Pump the Breaks

Octopath Traveler, a game released for the Nintendo Switch in July 2018, checked a lot of boxes for me as an RPG – Using a unique graphical style, HD2D, the developers threw players headfirst into a rich dynamically shaded world of pixel art. However, the innovative combat mechanics behind the JRPG were less scrutinized than the game’s visuals. Importing these mechanics into your 5E game can produce interesting tactical considerations. Today we’ll look at the Break system, which makes a monster’s resistances and vulnerabilities a much more important factor to gameplay than they are in “vanilla” 5E, without compromising the already-smooth tactical gameplay 5E offers.

Before The Fight: Adding Vulnerabilities

The first issue that needs to be addressed in order to make the Break system is the distinct lack of damage vulnerabilities in 5E. Unless it suits a specific creature to do so, each monster should have at least one vulnerability to physical damage(Bludgeoning, Piercing, Slashing), and one vulnerability to elemental damage(Acid, Cold, Fire, Force, Lightning, Necrotic, Poison, Psychic, Radiant, Thunder). Let the circumstances around your combat encounter or the monster’s design inspire a choice of vulnerabilities whenever possible, and try to keep these vulnerabilities consistent between combat encounters so that your players can learn to take advantage of these circumstances and inform their combat plans.

If you are at a loss for adding vulnerabilities, you could simply roll on the following tables. As a rule of thumb, I find that having about 3-5 vulnerabilities per creature gives any party using a diverse range of damage types the opportunity to discover and exploit a weakness.


Physical Damage

d4 Damage Type
1 Bludgeoning
2 Piercing
3 Slashing
4 None(roll on the Elemental Damage table instead, re-rolling a result of 11 or 12)

Elemental Damage

d12 Damage Type
1 Acid
2 Cold
3 Fire
4 Force
5 Lightning
6 Necrotic
7 Poison
8 Psychic
9 Radiant
10 Thunder
11,12 None(roll on the Physical Damage table instead, re-rolling a result of 4)

Shoring Up Defenses: The Break Meter

Each monster has an additional stat, the Break Meter, which reflects their ability to continue fighting despite the shock to their system of taking damage. The Break Meter starts at the higher number between a creature’s Constitution Modifier and its CR(Minimum 1). For example, a skeleton, with a Con score of 15, would have a Break Meter of 2, while a powerful Balor would have a Break Meter of 19 due to its Challenge Rating.

Whenever a creature takes damage to which it is vulnerable, its Break Meter decreases by 1. When a creature’s Break Meter reaches 0, it takes the Break condition, as detailed below.

The Break Condition

When the strain of battle is too much for a creature, it experiences the Break condition. While in this condition, any damage a creature takes is doubled(after applying its normal resistances and vulnerabilities). The creature cannot move or take any actions or reactions during this time, and cannot concentrate on spells. Once a creature has taken a turn under the Break condition, the condition ends at the start of the creature’s next turn. At that time, the creature’s Break Meter resets to its maximum value.

As a player character, you may find the Break condition to be a great opportunity to deal out the heavy damage to a resilient foe, or in a less favorable battle, the Break condition might be the chance you need to heal an injured party member.. or make a clean getaway.

New Legendary Features

When a creature uses its Legendary Resistance trait, it may also “reshuffle” its vulnerabilities. Roll on the damage vulnerability tables above to replace each of the creature’s damage vulnerabilities. (As a note: If your players have yet to discover a damage vulnerability that the creature has, don’t bother re-rolling that particular damage type, in order to save yourself the time of reassigning unknown information!)

Additionally, a creature capable of legendary actions may also take the following Legendary Action:

Recharge Meter (Costs 2 Actions). The creature increases its Break Meter by 1 for each enemy creature it can see.

Tweaking this System

With these new mechanics, you may find that your combat encounters go a lot faster and tend to favor a party if they exploit their foes’ weaknesses. While I consider this a positive feature of the system, you may wish to balance the scales in favor of combat encounters becoming more expensive in terms of player resources. Here are some suggestions for your consideration as a GM, though you may find that you have to make further tweaks to suit your players.

More Encounters Per Day. A lot of 5E’s mechanics are built around the assumption of the “Adventuring Day” in which a party of characters expends resources which are replenished at the end of a long rest(generally 3-4 combat encounters to one long rest). You could try balance the use of fewer resources per encounter against more encounters per day than the standard assumption. If you decide to squeeze more combat encounters into a standard adventuring day, you may find 5-6 to be a more suitable number.

Mitigate Vulnerabilities. If creatures are being shredded like wet tissue paper before they can act because of the additional damage they take under this system, you might want to ignore the standard 5e rules for vulnerabilities. Instead of a creature taking double damage from a damage source to which it is vulnerable, you might find it more suitable that the creature takes regular damage, only ticking down its Break Meter.

Hidden Vulnerabilities. In Octopath Traveler, a creature’s vulnerabilities are revealed as soon as you deal that damage type to them. However, if your players begin to “spray and pray” their damage types, expecting you as a GM to reveal which was successful, you may consider only revealing a creature’s vulnerability randomly with a successful Intelligence check as an Action, similar to Cyrus’s Analyze ability in Octopath Traveler.

Overall, this Break system can introduce a stronger strategic element to your 5E games – the satisfaction of discovery of your foes’ weaknesses, a compelling reason to experiment with different weapons and spells, and the opportunity to deal incredible amounts of damage with a well-coordinated Break, which can speed up a combat encounter.

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