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A common plot point throughout the kinds of fantasy literature that inspire D&D settings can be described as a central character growing beyond themselves, reaching a previously unknown peak of power or ability in a climactic emotionally-invested moment. As this is a somewhat obtuse description, here are a few examples (I realize that some of these may be debatable, but I'm just trying to illustrate the point).

  • In Tolkein's Return of the King (Lord of the Rings)...

    Samwise carries Frodo up Mount Doom in a climactic moment despite being exhausted.

  • At the end of Jordan's (and Sanderson's) Memory of Light (Wheel of Time)...

    Rand and Egwene have moments during the Last Battle in which they suddenly understand how to weave new magics (Rand: reforging the Bore; Egwene: reknitting the balefire-scarred pattern) that were previously thought to be impossible.

  • At the end of Sanderson's Oathbringer (Stormlight Archive)...

    Dalinar opens Honor's Perpendicularity despite having shown no real skill at this kind of thing or any previous knowledge of how to do so.

  • At the end of Hardy's Master of the Five Magics...

    Alodar is able to subdue the Demon Prince despite this seeming to be far far beyond his ability prior to that point in the novel.

  • At the end of Erikson's Reaper's Gale (Malazan Book of the Fallen)...

    Beak is able to open all his warrens, sacrificing himself to save the Malazan and Edur armies from the Lethari ritual, healing the armies in the process.

  • In Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles)...

    Kvothe is able to perceive the name of the wind just as he is about to enter the deadly area beneath the Letantha (sword tree).

There are many many other examples of this literary device in the fantasy canon, but this list is hopefully sufficient to clarify what I'm referring to. I am assuming this device is a good literary device and so should any answer; I'm invested in the fact that many D&D players enjoy this device and would like to see it reflected in their characters' stories.

As far as I know, there are no mechanics in the rules for a character facing a climactic moment to achieve something extraordinary, and my intuition is that any rule in this space would need to be heavily DM-dependent. I've been toying with a simple approach:

  • At any time, a player may tell the DM that their character is attempting to perform an extraordinary feat; the feat should refer to a specific ability that their character does not yet have access to or one that they have access to but for which they do not currently have the required resources. For example, in a battle with undead enemies that is going very poorly, a level 1 Cleric might attempt to use the level-2 ability Turn Undead.
  • The DM chooses the appropriate attribute and sets a skill DC for this attempt; typically, this should be a hard check and should be much harder if the character is reaching for something more than 1 or 2 levels beyond their current skill level. A recommended DC might be something like 16 + twice the number of levels the character needs in order to have access to the feat. Simultaneously, the DC should be lower if the character is highly emotionally invested and higher if not. This would ultimately be up to the DM; though guidelines for how to set this would be useful (intuitively, the Cleric's Divine Intervention feature might be a good starting point).
  • The player rolls, and, if successful, the character manages to carry off the feat, gaining 1 level of exhaustion in the process. If unsuccessful, the character wastes their turn attempting the feat.
  • A character with any levels of exhaustion would be unable to attempt an extraordinary feat.

I am looking for good subjective experiences using a mechanic like this—does it work and why or why not? Are there balance issues I'm not seeing or are there ways to do this within the rules that I've missed? Additionally, I would like advice on setting the skill DC for such a check (while accepting that some amount of DM fiat will need to be involved). For the record, I'm most interested in discovering how to do this without breaking the game for my players rather than just whether my specific homebrew proposal will break the game, so alternative rules (within the limits of good-subjective) are welcome.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the reference to Master of Five Magics \$\endgroup\$ Apr 13, 2023 at 15:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That was the first book I ever checked out of a public library by myself as a kid 😆 \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Apr 13, 2023 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's funny that you mention the LotR moment because somewhere I've seen actual play DM Brennan Lee Mulligan reference that exact scene as an example of a time when it would be narratively underwhelming to have to attempt and fail a strength check. I think this was just in casual conversation though, I don't think he actually gave a concrete DMing recommendation for how to resolve it (and besides, actual play considerations are different than those of us who only need to worry about entertaining ourselves in our games) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2023 at 0:39

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My DM does it like this

I am currently one of three players (six characters) in a Tomb of Annihilation game. We all started at first level. In Session 0, as part of our character backstory, the DM asked us to think about our future character growth - what powers and abilities we would gain at 2nd and 3rd level, as well as would subclass we intended to take. For the casters, what spells they were especially interested in learning, and for my fighter, what maneuvers he planned on taking when he eventually became a battlemaster.

