Boons and Setbacks in 5e

Many of us have heard the term failing forward, but how can we use it in D&D? We play RPGs that have boons and setbacks, but can those ideas be brought into 5e? If you’re a DM who can think on the fly, you might be able to spice up ability checks and even attack rolls and saving throws in the world’s most popular RPG with a few very simple tweaks.

Defining Our Terms

First I need to define terms. A boon is a little something extra good that happens after you make a d20 roll, usually on top of success. For instance, if you’re picking a lock in a castle, you might learn a specific trick about the lock that gives you advantage on all future checks to pick locks in this wing of the building. Boons are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested boons below to help guide you.

A setback (or botch or drawback or complication) is a little extra punishment that happens after you roll a d20, usually on top of a failure. In the lock picking example above, not only might you fail to pick the lock, you might also break your thieves’ tools trying to do so. Setbacks are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested setbacks below to help guide you.

When Do Boons and Setbacks Happen?

Now that we’ve defined our terms, how and when do boons and setbacks happen. Before we get to when, let me ask you a couple questions that will help us answer how.

  1. To what kind of d20 rolls do boons and setbacks apply? Ability checks are by far some of the easiest rolls to come up with boons and botches on the fly. Attack rolls and saving throws can be a bit trickier, because the rules are more rigid with exactly what the outcomes of these rolls should be. As a result, if you decide to use boons and setbacks during combat, you may want to have a strict interpretation about what those mean (like you always have advantage on your next attack or get to move 10 feet for free) or create a random table (like my critical hit effects and critical miss effects) for consequences. For examples of static consequences, see the table below. If you and your group feel comfortable improvising these as well, go for it!
  2. Can boons only be applied when you succeed and can setbacks only be applied when you fail? Failure with a boon (sometimes referred to as failing forward), could mean in our lock picking example that you failed to open the door, but noticed the contact poison smeared on the knob before you touched it. Success with a setback could mean you picked the lock, but broke your thieves’ tools in the process. Adding these can make your gameplay richer, but it also adds more pressure on you as the DM to come up with ideas on the fly, so you don’t have to use them. You’ll also want to think long and hard about having failures with boons and success with setbacks when it comes to saving throws and attacks. If you’re using these techniques, perhaps they only apply to ability checks. If you’re using them with other d20 rolls, then maybe come up with a strict rule or table instead of winging it, unless you’re very comfortable with improv.

So when is it appropriate to use boons and setbacks? A few optional rules are outlined below.

Optional Rule: Five Above/Below

This optional rule allows you to apply boons based on the result of a character’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw when compared to the DC or AC . Roll the dice, apply appropriate modifiers, and then use the table below to determine the result.

Result Effect
5 or more above DC/AC Success with boon
1-4 above DC/AC Normal success
Equals DC/AC Success with setback*
1 below DC/AC Failure with boon*
2-4 below DC/AC Normal failure
5 or more below DC/AC Failure with setback

*If you are not playing with these effects as options, treat the results as normal successes and failures.

Optional Rule: Know Your the Roll

This optional rule uses the unmodified results of the dice. Any natural roll of 15 or above grants a boon, while any natural roll of 5 or less imposes a setback. You can increase the ranges of these results to increase the frequencies of boons and setbacks to fit the needs of your group and story.

Optional Rule: Advantage Boons and Disadvantage Setbacks

This optional rule states that an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is made with advantage, the result grants a boon, while anytime one of those rolls is made with disadvantage, the result grants a setback. Note that this rule does not mesh well with the suggested boons and setbacks that grant advantage and disadvantage on the next d20 roll, since it risks creating never-ending advantage and disadvantage.

Optional Rule: Natural 20s and 1s Only

With this optional rule you gain a boon whenever you roll a natural 20 on your ability check, attack roll, or saving throw and a setback whenever you roll a natural 1 on one of those rolls.

Suggested Boons

You have advantage on the next d20 roll you make.

You gain a piece of knowledge or hint about your current quest.

You can immediately take the Help action as a bonus action.

You can spend one die to heal as if had taken a short rest immediately.

Attack: You knock your target prone.

Attack: You disarm your target.

Attack: You deafen your target.

Attack: Your attack does an extra 1d6 damage. Damage type is chosen by the DM.

Save: You can immediately move 10 feet in any direction.

Save: You shout a warning which allows another creature of your choice who can hear you and has to make the same save advantage on their saving throw.

Check out my list of critical hit effects for more ideas.

Suggested Setbacks

You have disadvantage on the next d20.

An item being used in the action is broken.

You take 1d6 damage as a result of the setback. Damage type is determined by the DM.

You lose one hit die, 1st-level spell slot, or other small resource.

Attack: You drop your weapon or implement used to make the attack.

Attack: You fall prone.

Save: You fall prone or are moved 10 feet in a random direction if the effect already knocks you prone.

Check out my list of critical failures for more ideas.

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