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Death in 5th Edition D&D has always been a bit of a sore point for me. I truly enjoy the precarious nature of death saving throws and love the bit of dramatics that can be forged in those times. Where it falls apart for me has been in the time leading up to the death saves. There is a concept that I call the “Consciousness Yo-Yo” that comes into play when a character gets to zero hit points (HP). Further compounding the issue is the stripping of character agency during, what I think, should be a monumental moment for the campaign. I’m never one to be content with what I’m offered, so I took to homebrewing a replacement that Fernando and I are elated to share with you.
Defining the Issues
The Consciousness Yo-Yo is a situation where there is enough healing present in the party between clerics, paladins, monks, potions, etc. to bounce a character back from zero HP, but not enough to bring them to a sustainable and healthy position in a single round. What happens here is that characters take a hit and fall unconscious. They are then healed by their allies and rise back to consciousness. Then, they take a hit again as they had to use their movement to stand up and proceed to fall unconscious again.
Putting characters in a situation where they cannot be effective round after round is a situation I want to avoid as a DM.
A further problem for my personal style is the stripping away of roleplay when death nears for a character. Character death can be a traumatic experience that sends ripples through an entire campaign. Player characters dying can serve as a catalyst for entirely new journeys. It can set up arcs for new big bads. There could be far-reaching consequences for beloved NPCs, towns, cities, or governments. Reducing that moment to die rolls from a character that has no agency in the process falls a little hollow for someone like me that enjoys tailoring their campaigns to character moments.
Setting a Fix
Now that I knew the issues present in the system, I set out to make my replacement. My process for designing any piece of homebrew begins with setting out pillars. Establishing core tenets and goals is the most important part of my design. Theoretically, if I can define the building blocks of a piece, I can be more effective in my efforts to build it. After several iterations, I distilled the core down to three elements:
Giving a character agency is always core to my design philosophies. While there should be room for chance, I see an extreme amount of value in allowing a player to define their character’s place in the world. This is even truer when talking about something as potentially earth shattering as a character death.
Reaching death’s door should always be a scary prospect. It was key for me to preserve the punishing nature of reaching zero HP. I wanted to make sure that players couldn’t use their time on the brink of death as a secondary health bar. It was imperative to make sure that entering whatever the death system was would feel like a tense moment for both the player and character. They should feel like they are a hair’s breadth from oblivion while not interfering with their choice of how to handle the moment.
Finally, roleplay is central to every campaign that I run. I respect the DMs out there that run tightly balanced, combat focused gameplay. I’ve been known to include pieces of adventures that lean this way. That said, combat has always taken a back seat to interacting with my player’s characters and learning more about them and the world we’re creating together. Delivering a roleplay opportunity while at the edge of a character’s passing seemed like a straightforward decision. Learning if they would flee and hide to heal up or if they would bravely wipe the blood away and raise their sword was something I wanted in my games.
An Ever-Turning Wheel
With my core tenets set, I pivoted to building out the system in a way that would be easy to understand and run. Systems are only viable if the player can understand them and interact in a way that feels rewarding and natural. My view is that heroic characters can fight on in the face of death to a reasonable extent.
The central part of this system is the ability to drop into negative HP without falling out of consciousness. Allowing a player to still move, attack, cast, and interact on their turn eliminates the feeling of helplessness and lost turns that can come from being on the brink. It returns the feeling that they are in control of the moment. This was my first step in returning agency to them.
Allowing a character to stay active beyond their normal pool of HP is a powerful concept. It needed dire consequences to ensure that players wouldn’t just treat this as a second pool of health. The negative effects that come with being in The Cycle can seem harsh when first read, but I’m quick to remind players that the alternative is essentially not having a turn whatsoever.
Building on that, I needed to incentivize seeking safety when entering The Cycle. The concept of using negative HP to determine the DC of your Cycle saving throw was born of that idea. This means that characters who stand their ground and take more damage are making it harder on themselves to survive in the future. It returns a choice of staying put and facing a harder time in the future or fleeing to recover. This builds into the third pillar of presenting roleplay opportunities in a character’s last moments.