With a clear list of future powers and abilities by level, our DM then looks forward, planning out moments when we might manifest our powers one level 'early'. These are typically times when we are in difficult straights, at a point when suddenly using a new and unexpected ability could turn the tide or save the situation. As two examples, when my 1st level fighter

was being chased by velociraptors in Executioner's Run

he was suddenly allowed to use his next-level action surge, permitting him to escape his pursuers and possibly saving his life.

Later on, when our 4th level life cleric was attempting to turn a large group of undead, the DM allowed her to spontaneously use her next-level destroy undead, incinerating the zombies that failed their saves so that we could focus fire on the boss monster and not have the turned zombies head toward another PC.

Each time we have leveled, our DM has asked us to look ahead one level more, planning out our ASI's at 4th and so on, so that he would have something to work with over the course of our adventures in achieving the next level.

One of the things I like about this system is that it limits our powers to things that we will soon be getting anyway, and so there is no sense of it being a deus ex machina that would give us whatever ability we happened to need in the moment. Narratively, these are often powers and abilities we have been working on and practicing all along - they can't be used reliably yet, but we just got lucky enough, or desperate enough, that they happened to work in the moment. By making the ability arise in a desperate situation, it makes it seem more valuable - rather than waking up at 2nd level with action surge by default, I obtained it after 'stumbling on' it in extremis and recognizing how important it will be in such situations, and then worked on improving it until it became reliable at my next level.

I also like that the DM decides when to allow this. I think this prevents the player abuse described by Nepene Nep in their answer. The DM picks a moment when he feels that we are perhaps in over our heads, and selects the specific character and future ability that is most likely to help us survive the situation.

The abilities don't always manifest when needed - the DM has us make a luck roll (Fudge, or 4dF) with the ability manifesting on any positive result (and neutral results allowing a re-roll). Thus they are certainly more likely to happen than not, but hardly assured.

For spells, once the character has spontaneously manifested the ability to cast the new spell, they are allowed to later try again intentionally, requiring another luck roll to succeed.

I am ambivalent about the Luck Roll to manifest. I think the DM choosing the situation, rather than the players asking for the roll, is enough to prevent abuse. It feels frustrating and disappointing when the DM has identified the precise dramatic moment for the ability to appear - and then the player's roll indicates that it doesn't happen after all. I would prefer that the DM simply determined when this happened for the first time, and then for those abilities that players could later request to attempt, more difficult rolls be permitted (perhaps positive only, with no rerolls and a neutral result counting as a failure).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, this is great food for thought! \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Apr 11, 2023 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting answer. One of your examples sounded weird to me: not have the turned zombies head toward another PC - I assume you know they couldn't attack that other PC for 1 minute or until taking damage; they can only use their action to Dash or escape / overcome obstacles to fleeing. Maybe the zombies would have physically gotten in the way of movement, or an incidental AoE would have broken the Turn Undead fear effect. Anyway, mostly just posting in case your group missed the rules wording on Turn Undead (unlikely given the linked Q), and if not: out of curiosity about the situation. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2023 at 8:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes We were aware they could not attack and ultimately it probably didn't make much difference whether the zombies were turned or destroyed, perhaps a few more rounds to mop them up after the boss went down. In this particular case there was a Hidden party member trying to move up behind the boss, so had the zombies headed that way there was the potential that they could stumble over the hidden party member and reveal their location to the boss. Also, the wizard was trying to line up his familiar for a dragon breath and as you suggest we were worried about an AoE ending their turn. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 14, 2023 at 16:53
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Your goal and approach are fundamentally at odds

Before I explain what you can do, I should explain how you cannot do it. You cannot use a standardized mechanic solution because a climax is by definition unusual. You also cannot use random chance mostly because it will interfere with the best narrative.

