Planning to Fail: An Alternate d20 System

Failure. We fear it. We hate when it happens to us. It drives us to do better, to be better, to learn from our mistakes. Aristotle was the first western thinker to analyze dramatic theory and defined tragedy and comedy, but core to both expressive modes of narrative is the idea of failure. In a tragedy a protagonist is brought low by the extent of their failures. In comedy we laugh as we experience the protagonist’s story as a series of errors, mishaps, and misunderstandings. Failure drives them both, what is different is a matter of tone and perspective. A character who always gets what they want and nothing bad ever happens to them is both boring and totally unrelatable to us as human beings. So why should our D&D heroes succeed ad nauseam or constantly roll 2’s all night?

I love D&D and the d20 system, but sometimes I wish there was a little more dramatic control with our narratives. Why should a rogue fail at picking a lock because they rolled a 1 and a barbarian rolls a 20 and opens up the same lock that foiled the rogue? Why should a run of bad luck on several different dice thwart the super awesome plan that the party concocted to sneak into the fortress? Wouldn’t it be nice if when a certain conflict resolution was uncertain and required a die roll that the player could decide to succeed at some cost or play it safe and fail spectacularly?

Enter the mechanical genius of Phoenix: Dawn Command. In Phoenix: Dawn Command every player has a deck of cards that they draw from in order to resolve conflicts. The cleverness of the system is that when a player draws their hand they can see how likely they are to succeed in the conflict. If a player decides that the success of this conflict is crucial, they can decide to burn their cards in order to make sure that it succeeds. They can also choose to fail on less important tasks because they want to save their good cards for when they might really need them. I love this resource management and risk/reward system. It gives the players more control over the narrative and eliminates the sometimes problematic “swingy-ness” of d20 resolution mechanics. It becomes not a matter of if random dice rolls will fail you but when will you choose to fail in the narrative.

So with this in mind I’ve come up with a way to bring this resource management risk/reward mechanic to D&D. All you need is two decks of playing cards and your players’ consent to try something new.

Players share a deck of cards, the DM uses their own deck. Shuffle the deck and have each player draw a hand of 4 cards. The DM draws a hand of 7 (allowing for multiple NPCs/monsters). These cards are their possible “die results” for their next conflict resolution. At the start of every turn if anyone ever has less than 4 cards they redraw from the deck back up to 4 cards.  If, for some reason, you need to make a “d20 roll” and you have no cards (using a reaction, making a saving throw, attack rolls in excess of 4, etc) you draw from the top of the deck and must use whatever result you draw. When you use cards for conflict resolutions you discard them in a pile. When the deck runs out you shuffle the discard pile and create a new deck.

The cards equal the following “d20” rolls:

  • Ace: 1 or 20 (Player can choose a Natural 20 or Natural 1. In addition to the chosen result they also get an additionally benefit. Natural 20: immediately draw one card. Natural 1: they may immediately discard any number of cards from their hand and immediately draw back up to 4 cards.)
  • 2: Natural 20
  • 3: 3
  • 4: 4
  • 5: 5
  • 6: 6
  • 7: 7
  • 8: 8
  • 9: 9
  • 10: 10
  • Jack: 15
  • Queen: 15
  • Kind: 15

What this means is that roughly 38% of the cards will allow them to almost guarantee success (Ace’s, 2’s, Jack’s, Queen’s, and King’s) 15% of the cards (the 9’s & 10’s) will allow them to succeed if they have a good enough bonus, and 46% of the cards (3’s-8’s) will almost certainly mean failure. While this system does use random draws from the deck it isn’t completely random. Players always choose their cards from their hands, but about half of the cards mean failure. The players don’t get to decide if they fail but they do get to make many more decisions about when they fail.

According to the tastes of your table the players can either openly share what their hands are or this could be kept a secret from each other. Knowing that four aces are in the collective hands could make for some interesting strategizing of attack plans. Personally, I would allow my players to know each others hands and under certain circumstances (using clever role-playing descriptions) allow them to even swap one card with one player once a round.

On the topic of Advantage and Disadvantage there are few options on how to handle those mechanics in this system.

Advantage could either a) allow a player to draw a card from the deck and choose that card or a card from their hand, or b) allow a player to add two card values together.

Disadvantage could either a) require a player to discard one card chosen at random by the DM, or b) require a player to discard two cards and use the lower value.

How you handle Advantage and Disadvantage should be chosen with everyone’s consent.

Initiative in combat can be handled by everyone drawing a card and highest goes first (players chose outcome of ties) or by rolling a d20 and adding Dexterity as usual.

Everything else about the rules of D&D 5th Edition would remain the same. You still use modifiers and still roll damage dice when you need to. But the tone and feel of combat and role-play encounters would be very different. You won’t be on the edge of your seat waiting for the d20 to stop spinning, you’ll be looking at your hand and thinking “hmm, if I want to I could guarantee this guard believes my ridiculous lie, but if I spend my Ace now I’m almost certainly going to fail the next problem that might arise. Is it worth it?”

As a disclaimer I have absolutely zero play-testing of this idea. I’m interested in trying this out with my group and also hearing if anyone tries this out. It’s just something I came up with because of my annoyance with the sometimes “swingy-ness” of d20’s and because I love the way Phoenix: Dawn Command feels very heroic and dramatic. If you haven’t heard of it or checked it out it is well worth a look.


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