5e HARDCORE MODE – First Play Impressions & Takeaways

I recently had the good luck to find a group of truly adventurous players, eager to try their hands at Runehammer’s 5e “Hardcore Mode” game hack. This supplement was designed to streamline some of the 5e rules, as well as introduce a degree of old-school challenge to modern 5e games. We played a six-hour game across two sessions, and learned a lot (both about the hack, and ourselves)!

Is Hardcore Mode (HM) a game system for you? In my mind the question boils down to this: what do you want from your “hardcore” fantasy-action game, and at what point it makes sense to try one of the modern (or classic) rule systems that specifically cater to the “hardcore” style. It’s worth mentioning that 5e D&D is one of the best-supported and content-rich games available today, so whether you want to strip it down to its essentials, or are just looking for some really cool alternative rules, HM might be worth a look. The pdf can be purchased for under $5 on DriveThruRPG.com, so it’s well worth checking out if you are at all curious. But if you aren’t sold yet, then read on! And I shall expound my first impressions of playing HM at the table.

Right away HM gets props for espousing the “no wrong way to play” attitude of modern RPGs. I have seen many people immediately turned off by the hardcore title, but the book is quick to shy away from any claims of superiority. Instead it points out that as players become comfortable with a system they may want more challenge to keep the spark alive, which I think is a reasonable assessment.

I was personally attracted to HM based on a closely-guarded GM belief of mine – that the best in-game drama has always been generated by failure, death, and the critically bad roll of the dice. Many of the systems in 5e safeguard the players from making difficult decisions as the result of bad luck or bad planning. This makes sense considering how much time and effort the player is expected to spend during character creation. HM takes an approach that asks the players to loosen their white-knuckle grip during character creation, and delight in the unexpected twists and turns that the dice will introduce. If the prospect of failing a spell cast, and having your PC grow a mutant crab arm rubs you the wrong way, then a lot of what HM proposes might not be for you.

In any case, let’s talk about some of the rule-changes in HM, and how they impacted my game.

3D6 Down the Line

I think most people will consider this the biggest hurdle in approaching HM. I was very up-front with all my players about this, since it fundamentally changes the way you have to play the game. Most of them were understanding (some complained when I limited character options to those found in the 5e PHB), but I think the end results were worth it.

Running characters with obvious flaws is its own kind of fun in D&D. The notion that these characters might not last long means you don’t have to get too attached, and a lack of per-determined background means that the PCs can flesh themselves out as the game is played. For those looking to test their improvisational skills, this approach is on a whole other level.

On a recommendation from a friend, we had every player roll a backup PC as well, though at the time of writing no one has actually kicked the bucket (._.)

I went in thinking that random rolling for stats was going to be make-it or break-it, but I feel like there could be a way forward with this game that wasn’t QUITE as restrictive. Allowing players to choose where to place their rolled scores might be a step towards the middle-ground, and I don’t think would completely ruin the HM vibe. So long as they’re still rolling for attributes (and starting hit points)!!

A New Kind of Spellcasting

I do enjoy the streamlined spellcasting rules, even if I think they are a little vague as-written. What IS clear is that a d20 “spellcasting” check is rolled prior to any spell, adding the opportunity for spells to fizzle, crticial hit, or critically miss (leading to a wildmagic-style table of weird effects).

What is less clear is how spells are depleted. We agreed as a group that while you were limited by which spells you could *prepare* in a given day, you could cast as many spells as you like (though each cast carries the 5% chance of crustacean arm). Spells that are “expended” as a result of a critical fail are removed from your prepared list, meaning you can’t cast that spell again until your next long rest.

I am more or less fine with this system. It is a little awkward in that it introduces an extra d20 roll for casting, which took everyone a few tries to wrap our heads around. I would rule that a critical success on the casting check counts as an automatic hit for spells that require attack rolls or saves, specifically because nothing sucks more than rolling a 20 on an attack that then misses (recalling nightmares from the 3rd edition days).

This approach also flattens some of the more interesting differences between the casting classes. Although the book suggests you work with your players to capture the intricacies of their casting style, that doesn’t seem to jive with the streamlined-play philosophy that the rest of the book subscribes to.

Zymer’s Candle: the D&D Savepoint

This is a cool one, and I really like it. Its another case where the rules seem purposefully vague, leaving it up to the GM to interpret how this mechanic should work, something I could see being a turn-off for some. I’m all about it though, and I may write another article diving into my approach for the candle.

The short version – Zymer’s Candle is an item that, once lit, can transport the party back through time to the moment it was lit. This plays on the idea of static challenge – that the encounters presented in the game may be difficult or impossible, but won’t be fudged to ensure PC success. Instead a party that gets quickly TPK’d by the unlucky roll can have a chance to re-try a fight. It’s good, it’s interesting, I’m a fan.