Storytelling background

This is not specific to RPGs, this does more come from my experience with creative writing. While I haven't read all the books you cite there is something which is important for any story: A climax must be different from the rest of the story and must be unusual. When a climax happens every other day it is not special and therefore not climactic. The feeling you are looking for and which is the crown jewel of a story can only be found if it is rare. The definition of a story climax is that there is something more there than anywhere else in the story. So you can only have one per larger chunk of story. You can have smaller climaxes each session and each adventure but the more climactic you want it to be the less often it can happen. Note also that usually there is an internal change happening in any character during such a climactic moment.

How can you do this

I do this very rarely (duh, see my above explanation) and here is what you need to do, to enable it:

  • Stop worrying about game rules and DCs. What you want is the best narrative experience you can get and ability checks will only get in the way.

  • You shouldn't try to put this in a standardized mechanic at all. It's in the nature of the thing that it is non-standard. You cannot make rules to break the rules because this just creates more rules. (Thanks to @MivaScott for this citation). This undermines the exceptional nature of climaxes and might make for a vicious circle.

  • You need to be on the same page as your players. This is because a) if you don't cooperate well with them you cannot tell a good story without undermining their agency and b) if your players don't agree that the quality of the narrative supersedes other concerns they will try to game the concept. If players abuse this by trying get the maximum advantage out of it rather than the best narrative it won't work.

  • Use the rule of cool and pick up on high-quality narrative suggestions from your players. If the suggestion leads to a satisfying narrative, roll with it and just forget the gamey bits.

  • It is of course good if there is a drawback to the extraordinary feat. Preferably a permanent change (see the above part about character changes). Again this shouldn't be standardized but fit the specific situation and be tailor-made to the narrative you want.

Examples

You can do this on-the fly. Whenever players suggest a course of action, rather than think about DCs or what the rules say, think about if whether it makes a good narrative. If it does, have it work. Example (I was a player in this case): I played an Artificer with thunder gauntlets and had climbed on a crypt. I wanted to jump on an opponent and hit them. The GM could have asked for an attack roll but instead they let me kill the opponent outright. This has nothing to do with rules but fits a heroic narrative. This uses my suggestions but isn't a real climax yet because this could happen every session.

You can also plan for a climax. In my second to last campaign I let my players True Polymorph the BBEG towards the end of the combat. A couple weeks earlier I had had a discussion out of game and someone said:

You know what would be cool? If we True Polymorphed the BBEG.

This is definitely a heroic feat and I put a good amount of planning and preparation into this. I had to provide a lot of info for my players so they knew that this would be possible and I gave them a Scroll of True Polymorph.* So when the time came and the BBEG was shaken in the combat, the Wizardess cast the scroll and (as explained above) I didn't ask for a check even though you couldn't normally cast True Polymorph without at level 12. So the BBEG was turned into a frog and they took him with them. This worked because we were on the same page (the players waited for the right moment to use the scroll instead of using it on the first occasion) and I just had it work then.


* I had to do this because we mostly play gamey instead of narratively. So my players wouldn't have gone with this without some clear directions. If you always play with the spotlight on the narrative I assume that you need much less buildup and can maybe do a major climax without specific preparation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer and good use of explanation as to how you made it work! It does seem pretty similar to mine in that you aren't making mechanical changes to create a system, but fit the system into the existing mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch You cannot make rules for the extraordinary. I think if you try to make a mechanic for this, it will never work. I mean there are narrative mechanics in some games but those can just promote this. In the end, a satisfying climax has to be unusual. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely, this fits much better into how the game is played normally. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate a lot of what you say here in this answer, but I disagree that one "cannot make rules for the extraordinary." In fact, 5e contains many rules for the extraordinary. Divine Intervention, which I cite in the post, is clearly one of these. Some players will have more fun when these rules are explicit, and while they are not all players, they are some players. \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Apr 11, 2023 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a better way to say it would be, "You cannot make rules for how to break the rules." Then they just become more rules, which will put a new limit on the narrative which someone will want to exceed. So by not making rules for this, you stop the escalation and can improve the narrative as needed. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Apr 12, 2023 at 19:35
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You're looking for the mechanic that was called action points in D&D 3.5e and hero points in PF1e.

