Last Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Diablo II. What a game!
Back when it was released in 2000, it was the fastest selling computer game ever. It is still highly regarded and has appeared on numerous ‘best of’ lists, including Time’s ‘50 Best Video Games of All Time’ list in 2016.
Diablo has a very distinctive (and fun) playstyle, which could definitely work well in 5th edition D&D. However, it requires a few tweaks to pull off.
Tone and flavour
The original Diablo takes place entirely within the town of Tristram. The player has to hack their way through 16 levels of dungeons beneath the cathedral until they face off with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo.
Diablo II expands the world of Sanctuary considerably. Act II takes place in a desert city, Lut Gholein, and Act III goes to Kurast, a corrupted city on the edge of a jungle. The expansion, Lord of Destruction, adds a fifth act set in the icy wastes and caves of Mount Arreat.
Despite this changing scenery, however, the game never loses its dark and gothic atmosphere, so any D&D adaptation needs to keep this front and centre. Whatever the setting, there needs to be a constant sense of gloom and dread. I wrote recently about some of the ways DMs can achieve this, but for our purposes we would be most interested in description and choice of monsters. Feel free to reskin here. Goblins could become fallen, for example, and gnolls could become goatmen.
When Diablo II was released in 2000, Wizards of the Coast partnered with Blizzard Entertainment to produce a number of D&D tie-ins. Bill Slavicsek and Jeff Grubb produced a ‘Diablo II Fast-Play Game’ based on the rules for 2nd-edition AD&D (3rd edition was released later that year).
The name here is telling. Hack and slash play needs to be fast to be fun, and for a tabletop game to be fast, it also needs to be streamlined (ie, simplified). But here’s the rub: a Diablo-style game also has the potential to become more complex because it adds things like skill trees, loot, and mobs of enemies, so a D&D Diablo game is going to need a few tricks.
In terms of skill trees, there’s no need to change much about D&D as written. Feats and subclasses are specialization enough. But in regard to making your game play faster, I highly recommend some of the tips from Sly Flourish. If you want to run a Diablo-style adventure, give the following articles read:
- Running Theatre of the Mind Combat (grids slow the game down and make it harder to run large mobs)
- The Case for Static Monster Damage (again, speed things up!)
- Running Hordes: The Lazy Way to Run Lots of D&D Monsters
- Consider Simpler Initiative Options
Grid-based combat has its place. So, too, does rolling initiative and rolling monster damage. For many groups, they are habits formed after many years of playing different editions of D&D. However: if you want to give your players the feeling that they can mow through hordes of enemies with gusto, consider a grid-free approach.
Fast play does not have to mean fast progression, of course. Diablo has an absurdly high level cap compared to D&D, so there’s no need to gun through all 20 levels at once. If you’re used to milestone levelling, I would suggest going back to traditional XP for this style of game. It’s a better way of tracking the scale of the slaughter.
Loot, loot, and more loot
The designers of 5th edition deliberately moved away from the magic item economics of 4th edition and 3.5. Magic items are now meant to be more meaningful: unique, special. But in Diablo, magic items are everywhere.
It’s easy to overthink magic items. In reality, if adding too many magic items makes the game ‘unbalanced’, it’s easy enough to ‘rebalance’ things by fielding harder encounters. In a Diablo-style game, most encounters will be large mobs of individually easy opponents, so it is relatively painless for a DM to keep adding enemies to the fight until the players start to feel the pinch.
So: go with what feels right. If you want to start giving out a few magic items at 1st level, try it out. If it makes them too powerful, throw more enemies at them. Rinse and repeat. That said, the number of magic items is not as important as their rarity. If you give out ‘very rare’ magic items in Tier 1, other magic items are going to feel less interesting as a result, so take care.
However, one important part of Diablo loot is its randomness. To that end, consider using random magic item tables like the ones in Chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or online versions like this great tool from Donjon. I would suggest rolling at least 50 percent more often than in a regular D&D campaign. Consider rolling hoards in advance, also, to save time.
One more suggestion: don’t use gems and art objects. Don’t use copper, silver, electrum, etc. Stick to gold. In a hack-and-slash game, gold is fine.
Other variant rules
There are more than 90 optional rules in the core rulebooks. These variants are ‘dials’ you can turn to fine-tune the game to your specifications. So, which rules work well for a Diablo-style game?
- Healing Surges (p 266). This was standard for all characters in 4th edition and will help your characters live longer. You could even let characters use healing surges as a bonus action if you want to make players feel truly invincible.
- Rest Variants: Epic Heroism (p 267). Who rests in Diablo? No one, that’s who! If resting is faster, you can throw even more baddies at your party.
- Cleaving through Creatures (p 272). Fun, fast, full of flavour.
- Spell Points (p 288). Controversial, this one. It may be a bit less balanced. However, if you want to recreate the feel of ‘mana’, this is certainly one way to do it.
If you have access to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you might also want to give players the option of crafting, buying, and selling magic items (pp 128, 126, and 133 respectively). For many players, this is a huge part of Diablo, and it gives them something to do in town and a way to spend their gold.
Tying it all together
Whether you want to run a Diablo-style one-shot or a 20-level campaign, it’s worth thinking how to bring this all together.
- Encounters. In Diablo, solo opponents are rare: usually very powerful bosses. Large mobs with waves and waves of opponents are the norm. Use Donjon’s Encounter Size Calculator to get a sense of what your party can cope with. If in doubt, go with many easy opponents over fewer, more challenging ones.
- Adventures. Keep the focus simple. The first quest of Diablo II is literally ‘kill all the enemies in a cave’. In fact, most quests in the game can be boiled down to ‘kill enemy x’ or ‘retrieve enemy y’. The players aren’t looking for deep immersion roleplaying here. Consider rolling random dungeons from the appendices of the DMG. Pick a cool setting and run with it (caves, ruins, hell).
- Campaigns. Whether or not you set your game in the world of Sanctuary is up to you. Other than a few settlements (Tristram, Lut Gholein, Kurast, Caldeum) most of the map is unexplored, so you still have creative freedom here. Given the more casual nature of a hack-and-slash campaign, you may want to adopt a more sandboxy West Marches model where players can drop in and out as they like.
If D&D to you is mainly about immersive roleplaying, rich backstories, political intrigue, and layered world-building . . . this maybe isn’t for you. But if it’s all about the ‘mayhem’ and the ‘sick loot’, give Diablo-style D&D a try!