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The One Variant Rule You NEED To Try

Written by MythicParty - Published on March 19, 2013

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.netDarkwarren has been busy getting things ready for his Rise of the Runelords campaign, so he’s gets his Dragons in a row.  Although considering Runelords is a Paizo Adventure Path, ‘Goblins in a row’ would be more appropriate, except they’re too chaotic to get into good rows.  In any event, this will be a special edition of Tales From The Other Side of the Screen.  By that I mean instead of directly responding to something that he (aka my DM) has written, I’ll  share with you the 1 variant rule that should be a part of all D&D games.  In fact, its such a ground-breaking idea that I will go so far as to say that its the 1 rule that should be a part of all roleplaying games.  Sound like too bold a claim?  Let’s find out.

This Should-Be-Universal rule addition comes from Unearthed Arcana- the D20 edition that came out in February, 2004 not the Old School one from 1985 written mostly by a guy named Gary Gygax.  Both versions of this book feature excellent add ons to the D&D game.  Back in 1985, it gave us the barbarian, cavalier, & thief-acrobat.  The druid & the ranger received some much-needed updates as well.  We also got weapon specialization, dozens of new weapons, & a bunch of new spells.  Finally there were more player-usable races such as  drow and svirfneblin.  Comeliness (actual personal beauty) didn’t stick, but the basics for weaponless combat did.  Sort of a survival of the fittest for rules.  2004 has so many they came up with a checklist: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/we/20040206a

So like all game books there was some good, some bad- pieces of this made their way into later editions & perhaps there are still DMs using Comeliness as a lucky 7th ability score.  I know we used to chuckle about its (COM) abbreviation.  And this pattern continues with the 3E/3.5E version from WotC: some of the concepts were brought along to 4E & will no doubt make their way into D&D Next.  Its the evolution of our game, continuing on.  Unfortunately, one of the simplest, most fundamental variants will likely be left behind in 2004.  At least officially.  And that’s a shame because this idea is a quite definitely a game changer.  What am I all hyped about like a Monk on Haste?  Simple.  Players Roll All the Dice.  (waits for all the yelling at the computer screens to stop)

Ok, still with me?  The rule is from Chapter 4, Adventuring & starts on page 133, top right.  And here is a linky-link to the D&D Wicki: http://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/UA:Players_Roll_All_the_Dice    To clarify from the start, we’re not talking  about them doing literally ALL the dice.  Some rolls such as looking for secret doors or Bluff still would be private.  But the new UA book suggests it happen for the following 3 areas: 1) Attacking & Defending, 2) Saving Throws & Save Scores, & Spell Resistance.  Why?  Because when the DM, sitting behind his Screen of Doom, does the rolling in secret the players lose interest.  Our eyes glaze over while we wait to hear what happens; there’s no feeling of control so what else can we do?  Or you rolling the dice emphasizes the ‘Us vs Him’ aspect, since its YOU rolling to hit US.  Ever stop to think of it that way?  Or maybe rolling all those plastic polyhedrals distracts from planning, actual tactics, or even the storytelling.

Instead try something different: instead of you rolling to hit them, the players make a Defense Check: 1d20 + all the character’s AC bonuses.  This is compared to their opponent’s Attack Score: 11+ their bonuses.  If the player’s Defense Check is equal to or greater than the Attack Score, the attack misses.  Voila!  Natural 1’s on a Defense Check are treated as a threat, aka if the Bad Guy had rolled a natural 20.  So the player has to make another Defense Check to avoid the Critical Hit- if they’re successful, they escape greater danger.  If they don’t, then the threat is confirmed & the hit is a critical one.  Draw the card or consult the appropriate table.

The process is similar for Saving Throws or Spell Resistance that you’d normally be doing yourself.  The players make Magic Checks in place of the monsters making a Saving Throw & a Spell Resistance Check themselves rather than you rolling to overcome any (fortunate) PC spell resistance.  For a Magic Check the players roll 1d20 + spell level + ability modifier + other modifiers.  This is compared to the target’s appropriate Save Score + any modifiers +11.  If the player’s check equals or beats that number, then the monster has failed their save.  A natural 20 counts as if the monster had rolled a 1, & their equipment could be damaged.  (i.e. PHB page 177- you are remembering this, right?).  For a PC lucky enough to have SR, the Spell Resistance Check is 1d20 + SR -10 which needs to beat the Caster Level Score of 11 + attacker’s caster Level + any modifiers.