Quotes:

There are moments in any struggle that influence the outcome. Does the brave warrior lay low the villain before he can finish casting a devastating spell? Does the sly rogue avoid detection as she sneaks into the giant chieftain’s lair? Does the pious cleric finish casting her healing spell before the rain of arrows ends the life of her companions? Just a few die rolls decide each of these critical moments, and while failure is always a possibility, true heroes find a way to succeed, despite the odds. Hero Points represent this potential for greatness.

Special: You can petition the GM to allow a hero point to be used to attempt nearly anything that would normally be almost impossible. Such uses are not guaranteed and should be considered carefully by the GM. Possibilities include casting a single spell that is one level higher than you could normally cast (or a 1st-level spell if you are not a spellcaster), making an attack that blinds a foe or bypasses its damage reduction entirely, or attempting to use Diplomacy to convince a raging dragon to give up its attack.

I have never used this mechanic as a DM, but I've encountered it a few times as a player. One time I felt it was bad for the game -- we essentially used hero points for the "recall a spell" power and we treated them as emergency spell slots. The other time, in 5e, it came closer to its intended purpose -- I remember attempting to do something ridiculous, and the DM said "you can try that if you spend a hero point".

We didn't, in either case, use hero points to turn the tide of climactic battles. (Partly because we weren't ever in a situation where we were losing a climactic battle.)

But, well, this is the mechanic that is intended, for the thing that you're trying to do.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like it was intended, but didn't work for you - are you suggesting them to use it? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 11, 2023 at 17:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I'll look into this! \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Apr 11, 2023 at 18:16
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Our group used a homebrew system for a long time while playing 4e that worked for us and allowed for moments like these.

We called the system Hero Points, and it was likely originally based on some of the examples given elsewhere by the same name. The way ours worked was at the end of each session, everyone got to give out a hero point or two to players of their choice based on great moments in that session though the exact criteria was up to the people involved (Heroic moment? Lucky save? Great joke? Whatever people wanted). These points were then written on the character sheet for later use.

Each DM in our group using the system would then come up with a "menu" of uses for Hero Points, usually starting with something like 1 Hero Point for a +2 post roll and going up in cost and effect from there such as one from a game I ran where someone could retroactively have bought or acquired something for 5 hero points and the gold cost. This system allowed for players to invest into moments that were important to them and their character, but as they were a limited resource, spending now always meant not having them for later.

More towards your use case, almost every Hero Point "menu" would have something like "Miracle" at crazy high totals like 20-50. These were only bought like once or twice a multi-year campaign by players who had horded them for a long time but allowed the exact kinds of story moments you mentioned in the various stories. The DM and the player would work together to come up with what amazing thing just happened and then things would move on from there. The DM still had final say, but we never had any problems with abuses on either side.

The biggest thing was not having it be random chance; if moments like you describe come down to a slim chance on a roll of the die people will inherently try more often to have better odds of getting it to happen which makes the effect feel overly game-y. Having it instead be a resource that can be spent on lots of small moments or a very small number of big ones keeps things rolling nicely and adds natural narrative pacing to the whole system :)

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A good literary device is not necessarily a good game device

You seem to be under the misapprehension that a role-playing game is the correct vehicle for a climactic literary moment. Every example you give is from a novel where the author has perfect control of pacing and emotional feel. In particular, they know this is the climactic moment because they planned it to be the climactic moment.