Sanding Rough Edges
No system is perfect out of the box. I’ve grown accustomed to running face first into walls along the way. Perhaps it sounds masochistic, but I love it when I fail to think of some extremely obvious problem. When a system comes to a screeching halt due to something I haven’t considered, I have to go back and rethink several parts of it. This is tremendously helpful to the process.
You should embrace failure and use it to better your creations. We learn by running into barriers.
Healing was a somewhat problematic concept that needed to be addressed. That healing pops a character back to consciousness was a large contributor to the Consciousness Yo-Yo that I mentioned earlier. My solution was obvious from the beginning. If I were going to allow negative HP, then healing can simply counteract that one-to-one. This prevents healing from being a fix all while still allowing it to retain the power it deserves. Using this method, healing serves the purpose of getting you out of The Cycle, yet also pulls double-duty by helping to make Cycle saving throws easier.
Stabilizing was one of those “face first into a wall” moments I mentioned earlier. For some ungodly reason, I completely neglected Healer’s Kits and Spare the Dying. They just slipped out of my brain in my first iteration of the system. It took a wonderful monk, who just wanted to help their friends, to make me realize I messed up.
I embraced that opportunity to rethink parts of the system and include the On the Brink mechanic. It kept the power of Spare the Dying and Healer’s Kits without negating the downsides of being in The Cycle. A character that is On the Brink is still in an extremely precarious situation. It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it is less uncomfortable than being fully in The Cycle.
A time-lapse of Fernando’s progress on the title image
Themes & Dreams
Running a campaign for my friends every Saturday is probably my favorite part of any given week. The Cycle was born from an ongoing campaign in a setting that was divinely created by 12 formerly mortal beings. In this setting, souls are considered precious as there are a finite number of them available to The Builders (the creators of the realm). When a being dies, their soul goes to a physical planet called The Cycle. They wait in an ashy wasteland on this ringed planet until the light of the central star shines on that part of the planet. The light grants that soul rebirth into a physical body. What a soul will return as is never known. The soul could be reborn as anything from a goldfish to a cloud giant.
I needed to develop a death system that would present opportunities for players nearing their entrance into The Cycle. It was here that the idea was born and most of the theming was originally focused around that world. I’ve worked to make it setting agnostic in the hopes that it could be dropped into your campaign without issue.
This homebrew was also the beginning of the idea of AbyssalBrews. From The Cycle came the idea of releasing some of my creations to the public in hopes that you could get enjoyment from the systems as my players have. Fernando, our illustrator and occasional co-author, joined as a way to work on and expand his experimentation with his artistry. Frankly, I’m lucky to have him. He’s also a great gut-check when I get my head too far in the clouds.
Where We’re Traveling Next
AbyssalBrews and The Cycle are passion projects for Fernando and I. We’re both lucky enough to be gainfully employed in regular human jobs. Our goal is to provide systems, items, subclasses, classes, monsters, and more with the hope that at least one person gets some enjoyment out of them.
Plenty of ideas swirl around in my head, and I want to get them all out to you. We’re never going to be the fastest to release new content, but we think it has heart and production value that we can be proud of. Fernando’s illustrations truly bring these to life and I’m fortunate enough to be a graphic designer by profession. Those skill sets lend themselves well to putting together quality presentations of our content. We intend to keep those values core to our process.
We’re releasing The Cycle fully for free and our best guess is that all of our projects will end up the same. The best thing you could do for us is to help spread the word on Twitter or Instagram about us. Drop by and tell us you liked the system. It would truly mean the world to us. If you really really want to go out of the way, we have a Ko-fi where you can donate to us. Truly though, we just want people to enjoy our projects. That’s why we put the download link at the top!
Our next projects will be a few magic items, followed by a new travel system for 5th Edition. We’re also building toward new race/species options and subclasses. Those are a bit further out, but we’re still excited about them. Follow us on our socials if you want to keep up to date on it. Thanks so much for stopping by and we hope you enjoy The Cycle.