. If it’s a combination, the end of the next turn is again fine. This is less science than feel, but these two options are good starting points.
As for effects while broken, I outlined several earlier in the discussion, but can reiterate some of them here:
- Can now be CC’d
- Gains vulnerability (against everything or some specific)
- Loses immunities or resistances
- Can’t use certain abilities any more
This is far from an exhaustive list, of course.
Communicating the Mechanic
As with anything, it’s up to the DM to communicate the relevant information and mechanics to the players. This seems obvious, but the more description and information you can provide the players, the better. For example, the break bar can be communicated as a color spectrum via the rainbow, where violet is full strength and red is about to break. If the bar regenerates, the rainbow could flicker, where it doesn’t normally. There are a lot of options on how to convey the information, but players need to understand the basics of the mechanics to make informed decisions. Expending a 5th level slot to take off five points from a bar is a big deal. That’s a lot of potential damage or utility missed, after all. However, the vulnerability across two rounds is probably more than enough to make up for it. If the bar is close to breaking – and that information is readily available to players – it makes that decision a lot easier. It’s up to the DM to make it work.