An RPG doesn't work that way. The climactic moments are only apparent with hindsight - it might be the moment when you landed the crit that saved the day; or it might be the moment where you missed an almost sure thing and comically died. The highlight of the adventure might be the fight with the BBEG, or it might be the snappy repartee with the rescued princess, or it might be the random encounter with the rust monster who ate the paladin's mail boots. You don't know until you play.

In any event, as far as I can see, most if not all of the examples you cite are in the mechanics of anyway. To take just the first example, Sam's player made a difficult Strength (Athletics) check with Disadvantage from Exhaustion by rolling 2 20s - climactic moment achieved right there.

You can't force these things and you're just short changing your players if you try. Bending the rules to achieve a climactic moment is just the same as a referee in a sporting match making rulings to ensure a tight finish - it rarely works and, even if it does, it leaves a sour taste of injustice.

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Players routinely abuse such things by reusing them till they become trite.

From experience if you give players power up mechanics they'll push and push them repeatedly to win fights. Skill rolls can be influenced and if enough people try it out they'll succeed. It just becomes a mechanic.

Limit uses to once per adventure

When I make a powerup mechanic, I limit them to once per adventure. I use my brain to remember when they've used a power and when not. This might be a few sessions in a location, or a story arc. I'll let them do most minor feats for free, and only make them roll an attack roll, saving throw, or attribute roll for truly impressive feats.

This makes it so that climatic moments are actually climatic.

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Let the dice tell you.

As someone who's played D&D in various editions for about 45 years and counting, I'll say this: The in-game moments that we remember the most aren't due to some mechanic boosting the character abilities. They're when the dice come up with a surprise result that really shouldn't have happened.

Here's one example (from the 3E era): Party gets transported to hell and winds up fighting a demon. The entire party all goes down except for the party paladin. The demon breaks all of his weapons. So the paladin as a last resort jumps at the demon bare-handed. And the player rolls 20-20-hit which under the variant rules of the time, indicates an auto-kill. (For 5E, an analogous event might be succeeding at a check with disadvantage.)

This is the kind of thing we remember forever from our games, because it was so astounding, because it really shouldn't have happened, and because it wasn't mechanistically arranged.

In contrast, I was playing a game last week that had a bunch of "fate" style boost points, and there was a round where our team burned half of everything we could get in the game, and the dice came up poorly anyway, so the result as still just "meh". So consider that in such cases: if you get a narrative "boost" of some sort, and the dice still come up critical failures, how will that feel?

So one possibility based on our experience is: Think about simply letting the dice tell you when the astounding thing happens, instead of pre-planning it. Or let the players come up with an astounding strategy or plan that you didn't foresee. It's the surprises that you remember, and the dice are part of the game specifically to provide those surprises.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How would you apply this to 5e? There's no such thing as an Auto-kill there. It would be nice if you could give at least one example that works in 5e. Or are you suggesting implementing the crit confirmation into a 5e game? \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Apr 12, 2023 at 6:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Was there something wrong with the edit I made to your post? I thought formatting the first line as header would highlight your main point and otherwise I mostly fixed some minor spelling mistakes. You have every right to edit your post however you see fit, just want to know if there was something specific I did wrong so I can avoid that in the future. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Apr 12, 2023 at 13:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anagkai: I don't accept formatting changes to my posts, thanks. I'm accustomed to that being discouraged on other SE sites. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12, 2023 at 14:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, sorry for that, I didn't know. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Formatting and typo-fix edits are normal on the main Stack Overflow. Although that's usually code formatting or paragraphs, not a choice to add a ## header formatting to a line. Still, having a title / TL:DR line bolded is pretty common for answers here on rpg.SE, so that doesn't seem unreasonable to me when someone's editing anyway to correct typos. I'm also surprised you rolled back @Anagkai's edit and then had to re-fix typos, instead of just changing the header formatting back to the way you preferred it. (Which is 100% fine, I'm not saying you should accept an edit you dislike.) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2023 at 8:27

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