Level 1 Balance

While I was writing up the dungeon for my test-game, I came across some really disturbing math. Since the players roll for their starting hit points (without adding any modifiers for Con, or taking max hit points), it became clear that even the lowest CR monsters could 1-hit-KO many members of the party.

What I DIDN’T consider was that the starting ACs of the party were fairly on-brand for 5e D&D, generally ranging between the 13-17 range. Also, the game uses a CR-based compression system (I already use a similar formula for my standard 5e game), which means that basic enemies are rolling without any modifiers to their attacks. So what this means is that level 1 can be deadly for PCs, but only when the enemy scores a hit, which doesn’t seem to be that often.

This issue is compounded by the Side vs Side initiative system, which means that it’s possible a combat could conclude before any monsters have a chance to strike. So while my cringing GM instincts had me cutting down the monster count, the party was all but steamrolling the early encounters.

I found my stride in the latter half of the game, and when the balance hit it really hit – players were needing to make tough calls turn after turn as the monsters moved in and their fallen comrades quickly bled out at their feet.

Of course another tenant of the system – that the dice are absolute – came into play in the party’s favor during the final boss encounter, when both of my gnoll guards rolled back-to-back critical failures on their first turn. This turned what I feared might be a lethal encounter into a hilarious five-minute curb stomp (helped along by a well timed critical roll on a spellcasting check).

Notice that I said “hilarious” – because for all the ways the deck might be stacked against the players, the dice can be equally cruel to the GM. And these kinds of ridiculous upsets are part of what gives D&D its lasting appeal, and is also certainly the point of all this mechanical reworking. There was something freeing about that moment – for all the times the sorcerer lost a turn to a fizzled spell, rolling a critical hit to seal the Red Hag’s fate didn’t feel deflating, it felt strangely *justified*.

And I was also glad it wasn’t on me to massage things into drama, but on the dice to fall where they would.

I Want to Marry Zoned Combat

Of all the rules presented in the book, zoned combat was the only one I considered leaving out entirely. So glad I didn’t, this might be my favorite hack of them all.

It’s a system that adds a bit of crunch to the otherwise wishy-washy theater-of-the-mind approach, which always felt inadequate for taking advantage of 5e’s combat abilities. This does admittedly trim some of the tactics game off D&D, but what you get in speed and convenience does make up for it.

Basically you create 30ft zones that you identify with landmarks like “large boulder” or “acid grotto” – these allow players to occupy terrain and place themselves within the environment, without concern for exact distances. It means setting up a map is as simple as describing 2-4 features in the scene, and grouping tokens up for easy reference.

I will say that for many people this can’t replace the crunch of gridded combat, and I’m not sure I’m ready to forego tactical battles from here on out. But I will say that I was stunned at how fast and fun (and meaningful) combat was without the setup of a map or the book keeping of opportunity attacks.

You Can’t Have My Bonus Actions

Here’s where I did deviate from the HM approach. The book implies that you can get away with removing bonus actions and reactions from combat, and that is something I don’t want to do. While the zone movement system does make opportunity attacks kind of a mess, I disagree with throwing out the rest.

My argument here is that so much of 5e’s player abilities rely on these types of actions, and removing them altogether doesn’t do much in the way of streamlining the game. What it DOES do is invalidate large swaths of 5e mechanics, which in the end just makes more work for the GM and players.

It comes down to the fundamental question I asked up top – why play a hack of 5e when there are simpler systems out there for classic dungeon delving? I believe the answer is in the wealth of material that 5e has to offer, and this approach strips out just a bit too much of it. So I kept bonus actions and reactions, and I didn’t find that it negatively impacted the game at all.

I guess while we’re here I should also say that the “Upper Hand” mechanic feels a lot more significant on paper than it does in play. Generalizing favorable and poor conditions into the advantage system is something that many GMs do automatically at this point (myself included), and I personally find that needing to factor a +1 weapon in as part of THAT is more mental overhead than just giving the player another number to add to their roll.


So these are my impressions, in a nutshell. I would call myself a fan – I love a lot of the ways in which this hack changes the game’s feel. I think it accomplishes what it sets out to do; I was impressed by how quickly we blazed through the content, due mostly to the speed of the combat. And the increased lethality meant that the game never dragged. Combat was reduced down to its best parts; rather than round after round of rote actions, each turn presented players with life-or-death decisions that carried real weight.

If that doesn’t get your mouth watering, I might STILL recommend picking up the HM pdf, if only for a look at some truly inspired game design. I could see any game of 5e benefiting from the inclusion of one or two of these rules – Zymer’s Candle, Zone combat or Simplified Proficiency would add a nice punch to any standard game, without changing things completely.

My HM game is continuing, and this week I’ll have a chance to experience it from the player’s side. I’ll make sure to update with any further insights. In the meantime I once again recommend HM, if you are a fan of physical books they have a gorgeous hard-cover manual-sized edition that’ll only set you back $15, well worth the price in my opinion.

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