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.