In conclusion, rather than lifting up your cardboard divider to ‘prove’ that you had actually gotten a 20, keep as much as the dice out in the open & in our hands will keep us players more into the game you’re running.  Win-win for everyone.


Written by MythicParty

Dog-loving, movie-watching, pizza aficionado. Content Editor for DMing.com, Project Manager for AvatarArt.com, & player of the coolest characters in a weekly D&D game. Halflings are the real heroes.

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12 Responses to “The One Variant Rule You NEED To Try”
  1. MythicParty says:

    Commenting on my own stuff here. If, like me, you wondered why they used +11 & not +10, here is a math discussion:

  2. Robert says:

    Metascape games (Guildspace is the only one I had) used effectively the same type of system, though it was NOT a d20 compatible game.

    I and my group that played really liked it, and it made things a lot easier for the GM.

  3. Liack says:

    Would love to use that in my game, but this variant seems to work only for rolls versus a static threshold. The system I use has a lot of opposing rolls, pitting the offensive roll vs the defensive roll, the highest score winning. How would you rule a variant on that? Change the DMs roll for a static number and use that as the player’s treshold? Have the player roll twice?

  4. RaiseDead says:

    I did this in my 4e campaign. The math works perfectly, I just moved the 10 from the player’s defenses (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) and turned it into a modifier they were rolling and gave the monster’s attack a DC based on their normal attack roll bonus +10. So a Dragon breathing flames at the party that would normally roll a +10 vs. Ref as an attack now turns into a DC 20 Reflex save which the players must all use their reflex bonus to beat. I started this at about Lvl 24 and it lasted us through the end of the campaign at Lvl 30. The players were much more engaged and I told them that if they narrated their action in how they were defending, I’d give them a bonus to the roll. More dice rolls in the players hands were a much better experience and a much more engaged party.

  5. francesco says:

    This starts to get messier at higher levels of play. Around lvl 15-16, even “minor” opponents are going to have access to spells like disintegrate, phantasmal killer, flesh to stone.
    It runs the risk of transforming a relatively minor battle in a TPK. A couple of fumble and your party finds itself witouth two member, or worse, with a dominated member

  6. Darkwarren says:

    Admittedly, I have always been interested in this rule. I find similar malaise happens in board games. It’s not my turn, so I zone out, only to get back on track when it’s actually my turn. This slows down the game of course and does not maximize the potential energy of the gaming experience as there are lulls between turns for each player. (This is starting to sound like a physics problem…)

    Francesco, these same threats are there whether it is the DM rolling or the player rolling. Does the extra “1” (as in 11 + modifiers instead of 10) really amp up the danger?

  7. Liack says:

    If curious about the math:
    Old method :a hit happens when 1d20 + atk bonus >= 10 (base) + Def bonus
    Add a 1d20 on each side, and the average of 2d20 = 21, then remove 10 on each side.
    A hit when 11 + atk bonus >= 1d20 + Def Bonus; so a player would need to beat the atk score to be missed. Some place use the AtkBonus + 12 to keep the “beat or equal”.

    The lethality in Francesco’s comment relates to the DM’s ability to fudging the dice, which he can’t do if the player roll them.

  8. Ardak2000 says:

    Anybody care to take a stab at how to implement this rule for an OSR Clone That uses Descending AC?

  9. Liack says:

    @Ardak2000: how a typical roll would be handle? It’s been so long since I’ve played editions with THAC0.

    @AnyoneElse: as my previous comment mentioned, not sure how to implement on opposing rolls (ex: bluff versus insight)

  10. Brantaylor says:

    This is my first time stumbling onto your site, but after reading this article I will definitely be back. This is a wonderful idea. I’m not DMing our current game, but I will definitely pitch it to our DM and see what he thinks. I think this could really liven up combat. Thanks for sharing!

  11. MythicParty says:

    Brantaylor, welcome, thanks for stopping by, & hope to read more feedback from you. Please let us all know if your DM adopted this variant & if so, what your group thought about it.

    I know I want my DM (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to add it to our campaign.

  12. Marikir says:

    The discussion on that wiki page says that you should use 12 as the modifier due to DCs being numbers you are trying to roll equal or greater to. (I tried it out on paper and found they were right). Otherwise, using an 11, you have given the players a 5% (+1) better chance of not being hit. You could do it where you say Defense Rolls have to BEAT the Attack Value instead of just equaling it, but that seems odd to say for a particular style of DC. I think just using 12 would work better. I haven’t examined the options for the Saving Throws, but I suspect the math works out similarly.

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